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To Sing a Song of Steel

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Your eyes are steady and determined as you meet your gaze in the mirror. Your chambermaids are bustling around you. One is applying rose-coloured blush on your cheek, another is dabbing lavender ointment behind your ear. The third is braiding your hair. You don’t say a word as they work on making you presentable.

You feel the steady pressure of the corset, the weight of your hefty skirts, the way your skin feels tight under the layer of chalky make-up. Despite this, not a muscle on your face moves to make your discomfort known.

When you’re ready, you get up on your steady feet. Your mother, who has been sitting in the corner quietly, raises as well and excuses the maids. Her oval-shaped, worried eyes meet yours and then slide down to look over you.

You’re dressed in a traditional, conservative dress made of heavy satin. The blue and bronze-coloured fabrics match the rest of your chambers. The curtains, sheets and walls are all a brilliant, deep blue colour whereas the wooden floor and furniture all share a warm brown tint to them.

The whole castle shares this colour scheme as it’s the colours of your flag and the colours your Creator Himself has bestowed you with. Blue and bronze, His sacred combination.

You know this is the last time you will ever find solace in the familiar hues of cold blue and cosy brown, the worried eyes of your mother, the gentle touch of your chambermaids. For today, you’re set to travel far away.

Your eyes land on the small, bronze necklace hanging from your mother’s delicate neck. Your eyes slide over the square plate, the four blue jewels in each corner and the proud-looking stag carved in the middle.

You miss the weight of that necklace on your own neck. For centuries and centuries, members of your family have worn those necklaces to signal their dedication to the Creator, who was once believed to traverse this Earth in the form of a large deer.

Your bare neck obviously greatly distresses your mother. Her eyes fill with tears and she rushes to you to hug you tightly.

“Oh, Cora,” she breathes into your shoulder. “My one and only Cora,“ she wails desperately. The news of your departure hit her harder than it hit you. But you can’t blame her, you’re her only child.

Despite being the King’s fifth wife, it is well known that of his wives he is the least fond of your mother. He only seeded one child with her, you, and has since all but completely neglected his union with her. You grew up listening to hushed whispers and rumours about your mother, how the reason the King much prefers his four other wives is her horrible performance in bed, her lacklustre figure or the disappointment of having yet another daughter.

Your father, King Olaf Reader, has had a rather unfortunate track record with his offspring. His first-born was a son, but after that, the rest of his thirteen children have all been girls. As the youngest daughter from the least favoured wife, you are rumoured to be the final nail in the coffin of disappointments that made your father stop breeding for seventeen years, having only recently taken a sixth wife and impregnated her.

You won’t have time to see your younger half-sibling’s birth, due in another week, as you need to be on your way today.

And you’re not dumb enough to think that the role of sailing to the rotten, war-mongering kingdom of Varsiko to marry the devil-worshipping czarevich to solidify a shaky peace that’s recently been established between your nations after a century of warfare, fell on you by accident.

To the kingdom, you’re yet another daughter that needs to be married off eventually. Not only that, you’re the daughter of the least adored wife and there’s zero chance you’ll ever even see the throne, let alone sit on it.

And you know how much this peace means to your kingdom. The century of war with Varsiko has had a heavy toll on your resources. To the point where you’ve decided to abandon the mission of trying to change their Creator-despising ways. To the point of sending one of their royals to marry the son of the Czar of Varsiko himself.

Varsiko, your future home, is a small military state. Despite being sandwiched between East Novaryn, the part of your kingdom on the other side of Mantem River, and Mortis Sea, the Sea to which Mantem River flows, they have successfully held their own against your attacks. Not the least because they use the vast majority of their budget on military and alchemy research.

According to the sacred texts handed down by your Creator, to bond or mate with someone who embraces the wicked ways of alchemist rituals means to lose their soul with no way of reversing this grim fate. With full knowledge of this, you were appointed the bride-to-be to the youngest son of the Czar.

You’re fully aware of this, and you’ve accepted your destiny. You will give your body and soul for your kingdom and wilfully hand them to the Damnation-worshipping hands of the Varsikovian royal family.

You stroke your mother’s back with an empty smile.

“Do not fret, mother. I will be fine,” you promise and pull away from the tight embrace to show her your calm, determined eyes.

She moves her hand towards your cheek but stops midway when she realises she would only mess up your make-up. Instead, she places it on your shoulder.

“Who shall I spend my days with now? Oh, Cora, my lovely child,” she whispers and bursts in tears anew. “I will pray for you. I will grovel and beg for the Creator to have pity on your soul. He is wise and all-knowing, maybe He will understand-“

“Mother,” you sigh gently. “You know he does not take kindly to pestering. You will only risk getting struck down in His fit of anger.”

Your mother hugs you again.

“Promise me you will try not to breed with him. Do not let our blood mix with their kind, Cora. They are animals.“

You nod wordlessly. You’ll do your best even though you know it’ll be in vain. Sooner or later, the czarevich is bound to want to lay with his wife, especially since their relationships are strictly monogamous.

A maid knocks on the door and tells you the carriage has arrived and is ready to escort you to the harbour. From there, you’re set to take a boat across the Mantem River to the seaside city of Rekanon, the heavily guarded capital of Varsiko.

As you descend the marble stairs, from the solace of your chambers, down to the maze-like corridors of the castle, you look around as much as you can to keep the memories fresh.

The bronze-coloured armours lined up along the hallways by the blue, long carpets covering the floors. The painted glass windows, most depicting religious imagery of the Creator. The heavy wooden doors leading to the kitchen, the dining hall, the servants’ wing, to your siblings’ and parents’ quarters and countless other places, some of which you never deemed important enough to visit.

The conservatively dressed maids and servant boys who stop and bow as you pass by, the patrolling guards who take out their swords and kneel for you when you walk past them, the absent-minded priests who give you long, pitying looks and touch their forehead and chest with the palms of their hands, a gesture of prayer.

You walk down the large staircase to the entrance hall. By the door, you spot a familiar man. As you recognise the brown silk outfit of tight-fitting pants and neatly tailored jacket, complete with leather boots and elbow-length gloves, a relieved smile spreads on your features.

You were afraid no one aside from your mother would see you off.

“Sirius,” you breathe. Your one and only brother, the crown prince of Novaryn, hurries to hug you.

Out of all your siblings, you always got along the best with your older brother. He was always nice to everyone and sympathised with your difficult situation inside the castle. Then again, he could afford to not harbour ill will towards you. As the oldest child and only son, he is the apple of your father’s eye and the golden child of the whole kingdom.

Your sisters, on the other hand, always had to compete in order to have their father as much as glance their way.

As you hug, a flood of memories returns to you. Of Sirius hoisting you on his horse and walking you around when you were just a little squirt. Of him coming to your room every Wednesday with a candied apple and a new book to read you when you couldn’t read yet yourself. Of him talking your father into sending you a short letter of congratulations when you turned sixteen and thus became of age.

It’s hard to keep your face neutral and prevent your eyes from glistening with tears as you remember the small, warm moments that made this castle feel like home.

“I’m sorry, Cora. I tried to talk some sense into him but he wouldn’t budge. He cares more about ending this war than he does about his daughter’s soul.”

Sirius looks heartbroken as he pulls back. You offer him the same, hollow smile as you did your mother.

“Do not worry, brother. I will fare just fine,” you promise him. “My soul is a cheap price to pay for stifling this war. Given how I have read one too many of those scandalous love novels father tried very hard to outlaw,” you chuckle. This marriage may rid you of your soul, but your love for reading is one thing no one can take from you. You just hope the Rekanon Castle has a killer library.

You raise your skirts and step out to the sunny, kempt courtyard.

You look at the diligently cropped grass fields, stone tables and chairs under parasols, where you used to have your afternoon tea. Then, you look at the carriage that’s waiting for you. Pulled by two pearl-white Augeron horses and manned by the driver as well as two guards, it’s nothing fancy. The less attention you pull to yourself as you travel through Novaryn, the better.

Your sparse belongings are packed in a single suitcase. A freckled maid packs them in and then stands aside with a curtsey.

You turn to give your mother and brother one last hug. Your mother looks utterly heartbroken and there’s no stopping her sobs. Sirius, while composed, looks equally worried.

“Promise to write,” he reassures. You nod. He cups your cheek. Unlike your mother, he cares not about the make-up.

“Soul or not, you are still my little sister. Never forget that,” he tells you gently. Your smile is filled with gratitude.

“And even as a soulless, astray child of Damnation, you are still my big brother,” you tell him. He grins a little.

You disentangle yourself from your mother’s clingy arms and allow one of the guards to help you inside the carriage.

As the horses start pulling you towards the harbour, you dare not look back.

-

The air in this country is different. Novaryn smells earthy and fresh. It’s warm, sunny, engulfed in light and nature with deep, ancient forests and churches older than the nation itself.

The second you step out of the ship to the wooden dock, you’re met with the pungent smell of metal. You glance at the grey and red flag flapping in one of the masts, and immediately feel colder.

Many of the locals stop to gawk at you, a foreign lady in Novaryn’s colours, and you could swear the grey-suited guards who are there to pick you up give you unfriendly little glares.

You step into a carriage that’s pulled by two sturdy Mongol horses. Not a word is uttered as you traverse through the industrial city. All around, you see buildings made of tile and metal rather than stone and wood, like you’re used to in Novaryn. Thanks to constant raids and ransacking by Novaryn for the last century, all of the architecture here is new. There are no buildings that look older than a decade.

Most people you see on the street are wearing military uniforms. You studied Varsiko meticulously before your arrival, so you know that the vast majority of their citizens either work for the army or as gunsmiths. Varsiko is, thanks to Novaryn, a very militarised nation. A monarchy on paper, yet the de facto leader is whoever sits at the helm of the military. The royal family mostly functions as a symbol.

Thus, you don’t expect to be too involved in politics.

The Rekanon Castle is large and compared to the ancient, stone building you grew up in, it looks hollower. Rather than made of stone with multiple, liberally situated towers here and there and a large, green yard, the Rekanon Castle looks much more like a fortress. Made of grey bricks with a red, flat roof and two symmetrical, sturdy-looking watchtowers on each side, you immediately doubt you’ll feel much at home here.

The front yard has no garden or spots for sitting and soaking in the sun. Save for an aggressively cropped lawn and a single pathway going through it, there’s nothing of note outside.

No one’s arrived to receive you. You’re not too surprised. The two guards take your suitcase and escort you through the yard to the castle. The second you open the door to the main hall, you notice that the whole building is absurdly grey. The walls and floors are both dull stone, and the only thing bringing some life to the aesthetic is the crimson red carpets rolled over the floors.

You see a few servants walk in a corridor further away, a passing maid in a grey dress stops to give you a stunned blink before curtseying reluctantly and hurrying past you to a long, empty corridor that looks to be leading to the kitchen. Armed guards are standing on each side of the door with their eyes pointed forward, and they don’t as much as glance at you.

The guards you arrived with walk you through the hollow corridors. You note that the windows here are clear, see-through glass with no paintings, and the dull-coloured wooden doors are all closed. After walking through what feels like the whole castle, you stop at one of the doors, situated in the farthest end of the west wing.

“You will have dinner with your fiancé and the rest of the royal family in an hour's time. I recommend changing out of that,” the guard gives your blue and bronze dress a look oozing of poorly concealed disgust, “beforehand. Your appointed guard will pick you up and escort you.”

You nod, not one to start talking back first thing. Attending dinner in your country’s colours might be seen as rebellious and too patriotic.

You open the door and walk inside. The guard walks in, sets your suitcase down by the door and quickly excuses himself. He’s obviously not too eager to stay close to you.

You look around the spacious room you’re to call home from now on. Like the rest of the castle, the walls and floors are the same shade of uninspiring grey. The curtains, carpets and sheets on the bed are warm saffron red, and there are a couple of tapestries on the walls. One depicts Varsiko’s flag, the grey background with a red arsenic symbol.

The other is fine white cotton and has the image of a cloaked figure stitched on it. The figure is kneeling before a wall with a large circle chalked on it. Leaning against the wall, in the middle of the circle, is a naked boy with a cross drawn on his chest.

It’s a depiction of an alchemy ritual. A practice your Creator has explicitly forbidden.

A fiancée to one of these deviants or not, about to lose your soul or not, you conclude you don’t have to stand for these images in your own bedroom. Thus, you take down the tapestry, roll it and chuck it under the wide and luxurious bed.

Next to the bed is a mahogany bedside table. On the table, a gas lamp, a hand mirror and a handkerchief are placed for your use. Before the large window pointing west, there is a wooden desk with a quill pencil and parchment papers. Against the wall next to the bed stands a white vanity and a matching wardrobe. You peek inside the drawers just to confirm that the wardrobe is filled with clothes suitable for a woman your age and stature.

The bookshelf stands empty next to a door leading out to a small private balcony. You make a mental note to fix this as soon as possible.

You make a brief visit outside just to admire the setting sun and apricot sky for a moment. You had requested your quarters to have windows and balcony facing west, as you rather enjoy sunsets. The backyard below you, however, is just as uninteresting as the front yard. The grass is short with a single, tiled road splitting through it. Tall stone walls circle the area, giving it a prison-like quality. There are a couple of flowerbeds, however, as well as a few benches and a cricket pitch. Further away are the stables, and you can see some horses pasturing outside.

In the bathroom, the first thing that catches your eye is the large bathtub, next to a water pump. The toilet and sink, as well as the bathtub, are fully sanitary and connected to a water pump and a sewer system, a sight uncommon in Novaryn. You look over the porcelain commodities for a moment but soon lose interest.

Just as you’re beginning to wonder if you’re supposed to get changed on your own, there’s a knock on the door and an older maid briskly walks in. Skin tanned and wrinkly from a lifetime of manual labour and her greying, thin hair combed up on a tight bun, she looks very stern. Her grey cotton dress swishes as she unceremoniously marches to the wardrobe and takes out a black evening gown. She then turns to you expectantly.

“I’m supposed to make you presentable for dinner, Miss,” she says. Her voice is curt and not very friendly. It seems like everyone here has an attitude towards you. Not that you’re shocked by this, there is the whole century of warfare -thing.

You nod and turn your back. You feel the maid start pulling the strings at the back of your outfit loose.

“I am the maid in charge of looking after you. Should you ever need anything, call for Maid Springer,” she tells you, though she very much sounds like it’s out of pure obligation rather than a genuine desire to look after you.

Your dress falls to your feet and you step out of it. She grabs the blue and bronze clothing and folds it expertly before putting it in the wardrobe. The black gown is pulled on next, and her fingers are very nimble as she fastens it.

She then slips on a pair of silver earrings and a diamond necklace, and you finish the outfit by pulling on a pair of silky black gloves and matching heels.

Maid Springer curtseys shortly and walks out without a word. As she opens the door, she comes face to face with someone who was just about to let himself in.

Springer pauses and blinks, a bit taken aback, and then hurries to curtsey. You notice the gesture is much deeper and more enthusiastic when directed towards this man rather than you.

“Miss is ready for dinner, Ser,” she announces. The man waves her off and steps inside.

You pause to look at him. He’s wearing the same grey military uniform the guards from earlier were. A light grey button-up shirt, a pair of dark grey pants and a black leather belt. On his feet, he’s wearing a pair of black leather boots. The only thing that’s different compared to the guards you’ve seen so far is that this one has a red cape placed on his shoulders, fastened in place with a metal pin in the shape of the arsenic symbol, the very same one that’s depicted on Varsiko’s flag. You see a sword hanging from his hips and there’s a rifle fastened over his back.

You look over the uniform in silence and then, finally, look over his face. He looks to be rather young, in his early thirties maybe. His black hair is trimmed with a cropped hairstyle and his grey eyes are watching you with a calm yet undeniably wary and distrusting look.

You’re not concerned about his unfriendly attitude at the moment. Instead, your eyes are glued to his right hand. On the back of his hand, you can see a tattooed symbol of a triangle placed inside a circle.

You know what that symbol is.

The man notices where your eyes have stopped, and he scoffs. He raises his hand to show you the tattoo.

“Shocked?” he asks lazily. “Afraid your Creator will strike you down if you as much as share a space with someone augmented?”

You rip your eyes away from the tattoo and meet his eyes with your head held high.

“No. It’s just the first time I see a spawn of Damnation, is all,” you tell him with a cool tone. He snorts and leans against the wall.

“Then, I suggest you get used to it,” he tells you bluntly. “Plenty of us here.”

“So I’ve heard, unfortunately. It’s always sad to see people who have rejected the ways of the Creator-”

“Spare you preach, little miss,” the man cuts you off dryly. “As far as your Creator is concerned, you’ve already forsaken him by coming here with the intention of marrying the son of our Czar.”

You notice that the man doesn’t speak to you formally. He seems blatantly uninterested in addressing you as a superior. You don’t know if it’s because you’re a royal from a nation that’s for a century been his enemy, or if he’s like that with everyone.

“I assume you are the guard appointed to looking after me,” you say.

“As much as I opposed to this, yes,” the man replies, unimpressed. “What a way to punish me, taking me off the field and straight to babysitting duty,” he mutters to himself.

“The field?” you tilt your head a little.

“I used to be in the Wing of Offence up until a few weeks ago. And as soon as they decide I’ve suffered enough for my insubordination and can return to my real duties, I’m out of here. So, don’t get too attached to me, little miss.”

“I do not think that’s a real concern,” you reply with a roll of your eyes. You have no desire to get cosy with people in this castle, much less an augmented soldier who calls you little miss.

The guard starts escorting you to the dining hall. You walk quietly but every now and then, you glance at the tattoo on his hand.

Augmentation. The biggest breakthrough in modern alchemy. For as long as Varsiko has existed, they have used the ancient science of alchemy. Blending materials and metals, fortifying buildings and enhancing weapons with different spells and rituals, it’s mostly thanks to the alchemy that the military of this nation has managed to fend Novaryn off for so long.

And during the last seventy years, a considerable effort was made to find a formula for not only improving buildings and weapons but also humans. Countless people lost their lives to aggressive and purpose-oriented experimentation. You have no doubt many of those people were Novarynian.

But as a result, they found a way to merge various metals into human bodies, making them much less vulnerable. Furthermore, save for the tattoo the augmented people take for the purpose of completing the alchemy ritual, these people are indistinguishable from normal people and their bodies seem to work as normal.

To your knowledge, only a handful of people have been successfully augmented, the last of your intel assumed the amount to be in the hundreds. And your guard just happens to be one of those people.

You’re allowed inside the large dining hall. The maids are fussing around, setting up the table and the foods. You notice two guards by the door you just walked through, as well as on each side of the other two doors. None of them is wearing a cape like your guard is, and you conclude it must be a rank thing.

The mahogany table is large enough to seat thirty, but you notice it’s only been set for six people. It’s situated right next to a large, wall-length glass window facing the carefully kempt yet barren backyard. Various paintings, tapestries and coats of arms are hung over the grey walls, and a red cloth is placed over the table. So far, it’s the most ornate and colourful room you’ve seen in this castle.

By the window, you see a few people standing in a circle and chattering with a low voice. The second you walk in, they all turn to look at you simultaneously.

You look over their faces. The oldest man with dark brown hair and round glasses you recognise from portraits. Czar Grisha Yeager. The symbolic head of Varsiko and the initiator of peace negotiations between your country and his. The marriage was his idea and you hear he voiced vocal opposition from both the citizens and the military.

Ultimately, however, Admiral Zackly backed up the suggestion. And here you are, as a result.

The woman next to him is beautiful, with clean, milky skin and dark, woven hair. Her luscious, red dress is tightly cinched around her narrow waist. She must be the Second Czarina, Carla Yeager.

With the royal couple are two boys and a girl. The older boy has light brown hair and he looks astonishingly much like Czar Yeager, even down to the round glasses sitting on his nose and the facial hair around his mouth. The eyes behind said glasses, however, are exceptionally cold as they land on you. His outfit is similar to the Czar’s, with a grey jacket, white button-up shirt and a pair of tight-fitting black pants. He, unlike the Czar and Czarina, is not wearing a crown.

The younger boy looks much more like the Czarina with dark, silky hair, large green eyes and a clean, fair complexion. He’s dressed more carefree than the other men, with a simple brown shirt and a pair of grey pants. Out of the bunch, he looks the least like royalty.

The last person in the group is a young woman. Short and petite with golden hair, she looks the friendliest out of the group. Her blue eyes have a gentle sheen to them, and her bronze-coloured dress instantly reminds you of home and sets you more at ease.

“Ah,” Czar Yeager starts with a well-meaning smile. “Cora Reader. The youngest daughter of King Olaf Reader. Monarch of Novaryn. My soon-to-be daughter-in-law,” he lists with a wide smile, your presence the culmination of his years of hard work.

“Your Grace,” you greet and give him a formal curtsey.

“Oh, none of that please,” he hurries to say. “I’m glad you got here safely and could join us for dinner. May I introduce you to my wife, Carla,” he gestures to the Czarina, who gives you a stiff smile, clearly not sure what to make of you yet.

“My eldest son Zeke,” he introduces the boy in glasses. He gives you the tiniest little nod. “And this is his fiancée, Historia Reiss. Their wedding will be in a few months’ time.”

The blonde girl grabs your hand and squeezes it with a smile.

“Nice to meet you,” she says, and the sound of her melodic voice makes you relax just a bit. You squeeze her hand back.

“Likewise.”

“And this,” Grisha says ceremonially and turns to the younger boy, “is Eren. Your fiancé.”

Your eyes meet. It’s not love at first sight. You don’t feel your stomach turning or the ground shaking under your feet. You don’t sense your heart beating faster. He’s good-looking, you suppose, but your first impression of him is on the neutral side.

You curtsey to him, and he gives you a short bow in response, but you don’t see any excessive interest in his eyes.

As you sit down at the table, one of the doors opens and in slips a girl. She’s wearing a red cape similar to your guard, and she quickly moves to stand by him. You give her a glance, but she doesn’t speak up and no one pays attention to her, so you dismiss her as one of the higher-ranking guards and turn to your food.

A slice of the roast is placed on your plate and topped with some gravy, along with some steamed peas, boiled potatoes and cherry tomatoes. You’re not hungry, but you force the fork to your lips all the same. You don’t want to seem rude.

“I hope the journey wasn’t too tiring for you,” Czar Yeager says after a moment of silence. You finish chewing and swallow before replying.

“It was rather pleasant. The wind was behind us the whole way.”

“I see.”

“If you want to furnish your room to your liking, don’t hesitate to ask for whatever you need,” the Czarina adds. You nod and smile that same, proper but distant smile you gave your mother and brother.

The royal couple and Historia do their best to include you in conversations, but you notice that Zeke and Eren both stay quiet and only answer with short grunts and single-word sentences.

Eren finishes his meal fast and gets on his feet. He gives you a long look and finally opens his mouth.

“When you’re done, come to my room,” he tells you simply and strides to the door. The girl in red cape follows him quietly as he walks out of the door.

You look after him, equal parts curious and apprehensive.

“Oh my, always so blunt,” the Czarina sighs with a small smile. “I hope you two get along. He’s a fierce boy but try to be understanding. Underneath all that, he’s a good child,” she tells you with warm, motherly passion. You smile.

“I’m sure we will get along great, your grace.”

You hear Zeke scoff in his seat but ignore it.

“Actually, there is something I would like to ask,” you suddenly realise.

“What is it?” The Czar asks.

“I have a bookshelf in my room, but no books. If at all possible, I would like to borrow some from the library.”

The Czar chuckles.

“Books, eh? You like reading?”

“I do.”

“Me, too. A fine hobby,” he says warmly. “Take any books you fancy and if you find our collection lacking, do not hesitate to ask us for refurbishments. Ask Levi to take you when it suits you.”

“Levi,” you repeat the unfamiliar name. The Czar blinks and then laughs.

“Trust our esteemed Captain not to even introduce himself. Levi Ackerman, your appointed guard,“ he explains and gestures to the man standing behind you. You turn to give him a glance, just to see him leaning against the wall behind you with a bored, blank expression. He gives you a bland stare.

Nodding, you turn back to your food.

A dozen minutes later, the Czar and Czarina have finished dining and you feel comfortable excusing yourself. With a curtsey, you leave the dining hall.

“The czarevich asked me to visit him,” you tell Levi, who followed you out without a word.

“I heard,” he says dully. “Follow me then.”

He walks ahead of you and starts showing you the way to Eren’s quarters. You follow quietly and look at the arsenic symbol on the back of his cape.

He’s a military captain, the Czar said. And as per his own words, he doesn’t intend to stay here long, only until he’s allowed back in the field. You wonder what kind of augmentations he’s undergone. You wonder if he feels different, being forsaken by the Creator. You wonder if you will feel different once you’re forsaken as well.

Levi leads you to the northern wing. At the end of the hallway, there’s a door. Guarded by the girl you saw earlier, she tenses a little when she sees you. Levi nods at her and moves to stand on the other side of the door.

With a steadying breath, you knock on the door. You hear a grunt from inside, telling you to come in. You grab the brass handle and before you have time to make yourself nervous, you yank it open and walk inside.

Eren’s quarters are very different from yours. The room is much larger, with swords and guns hung all around the walls. His desk is filled with all sorts of papers and books, and you recognise a few of the titles to be war novels.

He’s ridden himself of the red curtains and carpets and instead replaced them with browns and blacks. You make a mental note to do the same for your own room. Maybe you can even get away with making your room blue and bronze.

His bed is unkempt, with the blankets and pillows carelessly thrown in a pile at the foot of the mattress. You notice that instead of crimson red, the linen is neutral white.

Eren is sitting on the couch by the window, his back resting against the armrest and his feet carelessly swinging off the side of the couch. In his hand, he has a crumpled-up parchment paper.

When he sees you, he gets on his feet and tosses the paper on top of his wardrobe. His eyes are unreadable and a little bit ominous as he approaches you.

You close the door after yourself and force yourself to face him properly. It’s your husband-to-be, you’ll need to get used to the sight of him sooner or later.

“You don’t need to be on guard. I’m not going to do anything to you,” he says simply. You nod.

“I did not think you would,” you say honestly. “You do not seem to be too interested in this engagement.”

“I hate politics,” he announces and turns to look out of the window, of the dim yard and dark sky. “And this union is nothing but politics.”

You nod and lean against the door a little.

“I will carry the marriage through as ordered but don’t expect romantics and sentimental displays. That’s all I wish to say to you.”

You look at his dismissive, mildly irritated expression.

“Alright,” you say quietly. “I’m glad we are on the same page. I’m doing this for my country, that is all there is to it. The less is required of me, the better.”

Eren nods and gives you a glance, this one a bit less cold than the previous ones.

“That’s all,” he says and dismisses you. You open the door and slip outside, equal parts relieved and blue. Relieved, because you’re on the same page about the nature of your engagement. Blue, because this cements what you already know; that your fate is to forever remain in a place you may never learn to call home, surrounded by people who would prefer you not be here, bound to a person to whom you’re a nuisance.

The girl standing outside looks taken aback when you re-emerge so soon. Then, her shoulders relax and she glances at the door to Eren’s room.

Your expression is steely and calm as you start making your way back towards your quarters. The youngest daughter as you may be, you were still taught a thing or two about operating in royal circles.

Always remain calm.

Keep your cards close to your chest.

Conduct yourself with dignity.

The three things your mother spent your early years hammering into your head. And you’ll be damned if you let her down.

As you make your way back to your room, the evening turns into night. You know you should feel tired, but the unfamiliar surroundings keep you on your toes.

As you round the corner to your quarters, you realise someone’s leaning against the corridor wall waiting for you. When you see the light hair and round glasses, your neck instantly prickles on instinct.

Zeke’s arms are crossed and his eyes are cold as he looks at you. You pause in front of him.

“Your grace,” you greet him, tone calm and neutral.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Zeke responds bluntly.

“I’m not sure I follow,” you reply. He scoffs and straightens his posture.

“Ninety per cent of this nation is not happy you’re here,” he tells you straightforwardly, “the people who are sympathetic towards you or your country within this castle can be counted with one hand, and you met all of them in that dining hall.”

He walks until he’s uncomfortably close to you and stops. You stay quiet and let him speak.

“And once things go down, even your guard won’t hesitate to shoot you in the back if given the order to,” he continues. You meet his gaze steadily.

“The peace between our nations is hanging by a thread and no one expects it to last for more than a year. And when the war breaks out again, the first thing on the list of likely outcomes is that your head goes rolling.”

He places the tip of his finger on your throat and slides across. His eyes, albeit cold and ruthless, display a hue of curiosity, intrigue even.

His eyes slide to Levi, who’s watching without a word, albeit his eyes are alert and his hand is clutching the handle of his rifle. Zeke chuckles.

“Well, it seems like at least for now, he’ll remain under orders to keep you alive.”

With that, Zeke turns and walks off. You stare after him and slump against the wall.

There’s nothing he said that you didn’t already know. It’s just a very unwelcome reminder of the reality of your situation.

You take a deep breath and enter your room. To your astonishment, Levi follows you in.

“What are you doing?” you ask warily as Levi starts standing guard next to the door.

“Orders,” Levi grunts. You blink.

“By whom?”

“The Czar. I was told to keep you company whenever possible.”

You roll your eyes and grab your nightgown. You walk to the bathroom to get changed in private. You freshen up while you’re there and when you walk outside, Levi’s still standing next to the door.

You open the balcony door to let in some fresh air and look over the dark, quiet backyard. Only the lanterns of patrolling guards illuminate the ground below.

You sit down on the cold stone rail and look out to the dark horizon deep in thought. When you swing your legs over the railing, sitting with your back towards the room, you hear Levi walk to the balcony door.

“Do not worry, I’m not suicidal,” you tell him without turning. You look at the long drop down and sigh.

You think over what Zeke told you. You know it’s likely that you won’t live past the next year. With the unstable political climate and imminent threat of war, you will cease to be treated like royalty here the second the battling between Varsiko and Novaryn reignites.

“Levi,” you call to the man behind you.

“What?”

“When the time comes to get rid of me, instead of shooting me in the back, could you aim for my head?” you ask with a light, conversational tone. “It is quicker and easier.”

Levi stays quiet and you feel his wary eyes on you. You chuckle to yourself.

“Do not mind me. Humour is just my way of coping,” you enlighten him.

“I see.”

When you feel your resolve chipping away, second by second, you bite your lip and force your voice steady with the expertise of someone who grew up in the middle of whispers and scorn, pretending not to notice.

“Could you step back inside for just a moment and close the door?” you request. He looks at you for a few seconds, and you then hear the door close with a small clack.

Looking out to the dark yard, you finally allow the tears to come. You sob as quietly and composedly as you can as the hopelessness of your situation makes it hard to breathe.

Inside, leaning against the balcony door with a grim look on his face, Levi stands guard to your silent tears.

Chapter Text

”The castle is large and has most necessities. Aside from the private rooms of the residents and some restricted alchemy laboratories and libraries, feel free to explore as you will,” Historia explains. The hems of your dresses make a cushy sound as you walk along the barren hallways, nothing but red carpets and curtains accentuating the dull grey.

Historia turns to give you a friendly but well-guarded smile.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to life here in no time. It may feel a little weird at first, but this castle is surprisingly comfortable.”

For someone who’s not a bargaining chip sent from a country yours has been at war with for a century, that may be true, you think to yourself grimly, but you reciprocate Historia’s smile with your own.

Behind you, Levi and Historia’s guard, a blond man by the name of Thomas Wagner, walk quietly. It’s day three in this castle, and Historia decided to at least attempt decency by giving you a tour.

You visit the roof of one of the watchtowers, where grumpy-looking soldiers are lounging around and playing cards while leaning against the heavy cannons situated next to the tiled walls. That is until Levi steps to the roof after you and the soldiers hurry to look like they’re diligently keeping watch.

You notice Levi gives them a very cold glare.

You visit the kitchen, bustling with maids and chefs who prepare dinner to feed not only the royal family but all of the staff and soldiers living here as well.

You briefly peek inside the library, and you make a mental note to ask Levi to bring you there once there’s an opportune moment for a more lengthy visit.

Outside, you walk through the stables and Historia makes sure to introduce you to her horse. She seemed the kind to get overly attached to pets, but when she’s given you a fifteen-minute monologue about her horse’s intelligence and the softness of his gaits, you get a bit bored.

Then, finally, you make your way to the South wing. Historia grows visibly nervous as she opens the door to another grey hallway, this one more dimly lit.

“And here’s…” Historia trails off and winces. “Here’s where we conduct the-”

She’s cut off by the sound of one of the doors in the hallway banging open. Someone slings out with a loud yell and opens the window across from the door.

“This useless lump of scrap metal! This is lead, not mercury!” she screeches.

That someone rolls her arm back with the full intention of throwing the heavy-looking ingot of metal she has in her grip out of the window with full force, but two other people run out of the room she barged from and pull her back in unison.

“Ma’am, please reconsider,” a blond, short boy begs.

“Listen to Armin, Hange, what if you hit someone with that?“ the other person repeats, though he sounds a lot more irritated and assertive.

When the woman is pulled back, you take a good look at her. She has brown hair that’s carelessly been pulled on a ponytail. A red scarf is tied over one of her eyes. She’s wearing the same grey military outfit everyone else is, but on the back of her jacket, there’s a symbol of a circle with a triangle inside. The same symbol that’s tattooed on the back of Levi’s hand.

She’s an alchemist, you immediately conclude, and take a wary step back.

The two men forcefully pulling her back from the window have the same kind of uniform with the same symbol.

The woman topples back and reluctantly allows the taller and older brunette man to wrench the metal from her hand. Her eyes land on the four of you and she immediately forgets what she was doing. A wide smile instantly spreads on her face.

No longer upset about the metal, she springs to you and shoves you out of the way to get to Levi, giving zero regards to the fact that you’re obviously royalty. You could swear she’s drooling just a little at the sight of him.

“Levi!” she greets, animated. “How are you? How are your shards? Are they functioning properly? I still think I got the composition of the metal down just right but I was briefly concerned about the amount of mercury in the formula…”

She mutters to herself as she pats down Levi’s arms and torso with zero concern for his personal space. Levi slaps her hands off with an irritated frown, clearly no stranger to this kind of treatment by her.

You watch the show with a perplexed expression. It’s the first time you see anyone act familiar with Levi. Hell, it’s the first time you’ve ever seen anyone act familiar with anyone in this castle.

“Captain Levi was Ms Hange’s first augmentation.”

You turn to see that the blond boy has walked up to you. His fair hair has been cut just below his ears, and he has a well-meaning smile on his features. You glance behind him to see the brunette man walk back into the room, examining the stone with an exasperated sigh.

“As such, she can’t help but feel like he was a test or a sample and worry about the quality of his augmentations.”

You look at the boy with a cautious expression. He bows down slightly.

“I’m Armin. You must be the Novarynian who arrived a few days ago.”

Your eyes glaze over his face to see if there’s any distaste or disgust when he says your country’s name, but you sense none. Either there’s no prejudice from his part, or he’s better at hiding it than most people here.

“I see you’re as reckless as ever,” Levi, meanwhile, tells Hange dryly. “Last time I saw you, you at least had both of your eyes still.”

“Oh, this? I’ll augment it eventually and it’ll be better than a normal eye,” Hange disregards easily. The ease with which she talks about using dark magic and metals to mutilate her body greatly disturbs you.

“So? Why are you here? Do you need me to optimise? I just tried out some new blends of aluminium and zinc that should improve your speed-”

“No, I plan on letting you nowhere near my body,” Levi announces and takes a step back. “I’m just here to guard that little miss.”

Only when he nods towards you does Hange give you a proper once-over. A look of realisation spreads on her face and she smiles brightly.

“Oh, the Novarynian princess,” she says and hurries to you. She grabs your hand and ushers you towards the room she came from.

“Here for a tour? Don’t be shy, come on in!”

You’re pushed to a dim laboratory. Only some gas lamps illuminate the cluttered space. You look around the walls, filled with shelves. On each shelf, there are lumps of metal, pieces of armour, guns, swords, old and dusty books, all sorts of equipment carelessly scattered around with no rhyme or reason as for how they’re arranged.

In the middle of the room is a large stone table. In the centre is a collection of painted alchemy symbols, and to your utter horror, a dead rabbit placed in the middle of one of them, a symbol in the shape of a crescent moon.

From the corner of your eye, you see Levi giving both the room and the rabbit a grossed out glare.

Outside the alchemy circles are lumps of metal, recently melted together, as well as stacks of parchment paper, each filled to the brim with messy notes.

The man from earlier is checking over one of the papers and when you extend your neck to steal a peek, you see a very complicated mathematical formula scribbled on it. You can tell none of it.

“Here,” the man tells Hange and points at a number. “You miscalculated. By halving the amount of lithium, you’ll up your chances of a proper reaction.”

“What are you talking about? You simpleton, I just che-” she pauses when her eyes land on the numbers and she quickly snatches the paper from him. She’s now completely forgotten you’re even there.

“…Oops,” she finally admits. The man sighs deeply.

A couple of minutes later, Armin walks into the room with a tray full of tea.

“Here, Mr Moblit,” he tells the brunette man. The man in question takes a cup without a word.

You see Levi’s eyes flash when Armin nears him with the tray, and he leans over it to examine each cup carefully. Then, he picks the one he deems to look the best brewed.

So, he likes tea. Or at least, he’s very particular about it.

You take your teacup and turn your attention back to the alchemy table. It’s the first time you’re so close to anything this blasphemous. It’s equal parts intriguing and terrifying.

“Ah, this must be the first time you see an alchemy lab,” Armin realises as he stows away the now empty tray. “Ours is a bit messier than most,”

“That’s an understatement,” comes a mutter from Levi’s general direction.

“-but they’re all more or less like this.”

“Why is it so dim in here?” you ask with a frown. You’d imagine good lighting helps with experiments.

“Oh, that’s to check the composition. For example,” Armin grabs two lumps of metal from one of the shelves. “Here we have two different metals. When I combine them,” Armin places them down on one of the symbols. This one has two linked stars inside a square, “they form something new.”

He lathers his hand with some kind of liquid substance and places it on the square. Instantly, the symbol painted on the table lights up with a dim, purple light. The lumps of metal grow together like two crawling tumours leeching off each other until they’re completely merged and smooth.

“As you can see, it’s impossible to tell that this was made of two different metals. But the dim hue they retain for a couple of minutes afterwards tells us exactly what we’ve created,” Armin explains. He holds the metal close to you and you narrow your eyes.

You can see a slight, golden light radiating from it, one that would be impossible to see in good lighting.

“That golden light tells me I’ve made a nice ingot of semi high-grade copper with an enhancement that makes it invulnerable to anything but platinum and titanium,” he explains. Your eyes widen.

“That copper is now high-grade armour?” you ask, taken aback.

“Yes. From here, we send these lumps of metal to blacksmiths and gunsmiths.”

You try not to look too impressed. But if making metal like that is this easy, it’s no wonder Varsiko has fended Novaryn off for so long.

“So, you can turn any piece of junk into that kind of invaluable metal?” you ask. Armin chuckles.

“Yes, and no. We need certain types of metal and minerals, as well as other chemical compounds to use in the enhancements.”

“Compounds?” you ask and tilt your head. Armin gestures to the bowl of liquid that he lathered his hand with before performing the ritual.

“Different elements. That’s lithium, but we also use magnesium, plutonium, uranium…”

Your eyes fly wide open.

“But those are toxic chemicals!” you point out with a distressed gasp.

“We know, little miss,” Levi speaks up from where he’s leaning against the doorway with his teacup.

“How can you just sink your hands in lithium unscathed?” You may not use alchemy at all, but even you know that most chemicals are very dangerous to dally with.

“We don’t. It’s… Complicated,” Armin dodges with an avoidant look in his eyes. You narrow your eyes and cross your arms. You turn to give Historia a questioning look.

“Even I don’t know how they can touch those chemicals,” Historia says apologetically. “Only the scientists know the details of alchemy.”

“Then, what is this?” you ask and gesture towards the rabbit. Hange grabs it and shows it to you with a proud grin.

It’s clearly been killed with a clean slit of throat. In addition, its belly has been cut open and, to your utter horror, you see that there’s a thin metal coating going along its intestines. You also see a couple of metal ribs.

“We’re experimenting with animal augmentation!” she announces. “Imagine having a horse whose legs are enhanced with steel! Or a hawk whose heart and wings are titanium, making it impossible to shoot down! The possibilities are endless.” She’s very excited as she rambles, and now there’s certainly some drool on her face. Moblit, however, gives you a suspicious look.

