One month ago…
She shouldn't be here, damn it.
Mount Temza was nothing short of a battleground and Schwann was fighting on two fronts. The war had dragged on for a year now and countless had perished as the Imperial army struggled against the flying monsters. Whatever they were, they grew more agitated by the use of Hermes blastia and had attacked numerous humans who possessed them. War was soon declared as most of the Krytians sided with the beasts and no progress in battle or negotiations could be made.
Despite the stalemate and bloodshed around him, the real battle was something much more personal for Schwann. It was one he didn't expect and an enemy he wasn't ready to fight. Hell, he wasn't even ready to call her an enemy, much less engage her in combat.
He'd spent the five years since leaving Dahngrest throwing himself into his work, besting men twice as experienced and garnering the respect of the other officers. It came as no surprise then, when he earned his captain's cape at the tender age of twenty-two, becoming the youngest man ever to command his own brigade.
In those five years, there were women, but none that managed to keep his attention for long. No matter how hard he'd try, he'd always find himself comparing them to her. For better or worse, none of them came even close to Casey. She'd never left his thoughts—not even once—no matter how much she'd hurt him. Time, large amounts of wine, and the other women did nothing to mend that wound, so after awhile, he just gave up on all of them.
But now, here on the battlefield of the Great War, as he walked up to the quartermaster's tent for a meeting of the captains, he blinked in disbelief and amazement as he saw her. There was no mistaking it; the pretty blonde dressed in the leathers of a guildsman was Casey. She didn't look much different than the last time he'd seen her, aside from a band on her arm that bore a symbol he wasn't familiar with. Whatever was being done and said around him faded into an insignificant blur as he stared at her, the inevitable questions flashing through his mind.
A man who introduced himself as Yeager appeared at her side and began showing the group weapons they had for purchase. He was a tall, thin, fellow with dark hair and a grating accent. With a smarmy grin and a grandiose gesture, Yeager also offered a bundle of "good faith" supplies that he claimed had been sent by Don Whitehorse himself. Though the Empire had often asked for an allegiance with the guilds during the war, the Don refused to take sides in the conflict. This was the first sign of cooperation and while Schwann should have been smiling with his fellow ranking officers at this sudden good fortune, all he could do was look at Casey with plaintive, desperate eyes.
He was not pleased, not in the least, and his growing frown probably betrayed that, but everyone else was too busy to notice. He flinched at the way Yeager looked at Casey while their goods were being inspected and the way his hand lilted on her arm. But, perhaps the most insulting to Schwann was when she handed him a blade to inspect and didn't even try to meet his eyes, as if she didn't know him at all.
Despite the nagging questions and heartache, it took him nearly a week to speak to her. One night, after the sun had set and the Commandant's meeting had dispersed, he made his way back to the quartermaster's tent. He was certain she'd be there, probably alone, since he'd seen her every night that week taking inventory by herself.
He spent the majority of the day wondering if he should approach her. True, he felt she owed him answers, but answers were the easy part; it was questions that raised doubts. Biting his lip, he pushed open the flap of the tent and decided this had to be done.
He stepped inside, his greaves sounding heavier than before as he approached her. She was there, kneeling as she bent over into a crate and completely oblivious to his presence. He stared at her for a long moment uncertain of what to do despite having seen this instant in his dreams for years. Finally, he sighed and said exactly what was on his mind. "I always wondered how I'd feel if I ever saw you again."
She didn't bother to turn around. "I figure you'd have had more important things to concern yourself with in the past five years, Captain Schwann."
"What could be more important than us?" he asked, stepping around to try and face her.
"The war you're fighting?" she spat, standing up to look at him as she crossed her arms over her chest. "The battles you swore you'd brave to see that not another child dies of starvation while the nobles feast?"
"That's not fair," he frowned, hearing her repeat promises he'd made to her in confidence not very long ago.
"What's not fair, Schwann? That I've moved on?"
