Sketches from Valencia

Disclaimer: I do not own Fire Emblem or any of its characters.

Warnings: This is based on Fire Emblem: Gaiden. The game contains a few characters also found in the somewhat more famous FE1, FE3, and FEDS, including the three Pegasus Knight sisters from those games (Palla, Catria, and Est). This 'fic references both FE3/FEDS and FE2-- and contains a big massive plot spoiler for all three games. This is another one of my "Tales of the Unified Kingdom," but can be read as a standalone. In some respects it touches on themes found in another 'fic of mine, "Love is Not a Victory March," but that was an AU and this sticks with game canon. All pairings have some basis in canon; anyone remotely familiar with my other 'fics will have a good idea of the pairings in this one.

Dedication: For Hitomi, without whom this 'fic would literally not exist.

***

Noise

Nothing here is as it should be, and Palla's senses are dazed by the utter strangeness of this western land. The stars are not quite where they ought to be in the sky, the aroma of green growing things pervades every building, and the air tastes of something unfamiliar. Her ears tolerate the change the least; the cries of the birds in the harbor, the voices floating up from the street beneath the window, even the buzz of nighttime insects is subtly different from what Palla is used to. The Sofian language is close enough to the Common Tongue of Archanea that Palla can make herself understood, but the sound of it is disconcerting. Palla does not often have trouble sleeping in a strange bed-- she would have perished from lack of sleep long ago were that the case-- but here in the balmy air of Port Sofia, her nights are troubled and restless.

"You call his name in your sleep," Catria says.

"Whose name?" Palla is automatically on the defensive; her face already is warm with creeping embarrassment.

"His."

"How... how many times?"

"Twice now. Once last night, and once three nights before." Catria speaks of it casually... no, factually. To her, it is not a matter of judgment; that Palla murmurs someone's name in the night is a simple observation that carries no shade of greater meaning. At least, that is how Catria makes herself sound. Palla does notice her sister's gaze is not quite so direct as usual as she makes her observations. Perhaps she is simply embarrassed by her elder sister's unconscious slips, or perhaps Catria herself bears a vulnerable spot concealed beneath her shining armor.

On the nights when the unfamiliar din of small creatures keeps her up too late, Palla listens to her sleeping sister. No one's name passes Catria's lips; the purest knight among the Whitewings does not betray her secrets.

*

Sustenance

Est falls upon the meal, a brilliantly-colored stew of large black and yellow seeds, red and green fleshy fruits, and some sort of orange root vegetable. Its fragrance is sweet and earthy and spicy, and Est devours it along with handfuls of the flat round bread made with something that clearly isn't either wheat or rice.

"So good," she sighs, smacking her lips like a child. "More, please?"

There is no more. Crop failures have plagued this land for three seasons, and famine now has a grip on the southern half of the continent. But after her treatment at the hands of Geyse the bandit king and his pirate underlings, Est's cheeks seem a little too pale and hollowed for Palla's liking. It is an easy decision; Palla scrapes half her own portion into Est's bowl.

"Thanks, big sister!"

Palla smiles as she watches Est take in the sacrificed stew. She measures out her own meal one spoonful at a time, as though stretching out the portion will make it more substantial. She is distracted from the hunger in her belly by the inquisitive chatter of Bowy; the young mage has more questions for Palla about her strange homeland to the east. Ah-kah-nay-ah, Bowy calls it. He does not believe in her stories of people who turn into dragons, any more than he believes that the people of Palla's own kingdom raise small dragons and train them like pegasi. What do they eat? How long can a dragon live? How many people can they carry at a time?

"One large man accompanied by a good-sized child," Palla answers. It is a rote answer, memorized in her childhood, and she does not know if the answer was arrived at through pure theory or if the limits of a war-dragon's strength have ever been formally tested. Bowy accepts the answer, though, and he plows on to his next question, then the next one, and so on until Catria's voice breaks through.

"Hey, sister. You didn't finish your supper."

A few spoonfuls of stew remain in the bowl, even though Palla clearly remembers wiping it clean with a piece of the flatbread.

"Catria...."

"The amount of fight in a soldier depends on the food in her stomach," says Catria. It is one of the many maxims of their training days; in troubled times Catria tends to repeat these phrases as a cleric might murmur prayers. "You lead us, sister. Your need is greater than mine."

Bowy watches their exchange with large, childish eyes.

"Hey, there's some food left?"

Again, it is an easy decision.

