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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.

Chapter Text

The Queen had called her inner council as soon as she'd recovered from the shock of nearly being killed. The group had gathered in one of the more well-guarded rooms of the castle and seated themselves around a small table. Each person in the room bore with them an air of unease, and more than once concerned glance fell on the face of the Queen. Her closest retainers, her brother and sister, had been called to join them, and while Lucia was running late, Geoffrey was already in his chair, shifting in an unsettled manner that implied he would rather be using his nervous energy to pace the length of the room. Ike looked even more ill-at-ease, though he sat beside Elincia like a statue, image carefully carved to display strength and protection of the young woman beside him. Even Soren had admire, from across the table, the strong front that Ike was putting up. It was very convincing, and perhaps only the mage could discern the nuance of fear in Ike's face in the way his lips would occasionally twitch downwards, and in the way his eyes kept flicking to the door, expecting someone to walk in. Soren almost felt that to break the silence would be committing some sort of sin against the tension, or as though to call any attention to the thoughts running through all their minds would cause them to manifest themselves in reality. The only sound in the room, therefore, was the rustle of turning pages as Soren flipped through the book on poisons he'd found in the royal archive, seeking answers for the gathered group.

Finally, the rustling stopped, and the mage's red irises scanned the page he'd paused on. He glanced between the bolt sitting by him on the table and the tome, before finally reaching forward to pick it up. All eyes in the room followed the motion of his hand with a fascinated, gruesome sense of curiosity that needed to be slaked.

Soren glanced up at the others, making sure they were paying attention before he cleared his throat and spoke. "Hviskra Murthre," he identified, fingering the poison tipped bolt in his pale hands, "in the ancient tongue. The name translates to mean Whispering Death. It's a very potent toxin, there is only one cure, and it is exceedingly hard to come by." He placed the bolt on the table before those that had gathered in the meeting room and consulted his book once again. "The poison itself is rare, the plant that produces it is found only on the northern islets of Crimea."

As he had been speaking, Elincia's face drained of all color. His best friend, standing nearby, took her trembling hand into his and stroked the back with his calloused fingers. She looked to him. "Oh, Ike…" Her voice was soft, wavering, "If it hadn't been for you… I would've…"

"I'm glad I came, Elincia."

Ike pulled the woman into his arms, the same move that had saved her life only a few hours prior, while the others in the room occupied themselves with the sight beyond the window. It was a sunny day, and most would've taken it as a good omen for the coming year that would start on the morrow. But here, in the palace…

The silence was broken by the appearance of another in the doorway.

"I apologize for being late, your Majesty," came the light voice. The mage ducked his head a little closer to his chest, saying nothing as Lucia entered. She spread her maps of the castle town over his of the whole country, but he made no comment to stop her. The Queen managed a wan smile of forgiveness.

"It's all right, Lucia," she said. "We've just been... quiet, mostly. Soren knows what the poison is," she said. Lucia hummed a noise of curiosity and Soren nudged his book towards her. The tactician gave it a cursory glance, but grimaced and tried not to read too closely after she spotted the words "fever, delirium, death." From the look on Elincia's face, Soren had skimmed over this bit, and she was momentarily grateful that the mage had given this meeting some sort of tact.

"I see," she said, leaning back and letting Soren close the book, tucking it into the bag he'd brought with him to the meeting. Seeing that Lucia was caught up enough on the proceedings, Elincia spoke again.

"Do you have a plan?" she asked.

"Well, our immediate course of action should be to find the attacker," the Lucia spoke up at once. The mage looked slightly annoyed; his mouth had also been open, and he had been about to say the words that she had just spoken. Lucia continued. "I have a network of informants in the city. If I set them in motion, we should be able to determine the identity of the culprit within…"

The mage interrupted. "I suggest that we set about collecting information on—" Lucia broke in once again.

"Excuse me. We should be able to figure out who did this within the week."

Ike's eyebrows lifted. "That's... a promise with quite a quick payout, Lucia. Are you certain?" he asked, and it was Geoffrey to step to his sister's defense.

"I know that it's usually Bastian coming out of the woodwork with spies and informants, but Lucia's slipped quite well into his role while he's in Sienne as a diplomat to the Empress. While to this date she certainly hasn't tackled something so... pressing and large, I am certain her informants will be able to find assassins just as well as they do cattle thieves," he said. He tried to bring a lighter mood with these last words, as they were laced with fond teasing that gave Lucia cause to roll her eyes at her younger brother, but the point had been made well enough for Ike, at least.

"A wonderful plan."

Soren's face blanched with tightly withheld anger. Why had he been invited if no one was going to bother listening to his input? Soren was not normally so petty, but where Ike had been concerned with tactical input, Soren'd never had any competition. He knew it was petty, and yet he could not stop the small rise he felt in his chest that darkened his cheeks a little.

"Excuse me," the mage started again before Lucia could receive further praise. "I suggest we set about finding information on the correct way to extract a cure to…"

"If we capture the assailant, we won't have any need for the cure," the woman insisted. "My plan is the most direct course of action."

Seeing that he was getting nowhere with Ike and Lucia, the mage appealed to the Queen. "If another attack comes, we will have no safety net. Is that really what you want?"

"If she stays hidden, it will be nearly impossible for her to be attacked again. And," the swordswoman argued, "she is under my guard. Do you really think that I am so incompetent to let harm befall her?"

"Your decision, Your Highness?" the mage pressed over Lucia's words.

The queen looked to the man at her side. Ike was smiling at the Lucia. "The sooner we can find this guy, the sooner we can deal with him. And once he's gone, everything else will take care of itself. Wonderful plan, Lucia. If your network can out this fellow and arrest him, everything will come out fine, as I can see it. Thank you so much for your help."

The look of triumph in Lucia's eyes, and approval in the traitor's, killed Soren a little within. He pursed his lips and looked down, giving no other outward indication that he was upset. He did not have to tolerate them much longer. With the plan decided on and its leader in place, the meeting was adjourned. Soren gathered up his maps and headed for his quarters. Once his things were stowed away, he headed down to the library. Having been shown clearly that his services weren't needed in the current plan of action, he could devote himself to what he thought was best. There had to be some more information on the poison down in the archive. It was rare, to be sure, and Soren only had the knowledge it existed at all from his studies in Sienne while the army had been posted there during the war. But since he had known what he was looking for, he'd been able to find one book on Hviskra Murthre here. Certainly there were others to be dragged out if he looked hard enough, and he could figure out how to best extract a cure to the poison. Just in case. He could not believe the others, how foolish they were, to not even prepare…

"Soren, there you are!"

He halted when his name was called, but he could not help bristling slightly. "Do you need me, Ike?" he asked as turned to face the Commander.

"I've never seen you so quiet at a strategy meeting. What's wrong?"

Ashera, but sometimes Ike could be dense. Soren had to withhold the urge to roll his eyes at his Commander. How would he have felt to be invited somewhere and scorned the whole time? It was a feeling that Soren was started to get used to, and one that he was certain Ike would never have to deal with. Ike was adored practically everywhere, after all. And he didn't need to hear Soren's troubles.

"It's nothing to concern yourself over, Commander."

"Is it Lucia?"

The mage was quiet for a moment. Perhaps Ike wasn't so dense, after all. Apparently, his silence constituted an answer.

"I thought so. Listen," he reached out and placed a hand on the mage's small shoulder. "I don't doubt your skills when it comes to strategy. It's just… Lucia is more familiar with this sort of thing, she knows how to find things out, and I just thought she'd be more suited when it came to this. But I… agree."

"On what point?" the mage questioned, tilting his head back to look Ike in the eye.

"I'd feel a lot better if you looked into that cure."

Ah, there it was. Soren should have known that Ike would come around. The mage gave him a small smile. "You're not as thick as you seem, I see."

The Commander blinked and scoffed in the back of his throat. He was getting used to hearing such things from Soren, and had come to understand that the mage meant them as some sort of odd compliment. Still, he was never entirely certain what provoked the words, when he heard them. "What do you mean?"

"It's nothing to be concerned over. I'll look into it, Commander. You should go back to Elincia."

He moved off down the hallway, but his friend's voice called to him once more. "Soren? About Lucia… I don't think… I mean… Elincia told me to say this," his cheeks reddened slightly. "I mean, I'm sure you'd guess that. Since neither of us are really good with... things like this. But anyway, she said... that she thinks Lucia will come around. She seemed to think it'd help you out if you'd be, ah, 'courteous' was the word she used, but..."

The mage turned. He understood Ike's hangup at that last bit. Anyone picturing Soren as something near 'courteous' had probably suffered a blow to the head. The mage knew that he was an acquired taste. But if he was going to put himself out there, well, maybe he had a little more effort to make. He paused a moment to gather his thoughts and form them into words. "Thank… thank you for the information, Ike. I'll take it to heart."

His friend laughed. "I don't believe you've ever said anything like that before."

The mage gave another slight smile. "To be fair, I've never heard you giving relationship advice before, either," he said, to a snort and a 'fair enough,' from the Commander. "By your leave, Ike. I have work to do."

"Go on, then. And don't forget to come to dinner tonight, we're still having the New Year's celebration."

"As you wish, Ike."

***

Lucia headed out to the stables, looking for her brother. She would need to inform him that she was going on an errand, and someone needed to watch the Queen in her stead… not that the Mercenary leader would leave her alone at any point, but precautions had to be put into place. He had attended the meeting, but she'd lost track of him after, since she'd gone to her chambers to immerse herself in writing some carefully coded letters for the points in her network and been immersed in that for the better part of two hours. He had to be at training by now, or perhaps he was returning - at any rate, the stables were a good place to start her search.

She didn't find her brother, but the stable was not deserted. Kieran was taking the tack off of his horse, so she had to be right, then, that training had just ended. She was about to turn and leave for the armory, seeing her brother's horse already stabled that was the next place to look, but she was hailed before she could make her exit. The red haired knight smiled and moved into a sweeping bow before her.

"Lady Lucia! Dear sister of my Commander! What brings you down to this lowly place? Were you perhaps," a playful light entered his eyes, "seeking company?"

Her forced smile wavered at his boisterous manner. "No, Kieran, I was actually looking for…" He had come over to her and taken her hands. "My brother."

"The Commander? You have just missed him. He and I just finished up our training. But I have nothing important to do. You feeling sharp today? Want to spar me?" he asked, his eyes wide and hopeful. A defeated look entered his eyes as she shook her head.

"No, that's all right, I really must find Geoffrey, and then I have important matters to attend to. I need to go into town…"

"Do you need a horse?"

"Pardon?"

"You may borrow mine. He won't give you any trouble, and he's fast, too. I'll get him ready for you; I'll be waiting for you down here after you speak to the Commander."

He turned and lifted his saddle onto his stallion once again without waiting for her reply. She exited quickly. This was wrong, to use him like this, and she knew it, but everything was working so well. She had taken Kieran's hand mostly for the look on Soren's face at the Yule Ball, and from the mage's reaction earlier in the day when she had mentioned her courtship with the knight had confirmed her suspicions. Soren was not only still interested, he was jealous. He probably didn't know what to do with those emotions, she knew. Someone who had always seemed so locked in himself was probably completely blindsided by an emotion like that. But he was a smart man and would sort it out soon enough. Just a while longer and certainly she'd get her apology from the tactician, and then… Kieran was adaptive, he wouldn't take it hard. He would bounce back; it probably wouldn't affect him at all.

