The sunlight was that pale gold color that seemed exclusive to early spring, bathing the walls of Castle Dunan so that they shone white, as though crafted out of marble rather than limestone. The pennants mounted on the castle's towers streamed in the morning breeze, the snapping sound of the canvas as it whipped out a clean music over the hum of activity as the castle-dwellers began a new day. It was even more busy than usual, as the castle had recently received an influx of new inhabitants – five hundred or so Matilda knights, defecting from Gorudo's questionable rule to rally to Riou's banner. The knights had brought a much needed infusion of manpower and cavalry expertise, and the Alliance Army's chances against Highland seemed much improved.
These knights now stood in the Great Hall, arrayed in neat columns of red, blue, and white. They stood at attention, their backs as ramrod straight and their heads as high as they could make them, facing the raised dais at the front of the chamber. Riou stood there, trying very hard not to seem fidgety in front of his rather large audience. He was alone on the dais; he'd wanted the others to stand with him, but Shu had advised against it. It was for Riou that the knights had left Matilda, and it was to him that they would swear allegiance. Even Nanami (protesting even so) hadn't been allowed to stay with him.
Riou felt oddly insecure without her nearby, and with no one to distract the knights' disconcertingly reverential gaze from him, but at the same time he felt a little relieved. Nanami had been paying too much attention to that Camus fellow for his 'overprotective brother' instincts to be entirely calm.
Camus and Miklotov began the ceremony. The two knight-captains came forward together, their bared swords held upright with both hands. They marched to the foot of the dais, the measured 'tramp-tramp-tramp' of their boots loud in the sudden silence, before falling to one knee in front of Riou.
"I, Camus, son of Rasmus…"
"I, Miklotov, of House Duceney…"
"…do hereby pledge my allegiance, my fealty, and my life to the service of Lord Riou, he who is lord of Castle Dunan, leader of the Alliance Army, and bearer of the Bright Shield Rune. I vow to follow his commands in battle, to come to his banner whenever he calls, and to acknowledge him as overlord. I will ride as he bids, and stand as he bids, and wield my sword as he bids. This I swear on my honor and my blade, and may the power of the True Runes strike me down if I swear falsely."
The Bright Shield Rune flared to life then, as if on cue. The white-green glow was seen even through his glove, and people all around the room gasped as they saw it. Riou obligingly pulled the glove off his right hand, so that the shape of the rune was clearly visible instead of just an indistinct glow.
The knights had lowered their swords, turned so that the hilts were being offered to Riou and the points were braced against the knights' breastplates. Riou took Miklotov's sword first, a point of protocol Shu and Apple had hammered out after poring over books about the knightdom of Matilda. He raised it with both hands as Miklotov had, blade flat against his forehead and pointed straight up. Gasps filled the room yet again as the rune flared anew. The blade began to shine with the same white-green light of the Bright Shield engraved on the back of Riou's right hand.
Riou moved the blade away from himself, looking straight at Miklotov. The Blue Knight met his new overlord's eyes squarely, with a hint of wonder in his expression. Riou laid the flat of the blade across Miklotov's shoulders, speaking the formal, ritual phrases that Shu had carefully coached him in, but now meaning them with a calm certainty he'd never felt when saying them in practice. Perhaps the Bright Shield rune, now fairly blazing its light up and down the blade, bathing both Miklotov and Riou in pale radiance, had something to do with it.
"Let all here witness that I recognize this pledge of faith, offered in honor and accepted in honor. I will be his overlord, calling on his arm in times of need, and may the power of the True Runes strike me down if I am a false lord. Arise, Sir Miklotov, true knight." And the room was hushed as Miklotov rose and took back his sword from Riou, who'd offered it to him hilt-first as the knight had offered him the sword earlier.
The white-green glow from the Rune lasted for but a moment as it left Riou's hand, but it was enough to illuminate Miklotov's face as he touched the still-shining blade to his forehead in salute.
By the time the last of the Matilda knights had knelt and sworn fealty, Riou had forgotten his stage-fright in the ache of his limbs. Legs that had stood still for too long and arms that had to lift huge two-handed swords over and over again screamed their protests at him. Genkaku had trained his adopted grandson in a fighting style that emphasized speed and technique over strength and endurance, which Riou was beginning to regret now. Only the highest-ranking knights, those of commander status, would swear that day, but that still meant Riou had to acknowledge the pledges of more than fifty knights at one go.
The Bright Shield flared every time a knight came to kneel at Riou's feet, and each sword Riou touched would begin to blaze just as Miklotov's had. Riou would have thought that more than fifty repetitions of the phenomenon would have rendered it dull, but the wonder and awe in each knight's face was as fresh and unabated as the expression in the Blue Knight's had been.
