Chapter Two: Secretive Gwendal
She had known from the beginning that Gwendal was a serious child. But then, his father had been a serious man. Gentle and loving, but also stern and quiet. The Voltaire line was known for their rather stoic demeanor. Part of it was a natural effect of the Earth magic that ran in the blood, part of it was simply personality. And she'd known, after his first weeks, looking at the dark gray hair on his head and the blue of his eyes, that the Voltaire blood was going to dominate in her first son.
Still...she'd seen that he was growing up far more serious than even such a nature would allow. Studious, she understood, and taciturn, but...that wasn't all of it.
She watched as her son created an armor to protect himself. From the courtiers who wanted his attention, not for him, but for her attentions. From the people who tried to use him, the people who tried to hurt him. From cruel words and thoughtless actions.
She watched him grow up with the awareness of what it meant to be the Maou's son. With the awareness of their uneasy borders, the dangers surrounding the country, the issues that troubled the kingdom from within. There was hardly any way for him to avoid them, no matter how she tried to shield him. She watched him deal with being heir to the Voltaire house, as well as the burdens of being a Maou's child.
She watched a quiet child grow into a quiet youth.
His father's death made it worse. From noble son to one of the 10 Aristocrats, a ruling lord, and he was barely a boy at the time. She watched him grow up almost overnight as the responsibility settled on his shoulders. One word from him, and she would gladly have taken the burden, as would any of the men who ran his household, men who had watched over him for years, and spoke highly of their polite, strong, studious 'young master'. But he never asked.
She watched him withdraw when she married Dan Hiri Weller. He never abandoned his younger sibling, when Conrart was born, but a blind man would have known that he resented Dan Hiri for taking his father's place, and disliked the man intensely.
Secretive Gwendal. She'd grown her first flower for him, twined with his essence, because she didn't know how to give him anything further without hurting his pride, or endangering them both with whispers of favoritism among the nobles. She knew he understood that, for he was always careful to speak to her respectfully, and asked no favors of her, not even the ones he had a right to demand as her child. He kept her company, helped raise his younger brothers around his other duties, and otherwise kept mostly to himself. Only Anissina seemed able to draw him out, and only then when she harried him with her explosions and experiments.
Secretive Gwendal. For a quiet boy, who grew into a self-contained man. A man who kept his true feelings, and much of his true nature, hidden from others. She doubted one person in ten within the castle knew of his fondness for animals. Less than that were aware that he could knit, and enjoyed doing so. The same with baking. He read a little, and could often be found outside the castle enjoying the feel and smell of the earth that was his element, but she doubted anyone besides she, Anissina and Giesela knew how sensitive he was, how much the constant border conflicts hurt him. And Giesela, she knew, had only been told so she could help him cope with the headaches that sometimes plagued him, and a lack of appetite that would have been dangerous if he hadn't gone to her to learn how to handle it.
She knew that almost no one knew of his involvement with the human/half-human settlement Dan Hiri had founded. Once the 'unnamed village', Gwendal had adopted it and called it 'halfway village'. He sponsored recruits from there when needed, and made sure they were safe. She knew her second husband had taken him there, on the journey that had ended in his death. Gwendal had never told her what had happened, other than a bandit attack, but the shadows had remained in his eyes.
Secretive Gwendal. She knew it was the Voltaire nature to keep things to themselves. But as he took the mantle of General, to save lives, she wept for him, knowing most people thought he'd taken it because he was a brilliant tactician, not that he'd become a brilliant soldier for this one, grim purpose. When he became her Chief of State, for much the same reason, she wept again. She wanted to desperately to help him, but he didn't allow anyone to reach him. All of his emotions were sealed away, guarded where they couldn't be used against him, just as the gentler side of his nature was. Her heart ached, seeing him close himself behind walls. But she hadn't known how to help him, because he refused to burden her with his problems.
She had hoped to be able to reach him, once she resigned as the Maou, but by then it had been years. His defenses had become habit. All she'd been able to do was water the flowers, and pray her son would find peace. The flowers always bloomed, but the trumpets were always so thin, barely opening to sun and water, even with the best of her care. She wanted them to flourish, and that was hardly the way.
And then Yuri had come.
Yuri. Boy-king. Reluctant king. Gwendal had disliked him at first, and unlike the child, she knew very well why. She herself had been a shy and reluctant monarch. Her hesitant stance toward being queen, her lack of confidence, had cost him much of his personal freedom and much of his time. It had cost him his peace of mind, his cherished cousin (he'd had to deliver the judgment himself, which was worse) and very nearly the life of his younger brother. It was a hefty price to pay, even for family. It came as a small surprise that he was unwilling to face such losses for a stranger.
