Mia wiped her forehead with her headband. The sun beat against her scalp, and her gloves were soaked with perspiration. Still, her grip on the sword was unaffected. She sheathed the blunt blade and walked across the field to where Ike and Rhys had already gathered under the cover of trees, eager to be out of the scorching sun. With a sigh, she plopped down in the shade beside them.
“Phew!” she said. The muscles in her legs burned from exertion, and a stitch in her side made itself known. She tossed her practice blade where Ike had left his. Beside her, Ike laughed and sighed simultaneously. Sweat ran down his forehead in rivulets.
“You’ve gotten faster,” he said, “and stronger. I can hardly keep up!”
Mia grinned. “Aw, thanks, Boss! Still, every time I think I’ve got you, you bounce back with something else. I was so close this time, too!”
“It was a draw,” Ike said, but Mia shook her head.
“No way, you’re not getting out of our challenges that easily. I said I wouldn’t stop until I beat you, and one day I will. Today I came close, but that wasn’t a draw. You won fair and square. Don’t you think, Rhys?”
“You two will be the death of me,” Rhys said in lieu of response. Mia twisted to see him where he stood behind her. Her back popped in three different places.
“Oooh,” she said, twisting back the other way before coming around again to see Rhys. “That feels better.”
Rhys looked pale. “I wish you wouldn’t work yourselves so hard, even if it is for a good reason.”
“You know, you didn’t have to come watch us spar, Rhys. We’re not going to seriously hurt each other with those things,” Ike said, gesturing at the pair of blades. “We use them because Oscar can’t even make a dent in vegetables with them.”
Rhys was unconvinced. “But you might get hurt. I’d rather be here to heal you when it happens than find out about it later. It’s just, you both work so hard…”
“Better we work hard now and than pay the price later,” Ike said.
“I don’t want to be mincemeat,” Mia added. “We’ve got to be the best to win!”
“Still,” Rhys said. His stomach rumbled, and it had nothing to do with hunger. “Still…”
“Rhys?” Mia asked softly, standing. The priest hunched forward. “Are you all right?”
“I think,” he said, gasping lightly, “I think it’s just rather hot.”
Mia and Ike looked at each other. “Water?” Mia suggested.
“Water,” Ike said, nodding. To Rhys, he added, “Why don’t you sit down and take it easy, Rhys? I’m going to go get some water for you.”
Rhys shook his head. Mia brushed the hair out of his eyes where it stuck against tacky skin. “I’m fine,” he said. He had developed a slight stutter. “I’m not used to this, that’s all… Just give me a moment…”
Mia felt Rhys’s shoulder give way under her hand, and she quickly moved so as to hold him up. Once again, she and Ike made eye contact.
“Water,” she said, this time firmly. With another nod, Ike was off.
“I’m fine, really,” Rhys said, his eyes closed.
Mia’s lips were pursed to one side. “You know, for a mercenary, you’re a little bit of a lightweight,” she said.
Rhys smiled at the ground. “Yes, I suppose so. Everyone else is so much stronger than I am.” The smile fell gradually.
The smile returned, though Mia thought it looked forced. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I mean it.”
“Of course you are!” Mia said. “You’re finer than fine! You’re the best healer we’ve got, so we need you in tip-top shape!”
Rhys laughed a little at that. “Thank you, Mia. Coming from you, that means a lot.”
He was still as pale as his robes, but Mia thought he looked a little less fragile than before. She moved from her position in front of him to side beside him and rub circles into his back. Rhys sat still and periodically groaned into the dirt, beset as he was by the weakness that had overcome him. They remained that way until Ike arrived with a flask full of cold, fresh water. Titania and Mist weren’t far behind. With their help, they got Rhys back to their encampment and safely tucked in to rest.
Throughout the process, Mia was quiet. Though they hadn’t known each other for long, Ike picked up on her silence.
“Is everything all right?” he asked. They had returned to the edge of the field to retrieve their weapons. In their haste to move Rhys, they had been forgotten.
“Yeah,” Mia said. “It’s just, does that happen a lot?”
Ike frowned. “What, with Rhys? It used to happen often. Now, it’s more of an uncommon occurrence. He doesn’t watch us spar for this very reason.”
“Why do you think he came out today?”
Ike shrugged, shouldering his blade. “I was wondering the same thing. He asked to watch out of the blue. He said something about knowing how the wounds happened to better treat them. I should have been paying more attention.”
Mia grinned. “Nah, I was just curious. Seems odd, you know?” They began the short walk back to the encampment. “Why’d he become a mercenary if he can’t stand violence?”
