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i.

She feels mostly like a stranger who’s stolen into someone else’s life. What is she doing here, in this brightly furnished castle, draped in bejeweled gowns like just another part of the scenery? She was severed too early from this birthright. Obtaining what she’d lost had never been a part of the plan, just revenging upon the culprits the fact that she had lost it at all.

For one thing, she is simply not ready to be an older sister.

Her world and everything about it was nested together with Luciana’s. That loss is something she’s still trying to come to terms with, and it’s a fresh struggle every single day. Sometimes she thinks it’s like trying to figure out how to live with a severed limb; other times she thinks: No, it isn’t like anything else. Her twin is dead. The only person who had always perfectly understood her, who had supported her and needed her support in equal turn, will never come back to her. It isn’t like anything else.

That is hard enough, and yet here is this stranger she must learn to call mother, a woman whom she learns has kept secret the hope that her daughters might yet live for fifteen years and not breathed a word of it to either her husband or her younger child; here is this life of pale blue and green and white splendor like something in a quite different era.

And there is still so much to learn, now that she has decided for the time being that she will try to remain—new customs, court politics, tradition and history and how she is expected to behave and how she can resist the quite foreign poison in the kingdom, the quietly malignant complacency and self-righteousness so different from the blatant decay of the empire.

She is not welcome here. She said to her father that she was not a Bronquian citizen, and she and Luciana never considered themselves the people of the empire, but here in Fantasinia she realizes that she must be, or is enough of one that it makes no difference. It’s funny, that it took leaving Bronquia to realize how great a part of her it is.

The sense of dislocation is common amongst Gram Blaze. They don’t speak of it, but they don’t need to: It’s in every glance she shares with her comrades. Vertigo is her default, these days.

But Yggdra smiles at her, calls her sister—a small impossibility, a miracle and a curse (she is still the youngest, in her heart). Yggdra smiles and looks up at her, and there’s only a year separating them, but somehow Yggdra is still a child in ways that she doubts she ever was.

Yggdra smiles for her, like a little island of welcome in the great sea of the royal capital, and Aegina feels as though her feet are on solid ground.

 

 

ii.

The wealthy and the influential look down their noses at her, at everything about her—from her short hair to her clothes to her scarves to her plain manner of speaking, attributing all of it to her Bronquian birth, as if being from the empire makes her some sort of barbarian—but Jenon slips into the new lifestyle like it’s a perfectly tailored glove. It’s at once a little bizarre and a little lonely.

She doesn’t hold it against him, or at least not much. She tries not to, anyway. She doesn’t like or trust the glitz of the court, but Jenon can blend into it with his fake gentlemanly air and his awful wittiness. She and Garlot and everyone in Gram Blaze have all heard it a million times by now and are more annoyed by it than tolerant; Jenon should get a chance to show off in front of an audience that isn’t wise to his tricks yet.

But the fact of her loneliness remains. Aegina has been wrapped up in learning how to be a princess—as the second in line to the throne, she apparently has to become presentable in order to ease the disquiet of the country—Medoute is off in her own world most of the time, and the kids are busy exploring the castle and can’t always be good company. Garlot’s worn out, and spends huge chunks of each day hiding in the quiet of his new quarters, asleep—Leon’s apparently not going over too well with the Fantasinian knights, and Garlot has to run interference a lot. Nessiah says that the culture shock may be hitting Garlot hardest, too.

So she doesn’t complain except on the inside of her head. Zilva stays with her a lot; she runs into Eudy and Nessiah a few times a day, even if she can still only handle the former in small doses and the latter is people-shy as ever.

Everyone else is still scattered across the castle and the royal capital like a firework, and she sees them less. They’ll come back together eventually. She has to believe that or she’ll go stir crazy.

To distract herself, she leaves the castle when she has nothing to do and explores the city. It’s bright and noisy and clean, nothing at all like Nether, but the people are patient when she has to change her money to buy a sweet or a new scarf. Unlike the courtiers, the citizens have an easy and unconcerned trust in their princess.

