With the first fall of snow, winter had finally arrived in Askr and with it, a sense of excitement and festivity around the Order of Heroes. It seemed no matter which world you were from, there was some midwinter holiday to celebrate. The origins and traditions may differ but everyone could agree that this was a time of year to celebrate and be with family and loved ones. There was also often gift giving involved.
Or at least, Leif was pretty sure that was how the holidays were supposed to work.
Due to his rather unorthodox childhood, he didn’t have much experience with holiday traditions or festivities. He wasn’t even sure which days they were celebrated on in Jugdral. But after seeing Lord Roy excitedly carrying spare clothes and talking about the best place to make a snowman with Lord Eliwood, overhearing Lady Lucina discussing with Lord Chrom what type of tree they should get, and helping Lord Seliph hide a present for Lord Sigurd in his room (a garish orange scarf that Leif half considered burning every time he looked at the thing), Leif decided he needed to change that. So he went to someone he was certain was an expert on the winter holidays.
Leif knocked on their door and waited. After a moment, the door swung wide open.
“Prince Leif, what a surprise!” Sharena greeted cheerily. “What brings you here?”
“Princess Sharena, please teach me everything you know about the holidays,” Leif said.
Leif had never seen anyone look more excited than Sharena did in that moment.
One Week Before the Winter Festival
“Leif!” Quan called as he spotted his son dashing across the hall. Leif turned his head and waved to his father, but continued heading towards his destination.
Quan sighed, more than a little frustrated at this point. He could count on one hand the number of times he had seen his son this week, including just now. He didn’t need a hand to count how many times Leif had spoken to him. It wasn’t as if the two of them had fought recently and Leif did just smile at him as he went by. But there was definitely something strange about his son’s recent behavior.
“Lord Quan.” Quan was pulled from his ruminations upon hearing his name. He turned to see Eyvel, the newly arrived swordswoman Leif was so enamored with. She had taken him in and looked after him for the past three years so he could understand why. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.
“Might I have a word with you?” she asked, looking around before adding. “It’s about Lord Leif.”
“Of course,” Quan agreed with a nod. Eyvel turned and began leading his down the hall, towards the war council room. She opened the door to reveal both Finn and Ethlyn inside, sitting at the table.
“Lord Quan,” Finn greeted ever seriously, standing on instinct. Ethlyn’s smile was warmer as she rose but there was a troubled look to her as well.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Quan asked as Eyvel closed the door behind them. He watched her as she walked around him to stand in front of the table. She crossed her arms as if uncomfortable but spoke with firmness.
“I’m certain you’ve noticed Little Lord has been acting rather strange lately,” she began, pausing to see if she would be corrected.
“I have,” Quan said, trying to keep his tone even as he asked, “Do you have any ideas on why that might be?”
Eyvel shook her head. “He seemed like himself when the Freeblades and I arrived. Happier, even,” she said, sounding almost wistful as she almost smiled. But she quickly caught herself, expression sobering as she went on. “But I hardly see him anymore. Can’t remember the last time we talked either.”
“The Tempest is here. The Summoner always asks him to fight in it when it appears so that could explain why he’s been busier lately,” Ethlyn offered.
“The Tempest?” Eyvel repeated with a frown.
Ethlyn smiled apologetically. “Oh right, you haven’t seen one before. It’s a manifestation of chaos that causes alternate versions of Heroes to appear. In order to make it go away, the Summoner sends in a group of Heroes to fight them off. It’s not a permanent solution but it’s the best we can do,” she explained, sounding almost cheerful as she did so. Despite the danger these Tempests posed, Ethlyn seemed fond of them.
“That’s true but that doesn’t take the entire day,” Quan said. “I saw him just before coming here and he didn’t stop when I called out to him. It almost feels as if he’s avoiding us.”
The group fell silent as they all contemplated what Quan was suggesting. It made sense when considering his actions but not when considering what his reasoning for doing so might be. He still seemed happy on the rare occasions they did see him so it was doubtful he was upset with them. Even if he was, he’d be more likely to confront them about it, never one to refrain from voicing his thoughts.
It was Finn who finally spoke up, although he kept his eyes fixed on the table rather than looking at the others.
“Perhaps it’s the time of year,” he said. The suggestion caught everyone off guard.
“What do you mean by that?” Quan asked when Finn failed to elaborate. He still hesitated a moment before looking up at everyone else and continuing his thought.
“I’m not sure but I don’t think Lord Leif likes the festivals very much,” Finn said. “We never planned to celebrate any of them as there was no guarantee we would be able to stay where we were when they came around. I tried to get him a present one year but he got upset and refused to accept it since he couldn’t get one for me in return. So I stopped mentioning them and he never did either.”
Ethlyn’s face fell. “Leif’s never celebrated the festivals?” she asked.
Finn shook his head. “Not since… before leaving Leonster.”
Silence once again enveloped the room, accompanied by a somber mood. It was learning something as important as this that frustrated Quan the most about missing out on so much of Leif’s life. How long would he keep having to learning about his son?
“Then we’ll just have to make up for that,” Ethlyn said, breaking the silence with a determined declaration. “We’ll make this the best winter festival possible!”
Quan frowned. “But is that what he wants? If Finn’s right, he may prefer to have nothing to do with the festival,” he argued.
Eyvel shook her head. “No, I think Lady Ethlyn has a point. The Little Lord deserves to have at least one happy memories of the festivals,” she said, earning a smile from Ethlyn. She hesitantly returned it as Ethlyn turned back to her husband.
“If you’re not interested, Eyvel and I will do it ourselves,” she said. “Or would you like to help as well Finn?”
Finn looked to Quan as if he was still a young knight seeking guidance from his lord, despite now being older than Quan. “I shall refrain as well,” he said.
“Guess it’s just the ladies then,” Ethlyn said, rising from her chair. She walked over to Eyvel and linked arms with her. “Come on, we can start coming up with ideas over tea.”
Quan could hear him wife chatting away spiritedly as she led Eyvel out the door. He couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the other woman, hoping Ethlyn wouldn’t get too caught up in her own enthusiasm. “I would like to do something for Leif. Perhaps he’d be more willing to accept a gift in this world,” Quan said. Finn nodded in agreement.
“I’m certain he’ll be pleased to receive a present from you. But, how are we to do any of this if Lord Leif continues avoiding us?” Finn asked.
“He can’t keep doing so forever. And it’s not as if he’s hiding from us,” Quan said.
Six Days Before the Winter Festival
“Seliph? Can I come in?”
Leif, Seliph, and Ares all turned to look at the door as Sigurd called in to his son. Leif softly swore.
“Your father can’t know I’m here,” Leif said in a hushed tone, backing away from the door.
“What? Why not?” Seliph asked, lowering his voice as well as he followed Leif.
“Because he’ll tell my father and then my father will ask you what I was doing and you’ll tell him everything because you can’t keep a secret,” Leif said, speaking quickly as he unlatched Seliph’s window.
Seliph frowned, “I can keep a secret. Leif, what are you doing?”
Leif ignored the question. “Fine, you can keep a secret, you’re just terrible at lying.”
Seliph had no rebuttal for that so he just watched as Leif climbed onto his desk and started lowering himself out the window. There was another knock on the door.
“Seliph? Is everything alright in there?” Sigurd called out.
“Yes, I’ll be right there!” Seliph called back, trying to sound normal. He turned back to Leif. “Then what do you want me to do?”
“Distract him. Let Ares do the talking,” Leif said as he dropped out of sight.
“When has that ever been a good idea?” Seliph asked, to which he got no reply. He sighed and turned to face the door, reminding himself to stay calm and act natural as he approached it.
“H-hello father,” Seliph said as he opened the door. “What brings you here?”
He could see Ares cringing out of the corner of his eye and honestly, he didn’t blame him. He sounded as if he was reading from a script. Maybe it was better to let Ares do the talking, as rude as his replies may end up being.
Fortunately, Sigurd either didn’t notice or was unphased by Seliph’s behavior, smiling pleasantly at his son. “Prince Alfonse mentioned the citizens of Askr would be having a celebration for the lighting of the winter lanterns tonight. I thought we could go into town together to see them,” he said.
Seliph forgot all about his anxiety from Leif as he excitedly returned his father’s smile. “Of course, I’d love to!” he said.
Sigurd turned to Ares, watching them from the corner with his usual scowl. “You and Eldigan could go as well. I’m sure he’d enjoy it,” he said. Ares looked taken aback by the suggestion, turning to look at the floor rather than Sigurd.
“I’ll… consider it,” he finally said. Figuring that was as good as he was going to get, Sigurd turned back to Seliph before frowning.
“Seliph, why is your window open?” he asked. Suddenly, all Seliph’s anxiety was back as he tried to think of an answer.
“It was hot,” he said, trying to ignore Ares’ snort at his feeble attempt. Sigurd didn’t look very convinced either. “I felt hot,” he amended.
“You felt hot?” Sigurd repeated, now looking concerned. “Are you coming down with something?”
“What- no, no!” Seliph said. “I was just- it was-”
“There was a bug,” Ares said, cutting off Seliph’s panicked rambling. Sigurd and Seliph both turned toward Ares, confused by the sudden interjection.
“A bug?” Sigurd repeated.
