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Music For A While

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Music for a while

Shall all your cares beguile

 

Felix’s arrival in Fhirdiad is heralded, not by trumpets, but by a chorus of giggling.

Dimitri is in his office when it starts. He is trying to force a long series of numbers into his brain, but his concentration is interrupted by a sudden burst of feminine excitement. The familiar pattering of feet outside the door of his office. Excited whispers followed by nervous laughter and hissed conversations up and down the corridors.

“Oh no, look at my dress.”

“Is my hair all right?”

“What do you think? Shawl on or off?”

“Get back to work,” a sterner voice cuts in. But no sooner have the first girls scurried away than the next take their place, fretting about their appearance and shouting at each other for clips and pins.

Dimitri regrets, sometimes, that his office is in such a central part of the palace. He likes to be accessible, to be able to feel what is going on around him. People are usually mindful not to make too much noise when they pass him by. But when Felix arrives, all bets are off.

Setting down his quill, Dimitri leans back in his chair and rubs his eyes. It is nearly lunchtime. The summit starts right after, but he supposes he will just have to rely on his aides to recall exact numerical figures. There is no way he is going to memorise anything with the thrum of excitement running through the palace.

He gets to his feet and steps out onto his balcony.

The air still carries the bite of winter, but the spring sun shines down on his face. He takes a deep breath, enjoying the fresh air, then searches the courtyard below for Felix’s familiar figure.

There. Talking to a stable hand.

Dimitri leans against the railing and watches the exchange, taking more amusement from it than he should. Felix has grown into himself these last few years. He is a capable and efficient leader, a wise advisor, and though his manner remains curt he has a reputation as a just and even-handed man.

He is also, in must be said, startlingly handsome. He has always been good-looking, but these last few years have transformed him from attractive to heart-stopping. He is all dark hair and sharp angles, lean strength and the kind of bone structure that looks as though it came right out of a storybook. His mere presence is enough to send near half of Dimitri’s staff into helpless distraction.

Right before his eyes, Dimitri’s stable hand – a competent, experienced girl who can handle even the feistiest of stallions – has something of a meltdown. Drops the reins when Felix hands them to her, stumbles over her own feet in her haste to pick them up, then drops them again.

Dimitri should not laugh. He likes Elaine, and she is an excellent worker. She is never so clumsy when Dimitri dismounts from his own horse. They chat, in as much as any of his staff ever chat with him. Stiff, slightly awkward given their respective stations, but both of them attempting to ignore the divide while simultaneously paying each other utmost respect.

She is nice. Dimitri hopes Felix isn’t saying anything too unpleasant.

Once Elaine has the reins firmly in hand, Felix pats his horse’s flank and stalks off towards the palace. Either oblivious or apathetic to the way Elaine stares after him, her shoulders slumping.

Dimitri heads back inside. He knows Felix – Felix will come and speak to him directly. Sylvain is also due to arrive soon, but Dimitri is expecting him to wander into the first summit meeting late and unrepentant, as is his usual method.

A few minutes later Dimitri hears a sharp rap on the door. Two strikes, clean and sure.

“Come in,” he calls.

Felix strides in, and suddenly Dimitri understands Elaine’s fumbling. Felix’s hair is windswept, his eyes startlingly amber in his face, his cheeks flushed from the ride here. His expression is severe, but it only serves to bring out the sharpness of his cheekbones. He is, somehow, even more handsome than when Dimitri last saw him.

That should not be possible. Dimitri is not sure how he does it, for Felix is hardly a vain man. He is not the sort to waste time on primping, yet somehow, and with little effort on his part… Dimitri has known Felix for many years and through many indignities, but even he is blind-sided by Felix’s looks sometimes.

“Dimitri.”

Dimitri jolts out of his thoughts. Shakes his head and gestures towards a chair in front of his desk. All the giggling must be rubbing off on him.

“Felix,” Dimitri greets. “It is good to see you.”

Felix’s expression is one of cool disdain, but then, it usually is. “You haven’t done anything about your staff situation, I see.”

No further greeting, but Dimitri is not expecting one. Felix sits and crosses one leg over the other, and Dimitri finds himself following the motion of Felix’s lean, muscular thigh.

Dimitri has not been sleeping enough – he should not be so distracted.

He pulls himself together. “What happened this time?”

“One of your stable hands is ill-qualified for her position,” Felix says. “You’re too soft. You don’t have to hire every person who comes begging at your door, you know.”

“My staff are good at their jobs.” Dimitri remembers the look on Elaine’s face as she looked at Felix and fights down another surge of amusement. He really should not find this funny; it is unkind of him. He continues, hedging, “Perhaps they would not be so nervous if you were… well, a little friendlier with them.”

“I fail to see how I could intimidate them with you hulking about.” Felix gestures towards Dimitri, as though that should be proof enough of his argument.

“You would be surprised,” Dimitri says. Felix narrows his eyes, and Dimitri moves the conversation swiftly onwards. If Felix does not know the effect he has on people, Dimitri is certainly not going to be the one to tell him. “How was your journey?”

