Xion was up and in the entrance hall at eight sharp, wearing neither finery nor armor but stained, heavy linens that would protect against the heat of the kilns and the forge.
Sora was nearby, but Vanitas was hiding in the walls, where he could sneer at whatever he wanted without fearing potential punishment.
Concerned that he might start an international incident, Isa was absent. The Crown Prince had faith that Xion could handle herself.
Ansem and Kishi were both a little late again. Twice in a row, it no longer felt like an accident and more a deliberate expression of power. It was as if they were saying, time moved for them, and they would define it as they wished. Both were dressed finely with limited armor over the most expensive dyed fabrics with intricate designs depicting fairies in embroidery.
Ansem’s outfit and pauldron continued the summer motif with gold inlay and summer constellations while Kishi’s favored the winter. He wore silver, white, and blues in contrast to his brother's gold, red, and black. It made him seem even more pale but brought out the tropic ocean of his eyes.
Ansem smirked at her at first, but it vanished when he realized she wasn't wearing anything revealing. Kishi kept his eyes straight ahead, seeming more like a retainer to his brother rather than a Prince himself.
"You're both looking fine this morning. Did you find your accommodations to your liking?" she asked mostly out of politeness but also to mildly poke at Ansem.
"I was cold and lonely," Ansem told her back, "thankfully, my dear brother was willing to give me his bedding. I slept well once those arrangements were made. It is good of you to ask."
Xion made up her mind at that moment to have Sora bring some of the nicer bedding to Kishi's room quietly later.
"If you'll follow me, I'll lead the way. What do you two know of smithing, that I may tailor my explanation to your experience level?"
Ansem started following with a more bored expression and acted as though answer her question was a chore, well beneath him, "I am familiar with the entire process in concept, my younger brother has yet to study any of the working-class skills." Said brother was keeping up but maintaining a distance from his brother. Sora was walking next to Xion. He seemed relaxed but was coiled and waiting behind his cheerful smile.
Xion, in turn, acted as though she was speaking to a clueless child. "Theory is all well and nice, but a master smith will always be able to pick the best weapon, you know. Do you have a favorite weapon?"
Kishi visibly flinched as the room darkened.
"Mind your tone," Ansem scolded, "there is no need for this discussion except to waste my time."
"You don't scare me." Xion turned the corner. The forge was built up against the side of the castle, warming the king's quarters and the library behind it. It was always the warmest place on the grounds, and Xion had spent many cold nights talking to the masters and learning the craft. There was no snow within ten meters of the building.
Rather than be angry, Ansem smirked, and followed her a little more closely, which made it harder for Sora to stay near her without feeling crowded.
Xion ducked inside and held the door. "Since Prince Ansem did not answer my question and I did have a reason for asking, Prince Kishi, what is your favored weapon?" she asked much more politely. The inside of the forge was very dark, and there was nowhere to sit. Once both men were in, Xion latched the door closed and slipped a heavy leather apron and gloves on before heading to a shelf to the left of the forge that glowed green.
Kishi opened his mouth to answer but Ansem held out a hand to stop him. "My brother is an observer. Do not address him. Make a sword." He watched for her reaction carefully.
"I will address who I please. You will learn little if you do not ask questions and interact with the process." She didn't look at Kishi, already guessing that this would get him in more trouble. Instead, she pulled the rapier she'd been working on for Lauriam for the last two weeks. It was nearly complete, needing only some straightening out before going to the grindstone. It was going to be ornate, but hardly the nicest thing she'd made. This was a folded sword, an example of Damascus steel, and quite a show of skill for such a narrow blade.
"Can either of you tell me what Damascus steel is?"
Ansem shuddered and his smirk widened when she held her ground. He lowered his hand and just tilted his head, unwilling to answer and validate her as the teacher. He knew what it was and where it came from and how it was produced, but Ansem's focus was on studying her, he didn't care about the craft at all. This type of labor was beneath him.
Xion turned to Kishi when he didn't answer.
This time Ansem didn't scold her or try to stop Kishi from answering but the younger sibling still resisted and stayed quiet. He didn't look timid or scared but he was clearly trying to avoid confrontation.
"Well? Answer her." Kishi's shoulders slumped a little.
"I don't know what Damascus steel is," he admitted out loud. Ansem tsked sadly once and gently pet his brother's head once to fix the long hair that was out of place.
Xion opened the large oven and long green tongues of flame shot from the open door. She didn't flinch, merely grabbed a large shovel and scooped some of the coals out, taking them to the workbench before returning to close the door.
"Damascus steel is poor iron worked to a high quality by repeatedly folding a small amount of good steel into a larger piece of iron, then twisting it. It is also sometimes called water steel, wood steel, pattern welding, or orichalcum. Similar processes are unnecessary for higher quality steels, but Damascus steel is proof of the skill of a blacksmith as well as a prettier blade than standard steel." She placed the sword over the coals to heat, which it did quickly, turning orange as she lifted a hammer to start to beat the metal into place.
