Just so everyone knows, there will be a one-week break of this fic when it reaches the end of this book again. This is something I'll need to do each time as it lets me have a day (and only a day, since all my others are busy with other fics) to plan the next 15-16 chapter book with College Fool. This helps to keep it streamlined and ensures that I can keep the pacing good and that if there are any parts the two of us disagree on, we can actually have a few hours to knock ideas back and forth and discuss it. I'll let everyone know when exactly that break will be, but I have a feeling there will be two chapters left to Book 4, so it may be the week after next week's chapter. We shall see.
Beta: College Fool
Cover Art: Dishwasher1910
Book 4: Chapter 15
The words hung in the air for a few seconds. None of us dared accept them, let alone say anything. I felt my heart pound heavily in my chest. War. We were at war? It didn't seem possible. How could we have gone to war just like that? Surely there would have been some sign, some indication. Surely we would have known we were in a war, if only by the clash of steel and the armies marching under brightly-coloured banners. But no, the first word of war we received was a hurried explanation by a woman who was, by all accounts, now our enemy.
Or rather her Kingdom was our enemy. The Grand Treaty prevented her from taking part in the war just as much as it did me, and that meant we were safe.
"How could they have let this happen?" Qrow asked. The Druid's lips were peeled back in a snarl. "You said Vale attacked Mistral. Are you sure that was the case?"
"Of course not," Cinder replied. "There's no proving anything and both sides will doubtless have their own stories to tell." She motioned behind her with one hand, and Emerald and Mercury rushed away. "The important part isn't who or what started the war. It's getting you out before things get worse."
I cleared my throat to draw her attention. "Why is that an issue? Heroes are exempt from the war. It's not like we could do anything to Mistral."
She shook her head. "It's not a lack of faith on my part, at least not in you. War has just been declared. The people are frightened, angry, confused… I fear what reactions they might have if they were to see people from Vale, Heroes or not. You might not break the Grand Treaty willingly, but there's no telling if the people here might not do the same. You might be forced to hurt them in self-defence, adding to what is already a tenuous situation."
"She's right," Weiss said, stepping forward. "Keep in mind that even if we're Hero Classes, that doesn't necessarily mean we're Heroes. There are just as many Knights, Mages and Brawlers who fail their First Quests and are relegated to the Soldier Caste. They might not stop to ask questions if they see us."
I hadn't considered that, and suddenly Cinder's worry made a lot more sense. It wasn't just protecting us, but also protecting her Kingdom from a diplomatic incident. If anyone attacked us thinking we were an expeditionary force of the Vale military, they'd be in for trouble. Whether we escaped unharmed, hurt them, or even killed them in self-defence, it would lead to disaster. It didn't matter whether we were the ones causing the incident or Mistral; both would make peace all but impossible.
And it was still possible, right? The war had just started but the misunderstanding could be worked out. Just because it had been declared, there was no rule that people had to fight and die. Ozpin would try to influence the King of Vale to sue for peace, I was sure of it.
"What's the plan?" Qrow asked. "You know the situation better than we do."
"Are the Greycloaks dealt with?"
"They're dead. We killed Tyrian Callows."
The name meant something to her – it was obvious from the way her eyes widened. Even so she didn't comment on it, perhaps because of the laws of Mistral and him being Forsaken. "Good. The plan to get you out of the Kingdom is simple. We'll travel to the West Coast between Hound's Lookout and the Rock of Solitude. I have a small vessel there for you, captained by some members of the Soldier Caste who know the situation. They're disguised as privateers and will see you safely back to Vale."
"We don't know those locations," Qrow warned.
"That is fine. We shall lead you there." Cinder turned at a noise from behind, and we all watched as Mercury and Emerald reappeared, leading a procession of horses our way. There weren't enough for all of us, but each of them looked to be powerful mounts, and their tack was of the highest quality. They were even barded. Warhorses, I realised.
"We were only able to bring nine," Emerald said. "Three for us and two extras each that we were able to keep hold of. You lot will have to share."
Qrow nodded and turned to us all. "Right, you lot mount up and get ready. I'll follow from the air."