“Is it wise to tell her what we’re researching? She’s a Novarynian,” he points out, but Hange waves him away like he’s a mosquito flying around her face.

“She’s here to marry Eren, right? Then she’s one of ours now and she would find out either way,” she disregards. Your mouth purses and you can’t help but voice your discontent.

“To dabble with creatures our Creator has made in all his wisdom is a Damnation-worthy sin-”

“Yeah, yeah, blah-dy-blah,” Hange laughs, not offended or even bothered, and waves her hand. She then turns back to her work, completely unconcerned about her soul.

“We do not believe in your Creator,” Armin explains gently. “His existence hasn’t been proven with science.”

“He knows better than to associate-“

“That’s enough preaching, little miss,” Levi cuts in and finishes his tea. You close your mouth, though unhappily so, and glance at Historia. She looks a little awkward and gives you a stiff smile.

“A-anyway, this is the Wing of Science,” she tells you. “Nothing of note here. Why don’t we go back to the Main Wing, it’s almost dinnertime?”

You nod and give the three scientists a small smile before heading for the door. Levi and Historia’s guard follow you out without a word.

So, they’ve decided to start experimenting with animals now that they’ve managed to augment humans successfully. The thought is disturbing to you, but for now, you have no choice but to remain silent.

Dinnertime is, as usual, quiet. You’re not very concerned with that, as you grew up having your meals alone with your mother. Sometimes, rarely, your brother would join you.

You look around the table subtly in between bites. Eren and you haven’t as much as spoken after your brief meeting. You ignore the way Zeke glances at you every now and then, and reply politely to the sparse questions from the Czar and Czarina.

“Your grace,” you start after a minute of silence, having thought of something. You look at Czar Yeager apprehensively, but he gives you a nothing but well-meaning smile.

“What is it?”

“Am I allowed to write home?”

Czar Yeager looks a bit stunned. Then, his face turns into an even wider smile.

“Of course you are, dear child. You’re not a prisoner, you’re a guest. I would not dare to keep a person from her family,” he tells you gently. You nod.

“Normally, our letters are delivered by carriages, but for quick and uninterrupted exchange of letters, hawks may be used. I’ll see to it that you’ll get a hawk of your own,” the Czar promises.

“Thank you, your grace.”

“Are you sure it’s a good idea?” Zeke asks and lazily points his fork at you. “If she has a hawk, she can send letters unsupervised. What if she discovers something sensitive and tells her father about it?”

“As a future member of our family, we need to place our trust in her,” the Czar replies steadily. He seems to be the only person in the room who has any faith in those words. You even see Eren’s guard uncomfortably shift her weight from one foot to another.

You glance at Eren, whose face is unreadable. He keeps eating calmly and seemingly has no temptation to look your way.

“I’m sure your parents will be happy if you write them,” the Czarina breaks the awkward silence and gives you a small smile.

“Without a doubt, your grace,” you reply and offer her that impersonal smile you’ve spent your whole life perfecting. You wonder if you should tell your mother and brother all that’s going on in the castle, especially how these people seem to have no sense of holiness or decency. The image of that mutilated rabbit flashes in your mind, and you have to set down your wine glass. It’s repugnant.

“I heard Historia showed you around the castle,” the Czarina keeps the idle chit-chat going. “How was it?”

“Rather interesting. I’m glad I know where the library is situated. I’m planning on visiting after dinner to get some books to read,” you reply.

“Ah, how lovely. I especially recommend The Song of Steel, our national epic. It depicts the history of our nation from thousands of years back to this day,” the Czar says. You nod and quietly decide to do as he says. Not only to have something to discuss with him but also to better understand their image of Novaryn. In a history book, surely there is a lot about the strained relations between your country and theirs.

You wonder what kind of literature they like in this country. You recall seeing many war novels in Eren’s room and alchemy books in the lab, but that’s all so far. You doubt you’ll find many religious texts or holy stories. It’s a shame, you used to consume quite a bit of those back home. Then again, this country is filled with people who have embraced Damnation. What use would they have for books about the Creator?

You briefly wonder about what you learnt. About alchemy, its use of chemicals and how Hange and the rest can handle them unharmed.

“Are there any books about alchemy I could read?” you ask. The Czar, who was in the middle of swallowing a bite, starts coughing.

“A-alchemy?” he asks, clearly astonished. “I didn’t think you’d have any interest in it.”

“That sure didn’t take long,” Zeke comments with a small smirk. Eren looks at you, for the first time during this dinner.

“Not to try anything myself. I’m just interested in the principles with which it works,” you explain awkwardly.

“You can find some basic information from the library, but I doubt there’s anything there you don’t already know,” Eren answers. “Any deeper knowledge is barred behind a test.”

“Test?” you tilt your head.

“A bar exam. Only those who pass it and are accepted to study alchemy gain access to those books. Things like the underlying physics, history of experimentation, rituals, they’re all restricted.”

It seems suspicious, but you take the knowledge with a calm nod.

“I see. So, not even you know how alchemy works exactly?”

Another awkward silence.

“Members of the royal family have access, as well as certain high-ranking military officials,” Czar Yeager explains. Unwillingly, your eyes flicker to Levi and Mikasa.

“Only four people in the military have access, and none of them is your guard,” Zeke reads your expression. You flinch and resist the urge to wince. Were you that obvious? Furthermore, you doubt Levi would spill military secrets to you even if he had access to them.

“But if you’re that interested in figuring out the secrets behind alchemy, you have a fool-proof way of getting that information,” Zeke continues with a hum. You eye him warily.

“Is that so?” you ask, voice neutral but hardly very enthusiastic. You’re always on high alert around Zeke, anyone would be after the encounter you had outside your room.

“Yeah. Just marry Eren as soon as possible and you’ll become a member of the royal family,” he announces with a shrug. Eren pauses to give his brother a glare. You see his guard stiffen just a little.

Well, he’s not wrong. You’ll become a member of the royal family once you marry Eren.

“I’m afraid it’s not up to me when I marry him,” you remind Zeke calmly, never pausing your eating.

“Do you wish for it to be soon?” Zeke protrudes. You pause your fork halfway to your lips and wonder how to respond to that. If you seem too enthusiastic, you might come across as just wanting to snoop around the alchemy texts. If you say no, you’ll obviously seem rude.

“I wish to marry his grace when the timing is most optimal for both of our countries,“ you finally answer.

“What a diplomatic reply,” Zeke chuckles with a tone that’s openly quite patronising.

“Zeke,” the Czarina tries. “She’s just being mindful of-”

“I know,” Zeke cuts in, rather rudely at that. He gets up, leaving his half-finished meal.

“Reiner,” he calls to his guard and they walk to the door. Zeke pauses to give you one last look.

“That good girl act of yours will not carry you far,” he informs you dully. “If you want something, you’ll have to elbow your way to it.”

You meet his gaze serenely, not a muscle on your face twitches.

Always remain calm.

Keep your cards close to your chest.

Conduct yourself with dignity.

Zeke is wrong if he thinks he can make you break the rules you were brought up by this easily.

“Thank you for your advice, your grace,” you respond. “I will take it to heart.”

Zeke rolls his eyes and leaves.

“Forgive him,” the Czar hurries to say. “He’s a very troubled boy.”

“It’s not an issue, your grace,” you respond with that well-mannered but hollow smile. “He was merely looking out for me.” A statement none of the people present believe, but you say it anyway, to be courteous.

After dinner, Levi takes you to the library. As you step through the doors and are greeted by the sight of the musty room, filled with books from floor to ceiling, with wooden shelves occupying every little inch of the walls, you instantly feel more at ease.

You look around the large space. The library is not as big as the one back home, but it’s still impressive by anyone’s standards. You can’t help the enamoured sigh you release. This is what you’ve been craving.

You walk right into the maze of stuffed shelves and cushy satin armchairs. Levi follows you quietly.

“Do you know where they keep the one the Czar mentioned?” you ask him. Levi shakes his head. With a sigh, you start sorting through the countless books in the hopes of finding it.

Every time you see an interesting-looking book, you take it out and hook it under your elbow. Then, when there’s too many to keep there, you balance them on the palm of your left hand. When it gets too heavy, you start piling them on your head as well and when they all finally clatter down with a loud noise, Levi steps in with an irritated sigh.

“Just pile them on that table,” he says and gestures towards an empty coffee table by one of the armchairs. You do as you’re told, and by the time you finally spot a large, ancient-looking book with leather covers and the golden words The Song of Steel embroidered on the spine, you already have an impressive collection of other books at the table.

You grab one of the steel ladders that are scattered here and there around the library and steady it against the shelf. The book is high up, almost at the ceiling. Not discouraged by the fact, you gather the hem of your dress in one hand and take support from the ladder with the other.

“Just let me do it. I don’t trust your balance,” Levi calls, but you ignore him. Your heels make climbing a bit more difficult, but you’re no stranger to ascending ladders to make your way to interesting-looking books in inconvenient places.

You make it up and grab the heavy book with both hands.

You did not count in the added weight of the book nor the fact that you’ll have to use both hands to hold it since it’s so large.

“Hey-!”

Levi doesn’t get any further. You take one, shaky step down and slip. The book falls to the floor with a heavy sound and you feel the ladder skipping backwards. You lose your footing and fall back with a surprised squeak.

Levi’s reflexes turn out to be top-notch. He snatches you without as much as making a sound, and when you open your tightly shut eyes, you meet his irked, unimpressed gaze. You’re locked in his arms, and he didn’t as much as topple back as he caught you.

“I told you to leave it to me to get the book,” Levi points out and places you back down. You’re no stranger to bodyguards touching you when they deem your safety compromised, but you still feel a little awkward about having Levi catch your whole weight like that.

“I didn’t think the book would be that heavy,” you defend yourself as you saunter to the book in question and pick it up. Thankfully, it didn’t get too battered in the collision.

“Thank you for catching me.”

“Don’t thank me for doing my job,” Levi disregards immediately and grabs the tall pile of books from the coffee table. “Do you think you can get started with these?” he asks dryly, sizing up the pile in his hands with his eyes. It reaches far above his head.

“You don’t have to carry them for me,” you hurry to say. Levi gives you a bland look.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of the evening following you back and forth as you carry these back to your room. So just let me carry them, little miss.”

“Do you have to call me little miss?” you ask with a sigh.

“You are a little miss,” Levi points out with a lazy hum. “Or would you prefer pipsqueak? Princess? Your excellency?”

“Nevermind. Forget I brought it up,” you give up instantly. You’ll put up with little miss until it’s time for Levi to leave. “But anytime you just feel like calling me Cora or Reader, feel free to.”

“That would indicate close relations or familiarity. I have no intention of achieving either,” Levi tells you bluntly. You open the library door and roll your eyes.

“Alright, then. But for the record, I will keep calling you Levi.”

“You’re royalty, I’m a soldier. You’re entitled to calling me whatever you want,” Levi replies, not bothered, as you start walking back.

In your room, Levi dumps the books on the floor in front of the bookshelf. You give him a disapproving look, treating your precious collection in such a crude manner, and start arranging them in the bookshelf.

Levi watches your work without a word, still adhering to the Czar’s orders to keep you company as much as possible. Thus, he doesn’t go stand outside.

You finish stocking the books and are just about to start wondering which one you’ll begin your reading quest with when Levi speaks up.

“Hey, what’s that?”

You turn to see he’s looking at your bed. On your recently dusted, puffy pillow, rests a letter.

“Did someone send me a letter?” you frown.

“The mail is delivered to the main hall, they wouldn’t just place it here. And a hawk wouldn’t be able to get in since the windows and doors were closed all day,” Levi points out. “It’s likely that someone within the castle brought it here while you were away.”

You walk to the sealed envelope cautiously. You take it and go to your desk to grab a letter knife. What is this, a love letter?

You turn out to be very, very far from the truth.

Dear Princess, it starts.

Do you know what fear feels like? Have you ever felt the dread of a knife on your neck or a gun to your head?

Does your rotten country relish in the blood of our kind? Do you enjoy when you sacrifice our children for the sake of your violent hypocrite of a Creator?

Worry not, our honoured guest. I will teach you.

I will teach you what it feels like to have a blade pressed to your throat. Your pulse thundering in your ears, your eyes wide and begging as I cut into your skin. Just a little at first, making the tiniest nick, just a couple of pearls of your blood trickling down your neck.

You’ll feel a sense of hopefulness as you think that’s all I plan to do to you. Then, I cut the dagger in deeper, little by little. You’ll feel the blade slice through your meat, past your arteries and veins until I reach your lungs. You’ll make animalistic, gurgling noises as I puncture your lungs and your blood goes pouring in.

You will feel your body hit the floor as you struggle to take a breath, to no avail. You’ll bleed out slowly onto your pretty little gown, eyes teary with fear as you know you will go straight to hell. Your Creator doesn’t take nicely to those who spread their legs to spawns of Damnation, after all.

Don’t worry, dear princess. You won’t have to suffer in this castle for long.

I’m looking forward to slicing my blade into your elegant neck and ending your life. In my head, I can already see you shivering like a lost lamb. I’m sure you will taste delicious.

With Love,
Your Secret Admirer

A thick cloud of shock settles over you as you read the letter. Once, then again and again. Each time your eyes slide over the graphic description of how you’ll be slaughtered, you feel the urge to place a hand on your throat.

You feel the tug of anxiety, tears welling in your eyes, but before you can spill them, you become hyperaware of Levi’s presence.

“What’s the letter about?” Levi asks.

You swallow thickly and make up your mind. You trust no one in this castle, and that includes Levi.

“It is from the czarevich. Its contents are between me and him,” you make up a lie. You force your face unreadable and fold the letter. You slip it in the drawer of your desk and sit down.

You feel Levi’s eyes on you, probably having caught something off with you, but you make yourself calm down and think it over.

What does the sender of this letter want?

Probably for you to freak out, you muse. You nod in agreement with yourself, deep in thought. You conclude that the best course of action is to not give the sender the satisfaction of knowing they have unsettled you.

You take out some parchment and a fountain pen. With steady hands, you dip it in the ink and start writing with ornate cursive. Mostly to keep your mind occupied through the shock and looming fear.

Dear Mother and Brother,

How are you? It feels like it has been years since I last woke up to the sound of our monks’ morning chime and prayer. Life here is different. I miss the feeling of warm rays of sunshine on my skin as I bask outside, a book shielding my face from the bright daylight. I miss the taste of oatmeal cookies and redcurrant juice. I miss riding in the woods with Brother. I miss drinking afternoon tea with Mother and discussing the latest novels popular with ladies of the court.

You take a deep breath. You miss home. You miss your Mother and Sirius. You miss falling asleep to the crinkling of your fireplace, to your maids’ hushed whispers as they exchange gossip thinking you’re already asleep. The threatening letter is still fresh in your mind and it makes the castle around you seem colder and less safe.

Anyone here could be inches from sinking a blade in your throat. Even Levi.

Despite the crippling fear and sense of alienation, your hand is steady as you write out lie after lie.

But, despite that, things are great here. I have been treated courteously by everyone. The Czar and Czarina are generous and good. The crown prince and his fiancée are both helpful and do their utmost to make me feel at ease. My guards and maids are warm and treat me with dignity. I expected to face a lot of scorn, but to my astonishment, everyone in this castle seems to want to make a good first impression and make me feel at home.

My fiancé is also wonderful. (Brother, if you feel uncomfortable with such feminine gushing, feel free to skip this paragraph.) I think I am falling for him. He is handsome and every bit a gentleman. I feel like I can connect with him. We spend hours discussing everything, from literature to fashion to architecture. He wants to be a good husband to me, and he says he will place my safety and comfort as his utmost priority.

There is no need to be worried about me, for I am fine, as much as I miss hom Novaryn.

I’m aching to hear news from your side of things.

Please write to me as soon as an opportunity arises,

Love Always,
Cora

You read over the letter. It’s convincing enough, you think.

You don’t notice the way Levi has moved to subtly stand behind you, nor the way he inconspicuously glances over the contents of the letter. The Czar might trust that you won’t babble anything sensitive, but Levi sure as hell doesn’t.

His expression shifts from wary to thoughtful as he reads over the blatant lies, but he says nothing as you roll up the letter and seal it shut with hot wax.

Then, you saunter to the balcony and sit down on the railing. Ever since you got to this castle, you’ve been spending hours of your evenings on the balcony, just idly staring out to the West.

And as always, Levi walks to the door to guard you. Whether it’s from outside forces or yourself, you haven’t figured out. Not that you particularly care.

A castle where you can trust no one and where someone is just aching to make a show out of violently massacring you. A castle where they openly defy the Creator by conducting dark magic in the form of alchemy. Such is your home for the rest of your life.

You have no allies and you know better than worrying your mother and brother. They can do very little aside from pestering your father about it, and you know he will not adhere to their demands of bringing you back.

But it’s alright. You will shoulder it all. Your life, your death, your marriage, your soul, your country. You will carry the responsibilities on your back and you will do so alone.

You wonder if the Creator has already forsaken you. If you get killed before the wedding, will your lifetime of obedient prayer save you from Damnation? Or has solely traversing here doomed you?

Knowing it will probably be in vain, you still place a gentle hand on your forehead, and another over your heart. You start murmuring a prayer under your breath. Not because you believe it will help, but because you don’t know what else to do to ease the ache in your chest.

Levi watches and says nothing.

Chapter Text

It’s dark. It’s cold. You can’t breathe. You try to scream as your eyes snap open. You feel restraints strapping you down to something cold and hard.

Faces. Who are they? Why are they grinning like that? You’ve seen them before, but their names escape you now.

“Don’t worry,” one of them soothes you. You feel a chilling, clammy hand on your face. “This won’t take long.”

You see one of them grab something sharp and lift your nightgown. You try to futilely kick him off, but your legs are tied down.

No, not there. That’s not for them to see. That’s only for Levi.

Levi?

You frown. Why Levi?

You have no time to think about it when you feel something digging into your stomach.

“Don’t think too ill of us,” one of the people tells you.

“Maybe you should wake up now,” another adds, “before you forget how to.”

You sit up with a loud gasp, skin prickling and fists clenching your crinkly clean sheets. It takes a moment for your surroundings to come back to you.

Your nightgown is sticking to your body with sweat. Another nightmare.

You’re not surprised when you feel a sharp pair of eyes on you. Levi must have arrived to stand guard before you woke up.

You glance at the drawer of your desk. That’s where the five letters you received this past week are situated, each one more provocative and graphic than the one before.

Whoever’s sending the letters is really trying to get under your skin. And succeeding, by the looks of it, because you’ve found it increasingly hard to sleep and your slumber has been plagued by frequent nightmares.

You look around your room, decisively keeping your eyes off Levi, for now. You don’t want him to see the unsettled hue in your eyes.

You took the Czarina up on her offer of modifying your room. There are a few tapestries on the wall, in non-controversial colours as you don’t want to upset your soon-to-be in-laws by choosing bronzes and blues.

The desk, bookshelf and bedside table are filled with books. You haven’t left your room outside of mealtimes (during which the letters arrive in your room). With each passing day, you get more and more paranoid.

As a result, you’ve stayed cooped up in your room. You lounge around sitting at your desk, lying on your bed, sitting on the balcony floor with your back resting against the railing. Levi stands guard inside the room in complete silence as you read your days away.

Romance novels, fantasy epics, dystopian horror, you read all you can and immerse yourself in stories of people far greater and braver than you, people who marry the person they love, who travel away from their home to bright and prosperous lands full of promises, people who face adversity head-on and fear nothing.

You wish you could be those people.

You haven’t started Song of Steel yet. You’re trying your best to forget the nation you’re currently in.

A task much harder than usual when you dine thrice a day with the Czar and his family.

You move your covers aside and stand up. You finally turn your attention to Levi, who’s standing next to the door with that calm, unreadable expression of his. You meet his grey eyes and steel your own.

“I will go freshen up. If Maid Springer arrives while I’m bathing, tell her to change my linen,” you tell Levi. He nods and you can feel his eyes on you as you stagger towards the bathroom.

You close the door after yourself and pump out the bathwater. Back home, one of your maids would have prepared the water and helped you bathe but you insist on doing it alone here. The thought of having Maid Springer wash your naked body makes you uncomfortable.

Your nightgown falls to your feet with a quiet shuffle. You step out of it, discard your underwear, and pause when you see yourself in the reflection of the bathwater, clean and warm in the shiny porcelain bathtub.

You place a hand on your neck, slowly, as if in a trance, and try to imagine it. How it will feel when the person who sent you those letters finally gets to sink their blade into your skin.

You feel a shudder of cold. Pungent, bitter bile rises from your stomach and threatens to bubble into your mouth, but you quickly place a hand over your lips and take a deep breath to force it back down.

You need to stay calm. You know you won’t be able to think clearly if you freak out.

For now, you don’t know who you can trust. Even people like Czar Yeager and Historia, who have been pleasant to you, are not guaranteed to actually be on your side. And Levi…

You glance at the door. You can’t read him. He seems like the type to be open about his loyalties but on the other hand, how can you know for sure?

You slip into the water quietly and lean your cheek into your folded knees.

For now, your best option is to stay quiet and keep your eyes open. See what the sender will do next.

You bathe yourself to get rid of the sweat. You lather your skin with flower-scented soap and wash your hair with rosemary water. When you’re done, you dry yourself in a rough cotton cloth and crack the bathroom door open just a bit to call out.

“Levi, step outside for a moment, please. I’m indecent.”

You hear the door open and close and when you step out, you see Levi’s gone and Maid Springer is already waiting for you.

“Good morning, your grace,” Maid Springer greets you. Her grey dress and tight bun are as skilfully fastened as always and she looks as unenthusiastic as always about clothing you.

“Good morning,” you nod. She takes out some undergarments from the wardrobe, and you get dressed in silence.

Maid Springer always fastens your dress tighter than maids back home did. She always combs your hair just a bit rougher.

“I’ll clean your room while you eat breakfast, your grace,” she informs you as always. You nod wordlessly as she nimbly braids two strands of your hair on the front and ties them together to the back of your head.

You like the fact that she never asks you which style you’d like for the day. You never really cared all that much, and it sometimes irritated you when your maids back in Novaryn kept asking for your opinion.

Maid Springer curtseys at you as you finally step out fully clothed. You walk down the corridor towards the dining hall, Levi’s steady footsteps following you there.

The royal family is already sitting at the table, and you quickly curtsey at the Czar.

“Am I late? I’m sorry, your grace,” you wince, but the Czar excuses you with a friendly wave of his hand.

“Don’t worry,” he smiles. You sit down at your spot next to Eren and start picking at your breakfast. You’re not peckish at all, the nightmare is still fresh in your mind.

You wonder what the dream was trying to tell you. That you’re going to get augmented? Maybe it was a warning from your Creator to stay away from alchemy.

“Eren,” the Czarina breaks the silence. “Take Cora out to the city sometime.”

Her eyes are gentle but stern on her son. Eren blinks at her, clearly a little annoyed.

“Why should I?” he blurts before he can think it through.

“She’s your fiancée yet you’ve spent hardly any time with her. You should show her around the city, she hasn’t left the castle once since getting here.”

“I don’t need to spend time with her. I’ll just marry her at some point and that’s all I’m required to do,” Eren argues. You see Zeke’s eyes flash with amusement.

“Zeke takes Historia out to balls and parties, I think you should at least-”

“I have better things to do than taking some girl I hardly know out for shopping,” Eren snaps with a frown.

You know Eren isn’t fond of you and that the extent of his affections will be reluctantly tying the silken ribbon around your wrists on your wedding day. That doesn’t mean that the reminder of your to-be loveless marriage doesn’t make your mind a bit bluer.

You’re an unwanted intruder, so you had better get used to it, but it still stings.

The Czar must have caught the way you flinch just a bit and hurry to turn your eyes to your food, your head hanging just a little.

“You’re taking her out this Saturday,” Czar Yeager says, and it’s the first time you’ve heard any kind of authority in his voice. You raise your head and give him one of your hollow smiles.

“Your grace, it is alright, if the czarevich is busy then that can not be helped-”

“He’s not,” the Czar says decisively and gives Eren one, stern look. Eren, who has opened his mouth to protest, pauses and then mutters something to himself that sounds awfully much like ‘meddling old geezer’.

You feel guilty then but say nothing. You focus on trying to finish your meal and keep the letters off your mind.

For a long moment, no one says anything. You eat in silence and ignore the way you can feel Zeke throw glances at you and the way Eren glares at both of his parents.

Just as you’re about to excuse yourself, the door to the hall slams open.

“Your grace! Good morning!”

Whoever’s at the door is instantly met with half a dozen rifles to their head as the personal guards of the royal family, Levi included, prepare for a potential threat. No one barges into the dining hall like that while the Czar is eating, it’s strictly against protocol.

You turn to see a tall girl. She’s wearing the military uniform and she pauses to blink in confusion when she’s met with a bunch of weapons aimed at her.

“You idiot, I told you not to barge in!” a boy with a buzzcut hurries in after her. He’s shorter than her, wearing a similar uniform, and he grabs the girl’s ponytail to wrench her head down into a bow.

“I’m sorry, your grace, she’s new and doesn’t know the etiquette yet!” the boy apologises on her behalf. As they bow down in front of the Czar, you see that on the back of their uniform is a symbol. It’s not the arsenic symbol on the back of Levi’s cape nor the triangle inside a circle the Wing of Science wears.

On their back is a simplistically drawn bird of some sort, and you instantly conclude these people must be messengers.

“Ah, Connie, good morning,” the Czar greets calmly and gestures for the guards to stand back. Levi lowers his weapon, but he still looks wary.

“We bring a letter from Novaryn, your grace, it has the royal stamp,” the girl announces loudly as soon as she straightens her back. She salutes. Connie smacks the back of her head.

“You’re not supposed to disclose that publicly, Sasha, you absolute moron,” he scolds with an incredulous hiss.

You look at the two with a confused blink. You’ve never seen the messengers and you always thought they give the Czar his mail when he’s in the privacy of his office or in the throne room.

Levi looks especially annoyed, probably because he’s a military supervisor. Such conduct must irk him.

“Who hired this bumbling idiot?” he asks Connie calmly.

“She has excellent instincts and she’s a very fast rider, she’s just oblivious to the etiquette inside the castle because she’s a peasant,” Connie explains with a wince.

You hum absent-mindedly and wonder if you should excuse yourself now. Before you can, however, the messenger girl called Sasha has shot to your seat.

“You must be the Novarynian. I have a letter for you,” she announces and hands you an envelope. From the handwriting, you can instantly tell it’s from your mother.

You take the letter and nod shortly as thanks. You don’t miss the way her hand subtly inches towards an uneaten loaf of bread on your plate, and the sight puzzles you.

“Are you hungry?” you ask, confused. Are regular soldiers starving because the war has taken all of their resources? Sasha instantly pulls her hand back and hurries to place it on her shoulder to salute.

“No, ma’am! I mean, yes ma’am, I am, but I know I’m not supposed to take your food!”

“You just tried to take it,” you point out, unimpressed, and Connie’s face pales. He hurries to grab her.

“My apologies, your grace!” he exclaims and smacks the back of her head again.

You look around the room, trying to decide how you should act in this situation. The Czar’s eyes are shining with quiet amusement as are Zeke’s. Historia and the Czarina look confused but not hostile. Eren and Levi are both frowning with annoyance, and the rest of the guards look wary.

You look at the tall girl, the way her eyes longingly flicker to your plate. You suddenly feel an odd kinship with her. Being new in the castle and having very little idea of how you’re supposed to survive here.

You calmly take the loaf of bread. You cut it open and slather the insides with some butter. You then put in some meat and cheese and finish it with a slice of tomato. A traditional Novarynian way to eat bread. Varsikovian people tend to eat theirs plain, you’ve noticed.

You hand the sandwich to the messenger girl.

“Here. Thanks for the letter, I’ve been waiting for my mother to write to me,” you explain and the smile you give her is not hollow and trained, it’s authentic.

Everyone watches, looking absolutely flabbergasted, but the girl’s eyes instantly widen and she snatches the sandwich.

“Thank you, your grace!“ she exclaims. “I will savour every bit of this bounty! My stomach will nurture this gift wholeheartedly!”

You snort a small laugh. What an odd girl. You like her.

The two quickly excuse themselves, and you can instantly tell that Levi will give them a piece of his mind if he ever catches them alone.

The Czar blinks at the two but says nothing to reprimand you for handing some of your food to Sasha. Instead, he opens the letter and skims over the contents. When he looks up, his expression is thoughtful and a little taken aback.

“It’s from the king,” he says, and his eyes stray to you.

You nod, not very interested, but when the Czar’s eyes remain on you, you give him a polite look.

“Is something the matter, your grace?”

“Well, no. It’s just that he, erm… Doesn’t mention you here at all. I was wondering if he’s written to you personally.”

You shake your head.

“You haven’t heard from your father ever since you got here?” he asks.

“No. How so, your grace? Are you worried I’m conversing with him behind your back? I can assure you I have not had any contact with him-”

“That’s not it,” the Czar hurries to deny it. He frowns and skims over the letter again. He now looks disapproving. You’re thoroughly confused.

“I think he’s just confused that your father isn’t interested in hearing how his daughter is doing when she’s been sent so far away,” the Czarina explains to you with a soft smile on her face.

“Oh,” you utter, not sure how to respond to that.

“What kind of person is your father anyway?” Eren asks and he looks just as taken aback. You didn’t realise it’s such a big deal that your father hasn’t asked about you.

“He is a good leader, I suppose,” you shrug.

“Not like that. I mean, in person. What’s he like?” Eren presses. He sounds curious. You look quite lost then.

“I… Do not know, your grace,” you admit. “I have never spoken to him.”

To you, it’s perfectly natural. He has twelve daughters, you’re the youngest one from the least favoured wife. Of course, the King would have better things to do than getting involved with you. But from the reaction of everyone in the room, you can instantly tell they’re shocked.

Well, they’re monogamous. The Czar is very present in the life of his sons, to the point of dining with them daily. It must be odd to them, that you come from a large royal family where not knowing your immediate relatives is the norm.

“I- I see,” the Czar says after a prolonged, stunned silence.

“My mother is worried about me, though,” you add in a futile attempt to mend the awkward atmosphere. You show the letter. “And my older brother is as well. I’m not without support from my family.”

“How many siblings did you have again?” Zeke asks. His tone is lazy but there’s something twinkling in his eyes that promises nothing good. He’s caught something he can give you trouble for.

“Twelve.”

“So, out of your fourteen close family members, only two give a damn about you,” he summarises ruthlessly.

“Zeke!” the Czarina gasps.

“What?” he challenges. “I’m just saying what we’re all thinking. How many wives does the king have again?”

“…Five,” you answer reluctantly.

“See, there’s your answer,” Zeke tells the Czar casually. “Her father hasn’t asked about her because her mother is nothing but a breeding mare, and she’s an unwanted spawn because she’s a girl.”

Everyone looks shocked, and the Czar shoots to his feet with the clear intention of lashing out at his son.

“That is enough,” you speak up before you can keep yourself in check. You face Zeke head-on, your eyes shooting daggers at him despite your calm and dignified tone.

“You may insult and belittle me all you want, your grace, but my mother deserves none of your misguided scorn.”

Zeke’s lips twist up to a smirk. He looks exhilarated by your response and you immediately realise you shouldn’t have responded in any way. He’s enjoying the fact he’s gotten under your skin.

“Loyal, calm, protective and willing to wag your tail for anyone. They trained you well. You were bred from a good bitch so I’m sure you’ll make a nice lapdog for Eren.“

Your hand closes into a fist. You want to punch him. You want to wipe that smirk from his face. How dare he insult your mother? How dare he insult your customs? He’s never seen the beauty of your homeland nor felt the gentle touch of your mother.

You shoot to your feet with the full intention of slapping Zeke.

From the corner of your eye, you see Levi’s hand leap to the handle of his sword and you’re not sure if he’s preparing to draw it to protect you from the aftermath of slapping the crown prince of Varsiko, or if he’s preparing to attack you with the rest of the guards who will without a doubt detain you the moment you lay your hands on Zeke.

Before you can go through with it, however, someone else has marched to Zeke and slapped him in your stead.

“Zeke Yeager!” the Czar’s voice thunders in the hall, loud and intimidating.

You realize it’s the Czar himself who has set his son straight. He looks legitimately angry and the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Historia and the Czarina look shocked whereas Eren has an unreadable look on his face. You note he looks kind of approving. You briefly wonder if he approves of Zeke’s words or if it’s the Czar’s action of slapping him that made Eren look so content, but you don’t have much time to ponder upon it.

The room is quiet for a long while. You see soldiers marching past the large windows on their patrols, you see the guards keep their hands on the handles of their weapons. Zeke holds his burning cheek and his light eyes narrow.

For a split second, he looks enraged and dangerous, and you’re afraid he’ll hit his father right back. Then, his eyes turn to you.

“I got carried away. My apologies,” he says dully. He means none of it, you can tell, but the flare in your eyes dies nonetheless when you’re reminded of your position.

If you act up here, there’s no one who will step up to defend you. Zeke means more to this kingdom than you do. The anger is stifled and replaced with dull apathy.

“It is no issue, your grace. I was at fault for talking back to you,” you apologise.

Zeke eyes you quietly for a while and then gets up. He walks past you and as he does, you swear you can hear a quiet whisper.

“What a good girl. I see they taught you to roll over as well.”

You close your eyes briefly to hide the surge of anger that reignites inside you. When you open them again, Zeke has already passed to the door.

“Reiner,” he calls his guard and leaves. The door makes a loud sound behind him, and the dining room is dead quiet for a while.

“Goodness me,” the Czarina whispers and hurries to face you with large, apologetic eyes.

“I’m so sorry for his conduct. It was most uncalled for,” she tells you earnestly. You bite the inside of your cheek to keep your face from showing how upset you are.

“It is no issue, your grace. I’m sure his grace has a good reason for being so troubled.”

“It’s still no excuse to take it out on you. My deepest apologies, Cora. Try not to think too ill of him, he’s… Not fond of Novaryn for personal reasons,” the Czar explains.

“I see. This does not surprise me. Our nations have only recently achieved peace, after all,” you answer properly with that hollow smile.

“Please forgive him. I’ll have a chat with him later,” the Czar promises.

Eren has stayed quiet through the whole ordeal, and you give him a glance. You can’t tell what his sentiment is. Does he agree with Zeke or does he sympathise with you? He looks at you with narrowed, stormy eyes, but says nothing.

“Eren, take her out this Saturday. That’s an order,” the Czarina hurries to order him. Eren nods, albeit very reluctantly.

You clutch the letter in your hand and get on your feet. You curtsey at the rest of the royal family.

“I must be going now.”

Historia seems worried when she looks at your stony face, but she says nothing as you walk to the door and out of it.

You hear Levi’s familiar footsteps behind you as you walk back to your chambers.

You see Maid Springer is already done with cleaning your quarters by the time you get there. You walk in and flop down on your bed.

You’re aware that Levi’s standing guard by the door and thus, you can’t let the tears of frustration out just yet. You’ll have to wait until the nightfall.

You take a couple of deep breaths to steel your nerves and then sit up.

The anger is still there. How dare Zeke call your mother a bitch and you a lapdog? How dare he disrespect your mother that way when you’ve done nothing to agitate him?

But you know you need to play smarter than just punching him in the face. He’s egging you on purposefully. He wants you to fail. Maybe his hatred of Novaryn runs so deep he intends on smoking you out of the castle.

You grab a book from the bedside table and open it. Your eyes slide over the war novel, the fictional biography of a brave major who dies leading a siege against insurmountable odds.

Levi’s unreadable eyes stay on you, a fact that unnerves you.

“What, Levi?” you sigh after a few heavy minutes. You stop pretending like you’re reading the book. “If you want to scold me and preach to me about the importance of not losing your cool, get it over with.”

“No,” Levi replies steadily. “I was just thinking that you handled it well and that for such a spoiled little brat with no experience with politics, you’re dealing with all this better than expected.”

Your gaze is suspicious as you look at him, but he doesn’t seem to be lying.

“I wanted to sock the czarevich in the face,” you tell him honestly.

“I noticed. Not that I can blame you, he was out of line.”

“I saw you reaching for your sword. Were you prepared to defend me or to gang up on me with the other guards in case I went ahead and punched him?” you ask calmly.

“No one, aside from Reiner Braun, would have stepped in. I was preparing to deal with him,” Levi answers straightforwardly. “Not that I advise you to punch members of the royal family. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

Reiner Braun. Zeke’s guard, if you recall correctly. He’s a tall, sturdy guard with fair hair and a serious expression.

“You are oddly calm about the fact that I was about to punch your future Czar.”

Levi scoffs and walks to stand in front of you next to the bed. He crosses his arms and gives you a long, evaluating look as if measuring your trustworthiness.

“This is between you and me,” he says heavily, “but just because he’s my future Czar doesn’t mean I have to think he’s a good person.”

You’re surprised at his openness.

“So, are you saying you would have fought Reiner Braun had I gone through with punching him?”

“Why is that so weird to you?” Levi asks coolly.

“You are a Varsikovian, I’m a Novarynian. And by the looks of it, you have spent a lot of time fighting my kind.”

You’re nonchalant, but there’s a small twinge to your voice that reveals how alone you are. How insecure you are, how cornered and lonely and hopeless this environment makes you feel.

Levi sighs and squats down in front of you so he can properly meet your eyes.

“My job is guarding you, little miss, not participating in the Czarevich’s childish harassment campaign of you.”

You look at him warily from under your brows. You feel a sudden urge to tell him about the letters but decide against it. Levi could be lying. You can’t trust him. At least not yet.

You give him that well-trained, empty smile.

His eyes turn a little harder and his mouth pulls to an unhappy line as he stands back up and walks to the door.

“Are you planning on reading here until lunchtime?” he asks. You wonder why Levi suddenly turned colder but think nothing much of it. He’s always cold towards you.

“I guess so.“

“You are allowed to do things outside you know,” Levi starts awkwardly. “Why don’t you go out today?”

You instantly narrow your eyes. It’s not like him to comment on your activities.

“The Czar has told you to drag me out and do something other than reading,” you instantly read him. He doesn’t see the merit in trying to deny it, so he merely nods.

“He told me to take you out riding before I started my shift this morning,” Levi admits with a sour face. You tilt your head.

“Riding? I have a horse?”

“You were appointed one.”

“I cannot ride.”

“What kind of royal can’t ride a horse?” Levi asks.

“Levi, you just learned that I was not important enough to even have a single conversation with my father, what makes you think they thought wasting resources on teaching me how to ride was a worthwhile endeavour? I have spent most of my life reading books and drinking tea with my mother,” you inform him, unimpressed. Your brother walked you around on his horse a few times when you were a baby but in Novaryn, riding is something only soldiers know how to do.

You, like the rest of your sisters, were hauled around in carriages.

You think it over. You don’t know how to ride, but you’d like to know. If you’ve been appointed a horse, you’d at least like to see it.

“Alright. Let us go to the stables,” you decide and dive your hand inside the folds of your dress to take out the letter you got at breakfast. You place it on the desk to wait for the evening. You want to fall asleep to your mother’s words.

As you step out, you see Zeke. He’s leaning against the hallway wall a few meters away. Instantly, the hair on the back of your neck stands up and you stop dead in your tracks.

You trust no one in this castle, but when it comes to who you trust the least, Zeke easily takes the cake.

“Your grace,” you greet tensely. You see Levi’s hand place on the handle of his rifle. Zeke’s guard mirrors the movement and for a second the two stare each other down.

“My father sent me here to apologise,” Zeke informs you lightly.

You meet his eyes, calm and collected. You were close to punching him in the dining hall but now, you’re well aware of your circumstances again and know better than getting agitated.

“There is no need to apologise, your grace,” you tell him with your trained smile.

“You don’t really think that,” Zeke says easily and walks up to you. “I’m not blind. You were just aching to sock me in the face.”

You stay quiet and meet his intrusive gaze calmly. You refuse to cower.

“If I were you, I would hurry up my wedding with Eren as much as possible,” Zeke tells you nonchalantly.

“And why is that, your grace?”

“Once the battling reignites, it might just be the only thing that can keep you alive,” he informs you. You frown lightly.

“You seem very convinced that the battling will resume,” you point out.

“A century of warfare can’t be overwritten with these measures,” Zeke answers, his voice absolute. He looks at you, and his eyes flash behind his round glasses.

