The Wall of Insomnia slides over King Regis’ car like a soap bubble expanding in the bath, casting the small, huddled shapes inside in shades of furious violet. Ravus swings his heavy head towards his sister, who points to her eye—You finally match—but Ravus just blinks at her, taking in the square shape of her chin, her swinging blonde hair, her weak smile.
Sylva Via Fleuret has been dead for thirty-four hours.
Ravus rubs ash into his wrist. They haven’t had time to stop anywhere, save for a few frantic, scrambling rushes for a patch of underbrush on the side of the road. The empire has followed them, grey buzzards on the horizon, their airships hovering fat in a clear blue sky. It’s bad enough, Ravus supposes, that their precious king and his son got away. It’s insult to injury that the deposed royalty of Tenebrae have joined them.
Strapped securely in the passenger’s side, Prince Noctis points to a blimp drifting serenely over the skyscrapers. Welcome Home! it says, in black font on a white screen. Welcome Home!
Luna used to read books like this, once. Ravus remembers flipping through them a few months ago and laughing at the names, holding the books high above Luna’s grasping hands. They were full of princesses in exile and princes with tragic curses, and after reading a paragraph through bursts of laughter, Ravus had to sit down to wipe tears out of his eyes while Luna stormed off in a huff. Luna fetched their mother, who frowned at the books and made Ravus stand to attention.
“Your sister works hard,” she’d said, as Ravus’ cheeks flamed red under the ferocity of her glare. “Just as you do. She deserves her privacy. A king cannot be cruel, Ravus.”
Ravus glances at King Regis, who swerves across two lanes of traffic to avoid a tour bus. Was it cruel of him to come back for Ravus? To wrench him out of the growing fire of his home, from the sword still dripping with his mother’s blood, from the death that awaited him there? Would it have been kinder to let him fall?
The Citadel shines like a beacon at the end of the city, but Insomnia itself is like a small country of its own. They stop in a small diner, the whole motorcade clogging up the parking lot, and Luna and Ravus stare at the plastic seats and warm, soft lighting, so different from their favorite cafes and bookstores in Tenebrae.
“What would you like?” Regis asks. Ravus gives him a hollow look, and his gaze softens. “I can order for you.”
“I’m perfectly capable,” Ravus says. He steps forward. There’s a boy about his age at the register, with a swoosh of black hair and dark skin untouched by ash or dirt or the scent of his mother’s perfume, but he smiles at Ravus shyly, like he’s worth something.
The menu flickers at him. The words crawl across the screen, jumbled and nonsensical. Ravus’ hands curl into fists in his jacket pockets.
“It’s all pretty bad,” says the boy at the counter. Ravus looks at him sharply. “I can run out to the food truck on 15th and get you some real Galahdian chicken if you want. My cousin makes it.”
“Wait,” Noct says. “Is that allowed? Can we do that?”
But the boy isn’t looking at Noct. He’s looking at Ravus.
“Very well,” Ravus says.
“That’s kind of you.” King Regis reaches over to pass some bills over the counter. The boy stares—Clearly, he’s given too much—but he takes it anyways, bowing low, and races off into the back.
“Let’s sit down a moment,” Regis says, and gently lowers Noct into a booth. His wheelchair is gone, lost somewhere in the wreckage of Tenebrae. With Ravus’ mother.
“What does the empire do?” Ravus asks. Luna freezes, half seated next to Noctis. Regis regards him with a level gaze. “With the bodies? What do they—”
“They’ll leave them to be buried in the proper manner,” King Regis says. “We can discuss this at a later time.”
“Why?” It’s as though the words are spilling out of him against his will, tumbling unbidden to the cold tile floor. “What’s the difference? We all saw them die.”
“Ravus!” Luna’s gasp is soft. Ravus’ mouth goes dry, and he stands back. His mother’s death is still on him, somehow, tainting the air around him, poisoning him. He wavers on his feet, and Regis lurches towards him, hand upraised.
“I need to use the facilities,” Ravus says, distantly, and turns on his heel to run.