"Leave any encounters to us," Cinder said. "Whatever happens, do not draw your weapons. We can diffuse any situation that doesn't turn violent. If the worst does happen…" Her eyes hardened. "Then allow us to deal with those who break the Treaty."
Ruby gasped. "You'd kill your own people?"
"If they wish to break the Grand Treaty, then I shall do so. If Heroes were to enter this war, the bloodshed would reach untold heights." Her frown became slightly less harsh. "But we'll likely just knock them out if possible. The important thing is that it is we who deal with any Mistralian, not you. We can't have this get any more complicated than it already is."
We nodded and rushed to the horses, storing our weapons away on the mounts. Pyrrha took charge and organised the horses to passengers by weight, and I had a feeling I was put with Ruby for more than just the issue of her being the lightest and I the heaviest. I didn't argue though, especially when Ruby leapt up and took the reins. She was the much better rider, as Pyrrha knew. I took Crescent Rose off her while she patted the gelding and strapped it to the horse's flank, underneath the saddle flaps. There were several straps there for weapons but I went around to the other side for Crocea Mors. Even though I could have kept it on my hip, removing it might calm down anyone who saw us, or at least get rid of the temptation to draw it.
Ruby leaned over to the horse's right as I mounted the left, putting one foot in the stirrup and using it to pull myself up. She patted the saddle, scooting forward on it so that I could take most of the room and she could sit in my lap. Had the situation been any less serious I might have looked to Blake to see if she was okay with that, but everyone was far too focused for it to mean anything. I wrapped my hands around Ruby's waist, not to keep her safe but to stop myself falling off.
The others had a horse each, except for Weiss who rode behind Yang, arms linked about the blonde's waist. Emerald, Mercury and Cinder mounted their own, the steeds standing patiently and with far more discipline than ours did. They were likely their own horses, trust built over years.
"Follow me," Cinder called. "I will take the lead. Mercury and Emerald, fall back and behind and keep to the flanks. Make sure no one strays and keep them in formation. Druid, you-?"
"I'll have no trouble keeping up." Qrow stepped back and folded in on himself, transforming into a crow in an explosion of black feathers. He cawed and took to the air, catching a thermal and rising high above, where he circled ominously.
If Cinder was surprised she hid it well. With a nod, she pulled on her reins and turned her mount to the side, kicking her heels into its flank. Ruby did the same to ours, and I leaned against her back to reduce the air resistance as the gelding tore off in pursuit, followed by the others members of the Guild.
"Are you okay?" Ruby asked several leagues and at least an hour into the journey. Our mount was panting but kept up the pace, even if we'd fallen to what was essentially the back of the pack. That was probably due to my lack of ability at riding, since even though I tried to move up and down as instructed I knew I was getting it wrong because Ruby kept bumping into me. She didn't point it out, and at least Emerald and Mercury remained behind to ensure none of us got separated and lost.
"I'll be fine." I tightened my grip on Ruby's stomach and tried to ignore the pain in my thighs and crotch, mostly from how my mismatched rise and fall had caused me to slam my hips into the saddle over and over. It was still better than walking, however, and we needed the speed. "What do you think of what's happening?"
"The war?" Ruby felt me nod against her back. "I don't know. It's… I don't know." Her hands tightened on the reins. "They'll find a way to stop it, right? This has to be some kind of misunderstanding."
"I hope so. I don't want to think Vale actually did attack Mistral's ships."
"You think it could be the Greycloaks?"
"Someone will know. There must be a list of sailors or ships somewhere. If it wasn't actually a Vale ship then we'll know because there won't be any missing. All we need to do is pass that information on to Mistral and the whole thing can be called off."
I didn't bother to point out others had almost certainly thought of that. Though there was no telling how accurate Cinder's account was – her not having been on the water at the time – there was still the fact that people in Vale would surely have already checked the records. I had a feeling it wouldn't be that simple. Even so, to say that now would be cruel, and I had my own hopes to keep up.
"Maybe you're right," I said. "I hope so."
