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Rabbit Stew

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“Hey. Kid.”

The kid doesn’t move.

“Don’t sleep in the gutter, kid.”

You reach out to poke him with your shoe. Next thing you know, you’re flat on your back on the street with a wrenching pain in your knee and a ringing ache in your skull that echoes forward into your nose.

“Shit,” you wheeze.

You stay down for a minute, catching your breath, before you pick yourself up and test your weight on the injured leg. It’s definitely sprained, but your family are laborers and you have a worried cousin in the clergy, so you drag up the prayer from the back of your aching head. The pain worsens, forcing you to bite your lip as the joint swells and bruises, but it shrinks again just as quickly. Not exactly good as new, but good enough.

You figure the kid’ll be long gone, but he’s only a few feet away, collapsed against a wall. He’s curled up, pale eyes so wide behind his fringe of dirty blond hair they almost look blank. His face flushes crimson, but the rest of his skin is ice-white and bloodless, sheened with feverish sweat. His cheeks are pitted, hollow.

“Saints preserve us,” you mutter, rubbing your aching head.

You have a job, a family to look after. You’re not eager to introduce them to some stray who may well be an early victim of this summer’s plague. On the other hand — your cousin’s not the only one with an inclination towards charity. Cethleann is your family’s patron saint, and if you leave this kid to his own devices, you’re not sure he’ll last the night.

He bares his teeth when you step closer, scrambling back into a posture more suited to lashing out. You sink to one knee, hands raised and open. You even unbelt your knife and set it aside. The buckle of the belt clinks against the paving-stones, and the kid startles, a high-pitched noise in his throat that’s more pitiful than threatening. You freeze until his shoulders unwind.

“Easy,” you say. You know this look on strays, human and animal alike — the kid’s too scared, too sick, to think straight. You stretch your hand out; the kid stiffens, chest heaving, but he doesn’t move. “Good,” you murmur. “It’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

Somebody’s hurt him, though. It’s plain enough in the way he moves, in the way he reacted to being woken up, in his eyes tracking your every careful movement. Dark stains spatter his shirt — which is, to be fair, more stain than shirt, but you suspect these brown-black blotches are blood. The kid can’t have been on his own for too long: he’s skinny, and plainly hasn’t been eating well, but it’s more the lankiness of late adolescence than the skeletal boniness of long-term starvation. His hair’s overgrown, flopping into his eyes, but it holds on to a neat trim that he can’t have done himself. It paints an ugly picture no matter how you put the facts together, and your chest heats with a quiet anger.

So you’re firmly resolved not to leave this kid alone until you’ve gotten a meal into him, at least, and hopefully pushed him into a tub. You keep talking, stream-of-consciousness, voice low and soft. “You’re scared. I know. Angry, too, I bet. I wouldn’t trust me, if I were you, but I swear on Cethleann you can trust me. I got kids at home, y’know. My wife makes a mean rabbit stew.”

A spark glimmers in the kid’s eyes when you mention food. Got him.

“Bet you’re hungry, huh? How long’s it been since you had a proper meal?”

He licks his lips and looks down. He counts off one, two, three fingers, and then he seems to lose track, staring at his hands like they’re foreign to him. A bout of coughing wracks his skinny body. The gob of spit and phlegm he hacks into the gutter has a thin streak of red in it.

“C’mon,” you plead. “Hey. My name’s Sasha. Sasha Kovachekova. What’s yours?”

He eyes you suspiciously. After a minute, his gaze slides away, glazing over like he’s genuinely forgotten.

“Okay. You don’t have to tell me. Just … c’mon. Come back to mine, just for the night. You knocked me on my ass just now, so I’m thinking you could beat me if it was a trap. Warm meal and a bed with a roof, how’s that sound? Meet my wife, meet my kids, scrape the grime off.”

The kid’s gaze slides back to you, wet and unfocused. He doesn’t take your hand, but he drags himself to his feet, supporting himself on the wall. His body unfolds like a squeezebox, revealing a taller frame than you’d expected. Your estimation of his age shoots up a few years.

