Disclaimer: I don't own Fire Emblem. I just like playing with the characters.
Summary: FE6,7. Against a backdrop of political turmoil, two friends find their relationship beginning to shift in unexpected directions.
Pairings: Cecilia/Percival, implied/mentions of Oswin/Serra and others.
Rating: T, for violence, themes.
Notes: Actually this is a one-shot (in my head), but it got, uhhh, "kinda" long... The fic itself ties in with "The Deception of the Thrush" and "No Time for the Dead" and the rest of the stories in my fic-verse, but reading them first is unnecessary. I've been playing around with the basic idea for this fic for quite a while, but was recently (early April) inspired by GORGEOUS Cecilia/Percival fanart that I found on Japanese fansites... Anyway, anything you recognize as snippets of support conversations/game script was snagged from GameFAQs and reworked by myself while referencing the original Japanese from Pegasus Knight, though I tried to keep it to a minimum. (4/25/08: fixed for minor inaccuracies) (6/04/08: moar fixes, mostly typos)
Sand and Moonlight
They held the funeral on a gray, overcast afternoon. A dark sea of mourners gathered at the city gates, and though she had known well enough that Prince Mildain was much loved by the people -- for indeed, had not she loved him just as well? -- the sight took Cecilia by surprise. Men and women, elderly and young alike, many of them weeping openly: it seemed as if the entire city had come to pay their respects.
The crowd parted down the center as the procession filed past, through the silent streets of the white capital. In the front marched the royal guard, solemn and stately in their blues and golds. Behind them, six black horses drew the royal hearse, accompanied by the pallbearers. The king himself, lost and white and small in his dark ceremonial robes, followed them like a pale ghost, flanked at a respectful distance by his advisers and distant male relations. Next came the Grand Admiral and Great General Douglas, stiff and straight-backed, and at last, Percival, with she to his left and Klein to his right, looking young and awkward in the new uniform that marked his recent promotion. Still behind them were representative detachments from their respective divisions: seamen and knights, mages and archers.
It had been a riding accident. Cecilia had refused to believe it at first. Prince Mildain had always been acknowledged as a most excellent horseman, and the pedigree of his magnificent white stallion had boasted generations of illustrious sires. It had been inconceivable to her, then, that such a horse could have shied during what had been a routine outing, that such a rider could have been thus thrown to his death... But Lord Douglas himself had been present at the scene -- had, in fact, been the first at the prince's side. And Lord Douglas was a true and honorable man.
They had not had time to mourn, Percival and Klein and she. Poor Klein, to have been struck by the news just as he was beginning to juggle his new responsibilities as Archer General. His grief, at least, was etched clearly in his face, to those who knew to look for it. Percival, on the other hand... In the chaos of the past few days, they had not had a chance to speak. And now, as he strode at her side, eyes fixed straight ahead, expression grim and bleak, she realized that she could not read him.
Some time later, they reached the Hall of the Dead some distance outside the gates, where the prince would be laid to rest among the remains of the ancient kings and queens of Etruria whose blood had run through his veins. The columns of soldiers behind them split, marching on ahead to take a roundabout course back to the capital, leaving just the core of the procession in the still white courtyard. Before the steps of the Hall awaited the few female members of the royal family, cousins and aunts many times removed, and a small delegation from the Church helmed by the Archbishop. Cecilia stood and watched as the procession reformed and entered before her. Through the doors, she could see the courtiers already assembled respectfully inside, among them the Countess of Caerleon, and even Lord Arcard, back from the Western Isles in a rare appearance. Then the doors closed, and she left with the other generals, haunted by a vague sense of finality.
She had wanted to see his body one last time, just to confirm for herself that this was all real, that he was now forever gone from them. But the fall the prince took had been a terrible one, and none had been allowed to look inside the coffin after the healers pronounced him dead. And now she would never set eyes on him again, whether living or dead. The royal guard would keep vigil over the body for three days and three nights, and then it would be interred in one of the cold marble tombs beneath the earth.
The generals came to a stop before the city gates, lost and hesitant.
"I... must excuse myself now, my lords, my lady," said Klein, his good breeding coming to the rescue. "I have duties I must attend to."
All at once they seemed to stir from their stupor. Lord Douglas, face lined with stress and looking far older than Cecilia remembered, excused himself as well with the mention of urgent personal business at the port. The Grand Admiral offered to accompany him, but Lord Douglas declined, brows creased in a frown. In response, the admiral simply shrugged and took his leave.
And then only Cecilia and Percival remained. They looked at each other. Then, in tacit agreement, they turned together in the direction of the castle.
For some time they walked in silence. A light drizzle started, brushing cool and feathery against her face. All the world seemed cast in faded reflections, as if in a dream. And so too was it that she found herself speaking, her voice a distant, pensive murmur.
