This is how it happens.
You run. There is not a drop of courage left in you. It has fled your body with each breath, it has been carved away with each member of your guards who fell to buy you a few more hours. You are empty of all but the desire to survive, and flight is the only response that comes to you. You run and you run and you run yourself into a dead end, in the barren rocky land where you’ve never before ventured on tours of the land with your father. You duck into the tumbledown fortress because you can see no other easy cover. It’s a greenhorn’s mistake. Easily, your pursuers guess where you are hiding, and rather than swarming inside they simply light fire to the exterior of the structure.
The timber is barren. It catches in a heartbeat, and you try to stifle your breath as you feel the temperature begin to rise. It’s as the harsh voices outside declare: You’re going to die either way. There’s no escape you can locate, and so you can wait to burn or take your chances with the swords of the enemy.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
It is a high, nasal, slightly accented voice that is entirely unfamiliar, and it is followed by a great rush of wind and a clatter of armor; there is a great animal shriek and the shouts of soldiers. You edge towards the door, just close enough to peek, not sure what to expect.
The enemy has turned away from you, their swords all pointed towards the figure of a girl in their midst—a girl your age.
Your legs coil and you explode from the burning building, and the sword that wouldn’t swing for your sake no matter how close death were to come to your heels flashes out in a grand glorious arc.
- - -
The first thing that you notice, as you stand across from each other with the fresh corpses of Imperial soldiers between you, is that she is the most beautiful person you have ever seen in your life.
The other realizations come a few moments later, once you’re quite finished standing there dumbly and meekly and gawping at the perfect lines of her waist and her muscles and her thighs. Her skin is copper in color, her clothes are for the most part crudely hewn leather, and she is glaring at you. She has not set down the great spiked club in her hand, and most likely the only reason she is not getting on the griffon behind her and flying away is the crossbow bolt embedded in the beast’s flank.
She is Vanir, you realize, and feel no little bit stupid for the way you notice this last of all. Shouldn’t it be more important than the moonlight on her hair and the exact slant of her eyes?
Regardless, you gather yourself and bow your head to her in gratitude and apology. “I am very sorry to have gotten you involved in my battle. And I thank you, because if you had not appeared I might have been killed.”
When she still doesn’t say anything, you fold your hands. “Er, will your griffon be all right?”
Her stance doesn’t exactly soften, but it at least becomes less overtly hostile. “…Yeah, Al should be fine once I treat him. He may not be able to fly for a while, though.”
The relief breaks out across your face all on its own. “Thank goodness it’s not serious.”
She continues to stare at you, wary, as if trying to figure you out. She has the eyes of an owl, and you feel vivisected. It makes your toes tingle. “What’s some rich girl like you even doing in a place like this, anyway?”
Something inside you freezes, makes it hard to speak. But at the same time, this is your chance, and so you push the words out of your throat, syllable by syllable. “I—I need help. The capital has been overtaken by invaders, and I must avenge my parents. If you would lend me even a little of your power, I can give you anything in the world you desire—”
The girl sighs, and whatever flicker of receptiveness there was in her expression shuts out. “What goes around comes around. Fantasinia got what was coming to it, and even if I cared—which I don’t—I wouldn’t get involved with that fight no matter how much money or treasure any noble tried to throw at me. Are you really enough of a dumbass to look at me and not realize I know too much about what war does to people for that?”
It feels like being strangled.
Your eyes blur for just a moment, but you bite back on the bitterness for long enough to wrench your lips into a smile.
“In that case, then might I at least ask for directions?”
- - -
“Remind me again, why the hell are you following me around?”
She is resplendent in daylight, and she hates you. She walks next to her limping griffon, and her elbows and shoulder blades are made out of knives, and you trail after her like a lost duckling. Dazzled by the exact refraction of light on her clover-colored hair as if you’ve mistaken it for emeralds on your mother’s dress. You do not even know her name. You are smitten. There is something wrong with you.
“Because,” you say to her in your politest and most inoffensive tone, “this and the way that I came are the only ways out of Norn, and the Imperial Army will most certainly be waiting for me in the other direction. And besides, the knights ought to be closer to this exit. You said so yourself.”
She groans and turns back around. “Look, I don’t care if that makes sense, okay? I mean why are you following me right now when we could’ve gone separately.”
You sigh, just a little. If you told her that you want to look at her for a little bit longer, she would likely become even angrier. And it feels as though saying that you might as well have gone as soon as possible because, after all, your kingdom is in peril would have the same result.
