Invisible Ties

Chapter 27

Robin chuckled quietly as Chrom groaned irritatedly, his foot sinking into a puddle, water running over the top of his boot and pooling in the bottom of it.

The rain had abated early the next morning, but continued on and off lightly for the next few days, and the ground was still wet and uneven, leaving numerous deep puddles to taunt and irritate the tactician as he and the others struggled to maintain some level of dryness.

“Still having fun?” Robin asked Chrom, coming alongside him and taking a bite out of the apple in his hand.

“Don’t mock your monarch,” Chrom warned jokingly.

They both shared a chuckle. Everyone was unimpressed with the crappy weather, but Robin and Chrom still made the best of the bad situation, joking and splashing at each other like children every chance they got; which given the amount of standing water in the fields they were traversing was often.

“How much farther is it?” Robin asked Say’ri as they began to travel through the forest around lunch time.

Say’ri paused and looked back at the tactician, stopping to think for a moment.

“If we continue at this pace we shall reach our journey’s end by this time tomorrow,” she said, beginning to walk again.

“So am I right in assuming that if it starts raining again we’re screwed? It doesn’t look there are a lot of barns to hide in out here,” Robin asked jokingly.

“A little water won’t hurt you,” Chrom said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Besides, you’ve got that fancy magical coat; we can just string it up like a tent and take shelter!”

Robin gathered his coat around him protectively as Chrom laughed.

“Don’t worry, baby,” he whispered to the coat. “I won’t let the mean man hurt you.”

Robin looked up when Say’ri snorted, obviously trying not to laugh.

So she does have a sense of humour, Robin thought interestedly.

Robin wandered after the five others, looking around the forest bored while thinking he should have brought Virion along after all.

At least I can talk to him, the tactician thought sourly.

Lon’qu was the strong, silent type; when he did talk it was usually about training or fighting, or just to tell the others to shut up. Libra was the quiet type, too; he was friendly enough, but Robin hardly had anything in common with the monk, so there wasn’t a lot to talk about.

He couldn’t talk to Chrom; Lucina kept hovering around her father like a bad smell giving him funny looks every time he came within arm’s reach of the Prince, and it was starting to weird Robin out. So he had given up on that front for now; at least until he figured out what was wrong with the Princess.

So Robin wound up talking more with Say’ri about the unique culture of her homeland.

“Raw fish? Really? You just chop it up and… go to town?”

The foreign woman chuckled, nodding as she and Robin led the group through the pine forest of Valm’s north-eastern region.

“Traditionally we eat it with rice, or rolled up with rice inside dried seaweed. But for special occasions, yes; we do eat it on its own. It is best when very, very fresh.”

Robin paled a little, imagining trying to eat uncooked food.

“Uh-huh. That sounds… er… appetizing.”

“I assure you, it is delicious,” Say’ri said, laughing lightly.

Robin was surprised to admit that he liked her laugh; a warm, quiet sound like a whisper that occasionally snuck out around the no-nonsense front she presented in her daily life. It was nice to see a person underneath all the manners and seriousness.

He just nodded, wholly unconvinced as he looked around at the lush forest.

It was truly beautiful; this area of Valm would have been a great place to simply lose himself in if he hadn’t been on an important diplomatic mission. Or in the middle of a war.

With a sigh Robin promised himself to return and enjoy the scenery properly once he got the opportunity.

“That was a big one,” Chrom said from behind him.

Robin glanced over his shoulder.

“All this talk of food’s making me hungry,” Robin said instead.

Chrom chuckled. “Always thinking with your stomach, eh? Well it’s almost lunchtime; why don’t we take a short break?”

“Define ‘short’,” Robin asked cheekily.

“Long enough to eat, but not long enough for you to disappear this time,” Chrom laughed. “You’ve got no big city to hide from me in this time.”

“I shall climb a tree to escape you, then!” Robin said in his best ‘Vaike’ impersonation.

Chrom laughed as he dropped his pack, before tossing an apple at Robin’s head.

The tactician caught the fruit-turned-missile, grinning. Libra and Say’ri were both chuckling, and even Lon’qu was trying to hide a small grin.

Robin noticed with a strange, defeated feeling that Lucina’s face hadn’t even twitched; she had just sat down a small way away from the rest of the group and begun eating her own provisions.

The tactician sat down heavily next to Chrom on the fallen log he was perched atop, taking a bite from the apple.

“What’s her deal?” he asked softly, indicating Lucina with a nudge of his head, confident she wouldn’t hear them.

“You noticed too, huh?” Chrom replied, his voice equally low. “I’m not entirely sure. The closer we draw to the opening moves of the campaign against Walhart the surlier she’s gotten.”

“I thought we were supposed to defeat Walhart first, and then fight Grima,” Robin muttered, thinking out loud. “Unless… do you think Walhart is the one that summons Grima?”

Chrom shrugged, tossing his apple core over his shoulder.

“It’s a possibility,” Chrom admitted. “But there’s only one way to find out. I’m still worried about her, though.”

“Hey, she’s not the one beating her head into a pole,” Robin said, running a hand through his hair as he thought of Morgan.

Chrom snorted with laughter. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’ll explain later,” Robin muttered, trying not to grin himself. “But what do we do about her?”

Chrom shrugged.

“You have the best people skills out of anyone I’ve ever met,” he said. “Talk to her; try to get her to open up a little. Consider it a request from her father and your friend.”

Chrom said the last part as he stood, grinning down at the tactician.

“You don’t have to sell it to me,” Robin said, standing himself. “I probably would have wound up doing it anyway.”

Seeing that their short break was over the others began rising as well, preparing to continue their journey.

“But I’ll give it a go,” Robin added, recalling the face Lucina had made when he had healed her wounds on the Dragon’s Claw a few weeks ago.

“That’s all I ask,” Chrom said, lightly punching Robin’s shoulder. “Now what’s this about a pole?”

Robin stared dubiously up at the twilight sky through the tall evergreens, watching as a few clouds still rolled across the purple skyline.

“You need not fret, Sir Robin. It will not rain this evening,” Say’ri assured him as she put the final touches on her tent.

Robin nodded, still watching the sky suspiciously.

