Chapter 1: How It Began
How many times have I looked at you and wished that you would be up front with me? How many times have I begged inwardly that you have retracted your words? At the time, I had been hurt by such speech, but I knew better. You needed to do what was required of you. And I needed to abide by it.
That is my position as the princess of Renais. I accept this. Albeit, reluctantly.
Those were Eirika's wandering thoughts as she stared off into the distance sky. There was peace, if one could truly call it that. The war was over. The tension had faded into the idle air. The cities were filled with a sweet singing of reunions between friends and family. How grateful everyone seemed to be that everything was over. How happy everyone appeared to be that the darkness had dissipated, and light triumphed.
And yet, she was envious.
As she sat upon the edge of the fountain, she looked around. In her restoration for Renais, she'd immediately turned her attention onto the gardens. It was a place of sanctuary for her. It was of peace and tranquility. It was her escape. She'd had many fond memories of the place, and in her heart, it was the most important, the most sentimental.
"Am I…" she began aloud to herself, "…being selfish, perhaps?"
Her right hand's forefinger settled at the base of her chin and she quirked her head, somewhat the way a fawn would its mother. Eirika was still so young, still so naïve, still so ruled by her inquisitive nature. By no means was she attempting to self-depreciate herself, and yet, she felt she deserved an honest answer, an honest opinion. Her left hand was pressed against the marble of the fountain, subconsciously fingering the intricate details in the sculpture. Her legs swung back and forth impatiently, as though requesting that she did something more than idly sit by.
The voice was surprisingly soft. Well, not so surprising in tone, but rather just to hear. When had he arrived?
Her form turned and she helped herself down from the fountain. Blue eyes looked over him with appraisal and then her lips curled. Clearly she approved. Then again, there were very few things the redheaded knight did that she didn't condone of. Of those things… Well, she wasn't about to say anything.
"Hello, Seth," she responded, placing a happy demeanour to her former one of the quiet contemplation.
The Silver Knight of Renais, this man had been renowned since childhood. His father, Caradoc had been in service to King Fado, but had fallen in battle. His prestigious son was knighted shortly after, and became known as a boy with brilliant potential who grew into a man with extraordinary brilliance in academic and tactical strategy. He was a tall man, and often wore his armour, as he believed he could never be too cautious when those of the Renais family line were involved. Today, however, he had lost his breastplate and other unnatural plate armaments, and Eirika thought he looked wonderful, in spite of the sword dangling from his belt.
"Milady," he greeted her with a sweeping bow. "You were speaking of being selfish?"
She blushed, visibly. "…Seth… Are you always going to make it a habit of listening in on private conversations? One day you may hear something you could have survived better without." Her lips upturned into a smile, and though she seemed to be chiding him, she was really quite happy.
He looked thoughtful, even without fingering his chin, "It is appropriate that I am capable of understanding you. It allows me to better protect you, Lady Eirika."
How long would he use honourifics? She had often imagined in the late hours of the night what it would be like if he simply called her by her name. She had pictured the glow of his cheeks and the gleam in his eyes as he spoke of her affectionately. Yet, she knew it was wrong to even begin descending upon this pathway. It would cause her to fall into madness, perhaps even in the way Carlyle had for the Queen of Jehana. That was a little different, however. He was a knight in service to a lady, driven to insanity by his sincerest love for her. It resulted in disastrous results, however, and Eirika believed that repression perhaps was not the best course of action.
Her expression softened and she eyed his sword belt. As she strafed back, she rested her right hand upon the hilt of her rapier and then withdrew it. "Shall we play?"
Surely she knew she would no longer need to raise her arms. The War of the Sacred Stones was over. They had been victorious, though at the cost of something difficult. Eirika had dealt the finishing blow and whether she chose to express it or not, Seth could sense her distress. Amusement twinkled within his eyes and after adjusting the askew auburn locks, he leaned forward and placed his hand upon hers, lowering her blade.
"You will never need to fight again," he spoke simply, the vague upturn of his lips becoming more apparent.
Must you feel you will always need to fight for me, Seth? I'm well aware that you have never wanted anything more than to protect me, but you are a knight of Renais, not necessarily a knight to the Lady Eirika. Could it be that you chose this life for yourself? Why…?
