Disclaimer: I don't own Fire Emblem. I just like playing with the characters. And T.S. Eliot is love.

Summary: FE6,7. One-shot. Priscilla turns down Erk's proposal. Years later, Erk turns down her offer of the position of Mage General.
Pairings: one-sided Erk/Priscilla, hints of Cecilia/Percival (OTP!!11), and loads of weird subtext for other pairings :D
Rating: T for mature themes and brief but possibly disturbing imagery

Notes: This takes place in the same fic-verse as the rest of my FE6/7 fics. I know the FE7 endings imply (but never state outright, as you may note) that Pent resigns immediately after he gets back, but come on, I'm not buying that they offered the Mage General position to a 15-year-old no-name (Erk)... And FE6 indicates that Cecilia was chosen as successor by the previous Mage General, which, given the canon unorthodox-ness of appointing a female general (in Etruria, at least), seems very much like a Pent kind of thing to do. So since Cecilia only became Mage General fairly recently (more or less 3 years prior to FE6 is my guess, since Roy first goes to Ostia 5 years prior), in my fic-verse Pent doesn't step down until later. Resulting in WHEE PLOT.

Also, on peerage/titles: FE is so inconsistent on this stuff (probably due to being originally in Japanese) that I relied on Wikipedia, various other resources, and my own common sense (plus a bit of world-building/extrapolation i.e. a lot of FUDGING) instead of translations. 4/11/08: changed "Adviser" Roartz to "Minister"


The Deception of the Thrush

"There is someone else."

It was not the first proposal she had ever received, nor would it be the last. Five years ago, she had returned to Etruria after Nergal's defeat, only to find herself suddenly in the new and uncomfortable position of being one of the most eligible young women around. Now she was twenty-one, near halfway through marriageable age, and yet, if anything, the offers for her hand had only increased.

But this proposal was different.

She glanced out the open window at the roses blooming outside, carefully avoiding the gaze of the man who stood before her, waiting. The heady scent of the flowers had spread through the room all evening, infusing the atmosphere with a certain bittersweet sense of nostalgia. It was hard to think of him as a man, when just five years ago they had both been -- not quite children, but not quite man and woman, either.

But to him, more than any of her other suitors, she owed her honesty, at least. And so she turned back at last and said, "Yes."

His expression shuttered briefly, and then he seemed to slump, resigned, looking as if he had expected the answer all along.

He had grown much these five years past, she thought, not for the first time. During the arduous quest to defeat Nergal, he had not quite been her equal in height, but now, he towered over her by at least a head, though he was her junior by a year. His slight, bony frame had filled out somewhat, and he now wore his hair pulled back in a ponytail, adding a matured, elegant cast to his face. But in that no longer boyish face, grown now more defined, more intense, she could still see vestiges of that innocent, childish passion she remembered illuminating his features whenever he spoke of his studies under the Duke of Reglay.

"Erk, I --"

"Lady Priscilla," he said. "If it is not too presumptuous of me, may I ask..."

"Who?" She gave a polite, bitter smile.

He looked down at his feet, embarrassed, but pressed on. "Was it that knight of Caelin? That Sacaen swordsman? Or that mercenary, Raven --"

She shook her head, heart clenching at the mention of her brother.

"Then... Oh. I see." He fell silent.

She had turned her attention back to the roses outside when he spoke again at last. "If it weren't for him, would I..."

"My deepest apologies, Lord Erk," she said then, and out of the corner of her eye she saw him wince at the title, still unused to his newly created status, though it had been what encouraged him to press his suit at last. A baron was no match for the daughter of a count, and yet even so, it had given him more standing than he would have had as a mere commoner. "But I cannot answer that question."

A moment of silence, fragile and exquisite.

"... I understand."

Roses, she thought, as the sound of his retreating footsteps faded from her hearing, were the quintessential Etrurian flower. More than once had overly zealous suitors compared her flame-colored tresses, so exotic among the mostly fair-haired Etrurians, to the roses of her garden.

But she did not agree. It was her heart that was the rose: lovely, fragile, caged and carefully manicured, and liable to hurt anyone who dared come too close. Her hair was stained with the color of blood flowing from those still-open wounds, and though she herself had been a girl for so long, it had always been a man she wanted, not a boy.