"For starters. I saw what you moved on with. A fine example of a man—one who makes his living selling weapons and exploiting wars."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Yeager is not exploiting this war any more than the knights are."
"I'm here to fight and protect the world. He's here to make money. There's a difference."
"Not that I can see."
"You're still arrogant and only thinking of yourself?" She said, almost sadly, as she shook her head and then glared at him. "I thought you'd grow out of that vice. The world doesn't end with you, Schwann."
"I'm not thinking of myself. I'm thinking—"
"Yes, you are!" she snapped, poking him in the chest. "All you care about is this explanation you think I owe you! I gave you one and you cannot accept it!"
"Because it wasn't the truth and you damn well know it, Casey. There was more going on there. I don't know if your father had a fit because you Marked yourself for a piece of Zaphias trash or if you just gave up on me." Schwann said as he circled around her, his cape following him like a loyal dog.
A long moment held, and then she said quietly, "I never gave up on you."
"Then why send me away?"
"Just…go," she answered, holding a hand to her forehead as if pressing her thoughts together. "Go back to being a knight and wearing your shiny armor and forgetting why you became one in the first place."
He didn't move. Crossing his arms over his chest, he glared at her. "I still remember why I'm here. I don't think you know why you're here, though. I think you just want to pretend to be Daddy's little girl. Did he sell you to this new guild?"
She didn't hesitate to slap him across the face for the insult. "Don't ever say such things about my father, Schwann. He never once spoke ill of you!"
"He only met me once," he muttered, rubbing his cheek. He'd forgotten just how hard she could hit, especially when provoked.
"And I told him about you dozens of times!" She took a breath and then added quietly, "For what it's worth, he liked you. He liked you a lot."
"Funny then, that he locked me in a dungeon that time we met!"
"It was for your own good and you know it," she sighed before looking up into his green eyes. "Please, just leave me alone, Schwann. Let things go."
"I don't want to," he answered, taking a seat on one of the crates. "There has to be a reason, Casey. There has to be something that happened between the time I saw you last and the three months later when you left me."
"Why does it matter?" she answered, sitting across from him and frowning darkly.
"Because, I deserve an answer! I was your damn husband!" he shouted, his words straining against his voice, especially that last one.
She shook her head morosely. "I told you that night, Schwann. We owe each other nothing now. Can we please just leave it at that?"
His voice rose as his temper flared. She was not going to walk away from this without telling him the reason, not this time. "No, you owe me an explanation and I'm not leaving until I get it!"
"Then, I'm leaving!" she jumped off her crate and started to walk past him.
Grabbing her arm, he gently pulled her back towards him. "No, you're not."
"Get your hands off me!" she shouted, slapping at his wrist as he held her captive.
Standing up, he didn't release her. "All I need to do is claim to have caught a thief."
"And all I need to do is scream and my men will come running. I don't think they'd spare the life a knight—captain or not."
"So you don't even fight your own battles anymore?" he asked, letting her go.
She glowered at him. "You're one to talk, Captain Schwann. You send your men off to die without a second thought."
"I send men into battle. They are not my bodyguards."
"They would die at your command?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then there is no difference," she answered, turning away from him.
He reached to touch her shoulder, just brushing it, barely. "I didn't come here to argue semantics with you, Casey. I just want an answer. I loved you. I still—"
She cut him off and shrugged his tiny touch away. "Don't tell me there haven't been any other women, Schwann."
"None that mattered," he answered honestly.
An oddly comfortable silence held until she faced him and spoke. "Well, I had to move on."
"I can see that," he said, rubbing the spot on his arm he'd cut in her honor all those years ago. "But I still open the wound every year, just as you told me was tradition."
"It's time to let it heal, Schwann," she said, tenderly touching the mark through his shirt. She knew exactly where it was—she'd always know exactly where it was.
"I don't want to let it heal," he answered, touching his rough, calloused hand to hers over the mark. "I don't want to forget."