Ares nodded. “Seliph didn’t want to tell you since he’s embarrassed about it but he hates bugs. Surprised no one came running with how loud he shrieked at the thing. He refused to touch it so I opened the window and threw the damn thing out myself.”
Seliph wasn’t sure who has worse, Ares for coming up with this story or Leif for putting him in this position.
“It’s true. I’m sorry father, I should have told you sooner. I know it’s a ridiculous thing to be scared of,” Seliph said, lowering his head both to make the lie more convincing and so he could glare at Ares without being seen. Ares smirked back, smug jerk enjoying the scene.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Seliph. Everyone is afraid of something,” Sigurd said, putting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’m glad you finally told me. It must have taken a lot of courage to do so.”
“Yeah,” Seliph agreed, raising his head as he tried to force a smile. “Thank you for understanding, father.”
Sigurd returned his son’s smile and removed his hand, taking a step back. “I’ll leave you be now. Shall we meet in the main hall around sunset? That should give us enough time to walk to town before the lighting starts.”
Seliph nodded and Sigurd turned to leave then paused. “Oh, I almost forgot! I was supposed to ask if you’d seen your cousin lately,” he said.
“What cousin?” Seliph asked without thinking. He could feel Ares’ glare as he also realized his mistake.
Sigurd frowned, watching Seliph closely. “Leif, of course. Seliph, are you sure you’re feeling alright?” he asked, taking a step closer.
“Y-yes I’m fine,” Seliph said. “I just forgot, I mean, I thought, uh…”
A loud smack startled both of them and they turned to see Ares with his palm pressed against the wall. He lifted it slightly to check something, then removed it and wiped his hand on his cloak.
“You and those damn bugs,” he said, annoyance not faked. “Seriously, you’re worse than Lene.”
“That’s quite enough, Ares,” Sigurd chided. He turned back to Seliph with a look of sympathy. “I didn’t realize it was this bad. I’ll make sure to remember from now on and keep an eye out for you.”
Seliph nodded silently, no longer trusting himself to say anything. Sigurd gave his son one last pat on the head, nodded at Ares, and finally left the room. As soon as the door closed behind him, Seliph fell to his knees, burying his face in his hands.
“That went well,” Ares said with an impressive deadpan.
“I hate you. I hate both of you. I’m not talking to either of you for the rest of the day,” Seliph said.
“I don’t care and since Leif isn’t here, I doubt he’ll be too bothered either,” Ares said.
Seliph quickly raised his head, turning around to see Ares peering out the open window. “He’s not?” Seliph asked, hurrying to join his friend. When he looked out as well, sure enough, there was no one there.
“Where did he go?” Seliph asked, starting to panic again. “He didn’t-”
“Do you see a big red splatter on the ground?” Ares asked with slight irritation. “Little freak probably ran off to find someone else’s window to climb in.” While he seemed annoyed, his brow was furrowed the way it only did when he was worried. “He’s fine, he’s pulled stupider stunts.”
Seliph pressed his forehead against the wall, feeling a headache coming on at the reminder. “Why can’t I have a normal cousin? Is that really too much to ask?”
Five Days Before the Winter Festival
Ethlyn just finished setting out the tea she had made when Eyvel arrived. She seemed hesitant to enter although Ethlyn had left the door wide open so she tried to give a welcoming smile. It was at least enough to encourage Eyvel to come in.
“You have a lovely room, Lady Ethlyn,” she said.
“Thank you. And please, there’s no need to be so formal. Ethlyn will do just fine,” Ethlyn said. “Have a seat, I just finished making tea.”
“Thank you,” Eyvel said, joining Ethlyn at the table. Ethlyn watched as she took a sip, a contemplative expression on her face.
“It’s a bit strong, isn’t it?” Ethlyn guessed. “Sorry about that. I’ve never been a very good cook. The only one who actually likes my tea is Leif.”
Eyvel chuckled lightly. “The only tea we have in Fiana is so strong Finn won’t even touch it. But the Little Lord seemed to like it just fine.”
Ethlyn forced a laugh in return. “As much as I’d love to keep sharing stories, we should probably try to come up with ideas.”
Eyvel nodded in agreement. Their previous discussion had gone nowhere, prompting the two to resolve to spend a day thinking of ideas then meet up again the next. “Unfortunately, I don’t have much experience with Winter Festival myself. Back in Fiana, all we’d do was have some of the other Freeblades over and share a meal.”
“That still sounds nice,” Ethlyn said. “Maybe we could do that here! I’m sure my brother and his family would love to come, perhaps Eldigan and Ares as well.”
Eyvel said nothing, turning her gaze to her teacup. Worried she’d said something wrong, Ethlyn quickly added, “Of course, all the Freeblades would be welcome as well. He never stops talking about how much he enjoyed his time in Fiana.”
As cheery as she tried to sound, every word tasted bitter in Ethlyn’s mouth. As grateful as she was that someone had given Leif a few years of a happy childhood, she couldn’t help feeling a little insecure now that she’d met this other woman. Leif had ran across the room to reunite with Eyvel when he saw her in Askr. She had been the one to initiate the embrace but he had been quick to return it, smiling in a way Ethlyn hadn’t seen before. It was a much warmer reunion than the one they had shared.
“Thank you for the offer but I’d hate to impose,” Eyvel said. “I’m sure Little Leif would rather spend the festival with his family.”
“What are you talking about, you wouldn’t be an imposition at all!” Ethlyn insisted, ignoring the twinge in her chest at the affectionate nickname. She’d heard Leif call her Commander as well, a title, but one not often said with that much affection. “Leif loves having you around, he was practically attached to your hip while helping you and the Freeblades build that village.”
Eyvel smiled softly at the memory. “He was simply excited to see us again. It’s you he’s eager to spend time with,” she said. She looked up at Ethlyn. “Most people say he looks like his father but having met both of you, I see a lot more of you in him.”
A small burst of pride welled up in Ethlyn which she valiantly suppressed showing. “Oh really? I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about,” she said.
“He has your eyes, his father’s color but kind like yours. Your heart as well, soft and passionate,” Eyvel said. “When he arrived in Fiana and offered me your sword, I wondered what could make it so important. Then I learned it was the only thing he had of his family and saw how greatly he took care of it, and I couldn’t help wishing he had more than that.” She smiled wryly. “And now he does.”
“His sword may have come from me but you’re the one who taught him to use it,” Ethlyn said, no longer able to keep up her bright demeanor. “You taught him so much, how to lead, how to empathize with enemies, how to be happy. You’re the reason he’s the person he is today.”
Eyvel shook her head. “He has all that in him all along. All Little Leif needed was a little guidance and an opportunity.”
The more they talked, the more Ethlyn could see why Leif adored Eyvel so much, which only made her feel worse. She had only known Leif for three years but that was three more than Ethlyn. She had the time to make memories, have stories about, make an impact on Leif. He led a rebellion just to get her back. How could Ethlyn possibly compete with that?
A thick tension filled the air as Ethlyn busied herself with refilling her teacup and Eyvel stirred some sugar into hers. They should get back to making plans for the Winter Festival, but Ethlyn’s earlier enthusiasm had faded. Eyvel’s heart didn’t seem to be in it either and when she departed, a shared meal was still the only idea they’d come up with.
Four Days Before the Winter Festival
“Is that supposed to happen?” Seliph asked as flames erupted from to pan Leif was currently cooking in.
“He’s just showing off,” Mareeta assured him as the flames died down. Her relaxed tone eased Seliph’s concerns slightly, only for them to be raised again when she made a face as Leif grabbed a container of tiny red flakes and gave it a generous shake over the oddly shaped pan.
“Why do I feel like we’re about to be poisoned?” Ares asked.
“That would only happen if Mareeta was in the kitchen,” Leif said, not looking up from the pan as he flipped the vegetables into the air and somehow managed to catch them as well. Now Seliph was certain Mareeta was right but had to admit, he was impressed.
“You’re not still mad about the rat are you?” Mareeta asked, teasing tone setting off warning bells for Seliph. Seliph was afraid to ask but fortunately Ares was not.
“The rat? What did you do with a rat?” Ares looked warily between the two.
Mareeta grinned as Leif elaborated. “She was mad at me and decided to chop up a dead rat and throw it in the soup we were making for dinner. No one knew until everyone except her started eating it. Eyvel was furious and Nanna and I were sick for a week.”
“I thought you would taste it, it would be gross, and you’d get rid of it,” Mareeta explained. “But apparently rat tastes good.”
“Anything tastes better than when you try to cook,” Leif shot back. Mareeta glared but didn’t disagree.
The door to the dining hall swing open with a bang, causing everyone sitting to jump and Leif to spin around quickly, wooden stirring stick held like a knife.
“Ha! Told you it was Leif!” Osian said with a smirk. Tanya scowled from behind him.
“Would it kill you to knock like everyone else?” she scolded. “Feral dogs have better manners than you!”
“Oh like you’re one to talk!” he snapped back. “Who was it who complained about all the silverware at dinner?”
Tanya’s face turned red as she and Osian began bickering, each trying to talk over the other. Mareeta sighed, returning to the little wooden carving she had been working on, as if there wasn’t a heated argument going on five feet away from her. Seliph turned to see Leif’s reaction only to be startled by something bright yellow flying by him. It flew between the arguing pair and hit the wall with a wet smack, steaming slightly.
