Half a Child
Within the common room of Castle Crimea, amongst a plush sea of lavish board games and antique instruments and valuable books, sat the famed hero Ike on a pleasant sitting-couch, talking to his old friend. Like he always did when he was relaxing, Ike was awkward, looking like a steady, untarnished statue tilting over backwards.
"-and what about the thing you wanted to tell me in person?" Soren said, sitting nearly as awkwardly, his black robes a mess about his person. He was half paying attention, the other half of his mind thinking about something decidedly more analytical and almost certainly more logical than whatever his friend was about to say.
"Yes, that. It's about me and Lethe…"
"You two are going to be wed?"
Ike was mildly surprised. "Yes. You already know about this, Soren?"
"Know?" Soren turned to his friend. "Everybody knows by now. Anyone could have expected it, considering that ever since the end of the 'Crimean War' you two have been regularly fighting and talking with one another. Even despite the fact that you two are rarely seen together by most people, much less in a 'sentimental' moment."
"I see. Now that I think about it, it would make sense that everyone would know, considering the rumors. We've tried to keep the announcement secret, for political reasons—"
"Oh, you won't have to worry about those too much," Soren said, rolling his eyes and staring off at the wall.
"Never mind. It will be fine. You weren't going to divulge this to the people anyway, were you?"
Ike sighed. "I don't see any reason to tell the people. Then again, if I did, I would come out and say it to their faces, from the balcony. If they were going to react so poorly to the idea, they shouldn't even be here. This is no place for these kinds of antiquated ideas."
Soren cringed, perhaps developing a case of sour stomach right there on the spot. He turned away and hoped that his disapproval wouldn't seem too obvious. "Huh, well. I do happen to think that this…laguz issue isn't as simple or as unified as y- as we all would like to believe. First, Lethe is a laguz, and secondly, you are technically a monarch of Crimea, even if you and Queen Elincia are not wed. I'm not an expert on public opinion, but I would bet that this isn't the last time blood will be shed over this issue."
"I'll do everything in my power to stop that from happening, I assure you."
Soren turned to look at Ike across the couch. The sun was slowly beginning to set. "Fine. But remember: sometimes not even the best man can change the worst circumstances. History always seems to prove that theory true…anyway, that's the extent of it. As long as you play the good king, hold Queen Elincia's hand, and say the right things, I don't think anything bad will come of this little 'partnership' between you and Lethe. At least, not that I can think of. Either way, remember that I'm always holding your best interests in mind."
"Thank you, Soren. It's always nice to have another opinion, especially if it's an old friend."
Soren chuckled, and showed a thin smile. "Right. Of course. Any time. Well then…"
"There is one other thing," Ike said, standing up. He tugged harshly on the collar of his crimson vest. He was still unaccustomed to speaking daintily, and instead just lowered the hammer. "Lethe and I are planning to have children."
Soren turned his body and stood facing Ike. He was speechless. He was rent completely speechless. For a moment, he waited for the other hammer to drop. When none else did, Soren pursed his lips, fixed his gaping jaw, trained his eyes on his friend and thought about what was said.
Children…child…child?-!-? No…why would he want a child?
The tactician stood up straight. "Children? A child? What—what are you talking about?" he said.
"Soren, you're grinding your teeth. What's wrong?"
"Wrong?" Soren repeated. Clenching his teeth together felt really good all of a sudden, as if the magical sound of teeth chipping and breaking was the trigger to bite this new little 'development' in the ass before it got any bigger. "I want to know if I heard you correctly. A child? You and…and Lethe are going to have a child together?"
"Yes, that's right."
Ike laughed. "No, no. But she and I have talked about it at great length. I think—no, I feel that this is the right thing to do."
Soren twitched. "So then, you and her…and in her womb will be—" A monster! Filthy abomination, wretch of the Goddess, unholy— "Gah! What are you thinking? What are you thinking, Ike?"
Ike stepped back, his eyes narrowing, now concerned. "Are you all right?"
"All right? All right?"
"Soren. Soren! Your body is shaking. You're trembling!"
