Actions

Work Header

by the twelve's grace

Chapter Text

ACT I: the one who picks the flower

A small drawing of a violet flower with five purple petals that fade to black at the center of a yellow eye.

The violets bloomed every year. They always popped through the snow and painted the hedges that surrounded the Leveilleur manor a lovely shade of blueish purple that had long since come to be associated with the house. Even despite the Calamity’s damning eternal winter and a thousand year war that ravaged the land, they came without fail and brought with them the promise of spring.

Spring, of course, didn't mean what it used to in the days before Dalamud fell. Ishgard hadn't truly thawed in nine long years and likely wouldn't for many more to come. Yet spring still brought an onze of relief to its equally frigid residents, ushering in a brief window of time during which Azeyma's rays took the edge off of Halone's icy embrace. 

A few extra bells of sunlight shouldn't have been enough to nurture flowers, which were usually such fragile and fickle things. Some suggested that Coerthan blooms had simply grown adept at repelling the cold—a testament to its residents' own hardiness. The truth of it was just a touch of magic (and perhaps a ground up fire shard mixed into aether-enriched soil, if rumors were to be believed).

The flowers were at first seemingly selective in where they grew. Anyone who was lucky enough to see it knew that the House Haillenarte courtyard mysteriously bloomed year round with an abundance of vibrant red roses. For a time, they went to great lengths to hide the fact that they used tricks to tend their precious flowers. Loose lips eventually turned secrets into common knowledge and Ishgard saw a revitalization of florists, who had all but shut their doors for good when the snow didn't stop. 

Highborns and lowborns alike appreciated the flowers, though residents of the Brume and settlements beyond the city were more interested in utilizing the knowledge to stimulate the growth of long-dead crops. But it was the noble houses that chattered over them the loudest. Claiming a bloom for one's house and discussing a flower's hidden meanings became a popular pastime. With eyes glancing ever skyward and ears sensitive to the sound of wingbeats, they discussed the colors and symbolism and poetry of flowers over their daily tea. It was certainly a nice distraction for those who could afford the luxury of distractions in a time of endless winter and endless war. 

Regardless, the flowers grew despite the Dragonsong that drove the Horde to bloodthirsty madness, and they thrived after Nidhogg screamed out his last shuddering verse.

It made sense, then, that House Leveilleur would adopt the violet. The flowers were among the first to bloom after Heavensturn, bravely poking their stems through the snow like tiny hands outstretched in peace with petals painted a shade said to represent wisdom. It was an apt symbol for a family of scholarly diplomats. It also made sense that the flowers would be used to decorate every corner of the manor's grand hall in celebration of its twin heirs' twentieth nameday—especially being the birth flower of the first umbral moon during which they were born.

Alisaie thought about such things as her gaze flicked around the usually plain hall, almost as if to try to justify the near absurd amount of flora she saw. Violets were strung up on garlands hung from the lofty ceiling and wrapped around marble pillars. The staff wore them and carried armfuls of the flowers to distribute, leaving petals in their wake as they flitted about. They were offered to guests at the door and tucked into the lapels and hair of every lord and lady in attendance. They were piled high in vases placed on every table and sat beneath every tray of food. The food itself wasn't spared from the floral menace either: dried bits of petals flavored the roast duck and candied buds sat atop the tiered nameday cake, to name a few examples. Even the flute of champagne Alisaie held was colored with a drop of violet syrup, which she slowly sipped as she took in the atmosphere of the party—her party.

It was every bit as garish as she imagined it would be when her overzealous aunts took control of the whole affair and left her poor father with little say in the matter. Though the Leveilleur manor was not modest by any means with its sizeable plot of land near the airship landing, the family residing within it was often considered almost austere for nobility. With their scholarly tendencies and penchant for politics, such displays of grandeur were uncharacteristic of them. She supposed it couldn't be helped. Twentieth namedays were often celebrated in such a way and the recent ending of the Dragonsong War gave them even more cause for celebration.

Though entertaining guests and being the center of attention were not Alisaie's forte, the party really wasn't all that bad. As the night grew older (and guests got drunker) a jovial spirit filled the room and managed to replace the previous stiff feeling that plagued the start of most Ishgardian parties. To her relief, the attention was eventually taken off of her in favor of guests entertaining themselves. Or Alphinaud entertaining them, of course.

Alisaie found equal comfort in the mirthful laughter that bubbled all around her and in the voice of her brother who dominated the conversation at hand. It gave her a moment to breathe, though her reprieve ended when her gaze wandered back to the group and landed on Alphinaud. The silver circlet he wore was entwined with violets and glimmered in the bright light of the hall as he spoke, matching the one she wore. His hair was swept back with a violet-colored bow that complimented the finely embroidered tunic he wore, giving him the air of an earnest prince. He stood across from her, chattering at length about the end of the war and Ishgard's bright future. He was ever the optimist, though perhaps a bit too idealistic at times.

"'Tis imperative that we revitalize our markets," Alphinaud said, tipping his champagne a bit dangerously as he gestured with his hand. "We've been cloistered within our own borders for long enough. Foreign trade would surely push us out of our stagnation."

The man beside him replied with a thoughtful hum. He stood a head taller than Alphianud and peered down at him with piercing silver eyes from beneath a raven black fringe that framed his angular face. "I do agree to an extent, though perhaps the breakneck pace of these changes you propose may prove too much for our own merchants," he said, carefully weighing his words. He crossed his arms over his immaculate forest green overcoat and the violets tucked into his lapel shifted, nearly displaced by the motion.

The young woman across from him tutted impatiently, clearly unimpressed. Thick, auburn hair hung around her face in fluffy curls that did little to make her soft face look less petulant. "I think what Bertramont means to say is if we open the gates to all of Eorzea, our own people will be shoved out by cheaper, inferior goods."

Bertramont looked a bit taken aback by her brashness. "Now, Ennette..." he trailed off, blinking down at the short woman almost sheepishly, though Ennette was more interested in tossing a long bit of hair over her shoulder in defiance. She lifted a hand to delicately tuck the violets strewn amongst her curls back in place after doing so.

Laniaitte, who stood beside Alisaie, said nothing. She did let a soft chuckle slip and Alisaie glanced up to see her shake her head in amusement and cause a curtain of chin length hair to shift around her face, briefly hiding her smirk. The single large violet tucked neatly behind her ear almost seemed to glow blue against the rose red of her hair.

Alisaie shared in her amusement. She allowed a smile to quirk her lips as she observed Alphinaud, who looked ready to make a rebuttal. Frankly, she was impressed that he could hold a political conversation at a nameday party with a group of otherwise gossipy noble youths and command their attention for long enough for things to get heated.

"I agree with Alphinaud," Alisaie said, managing to speak before he could get a word out. When all eyes landed on her, she hid from her discomfort by taking a brief sip of champagne. "Most of our own refuse to even sell to those not of noble birth. If merchants are shoved out then it will be by their own hands when potential customers find business elsewhere. The quality of the goods has little to do with it when one isn't presented with the luxury of choice." 

Alisaie made sure to flash a tiny smile in Ennette's direction, who she very well knew came from a house of merchants who happened to fit that very description. When Ennette's brows drew together in annoyance, Alisaie knew the subtle jab hadn't gone unnoticed. She swore she could hear Laniaitte giggle quietly in the silence that fell over the group.

Ever the diplomat, Alphinaud stepped in before Ennette could retaliate. "A fine point, dear sister. Though perhaps a compromise could be reached." He nodded thoughtfully in Alisaie's direction as he tapped a finger against his chin. She was relieved when the attention returned to him. "Perhaps if a small group of foreign merchants were to be chosen to sell their wares within the city, they could lead by example for future vendors. Our markets would surely remain stable and our own merchants would be given time to adjust their, ah, business practices." He chanced a cautious glance at Ennette, who chose to continue looking rather annoyed.

Bertramont nodded along, however, seeming convinced by the idea. "And how do you propose we choose these foreign merchants?"

"An Ishgardian diplomat could be sent to our fellow Eorzean city-states to initiate such an arrangement," Alphinaud replied, smiling almost coyly into his drink before taking a sip. "Perhaps one whose nameday happens to be today." 

Ennette turned her glower on Alphinaud. "Didn't the church bar your last attempts to do just that?" she asked, sounding a bit smug.

"The war is over. The church has no say in those sorts of decisions now," he replied dismissively, clearly undeterred by Ennette's attitude. 

"Our father, however, does have a say in that," Alisaie reminded him pointedly. When Alphinaud's face fell a bit she felt almost bad for crippling his dream, but someone had to make sure her darling brother didn't get too ahead of himself. "You know how he is. He won't let you set foot onto the Steps of Faith without a Warrior in tow."

Laniaitte turned to Alphinaud with a grin, finally choosing to speak, "Aha, so that is the true intent of this grand party. I heard rumors that there were several Warriors of Light in attendance."

The tiny smirk that crossed Alphinaud's face was confirmation enough and Alisaie couldn't help but roll her eyes. She'd been aware of his little scheme as soon as he enthusiastically offered to plan the finer details of the party alongside their aunts. She made sure to remind him several times that it likely wouldn't bear any fruit but he remained undeterred, assuring her that he would nab their house a new Warrior.

"I may have sent an open invitation to the Holy Knights in Mor Dhona," he said a touch smugly, though his smile faded and he sighed before speaking next, "I haven't had luck convincing any of the Warriors they sent to seek employ with us, however."

Bertramont flashed him a reassuring smile. "They're in high demand. I'm sure every house is calling for their attention." 

Ennette's nose wrinkled in open disdain at the course of the conversation. "Do you really want to employ a non-Ishgardian Warrior?" she asked. Her voice dipped to a whisper when she continued, "Aren't the Holy Knights the ones who killed the archbishop?" 

The question seemed to suck the air out of the group. Laniaiette shook her head before she replied in a hushed tone, "No one knows for sure. I heard one of our own did it."

They all fell silent for a moment and shifted uncomfortably. Alphinaud was the first to speak up after clearing his throat.

"Regardless, we can't be too choosy given their scarcity. Any Warrior will do to sate my father's worry," he said assuredly. Suddenly, he flashed a smile at Alisaie. He looked innocent enough despite the faint pink that crept across his cheeks thanks to the champagne, but she still felt wary. "Unless my dear sister is knighted soon. I'm sure our father would allow us to travel freely if that were the case. She would make a formidable guard, I would say." 

Laniaitte made a soft sound of confirmation. "I agree. I've seen her with a sword, the fierce little thing. I'd steal her for my Rose Knights if I could," she added and looked down at Alisaie, red lips curling like rose petals into a smile. 

"Oh, stop," Alisaie shot back, feeling the warmth of embarrassment rise to her cheeks. Lainaitte was mostly genuine, but she still felt teased and turned back to Alphinaud with a light scowl. "You know I've no interest in parading about Eorzea with you in tow."

While Bertramont looked mildly uncomfortable and Ennette looked bored, Alphinaud looked genuinely puzzled. "And why not? Would you not like to follow our grandfather's footsteps?"

The mention of their grandfather was like an unexpected thorn in her heart. Before Alisaie could reply, the music that played faintly in the hall suddenly grew louder. The woman who'd been strumming away at a harp all evening was joined by a pianist who sat at the white grand piano with violet petals scattered at its feet. The floor cleared when the two musicians joined together to form a melodic song. As people began to pair off, Alisaie took a strategic step backwards. 

"With that, I shall take my leave, dear friends. Please enjoy the rest of your evening." Alisaie offered a half-hearted curtsey to the distracted group and quickly turned away before anyone could protest, though Alphinaud managed to flash her a look of bemused sympathy before she left. 

Alisaie slipped through the crowd of guests that had formed near the center of the hall, avoiding the questioning looks some of them gave her as she passed. It wasn't until she reached an empty spot beneath the shadow of a pillar that she breathed a sigh of relief. She downed the rest of her champagne in one go and placed the empty glass on a nearby table as she cast a cursory glance towards the pairs that were dancing. Thankfully, she'd paid her dues earlier in the evening. She danced with both her father and her brother at their keen insistence and had managed to dodge the advances of several other young men after that. Halone be damned if she wasn't going to try to avoid any more dancing for the rest of the evening (and for the rest of her life, if she was lucky).

She looked over her shoulder towards the doors that lead to the balcony and realized they'd been left open a crack. Just as she planned her escape, Alisaie felt a hand gently touch her arm and groaned internally. It seemed she wasn't so lucky after all. She turned to face her captor and was only marginally relieved when it was Bertramont who smiled down at her. 

"My, you can certainly move through a crowd," he laughed, sounding a bit out of breath. 

Alisaie swallowed her embarrassment and mild annoyance to return his smile. "I would have been faster, had it not been for this dress," she joked, though it really was a ridiculous thing she wore. The layers of floor length silk were painted in shades of purple and the flowers beaded onto the hem matched the violets tucked into the long braid that hung over her shoulder. It was rather pretty, but threatened to tangle beneath her feet whenever she moved.

Bertramont humored her jest with a good-natured chuckle. "''Tis a worthy burden, I'd say, given how lovely you look in it." 

"Thank you," Alisaie replied a mite awkwardly, looking away from his softened silver gaze. She felt more like a parade chocobo than anything else in all her adornments, but didn't bother to say so. 

"I just came to say—because I didn't get a chance earlier—that I think it's admirable for you to seek entry into the Temple Knights. How goes your training? Well, I hope?" He babbled a bit, sounding almost nervous. 

"Well enough, I suppose. Though finding a new tutor has proven more difficult than expected," Alisaie replied. Her gaze unconsciously drifted back to the glass doors that looked more enticing by the second.

"The war likely hasn't helped with that," Bertramont said, nodding. "I really do admire your determination. Most would give up, especially after a first failure."

Though Alisaie knew he meant no offense, the comment still stung all the same. She had hoped to put her first attempt at entering the Temple Knights' ranks behind her with quiet dignity, but the fact that all of Ishgard seemed to know didn't help the matter. Despite her best efforts to not show a reaction, her lips still pursed into a thin frown. 

Her companion cleared his throat above her, perhaps sensing the awkwardness he'd created. "I also wished to ask if my lady would honor me with a dance," he said and graced her with another smile that softened his hawkish features.

Alisaie found her eyes wander back towards the balcony yet again. "Actually, I was going to step outside for a moment," she admitted, hoping he would take the hint. 

Bertramont considered her words and Alisaie worried he might insist on accompanying her, but he nodded a moment later. "I imagine you would need a bit of fresh air after such a stifling evening," he said, sounding apologetic, and stepped back to bow. He looked up at her through his raven fringe with a hopeful gleam in his eyes. "Perhaps after you return?" 

"Of course," Alisaie replied, though she secretly hoped he wouldn't hold her to it. She offered him a nod and one last smile before taking her leave. 

Much to her relief, Alisaie reached the balcony without incident. Sounds of the party echoed behind her like a distant dream after she slipped past the glass doors. She was greeted with the typical icy chill of an Ishgardian evening, which her gown did little to shield her from, but the cold was a welcome change. It wasn't until she took a deep breath that she realized the heavily perfumed air of the hall had started to give her a headache. 

She stepped forward until she could see the courtyard sprawled out beneath her and placed her hands on the banister as she looked out across it. Being on the edge of the Pillars, the manor had a clear view of the distant mountains that bordered the Highlands. The snowy peaks gleamed silver beneath the glow of a full moon that was surprisingly not obscured by the usual thick blanket of snow-heavy clouds. The sky was shockingly clear and Alisaie gazed up at it in silent wonder, admiring the rare sight of twinkling stars. She sighed and her breath billowed above her, briefly veiling her view.

The crinoline of her skirts itched uncomfortably against her legs and her toes hurt from being pinched in heels all evening. She really wasn't cut out for the sort of gallivanting about clothed in finery expected of her noble birth. Her brother was at least good at enduring it and masked his discomfort well, if he even felt any at all. The thorns still present around her heart pricked when she thought of his comment about their grandfather and her conversation with Bertramont. How quickly her mood had managed to go south. Alisaie frowned up at the sky as if it held the cure to her woes, but the stars only regarded her with silence. She sent a prayer up to them regardless, beseeching Halone to help her find a way to honor her house on her own terms.

The moment of silence was shattered by the distinct sound of metal on wood. The noise pulled Alisaie's attention to the right where the building that housed her family's handful of knights stood. She was puzzled when she saw a figure in the space before the small barracks where several striking dummies were laid out. The Leveilleur guard were all milling about the estate and most certainly were not standing alone in the empty courtyard.

Against her better judgement, Alisaie gathered up her skirts and made her way down the stone steps towards the mysterious figure, too drawn in by curiosity to think of potential danger. About halfway down the stairs, she could make out what looked to be a tail lashing behind the stranger. Another look revealed a pair of...horns? No, they were ears, she realized, and covered in sleek fur just like the tail. Alisaie quickly managed to piece together that they were a Miqo'te. Stunned by the realization, she paused her descent. The race was exceedingly rare in Ishgard. A scant few passed through occasionally after the war as vagrant merchants and adventurers looking for work, but she'd only ever seen a handful of them before in passing and never close enough to observe.

Alisaie continued down the steps slowly, captivated by their movements. The person, who looked to be a woman, attacked the striking dummy with the ferocity of someone fighting for their life against an opponent made of flesh and blood. She moved with a certain grace and speed that bespoke the skill of one who had trained for many long years to wield a blade in such a devastating way. Just as Alisaie stepped onto the stones of the courtyard, the stranger paused her attack and took a step back as if to admire her work. The dummy had clearly seen better days. It was covered in several gashes—ones far deeper than what Alisaie was ever able to achieve—and the ground beneath it was littered with small pieces of wood. 

Alisaie froze in place when the Miqo'te's large ears flicked back. She held the sword out at her side and its edge caught a menacing glint from the light of the moon. Slowly, her head turned back to look over her shoulder. Her eyes caught that same light, reflecting a blue shimmer that covered her sclera, making her gaze look almost like that of a wolf. Panic flooded through Alisaie for a moment before the stranger turned her head enough for trick of the light to pass. She was relieved when she saw several small violets pinned into her hair.

"Ishgardian steel," the woman said suddenly, startling Alisaie. She held the sword up as if appraising its worth. "Just as light as you lot insist it is. And here I thought that was just an exaggeration." She spoke in a light, lilting sort of way, though her voice was a bit nasally and she seemed to drag out her s's and r's. She chuckled to herself as if she'd just told a joke and—in what was a terrifying display of strength—lunged forward to drive the blade through the dummy. She left the sword where it was impaled in the wood and turned on her heel to face Alisaie fully. "Could use better targets, though." 

Alisaie could do little more than stare at the Miqo'te who observed her keenly. She eyed the sword after a moment and realized the hilt wrapped in purple leather looked suspiciously familiar. "Is that one of our swords?" 

"It is," the stranger confirmed with a nod. "Your barracks are unlocked. You should let your knights know about that."

Alisaie raised a brow at the suddenly disinterested sounding Miqo'te, feeling a tinge of annoyance. "And so you took that as an invitation to help yourself to our weaponry?" 

The woman flashed her a grin that exposed dainty, pointed fangs. The sight was mildly unnerving. "I would've used my own, but your guards took it at the door," she said, defending herself. She placed a hand on her hip and her tail twitched behind her with what looked like amusement.

Alisaie was bewildered. She wondered suddenly how in the world the brazen, sword wielding Miqo'te had acquired an invitation to the party. She was clearly a guest, given the violets in her hair, but she had no clue from where the woman possibly hailed. She turned to her clothing for clues, but gleaned little from it. Her attire was modest at first glance and almost under-dressed for the occasion. A loose white blouse was tucked into petal pink breeches and she wore brown boots that came to the knee. Subtle gleams of gold caught Alisaie's eye from her ears to a simple necklace and the ornate stitching on the sides of her pants. The way she carried herself was far more extravagant than anything she wore: like a strange, roguish prince. The moment of silence that stretched between them felt almost eternal. They sized one another up for a while before Alisaie ventured to speak first:

"Who are you?"

The question caused the woman's ears to perk up and the tiny golden bell attached to her earring jingled faintly. She looked almost embarrassed for a fraction of a second. "Ah, I've forgotten my manners," she said in a bemused sort of way. She crossed the short stretch of courtyard between them and paused a few fulms before Alisaie to bend into a deep, exaggerated bow. "L'arra Masah, my lady. Pleased to meet you."

When she looked up to smile, Alisaie finally got a good look at her. Long, coppery hair tumbled gracefully over her shoulders as she peered through a slightly uneven fringe that framed her round face. A pair of markings that looked like faint stripes cut across both her cheeks, slightly darker than the olive complexion of her skin. But Alisaie was most drawn in by the eyes that gazed up at her. They were a vivid green color that reminded her of the deep pools that dotted the Highlands and were unnaturally bright, almost glowing in the dim light of the courtyard. Slit pupils lent a sharpness to her stare that was softened only by the long, dark lashes that framed her eyes.

"Though, I usually go by Poppy," she added after a moment. She must have taken Alisaie's prolonged silence for confusion on how to match her pronunciation.

"Poppy," Alisaie repeated, finally finding her voice. She realized an introduction of her own was in order and offered the Miqo'te a brief curtsey. "I am Alisaie de Leveilleur." 

The woman known as Poppy didn't look very surprised to hear that. "Aha, I figured you were the lady of the house. I met the fellow who looks like you—brother, I'm assuming." She paused to flash a wry smile up at her. "Gods, he's sure got a mouth on him. Talked my ear off about politics and policies and whatnot. Had to slip out here to get away from him."

Alisaie couldn't help the laugh that slipped out at that. "Pray forgive my dear brother. He's using our nameday as an excuse to hold guests hostage in prolonged conversations they have no interest in." She returned Poppy's wry smile with one of her own, though her tone caught an incredulous edge when she continued, "I was going to ask why in the world a guest was dismantling a striking dummy with a stolen sword rather than attending the party they were supposedly invited to, but I suppose escaping Alphinaud's wrath is reason enough."

Poppy quirked a brow at Alisaie's open suspicion. "Think I'm some crook here to rob you? Look, I would've gladly used my own targets at home if it were my choice." She smiled despite her words and seemed more delighted by their little game of interrogation than offended. "But, as long as we're asking questions, I do wonder why the lady of this grand affair is hiding in the courtyard rather than entertaining her guests."

"Fresh air," Alisaie shot back in an instant, indignant to Poppy's accusatory tone. She didn't very much like how the tables had turned on her, but she supposed it served her right.

Poppy looked her up and down as if weighing the truth of her words and Alisaie almost squirmed uncomfortably beneath that sharp gaze. "I assume you got your fill of air, seeing as you're shivering," she said a bit smugly. 

Alisaie just then realized how cold she really was and silently cursed her thin gown. As it turned out, gossamer silk was not suited for Coerthan climes. She vainly tried to stop shivering, but the gooseflesh that crept across her skin was a dead giveaway. Seeing her look of annoyance, Poppy stepped closer.

"Shall we continue our conversation inside?" she asked. Despite being half a fulm shorter she offered Alisaie her arm, compensating for the height difference by lifting it higher. "Besides, it wouldn't do for a violet so lovely to be a wallflower at her own party."

Alisaie suppressed the urge to roll her eyes at the comment and the arrant smile delivered with it. She still found herself accept the woman's arm anyway, if only to be polite. She tried very hard not to admit to herself that the Miqo'te was oddly charming, but the subtle unsureness about her odd guest had already turned into curiosity. Poppy led her up the steps and Alisaie glanced over her shoulder at the impaled striking dummy. She decided to leave it for the knights to puzzle over in the morning.

They reached the top of the stairs and were bathed in the warm light that poured out onto the balcony from the hall. Alisaie heard the faint murmur of music and could see pairs of people parading about the ballroom through the glass panes of the doors. Poppy let out a soft, thoughtful hum beside her, almost as if defeated.

"I s'pose I should be polite and ask you to dance, shouldn't I?"

She posed the question out loud, but sounded more like she was asking herself. When Alisaie made a face, Poppy chuckled as soon as she caught sight of it. Her laugh was bright like the bell that jingled in her ear.

"I'll take that as a no," she said bemusedly.

"I've simply had my fill for the evening," Alisaie replied a bit more curtly than intended and paused to sigh. "And for a lifetime, frankly. I pray you will not take offense."

Poppy chuckled again. "None at all, my lady. Suits me just fine, seeing as I can't dance."

Alisaie glanced down at the Miqo'te in surprise. "You would attend such an event without knowing how to dance?" she asked, almost feeling suspicious again.

Poppy dropped her arm from Alisaie's grasp and stepped forward towards the door to hold it open for her. Her bright eyes reflected the light of indoors and narrowed as she smirked. "You'd host this kind of event when you don't even want to dance?"

Alisaie stared at the Miqo'te, once again stunned by her boldness, before she conceded, "Fair enough."

She stepped through the doorway into the inviting warmth inside and was instantly hit with a cloud of floral perfume that made her nose wrinkle. As Poppy stepped in beside her, Alisaie looked out across the hall to assess the state of affairs. She immediately picked Alphinaud out of the crowd, who was dancing with none other than Ennette. They both smiled, so it seemed that they'd worked out their differences for long enough to at least enjoy a dance.

Alisaie smirked and just as she was about to ask if her guest would care for a drink, Bertramont emerged from the crowd with such a sense of purpose that he looked as if the Fury had sent him herself. He straightened his overcoat and offered both women a smile, but his gaze lingered on Poppy with a look of surprise for too long to be considered polite.

"Ah, Alisaie," he said to her after he recovered from his moment of gawping. "Pray forgive my forwardness, but I wish to claim that dance ere the night grows too old."

Alisaie sighed internally and realized she'd been too hopeful in thinking she could dodge Bertramont all evening. It seemed her well of luck had truly gone dry. Just as she was about to relent to his request, Poppy stepped forward.

"You'll have to forgive me, my lord, but our lady was actually about to grace me with a dance. She promised me one before I retire for the evening, which will be soon." Poppy spoke with near cloying politeness and paused to look at Alisaie over her shoulder. "Isn't that right?" 

It was a blatant lie, but Alisaie found herself nodding along. Bertramont was dumbfounded. He stared down at the short Miqo'te and Alisaie swore she saw a look of annoyance flit across his face for a fraction of a second. He quickly shoved the emotion down beneath a pleasant, though bewildered, smile.

"Oh, ah, of course," he replied, stammering a bit.

Poppy offered Alisaie her arm again. She took it with little hesitation and was pulled along before she or Bertramont said more. She could do aught else aside from give the stunned man an apologetic smile as they passed him.

"I thought you said you couldn't dance," Alisaie nearly hissed as Poppy carved a path through the crowd, but the other woman looked back at her only to sneer.

"I lied."

People had started to take notice of the strange Miqo'te and the lady of the house who trailed along behind her. Poppy didn't seem to care about the whispers that surrounded them or the stares that burned into their backs. She held her head high and even though she was likely the shortest in the room, she carried a presence larger than anyone else. Guests parted for them as they reached the floor of the ballroom where several other pairs were already dancing.

Oh, Alisaie thought, this is going to be a grand spectacle.

Poppy paused at the very center of the room and turned to offer Alisaie her hand. "You didn't really seem too keen on dancing with that fellow," she said, stepping closer so she could place her other hand on Alisaie's waist. "Now you can at least suffer through this with someone who dislikes it as much as you do."

Alisaie would rather have not suffered at all. She glanced around, noticing how all eyes seemed to be on them, and wondered if it was the preferable outcome compared to enduring a more subtle dance with Bertramont. Still, a small part of her was strangely thrilled by the situation. At least it would give her guests something to gossip about. She placed a hand on Poppy's shoulder and let the shorter woman take the lead.

Poppy really had lied. After a few seconds of adjusting, they followed the song being played with a sharp sort of grace that reminded Alisaie of how she moved with a sword. She stared down at the Miqo'te who smirked up at her, utterly confused. She noticed, then, the silver emblem pinned to her blouse. The crest carved onto it was simple, consisting of a pair of swords crossed over the outline of a crystal. It wasn't from a house Alisaie immediately recognized.

"I don't suppose you're from Ishgard?" she asked, hoping to elicit more information from the woman.

"I'd hoped that was obvious," Poppy replied, nearly snorting. "No. Just passing through." 

Alisaie paused to think as they twirled around. "I would have thought you a knight pledged to a house given the way you handled a sword. An adventurer, then?"

"I'm a bit of both, you could say." The small smile that quirked Poppy's lips was secretive in a way that made Alisaie wrinkle her nose at the cryptic reply.

"An adventurer and a knight? So, a sellsword."

Poppy simply shrugged at her disdainful tone. "You sell your sword either way. Whether it's for coin or convictions doesn't really matter." When she saw Alisaie's confused frown, she raised a brow. "You sure seem keen on knowing more about me. But, I wonder, what about you?" 

Alisaie mirrored her raised brow. "What about me?"

Poppy tilted her head and smiled, eyes narrowing with curiosity as their dance drew on. "You hide at your own party. You don't like dancing. Your hands are calloused." She paused to drag a thumb across Alisaie's palm—a sensation that unconsciously sent a shiver down her spine. "You're not like most of the nobles here."

It seemed her own interrogation was being turned on her. Alisaie sighed, but realized it was only polite to share at least a bit about herself after questioning the Miqo'te the entirety of the time they'd known one another.

"As you may know, members of my family are recognized as skilled mages as well as politicians and diplomats. Unfortunately, I don't quite fit into those categories." She looked away from Poppy's curious stare with a thin frown pulling at her lips. "I've been told I'm too candid for diplomacy and I haven't got the stomach for other political endeavors."

When she looked back at Poppy, the shorter woman gave her a sympathetic look. "That candor's pretty charming, if you ask me," she said.

Alisaie felt her lips twitch into a smile despite herself, though she still scoffed. "Not charming in the right way, I'm afraid."

Poppy shrugged and continued her questioning, "If not politics, then what do you have a stomach for?"

"I've always preferred swords to sorcery," she replied and then added almost shyly, "I...would like to join the ranks of the Temple Knights."

"Would like to? So you aren't one?"

Poppy's bright eyes lit up with interest and Alisaie looked away from them, feeling tendrils of embarrassment wrap around her insides at being reminded of her lack of success yet again. The other woman gave a soft hum of what sounded like understanding.

"Well then, at least tell me why you want to be a knight."

Alisaie was impressed and mildly annoyed that Poppy managed to turn the conversation on her so thoroughly, but something about the question was earnest in a way that made her answer honestly, "I mean to find a way to cure this ailing city. I want to help people as my famed grandfather once did and to make a difference in the world through forging my own path."

The usual sharpness of Poppy's gaze that she'd grown accustomed to had softened. As the music swelled around them she pulled Alisaie closer—close enough that she could see a smattering of freckles peppered across her nose and a faint scar that cut across her cheek. "Those are pretty words, but do you have what it takes to back them up with actions?"

Alisaie swallowed thickly, barely able to keep up with the dance as she stared into the eyes that seemed to weigh her very soul. "I do," she replied, managing a scrap of determination.

Poppy leaned in and her full lips quirked into a smile that made the pink shimmer of them look oddly enticing. "Do it, then," she urged quietly, issuing the whispered words like a challenge. "Become a knight and use your blade to better this rotten world."

When the music faded and their dance came to a halt, they were pressed together in a strangely intimate sort of way that made Alisaie's breath catch. For a moment, she wasn't sure if the music had truly stopped or if she was so captivated by Poppy's words that she stopped hearing it. And for a moment, she thought (or hoped, perhaps) that the other woman might lean in even closer. The supposed knight's hand trailed up her side gently, but firm enough to elicit goose flesh beneath the thin silk she wore. It was done in a certain purposeful way that was almost infuriating. The large chronometer across the hall began to chime the midnight hour and broke the spell she was under. Poppy stepped away from her, leaving Alisaie feeling cold. The Miqo'te grinned wide, baring the small fangs that somehow seemed far less menacing that time.

"Time for me to go. Can't stay too long and have my friends think I actually enjoyed myself." She bent into a brief bow that was no less dramatic than before. "Goodbye, my lady. Thank you for the dance and the interesting party."

Just as quickly as she entered her life was as quickly as she threatened to leave. Alisaie stepped forward before she could walk away. "Wait," she called out. When Poppy flashed her a curious look over her shoulder, she continued, words tumbling out before she could fully process them, "My current tutor has retired and I'm in need of someone to train me in swordsmanship. If you're truly a knight, then stay in Ishgard and become a knight of House Leveilleur." 

Poppy looked as surprised as Alisaie felt for speaking the request, but a smile bloomed across her face after a breath. "Just like your brother after all," she said. Before Alisaie could ask what she meant, she spoke again, sounding slightly apologetic, "I'm gainfully employed, I'm afraid, so I'll have to turn your offer down."

Alisaie bit her lip, feeling foolish, and mentally kicked herself for being so forward. "I understand. Regardless, I thank you for your company and for attending my party." She bowed her head politely, trying hard not to sound disappointed. Her gaze flicked back up to catch the eyes that still bore into her. "I do wonder, though, will I ever see you again?"

Poppy placed a hand on her hip and laughed, looking up at Alisaie through long lashes. "My, my. Seems like I made a grand impression on you," she teased, likely seeing the blush Alisaie felt rise to her face. When the Miqo'te caught a glimpse of her mild glower, her smirk turned into a more genuine smile. "We shall meet again, if only by the Twelve's grace." 

Alisaie managed to return her smile. She caught herself sincerely hope the words were true. "I pray the Twelve would be so kind."

Poppy turned away and scattered the violet petals that swirled around her feet. She paused once more and called over her shoulder, "If you manage to find a way out of this pretty little gilded cage and somehow stumble into Ul'dah, do try to find me. I'll give you some lessons." She started to walk, waving as she went. "Farewell, little knight, and good luck."  

With that, the Miqo'te disappeared into the thinned crowd and left Alisaie alone in the middle of the ballroom, bewildered and somewhat indignant. She remained there for a few long moments, vainly trying to process the events of the evening. It was only when Alphinaud approached her that she snapped out of her haze.

"That was an impressive feat," he said. His voice was tinged with wonder and a small smile tugged at his lips. "Tell me, how did you manage to charm that Warrior into a dance? She rebuked me at every possible opportunity, even with simple conversation."

Alisaie's mind went oddly blank. "Warrior?" 

Alphinaud crossed his arms, looking amused by her confusion. "You didn't realize? She was one of the group sent by the Holy Knights. I don't suppose you managed to employ her?" 

Alisaie reeled in silent shock. The swords on the crest Poppy wore weren't just crossed over any crystal: it was the Mother Crystal. She was no ordinary knight. She was a Holy Knight of Hydaelyn and a Warrior of Light. Alisaie somehow managed to shake her head in response to her brother's question despite feeling like an absolute fool. 

"No. She mentioned that she was employed in Ul'dah."

Alphinaud tapped his chin in thought. "Likely one of the Sultansworn, then. No matter," he said, dismissive, eyes scanning the remaining guests as if searching for a new target. "She was an odd one." 

He gave her a brief nod and gently touched her arm before he departed. Alisaie was left alone once again to stare at the place where the Warrior just stood, with crushed and forgotten violets at her feet.

Odd indeed.

A small drawing of a violet flower with five purple petals that fade to black at the center of a yellow eye. 

violet : modesty, candor

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a hemlock flower with five white petals.

The air was filled with a tension that was nearly palpable. Poppy's tail twitched behind her, almost bristling from unseen static as she gazed out at the horizon. The branch she crouched on groaned beneath her when she shifted to get a better view. It was difficult to see very far with how the breeze had kicked up a veil of dust and sand, but she still saw the dark clouds that loomed in the distance. 

"Looks like a storm's coming," Poppy called down to her companion who stood beneath the tree. 

The Highlander woman titled her head and squinted out at the desert, seeming confused. "The rains shouldn't be in for another moon." 

Poppy saw a dim flash in the distance and her ears perked up at the muffled sound of thunder. It seemed the clouds were heavy with lightning-aspected aether rather than rain. "Heat storm, I think," she said. 

The other woman's reply was no more than a half-hearted grunt. She ran her fingers through silvery hair pulled into a loose ponytail and crossed her arms, leaning back against the trunk of the tree. "If we get drenched, I'm blaming you," she muttered. "Remind me again why you agreed to this?"

Poppy's lips twitched into a smirk at her companion's pouting. "You know the Blades are spread thin, Elise. Lolorito's got half of them prancing around doing gods knows what and the others are at the Coliseum," she replied. "We wouldn't be very good Warriors if we left the gates unguarded, now would we?"

Elise sighed. "Right, right." Her head lolled back against the tree and she squinted up at Poppy with an accusatory look. "It's still boring." 

Poppy silently agreed that it was, in fact, quite boring. Not a soul had come through the Gate of Thal in the bell that they stood there, which was odd even despite the fact that the morning rush of merchants had already passed through. She guessed the threat of a storm deterred the rest from traveling through the wastes. Not wanting to give Elise the last word, though, she leaned forward on the branch dangerously and grinned down at her companion. Her bared fangs and flicking tail gave her the look of a coeurl ready to pounce. 

"Now El, are you saying gate duty is beneath the Sultansworn?" she teased. "Twelve know you need a humble task from time to time to keep that big head of yours in check." 

Elise let out a hearty laugh at that. "Oho, my big head, eh? If your head were any bigger your neck would snap," she shot back at the Miqo'te who leered over her.

Quick as lightning, she bent over to pull a pebble from the sand and tossed it up at Poppy, who just barely dodged as she leaned back far enough to almost fall off her perch. The tiny rock clattered noisily against branches on its way back down. 

"Save it for the Bloodsands," Poppy called down when she righted herself, sounding offended, though her grin only grew wider. 

"I'm going to kick your arse later," Elise replied. She flashed one last smirk upwards before her vigilant gaze was pulled back down to the stretch of road before them. 

Poppy laughed and let her have the last word that time. Though she was in good spirits, a knot of apprehension reformed in her gut when she looked back at the dark clouds churning in the distance. An uneasy feeling plagued her even before the impromptu gate duty started and she silently hoped it was because of all the ambient aether that swirled around. She busied herself with scanning the area, but saw little more than the sparse foliage that dotted the desert. The storm crept towards them ilm by ilm and her thoughts wandered, scattering aimlessly like the sand. 

She knew many would say that Thanalan wasn't kind. The land that sprawled beneath Azeyma's unforgiving rays was drenched in her light and gifted an arid clime host to rolling dunes of endless sands. Though the Warden wasn't intentionally cruel to her beloved children, they knew that only the most hardy would survive, even within Ul'dah's sheltering walls. Oasis that it was, the city at her back was no more kind than the malms and malms of wastes surrounding it. It was much like a beast with jaws that snapped and slavered for wealth—a place where no crime was too great if the criminal's coin purse was large enough.

Despite Thanalan's harshness and the city's glaring flaws, Poppy still loved every ilm of it. Perhaps she was biased, being a Sun Seeker born of the sands, but to her the sun's warmth was kind and it's people worthy of her protection. The Sultana had grown adept at muzzling the beast and her forthright earnestness never once made Poppy regret her pledge. It was home. She was happy there. It was certainly better than being on the Holy Knights' leash in Mor Dhona.

Elise stirred below, pulling Poppy from her anxious and distracted thoughts. "Finally, some excitement," she said.

Poppy glanced up and caught sight of an approaching cart. It was small and unassuming, pulled by a single chocobo and flanked by three men—two Hyur and a Lalafell by the looks of it. They approached the gates at a fast pace, likely trying to dodge the storm that churned at their backs, but it rolled along lazily behind them as if pulled by the cart. A thin sheet of clouds was already spread over their heads, casting an odd greenish haze against the daylight. Something hummed in Poppy's ears. The Miqo'te leapt down from her perch, landing crouched in the sand, and her golden sword clattered quietly against her light greaves as she stood beside her fellow Warrior. They moved away from the tree and returned to their proper positions standing before the Gate of Thal.

"Well met, travelers," Elise called out as the men and their cargo approached.

The cart abruptly—and a bit rudely—came to a halt only a few fulms before them as if it had intended to crash right through the gates. The chocobo pulling it reared up and fluffed its pale feathers out as if annoyed. The three men looked as annoyed as their bird, if not surprised to see the pair of Warriors who stood before them.