His legs give out when he tries to step away. Before you can think better of it, you’ve caught him, one arm under his shoulders. He goes rigid when you touch him, but you don’t wind up thrown to the pavement again. His skin burns to the touch. He’s too light for his bones.

It's maybe a five-minute walk from here to your place. You pray to Cethleann he'll make it.

***

One foot in front of the other, you get the kid home, though you have to shake him awake a few times on the way. Maggie gives you a look of the sort that means you’ll be talking tonight, but she herds your own kids away from the sick boy. Your habit of picking up strays has never bothered her too much — it’s the reason you have three kids, instead of one — but you usually get the chance to warn her first.

You shrug back at her, grinning sheepishly, before shuffling the kid onto the spare cot. His ankles stick off the end, but he curls up shivering under the blankets with the air of someone whose body has taken over decisions. You’re still not sure he’ll last the night, but there’s nothing your scraps of healing magic can do for an illness like this. After a moment of eyeing him worriedly, you head off to rinse your hands and strip into some clean clothes.

The kid sleeps like the dead while Maggie cooks. Your eldest two help her at the stove, but little Nicky is still too young to be trusted around fire and knives, so you keep him distracted from your guest and out of the cooks' hair. His latest favorite game is hair-braiding, and you spend a good hour or so switching between plaiting neat twists into his curls, and letting him do a considerably messier job on yours. You keep glancing over at the cot, fearing your guest might have slipped off to the Goddess's side while you weren't looking, but his fevered shivers and occasional whimper prove his body hasn't released its ghost just yet.

He lasts until you've eaten with your family, and until your eldest has ushered the younger two off to bed, and then Maggie gives you that look again. You sigh and stay in your seat.

"We can't keep a fourth child," she says.

"I know." The worry's lurked in the back of your mind since you resolved to bring this kid home. You're struggling to feed the three you already have, and it's only likely to get harder what with the turmoil up at the castle. "Just … look at him. He's on death's door. We can keep him a few days. Get him back on his feet, send him on his way with some meat on his bones and some better clothes."

"And if he dies?"

"Then he dies!" you say, biting your tongue on a flush of angry tears. You pause for a deep breath, and release it slowly, letting the lump in your throat settle. "Maybe. Maybe he dies. But maybe he lives. And he won't if we toss him back into the gutter where I found him."

" … I hope you know what you're doing," Maggie says, with a sigh and a frown. You reach across the table to squeeze her hand.

"I always know what I'm doing, at least when it comes to strays." You lean over and kiss her, smiling. "Though I leave the rest to you, milady."

"Stop," she says, planting a hand on your face to push you away, but she's laughing. You laugh with her, and bring your bowl over to the fire to ladle out another serving of stew.

You crouch at the foot of the cot, setting the bowl down out of easy kicking radius. "Hey, kid. Dinner's up." He doesn't respond, so you raise your voice. "Kid!"

He lurches upright with a blind swing that doesn't come anywhere near you. You lean back, raising your open palms again.

"Easy, easy. Just me. Sasha, remember?"

His eyes narrow, but he seems to write you off as non-threatening. His gaze skates off to fix on your wife. May the Goddess strike you down, you don't think there's a scrap of malice in this kid, but he's scared and feverish, and he went from being passed out in a gutter to knocking you on your ass faster than you could blink, so you snap your fingers to draw his attention back to you.

"Easy. It's okay. That's my wife, remember? Like I told you? Magdalena. Maggie with the rabbit stew lesser men have knocked each other's teeth out for."

"And you get it from the goodness of my good heart, flatterer," Maggie calls over from where she's sorting through the mending.

"I," you say proudly, "am the luckiest butch on the Goddess's green earth. Say hi, Maggie."

"Hi, Maggie," says your wife.

"Maggie," you say, exasperated, but you turn your attention back to the kid. "See? The kids are Alena — she's the eldest — Petya, and baby Nikita. We're not gonna hurt you. We want to help."

