Just short of a year passed since Robin's noble sacrifice. Just short of a year full of futile searches. Aversa was left embittered from the frustration that came with the failures. Morgan was sad, yes, but she spent almost every waking moment with her companions. It was as if being around them eased the pain of missing a parent.
It was just short of a year not only of futile land searches, but also one full of failed scrying attempts. Aversa gazed into her little crystal dish every full moon and found nothing. No evidence that Robin was alive, but none that he was truly dead, either. There were moments where she wanted to tear her ring from her hand and cast it into some dark abyss. The very same loyalty that had bound her to Validar was preventing her from losing hope that Robin would return. It was sickening. It was sickening in that it was of her own volition.
"You cursed, stupid man," Aversa muttered. Her eyes scanned an ancient history tome from the palace library. She was looking for any legends about Grima and those with the fell dragon's blood.
She slammed the text closed and a plume of dust puffed up. It took a great deal of willpower to stifle a sneeze. Magic crackled and sparked at Aversa's fingertips, charging the air with the smell of an impending thunderstorm.
With an exhausted sigh, Aversa gathered her composure and her energy settled. She needed to stay awake long enough for Morgan to come home. It was already dark outside. Morgan had better have an explanation for missing the supper Aversa had made.
As if thinking about the mischievous young tactician summoned her back, Aversa heard footsteps padding on grass outside. Morgan walked in, bruised and dirty, but she was grinning like the village idiot.
"I'm home! Something smells good."
Aversa gathered up a bowl of water and a cloth. "And where have you been and what did you do to get yourself into such a state?"
Her daughter made punching motions. "I was sparring with my friends. It was so fun! Have you ever fought a taguel or a manakete in their beast forms?"
"Sit." Aversa commanded. And Morgan sat, but kept blabbering away.
"It's really scary! I mean, Nah has smaller jaws than her mother, but she looks so fierce! And Yarne! It's like he can do anything in his bunny form!"
She began dabbing at the dirt and dried blood that was on Morgan's face. "Yes, actually, I have faced dragon kin and taguel in battle. When I served your grandfather." She replied half-bitterly, half-fondly. As much as peacetime was wonderful, there seemed to be no use for her war tactics. It had been very stimulating cracking Robin's strategies. Of course, she'd always had her scrying to spy, but Aversa wasn't so lazy that she would let herself get away so easily. After all, when a surprise is expected, it isn't much of a surprise.
"I wish I had powers like Nah's and Yarne's. I'd be unstoppable!"
"You have the Shadowgift," Aversa reminded her child somewhat irritably. "If you would take some time and learn from me, you would be unstoppable."
Morgan seemed skeptical. "Are you unstoppable?"
"I'm not so foolish as to think such a thing."
"But you said,"
"I know what I said. Anyhow, we don't know your potential, do we? You've been gallivanting around."
The tactician frowned. "I know my potential just fine. Maybe you need to spar with me more. Or play pairs with me whenever the others compete as families. It's really fun…Lucina's and Brady's and Owain's and Nah's and Noire's – everyone's families are great – but I'd really like to pair up with you."
"I thought we don't have special powers?" How long had these sparring matches been going on? No one had ever said anything to her before. Then again, Aversa had been antisocial as of late. She couldn't help it. Being around so many people who had benefitted from Robin's sacrifice was repulsive.
"Okay, fine. The Shadowgift is really useful," Her daughter stuck her tongue out, "so can we be a two-person team? Everyone else has three people – and Lucina has four – but I know we can take them! Our bonds are strong!" Excitement seemed to emanate from the girl's very being. She was easily pleased with such trivial things.
If it would make Morgan quiet, Aversa would participate. She needed the distraction in any case. "Yes, yes, I'll come with you. But you will need to put the time in to learn more magical theory."
"It's a deal!" Morgan grinned brightly and was silent for a time. This made Aversa's job easy as she reached for some healing salve to apply to a gash on her child's forehead.
Morgan's posture suddenly shifted into one of nervousness. "Um, Mother?"
"What is it?" Aversa asked as she finished her initial cleaning of Morgan's face. The girl could do the rest herself.
"How do I get someone to like me?" Morgan looked at her shyly, like she was expecting ridicule. Aversa was sorely tempted to fulfill that expectation.
"I am going to assume you mean in a romantic fashion."
"Yeah, more or less."
"Is it the half-breed boy?"
"Don't say it like it's a bad thing," her daughter said sternly, "but…yes."
Why was Morgan, a strong-minded, rambunctious, brave child, interested in the likes of the craven boy who could turn into a powerful rabbit monster? It was a waste of power, Aversa thought snidely. "And why, may I ask, do you want his affection?"
"I dunno. Do I need a reason to like somebody?"
Aversa couldn't help herself from replying in a snarky manner. "I don't know – do you need a reason to dislike someone?"
Morgan took it into consideration. "Yes, I think so. You can't not like someone for no reason at all. Unless they're my grandfather."
"Then by that logic, why do you like the half-taguel boy?"
"His name is Yarne," the girl insisted, "and he's really fun to tease. In a friendly way. I give him a hard time because he needs to toughen up. He always runs away in battle, which endangers everyone. But I know that deep down, he can be brave."
"You spend too much time with Chrom's brat. That never-ending hope in others never ceases to irk me."
"I learned that from Father," Morgan said, "he always sees the best in everyone."
Aversa chuckled to herself. If the child was so fixed on getting someone's attention, then so be it. She would offer her most potent advice. "I suppose if you can see past all of the layers of cowardice and overall lack of loyalty, I'll help you get his affection."
"I'll ignore that insult," Morgan muttered. She was catching on to the subtleties of the way Aversa spoke. Drat. It wouldn't be as fun watching her brows furrow in confusion after a clandestine affront. "How do I get my feelings across?"
"That, love, depends on how dense your target is." Where was the best place to begin? Aversa was beginning to see all routes of action…though many were out of the question from the start. Some techniques were ones she would really not wish Morgan to use.
"So I can't just tell him I want to court him?"
"Never! It shows desperation. No, you must give little hints here and there. If he's got an ounce of intelligence, he'll catch on. And then you must keep your distance. Dance just outside the boundaries of being lovers." It was a method that worked on young, naïve people.
