It's not childish for Marquess Pherae to request his father's help with his paperwork, Roy tells himself for the umpteenth time. If Lord Eliwood is willing to help Roy reply to the letters he's too anxious to answer, then he's perfectly willing to let his father work his magic. Lord Eliwood has always been the more charismatic between the two, having been gifted with diplomatic genius at a tender age coupled with a way with words - Elimine knows the poems stacked in the late Marquess Ostia's closets would be more than enough proof. Still, it is quite embarrassing for a twenty-year-old man, general of three armies and triumphed in a war against the superpower kingdom of Elibe, to enlist the help of his ailing father because he has absolutely no idea what to write.
Thank Elimine his father has the patience of the Archsage, or Roy would have dug a large hole for himself and lay hidden there for the rest of his life.
His father picks up a letter and squints, pushing his glasses along the bridge of his nose.
"Lady Serra is making a fuss in her letters again."
Of all the letters Roy dreads to answer, those of the Head Chancellor for Lycia's Empress would make the top of the list. He knows that Lady Serra means well and merely speaks in concern of their well-being, but her constant worries often make him anxious to respond to her letters, for fear that she would march her way from Ostia down to Pherae to give him a piece of her mind.
Still, he can't say that the contents of the letter do not pique his interest.
"Oh?" He asks, tilting his head, "What's she talking about again?"
"The usual," Eliwood sighs as he rests his chin on his palm, "She asks about my health, which is as well as it has always been for the past ten years." The older lord chuckles and continues reading, raising his brows at the content. "She also asks about you, and how you seem to have never taken a lover. Which, considering you are adamant in keeping your relationship with your bosom friend a secret, comes as no surprise that no-one outside of Castle Pherae would know about the only suitor I approve of."
"She would throttle me if I ever told her who I really wanted to marry," Roy sighs, "I'm not taking any chances."
"Considering her huge fight with Lilina the day before her engagement to her betrothed, I would say you have every right to refuse your correspondence," his father nods, "To this day, she is still of the idea it is entirely inappropriate for an Empress to marry a common knight."
"Unfortunately for Her Ladyship, the Empress is as stubborn as a wild mare when it comes to her own happiness," Roy takes another long sigh. "Lilina has already taken Dame Gwendolyn's hand in marriage, and she will not change her mind."
Lord Eliwood rubs his thumbs against his temple and begins drafting his response on scrap paper. "Very well. I should be able to find a way to assuage Lady Serra, but I wouldn't count on it if I were you."
"You are still doing me a great favour, Father," Roy smiles thankfully. "Thank you so much."
"It's moments like these that I wish Hector were still with us," Eliwood sighs. His late husband's passing five years ago has taken a toll on his psyche - Roy could feel his father's melancholy from his table. "He would have known how to make her understand. Her Ladyship would only listen to him, Lyndis, or no one else."
"Speaking of Marchioness Caelin," his godmother from the Sacean plains, Roy recalls, who only visits Castle Pherae twice a year, "has she returned from her sabbatical?"
"I'm afraid not," Eliwood shakes his head, "Lyndis and Florina are still taking their sweet time up in the mountainous Ilia. They have yet to send me any updates, so I won't know for sure when they will return."
Lord Eliwood finishes his draft and encloses it with the letter he just read, labelling it under "reply later" as he turns to another one.
"Lilina sent us quite a hefty parcel." He holds it up for his son to see, and Roy nods in agreement, eyeing the thickness of the envelope before his father sets it down. "I wonder what this could be about."
"Either she wants to ask for my opinion about some legislation she's drafted, or she's brought yet another pamphlet from Etruria." Roy surmises.
Eliwood scans the contents and shakes his head. "Neither, I'm afraid. These are the updates regarding Caelin's fate. Marchioness Caelin is planning to relinquish the land to Ostia's rule indefinitely."
Roy squints his eyes. "She's serious?"
Eliwood hands him the smaller letter enclosed within the package. "This is the letter with her signature and the Caelin family crest."
Roy scans the content and shrugs. "I reckon the sabbatical would last forever, then."
"If Lilina accepts this offer," Eliwood nods, "then that would be the case."
"It should be wiser for Lilina to accept, I reckon," Roy comments, "considering Lady Lyndis and Lady Florina have no children to call their own."
"And they don't plan to, either," his father shakes his head, "Both Marchionesses have always been free-spirited at heart. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I am not."
"Then, you must agree that it's better for Caelin to be placed under the rule of Ostia?"
Eliwood nods. He hands the parcel to Roy. "It would be best if you were to draft your reply to this letter, as Marquess Pherae. I no longer have jurisdiction to respond to such content, and our Empress asks for your opinion specifically."
"Lady Lyndis and Lady Florina are your old friends, Father," the young Marquess argues, "should it be better if you were to negotiate with them?"