She gets into a rowboat with Zilva once, spends the morning and the noon gliding across the big lake. It’s no ocean, but she likes the smooth surface. She finds—of all things—Luciana and Aegina’s graves, or at least the graves of the poor little babies that awful adviser used as body doubles for them. It’s so funny that she starts to laugh, and then it occurs to her that she might never be able to visit the real Luciana’s grave, which is over country borders in a place she still thinks of as Back Home. A place which she and the others aren’t welcome anymore.

She thinks of Velleman ratting them out to the Imperial Army to cover his own behind and feels angry and awful, then thinks of Tiera—of Nether and all the half-built new houses and everyone she’ll never see again—and starts to cry. Zilva touches her shoulder awkwardly like she doesn’t know what to do. She’s struck with a strong, sudden urge to kiss Zilva, right on the lips, but it’s confusing and she doesn’t trust it and so she doesn’t.

They reach the castle in the early evening, right when the sky is starting to turn magnificent colors. When she gets back to her rooms Jenon is there.

“So hey,” he says, and he’s wearing fancy Fantasinian-style clothes but his smile is a hundred percent authentic Jenon, which is to say goofy and awkward and weirdly comforting for it. “There’s this big fancy dinner party tonight, which maybe isn’t a big deal because I think they throw them once a week or so in this place, but there’s going to be dancing and nice desserts and so I was wondering if, maybe, you wanted to come along?”

She stares, surprised at him, and he shrugs and looks bashful. “You can see if Zilva wants to come too. I can’t find anybody else. And—I mean, you used to say you’d like the chance to wear clothes like these, and this is as good an excuse as any, and…” Jenon’s hands fall with a little flap to his sides. “I guess I’d just be too lonely, going by myself.”

She is laughing before she can help it, even though she kind of wants to cry from the relief too. She gets that urge again—the same strong compulsion to just go up and kiss Jenon that she had with Zilva—and she still does not trust it enough to act on it.

“Okay,” she says.

Later, still wearing ropes of real pearls and a silk white dress, she goes down to the city docks with Jenon and Zilva, all three of them dizzy and cheerful from the alcohol in the punch, all three of them carrying lanterns. They go out on a boat, just sit out on the water with the oars stretched out to keep it from tipping, and they look at the stars swirling like a painting.

She kisses them both.

 

 

iii.

She doesn’t belong in the capital and everyone knows it. She does not belong in Fantasinia, and everyone knows that too. Most of Gram Blaze is still too overwhelmed by the events of the past month and struggling to adapt to the kingdom’s culture to realize it just yet. She, however, is a traveler; she’s felt this feeling before.

The soil underfoot doesn’t reject her. It’s just that the people standing on it look at her as though she is foreign.

It doesn’t help that she stands out like a beacon. The appearances of Bronquians were more varied, but here in Fantasinia where all the natural-born citizens are fair-skinned with light hair and eyes, her brown skin and white hair make people nervous. She knows and they know that she’s too dark and her hair not colorful enough to be Vanir, but that history lurks in every shadow.

Because she’s a traveler and used to it, she hardens her mind against it and doesn’t keep out of sight. Either they’ll get used to her, or they won’t. Her bets are on the former, even if that takes quite a while. Humans are wondrously adaptive living beings. People can get used to more than they’d believe.

She makes herself as visible as she can given the scope of her daily activities because she sees absolutely no need to shield the royal people from discomfort.

At least the castle itself is of lovely design. It’s riddled with little gardens, and its walls are often open to the scenery of town and lake and grain fields. She appreciates the architecture, the kingdom’s vanity in the impractical windows that each necessitate very inventive rain tarps and shutters. It makes her feel less closed-in.

She doesn’t consciously realize until the day she’s walking through one of the enclosed gardens and sees Eudy on a bench, sharp purple eyes fixed on her instead of the pile of papers in the woman’s lap.

She raises an eyebrow; when Eudy doesn’t say anything, she asks, “Is something the matter?”

“No,” says Eudy, and pushes her glasses up on her nose. She looks decidedly amused. “I just couldn’t help but think that with all things considered, you sure don’t look like you’re going anywhere fast.”

She has to stop, and is promptly annoyed with herself when she realizes that Eudy is absolutely right. It feels like a lifetime has passed since she realized what was starting to happen, every alarm went off in her mind, and she pulled Garlot aside at the gates of Flarewerk to tell him that she wouldn’t be around for much longer.