Chrom and Say’ri had already set up their own small tents, while Lon’qu and Libra had chosen to share a two-man tent to save on carrying supplies and were busily erecting the small canvas prism.

Robin would simply spread out his bedroll. As long as it didn’t rain, he’d be fine. He honestly had no idea what Lucina was going to do; probably the same thing as him.

Lucina had opted to make a small fire; the wet logs hissing angrily as they dried out. They had been forced to use some of their precious kindling supply, but Robin assumed he would be able to track down more in Chéngshì. At least they didn’t need to worry about flint stones while Robin was around; he was always delighted to burn things and indulge his inner pyromaniac.

“I am going to try to find more firewood,” Lucina said, rising from where she was squatting near the fire.

“Hold on, I’ll give you a hand,” Robin offered, rising quickly and remembering his conversation with Chrom earlier that day.

“If that is your wish,” Lucina said, turning and walking into the darkening forest.

Robin looked back at Chrom; the Prince motioned that Robin follow her, making a stupid face as he did.

Snorting and trying to keep a straight face the tactician hurried after Lucina, summoning a small flame to dance above his fingertips so that he didn’t trip on anything.

He spotted a flash of blue disappearing between trees in the distance and hurried forwards, rounding the thicket and coming on Lucina as she was bending to pick up some of the dryer branches from the forest floor.

“So what’s up?” Robin asked conversationally as he began gathering up branches one-handed.

Lucina glanced up at Robin for a second, her face unreadable before going back to collecting firewood.

“What do you mean?” she asked neutrally.

“C’mon, something’s bugging you,” Robin pressed, deciding to use a phrase he’d heard Nowi use a few times before. “Where’s your sprinkles, cupcake?”

The ridiculous phrase had the intended effect, Lucina snorting and dropping some of the branches she was holding in an attempt to stifle her laughter.

“C’mon, Princess,” Robin pressed, coming closer and helping her pick up the branches she had dropped. “You know you can talk to me.”

Lucina looked up at Robin, her earlier and short-lived laughter fading from her eyes as she sighed and stood. In the dim light from Robin’s small magical fire Lucina seemed to be struggling with how to word her statement.

“I…” she began before stalling again.

“Are my plans bugging you?” Robin asked, taking a few shots in the dark. “Is it something someone in camp is doing? Are you worried about the war?”

“It is all of these things and more,” Lucina admitted.

“I… should not be here,” she continued after a moment. “Neither should Kjelle, or Severa or even Morgan.”

Robin perked up defensively at the thought of anyone taking Morgan away from him.

“I cannot help but think we might be altering history for the worse by interfering,” Lucina continued. “And this vexes me.”

Robin thought carefully before he spoke again.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. “But I really think you’re making mountains out of mole-hills.”

“But Gregor-” Lucina began before Robin cut him off.

“Gave his life to protect us all; yes. You were young during the war with Valm anyway, right? Do you remember if he survived?”

“I… do not…” she admitted hesitantly.

How long has she been sitting on these feelings and letting them stew? Robin wondered. He was still grieving for the loss of the heroic older mercenary, too, but with the support of Morgan and Tharja and everyone else he was getting over the pain. He hadn’t forgotten the oath he had sworn to Gregor’s memory, but the pain was beginning to fade.

How hard was it for her to comfort me with these thoughts dancing around in her skull?

“You and Morgan and all the others give us a distinct advantage during this war,” Robin continued. “And I don’t mean the whole future-foresight thing; soldiers with the level of skill you all have are a rare commodity, and one I refuse to waste.”

“You gave me comfort when I needed it,” Robin said, turning his head to face the Princess. “So let me make you a promise; no one else dies before this war ends.”

“You can’t possibly promise that,” Lucina scoffed.

“Sure I can,” Robin said. “Tactician, remember? It’s my job to win this war, and I promise I will do so without sacrificing any of our people.”

“It is a war, Robin,” Lucina said bleakly. “People will die.”

Robin nodded, realizing that his arm was now full as he tried to slide another branch into the bundle.

“True,” the tactician admitted, passing the extra branch to Lucina. “But no more Shepherds. We will go on the most dangerous missions, fight on the frontlines, and all live to tell the tale; and when this war is over and Ylisse is safe from Valm, we will face whatever threat Grima can conjure up together. All of us, future and present.”

Lucina looked at Robin, her piercing blue eyes meeting his and seemingly inspecting his sincerity in the quickly darkening woods.

“You truly believe you can accomplish this?” Lucina asked after a moment.

Robin nodded once, grinning.

“Of course. I have extra sets of hands and eyes in Morgan as well as Virion; Laurent’s doing all the little dirty work that keeps Frederick off my back; and you’re the inspiration to keep me working so hard. I’d say I’ve got a pretty good team to keep me going.”

Robin watched as, for the first time in days Lucina’s face softened and her soft lips turned up in a genuine smile. The effect was similar to the sun emerging from behind clouds as her whole face lit up.

Holy crap is she beautiful, Robin realized before mentally slapping himself, reminding himself that she was his best friend’s daughter. No! Bad train of thought! Bad!

“Alright,” she said, smiling over the bundle of firewood in her arms. “I will accept your promise. Thank you, Robin.”

“Any time,” Robin said, smiling happily as he used his free hand to try and get a better grip on the branches under his arm.

And completely forgetting about the fire spell he was using for light as the branches caught almost instantly, making Robin flail them about as he tried to put them out.

“Dammit, not yet!” he shouted at the branches, fighting desperately to extinguish them. “First we get back to camp, and then you burn! Stop! Stop burning, curse you! STOP!”

With a wind spell he finally managed to get the branches out, but he had to drop the fire spell to cast his wind spell.

In the darkness and silence that followed Robin’s stupidity he could hear a sound that was quite possibly the most beautiful thing he’d heard in weeks: Lucina dropping her branches as she doubled over laughing.

Well, I suppose that works, too… Robin thought, flicking his wrist and lighting another fire spell, this time far, far away from the branches in his other hand.

“I never seem to have a problem making your family laugh,” Robin said lightly as Lucina began to calm, beginning to pick her bundle up again. “Even if I have to light myself on fire to do it…”

Lucina burst out in another fit of laughter at Robin’s comment, holding her stomach and dropping the branches yet again as she wiped tears of mirth from her eyes.