When the last of the commanders had returned to his place in the lines, the knights waited for a breath before unsheathing their swords in a single, unified motion. With a great clash of metal the knights raised their blades in salute to Riou, who blinked in slight startlement.
"Hail, Lord Riou! We who are willing to die salute you!" they proclaimed in a single voice.
The knights' last actions had prompted a sudden shower of applause and cheers from the watching audience, several of whom raised their own weapons in an echo of the salute. Riou looked over the yelling, cheering crowd with a feeling a bit like elation and a bit like fear churning in his stomach.
When everyone had finally settled down again, Riou smiled a little nervously. He had no words to address the crowd with, nothing that would justify their unwavering faith in him – no great speech with which to inspire them. For a moment he stared at them silently.
Then he suddenly grinned, spun his Twin Destiny tonfa around in the swift, deft move that had become his signature finisher, and ended in a battle stance – a short performance that caused renewed and even louder cheering from his audience.
"Three cheers for Riou of the Bright Shield!" someone yelled, and soon the enthusiastic crowd had taken up the cry. "Brightshield! Brightshield! Brightshield!" they chanted, turning the True Rune's name into something that meant 'Riou'. Had they done this for his grandfather? Had they called him by the name of a True Rune, had they called him Genkaku at all?
In honor of the occasion, Hai Yo had spent the last few days preparing a huge celebratory feast. The chef and his staff, along with several eager volunteers, had set up a buffet-style repast in the courtyard, to accommodate the large castle population without needing to turn half of said population into servers. The mood was festive as people began to congregate near the tables, heaping plates with whatever appealed to them and often not bothering to find a proper seat before tucking in.
It took Riou almost half an hour to get himself a plate of food, because people kept coming up to him to shake his hand and pat his back. With a sigh he flung himself down on a grassy knoll, shaded and half-hidden by the drooping branches of a weeping willow tree. A copse of them grew around the banks of the large pond near the castle library. Usually one of the more crowded areas of the castle, the place was far enough from the courtyard that it was almost deserted. Siegfried stood nearby, peacefully cropping grass, but the unicorn took hardly any notice of Riou after one blue-eyed glance at the boy. After the noise and sheer intensity of the morning, the relative quiet was welcomed. The young leader contentedly munched his way through an assortment of his favorite dishes, entertaining himself by watching the play of sunlight on the water's surface. He lay back, pleasantly stuffed, and almost let his eyes drift closed.
Almost, because just as he was about to drift off into a perfectly lazy after-meal nap, he felt himself leave the ground quite suddenly. He jolted awake with a start. Riou had a Thunder rune on his forehead, to complement Bright Shield's healing and multi-enemy attack spells, and he quite nearly cast a Thor Shot at whoever had hold of his tunic before realizing it was Viktor. He only had just enough time to recognize the big man before he was suddenly falling, splashing into the pond-water. He flailed for a moment of surprise, before he broke the surface of the water with a good deal of sputtering and spitting. Riou glared at Viktor, who was roaring on the shore, but was unhappily aware that his current bedraggled appearance and the water dripping from his face did not make for a fearful aspect.
The big man was not alone, Riou was displeased to notice – Futch, the young dragon-knight, stood behind him, an unusually wide grin creasing his face. Bright, still so young that he looked more like a small white puppy rather than something that would grow up to be larger than most people's houses, was cradled in his master's arms, and Riou was morbidly certain that the tiny dragon was laughing at him too. Then he heard a whickering noise, and turned his head to see Siegfried tossing his head up and down as he watched the proceedings in the pond, unmistakably amused.
"Ha ha ha," Riou muttered as he waded his way back to the grassy banks. A piece of watercress fell into his face, and he swiped it away with an irritated hand. This undignified action prompted a fresh spate of hilarity from Viktor and even Futch was beginning to laugh uproariously.
"Very funny, I don't think," Riou grumbled at them as he reached dry land again. He shook his head from side to side, spattering the other two with water. They made half-hearted protests – half-hearted because the breath for speaking was being used up more for their mirth. Riou scowled but his eyes danced as he decided on something. Still dripping, he dove at Viktor. Normally, the slender Highlander, still not fully grown, would have a snowball's chance in hell at overpowering Viktor, but somehow he managed to knock Viktor down. Futch, tears streaming down his face by now, had to put Bright down as he watched the other two. Siegfried was more convinced than ever that two-legged beings were absolutely mad, and backed up a few steps as the cloud of dust that was the two wrestlers came perilously close to rolling onto his front hooves.