The kid stares through you with eyes so glassy you can't be sure he's heard, but he focuses when you hold out the bowl of stew. His eyes flick down to the bowl, then back up to your face, narrowing in challenge. "Prove it's s-safe," he rasps.

"Boy, if you think we poisoned a bowl of the best rabbit soup north of Enbarr, think again,” Maggie says dryly. The kid flinches, goes stiff and distant until you snap your fingers again.

“Hey, hey. Eyes on me. Watch.” You lift up a spoonful of the stew, make sure the kid is watching, and put it in your mouth, then swallow and show him the cleaned spoon. “See? It’s good.”

This time, the kid takes the bowl when you hold it out to him. He puts down a couple of spoonfuls, but his grip falters, and before you can offer to help he drops the spoon on the floor and starts scooping meat and vegetable into his mouth with his fingers. He hunches over the bowl, eyes flicking up at you and Maggie between mouthfuls. You wince, but your adopted kids had comparable manners when you first took them in, so you keep your mouth shut. It’s more important that he gets any food in him at all than that he does it neatly. Maggie stays pointedly occupied with her mending, and you keep your distance, hands neutral on your knees.

The kid cleans the bowl, and then licks his fingers, and then stares through his lap like he’s not sure where the food’s gone. He recoils, lip curling over his teeth, when you reach out.

“C’mon,” you say gently. “More where that came from. Just give it a while, or you’ll make yourself sick. Sicker. What do you think of a bath?”

The kid gives you a blank look. His gaze slips down to his hands, which he inspects before seeming to realize that they’re now the cleanest part of his body. He looks back up at you, shaking, eyes bright with fever. His mouth opens, then closes, like a fish on the butcher’s block. You take pity on him, and offer your hand.

“Here. I’ll draw the water. At least put on some clean clothes.”

That seems to focus him. “I c-can’t … ”

“Go with it, boy,” Maggie drawls. “There’s no stopping Sasha once she’s set on helping you. The sooner you let her, the sooner it’ll be over.”

The kid bites his lip. “ … if you insist.”

He’s got an odd accent, you notice now that he’s spoken more than two words at a time — too polished for the gutter you found him in. He speaks too naturally (and there's no way he's lucid enough) to be putting on airs. You’re just glad he’s speaking. He’s acting more like a person by the minute, less like someone too scared and exhausted to think with anything but instinct. He takes your hand, and you help him to his feet, surprised once again by the height to which he unfolds. He must be bumping up against six foot; neither you nor your wife clears five-and-a-half.

You tug him into your backroom like a child’s wheelie toy. There’s a tin basin and bucket, plus a few crates of things you keep around — hand-me-downs received or yet to be passed on, special ornaments to be brought out for holidays and safely tucked away the rest of the year, that sort of thing. You sit the kid down on one of the crates and set about rummaging.

You pull out a set of clean clothes that ought to fit him — passed down from a tall cousin, since you're still half expecting young Petya to shoot up like a sapling. Maggie helps you fill the tub with hot water. The kid sits like a statue through your fussing, motionless but for bouts of phlegmy coughing, until you hand him a towel and a bar of soap.

"Bath," you tell him firmly. He blinks at you, then at the soap and towel, then at the tub, like he's struggling with some scholar's theorem. "Before it gets cold." He still doesn't seem to get it. You sigh and mime pulling off your own shirt. "Strip."

That, he seems to get, pulling the shirt over his head with creaky joints.

You suck in a breath before you can stop yourself.

Long scars rake across the kid's back — old scars, silvery and stretched, though he can't be more than a teenager. Finally, too, you notice the state of his hands, battered with more small scars, fingers crooked from frequent breaks. Raw, scabbed rings around his wrists, and a matching set on his ankles when he sheds his pants. Bruises on his ribs, his hips, his stomach, sickening purple and yellow-green, but not on his face or arms. Nowhere that would show.

"Who did this," you growl before you can stop yourself.

The kid just looks at you, mute. You shake your head, blinking back hot, furious tears, and step towards him — he flinches, but you show him your empty hands, and he lets you take him by the shoulders.