"What will happen now?"
He turned to face her then, and she was struck by the sudden, unfamiliar vulnerability in his expression.
"I don't know," he said, and seemed almost bewildered in his own uncertainty.
They did not speak again.
"There has been quite a bit of speculation going on regarding the inheritance of the throne," the Countess Caerleon observed, when she next called on Cecilia, more than a month later. The countess was widely considered an eccentric woman, more eccentric even than the infamous Reglays, yet even so, she wielded a good deal of influence at court. Despite her quiet, unobtrusive manner and lack of blood connections, she had a certain charisma about her that had attracted more than a few powerful friends and allies to her side over the years. And so it was that Cecilia, ever since her ascension to the position of Mage General some two years previously, had struck up a tentative friendship with the other woman as well, despite their difference in age.
Lady Priscilla, as the countess had requested Cecilia to address her, was Lycian by birth, though she had been raised since childhood in Etruria. Perhaps it was for that reason the older woman had been less affected by the prince's passing than most. It was hard to tell, sometimes, with Lady Priscilla. The countess was one of the most inscrutable and unfailingly inoffensive individuals Cecilia had ever met, which was saying something, considering the circles in which they both moved, and the unspoken rules by which they all operated.
"I doubt the king will name a new heir anytime soon," said Cecilia.
"Yes, I suppose you're right. King Mordred is so lost in his grief that it seems as if he exists only in his own world these days."
Cecilia could not tell if there was any irony in the remark. "Yes, after all, Prince Mildain was His Majesty's only child..."
"A pity, then, that he never had more children!"
"Mm... perhaps." The king had been madly in love with his wife the late queen, and after she had died in childbirth, he had never remarried, despite urging from many. Had it happened a few years earlier, those might have included even Cecilia's own father, who had long desired the queenship for his beloved sister. But Cecilia's aunt had loved another...
"You seem hesitant. Do you not agree?" asked the countess, her striking green eyes gentle and kind as ever.
"It's not that I disagree," said Cecilia. "Of course I wish there was some way to stop all these inappropriate rumors from flying around. And if there were a second prince, or even a princess, everything would be much simpler now. But..."
"But you were good friends with the late prince too, were you not? Forgive me. I should have realized."
Cecilia smiled, shaking her head. "I dare not presume to the late prince's friendship. But yes, I cared for him. He was... a brilliant man."
"Yes. He certainly was."
After that, their talk turned to other subjects. Cecilia spoke of the new recruits she had begun to train; the countess spoke of Bern's recent invasion of Ilia and Sacae, and of the latest troubles with bandit activity and uprisings in the mining colonies on the Western Isles. Minister Roartz had sent out Klein to be stationed there soon after the funeral, ostensibly to help the Grand Admiral, who had already been patrolling the seas there for some time, deal with the situation on land. But Cecilia knew also that Roartz had no great love for the Reglay family, and Klein was not the first who had ever been shunted off to a remote post out of spite.
To Klein she had offered the same encouragement Lord Douglas had given her when she had been sent to Ostia, for a posting even more obscure than the Western Isles even if closer in terms of physical distance, and lacking even the practical experience of the battlefield. For no matter the reasons for Klein's posting, here indeed was an excellent opportunity for him to prove his worth, an opportunity she never would have been granted had it not been for Klein's father, the Duke of Reglay.
Klein had accepted her congratulations most graciously, and though he had said nothing, Cecilia knew he had been disappointed that Percival had not been there to see him off as well. Percival had always been like a brother to the younger man, and his words would have meant more to him than anything Cecilia could have told him. Percival had sent word that he was too busy. But Cecilia knew the truth: he was burying himself in his work. It was his way of coping. Ever since they were young... He had done the same when his father had died, soon after Lord Douglas had taken him on as his personal squire, more than ten years ago now, throwing himself deeper and deeper into his training until at last Cecilia had invited him to her manor in attempt to take his mind off his troubles -- But things were different now. As children they had often taken solace in each other's company, but now they were older, with duties of their own, appearances to uphold.
Still, even when he had left to campaign along the Ilian border and she had begun her studies under Duke Reglay and Master Erk, even when she had been sent to Ostia and he had been busy with his duties as Knight General, they had kept in touch, exchanging letters regularly. And when she had been recalled to the capital to take on the position of Mage General, he had been there, at her side, supporting her where he could against the doubt and prejudice against her sex. But not once had he spoken to her in the past few weeks, though she had often seen him passing by in the halls and the courtyards of the castle.
"By the way, I have heard that Minister Roartz hired a wing of pegasus knights to assist in the Western Isles."
"What?" said Cecilia, roused from her reverie. "I have heard nothing of this. Did he consult Lord Douglas first?"
"I was hoping that you might know, actually. I had been under the impression that the employment of mercenaries is generally looked down upon among our people..."