If that made her a hypocrite, then so be it.

Two years later, she announced to her adoptive parents that she had no intentions of marrying. She had been reluctant to make such a plain statement before, perhaps out of lingering feelings of guilt and gratitude. Their true son and only child, to whom she had been betrothed as a baby, had died of illness shortly after she had been fostered out to them. Yet they had let her stay despite that, treating her as their own blood daughter, accepting her as a part of their family. And now she was the sole heir of House Caerleon. That had been one of the reasons, perhaps, that her hand had been so highly sought after. She had no illusions about that, and no illusions about the fact that it was her parents' greatest wish to see the Caerleon line continued, through name if not by blood. It was a feeling she thought she could understand. The pain she had felt just from hearing of the fall of House Cornwall, the pain her lord brother no doubt must have felt in threefold, was nothing she would wish upon even her worst enemy.

Still, though her parents were disappointed, they eventually acquiesced to her wishes, as they always did. She was, in the end, their beloved daughter above all, and they would not see her unhappy.

Much malicious gossip and some less malignant but equally shameful rumors flew around as her decision became more widely known among the other nobles. She tried to pay no heed to them at first, attempting to go about her life as she always had, but they soon became too much to bear, and some nights, she found herself crying herself to sleep. Over time, she began to spend less and less time at court. She had never found interest in the other nobles' oft-petty intrigues, but even so, she remembered a time when she had enjoyed the society. But now, no longer. She did not know when she had become so alone.

With that realization came others. She no longer took pleasure in food or drink, or in simple amusements like books or conversation. Even her well-tended gardens held no more joy for her. How strange it all was, she reflected idly, but thought little more of it.

Perhaps a year had passed this way when she dreamed one night of her brother. She had not seen him since Nergal's defeat; though at the last he had promised her he would give up all thoughts of revenge, he could promise her no more than that. She could not fault him for it. Not even for promises made and broken already, that must now remain forever unfulfilled.

In her dream, his face was cold and stern, more like the mercenary she had last bid farewell to than the kind memory she had treasured through the long, lonely years of childhood, and no matter how she pleaded and begged, he would not speak with her. Instead he stood, just out of her reach, unyielding as a statue, eyeless expression frozen in a caricature of disapproval.

Raymond, Raymond, she cried. But he did not hear her voice. She stood alone in dusty golden fields, watching him from afar, watching him shrink to nothing. A great dragon emerged from beyond the horizon. Raymond raised his sword, and perhaps he shouted, or perhaps she screamed. The blade plunged into the dragon's chest, and Raymond's shield, emblazoned with a faded star, clattered to the ground. Dragon and man exploded into a thousand green glass shards and fluttering colorless leaves, and now she was the statue, healing staves crossed before her in a useless warding gesture, roses and black feathers and blood trickling down her thigh. Where her brother had been, there remained nothing but a pile of straw, flying away upon the wind, and an army of rats scurrying across the dry land, around her, over her, inside her --

She woke shaking and drenched in sweat.

Dragons are forever, she thought, clutching at the memories of a vague childhood story, knights and dragons and princesses in high towers, but that was all a lie. Nergal's monsters were long dead, and now the Lady Pherae as well. And what was she? What was she?

With that question running through her mind, she ran a comb through her dark crimson hair, grown long through the years; put on her favorite gown, white embroidered with a green the shade of her eyes; and returned to court for the first time in months.

The stares she attracted upon her arrival seemed oddly humorous; the polite, concerned masks of the people who came up to greet her after the initial wave of surprise, strangely transparent. She felt as if she had sprouted another self, separate from her body, and that other self watched herself from a distance, observing her own interactions and those of everyone around her with a certain detached amusement. Trivial details she had never before noticed now seemed so terribly obvious. Lady K-- was madly in love with Lord Z--, though she was wed to Marquis M--. Count S-- was having an utterly scandalous affair with a young cleric. Duchess O-- hated Lady B--, though on the surface they were the best of friends. Duke W-- was deeply in debt, and desperate for a favorable alliance. How strange it was, how easy it was to read her fellow nobles, to see through their motivations, the secrets they struggled so anxiously to keep! She did not know if it was an ability that had been newly gifted to her by Saint Elimine above, or if the talent had always lain dormant within her heart.