The tactician looked uncertain. "I don't know about that…Father always mentioned that he wished you'd be more up front about your emotions. He said that it's hard to tell when you're happy or not."
Of course Morgan would bring up her father! He constantly spoiled her and allowed her to romp all over his authority as a parent.
"Yes, but you should know that your father is a dense one. He took ages to understand how I felt about him,"
"How do you feel about him? When did you know you loved him?" Now, Morgan was alert. Her eyes were piercingly clear, eager for an answer.
Aversa cleared her throat. "Enough for now! You need to bathe and go to sleep. We're going to practice tomorrow and I won't have any complaints." She said with absolute finality. Morgan was getting into sensitive territory.
There was a moment that Aversa was sure Morgan would press the matter, but she didn't. All the girl asked was, "can I at least have supper first?"
Once the voracious tactician-in-training had eaten her fill, she did as she was told and ran off to bathe and get to bed. Aversa was left with the questions lingering in her head. How was she supposed to answer them? She'd kept herself distracted from thinking of Robin for a reason! Pesky feelings like affection and the sense of security she felt with Robin got in the way. There was no use for them if Robin wasn't there! Pining for the man was foolish; it was a waste of her time to wonder if he would ever come back. It would hurt too much if she found out that he was truly gone.
"You stupid, stupid man." Aversa's voice came out shakily, which was alarming. She narrowed her mind, already getting a handle on her thoughts. Now wasn't the time for pathetic behaviors like crying. Why should she weep over something she was unsure about? She dabbed at her eyes to make sure no tears had fallen. To her grim satisfaction, none had.
"I dare you, Robin, give me something to cry about."
Aversa had woken Morgan before dawn broke to study magic. The girl was an avid learner, so at least she was attentive. In order to effectively use the Shadowgift's potential, Morgan would need a vast amount of knowledge to protect herself if things went wrong. After all, the Shadowgift allowed those graced with it to interact with spirits more than any Dark Mage could. With it, the users could ally themselves with any number of phantoms and other, darker things. When the user was properly trained, they would be able to make such contracts without losing something in return. At least, that was what Aversa knew about her otherworldly gift. She didn't know anyone who had other knowledge about it; Validar had slaughtered others like her so no one could use another Shadowgift wielder against him.
It was a risky move – if she hadn't been so pliable, then the Shadowgift would have been wiped from the world. But events had gone in Validar's favor…until the botched assassination attempt, that is. Aversa distantly recalled being in Valm, undermining the nobility in Rosanne at the time. She had been setting up the Valmese war. Truth be told, Validar had been foolish in wanting that particular conflict. Walhart had developed into an overwhelming force in just two years. He was threatening enough that Validar had risked killing Robin in the fighting in a bid for more time…
"Mother!" Morgan was snapping her fingers in front of her face. "I'm done with this scroll." She held the aged parchment out, ready to trade it for something else.
Aversa shook her head sharply. "You're getting faster."
"Because these are getting harder to read. I can barely understand the phrasing anymore."
"Shouldn't that take you longer, then?"
"I decided it's a waste of time to decipher everything right this moment." The tactician shrugged. The fresher piece of parchment she was using to write notes down on was cramped with increasingly smaller handwriting.
"Use another sheet of parchment," Aversa gently flicked her daughter on the head. She needed to use her common sense!
Morgan made a face, but pulled out a clean sheet. "Can't I read something more interesting?"
Aversa regarded the girl with a serious expression. She was thinking that perhaps it was time to let Morgan read the only compiled knowledge about the Shadowgift. It wasn't even a complete work; Aversa had added some notes to it as she discovered what her gift could do. The secret information could only be deciphered by those marked by the Shadowgift. It was an elaborate combination of magic – only extremely old enchantments could do such feats.
She stood abruptly. "Wait here." Aversa walked through the hall back to her bedroom. With a quick chant under her breath, a shimmer appeared over a square of the stone that made the floor and foundation of the villa. She knelt down at her side of the bad, for that was where she had chosen to hide her treasure. Aversa eased her fingers into the crack between the section of stone she'd spent hours cutting through and the rest of the floor. It was a heavy cube, but it had its purpose. Then, she whispered another counter-spell, this time releasing the trap that protected the precious information. How sad, the only source of direction Aversa had in regards to her abilities was but a loosely bound tome – only a strip of leather kept the pages in place.
She reached into the hiding spot and carefully extracted the book. Its covers were made of worn, dark leather. If they'd been dyed a color in the past, it had turned to a dark brown. At one time there might have been elaborate gold leaf inlay on the front, but all that remained were the fine grooves the decoration had left. It even reeked of age. Musty, throat-itching age. There wasn't enough time to be bitter about what little she was left with.
Morgan was waiting patiently at her desk when Aversa returned.
"Your most valuable resource." Aversa set the decrepit book down in front of her daughter.
Morgan made a face. "It looks old."
"Old is good, right?" She sounded reluctant to have to read the pathetic excuse for a book. Aversa understood – the handwriting in it was awful. Hardly legible! But important nonetheless.
"In this case, yes. Now read."
With a groan, Morgan opened the leather cover and started to read. "Wait. The words are moving around." She looked up. "Heh, it makes me dizzy."
"It seems I've forgotten to mention that." Aversa said dryly, "well, now you know about that bit. Watch this – I'm only going to show you once." She reached out and ran her fingers along the faded ink, muttering the proper key spell to open the information up.
"There are two requirements for it to open," she began, "you must know the spell I just said," a pause, "and you must have the Shadowgift."
Morgan's hands traced the purple patterns on her face. "Whoa! So we do get something special! Is this a weapon?" She pointed to the book excitedly.
"Ah, no. That is…an instruction manual of sorts."
Aversa recited what she knew. "People with this particular blessing – or curse – used to be lauded as soothsayers or dark warriors. But its inheritance is peculiar. No one is sure how it's passed on. Sometimes entire families are gifted; other times it's a single person. That made it hard for people with the Shadowgift to communicate since it appeared all over the world."
The tactician took time to digest what she'd been told. "So we might not be the last?"
"I can't say," before the notion could sidetrack either of them, Aversa snapped, "start reading!"
Morgan reluctantly started to look over the manuscript again. She squinted at the pages, which were cramped with notes from other people. Aversa recognized her own penmanship on a few of the pages. All of the annotations were confusing from the additions of others. It would take the child a good, long time to finish her reading.