“I feel sorry for you,” he tells you and reaches a hand to gently grab a lock of your hair that has escaped the braids Maid Springer weaved this morning. You tense at the touch and feel a strong urge to move away, one that you forcefully push down.

“An eager little lapdog who’s only been trained to wag her tail and roll over obediently. You stand no chance here.”

You see his eyes flicker to your throat, and you narrow your eyes. Now that you think about it, he was very preoccupied with your neck the last time you were alone.

If he’s behind the letters, that would make a lot of sense. But it also tells you nothing of importance. What you need to know is what the sender is after.

Though, you wouldn’t put it past someone like Zeke to send those letters just because he likes to imagine you trembling in fear.

“As a loyal lapdog, I shall gladly give my life and soul for my master,” you reply steadily. “If you think you can unsettle me with tales of my impending doom, I advise you to find a more worthwhile pastime.”

In a split second, Zeke’s expression changes and he looks dangerous. His eyes darken, his hand moves fast to grab your hair and yank your head back.

“We’ll see how brave you are when things go south, pet,” he hisses into your ear. You wince, your head pulled back and neck exposed to him.

“Let go.”

Levi’s order is resolute and steady, and when you look to the side you see he’s drawn his sword.

Zeke smirks and shoves you away just as suddenly as he grabbed you. You stumble back into Levi, and he easily catches you and moves you behind him.

“A guard dog and a lap dog. You make a good pair,” Zeke observes with a chuckle. He then shrugs. “I shouldn’t be too surprised, given that you’re augmented.”

“Whatever do you mean?” you ask with narrowed eyes. Zeke smirks and steps closer, just to be cut off by Levi moving between you.

“I could tell you, but where’s the fun in that? You’ll find out sooner or later. This will be exciting,” he hums. He gives Levi a small grin and turns to walk off.

“I’ll see you around, pet.”

Reiner gives Levi a tense look but follows Zeke without a word. Levi’s eyes stay on their backs and only after they’ve been out of sight for a dozen seconds does he sheathe his sword.

You mull over Zeke’s words but ultimately decide to disregard them. If he’s truly behind the letters, then he’s probably just trying to unsettle you as much as possible.

“Let us get to the stables,” you tell Levi lightly and start walking off as if nothing happened.

A silence falls between you, broken only by the clacking of your heels and the sound of his boots.

“Thank you,” you finally say. “For stepping in and getting him off me.”

“Don’t thank me for doing my job,” comes the expected reply.

Maybe one of these days, you’ll learn to trust Levi. But that day is not yet.

Despite that, even the simple step makes you feel less alone.

Chapter Text


The marketplace is lively around you as you walk along the sturdy, tiled roads. The wide walkway is filled with merchants and townspeople, all engaged with their everyday businesses. You hear the sounds of bargaining, arguing, gossiping, bickering.

Ordinary people doing ordinary things.

It’s equal parts wondrous and relaxing to know that no matter where you go, the mundanity of life never ceases.

You take in the sights and sounds with a small smile. The soot-covered blacksmith standing by his shop, hammering down a scorching hot lump of iron. The farmers, minding their wooden stalls with carrots, potatoes and cauliflower lined up. The small, square-shaped and efficiently tiled buildings with little boutiques, some selling clothes, some remedies, some a random assortment of this and that.

The architecture lacks the history and unorganised mien you’re so used to, with buildings of varying ages and conditions being scattered around the landscape. Rekanon has constantly been rebuilt thanks to a steady stream of attacks from Novaryn, and the buildings are all very efficiently structured, most carrying the same shape and being made of large tiles and steel roofs.

There are more heavily smoking chimneys, more industrial sounds and a lot of people doing their everyday chores in military outfits. It takes a while to get used to but you find yourself strangely drawn into their no-nonsense approach to infrastructure.

You breathe in the smell of freshly caught fish as you saunter past the stalls near the docks and the ocean. Exotic-looking fish are lined up on display, sold by stoic-looking seamen next to their large steel ships.

You notice that the goods are different here than they are in Novaryn. Novarynian bounties that you used to enjoy were mostly sweet fruits and berries from the soft fields, freshwater fish from the Mantern River and fragrant flowers from the Twin Mountains. What Varsiko yields is much more earthy, from harsher lands and colder climates.

Then again, Novaryn is so large that it probably grows every plant on Earth somewhere on its lands, but where you used to live, in West Novaryn, in the secluded castle near Genesia City, your prosperous capital, is in the midst of the temperate climate zone.

Varsiko does have access to the sea, catching fish and seafood that’s foreign to you. Even though Novaryn is large enough to border the sea as well, the castle is so far from seawater that the species of fish now on display all look new and exciting.

Rekanon, the city the royal family lives in as well as the capital of Varsiko, is situated at a strategically important point, where the Mantern River crosses into Mortis Sea. This gives them sound import and export routes to meet their ever-growing need for metal and wood.

It’s close to the borders of East Novaryn as well, the landmass North of Varsiko and next to West Novaryn. The East and West are separated by Mantern River, the very same river you crossed to get to Varsiko from Genesia City, your home.

Well, at least it used to be your home.

Now, however…

You turn to give Eren a somewhat forced smile. He’s walking next to you, face tense and a little ill-tempered. He doesn’t look around but keeps his eyes straight ahead. He walks briskly, clearly intent on getting you through the sights as soon as possible so he can get back to the castle and be rid of you.

Behind you walk Levi and Eren’s guard. Quiet and stoic as always, it only now strikes you that the two are very alike in some ways. Then again, all the guards you’ve encountered are stiff and serious.

Only the presence of the guards gives away that you’re anyone important. Eren is wearing his usual, simple coordination of a cotton shirt, simple, brown pants and leather boots. There’s no crown or royal insignia on him to indicate his status.

You, on the other hand, asked Maid Springer to bring you a simple, knee-length dress. You instructed her to weave your hair in an ordinary bun. You look like a nobody. The only thing that can give you away is your posh accent.

It’s obvious Eren doesn’t come down to meet the peasants often, as no one recognises him. He seems to prefer it that way as well.

You march past the city square. You’ve kept up with Eren diligently thus far, but when you see the large, tiled space, you can’t help but pause.

The city square is where most events take place. It’s where Darius Zackly, Admiral of the Varsikovian army, keeps his passionate, patriotic speeches to rally the citizens into devoting even more of their lives and resources to warfare.

In the middle of the square, there is a large iron statue. The middle-aged man in the statue is plump, with a wide smile on his face and a bushy beard covering his sturdy chin. He’s wearing a military outfit with a long cape, fastened in place with a pin, carved to which is the Varsikovian symbol that’s also depicted on their flag.

Next to him is another statue, this one depicts a young woman with short, jagged hair and hopeful, wide eyes. Wearing simple, flowy ropes and a heavy-looking pendant, she has one hand raised towards the sky, another clutching a ragged flag. On the pendant is a symbol, a triangle inside a circle, the same symbol tattooed on the back of Levi’s hand.

You’ve started reading Song of Steel this week in your plentiful idle moments, and thanks to that, you can name these two people.

The man is Nimbus Zackly, Darius Zackly’s grandfather, the former head of the Varsikovian army and the person who led the siege of Lienov against Novaryn 73 years ago and in the process, managed to keep Varsiko from being annexed into Novaryn, even if only by a hair.

Even back in Novaryn, you heard his name once or twice. Though, in your tales, he was portrayed as a ruthless monster. He drove the Novarynian forces back from Varsiko’s ports, but he also pushed them back enough to take control of the city of Sorn, a small farming community in East Novaryn.

With his blessing, Varsikovian soldiers pillaged the whole place and set it on fire. 4,000 people, almost 70 percent of the total population of Sorn, lost their lives, and the majority of the rest were young women who were kidnapped and assumedly tortured and soiled in the hands of Varsikovian men, as they were never heard from again. To Novaryn, Nimbus Zackly is a monster.

Yet in Varsiko, he’s a hero worthy of a statue.

The woman next to him is Ymir Fritz, a well-known alchemist and the founder of the Wing of Science. She came up with the blueprints of weapon enhancements and successfully carried out the first transmutations for the army close to a century ago.

The square is filled with people standing around and casually chatting amongst each other. No stalls or merchants are allowed here, but that doesn’t stop housewives from gathering together and gossiping nor children running around and tossing pebbles into the large fountain that’s steadily flowing at the sidelines.

The final thing that catches your attention is a large steel structure at the front of the square. It looks like a stage.

“Is that where the Admiral delivers his speeches?” you turn to ask Eren, but he’s already way ahead of you. He hasn’t even noticed you’re lagging behind.

His guard is following him quietly, and you look at their distancing backs. Behind you, Levi is standing guard. You turn to him for an answer.

“Yeah. This is also where the public executions take place,“ Levi replies nonchalantly. He’s dressed as usual, with the red cape hanging from his shoulders and his weapons on clear display, warning off any potential aggravators.

You hum and turn to walk away, and only after you’ve taken a couple of steps do Levi’s words sink in.

“Executions?!” you yelp and turn to gape at him with wide eyes. “You execute people publicly?!”

“Not everyone, just the worst offenders,” Levi shrugs.

You’re dumbfounded for a precious moment. It’s not that you don’t have the death penalty in Novaryn, it’s just that they’re carried out privately. Making a public spectacle out of someone meeting the Creator is barbaric to you.

Before you can express your outrage, however, Eren has noticed you’re missing and marched back to you. He grabs your arm impatiently, a fact that makes Levi jolt on instinct.

“Come on,” he sighs. “We’re almost done with the tour.”

You tear your eyes away from the steel structure and follow Eren out of the city square. In all honesty, you’d love to walk slower, take your time looking around, maybe visit some shops to use some of the gold Czar Yeager insisted on giving you this morning.

But Eren doesn’t look interested in doing this. If anything, you seem like the last thing he wants to spend his time on.

Despite that, you give him a polite curtsey and follow him back towards where you started your brisk tour.

“Do you not enjoy the city, your grace?” you attempt a conversation. Eren shrugs.

“Not this part of it.”

“Then, which parts do you enjoy?” you ask curiously. Eren gives you a wary glance and finally gestures towards the military base.

The Wing of Science and Wing of Royal Affairs are based in the castle, but the Wing of Offence and Wing of Defence are located in the military headquarters, a large structure located near the castle. It looks exceptionally uninviting with its rectangle shape and lack of anything ornamental, save for two Varsikovian flags flapping at each side of it.

It’s heavily guarded and a tall wall surrounds the whole structure. A constant stream of carriages moves towards and from the metal gates, pulled by small and sturdy Mongol horses that you’ve seen around Varsiko a lot.

You raise an eyebrow. Now that you mention it, the time you went to Eren’s room, it was filled with war novels.

“You are interested in the military, your grace?” you ask quizzically. He shrugs tersely.

“I might have to lead an army one day,” he says. You clearly see he’s not planning on entrusting you with the whole picture, but something makes him interested in the military.

“I would ask you to show me around the base, but I believe I’m not allowed in.”

“You’re not,” Eren confirms. “At least without confirmation from my father or Zeke.”

You pause to think when Zeke’s name is mentioned. You wonder if he’s close to Eren at all. During meals, they seem to have neutral relations.

If Zeke is the one behind the letters, which are still coming in on the daily, is Eren aware of that?

You can’t trust Eren, but you wonder how much he knows about what’s going on in the castle. He seems like a rather simple czarevich. Eager to dash out to war for what you assume is blood and glory.

“Your brother,” you start carefully. “Are you two close?”

Eren stops walking abruptly. He gives you a long, obviously suspicious look. The girl who works as his guard looks tense as well. The atmosphere gets suddenly very unsettling. Only Levi is taking it easy, he takes the opportunity to lean against a stone fence and start digging out dirt from under his nails.

“What’s it to you?” Eren asks, obviously on the defensive. You don’t know if he’s annoyed because you’re prying to his private life or because you’re asking about Zeke specifically.

Either way, you need to tread carefully.

“I was just curious,” you say, trying to sound as unengaged as possible.

“Why?”

“It is hard not to wonder about your brother, given his unfavourable attitude towards me,” you shrug. Eren gives you a long look. Then, he relaxes a little and turns his eyes back to the tiled road ahead. He resumes walking.

“Can you blame him?” he asks nonchalantly. You blink.

“Well, I assume it is rather common for Varsikovians to not be too fond of Novaryn, but I do not see why he would carry such a personal grudge.”

Eren stops dead in his tracks and turns to give you a disbelieving stare. He’s not the only one, his guard and even Levi look genuinely surprised.

“So, you don’t know why Zeke hates you so much?” Eren slowly asks. You shake your head. Eren’s gape quickly turns into a dismissive scowl.

“You really are clueless, huh,” he snorts. “You don’t seem to know anything that’s been going on beyond your castle’s grounds for a century.”

You swallow and your eyes flicker down. He’s right, of course. You were never taught anything about warfare or contemporary politics. You only know of the war in the form of a few legendary tales and fleeting gossip from your maids.

Eren shakes his head with a sigh.

“I don’t hate you,” he then adds to soothe the sting. “I’m not ecstatic about marrying you, but I don’t hate you.”

You raise your gaze to look at his bothered face. You’re standing in the middle of the road, townspeople walking past without bothering to listen what you’re talking about. They’ve got more interesting things to mind.

Eren doesn’t seem to be lying, and you nod meekly.

“I was not taught these things,” you tell him quietly. “I want to know things, but I don’t know where to start.”

“I’m not going to be your teacher,” Eren immediately declines. “The only reason I’m taking you out right now is that my dad demanded I do. I don’t hate you, but don’t expect me to spend time with you,” Eren explains. He has a somewhat frustrated frown on his face, he doesn’t want to be in this situation either.

“Then, who could I turn to?” you ask quietly. You don’t want to remain clueless forever. It’s just that you have no allies in the castle. Eren shrugs.

“Don’t ask me. And don’t count on me taking you out again. Here,” he takes a small, purple necklace from his pocket. The amethyst is tied in place with a simple leather string.

“My dad told me to give you something,” he explains and wrinkles his nose at the necklace. It’s clear he picked it out himself. If it was the Czar himself or one of the maids, it would without a doubt be much more elaborate.

You take the necklace and curtsey properly.

“Thank you, your grace.” You give him that trained smile. You’re just about to ask Eren to tie it around your neck for you, a gesture customary in Novaryn, but before you get the chance, he’s already turned to stride down the grey, tiled road that takes him back to the carriage that’s waiting for your return.

You think it over for a second before calling after him.

“Your grace!”

Eren turns to give you an impatient look. He’s clearly aching to get out of here.

“I would like to look around a bit more. Do you mind if I stay? I can walk back to the castle.”

You want to get to know the city a bit better than this, but you don’t want to drag poor Eren with you on a forceful date.

Eren shrugs, uninterested.

“Do as you like.”

You give him your trained smile.

“I’ll tell them to send another carriage to wait for you,” he says, even a little happy to be rid of you so soon. You wonder if he’s got some other plans for today or if he just dislikes pretending to be lovers that much.

You nod and curtsey.

“I’ll see you at dinner, your grace,” you say and after he’s out of sight, you turn to Levi.

“Sorry. Seems like your duty continues,” you hum. Levi gives you a bland stare.

“Beats standing next to your door and watching you read,” he bluntly states.

You look over the necklace Eren gave you. It’s rough around the edges, so to speak, but the gesture is nice. Even if it was obviously forced. You hand the necklace to Levi with a small smile.

“Could you help this on me?” you ask. Levi blinks at you. The request clearly annoys him a little, but despite that he shrugs and grabs the leather string.

He easily slips it around your neck, and his fingers work surprisingly nimbly as he ties the string at the back. You feel a small shiver of goosebumps when the tips of his fingers brush against the delicate skin on the nape of your neck. You were always very sensitive on your neck.

“Thank you.” You give him a half-hearted smile and let your fingers run over the rough texture of the stone once to get used to the feeling.

You then turn back towards the city and start walking down the streets. You grasp the hem of your dress to keep it from getting dirty and move through the crowd as confidently as possible.

It’s exciting. You’ve visited Genesia’s busy central once or twice with your mother, but it wasn’t a luxury that was bestowed upon you often. Now, you have a whole city within your fingertips. You doubt the Czar has anything against you being here, given that you’re adequately disguised and accompanied by a guard.

You walk back down the main road, only this time you take your time looking around. At times, you stray away to the small alleyways that have the more obscure shops and smaller taverns.

Levi keeps close to you without a word. He doesn’t seem too worried about being out in the open like this, so you dare to relax.

You walk past the stores, visiting a few of them as you do. You buy a pair of riding boots and a romance novel for your vacant nights. You enjoy the fresh portside air and the bustling of people around you. Growing up in isolation and being left to your own devices, it feels good to blend into the masses and pretend you’re an ordinary human for once.

You’re just about to set course to the tiled road leading to your rendezvous with the carriage when something catches your eyes through a display window of a small general store.

You see clothes, books, jewellery and furniture inside, scattered around just where they happen to fit in a homely, unorganised way.

Inside, you see an elderly man leaning against the counter. He’s wearing very plain clothes and seeing how the store is empty and everyone else just walks right past the venue, you conclude his business must not be booming. When he notices your interested gaze, he smiles and tips his flaccid and worn-out hat to greet you.

Where your eyes have landed is on a small folding knife. You can see it inside through the display, window tossed on one of the shelves behind the counter, in between a small kettle and a silver tray. It has a simple, polished wooden handle. The blade inside doesn’t seem to be large. It would be easy to hide in your robes and keep at hand.

Just in case.

The graphic descriptions from the latest letter flash in your mind. You try your best to keep them out of your head, but it can be challenging at times. The contents of the letters are always very similar, they depict your death in the hands of the sender.

Sometimes, they go straight to the point and explain in great detail how a blade is going to saw into your flesh, sever your arteries and make you bleed out in a matter of seconds.

Sometimes, they’re more in-depth and contain a prolonged description of certain kinds of torture. Carving Varsiko on your stomach with a surgeon’s knife, digging out your eyeball, cutting off your ear, the fantasies are endless and convey a chilling lust for blood and humiliation.

They also have a very unnerving undertone of lust. Your neck seems to be of special interest to whoever’s behind the letters, and once the letter has mentioned strangling you instead of cutting your throat. The way the sender talks about killing you almost sounds like it’s arousing him.

In either case, having a knife at hand could be a good thing. In case this isn’t just idle threats after all, and someone will eventually try to attack you.

You glance at Levi, who’s standing next to you with a disengaged look on his face. So far, he’s done a good job protecting you. But you can’t really trust him. With a snap of his fingers, the Czar could turn his blade against you. You will need something to fend for yourself.

The question remains, how do you buy the knife without Levi noticing? Surely he will get suspicious if you walk in and buy a stealthy weapon. You don’t want him suspecting that you’re up to something bad.

You think it over for a moment and then turn to Levi.

“Levi, I would like you to stand guard outside while I go in,” you start carefully.

“Why?” Levi gives you an inquisitive side-eye.

“I- I would like to buy something private from the store.”

Levi crosses his arms, not impressed.

“Such as?”

“U-undergarments,” you make up quickly. Through the display window, Levi glances at the insides of the shop and draws up an eyebrow.

“Seems like an unlikely place to buy undergarments, from a general store and an old geezer like him.”

“I see a brassier corset in there that I like, okay? And I do not want you watching me while I buy it, so turn your back,” you order stubbornly. Levi looks at you for a long time and then shrugs.

“Whatever you say, little miss. I wouldn’t trust the hygiene of anything coming out of that dustbin of a store, though,” he points out but turns his back to the store nonetheless.

You let out a relieved breath and nod to yourself. You walk to the store and yank the door open.

The bell above the door makes a small jingling sound, and the older man behind the counter gives you a warm smile.

The creases around his mouth and friendly wrinkles that appear in the corner of his eyes with his smile set you at ease. His hand shakes just the tiniest bit with age as he gestures for you to come in further.

“Please come in, my dear, look around,” he says with a heartfelt tone. You look around the stuffed store, the liberally filled shelves, the worn-out furniture sitting in the corner, the few racks of clothes you claimed to Levi you’re interested in.

You stop in front of the counter and give the man a nervous smile.

“I would like to see that knife over there,” you say and point towards the folding knife. The man turns to see, and a look of confusion creeps to his face.

“This old knife, miss?”

“Yes. Please,” you add. He takes the knife and shows it to you.

“Are you sure you want this one? We have bigger blades right here,” he gestures to a small barrel next to the counter, filled with an assortment of old-looking swords and daggers. You shake your head.

“This one will fare just fine.”

The man shrugs.

“Seven polas.”

You take out the small pouch of coins from the folds of your dress and hand it to the man.

“If you could count the money yourself, I would be most grateful. I still struggle a bit with recognising the different coins. Pola is the medium silver coin, right?”

The man takes the money and pauses. He frowns to himself, a little confused, but opens the pouch nonetheless.

“I thought your accent sounded weird, miss,” he converses casually. He gives you a small smile. “Not a lot of foreigners in these lands. Never met one myself. They don’t usually permit them outsiders further than the ports. Imports are received at the docks and the merchants are sent back the way they came.”

He looks well-meaning and curious as he counts the money.

“May I ask where you’re from, miss?”

You freeze then. Should you lie? Make up something? Tell the truth?

You look at his twinkling, sweet eyes and find yourself entrusting him with the truth. You’ve got Levi in case he takes things badly.

“Between you and me, sir, I’m a Novarynian.”

Immediately, the man’s smile freezes on his worn-out features. The pouch of coins falls on the desk with a loud thump. He gives you a wide-eyed stare.

“You’re the Novarynian princess they talked so much about some time ago?” he asks. You try to gauge his expression, but it’s hard. He looks shocked, but you’re not sure what kind of shock it is.

“A princess? What makes you say that?” you chuckle awkwardly. You try not to avoid his eyes so you don’t appear defensive.

“They haven’t allowed a Novarynian through those ports for a century unless they’re in shackles and on their way to the factories. The only Novarynian who would be roaming free like this would be the princess. Unless you’re a stowaway.”

Maybe you should have pretended you’re from somewhere else. But it’s too late to back down now. You give him a small, nervous smile.

“You caught me. I’m that princess,” you admit.

You see something flash in the man’s eyes, a longing long since stifled. Suddenly, he looks crushed and sad. Obviously, some kind of memories are flooding back to him.

The moment is fleeting. In a second, he turns angry.

“In that case, I have no business to do with you. Take your money and leave,” he announces. His tone and face are seeping unyielding cold. You blink at him.

So, he has a grudge against Novaryn. And by extension, you. Just like Zeke. And just like Zeke, you don’t know the exact reason why.

“Sir,” you start. You could leave, but you’re suddenly curious to hear why he’s so angry.

It’s as Eren said, you know nothing of Varsiko besides the shallow introduction to culture and customs you studied before coming here. You know nothing of the struggles of the common folk. And you want to understand. This is your new home after all.

“I understand that there’s a lot animosity between Novaryn and Varsiko, but I’m here to help to build peace. I want to help Varsiko,” you try to reassure him.

Immediately, you realise you shouldn’t have. He grits his teeth together, his eyes fill with tears and he yanks you in by the front of your dress.

“Help us? Don’t make me laugh,” he hisses. “Your rotten country has never brought us anything but war and suffering. If you ask me, I want no peace with your kind. What I want is to see every one of you disappear.”

“Sir, I understand you are angry, but you must understand that I’m not here to bring you grief-“

“Your kind never brings us anything but grief!” the man shouts.

“Sir, please calm down-!”

You shouldn’t have said that. Instantly, he grabs a dull-looking sword from the barrel next to the counter and grabs your hair to pull you in over the counter. You feel the jagged edge press against your neck.

“Don’t tell me what to do!” he yells. Tears are streaming down his face as he looks at you. He sounds angry, but his expression is that of grief and devastation. This is someone who has lost something very dear to him.

“Maurice, dear, what is- Oh my goodness! What are you doing to the poor girl?!”

You look to the side to see an older woman standing in the doorway of what you assume leads to the backroom of the store. Her grey hair is pulled to a ponytail and she’s carrying a box of what looks like various, old-looking toys.

She drops the box and hurries over with wide eyes. You wince a little where you are, pulled over the counter by your hair with a sword pressed to your neck.

“Stand back, dear, she’s that cursed princess they mentioned, the one they’re planning to marry to the younger Yeager boy. She was trying to buy a knife, who knows what she was planning to do with it.”

Immediately, a look of shock dawns on the woman’s face. Then, instead of anger, she turns hopeful.

“Let her go, Maurice, maybe she can help us,” she pleads. She walks to you and grasps your arm with a begging look.

“Miss, you’re a princess, there must be something you can do. Our daughter, Belle, she moved to Birnek close to the border to be with her sweetheart. She went missing two years ago after a group of Novarynians ransacked the city. Maybe you can help us find her?”

You give her a helpless look. The blade is still pressed against your neck, though the man’s hand is shaking a bit where he’s holding you.

You hear the door open and close, and you don’t have to turn to see that Levi’s walked in. The way the man flinches, his eyes widening, gives it away.

“I’ll give you three seconds to let go,” you hear Levi’s voice from somewhere behind you. The woman looks scared but keeps clinging to your arm. Her face is desperate, tears brimming in her small, blue eyes.

“Our daughter, Belle. Belle Lindt. She was a good child, she would be 24 years old now. Long, brown hair, blue-grey eyes. She has a beauty mark under her eye. You can help us find her, right? Please, miss,” she breathes.

“I…” you trail off. You don’t know what to say. Obviously, there’s no way for you to find one girl who went missing years ago. Your brother wouldn’t know where she is. You have no authority over anyone in the army. She was most likely taken a prisoner or killed.

“Forget it, Gloria, she’s not going to help us,” the man cuts in. “She doesn’t care. Rotten, like the rest of her country. Doesn’t care who she hurts.”

“Are you deaf, old man? Let go,” Levi orders again. You can’t see him since he’s behind you, but you can tell from his voice that he’s getting irritated.

“And you, protecting an enemy! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” the man exclaims at Levi. The tears are now streaming down his face. He leans in with a sniffle and you can see the heartbreak in his eyes.

“I don’t care who you are, miss. I don’t care if you’re a princess or what, but my daughter did not deserve what your country did to her. Wherever she is, she must be suffering and this… Pitiful excuse of amendments from your country doesn’t come even close to being enough. Our wounds can never be healed. You are not welcome here.”

With that, he finally pulls his weapon back and turns away. He wipes off his tears and grabs the knife to throw it to you.

“Here, take it. I don’t want your cursed money. I just hope you use it to spill your own blood, none of ours,” he mutters venomously. You take the knife as Levi briskly walks up to you and grabs your shoulder now that you’re not in immediate danger anymore.

He only glances at the knife, not surprised in the least that it’s not undergarments you’re purchasing but a weapon. He pulls you behind him, his sword still out, and then turns to the man.

“To raise a weapon against someone with diplomatic immunity and protection is a capital offence. Even you must know as much, old man,” Levi states. He looks cold, his eyes hard and ruthless.

“I’m fine, Levi,” you sigh. “Let us just go.”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Levi announces tensely. “I’ve been ordered to protect you and deal with threats to the full extent of the law.”

You frown, and when the implication of his words hits you, you gasp and grab his arm.

“You cannot be serious!” you gape at him. “I was not hurt.”

“That doesn’t matter. The intent is enough.”

The man gives Levi a look of defiance, though underneath is poorly concealed fear.

“You’re going to cut down your own to protect a foreigner like her, boy? What has this country become? Go ahead, then. I died years ago when my daughter stopped writing.” He straightens his back and though you can see he’s trembling from head to toe, he refuses to cower in front of Levi.

His wife whimpers and crawls towards Levi, head bowed in a begging motion.

“Please, sir, can’t you let him go? He means no harm, he’s just gone wrong from all the grief-“

“Don’t touch me,” Levi orders when the woman’s hands get too close to him. You look back and forth between Levi and the man.

“Levi, he was not going to hurt me,” you try to reason. “That sword is dull, he could not kill me with that even if he tried. He is just a heartbroken old man, I doubt he would have the strength even if that blade was sharp enough.”

“That’s none of my business. My orders are crystal clear; eliminate everyone who threatens the Princess of Novaryn. No exceptions.”

“He was not going to hurt me!” you snap. “Levi, sheathe your weapon. Now.”

Levi stands completely still and disregards you. He takes a step towards the man, and you hurry to stand between them.

“That is an order.” You lock eyes with him, gaze resolute. You’ve never ordered Levi before. You’ve asked him to do things, but they’ve always been softened with a “please”. Now, though, you’re staring him down.

You might be a foolish little girl who knows nothing of Varsiko and their customs, but you’re still a princess. The future wife of the czarevich. Your word weighs for something and now, Levi is going to stand down and listen to you.

Levi gives you a long, dark look. His sword is out and he shows no signs of backing down.

“Stand aside,” he tells you dully. You shake your head. Levi groans and rolls his eyes. He then grabs your arm, forcefully pulls you to the side and with a single slash of his sword, the man is beyond help.

You let out a small shriek when you realise what’s happened. The woman wails and crawls to the man, futilely trying to place her hands over the gashing wound.

“Maurice, oh Maurice,” she breathes, clearly in shock. “What shall I do now? Oh dear, oh dear,” she sniffs and hugs his body to her chest. You see the life draining from his eyes until he’s gone.

He’s dead.

Levi killed him, just like that.

“Let’s go. I’m under orders to take you back to the castle should anything out of the ordinary happen.”

“You killed him,” you breathe, in shock.

Levi grasps your arm and starts steering you to the door of the store. You snap out of your petrified state and start struggling.

“Let go of me,” you order, your cool completely lost. “You murderer, how could you? How could you?! He was just an old man, let go of me!”

Levi groans when you dig your heels into the floor and try to pull free. You want nothing to do with your guard right now.

With zero difficulties, he grabs you and throws you over his shoulder like you’re a piece of luggage. He then starts carrying you to the door.

Your wide eyes are fixed on the woman, fruitlessly trying to wake up her husband.

“I’m sorry,” you breathe at her, but she doesn’t hear you.

As Levi makes it out of the store to the streets, buzzing with life just as it was fifteen minutes ago, blissfully unaware that a man has just been killed in the dusty general store no one seems to pay much attention to, you snap out of your shock and start your vicious fighting again.

You draw stares and whispers as you go. You struggle against him, bang your fists at his back, do everything you can to make him drop you down, but it’s to no avail.

His cape and uniform make everyone stand back. He’s a high ranking officer and everyone’s aware of that. No one dares to step in to as much as ask what’s going on.

Levi doesn’t even break a sweat as he carries your struggling body atop of the small hill where the carriage is waiting. He opens the door and unceremoniously throws you in on top of the soft cushions. He signals for the driver to start moving and then hops in after you.

“Do not touch me,” you breathe and immediately crawl back on the red satin cushions until your back hits the wall. Levi snorts and sits down across from you. He doesn’t look bothered at all by your temper tantrum.

“I wasn’t touching you because I enjoy it,” he points out dully. You stare at him incredulously. How can he be so calm?

He ignores you the ride home, despite the way you glare at him. When the carriage pulls up in front of the Rekanon Castle, you get out the second the driver opens the door. You march past the barren front yard inside the castle.

You can hear Levi following you, and when you walk inside your chambers and realise he’s tailed you all the way here, you turn to give him a hard glare just as he closes the door after himself.

“Whatever are you doing?” you ask, voice thin with fury.

“The Czar has ordered me to keep you company,” Levi answers calmly. You march up to him and point at the door.

“I do not care what the Czar has ordered. Get out!”

“I only take orders from you if they’re not in direct conflict with the Czar’s,” Levi tells you. His matter-of-fact disregard for your emotional state frustrates you.

“You killed that man!” you yell at him. It’s as if the weeks of stress and isolation are crashing down on you. You’re cracking at the seams.

For a couple of blissful hours, you felt like a normal person. Walking around town shopping like anybody else. Not a princess. Not a political prisoner. Not a bargaining chip.

Without a doubt, the news of Levi killing a poor old man in your name has spread. Your name and face have spread.

You probably can’t go back into the city again.

“I was under orders to.”

“He was not a threat! He was an old man struck with grief because he lost his daughter!”

“That’s none of my concern.”

“He was not going to kill me!”

“That was his decision. He knew what the repercussions would be when he drew that sword.” Levi starts looking a little annoyed.

“He was an elderly person!”

“Would you have preferred if he was a young man? A child, maybe?” Levi offers, and you lose it.

Your hand connects with his cheek, and the sting in your palm is painful and instantaneous. Levi is completely unscathed by the sudden slap. The force doesn’t as much as move his head to the side.

“You can keep slapping me if that is what makes you feel better,” he offers. He sounds uninterested, almost bored. It annoys you. How casual he is about this.

“You just killed someone! How can you be so calm?!”

“Little miss, I’ve killed thousands and thousands of people. Many of which deserved it less than that old-timer did. My order was to kill, so I killed. That’s all there is to it.”

You grit your teeth and slap him again. And again. He doesn’t do anything to stop you, and eventually, your hits grow weaker and weaker when you realise that you’re having zero effect on him.

Your eyes fill with tears and finally, you crumble.

You slump on the floor, your face pressed into your knees, and sob.

You’re helpless.

You’re useless.

You can’t do anything. You can bring peace to neither this country nor your own. You can’t make your husband-to-be care about you. You couldn’t stop Levi from killing that old man. Hell, you can’t even make his cheek sting enough for him to try and stop you from slapping it.

You’re weak. A naïve little girl who can’t accomplish anything on her own. A throwaway child that was never the more welcome in Novaryn than you are in Varsiko.

“It’s not fair,” you sob into your knees, hands fisting your own hair so hard you hear it rip a bit.

Levi watches you unravel with unreadable eyes. Not a muscle on his face changes as you cry until you’re tired and boneless.

When Levi picks you up again, his hands are gentler than last time. With one arm under your knees and another around your back, he hoists you up in his arms. You’re too exhausted to fight him, so you stay limp in his hold and allow him to take you to the bed.

“Life is never fair, little miss,” he tells you. His voice is matter-of-fact, but there’s a small twinge of compassion underneath that you can just barely decipher.

He places you on the bed, and you immediately burrow under the thick blankets to hide. From him. From the reality of the situation. You turn your back to him and curl up. He straightens his back and watches the slump under the red covers for a brief moment before walking back to the door.

“Levi,” you mutter after a moment of silence. You’re tired and blue. All you want is to close your eyes and forget this day ever happened.

“What?”

“Did you really feel no sympathy for that old man?”

“Of course, I did.”

“But you killed him.”

“Yeah.”

“Just because of some vague orders you got from the Czar.”

“They were not vague to me.”

“Are you even human?” you sniffle pitifully, too exhausted to put much venom in your tone.

“Technically, I believe I’m somewhere between a human and a machine.”

You chuckle in disbelief. Is that his version of a joke?

“I do not understand you,” you confess. You open your eyes even though under the protective layer of the blanket, everything is dark and dim.

You wrap your arms around yourself just to realise you have the knife, pushed in the folds of your dress. You pull it out and quietly slip it under your pillow.

“You don’t have to understand me, little miss. I’m just here to keep you alive.”

“For now,” you mutter so quietly he can’t hear you. With one last steadying breath, you pull the covers aside and sit up. You lean your back against the cherrywood head of the bed and kick your shoes off to the floor.

You think it over, letting out the occasional leftover sniff, and then turn your eyes to Levi.

“May I ask you to pass me a pen and paper, or are you under direct orders from the Czar to limit my usage of writing equipment?”

Levi doesn’t reply. Instead, he walks to the table and grabs a blank parchment paper and quill. He passes them to you and walks back to the door.

You think it over. It might be in vain, but it’s still worth a shot. You want to believe you’re capable of doing something, even if it’s saving one person. Just one is enough.

Sirius, you start.

Dearest brother. I know it’s unbecoming and unusual of me to ask for a favour of this nature, but it is of utmost personal importance to me.

I am looking for a woman by the name of Belle Lindt. She may be a prisoner of war, and I was hoping you could assist me with finding her and safely returning her back to her mother.

You describe her appearance and where she went missing, roll up the paper and get out of the bed. You seal the letter and wander out to the balcony.

The day is turning into evening and the cool wind blowing in does nothing to ease the heavy feeling in your chest.

You whistle for the hawk appointed to you, and when she perches on your outstretched arm, you tie the letter to her leg and quickly tell her to take it to your brother. Before you can change your mind and concern yourself with what’s proper of you.

The hawk flies off, and you watch her glide to the apricot horizon. You place a weighty hand on your heart, another on your forehead, and murmur a small prayer.

Maybe the Creator will allow you this small miracle before your soul is forever lost.

Chapter Text

Rough hands holding you down. Your wrists bruising. You writhe on the bed, head thrown back.

“Quiet,” someone murmurs into your ear. “A good girl stays still and lets her owner fuck her.”

You frown a little. Owner?

You open your eyes to look at the man above you. Cold eyes flashing behind round glasses, his beard scratching the skin on your chest as he suddenly surges down to bite your nipple.

“Let go,” you breathe but to no avail. You feel him moving inside you and clench your eyes shut.

“You’re mine, pet,” you hear his raspy whisper. You try kicking at his back, but he’s too close for you to get your feet between you and push him away.

He pins your wrists down with one hand and uses the other to grab your throat.

“What a good pet,” he praises with a viciously mocking snarl and clutches your windpipe shut. “I can’t wait to feel how tight you’ll clench around me as I strangle you to death.”

“Stop,” you breathe.

“How annoying.”

Suddenly, his voice changes. You open your eyes to see it’s now Eren above you. He’s let go of you, he refuses to touch you as he snaps his hips down with impersonal annoyance.

“Why do I have to do this?” he complains. You just stare at him, gaping. Are you losing your mind?

You try to push him off, but he merely glares at you and snaps his hips down harder.

“It’s not like I want to do this. The least you can do is stay still.”

You feel a sting of humiliation. As if you wanted to do this, either. He moves into you unenthusiastically, nose wrinkling and eyes avoiding yours.

You turn your head to the side, your eyes closing as you try to disengage from the distressing situation. You feel something move inside you and the impersonal edge of it all makes you bite your lip to keep yourself from crying.

A breeding mare. Just like your mother.

Just as suddenly, you feel something change above you. Someone grabs your chin to turn your head.

“Look at me, little miss.”

Your eyes fly open and you gape when you see that suddenly, it’s Levi, and he’s a lot more handsy. He tugs you in for a hard kiss, his hips fast and unyielding. Yet, his eyes are keen on you, making sure you’re moaning in pleasure underneath him.

Your body moves on its own. You wrap your arms around his neck, cling to him as he takes you, and gasps of utter heat and arousal escape your lips.

Your tongues rub together, your groomed nails bury into his toned back as you hand yourself over to him.

“Levi,” you breathe his name, surrendered.

“Oh? What do we have here?” you hear a drawling, lazy voice. You turn your head to see Zeke and Eren. Zeke’s eyes are gleaming with mirth as he witnesses your infidelity. Eren looks annoyed and mostly impassive.

Levi dismounts you and salutes Zeke.

“Just as I told you, the little miss is exceptionally untrustworthy,” he explains, suddenly fully clothed. He doesn’t as much as look at you. He looks uninterested. You try to cover yourself with the sheets, but they’re suddenly gone.

You look at Levi with wide eyes, the burn of his betrayal making bile rise up your stomach to your throat.

“Such an eager lapdog,” Zeke chuckles. “Levi, show the pet how we treat little whores around here.”

Levi takes out his sword, steps in and without a hue of emotion in his eyes, he slices.

-

You wake up to your own scream. Springing up on the soft cushions, your eyes are wide open and disturbed as you instinctively clutch your throat to make sure it’s still very much sealed.

You slowly let go and stare at your trembling hands.

It’s far from the first time this has happened. Ever since the letters started coming, you’ve had unsettling dreams, but the incident in town has escalated your paranoia.

It’s also the first time Levi has been included in such a fashion.

Little by little, your surroundings get embedded in your brain, and you calm down. You’re fine. You’re still alive.

Outside, you can hear seabirds cawing to each other in the midst of their midsummer mating rituals. You can hear horsemen pasturing outside, shipments of weapons being wheeled down the short walkway towards the gates, without a doubt enhanced in the Wing of Science and to be taken to the Military Base.

You have instructed Maid Springer to keep your bed of neutral colours and thus, you no longer have to deal with the sight of bright red all around you first thing in the morning. Now, your sheets are a shade of warm brown. You can live with that.

You don’t have to turn to know that Levi is already on duty, watching you from the door. You’ve learnt to identify his hawk-like stare from the other guards, most of which either avoid looking at you or glare at you with lazily masked disdain.

