Xion stood to Isa's left, a step down from the throne's dias. It really had come to this. Daybreak, the mighty Empire from the southeast, had come. Her people weren't well enough off to mount any kind of defense, between famine and the ogre hordes to the west. She wanted to sit down, to take some sort of comfortable position, but they needed to look strong for these negotiations. They needed to present a unified front and get as much help as they could while still retaining their autonomy.
Xigbar smirked from across the room and said, "Let's get started, shall we?"
"How many negotiators does one Empire need?" asked the King.
The Empire had brought with them enough troops to shut down any thought of retaliation, but it was just for show. It was poor form to approach peace talks with anything less than peaceful intentions. As such, it was safe for Xigbar, the King's Regent, to be accompanied by two of the King's sons, Ansem and Kishi.
The younger of which, Kishi, held back behind his older brother, keeping his helmet on and his body language noble but relaxed.
Ansem dripped with authority. His back was ramrod straight but not stiff. His arms were crossed but not tense. And his smirk and amber eyes rivaled Xigbar's. A glittering bronze diadem was draped over his long white hair and the deep olive of his forehead. The Terminus royals had a unique crown forged for each king or queen, and the rest of the family wore only their military rank insignias instead. Xion had seen much more impressive silver working in her time. She'd done better.
"Oh, only enough to get a point across," Xigbar answered.
Indeed, Xion thought. This wasn't a peaceful talk. This was Terminus trying to avoid a war that they would surely lose. The battalion outside wasn't there to negotiate. They were a reminder of a threat. She spared no look for the princes yet, instead staring down the rude man with the eye patch and long, salt and pepper hair.
"So," Xigbar continued, posture lax not out of naivete but out of disrespect, "should we have a table brought up?"
King Yen Sid stroked his beard. He was a proud man but wise and old enough to have been made so via experience. He didn't want to anger the man but there was a need for mutual respect. He waved over a servant and requested a table.
A short brown-haired boy and tall redheaded man helped bring one over before disappearing, seemingly through the walls. Xion hoped Sora and Lea would be staying nearby.
Xigbar came to stand by it.
"I understand your crop situation isn't ideal, so your annual tithe will be in ores instead."
"Regent," the elder Prince said from behind Xigbar, "allow me this chance to negotiate on behalf of my father. Your wisdom in these dealings is unparalleled, I would benefit greatly from your oversight should I be allowed to lead."
Xigbar seemed to think for a moment, making a show of touching his chin before responding, "Highness, if you think this is a good educational opportunity, I think your brother needs it more. Make sure to be a good example."
Xion's eyes finally flicked over to the other men. She couldn't see much of the shorter, but the taller one held himself with all of the confidence and none of the humility required to rule.
Ansem's smirk widened with triumph, and he stepped past Xigbar. The younger brother didn't move but lowered his eyes at the pointed comment.
"I believe it only fair that the Kingdom of Terminus offer 70% of their ore in tithing to the Emperor Xehanort to be collected quarterly one week before each changing of the season," he said.
Xion knew that would still leave them with enough to get by, but 70% would be gutting to their finances.
"We do have quite a need for iron and other industrial ores. I would offer 80% of our gold and silver, and 20% of other ores and reduced prices on more, should they be required. Additionally, the east pass becomes impassible in the winter, so I would recommend the shipments be biannual, in the spring and autumn," the King said. That sounded like a better deal for the Daybreak Empire. But Xion knew the reasoning behind it. They needed iron to make weapons to keep the ogre hordes at bay without relying more on Daybreak than they needed to.
"How generous to offer that 80% on top of the 70% of the ore we will be collecting," Ansem praised, "as to transportation, I am sure your people will find a way to deliver all four shipments on time."
This elder prince was cocky and Xion didn't like him.
Yen Sid stood up to his full, very intimidating height to say, "You misunderstand. The pass that would allow carts through becomes impassible, even for our gryphons. Ores are too heavy for flight and will not make it through twenty feet of snow covering the road. You must have travelled through it; you know how narrow the pass is. It is the only safe route between our kingdom and your empire. This is to be negotiations, not demands. Perhaps your country would benefit from aerial modes of transportation. I can offer some of our beasts yearly in the place of industrial ores."
