1: Letters and Assumptions

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No matter how many times she re-read it, it simply didn't make sense.

You've forgotten your brother. Have you no shame?

For the fourth time, Estelle stared blankly at the letter and turned over the neatly creased paper to examine the back. Even now, she hoped there would be more.

The other side was as unmarked and mysterious as the blank envelope. There were no other words. Just those, written in a meticulous and nondescript hand.

You've forgotten your brother. Have you no shame?

The letter was unexpected to say the least, as it had been bundled in with a stack of fan mail that Ioder had delivered to her at their last Council meeting. It had been three years since the fall of the Adephagos, and one since she had finished the chronicles of their travels. Estelle had made an afternoon of sitting in the Zaphias archives and reading through her letters... But of all the wonderful things she had read this morning, it was that letter which had stuck in her mind.

It didn't make any sense however she examined it.

"I don't have a brother," Estelle mused aloud.

There was no return address, and she didn't know how she could possibly come to understand the message any more than she already did. Not wanting to dismiss the mysterious question entirely, Estelle very carefully laid the letter aside, away from the others.

She needn't have worried. Before long, the puzzle continued. Between a 9-year-old's drawing of Repede and a thinly veiled love-letter in the guise of a review, the second mystery unfolded in her hands.

You can't keep it a secret. I know everything. Make it right, or you force my hand.

"Keep what a secret?" she asked the letter, suddenly worried and perplexed and curious. A closer inspection of the stack of letters revealed more of the plain, unmarked envelopes.

There were three more further down the pile, found in quick succession.

Why did you just leave him there? Your book should have explained this.

Next was,

You can ignore me all you like, but someone must speak for your brother. This is your last chance.

Finally, the last letter simply read,

We both understand what needs to be done.

A small, aer-less bodhi blastia core fell from the final letter and onto Estelle's lap. She stared at it, stunned.

It was once red, but now had the dull and faded look of a pressed flower, musty and ancient and forgotten. Carefully, as if it might bite, Estelle lifted the tiny gem to the light and twisted it about. There were still the remnants of a formula deep in its core.

The blastia core had been dead for three years. It was as empty and mysterious as the letters it had come with, and Estelle cradled the set on her lap without a clue as to what to do with them.

She knew, on some level, that throwing away such things would be very, very stupid.

"Estellise?"

Estelle cried out and nearly dropped the tiny core. Ioder jumped back as well, hands raised as if to shield himself from an attack. They stared at each other for half a moment.

"I-I didn't mean to startle you," Ioder managed, taking an extra step back.

"No, not at all! I was..." Here Estelle gathered up her letters and shuffled them into a messy pile. "I was just reading the mail you gave me."

"That would explain where you've been all morning! All positive, I hope," he said brightly. Judging from his expression, it never occurred to Ioder that there could be any other type of letter addressed to her. Estelle tried very hard not to look as confused and worried as she felt. She hesitated a moment.

"... How long have you been collecting these for, Ioder?"

The soon-to-be Emperor pulled a lopsided face, eyes straying upwards and away.

"Ah... I believe the first arrived about a week after your book Tale of Vesperia was made available at public readings," he replied slowly, thoughtfully.

"So long ago!" Estelle managed, guilty and stunned. She thought of the five accusing letters, collecting dust in Flynn's office along with the other fan-mail. How was she to have known?

"I am very sorry," Ioder apologised earnestly. "But you and Brave Vesperia are always on the move! Not even Flynn seems capable of tracking your progress down most days!"

"No... No harm done," Estelle replied. She hoped very much that none was done.

With careful, contemplative motions, she shuffled the letters into order and very neatly tied them back into their stack with their navy blue ribbon. She was in the process of pulling the bow tight when Ioder took a seat on the bench next to her.

"I- I have some more mail for you," he said shyly. There were two envelopes in his hands, and the young man fidgeted with them idly. Estelle caught a glimpse of her own name in elaborate gold cursive. He continued, "I was going to mail them to Brave Vesperia's guild front in Dahngrest, but that felt so impersonal, and I knew you and Master Lowell were visiting Zaphias for a week, and it felt like as good a time as any..."

Estelle waited patiently, trying not to smile.

"Um. Well, yes," Ioder managed, clearing his throat. "It's the official summons for my... my engagement. Most of the Empire is invited, but I had special invites written up for the... well, for the important people."

"Your engagement! Congratulations!" Estelle managed.

"Oh, of course you wouldn't have heard. The settlement for Lady Clarin and I happened a month ago. Counsellor Bates suggested we get married this coming spring. We were hoping... Well, I was hoping you would come."