“You’ve been screaming a lot lately,” you hear his familiar voice point out. You turn to glance at Levi and suddenly, you’re acutely aware of the fact that you just dreamt of having indecent intercourse with him.

You don’t know why that happened, but it unsettles you.

You shove your puffy covers aside and walk up to the balcony. The sun is already high up the sky as you open the doors to let in some fresh air.

You look at the uneventful yard for a few seconds before slipping into the bathroom. You don’t take a full bath, only freshen up a little and then slip back into your nightgown.

Levi admits Maid Springer in as he steps out, and she starts on making you presentable.

You stay mostly quiet as she pulls a green dress on you, cinches your waist and weaves your hair into her usual tight, strictly laced braids.

It looks to be yet another uneventfully morose day when you hear a knock on the door.

“Your grace! A letter,” you hear a familiar voice, and instantly your face comes alive, with hopeful flutters beginning in your stomach.

“Come in,” you call, and when you see a familiar buzzcut boy that you’ve encountered around the castle from time to time since first meeting him in the dining hall, you smile.

“Connie,” you greet him. He bows, but when he notices the woman standing next to you, his voice suddenly becomes thin and he starts to furiously push his shirt into his trousers.

“Ma!” he squeaks like a dog caught red-handed, looking borderline terrified. You glance at Maid Springer as she careers to Connie and instantly catches him by the ear.

“Connie Springer! How many times do I have to tell you to be orderly when you deliver letters to the royals! When was that shirt last washed? Your hair is all over the place! Did you shoot straight here from the smelliest swamps of Novaryn without as much as stopping to take a bath?” she yammers without as much as pausing to take a breath.

You wonder how Connie’s buzzcut can be out of place.

“Ma! I’m in the middle of delivering a letter to the princess!” Connie tries to defend himself. Levi has walked in to see what the commotion is about, and he looks to be rather approving of Maid Springer giving her son an earful for looking disorderly.

Connie turns his pleading eyes to yours, asking you to save him from his mother’s overbearing nags, but you have a mother of your own, and you know they will not back down until you’ve heard all they have to say.

“Go ahead, Maid Springer. I do not mind,” you quickly disregard. Connie looks betrayed as his mother gives him a full earful, and when he finally walks to you, he looks much more dapper, yet also a lot more tired than upon entering the room.

“A letter from Novaryn,” he says. You see your brother’s handwriting and instantly, the butterflies are back. He’s probably responding to your request to find the daughter of that old couple and send her back to her mother.

“Ah, wait a moment,” you realise and walk to your vanity. On top of it is a small bowl full of imported fruit, expensive and rare. You grab a bunch of grapes and two tangerines and hand them to Connie.

“Share these with Sasha. If you just came back from Novaryn, she is probably hungry.”

Connie blinks at the food. It’s not the kind he could ever afford with his messenger’s pay. You’re not too fond of the fruit. It tastes stale since it’s imported.

In Novaryn, you were surrounded by rich fields full of ripe fruits and juicy berries, so to you, they taste almost rotten. It would be a shame to let them go uneaten.

Finally, Connie takes the food and smiles at you, albeit a bit awkwardly. He’s probably not used to his higher-ups extending any kind of unnecessary kindness his way.

“I’ll give these to her,” he promises, salutes and walks out of the door.

Maid Springer looks a bit taken aback but eventually gives you a smile. The first one you ever recall receiving from her.

“Thank you, your grace. That damned boy always forgets to eat things that are good for him.”

You smile and shake your head to politely decline the praise. She finishes your hair, and you can’t help but notice that she’s seemingly given up on the task of having every inch of your scalp pulled at least an inch off your skull.

You can appreciate that.

Once she’s gone, you hurry to the letter. Without minding Levi’s presence, you rip it open and hungrily read through the curt words.

Cora,

I understand your request comes from a place of sympathy, but you must stay reminded of the realities. I have no way of tracking down one woman who went missing years ago somewhere in East Novaryn. Father has strictly banned releasing prisoners of war unless it is for mutual exchange. Making an exception can easily result in public unrest as everyone from both sides suddenly demands to have their family back from the other side.

Leave handling the politics to me and Father and focus on creating good relations with the Czar and his family.

Sirius

It’s the first time you’ve ever felt anything even remotely resembling annoyance or shortness directed at you from your brother, but you instantly catch it here.

Stay out of adults’ business, you naïve little girl, and focus on looking pretty and not pissing anyone off.

Your animated mien dies down and when you fold and stash the letter, the familiar, trained calmness is back in your expression. Your eyes are once again proper, empty and dull. Not alive and hopeful like before.

You should have seen this coming. There was no way this would have happened the way you hoped. You should have known better than sending such a letter to pester your brother in the first place.

You really are a spoiled little brat.

Dejected, you get on your feet and walk out of your quarters. Levi, obviously observant enough to have picked up on the sudden change, follows you without a word.

As you make your way to the bright dining hall, Czar Yeager and most of his family have already eaten breakfast. Only Historia is still there, slowly shovelling some oats in her mouth while idly reading through a book she’s propped up against a can of water.

You look over her distracted face. Out of all of your to-be in-laws, she’s the one you feel the most at ease with.

But, you can’t help but wonder how she feels about Zeke. She’s his fiancée after all.

“Good morning,” you murmur to Historia and sit down. Levi takes his usual place next to Historia’s guard, Thomas Wagner, and watches quietly as you gather some food on your plate.

You often entertain the thought of skipping meals, but you know that you need to stay in your best health.

“Good morning,” comes Historia’s absent-minded, melodic voice. You glance at the book curiously, but it’s in a language you don’t understand.

It suddenly occurs to you that you have no idea who Historia is and where she’s from. You just assumed she’s some kind of noble from Varsiko.

She must have sensed your curious glances because she looks up from her book and gives you a small smile.

“It’s just a fairy tale book they sent me from home,” she enlightens you. You look over the foreign symbols on the cover and nod.

“If you do not mind me asking, where are you from?” you ask carefully. Historia chimes a laugh and shakes her head.

“Why would I mind? I’m Nambalese.”

You pause to think. Your knowledge of geography is rather limited since you received minimal education. You recall hearing the name once or twice, but you can’t place where.

Historia looks at your struggle with a patient smile.

“You probably wouldn’t know, it’s half a globe away. Bring me a piece of paper and pen, please,” she says to one of the maids who is bringing out another loaf of bread.

A minute later, Historia has rolled out a blank parchment on the dining table. She draws East and West Novaryn and Varsiko and then sketches down another, large continent across Mortis Sea.

There, she draws the outlines of a mid-sized nation on the Northern shore.

“This is Nambala. In short, it has been conquered and colonised by Varsiko for a bit over sixty years.”

Your eyebrows shoot up. A colony?

Novaryn, for all its size and influence, never bothered with colonies thanks to having such vast natural resources on its own lands. Plus, the act of conquering and converting a bunch of foreigners into the ways of your Creator was deemed a feat too bothersome.

Varsiko only got the brunt of Novaryn’s wrath because it was close and practising Alchemy.

Novaryn swallows neighbouring nations and converts their inhabitants, Varsiko seems to prefer a more indirect approach: colonies.

“So, you are Nambalese royalty? You speak good Nortish,” you compliment. Immediately, Historia chuckles a little.

“Nortish is the Varsiko-enforced language of business and education. Nambalese is rarely heard or written. That’s why books like these,” she gestures towards the fairy tale book, “are increasingly important to us.”

“Oh,” you utter for a lack of better words, feeling a little dumb.

You eye Historia, but she doesn’t seem to be too emotional. She, like you, must have trained herself to stay calm even when discussing the pillaging and destruction of her home country.

“So… How did you end up-?” changing your mind midway, you cut yourself off. “Nevermind. That was too intrusive of me.”

“You’re curious to hear how I ended up here,” Historia fills in. She doesn’t look angry and there’s a temperate gleam to her eyes.

“Well, when Varsiko arrived sixty-odd years ago, we were vastly unprepared for a full-scale invasion. I would feel uncomfortable disclosing full details in front of the Czar and his family, but since it’s only the four of us here, I’ll go ahead and tell you the full details; it wasn’t just an invasion, it was a compherensive genocide. We lost almost ten per cent of our population to famine, massacres and forced labour. Our nature and agriculture quickly collapsed under their intense demand for raw materials like metals, wood and grains.”

Historia takes a sip of her tea and breathes deeply.

“They launched extensive projects, mines and logging, and staffed them with locals. The workers were paid on paper, but in practice it was slavery. The conditions were so bad that as much as forty per cent of Varsiko-employed workers died within twenty years. Quitting or fleeing was met with harsh punishments, not only on the workers themselves but their families and extended families as well. We were at a crisis. My great-grandfather, then-king, had never dealt with anything like that. Up until the invasion, we were fairly unorganised agriculture with a large percentage of people still living in isolated villages or being hunter-gatherers. We had not industrialised to any extent of the word.”

You listen, mouth hanging open at the recap of atrocities Historia is entrusting to you. She looks as calm as always, but you can see deeply seeded anguish in her eyes.

“He struggled to organise any kind of resistance or negotiations thanks to his inexperience, as his rule up until then was concentrated around solving small internal squabbles and dealing with natural threats to our crops, such as animals or typhoons. Thus, our citizens started resisting by themselves. Mutinies were ignited and stifled all around Nambala until one particular faction started gaining traction. Within five years, their guerrilla warfare saw the destruction and burning of plenty of Varsikovian settlements and settlers.”

You nod slowly along as Historia tells the story, struggling to wrap your head around the horror of the situation.

“By the time my grandfather ascended to the throne, things had escalated to a full-on conflict between our people and Varsikovians. Only, where my great-grandfather had been mostly helpless, my grandfather quickly summoned these organised guerrilla troops, gave them governmental support, and went full-on offensive with the goal of extricating Varsiko from our lands twenty-seven years ago. What followed was a messy, bloody civil war. Varsiko dominated the warfare thanks to their advanced military and Alchemy even though we had the raw numbers and little by little we lost territories to Varsikovian plantations and settlements.”

You’ve forgotten to eat as you listen to the unfolding of the events. You never heard of any of this. The little history you learnt was mostly of Novaryn and Varsiko, with a few other countries from Nort, your continent, mixed in.

Nambala is located in a southern continent across the Mortis sea called Zwanma. All you know about it is that it’s tropical and scarcely populated with vast forests and nature.

“By the time my father took the throne eight years ago after my grandfather was killed in an assassination carried out by Varsiko, he immediately started negotiations. Some people viewed him as a traitor, but most were grateful he was bringing the civil war to an end. Varsiko, at that point, was eager to direct their full military forces against Novaryn and thus, were ready to give some leeway to local farmers and miners to get their cooperation. The terms of work are still vastly unfair and underpaid, but at least their military presence has lessened, and they no longer engage in large-scale pillaging and massacres. That alone was enough for most Nambalese.”

“And you were brought here to solidify the peace?” you slowly ask.

Just like you. You suddenly feel a strong kinship with Historia for your similar positions.

Not only that, you feel a wave of inferiority, seeing how informed and knowledgeable Historia is of her country’s affairs. She was clearly raised to be a diplomat while you were busy reading books and drinking tea with your mother.

“I am. Our positions differ a little, though,” Historia hums with a distant smile. “I am the only child and heir of Rod Reiss, the current King. An integral part of the peace conditions from Varsiko was not only that I was to marry their eldest czarevich but also that the Nambalese royal pair are not allowed to have more children.”

You think it over for a moment and then, your eyes fly open.

“So, they want to annex Nambala by having their only heir become a Varsikovian?”

“Yes. My father hopes that will ensure that decisions are made with Nambalese interests at heart, having their czarina be from there, but some are sceptical. Some think Zeke will completely disregard me and rule with an iron fist.”

You can see that happening. If anything, you would be surprised if he were to give Historia any power to wield once he becomes the Czar.

“Were these peace negotiations led by Czar Yeager?” you ask, a little perplexed. He doesn’t seem the kind to endorse massacres and annexation. Then again, looks can be deceiving. Especially with politicians.

“The Czar has always been more engaged with trying to find a solution to the Varsiko-Novaryn conflict. His role in Nambala was more symbolic than anything, he mainly just signed and stamped whatever papers Admiral Zackly brought before him.”

“How do you feel about all this?” you ask carefully. Historia looks at you, and for a moment her approachable, smiling face turns blue and cynical. Her real face.

“That has zero importance. My first and only priority is trying to prevent another genocide from taking place in my homeland. My country is in ruins, my people are suffering. My feelings have no place in this. If marrying that-“ Historia cuts herself off in the middle of her passionate speech. You see her mouth purse as she swallows and takes a deep breath. She knows better than insulting her fiancé out loud, even in a limited company.

She closes her eyes for a second and when she opens them, she looks like her normal self again.

“I’m happy to marry Zeke,” she says with a convincing smile.

You’re left in awe at her restraint. She’s been here, in a situation worse than yours, for far longer and she’s holding it all in, in a way you could never. She was clearly trained and brought up to navigate the tricky political climate, not neglected and then thrown to the wolves like you were.

“I had no clue Varsiko was doing all that,” you admit with a wince. “I thought they had more honour than that.”

Historia gives you a smile that’s just a tad on the condescending side.

“Varsiko is hardly in a position that allows them the luxury of morals. Thanks to Novaryn, they have to use whatever they can to keep their independence.”

It’s all over Historia’s face that she’s not excusing any of Varsiko’s behaviour, but she sees the wider context for it. You feel a stab of guilt.

“Do you hate Novaryn?” you ask timidly.

“If I were to pick between loving and hating Novaryn, I would pick the latter,” Historia hums non-venomously.

“Do you hate me?”

At that, she lets out a melodic titter.

“You? Don’t be silly. It’s obvious you never had any say in Novarynian politics. You’ve never as much as talked with your father; how could you have done anything to end the conflict?”

She’s right and as much as her words set you at ease, they also make you feel a bit blue. It’s a reminder about how useless you are. Sirius’ letter flashes in your mind again, and you swallow thickly.

“Does Zeke treat you decent, at least?”

“He doesn’t torment me as he does you,” Historia replies honestly. “He even entertains me with parties and gifts at times. He knows he’ll need me compliant to keep Nambala happy so he’s willing to play a good husband.”

Historia pushes her plate aside and gets on her feet. She takes her book and hugs it to her chest. With a small smile, she extends her hand towards you, her palm facing outright. A gesture of goodwill.

“If you ever need anything or just want to talk, you can come to me. I may not fancy Novaryn, but I feel for you. Let’s be friends.”

You smile back, only half of the joy fabricated, and press your palm against hers. You move your hands up and down once in unison and she then turns for the doors.

Just as she’s about to move out, you think of something.

“Are there any beautiful places in close vicinity? The castle is large but hardly ornate and I'm aching for some aesthetics,” you confess. You’re aching to get out a bit, somewhere other than the busy city. It didn’t go too well last time.

She turns and gives you a knowing grin.

“Ask Captain Levi to take you to the Osra field. It’s the Czarina’s garden. The roses are in bloom right now,” she advises you. You give her a grateful nod and watch her leave the room.

When she’s gone, you turn to Levi, who’s leaning against the wall as per usual.

“Did you know about all this?”

“Yes,” he replies honestly. He seems neither interested nor affected by the recap of terrors he just witnessed.

You hum and get up with the intention of leaving the dining hall when Levi suddenly blocks your path.

“Your breakfast,” he points at the plate you’ve hardly touched. “Finish it.”

You give him an irked look and glance at the plate. What is he, your mother?

“That is none of your concern,” you frown at him. He crosses his arms and snorts.

“Trust me, little miss, I’m none the more enthusiastic about babysitting you, but I have orders from the Czar to make sure your basic needs are met. And you haven’t eaten breakfast.”

“What will you do if I refuse? Kill the maid for not cooking the eggs to my liking?” you ask with obvious snark. Levi raises an eyebrow.

“Still mad about that old-timer?”

“Of course, I’m mad about you senselessly murdering an elderly civilian,” you bark back, the reminder instantly making you irritated. He shrugs nonchalantly and points at the plate.

“Finish your food.”

“I doubt the Czar meant for you to become my daddy,” you snort.

“Call me daddy again and I’ll spank you like one,” Levi shoots back with a wrinkled nose, and you can’t tell if he’s being playful or laying out a legitimate threat.

“Piss off,” you tsk and attempt to march right past him. This fussy old man and his creepy loyalty to the Czar. You couldn’t have gotten a more annoying guard.

Levi effortlessly places both hands on your waist from behind to grab you, lifts you up and despite your vocal protests, carries you back to the table and plants you back on your chair.

The dream from last night invades your brain, and you find your breath stuck in your throat at his casual touch. You fight back a blush as you’re reminded of the passionate intercourse you had in your fantasies.

“Would you stop touching me without my consent?” you ask him pointedly.

“Gladly. All you need to do is stop being such a brat,” Levi retorts calmly and points at your unfinished meal. “Eat it.”

With a dissatisfied growl, you grab your fork and shovel down the meal in record speed, all the while glaring at Levi like a cranky toddler.

“Done. Happy?”

“Yes.”

“Fine, then take me to that field Historia was talking about.”

Levi shrugs and walks you out of the castle. You saddle your horse and, still too inexperienced to ride him on your own, have Levi tie the reins to his saddle. He guides the two of you out of the castle grounds. The twenty-five-minute walk is mostly uneventful, down a small path just outside the castle grounds, past fields of potatoes and carrots, through a small evergreen forest, until you arrive at a small meadow in the midst.

It’s obvious it’s planted and gardened as roses don’t naturally grow in Varsiko, but the sight is still breath-taking.

It’s the first time you see something in Varsiko that even remotely reminds you of home. You see the thick grass, the roses planted at the sides, the assortments of wildflowers blooming in crisp colours all around you. You feel the bask of sunlight. Hear the forest birds chirp. Hear small insects buzz past you in their endless task to gather nectar and pollen.

You let out a long, adoring sigh and the moment Levi pulls the horses to a halt, you dismount yours and practically run through the meadow with a child-like giggle.

Levi keeps half an eye on you while he ties the horses to a nearby tree.

You move through the rustling, tall grass without minding the green stains forming on your dress. You breathe in the fresh air, with only a hint of salt from the sea. You only now realise how dearly you’ve missed clean air after so many weeks of breathing in polluted industry fumes.

You find a nice spot at the top of a small, gently sloping hill that faces the potato fields below. Sitting down, you thread your fingers through the grass. In the field, you see some Varsikovian farmers working hard to sow the hard land. You tug out a blade of grass and fiddle it in your fingertips, growing thoughtful.

You wonder if those people know the full extent of what Varsiko is doing in Nambala.

You think about your talk with Historia.

You wish you could be more like her. Educated and equipped to deal with political scheming.

You hear Levi walk to you and take his familiar position behind you.

You suddenly wonder what Levi was demoted for. He mentioned being sent to the Wing of Royal Affairs as punishment, and you wonder what it is he did to deserve it. If anything, he seems too eager to carry out orders.

It only now occurs to you that it’s probably a lie; Levi was sent to keep an eye on you on behalf of the military. It would make sense.

“Why do you always go in such lengths to carry out the Czar’s commands?” you ask him without turning.

“That’s none of your concern,” comes the expected reply. Of course, it’s not. You let out a thoughtful hum and lay down on the soft grass. You look up at Levi, who’s standing behind you.

“Levi.”

“What?”

“Do you hate Novaryn?”

“I hate what it’s done to my country.”

His honest reply earns him a taken aback look from you. Not that what he’s saying surprises you. He fought in the Wing of Offence up until recently. It’s only natural he hates Novaryn. But you didn’t think he would give you any information whatsoever about his personal affairs.

“Are your parents safe at least?”

“I don’t have any.”

You sit up and turn to give him a blink. His sudden honesty still perplexes you.

“You’re an orphan?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks to Novaryn?” you ask, a little apprehensive.

“Yes.”

You wince.

“Is that why you are a soldier?”

“I was raised in a military institution. A lot of orphans, especially those orphaned thanks to the war, are taken away from orphanages at age four and enlisted to the military. They’re trained with the aim of making elite soldiers.”

“Did you have a say in being enlisted?”

“No.”

That sounds extremely dubious. Then again, it’s about what you would expect from a nation like Varsiko.

“What about the augmentation?”

“They don’t augment anyone against their will,” Levi replies steadily. You nod. That’s good, at least. Maybe that’s why the number of augmented people is so low. The procedure doesn’t seem to be perfectly safe yet.

“How do they pick who gets augmented?”

“They only offer it to orphans. If things go wrong and the subject either dies or gets contaminated by metal, there’s less grief involved since there are no relatives to upset,” Levi explains nonchalantly.

The logic sounds rather callous to you but you guess it makes sense.

“Why did you get augmented?”

“That’s-”

“None of my concern,” you sigh and scratch your head. You’re impressed Levi humoured your questions even this far.

“Why did you tell me all that?”

“It’s all information you would find out on your own sooner or later anyway if you keep reading Song of Steel. I might as well give you the answers.”

“Thank you.”

Levi snorts dismissively. You turn your eyes back to the field where the farmers are doing their hard labour. You wonder how many of them hate your guts as that old man did. Probably most of them.

“Do you hate me?” you ask without turning.

Levi is quiet behind you for a brief moment. Then, he huffs and places a surprisingly gentle hand on your hair.

“I don’t hate you, little miss. You have no hand in politics and your sin is not malice nor bitterness but ignorance,” he says and pats just a little. Comforting you.

There he is again, touching you like you’re a small kid instead of the princess he’s assigned to look after. Levi has no interest in treating you like royalty. At times, it annoys you. Others, it makes you feel more at ease.

“Well, that makes two of you,” you hum with dry humour. “You still think I’m a pain in the ass, though.”

“Only when you make me treat you like a toddler.”

“It is you who is unreasonable,” you counter. You feel his gentle fingers on top of your head, brushing into your hair just a little bit.

You feel a sudden rush of tingles. You remember your dream last night, and your face starts heating up again.

Levi seems thoughtful behind you. It’s unlike him to keep touching you prolongedly like this. He must have noticed that you’ve grown increasingly dejected, increasingly blue and increasingly anxious.

He retracts his hand eventually, but the nervousness has already been implanted in you.

“I wish I could be more like Historia,” you confess with a sigh. Mostly to distract yourself from the confusing feelings.

“She’s an adept diplomat only because she must,” Levi reminds you.

He’s right. She was probably loaded with incredible amounts of duty and stress ever since she was a child. In that regard, you were let off easy.

“Do you think I can really do this?” you murmur. Marry Eren. Be a good diplomat. Somehow navigate the crisis.

“Yes.”

His response warms you a little.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Even though I’m ignorant?”

“Ignorance can be worked with. Your brain is there, it’s just mostly been left unfilled growing up.”

That’s a blunt yet oddly inoffensive way of putting it. A chuckle leaves your lips.

“I guess you are right.”

Levi contemplates for a second and finally moves to sit on the grass beside you. He keeps a solid distance, but the gesture alone shows you that he’s slowly warming up to you. You stare out in silence, the nature buzzing around you.

You look out to the horizon, and suddenly you feel light and dreamy.

Chapter Text

When you step out of your quarters that afternoon, you’re still a bit confused and conflicted about your feelings regarding many things.

You don’t know why, but you feel a sense of annoyance towards your brother. You haven’t replied to his letter, and you figured you’d wait until your feelings of irritation have passed. You know he’s right, but something about the way he talked to you rubs you the wrong way.

It’s odd because you’ve always gotten along with your brother. Then again, you never tried to participate in politics up until now. A venture everyone seems to be against.

Except for Levi. He said he trusts you can do it. His encouraging words, more than anything, are what’s made you resume reading Song of Steel. While it’s mostly just a recap of Varsiko’s military achievements, you find small nuggets of information here and there that capture your interest.

Like the fact that ethnically, Varsikovians are closer to East-Nortish people such as Ljudelians rather than Novarynians. Or that the first Varsikovian people wandered to Varsiko thanks to a horrible flood in the East a few thousand years ago.

Or that war and military conflicts have always been a part of Varsikovian history, even before Novaryn attacked, and they’ve seen more than one ruthless dictator and loads of civil unrest. Thanks to the harsh climate and limited resources, there has always been a bit of a brawl going on to control the little they have.

Alchemy was brought to Varsiko around five hundred years ago by former Novarynian Creator worshippers, who found the science in a bunch of sacred yet forbidden texts that described the rituals. Varsikovians, never a religious people, discarded the parts where the texts blatantly forbade anyone from using it should they wish to retain the Creator’s favour, and enthusiastically started practising the Dark Science.

Until Ymir found the formulas and compounds that were useful for the military, Alchemy was mainly practised to provide military leaders and the royalty with gold, silver and expensive gemstones for their luxuries. Few knew how to do it.

Around 120 years ago, the public interest in Alchemy spread as a way to produce sturdier buildings and improve medicine. Thus, schools were built to teach the art to a much wider audience. Novaryn, who had looked at the small fringe groups of alchemists through its fingers, got alarmed and put its foot down, telling Varsiko they would not tolerate widespread alchemy in their immediate surroundings.

Varsiko, seeing Novaryn as an old, sleeping giant who hadn’t been to war in a millennia after swallowing most of its neighbouring nations, discarded the warnings as biteless barking.

Obviously, the Novarynian invasion came as a nasty shock, but Varsiko quickly took a position of non-compliance. They struggled immensely at first, but once Ymir introduced Alchemy as a way to enhance military technology and the Wing of Science was established, things got a lot more even.

Thus, here you are, a century later. On your way to meet the Head Alchemist of the military because she sent you a cryptic message about “needing to talk to you”.

As you walk through the hallways, Levi following close behind, as usual, you’re fairly distracted, sorting through information in your head.

You would have missed Zeke completely had the sudden movement you see from the corner of your eye not caught your interest.

You pause just as you’re passing by a window and look out, just to see Zeke outside in the less frequently used backyard. Standing in the shadows close to the castle, he’s conversing with a woman you don’t recall seeing before. She’s dressed in a very ordinary outfit of a simple cotton dress with her brunette hair pulled back on a ponytail.

When your eyes land on her freckled face, you frown. It’s oddly familiar, yet you can’t place where you might have seen her.

Zeke hands her a scroll of paper and then swiftly walks back inside. You quickly pull away from the window before he can see you watching and lick your lips nervously.

The woman looks oddly familiar. Where have you seen her before?

Levi gives you an inquisitive look, and you quickly shake your head and keep walking. For now, you’ll just have to store the encounter somewhere in your brain and keep your eyes open. It could truly well be that it’s nothing, but you’re not going to give Zeke the benefit of the doubt with anything, that’s how little you trust him.

As soon as you open the door that takes you to the corridor belonging to the Wing of Science, you’re met with a thick, foul-smelling cloud of smoke.

Immediately, Levi coils in disgust at the smell. It’s a weird combination of metal and gas, and you have a faint clue you know who’s behind it even before the door to Hange’s study flings open and she and Moblit run out coughing viciously.

Moblit goes straight for the window and opens it to let the smoke out while Hange goes back in and comes out a few seconds later, holding something with heavy iron thongs.

You can see it’s some kind of metal, but you can’t name it. It’s steaming viciously as if it’s evaporating.

“What…? What is that?” you ask, mouth agape.

Hange raises her head and when she notices you and Levi, her mouth turns upwards into a smile.

“Oh. Hey!” She turns her eyes to the steaming lump of metal.

“This is a bronze ore that’s halfway turning into bromine, we were experimenting on fusion elements,” she explains. Moblit hurries off to another room down the corridor and comes out with a small yet heavy-looking chest. He places it down and has to use both hands to open the lid.

Hange puts the metal in, and Moblit seals it away. The top is probably not completely airtight, but it at least holds the odour off.

“We’ll later attempt a three-way fusion,” Hange explains, “so, we can’t dispose of that one just yet.”

You frown. You still don’t quite understand how Alchemy works, and you contemplate asking. Before you can, however, Hange has sprung to Levi and grabbed his arm.

“Levi! I was hoping you’d come if I invited the princess! It’s time for your annual check-up,” she announces.

“You invited me just to check up on Levi?” you ask, only a little surprised. Hange gives you an apologetic wince.

“Sorry. But he never comes of his own volition and if you don’t check regularly, the parts are more prone to malfunction.”

Levi glares at Hange, but when you shrug and gesture towards her study, he doesn’t put up too much of a fight. At first, you’re thinking of staying outside, but Hange gives you a grin.

“Want to observe?”

“Observe?”

“You looked curious.”

Levi wanders in the dim room and hops to sit on the stone table in the middle. He removes his shirt, and you admittedly struggle with keeping your eyes appropriate. He’s very toned and you’ve never been in male company a lot, let alone in half-naked one.

Hange grabs Levi’s arm and starts yanking it in different positions.

“Joint mobility is still good,” she remarks. You watch her work. She checks Levi’s legs as well before sinking her hand in a bowl of liquid and placing it on one of the symbols on the table. Immediately, it lights bright purple.

In the dim light, you can see Levi’s body start gleaming in a variety of colours, muffled by his skin but underneath, you can see at least a dozen different tones, each brighter and more brilliant than the last.

“No composition decay either,” Hange says after looking over Levi’s body. Obviously, the colours tell her something that goes right over your head. Levi himself looks a little bored, he’s clearly been through this procedure before.

“So, what exactly is Alchemy?” you ask. You know what it’s capable of, but you don’t know the principles with which it operates.

“At the base of it all, it’s changing the molecular blueprint of something,” Hange explains despite Moblit’s horrified expression. He must be wary of you still.

“Blueprint?”

“Everything in existence has a blueprint inside it that stores information on what it is, what it’s made of and how to build another one of itself. It’s the very same blueprint that makes children resemble their parents, that makes animals be able to breed, it’s nature’s way of storing information.”

You nod as Hange unceremoniously opens Levi’s mouth to check something inside, despite his annoyed growl.

“What we do is we re-arrange that blueprint to be the blueprint of something else and thus change its composition. It then becomes that something else,” Hange explains as she enthusiastically checks Levi’s teeth.

“So, when you augment, you change the human body into metal?” you ask. Hange chuckles.

“That would be extremely risky and complex. We change the composition just a teeny tiny bit, just enough to not reject metals and then replace various bones with them and coat organs with them.”

That sounds extremely unpleasant.

“Is it painful?”

“Not after the operation,” Levi replies dully once Hange is finally done checking his mouth. “During, however…”

“It’s a small price to pay to have such a beautiful, perfect body,” Hange sighs wistfully. You wonder why she doesn’t just augment herself, then.

Levi’s check-up comes to a close, and he pulls his shirt and cape back on. You look around the study curiously, but nothing has changed since last time. It still looks just as disorderly, with books and vials everywhere and the lighting so dim you have trouble seeing around.

You feel a sense of curiosity about Alchemy. It’s a forbidden art, and you’ve only recently found out that it was actually discovered by Novarynians.

As you step outside to the corridor, Levi seems to be a bit irritated, especially as Hange hurries after him and knocks his head just in case to make sure the metal underneath makes a chiming sound, indicating the coating around Levi’s skull is still intact.

That explains why slapping Levi hurt so damn much.

Stepping out of the Wing of Science, you stumble upon three familiar people who are standing next to the window, talking to each other animatedly.

Obviously, you noticed Armin wasn’t present with Hange and Moblit, but when you see him with Eren and Mikasa of all people, you feel a bit confused.

You watch them, and for the first time, you see Eren looking enthusiastic about anything. He’s smiling, looking over a book of sorts that Armin has opened to show the two of them.

You can’t hear what Armin is presenting, but he looks to be complete enamoured. Eren’s eyes have a longing hue to them as well, and Mikasa, while quiet as usual, looks at the book as well with clear intrigue.

Eventually, Armin notices you approaching, and he closes the book before you can see what it is they’re looking at. You can’t recognise the book, it has a warm brown cover with some blue text engraved on the leather spelling out a name you’re not familiar with.

“Your grace,” Armin bows. Eren, as soon as his eyes land on you, loses his excitement and turns sullen. His eyes pause on the purple necklace hanging from your neck, the one he gave you, but he makes no comment on it.

“Armin, Eren,” you greet them with a nod. You glance at Mikasa, but she’s never as much as spoken a word to you. You don’t think you’ve ever even heard her speak.

“You were visiting the Wing of Science?” Armin asks, hardly containing his curiosity.

“Hange invited us. Levi needed his annual check-up,” you explain and gesture to Levi, who looks mildly annoyed.

“I see.” Armin nods.

Eren’s mouth is pursed unhappily, and eventually, he can’t keep his dissatisfaction to himself. He points at the necklace.

“You don’t have to wear that,” he states bluntly. You notice Mikasa’s uneasy eyes flickering to the piece of jewellery as well. You really have a hunch these two have something going on.

“I’m aware,” you respond, polite but nonapologetic.

“It doesn’t match with the rest of your outfit,” he then points out.

“That is not something I am concerned with,” you hum. Eren frowns, a little irritated, and suddenly extends his hand as if he’s going to yank the necklace off. He changes his mind halfway and pauses. Then, he drops his hand and turns his head away with a bothered sigh.

“Fine. Do whatever you want.”

“Thank you, your grace,” you curtsey with a dull edge to your tone. Eren glances at you.

“Don’t call me your grace. It’s annoying.”

“Then, what should I call you?” you ask curiously.

“Eren’s fine.”

“Alright. Then you may call me Cora,” you return the favour. He looks like he wants to argue but decides to bite his tongue last minute.

“Whatever,” he huffs and marches off. Mikasa follows him without a word. Armin, clutching the book to his chest, looks after them with a faint smile.

“Don’t mind him,” he tells you earnestly. “He’s just not very good at expressing himself.”

“Do you know him well?”

“I grew up here in the castle as well, so we became friends as kids.” Armin smiles fondly and you can instantly tell these two share a deep bond.

“What about Mikasa?”

“She also grew up in the castle. At first, they were going to raise her to be a chambermaid, but she showed an excellent aptitude for fighting, so they ended up training her to be a soldier instead. Now, she’s an Ackerman.”

“Ackerman?” You turn to Levi, connecting the dots between their shared last name.

“Oh, it’s a little complicated, let me explain,” Armin says with a smile. “Orphans are treated a bit different in this country. An orphan is raised in an orphanage until age four and then redirected to an institution that will train them for their future occupation. Orphans, by default, don’t have a last name. They must earn one by completing their education and acquiring a role. A soldier gets the last name Bauer, but an augmented one gets to carry the rare and valuable Ackerman, reserved solely for them and their descendants.”

“Why would they leave orphans without a last name?” you ask, perplexed. It doesn’t make sense to you. Armin looks a bit uncomfortable.

“It’s because Varsikovian culture values strength above all else,” Levi cuts in, deadpan. “If your parents died, they must have been weak, and their last name doesn’t deserve to be preserved through you. The orphan must earn back the status their parents lost.”

It sounds all sorts of messed up, but you know better than expressing outrage outwards. Thus, you just nod slowly.

“A small society like ours really needs extraordinary talent to succeed against the much larger nations around us, and thus we push for harsh competition,” Armin explains. “The concept of earning everything you have starting from your name and the roof over your head is embedded into the culture.”

You quietly think to the government-funded orphanages in Novaryn, where priests and other Enlightened raise children to respect the ways of the Creator. They grow up fed and happy.

Then again, you’re starting to see things from a different perspective. To Varsikovians, it probably looks like Novaryn is brainwashing children into religion from birth. Two opposing cultures. Two points of view. None necessarily better than the other.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the Varsikovian way doesn’t sound weird to you.

You feel a strong urge to ask Armin more about Eren in an attempt to find out if there’s anything you two have in common, but you decide against it. You don’t want to be invasive towards your future husband.

That doesn’t mean you won’t snoop about other things now that you have a chance.

“Armin, can I ask you something?”

“What is it?”

“Why does the older czarevich hate Novaryn so much?”

Armin blinks, taken aback, and thinks it over. He’s clearly not sure how much of the information he’s allowed to disclose. Finally, he leans in.

“I don’t feel comfortable telling you, but I can tell you where to find that information. In the library, look for a black bookcase. It has contemporary history. Look for a large, red book that’s half-empty. It depicts the current Czar’s regime, updated yearly. You’ll find what you’re looking for there.”

You nod gratefully.

“Thank you, Armin.”

He offers a small smile and starts walking back towards the Wing of Science. You glance at the book in his hands curiously but eventually let it go. You know to limit your prying.

You set course towards the library, Levi quiet behind you as always. You’ve gotten to the point where you’re used to his presence. Most of the time. Sometimes, you suddenly become hyper-aware of it and your pulse quickens on its own.

The library is just as bright, stacked and empty as always. You rarely see people there. Looking around, you locate the single, black bookshelf in the middle of the oak-coloured ones.

You look around for the book and finally locate it at your eye-level. It’s rather thick, and a large part of it has already been filled. You glance at Levi, who’s leaning against the wall with a blatantly uninterested look in his eyes.

“Going to give me any hints as for where to start looking?”

Levi gives you a long, bland look. Lately, he hasn’t been as quiet and neutral as before. He’s actually given you information. Discussed with you. Even encouraged you.

It doesn’t take him long to relent. He shrugs to himself in resignation.

“You might want to read through the records from sixteen years back,” he enlightens you. You sit down on the floor without minding the dust getting on your dress, cross your legs and open the book, expertly ignoring Levi’s disapproving looks.

You find the right page and start reading.

“And what a tragedy the Lunar year of 1062 was turning out to be! Not only would Varsiko suffer gravely in the hands of the Nambalan barbarians with their savage warfare, targeting the honourable Varsikovian settlements, where brave men and women defended Varsiko’s justly acquired bounties-”

You wonder if Historia is aware of these records.

“-but the Czar was about to face a devastating loss of a personal calibre. The beloved Czarina, noble and brave, was to become the victim of the Novarynian dogs. Sailing home from a routine visit to her family in the Eastern Kingdom of Ljudel, her vessel got seized and abducted by Novaryn. A lowly trick the upright Varsikovian army would never engage in, for they have honour and dignity-”

You skip the half a page dedicated to praising the Varsikovian army and the all-powerful Admiral Zackly.

“Novaryn, ever the cowardly kind, denied any responsibility for the abduction, blaming pirates for the attack and claiming they have no knowledge of the fate of our beloved Czarina. She went missing, perhaps forever leaving us with our sorrow and longing. The Czar, even amid his intense grief, raising his son now alone, was able to push aside his feelings and think of what’s best for Varsiko. Marrying again the next year, he relentlessly continued his quest for a solution to the war between the oppressed Varsiko and the foul Novaryn…”

You close the book. You got what you needed already.

So, Zeke’s mother, the first Czarina, got abducted by what people assumed to be Novarynian navy. Novaryn denied responsibility and the Czar let it go because he was desperate to end the war. You knew the first Czarina was not in the picture, but you never knew what happened to her.

You hum to yourself.

“Levi.”

“What?”

“Even if we manage to keep the peace for the foreseeable future, is there not a legitimate concern that the czarevich will resume warfare the second he ascends to the throne.”

“There is.”

“Is my father aware of this?”

“Who knows.”

You bite your lower lip. A part of you thinks this is something your father should know, that the Czar’s heir apparent is not as eager for peace as his old man.

Then again, even though you’ve never met your father, you can imagine he’s the kind of man to ruthlessly bring that to the negotiation table and use that as a way to leverage Eren on the throne, with his own blood as the Czarina. Having a puppet queen could be appealing to him.

And the more time you spend here, the less you know who you should be loyal to. Your country, Novaryn, who abandoned you and sent you here like a pig for slaughter. Or this country, Varsiko, who deeply resents you and wishes you never set foot on its soil.

Novaryn, the aggressor who attacked a small nation because of duty to religion, or Varsiko, the defendant who owns colonies and worships black magic.

For now, staying neutral seems like the best thing you can do. Keep your eyes open, your mind ready to take in information and nuance. Hopefully, at the end of this all, you’ll have an informed opinion. But for now, you know far too little to be meddling with things.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re learning. Getting a hang of politics.

“Levi,” you add with a playful twinkle after a minute of idle silence.

“What?”

“Why was Hange looking into your mouth when she was doing the check-up?”

“When she augmented me, she was so excited for her first augmentation that she accidentally knocked one of my teeth off. She replaced it with a golden one and whenever she manages to corner me for a check-up, she checks it’s still nice and shiny.”

“So, you have a gold tooth?” you ask, a little amused. He nods nonchalantly. Somehow, the small piece of information makes you happy.

