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“Why can’t I come?”

A girl wrinkled her reddened nose, blearily glaring up at the man tucking her into bed. 

He was her father. And the ruler of his kingdom, but that was secondary when it came to the older of his two daughters. At five years old, Dia was already refuting his commands as the former, claiming it was unkingly to impose his will upon her and Jade on the basis of kingship. She could say little when he instead raised his fatherhood. For now.

With a sigh, he tapped her nose. “You should have known better than to sneak round the castle after taking ill.”

“But you said I could come to Dundrasil,” she whined. “You promised. You gave your word as king. Right, Jade?”

Sitting next to him, Jade turned to their father and nodded. “You gave your word.”

Of course it mattered when it suited them. In that respect, his daughters had already taken after their mother.

Still, not one to be cowed, even by the daughters he doted upon, King Carnelian shook his head. “That was with the understanding that you would be well enough to travel, daughter.”

“She’ll feel better on the road!” Jade exclaimed, always ready to come to her sister’s defense. “Right?”

“Right!” Dia nodded, sitting upright. Her hands flew to her head at once, trying to ward off the dizzy spell she’d clearly thrown herself into. Carnelian sighed, easing her back on her pillow. 

“Dia… You will not be coming to see the new prince.”

The twins exchanged glances.  Jade gave a helpless shrug, and Dia groaned. “Papa…”

“Now, don’t give me that,” he scolded gently. “As princess, it’s your duty to work toward recovery. Do you understand?”

The blue eyes that matched his own glanced away. “Yes, papa.”

The king smiled. Pressing a kiss to her forehead, he rose to his feet. “Say your goodbyes, Jade.”

When he left the room, Jade crawled closer to Dia, giving her older sister an apologetic frown. “I tried…”

“I know,” Dia sniffled. “Tell the new prince I said hi.”

A smile broke Jade’s doleful look. “But he’s a baby. He won’t understand me, silly.”

Dia rolled her eyes. “You never know. Maybe he’ll be… What’s that word Jasper always calls us…?”

Jade pursed her lips in thought. “Preco… Preconsc… Precocious!”

“That,” Dia agreed. “He’ll probably be ‘much too inquisitive for his age,’ too.”

Jade shook her head, giving Dia a look. “He’s still going to be a baby. He can’t talk. Maybe you do need to rest...”

Dia caught the mischief on Jade’s grin and returned it with indignation. “Hey!”

She would have sat up again, had the creaking of the door not drawn her attention and Jade’s. A long-haired young knight appeared - Hendrik, one of their father’s favorites. He’d only recently returned from training from a faraway land, but the princesses adored him already. Mostly because he was a very good sport when it came to the mischief all siblings must inevitably conspire to commit.

With a bow, he gave Dia a smile. For Jade, a nod. “Princess,” he addressed the latter, “The traveling party is ready. Your father has asked me to come and collect you.”

“Sorry, got to run!” Jade grinned, evading her sister’s ire. “See you soon!”

Dia glared at her but reluctantly waved as she darted out the door. Hendrik watched the younger princess go with some amusement. Turning to Dia, he crouched at her bedside briefly to rest a hand on her head. 

“We’ll return soon enough, princess. You’ll recover in the meantime, won’t you?”

“Perhaps I’ll just die,” Dia said dramatically.

Hendrik laughed. “Then Princess Jade would be very cross with you. But perhaps that is your intention.” Ruffling her dark hair, he rose again. 

“Hurry back, Sir Hendrik,” she commanded.

The knight gave a sincere nod. “We’ll be back before you know it, Your Highness. I pray your recovery comes swiftly.”

Dia waved, and Hendrik closed the door behind him as he left. The girl lay in her bed, thinking on her father’s words and staying still obediently.

For all of a minute, at least.

The commotion downstairs gave her enough strength to kick off her blankets in a brief surge of excitement. She would show Jade. She was well enough to wave them goodbye, so who needed to rest? Bolting out of their room, Dia made it six steps from the door before a sneeze knocked her off her feet - and alerted the knights to her presence.

“Princess!”

One knight in particular. A long-haired young one - this time it was Jasper, who had recently returned from his studies in a faraway land, too. The princesses adored him, mostly because he instigated their pranks on his contemporary.

The panic in his voice and his hurried steps disappeared when he found that she hadn’t quite fainted. 

“Princess,” he sighed, helping her to her feet. “I thought you’d know better. Didn’t His Majesty tell you to stay in bed?”

“Ugh…” she groaned, leaning on him. Her lower lip quivered with frustration. “I just wanted to say goodbye…”

Golden eyes squinted into blue. “All right, then,” he gave, squeezing her hand. “Let’s go.”


“I can’t believe this is really goodbye.”

“I know,” said a girl with long, dark hair, clear blue eyes crinkling with her smile. “But His Majesty has called upon me. I can’t refuse a summons from the king.”

Years later and half a world away, Dia found herself surrounded by a few beloved teachers, all gathered to bid her farewell. No matter their age, l'Académie de Notre Maître des Médailles required its students to undergo training for seven years before permitting them to graduate, but an exception was made for the princess of Heliodor - mainly because the king had demanded her return.

“You will be an honorary graduate, at least,” said the woman who released her from her embrace. The Academie’s assistant headmaster, Madame de Beauvoir patted her cheek twice. “I’m proud of you, Dia. You are so different from jeune fille ‘oo came to ze academie four years ago.”

“Iz she not?” said a nearby professor, squeezing Dia’s shoulder as she approached. Dia welcomed the warmth. She wasn’t certain when she would be able to do such a thing again. “‘oo knew zat jeune fille tranquille would ‘elp me develop zat combat curriculum I ‘ad been fighting Monsieur Maximillien for for years ?”

“I was happy to, Madame Waloppe,” Dia smiled, and then pursed her lips with some embarrassment. “But surely I wasn’t that quiet…”

The older women exchanged glances. “Well,” said Madame de Beauvoir, “l’important iz zat you ‘ave changed.”

“And for ze better,” added Madame Waloppe. 

“Dia!”

A cry interrupted any thought Dia might have given to their words. A Lips burst out of the school building and stopped right in front of the small group, just fast enough to give a dramatic huff. 

“Madame Labouche,” Dia grimaced sheepishly. The red-handed look was one the professor was familiar with, though that didn’t seem to appease her. 

Exiting the academy building and coming up beside the Lips, a beautiful woman with strawberry blonde hair crossed her arms. “You were going to leave wizout saying au revoir, chéri?” asked Madame Cherie.

Dia’s embarrassment faded into a small smile. “I think it may be an adieu for now, Madame Cherie. Madame Labouche.”

The two narrowed their eyes at Dia, who prepared herself for the lectures for which Madame Labouche was known… but only a sad sigh escaped the Lips. Tears began to well in her eyes, too.

“Madame Labouche! No tears,” cried Madame Waloppe. “You’ll make me cry!”

Dia watched the women with wide eyes. Her small smile fell to a neutral expression. “Madame Labouche… I’ll return one day, to be sure.”

“Is zat a promesse?” she sniffled.

“Come now, Labouche,” Madame de Beauvoir tutted. “Ça suffit. Jeune fille iz leaving us. Release ‘er wiz happy memories, no?”

The smile returned to Dia’s face. “The vice principal is right, Madame Labouche. Is that any way for a young lady to conduct herself?”

Upon hearing her usual words echoed to her, Labouche’s tears dissipated into soft laughter. “Oh, jeune fille! You ‘ave changed!”

“‘ave you bid adieu to your friends, then?” asked Madame Waloppe.

Dia nodded. “I did, during dinner. They have classes tomorrow, and so…”

“You mean zey didn’t want to make le spectacle of zemselves,” Madame Cherie snickered, looking pointedly at her friend.

Madame Labouche gave a huff at that, but Madame Waloppe only laughed. “Monsieur Maximillien is ze same. ‘e is much too emotional to leave ‘is office.”

Madame Cherie rolled her eyes. “‘e is always zis way wiz graduates.” 

Madame de Beauvoir laughed, though her gaze was soft on Dia as she squeezed her hands. She retied the red bow that completed Dia’s long braid. “‘e is. But... Je comprends. You will be missed, Dia. Dearly.”

“And I’ll miss all of you,” she nodded, squeezing her hands in return. Dia felt a small ringing in her ears, and her throat seemed full… Full of what, she didn’t know. But she swallowed it down, schooling her features into a smile. “I was a little too old to attend, to be honest, but… My years here have been the best in my life. Truly.”

The vice principal’s lips quivered. As Madame Waloppe rubbed Madame Labouche’s back, the Lips sighed. “You will write, won’t you?”

Dia nodded, glancing at the Heliodorian soldiers waiting at the gate. They had been waiting since this afternoon, and the king had written a very urgent summons. He missed her dearly, he said. She had made him wait long enough. 

“I promise.”


After a harrowing week on a grand ship, Dia had another week on horse and carriage - or just the horse when she desired fresh air, to her guards’ chagrin - to regain her composure until she finally arrived home. 

“Princess.”

