"This is your last chance, Lyon."
"I know, father," I reply.
My father leans heavily on his attendant's arm as another of the servants helps him dress. It pains me to see him expending so much energy to do something that ought to be so simple. My father, Emperor Vigarde, ruler of Grado, a great man, known throughout Magvel for his strength and wisdom, is ailing. In my foolishness, I had thought he would live forever.
"You must see to the matter tonight," he says. "The throne must have heirs."
"I will, father." I bow and leave his chambers. Soon it will be time for feasting followed by dancing. Somewhere in the midst of the jollity I must ask Eirika for her hand in marriage. Father had wanted to ask King Fado himself, but I suggested I broach the subject with her first. In a life that has been arranged for me, this one thing I should like to do for myself.
The farewell feast begins and the great hall is filled with guests, each seat at the long oak dining table filled– and each goblet as well. There is music, laugher, chatter, but I cannot shake the cloud that looms over me, its shadow a shroud over all my hopes.
To my left, father is listening to Ephraim's stories of his training with General Duessel. Duessel has nothing but praise for Ephraim, whose prowess with a spear has become something of a legend here in Grado. I'm sure Ephraim is the sort of son my father would have wanted, someone strong and brave, perfectly suited for the role he will one day inherit. With only myself to lead Grado after him, father worries. I must be such a disappointment to him. If there were any other, I would not be heir, but I alone remain to carry on our line. I am not so much first-born as only-born. My mother was with child several times before me and several times after, but I am the only one she ever carried to term, the only one to ever draw breath. The imperial tombs are filled with the brothers and sisters I never knew, small half-formed creatures without names.
I start at the touch of fingers on my arm. "Lyon, are you all right?"
"Y– yes. Fine." Eirika's look of concern is enough to make me muster a smile.
"You've been so quiet tonight."
"I'm afraid I'm a little tired."
She shakes her head. "You said you wouldn't stay up late again," she chides.
"I know. I'm sorry. But my studies–"
"Are less important than your health, Lyon." Ah. I know that tone. She'll brook no argument. "Promise me you'll get some rest tonight."
I hate to lie to her, but she doesn't understand the urgency of my situation. If I can unlock the Sacred Stone's secrets, I can save father– or at least return to him the rest of the years he ought to have had. To delay death– perhaps ever to defeat it eventually– surely that's a worthwhile cause. I'd gladly sacrifice my own comforts to alleviate the suffering of others and to restore my father.
Ephraim and Eirika will return home tomorrow. I must do this. Tonight. I rearrange the food on my plate as course after course is served. I fall into such a profound silence that Eirika begins to talk with Sir Seth, who is held in such high esteem as to be seated across from her. After the meal, after the dancing. That should be the time. I can dance with her and then suggest we take some air on the balcony. And then I can ask.
The servants begin clearing the table and the younger guests rise and crowd into the centre of the hall to choose dancing partners. My heart is racing and seems determined to break out of my chest. It takes all my nerve– and a long swig of wine– to turn to Eirika and speak. "We could–" She turns to glance at me and my blood turns to ice. "The musicians are–" She tilts her head in puzzlement and I clear my throat. "Perhaps a dance?"
"I'd love to," she says, beaming.
I take another swig of wine to steady my knees. We rise and, together, make our way among the dancers. I can barely hear the music, so loud is the ringing in my ears as I stand across from Eirika, bow, and then take her hands. I was born graceless and am doomed to remain so, it seems. Eirika's steps are elegant, in perfect time, while I falter and hesitate in spite of the interminable dancing lessons I suffered through in my youth. Next to her, I feel cloddish.
But at least I get to look at her. She's radiant. Her gown is a deep blue with gold brocade and reminds me of nothing so much as the night sky. To me she is all the stars and the moon as well, resplendent and gentle.
We're perhaps halfway through the dance when weakness washes over me like a crashing breaker. I waver and Eirika gasps and moves to steady me. My research with the Sacred Stone of Grado is very strenuous and though I've become used to these bouts of weakness I'd hoped to avoid an incident this evening. Perhaps it's fate. Perhaps nothing can be changed after all...
"It's all right. I just need... to sit," I manage to get out before my breath leaves me completely. It's as if all my energy were sapped– but even now, even in spite of the humiliation I feel as Eirika assists me, I would give every drop of my strength to the Stone. No sacrifice is too much. Even this.
