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Festering Under Your Skin

Chapter Text

Even now, that shock of orange hair slithers through his mind, an adder waiting to strike at the most inopportune times.

Once, he dreamed of coiling it around his hand. Leather glove squeaking as he pulled tight. A startled gasp escaping delicate lips at the sudden pain. Pale throat bared to him, begging for his teeth, his mouth, as he gives in to this hunger that always corroded in his gut at the sight of that orange hair. Once, just once, he dared to wonder if—if he peeled back one glove—if it was silky enough that even he could feel it beneath his scars.

Hair that burned as bright as calcium chloride. Yes, that’s what it reminded him of. He bore more than a few marks from that substance, when it had splashed so carelessly against his bare skin and drank it dry. He’d been so sloppy, once. So caught up in his blind obsession to pave a bloody path for her that he didn’t tend to the greatest weapons he possessed: his hands, his mind.

Before he left them for those traitorous Kingdom beasts, Ferdinand found him one night in his laboratory space under Garreg Mach. Found him hissing and cursing as lye ate through the calluses on the back of one hand, leaving an open, seeping wound. “Von Vestra,” Ferdinand chided, and strode toward him on those powerful horseman’s legs faster than Hubert could react. “What are you doing to yourself?”

He’d reached out for Hubert’s hands, then. So quick Hubert could scarcely think through the familiar searing pain. But he jerked away, just in time, breath rattling through his teeth as he did.

“Don’t touch me,” he’d growled, and even Ferdinand—that bumbling spaniel of a man—drew up short at the fierceness in his tone. “I’ll only burn you, too.”

But he’d felt that warmth as skin nearly met skin. Hot and soothingly cool all at once, a salve waved torturously close to his wounds. That breezy cologne of Ferdinand’s cut through the stench of sulfur and melting flesh. If only he could give in—if only he could wrap himself in that balm—

But it was not the path he’d chosen. Wanting would never serve his goals. He was a poison, plain and simple, sworn to slaughter all he touched. And so he donned the gloves from then on. He would never know how it felt to run fingers through that hair.


The next time he sees it, it is waving in the breeze at the gates of Enbarr, beneath a blue banner.

It dances around the face of the man whose boot pins him to the ground.

“Hubert . . . ?”

Von Aegir always wore his emotions loudly, and now is no different, his sorrow and disappointment bright and apparent on that maddening face. But he shouldn’t be surprised to find Hubert here still, clinging to the last gasp of the empire as the beasts tear down the gates. Of the two of them, Ferdinand was always the one bound to betray Lady Edelgard, in his eternal quest to prove himself her better. (To prove himself worthy of my devotion, Hubert selfishly thought once, before the war, before he knew otherwise.) He should have known that for all Hubert’s subterfuge, he’d be loyal to the very last.

And if Ferdinand is a wide-open book, then Hubert—he will always be the hidden knife.

His gloved hand slips into his boot. Curls around the dagger’s hilt. Rips it free and takes aim at that pale throat—

“I don’t think so, viper.”

A sword tip comes to rest under his chin as Lord Fraldarius steps over him. The dagger is kicked from his hand, clattering across the cobblestones. No. No. He stretches his fingers for it, futile. There must be something more he can do, even as the beastly king’s lieutenants surround him.

Think, Hubert. There is always one last resort. Yes—the vial against his chest, beneath his armor, is tantalizingly close, and it offers him one last chance to jam his thumbs into the eyes (the eye? he laughs darkly to himself) of the Kingdom of Faerghus. But for as long as Her Majesty lives, he too must fight. He can’t off himself just yet.

Another tactic, then. “Felix,” Hubert croons, as if they are old schoolmates. Ones who shared more than mere glares across the dining hall. “I suppose you’ve come to execute me? How very like your feral prince you’ve become.”

The sword tip presses into his flesh, drawing a trickle of blood. “I don’t slaughter senselessly, if that’s what you’re implying.” Felix’s gaze narrows. “Unlike your bloody empress. But if I need to make an exception—”

“Felix,” Ferdinand says. Voice suddenly small—in a way it never has been from that brightly burning man. His father might have bleated and squealed for his life once as Hubert carried out Her Majesty’s command, but Ferdinand is much too proud. Hubert frowns, wondering what these Faerghan wretches have done to bring that out in him.

The sounds of steel against steel ring on around them, but it is clear which way the battle’s turned. If they can breach the gates with such ease—

“Felix,” Ferdinand says again. No longer pleading, though. He’s in command of himself once more, and Hubert hates the brief flutter of pride he feels on Ferdinand’s behalf. “She shares everything with him.”

Felix’s gaze never leaves Hubert, but the pressure of the sword tip eases up. “Is this true, viper?”

“Does it matter?” Hubert says. “You won’t pry anything useful out of me.”

In truth, he’s already spinning another web to trap these bloody Faerghans in. In their hesitation to kill him, they’ve given him a marvelous gift. Yes—it’s coming together in his head now, a way through this. He must act defiant, but let them capture him. Pretend to break down under questioning. Feed them just enough lies to lead them into his lady’s snares. But if he surrenders too easily—

“I can get him to talk,” Ferdinand blurts.

Buth Hubert and Felix turn their heads toward him. “Von Aegir,” Hubert warns. “You must know me better than that.”

Does Ferdinand know him still? Did he ever?—But it does him no good to dwell.

“He’ll—he’ll help us. I’m sure of it.” Ferdinand meets his gaze, a tremble to his lower lip. “It’s worth trying.”

“Ferdinand.” Felix narrows his eyes. “Is this because you were allies once? If you aren’t willing to—You’ve given me no reason to question your loyalty to His Majesty thus far, but—”

“And I won’t still,” Ferdinand insists. “But there’s been so much death already and . . .” And Hubert sees the moment the inner statesman in Ferdinand emerges, his spine straightening, his tone ministerial, his chin hoisted confidently. “If we are to take Adrestia, then it is better the people see us as merciful. They need to know we aren’t doing this purely out of hate.”

Ferdinand wants him alive. The open sores beneath his gloves flare with sudden heat.

“You needn’t do me any favors, von Aegir,” Hubert says, sickeningly sweet. “I would so hate to make your new king wonder where your true allegiance lies.”

Felix’s boot on his wrist crunches down. “Maybe the viper would make a better prisoner without his tongue,” he growls.

But all Ferdinand can manage is, “Please.”

And so the fool—the beautiful, bold, burning fool—saves his life. Saves him so he must suffer through all of it, through all his plans, his dreams, his wishes crumbling around him.

Watching the Adrestian Empire fall.

Feeling the ache in his heart, the last bit of nerve ending fizzling out, the moment his emperor draws her last breath.

Cringing as the Faerghan filth trample all over everything he’s ever loved, ever worked toward. Rendering useless his endless suffering and scars.

And for this—for making him endure this—Ferdinand must pay.

Chapter Text

It is not his first time in the dungeons beneath the royal castle in Fhirdiad. Only the first time on this side of the bars.

They strip him of his uniform, his medals, his collar, his hidden daggers and vials and poultices. They strip away his gloves, the Duscur man’s usually impassive face crinkling with revulsion at the sight of his battered hands. They shove him into roughspun trousers and a tunic, and he must hold the trousers up to walk, as the drawstring has been ripped out of them—no chance of letting him hang himself, or choke on the wadded string.

A week passes. Perhaps a month. The dungeons have a way of stretching and condensing time as if it’s a piece of clay being thrown. However long it is, it isn’t enough to silence the howls of his emperor as she submitted to one final, desperate act, loosing the monster that had been made of her. Even that had not been enough.

But he can become a monster, too. They’ve already brought him within their stronghold. Each day that passes sharpens his claws.

No one has come to question him yet, which is most disappointing. The longer they wait, the longer he must pretend to resist before he can pretend to break down. He must make a game of what he can—the petty acts of insurrection, like artlessly hiding away a broken shard from his meal plate. Let them think him weak. Obvious. Desperate.

They don’t know the taste of true desperation the way he knows it.

Something must change, though, because he begins to see others walk the dungeon halls. The generals of the Faerghus army, mostly; Fraldarius and Galatea and Gautier. The king, once or twice, not that he ever comes near Hubert’s cell. They’ll tease him, though—they must be teasing him, joking and laughing amongst themselves as if nothing is wrong, as if they don’t harbor the most vicious traitor of all.

He thinks he sees a flash of orange, sometimes. But his eyesight must be going in the dim light. His body must be crumpling from the way the guards wake him up long before he’s gotten a full night of sleep. His head pounds from the lack of coffee, each pounding like a hoofbeat—like a retreat.

Sometimes they speak of him in earshot, in a way that lets him know the real discussions are saved for far away. But what can he do but listen? He needs to cling to everything—anything.

“—Better to kill him now,” the king’s liege says, and if Hubert angles himself just right in the corner of his cell, he can see just how closely he stands at King Dimitri’s side. Heads bowed together. Intimate. Bonded.

In a way you’ll never know, a small voice within him says.

In a way that you can use, a greater one answers.

“Von Aegir is right,” the wrongful king says. “There has to be a line. If we want this peace to last, then we must draw it.”

Dedue glances his way, just enough to make sure Hubert knows his words are meant to reach his ears. “He drew that line,” Dedue says, “with what he and Cornelia did to you.”

Hubert smiles despite everything. The last time he was in these cells, array of knives before him, his poisons at the ready, is one memory he clutches tightly, letting it warm him on these cold stones. The headiest days of the empire’s dominance: the wrongful king screaming with every slice, every threat whispered into his ear. How had he not thought to use his loyal Duscur hound against him, back then? How quickly would Dimitri have broken if it was Dedue’s eye he’d threatened instead? A shame he hadn’t tried that tactic. But maybe he’ll get the chance again.

“We must have order now. He’ll stand a proper trial to answer for his crimes. And we must give him a chance for him to tell us what he knows of these pockets of imperial resistance that fester still.” Dimitri sounds so convincing—as if this isn’t a performance they’re putting on for Hubert’s sake. “But how long I’m willing to entertain this offer of peace depends on him.”

Hubert has had enough of this little play.

“Dimitri,” he rasps, clenching his fists around the bars. What’s happened to his voice? How long has it been since he spoke? “Oh, little prince . . .”

Dedue is already pulling his axe from its holster as they turn toward his cell. “Silence, snake.”

“Come closer, little prince. This snake has something to say.” Hubert laughs, clenching the bars tighter; and is it hunger or weariness or the thrill of a new game that’s making his head spin? No, he can’t succumb to the delirium just yet, not when there’s so much work to do still. He’s pacing this all wrong. They should have sent someone to question him first. Why has no one come to question him?

Why haven’t they sent von Aegir? Don’t they know how this game is played?

“You let me live so I could talk, didn’t you? So I can be useful to you.” His boiled hands fasten like claws on the door of his cage. “Please, little prince, let me have a purpose still . . .”

Dimitri leans forward as if to move closer, but Dedue holds out his arm, blocking him. “Don’t.”

“It’s all right, Dedue.” Dimitri’s eye narrows. “I’d very much like to show him the hospitality he neglected to show me when I was in these cells.”

Dedue whispers something in his king’s ear, too low for Hubert to hear. The king’s whole countenance changes, softening, relaxing, and now Hubert is certain of what he saw before. The smile stretches wide across his face. If he escapes, which of them will he kill in front of the other? Which one will grieve more beautifully, sobbing loud enough to drown out the echoes of Edelgard’s death cry?

Dimitri steps closer toward the cell, but stops maddeningly just out of reach.

“Closer, Your Majesty,” Hubert murmurs, his tone a thin drip of acid. He’s gotten sloppy, so sloppy, but it’s been so long. He has to hold on. He permits himself a narrow smile from beneath his filthy flop of dark hair. “I would hate for your lover to overhear us, Dimitri. He seems the jealous type.”

Dimitri bristles with rage. “You have ten seconds to state your case.”

Hubert doesn’t need ten seconds. He only needs this one:

Lunging forward, shoulder wrenching in its socket as he shoots one arm out between the bars.

Raw, scabbed fingers reaching toward that damned blue eye.

His own laughter ringing out against the stones, drowning him in the echoes.

Skin catching under his torn nails.

The blunt hilt of an axe crashing into his sternum from between the bars.

And her memory smiling, pleased, appreciating this one last jab he’s landed on her behalf.

He’s thrown back from the door from the axe handle’s blow and crashes into the corner of his cell, knocking over the chamber pot and sending its contents slopping over his flea-riddled pallet. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t care. He will make them suffer every day for their victory, their compassion, their detestable idealism. They’ll pay for trying to erase her from the world. For ripping von Aegir away from him—from Adrestia, in any case—

Dimitri wipes away the blood from the two shallow tracks carved across his cheek. His attack landed so far from its intended target. He’s too dizzy—too exhausted. The false king’s expression is maddeningly calm, infuriatingly free of the haunted pall that draped over him like a burial shawl when he was the one on this side of the cage. Even Dedue’s expression is merely annoyed rather than enraged.

“It would seem the viper’s lost his venom,” Dimitri says.

Dedue nods once, unruffled. “Weak.”

And then they’re gone, leaving Hubert with nothing but his own filth, his own memories.


Edelgard’s ghost, he expects. Thanking him for continuing to fight for their cause. Maybe, even, scolding him for letting himself be caught. He’ll accept anything, any haunting from his emperor that he deserves.

What he doesn’t expect is Ferdinand.

“You never learn, do you, von Vestra?”

And he can’t tell if Ferdinand is at the doorway, or in the cell with him, or only in his head.

Pale skin made silver in moonlight—no, there are no windows here. Only harsh torches that never go out, day and night slurring into one. All Hubert can do is stare at that orange hair burning, burning, searing him once more. His frown so weary. So unsurprised. Hubert is nothing if not a perpetual disappointment to him.

“My loyalty is unswerving,” Hubert tells him. “Unlike yours.”

Ferdinand merely shakes his head, an unruly lock falling before his face, and then he is fading, far too soon. Only in Hubert’s head after all.

“Why won’t you understand?” Ferdinand asks him, the words curling tenderly around Hubert’s ear. “For all your scheming—in the end, you’re the one who ends up burned.”

Chapter Text

Ferdinand shifts uncomfortably in his chair around the council meeting table, unable to quell the nauseated feeling that’s been with him ever since they returned to Fhirdiad. It was a mistake to ask for Hubert to be spared—a bout of foolish sentimentality, one hardly worthy of a master of diplomacy and statecraft. There will be plenty of time to show the people of Adrestia that Faerghus means them no harm, that he wasn’t wrong to choose the kingdom’s side—that it wasn’t only fury over his father’s murder that drove him north. He doesn’t need to make an example of that—snake, that—idiot goblin—

But then General Galatea delivered her report, which is to say, her non-report, that after three months the prisoner still does not appear ready to cooperate, and the meeting moved on while Ferdinand stayed pinned to the spot—

“Von Aegir?” General Galatea repeats, and he finds her looking at him with one eyebrow cocked. Her gauntleted fist clenches some kind of report, but he’ll be damned if he knows what they’re discussing now.

“I’m sorry. I was . . . weighing my options. Could you say that again?”

Ingrid makes a noise in the back of her throat. “I was asking for the latest on your negotiations with the easternmost Adrestian territories. Whether we needed to keep such a high number of troops built up there still, or if we are safe to relocate some of them further north to begin the rebuilding efforts.”

Ferdinand stares down at the papers in front of him, but the ink on them is just a maddening swirl. “Oh. Of course. The, uh . . . the new Countess von Varley has agreed to the terms, but I am still awaiting word from, uh, from Airmid . . .”

He trails off, face hot. Are they all staring at him? They must. He’s felt those stares ever since their victory march back to Fhirdiad from Enbarr. (From home, he still catches himself thinking, though just because something is home doesn’t make it safe.)

“I—I’m sorry.” He stands abruptly with a scrape of his chair. “I just recalled that I needed to send another missive to Countess von Varley prior to her state visit. I’ll just . . .”

He shuffles his way around the council table, bumping into Sir Gilbert as he does so, and cringes at the mighty creak of the heavy oak doors as he slips out into the corridor. Backs against the door, head tipping up, eyes closing.

Stifles down a wordless groan.

Then turns his head to find the castle guards posted outside the council room doors staring at him. He offers them a meager nod before hurrying down the hall.

It’s been—he casts his thoughts back—three months now. Three months since they imprisoned the last of the erstwhile Black Eagles, the once-promising Academy class of the Empire’s best. Like him, many of the others had left the empire; some long before von Hresvelg’s damned crusade went into effect; others, like von Bergliez, only after the Holy Kingdom’s army made its case.

It was a miracle, truly, that so many of them had survived at all, peeling off from Edelgard’s mad vision one by one. She’d died alone. No allies to speak of. No one she could dare to call friend. All that remained of her crusade was now locked away far beneath his feet.

Not a thing—a person. But if Ferdinand let himself remember that part, there was no telling where those thoughts might lead.

Hubert von Vestra had been an uneasy acquaintance in the best of times. A shadow to Edelgard’s too-bright flames. For all Ferdinand’s efforts to get to know him better, back when they were young nobles full of promise, he’d always kept Ferdinand at arm’s length.

No. Further than that. There’d been that night he came across him in his lab, stoically enduring the pain as one of his bloody experiments smoldered on his skin—

Ferdinand ducks into an alcove, face suddenly warm. A few other times besides. They’d found a silent rhythm and easy companionship for a time, both of them up far too late with their studies, Ferdinand drinking tea and Hubert his coffee, paperwork spread before them though never mingling. Elbows brushing. Hubert leaning over Ferdinand’s work, uninvited, a gloved finger pointing out his mistakes.

Why does it matter to you whether I do well on my assignments? Ferdinand finally had to ask.

A single hot-green eye bored into him from beneath a flop of dark hair. Drinking him in, until Ferdinand felt exposed, his thoughts ripped out of him and laid bare.

I know what you are capable of, von Aegir. A slow smile like an oil slick. I only want your best.

But his best would never be enough to supplant von Hresvelg. Once he learned what she intended, he knew it was no longer something he could give.

Ferdinand jumps as a shadow falls across the alcove, and looks up to find King Dimitri standing over him. “Y-your Majesty.”

“Ferdinand.” Dimitri smiles thinly. “Might I have a word?”

 


“It’s not that I’m unwilling,” Ferdinand says, looking anxiously from Dimitri to General Gautier and back. “I’m just not certain I can get the results you want.”

“Someone in the imperial chain of command must know who’s responsible for these strikes.” Sylvain taps a finger against the map of Fódlan. “Whether it’s a contingency plan the emperor had in place in case of her death, or something else—he’s gotta know something.”

“We have to put an end to these ambushes,” Dimitri adds. “It’s rattling our tenuous allegiances in the southeast territories of the old empire.”

Ferdinand pointedly keeps his gaze from roaming over the space of the map still marked Aegir. They’d lost that land the day they killed his father; but it had never fully been redistributed, no offer made . . .

“Couldn’t we at least wait until the summit? Countess von Varley is far more likely to know how to get him to talk than I am. She remained with the empire for longer than I did. I’m sure they were far closer than he and I ever were at the Academy—”

A look passes between the king and his general, and Ferdinand feels something curdle in his stomach.

“That is not the impression von Vestra has given us.” Dimitri leans across the table, palms digging into the edges of Fódlan. “He mentioned you by name.”

I only want your best . . .

Ferdinand rubs at a sharp ache between his brows. “He’s a master at subterfuge and deception. You have to know that. He’s got to be playing some kind of game—”

“No.” Dimitri regards him with a bitter smile. “A game is what he was playing the first month, when he made a clumsy attempt to slit a guard’s throat with a piece of broken dinnerware. Perhaps still during the second month, when he made a pitiful attempt on my other eye.”

Sylvain snorts, but quickly wipes it away at a scowl from his king.

“Now, though, I can’t imagine even the most ardent devotee of the late emperor could still be playing such a game. The dungeons, they . . . do things to you. The memories . . .”

Ferdinand swallows, hard. He’d tried so fiercely to think of von Vestra as a thing, a relic of the old guard locked away in a vault. To let him be anything else was sure to invite him to slither his way free.

“In any case, we can’t afford to wait until the summit with Countess Bernadetta,” Dimitri continues. “We need to find the source of these strikes now.”

I only want your best, von Aegir.

A gloved fingertip trailing up his arm. A bitter gust of hot breath beside his ear.

After all, my best is what I mean to give you.

