A Changing World
The look on Lorenz’s face as Leonie stepped out of her room was almost worth all the tailor’s poking and prodding. His gaze swept her from head to toe, and his cheeks reddened. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he finally offered her his arm.
She took it with a smile. “Don’t you clean up nice.”
Her tone was light, but privately, it was true. The cut of his clothes accentuated his slim figure. Too bad he hadn’t changed his hairstyle.
Lorenz smiled down at her. “You are a vision.”
“That tailor outdid herself.”
“She had an excellent subject.”
Leonie’s cheeks burned. All she’d ever wanted was to be the best mercenary, just like Captain Jeralt. She was comfortable with people who were a bit rough around the edges. Her own people. Being pretty never figured into any of that. It still didn’t, but it was nice to feel attractive once in a while.
Funny that the man who would seem to find her beguiling was Lorenz. He was an excellent warrior, but he was the fussiest person she knew. Talk about opposites.
“You’re not going to expect me to use utensils, are you?” she asked, arching her eyebrow.
An expression of horror stole over his face. “This is the wedding of a king. The use of silverware is non-negotiable—”
Leonie tried and failed to stifle her laugh. “The look on your face,” she said when she caught her breath. “I really had you going.”
“You most certainly did.” Lorenz sniffed and raised his chin. “I am relieved it was only a jest.”
She bumped him with her shoulder. “Come on, loosen up. Aren’t we supposed to be having fun?”
“I suppose you’re right.”
They walked to the church arm in arm. At some point, his gloved hand covered hers. That wasn’t strictly necessary, and the gesture seemed intimate, somehow. He had long, elegant fingers to match the rest of him. Surprisingly, his hands were as strong as hers.
As they neared the cathedral, she was glad for the fancy dress he’d bought her. Everyone else was wearing finery the likes of which she’d never seen before. How many mouths would such wealth feed? It made her a little ill. The coin Lorenz must have spent on her dress would probably have gotten a kid from her village six months at the Officer’s Academy. Maybe she could sell the dress after the wedding was over and donate the funds to her village. Although, Lorenz had once said he supported schooling for all. It was one of the few things he and Claude had seen eye to eye on.
As much as she hated to admit it, money was power. There was a boggling amount of both on display for the king’s wedding.
“I would have never guessed Dimitri would marry Flayn,” Leonie said, craning her neck for a glimpse of the royal couple as Lorenz escorted her down the aisle to a pew. Neither the bride nor groom was anywhere to be seen.
Lorenz shrugged as he seated her, hand gentle on her back. “It makes sense, politically. Dimitri’s reign is fragile in the former Empire and the Alliance. Having the church’s support will be critical, and what better way to secure it than to marry a high-ranking member?”
“Still, if you’re going to go through the trouble of getting married, shouldn’t you marry someone you love?”
Lorenz sat next to her and rested his arm on the back of the pew, behind her. His expression took on a pained quality. “Nobles can rarely afford to marry for love.”
Leonie snorted. “Only if they care more about their titles and nobility than anything else.”
“It depends on what’s best for the people. If Lord Holst threatened my territory, for example, it would be safest for those I am sworn to protect if I married Hilda and united our houses, thereby ensuring peace and security.”
Something sharp darted through Leonie’s chest. “At one time, I thought you might marry Hilda.”
“It would have been prudent, yes.”
Leonie turned and stared at Lorenz until he met her gaze. He shifted, mouth tight.
“Then why didn’t you?” she asked.
His gaze roved over Leonie’s face. “I did not love her.”
“Hypocrite.” Leonie couldn’t suppress a grin as the tightness in her chest eased.
A small smile curved his lips. His arm slipped from the back of the pew and rested along her shoulders. His hand settled on her upper arm. Heat flooded her, spreading up her neck and into her face. Had he just put his arm around her? No, it must have been a mistake, for a moment later, he removed his arm altogether and folded his hands in his lap.
Now she was confused. She opened her mouth, but everyone was standing up. Dimitri and Flayn appeared at the cathedral doors. If Leonie thought her dress was expensive, it was nothing compared to Flayn’s frothy skirts. Dimitri looked like a king out of a book, the gold piping on his suit shimmering.
But the most striking thing was the way the two of them looked at each other. It was like no one else in the world existed but them as they walked down the aisle. The archbishop, who was performing the ceremony, even had to repeat himself a couple of times.
Leonie had never cared if anyone looked at her like that. Now that she had seen it, it might be nice. Just once, maybe.
Judging by the expression on Lorenz’s face, he very much wanted what the royal couple seemed to have.