“Big place,” Robin muttered in awe as the party entered Chéngshì.

The city rose up the side of a mountain, five great tiers carved into its side supporting the various levels of the city. Squat stone buildings with black and brown tiled roofs made up the majority of the structures around a central river flowing through the bottom tier, aqueducts criss-crossing a great waterfall flowing from higher up the mountain, providing an ample water supply to the upper tiers. Robin could just make out Liung’s palace on the highest tier; it was easily the biggest building in the city, with a high, sloped red tiled roof.

“Indeed,” Lucina agreed from next to him.

If anything she seemed more in awe than the others; no doubt since her idea of civilization from her native timeline was an armed caravan desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the Risen horde.

Lucina had been much less grumpy during the morning walk to the city, Robin had noticed. She had even joined in with his and Chrom’s banter for a time, before speaking at length with Say’ri about the kind of city they were heading to.

Good to see her getting back to normal, Robin thought happily.

Townspeople and soldiers on armed patrols through the streets both thankfully ignored the Shepherds, and they quickly merged with the press of bodies climbing the large ramps and staircases to the higher tiers.

It took them the better part of three hours to ascend to the top; in the end even the normally unflappable Lon’qu was breathing a little heavier.

Robin, however, collapsed at the top of the stairs.

“So… many… stairs…” he gasped, clawing his way forward on his stomach.

Chrom wordlessly sank down next to him at the summit of stairs, gasping and looking back down on their progress.

“After all the hiking we do, one would assume we would be more prepared for this,” Lucina gasped, doubled over and holding herself up with her hands on her knees.

“Thank Naga that’s over,” Libra muttered, wiping a hand over his perfect face to remove any sweat.

“Come, we cannot linger,” Say’ri said, taking a deep breath to compose herself. “Lord Liung awaits our arrival.”

Robin groaned, looking up from the stones he was lying on at the woman.

“Allow us a moment’s rest for pity’s sake!” he begged. “I can’t present myself to anyone if I can’t stand!”

Chrom took a deep breath, forcing himself upright before grabbing Robin by the back of his coat and hauling the tactician up to his feet.

“Come on, Robin; she’s right,” the Prince said. “We’ll get a room at an inn tonight to make up for the stairs; there’s no way I’m camping again after that climb.”

Robin gurgled exhaustedly as he forced one foot in front of the other, following the others who didn’t seem to be doing much better.

I can see why Liung would put his castle up here, Robin thought. Who in their right mind would climb that many stairs to assault a castle?

The truth was that the whole city was immensely defensible in the right hands; huge gates separated the different tiers that could be closed to halt traffic and stop invading forces, not to mention that each tier offered a perfect vantage point for archers and mages to rain death from above. The buildings were all made out of the same heavy stone, too, so Robin assumed that setting the city ablaze wouldn’t work for an invading force, either.

It was less a city, more a fortress. The tactician could see why Walhart would be reluctant to make an enemy of Liung.

Say’ri led them away from the castle’s main gate and around to the side, where two guards stood watch over a smaller, private gate. They raised their weapons warily at first, but lowered them and bowed deeply from the hip when they recognized Say’ri. A few quick words in another language Robin didn’t understand, all harsh consonants, before one of the guards ushered them inside.

“Our guide will be here momentarily,” Say’ri said, switching back to the common tongue.

“Just how many languages do you speak?” Robin asked as she led them into a small reception room.

“It is necessary for cohesion between the various dynasts in the resistance that I speak the native languages of their territories,” she explained.

“Do not get comfortable,” Say’ri added as Chrom and Libra sank down to a low bench along one wall. “We will not be waiting long.”

True to Say’ri’s warning a young woman wearing a strange blue silk dress came in, bowing low before indicating for them to follow her.

“The rest of you will need to wait here,” Say’ri said as Chrom and Robin rose to follow her.

Lucina didn’t seem overly impressed, but held her tongue as Chrom and Robin left.

Chrom stood, adjusting his clothes and leather armour plates nervously as they walked.

Robin would have chuckled, or even emulated him, but all he could think about was the burning in his calves and knees.

The silent woman in blue led them into a large chamber from a side door. Robin could see, looking to the left, the entrance to the castle-proper he had spotted looking through the gates at the end of the path atop the stairs outside down a corridor of red lacquered pillars and brightly burning braziers.

As he turned his head right he spotted who could only have been Lord Liung, sitting atop a great gilded throne in the shape of a swooping bird of prey.

The man himself was pretty average looking; long black hair tied neatly out of his face with a red ribbon, contrasting sharply with the thick grey plate armour he wore. When he spoke Robin’s opinion of him rose slightly; his was the voice of a true leader, similar to Chrom’s; quietly authoritative, as if he didn’t need to raise his voice to get his way.

“Leave us,” he said in common to the woman that had escorted them in.

She bowed low, still silent, before retreating through the main doors, closing them behind her and leaving the Shepherds alone with Liung.

Liung rose, meeting the eyes of those assembled and affording Robin his first proper look at the man’s face.

A thin, neat moustache sat perched beneath his nose, its edges drooping down to his chin in small wisps. He looked to be about forty, but Robin was unused to judging the ages of people in this land, so it was more a wild guess than a real judgment.

A jolt of electricity passed through the tactician as his eyes met Liung’s, at last understanding how the man could defy Walhart where so many others had bent their knee to him. Robin had no doubt that the warrior standing before him was one of the deadliest men he’d ever met, and his controlled movements added credence to his theory. A long, thin sword similar to Say’ri’s hung at his hip, its grip looking worn from decades of use.

“Princess,” Liung greeted Say’ri with a shallow bow, a hand resting over his heart as he never broke eye contact. “It does my heart well to see you again.”

“Lord Liung,” Say’ri greeted, bowing low. “It is a pleasure.”

Liung descended the steps from his throne, stopping one step from standing on level with the Shepherds.

“Who have you brought before me, Say’ri?” Liung asked, clasping his hands behind his back and eying Chrom and Robin standing behind her.

“This is Prince Chrom of Ylisse, and his tactician Sir Robin,” Say’ri introduced.

Chrom and Robin both bowed the way Say’ri had instructed them; Robin low from the hip until he was practically at ninety degrees to the floor, looking down, and Chrom only slightly, eyes never leaving Liung.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Liung,” Chrom said formally.