Ferdinand squeezes a fist in his lap, as if he can crush those memories. “I’m—I’m going to need an angle. A particular approach.”

I thought you saved it all for your lady, he’d teased. The kind of playfulness that only utter exhaustion could bring on, the scratchiness in his eyes like its own kind of drunkenness. Endless paperwork filing down his resistance, undoing his fealty to propriety, brick by brick.

That gloved fingertip reached the collar of his jacket. Stretched to tug at a lock of hair behind Ferdinand’s ear—but then he straightened and turned away.

Even she does not have all of me.

Another exchange of looks, then Dimitri nods. “Let’s hear it, then.”

Chapter Text

The stench reaches him long before they’ve descended all the way to the dungeons, so thick he wants to wretch. It’s nothing a man of his station should ever have to smell—not at war, not at peace. And to think they’ve forced von Vestra to live in this squalor for months

“You’ll adjust to the smell quickly enough,” Dedue says, after the guards for the dungeon floor let them into the wing. “We did have him bathed this morning, though he refused to eat.”

“This is . . . inhumane,” Ferdinand wheezes.

Dedue shrugs. “It is better than the conditions in which he kept His Majesty.”

Ferdinand stares at him for a moment, piecing together his meaning. He’d known that Lady Cornelia had taken control of Fhirdiad for some time on the emperor’s behalf, and that Dimitri had been imprisoned there. But Hubert’s involvement—that much he hadn’t known. Or rather, that he’d chosen not to know it. After all, Hubert was who the empire sent for delicate work. Assassination. Subterfuge. Interrogation—

And then the pieces slot together, and he wants to wretch anew.

Dedue watches Ferdinand calmly as he works though that realization. “If it were up to me,” he says, “we would have executed him months ago. But His Majesty is much more forgiving than I am.”

“I didn’t know a person could be that forgiving,” Ferdinand admits, following Dedue down the dimly lit corridor. “I’m not sure I could, myself.”

A tiny smile tugs at his scarred lips. “Or perhaps making him live with his failures is the cruelest fate of all.”

Someone is babbling at the far end of the hallway—scratchy voice rising and falling like a chant. Too late, Ferdinand recognizes that voice, that same voice that used to burrow in his ear late at night when they worked side by side. He’d thought those words were promises, somehow—a promise of what another day might bring. But he should know by now that there’s no promise Hubert von Vestra is obliged to keep.

“Dedue,” the voice crows abruptly. “Oh, Dedue, are you here to make me eat too?” A dark chuckle. “I’ll make you a deal. You bring me your sweet little king, and I promise I’ll eat.”

Ferdinand’s throat tightens. They’re nearly to the cell, now; does he truly have to look inside? Is it too late to turn around—

“I’ll claim that other eye he owes me,” Hubert growls, “and swallow it whole.”

Dedue exchanges a weary glance with Ferdinand, then nudges him forward.

Ferdinand forces himself to look.

Torchlight pools at the figure’s feet like blood; his dark hair is damp, clumping against his face in harsh waves, only a single eye exposed. He’s curled up, knees under his chin, teeth bared, too-sharp cheekbones lethal. That eye scans Ferdinand unseeing for long minutes.

And then the creature that used to be Lord von Vestra begins to laugh.

“No, thank you,” Hubert says. “I’m all full up on ghosts in here.”

That snaps Ferdinand out of his stupor. “I am very much alive, you ungrateful cur—”

“Oh. You’re a convincing one, aren’t you? Let me guess. We’re all going to have tea, and then you’re going to question me. Is that how it’s played?”

“Goddess damn it, von Vestra, not everything’s one of your games—”

Hubert freezes at the sound of his name and rears back. His jaw goes slack. “Oh,” is all he says.

Ferdinand blinks, bewildered.

“No. Not a ghost, then.” Hubert laughs again. “Only you can taunt me with that disdainful tone . . . I can never seem to get it right in my head.”

Dedue interrupts him with a screech of wooden chair legs on stone, dragging a guard’s chair over to bring it in front of the cell. He positions it. Frowns. Drags it further from the bars an inch or so. Then nods.

“Careful,” Dedue says. “He’s a grabber.”

“You don’t shackle his hands?” Ferdinand asks.

“Not after he used the chain on them to nearly choke a guard.”

Ferdinand gulps as he sinks into the chair.

“I’ll be at the end of the hall.” Dedue casts one more glare into Hubert’s cell. “Watching.”

Hubert only stares and stares at Ferdinand as Dedue retreats. And then continues to stare.

Ferdinand wracks his brain, everything he’d planned suddenly fleeing from his mind at the sight before him. The old Hubert would demand an apology, perhaps, for turning away from Adrestia, or insist he swear fealty now. He’d cut Ferdinand down with a single devastating observation.

Instead, this Hubert says, “You really didn’t bring me tea?”

Ferdinand pauses, waiting for that familiar close-lipped laugh, but it doesn’t come. “It’s not as if you’d drink it anyway.”

“Coffee, then. My coffee.” Hubert traces a slow spiral in the dirt of his cell floor. “It’s been so long since I’ve had even a drop.”

“If you really want coffee,” Ferdinand says hesitantly, “I could perhaps ask—”

“No. I want my coffee.” And then, chin lowering, “Only the best will do.”

Ferdinand’s breath catches. All the nerves that have been rattling around in him since he agreed to this reach fever pitch. He squeezes the edge of his seat to keep his hands still.

“You killed my father.” The words boil out of him with an anger he rarely permits himself. “Tortured my king. Burned our homeland down because of your hubris and greed. Am I supposed to find this—endearing—”

“Is that what I was? Endearing?” Hubert clucks his tongue. “Flames, I really did lose my head back then, didn’t I?”

“You’re lucky you haven’t lost it now.”

“Von Aegir. Are you offering? What an honor it would be.” He smiles with cracked lips. “Of course I did those things. And I’d do them again and again. Do you want to know how pitifully your father whined with my dagger in his gut?”

“You fucking monster.”

“Go on. You’re here to ask me questions, aren’t you? So ask. Ask me how delightful it feels to wrench a false king’s eye from his skull. Ask me how intoxicating it was when the people of Fhirdiad cowered and ran. The Butcher of Enbarr, they called me. Which is somewhat unfair, I think. I’m more of a surgeon. But I digress.”

Ferdinand’s heart is lodged in his throat.

“Ask me all your foolish questions, as if there’s anything you can change now. You won, didn’t you? You took back Enbarr? You claimed the head of the woman you couldn’t beat fairly on your own? Fine. I won’t offer you a single thing more.”

 “I don’t have time for your games, von Vestra.”

“A pity. There’s so many I’d like to play with you.”

Ferdinand swallows back the pathetic noise that pulls from him. He’s losing already and they’ve barely begun. “You want my questions? Fine. Answer me this. Did Edelgard have some sort of contingency plan in place for her death? A second strike force, maybe?”

“Oh, Ferdie,” he croons, and the nickname—one that has never, ever, ever crossed those damned lips before—draws Ferdinand up short. “This is hardly the best that you can do.”

“You lie and kill and destroy everything I once loved.”

“You hardly loved your father, and he loved you even less—”

“It was your bloody schemes, your dark bargains, your hateful--obsession—with power above else that drove me to ally with the kingdom in the first place!”

If that startles Hubert, though, it sends him fighting back even more fiercely. “Don’t lie to me,” Hubert snarls. “You just wanted somewhere that you wouldn’t be locked in her shadow—”

“Whereas that shadow was all you wanted. And it made you blind to everything else.”

“Nonsense—”

Ferdinand stands with another screech of the chair. He is shaking, shaking all over, rage spilling out of a well he never knew was inside him. There had been so much potential there, once. So much promise. So much want. And yet there was never anything behind it. Not a touch, a statement; barely a kind word.

Ferdinand had reached for him once, for his hands bared, broken as they were—and he’d pulled away. Now the rest of Hubert is just as broken, and he can never heal from all he’s done.

The tide of anger is gone, and Ferdinand opens his eyes once more. “You don’t deserve me at my best.” Quieter—“You don’t deserve me.”

As Hubert’s jaw clenches, he turns to leave.

“Wait. Ferdie.”

Ferdinand snaps his fists to his sides; draws his shoulders up to his ears. He can’t turn back now. He can’t. Just a peripheral glance—

And he sees those scabbed fingers, stretching from between the bars.

His gloves are gone, Ferdinand notices, feeling foolish even as he thinks it. But of course they are. Yet for Hubert, they were more than just his uniform. All that pain seared into his flesh, from a lifetime of being—well, of being Hubert—

Ferdinand turns toward him.

“Lord von Dielz.” Hubert flexes his fingers. “He’s providing them with weapons and safehouses all across the Oghma Mountain range. She wanted to die knowing that if she couldn’t have that land, then neither could anyone else.”

Ferdinand looks everywhere but at his face. “Say I don’t believe you. When you have no good reason to admit it—”

“Should be easy enough to verify. As for why—”

Hubert stands then, behind the bars, bringing them face to face, profile looming out from the shadow. Ferdinand knows he should step back, feels that sourness in the pit of his gut. And yet he’s pinned in place. Skewered and bare—vivisected, like one of Hubert’s experiments.

Your king,” Hubert says bitterly, “likely means to kill me either way. There is nothing left for me to protect. I fought for everything I believed in.”

His hands curl around the bars.

“And lost.”

And then Ferdinand, too, is grasping the bar.

Long, soft fingers slotting between cracked and wounded ones.

Hubert’s breath sucking inward.

Then Ferdinand pushes away.

“Thank you,” Ferdinand says, voice thick. “I’m glad to know you can concede defeat, at least.”

Hubert’s laughter in reply is too familiar—too haunting.

“I haven’t conceded anything yet, von Aegir.”

He melts back into the shadows of the cell, eye glinting in the last arc of torchlight.

Chapter Text

Another interminable stretch of soft foods and interrupted sleep and nothing but the fleeting memory of von Aegir’s startled-deer eyes to keep him company. Is von Dielz still alive? Still following protocol? He hasn’t a clue. But he made his offering in earnest. He is too tired for more games.

Failure, her ghost says.

Traitor, his father’s adds.

And joining in the chorus now, Ferdinand’s all-too-living taunt: Undeserving.

There’ll be time to enact a plan later, he swears. To the ghosts. To himself. Once I’ve rested. Once I understand better what I’m up against. He rakes bloody fingertips down the walls of his cell. I will not let her dream of flames die.

In this state, he even believes it.


When they drag him out for another icy bath, his heart jolts. A bath means visitors. Opportunity. He hadn’t been prepared for Ferdinand last time—that’s why he gave up so easily, even if all he gave them was a single crumb. Better to buy their trust in the short term. Now, he can think his strategy out more carefully.

This time, though, is different. They hack off his filthy locks of hair and—only after shackling his hands behind his back—bring a straight razor to his throat and face.

He’s disappointed in himself. There was a time he’d have been able to wrest that razor away from them, shackles or not. But for this moment, it feels such a relief just to have the filth and scruff off his face, his neck, even if he does feel unsettlingly . . . exposed.

He’s allowed to dress himself. Two guards in the room with him, but there are actual fastenings on the breeches, laces on the boots. The tunic is thicker, less abrasive.

He catches sight of himself in the mirror and nearly recoils at the open sores around his mouth and dark circles beneath his eyes. It’s a stranger’s face. The face of defeat.

He’s already forgotten whatever plan he’d been forming during the bath.

But they don’t take him back to the cell. They don’t bring him to Ferdinand, either. Instead, with a bag over his head, he’s frogmarched from the castle entirely, the brisk autumn air of the far north like nails raking across his dry skin.

Oh.

This is to be his execution, then.

He won’t die begging and pathetic like his father. The man was not worth the smear of foaming cyanide he left on Hubert’s boot. He’ll die with Edelgard’s name on his lips, loyal to the last. Defiant. Clenching his bared fists, and resolutely not thinking of the hair they never got to grip—

Up wooden steps.

The creak of a door. Perhaps it’s the trapdoor of the gallows.

Will von Aegir watch him die? Will a noble death at last make him—deserving?

But the atmosphere changes; he’s not being hauled to gallows, but to another room. The clatter of a door behind him, and then the guard captain rips the bag from his head.

He finds himself in . . . a house?

A townhouse, shockingly narrow and bare, but one all the same. There is a utilitarian wooden table and lit sconces and a bookshelf. A writing desk. A mattress at the far end, one actually raised off of the floor.

A mad laugh escapes him. He’d gotten so used to the nighttime company of the roaches and rats.

At the far end, an open door appears to lead . . . outdoors. A tiny garden, walled in by steep stone.

“Congratulations,” the guard captain says, her voice so saccharine he could choke. “His Majesty King Dimitri I wishes to extend his sincere gratitude for your cooperation in apprehending the imperial strike teams that plagued the eastern territories.”

Bile singes at Hubert’s throat. No. No. This isn’t a concession from the king. This is punishment, punishment for betraying her—

“You will remain under heavy guard, of course. But while you await trial, this space is yours.” Her smile jabs like a knife. “We treat well those who treat the kingdom well.”

He whirls toward her but she’s already stepped out of his reach—already pulled her blade from its scabbard. He stops short, the tip aimed square at his throat.

“I am no . . . traitor,” he hisses.

“No. I reckon not. Seeing as how there’s no empire left to betray.”

He thinks he would have preferred an execution.

He moves further into the townhome on wobbly legs. His heart is racing, unaccustomed to so much walking after all the time crammed in his cell. His fingers trace over the tabletop, the bookshelf, the tidy mattress . . .

He breathes in the scent of the outdoors, moist earth and vegetation and the cool blue sky overhead, then closes the garden door. It’s too much at once. Right now, all he needs is space to think.

And sleep, perhaps . . .

Before he knows it, he’s collapsed into distant dreams.


It is far easier to chart the days now that he has windows. A garden. Space. But the days themselves mean nothing. There is nothing for him to work toward, no delicious trill of anticipation as he watches his life’s work take form. It is only one day, and then the next, no end to his misery in sight.

He starts to write. First, wondering if he could stab the pen tip into the guard captain’s throat before the others could subdue him, but his bones ache at the thought of the beating that would ensue. Next, using the pen to sketch out a plan in the von Vestra cipher he’s used his whole life. Then, just trying to capture his thoughts before they scurry away. Sometimes it’s just lines, curves, the long flow of locks. This last, he scratches out, then shreds the paper into pieces, ink smearing his mangled hands.

He thinks about writing to Ferdinand, but all he can manage is a question: Why?

He works his way through the meager bookshelf. Valiant tales of Loog the Lion and printed pamphlets of King Dimitri’s latest decrees. The false king seems to have gone mad for holding elections, it seems, a chance for his people to have a say in all kinds of matters: from prioritizing the rebuilding of Fhirdiad’s defenses or concentrating on the outer borders. Removing the Church of Seiros from its government role, when once it had been entwined inextricably with Faerghus’s own state. The autonomy of the Duscur region.

Such a big-hearted king, putting his people’s wishes before his own. Dimitri may be feral, but he is soft. Weak. Trusting.

It shouldn’t take much to crush him.

Finally, Hubert’s bored enough to glance at one of the novels. The cover art depicts two men at the top of a stone tower: one, dark and brooding, dangling the other from the window by his throat. Faces close, one cunning, the other wilting. In the background of the tower’s room, a woman screams.

FOREBODING SHADOW, the title proclaims. And then, in smaller letters, Written By A Lady.

He shoves it back on the shelf.

Paces.

Pulls it back out.

Several hours later, he’s ripped from the devastating saga of Count Humphries, clearly meant to be the villain, as his determination to marry the blushing Lily drives him toward ever more dastardly attempts on the life of Lily’s fiancé Frederick. But Lily is about as worthy of either of them as a damp woolen sock; the only scenes Hubert lingers over are the clashes between Humphries and Frederick, each torturing the other so infuriatingly he just wants to scream at them both to kiss already, for fuck’s sake, as they’re clearly both so pent-up—

A squadron of guards storm into his rooms. “A visitor for you.”

Hubert drags himself away from the stupid novel with an irritated grunt. He’d just reached the tower scene from the cover illustration, and Humphries is about to squeeze the life from Frederick’s throat as he dangles him from the window, their faces inches apart. He lays it open on the kitchen table, blinking away the uneasiness he always feels when coming out of a book.

“I—didn’t know I was permitted visitors,” he says, buying time. He hasn’t prepared for this. For the possibility that it might be—

“With His Majesty’s approval, you are.” The guards shrug, and step aside.

Bernadetta von Varley shuffles past them with a shy thanks.

Hubert swallows down the rush of disappointment he suddenly feels, though he has no idea where it’s coming from. Instead, he bows deeply, letting himself slip into his old role, still fitting him tight as a glove. “Countess von Varley. What an unexpected delight.” He musters up a dark smile. “Or are you still countess these days? I’m sure the kingdom has been all too happy to take your land and title for themselves—”

“Bernadetta’s just fine.” She lifts her chin, and for all his height on her, he feels the force of her stare. What a true lady she’s grown into: proud and flinty-eyed and with a twist on her mouth that makes him wish he could see what trail of suitors she’s chewed up and spit out. No longer the wilting flower of their school days, then. It almost makes him proud.

But in the end, she abandoned his emperor, with all the rest.

He pulls out a chair at the table.

“Please. Bernadetta. Have a seat. I apologize about the accommodations.”

“I think you’ve had worse lately.” She drops into her chair. “But I’m not here to . . .”

Her voice trails off as she catches sight of the novel, and her eyes widen in abject horror.

“Hubert?” she asks, voice shooting up several registers. “Um—W-where did you get—”

Foreboding Shadow?” Hubert picks it up to show her the cover. “Another gift from His Majesty, I assume. Why, have you read it?”

“N-no! Of course not!” she blurts. “Why would you even think that? I w-wouldn’t ever read anything so—um, I mean—”

He shrugs and sets it back down. “Well. Your loss. It’s quite engrossing. Though my tastes have perhaps atrophied of late . . .”

She stops stammering and leans forward. “You really think it’s engrossing?” She sits up straighter. Eager, even.

“It is, though perhaps not in the way the author intended—”

“What? How do you know what the author intended? Maybe she—um, or he, or whoever—maybe they were trying to tell a different story, but their publisher just wanted another stupid Gothic romance instead of . . .”

Hubert lifts his eyebrow. “I thought you said you hadn’t read it.”

She shrinks back. “I mean, that’s just what I’ve heard people say.”

He stops. Looks from Bernadetta to the cover. Written By A Lady. Gently files that thought away.

“Anyway.” He laces his fingers in front of him, and feels the moment she looks at the bare skin of his hands. Time has done nothing to scab over the sores, even though his mouth is healing; his hair is growing back. It no longer winds him to walk the length of the townhome. “Dear Bernadetta. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

Bernadetta worries her lower lip between her teeth. “I, well, I—I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” She lowers her head. “I do care about you. Always have, shadow-man.”

“If you cared so much, you could have followed us to the end.”

She winces. “You just don’t get it. That’s why I had to leave. I know she had all these plans, but she couldn’t see what she was doing, how it wasn’t making anything better, only different, and I couldn’t be a part of—”

Bernadetta swallows, and they both sit in silence, a silence deafening with echoes of the emperor’s ghost.

“I wish she didn’t have to die,” Bernadetta whispers.

Hubert slumps back in his chair. “It is the pinnacle of belief, to die for your cause.” The air around him is suddenly too thick; he can’t seem to draw enough breath. “Fighting until the very end—it only makes me admire her all the more.”

“But, Hubie.” Bernadetta stretches one hand across the table. “No one was more of a believer than you. And you’re still here.”

He recoils; pulls his hands away. “Do not think for a moment that I’ve been given a choice in the matter.”

“Maybe not at first. But you helped us, didn’t you?” Sluggishly, his brain catches up to her us—she means the kingdom. “You’re seeing it too, now. That there’s another way to go on. You told them who was behind the ambushes on my lands, after all. I’m very thankful for that.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” he hisses.

But lurking behind his words, he hears the ghost’s question: Then who did you do it for?

Bernadetta’s hands fall back into her lap. “Yeah. I know.”

Hubert is trembling, he realizes; he still isn’t eating properly, his stomach protesting even when he tries. That must account for it. Carefully, he meets Bernadetta’s gaze.

“Lady von Varley.”

“Bernie,” she corrects.

