At dawn, Felix was surprised to find Sylvain already in the training yard. Sylvain was rarely up at dawn, and if he was, it was only because a woman had taken up his time until the unearthly hours of morning.
But here he was, already in armor, wooden training dummies thoroughly eradicated, and the Lance of Ruin in hand.
Bizarrely enough, Sylvain looked just as surprised to see Felix, even though the training yard was exactly where you’d expect to find Felix at this hour. “Felix? I figured you’d be resting up until we marched.”
“I woke up, and there’s enough light out to train. I’m not going to get stronger if I sleep all day.”
Sylvain squinted at him, noting what Felix already knew, that he was paler than usual, with shadows under his eyes. “Didn’t you go from Fraldarius territory to Fhirdiad to here in about two days? If you die of exhaustion, you’re not going to get any stronger that way either.”
“I feel fine,” Felix said, a bit harsher than he’d intended. “I don’t need your coddling--but I wouldn’t mind training against your lance.”
“I’m not turning this lance on you,” Sylvain said, in a tone that brokered no argument. Then he grinned, laughed lightly as he tended to do whenever a situation got too serious for his comfort. “Besides, you look half dead and half starved. Let me get you something to eat, then maybe we can grab training weapons.”
Felix protested, but Sylvain had a point. He wasn’t as fast as he thought he’d be when fending off Sylvain, and he soon realized he had a choice between walking to the kitchens or being carried there by Sylvain.
They argued about the merits of rest and recuperation all the way to the kitchens, squabbling as quietly as they could as they started passing people going about their morning routines. It was a losing argument for Felix. Even he knew that he’d gone too long without a real meal and a full night’s sleep.
In the end, Sylvain sat him down with a full plate of breakfast. Sylvain handed him a fork and leaned back into his own chair. “Out of everything, it’s the monastery’s food that I miss most. Girls are everywhere, but the food here just doesn’t compare.”
It was true. The food didn’t compare in the slightest, but Felix wasn’t going to agree with that as a guest. “Aren’t you out of women to harass at home?”
If he were Ingrid, Sylvain definitely would’ve given a different answer. Instead, Sylvain just shrugged. “Not really. It’s been a few years now since the last time I was home for so long. I just go back and say I’m sorry and tell them how much I’ve changed.”
Felix stared at him over eggs and sausages, unimpressed. “You haven’t changed though, not in the slightest.”
“I know, I know--good for nothing then, good for nothing now, right? They probably don’t believe a word out of my mouth, but it’s not like they want me for my honest nature anyway. They don’t like me, it’s--”
“The crest, yes. What if they do like you? How would you even tell?”
“Then, well, they have questionable taste in men. Downright awful taste, if I’m being honest.” Sylvain gestured, so vaguely that it was meaningless. “If it’s a problem for you, I can control myself, you know. You’re not Ingrid, I don’t want to give you a headache. I don’t want to give Ingrid headache either, I mean--you know what I mean.”
“The girls aren’t a problem, or they’re not my problem.” Many times in the past, Ingrid and the boar prince had tried to enlist his help, to cajole Sylvain into behaving decently--but Felix had never cared what Sylvain did, not unless it was getting in the way of his own training. “It’s your lack of focus that’s my problem. You should moderate your desires and maintain your training. I don’t care what your pastimes are. I do care how reliable you are in battle.”
Sometimes Sylvain was as unreadable as his father. For a while, he looked thoughtful, then he grinned. “Alright. Tell you what, how about no girls for me for the next few days. I’ll train instead, and meanwhile, you go get some sleep. Then once we catch up to your father, if he needs us to fight, I’ll be in tip top shape, and you’ll be well rested.”
“You’re not exactly known for keeping your promises.”
“Right, t’is I, Sylvain, skirt chaser, oath breaker--but have I ever broken a promise I made to you?”
Felix thought back, all the way back, until his memories of Sylvain were only a foggy haze, more feelings of warmth and comfort and red hair than anything else. “You do break promises though.”
There was no denying that, but Sylvain was unbothered. The truth couldn’t hurt him. “Not to you.”
There was no denying that either.
Felix couldn’t tell you anything about the journey to Itha Plains. He spent the vast majority of the trip asleep in supply wagon, this one practically empty but for a few prized weapons. Besides for silver and brave weapons, he had the Lance of Ruin for a particularly unsettling bed partner.
It was mid-afternoon when Sylvain woke him up. His touch was gentle, but his voice was urgent. “Felix, we need to go. Now.”
