and the queen calls checkmate
No cause so great to end nobility in name than what it tries to save.
“Thank you…thank you for everything, my lord Ike.”
“You don’t have to call me that. Just Ike is fine.”
(please, anything but lord.)
“But – “
“I call you Elincia, don’t I?”
(it’s when no one’s ever around - )
“Come now, I really don’t see the difference.”
“The other nobles…well…it’s too casual for them, my lord Ike. But…I can call you Sir Ike now. Is that a bit better?”
“I guess we take what we can get, don’t we?”
“I suppose so.”
(after all, there’s nothing that you’ve never known.)
(This is not their happily ever after. This is not the epilogue after winning the war and saving the realm.)
(This is anything but.)
The war united Crimea under her, fostered closer ties with Gallia, and paved the way for an easier reconstruction.
Or so she thought.
By daylight, workers dragged stones, mixed mortar, dusted crops. Villages rose from ashes and buildings emerged from rubble. By moonlight, Elincia warred with the rest of the nobility, over everything and nothing. What to spend, how to save, who to hire, where to gain.
She still remembers the dreadful shouting the night that she chose to give the conqueror’s rule of Daein over to Begnion.
(To the victors go the spoils! The people will grow dissatisfied. Daein visited so many evils upon Crimea, and now you’re just going to let them walk away?
Violence begets more violence? Such idealism, such foolish notions. These things all sound wonderful, but this is the way of things. How could you relinquish control? How could you try to foster better ties so soon? The people don’t forget that easily.
We don’t forget that easily.)
She still remembers.
(You’re so naïve, you’re such a girl, what are you doing, what are you thinking –
are you thinking –
- foolish little girl.)
She had held her head up high with a back ever so straight, poised with grace, as Bastian and the rest rushed to her defense. But afterwards, when all was said and done, she slowly sank down in her throne and sighed.
(because you can’t feed a nation on ideals.
are you doing the right thing?)
Then came the subject of Ike, a topic which the nobles were ever fond of picking apart. One minute their and Crimea’s savior, and the next.
And the next.
(The devil’s in the details that don’t.)
She is startled by his presence. Some days he seems to come and go like a shadow in the castle, though she can’t blame him for it. If she had the ability to do so, she would as well.
“Sir Ike. Would you care to accompany me to the gardens? It would be nicer to talk out there.”
His expression imperceptibly flickers. “Sure.” He walks next to her, striding in a casual manner to an unsuspecting observer but a rigid one to her, much like a bodyguard with his charge.
(That was a long time ago.
How many years has it been?)
She feels a sense of dread and skips the pleasantries. His silence doesn’t pass.
His ever so stoic expression begins to soften, and oh, she knows.
“While I was waiting for you, I overheard a bit of what the rest of the nobles were shouting about. At you.”
A pause. She winces. “I didn’t want you to hear.”
“You think I wouldn’t have found out?”
“No…no, of course not. I just…hoped.”
We all hope seems to hover on his lips, but his face stays stern and his feelings indiscernible.
“I don’t belong here. I’ve never belonged here, have I?” he muses, picking at the leather straps on his wrist guard.
“No, don’t say that.”
“But it’s true. Look at me – does the title of ‘lord’ really fool anyone? I’m still the same mercenary I was two years ago.”
No, you’re not, she thinks, wishes he could hear.
(wishes she could say)
“Only now, apparently,” and this he says with a rueful grin, “I seem to be upsetting the order of things. A mercenary like me, standing here with you.”
Maybe I shouldn’t stand here any more, what do you think?
“My lord Ike…” How to begin, to convey all of the sincerity that would flood from herself once she taps the dam? “You are my true pillar of support. Even with Lucia, Geoffrey, and Bastian…”
I can’t lose you –
“It won’t be the same without you. You’ve helped so greatly with our reconstruction, and simply being here by my side…”
Her tongue threatens to betray her, and she stops.
“Elincia.” A quirk of the lips. “Even when our contract ended, when you said it’d be fine if I left – I stayed, kept the title of general and lord, helped where I could. But now, I think I’m little more than a hindrance to you.”
She shakes her head, stands firm. “No. Never.”
