“In your defense,” Mercury told the older woman with a smirk, “You didn’t rob me of anything last night. Vandrad did. But the show was well worth the watch, and frankly I think having the only person whose attention she actually wanted defend me probably made her more upset than if I had defended myself. But hey, if she wanted to come back and give us a second chance that’s on her, not you.” She easily played off the oddity of Vandrad having come to her “rescue” at the gala the night before, something which was certainly still strange to her but not necessarily something she saw as that big of a deal, though his mother probably did.
Somehow, Mercury managed to blubber through the awkwardness of asking a question she had been wholly unprepared for. Themesycia assured her the small hiccup at the bar the night before hadn’t been the reason she’d brought Mercury out here, but apparently she had seen the effort it had taken to answer as much as she had about it and the older woman appreciated it. She explained that she never wanted Mercury to feel obligated to talk to her about anything she didn’t want to, whether it be about herself or about Vandrad, comparing that to a set of eyes constantly keeping them stripped of freedom.
And boy, didn’t that hit home? She managed to keep her face straight, but her gaze flicked forward to watch where they were walking while her brain rattled around inside her head. There was some other kind of emotion swelling up inside of her that she absolutely needed to squash down, and quickly. It was now twice in less than twenty-four hours that someone had respected her in a way that resonated more deeply than they could ever understand, and just like the first time Mercury had exactly zero idea how to handle it. Though, she did manage a small smile back at the woman even as Themesycia gave her hand an encouraging squeeze before letting it go.
Thankfully, the duchess seemed keen on changing the subject quickly after that, though Mercury would soon find the subject matter to be much weightier than anything she’d ever come across before outside of her own personal life experiences. The Silver Wolf mage waggled her eyebrows at Themesycia at the mention of ravaging, but otherwise did nothing to interrupt the woman, who went on to express her concern was more just wanting to make sure Vandrad hadn’t acted out in some way. She explained that Vandrad has always been headstrong and near tunnel vision focused on his quest to get stronger than he currently was at any given moment. He’d never had a friend before, nor wanted one, having taken a long time to even really come around to his own family and their lavish lifestyle.
And according to Themesycia, that was her own fault.
Mercury frowned at her, interested in where this was going but also confused as to why it was being brought up with her. Wherever the conversation was leading, she could already tell it wasn’t going to be an easy story -- though nothing would truly prepare her for the depth of how hard it was. The forest opened up into the town, and the duchess fixed her gaze before them toward the path ahead as they walked it. She explained that their family hadn’t originally been from Bellum, and then when they had come she had been quite young and new to the family. It was odd wording, but she quickly addressed it by admitting that the story of Vandrad being found as an infant and taken in by the du Wolffs had actually been her own story, not her son’s.
She stared at Themesycia in open shock, her mouth opening as if to comment but quickly stopping as she realized she had absolutely no idea what to say to that. It was quite the revelation, though Mercury supposed it answered the question of how she was only related to Simon and Everance through adoption. It seemed she had been left in the brush by her birth mother, but a man named Vincent, Simon and Everance’s father, had taken her in. Unfortunately, the compassionate sentiment had not been shared by her adoptive mother. The woman had spent all of Themesycia’s growing life reminding her that she didn’t belong, and the only reason she hadn’t become as closed off as Vandrad was because the rest of the family had wholly accepted her.
The Silver Wolf mage walked in silence alongside Themesycia, a growing tension inside of her that this story was about to venture into a realm that was completely alien to Mercury. Her emerald gaze kept darting around the area, taking the town and its people in without really looking at any of it. She’d never had someone open up to her like this before, including Vandrad’s weird behaviors the night prior, and she was uncertain what the proper behavior was. All she could do was listen wordlessly and hope that was the right answer.
About for decades ago, she and Vincent had indeed been at the peace talks between Bellum and Fiore that the family had mentioned the night before, and a sudden recollection hit her. She had been certain that Simon hadn’t been wholly truthful when speaking about Vandrad’s adoption, but hadn’t caught any kind of proof, only had an inkling that Mercury had all but written off already by this point. Now, she was about to hear the true story, which apparently involved them being on Fioren soil with Rune Knight protection… in the name of Gren Ragnos.