She returned the next day, and the next, every time discovering new things she had never observed before, or perhaps had simply never had the desire to observe. The novelty of her freshly awakened curiosity fascinated her; she found it both delightful and frightening at once. She even began to take part in the little games the other lords and ladies played. She herself had no desire for more power or status, and she lacked the ruthlessness of the most influential courtiers, still too softhearted to lower herself to cruelty and selfish gain. But she found it all terribly interesting, the way people acted, the things they would do to get what they wanted, the promises they would make with no intention of keeping. And so, though she did not realize it, though she was only the adopted daughter of a count, she began to steadily build a reputation as a formidable opponent, a woman who played for no one but herself, choosing sides on mere whim without any real personal investment, a woman with nothing to lose. And if she often showed a slight inclination of interest towards the subject of Bern and the proud knights of that land, it was nothing that could be used against her.

She did not dream of dragons again.

o-o-o

She did not, in fact, even think of dragons again until many years later, when both her parents were dead and she was now a countess in her own right. She was wandering through the maze of the castle gardens, headed for the secluded corner indicated on the invitation she had received earlier in the morning, when the memory flashed past in her mind's eye -- a dragon soaring above lazy clouds.

She pushed aside the thought and found three men waiting for her already at the designated meeting area. Two faces she had expected, but there was one whom she had not.

"A woman general! Preposterous!" declared Lord Arcard as she approached. After a slight cough from Minister Roartz, he turned to see Priscilla, and quickly amended, "No offense meant to you, of course, Lady Caerleon."

"Of course not, my lord," Priscilla replied pleasantly. She had known, from the moment she received it, the true reason for her invitation to this private meeting with two of the most influential men in court. One would have to be blind and deaf not to have; the entire court had been in a flutter all of yesterday over Duke Reglay's sudden resignation, and even more so over the declaration that had accompanied it. Indeed, though the Reglay couple's eccentric ways were well known among the Etrurian court, even Priscilla might have been astonished by the casual, arch tone of the Duke's announcement had she not been personally familiar with his ways, from their acquaintance seventeen years ago.

"I do not see the problem with it myself," said the third, an elderly man Priscilla recognized at last as Bishop Jodel. His presence seemed to be an unexpected surprise not only to her, but to the other two members of their party as well, if the sour looks on their faces were any indication. She rather suspected that the original invitation had been meant for some other member of the Church more of a line with Arcard and Roartz's ideas -- Bishop Windam, perhaps -- but that Bishop Jodel had somehow intercepted it. Though Priscilla did not know him well, she knew him to be a clever man. She had noticed traces of his work in court throughout the years; it was said that the Church's information network was even more extensive and efficient than the infamous spies of Ostia, and Priscilla was inclined to believe it.

"How can you say that? A mere woman, serving in one of our kingdom's top military positions --"

The wrinkles around the bishop's eyes creased as he broke into a beatific smile. "One of the most talented magic users I ever knew was a woman."

Lord Arcard sputtered. Minister Roartz said, "Yes, yes, Bishop, but the problem is, what on earth could Duke Reglay possibly have been thinking? Resigning so suddenly, making such an incredible demand -- He cannot have been blind to the consequences of such an action!"

"His Grace was great rivals with this Lady Cecilia's father, was he not?" offered Priscilla.

"Exactly! And that is precisely what is so strange about this. Could Reglay have done this as a conciliatory gesture towards Tintagel? And if so, what could he be planning?"

"Gaheris of Tintagel is a proud man," said Bishop Jodel. "As is his father Agravain, the old Duke Tintagel. They are more like to be insulted by such a gesture than appeased, don't you think?"

"Are you saying," said Lord Arcard, "that Reglay did this to anger them? Why would he wish to make even greater enemies of them now?"

Roartz scowled. "If anyone could afford to offend the Tintagels, it would be the Reglays."

And yet, eccentric as the Reglays were, Priscilla knew they were not the type who would purposely give offense without cause. Both Pent and Louise, after all, had been born and bred in Etrurian high society. They too knew the rules of the game, and knowing the benefits as well as the disadvantages of said rules, would not so casually disregard them. That much, at least, she remembered of them, and she did not think things had changed so much over the years to think any differently of them now.

