I have always loved to look out at the Renais countryside form the castle battlements. Bathed in moonlight, you can't see the scars left by the war and the rolling hills and silvered fields look as pristine as they did before Grado's invasion. So much pain came from the war, so much grief and suffering. How does one find happiness in the shadow of all this loss? My brother seems to have found the answer, so for once I am alone in my doubt.
Seth's voice startles me; I hadn't heard him approaching. My melancholy thoughts made me distracted: even now I'd make a poor soldier, it seems. "Seth..." His dark tunic and trousers make him little more than a shadow save where the light slants over his face and catches on the silver clasp of his cloak. It's not the breeze that makes me shiver as I look at him, suddenly remembering another night and our race through the darkness. The memory of the warmth of his arms around me is enough to make the night air seem cold. I look away again and start as he puts his cloak over my shoulders.
"You should come indoors, my lady. The night air is chill and you're not dressed for it."
"I'm fine," I murmur and pull his cloak around my bare arms. His scent clings to the fabric and I breathe deeply of it, feeling that I'm surreptitiously filling myself with his very essence. He always smells faintly of leather like the straps of his armour.
"Lady Eirika," he begins but I cut him off.
"I'm fine. I just needed time to think and a little fresh air. Why did you come? Is anything the matter?"
He shakes his head. "King Ephraim was worried. You left dinner so early and when your attendants informed him that you weren't in your quarters he asked me to find you and make sure you're well."
I smile as he says it. Even when he's trying to enjoy his last evening with Tana, Ephraim looks out for me. And it's always Seth he sends after me. I wonder if he knows, if he suspects. "Did you notice how happy he looked tonight, Seth?"
Seth tilts his head, looking puzzled– at my change of mood I suppose. "You mean the King? Yes, he seemed full of good cheer. Overflowing with it in fact. I thought perhaps he was pleased that Prince Innes would be on his way tomorrow."
I can't help but laugh and the quirk of Seth's lips gives him away as easily as a grin or a wink from another man would. "I wonder if that's what Innes will think too." Mirth bubbles up in me even now at the happy news, though my happiness would be complete if only... I look out again to the countryside as I say, "Ephraim and Tana plan to marry."
"That's wonderful news, Lady Eirika."
"Please don't tell anyone yet. It won't be official until she returns to Frelia and speaks with her parents."
"Of course, my lady. If I may, who else has been told?"
"I imagine my brother's told Kyle and Forde, but no one else."
A smile tickles my lips. "No."
"He'll be incensed when he finds out."
And now I can't repress a smile any longer. It's so very typical of Ephraim. "I imagine Ephraim rather enjoys the thought, though of course he says it's because Tana will have to travel with Innes and he doesn't want him badgering her all the way home."
"Ah. Of course." I love that wryness in him; it's a rare treat when I glimpse it. Few others ever seem to see though his mask: they think him rigid, humourless, cold. They could not be more wrong.
"It's clear tonight," I say as I look up at the blue-black sky, studded with stars. Other things are clear as well. I love Seth. It's not an infatuation or a passing fancy. I love him.
I've seen him strike down armed men with a single blow. In battle he's as fierce as a lion, but here, he's always gentle, always calm. I've seen the best and the worst of him during the war and I want to always be with him as we were in those days. As we rebuild our kingdom I want to know that he'll always be there at my side, not as my vassal, but as my companion, my confidant. And I must admit to myself that I also want other, less maidenly, things of him as well.
I pull his cloak more tightly around myself, wishing it were his arms. It's strange when I think of the night we fled Renais. How can one night be at once so terrible and so wonderful?
That night... I felt what you felt.
I can still hear him speaking those words, his voice taut with emotion. I was taken aback. I had never expected... I had hardly known my own feelings until that moment and then to hear that he shared them... I felt what you felt. Somehow those words opened a floodgate and I've not been able to shut it again. Since then I've yearned to be near him. In truth, I had wanted that before, but that longing was made keener by awareness.
And now I long to hear him speak those words again. Is it really so wrong? I don't believe so. I refuse to believe that my love for Seth is inappropriate, that he is in any way unworthy. Rank should be bestowed by action, not only by birth and he's proven himself truer and braver than any. Surely silver is not too base for a princess.
It may be selfish to speak my thoughts, painful to both of us, but I cannot pretend that what has passed between us never happened. "How lucky they are to have fallen in love with the person most appropriate for them."
"Yes," says Seth very quietly. He breathes deeply of the night air and turns to look out over the battlements. "Very fortunate indeed."
I envy them. I don't begrudge them their happiness– how could I when they're among those I love the most in this world– but I want what they have. I glance over my shoulder. I want the man standing next to me.
We both spin as we hear voices approaching. Lute and Artur, apparently out for a late night walk, are heading towards us, oblivious to anyone around them.
"I'm quite certain, Artur. The signs are clear from my readings and all the evidence points to this single conclusion. He is secretly in love with Princess L'Arachel of the Theocracy of Rausten." This earns a raised eyebrow from me. It's rude to eavesdrop, but what in the world could they be discussing? After all when it comes to Lute there's no telling.