“Fine. Now, about my last letter.”

Never one for small talk, he launches immediately into the news from his own territory. He and Dimitri have been in frequent correspondence, of late. The war ended three years ago, but things are by no means settled. Three separate countries have become one, but tensions still remain. A feud between old families recently hit crisis point, and there has been an outburst of violence in the Fraldarius duchy.

Fortunately, Felix brings good news.

“Everything is under control now,” he says. “The main instigators have been punished, but I’ve allocated everyone else service to the community. They didn’t like being made to work together at first, but it seems to have smoothed things over.”

That part was Dimitri’s suggestion. Felix does not thank him, but open acknowledgment of the plan’s success is, from Felix, a grand gesture indeed.

“I am glad to hear it,” Dimitri says. He smiles warmly, and Felix’s eyes flicker away from him, as they so often do.

“I’m hungry,” Felix says. Conversation apparently over, he gets to his feet. Pauses, and looks back at Dimitri. Says, slightly awkward, “Are you coming?”

Felix is not by nature a hesitant man, but he speaks as though he does not wish to presume. If it were anyone else – Sylvain, Ingrid, Annette – he would have said ‘come on’. But with Dimitri, he asks. With Dimitri, he is uncharacteristically… well, Dimitri is not sure what the word is. Careful, perhaps. Felix is careful.

They have come a long way from Felix barking insults at him and demanding Dimitri fix things. But on the whole, Dimitri is not sure if this odd caution is any better.

“I would be glad to,” Dimitri says, despite the mountain of work on his desk.

They make their way downstairs. Quiet, but companionably so. Felix is a warm, familiar presence at his side, and Dimitri feels lighter than he has in months.

He gets so weighed down by his work, sometimes. There is never any reprieve, never any sign of letting up. No sooner does he solve one problem than a new one pops up and requires his immediate attention. Ruling Faerghus would have been task enough – ruling the whole of Fódlan is a task not even the greatest of his ancestors ever undertook. A task which, no matter how hard Dimitri works, seems insurmountable.

With Felix here, though, Dimitri can pretend. Can enjoy being in the company of one of his oldest friends, just two people spending time. Felix is not cowed by his position. Felix knows him, and tells Dimitri what he really thinks, and does not expect Dimitri to be perfect all the time, and the relief of that goes beyond words.

The feeling of lightness does not last, of course. They round the corner as the delegates from the Church of Seiros arrive, and Felix comes to a sudden halt. Dimitri takes a few more steps before he notices. Turns, confused, but Felix isn’t looking at him.

His gaze is fixed on one of the knights. A tall, strapping man in a shining suit of armour who spots Felix at about the same time. Murmurs something to his lady and bows low, then makes his way over to Felix. Bows again, a hand pressed over his heart and a broad smile on his face.

“Duke Fraldarius,” he says. His voice is warm and melodic. “How wonderful to see you again.”

“…Sir Wesley.” Felix’s reply is terse, but he holds out a hand for the knight to shake. Something… odd passes between them. Something hidden beneath Felix’s stern countenance and Sir Wesley’s smile.

Then, with a jolt of surprise, the knight spots Dimitri nearby. It is unusual, to say the least – Dimitri is generally hard to miss.

“Oh! Your Majesty, I beg your pardon.” Sir Wesley whips his helmet off his head, and his fair hair cascades around his face. It is only as long as his chin, but it moves in waves, shining as bright as his armour.

He bows even lower to Dimitri. “It is a great honour, your royal Majesty. I apologise for not greeting you properly. I am at your most humble service.”

Dimitri can feel his eyebrows rising. The man is effusive, to be sure. “Think nothing of it. You have met Duke Fraldarius, I take it?”

It is, apparently, the wrong thing to say. Felix’s face contorts into a grimace. He glares at Dimitri behind Sir Wesley’s back, and his cheeks go pink. Dimitri can only stare at him, helplessly, utterly confused as to what he has gotten wrong.

“We are old friends,” Sir Wesley tells Dimitri, oblivious to the exchange going on over his shoulder.

Felix turns on his heel and stalks off towards the dining hall. Sir Wesley straightens up, beaming, but whatever he means to say next dies when he turns around and sees Felix striding away. For a moment, even his golden hair seems to wilt.

It is all very strange. People usually flee from Felix, not the other way around.

“How long have you served as a knight?” Dimitri asks Sir Wesley. Continuing with the conversation as though everything is normal.

The knight turns back to him. Rallies admirably, but his smile has dimmed. “Three years, your Majesty. I am fortunate indeed to be sent on such an important mission. It is the highest honour.”

It is a national trade summit in peace time, but Dimitri appreciates his enthusiasm. “It is an honour to meet you. I hope your stay here will be comfortable. Now, please, take a moment to rest before the summit begins. You have travelled far.”

“I will, your Majesty, you are too kind.”

