Actions

Work Header

A Fistful of Blasting Powder

Chapter Text

It was perhaps only natural that the mercenaries would gravitate towards the sons and daughters of Faerghus nobility. Out of the three houses at Garreg Mach, it was the Blue Lions who were undoubtedly the more martial. And while the academy taught the military arts to all students, it was always the future lords and ladies of the Holy Kingdom who trained and sparred on the practice fields the hardest.

For men and women who had fought in the mud and muck of battle and who had spent their whole lifetimes campaigning, the Blue Lions were a far more practical lot to converse with compared to the more aristocratic Black Eagles and the wealthier Golden Deers.

Which meant it did not take long at all for the two sides to start the process of intermingling.

“Commanding isn’t the hard part,” the man next to Dimitri was saying, “It’s the overthinking that gets you. Once the bullets start flying, everything falls in place naturally. But what comes after… all the things you thought you could’ve done better, all the lives you could have saved if you held the men back just slightly longer… that’s what messes any line captain up.”

“The responsibility of command weighs heavily on anyone’s shoulders,” the other man responded evenly, “Though I suppose you get used to it in time.”

The royal prince of Faerghus looked between the two mercenaries. In some ways, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. While he had won his first battle before joining the academy, it had been little more than putting down a rebellion, where his opponents were rogue nobles and the destitute, downtrodden souls they tempted into joining their army. What the mercenaries were talking about was pitched battle, mass conflict between nation-states with professional armies, not riding down some peasants who had the misfortune of joining the wrong side.

Though he outwardly retained his regal bearing, Dimitri eagerly devoured their words.

“And if you’re new to command, it gets even worse,” the first man, an officer whose name Dimitri recalled was Werner, continued, “Not only do you second-guess every damned thing, you have to worry about the troops accepting you as well. Soldiers don’t do well out in the field if they don’t trust their captain, and building that trust is easier said than done.”

“I remember easing myself into the good graces of the men rather straightforwardly,” the second man smiled, “Try and not to get them killed, pay them on time, and get them drunk on your own gold. After a while they’ll love you like you’re their second father.” 

“Easy for you to say,” Werner scoffed, “You’re Jeralt Bloody Eisner. Men will follow you based on your reputation alone,” the grizzled sellsword turned to Dimitri, “Do you know what the mercenary guilds call your Blade Breaker overseas?”

“I do not,” the young prince said politely though he was keen to learn.

“They call him ‘The Captain’. As though he was the only captain on the whole damned continent.”

“I am sure it is a well-deserved title,” Dimitri said sincerely.

“I won a few battles here and there,” Jeralt explained with a modest shrug, “That might have had something to do with it.”

“For the rest of us mortals,” snorted Werner, “we have to motivate the men the old-fashioned way. And I’ll tell you what, that first battle you command them in. That’s the pivotal moment. That’s the time you either prove you got what it takes to wear the laurels of an officer or you go back and stay as a ranker. I remember my first command like it was yesterday. I just took over from Roland. Roland was a good line officer and beloved by the men. His loss was a hard one for the company. Big boots for me to fill. I was so nervous I could barely walk straight. But hells, I needed it! I needed that first taste of combat to prove I’m worthy in front of the boys as well as give them a target to hammer them back into shape. That’s what you want. Give them a chance to bond with you against a common enemy and not bond against you as an outsider.”

Dimitri turned to the other Fódlan native in their little trio.

“Is that true, Sir Jeralt?”

“Certainly,” the former captain of the Knights of Seiros nodded amicably, “Though in the case of Captain Werner, he has neither proved himself in front of his men nor bonded with them.”

Both men laughed out loud. Even Dimitri had to suppress a grin.

Out in the courtyard, the royal prince could see his fellow Blue Lions chatting with their mercenary counterparts. So far it was only the officers who came onto the academy grounds, ostensibly for briefings and orders from their two commanders. Afterwards they would occasionally loiter to watch the students train or even impart words of advice, an act that was warmly received by the martially-minded youths. Learning about the theory of war in a stuffy classroom was one thing. Hearing it firsthand from veteran soldiers was another.

Dimitri caught sight of Felix listening intently as a mercenary explained the various sword forms used overseas. Another was giving Ingrid pointers on her lance-work. Even Sylvain, who had spent not an insignificant amount of time flirting shamelessly with the female officers of the tercio, appeared quite taken with their new, unorthodox instructors.

From the looks on their faces, Dimitri knew that his Blue Lions were benefiting immensely from the exchange of information.

