Notes: So I know it makes more sense overall storywise for Percival to be recruited in Chapter 15 (the timing's more dramatic and makes for better character development). On the other hand, the Percival/Cecilia C support makes more sense to me if he's recruited in 13. So it was really hard to decide which way to go... I ended up attempting to reconcile the two different versions, but may possibly eventually write a side-story thing from Percival's POV.
The "soundtrack" I used for this fic includes: Sting's "Mad About You", "LOVE SONG" from the second Gundam 00 OST, and "Kuro" from the Darker Than Black OST. And for people who were curious about the fanart, I've included a link to the site on my profile.
The sad, soft humming of a young girl. A gentle stirring of memory, reaching out through the haze.
And then, like a sudden drop of water, clarity. And with it, the pain.
The girl hastened to her side, bearing tentative reassurances, murmuring of light and hope and other things Cecilia was not certain made any sense at all.
But she was used to that by now. Nothing had made much sense in the past year. Ever since the prince had died, nothing had been the same.
So she thrust aside her frustration, her anxiety, those dangerous ripples that threatened to disturb her calm, reminding herself as always of the folly and uselessness of reckless impatience and sudden passions.
And she waited.
She was used to that, too.
Roy came, just as the girl predicted. It was a blow to her pride, a humiliating reminder of everything she had always struggled to prove herself against, that the boy who had once been her student should now become the one riding to her rescue. And yet it gave her a certain undeniable pride in turn as well, to see how he had grown. And how he had grown! Had it truly only been weeks since she had seen him last, heading off into the misty wilds of the Western Isles? If he had been but a boy then still, he had surely become a man now.
How strange it was. How inconceivable.
The princess of Bern, flanked by a young cleric and a redheaded knight, was among those who came with Roy to the cell to retrieve her and her fellow captive. Some time later, after the flurry of reports and other exchanges had ended and Roy had been hustled away by his advisers to deal with other matters, Cecilia found herself alone in the hall with the princess's retainers. The cleric ducked her head, blushing, as she noticed Cecilia's scrutiny. The knight, standing by the cleric in a stiff, uncertain pose, returned her gaze coolly. Cecilia thought she ought to say something, and opened her mouth, but just then the princess returned.
"I am glad to see you well, General Cecilia," Guinevere said, with a gentle smile. She commanded an effortlessly soothing, magnetic presence, acutely reminiscent of the aura the late prince too had possessed. Almost instantly the tension in the air seemed to defuse, and the oddity of the situation struck Cecilia at last.
She laughed, humorlessly, but not unkindly. "Our paths cross again."
"So it seems." The princess, still smiling, gave a subtle gesture to her two retainers, and they stepped forward, the cleric curtsying and the knight bowing.
"It is an honor, General Cecilia," said the knight, a reluctant but steely respect reflected in her eyes. "I am Miledy of Bern, and this is Sister Ellen, also of Bern. We are both in service to the Princess Guinevere, and as such, we owe you our greatest thanks for your protection and aid of our mistress."
Cecilia shook her head. "There is no need to thank me," she said. The pride of the Bernese wyvern knights was well known even in Etruria, and faced with it directly now for the first time, she realized it made her uncomfortable. "I merely acted in the best interests of my kingdom."
"Even so," insisted the cleric, so young and so earnest, though from her appearance she must have only been a few years younger than Cecilia. "How can we ever repay you?"
"You have repaid me more than enough already in riding to my aid. By all rights, I should not even be alive now."
"Oh! That's right! I heard that you had suffered grievous injuries -- I am trained in the use of staves. Please allow me to attend to them."
"Ellen!" muttered the knight.
"Oh -- I'm sorry." The cleric blushed prettily. "Am I being presumptuous?"
"No, not at all," said Cecilia. Her wounds had indeed been severe; she would bear the scars the rest of her life, she knew. Though that strange girl, that mysterious priestess of the hidden village and the fantastic stories of dragons and heroes and ancient secrets, had treated them well enough with her limited experience and resources, the injuries had yet to fully heal, even now. And due to the nature of staves, she could not heal herself... She smiled. "If your mistress will allow it."
Guinevere nodded. "Of course. I must apologize myself, as well. The tome that you lent me... My brother's men took it."
Cecilia shook her head again, but before she could say anything, the princess continued, "As my apology, I thought I would inform you --" her smile gained a suggestion of genuine amusement "-- There is someone whom I believe wishes to see you very much."
Cecilia blinked, puzzled. The only person she could think the princess might mean was Lilina, whom she had not seen or spoken to since the Western Isles. But by then, Sister Ellen was already dragging her off, and she lost her chance for clarification. Still, she supposed she would find out in time, and did not let the matter concern herself further.
So it was that she joined the ranks of the Lycian Alliance army, no longer a general, no longer a resistance leader, but a mere soldier once more. Those few of her troops who had survived remained behind to man the castle. She felt an odd sense of gratefulness toward them, and did not think of those she had left behind, but of the paths that stretched ever onward.