“You cared nothing for me before. In fact, I distinctly recall you fleeing any room that I entered. So why are you so concerned for me now?” A thin smile—and it’s the first he’s felt like himself in some time. “Is it guilt over your betrayal?”

“No! Nothing like that.” She twists her fingers in the loose skirts of her gown. “I—Well, He asked me to check on you, okay? Make sure you were . . . recovering.”

Cooperating, more likely. Hubert fights to keep his voice even as he asks, “Von Aegir?”

She smiles, wearily, and nods.

The trembling is in his hands, now. “I can’t imagine what he cares.”

Hubert.

He narrows his eyes, not only to hide the twitch in one of them.

“I know you two fought all the time, especially when Edie was around, but give me a break. Ferdie wouldn’t stay up past midnight doing schoolwork with just anyone, you know. And he certainly wouldn’t tolerate anyone else who drank coffee.”

The memory breaks over him like a wave.

“I daresay I might be getting used to the smell,” Ferdinand confessed, leaning over Hubert’s cup and wafting it toward his face. “It isn’t completely overpowering me, at least.”

Hubert bit his lower lip as his gaze traced that long, slender nose and elegant lips. “If only I could say the same for that execrable bergamot of yours.”

Ferdinand dismissed him with a flick of his hand. “I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”

Ferdinand straightened, and they regarded one another. Neither reaching for their cup. Steam curled around Ferdinand’s face like the haze of a dream, and nothing short of his lady’s command could have dragged Hubert’s gaze away.

“Hubert?” Ferdinand ventured.

Hubert canted his head forward, holding his breath despite himself. Not von Vestra. Hubert.

“I . . . think I might actually like to taste it. Just so I know for sure.”

Oh. There was a strangled noise in the back of his throat, but Hubert squashed down the myriad thoughts that came spiraling off those words. When he managed to speak, it was husky, barely restrained. “So you can be sure that you don’t like it, you mean?”

Ferdinand shrugged. “Or maybe I’ll discover that I do.”

If he’d been bolder, he would have taken off one glove and dipped his finger into his brew.

He would have lifted it, carefully, like a sacrament, to Ferdinand’s lips.

Press his fingertip, exposed, into that plush, warm mouth, relishing the sudden swirl of tongue against it.

And then he’d seize Ferdinand by the throat and wrench him closer. Push his lips open with his own. Teeth, tongue, coffee, tea. Let him taste it all he liked, drink Hubert up until there was nothing left, and then he’d explore him—devour him—finally taste that bright and too-sweet scent of Ferdinand all over the creamy skin of his throat, his collarbones. And with his other hand, he would claim that hair at last. He’d surrender to the beautiful sighs Ferdinand must surely make, the ones he’d imagined night after night, and he would stifle them between them so they were his alone to enjoy.

He wanted everything from him, every last easy laugh and confident boast, he wanted to wring it out of him and yet in the end, it would be Hubert who had been scraped raw—

But what he said instead was, “Well, go buy your own damned coffee, then. It’s too expensive for me to squander on you and your fickle fancies.”

Hubert clears his throat, banishing the memory for good. “He’s big-hearted, is all. Kind to everyone. Too kind and trusting, which is how he ended up here.”

Bernadetta says nothing for a long moment. “Sure, Hubie. Whatever you say.”


That night, he reads through Foreboding Shadow again, infuriated with it anew. He doesn’t know what on earth Bernadetta thought she saw between him and Ferdinand, but it was never—it never could be anything, not even this antagonistic push-and-pull like this dreck she’s put on the page. When Frederick finally gets the upper hand on Count Humphries and flings him from the tower, allowing him to run off and marry Lily, Hubert lobs the book across the room.

“Watch it,” a guard growls.

Hubert sneers at them. Crawls into bed, face against the mattress, blankets a thick shelter over him. Conjures up Ferdinand’s traitorous face again—that request so many years ago, at once so very innocent and so very, very lewd.

And quietly, carefully, Hubert strokes himself, the pillow muffling his tortured gasps.

Chapter Text

There is an extremely large man planting flowers in Hubert’s garden. The lack of plated armor does nothing to minimize Dedue’s bulk as he hums softly to himself, transferring bright white lilies and their bulbs to their new resting place, his back to Hubert.

Hubert grabs the heaviest thing he can see—a discarded heraldry book—and creeps carefully, slowly, forward.

“You might as well drop it,” Dedue says without looking up, “and save us both some time.” Dedue scoops dirt in around the bulb. “Unless you really wish to be punched again.”

Hubert grits his teeth. “What do you want, vassal?”

Dedue uses the trowel to fill in the dirt around the bulb. “I am no vassal. I honored my oath to His Majesty, and now, of my own accord, have accepted a post in the royal guard.” He turns around, narrowed eyes scraping over Hubert. “And I’m planting flowers for you, because I hate to see this patch of earth go unloved.”

“Flowers,” Hubert echoes. “For me.”

“Yes. Periwinkles and thistles from Duscur and violets from Sreng. Fronds from Almyra and hyacinths from Gloucester. Oh, and I’m sure you recognize these.” He gestures to a batch of Enbarr carnations, with their brilliant hue like fresh-spilled blood.

And then, to Hubert’s horror, Dedue smiles.

“I wanted to make sure you could see all these beautiful blossoms that come from lands your empire will never hold again.”

Hubert’s grip tightens on the spine of the book. “Do not presume you can rattle me, vassal. I will rip the thoughts from your skull.”

“So do it.” Dedue shrugs. “It won’t change the fact that you’ve lost.”

He’s still so calm, that shock of white hair rippling gently in the breeze. If it wouldn’t end with him thrown across the garden, possibly without his spine intact, Hubert might even try another attack.

Instead he drops the book and examines the dry, ragged beds of his nails.

“I’m sure there’s something you can lose, too.” He smiles. “How would your king’s people feel if they knew what he let a man from Duscur do to him behind closed doors?”

Dedue blinks, brow furrowed. Stares. Then abruptly barks a laugh.

“Is this what you call blackmail? Well. If you want to know what some of them think, there were a handful of . . . insulting pamphlets published after we announced our forthcoming marriage.” Dedue pushes himself to his feet, looming over Hubert. “On the whole, though, the people of Faerghus have been very accepting.”

“What—How—” Hubert tries to sift through all this new information. “I thought your precious Church of Seiros forbade Crest-bearers from entering into a union that couldn’t produce blood heirs—”

“The Church of Seiros no longer has a say in Faerghan legal matters. Or did you miss that announcement, as well?”

It’s as though someone has picked up the earth beneath his feet and thrown it back down. Disbeliever though he was, so much of his life had been constructed around the edges of the Church and its reach. Even as Edelgard swept across the land to throw off the shackles of their dogma, and surely this, too, she would have sought to change, he never even considered, never once thought to ask—

Before he’s fully aware what he’s doing, Hubert has snatched a fistful of Enbarr carnations and ripped them from the earth, dirt showering around them both. It isn’t enough. It can’t silence his father’s voice in his head.

He’d been fourteen years old when his father found him in the arms of the stable boy. The punishment he endured for his lack of discretion burns still in the deep scars along his back. Weeping, bloodied, curled up on the floor, he begged for mercy, but his father demanded a vow instead. A von Vestra operates in the shadows, but must always be ready for the harsh sweep of light. Another lash. You know nothing about blackmail and coercion if you don’t understand how easily it can be used against you.

“Go on. Call me a snake again,” Hubert seethes. “Knock me down. Show me you hate me.” He flings the ripped petals at Dedue, showering him in the brilliant red. “Don’t just stand there.”

Dedue brushes the blooms from his shoulder. “I hate you for what you did to His Majesty. Give me the opportunity to punish you for it, and I’ll relish it.” He peers down at Hubert with a shake of his head. “But I don’t think I’ll ever despise you the way you despise yourself.”

 


He’s still in the garden after twilight, bells ringing in the distance and the city streets around him alive with hoofbeats, laughter, the sounds of a people who survived. The walls are too high to grant him a better view of where exactly he is in the city. All he really remembers of Fhirdiad is its castle and dungeons, anyway. Maybe he wouldn’t have spent so much of the occupation down there if he’d known the lengthy stay that was yet to come.

Could he even escape the city, if he somehow got free? Maybe his face had been plastered all over the broadsheets, too. There wasn’t a soul in Faerghus who would give quarter to the infamous Butcher of Enbarr. He laughs; slumps back against the townhome’s wall. How he’d prided himself on that title when first he heard it. How little it was worth to him now.

He is still slumped against the wall when a guard steps out into the garden. “You have a visitor.”

He doesn’t bother responding. This is not his home; he is in no position to refuse a guest.

A sweet peal of laughter and bootheels shuffling against the cobbles. Hubert looks up to find Ferdinand before him, orange hair glowing golden in the starlight. Their eyes meet, and Hubert feels a curious hollow open up inside him. Where once he’d feel eager—wicked, even—at the sight of this bright fool, he suspects he’s the one who’s the fool after all.

“Von Vestra.” Ferdinand smiles easily, and dismisses the guards with a flick of his hand. If he’s harboring any lingering fury over their last meeting, he isn’t letting it show. Hubert stares as the guards disappear back inside the house. He didn’t even know that was an option. But for Ferdinand, it seems, every door is open.

“I’m afraid that once again, I wasn’t expecting you,” Hubert says. It hurts too much to look up at him, so he stares out at those accursed blooms. “Or I would have made supper.”

“I’m not sure you know how to make anything that isn’t poisonous.”

Hubert suspects he might be right. “What do you want, von Aegir? Did I not insult you enough last time we spoke? I’ll confess I haven’t yet had the opportunity to kill any more of your family members since then, but—”

“Oh, for godess’s sake, can’t you let up for even one minute? I don’t want to talk about that right now. Goddess, how I don’t want to talk about that.” Ferdinand sighs. “You actually helped us, you know. Telling us who was supporting the ambushes. I’ll take that as . . . something.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Hubert says hastily.

“It means something to me.”

Hubert must be exhausted, then, because he doesn’t press the point. Ferdinand knows who and what he is. It’s his fault if he wants to pretend otherwise.

And then Ferdinand flicks out the tails of his coat and sits right down on the garden path, facing him.

“You look . . . formal,” Hubert says, suspicion creeping into his tone. What he means to say is: Enchanting. Intoxicating. His coat is velvet trimmed in satin, brimming with a bright, starched white cravat. He stretches out legs clad in supple leather breeches that must feel impossibly alluring to anyone with the sensation in their fingertips to enjoy them.

But his hair is the most torturous part of the whole ensemble. Though it hangs loose around his face, it’s been dotted with seed pearls, a perfect mirror of the spangled sky above them. And his eyes—they’re much too bright, glistening, almost—glowing with an infuriating optimism—

“Hubert?” Ferdinand says, and Hubert wants those lips to keep closing around his name, again and again. “Is everything all right?”

Hubert’s upper lip curls back in a sneer. “Why are you all puffed up like a pastry?”

Ferdinand frowns, bringing a white-gloved hand self-consciously to his cravat. “I thought I looked rather dashing, myself.”

Dashing. Hubert’s mouth twitches in spite of himself. “Forgive me. I merely felt like being . . . impertinent.” He glances at Ferdinand from the corner of his eye, just in time to see his elegant mouth twitch up. “You look radiant.”

“An apology and a compliment. Are you sure you’re feeling well?” Ferdinand catches a strand of hair in one hand and winds it around his finger, and never has Hubert wanted to be a single finger so much. “If you must know, I was at a wedding.”

“Oh. His Majesty’s, was it?” Hubert clenches his jaw.

“Hm? Oh. No, that isn’t for a few more months. Tonight was the Lady von Martritz and Lady Dominic.” Ferdinand smiles at nothing in particular. “Lady von Martritz asked me to give her away at the altar. It was very touching. And then next month is the Lords Gautier and Fraldarius—Clearly the war brought everyone closer together—”

Hubert erupts with laughter. “Fuck’s sake, Ferdie. Is everyone in the royal castle at least partly attracted to members of their own sex?”

Ferdinand wipes the smile from his face as he studies Hubert. And now Hubert remembers why he always appreciated the long shock of hair he no longer has; he reaches up to tug at the stubborn hair at his hairline that won’t grow fast enough, wishing he could use it to hide.

“As far as I can tell,” Ferdinand says very slowly, “yes.”

Hubert looks back at him. The hollow in his gut is gone, replaced by an insatiable fire. All he wants is to see them both burn.

“I exaggerate, of course,” Ferdinand says, too hasty, all polite smiles and bright eyes once more. “In any case, it was a beautiful ceremony, and a lively reception, and I suppose I just wasn’t ready for the night to end.”

Hubert raises one eyebrow. “Ferdinand von Aegir. You’ve been drinking, haven’t you.”

Even in the starlight, he can see Ferdinand’s face turn bright scarlet, drawing Hubert in like the scent of blood. “N-not to excess, no.”

“You’re either very stupid or very confident.” Hubert is leaning in to the wide V between Ferdinand’s legs before he can stop himself. “Coming to the scary viper’s den. Dismissing his guards. All while your judgment is . . .” Hubert’s breath catches. “Compromised.”

“I’m merely paying a social call, not negotiating treaties.”

“Oh, Ferdie,” Hubert coos, “we both know that’s not true.”

“D-don’t call me that.” Ferdinand swipes a hand down his face, and it catches at his lower lip, tugging it down. “It’s not fair.”

Laughter curls in Hubert’s throat. “Nothing I do is fair.”

And they are face to face now, Hubert supporting himself on hands and knees as Ferdinand leans back on his hands. And for the first time in months, Hubert feels awake—really and truly awake. He is the snake, the Butcher of Enbarr, the shadow who fears no light. But more than anything, he wants. He wants everything he’s so long been denied.

“Hubert,” Ferdinand breathes, and it’s impossible even in the night to miss how wide his pupils are blown, “what are you doing?”

“Are you afraid of me, Ferdie?”

Slowly, keeping what little distance between them there is, Ferdinand shakes his head.

Hubert shifts his weight to his right hand as he raises his left. “Your hair. May I touch it?”

The word sighs out of Ferdinand: “Yes.”

Gingerly, he plucks up a single wavy lock, and his arm is trembling as he wraps it in his fist. The hair slides over cracks and scars and boils and deep, unhealed furrows. But there—there it is, reaching down beneath dead nerve endings and all his disappointment and rage. Silk, cool and sweet as a spring stream.

“I—was afraid I wouldn’t be able to feel it.” Hubert wraps it around his finger; strokes that against his cheek. “When I first saw you’d grown it out, I was afraid I’d never . . .”

Ferdinand makes a shaky laughing sound. “You were afraid of something?”

Everything, he wants to scream.

With a small noise in the back of his throat, Hubert releases the coil of hair, then reaches down to the ground around them. He finds one of the smaller Enbarr carnation buds, ones he didn’t mangle too badly. Then he tenderly threads one behind Ferdinand’s ear.

The awestruck look Ferdinand gives him almost breaks him. “Not merely radiant,” Hubert says. “Exquisite.”

Divine.

Something I could believe in again.

Ferdinand reaches toward his own ear with trembling fingers and brushes them against the carnation. “I should . . .”

He should kiss him. Now, while the night is dazzling and Ferdinand isn’t thinking about murder and war. Away from the guards’ eyes.

But what will he taste on Hubert’s lips? Blood and venom? Hubert’s failure to save the woman to whom he’d pledged his life? Will it only remind him of all the reasons why they never kissed, not even back in those simpler schooldays, when there weren’t fields and fields of dead between them?

Ferdinand lowers his head. “I—”

Hubert leans closer. Waits.

“I’m afraid I’m going to be traveling soon,” Ferdinand says, the words rushing out of him all at once. “I won’t be able to—um, to check on you. And after I return, there’s the matter of your trial, and . . .”

Hubert sinks back, sitting on his own heels. Trial. It’s a bloody joke. Everything he’s done was legally sanctioned by his emperor and therefore completely illegal in the eyes of Faerghus. The only question is what end they will choose for him.

“His Majesty says they will be taking your continued cooperation into account. Hubert . . .” Ferdinand lifts his gaze, and the glint of liquid in Ferdinand’s eyes makes Hubert want to claw his own skin off. “If there’s anything more you can think of, anything at all, that you can offer him—I promise, no matter how inconsequential you think it is—”

“Save it.” Hubert crosses his arms. “If you came here thinking to seduce me into surrendering all my secrets, you’ll find I’m impervious to your charms.”

Both of Ferdinand’s eyebrows lift at that. “S-seduce . . . ?” It’s his turn to laugh, shaking his head as he does. “Unbelievable. You are unbelievable, von Vestra.”

“I prefer unconquerable. Very well, enjoy your mysterious travels.” He wiggles his fingers. “Maybe I’ll recall something of dire importance in your absence. Or perhaps not.”

Ferdinand clambers to his feet, still shaking his head. “I hope you do. For your sake, if nothing else.”

Hubert stares at Ferdinand’s boots as they crush the remaining carnations underfoot. “But—if you cared to visit me once more before you left—”

Ferdinand pauses, standing over him. “Hm?”

Hubert turns away. It’s much easier to say this without those amber eyes boring into him. “Well. I wouldn’t be averse to that.”

A soft snort as Ferdinand opens the door. “I suppose we’ll have to see.”

And then Ferdinand’s boots are replaced with the guards’ greaves; the whisper of bright hair replaced by gauntlets wrenching him to his feet. He barely remembers falling asleep; only remembers starlight: and his own darkness once more blotting it out.

Chapter Text

Ferdinand regards the wilted carnation bud on the corner of his desk the same way he might a poisonous frog. Lovely to look at, but sure to kill him if he touches it. It’s blackened at the edges now, and the ruby red petals have shriveled into something purplish and brown. He should get rid of it. He really should.

He pushes the tip of his pen against it, ready to flick it into the trash bin—but stops himself. Not yet.

He forces himself to return to the folio of documents spread before him as he prepares for his upcoming diplomatic excursion. Ever since King Dimitri appointed him Minister of Adrestian-Faerghan Relations, he’s been drowning in reports from all over the former empire as they try to feel their way toward a new form of governance.

Dimitri never intended to be a conqueror, he’d said; he wasn’t after Adrestian land or resources. But the old imperial system was rotted all the way through and had to be ripped out. In time, he agreed with Ferdinand, the question of autonomy could be put to the Adrestians themselves, much as it had been recently for Duscur, who ultimately chose self-governance, but with a close-knit alliance with Faerghus. Such a future was still possible for Adrestia, but there is much he needs to accomplish first to make that choice a safe one.

There is so much to rebuild. No time for distractions. For his wandering thoughts.

Ferdinand takes another sip of tea and rubs his temples to clear his head.

He reads over von Hevring’s report again, representing what’s likely to be the most delicate part of the upcoming discussions. Linhardt had jumped at the chance (well, as much as Linhardt jumped) to help with the dangerous business of sorting through and cataloguing the empire’s armaments and weaponry. Edelgard had apparently either designed or been given some truly horrifying technological marvels that used combinations of crest stones, dark magic, and other unidentifiable sources as fuel. One of Ferdinand’s objectives, then, was to meet with Linhardt and review his findings, then assess the threat each piece of weaponry posed. Some would have to be transferred to Faerghus for safekeeping and study. Others would have to be destroyed.

And then there was the matter of making public the nature of such dreadful machines . . .

“Dammit, Edelgard.” Ferdinand pages through Linhardt’s initial report. “Who in the hells were you working with?”

Some of it, at least, could be explained as a natural extension of the strange experimentation those like the Academy scholars and the von Vestran sorcerous engineers were conducting. But the others . . . He can’t make sense of any of it. It feels absolutely alien. As if the contraptions emerged out of nothingness, and if they try to study them too closely, they might disappear in much the same way. Or worse.

But then, he isn’t the expert in this. Linhardt is—as much as anyone left can be. He’s only coming to offer support, and serve as King Dimitri’s emissary. Whether they can make sense of it all or not isn’t really his concern.

Even if it would greatly benefit them to have another expert in sorcerous engineering.

Someone with extensive experience not only in sorcerous engineering but close insight into the secret dealings of von Hresvelg’s administration.

With a groan, Ferdinand rings a bell to summon a page.

“Tell His Majesty I have a request to make. Unfortunately.”

 


 

“This is most . . . unusual,” Dimitri says, regarding Ferdinand from where he leans against his desk. “I know we’re taking an unusual approach to everything concerning our prisoner, but even this . . .”

