Chapter V: Ties That Bind

Riding into town at night and in the rain wasn't the brightest idea Alucier had ever had. He was lucky the horse was familiar with the path. The lantern Alucier carried was only illuminating a small circle around the horse's head and a few feet in front. He was sure to keep the horse at slow trot. The last thing he needed was for the horse to trip over some unseen object in the road and send Alucier flying head first into the ground.

He wouldn't have had to worry if he were riding through Palas. The streets there were all paved with smooth stone and lined with lampposts. Even in the dead of night, there was enough light to see from the end of one block to another.

One more advantage of city life, Alucier thought. Then he wondered when he had started keeping count.

The horse seemed to be of a different opinion of being out in the country. It slowed pace dramatically once they reached town, perhaps fearful of the noise coming from the tavern. Alucier was a bit fearful too, though for a much different reason. As he tethered his horse to the fence bordering the tavern, he kept his ear open for his father's voice, whether it was speaking or singing. He couldn't pick it out, but then, he couldn't pick out much of anything from the din other than the occasional extra loud shout for more ale.

The party, despite being hours old, was still in full swing. It was debatable what hit Alucier harder when he opened the door – the noise or the smell of alcohol. Living above one of Palas' oldest and roughest taverns hadn't prepared him for the spectacle of virtually every male in the town of Dunhaven gathered in one building and partying as if it was the end of the world.

He made his way through the crowd, turning down the mugs of ale that were thrust in his face by well-meaning partygoers and nodding politely at the people who insisted it was so great that he could make it and that the party wouldn't be the same without him. It was a remarkably popular opinion, albeit one he wasn't so sure of himself. He finally found his father and Revius at a corner booth, the former mercifully drinking nothing stronger than cider and the latter unmercifully up to his typical behavior. The barmaid, a pretty girl who looked familiar to Alucier, was lingering at the table long after she had served her customers.

Lucas, operating under the belief that it was not incredibly obvious to Alucier what was going on, rushed over to his son to prevent him from interrupting anything. "You remember Ro Eyler that lives across the river?" he asked, pointing to the barmaid. "That's his middle daughter."

Alucier did remember Ro Eyler – big man, raised livestock, once threatened to grind up his oldest daughter's suitor into feed for the cattle and later bragged about it at the hastily put together wedding between his oldest daughter and said suitor. "Uh, Dad…" Alucier began slowly.

"They're just having a friendly chat," Lucas insisted. He always did try to see the best in a situation.

Alucier's sense of optimism (or more aptly, pessimism) was more in line with his mother's. He walked over to the booth and sent the barmaid away with an order for a nice, sedate tea. Lucas followed after her, aware enough to figure out that now would be a good time for him to have some tea too.

Revius did not tell him how great it was that he was here and that the party would not be the same without him. He did criticize Alucier's lack of subtlety.

"She's not your type," Alucier explained to him. "She's a country girl, you're a city guy. Your father's a famous jeweler, her father's famous for being insanely protective of his daughters."

"How insane?" Revius asked, unimpressed. He wasn't afraid to take a little risk for a pretty reward.

"Have you ever dreamed of becoming a nutritional supplement for farm animals?"

Revius' risk assessment promptly turned to 'not worth it'. "Damn, you country people play rough. The worst I ever got back in Palas was a lecture about my preserving my reputation. Nobody fed anybody to anything."

"Yeah, well, feed's expensive. And preserving your reputation isn't much of a threat. That kind of thing is your reputation."

"Among my friends and the young women of Palas. Among everybody else, it's amazing how deaf and blind a Caeli uniform and a noble last name will make people."

"True," Alucier said. Awkwardly seizing a chance to segue into the topic he had promised Damise he would discuss with Revius, he continued, "And if you were the commander of the Caeli, you could probably get away with anything."

Revius picked up on the clumsy transition quickly. "That thought occurred to you why, exactly?"

Alucier shrugged. "No reason."

"You know, you were more subtle with the tea. Really, man, you're losing your touch."