The knight returns to his lady – an academic-looking woman Dimitri vaguely recognises from other such meetings – and Dimitri follows Felix into the dining hall.

Felix sits at an otherwise empty table. The cloud of anger around him is an almost physical force.

Dimitri takes the seat beside him gingerly. “Is everything all right, Felix?”

Felix doesn’t look up from his steak. Hacks into it with his knife. “You didn’t have to talk to him.”

“I am the king. It is my job to talk to everybody.”

Felix’s hand stills. He makes an irritated noise – which, for him, is acknowledgment of Dimitri’s point – then returns his aggression to his meal.

This is not how Dimitri hoped to start their visit. He never seems to get things right with Felix, always has one fall-out or another, but this is a new record. He sees Felix rarely enough as it is. Letters are not the same, and Dimitri is so busy that he is hardly the world’s best correspondent.

“Has he offended you?” Dimitri says.

“Just leave it, will you?” Felix shoves himself out of his seat, his cutlery clattering onto his plate.

Dimitri thinks Felix is going to storm off. He can feel his heart sinking, but he does not understand what he did.

But… Felix pauses. Looks back at Dimitri, his brow furrowed. Says, reluctantly, “I… sorry. Just – I’ll see you later.”

It feels a bit like whiplash. Dimitri has no idea what to make of any of this. “As you wish.”

Felix’s mouth twists, and his eyes dart over Dimitri’s face with a look Dimitri cannot read. He does not say any more. Strides out of the hall, leaving most of his lunch untouched.

There is nothing for Dimitri to do but stare after him.

- - -

The first afternoon of the summit is purely introductory.

All the attendees gather together. Dimitri says a few words, welcoming them to Fhirdiad and thanking them all for attending. Various lords and ladies take their turn to speak, introducing themselves and their hopes for the summit. Sylvain, true to form, wanders in late, but it does not matter. He has not missed much – the real talks start tomorrow.

Dimitri is not looking forward to it. Trade summits are a special form of torture. In name, Fódlan is one unified country. As far as trade is concerned, however, it is about thirty. The lords jealously guard the resources within their respective territories, and none of them show any inclination of wanting to play nicely with the others. International trade is a simpler affair at present, and that is saying something.

Things will get easier. Three warring countries do not blend into one overnight, and old arguments are not quickly laid to rest. Dimitri is not an authoritarian king, and so will not order resources from one territory into another. As such, he must slowly coax cooperation from his lords and ladies. It is just going to take time. Time, and an awful lot of boring meetings.

He spends most of this one distracted by Felix. Felix’s dark mood has not let up. He sits at Dimitri’s right hand, and if Dimitri did now know him well, perhaps he would not notice his tension. Dimitri keeps trying to catch Felix’s eye, but Felix refuses. Stares blankly at whoever is talking, his eyes dark and expression forbidding.

As soon as the speeches are done, Felix all but bolts. Sylvain shares a look with Dimitri, his expression both amused and exasperated, and follows after Felix at a more sedate pace.

There is nothing for Dimitri to do, then. Whatever is bothering Felix, he is more likely to speak with Sylvain about it. They are close, in an easy kind of way Dimitri cannot imagine achieving with either of them.

Things are easier with Dedue. But Dedue is in Duscur.

Dimitri heads to his chambers. Takes a bath. Dresses again in his finery, tidies his hair, and checks the time. Just under an hour until he will be expected to re-emerge for the evening’s social event.

He feels tense, antsy. His mind keeps wandering back to Felix. To his glare, to his anger, to his apology and the hesitancy with which he approaches Dimitri. It seems like every time Dimitri sees him, Felix is further away. Dimitri’s advisor, Dimitri’s friend, but distant and careful and strange. And Dimitri does not understand why.

He forces himself to breathe out. He is tying himself up in knots. He needs to calm down.

He does what he usually does to calm himself these days. Dimitri makes his way over to the upright piano in the corner of his chambers and sits down.

Scales first. He takes two long, steady breaths and sets his fingers over the keys. C major, A natural minor, A harmonic minor… There are so many still to learn, but it is a slow process. Hard and laborious work, a process of repetition. The same thing over and over, until his clumsy fingers obey. Until he plays smoothly, rather than hacking at the keys with too-strong fingers.

He moves onto his songbook. Clunks his way through a simple arrangement of a famous piece, though Dimitri has never heard it before. He is, all things considered, a poor excuse for a music student, for he knows none of the songs or composers.

He is not playing well tonight, but it does not matter. With his mind focused on reading the music, other thoughts have little time to creep in. The tension building in his chest releases, bit by bit. The piano is an instrument of discipline, and discipline is one thing Dimitri has always understood.

He finishes the piece. Checks the time, and he has to get moving now. Almost immediately the tension comes flooding back in, because he does not want to take up his mantle again. He wears no crown, but sometimes he swears he can feel it, ringing his head, weighing him down. So very, very heavy.

Dimitri stands. Closes his songbook, sets his piano stool to rights. Pulls on his cloak and gives himself a last look in the mirror.

