A/N: This chapter is seriously delayed. A lot of things have happened since I last updated, and I only recently found time to tie this entire chapter together.

Shout outs to reviewers last chapter! Midnight Enforcer, you flatter me too much, but I am glad I made you love this fandom a little bit more. Leilora, I'm glad you love Jaffar in this fic! It's a pleasure writing him. Patattack, thanks for staying with me this whole time! Anonymous reviewer, whoever you are, thank you. DarkBlaziken's review on my Matt chapter was full of win and funny comments that just inspire me to write more.

Onward to the next chapter of Bern. Usual warnings apply. Suggestive themes, but always carefully broached, and no vulgar lemons. Enjoy.

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THE ILLUSION OF CONTENTMENT | The Freedom of Choices

BERN KEEP | The King's Chambers

One Week Later

Zephiel entered his bedchambers late at night to catch Kumiko seated amidst velvet pillow on the rugs before the fireplace, reading before the fire. The firelight gave her face and her hair a golden glow, and she was such a beautiful sight Zephiel couldn't help but smile.

He went over to her and bent down to give her a little kiss. And then he settled himself on the rugs beside her and said, "Not asleep yet?"

"Of course not," she said. "I waited for you."

Of course she did. Ever since they started to get along better and exert some effort to actually fix their relationship, she had waited on him. He glanced down at the book in her hand and was surprised that it was not familiar to him at all. "What is that you're reading tonight?"

"Ah, it's... literature," she said, and Zephiel was unsure, but he almost seemed to hear a bit of nervousness in her voice when she said it.

And her choice of book was puzzling, too. while Kumiko was knowledgeable at almost all topics, even literature, she was not actually one for reading them. Usually she read about strategy or history or even theology. She bluffed her way expertly through conversations about popular literature by reading a synopsis or summary instead of the actual novel or play, or asking him about it. "Let me take a look at that," Zephiel said, taking the book from her.

He could have sworn she gave it reluctantly. And he figured why, because when he looked at the cover and the content, he remembered what book it was. It was one of his mother's books from Etruria, a collection of romantic prose and poetry. He recalled how Guinevere used to gushed over it, reading and reciting sweet poetry from it during banquets and events. He had remembered, too, having read it as a boy, and doing the same, using lines from poetry to expertly flatter many a woman, proving how astute of a courtier he was in his father's reign.

But Zephiel glanced at Kumiko, puzzled. She never showed interest in things like this. She was a woman who would be hardly won over by sugared words and praises. And there was the fact that some of the contents were too passionate and erotic...

"I thought I'd read something different... for a change," she said, but the blush on her face spelt out that she was embarrassed; clearly she had read something awkward.

Zephiel smiled a little. She can be amusing when she felt awkward, when she felt embarrassed. "Did you like anything in particular?" he asked.

"Not really," she said, looking away from him. Her failure to look him in the eye made it very clear to him that she was embarrassed indeed.

He gave a little laugh. "You've read something... strange, haven't you?"

"Not too strange. Just kissing and... things."

He chuckled as he set aside the book, and then took her face in his hand and kissed her. He finished the kiss by holding her in his arms and kissing the top of her head. "So... kissing, and... things," Zephiel remarked, repeating her last statements, his amusement clear in his tone.

"...Rrright," she said. Zephiel held her tighter and began to comfortingly stroke her back. And when he spoke again, the humor in his voice was gone and he had turned serious.

"...You've never told me why you were so afraid to let me touch you," he said.

She pulled away from him, and looked away as well. It was clear to him that she still had reservations talking about the issue. "...Still about your mother?" he guessed, trying to speak as softly as he could, so it would not seem to her like he was forcing her to talk. "Are you afraid because of what happened to her?"

"...Yes," Kumiko admitted, after a little silence, looking down at the floor. She could not afford to look up at him. "I've seen everything that happened to her afterwards. All her crying. All her suffering. It was not a pretty sight. I was old and I already had a mind of my own and she still cried about it. She never forgot what he did to her."

"I understand that," Zephiel said, as he took Kumiko's hand and gave it a light kiss. "But you do realize that we are different? That we are not like them and I am definitely not like him?"

"Of course I know that, Zephiel, it's just that..."

"Just what...?"

Kumiko could not believe that she was talking about this, but a part of her felt that it was about time she began to talk to him about it. She could not tell him about her hesitations that he would use their physical intimacy to tie her to Bern, though, to tie her to her country as he waged war on the continent. But there were other hesitations on her mind. "...I am scared that it would hurt."

"It only hurts at first," Zephiel said. "And then when that is over, it starts to feel better. And it isn't that painful if it is done gently."

Kumiko winced. She could not believe she was talking about this with him at all—and that he was talking about it with not a bit of awkwardness. "I just don't want you to think that I'm just..."

An object. She didn't have to finish the sentence for him to understand it. "Hadn't I stayed by your side all these years even if you did not grant me that favor?"

"Of course you did," she said. "And I'm eternally thankful for your understanding."

"I can only hope my understanding lasts longer than your indecisiveness," Zephiel suggested, with a little mischievous grin. "My understanding doesn't last forever, Kumiko. And of course you know that I am not a very patient man myself—it's a miracle I am waiting on you all these years."

The way he said it was light, almost in humor, but Kumiko couldn't help but feel burdened in it, at the thought that she had kept him waiting for too long. But what am I supposed to do? Offer it when I don't even feel comfortable with it yet?

And then, she realized, there was the key word—offer. It made things doubly difficult. If Zephiel just did as he pleased and stripped her clothes without bothering to ask for her opinion, he would have had her years ago. Even right this moment—he could have her if he wanted. If he forced it-if he didn't stop to gauge her reaction or see if she was comfortable—it could have been all over and done a week ago. She wasn't even sure if she would have gave any resistance.

But he cared for her uneasiness and wanted her to be comfortable before doing anything. And unfortunately that meant having to wait for her to actually say it—that she was actually ready and he could go ahead. Kumiko tried to imagine herself doing it—tried to. She couldn't even picture it in her head.

She remembered their wedding night, two years ago. Something she had sworn to forget because of how ashamed she was of her actions. She was lying on his bed and he was kissing her and touching her, but soon he realized that she was shivering and sobbing, and when he asked her what the matter was, she had burst into tears. She could not even offer him an explanation. She had never offered him an explanation. But he had held her immediately, and assured her that he was not going to force her into anything, that he would wait.

At the first weeks and months, he would always ask her if she had changed her mind, if she was ready. He would try to kiss her, but her fear would always get the better of her, and so she rejected his every advance. As the months dragged on, he eventually got used to her rejection that he never asked at all, or never tried much to touch her. He did not even climb into bed with her; he ended up preferring to stay up late and read or study instead of spending pointless time lying beside her in bed. It was too late when she realized that while nursing her fear, she had pushed him away, and made their relationship colder than it seemed.

I should have let him do it two years ago. And maybe then he would have found joy with her, and had children with her, and had children to take up his time rather than insane ideas of war.

If I had let him do it two years ago, I would not be caught in this awkward situation now. How in the world should I tell him now, that I am more receptive to his advances, and that I might want it too?

"Why are you turning red?" Zephiel suddenly asked, and Kumiko was so surprised at the question that she almost shrieked. "Are you blushing?"

"Red? Blushing?" she asked, sounding panicked. "No, I'm not. You're seeing things, Zephiel. It must be the light."

But he had read the panic in her voice and he knew her all too well to see through her lies. "Kumiko, if there's something on your mind, it would do you well to tell me about it rather than keeping it to yourself and feeling embarassed," he said. And when she did not respond, he gave a little laugh and told her, "If you've read something awkward and it's still on your mind, I can talk to you about it and explain it to you. You see, when a man and a woman are attracted to each other, sometimes they develop certain physical desires..."

"Zephiel! Stop!" she said, face turning even more red, her embarrassment growing and growing over this. "I swear you are doing this to mock me. I swear you are trying to talk to me like I am a little girl. Of course I know about what you are talking of!"

He stopped himself from laughing, but his amusement was clear on his face. "Oh, you do? You know what I am talking of? What a surprise. You're not as innocent as I thought of, my dear wife."

