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The Shape of Kings

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          Crimea Castle, the heart of a kingdom populated by humble people of modest customs and culture. The sun began to drift down on a day colder than others, the breeze sweeping the courtyard and open corridors. Royals and knights alike beckoned and conversed with one another, their white armor reflecting what light the day still had left in it. While smaller than other castles in Tellius, it was grander than anything to be seen in the land of Crimea, standing tall and proud. It is a kingdom born above fertile soil that offers a bountiful blessing of crops, as well as beside the ocean with its harbors and ship freight. As such, citizens have lived comfortably with an emphasis on hard-working lifestyles rather than a robust military force. Though a haven to many, this gentle twilight wrapped around its people as some, in their final moments, laughed and humored one another in glee. For it was that within those castle walls, a quiet moment was shattered by a sudden scream.

          As the sky turned into a fiery shade, the gift of tranquility was aggressively stolen by the sound of knights in black stampeding into the castle. The earth trembled at their arrival, both on foot and horseback, the knights striking the citizenry when their guard was at the lowest. In an abrupt onslaught, several knights in white fell swiftly to clashing steel and a downpour of arrows. The single scream had erupted into many.

          A man stood atop one of the many towers of the castle, viewing the sanctuary from on high. His scowl was unmoving but fierce. Beside him was a behemoth of a wyvern, black and crimson with wings that spanned and eclipsed the sky behind them. He raised his massive blade to the sky – undulating in shape while curved as a bell at the end – and thrust it in the direction of the castle. Behind their mountainous silhouette, several wyverns dotted the sky, blanketing the Crimean skies upon their descent. Without warning, Daein attacked, bloodthirsty as it bit the neck of the docile kingdom.

          “Run, run!”

          “Everyone hide! It’s Daein!”

          “Daein is attacking!!”

          “We must escort the princess to safety! Hurry, to the rear entrance, NOW!”

           A sole woman in an orange dress surrounded by the white armor of several knights ran through the castle, hearing a flurry of disoriented people shouting in fear in all directions. They escaped into the outdoor halls, witnessing large shadows soaring over the courtyards as unnatural gusts swept the once-perfect portrait into disarray. Before the group could escape in one direction, a massive wyvern slammed to the ground, halting their advance. The rider in front thrust his lance into the shoulder of one of the knights in front as the mount assisted in tossing him aside.

           “You all must run! Protect our Princess Crimea!” one of the knights in front declared as the group split.

           “This way, hurry!” one of the soldiers commanded, pulling at her wrist. But she pulled away after several paces, turning back to the few left behind to fend for themselves. “Elincia!”

          “But I know those soldiers! You can’t leave them behind!” she shouted, reaching a hand out and witnessing one becoming impaled through the chest. Before she could find the words to express the horror on her face, multiple knights forced her away. Powerless, she put her back to them, holding her head as the screams of agony resounded in her ears.

          Retreating to a smaller courtyard lined with trees and flora, they were forced into the sight of Crimean citizens and knights blanketing the ground. Though begging them to move, they remained lifeless and unresponsive to the voice of their princess. The muffled orchestra of screams in this remote location was quickly overtaken by a number of wyverns in black, wings beating, roaring and rending the peaceful sky upon their decent. Surrounded, Elincia found herself in the center of her vanguard, lances and swords of her remaining soldiers pointed forward.

           “Please… What do you want from us? What injustice did we bring upon you!?” Elincia cried out in fear as a sudden, thin trail of wind whipped along the side of her face. She touched her cheek, unscathed, but turned to find an arrow in the neck of a soldier who had toppled over before fathoming what hit him. More arrows flew, and as she ducked, there was an intense heat bellowing around her. She cowered in fear, still as stone until it was silent save for the crackling of fire summoned by Daein mages. Looking up, bodies again lay at her feet as the castle began to crumble in a crimson blaze. Elincia looked forward at the rider and mount, both cast in black armor, as they began to sweep in to claim her. Her eyes closed as she braced herself. The momentary dread was broken by the sound of rapid galloping.

           “Hah!” A knight in dark armor interrupted the wyvern knight’s advance, parrying the blow with a sword and forcing them back.

          “Uncle Renning!” she called out, pleased to see him but quick to notice a streak of blood traveling down his face.

          “Elincia, you must flee!” Renning called to her, pointing his blade to his fellow knights behind them, ready to escape on horseback.