At the time, he’d sobered in preparation for a goodbye, and she’d hastily corrected him with a not right now. On the way here, when she’d pulled him aside to discuss Emilia, he’d mistaken it for a continuation of that conversation—and she’d been confused for a moment before telling him not until we’ve settled this whole issue. And again, after the battle, not quite yet.

She hadn’t lied to Garlot, or to herself, that she did not want to deal with responsibilities and obligations ever again. The thought of being bound by those things sparked a knee-jerk instinct for rebellion, and even more, a secret and panicky fear of the cage.

And yet here she is, and her drive to get back on the road—to keep running away—is back down to its usual burble rather than the deafening roar it had been before Luciana’s murder.

She could make any number of excuses for that. For instance, Emilia still seemed to show no signs of losing her mind, but Garlot very clearly had not taken her warning seriously and someone needed to be ever watchful of that potential disaster. For instance, the strange wariness of Nessiah like a long-suppressed instinct, the wariness she’s never been able to put into words. Both concerns that are very real and immediate for her.

But they would still be excuses, and she has no patience for those. The honest truth is that she doesn’t know why her wanderlust isn’t a constant ache. If she wants to know, she will have to examine her thoughts and feelings, and question them considerably. It will be tiresome, as feelings always are; she’s so much more comfortable with slamming the lid on such things when they get unruly. Emotional outbursts are childish and compromise objectivity and they are exhausting for everyone involved.

She doesn’t know why she feels, but it is definitely solid and empirical fact that even here in primly bigoted Fantasinia, she has no real pressing desire to stow her few belongings away and head for the city gates. Being around Garlot and all the others has become her new natural.

People can get used to more than they believe.

And so finally, she looks back up at Eudy with her lips starting to twist into what might be a smile or might be a grimace.

“I sure don’t,” she says at last. “How about that.”

 

 

iv.

The whole royal cavalry is nothing but douchebags. He decides in short order that he hates every single pampered noble’s son of them.

He knew pretty much from the first day onward that being with the kingdom’s homegrown army was going to grate. He’d had a hard enough time drumming up patience for the men of his own border patrol, back when he’d been demoted to captain and he was still raw from his branding and his parents’ murder. And that was in Bronquia, where even the rich are touched by the decline.

Fantasinia, though—it’s a country at peace. The men Leon practices with, the men Leon’s been instructed to help train, are fools drowning in delusions of justice and propriety. They’ve never seen the world. They’ve never experienced suffering that they can’t justify. They’ve never dirtied their hands killing anything more than bandits.

Leon knows better. He knows that chivalry is nothing but a lie. But these men have grown up on fairytales about a magical sword conferring absolute moral purity.

Because someone has to pound the truth into their self-righteous skulls sooner or later, Leon kindly points out that they are hypocritical little shits whenever the opportunity arises. Unfortunately, the royal knights are ungrateful atop being hypocritical privileged assholes, and merely look down their noses at him with all the weight of their lordly conviction of rightness.

None of them actually make an argument for chivalry when this occurs. Leon likes to think that this is more because he’s skilled enough to thrash any number of them on the practice field than because they think it’s beneath them.

He holds rank at least comparable to the cavalry captains, anyway. Though he does train with them, that’s because he’s sort of on loan while Garlot and Aegina work out just what Gram Blaze is going to do around the city other than be Aegina’s bodyguards. It’s also because it’s the next best thing to being on a real battlefield—all the exertion and the sweat and the joy of grappling with a skilled opponent, just none of the blood and killing.

Leon does miss the blood and killing sometimes. He keeps a handle on it most of the time, and forces his way into hunting parties going after big game when it’s too much to bear. Here in Fantasinia, their battle has to be fought with words instead of swords. He’s got to let his urges out in ways that are safe, or productive. Or so Garlot tells him, and so for Garlot’s sake—for Elena’s sake—he’ll do.

Either way, the knights’ snooty chivalry is a pissant annoyance, something Leon can bear because reality’s bound to smack them in the face someday and he plans to laugh when it does.

It’s the rest of it that makes him want to snap their shitty necks.