“I must say that I am very glad that this discourse is taking place,” the future king of Faerghus admitted, “I was afraid that our performance during the mock battle might have colored your impressions of our house.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, lad,” Werner responded cheerfully, “You did alright, all things considered. In fact, I would even say our sub-commander was a tad too harsh in deploying the men like that.”

“That was my fault,” Jeralt scratched at his chin ruefully, “I told him to treat this as a demonstration for the purposes of impressing a client and that’s exactly what he did.”

“Still,” Dimitri shook his head, “it was illuminating to see just how foreign armies operated out in the field. The tercio is a both a tenacious and fearsome organization. If this is truly the quality of opposition we face overseas, then we will be hard-pressed to compete.”

Both men looked at each other knowingly.

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” Jeralt said with an encouraging smile.

“There are plenty of ways to deal with tercios,” Werner suggested, “even with a cavalry dominant force like your Faerghus boys.”

“If there is,” Dimitri seized on the opportunity, “I would be interested in learning how.”

“Bait the volleys,” Jeralt answered, “That’s one way. Make it look like you’re charging and then immediately pull back as the musketeers fire. Make them waste their shot and then launch the actual charge. By the time they’ve reloaded, your cavalry should be on top of them and itching to run them down.”

“But there will be more volleys waiting for us, won’t there? Your officers called the tactic countermarching or something along those lines.”

“You’re right to pick up on that,” Werner said gruffly, “and in theory that’s what the countermarch is supposed to do. Make up for the matchlock’s abysmal reloading speed. But theory and practice are two different things, and to conduct the countermarch right, you need officers who know what they’re doing and men who’ve been drilled to do it. And that’s a tall order when the war is sucking up manpower on both sides. Truth be told, for every tercio like ours that have both these qualities, there’s two or three more that can barely form a hollow square and volley properly, much less perform an advanced tactic like the countermarch.” 

“That’s why you have to keep up your momentum during the charge,” Jeralt added on, “A veteran formation of pike and shot will stand up to you, but many more who aren’t as experienced will start breaking before contact is made. Men don’t take the shock of combat well.”

“That first volley tripped your men up,” nodded Werner, “That’s the point. Break up the coherence of the charge. You did a good job of organizing them back into shape, but by the time you reached us, all your momentum was gone. If you had come crashing down on us while still in that wedge formation, you would have given us far more of a fight. If you had done the same to a tercio that’s newly organized, chances are some of the pikemen would have thrown down their pikes and started legging it before you collided. Then it’s a simple matter of pouring into the gaps with your cavalry and breaking the tercio apart. That’s exactly how they did it at Montegro. Four thousand gendarmes from the Kingdom of Toulouse shattered five times their number of pikemen and musketeers from the Swabian Empire in a single glorious charge.”

“Gendarmes?” repeated Dimitri.

“You take one of your Faerghus knights and tack on twice as much plate to both rider and horse. Then you give the rider a lance almost as long as a pike. You don’t need to give him a shield because his armor is his shield. Then you drill into his head the idea that he’s the meanest, hardest bastard on this side of the continent and the only way to prove that is to skewer as many poor sods as possible on that small tree he has for a lance. Oh, and it works even better if the horse he’s riding on is bred to be a psychotic monster who would love nothing more than trample its way through a pike block. That’s a gendarme.”

Jeralt saw the expression on the royal prince’s face and smiled.

“The Fódlan equivalent would be a Great Knight.”

“Aye, four thousand Great Knights led by the young sovereign of Toulouse himself,” Werner squinted as he recalled the memory, “A fair lad, brave and true. He wasn’t much older than you, in fact. The very definition of a noble king. His queen, they said, was as beautiful as she was virtuous. If you listened to the rumors, you would’ve sworn that their romance and their kingdom was out of some fairytale story. Well, at Montegro, this fairytale king led an army of fifteen thousand men, of which four thousand were his elite royal gendarmes. The rest of his force may as well been chaff for all they mattered. Together, they faced a combined Swabian state army of fifty thousand pike, shot, and horse, a portion of whom were mercenary tercios. I commanded a company of men in the front divisions. I saw the charge firsthand. Four thousand gendarmes. Arrayed in two lines. The sunlight gleaming off their plate as they charged. The pendants fluttering in the wind. When they got close, the ground literally shook. I commanded some brave boys in that battle, but I’ll tell you what, when they connected with us, our entire ranks just dissolved. They rode right over us and chased us into the second line, which shattered as well. The third line wanted none of what we got and was collapsing before the cavalry even got there. The rest of the battle was them riding our lads down. We suffered twenty thousand casualties on that day. Twenty thousand.”