She found her brother with relative ease. If he wasn't in the stables, nor the armory, he had to be in his room, and so he was. She had to speak to him through the door, since he was nearly asleep in post-training exhaustion. He often crashed after training, but, to be fair, anyone who spent prolonged time around Kieran was known to be tired after the fact. And even though he was her brother, it wouldn't be seen as appropriate if she walked in on him while he was lounging in bed. She informed him of her mission and when she should return and that Kieran was accompanying her. He took in the last bit with a small scoff that she swore sounded intrigued. "Very well, Lucia. I'll watch the Queen for you." She heard him getting up and the creak of his wardrobe as he opened in, and knew that he wouldn't let her down.

She passed Soren on her way back to the stables. He had an armload of books, but he still stopped in the hallway, expertly balancing the precarious stack as he looked her over.

"You are going to set the plan in motion?"

"Whether you like it or not," she snapped. She couldn't help herself. She was still filled with such a bitterness whenever she laid eyes on him. And yet, half if it was just for show. She knew that if he proved penitent, she'd consider him again. He was too much of an unraveled mystery for someone of her curious and clever nature to ignore.

"My thoughts do not matter. Ike made his decision, and from here on, my opinion is null. I will devote all of my ability to ensure success of your plan."

Her glare wavered. She had not expected his support. And yet…

"Do you need my help? Is there any request you have of me, Lady Lucia?"

And yet, she could not resist the urge to press her hand a little futher. "Kieran and I are going into town. Tell Elincia and Ike that we'll be back for the celebration tonight."

He cleared his throat and righted his stack of books so he didn't have to look into her eyes. "I will, of course, as you wish," she heard him murmur. Smiling at another small victory, she headed out to the stables and her awaiting suitor.

Chapter Text

As promised, Lucia and Kieran returned in time for that evening's celebration. After the race Kieran had insisted on having on the way back up to the citadel, it had taken Lucia a while longer to prepare for the Ball – her long aqua locks had been so windswept by the time she’d returned to her room that it was a wonder the servants that had passed her in the hallway hadn’t been gawping at her. It took a good thirty minutes of brushing to get everything in place, and then there was a handmaiden coming to help her into her dress and with the finishing touches on her hair. Lucia wasn’t the type to have a servant of her own – no, the young woman sent to help her was Elincia’s own handmaiden. The Queen often sent down the girl to help her sister dress up before events such as these, for while Lucia never lacked in tact or natural beauty, there was always something about balls that required an extra pair of hands. For example, one didn’t wear a corset under armor, and while Lucia knew the ins and outs of platemail she still could not lace up a dress behind her back if her life depended on it. As such, the dresses she wore on usual days laced up the front, or she would be wearing the long tunic and trousers more customary to training than for being seen in court. A night like this, the handmaiden came in handy, making sure Lucia’s hair was braided beautifully in a neat and tidy bun, and that the makeup she wore wasn’t smudged over her eyes or on her cheeks or lips, and that the ties on the back of the dress wouldn’t come undone. The night was a bit cold, and she had added a red shawl over her white dress to block out the chill. Once she was deemed presentable, she headed down the hallways, looking around for Kieran. She didn’t spot him at first, due to his attire. Her escort was dressed in green, a palpable contrast to the red he normally wore. He led her up to the main table in the hall, to the chair with her name by it. She was seated between her brother and Kieran at the head table, an honor shared with the visiting mercenaries. Her escort pulled her chair out before her and she placed herself into the seat with a murmured thanks to him. He then rested in the place beside her, all smiles as per usual.

Soren was seated further down, at Ike’s right hand. His preparations for the celebrations had been much less elaborate, and had involved no servants, only Mist buzzing around him with complaints about how he only had one dress robe and would now be wearing it to his third event at the palace. It wasn’t as though there was anything to be done about it, even though he was still getting a few pouting expressions from the brunette even now. What was he supposed to do, run out to the shops and get fitted for a new one the day of the event? She’d relented finally to this argument and not said anything more about it, and he was able to ignore the looks he was still getting from her. The Queen was two seats to his right, between Ike and Geoffrey, and Ike was directly beside him. Soren took some pride at being seated by Ike, and it took the edge off of the icy presence of Lucia at the other end of the table. The mage did not try to make eye contact with her, knowing that the effort would've been futile. He did look up, finally, when Ike spoke.

"Enjoying yourself, Soren? Why don't you get something to eat?"

"I'm not very hungry," he replied, his eyes returning to stare at the edge of the table. His friend tried a different tactic.

"There will be dances after midnight. Are you going to—"

"She wouldn't let me cut in," he answered curtly. Perhaps it was a bit of a harsh comeback, for he knew that Ike had been hoping to cheer Soren’s spirits with the possibility of getting a dance with Lucia and smoothing things over with her, but she had come tonight with an escort. Regardless of who that escort was and whatever Lucia’s own inclinations towards Soren were, it would be impolite for Soren to ask for a dance and whisk her away from Kieran. Besides, if Lucia wanted to dance with him, there was nothing stopping her from asking him. As well-trained in court etiquette as Lucia was, there wasn’t a man in the country that could stop her from doing as she wished. She had a strong character like that, and Soren respected that, to some degree. Ike cleared his throat and looked away. When the silence between them was no longer awkward, the Commander turned to talk to the Queen instead, she being much more sociable and in a lighter mood.

After the main part of the meal had been consumed, servants appeared at every seat, passing out drinks to all in attendance. The mage sat back in his seat and got comfortable; this part of the feast was the most long-winded and his least favorite. He was always shocked at how many lords would stand to give speeches… and though their semi-drunken state started as amusing, after the fifth or sixth tipsy noble the praises they sang about the Queen grew grating on everyone’s ears.

Surprisingly, it was the man on his right that stood to give the first speech. This stunned Soren more than anything else, for, not only was Ike going to speak, he was going to speak without running anything by Soren first. Not that he needed Soren to filter his words for him so he wouldn’t offend anyone, but… yes, the Commander typically needed that. As well intentioned as Ike tried to be, it was easy for the naive mercenary to accidentally say something he’d regret. It had nearly cost him his head in Sienne. Soren was feeling about as nervous as Ike looked when he cleared his throat and started to speak.

"It is an honor and a privilege to be able to join you all this night," he began. Well, not a bad start. "I wish first for this toast to be to all of you in attendance tonight, and for your good company," he smiled to those on his left and right before continuing, and Soren relaxed a little. Hopefully Ike would keep this brief… less chance to put his foot in his mouth. "Secondly, a toast to the night, as we send out the old year and welcome the new. And finally,"
He took pause here, and cast his eyes warmly on the Queen, seated beside him. "In the spirit of the night, and of new beginning, there is something I have to announce."

He cleared his throat, and a faint trace of red embellished his cheeks. Curious. Ike was never one to blush… "There are many things I could say about the Queen. She is kind, strong, beautiful… there aren't enough words in this world that could really describe all that she is for this country… and for me. So, in that light, I would like to propose a toast to Elincia; a beautiful woman, and wonderful Queen, and… and my fiancée."

Soren gave a jolt, turning quickly to look up at the Commander. Had he heard that right? His eyes flashed over to the people further down the table, finding them appearing as shocked as he. But his eyes fell on the Queen, and from the smile on her face, he knew it was true… Then, there was a burst of applause and a chorus of cheers from those at the party. Beside him, Mist jumped up and ran over to the Queen, yelling

"Let me see it! Let me see the ring!"

and he raised his own glass in approval, though his mind lingered on how everything in his world had just changed…

Ike finally moved to sit down, puffing out a relieved sigh before whispering to him, "Well, how was that? Mist helped me figure out the words, all except for the last part, of course, and… Soren?"

The mage had opened his mouth to address his best friend, when his periphery caught something amiss. He didn’t know what was triggering the foul cry in his instincts until he looked at the Queen, gaze falling upon the gleaming golden goblet with a purple stain around the rim that she was raising to her lips. His heart stuttered in his throat – he had seen that ichor before, on a bolt that had been aimed for Elincia’s temple.

There hadn't been enough time to catch her eye, so he had to act. He lunged out from his seat, across Ike to get to the goblet. He felt skin slap against the back of his fingers as he knocked the poisoned glass away, and watched as it clattered to the ground in the center of the hall.

Relief swelled in his chest the moment before strong hands gripped his shoulders, shoving him upright and shaking him from the upper arms. He looked up at Ike, bewildered for a moment. Hadn’t he just seen- but no, Soren realized with a sinking feeling in his stomach. That feeling of skin against his fingers had been the Queen’s cheek. And who would think to look at the glass when Elincia had just been struck in front of the entire court? No one. Especially not Elincia’s fiancé.

"How dare you hit her?" Ike demanded, each word punctuated with a firm rattle of his once-best friend. Soren felt Ike’s grip bruising his shoulders, and his breathing had shallowed. For a moment, Ike’s face was replaced with that of an old woman’s, who had once complained about the unfairness of the world as she shoved Soren to the ground – he was a curse to her. But the smoldering rage in Ike’s eyes morphed him to another figure of Soren’s past, a dying sorcerer who had forced magic into a boy too young for such power, who had shaken him in the same way when he’d been caught sleeping instead of studying. It was the sort of fear that Soren hadn’t felt for years that settled like an icy fist around his heart now, as he looked at Ike.

Ike.

"Stop! Stop shaking me!" the mage cried after a moment. It was all he could think to say, and even that felt like it took the strength from his body. He’d never been able to speak to the people who’d tormented him in his past. He’d never had words to do so. Telling Ike to stop was a feat that he’d never accomplished in his life.

"Why did you hit her?" Ike yelled again.

And he could not remember, he couldn’t focus on anything, he couldn’t breathe, how was he supposed to be able to explain himself? What had he even been doing?

Again, Ike shook him, demanding answers as Soren’s teeth rattled in his skull. "Why did you hit her? Soren, answer me!”

"Th-the glass," the mage finally stammered, when he got his tongue to work again and found air in his lungs enough to move past his lips.

"What? What are you—" Ike seemed to recall that they weren't the only ones in the room when there was a shriek from his sister.

"Look at that! Look at what it's doing!"

The faces of the court turned away from the scene to look at Mist, then followed her outstretched finger to the goblet on the floor. The liquid inside had turned purple upon contact with the poison on the rim of the cup and was bubbling eerily.
Lucia, dragging herself from her own shocked state at seeing Ike’s anger, stood, napkin in hand, and gently lifted the cup. And, even though everyone in the room knew what it was, she confirmed their suspicions. "Poison."

There was a collective gasp in the room after she spoke, and all eyes turned once again to the mage, who had extirpated himself from Ike’s grip as soon as it loosened to press himself against the wall of the room. His pallor was even paler than usual, and his arms had wrapped around himself as though he were trying to give himself some semblance of a hug, holding onto his shoulders where Ike’s tight grip had been. He could still feel the ghost of it now, throbbing in his skin as the circulation slowly returned. He hadn’t quite seemed to catch his breath, yet, but he still tried to speak. "I didn't mean to… hit her…" he whispered shakily, clearly trying to pull himself back together once again. Ike’s features softened at once, to concern, then morphed to something like horror when he recognized the fear on Soren’s face, and realized what he’d just done to his best friend.