“If you’re staying, shut the door,” Leif said as the argument abruptly ended. Osian followed the order without complaint as Tanya scurried to take a seat.
“Sorry about that, Leif,” she said, smiling apologetically. “I hope we’re not imposing on you.”
“Not at all,” Leif said, “I’m just about done with this. Mind grabbing plates?”
Tanya nodded and hopped over the counter while Leif checked whatever was in the oven. Content with what he saw, he grabbed a rag and started carefully pulling out small dishes with a cracked yellow crust rising slightly above their rims. He set one next to each of the plates as Tanya followed behind with the pan of vegetables, carefully portioning some out for everyone. When she came to Osian, she paused and the two glared at each other for a few seconds before she dumped the remainder on his plate, smirking as some of the sauce splashed on him.
“Who’s the one who doesn’t have manners here?” he snapped.
“You,” The rest of the Freeblades said in unison. Tanya grinned at Leif, ruffling his hair in thanks for the support.
“Like you’re much better,” Osian grumbled, grabbing a forkful of vegetables as he talked. “Bet Eyvel scolded you more’n me about roughhousing.”
“Only cause the other boys only rat on you for winning,” Leif said, surprising Seliph with the slight lilt creeping into his voice. “You lost to Halvan how many times?”
“At least twelve,” Mareeta said through a mouthful of food. Osian shot her a dirty look across the counter which she returned with one of her own. “But he’s not the one stupid enough to try and take on three boys at once.” She looked pointedly at Leif, as if there had been any question who she was talking about.
“They started it!”
“You started it! They were saying awful stuff but you threw the first punch,” Mareeta corrected.
“That was a damn good fight,” Osian added, grinning fiercely at Leif. “You pulled some dirty moves there.”
“Where’d you think I learned them?” Leif asked, a similar look on his face. For a moment, Seliph could almost see it, a littler Leif, dirty and battered, looking at some poor village boys with the same ferocity. He’d seen Leif fight, brazen and unyielding, but not in the rough and wild way they were implying.
Leif noticed Seliph looking at him and turned, expression fluidly changing into a soft curiosity. It was both amusing and oddly fitting.
“I’m surprised to see this side of you,” Seliph admitted. “You usually act so serious and composed, I forget how you grew up.”
The tips of Leif’s ears started to turn red as Seliph felt three pairs of eyes glaring at him. Even Ares gave him a look as if he had just done something stupid.
“I didn’t mean it in a bad way!” Seliph quickly added. “I just meant, it’s nice to see you around people you feel comfortable with.”
“I’m comfortable around you,” Leif said.
Ares snorted. “You still call him Lord Seliph,” he said. “And don’t give me that stations bullshit, I’m the same as you and he doesn’t care that I don’t call him that.”
Seliph nodded. “You think too highly of me to ever be as comfortable as you are with them. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see you like this as it’s a part of you I’d never see otherwise.”
The red from Leif’s ears spread to his face as he hurried back into the kitchen, muttering about needing to check something. As soon as he was out of earshot, Mareeta jabbed her knife into the counter next to Seliph’s hand.
“Leif may think you’re something great but I don’t give a damn who you are. If you keep making him feel bad, you’ll wish I had killed you,” she hissed. Although they said nothing, the looks on Tanya and Osian’s faces made it very clear they felt the same.
Seliph nodded nervously and Mareeta pulled out her knife, stabbing it into the yellow dish. Seliph followed suit, albeit with a fork and nowhere near as aggressively. Despite the firm top, it was surprisingly fluffy underneath.
“Uh uh, you are not trying to carry all those by yourself,” Tanya said as she hurried into the kitchen. When she returned, she was followed by Leif, both carrying two plates with a glistening bird leg on a bed of greens. Seliph didn’t know how to tell the difference between most cooked meat but whatever it was, it smelled really good.
Eager to smooth things over with Leif, who hadn’t looked at Seliph since returning from the kitchen, he quickly cut into it, finding it surprisingly tender. When he took a bite, he nearly choked.
“Holy shit,” Ares swore, having also taken his first bite. Leif watched his friends with concern. Seliph could practically see him going over everything he’d done, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. Swallowing, he spoke up to put his cousin’s fears to rest.
“This is really good,” Seliph said, emphasizing the last two words to ensure Leif he was telling the truth. “Really damn good.” He rarely swore but if Leif could relax, he could do.
That seemed to do the trick as Leif’s face lit up like the lanterns the previous night. Any past embarrassment was forgotten as his other friend’s echoed Seliph’s sentiment. Tanya hugged him from behind, resting her chin on top of his head. She gave Seliph a look of approval, allowing his to finish eating with the comfort at least one of Leif’s friends didn’t hate him.
Once Mareeta finished, she moved to stand but Leif grabbed her empty dishes and headed back to the kitchen.
“The cook doesn’t clean!” she called after him.
“There’s one more thing!” he called back.
There was more? Seliph felt uneasy at the thought. He had already eaten so much and felt rather full. A glance at Ares showed he had similar reservations. But then Leif came out and set a little white cup with an oddly crisp top in front of Mareeta. When she looked curiously at it, he started talking about a technique in one of the cookbooks involving fire magic and a specific type of sugar. Seliph wasn’t following any of it and apparently neither was Mareeta as she reached up and covered his mouth before tapping her spoon against the crisp layer. It made a satisfying crack and a scoop underneath revealed a smooth, creamy filling. She took a bite and nodded vigorously in approval, removing her hand to reveal she’d left a brown smudge on his cheek from some sauce on one of her fingers. It went well with the flour in his bangs Seliph had been debating mentioning.
He had promised Leif he would try everything and Leif’s biggest concern had been the dessert since he didn’t like sweet foods. Seliph did and Leif knew this so he couldn’t just refuse. Besides, the desert looked light enough, he could at least manage a few bites.
He was completely wrong. It was rich and decadent and he regretted so much after finishing it.
Three Days Before the Winter Festival
The sun was slowly making its way up into the sky, giving the snow an almost blinding brightness as Finn and Quan rode on. There was no end destination, at least not as far as Finn knew. Quan had been the one to suggest a morning ride together, although Finn suspected there was more to it than that.
As they rode through the woods, Finn tried to be subtle about watching his lord. Of the Leonster family, Quan was the hardest to read, not as open as his wife or obvious as his son. But he still had his tells and from what Finn could see, there was something bothering him.
The pair slowed as they passed a waterfall, frozen into a wall of ice. It was a rather magnificent sight but Quan’s mind seemed miles away as he stared blankly at it.
“Lord Quan, is something the matter?” Finn asked. Quan turned slightly, as if suddenly remembering Finn was there.
“I was just thinking. Sigurd and Eldigan mentioned that Seliph and Ares were acting rather strange at dinner last night. Seliph barely touched his food, Ares ate nothing, and both seemed rather distressed but refused to talk about it, retiring to their rooms before the meal was over,” Quan said “Perhaps it’s not just Leif, perhaps you were right about the time of year making them act strange.”
While not the complete truth, Finn could tell they were getting close from the shift in tone at the end. Cautiously, he started steering the conversation toward what he had a hunch was the source of his lord’s mood. “Speaking of Lord Leif, have you decided on what to give him for the Winter Festival?”
Quan’s bitter smile told Finn he’d hit the mark. “No,” he said. “I haven’t been able to think of a single thing he may like.”
“Perhaps I could be of assistance,” Finn offered.
“Of course you could,” Quan said, bitterness finally making its way into his voice as he spurred his horse into a trot. Finn followed suit, following Quan back to the trail.
“Lord Quan, if I’ve erred in any way, do not refrain from saying so,” Finn said. “I’ll do all that I can to make up for it.”
“This isn’t something you can make up for,” Quan spat out the words as if they were something vile he had been holding in his mouth too long. “I can’t even say you did anything wrong.”
“Then what-” Finn began to ask before Quan cut him off, temper reaching its limit.
“Of course you’d know what to get Leif!” he snapped. “You know him better than anyone else!”
Finn stayed silent. Although similar when angered, Leif and Quan’s anger was very different. Leif’s came from empathy, quick to anger at any perceived injustice but just as fast to let go if he could understand the other side. Quan’s anger came from pride, anything that made him feel inferior or slighted. While Leif could be talked down, saying anything would involve walking a very fine line with Quan. For the moment, it was best to listen.
“You’ve been by his side for the past fifteen years. I’ll have what, a month? I won’t be there for anything, his first word, his first steps, to teach him to read or ride or wield a lance, to see him take back Leonster,” Quan said. “But you were, you were there for all of it. You’re more of a father to Leif than I’ll ever be.”
“I was just Lord Leif’s guardian, nothing more,” Finn said with a bit too much force. “He’s always admired you and strives to honor your memory.”
“My memory,” Quan scoffed. “The only reason he even knows about me is because of you. You’ve shaped him more than anyone else. He’s my son and heir yet we may as well be strangers.”
“I never tried to replace you,” Finn insisted “I may have been Lord Leif’s guardian but I never wanted to take your place. I raised him as my lord, not as my son. That’s all our relationship is.”