“I know of you, young Prince,” Liung said after a moment of silence. “I know why you are here in Valm, and I know why you are here in my throne room.”

“Then we can skip the pleasantries and get down to business,” Chrom said.

“Indeed,” Liung said, turning his back and ascending back to his throne.

“You seek my aid against the Conqueror’s armies,” Liung said as he resumed his seat. “I cannot give you what you seek.”

Robin noticed Chrom’s jaw twitch, but the Prince retained his formal outward appearance.

Here we go again… Robin thought, knowing exactly what Chrom’s reaction would be.

“Cannot?” Chrom asked. “Or will not?”

“Watch your tone, Prince,” Liung snapped. “I have agreed to see you out of respect for Say’ri’s brother, but I will not tolerate disrespect in my presence.”

“Yen’fay serves Walhart,” Chrom reminded the other man.

“As do I,” Liung said distastefully, as if he were trying to convince himself of the fact.

“Lord, please,” Say’ri said in the same tone she had used during the war council when they had first met her. “We can defeat Walhart and return peace to our lands if only you grant us your aid. We know that the bulk of your army remains here in Chéngshì and not under the Conqueror’s sway.”

“They remain here to defend our borders,” Liung replied. “If you take them for your war we are defenceless against Walhart’s forces, and it will be my citizens that suffer.”

“Walhart will be too busy trying to fight us to assault Chéngshì,” Chrom assured him. “My tactician has drafted plans that see us engaging his forces in hit and run tactics, striking where he is weakest and unprepared. His generals will be stumbling over themselves trying to deal with us, let alone invading other regions.”

Liung sat resting his chin on his fist for a time, deep in thought.

“Return to the chamber you entered from,” Liung said finally. “I would speak to your tactician. He will deliver my final answer.”

Chrom and Say’ri bowed again, and the blue haired prince clapped a reassuring hand on Robin’s shoulder as he passed. Say’ri nodded assurance, too, before Robin found himself standing alone.

Robin stood tall, meeting the Lord’s eyes.

Ohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrap, he thought contrary to his outer calm.

“I have heard stories,” Liung said, glaring down at Robin. “And rumours of the Ylissean League’s master tactician. But you stand before me, little more than a child, and your Prince has the nerve to tell me you have crafted plans to defeat an army with no limit?”

Robin bristled, quickly forgetting his nerves as irritation replaced them.

“There is no such thing as an endless army, Lord Liung,” Robin said. “And yes, I have crafted strategies that make use of our superior mobility through rough terrain; that take advantage of our superior magical and aerial presence; I have faith that we will not be defeated.”

“And here you stand, begging me for your help anyway,” Liung pointed out.

“My lord, the plans count on the other dynasts’ armies joining us,” Robin explained. “The plans count on you joining us.”

Liung took a deep breath through his nose, the sound echoing in the empty room.

“Presumptuous, to already include my army in your plans,” he said.

“I have contingency plans, also,” Robin said with a shrug. “Plans that see the Ylissean forces engaging Walhart’s without aid from any dynasts. They are high risk, high fatality-rate plans though. I would not see lives spent needlessly.”

“You fight a man that is inexorable as the tides,” Liung said. “You fight a man that is immovable as the mountains. He is unshakable. We do not hide behind ranks of warriors, shouting orders from the rear of our armies in Valm, tactician; our leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with their men at the frontlines.”

“As do we,” Robin said proudly. “Prince Chrom and the Feroxi Khans have been at the forefront of this war since the very beginning.”

Liung went quiet again.

“You cannot defeat Walhart through strength of arms alone,” he said softly. “You cannot hope to defeat him at all. You and your army will be swept aside like all others, as will mine if I join with your cause.”

“My lord, a great man once said ‘we must all hang together, or we shall all surely hang separately’.”

Liung barked out a harsh laugh.

“Truer words are rarely spoken,” the lord said, rising and descending, this time coming to rest on the ground level before Robin.

Liung stared into Robin’s eyes, looking for any weakness, any reason to tell him that no alliance would be forged.

“They say that men do not go to hell,” Liung said, finally breaking eye contact. “But they carry their hell with them… Tell me, tactician; how do you feel, holding the lives of so many in the palm of your hands?”

Robin took a breath, unaware he had been holding it as Liung had stared at him, before his thoughts flashed to Gregor’s easy smile.

“It is a terrible burden,” Robin answered truthfully. “I feel every death keenly. Every life lost was a friend, an acquaintance. I know that every man that dies under my tactics leaves behind families that will mourn their passing and hate me for the remainder of their lives. That is my hell, Lord Liung, but I would not pass it to any other; not when I can do so much good, save so many lives and protect so many innocents with my position.”

Liung turned away from Robin, staring into space for a moment.

“Yours is a burden I would not wish on any man,” Liung said sympathetically as he climbed back to his throne.

“Go now. Tell your prince not to leave the city until he hears from me on the morrow. You have given me much to think about, Sir Robin.”

Robin bowed low again, retreating from the chamber as relief flooded him.

“Well, that went well,” Chrom said sarcastically as Robin flopped down on the bed opposite his own.

To save on their limited funds the Shepherds had been forced to rent three rooms, with two occupants to a room. Chrom and Robin were in theirs, discussing the meeting. Chrom was trying, anyway; all Robin cared about was resting his aching legs.

“Stairs…” Robin groaned, drawing the word out like a curse.

“Robin, please focus,” Chrom pleaded, sitting on the edge of his own bed.

On the journey to the commercial tier of Chéngshì, the second from the bottom where all the stores and inns were located, Robin had recounted word for word his conversation with Liung, leaving out no detail.

“I think it went quite well,” Robin said, sitting up. “I’d say we’ve got him; he just didn’t want to lose face by accepting straight away.”

A knock at the door revealed Libra, now wearing only his light priests robes rather than the plain steel armour he wore over them for travel and combat.

“Lady Say’ri has suggested we might find someplace to eat dinner before dark,” Libra said, standing in the doorway.

“Good,” Chrom said, rising and putting his sword belt back on. “I’m starving. Are you coming, Robin?”

The tactician shook his head, flopping back down.

