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The sun was a white gold in the late December sky when the three Mercenaries sighted the walls of Castle Melior. Ike's expectant blue eyes scanned the balconies of the parapets for that familiar, gentle, beautiful face… He had been thinking of her almost nonstop since they'd left the mercenary base - the three of them. For he never went anywhere without his Shadow, and Mist had insisted to come along, as well. He couldn't refuse either of them, after all, they both had their ways of getting him to agree with anything they said. And besides, with the plans he had in store for the coming visit, he'd want them close. After all, this trip to see Elincia would be special, even if she didn't know so yet. Elincia had been so kind, to invite to put up with them this New Year's Eve…

"Commander."

And he couldn't wait to see her, and feel that warm upsurge of happiness hit him as it always did… He had been thinking about this a lot, too, on the journey. It was something he couldn't really ask advice on from his two companions. Mist was too young and idealistic about such... emotions, and Ike wasn't exactly sure that Soren would understand the questions he had. Well, maybe Soren would understand them, but not see the point or why these feelings mattered so much to Ike. The closer they got, the more Ike's heart raced in his chest...

"Commander."

She would be waiting, he knew, maybe at the front gate, to greet them upon arrival, and perhaps there would be a crowd, which he didn't like. He had never been very good in front of people, at least not in his own mind. He'd nearly lost his head several times for things that he said before he thought in front of crowds and courts, but that didn't seem to matter when he was with Elincia. So forget the crowd. The only face that mattered was hers…

"Ike!"

The sharp voice finally roused him from his thoughts of the Queen. He looked down into the face of his best friend, and smiled. "Hm? Oh, Soren. Was there something you wanted?" He was somewhat sheepish with the words, wondering how many times the mage'd had to call for him before he responded. Soren had often jibed that Ike's thinking face meant trouble, with the sarcastic undertone that implied Ike's thinking would do some sort of permanent damage to the commander. He knew it was just a jibe, but, well, there was a reason he surrounded himself with vice commanders and tacticians who could do some of his thinking for him, and he could rely on their wisdom without doubting himself.

"I just thought it best that you didn't look like a total fool when we arrived," the mage replied, arching a brow in a way that made Ike fidget in his seat a little. The way that Soren could fix anyone, even a battle-hardened mercenary like Ike, with a stare that made them feel self-conscious was some sort of feat that Ike wished he could learn. Perhaps it would be useful when he was trying to talk to nobles. It certainly kept them from questioning Soren too much. But he was getting distracted again.

"What do you mean?"

He heard a light giggle, and turned to see that it had come from his sister. "You always look like you've been hit by lightning. When you think about her."

Ike felt his cheeks darken, and that familiar benevolent grin pulled onto his face. He wondered if he had always been such an open book, or if these two in particular were just good at reading him. "Oh, uh… right. Right."

He was startled as the envoy the three were riding in came to a halt. His thoughts had made time seem to move slowly, but now that they were here, it was unexpected and startling. Already? It was time to see the Queen? His sister gave a small squeal of delight as she exited the carriage and headed up towards the castle. She had made many friends during the war, not the least of which being Elincia. Ike knew the two young women had bonded while the others were off in the field, training. They had talked about healing and this and that and whatever girls talked about, and Ike knew they had become good friends.

Soren, on the other hand, bore a completely different disposition as they arrived. The tactician winced, gathered himself as best as he could, and exited with the look of someone heading to their execution. He had wanted to come, to be with Ike, because he went everywhere with Ike, but while the commander had been daydreaming for the past couple hours of their journey, Soren seemed more and more lost to rumination. Ike could guess why, as he thought about what had happened on their last visit, at the Yule Ball. Being scorned by the Queen's sister in the middle of the ballroom floor wasn't the sort of impression that one wanted to return with. Especially not someone as concerned with personal image and reputation as Soren was. Ike hoped nothing really went wrong between the court and his tactician this time...

But what would come, would come. And Elincia was waiting for him. And so finally, shaking his head to clear all other thoughts, the Commander himself stepped out, his eyes immediately catching hers, and both of them smiling.

***

I am the Chimera.

Amidst a small grove of pines which rose from a thin carpet of slush hid a small swell against the ground which yet retained a thick curve of white. A robin, merrily chirping notes of an early spring, happily skittered up and down the white hill. Blades of grass, freeing themselves from the long, dark sleep of winter, began to poke through the dwindling carpet of snow around it as it overlooked the scene below. A pair of bear cubs, roughhousing in a fashion not terribly dissimilar to their talking, two legged counterparts, playfully pawed and chased each other around and over the ground.

And when all eyes were directed elsewhere, the hill moved.

For it was not a hill, nor was the white carpet that topped it snow.

I am a stone, I move only by my own will.

A blur - an arc of silver, green and brown, so fast that even the sharpest eyes might miss it - swept over a patch of slush. Freed blades of grass sprang up as the hill vanished.