"Soren. Oh, Soren…" Ike put out his hands in a peaceful gesture, and approached the mage like one would a spooked and cornered animal – trying to assure the mage that he wouldn’t hurt him. He hadn’t meant to. He never wanted to do that. But now there was fear in his eyes, and Ike realized that he had been the one to put it there. When he approached, Soren flinched, and Ike felt pain clench in his chest. Soren was afraid of him.

"Don't shake me again!”

"No, no no no no! Soren," Ike said. He reached out, but the mage once again drew away, this time not voicing any protest aloud as he bolted through the doors.

Ike stood frozen where he was as the last few seconds crashed over his head. Oh, Ashera. Soren. Stiffly, he sat back down in his chair, staring at the far wall and nothing else. He distantly process that there were considerably less people at the head table, now – Elincia was still beside him, as much in shock as he was, but Geoffrey and Kieran were up on crowd control, securing the hall and making sure it was safe, and Lucia had gone to… who knew where? So it was the gentle hands of his sister that came to rest on Ike’s arm, telling him that it would be all right…

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t bloody fair for him to hear those words. If anyone needed those words, it was Soren. Ike had been trusted with so much of Soren’s history – he should have known better than to raise a hand to the mage – he, the one person that Soren had ever placed true trust and friendship in! And Ike had as good as spat in his face, now. The fear that had been in Soren’s eyes was something that Ike had only seen once before, when he’d revealed his mixed bloodline to the Commander. But still… no, that hadn’t been the same. That had been the fear of rejection, of being turned out of his home for what he was. The fear that was now imprinted in Ike’s memory fresh from a minute ago was not just fear… it was betrayal. Soren had given Ike so much, and what had Ike done? What had he done?

“I need to-” he began, trying to stand up, but his legs seemed frozen. What good would it do, to chase after the mage, now? What chance was there that he would accept comfort from someone who had just attacked him? Ike wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

So he let Mist’s hand stay on his arm, and let her tell him it would be all right. He could only hope that things would be.

***

He couldn’t breathe. All that running, and he couldn’t breathe.

Soren hadn’t really been aware of where his feet were taking him, only that they were taking him away, and he needed to get away. Away from Ike, away from the anger he had seen in the Commander’s eyes, away from the anxious babble of nobles at the revelation of the poison and away from the large room where eyes were pressing in on him from every quarter. He needed to find some place where there was air, somewhere he could breathe…

He found himself on the balcony, standing in the cold winter air with his hands braced on the stone railing, gripping it so tightly his knuckles were white. The air was icy and stabbed the inside of his lungs when he inhaled, but that was good. It made him think about it, the act of breathing, made him focus on nothing else. Inhale. Exhale. Rhys had once taught him how to calm people who were going into shock. Was that what he was doing? Where was the level-headedness that he prided himself on? Why couldn’t he breathe, why was his heart racing so fast? He was getting dizzy. Ike attacked him. Soren sat down slowly, sinking first to his knees, then all the way down as he rested his forehead on the cold stone. Breathe, you need the oxygen. You’re hyperventilating. It’s not that hard. Just breathe.

“Soren?”

He flinched at the call of his name, eyes flashing open to reveal red irises and narrow pupils. He sucked in air through his nose and it hissed out from between clenched teeth, evaporating in little clouds of steam before his face. It was a feminine voice – definitely a woman. Not Ike. Some part of him relaxed.

“I’m going to touch you now. Hands on your shoulders, all right?” she said. The tension was still tight in Soren’s frame as he was gently coaxed into standing.

“Sorry- sorry,” he whispered. He didn’t know what else to say. He had to force his fingers to let go of the railing, and they hurt when the blood rushed back into them, battling the numbness of the cold and loss of circulation. He could feel a soft voice at his ear, soothing, telling him to stop apologizing. That was fine – he could barely get his lips to work. The world seemed to move around him as he was led down an empty corridor, hardly even processing that he was walking. The hands on his shoulders were gentle, but firm, keeping him steady in a way that didn’t make him panic with the reminder of Ike’s grip. He’d seen the Commander train for ages, he had known that Ike held the strength in his body to snap Soren in half, if he wanted to. Soren had never feared, though, that that strength would turn against him. Never before.

He blinked, and they were in his chambers. The gentle hands were guiding him over to his bed and making him sit down. He registered the order to take off his shoes and relax, and he went through the motions robotically as she added a log to the small fireplace over the nearly burnt out coals. She spoke as she stoked the fire. “It’s all right, Soren. Be quiet. Shh,” she soothed, moving her dress back from the hearth as the fire sparked back to life. He hadn’t even realized anyone was speaking until he processed that the litany of “I didn’t mean to – Ike – hit her – stop, stop, don’t – I didn’t mean to” was coming from him. His shaking hands covered his face as he tried to pull all the pieces of himself back together. She didn’t need this, he didn’t want to be seen like this…

“It’s all right,” the woman spoke again, and he heard her footsteps approach him and felt the small dip in the mattress when she sat down beside him. She gently took hold of his wrists and pried his hands away from his face. He looked up into her calm, though slightly concerned blue eyes, and simply looking at them make him feel calmer, too. “Deep breaths. Here.” She moved his hand to her collarbone. “Do you feel me breathing? Breathe in time with me.”

And it worked. Soren’s eyes closed and he held onto her, cold fingers resting just at the base of her neck as he felt her heartbeat with his palm and the slow rise and fall of her chest. He focused on nothing else. Calm. Cool. Stable. The world was no longer falling in on itself. His head cleared.

Just before he opened his eyes, he felt warmth on his forehead, and processed that he was being kissed. And again, his heart stuttered, not out of fear, but surprise. Something about the kiss seemed instinctive, almost motherly. He didn’t know why he had that thought, for Soren had never had a mother’s care in his life, but the way her warm lips pressed on his forehead – right over his Brand – spoke of a sort of care that he could only identify as gentle and pure, and wholeheartedly concerned for his well-being. It was something entirely foreign to the mage, and coming down from the panic he’d been in, struck him down to his core. Then his eyes were opened and she was pulling away, covering her hand with her mouth with shock written over her own face.

She hadn’t meant to do that, and the one word she whispered confirmed it in the mage’s mind. “Kieran.”

Then she was standing up and exiting the room, with the haste of someone who had just remembered something important they needed to attend to, and only when the door closed behind her did Soren process that that had been Lucia.

***

Following the discovery of the poison - and the revelation that the evening of the Queen's engagement had very nearly been her last - the banquet hall had been thrown into a tumult. Several of the lords who were seated at the table, terrified that they'd been poisoned as well, had to be bodily removed and taken to the castle healers for examination. Others meandered aimlessly, in mingled shock and indignation that someone would undertake such a foul deed. Suppositions, conjectures, indignant remarks and other useless prattle passed every pair of lips until the hall resounded in a cacophony of unintelligible, anxious babble.

With all of the confusion, none of the guests noticed that one of their number - a tall individual who cut an imposing, shadowy figure - had vanished.

In truth, however, he hadn't gone very far. A splotch of gloom, a darkness within the shadow of an ornate pillar, was illuminated by a pair of eyes reminiscent of a predator lurking behind a fringe of firelight. Yet, this was a different and far deadlier predator than one who stalked the wilderness. This predator was one who felled his quarry through cunning, rarely presenting the victim with even a glimpse of their slayer.

Which reminds me, why am I here?

The predator could not say. In fact, upon reflection, he realized that being present at this event hadn't been part of the plan which had been devised some hours before. And, indeed, this particular predator survived by remaining well out of reach of prey with teeth... particularly when those "teeth" took the form of a Queen's retinue of knights. Still, he lurked no more than fifty paces from the intended prey, and had no idea why. Perhaps it was simply to relish the kill, though he had believed such uncouth indulgences beneath the dignity of an artist of death. Maybe it was to ensure that the task was done to satisfaction, for one attempt had already failed and the predator was eager to rectify that indignity. Neither of these reasons truly satisfied him, so the eyes of death turned from an inward probing to an outward sweep of the tumult his failed attempt had triggered.

Much like the wine had upon contact with the poison, the hall still bubbled with tension and worry. The dour youth who had averted the Queen's death had not lingered to bask in praise, but had bolted from the room the moment the minute he was free of the mercenary commander's grasp. The Queen's sister had, interestingly enough, chased after the dour youth. The Queen's brother and his fiery subordinate were already working to restore some semblance of calm and, no doubt, to determine where the poison had come from. The predator was still aggravated at having needlessly come to the site of the would-be assassination, but was not concerned. The two knights' suspicions were already directed at the kitchen staff and, by the time they were done uselessly interrogating cooks, servitors and other feckless domestics, he would be long gone. The mercenary commander still seemed stricken; though, whether this was from having throttled the mage who had been trying to save the Queen or his fiancée's brush with death, the predator could not say. The mercenary commander remained thunderstruck for several long moments, clearly shaken by the near-disaster and uncertain what to do. He eventually settled for plunking himself next to the Queen - who looked no less ill-at-ease - and gathering her in his arms. She accepted his embrace with appalling eagerness and, nearly undoing the predator's reserve in the act, kissed him softly upon the cheek. Her arms wound about him and, when her left hand curved about his shoulder, the torchlight gleamed off of a ring.

An engagement ring.

The sight of it jolted the predator back to the present with the force of a meteor tome's blast. The predator had been shocked and disgusted at the remembered image of the Queen's longing smile to the mercenaries...but, this?

The Queen was going to marry a commoner? The Queen was going to marry a commoner?!

It was ludicrous. It was impossible. It was unthinkable. It was... happening anyway.

My Lord must know of this, before word reaches him from elsewhere, the predator concluded.

The predator could only hope that this new information, and the urgency therein, would inspire... forgiveness on the part of his client. The man had been quite eager to bring the Queen's short reign to an end and, no doubt, this evening's announcement would incentivize him all the more. It might also help to salvage the predator's position with him, for Whispering Death was notoriously difficult, and expensive, to procure. The client had expended a fortune - two fortunes, the predator corrected - to secure the poison used in both the two failed assassination attempts. The news that a common sellsword may very well father the next monarch of Crimea might, however, convince the patron that offering him another chance would be wiser than seeking another assassin.

After all, they say that the third time's the charm.

Chapter Text

The sunrise of the New Year broke early on the horizon to welcome silence from the city below. The frost had finally lifted off the sodden grass for what seemed like the last time this season, but the chill of winter yet permeated in the rooms and halls of Castle Melior. The noise filtering into Soren’s room from the hallway was only the sound of footsteps from busy castle guards and servants, both still trying to clean up the mess from last night.

Soren had kept his door closed. The atmosphere of tense, terse silence had even him unsettled, especially since his mind and body still retained some of the shock of last night. After Lucia had gone, it had still taken him ages to dress for bed, an age longer to lie down on the mattress, and an eternity after that to close his eyes. Nightmares that had left him alone for years came filtering back to play in front of his mind’s eye that night, and he’d barely slept. He wanted nothing more, now, than to just be left alone. He was not in the mood for company.