*

Grace

Est has blossomed since the days of the War of Darkness; she grows like a sunflower, and every month she looks-- at least to Palla's eyes-- taller, and stronger, and ever more formidable as a knight. Yet still she is a child, and she falls asleep like a child, dreaming away with an expression of easy contentment. Palla brushes stray locks of hair away from her sister's face; such a pretty face it is, thinks Palla, and she is glad that Geyse and his pirates did not have Est for a day longer than they did. A "cute kid," the mercenary Jesse called Est, and a cute kid in bad hands makes a dreadful combination.

But Est is safe as she can be now, with Palla watching directly over her and Catria standing guard at the entrance to the camp. Palla hears a light footfall earlier than expected, and looks up to see not Catria, but Cellica, the priestess who leads their party on its mission to seek out the Earth Goddess Mila and learn why so many ills have befallen the peace-loving country of Sofia. She comes now, as she does each night, to visit with each of those brave enough to follow her. The firelight shines in Cellica's hair and outlines the gilded curves of her bracelets. She sees Est, and a slow smile of remarkable sweetness touches her lips.

"I'm so happy you were able to find your sister."

"Thank you, Cellica." Their disparate goals-- to find Lady Mila and to rescue Est from the pirates that spirited her off to their desert fortress-- are joined by some twist of fate; Cellica has taken a genuine interest in Est's welfare, while Palla finds herself ever more intrigued by the mysteries of Mila and of this divided continent named Valencia.

"Now that Est is safe, you might want to return to your own land. Things will only grow more difficult here."

Palla understands the invitation, but it cannot be accepted.

"I offered you our service in exchange for Est's safety. My goal is achieved, but we will not leave you until your own cause is won."

"It would be a shame to have come so far for your sister, only to lose her to an arrow."

An arrow likely to be fired not by a man, but by one of the creatures of the dark god, gruesome animated corpses that plague the land like some new form of vermin. Yet as much as Palla loathes the idea of such an end for her loved ones, she shakes her head in refusal.

"We are knights. To lose Est to pirates would have been tragic, but if Catria, Est, or I are to meet our deaths on the battlefield, then that is our fate."

Cellica frowns now, but in her eyes Palla sees a knowing look that is almost sorrowful. Cellica has learned enough of the sisters' past to know this is not their first war; she has not pressed them for any information, but she does know something now of Archanea, its lands, and its own troubles.

"I will take it very hard if I can't send all three of you safely back to your Queen Minerva."

Palla smiles and does not correct Cellica regarding the difference between Queen Nyna and Princess Minerva. Valencia is troubled enough with just Sofia and the Rigel Empire in play; Archanea by comparison seems terribly complicated-- three kingdoms that begin with an "A," two more that begin with "G," all of them linked in an intricate feudal mesh. Palla's own Macedon and its tenuous balance between Minerva and the military generals appears straightforward beside the convoluted politics of the Archanean court or the murky situation in the kingdom of Grust. Cellica might one day need concern herself with the proper form of address to use with foreign heads of state, but this night is not the time for it.

"She must miss you," Cellica adds, her voice just audible above the crackling flames. "From what Catria told me, she relies greatly on you. I hope not to keep you away from your home very much longer."

Palla looks into the embers of the campfire; the deep orange-tinged red that glows among the ashes is a color that brings her princess to mind. To be as trusted as Palla is, to be as needed as she and her sisters are, carries with it an obligation that Palla can hardly fulfill by dallying here in Valencia. But duty and obligation are not as simple as she once believed....

And, in truth, Palla feels within herself a calling to fight alongside Cellica, something that must be akin to the bond a mage feels with the elements, or a cleric feels with the benevolent spirits. Cellica, armed with her prayers and a sword, has decided to embrace a destiny that might lead to the salvation of her land and loved ones, or might simply see all of them destroyed. Palla's own destiny has fallen into a repeated pattern; she seems fated to be in the company of those with the will to attempt the improbable.

"Your queen won her battles, even against her own brother," says Cellica, as a sudden flare of the fire sends up a shower of sparks.

"She-- and we-- could not have won without the help of our allies and friends," Palla says, and even as she speaks, she realizes she is making the final argument for why she cannot yet bring her sisters home. "One person alone could never have ended the wars that raged over our continent, but many of us together were able to turn back the darkness."

