DISCLAIMER: I don't own Elena, Zilva, Leon, Gulcasa, or Nessiah. Or Yggdra Union. But the PSP version looks yummy so far. Mmmmmm. (drool)
Vainly, her thirteen-year-old self reached out to her brother's retreating back, as if she could stop him from leaving.
"Relax," he told her with that easy grin. "It'll only be for a year or so. I'm the breadwinner in the house now, right? So this'll be good for us. I'll take care of everything, sis. You don't have to worry about anything."
There wasn't anything she could say. Sad and troubled by something deeper than her conscious mind could reach, she watched him go, already aware that this was the last she would ever see of the good-natured big brother she adored.
Elena blinked and pushed herself up, groggy and unsettled, the way she always was when she slipped into sleep accidentally and dreamed of the past. She'd nodded off on the desk of the small guest room she was staying in, it seemed. All the extra hours she'd been putting in with her teachers at the practice range were taking their toll on her body, and she found herself drifting off at inopportune hours in her off-time. The sleeping spells were sudden and though they never lasted long, they and her fatigue just made her wish even more that she'd never come to the palace to become a soldier, had just left things as they were and refused to get involved.
Still, she was here for a reason, a very vital reason. She didn't have to chase Leon much further, she knew, before she caught up… and once she did, she would have to make her decision about what to do with him.
Standing, Elena rubbed her eyes and looked into the mirror. She'd already gotten changed; there was a state banquet in Flarewerk tonight, and the gentry and peasantry were all invited, along with every military division currently posted at the capital. She'd forgotten what was being celebrated, but the Emperor had taken pains to make it widely known that anyone who wished to come was welcome. Since Leon, as one of the five Dragon Generals, would be attending, Elena was going, too. She needed to keep an eye on him. The more she knew about his actions, the better decision she would be able to come to in the end.
Staring back at Elena from the other side of the silvery glass was a pale waif of sixteen in a soft, gauzy dress, her shiny, soft blue hair held back with a headband to which a flower made from layers of translucent fabric was pinned. Ribbons of freshwater pearls—her mother's keepsakes—dangled from her earlobes and laced around her throat. Under all the white and pink, she looked like any other young maiden from her hometown, lovely and naïve. But despite the youth the dress showcased, her eyes seemed dull with age and sorrow, a bitter and uneasy contrast with the rest of her appearance. At least a soft touch of foundation had been able to soften the deep shadows under those eyes.
Then again, it was only expected that Elena seem a bit haunted, a bit tired. She had just been accepted as a student of Zilva, the young leader of the Special Forces, meaning that she was training to become an assassin. Such training was not easy, physically or emotionally. More so than any other soldier, Elena was learning the many facets of death, and those lessons had a way at chipping away at the soul until an assassin was able to protect her spirit with a shell of indifference.
Over the past year, life had changed so much for everyone in Bronquia. Elena and her family had been of middling rank, with few political ties and only the desire to live in peace. Still, the previous Emperor had been increasingly paranoid, and even when Leon had gone off to receive military training, Elena and her parents had lived in fear of coming under suspicion. When His Majesty had come and freed them from his predecessor's control… and then, when he'd been crowned the true Emperor… peace had finally returned to Bronquia, and people could finally stop fearing for their lives if they said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Things had finally taken a turn for the better.
The problem was that while life in Bronquia had changed, Leon had not…
Elena sighed, opened her small makeup compact, and dusted a bit of blush against her cheeks so she wouldn't seem quite so pale. Glancing at herself once again in the mirror to reassure herself that she looked alright, she stood, straightened her dress, and laid the compact down, crossing the small room to the door and heading outside.
Barely had she taken two steps when someone bumped into her, causing both of them to stumble. Elena put a hand out against the wall to brace herself as she felt the other person's hand on her shoulder, steadying her, and shook her head minutely to get her balance back. How embarrassing… I have to pay more attention to my surroundings; Zilva-sensei would scold me for slipping up like this during my lessons.