And his wish had been granted. Despite his "heroism" at the feast the previous night, his flight from it had been viewed as a signal. He was not to be disturbed. Not even Ike had come.

Ike… the very thought of him cause another sheet of ice to descend on Soren’s mood. The man he'd called friend… everything had changed now.

Ike was betrothed.

Here was an appalling thought. Its existence alone was shocking. Had this been three years ago, he would have called anyone entertaining the thought of a woman, any woman, let alone a noble woman, that would fall for the rough, tactless Commander insane. Yet their travel with the young Princess had left an impression, and it was because of the bond that had grown between the pair during the war that the idea was now feasible. The thought was appalling, but, on the whole, not surprising. If anyone thought it was, they should have just seen the looks that passed back and forth between Ike and Elincia during the war, when they had dined together. Elincia had taken some time to get used to the rough and tumble group of ragtag mercenaries, and the first few nights she’d seemed a little unsettled by those in their group, but over time they had proven themselves worthy of her trust and friendship. Though none surpassed Ike in her eyes. Now that the war was over and some sort of peace had started, there was finally time for the two to take the relationship somewhere.

And Soren’s own view on the matter?

The Commander had made a decision. With that in place, his own opinion was null. He had thought that saving the Queen from dying by poison last night would have demonstrated his support, but…

His friend had attacked him.

As soon as Ike understood what Soren’s true intent had been, he had wanted to atone, but he didn't know how. The mage himself didn't know how. After being the sole person he had trusted, the sole person he kept nothing from, the sole person he'd called friend… the Commander had betrayed that trust. It had only been for an instant that Ike snapped, but the mage had invested so much in the Commander that he knew now that it would be impossible to recover everything. And Ike snapping had made something inside of Soren crack open, and something buried deep had come spilling out last night. Soren had frozen his emotions, his fear, so far down, but last night it had all come boiling back to the surface. It was a wonder Soren had even made it back to his chambers – he certainly never would have alone.

Which brought his thoughts, now, to Lucia…

He didn’t know what to think of her, anymore. He had assumed before last night that she was done with him. Hadn’t she said just a couple days ago that she was happy with Kieran? But then it had been she to follow him, as she had on the night of the Coronation Ball, out to the balcony, and she to bring him in from the cold, and she who calmed him and warmed him again with a fleeting kiss. He raised his hand to his forehead, covering the spot where he swore he still felt the ghost of her lips – directly over his Brand. He felt… peculiar. Never should that spot have been touched by anyone, especially not someone in a moment like what he had shared with Lucia last night. The mark was dirty, and foul, the physical evidence of the stained blood mixing in his veins. And yet, when she had kissed him there, it had brought to him such a resounding inner calm that it had taken nothing more to end his panic attack. It was… peculiar, and he didn’t know whether to attribute it to the kiss, or to Lucia herself.

Another peculiarity; he'd never stayed in bed so long in his life. He thought that he was perhaps ill. His head was pounding with unfettered thought and his stomach cramped in on itself whenever he pictured having to get up and face another person today. He was glad that the others had left him alone. Three days of conversing with people and having to be on his toes around nobles and in council chambers alike had drained him – perhaps it was little surprise that he should have snapped in half last night.

Still, he had known that his solitude wouldn't last forever, and it was with a resigned sigh that he sat up when there was finally a knock at his door.

"Who is it?"

"Me, Mist."

The mage straightened a bit more, considering. He'd not been thinking at all about the Commander's sister. Perhaps she was the only company he could endure today. "…come in, then."

She pushed the door open with her hip, as her hands were occupied with an assortment of breakfast items balanced on a metal tray. "Morning," she said, smiling at him. He nodded to her as she toted the tray over and placed it down on the table by his bed. "I was worried when you didn't show up for breakfast this morning. I thought I'd bring some food up to you."

"Hm." He looked at the small platter of fruit and bread that the girl had brought him. He'd eat the bread, but not the fruit. Sweet was his least favorite taste, and with his stomach still upset, he didn’t want to risk putting too much in there, lest it should make an appearance again later.

Mist stood there for another moment or two, studying his appearance. He knew he couldn’t have looked good. He was pale all the time, so that wasn’t a shock, but he was still in his nightclothes and was wearing his hair down, unbrushed. He didn’t know if Mist had ever seen him like this. Maybe long ago, when she had been a child and he had been… well, younger. He had never considered a point in his life “childhood,” but by the strictest definition of the word, he had been a child. These days, he was usually up before the sun and most of the other mercenaries, working, whereas Mist sometimes waited around until near noon to show herself several days a week. "Have you been in bed all this time?" she finally asked, which he thought was a nice way to put it.

"Odd, isn't it?"

Concern appeared on her features in full force, now. He had seen it on her face, hidden in her expression, but now she was no longer trying to hide it. "Soren, are you feeling well?"

"I'm doing just fine, Mist." He averted his gaze as he spoke – why, he could not say. Perhaps it had something to do with the blue eyes that looked at him worriedly – eyes that matched Ike’s. Soren wondered when he would come. But then, a moment later, he was glad that Ike hadn’t. What was he going to say to him? He wouldn’t say that it was okay, because it wasn’t. He wasn’t ready to see the Commander again, not yet.

She shifted from foot to foot. "Lucia and Kieran had a fight this morning," she blurted. He looked up, and failed to cover his look of surprise. The girl continued. "He was wondering where she disappeared to after the assassination attempt, and she wouldn't tell him, and…" she trailed off, trying to read the mage's face. She shook her head. "Sorry. I mean, this doesn't interest you, does it?"

"…no," the mage lied, reaching over and picking up a biscuit from the tray to divert the attention the girl was giving him. So Lucia had lied to her potential beau to cover Soren’s pride. Or had it been because of the kiss? Something else he would never know how to bring up in conversation.

She gave a slight nod. "Elincia was wondering if she could come up and see you later," she reported.

Soren nodded in return, nibbling at the biscuit before swallowing to speak. "She's the Queen. She may do whatever she desires."

"Yes, but…"

"Tell her that."

The girl nodded, watching carefully for a few more minutes to verify that the mage was actually eating this morning. "And Ike?"

Tension drew itself about Soren’s shoulders, causing him to curl slightly inward on himself. "What about him?" he asked, feeling his voice leave his lips in almost a hiss. Whether it was a tone of anger, or fear, even Soren could not say.
Mist backed off. She picked up on the edge that entered his voice, and knew that she shouldn’t press the matter further. Soren was eating, and she’d delivered the message from the Queen. This had been all she was sent to do. She gave a final, curt nod, and hurried for the door. "Elincia will be up later. Hope you feel better, Soren."

***

The view from her room was not as nice as the view from the balcony. But the sunlight pouring from the window was a comfort; though her own, personal world was haunted by unease, the rest of it was still calm and peaceful. It made her feel so small and insignificant, and for a queen who’d never expected the throne and often still didn’t see herself worthy of it, it consoled her somewhat to know that the world could go on without her. Even so, the apprehension that pervaded the castle seeped even into her own actions. She twisted her hair, tucked it back, and pulled it loose again, an air of disquiet about her as her fingers turned and played idly with the hem of her sleeve.

She was lucky, she supposed. Twice in the last week her life had been spared due to the actions of others. She was so fortunate and she could only pray that her luck did not change. The assassin who sought her life was still out there, and that thought filled her with dread. She did not know what she had done to call down such a fate upon herself – perhaps it was just the fact that she existed. Bastian, before he left for Begnion, had told her to be careful, for a new queen will always have her enemies. She had taken his words to heart, but she had certainly never thought that the enemies she’d have would come so soon, be so cruel, and search for such a grisly end.

But she was lucky, for she had more than the sun to comfort her.

"Who would've guessed, right?"

Elincia turned, a smile working onto her face as her doe eyes met Ike’s blue. Her mood instantly rose. She was not alone in this world, now. Even though Bastian had told her to be selective in her choice of husband, knowing that it would likely be a political choice for the good of the realm, when Ike had popped the question in the courtyard the day before, she hadn’t thought of saying anything other than yes. She knew her court would probably have some things to say about this, but she did not care. Especially not as Ike rose from the chair he’d been resting on and came over to her. "Here we are. Together. You and me," he said.

"Is it so strange?" she asked, her smile only widening as his hand cupped around her shoulder, pulling her into him. As ever, he smelled like the outdoors, of summer and sunshine. The light filtering in through the window could not hold a candle to the warmth in her heart as Ike drew her close.

"I don't know. What do you think? I mean, I'm a mercenary, and you're a Queen, and…" he trailed off, his own expression fond as he looked at the young queen.

"We're engaged," she finished the thought for him. She smiled. "I'm sure stranger things have happened." Still, it was a wonder. The surprise proposal, a surprise for them both, it had seemed, had come at a time of such darkness and fear for the queen. She’d been fearing for her life, not even wanting to step outside, but Ike was with her. And Ike had always made her feel so safe.

"When did you fall in love with me?" his voice took on a tone of genuine curiosity as he brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers. She smiled at the intimate touch, and leaned into it.

"Would it be too cliché if I said that it was the moment I saw you?" she questioned. His responding laughter removed her even further from the disquiet in her heart that she had been fretting over only minutes before.

"Would it be selfish of me to ask you to answer again? After all, the first time you saw me, you were scared out of your mind. I'm sure you were thinking of more important things than me."

What could be more important than you? she wanted to ask. But, at that time, Ike had been correct. She’d just seen her parents killed, her uncle holding a line that seemed suicidal so she could escape, her brother and sister joining in the fight that she thought would kill them, as well, and it had felt like her entire world was ending. But she was no longer thinking of such dark times. She was with Ike, and he was warm and real and beside her, and she could think of no one else in that moment. "Oh, stop, Ike. Begnion, then."

"Hm?"

"When you stood up for me in front of all those senators and the apostle. You said you didn't know that you were risking your life, but when you were told that… even still, you said you'd do it again… I think that's what did it. I think that's when I fell," she said. She looked deep into his eyes, finding them warm with compassion. It had been such a foolish thing for Ike to do, but where Ike was concerned, there was no rank or nobility that excluded you from good deeds and morals. It was his ability to see people as people, even in a court like the one Elincia lived in, that had started her thinking that he would make a good king. And slowly, the world ‘king’ had morphed into ‘husband’ in her mind. There was a comfortable silence following her words, during which the two remained standing in the middle of her room, embracing.

"What about you?" she returned after a while. "When did you fall for me?"

His response was immediate. "The moment I saw you."

Now it was her turn to laugh. "Ike…" she pressed, looking up at him with her chin resting on his chest.

"I think it was Gallia,” he finally began. “I just remember seeing you with Mist all the time, talking to her, comforting her after father died, even though you had suffered so much yourself… I love that about you. I knew from then on that I liked you. And then, after I met the senators and nobles in Bengion, and saw how different you were, I knew that you were something special. There's not another soul in the world like you, Elincia. I'd hate for the world to lose you. I'd hate to lose you."

The mood quickly turned back to the troubling situation at hand. She leaned against his chest, and he rested his chin gently on her head. He rubbed her back absently and each settled into their own silence.
It was broken by a soft knock at the door. The Queen pulled back from Ike a bit with a short sigh and looked in the direction of the noise. "Come in," she called.