Perhaps it is a banal way to sum up a terrible and many-headed conflict, and a trivial way to characterize the heroes of Archanea. But Minerva might not have taken a stand against her brother without the example of Prince Marth of Altea to inspire her, and the young prince would likely have not made it very far in his campaign without the help of Lord Hardin of Aurelis, and Lord Hardin in turn might not have fought so passionately were he not protecting Queen Nyna, and Nyna would never have survived to join Hardin if General Camus had not proved such an honorable opponent. It took an entire chain of events, of people, of chances, to liberate Archanea, and even those written down in account-books as the enemy played their part. By blundering into this Valencian war, Palla and her sisters might be just such a catalyst for victory.

As Palla thinks back on the madness of the past few years, success here in Valencia seems a little less improbable than before.

"Now the people have set down their weapons and returned home, and leaders of all nations turn their thoughts to peace."

"That's encouraging." The smile returns briefly, though Cellica's eyes remain downcast. Palla can give her no more hope than this-- that even the cruelest wars end, and that the survivors must then strive to rebuild. Neither of them speak for a time; the loudest sounds are Est's peaceful breaths and the pop and hiss of the fire as a jet of blue flame erupts from one pitch-laden brand.

Cellica is no older than Est, and at times Palla sees a flicker of doubt across Cellica's face that is achingly reminiscent of Est in one of her rare downbeat moods. Palla is familiar enough with that flicker that she can almost read the thoughts behind it. Am I strong enough to do what is asked of me? Can I truly ask others to commit themselves for my sake? Dear gods, what if my best is not enough?

If Cellica were simply preyed upon by these thoughts, then Palla would find her an object of pity, and perhaps she already would have led her sisters home. Yet Cellica has the strength to contain these doubts and not allow them to consume her, and has also the sensitivity not to brush her misgivings entirely aside. She must battle with her fears as a pegasus rider battles with the pull of the earth, keeping aloft while never fully escaping its grasp. Palla sees that inner struggle for balance, and so she now holds the younger woman in respect and esteem-- and, perhaps, true affection.

Now that they know Cellica's true heritage, Palla thinks not that it is a natural thing for Lady Cellica to be a princess, but of how fortunate Sofia is that its princess is Lady Cellica.

*

Surprises

"That's the prince, eh?"

Catria sounds strangely disappointed. Prince Albyne Alm Rudolf, otherwise known as Rudolf the Second of the Rigelian Empire, but mostly known as Alm of Rahm Village, does not fit at all the Archanean conception of a prince. He wears a simple suit of plate armor, less elaborate than those of his own senior knights. Beneath the armor is a sturdy, hearty-looking boy with regular but unmemorable features. Palla's own first impression of Alm is of the way he shows all his teeth when he throws back his head to laugh. A few minutes' study shows more depth to Alm, though; his gaze is steady and forthright, and his overall manner exudes not just cheer but confidence. His armor seems less a utilitarian defense than a reflection of unbreakable spirit, and when he looks upon Cellica, the prince's unremarkable face is lit by a smile that makes him appear truly handsome. Palla remembers, too, that the first king of Macedon was but a simple slave boy with the courage to take up a lance, mount a dragon, and battle his oppressors to the death.

Whatever this young hero calls himself-- King Albyne, Emperor Rudolf, or simply Alm-- Palla feels she is fortunate to have crossed paths with him.

More impressive than the prince in terms of splendor, and equal to Alm in presence, is the general at his side. The man-- so-called the Gold Knight-- is young despite his high rank and higher reputation; he is well short of thirty, Palla thinks. To Palla's eyes, he seems oddly familiar, with the noble profile and curled golden hair of the aristocracy of Grust. Palla thinks for a moment to comment on this familiarity, but dismisses the thought as absurd. She sees the same question in Catria's eyes, and the words hover unspoken on Catria's lips for a moment before they are swallowed back. Est, though, speaks aloud with the tactlessness of youth.

"That's General Camus!" And she goes so far as to lift her hand to wave at the general, though Palla quickly forces the hand back down.

"No, it isn't," Palla says. The denial is instinctive and unconvincing. "It's General Zeke of Rigel."

"But...."

Catria now shakes her head in a slow, determined sweep. She keeps her silence until the three of them have a moment alone, but when she does speak her voice is firm and low.

"I have to tell Prince Marth when we get back."

"You will not."

"I have to!" Catria's eyes flare with something uncomfortably close to the passion of battle. "You know Prince Marth didn't want to fight Camus. You know how terrible it was for him to be coerced into that duel. You saw how it affected him for weeks-- he was still distracted when we got to Macedon and he nearly got himself killed! If Camus is here, and alive, I can take that burden off Prince Marth's conscience."

