Selena remembers the day she was presented with her fluorspar, a plain, unadorned gem hewn and roughly polished by the emperor. It was one of the plainest gifts she ever received since coming to Grado's court, but Selena can feel the care, the power stored within it.
"Serve me loyal and serve me true, Selena," Virgade tells her. "This gemstone is a sign of your protection, should you never waver."
"My lord," Selena answers him, an acknowledgement and answer that expresses everything Selena cannot say. It is the same words she whispers when she falls to the ground, years later, a grievous wound in her chest.
"I'm so tired," she whispers.
The last thing she feels before she slips unconscious is the long tangle of cord that secures her gemstone, and the light that springs from it as darkness falls around her.
Three days later, Selena awakens. Covered in a slip of white cloth weighted down by stones, she grasps at her fluorspar and shudders, mouth open, unable to scream.
Her body is cold, she realises. Her wounds are healed, she finds, only ugly tears and blood on her tunic mark her injuries. Only her death, though, was treated with kindness: many of her men lie in the water, puffing with foul gases.
"I have failed you," she says to the bodies, to herself, and to those who aren't present to witness her. She closes her eyes, and combs her tangled hair, steeling herself to return to where she died.
She finds her mount long gone, her tomes too. Still, basic charms are not beyond her, and drawing her hands out, she calls forth a white fire that consumes her dead men.
"I'm sorry," she says, but no one is there to listen.
Over the next few days, Selena locates herself a village, where her appearance draws the shock of its inhabitants but doesn't set off a call for the imperial guard. Paying for her room at an inn with coin, Selena uses her skills as a mage to purchase a new set of clothes and victuals. Her face, once cleansed, bears a sadness that keeps the villagers at a distance, and she spends her days recuperating from whatever brought her back. During that time, news about the war doesn't reach a village so secluded, and Selena doesn't bother listening after a day.
The dragonkin was right, Selena thinks to herself, fiddling with her fluorspar's leather cord one sleepless night. My king had changed. But I had no other choice. I swore my life...
Days pass in convalescence until the day a priest from a larger town stops by. The man, a deacon at a town seminary, recognises Selena, and asks her to accompany him back to the township. "A lady like you ma'am,” he says, “we need you out there."
"The lands are full of unrest," Selena says, when they venture out onto a beaten track that leads out of the village. A few children tag along, and Selena spares them a smile that makes them blush. "How goes the war?"
"All manner of rumours, ma'am. I can barely believe any of them," the priest says. His name is Fiorn, Selena finds out. "The crown prince is missing, and we've heard that the Renais twins are making for Jehanna. Your king, though…"
"What of my emperor?"
"Poor and ailing," Fiorn says. His gaze is apologetic, and his hand fiddles with his satchel's sling. "It is a dark time, my lady. Forgive me for saying this, but most people would be glad to have him gone."
Selena gentles her bearing. "They aren't to be blamed, though. After the recruiters, the taxes, they have every right to be angry." She catches the look on Fiorn's face. "Father, you seem to disbelieve my words."
"It is rare for a noble to say things are such."
"I know what hunger is," Selena replies. It's true, after all - Selena knows hunger in ways that she is grateful children now will never experience. "I know things are not well and that my king has made mistakes despite his wisdom. It is my duty to mend what he has torn."
"What do you intend to do?" Fiorn asks, and that question opens up a line of thought Selena's been mulling over. She isn't sure, after all, if she is welcome back at court, and it has been a long time since she has let herself truly see how her world had changed.
Selena touches the gem she has looped around her neck. It rests above her cotton shirt, and no magic surges through at her touch.
"I find myself at a loss," Selena answers. "But I know I cannot stand by."
It takes a week for Selena and Fiorn to reach their destination, a day for Selena to discover how the war had been affecting the people. Brought to a large township called Tarshen, Fiorn introduces Selena to an embattled militia and the apothecary where wounded are treated.