Mist pushed the door open. Upon seeing her brother and the Queen with their arms around each other, she blushed, but so did Ike – he probably feared that his younger sister would use such a sight against him later as proof of his ‘sappy, sweet heart’. Which was certainly something that a general wasn’t really supposed to show. Still, Mist had a little tact. "Did I come at a bad time?" she asked quietly.

It was Ike’s turn to sigh, and perhaps in a show of his own stubbornness or trying to prove to his sister that he didn’t care what she thought, he kept his arms around Elincia. "It's fine, Mist. What is it?" her brother asked.

"I was just up in Soren's room. He said that you could go up and talk to him," she said, looking at the Queen.

"That's a relief," her brother gave a deep sigh. "I thought that he—"

"Not you, Ike. Just Elincia. I don't think he wants to see you," she said softly.

Ike tensed, and Elincia felt a weight settle in her chest. Soren had earned his nickname as ‘Ike’s shadow’ for a reason. The thought that the mage was cutting Ike off… Ike was as concerned about that as he was about the assassin, she was sure. "Soren said that?" the commander asked.

"No, but Soren doesn't say what he really thinks all the time,” Mist pointed out, sounding a bit sorry to be reporting this news. “He just made me leave when I brought up your name. He was… upset, it seemed like. I'd say that means he doesn't want to see you."

The Commander sighed, his arms falling to his sides as he turned to his fiancée. "That's all right,” he insisted, though the way his voice had lowered let Elincia know that it wasn’t.0” I'm sure… sure he'll... tell him I said hello, would you?"

Elincia gave him a faint smile. It was the least she could do. "I will. I promise."

Chapter Text

It took Soren twenty minutes to get dressed that morning. Well, he thought, it really couldn’t be counted as morning anymore, even though he’d just finished breakfast it was coming up to noon, at this point. The world seemed to be moving around him in this place and he was getting left behind, sluggish and tired.

He’d gone sleepless before, of course, sometimes by choice and sometimes not, more often he would just get distracted with work and then the sun would be rising. But while he could normally put himself together in about three minutes, the lethargy of his limbs had seeped into his mind, as well, and he was getting lost not in work, but thought. He caught himself brushing his hair for almost ten minutes and had to shake himself out of it – he’d been staring at his Brand in the mirror that whole time, still thinking of Lucia’s kiss from the night before. He grabbed only one leather hair tie – the hairstyle he normally wore seemed like too much effort today – and pulled the ponytail close to the back of his neck, keeping his hair out of his face. He was likely to be down in the library for a long time today, and dust had a tendency to cling to his hair. He didn’t want to spend his whole time sneezing, so the adjustment was a needed one.

He managed to keep his brain focused enough to dress warmly, putting on three lairs as it was likely to be cold in the library. It was a large room, and the heat of fires could only do so much when they were confined to the walls. So he’d need the extra layer to keep himself from getting distracted by a chill.

Still, he had to wonder if he was kidding himself. He’d gotten distracted using a comb this morning, did he really think he was going to get any sort of useful work done? It was unlikely. Because he kept thinking about all the people down the hall – of Lucia and her strange courtship, tossing back and forth between Kieran and himself. Of Ike and what had happened last night even though he was trying to block it out, and wondering if the Commander had missed him at breakfast. And of his real reason for getting dressed today, the Queen, who was due to come visit him any time now. He had to be presentable, at least, and look like himself. He didn’t want any undue concern from her. Getting it from Mist was one thing. For, if Ike was his brother, then Mist was his sister. She wasn’t as close family as Ike had always been for Soren, but she was still a presence he tolerated more than most people. A little sister, one that had spent time using his tomes as coloring books while he tried to teach her how to read and other things as older brothers do… she annoyed him enough to be considered family.

But he was getting distracted again. He finished tying on his belt around his waist, something his fingers had been fumbling to do for about two minutes now, and huffed out a sigh. What was wrong with him? He massaged at his temples and closed his eyes. The cacophony of thought inside his mind was so loud that he almost missed the knock on his door.

The Queen's knock was much softer than that of his first visitor. The mage straightened up, glancing over at the mirror in his room one more time to make sure he was, indeed, presentable, before he called a welcome. "Come in, then."

Elincia entered and simply stood there, looking at him. His pallor was still drained from his sleep, or maybe that was how he always looked, she could never tell… she'd never really looked at him before, but he'd always been in her fiancé's shadow. She wondered now how she could've overlooked him so easily, when he'd studied everything with such tedium that he'd been able to act and save her life… But as she studied him now, something seemed… off. It wasn’t in his appearance, for he seemed to be as put together as she could expect him to be, especially after last night. While Ike had been closer and the fear in Soren’s eyes had meant so much more to the commander, Elincia hadn’t missed seeing it, either. And for a character so stoic and cold as Soren had always been, it had come as a shock to her. And now, something still seemed wrong, when she looked into his eyes. She couldn’t think of a word for it, except the one that described the feeling she had been faced with all day, as well – disquiet.

"…did you need something from me, Queen Elincia?"

"Thank you, my Lord Soren," she said, breaking out of her thoughts and stating the purpose of her visit. “You saved my life, last night. I owe you a debt that I am unsure how to repay – please, ask something of me so that I can thank you properly,” she insisted. It was the only way she could think of to give the mage anything, he had to request it. For even Ike had seemed at a loss when Elincia had asked him what she should thank the mage with. When the best Ike could come up with was ‘ink? Parchment? Maybe a new ledger sheet?’ she’d made the mental note that Ike was a terrible gift-giver and resolved to ask Soren herself. Perhaps she should have been unsurprised by his response.

"Nonsense, I don’t need anything. I was only performing as any of your guards would have, had they perceived the threat. You're welcome, regardless,” he said as he turned to mess with a sheet on his writing desk. The broken eye contact made Elincia wonder if he didn’t know how to take gratitude. For, even as short a time as Elincia had been around Soren, he didn’t look down for no reason. The mage had quite a bit of pride in that small body, and he he seemed to hate lowering himself to anyone. Well, anyone except Ike. Which brought her to her next thought.

She could not read his expression cast down as it was, but she saw it change at her next words. "Ike says hello." Elincia saw his shoulders tense and a ghost of unease settle upon his face.

"That's nice," he responded tersely. "If that was all, then you'll have to excuse me, I'm very busy…"

"Soren, I'm sorry."

The mage’s head jerked up, shocked. What could she possibly be apologizing for? The queen had done no wrong. It had always seemed like Elincia could do no wrong, and while it had taken Soren quite a while to get over the fact that she had Ike’s favor (he really tried not to be petty, and he knew that he and Elincia held different parts of Ike’s heart) he had… warmed up to her. Or at least the thought of her. At any rate, he held no grudge against her for anything, right now, so why was she sorry? Though, a part of his mind whispered to him "it's about time that someone is.."

"I've caused so much trouble for you. It was because of me that Ike lashed out at you like that. I'm sorry."

"…yes. All right," he nodded to her, and relaxed ever so slightly. It was a worthy thing to be sorry for. Even if he didn’t blame her for all of this. He didn’t know who was to blame, if anyone. The assassin, perhaps. He needed to get back to work, end this mess, so things could go back to something like normal. "If that's all, then…" he glanced over to the door, and she took the dismissal this time.

"Of course. I'm sorry to interrupt. Thank you for talking to me," she began to pull the door to after her when she heard him speak her name.

"Queen Elincia, wait."

She looked into the room again. He seemed to hesitate a moment, but continued speaking. "Lucia… would you send Lucia up here? I need to…" he pointed vaguely to his writing desk, and she nodded.

"I'll send her."

"…she'll come?"

She was surprised at the doubt that entered his tone. "I'm sure, if I tell her. Do you want that?" she sensed his unease, but he nodded in confirmation. "All right. She'll be up without delay."

He said nothing more, and turned back to his desk as she closed the door.

***

A cock crow, echoing blithely, roused the predator from a fitful slumber which had been anything but restful. In fact, he could not even remember a time when he had felt so exhausted. His head was too heavy for his neck and even the simple act of keeping his eyes open seemed to require a huge effort. And with that exhaustion also came immense pain. Only years of discipline kept the predator from groaning aloud as he, with reluctance, came to his senses. The room he had awoken in was frigid, as if all of the chill remaining to the waning winter had been gathered here to impress upon him the direness of his situation. His lungs felt choked, as though half full of water, and blood red splotches performed a terrible dance before his eyes. Every bone in his body flared in pain that verged on overwhelming - being trampled by a horse could not have caused such agony - while his joints felt impossibly stiff and limbs leaden.

The only thing he could still move freely were his throbbing eyes...which informed him that, in addition to his other misfortunes, he was now in chains.

His boneless neck flopped his too-heavy head in another direction, and he could dimly perceive that he was in a large, dank chamber of stone. Manacles and chains, some containing the remains of their occupants who greeted the newcomer with perpetual grins and sightless eyes, lined the walls and sunlight entered in jagged streaks from a grated window situated mockingly far above the captive. Across from him stood a door of sturdy wood, heavily reinforced, and with a slotted portal at its top and bottom.

A dungeon, but whose?

His mind, no less languid than the rest of him, tried to recall what had happened. The possibility occurred to him that he had been caught by the queen's men, but he discarded that notion quickly. The queen was too soft to employ such a macabre tactic as letting a prisoner share a cell with a number of corpses. Even in the predator's profession, he'd seen such a tactic only a handful of times, and never from this perspective.

Once more, the predator tried to recall the events of the previous evening. He remembered, with bitter clarity, that the dour mage he'd spied in the royal carriage had thwarted the predator's second attempt to assassinate the queen, as well as the blue haired sellsword's rather startling announcement. He recalled also that, after the queen's brother and his fiery subordinate had blundered their way through an investigation of the kitchen and its staff, the castle had been sealed in case the would-be assassin was lurking about.

This had resurrected the vexing question of why the predator had gone to the party when his own instincts warned him against such a thing. Still, when he saw that several of the guests were being questioned, he realized that his inexplicable lapse in judgment might soon cost him dearly.

Luckily, he had not completely taken leave of his senses; for he had brought with him a means of escape.

His still throbbing eyes spied a small pouch at his belt, filled with an arcane powder whose contents would have made the predator the envy of many a mage.

Warp Powder.

The substance had been a most fortuitous discovery, made by certain parties in the employ of the predator's client amidst the ruins of Nados Castle, which had become tomb to the infamous Black Knight of Daein. The pouch had been entrusted to the predator in order to facilitate the assassination, as well as a means of escape should things go awry.

So, why did the Warp Powder transport him here? Or, did it? The predator could not say, his head was still full of fog and his normally keen wits had been made slow and dull by pain and exhaustion. Neither, however, blinded the predator to one grim fact.

He was now helpless. The predator had become the prey, ensnared and awaiting the trapper's return.

And, as it turned out, his wait was brief. The stout locks on the door rattled abruptly and the door was flung open. At the threshold stood a pair of armored knights, their chest plates emblazoned with the emblem of the lord's house. And, in a starburst of realization, the predator realized just where he had found himself. And that it was just about the last place he wanted to be at that moment.

The dungeon he had found himself in was that of his client, and so too were these armored guards.