Dia opened her eyes and found the tentative smile of the knight who led her homecoming entourage. Sir Sterling was one of Hendrik’s foremost pupils and now one of his most trusted subordinates. A few years her senior, Sterling had met her on the training grounds a few times when their erstwhile swordmaster had fallen ill.

“Sir Sterling.” Hiding a yawn with her palm, she cleared her throat and sat up properly. “Are we almost home?”

Sterling nodded. “You mentioned wishing to ride into the city on horseback, Your Highness. Now would be the best time to change.”

“Oh. Perfect. Thank you, Sir Sterling,” Dia smiled, and made to climb out of the carriage.

Sterling stared at her, practically gawping, until he remembered herself and stepped aside, offering his hand to help her onto the beaten path. He was prepared when she smiled at him next, and made to assist her onto her horse.

“I’m all right, Sir Sterling,” she promised, and mounted with no trouble. Horseback riding was one of the lessons at the Academie, after all, and so she hadn’t wanted for practice. 

On they went, with Sterling at the head of the party. Dia wasn’t certain how to feel about returning to Heliodor after so long. When she left the Academie, she had felt almost reluctant. She was doing good things at the Academie, especially with Madame Waloppe’s combat curriculum. Returning home would only mean losing the chance to experience leading; teaching others.

The sight of the city gates changed that, if a little. The air felt different as they drew nearer; maybe even as soon as they entered Heliodorian territory. In the mountains, everything felt far away - but pure, somehow, for the lack of noisy life other than those at the Academie. For the freedom to do as she wished.

Here, the land was bustling with activity, even when few other caravans traveled the region. And she could already hear, smell the markets back at the capital, little though she actually knew of them. It felt familiar. She was coming home , after all. 

Soon they came upon the city, though even from far away their party had already seen soldiers scrambling to raise the gates. Horns sounded out, announcing her arrival, and before she knew it, the fanfare had begun. 

“Princess?”

It was Sterling’s voice that woke her again. “Yes?”

“Are you ready?”

She could already hear the people cheering from behind the castle walls. 

Dia’s lips were set in a line. The cheering was starting to overwhelm her.

And then, swallowing down the thing ready to burst from her chest, she smiled. “Nothing for it, I suppose.”

Sterling gave her a smile in return, and she knew she had done well. With a nod from him, the soldiers pushed the city’s grand gates open wide. 

The capital had been notified of her impending arrival, of course. Sterling had sent someone ahead to ensure the city was ready to welcome their princess. For this, Dia felt nervous. She had last waved at an adoring crowd years ago - as a girl of sixteen who knew little of the outside world save for all the books in her father’s castle. 

Now… she supposed she had no reason to feel nervous. She had the wind of Madame Labouche’s harsh training at her back, and all else she had done and learned in the Academie. She was a young woman, now. Even if all her experiences now felt small in the face of seeing the king again.

Nobody would see those thoughts on her face. She beamed at the crowd as her horse sauntered forward, sending elated gasps and cheers erupting from them for each eye she caught. 

“Princess Dia!”

“Welcome home!”

“She’s smiling! At me!

“Over here!”

“Welcome home, princess!”

Dia smiled, catching a flower or three tossed her way. “Thank you so much!” she called out, waving. By the time their entourage had wound their way up to the castle steps, past the aristocracy, she had collected a veritable bouquet of her own.

And then she met his gaze.

King Carnelian stood at the top of the steps to the most glorious castle in Erdrea, gazing warmly at her. As she arrived at the steps, she dismounted and drew close to him, preparing to curtsy―and then he stepped forward and wrapped her in a tight embrace. 

“Welcome home, Princess Dia,” he greeted warmly.

Dia’s eyes widened at the gesture, mind scrambling to think of what to do. She was quick enough to return the embrace. Almost. Before she could wrap her arms around him in return, inspiring coos in the audience that gathered closer, he had already released her. 

“Sir Sterling,” King Carnelian’s voice boomed over the crowd. “Thank you for bringing my daughter home to us. Sir Hendrik was right to appoint you as head of her guard.”

“The honor is mine, Your Majesty,” said Sterling, and bowed.

The king nodded, allowing him to stand at ease before turning to his people. “And thank you all for welcoming her home with me. She has been sorely missed.” As the crowd cheered, he smiled. “But it has been a long journey for the princess, who must now rest. Thank you all.”

“Thank you,” Dia followed, only realizing then that she hadn’t been smiling. She corrected that quickly.

King Carnelian patted her shoulder, and as the knights now ushered the crowd back to their homes, he gave her a nod. “Not much has changed in your absence, I’m afraid. Certainly you will still remember where things are in your own home. And if not, Jasper and Hendrik will be happy to show you around.” 

“Thank you, Your Majesty. I’m happy to be home,” she responded, giving him a proper curtsy. This time, he did not interrupt. He was too busy walking away.

Dia sighed, and that was when she noticed the two who had been left with her. In the overwhelming presence of her father, she had failed to see them: Hendrik and Jasper, the two great generals of Heliodor. 

“Welcome home, princess,” they said in unison, and bowed.

“Thank you, Sir Jasper. Sir Hendrik,” she smiled.

Jasper raised his eyebrows, and Hendrik blinked several times. 

Dia had long since forgiven Hendrik. She had learned so much about her mother at the Academie, after all, and made friends she would never forget… But on principle, he had not apologized for his role in sending her away, and so the princess had been completely ready to give him the silent treatment when she returned.

With him standing before her now, all she found was that she had missed him.

And that there was something about his smile. It made her stomach turn nervously.

Hendrik seemed just as perplexed, opening his mouth but saying nothing. She was only lucky she had caught him first.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, the smile frozen on her face.

“Princess, you…” Hendrik began, until Jasper shot him a look.

“He’s breathless and can barely articulate himself. You’ve grown, Dia,” said the blond.

“Hardly,” Hendrik protested gruffly, only to realize his blunder as soon as the words escaped his mouth. Of course, only his furrowed brow denoted his embarrassment. “That is to say… you have grown. Welcome home, princess,” he repeated, and bowed yet again before leaving, murmuring something about speaking with the king.

Dia watched him go with confusion. Part of her wanted to call out to him, but Jasper’s words had sparked something curious, and speaking with him was easier than dealing with her former teacher.

“Pay him no mind,” said Jasper. “He doesn’t know how to deal with women. You know that.”

“I… didn’t."

Jasper waved a gloved hand in dismissal. Dia found it easy enough to accept, and so she looked him over and gave him a smile. “How have things been, Jasper?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Oh, you know… Hendrik is still a brute. I’m glad you’ve graduated from such a class.”

“Have you always been this horrid to Sir Hendrik?” she asked, and then grinned, revealing the joke before he could respond. “Aside from the fact that I simply have no talent for magic, I did learn a thing or two from the Academie… so I’m not unhappy that I left. Not anymore.”

Jasper regarded her quietly, and then his usual smirk returned when he spoke. “Magic or no magic, I am glad you’re home, princess.” Raising a hand, he placed his palm on the top of her head. A gesture from old days. 

It made her smile, and she couldn’t help but lean close and embrace him.

“I missed you, Jasper.”

The knight stiffened, only to relax after a moment. Hand patting her back, he gave a snort in amusement. “I missed you too, Dia.”

Chapter Text

“What are you reading?”

Dia felt a familiar hand rest itself on her head. With a click of her tongue, she swiped at it, giving the man looming over her a blank look. “Jasper,” she said flatly, “I’m already twelve. I’m much too old for that.”

Jasper cast a glance around the royal library and then quirked a brow at her. “Are you sure? I don’t know many twelve year olds who still read other people’s diaries.”

Though her expression didn’t change, Dia’s face turning pink was all Jasper really needed to be right. “It’s mother’s diary. That’s different.”

Jasper regarded her, lifted his hand… and rested it on her head again, giving her hair a ruffle. “I suppose so.”

Dia peered up at him through her now messy bangs. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

Jasper smiled. “Your father calls. Now that you’ve turned twelve…”

Dia blinked, and then quickly closed the queen’s diary and got to her feet. Tucking her chair into the table, she turned, ready to follow him out. 

“Do you think he’s finally sending me to the Academie?”

Jasper paused, opening his mouth, and then cleared his throat as he began to lead the way. “His Majesty didn’t say.”

Dia only nodded as they made their way to the throne room. Her hurried steps were the most excited that Jasper had seen her in some time, but they had slowed into a calm amble by the time they reached their destination. With a nod from him, the guards opened the doors.

Sitting regally on his throne, as always, was the king. At his right stood Hendrik, who smiled upon the princess. Jasper took his place to the king’s left once he bowed before the throne. 

Carnelian watched Dia approach with a stern gaze, and the princess met his expectations perfectly, as always nowadays, with a perfunctory curtsy and a serious, “Your Majesty.”

“Daughter,” the king nodded.

Acknowledged, she stood upright and looked at him. “Father, are you sending me to the Academie?” she asked ahead, unable to contain her excitement, though her voice sounded as matter-of-factly as ever. 

“I’m glad you asked, princess,” said the king. “The answer is no.”