Poppy felt their stares burn into her armor. The uniform she and Elise wore was different from their fellow Sultansworn within the city and even more so from the Brass Blades usually stationed at the gates. It was lightweight and far sparser, almost as if to show the fact that they were shielded by the Echo first and foremost. They were swathed in shades of black to represent their role as the Sultana's shadows with hints of gold to denote their status while petite crowns of red cactus blossoms sat on their heads. It was all meant to announce them at a glance, and it always seemed to work.

The taller Highlander spoke up first. "We're in a hurry. Rush order fer Lord Lolorito." His voice was gruff with annoyance, but Poppy assumed it was a politer tone than the one he would have taken with the usual Brass Blade sentries. "Sultana's hounds. Bloody unlucky," he added under his breath, though Poppy caught the words.

"Everyone around here is in a hurry," Elise shot back lightly, undeterred by his attitude. "Show us your papers and we'll have you on your way."

The man nudged the Lalafell beside him, who began to fumble through a pack slug over his shoulder. He retrieved a crisp, cream-colored sheet that was neatly folded in half and stepped forward to hand it to Elise. Poppy inclined her head to peer at it and her taller partner lowered the sheet so she could get a better look. She immediately recognized Lolorito's crest stamped onto the top of the page and skimmed through its contents that meticulously listed out the cargo of the cart, finding nothing prohibited or out of the ordinary. When she cast a cursory glance back at the men, the hum in her ears returned louder than before.

"El," Poppy murmured. She flicked an ear back and the tiny bell on her earring sounded quietly.

"Takin' yer time, eh?" the tall, angry-looking man asked. He leaned against the side of the cart, arms crossed and eyes narrowed with impatience. The Lalafell wrung his hands nervously while the other Highlander simply held the chocobo's reins and seemed unbothered by the whole affair.

Elise flashed Poppy a sidelong glance and a quick nod, catching her meaning. "We're as thorough as we always are," she said to the man as she folded the sheet back in half. "So thorough, in fact, that we're going to have to give your cart a once over."

"But we're already running late!" The nervous Lalafell said—nearly shouted, really. He ran a hand through his short bronzey hair and looked right in a panic. "Lord Lolorito wanted this delivery bells ago."

"This will be quick," Elise assured him, sounding almost sympathetic.

Poppy was already flanking the cart. She ran a hand alongside it but felt nothing other than smooth wood. She poked her head down to look at the wheels and the underside, but found nothing still. There was something though—there had to be. Her Echo wouldn't have nagged her so loudly if there wasn't. She hopped up onto the back of the cart and eyed the packaged goods piled before her. 

"What've you got in here?" she asked the angry man. 

He tossed a glare up at her before he answered. "Can't ye read? It said it all on the form." When Poppy shot him a glare in return he grunted impatiently and elaborated, "All sorts of fancy shite from all over the bleedin' desert. A 'samplin' of Thanalan's finest' fer the lord's precious guests." 

She heard the angry man mutter something more about Sultana's bleedin' hounds, but paid him little mind and looked away from the daggers being stared at her to the "fancy shite" at her feet. Bolts of patterned silk in every color imaginable were tucked into one corner beside a few woven rugs and embroidered tapestries. A glance in one basket revealed countless containers of spices. Other boxes were filled with samples of high quality iron ore and artfully crafted rose gold ingots. She nudged open another basket and found freshly slaughtered steaks of aldgoat meat surrounded by a handful of ice crystals. Poppy briefly wondered what sort of guests Lolorito was entertaining to warrant such a fine sampling.

Everything looked to be in order according to the list, but something was wrong. The Echo was insistent and loud, pulsing in her head like a silent alarm. Thunder rolled overhead just as her fingertips grazed the surface of small tin in the box in front her. She suppressed the frantic flutter of her hands and picked it up.

She heard Elise argue with the angry man who had turned his tongue on her as he muttered something about coin and refugees and Ala Mhigo of all things. Her voice caught a strained, angry edge and the nervous man chimed in as if to placate the two. Poppy glanced up and thought to say something, only to lock eyes with the third man who hadn't said a word the entire time. He stared at her, unblinking as he absently stroked the feathers on the cart chocobo's neck. The sight unnerved her into silence. 

Poppy returned her attention to the tin in her hands and she removed the lid, unsurprised to see the Thanalan tea leaves that sat inside. Almost unconsciously, she lifted it to her nose. It was a high quality batch to be sure with an earthy spiced smell studded with ginger—a bit too much ginger, if she were being honest. Her thoughts whirred and clicked into place just as Poppy wrinkled her nose and bells went off in her head. It was almost as if it was covering up another scent.

"You say this is a sampling of Thanalan's finest?" Her voice rang out and cut through the conversation taking place. The two men who spoke exchanged a look of confusion as Poppy jumped out of the cart and made her way back to Elise. Before they could reply, she asked, "Why, then, is a nasty bit of the Shroud tucked into this tea?"

Poppy dug her hand into the tin, which elicited a panicked response from the nervous man, "You can't just stick your fingers in—"

"Hemlock." Poppy retrieved a tiny, easily undetectable white flower bud from the blend. She crushed it between her thumb and forefinger and held it out to Elise. The other Warrior wrinkled her nose at the powerful, rank smell.

"Poison," Elise said, grey eyes wide. "And very much illegal." 

While the two men reeled in surprise, the third simply stared a hole right through Poppy. She swore she saw a muscle in his jaw twitch. 

"How can ye know fer sure it's poisoned? Besides, we're just deliverin'! We didn't pick the damn tea ourselves," the angry man argued. 

The nervous man nodded frantically beside him as he wrung his hands. "We couldn't have known!" 

Before anyone else could say more, the silent man dropped the chocobo's reins. He drew a knife from what seemed like thin air and lunged forward, slashing at the tin in Poppy's hand and slicing her palm in the process. It fell noisily to the stones at her feet where every last leaf spilled out. There was a breath of silence that stretched out to an eternity where they all stared at one another: Poppy clutched her bloody palm, Elise's hand hovered over the hilt of her sword, the two men paled in shock, and the third froze with the knife outstretched. 

"Eyvind, have you gone mad?" came the nervous man's impossibly tiny voice. 

The clouds above answered for him. There was a deafening crack of thunder before the sky tore open and plunged them into pure chaos.

Poppy drew her sword just as rain began to pelt the parched land. It came down in sheets, disorienting her and muffling the panicked cries of the two men. She leapt forward after the man with the knife, but the chocobo startled from the thunder and strafed to the left, blocking her path as it tried to bolt. She redirected in an instant but stumbled and nearly slipped on the rain-slicked stones beneath her feet. The cart jerked after the spooked bird and Poppy was sure it would reveal the armed man, but she saw nothing. She squinted through the water that poured down her face and looked out across the area around the gate but saw no one. The man called Eyvind had somehow vanished into thin air. For a moment, she was frozen with surprise.

Just as she was about to bolt down the path to check every bush and tree within sight, she heard a voice cry out behind her. Thinking it was a call for help from Elise, she whirled around in an instant only to be greeted by a group of Brass Blades running through the gate. Elise stood with her sword drawn and pointed down at the remaining two men who were on their knees, hands raised in defeat. A Blade approached them while two more wrangled the terrified cart chocobo. 

"Warriors! What's happened here?" the Blade called out and Poppy recognized her as an officer of the city's Balsam unit. The Highlander's blonde brows were drawn together in confusion and the petals of her crown stuck to her forehead, displaced by the rain. 

Elise answered the question without moving her searing gaze from the men. "This lot was trying to smuggle in poisoned tea. One of them attacked Masah when she found them out."

"We didn't know! We were just trying to make a delivery for Lord Lolorito," the nervous man pleaded from his place in the sand. 

"It was all Eyvind, that snake! We're just innocent hard workin' folk, we swear," the angry man added. 

The officer appraised the two of them with an impassive stare, but her gaze got sharp at the mention of Lolorito.

"There was a third one. Got away when the rains hit. Just up and vanished. Highlander with brown hair and dark eyes, armed with a knife," Poppy said, a bit breathless. She clenched her fist and felt an annoying stab of pain. "I'm going to look for him. Can't have gotten far."

The officer stepped forward and shook her head. "If this has something to do with Lord Lolorito, we'll handle it," she said. She looked over her shoulder and called out to her fellow Blades, "Lulumo, Martine, leave the bird. Sweep the wall and surrounding area. I'll send more men within a quarter bell and have the Violets at Blackbrush sweep this way." She lifted a hand to her ear to activate her linkpearl as the Blades she addressed rushed past her down the path. She turned her gaze to the Warriors, looking almost unimpressed. "Masah and Thorne, take those two into custody and have them questioned, then fill out a report. Leave the rest to us. You've got more important things to attend to anyway, I'm sure."

Poppy's tail thrashed behind her with agitation. She didn't like how the Brass Blade had decided to order her around and she really didn't like that smug tone, but what she hated the most was how she let that man get away. After one last glance over her shoulder at the empty desert, Poppy somehow managed to swallow her pride. "Understood," she said and saluted as curtly as possible.

When she turned away to assist Elise, the storm above them fizzled out as quickly as it had exploded and the downpour turned into a light drizzle. 

 


 

The Quicksand was surprisingly quiet. The usually boisterous tavern was filled with little more than a handful of people aside from the two Warriors who sat at their usual table. It was likely that everyone was already lined up at the Coliseum. Poppy glanced at the chronometer that ticked away on the wall and realized that she and Elise couldn't dawdle for long. 

"How's it coming?" she asked and looked back at her fellow Warrior. 

Elise sat beside her with a thin stack of papers and a quill in hand. She worked through the various sections with impressive speed, writing quickly in her usual small, neat script. She'd always been better at handling the bureaucracy end of things, though mostly out of necessity. Everyone stopped asking Poppy to fill out forms when they realized her handwriting was utter shite. 

"Almost done," Elise said. She stifled a yawn that was likely caused by boredom. "How's your hand?"

The Miqo'te glared down at the damp rag she held against her left palm. The knife hardly cut deep enough to be serious and the Echo had already stitched the flesh back together. It was little more than a dull annoyance and a reminder of her failure. "My pride hurts more than anything," she muttered, still feeling bitter.

A small smile quirked Elise's lips at the sight of her pout. "Good thing you don't have to sign with your pride, then," she said cheerfully and slid one of the sheets over to her.

Poppy took the quill that was handed to her and signed the sheet as neatly as she could, which wasn't very neat at all. "Still can't believe that Blade. Ordering us around like she was the Sultana. I would've found him quick if she'd just let me." Poppy wrinkled her nose at the thought and slid the sheet back to Elise, who shrugged. 

"Let them run around for a bit and have their fun. She was right anyway. We do have better things to do." Elise flipped through the papers before she tapped them against the table to neaten the pile and grinned at Poppy after she put them down. "We've got a date on the Bloodsands. Don't think I was joking earlier about kicking your arse."

Poppy sneered and tossed the rag aside. She leaned back in her chair, kicking her feet up to rest them on the table. "I'd like to see you try." 

"You will—Gods, get your damn boots off the report." Elise swatted at her foot until the Miqo'te reluctantly moved it away.

A Lalafellin barmaid approached them suddenly with a tray that held two goblets and replied to their curious looks with a curtsey. "From the proprietress. She wishes you both luck tonight," she said and placed the drinks on the table. She paused after her delivery was made and smiled a devious little smile. "Though her coin is on you Elise, so you'd better win," she added with a wink at the silver-haired Warrior and went back to her duties.

Poppy looked over her shoulder and saw the red-headed Lalafell at the bar flash them a grin and wave. While the Miqo'te pouted at her, Elise lifted her goblet towards the proprietress and laughed, "Momodi, you angel. I won't let you down!" 

Poppy sighed dramatically, but accepted the goblet Elise offered her with a smile. "I hope she's ready to lose all her gil," she said and took a sip. The wine that hit her tongue was sweet and velvety and managed to chase away the remaining chill the rain had left on her. She quickly remembered that Momodi's honey wine was famous for a reason and gave an appreciative hum.

Elise chuckled into her own cup, but before she could take a sip her eyes were drawn to something across the room. "Don't look now. Here comes trouble," she said, voice caught somewhere between amusement and dread. 

Poppy, of course, looked immediately and was greeted by the sight of a tall Elezen man who spoke with a Brass Blade near the doors. The Warrior wore the simple silver armor of a Holy Knight, but the crest on his shield marked him as one of Lolorito's personal guard. The man named Carrilaut Fortescue was a recent transplant from the Shroud (as well as a stuck up prick, in Poppy's humble opinion). When the Brass Blade left, he looked up at the pair of seated Warriors. Poppy groaned internally when she saw how his thin lips were pinched into a self-satisfied looking smile.

"Thorne, Masah." He greeted them with a brief salute when he reached their table. "I've come to collect your report if you've finished it."

"Aye. It's all done, Fortescue," Elise said and handled him the papers with far more politeness than Poppy would have. Yet another reason why she handled the people side of things.

The Elezen briefly skimmed the report. The unimpressed look that crept across his face made Poppy's skin crawl. "So you say this man simply disappeared? He must be using incredible magicks to so deftly elude two Warriors of Light."

Poppy gazed up at Fortescue over the rim of her goblet, not too keen on the sarcasm present in his tone. "If you're so concerned, shouldn't you be out looking for him rather than running paperwork like a Postmoogle?" she asked, unable to conceal her irritation.

"While I would love nothing more than to clean up your mess, I've left the matter in the capable hands of the Brass Blades. I must return to my lord's side to inform him of the situation." He paused for a moment to give her a gratingly smug smile before he continued his tirade, "Perhaps if you weren't so preoccupied by your little games at the Coliseum, this wouldn't have been an issue. It's hardly proper for Warriors of Light to prance around in such an uncouth way as if they were no more than court jesters, and I happen to know the Holy Knights would agree with me on that."

If the neck of the goblet had been made of a slightly more brittle material, it surely would have snapped under the pressure of Poppy's grip. She occupied herself for a moment with a hearty gulp of wine, if only to dampen the flare of anger that tore through her. "Bold of your to speak of propriety, Fortescue," she said coolly, somehow managing to muzzle her temper. She was silently delighted by the look of confusion he flashed her. "I'd hardly call abandoning your previous post in Gridania proper, after all. If I'm a jester, then you're nothing more than a Syndicate lapdog hungry for coin." The acidic words were delivered with the most pleasant smile Poppy could muster and she relished at how the Elezen's eyes narrowed into a hateful glare.

Elise cleared her throat in the tense silence that followed. "You should go ahead and deliver that report," she suggested. Her flat stare seemed to silently add, unless you want to get into a fistfight with a half-drunk coeurl.

Fortescue's mask of smug professionalism slipped back on in the breath it took him to turn to her. "How right you are. I needn't keep my lord waiting. Farewell, Thorne." Ignoring Poppy, he nodded to Elise before he turned on his heel and made his way to the door.

"Arse," Poppy muttered as soon as he was out of earshot.

Elise simply sighed into her goblet and took a long, well-deserved gulp of her untouched wine. She let her fellow Warrior seethe in silence for a while. Poppy's irritation eventually did dull, but it just turned back into a mild sort of apprehension. Though her Echo had gone silent after she discovered the tea, some tiny part of her was still unsettled. She chewed on her lip for a while, deep in thought.

"El, do you think Lolorito has something to do with this? Was he trying to poison these guests?" she asked, giving voice to her concern.

Elise's brow furrowed in thought. She swirled her goblet around for a moment before she shook her head. "I don't think so. He's entertaining some politicians or whatnot from Ishgard. He's been wanting to get into that market for years and I don't think killing them would help."

"Ishgard?" Poppy asked, a bit surprised. The look Elise gave her made it seem like that was something she should have known.

"Didn't you read the missive from the Sultana? They're more her guests than anything, after all, and the ones we're entertaining tonight."

Poppy looked away from her accusatory stare. "I skimmed it," she said a bit defensively. She remembered the part about special guests at the Coliseum but not the bit about them being Ishgardians.

"Twelve, you're hopeless," Elisie said as she pinched the bridge of her nose, though she still smiled. "Sometimes I wonder if you can even read."

Poppy was too busy thinking to even feign offense at the jest. She felt cautious at the mention of Ishgard. It had been over a year since the Holy Knights pointlessly forced her to go to that party and she'd been avoiding having anything else to do with the frozen hell ever since. She'd gotten her fill during the war. She didn't want to look back on it more than she had to. So, she shelved the thoughts and her mounting apprehension for later and downed the rest of her wine in one gulp. With a noisy clack, she lifted her armored legs from the table and stood, flashing a grin at her fellow Warrior.

"Well then, let's go be good little jesters and give them a show they won't forget."

A small drawing of a hemlock flower with five white petals.

hemlock : death

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a poppy flower with golden petals surrounding a cluster of black seeds.

For the longest time, Alisaie didn't understand why Ul'dah was referred to as The Jewel of the Desert. In all her studies and the countless books she read on the subject of Eorzea, the city-state was always granted the florid title. To her it seemed little more than an exaggeration. After all, how could something that sat surrounded by malms of nothing more than sandy wastes ever be considered a jewel? It wasn't until she had the opportunity to see the city from above that she understood.

The airship that carried herself, her brother, and her father arrived at the city late one evening. Ul'dah practically glistened at night, shining brighter than the sea of stars that hung above it. Tall, spire-like fortifications and a protective outer wall surrounded the domed citadel at the heart of the city and truly gave one the impression of a bright gem nestled among an endless expanse of sand. All the books in the world couldn't do it justice. That view alone was worth the trip, but it was a shame they weren't there for the sights alone.

The year that followed the Dragonsong War's end was a winding road paved not only with peace, but also with tension and turmoil and a frantic need for change that somehow lead the Leveilleurs to that very jewel. After moons of petitioning, the House of Lords finally accepted her father's proposal and granted him leave to travel to Ul'dah and the other Eorzean city-states. His goal with simple: find suitable candidates for a merchant program that would both provide Ishgard with goods suitable for its stagnant markets and would allow those markets time to stabilize without a sudden oversaturation of foreign goods.

Much to Alphinaud's delight, their father extended that invitation to them on the eve of their twenty first nameday (which was, to Alisaie's relief, a far more quiet and far less floral affair than the previous). She was more hesitant in accepting than her eager brother and admittedly still harbored a small, childish grudge against the outside world that stole her grandfather from her. But she knew he would want her to see the rest of Eorzea with her own eyes before casting such a harsh judgement, and so Alisaie found herself playing diplomat in the vast city of Ul'dah.

After a brief audience with the Sultana the morning after their arrival, who thereafter excused herself to attend to her duties, the family was given a tour of the markets—but not before a certain Lord Lolorito insisted they shed their woolen garments for more comfortable Ul'dahn-styled dress. The clothing was provided from his own network of shops, of course, in which he luckily kept a small stock in a larger size for the occasional non-Lalafellin shopper. After being swathed in airy cotton garments, the family was whisked away by the members of the Syndicate and their guard.

The whole thing was a tiring affair, really. Having to deal with verbose pleasantries and formalities was bad enough, but Alisaie felt like she was surrounded on all sides by hungry wolves snapping at her heels when they were taken to each shop and stall. Item after item was thrust in their faces with lengthy explanations on how and why it would benefit the citizens of Ishgard: herbal teas and spices to warm their bellies, fine silks and rugs to decorate their dreary halls, and so on. The wealthy elite of Ul'dah were clearly eager to enter their cloistered market and made sure to make a grand show of that eagerness.

She wasn't sure how her brother and father dealt with it all without being overwhelmed but they played along with the Syndicate's game without missing a beat, asking artfully crafted questions from behind masks of stoic politeness. Alisaie trailed along behind her more politically inclined kin during their tour and instead observed the city that buzzed loudly around her. 

Despite the ravenous merchants, Ul'dah was a beautiful place. The warm, vibrant colors were a stark difference to the cool greys and blues of the Holy See. Even their Jeweled Crozier couldn't compare to the gems that were the Sapphire and Ruby exchanges. From colorful banners that billowed lazily in the arid breeze over the tightly packed streets filled to the brim with equally colorful goods to planters overflowing with beautiful yellow flowers that lined every corner and walkway: it all gave the impression that the city was made of gold. 

Sometime well past midday they paused before a stall that kept a stock of spices, poultices, and other herbal concoctions. Alisaie found herself admiring the selection of flowers—the very same yellow blooms that seemed to be present all across the city.

"These are very popular here," said a voice from beside Alisaie. She glanced down to see none other than Lord Lolorito himself address her. His arms were clasped behind his back and he gazed up at the same flowers she admired. "Marsh marigolds represent a desire for riches while yellow poppies represent fantastic extravagance. Not only do they line our streets, but you often find them hung up in stalls and homes as symbols of luck."

He reached up and plucked a flower from the arrangement, then turned to offer it to her with a small smile visible past the visor he wore. She wondered for a moment what exactly is was that he tried to hide beneath that mask. Alisaie politely accepted the flower despite feeling bothered by how he disturbed the bouquet, but knew he likely owned the shop and could do as he pleased.

"I can certainly understand the popularity," she said. "They are apt symbols for your city."

Lord Lolorito hummed thoughtfully at that. "I do hope you are enjoying your stay in said city thus far, Mistress Leveilleur. What is your impression of Ul'dah, if I may ask?"

It was a loaded question, that much she knew. Though she was impressed by how Ul'dah seemed to have everything one could possibly desire, a glance at the less exuberant thoroughfares was confirmation enough that many didn't get a chance to enjoy the wealth the city boasted. Despite their guides' best efforts to quickly usher them away, Alisaie still saw a glimpse of scenes not unlike those that played out in the Brume. It was a bitter irony that streets with names as luxurious as Pearl and Onyx were lined with beggars and homeless and displaced refugees. She would have pointed those similarities out if she had half a mind, but chose to hold her tongue. She somehow knew her candor wouldn't be appreciated.

"'Tis just as grand as I imagined, my lord," she replied with utmost politeness and a pleasant smile. 

The lord's own smile widened a touch. "Grand enough to bring a piece of it home with you, I hope?" he asked.

Aha, so that was his angle. He was likely perplexed by her father's cool stoicism and sharp, discerning gaze and even Alphinaud's veneer of diplomacy was laid on thick enough as to not show his hand. He was clearly vying for some sort of confirmation that his displays of grandeur had swayed them enough to invite him into Ishgard's selective market, and thus turned to her. Alisaie put on a smile more pleasant than the last, if that was even possible. She could play these games as well as her brother if she was so inclined, though on her own terms.

"I am fairly certain arrangements will be made," she replied. "Given, of course, that we find suitable goods for the whole of Ishagrd. We would love for nothing more than for every citizen to enjoy a sampling of Ul'dah's vast assortment of wares."

Lord Lolorito's momentary silence made her think that she somehow caused offense. Alisaie braced herself for an angry response, but the lord simply clasped his hands behind his back once more and nodded. "I see," he said with interest, sounding pleased with her response. It seemed he took it for a hint rather than a jab.

Before he could say more, a man with a sword and a crown of small scarlet colored flowers on his head approached—one of the Brass Blades, if she wasn't mistaken. "My lord," he said as he knelt beside Lolorito, looking a bit flustered. "I've news about your shipment."

The Lalafellin lord turned to the Brass Blade immediately. Though his expression was hidden behind his visor, he seemed very interested in whatever news the man brought. He inclined his head back towards Alisaie for a moment. "If you'll excuse me."

"Of course," she said with a nod and watched as the lord was lead away by his guard.

She was left alone to admire the flower in her hand. The delicate yellow petals were as vivid as the sun's rays and surrounded a cluster of tiny black seeds, marking it as a poppy rather than a marigold. The realization made a smile tug at her lips and a certain memory rise to the surface of her mind.

Try to find me, the Warrior had said, I'll give you lessons.

In the very back of her mind, Alisaie secretly held on to the hope that she might run into that strange woman she met over a year ago. Despite how she repeatedly scolded herself for clinging to such a brief encounter, she still found herself scanning the vast crowds gathered in the marketplace. While she caught no sight of a red-haired Miqo'te wielding a sword, she did realize that she felt the subtle sensation of being watched. She was alarmed for a moment, but wrote the feeling off in an instant when she caught the leering glances of passersby. Despite the fact that she and her family were dressed for the occasion, Ul'dahn citizens likely didn't see a group of Elezen very often—especially not ones being lead around by members of the Syndicate.

Alisaie tucked the poppy into the pocket of her tunic and turned back to the stall, trying her best to instead pay attention to the goods displayed before her.

 


 

The sudden late afternoon storm had left a spark of ambient aether in the air. It mixed with the chatter of the crowds that poured into the Coliseum and created a buzz of excitement and anticipation both—not only from the other patrons, but also from the group present in the Sultana's private booth.

Interestingly enough, along with the Sultana herself, Lord Lolorito wasn't present. His monetarist rivals took that as an opportunity to bombard Alisaie's poor father with questions about the Holy See and proposals from their own businesses that didn't receive as much attention thanks to the aforementioned lord's displays. But Fourchenault Leveilleur was a patient man and dealt with their pestering as gracefully as any renowned diplomat would, answering their queries and explaining the political climate of Ishgard to them for the umpteenth time. 

Alisaie didn't envy his position. She was glad that she and her brother were left out of the fray in their seats at the front of the group with only the Bloodsands spread out before them. However, when she glanced over at Alphinaud she found him staring out at the empty arena, looking a bit sullen. 

"Is aught amiss?" she asked. "It's unlike you to be so quiet when discussions of politics are afoot."

Alphinaud stirred from his stupor and managed a small smile at the jab. "Oh, just a bit drained is all. It's been a tiring day." 

While Alisaie agreed that it had been a rather tiring day, she didn't buy the excuse. Frankly, she was shocked he hadn't joined in on the conversation taking place. Her quirked brow said enough in its silence to eventually elicit a sigh from him. 

"Honestly, I had hoped for more of an audience with the Sultana," he admitted quietly, as to not catch the attention of the group behind them. "'Tis no secret that Ul'dah shares many of Ishgard's...problems. I would like to inquire how she has dealt with them thus far. Perhaps we could use similar tactics to better our own city."

Alisaie nearly smirked at her brother's earnestness, though she knew he made a fair point. Ul'dah and Ishgard were much the same even with the pious mask the Holy See wore.

"The Sultana will be joining us shortly, will she not? Ask her your questions when she arrives. Good advice would be far more useful than the blatant displays of wealth we've been shown."

Much to Alisaie's annoyance, the look Alphinaud gave her was one of mild disbelief. "I can't just do that. What would you propose I say? 'Hello, your grace. I've noticed your city has a ghastly disparity between the rich and poor not unlike Ishgard. May I ask, how do you manage that?'"

Alisaie simply shrugged at his sarcasm. It sounded like a good idea to her. "Why not? We're only going to be here for so long. There's no point in beating around the bush," she replied. 

Alphinaud let out a sigh that sounded more exasperated than the last. "Honestly, sometimes I wonder if you've a tactful bone in your body," he muttered, though not without a wry smile. 

"What's the point of tact if you don't get the answers you need?" Alisaie muttered in reply. She was unable to stop the pout that pulled at her lips in offense at his words. 

"The point, dear sister, is that is how we adults speak—tactfully."

Upon hearing that, Alisaie found that she very much would have liked for Alphinaud to not speak at all. She reached over and pinched his leg hard enough to elicit a very un-adult like yelp of surprise from him. Her satisfaction was short-lived, however, when she heard someone clear their throat behind them. Both twins glanced over their shoulders and saw their father raise a brow at them amidst the conversation he held. They saw the stern look he shot them and both immediately sat up straighter and looked forward in attention. Though, Alisaie did get her wish of silence when Alphinaud's jaw snapped shut. When the doors to the private both swung open a moment later, she assumed the Sultana had arrived and looked back again.

"I'm terribly sorry for the delay," Lord Lolorito announced as he came in. He was followed closely by an armored man—an Elezen, to Alisaie's surprise—and a Lalafellin woman who carried a tray that held an arrangement of goblets. "I was expecting a shipment of goods that was unfortunately lost and had to deal with the matter. It seems the sudden storm was not kind to my delivery men."

Fourchenault gave the lord a sympathetic look after he took a seat beside him. "That is most unfortunate. I pray nothing of tremendous value was lost?" he asked.

"Nothing that can't be replaced. It was a fine sampling of goods from the far reaches of Thanalan, however, and did include the tea that piqued your interest, Lord Leveilleur. No matter." The Lalafellin lord snapped his fingers and the woman with the goblets stepped forward. "Instead of tea, I've brought for you a sampling of honey wine from our own Quicksand tavern. It's a beverage popular with all of our citizens."

Lord Lolorito inclined his head towards Alisaie just so with a small, knowing smile. She returned the smile, impressed that he took her words to heart. She would have to ask Alphinaud later how her lack of tact had managed that

A goblet was soon thrust into the hand of everyone present. Her father looked relieved—likely thanks to the alcohol that had temporarily silenced Syndicate's chatter. Alisaie took a tentative sip from her own cup and found the sweet taste of the wine surprisingly pleasant. With the thought to pay her compliments, she looked back only to see a Miqo'te girl slip into the booth when the Lalafellin barmaid exited. She wore the same striped coatee as the Coliseum employees they'd passed on the way in and held a basket overflowing with flowers. She looked rather nervous, if Alisaie read the angle of her ears correctly. 

"Ah...excuse me, my lords," she said quietly as she stepped closer to the seats. "I-I was wondering if..." she trailed off when the din of the resumed conversation fell over her words.

Only Lord Lolorito's Elezen guard seemed to notice and looked over at her with a disdainful glance. "Peddle your wares elsewhere, flower girl. No one here is interested," he said rather rudely.

The Miqo'te bit her lip and her ears tipped back further against her head, making her look near ready to back out of the room. Alisaie frowned. Feeling bad for the poor girl, she caught her attention and waved her over with a smile.

"Over here, miss," she said loudly enough for the guard to hear as well. "I would like to see what you have."

She made sure to shoot the armored Elezen a pointed look, who looked back at her with a sheepish and perhaps almost annoyed expression. The young Miqo'te vendor made her way over, looking very relieved, and offered Alisaie a wobbly curtesy.

"Ah, good evening, my lady. Might I interest you in a flower? They're freshly picked just for the battle."

She held her basket out for inspection, which was separated into two sections: one side held a large white bloom with pearlescent petals that shimmered beneath the dim tourchlight and the other had a smaller, more ornamental flower with a multitude of dark red petals. Alphinaud leaned over beside her to get a better look. 

"For the battle, you say?" he asked, sounding interested. 

The Miqo'te perked up a bit at being addressed and smiled at him. "Oh, yes! We grow them especially for this night. Is this your first time at the Coliseum?" 

"It is," Alisaie confirmed with a nod. Embarrassingly enough, she realized that she didn't recall what exactly made that particular night so special. She'd been more interested in the relief brought by sitting inside the cool building after being dragged around markets sprawled beneath blistering sunlight all day. "Would you mind explaining the purpose of this battle?"

"Oh, of course!" The flower girl beamed down at her and the smile made the corners of her pretty blue eyes crinkle. "This battle only happens twice a year so you're lucky to be here tonight of all nights. The two Warriors of Light sworn to the Sultana are going to fight on the Bloodsands." 

"Warriors of Light?" Alphinaud asked, mirroring the surprise Alisaie felt. 

The Miqo'te gave an emphatic nod in reply. "The sun and moon of Ul'dah, as we call them. We've always been a city of twos, with our twin patrons and all," she paused her explanation to flash another smile at the two twins, likely finding humor in the coincidence, "They take on the names of their own patrons: Azeyma's Rose and Menphina's Daisy. We grow the flowers so you can pick one for the Warrior you support!"

Alphinaud tapped his chin in thought. "A fascinating premise. And what spoils to the victor go? Not the other's head, I hope," he asked with a chuckle.

The flower girl laughed in return. "Oh no, of course not. Warriors of Light are too valuable to be killed off on a whim! These battles have been happening since the very first Sultansworn, but the Warriors don't get much more than bragging rights these days," she replied, "It gives them a chance to show off and keep the another in check. But really, it's mostly an excuse for gambling." The Miqo'te grinned after whispering the last bit and exposed her small fangs. She gestured down at her basket again and asked, "Who would you like to support tonight? The stalwart daisy or the fiery rose?"

"I like the sound of stalwart," Alphinaud said and reached into his purse for a coin. He handed it to the Miqo'te with a smile. "A daisy for me."

"I'll have a rose," Alisaie added and retrieved her own coin. 

Perhaps it was mostly out of a need to oppose her brother at every opportunity, but Alisaie felt somehow drawn to the flower. It was smaller than the roses she was familiar with back home and had pretty frilled petals that sat atop a dark green stem clipped of all its thorns. The deep red petals glistened with fine dew likely caused by the storm when the flower girl handed it to her.

"Good choice, my lady."

The Miqo'te smiled down at her and Alisaie noticed the rose tucked into her short, sandy hair. It was clear who she was rooting for. Suddenly, the entire Coliseum went still. Alisaie looked down at the Bloodsands to see that a woman in ornamental dress had emerged onto the arena.

"Oh, it's starting," the flower girl whispered. "Thank you, my lord and lady. I hope you enjoy the show!" Seeming pleased with the sales she made, she flashed them both one last cheerful smile before she turned away, tail flicking happily behind her as she left.

Alisaie's attention was pulled back to the arena below when the woman who stood at its center spoke in a surprisingly booming voice:

"Well met, patrons of the Coliseum!" she called out, words echoing off the stones around her and amplifying her speech. The bangles on her lifted arm and the bits of gold sewn onto the bolero she wore glimmered faintly beneath the torchlight that illuminated the arena. "Are you ready to see our champions fight for their honor on our very own Bloodsands?" The question prompted a cheer from the crowd and she paused until they were quiet again. "Though they are slayers of false gods, our beloved Warriors are not unlike gods themselves. Thus they have taken the names of their patron deities and will stand before you tonight as flowers of the sun and moon plucked straight from the garden of the Twelve!" 

In the resulting cheer the announcer's words caused, Alphinaud chuckled. "Ul'dahns certainly have a flair for the dramatic, don't they?" he asked bemusedly.

Alisaie smirked in reply. They certainly did. 

"My friends, I present to you the first of our champions. Sturdy and steadfast as ice, though not nearly as cold. The stalwart moon that graces our nights: Menphina's Daisy!" 

The gates that the announcer gestured to were raised and the first Warrior of Light emerged onto the Bloodsands. She was a tall woman with silvery hair tied up beneath an ornate turban made of patterned blue silk that hid half her face under its gossamer veil. Her armor was sparse, consisting only of a silver breastplate that covered her chest and shoulders and vambraces on her wrists. A sarouel that matched her turban covered her legs and a curved silver sword hung from her hip while on her back was a shield stamped with the mark of Menphina entwined with a daisy. The Warrior made her way to the center of the arena and raised her arms in greeting towards the crowd above her, prompting a thunderous applause.

"Have care of her thorns, dear friends, for our next champion will prick all those she deems unjust. The flame of our great city and the sun who lights our sky: Azeyma's Rose!"

Perhaps Alisaie shouldn't have been as surprised as she was to see that the second Warrior who emerged onto the Bloodsands was a Miqo'te with ruddy, copper-colored hair that hung over her shoulders in two neat braids. She wore the same vestments as her counterpart, though hers were painted in shades of red and gold. Her tail trailed behind her proudly like a banner made of flames and her large ears were perked forward in attention. When she sauntered to the center of the arena and dipped into a familiar dramatic bow before the crowd, it all but confirmed her identity despite the veil that shielded her face. 

"It's her," Alisaie heard herself say out loud as the crowd welcomed the Warrior with more thunderous applause. She caught the confused look Alphinaud gave her and, feeling a bit embarrassed by the outburst, elaborated, "The Warrior of Light who attended our nameday celebration last year."

Alphinaud squinted out at the arena for a moment before his brows shot up in surprise. "I daresay you're correct. What a coincidence." Out of the corner of her eye, Alisaie saw the wry smile that crept across his face. "Though, I feel the Warrior I've chosen looks a bit stronger than her," he said and twirled the daisy he held before him. 

"We'll see about that," Alisaie shot back and clutched her rose tightly in her lap, feeling her heart pound incessantly in her chest.

"Here to present our Warriors with their crowns is none other than our very own Sultana: Her Grace, Nanamo Ul Namo!" 

The Warriors knelt in the sand on either side of the announcer, who bowed as the gates before them opened. The Sultana's missing presence in her own booth suddenly made sense when she stepped out onto the arena with two Lalafellin handmaidens at her heels. She paused before the women and her maids stepped forward beside her, presenting her with pillows on which sat crowns made of the flowers each Warrior represented. 

"The rules are as they always have been: the first to lose her crown is forfeit," the Sultana announced. She paused to bestow the crowns onto the bowed heads of her champions and placed her hands on their shoulders when she was finished. "Fight well and fight fair, my dear Warriors!" 

The crowd erupted into a cacophony of cheers as the Sultana exited the arena. Both Warriors stood and turned to face each other with the announcer between them. In a show of good sportsmanship, they reached out and tapped their vambraces together, both nodding as they likely wished each other luck. 

"Menphina's Daisy and Azeyma's Rose: draw your blades! Show Ul'dah why you are the Sultana's shadows and Hydaelyn's own chosen!" 

The announcer bowed once more and slipped away to exit the arena. The Warriors stepped a few good few yalms apart where both drew their swords and donned their shields. Tension crackled through the air, amplified by the shouts that filled the Coliseum. 

Having fulfilled her part, the Sultana returned to company of her private booth. Alisaie looked over just as she and General Aldynn took their seats in front of the group still chattering away with Fourchenault, right beside her and Alphinaud. She greeted them both with a smile.

"Good evening, Master and Mistress Leveilleur. I pray your tour of our markets went well?" The Sultana glanced down and her smile grew when she noticed the daisy and rose they each held. "Oh, I see you've got your flowers ready. I do hope you enjoy the battle. My dear Warriors always put on a spectacular show." 

"Thank you, your grace. The tour was most illuminating," Alphinaud replied with an emphatic nod. "The premise of this battle is quite fascinating as well, though I had no idea you played a role. I must say you did a fine job at rousing the crowd."

The Sultana giggled into her palm at the flattery. "Thank you. To be quite honest, I still get nervous despite all the times I've done it."

"I do not blame you. It feels at though all of Ul'dah is present. I was told this battle has occurred since the Sultansworn's establishment. Has it always drawn such a crowd?"

While Alphinaud and the Sultana chatted about the history of Ul'dah and her Warriors, Alisaie found her attention pulled back to the Bloodsands.

The Warriors circled one another slowly like two celestial bodies suspended in space. The entire audience seemed to hold their breaths in anticipation for who would make the first move. The Rose answered their silent question when she rushed forward with her golden blade raised high above her. It clattered loudly against the metal of the Daisy's shield, who had pulled it forward in anticipation for the attack. The Rose was relentless in her charge as she slashed at the shield continuously, not giving her rival a chance to retaliate. The Daisy held her ground, though she was forced a step or two back. As if annoyed by her opponent's pestering, she charged forward with her shield and pushed the Rose back in turn. Her own blade swung forward, glistening like a beam of moonlight, though the Rose avoided it with a large leap backwards. 

They stood yalms apart again and began their circling anew. The Rose paused after just a few steps to jut her chin upwards in defiance and held her sword out at her side as if inviting an attack. The Daisy took the invitation and charged forward. As her opponent approached, the Rose did something that elicited a collective gasp from the audience. In a foolish display of her agility, the Warrior threw her sword upward so that it arced above the Bloodsands like a ray of sunlight. In the moment the blade hung in the air, its owner vaulted over her charging opponent and landed crouched in the sand behind her where she flawlessly caught the sword before it fell to the ground. 