"N-not in the context that you are thinking of!" she quickly clarified. "I mean, I know how children come about, so I am not that innocent, but I would rather not hear about specifics…"

"Oh, I'm not going to make you hear about specifics," he said. "I'm going to show you—"

And in his suggestion that he was going to demonstrate the specifics of physical desire to her, Kumiko leapt up and almost ran away—if she did not trip over her own dress and fall flat on her rear. Zephiel, despite himself, ended up in a fit of laughter as he asked her if she were alright.

"I honestly do not know if I should be offended over your fear for intimacy, because your absolute innocence to it can be so amusing," he said, as he sat by her side as she righted herself from her little trip. "You are too adorable to find offensive, Kumiko," he said, as he kissed the top of her head.

Adorable. Amusing. But I know I can only amuse you for so long. I know one day, your impatience will get the better of you. So what should I do?

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

"And then he laughed at me! Does he not know how frustrated I feel?" Kumiko told Anko the next day, a little frustrated, as she and the Master Spy sat together in Anko's office. They tended to do that now—sit together every morning, enjoying a warm mug of ale or a goblet of wine. Anko was often at her office now, Kumiko noted. No more trips back to the Guild, no more visitors either. She used to have people over even at early times, spies coming in for reports, or even Heath, visiting with Hyperion, just chatting. These days, Anko was frequently alone, and welcomed her as visitor more warmly.

Anko was smirking into her mug of cider. "Well, what do you think should he have done, aside from laugh it off and find it amusing? Do you suppose he should have given you a lengthy emotional talk of how your decision to withhold yourself from him is injuring his manly pride? I doubt you either of you would have enjoyed that."

Kumiko fell silent, pondering Anko's words. Every morning now, she had turned to the spy for advice. While Kumiko, admittedly, in the back of her head, thought Anko was incredibly biased because the spy seemed like the kind who liked to sleep around… there was one thing that mattered. Anko is Zephiel's friend. Before she was Kumiko's friend, she was Zephiel's. The spy knew her husband, and frequently had unique insights into his thinking.

For a moment, Kumiko looked up at Anko as the spy contentedly sipped on her cider. Anko was many things she was not—ambitious and boisterous and tough. When Anko wanted something, she made sure she got it, damn whoever is in the way. When Anko wanted something, everyone bended to her will, whether or not they were aware of it. She had always been that way, and her father Alecto always wondered where she got it from. More of a monarch than Kumiko ever was, a more astute practitioner of her power and influence than Kumiko ever was. If Zephiel wanted someone to help him run the country, Anko was the best candidate for that. Kumiko wondered why Zephiel never thought of marrying his spy childhood friend instead.

"What is it with that look?" Anko suddenly said, disrupting Kumiko's thoughts.

"W-What look?" Kumiko asked.

Anko pouted. "You were staring up at me the way a spy sizes up an opponent."

"W-What? No!"

Anko only stared at her, waiting for the explanation.

Kumiko sighed, and admitted. "I just wonder why Zephiel didn't marry you instead."

To Kumiko's surprise, the spy wasn't shocked or rattled by her statement. "His Majesty is a childhood friend, yes, and we had a long enduring friendship which is somewhat still valid until now," Anko said. "But I have never seen him in that romantic light. Like you, I have a distaste for nobles, no matter how kind. All that money and gold probably turns me off. I am a few years older than Zephiel, too. I have been like a sister to him in many instances for him to see me in a different way. And frankly I do not think it will work out. I am not what he needs."

After I nearly killed him, poisoning him under orders of Desmond, I doubt he would ever think me marriage material. He'll have to wonder every living second if I tampered with his food and wine.

"…You would have made a great queen," Kumiko remarked, much to Anko's surprise.

The spy shook her head in disagreement. "I would make a terrible queen. I would constantly be in power struggles with my husband. I dislike it when someone is more superior to me, and when things don't go the way I planned. Men don't like that. They prefer to be superior to their women. And when you are king of Bern it would be an insult if your queen tried to outshine you in every way."

Kumiko felt her mood go down, as Anko just indirectly pointed out that that was exactly what Kumiko was—beneath Zephiel, lesser than anything he ever was. Less of a tactician, less of a ruler, less of a monarch. Even lesser in the things that were supposed to be a woman's forte—less of a dancer or musician.

Anko saw the shift in Kumiko's expression, and realized she had hit a sore point. But she and Kumiko both very well knew that it was the truth—Zephiel was a hard man to outshine. "You cannot be more than him in the ways men are measured. We grew up in a man's world, Kumiko, and father taught us to be equals with men, to gain power the way men do. To be astute and famed in our professions, and we have all accomplished that. I am Master of Spies; you are Strategy Queen. Miguel and Knarrd are advisors to Etruria; Nerisa and Mark are famed names of tacticians mercenaries turn to. And Xarin is... lapping at the foot of that Ostian spy Matthew."

Anko said the last remark with both humor and disgust. Kumiko watched as the spy made a puzzled face, thinking about their other colleague. "...It's Xarin," Anko said, explaining. "She baffles me. She could have overpowered that Matthew ages ago and competed with him. I am sure her Bernese heritage stops her from getting a higher rank, but she seems happy with where she is. ...Her success is so... womanly. It is puzzling someone that strong and cold would desire the kind of success of a woman."

Womanly? Kumiko was puzzled. "But Matthew has told me there is no Ostian field spy better than Xarin."

"No one but him," Anko said. "He is at the top of the hierarchy, and she is below him. ...Below him but above everyone else. It is a womanly kind of success. To be below someone stronger, but above everyone else for that stronger man—and maybefor him, even his equal. I can't have that. I am more in touch of my masculine side. I have to be on top. And with your earlier thought that I would be a fine queen—can you imagine Zephiel being happy with someone like me who would not settle for the thought of being below someone, even if I am above everyone else? That is what being a queen is. Below your king but above everyone else for him. It is not the brand of success father taught us when growing up—he taught us to be the best, to be at the top, better than men—so another more womanly form of success does not sit so well with me. It sits well with Xarin, though. I imagine it could sit well with you, too, although it must make you feel bad from time to time."

"...It does," Kumiko said. "I sometimes feel inferior next to him. I feel so small and irrelevant." When your husband has called you nothing and an object once, it is easy to feel that way.

"And I am sure if you bring that up with his majesty he will happily tell you that you are above anyone else for him," said Anko. "...You are a successful woman, Kumiko. You have outdone any of us in marriage and by the quality of your husband. There is no more powerful man than Zephiel on the continent right now. And you may be below him, but you are very well above everyone else."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

After a silence, and another round of cider and bread, Kumiko asked Anko, out of the blue:

"How was your first?"

Anko gave her a puzzled look. "First?"

Kumiko looked down at her goblet, and blushed. "The first man who had you."

Anko closed her eyes for a brief while in recollection, and then put a hand to her head when it began to hurt, not liking the memories that resurfaced. "...He was drunk and he reeked of ale and lack of proper washing. I flirted with him in an inn, attempting to get some information for a mission. He had withheld it good and well even when he was blind drunk. I thought I would seduce him, pretend to climb in bed with him but rummage for evidence in his belongings instead. Big mistake. I never thought anything would happen. I thought I would let him lie there and wait. But when I had been there with him he just threw me to his bed and tore off my skirt and then... did it. I barely had time to think and it was already done. The single most painful physical thing I have felt in my life."

"...I'm sorry," Kumiko said.

Anko shook her head, meaning to say it was nothing. "It is over and done with years ago. And besides I killed him afterwards." Anko saw Kumiko's face turn pale in horror, and then she realized she had revealed a ghastly horrifying story, and thus tried to dismiss it. She was not doing a very good job of encouraging her friend to be more physical with her husband with that story, either. "I had better, anyway. I had so much better. When done by someone who cares for you and wants you to have pleasure in it, too, it can be an amazing experience."

Kumiko smiled slyly. "Is this caring man someone I know? Maybe a wyvern knight?"

Anko laughed out loud, enjoying Kumiko's teasing, very well like a woman with her friends. She did not give away her secret though. "Oh, Kumiko," she said. "I don't keep tabs on exactly how many wyvern knights I slept with. I used to though, when we were younger. Nerisa and I tried to challenge Xarin's reigning record, in vain."