"We have been holding the town for the past few moons, ma'am," a cleric named Goeth says, speaking on behalf of a small group of clerics that form the center of the town's defenses. "We're running low of supplies though, and we are losing a pair of hands to set our defenses in almost every attack."
"I see," Selena says. Evidently, Grado’s banditry problem had only worsened once Vigarde’s war had begun. "Let's talk protective circles then," she says, and draws them into a circle. Within hours, she has the clerics drawing protective sigils and runes, warding the town while she handles the town's offensive hexes. "If our enchantments hold, we will be victorious.”
Their first test comes in three days, when the bandits come on their horses. Calm, Selena strides out to the town's edge and channels her power into a protective circle. Pulsing with a clear light, the wards rust the bandit's weapons to dust, and the militia seizes victory
"Have faith," she says. “Faith is the only way fear can be broken through.”
A month passes.
Under her watchful presence, the Tarshen’s bandit problem dwindles. Soon, only those that remain are the cunning, and Selena responds by training the guards of other towns in magical fortification.
News begins to filter in as the region stabilises. Not all are good, and often, listening to the dispatch rouses a restlessness within Selena.
Selena knew that the war Grado fought was a losing one months even before she was assigned to her final mission. As a general, she attended meetings with Glen and Duessel where spies laid out the depressing odds they faced. Yet, never once did Selena even entertain the thought that her king could fall casualty to this event.
That is why the blow of her king’s fall shatters her.
It arrives with little fanfare, yet the news given by a traveling merchant feels like a hot blade. Bowing her head, Selena lets her expression steel itself, because Selena knows that all pain can be endured.
"My king is no more," she says. Closing her eyes, she excuses herself for the day. Only when she has made it to her room and bolted the door does she succumb, and for a week Selena grieves, forsaking her meals and clutching at her fluorspar till her palms are raw with cuts.
Despite that, the world moves on without her. As time passes, Tarshen and other towns begin to live again, and Selena has to rouse herself to welcome clerics from the Holy Church who are willing to learn the warding magic that she knows. Throwing herself back into her work, villages are brought to safety.
Then one night, Selena wakes up to see a pillar of light in the northeast.
"What is that?" a cleric called Sylve asks, for Selena isn't the only one who was shocked into awakening. Many of them had run out of their lodging, many not even certain as to what had happened.
"Fomortiis," Selena whispers.
The name sends a shiver through her circle. Silent, they watch the night burn, and for an hour it does, till as quickly as it appeared, the light winks away.
News of Demon King’s vanquishing reaches Tarshen over the next few days. Listening to the rumours passing by word of mouth, Selena pieces together the war that cast her aside, and receives the news of Lyon - the prince - perishing with a numb defeat. She sacrifices a lock of her hair, mourning a family she knows she'll never be able to burn, and after a week Selena moves on.
Days pass, and Selena organises. Dividing able men and women into patrols that assist in the rebuilding efforts, Selena slowly learns more about her fellows and their talents. Ceding leadership to the men and women whose knowledge exceeds her, Selena recuses herself to the various troubles of Tarshen’s growing stability.
The refugee problem is the most crucial. While Tarshen offers a space for shelter, the growth of the town’s population threatens to collapse the peace. To this, Selena approaches Fiorn, asking him if there are ways to remedy the issue. With his help, and her political contacts, she arranges for other townships and forts to help the needy.
A more personal problem also comes to task. Selena's reputation has improved with the town’s fortunes, and Tarshen’s people have started viewing her as their de-facto leader. Yet, Selena can't bear their regard without remembering the men she has failed. “The dead after all, have no second chances,” she confides.
"My lady,” Fiorn says each time. “You are not dead.”
“Sometimes, I do feel like it.” And it is half true, isn’t it? Though she never shared her secret, Selena still remembers the peace she felt when her body was dealt the final blow. "I am always going to wonder what I could have done better. Maybe I could have stopped this war."
Fiorn doesn't have an answer for that thought, and Selena falls silent.