“My abilities are one thing in a battle, but these things of politics, games of wit and words – remember how I almost ruined your cause in Begnion, with Sanaki? I don’t want to cause something like that again, without even having to say a word this time. And besides…” Here he pauses –
( - and she senses she’s already lost him – )
“I think I could do greater good outside of these castle walls right now. Helping people the way we used to as the Greil Mercenaries.”
“I understand,” she manages, though she hopes he doesn’t hear the sadness in her voice.
He takes her hand, gently, so very gently.
She’s not porcelain. She won’t break.
“This is not goodbye forever, Elincia. I’ll see you again.” Such a long pause. “And if you ever need a favor – “
(yes, you are bound by contract and nothing more. you the employer, and he the borrowed hand. all it ever is, all it will ever be.)
“I’ll be sure to ask,” she smiles brightly (as much as she can), and squeezes his hand back in reply, feeling rough leather under her palm.
He renounces his title that night, and the rest of the mercenaries are out of their rooms by the next morning’s rays.
She stares out her window until the next meeting begins, distantly remembers how she waved until twilight merged and dusk began.
(she can see why he left, wishes she could too)
The rest of the nobility is still in an uproar, and it’s the same as it has always been.
Why did you let him leave, some of them ask her afterwards (aren’t you in love with him, some of them wonder in her wake), whether discreetly or during an assembly of councils and kings. She always says the same:
“Because he wanted to.”
Because you made him.
(“Why do you wonder,” but this goes unsaid.)
One minute Crimea’s savior, the next a filthy vagabond, and the next an iconic symbol who never should have been allowed to leave. Always something that they want but can’t have yet really, truthfully, don’t want and have never wanted at all.
They are never happy, and neither is she.
(This is not the prince rightfully winning the princess at the end. This is not what comes after the slaying of the beast and the rescue in fair-clad finery.)
(This is everything and nothing deserved.)
She sends him a letter one day, in a sudden burst of light and fancy. The quill skips across the paper, jumpy as her thoughts.
How are you faring? Things at the castle are as they have always been. What you hoped to accomplish with your departure did not occur. Bastian is helping to fend off the political trouble, and Lucia and Geoffrey are still by my side as always.
We’ve received no letters from you or the rest of the Greil Mercenaries in a while. If you were to respond to this message at some point, it would greatly ease my heart. I hope to hear from you soon. Send my greetings to everyone for me, if you could.
Finding where to send the letter was, in retrospect, easier than writing it.
She doesn’t expect a reply, and doesn’t get one either. Wishes and hopes aren’t what they used to be.
Life goes on.
(life has to go on.)
And gaps have to be filled.
Important as her childhood friends are, it’s only Lucia that she sees as often as she had in the past; Bastian’s running courtly affairs, and Geoffrey…
She didn’t realize that they don’t interact now as often as they used to.
It creeps back up on her soon after Ike’s departure, how things have changed with time. His walk is now stiffer, his smile tinged ever so slightly with strain. “Good morning, Elincia,” he says, and she notices how it takes him time to sound like he isn’t worried about something.
She clasps her hands nervously, always replies in the same. She’s sure that her mannerisms haven’t changed…perhaps. Maybe they have and she simply never knew.
What could have changed the both of them?
Time. It had to have been time.
(with a name and a face)
She can’t think of anything else.
(blue eyes and cold blade)
(This is not the journey inspired by white, the quest for a dragon sought by a lone knight.
(This is little more than growing up and getting wise.)
If the criticism isn’t what’s trailing over her shoulder, it’s the gossip that fills the hole.
“ – really, the impudence of that man – “
“It’s one thing to be a loyal vassal, but quite another to be what he is.”
“Do they think we’re blind?”
“They must. Ha, raised like siblings! As if anyone at court believes such a thing.”
“ – if they think they’re fooling anyone…”
“Who does he think he is?”
The troubled days with(out) Ike before his departure have steeled her nerves, steeled herself. Whispers don’t faze her the way they used to. She doesn’t quicken her pace, lengthen her stride. Not for them.
Geoffrey, however, is stunned at the next meeting, splutters with indignation and almost turns red.
Elincia doesn’t turn, closes her eyes.
(thinks of a time)
(Once, she thought she saw Ike and Geoffrey ahead of her in the halls, in the middle of some sort of conversation that she was not meant to see.