Quan narrowed his eyes. “You can control what you do but you can’t control how he feels about you. Don’t play ignorant, you know how much he adores you. It’s you he turns to for advice or comfort. He only took up my dream because you asked him to!”
“You’re giving me far too much credit and him too little,” Finn said, starting to feel defensive. He knew he should push these feelings down but old habits die hard. “Lord Leif found his own reason for wanting to unify Thracia, not yours but not mine either. A reason, I’d daresay that's nobler and more admirable than either of ours.”
“You honestly expect me to believe you see him as just your lord after that?” Quan asked, the question a dare to walk into a trap.
Finn had to pause to keep from lashing out in return. Quan was making fair points, he did have much longer with Leif and had influenced his young lord a fair bit. Even here in Askr, Leif would come to Finn with news or questions, would share his ideas and concerns from existential to trivial. Leif was rather attached to him, making Finn promise to live when they reunited after Manster, and Finn cared greatly for his lord as well. But thinking of him as a son…
“I am just Lord Leif’s retainer, nothing more,” Finn repeated but he had said the words so many times, they sounded hollow, even to him.
Quan scowled before bringing his horse to a gallop and riding ahead, back towards the Order. Finn sighed, taking a moment to berate himself before following suit.
He arrived as Quan had dismounted and saw Lewyn of all people leaning against the stable gates.
“Someone doesn’t seem to be in the holiday spirit,” he said teasingly, looking between the pair with amused curiosity.
Quan glowered at the bard as Finn realized too late what was about to happen. He tried to quickly dismount but was too far away to intervene.
Quan stalked across the stable and grabbed a fistful of Lewyn’s scarf and shirt, slightly lifting him to eye level.
“You abandoned your family how many times? First your mother, then your wife and children. Why the hell did you get to live when people who give a damn don’t?” he snarled. He shoved the man away before he could answer and continued to storm towards the Order.
“Guess the envoy won’t be leaving any presents for him,” Lewyn said, attempting to hide the pain Finn had briefly seen flash across his face at Quan’s cruel words.
“What were you doing at the stables to begin with?” Finn asked.
Lewyn gave him a cheeky grin and poised to say something likely inappropriate, but paused after a glare from Finn. Not wanting to risk a second assault, he answered honestly.
“Eldigan and Sigurd wanted to speak with him so they sent me as the messenger. Guess he won’t want to see me for awhile so I’ll pass that duty off to you,” Lewyn said with a flourish at the end.
“I doubt he’ll want to see me for some time either,” Finn said, watching his former lord’s retreating form.
Lewyn raised an eyebrow at this but for once didn’t press, perhaps due to having just been on the receiving end of Quan’s wrath or still feeling slightly humbled. Instead he sighed and fixed his scarf.
“I’ll have Silvia tell him, that feels fair,” he said. “What a goose chase this is turning into.”
Two Days Before the Winter Festival
For some reason, searching for a list of items on the first day the market for the winter festival was open without being caught seemed more daunting than anything Leif had done before.
There were a few factors in his favor. At this time of winter, night fell much sooner, the skies almost completely dark before most Heroes had finished their dinner. Most Heroes ate dinner around the same time so he had a window he could work with.
The market seemed to envelop the entire town, stretching down every street and alley, selling everything from fine jewelry to roasted nuts. Performers glided through the streets, some singing festive songs, some reciting lines from plays, groups pulling in passersby to join in traditional dances. Despite being nighttime, the town had never seemed more alive.
But Leif didn’t have time to stop and admire everything around him. He’d ‘borrowed’ a map from Anna with the location and type of every stall marked on it. From this, he’d chosen the stalls that looked the most promising and the quickest way to hit all of them.
Starting from the inside, his first stop was one of the stalls in the town square. The statue in the center was the connecting point where all the winter lanterns were strung out from, fanning out in nine directions to provide additional light to every street. Seliph had described the lighting ceremony as breathtaking and Sharena had claimed it was a favorite part of the year for her as well but Leif had been busy and honestly forgot it was going on. Perhaps next year he could go.
“Look Anthiese, it’s just like the Mila statues!”
Leif dove behind the nearest stall as Conrad and Celica entered the square. He silently cursed himself for forgetting the Valentians were weird about food. There wasn’t that much of a chance either of them would tell anyone he was here or what he was doing, but he should still be cautious.
“It does look quite similar,” Celica agreed. “Although, I doubt the nuns at the Priory would be too pleased if we hung lanterns from the statute there.”
“Perhaps if you could find a way to incorporate your respect for Mila like the people of Askr did in their ceremony, then they would let you!” Conrad suggested. “It really was quite splendid to watch. I can’t remember seeing anything like that back in Zofia!”
“Neither can I,” Celica said. “I’m glad you enjoyed it. Alm and I have gone to all the Festivals in Askr together and this is still my favorite.”
“Thank you for taking me to that and for agreeing to join me tonight. I know you want to spend the Festival with Alm so I’m grateful for any time you can spare for me,” Conrad said.
“That’s not it at all! I want to spend time with you just as much. It’s been so long since we were able to do something nice together like siblings should. You’ve only been in Askr for a short time, I think you deserve a little more attention than Alm,” Celica said.
Conrad laughed. “Oh Anthiese, you really are just as darling as before!”
“Conrad!” from the strained sound of her voice, Leif guessed he was hugging her a bit too tightly. He felt a bit guilty about eavesdropping on a personal conversation before he looked up at the scarves hanging above him. There was a particular white one that gave him an idea.
He gave the stall a hard kick, creating the loud thunk he hoped for. The stall owner glared down at him before nearly jumping out of their seat as they suddenly had an eager customer.
“Anthiese, look! Isn’t that scarf lovely? It looks so soft and warm!” Conrad said excitedly, pointing at a fluffy white scarf.
“Yes it does,” Celica agreed, seemingly amused by her brother’s antics.
“Let me buy it for you! It can be one of your Festival presents!” Conrad said. “Oops.”
“One of? Conrad, I told you, you don’t have to get anything for me,” Celica said.
“I know, but I still wanted to! Please Anthiese, let me do something nice for my little sister,” Conrad said, sounding more like he was the younger sibling than the other way around.
“Oh Conrad,” Celica sighed but put up no protest as Conrad paid for the scarf. Unable to resist his curiosity, Leif peeked around the corner in time to watch Conrad wrap the scarf around his sister’s neck, grinning like an idiot the entire time. Celica was trying to look exasperated but her own small smile gave her away. Her eyes drifted over towards Leif and he quickly scrambled around the back of the stall and took off, not stopping until he was two streets away. It may have been a bit much but at least he was closer to the next stall on his list.
The street and stall were easy to find although the crowds were starting to pick up. The street filled with the chatter of dozens of Askrians wandering aimlessly around. The bustle was more than Leif was used to seeing anywhere which made it engrossing to watch. He could have easily gotten caught up doing so if he hadn’t seen a pair of Heroes having what looked like a very awkward conversation.
Dimitri and Edelgard were standing at the end of the row of stalls, Dimitri with his back to Leif, Edelgard facing his direction but looking impatiently at Dimitri. She was rarely in a good mood but it was Dimitri that was acting unusual. He was hunched over as if embarrassed and constantly shifting his weight from foot to foot. Strangely, Edelgard didn’t leave even if she looked as if she thought this was a waste of time as she responded to whatever he said.
Just watching them made Leif feel uncomfortable. Wanting to put all of them out of their misery, Leif slid through the crowd until he was three stalls away from the pair. Kneeling down, he scooped up a handful of snow and after a little shaping, threw it as hard as he could.
He watched just long enough to see the look of bewilderment on Edelgard’s face as he landed a direct hit. Feeling slightly more pleased than he should, Leif quickly dove back into the crowd, weaving among them at a slightly quicker pace, hoping maybe they hadn’t seen him.
Or maybe they had. Leif broke into a run, using Dimitri’s apologies to gauge how close they were. He spied an alley to his left, although he couldn’t remember where it led to. Anywhere was better than continuing straight so he quickly veered into it, immediately having to dodge a group of children running in the opposite direction.
Leif didn’t notice what was in the stalls around him as he tried to move through the narrower area. The other people made it hard to move but also easier to avoid being seen. Still, there was only one direction he could go and Dimitri and Edelgard knew that. He would just have to get there well before them.
Seeing the exit a few feet away, Leif dropped low to better wriggle through the mass of people, more space between them at waist level than shoulder. He finally managed to push through although he had built up a bit more momentum than he had planned, bursting out of the alley too fast to slow down. Stumbling for a moment, he caught himself and quickly spun around to see where Edelgard and Dimitri were, laughing out of relief when he heard Edelgard’s frustrated groan over the rest of the crowd as she was forced to give up the chase. To his surprise, her groan was followed by a laugh from Dimitri.
His elation lasted only a moment before he saw his parents five stalls down. Not sure if they had seen him and not wanting to stick around to find out, he turned to run again, only to find a group of dancers blocking the way. He could work with that too.
Rushing into the mass of dancers, it quickly became apparent he wouldn’t be able to force his way through them as haphazardly as he had the people in the alley. It would be easier to move with the group than against them. Fortunately, the steps were simple and repeated reliably enough as he had never danced before and now seemed like a terrible time to try. Still, he found himself stepping more lightly than necessary as he delved deeper into the mass of twirling Askrians.