He does not look like a king, not like the kings of old. There is no glory, no magnificence. He looks like what he is – pale and tired and helplessly mortal. Only a man, and not a very good one at that.

- - -

The foyer is filled to the brim with people in the finest of clothing.

The heralds announce Dimitri’s arrival, as they always do, with a blast of pomp. Dimitri descends the staircase with a neutral expression fixed in place. There is a smattering of applause (it happens regularly, even though he has done nothing but walk down some stairs) and the moment his feet touch the floor of the foyer he is swamped by lord this and lady that. People shaking his hands and introducing every one of their relatives, and Dimitri dons a smile and welcomes them all.

Smile, bow, shake hand. Smile, bow, shake hand. By this point, it is almost mechanical.

When there is a lull in the stream of guests, he looks around the foyer for his friends. They never approach him at events like this – they always wait for him to come to them, if indeed he can find the time.

He wants to find time. Already he can feel his mask slipping, and even a moment’s reprieve would be welcome. Sylvain is around here somewhere, and he is always good company, always manages to make Dimitri laugh. Felix is here, Annette too, and Dimitri has not seen her in what feels like forever. He is assuming she made it here safely, for he did not have time to greet her on her arrival.

The Goddess smiles on him. The crowd parts and he catches a glimpse of bright red hair. Annette, tiny but unstoppable, gesticulating so wildly she almost loses the glass in her hand. And there, standing by her…

For a moment, Dimitri forgets what he is doing. Felix. Dressed in navy, the dark colour accentuating the narrowness of his waist and the long lines of his legs. His hair is loose around his shoulders, framing his angular, handsome face. He smiles, sudden and sharp, and Dimitri’s stomach flips.

Dimitri forces his attention back to where he stands, readying himself to greet the next wave of people.

During the next lull, Dimitri seizes his chance. He makes his way across the room to them, pretending not to notice when someone else tries to catch his attention.

“Your Majesty!” Annette chirps. She beams and leans up on her tiptoes. Dimitri takes the hint. Bends down so she can kiss his cheek, fond but restrained.

He smiles. But it occurs to him, with sudden and visceral clarity, that this is not how she will have greeted Felix. With Felix she needs no titles or caution. Dimitri has no doubt that she flung her arms around him the moment she saw him, exuberant as ever. Knows Felix, for all his embarrassment, will have allowed it. Will have returned it, his arms winding around her strong and sure. Even after all these years, she is never as easy with Dimitri.

Dimitri forces the thought down. His mind is unhelpful, sometimes. He does not know why he dwells on such things in the few precious moments he has with her.

Felix raises his eyebrows when Dimitri straightens up. Behind Felix, some ladies are whispering behind their fans, making gooey eyes at him and glaring daggers at Annette. Felix pays them little mind.

“Why are you dressed for a funeral?” Felix demands.

Annette elbows Felix in the side, but Dimitri is used to him. He looks down at himself. Black tunic, black belt, black gloves. Shirt and breeches, both black. The only pop of colour is a blue pin, the colour of his house, but these are some of his finest clothes. What does it matter if they are all black?

He usually wears black, these days. Colours feel… wrong, somehow.

“What is wrong with these?”

“Nothing, if you’re in mourning. I thought this was supposed to be a party.”

“I suppose I am not the partying type.”

Felix looks at him for a long moment. His jaw is tense, and there is something unreadable in his eyes. The moment passes when he turns his head away, folding his arms across his chest.

“It is good to see you, Annette,” Dimitri says. “I trust your students are treating you well.”

“Oh yes! Still, I’m looking forward to a break. The term is almost over.”

“I hope the concert will serve as a well-earned reprieve, then. I hear the performers are very good.”

“I can’t wait!” Annette is bouncing up and down. “I hardly got any sleep last night I was so excited.”

“And you stayed up late because you hadn’t marked all of your exams yet,” Felix cuts in. His expression opens up at he turns to look at her. His lips quirk – he is teasing her.

Felix is terribly fond of Annette. He never looks at Dimitri like that.

“You’re the worst, Felix,” she says, equally fond, and Dimitri’s stomach clenches. Things are so easy between them, but Dimitri…

“I will leave you to it,” he says abruptly.

Annette’s mouth opens in surprise, and he sees her exchange a look with Felix before Dimitri plunges back into the crowd. He does not look back.

He regrets his sudden exit once the pang fades. He has missed them, after all, and his distance from them is his own fault. He has no business envying them their closeness. He is so busy ruling that he has little time even for those he loves the most.

He has little time to dwell on it. Hears a voice from behind him.

“Good evening, your Majesty.”

The next wave of guests. Dimitri plasters on his smile and turns to greet them.

When it comes time to go into the concert hall, he looks around for Felix and Annette again. He should not have left them so rudely. Should have plastered his smile back on, but it is... harder with them, somehow. Harder to pretend.

He can sit with them, at the very least. Even if he is poor company otherwise. No one expects him to talk during the performance. He can just… be with them.