"Of course! Oh, Ioder, I'm so pleased for you!"

He handed her the invitations, one at a time.

"This one is to be delivered to Master Karol, as I wouldn't feel right if his guild Brave Vesperia were not present for the ceremony. I owe them so much!" Ioder said brightly. He pointed to the second letter. "And this one is for you and Master Lowell."

And yes, Estelle could see Yuri's name in extravagant curls right beside hers on the envelope. To see their names side by side was strangely shocking. She didn't know what to say.

Shrewdly, Ioder gave her a gentle nudge with his shoulder.

"I was expecting to be the one to receive an engagement invitation first," he said all too casually.

"I-I... I..." Estelle stuttered, feeling her face light up.

"But it can't be helped," he continued dismissively, "when travelling the world is such a time consuming pursuit!"

"Ioder!" Estelle rebuked, scandalised. "Y-Y-You've got the wrong idea! Yuri and I... I-It's not like that at all!"

"Oh," was all her childhood friend could say, disappointed. He looked so crestfallen that Estelle managed to swallow her embarrassment for the moment it took to pat him apologetically on the hand.

"At least you have your own party to look forward to," she said gently.

"Yes, I suppose so," was the strangely despondent reply. Ioder sighed, then brightened considerably. "Well, if not this year, then perhaps the next, right?"

"W-What?"

"Yes, no doubt next year. Oh, speaking of which, Master Lowell is in the courtyard. Lady Judith and Honourable Ba'ul returned an hour or so ago and he came straight here from meeting them. They bring news from Dahngrest."

"Judith?" Estelle echoed, trying to keep up.

It had been some weeks since Estelle had seen Judith last. The Fiertia criss-crossed the skies constantly, visiting cities and guild-members under the guise of delivering messages, but would never be stationary for long.
Who knew how long Judith would linger before flying off to her next destination.

"Y-You'll have to excuse me, Ioder!" Estelle managed, leaping to her feet and pushing her package of letters and invites into her dress pocket.

"Of course. It was good to see you again, Estellise," Ioder replied. He stood a little more sedately, then gave her a companionable hug. Estelle returned it with a squeeze.

"Congratulations on your engagement! I'll see you are the ceremony!" she called, already heading for the door.

"Give my regards to Master Lowell!" Ioder called back, and Estelle nearly stumbled. She pretended not to hear, and hurried out of the library archives and down the hall.

The trip to the courtyard was a preoccupied one; there was so many letters in her pocket that Estelle could feel the bulk of them against her hip, and there were so many thoughts to go along with them that she barely knew where to start. She still wondered about the mystery writer who accused her of a crime she had no idea she had committed. Against a person she was positive did not exist. The only other thought on her mind was, well, Yuri. That was, in its own way, much worse.

Estelle could only wonder how Ioder had gotten such a notion in his head. Engagement? To Yuri? She couldn't even think about it without it slipping from her grasp like snowflakes in warm hands. It didn't make any sense to her, not really, and the thought that it somehow made sense to her childhood friend was terrifying.
Was it obvious? Was she being obvious?

The castle was deathly quiet. Most of the scholars that used to bustle about that particular wing had moved on to Aurnion to set up the fledgling town's archives. The empty hall opened out into the sun-drenched courtyard, and there was only a pair of guards lounging on the second floor's balustrade, their halberds propped against the white marble barrier. They appeared to be surreptitiously watching the young man by the flowerbed below.

Yuri was leaning against the fence that hedged the central garden as if he were a part of the display, all fluid lines and darkness against the iridescent white of the flowers. He had one of the blossoms between his fingers, twisting it idly as he looked vaguely off into the distance, Repede at his feet.

Her heel struck the cobble loudly. Yuri turned her way, curious, and broke into an easy smile. Estelle tried not to stare.

"There you are," he said, pushing himself from the fence languidly. "I thought for a minute Ioder had kidnapped you."

"Um," was all she managed, transfixed. Was she being obvious now? Maybe she should look away. Staring was obvious, wasn't it? Perhaps she was standing too close.

"So did he end up finding you? Judy arrived a while ago and wants us on board the Fiertia as soon as we can get there. We're going to have to cut this visit short... Typical."

"Typical," Estelle echoed, distracted.

Yuri cast a curious look at her with a small tilt of his head and she realised she probably was staring after all. Or standing too close. She abruptly turned and placed one hand on the iron fence that surrounded the garden. The metal was cold even through her gloves, and she willed the sensation to reach her burning cheeks.

"... Something up, Estelle?"

"Oh, nothing," she attempted, trying to use her everyday smile.