Once more, Aversa wasn't sure when she slipped into unconsciousness. There was a brief period of blissful nothingness – no worries about Robin or Morgan – only darkness. The shadows of her mind were like a protective blanket. They wrapped her in comfort, shielding her from darker thoughts.
"…ther…Mother! Again?" Morgan was poking her cheek. How irritating.
Aversa cracked an eye open. "If you do not stop that," she didn't need to finish her threat. Morgan sat back in her seat with defiance.
"I thought the master isn't supposed to fall asleep on the student."
"Don't you know? If the student takes so long to study that the master falls asleep, it's a mark of incompetence." They held each other's gaze for a short moment before snickering. But Aversa wasn't oblivious. She saw that Morgan had finished her assignment. It should have taken her days, but by the looks of the light outside, it was late afternoon.
"Is there anything else I need to read?"
"No, not for today. What did you learn from the book?"
"A lot of stuff. Some of those spells are hard to read. Just how old is this book?" Morgan must have given herself a headache trying to decipher every last word.
Aversa was perplexed. "It is very old, but the print should be legible."
Morgan shook her head. "That's not what I meant. I think it's written in some long lost language." She turned to a brittle page in the tome and indicated a passage. What was the girl going on about? It was perfectly understandable! Ah…there was the hitch.
"You can't read Plegian."
"Or speak it." Morgan confirmed. "If I did in the past…well we know that's all gone now."
This would prove somewhat troublesome. Aversa knew it was a good idea for Morgan to learn another language, but it would take time. Spells were spells regardless of the language they were originally written in. They all translated into the same archaic tongue that magic-users knew. The benefit from translating spells into a different written form was that if someone wanted to make it harder to learn an enchantment, it was wise to put it in a different language and possibly switch the words around.
"I'll need to teach you, then. But not today. I think we've done enough." Aversa took the beaten tome from the desk and ran her fingertips all over it, muttering the concealing spell. Morgan looked on, intrigued.
"So can we practice for family battle night? We can't only use magic. We gotta be good with swords and lances and stuff." Her daughter gave her a big, hopeful grin.
"You didn't make plans with your little friends today?"
"No. Besides, they're probably getting ready too."
Aversa thought about it for a moment. She hadn't sparred with anyone in a very long time. As much as she disliked getting so filthy from all that moving around, it was probably best that she kept her skills sharp. One could never be certain peace would last a lifetime. Besides…winning the silly contests between other families obviously meant a lot to Morgan. The girl deserved a reward for being less troublesome than she was inclined to be.
"Let's go. Before I change my mind."
"Yes!" Morgan threw a victorious fist into the air. "Finally!"
The two of them gathered some dummy weapons – which was a fancy way of saying crudely carved oaken objects. Aversa stuck to what she knew – a long staff with a wad of cloth at one end to simulate the weight and feel of a lance. Morgan had, unsurprisingly, chosen a sword.
"Morgan, don't you think you should learn to use one of these?" Aversa hefted her practice staff, the mass of it awakening some muscle memory. If Morgan ever planned on battling from the back of her pegasus, she would need to be familiar with a lance or spear.
Her daughter shook her head. "I like swords. I'll learn to use a lance afterwards. We can't go changing up our mojo right before a contest!"
"So be it. If you get tangled up trying to get close to an enemy while riding your pegasus, don't come crying to me."
"Yeah, yeah. Let's fight!" Morgan initiated her assault with glee. It was a tad worrying, but endearing. The girl's eagerness would be her undoing. Aversa knew she had the bout won before she met her daughter's blow.
Sure enough, Morgan was beaten onto her back, glaring up at Aversa. The two of them were breathing heavily. Aversa slowly removed her practice weapon from its threatening position at Morgan's throat. She had been correct in predicting she would win the match, but she was alarmed at how close she'd been to defeat. The stiffness settling into her muscles was a testament to how out of practice she was. Maybe taking long swims didn't double as a replacement for lance practice after all.
"No fair! You tripped me!" Morgan whined. She was covered in dust and grass.
"All's fair in love and war."
This made the tactician quiet for a split moment. "Yeah, but the others will think we're cravenly. And dishonorable. Don't forget that part."
Dishonorable? The girl knew nothing about Aversa's…previous engagements. Ah, it was better she didn't know. "No, they'll just be sorry they followed the rules."
"But it's no fun if you keep tripping other people. There's no sport to it. And it's not like there's a prize for winning." No prize? That was no fun.
"Fine. I won't bend the rules."
"Good. Now, we'll have to refine our teamwork."
"You're becoming quite the tactician, aren't you?" Aversa remarked dryly.
Morgan nodded vigorously. "I hope I am. I want to be like Father one day." Of course she wanted to follow in Robin's footsteps. It wasn't a surprise, but the statement made Aversa feel, well, unimportant. What was she thinking? She shouldn't be ruffled by it! Aversa was aloof, nonchalant. She didn't care who Morgan wanted to emulate!
With a snort of derision, Aversa said, "you're on the right track. All you need to do now is die for your friends. Or maybe lead them through a volcano."
"Don't say stuff like that," Morgan frowned. "Father is alive. Remember? He's just…not here." Her demeanor shifted dramatically. She'd gone from brimming with energy to sorrowful in an instant.
The memory of Robin's promise made Aversa angry. It'd been nearly a year and he hadn't returned. What bothered Aversa the most was that she was upset about it! The two of them needed a distraction – and quick, too. If she remembered correctly, the Shepherds used shopping for weapons as a mood enhancer. It certainly worked for them.
"Morgan, how about we go to the marketplace? As a reward for your work today."
Morgan stared at her for a long while, like she knew Aversa was trying to divert her attention.
"You can get something to eat. Anything – roasted boar, stewed bear, flank of venison." Food was a good secret weapon against Morgan. "And afterwards, I'll buy you a new weapon. A new tome, perhaps? Or another sword?"
Morgan had already started running to the stables. Aversa looked on for a bit, fighting the smile that was trying to form on her lips.
The marketplace was bustling, as usual. Aversa kind of admired the variety of stalls and storefronts Ylisstol had to offer. It was summer, so business was at its peak until the end of fall, when farmers sold the last of their surplus crops to the townspeople, who needed the food to last through winter. Morgan buzzed from cart to cart, not browsing as carefully as her father tended to. Aversa looked at the baubles and knick-knacks bemusedly. Little trinkets for couples were among the items for sale.