"As I said, I no longer have any jurisdiction to handle such topics," Eliwood says, smiling. "Besides, Lyndis has always taken a liking to you both. I reckon the terms and conditions would be unanimously agreed on in a flash."
"Why, thank you for the vote of confidence," Roy breathes and takes the letter from his father's hands, "I shall respond to Lilina and arrange a meeting with Lady Lyndis posthaste."
"It might be ideal to host the meeting in Castle Pherae. Lyndis prefers our accommodation to Ostia's." Eliwood ponders, and Roy writes the information in his draft. "Do ask whether your sister would be able to travel to Pherae on your chosen date."
"if you want to see Lilina and Marchioness Caelin again, Father, all you have to do is ask," Roy chuckles, and his father smiles bashfully. "That being said, I would be happy to oblige."
The young Marquess pulls out a piece of paper and begins drafting his correspondence, listing out everything that he needs to say. Writing letters to his sister comes as naturally as breathing, though he would know better than to make mistakes - letters to and fro between Pherae and Ostia usually take two months to arrive, and he would know better than to waste either of their time. As he drafts his letter, he was struck with an epiphany:
Few women within his close circle choose to sire children.
His sister, The Empress of the Kingdom of Lycia, and her wife are adamant about not having children until they grow older. The Marchionesses of Caelin have never once considered children as a priority. The Honorable Lady Serra chose to abstain from marriage entirely. Countess Caerleon also refuses any suitor that dares to enter her family (Didn't Father tell him something about star-crossed lovers? Was her desired partner a commoner, by any chance?) Is being naturally free-spirited the only reason, or do they secretly dislike children? Were their childhoods so unhappy they never wished to inflict it on anyone? He supposes he would never understand completely, as he and Lilina were born and bred to the greatest pair of parents he could ever ask for. Roy muses the idea of marrying his partner. Of settling down and having children with him. Being cooped up in the castle and trained as a servant to House Pherae as a child, would Wolt desire children at all?
"Is something the matter, Roy?" his father calls out for him, bringing him out of his reverie.
"Oh, nothing really, it's just..." the young Marquess raises his head to look at his father, "May I ask your opinion about something?"
"You can ask me about anything, Roy," the older Lord calmly replies.
"What do you think... about marriage? About settling down and having children?"
Eliwood hums, laying his chin onto his palm. After a split second of being pensive, he smiles.
"I might not be able to give you a satisfactory answer, for I consider myself luckier than most of my peers," the Lord says carefully, "I was lucky to have a legitimate marriage with a partner who I cherished and trusted with my life, but, as you've already learnt from our generation and yours, fate is not always so kind."
Both Lady Lyndis and Lilina went against social norms (and perhaps better judgement) to marry someone unfit for their status. Countess Caerleon probably fell in love with a commoner during the war as well. And hard as he may try to argue for the contrary, Roy, himself, fell in love with someone below his station.
"That being said, ever since you were born, my greatest wish was for you to be happy. That includes making choices that would make you comfortable." Lord Eliwood turns to his son and gives him the thousand-yard stare. "As long as you are content with your life, I will support your decisions, always. That's all a father could ever ask for, and I'm sure Hector would have agreed. Even if he never wanted to give you away."
"... Thank you, Father," Roy breathes a sigh of relief, "That means more to me than you ever know."
His father gives him an enigmatic smile in return.
Roy decides he does not want to know what that means and goes back to his work.
“Your tea, my Lord,” the young knight bows his head, holding a tea tray with both his hands, “The maid shall come with your scones in a moment.”
Pherae’s former Marquess is sitting in the pavilion of the castle garden with a tome in his hand, enjoying the autumn wind and apparently engaged in a deep conversation with a sparrow. Upon hearing the voice, he turns to the knight and smiles.
“Wolt? I was expecting your mother, but this is a nice surprise,” The Lord says. Usually, the task of brewing and bringing tea for the former Marquess belongs to his closest retainers, in other words, either the young knight’s parents or Sir Lowen the chef. Today, though, Rebecca has apparently made an exception to send her son in her place.
“Ah, of course, my Lord,” the knight bows his head sheepishly, arranging the tea set on the small table exactly how his mother has instructed him to, “my mother is burdened with an urgent errand, so she leaves me the task of bringing your tea.” The knight has something important he must tell Lord Eliwood as well, but try as he might, the words he has practised to say several days earlier die in his tongue. One look at the Lord’s eyes is enough to make him grow anxious and speechless. If this is not apparent to the might of the greatest Knight Lycia has ever had, he doesn’t know what is.
He reckons that would mean now isn’t a good time to strike a conversation.
“N-now, if you have no further need of me…” Wolt tries to speak but pauses as the older man holds out a hand to stop him in his tracks. He beckons him over and gestures to a vacant chair, and the young knight obeys, sitting on the offered seat.