- the princess –
if…if you do anything, anything that hurts her –
I’m not sure I follow.
don't pretend not to understand. don't pretend not to see what’s going on. If you do anything that hurts her –
…what makes you think I would?
it's not what you think, it’s what you do –
So she had left.
That night at dinner, Geoffrey visibly tensed when the General came to speak with her, and did not relax as she walked with Ike and away.
If she hadn’t known better, she would’ve thought that it was –
a duel of blue and blue, a means to win anything but a truce
- but she knows better, doesn’t she?)
As the days go by, the stories never stop.
More than once Elincia finds herself longing for the green of the countryside, the wild tangles of the forests, the blue of that massive expanse of ocean that she still dimly remembers if she tries by focusing on the smell of salt. All of that couldn’t have been so long ago that she’s already close to forgetting, she’s sure.
To think, that she could have thought of those days – when it seemed hopeless, impossible to liberate her homeland, when it was a handful of mercenaries against an entire army – as those days, with any sort of nostalgia. To think that times have thus changed.
(To think such things, she must be insane.)
But it doesn’t change who she looks for in her window, when she’s reminiscing about bygones and wartimes and moonlight once again.
The gossip like rain beats meaninglessly at the glass.
(This is not the first glimpse of the princess in radiant white. This is not the vow to stay and defend her for life.
This is not the beginning of such a story. Not this.)
She lowers taxes for her people. She takes care of the orphans for her people. While she can never change how they may want, she can help them with what they need. And she remembers, traveling for that year, seeing the conditions the common citizenry lived in and the tribulations they faced; thus she acts accordingly.
“Money down the drain,” they glare at her. “Water down the sink.”
But with ever-so-admiring adulation, they commend their Queen’s generous heart.
They are as transparent to her as their care for the people is nonexistent, and she responds with the proper pleasantries, pretends not to hear naïve and too soft and pathetic under their breaths.
Would that she could be a cruel and ruthless queen. Would that she could.
(the question is, if she would.)
The choice is made for her, when Lord Ludveck announces his intention to take the throne, and she is forced to allow Geoffrey and the Royal Knights to go, forced to allow Lucia to start spinning her plans into motion. All the same, her people mass and utter oaths at her name, rebel and stain the land with red footsteps, fight and snatch and cry and yell -
Alone in the throne room with Leanne and Nealuchi, the compassion and sympathy in the heron’s eyes is her undoing, and she crumbles like decaying autumn gold and bronze, sobs against the princess’s silk-screened dress. “I never asked for any of this... I never wanted to be queen!”
She thinks she feels a soft hand feather-light against her hair, hears a gentle lullaby that envelopes her like something warm. But she’s crying and she’s useless and her people desire a civil war and she doesn’t want anyone to die and the Knights have gone and he’s gone and nothing really matters any more, not propriety nor pride nor anything at all.
“I can’t... I can’t do it any more...” she manages to hiccup after what could have been minutes or hours, and hears the notes of the lilting galdr start to die.
(remember when, her mind whispers to her:
- They were walking together in the royal gardens again. Almost as though it was their spot, but she knew better – it gave him freedom away from the castle walls, and it gave her peace without the round table meetings. Being away from everyone else in the castle was merely a bonus. He was saying something and she was smiling and this was how it was supposed to be –
- Over lunch they were discussing the reports they’d heard of a particularly troublesome band of bandits only a few marks away from the castle, when a messenger walked in and apologetically said that one advisor or another was looking for her. She’d nodded and left, saying, “It will only be a moment.” From the look in her eyes he knew better, however, and by the time she returned an hour later he was already gone –
- At night she never sought him out, timid as she was, but sometimes he came instead. Like his previous habit of making rounds among his mercenaries and the soldiers, checking up on them and making small talk, he’d come, especially on the bad days, and just like that some of the unease in her heart could be alleviated so quickly, and they would start talking just like old times –
- Once in the moments between dusk and dawn, it was the same conversation as the night before and the night before that – only it was different, and for one moment it felt like there was something else between them, something heavy and loaded and dangerous and she forgot how to breathe –
- and the flickering candlelight in his eyes is indiscernible, and he pulls away; slowly, so as not to appear startled, and quickly, so as not to appear torn. Oxygen doesn’t feel enough to calm the burn in her lungs.
oh, she remembers when.)
She is standing in the corridor as impassively as a guard when Geoffrey strides up to her. The last of her tears had dried hours before. “Your Majesty! What are you doing with that lance?”