“He found Titania dying in the dirt after she was caught unawares by brigands. He saved her life. After that, he just stayed with us. Before the war started, every few weeks, Titania would ride him home to drop off his wages. Now that we’re traveling he can’t, but he still sets it all aside. I don’t think he’s ever kept a piece of gold for himself.” Ike smiled. “I can hardly remember a time without him.”
Mia made to respond, but an approaching soldier caught Ike’s attention. “Commander, we’ve received word of the merchants!”
“Are they headed this way?” Ike asked. They’d been waiting for the merchants the Empress of Begnion had ordered them to apprehend for a few days now. It was high time they appeared.
Ike nodded curtly. “Good.” To Mia, he said, “You up for a fight?”
Mia could only grin. “Of course, boss!”
The merchants fought like brigands. They were armed to the last man, and many had slathered their weapons in some sort of toxin. Mia had protested when Rhys had demanded to come help, but she hadn’t said a word as he held a staff over her arm and drew the poison out.
“Thanks,” she said as he stood back up. She hoisted herself to her feet. There was a roar in the distance, and the clash of steel. The sky had clouded over in the few hours it had taken to locate the mercenaries, but the heat refused to dissipate.
“Any time,” Rhys said. He smiled softly, tilting his head. A light breeze blew his bangs across his forehead.
“Are you sure you’re feeling up to this today?” Mia said. She firmed her grip on her sword and scanned the surrounding area without moving. She wanted to make sure Rhys was all right, but she didn’t want to get them killed in the process. The merchants were no match for the Greil Mercenaries, but there was no sense in getting cocky.
“What, you mean with what happened earlier?” Rhys asked. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. All that matters is that you make it through.”
“We can’t make it through if you don’t,” Mia said. “Take care, all right?”
“May the Goddess look fondly upon us both,” Rhys said. Mia took that as an agreement and prepared to rejoin the battle. If she stayed a little closer to Rhys, well, no one could fault her.
The Begnion Empire was much bigger than Mia expected it to be.
She’d seen the maps, to be sure. It easily took up more than half of the continent. Still, marching across it was harder than she thought it should have been. She held up an arm to try to keep the wind and the sand out of her eyes, but to no avail.
The Apostle had sent Ike and company to the Grann Desert. Grann was a region largely uninhabited, and as such there were few roads or even foot paths. Instead, trees became bushes and eventually nothing more than scrub grass as they approached the desert.
“Rain shadow,” Soren had said. “It’s surrounded by mountains on three sides. Hardly any moisture can get in.” Mia wasn’t sure about any of that, but the landscape spoke for itself: nothing could survive for long out here.
Her gaze flickered to Rhys. He walked beside her, holding the cowl of his cloak against his nose and mouth. Mia didn’t think of words as her strong suit, but she thought serene described him perfectly.
Rhys caught her eyes before she turned away. “How are you holding up?” Mia asked belatedly. “It’s getting pretty hot. Do you need anything?”
The priest shook his head no. “Actually, I feel better than ever.”
Rhys made a noise of assent. “These sands are blessed by the Goddess. They have been imbued with magic beyond anything I have ever felt. I almost feel as if I’m being carried along. Were it not for the sand, I would hardly realize that I’m exerting any effort at all.” Mia could see his smile even with most of his face covered.
“You can feel it? The desert, I mean?”
“I can feel the spirits here. I can’t quite make out what they mean, nor am I sure I’d like to, but it seems that the desert hasn’t been disturbed in a long time.”
“Disturbed? What do you mean?”
Rhys frowned. “I’m not sure, exactly. You see, the spirits here, they are powerful but dangerous. They help those of us with magic, though I know not why. I’d like as not get too close.”
Mia nodded, then looked toward the front of the company. They looked like they were marching into nothing. “Do you think there’s anything out there?” she asked.
“Do I think the bandits have a stronghold here?” Rhys asked. “I am not sure. The spirits in this place, they seem to try to say something, but I cannot fathom what that might be. I’m sure Soren would know.”
Though his mouth remained covered, Mia could see Rhys’ face go blank and assumed that he’d mentioned something he wasn’t supposed to. “Ah, it’s nothing,” he said. “Soren’s a very private person. He wouldn’t like us talking about him where he could not hear.”
Mia looked back to the front of the company where Soren stared listlessly into the distance as Ike spoke to him. “No,” she said softly. “No he wouldn’t.”
Mia didn’t know if Soren had heard them talking about him or not. All she knew was that he wanted her guarding Rhys at all times on the battlefield, effective immediately.
“I’m sorry,” Rhys had said. “I don’t mean to be a burden. I know you want to be out on the front lines.”