"Are you alright?" asked a slightly breathless masculine voice above her. "Sorry—I wasn't watching where I was going…"
"I'm fine," Elena assured whoever it was, and turned to look up. And was just barely able to stifle a double-take as she took in the man's long scarlet hair, golden eyes, and black circlet.
She was staring. And gaping. And as soon as the shock wore off, she squeaked and bowed almost double. "Y-Your Majes—"
"Shh! Not so loud! I barely got rid of those idiots—if they hear you, I'll have to run for it again—"
Elena shut up. There was a long moment of silence in which she fidgeted minutely and the Emperor listened tensely; finally, he relaxed, heaving an immense sigh. Peeking up, Elena saw that he had a hand to his chest and that he'd sagged against the wall from relief.
"I thought I'd never get rid of them, but I think I've finally lost them… thank Brongaa."
"Is… something the matter, Your Majesty?" Elena asked timidly.
"Attendants. Starched, stuffy, altogether too assertive attendants." Gulcasa shook his head and shivered. "I swear. If it's too complicated for me to put on or take off by myself, it's not something I will wear. But I don't think they really understand that yet." He shook his head again and stared skyward, sighing. "Noooo, they don't care about rank. They only care that I look like a proper courtier, and that I go to the banquet in something they'll have to pin me into piece by piece for the next half an hour. There is nothing wrong with the way I usually dress. Honestly."
Elena straightened up another fraction and took in the work-stained red denim pants and lightly torn black sleeveless shirt Gulcasa was wearing under the red, black, and gold Imperial cloak. She couldn't help it—she smiled, biting back her laugh into a quiet cough and halfway covering her expression.
Gulcasa gave her a slightly baleful sidelong look, then ran a hand through his hair and cracked a bitter, self-mocking smile. "At least someone thinks it's funny."
"I apologize, Your Majesty." Elena bowed again.
Above her, she heard Gulcasa sigh frustratedly. "I see you're going, too?" She nodded slightly. "I can tell that you're the type who actually takes interest in how you look, and like to make yourself 'presentable'. In situations like this, I definitely envy that. If I cared about my appearance, there wouldn't be a miniature war every time I decide to have one of these things, but I don't… and they can't change that, and I do believe it irritates them."
Elena giggled. She couldn't help it.
"Yeah, ha ha." He sounded more resigned than irritated, and when Elena finally straightened most of the way up, she found that he was giving her that easy but not-entirely-tame grin that charmed most people who got to speak to him one-on-one. "Hey—you're a girl, I suppose I can trust your opinion. Would it be offensive to Luciana and Aegina if I stay dressed down for their birthday, or won't they care?"
There was a sharp pain in Elena's chest as he said the words, and she remembered. This banquet was a celebration for the Emperor's adopted sisters, the Fantasinian-born twins Luciana and Aegina. Gulcasa was so kind; they weren't even of his own blood, and yet he still… He was still the kind of brother to do things like this. It had been so long since she'd been able to enjoy that surprising, heartwarming kind of thoughtfulness. For the past three years, Leon had been so cold…
Noticing her smile starting to fade, Gulcasa stared at her in mingled confusion and concern. "Did I say something… oh." His eyes went wide in realization. "I recognize you. You're Elena, aren't you? Leon's sister."
Elena gave the token bow. "Your Majesty is kind to remember me."
"I should've recognized you before now; I've been hearing enough good things from Zilva about you that there's really no excuse. Forgive me. Leon's… we're hoping he'll improve. Aside from that, he's a good soldier…"
Elena forced a smile, the pain making her bold enough to cut her own Emperor off mid-sentence. "Luciana-dono and Aegina-dono love Your Majesty; I doubt they would expect anything more, after what Your Majesty has already done for them. But… displaying a certain willingness to suffer a little discomfort for them would go that much farther. This is only my opinion, however."
Gulcasa tilted his head a little and gave her a bemused look, then sighed, apparently deciding to go along. "I just can't win, can I? I suppose I could compromise with myself, try to find something semiformal. After all, this is—"
The sound of voices further down the hall made Gulcasa jump, and he stared incredulously into the darkness. "Don't they ever give up?!" he asked no one in particular, his voice shot through with as much panic as exasperation. "I'm sorry to cut this short, but I have to get out of here—thank you for the advice, and remember, you didn't see me—" He reached out and clapped her on the shoulder, then was off running down the hall as quickly and as quietly as he could.