“I asked your servant for it, and he gave it to me,” she says simply, unfazed.
Not that such a thing ever deters him. “Why would Your Majesty, as queen, do such a thing? Who knows how tangled the web of rumors could become, because of that...”
“Let the court say what it wishes. You are far more important to me than the whispers of nattering nobles.”
“...You don't need to say that.”
(they were young, once, four or five, running through the flowers behind the villa –
six or seven, my how you’ve grown, days by the river –
eight or nine, life lasts forever, whispers and giggles and promises bound to be broken – I think I always knew - )
And then it comes quickly, like a wave of regret. “I'm sorry.”
“I don't understand. What's wrong?”
She says something, anything. Except what she wants to say. “Three years ago... you fought to free Crimea from the clutches of Daein. While you held this lance, your courage was dauntless and your prowess, legendary.”
“Yes.” He has not noticed. “It's a brave lance, and I'm very proud of it.”
(wish I could tell you the truth, wish I could tell you what I am thinking, wish I could talk to you about me about you but not about him because it’s not about him it’s about me but not you - )
Words keep bubbling, the babble of a brook. “I can't have you raise the same lance against your fellow people of Crimea. I'm sorry... I just can't.”
“Your Majesty is worried about the shadow it would cast over my name? The dishonor of using that weapon on Crimeans?”
“I would never want to damage your pride as a knight. It would be too much to bear.”
(Because I know that for you I have damaged much - )
“Believe no such thing, Your Majesty. My pride as a knight is most deeply rooted in my service to you. That will never waver, no matter what. Elincia... You know that.”
And she freezes.
(“Elincia. You know that.”
you are the second. he was the first.)
“Then take your lance. Use it to fight for Crimea once again.”
This is not the long march from the castle. This is not the knight come to save the girl.
This has never been about a damsel in distress.
(she’s only distressed, it’s only the stress)
When Haar gives her the bundle of Lucia’s hacked-off hair, tells her that this is Ludveck’s way of saying that she’s alive and that he probably knows they’re not in Melior any more, that contingency plans have been laid, Elincia feels that the world is falling from under her feet for the second time.
The first time didn’t even feel like the first time, because for one moment her father and mother were there and the next their bodies were on the floor and there was crimson on that man’s sword, and his smile was so wide, and then someone grabbed her hand and yelled something that she didn’t quite hear and she stumbled in haste to respond and there was blood in the air and blood on his sword and blood in his smile and then they were gone, just gone. All like a bad dream. Even now, the memories of it are permanently clouded with a thick, heavy red haze.
Thus the real first time had been six months ago, when he’d left with a goodbye that wasn’t a goodbye and the whispers and her duties chained her to the palace, disallowing her from taking that one step further. But in reality it’s the second.
The third time’s the charm, or so she’s heard, and she would not like to find out what exactly that means. She really would rather that no one else…
She really would rather that no one else.
There is not a scratch on Elincia when she leads the battle in the fort. They are not even losing; if anything, they are pushing Ludveck’s forces back, all of them with more blood swathing their hands than what’s flowing from the cracks of their armor or matting their fur or staining pegasus wings red. But when Geoffrey rides at the head of the Royal Knights and yells indomitable words of support and promised success, she can’t help but call out his name over and over like he’s her saving grace.
She doesn’t know why she does it. She knows that in battle the walls always feel darker, heavier, as though everything’s looming over her no farther away than the distance her sword will reach. She knows that though her companions here are still standing, there are some who matter more to her and are gone – vanished themselves, or vanished by someone else.
She knows what an indomitable force loneliness can be. Or fear. Fear of loneliness, the worst thing altogether.
(And she doesn’t want it to end like this.)
Geoffrey may be one of them but he is not them, yet this doesn’t stop her at all, and something twists inside of her when she sees his reaction to her jubilation at his appearance and this is a battle, no time for thinking, what is she doing, Ludveck must be brought down, the Royal Knights’ effort will have been in vain, there is no time for this.
(misunderstandings will have to stay, apologies will have to wait - )
And so, once the majority of the rebels have been accounted for, she confronts her antagonist by means of a sword. “Ludveck.”