The crowd erupted into a massive cheer at the feat and Alisaie found herself clapping along. Even some of the group behind her paused their conversation to murmur their own compliments. The Rose stood and took a moment soak in her applause, lifting her arms up to the audience in silent thanks and then bowed triumphantly to them. The Daisy took advantage of her opponent's distraction. Not to be outdone by the Rose's theatrics, she flipped backwards from where she stood in an amazing display of her strength and rolled on the sand several times times to close the distance between them. She paused only a step away to raise her blade and aim it at the other woman's head. The shorter Warrior was nearly caught off guard by the continued applause but peeked over her shoulder and ducked just in time, though not without the loss of one of the flowers of her crown. Red petals fell to her feet and stained the sand almost like large drops of blood. There was a breath of silence where the Rose remained half-crouched, tail lashing behind her with what looked like agitation. She resumed her attack only a moment later with newfound ferocity, lunging forward to meet the Daisy's blade. 

Where the Rose was fast and showy, tirelessly flinging herself forward and lashing out with abandon, the Daisy was methodical and calculated, almost predicting her opponent's movements and striking back with ferocious strength to throw her off guard. Alisaie found herself entranced by their dance, almost as if two of the Twelve were truly locked in battle before her. Her eyes were drawn mostly to the Miqo'te who twirled around her rival like a flame just like she had in the courtyard when Alisaie first found her. She held on tightly to the stem of the rose in her lap and watched the fight progress with a rapt fascination.

The battle continued for what felt like an epoch. The Warriors matched each other blow for blow, though eventually the Rose's tireless assault paid off. In a slight fraction of hesitation where the Daisy stepped back, the Rose burst forward and swung her blade down upon her shield with enough force to bring her rival to her knees. With the artful precision of an artist painting her last stroke, the Rose tipped her blade just so and wrenched the crown from the Daisy's head. Pearlescent petals swirled around them and time almost seemed to slow. The flowers landed in the sand nearby and the Daisy looked up at her rival as the crowd went deathly still.

"Menphina's Daisy! Do you yield?" The Rose's voice boomed out from beneath her veil and she moved to point her blade down at her counterpart. 

The Daisy bowed her head in defeat. "You have bested me this time, Azeyma's Rose!" was her reply. 

With that, the Rose sheathed her blade and turned away from the Daisy. She ripped the veil from her face and lifted her arms up to the crowd just as a deafening applause tore through the Coliseum. Her supporters threw their roses down onto the Bloodsands where they landed at their champion's feet in a sea of blood red petals. Alisaie found herself on her feet in a standing ovation. She was relieved to see the others in the booth had stood as well. 

"That was quite the show. Ul'dah is lucky to have two such formidable Warriors," she heard her father say behind her and was surprised to hear him sound so impressed. Some of the Syndicate agreed with him while others muttered unhappily under their breaths, likely because of coin lost on misplaced bets.

"It seems your champion has bested mine, dear sister. 'Tis a shame we put no coin on the match." Alphinaud tucked his daisy into the lapel of his shirt when he finished clapping and flashed her a smile. 

Alisaie held her rose triumphantly before her and sneered in return. "A shame indeed. I could have robbed you of all your gil."

Her attention was pulled back to the arena once more when the winning Warrior approached their side of the stands. Having removed her veil, Alisaie got a clear look at that familiar round face with its stripes and freckles and the full pink lips that were quirked into a smile. Her eyes fell on the patrons of the private booth and Alisaie felt like flames licked her skin when that piercing gaze momentarily brushed across her.

Without much thought, she reached into the pocket of her tunic and retrieved the yellow poppy she'd saved from earlier. She leaned forward on the railing and threw it down onto the arena where it landed near her champion's feet. To her surprise, the Warrior paused her victory lap and bent down to retrieve the flower from among the roses piled there. She held the poppy out as if it were a precious trophy and looked up at the booth from where it came.

The roar of the crowd dulled when the Warrior's intense green eyes found Alisaie's and she watched as surprise briefly flickered across the other woman's face. Her smile widened after a breath and she lifted the flower to her nose for a moment before she tucked it into the folds of her turban near her ear, all without breaking eye contact. She lifted her chin and tilted her head just so, almost as if silently inviting her onto the arena. She even had the gall to wink, which caused Alisaie's face to unconsciously warm. The spell the Miqo'te held over her was broken when her gaze was pulled to the Sultana who sat beside Alphinaud. She bent over into a deep, triumphant bow for Her Grace. 

The Sultana stood on her chair and clapped, looking delighted. "Well done, L'arra," she called down to her champion.

Her ears flicked up at her lady's words. The Warrior smiled at the Sultana when she stood from her bow and then turned on her heel to make her way back to the center of the arena where her opponent still knelt. She extended a hand to the other woman who took it and stood, giving her counterpart a hearty slap on the shoulder in congratulations. Her own veil was removed and she grinned down at the Miqo'te, not looking too upset by her loss. 

The announcer emerged back onto the Bloodsands and waded through a sea of roses to reach the Warriors. "And so we have our victor," she called to the crowd and lifted the Miqo'te's hand up in her own. "The Rose reigns! May she bathe us in her just flames!" 

As the crowd burst into more deafening applause, Alisaie planned out how she might approach the Warrior. She wanted—nay, needed—the woman to tutor her. The Twelve had graced her with an opportunity, after all, and she wasn't about to let it slip through her fingers.

A small drawing of a poppy flower with golden petals surrounding a cluster of black seeds.

poppy (yellow) : fantastic extravagance

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a lotus flower with many layers of pink petals.

Most of the excitement died down after the Warriors exited the arena. The patrons of the Coliseum slowly trickled out after them and left to collect their winnings, lament their losses, and continue their celebrations at taverns all across the city. The Sultana and her group were eventually ushered out as well and lead up to the Hustings Strip for their own celebration—though for them it was more business than pleasure. The Leveilleurs would meet with the Syndicate and Her Grace in the Fragrant Chamber for dinner and to discuss their visit thus far. However, they arrived at the Royal Promenade only to find that their meal was apparently still being prepared. Flustered servants flitted about to offer apologies and explanations, saying something about late shipments causing a delay.

Alisaie paid little attention to the commotion behind her and turned away from the group to instead admire the view of the Gold Court spread out beneath them. It was an apt name even at night with how the dim torchlight cast its warm glow on the smooth marble and gave the impression of gold-paved streets. The centerpiece of the circular thoroughfare was a large fountain that was surrounded by thin pillars entwined with trees that reached towards an opening in the domed ceiling. Alisaie looked up to see the faint twinkle of stars beyond the branches that partially obscured her view and pondered over how she might find the Warrior of Light.

She likely could just ask the Sultana for an audience with the Warrior. Though it wasn't very subtle, it was the simplest solution (and subtlety wasn't exactly Alisaie's concern regardless). However, a glance over her shoulder confirmed that Her Grace was engrossed in a conversation with General Aldynn and Alphinaud, who looked to be passionately discussing something of great import judging by how animated he was in his gestures. She would have to bide her time, it seemed, but she hoped Alphinaud had at least brought up the questions he mentioned earlier if he was going to make her wait.

Alisaie smirked to herself and looked back out across the Gold Court. While the area below had been quiet before with only a handful of passersby walking through, the court was suddenly alight with the chatter of approaching voices that bounced off the stone walls. A handful of people emerged from the entrance of the Coliseum and stopped near the fountain where Alisaie saw—much to her surprise—none other than the Warriors of Light at the center of the group.

The two women still wore their performance garb in their contrasting shades of red and blue that truly made them look the part of a sun and moon. The Hyuran Warrior who stood nearly two fulms taller than her Miqo'te counterpart chatted with their entourage while she balanced her elbow on her companion's shoulder, as if she were an armrest. The shorter Warrior eventually jabbed the other in the ribs with her own elbow, which caused her to double over and prompted a round of giggles from the group of women who surrounded them. The taller Warrior laughed as well and gave the other's shoulder a hearty slap after the Miqo'te flashed her a sneer. The casual air between them was an interesting sight after having witnessed them locked in battle less than a bell ago. 

She caught snippets of conversation: mostly congratulations and compliments and questions on where they might wander to next for a drink. Alisaie observed the group from above while she formulated a plan. Fate had been kind to drop the Warrior so conveniently under her nose and she would be a fool not to act. Yet even after all her previous vigor, Alisaie found herself suddenly wrought with hesitation. The thought of approaching while admirers fawned over her seemed less than appealing, for one. She watched the Miqo'te—who she had decided was a shameless flirt—accept a rose from one of her entourage and wink at the woman who giggled into her palm.

Alisaie tore her eyes away from her quarry and sighed, turning so her back was pressed against the railing. She wondered what she would even say and felt a bit silly suddenly, unsure if the Warrior would even remember the offer she made, let alone humor the request for lessons. When she glanced in Alphinaud's direction and saw him still engrossed in his conversion with the Sultana, she remembered her own words to him from earlier: there was no point in beating around the bush. So with an affirmative nod to herself, she steeled her nerves and decided to take matters into her own hands. At the very least, she would be polite and offer the Warrior congratulations on her victory.

The group of nobles and their guards were too distracted by their conversations to notice Alisaie slip away. She was able to make her way down the red carpeted stairway without incident and walked past the Coliseum entrance to emerge onto the Gold Court. Though the walk only took a minute or two at most, she was surprised to see that the area was empty when she got there. She stepped closer to the fountain, but only the sound of her own sandals, the constant drip of water, and a very faint buzz of voices from the Hustings Strip above echoed around her. It seemed the Warriors and their admirers had moved on to enact their plans for a celebration. 

Frustrated, Alisaie sat down on the edge of the fountain with a sigh, though her annoyance was short-lived and fizzled out after a few moments. Truthfully, she was a bit relieved. A formal introduction through the Sultana would be more palatable  and direct anyway. If anything, she could at least appreciate some time away from the all the incessant chatter about business. With the plan to return back to the Strip after a much-needed minute of solitude, she sat in silence with only the soothing sound of the fountain at her back.

Alisaie looked over her shoulder at the pool of water and noticed several lotus flowers suspended on the shimmering surface that reflected the sliver of night sky that hung above it. She reached out to touch the nearest one and traced the outline of a pink-tinged petal, noticing the faint glimmer of coins beneath the flower. They littered the bottom of the fountain and were likely thrown in by passersby with wishes for more wealth. The sight made Alisaie think about what an odd place Ul'dah was and she found herself wondering what exactly her family's trip would yield.

It was only the quiet echo of footsteps that pulled Alisaie from her reveries. She looked up to see that a Hyuran man had paused a few fulms to the side of the fountain. He was rather tall but otherwise unassuming with dark hair pulled back behind his head and clothing that suggested he was a merchant. She paid him no mind at first as he looked up towards the Hustings Strip. When his gaze flicked to her and he flashed a small smile, Alisaie felt something akin to unease settle in her gut. She returned the smile out of politeness and looked away, hoping the man would soon be on his way and leave her be.

"It's a shame the tea didn't work out. I would've preferred to keep this clean."

For a moment, Alisaie thought that someone else had joined him and the man spoke to whoever else was there. When she ventured a curious glance in his direction and found that his dark eyes still burned into her, the unease she felt rapidly grew. It wasn't until she noticed the knife he held that she truly panicked. She gripped the fabric of her skirt tightly in her lap and was frozen as she stared at the short, silver blade that reflected flickering torchlight when its owner tilted it just so. Alisaie looked back up at the man's face to see him consider her silently with a unsettling smile.

"Boss said to take care of the lord of the house," he mused aloud quietly and tapped a finger against the knife. "I s'pose you're better than nothing, though. After all, you did such a fine job of separating yourself from the herd." 

Alisaie's instincts kicked in when the man took a step towards her. She shot up from her seat on the edge of the fountain and managed to put a few extra yalms of space between them. The man looked more amused than anything to see her move and simply matched her steps in turn. 

"Stay back," she warned and flashed him a glare she hoped looked more severe than the fear she felt.

He chuckled, but obliged and stopped his advance. "Oho, I like that brave face," he cooed at her. "Shame I have to kill something so pretty."

His words made an icy sort of disgust rise in the back of Alisaie's throat. She sharpened her glare and very carefully assessed her precarious situation:

A glance behind her confirmed that she was being backed into a wall. She chanced a look up towards the Hustings Strip and considered shouting for help, but the man would likely charge if she raised her voice and it would take the guards too long to descend to her aid. She could make a run for it towards the Coliseum, but no one had been manning the entrance when she walked by before and her assailant would be faster than her anyway. She knew she should have kept her boots on instead of changing into those damnable sandals. Oh how she wished she had her sword, or her grimoire at the very least.

"Don't do anything you'll regret, lass," the man said through a sneer, almost as if reading her panicked thoughts. 

Alisaie's mind worked itself into frenzied loops trying to figure out an escape. She observed the man for a long, tensely silent moment and eventually broke the stalemate with a question: "Who sent you?" she asked, trying hard to keep her voice from shaking.

The man considered her with a tilt of his head. "Someone who thinks you should've stayed holed up in your snowy little castle," he replied.

It was a vague answer, but it was something and he hadn't stepped any closer when he said it. Alisaie assumed he wouldn't have time to stab her if he was talking and so her plan was to keep the conversation going until she thought of something better. "And what business do they have with my family?" she asked.

"Business? Always business with you folk." The cloyingly pleasant edge to his voice wavered after he scoffed. "Just as bad as the monetarist filth you've been hanging around. Only came crawling out of your frozen hell for coin." 

The words made Alisaie wince at their acidity and she didn't like the way the man's grip on the knife tightened. "That's not true," she said softly in an attempt to placate him. She considered her next words carefully, knowing they weren't technically a lie thanks to Alphinaud. "Ishgard has been separate from the rest of Eorzea for long enough. We've come to learn from Ul'dah."

She was relieved when the response prompted a chuckle, but the feeling was short-lived when the man's smirk grew cruel. "Learn, eh? What exactly have you learned from being lead around the markets like the noble brat you are?"

Alisaie narrowed her eyes. Her feeling of being watched earlier wasn't unfounded after all. She spoke freely, unable to hold back her tongue, "I've learned that Ul'dah and the Holy See share similar problems. I saw the streets that the Syndicate tried so hard to hide from us. It's the same in Ishgard. If we could just—"

"Shut your mouth." Alisaie's jaw snapped shut when the man cut her off. "Don't talk like you give half a shite about anyone besides yourself and your lot. You don't care and neither does the Sultana. There's a similar problem for you."

The man's face darkened with anger, wiping away any last trace of pleasantness from before. It seemed Alisaie's plan was had started to backfire. Her hands balled into fists at her sides as she desperately tried to think of an escape.

"The Syndicate parades you foreigners around like you're royalty while Ul'dah's own starve and rot in the streets. You're part of the problem. Don't give me garbage about learning." The man spat the words out and took a step forward. He lifted the knife and pointed it directly at her. "Enough talk. Sorry lass, but the boss was right. You deserve to die for straying past your borders."

In a blind panic, Alisaie backed up as far as she could only to feel the stone wall press against her back after a few steps. The fulms between her and her assailant shrunk in slow motion as he charged forward. The last thing she saw before she closed her eyes was the man's triumphant grin and the flash of his knife's blade when he lifted it. She sent a fervent prayer up to Halone and braced herself, but no impact or pain ever came. Her eyes snapped open when she heard the sound of metal on metal.

Just like a bolt of lightning, a short Miqo'te had appeared out of thin air and stood between Alisaie and the man. Her arm was raised above her head where the gold vambrace on her wrist had stopped the knife's path. The man stared down at the Warrior, eyes wide with surprise. 

"Now, now. This isn't how we treat guests of Ul'dah," she tutted up at him like a mother scolding a misbehaving child.

She quickly and almost effortlessly lifted a leg and gave the man a harsh kick in the gut that sent him tumbling backwards where he hit the edge of the fountain and toppled to the side. 

"Hm. Should've grabbed my sword," she muttered to herself as she rubbed her wrist. The woman looked up over her shoulder at a stunned Alisaie and offered her a warm smile despite her words. "Good to see you again, my lady. Though the circumstances could be better. I hope this idiot hasn't hurt you." 

"Poppy," Alisaie blurted the other woman's name out in relief, though she still had trouble processing the situation. "I...I'm fine."

She relaxed enough to return the smile, but her tension came back when she glanced up and noticed that the man had started to pull himself to his feet. Poppy followed her gaze and then took a step forward, firmly rooting herself between them as she held a protective arm out in front of Alisaie. 

"Bloody hound," the man spat angrily. He stood to his full height after hunching over for a moment and shakily lifted his knife to jab it in Poppy's direction. "This doesn't concern you."

"Is that so, Eyvind? You've already nicked me once today, so I'd say I'm pretty heavily involved already."

The Warrior held her left hand out to him as her booming voice echoed around the Gold Court. Alisaie was confused by the interaction, but hoped it meant reinforcements would come soon. Poppy's lack of a weapon was slightly concerning. She watched as the Warrior placed her hands on her hips and jutted her chin up in defiance just as she had during the battle. The man apparently named Eyvind narrowed his eyes at her.

"You're exactly what's wrong with this city, lapdog," he said, practically snarling as he lurched forward. "You can die too if you're so keen on shielding nobles!"

Alisaie flinched instinctively when he charged again with the knife, but Poppy held her ground. It wasn't until the man was almost upon her that she stepped to the side and grabbed his wrist as he tried to skid to a halt. She whipped around him with impressive speed and pinned his arm against his back while she grabbed the back of his neck with her free hand and gave him a shove. 

Eyvind clearly wasn't anticipating any of her movements and slipped on the stones, falling forwards. Poppy leapt onto his back during his descent and smashed his face into the pavement with the hand that gripped his neck. There was a sickening crack and a groan that escaped past the stunned man's lips. Poppy twisted his arm against his back and used a knee to pin his other arm against the ground where the knife laid uselessly beneath his limp hand. With the man crumpled beneath her, the Warrior lifted her free hand to her ear.

"Elise," she said aloud to the linkpearl, sounding just a bit out of breath. "I need you to—what? I know you're—just tell her—this is serious. Quit your damn flirting and get your arse back here now. Bring backup." 

The linkpearl disconnected with a click and Poppy swore to herself when Eyvind began to shift weakly beneath her. Despite all her strength, the man was still nearly twice her size. Alisaie watched as she leaned all her weight onto his back in an attempt to keep him down and wondered through her haze of shock if she could help somehow. Before she could act, Eyvind wrapped his fingers around the knife and began to thrash his arm around. Poppy couldn't restrain him fast enough and he managed to ram the sharp point of the blade into the side of her thigh. Alisaie winced when the Warrior let out an angry hiss of pain.

"Again with the bloody knife—enough." The Miqo'te lifted the knee of her injured leg and slammed it down on Eyvind's wrist with enough force to cause an unpleasant sounding crack. Then, as if it was nothing more than a mild annoyance, she pulled the knife from her thigh which luckily hadn't gone in too deep. She glared at it for a moment before she tossed it towards Alisaie's feet. "Hold that for me, will you?"

Dumbfounded, Alisaie did as she was told and bent over to pick the knife up. The tip of the short silver blade was coated in blood, but she noticed a tiny symbol that looked like the outline of some kind of flower stamped onto the metal near the black leather-wrapped hilt.

"What in the Seven Hells—"

Alisaie looked up to see the other Warrior of Light approach with two Brass Blades at her heels. Before the silver-haired woman could finish her question, her counterpart grabbed a fistful of Eyvind's hair and lifted his bloodied face from the pavement.

"Found our friend from earlier," she said and flashed the pair of Brass Blades behind her partner a smug look. She jerked her head towards Alisaie and said, "This idiot was trying to get at our Ishgardian guest." 

The woman, who Alisaie assumed was Elise, looked over at her with discerning grey eyes. When she noticed the knife in her hands, she looked confused. 

"Check if that damn thing was poisoned. He got me again," Poppy said and Alisaie saw her grind her knee against Eyvind's wrist. "If it is, I'll be very cross with you," she hissed to him. The man offered no response aside from a pained groan.

Elise glanced down at her partner and gave her an almost incredulous look when she noticed the small stab wound on her leg that had darkened the red fabric of her sarouel. "Where's your sword, you daft fool? You didn't think to grab it?" she scolded the other Warrior lightly, though she sounded more concerned than anything.

"Sorry that the Echo doesn't come with a handy don't forget your sword! reminder. It was either watch someone get stabbed or act," Poppy shot back, ears flicking against her head with irritation.

Elise sighed and gestured to the Brass Blades behind her who rushed forward to assist Poppy. She looked over at Alisaie again with a somewhat bewildered expression. "Are you alright, my lady? Here, I'll take that." She gestured to the knife as she approached, which Alisaie relinquished to her immediately. The Warrior was almost intimidating in her height, standing a scant few ilms above even Alisaie, but had a gentle air about her.

"I'm fine, thank you," Alisaie replied with a small smile despite the shock that still made her mind reel. Her gaze slid over to the other Warrior who she noticed winced when she stood. "But Poppy..." she trailed off quietly, feeling guilty. She wouldn't have gotten hurt if Alisaie had acted somehow. 

Elise's brows flicked up as if surprised to hear her partner's name, but she smiled and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Oh, she's lived through worse. Don't worry about her," she said, sounding almost amused by her concern.

The Warrior gently ushered her towards the fountain where Alisaie took a seat and watched the two Brass Blades peel Eyvind from the ground. He hung limply between them, offering little resistance, though he did glare at Poppy through the blood on his face. 

"Smuggling poison. Attacking a guest of the Sultana. Assaulting a Warrior of Light twice. What've you got to say for yourself, you Twelvesdamned idiot?" she heard the Miqo'te ask. Eyvind remained silent but managed to spit at the Warrior's feet, to which she scoffed. "Gone silent, eh? Have it your way. Just remember that the jailers at the Pit aren't as kind as me," she said dismissively.

Alisaie saw what looked like a flicker of fear pass over the man's face. The brief conversation she held with her assailant flashed through her mind in an instant and made dark, inky dread pool in her gut. Though the man was in custody, she felt like the situation was far from over.

"He wanted to kill my father and he kept mentioning something about a boss," she blurted out.

Elise paused her inspection of the knife to frown down at Alisaie when she heard her words. "Shite. This is getting serious," she murmured. 

"Alisaie!" 

All activity in the Gold Court halted for a moment. Alisaie looked up to see Alphinaud lean over the railing of the Hustings Strip above them, looking relieved. 

"I found her!" her brother called over his shoulder. 

Her father emerged into view, as did some of the Sultana's other guests and their guards. A look of relief mingled with concern (and perhaps just a pinch of anger) crossed his face when he spotted his daughter. Everyone around him began to murmur nervously when they took in the scene below them. 

"What in the Fury's name is going on here?" Fourchenault called down.

Alisaie winced. The tone of her father's voice was almost as frightening as nearly getting stabbed. 

 


 

As it turned out, nobles were voracious gossips no matter which city they hailed from. When Alisaie ascended back up to the Royal Promenade with the two Warriors in tow, the Sultana's Syndicate guests bombarded them with questions. Their concern was genuine, perhaps, but Alisaie saw the hungry flicker in their eyes that almost looked like delight. It was only at General Aldynn's firm suggestion that they seat themselves in the Fragrant Chamber that they stopped their insistent vying for details.

The Leveilleurs were then left alone on the promenade with the Sultana and her Warriors where Alisaie shakily recounted exactly what had happened. In the tense silence that followed the explanation, Alisaie's father gently placed a hand on her shoulder. He looked at her in a way that spoke his relief more so than anger and she managed to relax a bit beneath his reassuring touch.

"I wish I could say I was more surprised that things took a turn in this direction, but such...attempts are an unfortunately common occurrence in the Holy See," Fourchenault said ruefully, looking almost embarrassed by the situation. 

The Sultana's face softened apologetically at that. "Such things are all too common in Ul'dah as well. I am only surprised that our assassin was so bold as to strike beneath our very noses."

Another brief silence fell over the group that was filled only with the sound of the Warriors' armor softly creaking as they both shifted at the Sultana's sides. Alisaie stole a glance at Poppy, who looked out across the Gold Court with a clouded expression that resembled anger.

"What I struggle with is who might have orchestrated this," Alphinaud said from beside Alisaie. His arms were crossed and he tapped a finger against his arm thoughtfully. "From where do they hail and what have they to gain from souring a diplomatic trip?"

"Regardless of who might be behind this, I believe the wisest course of action would be to cut our trip short and return to Ishgard for the time being," Fourchenault said. "We have clearly earned their ire by leaving the city. Perhaps they can be sated if we return."

The suggestion seemed to suck all the air out of Alphinaud, though he hid his disappointment behind a nod of agreement. Alisaie frowned and tried desperately to recall any other details or clues from what Eyvind had said to her, but only drew a blank. She felt as though she'd just fallen into a complex web of treachery that had no simple solution and the only clear thing was the very real threat it posed to her family. She looked from her brother to the Sultana, who began to tap a finger to her chin. 

"I must admit that I fear for your safety even if you do return home," she said, brow furrowed with concern. "If you do not mind me asking: have you a Warrior of Light in your employ?"

Fourchenault shook his head to answer her question. "We do not. Our previous Warrior unfortunately perished during the war."

"I am sorry to hear that," the Sultana said with a sympathetic smile and paused to consider her next words, "I had a proposal of sorts in mind, then, if you would hear it."

"Of course, Your Grace," Fourchenault said. Alisaie felt Alphinaud perk up beside her as their father nodded.

The Sultana folded her hands neatly before her and, rather boldly, announced her proposal: "As a gesture of goodwill from Ul'dah to Ishgard, I would lend you one of my guard. I cannot bear the thought of your family being in harm's way and I believe the presence of a Warrior of Light would deter further attacks." 

A silent ripple of shock passed through the group. The two Warriors exchanged a look of surprise and Alisaie glanced between her father and brother to see them both stunned as well, while she herself was quietly intrigued. She only wondered which Warrior was being offered, though she tried hard not to have her eyes linger in the direction of Poppy. She quickly decided that fate certainly had an interesting way of working things out.

"That is a most generous suggestion, Your Grace," Fourchenault said with a polite incline of his head, but seemed mildly hesitant. "Are you certain? I would hate for Ul'dah's safety to suffer at the behest of my family." 

The Sultana's smile widened as she nodded. "I am certain. Ul'dah has been blessed with a lengthy time of peace as of late. There have been no primal threats or other great moments of strife that would require both of my shadows to be at my side constantly." She paused and looked up at the woman who stood to her left. "I believe L'arra is the perfect candidate for this situation, given her previous experience in Ishgard during the Dragonsong War."

"Previous experience?" Alphinaud blurted the question out, but caught himself by clearing his throat. "I had no idea we were in the presence of someone who fought in our war," he said, barely concealing the surprise in his tone.

Alisaie was surprised as well. Poppy had vehemently rejected the notion of any ties with Ishgard during their brief encounter and she realized that perhaps she should have dug deeper with her interrogation. The Miqo'te in question almost paled in surprise when all eyes fell on her and took a fraction of a step backwards as if to escape the situation she found herself in. She remained mostly stoic, though her green eyes were wide with panic. Alisaie watched the Warrior and wondered what prompted such a reaction.

"Oh, yes. She fought Nidhogg with the other Holy Knights sent to Ishgard," the Sultana replied proudly and smiled up at the Warrior who looked like she'd rather be anywhere else at that moment.

The Miqo'te cleared her throat quietly and avoided her guests' looks of surprise. "Your Grace, if I may," she addressed the Sultana who nodded at her inquiry and so she continued, "Is it wise to send one of the Sultansworn away and leave the city—and yourself—vulnerable? Why not have one of the Syndicate's Warriors go? Lolorito's Fortescue, for example." The almost overly cheerful way she suggested it seemed to be the reason why Elise had to stifle a snort into her palm. Poppy flashed her counterpart a sharp look.

"You are not chained to my side as a Sultansworn, my dear Warrior. Is it not your duty to represent Ul'dah beyond our borders as well as within them?"

Though it was a gentle reprimand, if it was one at all, Poppy still wilted a bit upon hearing it. The Miqo'te's ears flicked to the side as she nodded and she looked down at her lady almost sheepishly. The Sultana patted her leg as if to reassure her when she saw the Warrior's dejected face.

"I understand your concerns and they are not wholly unfounded. However, I do think Elise can handle things in your absence," she said and glanced at the Hyuran Warrior who nodded in agreement, though she did cast an anxious look in her partner's direction. "This would be a temporary arrangement, of course. I would ask you to stay with the Leveilleurs for only a moon or so. However, the final decision will be yours. I will not force your hand."

All eyes fell on the Warrior again. She hid her previous emotion beneath a stoic mask as she considered the expectant family who stood before her. When Poppy met her gaze for a brief, lingering moment, Alisaie felt flames flicker over her skin just as she had before. The Warrior closed her eyes and exhaled a soft sigh of defeat. 

"If Her Grace wills it, then it shall be done. House Leveilleur will have my blade," she spoke, words tight with strained politeness, and opened her eyes to reveal a gaze sharp enough to cut through flesh. "For a moon, and not a sun more."

If Alisaie's father was affected by the pointed look, he didn't show it. "I thank you, Warrior of Light," Fourchenault said and bent into a deep bow. "Not only for your service, but also for saving my daughter's life. It will be an honor to host a knight as formidable as thee." 

The Warrior crossed her arms and gave a curt nod in reply, tail flicking behind her almost dismissively while the Sultana smiled at the group and clasped her arms before her in a way that gave the moment a certain sense of finality. 

"Then it is settled. I will have to contact the Holy Knights and inform them of our arrangement, but I doubt they will protest," she said and gestured towards the doors behind them. "Let us speak more of it over dinner. Master Leveilleur brought up some excellent questions earlier that I wished to address as well." 

Alphinaud straightened to attention beside her and, despite everything, Alisaie couldn't help but shoot him a smug look. She certainly had a lot to bring up about being tactful the next time they spoke of it. 

As the Sultana ushered the Leveilleurs towards the Fragrant Chamber, Alisaie noticed how Elise had approached Poppy. The two Warriors were huddled in a whispered conversation and the taller placed a hand on her counterpart's shoulder as if to reassure her. The Miqo'te smiled weakly and nodded to whatever it was she said and then allowed her partner to follow after the Sultana, while she stayed behind and looked towards the Gold Court. Alisaie slowed her pace and watched as the Warrior slipped away from the group. She glanced over her shoulder to see everyone else enter the Fragrant Chamber, knowing full well she would earn a scolding for wandering away again. However, she reasoned that there was no danger if she was near a Warrior. That thought and her insatiable curiosity were enough to convince Alisaie to follow Poppy. 

After a few steps down the Royal Promenade, she soon found the Warrior leaning against the railing above the court. Her ears perked up as Alisaie approached from behind and she froze when Poppy flashed an incredulous look over her shoulder. 

"You sure do like sneaking away when you're not supposed to, hm?" The Warrior seemed to try to scold her, but the barest hint of a smile still pulled at her lips.

"I've simply followed the dutiful knight who has also snuck away," Alisaie retorted. "I wished to ask if you were doing well after the attack. You had mentioned poison," she added, feeling sheepish and guilty again when she remembered the knife that struck the Warrior's leg.

"That idiot hadn't thought that far ahead, luckily. Not that a bit of poison could do a Warrior of Light in, but I appreciate the concern."

Alisaie's hesitation died when she saw Poppy smirk and tilt her head to invite her closer. Relieved that her savior was well, she stepped forward to stand beside the other woman and gazed out across the Gold Court where less than a bell ago, she could have lost her life. The thought made icy dread rise within her again, but she pushed the feeling down to instead steal a glance at the Warrior. She looked rather sullen and her gaze was distant as if deep in thought. Neither of them said anything for a long while.

"You saved my life earlier. I also wanted to thank you for that," Alisaie said quietly as she stared down at the fountain below. The water churned silently, distorting the reflection of the night sky that was painted across its surface. 

"I did what any knight would do," Poppy replied absently, gaze still unwavering from whatever unseeable thing she was looking at in the distance. "Just try to stay out of trouble from now on, yeah? Unless you plan on making my job harder than it has to be," she added and flicked her sharp eyes towards Alisaie unexpectedly with a small, wry smile.

"You don't seem too keen on this whole arrangement," Alisaie observed, only shrinking slightly beneath that gaze. She noted the way the Warrior's brow furrowed a touch.

"Frankly, I'm not too keen on going back to Ishgard, no."

"And why is that?" Alisaie asked, unable to hold back her curiosity.

Poppy considered her question for a moment. An unreadable emotion flitted across her face before she hid it beneath a pout. "Well, it's bloody cold, for one," she muttered.

Alisaie couldn't help but chuckle at that. "Is that all? Do be sure to pack warm clothes. It wouldn't do for a Warrior of Light to succumb to something so mundane as the weather," she teased.

The Warrior sighed and pushed herself away from the railing. She turned to face her, looking her up and down with an unimpressed expression that made Alisaie absently notice that the fulms between them had grown in the past year. Poppy tilted her head, which made the bits of gold on her turban shimmer from the dim light of torches lit around them and illuminated the yellow poppy was still sat near her ear, happy and bright as a tiny beam of sunlight.

"Well, I did promise you lessons for finding me here. I suppose you'll get your tutor after all," she said, but not before extending a hand to Alisaie as if to shake on it. "I'm yours now. Use me as you see fit, my lady."

The Warrior looked up at her through thick lashes that softened her gaze to an almost coy look. The way she said yours made Alisaie feel like her pulse had quickened, but she shrugged the sensation off. She almost quailed a bit from sheer intimidation at having someone with such accolades be her tutor, but a small smirk curled her lips nonetheless and she outstretched her hand towards Poppy's.

"I'm no fool to think I have any true ownership of you," she replied, words quiet but pointed.

The Warrior smiled that coeurlish smile with tiny fangs poking out over her full lips just so. "Smart girl," she said and it sounded almost like a purr with how amusement tinged her words. She took Alisaie's hand in her own. "But I'm still yours as any other knight would be. And so, I look forward to serving you."

Poppy bent into an unexpected bow that was as dramatic as the rest and very gently pressed a kiss to the back of Alisaie's hand, who couldn't ignore her quickened pulse that time. Warmth bloomed across her face despite herself when the Miqo'te's breath ghosted across her skin like an invisible flame.

"Is that a lie?" Alisaie asked, incredulous as she remembered suddenly and very vividly how she'd been lied to before at her party when the other woman lead her to dance after saying she didn't know how. The thought was a good distraction away from her thundering heartbeat.

"I guess we'll find out, won't we?" Poppy replied, grin growing ever wider.

She stood from her bow, but held Alisaie's hand between them for a fraction of a second longer than expected. Before Alisaie could say more, the doors to the Fragrant Chamber creaked open and she looked over to see her brother's head poke out.

"Alisaie," he hissed and flashed her a look that seemed to say get in here before our father notices you're gone again and eviscerates both of us.

The Warrior stifled a chuckle at the sight. "Go on, then," she said and looked back up to give her a warm smile. "Wouldn't want you to get in trouble."

Alisaie returned the smile and began to walk away, but paused to look back over her shoulder. "Farewell for now, Ser Poppy."

Poppy wrinkled her nose at the title. "You Ishgardians and your formalities. Poppy alone will do just fine," she said, sounding almost petulant. She crossed her arms and leaned back against the railing, practically sneering as she waved Alisaie away. "Farewell, my lady."

Alisaie felt the warmth return to her face when the Warrior winked at her. She truly was a shameless flirt and Alisaie wasn't sure how she felt about that. Regardless, she turned away from the other woman with a sigh, unable to ignore the excitement she felt for the near future even despite the whole assassination affair. She had hoped to snag Poppy as a temporary tutor at least, but hadn't expected to rob Ul'dah of the sun that lit its skies.

A small drawing of a lotus flower with many layers of pink petals.

lotus flower : purity, devotion

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a white snowdrop flower dangling from a thin green stem.

It was "late spring" in Coerthas, as the locals called it. By whose standards, Poppy didn't know—certainly not the rest of Eorzea's. Snow still covered the land in a thick blanket that wouldn't fully recede even when the meager warmth of summer arrived. The cold seeped past the joints of her armor to bite into her like little thorns that just made her all the more miserable in their insistence. Spring indeed. The only true evidence of the season she saw were clusters of small white flowers that poked through the snow on the edge of the path her mount trotted on.

They were snowdrops, which she realized when she finally noticed the hearty little things that blended in almost completely with the white around them. Normally, the sight of flowers—especially ones that brought with them the promise of coming warmth—would've been enough to cheer any fool plodding through the snow, but Poppy couldn't help the grimace that crossed her face. A distant memory floated through her mind of an Ishgardian knight she once knew who always frowned and muttered a prayer when he passed by snowdrops. When Poppy eventually asked him about the habit she learned that while to others in Eorzea the flowers represented hope, in Ishgard they were symbols of death. They were said to bloom in droves across battlefields where they were drawn in by the displaced snow and the warmth of blood that thawed the frozen land. 

"Bunch of melodramatic shite," she muttered to herself, but couldn't shake the feeling of unease that came with the thought. Seeing a whole bunch of supposedly unlucky flowers wasn't exactly a good omen for her journey. Her mount shifted beneath her at the sound of her voice and chirped quietly in a way that sounded almost like a question.

"Don't mind me. Just complaining." Poppy reached out and patted the downy black feathers on the bird's neck to reassure him, to which he warbled happily in reply. "Really though, you're too cheerful for such nasty weather," she said as if to scold him, but still found herself smile at the little hop in her borrowed mount's steps and how he chirped again, even happier than before.

The snowy landscape must have been paradise for him, she realized, whereas for her own bird it likely would have been hellish. The stocky black chocobos of Coerthas were built for traipsing through harsh snowy paths, unlike her delicate little Thanalan breed who was more suited to flit across the sand and hated the cold as much as she did.

Thoughts of home brought a frown back to Poppy's lips. The distance between her and Ul'dah seemed to make the cold more harsh and she tugged the cloak draped around her shoulders closer, though it offered little relief. Her armor creaked quietly around her body at the movement, gleaming silvery-white in the daylight reflected against it by the snow. It made her feel almost clumsy in its rigidity. She sorely missed her Sultansworn set (and likely would have worn it if Elise hadn't insisted that she not die of frostbite), but knew it would do her little good in Ishgard.

It was odd how the armor she used to wear so often managed to become so stiff. She'd broken it in long ago thanks to countless battles against primals and men alike, but it still bit at her skin despite the protective layers she wore underneath. She thought for a moment that perhaps she'd grown since she donned the armor last, but somehow knew that wasn't the case. It was more likely that the mantle of Holy Knight was what felt so out of place. The title sat on her shoulders, heavy and cold as the plates of metal that rested there. 

She suppressed the urge to sigh and instead shifted her gaze up to the clouded sky, but found little solace there. Above her was a colorless void that stretched out into the distance like a sheet pulled taut over a bed and blended into the snowy horizon, surrounding her on all sides with uncaring walls of white. She really should have paid more attention to the road ahead of her, but the weather and the lingering thoughts of snowdrops made her so damn gloomy. It made sense that Ishgardians were such a dreary folk if they had to deal with the cold on a daily basis. Despite her best efforts, a quiet groan of dismay still slipped past Poppy's lips.

She was jostled forward in the saddle when the chocobo slowed his pace to a leisurely stroll. Startled, she almost complained aloud to the bird again but looked down in time to see that they approached the gate that blocked the way to the infamous Steps of Faith. Poppy gritted her teeth at the sight. As soon as her mount set foot on the stones that lead to the gate, the two Elezen guards on duty straightened into attention. Past the visors of their frost-covered helms, Poppy saw frowns that carved gaunt lines into their pale skin. Unfortunately for her, the weren't the friendliest looking fellows.

"Halt," the guard on the left called out as the chocobo brought her closer. "What business have you here, traveler?"

Poppy squinted down at the man, enjoying the boost of height the bird gave her. "This traveler is a Warrior of Light come to fulfill her duties," she replied and made sure to match his curt tone. "Just let me through and I'll be on my way. Wouldn't want to waste your time." 

The men exchanged a look that suggested they wouldn't be so compliant. "We'll have to see some papers before we do that. We can't just let through everyone who claims to be a Warrior of Light," the guard on the right said, not doing much to hide the suspicion in his words.

The sigh Poppy held in earlier finally escaped her, but did little to relieve the mounting agitation that prickled her mood. "I'm a royal guard sworn to Sultana Nanamo Ul Namo of Ul'dah and I've been sent to temporarily serve the noble house Leveilleur. Any paperwork on the matter is likely with them," she said. The words came out clipped and tight as her patience wore ever thinner. She didn't recall anyone mention the need for bloody papers to enter the city.