Felix wasn’t sure if Sylvain handed him a sword, or if he grabbed one on his own. He moved without thinking, arming himself without thought, like breathing, and the groggy moments of early waking dissipated into perfect clarity.
Felix expected the worst, but even after a few seconds, if there was danger, it wasn’t imminent. There was a minor din of soldiers in a carefully contained panic, but there were no enemies here, no battle, not yet.
The Gautier knights were in a calm frenzy around them. They’re splitting forces, a cavalry vanguard to advance with all due haste, and the rest of the soldiers to continue marching to rendezvous later with their supplies.
“What’d my father do?” he asked, fearing the worst, because they were only halfway through Itha, and Sylvain wouldn’t have roused him if they didn’t need to get the rest of the way through Itha very, very quickly.
“He, er, he tried to invade Fhirdiad.”
“He tried? Fraldarius soldiers are crack troops, how do they lose to a bunch of mages and mercenaries?”
“The Empire showed up,” Sylvain answered without any particular bedside manner. He dropped the information like a sackful of bricks, but then, there wasn’t a considerate way to say the Kingdom was annexed.
In the moments that it took Felix to process those words, Sylvain dragged him out of the wagon, and Felix somehow found himself standing next to a horse. Countless questions raced across his mind, “Is my father--”
“Alive and leading the charge. That’s all we really know from our scouts, they didn’t stick around to find out more. Get on the horse.”
“Is Fhirdiad still standing?”
“Don’t know, but it’s standing enough to be worth fighting for.” Sylvain looked done with questions. He was mounted up and gestured for Felix to do the same. “Felix. Horse. Now. I need to ruin some fools, and I’m not going without you.”
“What happened to the boar?”
“Felix! Just get on the damn horse.”
It’d be years and years since the last time Sylvain made any demands of him, not anything serious, not anything where his smile faded, and there was only that desperate gleam to his eyes.
Felix looked away. He couldn’t hold eye contact and demand his answers, so he got on the damn horse.
It wasn’t until years later that Felix realized that Sylvain must have known, and Sylvain chose not to tell him in that moment that the boar prince was dead.
He only found out after the very skies were burning over Fhirdiad. Felix stayed close to Sylvain as the Lance of Ruin did its bloody work, though his own work was no less bloody.
They fought only to reclaim the city gates, to secure a path for Rodrigue to retreat. They were going to hold the gate for as long as they could--long enough for their own to leave--and that was it. Even from the gates, Felix could tell that the Empire was here in full force.
Yet for now, they were winning in their own small part of the city. Cornelia hadn’t expected reinforcements, not so soon and not in the form of a relic weapon. The imperial soldiers were pulling back to regroup, having taken too many losses in too short a time.
“Do we let them retreat?” Felix asked Sylvain, as an adjutant to a commander.
With a cold certainty, Sylvain replied, “No.”
It was hardly a test of skill to shoot an arrow into a fleeing soldier’s back. By the time Rodrigue and his soldiers reached the gate, the bodies had begun to pile up, the blood ran rivulets in the streets, like rainwater into the gutters.
They withdrew cleanly from the city gates, using a hail of arrows to cover their retreat. Their encampment wasn’t far into the Itha Plains, and they were afforded time to breathe once they reached camp.
That was when his father found him and took him aside.
“Felix, I need to speak with you,” Rodrigue began, and he paused for too long, searching for the right words, except there weren’t any right words to be found.
Felix didn’t have time for that. He wasn’t about to wait for his father to mince words. “You were right, okay? What else do you want?”
Confusion crossed his father’s face until Rodrigue remembered that, yes, they had argued about the wisdom of bringing an army. Clearly, that wasn’t what Rodrigue wanted to talk about.
“I received news that Cornelia executed His Highness,” Rodrigue said. He spoke as he always did, not necessarily as if he were in control of the situation, but in control of himself--calm, composed. “That’s why I rushed the city, but she didn’t have a body to show me.”
Felix heard the first sentence, and then the second followed in a murky haze, syllables and sounds that went past him without making any sense.
The boar prince was executed? It was always within the limits of reality--of course it was, anyone could die at any time--and prison was never good for life expectancy.
But the boar prince had lived when everyone else had died. The boar prince alone had emerged from the fires and the blood of Duscur and lived to tell the tale.
Disbelief. Doubt. Denial. Felix felt feelings more than he had words. What words could anyone have when they learned their childhood friend was dead?