Kishi fussed with his brother's hand behind her back, glaring at Ansem who just looked down at the Prince with some air of victory.
"Pay attention, Ki. This trip is proving itself to be more educational than previously intended," he scolded. She paused only occasionally, either to push the bellows or check the trueness of the blade.
"Every weapon has its own techniques for forging, and some even function better when cast instead."
"Such work is hardly a woman's work," Ansem said, somewhat bored. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes all the same.
"A woman's work is to create," Kishi huffed, "which is more than can be said of you."
Sora was trying very hard not to react to the comment but, fortunately, Ansem didn't seem to notice. He glared at the brother for a long moment before letting the anger melt away into his smirk again. Though his harsh comments dwindled down some in light of the comeback.
"Terminus makes no distinction. There are men and women in every way of life." When she was happy with the shape, she quenched the sword in a tall vat of tallow, orange fire licking up and around her gloves. She left the blade on the bench while returning the coals to the kiln.
"Damascus steel only reveals its beauty once it has been ground and steeped in a chloride solution. In many places, river stones or quarry stones are used for grindstones. Master smiths in Terminus mix cement with powdered diamonds. You will find no better edge than one cut like this."
Xion hauled the metal over to the grindstones. There were three, and apprentice smiths kept them turning quickly with a series of gears. Xion knew another factor of the process was the different size of diamond dust—a secret she wouldn't be spilling in front of them. Not that they could do anything with the information. Ansem might have but it was unnecessary now that they controlled this country. It was very unlikely either of the Princes would interact with this field again at all. Kishi was even starting to nod off.
Sparks flew from the blade as she started to grind it sharp. Grinding took most of her concentration, as it was easy to take it too far. After going through all the wheels, Xion brought the blade over for the Princes to inspect.
Ansem had lost interest a long time prior. He took the sword and swung it a bit, surprisingly impressed. He slashed it in Xions direction, expertly cutting into one of the apron straps, and laughed to himself. Xion didn't flinch, just took the blade back. She still had to assemble the hilt and guard and pommel, swinging it around like that was reckless.
"If you damage anything else, you will be asked to leave."
He laughed and left anyway, leaving Kishi standing there awkwardly to rub sleep out of his eyes.
Xion offered the blade to Kishi to inspect.
He was still trying to process that his brother had left and just kind of looked at it in confusion until a firm voice snapped outside.
"Kishi!" Kishi rolled his eyes and sighed.
"It looks really pretty," he offered sincerely and then followed his brother with a frustrated huff.
Xion stayed in the forge to finish the blade, Vanitas materializing seemingly out of nowhere. If Xion didn't know the servant's passages so well, she might have thought that.
"...they aren't very good at being brothers," Xion said softly. What kind of family was she marrying into?
Sora looked over at Van briefly before looking back at Xion. The worry on his face was prominent.
"Their Highnesses seem, um, unaccustomed to women in power," he offered, still trying to be respectful of their new rulers without sacrificing honesty.
"It's not their fault the rest of the world is ass-backwards," Vanitas said, earning a glare from Xion, "the older prince has a shitty attitude, that's his fault, but they can't help the kind of place they were brought up."
"...I hate to admit that you make good points when you use such crass language," Xion said. Vanitas shrugged.
"You're the one who said to treat you like an equal, not a better."
"Still don't have to cuss, Vani," Sora grumbled.
The truth was, they knew from rumors and stories how ruthless the Imperial family was. The Emperor himself was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for power and Immortality. It was probably embellished but the ruined countries and slaughtered people were not. Daybreak's armies were an unstoppable machine led by the Royal family, often in person. That reputation seemed confirmed in the case of Ansem. Cruel, entitled, and powerful barely seemed to scratch the surface. It didn't seem like the kind of thing to really vocalize, since it was obviously on everyone's minds already.
Xion was being tossed to the wolves. There was no telling what actually waited her in Scala ad Caelum.
"I'll use whatever language I see fit. And I think 'ass' and 'shit' are fitting."
"Well I think you're an ass," Xion said, mood lifting a little as they started teasing.
Sora was notably flustered by the language. He never cussed and was too easy to tease for it.
"Vani does look like one," Sora tried to contribute.
"Nice job, dumbass, we're identical."
Xion actually laughed a little.
Sora blushed when he realized his mistake.
"Th-Thats not!" he couldn't finish between the giggling and the embarrassment.
Xion started working on the guard while the two argued. She'd already finished the silver plating, so it was just the stones to make the vines and roses left. The pommel itself was finished as well and just needed to be attached properly, shaped like a rose in full bloom.