"All right," Alucier conceded. "I was talking to Damise earlier and the topic of Lord Ramkin's replacement came up. I'm curious to know how interested you really are in the post."

"Because….?"

"Because I'm a naturally curious person."

"Or - and this is just a theory – it's because you've done the math like I have and figured out it's probably going to come down to you and me."

"Something like that," Alucier mumbled. It was nice that everything was now out in the open but he couldn't help but feel a bit miffed that Revius had apparently figured it all out before he had. The ability to correctly – and quickly – grasp a situation was a quality pretty high up on the good commander checklist.

"And you're worried that a fight between such worthy candidates could get mean and nasty and all our friends would get dragged into it," said Revius, spot on again.

"Something like that, too."

"Tell you what, I'll give you Seclas and Allen for Eries."

"Right, like that's a fair - ," Alucier started. Then he noticed the large smirk on his friend's face. "Will you be serious?"

"You first."

That smirk was daring Alucier to snap back that he had asked Revius to be serious first, but he didn't take the bait. "Fine. In all seriousness, I really want this post and I think I deserve this post."

"You really, really want it? Really, truly?"

Alucier's typical mix of sarcasm or insults was on the tip of his tongue. But he took a good look at Revius and decided that would be the wrong tack. Behind the smirk, behind the juvenile questions, he could see the answer Revius wanted to hear. "Really, truly," he said.

"Then you have my full support." Revius raised his glass to Alucier in a toast and began drinking, as if satisfied that everything that needed to be said had already been said.

Alucier, however, did not think that was the case. "That's it? Don't you want the post too?"

"Huh," Revius sighed. "I was expecting you to say 'thank you' or 'I appreciate that' or 'Wow, Revius, you're the bestest friend ever!'. Okay, maybe not the last one."

"I do appreciate it, but…"

"But, you feel like you need to piss and moan about it."

Protesting would have made him sound pissier and moanier, so Alucier forged ahead without comment. "Tell me you don't want this post."

"I do," he admitted. "Lord Revius definitely has a ring to it."

"So what makes you think Lord Maerzen sounds better?"

"Can I just make a list of reasons or do I have to answer in the form of an essay?"

"Hey, you made me say how I much I wanted it. Can't you be honest too?"

"Ha!" Revius snorted. "I give up my aspirations to give you my support and yet you believe I owe you?"

It was nervy of Alucier to ask, considering. And he did still need to thank Revius. But the part of him that thought he was so good at analyzing and understanding people couldn't figure out why Revius was dropping out of the running so readily. So he got nervier. "It doesn't have to be a long list."

"Okay, fine," Revius relented, but not without telling Alucier about how obnoxious he was being. "You've been a Caeli longer than I have. You probably would have been made captain of the guard instead of me if you hadn't already been assigned to Eries. And while I am the vastly superior swordsman in terms of raw talent, you think more strategically than I do. You actually like doing all the tedious paperwork and crap that comes along with command duties and you'd handle having to report to the king and the council much better than I could. And," he added in a quiet, rushed voice, "You really have been a good friend to me and I don't want anything to wreck that and there might, maybe, be a teeny, tiny insecure part of me that thinks you'll get the job anyway so why should I bother." With his voice restored to its normal volume and pace, he concluded, "But we're never going to speak about the last parts, are we?"

That was a good deal of information to process. Much to Revius' displeasure, Alucier's focus did go right to the last parts. "Thanks, Rev. It means a lot to me. You've been a good -- "

"You're speaking about it."

"Yeah, but – "

"No speaking. That's the deal."

"Come on, at least let me – "

"You can buy me food and alcohol. Then you have to shut up. You being all sincere and earnest makes me queasy."

"I can do that," Alucier agreed. Once he got the barmaid's attention, he shouted an order to her so loudly, everyone in the tavern turned to listen. "One bottle of your best vino for the bestest friend ever!"

Revius mouthing a threat to kill him just made him laugh harder.