“I think I’m just going to relax a little. I’ll eat some of the leftover provisions later.”

Chrom chuckled. “Who are you and what have you done with our Robin?”

Robin groaned, rolling onto his side and presenting his back to the Prince.

“Stairs… so many stairs…” Robin muttered, loud enough that he knew Chrom would hear.

The tactician awoke some time later, shooting upright and running a hand through his hair as he yawned wide.

How long was I out? He wondered, realizing it was dark in the room.

Casting a small fire spell that saw a tiny flame floating above his index finger Robin rose, pointing his finger at the oil lamp on the small desk between the two beds and extinguishing his magical flame as the lamp lit itself.

Robin began rummaging around in his pack, moaning when he realized all he had left was a bag of dried fruit and nuts.

I think Lucina had some jerky left, he thought, rising and cramming some nuts into his mouth for good measure. I’ll just go and pull a Gaius; pilfer it while she’s not here… It’s not stealing if I replace it tomorrow.

The tactician strapped on the belt with his pouch and spellbook, but hesitated when he reached for his coat and rapier.

Ah bugger it, I’m just going up the hallway, he reasoned.

Robin stretched, yawning again as he exited the room and swallowed the mouthful of nuts he had been chewing on, bouncing the bag lightly in his hand as he walked.

He hesitated before barging in to the girls’ room, noticing the flickering light from a lamp coming out from under the door.

Robin knocked, tossing a few more nuts into his mouth for good measure as he waited for someone to answer.

The door cracked open a little, a blue eye with the brand of Ylisse in it staring at Robin a second before Lucina opened the door fully.

“What can I do for you, Robin?” she asked, moving to invite him in.

Robin stepped into the room, glancing around curiously. Lucina was out of her armour, wearing the tight blue clothes she usually wore beneath it. Her long hair was down, too, and judging from the comb in her hand she had been preparing for bed.

“Honestly, I was coming to steal your leftover jerky. But now that I see you’re actually here I feel kinda guilty about it.”

Lucina let out a low chuckle as Robin crossed to the window.

“You’re out of luck,” she said as the tactician stared intently out of the window. “I ate it myself after the others left. We could go down stairs and see if the innkeeper… Robin what are you staring at?”

Robin didn’t answer, currently locked in a battle of wills with the crow perched on the windowsill.

I will not blink first, Robin swore in his head as the large black bird quirked its head at him.

Another thought occurred to Robin as he looked away triumphant, the bird blinking first.

“Hasn’t this thing been following us around all week?” he asked, turning back to Lucina. “Do I really need to bathe that bad it thinks I’m about to drop dead?”

Lucina burst into laughter as Robin turned back to the bird, leaning on the windowsill and staring at it.

“I would say we all need a good bath,” Lucina admitted.

Robin heard a bed creak, the princess no doubt sitting down on it.

His response died in his throat as movement on the street bellow caught his attention; a flash of white armour in the darkness followed by a trail of dark hair rounding the corner.

“Didn’t you say that Say’ri was with your father and the others?” Robin asked suspiciously, opening the window and trying to get a better look.

The crow cawed irritatedly as Robin opened the window, forcing the bird to take flight as he stuck his head out.

“Yes,” Lucina said hesitantly, standing.

“Well she just ducked around the corner there,” Robin said, leaning back into the room.

The crow perched on the awning of the building across from the inn, still watching the tactician and Princess.

Creepy-ass bird… Robin thought irritatedly.

“Perhaps we should investigate,” Lucina suggested, strapping her sword to her hip. “On the farm I thought that I heard her talking to someone at night, but it was dark, and…”

Lucina trailed off, her eyes meeting Robin’s.

“I do not trust her.”

Robin chuckled as he headed for the door.

“Yeah, but you don’t trust anyone,” the tactician said lightly. “Still, it couldn’t hurt to check out what’s up; maybe get some food if it isn’t too late.”

Lucina nodded, following him out onto the landing but hesitating as he went to descend the stairs.

“Shouldn’t you grab your sword?” she asked.

Robin shrugged, patting the pouch on his hip holding his spellbook.

Lucina nodded satisfied, and the duo descended to street level being extra careful not to make any sound as they passed through the inn’s dark lobby. Robin looked around cautiously as they stepped onto the dark street, the light from the paper lanterns hanging at regular intervals along the awnings of buildings and stores not providing a spectacular amount of illumination.

He led Lucina around the corner he had seen Say’ri take, finding it empty save for the crow hopping up and down near the end of the street, cawing softly to them.

“I think the bird wants us to follow it,” Robin said thoughtfully, crossing his arms and eying the animal.

“In the time I have known you I have heard you say some very strange things,” Lucina admitted, shaking her head and following Robin as he started walking again. “But that one tops the list.”

“Hey, eccentricity is part of my charm,” Robin said with a shrug.

When they got closer the bird squawked, taking flight and resting on an awning further up the next street.

“Are we really going to follow it?” Lucina asked, her voice disapproving.

“Hey, his guess is as good as ours,” Robin said, grinning over his shoulder. “Besides, something about it feels almost familiar.”

Lucina sighed and shook her head as they followed the bird at a brisk pace; every time they drew near to it the sleek black creature cawed and flew further away, leading them through the labyrinthine maze of back-streets and alleyways.

Robin rounded yet another corner, beginning to question the validity of his plan to follow a creature probably no more intelligent than Vaike before he drew back, throwing out an arm to stop Lucina and forcing them both back around the corner.

Standing at the end of the alleyway was Say’ri, speaking with a shade in dark stealth gear.

Words were exchanged in the language of Chon’sin, and Robin shook his head.

“I wish I could understand what they’re saying,” Robin said under his breath.

“Then let us ask them,” Lucina answered, her tone dangerous as she walked around the corner, skinning Falchion and resting it on her shoulder.

About as good at stealth-ops as her father, Robin thought rolling his eyes before following her.

“Good evening, Lady Say’ri,” Lucina called, her voice taking on an icy quality. “I do not believe we have been introduced to your friend.”

“Evening,” Robin said in a much lighter tone, offering the woman a light wave.

Say’ri and the other person both froze as they realized they had been caught, Say’ri’s own hand dropping to the hilt of her sword when she saw Falchion glinting in the low moonlight.