On her sixth month after her death, Selena is roused by pressure on her wards. Leaving her room, Selena makes her way to the edge of town, where she finds a female cleric waiting for her.
"My lady, who might you be?" Selena asks.
"I am Natasha," the cleric says. "Cleric of Order of Latona, and a member of the King Ephraim and Queen Eirika's army."
A thrill passes through Selena. "What is your intention, and who do you speak for?"
"General Selena, I do not wish to alarm you. I speak for King Ephraim and Queen Eirika, but also for myself. I merely wish to convey a proposition."
"I see," Selena says. "We have met before, haven't we?"
"Not in fortunate times.” The cleric – Natasha – agrees. “Not with a happy ending. Yet I believe we have no reason to fight now."
“Nor would I have the capability to fight anyway,” Selena says wryly. Relaxing her posture, Selena greets Natasha with a bow. "Let us stand on ceremony then. Welcome to the town of Tarshen, Cleric Natasha. In good faith, please enter."
"I accept your welcome," Natasha says. "I swear no harm, as part of good faith, against your people."
"Come in then, Natasha. Let us extend hospitality to you." Selena closes the distance between them, and clasps Natasha's hands in a greeting. "Members of the Holy Church have rested in our town before. Do you wish for private quarters?"
"A small room and bed if you will, Lady Selena," Natasha says. "A place to talk privately as well, if possible."
"We can do so in my quarters," Selena says. "Please, call me Selena."
"Thank you." Natasha's words are heartfelt. "Likewise, call me Natasha." Natasha pauses for breath, taking in the town’s visage. " You have done an impressive job of rebuilding this town."
"It is only with the help of the people that I've managed this," Selena says as they pass through. Picking their way through the streets in the slowly growing light of dawn, Selena can hear the sounds of the town's rousing. "Grado’s people, thankfully, are a hardy bunch."
“Your township fares far better than many others."
“Is that so?” Selena asks.
"Most are doing poorly, I'm afraid. Dark creatures roam the land, and while people rally in the capital, none have had much success in bringing peace back to the countryside. Stories of your work have spread."
"I have not heard about this."
"News does not travel as easily as it previously did, my lady,” Natasha says. “We learn to cherish what tidings come to us, whether they be good or bad. How are you doing, if I may ask?"
"That’s a difficult question to answer," Selena says. They reach the inn, and Selena rouses a boy drowsing by the fire to grab a plate of food before leading Natasha to her quarters. "The nights are long, and I've been doing my best."
"That is good, isn't it?" Natasha asks. "To live and still feel something, to know that you’re healing."
"I am glad," Natasha says, and Selena can feel her sincerity, know that Natasha understands what she has gone through.
"You said you came here with a proposition, if I recall you saying?" Selena asks, when they arrive at her room. "Do you wish to speak to me about it, or the town council?"
Natasha seems relieved to return to the pressing matter at hand. "It is a request of mine, though I suppose it has the backing of the King and Queen. You recall how news of Tarshen have spread in Grado, yes?"
“Well, I have been trying to gather magic users of influence across the continent for a unified effort in stabilizing the protections of the Grado monarchy. As of the moment, I have only a few people who have agreed to help me.”
“So you came here.”
“Yes, General Selena,” Natasha says. “Even if I were to discount the stories of your work in Tarshen, you remain one of Grado’s generals. The war Grado started, for better or worse, has opened a huge gap in Grado’s capital that needs filling.”
“But what exactly is your plan, then? My status as a general of Grado will not help when Grado itself lacks a king on the throne. I cannot be Regent.”
“I do not ask these things of you, nor would King Ephraim or Queen Eirika request that of anyone,” Natasha says. “Grado still has a line of succession to the throne, and General Duessel will oversee the peaceful ascension to the throne in a couple of months, when the opportunity opens up for him to return to Grado. These are already being planned.”
