Disclaimer: No own FE. That why I no rich.
thoughts / flashbacks / emphasis / etc.
4: Guiding Presence
A twisted cackle awoke the king of Renais. Ephraim's eyes snapped open and he jumped to his feet.
Almost immediately, he wished that he hadn't.
A figure shrouded wholly in black stood over the blood-soaked corpse of his sister.
Ephraim grit his teeth and sprinted forward, hoping to at least see whom this was. This is a dream, for sure…but what might it mean? Lyon said that our dreams have meanings, if memory serves…well, it certainly hasn't served me very well. If this dream did have a message, it certainly couldn't mean good tidings for Eirika.
Presumably having gotten within earshot, he then shouted, "Who are you? And what's the meaning of this!"
That same throaty chuckle repeated itself, echoing in the black nothingness of Ephraim's dream. "When you are not where you are needed most…catastrophe shall strike…your power shall fail you. You shall know endless pain and regret…and I shall have my revenge…"
Revenge? Ephraim pondered to himself. "What do you mean, twisted cur?"
"I am the one without limit, the one who cannot be defeated…you know who I am. And you will quake in fear of that fact before you die."
The mysterious figure turned to face Ephraim, and he saw a red glow, seething with bloodlust and avarice, almost like the eyes of-
Ephraim jerked awake, and shoved off the sheets in a panic. Deep breaths, he advised himself, taking solace in the soothing rays of morning sunlight that splashed across the tent fabric.
"Brother? What's wrong?" Eirika turned from her morning grooming to face her brother, giving him a concerned look.
"A small nightmare…nothing to worry about."
"…If you say so," Eirika replied at length. If Ephraim did not want to share his problems, wheedling him to confess would not help (to say nothing of Eirika not being the type to wheedle in the first place).
Yawning and scratching at his hair placidly, Joshua slowly turned to face the talkative princess of Frelia. "Hm?"
"Why do you wear that?" Tana gave his viridian hat a scrutinizing gaze. "It's…it's just so old and worn out and…and tacky. It doesn't look like it belongs on a king at all."
Geez. This is what I get for waking up late and being the last person to eat breakfast – a nosy princess. Why Tana is still eating, though, I couldn't imagine…. "What, you thought I was gonna wear it sitting on my throne? That I'm gonna show up at all the royal functions wearing this thing?" Joshua sardonically inquired, jerking a thumb at his hat. Pausing briefly, he shrugged, continuing, "…I might, but that would be just to see their reactions. I am aware that I have to be a king real soon, Tana."
Tana shook her head resignedly. "You make a very convincing case, Joshua. I dearly hope your attitude about this didn't run in the family…"
The redhead snorted in response, and snapped, "Yeah, well, running away for ten years isn't exactly a family thing, either." He punctuated his annoyance by flipping his empty bowl of soup (potatoes and beef with cheese) into the large water tub that held the company's dishes, where it landed with an audible spthloop. How the hell does that thing stay free of mold, anyways? Magic? Joshua briefly wondered.
The wyvern knight cringed. "I…I apologize, Joshua. I just…I believe you would be so much more handsome and presentable without that old rag on top of your head."
Sighing, he rubbed his forehead gingerly with closed eyes. "Damnit, I'm too old to be flattered by that kind of comment. Maybe six years ago…but then again, six years ago, you were only a kid."
Tana snarled in exasperation. "Talking to you is so difficult sometimes! And why six years?"
Joshua sighed once more. "Never mind. Thanks for the grub," he called out to Syrene as he rose from his seat on a rock and left the company's makeshift kitchen. The Pegasus captain responded with a serene smile.
Tana shook her head and sighed. "Ugh…I don't understand why he always acts like this! It's like he's trying to make me mad!"
The veteran knight raised an eyebrow at her liege. "If I may be frank, Princess, I…do believe you brought up a rather painful subject with King Joshua."
"Hm? Oh…but that was…oh, you're right, Syrene. But still, why does he bait me with some sort of curious comment, then just run off before I can figure out what he's trying to say?"
"Perhaps it is merely how he speaks," the green-haired captain suggested. "Or perhaps you are looking too far into his comment. Six years ago, he would have been…eighteen, I believe. Not far removed from childhood himself."
Tana frowned pensively, but did not respond to her mentor's speculation.
A frown had etched itself deeply into Prince Innes's face. Pensive scowling was nothing new for the prodigious strategist, but he had spent the last two riding hours mulling over an arena of his royal career he had paid little attention to beforehand.
Magvel after this war was very much a different place. The largest nation had been stripped of its royal family, and now only held a shattered army and a ravaged land. The surprise betrayal conducted by Grado had shaken bonds and trust everywhere – royal courts would now be more wary than ever. Spies would undoubtedly travel to every corner of the other nations to keep a close eye on potential hostilities.
And a missing prince would return to his broken kingdom.
