"Love is Not A Victory March"

Disclaimer: I do not own Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo, or any of the characters therein.

Warning: Up to now, this story has followed the basic plot of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. This chapter throws the canon timeline out the window. If you wish to, you might want to read this work's companion piece, "The End of Love," for background. Otherwise, hold on tight. Oh yes, there are pairings, but they are a surprise.

***

Part Four: Pieces of Glass

Golden Moon, 605

Light filtered down through the new windows of the Great Hall of Castle Altea, casting jewel-like sparkles over the celebration. King Cornelius and Queen Liza presided over the wedding-- in portrait form, at least-- flanked by the Aum Staff and Falchion. There was more to the window than that, though; many small medallions around the border honored those who fought and those who died in the War of Darkness. Palla noted a red bull and a black panther, and a coyote guarding the Lea of Aurelis. There was a red dragon for her commander, and a white dragon for Tiki. A pair of crossed swords, with the buildings of Port Warren in the background, honored two soldiers who fell defending that port. And there, to the right of the Falchion, was something to make Palla start in her chair-- a beautiful Falcoknight, Wing Spear in hand, long hair trailing behind her in the wind. Palla blinked. Yes, the little golden horn of the Falcon Pegasus was still there, glittering in the window. Palla felt a burning in her chest as she looked upon this tiny symbol that a young knight named Caeda of Talys hadn't truly vanished from the pages of history. Someone remembered Caeda's dreams, and made them a reality in the other-world formed by these pieces of glass, so that generations of Alteans might see what should have been.

"Look! It's our Triangle Attack."

"Shh, Catria." Palla did crane her head to see the medallion her sister pointed to, but in truth her eyes were blurred with tears.

"Those are our pegasi," was Catria's good-natured complaint. "Honestly, I have a dragon now...."

"Est doesn't."

"Well, she needs to catch up with us, then!"

***

Mead Moon, 605

At the last village on the road to Pales, an handful of the League stumbled into a tavern to burn off the remainder of their volatile spirits before they reentered polite company. It said something of the prevailing mood that few of their leaders were present-- not Prince Marth, or Duke Hardin, or Queen Minerva, and certainly not Princess Nyna. This was a final fling for the rest of them, a final opportunity for the nobles to drink with the commons, the Dracoknights to dance with the snipers. There also was music. Pretty Altean ballads and Grustian drinking songs mingled with Archanean tunes that struck Palla as decadent.

Abel had his lute along, but it wanted tuning, and as he worked on it, Palla asked him many of the trivial questions that had been floating in her head for many months now.

"Why is the color of Altea blue?"

"I don't rightly know," he said, and the corner of his mouth turned up in a quizzical smile. "I believe it has something to do with all the water. You could ask Prince Marth though-- he has the whole history of our land committed to memory. I do know why Talys has a blue banner, though. Caeda told us it comes from some plant her father's clan used to paint themselves with in battle before unification."

"Aurelis is green and gold, and Grust black and silver," Palla said. "Gra is... I don't recall."

"Red," Abel said, a trace of disgust behind the word. "Red, like drying blood, the traitors."

Palla smiled at the reflexive contempt of a patriotic Altean. With the battle behind them, even these hatreds, bitter as a rift between sisters, might one day mend.

"Do you know why Macedon's color is red?"

"No. You've a lot of redheads in your country."

That was a fact, Palla reflected. Bishop Lena and her brother, the Macedonian royals... yes, it was a common color. But that wasn't the reason at all.

"In the days of enslavement under Dolhr, our people were treated as animals. Blood was all we had to remind us that we Macedonians were human."

"But ani-- ah, yes. As opposed to dragon's blood." He looked up from his lute, and that charmingly perplexed smile returned as his eyes met hers. "Always so somber, Palla."

And he touched her cheek with the back of his fingers.

"We can smile now."

"You always have," she said, and was alarmed by the tremor in her voice.

"We all have our vices," he said lightly.

And yet, Palla wasn't the only one prone to inappropriate moments of gravity that evening. Gaiety turned to something less so, and the music followed along with the change. Draug's friend Roger had enough drink in him to get up and sing "Sentry at the Grusthold," a lament from the dark days a century ago when the Dolhr Empire threatened to consume Archanea. Roger turned out to have a fine tenor voice, and by the time he was finished, Palla saw tears streaming from General Lorenz's good eye.