Dia’s brows furrowed for a beat, and then relaxed as she took a deep breath. “But father,” she pleaded levelly, “Mother’s fondest memories were of her school days in the Academie. Where she found her dearest friends and learned all she needed to be a lady.”

The king shook his head. “None of that. Unnecessary pomp,” was his decision. His tone marked its finality. “What you need is mastery in combat.”

Dia pursed her lips. “But… why?”

A shadow fell over the king’s face. “You know why. I will not mourn a second daughter,” he snapped. When Dia lowered her gaze, he continued. “From now on, Hendrik will be your combat teacher.”

The general blinked. “Your Majesty?”

Dia’s lips were still pursed, eyes shifting from one portion of the floor to the another. “But... father… The Academie...”

The king rose to his feet and descended the throne’s steps as he spoke. “And why not? Hendrik is one of the finest warriors in Erdrea. Kingdoms the world over send their best soldiers to Heliodor to seek his tutelage. Why send my daughter anywhere else?”

He stared down at his daughter. Dia raised her eyes to him for a beat before they snapped back to the ground, so the king turned to Hendrik instead. “Unless, Sir Hendrik, you have objections.”

Hendrik cleared his throat. “Your Majesty, the princess is…”

“Did you not once say yourself that my daughters showed prodigious promise in the realm of physical strength?”

“...I saw and reported as much, sire.”

“Then you have no objections to my remaining daughter learning to defend herself? To one day fight for her kingdom, if she must, as expected of any heir apparent in Erdrea?”

Hendrik closed his eyes and bowed. “No, Your Majesty.”

Upon his answer, Carnelian’s stance relaxed. Suddenly it no longer felt as though his entire being stretched over the whole room. “Good,” he said, the smile on his face familiar and kind. “And you, daughter?”

Dia had always dreamt of attending l'Académie de Notre Maître des Médailles, partly because she liked the idea of meeting and befriending other girls, and mainly because it was her mother’s alma mater and all the world had left of the queen, other than her diary. But she knew the king was right, and she understood why he was so stern. Losing another daughter would destroy him, and he needed Dia to train so that he might feel more at ease. 

After running the kingdom perfectly despite Dundrasil’s fall and the loss of Jade, Dia understood that her father deserved this of her. Jasper might still think her a child, but she knew that much, at least.

And perhaps if she honed her skill, her father would trust her enough to let her outside the castle - even on days when no public appearances were required of them. Not to mention this was the most her father had spoken to her in some time. Perhaps if she trained to the level of Hendrik’s strength, they would have more to discuss. 

“I will learn to fight,” was her answer.

For the first time in years, King Carnelian rested his hand on her head. 

“Good.”

Dia’s heart swelled with joy.


The sky over Heliodor was hardly ever overcast. A vast difference from Champs Sauvage, where rainy days were the norm this time of year and most of the Academie girls huddled in the kitchen for hot meals and cocoa. Dia missed it, but she enjoyed the sun seeping through her windows, too.

The sun. She could talk about that in her letter.

“I promise I’ll write,” she’d told everybody. Her professors, her classmates, especially Candida. Had she promised the headmaster?

How could she do any of that when she had nothing to write about? As it was when she had first gone, the king would not allow her to leave the castle. He had not commanded it as he once had, but...

“I’ve missed you too much,” he said this morning when she asked permission. Not that it meant he would spend any time with her.

But was that really his fault? He was busy ruling an entire kingdom. Madame de Beauvoir and her own role as chef de classe had shown her how complicated it was to run even a school. It was her friends and her professors that made that worthwhile - that and letters from home. The difficulties in ruling a kingdom were a thousandfold, she was sure.

Dia stared down at the parchment on her desk and the pen in her hand. She had drawn too much ink and now the pen was dripping onto what would have been her letter, rendering it useless. 

I’m useless , she thought, setting the pen back and crumpling the useless parchment. Useless sitting here .

With that thought, she rose from her seat and tucked her chair back into her desk. If the king would have no time for her, what else would she do? He hadn’t expressly forbidden her from leaving the castle. Something told her there was a not yet hanging in the air there, but until she heard it herself, Dia would pretend she hadn’t considered it at all. 

Better to ask for forgiveness than permission , she’d learned at the Academie. From Madame Waloppe, of all people.

Dia left the royal library, shutting the door gently behind her so as not to alert anyone. It had been some time since she tried to leave the castle unannounced, but she hadn’t heard of any renovations from Jasper. Already planning her escape route, she turned the corner with a small smile - only to run right into the general himself.

“Princess.” 

Somehow, Jasper had been quick enough to tuck the stacks of papers he’d been reading all at once under his elbow before the collision. And so he was unruffled, reaching out to steady her.

“Where are you going?”

Dia smiled. “To my room, of course.”

Jasper narrowed his eyes at her, looking ahead in the direction he was going. “Your room is that way, Dia.”

“Oh. Well. It has been four years… I suppose I’ll head for the kitchens, then,” she said, smile growing wider.

“Ah. Allow me to accompany you, then,” he grinned.

“Oh,” she chuckled, politely shaking her head. “I don’t want to bother you.”

Her apparent mirth made him stop and watch her with some surprise and a more pleasant smile, and for a moment Dia thought she would be free of him. But Jasper was the kingdom’s foremost tactician, and he only shook his head. “Come now, Dia. You may have learned to smile beautifully, but did the Academie never teach you to unlearn your tells?”

Jasper pointed to her left hand. She was digging the nail of her thumb into the flesh of her index finger. 

“You do that when you lie.”

Dia pursed her lips over her upper teeth, unknowingly making herself look silly. 

“And you do that when you’re displeased.”

Dia sighed. “Oh, very well. What are you doing here, anyway?”

“I see what you did pick up at the Academie was an attitude.”

She gave him the displeased tell again, and still she didn’t realize it. “I thought you were supposed to be the fun general.”

“I am the fun general,” said Jasper, quite seriously. “To answer your question, I was going over logistics. For the army, the barracks in-castle and abroad, outposts… All very uninteresting things.”

“Why don’t you ask Sir Hendrik for help? Isn’t that his responsibility as well?”

Jasper cocked his head. “Have you made up? The week you left for the Academie, you wouldn’t even suffer an allusion to the poor man.”

“I was a child,” she muttered. “But no, we haven’t. At any rate…” Dia waved a hand as if that would stop him from discussing the matter of his contemporary. Jasper being himself, he permitted it. “I told you I was chef de classe at the Academie, didn’t I? I can help you.”

Jasper’s eyes shifted to the files under his arm and then back to her. “...That’s all right, Dia.”

“You must think it’s only school, but I helped the faculty as well. I wasn’t terrible at it,” she insisted.

“It isn’t that I don’t trust you, princess. I just don’t want you to worry.”

“Wouldn’t you find that difficult,” asked Dia with a lopsided smile, “if the king refused to trust you with any responsibilities?”

“Dia…” Jasper sighed. “You’re an intelligent woman. You’ll grow into the role one day. I wouldn’t be surprised if His Majesty simply wanted you to enjoy a little more of your childhood.”

Dia’s smile fell into a blank expression.  “But I’m not a child anymore,” she said flatly. “I turn twenty-one this year, Jasper.”

“I know. But I try not to think about my age,” Jasper remarked.

Dia couldn’t help but smile again. “Well, when you were my age…” The smile fell very quickly. “That was… the fall of Dundrasil, wasn’t it?”

The grin she had infected Jasper with fell, too, as he nodded quietly.

Dia shook her head. “I worked so hard at the Academie, Jasper. I kept up my training. But I don’t feel at all like I’ll ever be able to use anything I’ve learned like you did.”

“Like I did?”

“You drove away the monsters, didn’t you? Protected the Drasilian refugees during the diaspora?”

“Oh.” Jasper blinked. Real surprise was a rare occurrence for the knight, such that he stopped in his tracks. “Well. Hendrik is most often credited with that.”

“Yes, obviously,” Dia began. 

Obviously , thought Jasper.

“But you left to meet him and the king as soon as we received news. I barely understood a thing, but I was with you when you drew up your plans. His Majesty scolded you for leaving me when you all returned… but he praised you, too. He trusted your judgment.”

Jasper was silent as she spoke.

“I wonder if he’ll ever trust mine .”

“Someday soon,” he said like a promise, “he will recognize your potential. For now, how about a meal?”

Dia had opened her mouth, prepared to ask him how far away that someday soon really was. But then he had made a knightly flourish of his arm, and she realized that they were at the kitchens. As if on cue, her stomach gave a slight rumble.

She held a hand over the traitorous thing. 

“I was going to the kitchens, anyway.” Her small smile gave the joke away.

“Of course you were,” Jasper laughed. “I remember a time you needed something in your belly every three hours.”

“I couldn’t help it!” she exclaimed as Jasper opened the door to the din of the dining hall. “You’ve seen Sir Hendrik’s training. He’s brutally unforgiving! ...Oh.”

