The doors opened and the music started.
Estelle gripped Ioder’s arm as he led her down the aisle. Hundreds of guests rose to their feet. On her left, there was royalty. The Imperial Knights and the members of all noble families had travelled from the far ends of the Empire to attend her wedding. Except maybe Ladies Nellsa and Marissa. Those two had been banned from attendance. On her right, there were the poor. Those from the Lower Quarter, the servants, even some of Halure’s citizens were here. Amongst that crowd, Brave Vesperia’s founders stood proudly.
That’s when her eyes landed on him . She almost dropped her bouquet of roses.
He was here. Head bowed and jaw clenched.
But still. He was here .
It was a beautiful night.
A rare evening of freedom before the preparations for the upcoming royal wedding would consume every minute of every day for the following months. It was also a rare evening spent with Brave Vesperia, while they were off travelling the world. Yuri, Raven, Judith, Patty and Karol had all dropped by on their way to Halure.
There was just one problem. Yuri had come, too.
Being with Yuri was as easy as breathing. If they talked, they did. If they didn’t, that was fine too. They’d fallen in this close friendship with an easiness that surprised her. It wasn’t like with Flynn, whom she thought first considered her a princess and a friend next (though Flynn would never admit it). Yuri saw her as a friend, a naive friend at first perhaps, but one who’d grown just like he’d grown during their many adventures. When she had nightmares about Alexei during the too few nights he spent at the castle, she’d always find Yuri at her side. And she did the same, of course, when he woke up screaming about falling, falling, falling...
She loved what they had - something that was growing naturally at its own pace. But now Estelle knew it was getting dangerous. The Council seemed more and more wary as Yuri’s visits - sometimes without Brave Vesperia - became more frequent. And poor Yuri was completely oblivious to all that. No, that wasn’t true. He was aware. He’d started using the flimsiest excuses to spend time with her. He just wasn’t aware that a few days ago, the Council had asked her and Flynn to meet them.
And the rest would be history.
That night, Yuri and Estelle were standing in the rose gardens, watching the stars. Around them, there was nothing but flowers, bushes and empty pathways. Yuri looked magnificent, hair floating in the breeze and eyes reflecting the constellations.
Oh, Spirits. She had it bad.
Estelle’s cheeks grew warm. “What?”
He looked sideways at her, a grin growing on his face. “You’re staring. Has it been long enough that you forgot what my face looked like?”
“I don’t think I could ever forget what it looks like.”
He raised an eyebrow. Ever so slowly. “You think?”
It all happened in slow-motion. Yuri’s hand brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. Then he got closer. His face got closer. Their noses were almost touching. The roses’ intoxicating smell made her head spin. Or maybe it was his smell that did. Estelle’s heart drummed in her chest. Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it…
“Estelle… I… There’s something I need to tell you.”
Estelle wanted to keep quiet. She really did. But she couldn’t keep this a secret. She couldn’t lie to him this way. Yuri deserved better than that.
Yuri opened his mouth to speak first. She didn’t let him finish.
“I’m getting married.”
Yuri took a step back. “What?”
Echoes of “What? What? What? WHAT??! Woof!” came from the nearest bushes. Judith’s, Raven’s, Patty’s, Karol’s and Repede’s heads peeked out.
An invisible hand squeezed Estelle’s heart. She felt like a monster caught in a net.
“It wasn’t my idea!” Once started, she couldn’t stop talking. “It was one of the nobles, one of the Council’s members… he said that an arranged marriage would bring unity and strength to the Empire. And he’s right! It would. It will!”
“What about Ioder?” Karol.
“He’s still getting adjusted after his election. It has to be me.”
“When’s the wedding?” Patty.
“In three months. It would’ve been sooner if it wasn’t for all the preparations.”
“And… who are you marrying?” Raven. He shared a glance with Judith.
Estelle bit her lip. “First they thought it should be one of the Council members’ sons. But then they changed their minds. Said it would be better if it was someone from the Imperial Knights. It would secure Ioder’s place as Emperor, too.”
“Who are you marrying, Estelle?” He asked.
She didn’t dare look Yuri in the eye.
His mouth opened. Then closed. Then opened. Then closed.
“I have to go.”
He walked away. Stormed away, to be precise.
Judith and Repede ran after him. Raven stayed with Patty and Karol in the gardens. Babysat them, more likely. When Estelle tried to walk past him, he stood in her way. But the three of them were too much to keep track of. Patty and Karol distracted Raven by trying to run towards the left path in the gardens. Estelle went right.
