Chapter 1: Part 1
Her hands slipped on the tight cord, stinging with a snap. The bow wobbled in her hand, falling out of the structure she had been taught in the range, while the arrow hit the ground with a soft ‘thunk.’ Rosa bit her bottom lip, tears welling in her eyes as she brought her fingers to her lips in a protective attempt to shelter them. The bowstring cut like a knife when it was drawn, and she was lucky that hers was a training bow.
“Shh shh shh~” her father cooed. He knelt at her side, taking her hand between his to look at her scraped finger. The string had slid right down the side of her index finger, quickly rubbing the skin raw. “It’s alright, little flower. All archers miss on their first shots.”
“Papa, it hurts,” Rosa whimpered, turning her head into his shoulder. Her hair was in a frazzled fluff around her ears. She liked to keep it short, off her neck, despite how her mother warned her of looking too much like a boy. “Does it do that every time?”
“It can,” he told her honestly, kissing the tips of her fingers. “But you’re strong, you can fight through it if you wish to be the greatest archeress in all of Baron.”
Rosa looked up at her father’s face. His eyes were a warm brown, his face covered in the soft scruffle of his ginger beard. His hair was pulled back into a long ponytail at his back, traditional for a Dragoon. He smiled with tired eyes, but was no less sincere. Rosa knew her father was overworked. He had to go on missions and fight to defend Baron’s borders regularly. Soldiers always needed rest.
“Do you want to try again?” he asked her, picking up the training bow. Rosa was only eight, but archers always had to start early.
“Yes,” she nodded her head insistently. “Again! I can do it, Papa, I promise.”
The second time, she fired the arrow, missed the target board, and tried again. Sir Christopher fed her gentle advice and adjusted her hold, but she fired arrows until her arms felt sore.
“I’m so proud of you,” the Dragoon murmured as he carried his daughter home. Her arms were around his neck, her knees bent by his sides. She rode on his back like she was the original Dragon Knight, mounted on a mighty divine serpent. “You’re going to make Baron proud, Rosa.”
“…Papa, why do we have to fight?” she asked, idly mussing her father’s curly hair. “Baron’s got the best army, right? So why do you always have to leave?”
“Because, little flower, who else would defend Baron from her enemies? We may be mighty, but we are a small kingdom, Rosa… Troia and Damcyan are both mighty as well, and much bigger,” he explained, though his voice was thin and weary. Something didn’t seem quite right about what her father was saying, but Rosa had been taught not to question adults. “The Dragoons and the Red Wings must defend the borders, to make sure we never fall under harm’s way.”
Rosa stayed quiet, her little lips pursing together in thought. It did not take them long to get home, where they were greeted by fresh bread and Lady Farrell’s favorite phrase– “Good little girls do not fire arrows.”
Chapter 2: Part 2
Blood smeared and stained her fingers, running between knuckles and down the life line of her palm. As the bow string snapped to attention, it sprayed her face and hair with red smattering. Had she worn any color but black, her dress would have been similarly marred. Tears welled in her eyes, yet she reached for a new arrow and drew it back all over again.
Hold it right at your ear, Rosa. That’s right, just like that.
She let it loose, the swift whizz of air deafening her to all other sounds for just the fragment of a moment.
Steady now! Keep your eyes focused on the target. Imagine your eye lines meeting up, imagine the arrow flying right between them–
Another flew by, the comforting whizz again.
Good, Rosa! G–
Another one flew, and another as fast as she could. Her aim slipped, the arrows no longer hitting the range’s bullseye. They hit bails of hay, the dirt, a tree. Her little hands worked in a mad dash, anything to keep the arrows flying, to keep that whizzing in her ear, to scorch her fingers with blood and dirt and cord.
“Rosa!” a voice she knew called, but she wasn’t listening to anything other than the whoosh of wind and arrows. “Rosa, stop!”
As she reached for the next fletch in her quiver, she found nothing. It was empty, the molded leather gaping beneath her bloodied fingers. The tears began to overflow from her, colliding with the freckles of blood splatter on her cheeks. But a large hand clad in leather came gently over hers, turning her around to face Baron’s top engineer.
“That’s enough, Rosa,” Cid murmured through the thick of his auburn beard. Her green eyes looked up at him, begging for answers that didn’t exist.
She dropped the bow, her head falling down to stare at her feet as she began to weep. A second pair of hands came to her back, rubbing little circles.
“Rosa…” it was Cecil. He had been shouting for her earlier, had he followed her from the funeral? “I’m sorry, Rosa.”
Cid pulled the little girl into his arms, giving her purchase to hide against his shoulder. Her wail was an aching muffle.
“He’s gone!” she keened. “Why?! He promised he’d come home, he promised!”
“I know, lassie,” Cid spoke. Rosa felt Cecil lean his head between her shoulder blades, enveloping her in as many embraces as he could. Rosa didn’t know if Cecil knew how this felt. His own parents had been gone since before he could remember. The king had made Cecil his ward, but did that mean King Odin was Cecil’s father?
Or did Cecil know how it felt to lose a protector?
“It’s not fair!” she shouted. “He promised… he promised…” her words cracked, losing her strength to stay angry. Her father had promised her the impossible, and in return, he had died fighting monsters, with Sir Richard by his side. Kain probably wasn’t crying, though. Kain was stronger than she was, older than she was. He hadn’t run away from the funeral, he had stood by his mother in solemn dignity, holding Sir Richard’s helm.
Rosa had left her mother at the pyre, fleeing, and dropping her own father’s draconic helmet as she did.
Cid kissed the top of her head as if she was his second daughter. Cecil wrapped his arms around her middle, hugging her tight, even as she clung to the engineer’s beard.
“It’s going to be ok, Rosa,” Cecil muttered. He didn’t know that was true, Rosa thought. He was too young to know, too naive. Just like she was.
But somehow, hearing him her it would be alright helped, and she nodded a bit as she sniffled.
Cid petted the back of her short hair, his gruff voice was deep and calming, despite how much he smelled like oil and metal. At least engineers didn’t die fighting for no reason.
“Chris wouldn’t want to see you like this… weepin’ and bloodied,” Cid told her, carefully prying Rosa away from his shoulder to that he could examine her hands. “Here, let’s fix these,” he offered. Rosa had rubbed her hands raw, firing arrow after arrow without a glove to protect her young skin.
Cid brought her fingers up to his lips, kissing her wounds and muttering an incantation under his breath. Her hands felt warm, like a light had spread through her veins, and the cuts began to close. Blood stopping in its tiny streams. Rosa knew of white magic but never had a need for it before. Her mother never spoke about her time in the military medical units.
Rosa sniffed again, her tears were drying along her cheeks. The pain was still within her, like a rift through her lungs. But her hands didn’t sting anymore, and she felt a little bit stronger with Cecil hugging her and Cid holding her hands.
“Better?” Cid asked.
“…No,” she muttered, because her father was still dead.
“Nah, I s’pose it ain’t,” the engineer conceded. His eyes flickered to Cecil, who was already a head taller than Rosa despite being so close to her age. “Cecil, m’boy, are you gonna take care of Rosa? She needs someone t’walk her home.”
He nodded, pale hair ruffling into his eyes as he did. “Yessir.”
“An’ Miss Rosa,” Cid looked back to her, addressing her with a sympathetic smile. “If yer ma’s cross when ya get home, tell ‘er to talk to ol’ Cid. You done nothing wrong t’day.”
She nodded, but said nothing, just leaned back into the hug Cecil had not released her from. Her eyes felt heavy and fogged, and she barely noticed as Cecil took her hand and turned her to start walking home. He picked up her training bow for her, taking it along with them.
The streets of Baron Town were a blur, but she squeezed Cecil’s hand and trusted that he knew where they were going.
Chapter 3: Part 3
Wide bone-carved teeth sifted through her hair. They ran over her scalp in gentle caress, making Rosa exhale a deep sigh. The comb came through her hair again, sorting the waves and loose curls from one another. Sometimes a small snag would tug against her head, but it would pass quickly.