The Lord still appears calm and collected. “Now that I have your attention, would you care to join me for tea?”
“J-join you, my Lord?” His eyes widen in astonishment. To not only hold a private audience with his Lord, but also join him for tea? “I’m not sure… if it’s entirely appropriate…”
“Nonsense, my dear,” Lord Eliwood chuckles and shakes his head, “Tea is always better when shared. Your father and mother always join me for tea as soon as they deliver it. Usually along with the pastries, of course, but we shall make do until the maid arrives.”
The knight could only offer a simple nod as the Lord fills two cups with the sweetest herbal tea. Lord Eliwood squints slightly, possibly at the smell, but appears unperturbed otherwise.
“Ah, Rebecca should know better than to slip medicine in my tea,” the Lord chuckles, and Wolt sighs in relief, having thought that the older man is dissatisfied with his service.
“If I may, my Lord,” the young knight ventures, “I am quite certain that my mother does not put any of your medicine in the tea.”
The Lord shakes his head. “Rebecca usually did this when I was younger and was too petulant to take my medicine. How can you be so sure that she hasn’t slipped any of it here?”
“I’ve borne witness to the brewing process myself, my Lord,” the young knight replies. “I am sure that she doesn’t put any ingredient I find suspicious.”
The older man stares at his teacup and chuckles. “I merely speak in jest, my dear, though it warms my heart to see you so quick to jump to your mother’s defence. Wil and Rebecca are blessed with a good son.”
“Uh… thank you?”
“Your mother never puts medicine in my tea, but your father did once when I was about your age.” The Lord continues, “I simply refused, and told him that I would not drink tea that had been tampered with.”
“Were you… angry, my Lord?” The knight asks.
“I wasn’t. I knew right away why Wil did it — it wasn’t his fault that it was under my mother’s orders. I was merely upset that she didn’t trust me enough to take medicine of my own volition.” The Lord closes his eyes, reminiscing, “However, we could not let the tea go to waste, so I told him I’d drink it, but only if he were to join me. I instructed him to put extra milk and sugar in his cup so that the bitter taste may be diluted.”
The Lord picks up a sugar cube and gently places it in his cup. “How do you take your tea, my dear?”
Now Wolt is confused. “Pardon?”
“I suppose your mother hasn’t briefed you on how to enjoy tea?” The Lord smiles ever so sweetly, but the knight could feel a chill running down his spine. Whether he has offended Lord Eliwood anyhow, or the chills merely stem from his own anxiety, he knows not. “It’s alright. If you would allow me to explain, I shall tell you all about it.”
The young knight nods slowly, careful not to disturb the table. “O-of course, my Lord.”
“On this table, you see a set of tea and several of its additions,” the Lord gestures to the tea set, “I usually take my tea with milk and sugar, but some teas are better with honey. If Rebecca happens to make a tea that goes well with honey that day, she will bring the honeypot as well.”
“There’s no honeypot in this set,” Wolt observes, “I could have sworn to bring this set to you exactly how my mother instructed me to.”
“Which means this tea doesn’t go well with honey, is all.” Lord Eliwood smiles warmly. “I trust your mother’s judgement, dear Wolt. The longer she’s been in Castle Pherae, the better she is at making and grading tea. None of the other maids have quite reached her connoisseur yet.”
He wants to comment that it must have been because his mother was the only maid able to taste the tea but decides against it. He nods his head in agreement instead.
“Most nobles are snobs, and they would tell you that tea must be enjoyed without additions. But I like to think differently.” The Lord holds the cup to his lips and takes a small sip. “Mm. Teas are brewed differently everywhere, and people’s preferences are varied. As I said, I prefer taking my tea with a dash of milk and sugar, but Roy puts a bit more milk than I would in his tea, and Lilina puts more sugar. Though, if the tea is sweet enough, just a small bit of milk or sugar should suffice.”
“I see,” the young knight says.
“Take this tea, for example. Go on, have a try,” the Lord offers, and Wolt sips a little from his own cup. The sweet smell fills his nostrils as the bitter taste lingers on his tongue. “How is it?”
“It’s sweeter than I expected, but still a bit bitter,” he replies truthfully.
“Try adding a bit of milk, see if the taste is better.”
Wolt does as instructed, and true to the Lord’s words, the tea doesn't taste so bitter anymore.
“It’s… it tastes much better, my Lord!” He exclaims, “How do you do that? Is it some sort of magic?”
“It’s just some milk to adjust to your taste buds, my dear,” Lord Eliwood chuckles, “You said that the tea tastes a bit bitter. A little milk is all it takes to wash the bitterness away.”
“I… I see!” Wolt smiles, “Thank you, my Lord!”
