Fields of Duscur
Mercedes waited at the castle entrance, twisting her sweaty hands in front of her. Four months had passed since Dimitri had been crowned. Four months since she had last seen Dedue. It had taken her a little while to get settled in Fhirdiad and even longer to gather her courage to visit the castle, but the promise she had made was more important than her fear.
The gate guard looked her up and down. “And your name?”
“Mercedes von Martritz, here to see Dedue Molinaro.” Her heart thrummed like a hummingbird inside a cage. She should have expected castle security to be tight.
Distaste flickered across the guard’s face. Something hot snapped inside Mercedes’s chest.
“Dedue saved His Majesty’s life on more than one occasion,” she said.
“She’s right, you know. I’ve learned prejudice has no place in King Dimitri’s court. You’d best let her in,” a familiar voice said. A blonde head came into view.
Mercedes grinned and rushed forward. “Ingrid!”
“L-Lady Gautier,” the guard said, saluting.
“I’ll vouch for her,” Ingrid said, taking Mercedes’s arm. The armor made it awkward. “As you were, soldier.”
Mercedes glanced over her shoulder at the flustered guard. “I’m so lucky you passed by. I hope I’m not inconveniencing you.”
“It’s worth it to see you. I was just on my way to meet Sylvain at our town house, but he can wait.”
Mercedes took in the sight of her friend. Ingrid appeared strong and happy and healthy, which lifted Mercedes’s spirits. “And how is Sylvain?”
“Fine.” Ingrid tried and failed to stifle a smile. “The same as always. His father’s not well, so he may be taking on Margrave duties sooner than expected. My time as a knight might be brief.”
“Nonsense! Dimitri will just release you into Sylvain’s service.”
Ingrid snorted. “I’m not sure Sylvain will want me to put myself in danger for his sake.”
“Maybe not, but I just know he’ll respect your dream. You might find him on the battlefield next to you.”
Ingrid’s smile widened. “That does sound like him, doesn’t it? In the meantime, he’s been making connections with people he hopes can improve our agricultural yields. Soil management, crop synergies, things like that.”
Ingrid laughed and led Mercedes from the courtyard into a corridor. Their boots echoed on the polished stone.
“Sylvain seems to find it interesting,” Ingrid said. “I think I’ll let him summarize it for me.”
They chatted about their friends as they walked the halls. The castle hadn’t been completely restored after the battle so many months ago, but Dimitri’s staff had gone a long way toward putting his touch on the place. Banners emblazoned with his coat of arms hung on the walls, and plush blue carpets graced the floors of some of the rooms they passed. The lanterns on the wall were polished to a high shine. Even the air smelled fresh, like clean laundry and hope.
“Dimitri’s in audiences for a while, and Dedue will be with him,” Ingrid said as she guided Mercedes into a sitting room. “Make yourself comfortable. I’d stay, but I really should be getting home before Sylvain comes searching for me. For someone who was so irresponsible as a youth, he fusses like a mother hen now.”
Mercedes shook her head. “Don’t worry about me. Thank you for everything. It was so good to see you again.”
“Likewise.” Ingrid paused at the door. “It feels strange to be apart, doesn’t it? After so long together…”
“It does. I miss everyone, but having Fódlan at peace is worth it. I hope we see each other again soon.”
Ingrid threw Mercedes a last smile over her shoulder and departed. Mercedes gazed for a moment at the door, sending a quick prayer for Ingrid’s continued happiness to the goddess, and turned her attention to the room. Bookshelves lined one wall, many appearing to have been read. A circular table covered with a blue tablecloth sat in the center of the room surrounded by four chairs with blue velvet cushions trimmed in white. One of the walls held a painting, fireplace, and another door. The large window on the remaining wall looked out upon a private courtyard. Mercedes wandered to the glass. Outside lay a small garden, impeccably kept. She recognized very few of the plants. What a lovely little retreat.
A servant brought her tea, a bowl of sliced apples, and a few cookies before departing again. Mercedes sat at the table and took advantage of the refreshments while she waited. Then she perused the titles on the bookshelf. She looked out the window again. Time dragged on. She pulled one of the volumes off the shelf and began to read. The shadows in the garden grew longer.
Mercedes must have become absorbed in the book, because the sound of the door opening startled her. She jumped out of the chair and stood with her hands clasped, ready to greet her king.
It wasn’t Dimitri who entered the room. The breath caught in her throat at the sight of familiar white hair and stern face.
“Dedue!” In her excitement, she said it far more loudly than she meant to.
Emotions flickered over his face too quickly for her to catch, his expression finally settling in a slight frown. He made no move toward her. The smile slipped from Mercedes’s face.
“Mercedes.” Despite his distant tone, his deep voice rumbled in her bones. “I am sorry to keep you waiting.”
She twisted her hands in front of her. “You didn’t know I was here, did you?”
“I did not.”
