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les adieux

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For Felix, the ball was tedious at best. Mercedes managed to cajole him into one dance--one dance, she’d promised, an outright lie--and he’s forcibly handed off to Annette and then to Ingrid for a total of three dances. Luckily, he and Ingrid together made a hasty retreat to the far end of the ballroom, where they could feign interest in talking to each other for the rest of the night.

It’s not as bad as it could be. He’s been metaphorically roped to the boar prince in the past at noble functions, so Ingrid’s company is nothing to complain about. It’s even pleasant, for the most part, as they use the time to talk about next week’s certification exams. Mercedes dropped by with a plate of cakes and pastries that neither of them touch. Understanding her folly, Mercedes returned later with a plate of scotch eggs and sausages, which they steadily pick at as the night went on.

“That’s his fourth!” Ingrid exclaimed as they watched Sylvain walk out of the ballroom for indeed the fourth time with a fourth girl, no doubt heading for the Goddess Tower.

Sylvain with yet another girl was perhaps the least noteworthy thing in the world, but Felix humored the conversation. “I wonder if he makes a different wish every time.”

“Does he even have four different wishes? I’ll bet he reuses the same exact lines with all of them.”

“Probably,” Felix agreed.

Maybe half an hour later, they saw Sylvain return, noticeably alone but in high spirits. It’s late enough now that it’s plausible that the fourth girl had gone to bed, even as Sylvain started a search for his fifth wish.

Ingrid stood up, hands on her hips and fully ready to march off to war. “I’m going to put a stop to this. I must.” She surveyed the area for a weapon to wield, and she chose a glass of wine.

Felix took her lightly by the arm. “Don’t waste your time.” Don’t cause a scene was what he really meant. Not that Felix cared about preserving the evening’s festivities, or even preserving the reputations of the girls Sylvain had duped. “I’ll go talk to him.”

The wine glass in her hand trembles, like a hesitant sword. “What are you going to say?”

“Haven’t thought about it yet. ‘Stop,’ or something along those lines.”

Ingrid pressed her lips together, her brow furrowed, but she nodded with conviction. She set the wine glass down. “Very well. Make him feel bad, Felix. You go and make him feel bad.”

 

-

 

Felix didn't know what he was going to say until he walked up to Sylvain and said it. “You should quit now, or I will keep close tabs on you for the next month, and whenever Ingrid wants to find you, I will tell her exactly where you are.”

“Wow,” Sylvain said. He processed those words again, then clutched at his heart in theatrical betrayal. “Wow. That’s… that’s horrible. You would do that to me, Felix? I’m wounded. Just the thought of it, eeurgh, I bleed--”

Felix shrugged and cut off Sylvain mid-sentence. “I’m not kidding.”

“Yeah, I know. I can tell. You don’t joke around often enough for that.” Sylvain laughed, that light and airy sound that Felix knew to be fake. Then he stopped laughing.

Sylvain’s expression softened. A silence lingered between them for a moment before he asked, “Are you mad at me?”

“What? No.”

“You’re mad at me.”

“Don’t go putting words in my mouth, Sylvain.” If he wasn’t mad before, Felix was tetchy enough now. “You’re as annoying as ever. Nothing more to it than that.”

Sylvain sighed. He looked down at his feet. Sylvain managed a few fragments of words, thoughts that he canceled before they were allowed to be. Felix waited; he hoped he wouldn't be waiting too long.

“Alright, fine," Sylvain said. "You win. I’m done for the night.”

“Good--”

“But,” he continued, “but we should go to the Goddess Tower. It’s beautiful out there tonight, you’d like it. We could even make a wish!”

If he was mad, which he wasn’t, Felix was only confused now. “I’m not a girl,” he said but he wasn’t sure if that actually needed saying. It certainly felt like a dumb thing to say, once he’d said it out loud.

“Oh, yeah, like the goddess is double checking the privates of everyone that heads up there. Definitely a thing she’s doing. She’s copped a feel on me four times now, and I have to admit I kinda liked it.”

“Ugh." It's true though. It's not like the goddess is enforcing the rules of local superstition. "It’s an old wives’ tale anyway. You’re foolish to even humor it.”

“It’s fun. What’s the harm in a little fun, huh? Besides, old wives can be real cute too.” Sylvain realized that was probably the wrong thing to say. “Listen, I’m sorry. Really, I am, but it’s a beautiful night. I’d really like it if we went and took a look at the stars. It doesn’t have to be for long.”

“And then you’ll be done?”

“And then it’s off to bed for me.” Sylvain smiled, and Felix somehow felt like he was making a devil’s bargain. “You have my word.”

 

-

 

Off in the distance at the furthest end of the ballroom, Ingrid watched Sylvain drag Felix outside. She held a glass of wine aloft, unsure if she was supposed to hurl it at Sylvain as a last minute intervention, or if she should just drink it.

 

-

 

The night was admittedly beautiful, stunning in the way that only nature can be. The stars twinkled like a fairy tale, a soothing light from far beyond man’s reach. The air was crisp and cool; it carried your woes away in a light breeze. The Goddess Tower was a stoic, stalwart presence, a monument to all that was and a testament against all that will be.

The night was quiet in that strange way that feels like peace. It was the sort of quiet that could convince you against your better judgment that tomorrow might be better than today.

“Can we go now?” Felix asked.

Sylvain’s response was injured but not surprised. “Don’t be like that, Felix. At least make a wish first.”

Felix didn’t bother hiding how he felt about the whole notion. “I don’t have a wish. I want to become stronger--but I can and will do that with my own two hands. I don’t need some goddess’ help.”

Sylvain closed his eyes instead of rolling them, though that was also an option he considered. When he opened them again, Felix was still there, as surly as before. “There’s got to be something.”

“I’ll think on it if it matters that much to you. You make your wish first.”

“It matters to me, but if you really can’t think of anything--well, it’s okay. I’m okay if you’re okay.”

“Hmph.”

Sylvain settled back against the Goddess Tower’s stone walls. He looks up at the skies, maybe because it’s a lovely sight, or maybe just to avoid eye contact. “You know that armory we have? Back at Castle Gautier?”

“Yes. Your father’s collection ranks among the best I’ve seen.”

“Yeah, that armory. He likes collecting those masterwork weapons about as much as you do.”

Sylvain paused. He didn’t believe in the goddess granting wishes either, but he didn’t see anything wrong with putting your dreams into words.

The hesitation was enough for Felix to say, “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I… didn’t mean to pry.”

“I wish,” Sylvain said just to begin speaking, to fill the silence, because it wasn’t prying. He wouldn’t have pestered Felix for wishes if he weren’t willing to share his own. “I wish that when I get home after we graduate, I’ll set down the Lance of Ruin in that armory, and I’ll never need to touch it again.”

There wasn't a lot Felix could say to that. There wasn't a lot anyone could say to that. “...I don’t think the goddess is going to grant that one, even if she were in the business of granting wishes.”

“I know,” Sylvain replied, so softly that it twisted like a knife.

There was no apology coming from Felix, but he redoubled his efforts into actually coming up with a wish--anything halfway thoughtful, really. Generic wishes came to mind, the wishes that people drink to, like bountiful harvest, good hunting, longevity, but generic seemed like a poor response to what Sylvain had offered.

It just didn’t seem fair to hide his own soul when someone else had just laid theirs bare.

Felix didn’t know how long he spent thinking (it was all too easy to lose track of time for a night like this), and he didn’t realize it had been too long until Sylvain said, “Are you still mad at me?”

“Wha--no . I wasn’t mad at you to begin with. I’m still trying to come up with a wish. Shut up and let me think.”

“Well, don’t hurt yourself on my behalf. We can just go back. It’s not that big of a deal, and it’s getting late.”

“I’ll come up with something,” Felix snapped. “Shut up.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you will.” Sylvain was beginning to sound like he was talking to a small child. “It really doesn’t have to be right now though. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on your beauty sleep. It can wait for next time.”

“After we graduate? Who knows when we’ll be back, if we’ll ever be back.”

“At latest, it’ll be five years. Dimitri said we’ll all meet up again five years from now, remember?”

It took a moment for Felix to acknowledge that Sylvain was right, the time was set for five years. It took another moment for Felix to think exactly what he said next. “I don’t need five whole years to come up with a wish.”

“You sure about that?” He got punched for that, pretty lightly for Felix, all things considered. “Ow...”

Felix glowered at Sylvain. He shook his head in disbelief at himself. “I wish we’ll still be alive and together in five years time," he declared. "That’s it. I’ll come up with a better one in five years.”

“Aww, but I like that one. It’s cute, just like you,” Sylvain said, grinning like a fool.

“Shut up.”

“I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll think about it for five years, or hey, that could be your next wish. Something you’d never be able to make happen yourself--perfect, right?”

Shut up.”

Sylvain did not shut up, not when they got back to the dormitories, not when the night grew old, not until the soft reds and pinks of sunrise touched the skies.

They spoke throughout the night, cursing each other and the impending dawn, in a strange way that felt like peace, like tomorrow might be better than today.

-

 

In the year 1181, war consumes Fódlan.

Chapter Text

tw: animal death

 

-

 

Felix had two options after he fled the Garreg Mach. Others called it retreating, which was one way of looking at it, but he knew it for what it was: defeat, followed by inevitable retreat. To call it a tactical retreat would give the impression that they chose to retreat. No one had a choice, not unless that choice was simply to not die.

He had two options. The first, to go to Fhirdiad, to do his best to keep the boar prince in one piece, because he would take a boar king over the regent any day of the week, but especially during a war. The second, to return home.

He chose home. It wasn’t an unexpected decision for Felix to abandon the boar prince to his fate, though at that time, he didn’t know what fate would be. Most of the Blue Lions reported home either for their family or for their duties, or both. None of them knew what would happen in Fhirdiad.

He chose home, and for five years, Felix wondered if he’d chosen poorly.

 

-

 

Felix was the first to learn of something amiss in Fhirdiad. He was out in the fringes of Fraldarius territory in the dread hours of dawn, hunting in the early morning--for no reason, except that he needed to be alone, solitude in the cold morning air, just a hunter and his prey.

It was a simpler way to live, and his days at home were always complicated to the point of being labyrinthine, where neither he nor his father could say anything right to each other.

Overhead, he heard the steady beat of wings, too large to be birds of prey, too small (he hoped) to be a monster. Felix notched an arrow into his bow--and then lowered it immediately.

It was a pegasus knight in Galatea colors: silver and teal. She alighted without a hint of grace. Many things snapped horrifically as she tumbled onto the ground, but it wasn’t the snapping of bone. It was the snapping of the arrow shafts lodged into her stomach and a few more in her calves.

A million thoughts occurred to him at once. She had come from the northwest, the direction of Fhirdiad, but the Empire couldn’t have made it past Rowe and Arianhrhod to take Fhirdiad. The Empire should not be here yet, the war should not be here yet--not unless it had been here all along. There was no one between here and Fhirdiad that could have shot her down, no one except the knights of Fhirdiad themsleves.

She seized him by the arm as soon as he was within reach. “Galatea, Lord Galatea--where is he? I n-need to speak with him, I need to tell him, he has to know, where is he? Where is he? Where is he?” She babbled, words on top of words as if she couldn’t speak them fast enough, and Felix waited for her to stop. In time, he realized she wasn’t going to stop. “Where is he--”

“Commander,” he said, guessing by the pinions and stripes she wore on her uniform, “Commander, you’re in Fraldarius territory. I’ll take you to the castle. We’ll get you to Count Galatea. What happened?”

“He’s dead. He killed him.” A full pause. Felix waited for her to continue and tried to not be annoyed when she had nothing else to say after that. She suddenly laughed, not happily but like anyone would after a few drinks and a long day's work. It sounded like surrender.

“Who killed who?”

“R-r-r-” She licked her lips and tried again. She looked frustrated with herself, and Felix wondered if she had any idea how pale she was, how cold she was, how much blood she’d lost. “Re-re-”

“Regent,” he said, surprising himself in how even-tempered he sounded as he started to realize what she was trying to say.

“Ruh, fuh,” she said after that, nodding.

“...Rufus.”