“You really must grow out your hair, Rosa,” her mother murmured, gently twisting some strawberry locks around her fingers between combs. Lady Joanna Farrell was a shrewd but loving woman. She cared about her daughter’s image, particularly now that Sir Christopher was dead. Lady Joanna often said that young women had to rely on their image to get anywhere. “You look like a child.”
“I thought I was a child,” Rosa mentioned, turning the page of the book she held in her lap. It was a book on white magic and medical healing. Most of it, she did not understand, but there were certain pieces that she could comprehend.
“You’re twelve, you won’t be a child much longer,” Joanna insisted. “I’m surprised that you haven’t begun your bleedings yet–”
“Mother!” Rosa blanched, her shoulders cringing upward at the mention of women’s cycles. “Ew! Stop it!”
Joanna rolled her eyes, giving the last touches of grooming to her daughter’s hair. “It is perfectly natural, Rosa, you should not flinch so at the mention of womanhood. As uncomfortable as it may be, it is a normal, healthy part of every girl’s life.”
Rosa shook her head, closing the book before she stood up from her chair. “May I go now? Cecil and Kain are expecting me.”
Joanna’s sage green eyes turned down in disapproval. The light wrinkles around her mouth strengthened as she frowned. “You shouldn’t run around with those boys like that. It is not decent.”
Rosa scowled, placing one hand on her hip as she retorted, “You said you wanted me to have a good relationship with Kain! I’m his best friend, that’s what you want!” She didn’t mention that Cecil washer best friend.
Joanna pinched the bridge of her nose, her thin lips pursing into a long, stubborn line. “Running about the streets with two older boys and flinging yourselves into ponds is not an appropriate relationship to maintain, Rosa. Kain Highwind is a noble son of noble birth, and he will inherit his father’s estate, as well as military position. You are expected to marry that boy someday, you cannot develop a reputation for being wanton!”
Rosa’s upper lip twisted, her hands turning to small fists at her sides. “I’m not marrying anyone! And I’m not wanton!”
“Then act like it, Rosa. You are a noble daughter, not a common fish monger.”
Rosa let out an audible groan before she turned on her heel and left the room. She dropped her book onto her bed before pulling her short boots on over her ankles. Her skirts were getting longer these days, on her mother’s insistence. Longer skirts were supposedly more proper for young women, though whenever Rosa visited the castle, she saw women dressed in robes, short skirts, even no skirts at all. Apparently, noble women had to wear long hems and tight corsets, but a woman of profession could dress however she liked.
“Rosa! Rosa, get back here, I am not done talking to you–” Joanna snapped as Rosa went straight for the front door. She ignored her mother, stepping into the city.
Fire kissed her heels as she stalked up the hillside road towards the castle. She veered a sharp left before entering the royal walls, though, her boots tearing up grass in a quick run. Her breath began to pant, but the sting of air in her lungs was comforting. She could hear the slightest of whirring in her ears as she propelled forward.
Not too far from the castle walls there was a pond. a stream ran into and out of it, yet the small reservoir always seemed to be full of clear water and cattails. She was running late, as evidenced by the two blond heads that were already in the water, debating in laughter about whether one particularly snobbish lord at court had sculpted his mustache from horse hair or squirrel tails.
“Rosa!” Cecil grinned, flinging an arm up from the water to wave at her. His nearly white hair was like albino vines over his head, pale blues eyes finding her even at a distance. He always had a way of finding her. “Water’s perfect today, come on!”
She was still scowling when she made it to the bank. She kicked off her boots and pulled her frock up over her head, discarding both beside the boys’ own shoes and tunics. She leaped into the water, the thin cotton of her chemise clung to her skin then, hugging the curves that had only just begun to develop that summer.
Kain grunted as water splashed his face, Cecil smiled. When her head came up out of the water again, legs now pumping in small circles beneath her to maintain her place in suspension.
“You should get proper swimming clothes,” Kain commented, frowning lightly as he glanced away from her. “You’re getting too old for this–”
“Don’t tell me what to do, Kain!” Rosa blurted, still mad at her mother. She turned her scowl to Cecil, matching her green eyes to his blue. “Do you think it’s inappropriate for me to go swimming?”
“N-No!” Cecil shook his head. “We swim, why can’t you?”
“Exactly!” Rosa sighed, swimming close enough to peck Cecil’s cheek. “Now someone please tell my mother that.”
Kain puffed up his cheeks and let out a long breath. “Oh, I see. Sorry, Rosa, I didn’t know she was riding you.” But he still avoided looking at her.
“Want me to ask the queen to tell her what’s for?” Cecil joked, his cheeks ever so slightly pink. He looked especially handsome when he was trying to noble–more like the knight he would someday be, and less like the gangly squire that he was now. “I bet she’d do it if I asked nicely.”
“Thanks, but it won’t matter soon. I’m going to be an archer, she can’t get mad at me when I have to wear a uniform.”
Kain asked, “Are you sure archery is a good idea? Most women go into mage work… Baron’s military isn’t fond of women on the frontlines.”
“My father taught me to fire a bow,” Rosa reminded him, “Just like your father taught you the spear.”
Kain fell silent, nodding in understanding. “Then may your arrows always fly true, Lady Artemis.”
Rosa smiled at that and hesitated before she splashed Kain again– “Race me around the pond! I bet my arms are stronger than yours!”
“Ha! Not in your dreams, Rosa!” Kain laughed before they both took off to see whose training was paying off the most.
Chapter 4: Part 4
“Mama, I’m going to the range!” Rosa called as she took her training bow in hand. She had been taking lessons for five years– her bow strength had gone up to a forty pound draw. While Rosa was still young, she felt confident as she pulled her worn boots on. Her quiver fit around her shoulder as comfortably as her own skin, and the weight of fletches along her spine made her walk twice as tall. Cecil and Kain had both already started their squireships with the Red Wings and Dragoons respectively, and Rosa was ready for her own.
Joanna frowned as her daughter scampered out the door. “Be careful, and be home for dinner, please.”
“Yes, Mama,” Rosa called, closing the door behind her. She wore a fitted tunic that hugged her arms and chest, but hung low down her legs. She had convinced her mother to let her wear boy’s britches to the archery range for today and keep her hair from her face with pins and a headband. When it got longer, she could pull it back.
Baron Town was active this afternoon, with market goers moving to and fro in the large squares. Rosa walked between them with a bright smile. Her steps bounced, as if she were skipping, as she headed up the steps towards the castle.
“Good luck, lassie!” Cid’s voice boomed as she crossed into the military grounds. Rosa looked up and saw the engineer looming over a parapet above. He held a device in his hand which measured wind speed– no doubt preparing for a new test flight of his latest prototype. "It's yer big day!"
She waved up at him, “Thanks, Cid!”
Around the corner and under an arch, the range stood. Young applicants were in the aisles, taking their aim and trying their best to impress the Baron Archers Unit. Each captain in the unit was there, looking over the potential troops. Rosa had arrived early for the second group. The first gathering of applicants hadn’t finished yet, but she stood dutifully with her bow in hand.
“…You’re Sir Christopher’s daughter, aren’t you?” one of the captains asked her. She stood right beside the fence that separated a dangerous firing zone from the rest of the military yard.
Looking up, Rosa nodded and dipped into a quick curtsy of respect. “Yes sir, I am. Rosa Farrell, I’m in the second application group.”
The man frowned, but said nothing, walking away from her and turning his head back towards the first group of young archers. Rosa’s hands gripped the bow even tighter, her leather gauntlets rubbing against her palms. Her heart was beating wildly and she took a long, deep breath to calm herself.
You can do this, Rosa! They’ll be mad not to take you. Just don’t choke, and you’ll never miss, she told herself. In almost every lesson she’d had recently, she had hit the target every time, even the moving ones! The only thing that could stop her now was her own anxiety.
It was half an hour before sRosa could take her stance, but she had the first pick of firing aisles since she had arrived so early. Rosa knew that the second left from the middle was the best. The bullseye was stretched particularly tight, giving a satisfying thunk whenever an arrow hit it. The planks of the fence markings were especially straight. It was the perfect frame for her perfect picture of a perfect draw.