He cranes his neck and - there, up ahead, joining the stream of people moving into the hall. They make a fine picture, Felix offering his arm and Annette throwing back her head with a laugh. She slips her arm into Felix’s, her smile radiant.

Another pang, but Dimitri pushes through it. Strides towards them, determined not to be waylaid. His steps are quick and purposeful, and he should make it to them in time.

His eye, though, scans the periphery - checking, always checking - an instinct from years on the run. And he spies a young lady hovering alone on the side of the foyer. Sees her nerves in the twist of her hands, the craning of her neck as she looks around.

And Dimitri… Dimitri stops.

He has a moment of indecision. Felix and Annette are at the entrance to the hall, about to go in, and he will miss them if he dallies any longer. But the young lady is alone, searching the crowd with an increasingly panicked air about her, and he cannot just leave her there, surely.

He has a duty. He has a duty.

Dimitri changes his path. Felix and Annette disappear into the hall, and it feels like a blow, like a yawning chasm opens in his chest. Dimitri is a weak man. He is a king; he has no right to feel miserable over something as small as this.

He pulls himself together. He swore he would do right by his people, and acting like a gentleman is the least of his duties.

“Excuse me, my lady.”

The young lady starts. Her eyes widen as she looks up – and up, and up - at him. If possible, her nervous face turns even whiter.

Even dressed up in all his finery, there is no mistaking Dimitri for anything other than what he is. His scars speak for themselves. He cannot blame her for her trepidation.

“Are you waiting for someone?” he asks, as kindly as he can manage.

“Ah, n-no,” she stammers. “Just my p-parents, but I cannot see them.”

“Perhaps they have gone into the hall already. Would do me the honour?” He holds out his arm.

“Th-thank you, your Majesty.” She barely squeaks the words out, cannot meet his eyes, but she loops her arm through his all the same.

One of his aides is hovering by the doors to the concert hall. Probably intending to shepherd him into a seat chosen by the highest bidder, as is the usual way of things. Dimitri had hoped to avoid it. No chance, now.

“Am I correct in thinking your father is Lord Denmar?” he asks the young lady.

“Y-yes, your Majesty,” she says. “My name is Olivia.”

That rings a bell. “Lady Olivia, of course. The painter.”

Her head snaps up, and she is clearly startled that he remembers. He smiles down at her, and for a brief moment she smiles back. Her face goes from white to scarlet so quickly that he is astonished she does not faint, and she abruptly turns her attention back to her shoes.

Dimitri’s aide has indeed selected a seat for him, but he escorts Lady Olivia to her family first. Keeps a firm hold of her hand as she awkwardly negotiates the cramped aisle on her way to her seat, wobbling slightly in her heeled shoes.

“I hope you enjoy the concert, my lady.”

Her sisters, two glamorous-looking ladies with gentlemen of their own, are staring at him with open mouths. Lady Olivia’s cheeks are still scarlet as she nods in mute acknowledgment. Her mother not-so-surreptitiously nudges her.

“T-thank you, sire. Y-you as well,” Lady Olivia stammers out.

People were nervous enough around Dimitri when he was a prince, but that is nothing to how they are now.

“We are much obliged to you, your Majesty,” her father, Lord Denmar, adds quickly. He leans over the seats, and from the eager look on his face Dimitri can see another conversation coming.

“Not at all. Good evening to you,” Dimitri says, and hastens away before Lord Denmar can get started.

His own seat is right in the middle of some of the most well-to-do and demanding nobles in all of his kingdom. They talk at him in simpering, sycophantic tones until the performance begins, and Dimitri is finally granted reprieve.

It is a good show. Music and dancing, grand sweeping numbers that are met with much applause and gasping from the general audience. An extravagant performance to welcome guests from all across the continent.

Dimitri does not absorb any of it. He stares ahead, unfocused, heavy exhaustion weighing him down, and only his duty keeps him in his chair. He cannot relax, not in his present company, but as long as he keeps his eye fixed straight ahead no one will speak to him.

Noise, colour, light. They all blur into one. Cheers from the crowd, the thundering beat of the drum. Dimitri just sits.

Then the music turns quieter. A slow, melancholy piece starts, and Dimitri wakes from his stupor. Watches as a single male dancer takes the stage - a prince, Dimitri assumes from the costume, though he has not been following the story. The man dances, dark-haired and graceful, but it is the music that captures Dimitri’s attention. The music that washes over him, captivating him.

For a moment, the lights from the stage strike just right, and he sees Felix and Annette seated several rows ahead of him. Felix’s head tilts to look at Annette. The lights make his eyes shine, even from here. Dimitri traces the aristocratic line of his nose, the way the shadows play across his handsome face.

The music fits him, somehow. Fits with how Dimitri thinks of him, all fondness and regret.

The prince dances on, but Dimitri has eyes only for Felix, long after he turns away. Even as the last notes fade, and the stage explodes into noise and colour again.