"I am certain you will find a way," Ansem mused, clearly unwilling to budge, and obviously aware of his unreasonable demands, "such leniency that you seek is offered only to those allies with familial ties." His gaze settled on Xion.
Ugh. She already wanted a bath, his gaze made her feel slimy but she kept her stony expression on better than her brother. His face didn't slip, but she could hear the fabric of his gloves strain as he clenched his fists beside her. Xion was a princess. She always knew her marriage would be a political move. She just hoped this prince wasn't suggesting himself.
"You speak of my granddaughter?" Yen Sid asked for clarification.
"I do," Ansem said, still looking her over, "I would have no qualms speaking to my father about a much, much smaller tithe from the family of my wife."
"Our rules are strict about the King or Queen only having one spouse. Xion is second in line for the throne. If you were to ask for her hand, it would have to be quite the offer."
She had no doubts that her grandfather would do his research but she should have done her own. Maybe this wouldn't hit so hard if she did. She didn't realize Daybreak practiced polygamy. She hadn't expected to be on equal footing with a husband. But she thought it would be better than this. She kept eye contact with the prince. She was wearing leather flying armor, so there wasn't a lot hidden even if she showed no skin.
"Then keep your traditions," Ansem mused. He waved his hand dismissively. "90% of all your ores and precious metals will be expected every season. Failure to meet this quota will result in a change of management. Xigbar, we're done here."
Xigbar raised an eyebrow and scolded, "You think you're done?"
The Prince stepped up to the Regent and leaned in so the others couldn't hear, "I have seen you do this many times. Give them time to contemplate the hopelessness of their situation and they will be more willing to cave to our demands." Ansem straightened and turned a tad to address the King once more. "Decide for yourself if your tradition is worth the lives of your people. Poverty and a military occupation does not bode well for a country's population."
"Nor do ogre hordes," Xigbar pointed out, surprisingly supportive of the surrendering royal family, "Perhaps you should do more cultural studies before you try negotiations again, Highness." His words had a certain bite to them, like he was talking down to a student. The King sat back down.
"If you intended to mock us perhaps you should have sent someone whose station befitted it. Ninety percent leaves us unable to defend our western border, you come with impossible demands, and ask for one of my remaining heirs to give up her dignity for scraps. We have more pride than that."
Xion could see it. The Daybreak Empire was known for ruthless takeovers. Terminus would not survive. She had seen battle, she had seen the military selections. She knew, even with all their training, they could not fight a war on two fronts.
"... Grandfather, may I speak for myself?" The King looked over to her before slowly nodding. "If Daybreak is willing to take our offer from earlier, and observe some of our other marriage customs, I would be willing to go." Slimy prince or not.
Ansem was too busy fuming. He was visibly very angry with Xigbar with fury written on his face. The younger Prince had to put a mouth up to his mouth to resist a chuckle and his older brother noticed immediately and zeroed in on him. It made the younger one tense up, staying at a more rigid attention.
The seething anger was only partially defused when Xion spoke and Ansem seemed much more likely to get his way. Public shame aside, he was still getting the end result that he wanted.
"It would depend on your customs," he said smoothly, but with a little more venom. He still wasn't happy with how things had gone earlier.
"Both parties present a handmade gift. Until the actual wedding, I would live separately and keep my own schedule. I know not everywhere considers men and women equal in marriage, but if you don't have need of me, I would like to be able to make use of my time for myself," she offered. Xion did her best to keep her tone even and her voice steady. She wanted to keep as many of her freedoms as she could, but knew she wasn't in a position to actually ask for them.
Ansem looked at Xion and then at the King. He seemed caught between irritation and confusion. When it was clear the King was going to let Xion speak for herself and not speak on her behalf, he reluctantly caved and addressed her directly.
"So long as that time is spent on the estate, then those terms are agreeable."