She didn’t notice the way the captains exchanged looks as she stretched her arms with the other hopeful recruits.
“I’m sorry… I know your father would have approved, but we cannot spare noble young women like yourself to monsters,” one of the captains had said.
Another added, “Your skills are admirable, have you considered going to the white mages? Your mother had been one, and that is much safer work for a Lady like yourself, Miss Farrell.”
In the end, she was not granted a squireship. Rosa wondered if it was because she had missed. Her nerves got the better of her, and she had missed the first shot entirely, the second and third were off just slightly. But after she had calmed her breathing, she’d fired flawless shots! Was she really that bad? Or were they telling the truth, and didn’t want a girl of noble birth to spill blood on her hands?
Rosa hadn’t gone home, she felt too ashamed. She knew what her mother would say– that women weren’t suited for fighting in the first place, and that she should instead take to far more domestic hobbies like sewing.
Instead, she dragged her feet across the various training yards, reaching a place where successful squires were practicing jumps and polishing armor while knights sparred with lances and spears. Her eyes had gone foggy when she arrived, and she looked up to see Kain in the small sand arena, fighting with another Dragoon. At 15 years old, Kain would be knighted soon, and start rising in the ranks. He didn’t notice her where she stood, watching with her bow clutched between her hands. His blonde hair was worn long like his father’s, pulled back and whipping with the wind as he lunged, parried, blocked. He leaped into the air, right over the wide sweep his opponent tried to land, and came back down with a hard strike of the training pole.
After fifteen minutes, she turned to leave, making her way to a different training ground. It was similar to the Dragoons, but here, the knights all seemed to stare right at her as she walked into their grounds. Black helmets and black armor created an ominous atmosphere. Few of them were actively training, wordlessly clashing swords behind the onyx vizards that they wore. Rosa could not see their eyes, but she could feel their gazes following her as she shuffled her feet over the grounds.
She felt cold, and the sadness that was already held inside her by a thin dam of restraint was breaking. Tears welled in her green eyes, and she looked up from her feet, scanning the yard to find the one person here who wouldn’t have armor. Black Knights did not accept many into their ranks, and it was lucky that Cecil had been accepted at all. Still a squire, he did not have a helm of night to cover his beautiful eyes yet.
“Rosa?” he saw her the same moment she saw him, and rushed over to her, his training sword in hand. “What’s wrong? Did you get in?”
She shook her head, biting her bottom lip.
Cecil’s entire posture deflated like the sail of a ship in the doldrums. He dropped the short sword to the dusty ground and flung both his arms around her. Despite being surrounded by other Dark Knights, no one seemed to care the break in protocol. They watched, from a distance, almost as if they were savoring a view of open emotion.
Rosa buried her face into Cecil's shoulder, tears finally breaking free into an open weep. “I tried so hard, Cecil! I… I…”
“I know you did,” he muttered, one hand rubbing her back. He was so tall, so strong already. Rosa thought she had been strong too. “Rosa… I’m so sorry.”
“They want me to become a mage,” she blurted. “Everyone wants me to become a mage–”
Cecil didn’t say anything. The truth was, Rosa had an aptitude for both arrows and nursing. She was only thirteen and already reading high-level magic tomes and books on herb medicinals purely out of interest. Many said that she would make a good white mage, if she had some training behind her intelligence.
But Cecil also knew that her father had taught her to shoot a bow, and he had called her his little archeress, and she had trouble letting that go.
“You’re going to be ok,” he murmured, letting her cry against him. “I promise, Rosa, you’re going to be ok.”
Her hands clung to his uniform tunic, feeling safe there.
Chapter 5: Part 5
When one had white magic cast upon them, there was a gentle warmth that entered their blood. But when one cast white magic on another, there was a chill. Rosa felt the tips of her fingers beginning to go numb as she let them hover along the vicious line of a long claw mark. The blood stopped where her touch lingered, a soft green light traveling out of her and into her patient. The longer she let the spell linger, the colder her hand grew.
"Nngh--" the little boy grunted as his flesh knitted its way back together. The muscle fibers, the blood veins, the skin, all of it coming together in the Cure spell that drifted out of her.
"Almost done," Rosa promised, tearing her eyes away from the process and looking instead at the boy's face. He was from the outskirts of Baron, where there was still danger and monsters that lurked in the forest from time to time. His wound had not stayed closed over night, and refused to heal with herbs alone. "Tell me again... who saved you?"
Despite his pain, the boy looked excited. Exhausted, but excited, to share his story. "I w-was... looking for m-mushrooms for my m-m-om, bu' there was a... a..."
"A beast?" Rosa asked, her focus returning to his wound. She could feel a superior mage lingering behind her, watching and silently grading her performance. She was a new inductee, so they had given her the boy. It was only his arm that had been clawed, far from a critical condition. "I've heard a lot of stories about beasts in the woods lately."
"Yeah," he nodded and sniffled, his arm still aching. "Bu' uh... uhm... one of the... knights saved me."
"What good luck!" Rosa smiled to the boy, trying to get him to smile too. She was only fourteen, but the boy was only six. "That sounds very exciting."
"It was," the boy nodded. Rosa's fingers were lingering for the last time, at the end of his wound. The green light finished knitting the flesh, as if tying off a knot. "He was a dragon knight, with a big spear."
"One of the Dragoons," Rosa nodded, removing her hand. "You know, I know a Dragoon."
"Well, one in training. He'd going to be knighted very soon," Rosa told him, shaking her hand lightly as she pulled it away. The chill had run up to her knuckles, making each crook on her fingers feel stiff. But still, she smiled for the boy and continued. "His name is Kain, and he's going to become the best Dragoon Baron has ever seen."
The boy's eyes widened, and the tears that had once been in them began to disappear. "Really?"
Behind her, Rosa heard the elder mage shuffle their robes. She straightened her posture and patted the boy's shoulder. "Well, you're all fixed up now, Tilmund. Your mother is waiting out in the front room, do you remember how to find it?"
"Yes'm!" the boy chirped. He hopped up from the examination cot and began his toddling trek out to his mother. He still coddled his arm, which had been bleeding not five minutes ago and was now only sporting a handsome scar to show off to his friends.
"You're doing well," the elder mage said, she was an aging woman named Miriam who had a soft voice but a stern eye. Miriam never missed an opportunity to lecture. "But you have to be faster, my dear."
Rosa pursed her lips together. Magework was always better started when one was a child, and fourteen was hardly considered prodigy age. Rosa had a late start, but she felt something good starting to grow in her stomach. As much as she still wanted to fire arrows, she was making a difference in the clinic. One Tilmund at a time. "I know... I'm practicing, Lady Miriam, I really am."
"I know," Miriam sighed. "You're just a late start. But I can see it in you, you'll be much quicker with those spell recitations when it is one of your friends on the table."
The words were meant to be encouraging, but Rosa could only dread. The cold feeling in her fingers spread throughout her whole person as she envisioned Kain or Cecil left beaten and bloody in the medical cots. It was a horrible image, but one that kept coming to her. Worried. They'd be knighted within the year, and then what would happen? Would she see them anymore? Would they be hurt?
She spent too long thinking about Cecil. His beautiful face, a pale canvas for blood and broken bones, with purple bruises blooming underneath his skin. His hair matted with dried blood, his body limp and pained. It wasn't an image she wanted to see.
"Have you... ever had to heal those you care about?" Rosa asked.
"...I've watched many I love die, Rosa," Miriam corrected. "That is why I became a mage myself. Rather late in the game, much like yourself."
Mirim turned away from her then, her long robes flowing behind her. Rosa watched as she left, not knowing what to say.
Chapter 6: Part 6
Strawberry blonde locks trekked down her shoulders in delicate waves. Wisps of pale femininity gathered behind her ears and forelocks clasped together at the back of her head with a floral barrette. She wore a simple but beautiful gown made of brocaded pastels that hugged her figure. Her mage’s robe hung down her back. They were white, lined in red embroidery at the hem and hood.
All around her, music played excited jigs and minuets. It was the induction ceremony of the newest knights– those who had made Baron proud enough to earn suits of armor, military conscriptions. Always a ball, every year. This was the first one Rosa had been invited to, given that not one, but two of her closest friends had just been knighted.