0-0-0-0-0

At noon on the following day, on a sun-drenched pavilion outside the village church, the tip of a priest's staff and a kiss marked the addition of one new member to the Maerzen family. The wedding guests gave the bride and groom a standing ovation.

One guest tempered his applause with a tinge of pity. "One woman for the rest of his life," Revius sighed, "I guess he does deserve some kind of praise."

Damise responded by altering her clapping so that she was elbowing him in the side each time her hands came apart.

"I thought you hated marriage."

"I hate the idea of me being married. But we're talking about my baby sister and she's been dreaming of this day since she was six."

Lianora turned to shush them both. As soon as the applause died down, the priest was going to formally announce the newlyweds for the first time and she didn't want to miss it.

"Chastened by a younger sibling," Revius whispered, "that must hurt."

"You mean like this?" Damise said back, grinding the spiked heel of her shoe into Revius' boot.

He limped all the way on the trip back to the backyard of the Maerzen house for the reception.

Everyone else, however, was moving quickly to make any last minute preparations. Hillaine, still a bit misty eyed from the ceremony, gave final orders to a small army of cooks and waiters. Lucas and his son-in-laws were directing people to their seats. Alucier kept the village children entertained with stories of the Caeli and an impromptu display of swordsmanship. Revius shambled over to help.

"She stepped on your foot, you big baby," Alucier laughed at him. "You're not crippled."

"It hurts," Revius insisted. Though amazingly, once he started exchanging sword strokes with Alucier, he moved with his usual speed and grace. The children of Dunhaven and more than a few adults came over to watch. The Knights Caeli were famous all throughout Asturia, but outside of soldiers on battlefields and Palas nobles at parties, not many people actually ever got to see them in action.

Alucier dodged a thrust from Revius and spun around to get in close to him. The crowd let out appreciative 'oh's and 'ah's as his overskirt flared out dramatically from the movement. "Hey, hometown crowd," he said quietly to Revius, "I'm supposed to win."

"Then fight better, you big baby." To his credit, Revius let an opportunity to disarm his opponent pass by and kept his second, smaller sword sheathed. He did keep count of the number of times he could have drawn it to score a hit.

Once the carriage carrying Clea and her husband arrived, nobody cared about the sword fight anymore. The couple disembarked to another round of applause which didn't die down until they took their seats at the head of the table reserved for the wedding party. After that, there was a lot of food to be eaten and people cared even less about swordsmen, no matter what their pedigree.

The crowd was too dense for Alucier to navigate without a good amount of shoving, so he decided to hang back with Revius until it had thinned out to go join his family. He enjoyed watching his parents and sisters from a distance anyway. The way they smiled at each other, passing dishes back and forth and clinking their glasses together after exchanging congratulations – in these simple gestures were all the warm feelings of family that would always be here, in some way or another, for him to come home to even if he no longer called the farm his home. His father would still comment on his choice of livelihood, his mother would still pester him about being unmarried and his sisters would still tease him about any little thing they could think of. They were his family and that was what families did. And though he lived halfway across the country and only saw them a few times a year, he knew the second he walked through the front door, the comfort of that familiarity would be there. Maybe only his mother would be home to talk about so-and-so's lovely daughter or it would be Damise joking about his swanky life at the capital, but the presence of all eight of them wouldn't fade.

"It is nice, isn't it?" Revius asked in harmony with Alucier's reverie.

"Are you being serious for a change?"

"It can happen," he said defensively. "But, yeah, I was just thinking after all the crap of the last few months with Zaibach and the war, it's nice to know a whole bunch of people can get together and only care about having a good time with each other."

Alucier knew what he meant. The last wedding they had attended ended with half of Palas on fire and a good number of the guests dead. "Weddings are definitely better when they aren't crashed by flying fortresses," he agreed.

"Death from above does tend to cramp a party," Revius snorted. "But that's just part of the excitement of being a Caeli in the big city."