"Yes, well, our military is powerful enough that we should not have to rely on mercenaries." Indeed, the practice of hiring mercenaries, so commonplace in the Lycian territories, as Cecilia had found to her surprise during her stay in Ostia, was looked down upon as a sign of weakness by most Etrurians; though occasionally, individual nobles, lacking the ability to raise sufficient arms for the king or other personal reasons, took part in the practice as well. Historically, such actions were almost always a sign of intended aggression or uprising... But to hire mercenaries for the purposes of the kingdom? Such a thing was practically unheard of.
Lady Priscilla nodded. "I thought so. So you think Minister Roartz took action on his own?"
"I don't know. Lord Douglas has been under considerable pressure these past few weeks." There had been some who had accused Lord Douglas of negligence in the matter of the prince's accident, and even worse. Others had criticized his conspicuous absence from court in the weeks after the funeral. The speculation had been further fueled by an apparent break between Lord Douglas and the king just within the last week. The rumors were ridiculous, of course. Lord Douglas had served the king for decades, and was the most loyal knight in his service. But it was only human nature to doubt.
"I see," said Lady Priscilla, and for the first time since their friendship had begun, Cecilia thought she detected a hint of concern in the older woman's voice. After a few more minutes of idle chatter, Lady Priscilla excused herself, leaving Cecilia to her thoughts.
It had been at another funeral that they had met, the prince and Percival and she. So many years ago now. So many years. They had been but children then, and her mother laid still and dead among a bed of white flowers...
She would have to talk to the other generals, she decided then, shaking aside the memory. For even if Percival would not speak to her, she, at least, would speak to him.
A few days later, while walking down the main hall, Cecilia caught sight of Percival at last, and quickened her step.
At her voice, he stopped, turned around. His eyes met hers, and he bowed his head in acknowledgment.
"Cecilia. What is it?"
She lowered her voice to a murmur as she reached his side. "Percival. Do you have time? I have something I must discuss with you in private."
He hesitated, then nodded. They strolled side by side, down the long corridors and into the empty courtyard. Once there, she relayed to him what Lady Priscilla had told her. He said nothing in reply, but listened, and the frown on his face grew ever deeper.
At last, he said, "The Lady Caerleon is certain of this?"
"I believe she would not have told me if she were not."
They lapsed into silence. After some time, Percival said, "I do not believe Lord Douglas gave his consent in this. It is not like him."
"Is the situation in the Western Isles truly so bad, that Minister Roartz thought it necessary to supplement our forces there?"
"Even if that were true, this is a matter of the military."
"I know," she said. "I've asked around -- there are some saying that it was Lord Arcard who requested the reinforcements."
"Lord Arcard?" He pronounced the man's name with a faint distaste. "The man is a fool."
"Yes. Still, he is the one in charge of the colonies... And the mercenaries of Ilia are said to be more reliable than most. It is not altogether unprecedented of a move. Weren't there some fighting on our side during the border campaign a few years ago?"
He made a noise of agreement, and she added, "My father despises them with a passion, though. Apparently my aunt ran off with one some years before I was born. And you know my father's temper..."
At that she thought she saw his lips twitch vaguely upwards, but perhaps it was only wishful thinking, for a moment later the frown had returned, along with a strangely troubled look in his eyes.
"Even so, we must be wary," he said. "There are some who decry Bern's recent actions, and have begun calling for action from the Etrurian military."
"It's terrible, what Bern's done. I cannot understand why. Their actions have disrupted the balance of power, destroyed the peace we had known for generations -- what could they be thinking?"
"There is nothing we can do until the king commands us."
"I know." She hesitated. "Percival, about..."
He stiffened, his face and posture undergoing an instant transformation to a distant, blank slate, as if he knew exactly what she was about to say.
"My apologies. I still have work to attend to. If that is all?"
"Yes," she said after a moment, gazing up into his face. "I apologize for taking up your time."
As she watched his back retreating into the distance, a sudden, inexplicable grief overcame her. In the end, she could do nothing but turn and walk back down the long white corridor, alone.
As the months passed, the situation only continued to deteriorate. Every few weeks brought news of another Ilian fortress fallen, another Sacaen tribe vanquished, until at last even the bustling trading center at Bulgar had been decimated, and both lands entirely subdued, only small pockets of resistance remaining. In the Western Isles, the rebel movement solidified into a force to be reckoned with, and even at court in Aquileia, a subtle unrest echoed the violent turmoil in distant lands.