Child. The word had opened a gaping hole. The word was like a stab to the face or a punch to the gut. That one word Soren associated with so many things. In the span of a few seconds, many years passed by his eyes, thousands of backhands, hundreds of clenched fists and hundreds of dark rooms and one raggedy, hell-devil voice screaming 'Wretch of the Goddess!' at the top of her lungs, as if she weren't standing only three feet away. There was the lingering image of cobbled stone streets and circles of hateful children, the smell of sweat and grime, the taste of blood in his mouth, the feeling of the hard ground against his palms, and the sound of kids yelling and laughing. Child. Child!
"Why her?" Soren demanded, putting his arms out, his fingers curling upwards toward the sky and tensing together into fists. "Why Lethe? Why the- the- the laguz? Why not bear a child with Elincia? Why not with the queen?"
"I've already spoken to Lethe, and I don't know about Elincia's feelings, but- what's the difference?"
"The difference? The difference?" –wretch of the Goddess, unholy beast, traitor to beorckind, dirty half-blooded— "How could you do this? How could you do this to a child?"
"No!" Soren blurted. His face was pale, and in the setting sunlight gaunt, eyes screaming bloody hell with every inch of their color. "No! You absolutely cannot do this! You can't subject your child to that kind of torment. You can't subject anyone to that! I won't watch this happen! That child will either be by itself forever, or…or…!"
The two men breathed and stared each other down in silence. Soren's fists were clenched, so much that his uneven nails dug viciously into his palms. Ike was calm.
"Soren. Is this all because our child will be—"
"No, don't even say it," Soren said, a relative calm returning to his voice. His mind, normally filled with logical thoughts and sometimes biting wit, was completely obsessed with horrible images. A poor little crying boy with night-black hair in particular stuck there. "Don't say it. You know. I know. But you don't know what it would be like. This is more than you, and more than me, but I'm not upset for my sake anyway, and I'm not upset for yours. It was bad enough for me! Do you know how much suffering the offspring of your little sexual escapades would endure?"
"Soren!" Ike said suddenly. "Enough. You're out of line."
"You wouldn't know!" Soren yelled. "Maybe you would have been fine in my circumstances, born a bastard child of beast and man. Maybe you would have had the sheer force of will and determination to barrel through without feeling the pain of isolation and ridicule. But how can you know your child will? How could you know that? How could you put your child through that torment? How could you take that risk?"
"This is a different world. I promise you, my Crimea will be a happy and prosperous place, one without that sort of hatred and cruelty. That's the only reason I tolerate this insufferable position. Because I can use this power to make something better of this place."
Soren took a deep breath. "Ike. You…you simply…you can't do this. You can't have a child with that laguz. Anyone else, any beorc. But with her, that child…it will forever be damned to live –unholy beast!—as half a child. And I don't want to see that suffering again. Not in the eyes of your child. No."
The room was turning a rich orange. Soren turned to walk away, past the windows and through the door, without even a proper goodbye, when Ike stopped him with a strong hand on his shoulder.
"I don't quite know what to say, but…I won't let anything happen. I won't let my child suffer the way you suffered. That's a promise."
Soren broke free. "You say that as if you know it won't happen." He walked to the door of the chamber, amongst the sea of games and books and old instruments and revelry. "But you can't know that."
As a child, Soren had wondered if there was a reason the sun was yellow and the moon white, and why the sun was hot and the moon cold, and why the sun made the world light and the moon made the world dark. The answer, invariably, was that these things were because they were, and that he was a stupid child for even asking. Soren eventually took the hint and developed the useful trait of being unable to speak at all, one which didn't save him from the occasional random whipping or beating, as of course such a thing was needed to keep a lowlife, unholy outcast of the Goddess like him in check. Even in the care of that old sage fellow—who honestly believed him to be a Spirit Charmer—he was abused, stretched to his limits and beyond, and every time, of course, it was always for his own good.
As a young man, Soren made a point of knowing everything without fail, simply to avoid having to ask anyone anything. His alone time was generally spent learning more to avoid any further sticky situations he might have otherwise worked himself into. So long as they had nothing to do with the task at hand, questions like "why is the sun yellow?" and "why is the moon white?" were at the very least absurd and at most incomprehensibly ridiculous, and any bloke stupid enough to ask deserved a good scolding. There was both a right thing and a wrong thing to do and say in any given situation, Soren formulated, and the right thing to be done or said should always be done or said, regardless of the consequence, as long as it is in that person's best interests. That was the way Soren found successful in life. He promised himself a better and fruitful adulthood as long as he adhered to that principle.