Mercury had known since the beginning that Vandrad had been looking for his dad. As Themesycia herself said, there was no mistaking their relationship. She had already seen his pictures, and Vandrad was indeed a near copy of the man. But apparently, Gren had been forced to actually have to do his job when assassins attempted to hit the summit, forcing her away from her father where Gren eventually rescued her. He guided her back to her father and to safety, and at some point during the whole ordeal she had become so enamored with him that she jumped him. Apparently, it had been both of their first times, and from the sound of things they had slept together at least twice.
But during that time was when the young up and coming duchess had put together for herself that it wasn’t Gren she had been enamored with so much as his life style of being a knight and a warrior. In fact, she had come to realize that apart from Simon she wasn’t attracted to men at all. But by then the man had fallen for her, and she’d had to find a way to let him down gently, explaining that they could never be a thing due to her status as a noble in an enemy country. On the way home, after Gren had left, was when she got sick… and then later discovered that she was pregnant.
They’d had to hide her pregnancy from the public and even from most of the family, in order to save their reputation as nobles. Her father wasn’t upset with her, unlike her mother, but still she had been shut away for a few months until Vandrad was born where Themesycia could claim the same story that Vincent had with herself: that she’d simply found the boy abandoned and chosen to take him in. The public ate the story up, revering her for her compassion.
Provided that Vandrad had magic. Mercury had already done some research on the country before coming to it, but that didn’t really take away the impact of hearing the words spoken and confirmed to her face. Bellum regarded people without magic as subhumans fit only to be slaves and nothing more. Despite her own circumstances, Mercury didn’t have a whole lot of pity for slaves… but somehow, it hit a little harder to think that the only reason Themesycia would have been regarded as a hero was if he had grown up to have some trace of magic. And it seemed that the du Wolffs had spent a lot of money to purchase tests that confirmed he did have latent abilities that would one day mature into fruition.
The more Themesycia spoke, the more overwhelmed Mercury was beginning to feel by the entire conversation. Granted, she hid it fairly well. Or at least, the extent of it. A glance at her face would probably tell the duchess that Mercury wasn’t entirely sure how to take this sudden and personal story, which was probably explained by her own admittance not so long ago that she wasn’t really experienced with a lot of deep, heartfelt interactions. But to her credit, she continued to do her best to push her increasing anxiety down and give Themesycia the respect of a listening, attentive ear, even if she had the sinking suspicion that this was leading up to information that Vandrad might not exactly be keen on her hearing.
Vincent had died the same year Vandrad was born, and much to his wife’s chagrin it was Themesycia who had been named by will to assume the duchy in his stead. She had been the only one of his children interested in the responsibilities of leadership, and neither of her siblings seemed at all upset by the appointment. It was only Beatrix, who had been infuriated by it. Between that and losing her husband, the woman had started to fall apart violently, her eyes setting on Vandrad. A knot formed in Mercury’s stomach the likes of which she’d never felt before, already having an inkling of where this was going and not liking it one bit.
Themesycia had at one point been in a committed relationship with a woman named Yuna, who she hired to be Vandrad’s caretaker. According to the duchess, the young boy adored Yuna with every fiber of his innocent being, and was very close to her to the point of her being like a second mother -- which seemed to be what Themesycia had in mind. Given that this was the first time Mercury was hearing the name, she could already deduce that something ill had befallen the woman, which only increased the odd wrenching in her stomach, especially as Themesycia stopped walking, completely lost in her own story.
Mercury stopped awkwardly next to her, continuing to listen. Eventually, the duchess had been drafted to help with a slave revolt, leaving Vandrad in Yuna’s care. But unfortunately, Yuna was not as strong willed as Vandrad’s birth mother, and that was when Beatrix had chosen to strike at her grandson. It was difficult for Mercury to picture a man as strong willed and unbending as he was to have been a victim of abuse, even in his early years… but then again, it did explain a lot about why he had become that way. Mercury was already drawing an uncomfortable number of parallels between Vandrad’s history and personality against her own.
Her discomfort grew when she realized the duchess was crying, something Mercury really didn’t know what to do with. The only times the Xocili had ever been exposed to tears were to her own, and that was a long, long time ago. She couldn’t remember the last time anything had moved her to tears, and those times certainly hadn’t been out of consideration of someone else’s feelings or troubles. Add to that the fact that the few times she’d cried had been met with swift and firm punishment, and… well, she had learned at an early age that tears were just a sign of weakness to be purged from the body.