“No body,” Felix said, managing a mere phrase instead of sentences. His father nodded. They had drawn the same conclusion. “There was no body,” Felix repeated, as if somehow no proof was all the proof in the world.
Rodrigue said something--more sounds, more syllables, he could see the words formed from his father’s lips, but it fell on deaf ears. His father had said enough things to him in the past that when it mattered most, Felix didn’t listen anymore.
“I need to go back into the city. I shouldn’t have left. I need to find him, he must be there.” His sword was in good repair; he could return to the city now, cut down anyone in his way, and search for the boar wherever he might be hiding.
How many soldiers had been in the city? Felix couldn’t fight them all--he could try though, it was a tempting thought. He would have to pose as a common mercenary. It was possible, even plausible. The Empire may know his father’s face, but they wouldn’t recognize Felix as easily.
Felix had walked past his father at some point, not concerned with his surroundings, there was only where he was now, and where he needed to be: Fhirdiad and the distance between.
Then the only thing he saw was Sylvain’s shoulder, having ran into it, and he felt a familiar hand holding onto his own.
It’s a touch that was a comfort and a warning all at once. It was, if nothing else, a reminder that the boar prince was not the only person that mattered to him.
What stood between Felix and Fhirdiad was Sylvain.
Softly, Sylvain said to Rodrigue, “Sir, if you don’t mind leaving?”
Sylvain didn’t wait for a response, not from Rodrigue nor from Felix. He took his bearings and chose to walk in the quietest direction, away from the camp, where the battle preparations weren’t as cacophonous, where it was just the two of them.
Sylvain expected Felix to follow, and against every instinct that told him Fhirdiad was the right direction, Felix did follow--as he had since he was a child, as he had for as long as he remembered.
They were alone when Sylvian turned to face him. “Felix, wherever you go, I’m going with you. You know that, right?”
It was a nice sentiment, but Felix had never had any use for sentiment. He scowled. “What are you going to do besides get in my way?”
“Die with you, I guess,” Sylvain answered, perfectly serious. “Because that’s the only thing that’s going to happen. We don’t know if Dimitri is still alive--”
“He’s alive,” Felix interrupted, terse, tense, but still willing to listen to Sylvain. He wasn’t sure he’d extend the same courtesy to anyone else. “He can’t be dead. His head would be on a spike for everyone to see if he were dead.”
“I think so too, but we don’t know that--and we don’t know if he’s still in Fhirdiad.”
“If the boar is in the city, then he needs help, the sooner the better. If he isn’t, I need a fresh trail to track him. I probably need to cover his tracks too because he’s a wild animal that can’t sneak through a fogbank.” It was true. He knew this from experience. “Sylvain, I need to be in the city.”
“...Alright,” Sylvain said. He knew what needed to be done. He leaned back and stretched, suddenly at ease--his mind was made, his course was set. “Like I said, I’ll go with you.”
“You?” Felix laughed at the absurdity of it. It wasn’t a kind sound. “For what purpose? I’ll go in pretending to be a mercenary. You’re going to, what, prance in on horseback with a relic weapon? They’ll kill you on sight. You’re going to die. Uselessly. Meaninglessly.”
“Meaningless to you isn’t the same as meaningless to me.” Sylvain spoke calmly, quietly, and with the resolve of someone who needed to keep Felix out of Fhirdiad at all costs. “If you don’t take me with you, I’ll just follow you.”
“That’s fine by me. If you’d rather keep me alive though, that’s real touching, and you probably shouldn’t lead me into a death trap.”
Felix searched Sylvain’s face for anything resembling a lie, any hint that this was a game. He said, “You’re a manipulative bastard, and you’re bluffing.”
“Guilty to the first.” Sylvain smiled. It was dashing. It was unfair. Strangling him seemed like an excellent idea. “Innocent to the second.”
He wasn’t bluffing, Felix was as sure of it as anyone could be sure of anything Sylvain said.
He glared at Sylvain with unbridled disgust, though it was hard to tell if it the disgust was leveled at Sylvain or himself. His voice a low tremor, Felix said, “You’re always holding me back.”
“You? Sorry? Unlikely,” he said. Felix lifted up his hand, and Sylvain was still holding it, had been since they’d gotten to this clearing. He sighed, defeated and deflated. “I’m not going anywhere. Let go of me.”