“It must have been a grand sight,” murmured Dimitri. The young noble grimaced when he realized what he had just implied, “Captain Werner, I must ask your forgiveness for what I had just said. No doubt some of those casualties were your men. I did not mean to---"

“Oh, it was a grand sight,” the mercenary waved his apology aside, “When I saw those gendarmes charging us in perfect formation with their lances couched, I thought they were going to carry our entire line away and bring back the age of chivalry, honor, and bloody damned feudalism to boot! And that’s what the good captain means when he says men don’t take the shock of combat well. Soldiers, even veteran and experienced soldiers, have a mental limit. A little voice in the back of his head that’s going to be urging him to drop everything and run at the first sign things start to go south. And when he sees a body of cavalry coming down on him at full speed, that little voice in the back of his head is going to be screaming at the top of its lungs. That’s why most nations have adopted the tercio or something close to it. You toss an untested man out on the battlefield and he’ll snap like a twig when danger so much as breathes his way. But if you stick him in a big ol’ formation tens of ranks deep and give him a fifteen-foot pike to poke people with, he starts feeling a lot better about his place in life. And if you stuck him with a group of men he knows and likes and gave him a commander he can trust, then he might actually hold his ground. And if you drill him every day until his body instinctively responds to an order from his superior officer, then he might even advance in the face of shot, shell, and whatever hell the enemy throws his way.”

“That’s what warfare comes down to these days,” Jeralt continued, “It’s all about the application of shock and the ability to defend against it. You want to inflict as much psychological damage as it takes for the enemy formation to break while shielding your own. Once a line shatters and dissolves into a rout… that’s when the true killing begins.” 

“My weapon instructors have told me before that the easiest way to strike a man down was when he was fleeing and his back was turned,” Dimitri mused, “It had seemed so dishonorable then, but to hear it repeated now by men such as yourselves who have experienced it... Forgive me, but it all sounds so… callous. These theories on battle that you speak of. I have studied concepts vaguely similar to them but never in this detail. I must confess that I very much doubt that the outside world could have developed these ideas in a vacuum. There must be something influencing the nations abroad to think in such a manner.”

“You’re absolutely right about that,” Werner grunted, “And that something is war. A lot of it. For the past hundred years give or take, our continent has been embroiled in some sort of conflict pretty much nonstop. And as it so happens, when you give people an incentive to start killing one another, they get so good at it that they start developing better, more efficient ways of killing one another. That’s the real truth behind all this. The tercio developed because generals and commanders got so good at inflicting shock that bringing your standard feudal levy wasn’t going to cut it anymore. But now, the focus has shifted again. Everyone and their mother is trying to think up ways to break up the tercio. It’s a resilient formation, but it’s not invincible. You can do it with cavalry, but they have to be a lot heavier in weight and armor than your standard knight. You can do it with magic as well, but you risk getting your valuable mages killed to counterfire. Losing a magic-user who’ve spent years studying magic to some fresh-out of the drill yard recruit who got lucky with his musket is just about the worst exchange you can possibly make. You could also do it with gunpowder, but that theory hasn’t been tested much. The idea is that while employing good musketeers in your formation is something you ought to do, it’s even better if you can employ a greater number of average ones. Weight of fire and all that.”

“I have heard of this concept,” Dimitri nodded, “though not applied to gunpowder weapons. Quantity has a quality all on its own or something like that.”

“More or less. The idea goes that since men will always be moving on the battlefield in formations, good aim isn’t all that much of a benefit. In a situation like that, when you’re firing at large, slow-moving blocks of men, ten average shooters will do more damage than one good shooter and one hundred poor shooters will do more damage than ten average ones. It’s a sound theory, but it’s weighed down by the general unreliability of the matchlock. Hasn’t stopped military thinkers from trying it out though. In fact, our very own Byleth is a subscriber to that theory. That’s why our tercio has got cannons. Most mercenary companies don’t bother.”

“I’m getting too old to learn a new method of warfare,” Jeralt sighed, “Sometimes I miss the good old days when combat was decided at sword-range and not by who volleyed first two hundred yards away.”   

“I’ll be begging your pardon, Captain,” Werner smacked his commander’s shoulder in good humor, “but I vastly prefer this method of warfare. Before, a normal man like myself wouldn’t have lasted three seconds against the likes of you. Nowadays, I at least get a chance to shoot you before you inevitably knock me on my ass.”

“An entire continent at war…” Dimitri shook his head slowly at the notion, “I can only imagine the impact to the common folk and to society as a whole. In Faerghus, I do not believe we would have the means to support a perpetual conflict like this. Men and women would have to leave their fields bare for years at a time. And it would strain the resources of our nobles to the extreme. The four thousand gendarmes you alluded to? My retainers would be fortunate if they could raise an elite force a fifth of that size. Great Knights are a Master Class. It takes time and dedication in three separate military arts to be considered barely worthy of that mantle. Suffice to say, most of the Kingdom’s cavalry arm are either Cavaliers or Paladins.”