Xion would spend the rest of her life in one place. It was a heavy feeling. Once she'd left, she'd probably never see her home again. She nodded as Yen Sid called up a servant to bring a roll of parchment and a quill. He started penning the agreement himself.
Satisfied, Ansem demonstrated mercy in the agreement as promised. He agreed to biannual deliveries and lowered the tithe to 70% prior to the wedding and 50% after the wedding. King Yen Sid and his family would remain in power so long as they met their quota and stayed in line. An advisor from the capitol would be appointed and a small military unit stationed in the city. Otherwise, they would be left to govern themselves as an extension of the Empire.
Once the agreement had been signed, Yen Sid pressed his seal into the parchment. He used no wax, and instead the ring turned red and burned the seal onto the paper. Xion was used to seeing her grandfather's casual use of magic, but that didn't make it less impressive. She might have stood taller if the weight of her leaving wasn't hanging around her neck.
"You are welcome to stay for dinner, though I doubt it will be to the same standards as you would receive in the Empire," the King offered once he found a scribe to copy the agreement.
Ansem added his own seal as well, though sans the use of magic. He took a glove off to press his ring into the wax. Ultimately, they would need the blessing of the Emperor himself since the contract included a marriage, but for now, it was binding.
"It would be fitting to see what my future in-laws are like," Ansem said with a grin. There was nothing kind in the gesture. "A place to stay the night as well."
"It is too bad Lauriam will be unable to join us then. There are, of course, guest rooms prepared."
The king waved a hand, and the room sprang to life around them as servants resumed their daily work. The brown-haired boy from before and a nearly identical man flanked Xion as she left the hall, and the redhead as well as a tall black-haired girl followed the prince the same way. Xigbar turned to head out back the way they'd come. Xion stopped just out of view to lean against the wall and cover her mouth while she cried.
The youngest Imperial Prince jumped a bit at the magic and reached for a weapon but he was promptly scolded by his passing brother and a swift hit to the back of his head. He stumbled a bit, righted himself, and then followed the Regent and elder Prince.
Sora was the first one to try to hug Xion and she threw herself into it. Vanitas stood nearby tightly gripping his sword, with what looked like tendrils of smoke coming off his hand.
Isa, the Crown Prince, waited patiently for his turn. He stood still in the hallway, facing slightly away from her, flanked by his own retainers.
Sora stood there patting her back for awhile before she straightened up and went to Isa. She didn't look good, face puffy and nose running. He was considerably taller than her, but he bent down to hug her anyway. Gently, he stroked her hair and then kissed her forehead as he straightened.
"What do you need?" he asked her softly, ready to give her the world.
She sniffed before answering, "T-time. To say goodbye. To y-you and Grandfather and-and Lauriam and our parents—" And the staff and people and everything she'd be leaving behind. She dissolved into sobs again, clinging to his armor.
He hugged her again and kept petting her.
"I find it unlikely that they take you with them any time soon. They still need approval from the Emperor and we can easily delay them by keeping the Princes here and entertained," he gently reassured her, "now dry your eyes and go clean up for dinner."
She was still shaking but she nodded and Vanitas put his free hand on her shoulder to lead her away to her room.
Dinner was served at six sharp, and the family had changed into more casual clothes. The cuts were nothing particularly fancy, but all of the beadwork was done in actual gems, making the garments very flashy. Xion was wearing a low-cut green dress with leaves and flowers decorating the skirt. It was one of her nicer dresses. The thought of the Prince's eyes on her skin made her flesh crawl, but the idea of getting the full brunt of that on her wedding night was far, far worse.
The Imperial Princes were a few minutes late. It had taken time for them to settle in and change themselves, though their "casual" was still armored minus helmets, pauldrons, and steel boots.
Ansem carried himself like he owned the place, though he respected the order of seating, placing himself between Xigbar and Kishi, with Xigbar closest to the King. It placed him across from Xion and he studied her like a work of art moreso than as a person.
The younger brother was much less full of himself, though he still carried himself with pride and remained alert. Unlike his brother, he was more willing to look around and was less able to hide his boredom. Kishi had pale skin. His silver-white hair matched his older brother's, as did the harshness of his eyes, but it was evident they had different mothers and were far separated in age. Kishi still looked like he had some filling out to do and the shadow of recently shed baby fat still lingered in his cheeks. He sat still with his hands folded politely in his lap.