She caught sight of Kain in the crowd and lifted up an arm to wave, her face lighting up with a bright grin. “Kain!” she shouted, and as he approached, a proud smile lifting up his usually stern features, Rosa curtsied dramatically and corrected herself, “Or should I say, Sir Highwind.”
“Yes, of course, Young Lady Farrell,” he greeted in kind with an exaggerated bow at the waist. Despite wearing his new Dragoon’s armor, his movement was still fluid and graceful, like the wind itself. His jawline was growing stronger as Kain entered his late teens, and it occurred to Rosa just how much he looked like his father.
“Congratulations, Kain,” she told him sincerely, extending a hand to touch his forearm. Somewhere at this ball, hers and Kain’s mothers were sipping their champagne and whispering to each other about what a ‘good match’ they would make.
She brought her hand back to clasp with the other at her waist. But just as she tried to retreat from the contact, Kain offered his own hand to her. “May I have your first dance, Miss Farrell?”
Rosa hesitated, hearing the imagined encouragements of her mother in the back of her ears– ‘Oh Rosa, you look so handsome together! You two are expected to make a good pair, your father would be so proud.’
She put her hand in his nonetheless, reminding herself that Kain was her friend. They had played together in the far away days of swaddling clothes and nursery rhymes, and it wasn't fair to hold her mother's unrealistic expectations against him. “Of course.”
A waltz was struck up, and Rosa was swept onto the floor. Kain easily took her into a strong stance, with one hand on her lower back and the other holding her free hand gently. Rosa gulped on air before she placed her other hand on his shoulder and glanced at her feet to keep the time.
“Are you nervous?” Kain asked, nudging her a bit as they danced. The music swayed and swelled in romantic time, and he smiled at her with a warm encouragement. His eyes had turned soft, a rare thing for Kain these days. He took his duties in the military so seriously.
“To dance?” Rosa asked, looking at his face instead of their feet. “A little. I don’t do it much.”
“You’re a natural,” he insisted, trying to twirl her. But Rosa didn’t expect it and she stumbling, trodding on his toes as she did.
“Ah!” she yelped. “K-Kain!”
“Ok… maybe not as natural as I thought,” he corrected with a grunt. Rosa winced and stumbled back, removing her slippered feet from his boots.
“I told you, I don’t dance much.”
With only a few more stumbles and toe squashes, the waltz ended, and Kain gave her a cordial bow. Rosa curtsied back and just as she was turning away from the dancefloor, Kain lifted her hand up to his lips and kissed the backs of her knuckles.
“Thank you, Rosa. You’re a lovely dancer, even if you don’t do it much,” he told her. His voice was as soft as his eyes, and there was something in it that made Rosa feel uncomfortable.
She smiled at him apologetically, and as he released her hand, Rosa turned around. With a half step to the back, she nearly ran face first into the dark armor breastplate of her other new knight.
“Cecil!” she beamed, looking up at him. His moonlight hair was tied back into a formal topknot for the knighting, all but his face shrouded in the Dark Knight’s armor. It was molded just for his frame, with red painted accents that glinted in shadow and blood. Were it not for Cecil himself, Rosa would have been terrified of that armor. “Look at you! Sir Harvey, it is a pleasure–”
“Rosa!” he grinned in returned, impulsively wrapping his arms around her and spinning her in a quick circle. Her draped skirts and cloak spun around with them, and she laughed bright bubbles. “We did it! Can you believe it?!”
“Barely!” she teased, her nose wrinkling in a flushed smile as he set her back down. “Just yesterday I swear we were all playing with dolls at my house.”
Cecil looked to Kain with pride in both himself and his friend. One of his hands stayed at Rosa’s waist. She didn’t mind.
“We get our first missions tomorrow,” he said. “Will you miss us terribly?”
“Of course I will,” Rosa assured him. “I’ll think of you both every single day while I practice my spells. Do you know how long you’ll be gone?”
Cecil shrugged. “Usually not long for first assignments, but… King Odin says he’s proud of us. Kain has a legacy to uphold, and Dark Knights are in short supply… so we might be gone for several weeks.”
Rosa’s face fell slightly. A new dance was striking up, and this time Cecil offered her his hand. “Will you be home in time for my birthday?” she asked, placing her palm against his without question. He didn’t wear his gauntlets tonight, leaving his pale hands exposed to her touch. Both their palms were sweaty, she noticed.
“I think so! I… I hope so,” he told her, beginning to walk them both into the steps of a swaying minuet. “I promise, if I’m not home for it, I will make it up to you, Rosa.”
While Kain had danced them both in a strict structure, Cecil’s lead was aimless. They swayed, they stepped, but neither of them were very good at dancing, and that somehow made it easier for Rosa to keep the time. Despite her better judgment, she leaned in close and rested her head on his shoulder. She could imagine her mother’s voice again, in the back of her ears– ‘Stop that, Rosa! He is a foundling, no real family to speak of. The ward of the king, he may be, but you don't know what he's capable of. What if he comes from thieves and whores? You’re meant to be with someone else.’
She pressed closer, fitting against him like they were a pair of nesting dolls.
“I’ll write you a letter every day,” she told him.
Cecil chuckled, “You can’t get them delivered. Military missions only get command missives.”
“Then I’ll slip them under your door while you’re away, and when you come back you can read through them all,” she shrugged. His hand moved from her waist to her back, tapping an idle thumb against her spine.
“…I hate to admit it, but I have no idea how to dance a minuet.”
“Want to go to the balcony?” Cecil offered. “Your mother is glowering at me… I must look a mess–”
That wasn’t why, but Rosa glanced up and caught sight of her mother. Yes, she was glowering, with narrowed eyes, but not at Cecil. At her own daughter.
“Balcony,” Rosa nodded, squeezing his hand as they moved off the dance floor and out the tall stone archways. Baron’s castle sat high on a hill, with spires that stretched as far up into the sky as they could. It left a breeze and the whistle of wind around them as they left the crowded ballroom.
Cecil’s hand hadn’t left hers, but both of their palms felt less sweaty now. Just warm. She laced her fingers between his.
“…Are you afraid?” Rosa asked him, when they had stopped walking, finding their place in front of the stone carved railing. Looking out, they had a wide view of Baron Town and the trees of the kingdom. Stretching out south, to the sea.
“A little,” Cecil admitted. “But I’m more excited. We’re not at war right now, just protecting the villages, so there isn’t much to worry about.”
Rosa did not remind him that her father had died protecting villages, he already knew, and his pale blue eyes found hers in a silent apology even as he spoke. She squeezed his hand lightly and smiled hesitantly.
“I’m going to miss you,” Rosa murmured, looking back out at the rest of Baron. “I’ll miss Kain too, but…” But her heart beat faster when he was in the room. But she smiled so much easier around Cecil. But he was one of the few people in her life who looked at her and really saw the woman she wanted to be. Green irises flickered down, her cheeks dappling in dark ruddy pink. “But I’m going to miss you.”
There was a long moment of silence between them. It stretched thick like a wall that began to weigh on Rosa’s shoulders. She took a shaky breath after what felt like hours of muted nothing and began to shake her head at herself–
But Cecil interrupted, leaning down to her and catching her lips with his. Her eyes fluttered shut, her breath caught in her throat, and her hand clutching onto his between them.
Rosa didn’t know how long he kissed her, but when he pulled away she was breathless and dizzy.
“I’m going to miss you too, Rosa.”
Chapter 7: Part 7
Rosa had stayed true to her word, writing a letter every day that Cecil was gone. Her fingertips were lightly stained by the quill ink. She had slipped each note under his door. She knew exactly which soldier’s quarters were his, and with all of the Red Wings deployed for their patrol of the western mountains, she didn’t have to sneak past anyone to deliver the little envelopes.
On the tenth note, she walked away from the Dark Knight barracks with a sigh on her lips, one hand reaching up to rub at the back of her neck. There was still another half hour until she was due back to the White Mage clinic for her next medical shift.