Dimitri stays in the quiet melancholy. Shuts his eye, and tries to burn the melody into his brain. Sorrow, loneliness… hope. Suffering, fading away at last.

When he lays his head down that night, that melody lulls him off to sleep.

- - -

Trade discussions begin in earnest the next day.

Though the details have changed, the general gist of discussion is very much the same – that is to say, the same nonsense cropping up over and over again. Nobles from what was previously the Leicester Alliance banding together in stubborn refusal to trade grain with previously Imperial territories for anything less than an exorbitant price. Imperial territories retaliating with complaints about heavy usage of trade routes through their own lands, and why they should be entitled to tax road use extravagantly. Faerghus nobles chiming in with their own petty complaints, lamenting the restricted hunting rights along the borders of their territories and Imperial ones, demanding access to the heavily populated forests in the name of ‘fairness’. Never mind the families who have maintained those territories for hundreds of years and have no intention of yielding their sovereignty over any part of them.

It is spiteful, and it is petty. None of them have any serious complaints to bring to the table, only long-standing dislike and a burning desire to swell their own coffers as much as they can. The Faerghus-Imperial-Leicester divides are not the only problem, either, for the nobles dislike their immediate neighbours every bit as much as they dislike their once-enemies.

“We have heard your arguments on leather trade several times,” Dimitri cuts in when it looks like the representatives from House Varley and House Hevring might come to physical blows. “I suggest we lay the subject to rest.”

Whatever issues it has caused with Felix, Sir Wesley’s presence, surprisingly enough, proves to be a great asset. As far as Dimitri understands it, he is here to escort the Church representative beside him. Not a diplomat, but a guard. He does not act like one. Speaks loudly and regularly, with the same unstoppable enthusiasm as when Dimitri first met him.

“Hear hear, your Majesty!” he says. “Let us make peace, my noble friends. What are neighbours for, but to help each other in times of need? And, of course, to amuse each other with our folly.”

It is a joke. He grins broadly, and to Dimitri’s surprise the room laughs with him.

Dimitri does not know how he does it. The meeting goes on, dull and intermittently hostile as ever, but Sir Wesley’s presence is a soothing balm. He laughs, he jokes, he slaps the table emphatically whenever he makes a point. And nobody seems to mind. Dimitri does not mind, even when Sir Wesley derails the whole thing in order to tell a long anecdote about a pub crawl that ended with him up on top of a mountain with no memory of how he got there.

No one interrupts him. The man is just so charming. Even without his armour, he gleams. He leans into the table, smiling at every person there, and all of them – even the most ill-tempered – lean in with him. Not even Felix interrupts the man, though his expression is pinched.

When they are done for the day, they have made more progress than Dimitri anticipated. He calls the knight to him.

“Sir Wesley.”

The knight comes at once, inclining his head respectfully. There is enough noise as the attendees speak among themselves to cover their conversation. Felix, though, watches with sharp eyes as he tidies his things.

“You have quite a way with people,” Dimitri says. “Thank you for your work today.”

The knight looks startled. Then a slow smile spreads across his face. He bows, low at the waist. “You honour me, your Majesty.”

Felix shuts his notebook with a loud snap. Dimitri looks over at him, but Felix refuses to make eye contact. He is about to go to him when Sylvain makes an inopportune appearance, materialising by Dimitri’s elbow and tugging him away. Sylvain’s grip is like iron, and Dimitri has no choice but to go. Still, he does not miss the way Sir Wesley turns to look at Felix, or Felix’s answering glare.

“I have a friend I’d like you to meet,” Sylvain says, and all but drags Dimitri over to where a finely dressed lady stands waiting.

The lady giggles and curtsies and holds her hand out for Dimitri to kiss. He does, but he is unsure why Sylvain gives him such a heavy look and then abandons them. She is a pretty woman, very much Sylvain’s type. Surely Sylvain wishes to see her too.

The lady is looking at him expectantly, so Dimitri starts the conversation. “Are you enjoying your stay in Fhirdiad?”

She twirls her hair with her finger. Her jewellery tinkles with the motion, and her perfume is delicate and feminine. Not overpowering, which Dimitri appreciates, for many women seem to drench themselves in scent.

“It is a remarkable city,” she says. “And I must say, it is an honour to meet you at last, your Majesty. I have heard so much of you from Margrave Gautier.”

“Indeed?”

“Of course.” She blinks rapidly, in a way that suggests she has something in her eyes. Fortunately it resolves quickly. “He and I are good friends. It is a delight indeed to finally meet you. The stories do not do you justice.”

“You are too kind.” Dimitri looks away, trying not to seem as awkward as he feels. His eyes alight on Felix once more.

Felix, standing in the corner with Sir Wesley, having what looks like an argument. His hand gestures are sharp and precise. There is a frown on Sir Wesley’s face, and his hands are held in front of him placatingly.

“You are too modest,” the lady says. Laughs, soft and feminine.

Dimitri turns back to her. “I beg you would excuse me, my lady. I have much work to do.”