This inspired Catria, who'd been off chatting with Cain half the evening, to pull something truly grim out of the Macedonian songbook. "Blow, Winds of Macedon" was dear enough to the hearts of the people to be an unofficial anthem, but there were fewer songs less suited to light entertainment. But Catria enlisted Abel as her co-conspirator, and Palla simply shook her head and decided that if drink and dance didn't relieve the more troubled stirrings of the heart, a thorough catharsis just might.

Palla missed the sharp, angular sound of the Macedonian lyre, but even the more melodious Altean lute conveyed the haunting nature of the tune. The lyrics she and Catria used were from the translation into standard Archanean, more literal and less poetic than the Macedonian original. Still, they were crudely effective. Palla and her sister sent their voices up together as they invoked the wind deities of Macedon to bear down upon the stone temples of the rich and the hovels of the slaves, to disturb the men in chains and the bones of the dragon overlords in equal measure.

Blow upon the graves of the girls unwed

Blow through the cities of the royal dead

For all of us, the wind is calling

They received applause, but after that all but the extremely drunk found an excuse to go back to their rooms. Palla wondered later if that weren't Catria's motive. Abel, though, was inclined to keep playing as long as there were anyone to hear it. He began to play the charming Altean tune, "In the Wind and the Light," as a counter to the hostile winds of Macedon.

"Blast!" The lowest string on his lute had snapped. Abel seemed abnormally put out by this, and Palla hastened to soothe him.

"Oh, it's fine. We'll be in Pales in another day, and I'm sure you can have that repaired."

"Yes, I suppose so," he said, and his face smoothed out to its regular pleasant calm. "It will be strange, after all this, to go back to a life where all the little things are possible."

Repairing the lute would have to wait until after the final procession. The Great Parade, Abel called it with an arched brow-- the victory march to the gates of Millennium Palace.

From her vantage point atop Megaera, Palla had a splendid view of the choked streets of the capital. It appeared to her as a opened hive of bees, every available space packed with thousands upon thousands of bodies. The noise was, in its own way, as incredible as the death-cries of the Dragon King. Palla was glad to be a little above it, and glad too that she at least had the advantage of height and could actually see their planned destination. At the dais in front of the Palace stood the most distinguished guests, assembled to acclaim Princess Nyna as their true Queen. The paladin Midia and her handsome hero Astram waited there along with Bishop Boah and the rest of the Archanea garrison. Palla searched for some glimpse of a young Pegasus Knight, but Est's small stature kept her hidden.

Everything went smoothly enough at first. Nyna and her victorious host were pelted with flowers. The Princess, in her finest gown, seemed more a beautiful doll than a living woman, and in the midst of this cross-section of the Archanean citizenry, Nyna's great commander looked absurdly young to be the focal point of so much attention. Palla shook her head, feeling more than a little dazed. Had the war truly been waged by a child on behalf of this doll-princess? No, of course not-- there was so much more to this struggle than just those two, and more stories than just those of Nyna and Marth. They all were proof of it, from noble old Lorenz down to tiny Princess Maria. This war was fought for all Archanea, not just the Holy Kingdom. This was was for Altea and Aurelis, for Talys and Grust and Macedon. In the end, it was even for the dragonkin themselves-- there, after all, were Tiki and her Uncle Bantu, walking on two feet alongside the humans, not to mention--

"Jake!" The high-pitched voice of a girl rose above the clamor. "Jake!"

"Anna!" The young artilleryman broke from his place in the line, leaving his ballista there in the street. He leapt into the crowd, cutting through the crush of bodies with his shoulder, in search of the girl's bobbing red head and flailing hand. To Palla, it was like watching a dolphin swim against the current to its frolicking mate. Jake won the fight; he lifted the girl up into the air and whirled her around.

"That girl... I've seen her before," gasped Catria. "In... Altea?"

Palla said nothing, though privately she could have sworn she'd seen the girl herself-- in the wastes of Dolhr.

The reunion of Jake and Anna broke the solemnity of the procession. The crowd surged forward, calling out individual names in search their brothers, their sisters, their lovers, their children. The march stopped entirely, and Palla had to order Megaera to flap in place while the street below them turned to madness. Even the knights upon the dais lost their composure-- Tomas, the shy young archer, flung himself at Sedgar of Aurelis, and Palla realized with a shock that the two were likely brothers.

One particular voice, though, cut through the chaos with heart-stopping clarity.

"Abel!" Like the ringing of a silver bell. "Abel!"