“No! Estelle, come back here!”
Servants and nobles alike jumped out of the way. She made it all the way to Yuri’s room without slowing her pace. She finally stopped in front of his door. Waited. Once her heartbeat was back under control, Estelle pressed her eye to the door left ajar.
“So you’re running away? Just like that?” said Judith.
“For fuck’s sake, Judy!” Estelle winced. Yuri never swore. Or at least, never in front of her. “You heard her. She’s getting married!”
“Exactly. And she needs you. She needs Brave Vesperia. All of us.”
“No, she doesn’t need me. Trust me.”
“Look, I know this is hard…”
“This isn’t about me, Judy. This is about… it’s about her. She has all these grand plans of changing the world, helping those in need, navigating politics… all while writing her novels! And who am I in this? What can I be for her? I’m not even a citizen of the Empire anymore! I’m doing this because she’s doing this out of duty. For Emperor and country.”
“I love her, all right?”
Estelle’s hand flew to her mouth.
Judith breathed through her nose. “For how long?”
“A long time. But it’s not enough. I know that. So I’m doing what’s best. I’m walking out of her life. Before I make it even more complicated.”
Footsteps came from inside the bedroom. Estelle ran to the corner of the hallway, hiding behind it as if it could shield her. She saw the door open, she saw him walk outside. He stood there, his back turned to her, his bag thrown over his shoulder. Light poured out from inside and bathed him in gold. In a move that seemed more familiar to her than her own heartbeat, Estelle watched him put a hand on his hip. And sigh.
“Thing is, I was about to tell her tonight. I’m glad she didn’t let me finish.”
And with that, he walked away.
Estelle thought she’d never see Yuri again. Even if she’d personally invited him to the wedding. And yet, here he was. Sitting with his arms crossed over his chest. Dressed in fancy clothes with his hair pulled high at the back of his head. Face hidden by his messy bangs.
He raised his head and their eyes met.
The world froze. Or, well, she froze in mid-step. The music stopped. All eyes were on her. Whispers started to spread. What was going on? What was she doing ?
“Estelle?” asked Ioder.
She looked down the aisle. Flynn looked amazing in his Commandant’s uniform, polished to a fault. He was a good man. And he’d be a good husband. A good friend and a good confidante. Estelle knew that. Honestly, with the Council’s shenanigans, she could have landed a worse deal. A way worse deal. But she didn’t love him.
She swallowed. He frowned.
“I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”
Gasps and shouts came from all directions. People jumped to their feet.
And Estelle ran.
“You don’t have to do this, you know.”
Estelle huffed in the mirror. Maids bustled around her, pinning her crisp white skirts and adjusting her veil’s length. The last fitting before the wedding. Everything had to be perfect. Maybe she wasn’t a good bride, but at least she’d look the part.
If only she could fool herself like she’d fooled everyone else.
“Of course I do.”
Ioder crossed the stuffy room. Sat in her chair as if it was his own throne. The maids hurried out. They clicked the door shut behind them.
He took her by surprise. “How’s the writing going?”
“I asked, ‘how’s the writing going’?”
“Um… not bad.”
“Stop lying, Estelle.”
“I’m not lying!”
“Your nose is twitching.”
She pouted. And groaned.
“All right! I haven’t been able to put pen to paper in weeks.”
Ioder raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, okay! In months! You’re happy?”
“Not exactly. But with all the preparations for the big day, let’s just say, I’m not surprised. About that… It wouldn’t be too late to change your mind.”
“ Yes , it is. The invitations are sent, the castle cathedral will be packed! Everyone will be there! I can’t cancel now.”
“And you’re standing in the middle of it all. Utterly miserable.”
Estelle’s gloved hands rubbed her upper arms.
“I… you’re right.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
She spun around.
“Nothing! I can’t do anything. I committed to this. Flynn did too! We’re doing this for you and the Empire. It’s our duty. I’m not going back on my word.”
Ioder stared at her for a long time. Seconds ticked by at the speed of minutes. Or maybe hours. Estelle couldn’t tell. She still held his gaze. Princess meeting Emperor. Finally, he grimaced, his shoulders sank and he got up. Defeated.
“You’re really doing this.”
“I told you. I’m not going back on my word.”
“Good luck, then.”