The name spoken out loud broke something in her, as if the words made it true, as if reality were only waiting for her to admit it. “Dead. He’s dead. Oh, goddess, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead. He k-killed him. She, she, she--his. His Highness, the prince. She said he killed him, killed him, killed him.”

“The prince killed the regent?”

She nodded.

“No, he didn’t,” Felix replied with the unquestionable confidence of someone declaring that tomorrow the sun will rise.

“Nnuh,” she said, but he couldn’t tell if she was agreeing or disagreeing--or if she was just making sounds without meaning at this point.

Then she asked, in a moment of complete coherence, her voice tired but calm, alert but fearless. He imagined that’s what she sounded like normally, a voice befitting a commander. “Is Gemma okay?”

Who was Gemma? Felix followed her gaze, leading to where she had landed, and he understood. The pegasus, of course. The pegasus was lying in a growing pool of its own blood. Its wounds oozed like molasses, and both of its hind legs twisted in ways Felix had only seen in the rebellion. No, he concluded, Gemma was not okay.

“I’ll take a look,” he said, and he did, examining the pegasus’ many wounds and acknowledging the miracle flight that had brought her rider even this far. He looked, and he didn’t find anything he didn’t expect.

He fed the pegasus sugar cubes that he kept for his own horses. It was normally one per horse, one per day. Felix was never the sort of person to coddle his animals, but this wasn’t coddling, nor was it his animal. He let her have the whole bag, enough sugar treats for a full week by anyone’s standard, until she was glassy-eyed, her pulse slowed, and her movement became terribly still.

Gemma was cold to the touch.

That afternoon, the commander woke up again in the care of healers, but she only babbled nonsensically, even less coherent than she was with Felix. They caught all the same words--regent, prince, dead--but with one more: betrayed. Then they put her back to sleep because being awake was doing her more harm than good.

She passed away that night. Rodrigue ordered his men to fetch her pegasus’ corpse and send her body back with her steed to House Galatea.

 

-

 

The next day, Felix was in the stables before sun up, saddling a horse. If he were going on a morning hunting trip, he’d have filled saddlebags with a light meal for mid-morning and not much else. Instead, he had enough rations for a few days’ journey, a set of courtly clothes neatly packed, and a small if exquisite supply of bribes gifts, suitable for a trip to Fhirdiad.

Politely, Rodrigue coughed from the doorway to announce his presence. “Good morning, Felix.”

His father was the last person he wanted to encounter right now. This was a conversation Felix had wanted to avoid, just like every non-essential conversation he had with his father since he’d gotten home.

But then, maybe this was an essential conversation.

“I left you a letter in your war room. I’m going to Fhirdiad.” He was sure Rodrigue had already drawn that conclusion on his own, but that’s what he was here to talk about, so they may as well cut to the chase.

“Ah.” They shared an awkward silence as they tended to these days, where neither of them knew what to say or how to say it. “I was thinking about taking a trip there myself. Later today in fact, with some of the knights. I was actually hoping you would stay here while I was out, to run the house.”

I’m going to Fhirdiad. You should stay here to run your own bloody house.”

Rodrigue pressed his lips together in a slight frown, not of disagreement but of concern. (Felix didn’t know why. He wasn’t a child anymore, there was no cause for concern.) “That’s certainly an option,” Rodrigue said. “Why don’t you wait for after breakfast then? You could bring those knights I mentioned with you, after they finish their morning drills. I’d feel better about you visiting the capitol if you weren’t alone.”

He knew an attempt at compromise when he saw one, and Felix tried to meet Rodrigue halfway. He asked, “How many knights are there?”

“I haven’t an exact headcount. Seven hundred or so, give or take.”

Felix stared at his father. He shouldn’t be stunned into silence; this was just like Rodrigue. Slowly and deliberately, he passed his judgment, “I guess to a man with an army, every problem looks like a war.”

“Some problems you cannot solve alone, Felix, and the swiftest solution is--unfortunately--always iron and steel, and more tends to be better. You don’t know what you will find in Fhirdiad. You may find yourself in need of the swiftest solution.”

“Has it occurred to you that the commander was both dying and delirious? I’m not advancing on Fhirdiad with an army based on one person’s death rattle.”

“If this is all a simple misunderstanding, then the knights can enjoy a well-deserved holiday at the capitol. If it is not, then you may be thankful to have an army at your disposal.”

“I am going to Fhirdiad to find out what happened,” Felix repeated, that much it seemed they could agree on, a basic premise where they could begin. The rest was up for negotiation. “I’ll arrive there by nightfall, learn what I can, and depart the following day. You can set out with your knights today as planned and make camp on the Itha Plains. I will report to you my findings there, then return home to run your bloody house.”

It’s a solid plan. Information could hardly travel any faster than that, and armies shouldn’t move blind. He watched as his father considered it. It was obvious that he didn’t like it, and Felix braced himself for an argument. It was always either an argument or one of them would see fit to give up before it came to an argument.

“That puts you at considerable risk, Felix.”

“I can take care of myself. Besides, if the kingdom needs an army, then the kingdom will also need the Shield of Faerghus.”

His father’s expression was unreadable to him, though lacking its usual good humor. “The Shield of Faerghus needs his son.”

Felix laughed, a bitter sound. “Don’t worry, father. I don’t have any interest in dying--for you, for the kingdom, for the boar prince, for anyone.”

Finally, Rodrigue relented. He sighed, but it was more a sigh of relief than anything else, a sign that their conflict here was over. “Very well. You go where you wish--but take no risks, Felix. If it is war, it’s only the beginning of one. We cannot afford to falter, not ever, but especially not now.”

That was that. Rodrigue left as quietly as he’d arrived, and Felix breathed a little easier knowing that he had his father’s support.

 

-

 

When he arrived to Fhirdiad, the city was in a quiet uproar, and the inns were filled with entirely too many soldiers dressed as mercenaries. It’s the talk of the town that the regent is dead, but it’s only in whispers that people are saying His Highness murdered him. Some say there will be a trial, others only say that there will be an execution.

The castle was closed to all visitors. He thought he could talk his way past the gatekeeper, but the gatekeeper was a stranger to him--as were all the knights, the soldiers, and the castle help. He didn’t recognize any of them. It had only been a year since he’d last been to Fhirdiad. Could the boar prince really have replaced everyone in service to his house so quickly? Even if he could, why would he?

Still, entrance proved plenty purchasable with a ruby ring, just one of the useless baubles he’d brought with him.

Felix arrived to the throne room with minimal pomp and circumstance, mostly by walking forward and paying no mind to anyone that tried to get in his way.

The only people in the throne room were Cornelia and a coterie of mages. The mages were unknown, but Cornelia looked the same, yet different somehow. It was probably her face; she looked like she wanted to cut Felix down where he stood--a welcome challenge, in his opinion.

For a moment, Cornelia’s expression was nothing short of furious. A page rushed past him to belatedly announce his arrival. (Felix Hugo Fraldarius, heir to House Fraldarius, and whatever other titles that had passed to him from his brother, he never bothered to learn them all himself.) That was all the time she needed smooth the anger lines out of her face, replacing them with a warm, docile smile.

She shooed away her companions, men and women in robes that he didn’t recognize. They stepped back into the shadows of the throne room, then Cornelia turned her attention to Felix. “My, my, my, look how you’ve grown! Why, I didn’t recognize you at first. Tell me, my lord, what brings you to Fhirdiad?”

His story was at least based on truth. “A small matter, though I hope you might prove of some use for it. The boar prince keeps a vassal, a man of Duscur. I owe him a favor from the Officer’s Academy. I don’t like owing animals favors, so I’d hoped to clear my debts before the Empire’s war takes up all my spare time.”

Cornelia put on her best apologetic face like how a street performer might put on a mask. “Well, I suppose we were going to announce this to the public soon enough. Unfortunately, His Highness is... suspected of murder, I’m afraid. More than suspected, for better or for worse. We are holding him for trial. That manservant you speak of has disappeared. I assume he cowardly abandoned his liege, as those of Duscur are so wont to do.”

“Any idea where he might’ve gone?” Felix said, carrying on the conversation based on instinct as his mind tried to digest what had just been said. “It’s not like Duscur’s worth returning to. He must still be in the city.”

Cornelia nodded. “I believe he hasn’t gone far. I have our soldiers looking for him, but so far he’s eluded us entirely.”

“Ridiculous. Have Fhirdiad’s knights slipped that far into incompetence?” Unnecessarily sharp words aside, it still didn’t seem like Dedue could hide from House Blaiddyd’s soldiers. Dedue couldn’t blend into a Fódlan crowd, and the local knights were all born and raised in the city.

Cornelia made a good show of wringing her hands. “Unfortunately, that’s the truth of it. All of our knights were dispatched to the border the Adrestian Empire already, so we’re mostly relying on hired help now.”

“Then you might want to hire better help. I know everyone useful died four years ago, but this is worse than expected.”

“I’ll put more men on the search.” Cornelia had the decency to look sheepish (it was a strange look on her--sheep don’t normally attempt to look sultry), but she didn’t look at all concerned. In fact, it looked like her only real worry right now was him. “Listen, how about I make arrangements for you to speak to Prince Dimitri, would that suit you? Depending on how the trial goes, I'm not sure you'll have another chance to see him. We’re keeping his location under very tight wraps, but I can work something out. I’m sure an old friend would be a very welcome sight for him.”

“The boar prince would not be a welcome sight for me,” he said. He wished that were true, as it had been just a week ago when the world was at peace.

That was enough for the tension to fade from Cornelia’s shoulders, for her to breathe a little easier. Good--he felt less like he was dancing on a knife’s edge too.

“Ah. I had heard his friendship with you deteriorated after the rebellion. That’s a shame.” She clasped her hands together and smiled brightly, and suddenly she genuinely resembled the woman he remembered from his childhood. “Why don’t you let us prepare your old room here? It was in the western ward with the rest of the prince’s friends, wasn’t it? We’ll take good care of you, and I promise you’ll be the first to know if--or when--we find His Highness’ retainer.”

Sleeping in a den of unfamiliar faces sounded exactly like the sort of risk Rodrigue wanted him to avoid. “No, but your hospitality is appreciated. I’d rather search Fhirdiad and its outskirts for Dedue myself. Staying here would only slow me down.”

Cornelia’s face distorted into the same anger she’d worn when he’d first entered. There was a moment where he thought she might insist. She glanced at the mages, and the mages shuffled in closer; there were six of them that Felix could see, and he wasn’t sure he liked his odds. Then Cornelia took a deep breath, followed by a deep sigh, and she shooed them away.

She leaned forward to provide a view that he assumed worked against most men. “Whatever you think is best then. If you change your mind though, remember that you are always welcome in Fhirdiad, my lord.”

Felix left the castle as fast as he could without running.

 

-

 

Dear Father,

I hope this finds you well. I wouldn’t recommend you take a holiday trip to Fhirdiad right now. All the inns are filled to the brim with mercenaries from what I noticed. There wouldn’t be anywhere for you and your men to stay, and the castle is pretty busy too. Cornelia offered me my old room at the castle. Would you believe she hasn’t aged a day? Anyway, it looks like she’s already entertaining a lot of her mage friends, so I didn’t want to impose on her.

I hate to admit it, but I suppose you were right about everything.

I’m going to visit House Gautier. I apologize for not returning home like I promised, but I’m sure uncle will help out if you’re too old to be useful.

Yours,
FHF

 

-

 

There were no ships sailing for Gautier territory as soon as he would like. Felix offered the remaining contents of his saddlebags, a minor collection of gemstone rings and brooches, and there was suddenly a speedy merchant ship sailing for Gautier territory exactly as soon as he would like. Funny how that worked.

Felix would’ve felt worse than he did for forcing a merchant captain to move on his schedule (a schedule that was right now), but there was plenty to gain from a trip to Gautier lands: wine, cheese, honey, cured meats, and more. Given the unrest in Fhirdiad, leaving as soon as possible may even have been the merchants’ wisest course of action.

When they made port in Gautier territory, it was already nightfall, the skies lustrous purple and streaked with red. The shops were long since closed, but the merchant captain pulled string after string to find him someone willing to sell a horse at this hour.