I weave myself into the terrain. The birds nest upon my back and small animals rest against my bones.

And, indeed, they did. The hill that was not a hill acquired two more robins and, tiring of the roughhousing with its sibling, one of the bear cubs began sniffing about for a meal. The snow continued to slowly but inexorably melt, creating tiny rivers that flowed around and through the hill that was not a hill. All the while, however, the hill that was not a hill remained demurely still...

...until a certain emerald haired woman appeared in the distance.

I sight my prey, then I wait for the perfect shot.

A long, narrow section of the light carpet of snow between the emerald haired woman and the hill that was not a hill shifted, rising and then falling like trees uprooted by a quake. Amidst the eruption of white and the scintillating reflections emerged other, more sinister colors.

The dull brown of a crossbow, with a mingling of earthen colors that could go unnoticed even in full daylight.

The iron gray of its bolt, and a smile flecked with a sickly yellow color reminiscent of drab flowers and which seemed to swallow rather than reflect the sunlight.

And, a deep purple ichor, skillfully painted onto the rounded knob of heavy metal which tapered to a point.

I am patient. The prey will grow careless, make some fatal blunder, and I will strike!

The hill that was not a hill continued its subtle transformation. Another portion shifted, unnoticed by the happy robins or the meandering bear cub, and two steely eyes were revealed. Their gaze turned in the direction of the emerald haired Queen, affixing upon her unwaveringly.

The Chimera had emerged.

Yet, this was no mythical beast with multiple heads and a body forged from so many mismatched creatures. This creature was one, and whole, and all too terribly real. A creature whose like would snuff out the life of another person for a well-placed bribe or bit of blackmail, or even simply for the joy of bloodshed. This creature was an especially deadly breed, possessing a killer instinct honed to perfection over the course of a long and flawless career in the art of murder. Of course, the weight of the pouch of gold coins hidden near his breast was no hindrance to his trained gaze and steady hand.

And, he remained poised to strike.

The Chimera watched as the emerald haired woman, who'd spent some time pacing back and forth in girlish excitement, raced to meet an approaching carriage. The coachman tugged hard on the reins, bringing the carriage to a halt. The Chimera noted, with passing interest, that the carriage in question was one of exquisite make. Carved and gilded with gleaming redwood chased with gold, curtains of red velvet hanging just within windows that offered a clear view of the carriage's decadent, cushioned seats...

...and its occupants.

A common sellsword in ragged leather with a mane of blue hair that looked more wild than the animals traipsing about the Chimera's chosen hiding place. A young girl wearing a boy's boots, a coarse blouse and a rough-and-tumble dress that didn't even reach her knees . And, a dour, perpetually frowning youth clad in the most drab cloak the Chimera had ever seen in his long, bloody career.

The insignia of the Royal House of Crimea shone proudly on a carriage meant for use by the Queen and her guests of honor... which were presently a trio of common mercenaries.

The Chimera's gaze narrowed - or, rather, sharpened - in displeasure, and then flashed with indignation as they reflected the longing in the emerald haired woman's eyes when the mercenaries approached. That these mere, unworthy mercenaries were treated with such high regard made something in his stomach turn.

The Chimera's client had studiously refused to refer to Elincia as the "Queen," and the Chimera now understood why. The client had been quite vocal and longwinded about the Queen's lack of respect for those of noble stock and her lack of disdain for the churls and plebeians - so much so that the Chimera had nearly turned down the job over his time being wasted. He had ultimately heeded some inner voice that urged him to reconsider, (especially at the sight of his paycheck) and his instincts had not played him false.

But now the gold no longer seemed to matter. The client was right.

This "Queen" was no more deserving of a royal title than the unkempt girl she now hugged with undisguised delight.

It was the dazzling smile and the look of longing that Elincia gave Ike, Commander of the Greil Mercenaries, that drove the Chimera to finally act. The hill that was not a hill trembled and rose skyward, birthing a tall figure shrouded in a silken mosaic of emerald, silver and deep brown. The dull auburn, iron gray and deep purple remained poised at the distant emerald haired woman.

I have only one shot. I aim for the head.

The Chimera eyed the purple tipped bolt with a hint of reverence; the reverence of a murderer who knows a potent tool of such a trade. His client had gone to considerable trouble, and expense, to procure this particular implement of death. The purple ichor had cost more gold than the Chimera had earned in his life, but it would ensure that this pretender Queen's offenses would soon end.

Permanently.

There was a click, a twang, and a whoosh as the purple tipped projectile took to the air; and the Chimera, a many colored blur, vanished into the terrain once more.