He won’t ever stop swearing, no matter how many times he’s told that this is not the way for knights (read, for civilized people) in Fantasinia. He won’t cover his forehead even though the other knights have suggested, repeatedly, that he get the shiny white burn scar smoothed out into perfect skin by a healer (and he’d never thought he’d see the day come when the brand, such a badge of shame once, would turn into a banner of pride). He’ll never shy away from demanding to know what you’re looking at, fucko, when clearly the other party is ogling his dark hair and dark eyes and dark complexion, which are all very obviously un-Fantasinian.

All of that’s more than annoying enough to make him want to stab something, but far worse is Garlot.

Their captain doesn’t actually spend so much time out with the soldiers these days. Apparently he’s got too much on his plate on top of adjusting, and then all the anxiety he’d been putting off over the course of the charge into Fantasinia came down on him like a fat bag of bricks. Whenever he does show his face at the grounds to get up on a horse and swing a weapon around, he looks bone tired. Not tense at all, just tired.

So naturally, he comes to check in with Leon from time to time, and Leon has noticed lately the stares of the other soldiers. A sort of revulsion and horror, barely restrained by propriety.

He couldn’t figure out what it was until he’d had more time to watch the knights interact in groups, and noticed that the men here always keep a careful distance from each other. Like every knight is enveloped in a close thin bubble, and it’s deathly impolite to converge yours with somebody else’s except in battle. Little gestures like handshakes seemed to be acceptable, but Leon never saw a slap on the back or a congratulatory shoulder pat or an arm slung around the neck between all the tens of knights who hung about the training grounds.

And Leon’s been with Gram Blaze for long enough that he’s come to take it for granted, but—the thing about Garlot is that Garlot gets really touchy-feely with the people he’s comfortable with. Tactile, is what Nessiah calls it. It’s not like he’s got no sense of personal space—he’ll maneuver like some small and agile animal to avoid being put in close proximity with strangers, especially big men—it’s just that that sense goes somewhere else when it comes to his friends.

This isn’t just in back slaps and shoulder pats and awkward one-armed guy hugs, all the kinds of things Leon gives without thinking to his men and to his friends (and receives from, in turn). This is sometimes leaning, sometimes full-contact hugging, sometimes coming in real close to examine an injury with application of both hands.

Garlot does this with lots of people—Siskier, Jenon, Nessiah—and since everyone thinks of it as normal, Leon’s gotten so that he doesn’t bat an eye about it either. In fact—not that he’d admit this to anybody straight out—he’s gotten to the point where the skinship is sort of nice. He can kind of see what Garlot gets out of it, the comfort in that kind of completely non-sexual physical intimacy. And hey, it’s not like it’s anything not suitable to do outdoors in front of a crowd.

Or at least Leon doesn’t think so. But apparently violation of the invisible bubble gives Fantasinians a severe case of politeness hives. This kingdom is, in a word, ridiculous.

He’s counting his blessings that at least Garlot hasn’t picked up on the knights’ disgust when one of them—an officer in the third cavalry, a pompously well-meaning sort called Durant who’s always been one of the top five of knights who piss Leon off—comes up and clears his throat, looking like he’s teetering on the brink of explaining something secretive for Leon’s benefit.

And the guy doesn’t disappoint. “Sir Leon,” he says all mannerly and severe, “I am aware that you are still acclimating to what is and is not acceptable in this country, and that it is neither fair nor reasonable to expect you to simply absorb our customs without being taught. I would not presume to educate you on this for fear of being condescending, but some of the other men are beginning to talk, and I believed it might be for the best to intervene before there are any more—er—misunderstandings.”

“So fucking talk,” Leon says. The other man’s rigidity is already putting his back up.

Durant clears his throat and frowns some. “Sir Leon. I pretend no knowledge of what is—er—deemed acceptable or appropriate in your homeland. But, regarding your relationship with your captain…”

Here it comes, Leon thinks, and rolls his eyes.

“Here in the Kingdom, those with… such proclivities are strongly encouraged to pursue their affections behind closed doors so as to respect the sensibilities of others.”

“What?” says Leon.

“It is imprudent to be so obviously affectionate in the open,” Durant says. He looks embarrassed. “That type of relationship is not perceived as acceptable here, and so when your lover—”

“What,” says Leon. He is forced to pinch the bridge of his nose, as a number of things become clear so quickly he feels a headache coming on. “You dumbshit, Garlot and I aren’t fucking.”