He is unruffled even as he blocks Amiti with his axe, nearly locking it in its curved, pointed ends. “Looking quite gallant, aren’t we? I thought you would surely be fleeing by now...or pleading for your life. I must commend you for your unexpected bravery.”
“I am the ruler of Crimea. I will not abandon that role.”
Her pegasus quickly jolts sideways as his tomahawk comes flying at her out of nowhere, and she catches her breath; he chooses to speak while waiting for his weapon to fly back into his hand. “Oh, I see… Self-sacrifice, is it? How very honorable of you.” The axe returns impeccably, handle to his grip, and he smirks. “By the way, Your Majesty, Lady Lucia is often in your company. Wherever could she have gone to?”
Blood is draining from her face; she moves unconsciously to stab a general about to lance her through the neck. This is a battle, no time to think. “Where is she?! Tell me she’s safe! Tell me—now!”
His lips curl upward again, and this is a battle, how can he be so relaxed, how can he have so much time? “Oh my, you look pale. You two grew up like sisters... You must be worried, then? Ha!” It is more of a bark than a laugh, and makes her think of something feral. “Yet another facet of your weakness.”
She doesn’t really listen to his words at this point, or even hear them – she just feels the blood boiling in her veins and panic at Lucia’s situation and anger at how Ludveck is pushing this in her face, enjoying it as though it’s all a game –
( - the dog that he is - )
- and then a surge of adrenaline comes and her slashes with Amiti become simply vicious, all stinging needlework in horizontal rows. The swings of his tomahawk are just too slow and he’s down before she realizes, armor askew and axe gone meters across the floor and a face sucked dry of joy and replaced with pure, unbridled fear, all fear; she’s the one with the schadenfreude and he’s the one with the fear.
(coward, she thinks, as she hears the pleas drip from his defeated tongue.)
“Elincia! I yield to you! Please... You may imprison me. Your Majesty, be merciful! Spare our lives. We surrender our weapons.”
(Merciful. Merciful, he says. When she does so it’s not good enough, and when she doesn’t it’s what they desire. She would look at him with scorn but in her heart she’s simply too kind for it, and the battle is over and the blood rush is gone and she’s tired and no more, no more…)
Geoffrey gallops up to her side, mere moments too late to garner the hand-to-hand victory that she can see he so desired. But it’s done, and she does not look at him, exchanges brief status reports with him before turning to leave.
Then she remembers: Lucia, and she can’t fly back quickly enough, can’t deliver the news in a way that doesn’t make Geoffrey’s face turn a peculiar, sickly shade and her heart drop to the bottom of her chest.
They receive the missive from the remainder of the rebels several minutes later, see the roughly-cobbled gallows standing mockingly outside the fort with Lucia on her toes and her proud, defiant stare, see the soldier slam his fist into her face, hear that they must release Ludveck if she is to survive.
Elincia and Geoffrey look at each other, and she sees that he is not quite trembling. “Your Majesty, you can’t... You have to let me do something about this.”
She says nothing.
“Lucia would willingly die fighting for her country, I know... But you have to help her, Elincia. If you were in her position, she would surely do the same. Please, just give the word.”
One last look he’s giving her, one last look full of desperation and need and want and fear, and she knows that she’s looking into a mirror reflecting everything back.
“I will go,” she says, and tastes steel and something sickly sweet. What dying hopes must seem to the tongue.
(it’s over, they’ve won, her mind thinks mockingly. so where’s your victory, o dear and triumphant queen?
Of course she has no answer.)
Walking to the dungeons, she feels as though she is facing her own execution, not Lucia’s.
Ludveck, however, sees it differently. Gleefully. “Hello, Your Majesty... By the look on your face, I can see my plan has been a success.”
She doesn’t understand this feral smile, this joyous grin. She knows that against madness, her naivety and questions will sound like desperation.
She tries anyway. “...What exactly is it that you want? To throw our country into chaos?”
“No. I want to protect it, Your Majesty.”
Nothing could have prepared her for this. “What?!”
Ludveck’s laughter sends a jolt down her spine, makes her almost involuntarily jump. “Queen Elincia, you’re so naïve. Cold and callous decisions are sometimes required of a nation’s ruler.” He paused, and leaned forward for emphasis. “I was testing you.”