As they headed deeper into the desert, into the ever-shifting sands of Nabata, she kept mostly to herself, desiring neither attention nor interaction. While in the cell there had been much time for her to think, and even now, solitude remained habitual, almost seductive. She reflected on the stories of her youth, of songs and histories, legends and fairy tales. There had always been countless rumors about the Duke and Duchess of Reglay and their frequent disappearances; those rumors now began to assemble into some vague sense. Like a child's innocent daydreams, she thought, emerging steadily into the light of reality. How simple those days had been. How uncomplicated. Faith had come easily. It had departed just as freely.
Soon enough, they encountered enemy troops, and her mind grew occupied by battle instead of old regrets. She reunited with Lilina several days into the fighting. The girl was indeed overjoyed to see her, and Cecilia too was seized once again by a sense of bittersweet pride, watching the girl casting spell after spell into the unnatural sandstorm that enveloped them. Lilina was a strong girl, stronger than it might seem to one who did not know her. The girl would surpass even herself in time, thought Cecilia, and yet the loss of her father had changed her; though she remained as sweet and kind as Cecilia remembered, her smile was no longer unburdened and carefree, and the dark weight that now shadowed her every move had become more apparent since Cecilia had last seen her.
A few days later, she saw another familiar face in the distance: Klein, who, Cecilia noted, wore his uniform much more naturally now, fighting alongside an unfamiliar pegasus knight and a girl who appeared to be his younger sister Clarine. She was happy to see them, glad to see that Klein had not fallen against Roy at the Isles, though somewhat surprised at the presence of his sister. Too late, she thought to call out. Trying to catch another glimpse of them, she urged her horse forward, ignoring the sand that pelted at her skin despite the head covering wrapped protectively about her face. The scorching wind whipped at her clothes, and clouds of dust and sand whirled through the air. Her horse stumbled, sank. For a brief moment, her vision cleared again.
Her voice caught halfway in her throat.
A mirage, she thought, as sand obscured her view again and Lilina shouted a warning. A moment later, the enemy soldier fell to a bolt of lightning.
Cecilia lifted a hand to her head. No fever dream, no vision of delirium was this.
But it could not be him. Not Percival.
Nearby, a soldier cried out in pain, and she turned her thoughts back to the battle, raising her staff in the direction of the injured man.
That night, she could not sleep, but listened to the wind howling outside her tent.
Days passed. Even with the guidance of the mysterious young priestess, progress was slow as their large group struggled through wind and dunes, and the enemies who came attacking from sky and earth under cover of the sandstorm only hindered them further.
She had not thought of Percival since their parting on the night of the coup, but thoughts of him consumed her now, when she was not busy healing or fending off attacks. The image of his face had grown hazy in her mind. Perhaps she had only imagined him, she thought, conjuring up an illusion of him in a brief moment of foolish nostalgia. He was not a man who would turn so easily from duty, not a man who would abandon his king during the time of his greatest need. Not a man who would turn traitor to his country, even for the best of causes.
She could have easily asked Roy or any of her fellow soldiers for confirmation, but, perhaps fearing the answer she would receive, she did not.
Almost a month had passed before they sighted the destroyed gates of the hidden village at last. A small detachment of the army had begun to descend into the underground chamber of the ancient temple standing at its center when Cecilia heard Roy speaking to someone before her. The voice that replied was that of a man's, too soft for her to make out the words, but possessing an achingly familiar timbre. As Roy disappeared down the dimly lit stairs, the man turned, and their eyes met.
"Pr... Prince Mildain...!?"
The man said nothing in reply. Her eyes burned, and she continued, voice trembling, "Your Highness! You were alive!?"
For he could be no ghost. She had heard him answering Roy's query, and his presence here was too real, too solid. But his face had grown sickly and gaunt, and the hair he had kept tied back in the popular fashion had grown long and was now braided loosely, like a woman's. In truth, he barely resembled the man she had known and loved. That man had been gentle and kind, and yet confident, vibrant, strong, nothing like the frail, faded wisp of a shadow standing before her now. Even so, she could see the traces of that man she had known lurking in his features, and knew it could be none other than him.
At last, the man said, "Have you mistaken me for someone? I am Elphin... a mere bard."
"It can't be..." she whispered, doubt creeping into her heart. "But you...! No... And yet how could it be... The prince is dead..."
Dead and gone, buried deep beneath the earth, and surely even the mythical power of the dragons could not raise a man from that long, final rest.
"Is something the matter?"
"No, it's nothing..." And yet, that voice, those eyes...
She barely noticed as he excused himself and left, following after Roy.
He looked just like him. Too much like him.
The sandstorm cleared that very afternoon, as they emerged victorious at last from the temple, the Divine Weapon of the legendary sage Athos in hand. In the crowd she tried again to seek for familiar faces, but nowhere did she see Klein or Lilina, nor even the bard who was now serving as Roy's tactician and who had supposedly directed the rebellion in the Western Isles as well. The area was teeming with soldiers, some of whom she recognized, but most of whom she did not. A good portion of them, it seemed, were heading to the outdoor baths that the village boasted.