"Is that so? Well, you'll have to wait while we confirm that." The guard on the left spoke up again, sounding almost amused through his disbelief. He paused and smiled a tiny (and quite patronizing) smile before he continued, "Take no offense, miss, but you don't quite look the part."

It took every onze of self control Poppy had to not roll her eyes. All she wanted, truly, was to get into the damned city and find a way out of the cold, and the two dolts before her were making that unnecessarily difficult. She somehow knew that she'd be halfway across the bridge already if she were an Elezen and the thought made her ears flick back in annoyance. Her mount shifted beneath her anxiously at the mounting tension of the situation.

"Oh, is the armor not obvious enough? Sorry that I'm a bit shorter than your average Warrior," Poppy snapped at the guards not too kindly. Before either of them could argue, she urged the bird to turn around with a tug at the reins. With her back facing the men, she reached behind her and unfurled her cloak so they could get a good long look at it. The pair of swords embroidered in silver thread on the white wool were crossed over a pale blue crystal and she knew the crest would be recognizable to anyone in Eorzea—even a stubborn Ishgardian. "Is this proof enough, or do you intend to bar a Holy Knight entry?"

The tense silence that followed the question was punctuated by the shrill sound of icy wind whipping through the battlements above them. Poppy glared at the two men over her shoulder as she awaited their reply. The guard on the right, who thankfully had more sense than his partner, nodded to the other man.

"Let her through," he said quietly and perhaps a bit begrudgingly, but Poppy pretended not to hear the annoyance in his tone.

The other guard complied after a moment of hesitation and turned away to tug at the crank that slowly began to lift the gate. Poppy flashed them both a self-satisfied smile and slid off her mount. She unclipped her small traveling pack from the saddle and slung it over her shoulder before she gave the bird's flank a hearty pat in thanks. 

"Back to Dragonhead with you, sweetling. Make sure to pester your master for extra chysahl, you hear?" She whispered up to the chocobo and winked at him.

When she let go of the reins, the bird blinked down at her and let out a happy little chirp in reply. He fluffed his feathers out and moved to trot away, disappearing down the snowy path like a black speck of soot on a sea of white smoke.

Poppy turned back to the two guards who stared at her with impassive expressions written across their faces. Without another word and before they could change their minds, she strode past them through the raised gate with her head held high. She couldn't help but smirk. Luckily for her, Ishgardians always quailed at the word holy.

She only paused when she emerged onto the Steps of Faith. The bridge that stretched before her was made of icy stones that looked not unlike shimmering grey scales with a harsh wind that carried rivulets of loose snowflakes across them. She looked up to see Ishgard tower high above her with its massive spires of stone and steel and glass that reflected the meager light of midday like the blinking eyes of a massive beast. It all gave her the impression of a living cage that would soon swallow her whole.

"Just a moon," she reminded herself when she took her first step towards it.

 


 

Poppy wasn't sure why, but she'd half-expected assassins to pop out of every dark alley she passed on the way to the manor. Perhaps it was the lingering unease left by the snowdrops or perhaps it was just some twisted form of wishful thinking. After all, she could just return home if she took care of all who threatened her new charges' safety. Alas, the streets were filled only with nobles and their attendants who all only barely concealed their gawping and whispers when she passed groups of them by. She really would have preferred assassins. 

Nonetheless, she was ushered by two Leveilleur house knights from the aetheryte plaza where they'd awaited her arrival to the manor that sat near the airship landing in the Pillars. It wasn't nearly as massive as those belonging to the four High Houses, but it was no less pretty with its arching roof and ornate brickwork and tall hedges painted purple by countless violets. 

She was lead to the house barracks that sat on the right side of the courtyard behind the manor. It was a small building that was neatly organized and well taken care of by the group of ten or so knights pledged to the Leveilleurs. It was also pleasantly warm, which Poppy very much appreciated. She inched closer to the hearth in the corner of the common area when she was briefly left alone by the two knights who had fetched her. 

The taller knight returned first from the storeroom with a large shield in hand. She was a stoic Elezen woman with chestnut colored hair pulled back into a neat bun who had introduced herself as Ser Griselle. The shorter knight, who was known as Ser Oliver, was close on her heels. He was a cheerful Hyuran fellow with red hair that poked out from beneath his helm. In some odd way, he almost reminded Poppy of her chocobo porter from earlier when he flashed her a friendly smile.

Ser Griselle tried to hand her the shield, but Poppy simply stared at it for a moment. "I've got my own, thanks," she said and looked up at the unfazed knight with a raised brow.

"I highly suggest you use it, lest a wary Temple Knight takes you for a wandering bandit on the streets," Ser Griselle deadpanned.

Poppy's ears shifted back a fraction in offense. "And what is that supposed to—"

"Ah, all knights in Ishgard wear a shield with their house's crest on them," Ser Oliver explained, cutting in before the conversation could escalate. "It identifies us easily and grants us the right to wear our weapons in public. Think of it as...a permit of sorts!" He smiled at her, though his brows were still drawn together with worry. 

Poppy responded with a grunt, tail flicking behind her with mild annoyance. He really was far too cheerful, just like the chocobo. "You Ishgardians and your silly policies," she muttered, but begrudgingly took the shield from Ser Griselle, who still looked unfazed by the conversation. First papers, then permits. Ishgard really was starting to change.

The kite shield she held was far bulkier than her own smaller buckler and would prove difficult to move quickly with, though she hoped things wouldn't come to that. It was at least pretty and she noted how it matched her armor with its polished silver surface that was embellished with a floral border and what she assumed was House Leveilleur's crest painted on it. Poppy unhooked her own shield from her back with a sigh and placed it in Ser Griselle's still open palms. The tall knight blinked down at it as if confused. 

"So, which room's mine?" Poppy asked and peered down the narrow hall that stretched behind the pair of knights.

Ser Griselle shook her head as she handed the shield to Ser Oliver, who hastily accepted it and shuffled back to the storeroom to place it in safekeeping. "Lord Leveilleur insisted that you stay in the manor."

Poppy frowned at that. "I really don't need special treatment," she said. 

Ser Griselle simply shook her head again. "You're a Holy Knight. You deserve no less." Poppy would have thought the reply to be sarcasm had it not been for the hint of reverence she caught in the knight's voice. When Ser Oliver returned, Ser Griselle gestured towards the door. "If you'll follow us, we shall take you to the manor. Our lord awaits your arrival."

The pair of knights were soon out the door. Poppy sighed, realizing she had no choice but to follow them back into the cold. She winced when frozen wind hit her and instantly managed to claw its way beneath the plates of her armor. She was lead wordlessly across the courtyard and past a small glass structure that caught her interest despite how distracted she was by how sorely she missed the hearth. She assumed it was a garden of some sort, but was disappointed to see no plants when she glanced inside. She cast a wary glance over at the hedge bursting with violets and wondered how in the Seven Hells those flowers managed to stay alive.

She followed the knights up familiar stone steps and across the balcony to the glass doors that lead to the manor's grand hall. She almost didn't recognize it without all the violets and heavy floral perfume. It was no less pretty with a white tiled floor, marble pillars, and violet-colored walls that held up the lofty ceiling. Poppy decided she liked it better without the throngs of stuffy nobles crowding it, though. 

Ser Griselle paused at the center of the hall and turned around. "I shall fetch Lord Leveilleur," she said.

The sound of her armored boots tapping against the tile echoed after her as she exited the hall, leaving Poppy with the other knight. A somewhat awkward silence passed between them before Ser Oliver cleared his throat. 

"Ser L'arra—"

"Poppy," she corrected instantly, wrinkling her nose a bit at how he said her name.

"Ah, forgive me. Ser Poppy..." he trailed off nervously when she raised a brow at him. He insisted on the title, but at least he pronounced that name correctly. The knight shifted in place as if considering his next words with great care. "I don't mean to pry but...is it true? Did you really help slay Nidhogg?" He practically whispered the question, which did little good as the words echoed around the empty hall. He looked like a wide-eyed and hopeful child during Starlight and Poppy couldn't help but chuckle at the sight. 

"Aye. It's true," she confirmed with a smirk, but felt a bit wary at broaching the topic. It seemed her reputation (or the Holy Knights' at least) had preceded her.

"That's incredible! I should have expected no less." Ser Oliver smiled at her with a spark of admiration in his eyes. "Ah, if I may...I'm only recently knighted, you see, so I was wondering...would you happen to have any advice for someone like me?"

Poppy placed a hand on her hip and looked the young knight up and down. She had figured he was green. "Aside from don't die—not really."

"Oh, ah, of course. I suppose being dead helps no one." He chuckled lightly, but looked a bit crestfallen from the brusque reply.

Poppy observed him for a moment and sighed, feeling bad for brushing him off. She could tell he was an earnest fellow and that quality was all too rare in those days, so spoke up again to add quietly, "Keep up that cheery attitude while you're at it. It does wonders for morale." 

Ser Oliver brightened a bit at that. "That much I can do."

Poppy realized the smile he flashed really was quite infectious when she found herself return it. Her ear then swiveled towards the distinct clack of metal on tile, signaling the return of Ser Griselle. Lord Leveilleur followed closely behind with—to her surprise—both twins at his heel. The family filtered into the hall to stand before Poppy and the two knights moved beside her where they both bowed. 

"We shall take our leave, my lord," Ser Griselle said. 

The lord inclined his head politely to her and Ser Oliver who both went to return to their duties, and she was left alone with the family in the echoing silence of the hall. The lord of the house turned his discerning gaze to her, which was intimidating even to Poppy. Fourchenault Leveilleur was a stern looking man with steely blue eyes and pure white hair tied back in a short braid—features that both his children shared, but he wore them with a more refined and cool dignity. 

"Ser L'arra," he said and she was surprised to see the barest hint of a smile pull at his lips. "'Tis good to see you. I pray your journey here was a smooth one?" 

Poppy winced at hearing her name mispronounced again, but didn't bother to correct him. Ishgardians really didn't do well with the harshness of Miqo'te r's, it seemed. "Smooth as silk, my lord," she replied with forced cheerfulness and a bow. She also decided not to mention her warm reception at the gates. "I followed after you as quick as I could once our arrangement was settled. I assume you haven't run into any trouble in the last few suns?" 

Lord Leveilleur shook his head, looking relieved. "None to speak of. With any luck, this assassination business was a one time occurrence. Still, I must thank you again for agreeing to the Sultana's request. Words cannot express my gratitude." He bent into a brief and polite bow which his children mirrored in turn.

Poppy shifted a bit uncomfortably at all the formality. "Hope you don't mind me rushing through the pleasantries, my lord, but I've got to ask: what exactly do you expect from me during my time here?" 

The lord nodded, seeming unfazed by her candor. "Truth be told, I am most worried for my children in this situation," he replied and paused to glance over at Alisaie in particular, who shrank a bit guiltily beneath her father's gaze. A hint of worry seeped through his stoic mask and wrinkled his brow. "I would have you accompany them on their endeavors outside the manor. I beseech you to be their shadow as you are the Sultana's. Keep them safe."

Poppy could tell his concern was genuine and nodded to reassure him. "No one will lay a finger on them while I'm around. You have my word."

She looked over at the twins who both observed her with varying shades of curiosity when she spoke. Alphinaud was more open with a friendly smile that bespoke the rapt interest written across his face. He was likely scheming—as most young politicians did—on how to leverage his new connection to a Holy Knight. Poppy remembered vividly how he'd trapped her in a conversation about politics during his party. About what, she didn't quite remember as she hadn't exactly paid attention.

She looked to his sister who was more guarded like their father, though Poppy watched as her eyes traced the outlines of her armor. The silver plates were simple in their design and thus didn't warrant such close inspection, but she supposed they were rather elegant in their polished austerity (and always popular with women, as she noted). It seemed the uncomfortable set was still good for something after all. When she met Alisaie's gaze and flashed her a smirk, the other woman hastily looked away as if embarrassed to be caught staring. Poppy was silently delighted by the effect she had on her, but turned her attention back to the lord of the house.

"Aside from that, I would have you loudly announce your presence to Ishgard. If the situation progresses as the Sultana predicted, then whoever is behind this nonsense will cease their plotting when they hear that a formidable Warrior has been charged with the protection of our house." 

Poppy considered his words with a thoughtful flick of her tail. "Loud, eh? Well, I s'pose you're lucky to be saddled with me, then. There are few knights louder."

She grinned at the lord who looked almost bewildered, if not a bit distressed, by her reply. He cleared his throat before he spoke again. "That is all I would ask of you. Though if you have the time and are so inclined, my daughter Alisaie is wanting for a tutor in swordsmanship, as the Temple Knight trials fast approach." 

The mentioned woman shifted beside her father and finally looked back at Poppy to offer her a cautious smile. "It would be an honor," she said.

Poppy noticed how Alisaie's brows drew together, almost as if worried that she might go back on her word. "I've no qualms with that. It would be my pleasure," she said and flashed a knowing smile back at the other woman.

Lord Leveilleur nodded, looking content. "Well, I am sure you must be weary from your travels. Pray take some time to rest—our maid will show you to the room we have prepared for your stay." As if on cue, a pretty Elezen woman who wore a pinafore entered the hall and curtseyed to the lord. "I believe all is settled for the time being. On behalf of House Leveilleur, I welcome you to Ishgard."

Poppy felt the weight of their expectant stares sit heavily upon her shoulders—a sensation nearly as heavy as the new shield strapped to her back. The reality of the situation fell in place around her like snow. It was going to be a long moon.

 


 

The maid led Poppy down a long corridor and left her alone in a guestroom large enough to make her feel small in it. The decor inside wasn't highly ornate, however, which was both a relief and a surprise given how nobles so often loved to flaunt their wealth. It was still rather pretty with pieces of furniture carved out of dark wood laid out around the space. Various shades of violet were carried in from the rest of the manor and spilled onto the bedspread and the flowers woven into the rug and the curtains that framed the tall windows. It was a nice room to be sure, but it still left her feeling cold even despite the fireplace that crackled quietly against the wall. She was stiff and out of place, just like the plates of metal that wrapped around her like a constricting cage. Poppy sighed and prowled over to the very plush-looking bed to begin the arduous process of removing her armor.

She shrugged off her traveling pack and plopped it at the foot of the bed beside the trunk of things she sent ahead of herself a few suns prior. A glance inside confirmed that the clothing and other odds and ends had survived the trip. Her sword was unclipped and placed on top of the trunk while her new shield was propped up against it. She unfastened the cloak from around her shoulders and threw it onto the bed where it landed on the violet-colored sheets like a blanket of snow. The Holy Knight crest stared back up at her almost accusingly. She frowned at it and turned away, heading towards the window as she tugged at the gauntlets that covered her hands, but solemn thoughts had already taken root and crept through her mind like vines.

It was often said that Warriors of Light existed since before even the very first Calamity. Not wanting to leave her children wholly defenseless, the Mother Crystal blessed a chosen few deemed worthy with her Light and charged them with the protection of the others who roamed her star. They were gifted with the power to peer into the past and view old transgressions so that when they caught glimpses of the future, they could prevent the very same mistakes from repeating themselves. Thinking their strength would better serve the world as one, the Holy Knights of Hydaelyn united under the Mother Crystal's name some time after the Allagans fell. To that day, the group continued to seek out Warriors of Light, trained them, and stationed them across the realm their lives were devoted to.

It was a pretty story—one that Poppy was tired of hearing prattled to her by others of her order. They were always so quick to remind her of her duties, especially when she expressed annoyance at having to adhere to their ridiculous standards.

Poppy sighed again. Her breath joined the fog already painted across the window and further obscured her view. She lifted the hand freed from its gauntleted prison and dragged it across the glass to reveal the sight of the courtyard below where she noticed a thin sheet of snow had fallen. Meager beams of light pushed through the thick clouds overhead, faintly tinting everything with the rays of an already setting sun. Her eyes unfocused for a moment and she caught her own reflection stare back at her with a sullen look, which made her turn away from the window with a huff. She went back to the bed where she threw the gauntlet onto her cloak with more force than necessary before going about removing the other one. Despite her best efforts to shove them away, the words of the Holy Knights' missive echoed in her mind:

Some time in the Holy See will be a good lesson in propriety, were the exact words. Face the choices you have made with dignity, they had written, and remind yourself how a knight should act

Poppy scoffed at the absurdity of it all. It was bad enough when they forced her to attend the party (no thanks to that Alphinaud fellow with his damned invitation). It was truly a bitter irony that she ended up in service of that very same family. How elated her superiors must have been to hear the Sultana's proposal. The thought made her blood boil nearly hot enough to chase away the lingering cold that clung to her, but her order's callousness stung like ice in its cruelty. They could take their bloody propriety and shove it.

Poppy paused after she tossed the second gauntlet onto the bed. She looked down at her bare hands, eyes tracing the faint scars that cut across her fingers. A distant, quiet thought nagged her that perhaps it was time to face the frozen ghosts she so desperately tried to bury. However, a knock at the door pulled her from her dreary musing.

"It's open," she called out.

When Poppy turned to see who had come to pester her, she was surprised to find that the daughter of the house opened the door. Alisaie offered her a polite smile, but hovered in the hallway with her hand on the doorknob as if unsure.

"Pray forgive the intrusion," she said. "I've brought a few things for you, if you'd like to see them."

Poppy's ears twitched forward with curiosity. "Let's see what you've got," she said and motioned for the other woman to come in. 

Looking relieved, Alisaie closed the door behind her and stepped towards the table that stood at the center of the room. Poppy noticed the bundle of purple fabric draped over her arm, but was more surprised to see the bouquet of flowers she held in her other hand.

"Yellow poppies?" the knight asked, trying to restrain her surprise and delight, but a smile still quirked her lips. 

"I thought you might feel homesick, so..." Alisaie trailed off and shrugged.

The bright flowers smiled at her from across the room and seemed to instantly bring new warmth to the space. Ul'dah felt just a hair closer and Poppy was touched by the sentiment, nearly rendered speechless for a moment. Her attention shifted to Alisaie's hands as she arranged the poppies in an empty vase. Her eyes trailed upwards and she caught herself admiring the way the thin beams of light that filtered in through the window fell across the other woman, illuminating her aristocratic profile. The waning sunlight drew dusty orange lines around her upturned nose, her elegantly long ears, and rosy lips that were pulled into a almost permanent pout. Poppy smiled to herself and leaned back against the frame of the bed, very much enjoying the view.

"How'd you manage to find those here anyway? They're pretty fragile," she asked, genuinely curious.

"Our florists have their tricks," Alisaie replied with a wry little smile. "They've been imbued with a bit of magic that makes them impervious to the cold."

"Like the hedges outside," Poppy said, thinking of all the violets that surrounded the manor. When Alisaie nodded in agreement, she grinned. "You Ishgardians sure are a stubborn bunch."

Alisaie lifted her gaze to look at Poppy and her smile turned into more of a smirk. "One must adapt to change if they wish to survive," she said.

Poppy gave a thoughtful hum at that. She continued to admire the other woman even when she finished tending the flowers, not bothering to be subtle. She followed the enticing line of her neck to the neat braid that hung over her shoulder that was as white as the snow that fell from the sky, and she peered at Poppy through a side swept fringe that nearly hid her icy blue eyes. Truly a product of her environment, yet somehow not nearly as cold as her features. A fire flickered beneath that frozen veneer—one that she found herself inexplicably drawn to. 

Like a moth to a flame, Poppy thought to herself and felt quite clever.

Alisaie caught her prolonged stare in the silence that stretched between them and looked down to fiddle with the bundle of fabric she still held, seeming embarrassed. "I've also brought for you a cloak in our house's colors. I hemmed this one, so hopefully it should fit."

"My, my. You're spoiling me rotten," Poppy said and grinned at the other woman, who looked no less embarrassed by her words. She pushed away from the bed and stepped closer to the table to accept the cloak. When she held it up, she saw that it had the same crest as the shield embroidered onto it: an open white tome with a quill and a blade crossed over it. "The pen is mightier than the sword," she mused aloud when she noticed that the sword was placed in the background. An apt symbol for a house of politicians. She glanced at Alisaie to see her grimace briefly. "The odds really are stacked against you, hm?" 

A light scoff escaped past Alisaie's lips. She pulled a chair out and invited herself to take a seat at the table, folding her hands neatly in her lap as she did so. "And now you see why the prospect of your tutelage is so invaluable to me," she said and paused to look at Poppy with a glint of hopeful determination in her eyes. "After all, I can't possibly fail with a Warrior of Light here to guide me."

"You sure are putting a lot of faith in me," Poppy said and couldn't help but smile. She draped the cloak over the back of the other chair and moved around the table so she stood before Alisaie, a bit closer than what would be considered polite. "I hope you don't end up regretting this."

Alisaie looked up at Poppy from her seat with a raised brow and surprisingly held her ground despite the diminished space between them. "And why, pray tell, would I?"

As she hopped up and sat right before Alisaie, the plates of Poppy's armor clacked noisily against the wood. She tilted her head to consider the question and barred her fangs through a sneer. "Training with me will be tough," she replied and paused to let her tail curl around her and fall over the edge of the table so it brushed against the other woman's knee below her. "I hope you have what it takes to keep up. I'm not going to go easy on you just because you're a pretty little noble."

In a fit of boldness, she leaned forward and reached out to gently trace the outline of Alisaie's jaw with a sharpened nail. Not breaking eye contact, she moved a finger beneath the other woman's chin and tilted it up, relishing in how her breath hitched. She really was quite beautiful, even with surprise written across her face. Poppy drank in her features from the new vantage point, noting her snowy eyelashes and how the down-turned corners of her eyes softened her gaze. That gaze didn't stay soft for long. Alisaie reached up with impressive speed to grab Poppy's wrist and pulled her hand away from her face. 

"Worry not for me, knight. I am not so delicate nor am I a green squire. I simply wish to hone the skills I already possess." The whispered words were as sharp as her glare and made Poppy's pulse quicken in their ferocity. "Noble birth aside, I am no stranger to challenge. I intend to fully take advantage of my short time with you and I pray you do not soften your hand with me," she added and the last bit sounded more like an order than anything.

"As you wish, my lady," Poppy breathed out, a bit stunned by the reaction. It seemed she'd found her boundaries and barged right past them. She supposed it served her right.

Alisaie watched her for a while before her grip on her wrist loosened. She considered Poppy's hand for a moment and her anger seemed to fizzle a bit. "Your hand is cold," she said quietly and moved to press it between both of her own. "Did I not tell you to pack warm clothes?"

Poppy stared down at her hand as she was scolded, which looked so small compared to Alisaie's long, pale fingers. She felt callouses brush against her own that reminded her of the truth of the other woman's words. She was truly no fledgling swordswoman. "Forgive me, my lady," she said, words sincere. "I'm but a forgetful fool." When she glanced up and saw how Alisaie smirked and looked at her from beneath her snowy lashes, the tension of the situation diffused. The faint dusting of pink across the Elezen's cheeks further betrayed her.

Alisaie let go of Poppy's hand when she deemed it sufficiently warmed and the knight retracted it back to her lap, still a bit dazed at how the situation had turned on her. She watched as the other woman pushed back her chair and stood. At her full height, she was nearly two fulms taller than her and peered down at Poppy in a way that was almost as intimidating as her father.

"If you've no qualms, I'd like to begin training as soon as possible. Tomorrow morning, perhaps?"

Poppy nodded in reply. "No qualms here," she said and, regaining her wit, grinned up at the Elezen. "Unless, of course, some horrible assassin comes to stab us all in the night."

Alisaie simply shook her head at the jest. For a moment Poppy worried it was made in poor taste, but relaxed when she heard the other woman chuckle. "I hope one does not. That would reflect rather poorly on you, after all." She turned away to make her way across the room, but paused when she reached the door and looked over her shoulder to flash her a wry smile. "Rest well, Ser Poppy. I shall see you in the morning."

"You certainly shall," Poppy called after her, smiling despite the title she'd so vehemently argued against.

With that, the door closed and Poppy was left alone once again. She leaned back on the table, delighted by the game of coeurl and mouse (or coeurl and coeurl, as it seemed) she found herself caught in. Her mood sobered a bit when thoughts of snowdrops passed through her mind again, but a glance over at the vase of bright yellow poppies managed to chase some of the unease away. Perhaps the next moon spent in the frozen graveyard of a city wouldn't be as cold as she imagined.

A small drawing of a white snowdrop flower dangling from a thin green stem.

snowdrop : hope, rebirth, death (in ishgard)

 

end of ACT I
and so the violet has picked a rose blessed by the light

Chapter Text

 ACT II: for whom the rose smiles

A small drawing of a snapdragon flower with bright red petals that fade to yellow in the center.

A sword was such a fascinating thing. When wielded correctly it became an extension of its owner's body, almost weightless during the dance of battle even in all its heft. With flesh rended and foes felled in the name of justice or passion or ill will, a sword was also an extension of its owner's convictions. They spoke their own language of sharpness and steel—a tongue foreign and not so simple to master, but one that Alisaie was well acquainted with all the same.

"Again. Slower this time."

Not so well acquainted to be considered fluent, as she'd quickly learned. The knight's voice pierced through the chill morning air, not unlike a blade in it's own right. Her eyes mirrored the sharpness of her tone and left nowhere to hide beneath their discerning gaze.

Alisaie took a step forward to repeat the cut with the slowness asked of her, taking care to mind the frost that still coated the stones of the courtyard in a thin, shimmering sheet. She stopped to hold a guard position and took the time to practice her breathing: inhale for four seconds, hold for four, then exhale for another four.

"Better. Once more, cleaner now." 

Alisaie repeated the cut again. She matched the motion to her breaths, extending the swing to increase its fluidity, and then held the guard. Her muscles were pulled taut like bowstrings and burned under the strain, but the pain lessened with each repetition as her body memorized the motions. Though, the light leather training armor she wore gently pinched at her arms, signaling that she would likely have to have a new set made soon. She silently cursed the irritating growth spurts that Elezen were subjected to.

"That's more like it. Relax for a second now."

She lowered the sword and chanced a glance at the knight, who betrayed no emotion beyond the words. Still, her mild irritation turned into a flicker of satisfaction upon hearing the praise despite how Poppy was a surprising picture of stoic professionalism, as she had been for the past week that they met for training. Her arms were crossed and a gauntleted finger idly tapped against her arm as she considered Alisaie with those all-seeing eyes of hers. She thought she might say something more, but the knight simply nodded.

"To the target next," Poppy said after a moment and jerked her head towards the striking dummy behind them. 

Alisaie nodded to her instructor as she rolled her shoulders. They were stiff and sore—a result of the long and difficult week that she endured. The Warrior hadn't been bluffing when she said it would be hard to keep up and she quickly found that her new tutor was the exacting and demanding sort, despite the fact that they'd only covered basic drills. She supposed she should've expected no less from a Holy Knight. Despite her informality in all else, Poppy took training very seriously. It was almost as if a switch had been flipped and a completely different woman stood before her.

She cast another furtive glance in the knight's direction. Poppy's tunic covered the chainmail she wore underneath that glimmered faintly at the joints, matching the polished sheen of her pauldrons and her gauntlets and the frost beneath her armored boots. Alisaie wondered if the dark purple coloring of the set was chosen on purpose to match the house. She caught herself think that violet suited her well.

"Come on, then. Before the sun sets," the knight said over her shoulder, chiding her slowness. The amused flick of her tail and a raised brow betrayed her otherwise stoic demeanor. "Or have you had enough for the day?"

Embarrassed by her own gawping, Alisaie inclined her head in apology and felt a pang of annoyance at the smugness of Poppy's tone. "No, Ser," she murmured and moved closer to the striking dummy to pick up her shield and await her instructions.

"Good. Circle the target once and then show me an entry strike."

Alisaie approached the dummy with her shield raised and sword at the ready as she began to circle it. She went around once as instructed before she lunged forward to strike the wood. The loud sound of the impact echoed around the empty courtyard, shattering the otherwise still silence that had settled among the frost. She felt the reverberation pass through her body in a mildly painful wave and gritted her teeth at the sensation.

"Once more. Relax your arm this time. Show me some followup strikes while you're at it."

Alisaie barely heard the instructions called to her. She pulled back to observe the small dent she'd made in the wood, which she was thoroughly unimpressed by. The distant memory of the night of the party when Poppy drove the sword straight through the dummy played through her mind and she wondered if she'd get as strong with continued training. With a certain amount of frustration, she reasoned that she wouldn't. Not with just the basic sort of exercises the knight had her do. She began to circle the target again and her muddled thoughts spun with the motion until she came to a question.

"Ser Poppy," she said and looked over at the knight who observed her intently. "May I ask you something?"

"If it's about your stance, you need to raise your shield and angle your body towards the target more," she said with a detached sort of amusement. When Alisaie quickly corrected herself, Poppy nodded. "Good. All right, what is it?"

Alisaie bit the inside of her cheek and considered how to word her thoughts. "We've trained for eight suns now and have done little aside from standard drills," she said and paused to avert her eyes from her tutor to focus instead on the dummy. "Should we not move on to something more challenging?"

Alisaie looked up when Poppy tutted as if to scold her and was surprised to see the smile she cracked. "My lady is impatient," she said with a cloying sort of sweetness that was punctuated with a smirk.

"Not at all," Alisaie shot back in an instant. "I simply feel I should be pushed harder than this." 

"And here I thought I was the tutor." A hint of impatience crept into the knight's tone. "I'm pretty sure the curriculum is my choice."

Alisaie paused her circling at that. "A tutor also gives reasoning for their choices as well as feedback, which you haven't said a word of." She gritted her teeth to prevent far harsher words from slipping out, but her frustration seeped out regardless. "I wish to know your opinion on where I stand."

The knight had crossed her arms and tilted her head to listen to the grievances. She nodded slowly when Alisaie was done. "Fair enough. For reasoning, I'll answer with my own question: Aren't basics the most challenging to master? If a foundation is brittle, then the walls will crumble and come crashing down, after all."

She began to circle the striking dummy that stood between them, striding in a slow, deliberate sort of way—almost like a coeurl who stalked her prey. "You're rusty. A year's break from tutelage clearly shows. Once your basics are perfected, then we can move on to something more challenging." Poppy closed the distance between them. She paused directly before Alisaie where she craned her neck and fixed a piercing look up at her. "Is that enough feedback? Or does my lady perhaps regret her choice in tutor now?" 

Alisaie stared in disbelief at the short knight who was nearly pressed against her. The shock turned into a burning plume of anger that she somehow quickly managed to swallow down and bottle up. She chalked the feeling up to weariness and frustration, but some small part of her knew she desperately wanted to prove her worth to the other woman, if only to wipe that grating smirk off her face. Alisaie still inclined her head in a way she hoped looked more apologetic than she felt. 

"I regret no such thing," she said quietly, but it came out sounding more defiant than intended. She flicked her gaze away from the eyes that bore into her while an uncomfortable silence crept into the scant few ilms between them like a sheet of frost. Poppy held her ground for a moment before Alisaie felt her step back. 

"Good! On with the exercises, then. Come now, we haven't got all day," the knight said, sounding far too cheerful compared to her previous tone. She gestured to the dummy with much zeal when Alisaie glanced back up. "The entry strike and followups, if you would be so kind."

Alisaie gave a curt nod in reply. She slipped back into a proper stance with her shield up and body angled towards to target, then wasted little time in following her instructions. She lunged forward with an entry strike so vicious that she felt the wood splinter beneath her blade and heard the echo of the impact ring loudly in her ears. Pleased by the feeling, she managed to ignore the searing ache of her muscles and wrenched the sword free only to swing it back in for a series of followup strikes that were equally as vicious as the first. The bottled anger tucked inside her burst out and Alisaie used it to fuel her relentless attack. 

She struck until she could strike no more. Her ragged breaths formed puffs of cloud that bloomed above her until she controlled her panting with more breathing exercises. Four in, four held, four out. She counted the seconds of silence that spread between her and the knight whose stoic mask was cold in its scrutiny. Poppy observed her through narrowed eyes in consideration of the display she just witnessed. A certain tension formed between them again, crackling like freshly disturbed ice formed on the surface of a pond.

"Fine form, dear sister!" A grating and all too familiar voice called out from somewhere above and melted the tension away in an instant. "I daresay you've gotten stronger." 

A glance upwards confirmed that Alphinaud smiled down at her from the balcony. Alisaie lowered her shield and sword to toss a pointed look up at him. "As if you would know," she said, but her brother had already shifted his attention to Poppy. He either didn't hear her or chose to ignore Alisaie's comment (likely the latter).

"A feat thanks of our talented Warrior, of course," he said and beamed at the knight who looked rather unimpressed by his intrusion. He cleared his throat before he attempted to continue his flattery, "We are undoubtedly the most fortunate house in all of the Holy See to host a knight so—"

"You're interrupting a training session, my lord," Poppy deadpanned as she held a hand up to stop Alphinaud's rambling. "Unless you've got a sword in your hand, I'm not interested."

Alisaie couldn't help the smug satisfaction she felt. She glanced back up at her brother to see him frown, though she recognized the expression he wore as one to mean he wouldn't be so easily deflected.

"Of course. Please continue," he said and smiled at the two women before he pushed away from the railing and seemed to disappear.

Not a moment later, Alisaie heard footsteps descend the stairs and saw Alphinaud emerge onto the courtyard behind them where he headed in the direction of the barracks. Having already realized what he was planning, she sighed and turned back to Poppy, who flashed her a confused look. 

"Well, on with the lesson—" the knight cut herself off when her gaze was pulled behind Alisaie and seemed to find something that prompted a look of bewilderment. "Gods above, don't hold it like that."

Poppy quickly moved past her and Alisaie turned to see Alphinaud. He stood behind them, holding a sword a good fulm or two in front of him with both hands as if afraid that it might cut him on its own. She had to cough into her palm to mask the snort of laugher that rose in her throat at the sight.

"It's a broadsword, not a bloody Zweihander. You're going to hurt someone like that. Here," the knight chided Alphinaud as she approached him. She reached out to pull his arm down and swatted a hand from the hilt to correct his grip. "Angle the blade down. Good, that's better. Now you at least won't decapitate someone running around with that," Poppy said, sounding exasperated.

Alphinaud looked rather pleased with himself as he held the blade out properly with one hand. He lifted it as if to admire the polished surface. "I could get used to this. Perhaps I shall take some lessons from you as well, Ser Poppy." 

The knight's tail swished behind her as she placed her hands on her hips. "I don't think I have that kind of time," she deadpanned again. 

"Alphinaud," Alisaie said, making sure to sharpen both her tone and her gaze. "Do you mind? We're a bit busy."

Her brother looked to her with an unfazed and pleasant smile. "I have a sword in my hand, do I not? I believe I've earned an audience with our Warrior." 

"Alphinaud," she repeated, patience growing ever thinner. 

Poppy sighed and Alisaie looked over to see her rub her face in a weary sort of way. "If you're going to insist on talking my ear off, at least make yourself useful and spar with your sister at the same time." 

"Spar? I think not," Alisaie interjected, reeling with indignation at the suggestion. "He's not even wearing any armor." She exchanged a glance with her brother, who looked equally as thrilled as she felt.

"I didn't schedule an eviceration into my morning," Alphinaud said with a bit of nervous humor. He shifted uncomfortably with the sword dangling awkwardly in hand. Truly, he looked ready to attend a luncheon with his fluffy overcoat and ornate breeches—not do battle.

Poppy sighed again. It sounded far louder and far wearier that time. "All right, how about this," she said and gestured for Alphinaud to relinquish the sword, which he did without much hesitation. She unclipped the shield from her back and thrust it into his hands instead. "Take this and act like a target. When Alisaie hits you, push back with the shield like you're parrying the blow."

The knight turned around and looked to Alisaie as if awaiting approval. She exchanged another look with Alphinaud, who still looked a mite uncomfortable, but he nodded in agreement. He really must've wanted to talk with Poppy to be wiling to endure her training. 

"Fine," Alisaie said curtly. "But you'd best brace yourself, dear brother. I'm not going to hold back." 

Alphinaud hooked his arm through the inside of the shield and flashed her another grating smile. "I'd expect no less than ferocity from you, dear sister." 

Alisaie smirked. If she could beat some sense into Alphinaud in the process, then maybe the exercise wouldn't be so bad. Poppy certainly looked pleased with herself for suggesting it. A gleam of what looked like mischief lit up her eyes when she stepped back to give them space.

"Go on then. Shield up," she said with a nod. "All right, tell me—what is it that you're risking life and limb to talk to me about, my lord?"

Alphinaud perked up at the question as he lifted the shield. "Well, as you may remember, my father was permitted by the House of Lords to travel to the Eorzean city-states in search of merchant contacts. That trip was cut short before we could—" 

He was cut off when Alisaie's sword clattered against the shield, startling him. He shot a pointed look over its edge at her, to which she smirked. 

"Don't forget to push back. You're no better than the striking dummy if you don't parry," the knight called from the sidelines, sounding just a bit amused. 

"Of course. My mistake," Alphinaud replied almost sheepishly, but seemed to steel himself. "As I was saying, our trip was cut short in Ul'dah before we could travel to the other two cities. I wished to—" 

Alisaie swung her sword down again, but Alphinaud was more prepared that time and pushed back against her. She held only for a moment before she pulled back, not appreciating the smug look her brother flashed her. 

"—wished to continue the trip on my own. This diplomatic mission must continue, for the sake of swaying the Republic's stance in favor of the reforms. My father, of course, disagrees on the basis of needlessly worrying for my safety. The only way I can possibly think to convince him is to take a Warrior along with—"

Alisaie swung down harder than before. She frowned and cut in, "I would hardly call that worry needless. Have you already forgotten why we cut the trip short in the first place?" 

"'Twas an isolated incident. One with you at its center," Alphinaud replied, though his voice wavered under the strain of the shield. "Naught else has happened since Ser Poppy's arrival and I hardly think anything will happen now." He looked over at the mentioned Warrior. "What say you to this, knight? Would you accompany me in Eorzea as my guard?"

"Not interested," Poppy shot back with no hesitation.

The response deflated Alphinaud enough to give Alisaie the opportunity to push him back. It was apt revenge for his comment.

Alphinaud rolled his likely stiff shoulder and frowned at them both. "May I ask why?" 

"Use your whole body, not just your arm," the knight instructed. She crossed her arms and continued, sounding dismissive, "I have a post in Ul'dah that I have to get back to. I don't have time to get dragged all over Eorzea. Besides, doesn't Ishgard have its own order of Warriors who can help you?"

Alphinaud considered Poppy's response, but kept a wary eye on Alisaie when she approached for another strike. "There are, but we haven't got many left after the war. Those who survived are already pledged to other houses." The explanation sounded rather somber. He braced himself for the impact of Alisaie's sword and pushed back with greater strength than before. "Does the prospect of diplomacy truly not entice you? This goes beyond just finding merchants, of course, though that is the starting point for the reforms. We could foster the opportunity for discussions between our cities and beyond, as my grandfather started to do before his passing. Ishgard needs this." 

Alisaie stepped back, surprised by the mention of their grandfather, but prepared herself for another attack. Her agitation mounted, flicking like tiny embers that threatened to kindle into something more.

"You sure are passionate about this. Passionate and vocal," Poppy said, eyes narrowed in concentration. She seemed hesitant, if not a bit worried. "I'm guessing not everyone in this House of Lords is as...willing as you."

Alphinaud chuckled, though it sounded more like a scoff. "Try as my father might, he is only one man and one voice in a sea of those who wish to drown him out as they desperately cling to the past." He paused to hold back another strike. "Even he is not as...progressive as I, though I can't help but look to the future. To me it exists beyond our own borders—"

Alisaie was beginning to tire of the conversation. She rushed forward and hit the shield with newfound ferocity fueled by the urge to silence Alphinaud's incessant prattling. "How can we look beyond our borders when there are those within them that suffer so?" she asked and pushed down hard enough that her brother took a step back. "This city needs to be fixed from the inside out with our most feeble at the forefront of our minds."