The retainers all ghosted around the walls as a few maids served the meal. There was a roast deer leg, a few different loaves of bread, a salad, and an egg aspic dish. There were just enough servings of each for everyone at the table to have one.
Xion prickled under Ansem's gaze but kept her composure through the prayer before helping distribute the food, filling her brother's plate before he filled the King's, and so on.
Kishi served both Xigbar and Ansem before serving himself, and in that order, much to Ansem's displeasure. The older brother frowned when the first plate passed him by and the expression deepened when he saw the portions. He shot the younger brother a glare that made Kishi wilt a little, but the fire in his teal eyes didn't waver. After a brief sneer in Kishi's direction, Ansem started to eat.
"If you are not due back to the Imperial Capitol in the foreseeable future," Isa began, "you should consider staying here a few nights more. I would be honored to show our new lords the city, our forges, and workshops."
"We are expected back after reasonable negotiations, I think we can spare a week," Xigbar said in his usual cavalier attitude. "Though fiscal reports interest me more than forges. Their Highnesses might enjoy the tour more."
Xion really didn't like the reagent's tone. Sure, they were usually casual around the dining table, but not when they had guests and certainly not during matters of state, like earlier.
"Perhaps I should go on the tour with them, I know the forges almost as well as the master smiths," she said, voice clear and high.
"I would be most comfortable knowing my bride-to-be was safe here in the castle," Ansem said with a little smirk dancing at the corner of his mouth. There was some accusation there that didn't go unnoticed by Saix, whose own mouth curled in the slightest shape of a frown.
"My sister is as safe in the city as she is in the castle and as wild and free here as she would be there," he retorted coldly. Ansem's eyes jerked over to her brother.
"You think I would doubt a magically binding contract?" he accused.
"Only so far as you would imply she try to flee," Saix bit back.
"Trust need not even be an issue, one of the forges is connected to the castle itself, if you'd rather have a demonstration of the process," Xion said almost too cheerfully. This was a double edged sword and she knew it. She fully planned on being the one to make the demonstration, giving her a chance to show off some of her skill and physical power, but it denied her the opportunity to see some of the masters. If she only had a week...she'd like to try to make one last project.
"We will have to teach you manners prior to presenting you before the Empire," Ansem muttered. Saix was getting more irritated and admittedly had issues with his temper.
"I'll not have you speak to the Princess in such a way," he growled.
"I will speak to my fiance as I see fit!"
"I would not be opposed to a demonstration," Kishi said before shoving a roll in his mouth. Ansem and Isa both turned on him. Isa in surprise and Ansem with a cold fury.
"Very well," the older brother conceded through clenched teeth, "then we will begin there on the morrow."
The King looked rather displeased, though that may have been his default expression, while Xigbar was grinning. Free entertainment was the best.
"...what are your other wives like?" she asked tentatively. If they'd be considered part of the same family, she'd want to know more about them.
"Obedient and beautiful," he said slyly, "though perhaps lacking in fire." Ansem’s mood mellowed out and he redirected his attention to her, undressing her with his eyes. Kishi snorted and rolled his eyes.
"I don't doubt that I have enough fire for a lifetime." Xion had picked this dress because it showed off part of her worst scar. She was proud of the scars, but also proud that after seven years of fighting she only had three.
His eyes glittered. "We will see."
Isa was about ten seconds from reaching across the table and strangling this guy. He gently slid his foot over to touch Xion’s to ground himself.
She tapped his foot back with hers. She was battle hardened; they both were. It would take more than a nasty attitude to break her.
"Do you have any children?" The King asked.
Ansem twitched but Kishi didn't hesitate to answer, "No. None of them do. No grandbabies for the Emperor."
That seemed odd, especially if they had many wives but Xion kept that opinion to herself. Xigbar, however, did not.
"Poor guy doesn't get anyone to spoil."
Ansem let the comment slide and relaxed a bit.