Morgan seemed to appear out of nowhere. "Ooh, Mother! Mutton sounds good right about now! What do you think?" Fatty, greasy mutton? Aversa thought not. She reached for the small sack strapped to her thigh and retrieved some battered silver coins.
"You go ahead. I haven't got an appetite at the moment."
There was a pause. Morgan remained still, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
"What?" Aversa had no patience for that behavior.
"Well, I was wondering if I could have some money to go shopping on my own. So you don't have to follow me around." Her daughter met her gaze hopefully. "Please?"
It was still broad daylight, so the chances of Morgan getting robbed or attacked were small. Ylisstol was a relatively peaceful city, but Aversa wasn't stupid. Every settlement had criminals.
"I don't see why not. You've got your sword." She tossed the entire pouch of money to Morgan, whose eyes went as wide as saucers. "I would advise against spending all of that."
"Thank you!" With nary another word, the girl darted off into the crowd, leaving Aversa to her own devices.
As Aversa meandered through the streets, she came upon a man sitting on a stool with a table just big enough for the chessboard he was staring at. Her curiosity was piqued – the man had no opponent to play with. She sat across from him and took a closer glance at the stranger. Cropped, messy brown hair, brown eyes, wiry build, skin tanned from doing some sort of activity in the sun for years on end. He must be poor, Aversa thought, for someone so young to work in the fields. His eyes were trained on his pieces until Aversa cleared her throat.
"Huh?" He looked bewildered. "When did ya get there?"
"Just now. You seemed like you needed a challenge. Here I am." Aversa grinned in a predatory fashion. Playing against Morgan for so long had dulled her strategies. It wasn't that Morgan was a bad player – no, she was quite the opposite – but her methods were stagnant.
The man smiled brightly back, baring crooked teeth. Normally, Aversa would be somewhat repulsed, but it was charming coming from the stranger. His intentions were pure.
So they played. And played. By the time their latest match came to a head, the sun was already beginning its descent behind the hills, casting an orange blush over the land.
"And that would be checkmate," Aversa cornered her opponent's king with a flourish. The young man was a good match, though not at her own level.
"Again? Aw, here I thought I was kinda good." His face expressed his naivety. He'd surely been deprived of a basic education. What a shame, Aversa thought offhandedly. Maybe he'd have turned out to be a great tactician. Or scholar.
Suddenly, it occurred to Aversa that she didn't know her opponent's name.
"What did you say your name was?"
The young man blushed and looked down. "I…don't have one. My Ma and Pa didn't give me one since I can't write it anyhow."
Damn his innocence! Now Aversa felt obligated to help the wretched soul! "You're quite good at strategy. Perhaps I could put in a few favorable words for you at the palace."
Her new acquaintance gaped. "Yer kiddin', right? There's no way ya know the bluebloods at the palace!"
"But I do, love. Do you want me to do you this favor or not?" Why did he question such a good deed? Never mind, Aversa would be just as wary if a stranger offered to do something without asking for a favor in return.
The man snorted. "Don't get my hopes up. Yer kinda funny. I mean, ya look like a noble an' all, but I know that nobles would never look at someone like me."
While Aversa had no way of proving that she had connections to the Exalt himself, she would go ahead and mention that there was someone who would benefit from the best of the royal tutors.
"Do you come to this spot regularly?" Aversa asked while checking her nails for imperfections.
"After I finish working and if the sun is out, yes." The man perked up. "Are you gonna play chess with me again?"
Aversa allowed a playful smile curl her lips. "I think I might."
"Mother!" A warm body pounced on Aversa. "Who's this guy?" Morgan's face was a mix of suspicion and curiosity.
"An acquaintance," Aversa replied, "be polite."
"Hello, I'm Morgan. This lady's daughter. My father is,"
Aversa shot up from her seat. "What did I say?" She didn't understand Morgan's strange behavior! Why was she being so unpleasant? Morgan wasn't usually like this.
"I'm sorry, but we must be going now." Aversa kept her tone smooth and cool, waving farewell to her new acquaintance, who looked very, very confused.
When the two of them were out of earshot, Aversa whispered, "What was that about?"
Morgan's gaze was downcast as she walked.
"I don't want another father." The young tactician muttered.
"Were you courting that guy back there?" Morgan's voice was accusatory. It disturbed Aversa very deeply. What say did Morgan have in her life? And why did she assume such a thing?
"No, I wasn't remotely interested in bedding him – if that's what you mean. I'd never court someone who lost so many matches to me. But that's not the point!" So many thoughts were fighting for dominance in her mind. Robin's lighthearted suggestion that she find another man after he sacrificed himself, the startling realization that she hadn't been with anyone since. Then again, Aversa found that most men were repugnant and that because she had no reason to associate with strange men since she was free from Validar's influence, she hadn't had any sort of intimate relations in the year since Robin's uncertain demise. On the other hand, her own fingers were often more effective at satiating her occasional spells of carnal desire than most bedfellows had proven to be.
"Ick! You don't have to be that specific!" Morgan crossed her arms in the air. "I don't want to hear that!"
"But that's what you were getting at, am I right? Don't act like you didn't mean it that way. Now, you're going to tell me why I shouldn't punish you for your actions."
Morgan exhaled irately. "You can't love another guy yet because Father's gonna come back!"
"Are you trying to dictate who I can and cannot see?"
"No! But I'm just saying…"
"Don't justify yourself to me. I'll do as I please."
Her daughter looked away once more, body rigid with tension as she went along. "You'll forget about me," she finally mumbled. What was she going on about?
"You're speaking nonsense!" Aversa hissed. She didn't like making a scene in public – no, she was a woman of private arguments – but they'd left their pegasi at the castle stables. And the conversation at hand couldn't wait that long.
"I'm not! If you find somebody else, then you'll abandon me to be with your new family!" Is that what Morgan was afraid of? That Aversa would do such a despicable act? Perhaps in the past…but not now. As much as Aversa hated to admit it, Morgan had grown on her.
"Have you no faith in me?" Aversa was alarmed – her tone sounded…hurt despite her attempts to keep it sarcastic. Had she been a horrible mother up to this point? Did Morgan really feel that she couldn't be trusted? "Do you think I would do that?"