She remembered the way Cecil’s lips felt over her own. How warm his hand had been on her waist. How easy it was to lean on him and find support. He had left the morning after the ball, finding his first assignment left him no time to celebrate. Rosa worried about him– about Kain as well, though he and the Dragoons had already returned home from the Eastern Mountains– and she wondered. Every idle moment had was filled with wondering.
Her fingers curled into the wisps of honey hair at her nape, tugging lightly to wake herself up. She looked to the sky, a clear blue with the crisp whites of scattered clouds. A good day for flying, should any airships be departing or arriving today.
‘I’ll miss you too, Rosa.’
“But do you miss me as your friend, or as…” she whispered memory of that night. It kept circling around her mind, never giving her a moment of rest. Only anxiety and longing. It was a matter of time before the other white mages began to notice her pining. At least they would not know who she pined for… wanting the king’s ward was not a good place to be in.
Rosa dragged her feet across the castle grounds, moving from the western wing to the center, where she caught sight of Cid– always welcome company. “Cid! Working on anything fun today?” she asked.
The engineer grinned like the toothy bear he was and set his course for Rosa. She was growing taller than him– though it was not a hard feat. Rumor had it that Cid was part Dwarf, which would explain his untameable beard and stouter stature.
“New transport ship,” he bragged. “She’s a beauty, Rosa! Can hold up to fifty passengers this one, with lodgings. Can you imagine overnight trips to Troia? Fabul? Even Eblan, if their damned king would open their borders!”
Rosa’s eyes widened. “That sounds amazing… They wouldn’t have to stop for fuel with all those people on board?”
“Not a bit! Airships can go long distances on steam alone when they've no cannons. Take out the guns an' boom! You got a tourist ferry. Or a trading ferry. Any kind a' ferry, really, as long as the load is right.”
Such a ship would be immensely prosperous for Baron. As a military might, none would question them, but being strong was not everything. King Odin didn’t seem to prioritize cultural exchange very much, but his people did. They wanted the fine silks of Damcyan and the music of Troia.
“I would love to ride one someday,” Rosa told him with a smile. It was easier to throw herself into the facade of happiness than to admit to Cid the circles she was thinking in.
“Lassie, you’ll be invited to the inaugural trip!” Cid bellowed with a laugh. “You’re practically family, m' girl, you an' Cecil both. Hell, even Kain can come along, if I can get 'im to crack a laugh jus' once–”
The distant sound of a castle clock tower chimed, and Rosa gulped. Had she whiled away so much time thinking? Her hand went back to her neck, rubbing and pulling on her nape’s wispy hair again.
“That sounds lovely… But I think I’m due at the clinic soon. Tell me more later?” she offered.
Cid’s eyes narrowed slightly from behind his goggles. “…Aye, lassie, we’ll talk later. But probably not fer long. Y'know, the Red Wings are dockin' back in today.”
Green eyes flew open wide and her attention snapped back to Cid. “They are?”
“Aye. Just before supper. I imagine you’ll be finishin' your shift around the same time. That’s mighty convenient, don’t ya think?”
Rosa nodded, but began walking once more, heading into the castle towards the clinic. “I should get to work! Who knows what the Red Wings might need when they get back!”
As she fled down the staircase to the mage’s chambers, Cid smirked and muttered, “I suspect one, in particular, will need quite a lot from you, lassie.”
The hours at the clinic flew by, and yet still ticked too slowly. The evening sun was setting when Rosa hung up her mage’s mantle and wrapped her own sheer cloak over her shoulders. Waist-tied skirts hung in loose layers of folds and fringe around her thighs and knees. As she rushed to leave the mage’s quarters, she paused by a mirror, making sure her bodice wasn’t askew. It was fitted, a more form-hugging style than she usually wore.
The thin straps of the bodice sat wide on her shoulders, and it occurred to Rosa just how masculine her shoulders looked. They were wide, muscular, from so many years of archery. Even now, it was a sport she kept up, even if she wasn’t in the military ranks. She had never noticed until now–
Are they ugly? Does Cecil think they’re too big?
Rosa huffed, shaking her head at herself. She felt like an idiot. Cecil was her friend, just because he had kissed her before he went on his first mission in the field meant nothing. Soldiers did things like that often, it was a fragile effort to hold onto their own mortality. An overly romantic ideal of ‘going out’ with a maiden’s taste on their lips. She didn't know if he'd meant it, they hadn't been able to talk.
Rosa flung the gossamer and lace over her shoulders, wrapping it like a wide scarf over them before she hurried up the stairs and into the castle proper. Kain had returned four days ago and gotten his own homecoming greeting– his mother and Rosa’s had made a feast and the Farrells and Highwinds had celebrated together, toasting Kain’s bravery all night. It was Cecil’s turn to be welcomed home, and Rosa was determined to make up for his own lack of parents tonight.
As she rounded the corner at the top of the staircase, she stopped in her tracks, staring at the line of Dark Knights who left the King’s receiving room.
Their armor all glistened with abysmal ebony and streaks of purple, red, blue. The horns came off of their form-fitting helms like a demon’s might, with their faces obscured by visors and mouth guards alike. One of her hands lifted to rest against her collarbone, brows crinkling together as she struggled to identify Cecil in their orderly lines.
Many passed by her without a second glance, but one of them hesitated, straining to see her around the inky silhouettes of the other knights. His arm seemed to itch, wanting to wave her down, but could not until he was dismissed from his ranks. His head jerked to the side, gesturing silently to the west courtyard.
Rosa focused on him. Red. Cecil’s armor was lined in red, and it looked darker than it had at his knighting ceremony. Stained somehow. But she nodded, understanding his meaning. She lifted a hand with five splayed fingers– five minutes– for him.
“Handsome, huh?” a voice asked at her ear. Rosa jumped, but found that the other white mages had filed up the stairs as well, each of them smirking wide rivers of clever observation. Emillia, with pink hair cropped short around her ears, began to nudge Rosa’s side teasing her. “Cecil’s in there, huh~?”
“Oh stop,” Rosa insisted, though her cheeks flushed pink. “We’ve been friends since I was four. I just want to know how his first mission went. I’m proud… like a sister would be.”
Wilfred scoffed, lowering his mage robes’ hood. “Right, sure, a sister. You definitely look at him like a sister.”
Gretta giggled, the last mage to come up from their shift, her voice snorting in amusement. “Be nice, Wil! She’s young, you must be easy with her.”
Rosa’s face tinted a brighter hue. Was it that obvious? She thought she had hidden it well.
“I know, I know… I’m sorry, Rosa,” Wil told her, giving a one-armed hug in apology. He was the oldest mage on Rosa’s clinic team, with a wife and newborn child of his own at home. He wasn’t the eldest mage in all of the program, but he liked to act as if he were a middle-aged wizard sometimes. “It’s just that we've all seen it for some time. Young love is beautiful.”
Rosa blinked in surprised. “For… some time?” She thought her clenching heart had been only a recent development, but hearing it aloud made her see it, in little snippets and moments. How easy it was to lean on Cecil, how physical they tended to be with one another. How much she loved his company and could handle the heavy stares of the dark knights if it meant she could watch Cecil spar and train in the hot summer sun.
How much she had been thinking about that kiss for the past ten days.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Gretta and Emillia both nudged her. “Go talk to him, See how that mission went. I’m sure you’re the first person he wants to see.”
Rosa doubted it, but she smiled all the same and made her goodbyes to the other mages. With flighty steps, she navigated her way to the west courtyard of the castle grounds, where the Dark Knights trained and worked. She hesitated in the archway that led to it. The stone work was intricately carved of dark, veined granite as if the darker bricks and slabs made it easier for the Dark Knights to work. She leaned her back on one wall, feeling the cool rocks against her back and letting out a sigh. Cecil must have gone to change from his armor, she had lost track of the knights when she beat them here.
“Stop being silly…” she muttered to herself, eyes closing as she did. For some reason, the stone archway smelled clean like a stream, yet it had not rained in over a week.