Kumiko laughed as well. She could very much imagine Xarin not being pleased by their discussion, but the Ostian spy had gotten used to the teasing and remarks back in their younger years for her past, and on rare occasions remarked on it as well. But more than that, the return of her familiar friendship with Anko along with these discussions was what she laughed to. She could feel their friendship being repaired by these mundane talks about men like they were two young maidens and not the adults that they were. "You do love a man in Bern's armor. It makes them look manlier."

"Oh, Kumi. I have had physical relations with people you know other than men in Bern's armor," Anko remarked, a secret slipping out from her tongue. She didn't much mind it, though. She knew it was all she would say.

Kumiko gasped, intrigued by the secret. And then a name sprung to mind, the only one she could think of.

"...Legault?"

Anko gasped as well, shocked. She almost took a throw pillow on her couch to lightly hit her friend. "Kumiko! Shame on you! I would never! When I told you that it was someone you knew, why does it have to be someone from fifteen years back? Can it not be someone more current, someone in Bern Keep perhaps, or the neighboring village?"

"But you had so much chemistry with him!" Kumiko teased. "All that love-hate nonsense when we were younger. He comforted you when father died—oh, goodness! Was that when it happened? When you were sad and needed comfort and you were drunk? Oh, by the gods! Anko—I didn't know!"

"We were both drunk and got into a bar fight and obliterated half the tavern—does that sound anything like lovemaking to you? Nothing. Happened."

Kumiko did not stop though. "Does Heath know? Does Heath know that you had a relationship with his former comrade?

"Kumiko, you are ridiculous, I would never-! Not with that man! I swear we had spent half an hour in that tavern betting who between us would better attract this man we saw, and he had very nearly outdone me. And hush and someone might hear!"

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

LYCIA | Ostia

She had finished her prayer to Saint Elimine that noon, after a long day of assisting Lady Lilina on matters relating to Ostia's welfare. Not in the place of women to dabble in politics, she could almost hear Oswin's stern deep voice warning her. Serra had agreed with him. It was not in the place of a woman to decide what to do with the region's resources, where to station your armies, what to do with the brigands, and whether to attack or not attack. It has always struck Serra as a "man thing", those worries. In court, all she had cared about was the entertainment, the flirtations, the gossip, the dresses, and looking out for her interests and the interests of her husband. That aside, leave everything else, the big decisions, to the men; and the small decisions to the servants.

But now, there were no men, the pillars that Ostia and even Lycia as a whole had held onto for leadership had vanished. Lord Hector, the strong leader that had ushered prosperity into Ostia, was gone, and so were his best knights and vassals, Oswin included. Eliwood of Pherae was not in the best of health anymore, unable to fight in the war and lead his troops into battle. The rest of Lycia was in disarray. A lot of the dukes were either dead or defected to Bern, leaving people who never expected be given the role of Duke, to be that—given the role.

Like Lilina, fragile young girl. If Lady Lyndis had survived, she would be less of a worry—Lyndis, if anything, was just as strong as her husband Hector, and if he failed the people were assured that Lady Lyndis could step up to the role. But, Lilina? She had the courage of her mother and father, but she was young, inexperienced, unprepared. But she had to step up, like many other men and women of Lycia now. Like Serra herself.

Times are changing, Lord Oswin. Now we have to deal with the roles given to us, whatever they are.

She walked into the castle town of Ostia, from a distance seeing Erk with his newfound huddle of students around a tree. The children, young things they were, were learning magic from Erk, wanting to fight in a war they shouldn't be fighting, or defend their families from dangers they should not be engaging. Even children had to rise up.

Even Erk had to, Serra noted with a sly smirk. Never had she imagined the awkward mage from back then who preferred to be alone reading his books to step into a group of young and not-so-young ones to teach publicly. She could see in the way he knotted his brows and the occasional dangerous frown on his face though that he had not entirely done away with his preferene to be alone. Children were children—they were going to be bothersome. Serra had thought Erk would give up on the task a week ago. He was still there.

Lord Oswin would have looked so warm and fatherly with children at his feet.

"...You're working well with them," she said, approaching as the children went away and Erk was watching the little children's backs turn away from him as they left him to go back to their homes.

Erk didn't have to turn around to know that the voice belonged to Serra. He had heard enough of her voice to be able to recognize it, pitch and tone and all. "But do you think it's a good idea? Teaching magic to children?" Serra asked.

"If I don't do it, they'll find other ways to defend themselves," Erk said. "They'll pick up knives or stones or dabble in magic themselves. At least, with this, someone is teaching them properly." And then he turned to Serra to see her with that a little smile she'd have on her face fifteen years ago, that self-assured smile that was almost always glued onto her face. It always made him feel awkward.

"Well you certainly don't look like a woman who's lost her husband a few weeks ago," Erk muttered.

It was an absolutely insensitive to say, Erk realized, when he saw Serra's smile drop and he realized she heard it—but he couldn't help it. This was Serra. He'd had around a year of being tormented around the continent by her and her conceit. He'd learned to snap back at Serra and pick on the things that made her sad and hammer away at them to get her to shut up. It was some sort of reflex action that he formed, ages and ages ago.

"Well, you're no more than an aging, unmarried, sullen old man," Serra snapped back bitterly. "No one was blind enough to marry you."

She hammered back at him, their conversation starting to remind Erk of the innumerable arguments they used to have years and years ago.

"That certainly is an area of my life that I don't have much interest in," Erk replied, coolly.

Under ordinary circumstances, he would have been offended. But these were no ordinary circumstances. Firstly, he had gotten used to all questioning he would get when people found out that he was not married, or had no lover. Ever, actually. He had grown numb to all the accusations and puns. And, secondly, this was Serra. If you hoped to get along with her, you had to learn to not take offense over everything she said.

"I thought you had a thing for Kumi, way back," she said. Leave it to Serra to talk of things waaay back, Erk thought. "Obviously you did nothing about it. Or about anything, anyone! How do you plan to live the rest of your life when you're like that?"

I did do something about Kumi, Erk said to himself. Only, she didn't like me back. And similarly, a few years later, I did make a move about Priscilla. Only. She didn't like me back. It's some sort of pattern that I was unfortunate to acquire. "You dropped your vows years ago, Serra," Erk said, as he preoccupied himself with gathering the picture books he had spread on the floor for the children. "You're not exactly in a position to preach anymore. I cannot even imagine how Lord Oswin tolerated you and your ways."

He had expected her to talk back at him, to retort with an even harsher attack at him, but to his surprise, she fell silent, and he saw sadness and pain wash over her facial features.

You dropped your vows, woman. You chose money and status and security over your faith in the Eliminean order. You have no right to preach or say what you think is wise. Serra could still hear the people's judgments in their voices when they talked to her. And she knew she had deserved it. If Lord Oswin was not a man so esteemed and secure in Ostia, she would never have thought of marrying him.

But Oswin had always assured her, given her no reasons for regret at her decision. Provided for her and protected her, something she never had from birth, never given to her by her parents. Oswin had been her pillar, too. It did not matter what anyone thought when her own husband didn't care. And so she didn't care about what anyone said, either.

"…Lord Oswin was a good man," she said. "I cannot imagine how he managed to live with me, too, and made me feel special."

I wish I had given him children.

And in that quick shift of her emotion—one second, she was annoyed and fighting him back, and now she was sad and about to tear up!—Erk felt a pang of guilt. It was a familiar feeling, from familiar arguments with Serra. They argued a lot, and he had learned to pick on her weaknesses, and she would fight back as fiercely, until she would eventually surrender and be left vulnerable. And in the end, while Erk has defeated her at the argument, he would find that he was the true loser, laden with guilt at his supposed victory. He would be the one trying to appease her and tell her everything was alright and he was sorry and he was wrong.

"I'm sorry," Erk quickly told her, trying to mend things. "I thought—I never thought you actually cared for him. It seemed you were just marrying him for status—"

Serra gave him a pained smiled that made him bite his lip and shut up and realize that he was saying something tactless. Gah, I am so pathetic, I still can't talk to girls!

"Serra, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"You were right," Serra said, interrupting Erk, her words surprising him. "You were right. I never… I did it for status. But Lord Oswin was a good man. He knew it and yet he still respected me and treated me well, though I deserved none of it. I am privileged to have been his wife. I grew to love him. I still… I wish I…"

And Erk stared at her long and hard, and realized one thing: she has changed. Despite the appearance that she hasn't, deep down in there, there was something more mature about her, something more appreciative and less conceited.