Alphinaud looked surprised by the rebuttal, but still managed to push back. "What better way to mend the Holy See and aid all those within it than to look to others for guidance and example?" His brow furrowed under the strain of her strike, though she could also see annoyance cloud his face.

Alisaie scoffed. She thought of Ul'dah and the Syndicate and the poor who lined the streets that were not unlike the Brume. The plume of anger within her sputtered back to life. "And will the blind guide the blind? Your idealism oft makes you a blind fool, dear brother," she spat out with more vehemence than intended.

Alphinaud's gaze sharpened to a fine point. The rim of the shield flashed brightly between them, illuminated by the watery sunlight of midday. "And would you call our grandfather a blind fool as well for sharing the same ideals as me?"

The flicker of anger turned into a biting blaze. Before she could rein it in, Alisaie swung her own shield forward and slammed it against Alphinaud's with enough force to send him stumbling backwards. He miraculously didn't fall, despite how he slipped on a stubborn patch of ice that clung to the stones beneath his feet. 

"Enough," Poppy called out. She came forward to stand between them and tossed Alisaie a pointed look over her shoulder. "Please don't kill your brother, my lady. I promised your father I'd keep both of you alive." 

Alisaie couldn't help the pout that pursed her lips. She lowered her shield and stepped back to sheath her sword, watching as Poppy hoisted Alphinaud up by his elbow from where he was doubled over and panting. She gave his back a hearty slap as she took her shield back from him. 

"Thanks for your participation, but that'll be all from you for today," Poppy told him. "And my answer's still a firm no. I'm not the right knight for what you want to do," she added with more gentleness than expected. 

Alphinaud rubbed his sore arm and looked ready to argue, but decided to drop the topic. "I see. Still, I thank you for your consideration, Ser Poppy. Pray forgive the intrusion. Please, continue your lesson." His gaze slid to Alisaie for a moment, but quickly looked away to offer the knight a brief bow.

Poppy watched him walk back towards the stairs with her hands on her hips. She sighed, as if feeling bad. "Wait," she called after him. When Alphinaud looked back, she seemed to hesitate for a moment while she observed him. "I can look into having a different Warrior from my order stationed with your house more permanently. You didn't hear it from me, but the Holy Knights want to bolster relations with your Ishgardian order, so one of them might be willing." She paused when she saw Alphinaud's hopeful look and shook her head. "No promises, so don't get your hopes up too high," she added carefully.

"Well, I can certainly assist in arranging said bolstering, if that helps matters," Alphinaud said. An enthusiastic smile quirked his lips. "I would be most grateful if you initiated such an arrangement." 

"Like I said, no promises, but I'll see what I can do. Off with you, then."

Poppy waved Alphinaud away as one would shoo a pesky child. He obliged with a nod and another bow before he ascended the stairs to renter the manor, clearly unable to hide the eagerness in his steps. The Warrior turned her gaze back to Alisaie when he disappeared. 

"As for you," the knight addressed her. She stepped closer in that same menacing way as before that made Alisaie feel wary. "Fancy a spar?" 

"With you?"

"Who else? You wanted to do something more challenging, didn't you?" Poppy unsheathed her own sword. Its sharpened silver edge glistened in a radiant way that looked unnatural. Despite all her previous insistence, Alisaie quailed at the sight.

"Well, yes, but—"

"Oh, don't give me that look. You're no primal. I won't slay you," the knight said, as if to be reassuring. A smug looking smirk slipped beneath her professional demeanor. It was enough to make Alisaie nod in agreement.

In a matter of moments, she'd somehow found herself on the wrong end of a Warrior of Light's blade. She told herself that there was no better way to learn, but the thought did little to quell her apprehension. She watched Poppy don her shield, noting how odd it felt to have her own family's crest turned on her.

"Don't forget your helm," the Warrior reminded her and gestured towards the rack of equipment they'd brought out earlier. 

Alisaie nodded and went to retrieve it, but was surprised to not see Poppy do the same. "What about you?" she asked.

"Don't need one," Poppy replied. "Besides, there's little you can do to me that I haven't already survived." Try as she may, the knight's role of dutiful tutor had started to slip away as her delight became evident. She was either very eager to test her skill or to box her ears off—Alisaie wasn't sure which was worse. "Well then. Shall we dance, my lady?"

Alisaie nearly rolled her eyes at the other woman's arrogance. She responded with a drawn sword and a shield pulled forward and then reached up to pull the visor of the helm down. "Ready," she said and awaited further instruction.

Poppy stepped forward until there were but a handful of fulms between them. "Focus on your strikes and parries and not getting killed," she said. The hint of a sneer played across her face. "Keep me on the defensive. Don't give me a chance to strike back."

By the time Alisaie nodded, the dance had already begun. As the two of them began to circle one another, she was reminded of the battle she witnessed play out on the Bloodsands. She watched the knight's expression for any hint that she might strike, but Poppy might as well have worn a helm of her own with how little her face betrayed. Where the previous smugness went, she didn't know. If anything, she seemed almost inviting in her patience and jutted her chin up in invitation, as Alisaie has previously seen her do.

Alisaie knew she would have to strike first, so she steeled herself and breathed again—four in, four held, four out. Twelve seconds crept past, echoing around the metal that surrounded her head until she rushed forward. There was silence and then a burst of metallic din when her first strike was met by Poppy's shield. She was pushed back with such ferocity that Alisaie stumbled backwards. 

"Is that all? Come on, don't hold back. You certainly didn't with your brother." 

The smugness returned in the glimmer of her eyes and the edge of her words. It was enough to get Alisaie to right herself and rush forward with far less hesitation. Their swords met that time in a loud clatter of steel that made her arm ache. Alisaie gritted her teeth and ignored it as the knight retaliated with no less strength than before. She was pushed away, but came back in with another strike that her opponent still matched.

"Too slow," Poppy chided as she stepped back. "My turn now."

Alisaie was given only a breath before the knight descended on her. She raised her shield in anticipation but was still pushed back by the force of the sword. Her opponent pulled away, but struck once again for good measure. She shifted so that she could sneer up at Alisaie over the rim of her shield.

"Aren't you supposed to be keeping me on the defensive?"

Poppy was clearly edging her on. To what end, she couldn't fathom in the moment. All Alisaie knew was that it worked. Her annoyance quickly ignited into anger and she gave the knight a harsh shove to force her away. Before Poppy could right herself, Alisaie was upon her. She swung her sword down and though the other woman matched it, she was clearly caught off guard. Alisaie swung again and again until the courtyard was alight with only the sound of clashing steel. 

"That's more like it!" Poppy called out over the noise. She grinned wide enough to bare those dainty fangs of hers and the sight only made Alisaie push harder.

There was a certain elegance to the spar. They established an odd rhythm as the knight matched her blow for blow. It reminded Alisaie of her nameday and how they twirled across the ballroom with a similar sort of sharp grace. She grew too comfortable with it, perhaps, because she stumbled slightly when Poppy pulled away. 

The other woman observed her for a moment and then angled her sword to the left as if she meant to strike again. Alisaie moved to match the blow, but Poppy darted to the right at the last second and swung from there instead. Time froze in a moment of cold realization when she finally processed that it was a feint. Alisaie only just barely managed to twist her body in time to block the blow with her blade. 

Poppy flashed her a little smirk that gave Alisaie the strength to push her away. The knight paused again to lower herself to a half-crouch and angled her blade upwards in a way that suggested a strike from below. Something in the back of Alisaie's mind suggested otherwise. She kept that thought at the forefront of her mind when she moved forward to meet the blow. As she suspected, Poppy sprung up and swung her sword to the side in an attempt at at another feint. But Alisaie was prepared that time. She caught the knight's blade with her own halfway through its arc upwards and gave a harsh tug that—to her surprise—wrenched the sword from her opponent's hand.

Poppy looked just as surprised when the blade fell to the ground. It lay at her feet on the stones slick from frost melted by the meager warmth of midday. They were shrouded in silence after the clatter of its landing passed. Alisaie pulled herself from her stupor and moved forward with her sword raised and pointed at the other woman's throat.

"Do you yield?" she asked from beneath her helm, unable to contain her smug satisfaction. 

Despite her best efforts, Alisaie still panted from the exertion. Aside from the mild surprise still written across her face, her opponent was unfazed, likely thanks to the fabled endurance gifted to Warriors of Light. Twelve more seconds of breathing passed between them before Poppy's expression shifted. 

"No," was her simple reply. 

Before Alisaie could even process the answer, the knight had dropped her shield and was upon her again with a knife that she seemed to pull out of thin air. She grabbed the wrist of her sword hand and tugged downwards so that Alisaie was doubled over and then used her elbow to push beneath the rim of her shield and angle it away. With a knife at her throat and the Warrior only an ilm from her face, Alisaie reeled in silent shock for several breaths. Once again, she found herself in a strangely intimate position with the knight, though the steel pressed lightly against her pulse made her blood go cold. After a while, Poppy moved the knife away from her neck and used its tip to slide the visor of the helm up.

”Don’t think you’ve won until your opponent stops breathing," The knight whispered. "That moment of cockiness can and will cost you your life.”

Despite how her muscles burned from being bent over to the Miqo'te's eye level, Alisaie regained her senses enough to whisper angrily in return, “It’s hardly fair to have pulled a knife during a sword fight."

Poppy tugged on Alisaie's wrist until their bodies were practically flush. She smiled, but the proximity and sharpness of her eyes was no less menacing. "There's nothing fair about fighting. You think there's some unspoken set of rules that all knights will follow? As soon as you set foot outside these frozen walls, that Halonic virtue you lot tout melts away into reality: you either take every advantage you get, or you die." She paused and used the knife to slide the visor back down with a loud clink that sounded as harsh as her words. "If you remember anything from these lessons, let it be that."

The knight let go of Alisaie and stepped back, leaving her feeling cold and numb with shock. She rubbed her wrist as she stood back to her full height and watched Poppy tuck the knife back from where it likely came in the top of her boot. When she looked back up, it was the stoic tutor who spoke again. 

"Well, here's some more feedback: you know your way around a sword. That much is plain. Hone that potential, and you could be one of the most skilled swordswomen the Temple Knights have ever seen." When she paused to retrieve the shield she'd thrown to the ground, Alisaie felt a flutter of satisfaction. Poppy seemed to sense that and fixed a hard look on her before she continued, "But if you leave that anger of yours unchecked, it'll just burn you up from the inside out and leave you blind."

As if in response to the words, Alisaie felt that plume flicker inside her chest, but the feeling was short-lived. She looked back at the knight whose expression had softened to an unreadable emotion somewhere between worry and understanding. Alisaie sheathed her sword with a nod.

"I shall do my best to heed your words. Thank you for the lesson," she said quietly, feeling meek in her defeat.

"Just doing my duty." The knight hid the previous emotion beneath that ever-present mask of hers and crossed her arms. "There's a saying I heard when I first started my training with the Holy Knights: The snapdragon opens its jaws at the sight of the petunia's pale throat. You need to be the former." If she saw Alisaie's look of confusion, she didn't care to elaborate. "That's enough for today. Clean up here and then rest."

With that, Poppy turned around and walked away without looking back. After the soft clinking of her chainmail was replaced with silence, Alisaie looked up at the thin clouds that caused the sun's rays to paint dappled light across the courtyard. She pulled the helm from her head and ran her fingers through sweat soaked hair, feeling heavy and oddly numb. Alone with her thoughts, she wondered distantly how being like a flower would ever make her strong.

 


 

The hearth crackled quietly in the corner. The warmth it offered was pleasant, as was the soft glow of its gentle flames. The dim light illuminated the blade of Alisaie's sword as she polished it and reflected bright flecks of silvery light onto the bench she sat on. When she shifted to stretch, the wood creaked loudly beneath her and she paused the motion. It was well past sundown and she didn't want to disturb the knights who had already retired within the barracks, especially after they allowed her intrusion.

She rolled her shoulders instead, wincing at the pain that came with the movement. The soreness meant that progress was being made in her training, but Alisaie frowned when she stared down at the flame reflected across her sword's polished surface. Her tutor's words tumbled through her mind like nettles, so sharp in their honesty:

"It'll burn you up from the inside out."

The other woman's smugness and the taunting had been a test—one that Alisaie had failed. But being a child born of the Dragonsong, she understood how a lifetime drenched in war had a certain effect on people: they grew angry or bitter and oftentimes both. She was no exception, and her grandfather's untimely passing only added another layer that honed that anger to fine point. To her, it had been a strength—a steel-less blade that she turned out against the world. Even then, the feeling sat heavily in her gut like a hot coal.

Alisaie's brooding thoughts were interrupted by the quiet creak of the barracks doors and the thread of chill air that came with the sound. Thinking that a knight had returned from guard duty, she resumed the process of cleaning her blade with newfound interest. When she glanced up at the sound of approaching footsteps, she was greeted by the sight of a knight who she hadn't expected to see.

"Fancy meeting you here, my lady." The fire cast its orange light on the violet-colored armor Poppy still wore, outlining her frame with a soft glow. The knight glanced down at the bench and quirked a brow. "Still at it, eh? Thought I told you to rest."

Alisaie ducked her head at the light scolding, no matter how humorously it was delivered. Despite the Warrior's softened demeanor, she was uncertain how to act after the day's lesson and shrugged as she pulled the sword onto her lap. "You also told me to clean up, did you not? Besides, I could ask why you're here."

Poppy's head tilted at the tone of her response, but she said nothing of it. "Oh, no reason. Ser Oliver around?" she asked and glanced down the corridor that lead to the knights' quarters.

"He and Ser Griselle are on guard duty for the next few bells," Alisaie replied. Some of her uncertainty turned into interest. "What did you need him for?" she asked, unable to hold back her curiosity.

The Miqo'te crossed her arms and chuckled. "Well, I s'pose I've got to tell you now that you've caught me. I was looking to go to the Forgotten Knight and wanted to snag one of yours for company."

Alisaie wasn't able to hold back her surprise much better than her curiosity. "The Forgotten Knight?"

"What? I like to unwind with a bit of ale after a long day. I'm still as much a knight as any despite the whole Holy business, you know." Poppy decided to take a seat and chuckled again as she plopped down on the bench beside her.

"Well, that tavern has a certain...reputation, is all."

The knight shot her a smirk at that. "For attracting all sorts of folks? That's exactly why I'm going there." When Alisaie raised a brow, she continued, "Your father told me to announce myself loudly, didn't he? After all, things've been so very quite since I got here." Poppy paused and her mood seemed to sober a bit. "I'd rather sniff the trouble out myself if it refuses to come to me directly."

Alisaie was quiet for a while, tracing the outline of her sword's hilt before she gave a thoughtful hum. It was a reckless notion, but she'd come to expect that from the knight. Poppy spoke again before she could say anything.

"I'll be honest with you. After what your brother said earlier, things are starting to make more sense. The earnest and vocal types like him always attract unwanted attention. Especially in a place like this." Her gaze was pulled to the hearth where she glared at the flames. "I'm no expert on your city's politics, but I'm not blind. It's tense and there's in-fighting among you nobles. Publicly supporting these reforms could've put a target on House Leveilleur's back."

Alisaie was disquieted by the knight's words. The peace that came with her arrival felt like a frail sheet of ice that would crack at any moment, despite how she'd hoped that situation had frozen over. "You think another noble house threatens my family," she said with a detached sort of calmness that she hoped didn't betray her worry.

"Well, that's the trouble. We don't know who's behind this and if they're done with their little scheme," Poppy said in a hushed tone, as if afraid that someone might overhear them. "Could've just been a ruffled up Ul'dahn. But if it wasn't..." Her musing trailed off with a hint of apprehension, but she shot Alisaie a lopsided smile when her gaze was pulled back from the hearth. She waved a hand as if to push all the grim possibilities away. "But don't you worry about all this, my lady. Like your brother said, it's only been one isolated incident so far. I won't let anything happen to you and yours either way." 

Alisaie looked down at her lap again where the sword sat, heavy and cold. She didn't like the feeling of helplessness that crept uncomfortably up her spine. "I'll go with you to the Forgotten Knight if you're wanting for company," she said quietly. 

Poppy leaned back on the bench, eyes wide and ears perking up at the sudden suggestion, which caused the tiny bell earring she always wore to sound lightly. "You? I don't think your father'd appreciate me snatching you away late at night to go to a tavern filled with rowdy knights and gods knows who else," she said, tone caught between amusement and disbelief.

"He doesn't have to know. Besides, if something should happen, you may need help. I'm no knight, but I can at least play the part." Alisaie managed to fight back the pout that threatened to pull at her lips, but frustration still slipped into her words.

A breath of silence passed. As if sensing the tension between them, Poppy shifted to look at Alisaie more directly from beneath her uneven fringe. She fiddled with a buckle on her vambrace for a moment and sighed. "Look, I wanted to tell you something. Sorry if I came off as too harsh earlier," she said, sounding almost sheepish.

Alisaie was surprised to hear the apology. "I asked you not to soften your hand with me, did I not? I still don't regret this, if that's what you're thinking," she said a mite pointedly.

"Well, you seem to be taking this seriously, so I thought I should too. I know I can take it too far, though." Alisaie looked up to see the knight observe her intently, though her eyes were far less sharp than before. "We're not so different, you and I. All anger and fire and willingness to prove ourselves. An angry petunia in a garden of deceptive snapdragons." Poppy's gaze grew distant, as if looking at some far off, unreachable thing. "It's something I heard from a botanist a long time ago. Odd how well it fit in with knighthood," she added quietly.

Alisaie nodded as the knight's words clicked into place in her mind. They were just as honest as before, though far softer. The last bit of anger that clung to Alisaie was replaced with a clenching feeling in her chest. "The world outside our walls is not so soft and virtuous, just as you said. I must needs be prepared for that, and so I have come to appreciate the intensity of your lesson," she said with the same quietness as the knight. She heard Poppy hum softly in reply.

"Glad to hear it. You know, I think you're going to be one hell of a knight. If you survive what I throw at you, that is." 

Poppy grinned, exposing sharpened teeth. Alisaie couldn't help but think that she gazed at the jaws of a snapdragon that would rip her throat out if provoked. But the grin softened to a smile that caught Alisaie off guard in how genuine it looked. The usual smugness was replaced with a hint of warmth that made her heart stutter in an odd sort of way.

Alisaie watched as the fire's dim light spilled across the other woman's face. The flickering orange glow tugged at the faint scar on her cheek and Alisaie noticed a second near it that cut across her jaw and then a third even fainter that split the corner of her lip. Like three claw marks, she realized distantly and a strange urge to reach out and touch them overcame her. She gripped the hilt of her sword instead to root herself in reality, but couldn't look away from the eyes that held her in place. It was odd how a face so soft could convey such strength. Poppy's expression shifted in some minute way that was impossible to read. Something else passed over her that steeled her softened demeanor again. She quickly stood from the bench, causing a loud creak that made Alisaie wince. 

"Well, I know you're not going to take no for an answer. You'd better come along before I change my mind," she said and turned to smirk down at her. "You look enough like an off-duty squire to not let on that you're a noble anyway," she added, sounding thoughtful. 

Alisaie was surprised to hear her give in so easily, but wrinkled her nose at the comment. She felt more disheveled than anything with how she'd removed most of her training armor, leaving her with only a simple tunic, breeches, boots, and hair pulled back into a messy braid. She supposed blending in was more important than looking presentable. Her sword was placed on the nearby rack and she nodded to the knight. Poppy was soon on her way to the door with Alisaie at her heel, though she paused a moment to flash another grin up at her.

"I feel like this'll be an educational experience for you, my lady."

"How so?"

"Well, you're about to witness the greatest lesson of knighthood in action," Poppy said with much gravity as she opened the barracks door. "How to drink yourself stupid with your mates."

Alisaie couldn't help but chuckle at that. She followed the other woman into the cold night, thinking she should have grabbed a coat, but Poppy's words warmed her enough. Though, she was unsure if the crackle in the air was from excitement or apprehension. Either way, it was shaping up to be an interesting evening.

A small drawing of a snapdragon flower with bright red petals that fade to yellow in the center.

snapdragon : strength, deception

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a bright yellow dandelion flower.

”Brothers brave and true, live well, forgotten and content.” 

The words lolled lazily off of Poppy's tongue. They were burned into the smooth surface of a wooden placard that hung high above the bar. The edge of the sword that was displayed beneath it reflected the sparse light of the tavern's single chandelier, as if to proudly highlight the phrase.

"Pretty words," she mused and leaned forward on the railing, letting the sharp metal of the couters on her elbows dig into the wood. She propped her chin up on her hand and observed the bustle below.

It couldn't even be called a bustle, really. Frankly, it felt more like a church than a pub with how reticent the chatter was. The patrons and barkeeps below milled about in a slow, almost lethargic way, as if they trudged through molasses. Ishgardians seemed to often have a listless way about them that came from a decade of being buried beneath snow, and another thousand years pinned beneath the Horde's jaws. 

"If rumors are to be believed, that sword was forged before the war and has been passed down to each new proprietor since," Alisaie said beside her, stirring through the silence. Her tone was like that of a student reciting dutifully studied information for an exam. From the corner of her eye, Poppy noticed how her fingers tapped against the railing. "Shall we go down and find a table?"

A lopsided smile pulled up the corner of Poppy's mouth. She thought to comment on the other woman's apparent impatience, but decided against it—she'd ribbed her enough for one day. Instead, the knight straightened her back and pushed herself from the railing to nod.

"As my lady wishes."

It was meant to be sincere, but Alisaie still wrinkled her nose. The sight made Poppy's smile less lopsided when she brushed past. She stopped abruptly when she reached the first step of the stairs, looking over her shoulder to see Alisaie pause behind her with a questioning tilt of her head. A sudden thought buzzed in her mind.

"You think anyone here will recognize you?"

Alisaie looked down at the tavern sprawled beneath them, searching eyes sweeping over the patrons scattered about. She shook her head. 

"There are a few Temple Knights about, but I doubt any would remember me," she said, words tight. "Why do you ask?" 

"Wouldn't want word getting back to your father, is all. I'd like to avoid a scolding. I'm sure you would too." 

A thin, wry smile curled Alisaie's lips, illuminated by the candles that flickered on the chandelier. "I hardly think any here should care enough to do so. You needn't fret," she said. She sounded confident, but her eyes flitted over the crowd again as if to make sure it was true. 

"Well, if anyone asks, you're just my squire," Poppy said, mirroring Alisaie's smile. "And wait a minute before you come after me. I might catch some stares on my way down." 

Alisaie hesitated, but still nodded in agreement. "All right."

The air grew warmer with each step downward, as if she walked into a balmy bathhouse—but one doused in steam scented with ale. It was still pleasant compared to the thread of cold that pushed in from the doors at her back. Her armored boots clacked noisily against the wood, attracting the attention of those seated closest to the staircase. She didn't bother to quiet the sound. Her fingers tapped against the railing while her hand slid down it, adding to the noise. As she'd suspected, the looks began. 

Several groups paused their conversations to glance up at the knight who descended upon them, though the quiet hardly lasted a breath. It was interesting how the tavern seemed to sputter to life in an instant, as if to cover up the hushed whispers that slid beneath the chatter that picked up and spread even to the darkened corners where few sat. Ishgardians were an indirect bunch, as she'd learned, and most refused to spare her more than lingering, passing glances in fear of betraying hints of their obvious interest. Only who Poppy assumed was the proprietor acknowledged her directly with a stiff nod when she looked over towards the bar at him.

The knight lifted her chin and smiled down at her admirers, basking in the attention. She always bloomed beneath the eyes of any crowd, no matter how leery and fleeting. When she reached the tavern proper, she made a show of slowly moving through the throngs of patrons who parted for her to pass and paused only when she reached the empty table she'd picked out from across the room. The dark circle of wood was pushed against the far wall with a cluster of chairs haphazardly strewn around it.

Poppy turned her back to the rest of tavern to unhook her shield from her back so she could sit comfortably, then placed it against the wall as one would plant a flag in newly claimed territory. House Leveilleur's crest shone out at all the souls in the room who were brave enough to cast a look in her direction. Poppy slid onto the chair beside the shield, still smiling. She hoped the proclamation was loud enough for Lord Leveilleur to eventually appreciate.

The knight looked back towards the stairs where Alisaie had slipped down without attracting any undue attention to herself. Poppy's entrance had served its purpose. The fair-haired Elezen looked at her for a moment, then jerked her head towards the bar to signal that she'd fetch the ale. Poppy nodded and watched her pick her way across the floor. With the stage set, the knight kicked her feet up onto the table and settled back in her seat to observe the workings of the tavern spread out beneath her scrupulous gaze. 

"You hear what the new tithe'd be if it goes through? Ten bloody percent up."

Poppy's ear swiveled towards the hushed conversation. A group that looked to consist of merchants sat at a table nearby. The man who spoke was pallid, brows drawn together as he shook his head in what looked to be disbelief. He seemed deeply upset. The man next to him snorted in reply.

"Aye. The dolts at the House of Lords want to charge us fees like we all live in the Pillars. Guess they want us to fund their little projects."

"Ha! If only they treated us like we lived there too. I'm sure they're the only ones who'll benefit from this new merchant shite, after all."

The woman who laughed slapped the upset man's shoulder and slid a second tankard in his direction, though he only shook his head again as he slumped in his chair. The raucous din that came from the nearest table of knights drowned out the rest of the conversation. Poppy's ears twitched towards them next.

"Seven Hells, if I have to pull another shift like that, you'll find me dead at the Forum. I swear it."

The young knight groaned and drooped over the table, nearly knocking over his fellows' drinks in the process. The more seasoned knight next next to him shook her head at the boy.

"You had better toughen up, lad," she chided. "We're only going to be spread thinner from here on out."

Her words did little to cheer him, eliciting instead another groan. The shrewd looking knight across from them let out a sigh, and moved his tankard out of the lad's sprawling grasp.

"She's right, boy. With the gates ever open, we must be ever vigilant."

"Vigilant of the riffraff being let in," another knight beside him muttered.

The whole group nodded at that, and many of them shared the youngest knight's exasperation in a more muted way. They all looked tired, even when they began to laugh and joke together.

Poppy lost track of the conversation as the noise of the tavern swelled for a moment. She nodded to herself, pocketing the interesting tidbits she'd absorbed for later. It was all rather...normal, really. No talk of dastardly plans, no plotting of assassinations—none which she could hear, anyway. There was tension, certainly, but nothing that threatened to boil over into something more.

She kept a watchful eye on her charge during her observations. The noble had muscled her way past a group of knights and was leaned against the bar with as much ease as any of them while she spoke with the elderly Elezen woman behind it. The familiarity in the way they talked seemed to suggest that it wasn't Alisaie's first time there. The knight smirked to herself, but before she could continue the thread of thought, a group of patrons filtered in and blocked her view of the bar.

The tavern grew a bit more lively. Another handful of knights descended from above, while a group of who looked to be merchants came in from the lower entrance. It seemed the common and nobility couldn't agree enough to even use the same door. Poppy scoffed at the thought. They all mixed together on the main floor, mingling briefly as they sorted out their respective tables. The only interest they all seemed to share was Poppy herself. She caught glances that were meant to be discrete and more snippets of whispered conversations: Miqo'te this, Warrior that. Ishgard was full of insatiable gossips, no matter the class.

Something buzzed suddenly in Poppy's ears that was unlike the shrill call of the Echo. It pulsed slowly and methodically, like chimes strung together on a summer breeze, almost pleasant in their sonority. The hairs on her neck stood on end from unseen static and the air stilled for a moment. It was a brief occurrence, no longer than a few seconds, like a collective breath held. Poppy's ear swiveled to the left where she caught sight of another oddity not unlike herself. A woman with ruddy skin dotted with flecks of black scales ascended from the Brume.

The woman looked across the bar with the same appraising sense that Poppy had when she came in. Her unblinking eyes were set alight with orange rings that flickered and sputtered like the circle of candles suspended above, and a pair of thick, down-turned horns made of glistening obsidian framed an angular face.

Poppy felt her crystal of Light lurch in her chest to pound on her ribs. The Forgotten Knight exhaled around her, resuming its chattering din, and the Auri woman slipped into the crowd. Poppy tried to pick her back out amidst the pack, but was greeted instead by the sight of a group of knights who blocked her field of view when they brushed past her table.

One of the men stopped. His eyes slid briefly to the shield propped up against the wall, then flicked to her with a sort of keen interest that made Poppy's skin crawl beneath her mail. He paused, letting his fellow knights continue on to their table, then moved to approach her with a tankard in hand.

The man was nothing out of the ordinary: a tall Elezen in a room full of them. What caught Poppy's attention was his armor—it was polished so silver and bright that it reflected every scant scrap of light that hit it. He smiled a hawkish smile that tugged his thin lips even tighter when she met his gaze.

"I heard that the Leveilleurs had somehow acquired a foreign knight," he said as he neared, voice loud and raucous like the clatter of a sword on wood. "It seems that the rumors are true."

He paused before the table, standing tall in attention as if to show off his plates—like he expected Halone herself to come down from the heavens and praise him for his ability to scrub them.

"You're not quite what I expected," he added, looking her over in a way that made Poppy bristle. Still, she offered the man a bemused, enduring smile, even when he placed his drink down in a presumptuous manner.

"Expect someone taller?" 

The knight let out a hearty laugh at her jest that was just a bit too loud. He leaned forward, pressing a hand on the surface of the table right near Poppy's propped up sabatons. She glanced at the distorted reflection of herself on his bright breastplate.

"Taller, perhaps, and not quite so...captivating." His eyes swept over her again. "Care to join me for a drink, little knight?"

Poppy's smile simpered. Catching his meaning, she leaned further back in her chair in an attempt to root herself to it, gauntlets tapping against vambraces as she crossed her arms.

"I've got drinks of my own on the way."

The knight combed a hand through spikes of bark brown hair, then leaned further over the table to cast a silvery sheen on its surface with his overbright plates. He was undeterred by her response. 

"Bring them with to my table, then. Me and my fellows can give you a warm introduction to Ishgard, if you so wish."

"Not interested."

He clicked his tongue to scold her. His smile grew wider, stretching almost from ear to long ear. Poppy noted how his eyes were a rich amber—like the ale in the tankard that he must have already imbibed in before approaching her, if the slur edging his words was any indication. The dusting of red on his otherwise pallid complexion betrayed him further.

"Come now, kitten. Don't be difficult."

Poppy's ears shifted back, threatening to flatten against her head, though she stopped them mid motion when she saw the man watch the movement with a rapt fascination. Her amusement shifted to something darker, sharpening to a fine point inside her like a dagger. The words had raised her hackles, but she held a pleasant face as she cast a glance over the other knight's shoulder towards the bar. Alisaie was still chatting with the barmaid, though two tankards were in her hands. She'd have to get rid of this annoyance quickly. Her gaze flicked back to the man who smiled at her like a confident fool. 

"Thought I made myself pretty clear," she said with a slow, deliberate pleasantness, forcing the words through her lips. She flashed another smile that was all teeth and sharpness. "Go play with your mates, little knight. I'm busy."

The other knight's expression darkened in an instant, giving him a menacing look that contrasted the silver-white armor he wore. His nose wrinkled with what looked to be disgust. 

"Have they no manners from where you hail? You should be—"

"Cease your squealing."

The man's head jerked to the side angrily to see who had cut him off. He almost seemed to shrink a few ilms when he saw the Auri woman who stood nearby, hand on hip, serpentine tail swaying behind her. 

"Leave the knight be. She clearly holds no interest, knave," she spoke, words curling slightly like smoke with a light accent that was hard to place.

The man hesitated, digging his armored fingers into the wood of the table in obvious annoyance. He pushed himself away from it when the Au Ra stepped closer, as if afraid she might lash out. An icy look tumbled down his broad nose as he stuck it up. Without another word, he grabbed his tankard and turned away from the table to slink back to wherever his fellow knights awaited him, but not before a few droplets splattered onto the table in his haste.

Poppy looked after him for a moment and caught sight of a shield just as bright as his armor. Aside from the forest green outline, she didn't get a good look at the crest painted on it before the crowd swallowed him up.

"Persistent, that one," Poppy said. Her sharp smile softened as it turned to the other woman. "Most give up after the first no."

When the Auri woman met her gaze, her muddy orange eyes flickered like dying embers on a hearth. "Men often do not know their bounds. Most realize this too late." She smiled in return, tight-lipped and firm, and the bits of black scale that outlined her jaw shifted at the motion. She placed a hand on the back of a chair and tilted her head; cautious, eyes searching. "May I join you for a moment, knight?" 

The faint crystalline trill started in Poppy's ears again. "Only if you tell me your name," she replied. The same caution tinged her words.

"Qadan Angura. You?"

"Poppy."

"Only Poppy?" 

"That's the only part you need to know," the knight replied with a smirk.

She moved her legs from the table and sat up straighter, extending her arm to her new companion for a handshake. Their crystals of Light brushed together at the contact, causing a bright titter that echoed around the bones of Poppy's hand. The two of them exchanged a knowing smile. 

"Mm. I had thought so," Qadan said. Her fellow Warrior of Light took a seat beside Poppy. 

"Quite a pair, we are. Miqo'te and Auri Warriors in Ishgard, of all places," Poppy said. Her lips curled into a sneer as she leaned her elbows on the table. "Hydaelyn has an interesting sense of humor."

"The Mother has lead us here for a purpose. Likely to give the Ishgardians a scare." Qadan chuckled. It was a dark and rich sound. 

"I'd say we're doing a good job at that. You had that poor knight running." Poppy paused to observe her new companion, realizing that she was surprised to not see her in full plate. "Not a knight yourself?"

Qadan shook her head, which shifted her dark, windswept fringe. "No. I am a vagrant, as they say. I hunt and trap, selling meats and furs in the markets here," she said. Some wryness turned up the corners of her mouth. "The bow is my guide rather than the blade." 

Poppy let out a thoughtful hum of interest. Her eyes wandered over the other woman, lingering on the bow that was indeed slung over her shoulder and the matching quiver filled with arrows adorned with red feathers and gold twine. She couldn't help but admire the toned muscle pressed beneath the thin, mottled leather of her jacket.

"Ever think of becoming one? You sure look strong enough." She grinned, mostly joking. Qadan flashed her a look of bemused disbelief.

"Here? Never. These people would sooner slay me than employ me," she said, incredulous. "I have no wish to chain myself to any house even if I could. I have worn the yoke of a Warrior long enough to know better." She straightened her back in the chair, nails digging lightly into the fabric of her breeches as she did so. The brief look she spared the shield against the wall was tinged with pity. Poppy frowned.

"Yoke, eh?"

"It feels like one at times, does it not? On the Steppe from where I came it certainly did. That is why I am here now."

Poppy's ears tipped forward with interest. "The Azim Steppe? Haven't heard much about it."

Qadan's eyes narrowed, gaze growing distant as if she looked at some far-off memory. Her tone took on a gravely edge when she spoke, "We are revered. They expect so much, then grind us to ash when we become their martyrs."

Poppy winced at the words, like the other Warrior had slapped her. Qadan shook her head to push the thoughts away.

"And what is it that ties you to the Holy See, knight? I can see that you hail from here no more than I do." 

Poppy rested her chin on her palm, frowning in her unease. Her gaze wandered to the bar, where Alisaie had finally acquired her drinks. She pushed through the crowd in the direction of the table. 

"Duties and promises," she replied. 

Qadan said nothing, but nodded as if she understood. She most likely did—better than most. 

When Alisaie finally arrived, both she and Poppy's new acquaintance seemed surprised by the other's presence. The Elezen's eyes grew wide at the sight of the Au Ra who stared back at her as if confused by the intrusion. 

"Ah, forgive me. Had I known you were meeting someone, I would have gotten a third tankard." She placed the drinks down almost sheepishly, but not before shooting Poppy a pointed look through her embarrassment. The knight simply smiled. 

"Well, I wasn't planning on finding a fellow Warrior, but here we are," she said. Alisaie's eyes widened again. Poppy gestured between the two women to introduce them. "Qadan, this is my...squire, Alisaie." 

The Auri woman nodded to the flustered Elezen in greeting. Poppy patted the surface of the table beside her to urge Alisaie to take a seat, which she did after a breath of hesitation. 

"Pray forgive my surprise. 'Tis a rarity to be in the presence of two Warriors, lest ones who are..."

"Not from Ishgard?" Qadan finished the thought with an amused tilt of her head, to which Alisaie gave a cautious nod. 

"What're the odds, eh?" Poppy grinned between her two companions as she reached for her drink. 

With the tankard to her lips, the knight took a swig of her ale, only to be surprised by the taste. It was rich and floral with a thread of sweetness running through it—not at all what she was expecting. It actually tasted good, unlike the swill usually served in such places. Seeing her pleased expression, Alisaie smiled.

"Do you like it?" she asked and she reached for her own. "As soon as I mentioned there was a Holy Knight present, the tavernkeeper opened a cask of his dandelion mead. He insisted I bring it to you." 

"Dandelion," Poppy repeated in disbelief.

She took another appreciative sip of the floral concoction as she glanced in the direction of the bar. The same man who nodded to her when she'd descended the stairs was watching their table. A taut smile pulled up the corners of his mouth just so, and he offered Poppy a stiff wave. She lifted the tankard and nodded in return to show her appreciation.

"So, even weeds still bloom in Coerthas." She exchanged a droll look with Alisaie, then downed some more of the tasty brew.

"Holy Knight...of Hydaelyn?" Qadan said the title out loud more to herself, as if testing how it felt on her tongue. "I see. So you are no ordinary Warrior."

When Poppy looked over at her, Qadan's gaze seemed to shift and sharpen in a minute way that might have just been a trick of the light. Whatever emotion had passed over the other Warrior's face vanished like a puff of smoke when a thin smile quirked her lips.

"S'pose not." Poppy shrugged, almost as if to shake off the odd feeling that had settled on her shoulders.

She hid from it with another taste of the dandelion mead, and the drink managed to fill her with a pleasant warmth. Silence hung between the three women, almost awkward in its weight. In an attempt to fill the lull of the conversation, Poppy spoke again:

"So, Qadan: you said you hunt?"

"I do. It is difficult work in this clime, but I am accustomed to harshness and snow. Ishgardians pay well for fresh meat, if one can coax coin out of them." She leaned her elbows on the table and sighed, weary like the merchants who sat nearby. "Selling wares here is a more fearsome beast than any I hunt, however." 

"That so? Markets must be in a rough state," Poppy said carefully as she tapped her fingers against the tankard. She thought of the snippets of conversation she'd overheard.

"There is talk of raised tariffs and stricter inspections and other such nonsense." She waved a hand in front of her face as if to shoo away a pesky fly. "These ideas will do little other than more harm."

Alisaie perked up beside Poppy. She spoke, sounding cautiously curious, "I thought the reforms were meant to improve the state of things. Would raised standards not level the bar for everyone?"

Qadan scoffed at the question. "Taking the lion's share of profits levels only the pockets of those who propose such things."

Alisaie looked troubled by the response. "And what of the foreign merchant proposals? That would surely liven things up," she added.

"Bringing in new merchants will only push out those on the very bottom wrung here. The houses have no care for those," Qadan retorted.

Alisaie's gaze turned into more of a glower at that. Poppy flashed her a warning look, but she ignored it to continue, "Not every house is simply vying for coin."

Poppy looked between the two women, unsure how to halt the brewing argument. Before she could step in, Qadan spoke again.

"What a loyal squire you are. Your house must be pleased." The Au Ra glanced at Poppy's shield. Her lips formed a smile that looked almost cruel in its keenness. "The nobility squabble like children and those with no standing suffer. That is the truth of it." The embers of her eyes flickered when she spoke again, "Those who are blindly loyal to them only add kindling to the flames with their idealism."

Poppy felt the weight of the other Warrior's stare. She glanced to Alisaie to alleviate the feeling, who said nothing in reply. The Elezen narrowed her eyes to a look that was more disheartened than angry. Having said her piece, Qadan stood. 

"I have taken up enough of your time. I should return to my own table now," she said. 

Poppy blinked up at the Au Ra. "Oh, sure," she said, feeling a bit bewildered. "Maybe we'll run into each other again?"