          “What about you? You must come with us, please! Uncle!” she begged. But he shook his head, furrowing his brow while staring forward at his enemy.

          “I cannot. Look around you, Elincia. Look at the lives taken to keep you standing, to keep you breathing,” Renning told her, as she reluctantly turned to the bodies fallen in a wide ring around her. “To stay here is to disrespect the sacrifice of these honorable men and women. I can’t allow your sentiment to get in the way of that. Do you understand?”

          “Y-Yes… Uncle,” she said with a pained expression on her face as she quickly climbed behind the knight on his mount. “I beg of you, please stay safe.”

          “You know me better than that,” he almost laughed. As the steeds raised their hooves, preparing to charge, the two looked at one another in an instant that lingered. In those fleeting moments, he said farewell with gentle eyes that were reserved for only her and spoke, “Be brave, my niece. You are Crimea now.”

          Elincia reached her hand out, but swiftly fled with her knight before she could reply back. Confident she would be safe for now, Renning again turned to the wyverns and knights outnumbering him, tightening his grip on the reins in one hand, blade readied in the other. “Hear me, Daein! Crimea may fall today, but we will one day win it back with a might that would make even the goddess tremble!”

          Down the corridors of the castle, the small groups of horses rushed through every enemy in their way in a wild stampede with Elincia in the back. She clung tightly to the knight escorting her out, peeking out of the side of her shoulder to see her home cast in flames. In all of the madness, she realized she was unaware if her companions had managed to escape the inferno.

          “Excuse me! D-Do you happen to know where Geoffery and Lucia are? Did they escape together? Do you know if they happened to be with Bastian as well?” Elincia asked as they rode. But he remained silent. “Please! If you know anything–”

          “You… Princess,” he mumbled, motionless.

          “Pardon?”

          “It’s because of you. It’s all because of you. Friends, family, everyone…” he said in a hollow voice, “dying in their futile attempt to protect you.” Elincia felt an unusual texture at her palms as he spoke. The torso she had been holding onto began to dissolve, fading from white armor into ashes.

          “Wh-what’s happening!?” she asked, brushing her blacked hands off. The knight turned around, revealing his face, nothing more than a skull that was already halfway faded to dust.

          “We’re already ashes in the earth because of you.”

          Elincia’s eyes widened in terror as she scurried back, losing her balance and stumbling off the horse. She rolled along the cobblestone path, bruised and dirtied as she came to a halt. Unsure of what had happened, she pushed against the floor to rise, unaware of the behemoth of a beast that was descending in front of her. Landing with a tremor, a pair of beating red and black wings pushed her back. The rider atop it leapt to the ground, walking gradually toward Elincia. She looked up and struggled at first to speak, never having felt so small before.

           “King of Daein… Ashnard! Why?” she panted, holding her bruised arm. “What have our people done to incite this? To what end would you cause this massacre!? Answer me!” she demanded. He stepped forward slowly, expressionless as his cape cloaked his body. He had been clutching a weapon hidden underneath – a lance – and tossed it to Elincia’s feet.

           “Chaos,” King Ashnard spoke, flashing an evil, inhuman grin that creased ear to ear.

“Chaos? But… But what’s–?” she repeated, confused as she glanced over at the lance. It took seconds for her to recognize the distinct shape, the blue and lightly colored highlights. It was the weapon that she knew so well, admiring the one who always rode forth bravely with it from afar. And now it was coated in a deep red. “This is… It can’t be! No, no…!”

           “Heheh… Hahahah!” She could hear his careless chuckle, unfurling into a manic laugh as Elincia gripped the lance so tightly that her knuckles went white. She cried and screamed in agony as the laughter echoed into her ears endlessly as though in a chamber, until the cacophony shook her body into reality.

 

 

          “AAAAHH! NO, PLEASE!”

          The young Elincia had violently awoken from her sleep, her body lifting from the woven blankets. She covered her mouth, catching her uneven breath while shaking with a cold sweat. Standing up frantically, she walked across the dark, stone room, reaching for an exit in a brief moment of delirium. Unfamiliar with the room, she stumbled clumsily out of the door and felt a slight breeze. The warm torchlight hanging not far above was soothing to her disrupted senses. Looking down at herself, realizing she was wearing warm-colored woven clothing that was much more ordinary than she was used to. Leaning against the wall, she saw someone hurrying in front of her; a laguz with pointed blue ears with two different hues to his eyes appeared with nary a sound to his footsteps.