Soren had returned to his chamber after speaking with Ike, his rage icing over. By the time the night sky had become completely dark, Soren had finished a book he had recently started and lit several other candles around his room. He looked at his palm, at the spots of dried blood from where his nails had dug into his palms in frustration. He had barely begun to fight, and already he was exhausting his available options.
Hm…maybe I should try talking to that Lethe. Maybe she will be more rational about what would happen if she gave birth to a child. Ha! Like a laguz could ever care about the repercussions of their actions! I suppose it's worth a try.
Lethe's private room was down a few halls, and Soren, knowing its exact location, decided to walk there through the moonlit halls. The castle was eerily silent and still, with mostly everyone having retired to their rooms. Elincia and Ike were in the royal chambers, the nobles had retired, and all of the former Greil Mercenaries slept peacefully in their own special chambers on the top floor. Being a friend or a close companion of a hero had its benefits. Ike's pull was as strong as that of a 'true' king amongst the Crimean people and courts. After all, it was his land now, or so it seemed. If Ike was correct about himself, then the former mercenary and son of a great knight was now lord and liege, king, jury, and senate over the land Elincia called her own. If Ike was to be believed, he could turn a bitter, trodden nation into a paradise for poor folk, veterans, and laguz, where poor men got gold, veterans got a home, and laguz got fresh fruit. It all sounded so wonderful, and isn't it?, thought Soren.
Crossing through the halls, the young mage laughed quietly, reserving his judgment. There were many things Ike was good at, he thought, many things he could do well, but the impossible? Nothing was going to change for the openly Branded as long as their blood remained tainted, and no amount of bloodletting and leeches at the infirmary could fix that.
There, Soren said to himself as he saw the door to Lethe's quarters down the long hall. He walked forward swiftly and purposefully, past a row of open stone windows on his right and firmly shut doors on his left. At the end of the hall, Soren stood framed like a thief in the night by the moonlight from the window.
Sounds from inside?
Soren silently pressed himself against the impressive wooden door and listened, his heart beating in his chest, teeth gritted, breath held. The first thing he heard was a strange humanoid purr and a gentle, drawn out hissssss. Soren pressed his teeth together harder, without making a single sound. There were some assorted rustles and sounds of movement, often punctuated by a subtle, contented purr. The last thing he heard from the room was a quiet but unmistakable man's voice moaning once. Soren returned to his room twice as quickly as he had left, and upon entering he slammed his fists against his bed and screamed his disgust into the sky.
That child be damned! But it won't be by me.
"Good morning," Ike said upon seeing Soren in the dining hall the next morning. Soren responded with a nod and a grunt.
"I hope you slept well, Ike," Soren said, briefly looking up from his book.
"My sleep was fine, thanks. I don't think I could ever get used to the beds in the royal quarters, though. Much too fluffy and comfortable for my liking. Maybe that's why so many nobles have long spears up their arses: they all sleep on fluffy featherbeds and don't know what it's like to sleep on cots."
Soren chuckled. "Spears?"
"Oh, sorry. I suppose that's not befitting my position, is it?" Ike looked around the dining chamber. The long table was set with many plates, about six of which were piled high with food, only two of which were currently attended. "Then again, it's not as if there is anyone else here."
"Ah, Soren, about yesterday."
Soren looked up from his book.
"I think I owe you an apology," Ike said. "I didn't really take into account…what you suffered through. Maybe I should have never brought the subject up."
"Better to tell than to hide it away," Soren said, realizing at the last moment how hypocritical he sounded. At that point, he didn't care. After all, for Ike to bring this up now, the morning after his little 'adventure'? The gall! Soren tried to restrain the sudden gush of anger rising to the surface.