The pair did not explain the reason for their presence but, then again, they hardly needed to. With a thunderous succession of clanks, they approached the bound predator, unlocked his manacles and hauled him to his feet. After seeing that the predator was in no condition to walk, they exchanged disgusted stares and literally dragged their captive out of the dungeon, down a corridor and up several flights of stairs. The predator, still barely half conscious from the aftereffects of the Warp Powder, lapsed into a feverish slumber that left him even more exhausted, and awoke to find himself seated in a crude wooden chair. The coldness of iron at his wrists and ankles wordlessly informed him that he had been placed in shackles once more. Forcing his groans of pain and weariness to echo only in his skull, he laboriously raised his head to scan his surroundings.

And, before him, stood his client.

Ludveck, duke of Felirae, loomed menacingly above the defenseless predator, clad in armor more ornate than his guards and leaning upon the haft of an enormous axe. His face was pinched with anger and, fuming, he backhanded the predator with bone jarring force.

"You have failed!" Ludveck snarled, quaking with rage. The predator, again trapping any outcry that might escape and further demean him in Ludveck's eyes, forced his gaze into an ungainly swivel to meet the duke's cold stare.

Though I may be outmaneuvered, though I may be cornered, I am never defenseless.

"I have already learned of your failure," Ludveck went on. "Indeed, it's all anyone will speak of this day! I gave you the perfect weapon to eliminate that upstart wench, practically bankrupted myself in so doing, and you have disappointed me. Not once, but twice! Your reputation did not paint you as so... inept."

The predator refused to be baited. Ludveck was, no doubt, expecting him to grovel or to offer excuses, but the predator would do nothing of the sort. Instead, he leered back at Ludveck in silent defiance. The Duke, seeing his menacing scowl did nothing to cow the predator, backhanded the captive a second time.

"My men found you passed out in the woods after you used the Warp Powder to escape the castle and brought you back here," Ludveck went on. "I passed a restless night, as I imagine you did, wondering how you could have blundered this assignment. Now you understand why you were not my first choice?”

The duke shifted his grip on the axe, drawing it up and back over his head like an executioner whose victim was bound and thrust upon the block.

"Tell me," he entreated, "why should I let you live after this debacle? Why should I not recoup at least a little of the expense I've put myself to, and keep your head as well as your pay?"

Nothing in nature is stronger, swifter, or cagier than a cornered animal. Those who try to ensnare me will be defeated by their own overconfidence.

"I offer no explanations," the predator replied, each word demanding an effort. "Certainly no excuses. I offer only one reason why you should let me continue my mission: you can't afford to do otherwise, because the wench is about to do worse than you ever thought possible."

There was a gray blur, and the predator sensed the blade of the axe scraping against the soft flesh beneath his jaw. Ludveck, who had leaned forward to glower into the predator's face, gnashed his teeth in fury while the whites of his eyes became shot through with crimson hairlines. "And, just what is she about to do?" he demanded, voice still quaking with unchecked rage.

But when the predator spoke, his voice was even, informative, and almost detached. "She is going to marry Ike of the Greil Mercenaries."

The muscles in Ludveck's face suddenly went slack. His furious countenance ran like molten iron, his snarling jaws suddenly parting and drooping to dangle limply in undisguised shock and, if the predator's still pained eyes did not deceive him, abject horror.

Ludveck's axe trembled under the predator's chin as the hands holding the weapon's haft suddenly quaked. The duke, regaining at least a portion of his composure, began to probe the predator's face, no doubt seeking some hint of duplicity. The predator instead leered back, though more in impatience than anger, wordlessly daring the duke to follow through on his initial plan to slay the predator...

...and, in so doing, doom himself to bending his knee to a common-born sellsword.

After a long, long moment, the duke blew out an aggravated breath and gestured to the armored guards, who had flanked the door outside the predator's field of vision. The pair noisily approached, unshackled the predator and hauled him to his feet, almost gently this time.

"Take him to the guest chambers on the far side of the east wing, and make sure no one enters that room except for myself," he instructed, then met the predator's gaze once more. "I would advise that you get some rest. You have much to do in the coming days."

With that, the armored guards hauled the predator away from the duke and the jaws of death.

Though the predator can be cornered, he cannot be taken. I will lick my wounds, rest my body and then seek out my prey once more. A wound, a setback, a defeat, even a brush with death, only serve to make the predator wiser, craftier and deadlier, as well as sweetening the flavor of the kill. By surviving, my prey only ensures their demise.

Chapter Text

Lucia had been in the midst of putting together a plan to capture the assassin when the summons was passed to her from Elincia. She had been called to Soren’s study – for an unknown reason, Elincia had said she didn’t ask – and she was to go see him immediately. It had seemed urgent, her sister said. The young Queen remained in Lucia’s room as she quickly gathered up a few papers, assuming that the mage would want to receive an update on the current proceedings, and if she was any closer to finding the assassin. For what else could he want? It wasn’t like him to talk about feelings or anything of the sort – Lucia knew this from how much she’d had to pry at him during the Coronation ball. But then again… last night had been… something else.

When Soren had disappeared from the room, Lucia had already noticed the clear evidence of fear on his features, and from the pallor of his face and the quickness of his breath it had become quickly apparent to the young woman that the mage was going into shock. Of course, no one expected the outburst of rage from Ike, but least of all Soren, it seemed. To be so quickly and easily put at the mercy of Ike’s anger was not something she’d want to experience herself, and to see Soren treated in such a manner had nearly sent her reeling into her own sort of stupor. This was Ike's closest friend and most trusted companion. That Ike could snap that trust so quickly… and over Elincia, no less… she wasn’t sure what to think.

But certainly, Soren had needed someone after his retreat from the room.

So Lucia had been the one to go. As prone to disappearing into the shadows as the mage was, she found him in surprisingly little time. He was on the balcony, the same one that they had danced on that night, and seeing him doubled over and shaking in the same spot where she had once kissed him left her feeling compassion mingled with a faint sense of irony. It had been barely a month, and so much had changed. She was supposed to be keeping her feelings concerning Soren at bay, even if only for the sake of a game to win an apology from him. His seeming spurning of her after that first night hadn’t been forgotten, after all. But seeing him vulnerable like this, his stoic mask cracked and ripped away, motivated her to act. He needed a gentle, guiding hand, or she worried that he would never make it back to his chambers on his own, or not calm his breathing enough and lose consciousness, and someone in this state needed someone else. She told herself that it was duty that had her taking responsibility of the mage that evening, but it certainly wasn’t out of duty that she had gentled him back to his chambers, sat with him until he calmed down, and kissed his forehead over that mark.

“Lucia, you’re blushing.”

The young swordswoman jumped a little as Elincia spoke. She’d been so lost in thought that she’d nearly forgotten her sister’s presence. The Queen smiled at her faintly, and there was something sage in her amber eyes as she regarded Lucia.

“Are you thinking about him?” she asked, a small, leading smile on her features as Lucia quickly turned away, taming her blush.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, your Majesty,” she answered quickly, and Elincia shook her head.

“What is all this business with Kieran, Lucia? Do you truly intend to court two men at once? If you do, you should at least let Kieran know about it.”

“And risk him challenging Soren to a duel over my affections? No thank you,” Lucia retorted. Elincia almost laughed at that. After all, the image of the tiny mage facing down a knight of Crimea was something certainly strange. Lucia hurriedly stuffed the paper she’d need into a bag at her side, so she could carry them to Soren’s room. She didn’t want to think about this anymore. She knew leading Kieran on like this was wrong, especially since she’d only taken his hand for the look on Soren’s face, but… she was in this too deep now. Certainly she’d think of something to fix all of this, but the more that time passed, the more she wondered if she had made a mistake. She’d certainly never say so aloud, but…

“I must be off, then, sister,” she said to Elincia, giving her a smile. “I’ll update Soren on what I’ve found so far, and see if he has any ideas as to how we should proceed. Don’t worry – we’ll capture this assassin before he can take any more steps against you.”

Elincia nodded, relief on her features. “Thank you, Lucia,” was all she said before they parted ways, Elincia back to her own chambers and Lucia heading for Soren’s.

When she opened the door, she found him bent over his papers so that his bangs brushed them, his chin nearly resting in the inkwell. She cleared her throat to call attention to her presence, and he looked up to her.

"You called for me?" she asked.

"And you came." He looked mildly intrigued by this fact, even though he had known that she wouldn't have refused the Queen's order.

“Of course I did,” she said, training her tone to sound indifferent. Last night… had that been a mistake, too? Certainly not all of it, but that kiss… she found herself staring at Soren’s brow, at that red mark. He apparently noticed her gaze, because after a moment or two he was clearing his throat and reaching up to brush his bangs over the Brand, cheeks taking on a slightly pinkish hue. He quickly moved to divert the attention from himself.

"I was wondering if you were any closer to finding the Queen's attacker."

There it was, she had been right. Though whether these words were an evasion to divert her attention from the place she had kissed him last or asked out of genuine curiosity was something she doubted she could figure out. “I’ve brought the reports from my network,” she said, motioning to the bag at her side. He motioned to his desk, indicating she had free use of it for now, and she took the offer. As she sat down her bag and started pulling out papers, she couldn’t help but notice what he had been working on.

“That’s quite a collection of encyclopedias you have there. Are they all on plants?” she queried. The mage nodded.

“Ike requested that I look into the cure to the poison. Just as a safety net,” he informed her, and she nodded.

“Well, while I hate to distract you from that… I may be needing your help baiting in the assassin. You see, if the man that I suspect hired him – and with recent attempts to capture him as proof – he’s chosen someone clever and elusive. I…” she paused as she flipped through the papers she had brought, letting out a sigh. “I left my most incriminating piece of evidence in the drawer of my desk,” she finished, shaking her head. Too lost in thought, she had been, and now she was forgetting such simple things… she was acutely aware of Soren’s eyes on her, and the lightly entertained look in them. Did he suspect it was because she had been thinking of him while she was getting everything together? She wasn’t someone prone to distraction, but Soren was getting past her defenses.

"Shall I go with you to get it?" he asked, tilting his head.

"I… sure," she relented. He shadowed her as she left the room.

She wondered distantly if he had heard about her spat with Kieran this morning. Was it because of that that he had found the courage to ask her to come back and visit him today? Well, if he wanted to question her on it, certainly it would wait until they had settled their business. Neither of them were known for letting their emotions get in the way of work, even though that seemed to be a fact that was more fluid than either of them thought originally. But she doubted Soren had the words to talk about last night, or the courage to ask about the fight this morning. It had really been quite petty on Kieran’s part. He had not been able to let go of the fact that she had disappeared after the assassination attempt, and while he had originally seemed worried that she had been harmed, her evasions and insistence on not talking about it had made him grow something like suspicious. She worried if she had blown her cover… or if it was just finally time for her to tell Kieran that he was not the only man she had on her mind.

But it could wait. Kieran kept proving himself as not only tolerable, but likeable, and a good man at heart. He was genuinely who he was, and that was admirable to a certain degree. Lucia had never met someone quite like Kieran, and the further she went with him, the more she began to worry if she would change that.

But, it could wait. There was work to be done.