"I don't care who hurt you before," you tell him. "You're under my protection now. They will not reach you here. You got that?"

He looks away. "Don't," he croaks. "Don't die for me."

You laugh, startled. Then you noticed he's squeezed his eyes shut, curled in on himself, and tears have carved paths through the dirt on his cheeks. He trembles like a leaf in the frost, lips moving in frantic prayers, shaking his head as he rocks in place. Alarmed, you squeeze his shoulders, and tilt his chin up with one hand when he doesn't respond. "Hey, now. Hey. Look at me. Breathe. Nobody's dying, okay? Not on my watch. You're safe here. We're all safe. Nod if you understand me."

The kid nods, though he's still shaking, convulsing with the silent sobs of someone who's learned not to be heard. By the Goddess and all her Saints, your heart hurts.

"Stand," you say, taking the kid's hands so you can tug him to his feet. "With me." You guide him over to the tub, where the water's still warm, and point at it. "Bath."

He steps into the tub without protest, and stands there, staring as the water laps around his shins. You sigh.

"Sit."

He sits.

"Can you wash yourself? Or should I do it?"

He shakes it off at last, reaching out as you pass him the soap and washcloth. "I can … "

Reassured, you nod. "That's a good lad. I'll keep a lookout, if you like."

The kid hesitates, then nods. You turn your back and pull over a crate to sit on, watching the door while you listen to the soft splashing of water behind you. Every so often it stops while the kid coughs, or dissolves into more of those heartbreaking, hiccupping sobs, but giving him something to do seems to have steadied him for now.

"Um," he says after a while. Water sloshes as he climbs out of the tub. You pass him the towel and the clean clothes. There's a shuffle of fabric, and then he clears his throat. "You can turn around now."

You turn, and grin broadly. "Look at you! There was a handsome young man under all that dirt. Feel better?"

The kid turns pink, but he nods, plucking at the hem of the shirt. It's too broad for him, and the pants only reach to his shins, but the fit's passable. He's still fever-flushed and swaying on his feet, and you notice a few more minor cuts and scrapes that the overall coating of filth had disguised, but he looks like a kid. Leggy like a young rooster, all knees and elbows, with ears that stick out and a nose that his face hasn't quite grown into.

"Let me see your wrists," you tell him. He cocks his head. You snap your fingers, showing him a glimmer of light. "It's not much, but it'll deal with those scrapes. Last thing you need is those festering."

He hesitates, but holds out his hands. You pass your hands over one of the shackle-marks with a quick prayer, and it fades to fresh pink, to a few thready pale scars once you've brushed the scabs away. You repeat the process on his other wrist, and then both sit on the floor so you can take care of his ankles.

"You don't have to tell me anything," you say softly. "Not who you are, nor where you're from, nor what's happened to you. I won’t ask. I know everything important — you're young, and sick, and scared. You'll have shelter here as long as you need it. Understand?"

The kid bites his lip again, but he nods. "Y-you do this often?"

"Call it a habit." You go to ruffle his hair, but let your hand drop when he flinches. Right, right; it took years for Alena to let you. This kid's around the same age, but he's fresh off the street, still a little bit wild. "My family owes a debt to Cethleann. Alena and Petya are adoptees, former strays like you. We’ve taken in a few others who didn’t stay. You know how it is.”

“ … how it is?”

You sigh. The end of it slides into a growl. “Kids get orphaned, or thrown out, or abandoned by parents too poor to feed them. The Church can't or won't take all of 'em on. They get scared, desperate, and there’s cruel people in this world eager to prey on scared, desperate kids … the least I can do is offer a warm meal and a place to sleep."

“That’s very kind of you,” the kid says quietly. Again that trace of formality, the upper-class arch so out-of-place on a stray. You promised you wouldn't ask, but that won’t stop you from wondering.

“It’s the least I can do,” you say, smiling sadly. “Anyway. Let’s put you to bed, chickie.”

" … chickie?"

"I can't keep calling you 'kid', can I? Come on. You need your rest."