“I know how this must look,” Say’ri said quickly. “But you must trust me; we are all in terrible da-”

Her words were cut off as the figure next to her dived to the side, dragging her to the ground. Robin saw flashes of steel passing through where Say’ri had been moments ago before he too dragged Lucina beneath the awning of the building next to them, scanning the rooftops.

“Robin, what…?” Lucina asked, her eyes wide as she scanned the area for enemies.

“It has already started!” the figure that had saved Say’ri shouted; judging from her voice she was a woman not much older than Robin or the others.

More figures wearing dark body-suits dropped from the awnings wielding short swords similar to Say’ri’s and wicked looking scythes attached to weighted chains.

Robin had a split second to take the scene in before chaos broke out, fifteen dark-shrouded forms charging at both him and Lucina and Say’ri and her mysterious saviour.

Lucina leapt forward with Falchion held out, shouting a battle cry as steel met steel, clanging loudly in the quiet night. The tactician watched as the assassins turned their blades against her, and something inside of him snapped.

Robin’s eyes glowed bright as he gathered mana quicker than he ever had before, electricity dancing on exposed surfaces and along the ground as he cast, more dancing up and down his arms, scorching his shirt in places.

“Don’t know who you guys are,” Robin said, stepping to the side as one of the obvious assassins lunged for him.

“Don’t really care,” he added, his hand flying out to grip the assassin’s neck.

Before the assassin could react Robin released the spell he was charging through his hand, violently shearing through the assassin’s neck and separating his head from his body with a wet splatter on the wall beside him.

The other assassins, and indeed Lucina, Say’ri and her mysterious saviour, all stopped to stare at the incandescent tactician, eyes still blazing incandescently in the dark alleyway.

“But you’d best get the hell away from my friends,” Robin growled, gesturing upwards with both hands.

Energy coalesced beneath the feet of all the assassins, before exploding upwards and making a bloody mess out of the twelve that still stood, bits of assassin and stonework flying in all directions.

Frowning, Robin looked around at the destruction he had wrought as the smoke cleared. Dismembered corpses lay strewn about, and the stone alleyway was shattered and broken where his spell had formed.

“That was…” Lucina started, her eyes still wide with disbelief at Robin’s spell as she stared at the tactician.

“Incredible,” Say’ri breathed, looking around the ruined alleyway.

“Messy,” the other woman, for such she had to be with a voice like hers, said as she drew back the hood obscuring her features. “But effective.”

Robin glared at her and Say’ri.

“Explain,” he growled, his voice dropping to an unmistakably threatening tone as he held up his hand, more magical lightning dancing between his fingers. “And do it fast.”

“Sir Robin we have no time,” Say’ri pleaded. “Sei’ko will find the others and ensure their safety; we must hurry to the palace; Lord Liung’s life is in danger!”

“Then explain as we run,” Robin said, leaning down to retrieve one of the fallen assassin’s swords.

As an afterthought he grabbed a second, realizing they were short enough to wield one in each hand.

The other woman wearing a black cat-suit, Sei’ko Say’ri had called her, was also taking weapons and quickly and efficiently strapping them to her person.

“I will be like the wind,” the woman promised. “My men and I will protect the Prince and your allies.”

Then with surprising agility she leapt, swinging herself up to the rooftop with her fingertips and was gone, not even creating footsteps as she raced lithely across the roofs.

“Come,” Say’ri urged, weaving through the corpses of the assassins to where Robin and a still awestruck Lucina stood. “We must make haste.”

“Start talking,” Robin ordered as the trio started running.

“There was a planned coup to seize power from Lord Liung, but our arrival made for an opportunity the conspirators could not pass,” Say’ri explained. “They hope to destroy both the leadership of Chéngshì and the Ylissean League in one fell swoop, securing positions high in Walhart’s army. But they were not fully prepared yet; we may still yet prevent this.”

They vaulted the steps two at a time, Robin’s earlier fatigue forgotten as facts began to cloud his mind.

“Then we save Liung and stop the coup, and he’s indebted to us,” Robin said.

“Twas my thinking, sir,” Say’ri said from next to him.

Lucina followed them silently, the only reminder that she was with them her laboured breathing as the trio climbed to the palace.

They reached the palace, all gasping and out of breath, in a fraction of the time it took them earlier in the day. Robin caught sight of the guards he had seen earlier lying face-down near their posts, their weapons not even drawn, while the castle’s gates and main entrance sat wide open.

They raced forward, keeping their eyes peeled at the rooftops as they did so; they spotted no more assassins, but Robin did see the crow following them again, whirling high above the three Shepherds.

That bird is just getting on my nerves now, Robin thought, shaking his head slightly as they passed into the entryway for the castle.

They ran heavily through the hallway, jumping at every shadow in the flickering light from the braziers.

The sounds of battle echoed from the throne room; shouting and the clash of steel on steel.

Robin skidded to a halt at the doorway to the throne room, the massive wooden doors hanging off their hinges. The tactician threw himself backwards as pointed throwing stars flashed by his face, embedding themselves in the doorway next to his head.

“Down!” Robin called, barrelling into the two women and bringing the three of them crashing to the floor as a hail of throwing knives and stars embedded themselves in the doorway.

In the brief second he had actually been in the throne room Robin had managed to catch a glimpse of Liung dancing between a horde of assassins, his sword running red with their blood while corpses piled up around him. He had been wounded, though, and fighting one-handed, clutching the other one close to his side; they had to act fast.

Robin frowned as the three Shepherds climbed back to their feet.

“Okay, this is a bust,” he ground out between clenched teeth, realizing one of the throwing knives had found its target in his shoulder.

Grunting he pulled the knife out and dropped it to the floor disdainfully.

I say it every time, but I’m never going anywhere without my coat again…

“Say’ri, go back around the outside and through the side entrance we used today; you’re the only one in armour right now, make us a distraction.”

“I shall not fail you,” she promised, ducking back the way they had come.

Robin experimentally flexed his arm, finding that the pain was bearable.

“So what do we do now?” Lucina asked, kneading the grip on her sword. “Just wait for Say’ri?”

“You could say that,” Robin said, glancing back around the doors as magical fire began burning at his fingertips.