Cecilia saw the king less and less, and even on the rare occasion that he made an appearance, the Minister Roartz hovering ever at his side, whispering at his ear, she was torn by the shadow of the man he had become. He had been an imposing man throughout her youth, both kind and stern at once, with a terrifying, unspoken majesty to her child's eyes. But now he had become nothing but a shriveled old man. At the same time, Lord Douglas was called away from the capital more and more, almost as if the fates were determined to separate the king from even this one remaining support, from that most loyal retainer who had served him for years and who would remain faithful even to the very end. Lady Priscilla spoke often to her too of the distinct factions that had begun to arise among the nobility: those disgusted with the king's growing incompetence, those critical of Roartz and his ilk, those calling for war against Bern, those insisting that foreign matters were of no concern to Etruria. Even without the countess's cautions to her, Cecilia had seen with her own eyes the wolves and the crows that had gathered at the feet of the throne, eager to exploit the situation for their personal aggrandizement.
And Percival, Percival, Percival saw the same as she, she knew. He completed his duties mechanically, as if in attempt to blind himself to the changes stirring all around them. It grew painful to speak to him, painful even to watch him. The prince lay as a gaping chasm between them, and the greater concerns of the kingdom served as a wedge driving them ever further apart.
The court of butterflies she had known since childhood had metamorphosed into a gathering of ghosts, flitting past like dying moths.
And then Bern invaded Lycia. Araphen soon fell, and with it Hector of Ostia. Lord Hector! Of all the people she had ever known, surely that bear of a man, the kind yet intimidating marquess of Ostia, had been among them invincible. And yet now he was dead. Cecilia thought of Hector's young daughter Lilina, who had been her most brilliant student alongside Roy of Pherae, now orphaned and alone... And yet she was not the only one who mourned. That very night, she caught sight of Lady Priscilla, face pale and stricken, a letter crumpled in her hands as she murmured again and again, "My brother! My lord brother!" In all the time that Cecilia had known the older woman, she had never lost her calm so, and Cecilia, unsettled and distressed by the scene, found that she could not watch on.
But the next time the countess dropped by, she was perfectly composed. "We must take action," she declared quietly. "Whatever is the king thinking?"
"I don't know," said Cecilia, sensing the countess's frustration beneath that placid mask. It was a frustration she shared, and understood all too well, as the king continued to forbid interference in these so-called foreign affairs. "Even the people who were insisting on neutrality before have been shaken now. After all, once Lycia falls..."
"It's that Minister Roartz," said Lady Priscilla, a new, distinct edge in her voice. "What can that man possibly be plotting? But what is there to be done? Even now that things have come to this..."
And what was there to be done, indeed? Lord Douglas had been sent away yet again, and Percival might as well have gone with him, and the king had ears for none but his minister. And in the end, general that she was, Cecilia was only a woman, with a woman's fears, a woman's worries, a woman's anxieties. The knowledge might have filled her with anger when she was younger, but she had long since learned that anger was useless. Instead, she began preparing her troops for battle in secret, and continued to bide her time.
Mere weeks later, news arrived of a rebellion in Ostia. This, at least, was not altogether an unexpected development. With the marquess's death, it was only natural that dissatisfied elements would take the opportunity to manufacture an uprising. Even so, Cecilia worried for the fate of Lord Hector's daughter, and was taken by surprise when, at her next visit, the Countess of Caerleon came not alone, but accompanied by an unfamiliar, pink-haired woman.
"This is the Lady Serra of Ostia," said Lady Priscilla, after apologizing for bringing an unexpected guest. "We are... old acquaintances."
At that, Lady Serra covered her mouth with a daintily gloved hand and gave out a shrill, girlish laugh. "Oh, really now, Priscilla. Titles are unnecessary, after all we've gone through. Just call me Serra. And you --" she turned to Cecilia, still rattling off a flood of fluent Etrurian "-- You must be the famed Mage General Cecilia of Etruria. Cecilia. May I call you Cecilia? You don't mind, do you? Priscilla here and I go way back. Any friend of hers is a friend of mine!" She laughed again.
"Not at all, Lady Serra, but..."
"Serra, if you please. And you must be wondering why I insisted upon joining you today! I've only just arrived, you see, but I thought it of utmost importance that I speak to you at once."
"Serra is the widow of the late General Oswin of Ostia," said Lady Priscilla, "who fell alongside the marquess at Araphen. She herself barely escaped with her life."
"My lord husband, may he rest in peace, was the most loyal and dedicated of men -- unlike those power-hungry bastards who think they can do whatever they please now that Lord Hector is gone. Oh! Do pardon my language." But she did not sound at all repentant. "I was too late, you see. By the time I made it back to my homeland, they had already..."
Lady Priscilla took the woman's hands in her own in an automatic, reassuring gesture.
"I understand, Lady Serra," said Cecilia. "I had the opportunity to meet your husband once, while I was stationed in Ostia, and he was indeed a most honorable man. You have my deepest sympathies." She had not, however, realized the man was wed -- and to such a woman as this! "Would it be presumptuous of me to assume that the reason you have come here now is to request protection for yourself under our king while the rebel forces remain in power?"