It’s only a matter of time before someone comes for him. The door to the bathroom opens just as Ravus is scrubbing his hands with scalding water, and he sees a slim shadow slide across the tile. He sighs, letting the tension drain from his shoulders, and reaches for more soap.
“I know I’ve been an ass,” he says. Luna says nothing, her shadow unwavering at his feet. “I could still smell that terrible perfume she likes—the lilac, remember? The one we tried to water down when you were little? But I just saw—just saw blood on my wrist and it. Wasn’t mine, and now it’s all—I don’t know how I can feel guilty for wanting to wash my own goddamn hands, but—”
“I’m sorry,” says the boy from the register. Ravus turns, and sees the white and blue striped apron, the gelled swirl of hair, a thin braid behind an ear studded with glass and silver. “I saw you weren’t with them for a while, so I brought your stuff.”
Ravus stares. “I—”
“It’s cool,” the boy says. “I’m from Galahd, so, I mean. It was like, eight years ago, but uh. I didn’t eat for like, a week, after. Felt like shit.” Ravus says nothing. “And no offense, your highness. But you kind of look like it.”
“Like shit,” Ravus says, slowly.
The boy shrugs, half smiling, and Ravus lets out an undignified snort. He laughs again, a short, awful bark in the dingy bathroom, and bends over his damp arms, tears stinging his eyes. The boy approaches him without any of the careful tiptoeing the rest of the known universe has employed, and shoves a crinkled, slightly oily package in his hands.
“Eat something,” he says.
Ravus takes a bite, barely registering the taste, and the boy fishes out a fried tomato slice from his own bag. They stand there, two strangers eating together in a horrible bathroom belonging to the worst diner Ravus has ever seen, and for just a second, Ravus remembers what it feels like to be human.
Lunafreya Nox Fleuret stands on the top rung of a ladder propped against the wall, holding the ceiling with both hands. Below her, nine-year-old Ignis Scientia places a foot on the bottom rung and blinks up at her owlishly.
“I can help you down,” he says, adjusting his thin, black-rimmed glasses. Luna risks a glance down, pales, and stares at her hands. Fairy lights hang there, pinned up by plastic thumb tacks, and she digs a half-broken nail against the ceiling.
She’d cracked it two weeks ago, while she was scrambling into King Regis’ car, digging her hands in her brother’s bloodstained formal suit. Her finger scraped a button, and Ravus had fallen against her, his face damp with tears, hair grainy with ash, hands shaking. They didn’t stop shaking for hours, not even when they were safe on the road out of Tenebrae, surrounded by Lucian soldiers. Her finger had bled, then, and Noct had reached over to hold her hand, his bright eyes narrowed in concern.
They’re narrowed now, almost lost behind soft bangs as Noct strains to look up at her from his spot on the bed, but Luna doesn’t dare to glance at him more than once. She can feel Ignis trying to climb the ladder behind her, and she knows that a proper Oracle in training, a proper princess, wouldn’t be afraid of something as simple as a ladder. Hadn’t she climbed the Spire in an old ruin four months ago? Hadn’t her mother watched on as she jumped a pit in her formal apprentice robes, clawing at the damp stones like dozens of Oracles in training before her? Hadn’t she smiled, called her fearless, called her darling?
“It’s ok to be scared,” Noct says.
Luna takes a deep breath, turns around on shaky legs, and flings herself at the bed. Noct screams in delight as she lands, bounces, and goes tumbling with a yelp over the side.
“Oh, dear,” Ignis says. Luna sits up, her hair a mess, a bruise forming on her arm, and tries to look like she’d planned it this way.
“That,” Noct says, with feeling, “was awesome.”
That night, Luna lies awake, staring at the makeshift stars over her new bed. The connecting door between her room and Ravus’ creaks open, and she wriggles aside to make room as Ravus, dressed in new black pajamas, collapses next to her with a huff. He looks thinner than he used to be, pale and wan in the dark, but when he reaches for her hand, she takes it.
“Can’t sleep?” she asks.