He ducked back a moment, counting to three in his head before he slipped into the throne room, tossing fireballs in the general direction of the assassins; a few managed to return fire with throwing implements, but Robin dove back behind the great door, rolling and coming up beside Lucina’s knees.

“Not fun,” Robin lamented, eyes wide and his heart racing as he registered the new holes in his shirt from near misses.

Lucina chuckled a little as she leaned out to take a look, ducking back quickly as more throwing stars zoomed by.

“At least you managed to distract the ones attacking Liung,” she said, grinning a little as Robin hefted his borrowed sword, preparing to charge out at Say’ri’s distraction.

As if knowing they were prepared in advance Say’ri screamed a harsh battle cry and the sounds of fighting intensified.

“That would be our cue,” Robin said, charging around the corner with Lucina in tow, swords held ready.

Robin sprinted, swords held out from his body as he charged, shouting wordlessly and ignoring the projectiles flying by him.

Then he was in amongst the assassins, striking high and fast with both swords as Lucina plowed into the press beside him. Robin utilized his superior strength and doubled weapons, holding an assassin’s blade away from his body and lunging with his second short sword. The mad dropped as Robin spun, flicking a trail of viscera on the carefully mosaicked tiles of the throne room as he cut through the stomach of another assassin with both blades. Robin continued his spin, striking high with a kick that Lon’qu had taught him, flipping over his leg and burying his sword in the chest of a fourth assassin.

Lucina was carving a trail of destruction next to him; less acrobatically but no less devastatingly; fighting with her father’s brutal style she kicked out at knees and headbutted every opportunity she got, throwing Falchion’s bulk and heavier weight around, clearing space around her and Robin.

His heart sped up as he realized they were winning, battle euphoria taking hold as he and Lucina fought back to back, whirling and spinning like they had trained at it their entire lives.

Lucina ducked low and Robin spun, striking above her head and slicing deep into an assassin’s throat; Robin slid on his knees, freeing Lucina’s aim to run another shrouded man through the chest oh her long sword.

Finally they stood next to each other, covered in blood and breathing heavily, surrounded by the bodies of the assassins. Robin looked up, seeing Liung spin gracefully and decapitate the last assassin, the head bouncing and rolling to a stop near Say’ri’s feet.

“Now we really need baths,” Robin muttered, making Lucina grin and laugh tiredly.

There was a freedom to the Lucina that Robin only saw in battle; when all the walls came down and she was truly herself as her attention focused solely on the foes before her. Her laughter at that point was intoxicating to Robin.

The tactician’s musings were cut short when Liung roared; frustratedly hacking again at the body of the would-be assassin he had just killed.

“This outrage will not stand!” the man roared. “I will ram Walhart’s head on a pike and display it from my city’s gates!”

“I am glad you are unharmed, Lord,” Say’ri said, flicking her blade clean and sheathing it.

Liung glanced up at her, his gaze travelling to Robin and Lucina. All four of them were coated in blood, and his throne room was a disaster.

“Your timing was impeccable,” he said to Robin, calming a little.

“It’s kind of what we do,” Robin said with a tired shrug.

“I was going to tell you that there would be no alliance,” Liung admitted, glaring balefully at the corpses littered around his throne room. “But now I must answer this transgression with force. Chéngshì marches with you and your Prince, Sir Robin.”

“That’s just too bad, Lord Liung,” a new voice said mockingly. “After all, you know what we do with traitors…”

The four warriors spun to face Liung’s throne, upon which was perched a portly, toad faced man with a mop greasy purple hair, grinning down at the group as he reclined on the gilded seat.

“How dare you…” Liung whispered, outraged.

“Excellus,” Say’ri spat. “I will kill you with my bare hands, toad!”

The man, Excellus, laughed a high-pitched cackle, sitting up in the throne and waving a hand dismissively.

“How dare I?” he asked, his voice like nails on a chalkboard. “It is you that betrayed our Empire, Liung; and after I came all this way to… rescue you.”

Excellus said the last part softly, grinning down at Liung and licking his fat lips with delight.

“Oh how Emperor Walhart will be disappointed with you,” Excellus went on, standing and sauntering to the edge of the raised dais. “And we both know what he does with disappointments, do we not?”

Liung roared with outrage, charging forward with his sword held high.

There was a flash, and suddenly Excellus was behind Say’ri, a dagger pressed to the side of her throat.

“And you, Princess,” the fat man purred. “How will your brother react when I tell him that his traitorous bitch of a sister turned on one of his oldest friends and allies, hrm?”

Say’ri grimaced, trembling with rage.

“I will end you, Excellus,” she growled dangerously.

“Why not simply fall on your own sword?” Excellus asked mockingly, suddenly across the room again. “That is what your disgraced warriors do, yes?”

Say’ri roared wordlessly, brandishing her sword and making to charge at Excellus. She stopped short, though, as he raised his hands, powerful magic crackling at the end of his fingertips.

“Ah-ah-ah!” the man chided. “Let’s not have any of that now, hrm? I promise to make your ends quick and painless as long as you just-”

The rest of his sentence was cut off when a black shape dropped from the ceiling and landed on Excellus’ face.

“Argh! What the!? Get it off!” the toad of a man screamed, his voice shrill as the crow that had been following the Shepherds tore at his face with beak and talons.

With a wordless shriek Excellus slapped the bird away hard, the crow flying across the throne room before landing in a heap of feathers and lying still.

Robin didn’t waste the opportunity, throwing one of his short swords the way Cordelia had taught him to throw a javelin. Excellus’ face went pale, and his disappeared just as the sword pierced where his head had been a moment ago.

“Damn you, craven!” Liung shouted. “Come and die like a man!”

“Do not waste your breath, Lord,” Say’ri instructed, glaring at where Excellus had just been. “He is long gone.”

“How does he do that?” Lucina asked. “I have never seen anyone or anything move like that before.”

“He wears an ancient ring, imbued with old magic,” Say’ri explained, sheathing her sword.

“Who is he?” Robin asked, crossing the room to kneel by the crow.

The bird cawed weakly as Robin gently picked it up, holding it close to his chest.

“He is Walhart’s chief tactician,” Say’ri answered, watching Robin curiously.