The smile Lady Serra flashed then reminded her of a fox's grin. "Oh, you are a sharp one, Cecilia. I am so glad our Lady Lilina had the chance to study under your tutelage... But I'm afraid you are only partially correct. You see, I have, in fact, come to negotiate an alliance."
"I never knew you had such interesting friends, Lady Priscilla," said Cecilia, smiling, much later that night.
"Yes, well... it was all a long time ago."
"I must give her credit, though. To have had the sheer nerve to request an audience with our king, and then to make such demands of him, when she is hardly in any position to negotiate..." But that sob story Lady Serra had presented to the king had certainly been effective. The king had made no promises as of yet, but it had been the most responsive Cecilia had seen him in months... Minister Roartz had been utterly beside himself. For a moment, Cecilia found herself wishing that the prince were still alive, to share in her amusement -- had it truly been a year already? -- but she swiftly brushed the thought away.
Lady Priscilla laughed. "Yes, that's always been her way." She fell silent, then added, "I always envied her, you know. Even when we were young... she always knew exactly what it was that she wanted, and took it without any hesitation."
And Cecilia wondered then, not for the first time, what regrets the other woman harbored, that they still haunted her, even after so many years.
Two weeks passed thus. Lady Serra continued to make addresses to the king. Whether they were at all effective, or if the minister had hampered her efforts, Cecilia did not know. But when she received the letter from Roy of Pherae, now leading the Lycian Alliance army in place of the fallen Lord Hector, despite his youth, she knew that it no longer mattered.
She found Percival alone in his quarters, poring over old documents in the candlelight. She handed the letter to him silently. After a while, he looked up.
"You intend to ride to his aid."
"Of course. He is -- was my student. I can't just stand by. Not anymore."
"Even against the king's orders?"
She hesitated. "Yes."
He looked at her for a very long time, until at last, he stood. "If we ride hard, we should be able to make it there in less than two weeks' time."
She broke out into a smile, but he was gone before she could thank him.
The king, through Roartz, declared himself "greatly displeased" upon her return. Despite that, both she and Percival managed to escape any major consequences from their actions. Lady Priscilla, who had covered for them during their absence, told Cecilia that it was likely due to the combined efforts of Lady Serra with her continued addresses, as well as Percival himself. He had apparently sought an audience with King Mordred right at the last minute, and obtained orders to accompany Cecilia to make sure she did not "get out of hand". Roartz had been absolutely furious, said Lady Priscilla, and Cecilia had smiled, and the countess herself had seemed both pleased and troubled at once. The generals' actions had been a perfect opportunity for some much-belated political posturing, the countess had said then, but now... Now, they could only wait and see how Bern would respond.
"I must thank you for your help," Cecilia said to Lady Serra, as soon as she had a chance to speak to her. "If it weren't for your persuading the king against Minister Roartz's insistence that I be punished..."
"Not at all, not at all," replied Lady Serra, eyes glinting in the dim evening light. "Consider it a gesture of goodwill, from a friend to a friend."
"I suppose you'll be heading back to Ostia now that the castle's been secured?"
"Oh, no, certainly not!" The woman threw her head back and laughed. "I've wanted to see the sights of Etruria ever since I was a girl! It's been such a relief to know that my homeland is safe now. I figure it's the perfect opportunity to take a little vacation, don't you think? After all, a noblewoman such as myself must not overworry over petty matters -- why, I might even grow old before my time, from all that stress! And what would that do to my legendary beauty?"
Cecilia laughed politely, ignoring the gnawing uncertainty at the back of her mind. "Well, I suppose you're right, Lady Serra. I hope you enjoy your stay."
"Yes," said Lady Serra then, in a more subdued tone, and Cecilia was taken back by the sudden, bitter irony in her voice. "I always thought it'd be like homecoming..." But a moment later, she seemed to recover her spirits, and said, "Oh, how silly of me! I meant to ask -- you will show me around the city, won't you, my friend?"
After a moment of hesitation, Cecilia agreed.
The weeks that ensued were quiet and uneventful -- almost too much so. Lady Serra began making increasingly frequent appearances at court until she had practically become a constant fixture there. Half the court was at an utter loss as to how to handle her, while the other half was simply overwhelmed by her forceful presence. Even Minister Roartz seemed intimidated by the woman, and it seemed, started attempting to deliberately avoid her, but to no avail. Lady Serra was, if nothing else, a most persistent individual. And yet, though Cecilia might have once found the situation entertaining, she could not seem to shake off her lingering sense of unease.
Her unease only increased when the king, acquiescing to Minister Roartz's suggestions, ordered Roy and the Lycian army to the Western Isles. Cecilia escorted them there, not without doubts, before returning to Aquileia, now with the Princess Guinevere of Bern in her charge.