“Well, well, what do we have here?”
There is a man standing in your path, down at the other end of the canyon, and he is surrounded by soldiers. They are all armed, and you already get the feeling that you aren’t going to be able to persuade them to move politely.
“Aw, damn it, boss, that’s the stupid girl from the other day. You know if we bother her again we’re just gonna get our butts kicked.”
The man in front squints, and you can feel him staring at you. “Yeah, maybe, but looks like she’s picked up our target for us. Hey girlie, you’re Vanir, it’s not like you’ve got any reason to stick your nose in Fantasinia’s business. Want us to take the princess off your hands?”
The girl you’ve followed turns and looks at you, hard, one of her eyebrows arching upward. After the longest fifteen seconds of your life, she swivels back around and yells to the soldiers. “Sure I don’t like the kingdom, but what makes you hooligans think I’m gonna do what you want after how goddamn charming you were the last time we met? Go choke on a bag of dicks!”
At this, the man shrugs. Light flashes off of the bits of metal sewn into his leather armor. “And here I was trying to solve this all peaceful and shit. Whatever, you’re stuck on the ground, your advantage is gone now. Let’s get ‘em!” As his soldiers cheer, raising their swords in the air, he grumbles something that sounds like “I am gonna hafta ask Gulcasa for a raise after this.”
You consider your options. The Vanir girl at your side is casually taking out her spiked club, shaking her head and talking under her breath about how you’re nothing but trouble. The soldiers in your way aren’t so many in number, and you don’t see the Empire’s device anywhere on their person. More likely than not, they’re hired muscle—nothing for you to fear.
“Stop,” you say to the girl, “this is my mess, after all; I don’t like the idea of involving you when it’s against your will.”
“Oh really?” she retorts dryly. “Looks like I’m already pretty involved here.”
“It’s all right—besides, it’s my fault that your griffon is injured, and your intervention did save my life before. I won’t let them get far enough that you have to raise a finger.”
She doesn’t reply. You’re glad, because this is something that you need to concentrate on; with soldiers already crossing the canyon towards you, you put strength into your shoulders and lift your father’s sword.
“Come near me, and I’ll kill you!”
- - -
The battle is quick—quicker even than you thought it would be based on the fight with the real Imperial soldiers last night, because once his men have sustained severe injuries their commander swears at you and orders them all to pull back.
“See?” You turn towards her, and you beam. Just as you promised, she didn’t have to swing her weapon even once.
“They said you’re the princess,” she replies, and you aren’t entirely sure what the furrows on her forehead mean. “Princess Yggdra? Seriously?”
“I don’t believe it,” she says flatly. “Princesses don’t do anything hands-on if they can help it, they’re too busy being nobles and having other people do it for them.”
Even you don’t know why that makes you giggle. Your face is probably burning. “I suppose I’ll take that as a compliment?”
Whatever she’s about to say, she’s cut off by the sound of the empire’s horn calls.
- - -
“Screw this,” she says, and beckons you. “I’m not dealing with an entire other platoon of soldiers, especially when it’s led by a legit general.”
Hands gripping your sword so tightly that they’re becoming numb, you chase her as she disappears through the narrow mouth of the canyon. You can hear hoofbeats and rough voices calling in the distance, and the memories of your flight from the castle are starting to sap your courage away again.
When you’re both clear, she lifts her club and begins to smash the rock face, littering the path with fat jagged chunks of stone and vast amounts of dirt.
“It’s not gonna stop them forever, but they’ll either have to move the roadblock or figure out another way to go,” she proclaims with something like pride.
- - -
By the time you’ve both reached the border of Orlando, you’re well aware that you’re out of excuses with which you can keep trailing after her for any longer.
“Thank you for everything,” you say at the crossroads, and hesitate: “Would it be all right if I asked for your name?”
“What,” she says flatly, giving you your eightieth incredulous stare of the day. (Again, you wonder a little what’s wrong with you—she has been nothing but prickles and distrust, and you should know very well that this is a lost cause, but for some reason that doesn’t stop her from dazzling you.)
“Um—well, my name is Yggdra, so—”
“I know that already, dumbass. What I want to know is why you even care.”
What does she even mean by that? “Why wouldn’t I?” is what you ask aloud.