“I—Sir Leon?” Durant’s mouth flaps soundlessly a little, like he can’t quite come up with what to say.

“You idiot. Garlot’s—” Family. As good as. “—my friend. And that’s just what he’s like with people.”

Durant is quiet for a moment. He bows his head. “Then, I apologize, for I have done you a great dishonor.”

The headache is already pounding right between Leon’s eyes. He rakes his hair angrily off his forehead, pushing it into even further disarray. “I don’t understand the point of the fucking sounds you’re expelling from your face. Dishonor? How about shut up and stop saying shit that makes me want to snap your goddamn lance into splinters and then feed them to you.”

Durant shuts up. He stays that way for a while, brow beetled, stroking the light stubble on his chin. “……It would appear that the cultural divide is quite wide, given the short distance between our countries.”

That Leon was thinking much the same thing only makes him angrier. “I have a better topic of conversation. How about you go tell all your little pals that Garlot’s just a touchy-feely kind of guy, and also that they should not let him hear any of this ridiculous bigoted bullshit you just spewed at me or I’ll break their faces. He’ll probably break their faces.”

There is a long silence in which Durant looks pensive and Leon massages his forehead as if that will work the pain out of his skull.

“I still apologize,” says Durant at last, “about the misunderstanding. I will relay your message to the others.” And he bows and leaves, completely calm and not awkward at all; Leon swears and goes to hunt up some medicine for his head, somehow annoyed that the other knight’s exit was so graceful.

Some days later, he and Garlot are working with the knights on weapons drills, and across the lake the girls are barely visible. Leon continually gets distracted, glancing over at Elena, wanting to make sure that she’s happy, that she’s carefree.

Durant is glancing over the water too, and his glance is on the little princess. His unremarkable blue eyes are filled with tenderness, and Leon realizes that he must love her—chaste and nurturing and pure, everything chivalry is supposed to be. And genuine. Durant’s face is stern when working with the younger knights, the same way Leon scowls; and like Leon’s scowl evens out when he looks over the lake, Durant’s expression becomes peaceful when his gaze is upon the princess. He really loves her.

It makes Leon inexplicably angry. It would be so much easier to hold everything against Durant if Leon didn’t know he was capable of that. He goes back to leading drills, snapping at soldiers who make mistakes. On the outside he pretends not to have seen, even though on the inside he can’t get it out of his head.

 

 

v.

Nessiah is restless, or worried, or perhaps just unwilling to accept that the other shoe might not eventually drop. Even if Garlot can’t tell what it is precisely that’s niggling at him, he can see it in the way that Nessiah’s small body brims with tenseness—in the way that he halfway wanders, then stops, then turns and walks a while in another direction. It’s more like the demeanor of a child who doesn’t know what to do than like pacing.

The worrying is very like Nessiah. The distress—the helpless edge to it—isn’t. Garlot doesn’t know how to make him talk about it, and so there’s very little he can do. If they’re together, he’ll lean in and down and rest his head on Nessiah’s shoulder.

Nessiah jumps a little when he does. It’s not like a flinch, not a pulling away at all: It’s a coming back. The contact grounds him a little. Garlot knows this because Nessiah told him so. He knows that the contact is welcome because every time, Nessiah leans into Garlot in turn. The silky press of bare cheek against his hair is sweet and comfortable; the cold chain that inevitably digs into the crown of his head is less so, but Garlot enjoys the rest of it too much to complain.

They sleep together sometimes, which is not nearly as sexy as it sounds—this usually entails of Garlot slipping through the hall to Nessiah’s room late at night and sneaking in if the light is on, getting into bed with him, and that being that. He feels much more at ease sleeping next to and sometimes curled up around another living, breathing person. It would be awkward with Siskier or with Jenon these days, he doesn’t want to push his troubles onto Emilia, and Leon wouldn’t know what to do—but when he gasps awake from nightmarish recollections of Luciana’s bloodied corpse, Nessiah holds him until he feels safe enough to try to sleep again.

And Nessiah still has nightmares sometimes, too. He never speaks about his—he just curls up and shakes. Garlot does his best to fold Nessiah up to his chest until it stops.