"Someone will do something. Ozpin isn't going to sit back and let a war happen."
"True… and I doubt the royal family want to be the cause of a war."
"It'll work out," Ruby whispered.
I wasn't sure who she was trying to convince, or who I was. Maybe we were trying to convince ourselves. The forests we'd been travelling through had given way to open plains and meadow a few minutes back, and as we crested a gentle slope in the landscape I caught a sight of the ocean in the distance. The others must have as well, for a cheer rose up from the procession, Ruby joining in with it. Assuming Cinder's ship was still in place we'd soon be back in Vale, and from there, home. After so long away, the thought of seeing Beacon once more was a welcome one.
"Riders," Ruby gasped.
"Where?" I leaned up and looked around. The long and rolling plains continued on in every direction, but I spotted something standing out, a cloud of dust with little else to distinguish it, off towards the south. I had no clue if they were riders or not but trusted Ruby's instincts.
"Faster!" Cinder shouted from the front of the formation. "Beat them to the coast!"
There were several cries and the horses began to pick up speed ahead of us. Ruby lashed her reins down. "Hah!" she shouted, bucking her heels a little. The pace of the mount changed, becoming a canter and jostling me wildly. "Come on," Ruby whispered. "We can make it. We can beat them there."
Thanks to the cloak flapping around in my face I couldn't see anything, and since I didn't dare let go of her to pull it down, I had to make do with hope. Even if we made it to the coast it would surely take time to push the ship out, unless it was waiting just off-shore for us to swim to. That might be for the best but I didn't want to imagine us swimming under a hail of arrow fire from a group of enemy soldiers.
"We're not going to make it," Yang shouted. "Weiss, can you-"
"No spells!" Cinder snapped. "Don't do anything. Even a single fireball into the sky will start a bloodbath."
We started to slow suddenly, and I whipped Ruby's cloak out of my face once I felt confident enough holding on with one hand. Cinder had a hand up ahead and had drawn us into a halt, and only a short distance from the cliffs, too. We might have been able to make it before the pursuers reached us, but there was still finding a way down, and that would have been our deaths.
"We didn't make it," Ruby said, huddling against my chest. I doubted she even realised.
The riders – for they were close enough now to make out – fanned wide and split into two, swirling around our formation that had come to a stop, our horses panting and covered in sweat. Ruby nudged ours a little closer to Yang's, and Mercury crowded on our left, acting as a shield in case anything went wrong. We were herded into a small ball of horses and nervous Heroes as a party almost forty strong surrounded us.
The Soldiers were clad in full armour from head to toe, with helmets cutting off their faces and somehow making them seem inhuman. Their armour was a dark grey in colour, with golden tooling along the arms in the shape of a circle with a small flame inside, flanked by stylised wings – the symbol of Mistral. Each had a long, flowing black cloak with the same symbol on it in pale blue. The horses were barded and armoured, with caparisons of the same colour hanging down either side to just above their hooves, the same black with the blue symbol of Mistral.
They were armed with a variety of swords, maces and shields, with one or two even having lance or spears in hand. As they closed ranks and completely surrounded us, they too slowed down to an eventual halt.
"Stay quiet," Mercury whispered. "Let Cinder do the talking."
We all nodded. Up above, a crow cawed loudly and began to circle. Even though we'd been herded into a ball, Cinder sat on her horse a little out from it, unwilling to back up even as the mounted soldiers closed ranks. Some of them seemed confused about that, watching her warily as she sat proudly, her hands linked before her and rest on her reins.
"Enough of this posturing," she said, her voice loud and confident. "Who would speak with us? Show yourself for we have places to be."
The Soldiers, of too many Classes to note, turned to one another curiously, whispers passing through the force. They seemed surprised their prey could speak with such confidence, or that she would at all. The cruel truth was that she could kill them all should she wish.
"I speak for my men," a woman called. I could only tell it was a woman because of the voice, but as she nudged her horse closer she reached up and removed her helmet, allowing brown hair to fall down in waves on either side of her face. "I am Lieutenant Seere."