You’re realising you rather like Levi. In more ways than you’re ready to admit, but at this stage, you’re alright with wanting to know more about him.

You put the book back in the shelf and just as you’re about to walk to the door, a glimmer of something very shiny suddenly hits your eyes. You look up and see the back of a golden book at the very top of one of the shelves. Instantly, your curiosity is piqued.

You look around for a ladder and move to prop one against the shelf. Before you can climb up, however, Levi steps in.

“I’m doing it this time.”

“I can fetch a book by myself,” you argue, but Levi doesn’t let up.

“Last time, you fell,” he reminds you and starts climbing. He retrieves the book and hands it to you, and to your disappointment, you notice there’s a heavy padlock closed over the cover, sealing away the text within.

Advanced Alchemy – The Complete Teachings of Ymir

So, this is one of the books that you can only open by either taking a bar exam or being a royal.

“Are you ever curious about what secrets there are sealed in these books?” you ask. Levi looks disengaged.

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“I have already reaped the benefits. The details of how they came to be don’t interest me.”

Levi. Always so practical. With a small chuckle, you put the book aside and start making your way to the dining hall for lunch.

Maybe one of these days, you’ll be in on the secrets.

-

When you’re violently hauled out of sleep, it takes you a moment to gather your surroundings. You were dreaming of rustling grass, Levi’s hand in your hair and the nickers of your horse when he pastures in the fields.

The first thing you register once you wake up from your slumber is that it’s still dark around you.

The second is that there’s a silhouette above you, huffing and grunting.

The third is that you can’t breathe.

Instantly, you go in full panic mode. You feel his large hands wrapped around your delicate neck, squeezing down with unprecedented force.

You want to cough but there’s no air left in your lungs. You claw at his hands futilely.

Once your eyes get used to the darkness a little, you recognise the person. The glaring eyes and poorly shaved face; it’s one of your guards. The one who reported for duty tonight.

A dreadful thought flashes in your mind, that Levi is somehow involved with this, the mastermind behind this, but you don’t have the time to entertain the notion right now.

You try to kick and punch, but he’s much larger than you and he has a chokehold on you. You’re already dizzy and on the verge of losing consciousness.

It takes you a few seconds more to remember the knife. Instantly, you reach your hand under the pillows. Your fingers wrap around the wooden handle. It takes you a panic-filled moment to open it with one hand, but the second you do, you slash your assailant with it.

He senses something coming and pulls his head back so that you miss his neck and instead nick his cheek. Instantly, a few droplets of blood fall on your chin.

Whereas the injury is not great, the guard immediately grows angry nonetheless. With a swift movement, he slaps your cheek.

“Think you can scratch me, Novarynian whore?” he hisses. Suddenly, he lets go of your throat and grabs your hair instead.

Immediately, you start hacking as air once again enters your lungs. Still dizzy but no longer dying, you focus on getting as much oxygen to your brain as possible. If you want to survive, you need to be able to think. You gasp for air despite the burning pain on your throat, caused by the prolonged pressure.

All the while, the man seems to be trying to decide what to do with you, mind going on angry loops as he aches to punish you for fighting back. You clutch the knife in your hand, eyes wide as you try to think. He thought you used your nail to slash him. He hasn’t noticed the knife yet. That might just be the only shot you have at surviving this.

The guard pulls you off the bed and starts dragging you by your hair. The ripping sound sends a shudder down your spine even though there’s too much adrenaline in your system for you to register the pain. You dig your heels in the floor and open your mouth to scream for help, but he quickly places his hand over your mouth.

“Keep your mouth shut. No one’s going to come to your aid. Everyone in this castle wishes you were dead,” he hisses. He stops in the middle of the room just to grab your throat again. You feel your airways getting clenched shut once more, your eyes fill with tears as he easily raises you off the ground.

You look at the man in the darkness, his angry eyes and gritted teeth.

What are you waiting for? Slice him!

The thought is crystal clear, screaming at you, but you can’t move. You’re frozen in terror. He starts carrying you to the balcony, probably to throw you right off it, and the adrenaline is instead replaced with dizzy dreaminess. In an instant, as you realise you’re doomed, you grow sluggish. Passive. A mere observer to your final moments.

Are you going to die?

Probably.

Everything seems to be in slow motion. The walk, your thoughts.

You think of your mother and feel remorse about the fact that you can never talk to her again. She’ll be left with nothing left in the world. Her afternoon tea will forever taste stale and no novel will bring a smile on her face.

You think of your brother and feel anger towards yourself. Why did your last encounter with him have to be such a negative one? You shouldn’t have asked for such a childish thing.

You think of Eren. You wonder if he’ll now end up marrying someone he loves. Like his guard, they seem to be getting along.

You think of Levi.

You wonder if he was in on this. You wonder why he encouraged you, told that you have what it takes to survive when you’re this helpless. You want to apologise for slapping him.

Then something changes. You feel a jolt at the thought of him.

An impulse. A call to action.

You see his face in your mind, the determination and ruthlessness he displayed when protecting you against both Zeke and the old man, and suddenly you know what to do. You can’t give up.

You need to fight and survive, just so you can return to him and the rest once more.

Your fingers twitch around the blade handle, and before the guard can open the doors to the balcony, you move quickly.

It only takes you one slash. You hit him right in the artery and immediately, his face turns to a wince of pain, then confusion as he struggles to understand where the sudden sharp feeling originates from.

He feels his throat with the hand not holding you by the neck, and when he feels the blood, his expression turns to anger for a brief second.

He lets go of you and you fall down on the floor, coughing.

Before you can crawl away, he slumps down on top of you.

You find yourself face to face with his draining eyes. You hear the sickening gurgling noise of his death rattle, the sound of flowing liquids as his blood escapes him.

It’s warm.

With that thought, you see him pass.

As the adrenaline wears off and your brain works properly again, you realise what’s happened. You’ve just killed someone.

Your eyes turn wide and glossy as you look at the lifeless eyes of the guard, fixated on your face. You try to push him off, but the weight of a large, grown man with all his equipment is far too much for you to lift.

Dead. He’s dead.

You try to push him away again. You need to escape those eyes. The smell of blood. The warmth of it all over your nightgown.

You want to scream but your brain is in a fog. You don’t even know what you would scream for? Ask for help? Wish for death?

Scream Levi’s name.

Why Levi? For all you know, he could be a part of this attempt.

You look at the guard again. Still dead. Still your fault.

Murderer.

Something breaks inside you irrevocably. The naïve Cora is gone, the one who came to this kingdom sheltered and clinging to childish hopes of happiness.

For in the midst of the chaos in your mind, obsessively rewinding the last two minutes on a masochistic loop, only one thought prevails.

This world is a cruel place.

With that, you shut down. You turn your gaze from the lifeless, glaring eyes of the body to the ceiling, and wait.

Your brain closes off, and without making a noise, you slowly lose your mind as the hours tick away. You’re left alone to spiral to the darkest of places, the castle quiet and lifeless and the body growing cold and stiff on top of you.

It’s okay.

When Levi comes to work in the morning, he immediately notes that the guard isn’t where he’s supposed to be outside the door.

An ominous feeling takes over him, and he hurries the last few steps to your quarters. Without knocking, he yanks the door open.

The sun has already risen, and thus Levi can immediately see the lifeless slump on the floor.

“What the fuck happened here?” he remarks out loud, on full alert, and hurries to the body. It’s the guard. He seems to be dead. Someone must have come in the middle of the night and kidnapped you.

He doesn’t see you at first as the guard's body covers the entirety of yours, but as he starts rolling him over to his back, he notices something underneath.

When his eyes land on you, he immediately shoves the guard aside. He looks over your glossy eyes, awake but distant. Broken. He looks at the blood all over your body, your nightgown stained, hands sticky, face painted crimson and your hair tangled with clots of it.

He recognises the unresponsive look on your face. He’s seen it before, on the faces of his soldiers when they’re rescued from enemy camps or come back from their first battles. When they see entire villages burnt alive, civilians tortured, chained and brought back as slave labour.

He sees the deep purple marks around your neck, and instantly knows what happened. The knife is still in your hand, though you clutch it only loosely. He reaches for it and takes it off you without facing any resistance.

He loops his arms around you and picks you up. You’re limp and lifeless, unresponsive to his touch.

You don’t register it when Levi holds you against his chest and presses the tiniest kiss on your forehead to comfort you.

“It’s okay, little miss. I've got you.”

Chapter Text

There are words around you. People. Meanings. Yet you can't extend your mind enough to grasp any of them. Talk passes you by, catty gossip and heated arguments that you struggle to comprehend.

"She hasn't moved in two days."

"They say she's just in shock. Can’t blame her.”

"Open her mouth, I'll pour in some water and medicine."

“Elder, what do you think of the rumours? That she purposefully-”

“The Czar has prohibited this from being discussed. All we’re to do is nurse her the best we can.”

Only mildly interested, you close your ears and go back to your painless slumber. You only register a phrase here and there as time and life pass you by as an endless stream.

"How did this happen?! She was your responsibility, if this gets out, we're at a diplomatic incident! Explain yourself!"

"There was nothing out of the ordinary, I had no reason to assume her guards hated her enough to try and murder her.”

"You miscalculated, Levi! I expect you to take full responsibility for this. You were pulled out from the Wing of Offence to keep this exact thing from happening!"

Why is this person so angry?

You're fine.

You're safe and warm. Existing has never been this easy, as a passive observer. Time floats past you without making an impact of any kind, it feels like years go by as you do nothing but exist while making half-hearted, absent-minded observations about things happening around you.

The sound of worried murmurs, the gentle touch of familiar hands, it all means nothing to you.

"Carry her to the bathtub, Ser. I'll disrobe and wash her as usual."

You distantly feel something warm sprinkled around your body, but it hardly matters.

Your body is secondary, everything around you feels like a hazy dream you doubt you’ll recall later. You feel eyes on you, some benevolent, some malevolent, and you wonder which one of them is your Creator, watching with deep disappointment as you give up and allow yourself to drift away.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just forget everything?

If you go back, you’ll hurt. You’ll remember the things you’re now running from, and it scares you.

You don't know how long you just float by before it even crosses your mind to question anything. But, eventually, you feel a tug of something, a call to regain some resemblance of yourself.

“Oh? Aren’t you a loyal guard dog, standing between your czarevich and his pet.”

“I have no intention of allowing you anywhere near her. I have orders-”

“It’s just the orders speaking, huh? Then, why are you glaring at me so fiercely, Levi? There’s nothing to be ashamed of, it wouldn’t be the first time a guard falls for his-”

“You’re imagining things, your grace. This is just babysitting duty.”

“You can keep telling yourself that, Levi, if that makes you sleep better at night. I will be back.”

Those voices. Where have you heard them before? And why does one of them persistently make something tug in your chest whenever you hear it in your idle moments?

Little by little, coherence returns.

Where are you?

In Varsiko, a land that’s trying to kill you.

Who are you?

Cora Reader, the 13th Princess of the Kingdom of Novaryn.

What are you?

A murderer.

You feel a jolt of pain at the word.

Why are you?

You don’t know.

But you do know something else, a revelation you accept with bitter feelings. You can’t stay like this forever, can you?

Yet the outside world is scary. Being disconnected from everything. Your family, your culture, your religion, even yourself. In such a short time, you’ve gone from a wide-eyed, naïve princess to this.

You wonder if your Creator is still looking over you, or if you've already forever lost His favour.

Another jolt of pain.

You killed a man, after all.

At the thought, something stirs in your heart. Guilt?

He attacked me first! I was just defending myself! you argue fiercely against yourself.

But a human life is a human life. You took it away. You’ve crossed a line that can’t be taken back.

You’re a murderer, and you have consequences to bear.

This peace you’ve spent what feels like an eternity in is a lie.

With that thought, the glass layer that formed around your psyche as you lay on that unyielding wooden floor, the warm stream of blood serenely flowing all over your white gown, shatters. Formed to protect you from the reality of it all, you willingly tear it down and come back to your senses.

Suddenly, all you can feel is pain. Not the physical kind, that you can bear. It’s the kind that cannot be cured with medicine. Pain that originates from your conscience and heart, radiating all over your body.

Excruciating pain. You can't breathe. You feel as if the large, clammy hands wrap around your throat again.

You're alive, but you're not sure it's worth the price.

Amidst the stampede of your emotions, the unorganised and scary jumble of unintelligible urges and feelings, you don't register you're moving again.

You break out of your catatonic terror just to sit up, bury your nails into your scalp and curl up over your knees.

A scream of anguish tears from your throat as you claw at yourself.

Murderer. Monster. Dead eyes, warm blood, the hard floor. Warm arms, soothing words. The memories flood back and you can’t stop the emotions that come with them.

It takes you long to register you're screaming and even longer that someone is next to you, grabbing your wrists and pulling them away from your head.

“Hey, hey, take it easy,” you hear a familiar voice grunt, and when you turn your head, the first thing you see is Levi.

Immediately, some of the memories clear up. Hands around your throat, the pain, time slowing down, dead eyes looking into yours and the warmth of blood.

“No…” you breathe and try to pull your hands free. Levi doesn’t let you. “No!”

“Stop struggling and listen to me,” Levi orders, but you shake your head.

“You…! You! Were you in on this?! Did you order the guard to attack me?!”

“No.”

How could you believe him? You try to rip your wrists away from him, but he holds onto you firmly.

“Let go,” you command.

“I would, but you’ll just go back to ripping your hair out,” Levi points out. How can he always be so infuriatingly calm?! Has the augmentation erased his feelings as well?

“Little miss, I get that you’re still in shock, but I’m going to need you to trust me.”

“Trust you?” you chuckle humourlessly. “You are the person in charge of that guard who tried to kill me! You are a Varsikovian. You are not even human!”

Before you notice it, you’re screaming again, tears running down your face.

You can’t trust him. You can trust no one. You’re helpless. You’re alone. And now you’re also a murderer. Maybe you shouldn't have fought after all, if this is the price you pay. Maybe you should have perished.

You struggle with all you’ve got even though it’s futile. Levi holds onto your wrists to keep you from hurting yourself until they bruise under his fingers.

He grits his teeth and forcefully drags you in despite your loud screams of protest. You register you’re pressed against something firm. He lets go of your wrists just to wrap his warm arms around you.

You realise you’re pressed against his chest. You feel the steady pulse of his heart, you feel his breath on your hair, and you instinctively stop resisting. Your eyes widen with confusion and relief as you hear his heartbeat against your ear. A reminder of the part of him that’s still human.

“I am not your enemy, little miss,” he speaks, his voice clear and unwavering yet heart-achingly soft and gentle. “I only have my word to give but I promise you, if my loyalties ever change against you, I will tell you to your face. I would never go behind your back and engage in something as cowardly as an assassination.”

You slowly relax against him. Something inside you says that you can trust him. You feel safe in his presence.

You’re so tired of fighting this futile battle on your own. You want to let it all go, even if for a minute, and just connect with another human being.

You slump into his chest, your hands clutch the coarse fabric of his cape, and you bury your face into him.

The tears form in your eyes and before you register what you’re doing, you’re bawling your heart out.

He allows you to cry against his sturdy body for what seems like an eternity, holding you through your cries and sobs.

When you pull back, your eyes meet for just a moment. You see the usual stoic look, but underneath is compassion. He feels bad for what happened.

“I owe you an apology,” he says steadily. You’re just staring at him, mesmerised by the sight of him emoting, even if it’s muffled.

“I was appointed to protect you, yet I failed that order. At the end of the day, it’s on me. I’m sorry.”

You find yourself shaking your head. You stare deep into the grey and you feel a pull towards him. You want to kiss him. You want him to comfort you in the most intimate of ways.

You move on your own to hug him again, this time tightly. Your face buries into his neck and there’s something pining and intimate in the way you pull him in.

You feel him stiffen, clearly uncomfortable and not knowing how to deal with your need for closeness. He embraced you earlier just to make you listen. Because you needed to feel safe and there was no one else to do it in his stead. This hug, however, feels more personal.

Eventually, he grabs your shoulders and clears his throat. There’s a pensive frown on his face as he pushes you away, gentle but undeniably firm.

“You should reserve such displays of affection for your fiancé only,” he says, a little awkward, and gets off the bed. There’s a clear warning in his voice to not get too close. You feel a small pang in your chest and your eyes flicker down to your fisted hands.

You don’t want your fiancé. He doesn’t care.

“Has my fiancé as much as visited me since I was attacked?”

Levi doesn’t answer and you can decipher the answer from the silence.

“How long was I out?”

“For around eight days.”

“What happened? Tell me everything.”

“The guard died, that much you probably remember. I came in the next morning and found you. The Elder examined you and determined you’re not in danger, just in shock. Your maid and I were, still are, the only ones who agreed to attend to you.”

“Agreed?” you look confused. Levi sighs, clearly bothered that he must be the one to break the news.

“You’re currently charged with first-degree murder,” he explains slowly. “Only me and the Springer maid agreed to guard and tend to you, the rest have declined.”

Immediately, what little comfort you felt from Levi’s embrace vanishes and you feel like you’ve been dunked into ice-cold water.

They think you murdered him in cold blood.

“He attacked me,” you point out helplessly.

“I know. You will probably be cleared of all charges thanks to the bruises around your neck. Despite that, according to our laws, until you’re cleared people are within their rights to refuse to serve you.”

You nod miserably.

“But wait… Does that mean you have been guarding me non-stop? Around the clock?”

Levi nods nonchalantly as if it’s nothing major.

“What is the Czar doing?”

“His utmost best to keep this from being leaked to Novaryn until he has a convincing case that this was some fringe case and not a Varsikovian conspiracy.”

“Do I need to go on trial?”

“They will probably conduct an internal investigation and declare you innocent. I would be surprised if they convicted you, based alone on the fact that it would start a diplomatic dispute with Novaryn.”

“Is there any insight as for what the guard’s motive was?”

“His autopsy found no sign of alcohol or drugs. He was in full understanding.”

Levi narrows his eyes and leans in.

“If you know anything, now’s the time to come clear,” he challenges steadily. You falter visibly as you debate with yourself.

You look down at your hands. Your body is recently washed, and your linen is clean.

While everyone else avoided you like the Three Plagues of the Summer of 458, Levi and Maid Springer took care of you when they didn’t need to. Levi swore to you he’d be honest with his intentions.

Maybe it’s time you start trusting him a little.

You move the covers aside and get on your feet. You’re a bit wobbly, but you still stubbornly make your way to the desk without Levi’s help.

You open the drawer and take out the tall stack of letters.

“Here. Maybe these will give you some clues,” you mutter and hand Levi the letters.

He takes them with a frown and starts reading through them while you stagger back to your bed. A tense silence falls between you as he reads through every letter without a word, only the sound of rustling parchment filling the room as he sorts through the stack.

“This…” he starts and looks at you over the papers. “How long has this been going on?”

“A month, maybe,” you shrug.

“And these are the letters you insisted were from your fiancé?”

“Yes.”

Levi sighs deeply and chucks the letters on the desk. He then walks up to you and crosses his arms.

“Why didn’t you tell me? I’m your guard; if I had known I would have been on much higher alert,” he scolds you.

“I did not trust you,” comes your honest reply.

Levi holds his head with a deep sigh.

“Even then, you can’t just ignore a month’s worth of death threats like this. Did you tell anyone?”

You shake your head.

“I would be impressed if it weren’t for the fact that you foolishly put your life in danger by keeping this from me,” he tells you, deadpan.

“Making a big deal out of it is probably what he wanted,” you suggest with a stubborn shrug. “I did not want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he has gotten to me.”

“Well, at least this eliminates the chances that the guard was acting alone,” Levi assesses. You settle your blankets back on top of yourself and give him a raised eyebrow.

“How so?”

“That guard wouldn’t be able to write something this poetic,” Levi announces. “Man was dumb as a rock, which makes me think whoever’s behind these letters easily manipulated him into attacking you in his stead.”

You nod thoughtfully.

“What if it is someone who has more power than I do?” you ask carefully.

“There is a real chance it might be the czarevich,” Levi reads your thoughts. “In which case, it’s going to get complicated. We can’t just charge the future Czar with treason.”

You nod. If it ends up being Zeke, you will probably be forced to silence. You can’t openly accuse him without starting an international dispute.

“Levi,” you start, “I want an honest answer. If Zeke attacks me, will you be able to step in?”

“I am not able to hurt him seriously. I will try to fend him off, but I can’t kill him or injure him badly. In that case, getting the Czar involved is the best option.”

“You do not think the Czar has any part in this?” To be honest, neither do you. The Czar has sacrificed a large part of his regime to end the war, it wouldn’t make sense for him to try and kill you now.

“I’m under strict orders to keep you safe, and he visited you to yell at me while you were out,” Levi informs you. “He’s potentially the person who’s freaking out about this the most.”

You nod. For now, the Czar seems to be on your side. But if he has to pick between his son and you, you have an eerie premonition about how that would end up. Czar Yeager, unlike your father, seems to genuinely love his children.

“Either way, you have been out for eight days. Before we come up with a plan, you need to eat.”

“Plan?”

“I want to get to the bottom of these letters and find out who sent them and why. Rather than just waiting for the next attempt.”

If it’s Zeke, there’s not a lot you can do aside from asking the Czar for help. Nonetheless, you say nothing as Levi calls for Maid Springer.

She comes in a dozen minutes later with a meal. You give Levi a confused look.

“Am I not allowed out?”

“You’re in room arrest until you’re cleared of the charges,” Levi explains. Figures.

“You poor dear,“ Maid Springer sighs as she sets the tray of warm fish soup and bread on your lap. “Eat up.”

“Do you believe I’m innocent?” you ask her, taken aback. She pauses and gives you a stern, weirded-out look.

“What do you mean do I believe? Anyone who’s met you once knows you couldn’t kill anyone without a heavy reason, your grace. Would a murderer share her food with a commoner like my son? I don’t think so,” she squawks passionately.

You’re not sure the logic holds up, but you appreciate the sentiment.

Under the hawk-like gazes of both Levi and Maid Springer, you finish the whole meal, not because you’re hungry but because you know your two minders will start fussing in unison if you don’t.

You allow Levi to carry you to the bathroom since your legs are still wobbly, but insist that he and Maid Springer wait outside while you bathe in peace.

As you slip out of your robes and into the warm water, you let out a long sigh. You’re still struggling to come in terms with the whole situation.

You survived. Now what? The situation hasn’t changed. You’re still a target, people don’t trust you. They even think you killed the guard for fun.

You cup your hands and gather some warm water in them to look at your reflection. You look afraid and insecure, deeply disturbed.

Should you send Sirius a letter and tell him everything that happened, he would without a doubt start campaigning relentlessly for the annulment of the engagement. This, however, would come at the cost of the peace negotiations.

You know your life isn’t worth that much. Naïve as you may be, you know how little you matter in the grand scheme of things. Should you die, there are 12 other princesses who can serve exactly the same purpose.

You start scrubbing your hair clean, deep in thought. You feel the temptation to slip back into the dark place you just pulled yourself out of, the idle state of merely existing without a coherent thought. Without self-awareness, just a consciousness lost in space and time.

It would be easier, yet do you truly wish to waste your life on such goalless things?

But what do you have here? The whole nation is against you.

Not the whole nation, a sudden thought crystallises. You have an ally. Levi is on your side.

So is Maid Springer, even Historia. You have people who sympathise with you, who are willing to help you.

Do you truly wish to disregard that and selfishly cease to function? Do you truly wish to embrace the notion of being a useless puppet with both arms open?

You suddenly recall Levi’s words from that small, blossoming hill you sat on together. How he thinks you have what it takes. All you need is information and experience.

As you slather your body with sweet-smelling soap, you grit your teeth together. You dig up that small and bruised seed of determination just to plant it back in your mind, where it was unrooted with the shock of the murder attempt.

You’re not just some useless princess. You refuse to give up and let everyone else handle things for you. You may be naïve, but you’re not defeated this easily.

You refuse. You have your pride.

You need to keep fighting.

With that thought, you get out of the bathtub and wrap a warm towel around yourself. You call for Levi to step outside while you’re indecent and then allow Maid Springer to pull a proper dress on you.

As she cinches your waist and waves your hair, you meet your eyes in the mirror. They’re no longer scared and disturbed. You’ve found a footing, albeit a shaky one.

You will rely on the small amount of confidence and determination you’ve managed to muster. The rest, you can feign. If you’re good at one thing, it’s keeping your wounds hidden until you’re out of sight.

It’s time to soldier on.

It’s a resolve you intend to hold onto, even if you know it’s still weak enough to be shattered with one blow.

But it’s all you’ve got right now, your fragile resolve and a handful of allies. The cards you have been dealt and all you can do is play them smart.

Levi comes back in a few minutes later with the word that the Czar wishes to meet with you.

You nod at him and dismiss Maid Springer.

When Czar Yeager walks in, the first thing you notice is the huge circles under his eyes. His face is sunken from the lack of sleep and his lips are dry and cracked. When he looks at you, his eyes momentarily flickering to the marks around your neck, he looks pained.

“Before we start discussing this incident, there is something I must do,” he tells you as he closes the door after himself, his voice solemn and his posture stiff.

Then, quite suddenly, he falls to his knees and presses his forehead against the floor, bowing to you in a deeply regretful gesture.

“I have no excuses for what happened to you. Clearly, we didn’t protect you enough and for that, I am deeply sorry. I hope you can forgive me for the way my country has treated you.”

You and Levi gape at him for a few seconds. You exchange bewildered looks with him and then hurry to kneel in front of him.

“Please stand up, your grace,” you beg. “You are not responsible for this attempt. You should not bow down to anyone.”

The Czar shakes his head stubbornly. He stays down for a few seconds more and then sits up.

“Allowing this to happen was most shameful,” he says, and for a second his eyes turn to Levi with an accusing edge. “Once the charges are cleared, I will personally make sure your guards are extensively screened for anti-Novarynian sentiments.”

You nod and give him your trained smile.

“Thank you, your grace. There is no need to stress, I’m fine. I did not get seriously hurt.”

“Only because you felt unsafe enough to carry a knife with you,” Czar Yeager reminds you gravely. “I’ve ordered Levi to stay with you at all times until we’ve finished the investigation of this incident, even if the other guards volunteer to return to duty.”

You glance at Levi, your heart taking a leap in your chest at the mention. That means he’s going to guard you during the nights as well.

He gets on his feet and you follow suit.

“As of now, all the evidence points towards the perpetrator acting alone,” the Czar tells you earnestly. You glance at your desk where the letters are stored but don’t tell him about them. The Czar is without a doubt eager to rule this a singular incident, who knows what he’d do with evidence on the contrary. Let alone if the perpetrator ends up being his own son.

Instead, you nod and smile emptily.

“That is a relief, your grace.”

“I will, unfortunately, have to comply with the protocol when it comes to your charges. Until they’re cleared, you have to stay in this room. I’ll tell Eren to visit you,” he promises.

“I’m sure his grace has better things to do, there is no need to bother him with this,” you offer an empty pleasantry.

“Nonsense. He’s your fiancé and the fact that he hasn’t visited you yet is outrageous,” Czar Yeager huffs.

You wince a little, you can see your relations getting tenser if the Czar once again forces his hand.

“I would prefer to summon him myself, your grace, it would feel more personal that way,” you quickly suggest.

The Czar contemplates for a moment and finally nods. He places a warm hand on your shoulder.

“Alright. I appreciate that you try to connect with him. He’s a good kid, just very stubborn and hot-headed. He’ll come around eventually,” he promises.

You nod. Not that you believe Eren will ever come to like you, but you always make sure to be polite around the Czar.

A silence falls between you, during which an awkward frown creeps on Czar Yeager’s face. It’s obvious he wants to ask something of you.

“Cora, listen,” he starts with a clear of this throat. “About, erm, disclosing details of this incident, I know it’s a lot to ask of you but I would very much appreciate it if you… Chose carefully whom to confide in,” he states slowly, picking each word carefully.

You catch on immediately.

“I do not plan to tell my brother or mother about this,” you promise. “I wish not to worry them, and as you said, this likely a singular incident.”

A lie, of course, you know there’s a wider conspiracy behind it, but you don’t want to escalate things. Your brother would without a doubt voice his discontent for allowing you to get hurt and things could spiral out of control from there.

It’s for the best if they never find out.

Czar Yeager looks relieved. He smiles at you meekly.

“A respectable princess they sent us. You have my gratitude,” he tells you gently. “In return for your trust, I promise to never let anything like this happen again.”

An empty promise, but you appreciate the sentiment.

You nod again, and the Czar turns for the door.

“I’ll do my utmost best to hasten the investigation and get your charges cleared. Until then, please rest and should you need anything, you can turn to Levi.”

“I shall. Thank you, your grace.”

Czar Yeager walks to the door. As he opens it, he turns to look at Levi over his shoulder.

“Keep her safe, no matter the cost. That’s an order.”

“Understood,” Levi responds immediately, eyes hard and unreadable. When the Czar’s gone, you let out a long breath.

“Do not tell him about the letters. I cannot count on the Czar having my back if our suspicions turn out to be right and the czarevich is behind them.”

“Got it,” Levi nods.

The rest of the day goes by uneventfully. You obediently eat every meal Maid Springer gives you, the Elder of the castle does a check-up and deems you physically sound, just suffering from mental trauma.

You decide to start thinking of a plan the next day with Levi, once you’ve rested for a night and your brain is clearer.

As the day turns into evening, you visit the balcony to murmur a small prayer and then retire to your bed.

You dive under the covers and glance at Levi, who’s still standing by the doors with an unreadable expression. His eyes look even darker and stormier than usual in the dim light.

“Are you not going to rest?”

“I can sleep while standing. One of the abilities being augmented gives you,” he explains nonchalantly.

Blinking, you try to imagine Levi asleep. It’s harder than it has any right to be.

“Can you sleep with your eyes open as well?”

“Don’t be dumb, of course not,” he snorts.

You turn your back and curl up under the blankets. You left the lantern on your desk on so Levi doesn’t have to stand in the darkness all night.

You’re hyper-aware of his presence. Usually, he retires to his quarters for the night and another soldier stands guard outside your chambers.

You squeeze your eyes shut and try to calm your thundering heart. Whatever it is that’s causing this new and unsettling feeling, it needs to stop.

It’s not good to harbour feelings for a man like Levi. A Varsikovian war hero who’s irredeemably tarnished with the Black Science of Alchemy, and has spent his whole life slaughtering your kind.

Not that your heart listens to you. Not even with the reminder that Levi will turn on you should the war ever re-ignite and he gets the order to eliminate you.

The small slivers of compassion, the care and worry he extends to you, the small human things he displays at times when he forgets to act the part of a soldier who knows no emotion, they draw you in.

Safe arms around you. A fleeting warmth on your forehead.

“It’s okay, little miss. I've got you.”

Your eyes snap open. Those words. Where did you hear them before?

Your memories are all jumbled up. You can’t place those images anywhere. Are they make-believe?

Pushing the memories away, you instead focus on resting.

It takes you forever to fall asleep, and when you do, you hardly slumber for an hour before the memories start replaying in your dreams.

Large hands on your throat. The sickening, ripping sound of your hair being pulled out of your scalp. The inhumane gargling sound of a man, desperately trying to draw a breath when his lungs are filling with the warmth of his own blood.

The ceiling you stared at for hours to come.

In your sleep, you curl up and whimper. Once, then again and again until you’re effectively sobbing. Levi watches without a move at first, but like a moth to a flame, he can’t run from his heart’s demise.

He walks to you in silence. Sitting down on the edge of your bed, he places his hand on your hair and caresses it tenderly.

Instinctively, you move your head towards the touch.

“Sleep, little miss. I will not allow anything to harm you,” he soothes with a quiet, pining voice. Instantly, your sobs get just a little less anguished.

Levi strokes your hair and watches over you for what feels like hours until your whimpers die down and you’re peaceful again, curled up with your chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm.

He allows himself a brief moment of adoring your sleeping face before removing his hand from what wasn’t his to touch, to begin with. He returns to his post at the door, once again sealing his affections deep inside the vault of his heart.

Come morning, his loving touch and soft words will be but a vanished memory.

-

The day starts with Maid Springer barging in with breakfast. She watches like a hawk as you eat and then ushers you out of bed to get you ready. You’re not going to leave your room and thus, getting presentable is not important, but Maid Springer seems to be in the camp that believes in the healing power of routines.

Admittedly, you feel better once you’re out of bed, bathed, fed and dressed.

You don’t know if Levi slept at all last night but if he didn’t, he doesn’t show it on his face. He looks just as alert as usual.

Once you’re ready, Maid Springer makes for the door, and when she opens it, she bumps into someone who was just about to enter. She looks up, and when she sees who it is, she scrambles to curtsey.

“Your grace! Please, excuse me,” she gasps and hurries off. The person she bumped into says nothing and instead, walks right into your room without as much as requesting permission.

Your whole body immediately goes on full alert. You see his gleeful eyes behind the round glasses, his fair beard and moustache, the smirk on his face, and instinctively take a step back from where you were standing by the vanity.

“This was left outside,” Zeke tells you and shows you an envelope. Immediately, you can tell from the handwriting that it’s from your murderous friend.

It’s as if he’s not even trying to hide it.

“Your grace,” you greet stiffly and curtsey.

“I was most shocked when I heard about what happened,” he hums non-convincingly. From the corner of your eye, you see Levi move a bit closer and subtly place his hand on the handle of his rifle.

Zeke’s left his guard outside. Either he’s not here to start trouble or he’s convinced Levi will not defy him.

Despite your pulse suddenly ringing in your ears, you meet Zeke’s eyes steadily.

He gives you a slow and intrusive once-over, his eyes pausing on your neck and gaining an unnerving hue of fondness.

You take the letter from him when he hands it to you. You’re not going to read it in front of him, something tells you that’s what he wants.

“Have you told your family?” he asks harmlessly. You shake your head.

“Czar Yeager has asked me not to until they can figure out whether there is a larger conspiracy at play,” you answer. You mention nothing of the letters.

“And you just listen to him?” he mocks. “Well, not that I can blame a lapdog for not knowing to do anything besides trying to please its master.”

The dreams you’ve had, where Zeke has forcefully pushed you down and taken your honour, invade your thoughts, but you fight off the instinct to back down. Levi’s here, he’ll make sure nothing bad happens.

“Nothing good will come out of getting Novaryn involved now,” you counter bravely.

“Is that so?” something flashes in Zeke’s eyes. He steps closer, and you force yourself to stay rooted. You will not let him notice how nervous you are.

“So, you’re trying to think with your own brain instead of blindly relying on the Czar, is that how it is?” he asks with a hum. You meet his eyes as he walks closer until he’s right in front of you.

You say nothing. He extends a hand and easily slips it into your hair.

“How amusing,” he chuckles. “And if you catch the person who orchestrated the murder attempt, what would you say to him?” he asks silkily.

“I would tell him that there are better ways to avenge for his mother’s disappearance,” you tell him on a whim, just to see his reaction. Zeke pauses and then chuckles. His eyes gain an ominous sheen.

“Blaming me, are we? I had no part in the attempt on your life,” he replies. He places his other hand on your neck, and that unnerving lust is back on his features.

“They look gorgeous on you,” he remarks. “The bruises.”

You feel a shudder go through your body, and you see Levi step closer.

“Release me,” you demand, but Zeke leans in instead. You feel his breath against your throat as he latches his lips on the largest bruise and starts suckling on the sore skin.

You see Levi draw out his sword from the corner of your eye, and suddenly you fear for him. What if he gets in trouble by stepping in?

Thus, you defend yourself. You shove Zeke away and send your hand flying, slapping him right across the face.

“Do not take me for some common courtesan, your grace,” you tell him, your hand closed over the kiss mark he just made. “I am loyal to my fiancé. If you do not want this to become a matter between yourself, him and the Czar, you shall never lay your hands on me again.”

Zeke touches his stinging cheek. He licks his lips, eyes clearly intrigued, and he laughs just a little.

“A pet dog that bites back, how amusing.” His eyes slide to Levi, who’s drawn his sword and is glaring openly, eyes stormy and dangerous.

“Seems like you’re already betraying your fiancé. In your fantasies, at least,” Zeke assesses when he sees the way your eyes involuntarily flicker to Levi. “I would be careful if I were you. He’s nothing but a guard dog, and you’re not the master he’s loyal to.”

You narrow your eyes.

“Whatever do you mean?”

Zeke chuckles and catches your chin between his fingers.

“Oh, don’t tell me he hasn’t told you,” he says gleefully. “Why, isn’t this amusing?”

Levi’s eyes turn harder.

“I believe the little miss asked you to not touch her,” he interjects tensely. Zeke chuckles and lets go.

“Yes, yes. As protective as always, eh, Levi? Sorry for touching your precious princess,” he drawls and walks to the door. He pauses just as he’s about to step out and glances at you over his shoulder.

“Sooner or later, pet, I can call you mine.”

Your eyes harden.

“What do you want from me?” you ask, dropping the proper act for a moment.

As if to respect you showing your true face, he does the same and his face turns ruthless and dangerous.

“I’m sure you’ve got it figured out, more or less,” he replies, his smile gone. “And if you know what’s good for you, you won’t rise against me, pet. Good day.”

The door closes after him, and you’re left in a heavy silence. Levi looks annoyed and he hurries to check on your neck.

“What did he mean when he talked about you?” you ask Levi as he grabs your chin to tilt your head to the side so he can get a good look. He shakes his head.

“It’s nothing important.”

You don’t believe him.

“Levi, I need to trust you for this to work, and I cannot do that if you hide important things from me,” you beg.

He grits his teeth and lets go of you when he deems you unharmed.

“I can’t tell you.“

“You mean, you do not want to,” you shoot back.

Levi is conflicted. He looks at you and opens his mouth, jaws clenched together as if the gesture alone takes a lot of his strength.

He takes a deep breath to speak, but instead of words, what comes out is a strangled noise and a gag. He quickly covers his mouth to keep himself from retching. For the first time ever, you see anything resembling helplessness in his eyes as he looks at you.

“I can’t tell you,” he breathes.

“What do you mean?” you ask, worried because he’s pale and looks ill all of a sudden. You walk to him and place a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Are you alright? Do you want me to fetch the Elder?”

Levi shakes his head.

“I’ll be fine in a couple of minutes.”

You watch him take deep breaths, eyes closed and focused. Slowly, his paleness fades and he looks normal again.

“What was that?”

“I can’t tell you,” Levi explains tensely. He opens his eyes to meet yours. “There are reasons. But what I will promise is this; I am loyal to you now. Should that ever change, I will tell you.”

You’re confused. You have no idea what Levi just went through, why he looked sick, but your only chance as of now is to place some trust in him. You can’t get to the bottom of the letters on your own.

So, you nod.

“Alright. I shall trust you. For now, at least.”

Levi nods and plops a gentle hand on your head for just a second before turning his attention to the letter Zeke handed you.

“Going to open it?”

Only now remembering it even existed, you hurry to tear your eyes, dreamy thanks to the gesture, away from Levi and to the letter. You tear it open and take out a paper, the scribblings on it written with familiar cursive. Levi moves next to you to look over the contents as well.

I should have known better than tasking that buffoon with killing you. Well done surviving what should’ve been your end.

But worry not. I will get you eventually. Seeing how you handled that swine of a guard, it makes me all the more eager to be the one to sink my blade into your bruised, delicate neck, the colour draining from your face along with the blood-

You feel a chunk of your resolve being chipped away. Your only recently found mental stability is already swaying with the sadistic words. Despite that, you can’t tear your eyes away from the letter.

Just as you’re about to read the whole fantasy, Levi, having already skimmed his gaze over the rest of it, unceremoniously takes the letter from you and tears it to pieces.

“You don’t have to read some sick bastard’s sadistic fantasies,” he tells you as you stare at him, at a loss for words.

He rips the paper a few more times than necessary to drive his point home, a clearly disgusted look on his face.

Your eyes glisten with gratitude and you feel a strong desire to hug him again. Instead, you merely nod and relish in the dissatisfied huff he makes as he throws the pieces in the bin.

You’re not alone, you again remind your fragile psyche. You have someone to help you stand. An ally, a haven, even if only for a moment.

Chapter Text

”And then, the Duchess of Gordina, stricken by grief and heartbreak, actually cast herself off a cliff into the foamy, dark currents below!”

It’s only when she’s engrossed in raving about whichever romance novel she’s recently been reading that Historia becomes this animated. You watch her small hands, excitedly gesturing at you as she talks.