Elena watched him with a smile until he turned the corner, then sighed and straightened her skirts again. It was time she made her own way down to the banquet, so that she would be able to find a seat near enough to Leon's that she could continue to observe him unobtrusively.
Almost all of Flarewerk turned out for the banquet. Elena was glad she'd come down early; it had allowed her to select a seat at Gulcasa's head table, close enough to his inner circle that she could watch Leon and the rest of them as they spoke.
True to his word, Gulcasa had changed out of the work clothes he usually wore around the castle and its grounds into sweeping, elegant black silks accented with gold thread. Young women nearby of all social stations kept sneaking glances in his direction, clearly admiring, though he didn't seem to notice them at all. Since the announcements of state were over, he alternately talked to those close to him and concentrated his attention on whatever food was being put in front of him. His family was closest to him—Luciana, Aegina, and Emilia on one side, all wearing exquisite silk-and-lace dresses, the twins blushing badly with Luciana somewhat more snappish than usual and Aegina often hiding her face in her hands; Baldus to the other, watching the proceedings with a bemused smile, his long hair and beard pulled back into stately braids. Elena took note that the newcomer mage Nessiah was seated between Baldus and Gulcasa, on the Emperor's left side, and that the two of them were holding an animated conversation that Luciana continually tried to interrupt. And, she saw with a smile, either the glass of bloodred wine in his hand was too much for him or he was blushing a little from the attention he was getting.
The other commanders in the Imperial Army were on the edges of the Emperor's charmed circle. Eudy, the Court Magister, was busy teasing a young courtier near her; Zilva, Elena's commander and personal teacher, was on her other side, eating silently and to all appearances completely ignoring her surroundings. Across from the two of them sat Leon.
Unlike the rest of Gulcasa's company, Elena's older brother was sitting at a slightly slouched angle in his chair, scowling sullenly into the distance with cold eyes as he drank from a wide pewter flagon of mead. His dark hair lay at unruly, impossible angles, framing his cleanly shaven face in wild, fey locks. He was wearing a deep cobalt cape over fine black linen and velvet, with a heavy brass brooch pinning his cloak against his shoulder. The look on his face said he was bored, and restless, and the downward turn of his lips and the furrowed line of his brow said he was just waiting for the chance to start something. To Elena's eyes, he seemed alien and dangerous.
Elena wasn't deaf, or stupid. She'd heard as well as any the rumors of how ruthless, how uncontrollable her brother was said to be out on the battlefield. She knew he'd attacked and tortured civilians as well as soldiers. She knew he could be horribly cruel to his own men, or at least those who didn't share his particular thirst for blood. She'd heard so many terrible things about him, but… she wasn't sure what she was supposed to believe. The Leon she remembered had picked on her relentlessly the way older brothers did, but he'd also had a mischievous smile and a penchant for sweet tactful moments when she'd needed someone the most. War changed people. Elena had needed to see how much Leon had changed, and also to be in a position to do whatever she could if any of what she'd heard was true.
It was just—she looked at him now, and she was afraid. Both of him and what he might be… and what possibilities she would have to face if the worst scenario was what she found.
As Elena pushed a piece of spiced chicken around on her plate, Leon joined the bright chatter between the Emperor's friends and family.
"I-I still can't believe you did all this for us," Aegina was saying, badly flushed between her fingers.
"Pfft…" Gulcasa smiled and shook his head. "If a guy can't even make a fuss over his own sisters on their birthday, when can he? You're going to be adults in three years. It's a big moment. Why waste it not understanding? Save that for later and enjoy the party."
"If you try to take us out on the ballroom later, I'm going to step on your feet every chance I get," Luciana threatened, just as red as her twin. Gulcasa and the others got a good laugh out of that.
"Family's important," Nessiah acknowledged from beside Gulcasa, topping himself off and artfully swirling the wine in his glass. "It's good to make a fuss over those you care about, if you've got them. Wouldn't you say?"