He made it to the door without looking back at her. But then he stopped and turned to her. Disappointment shone in his eyes. His saddened smile mocked her.
“I hope you’re making the right choice.”
And he left her alone. So alone.
It wasn’t Ioder who found her. Or any of the Council members. Not even Yuri or any of the other members of Brave Vesperia.
She looked up from where she’d taken refuge. In a corner of her bedroom amidst a sea of cushions, like back when she was a little girl. A little princess waiting to be rescued by (and desperately wanting to fall in love with) a knight in shining armour. But she wasn’t a little girl anymore. She was her own person. And she didn’t need a knight to save her.
She just needed one to talk to. Platonically.
She rubbed at her eyes. Not caring about her makeup. Flynn sat by her and pulled her closer, an arm wrapped around her shoulder, her veil hastily thrown above her head crinkling with the gesture. Estelle buried her face in his shoulder.
“Why are you doing this?” Flynn’s voice sounded raspy.
“Because it’s my duty.”
“No. It’s not. Why are you really doing this?
She pressed her lips together and thought about it for a long moment. “Because I’m tired of them not respecting me. Because… maybe… if I do what they ask and marry you… they’ll give me the time of day. And listen when I have something to say when I’m there at the meetings. Because these... old men are a barrier. I just want to help the Empire’s people.”
Flynn tapped his index finger on his chin. If there was something she liked about Flynn, it was that he listened. And he always knew what to say.
“I don’t think this is right. Doing something that goes completely against your wishes just to be respected… you’ll live a life of misery. If they accept you, good. If they don’t, don’t budge. Make them rethink their decision. What happened to the new Estelle? The one that wanted to follow Yuri - and his crew, of course - to the ends of the world?”
“I think she got carried away. I thought you didn’t like the new Estelle.”
Flynn looked her in the eyes. “I didn’t like how she put herself in danger at every turn. And... you ran. That was her taking back control. And I’m… I’m glad she did. No offence, Princess! But I… I don’t exactly want to marry you either.”
“So why did you do it?”
He actually shrugged. “Frankly? Because the Council asked and because it was you. Amidst all this chaos, you deserved someone you knew and trusted. But the way I saw you look at me down the aisle… I feel like now I can see clearly. That’s not how I want to live either. You’re giving me the strength to say no, too.”
Estelle’s lips curled into a weak smiled. “Thanks, Flynn.”
He got up, brushed off his armoured pants and extended a hand toward her.
She stared at his hand. “I don’t think I can face them.”
“I know you can. But first...” He produced a tissue from his uniform’s pocket. “Let’s get you washed up, all right? You look… terrifying.”
“Have you heard about this Lowell boy? The one from the Lower Quarter?”
Light flooded the castle’s formal dining hall. Around her, a concert of forks, spoons and knives clinked against plates. A small orchestra of a harp and violin softly played in the strategic position in the corner of the gigantic room. Ioder had been need for imperial duties so she sat there, alone, by the Emperor’s empty chair. Even with all these sounds, Estelle still couldn’t ignore the rumour mill going full swing right next to her. She winced. It had only been a few days since Yuri… it still hurt too much to think about.
“I have not heard, Lady Nellsa! Please, pray tell!”
“Well, he’s gone a few days ago, remember? In the middle of the night, like a common thief? I’ve heard that he may have… ahem… tried to corrupt Lady Estellise!”
Lady Nellsa’s friend gasped ostentatiously and shot a wide-eyed look at Estelle that was too hard to ignore. Estelle gripped her fork.
“You don’t say! The villain!”
“I know! Who knows what kind of prostitutes he might have encountered in Zaphias’ rough areas? To think that he’d think Lady Estellise - such an innocent woman! - would do such a thing with him ? As if she were his… his trollop!”
Estelle stabbed her poor piece of steak in her plate and munched.
Don’t bite, don’t bite, don’t bite…
Lady Nellsa’s friend - Lady Marissa, Estelle would later learn was her name - sniffed. Disgust dripped from her tongue. “I wouldn’t imagine anyone from the nobility even giving him the time of day! Have you ever seen him? Flaunting about like he owns the place? Guild vermin, I say! Not that he’s not… you know... ”
“A nice piece to look at?”
Estelle gritted her teeth. She swallowed her Salisbury steak with great difficulty. Lady Nellsa fanned herself with her gloved hand from the corner of her eye.
“My, my! He may be a peasant… but it’s not illegal to take a peek!”