Morgan's brow furrowed. "Well, no." She bit her lip. "I don't know why it bothered me so much. I'm sorry, Mother." So her argument had no substance. Why, then, was Morgan so upset? Aversa had believed they'd come to an understanding a long time ago.
"Listen very closely, because I don't like saying it outright: right now, you are my priority. I can't bring myself to leave you because I," Aversa felt her throat seize up, "care for you." Gods but it was hard to say.
"So you aren't just taking care of me because of Father?"
"No, you foolish girl, I'm here of my own free will." As if anyone would ever be able to take advantage of Aversa again. Hah! The same trick would never work twice on her.
Her daughter fumed indignantly. "Hey! I'm not foolish! I still wouldn't lead an army through a volcano!"
"We should be so grateful," Aversa remarked dryly. Well, the uncomfortable situation had diffused favorably.
Before Aversa knew it, the two of them made it back to the palace stables. Their pegasi were waiting patiently, as always. It was time to return home.
The flight back to their villa was quiet, but relaxed. Morgan's riding had improved considerably, Aversa noted. The girl spent plenty of time trying to perform the same maneuvers her half-manakete friend could do in dragon form.
As they walked into their home, Morgan finally piped up.
"What is it?"
"I got this for you," Morgan held out a small glass bottle, filled with some faintly colored liquid. She looked proud of herself.
Aversa took the gift from her daughter and plucked the tiny stopper from the neck of the flask. The scent of sandalwood wafted out, heavy yet comforting. So Morgan had gotten perfume.
"How sweet of you," Aversa said, "and what did you buy for yourself?"
Morgan frowned. "I couldn't find anything I liked. The merchants from other places must not be in town. I miss travelling with the Shepherds. We got to do so much fun shopping." The mention of travel brought the next search for Robin to Aversa's mind. The Shepherds would be setting out again very soon.
"You'll have your chance in a short while. In the meantime, I imagine you'll want to train for the family tournament or whatever it's called." At that, Morgan positively beamed.
"Yeah! I've started thinking up strategies. Cynthia and her family are gonna have a hard time because pegasi and horses aren't allowed. She'll trip all over, so we've got our plan for her family down pat." That was cruel of Morgan to say. Aversa had been aware of her daughter's sadistic side for a long time, but it never ceased to please her that Morgan shared that trait with her. Though Morgan's mischievous streak was harmless…on the whole.
"Good, we should talk strategy. We aren't reckless imbeciles now are we?"
"Wake up! Wake-y wake-y!" Morgan's voice shattered the wonderful darkness of sleep. Aversa's eyes shot open – bad move – midmorning light stung her optics. The brat must have opened the curtains earlier.
"Do not tempt me to curse you," Aversa growled, "I'll get up when I am good and ready." She rolled over, putting her face into the soft down pillows. This time, Morgan resorted to poking and prodding, little sparks of magical energy zapping Aversa's body through the bed sheets, which prompted Aversa to sit up and glare at her daughter.
As if she weren't on the receiving end of a paralyzing stare, Morgan said, "but we gotta go to the palace! The match starts when the bell rings three times!" On closer inspection, the girl was wearing her Grandmaster's armor over her cloak.
Aversa froze. "It's today?" Chrom had never mentioned it in between their meetings with royal officials from the other parts of Ylisse. Although, the Exalt had been in a better mood as of late. For a brief moment, Aversa cursed her self-imposed distance from the other Shepherds.
"Yeah! We leave to look for Father in four days, so it had to be today." In the three days after their shopping excursion, Aversa and Morgan had trained early in the morning and after Aversa had finished working as Ylisse's chief advisor. Personally, Aversa was confident that the two of them would reign supreme.
Morgan ran out of the room only to return with a bowl of an unknown steaming substance. "Look, I even made breakfast." She declared proudly as she presented the dish to Aversa.
With a wary glance at the tactician, Aversa poked at the tawny mush with her spoon. A warm, sweet smell tickled her nose. "Is this poisoned?"
"It's a habit of mine to ask."
"Whatever – just try it!"
"Patience," Aversa teased. She spooned the chunky substance into her mouth, wincing at the texture. It was as squishy as it looked; however, it tasted well enough. Spicy and sweet with identifiable flavors – cinnamon and honey.
"What is this?"
"Oatmeal. Or is it porridge? I dunno. Cynthia said her mother makes it all the time since her father has a penchant for gathering honey." Morgan's face went vacant as she lost focus, but snapped back to attention after a moment. "How is it?"
"Mushy." Aversa said with distaste, "but it doesn't taste bad. When did you learn to cook?" She took the time to put another spoonful of the food into her mouth as she waited for Morgan to reply.
"I don't know how to make anything else. I've been practicing this one dish for a while."
"You sound like your father. He's an awful cook." Aversa allowed herself to remember Robin's attempts to garner her affection through food. Suffice to say, Aversa was not attracted to him for his cooking.
Morgan stuck her tongue out. "Yeah, well, you took forever to make your food taste good." How clever of her, Aversa thought snidely. It was a good comeback if not an uncreative one.
"Be grateful I feed you," she tapped Morgan on the nose, sending her own spark of magic into her finger.
"I suppose it's time to make myself presentable." Aversa sighed before tossing the covers off and getting up. "The others had better be ready." Because Morgan had awakened a monster, Aversa snickered to herself.
The palace training yard was a buzzing mass of activity. The rest of the Shepherds were either shouting or talking furtively in smaller groups. What was going on? Morgan was leading the way, taking Aversa by the hand to gods-know-where.
"Let's go talk to Lucina's family. I think we'd be great allies since I'd usually tag along with them." Morgan explained. As advantageous as it sounded, Aversa didn't exactly want to be on a team with Chrom's firstborn.
"How does this tournament work?"
"It's easy: beat up the other allied families and then turn around and face off with the unit we worked with. Only two families are allowed to work together, so that it doesn't become two armies against one another." Oho! So betrayal was imminent. This was something Aversa could get used to. She imagined it would be easy to defeat the Exalted family once they'd finished off the rest of the competition. Chrom and his wife were hotheaded and reckless, and their children were the same way.