She cut an imposing figure, a Knight in full shining armour – and with the Class to match above her head. Her eyes were a deep green and scanned over us all, hardening when they reached our Guild. They hovered a second on my face, or a little above it, before carrying on over the entire group, silently judging us. She had a lance strapped to the side of her mount, but her gauntleted hand rested on the hilt of an ornate sword.
Anyone else might have flinched, but Cinder was unaffected. She tossed her head, flicking her raven locks behind her, and fixed the older woman with a sharp glare. "Why have you stopped us, Lieutenant?"
"We are stopping many such parties travelling through these parts, especially those who do not fly the banner of Mistral. We are at war, as you no doubt know."
"The War is of no concern to us. We are Heroes. You are aware of the Grand Treaty, of course."
"Naturally." Seere nodded once. "Still, I had heard rumours from the nearby villages of people from Vale travelling in these parts." Her eyes fixed on ours. "You there, Knight. What is your name?"
I flinched at suddenly being the centre of attention and pointed dumbly at myself. "Me?" I asked, and cringed when she nodded impatiently. "My name is Jaune Arc, Miss Seere. I'm a Hero."
The Lieutenant smiled victoriously at Cinder. "A clear Vale accent. How curious. Do you have an explanation for this?"
At the declaration of my accent, which I hadn't even realised might give us away, the men and women surrounding us tensed. No weapons were drawn but the unmistakeable click of swords being loosed in scabbards gave them away. Mounts, sensing their rider's moods, began to pace and shift nervously. Ours did the same, all except for Cinder's, which simply tossed its head.
"I do not need an explanation," Cinder said, unperturbed. "They are Heroes from Vale, yes, but they were here before the war. Even if that were not the case you have no right to stop them. Stand aside, Lieutenant."
"Heroes, you say. I suppose there is no proving otherwise. Still, it is dangerous for such people from Vale to be here. One can never be too careful and it would be just like Vale to send Heroes in as spies." The woman's face hardened. "You will all come with me to our garrison. The Commander will know what to do with you, and be you Heroes I am sure he will honour the Treaty and see to your safe return."
I shared a worried look with Blake. Beside me, Mercury cursed under his breath. There was no telling what might happen if we were taken by these people. They might let us go, but even if we were Heroes there was still the chance we'd be seen as spies like the woman said. How would they distinguish if that were true or not? I had no idea how far the Grand Treaty went. Could they interrogate us, torture?
Would Vale even notice if we went missing? They might believe it a case of the Quest having failed and us being slain.
"Men, take their horses and weapons," the woman commanded.
"Belay that order," Cinder snapped.
The men who had moved forward froze. They looked between themselves nervously, unsure of what to do. Lieutenant Seere for her part rose up, her eyes flashing in pure rage. "Excuse me? I do not believe you're in a position to be making demands. Detain them!"
The soldiers moved forward again but were sent flying back as a wave of fire scorched the ground before them. Cinder held one hand aloft, fire swirling about her fist. There was a startled cry and weapons were drawn. I reached for my own but froze when Mercury caught my wrist and shook his head.
"It is you who is not in a position for demands, Lieutenant," Cinder said. Her voice radiated power and as the flames danced about her arm and hand, down to her shoulder, she cut a commanding figure. "You will part and allow us to pass uncontested. The Crown demands it."
"The Crown!?" the woman spluttered. "Who are you to-"
"This is why I speak for the Crown." She threw one arm wide, and something golden dangled from it, a long chain with an ornate pendant on the end. It was festooned with brightly coloured gems and diamonds and was obviously worth a vast amount of lien. It meant nothing to me but had the soldiers gasping.
"T-The Imperial Seal," Lieutenant Seere stammered. "But how?"
"I am Cinder Fall, Royal Consort to his Highness the Crown Prince of Mistral."
She was what!? I gaped at the woman, as did the rest of our party, suddenly aware that we'd been standing, chatting, and even fighting, with royalty. That was… but she'd never said anything. For a second I wondered if it wasn't false, but Emerald and Mercury didn't seem surprised and the pendant – the so-called Imperial Seal – seemed to be more than enough to cow the soldiers. Lieutenant Seere no longer looked frustrated; she looked positively horrified.