But Yuri wasn't her. She watched him face off against Wolfram, and wondered if Gwendal understood that. Hesitant and shy the boy was, but he knew his own mind, and when pressed, he was more than willful enough to demonstrate that, and stand behind his beliefs. The display of temper at dinner told her that, never mind the duel, and the subsequent explosion of the Maou's power.
She never did know how it happened that Gwendal had goaded the youth into accepting the crown, only that it had. But she'd seen the satisfaction in her son's eyes when Yuri stepped forward, and wondered if the ice might be thawing a little. Such a slight change, but it gave her hope.
The next few months were confusing. She herself left, knowing her sons managed things better without her presence, but she received regular reports from Giesela, Anissina and Gunter. So she was aware, more or less, of what was going on. Gunter sometimes omitted things, to protect her, or at Gwendal's insistence, but Anissina and Giesela knew better.
She knew that Yuri had returned at a time of crisis, descended into a shouting match with her eldest son, and half an hour later come to ask his advice on avoiding a war in a mature matter. Since that was the advice Gwendal had most longed to give, it didn't surprise her that he had yielded.
She followed the team going after Morgif, curious as to what the boy would do. It was, after all, his first real work as the monarch, never mind that it resembled a knight-errant's quest. But, as much as she had hopes for this boy, he exceeded even her expectations. Yuri not only retrieved the sword, he neutralized it, and managed to thaw out one of Gwendal's most suspicious men. Her brother's actions, and her own inability to prevent them, had nearly gotten Yozak killed, and though he always acted charming around her, she knew very well why he was wary of kings and queens. In that, his attitude was much like her older sons. And Yuri won him over. And, in a stroke of what had to be extremely good fortune, averted the war by saving the life of the eldest prince of Cavalcade.
When they came home, Giesela reported that Gwendal had, for the first time in nearly a month, gotten a full night's sleep, and not because he'd had a drink before bed or been too exhausted to stay upright. And he'd eaten a full breakfast, rather than three cups of tea and whatever he could scoop onto his plate and eat in a hurry. She left again, but not without hope.
She received news of Stoffel's attempt to kidnap the king and retake his position, and knew better than to get involved in that. After all, Stoffel's determination to regain the king's regard was her doing. She'd allowed him far too much power. He hadn't liked being supplanted by his nephews. She let Yuri handle that one, and regretted leaving him a mess to clean up. But it surprised her that her usually level-headed son declared civil war over the boy. She wondered if that was concern for Yuri, or simply left-over rage at Stoffel. It was that, more than anything, that made her turn for home when Anissina sent word that it was all over. That, and the need to apologize for stealing a valuable gem, which had apparently been part of the problem.
She was there when Gwendal received news that his cousin, so long missing, had been spotted. And there when the king and her sons went to verify the rumor. She liked teasing Gunter, but she spent more time worrying than anything else.
Facing his estranged cousin again was sure to reopen wounds for her eldest son. She feared what those wounds would do to him, and to his fragile relationship to his king.
She never did find out the details of what happened in Sevelera. She only knew that there had been complications, and that her eldest son had come home sporting three cracked ribs, far more bruises than he should have, and a serious case of esoteric stone poisoning.
He also came home with his despised cousin's family firmly under his wing, and several new residents of Halfway Village trailing behind him. And there was no doubt that Gegen-huber's lover admired and liked him, nor that the little boy who followed absolutely hero-worshiped him. Nor that he returned their respect with his own brand of gruff affection. As heart-lifting as it was, it was nothing compared to what she saw when she went to visit him.
Gwendal might have been bandaged from shoulders to waist, and embarrassed at being confined to quarters, but still...he was more relaxed than she'd seen him in well over a century. There was a look in his eyes, a peace she'd never seen there before. He looked like a man for whom an intolerable burden had been lifted. He looked...calm, as if something had been settled, something that had been troubling him for a long time. And when he spoke of his king, his tone was entirely different. No matter that he still described the boy as reckless, careless, foolish. His eyes and his voice spoke of admiration, respect, and perhaps rarest of all...trust. Her precious eldest son had finally found a monarch he could trust, and she prayed with all her heart that it would remain that way. She went to the garden, and found the patch of flowers, and smiled to see that some of the trumpets had begun to tentatively open toward the sky.