“Gendarmes aren’t something your retainers would be able to field,” Jeralt smiled faintly, “Despite their similarity in role to Great Knights, they aren’t exactly landed knights with fiefs of their own. Just like how most infantry regiments these days have transitioned to becoming state troops, the heavy cavalry divisions that accompany them are heavily subsidized by the state. They are still the sons and daughters of nobility, but their loyalty lies with the nation, not with their families. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the heavy-handed reforms carried out by the King of Toulouse and likeminded sovereigns.”

“If those are the same type of reforms I am familiar with,” Dimitri said contemplatively, “then surely there must have been some sort of negative reaction from your society’s nobles. I cannot think up a scenario where the men in power would freely relinquish their authority.”

“There were quite a few rebellions started by nobles who lost their holdings and fiefs,” Werner gestured dismissively, “but those revolts never amounted to much of anything. The trick is to make sure the reforms not only benefits the hegemons in charge, but some of their underlings as well. Smart kings and emperors played the nobles of their court off one other. Those rebellions started by nobles who lost everything due to the old system being dismantled? They were suppressed by armies led by nobles who stood to gain everything under the new system. Organizations that produced elite soldiers like gendarmes merely hastened the process. Before, if you were the fourth or fifth son of a noble house, the only way for you to get ahead in life was become a knight sworn to another noble house. Nowadays, you joined a military institution sponsored by the state. The state paid for your weapons, your armor, and your steed. They even gave you a monthly stipend to spend on whatever you wished. The end result is a highly motivated, militarized force beholden only to the state. These types of systems grew to be so effective that nations based their entire officer corps off it. Sons and daughters who were born too late to inherit fiefs were enrolled in military academies much like this monastery and taught how to command men. They wouldn’t rebel because their livelihoods were connected to the state. Their families wouldn’t rebel because it would mean facing their own children on the battlefield. The common soldiers got charismatic commanders who were trained in the military arts. Everyone benefited. Even the young upstarts themselves,” the grizzled veteran’s eyes suddenly danced with mischief, “They got a chance to preen and pucker in front of the commoners they commanded.”

Jeralt raised an eyebrow.

“I must remind you that you are talking to the future king of a sovereign nation.”  

“Apologies, your future highness,” Werner said cheerfully, “I’m sure as the future king of a sovereign nation you preen and pucker differently than your fellow nobles.”

“Just a little,” said Dimitri with a straight face.

This time, all three of them laughed out loud.

“The King of Toulouse,” the young prince mentioned, still smiling, “What happened to him? Did he prevail over his enemies?”

Both men looked uneasily at one another.

“He lost the war.”

All of them turned at the sound of the new voice.

“Professor,” Dimitri immediately inclined his head out of courtesy, “I must thank you for allowing your men to speak with us. Their experiences in the field have proven to be extremely enlightening and have taught us much.”

There was nothing on Byleth’s face that suggested he had registered the compliment at all. The look he gave back was neither warm nor cold.

“I did not allow them to do anything. They spoke with you out of their own volition.”

“How did the lessons go?” Jeralt asked partly out of amusement and partly to diffuse the tension that arose from such a terse response.

The mercenary who was now Garreg Mach’s youngest instructor stared back at his father.

“It went accordingly.”

If the noncommittal answer bothered the older men, they didn’t show it.

“We were just talking to the young prince about the war between Toulouse and Swabia,” Werner said easily, “and the battles that took place between them.”

“Were you at those battles as well, professor?” Dimitri enquired politely.

Byleth turned to look at him.

“I was eight at the time,” he said flatly.

“Of course. My mistake. You were only a child---”

“I served as a powder-bearer for the tercio,” those emotionless eyes bored into Dimitri’s own, “My primary role was to supply gunpowder to the musketeers when they ran dry. My secondary role was to help drag men who had been mortally wounded out of the battle line.”

“I… see.”

“We were part of the second wave of reinforcements,” Jeralt explained further, “Hired by the Swabian Emperor after his disastrous defeat.”

“The old wretch almost couldn’t manage it,” snorted Werner, “Marshalling fifty thousand professional soldiers nearly bankrupted his coffers.”

“And yet this emperor was able to hire fresh reserves?”

“He didn’t have the gold,” nodded Jeralt, “That much is true. But he could offer something that was just as good. Think. What do mercenaries want more of besides gold?”