He’d was turned around by the time he managed to escape the dance, finding himself outside an alley filled with food stalls, the aroma of sweet spices filling the air. Leif was reminded that not only had he skipped dinner to come here, he had missed lunch while in the Tempest. Had he had breakfast this morning? If he couldn’t remember, it didn’t matter. He could always make a cup of tea back at the Order. As interesting as this alley looked, he needed to keep going, especially if more Heroes would be arriving soon.
Despite his worry, he saw very few Heroes as he tried to stealthily make his way through the market. He did see Edelgard and Dimitri again, almost running into the side of a house when he saw Edelgard actually smiling as Dimitri rambled on excitedly. Maybe she should be hit in the face more often. But there were probably only so many times Leif could do that without being killed by Hubert. He was honestly surprised he wasn’t this time.
He saw Lene teasing Ares at a sweets stall. She was wearing his coat and while he was trying to act as if he was fine, he had complained about the cold the entire time when he and Seliph had gone out with Leif a week ago.
Lene could see through his act as well as when she spotted Leif, she looked from Ares to the snow then rolled her eyes. Leif gestured at her to wait as he came up with an idea to make Ares stop acting like an idiot.
The end of the street was empty save for the warm glow of the lanterns. Leif looked up at the buildings. They were only four stories high so climbing one shouldn’t be much of a challenge. Standing on a darkened windowsill, he reached for the next one up, feeling very grateful no one was there to see when he fell more than an inch short of reaching, even when he stood on the tips of his toes. He hated how Heroes didn’t grow while in Askr.
There wasn’t much room to do so but Leif bent his knees and leapt up, managing to grab the second floor window sill and almost losing his grip just as quick due to the ice. He managed to hold on and pulled himself up to the next sill. Trying to balance without slipping, he reached for the third story window, which was closer than the second floor window had been to the first. He just managed it this time, pulling himself up and quickly did the same with the fourth story window.
Perched on the roof, he snuck down the row of houses, trying to keep as low as possible until he was above the stall where Lene was holding up Ares, although he didn’t seem suspicious or annoyed. If Leif didn’t know any better, he’d think Ares was actually enjoying himself. The Winter Festival really must be a magical time of year.
Lene glanced up at Leif, eyes briefly widening as she realized what was about to happen. Taking Ares hand, she playfully spun around, subtly pulling Ares just underneath Leif. Before he had a chance to move, Leif shoved the snow on the roof down. Ares jumped as he was suddenly covered, Lene not even attempting to smother her laughter.
“Now you have to let me get you a new coat,” she said smugly, intentionally or not distracting Ares from looking up to search for a culprit, if he even suspected there was one.
Ares was back to looking grumpy until Lene came over and batted his bangs, giggling as snow fell from them. She unbuckled Ares’ coat and wrapped it around the both of them, ignoring Ares’ protests about her getting cold.
“Says the one of us who looks a snowman,” she teased. “I gotta melt you somehow.”
“You already do.” Leif gagged at his friend’s sappy line but Lene seemed to like it as Ares was rewarded with a kiss. Leif felt the sudden urge to dump snow on them again but refrained, moving back from the edge of the roof to begin making his way back down. But as he stood on the edge of the roof, he paused and turned to look at the market.
If the market looked impressive from within, it was stunning from above. You could see all the lights stretching out from the center statue, like chains of stars, bathing the city in a warm glow. From here he could see practically every street, the crowds of people bustling about, the performers gliding through the night, the stalls with cheery merchants and brightly colored wares. He could even make out some Heroes in the crowd, Chad and Lugh buying sticks of peppermint, Gerik holding up a stuffed rabbit to show Marisa, Flora and Jakob comparing lists. He had never seen so many happy people in one place before.
“Look, it’s the Winter Envoy!”
Leif turned slightly to see an open window four streets away with two children leaning excitedly out of it.
“Isn’t the winter envoy supposed to be really big?” one asked.
“He just looks small cause he’s far away. Mommy said it’s called persceptive,” the other explained.
Leif couldn’t help smiling and decided to play along. He gave a little wave to the children, grinning as they squealed and ran back inside, remembering a few seconds later to shut the window. After all the traumatized and miserable children he’d seen from the child hunts, there was something relieving about seeing so many happy and safe in Askr. Hopefully Thracia could one day be like this too.
He’d found everything he had been looking for and should head back to the Order. But there were so many Heroes wandering around the market, he couldn’t just climb down and walk along the streets. Or maybe that was just a convenient excuse to stay on the roofs so he could keep admiring the market just a little longer.
One Day Before the Winter Festival
Eyvel felt as if she might suffocate from the tension in the room. Being invited to stay at the Inn in the Aether Resort was supposed to be some great privilege but this felt more like a punishment.
The feeling seemed to be shared by everyone. Across the room, Quan was scowling as he looked away from everyone while the strain in Ethlyn’s smile was more evident than ever. Beside Eyvel, Finn refused to look at anything but the floor, looking almost ashamed. He hadn’t told her what had happened between him and Leif’s father, but he had been acting similar to this ever since. His outing with Nanna last night had lifted his spirits a bit but partway through the night, those feelings seemed to return.
Any conversation would be better than this silence. “I take it no one else has had any luck with Lord Leif?” she asked, choosing her words carefully.
Quan surprised everyone when he spoke. “I saw him at the market,” he said, voice lacking it’s usual coolness.
“You didn’t mention that to me,” Ethlyn said, voice and expression softer than usual as she watched her husband.
“It was just for a moment. He ran out of an alley, laughing at something. But then a group of people walked by and he disappeared,” Quan explained. It seemed to pain him to admit this. “I’m not even sure that was him. He was gone so fast.”
“I saw him at the market as well,” Finn said, still not meeting anyone’s eye. “He was on the roof a house near the edge of the market, just looking at.”
“The roof?” Quan repeated. “What was he doing there?”
Finn looked up, blinking in shock as Quan addressed him. “I- I don’t know, I didn’t say anything to him. He took off not long after,” he admitted. Seeing Quan’s displeasure with his answer, he added, “I thought I may have imagined it, a trick from the lights perhaps.”
If anything, his addition made it worse as Quan’s expression contorted into an ugly bitterness, yet he was stopped from saying anything by Ethlyn squeezing his wrist. Finn’s head dropped again as he went back to silently admonishing himself.
“I did hear a rumor about someone seeing a boy on the roof of the barracks a few days ago,” Ethlyn said. “Perhaps that’s how he’s been getting around.”
“Can’t say it would surprise me,” Eyvel said, “Little Leif would go to quite impressive measures to do what he wanted if you told him no.”
She felt slightly guilty about her slip as Ethlyn flinched at the nickname. She tried not to use her nicknames for Leif around his parents but she had been doing so for so long, she did it on impulse. It had been one of the ways she tried to make him smile when he first arrived in Fiana, a too serious little boy who rarely strayed from Finn’s side. Mareeta had gotten through to Nanna quite quickly but Leif had taken much longer to open up and even after he had, was still prone to brooding spells. He didn’t seem to dislike the nickname, except when Mareeta used it teasingly. Although, she had a feeling that wouldn’t last much longer.
Eyvel shook herself from her fond thoughts. What was she doing? This wasn’t her place anymore. Leif had his actual mother now, someone he wished to have known for all his life. Now he had the chance to do just that, to be with the family he should have grown up with. She’d had her time with Little Leif back in Fiana, this world was their chance to be with him.
“Climbing on roofs isn’t the worst thing he’s done either,” Eyvel added. “Better than sneaking out to fight one of the older boys.”
“He was getting in fights?” Quan asked, concerned at what Eyvel didn’t think would be that much of a revelation.
“Just roughhousing, like most boys like do. You must have been in a few fights yourself by the time you were his age,” Eyvel said.
“No,” Quan said with a frown. “When I was his age, the only fighting I did was practicing on the academy training grounds. Physically fighting someone else would have been indecent.”
“A few punches are hardly worse than whacking each other with wooden sticks,” Eyvel said, protective instincts rising. “Most of us don’t have the luxury of attending an academy or having a training ground to play around on either.”
Finn glanced worriedly at her, reading between her words as Quan seemed to have done as well. She had been right when she told Ethlyn Leif had her eyes as his had never been as cold as the ones glaring back at her.
“If you think Leif missed out by not living like a prince, you’re sadly mistaken. He grew up among his people and we raised him as one of us. He understands the people of Thracia better than you ever could,” Eyvel said. “He shouldn’t have had to grow up as he did, but that doesn’t mean nothing good came of it.”
“You think living as a commoner makes someone a better king?”
“I think actually knowing the struggles and suffering your people experience makes you a better king. When was the last time you walked among your people? Have you ever had to think about money? In Fiana, we take care of ourselves. We hunt, fish, and grow our own food. Anything we can’t get ourselves, we can get through trade or barter with our neighbors. We know how to survive. Take away your titles and I doubt you could do the same!”
Eyvel knew she shouldn’t be getting this heated but he wasn’t just insulting her, he was insulting all of Fiana. If he were anyone else, she’d challenge him here and now. The thought was still tempting.