"...Lord Oswin was indeed a very good man," Erk said, trying to sound less awkward, trying to make his voice and tone comforting. Awkwardly, he placed a hand on Serra's shoulder, trying to comfort. "...He was a pillar in Ostia's strength, a great general. He is with you and his love stays with you and your children."

Children! The very word made Serra bursts into tears, falling helplessly into Erk's arms. Children! How I wish I could have given him the one joy he desired! She remembered her sadness, all those months when she knew she was not with child, all those nights she hoped and prayed. But her prayers were left unheard, until Oswin's death. Lady Serra is barren. Elimine has cursed her for forsaking her vows. The gods no longer favor her.

"S-Serra..." Erk awkwardly whispered, awkwardly holding Serra in his arms to comfort. "I... I think I said something wrong, and apologize for it."

"What, you've never heard of the priestess who renounced her vows and is punished by the gods for it by making her barren?"

"Well, news comes hardly comes to Nabata," Erk said. But then he realized that was hardly reassuring, and so he added, "Serra, I doubt the gods would punish you. You have served them well while you were a priestess. They must understand your heart, and will be merciful. It is true Lord Oswin is now gone, but you may yet to find another love. He may be just around the corner for all I know."

Erk felt Serra shift in his arms, looking up to him with a hopeful glint in her eyes and a wide smile. Again, the smile send frightened shivers to Erk's body, and he suddenly grasped what that look meant. Immediately he released Serra from her arms and backed away from him, flustered. "N-Not me! I don't mean myself!"

"Why, I so beautiful it is almost criminal! Erk, I am flattered!" Serra said, smiling and beaming, hands reaching for his arms, grasping onto the sleeves of his silken Etrurian robes. "And now, I am widowed, but my heart still loyal to my lord husband. And that all the more makes me more desirable, doesn't it? Because men covet the things they know they cannot have? I know the fact my lord husband is dead makes you want to take me in your arms and rescue me from this sadness!"

On second thought, Erk shook his head to himself, she hasn't changed at all.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

BERN-SACAE BORDER | A log cottage

Xarin had recovered smashingly, Matthew noted, much to his relief. After her crying and sobbing in his arms and the awkward situation that transpired between them, Xarin returned to her usual routine, back to her tasks, as if nothing had happened. But occasionally Matthew or Heath would catch her with her silent gaze at the air, and they worried the next second she would tear up, but she chose to fixate on work instead, now more than ever.

Matthew and Heath bonded like two young boys without a care for anything in the world, the lack of actual work for either of them meaning they had nothing much to do. When Xarin had been busy running the house and cleaning and doing laundry and cooking, they had just sat, and discussed, and ran out of things to do. And so they created things to do, thought of tasks irrelevant and relevant at the same time. They would go fishing, or hunting. They sparred at least once a day, with Xarin joining in as well. Heath was always better when he was holding a lance but Matthew always bested him at the sword. Eventually Matthew even let Heath into simple details of Ostian spywork. In return, Heath would tell of things he learned as a wyvern knight, simple informations that would benefit any spy.

Xarin, however, discovered this and privately voiced her resistance. "He has stayed beside Anko for nearly fifteen years—don't you think he could turn over our secrets to Bern easily with just a little prodding from Anko? Practice some caution."

"...He's not going to do that," Matthew said, with an upset frown for Xarin's disagreement. He always disliked it when she disagreed with him. "Anko just dumped him and literally made him run away from Bern. He told me. Do you think he'd wanna come back to her again quickly after what she had done?"

"You underestimate women, and Anko," Xarin said. "It's not new to you, you are a spy. You turn enemies into allies just by smiling. Don't you think Anko will not use his fondness for her to manipulate him?"

"I think Anko loves him," Matthew said. "She just... she just put him out of the way so he could be safe. What she did, hurting him, was for his own safety. He just doesn't see it."

"And so now you're the master of what Anko feels."

Matthew shook his head. "No, but I am the master of what a Master of Spies feels. I don't want my loved one going through danger on my behalf. I would push her away if it meant keeping her safe." Someday I might have to do that to you. When the threat is too big, I may have to hurt you just so you'd stay away.

"You face danger with your loved ones, Matthew," Xarin said, and by the learned and serious expression on her face Matthew wondered if she were talking from experience. And then he realized she was. "Especially when he or she or he is capable of facing the danger. Nothing feels as terrible as being lied to by someone you loved."

Matthew remembered Xarin's past lover, and his terrible lies that left Xarin scars that stayed with her now. He was different. Matthew was different from him. "...Alex,"—just mentioning the name made Matthew feel an uncomfortable lump in his throat—"lied to make things easier for him," Matthew told Xarin. "When I lie to someone I love, it will be because it's what's best for her. To keep her safe. And usually I don't even lie to someone I love, but if her safety is compromised, that would be the only exception."

Xarin arched up an eyebrow. "And so says Ostia's Master of Spies, the biggest liar of us all. You've lied to everyone."

Matthew smiled, and said, "...Funny, I don't seem to recall ever lying to you. You should count yourself lucky. As I said, I usually don't lie to someone I..."

Love.

"...care for," Matthew finished, punctuating the words oddly enough to make Xarin think, to tell her he indeed meant something else, something more.

His remark left Xarin looking surprised. Matthew reveled in her look. He smiled at her and winked, and quickly left for his morning spar with Heath before she could say anything.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

BERN-SACAE BORDER – A clearing by the stream

"Xarin thinks, you... you know, slept with the enemy," Matthew said, sweat dripping down his forehead as he sparred with Heath at the clearing by the mountain stream. His sword was in his hand, and a short distance from him, Heath was poised for the fight, his own sword in his grip, green hair disheveled over his face. He charged at Matthew, locking swords with him, before asking:

"Who do you mean?"

"You know, Anko," Matthew said, his voice stressing on the name as he pushed back against Heath's sword. "She thinks you and Anko were an item. You know, all that time you spent together, fifteen years, living in the same space with her..."

Heath felt his insides flutter, just having Matthew broach the topic. He felt his grip on his weapon weaken, but then willed for more strength as he mustered an explanation. "We were always proper with each other. I did not actually 'live' with her. I more of slept at the floor above the Guild, not where she was."

"Still, there must have been exceptions. Maybe when it was stormy and you wanted to cuddle with her to get warmer?" Matthew turned his head towards the other man, absorbed in trying to best him, just to see if he would give away anything in his facial expressions. Heath looked confused, and then tried to attack Matthew with a swing of his sword—but in vain. Heath's attack was slow, so Matthew predicted it and dodged gracefully. "Or maybe it was the other way around?" Matthew continued his assault of words. "Maybe she was cold and needed someone to cuddle? Drunk maybe?"

At the last statement, Matthew caught Heath flinch—just a momentary hesitation—and Matthew knew with that that he had hit a mark. He swiftly shifted his footing, and then quickly hit Heath's wrist with the dull side of his sword, making Heath flinch and drop his weapon. Before he could react and grab it, the tip of Matthew's blade was at his throat.

Panting, Heath said, "...You win, Matthew."

The spy grinned, and fluidly sheathed his sword into it's case, looking smug at his victory. That was the one that broke their tie. Heath sat down onto the grass, wiping his sweat with a cloth, hoping that Matthew's questions were over.

Apparently they weren't. "So, was she drunk, and didn't know what she was doing, and she just vented out all her loneliness on you, something like that? A momentary weakness revealed?" Matthew suggested casually. He sat on the ground as Heath did and took out a packed snack—fruit and a sandwich with spiced ham and cheese that Xarin made for him. He bit into it and smiled.

Heath shook his head to himself and took out his own packed snack—identical to Matthew's. Xarin always made food for them to bring when they went out to spar. "...Anko's not weak and wouldn't allow herself even a momentary weakness," Heath said, as he looked down at his food. Talking about Anko was making him lose his appetite.

Matthew recognized Heath's excuses. The resistance that hid the truth. Matthew knew that if he picked a little more at it, or traded a little something, Heath could very well soon give up what was underneath.