She sighs, and her chest rises and falls underneath the leather of her vest. You watch closely, engraving the thin curves in your memory, and privately feel a bit obscene. “Whatever. I’m Kylier, and it doesn’t matter, because you and I are now quits, and I don’t expect we’re ever gonna see each other again.”
All the same, you bow to her before you go on your way, and think that God willing, the lives you have ahead of you are too long to rule out the possibility.
- - -
This is how it happens.
You are fighting your way down the streets of Paltina with the ground rumbling underneath you, dodging cannon shell and cutting your way through knights and witches in Imperial colors. Your troops are scattered throughout the northern half of the capital—there is no other choice unless you want to present easy targets—and without solidarity, you won’t be able to last in a direct clash against the enemy’s general. Unfortunately, you must get through him in order to get to the moat, and you must get across the moat in order to dispatch the cannoneer.
The screech of a griffon breaks the air, and even as your men mill about in panic (if this is the Scarlet Riders back for another round!), your chest jolts in a revitalizing sort of way. You wouldn’t be able to forget that sound, not your entire life.
“It’s all right,” you shout to Durant and his standard bearers. “She’s a friend.”
- - -
“I’m not here because of any stupid reasons like that,” Kylier tells you very flatly, and crosses her arms. “I still owe you from before, and I don’t like owing debts, is all. Especially not to nobles.”
And even though you can clearly read her dislike on her face, you can’t keep yourself from smiling and smiling.
- - -
“So you have your capital back, big whoop,” she tells you later, when your parents’ murderer and his men have fled the streets of Paltina and your soldiers are tied up securing the city. Durant has left you alone only under duress, and you can feel his gaze prickling along your shoulders every now and again—Kylier probably thinks he doesn’t approve of your being alone with a Vanir; you know that she’s only half right. He has already given you a few significant murmurs of Princess over the way that you look at her. You are transparent, and you would be a lot more bashful about this if not for the fact that Kylier’s dislike renders you opaque to her. “Is there any reason why you’re still running around with a bunch of storm clouds hanging over your head like this?”
Because it’s her, you make an effort to stop pacing and biting your nails; you owe her your proper attention if you’re going to talk. Even Kylier seems to have noticed something is different about you now that you have more pressing matters on your mind even than her compelling beauty.
“It isn’t over yet. Until I kill that man, nothing will be over.”
She stops scritching at her griffon’s chin in order to plant her hands on her hips. “I seem to recall you saying back when we first met that you just wanted to get your kingdom back, and regardless of who you have or haven’t killed, you’ve done that.”
“Bronquia will simply attack us again. I’m not so naïve as to not understand something that simple. And besides, that man killed my parents. I will see him face justice for what he has done.”
Something about your words makes her narrow her eyes at you, although you can’t fathom why that is. “…Look, whatever weird desire I had to stick around for a couple more days is rapidly going away. To be brutally honest, satisfying my personal sense of pride’s only one reason I decided to come pay you back for saving me. I had this stupid idea that maybe you weren’t the same as every other self-important Fantasinian noble, that maybe you were actually worth knowing.”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
She sighs. You do your best not to be distracted by the way the moonlight sets her skin tone into a dusky rose color. “You do know why you people force us to live in Lost Aries, don’t you?”
When you’re told that in quite that way, it makes you want to fidget like a child. “Saying force is… a little… yes, my ancestors might have exiled yours to that place, but that doesn’t mean that every Fantasinian believes—”
Kylier’s gaze bores into you, unrelenting and owlish. “Even if you personally didn’t kick me personally over the border, your laws still forbid my people from living on our ancestral land that yours stole from us by force. Just because you don’t think it’s right doesn’t mean you guys are doing anything about it.”
“Laws can be changed,” you blurt out, going red and feeling very bold. “And—and maybe that’s what I intend to do someday.”
This makes her stop for a moment, and look at you even harder. Then she shakes her head, and her hair sways and casts its spell on you again, and you stay silent. “Anyhow, arguing over word choice aside. You know why that’s where my people live, right? They say that Lost Aries used to be beautiful, that it used to be a place befitting an angel’s grave. It’s a wasteland now because of a bunch of assholes who didn’t know when to give a conflict up when it was good for them. Hundreds of years after they got done killing each other with the most brutal magic they could think of, it’s still a wasteland.
“Chasing after their emperor to get revenge isn’t going to end the war, you idiot, it’s only going to escalate things.”
You only realize that you’re clenching your fists when your nails start pressing painfully into your palms. “Even so. I cannot forgive him, and I must protect my people from the threat he poses.”