“I know, Your Majesty.” Ferdinand bows his head. “And I’m sorry it’s turned out that way. It’s just—”

“He was the emperor’s left hand. I understand, really I do. And she’s left so many baited traps for us.” Dimitri shakes his head, a stray blond bang falling into his face. “All the same, I hardly think he’s ready to be . . .” He works his jaw. “Tested in this way.”

“Perhaps it’s an opportunity to get him to that point.”

“Or a chance for him to break free too soon and turn on us.” Dimitri hands the stack of papers back to Ferdinand. “Well. Better he do it far away, on the other side of Fódlan, than here in Fhirdiad, if it comes to that. And the potential benefit to being rid of that dreadful weaponry . . .” He waves one hand through the air.

“I have your permission, then?” Ferdinand asks, anxious.

“Provided you follow the course we agreed upon when we started all this, yes.” Dimitri starts to turn from him, but then pauses. “Ferdinand? May I speak to you as a . . . friend?”

His old instincts of propriety and deference crawl all over his skin, but he nods. “You may. Dimitri.”

“Thank you.”

The king folds his arms. Head lowered, he works his jaw; this is clearly a conversation neither of them want to have, and yet.

“What was von Vestra to you, before the war?”

Ferdinand feels a fist squeezing around his heart. “Well, I . . . I’m not sure, to be honest.”

It was like a fishing hook under his skin that pulled taut whenever von Vestra was near him. Reeling him closer but never quite closing that gap. But never releasing him either.

“But you had an idea.”

Ferdinand allows himself to nod. Tries to give form to the sideways looks and teasing brushes, the late-night arguments as they worked that wrapped around and tangled into something more, something dense, in emotion if not form. “I would say we were colleagues. Competitors, often. I—once, I thought there might have been something more, but . . .”

Dimitri’s eye closes, as if he expected as much. The thought of someone else seeing it fills Ferdinand with the urge to laugh—with relief, with humiliation.

“He is a monster, though. I knew that even then. Even before he . . .”

The want he felt back then is ingrained in him now. He’s grown over it, like a tree swallowing a stone. All the horrors that have come since have done nothing to pry it free.

“It defies reason, I know. I’m sorry, Your Majesty. If you think me too—compromised to continue this plan, or—”

“You don’t have to apologize. In some ways, it’s that balance in you that makes you ideal for it. As long as you can live with it.”

Ferdinand doesn’t have the slightest idea what he can live with—or without.

“Our emotions are not always convenient, or even welcome. I’d be a hypocrite to think otherwise.”

Dimitri’s gaze tracks toward the corner of his chambers, where the relic Areadbhar rests on its stand. Even polished and dazzling, its grooves and crevices look stained with blood.

“Some monsters we learn to live with. But some, we have to end.”


“The prisoner is resting,” the guard informs him as he reaches the safehouse that evening. “But I’d be delighted to wake him up for you—”

Ferdinand squeezes past the guard into the doorframe. “That won’t be necessary.”

The door guard exchanges a look with the guard posted inside the house. “Shall we step outside?”

“If you’d be so kind.” They begin to comply, but there’s a distinct twist to their brows that digs under Ferdinand’s skin. “Is there an issue?” Ferdinand asks.

“None at all, Minister. Always happy to accommodate a Faerghan official’s request.”

The door closes behind them, leaving him alone in the townhome with von Vestra. Ferdinand stares at the door a minute longer, trying to work out the guards’ irritation. Goddess. Maybe he is making a huge mistake. It’s not as if he’s forgotten anything von Vestra’s done—how can he, when it’s directly carved the path that Ferdinand now follows, forcing him to leave his homeland, wage a bloody war? But maybe he is too eager to push forward with rebuilding efforts. Some wounds can’t be papered over. The only thing to do is let them heal.

As if Hubert could ever be healed, cured.

Ferdinand straightens his jacket and makes his way toward the back of the home.

Hubert is lying in bed on his side, curled away from him, toward the wall. At first Ferdinand thinks he’s sleeping, but no—those painfully bright eyes are staring, staring forward at nothingness. No reaction, though, as Ferdinand steps closer. Not even a snarky comment, which—to Ferdinand’s horror—actually hurts.

“This is the second time I’ve come to visit, only to find you moping,” Ferdinand says.

The sheets rise and fall with Hubert’s breath. Finally, he mutters into his arm, “I could start trying to kill you, if you prefer.”

Relief washes over Ferdinand. “That’s quite all right.”

Only a single sconce is lit at the other end of the house; the early autumn twilight casts the bed in hazy purple shadows. So it’s only as Ferdinand’s eyes adjust that he realizes Hubert is shirtless—if not more. The pale, jagged curve of his spine is partially exposed to him, and crossing it, in furious slashes, are thick scars. Ferdinand tries to suppress his inhale of breath at the sight of them. Did the Faerghans—? But no, they look much too old, white and mottled gray with years of scar tissue.

“What do you want,” Hubert says flatly.

Ferdinand’s hand lingers over the sheets before he can stop himself. “May I . . . join you?” Clumsily, he adds, “Standing up over you like this makes me feel like I’m talking to a slug.”

Hubert huffs. “Join me? Ferdie, you’re years too late for that. But suit yourself.”

Ferdinand toes his feet out of his polished boots. It takes a few tries; he’s used to having his valet remove them. Then he slips under the sheets, at the far edge of the bed from Hubert. He can’t help but stare at the scars, inky in the shadows. Back and forth—like a lash. He’s seen horses mistreated in such a way; once he had to physically haul a cavalryman off his mount by the collar when he left similar hatchmarks on its flank with his whip. Whoever did this to Hubert, though—

With a sinking feeling, Ferdinand realizes they likely already paid the price.

“If you keep coming by in hopes of getting an apology,” Hubert says, “you’re wasting your time. Killing was my job. My duty. And I relished it.”

“I understand.” Ferdinand curls his hand against the mattress, inches from Hubert’s spine. “I don’t condone it. But I understand.”

“Do you, though?” Hubert starts to unfold his knees from his chest. “What can you possibly understand, with your pristine white gloves?”

Ferdinand holds out his bare hands—stained, today, with more than a bit of ink. At Hubert’s snort, he pulls them back to his chest. “I know, now, what it means to give all of yourself to a cause, and cut away the parts of you that you can’t give.”

His home, his title, the lingering doubts of his competence. The chance to be second to something he couldn’t believe in for the chance to have a smaller stake in something he could. And whatever he’d felt, once, for the man curled before him now.

Better that he cut it away then. He can only imagine what agony it might have been to watch him carry out his horrors right before Ferdinand’s eyes.

“Mm,” Hubert says in response.

Ferdinand sighs. “Come, now, von Vestra. What has you so forlorn?”

He unravels fully, now, and rolls toward his other side. Bringing them face to face. Ferdinand is acutely aware of how vulnerable he is now. No guards, weapons. The fact Hubert hasn’t threatened to strangle him with a bedsheet or something equally gauche might mean he’s actually considering it. He’d hate to go out so soon—his pride detests the thought of proving Dimitri right before he’s even had a chance to leave Fhirdiad.

But all Hubert does is regard him with a dark smile, his eyes far too bright in the dim lighting.

“It’s her,” Hubert says, and he doesn’t need to clarify. “She fills this room. This city. All the shadows of what could have been, if not for traitors like you and your false king.”

Ferdinand shrinks into himself.

“She sees me lounging around in this lovely little prison, still drawing breath long after she took her last.” His eyes narrow. “I promised my every breath and thought and purpose would be hers, and you made me break that promise.”

Now Ferdinand narrows his eyes. “You told me once that even she couldn’t have all of you. Was that just another one of your lies?”

Hubert’s mouth pops open. “I would never say—Oh.”

Ferdinand rolls onto his back (and nearly off the edge of the bed, catching himself just in time). Arm draped over his eyes, he laughs. What more can he do but laugh? “Goddess, I’m a fool. For all I clung to those words from you, and you don’t even remember saying them.”

“I remember perfectly well. It’s just that—” A long pause. Is Hubert—Hubert—composing himself? “For all I wanted to believe them, you made them impossible to be true.”

Ferdinand looks back at him then, curled up—exposed—boyish. The long hair he wore like armor is gone, growing back in unevenly. The gauntness of his cheekbones is less threatening, and more hollowed-out. Sad. Battered, damaged hands curl under the side of his head like a child might to use them for a makeshift pillow.

“I never knew I made you choose.”

“That choice was made for me.” Hubert stretches those fragile fingers out, stopping just short of trailing them to Ferdinand’s face. “You were just an unpleasant reminder of it.”

Before he lets himself think through it, Ferdinand captures Hubert’s hands in his own and runs his thumbs over the craggy wasteland of Hubert’s knuckles. Hubert’s eyes squeeze shut, but his hands are limp, surrendering. It could only take a moment for them to become weapons, Ferdinand reminds himself. For Hubert to smash his thumbs into his eyes or choke him or claw his face.

But he doesn’t do anything. Not even as Ferdinand brushes his lips to those knuckles. Cups his palms over those sores.

And he doesn’t know if this is progress, or if it’s Hubert giving up—but it is something. Something Ferdinand can take.

Slowly, Hubert withdraws his hands.

Ferdinand slips back out of the bed and gives the mattress a pat. “In any case, we’re out of time for moping. More important things to do.”

“’We’?” Hubert echoes, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Indeed.” Excitement wars with trepidation in Ferdinand’s gut. “We’re going to Enbarr.”

Chapter Text

A Traveling Interlude

 

“Must we really travel by pegasus carriage? Is this your king’s newest idea for torturing me?”

“Hush up, it’s the fastest way to Enbarr. Less time I must spend stuck in here with you.”

“Maybe it would help if you told me why, exactly, we’re going Enbarr again.”

“Because I said so, and that’s all you need to know.”

“. . . Ferdinand. Who knew you had such an authoritarian streak.”

“How dare—I’m not—”

“Ordering me about, when I’m your helpless prisoner, unable to deny your every last whim and fancy . . .”

“H-Hubert!”

“Who knows what depraved urges you’ll subject me to—”

“I—You—Don’t—Stop!”

“Struck a nerve, have I?”

“Am I going to have to gag you as well to get a moment’s peace?”

“Well, if I’m to be stuck here, you must know, these shackles are really unnecessary. More dangerous to you than me, if we’re being honest.”

“Hubert—”

“Imagine it, Ferdinand. We’re locked in this carriage, just you and I. All I’d need do is slip them over your throat and pull at that soft skin, watch the life drain from you as you gasp and struggle for—”

Do you ever shut up?!

A huff. “I’m merely saying. It seems like a lapse in security protocol.”

“And what if I just—lean over here and pull back the curtain on your window—”

For fuck’s sake, don’t you fucking dare—

“Such language. Is the scary shadow man afraid of heights?”

“N-not even remotely—”

“Ahh, so this is why you never turned up for cavalry drills. The Left Hand of the bloody emperor, undone by a mere change in altitude.”

“How about we revisit the part where I was threatening to choke you?”

“Look, Hubert! Look at that tiny speck down there. Is that the Arianrhod Fortress? Oh, no, it can’t be yet, we still have such a long way to go—”

“I’m going to choke you now.”

“Splendid. Let me just lean over and open your door to inform the guards—”

“DO NOT TOUCH THAT FUCKING HANDLE YOU MISERABLE DANDY, FUCK YOU, FERDINAND.”

“You haven’t got the range.”


“—And does he even understand how a monarchy is supposed to work? Honestly. Letting any old rabble off the street cast a vote? Next he’ll be letting them choose a new king.”

A delicate wince.

“Ferdinand.”

Papers shuffling.

Ferdie.

“Mm? You were saying something? I’m learning to blot it out.”

“Don’t tell me this sudden craze for elections was your idea.”

“I don’t—I’m not sure what you mean—”

“Lord von Aegir, the vanguard of nobleness and gentility, did not persuade the king of Faerghus to hold a referendum.”

Papers shuffling more loudly now. “It seemed the fairest way to start integrating Adrestians into the existing order. Less like a subjugation.”

“The whole point of waging war is to subjugate. Conquer. Demolish. If the weaker people you defeat were deserving of ruling, then they wouldn’t have been defeated.”

“But we didn’t go to war to conquer. We were holding back the tide.” Teeth pressing into a lower lip. “And now that we have the empire’s lands, we must prove ourselves deserving of their loyalty. Through outreach and mutual understanding.”

“You’re going to make me vomit in my mouth.”

“As long as you keep it in your mouth.”

Chains rattling. “She sought to obliterate the existing order, you fucking self-righteous prick, because it was broken. Irreconcilably so. Only from the tide of blood and ashes of its ruin could a new system rise, free of the shackles of Crests—”

“Only to create a new order, likely just as restrictive.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Perhaps not. But what we’re doing is through consensus and consent. Perhaps the greatest act of nobility lies in recognizing when our own system no longer serves oursubjects.” Knuckles white around a folio of documents. “If your ego would ever allow you to see past yourself for once.”

“Oh, Ferdie. You, sweet little lordling. You’re trembling. Flames. You truly believe in all this, don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.”

A long silence; the turn of a head. “I can relate.”

 


“If you would just hold still—I can’t very well take you to the erstwhile capital with your hair looking like you got run over by a grain combine—”

Hhppphh.

“There. See? Much more even. We’ll add a little part here to the side like you used to have—Ah. A respectable crew cut.” Fingers tugging at a dark sheaf. “I do miss this being longer, but at least you look . . . polished.”

“You . . . miss . . . ?”

“The whole militant minister look you had at the end there. I—Never mind, if you aren’t going to appreciate my help, that’s your problem.”

“I’m still confused as to why you had scissors in the first place.”

“I always keep a sewing kit on me. In case of emergencies, and if my valet should be indisposed.”

Emergencies.

“A torn hem at a state dinner, for instance.”

“You keep scissors on your person at all time.”

“Just these little finger ones—”

“And brought them in here.”

“Yes?”

“With me.”

Goddess, are we really doing this bit again.

“I’m starting to think you don’t take me seriously.”

“‘I am Hubert von Vestra, diabolical mastermind. I’ll stab your eye with a pair of sewing kit scissors and scoop your heart out with the thimble. Watch me embroider your skin with my dark designs—’”

“. . . That escalated—”

“‘I shall bathe the heavens in the blood of my enemies and drink down their livers like they were Derdrian oysters!’”

Folded arms.

“Well, that’s how you sound.”

“As if I’d ever embroider anything.”

 


“—You take La Dona Casagranda’s name out of your traitorous mouth. Dorothea could never peg the recitative in An Eagle’s Fury the way Manuela did when we saw her that summer—”

“—Can and has. They mounted a new production last summer to celebrate Her Majesty’s . . . her birthday.” Quieter, now. “And—well, Dorothea was dazzling in the . . . lead role.” With renewed vigor, “You wouldn’t know true talent if it nipped you on the ass.”

“I hardly see how you can compare the two performances. You barely even watched the show when we went together. You kept leaving our private box to attend to whatever . . . dark business it is one can possibly get up to at an opera. With no excuses, no apologies. And you didn’t even bring me a flute of champagne like you said you would.”

Dark laughter that builds. “Ferdie. Were you under the impression that we were attending the opera . . . together?”

“I—No!”

“You were! Look, you’re positively scarlet. Oh, Ferdinand. Now I feel terribly discourteous. I assumed you offered me your extra ticket because Marquise Whatever-Her-Name your father had you courting at the time had backed out at the last minute and you didn’t want to be seen attending alone.”

“Firstly, she was in line for the Barony, not a Marquisate. Secondly, she was deplorable. The way she treated her servants! And fourth of all—”

“Third.”

“Thirdly! You and I had been talking at school about how much we loved all the Wagreich operas, and you said you’d never even seen Eagle’s Fury in person, which is the whole reason I acquired the tickets in the first place—”

The soft clink of chains. “You hadn’t been planning to take her?”

“No, you insufferable spider.”

“You got that ticket . . . specifically for me?”

“Obviously! I wanted to share the majesty of a Casagranda aria on her homecoming performance with another Wagreich admirer.”

Silence. Then, shuffling as he nestles into a corner. “Fine, you win, Casagranda’s the better soprano, what’s it matter now anyway. I’m going to sleep.”

 


“How are we still not there?”

“Because you keep asking.”

“Ugh. Fine. Tell me something interesting. Juicy castle gossip, how about.” Shackled feet shoving onto the bench and/or Ferdinand’s lap. “I don’t suppose you’re accompanying anyone to His Majesty’s wedding.”

“Are you offering?” Gently shoving said feet away. “It’d put our unfortunate opera date to shame when you . . . roll a severed head down the aisle or whatever it is you do.”

“Hilarious.”

“If you must know, I’m attending with General Galatea.”

An icy glare. “Von Aegir. I didn’t know blondes were your type.”

“We’re attending as friends. And—” Chin hoisted, smirking. “I believe her type is ‘None, thank you.’”

“Enviable.”

Papers shuffling, a new packet opened. Pen nib dipping in ink—

“HUBERT VON VESTRA, STOP PUTTING YOUR FEET IN MY LAP.”

“So what is your type, von Aegir? Dim-witted but effervescent?” A sinister tone. “Dark and brooding?” Gruff, now—“Muscle-bound and menacing? Or does it even matter as long as they’ve got land and a title?”

“Right now my type is quiet with an amuse-bouche of respect for one’s personal space.”

One shackled boot thudding against the carriage floor, quickly followed by the other. “Sounds boring.”

A new sheet of parchment smoothed out and the florid shushing of ink across it. Coming abruptly to a pause.

“Why?” High-pitched, too casual. “What’s yours, Hubert?”

Two bright eyes burning, brimming with months of swallowed-down venom.

“Loyal.”


“Ferdinand?”

Silence, but for the rhythmic slice of pegasus wings through the air beyond the carriage’s confines.

“Ferdie?”

A soft sigh.

“Ferdinand, you’re drooling on my shoulder.”

Nothing.

Grimacing; trying not to let the weight on his shoulder cut off the bloodflow to his shackled hand.

Mouthed more than said: “I’m sorry about the opera. I can’t apologize to you about much, but I can apologize for that.”

Head tilting.

“It doesn’t matter now, but if I had it to do again, I’d do it properly. Hire a coach. Bring you a boutonniere. Maybe some laurel leaves for your hair—I think that’d be fitting for Eagle’s Fury.” Soft inhale. “I’d order you all the champagne you desired.”

Shifting to form a gap beneath one arm, orange crown slipping comfortably into the new space.

“I might even be persuaded not to threaten a grim and certain violence on you and your new allies. For the evening, anyway.”

 


“—Hubert? Wha—”

A noisy tangle of chains, limbs, and orange locks caught between them—

“Damn it, von Vestra, are you honestly trying to strangle me now? If so you’re not doing a very good job of it—”

Extricating with a minimal (but not nonexistent) pulling of said hair. “You’re the one who fell asleep on me. Any subsequent choking or hair loss is your own fault.”

Shoving back the curtain to a bright morning cresting brilliant cerulean over the city below.

“Oh. I believe we’re here.”

Chapter Text

Walking back through the gates of Enbarr makes Ferdinand feel as if he’s donning the heavy armor of his childhood again, all the unattainable hopes and wrongful dreams and bitter grudges he’s worked so hard to shed. He can’t glance at the imperial palace shimmering on the horizon without feeling the old clockwork tighten in his chest that told him someday, someday soon, it would be a von Aegir’s time to reign.

It’s petty and foolish and wrong and he should have left it far behind, along with the rest of the innocence they shed when the war began. But a stolen look at Hubert, being led by his chains by one smirking Shamir Nevrand, tells him he’s not the only one feeling this way. He expected glowers, escape attempts, snarky remarks. What he finds instead is a crushed and broken man.

A monster, not a man, Ferdinand reminds himself. It had been too easy to forget in the confines of the carriage. Their melody was too familiar, back and forth, like a hymn he hasn’t sang for years, yet hearing just a few chords summons up the lyrics all the same. That familiarity, too, he must cast off. For his and Faerghus’s sake.

“Ferdie? Ferdie! Hey!”

Ferdinand jerks his head up as their processional reaches the palace gates. Caspar von Bergliez is waving madly at them from the side yard, while a man looking like an older, leaner, taller version of Caspar smiles behind him.

“Ferdie! You made it!” Caspar rushes forward and clasps Ferdinand by the forearm in some kind of awkward shake. “We were worried when we heard about some of the other pegasus charters getting stuck in a storm.”