Matthew paused and considered his options. Maybe trading little secrets would do to gain his trust. "You know, no one's perfect," Matthew said. "I myself have... momentary weaknessess, and I have been practicing as Ostia's Master of Spies for quite a number of years. The craft encourages having no weaknessess, no personal ties to anyone, but sometimes I just... sometimes I am overwhelmed by my feelings." He gazed down at his sandwich, thinking of the woman who made it for him.

That made Heath pause, and sit up as well, and look at Matthew as if contemplating. The wyvern rider looked at the spy and curiously cocked his head. "You mean Xarin?" Heath asked.

"Xarin is my colleague and has been my partner for years. We do our best to keep our relationship professional," Matthew said, not flinching. He had practiced for this. As a spy, he had already sorted out what he had to say when anyone asked.

And so was she. So was Anko. Anko was my landlady—I paid her rent, I looked after her house, I did errands for her. I did my best to keep my feelings out. I have done so, even for other women, numerous times. "...But sometimes your best isn't enough," Heath said.

Matthew nodded slowly. Sometimes, no matter how hard you tried to not involve your feelings, it just wasn't enough. Sometimes the feelings and the urges get stronger than your reasoning. "I am doing my best to keep my relationship with Xarin the way it is—two spies working together, nothing more. In some times I have had... I've had a lapse in consistency, and treated her more than I should. But I know I should not. Sometimes I just... want to be selfish."

Heath nodded, listening to the Master of Spies of Ostia, and imagining Anko in the same spot. She could be turning him away because it was what she deemed best. She might have treated him as more than a friend out of feelings and desires that she could no longer ignore one day, when she was drunk and had no voice of reason to help keep her feelings in check. And so they showed, even for just one night, and she allowed herself to be selfish.

Selfish. Heath smiled to himself. Anko was a good definition of the word. "You may think showing your true feelings is you being selfish, but you hiding them is a more cruel, selfish thing. You don't care what the other feels. You've made the decision on your own. What can be more selfish than that?"

"You want the other person to be safe," Matthew reasoned.

"And maybe that person will be safe," Heath said, "but he never had a choice. ...I'd prefer the freedom of a choice over being safe any day."

They sat there in awkward silence, eating, thinking of what each other said.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

BERN KEEP | Three Days Later

"…What is it with the outside world?" Zephiel asked, all of a sudden, as he looked beyond the glass windows from one of the alcoves of the library to the view below—Kumiko setting off again with a few guards in tow to visit a village. Her essentials were being packed into a carriage by some servants, and Kumiko herself was dressed for her trip—in hunting boots and a more practical shirt and skirt suited for walking around the countryside. There was a buzz among the servants as Jaffar headed everything, called for this and that, while Kumiko and Nino watched on, chatting excitedly.

It had always puzzled Zephiel—her need to step among the commons every once in a while. He had his own share of interacting with the commoners of Bern, and it was not an awful experience, but with Kumiko, she desired it. She would die if she were unable to meddle among the commons of Bern at least twice a month. She would itch to go out and bother him about it and constantly ask for permission. And while he was not an ignorant ruler who did not care for his people, he always wondered what he found over there that she did not already have at the Keep. What was it that kept her leaving?

The freedom, Zephiel, she had always told him. Maybe even the anonymity. The idea of being surrounded by men who do not need to lie to you to get on your better side, but will tell you things as is. Being surrounded by real people—not courtiers who praise you every day because they want to get your favor. Not being watched over by guards all the time! The contentment, Zephiel! The idea of being with people who are happy no matter how small or poor they are.

"My lord?" Murdock asked, not hearing Zephiel's question the first time.

"She wanders like it's a necessity," Zephiel remarked, and with that, Murdock turned to the direction Zephiel was facing, and found just what he was staring at past the glass windows. "I wonder what it is out there that charms her so."

Murdock, a commoner himself before he was put in his high rank in the Keep, knew exactly what was there, and so understood Kumiko. She was raised in the commons—and so she felt she belonged there. Surely the king must understand that. "Why that note, majesty? Do you wish she never leave the castle?" Murdock asked.

Yes. "No, not really, it's just… I have been there and had experienced it. It was pleasant, to live like a common man, but what purpose is there in it? Ordinary people work and live to strive to gain title or land or get rich. But I was… But I am born with all of that. I will no longer have to think of what they think, or worry of what they have to worry of. I have things far above what they could think of to think of. I will never fit in with them. I wonder why she does. She's as accomplished as I am. What purpose would she have out there?"

What purpose does she have in here? Murdock almost asked, but he had thought better against saying it. Just as Kumiko had been raised in the commons, Zephiel was born and raised into royalty. He knew he belonged here. "I think that's a question His Majesty would better ask Lady Kumiko herself, if it puzzles him so much," Murdock said.

"She ends up spouting innumerable reasons that aren't coherent. So excited is she to go out that she cannot be bothered to make intelligent arguments," Zephiel said, recalling one time he has asked Kumiko about it, and she had answered as he had described: nonsense about the air smelling different, the grass, the chirping of the birds—things trivial, too small for him to care about.

"…Are you worried about… this habit of hers?" Murdock asked, with caution in his tone, hearing the jealousy in the king's voice that the king himself was unaware was there. The King of Bern was a jealous man, and every servant of Bern knew it, Murdock most especially—only the king himself must be unaware of this trait of his. It began when his mother died, shortly before he took the throne. He guarded his sister Guinevere sharply after that, as if always in fear that she would leave. If she wandered from his side, took a trip without him, or met with some friend or suitor, Zephiel always made sure that there was a guard at watch. With his wife, it was also the same. He permitted her to do as she pleased and travel Bern as she saw fit, but he had always had guards follow her without her knowing, and would be worried—fidgety and jumpy—while she was gone.

Murdock knew that Zephiel never wanted to lose anyone he loved again, so he held them close and tight.

"There are elements out there that are beyond my control," Zephiel said, still looking at the window, down at his wife who was standing with Nino and Jaffar, discussing before going on the trip. "There are thieves, bandits, spies… I have guards follow her but I can never be too sure if they will do their job well. And I can never be too sure that she would not run—"

He stopped, realizing he had said too much.

I can never be sure too sure that she would not run away and leave me.

Murdock had understood what he had meant, though. He understood enough. The general walked towards the glass windows, too, to look down at the woman that caused much of the king's jealousy and insecurity, and love and sanity. "Lady Kumiko is a woman most loyal," Murdock said. "She does not back down on her word, and keeps her promises, to whomever she had made them to. If she is loyal to a promise she made to a lowly country farmer, what more to you, Your Majesty?"

"Mother has made promises, too," Zephiel said. "Guinevere has made promises, too. And they had ended up breaking them. It is only a matter of time Kumiko falls into the same pattern." If something upsets her, if something angers her, if something she disagrees with happens, then she might leave, too.

Murdock gave a small, barely visible frown, feeling an ache in his chest as he listened to the king of Bern reason. To make a point, Murdock said, "She still refuses to sleep with you."

It was a statement, not a question, one that Murdock had been hesistant to make.

For a second Murdock saw the king wince, as if insulted. And that might very well be how he felt. "She had witnessed firsthand the effects of what the late marquis of Regrada did to her mother," said Murdock. "And as a travelling tactician she may have well had awful experiences with men that she does not want to think back on. She may make comparisons between them and you, my lord, and think you are the same."

"Of which she should know that I am not," Zephiel snapped. "I am not—never—the same as those men." I'm not—never—anything like my father.

"Then you should not think of her the same way," Murdock said. "Lady Kumiko is not Queen Hellene or Princess Guinevere. It is never healthy to bring old scars into a new relationship, my lord."

But scars were that—scars. They heal but they never go away, they stay there, a mark of your pain. Zephiel thought as he looked down at his wife, smiling and conversing happily as her necessities were packed into her horse's saddles. She could leave and never come back, and look happy because she will never have to see him again. He knew he had to hold her tight if he was to not lose her.

"...Call for a few of my guards," Zephiel told Murdock, an order. "Two or three shall suffice. The most dependable ones."

"...Your Majesty?" Murdock looked puzzled.

"Call for them," Zephiel repeated. All Murdock could do was nod, soon leaving to see to the task the king has given him.