“Don’t worry about it!” Mia had said. She’d put on a big grin and watched the front lines, along with her chances to both improve and prove herself, pull further away.
Serenes Forest was awful. Ike’s mercenaries weren’t outclassed but rather outnumbered. Sometimes, Mia thought bitterly, numbers mattered more than skill.
Though every last nerve in her body screamed for her to head to the front lines, she remained behind with Rhys. Though she begrudged it a little, it was ultimately their saving grace: Rhys wasn’t quick on his feet, and Duke Tanas, the lunatic laguz collector, seemed to relish in sending in reinforcements from behind. As it turned out, Mia saw more than her far share of enemies under the canopy of dead leaves and endless grey branches.
Mia and Rhys stuck together through the mud and the blood of Serenes. They had made their way through wood, often separated from the others. Mia mowed down sellswords and Begnion regulars alike, and Rhys, though visibly disturbed by the violence, kept to her side, healing even the smallest of cuts.
When it was finally over and the heron siblings returned the forest to life, Mia and Rhys stepped into the sunlight together and did not look back. Neither Mia nor Rhys ever spoke aloud of Serenes.
The night before Ike’s army passed into Daein, Mia couldn’t sleep. She could see Ike made a lord at the hand of Princess Elinicia when she tried to close her eyes. She didn’t want a royal position, not really. She wanted recognition—fame, fortune, the kinds of honors bestowed upon the best of mercenaries. She sighed into her pillow. She was getting better, but she wasn’t quite there yet.
There came a thump from outside of her tent. Mia sat up and listened, her hand drawing near her blade. The wall of her tent illuminated, and there was another thump.
Quickly, Mia checked that her tent-mate, Ilyana, hadn’t budged before sliding out of her cot and into her boots. She treaded carefully, not making a sound, and lifted the tent flap.
As soon as she took stock of the situation, she hurdled outside, only to skid to a halt in front of her target.
“Mia?” Rhys asked sheepishly. He was in a heap on the ground surrounded by an armful of staves and a few tomes that didn’t look familiar.
“What are you doing?” she demanded. “You’re not still trying to be my white clad rival, are you? I told you, you’re too important to make yourself sick for this!”
Rhys smiled. “No, of course not. You told me not to overwork myself, and…” He trailed off, looking anywhere but her face. “It’s just, I didn’t want to be a burden…”
Mia picked up one of the tomes. It was heavy and entirely unfamiliar. “This isn’t regular magic,” she said.
“You can read the ancient language?” Rhys asked. Mia looked at him. She couldn’t read faces well, but his eyes seemed to sparkle. She hated getting rid of that look, but she wasn’t a liar.
Mia huffed a laugh to cover for her pause. “No way. But this doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen Soren or Ilyana or any of the mages toting around.”
“It’s holy magic. It’s supposed to fall within the purview of the followers of the Goddess.” Rhys scratched at the back of his head. “I thought, if I learned some offensive magic, you might be allowed to return to the front lines.”
Mia outstretched a hand and helped Rhys up from the ground. She brushed the loose dirt from his shoulders and back. There were many things she wanted to say, and no good way to say any of them. “You’re a mess,” she said finally.
Rhys eyes seemed to sparkle again, and Mia wondered if he’d caught her meaning without her having to actually say it. “Perhaps,” he said softly.
Mia caught herself unsure of what to say. She wanted to groan, scratch at her head, something—
But she’d been working so hard to get better with expressing herself since she’d met Ike and the mercenaries, and she didn’t want to let all of that hard work go out the window. All she needed to do was say something.
“Come on. Let’s drop these off,” she said slowly, hefting the books, “and get you a fresh pair of robes.”
For all Mia thought she was absolute rubbish at this, Rhys’s brilliant smile made her feel like she’d just said something truly profound. She looped an arm around Rhys’s shoulders and led him to the river.
“Are you sure?” Mia asked.
Rhys nodded. The sparkles in his eyes and the brilliant smile hadn’t diminished with a night’s sleep. “I’m sure.”
Mia nodded back, then turned to the wall. Today, Ike’s army was going to cross the border into Daein. The wall, a fortress by the name of Tor Garen, stood tall and imposing against the early dawn light. Clouds were moving in, and it would snow soon, but for the moment, the world seemed at a standstill.
