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The girl who died and the woman who lived

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To anyone who would listen, Prince Dimitri of Faerghus would say that his late stepmother was the kindest person he had ever known.

Most of the time, he could even contort his mind into believing it.

 

When Dimitri speaks of how she ‘left him behind and disappeared into the flames’, the listeners might be forgiven for assuming that he is speaking metaphorically.

Clearly, ‘leaving him behind’ simply means that she died;

Obviously ‘disappeared into the flames’ must imply that she burned to death, or that he lost sight of her in the raging fires, never mind that the prince just contrasted her supposed kindness with her leaving like he juxtaposes his father’s strength with his brutal defeat.

After all, is she not a victim in the brutal tale he is telling? Did he not just call her the kindest person he had ever known?

 

And he meant it, he really did, how could he not?

One mustn’t speak ill of the dead.

Lord Rodrigue always said so, and he was the only guidance Dimitri had left.

Was it not bad enough that his present life had transformed into a bottomless chasm of rage and pain? Let him have the past at least.

Let him look back through pink and bleach: Let there be no flaws, no counterproductive concepts of honor, no arranged marriages, no political dissent, no brutal annexations, no conspicuously disinherited branches on family trees, no children far too young to do battle, no weight of societal wrongs driving his friends apart even before tragedy struck, let there be no barbarism, no filth, no treason – let him at least have something, by Sothis, he knew full-well that the world was ugly!

And besides, he ought to be grateful.

She’d put up with some kid that was not even hers.

So what if he’d felt intimidated about the prospect of asking her about something as banal as sewing? So what if all he could recall with certainty was her cold, distant indifference?

He was sure that the good times must have been there sometime; After all, this was before the tragedy, when everything was sunny and golden;

Besides, she’d deigned to suffer the indiginity of another woman’s child under her own room though she didn’t even have to.

Did that not make her kind?

Was she not merciful?

He ought to count himself lucky. He did. Whenever anyone asked, he would say that she was the kindest person he’d ever known. That she had loved him like her own child.

After all she put up with him though she had absolutely no reason.

That must be love, right?

She wouldn’t do that if she didn’t love him, right?

Even if she spent most of her time just staring out the window, busying her hands, standing neatly next to his father and that unsettling shadow of a woman that always followed on her footsteps.

Even if she glared at him with those cold, hard eyes every time he asked anything of her when father wasn’t looking; Even if she produced little more than impeccable, stilted politeness when he did.

Sometimes, she would even make an effort, and smile, and act as if she were happy, and smile as if everything were fine even if it’s not; And this was a kindness.

He should count himself lucky; If it weren’t for her, he would have no mommy at all.

This, too, was a kindness.

 

...

 

If he got any chance at all, young Dimitri would follow his father when he would go from the palace to run royal errands.

When his father used to carry him on top of his shoulders, Dimitri would feel like he could almost touch the sky; But even after the young prince grew too tall for that, he loved coming along.

It meant spending time with his father, the most amazing man in all of Fodlan, and it meant meeting father’s friends, whose kids were usually Dimitri’s friends as well.

It meant a chance to meet up with his mentors and instructors, such as Gustave, Cassandra and Rodrigue;

It meant meeting the people in the city and out in the countryside, who seemed always glad to see him and showed him much kindness - At the time, he never really connected this with his being the crown prince; He just figured that the people of Faerghus must be very very kind.

 

At first, Dimitri had wondered, “Why can’t Mommy come with us? She always seems so gloomy, I’m sure a nice trip outside would cheer her up!”

Simple dreams then; But it was soon after that his father explained: “I’m afraid that Mommy can’t come with us. I’m sure she would love to, but she has to stay in the castle. No one’s supposed to know she is here, so she has to be our secret.”

The prince was young enough then that he didn’t question it and he thought then, for a bit, that it must be exciting.

 

...

 

He must be a good boy.

He must not make trouble for mommy, because mommy was making the effort to look after him though he wasn’t even her son.

He must not make trouble for mommy because she was always sad.

He must not bother mommy when she is sewing;

He must not bother mommy at all, if he can help it.

He ought to feel sorry for her, really, never being able to go out or meet very many people apart from a small number of men in the king’s inner circle, and that woman who was her friend.

Dimitri didn’t like mommy’s friend.

Dimitri felt bad about it, and he would never say it out loud;

When mommy’s friend came to visit, he smiled at her and spoke with unfailing politeness.

After all, it was mommy who had made her advisor to the king.

Father said to be nice to her, too, and that she was an admirable person who had once saved the city.

So, Dimitri smiled at her and spoke politely.

He bowed and spoke politely, even if something deep in his heart kept telling him to run far, far away.