Sylvain’s grip loosened, and that was the only time his gaze faltered. He glanced at Felix and then looked away just as quickly. For a moment, letting go seemed like the last thing Sylvain wanted to do. Then Sylvain let go.
True to his word, Felix didn’t go anywhere. Instead, he slumped against Sylvain. He looked miserable, staying where he didn’t want to be, but staying nonetheless.
The first thing they needed was information. Their scouts couldn’t make it into the city, their spies returned with very little, and the soldiers they captured knew even less.
For the first few days, Rodrigue had deployed his best soldiers across the Itha Plains, intent on holding the region--if only because it was a desperately needed buffer zone between Fhirdiad and Fraldarius territory.
Fraldarius soldiers flitted in and out of the capitol’s reach, daring the Empire to give chase. The few times the Empire sent out their troops, their troops didn’t return. The first time, Fraldarius soldiers encircled them and left no survivors. The second time, they ran headfirst into the Lance of Ruin, and Felix took the opportunity to shake down imperial soldiers for what they knew about the boar prince.
The third time, Fhirdiad’s gates opened and a flock of crest beasts rampaged out into the plains.
From a short distance away Felix stared at the crest beasts. He remembered Miklan. He wondered if the beasts had once been men and women of Fhirdiad. He wondered if it was their repeated attacks on the city had been the reason Cornelia saw fit to turn people into beasts.
He drew his sword. Sylvain readied his lance.
“When I said they should bring their friends,” Felix said, perhaps too mildly for the situation, “I didn’t mean this.”
“Yeah, I figured you meant all their talented swordsmen friends.” Sylvain was just as mild, resolved to do what needed to be done, but not happy about it. “We’re going to have to talk to Rodrigue about backing off if they’re willing to turn people into beasts.”
“Hmph,” Felix agreed.
They battled the crest beasts--they had no other options. It was a brutal affair and also a bloody one, where Felix wished it could be as easy as bothering the battalion guild for more fighters afterwards. They retreated across the plains, slowly separating the beasts until they could collapse onto one caught out alone with ruthless efficiency.
They cut one down. Then again, and again, and again--each time, leaving behind the corpse of a battered street urchin or city pauper.
There was no time for even shallow graves, but there’s time to burn the bodies. It’s nothing the mages can’t handle.
Felix shook his head as he watched the embers die down. It was a grim thought, the idea that Fhirdiad’s own citizens would be turned against them if they continued their assault, but Felix’s simplest concern was that there would be no leads for him like this.
“There’s no point in staying here if they’re going to send monsters at us instead of soldiers. I can’t interrogate a beast.” It went without saying that Felix also couldn’t interrogate the dead.
“You’ve probably found out all you could anyway,” Sylvain reasoned, his voice even-keeled, but he looked away from the makeshift funeral pyre. “I don’t think he’s in the city anymore. We could check the nearest villages. Someone might’ve seen him.”
“There’s a lot of villages he could’ve run to, a dozen in any direction.”
“Well, not north.” There’s only the sea to the north of Fhirdiad, and it looked like the ports were closed tight the very day after Felix left the city. “Probably not south either, or he would’ve ran straight into the imperials.”
When it came to a fight, Felix wouldn’t bet against the boar prince, but some odds were better than others. Hesitantly, proposing an idea, Felix suggested, “If he did go south, he’d need help.”
“Even if he didn’t, we could still fight some imperials anyway. You might even find a decent opponent.”
“Don’t get my hopes up. You know it’s going to just be conscripted farmers that can’t tell the difference between a spear and a pitchfork.”
“I’d rather kill conscripts than--” Sylvain gestured to the burning remains, the powerless commoners that House Blaiddyd was sworn to protect, their own, “...this.”
The embers turned from fiery orange to charred black, and then to grey as the ashes dispersed into a soft breeze.
That evening, Sylvain made a brief report to Rodrigue--Felix hadn’t wanted to bother--and then they set out in the general direction of south, towards the enemy.
Time passed, as it was wont to do. With each passing day, the chances of running into Dimitri by happenstance grew slimmer and slimmer, until there was next to no chance at all.
Felix’s only comfort was that if the empire had found the boar prince before him, they would have killed him, and the world would know. Felix dreamed of it--dreams of days where he would learn in the next village that the boar prince had been captured, or a letter from his father bringing him the worst possible news, or stumble upon a boar corpse himself.
He’d rather go to sleep exhausted, dreamless. He started keeping Sylvain’s hours, often still awake whenever Sylvain returned from whoever was his object of affection for the night.