"That bad, huh?" The fence creaked when Yuri leant his elbows on it right next to her. "Well, Judy said to hurry, but I can't see the harm of staying an hour or two more if we don't tell her about it. It's been a while since you were home last, right?"

Estelle smiled at him in exasperation, momentarily forgetting to be embarrassed.

"Yuri, thank you, but honestly!" she admonished. "If Judith wants us to hurry, you know it will be something serious!"

"Or she's just getting antsy about sticking around," was the amused reply. Repede huffed morbidly, not bothering to lift his head from his paws. Estelle giggled at their furry companion before she raised her eyes to Yuri. He was smiling at her strangely.

They were awfully close, all of a sudden.

"Um," she managed, stepping away from the white irises and twisting her fingers nervously. A thought occurred to her. "Oh, we- I mean, Brave Vesperia have been invited to Ioder's engagement ceremony. I have an official invitation to deliver."

"That so? Well, I'm up for it. Don't know about the others though... You know it's going to take an explosion to move Rita away from her study."

"I think she'd have fun," Estelle replied with a smile, thinking warmly of her younger friend.
And she blinked.

"Oh," Estelle managed, surprised. She reached into her pocket and closed her hand over the bundle of letters. She could feel the small lump of the inactive blastia core when she squeezed her fingers, and hope flared.

"What's wrong?" She hadn't noticed Yuri taking a step closer, but suddenly the warm sun had disappeared behind one of his shoulders.

"S-Something just occurred to me," Estelle said honestly. "Yuri, you're a genius. Yes, we should probably go meet up with Judith! I don't want to keep her waiting!"

"Right," Yuri replied in a tone that sounded entirely unconvinced. All too casually, as if doing so was as commonplace as a smile, he passed her the white iris he'd plucked from the garden. She took it wordlessly, stunned.

"Well, I hope whatever it is was worth cutting our visit short," he sighed, then turned and moved away. Estelle gaped at his receding back before shaking her head and following.

Judith and Ba'ul were cutting slow circles in the clouds by the time they reached the plains, and their entelexeia friend was much closer to the city than he usually came. Judith must have been watching for them; they exited the final gate and the Fiertia began its descent almost immediately.

The hull of the ship settled into the grass oddly, groaning.

"Good morning," Judith greeted blithely when they climbed over the skirting and onto deck.

"Judith!" Despite having not seen her for some time, Estelle only spared her a quick hug before gripping the taller woman's arms and casting worried glances all over her. "Is everything alright? What's the emergency? Are you hurt?"

"I'm not hurt," was the reply. Far above them, Ba'ul rumbled deep in his chest.

"So what is this about?" Yuri asked simply, glancing over his shoulder as the Fiertia lifted from the grassy plains. Judith extricated herself from Estelle's grip and made a show of pulling their luggage - she must have collected it when Yuri was waiting at the courtyard - from the drop harness and onto the wooden deck. She dusted her hands off and smiled prettily.

"I'm not entirely sure myself," she confessed, "but Karol was really very firm about us all getting to Dahngrest as soon as possible."

"Karol? We saw him last week. He knew where we'd be, what could be so important that it has to cut our trip in half?" Yuri demanded, folding his arms. Estelle frowned. Why was he so irritable about leaving Zaphias?

"I was bit curious about the emergency. I was only told that Raven needs us all, in Dahngrest, as soon as we are able to get there. He has serious news, apparently."

"S-Serious news!" Estelle managed, and once more she wrapped her fingers around the bundle of letters and squeezed. An echo of foreboding seized her.

Judith looked up at the sky and touched her collarbone, distracted.

"It's been a while since we were summoned like this, I'm quite excited," she said calmly. "Oh, we're in a bit of a rush, so we'll only stop at Halure briefly to pick up Rita."

"Then on to Dahngrest?" Yuri asked.

"Then on to Dahngrest," Judith confirmed with a smile.

Estelle turned her face towards the horizon.

The morning had started out so calm and normal. Despite her best efforts, she couldn't imagine what it is that Karol and Raven had thought important enough to gather Brave Vesperia for. She wondered, briefly, if she should be more concerned about the new summons or the mysterious letters in her pocket.

Somehow, in her heart of hearts, she knew that they were all far more related than they appeared.

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A/N: The beginnings of what may be a long journey indeed. There shall be action, intrigue, silliness and big lashings of romance all over the top. Originally and primarily YurixEstelle, now I'm afraid there is equal measures of RavenxRita along the way thanks to a compelling series of arguments found right here on ffnet.
I apologise. And then again, I don't.