The knights sitting close to the entrance scrambled to their feet upon their arrival, greeting the princess and the general, but Dia’s eyes were wide for the head that had turned one table over. Again, she thanked Madame Labouche for her training. Otherwise, she would have given herself away and covered her mouth, admitting the mistake. She hoped against hope that he hadn’t heard her words.

But it seemed he had, since he was already at his feet, expression unamused as he bowed. “Princess.” 

“Sir Hendrik,” she smiled. She had no idea why she could hear her own stupid heartbeat as she looked at him.

When he stood upright again, he saw her and glanced away. To Jasper, he gave a single nod.

“Hendrik,” Jasper returned the gesture with a slight smile. “Would you mind if the princess and I joined you?”

Hendrik’s brows lifted from their constantly furrowed position over his eyes for the first time in quite a while. After a pause, his eyes flitted to Dia. “If Her Highness wishes it, of course.”

“Perfect,” said Jasper before Dia could speak. “Shall we, then, Dia?”

Hendrik frowned. “You would have the princess collect her own food?”

Jasper whipped his head to face him with a smile. “Keep her company, then.”

“It’s all right, really,” Dia cut in. “I want to see what we have for lunch. Let’s go, Jasper.”

She left without looking back at Hendrik. It might have been her imagination, but his face had suddenly taken on a pallid color when Jasper suggested he entertain her in the meantime. Perhaps she deserved it, but it hurt a little more than she expected it to have.

Dia glanced back only when they were already in line, while Jasper was busy insisting that the soldiers ahead of them continue to collect their lunches. 

Hendrik was getting up from his seat at the table again, with one of his knights gesturing urgently as she spoke with him. With a nod, he turned for the door.

Before he left, he threw a glance back at their line. At her.

He raised his hand. 

The thought would later come to her that perhaps he was going to wave...

But Dia would never know. She had glanced away, unable to stand the sight of him.


Despite Jasper’s attempts to deter Dia from leaving the castle, the princess managed an escape the next day. It was the one habit she retained from childhood, before everything had fallen apart. 

Of course, the king took it less and less well as time passed after Dundrasil, and so the knights knew better than to report such occurrences to him. Their fear of him was really what she depended on for secrecy.

Dressed in casual clothes from the Academie and an old cloak, she slipped out from the servants’ exit while they were having lunch. She emerged into a narrow alley that trailed behind the upper city plaza, conveniently out of sight of the aristocracy until she was in Heliodor proper, where citizens and visitors gathered. 

It was easy enough to pass the streets unnoticed. Hooded travelers weren’t a rare sight for as long as they didn’t cause trouble, or for as long as the Heliodorian knights didn’t think someone looked suspicious enough to apprehend. And even if they thought she was, they would be unable to catch her as she followed the sound of the usual din of the marketplace. 

This was her favorite place in the city. Not because she had anything she wanted or needed to purchase. The marketplace was the best place to see families, Heliodorian or no, in the city. She loved watching parents shopping with their children, no matter that the children were often baying to go home. 

And not just families. The marketplace was the microcosm of their kingdom. Everyone from anywhere in Heliodor came here.

Everyone , she thought, smiling to herself as she cast a glance around the stalls.

“Is that…?”

“Oh!” 

“Sir Hendrik!”

“It’s Sir Hendrik!”

Dia couldn’t help but tear her gaze from the sweet mangoes on a fruit vendor’s stall. Everyone, she had thought, but she hadn’t thought that meant everyone and Sir Hendrik .

She hadn’t seen him since the day before at lunch. Before then, she hadn’t seen him since her arrival days ago. And before that, she hadn’t spoken to him in four years.

“Sir Hendrik, take a few of my fish! The freshest of my catch today!”

“Zucchini, Sir Hendrik! Free for you!”

“Sir Hendrik, will you take my son and train him?”

The general cleared his throat, eyes wide at all the offers. So this wasn’t a regular occurrence for him. 

“Of course, the boy is welcome to enlist one day, but perhaps he should enjoy his childhood first,” he began, taking a few steps back. “And I would rather you permit me to pay for Heliodorian wares…”

How strange to see him so ill at ease with others , Dia thought, peering at him from next to the corner stall where she stood. She knew him only as very kind (when she was a child) or very stern (when he was her combat teacher), but confident on all accounts.

“Please excuse me,” he said, bowing and quickly disappearing. It seemed the townspeople were just as baffled by his response, because they only gawped at his escape. 

Only Dia had the presence of mind to give chase, following him one road over. She managed to slink through the crowd, dodging swinging grocery bags and groups of friends as she slipped behind him.

It became easier when he left the market, but all the more curious - where was he going? They were coming into the residential area now, and though Dia’s footsteps were naturally light, she took extra care not to make a sound as the noise of the market began to die down the further they went. 

Was he visiting someone, perhaps? Dia could not imagine that Sir Hendrik would know anyone outside the army. Though she supposed not all Heliodorian soldiers lived in the barracks…

The deeper her mind delved into the idea of the general visiting anybody outside the castle, the less it was able to devote to her attempts at subterfuge. So it was a little too late when she realized he had taken a detour into a dead end.

Dia stopped, just a few paces behind him. Was he meeting someone?

Evidently not, as he suddenly turned, sword drawn close enough to nick her nose if he’d wanted it. She was alert enough to take a step back, but by then he had already thrown her hood back with his weapon.

The anger on his face softened into confusion. He sheathed his sword, taking a step closer. “Princess?”

Dia gulped. Somehow, she regained her composure, but felt the heat of embarrassment rise to her face. “Sir Hendrik.”

“I knew someone was following me, but…” Hendrik glanced down at the bags hanging from his arm and back to her. For a beat, his expression mirrored hers, and then it flickered back into the stern reprimand with which she was familiar. “ What are you doing outside the castle?”

Once, four years ago, she would have cowed. Even now, instinct told her to do it - but she had learned better. Instead, she turned her nose up at him and gave him a quizzical brow. “I should think that I am allowed to wander my own kingdom.”

The surprise was clear on his face and in the way he relented. To a point. His voice was softer when he answered, “Not without the King’s permission, Your Highness. You know this.”

Dia took her own defiant step forward. “Father hasn’t explicitly prohibited me from leaving.”

Hendrik gave her a once-over. “If you truly believed this, princess, you would not be wandering, cloaked, like a fugitive.”

“I’m not―” Dia scoffed, glancing down at her cloak and old school clothes. He was right, but pride would not allow her to admit it. “I just wanted some privacy. I haven’t seen Heliodor in years, and I…” She caught herself before she could continue to stammer on. “Enough about me. What, may I ask, are you doing here?”

Hendrik’s eyes widened. “Well, I… I was simply...” 

“I’ve found her!”

“Princess!”

Hendrik’s inability to lie was saved from exposure by the sound of knights belatedly arriving in their little alley.

“Princess!” a stern voice called out. 

Dia sighed, turning around to acknowledge the head of her honor guard. “Sir Sterling.”

Sterling bowed, only to catch the figure behind her when he made to right himself. “Sir Hendrik! You...” he cleared his throat. “You’ve found Her Highness already.”

“Some things never change,” one of his men remarked with awe.

Hendrik frowned. “And how did the princess’s honor guard lose sight of her?”

Sterling bowed his head. “Sir Hendrik, I take full—”

“It isn’t their fault,” Dia said, whirling back around to face Hendrik. “I pretended I felt ill and demanded that they leave me alone while I rested. It was upon my insistence that they left me alone, and they couldn’t have known what I planned. The fault is mine, Sir Hendrik.”

Hendrik met her gaze for a moment. Something akin to surprise filled his own as he regarded her for all of a few seconds before he glanced away, back to his soldiers with the same old frown. “I have other matters to attend to. Return the princess home.”

Dia opened her mouth, and part of her wanted to demand to know exactly what he was doing out of the castle, himself. But the moment had passed, and he refused to look at her. So she turned, giving Sterling an apologetic nod.

Without another glance, Dia allowed them to march her back to the castle.

Chapter Text

Dia sneezed.

Creeping behind her, Jade tugged at her sleeve and hushed. “You’re too noisy, Dia!”

Dia threw her a squint, wiping her runny nose. “Leave me alone, or I’ll give you my cold.”

“I’m doing this for you, so you shouldn’t,” Jade muttered.

At five years old, the two princesses of Heliodor had already made a habit of sneaking out of their rooms. Usually it was out of curiosity, to sate their need for adventure, but today they felt it completely justified. They would leave for the Colloquy of Kings a few days hence, and so the crown princess called it imperative that she be cured of her cold at once. Not wanting to be without a playmate, no matter if she loved Dundrasil’s royals, Jade had agreed.

And so here they were, on a perilous journey from their chambers to the kitchens.

“Aha,” the two exclaimed, quietly, when they found it in the low light. 

“Aha,” echoed a third voice, and the lights flickered to life with a magical snap.

“Jasper,” Jade groaned. 

Standing at the doorway, Jasper took their disdain with a grin, as was natural for a young man of twenty who found children in equal parts very annoying and very endearing. “Children aren’t supposed to eat after midnight, you know.”

“Why not?” asked Jade, taking the bait.