Est, unmistakable even in her Archanean dress uniform. Palla followed the sight, and the sound, as her sister jumped down from the dais and began a frantic run toward the Altean paladins. Palla had a split-second gory vision of Est spooking the horses, of Est being trampled by the vicious destriers. But Palla kept her eyes open, and the false premonition yielded to a series of strange, static images, as though each second of Est's run were captured separately. Abel, for his part, stepped down from Skylark only seconds before Est plowed into him in a flurry of arms and legs. His own arms closed around Est in a motion that looked purely reflexive. And yet, they kept the position-- Est's hands clasped at the small of Abel's back, Est's head tucked neatly beneath Abel's chin. Palla watched as her heart measured out seconds that stretched into a solid minute. There was nothing of the Black Panther in Abel now; his expression as he held Est held only tenderness: the desire to cherish, to protect, to love. Surely, thought Palla, that was the way to regard one's self-appointed protégée? With the love of an elder brother, of a father?

Est fairly dragged Abel back to the apartments she'd used during her stay in Pales. Catria and Palla walked three paces behind them, Est's chatter filling their ears. Est hadn't been bored; in fact, she'd learned a great deal. Lady Midia was so strong and brave and generous, and Sir Astram was actually very nice once you got to know him, and Tomas didn't have a lot to say but was so very sweet and gentle...

"And did you know he's really Sedgar's brother?" Est finished breathlessly, her eyes seeming as large as saucers.

"I think we figured that out today," said Catria.

"That's right, Est," Abel said. "Even big, bad Sedgar has a kind heart inside. He wanted his little brother to be safe..."

But Est had already forgotten about Tomas, and was staring up at Abel with those huge eyes. She wanted to hear now what he had been up to while she kicked her heels in Pales. The story took awhile to tell, and while Abel did most of that telling, Palla and Catria each added their own contributions. When not speaking, Palla watched her youngest sister as though seeing her anew. She noted how Est gasped at the tense and dramatic moments, how she paled while hearing of the battle with Gharnef, how her eyes filled with genuine tears when Catria gave the account of Caeda's death. All the reactions were genuine-- genuine, spontaneous, and completely without the strangling sense of self-consciousness that marked so many of Palla's interactions with her comrades and superiors. She would make a good knight, Palla thought, but a terrible spy.

When Abel reached the end of the story, the part where Merric and Linde cleaned up the nasty dragon's filthy castle, fresh tears trickled down Est's cheeks.

"There." And Abel flicked some of the tears away with those long and slender fingers. "It was a happy ending, you see? Mostly happy," he amended, in honor of Caeda and the other fallen.

"I have to get something." Est bolted away to rummage around in the little bag embroidered with a pegasus that lay atop her bed. Palla remembered well the hours she'd spent creating that picture out of a spool of thread, hours taken away from training and practice, and all for the look in Est's eyes when she was given the present. She looked then to Abel, at the curiosity writ plain on his face. Est, in her spontaneity, might well be a puzzle to him. Or perhaps he was only marveling at her childishness.

Est had in her hand something round and white, the size of a large pearl.

"I saved one," Est whispered. "For you."

Her small fingers trembling, she took the last sugar-drop and placed it between Abel's lips. Abel closed his eyes, and after a moment his lips closed, too, around the tip of Est's finger. Est stared up into his face with the quivering wonder of a girl who has finally coaxed a butterfly to land upon her outstretched hand.

"Roses," Abel murmured as he opened his eyes.

Palla never could quite remember what Abel said next, whether it was "It tastes like home," or "Let me take you home." This, though, was one case where the precise words used simply didn't matter.

***

Golden Moon, 605

Palla gave her sister a large cooking pot as a wedding gift, while Catria contributed a broom. The gifts were not expensive, but they were the traditional presents given in Macedon to a young woman who retired as a knight to set up housekeeping. The pot was too large for a pegasus to tote around, and as for the broom-- well, one hardly needed one of those when sleeping under the stars. Queen Nyna had her own wedding gift-- a large estate on the border of Gra, that carried with it the implicit duty of rebuilding that end of the kingdom. Est's new broom and cooking pot would be out of place in a manor house; she would have serving-maids to cook and tend to the floors. Palla felt her own efforts to be at cross-purposes with the tide of history.

Nyna did not present her gift in person, of course. The queen reigned from Millennium Palace, while her new husband rode from one land to the next in his efforts to rebuild the Seven Nations. Only distant Talys escaped the war without significant damage, and while Altea had suffered under the rule of Dolhr, Altea was well-off compared with its neighbors Gra and Grust. Palla supposed that the wedding gave the King of Archanea an excuse to linger awhile in his homeland. Still, Marth's presence turned the wedding from a family event into a state function; the Altean citizenry apparently felt cheated when the royal wedding occurred in Pales, and so they made up for it now that a great war hero was marrying some lovely girl from a faraway country.