No more, Zephiel told himself. I'm not losing anyone anymore.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

BERN | The Liestal Countryside

Liestal, half a day away from the capital, was the gateway to Bern, being connected to Lycia, and was a thriving community built on farming and agriculture. Wide plains of corn and grain stretched out, acres and acres of them, and a thriving town in between. The only farming region in Bern, Bernese frequently travelled to Liestal to make business, meet friends, and barter. Foreigners and Bernese mingled here, and Kumiko frequented this town, knowing she would blend in well amongst the numerous people, unnoticed.

It was noon, and the town was bustling with merchants selling their wares, innkeeps and barmaids cooing to travellers to try out their house specialties, magicians and tricksters performing at the streets for spare coins. Kumiko walked in the midst of it all, cloaked and hooded, with Jaffar and Nino at her side.

They stopped by a large fabric house, and eagerly Nino and Kumiko discussed the latest fashions, calculating how much cloth was needed for a certain gown. "And look at this shade of purple!" Nino enthused, pointing at a bolt of deep purple fabric, running her fingers through it. "It would make for a good riding cloak, better if it is trimmed with fur. I recall we have some fur from Ilia, don't we, Kumiko?"

Kumiko nodded with a smile, thinking of Nino's suggestion, picturing it in her head. Beside them, Jaffar looked disapproving and was shaking his head. Accompanying Nino and Kumiko on trips was a neccessity—he was worried about their safety after all, and he especially desired to keep his wife within his sight—but listening to the two women continuously babble about fabric, fashion, jewelry, and books was certainly not the higlight of the trip for him.

And then something in the air caught his attention—quickly Jaffar turned around and saw three hooded men walking towards their direction. Jaffar had noticed the trio following them earlier that day in the markets, but dismissed them as Zephiel's guards, knowing that the king always had them followed despite his promises to give Kumiko privacy and freedom. Jaffar always pretended not to notice them, opting to let the guards think he was unaware of their presence. But now, as they were approaching them, they had to be acknowledged. Instinctively Jaffar's hands flew to the hilt of the sword in his cloak, as he stepped foward to meet the men.

The tallest of them stepped foward. "You do your job well, Jaffar," he said. And then he tipped the hood of his cloak lightly, letting Jaffar see who he was.

"...Your Majesty," Jaffar whispered, surprised. It was not Zephiel's habit to follow his wife himself—usually he left his guards to do it. Jaffar did not expect him at all.

Behind Jaffar, Nino had turned from her preoccupation with fabric to see her husband stunned, and the men before him—"Jaffar, who are—oh! My lord, I... we didn't expect you."

"And I do not blame you for that," Zephiel said, his voice taking on a softer tone as he regarded Nino. Jaffar noticed this, and raised an eyebrow. But he knew his wife was like that—extremely likeable. Everyone who knew of Nino's innocence and kindness tended to be just as kind to her, the king not excluded. "May I know where my wife is?" Zephiel asked the sage.

Nino simply turned towards the direction of Kumiko, who had just purchased the purple fabric, clutching it in her arms, exchanging a few pieces of gold for it to the shopkeeper. She walked back towards them, and then slowed as a puzzled look spread across her face, seeing her husband.

"...Zephiel," she said, questioning, as she joined them. "Why are you—is something amiss? Why are you here?"

Zephiel looked down at the bundle of cloth in her arms. "You picked a such a lovely color, my wife. You have fine tastes. I do enjoy seeing you in purple."

"Zephiel... Why are you-?"

"Is my presence so unpleasant?" he asked her. Immediately Kumiko shook her head, meaning to say no. "Then if that is the case, do not question it any longer," Zephiel told her. "Come. I wish to accompany you today." And then he whispered to her, with a grin, "It is my gold you are spending, after all."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Zephiel ordered Nino and Jaffar away, giving them the day off to wander the town as they pleased, leaving him with his wife. His two guards trailed them, but at a good distance. That aside, the king and queen were free, wandering the bustling town, garbed heavily and hidden in plain sight among the common folk.

For the most part, Kumiko felt ill at ease, and Zephiel saw it. She was not used to his presence at her personal trips, and was hesitant in all her actions. Zephiel, however, reassured her and tried to ease her worries.

"You seem lost," he said. "Is there not something you like? Something you wish to see?"

"Normally there is," Kumiko told him. "But… I am worried you might not find it enjoyable. I would dislike to bore you to the death, my husband."

"I think you underestimate me," Zephiel said. "It's been two years married and I have not yet bored to the death. That should say much. I can stand a few hours."

Kumiko bit her lip and looked down sadly, at the ground. Two years... not yet bored... Indeed that should say much. A lesser man would have bored of her in those years,most especially with her reluctance to sexual activities, but Zephiel stayed. That should say much.

Zephiel gripped her hand, noticing her silence. "Don't worry about it. I've been with Guinevere. I've been with my mother. And trust me, they can be more difficult to bear with once they start babbling about the latest in romantic poetry or fashion. You are far more tolerable."

They had been leisurely walking around the town square, watching a street magician make magical multi-colored flames light up in the air from a distance. Children had gathered around the performer, looking in awe and delighted at the colors that twinkled on and off. The sun was almost setting, and merchants were preparing to close their shops and stalls around them, while the taverns were just preparing, brewing tankards of their house specialties. Kumiko took in all of it, and squeezed her husband's hand. She wondered what they looked like, in the sea of people in town. Did they fit in, or did they stand out, clearly different? Or was only one of them different? She had lived in the commons, she knew how to belong. He never did. Even as he stood beside her, among common folk, there was an air of authority and nobility about him that no one could deny. He was different.

Kumiko was suddenly snapped from her thoughts, noticing that Zephiel had let go of her hand, and instead was bent down, talking to a little boy before him. The boy, clean but dressed cheaply, was selling him some flowers.

"You can give these flowers to that pretty lady," the boy said, glancing up a little at Kumiko. "She'll look good with flowers in her hair, like all the girls during the festival."

Zephiel gave a small laugh. Kumiko never much bothered with her hair, and always found it a chore to figure what to do with it, often leaving the task of deciding to her servants. "Why, the lady will look good in anything," Zephiel told the boy. "She is my wife. How much are the flowers?"

The boy had been selling them for copper pieces, but Zephiel gave him gold and silver, making the boy smile so widely and thank him profusely, offering him his entire basket of flowers. But Zephiel only took a single white rose, and told the boy to do his best to try to sell the rest.

"Thank you, sir!" The boy said. "My father will be pleased by this. This will help us a lot!" And he thanked Zephiel again, and then ran off.

"That was very kind of you," Kumiko told her husband, who then got up and turned to her, offering her the flower. He tucked it into her braided hair, and smiled.

"The boy wasn't lying. It does suit you."

Kumiko laughed, flattered. They stood there smiling at each other until Kumiko decided to say:

"You would make a good father, Zephiel."

She saw Zephiel's smile turn into a slight frown. "His hair was brown-blond," he said.

For a moment, Kumiko was puzzled, until she realized what Zephiel meant. The boy who sold him the flower. His hair was brown-blond, and in Bern that more often than not meant one thing. Noble blood. But if the boy was in the commons then that meant... illegitimate. Bastard.

"...And yet he said he had a father to go home to that will be pleased," Zephiel added. "...Maybe someone else took him in. ...I know for a fact that Bernese nobility tend to be terrible fathers."

Kumiko inched closer to him, and took his hand. "That is your choice, my lord, and not something your lineage dictates. Personally, I think you will be an exception. You are different from all of them."

I hope you will be.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

The day dragged on into evening, and Kumiko was surprised that she was enjoying it, seeing the town with Zephiel. The had walked together, browsing the shops, and when evening came they went to the baker's for a meal—they were serve the finest the baker could offer, bribed by the jingle of coins from Zephiel's pouch, the baker serving them despite the store being closed, the time being beyond the acceptable hours for baking. And yet Zephiel demanded for freshly made bread and cheese, and meat if there was any. Kumiko looked at her husband and shook her head slightly.

"We are being a bother to them," Kumiko said.

Zephiel disagreed. "We're bringing in money. I doubt they'd think it a bother when I'm paying them generously."

The baker, a rotund middle-aged woman, studied the two as she served them their meals. Zephiel had and arm around his wife, never letting go of her even as he picked up his bread and began to eat. "Newlyweds?" she asked.