“When was the last time you sat in on a council meeting, were asked to listen to the problems of an entire country? You ran a fishing village, that’s nothing compared to the politics of a country. Not only do we have to take care of our country’s men, we have to worry about other countries as well! Civil wars in Silesse, uprisings in Agustria, all of that matters to us. I don’t walk among the people because I’m out there protecting the people,” Quan countered.
“You’d call what you did protection?”
“You’d call suffering a good thing?”
“Enough!” Ethlyn scolded, raising her voice enough to startled everyone. Once there was silence, she gave everyone a stern look, Finn included.
“You,” she said, turning to face her husband. “You have been nothing but miserable these past few days. Eyvel did the best she could with what she had and what she’s accomplished is impressive. We owe her a great debt and you’re treating her like she’s beneath you.”
Before Quan could respond, Ethlyn turned to Eyvel. “My husband may not have expressed it well but I understand his concerns about Leif’s time with you. There are differences between what’s expected of a village leader and a prince, not just in actions but behavior as well. Lord Berkut is not an exception among nobles and Leif already has an uphill battle to earn their respect.”
Finally she turned to Finn. “Don’t think you’re getting out of this either, mister, I know you and Quan had an argument. You’ve been moping around almost as long as him so either one of you had better start talking right now.”
Both men stayed silent, neither willing to look at anything but the floor. Eyvel couldn’t see Quan’s face but Finn looked ashamed.
“Unbelievable” Ethlyn said, looking back and forth between the two. “It’s a good thing Leif has been avoiding all of us. The way we’ve acted this week is embarrassing.”
“We?” Eyvel repeated. “Why would you include yourself in that?”
Ethlyn bit her lip as she looked away, earning Eyvel a glare from Quan. “We said we’d give Leif the best Winter Festival possible but I got so caught up being petty, I didn’t do anything. It’s too late to do anything now since the Festival is tomorrow,” Ethlyn admitted.
Any animosity left in the room vanished. Eyvel hadn’t realized it was here already. Like Ethlyn, she hadn’t done much to follow through on their plan after their last meeting, avoiding even thinking about it by doing festival activities with Mareeta and the other Freeblades. She didn't regret how she'd spent her time but she could have spared a few thought for how to keep her word to Ethlyn.
“What good is it anyway? We still don’t know where he’s been or what he’s been doing lately,” Quan said, frustration surprisingly being beaten out by sadness. “We don’t even know if we’ll see him tomorrow.”
As angry as she had been with the man moments ago, it still wrenched her heart to see him so broken up about not seeing his son. Ironic how now was when he resembled Leif the most.
“We will,” Eyvel assured him, causing Quan to look at her with confusion. “There’s four of us and one of him. Even if he doesn’t want to be found, we’ll find him. We won’t force him to celebrate the festival, but we at least deserve answers.”
It took a moment but the others nodded in agreement. For the first time, everyone was agreeing to work together, to do, of all things, hunt down Leif.
The Winter Festival
No one had pulled back the curtains the night before, allowing the morning sun to shine through the window, waking everyone up at the same time. Ethlyn and Quan had taken beds next to each other and woke up facing each other. Despite the arguing last night, all seemed to be forgiven as when they rose, Ethlyn sleepily embraced Quan, wrapping his arms around her waist in return.
“Happy Winter Festival,” she said, stifling a yawn.
“Happy Winter Festival, my love,” he responded, planting a kiss on her forehead.
Eyvel and Finn had taken two beds in the opposite corner, wanting to give the couple space. Finn rose first as usual, sitting on the edge of his bed silently and solemnly. While his back was still to her, Eyvel gave it a hard poke.
“No brooding during the festival,” she said, slightly teasing. He gave a small smile in return. “The girls said they would meet us for breakfast, are their presents still in your room?”
He nodded. “Perhaps it would be best to save opening them for tonight,” he suggested. Eyvel’s expression softened empathetically as she agreed.
The creak of the door hinge made everyone look up, but upon doing so, found no one there. The door was slightly ajar but no one entered nor did it open any wider.
“Leif?” Quan called out hopefully. There was no response but Finn swore he heard a soft thump and muffled voices through the floor.
Hope and curiosity sparked, the four started to make their way down to the first floor of the inn. But halfway down the stairs, they were stopped by the sight before them.
The barren foyer had been transformed overnight. A garland of boxwood and white ribbon were interwoven along the banister, small pops of color added from red holly berries. A cedar wreath, cones and berries included, hung on the door with a bright red ribbon. Curled translucent gold ribbons spread out from the center of the foyer ceiling, where they conjoined to support a ring of ivy, silver baubles and bells dangling from it as tiny candles flickered from atop it. The mantle of the fireplace had been dressed with garland as well with a display of a small wooden castle and village arranged above it. A fire was already burning merrily away and spreading the scent of cinnamon throughout the room. Even the couch had a festively patterned blanket draped over it and on the end table a small snowflake patterned music box was tinkling away.
But the most eye catching thing in the room was the tree. Almost reaching the ceiling with the star on top, with its full branches the tree seemed to take up the entire corner of the room. Gauzy white ribbon curled around the tree, sparkling as if made of frost. Several large red and gold poinsettias appeared along the ribbon’s trail, spaced well enough apart to not be overwhelming. Another trail circled the tree, this of the small lights the Askrians trees were famous for. Each shone as if a diamond had been embedded on each tree branch. Red and gold baubles were spread throughout the branches. Upon further inspection, they found each had a different small symbol or phrase written on it in the opposite color.
“How did all this get here?” Ethlyn asked.
“I’m more curious about who did this,” Eyvel said, looking for some sort of clue.
“How did we not know this was going on just beneath us?” Finn asked. “This must have taken a great deal of time and effort yet I can’t recall hearing anything last night.”
“Nor can I,” Quan said with a puzzled frown. “Why did they wait until tonight to do everything? Surely it would have been easier to put it up during the day.”
“So it could be a surprise.”
All the adults turned around to see Leif standing in front of the dining room doorway, trying not to look hopeful.
“You did this?” Quan asked.
Leif nodded. “Is it alright?” he asked hesitantly.
“Is it alright?” Ethlyn repeated. “Leif, this is gorgeous! But how did you do all this in one night?”
As soon as he heard his mother’s praise, Leif visibly relaxed. “I didn’t do everything last night. A lot of things I made ahead of time, I just had to bring them here while you were asleep.”
“So our little invite to the Inn was your doing?” Eyvel guessed.
“The summoner said I could invite anyone I wanted to stay in the Inn for the Festival as a thank you for always going into the Tempest when it comes,” Leif explained.
Ethlyn frowned. “Leif, that was supposed to be a present for you. You were supposed to be able to rest in the Inn but you spent the entire night up making this.”
“I was able to do this because of their offer so it still counts,” Leif said.
“How is being able to do this a present?” Quan asked.
“I told you, this was supposed to be a surprise for you,” Leif said. “I didn’t know much about the Winter Festival so I asked Princess Sharena about it. She told me about a lot but she said the most important part was giving presents to let the people you care about know how much you do. So I wanted to give the best Winter Festival I could to all of you.”
All of you. They were three simple words yet they shook an entire room. Each adult stared at Leif as their way of thinking was suddenly shifted.
Ethlyn was the first to react, crossing the room to embrace Leif. The hug surprised him but he returned it, holding on just as tightly. He didn’t melt into it like he had when he embraced Eyvel, he pressed himself in as if wanting nothing more than to be as close as possible. It was less familiar but meant no less.
“So this is why you’ve been sneaking around for the past two weeks?” Eyvel asked, approaching as Ethlyn and Leif slowly ended their embrace. Leif’s admiration didn’t fade as his gaze shifted from Ethlyn to Eyvel and nodded in return to her question.
Eyvel let out a fond sigh. “Did you consider we might have wanted to do this with you?” she asked, although she had a feeling she knew the answer.
Leif blinked, the reddening of his ears giving away his answer before he gave it. “No, I didn’t,” he admitted “I was too focused on what I wanted to do, I didn’t think about what you wanted. I was selfish and impulsive.”
Sometimes she was truly mystified by how his mind worked. Reaching out, she pinched his cheek and gave it a gentle tug. It had been her way to get his attention when he was in one of his brooding spells and while they weren’t there yet, she’d prefer they avoid getting to that point.
He got the message and looked at Eyvel apologetically. “Nothing about this was selfish,” Eyvel said. “Impulsive is debatable, considering several stories we’ve heard over the past few days.”
“What’s this about you climbing on rooftops?” Ethlyn asked.
“Oh,” Leif said, looking surprised. “Right. I didn’t mean to at first, it was just the best option at the time.”
“What could the other options possibly be for climbing on a roof to be the best?” Ethlyn asked.
As Leif started his explanations to his mothers, Quan couldn’t help thinking back to the night before when he had become so angry over Eyvel saying climbing on roofs wasn’t as bad as getting in fights. He’d gotten angry at Finn as well for saying he may have imagined seeing Leif, as if he had been wanting to see him as well. Ethlyn was right, he had been miserable to be around lately. All because of his damn pride.
“His first smile,” Finn said, interrupting Quan’s thoughts. “You were not only there for the first time he smiled, he smiled at you.”
It took a moment for Quan to realize why Finn had brought this up, shame increasing once he had. “I don’t deserve to have that. All of you have made him much happier than I ever have,” he said.