Poor fella. Leonie put her hand on his knee to comfort him. He startled at her touch, and when he looked at her, his eyes were moist. She stared as he took her hand and kissed her knuckles. His lips were soft and warm. When he lowered her hand and fixed his attention on Dimitri and Flayn, he did not let Leonie go. In fact, his fingers laced with hers.
She couldn’t very well correct him—even she had enough manners to know one didn’t talk when people were exchanging vows. It wasn’t like she could tear her hand away, either. She liked Lorenz. He was a decent, if stuffy, sort, and she didn’t want to hurt him.
But did she really want to hold his hand? It was weird. He was her friend.
A friend who looked very handsome in his suit and happened to have thighs of steel from riding.
Time to think about fishing. Fishing was relaxing. Eating the fish was satisfying. She had good memories of sitting by the fishpond, helping catch the evening meal. Seteth, who was sobbing in the front row, had been a good fishing companion. Lorenz would make a terrible fishing companion. He liked to hear himself talk too much, for one thing. It’d scare the fish away. Lorenz was no Captain Jeralt.
Despite what people seemed to think, she wanted to be Jeralt, not marry him. But even Jeralt had gotten married and had a kid. Settled down, sort of.
Leonie had never considered settling down.
She missed the rest of the ceremony, preoccupied as she was about how to get her hand free. When Dimitri and Flayn headed back down the aisle, and Lorenz finally released her to throw rose petals at the couple, Leonie breathed a sigh of relief. Although, Dimitri and Flayn truly did seem happy. Those enormous smiles were genuine. Dimitri rarely grinned, in her recollection, and he was handsome when he did.
“That was beautiful,” Lorenz said as the couple exited the cathedral, dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief.
Leonie sighed. “Sure was.”
“I expect the wedding feast will be just as splendid.” He fixed her with a soft look, strange on his angular face. “I hope you will do the honor of dancing with me.”
“Oh.” She shifted as he put his hand on the small of her back and guided her into the aisle. “I’m not that great at dancing. Not the way you nobles do it, at least.”
“Nonsense. You are quite light on your feet, and with someone as accomplished as I am to lead you, I am sure it will be fine.”
“That’s right, you’ve danced since you could walk, it’s instinct or something.”
Lorenz chuckled. “Quite right. What an excellent memory you have.”
Leonie sighed again.
They walked from the cathedral to the dining hall, where the wedding feast had been laid out. Lorenz and Leonie were seated next to Linhardt and Marianne. Leonie smiled. Marianne looked the happiest she’d ever seen her. It appeared Linhardt, of all people, had helped her get over whatever her problem with herself was.
“Hey, you two,” Leonie said. “It’s good to see you, Marianne.”
Lorenz pushed in Leonie’s chair and fetched her a glass of wine. She’d have preferred ale or hard liquor, but she wasn’t about to complain about anything at a king’s wedding feast.
“Queen Flayn,” Linhardt drawled. “Has a strange ring to it.”
“I am sure she will conduct herself admirably,” Lorenz said. “Both the bride and groom appear well satisfied with their union. We should all be so lucky.”
Linhardt nodded, his arm draped lazily about the back of Marianne’s chair. “So we should. You haven’t married yet, Lorenz? Gloucester is one of the major houses. I’m surprised the ladies aren’t knocking down your door.”
“How is our dear Lysithea?” Lorenz asked.
Leonie raised an eyebrow. It was unlike him to so blatantly ignore a question, especially from another noble.
“Doing quite well,” Linhardt said. “I do believe I’m close to making a breakthrough in removing her Crests.”
Lorenz appeared taken aback. “Both of them?”
“She’d rather live. Do you blame her?”
“No, of course not,” Lorenz said.
“Cyril visits her often,” Marianne said. “He’s trying to teach me how to clean.”
“That’s what we pay the servants for, my dear.” Linhardt shook his head. “You should spend that time napping with me. Don’t worry, Lorenz. That wasn’t a euphemism.”
A hush fell over the table as people gave speeches. Dedue and the archbishop gave predictably short ones. Sylvain’s was the most eloquent, Ingrid’s heartfelt. All Felix could manage was a curt, “Congratulations. I hope you’ll be very happy together.”
Leonie rubbed her hands together as the feast was served. The roast pig and venison looked fantastic, as did the pheasant and beef. There were fish, greens, and root vegetables in abundance, and a pile of assorted bread rolls and buns. It was by far the most lavish meal she had ever witnessed. Unsurprising, considering royalty from three countries were present. She spotted Petra sitting beside Caspar near the head of the table, next to Claude and Hilda. Everyone seemed in a hurry to pair up after the war. Well, not her. Not when there was still coin to be earned and battles to be fought.