“What I simply wish is for the mages that call Grado home to return to Grado and work on our country. Our people need healing and help. While many are still remaining in Renais for the moment, for Renais rightfully requires aid after our sacking of the country, when the recovery effort of Grado begins in earnest, I dearly wish for allies by my side who can help direct the rebuilding of our nation."
It takes Selena a while to respond. "That is not an easy undertaking you have decided for yourself," she eventually says. "Who have you spoken to already?"
"Most I believe, won't be familiar, but does the name Knoll sound familiar to you?"
"Knoll, one of Prince Lyon's underlings?" Memories of the man, calm and wise beyond his years from the studies he has made, come to mind. "How could I not? I was afraid he perished. Where is he?"
"King Ephraim found him when we seized Grado Keep," Natasha says. "He was heavily wounded, but in the past few months has recovered enough to assist us in critical junctures."
"I am glad to hear that.” A thought steals through Selena, that Knoll may be the only one who knows what happened to the prince. "Where is he?" she asks.
Natasha tilts her head. "When I left, he was in Renais working on the restoration effort. Do you wish to see him?"
Selena wonders what exactly does she desire. Within her, a longing to stay with the comfortable and the known stays her tongue, but her desire for knowledge she cannot get here, in Tarshen, is fierce.
Eventually, she composes herself. “Yes. I need to know what happened to my prince and king.”
Leaving Tarshen is more difficult than Selena thought it to be. The act of ensuring that the town’s defenses can stand strong in her absence takes two weeks, as she trains her circle’s strongest in offensive wards and magic. Yet, what’s more difficult is how Selena has slowly grown to love Tarshen, and how much she desires not to leave it.
Selena has never been familiar with the world beyond her village or Grado's capital. While her parents were alive, Selena did make regular trips back home, but once they passed, she did not linger. Similarly, for decades Selena had followed her sole purpose, Vigarde. Now that she's formed attachments, saying goodbye to any number of people from the smithy to the girl that runs the apothecary becomes a series of small, sharp stings.
"I am going to miss Tarshen," Selena says, when she regards the town one last time with Natasha. She takes a long look at yet another home she has to set aside. "It has given me so much."
Natasha hums. "Your absence will only be for a while, if you wish." Wrapped up in her white veil and traveling cloak, her eyes gaze upon the world with a calm Selena is trying to regain. "Nothing stops you from coming back if you want."
"I know," Selena says, as they turn away to begin their journey to Renais. "Yet life has a way of moving on. I doubt I shall see it ever again."
There is a comfortable air as they depart. In the days leading up to their leave, Natasha had joined Selena in meetings Selena had with her circle. Helping out where she could, Natasha had slipped into Selena's space with a gentle touch.
"What's on your mind?" Natasha asks after a while, breaking the silence.
"Nothing," Selena says. Silence comes easier to her nowadays. "Just thinking of life, how I've changed during the war."
"You must have had a tough time."
Selena thinks before answering. "It was both easy and tough. Easy, because my king told me to be calm, but tough because I think, deep down, I knew something was wrong."
“War isn’t easy to reckon with. I think everyone had their doubts about whether they were fighting on the right side or not.”
Selena laugh. “The historians would have us believe otherwise.”
“History paints in broad strokes, I won’t disagree,” Natasha says. “But I think in the months after the war ended, talking to people, I learn how people on all sides of the war were brave and good. I found people I could trust from both ends of the battlefield.”
"That sounds nice," Selena says. A certain taste of loneliness and envy lingers in her throat, a bitter thought at how she was never able to be truly honest with those around her. "War has changed us for the better, I believe."
"For those that survived."
Selena bows her head. "I am glad to have the opportunity to change and live the way I do now."
"There is nothing wrong about being selfish," Natasha says, surprising Selena for probably the first time since Selena's met her. "There's nothing wrong for being glad for surviving what others failed to. We are human, and to delight in life is accepted, even if it comes in the shadow of war."
