One afternoon Emmeryn took a turn about the palace gardens.
It was a beautiful day in late spring, with everything in full bloom. The sun warmed the mantle on her shoulders. It felt like someone had been hugging her tightly, leaving the imprint of their body heat, and had only just pulled away. Phila walked on her left side and Frederick on her right. They were both speaking amiably, so calm that Emmeryn nearly forgot the rhythmic drum of Phila's spear on the path with their steps, or the clank of the hand axe Frederick had on his belt. She was content to simply listen and walk and feel the sun beating down on her.
The hedges were so green, so thick, giving her hope for a bountiful summer and autumn. They were decorated with flurries of peaked flowers, white and pink and purple. They stirred in the gentle breeze and that breeze plucked off petals, adding to the movement it caused, making them swirl and flutter before they landed for good on the ground. It was a beautiful movement. And then, between two large blossoms, a glint like silver—
Phila's cry rang harsh in her ear and Frederick hurled his axe. There was a scream, a spray of blood against the flowers she'd been looking at. A man crashed forward through the hedges and fell with a hard thump. His knives, one for each hand, fell out of his grasp; Frederick kicked them out of reach and wrenched out his axe. Emmeryn's stomach twisted at the second scream.
"Get inside," Frederick ordered, and Phila grabbed her arm without hesitation to drag her away. Emmeryn was pulled a few steps before she was able to think, able to open her mouth. She cried over her shoulder,
"Don't kill him! Frederick, don't you dare!"
"Your Grace," he seethed back, but dropped his weapon into the grass. The assassin obviously wasn't going anywhere. Emmeryn twisted, even though that made Phila intensify her yanking, to watch Frederick sit on his heels beside the bleeding body and give it his most pleasant smile.
"Had a bit of a spill, there, did we?" he asked, and the man's trembling lips opened.
"Your Grace," Phila snapped, and Emmeryn turned back, hurried to match her pace, let herself be shepherded inside the nearest door.
There was no reason to struggle. She'd find everything out later; the assassin would tell Frederick whatever he wanted. You didn't lie to a man who towered over you even when he crouched. You didn't ignore someone who had almost lost his purpose.
She felt oddly numb when she reached her room, even when Phila shut the door behind them, even when the captain pulled her close, close and tight enough to make an imprint like the sun.
"Your Grace." Her voice broke.
Emmeryn wrapped her arms around Phila in turn and began to stroke back her tightly-bound hair. "There, there. We're all right."
That night Emmeryn wanted to go to sleep immediately. She wrapped herself in her coziest nightgown and silkiest robe, drank entirely too much tea, had to get up to relieve herself, and could not lie back down for the life of her. She couldn't get her mind off the fear in the eyes of the man in the garden. Instead she paced before her window, back and forth, until a soft knock made her pause.
Frederick was there when she opened the door, looking unusually tight in the face, even for him. Tea roiled in her stomach.
"Your Grace," he said quietly. "We extracted what we could from him. He was radical; unaffiliated with Plegia. He acted alone, out of a personal political motivation, and the threat has ended with him."
"Ended," she whispered. He looked away.
"The cleric was not able to do much for him. My aim was too true."
"Was he comfortable?"
"We generally do not spare comforts for assassins, milady. But he was not treated poorly in his last hours, no. I dare say they did all they could for him."
"I suppose that's all I could ask." She shut her eyes against the tears forming, and squeezed down tighter when she heard his exasperated sigh. Fingers closed over her shoulder and pulled her into the room. She heard the door shut behind them.
"You made it clear you never wanted to weep in public," he said by way of apology.
"Yes." Even her whisper was watery. "Thank you."
She could still feel the tension with her eyes closed. It built and she struggled not to tremble before he finally hissed,
"You're being ridiculous, Emmeryn! He was going to murder you!"
"Don't you understand?" she demanded as she opened her eyes. This time she was unashamed of the tears that fell. "Am I to find a way to justify this? Was saving my life worth ending his?"
"I will not respond to that. I fear you will find my words apoplectic."
"Please, consider it! We don't know a thing about him."
"We know he had no problem trying to kill an innocent!"
"Why is this guilt tearing at me, then? Perhaps I've wronged him, somehow. Perhaps he was a good friend. Perhaps a loving husband or father or brother. What have I done to deserve life more than he?"