Est might have been the very Princess of Macedon from the way the Alteans received her. She had a dozen new friends now, ranging from a redheaded archer girl who took part in the local resistance to a village lass who passed covert messages to the League when they retook Altea. Palla felt that a number of Est's friends were mostly interested in close contact with Est's famous husband, and Est in her joy was only too happy to show off her prize.

"My husband Abel fought the Shadow Dragon personally." Est's small hand drifted up to rest upon Abel's shoulder, the one that bore the scars of Medeus beneath the sleeve of his wedding tunic. Est had no conception of the gulf between her husband and other warriors; it was not Est's fault, just a statement of fact. Est could not understand because Est had not been at the Keep of Dolhr, and Est had not been at the Keep because Palla and Catria--and Prince Marth-- had sent her away. To Est, the idea of actually facing down Medeus was as otherworldly as, say, taking a trip to the moon. There was no horror in it, only the thrill of risk, in the way that stealing the Mercurius blade had been a glorious caper.

Est's fierce innocence had been preserved, while a visit to Dolhr would have dented it, bruised it, perhaps stripped it entirely. Only Tiki could stand before the throne of Medeus and not feel the stain in her soul, and Tiki after all wasn't human. Palla and Catria bore that stain themselves so that Est could love without feeling ever under a shadow.

Palla sat in the courtyard of Altea Castle, alone save for the birds and the rustling trees. On her first visit here, she'd nearly died, surprised and cornered by a foul-tempered manakete while pursuing thieves. Ogma, badly wounded himself by the same beast, had carried her back to Lena to be healed. Palla's memories of the incident were clouded. It was as close as she had ever come to death, and yet within the hour she was tossing javelins at enemy cavaliers around the castle moat.

Such a strange thing, that border between life and death. The most skilled healers, like Elice and Lena, could take someone broken nearly beyond recognition and set them on their feet again, even as a fire might blaze anew from a single cherished spark. And yet, if that spark went cold... then, there was nothing. No human had ever returned from the far side of that border--no human, and only two of the dragonkin. And the difference between Tiki's return and that of Medeus was as itself profound as the difference between life and death.

She'd nearly lost Abel in Dolhr, nearly lost him for ever, and yet thanks to Lena they'd been laughing and sharing memories mere hours after the battle. She'd seen Abel happily wed to her beloved sister, and that was something to drive her to sit in the courtyard alone, feeling things that were wholly indecent? Her perspective must have gone completely out of scale. If he'd died there in her arms at the Keep, if she'd nothing left of him but an image in the stained-glass window, how would that possibly have been a victory over her sister?

And why did she keep comforting herself with the thought that his "final words" there in Dolhr hadn't been for Est? They hadn't been for her, either. He spoke of Altea, of the cause, a knight to the end. And, come to think of it, Palla of the Whitewinged Order of Macedon had more important things in her life than foolish regrets over a love that never was. It was beneath her to be sitting here, brought to the verge of tears by her own imagination.

She would have dragged herself from the bench and found something useful to do had the object of her morbid imagination not walked through the courtyard at that very moment.

"Hello, my lord." Sir Abel, the Shield of Altea, lord of the manor of Marcelana. The Shield of Altea looked distinctly embarrassed; Palla saw color rise in his face.

"I hadn't planned on any of this."

"What did you intend to do following the war?"

"Honestly?" Abel tucked a strand of hair behind his ear in a gesture that Palla had seen dozens, even hundreds of times; it was one of those simple, silly things about him that had lodged fast in her brain. "I've about had my fill of fighting. I was contemplating hanging up my lance and saddle for good and doing... oh, I don't know. Being a shopkeeper."

"A shopkeeper?"

"Keeping a village shop's not a bad life. Everyone comes to see you, you're always up on the latest news, and you can end up with some nice things in barter if your customers don't have the gold."

He did not sound facetious, strange as this ambition might be. Palla had imagined him a lifelong warrior-- after all, he'd been a knight before the fall of Altea, not a volunteer who took up arms only in rebellion. Then again, he'd no doubt had the battle of his life already. After "fighting Medeus personally," keeping the peace would be an anticlimax. And again, if some hearts did not long for peace, for little shops and a little house in the village, there would be nothing but war from one end of Archanea to the other.