He follows you back into the living room, and lets you tuck him in on the cot. As far as you can tell, he’s out like a light as soon as his head hits the sheets, but as you bank the fire and snuff out the lamp you hear a sniffle and a choked sob.

You swallow.

The best thing you can do right now is give him time, so you slip out of the room and into your wife’s arms, where you can hold her and kiss her and cry yourself to sleep over all the world’s pain.

***

The kid stays for another couple days. He doesn’t get much more talkative, and he doesn’t give you a name. He cries when the fever takes him, screams and lashes out, calls out for his father or for names you don’t recognize — Glenn, Dedue, Eisner. Though he looks as Faerghan as they come, he lapses in and out of what you swear is Duscur tongue. More mysteries.

He sleeps almost the whole first day, except when you wake him to eat, or when he’s taken by a fit of coughing or retching. For the most part, though, he keeps down what you feed him. The hacking coughs sound a little less wet, and they come less often. On the third day, the fever breaks.

That evening, he insists on leaving.

You convince him to stay the night, just to make sure the fever won’t return. Reluctantly, he accepts. That evening, you put together a small pack — spare clothes, a bar of soap, a supply of hardtack and jerky and a jar of cherry preserves, coin enough to buy him another meal or two — and set it at the foot of the cot. He thanks you, his eyes bleary with some distant pain, and lets you give him a hug and Cethleann’s blessing.

The next morning, he’s gone.

“You did what you could,” Maggie tells you, kissing your forehead. You cry into her shoulder still, surrounded by your family with little Nicky on your hip. It breaks your heart every time one of your little birds flies away, even if you know you can’t keep every one.

Maggie’s right, though. You’ve done your best by the kid. You can’t keep anyone who doesn’t want to stay, and you’ve set him up for a couple days, at least.

You hope he’ll be alright.

***

The Empire rolls in without a fight. It grates on you, but there's not much you can do about it. Rumors aside, the prince is dead, and half the army's in bed with the usurpers.

Black-and-crimson sweep over Fhirdiad like a bloody storm. You're ordered to strip the lion emblems and royal blue from every home and storefront, and anyone who doesn't comply gets a visit from the boys in red. You spit at the feet of soldiers, "guards", in Imperial colors, and get your ass beat for the trouble, but you deal out a few black eyes in return and feel better for it. If they want to take your blue, they can have a goddess-damned taste of it.

Faerghus goes on wartime rationing. There's more strays than ever, and you can't help all of them. Cethleann save you, it breaks your heart — most of them, you know, will get swept up by the Imperial army, sent to fight their own countrymen for clean clothes and a hot meal, and that's if they're lucky. Your cousin quits the clergy and moves in with you. Healing magic is a premium skill, even if the faith's politely discouraged, and it helps you scrape by through the lean years.

And then the prince isn't dead. An army sweeps from the ruins of Garreg Mach towards the capital led by the heirs to half of Faerghus's old noble houses, with the Prince Blaiddyd and some ex-mercenary at its head. You're at work when the vanguard hits, and you take your sledgehammer in one hand and a brick in the other and bolt through the streets, swinging at any asshole in red who'd try to stop you.

You get home to find the door swinging loose on its hinges, and a man with a lance fending off your Maggie, swinging a cast-iron pan while clutching Nicky to her chest, and Alena with the fireplace poker. You fly through the door, screaming in a terrified rage; he whirls, and the poker hits the back of his neck with a sickening crack. He goes down like a sack of flour. Before you can think your hammer caves his skull in.

There's silence, as you all stop and stare at each other, at the dead soldier whose blood and brains spill across your floor.

"Well," Maggie says faintly, "let's get that outside."

You drag the dead man outside and prop him up by your door, a warning to anyone else who might try any bullshit, and then you fall into each others' arms and laugh until laughing turns to sobbing turns to holding each other on your bloodied floor. No one else tries to fuck with you. The sun sets, and the night goes quiet outside your door.

It takes weeks to douse all the fires, clean up the corpses, and put Fhirdiad back together. It gets done, though, and the streets sing with a hope and pride you haven't felt since the coup.