The awareness of the precarious balance that they were all now trapped in hung over her like a dark, heavy cloud.
High noon on Midsummer's Eve, and the halls of the castle were silent and cold. Cecilia had not intended to come to court, but she had received a summons from the king himself, and she could hardly disobey him now. Not after the stunt she had pulled for Ostia. Still, she could not imagine what need the king had for her. Lord Douglas was gone again from the capital, and Percival with him, sent off on some business or other. Two of the three generals away from court, and she the only one left -- And she had been on edge ever since she had received the latest letter from Roy concerning the Western Isles.
Then she heard the screaming.
Cecilia broke into a run. The clamor was coming from the direction of the main hall, where all the courtiers were certainly now gathered in preliminary celebrations for the festivities that would commence that night. She came to a stop before the grand oak doors, closed tightly shut. From within, muffled screams and the unmistakable sound of clashing steel echoed. Already a crowd of servants and palace guards had gathered, pounding on the doors, shouting. Cecilia pushed past them, releasing the locks with a swift burst of power from her staff, and flung open the doors.
Wretched, broken bodies lying in a sea of crimson and broken glass. Here, a woman, guts spilling out from the elaborate folds of her dress, fingerless hands desperately attempting to hold her body together. There, a man choking on his own blood, and beside him, what might have been someone's head. All about them, palace guards standing triumphant, uniforms stained with dark spatters, swords unsheathed and running red. And at the front of it all, King Mordred himself upon his throne, gazing blankly upon the slaughter before him. Behind him, a masked man held a blade to his throat.
Cecilia staggered back. The servants screamed, fainted, fled. Some of the guards rushed forward, into the hall, while others turned upon her, and only then did she recall herself, reaching for the tome she wielded, flinging her hand out in the ritual motions that unleashed the fury of the wind.
She ran. She flew down the halls and down the steps, to the stables where her horse awaited, and did not note the number of those who fell at her hand as they crossed her path, or lay fallen already as she passed them. She clutched her staff firmly in her hands, and did not think of the few she might save now, but of the princess of Bern, and the many who would soon be at stake.
Hoping that soldiers had not yet overrun the city, she turned her horse's head to the woods and back ways, and rode hard for Percival's small estate, where she had hidden Princess Guinevere at the abandoned groundskeeper's residence without his knowledge. The need for secrecy had been great; Cecilia had told no one of the princess's presence in the city, all too aware of her potential value as a hostage, and the consequences should she fall into the wrong hands. Percival would understand, she knew. It would have been impossible for her to harbor the princess at the Tintagel estates, under her father and grandfather's watchful eyes, especially not when her connection with Roy was fairly well known. Percival, on the other hand, rarely spent time at his home, and was above all suspicion.
She found the princess waiting for her at the gate.
"I saw you coming. What happened?" asked Princess Guinevere, golden eyes wide with something that might have been fear.
Cecilia slipped out of her saddle and grabbed the princess's arm. "An uprising at court. Let's go!"
The princess's eyes steeled. Cecilia helped her onto the horse, then mounted before her, spurring the steed into a gallop.
Eventually they reached the outskirts of the city, and dismounted in a dense, wooded area near an abandoned stone well. The princess gave her a questioning glance, but Cecilia did not answer. Perhaps she was a fool, she thought, risking everything on this one chance. Perhaps the news would not reach him until it was too late. Perhaps he would not come.
"Take this," she said then, reaching for her spare Aircalibur tome.
"If something happens," she said, "If something happens, you must escape Aquileia yourself, Princess. The walls will probably be patrolled, but there is a side exit barely anyone knows of anymore..."
Her voice came out steady and calm, calmer than she actually felt, as she explained the details to the princess. In the distance, smoke trailed to the heavens. The city was burning, the white capital of Etruria engulfed in the flames of violence, devouring flames replacing the traditional bonfires of celebration. A red glow stained the horizon as the shadows grew long, and the moon rose in honeyed splendor against the dark shroud of the sky. Gazing at it, Cecilia was reminded of the weathered gold medallions worn by the knights of Etruria as a sign of the vows they swore upon entering the order.
If the prince had not died, she thought. If the prince had not died, if he had not left them here, alone, to pick up after all the pieces he had left behind...
The clattering of hoofbeats. She gripped her tome in one hand and with the other, steadied herself with the railing of the well. A black warhorse emerged from the shadows, veering to a stop before her, rearing slightly with a shrill whinny. Her own gray reared and screamed in response.
"Cecilia!" The rider leaped to the ground, dark blue cloak swirling about him. Without thinking, she ran to him, halting just steps away.
"Percival -- You..." Her voice caught in her throat. Princess Guinevere hovered behind at her shoulder, tense and alert.