"I can take care of my child," Ike said, looking down at his lap. "I never thought I would say something like that. When my father died, that was the moment I understood a father's role. My father set me right and told me how to grow and what to be, and he made it possible for it to be so. Whenever I needed guidance, whenever I needed training, whenever I needed saving, and whenever I needed scolding, my father was always there for me. I'm not concerned with lineage or with maintaining a bloodline. I just want a son so that I can guide him, so that he may know the same pride I did in knowing my father."
"What if it's a daughter?"
Ike laughed. "Same thing. It won't matter. Father loved Mist, too, you know."
It seemed that was the end of the discussion. Ike, Soren knew too well, had a way of ending conversations with little effort. Besides, any more nascent frustration and his reputation as "Soren the Irrefutably Icy" would become "Soren the Undeniably Angry". The mage excused himself with his full plate still untouched, and quickly slipped away into the halls.
Soren, his mind still reeling from the day prior, intended to return to his room to sit and think. There was nothing more to be done said his logos, the voice of logic and reason that spoke to him and only him within his mind. The laguz had already been sowed with the seeds of the Branded. New problems, his logos argued, were to be solved by new solutions when the child was born. Tutoring in private, sequestration from the real world, containment within the castle walls, concealment of identity, yes, yes. That was the logical course of actions, without a doubt, but…
Something else told Soren there was a simpler way. Something, someway, somehow.
you try to understand, you'll still wonder fruitlessly why I'm so
angry. I'm sorry. I want to spare you the pain of seeing your own
child suffer. Do you know how important that is? Your father never had to deal with such a thing. Don't you understand?
Soren turned a corner, his head turned to the ground, obsessively counting each stone on the floor he stepped on. Around the corner, he bumped into something and was thrown backwards into reality without a single warning.
"Ah! Watch where you're going!"
Soren looked up. To speak of the devil…! "You! Lethe!"
Lethe tilted her head and sneered at the mage. "I said, watch where you're going, beorc!"
"I think you should watch what you say in these halls," Soren said, brushing himself off. "Besides, how was I to know that someone was coming around the corner? Clairvoyance, maybe? Or do I have a crystal ball or some other such silly thing?"
"Forget it. Just move aside so I can pass through."
"Wait a moment," Soren said, putting a hand up. One look on Lethe's face told the young man that this conversation was not going to be settled amicably, one way or another. That one look told Soren that oranges and lemons could not fight without juices being spilled. "Actually, there's something I wanted to talk to you about. Hopefully you've time from you busy schedule to spend acknowledging my existence."
An ever so quiet hiss. "Hmph. What is it?"
"It's about you and—and Ike. Are you two planning on having a child?"
Lethe scowled, slapping Soren around with the cores of her eyes. "And how would you know about that?"
"Ike told me," Soren said. "It is true, is it not?"
Lethe paused for a moment, before finally stating, "yes, it is." Her entire body tensed, and her tail swished excitedly behind her, waiting for its chance to break free and run away.
"But why? Why would you want a child?" Soren asked, scowling. Confused anger and hatred burned onto his face. "What possible benefit would that bring you? What possible gains would having a child mean for you?"
"Hsssss, human!" Lethe answered, baring her teeth. "And how is that any of your concern? Why do you care what 'benefit' this brings me? And what makes you so sure there is a 'benefit' to be gained at all? Or don't you think us 'sub-humans' can do something without having ulterior motives?"
"You know what that child of yours is going to be!" Soren said. "You know the consequences of your actions! You're not an ignorant cat, you know. Are you really that cruel? Do you understand what you're doing?" Soren's eyes nearly lit speaking to her.
"Child of mine? Consequences? What are you talking about?"
"You know what I'm talking about," Soren said. "Last night! I know what happened!"
Lethe recoiled. Her face lit with a new burst of flame and her back arched. "What?" she spat. "You…how would you know anything about last night?"
"I know everything!" Soren stepped forward again, balling his fists. "Don't think you're better than me!"
"Hissssss! Filthy human!"
As the conversation carried on, the tone and the biting rasp of his voice increased with his anger, even as his voice remained quiet. The more he talked to Lethe, Soren realized, the more difficult it became to see her as she was. The angrier he became, the more he longed to spew 'sub-human' at her like a burning arrow and watch it sear a hole through her precious cold shell. The angrier he became, the less she was Lethe and the more she was every single laguz that ever wronged any beorc condensed into one. A sub-human sin!, his subconscious nearly wanted to scream, no sub-human should ever be a parent of anything other than beast, and his logical mind couldn't even think of this woman without making that connection.
