Despite her status, not many things were a constant in Alfin Reise Arnor’s life. Maids came and went, the sweet words of nobles changed to daggers in an instant.
Alfin thinks that her family only truly became a constant the moment when Prince Olivert, once a small boy like her brother, joined her family. They were once three, always three. A big brother, a little sister, and a little brother.
So it should remain.
Once, as a small child, she played hide and seek in the royal palace with her brothers, as most innocent children did. Eager to find her brothers, she ran down the halls, clambered through inordinately large vases, and burst through closets.
Back then, she’d been so young and so weak, that the moment the sun began to set and the boys could not be found after a long search, she began to cry piteously. The maids and butlers were the first to respond, of course, but they could not appease the young princess. Only her brothers could, and she could not find them. She could not find them in her small world, the only world she knew, and therefore, they were no longer there.
Afterwards, Olivert stroked her hair and sang her a lullaby to help her sleep. He promised that he would remain with her forever, as long as she wanted.
It was a lie, of course. But it was easier to accept as a child. Lying, just like madness, is deeply ingrained in royal blood.
After all, every member of the royal family lies to some capacity, it’s only a matter of who believes them. She will lie, Olivert will lie, and Cedric will lie. It’s only a matter of when.
Olivert teaches her that her words are stronger than the weapon. A few well placed compliments and a glass of wine could make the nobles sing his tune. Much like how a viper attacks silently from the shadows, so does Prince Olivert. He has plans, Alfin knows, to change Erebonia, and perhaps the world. He does so silently, gradually emerging from the shadows of royalty to speak for the common people. And by it all remains his silent and stern supporter, Mueller. Rarely were there moments where they could not be found together, planning something “overly-dramatic” as Mueller calls it. Alfin knows its true name is change.
When Olivert leaves for Liberl suddenly, Alfin begins to make her own weapon: her reputation. Gone was the shy princess hidden in castle walls and out was a playful yet charismatic speaker. She became known as Erebonia’s national treasure, an innocence worth protecting. She adopts Olivert’s tactics of maintaining a spirited personality in public to maintain the popularity of the royal family.
But it still doesn’t feel like enough. Not when she can’t afford to be too outspoken when the Chancellor watches over her, his eyes calculating, almost waiting for the wrong move. She can’t make a move, not when she is only a pawn against a king.
When Olivert comes back from Liberl, he is a different man. He is wiser, speaks passionately about the world and its people. He tells tales of bracers who achieved great things working for the people. He makes the world and Erebonia seem worth fighting for.
She wants to. Then Giliath Osborne is assassinated, and Erebonia descends into chaos.
Her brother Cedric was once a kind, tenderhearted boy. He was the kind of boy who dested violence and dreamed of a world at peace. If a salacious joke from his siblings flew over his head, he would simply shake his head and laugh politely, and then he would say, “There is much for me to learn, but not from you,” and they in turn would laugh.
She once had high dreams about her and Cedric. There were numerous occasions in which she found herself pondering the future, with him as the wise king to her as the playful advisor.
The Civil War teaches her better. What little power the royal family is presumed to have is none at all. The real chessmaster is Osborne, untouchable, not even a piece on the board.
She and Olivert have become reluctant pawns. Olivert fights back, as he always has, but there is little he can do anymore.
And Cedric? He is gone. In the course of just a year, her brother becomes unrecognizable, face, body, and soul moulded by Osborne.
Cedric is gone. Rather, he has been replaced by an imposter who wears his face. Alfin doesn’t entertain the possibility of his death in the Infernal Palace, because that is a thought Alfin cannot bear. Instead, she secretly hopes that he is still in those chambers, waiting to be rescued. In his place was a replica, fed a steady diet of Osborne’s words to grow. A replica without the innocence of youth at all.
She knows the truth, but it is easier for Alfin this way. It is easier to believe that Osborne is a disease that had infected Cedric, because it means Alfin does not have to think of the possibility that he was always born with the ability to be this way. It leaves little room for herself.
“You are not Cedric,” Alfin says one day. It isn’t a question at all.
“Indeed,” Cedric agrees, and the admission saddens Alfin deeply. “I am no longer a weakling anymore. One day, I will be powerful. You should consider your path as well, Alfin.”
All too quickly in the years that pass, Osborne enacts his plans to strip the royal family of its already declining power, first by gaining in ally in the Crown Prince, then by revoking the right of the Vander family to serve the royal family.
As a simple pawn without a guard, it affects Alfin little. What is more worrying is how easily Cedric accepts this, and the dangerous implications it has for her older brother.
When she expresses her worries, Olivert reassures her, as he always has.
“Oh Alfin, my dear, don’t you know? The longer the parting, the sweeter the reunion,” her brother said, though his smile was strained. “Do not worry. Mueller and I shall be together again, and so will the three of us, me, you, and your brother. Together. Just as we have always been.”
Always the three of us. Then noble playboy, the presentable princess, the meek crown prince.
The one constant of the world, Alfin learns, is that everything changes, no matter how hard you hold on to it.
Dinners with the chancellor are tense at best. They always had been, but with Olivert practically a prisoner to Osborne’s constant attention now, there is little room for the debates that had once occurred between the two.
When Osborne speaks, Cedric eagerly latches on to every word, his eyes brightening like the stars of night. What Alfin hears as poisonous rhetoric is nothing but exciting promises to Cedric.
He’s lying to you, Alfin thinks. He’s going to use you and discard you. Why can’t you see that?
Olivert just shakes his head haplessly.
The princess wished her brother knew that Cedric had no intention of ever letting it be that way again, even if he had to dye his hands in his own brother’s blood.
Above Heimdallr, the Courageous explodes before her eyes, flames bursting through the air with metal. Alfin can feel herself falling, and Elise catches her before she loses consciousness. Behind her eyelids, a memory. A game of hide and seek.
Brother, brother, where are you? Where did you go?
It does not matter if those words were actually spoken. The boys will never be found.
The royal family begins with three and ends with one at the end of the world.