Sylvain returned earlier than usual this time, his clothes in a very kept state. It didn’t look like he’d gotten past the flirting stage tonight.
“No luck?” Felix asked, laying over the covers of his bed and staring rather intently at the ceiling.
“Oh, plenty. We did just defend the village from a monster, I’m made of luck right now.” Sylvain took off his boots at the door--he was here to stay then, rather than stopping briefly before returning to his conquests--and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I figured I should talk to you instead though.”
He frowned. “About what?”
He waited through a silence, one that dragged on long enough to be concerning. Sylvain was rarely hesitant with his words.
“How long are you going to keep looking for Dimitri?” Sylvain asked, finally. “Not that I think we should stop. I’m with you, you know. He’s my prince too, and we have no right to fight a war for a kingdom without a king, but… how long?”
“However long it takes,” Felix answered easily, as if there were nothing more certain in this world.
Sylvain sighed, or something like a sigh. It sounded more like he was in pain. “Yeah. I figured.”
Those words twisted like a knife, and Felix didn’t know why. “You don’t have to come with me. I know you have your family, your duties, whatever it is that matters to you.”
“You matter to me,” he said, a fact not up for debate, a fact so obvious that neither of them knew why it had to be stated aloud.
“You… Listen.” Felix didn’t have the words. He was never good with them in the first place. “Sylvain, you don’t need to baby-sit me anymore. I’m not your little brother--”
“I don’t think of you as a little brother. I haven’t for a long time,” Sylvain interrupted--too sharply, viciously even, with a bite that wasn’t directed at Felix but rather at himself.
“Sylvain.” Felix sat up to look Sylvain in the eye, searchingly but the only thing he found was the same self-loathing fool there always was. “What did you want me to say?”
“I don’t know,” Sylvain replied. “A time period shorter than forever?”
It was hard for Felix to tell who he was talking too, whether it was Sylvain, or the Sylvain that hated Sylvain. “I would look for you too, if it were you instead of the boar. For however long it takes.”
Sylvain took a breath. Then his smile returned, easy as ever, sunshine in the winter, and Felix’s world was a little brighter for it.
“Oh, don’t do that, not for me,” Sylvain drawled, without a care in the world. “If I’m gone, I’d just be dead. You’d waste your time looking for a corpse.”
“That’s… really not a funny joke. At all.”
“Right, right. Sorry. There’s a time and a place.”
“Yes, such as never and nowhere?”
“Aww, but you’re so cute when you’re worried about me.”
Felix grabbed his pillow and hurled it at Sylvain, who let it hit him uselessly. Felix looked for something else to throw, preferably something heavier. “Are you sure you don’t think of me as a little brother?” he demanded.
“Very, very sure. You ever going to stop thinking of me as a big brother?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I never did. I already have a big brother.” Had, slip of the tongue. Neither of them bothered correcting it, neither of them wanted to. “He was better than you anyway.”
Sylvain laughed--cackled, practically. “Alright, stab me in the heart again, why don’t you? It’s always like that with you. The next time a girl says I’m heartless, I’ll tell her it’s all your fault.”
“I don’t think she’s going to care whose fault it is.”
“Probably not.” Sylvain tossed the pillow back to Felix and stood up. “I’m going to go back out and pick up some girls. You should come with me! Just sit in a corner and brood, and I promise ladies will swarm you.”
Even the thought of being surrounded by lovelorn women was horrible, like being cornered by a dozen Manuelas. “That sounds more like a threat than a promise.”
“What, scared? I can hold your hand the whole time if you want, and whatever else you want me to hold.” Sylvain winked, and it was filthy. “I don’t mind sharing.”
“Ugh.” Despite his disgust, Felix breathed easier when Sylvain was like this. “Get out of here already. I’ll see you in the morning.”
There were, in fact, no women for Sylvain that night. He spent some time entertaining questions from the villagers, men and women alike, but nothing more than sharing drinks at the inn. Afterwards, so that Felix wouldn’t wonder why he was back so soon, Sylvain patrolled the village perimeter.
He didn’t expect to run into anything. He would’ve been annoyed if he had, but the night was quiet, peaceful in that way during war where you knew it couldn’t last.
The night air was brisk, and he knew in the coming weeks it’d turn frigid with the onset of winter. For now, it was crisp and soothing, though others would find such weather bitter at best.
Alone, Sylvain could allow himself time to think, and there was a great deal of thinking he needed to do.