But she did not choose to voice her opinion out loud. Instead, she said, "If I remember correctly, the old Duke Tintagel once served as Great General. And Lord Gaheris has never shown the slightest bit of interest in magic." She hesitated, then gave a slight smile. "I do not think that the move will affect them either way. At the very least, I should think their respective opinions would cancel each other out -- Duke Tintagel will likely be pleased, even if his son is not."

Bishop Jodel laughed. "Ah, yes, that's right. Now that I think of it, the rivalry between Reglay and Gaheris was over matters of the heart, I believe. After all these years, both married now and with children of their own, I should think them long reconciled. Or at least, I should hope so!"

"You think so lightly, then, of matters of the heart?" said Priscilla, playfully, but her words caught halfway in her throat.

"Enough of that!" said Arcard. "Then we come back to where we started: what could Pent of Reglay possibly want to achieve with an alliance with Gaheris of Tintagel? And by naming a woman as his successor! A woman general!"

"Yes, especially in light of the strange movements of Bern recently," Jodel remarked, quite nonchalantly. "I wonder why Duke Reglay chose to resign now, of all times?"

Priscilla noted the odd reactions of both Roartz and Arcard with some interest. Arcard blanched, and Roartz seemed at a loss for words. Before the moment could stretch out too long, she said, "I suppose that is somewhat suspicious, but everyone knows that the Reglays have never cared much for politics. I do not mean to accuse them of irresponsibility, but... this is not the first time they have acted according to caprice rather than foresight."

Jodel turned to consider her with a thoughtful, inscrutable look on his face. Roartz took the opportunity to say, "Yes, precisely! Those Reglays are always disappearing off to who-knows-where without so much as a word..."

"And now he wants to install a woman general in his place! Even going so far as to summon her back to Etruria without telling anyone else of his plans! What is he thinking? Trying to weaken our military at a time such as this, make Etruria the laughingstock of all Elibe --"

Bishop Jodel straightened, as if he had come to a decision. "Well," he said, his calm tone and still kindly expression belying the sudden hardness in his eyes, "I believe I have heard enough. I have other duties calling. But, if I may, my lords -- and my lady -- might I remind you that the Kingdom of Bern has long had a tradition of female generals? I think it will be no great loss if we Etrurians should embrace this practice now as well." He bowed. "Good day."

"That meddling bishop..." muttered Roartz under his breath as Jodel strode away. Then he turned to Priscilla with a smile. "Well, then, my lady. Shall we get down to business?"

Priscilla, shaken, though she knew not why, simply smiled and nodded.

"The king favors Reglay a great deal, gives his opinions much weight. Now, it is not my place to criticize His Majesty... but one cannot deny that he has been getting on in years, and his judgment is... shall we say, not what it once was. And so it is left to us to guide him. We must not let the king name the Tintagel girl Mage General. You see the folly of this too, don't you, my lady?"

"Of course," she said politely. "She is a highborn lady of Etruria, not some savage woman-soldier of Bern. It is hardly proper for any decent noblewoman to assume such a position."

"Indeed! You are a clever one, Lady Caerleon. You do your sex great justice."

She lowered her gaze. "You flatter me, my lord."

"Well, it is the truth," said Arcard. "As for that Tintagel girl -- let her go back to Ostia and keep tutoring those Lycian brats! That should teach her to remember her place!"

The offhand remark jolted something in her memory. She realized, with renewed understanding, that the Tintagel girl must be that same Lady Cecilia who had caused some minor scandal some six years previously when she had, with the support of both her father and her grandfather, joined the Etrurian army as a girl of fifteen with suspiciously extensive training in anima magic, despite the usual accepted practice for noble Etrurian girls in mastering the use of healing staves before attempting, if ever, the most basic of offensive spells. Anima magic was, after all, widely considered the domain of men, scholar-mages in their ivory towers.

Priscilla set aside the recollection for further contemplation, and said, "If I may ask, then, my lords, who is it that you plan to suggest in place of Duke Tintagel's granddaughter?"

"Ah, yes. Now this, my lady, is where you come in."

She pretended to be surprised. "Oh, whatever do you mean?"