“What are you going to do with it?” she asked as he cradled the bird. “T’would be a mercy to the creature to put it out of its pain.”

“It rescued us,” Robin said, looking up sharply and frowning. “If it can hold on, I’m going to see if Libra can heal it.”

Liung chuckled. “Such devotion to your allies speaks well of you, tactician. Go to your healer. Princess Say’ri and I will discuss the movement of my armies.”

Robin bowed low, careful not to move the wounded crow too much.

“Thank you, Lord Liung. I’ll send Prince Chrom to join you as soon as I see him.”

Libra leaned over the bird, brushing a lock of golden hair behind his ear as it fell free.

“I have never used my magic on a beast before,” he admitted, looking back up to Robin.

The tactician leaned against the wall in the room he shared with Chrom, arms crossed and watching the monk’s progress. With them were Chrom, Lon’qu, Lucina, Say’ri’s spy Sei’ko and four of her men. To say it was crowded would have been an understatement.

“I would still like you to try,” Robin asked gently. “It saved our lives. It deserves our aid, at the very least.”

“It’s a bird, Robin,” Chrom said gently.

“He is right, Father,” Lucina said from her spot perched on the corner of Robin’s bed. “The bird did save our lives.”

Libra sighed.

“I will do my best, but I make no promises.”

The monk began casting, and with a bright flash of blue-white light the spell finished.

Robin held his breath, watching for any change in the creature’s laboured breathing.

With a loud squawk the crow hopped up, rustling its feathers and looking around before taking flight and perching on Robin’s shoulder, nestling up against his neck and jaw.

“Well, it looks like someone’s made a new friend,” Chrom laughed.

Robin rolled his eyes.

“If it craps on my coat, I’ll kill it,” he said, glaring at the large black bird out of the corner of his eye.

Libra chuckled as he rose.

“I think after all the excitement of this evening I shall take rest,” he said quietly. “Good night, my friends.”

Libra left and Lon’qu stood, rolling his shoulders out a little.

“I will take first watch,” Lon’qu said stiffly before following the monk out of the room.

“My men are already on the lookout, Sir Lon’qu,” Sei’ko called after him.

Robin heard the stoic swordsman huff as he took up a position on the landing, not trusting anyone else to watch over his friends.

Robin glanced at the spy in the corner, no longer surrounded by her men; in fact, the four other spies had all disappeared.

“I would like to point out that it’s really creepy how you guys do that,” Robin said to Sei’ko.

The woman chuckled a little as Chrom stood, stretching out his back before strapping his Falchion back to his waist.

“I am going to go to the palace and see that Say’ri and Liung aren’t making plans behind my back. Will you be okay here, Robin?”

Robin nodded, waving dismissively at the Price as he glared at the bird out of the corner of his eye.

You’d best not get comfy; I am not a horse, the tactician thought as the bird ruffled its feathers again before nestling deeper into his shoulder.

Sei’ko fell into step with the Prince as he walked to the door.

“It would be my honour to accompany you, Prince Chrom,” she said softly, tugging her hood back into place as they exited the room, leaving Robin alone with Lucina.

From the tale Chrom had told while Libra was fetching his staff they had had a much easier time with the assassination attempt than his group had; Sei’ko and her men had arrived very soon after the attack began, carrying the Shepherds’ weapons and turned the tide against the assassins. It had almost been boring to hear Chrom speak of so mundane an encounter.

Robin absently ran a hand through his hair, thinking about the spells he had used in the alleyway.

They had both been variations on a standard Arcthunder spell, but Robin had twisted the spells and overpowered them, turning them into a destructive force he hadn’t meant to. But when he saw Lucina and Say’ri being threatened he had lost control momentarily, and something darker had been brought to the fore.

His thoughts were interrupted when he realized Lucina was still sitting on his bed, staring at him.

“Oh, sorry Princess,” Robin said, perking up quickly. “Did you need something else?”

Lucina jerked slightly, realizing she was still sitting on Robin’s bed.

“N-no,” she said quickly, rising to her feet and making for the exit.

Hesitating at the door Lucina turned, looking back at Robin as he reached up and stroked the crow’s neck.

“Earlier tonight,” she said hesitantly.

Robin glanced over at her as she stalled again, looking away from him.

“Earlier tonight, you said I didn’t trust anyone,” she said quickly. “That’s not true. I trust you.”

Then she was gone, closing the door quickly behind her.

The crow cawed quietly, and Robin nodded.

“You can say that again,” he muttered. “That girl needs to learn how to express herself.”

Robin stood, stretching and yawning; it was beginning to get really late.

“Go sleep on the headboard,” Robin said to the bird, who dutifully flapped his way over to the end of the bed.

I think I could get to like this bird, Robin thought absently as he pulled his ruined shirt off, wiggling a finger through one of the many holes in it.

With a sigh he tossed the garment onto his pack in the corner; he would have to find a new one in the morning, but right now his thoughts were scattered and confused by the evening’s events.

The thought that kept coming back to him was the image of Lucina’s blood-smeared face, smiling at him as she panted after their fight in the throne room. He had never seen her look so alive; so vibrant.

Robin shook his head, giving himself a light slap on the side of his head for good measure.

She’s Chrom’s daughter, he thought stubbornly. Bad train of thought. Bad!

He couldn’t deny his attraction, though, for such he recognized it as now. She was a bright and vibrant woman when her barriers dropped, and he couldn’t help but want to see more of her like that.

Or more of her, period, he thought, recalling the way that the tight clothes she wore beneath her armour hugged her slim figure, accentuating her curves perfectly…

“Waugh!” Robin yelped, blushing and slapping the side of his head much harder this time. “No! Bad brain! Behave yourself!”

The crow cawed softly from his headboard, sounding irritated.

Robin shook his head again, beginning to clean himself with the tub of water and rag that the innkeeper had been kind enough to provide him with.

She was his best friend’s daughter, not to mention from a completely different time period. Nothing could happen, end of story.

Thank the gods that this water is cold… Robin thought, splashing some of the icy liquid on his face and shivering. I may need to go and just jump into a lake at this rate.

Robin stared at his reflection in the tub of water as ripples on the surface distorted it, brushing the strands of hair away from his face.

“I really, really need a haircut,” he moaned, falling backwards into the chair behind him.

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