"Perhaps you will be a better fit to my home in that regard," he told Xion.
Xion repressed a shiver at the thought. That was the reality of her situation, but it had the same slimy feeling as his gaze.
"My family tends to have many children."
He smiled. "I certainly hope so."
She put her fork down, very suddenly not hungry.
"What kind of hobbies do you enjoy?" she asked.
"Hobbies? Our time is spent serving the crown, whether that be studying or fighting the front lines, or... tending to the needs of our personal households."
"You must have an impressive library, to be studying so often."
"Scala ad Caelum houses the world's largest libraries and leads the world in magical studies."
Xion's eyes flickered to her grandfather, then to the empty seat next to her. She decidedly did not look at Vanitas, already having told him to hide his magic from the Daybreak emissaries.
"You will need not trouble yourself with such matters. Your role in our hierarchy is simple, as are expectations of you," Ansem assured her. He swirled his glass a bit before sipping it delicately.
"But my role here will remain. I will spend my free time studying or training, as I may have need to return," she reminded.
He smirked; an ugly, knowing smirk. "Do as you will, so long as my orders and expectations are met."
"Only once the wedding is done."
"Of course." The smirk never wavered but the discussion shifted. Ansem was carefully engaging her father and Isa in more serious discussions about the resources of their country. He ignored Xion and especially Kishi if they tried to interject, very neatly steering the conversation to exclude them for the rest of dinner.
Xion kept quiet, forcing the rest of the meal down. Her grandfather undercut most of his resource reports, though not enough to cause any problems.
A servant brought out an ice cream dessert, a specialty of the region that they had access to only because of the frequent snow. Ansem and Xigbar talked well after dessert too. So, when they were finally ready to retire, Kishi was nodding off already from sheer boredom.
Xion did not nod off, she didn't ever stop trying to be part of the conversation. But when her grandfather dismissed her, she got up to leave.
"I'll meet you both in the entrance hall at eight in the morning," she said to the princes.
Kishi bowed politely but Ansem didn't and smacked the back of Kishi's head for it before walking out of the hall to head to his room. The younger brother followed, rubbing his head as he went.
Isa scowled more openly with them gone.
"The man is a pig."
"Bold of you to call him a man," Xion added.
Yen Sid scowled at his grandchildren.
"Be that as it may, we are bound to them now." He softened just a little before continuing. "I would not have asked this of you, Xion." Her lip trembled, but she had already cried enough tears today.
"...I know, Grandfather. But I can't watch our kingdom fall."
"Grandfather, arrange for me to accompany her. I will not leave her in subpar conditions to be abused by an animal," Isa demanded.
"That's my job," Vanitas said from his place at the wall.
"Isa, you're the crown prince. You can't leave for that long," Xion said quietly. She wanted him to come, to be there for her, but she couldn't ask him to leave their people.
His fists clenched and he shook as he tried to keep his anger reined in. Rare tears were unshed in his eyes, making them shiny.
She put a hand on his arm and said, "This is what needs to happen so we can survive."
"I don't think I can pay this price."
"You don't have to."
He put his hand over hers and calmed down some.
"If you believe her life is in danger, Vanitas..." Isa started, implying what should be done.
Vanitas nodded solemnly while Sora looked down behind him. He was always the softer brother.
"I think I'm going to go beat on a training dummy until I feel better," Xion said, before turning to go. Breaking a few pieces of wood wouldn't feel as good as that Prince's nose, but it would be cathartic all the same. Isa let her go, albeit reluctantly, and left to his own room, retainers in tow.
Xion departed not long after, heading through the castle and outside to the training grounds.
"You don't need to go through with this," Vanitas said quietly.
"Careful servant, I may take such a comment as an insult," Ansem said. He was in the hallway, wearing only a long, loose robe. He hadn't even been gone that long so for him to be here like that was notably deliberate.
Van's eyes flashed in the dark, not unlike a cat's, and his hand went to the sword at his side.
"Perhaps you should."
"Vanitas, we don't need more trouble right now. I suggest you cover up, Prince Ansem, it gets quite cold at night." She turned to continue walking.