He let her hug him and pinch his cheeks even if the way she looked at him made his skill crawl.

 

 

It was on one of those errands with his father that they came to a dark looming mansion at the edge of town, just a stone’s thrown away from the stone city walls of Fhirdiad.

Not too long ago, a wealthy merchant had lived there, but a few months ago he had moved to another house leaving the mansion empty for the better part of spring.

Now, on the cusp of summer, Dimitri had noticed that there were once again carriages coming from and towards that mansion.

Even then, Dimitri could sense something odd about the way that his father greeted the man who lives there, some incongruity that confounded the boy’s sensitive heart.

Father spoke as politely as he always did, with the engaging, well-chosen, honorable words of a noble king; He offered the man help, as he did with anyone who came seeking it at his doorstep, in accord with his duty as king.

But somehow, father’s smile lacked some of the warmth that it usually carried. For some reason, he never told Dimitri to greet him, or to say hi like they usually did when they went to visit some of the other lords of the kingdom. Dimitri could recall a few times where his father had gotten such a serious look on his face, usually when there had been some disagreement in the assembly of the lords; When this happened, it usually wouldn’t be long until Dimitri would be shooed out of the room.

But right now, his father was being all serious even though no one was disagreeing.

Dimitri didn’t know what that meant; He didn’t know what to make of that man.

He would probably feel more confident about him if father was acting normal around him – even so, Dimitri couldn’t help but think that the man looked somehow familiar.

 

In the end, it turned out to be like that time in the assembly of the lords after all, in that father ended up sending him out of the room to speak with the strange man on his own.

“It’s alright if Dimitri plays with your niece for a while, isn’t it?”

Before turning back to speak with the man, father took the time to lead Dimitri to the other room, where the man’s niece was supposed to be; Dimitri was glad that he wouldn’t have to be all alone in this strange, dark place.

Dimitri’s father made an effort to make this new playmate sound exciting, but it was apparent that he’d been wanting to get back to his conversation with the strange man.

“Look Dimitri,” he said, “this girl is part of the Imperial nobility. That means that she might be descended from the saints – some are even carry the blood of Saint Seiros herself.”

 

His father has spoken of this before, of course; At times, Dimitri has heard of the technological marvels one can find in the Empire, and the beautiful buildings that go back even further than the war of heroes. Other times, Dimitri has heard people saying that the empire has become decadent and the holy blood that they carry weak and diluted; They aren’t as diligent about maintaining about the bloodlines as we are here in the kingdom, or, they still follow some heathen practices that the church has since forbidden; In recent days, it has been said that many of their people have been falling back into heathenry and apostasy, not that Dimitri really understood then what such words really mean.

 

When he looks at the little girl that sits curled up on the windowsill, hugging her arms and legs close to her body, he can’t say that anything about her looks especially holy, or whatever ‘decadent’ is supposed to mean;

She is the most common, most ordinary-looking girl you could possibly picture, a small wary thing with utterly unremarkable mousy-brown hair and colorful bows in her hair.

Reticence permeates her body language as she turns away from the window, loosens her vice-grip on the stuffed animal she has been holding.

Dimitri is relieved.

 

 

Part of why he likes to go out with father is that if he does that, he couldn’t possibly bother mommy.

Mommy is very sad, mommy has it tough since she has to hide away, and mommy misses her distant home in some faraway land – it’s not that she doesn’t like you, says father, she loves you very much, but everything is so very hard on her, so you have to try to understand her feelings.

Sometimes Dimitri thinks he’s spent all his life trying to understand her feelings.

He wants to understand them very much; He wants to be as considerate as he can, for mommy, for his friends, for all the subjects of the realm…

And yet he can’t help but feel that he’s always doing something wrong.

“Mommy, can we-”

He learns from her glare that this was the wrong thing to do. He learns it in an instant.

 

He wants very much for her to like him. He wants so much for them to get along. He wants very much to get along with everyone, no matter what he needs to do. He wants very much to be accepted.

He begins to wonder for the first time if there is something about his that is simply unacceptable; But the thought does not yet have the bite that it would one day acquire, after he had taken part in deeds that this innocent child of the past could not possibly have fathomed.

 

 

His father goes to see the strange man many more times, and so Dimitri gets to see that girl many more times, that completely, thoroughly unremarkable girl.

The first impression that he comes off with is that she must have an unpleasant personally; Stubborn perhaps, ‘Bossy’ he might later conclude in the light of later events, but that might just be a present superimposing itself on the past.

He lacks the experience to think of the world ‘bitter’.

He lacks the content to consider the word ‘frightened’

Perhaps they were opposites even then with regards to their approach to their feelings and struggles.