They're still so wrapped up in their conversation that they haven't yet noticed us. "I don't think chivalric romances are really the best guide. And honestly, General Seth isn't– Good evening, general." Even in the dim light it's clear that Artur is turning beet red as he spots Seth and me. It takes all my training as a princess to hold back a grin and to spare Artur the embarrassment of knowing we've overheard. Seth is standing very stiffly, more so than usual, as he does when he's uncomfortable. His abashment is endearing somehow.
"Good evening," Seth manages, though he sounds very curt. Lute, head cocked to one side, is staring openly at him. She looks like she's studying him the way she used to do with the monsters we fought during the war, with an odd, impartial curiosity.
"Good evening, Princess Eirika," Artur adds with an awkward half bow.
"Good evening, Artur, Lute." Lute's eyes are rivetted on Seth and she probably hasn't even heard me. "It's pleasant out, isn't it?"
"Y– yes. Yes it is," Artur stammers.
I smile and try to give him time to regain his composure. "Out for an evening stroll?"
"Yes. Lute was just telling me about her..." He hesitates a moment and tugs at his robes a bit. "Her latest reading."
"Your castle library has a most impressive collection," Lute says, without taking her eyes off poor Seth.
"Thank you. My family has taken great pains to collect them over several generations. We were happy to see them untouched by Grado's forces while they occupied the castle."
This at least catches Lute's attention. "Oh yes! It would have been a terrible tragedy to lose such fine volumes. Did you know there's an original manuscript by–"
"Lute," Artur interrupts, tugging subtly at her sleeve. "I'm sure the princess and General Seth were discussing important matters. We should probably let them get back to their discussion."
She looks about to protest but then stops and glances curiously at Artur whose expression could only be described as pleading. They bid us goodnight and continue along the walkway. It's not until they've headed into one of the guard towers and have disappeared from sight that I speak.
"Seth," I begin slowly, struggling to keep a straight face, "is there something you want to tell me?"
He looks truly distressed as he turns to me and I so want to throw my arms around him. "Princess Eirika, I never– that is to say... You know that I..." I don't believe I've ever seen him so flustered and can't maintain my sober air any longer and, instead, I laugh.
"I'm sorry," I manage to get out, but he's already cracked a smile. "At least if we hear any odd rumours we'll know how they started."
"Indeed," he says. And then, after looking in the direction Artur and Lute disappeared in, "I don't believe I've ever spoken more than four words to Princess L'Arachel."
"Lute probably thinks you're worshipping L'Arachel from afar. Isn't that what knights do in romances?" They've long been a popular form of entertainment, often read aloud on rainy afternoons or sung in ballad form after meals, so the conventions of the genre are well known to most.
He winces. "Ballads are a far cry from the day-to-day world, my lady."
"Yes, I suppose so." I smile and lean against the battlements once more, looking out over my kingdom– or my brother's kingdom I suppose; it makes little actual difference. Though he now wears the crown, we have always shared the burden of Renais' rule and I want only to help him restore our homeland. Seth looks more relaxed now as he rests his hands on the stone battlements, not quite leaning on them as I do, but clearly at ease.
The breeze whispers through my hair as we stand here in the moonlight. Out of the corner of my eye I can see him glance over at me. I wonder if he thinks I'm beautiful. He is so handsome. The line of his jaw, the set of his shoulders, how straight he stands: in the pale light he could be a marble statue. Is it the moonlight that makes me bold, I wonder, or just the powerful desire to know that he's flesh and blood, not sculpted stone, as I reach out and place my hand over his.
He doesn't jerk his hand away, doesn't gently ease it out from under mine. And suddenly there's silence– the silence of two people who know one another's feelings. For a while I savour it, this sense of closeness, fleeting though it might be. Will he chide himself later, think that he was weak to indulge his feelings even so innocently? I wish I could relieve him of his burdens, and though I will perhaps only make things awkward once again between us, I choose to speak.
"I've been thinking, Seth..."
"Yes, my lady?"
"When Ephraim and Tana marry– it won't be for a few months, I imagine, but when they do, Tana will become Queen of Renais. They'll likely have heirs within a year or two and once they do their line will be secure. So I will never inherent the title of queen." He remains silent and I go on. "You said once that I might have to forgo... attachments... in order to defend Renais." He's standing very still. It seems strangely quiet, as if the castle sentries' footfalls and the chirrup of crickets have all faded away, for all I can hear is the shallow, rapid sound of Seth's breathing. "Seth, I realized something today. I am not nor will I ever be a queen. And you're not a knight in my service, but in the service of my brother."
"Lady Eirika..." His voice is strained, but I feel an unnatural calm. Ephraim's and Tana's news has lifted a great weight from my shoulders, the weight of Renais itself. I am a princess and that is all I shall ever be.
"That's all I wanted to say." My rank may still be far above his, but even so, that distance no longer seems so great. The space between us no longer seems a vast chasm, but only a narrow divide, overleaped with a slight effort, a bound, a leap, easily crossed with a helping hand. Without this weight on my shoulders, I can cross it. Standing on the other side, I will offer him my hand and wait for him to shed his own burdens and take it in his.
Her hand over mine is warm and I dare not turn to look at her. My thoughts betray me even now, for the only thing that echoes through my mind are the words "I love you. I love you. I love you."