"When you get to my advanced age," Abel was saying, "I reckon you'll see the appeal of a the quiet life." And he smiled at her, daring her to laugh at the scant number of years between them. Palla could not imagine being tied down to a little shop in some country village. Still, she could almost picture Abel behind his counter, handing out free sweets to the children and being charming to the village wives. Well, it wasn't to be.

Wasn't to be. And it seemed then to Palla, in a burst of strange intuition, that the wheels of fate might still be off-course, that something in the chain of events that led them all to this day had simply gone wrong. Wrong in a way that mattered far beyond Palla's own life and meaningless dreams. This should not be happening, she thought, just as she'd thought it when Macedon allied with Dolhr, when Palla's loyalty to Minerva, and Minerva's loyalty in turn to Michalis, led them to see and to commit acts that were unquestionably not right or good. And here they'd turned, and allied with Light, and faced Dolhr and actually won, and still....

This should not be happening.

"What were you doing out here? It bothers me greatly when you look so dispirited, Palla."

"I was thinking on how fortunate we all were."

"You didn't have the look of someone rejoicing in good fortune."

"No, but good fortune is, after all, a relative concept. If we have been fortunate, others have been... less so." To Abel, of all people, she did not need to say any more. He took a seat beside her on the bench, his handsome face marred by a frown. But it passed quickly, as his darker moods always did.

"Well, let's all do our best to make a good peace, so that the deaths of our friends weren't pointless."

"Yes. I'm sure the king and queen are counting on my lord of Marcelana to do just that."

Abel shook his head again at the idea of his new station.

"I hope all the attention doesn't spoil Est," he said, a rueful smile touching his lips.

"It won't," Palla assured him. "The acclaim will slip away from Est like water off a dragon's back."

"Ah."

She thought of her sister's inner fragility, of the delicate wisp of a soul inside that vibrant little body. Baby Est, tagalong Est, always trailing her sisters... Est who was put away, like a doll upon her shelf, for her own protection. Palla felt a burning wetness in her eyes, and this time it wasn't purely for herself.

"Love her, Abel. Be good to her."

"I must be good to her, mustn't I?" His smile now seemed almost mystified. "I have a strange feeling that if I ever make Est shed a tear, two lovely ladies with lances and axes will come winging my way."

Palla's own tears finally spilled, and Abel comforted her as would any loving brother.

***

Palla took a long flight around the environs of the castle after her conversation with Abel. The air was heavy with the promise of rain, and low-lying clouds seemed to brush the castle tower. As she and Megaera picked up speed, the air began to feel refreshing instead of oppressive, and Palla spared a moment of pity for all those who would never know flight, never experience for themselves what it was to be suspended between earth and sky. Fliers and sailors alike scorned the land-bound, and the land-bound in turn could only look up and point in warning at those who went beyond their natural place, at humans who aspired to be one with the dragons, one with the beasts of the sea.

The most exalted human on Archanea was, after all, one of the land-bound. Palla felt compelled now to speak with him, one-on-one as they had conferred on the march to Pales. Perhaps speaking to someone besides Abel and her own sisters would help to quell the turbulence in her heart. The avuncular advice of old Jagen and the friendly compassion of Draug wouldn't do in this case; Palla needed to hear from one of the Sixteen, from someone who'd walked through Dolhr's blackest shadows. She had already spotted a white mare with rich trappings grazing alone, and so brought Megaera down at a respectful distance. Aurora's pegasus heritage carried with it the usual loathing of dragons.

Perhaps no one bore shadow of Medeus as heavily as the so-called Prince of Light. Since their return to Pales, since his marriage to Nyna, it seemed that a remote sadness hung over the new king, the way that faint wisps of cloud hung around those brilliant stars called the Seven Sisters. It was more subtle than the melancholy spells Palla noted during the campaign and the journey home, and most might never recognize the sadness as such thanks to the flurry of activity that surrounded the young ruler. But in a rare quiet moment-- without speeches or toasts, without ceremony-- the change was both clear and troubling.

Palla thought of Michalis during his final battle: the emptiness of his taunts as he dared the Whitewings to slay their own king, the shock and horror in his eyes when he'd seen Maria standing shoulder to shoulder with the other clerics of the League, the strangely ecstatic way in which he'd seemed to welcome Minerva and her axe. It had all added up to an impression of profound, even crushing, guilt-- the guilt that could only be remedied by death. It had disturbed her then, and seeing even a faint echo of it in Marth was more disturbing still.