Kylier throws her hands up as if in supplication, then lets them fall and dangle at her sides. Her eyes are narrow, and her expression is cold. “You don’t know anything about New Bronquia, do you? You’re not gonna like hearing this, Princess, but it’s not like they had no motivation to attack the Kingdom. And personally? I think Gulcasa’s methods are pretty screwed-up, because I know war’s not gonna solve anything. But I’ve heard the kinds of things he and his people have to say, and I agree with a lot of it.
“You should look into it yourself before you go charging off all bloodthirsty. You don’t seem to know too much about it, but out of your high-and-mighty royal cabinet, nobody’s got clean hands. Not even your parents did.”
Something explodes in your head. “Don’t you dare talk about my mother and father like that.”
Kylier looks at you, tilts her face away from you, shoves her hands into her pockets. “If that’s the way you want it. But you know what? It’s not my job to hold your petticoats when you’re about to charge off like a dumbshit. I don’t know why I’m trying. Do what you want. We’re actually square this time, after all. I’ll throw in the unwanted lecture as a bonus.”
And she hoists herself into her griffon’s saddle with a hup, flaps the reins a bit, and takes off in a great burst of wind without even looking back.
You stand still with a building volcanic eruption barely contained in your skull and more feelings wrestling inside you than you know how to name, and you shake and shake until the messenger finds you.
- - -
“The lady Kylier assisted us for a while in recovering you,” Durant says to you, almost as an afterthought, once he has finished explaining what has happened since your capture.
You blink at him, and he immediately begins to look uncomfortable. “Princess. She—she said that she couldn’t forgive an army charging into her homeland to do as they please.” He spends a moment shuffling his feet. “I really think—”
“You don’t have to explain, Durant,” you tell him, because he really doesn’t. You think you have enough of a grasp of Kylier’s character that you already know. Imagining makes you feel warm inside.
“Princess,” he says, and there’s a gentle hesitation about the word that tells you to cut him off.
You do. You smile at him widely. “Durant, gather the others. We must still talk about everything that’s yet to come, where to go from here.”
“Princess—you know that this cannot be,” he murmurs in haste, and then bows himself out of your bedroom.
You pretend not to have heard him.
- - -
This is how it happens.
You and your men are in the midst of fending off bandits on the narrow desert road when a rain of green and orange feathers from above signals her arrival.
She doesn’t even try to excuse her arrival with debts this time: Instead, all she has to say is “you are all entirely helpless without me around to save your sorry butts”, voice arch and superior.
You smile and don’t press the issue.
- - -
That night, you sit next to the nearest oasis and talk about your impending coronation.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I’m actually ready for this.” You feel a little bit dizzy, admitting this. You haven’t spoken to anyone else about the way that you feel. “I don’t even think that I could match my father as a sovereign, and it’s true that he couldn’t have been a perfect one. Otherwise—we wouldn’t have come to this, would we?”
Kylier stretches. Your eyes have been parched for the sight of her, dry and thirsty as your throat. It’s almost too poetic for you to have access to water and access to Kylier at the same time. “At least you’re willing to admit that much. If you did think that you were perfectly ready to be a queen right now you’d be too far gone for saving.
“But then if you were that kind of person, I don’t think I’d want to come back and help you.”
Your eyes sting. It isn’t just the desert. “Aren’t I? That kind of person.”
“Well,” Kylier tells you, “remember the time you went chasing off after the Imperials. Was that a good idea or a bad one?”
“It was a bad idea—obviously, I know that now. I should have thought about it more before going off on my own.”
She scratches her head and shrugs one shoulder. “Well, not perfect, but that’s still much better than before. But there’s my point. You’re learning. Just like you’re a better general now than you were then, you’ll be a better leader later than you are now. It just took having to dick up once for you to figure things out, that’s all. And you’ve got a head start this time because you know you’re not infallible.”
Kylier doesn’t say anything more, but you watch her. The moonlight and starlight suit her, you think; she shines bright and bronze in the daylight, but she’s a creature of the night. You can’t help but think of cats in her movements and owls in her gaze. “Do you have any advice for me?”
“Uh, what?” Her stare is always so intense. Even in the dark, it must be visible that you’re blushing.
“I mean—you’re so much wiser about the world than me.”
She doesn’t reply immediately. You can see her eyebrows drawing together through gaps in her hair, and she halfway smiles at you as if she’s suspicious.