“Don’t say that! He probably doesn’t know how to treat a lady right!”
Both women giggled. Estelle finally finished her plate. Just… get up and leave. That’s all you have to do. Get up and leave… Get up and leave, damn it!
“Do you think he could...? With his good looks, long hair and svelte figure, I mean? Attract unknowing noble women so that he may…” Lady Marissa took a dramatic pause. “Have his little fun and leave with their money?”
“That’s probably how he funds that guild nonsense of his!”
They erupted in fits of chuckles.
“All right, enough!”
Estelle slammed the table with both hands and rushed to her feet. Her chair crashed to the floor. All sounds - the polite conversations, the music, the clinking of utensils on plates - died in a second. Everything was quiet. And everyone was staring at her.
“You watch your mouth about Yuri! He has more class than either of you!”
Lady Marissa snorted. “Does he now? Then why aren’t you marrying him, Princess Estellise? Oh, I know! You’re better off with Commandant Scifo, aren’t you? Or maybe after your wedding night, you’ll stow away to see that classy peasant boy of yours?”
Lady Nellsa looked at her friend. Horrified.
“What? Isn’t that what you’ve been saying all along?”
She shot a glance at Estelle. “I… I wouldn’t say that…!”
Not to her face, anyway.
“Ooh,” continued Marissa, “and Yuri Lowell isn’t the only scandalous member of that guild of his! Have you heard about that Rita Mordio? She comes by quite often, doesn’t she? I’ve been… let’s say… suspicious of her for a while now! I heard from the staff that she may have a thing with a servant boy!”
A plate crashed to the ground. Estelle’s head whipped around.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” whispered a servant girl. She was frantically trying to piece it back together and cut her hands in the process. Bloodied the precious china.
Estelle rushed to her side. “Please, allow me to help!”
The servant girl looked at Estelle for a few seconds with her teary grey eyes wide. Her lavender ponytails bobbed when she nodded. While Estelle was helping her, she whispered in her ear: “Get me out of here!” Estelle dropped the plate pieces in a trash can in the kitchen and ran to her room. She was gone so fast, it barely occurred to her that she hadn’t asked the poor servant girl her name. That night, she thought of Yuri and Flynn and the wedding and her anger faded into exhaustion. What a happy fiancée she made.
Pandaemonium had erupted in the cathedral. Whispers had given way to shouts (of concerns or of protests, Estelle wasn’t sure), the Council members were all gathered in the aisle and yelled at each other, Ioder and Yuri standing right next to them argued back, fists clenched… and the poor priest was watching it all, at the altar, with the wide-eyed face of a man who thought he was too old for this.
Everyone fell silent when Estelle and Flynn walked inside the cathedral.
“Ah, Your Royal Highness!” simpered Lord Schwann. Unrelated to a certain Captain Schwann. “You made it. With your betrothed, too! Perhaps we may continue, then?”
Estelle entangled her arm from Flynn’s and crossed the room. Head tall.
“I’m afraid not, my Lord. I do not wish to marry Flynn and neither does he.”
Gasps rippled through the crowds.
“Ah-ah-I-!” stammered Lord Silva. “Surely you may reconsider…”
“I’m afraid not, my Lord,” Estelle parrotted. “We’ve discussed and want to change our fates, but not by taking each other’s hands in matrimony. I wish for my voice to be heard in the Council and will no longer please you if it means putting my whole life and freedom on the line for you all. Or for Ioder.”
Next to Ioder himself, Yuri smiled.
“How dare you show such disrespect to-!”
“And how dare you talk to a princess of the Empire, who is of higher rank than you as I recall, in such a way, Lord Schwann?” cut him off Ioder, looking more imperial than ever.
Schwann’s Adam’s Apple bobbed in his throat as he swallowed. He bowed deeply.
“Of course, Your Imperial Majesty! The marriage is off!”
In the audience, Brave Vesperia’s representatives shot to their feet and clapped and howled and whistled. Others followed suit, less enthusiastically and mostly from the people's side of the audience. Hanks was the loudest of that bunch. Nobles nodded politely.
Estelle turned around towards Flynn.
“You’re free to marry whom you choose.”
Immediately, Flynn spun around towards the crowd. He eyed it for a long second until another knight - a Captain from another Brigade - got to his feet. They stared at each other for a moment longer… and Flynn spoke.
“Kayne… Can you ever forgive me?”