Cecilia recalled the crowds that gathered regularly at the public baths in Aquileia, especially after particularly big fights at the arena, and realized she had little desire to partake in the raucous chaos of the victory celebration that was sure to ensue now. Instead, she lingered behind, helping several other healers tend to the wounded.
By the time she finally made it to the baths, the sun had already set, and the carousing had mostly scattered into smaller groups and moved to other areas. Cecilia could hear the muffled sounds of laughter in the distance. Still, the baths were not yet completely empty; a lean, muscled woman sat soaking in the water, and let out an impressed whistle as Cecilia joined her.
"Hey. Nice scar."
Though she was taken aback, she smiled in reply. "Thank you. I think."
The woman threw her head back and laughed. "Got quite a few of them myself, but nothing quite like that baby." Then, as if sensing Cecilia's discomfort, she added, "Don't worry, I won't ask."
"Thank you," Cecilia said again, closing her eyes. She did not look down at the scar, slicing across her waist and torso in a jagged, angry red line, nor at the smaller, matching cut on her shoulder. She did not know if her armor had saved her, or if it had worsened the wounds instead. The pain that still occasionally resurfaced was a constant reminder of what she had been through. But that hardly mattered now. She was alive.
After a while, the woman spoke again. "Name's Echidna. You?"
She hesitated. "Cecilia."
"Ah," replied the woman, somewhat thoughtfully. "A new face, aren't you? Didn't feel like joining the partying? Folks around here are all pretty friendly, you know."
"Yes. To tell the truth, I'm a bit tired."
The woman chuckled. "Oh, yeah. I definitely feel ya. Well, I won't bother you anymore, then. I'm sure you've got a lot on your mind. General."
Cecilia stiffened, suddenly realizing why the woman's name had sounded so familiar. "You're..."
The mysterious hero of the Western Isles, champion of the weak and the poor, appearing out of nowhere at the hour of the people's greatest need, just like in the stories of old. The bane of Lord Arcard and the other nobles overseeing the mining operations, the persistent thorn in their side whom all their efforts had failed to eliminate. The figure around whom the initially scattered uprisings had, in the end, coalesced.
"Hey, like I said. Don't worry about it. After all, we're on the same side now, aren't we?"
"Besides, I've heard nothing but good things about you. You can't be blamed for what happened on the Isles. Not when you and the other two Generals weren't even aware of the true situation there."
Cecilia shook her head, but before she could say more, the sound of a nearby scuffle reached her ears.
"It was a mistake! A mistake! I had been informed that the men's baths were to the right -- little did I know that they would be blessed by the presence of such beauties instead -- I mean, err -- No no no, you misunderstand me! I --"
She blinked, recognizing the intruder as Father Saul, who had accosted her during the battle in the desert, though she had forgotten the incident until now. She knew his type well, though admittedly never before in a religious man such as he, and had long devised and set aside a method of dealing with men like him. But to her surprise, she realized that she also recognized the man now wordlessly dragging him away by the collar of his robes.
Her face heated as their eyes met, and she quickly averted her gaze.
It was Percival.
Echidna was laughing so hard that the surface of the water billowed darkly past in waves. The woman began to step out, and Cecilia could not help but glance back to see what she intended.
"Here," said Echidna, still laughing as she pulled on a loose shift. She considered Cecilia briefly before winking and turning back to Percival, grinning deviously. "Let me take care of him."
Saul blanched and opened his mouth, whether out of shock at the view or merely in protest, but before anyone could do anything, Echidna had already relieved the priest from Percival's hands and disappeared, leaving only Cecilia and Percival behind.
Cecilia could not look at him. He had apparently just come from the baths himself, for he was wearing nothing but long trousers, and his normally fair hair was dark and dripping with moisture. No words came to her. And yet the silence was unbearable.
After a moment, she heard him turn, and she rose from the water, unthinking.
His footsteps halted. She hastily dried herself and pulled on her own white slip, suddenly all too aware of the distance between them. She hesitated, then approached.
He did not turn. "... Cecilia. Have your injuries healed?"
It was him. It was truly him. And so he had heard... And yet, why? Why?
But in the end, she said only, "Mm. I managed to survive somehow."
"I see," he said, still refusing to look at her, and for a long time they did not speak. Her heart brimmed with confusion, overflowing with a whirlpool of questions, questions she could not seem to bring herself to voice out loud. She gazed out upon the desert and shivered. The overwhelming heat of the day had dissipated by now, and even the flickering torchlight surrounding the baths faded to insignificance against the vast emptiness. A different glow pooled low and warm within her, and moonlight cast an illusory pall across the still, silent land. Drifting through the air was the faint perfume of jasmine, those distant cousins of the Ilian starflowers... The scene seemed to her strange and alien, so unlike the howling winds and raging sands she had grown accustomed to over the past weeks. Like another world entirely, a world in which there was only she, and he, and the dark and endless dunes.
At last, he said, "I'm sorry. I was there, and yet I could not go to your aid."