She eyed his hand upon hers. A chill scaled her arm and rested within her shoulder. Yes, she had held his hand when she was younger, and even times on the battlefield when she had grown frightened, but to truly hold him… Eirika often wondered what that would be like and what it would lead to. Of course, all thoughts of that nature led to the belief that were her etiquette tutours to ever hear of such nonsense, they would knock her one.
"Seth…" she began in that soft tone.
He drew away quickly, well aware of what she was looking at. Then he shook his head at her, nearly with disapproval. She was a gentle woman, with peace in her heart. No matter how gifted she had the potential to be in regards to a sword, as Ephraim had always said, her place was in diplomacy, rather than the front lines.
His scarlet eyes took in her form. She wasn't wearing her armour either. It was one of the few times as she had aged that he hadn't seen it. At that moment, he was nostalgic. He saw the eyes of a young girl who was meant to do wonderful things for her kingdom and for herself. If only he could share his dreams with her. If only they could reach for the stars together. It was inappropriate, however. Approximately eight years her senior, he could read it as no other than taking advantage of her.
"You look beautiful today, Milady," he commented gently. Bowing to her once again, he remained lurched over, thoughtful, and contemplative, for only moments. "Perhaps you are aware that Renais will be holding a banquet in only days from now. A celebration for the end of the war, among other things."
She knew of it. Her brother had made mention of it rather hastily following their victory. Eirika was far from willing to jump in her boots, however, as she had difficulty sharing the ecstatic nature of those around her. She had come back from the war to her family, minus her father, and yet again, she was consumed by the idea that it was not enough for her. She wanted more. She wanted—
"Yes," Eirika forced herself to speak. "My brother did mention this in passing. I wondered… if perhaps…" Her weight between her feet shuffled anxiously and a very becoming pink shade kissed each cheek. "Would you—"
"Forgive me," Seth interjected quickly. He bowed once more, "I must go. I look forward to seeing you later."
He turned to leave, his heart heavy with desire and yearning. She could not have known how much he ached with the longing to pull her into his arms. To embrace her, to cradle her against his form, he wanted this and had wanted it for so long that in his dreams, he did believe he was beginning to taste it.
A simple retainer, however. He was merely a retainer and she his retained. The words they had shared on the field with one another still held. He was a knight. His obligation was to protect her. The world was not to know that it stemmed from personal feelings, though, so in order to defend her and himself, he made it seem as though he was simply protecting her for the sake of her kingdom and her family.
He peered at her curiously. Her expression. Her eyes. She could not hide from him. So many times he looked at her and denied the feelings that he read. He pretended not to notice the overwhelming love that poured out from her. What he saw this day, however, and what he had seen from the moment she had greeted him was far off in some other direction.
"Do not look so sad, Milady. This is a joyous occasion. You glow far more when your lips are graced with a smile."
Then he straightened his posture and strode back into the palace. He had only seen the hint of it before he left, but what rang most vividly in his mind was the delightful flush of her cheeks. One day, he believed, he would kiss them. To cover her with affection, to shower her with his adoration. He truly believed he would accomplish this—even if only in his dreams.
Ephraim yawned. For as wonderful as it was for the battles to finally come to a close, he found himself bored. In fact, bored was a bit of an understatement. He'd come to the conclusion that in order to obtain the proper entertainment, he would need to have his two most loyal retainers spar against one another. Of course, it wouldn't be as fun if he didn't get the opportunity to mock them and their techniques.
"Forde, if you continue to keep yourself open like that, you won't be able to progress. Pay attention," he said, a smirk beginning to creep upon his lips.
The blonde-haired paladin turned his attention onto his lord, leaving the strike to his opponent. Kyle lifted his sword and brought the hilt to the back of Forde's head. It was not nearly impact enough to send him to the ground, but rather enough to capture his attention and even make him whine.
"You're too easily distracted," his companion sighed in disbelief. "You are capable of listening and acting at the same time, correct?"
Forde scowled, ignoring the laughter emitted from the prince upon his throne. "I'd rather not listen to you if I could help it. I'd rather not be doing this at all. We're finally free to do as we please and what am I doing? Swinging a sword as though I'm training. Milord, please cease this torment and let me get some rest."
Cradling his chin in the palm of his hand, Ephraim smiled fondly as he looked between the two. Ah, they would never change, would they? From the very beginning they had bantered with one another, and were what he considered to be the comic relief of his journey. On the grounds of comparing them with the general of the Renais army, they may not have been on equivalence, but there was something about them that sang of their potential.