“War is good for business,” the merchant said as parting words, “but I hope this is a quick one, my lord. Good luck.”

Felix didn’t need luck so much as he needed light. He wasn’t the rider that Sylvain was, and the darkness meant he stuck to the roads like a monk to scripture.

It was even darker by the time he arrived to House Gautier’s famous border keep, but the keep itself was lit, a lighthouse against the sea of enemies that was Sreng. Wearily, his horse finally slowed as its hooves hit the familiar cobblestones, and Felix pulled to a stop at the keep’s gate.

Against all odds, the Margrave was awake. A knight led him to the Gautiers’ war room, where Margrave Gautier stood, looking over a map of Fódlan by candlelight. He looked like he hadn’t slept in years (not that Felix looked much better). Across his map, wooden pieces already marked the imperial army and Faerghus’ own troops at Arianrhod and Sreng.

"So it has come to pass: Master Fraldarius the Younger, arriving on horseback in the dead of night." Margrave Gautier was almost always a stoic man, unreadable, but Felix knew him well. He saw the way his hand brushed his sword hilt, heard the way his voice rumbled, like an old lion stirring from its slumber. "It is to be war then."

"It is." He wondered what the Margrave already knew. “Cornelia claims Dimitri murdered the regent. It’s not true.”

“...And I had dared to hope you were only here to visit my son,” the Margrave said, his tone unchanged but somehow sounding even older than he was.

The Margrave gestured to a box at the corner of the table. Felix fetched it. Inside, there were wooden soldiers in the colors of every noble house. Unprompted, Felix handed Fraldarius and Gautier soldiers to the Margrave.

The map on the table looked uglier with more soldiers upon it, facing inwards rather than out.

Without a shred of doubt, Margrave Gautier stated, “If the war isn’t over by winter, Fhirdiad will starve. As long as Fraldarius and Gautier hold fast to each other, we will control the northern sea and the eastern roads. The food they have now is all the food they will have for the winter.”

“What happens then?”

“Then? Then the prince will reign over a city of the dead, which makes our victory no different from a defeat. We must take Fhirdiad before winter arrives, or we must negotiate a truce until spring.”

The old man was thinking aloud, nothing more, but Felix listened to him talk. He found out what the Margrave knew: nothing about the unrest in Fhirdiad, but everything about anything else. The Officers’ Academy had always emphasized that knowledge is power, and the Margrave demonstrated why. He had long since taken note of the imperial soldiers in the mountains, the knights in the hills, their supply chains, their engineer corps, and a staggering assortment of petty allegiances and treaties between all the noble lords.

Suddenly, Margrave Gautier frowned at Felix, somehow only just realizing that he had been there the whole time, passing him little wooden soldiers from out of a box. “What are you still doing here? You’re not my squire anymore, and the hour is well past late. Go to bed.”

“Why? You’re not my lord anymore, and I’m not tired.”

Margrave Gautier looked at Felix with an icy gaze that could flay a soul right out of a body. “I said, good night, Felix.”

Greater men had crumbled under that gaze. Glenn had crumbled under that gaze. For Felix’s part, he muttered something unintelligible and slunk out of the room, feeling a bit like he was a small child all over again.

 

-

 

Going to bed wasn’t as simple as that. He’d slept a few hours at sea, and either way, he wasn’t about to tuck himself into a nice, clean bed after a midnight horseback ride. The maids would kill him in his sleep.

It was an outrageous hour for it, but Felix drew up a bath and stole a set of Sylvain’s clothes, a tunic shirt belted almost like a dress and breeches that sufficed. They didn’t fit well, but he wasn’t willing to break into anyone else’s bedroom.

He was searching the guest bedroom for a hairbrush when there was a knock at the door.

Felix answered the door, and he wasn’t surprised to see Sylvain. “What do you want?” he asked.

Sylvain gave him a once-over, which turned into a double take and a second-over. He blinked several times. “...To say hello?”

“Okay.” When Sylvain failed to follow up with anything else after that, Felix said, “You’ve done that, good job. Did you want anything else?”

“Uh, no. I mean, y-yes, probably.” Maybe Sylvain was still tired. It was still hours before dawn, a practically heretical time to be awake for him. Then again, it was Sylvain, he could’ve only just finished a nightly escapade with a woman. Felix couldn’t be too sure.

Sylvain regained himself, finally making eye contact and grinning as usual. “Wait a second, why do I have to want anything from you? That’s not how hospitality works. You're our guest. Do you need anything?”

Felix allowed Sylvain to enter the room, closing the door behind him without protest. “Peace and quiet, maybe. I’ll settle for a hairbrush though, if you know where to find one.”

The hairbrush was in the armoire, not in plain sight but under a frankly ridiculous pile of scarves. Sylvain found it with ease nevertheless, which made Felix wonder if he was more exhausted than he thought that he hadn’t noticed it on his own.

“Here,” Sylvain said, sitting Felix down at the corner of the bed. Gently, he drew Felix’s hair back over his shoulders and began to work out the tangles. It was a familiar touch, but one from long ago, echoes of childhood.

Felix grumbled something about unwanted coddling and an uglier version of Mercedes.

Sylvain laughed, a sound that could probably make the fiercest Faerghus winter a little warmer. “Wow! Am I not good enough for you? Listen, if you want a beautiful woman to play with your hair, we could go back to my room. I’ll have to wake her up, but she’d love to have two young noblemen in--”

No,” Felix said, already sounding exhausted after only a few minutes with Sylvain. “Why do you even bother asking?”

“Why not? Let a guy dream, Felix. There’s zero chance of you saying yes if I never ask.” He was joking, but he stopped mid-brushstroke, suddenly cautious. “If it’s really a bother, just say so, and I’ll stop. You know that, right?”

“You’ll just bother me about something else.” Felix tilted his head just slightly, enough that Sylvain could more easily run a hand through his hair. Softly--because loud had never inspired Sylvain to change--Felix said, “We’re at war now though. You should get your priorities in order.”

Sylvain sighed. “No wonder my father likes you so much.”

They fell quiet for a while. Felix almost felt bad, except this was… nice, a comfortable silence interrupted only by the occasional brush of Sylvain’s fingertips against his skin. It didn’t seem like Sylvain minded either. He probably preferred this over yet another old friend chastising his skirt chasing anyway.

His work done, Sylvain left the hairbrush on the nightstand. “I’m joining Rodrigue with however many knights we can muster. I might even head out ahead of the knights today while there’s light.”

“You? I thought the Margrave would go himself.”

“He will eventually. There’s other things he wants to do first, mostly logistics. For now, everyone knows he’s serious if he sends the Lance of Ruin.” Sylvain saw Felix’s surprise. “Hah. Yeah. It’s still mine. I don’t think my father wants it back, ever. What about you? Are you going to join Rodrigue?”

Felix didn’t know. He knew it was important for the Margrave to start assembling his battalions and moving south, but after that, there weren’t any easy decisions left for him to make. “Father wanted me to return home. I haven’t spoken to him since, but I don’t think he’s changed his mind on that.”

“Do you care what he wants?”

Felix shrugged. Yes and no. There were plenty of times where their goals aligned for different reasons; this wasn’t one of them. “I’d rather fight.”

That brought a grin to Sylvain’s face, though Felix couldn’t tell you why. “Then fight. Come with me, and we can tell your father that I insisted on it--because I do. Besides, you have to be there in case I die.”

Until the last sentence, Felix nodded along agreeably enough, then his blood ran cold. “No. Forget it.” He scowled, wearing anger as a mask, and he wasn’t sure that Sylvain couldn’t see through it. “I’d go to keep you alive, not to bear witness to your death.”

“Alright--alright, of course. I’m just joking around.” It hadn’t sounded like a joke, and out of anyone, Felix could tell the difference after all these years. “Do you always have to be so dour, Felix? I miss your smile.”

“There hasn’t been a lot to smile about, not for a long time now.” He ran a hand though his hair, looked down at the ground before he glanced at Sylvain. Felix didn’t know what to do with him--but then, he never did. “Sylvain, I’ll go with you, just… I’m not planning on dying anytime soon. Neither should you.”

“I’ll be alive and kicking as long as you are. I promised I would.” Sylvain reached out for him, and Felix would never know what he intended to do, because Sylvain’s hand changed course to punch him lightly on the shoulder. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m not going to leave you.”

It wasn’t the first time he heard promises like those, plenty of times from Sylvain, but even more from Glenn.

“Yeah,” Felix replied, without faith. “I know.”

Chapter Text

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.”

“You’ll die.”

“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.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.

Chapter Text

To Fraldarius the Younger,

Your chances of finding our prince are long since past.

If you have any loyalty to the crown, you will return home. We have need of your strength to defend what remains of the Kingdom of Faerghus. Here, your efforts may yet cause some effect. If you wish to continue your search in vain, then I bid you return my son to me.

The safest route to Lord Rodrigue will be through House Charon and Galatea. 

The Empire will seek to end this war before the Red Wolf Moon. Be wary, but do not be cowardly.

As always,
Margrave Gautier

 

-

 

Felix received a letter from the Margrave on the fourth day of the Wyvern Moon. (Curiously, Sylvain received no letter, which didn’t seem to surprise him. “He likes you more than he likes me,” Sylvain had explained.) That very evening, they gathered their belongings and turned back for home.

The Margrave was correct, even if Felix had spent the last moon ignoring the simple truth: he had failed to find the boar. His search didn’t have to end--nor would it, not until the boar prince was found--but he couldn’t abandon his other responsibilities either. At the very least, he should free Sylvain from this wild goose chase.

They weren’t far from Charon territories, but once they entered, it was curiously quiet--nervously quiet, even. It was undefended, as if it weren’t in fact sitting on the border between the Dukedom and the Kingdom.

Felix and Sylvain climbed an empty watchtower at the perimeter of Charon territory. They had been looking for someone to talk to, to find out whether Lord Charon had chosen to side with the Dukedom or the Kingdom, but they’d settle for a good view of the area.

“So I have good news and bad news,” Sylvain said, after peering through a spyglass towards Lord Charon’s keep. “Which one do you want first?”

“The bad,” Felix answered. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever chosen to hear the good news first.

“Lord Charon is definitely not flying the Kingdom banner anymore. The upside is that I don’t see any Empire banners either.”

Sylvain offered Felix the spyglass. Felix wasn’t sure why he bothered looking for himself, but he did and saw that the castle wore no colors.

Felix had expected to find out whether Charon was friend or foe based on what flag it still flew, but he hadn’t accounted for no flags at all. “What does that even mean? He can’t possibly want to start his own city-state.” It was hard not to fear the worst. “...It could be a trap. The Empire may already be there.”

“If the Empire’s already here, then the Empire controls every road back to Fraldarius. We may as well take this one since we’re here. Besides, it’s not like we’re visiting Lord Charon personally. We’re just walking through, you know, like travelers. They might not even notice us until we’re gone.”

“We’d have to travel pretty fast then.”

“Just pretend it’s one of those breakneck weekends with the Professor.”

The difference between their travels now and those breakneck weekends with the Professor was that a class from the Officer’s Academy traveled out in the open. It had been peacetime, even with all the turmoil across Faerghus.

This time, Felix insisted they stay off the main roads, and Sylvain insisted on climbing to the top of every damn hill to survey the area. Felix shared the same paranoia, but every hill was a bit much.

Of course, it paid off eventually.

“Soldiers approaching. Wait, no, they’re knights,” Sylvain corrected once he noted the way the light glinted against armor.

“Colors?” Felix asked.

“None, just Charon red on white.” Sylvain chose a lance--a normal iron lance, enough to be armed but not enough to be an ultimatum--and glanced at Felix. “I’ll go talk to them, you stay here? Cover me.”

Felix crossed his arms. “The other way around would work better. I speak to them, and you loom a short cavalry charge away.”

“If it’s talking, then it should be me, unless we want you to go in and hurt their feelings.” Sylvain paused, and a little sheepishly, he added, “Also, I promised Rodrigue I’d keep you alive, so no approaching suspicious knights. I’d have a really hard time explaining myself to him if they cut you down.”