"There have been a few alternative candidates Lord Arcard and I have been considering. Duke Nord, for instance --"

"A good man, Nord," said Arcard, then shivered involuntarily. "But it's the dark arts that he dabbles in."

"Yes, and a practitioner of dark magic is hardly going to be a popular choice. Most people are, as you know... rather wary of that particular branch of study. So..."

"I've granted him a tract of land in the Western Isles as recompense."

Roartz brushed aside Arcard's interruption. "As for the other possibilities, both Bishop Oro and Bishop Windam have expressed interest in the position. You do remember Bishop Windam, don't you?"

"I do." She had aided Roartz some years ago in bringing about Windam's promotion. In return, Roartz had given her his support in an unpopular case involving a family of poor Bernese immigrants.

"Now, this would not be a problem, of course, but for the matter of the Archbishop. We cannot name either Oro or Windam Mage General without insulting the Archbishop, nor could they accept the position without causing much scandal."

Of course. It would be a conflict of interest to have a bishop sworn to the Church serving the king at the same time. Nor could they offer the position to the Archbishop himself, when they had no control, no leverage over him whatsoever. Still, she had considered all of this already, and come to the conclusion that they would probably make the offer to Oro after all. The benefits far outweighed the risks. Indeed she had assumed that they would ask her to lend her voice to theirs in recommending Oro to the king. Roartz, though his father before him had been much beloved by the former king, and though himself was one of King Mordred's most trusted advisers, was only a marquis; Arcard, though the son of a duke, had little political clout as the youngest child of his ancient father's abundant progeny, and had relied on personal ventures in the Western Isles to consolidate his own base of power. Though the Caerleons were not the highest-ranking nor the wealthiest family, they had maintained a historical alliance with the current royal family that went back generations. As Lady Caerleon, even if not by blood, therefore, Priscilla had a voice that could not be so readily ignored; that little fact added on to her own ability and reputation had often made her a key figure in persuading the king over to certain views in the past. And now, in their current situation, Windam was, perhaps, too recently promoted to be a truly sustainable candidate. However, with the further addition of Roartz and Arcard's respective influences, their particular endeavor should almost certainly succeed if they were to put forth Oro as an option.

But now Roartz informed her that Oro was out of the question. Priscilla frowned. "There are no other talented mages among the nobility that I know of. Well, perhaps -- but no, he's too old..."

Arcard burst into laughter. "Too old! Oh, my lady. You will never guess --"

"You are forgetting something, aren't you, Lady Caerleon?" said Roartz, grinning broadly. "Or rather, someone. Have you so easily forgotten your good friend, the young baron?"

Genuinely shocked, Priscilla flushed, but managed to hide her gasp in time. "You can't mean -- Lord Erk?"

Roartz nodded. "The perfect candidate!" he said triumphantly. "He was an apprentice to Duke Reglay himself, was he not? There is no way Reglay can protest against such a selection."

She had not even considered the option. She had thought it out of the question -- despite his title, he was still only a baron, still a man of no background, an orphan of common birth -- but of course that was why they wanted him in the position, and not a Tintagel, not the daughter of a duke. Bishop Windam was not the only man whose rise in ranks had been aided by outside factors.

But above all, she was discomfited, though she should not have been, that they knew of her particular relationship with Erk.

"My, that is certainly a clever choice... But I am afraid I still do not understand what this has to do with me," she said, carefully choosing her words.

"Come now, my lady. It should be obvious, shouldn't it? We need you to speak to him of this offer."

"I am indeed an old acquaintance of his," said Priscilla. "But we have not spoken in some time. Surely, my lords, the offer would be more effective coming from your esteemed persons?"

At that, Arcard winced. "Well..."

"He turned us down last night," admitted Roartz. "But you, perhaps, shall have better luck."

"I see," she said softly. "I will see what I can do."

"We are in your debt, my lady," said Roartz, bowing.

Priscilla shook her head, then smiled. "No, no. Actually, I do have one request to make of you, my lords -- forgive me, but my curiosity was aroused earlier -- what has been going on in Bern, if I may ask?"

Arcard laughed nervously. "Oh, it is nothing major, my lady."