After that, she could almost hear Gwendal's walls cracking, even from a distance. And when she returned home, in her scheme to test how everyone felt by pretending to want Raven's hand in marriage, she found her son firmly on the side of his king. Conrad sent her a short note afterward, and made wayward mention of Gwendal admitting that sand-bears were...loveable. In front of the king, and her brother, a thing he would never have done when she was monarch. Had never done, as far as she knew.
And then the incident with the child assassin, and the reappearance of the cousin he had never been able to reconcile with. His exiled cousin Gegen-huber.
She heard about it all later. How a child had attacked the king, and later revealed that her family neglected her, and she'd hoped to win their approval by killing the Maou. How Yuri had taken her under his wing, adopted her. How they'd gone on a vacation while things were sorting themselves out, and been attacked by Gegen-huber, in what amounted to a suicide attempt.
How the king had brought the wounded man back after Conrad had felled him, and the subsequent confrontations.
How a child, a boy and a woman had shattered the walls of Gwendal's anger, nurtured and set in stone for over 20 years. How Yuri had held him back, how Nicola had defended her husband, and Greta and Yuri had utterly shattered his defenses, standing before him as proof that love, and forgiveness, were magics more powerful than anything the Maou could wield in judgment.
She heard how her eldest son had confronted Gegen-huber, dueled him to the death, then saved him and publicly forgiven him. Then stood watch when Gegen-huber's son was born, and helped the new father find his feet. She even heard a rather amusing story about how her eldest son had taken his cousin to the baths, dunked him in, then provided a set of his own pajamas and an eye-patch to cover the scars upon the man's face.
It was the most emotion he'd shown in decades, the most openly emotional and honest he'd been since childhood. She didn't need Giesela's note, written at the bottom, to tell her that the crimson trumpet flowers named for her eldest son were flourishing.
Her Secretive Gwendal was finally opening up, growing toward the light, just as she'd always hoped he'd do.
And then disaster struck.
She learned of it far too late. Gunter had been hurt, Giesela was preoccupied with her father, and finding the Maou. Anissina was too busy keeping things together, particularly her oldest and dearest friend. Yozak was on assignment, and Gwendal was too tired and troubled to write. And even if he had, he might not have told her anything, out of concern for her. So, while she knew there was unrest, she didn't realize how deep the trouble had gone.
Not until that day in the arena, when she watched her second son draw a sword against the king she knew he loved more than life itself. Watched her second son duel his king, standing there in the uniform of Big Cimarron. Watched a king's grief and rage create a snowstorm.
She'd raced home after that, and heard the story from Gunter. An ambush. Yuri's disappearance, Conrad's severed arm, which had been stolen and used to open a Forbidden Box. She didn't doubt him, though she'd seen that Conrad had a left arm. Conrad's supposed death. And now...her eldest son had been forced to declare his brother a traitor.
She met with Gwendal, but he wouldn't discuss it with her. She didn't need him to. Not with the shadows of anguish and suffering that filled his eyes. It only took the lightest of touches to feel the pain raging inside him, an agony as fierce and sharp as a sword wound. She didn't need to go to the garden and look at the flowers to know the truth.
Her flowers were dying. Wolfram's was the strongest, but then, he was young and felt Yuri's impact more readily than the others. Conrart's grew, but hardly bloomed, much less flourished. And Gwendals...Gwendal's flowers were dying, choked and poisoned by the grief and pain that tortured her son, dying even as he was, of the grief he could not bear, and the agony of what he was forced to do.
She didn't join them when news came that the king had returned, but she watched as Gwendal rode out with them, something he hadn't done since Yuri had been crowned. She knew, even without asking, that he was planning something, something drastic, and her heart ached for him.
Gunter told her what happened later. How Gwendal had knelt before the king, and offered himself as payment for Conrart's crimes. How he had offered to be punished, dismissed and disgraced, to atone for the younger brother he felt he had failed. And how Yuri had refused. Refused to condemn her eldest son, or Conrart, refused to punish him, and declared that he believed in Conrart, that he would find the reason for the other man's actions before he issued any judgment.
It was good to know, but she'd learned all she needed to as she watched her eldest son dismount from his horse. She'd seen the way he moved, as if a burden had been stripped from him. The iron-stiff shoulders had relaxed and eased. There was still pain and grief in his eyes, but not the choking despair.
He had given the burden to the king. He could never, would never, have done it for her, but he had given the burden to Yuri.
Yuri had saved her son.