She pushed the door of her room open, and when Soren hesitated at the door, she inclined her head to invite him in. She went at once to her mahogany writing desk and pulled from the top drawer a yellowed map of Melior and a tightly folded manuscript with a freshly broken seal. The map was spread on the surface of the desk, and the manuscript placed in his awaiting hand. Red eyes pried for information even before his fingers unfolded the parchment – from the first glance, he gleaned that the worn report had come a long way. Second observation, and the design of the seal, revealed the origin; Felirae. He made the connection quickly.

"You suspect Ludveck?"

"His province is in the north, and that region is most known for the plants that grow there. I wouldn't be surprised if he had the capacity to grow Hviskra Murthre himself. And if not, he's a lord. He certainly has the resources to procure such a rare toxin."

The mage nodded at once, and she suspected an appeal to her better nature. "The evidence does seem incriminating. Does he have motive?"

"He covets the throne," she said.

She noted, with more than a hint of incredulity, that Soren seemed to find her reasoning unsound. He lifted his gaze to her and quirked his brow. “I’m sure half the lords on the council do,” he intoned.

"Publically," she added pointedly. "During several meetings of the court and senate, he has made scathing criticisms of the queen and her governance. Some of the other senators have also warned us that he's privately intimated that the queen is unfit to rule Crimea and should be... replaced. Apparently, he was doing far more than just whining," she said, smiling as she saw him nod in reply.

"It seems rather risky for him to do this when he's been such a vocal opponent of the Queen," Soren remarked, causing Lucia’s expression to freeze a little. She wasn’t someone that like to be disagreed with, after all. However, Soren continued. "But he could be the impulsive sort. Or maybe he's hoping to be overlooked because he's too obvious a suspect. What else do you know?"

"We've been watching him for about three months now. He seemed the sort of man to be wary of. But there is no solid evidence that ties him to the assassination attempts. We cannot act," she said, frowning.

"So… would you like my input?" he seemed worried for a moment, hinted by his hesitation, but she encouraged him with a nod.

"We need to capture the assassin."

She was offended. Did he really think that—

"Listen to me Lucia," Soren cut in forcibly. "I don't think this covert investigation is enough. I may not know Ludveck as well as you do but, if he is behind this, I'm sure he'd take the simple precaution of making sure to conceal or destroy anything incriminating. There might not be anything for your spies and informants to find. So, we should focus on acquiring the one piece of evidence that Ludveck can't afford to hide or get rid of, at least not yet."

"The assassin himself," Lucia finished, realizing that he was right.

"Exactly. Assuming that the assassin who tried to poison the queen is the same one who fired that poison tipped bolt at her, this assassin has already failed twice. And, from what you told me about Hviskra Murthre, those were expensive failures. By now, the assassin has to be worried, and desperate. He could find himself a target of Ludveck himself if he fails again. So, we have to play on that desperation. We'll make it look like he has the perfect opportunity to assassinate the queen, and then we'll spring our trap."

"Assassins don't readily betray their clients. What if he doesn't tell us anything?"

"He might reconsider... after we tell the town criers to announce that he already has."

"Which means Ludveck will target him, just as you supposed, and implicating Ludveck will be his only chance for survival." Lucia knew well Elincia’s tendency towards mercy. And if this assassin ultimately proved useful to them, the Queen very well might let him go free. She considered this, and him, and her trust in his reasoning, before a faint smile drew upon her face.

"And, just what sort of trap do you have in mind?" she asked.

"A decoy."

Lucia’s eyebrows lifted. Of course… she seemed to suddenly grow excited. He had an answer – of course he had an answer to the problem she couldn’t puzzle out on her own. "You mean…"

"A false Queen. Have someone pretend to be Elincia. Someone, of course, that would be willing to give their life for her, in the event things go awry, but…"

"We could have men stationed around to look for the attacker…"

"Exactly! And when the attack comes…"

"We won't have to worry about the Queen! We can get him!" she smiled at him, in wholehearted support. "Brilliant, Soren!"

He mimicked her expression, the smile seeming a little more stretched on his lips that were not used to the expression, but it was genuine all the same. "Well…"

"Really, it's a brilliant idea, I should've consulted you sooner, I—"

Feeling impulsive, she grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him in. It was remarkably like their first kiss, especially when it only lasted a few seconds and ended with him recoiling away from her with a soft hiss.

“Oh- Ashera, Soren, I…” she began. Her face felt like it was glowing. What the hell was she doing? She was supposed to be trying to make him jealous, and she kept doing foolish things like this! However, her stammered apologies faded off when she realized why he had so quickly jerked away – it did not seem to be in reaction to the kiss itself. Not from the way he had curled in on himself, hands going to his shoulders where Lucia had just grabbed him… where Ike had grabbed him the night before.

“Ashera, are you hurt?” she asked, fighting to conceal the worry in his tone. Soren was quick to wave off her concern – he wasn’t used to it and it wasn’t useful to him.

“Bruised. That’s all,” he said softly, regaining his composure and reaching up to touch his lips. They tingled a little, and from Lucia’s blush, there was probably a mark left behind there. The color staining her lips today was, likely, staining his as well. “…it’s fine. I’ll just… we can talk about this later…” he began, when the moment was interrupted by the door bursting open.

"My lady! Are you in there?" Kieran said as the door banged against the wall. Soren grimaced a little and tried to step into a shadow. Luckily, Kieran only had eyes for "Lucia!" His gaze moved over the mage without seeing him and went straight to the Queen's sister. He hurried to her side and grabbed her hands.

"Lucia, I must speak with you!"

"Kieran, I'm working on—"

"I'm so sorry I yelled at you this morning! It was out of line. I should've never lost my temper. I'm sorry!"

"It's fine, now, if you please—" she said, trying to pry her hands from his grip. Good grief, for as sweet as Kieran could be, he certainly was pushy. And he didn’t relent.

"But I must know, Lucia. Where did you go? Why did you leave the party?"

"That's none of your concern. I'm trying to—"

"Why won't you tell me? Are you in some sort of danger? I can help you! Tell me!"

The woman pulled her hands from him. "Kieran, I'm trying to work!"

"But Lucia—"

The mage grit his teeth. All this yelling, he'd have a headache later if this didn't stop… "She was with me," he interjected. The knight turned and looked shocked to see that he and his "lady" were not alone. Even Lucia wore an expression of surprise – with what had happened last night, how distraught Soren had been, she had assumed it was something that the mage would never speak of again.

"…you?" the knight asked, suspicion creeping into his eyes.

"Yes, Kieran. I was only thanking Soren for saving Elincia. That's it."

He frowned, brow furrowed, as he turned his doubtful gaze to Lucia. "And you wouldn't tell me that, why?"

When she didn't answer, he whirled on the mage. "Why wouldn't she tell me?"

"How should I know? Please… Lucia, I'm going back to my room—" he began, trying to dodge around Kieran. He couldn’t stand people, why was he even here?

"And why are you in here now?" the knight asked, echoing the mage’s thought aloud.

"Kieran, we are trying to catch the person who's made two attempts to assassinate the queen. I would appreciate it if you let us get back to work."

The mage felt his stomach tighten. It was if he could sense what was coming after Lucia had spoken those words, with that hostile tone. He needed to leave, and now, he didn't want to be dragged into this… even though he had the suspicion he was already involved too deeply to get out.

The knight was in his way. "I just wanted to know, Lucia. I was only concerned," his voice was tight with anger.

"Well, as you can see, I'm fine. Maybe you should do something more useful, like protect the Queen, more like Soren?"

"Soren?" he grit his teeth. "If you want to spend so much time with him, then why am I here?"

She straightened to her full height, tilting her chin up. "We were working."

"Oh, I'm so sorry that I interrupted!" the scorn in his voice made the mage wince. "I'll just let you get back to your quality time, then!"

"It's not like that, Kieran!"

"Ashera, will you stop!" the mage seldom raised his voice, but when he did, he commanded the attention he wanted. "I couldn’t think straight, and then Lucia was there, and she got me back to my chambers and- and it was just a kiss, Kieran, she really didn’t-“ he realized his mistake too late. Kieran’s eyes focused on the mage’s lips, and red imprint on them, and his expression smoldered.

"…you kissed her?"

The mage looked to Lucia, who seemed both appalled and angry. "Soren, you weren't supposed to—"

"You kissed her?"

"She…" Soren scrambled for words that he didn’t end up needing, because then Kieran’s voice was rising over his.

"She's with me! I’m courting her! You… half-blood scum! How dare you!"

Soren edged towards the door, jaw clenching. "She kissed me!" he said, and he couldn’t help his glance towards Lucia. Shock and anger seemed to be at war on her expression, as well as something else that Soren couldn’t quite place, but it looked like… guilt?

"I can't believe you!" Kieran shouted at the mage. Then he whirled to face the woman. "I can't believe you! I—" he broke off and finished with a glare, the expression saying everything. He stormed from the room.

Soren looked to her. The war of emotion on her face had gone, and it was frozen over once again. Her face was tight, unreadable. She looked to him. "Leave," she commanded shortly.

He complied at once, feeling sick to his stomach. He knew it was a bad idea to leave his room today, and now, he had ruined everything. Any emotion Lucia was feeling towards him had to be gone now, after that little outburst. He couldn't believe the words that had come out of his mouth - had he really just confessed what had happened to Kieran? Kieran, of all people! It would be all over the castle by this afternoon, and then what chance would he have? And the words Kieran had said...

Half-blood scum...

How did he know?

Chapter Text

Few signs of the newly ended winter lingered in the hills and forests of Crimea; much of the snow that had once blanketed the land having reduced to an ever-diminishing slush which now quenched the thirst of the newborn plants and awakening trees. Much of the grass, still drenched with melted snow, lay damp and bedraggled while many of the trees were still bare, only the tiny beginnings of leaves present to herald the rich season ahead. With an early spring bubbling to life in full force - promising hills overgrown with flowers and the richest of harvests - many a man or woman would have found themselves grinning from ear to ear simply by wandering through the land and taking in the sight of the burgeoning renewal dawning all around them.

The pleasantries of these sights, however, were lost on the first such wanderer.

I am the Wolf.

There was a faint rustling amidst the largely bare trees and damp branches trembled as if stirred by an unfelt breeze.

Or, jostled by an unseen weight.

The vast expanse of sky, once a mirror to the sprawling plains of ice below, had acquired blemishes of blue as the early spring continued to make its presence known. The dour clouds of winter, fragmenting under sunlight, rolled on by as if in dejected resignation to the turning of the season as white and blue continued its slow march across the heavens.

Nearer to earth, another pattern of white and blue took to the air, seeming to weave itself into the sky, before another tree trembled under an unseen weight.

This branch, however, trembled more violently than the first. There was a howl that no winter wind could produce and the tip of the branch bent downward at a hideous angle.

I will endure whatever pitfalls mar my path with patience and cunning.

The howl was abruptly swallowed and, after a moment, the groaning branch straightened. The blur of white and blue continued its journey across the treetops, eventually finding a place where it seemed content to settle. At least, for the moment.

I seek out my prey, observe them and plan my hunt.

The blue and white upon the tree rippled and then seemed to recede while a deep brown appeared from within it. The figure then settled against the upper trunk of the tree as if it had been there for years.

But, this was neither a part of the tree nor a part of the sky.

This being did, however, sometimes consider itself to be a part of the natural order of things nonetheless.