Ferdinand can’t help but throw a sly grin Hubert’s way, and relish his queasy expression. “Delightful to see you, von Bergliez.” He rubs his hands together—fighting past his juddering discomfort with eagerness, as ever, to throw himself into his work. “Shall we get started?”

“Easy there, Minister. We’re still waiting on some of the delegates to arrive for the political talks later, and then von Hevring’s not ready to see you until—”

Ferdinand makes a quick jerking motion to cut him off, but Hubert has lifted his head. Ferdinand holds up a finger. “One moment.” Angling toward Shamir, he says, “Why don’t you take our guest and the security team and make the necessary preparations?”

Shamir casts a cold gaze at the palace’s façade. “Sure. I’ll talk to the palace guards; we’ll figure something out.”

Hubert is uncharacteristically silent as he’s ushered away, tossing only one last look over his shoulder at Ferdinand.

“I’m sorry.” Ferdinand splays his hands at his sides. “But the less he knows, the better.”

“I’ll say. Never trusted the weaselly bastard even when we were on the same side.” The older man behind Caspar steps forward, extending his hand. “I’m Siegfried von Bergliez. Caspar’s told me all about you.”

Ferdinand accepts the easy grip as a slight flush rises to his cheeks. “There isn’t much to tell—”

“You’re an accomplished cavalryman, isn’t that right? Do you like early morning rides?”

Ferdinand watches his security team disappear into the palace’s side. “Indeed. Great for loosening up the limbs.”

“You should join me, then. Caspar here’s too much of a night owl.” He scrubs an affectionate fist on Caspar’s head.

“C’mon, Siggy, it’s not like I’m slackin’ off when I’m up all night!”

Ferdinand shifts his weight. The longer they stand out here, the more he can feel Enbarr’s roots leaching into him once more. Only the siege-pocked palace walls and repair crews dotting the streets jolt him back into remembrance of everything that’s passed.

Once, he’d dreamed of making all of this his. Proving himself deserving, through stubbornness, boisterousness, pride.

Now that it’s his, at least in part—

“Ferdie? You all right, bud?” Caspar slugs him on the arm.

Ferdinand finds the easy smile he’s practiced all his life. “Just thinking about all the work we need to do.”

“You never shut off, do you? Tell you what. Why don’t we show you around the city center, you can see the work we’ve already done. Then Bernie should be here in time for supper back at the palace, all right?”

He casts one more glance at the palace. “Sounds grand.”

 


The city feels lighter, somehow. Emptier, too. On the Square of Triumph, the column to Ionius IX has been toppled and cleared away, leaving a gaping hole in the skyline, but the opera house is unharmed, and the imperial gallery beside it. Ruined, of course, is the Cathedral of Seiros, its husk smoke-stained and its windows smashed. Once-gold leaf trimmings have been scraped down and ornamental designs snapped off.

Caspar and Siegfried keep up a steady stream of chatter as they stroll, guards close in front of them and behind. Polity and diplomacy—that much, Ferdinand can offer up without thinking. Well-trained muscle memory, to an eldest von Aegir son. It gives cover for the churning heart of his thoughts.

A home that didn’t want him; that could no longer offer him what he wanted.

His stupid, senseless rivalry with Edelgard, when he had no idea the real rules of the game—or even which game she was playing.

But if he had known—how could that have changed things? Would he have fought harder to prove his worth? Fought less? Would that Ferdinand have carved off so much of himself in a quest for power to match her?

A flash of silver and violet from a stall in the market square—

Ferdinand is moving toward it, heart in his throat, trying to spot it again. And it’s so foolish; he didn’t see a ghost. He can’t have. This city’s corroding him, making him imagine impossible things.

Then at last he sees what caught his eye. A rack of felted children’s dolls.

A few with red robes and that unmistakable hair—

The merchant moves between him and the stall. “Something interest you, sir?”

“Are you selling—are those—”

But when he peers around the merchant, the dolls are like any other. Pale Adrestian skin with brown or deep green hair. Plain provincial dresses.

“I—I’m sorry. I was looking for .  . .”

The merchant’s glower sends him backing away.

“Von Aegir?” Sigfried asks, appearing at his elbow. “Everything all right?”

“I . . .” Later. If there’s a cult of Edelgard festering around them, if there’s an undercurrent of resistance trying to keep her memory alive, he needs to know about it. But he’s just as likely letting paranoia get the better of him. No matter the case, this is no place for that talk. “I just remembered I needed a gift. For Bernie,” he adds quickly.

“Well, now you’ve hurt my feelings, Ferdie,” Caspar says. “No gift for me?”

“Letting you beat me in the lance tournament a few years back wasn’t gift enough?”

Let me—Ohh, you’re just beggin’ for a rematch, pal. All right, just make it quick.”

He browses the stalls, ultimately selecting a pair of gold earrings dangling with shafts of jade and citrine, then picks out a matching jade hair ribbon for himself. He’s about to head over to the roasted pecan stand where Caspar and Siegfried are ruining their appetites, but then catches a whiff of fresh-tanned leather.

His gaze roams over the wares on offer before his brain catches up, and lands squarely on a pair of black leather gloves.

“Something, you like, m’lord?”

Ferdinand starts to pull back, but stops himself. They’re only gloves. Instead, he plucks off his own white gloves and gestures toward the pair. “Might I . . . ?”

“As you like. Softest kid leather you’ll find. Ample wool lining.”

Indeed, they’re buttery-soft when Ferdinand touches them; he stops himself just short of brushing them against his cheek. Ridiculous, von Aegir. “I’ll take them.”

“In your size, m’lord?”

“No, I think—” He studies his own long fingers; tries to recall the scarred hands clutched in his. “One size smaller.”

The tanner wraps them in a slender box, then Ferdinand adds a leather buckler for Caspar to his bill, too, because he’ll be damned if he’s accused of playing favorites. Even still, the slim box tucked in his breast pocket feels like it must be glowing hot, alive and visible to everyone, his sudden shame.


Bernadetta latches onto Ferdinand’s arm at dinner in the hauntingly empty banquet hall and plants a quick kiss on his cheek. “Heya, Ferdie.”

“My dear countess.” Ferdinand reaches into his coat pocket and finds the velvet pouch containing her gift. “I don’t know how I’d survive all this without you.”

“I could say the same.” She eyes the pouch suspiciously. “For me? Ferdie, you didn’t—”

He can feel the tips of his ears going red. “Your presence in Fhirdiad was a huge comfort to me last month. It felt good to have a friendly ear. N-not that I don’t have friends there!” he adds hastily—“Only, I needed the perspective of a fellow Adrestian.”

“Understandable.” She shakes the pouch out into her palm, then gasps. “Ferdie. You’re too sweet. They’re gorgeous.”

He flushes. “They looked like your style—”

“And your hair! I love the look.” She gestures to the loose bow over one shoulder that gathers it all up. “I’d say you’re looking much better than when we talked last.”

Ferdinand winces. “Opinions vary.”

She drops her voice as she fidgets with the earrings, trying to work them onto her lobes. “Did you ever talk to—”

“Yes! Shh, keep your voice down. We didn’t talk—apologies, exactly—”

Bernadetta rolls her eyes. “Then what’s the use? You’re both going to be letting resentment fester if you don’t. Trust me, I know.”

“They aren’t things one can exactly apologize for.” Ferdinand lowers his head. “For—for either of us, I’m starting to realize.”

Her nose crinkles. “What the hell do you have to apologize for?”

“For walking away.”

You had your reasons,” she says flatly. “We all did, in time.”

“And he had his. Until that time ran out.”


After the dinner, Shamir greets him outside the banquet hall to usher him to his rooms within the palace.

Or rather—to the emperor’s rooms.

“You’ve got to be joking. I can’t possibly sleep in there.”

“Really? If it were me I’d go in there and rub my filthy non-Adrestian self all over everything,” Shamir says. “But more importantly, your hosts insisted—it’s the most secure wing in the whole damn place. And there’s the added convenience of the retainer’s room connected to it with no other access points. We’ve got this whole floor locked up tight.”

“The retainer’s . . . Oh, goddess.” Ferdinand bites down on his fist. “You’re putting him in his old rooms—”

“Room, singular. Austere little shit, apparently.” She rolls her eyes. “And the reconstruction crew’s scoured it thoroughly, though I did double check, to be sure.”

“You’re certain.”

“Do you want the inventory of everything they found? Thirteen knives hidden in various floorboards, wainscoting, and taped behind pieces of furniture. Ten vials of unidentifiable substances. A rusty garrotte wire—”

“How on earth,” Ferdinand sputters, “can you be sure you got it all?”

Shamir lifts one eyebrow. “Are you doubting me? Coz you say the word, I’m all too happy to throw him in a dungeon. Hells, I’ll lock him in a closet. Maybe out on a narrow window ledge from the fourth floor. But you’re the boss.”

“It’ll do. It’s just—”

Shamir waits, but her waiting is always an active thing, unsettling.

“Never mind. Thank you for your work.”

She makes a hand signal to some of the guards. “Whatever. Enjoy your rest, minister.”


Ferdinand starts to undress in the terrifying cathedral that is—was—the emperor’s bedroom. Gilt eagles leer down at him from every corner; a fire crackles in a marble fireplace larger than his favorite steed’s stall. But he feels the magnetic pull, instead, of the unassuming dark wood door set off to one side. The adjoining retainer’s room.

Still in his dress shirt and boxers, Ferdinand drops into one of the armchairs by the hearth and stares up at the ceiling mural of fire, strident Adrestian heroes, coiling crests.

This is what he dreamed of, once. This room like a mausoleum, the aching loneliness. The weight of an empire on his shoulders as he ruled—the von Aegir who took back the throne.

A life that might have been his, if he’d been more cunning. Wicked. More of his father’s son, kissing boots and groveling and conniving and bending every which way to stay relevant. More willing to stride forth, unquenchable in his goals.

Ferdinand tugs idly at the velvet ribbon binding his hair in a loose bow over his shoulder. All of this is too much—it’s what he once dreamed should be his.

But he hadn’t the stomach for it, the bloodshed and ruthlessness. It couldn’t have been worth the cost in blood.

So much blood already. His hands, too, were stained. He imagines her sitting here, wondering if she could see anything on her hands but the stains. How did she ever move past it?

Maybe that’s why she ruled and he didn’t. Maybe she never saw it at all. Like Hubert, she never felt a need to apologize.

He studies the wall beside him. The watercolor painting of the capital on seaside cliffs. An array of bell cords: guards, kitchens, retainer, valet.

Ferdinand glances at the cord for retainer. His prisoner. The man he’ll have to ask terrible things of tomorrow—but maybe the only one who can make sense of these terrible thoughts tonight.

And before he can allow himself to think better of it, he tugs the cord for the bell.

He doesn’t expect anything. Even if he’s awake, even if the door’s unlocked and he’s unlocked and—Oh, goddess, what’s wrong with Ferdinand, why can’t he rid himself of this toxic mix of yearning and nostalgia before it eats him from the inside out—

A soft knock from the retainer’s door.

Right. It locks from his side. Ferdinand sets aside his barely-touched tea and heads toward it on leaden feet.

He opens the door to find Hubert wary and shaking.

“What—”

Hubert is looking through him, scanning the room beyond, until finally his roving eyes rest on Ferdinand. “You. Right. For a moment . . .” He rakes fingers through his hair; takes slow sips of air. Ferdinand’s learned to see it now, the moment Hubert slides the mask in place over his fear. “Ferdinand, Ferdinand. How was your supper, your scheming? Enjoying your little fantasy of being emperor, are you?”

Ferdinand steps back from the door, leaving it open. Of course Hubert would have thought, when he heard that bell—Goddess, he feels needlessly cruel now. “It’s . . . lonely, isn’t it.”

“She thought so, too.”

Ferdinand sinks down on the edge of the bed, facing the fireplace. Hubert hovers at a respectable distance, hands behind his back. As if he’s awaiting orders. Deferent. Even though he’s only in a rumpled tunic and trousers, he carries himself with the same eager obeisance he must have shown her.

How could he not feel powerful, unassailable, with someone like Hubert bolstering him and assuring him of the gloriousness of his path? He dares to imagine it for a moment, and it’s like plate armor, rendering him righteous in his purpose and invincible in his will to carry it out. His loyal retainer at his side, clearing out the shadows as he marches in daylight. Together, they would be inevitable.

Gooseflesh rises on his arms. The ghost of another life. Not one he wants—certainly not anymore. And the last thing he wishes is for Hubert to look at him that way: like someone who must be obeyed.

“Well?” Hubert asks.

“Please don’t do that.”

“I’m standing here.” Hubert scowls at him. “You’re the one who rang for me.”

“I just wanted to . . .” Not be alone. Ferdinand grimaces. “Stop looking at me like I’m your lord, or your jailor.”

“Aren’t you?” Hubert shuffles closer; brings his hands before him. “Isn’t this what you always dreamed of? A von Aegir on the throne. Your noblesse oblige for outdoing her, at long last.”

Hubert stops before him, knees bumping against Ferdinand’s bared knees.

“And I, your eternally devoted servant, awaiting your every command.”

Ferdinand turns his head away. “It was a stupid, childish wish. One of many bitter thoughts and wants my father put in my head.”

“He was a petty and envious man,” Hubert says, voice low. “I dare say you’re a marked improvement.”

“It doesn’t always feel that way.”

Hubert says nothing to that—only smiles that tiny smile, the one Ferdinand wishes he could pull apart. The smile that seems to say, You’ll never know my thoughts. You’ll never know me.

“Perhaps you feel it now,” Hubert says, voice a razor wire, “how easy things could be, if you didn’t fear the path of blood.”

“Stop it.”

“You wear yourself thin trying to serve ‘the people’ this, ‘the people’ that. Don’t tell me you don’t. And then you come here and remember there’s an easier way. One you believed in, once, before you lost your nerve.”

The smile has spread, now, glinting and sharp. Much too close to Ferdinand’s face. Gold and marble and crystal chandeliers all around them, the spoils of victory. Silky sheets beneath him.

“What I do now is worth the effort. So stop. Please, goddess, just . . . stop being you.”

Hubert’s sharp inhale hurts worse than any retort he could have made; the way his shoulders fall pierces Ferdinand through.

“I’m not sure who else you want me to be.”

Oh, Ferdinand thinks, ashamed. Oh.

Cunning, dauntless, relentless. Driven. Always ready with a new scheme. But—patient. Meticulous.

All the things that drew him to Hubert in the first place.

All the things that horrify him now.

“I didn’t mean that,” Ferdinand mumbles.

The smile he gets in return is more shield than sword, now. “No. Of course you didn’t.”

The what-ifs and if-onlies dry up in the silence between them. The ruler Ferdinand will never be evaporates like smoke, and with it, the ally Hubert can never become.

Hubert shifts his weight. “Well? Did you summon me for a reason?”

“Yes, actually.” Shaking off his thoughts, Ferdinand roots around in his discarded clothing until he finds the slim box tucked inside his coat pocket. “I . . . wanted to give you this.”

Hubert’s lips part as he leans back, guarded. “Are you sure that’s appropriate, Minister?”

Ferdinand sighs. “Not as the minister. As your . . .” Friend seems unlikely. He casts around for something better and comes up empty. “We’ve put you through a great deal, I know. And while you deserved it, I just—thought this might make it all a little more bearable.”

“I somehow doubt that.” But Hubert takes the box; slips the lid open.

Stares wordlessly at the gloves inside.

“Ferdie . . .”

Ferdinand’s heart is high in his throat. He doesn’t know if Hubert likes them or hates them—doesn’t think he can stand it, either way. “I thought they might bring you some comfort, is all. Wearing them seemed important to you, before.”

Hubert’s jaw tightens. “If the state of my hands offends you . . .”

“No! I just wanted you to have the—the choice.” Goddess, he was making a mess of everything tonight. “One thing that you could choose for yourself. Whether you wanted your gloves again, or not.”

Hubert nods, mouth still open. Tugs the first glove on. Ferdinand permits himself a tiny thrill to see he’d guessed right on the size, just a step smaller than his own. Practical, arduous hands, treated like the tools they were in her service, and bearing the scars accordingly.

Tonight, he will not think about just what those hands have done in her name.

“Then . . . I choose them. For now,” Hubert says.

Ferdinand bites his lower lip at the sight of those gloved hands. The way they’d brush against his own. Haunt his thoughts long after they’d parted ways. Yet more memories Enbarr’s keen to cough up of things that never were.

Hubert traces the gloved fingertips against his own face and smirks. “Very soft. Yet flexible.”

Before he can strangle himself with all the reasons he shouldn’t, Ferdinand asks, “Might I feel them, too?”

“Von Aegir?” And Hubert’s voice sounds so fragile now—something Ferdinand must handle with care—yet Ferdinand fears he might be the one to break.

Hubert takes another step forward. Standing between Ferdinand’s knees, now, slender hips bumping against Ferdinand’s thighs. And Ferdinand is very aware of how little he is wearing and how very little he cares anymore. Enbarr has drained him of his propriety, his energy, his fight.

Hubert raises a gloved hand close, so close, to Ferdinand’s cheek. “May I . . .”

Ferdinand closes his eyes. “You don’t have to keep asking permission to touch me.”

Hubert is quiet for a moment. “Yes, I do.”

He swallows. Clears his mind. “Very well. Then yes.”

Velvety leather fingertips skate across his cheekbone; a thumb glides down the side of his nose and the corner of his lips to rest just under his chin. A sigh slips out of Ferdinand, and the hand at his face trembles, ready to flee.

Ferdinand opens his eyes. The way Hubert is looking at him—it no longer makes him feel powerful, in control.

Instead—he feels like someone worthy.

“Ferdinand,” Hubert breathes, and it’s sweeter than any prayer.

Hubert’s palm slides lower down Ferdinand’s cheek and to his jaw, fingers applying just enough pressure to tilt his head to one side, tip up his chin. The other hand is on his hair, now, tracing its path to where it’s been gathered loosely at his shoulder. Twisting the curled tail between two fingers.

Thumb skimming down his throat to the hollow at its base.

Fingers at the back of his neck pressing, four sharp points.

Hubert’s voice is more breath than sound: “You should tell me to stop, von Aegir.”

Liquid fire is racing through him; his fingers and toes are numb, all his senses centered on the touch of those two hands. He’s bared to Hubert’s probing eyes. A nerve exposed.

The words seem to come from outside of him. “Please don’t stop.”

With a feral sound, Hubert pushes him to his back, hand still locked around his neck, and presses a knee into the mattress at Ferdinand’s hip to loom over him. Ferdinand shudders, arching up, as Hubert’s lips find the underside of his jaw. Burning like acid. Kissing beneath his ear, his pulse point, his collarbone, and if Ferdinand doesn’t taste that mouth for himself soon he might combust.

“Goddess—”

“Shh,” Hubert says against his shoulder, then kisses down bare skin into the opened collar of Ferdinand’s partly unbuttoned dress shirt. Ferdinand tastes leather as one finger, two, nudge at his lips, and he nips at them as he tries to remember to breathe, as his hips roll up—

“Ferdie.” Hubert laughs against his sternum; grazes it with his teeth. “Flames, you are exquisite.”

“Please,” Ferdinand breathes.

Hubert’s nose nestles against his collarbone. Another weary laugh. Gingerly lifting Ferdinand’s hair out of the way, Hubert lavishes the side of his neck, and it draws an unholy keen out of Ferdinand not to be devoured, right now, when all he wants is that mouth and those piercing eyes and that voice that chafes like bindings at his wrists—

“Ferdie. You sacred creature.” His thumb curls around Ferdinand’s chin. “Everything about you, so much better than I imagined . . .”

Ferdinand swallows. Feels gloved fingers flex along his neck as he does. “Kiss me, then,” he pleads.

Hubert stares down at him as he brings his other knee up to bracket Ferdinand’s hips. Ferdinand curls his own hands around the backs of rangy legs, thumbs brushing, inching, aching for more. The shudder his touch coaxes from Hubert, the rattled breath, is so good—but all he wants is more.

Lowering his head, Hubert’s lips feather at Ferdinand’s temple; flirt at his cheekbone. And oh, how Hubert crouched over him like a wolf going in for the kill is making him feel unspeakable things.

“Is this really what you want?” Hubert purrs. “I need you to be sure.”

And Ferdinand will not think of the avalanche of reasons not to when he gasps, “Yes.”