She went with them on the diplomatic trip. Partly to watch over her eldest, and partly because negotiation was something she was good at. And, as anyone knew, you needed people along who could be charming, friendly, put on a good face for the country. And that was absolutely something she excelled in. Her status as a retired Monarch didn't hurt it either.
She couldn't blame Gwendal for his tension, his desire to hide. Worried over his king and his friends, and still sick at heart over his brother, it was no surprise that he retreated often. What was a surprise was that, when she went to chide him and try to draw him out, he actually unbent enough to tease her slightly. Not very humorous, but he rarely made use of the dry sense of humor she knew he possessed, and never without a fairly hefty dose of sarcasm. The teasing, for all it's serious undertones, was a welcome surprise. It was proof that Gwendal was permitting himself to be human.
Within days, they'd negotiated the biggest Alliance in the history of their kingdom.
Two days after that, they saved Conrad. Yuri's faith in her second son bore fruit.
Less than a month after that, the alliance was formalized, and Conrart had been exonerated. And Gwendal slept through the nights without waking or needing a prescription for the first time in months. And Gwendal's flowers were blooming, stronger and brighter than they had ever done.
Gwendal was flourishing too. For all the anguish of the past few months, she'd never seen her eldest look so well. Even ravaged by grief as he had been...he'd released it, let himself show his feelings, and it had made all the difference. He would remember this time, but it wouldn't leave the scars that Gegen-huber's actions had once done. Somehow, in the midst of suffering, he had found his feet, found the foundation he could hold on to. Found it and planted himself there so firmly that not even an earthquake could shake him. Something to anchor him, as she had never been able to do.
It broke her heart, discovering that her children were the Keys. That her eldest son, like her second child, bore the legacy of his family. Seeing him suffer as the Key became active, seeing him struggle to function with the agonizing headaches that plagued him, was enough send her into tears on more than one occasion. And yet...
She knew Gwendal was aware that he was a danger to the kingdom. That, in the wrong circumstances, his body could be used to bring untold destruction. And yet...he stayed. Stayed by his king. It spoke of trust, of a faith in Yuri that went far beyond anything she'd ever seen him display before. She knew that, in different circumstances, he would have removed himself from the castle and possibly the kingdom, isolated himself to minimize the danger.
He even spoke to her, and there was no condemnation. Nor did he shy away from his own thoughts, or seek to hide them. She apologized for his burden, for the torment he was forced to endure, and in response he only held her hand, and assured her that he understood the fate he bore, and was willing to accept it.
She watched him ride to the sealing of the boxes. Watched him hours later, all of them reeling from the tragedy, the unimaginable betrayal at the tomb. Watched him cope with the crippling wound that had been dealt him.
He loved his brothers, and they had both been wounded, one perhaps fatally. He had been loyal to Shinou his entire life, and been betrayed, the last and worst betrayal in a life that had far too many of them. He was a warrior, and he could barely keep his balance, his depth perception destroyed by both the blinding pain and the loss of his vision. And still...he remained standing, remained strong. When he spoke to her in the courtyard, she had no sense that he was forcing himself. In fact, the gentle words he would never have spoken a year ago came so easily for him. In a situation that could have shattered him, he was a rock of strength.
She watched him ride away, and marveled.
Somehow, a bond of duty to the throne had become a bond of love and loyalty, so deep that it could shelter him even from the worst of betrayals.
Yuri's gentle strength had taught her son that it was safe to be human, to reveal his wounds and allow them to be healed. That there was no shame in being who and what he was, whether it was a soldier or a baker, his grim General, or the man who cuddled kittens and knitted stuffed animals.
Yuri's honesty, his forthrightness, even when they argued, allowed her son to trust as he had never been able to. There were no hidden meanings in Yuri's words, no fears that he was lying to placate others. Everything about the boy, from his words to his actions, was completely straightforward, and she knew that fact gave Gwendal a peace of mind he had never before demonstrated. Even if he found the youth's actions to be exasperating, frustrating, or even a downright nuisance, he could trust his king.
Yuri had made her son whole, body and mind and soul, and allowed him thrive.
Celi smiled at the flowers, their trumpets opened wide and angled toward the sun. Secretive Gwendal. Her eldest son would always be a quiet, taciturn man. He would likely never be as demonstrative as his brothers. But...that hardly mattered.
The flowers bloomed so brightly, so warmly, that the shadows in the centers really only enhanced their overall appeal.
Author's Note: Yes, there will be a chapter for each of Celi's sons, and one for her as well. I just hope I did this one justice...