Fields of Duscur
Mercedes drifted awake, senses filled with the scent of cedar and pine. A brawny arm draped over her, and a warm, solid body curled around hers like she was a pearl inside a shell. A smile curved her mouth as the night before came rushing back. There was nothing so wonderful as knowing her love was returned.
Carefully, she rolled over. Waking Dedue was the last thing she wanted. His stern features relaxed in sleep, his pale hair spread across the pillow. He was the loveliest thing she’d ever seen.
His eyes cracked open, and a tiny smile appeared on his lips. Oh, how she loved that smile!
“Good morning,” he said, his deep voice rumbling in her bones.
She caressed his cheek. “I worried it was a dream.”
“I wonder if I dream still.”
“I want to kiss you, but I have morning breath,” she said with a giggle.
Mercedes gasped as he gripped her by the waist and kissed her. His lower lip slipped into her mouth, and she sucked on it greedily. She tangled her fingers in his hair, pulling him to her more tightly. His thigh slid between hers, hard and muscular, and a fire ignited low in her belly. More, she wanted more of him. Passion raged beneath his stoic surface. Let it engulf her.
His hand rucked the fabric of her nightshirt as it ran up her side, stopping just before it reached her breast. She pressed into his callused palm, wishing he wouldn’t stop. How improper of her. But no one was here to know how improper she was but the two of them. Besides, he had told her she was brave. She’d always let others dictate her actions. Perhaps it was time to prove her bravery and take what she wanted.
Mercedes took Dedue’s hand and slowly moved it to her breast.
Dedue moaned, his hips grinding against her. “We should stop,” he said between panting breaths.
Even as he spoke, his thumb passed over her nipple. She gasped and arched beneath his touch. His lips teased her mouth open, and a low sound left her as his tongue slid along hers. She tugged on his shirt, trying to get to his skin. He broke away from her mouth and planted kisses along her neck. Mercedes rolled onto her back to give him better access, and he moved with her, his massive frame pressing her into the mattress. On instinct, she opened her thighs to him. He settled between them as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Only the fabric of their nightshirts separated them. Her hips tilted toward him, his hardness pressing against the apex of her legs. She ground against him and scrabbled at his back, mind blank with need, trying to pull him to her.
Dedue jerked away with a gasp. The covers went with him, washing Mercedes with cold air. He moved to the edge of the bed, elbows on knees and head bent so his hair obscured his face.
Mercedes sat up, yanking the nightshirt back down over her hips as she did so, and hid her face in her hands. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to be so forward. What must you think of me?”
Dedue’s ribcage heaved as he took gulps of air.
“I’m so, so sorry.” Mercedes slid toward the edge of the bed, cheeks burning. How could she? What sort of woman would he think she was? All she needed to do was get dressed and go. Maybe he would forget about her behavior by the next time they met.
Dedue grabbed her hand, halting her flight to the washroom.
“I think,” he said slowly, “that you are a normal woman with healthy appetites. What I cannot believe is that, of all people, you want me.”
Mercedes stared at him, all thoughts of leaving gone. “But you’re the best man I know.”
“I have done terrible things in His Majesty’s service.”
She sat down on the bed next to him, his hand still folded around hers. “We all did awful things during the war, but we did them to survive. We can accept those parts of us without letting them become all of who we are.”
Dedue raised his head and looked at her. “You are very wise.”
Mercedes laughed and shook her head.
“I mean it.” He leaned over and kissed her, and the flames inside her immediately roared in answer. She opened her mouth to him. Before she knew it, she was in his lap with her arms around his neck.
Dedue broke away and rested his forehead against hers. “I think we had best obtain those gifts today.”
“Should I cancel my lease? I don’t want to presume.”
“I’ll send some soldiers to help you move your things here.”
Her heart leaped in her chest, as if she were running a race and had no chance of losing.
“I will come and fetch you as soon as Dimitri can spare me,” he said. “Please relax here as long as you like. Eat breakfast.”
“May we eat together?”
He smiled and squeezed her tighter. “I’ll send for our meal while you get dressed.”