You’re sitting on your balcony together, basking in the afternoon sun with a cup of that grassy-smelling tea in hand.

Below, you see soldiers pasturing by in the barren backyard, some pausing to give you two a small, annoyed look as you laugh and chatter, not caring about how your voices echo in the usually so dreary castle grounds.

It’s day six since you woke up. Luckily, Historia has visited you almost daily since she got the news that you’re awake. Discussions with her, while shallow and concerning mundane and frivolous things, do a lot to keep you sane and happy.

Whilst sitting on the balcony like this, on the wooden chairs Maid Springer was kind enough to provide you with so you can spend time outside, sipping on that grassy tea you’ve only now started to get used to, you can almost feel normal.

“What did the Archduke do then?” you ask and lean in earnestly. You hear Levi snort in the background where he’s leaning against the doorframe. His usual position. He firmly believes that romance novels are a waste of paper and that discussing them in such detail is a horribly boring pastime.

“He tried to follow, but Ms Hilde, the wet nurse of his child, stopped him!” Historia grins. “And so he spent the rest of his days looking after his son, forever pining for the only woman he ever loved.”

Both of you sigh dreamily at the absolute tragedy she described. From the corner of your eye, you see Levi give you a calm look, accustomed to your blatherings but none the less disgusted.

“Have you read anything lately?” she asks. You give her suffering grin.

“Song of Steel.”

“Still? Do you intend to finish the whole book?” she asks, taken aback.

“If I want to do any good as a czarevna, I need to be knowledgeable about the country I’m a part of,” you explain. Historia gives you a small smile.

“Not many could just pick up where they left off and keep going after being attacked like that. It’s impressive,” she compliments. You shake your head.

“I have got no other choice,” you admit. “If I leave now, my father and the Czar’s negotiations will have been in vain.”

Historia turns thoughtful. She’s obviously a little apprehensive.

“May I ask?”

“What is it?“

“How do you feel about Eren? Your fiancé? He still hasn’t visited you, has he?”

You hum and lean back on your chair. You look at the bright sun. This Solar year has really pampered you with lots of sunshine.

It’s just Levi and Historia within earshot, so you might as well be honest.

“I do think it is rather callous of him to not as much as send me a letter when I have almost lost my life thanks to this marriage. I do not hate him nor do I really even mind marrying him – I have been raised with the idea of marrying whomever my father chooses for me and as far as all possible candidates go, I’m glad I get to marry someone who is around my age and not abusive.”

Historia nods knowingly. She offers you a sympathetic smile.

“I’m sure Eren will come around. He just needs to get used to you,” she offers words of empty encouragement.

You chuckle and shake your head.

“I do not think that will happen, but it is alright. I have come to terms with it.”

You meet Historia’s compassionate eyes calmly. She gives you a gentle smile.

“Well, no matter what, I will be your ally, Cora,” she promises and extends her hand towards you. You press your palm against hers in a familiar gesture. You smile.

She’s right. Your fiancé may not care, but you have others who do.

Hange and Armin barged in yesterday with the pretence of offering Levi a trivial upgrade he obviously didn’t need. They then ended up staying and spending a good hour just entertaining you. The story of how Hange first got into Alchemy and how her first ritual was turning her father’s prized bottle of wine into cheap juice, to the utmost horror and fury of her old man, still brings a smile to your face.

Maid Springer makes sure you eat and bathe every day. She fusses over you in a manner so mother-like that you can’t help but grow attached to her. Being torn away from your birth mother so violently, it’s only natural you feel drawn to the loving care.

And then there’s Levi. He hasn’t left your side since. Stoic and calm as always, he stays by you day and night. As you fall asleep each night, your heart is pounding just a little bit with the knowledge that he’s standing watch by the door, nothing but intimate darkness keeping you apart.

When you wake up with the first rays of sunshine, he’s exactly where he was when you drifted off. You don’t know when he sleeps, or if he does at all.

When you came here, you were alone and lost. Now, however, you have people who are on your side. You just need to stay reminded of that.

A knock on your door interrupts your pleasant conversation with Historia.

“Your grace! A letter!” you hear a familiar voice from the corridor.

“Come in,” you call to the door as you get on your feet and walk back to your chambers. Historia follows you.

The door cracks open, and Connie peeks his suspicious face in. Looking around, he soon lets out a long sigh of relief and walks inside.

“That scared of your mommy being here and reprimanding you for the mud stains on your ass?” Sasha, who saunters in after Connie, teases him. You see the corner of Levi’s eye twitch at the crude language.

The unruliness of Sasha and Connie always puts him in a sour mood.

“You have no idea what I have endured with my ma,” Connie whimpers and shudders. You look over his attire and indeed, it is obviously splotched and dirty.

“Did you traverse to Novaryn again?” you ask. Both of them spring to you and salute in unison.

“Yes, ma’am! We hereby bring you a letter with the royal seal!” Sasha announces importantly. You draw up an eyebrow. They’re usually not this formal.

“We went through trials and tribulations to bring you this letter, your grace!” Connie continues. He reaches for the brown leather pouch hanging at his hips and rummages for a moment until he finds the right letter.

Handing it to you, he smiles widely.

“Always a pleasure to serve, ma’am!”

You blink at them and take the letter.

“Thank you,” you offer. As you turn away to saunter to your desk for a letter knife, you feel their eyes keenly follow you. You ignore them and grab the knife.

You rip the letter open and take out the thick parchment.

“Did you have something else with her?” you hear Levi’s sharp voice address the two messengers. You raise your gaze to see both of them slump a little.

“No, sir,” they sigh, looking dejected all of a sudden. You frown at them as they start trudging towards the door.

Then, you suddenly understand and you can’t help the small grin that rises to your cheeks.

“Maid Springer was kind enough to bring me ripe plums this morning. I could not possibly eat all of them by myself, so would you care to-?”

“Yes, ma’am!” they both spring in front of you with excited expressions.

“The fruit you gave us the last time, it was... It was…” Sasha struggles to come up with an adjective grand enough.

“Heavenly!” Connie cuts in.

“Ooh, that’s it! Heavenly!” Sasha agrees with an eager nod. You look at their tomfoolery, a little taken aback but undeniably entertained.

You grab a few plums from the basket on your vanity and hand them over to the two.

“Thank you for the letter,” you smile. They take the fruit with enchanted smiles.

“Plums! Real, imported plums!” Connie rejoices. Sasha sniffles back moved tears.

You don’t get it. It’s just fruit. Then again, you don’t seem to understand a lot of the struggles local commoners go through.

“I thank you, your grace!” Connie exclaims and kneels down to dramatically take your hand and kiss it, far too wetly to fit the etiquette. You have to stifle an amused giggle.

Levi’s had enough at this point. He marches to the two, grabs the backs of their military jackets and shoves them towards the door.

“You got what you came here for and you delivered the letter. Get out,” he snaps. Historia presses her hand to her lips and chuckles a little as Connie and Sasha hurry to salute and run out with their prize.

“A lively couple, aren’t they?” she remarks gently. She then turns for the door herself.

“The letter is probably from your family. I’ll leave you to it. I can visit again tomorrow if you’d like?”

“Please,” you answer. It gives you something to look forward to.

Historia nods and then excuses herself. Left alone in the room with Levi, you turn your attention to the letter.

“Do you have to humour them so much? They’re bound to turn insufferable if you keep spoiling them,” Levi complains. Giving him a nonchalant hum, you unfold the letter.

“It is poor manners to waste food and I would not have eaten all of those plums either way,” you reply as you start reading through the text.

Cora,

It has come to my attention that you have not written anyone in Novaryn in quite some time. Please, at least let us know you are faring alright.

I understand that you may feel angry about my last letter but try to understand my circumstances. We are walking a diplomatic tightrope with Varsiko.

Should it be of any consolation to you, I will keep an eye out for the woman you requested, and should she come my way and a suitable exchange of prisoners happen to be arranged, I can attempt to send her back to Varsiko.

This is all I can do. Please, let me know you are alright, Cora, I worry for my little sister.

Your mother is beside herself with worry as well.

Love always (always, please remember that),
Sirius

As you read over the worried words, you suddenly feel weak. It takes you a second to name the feeling, the pining dizziness in your brain, before you realise you’re homesick.

You clutch the letter to your chest and wobble just a little with the intense emotions. Any annoyance you may have felt towards him melts away, and all you’re left with is longing.

Oh, how you wish you could tell him everything. About the letters, about how cold your fiancé is towards you, how the future Czar harasses you, how someone already attempted to take your life.

You want to pour it all out, you want to ask him to take you back home from here, to where it’s warm and safe. Back to the bright, ancient castle with countless hallways left unexplored, with absent-minded priests walking by and greeting you with a murmur of prayer, with children playing freely in the luscious gardens while their mothers watch while hiding under their parasols to shield their skin from the sun, with the fertile fields that produce such fragrant flowers and fruit that during the summer, you can smell it all the way to your room.

The ancient forests, stretching far beyond the horizon in the distance, the Twin Mountains you used to spend your nights watching, imagining the strangest of beasts that could potentially live deep within its caverns.

You miss it dearly. All of it.

With a deep, shaky breath, you try to smother the feeling. Before you can, however, you feel a familiar hand place on your hair. Observant as always, Levi has caught onto what you’re feeling.

“It’s okay to miss home, little miss,” he tells you steadily. He pats the top of your head a couple of times.

You look up at him hopelessly and feel a familiar urge to leap against him and hug him tight. To raise your head, your eyes meeting his, your lips brushing together-

No.

You shove the thought aside. You keep your hands at bay and just allow yourself the fleeting moment of his comfort. When he pulls back, you don’t stop him.

“I will be alright,” you promise both yourself and him. He nods.

You walk to the desk and sit down. As you take out a parchment and start writing, your hand doesn’t tremble.

Sirius,

Dearest brother (and mother, I know you will read this as well). I’m sorry I have been so quiet lately. Truth be told, a lot of things have happened.

You can sense Levi tensing alertly as he reads the letter over your shoulder.

Every day is just filled with so many activities. Shopping in town for new and exciting dresses, going out to balls and parties with my beloved fiancé, discussing the newest romance novels with my sister-in-law… I have been having so much fun that I simply forgot to write. Forgive me.

You pause and frown. You feel the tug in your chest to just tell the truth and let your brother handle things. He would arrange for your safe return should you just ask for it.

Biting your lip, you keep lying.

I’m faring just fine here. In fact, life is quite enjoyable. There is no need to worry about me at all. Dearest brother and mother, I hope you are doing alright. I will try to remember to write home every week from now on.

Thank you for keeping an eye out for Belle Lindt, brother. I know it was selfish of me to request something like that and knowing that you are trying your best to accommodate me makes my heart sink with fondness.

I hope you are well. May the Creator bless you with His favour.

Love always,
Cora

You feel Levi’s eyes on you as you seal the letter and walk towards the balcony.

“You’re not allowed to use the hawk until your charges are cleared,” Levi tells you. You pause and sigh. Figures. You’ll just have to ask Maid Springer to send the letter tomorrow, then.

“You’re a good liar.”

You turn to give him raised eyebrow.

“Is that a compliment?” you ask, confused. Levi shrugs.

“In politics, the ability to lie convincingly is almost as important as intelligence and charisma.”

You sigh and slump down on your bed.

“I hate politics.”

“That makes two of us,” Levi announces. You chuckle humourlessly and blink at the dull ceiling. Pushing down the traumatic memory it triggers, of the weight of the guard on top of you, the metallic smell of blood and his dead eyes honed on you, you instead turn your attention to Levi.

“So, how are we going to get to the bottom of these letters?” you ask. The last few days, Levi has not brought it up and you’ve been too tired to think of it.

“I have been keeping an ear out for letters during the nights,” Levi tells you. “Should one arrive one of these nights, I was planning on pursuing whoever sends the letter.”

“By yourself?” you ask. Levi looks a bit frustrated.

“This is where my dilemma comes in. I’m under orders to stay by your side at all times. I haven’t decided how to solve that problem yet.”

“I can sleep fully clothed, you can wake me up and we can pursue together?”

“Breaking your room arrest is against the protocol, I would be held liable,” Levi protests. You sit up on the bed and cross your legs carelessly.

“You can leave me alone. I do not mind.”

“No.”

“Then, take me with you.”

“No.”

“What are you, a youngling throwing a temper tantrum?” you huff. “Those are your two options. Pick between them. Unless you want to wait until I’m out of room arrest.”

“Once you’re out of room arrest, the person delivering the letters will have the opportunity to wait until your room is empty to deliver the letters. While you’re confined, he’ll have no choice but to try and deliver the letters undetected.”

“What if he will not deliver any while I’m under arrest?”

“There’s always a chance of that happening. But should the opportunity arise to follow whoever delivers those letters, we should take it.”

“Then, what do you want to do?” you ask. Levi thinks it over, clearly hating both the thought of leaving you unguarded and dragging you along for a stealth mission. Eventually, he groans.

“Fine. I’ll take you with me.”

“I will start sleeping in decent clothes, then,” you decide.

“You can’t run around the hallways undetected in your normal attire,” Levi points out. “Your skirts and heels make noise, not to mention it’s impractical for running.”

You stand up and walk to your dresser. Opening the drawers, you start going through your clothes. Most of them are long dresses, but the outfit you wore to town should still be somewhere in there.

Finally, you find the bland-looking brown dress and ordinary boots. You show them to Levi.

“Would these fare better?”

He nods. You place the clothes on top of the drawer. Levi’s eyes pause on your neck and suddenly, he seems oddly content.

“What?” you ask and tilt your head.

“The kiss mark is gone,” he remarks. You instinctively touch the spot that Zeke sucked. The skin is still tender thanks to the bruises, now turning yellow and fading.

“Oh. That is good.”

Levi walks a bit closer, looking very pensive. As if the sight of your bruised neck reminds him of something. He gently grasps your chin to tilt your head up and double-check the skin where Zeke’s lips landed those days ago.

You feel a pleasant shudder go through you and suddenly, you’re a bit short of breath. You stay completely still as he leans closer, so close you can feel his nose softly bump against a tender bruise on your throat.

Your eyes widen at the sudden intimacy. You have no doubt he can feel your pulse, thundering under the skin his lips are now brushing against just a bit.

His name dies on your lips before you can say it out loud, afraid you’ll break whatever spell he seems to be under.

“When he did that,” Levi murmurs, his low voice vibrating against your heated skin, “I was angry.”

You tremble just a little as you feel his breath against the spot. So close, all he needs to do is lean in and place his lips on your skin, and you’ll throw your head back and surrender to him.

“Why?” you ask, voice throaty and laboured.

Levi pauses for a long moment.

“Because you’re not his to touch,” he finally replies and in his tone is heavy realisation. He pulls away and steps back. You look up to meet his conflicted eyes.

“Levi,” you whisper. “I do not care whose I officially am to touch. Who my heart belongs to, I shall decide on my own.”

Just please touch me. Love me. Because no one else has.

You reach a pining hand towards him, but before you can place it on his jaw, he swats it away. You look into the stormy grey of his eyes.

“You’re misunderstanding things,” he tells you, forcing his face dull and void of emotion. You swallow, something cold trickling down your spine at his hostility. You know he’s not telling you the whole truth, but his words have awoken a side of you that you cannot stifle.

Unwanted, it tells you. By your father, by Novaryn, by Varsiko, by Eren and now even by the man of your affections.

You hide the hurt with that empty, impersonal smile.

“Alright,” you accommodate him and pull your hand away. “Forgive me. For stepping out of line.”

Levi grits his teeth, and he suddenly looks like he’s in pain.

You turn to walk away, but he pulls you in before you can. You fall into his embrace, his face pressing into the curls of your hair for the sweetest of moments.

“Little miss,” his voice is oddly strangled and thin. “Don’t give me that smile. It pains me.”

You nuzzle your nose against the coarse cotton of his cape. The scent of soap, fresh air and the hint of something metallic you can’t quite name.

“Why does it pain you?” you ask, your hands resting against his chest with such ease. It feels natural and right. Like you belong here. Your heart hums in agreement.

Levi merely shakes his head to discard your question. His arms tighten around your waist just the smallest bit before he pulls away.

Eyes unreadable once more, he turns to go back to his post at the door.

“Don’t mind me, little miss. I’ve just been feeling unlike myself lately,” he deflates the tension. You watch him walk away, chest ringing with a light, dreamy feeling.

You allow him, but you don’t know how long it will be before these new, overwhelming feelings boil over and you can no longer keep yourself in check.

-

It’s almost a week later when Levi shakes you awake in the dead of night.

You moan sleepily. Sitting up, you rub your groggy eyes and fix them on Levi. He gestures for you to get up and follow him.

Immediately, you’re wide awake. Without a word, you pull on the boots waiting next to the bed and do as you’re told.

Levi has his ear against the door, listening. You try to do the same, but you don’t have his enhanced senses.

Levi listens intently for a few seconds and then turns to you.

“He just left, I can hear his footsteps receding. Keep quiet and stay behind me,” he murmurs into your ear with a low voice. You shudder a bit when you feel his breath against the shell of your ear.

He noiselessly opens the door and slips outside. You keep a hand over your mouth to stifle any noises you might make and follow him.

The hallways are quiet and dark, with just a few scattered lanterns lighting up parts of it. You squint, but you can’t make up anything in the darkness as Levi quickly pulls you away from the light and starts leading you where he can see the person now moving.

Keeping you firmly in the shadows, Levi leads the way. Twice, you fall behind as you struggle to move through the dark hallways as quick as him, until he grabs your hand and places it on the back of his cape, signalling for you to hold onto him and let him pave the way.

You grasp his cape between your fingers and thanks to him clearing the path for you, you can scurry behind him without issues.

It feels like an eternity as you move without a word. Every now and then, Levi stops abruptly to either avoid detection or to locate the mysterious figure, concealed by the darkness, moving through the corridors.

Eventually, Levi stops for longer than usual. It’s so dark you can’t make out what’s around you, and you’re disoriented from all the sharp turns. Thus, you can’t tell which part of the castle you’re in.

“The person went inside that room,” Levi leans to whisper in your ear and gestures towards something in the darkness.

You can’t make out which room it is, but Levi obviously can, because there’s something very unsettled in his voice.

“Let’s move in and eavesdrop what’s going on inside. Stay quiet. Don’t even breathe if you can help it,” he tells you. You nod.

Levi leads you to the dark door and helps you lean your ear against it.

“It’s risky delivering the letters while she’s still under charges,” you hear a muffled male voice. “What if Levi saw her?”

“She can shrug pursuers. Not to mention it’s pitch black outside,” another voice comments, this one female. “Just how long is the Czar going to keep her confined anyway?”

“At this point, it’s obvious my old man is going to keep her under arrest to keep her from using hawks and telling her family about this until he can prove this was a singular case. Her mail is probably being monitored as well.”

“He sure is being overly cautious.”

“I still think you took it too far. I agreed to get rid of her, I didn’t agree to kill her,” the male voice points out, obviously displeased.

“She ignored the letters. I’m running out of time. I panicked,” the female voice defends herself. “She’s much tougher than she lets on. It’s starting to really unnerve me.”

“Do we have to kill her?”

“If she doesn’t break otherwise.”

“What’s her mental state like?”

“She’s started befriending people, by now she has a support network. Not to mention her guard practically living by her side. At this point, I’m running out of ideas on how to handle this mess.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Unless you’re willing to be even nastier to her-”

“No. I told you, I’m only doing this much because I know how much this means to you,” the male voice cuts in. You hear the woman sigh deeply, clearly frustrated.

“If you could only put a little more pressure-”

“I’m not going to do that, I already feel terrible as is. Forget it.” he raises his voice a little. You just listen, gaping.

“Fine! If you’re not going to help me, then please leave! I have no use for you right now and I have a lot to do!” you hear her snap.

A tense silence falls in the room.

“Alright, then.” His voice sounds cold and closed off.

“Ah, no. I didn’t mean to say that. Wait!" she immediately realises her mistake.

You hear footsteps come closer. Before you can even fathom the thought of reacting and hiding, Levi has grabbed you, covered your mouth and nose with his hand and dragged you away from the door. He swiftly walks you back until you arrive at a corner. He shoves you to hide behind it.

In unison, you peek as you hear a door crack open. In the darkness of the night, you’re only offered the light from inside the room.

You see a brown-haired boy march out with an annoyed frown on his face. Quietly following him is a girl in a red cape, face expressionless as always. The boy makes it just a few purposeful strides until someone follows him and wraps both arms tightly around his waist.

“Eren,” the blonde woman begs. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. Please don’t go. This has been stressful for me and I’m not quite myself.”

Eren pauses. Were this you, he would without a doubt tear himself free and bark at you. Now, however, he turns with a sigh.

“Krista, I told you not to do this out in the open,” he tells her, and you can read the gentle sheen in his eyes just fine.

“No one’s seeing this,” she murmurs back as she hides her face in Eren’s shirt. Your eyes slide to Mikasa, who’s standing aside and watching quietly. You’re not sure if you’re imagining it, but you could swear she looks… A little pained?

Historia clings to Eren tightly and when she finally pulls back from the hug, her eyes are glistening and vulnerable.

“Don’t go,” she whispers. “I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

Eren opens his mouth to respond but before he can get the word out, you accidentally tap the heel of your boot against the wooden corridor floor. The sound is barely audible, but despite that Mikasa immediately draws her sword.

Eren and Historia fall quiet as Mikasa starts moving towards the source of the noise. You feel Levi’s hand tighten over your mouth as he pulls you back just a little bit, against his chest as he leans against the hallway wall.

There’s no way you can move further back at this distance without her hearing. You just need to hope she doesn’t spot you.

She walks closer in the tense silence, keeping an eye out for anything and everything. You don’t even dare to breathe as you lean against Levi, eyes wide, not just with the adrenaline of almost being caught, but also with everything you’ve witnessed so far.

Levi moves his free hand to the handle of his sword, ready to draw it should things go wrong. Mikasa gets closer. She passes you by and walks by the corner you’re hiding behind, continuing forward down the corridor instead, and for a precious second, you think you’re off the hook.

Then, she turns her head abruptly, as if sensing you’re there. It takes her eyes a few seconds to make out the darkness, even with her augmentations.

Her calm eyes meet yours where you’re standing, eyes wide and Levi’s hand covering your mouth. Your whole body tenses up. What if Levi and Mikasa start brawling here and your whole plan goes to waste? What will happen when Historia and Eren find out you know? Will they kill you? Will they kill Levi?

You hear your heart pounding in your chest. Levi’s tense and ready behind you.

Then, to your utter confusion, Mikasa presses her index finger against her lips, signalling for you to stay quiet. She gives Levi a small nod and turns to go back.

“Mikasa? Is someone there?” Historia asks. Relaxed, Mikasa walks back to the two and shakes her head.

“No. False alarm.”

“Let’s get back inside either way,” Eren decides. Historia grasps his arm and holds onto it tightly. The three of them retreat into the room. The door closes after them, leaving you in darkness again.

As the adrenaline wears off, your knees buckle. You take a deep breath.

The sting of betrayal is not instantaneous, but when it finally hits, it knocks the breath right out of your lungs. You feel dizzy, like someone punched you in the gut with an augmented fist.

You feel Levi’s worried hand on your back, rubbing between the shoulder blades as you take support from the wall.

It’s not the fact that Eren and Historia are obviously very personally acquainted. It’s not the fact that by the looks of it, Mikasa has been the one delivering the letters. It’s not the fact that Eren’s complete indifference towards you is a part of the plan.

It’s the fact that Historia, the first and closest friend you made in this castle, is behind this.  As you struggle to breathe, you quickly count all the times she’s been in your room, looking you dead in the eye, worried, asking how you’re faring while secretly planning ways to be rid of you.

You imagine her going up to the guard and with her melodic voice and honeyed tongue, manipulating him into strangling you in your sleep.

You feel sick to your stomach. You feel like hurling. You look up at Levi in the darkness, and his compassionate yet completely unsurprised eyes tell you that he already suspected this but kept his mouth shut to protect your psyche. He didn’t want to say it out loud unless it was proven to be true because you liked Historia and leant on her.

Once again, you were the naïve, dumb little child who was the last to catch onto things. Like a fool, you trusted her.

You shake your head, dejected.

“Take me back, Levi,” you murmur and loop your arms around his neck. Your legs don’t carry. Without a word, he picks you up and makes way back towards your chambers.

You press your face to his neck. You don’t know what else to do, so you just hold on and allow his warmth to engulf you.

As you enter your room, Levi gently places you down on your bed before going to fetch the letter from where Mikasa left it outside your door.

He opens and scans through the contents as you burrow under your blankets and curl up.

“Anything worth noting?” you mutter into your knees.

“Torture, strangulation, death, next time you won’t be so lucky, it’s a standard death threat,” he tells you dully. You wrap your arms around your legs and disappear completely under the covers.

Levi watches the lump under the blanket and finally gives in to the tug in his chest. He sits down on the edge of your bed and places a gentle hand on top of where he estimates your shoulder to be.

“We need a plan,” he tells you. You murmur something incomprehensible.

“The czarevich’s guard knows we’re aware of their involvement. It was only a lucky whim of her mind that saved us there,” he says.

“Then what do you suggest we do?” You emerge from under the blankets to give him a tired look. “Kill her?” you offer with a dry chuckle.

Levi pauses for just a tad too long.

“Levi, we are not going to kill her. I refuse to stoop to their level,” you tell him with an exasperated sigh.

“She’s a liability,” he argues.

“And what if she already told Eren about this? She will have died for nothing.”

“It’s odds we probably should take,” Levi says. You shake your head.

“No. We will not repay her for covering for us by killing her.”

“Fine. Whatever you say, little miss,” Levi sighs and rolls his eyes. You watch him cross his arms and straighten his back where he’s sitting, one leg resting over the other.

You have a fleeting thought. You both now know that Eren wasn’t planning on being loyal to you from the start. So, according to all logic, you could now be disloyal to him in return without it being considered morally wrong.

“Then, what do you suggest we do?” Levi asks. “Do you want to confront the czarevich and czarevna?”

You think it over. You could just summon both of them to your chambers and demand to know what’s going on. But, it could easily backfire. Historia and Eren, ultimately, have not only the Czar and Zeke but the whole military behind them.

It’s you and Levi against the whole castle now, aside from a minuscule amount of acquaintances you have, most of which you want to keep out of this. The thought of involving Maid Springer or Connie in this makes you feel terrible. You want to protect their smiles.

“We do nothing,” you finally decide. Levi jolts.

“What?”

You meet his scandalised eyes calmly. If Historia thinks she’s the only one who can put on a good show, she’s sorely mistaken.

“I want to keep both eyes open and get to the bottom of this undetected. Until then, we act as if we know nothing. If Mikasa tells Eren and Historia that we know, we shall deal with the aftermath then. But for now, we stay put.”

Levi weighs his options but ultimately decides not to fight you on this. Instead, he plops a familiar hand on your head.

“Going to pretend like you’re fine and dandy just as you always do?” he asks, and only because you’ve spent so much time with him can you salvage the small, buried nugget of fondness he’s trying to hide under his stoic mien. You nod and offer him a tired smile.

“I’m a good liar, remember?”

The emotions are there. The hurt, the betrayal, the heartbreak, just aching to come out, but you stubbornly push all of it down.

Though, Levi sees right through you. With a sigh, he pulls you over and settles you on his lap.

“It’s okay, little miss. You don’t need to hide right now. It’s just me,” he reminds you, his lips pressed against your hairline.

It’s just Levi. Your stoic, cold yet undeniably gentle and compassionate guard. The man who sends your heart racing and makes you feel light and soft when he’s near.

You close your eyes and inhale his comforting scent with a deep breath.

Immediately, the dam breaks. You press against him, and when the first sob tears from your mouth, followed by a series of sniffles and wails, all he does is hold you through it.

Chapter Text

After you found out the truth about Historia, you cried deep into the night. Levi held you close as you let all of your feelings out and by the time you buried under the covers, exhausted, it was almost crack of dawn.

Now, the castle is awake and buzzing around Levi as he stands guard by the door. Eyes fixed ahead, he idly listens to the bustling outside. Chattering maids walking by, alchemists on their way to Wing of Science, people that he doesn’t deem a threat.

When the first moan sounds in the room, he thinks you’re having yet another nightmare. Not that he would blame you given the circumstances. His eyes flicker to you for just a moment, but after you remain quiet for a few seconds, he turns his gaze back ahead.

When the second moan comes, he looks at you longer. He’s heard you moan and sob in your sleep before. You tend to have nightmares as a result of everything that’s going on around you. This moan, however, carries a tint unknown to him.

He perks his ears, and when another soft moan tears from your throat and you turn over to your back in your sleep, he feels a rush go through him. If he didn’t know better, he’d almost think you’re moaning in-

“Mmmmh.”

The way you arch your back a bit, the seductive softness of your purring voice, it’s obvious that you’re not moaning in distress, but in pleasure. You’re having an erotic dream. His eyes widen and another rush goes right through him.

He takes a deep breath, and thanks to his enhanced senses, he can faintly smell the arousal in the air. He can almost taste it, and suddenly it’s very difficult for him to keep himself in check.

Alert and tentative yet unable to stop himself, as if bewitched, he slowly walks to the bed where you’re lying, your arms resting above your head and your blankets kicked down to only cover you from hips down.

He sees the way you’ve shifted enough in your sleep to have your nightgown move up, exposing a part of your stomach.

You moan again, your legs rubbing against each other just a bit. Levi groans, he feels a reaction in his body, one that he can’t control. He slowly sits down on the edge of the bed.

Another deep breath and he can smell the irresistible smell of your arousal. The scent is thick and alluring in the air, sweet as honey, and before Levi realises what he’s doing, he’s reached a hand towards you.

He wants to touch you. He wants to grab your arms, pin them down and nudge his nose against your neck where he can smell your odour the strongest, the floral-scented soap, soft cotton and the scent of something foreign and exotic, the scent of a faraway land. While new, the scent is also somehow oddly comforting to him, as if he’s smelt it somewhere before, even if it’s only in his pining dreams.

You’re still deep asleep as he places a feather-like hand on your hair. He leans in and it’s only when his lips are almost brushing against yours that he can stop himself.

“Little miss,” he whispers, voice pained and raspy and so, so longing. “If you only knew what you’re doing to me… How much I just want to-”

He trails off and closes his eyes, trying to will his arousal to dispel.

“Levi.”

You’re not awake, but as if sensing his presence, you’re now wantonly calling for him. Levi freezes. And then, he cracks.

His pupils dilate, he surges forward with nothing but animal-like hunger. He needs to touch. To conquer. To press you down into the soft cushions and mark your neck, inhale your intoxicating scent and trail his hand up your smooth leg, to the source of your arousal-

The only thing that keeps him from doing exactly that is the door opening and closing. He turns abruptly and freezes.

His eyes lock with Maid Springer. Sharp-looking as always, she’s come in to wake you up and prepare you for the day.

With a new, wooden hairbrush in one hand that you requested to be brought in yesterday thanks to the bristles of the previous brush wearing out, she pauses and takes in the sight.

You, defenceless on the bed. Levi leaned over you, a longing hand extended towards you, frozen midway. Your nightgown pulled up and exposing some of your stomach.

She blinks.

Then, with surprising accuracy, she calmly hurls the brush across the room straight into Levi’s forehead.

It doesn’t exactly hurt since his skull is essentially metal, but it makes him jolt and quickly move off you with a look of annoyance.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, woman?” he barks as he gets on his feet.

“That’s what I should be asking you, sonny,” she retorts and zooms across the room. “Creeping on your princess while she’s sleeping, huh? Is that it? I thought you soldiers were supposed to be honourable folk but look at this! Beasts! Utter beasts!” she nags, agitated, and repeatedly pokes Levi’s chest with each accusation.

“I was not creeping on her,” Levi denies with a frustrated groan.

“And you expect me to believe that? I was not born yesterday, sonny! I know what you men are like with your everlasting appetite for young women! But to do that to a defenceless girl and a royal on top of that! Younglings these days, such a lack of respect…”

The commotion makes you stir and open your eyes. You take a moment to gather your bearings before you sit up and scratch your unruly hair.

“Levi? Maid Springer? Whatever are you arguing about?” you ask, confused and still a little disoriented from the sleep.

“Tell her and you’re dead, lady,” Levi warns her with a low voice, but she’s not even humouring the idea of listening to him.

“Your guard is a boor, that’s what,” she squawks angrily and keeps poking at Levi’s chest, to his absolute displeasure.

“A boor?” you frown.

“And that’s being too kind!” she adds for good measure. “I walked in on him trying to touch you in your sleep!”

You turn to look at Levi, more surprised than disturbed. You look down, and when you realise your nightgown is not covering you properly, you quickly blush and move it back down.

“I was not touching her,” Levi argues through gritted teeth. “She was moaning in her sleep. She does that sometimes when she has nightmares, so I was going to do what I usually do.” He’s lying, but you don’t need to know that.

“And what is that you usually do?” Maid Springer crosses her arms.

“Comfort her,” Levi breathes, irritated.

“By?” she keeps pressing.

“By petting her hair and talking to her,” Levi snaps, clearly feeling very awkward about it. “You happy now, woman?”

Oh.

The knowledge makes you equal parts touched and confused. It sends your mood soaring, but also makes your heart flutter with sudden shyness.

“I don’t buy it,” Maid Springer huffs and narrows her eyes at Levi.

“I don’t care if you do, all I care about is what the little miss thinks,” Levi shoots back. “No one asked you to be a busybody.”

“A busybody! The audacity of you, telling me I’m in the wrong when I’m looking out for my princess! Poor girl is recovering from a murder attempt, you should be happy there are two of us with her best interests at heart! A busybody!” she keeps badgering while shaking her head. “No respect for one’s elders these days! A busybody! I was alive when you weren’t even a thought in your father’s mind, sonny, you’re thirty years too young to be calling me names-!”

“Thank you, Maid Springer,” you interrupt her with a fond smile. “I appreciate your concern for me, but it is alright. I believe him. Perhaps you misunderstood his intentions.”

You’re grateful, you really are. In fact, you’re touched by her worry. But you don’t want her to concern herself with this.

She pauses, gives you a long look and when she catches the way your eyes shyly flicker towards Levi for just a moment and your cheeks flush, she ultimately lets it go and teeters to the door to go get your breakfast while muttering to herself.

You give Levi one, questioning look but when he shakes his head, clearly asking you to drop it, you obey and continue your morning routines as usual.

When Historia steps in a few hours later, you and Levi are prepared. You’re lying on your bed leisurely, browsing through Song of Steel, and as Levi admits Historia in, you raise a friendly hand to greet her.

“Hi! Just a second, I’m in the middle of a chapter. Feel free to go to the balcony, I’ll be right there with you. Levi, call for Maid Springer and ask her to bring us some tea,” you instruct him.

Nothing is off with Historia’s smile as she bustles inside. You inconspicuously glance at her a few times as she moves to the balcony. If Mikasa told her everything and she knew that you know of her misdoings, would she let you in on the fact?

As Levi opens the door to call for Maid Springer, you see a glimpse of Thomas Wagner, Historia’s guard, who’s standing outside. You wonder how much he knows. Last night, he was nowhere to be seen when you went snooping. Maybe he was away on an errand, or maybe he was inside the room, quietly watching the conspiracy unfold.

You wonder what Eren and Historia did last night after they went back inside. Did they engage in indecent intercourse? Did they cuddle? Hug and kiss perhaps?

As much as the thought should upset you, as Eren’s fiancée, you find yourself rather indifferent. You and Eren were never going to be romantically involved, anyway. At the most, you would consummate enough times to conceive a child in order to prove you’ve done it.

You wait until Maid Springer has come in, poured both of you a steaming mug of tea and excused herself, with Levi back in your chambers, before you close the book, get on your feet and saunter to the balcony.

It’s early afternoon. The Solar year is still proving to be one of the warmest in recent Varsikovian history. You notice Historia is even getting a little tanned from the sunshine.

You sit down on the wooden chair, painted bright red, and reach for your mug on the table between you. You brush your fingertips over the warm, coarse clay, along the golden paint going around the rough surface.

You take a sip and roll the grassy taste on your tongue. Once you get used to it, it’s actually rather soothing. You glance at Historia and give her a convincing smile.

This is a contest between you now. Of who has the better straight face. You know she has a head start with her years of experience in politics, but you happen to be a natural talent. At least according to Levi.

“How are things? Read anything interesting since yesterday?” you ask. Historia smiles as she looks into her tea mug.

“Nothing new I’m afraid. I didn’t have time to start a new novel yesterday.”

Yeah, because she was busy clinging to your fiancé. Despite the thought, your smile never falters.

“You seem troubled,” you remark. Historia snaps her head to the side to look at you, a little surprised.

“Troubled? Me?” she asks and then chuckles. “What makes you say that?”

“Call it a hunch. You read a lot, like me. I do it to distract myself, I just assumed you are the same way,” you offer with an innocent shrug.

You could be imagining it, but for a split second, you think you see some vulnerability in Historia’s eyes. A deeply seated sadness that she’s keeping from you. It feels akin to the Historia you saw after she told you about her origins. When she told you she would marry Zeke because that’s what she needs to do to help her country.

You idly realise that the reason Historia wrote the letters to be so eerily similar to Zeke’s tastes is probably that she knew what Zeke is into and wanted to misdirect you to suspect him.

She almost succeeded. You wonder if Historia has witnessed those perverse preferences of Zeke’s first hand and for a second you could almost feel sorry for her. Almost. If she wasn’t trying to kill you.

“I’m under a lot of stress,” Historia admits easily but her carefully rehearsed act is back on as she turns to you. “I always have to keep Nambalese interests at heart, even if at the moment I have no power.”

“Well, you are the future Czarina. You will wield power, even if only a little,” you try to cheer her up. She gives you an eerily convincing blue smile.

“One can only hope.”

“When is the wedding?” you suddenly ask. When you first came to the castle, the Czar said Historia and Zeke were to be wed in a few months’ time.

“You haven’t heard? The wedding is in three weeks,” Historia replies. She sips on her tea and takes a deep breath.

“Oh,” you utter. “How do you feel about that? You can be honest. It is just me.”

“And your guard,” she points out. You glance at Levi, who’s leaning against the doorframe to the balcony as per usual.

“I’m rather sure Levi does not care. Do you, Levi?”

“My interest in your feminine tittle-tattling is so minuscule I haven’t even got the faintest clue what you’re on about because I wasn’t listening,” Levi dully announces. You shrug sheepishly at Historia.

Historia glances over the railing, but when she sees no guards on the ground below, she dares to drop her smile for a while.

“I’m nervous about it. I know I’m expected to consummate the marriage right away to create a descendant to the throne. And Zeke-” Historia shudders a little. “I fear for what he’ll have me do to satiate him.”

You glance through the door to your chambers, at the desk where the letters are stored. If what she wrote in the letters is anything to go by, Zeke sure seems to have peculiar tastes. Enough so that you fully thought him capable of killing you even before the attempt-

Mid-thought, you get an idea.

You lean in, your expressive eyes on Historia, and you allow them to widen just a bit.

“What do you mean by that?” you ask and glance noticeably at the desk. Historia catches it and latches onto it.

“He’s rather sadistic,” she tells you, eyes searching through yours. “I heard he likes… He likes…” Historia trails off with a proper blush. She leans in to whisper the last details.

“Pain. Especially strangulation. I once saw a sketch of a collared maiden in his drawer,“ she fills you in with an embarrassed giggle. You lick your lips and look openly uneasy.

“Oh my,” you whisper shakily and cover your mouth with your hand, pretending deep shock. You close your eyes and take a few breaths.

“Are you alright, Cora?” Historia asks and tilts her head. She turns her gaze to Levi.

“She doesn’t seem to be doing fine. Maybe we should give her some rest.”

“I’m alright,” you deny weakly. “Just… Just a little disturbed, is all. You see, I have been receiving these letters…”

You see Levi perk up in the background. Historia, however, keeps her attention solely on you.

“Letters? What kind of letters?”

“Threats,” you murmur and hang your head. “The contents are… Kind of disturbing. Come, I will show you.”

Teetering to your desk, you take out the letters and show them to Historia. She takes them without a word and starts going through them.

You have to give it to her, she’s good. She lets out gasps at the right places, she looks appropriately disturbed and nauseated.

“And these… These came in before the attempt?” she asks with wide eyes. You nod and feign a troubled look.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

“I did not know who to trust,” you admit. “But I trust you enough to let you know. I’m beside myself with worry. The anxiety is killing me. The days I have spent here in isolation have been filled with anguish and paranoia. I just do not know what to do anymore.”