“You put up lights,” he says. His fingers are trembling, and he stares through the lights dropping from the ceiling as though he’s drifting past them, untethered to the world. Luna wonders, as she rolls into his side and hears the frantic hammer-beat of his heart, if he’ll ever sleep again. She knows how to heal scrapes and sickness and broken bones, but she can’t heal this. There’s no one left to teach her how.
“Not quite like the ones you have at home, are they,” Ravus says, in a soft voice. Luna sighs and tugs his arm around her shoulders.
“No,” she whispers. “No, they aren’t.”
“Regis wants to resume my sword lessons from home,” Ravus says, and Luna stirs, turning to stare at him. “If he hires me as Noct’s guard, I will flee for Accordo.”
“He’s probably worried about you.”
I’m worried about you, she thinks, but she doesn’t say it.
“I’m fine,” Ravus lies. He squeezes Luna’s hand. “Trust me.”
Ravus always hated listening to his sister’s piano lessons when they lived in Tenebrae: The awkward stops and starts, the endless repetition, and the incessant humming usually left him squirreled away in a spare room in the manor, listening to imported music while he pored through his studies. Now, he drifts after Luna like a fish on a line, and he finds himself hovering by the door while she plays, gritting his teeth at the sound.
“Like this,” Regis says. He sits between Noct and Luna, holding his hands over the keys. He plays a chord, and Luna plays the same chord an octave higher, fumbling slightly. He takes her hand, and when she tries again, she smiles under his arm at Noctis. Noctis grins back.
Ravus scowls at his book, trying to force himself to focus on the graphs on the page, as giggling rises from the other side of the room.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Regis says, and Luna and Noct scramble to take over the piano bench. They both play over each other, bumping hands and laughing, and Luna takes on an arch tone as she tells Noct to stick to that side and behave. Noct bangs on the piano in protest, and Luna ruffles his hair.
“Do you mind if I sit, Ravus?”
Ravus glances sidelong at Regis, standing comfortably in his black suit with gold accents. “It’s your couch,” he says, in a tone that would have had him up before his mother in shame back home. “Your Citadel. And so on.”
“Ah, well.” Regis sits next to him, seemingly unbothered by Ravus’ feet propped up on his couch, and folds his hands in his lap. “I don’t know what your mother had planned for you,” Regis says, “but I believe it’s time we continue the work of preparing you for rule. I’d like to invite you to shadow me on my meetings with the Council.”
Ravus closes his book. “And what would I rule, exactly? The last I saw, Tenebrae belongs to Niflheim.”
“For now,” Regis says. There’s an odd tone to his voice that Ravus can’t place, a hardness he’d never heard before. He’s always thought of Regis as lackadaisical, raising his son to be carefree in a world that would eat him alive at the slightest provocation, but now… There’s something, Ravus thinks. Something dark, deeper, which he couldn’t recognize before. He sits up, and meets Regis’ cold gaze with his own.
“I was being raised to rule when I was Noctis’ age,” Ravus says. It’s an unspoken question, hovering, tense, while Luna blithely teaches Noctis how to carry a tune at the piano.
“Noctis is young,” Regis says. That hardness flickers again, a creature stirring in the depths.
It isn’t an answer. For an instant, Ravus’ gaze darts to Noctis. He’s smiling, playing dutifully while Luna sings the melody on the page, and Ravus thinks of how gentle his mother was with him, how grave her expression had been when she healed him.
“Will it stop him from—“ Regis had said, while Ravus lingered in the doorway. Ravus’ mother had touched Noct’s closed eyes and shook her head.
“He’ll do what needs to be done,” she’d said.
“Gods help us.” Regis had turned, then, and Ravus, uninterested in little else than the prospect of his fencing lessons that afternoon, had retreated down the hall.
Now, he meets Regis’ gaze again.
“I will do what I can,” Regis says, in a careful, quiet voice, “to see a Nox Fleuret back on the throne.”
It occurs to Ravus, as he lies in his bed that night, listening to the unfamiliar roar of Lucian traffic, that Regis never did say which throne.