Teeth scrape his jaw and clench around his earlobe before retreating. “I’m not so sure it is.”

Ferdinand blinks past the sparks in his eyes; grips the hard nobs of Hubert’s hips where they frame his thighs. All the things he wanted, once—all the things he wants still—

“I can’t be anyone other than who I am.” Hubert’s lashes brush at Ferdinand’s cheek as he buries his face in his hair. “I’ll never be who you need me to be. But if it’s me you want—monster that I am—”

Guilt drops like a stone inside him. “Th-that’s not true, Hubert. You’re not who you think you are.” He runs his hands up Hubert’s sides, each too-sharp rib painfully clear through his tunic. “I’ve seen it.”

Hubert draws a deep inhale; lets it out as slowly, air dancing across Ferdinand’s neck, his ear. And then, arms trembling, he pushes himself up.

One leg, then the other, sliding back to the floor. Backing away. Cold rushing in to numb all the places he’d touched on Ferdinand’s skin.

“I’m not him,” Hubert says. “And I’ll never be. If you can’t see that . . .”

Ferdinand perches up on his elbows. “If this is about what I said earlier—”

“It’s so much more, Ferdie.” He shivers—arms wrapped around himself, suddenly the scared boy from this morning, lost in a world too big to hold him. “I want you to want this. I want to know that, for all your devotion to your new order, all your aspirations toward equality and peace, that you want me. Broken and wicked as I am.”

Ferdinand tries to catch his gaze, but he keeps his head turned away, candlelight reflected along the dampness at his lashlines. Ferdinand is at once on fire and drowning in icy depths; he can’t move or think or breathe.

Still the acid stings along his bared skin. Everywhere Hubert’s mouth touched. Stinging, and he’s sure the only salve for it is more—

Hubert offers him one last glance as he stands in the doorway, and his haunted smile pierces Ferdinand worse than any dagger. “Make sure you lock the door,” he says, his tone flat. “Wouldn’t want your guards to think anything unseemly.”

And he slams it shut behind him.

Ferdinand flops back onto the bed, bites onto his arm, and screams against it. Stares up at the bed’s canopy.

But at least he isn’t alone. For he’s quite sure Edelgard’s ghost is here: laughing at him.

You want to rule, von Aegir? he can just imagine her saying. You can’t even conquer your own conflicted heart.

Chapter Text

Hubert must be the biggest fool in all of Fódlan.

He clutches a fist to his mouth and breathes in deep, filling himself with the scent of fresh leather and Ferdinand’s jasmine cologne. Ferdinand, all porcelain and bright hair and a greedy, hungry flush. Squirming and soft sighs and a lean, delicate throat under his fingertips. Powerful cavalryman’s thighs taut with potential. The man had been begging him, for goddess’s sake. He can still hear it ringing in his ears like mocking laughter.

Hubert, please . . .

He snarls into his gloved hand and rolls onto his stomach. There was the problem. Ferdinand wanted—something, he wanted absolution, he wanted to play at emperor, he wanted to forget. He wanted Hubert to be anyone but.

It stings. Worse than any of the burns on his hands or the scars on his back. It stings like this empty room, stripped of all his belongings, his weapons and tools—because that’s what Ferdinand wants him to be. Docile. Defanged.

Hubert has already lost so much of himself just by being alive, by subjecting himself to the kingdom’s foul games and whatever further humiliations they have planned for him in Enbarr. It’s the cost of outliving the only purpose he’s ever had. If he has to carve away all the things that make him him for Ferdinand—no matter how badly he wants him, and fuck if he doesn’t crave him like a wolf craves the hunt—then is he even living at all?

He has to stay alive. He has to hold onto himself, if only because his survival is such a thorn in his enemies’ sides. Ferdinand—and the kingdom—cannot take this from him, too.

Even if it feels right now like his want might burn him up from the inside.

He forces himself to get up and staggers to the deep-seated window where he used to curl up with a cup of coffee to read, or browse reports, or simply think. From here he can see the parade grounds of the inner courtyard, stablehands and mounted guards milling around in the early morning mist. And prancing and laughing, climbing into the saddles, he spots Ferdinand with Siegfried von Bergliez. Ferdinand’s pulled his hair into a loose braid that sways over one shoulder as his horse warms up in a slow trot. He says something, and Siegfried tosses back his head.

They make their way across the grounds, and Hubert wills him not to look this way—don’t show even a moment’s hesitation, don’t give him an ounce of regret. And he doesn’t disappoint. They disappear through the gates, and out of view.


Shamir and the guards appear to march him off toward whatever grim purpose His Pompousness has dragged him here for. As she clamps the manacles on his wrists, Shamir frowns.

“Those are new.”

He looks down at the gloves to hide his wince. “Yes.”

A long pause, like she’s daring him to explain himself. But he has nothing to explain. If she wants, she’s more than welcome to take it up with the Minister of Reconstruction or whatever gauche title they’ve given him. She can take it up with her king, for all he cares.

“Okay,” she says, and jerks him forward with a tug on the chain.

Then comes the carriage, and the sack placed over his head, as though it wasn’t his job, his whole purpose to slip through the leering streets of nighttime Enbarr like a fog to carry out his lady’s tasks. So even though they’re taking far too many turns and circuitous paths, he senses it the minute they start to circle on the armaments district near the southern gate, even without the forges awake and churning away to belch out the stink of iron and steel.

And that tidbit about waiting to meet with Linhardt—their insistence that he, their prisoner, needs to be there, despite the considerable risk—

Hubert squeezes his hands together to stop them from shaking. They’re going to ask him questions he can’t possibly begin to answer. They’ll ask for justifications that do not exist. Only that he’d have done anything—anything—to see his lady succeed.

He’d ally with the very monsters who hurt her in the first place, if that was the cost of victory.

Thales was dead. That much, at least, was to his advantage. Had others crawled their way out of their wretched den? Would they come for him, claiming what they were owed? Or was it enough that the Faerghans, in all their waste and stupidity, had slain Cornelia and Thales without even knowing why or who they really were? Would it hold back that miserable tide?

And if the Faerghans now sought to master the very weaponry he’d sold his lady’s soul to claim for the empire—what more would it cost him yet?

They haul him into the armory and rip away the hood. Ferdinand is already waiting there, Siegfried and Caspar close by, and Hubert knows he should look away, wills himself to look away—

But he’d used all his strength last night, trying to cling to himself. He has nothing left to cling to.

Ferdinand’s face is bright and dappled from his morning ride with Siegfried, the kiss of sunlight making visible a constellation of freckles across his cheeks and nose. He’s donned a formal suit, as ever, but it’s the spray of stark violet winter heath that’s been braided into his hair over one shoulder that catches Hubert’s eye. Or rather, that delicate swoop of neck that it’s clearly meant to conceal. Except that Ferdinand keeps touching it, keeps adjusting the braid and the spray of flowers alike, and each nervous dance of his fingers draws more and more attention to the livid mark just below his jaw.

The painful, stabbing need Hubert feels at the sight of him will linger, he knows. But that mark, and Ferdinand’s clear discomfort at it, give him some small measure of petty pride.

A victory. A claiming.

“Good morning to you, Minster von Aegir. Love the new hairstyle.”

Ferdinand flinches, eyes rounding at him in a perfectly, miserably clear Don’t.

“We went for a morning ride in the Imperial Gardens,” Siegfried says, “or whatever we’re supposed to call them now. “Found a whole bushel of those just dying to be picked.”

Hubert’s bitter smile starts to slip. “How wonderful.”

Oh, look,” Ferdinand blurts, “there’s von Hevring!”

That seems to wake up the groggy Caspar, who bounds past them to launch himself right at Linhardt, arms flung wide, and smears a massive, sloppy kiss all over the side of a startled Linhardt’s face.

As if Hubert needs any more reason to wish he were anywhere but here.

“Well. Isn’t this an awkward little reunion,” Linhardt says, as he and Caspar join them arm in arm.

Hubert bows, manacles clanking. “I’d be happy to depart if that would help.”

Shamir grunts behind him.

Linhardt peers at Ferdinand, who’s once again fussing with his braid. “What’s the matter with your neck, Ferdinand?”

He yanks fiercely at the braid and backs away. “I—I ran into a branch on our ride!”

“I could get you a salve for that—”

“It’s fine!” he yelps. He gives his thick braid another flip, then anxiously works it back over his shoulder. “M-maybe we should just get on with it?”

Linhardt gives a shrug more atmospherically than tangibly. “Gladly.”

They keep Hubert a healthy distance back from the others as they wind through the armory. He catches Shamir leaning over Ferdinand’s shoulder, consulting with him in low tones.

“—Sure everything is all right?”

“Perfectly,” Ferdinand says tersely.

“I can still put him on a window ledge, if you want.”

“Ugh, no. He’d just turn into a bat and fly away.”

At least the walk grants him plenty of time to study the dynamics at play. He’s going to have to tread carefully here, and that’s before taking the erratic variable that is Ferdinand into account. Linhardt just seems content to have kept his job, more or less, as a principal researcher of crestomantic studies—a position that she created for him, the ungrateful bastard, before he informed her he could no longer in good conscience support the war. Caspar bounding like a puppy at his side is a new development, but not one Hubert’s sure how to use just yet. Threatening one to coerce the other is always an option—but threats alone can’t get him out of this particular mess.

Siegfried is an unknown quantity, being outside of their alumni circle. He’d served, briefly, on a distant front in the early days of the war, but Hubert never interacted with him then. A cavalryman, like Ferdinand. Hubert’s upper lip curls at the reminder of how quickly they seemed to bond over stupid horses, of all things. He doesn’t hold any formal title in the provisional government that Hubert’s aware of, but then, he would be the last to know. Maybe he’s nudging up to Ferdinand in hopes of an appointment. Maybe his motives lie somewhere altogether different.

No—flames. He’s being petty. Envious. He can’t let the poison of rejection working its way through his veins cloud his judgment—now more than ever.

But what he can do is use it to keep Ferdinand off balance. If he can keep from being thrown himself.

Finally they reach the entrance to one of the massive hangars, and Linhardt leads them inside. “They called it a Titanus, I believe,” Linhardt says, gesturing to the massive metal monstrosity spread across the hangar floor, partly disassembled. “An automaton fueled by magic, but its core defies any understanding of magic and crestomancy alike that we currently possess.”

All heads swivel toward Hubert.

“Oh, don’t look at me,” he says thinly. “I’m not the one with a crest.”

Linhardt sighs. “We’ve catalogued every component and rediagrammed it to the best of our abilities, but actually getting the damn thing to work is another matter. How dangerous is this thing, Hubert?”

“Oh, terribly.” He offers Ferdinand a vicious smile that he quickly looks away from. “And I doubt you’ll have any luck changing that. Might as well destroy it, to be safe.”

“We’d much rather understand it first.” Linhardt leads them toward the core, a cold, gray lump of stone, silent for now. “Did you design it, Hubert?”

“Are you doubting my skill?”

“I know you’re talented. Downright lethal with a tome of dark magic at hand.” Linhardt glances at him—reassuring himself, maybe, that Hubert really is unarmed. “But this—this is something else entirely. With no logical connection to anything you’ve designed before.”

“I’m flattered.”

“It’s not a compliment,” Ferdinand says. “It’s a question. Where did this design come from? Who else was involved?”

“You could always torture me if you want to know so bad. Or did your precious king throw out that practice, too?”

Caspar rolls his eyes. “You said your folks could get it to work some, right, Linny?”

The first real smile from Linhardt as he looks back at Caspar. “Yes. It’s going from on to off that’s proving the tricky part. If nothing else, I’ve got two of my best researchers headed in this afternoon to help. If we must destroy it, so be it, but it seems an awful waste.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Siegfried says. “How about we fire it up and aim it at the rat? Then let’s see just how much he really knows about shutting it down.”

“By all means, kill me,” Hubert says. “Like you should’ve done in the first place.”

Ferdinand’s wounded stare would make him regret his words, if he was still capable of feeling remorse. He matches that gaze, venom burning inside him. Challenging.

“You really want him to talk,” Shamir says suddenly, “then you point it at von Aegir instead.”

Ferdinand’s face goes bone-white. “I beg your pardon—”

“No one’s pointing my research at anyone!” Linhardt cries.

Caspar laughs too loudly. “I always knew I liked ya, Shammy—”

And it’s too dizzying, too nauseating, too thick with toxic memories that need to be buried deep. We knew your kind would come around, that voice would whisper. We have much to offer in return—

Minister von Aegir.” The manacles clink as Hubert clenches his fists. “Might I have a word? Alone?”

Siegfried steps forward. Subtly, but there’s a protective angle to his chest and shoulders. “I think our kindness has let him forget that he’s a prisoner, first and foremost. Maybe it’s time for a reminder.”

“Thank you, von Bergliez, but it’s at my discretion. Under His Majesty’s authority.” Ferdinand holds Hubert’s stare, and whatever he sees must startle him—his mouth rounds, and he drops his braid. “I—yes. Very well, von Vestra, I’ll hear you out.”

 


Shamir all but flings Hubert into the spare office with a nasty twist to her lips. “Just try me, kid.” With one last look at Ferdinand that Hubert can’t see, she leaves the room, shuts the door, and then thumps against it as she leans on the other side.

Ferdinand’s fingers dance nervously against his braid. “What now, von Vestra.”

Needles. Tubing. A slow drip of blood. His lady, face drawn and pale. You were right to come to us, a voice slithers through the night. Your kind cannot possibly hope to conquer without our aid.

“There is something I need you to understand,” Hubert says. His skin is too tight; this room is too small. There isn’t enough space at all for the shame humming in his chest like an arcane core. And if he looks at Ferdinand directly—

Ferdinand bows his head. “I’m listening.”

“I don’t say this lightly. And I don’t only say this as an enemy of the kingdom. I would tell her the same thing, if we’d won.” His voice trembles; he grips onto the back of a chair to steady himself, so the crush of that life that’ll never be doesn’t topple him. “Destroy those things. Destroy anything you don’t understand. Throw it into the sea. Get it far, far away from here.”

“Goddess, Hubert. Are you all right?” Ferdinand steps toward him, hands stretched tentatively. “What is it that’s got you so afraid?”

A bargain sealed with his lady’s blood. A fist squeezing his heart, to bargain with such monsters—and in the process, become a monster himself, for treating with them—

“There are worse things in this world than war and death. Crueler things, even, than me. Leave them in their graves, Ferdinand. I was . . .” He presses the heels of his hands against his eyes. “I’m trying to look out for you, damn it.”

Ferdinand’s shoulders droop. “I don’t see why you care.”

Hubert clenches his jaw to stem the tide of fury in him. How can Ferdinand not understand that? He cares too much, and it’s eating him up, but everything in him—everything Ferdinand despises in him—will dissolve him like acid before it can ever matter.

“Even I’m allowed regrets,” he says instead.

Bright amber eyes flick up toward his at that. “Hubert.” And that voice, so warm and naïve, is something he wishes he could wrap himself in right now. “What is it that scares you so? Surely if we work together, we can—”

“Leave it dead. I’m—” Hubert steels himself. “Please don’t make me beg. But let this die with me.”

Ferdinand’s eyes dance in the dim light, searching him for something—a lie, maybe. That seems like just the thing Ferdinand would be hunting for. But then he laughs sadly to himself. “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think you were trying to protect us. The kingdom.”

“This is bigger than your kingdom.”

“But you still care—”

Damn it, Ferdie, why won’t you listen to me when I try to tell you who I am?” He slumps against the office wall. “You’re so desperate for there to be this goodness in me so it’ll ease your conscience, and there isn’t. There’s so much more malice than you can ever know.”

“Toward me?”

Yes.

Sometimes.

For making me live.

For making me face myself.

“I don’t know.”

Ferdinand shakes his head. “Goodness and wickedness is . . . beside the point. It’s a matter of which side you’re looking at it from.”

Hubert snorts. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“You’re loyal and resourceful and driven, and that’s what I admire—”

“Stop. Stop.”

Hubert grips at his own hair. Blackness rings his vision, now, and it’s hard to keep the air inside his lungs. It’s all bearing down on him, heavy with her death, heavy with thousands of Adrestian dead, that selling his own soul couldn’t even save.

“I’m so loyal that I took aid from the very beasts who hurt her to carry out her will. I’m so driven that I’m here, telling you, a fucking minister of Faerghus, all about the rot inside my veins just to spare you the same fate—”

“Hubert.”

Arms opened. Eyes a comfort. Mouth so plush, turned down with a fathomless empathy.

“You need to breathe, Hubert.”

Hubert nods, because why not fuck up everything else while he’s at it, he can barely stand up anyway, and lets Ferdinand pull him into his arms.

His shackled hands crush against Ferdinand’s chest as the slightly shorter man’s chin tucks against his shoulder. And he’s still shaking—but that warmth, that sweet and maddening scent, they sink into his skin and numb the sharpest pains.

“Whatever it is,” Ferdinand murmurs, “you can survive it, too.”

He tries to match his breath to the careful rhythm of Ferdinand’s. Fingers cup the back of his skull, and rake a soothing pattern against his scalp. And this is nothing he deserves. Nothing Ferdinand would want, too, if he weren’t so blinded by his own hope that he couldn’t see the true depths of Hubert’s despicableness. But Hubert is making no apologies, no promises, and Ferdie’s here despite it, not soothing him with lies about someone better lurking inside him, like his past is just some snakeskin he can shed.

“Why?” Hubert whispers. “I’ll only spread this stain to you. Why are you so determined—”

Ferdinand releases him, but his fingers linger at the sides of Hubert’s face as he gazes up at him. “If you can’t see all my stains, too . . .” He closes his eyes, bright lashes damp. “I’ve failed the von Aegir name. I abandoned everyone I’d known on the promise of some distant dream.”

Hubert smirks. “You are pretty wretched, aren’t you.”

“Glad we can agree.”

Ferdinand’s thumbs brush the trimmed sides of his hair. It’s like a pit opening up beneath his feet, this sudden rush of want that he’ll never escape. Despite his wickedness. Perhaps because of it. And maybe he deserves to die for his failures and betrayal, but it would be so much nicer to die with this . . .

Carefully, he links his fingers into Ferdinand’s at the side of his head. Their gaze is locked, Ferdinand’s lower lip snared in his teeth as he watches. Hubert brings that white-gloved hand to his mouth, and turns it, exposing the underside of Ferdinand’s wrist. An oval of skin is bared to him there, a window framed by the pearl button that holds the glove in place.

Eyes still on Ferdinand’s, Hubert rounds his mouth on that window of pale skin, teeth scraping at delicate tendons, tongue lapping at clean, scented flesh, all while Ferdinand exhales with a shaky “Oh.”

“Don’t let me in, Ferdinand.” He mouths the word against tender skin. “Accept me as I am, and there’s no telling how much worse you’ll become.”

“I promise you, I’m already there.”

Hubert squeezes his eyes shut. Ferdie, blood-stained Ferdie, shilling for a new age when his greaves are mired in a gory past. Haunted, same as him. He should have seen it more clearly.

But there’s far worse lurking inside Hubert that he can never expose.

He forces himself to let go, because if he doesn’t, then he’ll really be lost. He dreams of Ferdie backed against the wall. Kisses made to draw blood. Bodies bound together, each of them hostages to the other’s need.

“We’d better get back to the others,” Ferdinand says, his breath still uneven—that sound a delirious reminder of those beautiful noises he makes, with the right touch.

I need to break myself against you, Hubert thinks. I need you to be the sword to run me through.

“D-does that mean you’ll help us?” He’s clutching his wrist to his heart.

Hubert turns, unable to look. Turns back to face the ghosts.

And once this land is yours . . . then we will come to take what’s owed.

Signing his lady’s name with her blood.

Then we have a deal.

“I’ll help you see why they have to be destroyed.”


They bring him their reams of schematics, and he sets to work marking them up where he spots errors. But when he comes to the core schematics, he has to take a different approach. He needs this to be a dead end. No reason for them to push their research beyond the bounds. The core’s true creators need to stay buried in their crypt. He can only hope, with Thales dead, they’ve tallied up the odds and seen they weren’t in their favor.

As he works, Linhardt drowses on about the research they’ve been doing; Caspar and Siegfried chatter about the reconstruction work. Hubert keeps his ears open for anything he can use, but it’s even duller than when Ferdinand used to prattle on about Adrestian political history. At least back then, Hubert could watch his lips move.