Even if there wasn’t the old shade of the dead waiting to spring on his mind at its most vulnerable moments, Garlot thinks he would still prefer to do this—sleep in Nessiah’s room—than to go to bed alone. He likes the intimacy of it. He still can’t know for sure, but he thinks that right now this outweighs the potential of sex for him. If he had to choose right now between sleeping with Nessiah and sleeping with Nessiah, he’d pick sharing a bed. Unerringly, every time.

That’s not to say that he isn’t interested in the possibility of it—of sex. It has taken him seventeen whole years to feel this way for anyone, but he feels (hesitating, shyly) that he might like to have sex with Nessiah very much. Now is just not the right time. He is tired, often feels a little ill, and is saddened that everyone is so scattered, even knowing that it will pass. And Nessiah is anxious about something. It wouldn’t feel right to embark on such a momentous venture when they are so clearly not at their best.

Nessiah wakes up from nightmares at least as often as Garlot does, and he continues to meander in the daylight, holding the nebulous whatever-it-is jealously close. Garlot (when he is free) observes this and aches a little.

He thinks to himself that it’s terrible that the first words of comfort to come to people’s minds are often don’t cry. Crying is good for you in its own way—ride out the emotion and you’ll feel better, or at least calmer. He thinks that what people really mean is don’t be sad, because it hurts so much to see someone you love hurting. He thinks of Medoute and the way that his emotions, and Siskier’s, and Aegina’s and everyone else’s sometimes seem to make her uncomfortable. The way that she treats the emotions of other people, sometimes, as inconvenient.

Instead of saying don’t cry or don’t be sad, he wants to tell people that it’s okay to cry and to be sad, and that he wants to be there to help them weather the hurt. He wants to tell them that there’s nothing wrong with their feelings now that they’re feeling them, and that he feels helpless for being unable to prevent what’s made them suffer so, but will accept their suffering. People have a right to feel.

But he doesn’t know how he would say that and so he keeps those thoughts on the inside. He tries to communicate the same feelings through his touch and his body heat instead, even though it feels inadequate to do so.

One day when the sky is gray and the city of Paltina is white and gold and green and vital, Garlot is jogging the length of the castle wall, and he runs into Nessiah there. Both of them say, “Oh,” and smile a little because it’s so much the same as their shifts watching over their old barracks and so very terribly not the same at all.

Garlot drifts to a stop and leans against the crenels with Nessiah, watching the cityscape, gazing out over the plains and forests in the distance. He hears Nessiah draw in a sharp breath, and turns and Nessiah is frowning with his lips parted, teetering on the edge of saying something. Garlot’s heart swoops in his chest, but even as he thinks that this is it, Nessiah lets the breath back out.

“It’s nothing,” Nessiah says, and chews his lower lip.

Garlot waits for a moment and then nods. He gives Nessiah the best smile he can. “Okay,” he says. “Tell me when you’re ready.”

Nessiah lets out another tense breath. He smiles a little guardedly and reaches up to comb white fingertips through his hair. “You make it so much harder,” Nessiah says. “I wish that you wouldn’t.”

Garlot doesn’t understand what Nessiah is saying, which is only natural because Nessiah is directing the words mostly to himself. But he understands the meaning underneath the words, and the warmth in Nessiah’s voice as he says them. What Nessiah is saying is I love you.

Someday very soon, Garlot thinks to himself, he is going to kiss this person in front of him. And someday in the future, they will be sleeping with each other, in addition to sleeping. What a strange and miraculous thing.

They haven’t lost anyone else. Against all the odds, all the survivors of that night at the barracks are still here. They’ve strayed from their course, but what they have to do now is right in front of them. Garlot turns to look back over the castle wall, at the thin beams of light filtering through the heavy clouds. Really, he has so much to be grateful for.

 

 

vi.

She’s not allowed out of the castle without supervision, so she has to wait until they’re playing in one of the gardens before she can approach them.