"It cannot possibly be General Camus." Palla speaks yet with calm conviction; she saw the man's death-wound with her own eyes, and surely that counts for more than a remarkable but superficial resemblance between two men from different continents. Were Zeke in different clothing, without the gold-trimmed tunic or the flowing dark mantle, the resemblance would not be nearly so striking. "Camus died. We helped to bury him."

"Yes, we did. And what did the rumors say about the Gold Knight? That he washed up on the shores of Rigel, clothed only in a sheet, without even a name?"

Palla's rebuttal catches in her throat. She remembers the battle for Grust, remembers the unusual orders Prince Marth had for them when it came to disposal of the dead. The ground was too hard and rocky to make mass burial efficient, and the rains prevented use of a pyre. Take them to sea, he said. She remembers the maps-- Abel's maps-- and Abel's graceful fingers pointing out where the sea burial need take place.

"Out there, just past the harbor, the currents will carry them due west. There's no chance of anything coming back in and befouling the shore."

For a frantic moment, Palla thinks back on which of them had the honor of depositing the Sable Knight of Grust in his resting place in the sea. It was Est, she thinks. Little Est, who spoke so fervently after the battle of the dead general's kindness and chivalry. Palla stares at her young sister, wondering if Est-- dear, silly, romance-minded Est-- had not left the weights out of the general's burial shroud.

Yet there is nothing to be gained but trouble from this line of speculation. Palla speaks to Catria not as a sister, but as a superior.

"You will not spread your suspicions of General Zeke to Prince Marth or to anyone else in Archanea."

"Yes, ma'am."

"That goes for you also, Est."

"Yes, big sister."

It does not occur to Palla to forbid them to speak directly with the general.

*

Departure

All is fair skies and smiles when they leave Port Sofia at daybreak. The cry of the harbor birds no longer bothers Palla, as she is now used to it. She is more than used to the rhythms of Sofian speech, and as Lady Cellica says her farewells, Palla realizes how much she will miss conversing with the courageous young priestess.

"Send my regards to your princess," says Cellica, and this time the heiress of Sofia has her titles right. "Tell her that I will be forever grateful to the White Knights of Macedon."

If Palla had a skill for witty court banter, she might be able to respond with something along the lines of how Minerva inadvertently loaned her finest knights out to a truly remarkable lord and lady. But sparkling wit has never been Palla's forte, and so she speaks her truth in simple words.

"It was an honor to travel alongside you, Cellica."

A smile passes between them, from knight to princess, elder woman to younger woman, warrior to warrior. Palla wishes she could say more, but the playful southern breeze has shifted to a stiff wind from the west that will aid their passage eastward. It is, at last, time to go home.

"I'll definitely come again!" shouts Est as the three of them ready their pegasi-- swift and graceful mounts with a single spiraled horn, the native stock of Valencia. "Thank you, everyone!"

Come famine or flood, pirates or cruel shamans or strange undead creatures, nothing can dim Est's spirit. Palla looks then to her middle sister, who also wears an expression of unrestrained joy.

"Home," says Catria, rolling the word over in her mouth. "Home to Archanea. Princess Minerva will be terribly worried about us."

"Yes, we may as well enjoy our journey back, as there will be double the work waiting for us when we get there."

But they laugh at the idea of delving back into the rigorous work of rebuilding Macedon; the kingdom may be in tatters, but it is their own land, their own task. They can leave Valencia without regrets, knowing that they have played their part and that the people of Alm's Rigel and Cellica's Sofia have their own great work ahead of them.

"I'm coming home, Abel," she whispers. "Coming home with everything made right."

Her heart feels as light as a pegasus feather as they rise above the glittering sea; the sisters move in unison, one will in three parts, as they fly towards the rising sun.

***

Author's Notes: No, I didn't make up the part about Camus washing up on the shores of Valencia and becoming "Zeke." What really happens to Camus, during and after FE2, is part of the consistently tragic undercurrent to the Archanea games. So, of course, is Palla's love for Abel; her death quote in FE2 implies that he's waiting for her back in Archanea. And, of course, he marries Est instead when they get back. FE2 takes place in the year 606, in the pause between the War of Darkness and the War of Heroes, so a lot of the happy stuff in this story is intentionally ironic on my part. All hell will very shortly be breaking loose... again. Deeper and more detailed notes to be posted on LJ and DevArt per my usual practice.