"Y-Your majesty," she said. "I-I did not realise."
"You did not," Cinder said. "It matters little. You will allow us to pass now, correct?"
"I…" She swallowed and looked to us. "What about them? They are from Vale."
"They are here under my instruction, and my protection. Do you challenge this?"
"N-No. Of course not." She looked down to the men on foot. "You, mount up. We will return to the garrison. I apologise for having bothered you, your majesty."
Cinder nodded, and soon after the men and women had remounted and left, though many paused to throw curious and awed looks towards Cinder, as if they'd never seen her before. They perhaps hadn't. Once they were gone, Cinder nudged her horse forward and led us to the cliffs, taking our party down a steep path that wound its way to the shore, where a ship could be seen off the bay. It was a small and sleek thing that flew a neutral flag, but it was clearly waiting for us. Qrow landed and transformed but didn't say a word. Once we were on the beach we began to dismount. Cinder moved over to speak to us.
"Are you really the Queen of Mistral!?" Ruby blurted out. The question – not to mention the tone – might have caused offence, but Cinder waved it off.
"I am the princess, though only in name," she corrected. "I'm the Royal Consort to the Crown Prince. I wasn't born into the position. Just think of it as me being his fiancée. I might later become Queen, but that is something for the future."
"You didn't mention anything about this," Qrow accused.
"It hardly seemed relevant for the most part." When that answer failed to satisfy him she sighed and looked to us all. "I did not deceive you if that is what you're all thinking. Julianna Verdant found information on the Greycloaks and brought it to the Crown's attention. I acted on it as there were few others that could be trusted. I did not bring up my position because I didn't think it mattered in the midst of a Quest. Besides, there would have been little way for me to prove it."
"Those Soldiers didn't seem to recognise you by face or name," Ren pointed out.
"No. Though it is common knowledge the Prince is engaged, it is not so widely known who that is. It's a protection in place to prevent anyone from trying to influence me, or perhaps so that were I to die in my duties my existence could be hidden." She didn't seem bothered by that, though I was. It reminded me too much of Tyrian. "Regardless, I have the seal as proof, both of our union and my position. It would have meant little to you, however, so I didn't bring it up."
There didn't seem to be any reason to argue with that and Qrow nodded. It felt strange to be stood in front of someone who was, by all accounts, the princess of the Kingdom. She didn't act like it, though, and I had to remember that she hadn't been born that way. She'd become the Royal Consort. At least she was willing to suffer with her people. That was a good trait.
I also had a moment of embarrassed horror where I recalled Blake thinking Cinder and I might have been flirting. Judging by the faunus' expression she remembered it too.
"This is where we bid you farewell," Cinder said, stepping back to stand between Mercury and Emerald. It suddenly made a lot more sense why the three were so strong; they probably bad bespoke training the likes of which we couldn't imagine. They might well have been royal bodyguards. "The crew have been sourced by the Crown and are loyal to the Royal family. They will see you safely to Vale."
"What of this war?" I asked. "You're the princess. Can't you stop it?"
"I will try, but can make no promises. It may seem like a lot to you but I am only the princess, and at best a fiancée to the prince. I have very little say in matters of state."
"Leave it be, kid," Qrow whispered to me, placing a hand on my shoulder. "Ozpin will know what to do. We need to get back to Vale." He raised his head and nodded to Cinder. "Thanks for save, then. We owe you one. I take it that if Beacon extends a hand of friendship, Mistral will respond."
"The Crown will," Cinder confirmed. "On Haven, I cannot say. We will have to investigate Lionheart ourselves. I wish you all well. Good luck on your journey, and may this war end soon. Mistral doesn't need to waste time and lives at a time like this, not with the Greycloaks to deal with." She reached under one arm and drew forth a strange, wooden capsule. "Here, take this. Give it to Ozpin. It contains what little information we've been able to find on them. The container is sealed and protected, so it should have little problem in the water."