The knights were within sight now. There were only a pair of them, and Felix assessed them as minimally threatening at best. They were Charon’s normal knights, not Thunderstrike Cassandra. “I could take them on with my hands tied behind my back--but have it your way.”

From a short distance away, Felix waited with a bow and arrow ready, but the encounter appeared cordial--awkward to be sure, but certainly not a standoff between enemies.

It wasn’t until they had almost finished talking that their voices dropped so low that Felix couldn’t even hear a murmur from where he stood. The knights went from awkward to outright embarrassed, apologizing softly over something Felix couldn’t discern, and then that was that. They parted ways.

Sylvain returned. He smiled, but it looked like someone appreciating a certain amount of irony. It lacked the usual cozy warmth that Felix associated with him.

“Bad news first,” Felix said, before Sylvain had a chance to speak.

“Lord Charon gave the Empire permission to cross their lands with an army. They’re heading to Galatea territory, to cut through to Fraldarius. Same as our plan for getting back to your dad actually. They can’t be too far behind us.”

Is there any good news?”

“We can cross through Charon lands too, no problem. Lord Charon is apparently ‘neutral.’ Oh, and I don’t know if this counts as good, but House Galatea is still loyal to the Kingdom. They’re our next stop, so it’s good to know they haven’t turned on us, but it’s not exactly comforting. There’s not a lot a poor house can do if the Empire picks a fight with them besides... well.”

“Besides roll over and die?”

Clearly, those weren’t the words Sylvain would have chosen, but they were accurate enough. “I was going to say ‘pray that Rodrigue remembers to save them,’ but pretty much that, yeah.”

After that, they no longer bothered seeking out vantage points to survey the area. There was no reason to anymore. If they looked back and saw an army, their only option would be to go faster, forward to Galatea.

 

-

 

Galatea didn’t have much in the way of lands, neither for quality nor for quantity. Where Lord Charon at least had seasonal bounties from the hills and lower mountains of Oghma, Lord Galatea held the barren flatlands. It wasn’t that way when they were first granted the territory a century ago. History claimed that although it was never a large holding, it once returned a healthy harvest each year. That was generations ago by now.

As cold and lifeless as the land was, the worst was simply the quiet. It hadn’t been like this before the famine. There never were too many people here, but now there were even less, and the few they passed were eerily somber as if in mourning.

“It’s worse than I thought it’d be. I don’t think I’ve even seen any weeds growing since we got here,” Sylvain murmured, though there was no particular reason for them to be quiet. It just seemed right to keep their voices low, to avoid disturbing whatever little remained. “I get why Ingrid never wants us to visit.”

“My father’s been sending them food every year. He still feels bad about ‘letting them down’ during the famine, even though he sent everything we could spare at the time.” It had been a cold summer followed by an outright frozen autumn. No one had it easy, but only Galatea’s citizenry outright starved.

“He’s feeding a whole extra territory? He could talk to my old man about that, I’m sure he’d help.”

“No need,” Felix said shortly. “It’s not a burden. There’s not actually that many mouths left to feed.”

It took until midday before any of Galatea’s soldiers ran into them, and that soldier was Ingrid herself. They spotted her from a distance, clearly a pegasus knight patrolling the perimeter, and obviously Ingrid because they could see Luin on her back even from a distance. She was less recognizable up close, with shadows under her eyes and her hair cut boyishly short.

She looked at them, not putting any particular effort into hiding how crestfallen she was.

“Hello! I… see you didn’t find His Highness,” she said, but didn’t have to say it like that, with a weak, paltry smile and the disappointment of ages.

“Lord Charon says there’s an imperial army coming your way. You're all going to die,” Felix said--and he also didn’t have to say it like that either, but of course he did.

"Okay, not everyone is going to die," Sylvain said, with more realistic expectations. "We can survive a siege."

Ingrid paled, her skin turning practically bone white given how fair she already was. “How far are they now?”

“It’s not like we turned back to check,” Felix replied.

“They’ll arrive eight hours after sunrise tomorrow. That’s assuming they crossed into Lord Charon’s lands the same day we did, and they’re marching at the same speed Count Bergliez did back in Dagda,” Sylvain answered. Clearly, he’d been thinking about it this whole time. “An advance guard could arrive sooner--a lot sooner if they have an air squad--but I’d need pen and paper, and a map, to calculate more than that.”

Felix said, “At least you don’t have any commoners left to evacuate.”

Ingrid let that slide, or perhaps she even agreed. “There aren’t any commoners, but we have a battalion of pegasus knights stationed about five miles north of here. You should head right there--it’s a tower, you can’t miss it--and tell them to fly for the castle keep. And you, Sylvain, are going to go straight to my father, get some pen and paper, get a map, and figure out how long we have to prepare.”

The logic didn’t quite check out. “Wouldn’t Sylvain get to your father just as fast if one of the knights flew him, even with the detour? We could just go together, no real reason to separate.”

“Yes, but no! Absolutely not. Sylvain is not allowed to talk to any of them at all because he flirts with them. All of them.”

Sylvain brightened up at the very thought. “They’re all such beautiful women, each in their own way.”

“That doesn’t mean you need to chat them up--”

“So where are you going then?” Felix interrupted. It cut off Ingrid's scolding, but it wasn't intended as a favor to Sylvain. He just didn’t want to stand around listening to them go back and forth, especially not when time was of the essence.

“I’m going to go scout out where the imperials are,” Ingrid answered, in the same tone one might use to say that they were going to take a leisurely walk through a rose garden.

“Alone?” Sylvain asked, with a delicate, balanced neutrality. He rarely showed any caution when trying her temper if it came to women, but now he bothered with tact. “Why not take the battalion to the north with you? Why don’t you have a battalion right now anyway?”

“We... don’t have many knights left,” Ingrid admitted. “My father sent almost everyone to Fhirdiad to deploy as quickly as they could to the imperial border--the old imperial border between Adrestia and Faerghus. That was before the chaos in the capitol. The only one we ever heard from again is the commander Rodrigue sent back to us, on her shield.”

There was a characteristic silence all around. Sylvain, a moment of silence for the fallen, as he had done all his life as Gautier knights fell against Sreng. Felix, doing what he could to keep his temper in check.

“Why can’t your father surrender?” Felix asked--practically demanded. “It’s not too late. Just let the Empire walk through and let my father deal with everything.”

Bluntly, Ingrid answered, “We won't surrender because we sent all our finest knights to Fhirdiad, and the only one that returned was upon her shield.”

“That just means you don’t have any knights left to win a fight.”

“Winning isn’t the reason we’re fighting anymore.” She managed a tired laugh that told Felix if he wanted to argue, he was going to have to wait for another time. “At least we don’t have many commoners left to protect, right?”

He felt Sylvain wrap an arm around his shoulder and pull him closer. Felix sighed. “Suit yourself,” he said, the fight deflating out of him. “I’ll head north. You do your best not to die.”

She smiled again, a wan little thing. It was as paltry as before, but there was more warmth behind it. “Listen, I know you’re worried. So, thank you, but I’ll be alright. Once it’s nightfall, I’ll be able to spot an army’s campfires from miles away. There won’t be anything dangerous about it.”

“She has to come back alive anyway,” Sylvain said. “Otherwise, there’s no point.”

“Exactly,” Ingrid agreed. She whistled her pegasus to her side and mounted up. “I’ll see you both bright and early tomorrow morning. Don’t cause trouble!”

 

-

 

They had not in fact followed Ingrid’s instructions. Felix had insisted Sylvain come with him to find the pegasus knights. It was faster to take a short detour and then fly to the castle, especially given the state of Galatea’s roads.

Against all odds, Sylvain spent his time among the pegasus knights muttering numbers to himself, barely paying any mind to the knights, let alone flirting with them. The knight commander remembered the equations for flight speed in neutral winds, and another found him sheafs and sheafs of paper.

When they arrived to what passed for House Galatea’s castle, Sylvain found a room with a large enough table and moved his work there. Some of the older nobles in the castle remembered enough of their lessons from the Officers’ Academy to lend a hand, but ultimately, Galatea lands were poor but peaceful. They had little experience in warfare, especially not on the scale that Gautier knew.

Ingrid returned early. It was soon enough that Sylvain knew that despite her promises, she had taken risks. She could hardly have waited for the safety of nightfall if she had gotten there and back before sundown--but who was he to judge? These were her lands to protect, her duty to carry out.

She strolled into the room without any pomp and circumstance, doors banging behind her. He supposed Ingrid did in fact own the place.

“They’re here,” she said, her finger pointing to a spot on one of his maps about twenty miles into Charon land. “They’re about ten thousand strong, and they’re at least half infantry mages. There’s not enough cavalry among them to field a serious vanguard, so we don’t need to worry about that.  There’s crest beasts though.”

Sylvain was already plugging in numbers into blanks he’d left in his notes, but then he paused. He looked at the map, up to Ingrid, then back at the map, frowning in thought. “Do you think their supply chain includes food for crest beasts?”

“Your guess is as good as mine--better than mine, probably.” Ingrid had always paid attention in class, but the mathematics of warfare were never as interesting to her compared to battle tactics and ethical questions. She looked around. “Where’s Felix?”

“He’s probably asleep or pretending to sleep. He does that a lot lately.”

“What? Why?”

“Nightmares about Dimitri.” It was a clipped answer, short and without his usual charm.

“...It’s normal to worry that your king is dead, Sylvain. I wouldn’t read into it too much,” Ingrid said, the very picture of reason and sound logic.

I’m worried about my king. I can sleep fine.”

Ingrid sighed, not for the first time when it came to Sylvain and Felix. “Maybe you should talk to him? It might clear things up.”

Sylvain changed the topic--not smoothly or subtly. He was done with this conversation. “I asked your captain for their fastest flier to ask Rodrigue for reinforcements. The soonest we can expect any help to arrive is four days from now, but it’ll probably take twice that time.”

“That’s if Rodrigue wants to send help.”

“Why wouldn’t he? Felix is here. He doesn’t have another crest-bearing child--or another child at all, for that matter.”

“Uh, then what we should do is send you and Felix away from here as fast as we can. You two did your part. You can go now. This place is all ice and rock, and ashes because the ground’s too frozen for us to bury our dead--but it’s my land. I’ll protect it, even if there’s nothing worth protecting. But you… there’s nothing for you.”

Sylvain paused, finally looking up from the papers and the maps, setting aside whatever emotions that threatened to cloud his judgment. He focused on Ingrid and the relic weapon at her back: Luin’s ghastly orange glow as unsettling as the Lance of Ruin’s behind him. He focused on Daphnel’s last crest-bearer.

“I was born to fight for Faerghus,” Sylvain replied quietly. “We all were. This is where we are meant to be.”

That was the truth. There wasn’t anything Ingrid could say against that, no more plausible excuses to send her friends ahead to safety. “You’re right,” she said. “But Sylvain, please don’t die for Galatea.”

Sylvain didn’t look back up at her. “No promises,” he replied.

 

-

 

Felix had climbed to the top of the castle walls to familiarize himself with the terrain around them. He ended up staying for no real reason at all, but he found himself appreciating the evening air. The sun set low into the sky, painting the horizon in brilliant reds and yellows.

He recognized Sylvain by the sound of his footsteps: a faint metallic clang of armor cushioned against wool. Sylvain had worn armor only occasionally before the war, but now he wore it all the time.

Sylvain sat down next to him, closer than he usually would. Felix wondered why, but then Sylvain threw an arm around him and pulled him closer until Felix was nestled against him, nearly in his lap. Felix grumbled, but he found an almost comfortable spot at Sylvain’s collarbone.

“What’s wrong with you?” Felix asked.

“Nothing,” Sylvain said a little too quickly. “Just wanted a hug.”

“A hug lasts two seconds. This is perpetual cuddling. Do you want to talk about what’s wrong with you, or?”

Sylvain rested his chin on Felix’s head. “Nah. This is good.”

“Yeah, for you. Next time, don’t wear your stupid armor.”

Felix lifted his head when Sylvain nudged him, and Sylvain tugged Felix’s hood up into a makeshift pillow. It was a pathetic excuse for one, but nevertheless an improvement over resting his head against steel.