It was the Wolf.

But, this was no iron gray lupine with claws and fangs. Instead, this Wolf possessed claws and fangs far deadlier than any animal of forest, sea or sky. The deep brown which had melded into the tree stirred, so slightly that any who spied it might mistake the sight for a sun spawned illusion. Nonetheless, a hallow formed in the tree's newly added bark and, from within, two eyes gleamed in the darkness.

The Wolf had found the vantage point from which to stalk his prey.

And so, he watched. And, he wished he hadn't.

The first day of observing his prey, the very day after the Queen's second brush with death, saw her deliver her belated thanks to the dour youth who'd thwarted the predator once already. Eyes narrowed at the sight, noting the blithe confidence that the Queen displayed as she strolled down the expansive corridors of the castle. Her confidence, however, was not completely unfounded. Armored guards patrolled the corridors, in larger numbers than was customary and on a heightened alert following the narrowly avoided disaster the previous evening. Not to mention the signs of other defenders which one with lesser eyes than the Wolf might've missed.

Hints of sharp blades and even sharper eyes gleaming from within the shadows. Pairs of boots that peeked out from beneath the larger tapestries. Long avenues of ornamental suits of armor, where the illusion that the armor might seem ready to spring to life was no illusion at all. And, to round out the castle's newly bolstered defenses, teams of falconers with their birds and archers with their weapons now roamed the parapets, on the alert for any other attempts to murder from a distance.

The prey may be alert, the prey may be fast, the prey might even be clever. But, inevitably, that will fail them; I need only be ready to take advantage of it.

It was not, however, the prey's attempts at staving off the inevitable that soured the Wolf's stomach, however. The Wolf continued to study his prey as she found her fiancé... and the Wolf found himself wondering if the two of them would ever separate. For countless hours - for days - the Wolf lurked in his tree and watched. Seemingly from dawn to dusk, the Queen was alongside the uncouth churl whose ring she inexplicably wore. He watched as they shared their meals in the castle's dining hall, the Queen snickering at her fiancé devouring quantities of food that would've satisfied any other man for the better part of a week. He watched as they sat together at her desk, no doubt trying to improve the churl's command of the written word, and more often than not ended up flinging ink in each other's faces instead. He watched as the pair took to the training field and engaged in mock duels that, more often than not, ended with the pair chasing each other about like small children or rolling around on the turf kissing one another feverishly. And, in what the Wolf's client would surely consider the gravest insult, he watched as the pair greeted official visitors of all classes and descriptions, the sellsword making a point of clasping the hand of all comers.

A few of those thusly accosted wiped their hands on their kerchiefs, but others gazed at their hands as if they'd suddenly transformed into some sort of sacred relic.

It's a pity she's the only one my client wants dead.

In fact, the contagion that the Queen had unleashed seemed to be spreading, and rapidly. One of those official meetings the Wolf had observed involved the Queen and the sellsword meeting with the Queen's brother and a teal-haired halberdier, who looked like an even greater bumpkin than the unkempt tomboy that the Queen was so fond of. In fact, this bumpkin seemed ever more tomboyish. She was lanky and gawky and, if she were any more muscular, he might've suspected her as the first woman berserker. The Wolf recalled that he had seen her before; after all, even the irrelevant did not escape his sharp eyes. The New Year's Party was not the only time the Wolf had penetrated the castle, though another attempt would surely prove more complicated. At the coronation party, he had seen the bumpkin, looking satisfyingly abashed at her battered, patchwork armor and her rustic features. This did not, however, stop the Queen's brother from stooping to ask her for a dance. And, after a blush stained her cheeks with seeming permanence, she had had the audacity to accept. His nauseating displays had not stopped there either, for he had been quite eager to share his evening meal and wine with her and, after noting her newfound fondness for chocolate that rose in a small hill on his dessert plate, had insisted that she take the entire dish.

He had seen her a second time - much to his revulsion – at the Christmas Party. She had dressed more formally, in a teal colored evening gown, but a silk-clad ragamuffin was still a ragamuffin nonetheless. The two had danced again and, according to the gossip that had reached his ears, the Queen's brother had stooped all the further by visiting the bumpkin's family and bringing modest, but significant offerings for their boorish hospitality. More than a few of the more mutton headed ladies in waiting found this flirtation quite endearing, and had even called it a courtship. The Wolf had ignored it, more for the benefit of his already twisting stomach than from any carelessness, but the meeting he beheld forced the memory to the forefront of his mind…and nearly forced the contents of his stomach to add a new coloring to his camouflage.

That the Queen's brother and the bumpkin clasped hands as they knelt caused a sickened supposition to form in the Wolf's mind. The Queen rising to meet the pair and planting a familial kiss on each of their cheeks was a strong hint. And, the Wolf's suspicion were confirmed with nauseating clarity when, from then on, the Queen's brother and the bumpkin began seeing each other on a near-weekly basis. They were courting, with the Queen's blessing.

The Queen's sister - the so-called rational one - was even worse. The Wolf had observed her as well during his earlier visits, noting that she had no objection to her brother courting a bumpkin. Worse still, the Wolf saw her dancing with the dour youth who had averted the Queen's death last night. But, the two of them had met only infrequently since a spat between them at the Christmas Party, which soon degenerated into bickering. Yet, the Wolf saw them meet again during the first day of his vigil, standoffish and distant, yet he could sense an undercurrent of longing in these squabbles and, whenever the Queen's sister was in the company of the red haired knight, her discomfiture was obvious. A lover's quarrel, but one of the more peculiar pairs of lovers the Wolf had seen in some time. One of them being another sellsword, from what he could tell. Now, the Wolf could not tell whether it was the woman with the emerald tresses or one or both of her azure haired siblings who had been the source this contagion.

It was, however, a moot point. The Queen, it seemed, was not the only one about to throw the propriety of her station to the wind. Still, the Wolf remained focused. He could not afford distractions, especially not now. For the Wolf was in danger of finding himself hunted as well.

The Wolf's news of the Queen's engagement to the sellsword had, as expected, earned a measure of leniency for his past failures, but the client was not yet willing to overlook the expense he'd put himself to in financing an assassination which had yet to succeed. During their most recent meeting, the client had intimated that, the next time the Wolf failed to deliver a return on this particular investment, it would be the last.

The Wolf continued to watch the pair, his guts roiling from more than just the sellsword's horrifying eating habits.

The sellsword was baiting him.

As if the churl on the Queen's arm could sense the Wolf's dilemma, the sellsword was taunting the Wolf with this seeming display of careless affection that belied a simple but effective strategy. The Wolf could see the sellsword in the dining hall, clearing a table full of food while his fiancée gently teased him, but the Wolf could also see that the sellsword always had the Queen sit in a chair with its back to the window. The large ornate chairs seemed as if to devour her lithe figure, presenting no target for any ranged attack. The training field where the engaged couple waged their duels and, the Wolf suspected, waged trysts as well, was more defensible than the castle itself. Forested with towers for archery training, festooned practice dummies for melee combat practice and littered with obstacles which mounted warriors were trained to weave around and leap over, the Wolf might as well have tried to assail a beehive with a stick. Even the questionable sojourns to the Queen's chambers had some cunning behind them, for the windows had been newly reinforced with thicker panes of glass which might very well require a battering ram to penetrate. What's more, the corridor leading there was a veritable gauntlet of guards, visible and concealed. Even the balcony, a seemingly glaring weakness, presented still another layer of defense. A menagerie of exotic birds had been arranged upon the stone proturbence, which would surely erupt in a discordant symphony of frightened screeching at the sudden appearance of a stranger. And, even were that obstacle overcome, the door connecting the balcony to the Queen's chambers was doubtless barred from within.

As a final defense - and, the Wolf suspected, a final taunt as well - the Queen's brother and the bumpkin were always well within earshot of the couple and ready to meet any threat to the Queen's life with cold steel.

The sellsword knew all this, and was doubtless taunting the Wolf with the knowledge that time favored the churl.

And, that might not be far from the truth. The Wolf found himself wondering how long he would wait for a chink to form in the armor which he now beheld. Or, rather, how long he could wait.

Would the chance present itself at the rehearsal? Perhaps at the gown fitting? Maybe during the ceremony? Would he have to wait until the wedding night or while the Queen was bearing the churl's dirty blooded brats?

The Wolf shook himself irritably; he had allowed his focus to waver. The sellsword, it seemed, had added another layer of pitfalls, these culled from the Wolf's own longing to see the Queen's reign cut short.

"Though this be buffoonery, there is a brilliance in it," the Wolf intoned with begrudging respect, unaware he'd spoken aloud.

"Did you hear something?" another voice rang out from the parapets.

The Wolf, tensing, went very still, not daring even to breathe. From the parapets, an archer had knocked an arrow to his bow and was scanning the horizon while his accompanying falconer hurled his raptor bird aloft. Two pairs of sharp eyes scanned the bare timberland surrounding the castle for several long moments, always overlooking a projection of bark that did not belong to its tree, until they relaxed their vigil. This did not summon relief from the Wolf, however, but rage clenched in a white hot fist.

Idiot! You nearly let them detect you!

And, he belatedly realized, that had been far from his only mistake that day. That leap amidst the branches which he had miscalculated, nearly sending him hurtling to the ground. How he'd allowed his desire for the kill to chase away his focus and crowd out his wits. And, how he'd come within a hairsbreadth of alerting he guards to his presence.

Have I... have I...?

He could not finish the thought; even the possibility that he had met a foe he could not defeat in this churl, that the skills he had mastered had deserted him and that he would meet failure, cut him more deeply than any implement of death he'd ever wielded. A chill rippled at his heart, suddenly making him very nearly afraid. Yet, his fear was dispelled when he noticed something else.

He was not the only one who was afraid.

The Queen, he saw, wrung her hands together and chewed at the corner of her lip when she believed no one was looking. The sellsword was frequently glancing over his shoulder, trying to make the show of wariness appear casual by coupling it with stretches and turns designed to loosen cramped muscles. And, whenever the pair embraced, he could discern a desperation which rose about them like plumes of smoke.

What's more, these were not the only signs of fear he detected.

The armored guards began to look over their shoulders more frequently and to thump the pommels of their lances on the stone floor while anxiousness caused the hidden guards to twitch in a fashion that jeopardized their concealment. Whenever the Queen's brother left his post in the hands of another and headed towards Ohma to visit the object of his ill-suited affections, he'd always stop in the road, his gaze always shifted towards the castle as if expecting catastrophe to ensue during his brief respite. The habitual pacing of the Queen's sister had also grown more frantic and was now accompanied by her irritably tearing at her own hair. The dour youth, when his face was not buried in some tome or another, seemed to become even grimmer with every passing hour.

The blithe confidence he'd seen earlier was an illusion; less of a trap for him than a facade that the couple had devised for each other. And, like any facade, it could be exposed. The Wolf simply had to find out how and, if the ingresses he'd spied early did indeed prove impregnable, then others would be discovered.

He only had to maintain his patient vigil. He did however, promise himself one small indulgence to reward himself for his pains and labors.

He would not settle for killing only the Queen; he would kill the sellsword as well, regardless of whether or not the churl's blood put so much as a scrap of gold or silver in the Wolf's pocket.