"Nothing at all, my lady, truly," said Roartz with a tight smile. "Bishop Jodel, you know, is the type of man who always thinks he knows more he really does."

"Oh, I suppose you must be right. After that dreadful assassination attempt seven years ago, things have been fairly quiet, as far as I can tell," Priscilla replied, in a light, careless manner. The details of the assassination were still muddy after all this time; the earliest reports had named the prince as the victim, while other, more recent rumors had whispered of the death of the old king and the ascension of Zephiel. Bern itself claimed that both had survived, but that the king was gravely ill. But Priscilla still remembered another, earlier assassination attempt, and knew that the Church must have reached some semblance of the truth.

Even so, she knew better than to pursue the subject. She smiled again. "Well, then. I shall report my results to you tomorrow."

Roartz relaxed visibly. "I pray that it will be news of success. Best of luck to you, my lady."

Priscilla dropped a curtsy, then left. But as she walked away, she heard the two men's voices raised in argument.

"You fool, Arcard!"

"What?"

"You know what! The matter of Reglay -- that damn Jodel's on to us, and now the Lady Caerleon -- she's no fool, that one..."

"Well, Reglay is always sneaking off -- to Nabata, it's said, and haven't you heard those rumors? Some hidden village in the desert, filled with immense power and unthinkable treasure --"

"You greedy thrice-damned fool! Do you realize what jeopardy you have put these seven years' worth of plans in?"

"Of course I realize! So what? It's not like Jodel can do anything about it, can he? He has no proof! And Lady Caerleon is on our side. Even I've heard of her peculiar interest..."

She paused midstep, but the men must have realized the volume of their voices, and she heard no more.

o-o-o

Upon her return home, she sent out an invitation to him immediately. Some initial guilt struck her soon afterwards, but she brushed it away. It was not that she would not stoop down to calling on him, even now, when it was she requesting a favor of him, but that it was improper for her to be seen visiting a single man alone. That he might refuse her invitation did not occur to her at all. And sure enough, as the hour for tea began to chime, her servants announced his arrival, and she rose to meet him.

"Lady Caerleon," he said awkwardly, bowing. "It is good to see you."

"Lady Priscilla is fine," she answered gently. "We are old friends, are we not?"

He hesitated, uncertain.

"Come, shall we take a walk in my garden? The roses are blooming most wonderfully this year."

He nodded, and so they stepped onto the path in silence. Priscilla listened to the sounds of their footfalls echoing against paved rock. How the years had passed! she thought. Though they had kept in contact after that long ago summer evening, even meeting occasionally at the rare social events he chose to make an appearance at, both she and he had been busy with their own lives. They had not truly spoken with each other since that night, and sometimes Priscilla could not deny a certain desire to speak again of the past, with someone, anyone, of that almost forgotten passage of time that he and she shared.

But not this evening, she thought. Not today. No matter how she wished it, time would never stop for her, nor would it ever turn back. It would flow on, instead, forever and ever, eternally beyond her grasp...

She was startled when he was the first to break the silence.

"I know why you called me here."

"I --"

"Master Pent warned me, you know." He sighed. "Just like him, causing trouble like this... And after the visit I got last night, I figured they would try sending you next. I have to admit, though, I didn't expect you would move so quickly."

"You must understand, then. Why you must accept."

For some time he did not answer. "No. Even if it's you... I cannot. I will not."

She bowed her head. "Why?"

"Why can you not accept Lady Cecilia?" he returned. "She's a bit young, I grant you, but she has talent. Both Master Pent and I had the opportunity of teaching her when she was a child -- she's a fine student. Even more brilliant than I was. The most brilliant pupil Master Pent has ever had, I'd say. She will learn quickly."

"Even so... she is a woman. No matter how much talent she has, the men will never accept her."

Erk snorted. "That is ridiculous, and you know it. You do not give the girl enough credit."

"Ridiculous to you, perhaps. Why, if she is so talented, did she get shunted off to some obscure post like Ostia as soon as they could get rid of her? Why do you think all the court has been in such an uproar these past two days? Not just Lord Arcard and Minister Roartz, but everyone in a position who can afford to has been scrambling to find a replacement..."