They fall silent then, and Selena muses on Natasha's words. For a while now, Selena's been wondering if she should share with another the mystery of her survival. Another mind on the mystery may have shed more light on the issue, but Selena doesn't know if she's willing to pronounce what she has wondered for a few months now. For she's certain that she, Duessel, and Glen received gemstones enchanted with the magic that saved her from death.
But why had Glen not survived, when she did?
It takes Selena and Natasha a month to reach Renais. Traveling on the less-trodden path, unwilling to encounter strangers, Selena and Natasha employ magical protections to guard themselves through the day and night. Sharing sleeping space together, they grow warmer in their bond, and does the land grow fertile under the summer's light when they reach the borders.
Before the war, Selena had only the rarest of opportunities to travel beyond Grado. Traveling to Frelia and Renais for the most significant of ceremonies, Selena isn't as intimately familiar with the telltale signs of the landscape as Natasha. Nonetheless, when the pair finally passes through the first town in Renais' borders, Selena remembers and has her heart broken.
Renais, a country ruled by the tolerant king Fado, was a gentle and prosperous land, fields fat and heavy with sun-soaked wheat and bran, its citizens a generous and giving people. It is wrenching, then, for Selena to see what war has wrought upon the kingdom she remembered. For in every village that they pass through, houses are torched and gutted, and countless dead lie in the barren fields, executed mercilessly to cow the people. Those that remain starve, and those injured waste away in the humid summer weather.
For the next two weeks, Selena and Natasha open their eyes to the suffering of Renais' people and do what they can, spending days warding and protecting townships, nights treating the wounded and ill. Natasha, using her stave and mediocre supplies of herbs and remedies, prays incantations and beseeches mercy.
Yet, only so much can be done. Nothing can be done for the dead, after all.
A week after they've entered Renais, Selena and Natasha sense someone approaching from overhead. They watch as a wyvern descends from the sky, and Natasha cries out when she recognises who has come.
For Selena, the realisation comes a heartbeat later. Glen... she hopes.
Her guess is wrong. The one removing his vambraces and talking to Natasha is Glen's brother, Cormag. Selena keeps still, watching Natasha and Cormag converse till Cormag spots her.
The wash of emotions in Cormag's eyes is a flash too fast for Selena to follow, but Selena can see Cormag's stiff and formal bow to her, his distant yet polite greeting of "General Fluorspar”. Unable to form the words, Selena bows, and mourns her old friend, her fellow in arms.
Selena met Glen, Cormag's brother, in her first year as a knight. Finding common ground in their backgrounds (how could they not, when they were indubitably separated from the rest by their class and their meteoric ascension?), they forged an unspoken bond with each other. Though they didn't mix often - Selena often busy with research in places where Glen wouldn't see - they nonetheless reached a certain depth of communication with their eyes alone. When they met in the corridors, they would nod, clench their fists, tapping their hearts.
There was no one closer to Selena than Glen in all her years of service as a knight turned general. For years, they laboured under the same king and goals, kindled together a friendship that spanned years and various responsibilities. When Selena had an issue with training one of her knights, she would extend a missive to Glen. When Glen was running some of his strategies involving mages and defensive capabilities by the king, he would turn up at Selena's door with tea, a smile on his face.
Where had it gone wrong? Selena can remember the exact moment where she couldn't meet Glen's eyes when he came to her with doubt over their king, but if she was to be honest with herself, their trust had soured over innumerable moments and concealed doubts. After the war started, they hadn't spoken much.
Selena hadn't even heard of what had happened to Glen until she was hours before her own death, and by then, she was trapped.
Selena shivers, resting her head on a hand. Ruminating on her own thoughts after Cormag had taken Natasha back to Renais castle had sent ghosts rattling from spaces she did not want to face. It's a relief, Selena thinks, when she can see Cormag's wyvern return.
"I hope you are okay with us staying the night here," Cormag says when he lands. It's evident from the bags on Cormag's wyvern that he's not intending to leave for the castle today. "Night approaches, and I do not want to fly in the dark."