You scrub the bloodstains off your floor, but they linger no matter what you do. In the end you put a rug over it and try to forget.

***

You raise your head at a knock on your door. It's just you, Maggie, and Petya playing cards by candlelight. Alena married and moved out a year ago, after the fighting stopped. Nikita’s out late with his puppy-pack of friends, and you haven't yet convinced him to knock before bursting through the front door.

So you slide back the bolt and crack the door open cautiously. The shaft of light falls over the face of a man, blond, built like a tree, missing one eye and finely-dressed in the manner of a rich man trying not to look like one.

"Um," he says, sounding not at all noble, "is this … I'm looking for a Sasha?"

"Who wants to know?" you ask, eyeing him suspiciously.

He fidgets. " … it would have been … six years ago, now. You offered me aid when I was sick."

You frown. He doesn't look familiar, until it occurs to you that he looks to be in his early twenties. If you imagine him as a teenager …

"If it helps," he says, the corner of his mouth twisting in a wry smile, "I think you found me in a gutter."

"Who is it?" Maggie asks, in the same moment as you fling the door open and tackle your muddy young goldfinch in the biggest hug you can give him.

"CHICKIE!"

He grunts — he's grown even taller, unless time has clouded the memory, but you're built like the bricks you lay for a living. He hugs you back, rests his chin atop your head and laughs, and though it's been six years your heart wells over to hear not a hint of the pneumoniac cough in his chest.

"By the Goddess," you say, holding him at arm's length to look him over, "what happened to that scrawny chickie? You're a well-kept young cockerel now!"

"Sasha," Maggie calls, growing impatient.

"Maggie, look! One of our strays!" you crow, burying the prick of tears beneath a hot surge of pride. You drag your boy over the threshold by his wrist and push him into a chair. You can’t help but celebrate every time someone comes back to visit. "Come in, sit, eat. How've you been? The war wasn’t kind to you, by the look of things. Did the Imperials snap you up?”

He gives you an odd look. “What would it mean, if they had?”

You scowl. “They were recruiting off the streets. Sending kids out to fight their own kin for the promise of food and shelter. Well, I say that, but the Kingdom’s armies were hardly better. Soldiers are soldiers, I guess. Fucking disgrace.”

“Is that so.” A shadow passes across your stray’s face, but he shakes it off. “That’s … not exactly my story.”

“Eat up and tell it, then, if you like.” Your stray perks up when you slide a bowl in front of him.

“Rabbit stew!”

“Six years, and you remember?” Maggie chuckles, fanning herself. “That kind of compliment could make a lady vain.”

“You should be vain,” you say, bumping her shoulder with your hip as you pass. “Saint Maggie of the Rabbits, they should call you. Put you up in stained glass in all their cathedrals.”

“We’re already married, sir Sasha the Bricklayer. You don’t have to flirt.”

“I flirt,” you say, leaning down, smug, “because I like you.”

She snags your collar and kisses you. You laugh, while Petya makes exaggerated retching noises. Your stray keeps his nose down in the bowl of stew — hunched over it like a wild thing, still, though he’s put on weight — but you can see his shoulders shake with humor.

“I’m a bit surprised you remember me,” your stray admits, once he’s finished the bowl and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. You shake your head.

“Mom never forgets a stray,” says Petya. They’ve folded up their hand of cards and sat back to watch this unfold, tipping their chair on its back legs like you always tell them not to. “I do, though. Who are you?”

The silence unfolds for far longer than it should.

“ … ah,” says your stray. He rubs at the side of his neck. “I … suppose there’s no easy way to say this.”

You wait, hand on Maggie’s shoulder. After a minute, your stray sighs.

“I never told you my name,” he says. He wrinkles his nose. “Ugh … it’s Dimitri.” He coughs, turning bright red. “Blaiddyd.”

Petya drops their cards. The front legs of their chair crash back to the floor.

“You’re shitting me,” says your mouth before your mind can catch up.