“Loot,” Dimitri realized.

“Aye,” Werner smiled grimly, “Loot. To attract the sellsword companies to his banner and replace his losses, the Emperor of Swabia offered to let the mercenaries freely pillage any Toulousan territory that was captured. You’re a smart lad. You can imagine what came next.”

The young prince closed his eyes. Memories of the Tragedy of Duscur swam to the forefront. He could suddenly smell the smoke from houses torched by vengeful soldiers. Hear the screams of an entire people being put to the sword.

“How bad was it?”

“Out of the twenty-two cities and major townships that consisted of the urban areas of the Kingdom of Toulouse,” said Byleth without breaking stride, “sixteen of them can no longer be considered significant population centers.”

His expression must have darkened for Werner shrugged in his direction.

“That’s the irony of war, ain’t it? If the fairytale king had never won that first battle, then that old bastard of an emperor wouldn’t have had to rely on such drastic steps. It would have saved his people from a lot of grief in the long run.”

“No just king would let his people suffer like that,” Dimitri relaxed the hand he had inadvertently clutched into a fist, “The King of Toulouse must have fought back. At least I would have,” he thought to himself.

Werner held up three fingers.

“He fought us three more times. Three battles. And lost them all.”

“How is that possible?” the young noble tried to keep the combativeness out of his voice and for the most part succeeded, “You told me his four thousand Great Knights was enough to defeat five times their number in enemies.”

“Aye. They did. And in doing so, lost two thousand of their own to musket fire and braced pikes. Among those casualties were the majority of the young king’s court mages, who he had embedded with his cavalry to help break up the tercios. After that it was all just a numbers game. One that favored the Swabian Empire.”

“How so?”

“You can replace twenty thousand pikemen faster than you can replace two thousand gendarmes,” Byleth said simply.

“By shattering the Swabian army at Montegro,” Jeralt sighed, “the Toulousan monarch inflicted so much damage to his own elite royal corps that he ensured they wouldn’t be able to replicate the same feat ever again. And faced now with a reinvigorated enemy whose ranks swelled with veteran mercenaries? The rest of the battles weren’t so much battles as they were mopping-up operations. After his final defeat, the boy-king holed up in his last remaining keep with his family and what was left of his retainers. We were there. Surrounding them. Up until the end.”

“Terms were offered,” Werner scratched idly at his chin, “Kneel or die. The boy surrendered his family to spare their lives. But if the Emperor of Swabia wanted him to kneel, he would have to dig him out. So we did. We laid siege to his castle. Unlimbered the cannons. And blasted it apart stone by stone. His household troops put up one hell of a fight, but they were too few to halt the final assault. And that’s how it all ended.”

“His family and subjects?” Dimitri whispered.

“His subjects are now the subjects of the Swabian Empire. His infant children were distributed to high-ranking aristocrats within the empire as hostages. His young and beautiful queen, last I heard, is now the young and beautiful queen of Swabia.”

“Stupid boy,” murmured Jeralt.

“I must admit that I am confused,” Dimitri looked at each of the figures facing him in turn, “Fighting to the last to defend your kingdom, even if it is a futile fight, is something I would expect all righteous sovereigns to do. And yet, judging from your tone and your responses, you do not agree. I must ask. Dying with his men in that last stand. Was that not the honorable thing to do?”

“Honorable, aye,” Werner grunted, “But was it the right thing to do? Now that’s a question that’s much harder to answer.”

“The Emperor of Swabia would not have executed him if he had surrendered,” said Jeralt firmly, “You start executing royalty like they were common criminals and the royalty from other countries will start banding together to form coalitions against you because they think you want their necks on the chopping block next. He would have most likely kept his child and wife too, because the world doesn’t look kindly on greedy sovereigns breaking apart families while their husband and father is in prison. He might have even had a chance to restore his kingdom. The emperor was old and had many heirs. In the power struggle that followed, anything could have happened. As long as he was still alive, either imprisoned or taken as a hostage, the King of Toulouse would have been a political problem for Swabia. One he resolved himself by choosing to die with his men in that futile final stand.”

“The bards will sing songs of that glorious and valiant charge,” Werner tapped the pommel of his sheathed sword absentmindedly, “Make no mistake about that. They’ll tell tales of this fairytale king and how he took the world by storm. But I wonder. To his young wife who now warms another man’s bed. To his people who he abandoned to the tender mercies of a hostile power. To his kingdom that will now never have a chance to become an independent nation again… What use are those songs?”

Dimitri looked down at his palms.