"I'll take it," Qrow said. "I can fly it to the ship just in case. The rest of you…" He looked to us with an amused smile. "I hope you're all good swimmers."
I groaned, feeling like the joke was especially aimed at me after my last debacle in the ocean.
"I'm sorry we could not moor it at a village," Cinder said.
"It's no worry. We don't want to cause a panic anyway."
The rest of the farewells wrapped up from there. We might have had more to say had the situation been better, but with the threat of war on the horizon and the ship impatiently waiting just off the shallows there was a sense of urgency that cut us short. When it came to my turn I shook Cinder's hand, but was surprised when she pulled me closer.
"Be careful with that hand trick in future. It's no business of mine but a Knight should not be capable of casting a touch-based fire spell."
My breath caught in my throat.
I barely had the time to panic before she smiled and released me, moving on to shake hands with Pyrrha. "I should thank you," she said. "Were it not for your refusal our situations might be reversed. I only have this position because you turned down the opportunity to be his bodyguard."
"A-Ah, I see. Well, I'm glad someone more enthusiastic about it accepted."
She moved on a second later, leaving Pyrrha to stand awkwardly beside me. I barely paid attention, too lost in the dangerous words she'd whispered. Stoke the Forge, my Blacksmithing Skill. I'd used it on her in our first encounter back when I'd thought her a Greycloak. I'd barely thought about it at the time, it being a desperate gambit by a desperate man about to die, but it looked like the unusual ability hadn't gone unnoticed.
The emphasis she put on my Class, too. Did she know I wasn't a Knight?
I had to calm down. She hadn't revealed anything and probably wouldn't. Even if she had a suspicion I wasn't what I showed, there was no way she'd immediately jump to me being a part of the Labour Caste. With how rigid the Caste system was in Mistral she'd have dismissed me the moment she found out. It was more likely she thought me some other Hero class hiding my identity, maybe like that illusionist Roman had working for him. Still, as she and her companions wished us a good journey I couldn't help but not meet her eyes.
How many others had I carelessly shown my skill in front of? How many others held the exact same suspicions about me?
There was no way to know.
The swim out to the ship wasn't quite as difficult as we'd expected and it might have been an exaggeration to call it swimming. We waded a fair distance out, using formations of rocks and coral to pick our way, and it was only the last thirty metres or so that required a swim at all. There was a thick net slung over the side which we clung onto, and sailors who were a little too disciplined to be traders hauled us on board where Qrow was already waiting. One of the men saluted to him and moved further down the ship. The Druid raised his head and waved as he saw me, right as I reached over and pulled Weiss up onto the ship.
"There you lot are. It's about time." He ignored Yang's indignant glare as she crawled up onto the deck. "I've spoken to the crew here and it's as she said, they're personal guards to the royal family. We'll have to keep that quiet when we hit Vale waters but they've promised to drop us off and leave soon after."
"Is there any risk of them not doing so?" I asked.
"Not really, but there is a risk that someone in Vale realises who they are and kills them – the same risk we just went through. Even if it doesn't break the Treaty, the Mistral Royal family won't be happy to see their retainers slain."
We all nodded, salt-water dripping off our bodies. One of the soldiers offered me a towel and I passed it along to Blake, taking the second for myself as the others were distributed among us. The ship creaked as the sails were unfurled and it gently began to list, turning us our westwards.
"I've asked this lot about the war and what's going on," Qrow continued. "It doesn't sound bad yet. There have been a few skirmishes on the open water but no one's landed on anyone's shore and there's no sign of either side wanting to make an invasion." He waited for us to stop smiling and laughing before he went on. "That said, it doesn't mean much I'm afraid. Both sides have been caught off guard by this so it could be that they're gathering forces. We don't know enough to get a full picture. It could well be that Vale started this war and intends to invade Mistral."
"Why?" Ruby asked.
"Who knows? Could be that there's a good reason and we've not been told; could be that the Noble Castle got uppity and started things off. It might even be a terrible accident from one guy shooting at what he thought was a pirate ship, or it might be the Greycloaks," he added, to the silence of everyone. "Either way, we're to keep our heads down and get back to Beacon. For now, our Quest is over – and we completed it in full. Be proud of that fact."