“You’re quite good at this,” Ferdinand says, hovering over one shoulder. “I dare say your talents were wasted lurking solely in the shadows.”

Hubert’s shoulders tense. “I served her however she required.”

Ferdinand inhales, like he wants to say something sour, but stops himself.

And it should feel better that Ferdinand is seeing him more clearly now—but it only serves to make him feel like a sickness no one can shake.

“Ah, here we are. My senior engineers.” Linhardt pulls Ferdinand away. “Lavinia Bartholdt and the former Marquise Greta von Kirchen, who was Colonel of the Mages’ Corps for the empire before she, ah . . . well, you know.”

Hubert drops the pencil he’d been working with.

“A pleasure to meet you, von Aegir. So nice to have someone competent managing things,” a woman’s voice says. A voice made for reforging metal and snapping the weakest blades in two. “Finally, we can do some good for Adrestia.”

He hears the voice circling in his head; feels those eyes watching him like a wolf in the woods.

If you can’t be worthy of my crest, Hubert, then at least be worthy to serve this. A new age of advancement for the empire. Your lady may not have the will for it, but the rest of us shall prosper.

He forces himself to turn and take in the newcomers standing before them. The blonde woman must be Lavinia, which—he couldn’t care less. It’s the other woman, Greta, her raven hair threaded with silver, faint lines marching along her stern face, eyes that burn like overheated iron.

She catches sight of him and offers up one single, miserable laugh.

“Should’ve known you’d be too much of a coward to die by your lady’s side.”

Hubert narrows his eyes. “Hello, Mother.”

Chapter Text

Hubert has a mom?” Caspar asks.

“I always figured he’d . . . spawned from a tar pit in Ailell or something,” Shamir says.

Greta smiles at Hubert with a mouth like broken glass. “I see you’re all out of allies, too. And here I thought von Vestra was trying to make a skillful tactician out of you.”

Father,” Hubert snaps, “was too drunk on his own hubris to notice the poison I’d slipped into his wine as we toasted the new emperor. I’d learned so much more than he ever could have taught me.”

“But not enough to recognize a losing cause when it’s staring you in the face.” Greta turns to Linhardt and bows curtly. “Director. My apologies. I do not mean to distract from our research with this . . . unfortunate reminder of my first marriage. I am devoted, as ever, to our work, for the betterment of all the people of Fódlan.”

And then, to Hubert’s surprise almost as much as his mother’s, Ferdinand pounds a fist on the drafting desk.

“Enough. That’s enough, von Kierchen. Your first-born son has been instrumental in aiding our post-war reconstruction efforts as we tamp out the sparks of rebellion, and just now, in deciphering the workings of these awful machines. His unique insight into everything concerning the late emperor has been key in securing a lasting peace. So, prisoner or not, imperialist or not, he deserves respect.” Ferdinand’s jaw quivers. “At the very least, to be treated like a goddess-damned human being.”

The armory hangar rings with abject silence as Greta narrows her eyes; slides her gaze from Ferdinand to Hubert and back once more. Hubert forces himself to look away. He can’t bear to even think what machinations his mother is sorting through right now. For all his father taught him to kill and conspire, it was his mother who truly taught him how to wound.

“Von Aegir, is it?” Greta asks at last. “The late duke’s eldest? Crest of Cichol, if I’m correct?”

Ferdinand manages a nod, one fist crushing his braid.

“Like father, like son, I suppose.” She steps back. “Don’t let our soft-hearted new masters from Faerghus let you forget how full of hidden daggers Adrestia is still.”

“Anything in particular we should know about?” Siegfried asks.

And here she meets Hubert’s eyes again, refusing—as ever—to really let him go.

“I was concerned Lord Arundel would not be able to let go of von Hresvelg’s cause.” Each word hammers in Hubert’s chest. “But I suppose your king saw to that well enough.”


Maybe if he’d been stronger, less ashamed, more daring, he would have exposed her then and there. Dropping Lord Arundel’s name in his lap—challenging him to reveal the truth he knew, along with her complicity in it—but also his own.

She knew him too well, though. She’d always known. His shame at working with Thales and his monsters was too great; a sickness he still struggled to contain. Whatever Ferdinand thought of him now, it wasn’t half so awful as what he’d think if he knew the truth.

But she’s alive, she’s free, she’s working in Linhardt’s department, of all the appalling things. Flames, how he doesn’t even want to imagine what she’s doing with that kind of access. Playing Thales’s people as surely as they’re playing her, no doubt; there’s no scenario there that bodes well for anyone.

She has to be stopped. But how can he leave now? How can he convince Ferdinand without revealing the true depths of his failure, his toxicity?

He has to leave. He has to face her down. Greta and the monsters she brought him to. It’s bigger than Adrestia, than Faerghus, than Fódlan. It’s greater than Hubert’s own failings. It must be stopped.

But he doesn’t see how. Can’t imagine, now, a way.

As Shamir undoes his shackles for the night and gives his retainer’s room another sweep, he sits, silent, on his narrow mattress. If he’s honest with himself—honest in a way that pains him, like a splash of sulfuric acid on his skin—he hasn’t seriously considered making his escape since they arrived. He’s been choking on the fumes of the past as it burns all around him; drifting on the unbearable need he feels toward Ferdinand. The man he’d denied himself, like cutting off a limb, to prove his dedication to his role.

But to crush his mother’s plans, it might be worth it. To take his revenge on her and her allies who’d brought so much suffering to his lady, he’d pay any cost. Even, maybe, whatever remains of his shriveled heart.

“Von Vestra.”

Shamir leans in the doorway that leads to the emperor’s—to Ferdinand’s—chambers. Her expression is a clenched fist aimed square at his jaw.

“Whatever the hell you’re going through,” she says, “go through it already.”

He blinks.

“I’ve been on the wrong side enough times to know. No one’s writing you a paycheck for your loyalty when they’re dead. You don’t get a trophy for getting stuck in the past.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Hubert says. “You’re loyal to the kingdom, aren’t you?”

She hoists her chin. “I’m loyal to what the kingdom’s doing. That’s different. But if that all goes away tomorrow—I better find what it means to keep fighting for it, and I adapt.”

“Adapt,” he echoes, his chest feeling tight. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Do you know how to say what you believe in, without saying Edelgard’s name?” Shamir asks.

He opens his mouth—stops. Glowers at her.

“Yeah.” She snorts. “That’s what I thought.”

 


Later, he hears the rustles and bumps through the door of Ferdinand returning from another political discussion over duck confit, or moonlit canal rides with Siegfried, or whatever it is he’s been doing. Footsteps approach the retainer’s door, and there is a click as it’s unlocked.

A long pause.

And then the footsteps retreat.

Hubert tilts his head. If that’s meant to be a peace offering—a show of trust, perhaps, or even acceptance—then he’s dangerously tempted to take it. And if it’s an invitation, well—

Hubert winces. That’s too dangerous a thought to hold.

He waits a few minutes longer, then stands. Pauses to glance in his mirror, only it’s gone now, only a splotchy rectangle on the wall marking its spot. Idiot, he curses himself, because it’s not as if there’s anything to be done about his appearance anyway. The crew cut Ferdinand wrangled his hair into looks decent enough, but his soul feels threadbare and shabby; he can only imagine he must look the same.

And then he curses himself again, because why does it matter how he looks, he’s a weapon, not a man—

He cracks open the door before he can second- and third-guess this, as well, and offers a tentative knock.

Ferdinand smiles wearily at him over the lip of a teacup from the armchair. His hair is loose, wavier than usual from spending the day braided; it trails around his shoulders that are once again clad in a white dress shirt and little else. And Hubert hates the way his heart stutters at the sight of him still, hates the way he can’t help but drink him in. But if it was a show of trust that led him to unlock the door in the first place—despite every reason he’s given him not to trust him at all—

Hubert swallows, his mouth suddenly dry.

“If I’d known this was the dress option for our late-night teatime at school,” Hubert says, “I might’ve learned to tolerate your tea sooner.”

Ferdinand’s cheeks flush exquisitely. “Wouldn’t that have been something. In the library, no less.”

Oh, and if that isn’t the lid on a box full of years of suppressed wants he didn’t need to lift. Hubert moves closer and settles into the armchair opposite him, legs crossed strategically. When he glances at the table beside him, he finds a second cup of tea poured.

“Feeling optimistic, weren’t we?” Hubert murmurs.

“I was prepared to accept the outcome, no matter what.” Ferdinand bites his lower lip and turns his face toward the fire. “But I did have my hopes.”

Hubert’s heart feels frail as that porcelain, now, the breath knocked from his chest. “Ferdinand . . .”

A smile turns his way, guarded.

“Today more than ever I need you to understand that I’m not . . .” He closes his eyes. Good. Deserving. Loyal. Worthy. My own person.

There’s so much more I still need to do.

“Well, your mother’s a fucking nightmare,” Ferdinand says, “but you’re hardly to blame.”

Hubert lets out a shaky laugh. “She got an annulment from the church when my father failed to provide her with an heir who bore her crest. Aubin.”

“Charming,” Ferdinand says with a curl to his lip.

“After that, she married the Marquis of Kierchen. Two more children with no crests. And then, after the marquis’s unfortunate demise, she inherited the title, and found herself another husband, two more crestless brats . . .”

“My goddess. It is a kind of curse, isn’t it? This madness in our blood.” Ferdinand drains his teacup and sets it aside. “I’ll admit, I’ve made an ass of myself before over my pride over my crest and title both.”

“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.” Hubert grins.

“Hush, you.” But there’s no malice, no disdain in it—just a tired, easy smile. The kind offered up because it’s easier than fighting it. The thought Ferdinand’s instinct might be to smile at him thaws him more than he wants to admit.

“Your incessant bragging was—endearing, in its own way. Like a challenge you were constantly throwing down, regardless of whether you were capable of delivering.”

“And now?” Ferdinand asks softly.

Hubert looks at him head-on. At those eyes at once so haunted and so bright. Mouth as fine as a reverie. A beauty and force of will impossible to hold in his hands.

Hubert feels himself fracture: “You make me wish I could.”

Ferdinand’s eyes close. Hubert reaches for his teacup, needing something to occupy his hands. It’s mild and pleasant enough, but it reminds him just how long it’s been since he’s had coffee—his special blend, in particular. He’d felt the ache of withdrawal most acutely those long months in the dungeon cell, the hallucinations, the quaking pains. That all is past, at least, but so too is the resistance it had built in him.

Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t need to carry literal poison in his veins, as much a liability as it was a boon.

Ferdinand opens his eyes, gathering himself once more. “I wanted to tell you that you were right. I do see you as you are.”

Hubert’s breath catches.

“You are . . . a weapon. An exquisite one. Elegant and lethal and brutal. Frightening, sometimes. But the way you’ve been used and the hand that’s wielded you—that no longer matters to me.”

The fracture deepens. At once he feels seen as the loyal, relentless servant he always aimed to be—and yet also a failure for the times he came up short. Bargaining with Thales. Failing to save her life.

“What if you don’t like how I’m used next? What remains for me to do?”

Ferdinand’s long throat bobs as he swallows.

“Do you think you can possess me, Ferdinand? Keep the danger out of others’ grasps?”

“I think that’s for you to decide.”

The rift widens, terrifying him for what it really is—possibility. A future he can’t begin to guess.

No—there’s something he must do still. Destroy those who thought to possess him and his lady both. Somehow. Somehow. Yet now—

Now—

“I’d . . . like to show you something,” Hubert says, standing. Though what he’s really asking is, Do you trust me? As much as you claim?

He holds out a gloved hand to Ferdinand, who takes it, standing gracefully. “Do I need to put on pants?”

“Flames, I hope not.”

It takes him a few minutes of prodding at the various bits of paneling along the far bedroom wall, but then he feels it, the slightest release of a catch as a panel unlatches. He eases the panel open onto darkness.

“One of many passageways cris-crossing the palace,” he explains, to Ferdinand’s raised eyebrow. “Don’t worry. Your mercenary blocked all the ones in my bedroom.”

“And where does this one lead?”

“A private garden terrace. Or so I claim.” Again, an extended hand: “Do you trust me?”

Ferdinand’s eyes widen. “Enough, I think.”

And perhaps that enough is all either of them need.

It’s only a short journey in the darkness before they’re at the garden door. The terrace is tucked deep within the recesses of the palace, hedged in on all sides by windowless walls, but open overhead to a dazzling pavé of stars. He’s afraid the once-vibrant rosebushes have gone neglected, dead or overrun by weeds. But what he sees instead in the wan moonlight nearly destroys him.

Wildflowers. Blown in from who knows where. Brilliant banks of cornflower and phlox and too many other kinds he can’t even name. Fireflies wink from their depths like secrets, dancing around Ferdinand as he wanders down the central path.

“Hubert.” Ferdinand’s bare fingers skim across an outstretched hyacinth. “It’s . . .”

Hubert doesn’t dare name it, but he thinks he knows, too.

They reach the center of the terrace, a fountain—now dry—ringed with garden chairs. He’d never had a need to recline here himself, and there’s a dark thrill that races through him as he lowers himself into one. A leisure he’s never permitted himself before.

“Why keep such a beautiful thing hidden away?” Ferdinand asks.

Gazing at him, traced in silver, Hubert could ask himself the same thing.

Ferdinand stands before him, dappled with starlight and the distant city glow. He leans one knee on the garden chair, just by Hubert’s outstretched thigh. That sliver of space where their bodies touch might as well be a searing brand.

“Hubert,” Ferdinand says. Voice thick. Heavy. So heavy as it bears down on him with promises, wants, things he doesn’t dare name.

Hubert doesn’t trust himself to speak, so he just looks up instead.

Ferdinand swings himself around: knees framing Hubert’s thighs in place. Hair rippling in the breeze. Hands gripping the lawnchair’s armrests as he lowers himself to sit on Hubert’s thighs.

Hubert is entirely certain this is a fever dream but it’s grabbed him by the throat, either way.

They face each other, insects buzzing in the distance, noses only a breath apart. And they are both broken. Haunted.

It is everything Hubert fears, and nothing he’s earned, and he craves it so much the craving could shred him apart.

“You asked me, once, to give you the best of me.” Ferdinand’s voice is a silk ribbon caught on the breeze. “I’m afraid I don’t have that to give.”

Hubert clenches the armchair to keep his hands from tracing a straight nose, curved lips. “Everything of you is the best.”

Ferdinand swallows down a cry. “I’m not enough. I can’t be enough.”

The fires are raging in Hubert’s blood, now. “You’re so much more than I can deserve.”

Whatever is pulsing between them, he can’t ignore it any longer. If he has to strangle it out of himself, he will. But he’s so tired of running from it. So tired of wanting. He has failed, he has betrayed, and yet he dares to think that maybe, just maybe, it could remind him why he’s fighting still.

And then there is warmth. Ferdinand’s hands on his cheeks. He inhales, sharp. “Unless you tell me otherwise,” and Ferdinand clasps his face in his hands, hovering over him, “I’m going to kiss you now.”

And he’s asking, he’s making it Hubert’s choice—

“I damned well wish you would.”

Ferdinand’s lips crash down on his, and open like a revelation. He’s at once both delicate and brutal, strong thighs gripping at Hubert’s hips and lithe fingers dancing at Hubert’s jaw. Hubert licks into him, testing first, then with more force, and when Ferdinand moans into his mouth he catches it with sharp teeth.

He tastes of spice, he tastes of copper, he tastes of his fucking chamomile—and the more Hubert tastes, the hungrier he grows, until he thinks the hunger might just devour them both.

“That’s it, darling,” Hubert murmurs, mouth trailing down Ferdinand’s jaw, and he brushes wavy orange locks away from the other side of Ferdinand’s neck. With his other hand, he kneads at that sturdy thigh, glove working higher and higher. And in response, Ferdinand’s nails rake down his scalp, his shoulder blades, anchoring him in place.

“We could have been doing this for years, you stubborn bastard,” Ferdinand says shakily. Exhilarating in his artlessness, his greed, as his teeth scrape at Hubert’s jaw and ear and his hips tighten. Possessive.

I didn’t deserve you then.

Hubert squeezes him. Catches him by the chin. Forces their gaze to meet.

I’m not sure I deserve you now.

“You,” he says instead, “you ethereal being—”

Ferdinand shivers, thighs clenching at his hips, breath dancing across Hubert’s mouth, so ripe and open.

“You are worth any wait.”

“Nonsense,” Ferdie says, but his back arches with a needful cry all the same as Hubert’s hand finds its goal.

“You are divine.” Hubert bites at his throat. “Radiant.” He swirls his lips back to Ferdinand’s own. “Fuck, I want to devour you.”

“Please,” he all but whines.

Another kiss like lightning striking; hair draping as if to hide them from the world as Ferdinand leans over him. Skin pearled in moonlight being revealed inch by inch as fingers tremble and fumble at buttons.

Hubert is possessed and possessing: mouth marking Ferdinand so he can’t possibly hide it. Gloves conquering flesh, inch by inch.

Ferdinand is demanding: every sigh like a challenge, orders a devotional.

Darling. Ferdie. Hubert. Beautiful. Once—Love.

(Whispered. Easy to mistake.)

And Hubert’s imagined it a thousand times, but he’s never imagined this.

Bound together with teeth and nails and an emptiness they’ll leap into, hand in hand, heart in heart, to try to fill.

If this is what it means to be a monster, Hubert will gladly sharpen his claws.

 


He awakens on silk sheets, a smell of lavender and wildflowers clenched in his fist, mouth raw and bruised with a body to match. He stretches out his hand to grasp at the wisps of the night before, but comes up empty.

“Ferdie?” he whispers.

He remembers trampling back through gardens, discarded clothing tucked under his arm, unable to stop touching, kissing, worshiping the man who gripped his hand and the way he shivered with every bite. He recalls falling, exhausted, into this bed, arms tangled, legs greedy, mouths reaching for comfort their minds were too weary to offer.

And for once this bed, this room were full only of the two of them. No ghosts and no regrets.

“Ferdie?” he asks again, and he hates how desperate he sounds—but he is desperate, broken, obsessed.

“I’m here.” The bed shifts with a sudden weight, and it’s all he can do not to pull the other man down onto him, batter his lips on sweet flesh once more. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to leave you, I just—” A shy laugh; bright hair tucked behind an ear, exposing a wreath of marks along his neck and collarbone. “I wanted to get you something, is all.”

Hubert struggles to lift up to his elbows, still groggy, as if it’s the first restful sleep he’s had in years. It just might be. Bleary-eyed though he is, he sees his darling, eyes brimming, mouth as luscious and alive as his feels.

“Ferdie,” he mumbles, and lurches forward to kiss him, his freckled shoulder, his tangled hair.

Something is needling at him. Something he’s left undone. His mother—yes. Her allies—Fuck. He owes it to himself, to his lady, his past, to everything he wants from now moving forward—

But how can he think of it, when this sacred man is before him, sliding a tray onto the bed with them, blushing so chastely it makes him want to devour him all over again?

“I—found your coffee,” Ferdie blurts, and raises a cup to his lips. “I thought it’d make you happy. Might make up for . . .”

And several things happen at once.

My coffee?” he asks, a forgotten fact crawling out of his thoughts.

Ferdie’s throat rippling as he swallows.

Hubert’s brain catching up, emerging with a gasp from the dreamy haze he’s lost himself to.

“Yes,” Ferdie gushes, “it was still in the kitchens. No one else would touch the stuff—”

His hand cracks across Ferdie’s, flinging the cup from his hands. Black liquid slings across the white bedspread. “Ferdie, no—”

But Hubert von Vestra, the emperor’s left hand, his father’s and his mother’s son, is laughing, laughing.

You’ll never escape from yourself.

Ferdinand’s face twists in confusion. He looks to his now-empty hand. Black stains his teeth, his mouth.

And then he slumps forward, eyes fluttering shut.

“Ferdie. Fuck, oh, fuck. Ferdie.”

Hubert taps at his cheeks; rolls him onto his back. Quests at his bruised, blemished throat until he can find a pulse, please, let there still be a pulse—

There. Thudding against his gloved fingers. Only a whisper—but there.

Fuck.

It had been her idea in the first place—the need to build up a tolerance. Wightshade in small enough doses would help him resist almost any poison, keep him inured to threats. But to anyone else, it was sure to produce somnolence. Ataxia. Bradycardia. In higher doses—death.