Together, they watched the sunset. The brilliant reds didn’t last for long, fading fast to be replaced by a softer orange, and then the pale colors of twilight.

“Would you keep fighting if the boar was dead?” Felix asked out of the blue, for the first time acknowledging that Dimitri may already be dead.

“For what purpose? We can’t have a kingdom without a king.”

“Would your father bow to a stranger in Enbarr? Mine would never.” Felix sat up slightly so that he could face Sylvain. He couldn’t before, not while tucked under Sylvain’s chin. The fading light was kind to him in ways that Felix had rarely seen.

“That depends on how many losses we’d take, how thin we’d spread our resources,” Sylvain answered honestly, though it was plain to see that he wasn’t sure he liked where this conversation was going. “There’s no point ruling ourselves if Sreng’s just going to rule us next.”

“You could leave. Go somewhere else, Dagda or, I don’t know, Morfis maybe. The Empire can deal with Sreng.”

Sylvain laughed--at the absurdity, at the absolute infinitesimal odds that the Empire would succeed. “The Empire can’t deal with Sreng. They’re not Almyra or Brigid. They’re not fighting for pride, for fun, or for a rite of passage. They’re fighting for water. As long as the closest freshwater river is in Faerghus, then they’ll be coming for it. The Empire fights for ideals, but Sreng fights to survive. The Empire won’t know what hit ‘em.”

“Does it even matter who wins between the Empire and Sreng if you’re not there?”

“Felix, the reason I exist is so I can defend the border against Sreng.” Sylvain smiled, but it was a sad excuse for one, more a mask for his misery than anything else. “I don’t have any other purpose. I’ll be there.”

“What if I go somewhere else?”

“Are you asking me if I would I go with you?”

“I am,” Felix said. “Would you?”

“If I thought I could make you happy, then yes, I would.” Yes, Sylvain said, but what it sounded like was no.

Felix laid back down onto Sylvain’s shoulder. The skies faded to a sooty grey, and then it was night. The stars were bright, but Felix ignored them.

He'd discovered the fur collar at Sylvain's neck was, in fact, very nice. Felix tugged at it until he could rest his cheek against the fur and cloth instead of steel. Sylvain suffered him without complaint.

Felix wasn’t sure when he fell asleep, but when he woke up, it was in one of the Galatea guest bedrooms, and it was the dawn of the first day of battle.

 

-

 

"How'd you sleep?" Ingrid asked when Felix reported in at Sylvain's makeshift war room a few hours after sunrise, a perfectly acceptable hour. "Do you need anything? Pillows? Blankets? ...Swords?"

"No, it was fine. Next time wake me up if it's past dawn."

"Sylvain told me you've been having trouble sleeping lately, so how about no. We need you rested. Besides, the imperial army’s not here yet."

Felix sat down at one end of the table. It wasn’t like Margrave Gautier’s war room, but there were shadows of it in Sylvain’s impeccably organized notes and ruthlessly annotated map of the castle and its surroundings.

“When do we expect them to arrive?” Felix asked.

"Sylvain thinks they'll wait for early afternoon, when the sun will be in the west and also in our eyes." She handed him a bread roll and a chunk of cheese, then a meat pie wrapped in parchment paper. "Breakfast and lunch, that's yours. We're rationing out our food to last a week."

The bread and cheese were typically unimpressive Faerghus fare, but it somehow tasted worse knowing that it was running out. "So, after a week, we all starve to death?"

"It's just a precaution. Sylvain expects reinforcements and supplies in eight days, maximum." That would've been reassuring if she didn't add, "We only have twenty-two smithing stones, so we're going to run out of weapons before we run out of food.”

That made the bread taste like sand.

Ingrid assured him that not only did Sylvain count the blacksmith’s supplies, but Ingrid had recounted them too just in case. Nevertheless, Felix went to the blacksmith to count a third time,  because maybe both of them had missed a few hundred items in the storehouse, you'd never know. They hadn’t miscounted.

He could just punch his enemies to death, Felix decided. He didn’t need a weapon against the average soldier, surely. If he had a reason to draw his sword, he would. Otherwise, Felix began to see that, if nothing else, unarmed combat was certainly cost efficient.

After that, he went around the castle alone, room to room, then later he was attended by some soldiers with carts as they raided Lord Galatea’s property for every single mirror they could lay their hands on.

When Sylvain found him up on the parapets, this time it was noon, and Felix was scowling at a chaotically assembled panel of mirrors. One of the pegasus knights had found a measuring tape and was using it for crude measurements, while everyone else fussed over the mirrors like they were piecing together a puzzle.

"This is clever,” Sylvain said, observing the way the mirrors reflected the sunlight, blinding rays of light to anyone standing outside the castle--provided they angled the mirrors correctly, which was a work in progress. “Did you all take every mirror in the castle?”

“No one was using them,” Felix said. Most of the pegasus knights didn’t care about their appearance any more than Ingrid did, and those few that did had their own compacts anyway.

Sylvain looked from the mirrors to Felix and back again. He rubbed his jaw, a little uncomfortably. "I know this isn’t really a huge problem for you, or at all for these lovely ladies, but I’m going to need a mirror to shave at some point."

“Just wait a week,” said Felix, who might have a bit of a shadow by then.

“I’m going to look like my old man in a week,” Sylvain complained.

“Then shave by touch, it’ll be fine.” Felix didn’t even know what Sylvain was worried about. Sure, Sylvain looked better clean-shaven. So what? He put a hand on his hip and scowled. “This is ridiculous. We’re at war, no one cares if you miss a few spots, and you haven’t been hitting on women since we got here anyway.”

“It’s not for the women, although that is a fair point too. The last time I had a beard, you complained about it.”

“...I don’t remember this.”

“Yeah, you were twelve.”

“I was twelve. Seriously? You’re worried about something I said when I was twelve? Grow up.”

“Okay, well, that was the last hug I ever got from you!”

“A lot of other things happened when I was twelve!” A lot of other things, too many things to count from four years ago. “Your lack of hugs has absolutely nothing to do with that. Besides, no one cares--”

Sylvain waited, but Felix had stopped talking, so the only thing he did was watch Felix seethe.

Felix glowered at him. “...I’ll shave you. Don’t touch the mirrors.”

“Oh,” Sylvain said, a bit caught off guard but mostly pleasantly surprised. “Thanks.”

The way Sylvain beamed sunshine at him only made Felix glower harder. From behind him, Felix heard a pegasus knight giggle. “Sylvain, I hate you. I just want you to know that before we all die.”

“Yeah,” Sylvain said, still beaming. “Yeah, I know.”

 

-

 

They saw the imperial army from miles away, and their slow approach to the castle keep felt preordained, like fate written in the stars. All adages claimed that the Empire wasn't something that could be stopped. It wasn't an arrow that would glance off a shield, it was more like a sledgehammer that had already swung true.

Yet this also didn't feel like a final stand. They needed to defend until Fraldarius forces could move south; they didn’t need to win, they only needed to hold out. It wasn't the first time that a would-be invader thought they could plow through Galatea territory to lofty Fraldarius. With enough luck and skill, it wouldn't be the last.

The Officer’s Academy taught strategy, but they weren’t fighting according to the monastery’s textbooks. They were in Faeghus, fighting an ancient enemy and impossible odds. Loog had won such battles before too. All it took was their relic weapons.

“If I die out there--” Ingrid began.

“Don’t die,” Felix interrupted. Besides for it being general good life advice, they also couldn’t afford to lose Luin.

If I die out there,” Ingrid began again, “one of you needs to grab Luin and never let go. When my father asks for it back, say no.”

“What can he even do with it? Put it back into his armory?”

Without emotion, Sylvain answered, “He’ll wield it--to protect his people.”

Right. Of course he would--for honor, for chivalry, and for all those things that the lords of Faerghus were so wont to die for. Felix never understood how the simplest of truths eluded them: a living lord could protect his people, a dead one could not.

Felix sighed. Yet when Ingrid looked at him imploringly, he shrugged--and that was a yes, fine, he would do as he was told.

They were nervously quiet, tense like a coiled spring. They waited as the silhouette of an army in the distance drew closer and increasingly inevitable. In time, they weren’t mere shadows but forms given color and shape upon the horizon.

“A lot of them out there,” Felix commented. It was an understatement, the sort that’d make Rodrigue proud.

"Alright, deathwish time for me,” Sylvain said, absolutely not serious at all. “If I die, find a beautiful woman and tell her I love her."

"...Any woman?" Felix asked.

"I said beautiful? But sure, any woman. I’ll be too dead to be picky."

“Goddess preserve us,” Ingrid said, though Felix wasn’t sure if she wanted preservation against Sylvain or the Empire, or both.

When the Empire’s army drew close, close enough for a battalion to charge, Sylvain and Ingrid mounted up, heading east and west respectively. For his part, Felix held the main gate, backed up by a cadre of archers on the ramparts above.

If the Empire thought they could simply seize the castle along their way to Fraldarius lands, they were wrong. That didn’t mean Lord Galatea looked likely to win, only that the walls were sturdy, the gates even sturdier, every pegasus knight that called Galatea home would die before they allowed even a single imperial to set foot within--and die, they did.

That was all that happened on the first day, so far as Felix could tell. People died, and for what? The Empire’s frontal assault on the gates was doomed within the first charge, cut down by magic, cavaliers, and pegasus knights well before they made it to the castle.

For those few imperials that had the tenacity to draw near the gates, they only ran into Felix. He already knew that being punched to death wasn’t painless by any means, but he almost drew his sword simply to deliver his enemies a quicker death--but no. Today was only the first day. He’ll draw steel when he needed to and no sooner.

At first, Felix didn’t know why the Empire bothered with a second charge and then a third, the same stratagem again and again. Then he realized that this wasn’t going to stop. The fourth wave came, then the fifth. There would be more imperial soldiers, endless reinforcements, from sunrise until sunset, until the day came where Lord Galatea’s forces were out of food, out of weapons, and out of soldiers too.

He knew that already, of course, but he didn’t really know, not until he bore witness to the last charge of the day, and Felix understood it wasn’t as futile as it seemed.

When the skies grew dark, both sides retreated, the Empire off to their encampment a wary distance across the tundra, and Lord Galatea’s armies back into his castle.

At night, Felix went out to help collect the bodies of the fallen, including the horses and pegasi. The Empire did the same, squires and scouts carting bodies back to camp with them.

Felix ate dinner in the courtyard--stewed chicken and a flask of watered down wine--as he watched soldiers lug the dead into an open furnace. Anywhere else in Faerghus, you could still bury your dead, but here, the ground was already frozen over as it was year round.

The dead went into the fires, and the living prayed over their ashes.

In the distance, the Empire did the same, the smoke of their funeral pyres rising up towards the stars.

 

-

 

On the dawn of the second day, Ingrid handed both Felix and Sylvain meat pies. "Breakfast," she said, and then she walked off with a trolley of rations to spread out among the rest of the soldiers.

“How do you feel?” Felix asked Sylvain.

Sylvain massaged his jaw. “A little stubbly, but it’s fine,” he answered.

“No, for the battle, you idiot,” Felix snapped.

Oh, right, uh. Worried about those crest beasts that we didn’t see yesterday, but I think it’s too early to see them. They’ll want to wait until we’ve been weakened, so I’m guessing today will only be more of the same.”

Sylvain was right. The second day went the same as the first, except their soldiers were a little hungrier, a little wearier, and they were all onto their second weapons. The Empire, on the other hand, seemed to be fielding entire different battalions, allowing those that survived yesterday’s battles to spend the day recuperating.

The fighting was unnoteworthy, if fighting could ever be unnoteworthy. Their defense still held strong, even if it was plain to see that they weren't as sharp as the day before. There were more enemies slipping through their frontlines than before, but Felix knew there was no way for them to close their gaps. There would only be more gaps tomorrow and then even more after that.

When his archers grew scarce, Felix withdrew back towards the main gate, a perfectly reasonable move that bafflingly brought Sylvain and Ingrid rushing back to his side as if the world were about to end.