Finn glanced over at Quan, the lack of the previous anger in his voice making him unsure how to proceed. He didn’t have time to decide as Quan spoke again.
“I owe you an apology, Finn. The way I treated you was unfair and I knew it. You didn’t ask raise my son and I should be grateful you did,” he said, pausing to glance at Leif. “But when I think of everything my father did for me and how little I can do for Leif, I can’t help feeling as if there’s no place in his life for me.”
“Your words weren’t false,” Finn admitted. “Just as I couldn’t control how he feels about me, I couldn’t control how I felt about him. I never wanted to replace you, I tried to keep an appropriate distance between us. But I doubt anyone could raise a child that has so much affection and attachment to them and feel nothing more than an obligation to protect them.”
“That’s a funny way of phrasing it,” Quan said, although his words lacked any bite. They reminded Finn of when Quan found out about his feelings for Lady Lachesis and would try and goad his young retainer into pursuing her.
“I may be like a father, but I could never live up to you. You’re the one Leif strives to be like, the model he uses to shape himself as a leader and ruler. I was what he had, but you were what he wanted,” Finn said.
For the first time in over a week, Quan gave Finn a genuine smile. Finn returned it before taking a step back to allow Leif to approach his father, feeling something akin to pride as Quan kept his smile when he turned to his son.
“This is quite impressive, Leif,” Quan said “I’m afraid any gift I could give would pale in comparison.”
“You don’t have to get anything for me,” Leif said. “I haven’t done anything to deserve it. I’m still so far from being worthy of being your heir.”
Quan could hear the left out “and son” and once again wondered where his son’s such strong feelings of inadequacy came with. Perhaps it was part of House Leonster, a family curse to feel lesser when comparing themselves to another. It seemed to be much worse with Leif, but at least he expressed it less cruelly than Quan. But that did give Quan an opportunity to do something for Leif that Finn never could. He put a hand on his son’s shoulder, causing him to look up with uncertain reservation.
“There couldn’t be anything further from the truth,” Quan said, “I’m proud to call you my son.”
Leif’s face lit up at his words and for a moment, looked much younger than fifteen, wide eyes and chubby cheeks reminiscent of boyhood. Finn had said he was the first person to make Leif smile. Right now, that felt like his proudest achievement.
Leif’s face fell, turning serious, but Quan only had time to briefly worry before Leif asked him a question.
“There’s one thing about the Winter Festival that’s still a bit confusing to me,” Leif admitted. “The Winter Envoy isn’t real, is he?”
Quan almost laughed at the childish question but Leif’s serious expression reminded him of what the winter envoy meant. The question suddenly felt a lot less silly.
“No, the Winter Envoy is not real,” Quan assured him, amused at how his confirmation relieved then embarrassed Leif. “There’s something I’ve been wondering as well. How did this tree get here?”
“After Sharena explained the Winter Festival to me, she helped me pick out a tree and made a deal with Anna so no one else would take it. Last night, I cut it down, brought it here, and once the snow melted off, decorated it,” Leif explained as if it were the simplest thing in the world.
“You cut this down and brought it here by yourself? Have you even done something like that before?” Quan asked.
“I’ve chopped firewood,” Leif said.
“Not that I remember,” Finn said, eyeing Leif sternly. “Is that why you kept disappearing with Osian last winter?”
“Halvan’s arm was still broken so he asked Osian for some help. I wanted to try it so I came along,” Leif said. “We weren’t doing anything dangerous.”
From Finn’s sigh, Quan could guess this wasn’t the first time they’d had a conversation like this. He’d personally only swung an axe a few times, enough to know he preferred lances by a long shot. Chopping firewood had never been something he’d even considered yet Leif had gone out of his way to find an opportunity to learn such a plebeian task. He wasn’t forced to, judging by Finn’s reaction no one had wanted him to, he did so because he chose to. Quan was reminded there was someone else he owed an apology.
“I take it your responsible for this as well?” Finn asked, referring to the crackling hearth and stack of chopped wood beside it. Leif nodded, watching Finn as if expecting a scolding.
Instead, Finn sighed again. “You should learn to pace yourself, Lord Leif. This is far more than you needed to do,” he said. It wasn’t quite a scolding but more than just advice.
“It’s not, it’s nowhere near enough to make it up to you,” Leif insisted. “You’ve done so much for me, I could spend the rest of my life trying to repay you and still fall short. You gave me years, all I’m giving you is a day.” He looked down as his face reddened before adding one last part, speaking so softly Finn almost missed it. “I wanted you to be happy so I could hear you laugh.”
Finn had neither laughed nor cried since the Fall of Leonster, something he hadn’t been aware of Leif noticing. He was unsure if he even could anymore. While tears still seemed an unlikely occurrence, and he hoped he would have no reason for them, perhaps there was a chance he could find a laugh again.
“There’s only one thing I could ask of you,” Finn said. “It’s the same thing you asked of me after Manster. Live. Live on to be the ruler Thracia deserves. As long as you live, there is nothing more I could ask of you.”
“I will! I’ll dedicate my entire life to rebuilding Thracia!” he eagerly agreed then paused with a frown. “But I was going to do that anyway. This doesn’t seem fair to you.”
“It is, Lord Leif,” Finn said. Leif was practically pouting now, confused by Finn’s enigmatic answer yet not wanting to seem childish by pestering Finn for a real one. The look didn’t help but Finn refrained from mentioning it, partially because it was amusing. He hadn’t done this in a long time but he reached out and gave Leif a pat on the head. His expression almost immediately shifted to fondness, wide smile stretching across his face as if he couldn’t be happier. Finn had a feeling if he could see his own expression, it would look similar.
“Are you done yet or should I start cooking?” Mareeta asked, surprising everyone with her and Nanna’s appearance in the dining room doorway.
Eyvel gave her adopted daughter a stern look. Despite not being the one to interrupt, Nanna looked more apologetic than Mareeta.
“Just one more thing,” Leif said. He bent down next to the tree and pulled out four small silver packages. The only difference between them was the name written on each. After handing them out, he took a step back, standing in front of the tree to watch as each of them unwrapped their gift, anticipation rivaling their own.
Inside each box was a small blue crest of a soaring bird with a raindrop below it. The other side of each were different. On Quan’s was the symbol of House Leonster and the Crusader Njorun. Ethlyn’s also bore the symbol of House Leonster but with the symbol of House Chalpy beside it as well, Baldur’s mark between. Eyvel had on hers the mark of the Freeblades Mareeta and Osian had made up when the group first formed, a childish design that was never used and both were mortified of today. Finn’s contained the symbol of House Leonster as well but was accompanied by the symbol of House Nordion.
“They’re Blessings,” Leif explained as each examined their gift. “They won’t work once we leave Zenith but here they should help in battle. I’m not strong enough to protect you, to protect anyone right now. But as a Legendary Hero, I will protect you without fail!”
Eyvel looked back at Nanna and Mareeta. Now she was looking for it, she noticed both girls had Blessings as well. Mareeta had added hers to her necklace while Nanna was still holding hers, blushing slightly when she noticed Eyvel looking.
Eyvel let out a chuckle. “Seems like it should be the other way around Little Lord.” She looked at the Blessing. “Although, I am curious to meet this Legendary you.”
“He’s a little older, about two years,” Ethlyn described. “We almost didn’t recognize him when he arrived! He’s grown quite a lot.”
“I have a long ways to go if I’m ever to become him,” Leif said. “But at least I know I’ll succeed in some world.”
“You’ll succeed in every world,” Ethlyn said warmly, stepping towards her son. Quan joined her and Finn and Eyvel turned to their own daughters.
“You’ve gotten a lot better at being sneaky,” Eyvel said, finally managing to make Mareeta look slightly guilty.
“I’m sorry Mother, but I couldn’t say no after Little Lord said why he wanted to do this,” Mareeta said.
Eyvel shook her head with a smile, smoothing down her daughter’s hair. “I’m not mad, I’m actually glad you helped do this,” she said. She planted a kiss on her forehead. “Happy Winter Festival, Mareeta.”
“Happy Winter Festival, Mother,” Mareeta said, throwing her arms around Eyvel. Eyvel wasted no time reciprocating.
Nanna avoided looking at the pair but couldn’t quite look at Finn either. Instead, she chose to focus on the Blessing in her hands as she spoke.
“I almost told you, after we went to the market. You seemed so sad, even more so after seeing Leif,” Nanna admitted “But I promised I wouldn’t tell. And I hoped you would like what Leif was planning.”
“It was for the best,” Finn agreed “I’m sorry to have worried you. These past few days can’t have been easy.”
“There have been worse. And you’re happy now, aren’t you Father?” Nanna asked, hopefulness creeping into her question at the end.
Finn wasn’t one for hugs but he could make an exception for today. He was probably being too gentle when he wrapped his arms around her but Nanna had a smile as she leaned into it.
“Happy Winter Festival, Nanna,” he said.
“Happy Winter Festival, Father,” she replied “I kept your present back in the barracks. I wanted to give it to you tonight, after everything else.”
So there was more than just this. He really did need to talk to Leif about overextending himself. But that lecture could wait for another day. “I have one for you as well. Perhaps we could exchange them with your Mother,” he suggested.