You breathe out shakily and slump down on your bed, eyes cloudy and defeated.

“Historia, I’m scared. And what you just told me about Zeke… What if it is Zeke behind this? What if he catches me next time? What can I do against a future Czar in his own country?”

You grasp your neck and swallow thickly.

Historia grasps your hand gently and gives you a compassionate smile.

“Cora, I say this as your friend; this is worrying. You can’t let this go unaddressed.”

“What can I do? The Czar is dying his hardest to pin this on the guard whom I killed. If I bring this to his attention, he will brush it under the carpet.”

Historia is quiet in false contemplation. She then grasps your shoulder.

“Then, perhaps you should seek help from your home country. There must be someone in your family who can help.”

You bite your lip, troubled.

“My brother would start campaigning for my return if I told him, but I do not want to sabotage the marriage,” you murmur.

“Cora, your life is on the line. Maybe you should just… Consider it at least. Going back that is.”

You give her a torn look and a joyless smile. You stay silent and convincingly mull things over in your head. Finally, you sigh.

“I shall think about it.”

“Please, do. I would hate it if something happened to you,” she tells you earnestly. You could groan. Her act is really good.

When she leaves half an hour later, you let out a tired sigh and lay down on the bed.

“Hey.”

“What?” you ask Levi.

“What did you do that for?”

“Do what?” you play dumb with an idle smile on your face. He snorts and crosses his arms.

“Don’t play dumb, you know exactly what. Why did you tell her about the letters?”

You blink at the ceiling lazily and push aside the tug of anxiety that always reminds you of that horrible night.

“Yesterday, we saw that the czarevich is hesitant to kill me. Historia said she ordered me dead because she panicked since I was not cracking under pressure. So, I’m going to seemingly crack under pressure and hopefully, she will conclude that I’m about to break and refrain from future attempts on my life,” you explain.

Levi is quiet for a while and then snorts, obviously amused.

“So, you want to challenge her head on for a liars’ match?” he asks. You grin a little and sit up on the bed. You look at him where he’s standing by the door and tilt your head.

“Was my performance not up to par?” you ask while innocently batting your eyelashes. He raises an eyebrow.

“It was a good performance.”

With a chuckle, you open Song of Steel back up and resume reading while Levi stands guard.

-

“Cora!”

As the door is slammed open and Hange pours in without as much as pausing to see if you’re decent, she’s instantly met with Levi’s sword to her throat.

Levi glares at her fiercely, but she doesn’t as much as blink as she casually waits for Levi to lower his weapon. Instead, she gives you a cheerful wave over Levi’s head, a fact that obviously pisses him off.

“Evening!” she calls with a grin. You blink at her, sitting at your desk with a pen and paper. You were in the midst of sketching the basket of fruit Maid Springer brought you this morning, more out of boredom than inspiration. It’s been two days since you started your little mind game with Historia, and things have been slow since.

“I came to see how you’re doing!” she announces as Levi reluctantly withdraws his weapon and admits her as you gesture for him to. She walks to the bed and sits down on it with zero regards to proper manners, immediately sighing dreamily.

“Such a soft mattress,” she hums and bounces a bit. “I swear ours are filled with rocks. Head of the Wing of Science and they can’t even give me a proper bed!”

You smile a little at her complaints. It’s not the first time she’s come to see you. You wonder if she’s come to see you as a friend, or if she’s here just to spy on Levi and see his augmentations.

“What brings you here?”

“Just needed a breather. It’s been rather hectic, we have a set of new recruits to overgo augmentations. The screaming gives me headaches,” she sighs. The look you give her is only slightly scandalised. You’ve come to expect words like this from Hange.

You glance at Levi, who’s stoically standing by the door. Hange was the person who augmented him. He was her first augmentation, in fact.

Suddenly, you recall the odd moment with Levi. The way he couldn’t tell you what Zeke meant when he said you are not the master that he’s loyal to. The gag and nausea he seemed to suffer from in response.

You look at Hange and wonder if she knows more. Let alone if she would be willing to let you in on it.

You glance at Levi again and suddenly, you want to find out. Hange, so far, has been exceptionally open with you about all things alchemy. Maybe she would tell you. It’s a slim chance, but you want to know.

“Levi, there is actually a book I would like to show her,” you call to Levi. “Would you care to fetch it for me from the library?”

Levi looks instantly suspicious. He crosses his arms and narrows his eyes.

“It is the elementary level alchemy book I tried to browse before the attempt, remember? The one that turned out to be too complicated for me to understand,” you tell him. “I was hoping she could explain a few things to me, but I cannot fetch the book myself thanks to the room arrest. You know where it is situated in the library, could you please go get it? If you are alright with explaining things to me,” you add to Hange as an afterthought.

“Sure, I don’t mind,” she easily agrees with a shrug.

There’s a long pause and finally, Levi moves for the door.

“Keep her safe while I’m gone,” he tells Hange, who snorts.

“I may be Wing of Science, but I still got basic training. This bad boy is all ready to go should the need arise,” she says and taps the small gun hanging at her hips.

Levi gives you one last wary look and disappears out of the door. You leap to your feet and go to the door. Pressing your ear against it, you make sure you head Levi’s footsteps receding in the direction of the library. You then turn to Hange and walk up to her.

“I needed to talk to you in private,” you explain.

“I concluded,” she says. Crossing one leg over the other, she looks relaxed and not at all surprised. “So, what is it?”

“A few days ago, someone told me that I’m not Levi’s master. When I asked Levi to explain what that means, he said he cannot. When I pressed the issue, he looked nauseous and started gagging. Do you know what that was about?” you ask keenly.

Hange blinks at you.

“Oh. That.” she chuckles, looking a bit uneasy, and rubs her neck. “Yeah, I know what that’s about.”

“Can you share the information with me?”

Hange smiles sheepishly, considering it.

“Well, I’m not exactly forbidden from telling you, but-”

“Please,” you cut in. “He is my guard and the only person I want to truly trust in this castle. I need to know what he cannot tell me to feel safe with him,” you plead.

Hange watches you contemplatively for a moment longer before shrugging.

“It’s a little awkward,” she admits. “Since I’m the person who put it there. It’s his loyalty chip.”

“Loyalty chip?” You blink.

“When a person is augmented, a chip is inserted. That chip is programmed to make its bearers obey whoever it’s set to obey. As a result, the bearer can’t refuse a direct order from the Beneficiary of the chip.”

“Who is the Beneficiary?” you ask.

“It depends on the carrier and it’s often reprogrammed as the augmented soldiers switch to work under different people. Levi’s Beneficiary is currently the Czar, it was set that way when he was appointed your guard.”

“So, you have the power to change the loyalty?” you ask slowly. You try to wrap your head around the new information. You’re not as shocked as you probably should be, as the loyalty chip makes a lot of sense.

Why Levi was so intent on killing the old man. Why he stayed with you even when you told him to get out. Why he couldn’t tell you about this. And you wouldn’t but it beneath Varsikovians. They can mutilate and horribly alter their soldiers for an edge in the war, it’s not too far a stretch to practically make them slaves in addition.

“I do. It requires surgery, though.”

“Is the Czar the Beneficiary of all guards?”

“It’s usually whoever they’re guarding. In your case, however, it was deemed safer to have it be the Czar instead since you’re… Well…”

“An outsider,” you easily fill in with a knowing smile. “It is alright. I’m aware.”

You’re just glad it’s the Czar since he seems to be sympathetic towards you. Even if he’s keeping you locked in here, and even if he ordered Levi to not tell you about the loyalty chip.

“Is there a way to get rid of the chip?”

“No. It’s embedded into his vital organs to make it effectively unremovable,” she says.

“Why is it there in the first place?”

“Augmentation gives the soldiers superhuman strength. The first augmentations went horribly wrong, and as a result, the soldiers became aggressive, unpredictable and corrupted by the metals they were mended into. It was originally a safety precaution, and later the protocol wasn’t removed because they still fear the corruption of augmentations.”

“Plus, it is awfully convenient to have inhumanely strong soldiers unable to resist your commands,” you can’t help but add. Hange smiles.

“Plus, it's awfully convenient to have inhumanely strong soldiers unable to resist your commands,” she easily concedes.

“So, anyone with a chip cannot defy the orders of the Beneficiary,” you sum up with a thoughtful sigh. “Do the chips ever stop working? Wear out?” you attempt. You don’t like the thought of Levi forever being chained to the will of someone else like this. In fact, the more you think about it, the more your chest tightens with dread.

“Well, there is this one urban legend about a soldier who fifty years ago caused her chip to malfunction when ordered to execute her own son for treason-”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Immediately, a violent shudder runs through you as you hear the silky voice from behind you. You turn to see Levi, leaning against the door like he’s been there for ages, the book you requested lazily dangling from his hand. You didn’t hear him come in. He must’ve sneaked because he knew you were up to something.

You can tell instantly; you’re in deep trouble.

He gives Hange a blood-chilling glare and moves away from the door.

“Out,” he orders. Hange looks back and forth between you and finally gets on her feet with a shrug. She’s not intimidated by Levi, but she’s not immune to his ire, either.

“Don’t go too rough on her, Levi. She wanted to know because she wanted to trust you,” she attempts to vouch for you but walks to the door nonetheless. Giving the book in Levi’s hand a glance, she gives you a sympathetic grin.

“I’ll teach you about alchemy next time. It’s a promise,” she winks and then, she’s out. Levi closes the door.

You tense where you’re standing as he walks past you and places the book on the desk. Then, he turns to look at you.

He looks calm, but you can tell he’s angry.

“Explain.”

“You could not tell me, but I felt like it was important to know. So, I asked her.”

“You didn’t consult me first,” he tells you. You swallow thickly.

“You would have declined,” you say with a faint voice. You’re suddenly hyperaware that he’s a trained and enhanced soldier. He could kill you in a heartbeat. He could maul you and you would be powerless to stop it.

You look at him, your pulse speeding up. You can’t tell if it’s fear or your attraction rearing its head again.

“I could not rely on you fully if I did not know what you were keeping from me. I now know about the loyalty chip.”

Levi says nothing. He just stares at you, angry, for the longest time. Daring you to keep looking him in the eye with what you just did.

You break the eye contact and eventually, you can’t take the oppressive atmosphere any longer.

“I need to get ready for bed. Excuse me,” you murmur and turn for the bathroom, but as you attempt to flee the situation, you feel a strong hand snatching your wrist.

With a swift movement, he reels you in.

“You’re not getting away with this like this, little miss,” he tells you with narrowed eyes. “You went behind my back, inquiring about my personal business. You had no right to do that.”

“I needed to know what you were forced to keep from me! I should not have gone behind your back, but it was vital that I know!” you argue, now a little annoyed. You tug at your wrist, but he keeps a tight grip on it, glaring at you.

“Release me,” you demand.

“No.”

“I am your princess, you have no right to handle me like this!” you argue fiercely. A part of you is afraid, but there’s another, stronger part that refuses to back down. You still think you needed to know, even if your methods were unorthodox.

“I don’t, yet I’m doing it anyway because you’re being a little shit,” Levi shoots back. His hold tightens, and you wince.

“You are hurting me,” you tell him and tug at your wrist again. He looks down, and when he sees your skin turn a little red under his fingertips, he immediately lets you go.

Before you can flee, he wraps a demanding arm around your waist instead and pulls you in. He’s not about to let you leave.

“Does this hurt?” he asks as he cages you against his chest. While still obviously riled up, there’s an undercurrent of thoughtfulness in the way he looks at you, suddenly so close you can feel his breath against your cheek.

Your pulse is thundering in your ear, though it’s no longer fear. It’s longing.

“No,” you find yourself breathing as you place a hand on his chest to steady yourself. A silence falls between you as if neither of you knows how to continue this conflict now that the tension has been broken.

“Levi, I had to know,” you start after a long, charged silence. “I did not go behind your back because I did not trust you, I…”

“Then why did you go behind my back?” he asks. Your eyes lock, and you’re enchanted by the sight. His eyes, betrayed and conflicted, are as stunning as they are heart-wrenching.

You pause to think about it. Why did you choose to seize the opportunity to learn without his knowledge? You didn’t as much as suggest this to him.

Hell, Levi tried to tell you when you first asked him, but he was physically unable to. Why did you assume he would go against your best interests when he’s given you no reason to distrust him? The longer you think about this, the more you realise that you made a mistake.

Your eyes turn apologetic, and you place a hand on his jaw. You suddenly understand why he’s so upset. It’s because he would have helped you had you just asked.

“I guess I did not trust you, after all,” you admit. “I thought you would not want me to know under any circumstances. I thought you would protest, and I would forever have to stay in the dark and only learn the truth when it blows up in my face. I’m sorry, Levi.”

He sighs, his eyes soften, and he grasps your hand in his.

“I would have told you myself if I could. My order was to not tell you, not to keep you from finding out,” he explains.

So, the orders have to be literal. You look into Levi’s conflicted eyes. You’re aware of how close you are. He is as well, but instead of letting you go, you feel his arm tighten around your waist.

“Little miss,” he starts. “I’m trying to help you and keep you alive. If we want to work as a unit, we need to be able to trust each other.”

“Do you trust me?” you ask carefully.

“I want to,” he replies. “And for the most part, I do.”

“Likewise,” you answer, your tone just a touch breathy. You stare into his eyes, hopelessly attracted, and before you know it, the closeness, the anticipation between you becomes too much and your knees buckle.

Easily, Levi catches you and holds you up against his chest, steadying you.

“Careful, little miss, or you’ll fall,” he tells you, voice low and laced with thinly veiled fondness. His eyes flicker to your lips, for just a moment, and your heart jolts.

“I have already fallen,” you breathe before you can stop yourself. Levi’s eyes widen, you feel a shudder go down his spine as you see the heart-crushing pining in his eyes. He wants you, he wants you so bad he can no longer keep himself in check.

It’s all a flurry. Both of you lean in, you feel his frantic breath against your lips for a fleeting moment, and then you feel his mouth on yours. Hungry and demanding, he kisses you so hard you tilt back, your hand clutching the cape at his chest while the other lovingly holds his jaw.

A groan tears from his throat, a noise unlike you’ve ever heard before from a living thing. A sound of pure want as he tilts his head and moves his mouth against yours like only your lips can quench his lifelong need. His hand slips into your hair, holding the back of your head as he claims your mouth, so hard you can’t even draw a breath in between his frantic movements.

You moan softly and return with equal force. You press against him with your full weight, your lips nip and lap on his, relish the taste of spring water and danger as you surrender to him.

You have never kissed anyone before. It makes you dizzy, makes you feel like you’re floating in the air, feather-light and above all worries.

There’s nothing in this world but you and Levi, and the spark that’s now been ignited between you.

It takes Levi no effort to lift you up, it wouldn’t even without his superhuman strength. He carries you the few steps to your bed, pushes you down and follows suit.

You feel his questing hands all over your body, his weight pressing you down into the mattress. His lips latch onto your neck with hunger and the clear desire to take you. Own you. To leave his mark there, for everyone to see that you’re his.

His hands roam. Sliding down the curve of your waist to your hips, up your hem along your thigh, grasping your neck, your hair, stroking your cheek.

He touches you in all the ways he’s secretly been longing to, during the idle hours of the night when you’re asleep and unaware of his turmoil.

All you can do is throw your head back and let him have you. To hell with Eren, to hell with everyone else. You want Levi. You want his hands on your bare body, you want his heated lips on your naked skin.

Perhaps, you would have gone through with it had it not been for the knock on the door, pulling you out of your sensuous haven and back to Earth.

Both of you pause. Your eyes open and for a moment, you just look at each other. You see his riled up, stormy eyes. Feel the way his heated breaths mingle with yours.

Levi obviously realises what he was well on his way to doing and how utterly forbidden and inappropriate it is. He gets off you, albeit slowly, and puts distance between you.

You sit up, confused and more than a little aroused. Another knock on the door and you realise you can’t just stay here.

Quickly, you arrange your hair back in place and call to the door.

“Come in.”

The door is opened, and a messenger walks in with a sealed envelope. Levi walks back to his usual post as the messenger hands you the letter.

“A message from the Czar, your grace,” he tells you simply. If he senses something off, he doesn’t say it as he excuses himself immediately.

A heavy silence falls between you. You only now realise the true extent of your actions. Not only did you touch and kiss another man, but you were also going to lay with him.

What if you had? Not only that, what if you had and it resulted in something disastrous like a child?

You look up at Levi, eyes wide and confused. Despite knowing better, you still feel the tug. The ache. You want him.

“Please, say something,” you tell him quietly. He looks down, clearly contemplative, and leans against the door in a familiar fashion.

“Things got out of control,” he finally starts. “I shouldn’t have done that. If anyone ever finds out, my life is forfeit.”

“Yes,” you whisper thinly. Yet, you’re hesitant to disregard all this, even though you know you should. You should remain loyal to Eren and keep your eyes on what you’re trying to do; to retain the peace between Novaryn and Varsiko.

You open the letter, mostly to just distract yourself, and skim over the contents.

“I’m relieved of all charges and no longer under room arrest,” you tell him. “They concluded that the guard was acting alone and that I killed him in justified self-defence. My hawk and horse are back at my disposal and the staff no longer holds the right to refuse to serve me.”

Levi nods, but you can see him closing off by the second. The sight scares you.

“Levi, listen to me,” you start heavily. “I need you to stay with me despite other guards now being forced to serve me. As much as you can, I need you here. No matter what just happened, you are the only person I can trust to help me with this. I need you not to pull away from me. I need you. So, do not abandon me, I’m begging you.”

Levi releases a long breath. He thinks it over.

“This never happened,” he lays his terms. “We forget all about the last ten minutes. I’m your guard, and you’re a royal promised to someone else. That’s all there is to it.”

You open your mouth to argue, but the words die in your throat. When you look at him, you realise he already knows all you want to say. That it’s too late. That you’re already off the deep end. That there is no burying your feelings now.

He wants to pretend. He wants to buy the lie because to admit the truth would be the start of a doomed relationship. If you give yourself to him, he will not be able to hand you over to anyone. Not Eren. Not Novaryn. Not the peace between your countries that you so dearly care about.

You swallow the protest and simply nod.

You can pretend like the sight of him doesn’t make your chest clench. Like the thought of your kiss doesn’t send a shiver down your spine. Like you don’t feel like you’ll slowly suffocate to death the rest of your days if you can never feel his touch again.

You give him a convincing smile.

You’re a good liar, after all.

Chapter Text

”Levi, please, I’m begging you, come to your senses! Your grace, please let him go. Please have mercy on him. I do not care if I die, but spare him from having to live with the burden of having to have killed me.”

“I am your Czar. What reason should I have to listen to anything you say?”

“I’m begging you, your grace. Spare him. Please.”

“Levi, use the iron on her.”

“Yes, sir.”

You look into Levi’s eyes as he draws closer to you. Your body is broken and on the verge of giving out. You see the emptiness in his eyes. The void of emotion and the lightness of his hand that comes with it.

“Levi,” you beg with a broken, hoarse voice that no longer carries. You have screamed too much. “Do not do this. For your own sake. You love me, just as I love you. We belong together. Our bodies and blood have been bound. This will destroy you.”

“Quiet.”

The scorching hot iron makes contact with the back of your hand. Your scream.

-

Another nightmare, you idly think to yourself as you sit up. You cannot remember much, only a heart-clenching pain of losing something important. You just can’t recall what.

Only when something wet falls on the back of your hand do you realise you’re crying. Confused, you bring your fingertips to your cheek and feel the wetness there.

Around you, the castle is getting ready for the day. Maid Springer hasn’t come to you yet, so you know it’s not breakfast-time yet.

“Levi,” you call to your guard.

“What?”

“Did I scream in my sleep?”

“No. You just writhed and sobbed,” Levi answers from the door. You turn to give him a small glance.

It’s been a few days since the incident. Ever since then, Levi has kept a firm distance to you. He still humours you with his presence and conversations, but he makes sure to never touch you unless he absolutely has to.

He must be like you, he doesn’t trust himself around you.

You still feel his touch on your skin if you close your eyes and concentrate. You feel the palm of his hand slide up your cinched waist. You feel the thrill of his fingertips, trailing a path up your smooth thigh, under the hem of your skirts. You feel his breath against your lips, your throat, on its way down to the cleavage of your chest.

It makes you shudder, and there is a large part of you that wishes you never got interrupted. That you would now sit here knowing what it feels like to be held by Levi Ackerman.

Maybe it’s because Levi longer comforts you in your sleep that you have suddenly started waking up to nightmares again.

Levi doesn’t meet your eyes. He keeps them firmly ahead as you wipe your tears off and pull your fluffy covers aside.

Ever since you were released from the room arrest, you’ve dined with the rest of the royal family. You have successfully acted as if nothing’s wrong and gossiped about otiose matters with Historia. In private with her, you’ve put on an admirably skilful act of terror and paranoia.

She has retained her position of insisting you tell your brother, and each time she suggests it you pretend to be just a little more convinced you should.

“I think you should go meet your fiancé in the near future,” Levi starts slowly as you walk to the balcony to open the curtains and let in some fresh air.

You pause mid-movement, hand grasping the heavy red satin, and turn to give Levi an incredulous stare.

Is he now trying to pair you up with Eren? Despite all you saw him do with Historia and all you’ve gone through with Levi?

“Why?” you ask and cross your arms. “He wants nothing to do with me. Why would I pursue him?”

“I don’t care what you discuss with him. Discuss the weather for all I care. But it would open the opportunity for me to converse with Mikasa Ackerman outside.”

“You want to ask why she spared us?”

“Yes. And if she could be convinced to work for us, that would be an invaluable asset.”

You mull it over in your head. It would be a good move. If you could get Mikasa on your side, it would make things a  lot easier. You could maybe find out what Eren and Historia’s end game is.

“Do you promise to be careful?” you ask slowly. Levi gives you an unimpressed frown.

“Little miss, I’m a military captain. I’ve extracted information from harder targets than her.”

“Do not maul her,” you feel the need to add. He scoffs.

“Only if it’s necessary-”

“Do. Not. Maul her,” you repeat, emphasising each word.

He gives you a long look before finally smiling a bit.

“I know, little miss, I was just messing with you.”

“You are talented at doing that,” you mutter to yourself, the memory of him pinning you down on the bed and mouthing at your pulse point invading your thoughts.

-

As you walk into the dining hall, you can immediately tell you’ve interrupted something. Zeke and Czar Yeager are standing in the middle of the hall and whatever they were arguing about, they fall quiet the moment you walk in.

Eren, Historia and the Czarina are already sitting at the table, looking very uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry. Did I arrive at a bad time?” you ask. The Czar gives you a forced smile.

“Not at all, my dear. Zeke and I were just discussing something.”

“Are you free this afternoon, your grace?” Zeke asks and disregards the enraged glare he gets from his father in return.

Immediately, you’re wary even though you skilfully keep it off your face.

“How come, your grace?”

“I would like to take you out,” he announces.

“As I said, it’s most inappropriate for a czarevich to take out his brother’s fiancée-”

“I don’t mind,” comes Eren’s dull response from the table. Historia bites her lip and gives you a worried glance.

“Where were you hoping to take me, your grace?”

“To see the Varsikovian-Novarynians in the capital,” Zeke enlightens you. Taken aback, you blink. The what?

“Varsikovian-Novarynians?” you utter. “I did not even know such a thing exists.”

“Oh, they exist alright. I was hoping to introduce you to them.”

The way Zeke’s eyes flash behind his glasses promises nothing good, but you’re intrigued now. You glance at Levi, who suddenly looks extremely tense.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” The Czarina weighs in with a troubled look.

“Oh but surely you meant it, father, when you told us to trust our dearest guest?” Zeke hums with a lazy drawl. “Or was it just for show? Has she given you no reason to trust her?”

Why is Zeke suddenly vouching for you? It’s certainly suspicious. Yet you’re not going to lie; you’re interested, even if this could be a trap.

“I would like to go,” you tell Czar Yeager earnestly. “I’m interested to see these people for myself.”

Czar Yeager releases a long sigh, clearly at a loss.

“I don’t want to hide things from you, Cora. But there are certain affairs I’d prefer to keep from Novaryn.”

“I will not blabber to Novaryn,” you easily promise. “I have not even told them that I almost died, I can keep a secret.”

“I know,” Czar Yeager sighs. “I’ve read all the mail you sent while you were in room arrest and you didn’t say a word about anything unfavourable. If anything, you’ve painted us in a good light. I’m grateful for that.”

You pretend to be mildly shocked about the fact that the Czar was monitoring your mail. You curtsey and feign a pained smile.

“In that case, I apologise for not appearing trustworthy enough for you to not do that,” you say. Immediately, the Czar hurries to grasp your shoulder.

“Goodness, my child, no!” he says, horrified. “You’ve done nothing to violate my trust. I was prejudiced and paranoid like the old fool I am. That’s all there is to it. Forgive me, Cora.”

You offer him your trained smile and gently grasp his hand on your shoulder.

“There is nothing to forgive, your grace. You did what you must for your country, just as I kept the assault a secret for the safety of mine. These negotiations mean the world to me.”

You see Eren roll his eyes at the table, clearly having caught onto how you’re slowly but surely twisting his father around your little finger.

The Czar looks positively delighted with your mature response. He squeezes your hand between his.

“My child. I’m happy you got sent here, and that Eren has the opportunity to marry such a mature, gentle woman as yourself.”

“You are flattering me too much, your grace,” you argue with a small smile. You curtsey and move to sit down. As you do, you turn your attention to Eren.

“Before I leave with the czarevich, I was hoping to visit you in your chambers to exchange a few words.”

Obviously suspicious, Eren cocks his chin up and looks at you for a long time. Then, he finally sighs and turns his attention to his plate. He must have realised he can’t really decline without his father intervening.

“Do whatever you wish,” he grunts and grabs the tray of fried potatoes. Happy, you reach for the greens the maids just brought in.

The meal goes by uneventfully. You properly gush with Carla Yeager about the scandal of the Czarina of Chekovna, who, upon losing her husband, opted to marry his cousin soon afterwards. A rough and unyielding land up Northeast, it’s rare to hear news from there and the few pieces of information are always old wives’ gossip like this.

Zeke finishes his meal before you, and as he does, he pauses behind you as he passes you by.

“Be ready in four rounds’ time,” he leans in to murmur, his breath uncomfortable against the nape of your neck. Despite yourself, you shudder. You feel Levi’s dark eyes on you.

You nod and follow his retreating back with your eyes as he marches out of the door and closes it after himself.

The Czar sighs deeply and gives you a small wince.

“You don’t have to go with him if it makes you uncomfortable,” he earnestly says, but you shake your head with a small smile.

“It is rather alright. ”

You finish your breakfast and excuse yourself with a curtsey. You wait until there’s a safe distance between yourself and the dining hall before speaking up.

“Anything?” you ask Levi, who’s walking quietly behind you. You asked Levi to keep an eye on Historia to see if you setting up a private meeting with Eren would make her tick.

“No. She’s every bit as good at acting as we surmised,” Levi tells you with a quiet grunt. You can sense it in the way he speaks, something is bothering him, and you feel like you have a good idea of what that something is.

As he closes the door behind you, leaving you alone in your quarters, he immediately crosses his arms.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to go with the czarevich today,” he tensely says. You place your hands on your hips and give him a questioning look.

“And why is that?”

“It might… Disturb you,” he avoids the truth vaguely. With an unimpressed sigh, you try to decipher his uncomfortable expression.

“Why would it disturb me?”

“I can’t say,” Levi admits.

“Another order from the Czar?”

“Yes.”

“I will find out either way,” you point out. Levi shakes his head.

“That doesn’t matter. I still can’t tell you.”

“But you can watch me find out on my own?” you ask as you walk to your desk and sit down. You carelessly cross one leg over the other and lean your head into your hand.

“Can the Czar take back orders?” you inquire. For now, it doesn’t pose an issue since the Czar is on your side, but should he ever turn against you, you’ll be without any kind of protection. You both know that.

“Yes, but he rarely does,” Levi replies.

“I guess there’s no reason for him to bother just for your comfort,” you mutter. You place an idle hand on your throat and force the tug in your chest, pulling you towards Levi, to subside.

The faint marks he left on your throat have already faded, and all you have left of his touch is a longing memory that makes your chest ache.

You watch the way his eyes flicker to your throat with a hue of recognition, and suddenly you want to address it.

“Does it ever cross your mind?” you quietly ask, your hand resting on your throat. Your eyes seek his.

Levi allows you a short moment of his honest eyes. You can see the lonely, pining pain. The yearning to do it all again, over and over until his betrayal of the kingdom no longer stings.

“I-” Levi cuts himself off when he faintly hears a pair of soldiers ride past below your window, as if afraid their hearing is on par with his.

He averts his eyes with a long sigh.

“The czarevich should have eaten by now,” he finally says. You get on your feet. Without a word, you walk to the door. You pass him by and when you see the pain he’s desperately trying to hide from you, you can’t help it. Your instincts take over, and you extend a hand towards his jaw to cup it.

“Don’t.”

The bite of his hiss makes you jolt and pause.

“You’ll make it worse,” he then continues, voice gentler but still strangled and pained. You watch him for a moment, open and longing, and then nod. You pull the mask back on and when you step out of your quarters, you are no longer his little miss but Cora Reader, the 13th Princess of Novaryn.

“If she seems like a liability, don’t press her. More than risking her telling Eren everything, I prefer having her keep quiet but otherwise uncooperative,” you tell Levi.

“I know.”

As you make it to Eren’s room, Mikasa is standing outside like usual, back straight and face as stoic as always. She gives the two of you a brief look and then simply knocks on the door.

“Admit her in,” you hear Eren’s sullen voice from inside. Mikasa opens the door for you and you nod to her as you enter.

Eren’s room is much like you recall it. Scattered and unorganised, with wonky piles of war books here and there. The curtains, carpets and sheets are not red and grey but deep brown. On the wall, you see a painting depicting a knight on horseback, charging forward towards a crowd of hooded figures carrying torches.

You pause to look at the painting, ignoring Eren for now where he’s sitting on the small couch by the wall, sharp eyes following your every movement.

“Legend of the Moravlak War,” he grunts at you after a second of silence. “According to the myth, a single Varsikovian commander successfully defended himself against a horde of angry Novarynian heretics who used strange magic. That was the first time our kind came in contact with Alchemy.”

“I never heard Alchemy came from Novaryn until now,” you admit. “After it was outlawed, it seemed like our kings were eager to censor it out of stories.”

“I doubt Alchemy was ever widespread in Novaryn. It seems like only fringe groups of heretics practised it.”

You turn to look at Eren, who’s leaning against the corner of the couch. He doesn’t look friendly, but he’s still more well-meaning than usual.

“It is interesting. To think that the very thing that made my country attack yours originated from Novaryn,” you chuckle joylessly. It’s such morbid irony. Without Novaryn, none of this would have happened.

An awkward albeit non-hostile silence falls between you. Finally, Eren sighs and scratches his neck.

“What did you want to talk about?”

You bite your lip and wrap your arms around yourself. You didn’t come here just to offer Levi a chance to talk to Mikasa. You do have things you wish to tell your fiancé.

“Your gr- I mean, Eren,” you start with an uncomfortable cough. You pause to wonder how to say things, but eventually, you decide to be honest with him.

“What happened to me has scarred me,” you say. “And I know you have told me that I’m not to expect any kind of affection or consideration from you, but I-”

Eren’s face turns darker and for a fleeting moment, you see clear guilt on his features. He’s not like Historia. He’s not a diplomat who can settle on a mask and keep his feelings in check.

“I do not care if you have no interest in me as a woman,” you tell him. “I do not care whom you fancy, whom you lay with, whom you share your loneliest moments with. I do not intend to cling to you. I just… Wish you would at least give me-”

“Give you what?” he interrupts you, his eyes looking up at you defiantly. He seems defensive. You watch his expressive, conflicted eyes. You know he’s younger than you, inexperienced and sheltered. And he’s currently trying to keep the woman of his affections happy by shutting you out.

You can’t make yourself hate him too much. That doesn’t mean you’re going to make it easy on him.

“Basic human decency.” You give him a tired, dejected shrug. “That is all I’m asking for. To not feel like I’m invisible and meaningless. I was confined in my room for weeks and you did not even send me a card to wish me well after I have just been brutally attacked. After I have been cooperating with your kind, after I protected your country from mine by not seeking comfort from my family and instead suffering on my own-”

“No one asked you to do that,” Eren points out and cocks his chin up just a little.

“Your father did. He knows, as well as I do, that if word gets out to my brother, he will call off the wedding and the war is all but reignited.”

“That’s on you,” Eren argues, and you feel your temper flare dangerously. You want to yell at him, but you know it would just make Mikasa rush to the room.

Thus, you keep your voice down, but it’s considerably colder when you reply to him.

“That is, indeed, on me. It is not a position I asked for nor enjoy, but I will protect my country until I either die or my will is completely cracked. If you wish for me to leave this kingdom, then, by all means, do not visit me and hope that I will eventually lose my mind because of loneliness and blue feelings, but if this marriage falls through, it is the blood of your kind that will be spilt as a result.”

You walk to the door and pause just before opening it.

“Your country’s future or your personal agenda. Which one is more important to you? Eventually, you will need to decide, Eren. Make sure you do not regret anything when this is all over.”

With that, you walk out, your feelings in check and dignity intact. You can feel Eren’s eyes on you as you march down the corridor, Levi falling in step behind you.

Staying quiet until you’re in the safety of your room again, you slump down on the bed and kick your shoes off the moment you’re inside, clearly frustrated.

“I take that it didn’t go well,” Levi makes an educated guess as he leans against the doorframe and watches your dissatisfied figure on top of the covers.

“He does not care. What else is new,” you mutter with dry sarcasm. “Please tell me you got something out of the guard.”

“I asked her why she covered for us. The only thing she said was ‘I didn’t do it for your princess’ and when I asked clarifying questions, she remained silent and opted not to answer them.”

“That does not help all that much,” you sigh. “I never thought she did it out of her never-ending fondness for me, a princess she has never as much as talked to.”

“Whatever the reason, she wants to keep quiet about it. For now, our best bet is to stay out of her hair and hope the czarevich doesn’t think to ask her about that night.”

“Can you lie to your Beneficiary?” You prop your head up to look at Levi.

“Not if he specifically prefaces his questions by ordering you to answer honestly.”

“But otherwise?”

“Otherwise you can lie,” Levi confirms.

“I’m impressed you can tell me details like this.”

“He said I’m not allowed to tell you the chip exists. He never said anything about replying questions once you’ve already found out.”

“So, one must be ridiculously detailed to not have things slip through the cracks,” you summarise and sit up. With a sigh, you glance at the clock.

“I should get ready for going out. Call for Maid Springer, please.”

“You’re still sure you want to go with the czarevich?” Levi tries even though he knows it’s futile. You stand up, give him a harmless smile and walk to the bathroom.

-

The ride to wherever Zeke is taking you is spent in tense silence. You pretend not to notice how both Reiner and Levi rest their hands on the handles of their rifles and stare each other down.

Looking out of the window, you watch the plain-dressed peasants going about their daily lives. Stores, stalls, carriages pulled by donkeys, the whole city is oblivious to your presence.

Half of you was expecting the Novarynian-Varsikovians to live in their own separate neighbourhoods that are isolated from the rest, but to your surprise, the carriage stops near the centre of the city, in front of a large industrial building.

It doesn’t look inviting. It’s made from dull, grey bricks with bar-covered windows, heavy wooden doors and a tall fence around the premises. There are at least a dozen chimneys, smoking so heavily you can smell the pollution all the way inside the carriage.

There’s no grass or vegetation in the yard, you doubt anything would grow in the midst of all this smoke. Instead, it’s covered in gravel with a brick-covered pathway leading to the guarded front doors.

Soldiers are patrolling around the premises, heavily armed.

Suddenly, you’re scared to go inside and find out what’s going on.

“Is there where all of them are?” you ask carefully. Zeke looks exhilarated and you can see his eyes twinkle with glee as he sees your hesitation.

“No. Some are in other factories.“

You recall what the old man from the store told you all those weeks ago, how you’re the only Novarynian who would be admitted into the country unchained and free. You wish you would have connected the dots earlier.

Zeke and Reiner step out of the carriage first and lead the way inside. As you move to follow them, you feel a hand on your shoulder.

“You don’t need to do this. We can still go back,” Levi reminds you, eyes meaningful on yours. He looks worried.

You shake your head and climb out to the yard.

“I can handle this, Levi. Do not worry.”

“You know I can’t not do that,” he points out dryly but lets it go.

You follow Zeke to the front entrance, and a grumpy-looking soldier admits you in with a small bow. Though, his eyes pause on you as he puts the pieces together and realises who you are.

The inside of the factory is as bleak-looking as the outside. The first thing you see is a large, barren hall with a row of soldiers keeping watch by the walls. The floor is cold stone, the walls are naked, and the ceiling is tall with rows of gas lamps illuminating the space.

Your footsteps echo in the large room as Zeke guides you to one of the heavy steel doors lined up by the walls.

“This is one of the gun factories,” Zeke explains lightly as if he’s your tour guide for seeing sights. You can hear the thumping, whirring and clanks of heavy machinery.

“The machines do most of the work. All the employees do is keep the machines running.”

“With what?” you ask warily as you walk down a wide corridor. You can smell the pungent metal and smoke. It all unnerves you.

“Coal,” comes the simple reply.

“And which colony do you get the coal from?” you ask with just a bit of snark before you can stop yourself. Zeke gives you a grin over his shoulder.

“Jaldor.”

“Where is that?”

“It’s a small island country by the Northeast shore of Zwanma.”

The same continent Nambala is located in.

“Just how many colonies do you have?” you mutter as Zeke brings you closer to the sounds of the machinery.

“Not too many. Enough to keep up the war if need to,” Zeke answers with a conversational tone. At the end of the hallway, he pauses and gestures for the heavily guarded soldier to let you in.

As the door opens to a huge hall, it takes your eyes a moment to see through the steam and smoke. You cough a little, the air being anything but clean, and when you make out what’s inside, your eyes fly wide open.

The hall is filled with steel firepits with roaring flames inside, fuelling the cogs of the huge machinery. Next to the rows of ovens are metal rails, used to haul around carts full of coal.

It’s not the impressive machinery that has got you so distraught, but the people working by them. Dirty and anaemic, you see men and women shovelling in coal, faces tired and expressionless. They look so malnourished and skinny it’s a wonder they can move the tools they work with.

Instinctively, you let out a whimper that’s instantly drowned in the deafening sound of the machinery. Without you realising it, your hand leaps to grab Levi’s for comfort. You feel him stiffen for a second. His hand subtly squeezes yours once and then disentangles from your hold before someone else notices.

“Let me introduce you to the Varsikovian-Novarynians,” Zeke ceremoniously shouts over the noise. Your chest clenches, and suddenly it’s not only the smoke that’s making it hard to breathe.

These must be prisoners of war and their descendants. People caught from the battle or raided cities, hauled here for free labour.

You turn to look at Levi, shocked and deep sense of betrayal in your eyes. No one told you. And now, you only know because Zeke relishes in seeing you suffer.

Zeke walks you through the narrow path across the large hall. Levi’s tense and on full alert, but luckily most of the workers are so focused on not toppling over by exhaustion that they don’t notice, let alone recognise you.

Your mouth dries, your windpipe closes with blinding guilt. You want to close your eyes, but you know you don’t deserve to. You’re a royal, and under that disguise, you’re allowed leeway in Varsiko these people could never even dream of. You have to own the privilege you’re protected by.

You almost make it out of the hall before someone stops you. You feel a faint tug at your hems, and when you turn, you see a boy. Covered in soot and sweat, he looks young. You doubt he’s older than fourteen.

You see his mouth open as he speaks to you, but you can’t hear what he’s saying over the loud noises. He tries to shout, but the years in this smoky room have taken his voice.

He reaches a hand toward you, just to be harshly stopped by Levi batting it away.

“It’s okay, Levi!” you shout over the noises. “Let him approach me.”

You move closer, Reiner and Zeke watching on as you allow him to lean in.

“Are you the princess they speak of? The one from… From home?” he talks into your ear. His voice is raspy and weak, and you need to concentrate a lot to make out what he’s saying.

You nod, and a relieved smile raises to his cheeks.

“They say the war will end and we will all be freed when you marry the prince of this place. Is that true?”