"Maybe I don't either," she whispered as she hesitantly pulled away from him. "But it's the way things must be, Schwann."
"Then at least tell me," he said desperately. "Tell me, so I don't wonder each and every day what it was that I did that drove you away!"
"It wasn't you," she replied quietly, her dark eyes filling with resolve—resolve and a hint of regret. "It was never you." A long moment passed as silence choked the two of them, her hands shaking slightly as she finally gave in. "I can see you aren't going to retreat from this battle unless I tell you what you want to hear."
"I want the truth," he begged. "Is that so much to ask?"
A long, tense breath escaped her lips and she took a slim, silver compact out of her jacket pocket. The crest of Leviathan's Claw was embossed on the lid and her finger traced it thoughtfully as if she were considering her next strategy. Meeting his gaze, there was another moment of hesitation before she opened it and held it out towards him. "Look."
He did as she asked, taking the small token and studying the two photographs it contained. One was of her father and a blonde boy about four or five years old. The other was of Yeager. He tried not to frown at that one, and was quite unsuccessful.
"The boy there, his name is Harry," she said. "He's my son."
Schwann looked up at her with astonishment. His breath caught in his throat and his voice cracked on the words he tried to speak and their implications. "Is he—"
"No, he's not yours," she said quickly—perhaps a little too quickly—as she snatched the compact back from his grasp. Holding her gaze firm on his confused and distraught eyes, she said plainly, "I cheated on you with someone in my brigade. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew I had to leave the knights and go back to where I really belonged."
"Who?" he asked, his emotions barely contained behind the single syllable.
"It doesn't matter, he's dead," she answered with a flippant wave of her hand that seemed far too deliberate and not matched to her somber tone. "Anyway, there's the truth. I wronged you, and I couldn't ask you to raise another man's son, just as I couldn't ask you to leave the life you've known forever and join the guilds. Neither would have been good for any of us, Schwann, and you know it."
There were reasons he'd been expecting—the Guilds were her home, he was too involved with the knights, her father refused to give his blessing. But this? He hadn't been expecting this, and just didn't know what to say. Perhaps he should've comforted her, but damn if his pride wouldn't let him. Taking a step back, he did his best to hide the disgust he felt from his expression.
"I did what was best for Harry," she said, more to herself than to him. "My father took me back and made sure I could take care of Harry in the way he deserved." She shook her head and glared at him as she issued a stern warning. "Everyone in the Union thinks his father was a guildsman who died before he was born. I beg you not to tell them otherwise. Don't speak of this at all. It's a secret-one I'm trusting you with. Not even Yeager knows the truth."
"And here I thought the guilds were immune to politics," he muttered, scowling at the name of the other man and not caring if she noticed it or not.
"No one is immune to politics. You should know that."
There was a long moment of silence before he admitted, "You've changed, Casey."
"This surprises you? It's been five years."
"No," he said, shaking his head sadly. "It has nothing to do with time passing. It has to do with your perspective on things. I mean, how could you think running away was the best answer rather than telling me the truth?"
"That comes with time, Schwann," she said, stepping backwards towards the far end of the tent. "I've become a realist. Life can make you see things for what they are once you climb down from that tower and stop believing in fairy princesses and happy endings."
"I liked you better before," he whispered, watching the space between them grow with each stride she took.
"And that is exactly my point. Things are different. We're different. Can you just accept this and leave me alone? The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can ever end, Schwann. But it's over! Hell, it's been over for years." She bit her lip before continuing, her eyes reflecting the anguish she knew she was causing him. "Schwann, it was over that night I cheated on you! But now—now, I have a good life, a man who loves me and my child and I don't want spend every waking moment dwelling on the past."
Steeling his gaze at her, he wondered if she was right. Maybe this really was the end. He gave a bow of his head and let a farewell fall from his lips, knowing it sounded far too clipped, detached, and angry, but he had to make a hasty retreat before he said something he would truly regret. "At this point, neither do I, Casey. I wish you well in all of your endeavors."