"Hey Sora? Can you bring one of the down blankets by Kishi's room later? And don't get caught doing it," she requested.
"Uh, yeah, he should have plenty though... You don't really think the Prince took all the blankets from his brother do you?" he asked, horrified.
"... given the way he's acted, it wouldn't surprise me," she said somewhat dejectedly.
"But they're kin," Sora whispered, looking to his own brother for reassurance.
"It's not always a guarantee, Sor," Vanitas said with no bite, "Sora, if you were to get married—" Ignoring the impossibility of that, "—would you want your spouse to get along with me?"
Sora was having trouble wrapping his head around the first part but responded, "If I get married... I guess it would be nice if you did."
"Ass-nem's reaction was to forbid his brother from interacting with his fiancé at all. There's a difference between being brothers and having brotherhood."
"That's really sad."
"Maybe they're not all like that," Xion suggested.
Vanitas snorted at the thought. "There's being an optimist, and then there's delusion. That's a delusion."
"I'm sorry, Xion, but Vani's right this time. You should probably be careful of the youngest Prince too," Sora cautioned, "all of them have a reputation for violence and cruelty. It's shocking that the one is deceptively nice. I want to believe one of them is okay, but... Vani what if we did try to fight? So Xion could stay?"
"I'm not going to fight. Don't try to stop this," Xion said, immediately taking an authoritative tone. "Hypothetically, then," Vanitas said, unfazed, "we might be able to take out the younger prince and the battalion in the city. His Majesty would make short work of Ass-nem. I'm not sure about that eye patch guy. He doesn't seem that strong, but I bet he's hiding some kind of talent. The problem would be once word gets back to the empire. They're more than ten times our size and known for their ruthlessness. Once they got in, it would be a bloodbath. Once we started losing, His Majesty would probably order a collapse on all the mines to keep Daybreak from profiting off what's left. They wouldn't spare the royal family, Sor."
"Oh..." Soras mood darkened a bit and wilted a little in response, "I know we're buying time, but I wish they would leave..."
Xion's mood was falling fast as well, no longer in the mood to tease. They'd be leaving soon, and she'd never see Terminus again.
"...I heard the Imperial capital is nice," Sora tried to cheer up.
"Sure, but can you even imagine being so far from the mountains?" she asked.
He wrinkled his nose. "Maybe he will be so busy, you never have to see him."
"I can only hope." Her skin still crawled from his touches last night and despite the heat of the smithy, she shivered.
"You should ask His Majesty to name you the ambassador," Vanitas suggested.
"If they look down on women so much... I mean, it couldn't hurt to ask."
Xion just sighed. Being the Ambassador for Terminus would help her standing, she'd have more of a voice for herself, but getting over the gender barrier seemed impossible.
"I'll bet we're the only ones in their capital who'll know how to ride gryphons," Vanitas said, "the princes couldn't bond with them if they tried."
"Are we going to be allowed to go?" Sora asked quietly and concerned.
"...I should be allowed to take you with me... you're in my service, not my grandfather's, and Ansem has no say in my affairs until the wedding..." Xion reasoned out. As terrifying as this already was, it would be a million times worse without her retainers.
"Is it going to be a big wedding?" Sora asked, "or do you think he'll try to marry you quickly before we leave...?"
"...I don't think we're getting married here. He seems to be the kind of person who wants to put on a show."
"At least we will get to be there for you until then," Sora reassured her, "while you're still ours to care for, we should get you some food, Xion."
"Hey, it hasn't been that long since breakfast, has it?" It was hard to tell time in the forge, it was kept intentionally dark so the smiths could gauge the temperature of the metal.
Sora opened the door. It was well into the afternoon.
"You passionately lost track of time again," he teased.
"...well, shoot." Xion grabbed a generic scabbard off the wall and slid the rapier home before heading out of the forge into the late winter air.
"Princess, I would pay good money to hear you swear more often," Vanitas said.
"All of his money," Sora confirmed.
Xion ignored the comments.
"How angry do you think the cook will be if I eat dinner early as an excuse to not have to see the Prince?" she asked.
"Not half as angry as the Prince."
"Good. Let's do it." Xion wanted to test the sword out anyway before it got to Lauriam. He wasn't a fighter, so the sword had to be easy to handle to make up for that. Vanitas grinned and led the way into the servant's passages once they arrived in the castle. Sora's grin matched his twin. He took up the rearguard as they snuck away to get food and sneak a couple thorns into her future husband's side.
The cook seemed only sad, giving in to Xion's request immediately and putting a bit of a damper on their 'secret mission'. They stayed out at the training grounds until the sun had long set, Xion taking turns with different weapons she'd made after testing Lauriam's sword to her satisfaction.