“ … unfortunately not,” says your stray, grimacing. He reaches into an inner vest pocket and fishes out a ring — a signet ring, heavy, silver, and most definitely bearing the crest of Blaiddyd.

Well.

Shit.

“Inspect it if you like,” he offers. You shake your head. For one thing, you’re scared to even touch something that’s worth more than your whole life. For another … there’ve been pretenders through the years, but you can’t imagine a fake would open by introducing himself as the boy you fished out of a gutter, or what he'd gain from such a ruse. It explains the scars and the marks of imprisonment you'd seen on him six years ago, and the out-of-place noble accent.

Maggie is more scrupulous, and leans across the table to squint at the finely-detailed engraving, though like you she makes no move to touch it. " … it looks real enough," she says, dubious. "Not that I'd know."

You cover your face, spluttering as it occurs to you that in the past twenty minutes, you have manhandled your own king into a chair, fed him leftover rabbit stew, and called him ‘stray’ and ‘chickie’. Goddess strike you down. Please.

“Oh, please don’t — ” The ring goes back in its pocket. Your stray, your king, Dimitri Alexandre of Faerghus, rubs his forehead. “Please. I don’t want … ugh.”

He gets up from the table, pushes his chair neatly back in, and then bows to you as deeply as he can without going down on one knee. "You were very kind to me when I was desperately in need," he says, without rising. "Not because of my name or my birth, but because you saw a lost child in need, and offered him your home and hearth. Your charity was a comfort to me through the harsh years that followed, and Faerghus owes its fate to your kindness as much as to me. If not for you, I would certainly have died in the gutter where you found me."

The fire pops, in the silence that follows. Your heart damn near bursts in your chest.

… he's right about one thing. He may be your king, but he is also your stray, the skinny teenager you pulled wild and feverish from a gutter, bathed and fed rabbit stew and promised to protect.

"I told you," says your mouth while you reel, dazed. "It's the least I can do."

At last the man straightens, and smiles at you like the sun. "And you can do a great deal more. I didn't come here just to thank you. I — I want to be a good king. I want there to be no more strays. No one should be without food and shelter, vulnerable to whatever cruel soul would prey on those in need." His smile fades into a look of worry. "But … my status isolates me from the people I would serve. I thought, if I'm to do this, I should start by speaking to someone who has made charity their life's work."

You're dreaming. Possibly dead. "Maggie, punch me."

"I'm not going to punch you."

"Petya, punch me — ow!" You rub your arm, glaring. "Someone's eager. Should I be worried?"

Petya sticks out their tongue. "You told me to."

Then you all remember that you're in the presence of your actual king, and freeze. He leans back, hands raised. "No, please. I think I preferred being a stray."

“Your Majesty — ”

He shakes his head. “Dimitri. It rather defeats the purpose if you can’t be candid with me … perhaps we should get back to the point. What would you need to help more children? More strays, like I was when you found me?”

You open your mouth, then close it, shaking your head. It’s — you’ve dreamed of this — but now that, may you reiterate, the actual Crest-of-Blaiddyd Goddess-blessed king is offering it to you on a platter, all your thoughts have flown away like the four-and-twenty blackbirds. You can’t even keep a metaphor straight, let alone present on the spot a plan to … what? Where to begin with an idea of this magnitude?

"You might … want to give us some time," says Maggie, Cichol bless her. "I think you broke poor Sasha."

"I'm not broken," you scrape your pieces together to protest. "Um. I." You stare at the ceiling. If you don't look at him, it's easier. " … if … that is … if you'd allow … " He did ask what you need. "Some time," you say faintly. "Please."

"Oh — of course," says His Majesty King Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd of Faerghus, looking flustered. "I'm sorry — I suppose this is very sudden — but I wanted to thank you in person, so I thought I might present the idea in person as well." He shifts on his feet and rubs at his neck again, flushing. "Be honest, would you have believed me if I'd sent a letter?"

"Probably not," says Maggie. In the same breath, you say, "I can't read."