Tanith, a Pegasus rider in the service of the Empress of Begnion, had explained that Tor Garen was little more than a narrow stone corridor, turning in places to enable better defense. Fighting inside would be difficult because only a few soldiers could pass through at a time and have the space to fight. Soren had suggested that Mia and Ike, together with Boyd, make a unified front line. Since the enemy didn’t know they were coming, they could sweep in and forge ahead, backed by mages who could heal or attack as needed. The wall would fall in minutes. To that end, Ike and Soren, Boyd and Ilyana, and Mia and Rhys were headed for the front.
“I’ll keep you safe,” Mia promised.
Rhys nodded. “And I shall do the same.”
The garrison at Tor Garen was far from unaware of their presence, and the fighting lasted several hours. Mia, Ike and Boyd had taken a beating, for there was little time to heal when Daein soldiers fell upon them in waves. By the end, one of Mia’s swords was shattered, and she fought with a too-heavy blade that she’d picked off of a corpse. Rhys had a cut on his left cheek and a stitch in his side, but was otherwise unharmed.
When the fighting was over, Rhys was called to tend to the wounded. Still, on the far side of Daein, he took a moment to stand with Mia. He held her by the forearms and rested his head on her shoulder. She held him until Mist came to fetch him.
The road to Nevassa was plagued with difficulty. In the heart of enemy territory, there were few vendors willing to give so much as the time of day. Villages locked their gates when word spread that Ike’s army was coming. Snow fell, and the air became a bitter cold.
Between running the army and fighting, Ike had no time to spar with Mia. She took what opponents she could in Kieran, one of the Crimean knights, and Titania, but it wasn’t the same. They held back. Mia didn’t want to hold back. She wanted to fight—get stronger, faster, better. She wanted to live.
“You push yourself too hard,” Rhys told her as they prepared to set up camp. They were approaching a territory called Talrega. It sat in the mountains and though Ike had no plans to stop there, passing nearby remained their best chance for a straight shot through Daein.
“No way! I need to train harder!” Mia said. “I’ve got to get even stronger if we’re going to win this war!”
Rhys shook his head. “You’ve already gotten so strong,” he said. “You are so fast on your feet, you run laps around your opponents. No one can hit you.” He looked down. “You protect me single-handedly.”
Mia pursed her lips. “That’s the point, isn’t it?” she asked. “I want to protect the people I care about, just like Comm—er, General Ike.”
She was momentarily distracted by Rhys’s slight smile. “And don’t you think you’re doing a good job already?” he asked.
Mia shifted her belts around. “I’m doing all right, I guess, but I can do better! I can be an even better swordswoman than before!”
“Yes, and I wonder how far you will go!”
The new voice startled both Mia and Rhys.
“Uh, hello,” Mia said. “Who are you? You don’t look like any Daein I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s rather rude to ask someone’s name before giving your own,” the newcomer said. “It’s also rude to try to cut them down.”
Mia realized belatedly that she had drawn her sword and moved to stand in front of Rhys. Behind her, Rhys had pulled a tome from absolutely nowhere, and his fingers were running over the letters as if to cast as spell.
“I’m Mia,” she said. “This is Rhys. Who are you?”
“I am Stefan,” the man said. He swept into a light bow. “I understand that you are the one who sparred with our leader before he became a general.”
“That’s right,” Mia said.
“And you don’t train with anyone else?” Stefan asked. He made to circle the pair. Mia grabbed Rhys and pulled him with her as she moved in tandem. “Please, relax. If I meant you any harm, you would know it.”
“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Mia shot back.
“Perhaps we should go,” Rhys whispered.
“Starting to think so, yeah,” Mia said back.
“Wait,” Stefan said, coming to a halt. “You see, I, too, have been sparring with Ike. I, too, seek a worthy challenger. Perhaps I could teach you what I have taught him. I sense that you’ve never had a teacher, but your style is formidable.”
“You’re offering to fight me?” Mia asked. She did not move out of her defensive position.
“I accept, on one condition,” Mia said. Stefan tilted his head. “No holding back.”
“And another: I make sure you two don’t hack each other to pieces,” Rhys added.
“That is two conditions,” Stefan pointed out.
Rhys gave Mia a look. “Then two conditions,” Mia said. “Do you accept?”
“I accept.” He drew his blade. Mia grinned and charged.
On the night before they attacked Nevassa, Mia was sore, covered in bruises, and furious.
“That was cheating,” she said as Rhys ran a warm cloth over a particularly deep cut on her arm. “What are you smiling for?”
“Stefan was right,” Rhys said. “You fight harder when you fight for someone.”
Rhys stopped to look her in the eye. His face had turned a violent shade of red. “When he charged at me, you moved so fast— It was truly remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mia was going to ask if he was feeling all right, but then, “Wait, you knew he was going to do that?”