Another clench in your chest.

“I will do my best,” you promise him earnestly.

“I was captured from East Novaryn during a raid a year ago and brought here. My name is Solomon Nae. If you… If you ever see my mother in East Novaryn, Esther Nae, can you tell her I’m alive?”

It feels like someone is sitting on your chest. You take a shuddering breath and place a hand on his shoulder.

“I will, Solomon. If I ever see her, I will tell her,” you reply.

“They say you are a good princess. That you will help us. I will tell the rest. We will be waiting for you,” he says with a hopeful smile, and leaves before the soldiers can give him a beating for leaving his post.

You look at his distancing back and bite the inside of your cheek, troubled and disturbed. Without a word, you follow Zeke out of the hall to another narrow corridor.

“These factories have been in operation since the early stages of the war,” Zeke tells you with an awfully light voice. “Some residents were born here, some were brought from Novaryn.”

“And what do the children who are too young for work do here?”

Zeke stops and gives you an unreadable look.

“They stay with their mothers while she works for the first four years of their lives. Then…”

“Then, they go to nurseries? School?” you suggest desperately even though Zeke’s face tells you the truth.

“When they turn four, they start working. Sometimes, the machinery gets stuck. Something in the airways, an air shaft needs repair and so on. We need small, nimble people.”

“You send them in tight, dark spaces to repair the machinery you use to prepare weapons for killing their relatives and countrymen,” you state rather than ask, voice thin and stressed. “How many die before adulthood?”

“Roughly half,” Zeke announces. “But you might find solace in the fact that not many workers have the time and energy to make babies. Not many are born here.”

It’s a relief, but only a small one. As the shock subsides a little, it’s replaced with scorching anger.

“How can the Czar-?“

“My dearest father has nothing to do with this. Did you already forget the part where the de facto leader of this country is Darius Zackly?”

Darius Zackly, the admiral of the Varsikovian Army and the leader of the Wing of Offence. Of course, his family lineage is behind this inhumanity. You want to argue, but you know it won’t do any good right now.

You’re led through a cramped dining hall, consisting of splintered wooden tables and long benches, an off-putting smell coming from what you assume to be the kitchen.

Zeke briefly shows you their sleeping quarters. Rusty bunk beds rowed close together, small puddles on the floors (and some unfortunate people’s beds) from leaky pipes. The pillows are obviously filled with straw and the blankets are thin and worn out.

When Zeke leads you back towards the hallway, you sigh.

“Why are you showing me all this?” You drop all pretences and allow yourself to sound just as dejected and frustrated as you feel. You can’t do anything for them now, all you can do is hold onto your conviction to not make the peace negotiations fall through.

Once the war is fully over, you can negotiate for returning these people to Novaryn, or at least freeing them from their slavery.

“All in due time, pet,” comes Zeke’s simple answer. He has the decency to take a way around the hall, so you don’t need to see the despair of your people a second time. You walk through what feels like hours of endless, barren corridors, and the silence gives you the perfect opportunity to fall deep into blue thoughts.

Another reminder of how hostile Varsiko is. How little power even the Czar has. How minuscule your influence is. You can feel Levi’s eyes on your back, obviously gauging your mental state.

As you step outside, to the shrilling early autumn breeze, you shudder a bit. You feel immense guilt for walking away from the factory, yet it’s your only option for now.

Zeke opens the door for you and gives you an unnerving smile.

“After you, your grace,” he hums. You narrow your eyes a little bit but climb inside nonetheless.

It all happens so fast. Zeke nods to Reiner, who grapples Levi down to the ground on cue. Zeke jumps in the carriage after you, signals for the driver to start moving and slams the door shut.

Immediately, your eyes widen. You leap to open the door and throw yourself out, but Zeke is ahead of you. He grabs your arms and holds you back forcefully.

“Wouldn’t do that if I were you, pet,” he murmurs in your ear. You watch through the window, wide-eyed and helpless, as Levi fights Reiner furiously, his eyes trained on the carriage. He uses every bit of leeway he gets from the blonde man to try and claw after you, but he can’t shrug Reiner off.

The carriage takes you away, and your struggle against Zeke is futile. He’s stronger than he lets on.

“What are you trying to do to me?!” you ask, alarmed and crept out. Zeke chuckles.

“If you promise not to do anything stupid, such as cast yourself off this carriage when it’s going at such speed, I will release your arms. I don’t intend to harm you, pet.”

You think it over for a moment, forcing your heart to calm down and those intrusive thoughts of that traumatising night to subside. Then, you nod shortly.

Zeke lets you go, and instantly you scramble to get as far away from him as possible.

“Forgive me for deceiving you, but it was the only way I could separate you from your guard dog. There’s no reason to fear, we’re en route back to the castle. I simply wish to speak to you privately.”

“About what?” you ask. You know better than to trust him.

“The reason I showed you that factory was because I want to offer you my help. I can help you set them free.”

“Free?” you frown. “Whatever do you mean?”

“I mean, I will help you smuggle them out of the country if you want to,” Zeke enlightens you with a nonchalant shrug.

“There is no need for that. Once I marry Eren, I’m sure a part of the negotiations-”

“Your father has already agreed to drop the issue of enslaved Novarynians in any forthcoming peace agreements. It was one of the key issues Admiral Zackly pushed for when he authorised the negotiations. You can ask him when he arrives if you don’t believe me.”

That makes you pause.

“Arrives?” you frown, and Zeke gives you an infuriatingly condescending look.

“Oh, don’t tell me he didn’t even tell you he’s coming to Varsiko? Our countries are no longer at war, so it’s customary that he’s present, like any other royals from nearby non-hostile nations, when the heir apparent gets married. He’ll be arriving in two or so weeks and spend a few days here advancing the negotiations with your father before the wedding.”

You didn’t expect the news to sting as much as they do. You know your father has little regard for you, but for him to not even announce he’ll be visiting, it really makes you feel insignificant.

“Either way, he won’t be of help releasing those slaves. I, however, can help you,” Zeke says.

“And how exactly would we do that?”

“I have my ways.”

“And why would you want to do that? What do you want in return?” There’s no way Zeke would help you out of the goodness of his heart.

“I’m not fond of slavery, as much as that might be hard to believe,” he replies with a shrug and grins. “But, you’re right. I’m offering you my help because I want you to like me.”

“Why would you want me to like you? What is in it for you?” You cross your arms. Zeke chuckles and moves quite suddenly. Sitting down beside you, he quickly grabs your waist before you can move away.

You struggle in his hold, alarmed, as he leans in and tilts his head.

“You know why,” he hums. “I haven’t exactly been subtle about it.”

Your eyes harden and you wipe off the panic to give him a long, cold glare. Zeke, obviously enthralled, chuckles fondly.

“I love it when you glare at me. It’s exciting. Historia does exactly as I tell her to, it gets boring. But you rebel against me. I love that.”

You feel sorely tempted to tell him that Historia is doing things behind his back. Things like trying to kill you. But, you know better.

“Why can you not tell me all this in Levi’s presence?” you ask as you try to struggle. Zeke’s hold over you tightens and he snorts.

“Please. He would advise you against this and not allow you to cooperate with me.”

“How do you know that? I’m sure he does not condone slavery-”

“He’s a part of the military, and his fundamental loyalties are not with you,” Zeke assesses mercilessly.

“Are you saying the loyalty chip prevents him?”

That gives Zeke a pause. Then, he laughs.

“So, you found a way to discover your hound’s little secret. I’m impressed.”

He affectionately bops the tip of your nose with his finger. Immediately, you bat his hand away. Unaffected, Zeke continues speaking.

“Even if the loyalty chip doesn’t prevent it, he’s not going to want you anywhere near me. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed how possessive your guard dog is. He’s just aching to mount you.”

At that, your eyes flicker down. Zeke immediately catches onto it.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he says. “It wouldn’t be the first time a princess gets involved with her guard, but those tales never end well.”

“And getting involved with her fiancé’s brother is the better option?” you ask and place your hands on his chest, trying to push him off.

“Who knows,” Zeke chuckles. He places his hand on your neck, his arm tightening around your waist, and rubs you just under your ear. You pull your head away with an unhappy groan.

“What are you doing?”

“Just leaving a bit of my scent on your neck. I like seeing your guard dog lose his mind when there’s someone else’s scent on his precious princess. It’s amusing.”

“Let go,” you growl and stomp on his foot in an effort to get free. This unbelievable bastard.

Zeke lets you go, but only when you’re getting dangerously close to the castle. He reaches for his pocket and throws you a small key just as you arrive on the castle grounds.

“If you ever manage to shrug off your guard dog and want to hear my plan, feel free to visit me in my quarters.”

“This is the key to your quarters?”

“Yes.”

“And you are just giving it to me?”

“Yes.”

You narrow your eyes. Under no circumstances do you believe anything Zeke is saying. Why would he suddenly extend such generous help your way, just to make you like him? It makes no sense.

“There will be no deal. Take your key and leave,” you tell him as the carriage pulls to a halt. You hold out the key to him, but he doesn’t take it.

“You can keep it,” Zeke hums. “In case you ever feel like you want to talk to me privately. It’s not good if anyone sees you waiting around my room, so I want you to be able to just go in.”

There’s no one here to witness you two, so you dare to drop any resemblance of a polite act.

“You are delusional if you think I will ever visit you in your quarters,” you hiss at him. Chuckling, Zeke shakes his head.

“You were almost killed. Do you honestly think you’re in any position to reject people willing to be your allies?”

“I have all the allies I need. My guard and I-”

“Your guard will turn against you the second my father snaps his fingers,” Zeke reminds you.

“The Czar has no reason to do that.”

Zeke leans in. He places his hand over yours and closes your fingers over the key, securing it in your hand.

“Yet,” he whispers into your ear.

Then, you hear a thud from the door. You turn your head just in time to get a blurry glimpse of Levi as he yanks the door open and practically rips you out of the carriage.

He’s drenched in sweat and furious, his grip is bruising as he throws you behind him and turns to face Zeke.

Calm and seemingly unaffected despite the fact that his guard is not here, Zeke gets out of the carriage and gestures for the driver to leave. Then, he scratches his ear and meets Levi’s enraged eyes.

“Down, boy,” he orders with a grin. “I didn’t do anything to your precious princess, and you know better than attacking me.”

Levi’s eyes flash, and his hand leaps to the handle of his rifle, but you hurry to stop him.

“Levi, stop. It is alright, I’m fine,” you attempt to soothe him. Zeke is obviously entertained, and he licks his lips with ominous glee.

“You sprinted all the way here? I’m impressed. What a devoted guard dog. I hope you didn’t maim poor Reiner too much.”

“Leave it, Levi. He is just trying to get you in trouble by riling you up,” you murmur to Levi. Your pleading eyes meet his, and he contemplates for just a second. He inhales deeply to calm his nerves, and frowns. Then, in a heartbeat, his confusion turns to anger.

Before you can register it, he grabs you with bruising power and practically hauls you over his shoulder. You let out a surprised shriek as he turns without a word and carries you back into the castle. Just before the main entrance slams shut behind you, you hear Zeke call out to you.

“Think about it, pet. I’ll be waiting.”

You see the amused glint of his eyes. You want to address him, tell him he can wait forever and you won’t come, but you’ve got more important issues at hand.

“Levi, people are seeing this,” you try to reason as you dangle over his shoulder, but you’re only acknowledged with a hostile growl.

“Shut up, if you know what’s good for you.”

You frown. Levi ignores all bewildered looks you get from passing maids and soldiers as he carries you back to your room with haste. You subtly hide the key in the folds of your dress, deciding to address that only when Levi’s calmed down.

Levi takes you to your room, kicks the door closed after himself and slams you down on the desk. You whimper a little at the mild pain, still more confused than scared. He leans in, eyes twinkling with danger.

“What did he do?” he insists. Instinctively, you reach your hands to place on his chest to stabilise yourself, but he grabs your wrists and pins them down against the wood. You lean back a little, the closeness affecting you with memories of his lips on yours. You suddenly feel light and dizzy again, in the most wonderful of ways despite the way he’s currently handling you.

“Whatever do you mean?” you breathe. Levi leans closer, takes another deep breath, and groans. His hands tighten around your wrists.

“His disgusting smell is all over you. Where did he touch you?”

His pupils are dilated, his breathing is off, his jaws are gritting together as his jealous thoughts eat him alive. He’s showing you himself at his ugliest as the thought of Zeke’s hands on your skin drives him mad.

He’s already claimed you, Zeke has no business touching what’s his.

A look of understanding spreads on your face, and you feel a fleeting moment of fondness for Levi. It’s just as Zeke said. Levi might be holding back because he’s your guard, but that doesn’t erase his possessiveness.

“My waist and my neck,” you admit. Levi’s hands twitch on your wrists, clearly aching to overwrite Zeke’s smell with his. He trembles just the tiniest bit. Clearly contemplating his options. You feel the pull between you, the obvious temptation to just re-do what you had a few days ago, the frantic touches and heated kisses.

Only, this time he keeps himself in check because he’s been constantly reminding himself what’s at stake.

Making up his mind, he pulls back just to roughly drag you to the bathroom by your wrist. You don’t put up much of a fight, you know it’s not worth it.

And, you hate to admit it, but you find his rough attitude rather arousing.

“Get in the bath,” he orders. He releases your wrist, crosses his arms and wrinkles his nose. “I want his scent off you.”

“Why?” you ask, forcing yourself calm despite the way your heart hammers in your chest because of the closeness and the knowledge he cares this much. He can pretend all he wants, but when he treats you like this, clearly disturbed and angry, you’re not about to let him off without a proper explanation. Even if you know the answer already.

A tense silence falls between you.

“Because smelling him on you is driving me insane and my brain won’t work properly until you smell like yourself again,” Levi finally admits through his teeth.

You sigh.

“He did it because he knew it would bother you. He enjoys seeing you riled up over me. It entices him. Try not to lose your cool in front of him like that.”

You take his hand and place it on your waist. Then, you put the other one on your neck.

“Wipe his scent off then. If it bothers you,” you dare him. He sighs and pulls his hands back even though it’s obvious it’s taking him a lot of resolve to do it.

“You know I can’t do that. I’d rather you just smelt like yourself,” he says. “Please, just wash his odour off.”

You get where he’s coming from. Should anyone rub her perfume all over Levi, you’d be equally pissed off. It just feels odd, after Levi going to such lengths to avoid talking about your intimate moment and demanding you pretend there’s nothing between you.

As much as Levi appears stoic and aloof, his temper is proving to be a hair-trigger once it comes to you.

“Alright. But afterwards, we should talk about what he said while we were alone. There is a lot to discuss.”

Levi nods and excuses himself.

Left alone in the bathroom, you look around at the neatly polished porcelain appliances and let out a long breath.

You take out the key and look at it, puzzled.

What a mess. The factory, Zeke’s offer, you and Levi’s relations. All of it. You start pumping out the water, knowing that in a moment you will have to get out of here and start making sense of things.

One thing remains clear, however; you and Levi, as much as you pretend otherwise, are past the point of no return. Sooner or later, the flame will consume you with disastrous results.

Chapter Text

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Levi…”

“If you think I’m going to let you go to his quarters unsupervised after he just abducted and rubbed his vile scent all over you-”

“You are being overdramatic.”

“-then you are sorely mistaken. This conversation is over.”

You give Levi an exasperated look and cross your arms. You’re still wet from the bath. Your hair is damp and undone, and you’re only dressed in your underwear, an undershirt and a simple, knee-length skirt.

Maid Springer won’t be here until it’s time for dinner.

The sky is slowly turning dark outside. The castle is so close to the city that most nights, the lights from the factories and houses nearby keep you from seeing the stars and moon. You find yourself rather missing the way you could stare at the sky full of stars in Novaryn.

You look at Levi, who’s leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. His typical, relaxed posture. He’s no longer on full alert since the smell is off you, but he still looks visibly unhappy. His earlier outburst is still fresh both in your minds, and the bath only did so much to help the atmosphere.

“I want to know what his plan is,” you say. You’re sitting on your bed, brushing your wet hair. Your barren appearance bothers you a little, and there’s an odd sense of intimacy that comes with Levi seeing you like this. Even though he’s guarded your sleep many times before, you usually dive straight under the blankets, away from his eyes, when you come out of your evening bath.

He seems to be thinking along the same lines because his dark eyes flicker to you and gain a small awkward sheen every now and then.

“I’m not going to let you go in his room alone, and I doubt he’s going to tell you in my presence,” Levi says. You sigh and stand up, placing the brush on the bedside table.

Crossing the room until you’re standing in front of him, you look over his stubborn face.

“Levi, those are my people in there,” you tell him quietly. “I cannot just leave them there, into slavery. I have to help them out of there, and my father is not going to do a thing to help them.”

“There has to be another way to free them.”

“This is a chance to have the future ruler of this country on my side,” you try to persuade him. Levi’s dark eyes flash as you hit an infected nerve, and he suddenly extends a hand to grab your waist.

Easily, he slams you into the wall and his expression is suddenly dangerous.

“And if he wants you in return? What then?” he asks. “He’s made it abundantly clear that he wants you, I doubt your fiancé cares enough to stop him. If you go in his room alone and he pins you down like this, what then?“

The warmth of Levi’s body affects you. You feel his breathing on your forehead, and like always, you just want to reel him in and kiss you like your heart is telling you to.

You think it over.

What if Zeke’s price truly is bedding you? Making you a mistress? A lover? The thought makes you feel dirty. There’s this air of unnerving lust around Zeke, in everything he does to you. You try to imagine surrendering to him, feeling his lips and hands on your throat. Allowing him to disrobe you and have your innocence.

It makes you feel sick. But-

You’re not a child anymore, and you’ve seen what’s at stake. The face of that poor worker boy, born into slavery with no way out, leaving with a glimmer of hope in his eyes, flashes in your mind. Your eyes harden.

“If my body and dignity are the price I have to pay for saving my people-”

Levi’s arm immediately tightens around you. His face twists as his anger flares, and you flinch a little as he slams a fist next to your head.

“Don’t finish that sentence if you know what’s good for you,” he growls.

“To whom I give my body is none of your concern,” you reply, voice cool and collected. You refuse to have him behave like he owns you after turning you down just days prior. And after these outbursts, you’re done trying to hold your end of the deal of pretending that breath-taking, wonderful kiss never happened.

“If you want me, you only need to say so, but you do not hold authority over my body,” you say.

Levi grits his teeth together. You glare at each other for a good while, and you fully anticipate him to lash out at you.

Instead, he takes a deep breath. Against what you anticipate, his eyes lose all edge. He opens his fist and uses the hand to gently hold a lock of your hair on his palm.

“I will go insane,” he confesses, his voice suddenly hoarse and full of pain. He’s allowing you into his heart. “I can live without having you, knowing you’re going to marry another royal and be his respected wife.”

He presses the lock against his lips. He inhales your comforting scent and shudders a little. You’ve never seen him this raw and vulnerable.

“But I can’t live knowing that you allow someone like him have you. Being a bedwarmer for someone like him… Smelling him all over you… I’ll go mad. I can’t live knowing he’s bedding you. Please don’t make me.”

Your heart stops for a moment. For Levi, someone so aloof and withdrawn, to open up to you, it must really be driving him crazy. The gravity of the situation and the intensity of his darkest possessive feelings dawn on you

The flame inside your heart flares, clinging to the opportunity and you speak up before you can think it through.

Your cool gaze turns gentle. You take Levi’s hand and gently bring it to your cheek.

“I do not want either of them. The only scent I want on my skin is yours. If my fate is to forever pine for you, then I do not care who gets me instead.”

His tortured eyes meet your tender yet firm gaze. There’s a conviction to your voice as you tell him something you have always known.

“I’m a royal woman. My body has never been my own. What happens to it has always been up to someone else. My father, my fiancé, the Czar… I have long since accepted that I have no say in who gets to touch my body. It has always been a tool for politics.”

But it doesn’t have to be. You’re suddenly taken over by a surge of brazen thoughts, a will to rebel against the unjust situation you’re in. You grasp Levi’s hand that’s cupping your cheek and press it to your chest.

Levi flinches, scandalised, when he feels his hand close over one of your breasts. Your defiant eyes meet his.

“If you want me, take me,” you challenge him. “If you won’t, then stand aside and let me use my body how it was intended; as a tool.”

He looks incredibly conflicted. Like he’s been starving for his whole life and you’re holding the salvation over his head. A large part of him just wants to give in, pull you in and kiss you. Press his face into your breasts, rub his scent on every inch of your body as he takes your virtue and claims you as his own.

You both know Eren is not going to care whether he marries you while you’re untouched or not. The price for Levi would be the knowledge that he’s betrayed his country.

His hand moves to cup your breast properly. He leans in. Your breaths mingle. His arm pulls you in by your waist. Your hands take support from his arms.

There are only a few pitiful centimetres between your lips. Between what’s honourable and what’s shameful. Between right and wrong.

Then, he reaches a decision and gains a hold of that tiny sliver of sanity holding him back. He pulls away, teeth gritted like it’s causing him physical pain, leaving you breathless and hopeless against the wall.

He can’t do it and live with himself afterwards.

You swallow down thick disappointment and nod to yourself. He doesn’t want to sacrifice what’s at stake. His loyalty and conscience. You’re willing to recklessly throw everything at risk just to have him, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to do so in return.

You walk to the wardrobe just to throw on a shirt that’s a bit more decent. Then, you grab the key from the desk and walk to the door with every intention of walking out of it, to Zeke’s quarters.

“You can stay here while I go or stand guard outside his quarters while I’m inside. It is your choice.”

He wasn’t expecting that.

You don’t see the expression of pure anguish and panic that instantly spreads on Levi’s face, but the way he practically lunges to you before you can open the door, grabs you, hoists you and carries you to the bed, his heart thundering in his chest, tells you enough.

He pushes you down on the soft cushions and kisses you deeply. You only have time to make a hitched noise, you feel his hands roaming up your stomach, towards your chest.

“Alright,” Levi breathes into the kiss. He sounds aroused but also soul-crushingly sad. Like he’s giving up his whole identity. “Alright. You win. Just… Just don’t go to him.”

You feel something heavy in your stomach, and it takes you a moment to understand it’s guilt. Levi’s going to take you, not because he wants to, but because you’re holding his emotions hostage. He feels like he has no other choice because he can’t bear to see you together with Zeke.

You want him. But not like this. Not when he looks like his heart is about to break in two.

With a sigh, you know you’ve lost. You gently grasp his arms and push him away, enough so you can speak.

“Levi, stop. Do you think I could live with myself if I knew you bedded me, not because you wanted to and because you love me and want to knowingly risk everything because of that, but because I forced you to by threatening to lie with someone else?”

Levi looks a little bit lost. He looks over your swollen lips, the mess he’s already made of your hair, and swallows.

“Then what-”

“I will not go to the czarevich. I will deal with this in another way.”

“What way?”

Levi still doesn’t sound convinced. His hands slide from your stomach to your face, cupping it in his hands and pressing your foreheads together. It feels so right. You just want to pull him back in, kiss him and have your way with him.

Yet, you know you could never forgive yourself if you did so now. If you and Levi are to ever be, you want him to take the leap because he wants to. Not because he feels like he’s been cornered.

You think it over.

“I shall talk to the Czar. When my father comes over for the Czarevich’s wedding, they are bound to have some negotiations face-to-face. I will request a seat at the negotiation table and bring up the issue. Maybe I can secure their release a legitimate way.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

You try to come up with an option that will satisfy both of you. You look into his sharp eyes. They are still doubtful but no longer filled with dread.

“Then I shall deceive the czarevich. Promise him what he wants in exchange for freeing those workers, but once he is done, I never fulfil that promise. In which case, I will need you to rise against your future Czar and shield me from him.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Levi says. “I doubt he will turn to the Czar for assistance in bedding you. He knows the Czar would never allow that. So, my chip can’t be used against me here. But what if the Czarevich demands you do it right then as you agree on the deal?”

“I have my ways to fend him off,” you promise vaguely. Levi narrows his eyes, still not convinced. He’s not going to back down until he’s sure you have a plan.

“What ways?”

“Just… Ways,” you murmur and blush faintly.

“What ways?” he insists, and you roll your eyes with a groan.

“I’ll tell him I’m bleeding,” you spell it out to him. Levi frowns, and it takes him a moment to figure it out. When he does, a look awkward understanding spreads on his face.

“Oh. Right.”

He pulls back with the intention of getting off you, now calmed down, but you stop him by cupping his cheek.

“Levi, my offer will always stand. I want you to claim me. I want to be yours. But only if you willingly choose all that comes with it.”

Levi looks tortured then. He sighs and takes your hand just to place it down.

“I can’t do it. I’m loyal to this country. I can’t betray Varsiko nor the Czar.”

“If you one day will, you only need to say the word and I’m yours.”

With that, you shift and burrow under the blankets, ignoring the way your heart is thundering in your chest.

Levi watches you, his eyes softening with quiet fondness. Then, he goes back to the door and assumes his normal position.

Sleep doesn’t come easy for you that night and by the time you do, Levi’s eyes have already burned a permanent mark in your back.

-

“Uh… Excuse me.”

The two girls stop their play to look down. What they see is a little girl with a nervous, albeit wide smile on her face. She looks at the two older girls with obvious anticipation.

It’s a gorgeous spring day. The sun is up, the birds are chirping their mating calls. All around the castle are the sounds of buzzing insects, polluting flowers and trees. Horses are neighing in the fields, soldiers are patrolling the castle grounds.

Monks are walking down the path in the middle of the grass field towards the small monastery further away, retreating for their midday prayer.

The two girls are dressed in laced dresses. Posh and proper, they are sitting at the table playing with a deck of Liak cards.

The girl who interrupted them is hardly tall enough to be able to peek over the table.

“What do you want?” one of the girls at the table asks, her voice sharp and hostile. The smaller girl’s smile wavers but doesn’t disappear.

“My… My mum said that you are my sisters. That we have the same father.”

The girls pause to give her a long, confused look. They’ve never seen this girl before, and it only clicks who she is when they see the woman sitting further away, looking worried and like she very much advised the little girl against doing this.

“It is the youngest one,” one girl whispers to the other, so loud the little girl can hear them. “The one born to that wench.”

“I heard Mum tell another woman of the court that she was not untouched when Father bedded her.”

“What does that mean?”

“I do not know, but it sounds bad.”

They stop their loud whispering to look at the girl with openly disgusted eyes.

“We are no sisters of yours. Begone,” one of them then orders.

The little girl’s smile falls and her hopes of playing cards with the girls shatter.

“But… But my mum said-“

“Your mum is nothing but a wench.”

“What is a wench?”

“Something you will inevitably become when you grow up,” one of the girls shoots. The other immediately gasps.

“Oh, that was mean!” she giggles.

“Do not call my mum a wench if it is something bad,” the little girl tries, but it only eggs the two others on.

“But she is a wench. A wench, a wench, a wench!” one starts sing-songing, and the other soon joins in.

The little girl watches helplessly as the two girls take their playing cards and scuttle away while chanting, leaving her alone at the table.

She feels confused. She’s done nothing to these people, why do they hate her so much?

Not left alone for long, someone soon comes to her. An older boy with fancy clothes and a warm smile, walking a tall horse behind him.

“Do not worry about those two. They are a pain,” he tells her with a smile. “You are Cora, right? The youngest princess. I have never seen you before.”

The little girl gives him a clumsy, rehearsed curtsey. The sight makes him chuckle.

“I’m Sirius. Your older brother. Those two do not want to play with you, but I can. Have you ever ridden a horse?”

She looks up at the animal. Its marble white fur it’s almost glowing in the sunshine. It looks tall yet very gentle, much like the man handling it. Eventually, she nods after giving her mother a glance to confirm she’s alright with it.

“Alright. I will help you on.”

Grateful and with eyes full of wonder, the girl climbs on with her brother’s help, unaware that he will be one of the only handful of loving relationships she’ll ever have in this castle.

-

You open your eyes with an ache for home.

What an odd thing to dream about. You sit up and move to get dressed. Levi’s standing by the door as usual, and only when you’re halfway to the bathroom do you realise he’s asleep.

Just as he said, he’s standing completely still, his breathing calm and steady, a hand resting on the handle of his sword.

The only thing giving him away is the way his eyes are closed. From behind, anyone would mistake him to be standing guard as usual.

You can’t contain your curiosity. You tiptoe closer and carefully peer at his face. He looks peaceful. His statue-like face is completely still, and you can hear his steady breathing.

He’s gorgeous.

With that thought, you lean even closer and reach a hand to touch him. Only, that’s when his soldier instincts kick in and he snatches your wrist with lightning reflexes.

His eyes snap open, and for a moment he just looks at you, brows furrowed in annoyance.

“What are you doing?” he asks and releases his hold. You rub your wrist a little and shrug with a guilty smile.

“I have never seen you sleep before. I was curious.”

“Well, now you know how uninteresting it is to watch other people sleep.”

At that, you pause as something occurs to you. You turn where you were on your way to freshen up and give him a look he catches.

“What?”

“Was my room arrest not lifted?”

“Evidently, since you’ve been allowed to move around the castle.”

“Then, why are you still my only guard?”

At that, Levi’s face turns a bit more closed off. You can immediately tell he’s keeping something from you.

“Levi,” you call with a warning tone. “What are you keeping from me?

He glares at you, trying to will you to drop it, but you don’t relent. You cross your arms and just look on expectantly.

“While you sleep, the Czar sometimes sends a letter introducing new guards but so far, I don’t trust any of them and have turned them down.”

“You do not trust any of them?”

“Well, one did try to kill you.”

“That is a fair point, but you cannot keep guarding me by yourself forever. You need days off. Rest. Proper sleep, not just snoozing while standing guard.”

“I’m fine, little miss. I’ve functioned on less sleep.”

“That does not mean you should,” you point out with a worried frown. You’re not surprised Levi doesn’t trust anyone with looking after you, but this situation is still unsustainable.

You sigh. Despite all that, there are more pressing issues at hand now. You’ll have to put a pin on this.

“Call for Maid Springer, please. I wish to be presentable before breakfast,” you tell Levi. He looks at you warily.

“Why?”

“I will request a slot at the negotiation table for when my father arrives.”

At that, Levi detaches his back from the wall and cracks the door open to order a passing maid to fetch Maid Springer.

Thirty minutes later, you leave the bedroom and allow Levi to guide you to the Czar’s office. Around you, the castle has woken up with the first rays of sunshine. The closer you get to the Czar’s quarters, the livelier it gets. More soldiers, more maids, more servant boys.

Your chambers are stowed away in the far end of the West Wing, which mostly consists of storage areas and servant quarters. The Czar, however, has his office in the lively North Wing.

The door to the Czar’s office looks like any other door. Grey and dull-looking, you have to double-check with Levi as he nods towards it.

“Wait outside,” you instruct Levi first, and then knock. A couple of alchemists, on their way to the Wing of Science, give you a short look as they pass by, but otherwise, no one seems to pay too much attention to you.

You’re becoming a part of the backdrop. A sight so common no one pays attention to you anymore.

“Come in.”

It’s not the Czar’s voice that calls you, but a woman’s. When you crack the door open and walk in, you’re not too surprised to see the Czarina and you give her your customary curtsey.

You’ve never been to the Czar’s office before, and it’s quite a bit smaller than you expected. The walls are a dull grey colour and filled with portraits of people you don’t know. Most of them look old and serious, and you wonder if they’re the previous czars.

There are a bookcase and a deep red satin armchair in the corner, next to the door leading to a small, private balcony. The Czar’s desk, at which the Czarina is sitting in her regular, long dress and tiara, is so wide it takes up most of the wall.

On the desk are a quill and some ink, a few unnamed books, a half-drunk cup of tea that’s still steaming a little and tall stacks of papers. What gains your interest, in particular, is the huge pile of unopened letters, next to a smaller pile of opened ones.

The Czarina sees where you’re looking because she smiles a little.

“Grisha was just in the process of opening his daily mail.”

Daily? You knew the Czar is busy, but this busy…

“I’m here to talk to his grace.”

“I surmised as much,” the Czarina says. “He went to attend to some urgent business, but he should be back in a moment. Please, have a seat.”

She gestures towards a chair by the wall next to the desk, and you obediently sit down.

Now that you think about it, it’s the first time you’ve been alone with the Czarina. You look over her well-meaning, youthful features.

Carla Yeager. The second Czarina.

“Your grace, may I ask?”

“You already did. But you can ask again,” she smiles. Compared to how stiff and formal she was with you at first, she seems to have somewhat relaxed in your presence now.

“Did you grow up in Varsiko, or are you from abroad?”

“I’m from Ljudel, like the previous Czarina. Varsiko is not a large country, most royals marry from or to abroad.”

You nod.

“Is there a specific reason both of you fare from Ljudel?” you ask curiously.

“Securing resources. Varsiko wants to stay on their good side, Ljudel is the closest non-hostile country and the only one with deposits of some metals Varsiko needs for weapons and augmentations.”

“I see.”

You give the Czarina a curious glance, wondering if she hates Novaryn as much as Varsikovians do. Novaryn has no hostilities with Ljudel, a medium-sized, old kingdom East of Varsiko.

“How are things going? With Eren?” the Czarina asks. “I notice you haven’t spent much time with him.”

You look over the Czarina’s gentle face and eventually, you decide to be upfront.

“I try not to pressure him too much. He is not fond of this union. Not that I expected him to be. But I would not want to be too clingy.”

The Czarina looks rather bothered for a moment. She looks at her folded hands on her lap, thinking it over. How much she can trust you. How much she can entrust you with.

“If you ever… Find out something you find objectionable about his interpersonal relationships, just know that you have all the right to tell him to cut it out,” she finally says, arranging her words carefully.

You blink at her. Then, you understand exactly what she means.

She knows about Historia and Eren. She must. Which is why she’s so worried about you and Eren. You wonder if the Czar knows as well.

“I do not wish to chain my fiancé from his happiness. This is a political marriage, I could not fault him for having already given his heart to someone else.”

Outright telling her is not an option to you. Information, and how much of it you possess, is a valuable resource.

Keep your cards close to your chest. Just like your mother taught you.

Looking a bit taken aback, the Czarina finally sighs.

“You’re a good child. I know you will make a wonderful wife to my son. And I hope he will see that in time as well and settle down. But you know how youth is. He’s only fifteen. He’s rebellious like anyone his age.”

You can hear the defensiveness in the Czarina’s voice, as if she’s trying to win you over and make you understand why Eren’s the way he is. Of course, she’s not completely wrong. At fifteen, most people want to rebel against the world around them.

You have already outgrown this phase, but you can recall the way you defied your mother during those years. Spent hours after curfew in the meadows and fields, just staring at the brilliant sky full of stars, ignoring the worried calls of your maids as they searched for you in the dark yard.

That being said, Eren is also complicit in trying to smoke you out of the castle and in the worst-case scenario, kill you. But that’s not something you can disclose to the Czarina, so you merely smile.

Just as you do, you hear some muffled voices from behind the door and soon after, the door is opened and the Czar walks in.

“Cora,” he greets. “I just exchanged a few words with Captain Levi outside. He said you have something you wish to discuss with me.”

“Your grace,” you greet with a curtsey.

“How many times do I need to tell you to not refer to me so formally,” he scolds you gently. The Czarina raises from the chair so the Czar may take a seat, and wanders to the corner where the armchair is.

“Please, sit.”

You sit back down on the chair and adjust the hems of your skirts nervously. You need to appear steadfast and calm. You hear the steady stream of soldiers and maids walking by the office, but the guards standing outside, as well as Levi, should make sure no one comes here unannounced.

“Your grace, I was told that my father will be visiting soon and that you are to engage in some negotiations with him and the head of the Varsikovian army before the Czarevich’s wedding. I wish to participate in those negotiations.”

The Czar blinks, a little surprised.

“Who told you this?”

“The Czarevich.”

Sighing deeply, the Czar holds his head. He glances at you, only to wince. He’s not dumb, he’s caught onto most of what’s happened and why you suddenly want to participate. And he’s not happy about it.

“Cora, listen,” he starts with a heavy tone. He sits up properly and links his fingers over his lap. You look at his luxurious silk shirt, his expensive and recently waxed leather boots, his diamond-covered crown. He looks every bit like a monarch.

You wonder if your father will look similar.

“I know what you saw inside that factory with Zeke may have disturbed you. But please understand that the negotiations with your father will be highly confidential and only the most crucial members of the two nations are allowed to attend.”

So, he won’t just agree to it. You thought that might be the case.

Lucky for you, you’re not entirely helpless. You have some things to use to your advantage.

“With all due respect, your grace, may I be frank?”

“You always may, dear.”

“I am the link between our two nations. I am perhaps the only one who can see this conflict from both sides because I have observed it from both Novaryn and Varsiko. I have studied the history of our nations and conversed with the people around me with every intention to learn and understand. I come from Novaryn, but in a short while, I will become a Varsikovian. What am I, if not a crucial member of our nations?”

For a moment, the Czar doesn’t know what to say. He looks a little nervous but still mostly on top of things.

“These negotiations require a high degree of expertise from its participants. You are hardly of age and you have no experience.”

“I have almost been killed for this peace and I’m giving away not only my life but my soul as well to make this peace happen.”

“Trust me, Cora, we will make it happen.”

“But with those people in factories still there, doomed to an eternity of servitude that they pass on to their children. I cannot give my life away under such circumstances. I refuse.”

“My child,” the Czar is still calm and patient, yet there is a firmness to his voice. He bears no ill will towards you, he understands where you’re coming from. But he can’t let this go. “That part was insisted upon by Admiral Zackly. Unfortunately, that’s his stance.”

“I can attempt to change it.”

“No.”

“Your grace, I am begging you-”

“I’m sorry, my dear but I can’t allow it, no matter how much you beg to be a part of the negotiations.”

“No, your grace, you have misunderstood.” You stand up and your eyes are now firm and hard. The trained smile is gone.

“I am begging you, not to allow me at that negotiation table but to allow me at that table with minimal damage to the relations between our nations.”

The Czar looks scandalised. He was not expecting this.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“I know things about this nation that Novaryn should never find out. And they never will, should I have any say in it. But I will use this knowledge to hurt your side of the negotiations if I have to,” you say.

The Czar’s eyes suddenly widen. He exchanges an unsettled look with the Czarina, who looks equally horrified. Getting on his feet, he walks a bit closer.

“What do you know?” he asks, obviously nervous. You narrow your eyes. There’s clearly something the Czar doesn’t want you to find out about, but whether it has something to do with Zeke, the murder attempt or something completely else, you don’t know.

“I know a lot of things, your grace, but the worst of it would be enough to make these negotiations fall through. Or at least, put you in a very, very tight spot with them.”

The Czar thinks it over. His fingers are tapping his arm and his heel is bouncing off the shining floors as he ponders furiously how to get on top of things.

“Fine,” he finally relents. “I will grant you a slot in the negotiation table as the second official of Novaryn.”

“Thank you, your grace. I hope you do not think too ill of me for forcing your hand like this.”

“No, not at all. I… Understand,” the Czar sighs. “Just know that whatever you have found out, we only did what we must to protect our own.”

“And I’m doing what I must to protect mine. So, I guess that makes us equal.“

The Czar chuckles, though rather joylessly at that.

“I suppose.”

“It was a pleasure to talk to you, your grace.” You properly curtsey to both the Czar and Czarina before walking to the door. You wonder what the Czar freaked out so much about. What piece of knowledge is he so scared of you or Novaryn knowing that he bent to your demands like this?

Maybe he knows more about the murder attempt than he lets on. Maybe he knows more about Zeke’s motivations than you do.

You step outside and close the door after yourself. You take a deep breath.

It’s the first time you’ve gone against the Czar like this. It was a risky move, and it might backfire on you as you just lost a little bit of his favour, but it was what needed to be done.

“How did it go?”

Giving Levi a small look, you smile.

“I made it. I’m allowed in. I had to use some leverage, though.”

The Czar needs to only question Levi, and he’ll find out exactly what you know. You have no doubt he’ll do that. In the process, if he uses the chip to force Levi to tell the truth, he might learn that it was Historia behind the attempt on your life and what transpired between you and Zeke.

You hope it doesn’t occur to him to force Levi using the chip. It’s a risk you need to take.

As you enter your quarters, you feel just a little better. Levi’s back to normal, his feelings no longer unstable and swinging like a pendulum. You managed to secure a shot at trying to get those people out of the factories without having to surrender yourself to Zeke.

And you finally feel like somebody. Somebody with power. Somebody who matters.