She shook her head automatically. "No. You only did what you had to. Please, don't worry about it."
"Thank you for saying that." Another, tremulous moment, and then he said, "I plan to make up for it with my work from now on."
"Yes," she said. "I look forward to it."
There seemed little more to say after that, and they parted ways. For a long time afterwards, she wondered why she did not ask him -- about Etruria, about the prince. About everything that would never be the same again.
Their exodus from the desert was easier than their coming, now that the storm had stilled, and their enemies scattered, though once or twice they encountered wayward bandit groups in the sands. In the days that followed, she often saw Percival, usually with Klein, and sometimes with a young dancer girl she did not recognize. A girl bubbling with life and enthusiasm, vivid and fearless. According to Lilina, she had been part of the resistance group on the Western Isles, alongside Echidna and the man who called himself Elphin.
Cecilia had watched the tactician-cum-bard when she could. More and more she had grown convinced that he was the prince they had all thought lost to them forever. He was constantly avoiding her, though he spoke freely with the other members of the army, and sang and played often for their small evening gatherings. And though Lilina had told her that it was the dancer who had persuaded Percival to turn sides, Cecilia could not believe it of him. He was not such a man. But if the prince were alive, if Percival had discovered this fact...
And yet who was this dancer girl, that she might have possessed such vital information? How could the prince have been aiding the resistance forces these past months, justified as they were in their actions, against his own country? Why, if he was still alive, had he so casually abandoned his people to the machinations of wolves... And Elphin seemed to avoid Klein and Percival just as much as he avoided her.
Nothing added up.
She watched Percival as well. She had the sense that he, too, was avoiding her... Something about him had changed, she thought. But she could not place it. She saw him sometimes eyeing the dancer with a look of what anyone else might have mistaken as sheer exasperation, and yet that she recognized as tinged with a growing, reluctant fondness. Cecilia could not tell if that fact bothered her, and if it did, why.
Once, after Saul had approached her yet another time -- though she was hardly his only or even his main object of attention, she had to admit that the man's persistence was beginning to try even her considerable patience -- the abrupt tingling sense of having fallen under the intense scrutiny of a third party grabbed hold of her. But when she whirled around, she saw only Percival in the distance, impassively coaching Saul's young bodyguard in her training with the bow. A plain, gangly girl, tall and awkward and uncertain, though it was clear even to Cecilia that she had talent. The girl blushed as Percival leaned over to adjust her grip. At that, Cecilia could not resist sneaking a glance at Saul, whose attention had also been drawn toward the pair. His mouth had dropped wide open. Cecilia bit back the laughter that threatened to bubble up within her. Soon enough, Saul seemed to remember himself, and wandered off in a somewhat dazed manner, still shaking his head.
How like him, thought Cecilia of Percival. No different from her father and grandfather after all -- Cecilia hid her smile behind a hand as the thought prompted memories of that long ago incident...
Sudden suspicion took root. Amusement fled, transforming into creeping bewilderment.
Apprehension returned to her then, haunting, obstinate, insistent.
As they approached the border, the dry sands of the desert began to give way to scattered foliage, withered and brown. The long summer was coming at last to an end, giving way to the chill winds of autumn. Harvest season, and yet as they rode through the countryside, engaging the border troops, Cecilia knew there would be little yield to celebrate this year. The earlier fighting between the coup d'etat forces and her own men had carved a swath of destruction through the famed southern verdure. With her own eyes she had seen the boundless fields burn to the ground, and with her own eyes now she saw the black, barren remains of once fertile land.
Even after they reclaimed the border fort, the hostilities did not cease. Countless once honest farmers had turned to looting and pillaging. More than once their steadily growing army was asked for aid by the villages they passed, and yet even their own soldiers often had to be disciplined for questionable behavior -- behavior that might have even called for execution in a stricter army. Roy was too kind, thought Cecilia, and the army's resources limited. She had heard that Ostia had nearly emptied its sizable coffers by now, and the other, smaller Lycian territories could hardly afford any further expenditures, with their own lands no doubt in just as much ruin. And the longer their army lingered in any one place, the greater the land and the people felt the burden. Roy and his advisers must have realized it as well; the troops pressed on in greater haste than ever before, marching relentlessly toward Aquileia.
The deeper into the kingdom they rode, the deeper the devastation grew. How little time it had taken to destroy hundreds of years of prosperity in a single blow! thought Cecilia. And how much more time would it take to recover? How many months, how many years would be needed to heal the losses of mere weeks of violence?
Even if Mildain were -- even if the prince were truly still alive --
But she could not allow herself to give in to such thoughts. Still, she knew she was not the only one who doubted. She had noticed the distant cast of Percival's eyes in the passing weeks, and found herself frightened by what it might mean.
Driven by a vague sense of urgency, she sought him out at last. He was alone, his countenance pensive and preoccupied. She spoke, moved by some strange, unfamiliar impulse. "Is something the matter? General Percival."