Kumiko nearly choked on her meal, and Zephiel gave a hearty laugh. "We've been married for over two years," he said.

The baker looked surprised. "Then may the gods bless the marriage further," she said, eventually. And then to Kumiko, "You're a lucky lass. It's been years since my husband held me that way. Tsk, men. They have the attention spans of children. You are lucky to have a devoted husband."

Kumiko blushed, not knowing what to say, and Zephiel just gave a little laugh again. "She is very lucky indeed. Thank you for reminding her of that."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

When evening came, Zephiel asked Kumiko where she tended to stay in the evenings. But when she found that she stayed at traveller inns at Liestal, his lips pulled down into a frown.

"You cannot always have elegantly furnished rooms and servants at your beck and call, my lord," Kumiko said. "There is no place like that here in Liestal. Do you suggest we travel back to Bern Keep at this hour?"

"It's not about the furnishings and the servants, Kumiko," he told her. "It's the dangers. You could be robbed. Threatened. I want you exposed to no such things. If only there was an—ah." His face lit up as he recalled something. "It seems there is a place here where we may safely stay in after all."

He rode with her towards the outskirts of Liestal—his guards still following them, Kumiko noticed. And then he stopped by an amply sized stone house, locked with no lights burning inside. Kumiko looked puzzled. Who resided here? They walked past the house to a small shelter in the back, with visible lights burning through the window. Zephiel knocked at the shelter door urgently.

A man, old and lanky with grey hair and a beard, opened the shelter door. Upon seeing Zephiel, he looked confused, but then within a few seconds understood the situation. The old man led them back into the stone house, opening it's locked doors with a key, letting Zephiel, Kumiko, and the guards enter.

"Where are we, Zephiel?" Kumiko asked, confused.

"...A safe place, if a bit annoying," Zephiel said. "But here we can rest well. Let's get some lights burning and check the inner rooms. We can rest here for the night."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

BERN | Liestal Safehouse

"…What is this place?" Kumiko asked, as she took in the environment: the cold granite floors and, the plush red rug before the fireplace, the high-quality furniture—from that hardwood desk to that four-poster bed and the carved dresser. Despite its appearances outside, the furniture inside the house clearly said that a man of high taste lived in it, the quality of the objects inside it grand enough for a king.

Zephiel had asked the old man and his guards to leave them, and they stayed at the shelter behind the stone house, not too far from them, giving him and his wife some privacy. Zephiel walked through the room, touching the furniture as well, as if thinking of things long past. "…This is ...my father's place," Zephiel eventually answered, with a little disgust in his tone. "He built many safehouses like this all over Bern during his reign. Only he had access to these places and knew where they were. He built them so that he could have place to run to in case he needed it."

In case his subjects overthrew him. In case everyone left him and supported Zephiel instead. Kumiko understood that that was what Zephiel meant immediately.

"…He was such an insecure man," Kumiko said, as she walked around the room, examining the furniture. She stopped in front of the dresser and touched the surface—the wood was of high quality and the carvings in its design were so intricate. Zephiel managed a small laugh at his wife's comment. Insecure was surely the word to describe his father, King Desmond. And these safehouses were the product of that insecurity.

"Whose is this?" Kumiko suddenly asked, and Zephiel turned to her, surprised to see her holding a lavender lace nightshift from the open dresser. Zephiel was puzzled for a moment—why would father have a woman's—but then he realized what this meant.

"Apparently he also used the safehouses to meet with his women and cheat on my mother," Zephiel answered, and the disdain in his voice was clear. Even when the bastard is dead I still find reasons to hate him.

Kumiko read the expression on his face and the shift in his tone, and knew that he was seething mad from this discovery. She walked up to him and said, "…You're still angry at him."

He gave a heavy sigh and said, "Of course."

"I thought you knew your father was like this and grew comfortable with the fact. After all, you accept Guinevere…"

"Guinevere is different," Zephiel explained. "She is my only living kin and I would be cruel to not accept her. She is my little sister. She is innocent—she has no sin in all of this. But it doesn't mean I ever accepted her mother, or any of my father's women. Guinevere's mother is nothing but a scheming commoner who betrayed my mother." And now, no wonder Guinever turned out a traitor, too. Betraying me by leaving me.

"Maybe she was a woman who had no choice but to follow orders," Kumiko cautiously suggested.

He looked at her, expression shifting to a mix of puzzlement and disgust. "What are you doing defending that woman?"

"I'm just saying, Zephiel, that it might be pretty pointless to still be angry for something long past, and something you have no firsthand knowledge of."

She controlled her voice to make it sound as calm as possible, to make everything sound like a suggestion rather than her chastising him. Yet for all that effort, he still read her words as offensive. "You wouldn't understand what I feel, Kumiko," he said. "You were an illegitimate—how would you know?"

He realized that was a tactless thing to say when an expression of hurt crossed over her face. "…Of course," she told him, voice dripping with pain and sarcasm. "Of course I don't understand a thing that you feel. I don't understand how it feels to harbor hatred towards a man and his woman for what they did to my mother. I will never be able to understand you." No matter how damn similar we are.

He knew that this was it—that dangerous brink of falling into a deadly argument with her. "I'm sorry," he quickly mumbled. He took her hand and held them in his own. "I'm sorry," he said. "It was a tactless thing to say."

She sighed, and nodded, meaning she accepted his apology. He gave her a little embrace and kissed the top of her head. "It's cold out. I'll get the fire stoked higher and try to see if there's any wine in the cellar, okay? I'll be right back."

He left, and left her standing there, thinking to herself. She looked at the lace lavender nightshift, still in her hand. And Kumiko thought, she and him are just the same. Still holding on to hatred for things past and letting that dictate who they became.

Not me, Kumiko thought to herself. Not me anymore. I can't let my hatred for him dictate who I will be.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Soon Zephiel came back into the safehouse, carrying a small pile of firewood for the fireplace and a small flask of wine. He was quick to start the fire—soon flaming embers were licking at the wood, warming the house.

He stared at the fire thoughtfully, thinking of things past. Unknown to him, Kumiko was watching him, stading by the doorway to the adjacent room. The flames directly in front of Zephiel made her view of him a shadow, and that was fitting, Kumiko thought, as that has been what she and Zephiel had been all these years. Shadows. Shadows that cling onto men long dead and gone and events long passed.

Not anymore. I am sick of being a shadow, Kumiko thought. My father, the lord Regrada, has dictated everything about my life. And even after his death, he had a grip on me. He was the reason why I feared men, that I feared her own husband, that I rejected nobility. He had been the reason why I had worked hard to succeed as a tactician—so that I can shove it in his face later on, in the afterworld. Her hatred for him had been the reason for many things, the cause of many of her decisions, consciously or unconsciously.

It should end. It has to end. I cannot let him control me anymore. I can't bind myself to him anymore.

She walked towards her husband, forcing on a little smile and some joy in her voice. "I don't see why you need servants to start a fireplace for you at Bern Keep when you can obviously do it so well by yourself," she remarked.

He heard her sweet voice and laughed a little, and was about to come up with some retort when he turned around to face her.

And then he paled.

"What are you wearing?"

It was the lavender shift. She had changed into it. "I wanted to change and freshen up," she explained, simply.

That was acceptable. That was an acceptable enough reason. In fact, the nightshift looked good on Kumiko, falling over her her body so perfectly it almost seemed that it was made for her. But all he could think of was how she—his wife—did not at all belong in those clothes, that dress that belonged to some whore his father had. She was far above that. She could not have even one thing in common with that woman. "Take it off," Zephiel told her, a command.

She understood what she meant, and she understood what his annoyance was about, but she looked away from him and chose to jest with him. "I thought you had told me before that you will never force me to disrobe for you." Unless he was really angry, as he had done once.

"You know that's not what I meant," he said, not amused. "It's just that—you! In those clothes! In her clothes! You're far above the stature of that woman to even be caught wearing her clothes—"

She walked up to him and held onto his hands. "Zephiel," she called softly, "It's just a dress."

It's a dress that belongs to someone who latched herself to my father to offend my mother. It's not just a dress. I should have taken it and burned it and…

"And besides," she said, shifting around on her feet and looking down at the nightshift, "I think it is very beautiful, and it fits me well."