"I've slept in the battlefield more times than I can remember," Selena says. "Thank you for your consideration."
Cormag laughs, but when he looks at her, Selena realises he has the same wordless ability to understand her as his brother. "General, I know you worry."
Selena inclines her head. "A well-reasoned wariness, I believe."
"My brother is dead," Cormag says with equanimity, "and I've come to accept it. I am willing to speak of him freely. I encourage it, even."
"He was a -" Selena struggles to find a right word. Soldier, brother? "He was a good man."
"He was better than most." Cormag turns to his saddlebags and begins unpacking some bread, dried meat, and cheese. "He didn't deserve to die."
"No, he didn't," Selena says, while Cormag prepares a meal that would be lavish by a soldier's regard. "Who killed him?"
"Valter," Cormag says. "He paid for it though, when I found him," he says, and Selena believes him.
"Then perhaps I'll start with a story about your brother," Selena says. "To honor his memory in our hours together, to talk about what all of us were before the war."
"That sounds good." And with that they talk and eat.
Since dying, Selena's been unlearning her habits. To come away from a conversation without reserving herself, is a struggle, as is not trying to puzzle out a person by what she gleans of them. But for the hours that pass in front of their fire, Selena feels herself speak without deftness.
As she speaks to Cormag, Selena holds nothing but her intimate musings back, and shares stories of the moment when Selena was no younger than her fourteen summers of age to her years as a knight in service of the king.
By the time the dawn pearls on the horizon, both Cormag and Selena are exhausted and enervated in parts. Cormag, having learnt more about his brother from the position of someone who wasn't Glen's family, he gains a lightness in his shoulder, knowledge he burns to peruse through.
Selena and Cormag arrive at Renais' castle in the afternoon. The flight on Genarog is breathless, and Selena's blood is still pounding in excitement when she dismounts from Cormag's wyvern.
"Thank you, Cormag, for last night's conversation."
"I give thanks as well," Cormag returns. "Will we meet again?"
After the night, Selena feels obliged, if not warm to the idea. "I'll be here as long as I can be," she says, and Cormag salutes her, proper bearing. As he takes off, she enters the castle at a retainer's behest.
Renais Castle, Selena imagines, is not entirely different from Grado Keep now. Both sacked, both in the process of being restored, life finds a way to make itself home here. The keep bustles with movement, servants and soldiers moving around, some taking passageways that are certainly meant for the commonborn. Selena is led by her retainer through passages till they reach an antechamber, where the retainer opens a door.
A ladies' solar, not completely unscathed by the war, but certainly only lightly touched as compared to other rooms, greets Selena. Across her, windows open to a small garden, light filtering in without usual trappings of gauzy curtains. Plain to the point of being almost austere, Selena doesn't even notice the woman standing to the side of the room, perusing a bookcase until she is greeted.
"My lady," Selena immediately says, upon realising her mistake. She bows to the crown queen. "I believe we might have met under different circumstances."
Eirika, a woman with delicate proportions and a slender strength, smiles. "By the goddess, I do believe so. It is a honour to meet you."
"Likewise, your highness."
"Come, let us eat." Eirika gestures for Selena to join her at a table near the side of the room. "I am pleased to finally meet you again, under better times. I had heard so much about you, and to hear from Natasha stories of your existence when she returned last night - it is probably best to say that your reputation precedes you, General Selena. My brother and I were quite surprised."
"King Ephraim was at the keep yesterday?"
"Yes," Eirika says, pouring Selena tea. "I am sure you realise he isn't here, which is not to say he didn't wish to meet you, General. I believe as much when he says he does - it is simply that he struggles to reconcile his memories with current circumstances." There is a pause there, as Eirika framed her thoughts. "I wouldn't claim to know exactly what he thinks, but I do know he regrets not talking you out of your stand at the Za'abul Marshes."