“Of course, your Majesty,” she says. Then, slightly rushed, “I hope I will have the pleasure of dancing with you at the ball.”

“The pleasure will be all mine, I am sure.”

He bows, swift, and he can only hope he has not offended her as he walks away. There is a distinct downward turn to her mouth.

“Dimitri.” Sylvain re-materialises. Gives Dimitri a look.

“What?” Dimitri says as he gathers his own things from the table. Still watching Felix and Sir Wesley in his peripheral vision. Felix throws his hands in the air and stalks out the door, and Sir Wesley makes as if to follow before clearly thinking better of it.

Old friends, he said. Yet Felix has never mentioned him before, and is not happy to see him now.

Sylvain sighs deeply. “You’re hopeless, you know that?”

“Why? What did I do?”

Sylvain just claps him on the arm, his smile rueful. Shakes his head, then wanders off again.

- - -

Dimitri stumbles unexpectedly across Felix as he makes his way back to his office.

Felix has found a balcony on one of the less-frequented routes through the palace. Leans over the railing, and even with Felix’s back to him Dimitri can that see he is angry. Everything about his posture is forbidding, and Dimitri certainly did not come this way in order to chase him.

Felix is still not speaking to him, not really. His anger is not directed at Dimitri, but that does not make it Dimitri’s place to pry. Whatever is wrong, Dimitri does not want to make it worse.

He hesitates. Wonders if he should find Sylvain or Annette.

In the end, he is not given the choice. Felix looks around and sees him hovering in the corridor. He scowls, but he does not tell Dimitri to go away. For him, that is almost an invitation.

Dimitri approaches slowly, as one might approach a wildcat. He wonders what he should say. Settles on, “Are you all right?”

“Fine.” Typical Felix.

Dimitri looks over the railing, following Felix’s sightline. Over the courtyard, across the grounds, and into the city beyond.

Felix shifts beside him. Shoots Dimitri a look, looks away again. Stares down at his own hands, his shoulders drawing up to his ears. As though he is uncomfortable being so close to Dimitri.

The thought is not a happy one.

“Is Sir Wesley bothering you?” Dimitri asks, because that, at least, he can do something about.

“No.”

Dimitri looks out over the city again. Forcing his eyes away from the handsome lines of Felix’s face. “You do not have to speak to me if you do not wish to, Felix. I do understand. But I can clearly see something is the matter. I would like to help you, if there is anything I can do.”

Felix huffs, “Dimitri.” Goes quiet again.

For a few long moments, they stand in silence. The tension builds, and Felix’s hands grow twitchy.

Dimitri sighs. Turns to leave. Wonders, not for the first time, how he has driven Felix so far away from him that the rift between them will never be fixed. That they will be civil but strange with each other. That Felix no longer hates him, but it is almost as if he is indifferent, and somehow that is worse.

“Ugh.” Felix scrubs a hand over his face, pushing back his loose strands of hair. “Fine, I’ll talk,” he says, as though Dimitri is twisting his arm. “Just… not here.”

Dimitri’s surprise must be written all across his face, for Felix scowls and his eyes dart away.

“All right,” Dimitri says.

They end up in Dimitri’s office. Felix throws himself into the seat in front of Dimitri’s desk. Dimitri has another moment of indecision as he tries to decide what he should do – whether he should stand, or pull up a chair beside Felix, or sit in his usual chair with the desk between them as they do when they meet king to duke.

He goes with the latter.

“I didn’t know he’d be coming here,” Felix mutters, less to Dimitri and more to his own boots. His cheeks are a dull red, and his arms are folded tightly across his chest.

“No?” Dimitri is not sure what else to say. Treads lightly, while Felix is offering information of his own free will.

“He’s such a -” Felix cuts himself off. Breathes out, and the anger on his face is all too familiar. After all, it is how he used to look at Dimitri. “He’s annoying. But his presence is clearly helping you in the meetings, so I won’t get in the way.”

“You need not suffer for my sake, Felix. I can have a word with-”

“No. It’s fine.”

Dimitri studies him. It clearly isn’t. “He said you were old friends. I take it you do not feel the same?”

Felix shoots Dimitri a withering look. Dimitri expects him to storm out then and there, but to his surprise, Felix subsides in his chair.

“We have… a history.” Felix’s tone is weighted, and his flush deepens.

Dimitri stares at him. Waiting for more, but no more comes. “Oh?”

Felix looks at him in disbelief. His face is so red the colour has even spread to his ears. Through gritted teeth, he elaborates, “We were involved.”

“Involved?” Dimitri repeats dumbly. Felix is looking anywhere but Dimitri now, but why should he be so embarra-

Oh. Oh. Involved.

“I… I see,” Dimitri forces out. His chest feels oddly cold all of a sudden.

Felix’s face is turned from him, and Dimitri’s eyes trace the long length of his lashes, the sharp line of Felix’s jaw. Linger on Felix’s lips, slightly parted, and to think he and – he and Sir Wesley -

Dimitri clears his throat. Forces the – whatever he is feeling deep, deep down.

