Disclaimer: I do not make money off of Fire Emblem.
Summary: FE6,7. One-shot. Tensions simmer beneath the surface when Priscilla and Serra take refuge with Erk during the coup d'etat in Aquileia.
Notes: This is a side story to Sand and Moonlight as well as a loose sequel to The Deception of the Thrush. (Reading No Time for the Dead might also help.)
The clock struck midnight, waking Erk from musty memories and half-remembered dreams. He rubbed his eyes. The fire in the hearth had burned low; the candle before him flickered dimly, melted into a shapeless white clump. On the side path outside the door of his study, converted from a stable years ago, he heard the soft patter of footsteps, accompanied by the lilting tones of a woman. There was a swift, light rap at the door. Erk blinked, wondering if he had imagined it. Then he stood, brushing his hair from his face in an impatient gesture.
At the door, he hesitated again. But sudden impulse took him. He pushed it open.
"Oh, Erk. I'm so terribly sorry about this --" said Priscilla, standing pale and breathless before him.
A second, shriller voice cut her short. "My, if it isn't little Erky, all grown up!"
"That would be Baron Erk," he said curtly. As he looked over the two women at his door, he found his mind wandering to the thesis one of his students at the University had just submitted to him the other day. An Analysis of the Underlying Principles of Wind Magic. Interesting theories, but poorly argued... There was so little they knew, despite the development of the Aircalibur spell more than a decade ago, now.
"Is that any way to greet an old friend?" retorted the second woman with a disdainful sniff, disrupting his thoughts with a cold dash of reality. Twenty years -- how much and how little time had changed. "And that's Lady Serra to you, my lord."
He ignored her and said instead, quietly, "What brings you here?"
"The castle's fallen," said Priscilla. "They took the king hostage, killed everyone there. Our lives are in danger as well. I --"
He absorbed her words in silence, running them through his mind with plodding methodicality, dimly aware of the faint breeze stirring beyond them and the faint smell of smoke. When he spoke again at last, his voice was crisp and cool. "Bern?"
She shook her head. Wisps of dark red hair fluttered loose at the nape of her neck. "A coup."
"Ah." He paused. "Minister Roartz and his friends, I presume?"
"And I had been so looking forward to the Midsummer festivities!" added Serra, quite unnecessarily, and Erk recalled the date with slight bewilderment. He had, without even realizing it, lost track of the time.
But he said only, "This is the first place they will think to look."
"Perhaps," Priscilla replied, then hesitated.
"But you are the only one I can trust."
In the end, he gave up the use of his upstairs bed to the women, and cleared out a space for himself on his workbench. Serra complained, and Priscilla protested, insisting that they did not wish to impose on him any further than they already had, and certainly would in the coming days, but Erk shrugged them off. He was well used to it.
The next morning, he found himself up before dawn and preparing breakfast for three, though on his own he had often gone without. Meals became little more than trivial annoyances when one was engrossed in work. Despite years of Lady Louise fussing over him, he had been unable to break the habit. Not that Master Pent had been much better. But such neglect would not do for his guests.
"Oh! Gooseberry jam! My favorite!" exclaimed Priscilla, when she came downstairs sometime later.
"Still sleeping, I'm afraid. Yesterday's proceedings must have been hard on her."
"No, she never was a morning person."
For a moment Priscilla seemed taken aback, but then she pressed a daintily gloved hand to her mouth and laughed. The sound tinkled through the room like the soft chime of bells. He allowed himself a brief, awkward smile, then turned away.
"Exactly what are you plotting now?"
Immediately he knew he had said the wrong thing. But what else was there to be said? He had been so isolated from the outside world, here, in his own private sanctuary, speaking and interacting only with students, fellow mages and scholars, the Reglays' delivery man. And he did not enjoy being played for a fool.
"It's... complicated. I should have seen it coming, but I -- it's all a mess."
"Arcard and Roartz are easy to grasp, but Bern -- King Zephiel -- I cannot understand his actions. And there have been the most terrifying rumors..."
He did turn to her then. "But why come to me? There is nothing I can tell you, nothing I can do for you. So the king is taken, Aquileia is taken. It matters little to me. Even I know what a doddering old fool Mordred's become since the death of his heir. I have my books, my magic, my studies. What do I care who sits the throne? Under Mordred's rule, under Zephiel's: it is all the same to me."
She gazed coolly back at him. Unlike the rest of the women of the court, she wore her hair braided and pinned up in a thick coil on the back of her head, in the Lycian fashion. It gave her an oddly striking demeanor as she sat there, framed in the soft morning light streaming in from the window behind her.
"There have been rumors," she said again, and though her voice was as soft and polite as ever, there was an underlying edge to it now. "They say that King Zephiel has resurrected the dragons of old."