 

But she is there; and he somehow gets it into his heart, if certainly not his head, that the hours spent in the dim dark mansion might be an escape for her as much as they are for him.

 

He is desperate to be accepted; She is desperately lonely; In the dusty sitting room, time passes.

 

...

 

Mommy hardly yells at him.

She doesn’t have to, not anymore.

It’s enough for her to add another little comment to long year’s worth’s piles of little comments about all that he is doing wrong. She has especially little patience with how clumsy he is, how ungainly, how unsuited to living in this world, how emotional.

A harsh “Let go of that!” here, a sharp “Quit whining!” there…

Dimitri must be causing her a lot of grief.

It is only a testament to her kindness, the kindness that is required to put up with him, always, always too much, always so unwieldy, clumsy, unglainly-

 

Mommy is never clumsy at anything. There is almost nothing she can’t do with her fine, slender fingers, of crafts and textile works, the works of her hands are as fine as father is strong.

Perhaps Dimitri’s clumsiness makes him a reminder of that other woman before her; Perhaps, his messy nature simply offends her sense of order.

She is meticulous in all that she does, the way she keeps the palace decorated, how she runs the household, the singing of her violins, the strings of her voice;

Dimitri is not musical in the slightest.

Sometimes he wonders if things would be different if he was her child by blood; Would he have her fine and slender fingers, her innate sense of melody, her striking violet eyes? A refined, smooth-mannered young man, or perhaps a slender, elegant girl with a love of fine porcelain?

 

 

Dimitri might have been naive, but even as a child he was sensitive, perceptive in emotional matters.

He could not possibly have overlooked how his new little friend doesn’t ever seek comfort in her uncles’ arms and doesn’t seem to relax when he enters the room. The way she turns is too quick, too sharp for excitement, much more like a hand shrinking away from a mug that is still too hot. She is never really waiting next to her uncle when Dimitri comes to visit, and for being her uncle, the strange man doesn’t seem especially affectionate. Despite himself, Dimitri always feels like a dark shadow has been lifted from him when the strange man leaves the room.

When he passes by, Dimitri smiles at him and speaks politely to him.

When Dimitri comes to visit, he always finds her tucked in some faraway corner when she comes to visit and whatever progress she made in livening up evaporates instantly in the presence of the strange man.

But with his limited life experience, Dimitri can only figure that they simply don’t get along.

He was born a crown prince, always was, always has been, too young to fully appreciate that he would not have been if his uncle had been born with a crest.

So far he has only known proud, loyal retainers tripping over themselves to pat his baby-faced head.

He’s known no competition, no court intrigue, no assassinations -

Not yet.

 

He figures – simply, childishly, innocently – that she must get lonely, being all alone her without someone that she gets along with.

He never sees any other children visiting, but he doesn’t draw any further conclusion from it.

“You don’t seem to have anyone else to play with here… maybe I should ask father if I can bring Glenn, Felix, Ingrid and Sylvain! Uh, those are my friends. The bestest friends you could imagine, in all the world! I’m sure you’d like them! I’ve already told them about you… at least Sylvain and Glenn. But I’m sure you’d get along with Inrid, too, she’s a lot like you, in a way. Maybe you could come meet them at the palace gardens!”

The longer he spoke, the more he beamed; His light, expressive face coloring with excitement.

He deflated at once when he heard her answers; It wound be one of those few times when she would use that sharp, cutting tone of voice that he never knew what to do with:

“As if”

“What do you mean?”

Stumped and caught of guard as he was, Dimitri did his best to maintain some semblance of cheer, though he wasn’t very successful at it. He had been very enthusiastic about the prospect of introducing the girl to his friends, and to her credit, she noticed:

“I’m sorry. I’d love to meet your friends and I’m sure they must be great,” but what began in a deliberately softened tone soon ended in weary resignation. ” but what I meant to say was, Uncle Volkhard would never give me permission.”

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” she thinks, but does not say.

She doesn’t expect him to understand and sees no point in telling him.

 

...

 

Dimitri didn’t mean to do anything bad.

He just got curious. He just saw mommy stuffing something red into one of those boxes that she kept her balls of yarn and sheets of cloth in, moments before father unexpectedly entered the room - something bright and attention-grabbing that did not look like a ball of yarn at all.

It was still partially poking out of the box when she left so it wasn’t as if he’d gone and opened something that he wasn’t supposed to get into.

He just wanted to know.

As of late, Dimitri felt that things had been perhaps just a little frosty between father and mommy.

Gustave and Lord Rodrigue had both told him that he was probably worrying for nothing, but Dimitri could tell.

Perhaps he had entertained some vague, unrealistic fantasy of playing the peacekeeper between them; But for the most part, he simply didn’t want them to be mad at each other.