"You…." Lethe stepped forward, even in her untransformed state baring her claws. "Just who do you think you are?"
"That child…at least you have the 'good fortune' of being born a whole sub-human! At least you weren't born a filthy half-blood like I was!"
"What?" Lethe said, putting her arms down. "You- you're one of them?"
Soren laughed dryly and turned his head, away and towards the ground. His entire profile was there for her to scrutinize. There, let her see me in all my 'glory', Soren thought.
"I suppose it's too late to go back now. And since your husband already knows, why not his wife? There's no point in keeping secrets; everything gets out eventually. Yes, I'm one of them. What do you think? Aren't I the image of disgrace? They say the laguz hate the Branded as much as the beorc do, maybe more so. That's one thing that beorc and the laguz have in common. Maybe that's the key to relations between the two groups. They both unite in their hatred for…" –Soren's face twisted— "my kind."
Lethe took a deep breath through her teeth. "So that's the meaning of that mark…"
"I think you should know one thing," Soren said. "You might have suffered some injustices, being a laguz. But you know nothing of what a Branded suffers. We truly have no place.
Lethe hissed. "You Par—Branded were never forced into slavery!"
"That's because they don't even trust us half-bloods as slaves! They would rather leave us to our own devices and watch us die without the respect of mankind or the love of the Goddess."
"I don't know about that, but your problems are your own," Lethe said flatly. "I can't do anything to you, and you can't do anything to me. My child is my own concern, and not yours. Leave it be."
"Do you care about anyone but yourself? That- that child in your womb will never have a normal life! Either shelter it inside the walls of this castle or let it run free, into the streets of the real world, where it will never have a moment of solace from the discrimination and hate. And you couldn't hope to pass the mark off as that of a Charmer. I would not be saying this if I didn't know firsthand! I have the right to say this." Soren stepped forward, stepped into the cat's face. "I suffered, I spent my entire childhood a foreign object, I know what it's like! Why can't you listen to me?"
"And who…" Lethe said, leaning in, her razor-teeth now inches from his face, "is to say…that I am to pay for your suffering?"
"Think of it this way," Lethe said, standing up fully erect, hands at her side, proud. "If you had never had such a difficult life, you would be saying nothing of this. But because you suffered, because you were damned by the selfish humans who spat on you, somehow this foretells the same for our child? That our child has no right to live because the same thing that happened to you might happen to it? Who are you afraid for, the child or for yourself?"
"That is your worry, beorc," Lethe said, walking past Soren. "Not my child's."
Soren watched her walk away down the hall, her head held high, fully absorbed in herself. The day was as cold as the night, a draft blowing from the windows through the hallway and swishing over Soren's robes, and his body shivered. Soren hated cold drafts in cold castles, and cold cats with cold eyes and cold hearts. At least on the battlefield the cold was tolerable.
Cruel cat! What does she know about me? What does it matter why I'm concerned for the child, anyway? You'd never be a good mother! You'd leave your child to its fate without a second thought. Ike doesn't deserve that. No one does.
Child. Child. Scum. Scum.
Single words pelted Soren's face.
Child. Child. Bran-ded, Bran-ded.
That night, a none-too-familiar warm wind had come over the castle. Everyone knew the temperature in Crimea to be fickle and fey, but night was and would always be known as a place for the cold. That night, however, a warm rush, perpetuated by a gentle eastern wind, was all that could be felt through the breezy halls, light silk curtains billowing up in the windows, the moonlight thawing cold shadows into what they really were. That night, the cold had gone away.
That night, Soren sat on his bed, foregoing his usual light evening meal, and thought. At some point in the late evening, Ike knocked on his door, to which Soren replied that he was busy, come back tomorrow. Come the mid-night hour, Soren had spent nearly the entirety of the night thinking, pondering a decision that might well have begun at the hour of his birth. Logically, he thought, it was both understandable and fitting that he would feel the weight of moral uncertainty. For the first time in his life, Soren swore not to think about it. If it was going to be done, he told himself, it would be done without thinking. He took a deep breath, and made sure a tome of fire was securely tucked away in his robe. Almost as an afterthought, he grabbed a long bladed knife from a drawer before he left the room.