"I did not expect that of the king," Selena says.
"My brother has always had a selfishness about him, I believe." Eirika pauses. "War brings the worst out of us, and sets our flaws strongly against our best qualities. He was far more rash than I."
Both women lapse into a period of silence, drinking their brew. Selena idly turns around the information Eirika has shared in her head. Ephraim -
A memory comes back to her. Him, pleading his case while Duessel stood by his side, as did the dragonkin. He had seemed almost sad then, distracted from the present. A tactical weakness that was still not strong enough for Selena to exploit in the last battle. When he finally struck the blow against her, none of that sadness was present in his gaze.
"Your brother was a very strong fighter."
"That he is," Eirika muses, that he is." She gathers herself. "Regardless, we aren't here to talk about what we have lost, or what I shall do to lift my brother's mood. Selena, why have you come?"
"For answers, though I don't know what my questions are anymore." Selena explains her motivations to Eirika, mentioning Knoll. "I have been left with a riddle from my king. As you've heard, I was struck down not two seasons prior to this day. I seek to know why my gemstone saved me from crossing the veil."
"So you look for Knoll to answer this mystery," Eirika wonders.
"That is correct, my lady."
"Very well. Such a request is one I cannot hope to answer. Let me instead offer food and lodging so that you may wait for Knoll to return from the Darkling Woods. I'll make the arrangements."
"Thank you, my lady."
Eirika smiles. "You are welcome, Selena. Perhaps allow me a final question before I let our audience end?"
"Anything I can answer, I will speak the truth."
"Have you found someone to support again? I confess - when Natasha came by to tell me that you had been found alive, an intuition came to me that this must not have been mere chance. Have you a purpose?"
"I have yet to know for certain myself," Selena answers, after thinking. "I can only hope that an answer is coming into focus."
"Very well." Eirika rises from her seat, and calls Natasha to assist Selena to her rooms.
Finding Natasha waiting for her outside, Selena embraces the healer and asks her to lead her to her quarters. Shown to it and finding it far more luxurious than what she has become accustomed to, Selena tries to refuse them.
"For a guest of the Renais royalty this is what you'll get," Natasha says with a smile, when Selena argues that the room is beyond her needs. It takes Selena a while to accept this decision, and only then do they start unpacking Selena's belongings.
At one point, Selena opens her mouth and says, "Eirika mentioned you during our conversation together."
Natasha smiles. "Oh. What did she say?"
Selena bends down to fold a tunic. "She didn't say much, but she did ask me what I was going to do in the future."
"In so many words?"
"Probably less." They laugh. "But yes, I didn't have an answer for her."
"You didn't have an answer for me too, at the beginning."
"Mmhmm," Selena hums. "Did you manage to find Knoll or Duessel yesterday?"
"Neither," Natasha apologises. "Duessel is travelling through Renais on Ephraim's orders, and who knows when he'll come back. I came back yesterday to find Knoll, but I've been told he's gone away with Saleh."
"To Darkling Woods?"
"The very one," Natasha says. "Saleh owes a debt to the dragonkin that assisted our efforts, and has gone to see if he can reverse the taint that's poisoned her home."
"Thank you anyway for asking around," Selena says, and Natasha smiles, relaxing. "I'll wait for Duessel instead."
"What would you do while waiting for him to come back?"
"I'll help out, if you'll let me." And they do.
In the week that follows, Selena picks up the names of Natasha's allies, attending meetings held by Eirika and Ephraim to receive reports of regions that most desperately require aid. She quickly finds herself again in the role of a teacher, helping new magic practitioners learn and progress in the craft. She never gets the chance to speak to Ephraim - the young king too abstracted with pain of the past and worries of the future, but she takes long walks in the garden in her free hours, and joins Natasha to teach mages rune carving.
At times, she meets Cormag and talks to him, takes a flight on Genarog if he isn't busy. Those days, she closes her eyes under the red warmth of the sun, and feels her heart beating.