With this thought, Innes turned an analytical gaze to Joshua, soon to be the king of Jehanna (assuming, of course, no revolt or assassination happened). The man was an anomaly, carrying properties of both a great king and a complete oaf.
On the one hand, he was amicable, skilled in the arts of war and deceit (his erratic poker face and tactics always unsettled his foes in card games), hardened and wizened by his mercenary career, daring, innovative (Dracozombie slaying that involved launching Audhulma out of Nidhogg came to mind), and an active problem solver. He would likely be a congenial ruler with respect from Magvel's military elements, and would likely be able to hold his own in kingly and political fields (if he ever got used to giving orders – something Innes had never seen him do much of).
However, he was also a compulsive gambler, irritatingly flaky, occasionally contrary and recalcitrant (not to mention reckless), and then there was the whole matter of his having left Jehanna Hall to be a mercenary. Some of the populace might not take kindly to the return of this prodigal son, and the nobility would not be fond of a king who might treat their servile ways as a joke (or worse). At that moment in Innes's thoughts, Joshua stretched out wide and yawned at length, prompting the Frelian prince to add the double-edged sword category to the redhead's traits and put "carefree" in that list.
"Hey!" Tana swooped in from aboard the Pegasus she once rode into combat. The horse lightly landed on the ground and resumed a trotting pace alongside the rest of the royalty group. "Did I miss anything?"
"Only Innes staring at me for five minutes straight. It's kinda creepy," Joshua quipped in response. Tana giggled, Eirika smiled and shook her head, Innes did not respond, and Ephraim turned with an inquisitive look, oblivious as to what was so funny.
Innes sniffed. "Charming. I hope you can do the same with the Jehan populace, considering your absence during the invasion. Some will not take kindly to a man who they will perceive as having abandoned them for ten years – you are not oblivious to this."
Not a question, but a statement…he's got it figured out, doesn't he? Joshua shrugged in response. "Meh…I've gotten very used to not caring about what people have to say about me. When you swindle money or" – here, he paused to thumb his hat – "prized possessions away from as many people as I have, you hear some pretty colorful descriptions of yourself."
"What?" Ephraim echoed. "You tricked somebody to get that hat?"
"Watching him bubble over with fury was amusing. He wasn't about to start a fight, though – a horde of drunken mercenaries in a bar made that a pretty damn stupid idea." The redhead chuckled. "Man, I could be a total dick back then. Didn't like doing it, though…guess that's why she always called me soft." The last part, he muttered under his breath.
Eirika frowned inquisitively. "She?"
Rather than reply, Joshua instead asked Innes, "What about you? You've gotta be pretty miffed that Ephraim is becoming a king and you're not. Don't tell me you've forgotten about that."
The gray-haired prince wrinkled his nose. "I was hoping to. Not that Ephraim would gloat about it, but I do not enjoy the prospect of being inferior to him, nor would I enjoy being reminded of that fact every time I go to see him."
Ephraim shook his head. "I do not care for such distinctions, Innes. You will still be a worthy rival." Eirika glared at her brother briefly, and he subsequently added, "…and a good friend." Innes snorted in response, and Joshua shook his head and chuckled.
"Say, what're we doing about Mt. Neleras, anyways? I kinda doubt hiking that after sunset is smart," the swordmaster noted, casually pointing at the steam rising from the craggy peaks and lava-filled valleys therein.
"It would be best to traverse it in one day – camping in those peaks is unwise. I would advise stopping at the foot of the mountain for the night, and beginning the trek at sunrise," Innes curtly suggested.
Ephraim shrugged. "So be it. Sound advice, Innes."
"I'll spread the word!" Tana volunteered. She then took off once more to the rear of the caravan.
Joshua idly surveyed the camp from atop his seat on a short, broad (and thankfully flat) rock. The tents, campfires and roosts to tie the mounts to had been set up with a slightly less-than-military efficiency – something likely brought on by exhaustion and complacency resulting from the end of the war. Ross was carefully weighing a set of pebbles on a balance with Ewan nearby shaking his head, Franz and Forde were sparring on foot (dismounted fighting being a classic problem with cavalry), and…was that Saleh with Eirika? Joshua shrugged – he was too old and jaded for petty jealousy, and the sage had all the libido (and romantic prowess, most likely) of a slice of cheese.
"Hey." Joshua looked up at the familiar voice and saw Gerik. The burly mercenary hefted a claymore onto his shoulder and offered the king a friendly grin. "You up for that match you promised me?"
He lifted a brow in response. "Last time we talked about it, you made such a fight seem like a useless formality."
The older man chuckled. "Oh, getting to fight you is definitely not a useless formality."
Joshua grinned and shook his head. "I'd rather not burn myself out before having to hike Mount Neleras. Once we're in Jehanna, I'll take you on. How's that sound?"