After the small lesson on tea tasting, the two men go back to enjoying the fresh autumn air of the garden. The old Marquess leads most of their conversation and the young knight opts to listen and nod. His mind wanders to what he rehearsed several days ago. That fateful afternoon in Roy’s office, Lord Eliwood has made his feelings clear: he would respect his beloved’s decisions on marriage no matter what. He feels ready to ask for Lord Eliwood’s blessing.
How the Marquess knew he and Roy were in a relationship, he knows not, but he tries not to dwell on it too much. Listening to his Lord talking about anything and everything, though, dashes his thoughts that this conversation will go smoothly. He doesn’t care so much for the latest gossip outside of the castle, but he is unsure how to interrupt without being rude. He adjusts himself on the seat slightly and opts for staring at the reflection in his teacup, trying not to make eye contact.
“Ah, it appears that the late Marquess Laus had a son around your age,” Lord Eliwood smiles, “The young lad sent a personal letter to me the other day. His choice of words was quite angry. I wonder why.”
“Surely it must not have been for his father’s death under Lord Roy’s blade five years ago?” Wolt intercepts. Finally, an opening!
“Did Roy actually stab that idiot?” The older Lord chuckles, and coughs slightly, “If he did, I’m quite sure Erik deserved it.”
“Lord Roy told me the late Marquess Laus sold out Lycia to Bern,” Wolt says plainly.
“Ah, of course. Erik, always a thorn at our side,” Lord Eliwood shifts his attention to the trees behind Wolt’s back, his eyes far away with grief. “It truly was a miracle that Hector held on for so long, then…”
The young knight is about to offer his condolences when the Marquess closes his eyes and smiles. “No matter. What’s done is done, though I can’t say it’s not amusing that the idiot has to fall by our son’s hands. Tell me something, young Wolt. What happened in Laus five years ago?”
And Wolt proceeds to tell Lord Eliwood everything. How he gained the trust of the common folk and swayed the Etrurian courts off their feet. How he endured hardship and overcame challenges. How amazing his beloved had been during the war, and how he grew from the experience. How proud Wolt is of his Lord as a servant and a friend, and how much joy he had felt when Roy decided to court him.
“Pardon me, I must be talking your ear off,” Wolt apologises, taking another sip of his tea. The maid comes just in time for scones and a refill, and Lord Eliwood thanked her kindly.
“Nonsense, my boy,” the older Lord says in kind, “Carry on.”
“I… yes. I’m sorry, I don’t know if you have noticed but, I love Roy terribly, my Lord,” he trails off — talking about his love always filled him with great joy, “I love his sunny smile in the morning, I love how his presence light up the room, and I love how he pouts when he’s frustrated or trying to memorise the contents of a chapter…
“Please don’t misunderstand, my Lord. I knew from birth that my duty is to serve him, and I do wish to continue to do so. But I know that my feelings matter. Roy and I have grown closer than I would have ever asked for, and I am truly grateful for our relationship. If I didn’t tell you the truth, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
The older Lord nods, and Wolt continues. This time, he’s going to tell him straight.
“That being said… I wish to ask for your permission to take lo—Roy’s hand in marriage, my Lord.” The young knight blushes scarlet as he utters the words he has wanted to say for days, “I promise you; I won’t shirk from my duties under him because of our union. I’m bound to keep him safe, after all, so what better way to protect him than always being by his side, and— My Lord, are you alright? Was I speaking out of line?”
The former Marquess hides his chuckle behind his long sleeve and looks at the young knight with the warmest eyes he has ever seen.
“Nothing, my boy, I’m just simply overjoyed that I’m feeling a bit faint.” Lord Eliwood shakes his head, and turns away, “Rebecca, my dear, if only you could see your son right now.”
“P-pardon?” Wolt is confused. “S-should I call for my mother?”
The former Marquess holds out a hand. “Patience, my boy. I was merely speaking in jest.”
The young knight heaves a sigh of relief. The Marquess takes another sip of his tea before he speaks.
“I suppose you’ve figured out my answer, but I must give you my words straight. You have my full support if you were to ask for my son’s hand in marriage.” Lord Eliwood smiles warmly as if he were looking at his family, “You’ve been like a son to me since birth, and now that you’ve made your feelings very clear, I should not waste the opportunity of making it official. Besides, you two aren’t subtle in the slightest.”
“P-pardon?” H-how does Lord Eliwood know? They have been so careful in hiding their affections from the rest of the world. How would he have noticed?
“Please, Wolt, I may be ailing, but I’m not daft,” the Lord chuckles, “Though I believe that’s a story for another time. Should that be a sufficient answer to your burning question?”
“Y-yes, my Lord…” the young knight bows his head, “T-thank you!”
“My pleasure, dear boy.” The former Marquess smiles sweetly as he leaves his seat.
“Now, would you care to wait for me for a moment? I must enquire about your mother for her finest key lime pie recipe.”