“It’s not yet midnight,” Dia mumbled groggily.

“Because,” said Jasper, ignoring the latter’s response, “you’ll turn into nasty, violent little monsters.”

After a pause, he added, “More violent than you two already are, at any rate.”

“That’s not true,” Jade protested a little too quickly.

“You never know,” Jasper singsonged.

“It’s not true, right?” Jade asked her sister, who was already looking around for something to eat.

“Umm…” Dia rubbed her eyes, and then shook herself awake at Jade’s question. She turned to Jasper with the same suspicion her twin had given him. “Do you swear on your token?”

“What?”

“Do you swear on your token?” she pointed at the pendant hanging from his neck - a token of his loyalty to Heliodor.

“Oh.” Jasper looked rather put out at the question. With a sigh, he reached out and ruffled her hair. “You’re never any fun, are you, princess?” As his free hand went for Jade’s head, he tutted. “And you’re infinitely more imaginative - but you really shouldn’t believe everything you’re told.”

“Hey!” both girls cried. Jasper could only laugh.

“What is ― what are the princesses doing here?” A fourth voice now entered the kitchen. All heads turned toward Hendrik, who crossed his arms at the door. 

“Taking after the King, no doubt,” Jasper remarked.

To his surprise, Hendrik grinned at that. Of course, it faded quickly enough in favor of eyeing the princesses sternly. “Princess Dia. You are ill and should be in bed. And so should you, Princess Jade,” he added, when Jade began to creep behind her sister in an attempt not to get caught.

“But I’m so hungry,” Dia whined. “And I need to eat to get better.”

“Right. That’s what Jasper said,” Jade added.

Jasper scoffed at the look Hendrik gave him. “I never said it had to be done at this hour, did I?” 

Hendrik accepted that with a sigh, deciding to ignore the entire conversation. “You will return to your rooms, or King Carnelian will hear about this.”

“Hendrik is a snitch,” Jade whispered to Dia, only of course it was loud enough for anyone in the kitchens and the nearby hallway to hear. Jasper burst into sudden laughter.

“Stop that,” Hendrik hissed at the blond, but couldn’t help it when the girls began to laugh, too.

“And what could be so entertaining at this time of night?” asked the fifth voice in the kitchens that night. 

Hendrik turned, his face coloring red. “Y-Your Majesty…”

“We came here for food, Papa,” Jade preempted the two knights. 

“Right. So I could get better,” Dia nodded.

King Carnelian opened his mouth, prepared to scold his daughters, but the truth was that the sound of their laughter earlier had already softened his heart. Putting aside his reprimand for the morrow, he motioned to the cupboards. 

“Get your bowls,” he said resignedly. “I suppose I have no recourse but to make the queen’s secret stew.”

The king pretended that the resulting smiles were not contagious.


The king didn’t always sit in the throne room - that was reserved for days when he received visitors. His office was situated along a more private hallway in the castle, which made it the perfect place for Dia to pace as she thought about what she would tell the king.

It was a difficult task at the moment. She was already nervous about speaking her mind before the king. What made it worse was that that very mind was preoccupied with the events of the day prior. Seeing Hendrik outside with a bag of - she didn’t even know what; food, she surmised - in his hands. Was he seeing someone? It was such a strange thought that she’d been unable to set it aside.

Dia desperately tried to. She was here for an important reason - she would demand that the king give her more responsibility. She was twenty, after all! Her mother was married by her age, and partook in her husband’s rule. 

“Princess… er, would you like to sit?” asked one of the men standing guard outside the king’s office.

“One of us can fetch you when His Majesty has finished speaking with King Jasper,” the other suggested.

The opening of the wide doors behind them nullified Dia’s forthcoming protest. Shutting the door behind him, Jasper bore a frown on his face. At least, until he spotted her.

“Princess,” he greeted. “Did you have business with the king?”

“Well, yes, but…” Dia wondered if perhaps Jasper knew. If she could just silence her stupid little curiosity, she was sure she would be able to focus. “I’d like to ask you something first.”

Noting the way she murmured, Jasper nodded his head and accompanied her a little further down the hall, out of earshot of the guards. “Is something wrong, Dia?”

Dia pursed her lips. “I wouldn’t say wrong ,” she began. “Just - does Sir Hendrik have family in the city? Outside the castle?”

“Family? No. You know he hails from Zwaardsrust. I told you as much...” Jasper trailed off, one of his knitted brows relaxing into a question. “Oh, do you mean… family?

Dia nodded. 

Jasper burst into laughter. Soft enough since they were near the king’s office - but still. He was laughing at her.

Dia had the sense to look offended for Hendrik, and it was that expression which gave Jasper pause. “Oh. You’re serious.” 

“I am. I saw him outside yesterday, and… It was just so strange.”

“Ah. Yes, I heard it was he who caught you again.”

Dia rolled her eyes. “Don’t ask.”

Jasper looked shocked at the eyerolling at first - but then he only chuckled. “Well, you’ve always had the strangest ideas, Dia. No, all of Hendrik’s energy goes into training and being a loyal knight, or some such. You’ve experienced all of that firsthand. I would say magazines are all the man has the time for… heh.”

Dia had learned quite a bit at l’Academie, but not everything . Though she did have an idea of what he meant. “...Magazines?”

“If you’re so curious, you should ask him,” Jasper grinned, already entertained by the idea of Hendrik’s horror. And then his words caught up with him. “Why are you so curious?”

Dia frowned. She wasn’t that curious. And yet she had spent the better part of last night imagining all sorts of reasons as to why Sir Hendrik might be wandering around the city as he had. And abandoned her desire to see more of Heliodor just to see what he was up to, hours before that. 

“I’m…” she wrinkled her nose. “I’m not that curious…”

Dia would never hear what Jasper would have said in response with that skeptical expression he’d perfected. The doors to the king’s office opened again, and King Carnelian strolled out of his office carrying a box of folders. 

“Your Majesty!” gasped one of his guards.

“Your Majesty, allow us to help you!”

“That will be quite all right,” he said kindly, and then stopped at the sight of his frowning general and his confused daughter. “Princess.”

“Your Majesty,” she curtsied. Jasper bowed next to her.

“Were you waiting out here?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. I wished to - I wished to say that I…” Dia swallowed her nerves. What was wrong with her? She could speak perfectly well at the Academie and with others in the castle. It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. “I turn twenty-one in a few weeks, Your Majesty. And I believe that...”

The king’s kindly visage flickered with impatience for but a moment. When he spoke, it was with the same stately composure he always bore. “I understand,” he began with a tone that quickly silenced Dia’s rambling, “that you have been looking for work. Soon you will turn twenty-one, and you desire to learn what it means to rule this land.”

Dia’s eyes widened, as did the growing smile on her mouth as he spoke. “Yes, Your Majesty. Although,” she added, “I don’t wish to rule. I only want to help you.”

King Carnelian smiled, and Dia felt her day brighten. “Very well. I meant to find you, but since you are already here…” He offered her the small stack of folders. 

She accepted them, looking over them as if she would understand just by seeing the covers. Her gaze was all happy disbelief. “Really, father?”

“Really,” he nodded. “These are but a few letters from our citizens, both noble and common, who have requested an audience with me. You will read them and counsel me on the matters they contain a few days hence. Is this agreeable to you?”

Dia gulped. The task was daunting, but she had done something like it at the Academie for some of her professors. Except Madame Cherie - she could never understand the matters she dealt with in school. “Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you. I won’t disappoint you.”

“See that you don’t,” he said with a smile.

With a curtsy, she hurried off, down the hallway, leaving him and Jasper. The two exchanged glances.

Jasper bowed with deep gratitude.


Dia stared at the paperwork on her desk. 

She had been sitting there for some time, jotting down notes she wanted to discuss with the king when he summoned her. The task was interesting - what could bring her closer to her people than helping them with their worries, after all? - but it was also exhausting. 

Her time at the Academie - gardening, doing her own laundry, cleaning the school grounds with staff and fellow students - taught her that her life in Heliodor was one of luxury. It was difficult to face the fact that her people still faced several problems despite the decade or so of peace that the king'srule had instilled. 

Even then, she knew the king kept the deeper problems of their kingdom to himself and to his closer advisors. She could only hope he would one day count her as one of them.

It was why she stayed true to her task - and why she was surprised when she glanced up to her window and found that it was dark out.

And that her stomach was grumbling, and she felt a little faint...

She vaguely remembered Sterling attempting to bring in dinner, only for him to have it brought out again when it had gone cold. That was a mistake...

Her eyes fell to the paperwork again. Managing to clear a little more than half the pile was worth it. But she did deserve some sort of meal now.

Soon she found herself standing outside the kitchens, fiddling with the end of her loose braid at her waist when her nose caught the distinct smell of… something nice. And the sound of thoughtful muttering.

“Was that supposed to go in there already…?”

Dia opened her mouth, ready to announce herself and perhaps ask for a portion - until she saw the only other person who thought it appropriate to be there at that particular hour. The sight of him made her stop, and for a moment she thought to watch him a little longer.