"Cecilia," he murmured again, and then he caught sight of her companion, and said, "The princess of Bern!"
Cecilia nodded, then turned to the princess at her side. "It's all right. Please, if you might..."
Princess Guinevere relaxed visibly, then gave her a shaky, understanding smile. "I'll watch your horses and stay on the lookout."
"Thank you, Princess," said Cecilia, and watched her slip away to allow them some privacy.
Percival spoke as soon as the princess was gone. "Cecilia, what's going on? Is it true that --"
She nodded. "They killed all the nobles who were there. Murdered them in cold blood. And the king... they've taken the king hostage."
He clenched his fist. "I should have been here. I should have known -- they must have sent Lord Douglas and me away on purpose --"
"But I was here. And yet there was nothing I could do..."
"Alone, you hardly stood a chance. None of us could have. But if at least two of us had been present..."
She shook her head. "I suspected something... I've suspected for a while... I should have spoken to you."
"No," he said. "No. It was I who should have noticed something was wrong. I --"
"I didn't think you'd come."
His voice lowered, softened. "I rode back as quickly as I could, the moment I heard. Lord Douglas should be here soon as well." He hesitated. "I had to make sure you had made it out alive."
She laughed weakly. "I didn't think you would remember this place."
"How could I have forgotten?"
They fell silent, and then Cecilia said, "What will you do now?"
It was a long time before he answered, and when he did, uncertainty and loss colored his voice. "With King Mordred taken hostage, I have no choice. I am sworn to defend my king at all costs... I must go to his side."
She bowed her head. It was the answer she had expected. "I understand... I too must fight on. But that path is one that I cannot take. The princess of Bern is in my charge, and I cannot let her fall into their hands."
He said nothing, but she could see in his eyes that he understood as well. She reached out for his hands, almost instinctively.
And then his mouth was on hers, unexpectedly tender and yet forceful, demanding. She stiffened, surprised, then raised her arms, flung them about his neck, burying her hands in the folds of his cloak, pulling him closer to her, falling back against the stone railing of the abandoned old well. He smelled of horse and sweat and the wind in the pines, or perhaps the wild fields of summer, and on his lips she tasted sorrow and longing and desperation. All around them, the dewy grass reflected the silvery light of the moon, casting his face in shadow. She closed her eyes, acutely aware of the whispering breeze, his hair tickling her forehead, his hands trailing down her waist.
Too soon, he pulled away, gazing at her as if he would never see her again, or perhaps as if he saw her now for the first time in his life, and she could not say which made her heart ache more.
And then, like a dream, he was gone.
Hoofbeats again, and she turned away from that silent grove, that crossroads drowned in wind and moonlight. The night would not last much longer, she thought, as she rejoined the princess of Bern. And long days lay ahead.
They remained in the capital for several more days. A risky gamble, but Cecilia knew that to run away with no plan, no direction at all, would mean certain death. Knowledge, information was key.
In the chaos, no one took particular notice of them. The streets were swarming with soldiers; despite all the efforts of the Elimine Church, bodies lay rotting on every corner, and for every maggot-infested corpse there waited ten others, barely clinging to life, who would soon join them, whether from violence or starvation. Rumors were flying everywhere, some outrageous, some maintaining a closer semblance to the truth, but it was near impossible to keep them apart. The king was dead. The king had been taken away to Bern. The three generals had betrayed him. The generals had fallen. All nobles in the capital had been slaughtered, were in hiding, had escaped, or had joined the coup d'etat. About the only thing everyone agreed upon was that Minister Roartz and Lord Arcard were the key figures behind the coup, and if only Prince Mildain were still alive...
News flooded in from the outside as well. All across the kingdom, the various noble families had already begun taking sides left and right. Cecilia worried in particular for her father and grandfather, whose relationship to her must certainly result in backlash to them in some way or other. Soon, she even heard news that the Reglays, ensconced in their countryside villa, had declared their neutrality.
But by then, staying in the capital was no longer feasible, and Cecilia began to make plans to escape to a nearby town with Princess Guinevere, whom she mostly tried to keep out of sight, but identified when necessary as her cousin Gwen. On their last day in the city, they passed by the capital's central marketplace to find a large crowd gathered, watching a small, straggling procession of soldiers drag a captive down the street. As the procession neared, Cecilia bit back a gasp. For she had recognized the captive: it was her friend the Countess of Caerleon. Her renowned crimson hair had been cropped girlishly short, almost as if in protest of the events of the past few days, and she was dressed in the plain white shift of a prisoner marked for execution. Even more shocking was the second woman who walked freely alongside the soldiers, smirk plastered firmly on her face as she flirted and laughed and chattered away shamelessly -- Lady Serra of Ostia.