It was the first time they had spoken since leaving the desert, and yet still he would not look at her or acknowledge her. "The village that we passed through a while ago. It had really fallen into ruin."
"... So it had," she said quietly.
"That is probably the case all across the continent," he said. "Because of this war."
Uncertainty whispered in her heart. She could not gauge the tone of his voice. This distance that was not distance. "Mm..."
He turned to her then, startling her. When he spoke, it was with his old firmness. "We must put an end to this conflict soon. For the sake of those who cannot defend themselves."
As ever, his conviction gave her heart, reminding her of days of old. Those simple, uncomplicated days. "Yes."
But it could not ease her doubts.
She found herself drawn to him again some days later, determination congealing within her, compelling albeit obscure in purpose. She knew his habits well, knew well his daily regimen, and came upon him in the relative quiet before dawn, exactly where she had expected.
"General Percival. May I have a word with you?"
He had pretended not to notice her presence, but upon hearing her voice he could no longer ignore her, and set aside his sword. "What is it?"
She only smiled. "Still keeping up with your training, I see."
"Of course. It would not do for us to become lax, though we fight, for now, under different standards."
"Different standards..." she murmured. But then she continued, somewhat slyly, "I've seen you working with that young archer. I suppose it truly is difficult for a man like you to break old habits."
He did not respond.
"I really am grateful," she said, softening. "You and Lord Douglas were the ones who taught me everything I know."
"Hardly. Duke Reglay and..."
"Everything that matters."
Again he had no response. She took a deep breath, sighed. "You've done so much for me. Not just me, but every single person you've ever taken under your wing... Even now, your men admire and respect you greatly." It was not quite what she had intended to say.
"I wonder," he said. "If they knew --" He did not finish the sentence.
"I was surprised to see you here," said Cecilia, in attempt to fill the ensuing silence. "I didn't think I would ever..." She trailed off, lost in thought. At last, she gathered up her courage and said, "Percival. Have you met the tactician of this army?"
He considered her for some time before replying, with a careful, deliberate distance. "I have not."
"He is said to be a bard from the Western Isles, though I have heard some say he must be a nobleman's son in disguise. A rather interesting man, don't you think?"
"I would not know. I pay little heed to such rumors."
He was a terrible liar. That much, at least, had not changed. She knew, too, that it would be useless to pursue the subject.
"That night," she began instead, then hesitated. "That night, I..."
But when she saw his expression then, she could not bring herself to continue. For there, written plainly on his face, was tender regret, twisted with something chilling, final, untouchable.
"There will never be another man his equal," he said, and in that moment she understood the change she had sensed but been unable to pinpoint for so long.
Despite the distance, there was no longer any hesitation in his eyes.
In a rather perverse way, it was that conversation that finally gave her the confidence to confront the man who called himself Elphin. Anger and frustration joined forces, overpowering the last remnants of patience and common sense within her. She waited for her chance, and when one presented itself, just a few days' ride from Aquileia, Cecilia seized upon it instantly.
"Sir Elphin!" she called out, and decided that it surely could not be her imagination when he turned with a vague but unmistakably cornered look on his face.
He waited until she had caught up to him before saying, in a polite and distant tone, "Is there something I can help you with, General Cecilia?"
"Have you ever had a chance to come to Etruria before?" she asked, equally polite in her manner. Two could play at this game, after all.
He paused, seeming to consider his answer, before he replied. "Not yet... I have instead had the honor to be traveling through the Western Isles."
"... Well then," she said, undaunted. How could she be, after all those years of knowing him, years of slippery banter and subtle teasing and purposely ambiguous exchanges? "Do you know about the three Etrurian Generals?"
He hesitated again. "Indeed I have the honor of possessing this knowledge. Other than you, the Mage General, there are the two known as the Great General and the Knight General, but..."
"You are very knowledgeable."
"In the line of work I am blessed with... such things naturally reach my ear."
Slippery indeed, she thought. Just as slippery as she remembered him to be. But she had no intention of giving up the chase just yet. "Playing dumb to the end, are you? In that case, I have an idea as well."
To that, he had no response. She pressed forward, immediately swooping in on the attack.
"I wonder," she said, "if I might be allowed to see that right shoulder you are so conveniently hiding with your hair. If you are but a mere bard as you say, there shouldn't be any scar from a powerful hit of magic there, should there...!" Cecilia stepped forward, a part of her fully intending to grab him by force if necessary, as inappropriate as that might be. A year ago she could not have dreamed of overpowering him by physical strength alone. She would not have even dared. How she had panicked, all those years ago, when in a moment of misdirected ire the spell had flown forth out of her control -- How they had laughed, afterwards. But now he had grown so frail. So vulnerable.
She steeled herself against pity, against grief. "Now then..."
For a long time they stood there, locked in a standstill. At last, he sighed, and the polite, ignorant mask slipped from his face. She watched on intently, heart beating so fast she felt she could hardly breathe.
"... Cecilia. You're a terribly stubborn one, aren't you?"