I nodded along with the others, even if it was hard to take too much pleasure in it. There was just too much on my mind, and everyone else's too, no doubt.
"I know you're all desperate to know more on this. I am too," Qrow said. "But you can't dwell. We've all had a tough day and most of us are still aching from the fight with that Paragon. Get some rest, and if possible, try to forget about the situation back home. We'll have a short trip back to Beacon but Ozpin will want to speak with you anyway, so you won't get a chance to rest there. Take it now."
His words might as well have been a mace for how they struck me, reminding me of just how spent I was – and still weak from nearly dying. I didn't sag, even if Blake hovered close by just in case, but it was a close thing.
The others seemed to agree as well and a soldier who'd been waiting patiently by showed us to some private cabins. That we were to receive our own was a surprise even before I saw how opulent they were, festooned with rich rugs, tapestries and bear-skin quilts. Nora took one look at those and claimed the room. It was obvious the ship was a personal one for the Royal family, and this might even have been the crew who ferried them around. That probably made them the most accomplished sailors in Mistral.
In the end, despite my exhaustion, I was one of the few who weren't able to instantly fall asleep. The room Ren and I had was warm and comfortable, enough so that the Monk was out the moment his head touched the pillow, but I couldn't quite fall asleep myself, and clambered out of the bed after a good half-hour of tossing and turning. It was still daytime and light filtered through the drawn curtains, giving me enough to make my way to the door by. Ren slumbered on, unaware that I'd left at all.
"Maybe some fresh air will help me relax…"
The Mistralian soldiers didn't bat an eye as I stepped up onto the deck and into the warm sunlight. They were efficient and disciplined, speaking in whispers and otherwise seeing to their job. Qrow was sat up on the upper deck, legs over the edge and mulling to himself. He looked lost in thought so I decided not to bother him.
Blake was up top, as always, in the crow's nest – which ought to have been a more apt spot for the Druid, I supposed. Either way, I didn't want to chance the long climb to reach her and I had the odd suspicion she was asleep up there, sunning herself in solitude like the cat she swore she had nothing in similarity to. In order to keep the peace I decided to keep that amusing comparison to myself.
There was one other, however, stood with hands on the railing on the port side of the ship. I moved over to stand beside her, coughing to catch the redhead's attention. Her green eyes flicked to meet mine and she smiled.
"Can't sleep?" Pyrrha asked.
"The body is tired but the mind knows it's not bed time."
Pyrrha laughed. "It's the same for me. Even if I had to fight against Tyrian, I just can't fall asleep. Weiss is out like a light."
"Is she okay?"
"Her wound was relatively small. She was able to summon some ice in the way before Blake's dagger hit her, and the throw – while powerful – wasn't very accurate. It skimmed her arm enough to draw blood but didn't puncture deep."
"That's good." I leaned against the balcony and took a deep breath of the sea air. It took me a second to realise Pyrrha was staring at me, and when I did I looked back. "What?"
"I was just thinking how strange it is for you to be worried about someone else considering what happened to you."
"To me-?" It took Pyrrha nodding down to my side for me to remember, and when I did my hand shot down to grip the spot instantly. There was no pain, of course. Whatever Salem had done when she healed it, there was no pain whatsoever. "I completely forgot about it," I admitted. "It feels like it never happened at all. I'll have it checked," I quickly promised when her eyes narrowed. "Don't worry; I'm not going to take anything she did lightly."
"You'd better. I'll tell Blake if you don't." A smile accompanied the threat but I had no doubt she was serious. Blake would ensure my compliance, not that I was against it anyway. If there was a nasty surprise waiting – such as a Grimm bursting out of my chest – then I wanted to know about it.
"You called Tyrian by name earlier," I said, changing the subject. "I thought that was a taboo for you."
"Because he was forsaken? I suppose it should be. In truth I was a little too young to have grown up with stories about him but I'm sure I heard one or two. He was famous as a Hero, the perfect kind who never did anything wrong and never asked for a reward. To him, the mere act of helping was its own reward."