And then, Duessel returns.
The day of his return, Selena puts aside her usual exercises and walks out of the keep to meet him. Though neither of the two must conduct themselves as generals, it is apparent to any who saw them that they inhabited an awareness of their old roles. Meeting on the dusty road winding up to the keep, Selena greets him with an open hand.
"Well met, Duessel." In her palm is the fluorspar she has held on to for decades, still beautiful.
"My old friend," Duessel greets. He ungloves his right hand, and there, bound to his pulse point, is his obsidian disc. "Let us talk," he says, and those three words, pronounced with sincerity, slips between Selena's chest like a knife.
"I feared you perished," are the first words frankly spoken, when they are finally alone. Duessel, from his time traveling, begins his stretches to limber himself.
"Fate, it seems, had different plans. I was hoping you might have a clue as to why."
"What do you know of our gemstones, and the enchantments placed on them?" Selena begins her thoughts, and Duessel listens as she unpacks her theory.
"I see," Duessel says, when she has finished speaking. "You speak of the enchantments laid by our Emperor's wife."
"She was a particularly wise sorceress."
"Indeed. She was the one who taught her son much of what she learnt, before she passed and he started dabbling with the experiments in time magic. She was well versed in the art of imbuing objects with power."
"She enchanted our gemstones?"
"The story goes that our king tasked his wife with the working, though she produced only three gemstones before the dark arts consumed her health. Our three gemstones, then, were keyed to our greatest strengths." Duessel shakes his head. "Powers above if I knew if that part of the story is true, but I know an enchantment when I see it."
"Her enchantments saved my life."
"It didn't save Glen, but that could have been for any number of reasons. Perhaps the curse laid on the lance Valter killed him with interfered with the magic. Perhaps the conditions for the enchantment to work were not fulfilled. It is far too hard to say."
All are fair points, but Selena realises there was one more way. "Duessel, would you let me examine your obsidian gem?"
Realisation lights up in Duessel's face when he understands what Selena is getting at. "Of course." Unwinding the cord, he passes his namesake to Selena.
Holding the last of the gemstones in her hands, Selena focuses her power, and understands.
"The enchantment is a loyalty construct," she tells Duessel. "Had you been like Glen, betraying the throne right before being attacked, filled with doubt, the enchantment would have shattered."
The irony of it doesn't fail to impress herself on Selena. Loyalty is not easy for an enchantment to interpret. Should Duessel one day waver in his belief that he did the right thing for Grado, the stone's enchantment would desert him.
"Glen, you fool," she mutters. "You loved Grado as much as us."
Duessel, revealing a soft heart, bows his head.
A week later, Selena packs the last of her things and prepares to leave. When she meets Natasha in the courtyard, she finds her with Cormag and Eirika, the queen.
"We couldn't let you go without saying goodbye," Eirika says, stepping into Selena's space and giving her a hug. "I wish you would stay. We could use someone like you around."
"There are other places that need me," Selena replies. "Perhaps I'll find an opportunity in the future. Without war, life looms with more time than I know how to spend."
"We will keep in touch," Cormag says, when Eirika releases Selena.
Selena shakes his outstretched hand. "We will. You know how to reach me." Cormag nods, tapping a small metal ring that Selena has given him - enchanted with a spell to facilitate thoughtpass. May the goddess watch over you."
Then, with Natasha, Selena departs on her new journey.
Their plan, like so many of Selena's, is a simple one. With a map of villages they plan to stop in, they begin a new path for themselves. There are plans of connecting with mages and clerics Cormag helped Natasha contact, to teach them charms and spells, and the days sprawl before them.
This is her life now, Selena thinks. Content to let herself be carried forth, she finds herself willing to make something of herself, to start over again. Perhaps twenty-five summers ago, Selena could not have foreseen this, but as Selena ruminates late at night by the fire, life hasn't been cruel. It is merely that her options are infinite in being cruel, kind, or good.