Ingrid flew to him and then nearly flew off her pegasus too, landing and dismounting in one fell swoop. “Felix! Oh, Goddess, Felix, are you--oh. You’re okay.” She took a gasp of air like she’d been holding her breath. She slumped over slightly, emotionally exhausted and waiting for her heart rate to settle back down.

Sylvain approached only moments after, at a gallop at first but slowing down once he drew close enough to see that Felix was safe. When he dismounted, he checked on Ingrid before bothering with Felix, since she was the one that looked on the verge of collapse. Sylvain glanced at Felix to say, “I think you gave her a heart attack.”

“No, I’m fine,” Ingrid said but she was still wheezing. “Just… I’m really glad he’s alright.”

After that, Sylvain handed torches out to their soldiers, for them to light if anything happened to their commander. Pointless, Felix had called it, nothing but a way to boost their enemy’s morale, but Sylvain and Ingrid weren’t taking any arguments. His friends were idiots, but Felix supposed he already knew that.

The rest of the fighting came and went, and Felix couldn’t help but notice that they hadn’t cut down as many of the imperials as they had the day before.

Like yesterday, both sides withdrew at nightfall to collect their dead and nurse their wounds. The only difference was that this time, Lord Galatea’s army needed more rest and more sustenance, but there wasn’t any more to be had.

 

-

 

On the third day, Felix woke up to the aching of his own knuckles. It was his fault, he supposed. He’d always used a sword over sustained fights, and it only made sense that two days of punching people would take its toll.

He wrapped his hands in bandages before anyone else saw them. Others had sustained actual injuries. This was nothing. He should’ve trained harder, that’s all.

He found Sylvain not far from the castle gate, but tucked away in one of the alcoves, looking both underslept and underfed.

“Look left,” Felix said, and Sylvain did without question. Felix ran his fingers against Sylvain’s jaw, his touch bringing a hint of a smile to Sylvain’s face. He was getting scruffy, but Felix didn’t necessarily dislike it. “Tomorrow?”

“Whenever you want,” Sylvain replied so softly that Felix lingered a moment longer than he’d intended, and perhaps longer still.

When the battle began, their tactics had changed. Sylvain still went east and Ingrid west, but they didn’t stray as far, unwilling to risk their half-sized battalions any more than they must. They lacked the numbers; they were too easy to encircle now, to cut off and cut down if they weren’t careful.

Today was likely their last day defending outside the castle. Today was also the day they expected the Empire to finally field their crest beasts.

The first of the beasts was let loose at noon. They were ready for it, with Ingrid drawing its attention while Felix whittled it down. His hands hurt enough by the end that he considered grabbing a training bow or whatever they still had left in the armory.

He didn’t know when the Empire released the second beast. Neither did Ingrid. They were distracted, just as the Empire had intended them to be. Stronger, faster, he’d always said. What they should’ve been was smarter.

In the east, there was a flare that felt like a dying sun--torchlight, blinding in more ways than one, an all-encompassing light.

Sylvain, Felix thought, and then he stopped thinking.

He drew his sword and cut down the first imperial in his way, then another and another, as a knife through butter, so a blade through flesh.

Felix fought his way east. It was what he did best, what he was born to do.

It was easier to kill people with a weapon rather than with his hands. They were people too, the imperial knights and soldiers, he knew that. He never doubted it. They had those who they loved and those who loved them in return--but they would not grow old.

Their misfortune was only that they stood between Felix and his light.

Chapter Text

In the skies, Luin tested the mettle of whoever stood in its way, and it found all of them wanting. On the ground, the Major Crest of Fraldarius took yet another life, yet it was nothing compared to the demonic beast that cleaved through their soldiers as easily as a harvest scythe through wheat.

Felix felt his crest burning through his veins, channeled into the blade of his sword. He felt the battlefield more than he could perceive it, through the impact of each blow, each parry reverberating through his arm. He didn’t need to think about fighting. All his life, he had trained for this to be nothing more than instinct--what that instinct made him, he already knew.

There were bodies behind him, the dead and those soon to join them, and they didn’t matter to him. They were casualties of the war, as meaningless as those that came before. It was the living that still mattered.

He only began to think again, to see again, when he reached Sylvain. The knights defending him parted like the red sea when Felix ran up to him. He was alive, breathing steadily if shallowly. A knight kept a hand on his shoulder, only leaving his side when she took Felix’s hand and placed it over Sylvain’s shoulder instead of her own. Almost instantly, his glove was soaked in blood.

That was a lot of blood. A lot of blood.

"Sylvain," Felix said. “Sylvain!” Felix didn't recognize his own voice.

“Fe,” Sylvain murmured, a sign of life though his eyes were clouded grey. He looked to Felix’s hand putting pressure on his shoulder, his shield arm and not his spear arm. “Ah. Left. ...Don’t need that one.”

“What? You need both arms--you need both arms, you fool.” Felix wasn’t sure if Sylvain even heard him. Sylvain's good hand reached up to blindly trace the shape of Felix’s cheek--not sweetly or gently, it was more like he was checking to see if Felix was really there--before his hand dropped back to his side. Sylvain wasn’t responsive after that.

From above, he heard the sound of Luin breaking, finally snapping after one last Burning Quake. With that, Ingrid descended down to them.

"Where's his lance?" Ingrid asked, her voice an octave or two or four higher than usual.

Felix didn't know. He'd seen it a moment ago, he swore he saw it, but the only thing in the world that had mattered then was Sylvain. He had no idea where the Lance of Ruin had gone.

It wasn’t hard to find though.

Every battlefield was reduced to nothing more than chaos after armies clashed in earnest, but for once, everything was clear. One of the Gautier knights in Sylvain’s battalion had picked up the Lance of Ruin.

What are you doing?” Ingrid yelled--but she knew. They all knew.

The knight looked at the Lance of Ruin in her hand, her grip white-knuckled and trembling, but her fear was matched squarely by her conviction. She saluted Ingrid. “Just following orders, my lady.”

Those were her last words. She screamed only once, doubling over in pain as dark tendrils overtook her. Her silence as her body changed, writhing and twisting, alternating bulbous and elongated in the worst imaginable way. Felix looked away.

The next sound she--it--made was a monstrous roar that shook the battlefield.

Ingrid looked lost, and Felix thought that today might be the day they in fact lost.

“Luin just broke,” Ingrid told him weakly.

“Get the Lance of Ruin,” Felix replied.

“But I--” She couldn’t protest. If she had a better idea, she’d have come up with it by now, and they needed a plan now. “Okay. You get him to the healers.”

Their retreat was ugly at best. A single crest beast wreaking havoc wasn’t enough to cover them, though Felix didn’t want to think about how much worse it could’ve been without the beast.

Their own gates became a funnel, and the castle’s high walls were splattered with the remains of those that couldn’t reach the gates in time. The battalions protected him--an honor he won’t soon forget, even if that honor was mostly Sylvain’s. Felix never had to worry about whether he could make it back to the castle, back to the safety of high walls as their battalions’ formations crumpled and collapsed.

Felix was the first man through the gates, ushered back to safety. He passed Sylvain to the monks and bishops that were ready to receive him. After that, he collapsed against the wall--the safe side of the castle walls.

The Empire was closing in. Most of their army still hadn’t made it back. That wasn’t a problem for the pegasus knights that were Galatea’s elite force, nor was it a problem the Fraldarius soldiers that had stuck close to Felix, but the footsoldiers and the cavalry remained.

The gates allowed four infantry soldiers to march through at a time, or a line horses in a single file, double file if they were orderly, but there was no such thing as order in a retreat like this. 

The Empire was closing in, and their gates were still open. They were out of time.

Then Felix was graced with the rarest of sights, old Lord Galatea--elderly, sickly, with a heart that’d grown weak over a decade ago--slowly walking towards him with the help of a cane.

“Ah, Felix--how close is the Empire’s army?” the old lord asked.

“Too close,” Felix answered honestly. He needed to steel himself, he needed to make a decision that no one wanted to. He’d never thought that duty would fall to him. He figured it’d be Sylvain. “I… I should go tell the gatekeeper to close the gates.”

Lord Galatea turned his gaze towards the castle walls, then he closed his eyes. He listened to the battle outside, good men and women doing their best to survive--and their best to defend their home.

“No,” Lord Galatea said. “You should head to the nurses to check that you’re healthy and hale. I will give the order.”

“But--”

“Those are my soldiers out there, Master Fraldarius,” Lord Galatea interrupted, sharper than he’d ever heard him. His was a voice that Felix had only ever associated with fairy tales read aloud and the occasional lecture on good manners and decorum. “I am their lord, and I will bear the burden of their sacrifice. I will give the order. The duty should never fall to anyone else.”

“No, not yet—” He didn’t know what he was saying anymore. “I still have my sword. I can go back out there and hold the gate. I can buy them more time, at least until my weapons break—”

“That’s very kind of you, Felix, but war is not a place for kindness.” Even as Lord Galatea spoke, they could hear the steady approach of the imperial army, the growing panic of those close to the gates but not close enough. Lord Galatea said again, “You should head to the nurses.”

He was right. Felix didn’t like it, but that didn’t change anything. If he wanted to change anything, if he wanted to protect anybody, he should’ve been stronger.

He didn’t head to infirmary, not right away. He lingered, and he watched the gates shut closed, the sound of it echoing with a finality that gave him a chill that was more than just the first winds of winter.

 

-

 

Lord Galatea’s castle was practically a hovel compared to House Fraldarius’ multitude of holdings, but there were still plenty of comfortable places for Felix to be. There were bedrooms and lounges, places to loiter and to rest.

Instead, he sat on the stone floor outside of Sylvain’s room, doing his best to not get in the way of the physicians and healers as they came in and out for supplies or for air. It was the opposite of comfortable, but being anywhere else would feel worse. Here, he’d at least know if anything happened, if anything had gone wrong.

Freshly bandaged and only slightly favoring her left side, Ingrid collapsed into a heap next to Felix. It passed for sitting. “How is he?” she asked.

“A monk told me he was going to be fine. A physician told me he was unresponsive.” He knew both statements could be true, but his gut instinct suggested that one of them had lied to him--probably the monk. 

Ingrid stifled a groan, her jaw clenched in self control, and she knocked her head against the wall. She took a long sigh. Miserably, Ingrid confessed, “I got the Lance of Ruin back, but then I broke it.”

Oh. Well, that put their remaining lances count down by one. “At least you got it back,” Felix said, not intending it as a comfort. It was just the truth: better to have a broken Lance of Ruin than for the Empire to have it. “How many lances do we have left?”

She turned her head to face him, and she smiled in the way that people do when they can’t deliver any good news. He knew he wasn’t going to like this answer. “I have a pitchfork. We’re sharpening broomsticks next.”

“I could try to steal their weapons.”

She scowled. “And how, exactly, do you plan on that? Am I going to pick you up, fly you over the walls, drop you off for your playdate with the Empire, and hover over you like a pegasus parent until you’ve collected us some spears? Maybe I’ll fly around while I wait for you, you’d never know if I’d stumble upon a lance in a treasure chest!”

“...That’s essentially how I imagined it, actually. Not in those words.” Upon reflection, it wasn’t as good an idea as Felix had thought. It would work though, if it worked. “Nevermind.”

They fell quiet until Ingrid said, “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’re right.”

“Yes, well--yes. That’s true.” She curled up against the wall next to him, her knees tucked to her chest. The way she looked at him, she needed more sleep, all puffy eyes and dark shadows. “I just don’t want to have to come back tomorrow and tell Sylvain you died on my watch. ...I suppose that's selfish.”

He squinted at her, but she was no different--besides for all her bruises and scrapes, though that was normal too--from how she always was when she contemplated her books about chivalry and honor. Felix asked, “You really think it’d be any easier for me to tell him you dropped dead out there?”

“Sort of, yes. He’s told me everything he wants to tell me, which is everything everything. We’re friends, and you’re--he worries about you, you know.” Ingrid glanced sidelong at him, suddenly curious, suspicious even. “Hey, Felix? What do you think of Sylvain?”

That felt like a trick question; in fact, that was certainly a trick question, and Felix was being weighed in a balance--by Ingrid, of all people. “He’s a good-for-nothing, but I hope he recovers quickly.”