           “Oh, so it was the princess,” he stated, his posture melting into a slouch seeing it was only her. “I knew I heard someone yelling; are you alright?”

          “Um.” She held and shook her head, pausing until she could remember that this was her first night staying at Gallia’s castle with the Greil Mercenaries. “Lord Ranulf, was it? I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t mean to wake to anyone.” Elincia turned red, bowing apologetically.

          “Hey, as long as you aren’t bleeding on the floor like you sounded like you were, then everything’s great,” he waved a hand and insisting she stop apologizing. “Relax, you’re fine.”

          “Right,” she said distantly, loosening her own shoulders, unintentionally imitating him.

          “You look exhausted. Bad dream?”

          “Ah, somewhat.”

          “Ooh. Maybe do some stretches before turning in? I hear it helps!”

          “Really?” she asked, curious to his natural demeanor. There was a much more casual air about Ranulf that allowed Elincia to catch her breath. “Actually, if it’s not too much trouble, may I ask where that breeze is coming from? I’m a bit disorientated in your castle.”

          “Sure, just follow the path behind me and stay against the wall. You should be able to see the forests beyond the next hall. It’s dark out, so, don’t take any leaps of faith if you can’t see what’s ahead of you, yeah?”

          “Thank you. I’ll keep your trick before bed in mind,” she said politely, stepping carefully around him. He watched her disappear as she followed the lit torches along the tan stone walls.

          “Huh.” He put his fist to his chin and thought aloud, tail curling. “Beorc are certainly a peculiar bunch. Always causing trouble for themselves and each other. Will they... be alright?”

           Elincia stepped cautiously in the dark halls, lit only by a few torches dotting the path. She kept her fingers gliding along the dry stone until the path opened up before her. A breeze swept her hair back, and though she could not see far in the darkness, she could hear the rusting of wind filtering through the trees of Gallia. She leaned forward against the stone that served as a fence up to her torso, looking up at the crescent moon smiling down. Elincia gave it a tired smile back.

           “Difficulty sleeping, princess?” a large voice said as footsteps thumped down the hallways.

           “King Caineghis,” she replied, taking a step back. “Goodness, I didn’t mean to disturb the entire castle tonight. I’m sorry.”

           “Not at all; we operate just as well at night. Some stay up all night and sleep through the day, so we remain guarded at all times.”

           “Truly? Is that special training your soldiers do at the castle?” she asked.

           “No. Catnaps, as Ranulf puts it,” he chuckled. Elincia forced a laugh, unable to resist itching at her shoulder and side.

           “I must apologize. Laguz sleepwear does not seem appropriate for a beorc princess.”

           “Oh, no, not at all! I’m sure I’m simply just not used to the material, aha,” she replied, forcing herself to stop itching.

           “If you are displeased with something, you should say so. As a royal to a large country, you have that right, do you not?” he asked rhetorically.

           “Some might say so, but I don’t believe I had a typical upbringing.” She crossed her arms, rocking left and right somewhat nervously. “Though I bear the title, I held no true responsibility as the public did not even know I existed. And, there’s a chance they never will.”

           “Hmm…”

           “So, it doesn’t feel right to make any selfish requests when already being met with such hospitality. At least, that’s what my mother and father taught me.”

           “Ah, King Ramon. The nostalgia washes over me as I look at you,” Caineghis said warmly, walking near Elincia and looking out to the calm forests with her, his large hands on the stone fence. He looked like a mountain next to her.

           “I remind you of my father?” she asked, with more of a sparkle in her eyes.

           “Yes, but… Your smile is different now than it was earlier. You have been attempting to keep that smile in front of everyone on this journey, haven’t you?” he asked, surprising her.

           “I suppose I can’t hide it from everyone… It’s difficult to bury away weakness.”

           “If anything, I find it a signature of strength.”

           “Hm?” Elincia tilted her head, looking almost straight up.

           “To carry on under this furnace of war while remaining a calm beacon of positivity... that is something not many can do. You are youthful with eyes full of honest sincerity; I can see your father reflected in them. Those are the budding traits of a fine ruler.”

           “Oh.” Elincia’s eyes cast down to the floor, unsure how else to respond. “But I’ve done nothing near being worthy of having that title. All I’ve done is run.”

           “Mm?”