“Rosa–” Cecil spoke. Somehow he had managed to sneak up on her, despite the armor he still wore. His helmet was off, but the rest of his suit still hugged his skin. It almost looked tight, but that was the nature of Dark Knight armor. It was meant to mold to its wearer, become one with the warrior. A frightening thought. But he held a stack of letters in his hand, having come to find her directly from his room.
“Cecil,” she breathed, eyes opening and posture straightening. Her cheeks blazed once again, yet she smiled. “How was it? How was your mission?”
“Fine! It was fine, I promise, no injuries this time. I got lucky, only had to fight a few fliers,” he told her. His pale skin looked flushed too, like hers, but Rosa couldn’t tell if that was left over from his helmet or not. “I see you kept your word. Ten letters exactly, each and every day.”
“Hahah–” Rosa chuckled, trying to make light of the too-sentimental gesture. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have cluttered your room like that.”
Cecil leaned forward, very briefly letting his lips brush against hers. “Don’t be, I’m going to enjoy reading them later.”
Rosa felt her heart jump right into her throat, lungs clenching. Her hands gripped at her drapery skirt, a gasp on her lips. “Wh… what was that for?”
Now she knew his cheeks weren’t flushed from the armor.
“I’m sorry, I should have asked. I just… Before I left…” he stumbled over the right words. As well as Cecil could articulate himself when discussing matters with the King or the generals, he had yet to discover a means of perfectly articulating his own feelings.
Somehow, she knew what he wanted to say. So Rosa lifted her hands up to rest on either cold plate of his shoulders. She stood on her toes and leaned in close, returning his gesture with a gentle kiss.
His armored hand found its way to her waist, and despite the dark metal covering it, he still felt so warm. Rosa smiled against his lips as she kissed him again, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and tracing the fitted seams of his armored against them. Cecil smiled too, she could feel his lips turn up against her own. Both of them grinning and kissing with fluttering hearts.
Neither of them noticed that Kain had approached, trying to congratulate Cecil on his first mission. They didn’t notice when he left either.
Chapter 8: Part 8
She has never seen him hurt before. Never seen blood run down his arm, never seen his hand broken and mangled. She had never even seen him out of breath– not since they were children playing tag. It was frightening when he stumbled into the clinic, and Rosa was convinced that it must be some kind of joke.
That had to be it… right?
Tears stung at her eyes as she slowly, carefully, unbuckled the armor and started to peel away the layers. “Kain…” she whimpered, unable to scold him but unable to ask for his comfort either. “What happened?”
“…Ambushed,” he muttered but said no more. He grunted as she got the grieves off of his arms and moved to split the seams of his breastplate. He still wore his helmet, and Rosa knew why. He didn’t want her to see his eyes.
“How much does it hurt?” she asked. He was lucky that she was on medic hours right now. Had he arrived from patrol a half hour earlier, he would have been tended by a stranger. Maybe Kain would have preferred that.
“It isn’t that bad,” he insisted, his already deep voice a gruff rasp. “Worse than it looks, Rosa, really.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she muttered, gathering up gauze in her lap. Healing spells would remove any infection and close the skin, but he would still need to wear a splint for a few days, to let his bones settle again.
Kain said nothing, but he held out his arm dutifully, and let her attend. He had been a knight for a year and a half– this was only his sixth mission out. Rosa wondered if that was good or not. Had it taken him a long time to be seriously injured? Or had it happened quickly?
Her stomach sank as she thought about their fathers, remembering the times they would come home in bandages. Richard had always laughed and clapped Christopher on the back, making light of their wounds by claiming it was a tavern brawl, or that someone had challenged the other to an arm-wrestle.
Strong faces for their children.
Rosa rolled up his tunic sleeve, revealing the gash. Distinct claw marks were carved into his skin, marring Kain’s sun-kissed complexion with drags of raw flesh and blood. She remembered the boy she had grown up with, who could carry her on his back for hours, and who had offered to fight off monsters with his fists when she had nightmares. The boy who had promised to take care of her when their fathers died together.
His chin was so sharp and strong now, but he was still a boy in her eyes. Still the boy who too often said nothing when he needed to scream.
Her hands were shaking as they brushed over his skin. Kain hissed at the contact, his flesh was red and irritated already. Who knew what kinds of bacteria the beast had had on its talons. She leaned close to his arm, letting her breath whisper along his bleeding arm. “Cure–”
From her fingertips, a pale green light began to pulse. The light touched his wound and entered his blood, lingering in the places it was needed most. Rosa said a prayer in her head, to the Eidolon Queen Asura, as his skin began to knit together.
Please keep him safe. I can’t bear to see him hurt so much.
Kain let out a shaking breath, and he lifted his other hand to finally remove his helm. The rippled blue horns were crafted to resemble the dragons of old. But Rosa preferred to see his face, even if his eyes were weighed down by sleepless nights.
He nodded, but did not look at her yet.
In minutes, Rosa had his arm splinted with a small piece of wood and the gauze strips. She stood up with him, holding his helmet in her hands, and offered to walk him home.
“Don’t,” Kain had insisted. “Cecil should be done with his training soon. I know you’ll want to see him.”
Rosa’s brows furrowed together. “Cecil can wait, Kain, you… you could have died–”
He took his helmet back from her and gave a poor excuse for a smile in its place. “Ah, but I didn’t. So you don’t have to pay me another thought.”
Rosa snapped, “Kain, stop being so stubborn! I care about you, I just want to make sure you’re alright, why are you being so mean?”
He pressed his lips together, and for a moment Rosa had to wonder what was wrong with him. He had been growing more distant, hostile even. Since he became a knight, Kain was changing. Cecil was too, but in different ways. When she talked to Cecil about his missions, Cecil always told her what mistakes he had made, or what strange sway the dark armor had on his emotions sometimes. With Kain, Rosa always asked him what weighed on him so much, but he never admitted to feeling anything.
She had to wonder why. Did Kain not trust her anymore?
She followed him a few steps as he left the clinic. For a moment, Rosa didn’t care that she still had another hour of medical assistance to give. “Kain! Kain, please, talk to me! Is it the missions? Just please–”
He stopped and so did she. Slowly, Kain turned back to her, and he looked so weary then. So tired. There were pricks of blond stubble in haphazard places on his chin, and he didn’t look like he was nineteen anymore. He looked sixty-seven.
“I’m just… tired, Rosa. Please, stay here. I’ll be fine…”
She did not like that sentence, but she let it hang between them. “Ok.”
Kain smiled, and this time it felt sincere. “Thank you. I promise, I’ll check in tomorrow. I just need some sleep.”
As he walked away, Rosa wondered when the wall between them had been built.
Chapter 9: Part 9
The black metal felt like a shell around his skin. The chainmail molded against the contours of his shoulders, his arms, his back– as if Cecil had been dipped in tar and the thick shadows were now part of his skin. Rosa’s stomach dropped in dread as she sunk her hands deep against her back, prying the armor away.
Cecil winced and hissed, as Rosa freed him from the layers of dark armor, she saw how raw and red his skin had become. Like a freshly exposed blister. She wondered what a Dark Knight’s armor really was– imbued with magic surely, but it looking like she was pulling off a layer of Cecil’s own skin.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, leaning forward to kiss his exposed shoulder before she moved to the next piece that had to be stripped away. “Does it hurt?”
“I think it’s… because I slept in it,” he admitted to her, his voice was thin and tired. “On the mission. Taking it off became a hassle, so I…”
Rosa’s sunken stomach fell deeper. Her hands began to shake as she jerked away the segments of obsidian on his arms. Cecil yelped this time, trying not to shout or cry, but Rosa could hear how much it hurt him.
“How long are you home?” she asked him, trying to give his mind something else to focus on. “Long enough t… to change into something else?”
“I have three weeks,” Cecil admitted. King Odin had been giving the Red Wings more and more missions as of late. While it used to be common practice for military units to spend four months at home before going on their next assignment, every piece of the military was frequently moving in and out. Since Cecil had been promoted to Lord Commander, the Red Wings had been home the least.
Three weeks was long, for Cecil. He was usually only home for ten days at most.
As Rosa cast aside another piece of armor, she reached one hand to the side. She grabbed a rag from the basin of cold water, bringing it to Cecil’s back to soothe his skin.