It was too bad Sir Hendrik’s sense for any other creature about was so ridiculously acute. He turned right before she could withdraw, bearing a very irritated look. And then he saw her, and panic quickly replaced it. 

“Dia,” he blinked. The frustration returned. “What are you doing here? You should be in bed.”

And on hers, indignation. “Am I not allowed to be in my own kitchens now?” His guilty expression encouraged her. “And what are you doing here, at any rate?”

Hendrik’s eyes widened. Backing into the stove, he reached for the pot lid nearby, only to graze the pot itself with his forearm. Hissing in pain, he jumped back, and the pot lid clanged noisily as it fell on its top at his feet. “Damn!”

“Sir Hendrik!” Dia exclaimed, half-worried, half-shushing him out of instinct as she rushed over to him. 

“I am fine, princess,” Hendrik insisted, though the pained look on his face said otherwise.

“Oh, hush,” she muttered, prying his hand from his arm and dragging him over to the sink. Letting the water run over his slight burn, she put her free hand close to it and took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she murmured the simplest healing spell.

Hendrik jerked his arm back, and Dia clicked her tongue at him. She'd lost her concentration. When she opened her eyes, Hendrik was staring at her in shock. 

“Princess,” he asked, the slightest smile on his face, “you’ve learned magic?”

She shook her head in embarrassment, sorry to disappoint him. “Very little. My teachers said… Without the pressure of the king's expectations, I was able to learn a little. Unfortunately, I really haven’t the talent for it.”

Hendrik nodded. “If it proves any consolation to you, your strength has not wavered in the slightest.”

When Dia gave him a questioning look, he answered with a gesture to his wrist. The hand that had grabbed him and hauled him to the sink still held him with a vice grip, though to her it was no more than a slight pull. She released him with a gasp.

“I’m sorry. I was certain I’d gotten a hold of all that.”

“It was I who proved troublesome to you,” he shook his head. “Thank you, princess.”

He withdrew his hand, and part of Dia wished he hadn’t. When she couldn’t understand why, she pushed it aside and set her attention on what he’d hurt himself trying to hide. “What were you making, Sir Hendrik?”

“No, stop―” he tried, but she’d already walked past him.

She was too busy taking a whiff of what was evidently stew to notice his horror. It was familiar to her, and she stirred the pot, lifting its contents to make sure. “This is…” she glanced at him. “Father’s stew…? For when...”

Hendrik scratched the cheek where his stray bangs always bothered him, nodding when she trailed off. “I was… hoping to make it your welcome home gift. I have been practicing, but I can’t quite get it right.”

Dia felt her cheeks warm at the thought of the kingdom’s foremost general - and her very strict erstwhile combat teacher - spending nights practicing his cooking. For her. “I haven’t had this in years…” she realized. “You… Is this the reason you were…?”

“At the market,” he finished resignedly. 

Dia had never seen him look so embarrassed. She didn’t think there was any reason to. She was awfully touched, and if her resentment had been silly before, it felt all the worse now. Not to mention she had felt relief wash over her upon his admission, such that she felt almost giddy. Reaching for his arm again, she subdued the feeling and offered him a smile. “Well… let’s give it a try, then.”

“What?” Hendrik almost spat. Quickly, he shook his head. “No. It is not the stew you remember.”

“It’s been sixteen years. I don’t know if I’d still remember it, to be honest,” Dia admitted. “Besides. It smells good, I’m starving , and it isn’t right to waste food.”

“When the food is edible ,” Hendrik reminded her.

“Allow me to judge the matter, Sir Hendrik,” she grinned.

Hendrik made a show of regarding her with a tilt of his head, but he was unable to stifle the smile that mirrored hers. “If you insist, princess. But if you take ill…”

Dia shot him a look of reprimand. “Very well. To absolve you of responsibility, I command you, as your princess, to let me try the dish .”

Unaware of the way his brows shot up in surprise, Hendrik chuckled. “You have given me no choice, then.”

Dia was all triumph as she went for one of the many cupboards and retrieved two bowls and cutlery, setting them over the table. Hendrik watched her for a beat before resuming his cooking, and Dia took her seat, rearranging the table. It had been so long since she and Hendrik had spoken like that - like they were friends, like she and Jasper were. 

It almost felt at first as though she were acting, simply because failing to act her best and most formal in his presence was not what she had grown used to over the years. But she wasn’t. Her friendships with the girls at the Academie and the advice of her professors reminded her that she had changed, just like everyone said. This was her now, and she hoped Hendrik could accept that.

Her eyes settled on him as she watched. Though she had changed, he had not. He was still as proper a knight and as imposing a presence as ever, so why did she feel so funny watching the way he undid his ponytail and tied it again? There should have been nothing interesting about the way his tunic sleeves hugged his arms, or how his large his hands were. Why hadn’t she noticed all that before? And when did it get so hot?

...

Of course.

It was the magic.

Dia used it very little, having taught herself in school not to rely on such a thing - mainly because she was so poor at it. Still, it meant she had very little experience wielding it, and she was probably tired from having used her energy healing a burn, however slight.

Yes. It was the fatigue from the magic and the hunger from such a tiring afternoon that made her shift in her seat uncomfortably.

“It’s ready… I suppose,” Hendrik said, cutting through her thoughts with a wince. For some reason, he still felt the need to serve the stew in a proper tureen bowl instead of leaving it in the pot. She supposed he was simply a stickler for propriety.

Finally, he sat across her at the table, looking slightly bemused. “It boggles the mind why the princess would desire to taste an unfinished dish, but here we are. Dinner is served.”

Dia smiled. “I think anyone would be honored to try a dish by the most famed general of Heliodor.”

Hendrik coughed, apparently not having expected a response to his quip. “Well, now… You honor me, princess. Undeservedly. Even as you mock me."

Dia couldn’t help but laugh. “I wasn’t! I am eager to try it.”

“Then let me serve you,” he offered, clearing his throat as if to ignore her laughter. She couldn’t have refused even if she wanted to, since he was already placing the food in her bowl.

With a small thanks, she waited for him to serve himself and began to try it. Only, she could feel his gaze as soon as she lowered her own to her bowl. Dia took a bite of the beef and, chewing it as quickly as she could without giving the appearance of rushing, she swallowed and glanced up.

“It’s not bad.”

Hendrik startled when she met his gaze, but he looked skeptical. “Do you mean you would eat it if you were desperate?”

“Right,” said Dia. “Dying in a ditch somewhere. Injured, with no food for hundreds of yards out.”

Hendrik’s jaw fell, and Dia could no longer keep a straight face. “I’m only joking!” she laughed so loudly that she covered her mouth. Even when Hendrik managed to shut his own and put on an affronted look, she still couldn’t stop.

“I never knew you were capable of saying such hurtful things, princess,” he murmured. “What did they teach you at the Academie?”

It only made her laugh harder, breaking down into small giggles that shattered Hendrik’s own facade. Only when he spoke again did she begin to settle down, and even then it was a struggle. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

Hendrik had regained his composure completely by now. “I said,” he repeated, “It is good to see you laugh again.”

His suddenly gentle smile made her look away. “What?” she looked to him again, and though she couldn’t hold his gaze, she kept her smile. “I laugh.”

“Perhaps. But have not seen you laugh in a very long time, princess.” 

Dia was embarrassed to hear it, and she glared off to the side in feigned indignation. “That’s because you were my combat teacher.” When he seemed happy to let her win the argument, giving it to her with a resigned shrug, she felt childish. She resented that for some reason. Putting on a more mature air, she met his gaze again. He was right in a way - she didn’t remember laughing in the castle for a long time, but it wasn’t something she dwelt on. “I suppose the Academie was good for me.”

“I believe it was.”

His smile was contagious, and Dia couldn’t help but give him one in return, even if she felt everything she was doing at the moment. Sitting straight, posture perfect, but her legs were crossed wrong, her hair was not as perfect as it could be, and the hand on her lap was involuntarily cracking its own knuckles. Closing it into a fist, she looked up to Hendrik again, and it was a struggle to hold his gaze. Was she staring too much? Too little? The Academie's deportment mistress would have scolded her. She should know what to do by heart by now!

Dia wanted things to go back to the way they were, whether or not he apologized for four years ago. This shared mirth went over and beyond that, but now she felt stupid. Clumsy. She wanted to knock herself over the head for how she was acting - and she wasn’t even acting any way! 

“Princess? Is aught amiss?”

His voice snapped her gaze back to his. “Hendrik…”

“Yes?” he asked, sitting at attention somehow. He was the general of Heliodor again, prepared to receive orders. But it didn’t change that strange bubbling in her chest. She had to figure this out.

Dia abruptly rose from her seat.

“Draw your blade.”

Chapter Text

Hendrik was pleased.

Princess Dia had only turned sixteen weeks ago, and already her proficiency was that of his own halfway through his training with Lord Rodrigo. Part of him believed it was a result of his own teaching - he did not want for his own skill, after all - but the princesses had always been very adept at physical activity, wreaking their own share of havoc as children.