It was a joke, but as with a lot of humor, there was truth behind it. Princess Millerna's wedding had been an unqualified disaster. There had been moments in the church when Alucier had been guarding Eries and a sickly King Aston that he had wondered if he might have to give his life to protect his charges. There had been moments after everyone had gotten to safety when he had taken stark reflections on those that had died in the line of duty. Ultimately though, in the face of danger and its consequences, Alucier had known without any sort of doubts that he was where he needed to be. Moreover, it was where he wanted to be.

It wasn't long until all the guests had their plates full and had taken their seats to make their stomachs achieve that same condition. Alucier was finally able to reach to reach his family's table where a plate Hillaine had prepared for him waited. It was piled with extra servings of meat, her special potatoes and gravy, crowding out anything that would be considered healthy food. He had campaigned for a diet like this when he was younger and his mother had campaigned equally hard against it. His favorite argument was growing boys needed lots of food and he'd eat more of it if it was something he liked. Her favorite rebuttal was 'if a growing boy eats nothing but crap, what do you think he'll grow up to be?' He had been a smart aleck enough to notice she had called some of the food she served 'crap' but smart enough not to bring that to her attention and thus had spent his childhood eating well-balanced meals of proteins and vegetables that weren't swimming in pools of gravy or deep-fried in butter.

Her mother's sense must have somehow picked up on his thoughts, because before the first forkful of food could make it to his mouth, Hillaine leaned over to him and whispered, "It's a special day so don't get used to it."

Gradually, all meals were finished and the more boisterous part of the reception began. The musicians played a traditional ballad for Clea's first dance with her husband and then a more modern, fast-paced song for her second. It was back to tradition for the third – a dance between Clea and Lucas that caused a collective sigh among the female guests and some barely concealed sniffling from the fathers in the crowd.

After that, the guests were free to join in on the dancing. Alucier asserted his rights as a big brother to claim Clea's fourth dance, which had at least the females of his family sighing again.

Meanwhile, Revius took his pick of the young women who had practically formed a queue for a dance with him. He was reviewing his options for his next dance partner (and reflecting on how the clean air and hard work that came with country life seemed to be a good beauty regimen) when Damise cut in. "Alucier told me about Ro Eyler's daughter last night," she said. "I think you would benefit on some advice on your dance card."

"I'm not that bad," he whined. Still, he listened to what Damise told him, though he didn't actually put that knowledge to any use until many dances later.

It was long after nightfall when the last of the guests left. A few waiters remained on clean up duty and the musicians, too tired to play anything else, were down to their slowest numbers. Lucas was about to dismiss them but his wife had one more request. As it wasn't a famous song, she had to hum the melody to them until they caught on enough to be able to reproduce it. Her children recognized it immediately. No, it wasn't famous to the world at large, but it was infamous to them. The songwriters, after all, were their parents and the song itself, seven verses long, was all about them.

The biological members of the family groaned. Those who had gotten into the family by marriage laughed. They had heard about this song and now, after asking about it futilely for years, they were finally going to hear it.

"Come on," Hillaine urged her children. "You don't have to dance to it, just sing along except on the verse that's about you. So gather around, now."

Clea, buzzing with the good spirits of a newlywed, was the first to give in. Rinell quickly followed suit, saying this was probably going to be the last family wedding for Hillaine until her grandchildren came of age so they might as well humor her. "I said it, not Mom," she added with a sharp look at Damise and Alucier, though really, neither of them was planning on challenging her belief that this was the last shot for this generation. The other five children fell in line, knowing Rinell was right about humoring their mother because a humored Hillaine was decidedly nicer to deal with than a non-humored one. Gathered together in a circle near the musicians, they began to sing.

In truth, it wasn't necessarily a bad song. The tune was catchy. The lyrics, if one were feeling charitable, were heartfelt enough to excuse the doggerel. It was a good thing the lyrics were simple too, as they weren't being sung particularly loud or clear by the Maerzen children and there was a great deal of laughter threatening to drown the singers out. It made the song somewhat difficult to remember, but Revius did his best.

"Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" Lucas asked when it was over. No one said 'yes' but no one said 'no' either. "You all loved it when you were little," he continued, trying to persuade them to agree.

"I loved baking mud pies when I was little, Dad," Carlotte answered him. "Some things change."

"But you still like baking," Clea pointed out.

"There you go," Alucier, playing an impish peacekeeper, said, "It's the old saying, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same if you get really technical about it'."

Both sisters looked unsure as to whom he was siding with or making fun of so they returned to their still snickering husbands. Alucier, unfortunately, had Revius to return to. He wasn't laughing anymore, he was too busy humming a familiar tune and trying to piece together the verse about the sweet little son who thought chasing after sheep was so much fun.

Borrowing an old trick of Eries', Alucier kicked Revius in the shin. "Shut up."

"Hey! That's the same foot Damise stomped on. Are you trying to cripple me?"

"I would prefer to silence you."

"Never going to happen," Revius taunted him. "I have a feeling that I'll be so happy to be back home, I'll burst into song."

Alucier considered bribes he might offer to Revius – free rent, trading guard shifts at the palace, etc. – but decided it wasn't worth the effort. Yes, the song was embarrassing but everybody had embarrassing stuff from their childhoods. Maybe not full-length original compositions in their honor, but other stuff, like being called 'Dashums'. Meeting Revius' mother had been an enlightening event.

Revius hummed a few more bars before concluding, "Man, that song's too much. I can see why you moved all the way to Palas."

Though he wouldn't admit it even under the strain of torture, a little voice inside of Alucier answered back, "Nah, that's what made it so hard to leave."

0-0-0-0-0

The rest of Alucier's leave breezed by. He would have liked to have extended it by another week but Asturia was still recovering from the war, making it less than an ideal time to take an extended vacation. That, and Revius was threatening to become 'more annoying than I usually am' if he didn't get back to the city soon.

Damise took the carriage with them to the leviship yard. She wanted to see her brother off and loading the care package Hillaine had prepared for Alucier onto the ship was going to be a three person job. They could have wrangled some unsuspecting porters into hefting the oversized trunk full of leftovers, clothing, books, shadowgraphs and, quite possibly, the kitchen basin, but the tip they would have felt obligated to leave would have been worth a month's profits from the farm.

"I think she stuffed one of the Dempsey girls in this thing," Damise speculated as she struggled along with Alucier and Revius to get the trunk off the roof of the carriage.

"I wouldn't put it past her. She made such a big deal out of how many times I danced with them at the wedding."

They didn't set the trunk down so much as tried to guide its descent. It hit the ground with thud. None of them heard any complaints of rough handling coming from inside the truck, so it was declared Dempsey girl free. Alucier sort of wished someone had been inside. Then, they could have climbed out and helped with the heavy lifting.

The porters that did show up to help with their luggage took one look at the trunk, another look at the strained faces of the people carrying it and then looked at each other. The younger of the two declared, "It seems you've got a handle on that one. We'll get the rest of your things."

They had everything else off the carriage and on the leviship in record speed. The trio of Alucier, Damise and Revius followed behind them at a crawl. "The last time I came to Palas and Mom wanted me to bring you a bunch of stuff," Damise said, "I'm glad I told her no."

"Maybe if you had said yes," Revius complained, "We wouldn't have so much crap to carry now."

"Silly boy. You're at the farm for a week and you think you know how my mother works? I could go to Palas every month and she'd load me down with junk every time if I let her."

Alucier knew his sister was right. The spare bedroom Allen had once lived in was full of items Hillaine thought vitally necessary to his existence and that he felt too guilty to throw out. Sometimes people would come over to his apartment and wonder if he was running a pawn shop on the side.

"When are you planning to come to Palas next?" Alucier asked Damise, needing a distraction from how numb holding up his corner of the trunk was making his hands.

"Let's see. The last time I was there was after the dock fires but before the Royal Wedding from Hell. I should probably fit in a visit before the next disaster."