In the end, of course, Viktor won. He hoisted his young lord over his head, for all the world like a man lifting a large platter, and threw Riou back into the water. Unfortunately, Futch was standing in his flight-path, and the end result was that both boys were knocked into the pond. Futch, after a moment of thrashing, managed to gain his feet – and was immediately knocked off them again, as Riou erupted from the water to tackle him.
Unlike Viktor, Futch was of a size and age with Riou, and soon the two boys were locked in a furious, splashy water-fight. Viktor watched them with amusement from the banks, eating a meatbun that had been left on Riou's plate. Siegfried and Bright had both come to the pond's edge, watching the two friends curiously. The bottom of the pond was pebbly near the banks, small pieces of crystalline stone that were very pretty to look at but also difficult to stand on. Both Riou and Futch were constantly half-slipping as they romped, a condition not helped by the fact that the two of them were laughing so hard they could hardly keep their balance at all.
Finally, the mock-fight ended with neither boy claiming victory. Instead they both collapsed backwards into the water, weak more with laughter than with the exertion of their games. Viktor sighed ostentatiously, seized their tunic-collars in two huge fists, and hauled them out of the pond. They lay like beached fish on the grass, still chortling in a surprisingly boyish way, a sound so childish and lighthearted that Viktor was half-startled. Siegfried, seeing that no further strangeness worth watching would offer itself, trotted off, presumably to bother one of the maidens of the castle; Bright toddled over on his rather oversized feet and nudged at his master's face.
When they had gotten over their bout of silliness, Riou and Futch sat up. Riou stripped out of his soaking-wet red tunic and wrung it as dry as he could, and then used it to mop his face. Futch copied his actions, running a hand through his dark brown hair to rake off as much water as he could. Both Riou and Futch didn't bother to put their tunics back on, leaning back on their elbows and trusting to the sun to dry both them and their clothes.
Viktor idly thought, as he reclined beside the two younger males, that they looked surprisingly alike as they lay there in the sun. For a few minutes, no one said anything, though of course it wasn't silent. There was the distance-faded hum of the other people, most of them still in the courtyard. Bright made squeaking noises as he played near his master, pouncing clumsily on a butterfly. The breeze was warm but rather strong, making the leaves rustle pleasantly. It ruffled their hair, causing the boys' dark locks to dry into windswept disorder.
It felt oddly, though, like they were alone in the castle. Viktor was a little surprised that no one else had discovered where Riou was; Shu, who could get as fussy about Riou as a mother-hen about her chicks sometimes, had sent Viktor to find the young lord when people began to notice Riou wasn't in the crowd. Personally, Viktor thought that after the morning Riou had had, he was entitled to a little privacy if he wanted it. But deciding it would be less hassle to seek him out than endure another of Shu's lectures on Riou's need to be seen by his near-worshipful troops, he'd set off. Apparently Futch had been nearby when Shu laid the mission on Viktor, because he had fallen into step behind the large mercenary as they left the courtyard.
"Thank you," Riou said suddenly. Viktor and Futch glanced at him, eyes a little questioning. Riou did not look at them as he spoke, but looked in a daydreamy, idle way at the clouds drifting across the sky. "I needed that - I mean, you know – the…games…" Viktor suddenly realized this was the first time he'd seen Riou so relaxed and happy. This was probably the first time Riou had really laughed since…since finding him in the river, washed up on the shores of a strange land.
Futch said, carelessly, so carelessly that Viktor suspected he meant the words very much, "I had fun too. It's been a long time since I've played like that." They had been very much like little boys today, acting if anything younger than their ages – a contrast to the way they had to act day to day, dealing with things most adults would find overwhelming.
Viktor had enjoyed watching the boys tussle, a friendly sort of warmth settling in his chest while he remembered similar games in his own youth. He snorted inwardly at himself – catch him sounding like an old man reminiscing! But seeing Riou so blithely juvenile – it eased a regret he hadn't even known he had, that of watching a child forced into maturity and losing all his childhood joys in the process. At least, for today Riou had had it back again – Riou and Futch both.
The mercenary was suddenly grateful that Futch had joined the Alliance Army. He didn't know Futch that well, despite having served with him in the Gate Rune Wars, but the boy was of an age with Riou. He hadn't had another friend with whom to share boyish natures with, not since – Viktor squashed the thought down, not wanting to deal with the pain and wrath that it brought.
"Yeah, me too…" Riou said. He lowered himself to lay fully on the grass, folding his arms behind his head. "Especially after today…" He suddenly blushed. "Ahh…not that I did nae like the knights' ceremony or anything like that. Um. It was just a little much, y'know?" Viktor and Futch looked at Riou, a little intrigued. Both Riou and Nanami had very good language skills, and could speak like natives of the City-States. But it seemed that flustering Riou, at least, brought on a return of the lilting Highland accent. Viktor suddenly frowned. Jowy had always spoken with the Highland accent.