          “I was raised very close to Crimea’s heart. I did wonder what the rest of the world looked like, but never did I expect to see it like this,” she commented, leaning out of the open area and closer to the rustling trees hiding in darkness. “Home was the feeling of every blade pointing outward in your defense. Now each one is pointing at all of us, and for the first time in my life, I became certain: this is fear. I wish I could ask my family what I should do.”

          “Daein has truly committed such travesty,” Caineghis lamented, crossing his wide arms. “King Ramon and Sir Greil… two outstanding beorc, stolen too soon from this world. And yet through it all, it can’t be mere coincidence that their children are so strong of heart.”

          “Seeing how Greil and his children would so selflessly help me with nothing but my words spoke volumes to me. I want to protect Crimeans like them, but we have already failed in preventing more loss,” Elincia sighed. “My heart aches for them.”

          “Have you not shared your concern and worries with them?”

          “Perhaps a little, but I can’t bring myself to fully,” she replied, squeezing her fist. “I feel as though I can relate to their agony, but I don’t believe I have any right to show it with how much I’m already asking of them.”

          “I see. If that is your stance, then remain strong and steadfast for them. We each have our own roles. Mine is remaining here at the seat of Gallia,” Caineghis stated, taking a deep breath. Elincia looked up at him, thinking deeply. The brief silence was broken when the small voice spoke up.

          “How does one rule, King Caineghis?”

          His eyebrows rose as he turned to her. They then knitted together while contemplating an answer. Clearing his throat and ready to speak, he stopped, as it seemed as though Elincia had frozen entirely. She was not aware of how expectantly she was looking at him.

          “Ruling… is not a matter of explaining how, but experiencing what,” he began, avoiding any uncertainty. “Every great ruler I’ve ever met or read about all had the same attribute: true honesty to their character. Though they govern a piece of this land, they are shaped by their interpretation of the people. Your charisma, your posture, and the way you carry yourself will define you more than you can imagine. And it will, in turn, mold the shape of your country.”

          “My,” Elincia spoke, absorbing the wisdom of a king. She reflected how that defined her father, and how it could change her in the future. “But don’t the outlooks of other countries also affect your view? Not all of Tellius accepts the laguz.”

          “Indeed. Though the goddess bore laguz and beorc, she also gave rise through prejudice between races. And from that rift, much hate and violence have taken both land and lives.”

          “I’m ashamed that my country has caused harm to your people,” Elincia said, looking down. “I know every country is guilty of some kind of hate towards others, but it doesn’t excuse mine.”

          “Oho. ‘People’, you say,” Caineghis honed in on the word. “This is why I’ve developed a fondness for Crimea,” he chuckled, as Elincia looked up wondering what he meant. Rather than answering the curious look, he asked, “Princess, have you ever heard of Goldoa, the land of dragons?”

          “Um, rarely? We know so little that they may as well be the murmurs of fairy tales.”

          “That is expected. Their king is a steadfast one, reluctant to involve himself in any conflict. Goldoans rarely leave their borders. While I don’t believe the world can last in isolation, sometimes I do wonder how many lives would be spared if we each shared such ideals.”

          “Every country in insolation?” Elincia echoed him, processing such a world. “I don’t doubt more people would be alive today, but at the same time, we would deny reaching the full potential Tellius has. Why can’t everyone just be neighborly to one another? Never leaving your homeland would make everything so… colorless.”

          “Ah, so do you enjoy the danger of every person able to roam all borders? How bold!”

          “N-No, I didn’t mean it that way!”

          “I only jest,” he laughed, even as Elincia still defended herself.

          “I meant, we all have our strengths as kingdoms. If we live in peace and come to understand one another, Tellius would enter a golden age.”

          “It is simple to say. But what will you do, I wonder? Gallia is curious to see.”

          “We will do everything we can. I believe in my lord Ike and his mercenaries. And I will do what I can in my position to aid them as well. I… am Crimea now,” she stated with a more sturdy tone. Hearing this, King Caineghis turned to her and knelt down to one knee. Even kneeling, he was still quite large next to her.

          “Crimea herself,” he repeated. “Yes, you have our support. You harbor the dreams of many, of a world where even talk of discrimination is but echoes in the wind.”

          “Everyone’s support fills me with such strength, I know I cannot fail as long as my allies stand by my side.” She nodded, determination swelling in her eyes. “I promise. We will bring about change!”

          “I’m pleased to hear it. Then on the morrow, may you run wild over your enemies, Princess Crimea!” he stated, clenching his powerful hand into a fist over his chest. “May they hear your roar!”