I feel a hand clasping my forearm in a vice-like grip and helping me to a seat in the far corner of the hall. I had expected Ephraim or perhaps one of my attendants, so I'm surprised when I find Sir Seth there next to me. "Thank you," I croak.
Eirika is kneeling by me, distress written on her features. My attendants are used to this by now and before I can even gather the strength to speak, there's a cup of medicinal tea in my hand. I take a sip. The warmth of it is soothing in spite of the tea's bitter tang. "I'm all right," I assure Eirika. I drink down another mouthful. My knees feel weak but I can breath easily again. "It's my work with the Stone. It requires a great deal of energy."
"Lyon, this can't be good for you. It shouldn't take this much of a toll."
I heave a sigh. "It's necessary."
Before she can protest any further, I look up to Sir Seth. "I'm afraid you'll have to take my place, Sir Seth."
"In the dance."
"Oh Lyon," Eirika says and her face... She's like an angel, full of compassion... or pity perhaps. "It's all right. I'll just stay with you."
"No," I say, smiling– I try to make it look genuine, though I suppose if I look sad she'll just believe it to be fatigue. "It's a ball for you and Ephraim. You should dance. I'd like to be able to see you dance."
"All right," she says quietly. Sir Seth is standing quite straight– quite stiffly in fact. He looks uncomfortable. I trust he can dance– I'd not have asked him otherwise. I only hope–
I breathe a sigh of relief as he bows to Eirika and then offers his hand. "Lady Eirika." She takes his hand and together they make their way back to where the other guests are just finishing a dance.
The Stone's power is yet poorly understood, but I've glimpsed the future in it. Mostly small things thus far, trivial happenings, but on the edge of those visions I sense something else, something terrible looming, still veiled from me: chaos, suffering, death. Yet there is something I have seen: Some catastrophe will befall Renais and Eirika will be left alone with only her knight to protect her. I pray to the gods above that he can.
The musicians begin another song. A lute and pipe play a jaunty piece, something with a bucolic feel, perhaps a shepherd's delight in spring at the sight of the green hills and the sunshine– a thing I barely recall so much time do I spend in the vaults deep in the castle's bowels where I study the Stone.
The ladies curtsey and the lords bow. Left hand goes in right. They step away, away, and towards. They spin and then she's in his arms. Her smile is radiant, and even from a distance I can tell that her face is flushed. All these years it's been Ephraim I've envied for his boldness, his strength, his closeness to Eirika. From what I know of Sir Seth, he's a far more cautious man, but his diligence and skill have won him accolades and earned him the title as the youngest general in Renais's history. And Eirika's regard as well.
It seems my worries were baseless: Sir Seth dances quite nicely. He is tall and handsome and they make a very fine couple. Another dance begins and soon I'm all but forgotten.
I would like to rise and claim her, to twirl and step and laugh as they do, but my legs feel like jelly, my feet, leaden. The thought of myself as a husband seems suddenly laughable. I can barely take care of myself as it is. I had hoped to change the grim future I've glimpsed in the Stone. Perhaps with Eirika here the disaster in my vision would not befall Renais– or at least it would not befall her. If she were here I could keep her safe. The thought seems absurd now.
Ephraim has a different partner with every dance, but my claim on the princess keeps any from approaching her and she dances only with Sir Seth. How I would like for once to be her knight. Prince Innes of Frelia is, I hear, a budding tactician and a skilled archer; Ephraim has his father's courage and martial prowess; whereas I... even Eirika's gentle hand can defeat me in a duel. What skill I have is all in magery.
Eirika's breathless when she finally comes back to me. Holding on to Sir Seth's arm as he escorts her, she's smiling and flushed. "You dance beautifully," I say, rising to greet her. "Thank you, Sir Seth."
"My Lord," he says and bows.
I turn to Eirika. "Would you like to take some air?" I thank the gods that I manage to sound so calm as I ask, for my heart is hammering against my ribs and my stomach, roiling.
"Are you sure you're well enough, Lyon?"
"I'm fine. Really." I offer her my arm and lead her across the hall to the castle balcony that looks out onto the south where rocky hills loom against the horizon. Glancing over my shoulder I can see the dining table where father sits, smiling as he watches the festivities. No one, I'm sure, suspects how tired he must really be.