"You don't want to pair up with Yarne?" Aversa asked sweetly, feigning innocence. She watched as Morgan puffed her cheeks out in an annoyed fashion.
"No, as cute as he is, he's still a liability. I may like him a lot, but it's too risky even if his mother is a good fighter." That was good to hear. Morgan's tactical instinct was stronger than her infatuation.
"Hey! Lucina, Kjelle! We're here!" Morgan raised her free hand in greeting. The royal children turned around and greeted their friend in turn.
"Aversa," Chrom sounded surprised. "You're here."
Aversa scoffed. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"Yep, and we're gonna win!" Morgan's tone was exuding pride. That was a warning sign. The squirt shouldn't be so sure yet. Out loud, at least.
Chrom's younger daughter, clad in heavy armor, snorted. "No way! We've got the strongest fighters in the whole army in one family."
Morgan grinned impishly. "Magic fries people through armor."
Aversa was vaguely worried for the future of Ylisse. If Chrom's children from the future were any indication, then if something happened to Lucina, the boorish knight she had for a younger sister would reign. Eh, it was hardly Aversa's concern. Chrom was a hard man to kill, so illness or old age would probably be the culprit for his death. She pushed those thoughts from her mind and focused on the present.
"So, what's the plan?" Sully, Chrom's wife, regarded Morgan with confidence. The girl must have proven her worth in earlier matches. It made Aversa preen a little on the inside.
Morgan dug around in her pockets for a small scroll of parchment. "If we stay together in a cluster, Mother and I will guard you all from magic as we pummel everybody. See, riders are going to be awkward without their steeds." She babbled on about the flaws each opposing family possessed and then explained how they would use said weaknesses against the competition. If Aversa had it her way, she wouldn't bother explaining the battle plans. She'd just give orders and save the breath it would take to spell out every step to a bunch of thickheaded soldiers.
But that was just Aversa's humble opinion.
The family-style tournament left Aversa with aching muscles and swollen lumps for bruises. If there was one thing she learned from her short time on campaign with them, it was that sparring was akin to religion. It was done on a schedule and performed with the utmost zeal. When someone asked a comrade for a quick match, it really meant an all-out brawl to test new weapons or to hone old techniques. The tournament was no different.
Everyone had been equipped with either wooden weapons or pitiful excuses for spell books. No dark magic was permitted. Even with the humblest of tools, the Shepherds made the most of what they were allowed to use. Blows were not softened, and even the weakest of parlor magic was backed with plenty of energy. The desire for victory was palpable. With such determination for glory, one might think feuds would break out like the plague amongst comrades. But no, once defeated, the Shepherds would concede their shortcomings and back away. The belief that only oneself could decide victory was rooted in each and every soldier. If someone lost, they would train thrice as hard to achieve a goal.
No wonder they had been so hard to kill off, Aversa mused as she gingerly applied some healing salve to her battered body. All that fighting left her refreshed, despite the stickiness that came with sweating. She and Morgan had won, just as Aversa had expected. What she hadn't predicted was the praise that the Shepherds showered the two of them with afterwards. Really, defeating Chrom and his family hadn't been a large task. The lot of them were so weak to magic it was ridiculous. Still – Aversa winced as she passed over a particularly large bruise on her thigh, courtesy of Lucina – they shouldn't be underestimated.
Morgan waltzed into the dining room, the grin on her face the same one that had appeared hours ago upon winning the tournament.
"You got beat up," she remarked, taking a seat at the table.
"Protecting your reckless backside," Aversa gave the girl a pointed look. "Arrogance is a fatal flaw."
Morgan scoffed. "I wasn't being arrogant. I was excited."
"Yes, well, you won't always have the likes of me shielding you." Aversa went back to tending to her bruises, noting how many would have been mortal wounds if the weapons had been real. She counted how many times she would have died protecting Morgan.
"I know. I'll be more careful next time. But you gotta admit that we make a good team."
"I'll agree to that."
Morgan sat back in her chair. "Yarne asked me to tea tomorrow. He said he wanted to celebrate my – our – victory. It was a real shocker. I thought I'd have to ask first." Aversa suddenly felt her attention focus.
There was a content pause in their conversation. Morgan spent some time polishing her armor, greasing the hinges of her greaves or inspecting her breastplate for dents. The curious, earnest glances she sent Aversa's way could hardly be ignored, however.
"What is it this time?" Aversa could practically feel another one of Morgan's irking questions coming.
Taken aback by the accuracy of the statement, Morgan dropped her armor on the table with a clang.
"What do you mean?"
"Don't play coy with me. You want to know something."
"I always want to know something. But yeah, you got me." Morgan probably decided it was best to be honest.
Aversa set the ceramic jar of salve down. "Out with it. What are you going to ask this time?"
The tactician took her time replying. "What does falling in love feel like?" Her question hung in the air like a bad smell.
"I imagine falling is painful," Aversa said at first, scorning the phrase. Morgan didn't seem to get the joke. "But I figure it would be different for everyone."
"Okay, then how was it for you? When you realized you loved Father?" Morgan's expression told Aversa that she wouldn't accept the usual response of 'I don't love him'. Because that was untrue. If by "love" Morgan meant the affection, attraction, and mutual respect Aversa held for Robin, at least.
"It's a slow, maddening sort of magic. The kind that erodes your sense of the world. As I spent more time with your father, I came to the reality that I liked being around him. For the first time in years, I had someone I could trust." Aversa's fingers found the ring Robin had given her. The metal was warm with body heat.
Morgan looked discouraged, if that were the single word to describe her countenance. "That doesn't sound good. The maddening part, I mean."
Aversa hummed her agreement. "Yes, I thought I'd gone mad a long time ago." To be honest with herself, she preferred the madness of her feelings for Robin to being in Gangrel's presence. Ugh, her time with the Mad King had been dreadful. The man was nutty for sure.
"You sound happy that you went crazy being with Father."
"I did not go crazy," Aversa said defensively, "I was being poetic. Although your father's courtship was agonizingly slow. He was so awkward and tentative." Robin's blunders during the beginning of their relationship had been rather endearing. He hadn't pretended to have more experience than he actually had. Perhaps Robin courted people in the past and he'd forgotten.
Morgan giggled. "Sounds like Yarne." There was the reason for the initial question.
"Why, do you think you're in love?" Aversa took the chance to flip the conversation.