Qadan smiled that thin, tense smile again. "Perhaps we will. I wish you good luck in your endeavors, Holy Knight." Her gaze slid to Alisaie, to whom she offered a curt nod. She passed through the crowd a breath later with the ease of a wisp of smoke.

"She was—" Alisaie started to say something, but cut herself off with a shake of her head. She nursed her tankard instead, which she'd barely touched until that point and cast a troubled look into the cup.

Poppy said nothing. She looked after the Auri woman and managed to catch sight of her in glimpses through the crowd where she'd settled at a table across the room with an Elezen woman and Hyuran man—likely trapper friends, judging by their similar clothing. If Qadan sensed her stare, she didn't react. 

The knight looked back down at her own half-empty tankard. A floral warmth filled her thanks to the drink, but the meager comfort it offered was pushed down by the faint trill of her crystal as it hummed quietly in her ear. It was no longer a pleasant sound. 

"Well," Poppy said, catching Alisaie's curious glance. She didn't get a chance to finish the thought before a shadow loomed over their table. 

"I'm glad to see that dragonette has stopped harassing you," the shining knight from before spoke and glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure that Qadan was truly gone. He looked back at the two women with an easy confidence, lingering on Alisaie. The lopsided grin he offered her made it evident that he was drunker than before. "Well, what have we here? A pretty little page with her knight?"

"Squire," Alisaie corrected coolly. She looked rather unimpressed by the man, though her gaze hardened a hair when he leaned over the table.

"How lucky you are to be under the wing of a knight so...bold," he said, words slurring lightly as he looked to Poppy again. "Say, why don't both of you join me for a round?" 

"I thought I made myself clear earlier," Poppy replied, tone sharpening with her thinned patience. The other knight seemed to bristle a bit. 

"You really shouldn't be so cold to a gentleman who offers you a drink. It's not polite," he said. His lips curled into a sneer. "Though I suppose I should expect no less from an unruly cat."

Had Poppy been quicker, she would have torn the man's face off. Alisaie acted first and saved her the trouble. 

"Bold of you to speak of politeness, knight," she said, words loud, though surprisingly even despite the fearsome look she wore. "It's rather impolite to leer over strangers and solicit them when they clearly are not interested." She paused to jut her chin up in defiance. "Leave us be, lest you shame your house further."

The immediate area around them grew a mite quieter. A group of knights at the nearest table watched with cautious and obviously amused glances, whispering and laughing quietly among themselves while they watched the other knight receive the tongue-lashing. Anger clouded his face when he seemed to catch on to the attention.

"It seems your knight hasn't taught you how to speak to a superior," he said through clenched teeth, glaring down at Alisaie. "Allow me to show you some manners, then."

Poppy wasn't sure what the man planned to do when he reached for Alisaie's face. She didn't give him a chance to sate her curiosity. The Warrior shot up in her seat, practically displacing the tankards with the sudden motion, and grabbed the other knight's wrist. She yanked his hand away from Alisaie with such harshness that he bumped into the table, looking stunned.

"Y'know, you're really starting to piss me off," she hissed.

The sharp metal covering the tips of her fingers slipped into the gap between his gauntlet and vambrace, digging into the bare skin underneath with enough pressure to make her warning clear. The other knight paled, seeming to sober a bit.

"You would attack a fellow knight so boldly in public?" His voice wavered, from the ale and likely also fear, but was loud enough to attract purposeful attention. 

Poppy glared up at the man, ears folding back and tail lashing behind her as she dug her metal nails into his wrist. "You were about to—"

"Poppy." Alisaie's voice cut through her seething anger. The knight looked down at the other woman. "We should be going, shouldn't we?" she asked, weighing the question carefully.

She glanced around them to make note of the audience they'd attracted. Poppy looked around as well. She saw faces turned in their direction, writ with curiosity and apprehension both, and noticed how the tavernkeep watched her with a furrowed brow from the bar. Begrudgingly, she loosened her grip on the man's wrist.

"How right you are, my lady," she said as she shoved the other knight's hand away. "Let's go."

Poppy retrieved her shield, feeling comforted by its familiar weight on her back. The other knight—who she noticed had stripped himself of his own shield—said no more, though his eyes were narrowed to a keen look as he watched them brush past to reach the stairs. Poppy ignored the cloud of whispers that billowed around the room when they ascended the steps. She chanced a final look in the direction of Qadan's table, only to see it empty. 

For once, she was relieved to be out in the cold. The stones outside the Forgotten Knight glittered with a fine layer of snow when the two women stepped onto them. They exchanged a look of shared bewilderment, though it was tinged with a nervous sort of amusement for them both.

Poppy opened her mouth to make a quip, but the thought died in her throat when she heard the doors open behind them. She turned and was only marginally surprised to see that the pesky knight had followed them. What she hadn't expected, however, was for him to reach out and grab Alisaie by the wrist. 

Though she was clearly startled, Alisaie jerked her hand in his grasp in an attempt to loosen his grip while her free hand balled into a fist at her side. His fingers only curled around her wrist tighter. Poppy's hand flew to the hilt of her sword in an instant. The sight of her charge being touched in such a way filled her with a fathomless rage that urged her to strike him down.

"I wouldn't draw steel here, if I were you. Our Knights Most Heavenly might be alerted to such an attack, after all." His gaze slid purposefully to the Congregation that sat a short distance across from the tavern's entrance. Poppy gritted her teeth, but dropped her hand from her blade. 

"And this isn't an attack?" Alisaie asked. She struggled in the man's grip again, though to no avail. His attention turned to her.

"I just came to remind you that you're no squire, my lady," he said and sneered when he saw both women exchange a brief look of surprise. "Nay, I simply wished to know why a noble lady of House Leveilleur is out so late—at a tavern, no less. It hardly seems appropriate."

Poppy swore at herself internally when she realized her misstep and her foolishness in allowing the other woman to accompany her. Before she could say anything, Alisaie spoke.

"What I do in my spare time is hardly your concern," she snapped, tone as icy as the night air that curled around them. "What business have you with my house to so fervently vie for our attention?"

"No business. Just concern for your safety, is all. It wouldn't do for a lady to be in harm's way because of the poor choices of an unscrupulous knight." His cruel gaze glanced to Poppy. "Besides, it would be a shame if word about this got back to your father, wouldn't it?" 

Alisaie stilled at that. Poppy chanced a step forward, unable to reign in her impatience any longer. She needed to get them out of their current situation, and fast.

"What do you want?" she asked. The question came out as a harsh hiss. 

The man shrugged, seeming rather unbothered by the whole situation. "Perhaps a kiss would sate me and aid my weary mind in forgetting what I've seen tonight?" He tilted his head down towards Alisaie, grinning wide. She wrinkled her nose at him in obvious disgust and opened her mouth to say something that likely would have been rude. Seeing her opportunity, Poppy took another step forward.

"How about one from me?" Both Elezen turned to her with looks of surprise. When the knight's lingering gaze looked her up and down, it made her skin crawl just as it did before.

"That would suffice," the knight said, agreeing to her terms with a hungry smile.

He let go of Alisaie. She immediately backed away from him, though her glare didn't lessen in intensity as she rubbed her wrist. It was only when she stepped behind her that Poppy relaxed. 

"Poppy, you don't have to—" Alisaie's hushed words were cut short when Poppy lifted a hand to silence her. She stepped towards the other knight who looked rather pleased with himself. 

"Compliance suits you far better than that nasty attitude you had before, kitten," he said, practically cooing at her as he bent over to get closer to Poppy's height. She could smell the ale on his breath as he spoke, but still looked up at him, mustering the most pleasant and sweet smile she could manage. 

"Is that so?" she asked in a whisper, playing coy with a tilt of her head as she leaned in. She clenched her first when the man smirked. "Well, I'm sorry to say that smugness doesn't suit you."

Her fist swung upward, metal grazing flesh and bone with enough intensity to shatter, though she held back just enough to not completely break his jaw. When the man reeled backward with a surprised yelp and clenched his bloodied face, Poppy couldn't help the flood of dark, inky satisfaction that warmed her, not unlike how the dandelion ale had.

"Lay a finger on my lady again, and this kitten will tear your throat out." Poppy spat the warning up at him. It was just as piercing as the sharp end of the blade that hung from her hip, unused.

She felt Alisaie grab her hand, tugging with enough force to snap her out of her angry haze. She let herself be pulled along behind the taller woman, who shot her a look that bespoke shocked thankfulness. They ran hand in hand, ascending back up to the Pillars that swallowed them up in darkened, cloaking shadows lightened only with fresh flakes of snow that they disturbed in their escape. 

Poppy chanced a look over her shoulder. She saw the man lean against the entrance of the Forgotten Knight, one hand on the frame of the door while the other still held his face. He seemed to be conversing with someone inside. Before Alisaie pulled her around a corner, she caught sight of orange eyes in the darkened hall beyond the knight, flickering like a pair of coals. 

Something buzzed again in Poppy's ears.

 


 

The clouded sky was heavy with snow. Downy flakes fell like puffs of dandelion and threaded together to form a thin blanket that draped itself over the Leveilleur manor. Not even the violets were spared, wearing white caps that made their weary heads droop as they slept on their hedges in a fitful, chill slumber. A breeze blew and made the blooms shiver in their beds. Poppy shivered with them as Alisaie lead her through a narrow alley to the rear entrance of the estate. 

She paused at the gate and peered over it to see if the coast was clear. When she saw no guards, she unbolted the latch and slipped through, tugging Poppy along behind her. Alisaie picked her way across the silent courtyard. She followed a trail of footprints that was likely left by the knights who made their rounds, already partially hidden by fresh snow. 

Thin beams of moonlight managed to push their way through the clouds overhead to cast a cold, bluish glow across the otherwise monochrome courtyard painted in shades of white and grey. It made the patch of glittering orange lantern light that spilled across the snow around the far corner of the manor all the more obvious. They both ducked down instinctively in fear of getting caught. Alisaie pulled Poppy to the right, away from the manor, and lead her to the abandoned greenhouse that sat at the center of the courtyard.

They both slipped past the glass door and crouched down. It was only after the pair of knights who walked past disappeared that Alisaie let go of Poppy's hand. The knight lamented the loss of the scrap of offered comfort, as the warmth of the other woman's hand had pierced through even the cold metal and leather of her gauntlet. Still, when she and Alisaie exchanged a look of relief, they both shared a fragile laugh. It was all they could think to do, perhaps, as the events of the evening unfurled around them like the fresh sheet of snow that covered the glass structure they found themselves in. 

Alisaie moved first. When she looked down at her palm and noticed faint specks of red, she grimaced and stood. She made her way to the center of the greenhouse where a lone table sat. Poppy looked down at her gauntlet and saw the offending knight's blood stain the plates, already dark and partially frozen.

"I would say you have announced yourself quite loudly," Alisaie said from across the room.

Her voice echoed off panes of frozen glass, amplifying the amusement in her tone. She picked her way through the mess on the table to retrieve a rag and a tiny shard of what looked to be a water crystal. Poppy let out a sharp breath that was meant to be a chuckle, but the sound was choked from the cold. She shivered and crept a few steps closer to the center of the garden where she slumped down onto the frigid stones. 

"Aye. Now all of Ishgard will hear about the unruly knight of House Leveilleur," she said a mite bitterly, though she still grinned. "I sure did sniff out some trouble, didn't I?"

She worked at the buckles of her gauntlet and managed to pull it free with a few fumbling tugs to reveal a cluster of small cuts and the beginnings of a bruise on her bare knuckles. Alisaie was crouched before her a moment later with the rag in hand. She frowned down at the bloodied marks. With a tug at the aether tucked inside the swaddled crystal, she urged water to the surface of the cloth to dampen it. 

"Was this trouble...relevant to our situation, I wonder?" 

The question hung in the air between them as if frozen in place. Poppy thought of Ul'dah and hemlock tea and the man with the knife. She winced when Alisaie brushed the damp rag against her hand. 

"I don't think—" the knight began to shake her head, but cut herself off when she remembered the ember-like glow of orange eyes. She worried a chapped lip beneath the point of her fang. "I'm not sure," she admitted. 

She glanced up to see the tension that sat between her charge's snowy brows. The other woman cradled her hand in her own and worked away the blood on her knuckles with a pointed gentleness. Poppy saw the mark on her wrist; a faint pink line that stood out against pale skin where the man had grabbed her. Shame slid between her ribs like a knife as she heaved a frustrated sigh. 

"All I know is that I'm a hypocrite," Poppy muttered. Alisaie flashed her a look of confusion, and the knight continued, "I was going on and on today about not being angry. Now look where my anger got us." 

"Anger isn't always so bad," Alisaie said, almost wistful. "You were just defending me, after all." She still held Poppy's hand in her own even after the blood was gone. The knight shook her head.

"All I did was get you hurt, and likely in trouble when your father finds out."

"Oh, I doubt it," Alisaie said, sounding confidently dismissive. "Who will listen to the ramblings of a knight returned from a drunken evening at a tavern? Certainly not my father." She smiled a bold little smile that managed to pull a breathless laugh from Poppy. 

"You're a handful. You know that?" Poppy grinned, but shame still pricked her when she looked at the other woman's tender wrist. She pulled Alisaie's hand up towards her face. 

"Well, whether or not this trouble means anything more, I hope I've made one thing clear to everyone in this city," she said and paused to drag her thumb across the faint bruise that formed on her lady's skin. Something dark and pointed brushed against her mind. "No one will hurt you again." 

When she looked up, Alisaie looked back at her with a guarded sort of softness. Her rosy lips parted as if to say something, but no words came out. Only her eyes wordlessly expressed something that terrified Poppy in its silent warmth. She let go of the other woman's wrist, as if she might be burned by the lingering touch. 

"...or any of your house. Not while I'm here," she amended.

Alisaie inhaled a quiet, sharp breath. "Thank you, Ser Poppy, for your dutiful service," was her hushed reply. 

Dutiful. The word stung a bit. Poppy tossed her head back to look around the silent garden. 

At first glance, it seemed to have been abandoned rather hastily. Empty pots and bare trellis were scattered about without care. Unopened bags of soil sat near them. Shears and spades and all sorts of other tools were hung neatly on a rack near the table, covered in a thin sheet of frost that glistened like frozen dust. It was as if the doors were shut one day and not opened again until that night, where everything was left to wither.

"Say, why isn't anything growing in here?" Poppy asked, voice cracking through the silence. She felt Alisaie shift before her at the sound of the question. 

"It used to be my mother's favorite place. We...haven't touched it since she passed."

Poppy sucked in a shaky breath. She had figured that was the case when no Lady Leveilleur was ever introduced to her. The realization still stung all the same.

"I'm sorry to hear that," she said softly, ears flattening in apology, but Alisaie shook her head. 

"She had a good friend at House Haillenarte who shared with her the secrets for gardening before anyone else knew. She quickly lost that friend when she told those secrets to anyone who asked." Alisaie paused and Poppy was glad to see her smile. "Planting things was an act of defiance against the endless winter, as she called it, and not something to be quiet about. She grew so much here. Herbs, small fruit trees, so many flowers—though, tulips were always her favorite. They grew in every color imaginable."

When she looked around the empty garden again, Poppy felt that she could almost see the ghosts countless colorful blooms. 

"Why not plant some more? It should be easy with those special Ishgardian tricks of yours," she said. 

Alisaie was quiet for a moment. When she stirred, she spoke with a sad little smile. "It felt wrong for a long while to even be in here. But perhaps..." she paused to wet her lips. "Perhaps the time is right now."

"I can help," Poppy offered, feeling meek suddenly. "I know a thing or two about botany."

"A knight and gardener? You truly are an oddity." Alisaie chuckled, but it was a fragile, uncruel sound. "I would appreciate that." 

The troubles of the evening seemed to melt away when the two of them shared a smile. The warmth of the exchange was no less terrifying than before. Poppy exhaled, hoping the feeling would dissipate on the cloud of breath that pushed past her lips. 

"You should get inside, my lady. Can't have you catching a cold on top of everything." 

Alisaie nodded and stood, but looked puzzled when Poppy didn't stand beside her. The knight reached for the discarded rag and her gauntlet. 

"Go ahead. I've still got to clean up my mess," she said.

"All right, but don't stay out here for long. It wouldn't do for you to catch a cold either," Alisaie said, smiling that wry smile of hers before she reached the door. She paused to peer outside, and opened it when she confirmed the courtyard was still empty. The wave of cold air that rolled in made Poppy shiver.

"My lady," she called after the other woman, who paused. Poppy felt like she shrank beneath the icy blue gaze that turned back to her. "Don't think you can weasel your way out of lessons just because we were out late," she said, words crackling like brittle ice despite her humor. "Bright and early tomorrow."

"Of course. I would not dream of skipping any of your valuable lessons, dear knight," Alisaie said with a smirk. "Good night, Ser Poppy." She offered the seated Miqo'te a final smile before the door clicked shut behind her.

Poppy was left alone in the dead garden. The panes of glass held up with filigree strips of metal strained under their snowy burden as they creaked quietly above her. The knight dropped the bloody gauntlet and curled in on herself, drawing her knees to her chest, and frowned against the cold plates of metal pressed around her legs. She was unable to shake the apprehension that snaked around her neck like an itchy woolen scarf.

Silently, she vowed to be a more dutiful knight—and nothing more.

A small drawing of a bright yellow dandelion flower.

dandelion : enduring faithfulness, symbol of oracles

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a sprig of lavender with a green stem and a cluster of purple buds.

Morning hung around the manor like smoke. The fog was thin and pearly, painted peach by the rising sun as it veiled the courtyard in a sheet still heavy with dreams. Alisaie yawned, adding to it with her own breath, and slipped down the stairs with a sleepy sort of urgency. A basket hung from her arm, heavy not with dreams but instead with cookies pulled from the oven less than a bell before. The warmth of it pressed pleasantly against her side.

Despite the snow, she felt spring nip at her heels with every step she took. She felt it in the light breeze that pushed past the heavy wool of her skirt to bite at her legs with less intensity than usual, and saw it on the cheery and not nearly as rosy faces of the knights who greeted her during their morning rounds. The change in season was come. Alisaie still pulled close the shawl draped across her shoulders when she descended upon the courtyard, feeling the morning air fill her lungs with icy needles. Spring came, but—as in the proper Ishgardian fashion—was always slow to arrive. 

As she picked her way through a patchwork of frost and snow, a bright glint caught her attention from the center of the yard. The greenhouse stood there as it always did with its filigree curls of steel holding panes of glass that sparkled beneath morning light. The structure had been wiped clean of the snowy burden that usually sat atop its elegant frame and the glass was made nearly opaque by a dewy fog that clung to its surface. The sight of it in use again felt so oddly foreign. Seeing the door ajar, Alisaie approached the structure just in time to see the house's elderly gardener poke his head out. 

"Ah, Lady Alisaie! Good morning," he called out. Just like the greenhouse he emerged from, fog clung to the glass of his spectacles. He still smiled despite the obstruction, to which Alisaie smiled in return. 

"Good morning Bastien," she said. The gentle warmth that rolled past the cracked door was pleasant, making her next question sound all the more cheerful, "How fares the garden?"

"Quite well, my lady," he replied. "The first seeds have already taken root and seem to be doing just fine. It won't be long before my work bears fruit. Pun intended, of course."

Seeing the light wrinkle in Alisaie's nose at his wit, Bastien chuckled to himself as he bent over. He picked up a bag of soil that sat near the door with much enthusiasm despite how he strained slightly under the weight.

"I'm glad to hear it's going smoothly. My mother would be pleased to see this place in your capable hands once more," Alisaie said and nostalgia seeped into her words as she thought of years past.

The sight of colorful flowers, the smell of herbs, the taste of freshly picked berries—it all hit her at once in a bittersweet wave. Peering past Bastien revealed none of those past reveries, but gave her hope for the future when she saw rows of freshly tilled planters. 

"'Tis an honor and joy, truly. Though, if my lady would permit me to pry..." he trailed off for a moment to set the bag down inside the garden. After wiping his gloved hands free of loose dirt, he continued with a bit of caution, "You were quite adamant about leaving it be for the longest time. What has changed your mind?" 

As Alisaie mulled the question over, she looked up and saw the glittering bits of frost that clung stubbornly to the metal frame despite the warmth that came from inside. A smile pulled up the corners of her mouth unbidden as she thought of the night nearly a week past when she and Poppy found themselves inside the garden.

"I had some encouragement," she said, sounding just a bit secretive. "The timing just felt...right, besides."

"I think your mother would concur. It has been far too long." Bastien nodded along in agreement, smiling wistfully before he caught himself. "Ah, before I forget—it seems my lady is not training with the Holy Knight this morning," he said, looking Alisaie over as if to note her lack of armor. 

"We've postponed it until later. I've a few errands to attend to," she replied. Her blouse and skirt and the basket she held had likely already suggested so. "Why do you ask?"

"If you happen to be near the markets, I would ask you to pick some seeds for the garden. The flowers should be your choice, after all," Bastien explained. He looked back at a row of planters that sat nearby, empty and still untouched. Alisaie was warmed by the thoughtfulness of the sentiment.

"Of course. If there anything else you might need?"

The gardener thought for a moment, but shook his head. "I doubt any at our Crozier would carry soil from La Noscea." He paused and a bemused expression crossed his face. "Ser Poppy scolded me for not using it."

"Did she?" Alisaie asked, unable to hold back her surprise. Bastien nodded in reply.

"Certain La Noscean soils promote healthier growth and higher quality blooms, apparently," he explained. "She knows quite a bit about gardening for someone of her stature and certainly isn't afraid to say so. She's a fiery one, that knight of yours." 

Through Bastien's laughter, Alisaie felt her face flush a bit at his use of the word yours. She cleared her throat to regain her composure. 

"Perhaps we can have some some shipped in. If the House of Lords meeting goes well today, it should not be so unattainable," Alisaie said, then clutched her skirt to offer the gardener a brief curtsy. "I should be off for now. Goodbye, Bastien. Thank you again for taking care of the garden."

"And I thank you for enduring an old man's ramblings. Farewell, my lady," Bastien said, offering her one last smile as he bent into a bow. 

With that, Alisaie excused herself and made for the front gates of the estate. While the knights on guard let her through, one of them cleared her throat to speak up:

"My lady—the Holy Knight informed us that she would await you at the Arc," she said, sounding hesitant. "Would you like us to escort you there?"

Alisaie tried her best to not be annoyed. Really though, her father's insistence on being watched like a hawk was starting to wear her patience thin. Having to be chauffeured around the city was bad enough.

"That won't be necessary. It's only a few paces away," she said just a mite curtly. Luckily, the knight conceded with a nod despite how hesitant she still looked and Alisaie turned away before she could change her mind.

She made her way down the boulevard with unhurried steps, eyes fixed on the Arc of the Venerable that towered before her. It was a testament to the industrious nature of the neighboring House Durendaire with spires that pierced like great swords through the clouds that hung low over the Pillars. The structure glittered, silvery among the pale, gossamer swaths of fog. She somehow wasn't surprised to see a knight perched on its walkway when she approached. 

Poppy was balanced not on the walkway itself but rather on the railing overhead, standing tall and proud despite the danger of the position. She seemed unbothered by the height and was motionless enough to look like a statue that peered across the city that stretched beneath her scrupulous gaze. Only her cloak moved as it curled around the shield strapped to her back. A rich purple marked by the Leveilleur crest danced across her, contrasting against silver armor tinged pink with the morning sun. Alisaie felt a thrill of pride pass through her at the sight of a Holy Knight baring the colors of her house, and Bastien's words played through her mind once more:

That knight of hers.

The words stung like an icy droplet of water on skin. It felt wrong to even think. Someone like Poppy was no possession to be had. She pushed the thoughts and the warmth that came with them away despite how pleasant they felt in the morning chill. 

"Good morning, Ser Poppy," Alisaie called up to the other woman. The knight stirred from her apparent vigil at the sound of the greeting, ears shifting back a fraction towards her.

"Pretty city you've got," she called back, tilting her head as she looked out to admire the skyline, sounding almost wistful. "Shame it's so damn cold." Poppy glanced down in an accusing way as if the eternal winter were caused by Alisaie, who couldn't held but smirk in return.

"But spring is here. Can you not tell?"

Poppy tossed her head back and scoffed at that, which made her breath billow above her like a cloud of smoke that rolled from a dragon's maw. "You Ishgardians have a nasty sense of humor," she replied.

She heaved a dramatic sigh before she—rather dangerously—turned on her heel atop the railing. Without another word and before Alisaie could protest her haste, Poppy picked her way down the side of the Arc in measured hops with all the grace of a knight dragoon. She landed before Alisaie with a clatter of cold steel a moment later, looking quite pleased with herself at the dangerous display.

"So, where are we off to today, my lady?" 

"Just a few simple errands," Alisaie replied, choosing not to comment on the knight's posturing. "One of my previous tutors has recently been promoted within the Scholasticate and I'm being sent to offer her congratulations." She lifted the basket and nudged the cloth covering it aside to reveal the assortment of cookies. She noticed how Poppy's eyes lit up at the sight of them before the cloth was replaced.

"Being sent, eh?" she asked, eyes flicking up from the basket to her with curiosity. "You don't sound too keen on going."

"It's was Alphinaud's idea, though he has decided to glue himself to my father's side for the time being and left the task to me," Alisaie explained. The words came out a bit clipped with annoyance at playing errand girl and the thought of meeting with the stern, stoic tutor who had always favored her studious brother over her. "I'd also like to stop by the Jeweled Crozier to pick up some seeds for the garden," she added and paused to raise a brow before she continued, "I hear you've been terrorizing our gardener over his choice of soil."

Poppy would have seemed affronted had she not grinned in such a way that made her look less than innocent. "Terrorize? Such a strong word," Poppy said, sounding incredulous, and waved a hand dismissively at the accusation. "I had a few suggestions, is all. Come on—" The knight turned on her heel once more. "If you're going to drag me all over the city, we'd best get started now."

"Being forced to have a chaperone isn't exactly thrilling for me either," Alisaie called after Poppy, who seemed to feign not hearing her. She sighed and followed after the knight regardless. 

 


 

In the time between sermons, a shroud of pensive silence was draped across the massive hall of Saint Reymanaud's cathedral. Only the most pious devotees remained while handfuls of young Scholasticate students milled about in their preparations for the next mass. The sound of Alisaie's hurried footsteps echoed around her in a way that made her feel like an intruder in the quiet place. The heaviness of the air in the church made her realize that she didn't blame Poppy for wanting to wait outside. But, with the burden of the basket gone, she was free to escape.

Her tutor had accepted the gift without much more than a tight-lipped smile and clipped thank you. That was to be expected, seeing as the woman was never one for small talk or pleasantries, but the mild disappointment written on her face to see Alisaie rather than her brother had admittedly stung more than anticipated. Alisaie could have brushed the cold reception off had she not been asked if she still played at being a knight. Oh, how that had nearly made her let loose her sharp tongue.

Mood soured, Alisaie made for the cathedral's exit with haste, not intending to linger more than she had to. When her gaze happened to fall towards the far end of the hall on her way out, she paused with sudden surprise at who she saw.

Patches of light fell across the knight who stood there in a shifting blanket of color that filtered in through the stained glass surrounding Halone's towering form. The bouquets of blue flowers piled around the statue's feet were painted by the same light. They were freshly cut for the next service as evidenced by the dew of frostmelt that still hung onto the petals and reflected tiny, scattered rainbows across the floor.

Alisaie watched Poppy crouch down to take a flower. When she stood again she looked up at the Fury with either reverence or defiance—she couldn't quite tell which it was. Halone stared back at the Warrior, equally as stony and impassive. Alisaie hesitated for a moment before she approached, slow and almost meek, feeling that she perhaps intruded on a private moment.

"I thought you'd be outside," she said in a hushed tone as to not startle the other woman. 

"I was," Poppy replied without moving her gaze from the statue. "I got cold."

The sheepish way she said it nearly made Alisaie laugh, but she held her tongue when she saw how somber the Warrior looked. It was a far cry from her previous jovial mood, stark in its difference. She glanced at the single flower Poppy held, which seemed tiny in the gentle grasp of her gauntlet—a mere blue pinprick against silver.

"The flowers are left here in remembrance of those fallen during the war," Alisaie explained and gestured down to where the rest of them were piled at their feet. She glanced back up at the knight, weighing her next words carefully, "They're for the Warriors of Light in particular." 

After a breath of silence, Poppy chuckled. "Forget-me-nots. A bit on the nose, isn't it?" She twirled the flower's stem between her fingertips and stopped only to glare at it in a sharp way that quickly pierced through her humor. "They weren't here the last time I was in this church," she added in a whisper.

"You've been here before?" Alisaie asked, both curious and surprised.

She thought of how Poppy had balked at the doors and saw how her expression shifted then upon hearing the question, turning slightly sour. She nodded, but said no more to elaborate her sudden admittance, as if she hadn't meant to say it out loud. It seemed that Poppy's experiences in Ishgard ran deeper than she realized.

"When I was younger, we would wear these as rings," Alisaie said after choosing not to pry and reached for Poppy's hand to take the flower from her. With deft and quick fingers she wrapped the long stem around the thumb of the Warrior's gauntlet and twisted to pinch it in place. "Friends would exchange secrets and promise to never forget each other. It was a silly little game."

Alisaie chuckled and hoped the levity of the gesture would lift the somber mood, but the press of cold metal on her bare skin nearly made her shiver. Poppy's hand rested atop hers in the space between them, where the forget-me-not winked up at her with its little yellow eye. The knight smiled, but it was an expression twisted with something darker.

"Silly and cruel," she murmured.

Just as before, she looked up at Alisaie in an accusing way, but there was no humor in it then—only a faint thread of sadness. Alisaie stared, unsure what to do, feeling like she'd said the wrong things. She was glad when the potent scent of perfumed ash broke the stalemate between them. Turning to find the source of the intrusion, she was startled to see the man who approached with a smoky pomander in hand. 

"Oh, Alisaie! I wasn't expecting to see you here," he said in greeting and paused to wrap the chain of the metal container from a hanger near the statue. The wisps of floral smoke that poured from it made her nose burn a bit. "Come to enjoy the midday sermon?" he asked as he turned, silvery eyes crinkling with a smile as they fell on her. When his gaze found Poppy, surprise tinged his expression.

"Good morning, Bertramont. We've just stopped by for a quick errand," Alisaie replied and offered the man a small smile. She looked back at Poppy, whose hand she realized she still held, and quickly pulled her own away to gesture to the Warrior. "This is Ser Poppy, the knight who is temporarily serving my house. I'm sure you remember her from the nameday celebration last year."

"How could I forget?" There was an edge of humor and something else that Alisaie couldn't quite place to Bertramont's tone. His gaze shifted to the knight, who he considered for a moment. "Well met, Ser Poppy. 'Tis a pleasure to formally make your acquaintance," he said and politely inclined his head towards her.

"Pleasure's all mine, my lord," Poppy replied with matched politeness and bent into brief bow. When she rose, a flicker of recognition crossed her face. "Oh, right, I remember. You're the one I stole the dance from. I hope there's no hard feelings about that."

The knight grinned up at the tall man, seeming to shed her somber mood in an instant. Bemused, Alisaie glanced at Bertramont to see him look a bit surprised at her boldness.

"Oh no, of course not. You beat me to it, after all," he replied with a good-natured chuckle. In the moments of silence that followed, he cleared his throat and adjusted the tie at the neck of his uniform. The dark color of it marked him as a senior within the Scholasticate.

"Are your studies going well?" Alisaie asked, eager to change the subject and push past the awkward lull. A subtle frown tugged at Bertramont's lips at the question.

"They're being put on hold after the next moon, I'm afraid. My father is pushing for me to take his place as head of house far sooner than I anticipated," he replied. Alisaie was surprised to see the usually undeterred man look so openly dejected.

"His health is still declining, then?" she asked, assuming the worst.

"He was well enough to insist on attending the House of Lords meeting today," Bertramont said with a bit of humor to his tone. He brightened a bit, but still winced when he continued, "An honor which I'll have the pleasure of doing soon, I'm sure." 

Alisaie shook her head at the thought of stuffy meetings filled with petty arguments—ones her brother put himself through willingly, as he was doing right then. Though both he and Alphinaud were the studious types, Bertramont didn't enjoy politics much more than Alisaie did. They both shared a long-suffering look, during which Alisaie heard the shifting of armor beside her. 

"Ah, forgive us for boring you with idle gossip," Bertramont said, apologizing to the knight. "My late elder brother was meant to succeed my father, you see. Since the war claimed him, the responsibility has fallen to me," he explained. He looked Poppy over with eyes that were sharp for only a moment before his gaze became soft and sadly distant. "Much like yourself, he was a Warrior of Light."

"Warrior of Light?" Poppy looked taken aback by that. Her gaze was pulled downward towards the forget-me-nots, looking rueful. "I...I'm sorry." She offered the apology in a quiet, genuine way. Bertramont shook his head as a softened smile pulled at his lips.

"He was a good man who died honorably protecting all he held dear. I'm sure he's watching from Halone's halls as we speak, just itching to scold me for bemoaning my responsibilities," he said and managed another good-natured chuckle. 

In the second silence that followed, Alisaie saw how Poppy's hands clenched at her sides in obvious discomfort. Bertramont looked no more content than her, despite his smile.

"We should be going," Alisaie said in a quiet, urging way. "There are a few more errands I must see to." 

"Ah, there was...never mind, it can wait. I shan't keep you any longer," Betramont said, sounding apologetic.

He straightened his back and seemed to shake off his somberness in an instant. Before Alisaie could ask what he had meant, Bertramont reached out and, rather boldly, took her hand in his. To her surprise, he pressed a gentle kiss against it as he bowed. 

"Farewell, Alisaie. And farewell, Ser Poppy. I thank you for your service. It does my heart well to know the Leveilleurs are under your care. Pray keep your lady safe," he said, glancing over at the knight who watched the display with guarded interest.

"I intend to," was Poppy's reply, lightly curt and on the cusp of annoyance.

Alisaie's hand was released and Bertramont excused himself to attend to his remaining duties, leaving her feeling a bit disconcerted, but she shook it off. The Warrior was at her heel when they made for the exit of the cathedral, silent as a shadow. Alisaie wasn't sure whose stare was heavier on her back—the knight's or the Fury's.

 


 

The pattering of water droplets was amplified in the narrow alleys that lead up to the markets of the Jeweled Crozier. Drifts of snow and icicles that hung in rafters melted as the midday sun urged them to fall. She felt the city unfurl around her as it defrosted slowly, sleeply, ilm by ilm. Though it would never fully thaw, it was warmed just enough to bring a brief respite.

Ishgard took the first breath of what would become a sigh of relief. Alisaie breathed with it, relieved herself to be away from the stifling somberness of the cathedral. The Warrior trailed ahead of her by a few steps, still cloaked in uneasy silence. Alisaie frowned at the sight. She stopped in her tracks not a moment later when a sudden idea came to her.

"Poppy." The title fell away without her realizing it, as if melting along with the snow. "Do you like coffee?"

The knight turned back to look at her, mouth slightly agape. She was clearly confused by the question. "Coffee? I prefer tea but...coffee's all right, I s'pose. Why?" she asked, sounding somewhere between cautious and curious. 

"There's somewhere I want to take you." Alisaie extended a hand to the knight. "If you don't mind, that is."

Poppy observed her for a moment, perhaps just a bit hesitant, but still reached for Alisaie's hand. "It's not like I have much choice. Where you go, I follow."

She replied with utmost seriousness, but the crooked smile that tugged at the corner of her mouth suggested amusement more than anything else. Alisaie smiled in return and pulled the knight closer before she urged her to follow down the nearest alleyway with a tug at her hand. They walked in silence through the narrow lane with her in the lead and Poppy just behind her. The other woman's gauntlet was just as cold against her hand as it was in the church, yet somehow the sensation was more comforting than before. Alisaie only let go when they arrived at their destination.

The pair emerged from the labyrinth of alleys to an area near the descent to Foundation that sat on the very edge of the Pillars. They stood before an unassuming building that would have easily blended in among the rows of houses that surrounded it if not for the odd name etched onto the glass of its window: Thieving Magpie - Desserts and Coffee.

"A café?" Poppy asked, sounding surprised. She peered up at Alisaie in disbelief, looking like she'd been tricked. "This hardly seems like an errand."

Alisaie ignored the accusatory tone to climb up the steps, where the enticing aroma of baked goods hit her when she opened the door. She smirked over her shoulder at the knight and said, "I thought you were supposed to follow me everywhere."

Poppy's expression was tinged with mild annoyance and her ears shifted back while her tail twitched behind her, but she complied—though not without heaving a dramatic sigh. Alisaie paid no mind to the other woman's theatrics and stepped inside.

The café was as small as one would expect, with only a few tables strewn across the rough wooden floor as space allowed. The clutter of knickknacks littering shelves hung from the walls did little to make it feel more roomy. The wooden toys and dusty teacups and other such shiny oddities that filled the spaces between dried herbs and flowers hung from the rafters suggested the place was aptly named—it certainly looked like a magpie's nest. The surprising amount of people crowded inside reflected the fact that the treats and beverages were worth squeezing into the small space for. Nobility and common folk alike stood in line together, all looking content.

Alisaie picked out an empty table near the window—one where she often sat, though usually alone. Her unwilling companion seemed hesitant to sit. She placed a hand on the back of her chair and glanced around, looking just a bit uncomfortable to be so out of place. Other customers had taken notice of her, likely due to the polished plates and sword and the rare sight of a Miqo'te. The usually unflappable knight steeled herself after a moment and sat in a quick, defiant sort of way, flopping down hard enough to make her armor clatter against the wood of the chair. Her knees nearly pressed against Alisaie's beneath the tiny table in all her haste.

"So," she began and glanced around again to take in the ambiance of the place. Before she could say more, a clock chimed the hour from somewhere above them and a namesake of the café popped out of its wooden nest to chirp twelve times. Poppy's ears twitched at the sound as if surprised, but she regained her composure enough to continue, "Why are we here?"

Alisaie folded her hands on the table and stared down at them, feeling sudden embarrassment prickle her skin at the sound of Poppy's confusion. Perhaps it had been a silly notion to bring the knight there, but in the moment it felt like the right thing to do. The image of Halone's towering form with forget-me-nots piled high at her feet flitted through her mind and made something tug at her insides.

"I suppose I just wanted to thank you for everything you've done," Alisaie replied. She looked up at Poppy and was surprised to see the other woman watch her intently, expression hard as the Fury's had been.

"It's my job to be your dutiful knight for as long as I'm here. You don't have to thank me for that."

Your. There was that dreaded word again.

Alisaie wanted to protest, but the words didn't come to her quick enough before a plate of cookies was suddenly placed on the table between them, startling them both. In all the bustling activity of the café, Alisaie hadn't noticed the waitress who approached.

"Some cookies from Ms. Dianne. They're freshly baked. She wants to send you your usual drink too, if that's all right," the waitress said softly, looking a bit shy. She tucked a loose strand of dark hair behind a long ear and cleared her throat to speak louder, "She said it was all free of charge today."

Alisaie looked across the room to the counter where the line had grown out the door and saw the owner of the café spryly placing trays of fresh cookies in the display case. The elderly woman caught sight of the table through the crowd and straightened her back to wave, nearly displacing her spectacles and the tray she held in the process. Alisaie couldn't help but smile in return.

"Send my thanks to Ms. Dianne, though do let her know she needn't fuss so. I'm perfectly content with paying," she said to the waitress, sounding incredulous.

"She said it's a treat for one of her favorite patrons. You know how she insists," the waitress replied with a kind and knowing little smile. She paused to steal a glance in Poppy's direction and Alisaie swore she saw the young Elezen's face flush a bit. "And...she wanted to help welcome the Holy Knight to the city." The girl smoothed the front of her pinafore and turned to offer Poppy a wobbly curtsy. "Th-thank you for your service, Ser."

Before either of them could say anything the waitress was off, flitting across the crowded café with hasty steps. She disappeared less than a breath later after pushing through the kitchen doors. Alisaie heard a bemused chuckle and looked to see Poppy shake her head in disbelief.

"Looks like everyone's needlessly thanking me today. But...I can't say no to free sweets." She glanced down at the plate between them with barely restrained excitement and Alisaie was reminded of how her eyes lit up to see the basket of cookies earlier that morning.

