To Sleep, To Dream
Dimitri frowned at himself in the mirror as he straightened his jacket and fussed with the gold braid running from lapel to shoulder. “Are you certain I look all right?”
“Are you worried about making a good impression?” Dedue asked, handing him a comb.
Dimitri took the comb and pulled his hair up into a half ponytail. “If Flayn is going to be making an effort, it seems discourteous not to try.”
“Give her the flower.”
Dimitri glanced at the single white rose from its vase. “I never knew you were so well-versed in romance.”
“It’s a compliment,” Dimitri said with a chuckle. “I’m a bit envious. But since you are the one with experience…may I ask you something?”
“Does Mercie…does she mind your scars?”
Dedue cleared his throat. “Mercie understands they represent decisions I made. Decisions I would gladly make again. If you are asking what I think you are asking, a woman who is truly interested in you as a person would feel the same way about your scars.”
“I see.” Dedue’s words didn’t entirely allay Dimitri’s apprehension about a lover seeing his body, but they helped a bit. “Thank you.”
“All right.” Dimitri smoothed the front of his jacket and plucked the rose from the vase. “Here we go.”
“There is no reason to be nervous,” Dedue said. “Flayn cares for you. She will not hurt you.”
“I am worried I will hurt her.”
“That is within your control.”
Dimitri nodded. He must not be careless.
The walk to the dining hall felt like a march through Ailell. Sweat pricked his underarms. He was careful not to crush the rose in his grip. It seemed much like Flayn—pale and delicate.
He was a tad early, although many of his ministers had already arrived and were chatting with each other, glasses of sparkling wine in hand. Dimitri preferred hard liquor, himself, but he hoped a light, sweet sparkling wine might meet Flayn’s tastes. If she was even old enough to drink. Goddess, he hoped she was old enough to drink.
His ministers and their husbands or wives noticed his presence, and thus began the exchange of niceties. It preoccupied him for a moment. Everyone was dressed in their finest. In one corner of the hall, a string octet was setting up. Bless him, Dedue had come through again.
Then Flayn arrived, and all thoughts fled from Dimitri’s head. She wore her hair in a simple updo, exposing her slender neck and the bottom of her earlobes. Her gown was silk of the palest blue with long, bell-shaped sleeves. The fabric of the high neckline draped from shoulder to shoulder, barely showing off her collarbones. The gown wasn’t particularly tight fitting, but the curves it revealed, although petite, were those of a woman fully grown.
Dedue, her escort, released her and took Mercie’s hand. As he led his wife to the table, he caught Dimitri’s eye and mouthed, “Flower.”
Dimitri shook off his surprise. Flayn approached him with a soft smile and curtseyed. Dimitri bowed and handed her the rose. Her eyes lit up, and she held the flower to her nose. Its petals brushed her lips—deliberately?—as she inhaled.
“Thank you,” she said. “It is lovely.”
“I am pleased you like it.” He offered her his arm and escorted her to the place of honor at the table, at his right hand. All eyes were on them, although he did his best to ignore the attention. Only when he seated Flayn did he discover that other than a single tie across her shoulder blades, the back of her dress was open all the way to the base of her spine.
Perhaps, he thought as he sat, Flayn did understand what it meant to seduce someone.
The moment he was seated, attendants began to serve the meal. Dimitri would dine upon the food prepared by Mercedes and Dedue, as would Flayn. It was the best way to prevent poisoning. Mercedes and Dedue would do the same. The rest of the meal had been tasted for poison before serving it to the ministers. Once everyone had their food, Dimitri offered a prayer of thanks to the goddess, and they all began to eat.
“This dish is amazing!” Flayn took dainty bites but appeared as if she’d rather stuff everything into her mouth all at once. “You remembered how much I love fish!”
Dimitri winced. “I wish I could take credit. Dedue is the one who remembered and who prepared our meal.”
“Ah.” The warmth in Flayn’s expression did not fade. “I appreciate your honesty. It is one of the things I value about you. Dedue, thank you for the delicious meal.”
Dedue nodded. “It was my pleasure.”
Mercedes beamed at her husband and squeezed his hand. “Tell me, Flayn, how have things been at the monastery?”
Dimitri ate mechanically. He could never taste the food, but he appreciated the textures. If Dedue ever chose to leave his service, there was no doubt in Dimitri’s mind he could make a fine living as a chef. And with Mercedes as his pastry chef…the two would never want for work.
Mercedes carried the conversation, which gave Dimitri more time to study Flayn. The transformation was remarkable. He hadn’t realized how much the childish clothing had influenced his perception of her. After all, she had come across as so wise during their late-night conversations in the cathedral. Her current appearance was much more in line with that woman, although she retained her exuberance.
Flayn extended the conversation to some of the ministers, but Dimitri hardly heard it. Dinner and dessert passed in a flash. Flayn appeared to enjoy the wine—she had four glasses, to no effect. Apparently, she really was old enough to drink and had some experience doing so.
When the string octet began to tune their instruments, Flayn’s head shot up. “Oh, will there be dancing? I had not expected to dance.”
“I asked Dedue to arrange it, once you mentioned it was something you enjoyed,” Dimitri said.
Flayn shot him a coy smile. “One would think you were the one trying to seduce me, plying me with flowers and dancing.”
Heat rushed to Dimitri’s cheeks. “Not at all. I—that is—”
“I am teasing. Come, shall we dance?”