“Well,” she said, trying to keep her voice light, “I hope I’m not keeping you from important business.”
Dedue said nothing as he stared at her.
Mercedes’s knees threatened to buckle. It felt like a fist squeezed her heart. “I know you said goodbye, but the war’s over and we still haven’t gone to Duscur. I thought it was a promise.”
His brow furrowed. He took a step forward, mouth opening.
Mercedes broke before he could speak. She closed the distance between them and slid her arms around him. He stiffened in her embrace. Then, slowly, his arms closed around her. She thought she felt him bury his nose in her hair and inhale.
“If you want me to leave, I will,” she whispered against his chest.
“It does not matter what I want.”
Mercedes pushed away from him and fixed his gaze with hers. “Have you tried talking to Dimitri?”
Dedue’s lips thinned, and he looked away.
“Would you mind if I spoke with him?”
Dedue shook his head. “I am not a coward.”
“I never thought you were, or at least I’m not one to judge. It took me weeks to build up the courage to come here.”
The faintest of smiles crossed his face, and to her it was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud.
“You have always been brave,” he said.
Mercedes laid her head against Dedue’s chest and closed her eyes. His heart beat slow and steady. Maybe he was right, maybe she was brave. After all, she had come here and been the one to hug him. That he hugged her back made her heart soar.
“May I stay and visit for a while, or do you need to go?” she asked.
“Please, stay. Dine with me. His Majesty is otherwise engaged and has dismissed me for the evening.”
She smiled up at him. “It would be my pleasure. Although I would rather cook with you.”
“Ah.” His eyes lit up. “I have missed that also. I believe that can be arranged.”
Mercedes spent the rest of the evening in a lovely haze. She and Dedue cooked together, ate together, and then returned to the sitting room—she’d learned it was part of his personal quarters—for a cup of tea. A warmth that did not come from her beverage suffused her as she gazed at the man next to her.
“I love hearing you talk about Duscur,” she said with a sigh as she replaced her cup in its saucer.
The slight smile Dedue had worn throughout the evening faded. “You are one of the few.”
“I don’t believe it. If people knew more about it…”
Dedue shook his head.
Mercedes brushed the back of his hand with her fingers. “I don’t want Duscur’s culture to be lost. I truly want to help. Please. I know we can do it.”
“You are too good.” He caught her hand and held it.
They sat, gazing at each other in the candlelight. Mercedes’s head spun, giddy. She could look into his eyes forever.
“It is too soon,” Dedue said after the long silence. “His Majesty’s reign is still too new, too fragile. Perhaps once the kingdom is stable.”
Mercedes tightened her grip on his hand, trying not to get distracted by how large and strong it was. “That’s all right. It will give me time to put together the materials.”
Dedue raised an eyebrow.
“I was thinking, what if we started a school? Combined with a sort of cultural center? We can give cooking demonstrations, and we can teach Duscur history and culture in classes. But it will take a while to put together the texts and lessons, let alone find a location.”
Dedue frowned, gaze turned inward, but she knew he was considering it.
“You won’t even have to do much,” she said, warming to the idea. She could almost see the place, decorated in the style of his homeland, whatever that might turn out to be. “We can sit together whenever you have a free evening. You can tell me all you know, and I’ll write everything down. It will be even better once we go on our journey.”
Dedue met her eyes. “Why put forth so much effort for this?”
Heat flooded Mercedes’s face. “I want to help correct a wrong. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because I care about you. Because I want to be part of your life, no matter how small.”
“There is nothing small about the way I feel about you.”
Mercedes went lightheaded, her heart jumping into her throat. Her lips parted, but no words came out.
“It is getting late,” he said, standing. “Let me take you home.”
Mercedes longed to stay, but her traitorous mouth said, “All right.”
She took Dedue’s arm and allowed him to lead her through the castle’s corridors. Her surroundings fell away, all her attention focused on the man at her side. The rest of the world no longer existed. They arrived at the stables, where a massive gray horse was saddled. Dedue mounted and pulled her up. Her skirts wouldn’t allow her to sit astride, so she settled into his lap. Mercedes was not a small woman, but Dedue made her feel dainty.
His strong arms closed around her, and she leaned her head against his shoulder. This was what she wanted. His warm breath stirred her hair as he pressed his mouth to the top of her head. Suddenly, she very much wanted his mouth on hers. She sent a prayer to the goddess to help her be patient.
The ride seemed to take no more than an instant, and they arrived at her door all too soon. She slid down, and he dismounted after her. They stood on her stoop. He smiled down at her, expression soft.
“You’re so handsome, especially when you smile,” she said.
“You give me hope.”
“May I call upon you tomorrow?” she asked.
Dedue leaned down and pressed his lips to her forehead. “Please do.”
She stole one last embrace before he retreated to his horse. He watched until she went inside, and she hurried to the window and waved at him as he disappeared into the dark. Her gaze followed him down the street long after he was out of sight.