"Well, go on," she encouraged the knight, nudging the plate closer to her. Poppy's faltering composure finally cracked.

She reached for a cookie with a smile on her face, but her hand paused above the plate, hovering there as the knight seemed to consider her gauntlet. After another moment of hesitation, she retracted it and undid the straps to take the armor off. Alisaie noticed how the forget-me-not was still twined around one of the thumbs and how Poppy seemed to take care to not disturb it when she placed the gauntlets aside.

With the clunky bits of metal gone, Alisaie could see that her fingernails were not as sharp as she remembered. Surprisingly, they were also lacquered and fluttered over the plate like little pink petals. When she finally took a cookie and bit into it, the knight's eyes went as wide as a child's on Starlight morning. The unexpected softness of the sight charmed her into a temporary silence. Poppy's delighted trance was only broken when Alisaie chuckled.

"What?" the knight asked, sounding offended and just a bit embarrassed.

"I wasn't expecting you to have a sweet tooth, is all,"

"We all have our vices. Even us Holy Knights," Poppy shot back in an instant. She puffed out her cheeks in a petulant sort of way and then finished the cookie in a single bite, as if to prove a point. She reached for another with no hesitation that time, and handed it to a bewildered Alisaie with a smirk. "Besides, I'm clearly not the only one with a sweet tooth. You must be a regular here to get such special treatment."

Alisaie accepted the cookie with a smirk of her own and watched Poppy relish in the taste of another. "That much is true. I've been coming here for years. Ms. Dianne has owned this place since I was a child," she replied, growing wistful as she glanced down at the cookie in her hands. She looked around to see the odd, motley group of patrons and felt something stir within her once more.

"Her baking is so wonderful that she always pulls in all sorts of people. Nobility, lesser houses, merchants, vagrants—they're all here without qualm, just enjoying themselves. It's incredible, really. Then at the end of each day, she gives everything unsold to the people in the Brume. She's been at it for years, even after the war claimed her husband."

Alisaie wasn't sure at what point she'd started rambling, but the words spilled out unbidden. When her eyes fell on the café owner who manned the counter with boundless zeal, more came, "I know this city may seem bleak at times, but—" she paused to look back at Poppy. "But there are things worth protecting, even here. I suppose that's also why I dragged you to this place: to show you why it is that I vied for your tutelage and why I endure your training."

Poppy's eyes hadn't left her at all while she spoke. They were sharp and appraising, but softened a bit when she reached for another cookie.

"Wise words, little knight," she said. Alisaie would have been offended by the moniker had it not sounded so genuine when the other woman spoke it. "Ul'dah's no better, really, so I'm a hypocrite when I'm harsh on this place. But, I've come to realize that there are things worth protecting here," she mused softly and looked up to meet Alisaie's gaze again. "Hold onto that feeling. It's the most important thing a knight can have, that need to protect."

The warmth of the look they exchanged was becoming a bit too familiar, perhaps. Alisaie still found herself basking in it despite how improper it was to relish in every second that the other woman gazed at her in such a way—understanding and attentive and something else, something that made her breath catch. That something urged her hand to slide forward on the table just enough to barely touch the tips of Poppy's bare fingers with her own. The sensation was soft, warm, and far more pleasant than the cruel metal that usually trapped the knight's hands. The touch was so gentle that it could have easily been missed, but Poppy noticed. She noticed and suddenly her expression shifted, becoming guarded and perhaps just a bit afraid.

A wall came up. Alisaie could nearly feel it sprout between them like a tangible thing made of stone and thorns that caused her hand to withdraw as if she'd been pricked. Poppy opened her mouth, but another interruption came to silence her before she even spoke.

"Coffee's here," the waitress said cheerfully.

It was a different girl than before; taller, with short blonde hair cropped at her chin. Alisaie couldn't help but sympathize with the other waitress who hadn't returned, given how embarrassed she herself felt in the moment.

Two mugs were placed on the table with effortless haste and the waitress offered a them both a quick nod before she went off to tend to other patrons. The two women stared at their respective drinks in silence for a moment while Alisaie scolded herself for causing the awkward lull. Poppy broke the stalemate first by reaching for hers.

"Lavender," she said after the first sip. Alisaie chanced a look to see the knight's face light up almost brighter than when she tasted the cookies. "In coffee? Twelve, guess I've been drinking it wrong for years," she added before taking another enthusiastic sip. The sight made Alisaie's mood brighten a touch.

"It's been my favorite for a while now. It's an unexpected combination, but somehow it works well," she said and finally took a sip from her own mug.

The floral sweetness of the lavender complimented the earthiness of the coffee in an indescribable way that warmed her to the core and chased away the lingering embarrassment she felt. She heard Poppy hum her appreciation in the time between sips.

"Thanks for bringing me here," the knight said after a moment of silence. "I don't get to indulge my sweet tooth often, but don't think this means training will be any easier. Bribery doesn't work on me." She peered over the rim of her mug, expression guarded but still just a bit warm. Alisaie offered her a cautious smile in return.

"I should hope not," she said, feigning surprise. "That is a vice not at all suited for a Holy Knight."

Poppy sneered at that and Alisaie chuckled. The bit of humor made the remaining tension that had formed between them melt away, not unlike the frost on the window beside them that turned to beads of water as the day drew on. Despite the relief, something still made Alisaie's heart clench with muted sadness like the stubborn tendrils of cold that lingered through spring. She compartmentalized the troubled thoughts and pushed them aside to let herself focus only on the taste of lavender and the sound of the Poppy's laughter, if only for those brief moments inside the café.

A small drawing of a sprig of lavender with a green stem and a cluster of purple buds.

lavender : silent devotion, caution

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a sprig of sorrel with a green stem and clusters of small red flowers.

The market was the liveliest place in the city—which didn't say much, in Poppy’s not so humble opinion. According to its name, Ishgard’s Crozier was jeweled. The piddling gems that adorned it, however, were dwarfed by the Ruby and Sapphire Exchanges of Ul’dah that shone bright in her memory.

She was used to coin-hungry hawkers shouting for attention. Gold-paved streets packed tight with an endless selection of wares. But there was no scent of flowers and spice. No billowing banners of all colors drenched in Ayzema’s warm sunlight. There was only a modest row of shops and stalls that lined a single cobbled street, spaced far apart and looking decidedly austere. Needless to say, Poppy was colored unimpressed. That color happened to be the same ashen gray that fell from beneath a constant veil of snow-heavy clouds like a dour cloak.

The wide lane echoed with a murmur of voices despite its thin numbers. They belonged to nobles who saw it fit to grace the day with their presence and the unfortunate souls under their service who toted their purchases or were sent alone on errands. Like an obedient pup on a leash, Poppy followed along behind her charge, realizing she was very much in the latter category.

Gods, she felt out of place. Cold and homesickness slid past her plates and into her lungs to force a sigh past her lips. The taste of lavender and fresh coffee were brought back to her tongue on the exhale. That was enough, somehow, to make the knight square her shoulders and look ahead towards the woman who’d given her that shred of comfort.

A crowd was still a crowd and a market was a place full of potential danger. The thought was a sharp kick that reminded Poppy of her duty.

"You really think they'll have the seeds you want here?"

The question pulled Alisaie’s gaze over her shoulder and curbed the edge of her brisk pace, just as Poppy had hoped. She fell into step beside the knight, returning to a safer proximity.

"They should. I'm not looking for any rare sort of bloom, after all," Alisaie replied with a nod. She let a tiny smirk pull up the corner of her mouth as she glanced down at Poppy. "I realize that this is no grand market, but we've got the essentials here. That and a bit more, if you know where to look."

It was as if she read her mind, but it was more likely that she simply picked up on the incredulous tone of Poppy’s voice. The knight's ears shifted back a fraction in mild embarrassment.

"It'd be nice to get something a little more exciting than tulips and daffodils, is all," Poppy snapped in reply. "You ever see a heliconia in full bloom? No? Of course not. I doubt you’d ever find those in your market.” She shrugged at the light scoff that her lady offered in return, but then waved a hand to shoo away her unnecessary defensiveness. A sigh followed to deflate her fully. “Well, I s’pose I shouldn’t say never. Rare flowers won’t be impossible if your father’s meeting goes well today."

With the bland state of the market, Poppy hoped she was right. Though, she didn’t say so out loud. Alisaie made a sound somewhere between another scoff and a sigh before she spoke.

"The only thing that arrives slower than a collective agreement made by the House of Lords is the spring's thaw," she retorted, mostly under her breath.

Poppy let out a chuckle at her lady's candor. It really was a charming thing—that tart honestly. However, she couldn't make a quip in return before the other woman paused before a stall.

"Here we are," Alisaie said with a polite incline of her head in the direction of stall's owner.

The pale, tight-lipped shopkeep looked like more of a statue than a man with how rigid he stood—arms crossed and back straight—but he softened at Alisaie's approach and his cold gaze warmed with a hint of familiarity. Her charge busied herself thus with pursuing packs of seeds and samples of soils. Boredom found Poppy shortly after.

Her gaze wandered to the surrounding shops, finding the expected fare. A tailor selling coats and mitts and warm woolen hats. An armorer pointing out a polished breastplate to an off-duty knight. A jeweler trying his damndest to sell a pretty gold necklace to a discerning noble woman. The baker in the stall beside the gardener's held out a pair of pretzels to two cheery children. They were steaming fresh from the oven, shaped into twists and studded with large glimmering flecks of salt. The sight made Poppy's mouth water, even with what felt like a ponze of cookies in her belly from the café.

It was no Ul'dah, but it was quaint—homey and hearty in a notably Coerthan sort of way, somehow warm through the chill. Perhaps she could understand Alisaie's insistence in wanting to protect it, given enough time.

Poppy continued to scan the thin crowds until her eyes landed on a stall across the lane. The wares were by no means odd or out of place. Books and a selection of woven rugs, it seemed. What was odd, however, was the man who stood before it. Rather than look at the things laid out for his perusal, his gaze was fixed over his shoulder—right over Poppy's head and directly on Alisaie's back. On instinct, the knight's hand found her belt and her fingers fluttered near the hilt of her sword.

As if sensing those minute movements, the man's gaze fell to her. He was rather unremarkable: a plain-looking Hyuran man with a mop of brown hair that poked out beneath a woolen cap. The moment he caught Poppy’s stare, he looked away without a shred of hesitation and busied himself with flipping through the nearest book.

"All right, I've got my seeds," Alisaie said from behind her. It was just enough to startle Poppy into looking over her shoulder. "Let's get going," the taller woman said and was already off, not bothering to wait for her knight.

Poppy fell into step beside her in an instant, but not before stealing one more look towards the opposite side of the Crozier. She found the book seller’s stall empty and the odd man gone. Disquiet roiled in her gut like a hot coal.

"Are we done here?" Poppy asked. Her charge answered with the direction she was headed, which was not towards the manor.

"One more stop," Alisaie replied. "Bastien's gardening snips have grown rusty and I'd like to buy him a new pair from the bladesmith. It's my fault they've seen such lengthy disuse, after all."

A relaxed fondness tinged Alisaie's words, but it did little to curb Poppy's desire to see her to safety. What was apprehension came off more like impatience when she spoke: "Can’t it wait 'til another day?"

"Eager to get back to the manor and punish me with more lessons, are you?" Alisaie shot back in an instant, sounding amused. "It won't take long. You'll just have to tolerate being my chaperone for a while longer."

Poppy bit her tongue at the light scolding, but let herself be led to the next stall. She was forgotten in the moments after when Alisaie settled in to discuss the details of gardening equipment with the shopkeep. Poppy forced herself to find a shred of rationality amid the paranoia.

It could've been nothing. Just the fleeting glance of a stranger, or the lingering gaze of a man leering at a pretty girl and then being embarrassed by getting caught, or perhaps even a friend of her charge. But there was something about the way he looked at Alisaie—cautious and almost appraising—that left the knight unsettled.

Poppy pressed herself close to Alisaie’s side. She flicked her gaze about as she did before, feigning boredom and trying not to seem alert. Before long she caught it: the glimpse of a shadow in her periphery and then a familiar silhouette huddled before the stall beside them. The knight pretended not to notice, but she felt his gaze again. It was fixed on her with enough persistence to raise her hackles.

"My lady." She turned towards the stall and let her gaze fall on the variety of blades laid out before her—kitchen knives and scissors and such that glinted up at her in a menacing way. A gentle touch to Alisaie's elbow and an urgent whisper followed, "Don't look now, but I think we're being followed."

Alisaie’s inspection of the gardening snips she held faltered for only a moment before she began to turn them in her hand again. “Who?” she asked in an equally urgent whisper.

“Man to our right. Midlander with brown hair and a dark green cloak. Recognize him?”

Alisaie reached for her purse to retrieve a few coins. Poppy noticed her eyes flick to the right. “No,” she murmured, confirming Poppy’s suspicions. “What should we do?” She sounded wary, but kept calm to the knight’s relief. She even managed to smile at the shopkeep while she paid for the snips, acting as if nothing was wrong.

“Just follow my lead.”

After Alisaie tucked her purchase into her bag, Poppy stepped away from the stall. She held an arm out to the other woman and spoke with utmost politeness, “Where to next, my lady?” She tilted her head to the left—a subtle movement meant to only be discernible to Alisaie.

Noticing the gesture, Alisaie flashed another smile. It wasn’t quite fearful—more annoyed or offended at their pursuer for having the gall to inconvenience them, perhaps. Seeing her charge’s fire made fondness bubble up within her, she realized, which Poppy pocketed to examine at a more convenient time.

Alisaie reached out and accepted her arm, no matter how awkward it was with the disparity between their heights. “Just a few more stops down the lane,” she said and gave Poppy a tug to their left.

As they turned, Poppy saw a figure clad in dark green shift just out of the corner of her eye. The hunt was afoot, it seemed. She didn’t quite like being the prey.

Arm in arm, they made their way down the slope of the Crozier, where the lane grew narrower. With a tighter space to navigate and stalls pressed a mite closer together, the crowd became noticeably thicker as they neared the descent to Foundation. Swaths of people closed in around them and broke again in a patternless rhythm.

Poppy felt eyes on the back of her neck and the Echo hummed the pulse of a dull warning in her ears. There was no denying it at that point—they were in danger. Had she been a greener Holy Knight, she would’ve panicked. But she was no fledgling Warrior and simply kept her eyes on the peripheries of the lane to find what she needed: a perfect place to slip into an alley and disappear. The knight felt her charge give her arm a gentle squeeze, which seemed to speak Alisaie’s trust in her without words as she was lead down the lane. Poppy would see to it that that trust wasn’t misplaced.

As another group closed in around them, she saw a gap in the buildings beside a nearby stall. There was a rush of adrenaline that tensed her muscles, readying her to spring into action. She didn't get a chance to.

A passerby rushed past at full tilt. They collided into Alisaie’s shoulder with enough force that she let out a sound of surprise and let go of the knight’s arm as she dropped her bag. Poppy whirled around, bristling with agitation and inclined to yell after the stranger for their rudeness. But they were no more than a billowing brown cloak that was soon swallowed up into another meandering pack of people. She let out a huff instead and bent down to retrieve Alisaie’s things. As she rose, her gaze flicked up and locked with that of their pursuer.

The man stood the length of several stalls behind them. He was frozen in place, looking back at Poppy, too stunned to make himself less obvious. They stared one another down for long enough to make one thing clear: they were aware of each other's presence. The flicker of annoyance behind his gaze read as a challenge.

“Ser Poppy—”

The knight straightened her back at the touch of Alisaie’s hand on her arm. Without breaking eye contact with the man, she gave the dropped bag back to her. Before her tongue could form a reply, a vivid red sheet suddenly unfurled before them. The shopkeep saw it fit to show off the large square of finely woven cloth to an interested pair of customers at a very prudent time. So prudent, in fact, that Poppy might’ve wondered if Hydaelyn had her hand in that scrap of luck. But she hadn’t the time to marvel the woven crimson filigree that paraded before her vision. By the time the billowing fabric settled back down, she and Alisaie were gone.

They flew down the lane, darting between bewildered people who barely had enough room to move for them to pass, fleeing like hares meant to escape the hound’s teeth. At the sight of the first opening, Poppy swerved towards it. She yanked her charge along beside her until they were both secure within sheltering shadows.

The alley was narrow, with just enough room for both of them. They stood face to face, pressed together between cold walls of brick, the sound of barely caught breaths heavy between them. The two of them stared at one another, wild and wide eyed, but the sound of fast approaching footfalls urged Poppy’s head to snap to the side.

“Gods damn it,” the man muttered. His breaths came out in shallow puffs that matched his hidden quarry’s, filling the air before him with thin clouds of white.

He was close—beside a stall that sat empty just ahead of the darkened entrance of the alley. All he had to do was take a few steps back and he’d be able to see them. At that uncomfortable proximity, a protective instinct made Poppy’s hands reach out and grasp Alisaie’s waist, tugging her closer as if to further shield her from view.

“Good job, you dolt.”

There were more footfalls and another voice. A familiar brown cloak came into view. Its wearer’s face was shielded by the hood, with only a few strands of blonde hair and the outline of a long ear visible past it.

“Couldn’t even keep a proper eye on her?” she asked, obvious exasperation dripping off the words.

“Your little run-in didn’t help,” the man snapped in return. He shot at glare at his companion over his shoulder.

“You could’ve went in and finished it all, here and now,” the cloaked woman hissed. “I gave you an opening.”

The implication of the words made Poppy’s grip on Alisaie tighten. It seemed the clumsiness of the rushed stranger was no accident. Something inside her keened with buzzing anger at it all, at their boldness, at the absolute audacity of their pursuers to think they could harm her charge. She stilled herself and continued to listen with rapt concern.

“What you did was give the knight a chance to get a look at me! As if I could’ve done a bloody thing with that hound at her hip,” the man replied with a hiss that matched his partner’s tone. “All we had to do was watch until the Lords’ meeting was through and you botched it,” he added.

The cloaked woman let out a quiet groan. “You just spooked them, is all. With the mess being stirred up, this little run-in’ll be forgotten.” She sounded confident enough to dismiss the man’s apparent fears outright. Then, as if remembering herself and where she was, she shook her head. “We shouldn’t be yapping in the middle of the sodding market. Come on.”

She slipped past her annoyed looking companion, who begrudgingly followed after her towards the descent to Foundation. The two women were left in their hiding place in the alley, frozen with shock but thankfully not found. Poppy was the first to make a sound as she let a held breath past her lips.

“I’m assuming you heard all that?” she asked, still whispering out of caution. Her eyes remained fixed on the crowds in search further danger.

“My ears are not as keen as yours, but I heard enough,” Alisaie replied. “It seems we’ve stepped into some trouble.”

“Trouble indeed.”

It was only when her head turned back that Poppy realized just how close they’d gotten. Her arms were wrapped around the taller woman’s waist, holding her in an awkward embrace. Alisaie’s hands had slid up her breastplate at some point to rest on her shoulders and her head was bowed enough that their foreheads nearly touched. Realizing this, neither of them moved.

The knight could see the snow of her lashes and the faint pink on her cheeks from where the cold bit her and smell the lingering whisper of lavender on her breath—their shared breath—that shifted the air between them. She looked surprised, but it was a gentle expression that fell from beneath those long lashes, one that stole the air from Poppy’s lungs. And for the barest hint of a terrifying moment, she forgot about the danger they’d just narrowly avoided. All she could think of was how achingly beautiful the other woman was.

Alisaie’s gaze fell, perhaps heavy from embarrassment, and the spell was broken. They didn’t yet pull apart.

“What troubles me is the mention of the House of Lords meeting,” Alisaie murmured, her expression stern. She looked up to scowl up at the sky, squinting to to judge the time. "It should be adjourned by now and I suspect that father will be home. I certainly hope he is.” When her eyes found Poppy’s once more, she could see the worry that lurked behind her crystalline gaze. “I don't like this one bit. Come—I can get us back to the manor through the alleys from here."

Duty nipped at her heels and her calves and all the way up her spine, jolting Poppy back into action. Her hands fell from her charge’s waist and it was only then that Alisaie stepped to the side—though not after what felt like a breath of hesitation.

“Lead the way,” Poppy said. At that, Alisaie reached out and took Poppy’s hand in her own.

The knight was lead through the labyrinth hidden behind the facade of the Pillars. She tried to make sense of where they were, to memorize the veritable maze she found herself caught in for any future such situations. The warmth that pushed through the thick leather of her gauntlet was an ample distraction, however, and by the time they emerged from the alleys, Poppy was a bundle of nerves.

The manor loomed ahead with its sheltering walls of violet. The sight brought her an onze of relief in knowing that they would at least be safe within it. Though, there was a certain tension that crackled in the air among the cold. The pair of guards stationed at the gate paused what seemed to be an urgent conversation when they noticed the two women approach hand in hand and out of breath.

“My lady!” one of them exclaimed at the sight of Alisaie. “You are well.”

“Has something happened?” Alisaie asked, sensing their apprehension. She let go of Poppy’s hand and moved forward, leaving the knight a step behind.

“The House of Lords Meeting,” the other guard began. “Something odd happened. Lord Leveilleur returned earlier than usual. He and Master Alphinaud seemed ill at ease.”

The first guard nodded in agreement. “Our lord urged us to usher you inside as soon as you returned. Pray go speak with him at once.”

Alisaie wasted no time in heeding that suggestion. Poppy followed after her, nodding in reassurance to the wary guards before she hopped up the steps after her charge.

The two of them entered the manor to find Alphinaud pacing slow circles in the foyer. His arms were crossed over his chest and he wore a rather serious expression that carved lines of worry into his pale face. Hearing the door open, he stopped in his tracks.

"What happened?" Alisaie asked. "Is father all right?"

“Alisaie.” Alphinaud exhaled her name as well as some of his tension, visibly relaxing his shoulders in relief. "He is, thankfully. The meeting, however, ended on a rather sour note.” He paused for a moment, glancing around as if worried someone would overhear. "I think it would be best if we discuss this in father's office. Come." He took a step further into the house with Alisaie close at his heels. Poppy followed after the siblings.

They made their way down a wing of the manor she hadn't yet explored at a brisk pace, where the family's private quarters were located. Large portraits of Leveilleurs long past hung from the walls between intricate tapestries woven in violet to match the rug they trod on. Poppy found herself unsettled by the stern gazes that seemed to follow after her. To her relief, the feeling didn't last long. They soon took a sharp turn into a far less menacing hall and stopped before a door, on which Alphinaud knocked twice.

"Come in," a voice called from inside.

Alphinaud opened the door and stepped aside to let her and Alisaie through. The lord of the house was there on the other side to greet them.

It was a spacious office that boasted a grand desk carved of dark wood. Tall shelves that matched it brushed against the ceiling and were packed tight with a countless number of books, framing the massive window that outlined the lord in the watery light of the afternoon from behind. It was a meticulously organized space, if the neat stacks of paper and immaculate bundles of quills and pristine, leather-bound grimoires were any indication. Poppy’s gaze wandered over jars of sparkling aetherial ink that caught her eye, but managed to pull herself back to attention.

"My lord," she addressed Fourchenault and dipped into a bow.

"Father," Alisaie said. She stepped closer to the desk, clearly keen to skip past the pleasantries. "Alphinaud informed me that something happened during the meeting. Is aught amiss?"

Fourchenault nodded to the knight, then turned his attention towards his children. His gaze was as even and scrupulous as ever, but something akin to worry sat on his brow. "I am afraid there has been a rather concerning development," he said, sounding grave. "There was an attack during the House of Lords meeting."

"An attack?" Alisaie asked, taken aback. "What do you mean? Was anyone injured?"

"No blood was drawn, thank Halone. Though some damage has been done," Fourchenault replied. "While we took our afternoon tea as per usual during a recess, a guard from House Autry—a Warrior of Light—was overcome by a vision. A brief glimpse of the future, as he said afterwards. When he came to, he was in a right panic and rather forcefully bade us to not drink." The lord paused to shake his head again, his expression tense from the memory. "The tea was poisoned. Every last cup, by his inspection."

"Twelve forfend," Alisaie murmured in surprise.

"Unfortunately, three lords had taken their sips before the Warrior could stop them. They will recover, I'm told. The healers were able to administer treatment before the poison took root."

"It was hemlock," Alphinaud added. "It can take up to three days to kill, we were told, causing inevitable respiratory collapse. A silent killer that would have left the true murderer’s hands clean.” A brief pause stalled the stream of grim information. “I'd thought it smelled a bit strange, but to think..." he trailed off, and his face twisted as if he'd just taken a sip of the bitter brew.

"Hemlock?" The word came out unbidden, practically a squeak of surprise. As the family's collective gaze landed on her, Poppy's blood went cold in her veins. She saw Eyvind's knife flash in her memory and the pile of tea leaves spilled at her feet. "Back in Ul'dah, Lord Lolorito had a shipment of tea brought in to impress his Ishgardian guests—meaning, you all," she explained, nearly tripping over the words. "It wasn’t his doing, but the tea was poisoned with hemlock. I caught it myself at the gate before it got to you."

A horrified silence sucked the air out of the room, replacing it with a chill. Not a sound was made for several long moments aside from the faint tick of the chronometer that sat beside the door. Alphinaud was the first to speak.

"It seems we've been followed home," he mused out loud, quiet and contemplative. He raised a hand to tap his chin in thought.

"I believe it is more likely that our assailant hails from the Holy See," Fourchenault said. He leaned back in his seat, tapping his fingers on the arms of the chair in a similar way to Alphinaud. "The tea was a different blend than usual. Something brought in from Thavnair, I was told. As you may guess, several of the lords in attendance were clamoring over the likelihood of our being sold poisoned tea by foreign merchants."

"Whoever it is means taint the others' reception on opening our gates,” Alisaie chimed in, “and they're clearly willing to silence all those in favor." She came to the conclusion based on the pieces laid out before them with tense, clipped words. Her father nodded in agreement.

"We were making good headway in swaying the House," Alphinaud lamented, his expression still sour. "This will certainly be a setback."

"That's not all," Poppy cut in. "Lady Alisaie and I were at the market just now. We were being followed." The words of their assailants flitted through her mind at once and made her tail lash behind her in anger. "We managed to lose them in an alley and I overheard a bit of their scheme. They were sent to keep an eye on us during the meeting. I think they meant to do harm."

Despite his still stoic demeanor, Fourchenault inhaled a sharp breath at that. "Thank the Twelve you were with her and not with me," he murmured.

"What are we to do now, knowing that there are multiple hands in this?" Alphinaud asked.

Poppy’s years of training kicked in, sending her mind into a frenzy of tasks that needed to be done. She was silently thankful it wasn't her first time handling such a situation, given the nature of safeguarding nobility.

"Tighten security. Station guards at every entrance and increase patrols, especially overnight. Make sure only your own cooks handle food, and have it all thoroughly checked. No one and nothing gets in without reason," Poppy said, listing each point out loud as it came to her, "and if the bastards behind this are bold enough to come to your front door, they'll have to face me," she added with confident ease.

Fourchenault nodded along in agreement with the suggestions. However, Poppy noticed his eyes narrow a hair towards the end. "Indeed. You have made a rather bold announcement of your presence, after all,” he paused, lips pursed, “if certain rumors that have floated up from our city's tavern are true."

Poppy’s jaw snapped shut in surprise. She and Alisaie exchanged a panicked glance that did little to make them look less guilty, to which Fourchenault sighed.

"I pray you understand that such outings are and have always been forbidden—especially from here on out. A Warrior of Light was meant to be a valuable asset to this house, not a detriment. You are to be Alisaie’s guard and her shadow, Ser Poppy. Do not put my daughter in danger again. Understood?"

The ice in his voice was sharp enough to cut through Poppy’s shock at the reprimand. It festered into anger as she parted her lips to very pointedly remind him that she’d simply followed his orders in announcing her presence. She managed to catch the words and swallow them before they could tumble out, remembering her place: a sword and a shield, and nothing more.

"Yes, my lord,” she said with enough strained politeness to sound apologetic. “It won't happen again.” She bowed. She could almost feel Alisaie bristle beside her, who took a step forward.

"Do not berate her, father. I insisted on going with her that night. She was only trying to—"

Alisaie meant to plead her case, but Fourchenault silenced her with a raised hand.

"We are fortunate that the man she assaulted was of House Lachapelle. Your friendship with their son has ensured that the irate knight did not press charges," he said. Something in his expression shifted slightly. "That reminds me. As if today has not been enough of a circus," he added the last bit quietly, more to himself, and sighed. "I have brought news from said house. While I hesitate to bring this up now, I feel it prudent to inform you. Lord Lachapelle has informed me that Bertramont has expressed interest in courtship. He asks for your hand in marriage."

Another silence filled the office, though that time it was tinged with shock. To her surprise, the announcement pierced Poppy like a lance, though she couldn't even begin to imagine how the recipient of the news felt. She chanced a glance at Alisaie, who looked to have gone a bit pale.

"Courtship? Absolutely not," Alisaie exclaimed. Her voice rose and her nose wrinkled to make her disdain of the situation fully clear. "I've no time for such frivolity. I'm to become a knight, not some blushing maid."

"Such frivolity is a part of life,” Fourchenault shot back, his voice rising to match his daughter’s tone. His patience was growing as thin as Alisaie’s, it seemed. “One that will be required of you—both of you—at some point. Regardless of whether or not you become a knight."

At being vaguely addressed, Alphinaud cleared his throat. "Father, with all due respect, is now the best time for this? We are in the midst of a potentially dangerous situation." He stepped forward to stand at his sister’s side, diplomatic as expected. Fourchenault’s ire seemed to cool a touch.

"Make no mistake—I do agree with that sentiment and have thus informed Lord Lachapelle of such," he replied. "Though, I have given Bertramont my blessing to pursue courtship at a more favorable time and informed his father that you will consider it," he added with a pointed look at Alisaie.

"Consider my answer a no."

"Alisaie. That is enough."

Alisaie and her father stared each other down with equal intensity. In that tense moment, Poppy realized just where it was that her lady's sharpness came from.

Fourchenault faltered first. He let out a sigh as he swept a hand over his forehead to rub his temples. "It has been a long, trying day," he said, sounding worn. "What matters is that we are all whole and hale. We will discuss this further at another time.” His attention turned to the knight. “Ser Poppy, pray inform our knights of the situation and work with them to put your plan into action."

Poppy bowed once more. "Yes, my lord."

Fourchenault looked back to his children. "As for you two." He looked them both over, his expression a mix between worry and relief and exhaustion. Such was the burden of a parent. "You are dismissed," he said and gestured with a hand to give them leave.

Alisaie was the first to move and turned on her heel to exit the room with all the intensity of a storm. Curt and annoyed in equal measure, if her slamming the door shut behind her was any indication. Poppy looked after her, unsure what to do. Behind her, Fourchenault let out yet another sigh.

"Just like her grandfather," he mused quietly. "Her candor will be the death of me, should these assassins fail."

The bit of dark humor put Alphinaud at ease, it seemed, and he chuckled to himself as he made for the door. Poppy followed after him, unsure if she shared in his levity.

What a grand mess she'd stepped into.

A small drawing of a sprig of sorrel with a green stem and clusters of small red flowers.

sorrel : parental affection

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a gladiolus stalk with several dark red flowers.

 

The sky was a patchwork. Each rung of the ladder took Alisaie closer towards it. Up and up she climbed, past windows framed by dormers and sloping roofs dusted with frost, closer to the heavens veiled in puffs of cloud that it wore like a tattered shawl.

The wind was brisk and fast, as it always was. Strong enough to tear the clouds up and reveal smatterings of stars that peeked down at her through the newly formed holes. Alisaie pulled her own shawl tighter around her shoulders, though it felt just as torn as the sky with how the chill still managed to seep in between each thread. On that night, she appreciated the cold. It tapered the edge of her blazing anger into a more manageable fire.

When she reached the platform the feeling was all but burnt out, left as no more than a few scattered embers that danced in her gut. She was filled with ash—bitter and listless and spent. The stars urged her forward with their winking eyes, almost scolding, and Alisaie followed them, stepping onto the narrow walkway suspended between the belltower and its tiny church. Such gloom wouldn’t do. This was her kingdom, after all. Her secret sanctuary from which she could watch the city from on high as it's silent queen.

That was what she used to think, anyway, in the early days of her youth when she would sneak away to explore the vast maze of structures that was more akin to a playground than the cage it felt like as of late. As Alisaie let her hands fall onto the railing, she was filled with some semblance of peace. There, at least, the dust could settle. As it always did.

She stared out at the city that towered all around her, high up enough to admire the imposing outline of the Pillars pressed against the darkened sky. The Cathedral loomed in the distance, casting shadows on gilded spires and elegant roofs of manors that sat far enough apart from one another to almost seem aloof. She didn’t have to look back at it to know that Foundation dipped downward behind her, where more modest, sturdy buildings were packed together, huddling for warmth among shared hearths. There, on the border between two worlds, the differences were stark.

It was little wonder that Ishgard tore itself apart from the inside. And her family happened to be caught right in the middle of the carnage.

Alisaie looked back up at the sky until her troubled thoughts turned inwards. Poisoned tea and stalkers in the market were a solemn procession that marched through her mind and into her father’s office. The audacity of suggesting courtship amidst such a mess… the thought alone was enough to rekindle the embers of her anger. She had half a mind to box Bertramont’s ears off the next time she saw him for even entertaining such things. And her father being oh so willing to play along—

“Who’s there?”

Even through the low howling of the wind and her own keening anger, Alisaie heard the distinct sound of feet tap against the wooden rungs of the ladder. She tensed, but a pair of ears soon peeked over the edge of the walkway, followed by a head of coppery hair. The eyes that found her were a familiar flash of teal, their brightness rivaling that of the moon.

“Oh,” Alisaie said, half out of surprise and half from relief. She exhaled, relaxing against the handrail again. “It’s you.”

Poppy flashed her a grin as she pulled herself up and hopped onto the walkway with a lazy sort of ease. “Disappointed to see me?” she asked, almost offended. “Ah—expecting an assassin instead, were you?”

Alisaie glared. “How did you find me here?” The question was more harsh than intended, her irritation seeping out into the chill night. Poppy, clearly unfazed, approached her with a soft, scolding tsk of her tongue.

“I followed you, obviously. Forget already that I'm supposed to be your shadow?” she asked, though it was less of a question and more of a pointed reminder. “You excused yourself real fast after dinner. Didn’t take long to figure out you’d run off somewhere.”

Poppy stopped a fulm short of her and leaned her elbows on the railing until the cotton of her shirt strained against the motion enough to catch Alisaie’s eye. The fabric shone satiny under the patchwork light of the moon, as dark and inky blue as the sky, contrasting against the snow-white of the breeches it was tucked in to. Still dressed for dinner, it seemed. It was quite bold of her to roam through the city at night with no armor. And it always surprised Alisaie to see how small and fragile and startlingly human the Warrior looked beneath her plates. The thought was enough to make her forget her irritation.

“Nice view,” Poppy said. Her lingering admiration of the skyline lead her gaze to Alisaie. “We even allowed to be up here?” She sounded amused and incredulous both, which made Alisaie doubt she would have cared even if the answer had been no.

“The belltower’s keeper never seemed to mind the handful of times I've run into him over the years,” she replied with a shrug, “so long as I leave the bell undisturbed.”

“Years, eh? You come here often.”

Alisaie looked back out at the city. She thought of the first time she wandered up the ladder and how vast the world seemed. Of the games of pretend stolen away in the times between lessons, living out her youthful dreams of being a gallant knight. Of the tears spilled in secret in the days after the death of her mother and then her grandfather. She shrugged again to push those heavier memories away.

“It's a good place to think.”

Poppy nodded, slow and considerate, as if she understood. Perhaps she did, having heard the slight tremble in Alisaie’s voice or just knowing innately thanks to her Blessing.

“And what’s troubling my lady enough to drive her so close to the heavens and into the damnable wind just to think?” Though the question was edged in sarcasm, there was genuine curiosity behind it. It seemed the Warrior of Light couldn’t read minds, at least.

“You were with me all day, shadow. You should know.” Alisaie’s own tartness stung her tongue like a drop of acid. She exhaled a rough sigh through her nose in irritation at both the situation and herself, watching the puff of air rise up to join the tattered clouds overhead. “I just… I thought this was over. But it followed us here from Ul’dah. To think I could have lost both my brother and father today...” Fear was thick in her throat and in her mouth, filling it up like cotton bolls that soaked up the rest of the thought.

“But you didn’t,” Poppy said. “They’re still alive, and so are you.” The words settled between them like the snow that sat on the nearby roofs. They were meant to reassure, but did little aside from stoke the embers within Alisaie again.

“Yes, but for how long? I can't protect them from an enemy I know nothing about,” she snapped in return. A scoff escaped her, but did nothing to relieve the sting of the words that continued to spill out, “and if we all manage to survive this ordeal, I'll be rewarded for the trouble by being forced into a marriage. Gods, what a bloody mess.”

The winds stilled then, perhaps bowing to her ire. Alisaie took a deep breath of the night, hoping to find relief in the chill. It didn't soothe her much that time. Beside her, Poppy tapped on the railing with her sharp nails and looked off into the distance with a scowl heavy on her brow.

“This Bertramont fellow,” she said, her tongue wrapping oddly around the name as if it tasted bitter, “you're not too keen on him, it seems. Not enough to jump at the opportunity to marry him, anyroad.”

The knight clung to her dismissive amusement, but Alisaie sensed something else there, sharp and dark behind her words and her eyes. She mulled it all over until her annoyance bloomed into defeat.

“We’ve known each other since we were young. He's soft-spoken and kind and rather open-minded despite his house’s more traditional leaning. He would make a good husband, I suppose.” Alisaie felt herself frown in the pause. “But he's…”

“—a man.”

The knight’s interjection came so abruptly that Alisaie’s mouth snapped close in surprise. She glanced over at Poppy, who looked back at her with a keen, knowing look in her eyes. It was a soft expression—brows drawn together and something akin to a grimace that pulled on her lips—and made Alisaie’s face flush with warmth. She winced, feeling as though Poppy had just brushed against a thorn wedged deep into her very heart.

“You’ve got the right of it,” Alisaie replied, almost quiet enough for her voice to be swept away by the wind.

Poppy nodded. A mutual understanding hung between them, silent and heavy. “Would your father really force you into it?” she asked after a moment, both in disbelief and what sounded like hushed anger.

“You heard him. It's an expectation that I'm meant to accept without question. I’m not being forced into anything if I simply comply, after all.”

“And if you don’t?”

The bright, moon-like glow of Poppy’s eyes found her once more. Alisaie smiled a bitter smile in return. The knight likely realized the futility of her question in that silent gesture.

The air felt heavy then. Poppy's head bowed beneath its weight and she glared out at the city for several long breaths. “All I can offer you is this,” she said. “Don’t worry about this courtship business and just focus on your lessons for now. Leave the safety of your family to me in the meantime.”

Alisaie wanted to believe her, but bitterness forced another scoff past her lips. “You won't be here to protect us forever,” she reminded her.

“All the more reason to take advantage of the time we have left.”

Alisaie looked over to find Poppy’s gaze on her and was surprised by how gentle the expression was. Encouragement quirked up the corner of her mouth into a lopsided smile and a certain softness dulled the harsh edge that had been in her eyes only a moment before. But she looked away after only a moment and shrugged, as if embarrassment sat heavy on her shoulders.

“There was something I wanted to give you,” Poppy said. She reached for her belt and pulled something small and silvery from beneath the folds of her shirt. “You'll need something to defend yourself. Since you're so keen on running off on your own, and all.”

The switchblade that she was offered caught Alisaie by surprise. It say heavy on her palm and she traced the patterns carved into the handle with the pad of her thumb, finding a floral filigree painted in crimson and green on the bone. The blade flicked out to reveal similar carvings etched into the metal that were accompanied by swirling words.

May all your wounds be fatal,” Alisaie recited out loud. “Very… poetic.” She didn't mention how morbid it actually was. Poppy chuckled at her reaction.