“I…” he hesitated, choosing his words carefully, “…I cannot say that I agree with everything you’ve said. But it would be foolish of me to say that your words have no merit whatsoever. It is apparent to me that I have much to think about,” the young prince looked up into the face of the one who had no doubt set this up, “Thank you, professor, for giving me this new perspective.”

“You should not thank me for something I did not do,” came the brusque reply.

“You didn’t intend for this to happen?” Dimitri frowned.

“I did not.”

“Then why are you here?”

His counterpart’s eyes betrayed nothing as they locked gazes with his own.

“I am here because I will be taking the Black Eagles to see the men drill tomorrow and wanted to know if you and your Blue Lions would be interested in coming along.”

Dimitri couldn’t recall a time when he was this taken aback.

“I have already discussed this subject matter with Professor Hanneman,” Byleth continued, “and he was amendable to the idea. It would give him more time to research crests is what he said to me.”

“But you’re the homeroom teacher of the Black Eagles.”

“I am.”

“And I am the head of the Blue Lions.”

“You are.”

“There are no rules stating that you have to teach another class when you’re already the homeroom teacher of an existing class.”

“There are no rules preventing me from doing so either.”

“That can’t be your only reason.”

Byleth cocked his head to one side. Dimitri had the distinct impression he was choosing his next words with great care.

“I am a mercenary. I am being paid to teach this academy’s students what I know and sometimes what I don’t know. You are a student of this academy. Your Blue Lions are students of this academy. Ergo, I will teach all of you as well. Besides, I made sure to include in the contract that the fees paid to my company would be based on the amount that was taught, not the quality. And as far as I’m concerned,” the sellsword-turned-instructor swept a hand out towards the Blue Lions still deep in the midst of conversations with the tercio’s officers, “all of this count as lessons.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Dimitri caught sight of Jeralt nudging Werner in the ribs.

“This is why I let him do all the negotiating.”

++++++

“You know, Teach, not that we don’t enjoy your company, but shouldn’t you be sitting with your class and not ours?”

Claude glanced at the other faces seated in the Golden Deer section of the cafeteria. None of his classmates seemed to outright mind the new arrival’s presence, but some looked a little wary. The recent defeat handed to them by the mercenaries still smarted.

“By the rules and decorum expected by this academy, I most likely should be,” said the newest professor at Garreg Mach Monastery.

“But?” the heir of Riegan sensed that there was more to the sentence.

“But I don’t really care for decorum.”

Claude leaned back into his chair and grinned.

“I don’t know why you chose the Eagles, Teach. With that attitude, you would’ve fit right in with us Deers!”

Murmurs of agreement sounded around the table. The warier students relaxed and resumed poking and prodding at their dinner.

“My reason for choosing the Black Eagles are my own,” replied Byleth neutrally, “And explaining my reasoning is not why I am here today,” the mercenary turned to look at Claude, expression a blank canvas, “I have learned from my sources that the Leicester Alliance contains a higher number of merchants compared to the other nations. Is this true?”

Claude’s gaze traveled to the two Crimson Plumes standing guard at Byleth’s back. They were big, tall men in black steel cuirasses. While they stood still as statues, their hands hovered surreptitiously over the pommels of the sheathed swords at their sides. Eyes half-hooded by plumed burgonets remained professionally fixed ahead.

Claude’s gaze traveled back to their master. The academy allowed retainers and domestic staff on the monastery’s grounds, but this… this was a step beyond that.

“Well, our little coalition is somewhat renowned for being more accepting of merchants compared to the Kingdom and the Empire. If you’re looking for a trade deal, Ignatz here comes from a family of merchants. Isn’t that right, Ignatz?”

A few seats further down the table, the boy in question jumped at the mention of his name. Meekly, he raised a hand in greeting.

“Um… hello.”

The way Byleth’s stare transfixed him resembled a hawk focusing on a particularly large and juicy rodent.

“Yes. Mr. Victor. Your name came up more than once when my men were surveying the merchants outside the monastery. From what I hear, your parents enjoy a reputation as honest and dependable traders. Now that your head of house has introduced us, I will dispense with the pleasantries and move directly to my proposal.”

Ignatz looked to his left and right helplessly. His fellow students made no move to assist him. Instead, they watched with a form of horrified fascination in anticipation at what would come next. All except for Claude, whose grin grew wider with each passing second.

“Um… o-okay? What is the proposal?”

“I find myself in need of gunpowder. My tercio has a supply caravan, but its stores will inevitably dwindle. And a mercenary company is only half-effective if its musketeers can’t shoot. You, through your family’s connections, will procure me that gunpowder.”

Ignatz peered at the mercenary over the rims of his spectacles.

“I… I think you have the wrong person, professor. My family doesn’t sell gunpowder. I don’t even know what it’s made out of.”

“Charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter,” Claude shrugged when a table’s worth of gazes focused on him, “What? The Almyran navy have some ships that are equipped with cannons.”

“Correct,” Byleth continued without pausing, “Charcoal is easy enough to make. Sulfur can be found in mountainous regions and will require extensive mining operations to extract. Saltpeter, or more accurately, potassium nitrate, is mostly a manmade substance. To harvest it in any significant amount, you will need to have farms and estates dedicated to its production.”

“That sounds like a lot of effort,” Ignatz frowned as the merchant in him was drawn to the fore, “The start-up cost would be huge. I don’t think my parents would be interested in something so… long-term. And you would be their only customer.”

“They would be selling some of it to me. They would be selling most of it overseas.”

Claude slowly, slowly straightened himself from his leaning position.

“O-Overseas?”

“Gunpowder has never been cheap to make, even during peacetime. In wartime, the price to market increases exponentially. And right now, there are more than a few wars being fought across the Great Ocean. Quality gunpowder is needed in such great amounts that state-subsidized entities dedicated to its production cannot meet the demand. There is also the added fact that opposing factions would more than likely enter into a bidding war to secure your shipment just so the other side doesn’t do the same. All of this has led many nations to call gunpowder by a different name. Black gold,” Claude noticed that many of his fellow nobles were trying very hard not to look interested, “Because good, quality gunpowder that doesn’t foul up the barrel when shot and doesn’t ignite in the pan unless ignited is worth its weight in gold.”

“If you put that way, I… I can see where the potential of the business lies.”

“I was hoping you might,” Byleth nodded, “And with Fódlan not manufacturing gunpowder in any great quantity, chances are the sulfur deposits are pristine and untapped. Which substantially enhances the purity of the powder once it is produced.”

“I don’t doubt any of that, professor, but I don’t think my family has enough capital to fund an endeavor like this.”

“Understandable. Merchants are perpetually poor in cash and rich in goods. Your parents will most likely have their funds already tied up in goods they’re trying to sell.”

“Yes,” Ignatz said, almost relieved, “Exactly.”

The newest instructor at Garreg Mach Monastery set down the silverware he had been using on the cafeteria table.

“All I can say is whoever is going to invest in this potential endeavor will most likely end up extremely wealthy,” he said to the sons and daughters of some of the most influential nobles in the Leicester Alliance.

Claude could almost hear the cogs turning in his fellow students’ heads.

“Why stop there, Teach?” the heir of Riegan joked to break the silence, “Why not just make a trade mission out of it? We can even launch the ships straight out of the port at Derdieu. They even have factories there to produce your gunpowder. Say, what kind of goods do people want the most overseas?” he asked, not expecting an answer at all.

“Tea, porcelain, silk, indigo, cinnabar, cotton, sugar, and various spices,” Byleth recited almost mechanically, “Mundane materials such as steel, iron, and bronze will also be in high demand during wartime.”

“How… do you know all that?”

“It is not unknown for mercenary companies to accept goods as compensation for services rendered,” came the automatic reply, “It is also not unknown for mercenary companies to forcibly take goods if they believed their compensation was not enough.”

“Huh...” Claude cocked his head to one side, “I didn’t think you were actually going to answer.”

“Why?” Byleth stared blankly at him, “Was I not supposed to?”

“Well, you were. I just didn’t expect you to be serious. That’s all.”

“I assure you I am being entirely serious.”

“Yes,” Claude sighed, “I’m beginning to see that now.”

“Um… Professor?” they both turned at the soft voice. The girl, the daughter of a minor noble sworn to House Goneril, blushed slightly at the attention, “My family owns a tea plantation that has been passed down generation to generation. We are quite renowned for the leaves we produce. But sometimes the infighting between the larger noble houses will cut off our trade routes. Do you think… Do you think that selling our tea overseas could work for us?”

“I believe it would be a profitable venture, yes,” nodded Byleth.

The girl smiled, pleased.

“What about arms and armor?” a youth from the Kupala autonomous region asked, “My family crafts weapons and armor using precious minerals. We also sometimes decorate them with gemstones. Do you think people from overseas would be interested in that, professor?”

“Ornate suits of armor and well-crafted weapons have always been in demand by kings, emperors, and nobles alike,” Byleth replied simply, “Some even choose to collect them as decoration. And since these pieces are crafted in Fódlan, which is a relatively unknown land to most, it would make them exotic. Which should easily double your asking price.”

The boy, his hair cut short in the manner of the mountain tribes, grinned.