A soft, begrudging growl of "No one asked you" came from Luciana's general direction, but as far as Elena could see, either everyone else chose to ignore it or they hadn't heard.
"Don't you go forgetting that we're yours now," Gulcasa said chidingly.
"You've gotta tell us when your birthday is too, okay?" Emilia bounced up and down in her seat, her eyes bright with excitement. "Then we can have a party for you like this, too!"
Nessiah held up his free hand and shook his head. "I have no idea what it would be on the calendar here, so the chances of that are pretty slim…"
"Then pick a day you think is reasonably close," Gulcasa told him with that half-dangerous smile. "And we'll make a fuss over you then. Really. You're not getting out of it, Nessiah. Just give up already."
"Oh, you—…," Nessiah let his voice trail off. His entire face bright scarlet, he hid behind his wineglass, only setting it down when it was next to empty, then pointed in Leon's direction. "Anyway, shouldn't you be grilling him before me?" With that, he turned to Leon, leaning around Baldus to address him more directly. "You've plenty of leave stored up—why don't you take some time off for any family celebrations?"
"Tch." Leon scowled. "Who gives a damn about that stuff?"
"It'd do you good to see your family again," Gulcasa said mildly, giving Leon a significant stare.
"I'll thank you to get your ass the hell out of my business," Leon snarled, then took another pull of his mead.
"Sir Leon, remember who you are speaking to," Baldus told him levelly, favoring Leon with a piercing look. "His Majesty recognized your skill and chose to spare your life, and as members of the same army, we all make an effort to be lenient and give you time to recover from your condition. Nevertheless…"
"Leon…" Gulcasa rested his elbows on the table and glared intensely, the mask of civility dropping away and exposing the draconic warrior beneath. Even as far away as she was, Elena took one look at those inhumanly golden eyes and shuddered at their fierce glow. "You will hold your tongue, or you will remove yourself from our presence. There are ladies here, and children, and they do not need to be exposed to your negativity."
"Tch… I don't need to put up with this…" His face twisted into a scowl, Leon pushed his chair back with a violent, ear-tearing scrape and stalked off. Suddenly aware that the entire table and many of those near it had gone very quiet, Elena watched him head to the doors at the side of the hall and shove through them.
There was a very long, very awkward silence before the tables slowly began to slide into conversation again. Gulcasa rested his face in his hands and massaged his temples, groaning.
"I do try," Elena just barely heard him say. "I really do try." He began to push his chair back and made as if to stand, but Nessiah reached out and laid one small, pale hand on his shoulder.
"I'm the one who set him off—I'll handle this. Gulcasa, just forget about it for now and stay with your sisters. He's been drinking; I'm sure I can convince him to retire without inflicting too much havoc around the castle."
Gulcasa sighed again and waved a hand. "Alright. Alright, go."
Elena looked down at her plate and poked at her now-cold chicken, but although she wasn't watching, she heard the smile in Nessiah's voice as he replied, "I'll be back soon." There was another vague and awkward half-silence as people murmured back and forth, then the swing of the same doors Leon had used.
As conversation eventually resumed, Elena shifted uncomfortably in her seat. What she'd just seen—the Leon she'd known could be rebellious, but he would never have been so insubordinate as to curse at his own Emperor, in a public place, no less. He'd changed so much… was this, then, the proof she'd been looking for? Was she to decide what she was going to do about him now?
No. I still need to think, to watch. Like Nessiah-dono said, Oniisama has been drinking… maybe that's made it worse, or maybe… Elena shook her head. Thinking like this will get me nowhere. I have to follow Zilva-sensei's teachings… I have to act, I have to confirm, before I make any final decisions.
Quietly, Elena excused herself to no one in particular, and stood up, carefully pushing her chair in and then mincing her way across the room towards the doors.
In the back halls of the castle, Elena gathered her skirts into her hands and walked as quietly as she could in her soft leather slippers, sliding from shadow to shadow in the torchlight as she'd been taught. She could hear Leon and Nessiah's voices in the distance, and she listened carefully as she made her way forward.