"Hm… I suppose you can sit down for a little bit, both of you. I'd like to hear what you both think of the future plans."
Kyle raised his eyebrows and sheathed his sword before carefully walking over to one of the chairs of the court. His counterpart lazily pried off his armour and in what appeared rather grimy apparel, he sat on the floor.
"Plans, Milord?" Kyle asked, "Do you mean the ones for Renais?"
Ephraim laughed, "Ah, something like that. You see, I have this idea of what I should like to do. I am not yet king of Renais, yes? To be king requires a marriage, so I must be wed. But to whom?" He looked thoughtful, although between his companions, they knew exactly who he was thinking of.
"Lady Eirika would enjoy having her as a sister," Forde pointed out in a rather matter-of-fact demeanour. "You would enjoy having her as a wife. I imagine she'd enjoy having you as a husband, though I've not the pleasure—"
"Forde!" Kyle exclaimed in that tone that was heard far too often. He ignored the rolling of the eyes from the former cavalier. Then he shook his head at the prince, "I'll apologise for him."
And the teal-haired heir grinned once more. This was what he had become accustomed to. Kyle and Forde had always been arguing. They'd always been in some odd type of competition with one another. Ephraim enjoyed it, however, which was primarily why he never chose to stop them.
"Heh," he sneered. "Sometimes I question how you ever became a knight of Renais in the first place. Then I remember that I like you." Lifting his right hand, he rose to his feet, "At any rate! Yes! I believe the right course of action is ahead! She would be near driven to madness if she did not choose the appropriate actions!"
Forde offered a cheer in like attention, and then he quieted himself, falling into a pensive state. "…Hm… Forgive me if I may be prying, Prince, but have you too, noticed someone who has not been celebrating the festivities?"
"Someone who has not been…" Ephraim began rather uncertainly. He thought about everyone he had seen since the liberation of Magvel. There was Innes, of course, but the snarky prince had never been one to really seem festive. No matter what the position, he was always perfectly calm and collected, or severely enraged. The man had some good traits if he would stop letting his emotions get the better of him. That would most likely never happen, however, and who was Ephraim to stand in the way?
Then he turned his attention fully onto Forde curiously, "Who are you talking about?" When he was given a rather blank stare, he knew what it meant.
He thinks I'm pretending to be stupid.
"Ah…" the prince nodded slowly, "You mean my precious sister."
Forde nodded and exchanged his gaze between the two of his companions. "Her smile is among the becoming features she holds. While her lips may upturn, it is so empty as though she wishes to be anywhere but here." He thought about the portrait he had painted of her. He believed he had captured her very essence, the magic about her that everyone in the kingdom had seen. If only he could extract it from his paints and lend it to her in time for the celebration.
Fingering his chin in quiet contemplation, Ephraim relaxed into his throne in a faint manner that was very unrefined. What to do, what to do? He couldn't ever stand seeing Eirika when she wasn't happy. What had set her off this time, though? He knew of the final strike against Lyon, as horrible as it may have been, but he also knew that she had been rendered a heroine. Heroines weren't unhappy. Not that he knew of, at any rate. Especially when they were as beautiful as she was.
Consider him biased. Ephraim could think of no woman who looked better. Except perhaps her best friend. It was a difficult contest between the two. Beloved and family.
Then it dawned on him. Of course he should have known!
Damn. What did Seth do this time?
As though right on cue, the echo of footsteps rang through the court hall. Only steps from his loyal knights, Seth stood at attention, before offering a bow to the prince. "I came at your request, Prince Ephraim."
The three looked among each other. They saw what the general had always attempted to hide. They also knew where he had been, and most likely what he had done, for his plans were always the same in the palace. His eyes, placed upon Lady Eirika whether in the name of his duty as a knight of Renais, or as a potential lover for the princess, were far more obvious than he chose to admit, whether to himself, or any other.
"How fares my sister?" Ephraim smirked at the auburn-haired knight, noting the very subtle change in colour. "Do not think of us as surprised. Every day is the same. You arise, scout the outskirts of the kingdom upon your steed, return, and visit with my sister in the royal gardens."
By the gods!