"Hello, Palla," he greeted her, as comrade to comrade rather than ruler to subject. All the mannerisms were perfect, but there was something unmistakably wrong, like an untuned lute string marring an otherwise flawless performance. Palla returned the greeting, and Marth returned to his chosen task of watching the clouds along the eastern horizon.

"What will the weather be tomorrow? Abel tells me you have a gift for predicting the weather," she added, in case the joke failed her. Palla still did not completely understand the Altean sense of humor.

"Rain," he said. Palla, uncertain now whether Marth was returning the joke, decided to give attempts at humor a rest. Marth had turned away from her, and Palla found herself studying the circlet in his hair-- not the battle diadem he'd worn through the war, but a filigreed band inlaid with a jewel. Another ancient treasure of Archanea, perhaps. In spite of its delicate workmanship, Palla felt certain this crown was heavy with a significance the battle diadem never had carried.

Marth had the shard of the Starsphere in his hand again; at moments he clutched it so tightly that, but for his gloves, the sharp edges would have cut his palm.

"And the gods placed King Anri in the stars, that he might ever guard Altea, and at the other end of heaven's vault, they set the body of the Dark Dragon. And when Anri keeps watch over Altea in the night, the Dark Dragon sleeps in the earth. But when the line of Anri falters, the wheel of heaven spins again, and brings the Dragon up from the earth to reign over the darkness." Marth tossed the orb fragment up, then caught it in one hand. "Old Alison never told me the whole of the tale. Perhaps she didn't want to scare me. All these years, I've thought this was just a scorpion."

"It is, as you said, just a story that changes over the years."

"Perhaps. In the last year, I've found a great deal more truth in old stories than I'd originally thought." He slipped the shard into a fold of his tunic, and touched the small shield, the Fire Emblem, pinned to his cloak. "At times I almost think I hate the stars."

Palla was not sure how best to answer this.

"I doubt you will see them tonight," she said in the end. Here in Altea, the Golden Moon brought these gray skies; late-summer bursts of rain fell upon the ripening crops. In Macedon, the grass would all be bleached to pale gold, and for long weeks the sky would not have seen a single cloud. The Fire Dragon-- the Dark Dragon-- still governed the night. They stood together, watching the slow drift of the clouds, until Palla decided to ask a long-burning question to one of the three living who might answer.

"What did Medeus say before he died?" Palla and Catria had talked it over many a time, and never could agree on the final words of the Dragon King.

"He promised to return," Marth said, his voice flat. "It's just as well that Elice was able to save me." His right hand went automatically to the hilt of Falchion. Palla watched the king's fingers caress the jeweled pommel of the sword, then fall away as though nerveless.

"But Gharnef is gone...." In spite of the many tricks of the Dark Pontifex, it did appear that Starlight had truly broken his foul magic. "Who would raise him now?"

"I can't imagine," Marth replied. "That's the trouble, isn't it? We can never imagine...."

Rain began to fall in fat drops that felt neither warm nor cold. Water soon trickled through Palla's hair; it reminded her uncomfortably of blood flowing down her scalp. She threw her head back then, let the drops fall upon her cheeks, into her eyes, across her lips. It was only a little water, as clean as anything on earth could be. And nothing, after all, could grow without rain.

Whatever might grow, the summer rain could not wash away their shadows. Nor did speaking with Marth at all dispel the notion that something in their world had gone terribly wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact. When there was nothing more they might say to one another, Palla left him there, gazing at the sky in the direction of Talys, seeking out a flier that never would come.

***

"Cain says he doesn't have time to play landlord," Catria said. "He doesn't want the favors, either."

"Will Nyna give him a choice in the matter?"

"She may. You know how horribly obstinate Cain can be when he's thwarted."

Palla didn't know, though she could well by imagine by this time. She hoped the queen would allow Cain to serve Altea in his own way. Training a new generation of knights to keep peace was just as valuable as governing a province. Besides, as sensible as Cain was, he perhaps lacked the tact to be a good governor.

The sisters walked around the Great Hall; there was not much else they could do for exercise in the midst of all the rain. Curiosity soon slowed their brisk steps. All the windows of the cathedral told a story-- the legend of Anri, the exploits of his brother and heir, and the the life of Marth's grandfather, whose name turned out to be King Marius. Palla recognized some of the iconography, but much of it was a mystery to her. When the sisters gave up on the older windows, they turned to the new one, the one that told the tale they knew too well.

"This is for Sir Frey," Catria said of one of the medallions. "Cain told me about him; he sacrificed himself during their escape to Talys. This one is for Lena's brother Matthis-- you remember him, Palla. What an idiot he was."