"Huh? I dunno. That's why I asked. Everyone says love has to be cultivated."
"That's true, I suppose."
"It's a mutual thing, too?"
Morgan nodded. "Okay. I guess I'll wait and see if a love garden blooms." A love garden? Where in the nine hells did the girl get that idea? Gods, she was so much like her father.
Aversa put her hand to her head in utter disbelief. "Did you suffer a blow to the head?"
"One or two, why?"
"Right. In that case, you should run along and get some rest." Aversa stood and shooed Morgan out of the room.
"Wait! Will you help me get ready for my outing tomorrow?"
"Yes, fine, now go!" With that, Morgan stopped resisting and scurried off to her bedroom.
When she was sure she was alone, Aversa made some herbal tea for herself and sat at the dining table. Talking about her lover had made her nostalgic and impatient for his return. Robin still hadn't come back. And yet, the year that had gone by seemed to have dampened the sting of discussing Robin. It didn't stab at her as it used to. After competing with the Shepherds, Aversa found that she didn't mind the motley bunch. Their nosiness had roots in good intentions. They all missed Robin, and each of them had shared their accounts of the tactician's friendship with Aversa. It brought memories of the moment Aversa knew she could trust Robin.
The Shepherds were eating supper back at camp. Aversa set her tent up a good distance away from the others. She had no intention of dining with them; she wasn't worthy – no, she was certain they would kill her on the spot. Why had the Exalt allowed her to tag along? Why had she agreed? She had orchestrated the previous Exalt's untimely demise! Unless the man wanted revenge…
Aversa sat on the grass, knees to chest. The images the Wellspring of Truth had shown her uprooted her entire identity. Validar had slaughtered her family, her friends, hells, even her pets! He had used her as a tool. A weapon for his ultimate goal. He had been the closest thing to a father Aversa knew, but not really. Her father had been killed right before her eyes, by Validar himself. How could Aversa not remember? Validar had altered her memories with magic, yes, but she could not grasp how it was possible. What she had seen should not have been easy to change.
For the first time since being abducted, Aversa could feel an emotion she had been trained to suppress. Guilt. She had killed entire families; some in worse ways than her own had been decimated in. She had assassinated guilty people, yes, but she had also murdered innocents. Children, in some cases. The flood of guilt was like acid – it was eating away at her conscious, driving her insane. It was hard to function, being fully aware of her deeds. What could she possibly do to redeem herself? Nothing, her mind screamed, nothing in this world can save you. Her iron knife for magic rituals lay beside her, always eager to spill blood.
"Aversa," a voice called. Aversa snapped out of her thoughts. It was a relief and an annoyance. She did not want to talk to anyone.
"What?" Her voice was hoarse, but she hadn't been yelling. She reached for the knife – to protect herself if required. Her hand came back empty.
It was the tactician, Validar's son. Robin. He might look like his father, but maybe not. He was nothing like his father, though. "What's this?" The tactician's tone was suspicious. He held the knife like a parent might hold up a soiled garment to a child.
Aversa pressed her lips together. None of Robin's business, that's what the knife is.
Robin took a seat beside her, keeping the knife on the side farthest from Aversa. She wanted to move away, but her body refused to obey. "Were you going to use this on yourself?"
She had to reply, just once. To get the man away. "Maybe."
"Why not? I know you all want me dead. I can't see a reason to keep living."
Robin inhaled sharply. "That's not true. We don't want you dead. We don't even need an explanation for what you did in the past. You were manipulated. Everyone understands that much. Chrom – he let go of his resentment a long time ago."
"When do you speak for your comrades?"
"Since they told me what they thought."
Aversa looked at Robin from the corner of her vision. He kept his gaze steady, yet unthreatening; waiting for her to make full eye contact. "So one bunch of people forgive me. And what about the others?"
"After all of this is over, I'll go with you and track down the families of people you've killed. Then you can apologize, right?" How easy he must have thought it was! There were so many things wrong with what he'd said.
"Firstly, I've killed many of my victims' connections," Aversa said angrily, "and moreover, you expect me to grovel for forgiveness that isn't someone's to give? No, the only ones I can seek forgiveness from are dead. I will not address people who think that they have the power to offer redemption in place of those who have actually been wronged."
Robin seemed startled at the sudden volume of words. Good, maybe he'd leave. "I'm sorry for saying that," damn, he might just stay. "But if you can't make amends right now, then do good things in their honor. We'll defeat Grima – that's one of the most righteous things you can do." That's right, Aversa joined the Shepherds to stop the fell dragon. To right a wrong that wasn't too late to fix.
"Right, defeat Grima." Aversa murmured to no one.
But the tactician wasn't finished. "Taking the coward's way out right now won't bring you solace," he started, "and keeping to yourself won't help, either. Having an outlet for those ugly emotions might ease the pain. Let me in and we can fight off the darkness together." So the little man thought he could handle it? He had a point, but Aversa was so confused. She was in a hellhole within her own mind. There was no way out, no way out…
"My memories are split cleanly in two. I can look back and see the unspeakable things I've done and the person I was clear as day. There was no remorse – I had been certain in my actions because Validar told me what I was doing was right. I was in full possession of my senses. All he had done to me was change my memories. He hadn't used magic to move my hands, make me say spells to take life. Now, I still have control of what I do, but I know the truth." The words tumbled out easily enough. It didn't make Aversa feel better, but it helped organize what she was feeling.
Robin remained respectfully quiet, waiting for her to go on.
Aversa took a shaky breath. "This guilt is going to be the end of me. I'd wanted to die when I faced you all at Origin Peak because I had failed my mission. But I survived. I wanted to die to escape from this madness, but you've reminded me of what I have to do." Her hands trembled. She clasped them together tightly to make the shaking stop. She was so tired.
"I don't know if it means anything, but if you're thinking about saving the world over everything you've done, I'd say that you are a good person. You always have been. If you're feeling guilty about things you've done, then you do have a conscience." It was clear Robin was trying to find words.
Aversa felt her thoughts becoming distracted. The longer she spoke to Robin, the less her mind wandered to darker places. Nevertheless, the man's optimism was irritating. She wasn't in the mood for reflecting anymore.
"All right, all right, you don't need to use idle flattery." She snapped. "Just be silent. And give me my knife."