This is the right thing to do, Soren thought. Regardless of the consequences, this is the right thing to do.
The halls were longer that evening, and Soren, laughing to himself, thought it to be only the unusual warmth of the night elongating the passageway by means of a subtle illusion, a trick of the mind.
Left, right, left, and straight. Castle Crimea was a nightmare. Soren bemoaned having to walk the whole way, especially with his heart beating so viciously in his chest. This was different than it was on the battlefield. Everything was. For one, it was much colder, but foremost was because the battlefield was a clear and mutually understood place of aggression. Nobody stepped onto a battlefield with the notion of begrudging their killers, especially when they too held up a sword with the intent of slaying their slayers. But skinning a helpless cat in the night?
Soren shuddered as the walked the halls, putting his hands against the wall and feeling his way around corners, eventually hopping across a hall, away from the "safe point", and back to the wall again, where the high-hung torches lit his way well, almost like a dim path to heaven, if Soren had believed in such things. Another chill. A fever, maybe? After all, it was a warm night, no reason to be cold.
As the chill racked his body, the words again spat through his head. Unholy beast, wretch of the Goddess, cursed unlucky imp, foul—
"Shut up." The torches were becoming scarcer and scarcer as he walked along. "Shut up," he said, again audibly but quietly, to shake off the old hag's voice reminding him just how unlucky she was to have known him and how unlucky the world was to have birthed him.
"Shut up." Why were the torches becoming less and less? Lethe's room was on the highest floor of the castle, in a distinguished hall with many torches gilded in bronze.
Where is this? Soren wondered, looking around. And I went down a flight of stairs…? Lethe's room is upstairs, what the hell am I doing?
Soren stood in a particular hall, empty and dimly-lit, with several of the torches having gone out on their own. The walls here were of a gray, much less polished stone than the walls upstairs, and less so even than the walls in the main corridors.
"Where am I?"
For what seemed like years, Soren walked through halls, trying to retrace his steps, trying to remember where to go, how to get through the winding halls to the cat's room, so the whole matter would finally be over, solved. It was almost as if stubble and pieces of coral burrowed themselves into his face with every passing year in this maze, until decades had worn his smooth face away to jagged, uneven edges.
He couldn't think straight, but as long as he could remember the way to her room, piece by piece, everything would be all right. It always was. As long as the night didn't end first, everything would be all right. Even if each step were a nightmare, even if each wall hid some devil in its stones, even if the stairs had teeth and the floor had eyes, everything would still be all right.
Wretch, beast, damned scum—
The world was still dark when Soren stood at the door to Lethe's quarters, with windows at his back, a dead-end to his right, and nothing but numb, feeling-less shadows to his left from where he had come. His hand wrapped around the hilt of his knife. He sighed.
"Someone tell me," Soren whispered to the floor, "why Branded children have to be born sufferers. Won't someone tell me?" His head was aching. A certain something in the way he felt worried him. Soren couldn't think clearly, could barely analyze in his mind what may come and what came before. He felt as if his mind was covered in mist, with someone or something beating all the rational thoughts out of his head to keep him numb. The only thought that came clearly was a picture of a little Branded child sitting and weeping.
Soren pushed in the door to Lethe's room, silently, with all the adeptness of one accustomed to skulking and sneaking around. He peered in and saw the cat in human form sleeping on her side, her face turned toward the far wall.
Move slowly. The fire first, and then the blade. It should be easy. Don't think about it.
He shuffled forward slowly, one step after the next, slowly, painstakingly. Soren looked around the darkened room as he crept forward, seeing only the faint image of the back of the cat.
Slowly…through her back…
It was three days later, and then three weeks, and three years later when he reached her bedside, though it was all still the same night. Soren's knife hand shook, his stomach growling uncooperatively. Suddenly not eating seemed a much bigger issue.
It hurts. Just get it over with.