“I have no idea what you’re on about. You’re the one with the fancy education, miss Princess.”
“Books can’t tell you everything. They’re just like taking someone else’s opinion, because someone had to write the words down in the first place. Their knowledge isn’t necessarily perfect, and they might be glossing over what they don’t think is important.”
This time she does smile, a momentary flash of white that catches the sparkle of the heavens. “That’s good, that’s better. See, I told you that you were learning.”
You might faint, you think; she’s too brilliant, especially in the dark. You can’t think of anything but her anymore. “I meant what I said before—about the laws I want to change.”
Kylier stands up and brushes at her leggings, batting away the stray bits of sand that stick to clothing. She doesn’t reply for a while, and when she does her voice is schooled to calmness. “That’s nice and all, but it’s not going to fix anything. There’s a line between you and us. Even if you try to erase it now, that’s not really gonna work. First of all, why does everything have to be on Fantasinia’s terms? We’ve been people all along, but we have to have your okay to live on our land again? And it’s not like you’re going to move out just so that we can get back to what we were doing hundreds of years ago. There are people who’ll think you should, though.
“And just because one person says that we have rights now, puts it down on paper somewhere, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the kingdom is gonna be happy about it. They’re gonna pretend not to hear. It’s been too convenient for them to think of us like we’re animals; accepting that they did us wrong is just going to make them feel bad, and they don’t want that.
“Besides, you should know better than to think we’ll trust you that easily, too. To begin with, how do we know that you’re sincere about writing these laws? Are you really doing it out of a sense of right and wrong that’s as wonky as every other Fantasinian’s, or are you just trying to win us over for your own reasons? Are you soothing your own guilty conscience, or are you doing this for our sake?”
Her words are like an ocean weighing down your shoulders. They hurt, because now that you’re hearing them you can understand that they’re valid.
Even so, even under all that weight, you push yourself to your feet, shake out your skirts. “That’s true. That’s all true. But—if I do nothing but sit around paralyzed by the number of ways that this could go wrong, then who’s ever going to try to put it right?”
Kylier opens her mouth as if to reply. Closes it, shifts her weight from side to side, tries crossing her arms and then putting her hands on her hips.
“Well, I want to tell you that’s all very nice, but I kinda have to doubt your sincerity when all you ever do around me is stare and stare as if you’ve never seen a brown person before.”
And, to put it succinctly, you panic.
Your head goes blank. Your mouth drops open. You shake your head, first slowly, then vigorously; your hands flail about in the air before you. “I—that. That isn’t it. I promise you, you have entirely the wrong idea.”
Kylier says nothing. She raises a very sardonic eyebrow.
“I do stare at you—I know I do—but it’s not because you’re. It’s,” you swallow air and sand and cough, and then look at the ground and feel like ten kinds of fool; “because I think you’re very pretty.”
She doesn’t answer, but you can feel her stare. You squirm as though you are three years old.
“Oh,” she says at last; “well.”
She sits back down and draws nonsense patterns in the sand; you sit down beside her and watch the ripples of the water, and neither of you looks at the other until the sun rises.
(You will berate yourself, later, for not taking the chance to kiss her then.)
- - -
She leaves this time just after the prow of your longboat touches the St. Meriata sand; gives you a nod from where she’s sitting astride her griffon and then takes off. It’s how she is; you don’t try to stop her. You are grateful enough that she waited to see you safe and crowned before her departure.
After the war is over, you promise yourself, the first thing you will do is get to work at changing those laws.
- - -
This is how it happens.
“I have two observations to make,” announces a familiar nasal voice from the sky. “First, it looks like you guys are doing something really stupid, and second, it looks like you’re having a hard time at it.”
“Hello, Kylier,” you say, and smile. “Well, Elena has a plan, but it’s too dangerous to let her go alone, and for some reason we’re having a little trouble coming up with someone to send with her.”
She hops out of her griffon’s saddle, pets the beast’s forehead as it shakes itself off, and then folds her arms at you. “Okay,” she says; “is anyone going to fill me in on the dumbshit mission I’m about to volunteer myself for?”
- - -
You stand at the gates with your sword in hand, ready to embark upon the greatest battle of your life, your army’s cheers ringing at your back. Footsteps ring on the flagstones of Ft. Ishnad; their cadence is already too dear for you to need to turn around to ascertain that it’s Kylier standing there.
“This is enough,” she says, and the entire room falls silent.