***

Elincia felt her breath hitch in her throat and her heart gave a small lurch as Ike emerged from the carriage. Mist had been the first out, and she'd greeted the girl with probably more warmth than was appropriate, but she couldn't find it in her to care. Soren had passed her by in the midst of Mist's embrace, giving the Queen a nod that was just this side of respectful and that side of curt. She returned it as she released Mist, and then her gaze lifted as the girl's brother stepped out. A smile engulfed his features as he laid eyes on her, and she fought to keep the wide smile off of her own face. Some image of her as the distant monarch had to be maintained, after all, and yet, Ike had a way of shattering all those images. With all the regal air she could muster, she extended her hand to the man whom she'd grown so close to. He gripped it at once, smiling warmly, and pulled her forwards not to kiss her hand, as tradition would have dictated, but into a warm and slightly sudden embrace.

She had never been so grateful for his impulsiveness and disregard for tact. She felt a line of wind rush by her temple, couple with a faint zinging noise, and then suddenly, everyone was pulled into motion. The man's younger sister gave a shriek, and she felt the arms around her tighten and begin to jerk her towards the door that lead inside the castle. She could hear her brother Geoffrey, the Commander of the Royal Knights, shouting orders to mobilize and "find where that shot came from!" From the corner of her eye saw a flash of blue as her sister, Lucia, darted off to the left, retracing the path of the bolt. She saw a flicker of hesitation cross the face of Soren, before he yelled something to the still-screaming Mist and darted off after Lucia. Everyone was moving with such speed that it took her mind a long while to figure out what had actually happened.

But finally, her eyes fell upon the object that had triggered all of this chaos. A single crossbow bolt, tipped with a purple point, lying on the ground, where it had fallen after just missing her temple.

"I've got you, Lin-" Ike's voice was close to her ear as he pulled her inside, dragging her on uncooperative legs back to the safety of the indoors. She belatedly realized that she needed to move, too, and went with him to let the others find whomever had just tried to take her life as she tried to calm her rapidly beating heart.

***

Her efforts were wasted. Whoever had just tried to kill Her Majesty was long gone.

Lucia's quick acting had led her to the pressed down grass where the assassin had knelt. It was still warm, but the person had seemingly vanished into thin air. Cursing her luck aloud, she sat back slightly, searching the immediate area for any trace of footprints toward or away from the site, to give an indication of the assailant's coming or going. But the only footprints were her own. She could taste the bitter, acrid tang of a teleportation spell on the back of her tongue, so she knew the search was pointless in giving her direction, but any scrap of cloth, anything left behind could prove incredibly useful...

The crunch of snow and the snap of a twig behind her made her aware that she had been followed. She had no fear of the person coming up on her, for certainly any assassin would at least try to be sneaky if he was coming upon someone investigating his only known location. So this had to be a friend. The footsteps stopped a few feet behind her and she sighed before turning. Her blue eyes rose to meet his red.

Instantly, her expression froze over. Perhaps she needed to reconsider her last statement. For while this mage posed her no threat, he certainly was not a friend. "You."

"Me," Soren returned, holding his arms out slightly to the side as if presenting himself. He quirked his brow at her, trying to spur a reply. She could not believe he had the nerve to come, after…

"I thought I'd visit," he continued after she merely glared at him for a few lingering moments.

Her glare wavered as she took him in a second time, but froze over once again. It was a little late for that, or had he forgotten what their last encounter had brought about? She wondered if his cheek still stung. She stood from her kneeling position and rose to full height. Towering about five inches taller than the mage, she gained a sense of superiority over him. She had nothing to say, so his waiting for a reply was pointless. Did he really expect to be forgiven so easily? When he'd gotten her hopes up so high, then turned right around and frozen her out? She'd worried about him. After all, if anything happened to the tactician, who would ever think to inform her? Until a week ago, no one had the slightest inkling about what had happened that night… the coronation party…

"Lady Lucia." His voice was now laced with a questioning tone, and that expectant quirk of his brow softened to something that seemed more reminiscent of worry.

Her jaw tightened. She didn't care anymore. What did he matter? If the mage was so insistent on keeping to his secrets and shadows, why not just let him? "Kieran and I get along well." She had thrown the words out of her mouth, knowing that they would hurt him. He tried to cover the emotion, but she saw his flinch and the slight widening of the corners of his eyes.

"I… see," he said, with a faint air of perplexity hedged with surprise. He cleared his throat and looked to the ground, trying to cover the fact that he could not meet her eyes by studying the scene before them. All that was left behind was a quickly cooling impression in the ground. There was nothing more to be gained by standing here longer.

"Gone, then," he sighed, before letting the mask he'd so expertly hidden behind for years to slide onto his features. Lucia watched the hardening of the mage's face with some odd fascination. Gone was the dejected expression of two seconds ago, and his features had once again been restored to their steely indifference. "I suppose we will have to work together to find him." It sounded like he was conceding to her, and she smiled triumphantly to herself.

"Seems we will," she agreed. She began to walk ahead of him back towards the castle, leaving him chasing after her, as it should have been from the start.