But perhaps most surprising of all was the look on Lady Priscilla's face. Cecilia had expected sorrow, perhaps. Anger, regret, shame, resignation. But instead, the countess carried her head high, smiling a soft, secret smile, looking almost triumphant in her defiance, and younger and freer than Cecilia had ever seen her.
It was the last Cecilia saw of her before she took Princess Guinevere by the hand and slipped away, unnoticed.
The town that they escaped to had already been overrun by soldiers as well. But there, at least, they had more freedom for movement than they had been able to afford while in Aquileia. And so Cecilia, with help from the princess, began to organize a counter-rebellion group among the scattered remnants of the Etrurian army. She was touched to find that many of her men remained loyal to her, assembling to her side as soon as they heard of her survival. But not all of them did. Some had been killed during the initial takeover; others had sided with the coup d'etat forces, whether because they had never truly respected her as a leader, or out of more pragmatic reasons. She could not blame them, though she wished to. For what soldier in their right mind would willingly join the losing side of a conflict, a hopeless cause led by a woman who had hardly seen any true battle herself? But enough came. Enough that she took heart, and continued to muster men to her cause even after it was announced that the Great General and the Knight General had surrendered, and she herself, the Mage General, declared a traitor to the kingdom.
Still, with their numbers, they could not hope to retake the capital. Instead, she decided, they would fight in the surrounding countryside, harassing the coup d'etat forces with their relatively small numbers in hopes that Roartz's grip on the rest of the kingdom would thus be unable to solidify... The people would suffer, she knew. They were always the one who suffered most, through these petty power struggles of the nobility.
But she had no choice. She was the only one who could do what needed to be done now.
So they fought. Fought, and lost, again and again, and continued to fight. And yet still Cecilia pressed on. She tried not to dwell on the knowledge that the opponents she faced were likely Lord Douglas and Percival himself; the enemies she fought, men who had once been under her command. And yet, despite her best efforts, her troops found themselves gradually pushed further and further back, until at last they retreated to the western end of Missur. They appropriated the mossy, abandoned ruins of the ancient castle that had once stood there, set up what defenses they could, and began to wait for the approaching combined onslaught of troops led by the Knight General of Etruria and General Narshen of Bern that had been reported by their scouts.
On the last night before their enemies had been estimated to arrive, Cecilia took aside Princess Guinevere in secret.
"Princess, I think you must have realized this already... but our ways part here."
"You... would have me escape this place alone."
"Yes. This will probably be our final stand. Your survival is of utmost importance. I promised Roy that I would protect you, but..."
Princess Guinevere bowed her head. "I understand, General. I appreciate all that you have done for me..."
Cecilia smiled. "Don't worry about us, Princess. We won't go down without a fight... and we'll be giving them a fight to remember."
The princess returned her smile, but it was etched with sadness. "Thank you for everything, General Cecilia."
After one final glance, the princess slipped away into the night. Cecilia watched her go with some sorrow. The princess had been something of a friend in the past weeks, her quiet, enduring strength a comfort to Cecilia in those days of despair and uncertainty. Perhaps in another life... But no. Cecilia was determined to have no regrets. Here she would certainly meet her end, along with the meager remnants of soldiers who still fought at her side, even now, even after everything that had happened. She could not afford to regret, could not possibly let down those few who called her leader still.
They would put up their best fight, and take down as many of Bern's forces with them as they could. It was the least they could do. Failure was unacceptable, absolutely unthinkable. As for Princess Guinevere and Roy and King Mordred and everything she had already left behind -- Cecilia could only pray.
But what none of them had expected, could have expected even in their wildest dreams, was that King Zephiel of Bern himself would come.
As she lay feverish in the dank straw on the floor of her cell, she drifted. Hallucinations. Dreams. Memories. There, her father and grandfather gazing proudly at her. A red banquet, a sea of blood. Rotting corpses dangling from trees, swaying back and forth in the breeze. Prince Mildain, cowering in mock terror, laughing merrily at her tirades. Percival, weary and travel-stained, in dim candlelight. Blazing fires, men burning and screaming until their throats turned raw and their tongues curled into black crisps. Skin peeling. Coiling snakes, twisting, strangling. Her mother, white and still in a bed of flowers. Lady Priscilla, dancing and smiling and free. Lady Serra laughing and laughing and laughing and drowning drowning burning. Wind in pines, old stone ruins, sun and stars. Crimson hair, scarlet clothes, a flash of gold. Children laughing screaming dying, run through by lance and blade and hunger and disease. Fire, fire, fire. Lightning and wind and thunder. Broken shattered things in rags and crushed armor, trampled by boot and hoof. A tower of grinning white skulls upon a vast barren land. Bed of flowers white hands undying flame drowning choking black flecks of red.
Silver moonlight in a still white world, and a song of unending sorrow.
To Be Continued