You look over your shoulder, turn just a bit, and she is standing there bright as a living flame. The sunset through the windows colors her skin and hair and her leathers in garnet tones, shading her face dramatically. Her expression is as serious as you’ve ever seen it.
“I mean it, Princess,” and even her voice is steadily gaining volume. “I know you’re smart enough to be able to tell what it’ll mean when you go out that door. You’ve chased your enemy back behind their own borders. This should be more than good enough.”
“Lady Kylier,” Durant calls from the army, but she doesn’t even flinch away from you. Even you only register his voice on a subconscious level; you and she are the only living things in the world.
“Cross that line and you’ll be the same as Gulcasa is—you’ll be worse, because at least he invaded your kingdom for a reason other than trampling you so bad you’d never be able to get up again.”
You close your eyes for a moment, and then open them again. If you can’t even face down Kylier, then what does that have to say about your resolve? “When he crowned me, the Pope told me what those people plan to do. If they succeed—then the entire world may be in danger, not just my country. I swore upon my sword, in the name of justice, that I would stop them.”
“Absolute justice is a fairy tale, something that the powerful made up so that they could justify oppressing anybody that can’t stand up to them,” she snaps back. “Do you really feel strongly enough about your so-called duty to raze villages and kill civilians that haven’t ever raised a hand to you?”
You don’t have an answer to that, and she must know it. “I am aware that there’s a chance this is mistaken. But I’m not willing to risk the survival of the people who depend on me for protection. Kylier, what would you have me do?”
Her amber eyes catch the light and cut through you like the blades of a million swords. “You could become so much, do so much good in the world, if you wanted to. If you’d just stop clinging to the stupid lies your ancestors have told, if you’d just throw away all this self-righteous bullshit.”
“Lady Kylier, that is more than enough!” Durant cries, but you hold up a hand to silence him.
“Are you the queen-to-be that promised my people aid,” Kylier whispers in a voice like diamonds, “or are you your father’s daughter after all?”
You breathe in, bite your lip, and then smile bitterly. “Kylier. Are those my only options, to be one or the other?”
She closes her eyes and exhales, long and slow. “…Fine. You and I are done. Enjoy your revenge; have fun with your invasion. You’ve got nobody to blame but yourself anymore.”
You turn around and don’t watch her go, but every one of her footfalls echoes in the halls of your heart. The reverberations feel like they’ll go on forever.
“Durant,” you murmur, “prepare the troops for battle. We move out tomorrow morning.”
- - -
You arrive before the Arc of Triumph with your shoes painted red from treading on corpses and your eyes blurring in exhaustion and sorrow and sickness. You don’t expect Gulcasa to listen to you when you call for him to surrender, deep down. And it doesn’t surprise you when he simply demands for you to get out or die in a voice cracked from crying. War rumbles through the ground like the earth is sighing under your feet, and you run blindly, void of hope, ready to break yourself against the enemy’s gates once and for all.
And this is how it happens.
“What in the fuck are you doing?”
For a moment you don’t even realize what’s happening, and then you stop dead in the road to stare into the sky.
“Why?” is all you can ask.
“Because you’ve made an idiot of me, apparently,” is her immediate reply. “If you’ve come this far, then it’s like you said yourself—you’ve got to see your own mistake through to the end. Stop believing in yourself, and you’re just going to get your men killed. You’re going to get you killed. All of this, all of it, will have been for nothing.”
“Kylier,” and that’s the only thing that will come out of your mouth.
“And fuck me if I’m gonna let you die, okay?” You can’t see her expression: The sun behind her is too bright and she is too far away. She sounds angry, but you have the feeling that she wouldn’t look that way if you could just catch a glimpse of her face. “I am going to help you one last time, and I mean one last time, no more freebies ever, it is going to be your turn to clear the debt after this.”
She says nothing more.
You don’t realize until it’s too late, and even though you scream and scream for her to stop until you lose your voice, Kylier has never been one for listening to you.
- - -
The story doesn’t end, of course, just because she isn’t in it anymore.
You stand in the burning shrine at the heart of Castle Bronquia, and your body feels like lead. You can barely hold your own sword. You can barely raise your own head. You feel ancient and tired. But she told you not to stop believing in yourself, and for all that you’ve never listened to her properly she has never led you wrongly.
So you stare at the dying man who stands arm’s length away from you, and he stares back, and you don’t let your blade fall, and you don’t let yourself collapse in grief or exhaustion.