Will you please stop talking about the damn nightdress? "You can have a similar one made when we get back home. The seamstresses will be happy to make one for you," he said. "But you would be doing me a great favor if you changed out of that... thing," he added, determinedly.

Kumiko frowned. This was going to be harder than she thought. She could still feel Zephiel's anger, seething through his voice and his actions. "Zephiel, it is just a dress..."

"It is not just some damn nightdress!" he yelled and pushed her away, startling Kumiko so much that she froze into place. Zephiel realized what he had done, and quickly muttered, "I'm sorry."

She began to step away from him unconsciously, as if a wounded and retreating animal. Zephiel felt bad for this, and began to explain. "Please do not insult me by wearing those clothes. I am not my father, and you certainly am not some whore. You are my wife. You are you, and you are far above any woman for me. It pains me to see you having to have one thing similar with some mistress my father had. You are never anything like that."

I am me, Kumiko thought. And you are telling me that. I am Kumiko, and not just some noble's illegitimate daughter. He does not define me. He should no longer define me. Just as your father should not define you.

"I am your wife," Kumiko said, softly. "And indeed not some paid slut. Thank you for telling me that. But Zephiel... I amnot a slut, and you are not your father. You are not that failure of a king who let his insecurity and lust consume him. So this,"—she tugged lightly at the hem of her dress to indicate it—"this shouldn't matter. Because we are not them."

To her disappointment, he turned his back on her, and sat back down on the rugs before the fireplace, sighing. She stood there in silence, watching him, pained to see his rejection of her help.

You keep telling me you are not him. That you are different. But don't you see? You are falling into his trap. You are becoming like him. Insecure, angry. If you keep defining yourself by what he is not, you just end up letting him dictate who you become. Your anger for him dictates who you are.

"You're angry," she said, to break the silence. A statement, not a question.

He knew what she was talking about. But he chose to feign innocence. "At you? Of course not, Kumiko. I'm sorry for how I acted, but I was not angry at you."

She heard the lie in his words, for once. She knew he was feigning innocence, evading the topic. "I understand, Zephiel. I have been angry at my own father, too, for almost all my life."

"Kumiko, you know I am not fond of talking about the brilliant examples of our fathers," he said, and she could almost see him rolling his eyes, even as his back was turned to her.

She continued, ignoring his warnings. "All my life I forced myself to be great. I worked hard and studied hard for the moment that I can shove all of it to his face and tell him that he was wrong about me. To tell him that I was not just a wench that will forever follow him or any other man. To tell him that I could make a name for myself and I didn't need him. Unconsciously, my anger for him became the reason for my living."

She stared at the fires of the fireplace ahead of her, as if thinking of her own burning hatred. But then she just sighed, and sat down beside Zephiel and linked her arms with her husband's, catching his attention. That was what she did when she wanted comfort. So he put an arm around her shoulder and held onto her hand, a protective gesture. Sometimes, Kumiko could just be so vulnerable. When she was like this, when she talked about her pain, it made him want to protect her from all of it.

"Just forget him," Zephiel told her, a comforting whisper. "Just forget him. He's dead. It's over."

Just listen to your own words, Zephiel. If you would only listen to your own advice. "It isn't easy to forget," Kumiko said. "It isn't easy to forgive. Especially after everything I have done in my life, I have realized, was because of him. Even right now, I am tied to him. Even right now, I become afraid of you, because of him…"

Yes. And I suffer at present because of what a man has done to you in the past. "I understand. But I will tell you, as I always have—I am nothing like him."

I know you are. I know there is good in you, too, Zephiel. If only you forget him, too. If only you let go of this anger for him and stop living off it. I'll try it, and I'll tell you how it feels. I'll try it, and maybe I can show you how good it feels. "I know you are nothing like him. I know you're a better man." she said, trying to smile.

"Trust me," he said, a whisper. "I am not him, and never will be."

Trust me. He was inviting her, and it was a tempting invitation. Maybe, just maybe, I can try, Kumiko thought. My first step out of my misery. Out of the chains my father has bound me into. Out of the anger. Out of his influence.

And in response to his words, she inched closer to him and took his face in his hands, and led him to her lips. She kissed him softly, tenderly, and Zephiel was not at all surprised by the nature of her kiss. That was how Kumiko was. Soft. Fragile. Tender. Uncertain. He put his arms around her, and pulled her closer to him. He loved moments like these when she at least made an obvious effort to make him feel good and express her appreciation for him.

She pulled away from him and broke off the kiss, and when she opened her eyes open to look at him, she whispered: "Zephiel, I don't want to be afraid anymore. I don't want to stay afraid because of his shadow."

For a minute, still intoxicated in her kiss, Zephiel did not understand what she was trying to say at all. His mind had tricked him to think that he was in some dream, with the coldness of the evening, the orange illumination of the room from the fireplace, and his sweet, beautiful wife in his arms. All of it, a dream.

And then the expression on her face changed, and she began to look nervous. She looked away from him for a second, and turned red in embarrassment. He was about to ask her why, was anything wrong—when she took the lavender shift she was wearing by the hem and pulled it over her head, exposing her nakedness to him.

He blinked, not comprehending for a second. But then everything fell into place—this was what she meant when she said she no longer wanted to be afraid. She wanted to trust him. She was ready to trust him and share her body with him and be his wife.

"Kumiko…"

She was flushing red, face turned away from him, and when she spoke she sounded as if she were biting the words back, afraid to say them. "Please take me, your majesty." When she spoke there was a shiver in her sweet voice. "I apologize for delaying in my duty to you as your wife, but now I am willing… if my husband still desires me, that is."

If Kumiko had looked at him at all, she would have seen the small smile that lit up his face. He held a hand out to her face, softly stroking her cheek. "I never stopped desiring you," he said. "I don't think I ever will."

Kumiko only closed her eyes in fright, and then nodded. "I am happy to hear that, Zephiel."

He took her in his arms again and closed the distance between them with another kiss. This time, it was his kiss—assertive, passionate. That was how he was. Assertive. Strong. Passionate. Determined. He shifted some of his weight towards her and made her lie down on the plush, warm rugs on the floor. He broke off from her lips momentarily to peel off his own shirt and pull down his trousers.

And she stared at him, as he took off his clothes. She was still flushed red from a mix of embarrassment and fear, and now, a hint of desire. He was as well built as she imagined underneath his clothes and, for shame, she knew she wanted to touch him. After two years of denying that he was a good-looking man who she could learn to desire, here she was, underneath him, wanting to be touched by him.

He leaned towards her and kissed her again after he had tossed his clothes aside.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Anko was right, Kumiko thought. The fear was not because he was scary and untrustworthy—the fear was because she was letting go of her defenses, letting him see her in her most fragile. But Zephiel understood that, and salved all her fears immediately. He whispered praises about her skin and her hips and her breasts, assuring her of her beauty, rewarding her with kisses and caresses and his own desire for her.

The fear was not because Zephiel would probably betray her and leave her soonafter—but because she had witnessed others left and betrayed, and she had been mistreated by men. And Zephiel had dealt with that too, in a way Kumiko was not sure he meant to do. As she lay underneath him and felt him inside her, moving between her legs, he had held onto her hand, intertwining his fingers with hers. And he leaned towards her and whispered into her ear:

"I love you, Kumiko. You have no idea how much I love you. I waited this long because I loved you too much to hurt you. You were worth it. My love, you are worth it."

Two years. It was the first time he told her he loved her. She smiled, and held onto him tighter. She trusted him, took the leap, and with his sweet words declaring love, it may have been absolutely worth it.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

End of Chapter.

We can end Bern here now for all I know, so it's a happy ending where no one has to kill anyone and such.

The chapter is called Freedom of Choice because I found it to be the main theme of the majority of the scenes. Heath discusses it with Matthew, and in the latter part Kumiko makes a bold decision that, in her opinion, sets her free from the clutches of her past.

I'm sorry I took long to update. A lot has happened to me. I have been employed, and working as a barista/cashier, and then moved to currently being self-employed so I have more time on my hands. I should have more time for Bern and Journey now. -crosses fingers-

Please review! They're the only compensation I get for writing these chapters. I need to know my readers are still alive if I'm going to see these writing projects to the end.

Lots of Love,

kageshoujo