She could not restrain the gasp that escaped her then. "So it is you after all, Prince Mildain!" Something that might have been fury overcame her, and the words she had been holding back for so long tumbled from her lips without stop. "Why have you become like this? Why -- why did you not tell me you were alive!"
Any other man, she thought, as the tears filled her eyes, and she might have slapped him. Any other man...
"I didn't want to get you involved," Mildain said quietly. "But I suppose it can't be helped now."
But she turned on her heel and stormed away without another word. She would not hear his explanations, which would no doubt be perfectly, frustratingly reasonable, those endless excuses of his that he never seemed to have any shortage of -- She would not. Not now, not ever again.
Percival had known, she thought. He must have known. That was why...
Such fools they all were, she thought. Such poor, silly fools.
She could not bear for them to see her weep.
Upon their arrival at the capital, Cecilia was astonished to find the streets emptied entirely of soldiers. It was nothing like the bustling, festive Aquileia of her memories, and yet neither was it the brutal, lawless mockery of a city she had left behind mere months ago. The people were starving, but they lived. The arenas and the bathhouses had been abandoned, but the marketplace still operated, though the crowds were thinner and quieter than they had ever been before.
They soon learned that the coup d'etat forces had retreated to the castle due to the dissent the Church had been stirring among the people. Roartz and Arcard feared the possibility of a popular uprising, unlikely as one might be. The spirits of the people had largely been cowed in the chaotic aftermath of the Midsummer's bloodbath. It would take more than discontent to rouse them to action now, Cecilia knew. But Roartz and Arcard had always been cowards. Now that they were no longer on the offensive, in a position of relative strength, that very quality would work to Roy's advantage.
The preparations for the assault on the castle had almost been completed when Father Saul approached her yet again. Cecilia received him with some bemusement; she had been certain she had frightened him off for good. However, as Saul nervously clarified to her before she could say anything, he had merely dropped by to relay a piece of encouraging news: her friend the Countess of Caerleon was still alive, held hostage with the king and a few other nobles. Before Cecilia could question Saul further, however, he was gone.
But she had no time to ponder how he, of all people, had come by such information. Though the golden sun of Etruria still flew proudly above the white towers of the castle, the throne within was empty of its rightful king, and inside its walls laid wait the men of Bern who had taken him captive.
The attack commenced at first light.
A pang of nostalgia struck Cecilia as they stormed through the doors, fighting shoulder to shoulder through familiar halls. Cecilia tried not to dwell on the last time she had stepped foot in them, and of everything that had occurred since. The soldiers of Bern fought fiercely, but slowly, step by step, the Lycian Alliance army began to push them back.
As her division neared the throne room, she encountered yet another familiar sight: Great General Douglas, fully armored, fighting with full force against all those who tried to pass him. Against them, she realized. And though she should not have been surprised, she cried out. He turned, and his face lit momentarily in recognition. "Cecilia, is it..."
"Lord Douglas," she said, struggling for words even as she blasted a spell at a nearby soldier. "Why is someone of your stature fighting for the coup d'etat forces..."
Even now, with victory on the horizon, the coup d'etat on the brink of collapse. He was the Great General, the pride of Etruria, the man to whom all men aspired. He had been in the perfect position to strike back against the traitors in their midst. He could have done something, anything --
But he had not. Even now... Cecilia had never believed him a man of inaction. But clearly, she had been mistaken.
"It is His Majesty whom I consider. I shall not allow any harm or incident to his person."
She stared at him in utter amazement, beginning to grasp his meaning. "But if this continues, Etruria will become nothing but a puppet state of Bern! Can there be a king without a country? If a country falls, so will its power. As time flows on, they will vanish even from the hearts from men!"
Everything they had struggled for, suffered for, everything they had sacrificed, everything they had achieved. All gone. All amounting to nothing. All crumbling away to dust, forever forgotten. Could he not see what he was doing? To himself, to them, to Etruria --
"If it is the fate of our kingdom to expire here, then it cannot be helped."
"How can you say that..." She could not believe it. She could not believe it of him. Of the man whom they had all looked up to ever since they were children, the man she had both resented and admired in turn. That old anger now arose. "That is mere sophistry! For the sake of our country, for the sake of our people, we as individuals may suffer blows and falls -- But fighting is our duty. The Etrurian army exists for the kingdom. We are not His Majesty's private soldiers!"
He said nothing for some time, fending off a young swordsman nearby before turning back to her. "... It is a difference of perspective. No, perhaps I should call it a difference in our ways of life. You will continue down your way. That is fine. I will continue walking down mine."
What about the prince? she almost shouted then. For Lord Douglas, too, must have known. His strange behavior in the months after the funeral... He had known.
The sense of betrayal that had been growing in her for months ran deep and bitter. She pushed past him, leaving him to the soldiers behind her, unwilling to face the man she considered one of her most valued mentors, unwilling to watch him die before her eyes for nothing but his own mulish pride, pride which had cost so many lives already. He would call her weak for it, perhaps. But she could not fight him. Not when things had come to this.