But he screamed, hunching forward in searing pain. As the water touches his skin, Rosa swore she saw the slightest of steam rising up from him, as if his skin was on fire. She panicked, tears catching in her eyes as Cecil fell against his bed– they had both been seated on the mattress to make him as comfortable as possible in the removal.
Rosa dropped the rag, biting back her own urge to wail, and her arms went around him. Her cheek pressed to the back of his naked spine and she could feel how hot his skin was. Raw, twinged, and feverish.
“Cecil… Cecil, I’m so sorry–” she whispered, palms pressing flat against his bare chest. She had gotten the breastplate off first, but still had his lower half and another arm to free. The night would be filled with more pain. “Cecil… I have to take the rest off. It isn’t healthy.”
Cecil shuddered, his voice cutting off in an uneven gasp. “Do it. I can take it.”
“Just do it, Rosa.”
She held her breath and bit her lip, not wanting to hurt him. These arms had held her, loved her, his body had been a sanctuary for so long. But she had to tear the temple apart to keep it from rotting.
“I love you,” she murmured before tearing the next piece off as quickly as she could. The night proceeded until the clock turned over to a new midnight, Cecil’s screams echoed into the emptiness that was the Western Tower. Rosa was the only one to hear them, and the only one with him when he collapsed back in fatigue.
The last of the armor gone, he looked up at the ceiling with clouded eyes. She knew that he was barely conscious, too overwhelmed by the armor and the darkness and the pain.
Rosa lay with him, wrapping Cecil up in a blanket instead of trying to put any other clothing onto his sensitive skin. Her arms moved, one across his middle and the other under his neck, to give him extra support.
“I love you,” she whispered again, tears finally creeping down her cheeks in a slow line. “Cecil… I love you so much.”
He didn’t answer, he couldn’t. But his head turned to the side, his nose finding her hair and inhaling slowly. His pale eyes closed, and Rosa held him closer against her shoulder, bidding him to sleep.
“It's ok… I have you,” she told him tenderly. “Sleep… I’ll keep you safe.”
Chapter 10: Part 10
Her mother’s voice was a cold alarm on her ears. Rosa cringed as she closed her window, having just climbed through it. The sun was rising a new morning across Baron. Another night in which Rosa did not come home. She had been hiding it well, the late nights studying, the time spent at the castle, and her tip-toed steps to the western tower, where Cecil slept.
Those who had noticed the beginnings of their affair hadn’t said much. But it was only a matter of time before Joanna Farrell decided to step in.
“For a moment, please remember that you were raised with dignity,” Joanna snapped, holding up a hand in dismissal.
Rosa closed her eyes, slowly taking a breath through her nose. Her stomach sank like a rock, and her blood ran cold for moment. Half in anger, half in shame. Her father wouldn’t have been happy.
“Lady Highwind has passed.”
Rosa’s eyes jolted open. “What?”
“Last night. She went to sleep, and blessedly did not wake up,” Joanna said, her tone still clipped and curt. Kain’s mother had been ill for a long time, something in her lungs that slowly made her bed ridden. Despite how much he was gone as the Dragoon Commander, Kain always came home with stories and flowers for her.
“Oh Gods… Kain…” Rosa whispered, bringing one hand to her chin. “Is he alright?”
“As well as one might expect. I came to wake you up last night but you were gone,” Joanna muttered. “I think we both know where you were.”
“Let me clean up, I’ll go over,” Rosa said in a hurry, already removing her mage’s cloak and boots. She quickly searched for a simple frock, anything but yesterday’s clothes.
“There is a basket of biscuits and butter in the kitchen. Take them over with you, I have a feeling he may forget to eat in the next few days.”
It was still early morning when Rosa knocked on the heavy oak door of House Highwind. The metal wrought decor of it was old, forged centuries ago into the swirling designs of an eagle in flight. It was a noble manor, built on walls that had survived many of Baron’s biggest wars. The Highwind family had been a seat of nobility for longer than any other.
The sound of her knock echoed inside, empty and dark in the heavy shadows. A butler opened the door and let Rosa in. She was directed to the back parlor. With the basket hooked on her arm, she made her way to it in careful steps.
“Kain?” her voice was soft and hushed, but it sounded like a shout in this house. It was so silent.
He did not answer, but she saw his silhouette sitting in a chair, a short glass tumbler in one hand. She could not blame him.
Without a word, Rosa slipped into the room, closing the door behind her. She placed the offering from her mother on the small tea table before going to where Kain was perched– he looked like a falcon that had clipped its wing– and knelt in front of him. “Kain… I’m so sor–”
“Don’t,” he spoke, his voice rough. The grey bags under his eyes showed her how much he had slept the night before. His hair was left unattended and unwashed, thin locks of golden silk matting against his brow and temples. There was rough blond stubble on his strong jaw. She had never seen Kain this unkept.
Rosa reached out, her palm holding one of his cheeks, a thumb rubbing small circles against his skin. “Oh, Kain…”
His hand on the tumbler clenched, and his closed his eyes in a tight squeeze. For a moment, Rosa feared that she was causing him pain, but in the next moment he shattered, and slumped forward to find purchase in her arms. It was all too easy to hold him, her longest and closest friend, one hand rubbing his back while the other petting over his mess of hair.
“It’s alright,” she murmured at his ear. “I’ve got you.”
“It shouldn’t hurt this much,” his voice cracked, like an angry storm in his deep baritone. “She was dying already.”
“You’re allowed to mourn, Kain,” Rosa told him. “You’re human… we grieve.”
“No time,” he muttered, but Rosa could swear that she felt drops of tears against her dress. “I have another mission tomorrow.”
That made her tense, holding onto him tighter as if she could hide him. “No… There hasn’t been a funeral yet. I’ll write the King about what ha–”
“I already sent a missive,” Kain told her. “The King wrote back, sending his condolences, but urging me to… find comfort in my work. Commander of the Dragoons has no room to weep.”
Tears stung at Rosa’s eyes. Tears for Kain, tears for his mother. He may not have room to weep, but she certainly did, and as he rested his head in the crook of her shoulder, she dipped her head to do the same, letting a gentle keen out against his tunic.
“Kain…” she whimpered, “I’m so sorry. Kain–”
His arms moved to circle around her, holding onto her as tightly as she held him. “Rosa…”
“I wish you didn’t have to go! You should stay home, you should be with people you love,” she simpered for him. For the boy who had bottled in his grief when their fathers died, for the young man who gave every ounce he had to Baron, for the man who was forced to choose his country over himself. “I should be taking care of you!”
“Rosa, it’s not your fault,” Kain murmured. It was amazing how he could switch to comforting her when he could barely comfort himself. Then again, Kain had always been better at protecting. He had been taking care of his mother, taking care of his kingdom.
When he pulled away, keeping his hands on her shoulders, he looked a bit less grey. His eyes were just a bit bluer, and a sad smile had graced his lips. Rosa sniffed hard, wiping at her eyes, and she wondered why he didn’t smile more often. Despite everything, he was so handsome when he just smiled.
“Are you crying for me, Rosa?”
“Yes!” she hiccuped. “In your stead. Because you can’t–”
Kain took a deep breath and kissed her cheek. His lips were thin, his breath making them warm, and he lingered for a half second too long. Rosa was about to pull back, but he did it himself, just in time.
Chapter 11: Part 11
The sky over Baron was a dull grey. The clouds tinted a very faint purple tone, giving the palest light onto the kingdom. It cast a reflective fog over Baron Town, the mist of morning was slow to dissipate this early. Rosa watched from the window of the high west tower, and noticed how silvery the city looked. As if it were a mirror reflecting the dull, dim sky.
Shadows still hung heavy. Silhouettes of trees stood out as black cut-outs against the grey crepe paper city.
Lips touched the back of her neck as a hand gently tucked her hair over one shoulder. A shiver of warmth ran down her spine, skin growing flushed again beneath his touch.
“You don’t have to be awake this early,” Cecil murmured before placing his chin on her shoulder. “Go back to sleep…”
“I want to see you off,” Rosa insisted, lifting up one hand to cup his face and rub ministrations along his cheek. “I won’t see you for at least another week or more.”