Dimitri couldn’t stand people arguing or giving each other the cold shoulder, he couldn’t stand tension in the air, especially not people he cared about, and least of all his parents…

He just wanted to know what that red thing was, in case it was something to do with their argument.

It turned out to be a dress. For girls. Made by his mommy with a striking attention for detail that was remarkable even for her.

But why would she be making a dress for a girl? Is it maybe meant as a present for Ingrid, or for Gustave’s daughter? But if that was the case, why would she be hiding it…

 

 

Dimitri’s feet are bouncing up and down in a spunky rhythm.

He is sitting on the windowsill in the sitting room of the strange man’s manor.

Next to him is the girl.

He is aware that her hands are resting on her knees and that she is slumping forward in a vaguely defeated manner; It’s why he thought it important to stay with her today, even though the red of sunset is already burning through the window. He does not see how her nails are clawing at her dress.

“I’m really glad that I could spend time with you today.”

“I’m glad as well” says the girl. She is trying her hardest not to sob, and doing a rather admirable job at it.

Nevertheless, he made a point to speak to her in a patient, earnest voice, trying to sound deliberate, like his father would when he would be making a speech, or Lord Rodrigue when he was explaining something important.

“No but – I really mean it, and I want you to know that. I want you to know that this time we’ve spent together is really precious to me. So even if it’s tough right now, I want you to know that you are not alone. You’ve become an important friend to me now, same as Glenn and the others. I will always be here for you, no matter what happens, and I hope that we can always be together.”

But there was something about that did it, despite the prince’s best efforts; Maybe the world ‘always’.

“Wahaaa! I can’t stand it anymore! I wanna go home to Enbarr! I wanna go home!

I want my Daddy! I want my brothers and sisters! I want Hubert, and Lady Semprona!

Anything but this cold, horrible place! How can you say such a terrible thing like that you hope I’ll be here forever?!I hate it! I can’t stand it anymore! Everything about this is horrible!”

The sobs that the girl had been valiantly holding back all poured out at once, like the monsoon in distant lands; She was, after all, just a normal girl, a mere child, as of yet; There’s only so much she can take.

Prince Dimitri was somewhat overwhelmed and certainly surprised by the sudden outburst but it would be far from him to be insulted. Instead, he asked with quiet concern:

“Am I horrible too?”

“No!”

Dimitri gaped in sudden surprise when he suddenly felt her small hands digging into the fabric of his coat. “You’re the only thing about all this that isn’t horrible.”

He felt the weight of her small body leaning against his side like he was the only warm thing for miles and miles. He tries to soothe her as best as he can, but it doesn’t occur to him that she might be clinging to him precisely because he is the only somewhat friendly face that she knows for miles and miles; Nor does he go so far as to ponder just how little he knows about this newest friend of his, and how her happiness might not be his happiness.

 

In the light of later events, all this receives different meanings.

 

...

 

But not even in the deepest pits of his denial could he have erased THIS, no matter how deeply he buried the pain and the rage:

 

He was glad to be going, at first, glad to be going on a journey with father like always, but at the start of it, Dimitri thinks that he was actually delighted to note that there seemed to be something lighter in mommy’s stride. Perhaps, he thought, she was happy to be getting out of the castle for once, since she was having to accompany father to this big official event.

“Are you happy, mommy?” he’d asked, “Are you happy that we’re going to the mountains?”

If that had touched her heart at all, well – Dimitri had not known to look for signs of that, since he could never have expected what would happen; He could not have foreseen an upheaval so vast, or a betrayal so deep.

If father expecting anything like an ambush, if he had worries at all – like Rodrigue would one day imply – he had not wished to worry his son; Gallant speeches aside, he must still somehow have hoped that it would all come to nothing, and that their peaceful days would consider like ever before.

 

Even when the carriage stopped, Dimitri had not felt any worry. He wished he could recall if the woman he still though of as ‘mommy’ had looked particularly nervous; He recalls only that same voice of stone, telling him to sit down and keep quiet when the sounds of metal rose up all around him; He is certain that he clung to her arm, but that might be wishful thinking.

What is beyond doubt, however, is that he was most certainly holding on to her the moment that the door was opened, for he lost balance and stumbled headlong out of the carriage when she pushed him aside like a discarded piece of clothing and strode straightly past his bruised face, calmly, even eagerly towards her waiting entourage of hooded figures…

 

 

They must have seized her and killed her. That, or she must have panicked and ran off, and found her death in flames. She must have.

His understanding of this world simply did not allow for him to have seen what he saw.

It would be anathema to even think such a thing;

But deep down, some part of him must have always felt the rage of betrayal.