She ran on. She had been fighting on her own for so long already, and yet only now did she realize just how very alone she had become.
So be it, she thought. She would fight on alone.
Leaping over the bodies lying in her way, she saw, with a sudden thrill of apprehension, that the doors to the throne room had already been breached. She rushed in. Inside, the fighting was well under way. The floor was slippery with blood.
Above the din rose a familiar, arrogant voice. "Well, well. If it isn't His Excellency, Percival the Traitor."
General Narshen of Bern, whom she had thwarted in Ostia, and who had again been her opponent at Missur. Cecilia strained to find him in the confusion.
"Joining you bastards, even if temporarily, was the biggest mistake of my life... Now, for that error, I shall defeat you!"
Another familiar voice, comforting in its uncharacteristically brash resolution.
She ducked past a pair of dueling spearmen, readying a spell in her mind. "Percival!"
She reached them just in time to see Narshen thrust his spear in a downward arc. Percival blocked the blow with his sword. The blade broke from the impact, hurtled through the air. Percival stumbled back. Narshen laughed and pressed forward. But when he saw her, he stepped back in shock.
"You're..." Then he smirked. "Hmph. Haven't had enough yet, I see. Did you come to be defeated by me again?"
Percival took advantage of his opponent's distraction to grab a sword from a nearby body. Cecilia smiled thinly. "The one who defeated me was King Zephiel. Not you."
Narshen bristled. "In that case, I'll let you experience it now -- my true strength!"
With a great cry, he rushed at her. She raised her hand, chanting, unleashing her spell. Beside her, Percival leaped forward. His blade plunged into Narshen's body just as a vortex of slicing wind engulfed the man.
The man fell, thrashing, screaming incoherent epithets.
And then he was still.
All around them, the soldiers of Bern continued to fall. Outside, the clamor of battle continued to echo. But Percival and Cecilia stood alone in the chaos, breathing heavily, joined in silent victory over the body of their enemy. The late afternoon light shone through the stained glass windows behind the empty throne, steeping the room in a warm glow, disguising the stains on the walls.
"That was reckless of you," said Percival.
She had been determined to ignore him. And now, she did not know what to say.
"No more than it was of you," she replied at last, biting back a wince of pain from her throbbing scar. After a moment, she added, "Besides, I -- trusted you."
She glanced up at him, thinking of Douglas, of Mildain, and he must have guessed the reason for her distress -- though how, she could hardly imagine -- for he returned her look with an expression of understanding, and perhaps apology.
Cecilia turned her gaze back to the wall. "I still haven't forgiven you," she said. "Either of you."
But he remained at her side until Roy arrived, some time later, and declared the castle theirs once more.
Just as Saul had said, Cecilia found Lady Priscilla waiting with the other captives. When the king's well-being had been assured and things had settled down somewhat, she pulled the older woman aside.
"My lady. You survived."
"As did you, I see," answered Lady Priscilla, smiling. Her cropped hair had not yet grown back out, and Cecilia again noted the sweet, girlish look it lent her, so different from the cool, refined beauty she had cultivated in the past.
"I thought they had..." Cecilia paused. "I saw you with the Lady Serra of Ostia."
"Ah. We had taken refuge with an old mutual acquaintance of ours..." Lady Priscilla looked into the distance, lost in thought. Then she smiled again, somewhat wryly. "But, well, she betrayed our location to Minister Roartz."
"I thought you were friends."
"Yes. I suppose you could say that."
"She always knew exactly what she wanted," murmured Lady Priscilla. "I understand now. It was Ostia's freedom she desired."
Cecilia frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Certainly she appreciated our aid in driving Bern away, but I imagine it did not sit too well with her that Ostia had been made a protectorate of Etruria in the process."
"I see. But... it was the only way -- and surely that did not warrant --"
"She only had Ostia's future in mind," Lady Priscilla said gently. "From what I have gathered, she made a deal with Minister Roartz: in exchange for her aid in obtaining the support of Ostia, he would withdraw the troops we had left stationed there. She must have convinced him that, as General Oswin's widow, she had the power to influence the soldiers who had been under his command... She turned me in as a gesture of good faith. Minister Roartz ordered the withdrawal immediately."
"I see," said Cecilia again.
"But soon afterwards, she slipped away in the confusion. She had gotten what she wanted, after all. I suppose she's returned to Ostia by now, though to the minister's dismay, she never did uphold her end of the bargain. The Ostian forces have not budged an inch. And of course, Minister Roartz could hardly retaliate. Not in the midst of this mess."
"You mean she had planned to take advantage of our internal turmoil all along."
"Yes, I believe so."
Cecilia absorbed this information in silence, feeling none of the indignation she might have expected, but only a profound, resigned exhaustion. "What about you?"
"I suppose Minister Roartz decided that I would be of more use to them alive than dead. Well, that, and thanks to my friend's petition on my behalf, the Reglays threatened to take action should anything befall me."
That explained the Reglays' continued ostensible neutrality. Though, of course, Klein and Clarine's presence in the Lycian Alliance army must have been a factor as well.