Dimitri stood, sending a panicked look in Dedue’s direction. Dedue sat back in his chair, appearing unsympathetic. Mercedes giggled into her hand.
“Will you do me the honor?” Dimitri asked, extending his hand.
Flayn smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”
Her hand seemed so tiny in his as he escorted her onto the dance floor. She was over a foot shorter than he, but he was an experienced enough dancer it was no hardship to adjust.
“Do you always wear gloves?” she asked.
Flayn slowly peeled off one of his gloves then the other. She slid her fingers along his palms as she did so, sending a shiver running down his spine. When she was finished, she tucked the gloves in the pocket of his jacket.
“There we are,” she said, voice soft. “Now I can feel you, and you can feel me.”
Dimitri swallowed and nodded. What to do with this strangely mature version of Flayn? He hadn’t expected her to actually know what she was doing. It appeared he was a weaker man than he thought.
Flayn placed her hand in his. Her palms lacked calluses, the skin smooth and soft. He put his hand on the small of her back, forgetting there was no fabric there. The warmth of her body, the silkiness of her skin, invaded his thoughts and distracted him so thoroughly he didn’t hear the music start until she nudged him into motion. The scent of lilies wafted up to him as they moved.
“It is so very wonderful to dance again at last,” Flayn said with a sigh. “My father would barely let a boy put his hands on me during the ball in our academy days. It is difficult to dance without touching.”
“He did seem a bit overprotective.”
Flayn chuckled. “That is putting it mildly. But he is not here now. I may do as I please.”
Dimitri nodded, only half listening. Flayn was a good dancer, light on her feet. She followed his lead easily. Her back was so soft. Before he realized it, his fingers were sliding up her spine.
Flayn shuddered beneath his touch. He looked down and just as quickly glanced away again when he noticed the hard points of her nipples against the thin fabric of her dress. How was it possible for a dress to be so modest and so beguiling at the same time? His cheeks grew warm.
By the time the song ended, Dimitri’s knees felt like jelly. Gratitude washed through him when Dedue cut in and whisked Flayn away. Mercedes took her place in Dimitri’s arms, and he sighed.
“I think I underestimated her,” he said as the next song started.
Mercedes smiled. “Dedue told me. How bold of her! I wouldn’t have expected it.”
“What do I do if she succeeds?”
“Accept defeat, I suppose. Don’t feel bad about it. You’re a grown man, and you have needs. It’s only natural.”
“I do not want to base a marriage on those needs.”
“But you will base it on political ones?”
Dimitri snorted. He’d forgotten that Mercedes didn’t pull punches.
“You’re a king,” she continued. “Plenty of women would jump at the chance to bed you, even without strings attached. You could satisfy your desires at any time, and yet you haven’t. That speaks to your character.”
“Have I mentioned how lucky Dedue is to have you?”
Mercedes giggled. “I think he knows.” Adoration filled her expression as she gazed across the room at her husband. “I’m lucky to have him, too.”
“If I find even a fraction of your happiness, it will be more than I deserve.”
Mercedes shook her head. “You deserve all the happiness you can get.”
“Thank you, my friend.”
The dancing continued. Everyone seemed eager to dance with the church envoy, but even so, Flayn seemed to find her way back to Dimitri every other dance. He grew more disoriented each time he held her. By the end of the evening, he questioned if the woman before him was the same girl he’d known at Garreg Mach.
Dimitri tore his gaze away from Flayn long enough to realize there were only a few couples still dancing. Dedue sat in a chair by the wall, Mercedes’s head in his lap. She appeared to be dozing. The musicians must be tiring, also. How had he managed to lose track of time?
The song wound down. Dimitri released Flayn and began clapping. She followed his lead.
“Thank you for the fine music this evening, and on such short notice,” Dimitri told the octet. “You have my gratitude.”
The musicians smiled and murmured their thanks.
Dimitri turned to the remaining people. “And thank you for your attendance. Please rest and enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“You must be tired as well,” he said to Flayn.
“Will you be taking me to my room?”
That was precisely what he intended to do, but the way she said it…. The tips of his ears burned. “Yes, I will escort you to your quarters.”
They said their farewells to the remaining guests, she retrieved her rose from the table, and they made their way through the corridors. It was later than Dimitri realized. The castle was quiet save for the odd guard or servant going about their duties. Flayn’s footfalls were inaudible on the stone floor, which served to make the thumping of his boots all the more obvious. Next to her, he was a lumbering oaf.
Soldiers stood before her quarters, one from the church and one from his own guard. They saluted as he and Flayn drew near. Strange that no knights had accompanied Flayn. True, she had arrived with what appeared to be half an army, but surely at least one of the knights could have been spared.
“Do not hesitate to call upon me should you need anything.” Dimitri bent and kissed her knuckles once again.
“So many kisses.” Amusement glittered in Flayn’s eyes as she looked up at him. “I am unused to such attentions. Would you care to come inside?”
“I am afraid I have other business to attend to. Thank you for a lovely evening.”
Flayn made a small sound. “I see. I also had an excellent time. You are a most accomplished dancer. You are so very strong, but your touch is gentle. Good night, Your Majesty.”
Dimitri bowed as she disappeared inside her room. When her door closed and the bolt slid into place, he addressed the guards. “Should she need anything at all, please see to it immediately, no matter what it is.”
The guards saluted, and Dimitri hurried to his quarters, as if by walking quickly enough he could outpace his own confusion.