“Got a blacksmith friend back home in Ul’dah,” she explained. “Asked her to make me a nice knife that's easy to tuck away, and she did that and then some. Got a real flair for the dramatic, that one.” Fondness made its way into her words despite the exasperation she tried to convey.

“I think it suits you.” Alisaie wasn't expecting fondness to find her as well, but she frowned through it. “It must be very precious to you. I couldn't possibly accept this.”

She flipped the blade back into the handle and held the knife out to Poppy. The knight stared at it for a moment before she let out a sigh.

“Your life is more precious to me than a knife,” she said pointedly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Take it. It might come in handy.”

Poppy’s hand wrapped around Alisaie’s to press the knife against her palm. It was a firm gesture, almost like a wordless scolding, but softened the longer she lingered. The blade sat between them in the silence, cold for only a moment before it was warmed by their grasps. Alisaie’s other hand reached up to join it.

Her palm slid against the back of Poppy's hand, her fingers brushing across scarred knuckles as they wrapped around. Her skin was chilled from the sharp wind and Alisaie gave a gentle tug on instinct to draw her hand nearer, bringing Poppy a step closer as well.

“It’s cold," Alisaie murmured in soft, absent-minded sort of way. As if an explanation could mask her forwardness.

There was more she wanted to say, perhaps, but couldn't form the words, so touched was she by how thoughtful and caring the knight was. She looked down at Poppy's hand between her own, marveling over how small it seemed, and pulled it up towards her face to warm it with her breath. She didn’t dare to look Poppy in the eyes and stared instead at the knife’s floral handle that peeked up at her from between her fingers.

“Gladiolus flowers. An apt choice for a knight,” Alisaie said, recognizing the tiny, sword-like red blooms painted there by an expert hand.

You pierce my heart,” Poppy whispered. Had Alisaie not known that she spoke the flower’s symbolic meaning, she would have thought the words were directed at her. Warmth found the very tips of her ears regardless.

“You’re very knowledgeable in floriography, Ser Poppy. You never cease to amaze.”

Alisaie’s lips brushed lightly against Poppy’s knuckles as she spoke and, against her better judgement, she chose then to finally meet her gaze. The knight looked up at her through thick, dark lashes, her expression hard to read and smouldering with some hidden emotion. The smirk that quirked her lips made Alisaie’s heart flutter.

“You Ishgardians aren’t the only ones with an interest in the language of flowers, my lady,” Poppy said in reply, voice a bit rough and catching on each carefully spoken and quiet word.

Their stalemate went on for several thundering heartbeats. Alisaie soon caught it—that small flicker of what looked like fear that made Poppy flinch away. It made her wonder, like always, what had her so frightened.

“I'll leave you to your brooding, then,” Poppy said. “I'll be waiting at the bottom of the ladder, though. So don't spend the whole night up here.” Her brittle humor crumbled under her obvious discomfort. She took a step back and her hand ended up on the back of her neck, like she tried to rub the feeling away.

Alisaie didn't get a chance to say anything before the knight disappeared beneath the edge of the walkway, leaving her alone with only her thoughts and the wind and the stars overhead. The switchblade stared up at her from its place on her palm, heavy enough to ground her. Something about it filled her with a cautious hope and soothed the ache that the events of the day had left in her heart. With a final look out at the city, she made her way down the ladder.

“So soon?”

Alisaie looked over her shoulder as her feet touched the cobbled stones of the ground. She saw Poppy, who leaned against the nearby wall of the church, arms crossed and surprise writ on her face.

“I've done enough thinking for the night,” Alisaie replied.

“Works for me,” Poppy shrugged, “I've had enough of the cold anyway.”

The knight extended a hand. A small smile pulled at her mouth, as it usually did with her quips, and Alisaie was relieved to see it even after her hasty retreat. She took the arm offered to her and let herself be led in silence back towards the manor.

Alisaie felt the warmth of Poppy’s arm pressed against her, felt the wiry muscle beneath the fine cotton of her shirt, felt her own heart start its infuriating, quick thrum yet again. But she felt safe as well, she realized. Even after being swept into the dark embrace of walkways winding through cast shadows and the danger that lurked behind Ishgard’s glittering facades. And it was strange, how the knight’s presence had become such a welcome familiarity in so short a time—a time that would soon end, Alisaie reminded herself. They only had a sennight left.

“Thank you,” she said after a while, “for the knife and for everything else. I don't know how I could ever repay you for everything you’ve done.”

Poppy let out a thoughtful hum. “Repay me by staying out of trouble,” she said tartly. She waved her free hand to dismiss Alisaie’s concerns, but her tone softened before she continued, “and by becoming the best damn knight you can be. So I can at least sleep well knowing my mantle’s been taken up after I go back home.”

It was all too soon that her home came into view. Poppy’s request echoed in Alisaie’s ears with each step that took them closer towards the manor, strengthening her resolve. She gave the knight’s arm a squeeze to wordlessly speak what she couldn’t bear to say out loud: please don’t leave.

“I will,” Alisaie promised. And truly, she meant it. She would work to keep her family and her city safe, no matter the cost.

 

A small drawing of a gladiolus stalk with several dark red flowers.

gladiolus : you pierce my heart

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a white crocus flower.

The Jeweled Crozier was a different place at twilight. The setting sun spilled across the lane, slow and almost lazy, like a dog that stretched out before a hearth. The light caught the glass panes of shop windows in its blinding glow and scattered figments through snowmelt that dripped from roofs, turning the beads of water to rubies and amber. Thus the market was set alight with a warmth that fully befitted its name.

That warmth found Poppy too in the thread of the coming—now perhaps arrived—spring that tugged the very air in her lungs. She stretched her arms over her head and reached up into the gloam of sunset, letting out a little hum of appreciation that traveled through her body to make her tail flick languidly behind her. Gods, was it a relief. Nearly a sennight passed since the incident at the House of Lords meeting, which marked the last time they’d been granted leave from the estate—until then, that is.

“You’re certainly in good spirits.”

It seemed like that relief was a noticeable thing. Poppy grinned. “Can you blame me?” she asked. “It’s a miracle your father let us out this late. Never mind that it’s so warm for once.”

“A fair point,” Alisaie said, her tone as light as Poppy’s mood. “‘Tis a pity that you won’t be staying through the summer. It’s downright balmy then compared to this.” Sarcasm edged her words, but something about the way Alisaie spoke made the meager two days left on Poppy's contract seem all the more scarce.

“A pity indeed,” she agreed with a mite more sadness than anticipated.

She looked over at Alisaie, admiring the way the light bled onto the white of her hair through the gaps of the buildings they passed. She wasn’t sure if it was purposeful, but her charge’s arm brushed against hers as they walked and she savored the fleeting contact more than was proper. More than she should have, she knew. When Alisaie glanced down and offered her a small smile that reflected her own sadness, Poppy looked away in an instant.

“Well, I'm interested to see what kinds of books are important enough to set you loose to get them,” Poppy said in an attempt to lighten the mood. It seemed to work, as Alisaie let out a chuckle.

“Some history books or some such that are vital in turning the tide among the House of Lords, I'm told. Ones rare enough for Alphinaud to cause a commotion,” Alisaie replied, though she didn't sound very enthused by their importance.

“We'd better do a good job playing Post Moogle, then.”

Poppy stretched again while they walked in amiable silence, basking in the sound of her charge’s fading laughter and appreciating the freedom her sparse armor afforded her. The suddenness of the outing and Alisaie’s insistence that they quit the manor ere night fell hadn’t allowed her the time to put on full plates. The trip was all the more pleasant for it, Poppy reasoned, with only thin pauldrons and sabatons present to weigh her down among the lightness of cotton and leathers.

Before long, they reached their destination. Perhaps Poppy shouldn't have been so surprised to see where they ended up. The stall where she’d first spotted their stalker a sennight ago did sell books, after all, but it was startling was how fast her good mood faded into unease.

"This is—" her surprise went unheard.

"Lady Leveilleur?" The blonde Elezen woman who manned the shop clearly wasn't expecting to see the pair. She glanced at both of them with equal bewilderment, though her gaze lingered on Poppy for a moment. "I knew there was a special order in place for House Leveilleur, but… I-I wasn't expecting the lady of the house herself to come pick it up," she stuttered, looking flustered.

"There's no need to bother a courier with a couple of books," Alisaie replied and waved away the woman's unease with a flick of the wrist. "I can handle it just as well. Think of me as a Post Moogle and nothing more," she added with a reassuring smile.

The shopkeeper smiled in return and seemed to relax from the bit of humor. When Alisaie gently nudged her shoulder at the mention of their previous shared joke, Poppy didn't budge. She was too focused on the nervous flutter of the shopkeeper's hands as she retrieved the stack of tomes. The nearly wild look in her eyes as she watched Alisaie pull out the payment. The tight-lipped smile she flashed as she arranged the books in her bag. The furtive glances she cast to the side at Poppy. Something about the whole exchange felt off. The Echo was a dull whine in her ears that managed to pluck each and every last one of Poppy’s nerves at once.

Both women soon said their polite goodbyes. But then the shopkeeper’s hand reached for Alisaie with a gleam of silver visible between her fingers. Instincts screamed and sense was lost and suddenly Poppy found herself a step closer to the stall with her hand wrapped around the woman’s wrist. She stared at Poppy with pale blue eyes opened wide with surprise, but the knight’s grip only tightened, her sharp nails digging into fragile skin.

“I'm sorry!” The woman’s fist unfurled and several silver coins fell to the counter in a loud clatter. “D-did I count wrong?”

By the time Poppy realized her mistake, Alisaie had already grabbed her arm. “Gods above—let her go!” The harsh edge of her lady’s voice snapped Poppy from her stupor and she released the shopkeeper's wrist. “I'm so sorry,” Alisaie said to the terrified woman, sounding embarrassed and apologetic both. “Thank you so much for your time, miss. Pray keep the change.”

“I…” The shopkeeper trailed off as she rubbed her sore wrist. Her eyes flicked between Alisaie and the knight before she ducked her head meekly. “Y-you're welcome, Lady Leveilleur. Thank you for your generosity.”

Alisaie offered her a strained smile before she turned to Poppy, but the crowd of a few passersby who happened to watch the incident unfold caught her attention first. Whispers billowed around Poppy’s ears like smoke and she felt lingering stares slide into her back with a certain disapproving sharpness. It seemed she’d caused a scene. However, it was only the look that finally fell on Poppy that chilled her to the bone.

“Come,” Alisaie said coldly, colder than ever before, “we’re leaving.”

Poppy, still reeling and on edge, was given a harsh tug on the wrist that urged her to follow after Alisaie. She let herself be pulled along through the crowd of wary looks that followed after them, her tail low like that of a misbehaved dog. With a final glance over her shoulder, she found the shopkeeper's gaze back on her. She seemed far less terrified than before, looking almost annoyed instead.

Alisaie led her up the slope of the lane at a brisk pace. It was only when they were out of the bounds of the Crozier and in a quieter part of the Pillars that she let Poppy go and spun around to face her.

“What in the world was that about?” she demanded in a tone that made Poppy's ears shift back a fraction with shame.

“I… I don't know.” The Echo pulsed in her head, duller but still persistent. She reached up to rub her temples in an attempt to push the forming headache away. “Something about that woman was… off somehow in a way I can't explain.”

“And so you saw it fit to attack an unarmed citizen in the middle of the market?”

The sarcasm in Alisaie’s tone was what snapped the thread of Poppy’s tension. “She was going to hurt you!” she yelled, bristling with agitation. “I just know she was.”

The exclamation echoed through the empty alleys around them. In the brittle silence that followed, Alisaie scoffed.

“With what? A handful of coins?” she asked, amused if not for the glare that sharpened her eyes. “You may be leaving this city in two days time, but I have to stay here and deal with the consequences of your actions.” Alisaie looked like she wanted to say more, but shook her head instead. She managed to reel her sharp tongue in just enough for a final muted order, “Let's get back to the manor before you decide to embarrass me again.”

With that, she turned on her heel and continued up the lane, leaving a stunned Poppy behind her. The knight stared after her, numb until anger made her grimace. The feeling was very much directed at herself. She'd managed to sour their outing and make a fool of herself in one fell swoop. Not only that, but she'd likely tainted Alisaie’s impression of her and that thought stung more than anything else. Before she could resign herself and follow after Alisaie, the sound of quick footsteps made Poppy’s ears flick back.

“Knight!” someone called after her. “Wait a moment, please!”

Recognizing the voice of the shopkeeper, Poppy turned around and was surprised to see the blonde woman approach her. She stopped just short of Poppy, looking flustered and out of breath.

“Forgive me for following after you, but I forgot part of your lady’s order. I'm terribly sorry for the mistake,” the shopkeeper said. She offered Poppy a brief curtesy with her head bowed in embarrassment.

“Oh,” Poppy replied, feeling sheepish, “that's all right. Thanks for coming all the way to bring it.”

She watched the woman reach beneath her cloak and dig within her pockets. It must've been a small book to fit there. Unease nipped at the back of Poppy's neck yet again like little teeth that she reached up to brush away. Her presumptions had caused enough trouble for one day.

“Sorry about before,” Poppy said after a tense, awkward moment. “I don't know what came over me.”

The shopkeeper shook her head. “Don't fret, dear knight,” she said with a hint of cheer. When her hand went still beneath the cloak, her gaze flicked to Poppy. The smile that tugged at her lips never quite reached her eyes. “It's admirable of you to try to protect your lady so. But tell me, little hound, don't you tire of being on her leash?”

By the time the words sunk in, it was already too late. The knife’s silver blade gleamed in the waning twilight for only a moment before it slid into Poppy's gut.

Time slowed as she took that first sharp, silent breath of surprise. Her hands flew to the wound on instinct to apply pressure and keep the knife in place. She stumbled back into the shadows of an alley and came to a halt after a few uneasy steps when she backed into what felt like a crate. The woman stared at her from the mouth of the alley with that unsettling smile still plastered on her face, her flustered and innocent veneer ripped away.

Everything was painted in red. Her own slick hands, the backs of her blinking eyelids, the bloody sunset that set the straw-blonde hair of her assailant alight. Pain was a sudden shock that triggered a moment of clarity.

“You—” she could taste copper on the word. “The market. You bumped into us.”

The fluttering brown cloak from her memory was right there before Poppy, shifting as a laugh shook the woman’s narrow shoulders. “How kind of you to remember me,” she cooed with bitter cruelty.

“Why?”

A simple question, but Poppy could offer no more. Pain spread through her like fiery vines that sprouted from her side, climbed up her spine, crept into the very tips of her fingers until she grit her teeth against it. The situation was bad. But the Blessing bought her a good bell before things got worse.

Her assailant was silent for a time, offering no more than a tilt of her head. An interruption came in the sound of approaching footsteps before she could reply.

“Ser Poppy?” Alisaie's voice cut through the aching haze. Poppy jolted upright at the sight of her charge, who came into view several paces behind the shopkeeper. “Where did you—?” Confusion cut the question short as Alisaie took in the scene. Her eyes traveled from the other Elezen to Poppy, and finally found the knife. “Oh, gods,” she murmured. Her palpable horror made the words tremble.

“Lady Leveilleur,” the shopkeeper said  over her shoulder in an all too cheerful greeting, casual as can be. “You've really saved me a lot of trouble today! My courier friend was going to deliver this order in the morning,” she explained, gesturing to Poppy and the knife, “but you brought your darling hound right to me. You truly are too generous.”

Alisaie was frozen in shock, her wide eyes fixed on the blade buried in Poppy's side. When her gaze finally found the shopkeeper, she glared. “Why are you doing this?” she asked in hushed desperation and anger both.

The other Elezen scoffed. “Why? You all ask why, as if you don't realize how pesky your meddling is.”

“My lady,” Poppy found her voice. It was cracked and pained and not as even as she would've liked, but it drew Alisaie’s attention to her, though she never took her own eyes off the shopkeeper. “Go.”

From the corner of her blurred vision, Poppy saw how Alisaie shook her head. “Go? I'm not leaving you—”

Alisaie. Now.”

It was the first time Poppy said her name. Just her name, with no formality or titles. She only wished the circumstances could've been more pleasant. It was enough, along with the desperation of the order, to cut through Alisaie’s stubbornness. A brief silence followed before she ran and left an echo of footsteps in her wake. Poppy didn't dare to look after her. The shopkeeper, who looked less than pleased with the turn of events, held her attention.

“Gods damn it,” she muttered and moved to follow Alisaie.

“No—”

That protective, nearly possessive craze beaten into Poppy over years of training kicked in and she snarled, baring her fangs and feeling very much like the beast she was so often made out to be. If the world wanted so desperately for her to be a hound, then, by the Twelve, she would give them one. Anything to keep Alisaie safe.

She focused on that anger and the flicker of satisfaction that came with it at seeing fear glint in the woman's eyes, if only to keep her thoughts off the sharp steel imbedded in her flesh like a metal thorn. She lurched forward, steadying herself with a bloodied hand on the stone wall.

“Don't you dare take another step,” Poppy hissed, ears flat and tail lashing.

The shopkeeper was rooted in place for a moment, perhaps taken aback by the knight’s tenacity. A tiny smile soon cracked through her obvious fear. “My, my. What a devoted knight you are. And just look at what that devotion has earned you.” She approached as she spoke, tone mocking, eyes flicking down with pride to the wound carved by her own hand. “You can’t protect her now. If I don't get to her, someone else will.”

Poppy’s focus was honed to a razor sharp point, much like the knife in her gut. She glared up at the tall woman, forgetting her agony to snarl again. “I'll kill all of you first before you can even think about laying a finger on her,” she spat out.

The shopkeeper's smile faded. “You don't scare me, kitten,” she shot back. “You're nothing but a blind fool, just like the idiots you serve. The Leveilleurs and the whole lot among them—so altruistic and so very willing to tear this city apart from the inside with their little act of diplomacy.”

The venom in her voice was hard to miss, and when she reached out to give Poppy a harsh shove, her displeasure was made fully clear. The knight groaned as she tumbled back against the crate again. Her grip on the wound tightened in a desperate attempt to keep the knife from cutting any deeper.

“You don't know them,” Poppy managed to say, her stubbornness not quite spent. “They're trying to fix this place. Make it better for everyone.”

“Better for who?” A sharp laugh escaped the shopkeeper in the pause. “The vermin who will flood in if we open the bloody gates to the whole damned world? Ishgard has been fine on her own for hundreds of years.”

“Your city was built on lies. And now it's broken because of people like you.”

The shopkeeper listened to the harsh whisper, then took another step closer and bent over. Poppy tried to flinch back, but found she hadn’t the room nor the strength to flee.

“What would you know, outsider?” she muttered, so close that Poppy felt her ferocity in the warm breath that tickled her cheek.

When the knife was wrenched from her gut, Poppy cried out in pain. She was desperate to keep her shallow breaths even, her hands grasping her mangled side that grew damper with a fresh trickle of blood, her nose wrinkling from the heady sting of iron that filled the air. The shopkeeper held the crimson-drenched blade out until it caught the harsh light of sunset to highlight her act of violence.

“That knife—”

The black handle. The tiny flower stamped onto the base of the blade. The very same as Eyvind's and—

The Echo knocked the air from Poppy’s lungs.

Muted voices trickled into the scene from the distance, heavy and dull, as if filtered through a whole body of water. She saw Qadan and the shopkeeper. Both women were cloaked in a shadowy corner, but Poppy recognized the tables and the bar and the strong, musky scent of ale.

“Camille,” Qadan said, addressing the blonde Elezen. She pulled the knife from its place on her belt beside her own blade, and handed it to the other woman. “This one has been made for you. If an opportunity arises, use it and nothing else,” she instructed in an urgent whisper.

“Something special about it?” Camille asked. She pulled the knife out of its sheath enough to reveal the flower—a small spiked bloom contained within a circle.

Qadan’s bright eyes flashed through the static of the memory like a pair of embers. “Aye,” she replied. “It has been imbued with potent magicks. If used correctly and discretely, it will erase all evidence of its wielder.”

Camille sneered down at the knife before she tucked it into her coat pocket. “It should come in handy, then.”

The scene flickered at the edges, turning fuzzy beyond recognition much like a fading dream. Poppy was thrown back to the present.

“Camille,” she coughed out when she came to, practically choking on the name and the blood that came up with it. “You were at the Forgotten Knight with Qadan. ”

Camille’s brow furrowed in surprise. “Ah. You really can do that same little magic trick as her, hm? No matter. It’s not like you’ll live to tell the tale.” She straightened her back, looking disinterested all of the sudden. “I've had enough of our little chat. Do make sure to say hello to the Leveilleurs for me, though,” she said, all too cheerful again. “They'll soon be joining you in the Seven Hells.”

The bloodied knife came nearer and time slowed to an agonizing crawl. Poppy wondered if that was it. If she’d die there in Ishgard. It was a fitting end, she supposed, after all the sins she’d committed within that damnable city. She could never quite outrun the past, even in the end.

Somewhere far behind Poppy, there was a commotion: voices and quick footfalls, muffled to her ears by her own frantic heartbeat. The noise was enough to attract Camille’s attention. Whatever she saw startled her enough that she jerked away from Poppy.

“Get away from her!”

Alisaie barreled down the alley at full tilt, sword in hand. And in all her haste to escape the furious woman’s wrath, Camille dropped the knife before she darted out of the alley.

Alisaie was more than ready to follow after her, but a man dressed in the full plate of a Temple Knight came into view and grabbed her by the arm before she could. A second swordless knight appeared behind him a breath later. The whole group took in the scene in the seconds to follow, barking questions and arguments amongst themselves, during which Poppy’s remaining strength faded. She groaned and slid down the crate, leaving a trail of blood on the wood behind her, which pulled the knights' attention to her.

“Follow after that woman! She's attacked a Holy Knight,” Alisaie exclaimed and thrust the stolen sword back into its rightful owner’s hands. They both looked baffled and hesitated for long enough that Alisaie gave the one nearest to the lane a shove. “Quit your gawping and go!”

Even Poppy could hear her lady’s sharp impatience through the haze of her pain, which finally spurred the men into action. Her Blessing strained to keep her alive all the while, mending flesh, clotting blood, easing the ache bit by bit—all at the expense of her consciousness. The shock of blood loss set in to tear holes in her vision.

“Poppy!” Both Alisaie and the remaining knight knelt before her. Her lady's hands were on her cheeks with trembling fingers that grazed her skin as she brushed her sweat-dampened fringe aside. “Stay with me, please,” she begged. Her face was close and her eyes wrought with worry, so bright and blue and so very beautiful.

“Bit reckless with that sword,” Poppy tried to scold her, but it was no more than a murmur that was cut off by a sharp, pained inhale.

“Hush. Don't speak.”

Alisaie held something up to her lips. A cold glass vial filled with a bitter liquid. Poppy's nose wrinkled and she gagged weakly, but let it slide down her throat. As Alisaie’s hand pulled away, she managed to reach up and touch her wrist.

“I’m glad,” she whispered. “Better me than you.”

With the remaining onze of her strength, Poppy touched Alisaie’s cheek. It was so warm beneath her icy fingertips. Before her hand fell back onto the ground, she scolded herself internally for leaving a smear of dark blood behind. Alisaie said something and grasped her shoulders, but Poppy couldn't hear her anymore. She still managed to smile at her lady. No matter what happened to her, she felt a sliver of peace in knowing that her beloved charge was safe.

The oranges and reds of the setting sun surrounded her in a comforting blur of warmth. Then everything went dark.

A small drawing of a white crocus flower.

crocus : gladness, hope

Chapter Text

A small drawing of a sprig of heather with tiny pink flowers.

Alisaie stared at the door. The unassuming slab of dark, delicately carved wood shouldn’t have been as intimidating as it was. Though, she knew it was more so what it hid that made apprehension fester within her with enough intensity that she remained frozen, plastered against the opposite wall. Each second that crept past was another thorn that held her in place.

Morning light spilled out from beneath the door, stretched across the violets woven into the narrow rug, touched the very tips of her slippers with its golden glow. Alisaie shifted back further to hide from it, feeling very much like a terrified mouse that scurried in the shadows pooled along the corners of the hall. She did as her grandfather taught her ages ago when she often became overwhelmed: closed her eyes, exhaled a breath through her nose, and let her head roll back against the wall, willing her mind to go blank so that she might sort through her feelings.

What Alisaie saw flit past on the backs of her eyelids brought her little comfort. She could only think of Poppy, limp in the arms of the Temple Knight who carried her back to the manor, looking so fragile and small and broken, like a little bird fallen from its nest. Everything played back in reverse. She remembered the blood smeared on the man’s breastplate after he set her down. The silver blade buried in Poppy's gut. Her own sharp words in the moments before she left and let her knight bleed in her place.

Alisaie's eyes opened again. It was a futile exercise in the end. She found frustration instead of peace, anger at herself, guilt and shame and fear thick with unsureness. The chirurgeon sent from the Congregation said Poppy would make a full recovery. By the time he left for the night, the wound had already closed itself—a miraculous feat borne of her Blessing, he'd said. But what would happen next, after he came to check on her again as he was scheduled to within the next bell? After she gave her testimony to the Temple Knights? Would she stay? Be whisked away to Ul’dah, back where she belonged?

Alisaie stared at the door and managed to wrest a shred of rationality from herself. Such dithering was unlike her. She was a woman of action, she reminded herself as she stepped into the light and across the hall. Never mind that she had no idea what she would say. All she knew was that she couldn't leave things as they were. It was enough to urge her shaky hand, frozen on the knob until then, to open the door.

She wasn't sure what she'd expected to see. Poppy tucked beneath the sheets and still asleep, perhaps. What she hadn't expected, in the least, was to find the wounded knight sat on the edge of the bed and getting dressed, wearing nothing but breeches and a bralette.

Poppy didn't notice the intrusion at first. She was busy doing up the buttons at her waist, her head tilted down and brows furrowed in concentration. Her hands moved in a frantic sort of way not expected from someone grievously injured, as if she were in a hurry. The motion carried over when she bent down to retrieve her shirt from where it lay crumpled at the foot of the bed, but her hand jerked back and she grunted in pain. Alisaie noticed the blood-flecked bandages wrapped around her waist just as Poppy noticed her.

The knight’s expression was a muddle, like she wasn’t sure what to feel. As she sat up again, her hair fell around her shoulders like a wild mane of ruddy copper puffed up from her pillow and set alight by the blinding glow that illuminated her from behind. For a moment she looked nearly holy, haloed by the sun. Then her face settled into its usual smirk to cover up the very mortal wince Alisaie saw before it slipped beneath her mask.

“If you're going to ogle me, can you at least do it from inside?” Poppy asked, sounding more amused than embarrassed.

“I'm not—” Alisaie cut the protest short. She couldn't argue. She’d just barged into Poppy’s room unannounced, after all.

The door felt heavy behind her as she pulled it shut and let it click softly into place, sealing her inside the room with the half-dressed Holy Knight. The air felt stifling and thick with the unspoken thoughts that buzzed noisily within Alisaie's head. She was rooted in place for the next several breaths, unsure how to proceed aside from knowing to avert her gaze from the other woman to prevent further embarrassment.

“Can you grab that for me?” Poppy asked after a moment of silence, still amused. “Since you're here and all.”

Alisaie didn't have to look to know that she gestured to the fallen shirt. She nodded in agreement.

“You're getting dressed,” Alisaie observed as she approached, a bit absent-minded to state the obvious. Eyes glued to the floor, she stopped short of the bed and it's occupant and bent over when the shirt came into view. “Are you going somewhere?”

Alisaie could see how Poppy's fingers twitched in her lap before she replied, “Aye. I want to get to the Congregation sooner rather than later.”

Alisaie picked the shirt up. Panic flickered to life like a candle in her chest. “The chirurgeon is due to check in on you soon,” she reminded the knight.

“I don't have time to wait around,” Poppy insisted, her hands clenching into fists. “I know who's behind this mess. I need to find her.”

Alisaie held the crisp white cotton in her hands and idly traced the dark laces that held it closed with a thumb—stalling, perhaps. Her nose wrinkled in confusion. “But they caught that woman. She's in custody—”

“Qadan gave her that knife.”

“Qadan?” Alisaie asked, but a flash of memory brought the night at the tavern to the forefront of her mind, and a pair of glowing orange eyes along with it. “The Au Ra from the Forgotten Knight? How do you know?”

“The Echo showed me. She gave the knife to Camile and probably to that Eyvind fellow who attacked you in Ul’dah, and she has one of her own. They all match. If I can find her and prove it, then the Temple Knights can nab her and you'll finally be safe.”

The words rushed out of Poppy like a desperate stream. Alisaie finally looked up and was met with a gaze that was almost as pleading as it was impatient. She couldn't bear it for long and her eyes dropped back down, halting at the bandages wrapped around Poppy's waist. Though most of the blood was long dried, Alisaie noticed fresh spots of crimson among flecks of rusty brown.

“You're still hurt,” she said, just as stubborn as Poppy. “Surely it can wait until after the chirurgeon comes to treat you.”

“I’m fine. We don't have time to wait around all bloody morning!”

Poppy's frustration boiled over. Alisaie looked up to meet her glare with one of her own. It seemed they were both rather tense that morning. She clutched the knight's shirt to her chest, knowing full well that she held hostage her ticket to leaving the room, though some small part of her knew that Poppy would sooner strut outside without it than admit defeat. Their stalemate brewed for several tense moments.

“Let me at least change your bandages before you run off,” Alisaie said. Whatever shred of political inclination in her blood was laid bare in the diplomatic suggestion, but when she saw Poppy's eyes narrow and her mouth open to protest, she took a step forward to quash it. “You will let me change them,” she added. “That's an order.”

Poppy looked ready to argue, but a wince silenced her. “As you wish, my lady,” she said tersely. Her arm slid over to her waist to hide the evidence of her pain. “Come play nurse.”

Alisaie managed to hold her tongue at the comment, but still flashed the knight a sharp look before she made her way to the table at the center of the room. She tossed the shirt over the back of a chair rather pointedly to highlight her victory and turned her attention to the supplies laid out by the chirurgeon the night before. She picked through the arrangement and chose what was needed—fresh bandage and antiseptic and a small jar of ointment—then took her spoils back to the bed and her unwilling patient.

Again, she froze, frustrated by her hesitation. But her body moved on some silent instinct and she bent at the knee, kneeling in front of Poppy. It was an odd shift in their position and their usual dynamic; like she was the knight with her head bowed before her lady.

“Shift forward,” Alisaie murmured. It didn’t sound strong enough to be an order, but Poppy obeyed regardless, her tail flicking behind her like a flame across violet sheets. Likely in annoyance, but Alisaie supposed she couldn’t blame her.

Her hands went to work. She undid the knot that kept the soiled bandages in place and began to wind them around her hand, mind blank. Something bubbled up amid the repetitive motion. Shame, perhaps, or embarrassment at her position knelt between the legs of another woman who was half-dressed. Despite herself, her politeness wavered and her eyes and thoughts wandered.

Alisaie tried very hard to not focus on the bralette and its intricate lace, so soft and delicate and unexpected, somehow, to be worn by a knight so fierce. It was a silky black contradiction that contrasted against the strong, wiry muscle of arms littered in both scars and freckles. She failed to not let it hold her attention, just as the gentle rise and fall of Poppy’s chest under it did, or the warmth of skin exposed beneath her fingertips. Alisaie marveled over it all; how at ease Poppy seemed to be with the whole situation, being so unbothered to be bare in her presence and vulnerable beneath her hands.

Perhaps her Ishgardian upbringing was as prudish as was implied by most outsiders, because Alisaie couldn't help the flush that rose to her cheeks from the fire that started in her belly. Yet, somewhere under years of forced propriety, she couldn’t deny how badly she wanted to touch the knight—truly touch her, beyond just the clinical and awkward motion of unwinding bandages from around her waist. Her fool’s heart fluttered in earnest. Then reality set it in, freed from layers of gauze.

“It’s nearly healed,” Alisaie whispered in surprise.

The stab wound was an angry pink, harsh against Poppy’s olive skin. Mottled bruises marked the flesh around it but they were already half-faded, yellow instead of deep purple, and the gash began to scar at the ends. A scab was disturbed by Poppy’s earlier movement, which was what caused the fresh pinpricks of blood on the bandage. But it all looked as old as a sennight or more—not the brief half day that had passed.

“I told you I was fine,” Poppy replied, words clipped, and let a petulant huff escape her. “Just one of the many perks of being blessed by Hydaelyn. You forget that I'm no ordinary knight,” she added, but it was bitter instead of reassuring.

Alisaie held her tongue. She uncorked the antiseptic and doused a scrap of clean gauze. Poppy flinched and let a soft hiss through her teeth when it pressed against her, but Alisaie worked in quick, determined silence with gentle hands. As her thumb dragged a bit of ointment across the wound and she saw Poppy's hands grip the bedding, the knight's mortality became increasingly clear. The forming scar was one of many, all badges of survival. Though the Blessing kept her alive during those battles, the knight still felt pain through them. Just like anyone else did.

“I'm sorry.”

The words slipped out and they both went still. Poppy exhaled a shaky breath above her.

“For what?”

Alisaie stared at the wound. She saw the knife, bloody and buried deep, and the shopkeeper’s cold eyes. She heard her own disregard of Poppy's warning and felt guilt rise up again. “This is my fault,” she said. “You were right about that woman. If I had just listened to you, then this wouldn't have happened.”

Alisaie gripped the bundle of clean bandage in her hands, but made no move to redress the wound that held her gaze. She was surprised to hear Poppy chuckle. It was a fragile, humorless sound.

“It's hard to tell sometimes, whether it's the Echo or paranoia. I don't blame you for not listening.” Her voice was ragged while she spoke, a tattered scrap with a thread of sadness running through it. Poppy paused. “Besides, any other outcome might've ended in your death. It was better that it happened this way.”

The bluntness of the statement chilled Alisaie. “You could have died just as easily,” she said, quiet and uneasy, “had the Temple Knight not carried that tonic.”

She saw Poppy's shoulders rise and fall before her callous reply, “Better me than you.”

Alisaie sucked in a breath through her teeth, a flare of anger warming her again. She remembered those same words whispered to her when the knight faded away in the gloaming shadows of the alley. They unsettled her just as much as they did when she first heard them.

“You can't mean that,” Alisaie murmured. The bandages weighed a tonze in her grasp. “How could you value your life so little?”

“And why are you so confused?”

Finally, Alisaie looked up, only to be caught by the intense teal stare of Poppy’s gaze. Her eyes flitted over Alisaie’s face as they did over everything—reading each minute motion, catching every detail, observing and filing things away, all while betraying nothing in return. Hers were the eyes of a Warrior of Light, wizened beyond her years and burdened by her duty. A sharp look cut through the air between them.

“I'm pledged to you,” Poppy said, each word like a little knife. “I'm your sword and your shield and that means I'd die for you without hesitation, if that's what it takes to keep you safe. My life is yours to command.”

Alisaie shook her head in blatant opposition of what Poppy spoke. Her voice raised and trembled a hair. She threw the bandages down.

“I don't want your life!”

She saw Poppy’s expression shift and looked down to escape her searing gaze. But a thumb and forefinger slipped beneath her chin a moment later to give a harsh tug upward. Poppy forced Alisaie’s eyes back onto her.

“Have you paid attention to anything I've taught you?” Poppy asked. The question was harsh with frustration. “That's what a knight does. If you don't understand that, then you're not fit to become one.”

The words landed like a punch that knocked the air from Alisaie’s lungs. She stood at once, rising from the anger that pushed her up. Poppy’s hand fell from her face. She loomed over the knight at her full height.

Everything rushed through her again. All the feelings and thoughts that followed her home from the alley, kept her up through the night, and urged her to Poppy’s room in those first frail hours of dawn. The anger wilted as soon as it bloomed and Alisaie shrunk beneath its weight, leaning back over to bring herself closer to the woman who looked impossibly small beneath her. She placed her hands on the bed, one on either side of Poppy’s legs, and for a moment, simply breathed.

“I don't want to be kept as a fragile thing in a cage, only meant to be protected. I want to be stronger. If you’re so willing to die for me, then I want to be worthy of you. So stay, and teach me more.”

It all slipped past Alisaie’s lips in a whisper. Not angry or upset, but simply there. A bare honesty.

Poppy watched her with her Warrior’s eyes, still betraying nothing. Her hands sat in her lap, knuckles pale and nails dug into the rough fabric of her breeches. She usually slipped away at that point, sliding through Alisaie’s fingers, insubstantial as a beam of light. But the want Alisaie kept knotted up within her like brambles hidden away began to unravel. She allowed herself that earlier desire; the desperate need to touch the knight. Her hand found Poppy’s side and her thumb grazed the edge of the gash, the wound that may as well have been carved there by her own hand. The only sound that escaped Poppy was a sharp inhale.

“Please,” Alisaie murmured. Don’t leave. The rest of the plea evaded her.

She lowered her head, bringing it nearer to Poppy’s until their foreheads were almost pressed together. They were so close, with breaths mingling in the sunlit morning that settled around them as dapples of bright light. Her nose grazed against the knight's—a cautious mistake that made them both freeze. Alisaie’s hand fluttered upward, first sliding up Poppy's arm, across her shoulder, then slowly crawled up the side of her neck, ilm by ilm, fingertip by fingertip like a light-starved vine.

She didn’t know what she did or what her goal was. But she cradled the knight's cheek in her palm, overwhelmed with feelings she couldn't name or understand. Poppy swallowed and her delicate throat bobbed up and down beneath Alisaie's thumb, her pulse aflutter. Her lips were parted just so but she said nothing, as if the words she wished to speak slipped back down her tongue. Alisaie was surprised when her fingers reached up and, gingerly, brushed against her wrist. Just like they did in the alley. Then Poppy found her voice.

“I’m the one who’s not worthy,” she whispered so softly that Alisaie barely heard her. But she did, and shook her head in a silent refusal of them.

She expected Poppy to yank her hand away at that point. To push her back, to say something more, to stop her. She didn't. Her trembling fingers slid atop Alisaie's, cautious, curious, confused—like she didn't understand, or she'd never been touched so lightly before. And Poppy watched, through half-lidded eyes, while she drew nearer still. Alisaie could taste her frantic heartbeat on her own lips. She wondered, if she leaned forward that final lim, would she taste Poppy's as well?

The metallic scratch of the doorknob being turned was as loud as a clap of thunder. Alisaie jerked back at the sound, the question remaining unanswered.

“Hm.”

The shrewd chirurgeon took in the scene from behind his silver-rimmed spectacles. A pointed look fell down his broad nose and landed on Poppy like an arrow, whose ears flicked back in surprise at the sudden intrusion. His glance was appraising and clinical, darting over the wound and nothing else. Years of examining the harsh realities of a knight's work had likely hardened him to that point.

He let out another disapproving hmph. Alisaie prepared for the worst.

“Lady Leveilleur,” he said in a gruff greeting, weighing her name and its worth on his tongue before he turned his discerning gaze back on her. She stiffened beneath it. “You've tried to do my job for me, have you?” His tone was hard to read, but it didn't sound very pleased. He strut into the room with a bag of supplies in tow and set it down before the bed with a loud thud, which made Poppy jump. “I thought you aimed for a spot among the knights. Should I be worried about my position as well?”

“I—” Words caught in Alisaie's throat. He hadn't said a thing about the fact that he'd found her alone at dawn with a half-dressed knight. He seemed to not care about anything besides her imperfect, unfinished job of redressing the wound. That much was a relief. “Of course not,” she said with a polite incline of her head. “Your expertise is unrivaled.”

She offered the man a wobbly curtsy, to which he simply waved a hand to shoo her away. “Yes, yes. Keep your flattery. Now, if you'll excuse me,” he said and turned his attention to his patient, who hadn't said a word during the whole exchange.

Alisaie lingered for only a moment. Poppy's gaze was on her again, questioning and almost pleading, but she ducked away from it and from the fire she felt sweep over her skin. She left the room with all haste and pulled the door shut behind her with far too much force, as if she could seal her embarrassment inside. The loud slam of it echoed down the hall.

Then she fled, avoiding beams of sunlight while she tried to outrun the mess she'd made.

A small drawing of a sprig of heather with tiny pink flowers.

heather : protection