"What!" he exclaimed without thinking. "Dra --"
But just then Serra made her grand entrance, dressed in the same gaudy gown she had been wearing the previous night. "How cruel of you! Have you two already started without me? And here I thought you were my friends!"
Priscilla turned immediately to her, overflowing with smiles. "I'm sorry, my dear. You seemed so tired out from yesterday that I thought you might like the extra rest."
"Oh my, that was too kind of you, darling."
Erk shut out their voices and knew he would not learn anything more for the remainder of the morning.
A priest from the Church dropped by to ask for alms later that afternoon. Erk almost turned him away, but for Priscilla, who took the man aside and offered some of the coin she had brought with her in her escape.
"You should have kept yourself out of sight," Erk said afterwards, as he pored over a text Master Pent had lent him.
"We need have no fear of the Church."
"There is corruption even among the ranks of the holy."
She laughed. "I know."
From the hallway connecting his study to the main house, another voice sounded. "Erk! Your taste is simply atrocious! I cannot understand how you can even bear to live in a place like this! And the mess!"
"Case in point," muttered Erk under his breath, and Priscilla's lips curved in a soft, secret smile.
"Shall I go see to her?"
He flipped the page, attempting to decipher the familiar, faded runes etched in the margins.
"Please do," he said.
"You can't hide it, you know."
Erk winced. Serra plopped down beside him, grabbing the book that lay open there, and coughed at the cloud of dust that arose.
"Ugh. Your living arrangements are absolutely primitive. And what are these scribbles? Utter nonsense!"
"Shouldn't you be in bed?"
She tossed her head, her pale rose hair fanning out in the dim light. "It's too hot. I think I shall suffocate!"
"Hmph. How rude. Don't you want to know what I have to say to you?"
No, he almost said, but bit it back in time.
"Hee! I thought so. You just can't hide it."
"Hide what?" he snapped, though he really ought to know better than to rise to the bait.
"Just look at you. Living in this place, surrounded by all these trappings like a lord in his manor. But no matter how many airs you put on, you can't erase the truth: why, you're nothing but a peasant Duke Reglay took in, born of base, lowborn stock."
"As if you're any better. You may be a general's wife -- even style yourself a lady these days, but I know very well of your true origins."
"Was," she corrected primly. "And I'll have you know that is no proper way to address a grieving widow."
Shocked into silence, he did not respond.
"Besides, no matter my background -- which I don't believe you have even an inkling of true knowledge about -- I do think I play the role far better than you, don't you?"
That point, he had to concede.
"I am sorry to hear of your loss," he said stiffly.
"Of course you are. And don't even think of trying anything funny. You've had your chance."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
She sighed, leaned back against the table.
"Watch it, you'll spill the ink," Erk grumbled.
"I pity you," she said.
It took a moment before her words registered, and then he said, "What?"
"Eloquent as ever, I see, my poor little Erky. Do I need to repeat myself?"
"I never thought I'd say it, but I do. Pity you, that is. How strange it is... You should feel honored."
"Very," he said through gritted teeth, and turned back to his notes.
"You and I, we were always more alike than either of us would like to admit."
At that, he looked up. She was staring out the window, absently fingering the golden ring on her left hand.
"Of course," she added, "I would never even dream of lowering myself to your standards of comportment. I am far more delicate and beautiful, after all. Not to speak of your wit. It is very lacking, you know. And my word, those curtains --"
He had always envied that brash fearlessness of hers. But as he looked at her now, silhouetted against the dark night sky, he could only think of how very alone she seemed.
"I pity you too," he said quietly, but by then she had already flounced away.
The pages of his book were suspiciously wet when he examined them.
The next day passed without much incident. Priscilla queried after whether or not he intended to go to the University, which under usual circumstances would certainly be back in session now that the holiday had passed, and even she seemed embarrassed at how ridiculous her question sounded after the words had left her mouth.
"If the situation in the capital is as you describe it," Erk had replied pointedly, "I would imagine it wiser not to tempt fate too much." As a secular institution, the University fell under the king's domain. Minister Roartz was certainly aware of that, as well as of the immense knowledge and talent that lay within its hallowed halls. After all, there had always been a strong historical relationship between the University and the mage division of the Etrurian military.
The topic had not been pursued further. Priscilla turned instead to asking him about his studies, scanning through his books and notes, whether with feigned or genuine interest, he could not tell. Serra wandered off, presumably to redecorate his house and snoop around. He found that he did not particularly care, as long as it kept her occupied, and he could still recognize his own room afterwards.