Which just made the phenomenon all the more troubling for her to see a woman that had just utterly decimated her in a spar not even ten minutes ago standing there before her, moisture pouring shamelessly down her face. Mercury gulped quietly, her eyes darting around as much as Themesycia’s as she tried to stay as even as possible about the whole thing. This story was clearly difficult for the duchess to tell, and Mercury didn’t want to ruin it, no matter how uncomfortable it was making her.
When Yuna had finally caught Beatrix abusing the young boy, she’d gathered enough courage to act, attacking the older woman while Simon snatched young Vandrad up and tried to pull him out of the fray. But in the midst of it all, the matriarch had managed to get her hands on a weapon and run the other woman through so thoroughly that she died immediately. Vandrad, apparently, had snapped, cloaked in an aura of evil so thick that it knocked Simon back and out, and completely disintegrated his grandmother. And ever since that traumatic experience, he’d been different. He was harder, more distant, causing Themesycia to think she had lost her boy along with her lover.
By the time Themesycia looked back up at Mercury, there would be no mistaking that she had no idea how to process the story that had just been presented to her. For all the composure in her expression and demeanor, there was a bit of wideness to her eyes like a deer caught in headlights. She must have been exuding complete and utter confusion as to why Themesycia had told her all of this, because the duchess went on to answer that very question without Mercury even having to ask it.
As much as Vandrad would deny it, he did consider Mercury a friend, according to his mother. In her own way, Mercury knew it was true… though she herself had never really stopped to put any weight to it. The Silver Wolf wizard joked and teased him all the time about being his best friend while he insisted otherwise, but there was more truth to her jests than even she had ever really taken the time to consider. Is that what was happening between them? All the weirdness and changed behaviors that she didn’t understand, the feelings she was unfamiliar with… was that the sensation of forming a bond of friendship? He had told her he trusted her…
Either way, it seemed that Themesycia had recognized that Vandrad had found something in Mercury he’d never allowed himself to have before, and it was enough for her to want the woman to know their story, so she could understand why Vandrad was so closed off and gruff all the time. But for all his surliness, he was a good person who valued whatever place it was that Mercury had in his life. The lavender haired woman was utterly speechless, grasping at straws for what to say or do, for the proper way to react to all this heavy information. Despite her best efforts, it must have been written all over her face because Themesycia apologized a minute later, admitting she hadn’t exactly meant to go into so much detail.
It was enough to at least get Mercury’s voice working, if roughly. “It’s okay,” she told the woman, having to immediately stop herself to clear an odd bit of coarseness from her throat so she could speak clearly. “You have nothing to apologize for. Like I said, I’m… I’m the one who’s… inexperienced with this kind of stuff.” Somehow recognizing that she was about to ramble to cover the awkwardness, she managed to shut herself up there. It was uncommon for her to feel like this at someone else’s pain. Mercury had been on the listening end to a number of sob stories from people in the past that seemed to think she cared, and none of them had affected her. So why was it different now?
It was another long few seconds before she found her voice again. “There’s never been a time where I’ve ever felt like I’ve had to… endure him,” Mercury told the other woman, once again speaking tentatively as she formulated her thoughts, desperate to do more than just dumbly listen to such a difficult tale. She didn’t know how to take the information, but she at least recognized that its intent was for Mercury to understand Vandrad, presumably so as not to hold his mannerisms against him. That, at least, was something she could speak on a bit more readily. “Even when he tried his hardest to kill me, I never had any issues with him. If anything, he’s the one who tolerates me. I know I joke about that for everyone’s benefit but… that doesn’t make it less true.”
Her jaw twitched a little as she tried to figure out the right way to say what she wanted to say. “Honestly, the only reason he and I ever even saw each other again was because I knew he wanted nothing to do with me… which I found… amusing.” Mercury found it surprisingly difficult to say that outloud, the softly spoken words tasting sour in her mouth when even yesterday she could have admitted to her rather immature behavior without any sense of remorse or guilt. Now she was riddled with insecurity over it. It sucked. “There’s no reason for him to trust me as much as he does. I’m… I’m not the nicest person. And I certainly haven’t been to him. We more or less worked well together from the start, I suppose, but… I don’t know why he keeps me around. I haven’t given him very many reasons to.”
She bit her lip a little and looked down at the ground. “I know he’s a good person. I’ve never done anything malicious to him, of course, but he’s still been better to me than I deserve. I don’t know when or how we started… actually getting along… but it was because he chose to accept my behaviors. Not the other way around.”