Rhys ducked his head. “He asked if it would be all right, yes. He wasn’t going to hurt me. He just wanted to see what you’d do, how you’d react.”
Mia smacked her uninjured hand against the wooden table upon which she sat. “I could have killed him!”
“I thought you might have,” Rhys admitted. “Still, it was—it was…”
“What?” Mia asked. The redness hadn’t dissipated from Rhys’s face.
“I mean, you were—”
“Rhys!” Mist called, coming into the healer’s tent. “Oh, hi, Mia! My brother’s been looking all over for you. He’s finally got a free moment to spar!” She eyed Mia’s arm. “We should fix that.”
“Ike can spar? Finally!” Mia leapt off the table, nearly knocking Mist over in the process. Rhys scrambled to follow her. “This is my chance to show him everything I’ve learned from that Stefan guy!”
“Wait, so you aren’t angry?” Rhys asked.
“Angry? Who’s angry?” Mist asked.
“No, I’m not angry. Well, I was. I thought he was going to kill you. Next time, give me a heads-up, okay? I don’t need the element of surprise to want to keep you safe.”
Without so much as thinking about it at all, Mia leaned in and gave Rhys a peck on the cheek. When she pulled away, his face had turned an even darker shade of red. In her mind, Mia thought that perhaps she had just messed up spectacularly.
Mist looked between Rhys and Mia as the priest attempted to vocalize something.
“R-right,” he said. “I, ah, I’ll be right along—make sure you don’t hack each other, ah, apart…” he said, fiddling with his sash.
With a grin, Mist said, “You know what, I better come, too.” She gave Rhys a soft elbow to the side, and Rhys let out a soft keening sound. “Come on, let’s pick up some staves!”
Mia watched Mist drag Rhys back into the tent and firmly shut the fabric flap. She touched her lips and grinned, then went off to find Ike.
Ike’s army easily took the Daein capital, only to find that Ashnard had left long ago. He had taken up residence in Crimea, of all places. Ike was furious, the army was exhausted, and Mia had escaped to the ramparts of the castle fortress to get away from the chaos.
Rhys found her there, pulling her gloves as she shivered in the snow and looked over the city. Somewhere, bells were ringing.
“It’s over,” Rhys said. It barely encompassed how he felt. The capital, for all that the Mad King wasn’t there, had been better armed than anything the army had seen so far. There had been many losses. Rhys had seen many of them personally.
“It is,” Mia said. “You and I are still alive.”
“We are,” Rhys said. Mia outstretched a hand, and Rhys took it. She pulled him in close.
“I’d never been to Daein before this,” Mia said. “I’d never been out of Crimea. I dreamed of traveling, of being a world-class master of the sword.” She shook her head. “I didn’t think it would be like this.”
“Mia?” Rhys asked. She hugged him tighter, and he had the sense to hug back. After a moment, he said, “Do you remember the boy Ike found aboard the ship?”
“The stowaway?” Mia asked. “Looks like a miniature, less-tan Stefan? Of course. What’s his name, Sooth, Booth—“
“Sothe,” Rhys said. “His name is Sothe. He’s from Nevassa, or so he told me. He came to see me not long ago. He asked if I would pray for someone’s safe return.”
“He’s looking for someone, isn’t he?”
“That’s right,” Rhys said. His hands found Mia’s back, and he stroked her spine. “He said he was looking for an old friend, someone very important to him. He said that tonight was important for prayers, and he wanted as much help as he could get.”
Mia made a face. “Tonight? Why tonight?”
“Just as in Crimea, the people of Daein worship the Goddess and abide by her teachings,” Rhys said, “but they celebrate differently than we do. Tonight is one of the nights they consider holy. On this night, they believe the Goddess was born. All prayers that are said this night are therefore special and holy.”
Mia listened to the bells ringing in the distance across the city. “That’s beautiful,” she said. She smiled. “I know what I’m praying for.”
“To be the best swordswoman in the world?” Rhys asked. She thought he sounded wary.
She grinned at him and smiled as she pulled him closer. “No. Just to be strong enough to keep you safe always.”
Rhys’s shining smile light up the night. “I have promised many that I would pray for them, but I admit, I have a rather selfish prayer,” he said.
“You don’t have a selfish bone in you, Rhys,” Mia said.
“But I do,” Rhys said. He looked at Mia from under his eyelashes. “I pray that I might be strong enough to stand by your side.”
In the distance, the bells rang. The winds were brutal and frigid, and the night was deep. Inside, Generals Ike and Zelgius argued and quarreled over the best possible course of action. The war was far from over.
But for Mia and Rhys, for just that moment, the world was still and perfect.