"Yes, yes, and I'm the only viable choice there is. I know. Frankly, I don't know why you don't just volunteer yourself for the position. You're certainly a skilled enough magic-user, and from what I've heard, you command a decent amount of respect among the people who matter." He took a breath, then continued. "I've always wondered, you know. Why you aren't more ambitious. When you could have anything you could possibly desire. When you could have the entire kingdom at your feet!" He paused again. "Or is it that you're still waiting -- for him." He did not quite manage to keep the resentment from his voice.

You think too highly of me, she wanted to reply, or perhaps The mere idea of myself as a general is utterly laughable, but when she opened her mouth, the words that came out instead were, "You don't understand."

"No," he said. "I don't."

"I -- I'm sorry."

"Don't be."

And now she was angry, for the first time in many years. "What about you? Here we are, offering you a chance to become -- to become something more. Power, status, prestige... Why refuse? Why refuse all this?" She choked on her words.

"All the status in the world could not give me you, could it?"

She swiped furiously at her eyes, shamed that she had let her guard down, bewildered as to why she could not stem the sudden burning flow of tears.

Guilt colored his voice when he spoke next, more gently than before. "Prestige I have plenty of, thanks to Master Pent, as well as my own research. And power I have no need for. I... I care not for the intricacies of court. I do not understand it. It means nothing to me. I could never be happy there. You know that. I am content with naught but my studies, my books. I'm not like you --"

"Enough," she whispered. "Please. Leave me."

But he did not move, and remained hovering behind her like a shadow.

"Forgive me," he muttered. "I --"

"Please."

Even then he hesitated.

"Forgive me," he said again. And then, more softly, "Court life suits you well, truly."

And then she was alone.

And she thought: she could have been happy with him, perhaps, once upon a time. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But she had never had the desire to, still had no desire to, even now, and she sensed deeply the injustice of it all, but oh --

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I am a selfish woman. A selfish woman, but one who will never have what she wants most."

o-o-o

Though she had no desire to wake the next morning, still she climbed out of her bed, and dressed, and went to court as always. As she meandered through the long white halls, lined with the familiar ageless portraits and busts of the royal family, she heard the approach of footsteps and looked up to see Prince Mildain, the Knight General, and a boy she recognized as the son of Duke Reglay, three golden heads bent together in deep conversation, their faces troubled and somber. She wondered at what topic could be engrossing them so. If it were just the prince and the general, she would have assumed simply that they were discussing matters of state, and yet... Priscilla had heard that the Duke Reglay's son took after his mother in his talent for the bow; favored thus in looks, connections, and talent, the boy was well on the way to the position of Archery General, despite his youth. An impressive trio, thought Priscilla then, and curtsied low as they passed.

"Your Highness. General. My lord."

Prince Mildain nodded, a smile replacing his former solemnity. Duke Reglay's son, smiling now as well, bowed and said, "Lady Caerleon, I believe? My father has spoken much of you."

The Knight General turned and frowned at her name. He was a tall, handsome young man, only a year older than the prince, if Priscilla remembered correctly, though his appearance gave him an extra gravitas uncommon in men of his age. Handsome, thought Priscilla, but stern, like a man who knew nothing of humor or joy.

"I have heard much of you and your skill in archery as well, my lord," said Priscilla to Duke Reglay's son, though she watched the Knight General as she spoke.

The son of Duke Reglay blushed slightly, but the frown did not leave the Knight General's face.

Prince Mildain said, looking first at Priscilla, and then at the general, "Well, I must go speak to my father. Percival, will you come with me?"

The general hesitated. "My apologies, Your Highness. I will join you momentarily."

The prince inclined his head. "Very well. Good day, Lady Caerleon."

Duke Reglay's son bowed again after a quick glance at his older companions, then left with the prince.

"Your Highness," Priscilla murmured, and fought back the habitual twinge of jealousy and memory that had arisen in her, like an old ghost, at the sight of the prince's ethereal, almost feminine features. Even after so many years she had still not accustomed herself to the almost otherworldly beauty of highborn Etrurian men. She had, perhaps, never allowed herself to.

"Lady Caerleon," said the Knight General then, bringing her back to the present. "I apologize if this is too forward, but I believe you are one of the individuals opposed to the appointment of Lady Cecilia as Mage General."