"If that's what you want," the green-haired war veteran replied, setting the point of his blade down into the ground. A brief, comfortable silence passed between the two before Joshua began to stroke his chin thoughtfully.
"What do you think of Eirika?"
The question caught the mercenary off guard, and he looked at Joshua oddly. "Why ask me? I don't know her well."
Joshua turned to look at Gerik and replied, "Let's just say this is your first assignment as my general and advisor."
Gerik laughed aloud. "Training for the job, eh? …Well…what do you want me to say?"
"Heh. 'Course…well, uh…she's beautiful, good with a sword, and very kind. Naïve and gullible, too. Once we get back to our homes, though, I think being a queen will fix that real quick-like."
"And if it doesn't?"
Gerik shrugged. "Then it doesn't. Regardless, I doubt King Ephraim will allow anyone to exploit his sister like that, so it shouldn't matter in the long run."
"Don't you think it'd be better for her to be able to fend for herself in that arena? Much as he will try, Ephraim won't always be there for her," Joshua pondered aloud.
"Well, sure, it'd be better. Eirika has herself some safety net, though, even in politics – she knows folks in high circles from across Magvel, and they can vouch for her and maybe even help her."
Something flashed in Joshua's eyes briefly, and he continued to work his jaw and stroke his chin, deep in thought. At length, he eventually replied, "…Yeah. I guess we could help her."
"Well, 'course you would. After surviving something like that, you'd all be willing to, right?" What that was – or rather, had been – was rather obvious to both of them.
Gerik looked at Joshua briefly, then nodded once. The redhead's unsaid words were clear.
"Hey, could I talk to you real quick?"
Eirika turned to see Joshua motioning for her to follow him to the far side of another tent. The day's supper was soon to be served, and she had intended to see if she could help with the cooking. Reasoning they could ultimately do without her help, however, she followed the redhead.
"Yes. What do you need, Joshua?" she inquired once Joshua had stopped.
He sighed deeply in response. "…I, uh…I've been thinkin' 'bout somethin' since the first time we met. " His voice sounded rather subdued compared to his normal speech, and Eirika blinked in surprise.
"…And…well, uh…I can't quite keep it to myself any more. Guess I'm the only one who'd put it like this to ya." With that, he took a slow step towards Eirika, steadily followed by another. A third step, and he leaned in to meet Eirika's now-uncertain gaze only an inch away. She flinched and stood rigidly, her clear cerulean eyes meeting his ruby orbs with half-terrified anticipation, and she subconsciously raised her hands to keep the space between his body and hers, though she didn't touch him (Latona forbid!). His expression remained unreadable and even despite his proximity.
"What…what do you mean?" the blue-haired queen pondered, nearly on the verge of panicking, giving him a skeptical glance. Could…could he be…but didn't he say that…?
"What's come over you, Joshua?" Eirika asked.
He responded by slowly raising a hand to tuck a lock of hair behind her right (his left) ear. She flinched once more in response, and he continued by leaning in towards her.
Past her, where his soft but monotone whisper was almost not at all separated from her exposed ear.
"You're too easy."
She jerked in response, very nearly hitting Joshua in the jaw with her shoulder as he stepped back. "W-what!"
He grinned mischievously. "You're way too trusting. You obviously aren't enthused by the idea of me being that close to you, since you froze stiffer than a Frelian mountaintop, so why are you letting me this close to you?" She opened her mouth in protest, but he dismissed it with a curt wave of his hand.
"Seriously, though. Eirika, sometimes, you want something, you have to make it happen. Case in point, you coulda stepped outta the way, or pushed me back. I can take a hint, ya know – unless, of course, you actually wanted me to…"
"W-what?" she squawked in protest. "N-No! Never! I – no, I mean-!"
His good-natured chuckle interrupted her flustered apology. "Teasing you is so easy, it's almost not fun."
He failed to hide a broad grin as he saw Eirika's best attempt at pouting – an admittedly poor one, compared to some past instances of flirting and much lewder innuendo on his part. However, she sighed and quit visibly stewing, meekly replying, "I suppose you're right, Joshua. …Maybe I should exert more…force of personality. I…I just…"
The desert king smirked. "Not your thing, I know. Givin' orders and runnin' a kingdom ain't my thing, either, but I've still gotta do my best. You do the same, too, huh? Politics is made of backstabbing and toadying, so you shouldn't hand out your trust or acquiescence so easily, alright? I know you can be stubborn – you just need to learn how to say no." With that last comment, he cheerily sauntered off to the supper.
He did not see Eirika smile softly, but he did hear her say, "Thank you," and smiled to himself. Just sowin' the seeds…
This chapter isn't as long as I would have liked it to be, but I had to break it off here. The next few sections need to be all in the same chapter to flow right, and this is the best spot to cut it off without making an excessively long chapter. Besides, I don't wanna keep the loyal readers in limbo for too long – I'm not writing an epic like, say, Servant of GOD.