It was painful to think about, that there was only Dia now... But he would not fail her, and neither would she fail herself. She knew how to wield axes, swords, shields, greatswords - with greatswords being her weapon of choice, to his surprise. He remembered a time when she would vomit every day during training, after which Jasper scolded him. 

And yet it was Dia who refused to rest. Not until she recovered a little and had to suffer Jasper’s scolding, at least. If nothing else - and she was so much more - the princess was a dutiful daughter.

He wished the king would see it. And Hendrik could see that Dia thought it, too. She was faltering.

“What did I say about hesitating?” he admonished, swinging his sword at the opening she gave him.

With a furrow of her brow and an evident frown, Dia parried his blow and leapt back, giving herself time to recover. 

It relieved him to see that expression of anger. He had not agreed at first, but now he was glad the king had insisted upon her training. Since the fall of Dundrasil, her determination was the most he had seen of the girl he knew before that fateful day. Afterward, though she became more diligent in her studies, she had lost her spirit. Dia made no demands. No reprimands. No more quips.

He understood all too well. It was difficult to feel anything but hatred for the Darkspawn those days, after he witnessed the destruction of yet another kingdom in a single night. But years had passed now, and Dia only became a more perfect princess - at least by definition. Prim and proper, never speaking out of turn, her smile a distant memory. She showed naught but the detached politeness expected of royalty, even in private. 

“Hyah!”

Save in a fight. With a ferocious yell, Dia lunged, and the force of her next attack was such that he almost stumbled. But he knew her, and he had expected this attempt. With a parry and a quick inward feint, he caught her off guard and knocked the sword from her grip.

Dia yelped, sparing him a shocked glance before turning for her sword on the ground. He blocked her way with the edge of his own.

“Yield,” he said.

Dia glanced down at his sword, and then at hers, and then at him, a plan formulating beneath the irritated curl of her lip. But he had her, and soon she knew it to be true.

“I yield,” she muttered.

Hendrik withdrew his sword and, sheathing it, picked up her weapon and handed it to her. “You fought well.”

Dia’s lip relaxed into the same blank expression she always wore, though her eyes remained away from his, sulking. And even then Hendrik would take it, if only to see emotion from her.

A clap from the edges of the courtyard drew his gaze. It was Jasper, a small smile on his cold features for Dia. “You’ve made great progress, princess,” he remarked.

Hendrik nodded. “The princess’s efforts have brought her quite far.”

At the compliment, Dia turned to Hendrik with the slightest hint of a smile on her mouth. And then she became stiff and upright as she turned to the king, who stood next to Jasper. She acknowledged him with a bow, and Hendrik followed.

King Carnelian clapped his hands together four times. “Impressive work, daughter,” he said, only to quickly purse his lips. “It is only a shame that you haven’t the same talent for magic.”

Hendrik watched Dia wilt from the corner of his eye and scrambled to say something. Clearing his throat, he spoke, “Nevertheless, Your Majesty, the princess continues to do well with her training. I can say much less for many others her age.”

The king graced Hendrik with a thoughtful look. After a moment, he rewarded Dia with the smile due her. “Make no mistake, Princess Dia. You have done well.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Dia, bowing again. 

Acknowledging her with a nod, the king turned to leave. Jasper cast a concerned glance at Dia before following him out.

Hendrik looked to his student with a small smile. “The king is proud of you.”

Dia craned her neck to return his gaze. Even now, Hendrik wished to believe that he still knew her. It was rare that she even bothered to raise her head to look at him, except when she was upset. Or he assumed she was upset. 

“He didn’t even care,” she said blankly. 

“Of course he did,” Hendrik said levelly. It pained him to hear the princess say such things. The king adored his children - his child. “He praised you, did he not?”

“Only because you urged him to. Father respects you, Sir Hendrik. He wouldn’t have said that I’ve ‘done well’ otherwise.”

“You have done well, princess. Jasper himself said it.”

“That was Jasper. Jasper is too kind to me.”

Hendrik agreed - Jasper had never been accommodating to most others, save the princesses - but that did not mean he would lie to appease Dia. 

“Jasper cares for you, and that is why he would speak truly if he believed you were falling behind in your training. You are not .”

Dia looked away, eyes to the ground. Hendrik considered taking back his thoughts - he would rather not see her unhappy, selfish though it was.

“Princess, I understand that you are disappointed, but do not—”

“I’m not disappointed,” said Dia, that neutral gaze staring him down again. Even as he towered over the princess, Hendrik felt small before her. Always. His inability to protect her sister would shame him forevermore. This show of nothingness only made it worse. “Please don’t tell father anything I’ve said to you in confidence.”

“I will not,” he promised. “And I have never done such a thing.”

Of course, she had never expressed her frustrations this much in the past, though he had tried to draw it out of her. It would do her no good if she said nothing, after all… never mind that he was the same. 

But he continued to try - as he would now. “Draw your blade.”

Dia watched him unsheathe his sword again, confused. She had just been about to undo her long braid, and stopped as understanding filled her visage. She knew what he wished to do, and though it never worked the way he wanted it to - he hoped it provided her some sort of catharsis. If only to herself, at least, the way it did for him. What better way to burn away frustrations, fears, disappointments?

“Sir Hendrik, I’d rather just go back to my room,” she said plainly. 

He shook his head, gesturing to her sheathed weapon. “You know the drill. Sometimes words will not suffice.”

“...Sometimes the sword speaks truest,” she muttered in resignation. The little expression of frustration he could draw from her gave him hope, and he readied himself, urging her to do the same.

With a sigh, she drew her blade.


It was Hendrik’s hope that their duels apart from training helped her, but Dia’s outward demeanor never did change outside of battle.

That was why he hardly recognized her when she returned from the Academie. 

For one, in addition to everything else, she was smiling . Even from afar, as he watched her struggle to keep the flowers in her arms, her mirth as she greeted her people felt as warm as the midday sun. He could hardly believe it. 

He wondered if it was simply that the Academie had taught her to act. But she was laughing with Jasper again, and scoffed upon finding him in the alley, and teased him about his cooking earlier… 

Was it magic? Had the princess fallen under an affliction that those in the Academie had dispelled to succeed in drawing expression out of Dia again? Was that why he had failed so miserably years ago?

“Draw your blade,” she repeated, a strange look in her eye. He saw turmoil in them that was unfamiliar to him, but the frown they suddenly reflected snapped him out of his thoughts.

Hendrik blinked up at her, already on her feet. “I… I am happy to do this with you, princess, but will you not finish your meal?” he offered her a slight smile. “Or is this your way of telling me my cooking is unacceptable?”

She didn’t return his smile, but the hardened look Dia had forced on her face fell away. “It’s not that. I…” 

When she allowed herself to trail off, Hendrik tried again. “You shouldn’t fight on an empty stomach.”

“I know that,” she said, almost snapped, but the slump of her shoulders softened her tone. Dia sat again, sighing at her food but otherwise partaking of more of his stew. 

Hendrik wondered if her anger from four years ago had finally resurfaced. He meant to apologize, of course, after he gave the dish that would remind her of her childhood, but he had been wrong to wait. 

Worse still, he had been wrong to let himself get swept away by her renewed warmth simply because he’d missed her.

“You should eat, yourself,” she suddenly said, in between bites. He still remembered when she ate with worse manners than Sterling after training for her exhaustion. “I don’t mean to be underestimated.

“Of course,” he nodded, and took a large helping for his meal. It pleased him greatly that she enjoyed his cooking. 

Still, as she continued to eat in silence, Hendrik wondered if this was regression. The thought terrified him. He would have to apologize. 

At least, it was what he wished to do, but Hendrik could not bring himself to start even as they ate. Apologies were difficult for a man who had only ever been obedient and strove to do right by his subordinates, keeping them all at arm’s length and ensuring his duties were done with the diligence required of him and more if he could spare it. He was not accustomed to them.

That… and Dia was so markedly different from the girl he once knew that he had no idea how to act around her. He was no longer her weapons teacher, and he could not reprimand her. She was no longer timid, so he could not try to bring her out of her shell. Laughing with her just moments ago had made him feel lighter than he had in years - and yet he had been nervous all the while. 

Much as he had protested to Jasper’s teasing as children, even then he had been right. Hendrik was terrible with unpredictable circumstances he could not control or solve with his might. And he was somehow worse with strangers. Was Dia one such creature now?

And yet, for as awful as he was at adapting, he was quick to make a decision. His station required it. No matter who she was now, he cared for her. He intended to do right by her. 

Especially now that she was practically cleaning up her plate. As was he, he realized. 

“Princess,” he began quickly.

Dia’s eyes snapped to his. Hendrik froze, but he forced his jaw to move and once again offered an awkward smile. 

“I regret saying nothing,” he admitted, after four long years of filling his room’s bin with crumpled, unsent letters. “I am sorry.”

Her eyes grew a little - as did his hope - and then they turned away again. Thinking. Again she looked at him. “I wish to duel.”

Hendrik took a deep breath. For all the magic of the Academie, or whatever it was she had found there - it was heartening to think that she still turned to this. “Then I shall draw my blade. But… should you not wait a little after your meal to fight?”