"You wanted the truth," she whispered despondently as he left, watching his cape flutter forlornly in the evening breeze behind him.
He had a response full of curses on his tongue, but he did not speak. Marching back to his tent, he knew he had brought this upon himself. He had asked for the truth, she had given it, and now knowing it, it was time to move on.
Or so he thought.
"I have a mission for you," the Commandant said, brushing a strand of his silver hair aside as he poured a drink for himself and one for Schwann.
Schwann tilted his head in curiosity. He'd come to admire Alexei in the years he'd known him. Rising up from common birth through the ranks of the knights, he'd just earned the rank of Commandant a few months before, when the last one had died in battle. Accepting the drink, he asked, "What sort of mission?"
"We can't win this war alone, Schwann," Alexei replied, dragging his finger along the lip of his glass. "There's just no way."
"What is it you propose then?"
"The guildsmen that are here— Leviathan's Claw—they have agreed to assist in securing the Don's assistance on the condition that the Empire purchases all of our weapons from them."
"Extortion," Schwann said bitterly before taking a taste of the wine.
Alexei raised his glass to his lips. "I expected no less from those fools, and I'm willing to let them assume the upper hand in the negotiations for now."
"And how do I figure in?" Schwann asked, dreading the answer.
"Yeager has agreed to send his wife—the Don's daughter—to Dahngrest with whomever I send as my envoy. He assures me that Whitehorse will not deny a plea made by his daughter, but she cannot speak for the knights. She can only support the request."
Schwann tried not to frown at his superior referring to Casey as Yeager's wife, but failed miserably. He decided to feign ignorance, though he knew full well why this was becoming his mission and his problem. "And you want to send me. Why?"
"I've heard some stories, Schwann," Alexei answered as he swirled his wine in his glass. "One of those stories was of an errant guildswoman who found her way into the knights and into the bed of one of my most loyal captains and trusted friends." Looking up at the other man, he finished his thought. "Of course, this was all years ago, but since you are known to her and her father, perhaps it would make the request for an alliance go a bit better."
"Or worse," he muttered. The conversation he'd had with her only two weeks ago was still causing him to lose sleep, much as he hated to admit it.
"My instincts tell me otherwise."
"It's a risk."
"It's a gamble I'm willing to take," the Commandant answered before taking a delicate sip of his drink.
"With all due respect, sir, I don't think this is a good idea."
"You're going to do it, Schwann," Alexei said with narrowed eyes. "You're going to do it or everyone in the Empire is going to learn about your dirty little secret. So far, those of us who know about your indiscretions are merely a handful, and we are willing to overlook it in favor of your merits." He tented his hands together in front of his lips before adding: "I don't know that the Union will be as forgiving of her when they find out she was the wife of an Imperial Knight."
"I don't like being blackmailed," Schwann answered, firmly setting his glass down on the other man's desk. He really wished Alexei would just leave Casey out of this. As much as she'd hurt him, she didn't deserve to be used as a pawn in this insane game of war.
The Commandant shook his head. "I don't like resorting to it. We are friends, but I'm not willing to lose the chance to win this war over your broken heart, Schwann."
"She doesn't care for me anymore," he replied, the painfully truthful words tasting like vinegar. "She hasn't for years."
Alexei stood up and stepped closer to him. "I doubt that."
He gave a tired sigh. "It's the truth, sir."
"Perhaps you are just oblivious then," Alexei said with a malicious smirk. "She has been watching you. Every morning while you're drilling your men, I see her pretending to busy herself with her wares as she stares longingly at you. I'll bet it irritates Yeager beyond words, especially since she isn't particularly discreet about it."
"Regardless, I doubt she remembers me," he said, half of him wishing what his commanding officer said was the truth and the other half hoping it to be a lie.
Alexei clasped a hand on his shoulder and grinned. "Then, remind her, Schwann."