Kayne walked past some of his comrades with stiff limbs. He removed his helmet and revealed a full head of red hair, tied at the back in a complex updo. Barely a few inches from Flynn, Kayne stopped and nodded. Just as stiffly. His brown eyes flickered from left to right then rested on Flynn. Flynn’s hand stroked Kayne’s well-trimmed beard.
“If I didn’t take you back,” said Kayne in a low voice, the kind that tells the best stories around a fire, “I’d be the biggest idiot on the planet.”
Flynn burst out laughing and wrapped his arms around Kayne’s neck. Another round of gasps echoed when they kissed passionately.
Estelle smiled - but her smile vanished when Rita got to her feet. And screamed.
“What the hell! You mean I’m allowed to do that too now?!!”
She exchanged a glance with a young woman who looked to be Rita’s age sitting a few feet away in the crowd. A servant girl, with lavender hair and a pale freckled face. Hey, she was familiar… Yes! She was the servant girl Estelle had helped a few months ago! In the dining hall! That’s when she also remembered seeing Rita and her sitting in the Library, reading together. A fine choice for Rita. Who basically ran up to her and grabbed her hands.
“Tessa, what do you think?”
“I’m thinking it’s about time!”
Tessa gave Rita a peck on the lips and they ran off hand in hand.
Estelle cherished the perplexed looks on the Council members’ faces. But that, along with her smile from earlier, vanished too when she turned around and faced Yuri. They stared at each other for a moment… and to her surprise, Yuri looked away first. And he… was he blushing? Out of embarrassment? What had happened to the Yuri she knew and loved?
“I’m so sorry. Judith was right. I ran away like a coward when I should’ve been there and I see it now! Man, do I see it now.”
She slowly walked up to him. “I know.”
“Damn it, I-I… I care about you Estelle and-”
She stopped in front of him. He dared to look at her then. Eyes wide. Mouth agape. Estelle reached for him and he took her hand.
“I was there that night. I heard it all.”
If it was humanly possible, his eyes grew even wider.
“Oh no, no, no, that’s even worse than I thought! You heard all of that…”
“And you watched me leave?”
“And…” He deflated like a balloon. “You’re still here?”
“Yuri Lowell, you’re literally the only person responsible for the fact that I’m here right now. Maybe Flynn too, but not in the same way. You showed me the world and... you showed me what I could be. My true potential. Not a noble, not a princess. Just… me. Estelle. You’ve always pushed me in the right direction. So here I am.”
His eyebrows went up and up and up as she talked.
“Besides, this was something I needed to do. My fight. You did the right thing.”
“I did? Because for the past three months I felt like shit.”
“It felt the same for me, too. You made me see how lonely this life would be. A life that you wouldn’t - couldn’t - be in. And you… you helped me see the truth.”
“I love you back.”
The most beautiful smile she’d ever seen spread on his face. A contagious one, too.
“Yeah. I do.”
Somewhere on Estelle’s right, Repede growled. Yuri coughed.
“I mean… that’s… great! Uh… I… don’t know how to say things right… um…”
A flustered Yuri was too adorable for words.
“Come here,” she just said.
She grabbed his face and brought him closer. Judith, Karol, Raven, Patty and a few others from the Lower Quarter - Hanks and Ted, maybe - whistled and clapped when they kissed. Laughter and squeals of joy came from the crowd… and the members of Brave Vesperia that hadn’t left earlier engulfed them in a hug.
“Aw, what a sweet happy ending! You’re making this old man happy!” said Raven.
“I’m happy for you two,” said Ioder, off to the side.
Judith shoved his arm lightly with her elbow. “Hey, what about you, with all due respect, Emperor Ioder? Got any special someone in your life, too?”
He looked quite flustered, hands raised and palms outwards.
“Me? No, no! I’m fine on my own. Thank you! Please don’t look at me this way. Yes. Really. Not everyone needs someone like that.”
“That’s great, Ioder,” Estelle grinned.
“But… Emperor!” protested Lord Schwann. “What about the throne?”
“Don’t worry about that, Lord Schwann. I don’t think the Empire’s main problems stand with its Emperor’s heirs. It has a wedding to cancel, after all!”
Schwann pouted, crestfallen. Estelle and her old friends from Brave Vesperia laughed. Maybe their troubles weren’t over - Yuri still wasn’t a citizen of the Empire and Estelle was still a princess - but those things would be dealt with in time.
She'd taken the first step. She'd crashed her own wedding.