“Power is… something that changes form depending on who wields it,” you say, and miraculously your voice comes out steadfast. “The fact that you took my parents from me… is still very painful to me, but I have sworn firmly to myself that I only want to use my power to protect people.”
Gulcasa does not immediately respond. His breathing is labored. Most of his armor has been cut away by your sword and those of your men, and his body is soaked in steaming black-red blood. It drips from underneath his disheveled hair, runs from his eyes and nose and lips, and his eyes are clouded. Logically there is no possible way that he should still be standing, but then any ordinary man would have died from those wounds instantly. Still he stands.
“Listen to me,” he says, and his voice is deep and it is steady, “because I am only going to get to say this once.”
He reaches out, and his gauntleted hands are heavy when he grasps your shoulders. The armor on his fingers is worked into the shape of claws, which bite through your clothes painfully when he tightens his grip.
“Your mistake is that you believe power to be nothing more than strength. Power is wisdom, and a strong will, and power is courage and morality and love too. Strength alone is not enough. Without those things, you may be able to wound, but you’ll never be able to heal. That is the difference between us. You have to understand this, and you have to learn, if you want to keep hold of the world you’ve taken by force.”
And he smiles, just a little, so sadly; his hands come up to frame your face, and they shake. His unfocused eyes are filled with tears. Your heart is caught between razor threads; like a fool, you have only just realized that you don’t know this man at all, not really.
“Well, little miss new sovereign… do you understand?”
- - -
You meet for the last time upon the otherworldly island, and cross blades until her puppet strings are cut. Her body folds, the faint blue-green aura clinging to her skin fades away, and you know you could count the number of stolen breaths she has left.
“So,” she says to you, a limp reanimated corpse in your lap, “this thing where you can’t get it right until you’ve dicked things up at least once? It’s nice and all, but it’s about time that you graduate from the phase. You don’t get to call yourself a grown-up until you can manage to get something right first try.”
“Kylier,” you say, because you are a broken thing that can only vocalize her name now. You wouldn’t even be able to stand anymore, not without her.
“Don’t make that face,” she tells you, and she smiles. “Your fight for revenge is over. You and I are over. You learned the lesson at the end of the story, you know any more battle isn’t gonna win anybody anything. But, hey. There’s still people who’re miserable, you’ve got to do something about them. There’s still somebody who’s crying, and the only one that can help him now is you. You have the power to do it, if you want to. You can fix things. I believe you can.”
“But all I’ve ever done in my life is make things worse,” you manage, and your vision blurs at once. Fat tears make their way down your face and drip onto your chest, onto her death-pallid cheeks and forehead.
“Yggdra,” she says, and you catch your breath because it’s the first time she’s ever said your name since she confirmed it, “I have to go back to where I belong now, I can’t stay and tell you what the right thing to do is. But I know that you can figure it out by yourself now. You’re a big girl. You’re the queen. Just—if you remember me at all, remember this. All solving your problems with weapons does is hurt people, and all hurting people does is start even more wars.”
You lean down and you kiss her. It’s anticlimax. Her lips are clammy and cold and taste like stale blood and dirt, but she smiles at you and closes her eyes and disappears into light.
- - -
And, finally, you face down the puppeteer. This too feels anticlimax: He is a little thing, too small and too frail to have been such a strong catalyst in the maelstrom of all-consuming human hatred. He stands bitter and angled in his raggedy robes and his weighty chains, and his wan tear-ravaged face might be your face; his lovelorn silhouette might be your reflection, refracted a million times through a shattered mirror.
“Why did you do that to her?” is all you can ask.
“Because you took him away from me,” he says.
There’s still somebody who’s crying, and the only one that can help him now is you.
You close your eyes, wonder for a moment, and then set down your sword. Alone, you cross the temple grounds; you take Nessiah’s cold hands in yours, and your forehead rests against his, his against yours. There is too much of yourself in this person, your own heartbrokenness and helplessness, for you to be able to dredge up any hatred anymore.
“Let’s talk,” you say, “from the beginning.”
- - -
When everything has long since ended, you finally sit upon your throne for the first time. Your generals, your army, the peoples of so many nations all kneel at your feet.
“My Queen, give us your command,” Durant murmurs with a reverence and a kind of faith and pride that make your chest ache.
You take your time to swallow and to breathe, and finally, you speak.
“Well—as early as this may be into my reign, there are a few laws that I told someone I would look into changing.”