"Too bad the Mystic Moon girl went home," Revius said. "She could have predicted a date for you. Of course, her being in Palas was what caused everything to happen so now that she's gone, you probably have a pretty big window of opportunity to come."

"I don't know, Rev," Alucier added, "We're hosting the world conference next month to formally sign the peace treaty with Zaibach. All those leaders together in one place, something's bound to happen."

"All right, that sounds like some good impending doom! I'll see if I can get away from the farm sometime before then. I'll just need an excuse."

A sly smile spread across Revius' lips. "Just tell your parents a certain Egzardian princess is going to be at the conference and you're sure Alucier would be happy to introduce you to her."

"I'd be happy to? I don't think so."

Damise, however, thought it was a lovely idea. "If she gets along with you, then she and I ought to get along great too."

That's what his life was missing, his big sister and Marqesita gleefully exchanging notes. "She's a princess, she'll be very busy."

"Princess Eries was busy and you introduced me to her. Actually, if you insist on being stubborn, I could go through her. She did tell me to feel free to call on her any time I was in the city and I'm sure she'd have no problem setting up a meeting with your princess."

"You might have a problem setting up a meeting with Eries though," Revius warned her. "You'll have to go out to the Schezar estate. Kind of hard these days catching her anyplace else."

"Schezar? Your old roommate? The blond Caeli she has a thing for?"

"Had a thing for." Alucier was semi-sure past tense was the correct usage. "They're just friends now and I never told you anything about that in the first place. Remember?"

"Oh, right, top secret. But then how secret can it be if she's going out there all the time?"

"She's only visiting Allen's estate to help with Allen's sister," Revius said, too seriously.

"Right, gotcha. But isn't his sister missing?"

"She was missing," Alucier corrected again. "Now very much not missing." He thought but did not say aloud 'physically, at least'. He had nothing at all against Celena. He found her to be a sweet, rambunctious (if not rebellious) kid. The problem was that she was supposed to be a sixteen-year-old lady. But then, that's exactly why Eries had been spending so much time with the Schezar family. It wasn't as if there weren't some very nasty extenuating circumstances, either.

"So much happens with you guys," Damise sighed. "I wish I had that kind of excitement."

Revius muttered sarcastically about 'romantic melodrama and family crises, woo-hoo!' but Alucier kind of enjoyed that excitement himself. The romantic melodrama had reached a resolution for now, though he wouldn't put money on it staying that way. And the family crises were really only one crisis and it wasn't even a real crisis at that. That, however, could change too. Whatever happened, the next month was likely to be interesting at a minimum and for that, he could not complain. Boredom had been a prime motivating factor in leaving life on the farm.

The leviship pilot called for any last passengers to board. Under a time crunch, the porters that had avoided the trunk earlier now ran over to assist with its loading. Somehow, the five of them got it aboard. Revius claimed the leviship sank a little when the trunk was put into place, but only the porters laughed at the joke. Alucier and Damise were busy shaking their arms out.

"I believe I must bid you farewell, dearest brother," she said, "Unless I want to make an unplanned trip to Palas right now."

They hugged each other goodbye. Revius opened his arms for his hug and got punched in the chest. "No goodbye grope for you," Damise admonished. She did plant a very faint kiss on his cheek.

The pilot pointed out again it was time to go and she scurried off the leviship. Workers pulled up the planking the second she was back onto solid ground. Alucier lingered until the bay doors were closed and blocked his view of a waving Damise.

"Let's go find our seats," Revius said. Alucier followed him up the steps to the main cabin.

It was time to go home.

0-0-0-0-0

Author's Notes: Props to Ron and his Sakura for being betas on this chapter and for being very supportive and patient in general. Now let's all be impatient and pester them about their Dryden story! (Kidding! Sort of.) Thanks to all you readers for hanging in this long. This chapter of Alucier's life is over but there is more to come. Yep, I'm tweaking the outline for the third part of the trilogy. My goal is to start at the beginning of next year (which really isn't all that far away, really, I swear!) and get back to my old month at the most update schedule.