Priscilla nodded, suddenly wary, and suddenly understanding. "I am. But I am far from the only one with doubts; Lady Cecilia is, after all, barely twenty-one, and she has spent the past two years in Ostia --"

"With all due respect, I cannot believe that age is a factor in this case, Lady Caerleon."

"You cannot deny that she is not only young, but highly inexperienced."

"I myself was only twenty when they appointed me Knight General three years ago," replied the younger man. "There has been talk of appointing Klein Archery General, and he is but sixteen. While I had certainly been involved in a few border skirmishes before my appointment, I cannot say that I was any more experienced when I took on the position than most of the men I fought with."

"Duke Reglay's son has been groomed for the position practically since he was a child," said Priscilla, but the younger man shook his head.

"Perhaps, but that was not the case for me. I am no duke's son. I come from a family of knights. My father before me was a knight, and his father before him as well. I did not reach where I am today without effort and sheer ability. I had the ability. As does Klein. And so does Cecilia."

The easy, quiet conviction in his voice took her by surprise. As did the subtle tone of challenge.

"Such faith," she whispered at last, involuntarily, and though his expression did not change, she saw him stiffen.

At that moment, another voice interrupted them. "Percival? Is that you?"

A woman's voice, soft and pleasant, but assured. Priscilla looked over at the new arrival and was overcome by a sweeping wave of nostalgia. Had she been the same at this girl's age, Priscilla wondered? Eager yet composed, quiet determination blazing in the depths of dark, intelligent eyes? And such lovely eyes, Priscilla thought. Large and expressive, penetrating and yet kind.

"... Cecilia. I did not realize you had already arrived."

"Mm. I came as quickly as I could. Duke Reglay thought to inform me of his intentions before any major fallouts could occur, so I had a bit of a head start." She tucked a strand of long viridian hair behind her ear. Priscilla noted her hand shaking slightly.

The girl, in turn, noticed her scrutiny and offered a gentle smile. "And who might this be, General Percival?"

"I am the Countess of Caerleon," Priscilla said quickly. "And you must be Duke Tintagel's granddaughter, Lady Cecilia."

The girl reacted with some visible surprise at Priscilla's identity, but seemed otherwise unaffected by any sign of antagonism. "Yes, I am. I apologize for not recognizing you sooner, Lady Caerleon. It has been some time since I attended court in Aquileia."

"I trust you are not too fatigued from your journey back."

"No, my lady, thank you." The girl hesitated, uncertain.

Priscilla could feel the general's eyes boring into her. "Congratulations on your appointment," she said.

"Thank you, my lady. But the appointment is not yet set in stone. There are many, I have heard, who disapprove of Duke Reglay's choice in me."

Priscilla did not reply. Instead, she considered the girl and the general, standing side by side, the girl dressed in shades of indigo that offset the paleness of her skin to good effect, and the man in the gold and dark navy blues of Etruria. The man held himself tense and stiff as the marble statues lining the hall, while the girl seemed more relaxed, but Priscilla could see her gloved hands fingering the edge of her sleeves. Still so young, after all! And yet... older, still, than she had been, so long ago.

So many memories. So many promises. She thought tiredly of knights and of honor. Time past and time future, and the long slow turning of the shadow; flying dragons and secret laughter, and questions unanswered after all these years.

In the end, it was all very simple, really.

"Indeed, the path before you is not an easy one," said Priscilla at last, and noted with some satisfaction the brief flicker of surprise that played across the Knight General's face. She turned to the young woman then and smiled. "But remember -- you are not alone."

With that, she took their leave.

o-o-o

And so, when Priscilla received the invitation to tea later that day, it should come as no surprise that she simply set it aside, and soon forgot about it entirely. Three weeks later, an official inauguration ceremony was held, despite hostile mutterings from various segments of court and a few more vocal protests that were soon mysteriously silenced. Priscilla did not attend the ceremony; however, she did send an anonymous note of congratulations to the new Mage General that night.

As for Minister Roartz and Lord Arcard? I wish I could say that they took this sudden snag in their plans well, or, that in view of their defeat in this fairly minor incident, they gave up their ambitions entirely and turned their efforts to the continued prosperity of the kingdom...

But well, as they say, humankind cannot bear very much reality.

The End