Through sheer force of will Elincia manages not to take a step back, though after that exertion of effort, all her mind can comprehend is test, lies, how, wrong, blood, death, war, never, everything, wrong, all so very wrong –
“We all wanted to know if our queen would have the power to stop a civil war. But, no, you were too hesitant and too concerned about harming the people... Now look what has happened.” He gives her a sort of patronizing look, the way a presumptuous adult would look at a child who’d done something foolish when he, just as young, had done it before as well.
It takes her less willpower to stand strong in front of him, causes less whispering in her mind.
Caught up in his madness, he doesn’t notice a thing. “The rule of Crimea cannot be kept in your hands! Please, Your Majesty! You must abdicate and cede the crown to me! And considering Lady Lucia’s life is on the line, you haven’t much choice. Now,” he says with that little curled grin, flimsy silver-backed confidence ringing clear against metal bars, “let’s have you free me from this prison cell, and then we can discuss any further details...”
She wants to laugh at him. She wants to scream at him. She wants to cry at him.
She doesn’t know what to do at all.
(after all, this is Lucia, that sentimental part of her heart reminds her, this is Lucia, your sister, perhaps not by blood but by family, and she would give her life for you and you would simply throw it away –
- and Ludveck’s laughter, My queen, you must do the right thing! You must leave! Anyone could see that I know what’s better for the country, especially if you lined us up side by side, anyone could see – )
“I don’t think so,” she says abruptly. As though she hadn’t simply blurted out what was, in essence, a reflexive comeback. A way to prove that she wasn’t weak, wasn’t lacking, wasn’t naïve.
Caught up in his delirium, he doesn’t notice. “What?! Are you truly willing to sacrifice Lady Lucia?!”
(strong, I will be strong)
“...Lord Ludveck, all your dissatisfaction and misgivings about me are well founded. However, do you realize how many lives you’ve simply thrown away?!” She takes a breath, hoping that diplomatic eloquence will overtake her trembling words. “Strength without compassion does not a ruler make. You care nothing for the people, sir. You cloak your desire to rule with pretty speeches, but it is petty avarice nonetheless!”
“...So this is how it shall be? Very well... But Lady Lucia cannot be spared without my order.”
(strong, I will be strong, I will be strong; you can’t break Crimea, you can’t break me, I won’t let you, I won’t)
“Allowing you to plant the seeds of rebellion and wreck havoc with the lives of my people is a failure for which I must answer. But I will see Crimea through this trial. I will give my people the future they deserve, no matter the cost.”
Elincia holds her head up high and feels the color that has rushed back to her cheeks, knows that blood in her body has begun to circulate again. There is no need to hear any empty, dagger-edged comment he would have left in store for her, and she decides that now is as good a time as any to leave.
Staying and cajoling for another moment longer will not change his order, will not get him to capitulate and spare Lucia’s life.
After several seconds, Ludveck seems to give into the delirium of the moment, finally letting it all out in bays of unrelenting laughter. “...Ha... Ha ha ha ha! Well played, Your Majesty! Indeed, I have failed. Yet I wonder... Are you capable of watching Lucia die? Or will you crawl back to me, your face awash with tears, begging for mercy?”
A smile twists his lips to match the rest of him, all malicious and predatory and, despite imminent defeat, full of triumph indeed. “How I pray to see that face, Your Majesty!”
She has barely made it around the corner – she’s not sure how much farther she can go – when she hears his parting words, imagines how he looks. The anger it sparks pushes aside the chill that his laughter had washed over her mere moments before.
- A fragile life in your hands, a precious life that you stole, and you…laugh? Smile? Grin? Your desire for the throne, for all of this? This pain-blood-anguish-torment-revenge? How could you? Why could you? Why would you?
I can’t let you. I can’t let you. I can’t let you –
And then it dissipates, and she’s left collapsed against the wall, weak as the flimsy paper-doll queen that she is. She knows that she’s weak, and incapable, and a failure, and so many sorts of things –
( - Elincia. You will make a splendid queen.
- I’m sorry. We should have found out about Ludveck sooner. It’s all my fault, Your Majesty. Geoffrey and I will take care of it. Please do not worry over it so much.
- No one expected you to be a perfect, all-knowledgeable ruler the moment you stepped up to the throne. No one important. Those who did are fools. All good leaders need time to learn –
- Are you capable of watching Lucia die? )
No, she is not. But she will have to be.