You look at each other. You realize Petya has disappeared, and duck your head to find that they've sunk completely under the table with the pretense of picking up their cards. You straighten up and look at the king.

" … right," he says, and lets out a breath. "That does complicate matters. I … suppose … " A lock of hair slips over his nose from his blind side. His shoulders hike up, and he gives you a look as shy and hopeful as your little bird. "I … could visit again? Only if you'd like, of course."

As unbelievable as all this is, you still recognize your stray, your awkward leggy chickie still growing into his feathers, and it cracks the shell of your shock. You set your hand on Maggie's shoulder again, straighten your back, and lift your chin to look him in the eye. "Always," you say firmly. "You've slept by our fire once. You're always welcome back."

"If you give us some warning," says Maggie, ever the skeptic. "If you can visit without making a national holiday of it."

"How'd you even get down here without a whole parade?" Petya pipes up from under the table. Your stray — the king — Dimitri? That'll take getting used to — he grins.

"It's a gift. You'd be surprised. No one seems to recognize me when I'm not acting official." His expression dims. Just as quickly he smiles again, bright as a midnight lantern. "I'll leave you be for tonight, but — thank you once again. For your kindness. For saving me. And for rabbit stew." He turns that blinding smile on Maggie, who goes red as a rose.

"It's a family recipe," she squeaks, strangled.

"Wait," you say as he turns to go. "Wait — "

You dart in around the front of the table, steel yourself, and then drag him into a tight hug. He makes a startled noise, but before you can second-guess yourself or drop dead on the spot, he hugs you back, just about squeezing the breath out of you.

He might be your king, but he's also your stray. You figure both things can be true.

"'m glad you're okay," you wheeze, because he really is holding you tightly.

"Thank you," he mumbles. His voice quivers like that boy six years ago, like he's the one about to cry.

You let each other go. You sniff back a few tears, and catch king Dimitri swiping his thumb hurriedly beneath his eyepatch. Chickie, you think fondly. You're still old enough to be his father.

"Be good to yourself," you tell him, because you're awful at goodbyes. He chuckles wetly.

"I'll try. Everyone tells me I work too much."

Then he steps back, and for a moment the regal mask slips back into place as he bows again.

"Thank you for your time, sir and lady Kovachekova," he says. "I hope to speak to you again when we are both better prepared. For now, I wish you good night and the Goddess's blessing."

You shake yourself, and manage a strained little, "Good night," before he's gone out the door.

And then you hear a squawk. The poor man leaps aside as Nikita thunders in like a wild horse. He kicks the door shut behind him and tosses his coat and hat to the floor before noticing your collective dazed silence.

"Who th' fuck was that?" he says.

"Language," Maggie snaps.

You roll your eyes — Nicky's at the age where he's just learned he can swear and will be damned if he doesn't make the most of it — and rest your face in one hand. “We’re not animals, Nicky. Hang your coat up.”

“Mo-om,” he whines, but he does it. “Seriously, who was mister fancy?”

Petya slides under the table again, sob-wheezing. You look at Maggie. Maggie looks at you. You both look at Petya’s place at the table. Their hysterical giggling echoes up from under their seat.

You sigh. “It's a long story. Sit down and eat your dinner.”

Nikita sniffs the air and whoops. He bounds around the table to kiss his mother on the cheek before snatching up a bowl. "Rabbit stew!"

***

Though Dimitri earned the title of "Savior King" during his reign, he never liked the epithet. When spoken in his presence, he would insist that his people had saved him as surely the opposite. Furthermore, he wished not to be a lone savior, but to create the means for Faerghus's people to save themselves after his death. His objections were largely ignored.

His reign did bring about lasting changes, however, including the institution of shelters in Fhirdiad's working-class districts and, eventually, across Faerghus. These shelters provided shelter, meals, and medical care to anyone in need, without question. They were managed by a former bricklayer, Sasha Kovachekova, and their wife, Magdalena Kovachekova, both of whom remained involved in the operation of the first shelter until age and illness forced their retirement. Both were knighted for their service, and it is said they remained personal friends with the king for many years.