Soren told his arm to move and it wouldn't answer. Every ounce of his mind, every ounce of determination was needed to move his arm, his fingers; everything he had, everything he had, just to bend them enough to curl around the spine of his tome.
Underneath his robes, he withdrew the tome and began to chant, first quietly and slowly, and then faster with growing intent. It would be one flash of light, one wisp of fire, one quick stab, and it would all be over, and no one would have to hurt any more, and Ike would find another lover, and there would be no Branded, no more crying, no more hate, no more suffering, nothing-nothing-nothing-nothing as long as anyone lived.
The spell was almost finished, a high-level incantation, when a voice clear of any sleep or any unawareness said, "What are you doing?"
Soren gasped, wide-eyed, seeing the still body of the cat stir for the first time. He dropped the tome from his hands, breaking his concentration.
"Y-you!" His heart pounded in his chest, much like a hammer, except a hammer hurt more.
"I knew you were there the whole time, human," Lethe said, still turned away. Her voice was quiet, subtle, with faint traces of a content purr underlining. Her tail, freed from being still for perhaps hours, had begun to swish around hyperactively.
"What were you going to do, kill me? Was that your master plan, tactician? You would have burned me to death and thrust a burning knife through my back."
Soren was frozen in place. His mind was dead. The door was slightly ajar, letting a tiny shaft of silver moonlight in; sanctuary. His body couldn't move to escape his place. His mind didn't know whether leaving was the right thing to do, or even possible. His mouth moved of its own volition.
"You don't know about me. What do you think I'd do? This is the only l-logical course of action. That thing is burning a whole in your womb!"
"Stop talking, human," Lethe said, and now a hiss ran in her quiet voice's undercurrent. "Is that not what you humans have wanted forever? The complete eradication of all who were different? It makes sense. Ike may want to change things, but some things never change. Understand that."
"Don't berate me," Soren said, his head down. His fist still clenched around his knife, but he was no longer even planning to use it. "Don't berate me! You have no idea what's best for this country. Ike married—no, Ike sold himself to you! Because of you, because of his foolish choice, he ruined the course of this nation. Future ruler of Crimea, bearing a secret child, branded with that mark forever. Bearing a child with a laguz and a non-royal, a common cat?"
Lethe rolled over on her side to face Soren. It was something indiscernible to Soren through the darkness, but the cat's face was calm—unusually calm—, reserved, with dull lights of amusements in the corners of her infinitely feline mouth. Her eyes pierced the darkness, watching him.
"And what of the nation?" Lethe said. "Ike's nation? The princess' nation? The nation Ike built on certain principles? He said that he would plan his life around his ideal future, no matter the consequences, even if—"
"Damn it! He risked everything for you…just for the chance to put that abomination inside you?" Then, to himself, with his head turned to the side, "Why?"
"You hate the Branded, do you?" Lethe said. "Above all else, you hate them."
"You are one yourself, aren't you? So you said. Then, beorc…do you hate yourself?"
Soren scowled. "Shut up. You wouldn't understand."
"I must be missing something," Lethe said. "Ike doesn't know how much you despise the Branded, does he?"
"I don't know. But that's none of your business."
"Do you know why the laguz despise the 'Parentless' like they do?" Lethe said. She sat up and leaned forward. Unlike Soren's vision of her body, the cat could see the mage's form perfectly, from the slight shakes of his robe to the confused grip around the hilt of his blade.
"I'll tell you," she said. "A Branded child is conceived when the most impure sin of all—" still quiet, but sarcastic— "is committed: the coitus between a laguz and a beorc. To even admit to loving a beorc is a mark of shame, a badge of ignominy. Why would, after hundreds of years of beating, would one go crawling to their abuser naked and lapping at their heels?"
Soren grit his teeth. The nails of his free hand bit deeper into his clenched fist.
"Love," Lethe went on, "is the most fickle and foolish of all emotions. Sentimentality, for example, when fighting an old friend turned enemy, can hold you back, give you just enough hesitation for your 'old friend' to close in and kill you. Love itself among laguz is unimportant, but with a beorc? Damning. When a Branded child is conceived, the inherent shame in the creation perverts some. 'Parentless'? Few such unions last, and the children are often left alone, with no one to raise them. Most laguz choose to think that those children never existed. They are forever the damnable outcasts of the laguz, the definition of a 'bastard child'. And yet, what has happened has happened."