It wouldn’t be punishment if it wouldn’t feel so severe. It wouldn’t be penance if her transgressions and failings weren’t so obscene.
It wouldn’t have happened if only she had been –
She crumbles into the stone against her back, and tries to remember how to breathe.
(This is not even the story of a princess.
Not even of her prince.)
Her heart does not skip a beat when she sees him for the first time in six months. She’s standing on the rooftop of the fort and he’s mowing down the rebel forces on the ground, and oh, she knows. All she can think is Lucia, Lucia, Lucia, she’s safe, she’s safe, she did not die because of me, and all she can see is blue.
She can’t stop her gratitude from pouring out. “Sir Ike… If you hadn’t come to help, I would have lost one of my dearest friends. Thank you… Thank you ever so much.”
His words are not jubilant. His words are not relieved. His words feel more selected and sifted-through than what she’s ever heard from him before. “We were happy to do it. And Bastian pays well for mercenary work.”
“Bastian?” She allows her confusion to fuel her question, doesn’t want to slow down to think.
“Yes. The count of Fayre knew about Ludveck’s plotting before he left for Daein. Bastian guessed that if he left the country, the rebels would feel confident enough to make their move. What else could you expect from Crimea’s top tactician?” He gives a half-laugh. “Well…Crimea’s most deceptive old dog, at any rate.”
She’s still getting used to being able to breathe again. That too. “Yes, that’s just like him…”
“Sorry that we had to stay hidden until the last minute. For a ruse like that to work, you have to deceive allies as well as enemies.” Pause, almost tactful, still guarded. “I know you were acting in Crimea’s best interests, but I’m sorry you had to let that happen to Lucia.”
The woman in question shakes her head, a small sway of severed turquoise blue. “No… It worked out fine in the end. Please put it out of your mind.”
It makes Elincia notice even more the frayed, rough cut of her companion’s hair. The bruises on her face.
(her failings as a friend)
(I’m so sorry –
If only I had been stronger –
If only I wasn’t your queen – )
“I value your lives more than even my own. But it’s my duty to protect this country, even if that means losing you. I’ve learned a lot from all of this.” She looks Ike in the eye, tries not to let the blue overwhelm her. “I hope to keep them out of harm’s way, and I’ll never make the same mistakes again.”
Ike nods. “Good to hear. So what are you going to do about all the escaped rebel soldiers?”
(“Mercy and forgiveness can turn any foe into a friend. All they need to do is see, to understand, and then…”
“Do you really think so?”
“Then you have such a faith.”
- that is so misplaced.)
No, naïve she is not. Not any more.
“The rebel army will be eradicated. We cannot allow them to sow the seeds of discontent among the people of Crimea.”
She sees no flicker in Ike’s expression. Did he disapprove of how she first handled the rebels? Does he approve now? Is it something else? He has become so unreadable over the years. “That’s the right choice. Would you consider contracting my mercenaries for the job?”
“…No, Sir Ike. I’ll leave that up to the Royal Knights. I’m certain this task will create anger among the people, and the Royal Knights may be resented for their role in it… But my duty as queen demands that it be done. The people will have to learn to accept that.”
Again nothing passes across his face, only the briefest of words from his mouth. “I respect your devotion to duty.”
(duty, her mind mocks. Duty. Society. Propriety. One’s place.)
“So, you don’t need me then?” he asks; as a pleasantry, because he already knows, has always known.
“That’s right. I’m going to move on, together with my vassals and the people of this country.”
(move on, away from you. you understand.)
But secretly, she wishes he doesn’t.
She’s too selfish to be a queen.
After another brief round of words that mean nothing – it’s as though they can’t talk about the deeper things any more, maybe because everyone else is there, maybe because there’s nothing to say –
( - and she’s afraid that it might be that – )
- Ike prepares himself to leave. She watches the sight of his back retreating into the distance for what must be the second or seventeenth time, and thinks that maybe this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
She’s always known what she’s wanted.
(until she knows she doesn’t know at all.)
The next meeting, half the courtiers brazenly stare at her in defiance, and half can’t meet her eyes.
The meeting begins. Steel and iron, whispering and lies.
She soon establishes that she’s the dominant one. By the end of the hour, she has singled out three of Ludveck’s co-conspirators and has them appropriately hauled off. Four other suspect and probably guilty nobles are given due treatment. Perhaps overly harsh treatment, but due treatment all the same. Due singling out, due humiliation, due penance. The ensuing hush of the remaining aristocracy is the most pleasant thing she’s heard from them for three long years.