He suddenly looked as though he wished to grab her face. "How dare you say that in front of me."
"Frederick," she tried to soothe, realizing her mistake, but she'd already set him off:
"What have you done? You ? Your life for his, you say? Pray, would I be alive, if it weren't for you? If you hadn't hand-picked me to put at your sidespecifically so you could tell me that I was worth something?"
"That's not the only reason and you know it. Do not talk about yourself so pathetically." They were both clasping their hands together now like there was nothing else to hold on to, her across her stomach, him behind his back.
"I did not strike him because he committed treason," he said. "The Frederick of a few years ago surely would have, but you have changed me from the man I was going to be. I was not exacting a punishment; I was no executioner. I was doing good by saving someone good. Think on how good you are, Emmeryn. Think of how Ylisse needs you, how Chrom and Lissa need you, how I have needed you, and ask whether your life is worth ending another's for."
"You are so blind," she whispered. Suddenly weak-kneed, as if the fear she should have felt in the garden was simply long delayed, she sank onto the edge of her bed. Frederick and Phila were her pillars, and so much of the strength she had was because she knew that if her facade cracked, one of them—always calm and composed—would be there to support her. To see both crumble, one after the other, made her heart beat too fast. "No one is worth more or less than anyone else. War will always continue until people realize this. I thought you of all people understood. Now you just make a mockery of my faith."
He stopped. It was so like him to leave words unsaid that Emmeryn leaned forward, as if to coax the rest of his sentence out. The moonlight made him look ghastly; pale and overtired. But he did not speak again until he'd crossed the room, sank to his knees before her, and pressed his face to her own knees.
"I know I have displeased you. But I must be stubborn in this, Your Grace."
"On the morrow," she murmured, "I am ordering all my guards to spare the lives of any future assailants whenever possible."
"It won't matter. I did not kill him because I am your guard."
"I don't want friends who will murder for my sake."
"I did not kill him because I am your friend, either."
"So what are you?" She was suddenly so frightened of where this conversation was going that her voice came out breathless.
"I am yours , Emmeryn. Whatever you want or need me to be."
"Can you not understand? That assassin almost took you. The Exalt."
"I am as human as the rest of you," Emmeryn reprimanded, but he shook his head fiercely against her.
"My Exalt, my work, my life's purpose, my honour; everything that ever mattered to me. But none of that mattered to me, then. None of it even crossed my mind. When I struck, all I could think was that he almost took the only person who has ever loved me."
For the first time in their lives, suddenly he was the child keeping a carefully straight face and she was the one with sincere strength. The very way the blood pumped back and forth in her veins was a soothing rock, her every exhalation was the hum of a wordless, breathy lullaby. She began to stroke Frederick's hair gingerly, feeling that if she applied any pressure, he might burst.
"I'm not the only one," she murmured. "I am but the first of many."
His shoulders didn't hitch and he didn't make a sound, but soon a hot dampness was bleeding into her lap.
"I failed you today," he said thickly. "My dearest friend."
"But you didn't. All this anxiety for nothing, Frederick." She wove her fingers a little deeper into his hair. "I'm just fine. I'm always safe with Phila, and I'm always safe with you."
"That isn't what I mean."
And then it hit her.
This was the first person Frederick had killed. He'd committed the highest sin for her but could receive no forgiveness, let alone gratitude. She'd scolded him as an Exalt should have, hadn't accepted the sacrifice. It threw up a wall between them, his morality against hers, honour and friendship against Naga's perfect, unflinching laws.
They 'd never had any choice in the matter. Deep down, Emmeryn had always known it would probably come to pass.
He'd wanted another way out as much as she'd wanted it for him, she realized. He hadn't wanted her to see him as a murderer from now on. He hadn't wanted her to mourn someone else, to fight back tears, to have guilt keep her from sleep. He'd failed her by failing to walk her path, failing to keep his hands clean. It was simply the way it had played out.
It was a debt Emmeryn was unsure how to repay.
"I can be your pillar tonight," she whispered to him. "I can be your shield."
She curled her body over him, smoothed his hair and rubbed his back, and he wept quietly against her for a long time. Her tears finally broke free too, but she didn't let him see.