Palla privately agreed Matthis was a lazy and useless youth, but she did not care to speak ill of the dead. Lena had loved her foolish brother.

"And this one--"

Catria jerked, as though struck by an arrow. Palla followed her sister's gaze and realized Catria had finally come across the Falcoknight set in the window.

"Oh... what a stupid world." Catria swiped at her bangs with the back of her hand. "If she hadn't been so damn set on a Falcon Pegasus, she'd have had a dragon that day, and--"

"Stop, Catria."

"What a stupid world," Catria repeated. "She prayed every night, you know. 'Gods above, protect Prince Marth. If you ever plan to take him, take me instead. Love, Caeda.' Every night. Well, they bloody well did."

"Stop it, Catria."

"You see it, Palla. Don't tell me you haven't noticed yourself. She got careless, and got herself killed, and it broke him. And then he gets handed off to Princess Nyna like a present."

"Queen Nyna. You really must stop this, Catria." Palla never felt more calm than when trying to steer one of her sisters toward sense. Catria lapsed into a sullen silence and made a great show of examining all the other medallions in the window. She perked up only when the clock tower chimed the fall of another hour.

"I have to meet Cain for supper." And off she ran, her hair swinging and her feet light upon the stones. Palla sighed to herself and stared up through the great window. Rain trickled down the glass in rivulets, and Palla fancied to herself that Queen Liza was weeping.

***

The rains lasted a week, delaying their return to Macedon. Minerva sent them a sternly-worded letter, though Palla could see the affection between the written lines. Their own queen needed her most faithful lieutenants back at their posts-- and Palla, by now, had taken her fill of Altean hospitality. Not to mention the food.

At last, the gray shell of the sky cracked open. Through the blue gaps between the ragged edges of cloud, Palla glimpsed her escape. Abel and Est saw them off, of course. Abelandest they were now, standing so close they might have been in the same skin.

"Bye, sisters!" Est called gaily. "Come back soon!"

"Fare well, sisters!" Abel echoed his wife. "We'll be down to see you this winter." His smile was as sweet as Palla ever had seen it, his green eyes were as vivid in the sunlight now as in her memories. His hair, trimmed and newly washed, stirred in the light wind, and his clothes were more fine than any he'd worn on the march. Utterly himself, and yet so subtly changed....

Palla looked away. Others stood there as well, after all-- Gordin, back from a stint with the Archanean army, and his younger brother and apprentice Ryan. And there was Draug, and old Jagen, and some of Est's new friends... and, of course, one tall redheaded knight.

"Goodbye, Cain!" Catria shouted, waving frantically in an attempt to raise a smile from the solemn paladin. "Gods, he needs a life," she said under her breath to Palla.

"He has simple needs and wants," Palla replied. Was that necessarily a bad thing? To see the goal of one's heart so clearly, and to set a course for it without distraction? To place duty above all else, above trinkets and titles, above entanglements. It was the kind of nobility found in those infamous Altean romances, but the world had need of it.

They flew west, preferring a longer route back to Macedon rather than the direct route over Dolhr. Conquered land or not, neither Palla nor Catria wanted to see place again for a long while. The towers of Altea Castle still loomed behind them when sharp-eyed Catria spied an oddity-- one white mare, coat sparkling in the new sunlight, and one rider tearing off across the fields. Palla and Catria went low, as close as they dared without spooking Aurora. They waved and called down goodbyes, and Marth looked up at them as they passed, raised his hand in return. For an instant, every detail was sharp-- the jewel in his circlet, the creases in his gloves and the pattern embroidered on his cloak. Then he was gone, headed in one direction while Palla and Catria soared off in another. That was an image to leave Altea with, Palla thought. Not the image of Abel intertwined with Est, not of Abel laughing or singing, not Abel playing his lute or slouching elegantly atop Skylark. She fixed that final memory of the prince-- the king, rather-- in her mind's eye, and knew that she would carry it with her if she lived to be a hundred.

"Goodbye, Prince Marth," Catria whispered, though they were long out of earshot. Palla looked at her sister then, at the odd downcast air Catria suddenly displayed, and realized the tangle her sister's heart had worked itself into.

"Oh, Catria. You can't have...."

But she had. A spot of deep pink showed on Catria's cheeks, and her eyes were abnormally bright.

"If he were happy, I could stand it. Maybe. I'm not as generous as you. But he's not happy. And I'm not happy. And...." Words failed Catria, and for a second it appeared the brightness in her eyes would spill over. "Hyah!"