That won him a smile, a stifled giggle even, which was as ominous as it was heart-warming. She said, “He's your good-for-nothing.”

“Ugh.” He did his best not to roll his eyes, when she put it like that. “Yeah, I guess he is.”

“You should tell him that,” Ingrid suggested. “I don’t think he knows. He’s dumb like that sometimes. A lot of the time.”

“Maybe I will then, when he wakes up.”

“I hope you do,” she said, “when he wakes up.”

If he wakes up.

 

-

 

It was the fourth day of the attack on Castle Galatea, and it was the first true day of the siege, with them locked inside of their own castle, praying that the walls would hold strong. Felix woke ahead of the sunrise, and he climbed up to the ramparts to survey what was left. There wasn’t a lot left--or there was quite a lot, and it was all very dead.

“Breakfast?” he asked, when Ingrid found him.

“Breakfast,” she confirmed, handing him bowl of mystery porridge (the less he thought about what was in it at this point, the better), and then a tiny pouch of leaves and herbs, “and potpourri, in case it gets warm.”

Felix glanced over the ramparts again, to the swathe of carcasses and corpses, soldiers and horses wearing their colors. There wasn’t any smell--not yet, and hopefully not anytime soon. “I shouldn’t need it. It’s practically winter, they’ll be frozen for months.”

“Right now before the sun’s up, sure. It’s not the Red Wolf Moon yet, we might still get a few warm hours in the afternoon. Just… take it. In case it’s not as close to winter as you think.”

“In case we end up fighting for our lives in a stinking hellhole made from the rotting corpses of the allies we left for dead?” Felix asked, hand on his lip, mouth twisted into a bitter smirk. He took the pouch and pocketed it. “Fair enough.”

All the soldiers had something similar, be it potpourri or sticks of incense or tree oils. What they didn’t have were weapons. What little remained of their armory was carefully allotted to the pegasus knights, the only fighters they had that could come and go freely.

The Empire’s soldiers did their best to protect their engineers, so that they could build their ballistas and magic orbs, but Galatea’s forces wouldn’t allow it. They couldn’t allow it. Their pegasus knights were harriers, ensuring that the Empire weren’t safe enough to build siege engines and keeping crest beasts at bay. Anything that could break down their walls or their gate must be destroyed--anything less would spell their defeat.

They funneled their remaining bows to Felix. He made each shot count, more than practically anyone else. The other soldiers on the ramparts made the most they could out of javelins and throwing axes, but each one was precious as their armory dwindled further. They did what they could to cover the pegasus knights when they were under too much fire. Every shot saved now could be held for tomorrow.

The other soldiers--the younger ones, or the weaker, the older ones--did their best to stay out of the way. In theory, they stood ready, conserving their energy. Others waited at the gate, in case Empire burst it open.

And then there was one myrmidon that kept a tally of Felix’s kills, big tally marks drawn in chalk along the stone wall. Twenty-six. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight.

“Can you stop counting?” Felix demanded. Twenty-nine.

“Er,” the myrmidon said. Clearly, he’d never expected Felix to ever talk to him. “It’s good for morale, sir.”

It was good for morale for the armies to know exactly how many lives Felix had taken? He glanced behind him to the far wall, where the soldiers clearly had nothing better to do than watch the tallies add up with a little cheer each time, like patrons at some sort of murder show.

Fitting, he supposed, that the boar prince was also prince of boars.

“Then count where I can’t see,” Felix snapped.

It didn’t matter though. That tally was only out of sight, not out of mind. He didn’t have to see each white chalk line drawn into granite to know how many people he killed. Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Thirty-seven.

It had been easier to lose count when he was fighting on the ground, where everyone was at eye-level, and he didn’t have the luxury of seeing the entire field. It bothered him less there too, where every life he took was kill or be killed. It was a clash of blows, face to face, and if he won, it was because he was the better fighter that day. It’d felt like there was no other option--that didn’t make it the right thing, but it was less wrong.

This was different. Nothing about this was inevitable. He chose a target and followed them, so far way that they had no idea that the time they had left was down to mere seconds. (Fifty-three. Fifty-four.) He notched each arrow and let it fly, arrow curving cleanly in the air. It was mechanical, distant, so impersonal that it could hardly be called a fair battle. (Fifty-five.)

The moment the sun started drifting towards the horizon, still hours before sundown, let alone dark, Felix called up a sniper and passed his bow off to her. He didn’t bother giving a reason--he didn’t owe anyone a reason--though he told her he was going to the infirmary. Her concern silenced any follow-up questions, and she took up his bow without further comment.

One-hundred twelve. He didn’t look at the tally when he passed it, he already knew.

Some of the soldiers congratulated him as walked by them. He didn't respond. He didn't know what he was supposed to say.

At least, he thought, it was winter, and it was frigidly cold.

 

-

 

The infirmary wasn’t as crowded as he expected. The dying were sent in their own bedrooms, surrounded by what friends and family they had remaining. The injured were also sent back to their rooms, and there were plenty of idle soldiers to tend to the wounded.

Felix went to see a physician about his hands. They’d started to feel stiff and then numb as the day went on. After one-hundred and twelve, he wasn’t sure if the numbness was in his hands or in his heart.

After he undid the bandages, his knuckles were an unpleasant purple, his fingertips bone yellow. The physician made eye contact only long enough for Felix to break eye contact. He had a conversation with the ground, mumbling something about how it really didn’t hurt that much, no, really, but they didn't.

It didn’t take long for Ingrid to burst into the infirmary. She saw him, and he saw the color drain out of her face like cheap dye from even cheaper cloth.

“What is wrong with your hands? Did you break your hands. Oh, Goddess, you broke your hands. Why did you break your hands? You know you need your hands to hold those weapons you like so much, right?”

“It’s fine, just some bruises.” Fine was a bit of a stretch, but it looked worse than it was.

“Well, they’re not supposed to be that color!” He didn’t have a good argument against that. Hands and fingers in fact weren’t supposed to be that color. She watched, her opinion of him falling lower and lower by the second. Her concern turned into stern disappointment. “We need you out there. You know that, right?”

“You need a boar. Is that what you think I am?” His voice seeps through with disgust, not at her but at himself.

“No, not at all! It’s not like you’re enjoying yourself, Felix. No one likes this. I don’t think shooting down builders and engineers is honorable either--”

“It’s not about honor.” They never understood that honor had nothing to do with it.

She didn’t understand either, he could tell. She wouldn’t--same as his father, same as Glenn, they were all people cut from the same cloth. Chivalry gave them an unwavering purpose that forgave their sins. She tried to understand though, and Felix supposed that’s why they were still friends.

“I’ll be back out there tomorrow,” he promised. 

“Only if you’re fit for duty. If your hands still look like that, please, Felix, you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else.”

Any other time, she would’ve been right. Felix still wouldn’t have agreed with her aloud, but that didn’t change that she’d have been right. This time, she’s wrong, and Felix said, “No point in resting up if we don’t live another day.”

She pursed her lips but didn’t argue, and then Ingrid nodded her silent agreement.

 

-

 

When nightfall came, Felix tried to fall asleep to no avail. He couldn’t sleep. He closed his eyes, and all he had in the darkness of his own mind was his worry.

He got up from his bed. Not sure why or even what he was doing, Felix made his way back to the infirmary. A dozing healer in Sylvain’s room stirred when he entered--”It's nothing. Sorry,” Felix apologized--and went back to sleep when Felix had no business for him.

There were other chairs, but he assumed they were meant for healers and physicians, and they might need them in the morning. Felix didn’t intend to get in their way, so he settled down on the floor along the far wall.

For a while, he listened to the sound of Sylvain’s breathing, a steady sound, comforting in its existence alone. Eventually, he drifted off to sleep.

Felix woke several times during the night, his heart racing, fear coursing through his veins, dreams interrupted, but Sylvain was always conveniently close by for him to check that he was still alive. Knowing that was always enough for him to return to sleep.

 

-

 

In the morning--the fifth day, the first day where there was a real chance that Rodrigue might show up, if he could muster his forces, if he didn’t run into trouble along the way--Felix quietly left Sylvain’s room as a group of physicians fussed over his wounds.

The healers didn’t clear him for duty, so Felix loitered by the gates, fully intending on fighting anyway in case the Empire broke their way through. Ingrid might’ve gone up to the ramparts to look for him, because she showed up later than usual.

“Breakfast,” she said, handing him a very suspicious meat pie.

The meat was stringy and tough, more muscle than flesh. To call it gamey would make it sound more appetizing than it actually was. It was also fresh, which made no sense since they ran out of fresh meat days ago.

Felix chewed and then swallowed. “Is this… war horse?” he asked, and after he asked, he knew he shouldn’t have asked a question he didn’t want an answer to.

Ingrid nodded. “They were wounded, so--well, otherwise, we’d be eating bread and gruel.”

“Most expensive meal I’ve ever had. What is that, around a hundred gold every bite?”

“More like two hundred. Gautier chargers are pricey.” A bit apologetic, she added, “They don’t taste very good though.”

Ingrid watched him eat, which was honestly a bit uncomfortable when it felt like he was eating a small fortune. Dowries were made of less.

When he finished breakfast, Ingrid asked--and Felix suspected it was a question she didn’t want an answer to herself, “What’s our plan?”

His plan was to hit any enemy that passed through the gates as hard as he could. Otherwise, “I don’t have a plan.”

“...Neither do I.” She took a shaky breath. “Do you think that, if I yelled at Sylvain a lot--?”

“I don’t think his fear of you is going to wake him up, no.”

“What if,” she began, but she didn’t finish. She bit her lip and started over. “Felix, you know the story of the Knight Below?”

“Yes. I’m afraid we don’t have any princesses in Faerghus to wake up Sylvain, Ingrid. That’s something you need to take up with King Lambert, or the boar, but the best the boar can give us is an infant.”

“Well, you could kiss him. You’re rich.”

“I’m not a--wait, I’m rich? That’s what you think a princess’ defining trait is? Rich?”

Ingrid paused, then she started squirming in a way that would best be described as a full body wince. “Y-yes. Is that… incorrect?”

Instead of discussing how they were down to a few dozen silver axes no one knew how to use, Ingrid and Felix argued over what a “princess” was. It somehow felt more productive than doing absolutely nothing at all.

All in all, the fifth day was terrible. Their pegasus knights were fighting unarmed, if it counted as fighting at all, doing nothing more than taking hits in place of the mages. They’d brought many of their healers out to stand on the ramparts to sling spells alongside the mages. They feared that bringing the healers to battle would cost them the lives of the injured, but if the Empire breached their defenses, then that’d cost them all their lives.

The Empire responded in kind, hurling clouds of miasma under their walls. Ingrid immediately ran off to shepherd the soldiers away from the miasma. (It struck him then, how much Ingrid reminded him of Glenn, even including a full round of cursing as she sprinted off towards danger.)

For his part, Felix did essentially nothing. He blamed Ingrid, though he wasn’t sure she was even too blame. A commander found Felix and took him by the arm, and no amount of scathing, uncalled for insults could stop him from being escorted deep into the castle. “You’re a guest,” the commander said, which wasn’t a good reason to abandon the frontlines.

They left him with Lord Galatea in an old study that smelled of books and ink. Felix seethed, but when the old lord challenged him to a round of card games, he swallowed his pride and said very well, sir.

At the door, the commander stood with a hand on their axe, guarding, watching--afraid.

 

-

 

At night, the castle prayed. In the days prior, the people had prayed for their weapons and food to last, and for Rodrigue to arrive. Tonight, some still repeated those same prayers. Others simply prayed for the Goddess to deliver them to wherever they might go next.

Felix didn’t think much of praying. It wasn’t like the imperial army didn’t pray too. He doubted the Goddess chose who to favor in battle based on the number of prayers she received.

Felix sat at Sylvain’s beside, with a bowl of warm water, hard soap, a washcloth, and a straight razor. The soap he worked into a rich lather, and then he studied Sylvain’s face. Sylvain really was starting to look like the Margrave. It was charming, in a terrible way. Felix needed to fix it.