“I don’t want to wait ,” the princess snapped again.

Her hand was over her mouth, eyes as wide as Hendrik’s as they looked upon each other. Was this temper something she learned at the Academie as well? Despite her appropriate reaction to her suddenly poor manners, Hendrik found he could not complain.

“I apologize,” she said, eyes to the table. “It’s late. But I wish to duel now.”

“Very well. It should be time for bed soon, at any rate,” he thought aloud.

“Will you please stop addressing me like that?” she asked, that neutral expression back on her face again.

The memory and the look of it now made him wince, but he feigned ignorance. “What do you mean?”

With a sigh, she pushed back against her seat and picked up her plate, moving over to the sink. Evidently, she no longer cared to respond.

He stood after her. “Leave it. I will wash them after our duel.”

“But—”

“I would have done the same had you not arrived. Leave it.”

He was glad when she accepted quietly, staring at what was left on his plate. “I’ll wait for you in the courtyard.”

Hendrik nodded, but the truth was that he had lost his appetite. Though he often sparred with the more senior knights to keep his hand in, it had been some time. 

But why was he nervous? He was not at all afraid that he would embarrass himself. Kingdoms sent their best knights to Heliodor as part of their training for a reason. Did they not?

The thought was little comfort all of a sudden.

The general took a deep breath and set everything aside for cleaning later. With a slow exhale, he decided to take his time getting to the courtyard.

When he finally arrived, Dia was properly outfitted in old training clothes, two training swords in hand. Hendrik felt her eyes on him as he gathered his own equipment, but found no anger when he approached. If anything, she seemed uncertain as she tossed him a sword.

He tilted his head. “We need not duel if you no longer desire it, Highness.”

The impatience shone through her clouded gaze. “I want to.”

He nodded, and almost in sync, they gripped their weapons, taking the stance he had taught her.

“Ready?” he asked.

Dia had barely nodded when she rushed him, swinging fiercely. He blocked it with a blink and a sharp exhale in surprise, but that only goaded her into making another attempt on his neck. 

In this manner, Hendrik thought, she was still the same. The same expression on her face, the determination - and a fierce glare when he barely parried her next attack.

“Pay attention,” she demanded, as he once had of her.

“Don’t get too confident,” he said, catching his breath. 

When she leapt forward again, he realized he was wrong. It was not all the same. She was smiling, if only a little… and suddenly moving faster than he remembered she could, blow after blow in every angle, as if she were testing his reflexes for basic attacks as he would test a trainee. 

“Are you…” he paused, the offense almost showing on his face. “Are you giving me a warm-up, princess?”

“I’m sorry, Sir Hendrik. Force of habit.”

“...At the Academie?” He swung.

Her smile briefly disappeared as she parried his attack and spun, aiming for his leg. Hendrik leapt back as she spoke, regaining her balance. “I thought Jasper would tell you. I was helping Madame Waloppe with her combat curriculum.They’re slowly introducing it in the Academie.”

“He did not,” he admitted. Jasper had once snidely asked if he planned to write Dia and then never again mentioned the matter. Hendrik supposed it made sense that they wrote one another. “So you trained there. It explains why you have grown lighter of foot.”

“Madame Waloppe fights with a whip. I had to learn,” said Dia, shaking her head fondly right as their gazes met. 

That seemed to remind her - and Hendrik - that they were supposed to be sparring. Without another word, she advanced again, and so did he. Hendrik was never one to insult another or himself by failing to give what was appropriately his all. And so they fought, blow after blow after blow of Dia weaving across his attacks, of him learning hers all over again.

Her experience at the Academie had taught her well. He would never admit that their instruction was better than his, but it was good for a fighter to experience different opponents. It was a chance Dia would never have gotten had she stayed here with knights who shared roughly the same technique. 

Her strikes were as powerful as ever, but her movements bore a dexterity one could not glean from knights training only with heavy weapons. Of course, Hendrik had his own experience with them, but he had not expected to work this much to keep up.

“Tired?” he asked, after she repelled a particularly strong swipe that left them apart. 

She scoffed. “Hardly.”

And lunged again, but not as fiercely as before. Was she tired? He couldn’t tell, nor could he think on it for too long. He needed to pay attention. 

His eyes caught the swift motion heading for his ear, and in a rush to protect himself, he blocked - only to catch the feint at the last minute. Her sword swung the other way, aiming for his face instead. Hendrik leapt back, but his footing was off, and he stumbled.

Dia was quick to respond as she’d hoped - swiping at his leg with the edge of her training sword, hoping to knock him off balance.

And she would have done it, too, had Hendrik not the experience he did. With the last of his dexterity for the moment, he balanced himself to the side and used the momentum to throw himself at her, knocking the sword from her grip. 

“Ow!” she yelped, and it should have ended at that. But it was late, and he had exerted too much effort into his lunge. He slammed straight into her, pummeling her into the ground and sending them rolling across the courtyard. 

By the time the world stopped spinning, Hendrik was on his back. He felt something warm nestled over his stomach. 

Dia groaned atop him.

Hendrik coughed, thoroughly winded himself. As he tried to get up, he realized he could not. It was she who kept him pinned to the ground.

“Ugh…” she had the lack of self-awareness to complain. “You are much too heavy.”

“Then perhaps you should get off me, princess,” he muttered.

Finally she sat up straight, pushing down on his stomach further. It was only then when his words and consequent grunt of pain registered, clearly, because her eyes widened as she opened them to him. 

“Sir Hendrik. What are you...” Hendrik would not see the shade of pink he would grow to like that evening, with her face against the light. “Oh.” She regained her composure when she realized her position and gave him a triumphant grin. “Yield.”

He did not believe in humiliating a sparring partner, but Hendrik couldn’t help an amused smile. “I think not, princess.”

She frowned, and then she noticed the tip of his training sword at her waist. He had managed to reach for it amid her surprise.

As the disappointment filled her pretty face, Hendrik could only feel relief. It had been many long years since anyone had bested him in a fight, and he had thought it might finally occur again. So she had improved… but a knight was allowed to have pride, especially before his erstwhile charge. He was glad it didn’t happen tonight.

Hendrik smiled. He was relieved, too, for the familiarity of her sulking. The way she pursed her lips over her upper teeth. 

He caught her gaze. The expression that betrayed her displeasure fell away in favor of that same neutral look again… Or so he thought. She didn’t look away, for some reason. For some reason, neither could he. 

Suddenly he felt everything that was happening at that moment. Everything he was doing. His legs at an odd angle, his lying supine, very likely looking like an idiot. Her legs straddling his sides, her hands on his chest, the dark, tousled hair straying from her braid. Her mouth, slightly parted, like she meant to say something.

After what felt like an age, she sighed, glancing away. “I yield.”

She rolled off him not long after, leaving him to drop the sword and sigh himself. He wasn’t certain why.

In a good show of sportsmanship, however, Dia offered him her hand. He accepted it, getting to his feet. He would have turned to gather the swords, but Hendrik felt her gaze on him again. He stopped in his tracks, facing her with some anticipation. She wore a similar expression.

Ah. Was she expecting feedback? 

“Good work,” he said honestly.

“Thank you,” she said, but the deep breath she took told Hendrik it was she who needed to speak. “Sir Hendrik, I forgive you.”

“...You do?”

“I did. A long time ago,” she admitted, looking a little embarrassed. “What I said to you years ago - they were words spoken by a child.”

Hendrik felt so elated that he couldn’t stifle a grin. “Are you a child no longer?” he teased, resting his hand on her head.

To his shock, Dia promptly swiped it off. 

“No,” she said, frowning, but earnest. Confused? Or was that him? “Can’t you tell, Hendrik?”

Of course he knew she was no longer a child. She had not been one when she left, but now… The difference in her manner, her demeanor, proved that. And it was impossible to miss how beautiful she had grown. He would have been unable to escape it even if he hadn’t had to discipline a few soldiers for implying something out of turn about her since her arrival. And he had .

Still Hendrik stared at her, seeking the question in her eyes. He could tell there was something else - some other dimension to this, however nebulous - that made the question sound so strange to him. But he didn’t understand. He only knew it was difficult to look away from her in that moment.

She was expecting an answer, and it was his duty to give one. Steadying his hand as he reached for her, he tilted her chin up slightly to look at him. “Of course I can tell,” he replied. “Your technique has improved greatly. And I was wrong earlier - your strength is not as it had once been. It is even greater now.”

He released her, and now it was she who sought his gaze. Hendrik felt odd and retreated behind a kind smile. Despite his immediate regret when he recognized disappointment, he watched Dia mirror the smile herself. 

“I had an excellent teacher,” she said, eyes crinkling sweetly. “Thank you for the duel, Sir Hendrik. I needed to clear my head. Good night.”

With an incline of her head, without waiting for him to bow in return, Dia turned and left.

Hendrik stood beneath the dim light of the courtyard, watching her figure disappear into the shadows of the castle as he bowed. As he righted himself, he was awash with shame and the sense of a missed opportunity.

He felt only displeasure as he made his way back to the kitchens.