"Yeah, I get it," he drawled, forcing himself to speak light-heartedly. "You were bored as nails up there, and wrassling with Futchy here," he reached over to tousle the dragon-knight's hair, something that the prideful boy hated immensely, " – blew off steam wonderful."
"I dinna say tha'!" Riou protested, as Futch shoved Viktor's hand away.
"Don't touch me."
Viktor just smirked. "I didn't find it very boring, Lord Riou," he said. Somehow the title, which always made Riou feel a little embarassed when other people said it, seemed like nothing more than a nickname when Viktor said it. Perhaps it was the total lack of respect Viktor showed for nearly everyone and everything.
"I mean, that was quite a fancy little lightshow you put on for us," he continued, gesturing with the stalk of grass he'd been chewing towards Riou's hands. "All those knights' swords, lit up like candles on Midwinter's Day…"
Riou quirked his lips into a little half-smile. "Sae…so," he corrected himself, shifting back into City-State speech patterns. "…glad to have been of service, Viktor." A sudden thought hit him, and his half-smile twisted into a thoughtful frown, his brows creasing above his tawny eyes. "I wonder if that did anything to the swords or the knights…"
"Aww, don't worry, Riou," Viktor said dismissingly, waving one hand as if physically brushing away Riou's worries. "The Bright Shield is more likely to heal them or shield them rather than do anything harmful to them."
"If there's any effect at all," Futch added. "It's a True Rune, bonded to a Star of Destiny. The Bright Shield won't do anything you don't want it to."
"Jeez, even if it gave them the runs for three days, I don't think the knights would have missed it. They like all that symbological, magical lights and glitter. Made 'em feel like they were in one of those long-winded epics their bards keep turning out," Viktor opined, chewing thoughtfully on his stalk of grass. "Hear them cheer you at the end?" He cupped his hands around his mouth, pretending to be the crowd. "Brightshield, Brightshield! Raaaah!"
But Riou didn't laugh. Instead his face looked pensive, a little unhappy. "They call me that, you know. They say things like, 'Brightshield will bring us to victory, you'll see.' And 'Don't worry about the Highlanders. We can't fail as long as Brightshield commands us.'" When he mimicked the soldiers and their hopeful tones, there was something incredulous and worried in his eyes.
"Do…do they call you that to your face?" Futch asked.
"Some of them do. They say 'Lord Brightshield' instead of 'Lord Riou'," Riou made a face. "…which was bad enough already."
Viktor smiled a little. So many men would kill to have a title, and here Riou was, commanding an army of thousands, and only wanting to be called by his first name. "What's wrong with that?" he asked. "Brightshield would make a good surname, doncha think?"
Riou looked a little doubtful. The only people with surnames were members of noble houses, the only ones who felt that what their grandparents had done was more important than what they themselves were doing. Everyone else was usually content with just the one. If further identification was needed, the place of origin or the profession would suffice. This was especially true for an adopted foundling who had no real idea of who his birth family was.
"I'm not a noble, I'm a country kid from a border village," Riou pointed out. "People there don't take surnames..."
"Exactly," Viktor agreed cheerfully. "You have no surname, so Brightshield will do nicely, I think. You've got more of a claim to it than most people have to theirs. And you're plenty noble." He meant the trait, not the status, but not wishing to get into a discussion about it, he continued, "You've got a castle, an army of thousands, and knights who've sworn fealty, if you don't remember? I'm pretty sure that Matilda law says that knights swear fealty to a lord, so therefore: you are one by default."
Futch raised an eyebrow, and Riou's face creased again as he tried to puzzle out Viktor's logic. Before either could say anything, however, Viktor got to his feet and stretched. "I'm hungry. Want to go and see if there's anything left on the buffet?" He glanced sideways at Riou, still sprawled on the sun-warmed grass. "Oh yeah, and I may have forgotten to tell you: Shu's got his panties in a bunch, worrying about you. Maybe you'd better go and see him."
Notes: The only Suikoden game I ever played was 2. So I don't know anything about Viktor and Futch pre-Suiko2…sorry. ;; I filled in a lot of bits I didn't know, like if Riou has a last name or Camus's father, etc. with stuff of my own devicing…if I did it wrong, feel free to tell me and I'll try to make amends.
This fic was supposed to be something else…but veered off in a totally different direction until I realized I could actually end it already and it would stand alone. And I like Futch, he's one of my main party members even if he doesn't go as high in stats as other characters. I got him early. And he's one of the few other guys Riou's age in the Castle…I think it's plausible that they could become friends.