Robin looked more relieved than offended. "Just let me say this: sometimes you need to let others support you. Otherwise you'll collapse. It doesn't mean you're weak." He reached over and picked the knife up, turning it grip first to Aversa. She took the item and tossed it into her tent.
Then she did something the two of them hadn't expected. Aversa leaned on Robin's shoulder. She had no idea why, it just seemed tempting to do so. Besides, it was a good test to check the truth behind Robin's words of camaraderie.
"Don't say anything, don't do anything." She commanded. Robin stiffened out of shock, but relaxed. So her touch wasn't revolting to him. Aversa stayed in place for a few minutes, listening to her own breathing. Robin's chest rose and fell at the same rate after a little while. True to Aversa's demands, Robin did not make a peep, nor did he make an attempt to touch her.
After she felt satisfied, Aversa moved away and stood. Her legs prickled and her head spun from getting up so quickly after sitting for a long period of time. Before entering her tent, she turned to the tactician, who sat on the grass, bewildered.
"This never happened." She said. Robin nodded his assent with a grin.
"Good night, Aversa."
"Yes, yes, you too, insufferable man."
After that night, Aversa had regained some semblance of normalcy in her life. She had renewed her purpose for living. Destroying the fell dragon offered ambition. It was a distraction from the festering guilt. When Grima was vanquished, she had forgotten that purpose – because of Robin's recklessness. Now, almost one year later, she could feel some of the remorse in her heart had lifted. It wasn't gone – it probably would never go away for good – but it was no longer unbearable. If there were life after death, she would repay her crimes in full, then, Aversa figured. But Morgan needed her. Killing herself and abandoning her child would only add to the list of wrongs.
Moreover, that one night had shown Aversa that she could trust at least one person in the Shepherds. Robin hadn't mentioned what had transpired, even in their heated arguments in the succeeding days and weeks afterwards. The man had grown on her like a malicious growth – slowly at first, then at a rapid speed. She stole a glance at her ring. It sparkled in the mixture of candlelight and moonlight.
Aversa adjusted her position to see through a window. The moon was a bright crescent in the sky. It wasn't a good night for scrying.
"Ow, ow!" Morgan yelped as Aversa combed her fair locks. So similar, yet so messy, Aversa observed with disdain.
"If you would comb your hair more often, it wouldn't hurt so much."
Morgan grunted. "Yeah, but it takes so much time!"
"Then you're getting what you deserve."
"Mother!" The girl's voice jumped up an octave as another knot was tugged away. "I'll be bald by the time you're through!"
Aversa giggled wickedly. "Only now you're concerned with your appearance?"
"No! I just want to have some hair!"
After the arduous task of combing Morgan's hair was done, Aversa put some sweet-smelling oil on her daughter's tresses to bring out a healthy sheen. Then there was the issue of finding suitable clothes for Morgan to wear. She had spent a long while trying to get the stains out of Morgan's tunics. Blood, sweat, wine, jam, mud – all of the girl's tunics were spotted with old messes. The trousers nearly drove her to blasting them with a Rexcaliber-powered spell.
Morgan spun around in her newly cleaned clothes. She had refused to wear anything other than her usual tactician's garb. Aversa suspected the child would die without wearing her violet cloak. Personally, Aversa despised the garment. It was garnished with patterns that looked too akin to the eyes of Grima. But Morgan was like her father; they both clung to the damned thing like it would save their lives. Their excuse was that it made them feel secure after waking up with no memory. Aversa thought it was silly.
"How do I look?"
"Clean," Aversa drawled. "You should be like this more often."
Morgan rolled her eyes. "I am clean! My clothes and stuff aren't. There's a difference."
"If you insist. Run along now – you shouldn't be late. It's shameful." Aversa pushed her daughter through the hallway.
"I know!" Morgan asserted. She stood in the middle of the front door, hesitating.
For the love of the gods, what was it this time? Aversa fought her nasty temper. Morgan had no reason to be nervous. "What's the matter now?"
"I just wanted to thank you for helping me get ready." Morgan looked up at her appreciatively. That was preposterous! All Aversa had done was comb her hair and prepare her clothes.
"What are you thanking me for, exactly?"
Morgan huffed. "You really want me to say it?" Now Aversa was beginning to hear herself in the girl's tone. She wasn't sure if it was a good or bad thing.
"Yes," said Aversa, "I think I do want you to say it."
"Fine. Thank you for being here for me. I've never experienced courtship before…and I don't always show it, but I'm a little nervous." For what reason? The taguel boy would be clay in Morgan's hands if she so wished. But Aversa wouldn't reveal that little morsel. From her experience with her child, Morgan was prone to taking advantage of others; both intentionally and unintentionally.
But, that was a lovely surprise for Yarne to realize.
"Don't take this outing too seriously. It's tea, not a marriage proposal." Aversa smoothed Morgan's hair again to disguise her bashfulness at hearing Morgan's gratefulness. Really, the girl was too much sometimes.
"Right. Got it."
"Be back home before dark. I refuse to make supper for latecomers." Aversa pushed Morgan the rest of the way out the door.
"It's not like your cooking is to die for!" Morgan called from the other side. Her footsteps on the grass outside grew fainter as she ran towards the stables.
Minutes passed. Aversa paced the kitchen multiple times, resisting the urge to scry. What was Morgan up to? Was she saying stupid things? The conditions were not ideal for scrying, Aversa told herself. It wasn't worth expending the infinitesimal energy it took to spy on others. Why in all the hells was she wound up in the first place? Morgan was only going to drink tea. For the love of the gods, she was acting like Robin! No, worse than Robin!
If – when, Aversa reminded herself – Robin came back from wherever he was, she was going to give him hell for making her worry about Morgan when he should be the one fussing while she remained aloof. For the time being, though, Aversa needed a distraction. Yes, something to take her mind off of her maturing child. She thought of the other Shepherds. Perhaps some hard physical training would do the trick.
Aversa grinned wickedly. She had to repay some select people for the fading bumps and bruises on her person. Besides, it gave her an excuse to go into the city and possibly fly over some local teashops.
Sorry I haven't updated in a long time. And I know this chapter is kind of short. I estimate one last chapter to close this story out, and then one more after that to dabble in the timeline Morgan came from to explore a very different romantic story between a parallel Robin and Aversa.