"Because we wanted it that way. Bad things happen because good people exist. If every good person stayed in their house because they were afraid of the ill will of others, there would be no one to run a kingdom, no one to even run a shop. If you always turn tail and flee from fear or apprehension, you go against the way of the world itself. Without those who turn and run from apprehension, there would be no Parentless, there would be fewer orphans, there would be less evil. You stand there, running away, tail between your legs, even as you don't move, afraid of even yourself. What a coward."
"I…I…" Soren breathed. He was becoming weaker by the moment. It was inexplicable. His body had frozen, locked up, and now his arms felt as though the life was being siphoned from them. He stood with his head down, unable to say anything, but he pondered what was said. Many, many words he had never pictured coming from her mouth.
"Ike," Lethe said, "is afraid of nothing. He is afraid of no foe, of no law, of no tradition, of no man, of no beast. He has the most enviable type of ignorant bravery a beorc could have. Ike never runs away. He stands and he fights. Ike is a much better man than you."
"Ike is a better man than me, yes. But neither of you understand. Your entire lineage! Ike's entire lineage! All ruined! Forever tainted because of you!" Soren looked up and pointed a finger at the cat. "Because he chose you! Because of his rashness, his entire—but all this could be over if that damned child never existed in the first place! The hate…the hate directed towards me in my life…Ike will have to see his entire lineage suffer that. He would have to bear that burden...it might not be now, but eventually."
"You care for Ike, don't you?"
"W-what? Of course I care about him. He's my friend, he's—"
"You have many reasons," Lethe said. "Because of this child, Ike has placed his standing in jeopardy, and, by beorc standards, consummated his affection for me. That bothers you, doesn't it?"
Soren clenched his eyes shut. His free hand went limp, the knife hand holding onto the blade loosely. The dark of his eyes was nothing compared to the dark of the room, or even the dark in his mind. He shook his head. "Bother…no? No bother, no..."
"For yourself and for Ike," Lethe continued. "For these reasons, you don't want this child being born."
"For Ike," Soren repeated. "He will have to live with this forever." Soren opened his eyes and looked across the room into Lethe's. "Ike sold himself to you, and now there can be no other. I don't know," he said at last. "I don't know what's right anymore. I don't know anything."
"Tell me why, Soren," Lethe said. She sat fully erect on her bed, her hands folded into one another, eyes quiet and low. She had the demeanor of a mother about her. For the first time, and perhaps the last, she had addressed Soren by name, with a gentleness that seemed almost like maternity. "Why does this hurt you?"
"Because I don't want…I don't want…" Soren shut his eyes and cold tears streamed down his face. He tried in vain to hide the tears from his voice. "I don't want to see a…a Branded child born again. It isn't right. It shouldn't have to happen. There's no reason for it, no reason at all. It isn't right. Noth-nothing good ever comes from a Branded. You're Ike's only one. If you were to abandon his child, he would be the only one left. He couldn't ever love…someone else. He would be alone, and when the light went out every night he'd have to sing his crying baby to sleep. All that would be left is—is a poor little child."
Lethe watched silently from her bedside perch. Soren had begun to see the cat in a different light, even through the darkness. Hearing the sound of her voice and the reason of her words through the concealing shadows had changed his impression of her. But Lethe, more than anyone, had begun to see differently. To her, Soren had always been a laguz-hating, moody little human. The emotion in his voice told her otherwise. It humanized Soren to Lethe in a way she never thought possible. That, she thought, was the epitome of beorckind, and perhaps Brandedkind. For the longest time, she had never known such a thing existed in one beorc-raised.
"Will you care for it?" Soren said at last. In his voice was deliberation, as if he knew there was cracked ground nearby. "Will you care for the child? Will you love it as much as he will? Will you appreciate Ike, as he is…the greatest man I know?"
"There was never any doubt about that. I will."
Soren's hand opened, and there was a sound of metal against stone as his knife rattled against the ground. His shoulders receded.
"My child," Lethe said, "will be whole. Without question."