Nanna looked up at her father in surprise. As grateful as he had been to be able to see Lachesis again in this world, the now vast age difference between them making their relationship rather complicated, along with the fact this Lachesis was from before she had feelings for Finn. He usually avoided her, mostly because he didn’t know what else to do. But he could at least make an effort today, for Nanna’s sake.
“Thank you Father, “ Nanna said warmly before stepping back from the hug. She held out her Blessing. “Could you help me with this?”
He took the Blessing as she reached back to undo her necklace. While she did so, Finn turned it over to see what was on the other side of hers. Just like his, there were the symbols of House Nordion and House Leonster. It seemed innocent enough but Finn knew better, allowing himself a sigh at Leif’s courting skills. They were miles better than his had been.
After Finn had finished putting the Blessing on her necklace, she took his hand and led him towards the dining room, Mareeta doing the same with Eyvel. Two tables had been pushed together and covered with a grey tablecloth speckled with white snowflakes. Paper snowflakes made a trail along the red runner and a centerpiece of pine cones were arranged around silver candles. Six place settings were laid out for, simple white dishes with gold trim and a small red box tied with a golden bow sat in the center on each plate. It was neatly and elegantly set but there was one glaring issue.
“He’s an idiot,” Mareeta said bluntly.
Eyvel didn’t agree but her sigh gave away her thoughts were along a similar line. “Why didn’t you girls say anything or reset it?” she asked.
“Because I wanted to call him out in front of everyone,” Mareeta said.
Eyvel gave her daughter a stern look. “Normally, I’d be against this but perhaps it’ll do Little Leif some good,” she said, avoiding looking at Finn. Mareeta grinned at being given permission just as the Leonster family walked in.
Mareeta turned to Leif. “You’re an idiot,” she repeated.
“What? Why?” Leif asked.
“The table,” Mareeta said, gesturing to it “You set it for six.”
Quan and Ethlyn immediately saw the problem with this but Leif still looked confused. “So? What’s wro-” Leif paused midquestion as he realized what Mareeta was saying.
“There’s seven of us,” Mareeta said, answering the unfinished question. “You didn’t count yourself, did you?” She emphasized her question with a poke to his side. His guilty look as he flinched was all she needed.
“You’re eating with us.” It wasn’t a question although there was one the adults were all thinking. “So you need a seat too.”
Leif moved towards the table but Nanna stood in front of him, causing him to stop.
“You’ve done enough. We can handle this,” she said and headed to the table with Mareeta.
“It’s go faster with more hands,” Ethlyn said as she joined the girls, Eyvel following shortly behind.
“I’ll grab another chair,” Quan said and soon everyone but Leif was rearranging the table. Six people may have been a bit too many but no one seemed to mind. There had originally been two chairs on each side of the table with one at both ends. Now, three sat on the sides with one at one end. Even though they had found another set of dishes and silverware, there were still only six presents. So everyone put them on the plate at the head of the table.
Satisfied with their work, everyone looked up to find Leif was no longer in the room. Before anyone could panic, the scent of brewing coffee filled the air, giving a very big clue as to where Leif had disappeared to.
“Never idle, is he?” Quan asked, amusedly. He turned to Finn and nearly jumped at what he saw.
Finn had gone pale as a sheet, face frozen in an expression of horror as he stared intensely at the door to the kitchen. It was as if he expected a demon to walk out of there. But no demon emerged, only Leif with a tea pot.
“The tea’s almost done but the coffee will be a bit longer, I think,” Leif said.
“Lord Leif, you haven’t tried the coffee, have you?” Finn asked, almost sounding panicked.
Leif was just as confused by the question as everyone else. “No, I was going to-”
“No!” Finn quickly interrupted. In response to everyone’s questioning stares, he added, “You’re not familiar with it so you should let someone who is taste it.”
“Finn, are you alright?” Leif asked, starting to look concerned.
“Just don’t drink the coffee,” Finn said, his insistence starting to sound desperate. “Please.”
“Alright,” Leif agreed, setting the teapot down on the table. He never took his eyes off Finn, who looked greatly relieved once Leif had agreed to his request. Once Leif was back in the kitchen, everyone turned to Finn.
“Care to explain what that was about?” Quan asked.
“Even if he hasn’t had it before, Little Lord would probably like the taste,” Eyvel said.
Although he had relaxed, Finn’s eyes were still wide with fear. “There’s a reason he wasn’t allowed to have stamina drinks in Thracia. He didn’t need those and he doesn’t need coffee,” Finn said firmly. “He has more than enough energy as is.”
Everyone’s face paled as their imaginations began to fill in the blanks. Suddenly Finn’s reaction didn’t seem so unreasonable.
Leif came out with the coffee and froze in alarm at the terrified looks on everyone’s faces. “What happened? Is everyone alright?” he asked.
Nanna quickly walked over to Leif and took the pot of coffee from him. “It’s nothing,” she said as she set the coffee down as far from the head of the table as she could. “You should sit down, I’ll finish cooking. You were up all night.”
“I’m fine, you don’t have to do that,” Leif insisted as Nanna walked past into the kitchen anyway. As he followed, Mareeta did as well.
“I’ll help,” she said as she disappeared into the kitchen, leaving the adults alone in the dining room.
“By help she means sneak bites when she thinks they aren’t looking,” Eyvel said, getting a chuckle out of Ethlyn.
“Did you teach all of them to cook?” Ethlyn asked.
“They probably learned more from Finn than me,” Eyvel said, looking over at him. “I’m pretty good but that’s barely decent next to him.”
“You’re overexaggerating,” Finn insisted.
“Or you’re still too modest,” Ethlyn countered teasingly. “I’m may not be much of a cook myself but Quan’s cooking is at least passable.”
“Passable?” Quan said, frowning slightly.
Ethlyn affectionately patted his arm. “It’s better than inedible.”
“Such high praise,” he grumbled, although his tone was as light as hers. Relieved her husband was over his foul mood, Ethlyn leaned against him, sliding her hand into his. He wove their fingers together and gave her hand a short squeeze. They shared a smile which emboldened Ethlyn to make her confession.
She turned from her husband to Eyvel. “When you first arrived in Askr, I was quite jealous of you. Leif was so excited to see you and all he would talk about was stories of him time in Fiana; how you taught him swordplay, cooking, haggling. You even have nicknames for him. I envy how close the two of you are,” Ethlyn admitted. Eyvel looked remorseful so Ethlyn quickly smiled and continued.
“But just because I’m not as close doesn’t make my relationship with Leif less important. I can’t have what you do but whatever he’s willing to give, I’ll gladly accept and return,” Ethlyn said. Quan gave her hand another squeeze, stronger than the last one. She didn’t have to look at him to know what she would see but did anyway. Her husband’s pride in her was one of the best rewards she could think of.
“You’ll have plenty of time to become closer, something Little Lord wants as well,” Eyvel assured. “Now that he has his parents, he doesn’t need a stand-in anymore.”
“What are you saying, of course he’ll still want you,” Ethlyn said but Eyvel didn’t look convinced. “I remember you mentioning you’ve lost some your memories, correct?”
Eyvel nodded warily. “If you were to get those memories back and discover you had another family, would you leave Mareeta for them?” Eyvel asked.
“Of course not!” Eyvel said, almost looking offended.
“Then why would you think Leif wouldn’t want you around just because he has us? If a mother can love a dozen children, a child can love a dozen mother!” That last line sounded better in her head but thankfully Eyvel had a different take away from it.
“He doesn’t have that many, does he?” Eyvel asked.
Ethlyn laughed. “No but he’s working on that. Have you met Cherche?”
The door to the kitchen swung open as Mareeta entered, carrying a large bowl of artfully arranged fruit. She was followed by Nanna and Leif carrying a dish of eggs and stacks of pancakes, respectively. As they set them down, the adults took their seats, leaving the head of the table and two next to it empty for the children. Mareeta quickly sat in the one beside her mother and before Leif could avoid it, Nanna took his hand and led him over to the seat at the head, forcing him to take it. His face was as red as the runner as he looked down at the present filled plate.
“Happy Winter Festival Leif,” Nanna said softly, low enough for only him to hear. He looked up at her and smiled.
“Happy Winter Festival Nanna.” He was no longer the only one blushing as Nanna hurriedly took the last empty seat.
Conversation picked up as food was passed around, plates and cups being filled and refilled. Leif somehow became even redder as Ethlyn gushed over his cooking and Eyvel recounted stories from when he caught his first fish and insisted on being the one to cook it to the time he learned food was the best way to bribe Osian. Finn even added a story of the first time Leif cooked for his men, much to his advisors’ displeasure. Eyvel asked Quan and Ethlyn about the Winter Festivals they had as children, Leif hanging onto their every word. Mareeta was rewarded with Eyvel’s strawberries and Finn let Nanna have a sip of coffee when he was certain Leif wasn’t paying attention.
As Leif argued with Nanna and Mareeta over why this time should be an exception to the dishes cleaning rule, the adults shared a glance. Theirs was an odd arrangement but not unpleasantly so. It would take some effort for it to last beyond today and ugly feelings were still lurking beneath the surface. But the Winter Festival was supposed to be a time of giving gifts to loved ones and they couldn’t think of a better present to give their son than a family.