Catria urged Alecto higher, away from Palla. She did not look back at Altea a second time. Palla cast one more backward glance herself, at the green, lush land of her sister's new home. Est might blossom there, like the famous roses of Altea, but Palla knew herself now to be rootless. She belonged to the air. Palla might linger in Macedon awhile, like the swallows that traversed the continent from north to south every year, but the future lay elsewhere. Perhaps the courses of fate would take her across the glittering sea, where unknown continents awaited her, where the same stars wheeled overhead in the night but the patterns they formed bore different names. Where all the stories were different from the ones etched into her spirit.

They made for the south, together yet separate: two fliers, each with an impossible longing in her heart. Palla watched their shadows pass over the earth-- Altea, Chiasmir, Grust, and on to Macedon. There, they would see what they might salvage from this victory.

***

Palla the White returned to Macedon to work on restoring her nation. Rumor has it she plans an overseas journey in the near future.

Catria the White returned to Macedon with her sister, and also works for the good of Macedon. She is talking, though, of a transfer to the Archanean army.

Queen Nyna of Archanea still governs from her capital, and is loved by the people of Pales for her fair looks and kind heart.

King Marth of Archanea continues his efforts at rebuilding the empire; he is rarely seen in Pales.

Abel has replaced Sir Jagen as the popular hero of Alteans; his vassals praise their new lord's fair mind and just heart. It is said that Queen Nyna is considering promoting him to Governor of Gra.

Est enjoys her life as Lady of Marcelana. She insists on using the cooking pot and broom that her sisters gave her, and she is much happier as Abel's wife than as a knight of Macedon. The people call her the Fair Rose of Macedon, and Abel thinks his charming wife has done more to keep the peace than an entire brigade.

Cain declined the title that Queen Nyna offered him. He lives and works in Altea, training the next generation of Altean cavaliers. Recently he has begun to work with Malledeus to become an official advisor to their king.

Princess Elice became Bishop of Altea, and governs the country as Regent in her brother's stead. Thanks to her research with fragments of the Aum Staff, the secrets for creating the resurrection spell have been uncovered.

Duke Hardin of Aurelis will likely succeed his elder brother as King before long. He has made Princess Elice an offer of marriage, which she is considering.

Merric the Wind Sage returned to Khadein to complete his studies.

Linde the Light Sage was convinced by Merric to come to Khadein and experience for herself the richness and culture of the city of magic. Linde finds Khadein very nice indeed.

Queen Minerva of Macedon is loved by her people but faces opposition from her brother's former generals. She often contemplates abdication, but has vowed to reign at least until her younger sister is of age.

Princess Maria of Macedon studies healing magic under Queen Nyna in Pales. She has recently achieved mastery of the Aum Staff. Maria still misses her brother Michalis very much...

Tiki, despite her wish to live among her friends, was taken away by Lord Gotoh after the war.

The Starsphere is still broken, and eleven pieces are unaccounted for.

The wheel of heaven continues to spin, as the Hero and the Dragon move in their eternal dance across the skies. No story ever ends, the teller just chooses a place to break off....

*** The End? ***

Author's Notes: "...[I]t's a cold and very broken hallelujah."

I'm not really intending a sequel, I just want to make clear that even though this doesn't follow the continuity of FE3's "War of Heroes," war is coming nonetheless. That's what the whole issue of the Starsphere shard and the constellations has been about since Chapter One-- there hasn't really been a victory yet, just a break in the battle. Some characters may fare better than they do in the official timeline and some will fare worse, but people will die and hearts will be (further) broken.

Regarding broken hearts:

No, I was never planning to actually go with Palla/Abel. He was destined for Est the whole time. I chose one way of depicting Palla's way of coping with it; for another take on it, please read Shimizu Hitomi's "Still Waters." I think my Palla is more bitter about things than the "Still Waters" edition.

Yeah, Catria was in love with Marth the whole time. Cain's her good buddy, and she might feel attracted to him on some level, but she's been "admiring" Marth all along. The evidence was there, but Palla was misreading the Cain thing, drawing a false parallel between herself and Abel.

Elice/Hardin is a crack idea from a 'fic that Shimizu Hitomi talked about but isn't actually planning to write. It really grabbed me.

Merric/Linde-- yeah, I went there in the end. I want it, Linde wants it, and if Elice has Hardin, why shouldn't Merric look elsewhere?

Observations on Macedonian hair color courtesy of Edgemaster025