Seth had a good eye, but even perhaps he did not realize how much time he spent with the princess in question. It was no secret that he enjoyed her company, but still he remembered what he'd said so long ago. It was what had triggered everything to the events they were now. Still she persisted. Still he resisted. And to be driven mad… Never.
That would never happen.
Seth tapped the hit of his sword with his right hand, "She… seems eager to raise her weapons. She had asked me for a spar, and I turned her down. It is not so seemly for her to wander about as though she was of… common nature. Lady Eirika spent far too much time with others. This place would be better for her, but I fear for her safety. She is restless and anxious, and with a single look, one can see that she is—"
"Deprived," Forde interjected.
Unaware of the exchange of knowing smiles between Ephraim and Kyle behind him, Seth offered the blonde a fixed stare. "—at unrest." His form turned to the older brother of his ward, "Is there a reason for this?"
"I was actually hoping you could tell me." Ephraim finally rose from his seat. Lifting his hands, he dusted himself off before approaching the tall general. "General."
A stiff salute.
"You are aware," the prince began as he paced back and forth, in front of the three when the other two change to stand attention. "That all knights must have one they deem as important and precious to fight on the front lines of battle with, correct?" This inquiry was directed at Seth and it seemed all of them had known it, given his uncomfortable shuffling.
Was her brother foolish not to know that he extended his sword in the name of Eirika? Every swing, every step, every cautious action was taken so that he might survive and live to protect her for one more day.
"Aye, Prince," Seth responded, pressing his lips into a firm line. That his motives could be questioned, he would not risk this.
Ephraim stopped in front of him and with his blue eyes, he simply stared thoughtfully. Eirika certainly had a good eye for a man, didn't she? Now then, she hadn't needed to confess her feelings to him, for he'd known all along. It was terribly obvious the way the two looked at one another and how they acted. What neither seemed to realize was that it would have been perfectly fine for them to acknowledge these attachments to one another. Had it not been so, Ephraim would have taken no time at all in forcing Seth from his retainer position. He was so very good at what he did, however, that instead the prince was more than positive that Eirika would never befall any sort of detriment as long as she was guarded by him.
"Tell me, Seth," Ephraim began as he leaned forward with a scrutinizing stare, "Do you find my sister becoming?"
Seth swallowed. He could just feel Kyle and Forde on both sides leering at him. This was not exactly the situation he wanted to be in, however, he was not simply a knight of Renais. He was the Silver Knight, a man with wondrous ability and an impressive reputation. It would not do for him to buckle in the knees, especially from a mere question, no matter what the subject was on.
To find an appropriate way to answer the inquiry without actually answering it. This was Seth's typical way of responding. He was a master of evasion, unless he was directly confronted by it. In this case, Ephraim was being subtle, which was beginning to occur more frequently.
The Silver Knight probed his mind. "She is well-suited for her position as the princess."
The prince tried his best to refrain from groaning. Of course Seth was going to say something like that. When would he simply take possession of his feelings? He considered chiding the older man and then shook his head slowly in temporary defeat. He could change this, he supposed, to better benefit his sister, after all. Not all hope was lost.
"Yes. She is," Ephraim responded coolly. "She seems to be upset as of late, or in a state of unrest, as you so aptly put before. Therefore, I'm leaving it in your hands to take care of her. Please do what you can to ensure that her smiles are sincere." Before his addressee could excuse himself, the teal-haired young man lifted his left hand's forefinger and wagged it back and forth.
"At any cost."
Another swallow. This time, Seth was certain it was audible. Ephraim couldn't be serious, could he? The last thing he wanted to do was to complicate things for the princess in question. The most he thought he could do would be to listen and react accordingly. As long as she didn't start bringing up emotional and sentimental attachment. He had plenty of that, but it didn't necessarily meant he was comfortable with discussing his own.
"A… Aye, milord," he responded, straightening his composure.
Like he had a choice. Ephraim nearly smirked. He'd put Seth in the place that he belonged in, the knight just didn't know it yet. He looked between the three and then nodded once. "Well, then! Let 's prepare for the festivities. After all, we only have a little time before Innes and Tana should arrive. We should see to it that they're as comfortable as possible."
He reserved a soft smile for himself. His plans he would need to bring to his twin's attention, when she was ready to hear such a thing, of course. He wanted her opinion, however. Eirika's thoughts on what he desired would direct on what path his feet would take him.