“I see,” he repeats. “If you find his presence… uncomfortable I am certain we can find a way to keep you at a distance.”

Felix’s head snaps around. He meets Dimitri’s gaze dead-on, which he so rarely does, and his expression is oddly intense. “Is that all?”

Dimitri forces a smile onto his face. Hopes it does not look at painful as it feels.

“Do you require anything else from me?” Then, he realises he may have misinterpreted. “If you parted ways in an amicable fashion, then of course there is no problem. I apologise, I should not have presumed-”

“No,” Felix interjects. He slouches back into his chair. Kicks at Dimitri’s desk with his boot. “Keep that oaf away from me.”

This new bit of information jolts Dimitri in an entirely different way. Oaf? “What did he do? If he has wronged you-”

No, just -” Felix interrupts again. “Just… leave it.”

“All right,” Dimitri says, but his mind is already whirling with possibilities. Studying Felix, as though doing so will uncover a clue.

Sir Wesley seems like a pleasant man. Seems. He is very charming – charming enough, perhaps, that he might be hiding a darker side underneath. Charming enough even a man like Felix could fall under his sway. There are those who make a cruel game of wooing. Those whose charm is only superficial, and acts as a disguise for a predator.

Dimitri cannot imagine Felix falling victim to a predatory type, but then, everyone has their blind spots. Even Felix, for all his pride and terse opinions, is not infallible.

Dimitri’s opinion of Sir Wesley sours dramatically.

“Whatever it is you’re thinking,” Felix says, “stop it.”

Dimitri startles. “I did not say anything.”

“I can see you thinking,” Felix snaps. “I don’t need you to start – defending my honour, or whatever hare-brained idea pops into your mind.”

“Does your honour need defending?” Dimitri’s mood darkens further. What did Sir Wesley do?

Felix groans loudly. “No, you stupid-”

Felix cuts himself off before he can call Dimitri boar. Last year Dimitri asked him, rather awkwardly and after many months of consideration, to stop. He knows Felix does not mean it as the insult it used to be, but that does not stop its sting. Does not stop it reminding him acutely of the darkest time in his life. Felix, to his credit, has stopped, though the habit is so ingrained he still occasionally slips up.

“It was nothing, Dimitri. There’s nothing to be angry about. Just leave it alone.”

Dimitri isn’t angry, not exactly. Anger doesn’t explain the cold feeling reaching all the way down to his toes. Doesn’t explain the roiling in his stomach, or the odd tightness in his throat.

He takes a breath. “As you wish.” Another thought occurs. “You never told me you were seeing someone.”

“Because it’s none of your business,” Felix snaps.

Dimitri’s mouth snaps shut. And he knows, he knows he has no right, and that Felix owes him nothing. He knows that his friendship with Felix will never be what it was when they were children.

Still, it hurts. And Dimitri is not quick enough to keep the hurt to himself. Flinches backwards before he gets his response under control. Fixes his eye on the wood of his desk, because suddenly he cannot look at Felix.

He hears Felix exhale. The sound of Felix pushing his hair roughly from his face.

“That isn’t what… I didn’t mean it like…” Felix says.

“No,” Dimitri says quickly. “No, I understand. I have no right to pry.”

He pushes his chair back abruptly. Stands and goes over to look out the window, just so he can take a moment to compose himself. So Felix cannot read his face, which Dimitri has never managed to get entirely under his control.

Dimitri,” Felix says, but Dimitri doesn’t know what he wants from him. All he can do is try and smooth over the cracks.

“I apologise,” Dimitri says.

He hears Felix take a deep breath – fighting down his temper, perhaps – then the sound of Felix’s own chair scraping back.

“It was just… it wasn’t anything important, all right? I’m not one to go around telling people about my private life anyway.”

Felix’s private life. A clear box around it. A private life, which Dimitri has no part in. Even after all this time.

“I know.”

Silence falls. A clock ticks in the corner of Dimitri’s office. A sharp inhalation of breath from Felix, as though he means to speak – then more silence.

Dimitri gets himself under control. Turns and smiles, sweeping back to his desk as though nothing has happened. “We shall keep arrangements as they are, then. My aide will be pleased. She gets very particular about these things.”

He starts moving his papers around. Ordering his notes from the day’s meeting.

Felix hovers in place, just for a moment. His hands makes a movement towards Dimitri, as though he means to reach out. Stops. Returns to his side.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Felix says. Oddly emphatic, and even without looking Dimitri can feel Felix’s eyes boring into him.

“Tomorrow.”

Another moment. Then he hears Felix’s footsteps moving across the room.

As soon as the door shuts behind him, Dimitri slumps into his chair. Buries his face in his hands and lets out a shaky breath. His stomach churns, and it feels as though he has swallowed a lump of lead.

It is none of his business, he reminds himself. None of his business.

His head knows this. If only his heart would get the message.