"Leon, that was uncalled-for. You've had far too much to drink; you should apologize to your Emperor when you're sober. We all make allowances, and I know better than anyone what it is you're going through, but you should at least know to toe the line."
"Leave me the hell alone unless you want to get hurt."
"Hmph." Nessiah sounded amused. "I'll ask you again to apologize, Leon. Gulcasa has given you every chance he can to allow you to redeem yourself; continue to spurn him and you'll end up forcing my hand. I can be a lot worse than anything you've ever faced, believe you me."
"I said leave me the hell alone—"
There was a sharp whistle of air, then the sound of an impact and a gasp of pain. Elena jumped a little where she stood, covering her mouth to keep from crying out herself in surprise.
There was a hoarse cough, and then Nessiah's breathless voice: "Just what do you think you're—"
"Acting like you're so much better than everyone else—" Leon sounded incensed; he was hissing. "It's far past fucking time to see you on your knees—"
"Keep your hands off—" And another pained cry.
"Hell, I need some entertainment anyway. And if you're offering…" Leon laughed; the sound was cruel, and it made Elena's hands tremble as she quickened her step. The voices were getting louder; she had to be close now.
"Don't touch me—" The words were an order, but there was raw terror in Nessiah's voice. And if Elena could hear it, so could Leon, which would only make him more aggressive…
"Always his damn favorite, aren't you? It's about time you're a little freer with the favors you're giving him—" Leon's voice was rough and breathless, and very close.
"Let me go—hnnh—" The sound of another, heavier impact, more like a body hitting the ground than a blow. "Nn—nn?! Ggh—"
Elena turned the corner and froze, her eyes wide with horror at the scene before her.
Leon had Nessiah pinned up against the wall, his hands covering the mage's shackled wrists and his left thigh shoved up against Nessiah's hips, forcing his legs apart. They were clutched closely together in a harsh and vicious kiss, Nessiah struggling valiantly, but to no avail—he was just too small, unable to get the leverage to shift Leon's bulk. There was absolutely no doubt as to Leon's intentions, and they were too calculated, too certain for this to be the first time he'd done this. Fragments of overheard rumors flitted through Elena's mind as revulsion and pity wrenched her stomach. Oh, God. It was true—it was all true, everything she'd heard. Leon was…
"Oniisama…!" she cried before she could stop herself.
Leon jerked back, whirling to face her and loosening his grip on Nessiah's left wrist. "Elena—?!"
In that moment, Nessiah pulled his hand out of Leon's and slammed it hard into the knight's chest with a cry; a brilliant pulse of white lightning flashed directly into Leon's body, sending him flying backwards as though he'd been kicked by a horse. Leon fell hard and didn't get up, clearly out for the count.
As Elena stood frozen, Nessiah slumped against the wall, visibly shaking, first wiping his face, then wrapping his arms around himself, then wiping his face again.
Elena cast a pleading look on her unconscious brother, then started towards Nessiah uncertainly. "Nessiah-dono… are you alright…? You're…"
"I just…" Nessiah shook his head. "I just… need to… sit down for a while…" Slowly, he eased down the wall until his legs folded, and he sat hard, his arms crossed just below his chest and his knees folded tight to his chest as he shivered.
Elena looked around dumbly, then knelt, sweeping her skirts around her. "Are you hurt…? Nessiah-dono, we… we have to get someone, you're…"
"No," Nessiah said emphatically, giving one last convulsive shudder and then visibly locking his muscles in order to sit still. "No. You're not to tell anyone what you just saw."
"What are you… you can't, Nessiah-dono, you're… if no one knows about this, then…"
"I will be fine," Nessiah told her with finality. "I just… feel a little queasy, is all… I'll be alright. Leon, on the other hand…" He turned towards her as though looking at her critically. "Have you any idea what will happen to him if others hear of this? If what he just tried to do gets to the court… Gulcasa has always pushed the hardest for our giving Leon a chance to recover, but if he hears of this, he will kill your brother. Without a second thought, without pausing for any consideration, without any remorse or mercy."