"I'm sorry. I'm just a little preoccupied tonight. I apologise. It's your last night here and I should be– I need to–" I'm trying to get the words out, to ask what I need to ask her, but she cuts in before I quite work up the nerve.
"It's all right. You needn't apologize. I know you've been working hard on your research. I just wish you'd take better care of yourself."
"I know. I am trying. But perhaps... Perhaps if you were to–" I break off as the sound of a commotion reaches my ears. I turn to see a cluster of people hovering around father. "Excuse me," I say and dash into the hall, making my way through the crowds that continue to dance and laugh and go about their evening. Through the flock of servants and onlookers, I finally see father. He's coughing and pale but a goblet is put into his hand by his attendant. He manages to take a gulp and by the time I arrive he's breathing normally once more. As the tension courses out of me, so, again, does all my strength it seems. I manage to lean against the wall as my vision fills with white blotches.
Deep breaths, and after a few moments the vertigo passes. My vision clears. My eyes turn to the balcony where I left Eirika. She's standing there all alone, rubbing her arms. The night air is cool. I've been uncourteous. I shouldn't have left so abruptly. I should have seen to her comfort– after all if I'm to marry her... My heart sinks at the thought.
I watch, paralysed by my own sense of ineptness, as Sir Seth joins her on the balcony offering her a cloak. She takes it, smiling. I had hoped she smiled like that only for me.
Even in these small things her knight is attentive, a proper gentleman where I am only a proper fool. For a minute they speak and then, to my surprise, Sir Seth smiles. It's a slight smile, granted, but I don't believe I've ever noticed Sir Seth smiling before. He's ever watchful, ever focussed on his duties. Even when he's joined us for dinner he's seemed always serious. But he smiles for her and Eirika's expression is full of joy and gratitude.
It takes so little to make her happy– caring, attentiveness– yet I cannot provide even these small things, not even for one evening. How can I ask her to be mine when I cannot promise her even these simple things, when I'll be nothing but a burden, neglecting the prize I've so wished for?
I return to the balcony and Sir Seth bows and excuses himself.
"Is everything all right, Lyon? You look pale."
"Perhaps you should sit for a while." And always, Eirika is trying to protect me, to watch over me. And I can hardly do the same, as would be my duty if we were to wed.
I sigh. "Perhaps you're right. Let's go back inside."
From the corner of my eye I can see Sir Seth standing to one side, straight and still as a mounted suit of armour. How strange that a simple knight should be more worthy than I.
"Is the matter settled, Lyon?"
I stand once more in my father's chambers. He's in his bed, propped up by a mound of scarlet pillows that only serve to make his pallor all the more striking.
"Yes, father. She'll speak to King Fado when she returns home. I'll take care of all of the arrangements. You needn't trouble yourself." He closes his eyes and a sigh– of relief I suppose– escapes him. Is it heirs he hoped for or a ruler more fit than myself? "Rest well, father." Without another word, he lies back against his pillows and closes his eyes.
How could I tell him? He shouldn't have to carry any extra burdens now. He needs to rest and save his energy for his day to day responsibilities. When he's healed I'll tell him the truth and I'll ask Eirika for her hand. Once my research is complete I'll have something to offer her. I'll be worthy of her then.
My footfalls echo hollowly along the stone walls of the spiralling stairway that leads below the castle. I promised Eirika I would rest, but I can't afford to. For father's sake, for hers, for my people's, I must persevere, no matter the price. If I can advance my research enough I'll be able to see the calamity that will engulf Renais and the dark cloud that hovers over my kingdom as well. But if I fail, I pray that when the time comes Sir Seth can protect Eirika from whoever it is that seeks to do her harm.
But who is it that seeks to harm her and her kingdom? And why? Renais has no enemies. If I knew the face of the man who would hurt her I'd strike him down with my dark magic. But until my research is complete, I am powerless and must rely on another to be her protector.
I pause as I reach the bottom of the stairway. My hand on the wall, I can feel the stone beneath my fingers trembling. Another tremor. They come more frequently of late. But it's no matter. The Stone of Grado... the Fire Emblem... All my hopes lie with it now.
A/N: A little different from my usual stuff, but what can I say? Lyon sort of popped into my head last week while I was at work and began dictating to me-- leaving me to scrabble for a notebook and pen I keep on hand for just such occasions.