“You talked about spices, professor,” another student mentioned, “My family is thinking about transforming some barren farmland into an estate for growing spices. If we wanted to sell our wares across the ocean, what do you recommend we plant?”

“Any spice will do,” said Byleth succinctly, “Though the rarer it is the more expensive it will be.”

“Professor, my family has an iron mine they’ve been operating for a long time. Our deposits are some of the best you’ll find. Do you think our ore will fetch a better price in a foreign market?”

“You mentioned indigo, professor! I have contacts to merchants who deal in rare dyes. I would be very interested in selling them overseas.”

“What about porcelain? I know craftsmen who produce some of the finest plates and cups in all of Fódlan! Please consider us as a potential business partner!”

“Professor!”

“Teacher!”

Claude looked around at the absolute bedlam that was slowly descending over the Golden Deer table.

“Is this actually happening?” he asked no one in particular.

“Enough!” the stringent voice of none other than the heir of Gloucester brought the chaos to an end, “We are not behaving as nobles ought to be behave! Arguing amongst ourselves in such a manner is uncouth and unbefitting to us as the heirs of the greatest families of the Leicester Alliance!” Lorenz turned gracefully towards the source of the ruckus, “Professor, if we truly are to participate in this hypothetical trade mission, it is only fitting that the goods we are to trade must come from the very best stock. It will be, after all, our first expedition to the outside world. We must set the noblest of examples! As such, I must insist that a substantial portion of your ship be reserved for goods from House Gloucester!”

“Yup,” Claude nodded, “This is actually happening.”

“If you are so interested in trading overseas,” Byleth seemed utterly unfazed by the storm he had just stirred up, “you should consider forming a trading company.”

“What is a trading company?” Claude immediately perked up.

“It is a coalition of influential merchants backed by powerful nobles who work together to advance their own goals,” their teacher answered, “Once the company has monopolized or secured a certain trade route, the profits it earned is then divided by the shareholders of the company. The individual reward is lower, but so is the risk. In many cases, these trading companies become so powerful that they are then subsequently nationalized by the state.”

Ruffling could be heard as the entire Golden Deer table as a whole retrieved their notebooks from their bags.

“And how do we form one?” asked Claude over the sounds of frantic note taking.

“The first step is to draft a founding charter. Within this charter should be clearly stated who the founding members are, what they are wanting to trade, and the percentage of shares they will hold for the company. It gets more complicated after that, but that is the gist of it.”

“If we draft a charter,” Claude ventured carefully, “Would you be willing to take a look over it, professor?”

Cold, blue eyes flickered in his direction.

“A founding charter will require substantially more than just a cursory glance over, Mr. Riegan. It is the guiding document that will determine whether a trading company succeeds or fails. To draft one successfully, you will need to understand the economic circumstances that led to these companies forming and the political effects that followed. Something that cannot be taught in a single session. On the contrary, it would take multiple lessons and seminars before you could empirically and objectively comprehend the fundamentals. Is that what you are propositioning to me? That you would like for me to teach you these concepts?”

In the distant future, years from now, when his friends and family asked him just where in the metaphorical timeline did the fate of Fódlan irrevocably change, Claude von Riegan would recall this exact moment.

“Yes,” he said.

“It would require the creation of a new syllabus,” mused Byleth, “or at the very least, additions to the existing syllabus I have already fashioned for the Black Eagles. Yes,” the mercenary-turned-instructor nodded seemingly to himself, “This could work. And afterwards we can discuss the possibility of kickstarting Fódlan’s first foray into the gunpowder industry.”

Ignatz, who had appeared relieved ever since his family’s merchant relations had dropped out as a topic of discussion, suddenly looked panicked all over again. 

“B-But professor! I thought we agreed that my family didn’t have the funds to start an endeavor like this!”

“All those in favor of loaning gold to Ignatz’s family to kickstart Fódlan’s gunpowder industry and get everyone involved fabulously rich in the process raise your hands,” said Claude.

Everyone at the table raised their hands.

“It would seem your funding issue is now resolved,” Byleth commented.

Ignatz’s response came very close to sputtering.

“If that is everything,” their new teacher rose from his seat, “I have other matters to attend to. Besides working on this new syllabus, it would be remiss of me as the Black Eagles’ homeroom instructor if I did not offer them the same new lessons.”

“Before you leave, professor,” Claude said seriously, “I have one last question.”

“One last question?” the words were repeated without a hint of emotion.

“Call it a premonition if you will.”

“Proceed.”

“This is going to end up with all of us in one giant class, isn’t it?”

The mercenary’s features were as blank as a slab of flattened granite. 

 “Very likely,” said the newest professor at Garreg Mach Monastery.