She sends Geoffrey and the Royal Knights to ride out and find the remaining bands of rebels. Instigators. Rabble rousers. She roots these terms firmly in her mind, letting them meld inexorably with the images that she has of the rebels. She speaks of them and laces her voice with duty and severity and necessity and justice and all of those hard, rigid sorts of things. Geoffrey gives her a look as he rides out of the gate, something akin to pity, something akin to shame – but then he’s gone.
Elincia knows that she imagined the shame. Blame. Mostly anything to pin it all on her, because everything is her fault.
It doesn’t matter. She will stand rigid; she will not fall.
Lucia is left behind to guard her as Haar, Nephenee, and Brom leave for the one place she’d rather be, at that one person’s side – what did he think about her, she wonders, what did he think about her complete and utter failure, if he even thought a thing at all? – and her friend refuses to accept either her apologies or her self-described guilt and shame. It is with a sort of steadfast transcending loyalty and pure force of will and belief that Lucia looks at her with that dangerous light in her eyes and says, firmly, “Elincia, forgive me for being frank, but stop doing this to yourself. Stop it.”
She shakes her head, says, “You know as well as I do what the truth is – “
(please stop, your words are too kind)
- that if anything, you should blame me for what would have been your death if Bastian hadn’t been such a thorough planner and arranged all of this, but this she doesn’t say.
She retires early to her chambers and learns that there are some things she can’t discuss well with her dearest, best confidante, after all.
No. She already knew this.
(she just thought that he had been the exception.)
Time goes on. A war starts between the newly-formed Laguz Alliance and the Begnion Empire. Lucia stays by her side. Nealuchi, Princess Leanne, Lethe, and Mordecai have all left her country, presumably to join the fighting and command their soldiers, or to at least join their countrymen and family. Geoffrey returns and his eyes tell her everything she needs to know, even as he vocalizes the fact that they have exterminated what’s left of the rebellion. Ike is working with the Laguz Alliance, hired by Gallia and needed for his strength and leadership and Soren’s tactical skills. The last of the turncoat aristocracy are executed on a Monday.
She doggedly goes on, thinks of these events as mere events and strips them of any adjectival value, repeats them enough so that they sound like rote and bare fact and not anything more, no lines that she has to read between or let others see. It makes things very black and white. Very easy.
Her country is strong. Crimea will recover. She will remain its queen. She will not let it tumble down a direction that she does not want it to take, ever again.
And Ludveck – since-departed Ludveck – was right. Sacrifices do have to be made. Stances do have to be taken. The remnants of the rebellion. Her naivety and mercy. Some things had to go, have to go.
Elincia will let them go. They’re for the greater good. (Never mind that they should be part of the ‘greater’.) Her countrymen are alive. (Most of them.) Geoffrey’s unharmed. (Merely still somewhat distant.) Lucia’s still with her. (It had still been horribly, horribly close.) She’s still breathing. (They’re not.) She did not have to personally kill anyone. (There’s still blood on her hands.)
The nobles sit at the round table with alertness, a hint of wariness and a few touches more of a perhaps forced, perhaps grudging, but definitely surfacing respect. The soldiers speak to her with a new sort of awe and a crisp, clear alertness to efficiency. Their lances gleam steel and silver in their hands as she nods to them and smiles.
(even as a part of her starts to die)
Life eventually settles. The rebellion eventually dies.
Geoffrey returns to her side one afternoon. “My queen,” he says to her, and she nods at him, maybe even smiles.
Her idealism hasn’t died. Her idealism will never die. If she lets it crumble into dust and disappear, she knows what sorts of inter- or intra-country transgressions could occur. No, Crimea had been raised for the past few decades with her parents’ beliefs, and she truly believed that the country had never been better. She knew that she wanted to keep it this way.
But politics is all about compromise. She knows she has had to compromise with herself. Compromise herself. Relationships, respect, soft whispers of adoration and love, she knows that she will sacrifice any of those necessary to do what has to be done. If it cost the blood of thousands of her citizens to bring about this growth, this revelation, so be it.
She will fulfill the price.
(No, this is not even a story;
for stories have never been so painstakingly real.)