Elena remembered the inhumanity of the Emperor's glare back at the banquet and shivered involuntarily. "But… you're… but, Oniisama is… I can't just…"
"Listen to me, girl," Nessiah said wearily. "Your brother has a mental condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder. It's brought on predominantly by the horrors of the battlefield. The things your brother has seen in the employ of Gulcasa's predecessor have damaged him. It is possible for him to recover, and he can get help, but he must first admit that he is unstable, and seek that help out. Or he may come out of it on his own, eventually. Still, your brother is not himself right now, and on top of that, he is considerably intoxicated. Leon attacked me, but were he in a rational state of mind, he would never have done so. Before he is judged by any or forced to attempt atonement, he must first regain that rationality, do you understand?"
"But…" Elena hesitated, fidgeted. "He—tried to… I can't just lie about…"
"Unless you want to see Leon killed, you'll have to."
Elena sat silently for a moment, wrestling with doubt.
"As your superior officer, I'm ordering you to return to that banquet," Nessiah said softly. "Do not breathe a word of Leon's actions to anyone. Let him be discovered here; let it be assumed that he passed out from drinking too much. Come tomorrow, he won't remember a moment of this. If Gulcasa asks you where I am, tell him…" He shivered a little, bit his lip slightly, and shifted his arms so that they crossed over his stomach. "…tell him I'm feeling ill, and that I've gone to lie down for a while. I've been drinking too much, and all this…"
"Don't disobey me," was all he said. Slowly, he stood, then began to walk off with hesitant steps. Elena saw as he did that his delicate dress robes were torn in places, and that bruises were already beginning to show along his wrists and his face where Leon had grabbed and hit him.
Once he was gone, Elena hid her face in her hands. She couldn't erase the imprint of what she'd just seen from her mind's eye. She wasn't as naïve as to not realize that if she hadn't come when she had, if she hadn't said anything, her brother would have raped Nessiah. Among the accusations of torture, Elena had heard several horror stories about what village women and female soldiers had suffered at Leon's hands, but she'd dismissed them, unwilling and unable to believe that he was capable of such a thing. After what she'd just seen, though, she was forced to admit that all of the rumors she'd heard were probably true.
Even Nessiah, after what had just occurred here, was telling her that Leon wasn't himself, that he could recover, but… Elena knew better than to hope. Leon had been like this for three years, and his mental state had only degraded over time. If she let him keep going like this, who knew how many more people he would hurt…
That was it, then. Someone had to put a stop to all this. Somehow.
It would be so easy for her to just ignore Nessiah's orders, tell Zilva everything that had happened here. She knew her teacher would take the entire episode straight to Gulcasa, who would deal with it swiftly. Leon would be brought to trial, or if Nessiah was right, Gulcasa would just kill him outright. That would accomplish the solution; Leon wouldn't hurt anyone else. He would die with at least some dignity, instead of degrading into an entirely sadistic and inhuman criminal.
But that was too much like running away. Elena was the one who'd let it come this far, out of her doubt, out of her fear. If she'd had the guts to figure it all out sooner, to put it all together… she might already have confronted Leon, might have stopped him.
Sadly, she looked at her brother's face. Unconscious, his expression had evened out, so that he looked almost like his old self again. It was hard to believe that that face had worn that cruel, lustful expression she'd seen on it only a few minutes ago, but she couldn't erase the memories.
…No, this is our problem, Elena thought. Yours, and mine. So I will be the one to handle it. I'll study, I'll train. I'll become as good a soldier, as good a spy, as good an assassin as I can. And then… if you ever try to hurt anyone else… I'll have the skill and the strength to kill you myself.
She bowed her head, let the weight of the unspoken words rest on her shoulders, on her soul. She'd come here fully intending to make Leon her responsibility. It had taken her until now to accept what that really entailed.
She would have to lie, of course. She'd deliver Nessiah's falsehoods to the court, and would sit on her secrets. She'd wait. She would finish this, somehow. If Leon had to die… then she would be the one to do it.
Elena chewed her lip, glanced at Leon once more, and stood up, wiping at the beginnings of tears.
She clenched her fists, resolved herself, and turned around, heading back to the banquet where her life in subterfuge would begin.