He wondered, idly, if wind magic would be more or less effective against dragons than their distant cousins, the wyverns. Even the famously magic-resistant pegasi were useless against the forces of the wind. And there was that one student of his who was convinced that wind magic, harnessed properly, could be used to power the northern windmills with more efficiency than natural winds. Perhaps even to fill the sails of ships -- though given the superstition of sailors, Erk had his doubts regarding whether or not that idea would catch on.
But that was all thinking too far ahead. Eventually, Priscilla could no longer contain her yawns, and floated out the room to join Serra. Their voices joined in excited, girlish chatter, occasionally breaking into piercing laughter, and Erk found he could not concentrate anymore.
The house was much too small for three people, he decided.
But much too large for one, he did not think.
Such a pity it was! All that ancient knowledge, now lost forever to them. Even Master Pent, who had spent years and years in that lost desert village, had been able to decipher little more than fragments of the texts preserved by dragons and men. And how much more remained undiscovered, lost to the ravages of time and war --
"I truly am sorry," said Priscilla, on the third day.
"Whatever for?" replied Erk, slamming his book shut.
"Oh." He searched for something to say. "Is that all?"
"My brother," she said, her voice curiously calm, "is dead."
"I see." He did not.
She turned away from him then, suddenly stricken. "It seems the promises of every man I love are fated to be broken."
"Won't you tell me what's going on?"
"No," she murmured. "No. It's better that you don't know."
She was dressed in white, and gleamed in the lengthening shadows. The bitter irony of it struck him all at once, and he spat out, "I do not need your pity. You have done nothing -- nothing but use me --"
She recoiled at his words, as if she had been slapped.
"I didn't mean to -- I only thought --"
"Oh, I'm sure. You never mean anything --"
She did slap him, then. It did not sting as much as her words.
As she stalked away, he watched her back receding into the distance, half resentful, half in love with her still.
He opened his book again.
The clock struck midnight. There was a pounding at the front door.
"Damn," said Erk, standing from his bench. His hands were shaking. Priscilla materialized at the foot of the stairs, pale and quiet. "Where's Serra?"
Priscilla shook her head. "I thought she was with you."
"Damn," he muttered again. Then he said, "Get away from here. Slip out the back. They mustn't find you."
She shook her head again, but the voices at the front interrupted whatever she was about to say.
"Soldiers from King Roartz! You're under arrest!
"Go!" he said, and strode to the front door, Elfire tome concealed beneath his robes.
When he opened the door, he was met with the hostile stares of soldiers bearing what he recognized vaguely as the arms of the former minister.
He drew himself to his full height. "I am Erk of Reglay. These are my lands, and my home. What is the meaning of this?"
One of the soldiers spat at him. There were a few jeers. Erk ignored them, focusing on their leader instead. "What is the meaning of this?" he repeated.
"Lord Erk. You have been accused of harboring traitors to the kingdom. The punishment for such, as you no doubt know, is death."
"And who is it," said Erk coldly, "that has accused me of such nonsense?"
Then he froze.
"-- And do send some men 'round to the back, my dear. Wouldn't want the traitoress herself to slip away now, would we?"
"You!" he forced out.
Serra looked up and offered him a smug smile from the side of the captain. "Why hello there, Erky dear. Miss me?"
The soldiers closed in. "Now then, come along."
He reached for his tome, but before he could do anything, a second voice stopped him. "He is innocent."
Erk turned. "Priscilla! What --"
Her face and voice were blank and collected, but Erk saw her fists clenched at her side, and her eyes glimmered in the torchlight. She would not look at him or Serra.
The captain spoke to her then. "Your presence, Countess, would seem to indicate otherwise."
"He received me as a guest, as an old acquaintance. He knew nothing of... recent occurrences. He had even forgotten it was Midsummer's, if you would believe it! I had hoped to attend the celebrations with him..."
"You must admit that difficult to believe."
Priscilla laughed. "Oh, you know those scholarly types. Holed up in their studies all day long. If you don't believe me, you can question him yourself."
The captain considered her. "Very well. The king himself will question him, and perhaps if he sees fit, he will spare him. As for you..."
She bowed her head. "I understand."
They released him at dawn. He stumbled blindly through the streets. His stomach turned at what little he did see. Carcasses strewn across the ground, soldiers everywhere, buildings razed --
Promise me his neutrality, and I will spare her.
By the time he reached his residence again, his head was splitting with a throbbing pain. He slumped into a chair, noted that the room had indeed been rearranged to a more tasteful layout. He had not even been put under house arrest, he thought bitterly. Harsh, wild laughter surged through his chest. No need! They had even returned the Elfire tome they confiscated.
After some time his laughter faded to silence, reaching, looming.
He tossed the Elfire tome at the wall, and began to pen a letter to Duke Pent of Reglay.