He smoothly started walking beside her, slowly using his body to guide her to a wall until he could trap her there between his arms. He kept one hand flat on the wall, and the other gently brushed her cheek.
"Then stay the night with me. A good host would see to their guest's needs. I would prefer your warmth and weight over that of a rough blanket or restrictive article of clothing."
She wanted to throw up. Instead, she put on a smile and ducked under his arms.
"Our traditions are very strict. I am not to live with you until after the wedding. That includes sharing a room or tent. As things are, I would like to finish my routine for the night before heading to bed myself."
He grabbed her arm and pulled her more roughly to him.
"A shame, I would have preferred a chance to try you before committing you to me, but I can be patient," Ansem whispered in her ear. He softly bit at the soft skin below her ear and ghosted his hand over her back and side before letting her go with a shudder and a chuckle. He walked leisurely back to his room.
Xion started trembling before she heard his door click closed, but she managed to stay silent a few minutes longer than that, reaching to pull Sora in so any sounds she made would be muffled against him. It wasn't fair that she had to go through this. That she had to tolerate this kind of behavior. But what other choice did she have?
Xion stayed that way for nearly ten minutes before wiping her face and continuing to the training grounds without a word.
Sora had held her until she started walking again, and then he gave her some space to unwind. He only tensed up again and moved in close when they saw the younger brother outside. He too was dressed in a robe but there was long sleeved, high necked shirt on underneath at least, so his chest wasn't exposed to the air, and he was wearing long pants and light shoes, almost slippers.
Vanitas gripped his sword again, and Xion took the time to give him a wide berth.
The Princeling jumped more than any one of them when he noticed her. He straightened up out of his slouch and then politely dipped his head in a bow before opening his mouth to talk and then thinking better of it. He addressed Vanitas instead.
"Pardon, but I have become turned around and need directions back to my chambers." His voice was strained, the politeness was unpracticed.
Xion was more than a little relieved. She didn't know if she could take another bad encounter with a straight face right now. "Your room was next to your brother's, correct?" she asked before Vanitas could snap at him.
"Unless you can find me one that's not," he grumbled. Kishi was avoiding eye contact with her, mostly looking up and away or to the side.
She noticed. "We have plenty of guest rooms, though the ones you occupy now are the best furnished. Is there something wrong with my appearance?"
"Ah, no Princess, it's just, my brother has forbidden me from speaking to you, or looking at you, or really being in the same room..." the more he went on the more irritable and resigned he sounded.
"Well at the moment, I don't find myself in a place where I want to honor his wishes. If you won't tell, I know the way through the servant's quarters so we won't be seen together."
Kishi jumped a little and waved his hands about before bowing again. "Oh nonono, Ansem will definitely find out and he will absolutely take it out on me. P-Please, just a direction to my room, good Princess."
"...up the main stairs, to the left. Yours should be the third door on the right. I don't believe I caught your name earlier?"
"Forgive my rudeness. Prince Kishi Oscura, fourth son of his Imperial Highness."
"You're forgiven. I am Lieutenant Colonel Xion Terminus, third child of the Throne." She bowed with that, fully expecting to have to explain why titles were strange here.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were supposed to include our ranks..." He sweat a little bit and then started hurrying off.
"Vanitas, make sure he doesn't get lost again. And don't be rude!" Vanitas huffed before peeling off to silently track after the young prince.
Sora watched them go. "Night and day," he mused to himself.
"What do you mean by that?" Xion asked sincerely as she continued walking.
"The two Princes. They just seem very different."
"Indeed. Though I'd be quicker to compare them to a cat and mouse."
"Of course," Sora agreed respectfully.
"You don't have to agree with me. Do you want to spar tonight, or just watch?"
"It's up to you." His voice was still cheerful but there was some underlying sad still. This escape didn't feel far enough removed from their reality.
"And I asked your preference, Sora. Though I'd rather break something right now, so it probably shouldn't be you. I'd be sad if I did," she reasoned out.
"The dummies then."
Xion stayed working up a sweat until past midnight.