“Here,” said Lorenz, passing her another cut of beef.
For his sake, she tried to use her best manners, but she was hungry, and the food was fantastic. Fortunately, her bodice wasn’t as tight as some of the other women’s, and she was able to pack away a fair amount.
“Here,” Lorenz repeated, dabbing the corner of her mouth with his napkin.
Marianne giggled softly into her hand.
“Sorry,” Leonie said, face heating. To think she’d had food on her face. For Lorenz to wipe it away…the gesture had been gentle and tender and surprisingly uncondescending. She searched his face for judgement and found none.
“Will you dance with me?” he asked after the orchestra started up and Flayn and Dimitri finished their first dance as husband and wife.
Leonie frowned. “I told you, I’m not good at this sort of dancing.”
“Do you trust me?”
Lorenz pulled out her chair and offered her his hand. “Then come.”
Leonie’s cheeks warmed. She shot Marianne and Linhardt a look, but Linhardt only yawned, which made Marianne smile. There’d be no rescue from that quarter.
Lorenz’s touch was firm on the small of her back, his other hand holding Leonie’s as he escorted her onto the dance floor. He placed one of her hands on his shoulder. The next song began. Leonie tensed, trying to concentrate, and ended up stepping on his foot.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I told you—”
To her surprise, he smiled. “Do not overthink it. You must relax and let me guide you.”
So, she did. Leonie leaned into his touch. Sure enough, he applied subtle pressure that told her how to turn and where to go.
“You really are a good dancer,” she said.
His eyes twinkled. “Have you ever known me to lie?”
“I guess not.”
He pulled her closer, until their bodies were almost touching. “I have missed you,” he said, voice low. “It feels good to hold you.”
Heat built within Leonie. On the rare occasions she thought about romance, she always figured she’d be the one doing the holding, not being held. But this wasn’t so bad. Lorenz smelled faintly like sandalwood and musk. Funny, she always figured he’d smell like flowers.
“You know what?” she said, surprising herself. “I missed you, too.”
He was one of the few people she’d ever known who was able to put aside his preconceived notions. Who was able to change and grow. It wasn’t that he’d given up his beliefs—he obviously still felt it was the responsibility of those in a position in power to protect the powerless—but he could evolve. Even other commoners she knew could be frustratingly inflexible.
“You’re a special guy,” she said. “All those noble ladies wanting to marry you? One of them is going to be very lucky. You’d make a good husband.”
Lorenz blushed. It was kind of cute. “Only for a noblewoman? Not a commoner?”
He pulled her closer, which wasn’t so cute. Now her chest pressed against his, which made it much harder for her to follow his lead. Thank goodness she had refused to wear shoes with a heel. Fortunately, he slowed until they were barely moving at all.
“Wouldn’t your parents lose their minds if you married a commoner?” she asked.
“I am my own man and make my own decisions. My father won’t be head of the house for much longer. This new world demands new ideas.”
Leonie scrambled for a response. It felt like he was having two conversations with her—one with his words and one beneath. Subtlety was not her forte. She preferred a direct approach.
“So long as it’s for the good of House Gloucester, huh?” she finally managed.
Lorenz shook his head. “So long as it’s for the good of the people. The Alliance may no longer exist, but we must each still care for our territories. If I am to be a good steward, it is not a vapid decoration of a wife I need. I need a strong, dedicated woman who understands the needs of the common folk.”
“I was not under the impression you cared much for romance.”
Leonie shrugged. “I don’t. Relationships get in the way of being Fódlan’s most renowned mercenary. I’m not in love with anyone, nor do I ever plan to settle down.”
The color fled Lorenz’s cheeks, and he seemed a bit unsteady beneath her hands. “Are you all right?” she asked. “Do you need to sit down?”
Leonie gasped as he crushed her to him. Maybe he really was going to topple, if he needed her for support that badly. She should help him, but she’d have to be careful of his pride. The king’s wedding wasn’t a place Lorenz would want to lose face.
She wrapped his arm around her shoulders and held his hand, putting her free arm around his waist. Fortunately, a bench was nearby, and she managed to guide him to it. People might think they were cuddling, but so what? She was a free woman. Besides, people didn’t pay as much attention to Lorenz as he thought they did.
“Let’s take a rest,” she said as they sat. “Should I get you some wine?”
Lorenz grabbed her hand when she went to leave. “Even Jeralt got married and had a family.”
“Yeah, after a long career as a successful mercenary and knight. Let me get you that wine.”
Leonie slipped her hand from his, gathered up her skirts so she could move better, and went to find him a drink. Maybe she’d get one for herself, too. She had a feeling it was going to be a long evening.