"It's…" I tested the words carefully in my mind before I spoke them. "I don't agree what they did to him. Mistral, I mean. They had no right to throw him away like that. It wasn't fair."
"I know. And I agree."
Pyrrha nodded at my surprise, shooting me a small smile. "I left Mistral, remember. I swore allegiance to Vale and came to study at Beacon. There was a reason for that, and while I won't say it was him, it maybe was something similar. Do you remember what I told you about my Class?"
"That it's super-rare," I said, "and that you were offered a position as the prince's bodyguard as a result. That was what Cinder meant, wasn't it? When you refused she was offered the position and accepted."
"And then she became engaged to him," Pyrrha finished. "That's what Mistral is like in many regards. They love their Prestige Classes, believe in them, nurture and do whatever they can to elevate them above all others. If I'd accepted that offer then it might have been me who would be the future Queen." She shook her head. "I didn't want that."
"You didn't want the responsibility?" I guessed.
"I couldn't abide the thought of being so afraid," she corrected. "You saw what they did to Tyrian. Those who are at the top have the furthest to fall. There's only so much pressure you can put on someone before they break, and Mistral is almost famous for doing that to its Prestige Classes. I feel sorry for Cinder," she added. "I ran away to avoid that very fate. I didn't want to end up like Tyrian, or worse, to live my life never making a mistake but being constantly afraid of the possibility."
She nodded. "Do you remember when you decided you weren't good enough to be our tank?"
"Yeah. You took over along with Nora."
"In Mistral, you wouldn't be allowed to just fail like that. I've made mistakes here too, Torchwick being an example, and that's okay. Just like I accepted yours, everyone has accepted mine." Pyrrha smiled. "I like that. It's the reason why I like it in Vale. I feel like I'm just another person, like I'm one of you."
"You are," I assured her.
"I know. That's why whatever happens in this war, I'm going to side with Vale. I may have been born in Mistral, but my loyalty is to Vale, Beacon, and the Hunters." She let go of the railing and turned back towards the cabins. "I guess that's why I couldn't sleep," she admitted. "I wanted to come up and say goodbye to Mistral for the last time, but when I did, and when I watched it drifting away, I didn't feel as sad as I thought I would. It confused me at first but I think I understand now. I don't feel upset because I don't think of Mistral as my home anymore."
I understood, even if the words weren't quite there. In Vale there were people who might still look at her in awe for her Class, but no one would put her on a pedestal. She was stronger, but that was all she was. No one would bow down to her because of the words above her head. "We'll be home soon," I said. "We'll all go back to the Lodge together."
Pyrrha's smile could have rivalled the sunrise. "I can't wait."
As the Champion left to get some sleep, I remained out on the deck, watching the waves in the distance, Mistral fading over the horizon, and Vale appearing. It would be several hours until we landed, enough for me to get some sleep, but I found myself drawing out the amulet from under my armour and holding it in my hand, the chain still about my neck and my Class still proudly displaying me as a Knight.
Salem had recognised it. It was strange, but she'd recognised and been surprised by it, even after she'd called me a Deceiver on more than one occasion. That meant she'd known I was lying about my Class before she knew how I was lying. There was no telling that that meant, but it was now two people who knew the truth about me, or at least had reason to suspect I wasn't telling it fully. I had to wonder if I could keep the charade up for much longer and whether it might be better to tell them outright. They deserved to know.
"Now's not the time," I decided, pushing it away. "Not with the war and the Greycloaks. I'll tell them after it's all done, once it's over and things are back to normal."
It was a promise I intended to keep.
So, here we go. On our way back to Beacon but the war has broken out. There's one last chapter to this Book, and then it's a week break before we move onto Book 5. That'll technically mark the midway of the whole story, which is tentatively planned as being 10 books. That said, I've normally kept to keeping the books unnamed to avoid spoilers, and I'll continue doing that, but since it's already about over, I'll say that Book 4's title was "The Forsaken".
Next Chapter: 15th January
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