Mercedes hurried to get ready, wishing she’d brought a toothbrush. Or hairbrush. Her dress was a little rumpled, but not enough anyone would notice. By the time she emerged, Dedue was fully dressed, much to her disappointment. Shame on her. She needed to focus on the tasks ahead. She sent a silent prayer to the goddess for assistance.
They ate in companionable silence, and she sneaked a farewell kiss before practically skipping down the hallway. It felt as if her whole life was expanding before her. A mission where she could truly help people. A man who felt like her perfect match. A new kingdom full of hope for a better life for all, not just the nobility. The possibility of a family of her own. The world had been reborn overnight.
Mercedes spent the morning packing and negotiating the terms of breaking her lease with her landlady. Fortunately, she didn’t have many possessions—the furniture came with the room, and her belongings amounted to a single large trunk. She dragged it downstairs herself then scrubbed the vacant room clean.
After the midday meal, some soldiers arrived to carry Mercedes’s trunk. They also brought funds to help cover the cost of breaking the lease. Once everything was ready, they escorted her back to Dedue’s quarters in the castle. Another armoire had been added to the bedchamber, so she put her belongings inside and pushed the trunk over to the window to serve as a seat. There was still plenty of time left, so she took out a new handkerchief she planned to give to Dedue and did a bit of embroidery.
Dedue arrived a couple of hours later. She rushed to meet him but grew shy as his massive frame came through the door. It felt like welcoming her husband home, but he wasn’t her husband yet. Even so, he smiled at her and tilted her chin up to give her a kiss.
“Shall we go?” he asked.
Mercedes thought of the way his nightshirt stretched taut across the muscles of his chest and nodded.
Dedue’s smile fell away as they walked through the castle. Soldiers saluted him as they moved past, but many did so without enthusiasm, dark looks on their faces. It was even worse when they went out into the city. People looked at him askance despite his uniform. Some even crossed the street when they saw him coming. Others muttered slurs beneath their breaths, just loud enough to hear. A few times she moved to engage them, but Dedue always held her back. Instead, Mercedes held tight to his arm, hoping her presence gave him solace.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“This is how it has been ever since the Tragedy of Duscur.” He looked down at her, expression like granite. “Are you certain you want to subject yourself to this?”
Mercedes locked gazes with him, willing him to see the love and determination inside her. “We will change this. When we build our school, things will get better.”
Dedue nodded, but his expression didn’t change.
For the first time ever, Mercedes entered the Duscur residential district of Fhirdiad. It was obviously poorer than the rest of the city—the buildings weren’t as well maintained, and there was more refuse in the street. But the scent of foreign spices filled the air, and banners of brightly patterned cloth graced many of the storefronts. Dedue escorted her into a shop with jewelry displayed in trays.
The shopkeeper eyed Mercedes suspiciously, even though she’d done nothing wrong. It hurt. This, she realized, was only a tiny taste of what Dedue had endured for nearly a decade. That he didn’t hate her people for it spoke to the generosity of his heart. It made her love him all the more, even as what he’d been through saddened her.
Dedue bent over the trays without a word. He picked up an earring—the dangling kind, of moderate size—and examined it before moving on. Mercedes looked also while he methodically inspected everything the shop had to offer.
“Do you see anything you like?” he asked her.
“I think I will get these earrings.” Mercedes picked up a pair similar to the ones he’d seemed interested in before, only with a different symbol gracing its surface.
“They are not your usual style.”
“These aren’t for just me, remember?”
Dedue grunted and selected a simple gold chain. “Can you convert one of those earrings into a pendant?” he asked the shopkeeper.
The shopkeeper grumbled but did as asked. Mercedes and Dedue split the bill, took their purchases, and left.
“Should we hire a carriage back to the castle?” she asked. “It might be faster, if we need to cook Dimitri dinner.”
To her surprise, Dedue blushed. “I have already arranged his evening meal. Even so, I am eager to return to the castle.”
Mercedes’s own face heated as she realized what he must be thinking. “Then let’s go.”
They clasped hands and left the shop to hail a carriage.