Sora might've been more exhausted than Xion by the time they were ready to get back to her room. He didn't handle emotional drains very well so when she was ready to head back, he happily went along, accompanying her.
Her very much not empty room. Prince Kishi hadn't notice them arrive. He was looking around her suite at the art and furniture, admiring everything with his hands clasped politely behind his back.
Xion and Vanitas were immediately on edge, with Xion drawing Lauriam's sword and holding a ready position.
"I don't know how you do things in the empire, but in Terminus, a bedroom is considered private."
He jumped, spun around, and then put his hands up in surrender.
"I'm unarmed," he promised, "they can search me."
Vanitas simply nodded and said, "He is."
"What are you doing in my quarters?" Xion asked pointedly, not lowering the sword. Sora still wasn't so sure and stayed tense.
"I didn't know where else to find you. You weren't with the staff doctor, so I figured you'd be in your room."
"Why would I be with the doctor?"
"Your brother said you were..." Kishi nodded a bit like pieces were fitting together. He sighed and lowered his arms. "Look, you have to stop antagonizing my brother."
"Why should I?" She tightened her grip on the sword and lowered it just a bit.
"You're going to be my brother's fifth wife. Of the four before you, only one of them is still alive."
Vanitas started to shake but stayed silent, letting Xion do the talking.
"So, I should let what dignity I have be washed away?"
"I'm saying he gets off on breaking women. The stronger and more fire, the more he wants to drag it out. Every time you act like you're equal to him or question him or make him appear a fool, you're just building your own funeral pyre."
"If I give in, I might as well be dead. If surviving means losing who I am, I don't want it." This was the kind of attitude all children in Terminus were raised on. The country was always trying to kill them. From bitter winters, to the constant threat of the ogre hordes, to the harsh conditions of the mines, to diseases, and now even to famine and the Daybreak Empire. The world was constantly trying to tear them down, so they learned to shore themselves up. Dignity and pride and strength were what she was built on.
Kishi pressed both his hands together and held them to his lips while he thought, studying her with narrowed eyes.
"Maybe you're not hearing me," he tried again, then, slowly, he said, "he is going to torture you and when you fail to get pregnant, he will kill you."
Xion sheathed the sword and said, "I am a soldier. This is just another kind of battle. My father and mother died to ensure our people would be safe. I'm ready to do the same."
"You're an idiot. A delusional ignoramus. You must have missed the part where you belong to the Emperor's house now. You're not a soldier, you're a brood. And I'm not saying you just roll over. I actually think it's fucking hilarious that you're working over my brother, no matter who he lashes out at. I'm only here because it didn't feel fair to not warn you that he's keeping score, and the moment he has you to himself, he will even that score."
"Consider me warned then," she said flatly. She couldn't stop being a soldier. It wasn't a designation or title that defined that. It was a frame of mind.
Kishi stayed locked in the staring contest with her for a few long seconds before he shrugged and walked past her to leave.
"I appreciate the warning, and I'm sorry I can't heed it," she said more softly.
"I don't really care what you do with my words," he admitted, "I'd be a fool to fuss over a corpse." He didn't even bother to close the door the door behind him.
Vanitas slammed it when it was clear and said, "You should run."
"I won't sit back and watch you die. Orders or not," Vanitas threatened.
Sora was a little shaken up. "Please, Xion, run."
"I can't," she repeated, voice wavering slightly, "I signed the agreement, I won't be able to."
"It would hurt our people too if you died..."
"And they will die if I don't go." She went to sit on the side of her bed.
"I will kill him if he lays a hand on you."
"I don't give a damn about protecting the country. I am sworn to protect you."(italics)
"I am very good at cleaning up," Sora offered.
"Neither of you will get involved, and I'll do my best to not break."
Sora tsked but he knew better than to argue.
"We'll let you get some rest," he whispered, shaking.
"Actually, can you find some itching powder before the week is over, Sora?" she asked.
"It'll only be a problem for him if he touches me."
Sora visibly slumped with relief and admitted, "I thought you were going to contaminate his bedding."
"Oh no, I'm going to be much meaner than that." She got up to go to her wardrobe. She had one dress that covered everything but was nearly skintight.
"M-Maybe you should take the Prince's advice just a little bit," Sora suggested. He was familiar enough with Xion to know she wasn't very good at behaving, especially when asked to by someone she didn't respect.
"If Ansem is all he says he is, he should recognize a trap."
Sora shuffled nervously. "At least sleep on it please."
"... fine. But still look into getting some." Xion pulled the dark green and white gown out. It was intended to be reminiscent of a snowy forest. The powder would blend right in.
"I don't intend to do it tomorrow, anyway. Lauriam will be arriving and I want my hugs."
"We'll leave you to rest." Sora motioned with his head to try and communicate to Vanitas that they should give her some privacy. He finally caught on and they headed for the door.