Cecil sighed, turning his head inward to nuzzle against the crook of her jaw. “I know. I’m sorry. This should be a… quick mission,” he said, but his words faltered lightly, and he wrapped his arms around her middle from behind. The sheets rumpling with the thin fabric of her nightgown. Her bare arms grew little goosebumps as they were exposed to both the morning air and Cecil's affections. She didn't mind.
“Cecil… something doesn’t seem right about this,” she whispered, leaning back into his arms. “No one is invading Baron, why does the king act like we’re at war? You've said before that you don't feel right about it.”
For a long moment, he did not answer. Rosa could hear the wheels spinning in his head. She knew he had been turning this question over and over in his mind for some time now. King Odin’s orders came more frequent, with less explanation, and now he was sending Baronite troops far and wide to ‘observe’ the neighboring countries.
The king was the closest thing Cecil had to a father. The king was Cecil’s commander and liege. The king was pushing Cecil past his physical and moral limits.
When he did not answer, Rosa murmured, “You’re a good man, Cecil… please remember that.”
He sighed and kissed her cheek. “Thank you. I’ll try.”
In only an hour, he would be leaving. Sun rise was when the Red Wing ships would depart, already packed the night before. Cid had bragged about the machinery, and how well he was putting together these ships. But Rosa could see the regret behind his goggles. He had always talked about trading ships and ferries.
“I should get dressed,” Cecil sighed, slowly letting her go as he climbed from his bed. Rosa turned her head, admiring his luminescent, strong figure in the dim morning light. Cecil always seemed to shine in lower light, as if he were a third moon. His skin was marred by battle scars, but they were all faded. Even the fresh ones that she had healed a few days prior. Rosa couldn’t explain why he recovered so quickly, and being unable to explain it only made her worry for him more. She wanted to be by his side, not just in secret. She wanted to be on the battlefield with him, helping, as her own mother and father had been.
Rosa sighed, pulling her knees in to rest her cheek against them. Cecil began to pull on his small clothes. There was room for very little beneath a Dark Knight’s armor.
“I’ll miss you,” she mentioned, her voice was very quiet, but she knew Cecil would hear her. He always did.
With his chain mail hanging between his hands, Cecil looked over his shoulder at her. Rosa imagined it must be quite a sight– with her waves of strawberry hair in wild, mussed curls around her. The light was not strong, and Rosa knew her skin did not glow, but she hoped that maybe she was still beautiful to him. Wide shoulders and all.
Cecil smiled. His eyes were heavy with exhaustion, despite having slept the night before. The expression was soft on his face, making his dark armor look foreign on his body.
“I’ll miss you too, Rosa.”
“I’ll be waiting for you when you get home,” she smiled back, she didn’t want him to leave with anything other than a smile.
Cecil made his way back across the room to her. He leaned down, pressing his lips to hers in gentle reassurance, but he tasted like insecurities and questions. She knew that they had nothing to do with her.
“Don’t worry,” Cecil told her, but they both knew she would worry anyway. “I’ll be home soon. The flight is short… I’m only going to Mysidia.”
Chapter 12: Part 12
Her hand had curled in upon itself, the fabric of her delicate glove crimping into her palm. Her knuckles turned white as Rosa shook her head slowly. Her hair fell down her back in waves of sun and petals, the adornments of her cloak rustling on the hard castle floor.
They had dismissed her from her shift in the clinic early. Rosa didn’t know why. No one had seen fit to tell her. She had discarded her mage’s uniform for the day when Kain found her. He approached her too silently, too sternly, like the grim reaper paying his condolences
“We need to talk.”
“Where is Cecil?”
Kain hesitated behind his helmet. Rosa knew that his dragoon armor was easy to remove, it was made to be flexible and light. But Kain hid behind the blue-onyx visor. She imagined that he thought himself stronger that way. That it must be easier to say what he had to if she couldn’t see his face.
“Not here.” He wasn’t asking her a question. Rosa felt her stomach drop out through the bottom of her spine. She followed Kain into an isolated section of the castle’s courtyards without saying a word. Sounds of bustling white mages faded away, and there was only the distant hum of the Red Wings going over their sword drills in the late afternoon. Rosa stared at the back of Kain’s helmet, his ponytail hanging halfway down his back.
When he stopped walking, Kain turned to her with a sharp, determined movement. She knew he was looking at her face, even though she couldn’t see his eyes.
“Where is Cecil?” she interrupted. “He wasn’t taken to clinic, is he hurt?”
Kain let out a hard sigh as he shook his head. “Something… wasn’t right in Mist.”
This was the talk that her mother had gotten so many years ago. When the Dragoon Lieutenant had come to the door with shame in his eyes and an envelope in hand. Joanna Farrell had told her daughter to play in her room, but of course, Rosa had hidden behind the kitchen cupboard to listen. This was the same way that the Lieutenant had explained her father’s death.
Something wasn’t right.
It caught us by surprise.
We did everything we could to save him.
He reached out for her hand and clutched it between his own. The armored dragon claws attached to each were trying not to scratch her. “Rosa, I’m so sorry. The summoners… they had Eidolons ready. There was an earthquake.”
“Where is Cecil?!” she shouted this time, her voice cracking as tears began to gather in her green eyes, threatening to over flow. She did not want to hear this. Cecil had been struggling lately, but he always promised her he would come home.
“He’s dead, Rosa!” Kain shouted back. His grip on her hand tensed slightly, and she could see his jaw setting in a stubborn, upset frown. “He…”
Rosa did not react. She stared through Kain, focusing on the stone archway of the castle behind him. “Where is… his body?” she asked in a shaking whisper. “I want to see him.”
Kain hesitated again, his teeth grinding before he spoke. “There isn’t one. Rosa, there was an earthquake it ripped a crevasse in the earth, he… was caught in it.”
“You left his body there?” she asked, eyes drifting slowly back to Kain.
“There was no body to find,” he grunted. Rosa knew that Kain was trying not to mourn because the Commander of the Dragoons should never break his soldier’s facade. Anger was easier to express than grief. “It was an Eidolon that caused the quake, Rosa. It split Mist away from Baron, the rift opened up all the way until Damcyan.”
Cecil had perished in an earthquake. Brought on by an Eidolon beast. Rosa felt her skin turning cold every time Kain spoke. Her body was going numb, her eyes were even draining of tears and emotions. She tried to picture Cecil’s body. His helmet cracked, his pale skin bloodied and bruised. His hair matted and no longer shining the way it once had. His moony eyes dried and cloudy. She tried to imagine him dead, and she once did when she was worried about having to heal him. But she felt nothing now. It simply did not seem possible.
Rosa knew she should feel something more than this. Her mother had wept for days when her father died. If her beloved was truly dead, then–
Rosa slid her hand away from Kain’s, letting it fall back to her side. Her eyes met his with the glinting dark visor of his helmet. “You didn’t find him in Damcyan?”
“I didn’t… look,” Kain admitted. “I reported back to Baron. What else could I have done?”
“You could have looked for him,” she answered. Her voice was calm and quiet, as if she were doctoring and speaking with a patient. “But that’s alright, Kain. You have responsibilities here, I understand that.”
Rosa shifted her stance, her feet turning outward. She stepped away from Kain and gave him a very brief, very stiff smile. “I think Cecil is in Damcyan. Alive or dead, he must be–”
“Rosa, where are you going?!” Kain snapped, reaching out for her again, but she had moved past his grasp. Her gold trimmed cloak glinted behind her in the late afternoon sun.
“It’s alright, Kain. I’m going to find Cecil. I’ll bring him home,” she said over her shoulder as if it were nothing but a trip to the market.
Her boots scuffed against the cobblestone courtyard and Rosa passed through another archway, turning not towards the clinic, but towards Baron’s range. That afternoon, Rosa would gather a bow, three quivers, and enough food to last her a week. There was a road to the Damcyan border which skirted around the forest. She could make it to the desert in only a few days.
If Cecil was dead, then Rosa knew she would have felt it.