With an uncharacteristic hint of glee, Lady Priscilla continued, "But I do believe the dear minister would regret that he ever spared me if he knew the manner of things I have been participating in, right under his nose! Bishop Jodel and the Church were a good help, of course; they could hardly lift a finger against a man of religion -- not openly, at least. And my goodness! What extensive networks the Church possesses, you could hardly imagine -- but I must bore you with this talk. Is there something you wished to speak of to me?"
"Well," said Cecilia, hesitating before coming to a final decision. "I tell you this in the strictest confidentiality. But I thought you should know. The prince -- Prince Mildain -- he is alive."
Lady Priscilla's eyes widened. "Is that so?"
"Mm... I have spoken to him myself." She added softly, "Though I do not yet know the details... it was certainly no accident that felled him."
"I see. That's wonderful. I had suspected that Minister Roartz had a hand in the incident -- the timing was just too suspicious, you see. Just after you, Sir Percival, and Lord Klein had been promoted in relatively short succession. Roartz must have seen it as a challenge from the prince, an attempt to begin weeding out the corruption in court and replace the old guard with those he could personally trust. Everyone knew the king intended to hand over the reins soon... And then, of course, Bern had begun its operations. The prince's death hit us at the worst possible moment -- but truly, to hear that he is alive! That is most encouraging news. The situation is much more promising than I thought." Lady Priscilla smiled kindly, knowingly, at her. "And you? I suppose you must have been most happy to see him again."
"I suppose. Yes. I suppose I was," Cecilia replied, shaken. She bit her lip, changed the topic. "But please... don't let the king know yet."
"Of course. I understand," said Lady Priscilla, and Cecilia could not be certain if the other woman looked at her then in pity or mere sympathy.
That night, she dreamed. She floated, cast adrift upon a vast, warm sea. Above, stars flickered against the endless black sky. Slowly, the water drained away, leaving her lost amid miles of sand and dunes. In the distance she saw a body, crumpled in a still heap beneath a lone tree. She ran, not knowing why she ran. Clouds of sand rose behind her in the enveloping hush.
Your Highness! she cried. Prince Mildain!
But it was not the prince. She stumbled and fell to her knees.
Percival. She gathered him tenderly into her arms. Percival --
His body was limp and unresponsive. Under his cold weight she felt small and lost.
You can't, she murmured, clutching him close. You weren't supposed to -- Please. I...
But her whisper was stolen away by the darkness that draped over them. And so they remained, swallowed up by the immense, unforgiving emptiness.
She woke to moonlight and a deep and inexorable sadness. Unable or perhaps unwilling to return to her restless sleep, she threw on her cloak and stepped outside, through the shadowed halls, onto a rampart looking down upon the silent capital. Insidious despair seeped through her heart. Lord Douglas's fate remained unknown. Half the kingdom lay in ruin. So many had died. Even if the prince had survived, what could one man do? The roots of corruption and decay ran too deep. Now that the main force of the coup had been subdued, most of the noble families would probably switch back to the king's side rather than risk their own destruction. But such surface alliances meant nothing. The slightest indication of weakness, and they would not hesitate to strike again. And with the prince in his current state...
A low voice broke through her dark thoughts. "Cecilia. Why do you look so troubled?"
"Percival..." She did not turn, but sensed his presence at her side, and wondered how long he had been watching her. "I was wondering what will become of Etruria from now on."
"I see," he said. "That's just like you..."
A slight breeze swept her hair from her face, and for some time they said nothing, but gazed at the moon shining down upon the land.
"However, is there not but one answer to that question?"
She looked up, surprised. "What?"
"Etruria will be restored to her former glory. She will be blessed with the prosperity of old -- no, reach even greater heights of prosperity than ever before."
There was a quiet, intense passion in his voice she had never heard before, and she drew unconsciously closer to him, a powerful, nameless emotion stirring deep within her as if in response to some distant and unheard call. Then, coming to her senses, she turned her eyes away.
"... I suppose so," she said quietly.
"Not just 'suppose', don't you think? We shall make it happen, with our own hands."
Understanding dawned. "Oh..." she whispered, and turned back, her gaze drawn irresistibly to his. His expression was solemn as ever, but for his eyes, dark and dancing.
"What would happen if you lost your resolve, Cecilia?" he said. "We are the Etrurian Generals, the supporting pillars of our country."
"Yes, that's right," she murmured. Then she smiled. "Yes. I agree -- General Percival."
The beginnings of a smile flickered in turn on his face. Giddy, reckless joy surged through her. She stepped forward and took his hands in an impulsively bold gesture. At her touch he froze, as if recalling that invisible third who haunted their every thought and movement. But she did not let go. His hands were rough and callused and warm, solid and real against her bare skin, and soon he relaxed, his fingers closing over her own.
She would not give into despair. They would fight -- together they would fight, and they would win, and together they would return to their kingdom and build the path to tomorrow. All of eternity awaited them.
Until then, she would wait, and cherish the memories of sand and moonlight.