He moved quickly, not in the least because he knew he only had so much time before his hands began to ache and throb. Wet towel, lather, shave, clean--Felix hadn’t ever shaved anyone but himself, but it was simple enough in the end, especially with Sylvain being particularly still.

Felix was distracted, applying aftershave and not paying attention to much of anything when Sylvain’s hand found his wrist. Felix startled, and then breathed a sigh of relief.

His free hand brushed the hair out of Sylvain’s eyes, and for the first time in days, Felix smiled.

Sylvain stared at him--awake, alert but confused, possibly in disbelief.

“Can't be dead then,” Sylvain murmured at last. Then he grinned, the light catching in his eyes, and he looked wonderfully, beautifully alive. “I don't think I'd have gone to the good place."

“Welcome back,” Felix replied.

“Thanks,” Sylvain said. He let go of Felix--too soon, Felix thought, he missed the touch already--and brushed his knuckles against his own jaw. “That is a damn clean shave. Wow. Do I get a hug then?”

“That wasn’t part of the deal.” It may as well have been though, because Sylvain looked at him, crestfallen, and it was certainly an act, but fine. Fine. So be it. Hug time.

Sylvain got his hug. The impact against his injured shoulder, though it was little more than a bump, made Sylvain hiss in pain. Felix tried to move away, but Sylvain’s grip on Felix only tightened. “Auugh, Goddess--nope, no, you stay, I’m not letting go. This is worth it. Ow.”

More than a little bit concerned, Felix said, “It’s not sounding worth it.”

“Definitely worth it. Don’t forget, I hate myself.” Sylvain grimaced, but his arm held fast, slipping down to rest along Felix’s back, like he was one of his countless girls. “This is nice, but if you could just put your weight a little more to my right, yes, like that, exactly. Thank you.”

There was some shuffling as Felix tried to both check Sylvain’s wounds--everything was holding together well, all his sutures were in place and nothing looked any worse than it had--and settle down against Sylvain’s right side. This was a considerably better experience when Sylvain wore a shirt instead of heavy armor, though he had to admit that Sylvain in a shirt was not particularly softer than Sylvain in a breastplate.

When it finally looked like he wasn’t actively hurting Sylvain, Felix kissed him on the cheek, chaste and quick enough that Sylvain could’ve imagined it.

Sylvain stared at him again, maybe wondering if he was dead after all, but Felix flushed pink and looked away, which was real enough. He glanced up again for just a second, like looking into the sun. The pink in his cheeks turned to red, but it was worth it maybe, to see Sylvain happy, especially if they didn't have much time left.

“Oh, that’s so sweet. I haven’t gotten one of those since you were tiny,” Sylvain said, and the way Felix glowered at him, he dared Sylvain to talk more about him being tiny. Sylvain declined to do so. “Is it my lucky day? Or are we all going to die very soon?”

“The latter,” he answered. “We’re not going to last out tomorrow, unless you have some miracles on hand.”

“Hm,” Sylvain said, lost in thought. He toyed with strands of Felix’s hair, affectionate if somewhat annoying. Then he was magnificently disappointing in the way only Sylvain could be. “If we’re going to die, the courtyard would be a great place for an orgy.”

“That’s what’s on your mind?” Felix demanded, his temper fraying fast.

“Okay, there are other things on my mind, that’s only one of them—” Felix started to get up, but Sylvain’s good arm held onto him with surprising strength, with more tenacity than Felix expected of him even in good health. ”Don’t go. Please.”

“You’re not really full of reasons for me to stay,” he snapped, and maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say. Maybe he should’ve just punched Sylvain in his injured shoulder, it would’ve hurt less.

“Yeah, I know,” Sylvain said. His grip on Felix tightened--and then he let go, holding Felix only by his fingertips, not willing to part from him entirely. Bitterly, like the joke was already told, and the punchline was him, Sylvain said again, “I know.”

Felix wondered why it hurt so much when he saw Sylvain hurting. He watched as Sylvain’s expression turned unreadable, carefully neutral, a mask more meant to protect Felix than to protect himself. The mask was as much a knife in his heart as the hurt. It wasn't like Felix didn’t know what was underneath it. 

“What did you want me to say, Sylvain?” Felix asked.

"What do you mean? You can say whatever you want to me. You should know that by now,” Sylvain answered, politely perplexed and perfectly convincing. He wasn’t fooling anyone.

“I mean, what do you want from me?”

“Whatever you’re willing to give.” Sylvain was being honest, but Felix had learned long ago that honest didn’t mean open. “It doesn’t have to be a lot. It doesn’t have to be anything at all.”

“Sylvain. Have you considered that I’d have an easier time knowing what to give if you would just tell me what you want?”

As far as he could tell, Felix had just suggested Sylvain make his worst nightmares a reality. Sylvain laughed nervously, and that laughter dwindled into the ether when he realized Felix was serious. “Later,” he promised. “When I work up the courage.”

That’d be acceptable only if they had a later. Felix wasn’t sure that they would. He asked, “Is that before or after we die?”

“Listen, first of all, you’re not going to die. Second of all, help me up. I got to talk to Ingrid, got to sort out this… Empire thing. That should be taken care of first. Then—“ he winced as he sat up, stalling as he took a moment to orient himself. He did seem strong enough to move though, especially with Felix at his side.

“Then what?” Felix asked.

“Then I work up some courage.”

 

-

 

It wasn’t until halfway up to the ramparts that Felix realized that Sylvain was perfectly able to walk. He only needed to lean on someone when he started feeling dizzy, blood loss getting to him whenever he tried moving too fast. He was otherwise fine, and he had held onto Felix for flights and flights of stairs for no apparent reason. Felix didn’t complain.

Ingrid was up on the ramparts as expected, anxiously staring into the darkness. The moonlight wasn’t enough to see by, neither was the starlight. She stared at nothing, and Felix could only hope the nothingness was some comfort to her. It didn’t seem like it was helping her any though.

When Ingrid saw Sylvain, the world lifted itself from her shoulders. She breathed, and it may as well have been the first time she’d breathed in days. “You’re up! How do you feel? Can you move?”

Sylvain gestured around them--he’d moved well enough to climb up here obviously. “I’ve been worse. I’m not going to be using a shield anytime soon, but I never liked shields anyway. How much longer can we hold the castle?”

“Not a lot longer. That depends on how soon the Empire can break down our gates. We only have mages left to defend it, and that’ll last… I don’t know, they’ll run out of spells in no time if they’re the only ones that can fight. We ran out of lances days ago, and now all we have left is a pile of fancy axes that no one knows how to use.”

“I still have a sword,” Felix said, because it was true. He also could fight, if he was quick about it, before his hands started giving him trouble. “I can probably find their general if you let me out there.”

Sylvain and Ingrid spoke over each other. “Over my dead body,” Ingrid said, while Sylvain went with, “Okay, you’re going to have to get past me to get out there.”

“...But neither of you have weapons, and you don’t even have two arms. I don’t see how I’d lose this fight.”

“I’d cry,” Ingrid said without skipping a beat, a surefire victory.

“She’d cry,” Sylvain repeated with emphasis, voila, a perfect success. “And I’d follow you out there to die like a fool, but I don’t think that’ll bother you as much as Ingrid crying.”

Felix crossed his arms. “I think I can sneak in and assassinate their general. That seems pretty good to me. What’s your plan?”

Ingrid said, “We have some good riders left, and their pegasi are fast and quiet. The Empire would never notice if they flew the two of you out of here tonight. We have some others that can carry out all the civilians too.”

Sylvain smiled; it was not a nice smile. “And you want to stay here to fight to the bitter end, do you?”

“Of course. This is my home, and they slaughtered our best and brightest.”

“No,” Sylvain said.

“No?” Ingrid repeated, coldly, like the crystalline sound of frost forming in the morning.

“No. We need all the fighters we can get. You think this war ends once you’re dead? Think further. You should fly every able bodied soldier out of here, we still need them to fight. Leave the civilians, leave the injured--leave me. Once you’re all gone, I’ll go out there and negotiate our surrender.”

There was a type of anger that only manifested in the smallest of ways, in how Ingrid straightened up ever so slightly, how her jaw tightened, how her eyes gleamed like burning, a fury to cut through the winter.

“They’ll execute you,” Ingrid stated flatly.

“They’re more likely to ransom me. They’ll probably kill everyone else left here though.”

“That ‘everyone else’ just so happens to be the people I am oathbound to protect!”

“You really don’t have that many left people to protect, Ingrid.” Sylvain smiled again. It still wasn’t a nice smile. “It’s not even a hundred people, between wounded soldiers and commoners. Those are losses that even Galatea can afford to cut.”

Quietly, before Ingrid could say anything else, Felix asked, “Are you sure your father would even ransom you?”

“I sure hope not.” Sylvain hadn’t even contemplated the possibility until Felix brought it up, even the thought was laughable. “He’s got at least one spare bastard with a crest. You all take the Lance of Ruin with you, and my father can leave me to my fate--as he should.”

“How’re we supposed to talk later if you’re dead?”

“I--" That gave him pause, but not enough of it. "I don’t know. That might have been a misleading promise, I’m sorry.”

“That promise might have been a lie,” Felix said, and Sylvain looked about as hurt as Felix felt. Served him right.

Ingrid shook her head in disgust and disbelief. “That is the worst plan. Second worst. Felix’s plan is still the worst.”

“How is my plan worse than a suicidal final stand for no reason than your damned pride? You won’t accomplish anything except for feeling honorable for a few seconds before you feel dead.”

“If I have to die, then honorably is how I choose to die. Would that everyone could have the luxury of choice!”

“There’s no honor in death. There’s only death.”

“Ingrid,” Sylvain said, and both Felix and Ingrid looked to him, waiting. “Get a pegasus knight, give her Felix, and have them get out of here. That’s part of your plan too. We can at least have him out to safety while we argue about what to do next.”

“You expect me to abandon you? Be fucking serious,” Felix snarled.

“What’s not serious about it?” Sylvain demanded. “Tomorrow, this castle is a death trap. If you die here, House Fraldarius is out of an heir. From Loog, the crown passes to Kyphon. You need to stay alive.”

A silence fell between them. The silence was louder than their yelling. Ingrid turned away; the nothingness beyond the castle was a more comforting sight than her friends.

Numbly, Felix asked, “Is duty why you’ve followed me this whole time?”

“What? No,” Sylvain said, but there was no recovering from that. “No, Felix, I—”

He was interrupted by the sound of war horns, not too far off in the distance.

 

-

 

Those were Faerghus horns.

Sylvain knew the sound, he’d heard it plenty of times both in the dead of night and the wake of day. Every time there was so much as a skirmish on the border Sreng, there were war horns. Faerghus’ had the sound of baritone brass, and Sreng’s of wind and bone.

The war horns continued. None of them were sure it was real, not until they looked to each other--they had all heard it, and then in the distance they heard the unmistakable cacophony of a battle, an ambush in the night upon the Empire’s encampment.

“Sylvain,” Felix said.

“Yes?” Sylvain responded, with full understanding that if Felix punched him in his bad shoulder right now, he probably deserved it.

He didn’t get punched. Instead, Felix seized him by the collar, pulling Sylvain down until he was within reach.

Felix kissed him, his lips soft against Sylvain’s own. This was not a peck on his cheek. This was not what Felix had done when he was tiny. He was not going to say oh, that’s so sweet, because that would be idiotic. The Goddess as his witness, he had been idiotic.

He wasn’t sure what Felix wanted from him, but it wasn’t like Felix knew what Sylvain wanted either. Everything, he knew--he wanted everything, but he was plenty happy to start here.

He learned the shape of Felix’s mouth, studied it with his tongue until Felix did the same in return. Gently, he pulled Felix closer, up against him, and he trailed kisses down Felix’s neck, punctuated by a low, victorious laugh from the back of Sylvain’s throat when he finally won a soft moan out of Felix. He’d dreamed of what that’d sound like for years.

When they parted, Felix blushed pink and looked away, and that made Sylvain’s heart turn into a soppy useless mess. It already was, but soppier now and even more useless.

He turned Felix’s face back up towards him, and he kissed him again--because he could, because he wanted to.

“I wouldn’t follow you for duty,” Sylvain said. “I would die for duty. I would live for you.”