Both girls are younger than her. She’s heard their names from her sister, and from the informal and strangely charming guards who tend to orbit her sister (she is embarrassed, now that it’s over, to have believed that they were bandits). The girl in the Alice band is called Elena. She’s never seen a Fantasinian with hair that pretty dark blue. Her brother (he is the slightly scary one) has even darker hair, black that still reflects blue in the light. The girl in red pigtails is named Emilia. She is the one who is monstrously strong and all but fearless.

Yggdra is not completely fearless; she has not been so since Alanjame tried to kill her and her father died, but this castle will one day be her castle and so she approaches them with very little self-consciousness.

“Good day,” she says. When they turn to her, Elena curtsies. Emilia tilts her head to the side, blissfully ignorant of court protocol in a way that Yggdra finds delightful.

They already know each other’s names, and so there are no introductions passed between them.

“What are you doing?” Yggdra asks.

“Exploring!” says Emilia, as though this should be obvious and she is really rather dumb for not being able to tell. “It’s a big castle. You can’t get through all of it in a day.”

Yggdra nods. It makes plenty of sense. “Can I come too?”

“Why would you want to? It’s your castle,” Emilia replies. The question sounds suspicious, but her pale eyes are sparkling with what Yggdra recognizes as a potential challenge.

She folds her arms. “Exactly. Do you think you’re ever going to find all the secret passages without me showing them to you?”

Emilia and Elena exchange one ten-second glance, and then face her and say “Deal” in tandem. Yggdra could dance.

She leads them to all the best places—the easily overlooked towers and oriels, the back entrance to the kitchens where the cooks are always more than happy to give out a little treat or two, the way through the cellar that leads to the base of the bell tower. She saves a good number of the secret passages, to make sure she can barter her way back onto the exploration team if they won’t keep taking her back after this.

“That was fun,” says Emilia as afternoon is beginning to paint the sky golden. “I bet all those hidey-holes are great to play tricks on people from. Now we just gotta come up with some tricks to play.”

Elena spends a few moments looking alarmed and then begins to laugh rather nervously. “Are you really still going to do that…?”

“Of course.” Emilia crosses her arms. “I have big important jobs and stuff, but this was something I did with Luciana. So I wanna keep doing it.”

Both of them suddenly sink into themselves, as if remembering Yggdra’s presence. She shakes her head. Her heart is thrumming like a little bird’s wings inside her ribcage. She can hardly believe her luck.

“No, it’s all right,” she tells them. “I want to know my sisters. Both of my sisters. I’ll have the rest of my life to get to know Aegina, but I can’t ask her about Luciana. It’s still—too early for that, she’s always going to hurt because of it.”

Elena is nodding along as though she understands. Yggdra has heard that neither of them have parents. Maybe one day she’ll be able to ask them about that, too.

Emilia tilts her head to one side, then to the other. “Why do you think it’s that important?” she asks, and there’s a sharp edge of bitterness in her voice that Yggdra recognizes as jealousy.

“My father told me about them,” Yggdra says. The words come more easily than she’d thought they would. “He said I had sisters. He said that they died. I’ve been going to their grave—what was supposed to be their grave as long as I can remember. They’ve always been mine too, or at least the ghost of them was. And now that I know the truth—I know there’s so much more that I don’t know. And that’s no good. I think I need to know. I don’t want to be the one standing on the outside looking in, when all of you mean so much to each other. But there are too many people who I would only hurt by asking. And there are people who believe I’m too young to be told.”

Emilia’s expression changes a little then. Yggdra can’t read the look on her face too well, but she thinks her argument was probably convincing enough.

Elena, who has been looking back and forth between them, nods her head. She’s older, but it seems as though Emilia is the leader here. “Luciana—your sister was at the army barracks with us, because her leg was injured. There is much that not even we can tell you, but—Luciana was ours, too.”

Yggdra nods a little. “…It’s a little unfair to say so, maybe, but—I’ve actually been waiting to see if I could talk to you, because of that.”

“It’s okay,” Emilia says. “I know how that feels.”

They don’t get in until late. All three of them are scolded quite harshly.

While standing in the throne room listening to the queen’s I’m Disappointed In You lecture, Yggdra slides her gaze slowly to her left and right without turning her head. Elena’s eyes are mild and Emilia’s are alight.

It’s decided, then. Tomorrow—or at least at their first opportunity—she’ll be tracing her sister’s legacy by getting even.