And for ten years, he’d built his resistance. Mixing it with his roasted blend, the bitterness ideal to conceal the saccharine wightshade strain. It wasn’t like anyone else drank the stuff anyway.

Poison in his veins. Venom in his heart. He sat across the table from his father, and toasted to the new empire—and drained his wine glass as his father sputtered and choked.

And now everything he was, every dark purpose he served, has come to collect on his debts.

He should knock on the door. (Dress and then knock on the door.) Summon Shamir. Explain the mistake. Only Ferdinand could be so overeager, so goddess-damned pure

Or.

Bile rises in his throat.

Or this is, in the end, his chance.

I trust you, Ferdinand told him, with his lips, his body, his soul. But he trusted a man who wasn’t a liar.

A monster.

A traitor.

A beast who hadn’t bargained with even worse demons who slithered in the dark.

He pauses. Listening. No sounds from beyond the bedchamber. Nothing but the perilously slow grind of Ferdinand’s breath.

He’s doing this. He’s really doing this.

A hysterical laugh escapes him. Even if he could explain, would Ferdie understand?

Slowly, gently, he brushes the hair back from Ferdinand’s forehead. Kisses it, the skin already clammy with fever. “Darling,” he whispers.

Slow sighs.

“I can’t explain what I must do or why. But if you trust me at all like you claim . . .”

And how could he? He isn’t to be trusted. He’s better off without you, the ghost of his old self chides.

I have to do this. Hubert sets his jaw. It’s the only way to atone.

To himself.

To her.

If it could prove to Ferdinand that he’s deserved this after all—

But that’s too much to hope for.

The passageway is still open. It would be so easy to avenge himself. His lady. His own broken soul.

He presses one last kiss to Ferdinand’s forehead. All it costs him—is this.

His smile twines around him like a noose. Mother, I’m coming for you.

Chapter Text

Ferdinand spends the better part of the afternoon and evening wringing out the contents of his stomach while feverish hallucinations dance around him. He stares himself down in the privy mirror, and the inky smear of black on his mouth and teeth stretches wings like a crow; wraps around his neck. Edelgard stands over his shoulder more than once, laughing—or at one point, merely sighing, as if she expected no better from him.

The hallucinations and vomiting are still preferable to the grilling Shamir subjects him to in between bouts.

“Wightshade poisoning,” she says, arms folded as she glares down at him. “Crushed up and blended in the coffee grounds. You’re lucky it was as low a concentration as it was. Brutal way to go.”

He doesn’t feel lucky, but keeps that to himself. Talking is likely to send him running to the privy again.

“No idea where the fucker was hiding it. Guess it could have been in here somewhere.” She looks pointedly at the imperial bedroom around them. “Can’t say I searched it as thoroughly as I would have if I had known you’d let our prisoner loose in here.

Ferdinand offers a dying-cat wail in response.

“What the fuck were you thinking, von Aegir?—No. Hells. Don’t bother answering that. You obviously weren’t.”

“He didn’t—” Ferdinand claws at the rumpled sheets, trying to snatch at the tattered strands of his memories of the past day. “He never touched the coffee—”

“Like hell he didn’t.” She flings the covers over him with as much force as one can fling bedsheets. “Get some fucking sleep. I’ve got to fix your mess.”

 


But the next day offers too much clarity. Too much space for him to reckon with just what he’s done.

Hubert. Dammit, Ferdinand. He’d done precisely what he promised Hubert he wouldn’t do.

He believed that somewhere in him was some good.

Ferdinand groans and buries his face in a pillow. The agony of the previous day, his stomach aching from illness and his skin clammy from fever, is underlined with a different agony now—the memory of skin on skin. He wants to linger on bruising kisses and sweet sighs meant only for his ears and the absolutely beautiful nonsense that lying mouth babbled, as though he were drunk on Ferdinand and couldn’t stop. But slivers of glass pierce him every time he reaches for those memories. It was all—as ever—just another game Hubert had been playing, sacrificing Ferdinand for a greater win.

And yet it’s that tiny pebble of doubt that hurts the most.

Hubert never touched the coffee. He clings to that desperately, even as he admits his memory could be all tangled up, wightshade hallucinations bleeding forward and backward in the chain of events. He didn’t ask for it, he didn’t touch it, he hadn’t even been wearing any sleeves to hide the wightshade in.

There’d been a look on his face when Ferdinand drank it. Hadn’t there? The same terrified expression as when he’d tried to warn them off looking too closely into the machines.

Or maybe that, too, is a comforting lie the poison supplied.

“Oh, good, you’re conscious this time.” Shamir tears the covers back and dumps a bundle of clean clothing on top of him.

“Eurgh. Wh-what do you—”

“I’m giving you an update on the situation. You can dress yourself in the meantime. I’m not your fucking maid.” She turns away from him and folds her arms as Ferdinand begins to pull on his clothing in a surly fashion. “We’ve combed the palace, top to bottom, every passage and false wall. Every city guard has been put on high alert, not that I’m putting much faith in that. Doesn’t seem whoever’s in charge has done a great job purging their ranks of die-hard Edelgard supporters.”

Ferdinand winces. “I’d feared that, as well.”

“I sent word back to Fhirdiad, just in case. Doubt he could make it that far already, but King Dimitri’s got to be at the top of his kill list, right?”

“Kill list—?”

“Well, yeah. That’s why he ran, isn’t it?” At Ferdinand’s blank expression, she rolls her eyes. “Did you listen to a goddamned word that snake ever said, or were you too busy daydreaming about forbidden dick?—No, don’t answer that.” She covers her face with one hand. “He was moon-eyed for you, sure, but he only had a hate-boner for revenge.”

Ferdinand flops back against the bed and considers choking himself with the cravat he’s currently trying to tie. “Can you please stop talking about—”

“Sex? Nuh-uh. No, sir. You made this about sex when you stuck your dick in psychotic assassin. Or—whatever configuration it was. Bleugh. My point is, you lost the right to play the blushing virgin with me. So stop acting coy and fucking tell me everything that might possibly be relevant.”

Ferdinand stares at her, his jaw dangling. He gives up trying to tie the cravat and leaves it dangling. Not like he’s got any hope of covering anything, anyway.

“Everything relevant—like—” He swallows. “What we—”

“About where he possibly could have gone, dumbass. Not like—Ugh. Men are the worst.” She makes a guttural sound. “Did he mention things he wanted to do, like, things he’d left undone for the emperor, maybe? People he wanted to visit and-or murder? Places he wanted to go? Something like, I don’t know—‘Dear, sweet Ferdie, if only it weren’t for your foolishness, I could be feasting on your king’s heart.’ Shit like that.”

Ferdinand wracks his brain, but it inconveniently only offers up jagged shards like Hubert’s hands in his hair, breath caressing his ear with the word Darling.

“He used to carry on with all kinds of empty threats,” Ferdinand says. “But he’d stopped that, honestly, by the time we came here.”

“Hrrm.”

Ferdinand wets his lips as he stands on weak legs. “There was—something he said yesterday. At the armory. He begged us to leave the machines alone. Said there were worse things in the world than war and death.” He hesitates. “Worse than him.”

“He actually said that.” Shamir throw her hands in the air. “And that shit worked for you. Gods, he’s even worse than those trashy romance novels—”

“I happen to like those!” Ferdinand cries.

Of course you do. I think we’ve well established your awful taste in . . . everything.” She rubs her temples. “Okay. So he was afraid of something to do with the machines. And then that absolute nightmare woman showed up and—”

Shamir stops. Their eyes meet.

“His mother,” they say at the same time.

Ferdinand leans against the bed post, trying to recollect just what she’d said. It was all insulting, to be sure, but was it really anything worth killing his mother over?

Ugh. He suspects he knows the answer to that.

“Great. I’ll send some of the guards to her townhome. I’ll grill her, too. See if she’s seen anything, knows anything.” Shamir runs a hand through short hair. “I swear on every god and spirit, von Aegir, I cannot believe you’re going to force me to protect that heinous bitch.”

And that’s the last bit that he can bear. Ferdinand sinks down to the floor, still propped against the bed post, with a pitiful groan. How did he even get here? How did he let that viper burrow so deep inside his head? He’s lost all sense over Hubert. He was ready to forgive, or at least move past, the untold tally of wounds they’d carved into each other, in the hopes that whatever they could move toward in the future would be more than worth that pain.

The Hubert von Vestra who looked at him like he was starlight, who challenged him to be better, more—the Hubert who knew, who felt everything that Ferdinand had been through in the shadows of vile fathers and an even more appalling, cold, lonely world—

Ferdinand would have given him anything, if he’d only asked.

“Leave this room,” Shamir says. “Get some air. You came here to deal with many other things. You’ll feel better if you deal with them.”

Ferdinand nods, though he doesn’t yet make any effort to move, exactly.

“And, hey.” Shamir stops with her hand on the door. “For what it’s worth . . . he left you alive. So there’s that.”

Whether he meant it as a kindness or a cruelty, though, Ferdinand couldn’t say.


The next few days are a fog of meetings. Every former noble in all of Adrestia, it seems, has something to petition him for, all of them jostling for a new starring role in the provisional government, or a chance to air their grievances about anything from crop harvests to the color of the Faerghan flag. Ferdinand glides through these discussions as though he’s watching them from outside himself, his body just dancing along to unknown puppet strings. He lived for this, once. Had trained his whole life to be able to broker agreements and cobble together solutions easily. And thank the goddess for it—otherwise he fears he’d crumble under the weight.

Worse are the suspicious looks and clouds of whispers that miraculously dispel just as he enters a room. Linhardt is always too busy at the armory; Siegfried is suddenly unable to join him on morning rides. He eats meals with Caspar and Bernadetta or not at all.

“Stop beating yourself up, Ferdie,” Bernadetta tells him over tea one evening. “You’re not the first person ever to lose a prisoner. I mean, King Dimitri himself is proof of that, getting out of Cornelia and Hubert’s grasp.”

Ferdinand makes a miserable noise. “I wouldn’t exactly call the circumstances comparable.”

Bernadetta hides her mouth behind her teacup. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Everyone in Enbarr knows what I mean,” Ferdinand groans.

“You’d be surprised.” Bernadetta smiles faintly. “Shamir can be very convincing when it comes to shutting down gossip amongst the staff.”

That, at least, is a relief to hear. He doubts it’s enough, but he can’t help but admire Shamir for her professionalism. She’d skewered him relentlessly in private, of course, but otherwise had kept the miserable details of his escape to herself.

“Here. I got you something to cheer you up.” Bernadetta reaches into her bag, then slides a bound manuscript across the table to him. “My friend at the publishing house was able to get me an early edition of their newest novel.”

“Ah, yes. Your friend.” Ferdinand permits himself a wry smile at how deeply red Bernadetta flushes. But, he supposes, they all have their secrets. He’s the last one with room to judge. “Thank you. I’d been hoping the anonymous lady might have something new soon.”

Bernadetta makes some kind of squeaking sound. “OkaywellIneedtogetgoing!”

She scampers out of the conservatory, leaving Ferdinand to his tea and, for a time, distraction.


Distracting it thankfully proves. Between meetings, Ferdinand loses himself in the conservatory, and in the gripping saga of vengeance and terror. The untitled manuscript follows a lonely swordsman, Fenris, as he hunts down the lothario knight Silvio who compromised his sister’s honor. Yet as so often was the case with the anonymous lady’s works, it was the scenes between the hero and villain that really crackled, completely overshadowing the flimsy romance between Fenris and his betrothed, who only ever seemed to pop up to bemoan that Fenris was losing himself in his quest for revenge.

 

Steel rang against steel as Fenris and Silvio crossed swords, each leaning into the strike with fury and passion. “I’ve nothing to apologize for,” Silvio growled, his face mere inches from Fenris’s. “I treated your sister as she wished to be treated—no more and no less.” With a mad laugh, Silvio leaned even closer. Their swords scraped and pulsated between them.  “And I’ll do the same to you.”

 

“Very subtle, Bernie,” Ferdinand says, around a mouthful of tea cake.  He’s dangling upside down off a bench in the conservatory, hair trailing across the flagstone paths, and it’s the best he’s felt in days. For a short while, he’s been able to forget the chunk the liar ripped right out of his heart.

 

With a roar, Fenris twisted up the hilt of his sword, and thrust it at Silvio’s sternum. The blow caught the loathsome knight off guard, knocking him onto his back. Their swords flew into the grass. Fenris leapt onto Silvio’s chest, fury burning deep in his cold eyes, and reached for his throat—

 

Minister von Aegir.”

Ferdinand drops the manuscript onto his face, causing him to swallow a mouthful of petit fors in surprise, sending it burning down the wrong way. Sputtering and coughing, he melts off of the bench in a tangle of limbs and pastry crumbs and hair.

When he does manage to roll himself upright, he finds Greta von Kierchen looming over him like the spectre of death itself.

“Magister von Kierchen.” Ferdinand scrambles to his feet, sheer terror fueling him. “Apologies. I wasn’t expecting—”

“No, I can see that much.” She crinkles her nose and takes a step back. “I wasn’t aware you were in Enbarr on holiday. Especially with him on the loose.”

“I—I’m not.” Ferdinand brushes some stray crumbs off of his jacket. “Merely catching my breath between meetings.”

The wordless “Hrrmmm” she makes in reply makes perfectly clear her thoughts on that.

“Is there something I might help you with, Magister?”

“You can call off your damned guard dogs already. They’re clearly unnecessary.” Her mouth wrenches tight. “Von Vestra is too cowardly to make any sort of attempt on my person, and even if he did, I’m more than capable of dealing with him.”

Ferdinand blinks rapidly as he tries to make sense of her words. “Madam, your skill is hardly the point—”

“He has no crest. No allies left alive.” She looks Ferdinand over with a disdainful sneer. “Not that your pitiful crest seemed to do you any favors.”

“I beg your—”

“A bunch of children, all of you. Trying to run Fódlan in a time of great upheaval, when you can’t even run your own lives. I’m rapidly losing my patience with this occupation. And if I’m feeling so, I can only imagine how restless the general populace of Adrestia must feel.” She bares her teeth in what can only be generously termed a smile. “Perhaps if you and your king devoted more effort to reestablishing order and quelling discontent in the provinces, and less time chasing your foolhardy ‘referendums’ and treating your prisoners like guests of state.”

“We are trying to build a foundation,” Ferdinand says, but even hearing his own voice aloud, he realizes how young, how naïve he must sound. “It may be precarious at first, but this groundwork will provide for lasting peace, resistant to the kinds of upheaval Fódlan has experienced all too often in the past few decades.”

“You mean by men like your father and his pathetic rebellion?” she asks, and Ferdinand cringes, shrinking back. “Don’t try too hard to follow in his footsteps. No one gives a damn about what their land is called when they’re starving and overrun by bandits. They just want someone to lead with a stern grasp.”

“And how do you wish to bring that about, Magister?”

Her smile pulls tight. “By petitioning those in service to the crown such as yourself, of course.” Then her gaze darkens. “But you might find others are not so patient.”

Shamir appears in a rustle of palm fronds. “Yeah. I can relate.” She tilts her head, regarding von Kierchen coolly. “I don’t have much patience for you threatening my charge.”

“Threatening? Please. Merely warning.” Von Kierchen turns toward her. “But if I’m willing to speak these concerns out loud, you can only imagine what others might be saying in private.”

“I’ll take that under advisement. Anything else, Magister?”

“Yes.” She folds her arms, matching Shamir stare for stare. “Stop wasting your time and effort on one misguided boy too in love with his dead emperor to pose much a threat to the living. Who knows how many tangible threats you’ll miss while you do.”

Ferdinand shakes his head. “If that’s all you saw of him, you didn’t know your son at all.”

She laughs, then—the noise so startling, so Hubert-like, that Ferdinand’s heart aches all over again.

“Neither did you.”


“Well, she got one thing right,” Shamir says, following Ferdinand as he slinks back toward his rooms (on the opposite side of the palace from the imperial suite, now, at his request). “We can’t stick around here forever. His Majesty wants you back in Fhirdiad.”

Ferdinand’s eyes widen. “But we haven’t found him yet—and I was finally making progress with the farmers’ guild, and the Committee for the Preservation of Adrestian Heritage—”

“It wasn’t a request, Ferdinand.”

Ferdinand feels dizzy all over again, his stomach curdling and his throat tight. They can’t just give up. Maybe he was mistaken about Hubert targeting his mother—but he was still at large, up to Goddess only knew what. Maybe Shamir was right, and he was still sworn to enact his revenge on King Dimitri. Maybe he was still lost in the grief that had clung to him like armor these past few months. But they couldn’t abandon him.

They couldn’t—as much as it pained Ferdinand to admit it—leave him at large.

“Let me be clear,” Shamir says. “We’re not done hunting for him. But von Vestra is no longer your problem.”

And while Ferdinand knew this had to be coming, it, too, hurts so much worse than he dared to believe.

As they round the corner, early autumn sunlight slants across the corridor, and something dazzles on the marble floor. Ferdinand stops with a frown and scoops it up.

A golden earring, dangling with citrine and jade.

“Ferdie?” Shamir asks. “What is it?”

“Bernadetta’s,” he says with a frown. “I’ll make sure it gets back to her.”

And pocketing the earring, he heads to his rooms to prepare to meet his fate.

Chapter Text


 

SIX YEARS AGO.

He waits for her in moonlight.

Kneeling on the cold stone terrace. Head bowed. Hands shaking. Shame and fear like living things, rooting around inside him, feasting on him.

His gloves are gone. He needs the reminder to ground him—the reminder of everything he has endured for her. Countless compounds formulated to destroy her enemies and ease her suffering. Scars from his futile, raging effort to keep her from being sent away. Burns from his father’s instruction, putting out his rancid cigar on Hubert until he learned to move silently, swiftly, dangerously. Ink and wightshade and blood staining his nail beds.

This is not a betrayal. This is not a betrayal.

“Hubert?” She slips onto the terrace, dressing robe wrapped around her. Her loose hair dances in the breeze, looking paler by the day. “My goddess. What are you doing out here?”

His shoulders draw up as if he’s bracing for a blow—but not her, not from her, she would never, perhaps the only person in his life who wouldn’t. “My lady. I have come . . . to apologize.”

She is quiet for a moment. She doesn’t insult him by denying that he could ever need forgiveness from her. A gift from her he doesn’t deserve, though he cherishes it all the same. “And what is it you need to apologize for?”

He tries to inhale, but his whole body is coiled tight. “I have . . . made an arrangement. Without your knowledge.” Flinching still—“It is all in service to your goals. But I feared you might have been hesitant to do this.”

“Hubert. Please. Speak directly.”

The lightest brush of fingers at his temple. Soothing. He tilts his head into her touch. She realized long ago that even the slightest reassurance was his lifeblood, a reaffirmation of all he did. An awkward period a few years back, when she feared, perhaps, she might be encouraging him toward something she didn’t intend. But he vowed to her that his love was something altogether different, and she understood him soon enough.

There is nothing she does not know of him, and nothing he has ever needed to hide from her—which is why this hurts so much.

“My . . . mother.” The word is foreign and rancid in his mouth. “She has introduced me to some of her fellow sorcerous engineers. The marvels they are capable of achieving, the power they are able to access . . . With this alliance, you would be unstoppable, my lady. We could cut a glorious path, and none could stand against you.”

“But you feared I wouldn’t accept this.” Her hand falls away, and he winces. “And why is that? No—let me guess. Your mother, the Marquise von Kierchen . . . and close ally of Lord Arundel’s.”

It is only the faintest shift in her voice, but it is damning. Rimed in sudden frost. His face burns with shame, with a rush of tears he can never shed.

“You know,” she says, “it was he and his friends who did this to me.”

The very thought of what she suffered—the very thought of her having to remember it—pierces him through. “And I will never forget it. I swear to you, I will make them pay most excruciatingly when the time comes.” He keeps his head bowed. “But we are short on time. Soon, you will be attending the Academy, right there at the rancid heart of the beast. We must seize every advantage we can in order to strike—swiftly and decisively.”

“And you believed doing this—hurting me like this—was the only way.”

It is the only true curse of his role, he thinks. That he must make these kinds of decisions; break her trust in order to remain loyal. To prove just how far he will go to uphold a greater promise he’s made. But this, too, he will suffer gladly. He will do anything. Anything.

“Yes, my lady.”

She is silent for a minute, the night whispering around them. “You must truly believe in their powers, then, to make such an agreement knowing it would hurt me. And make no mistake—it hurts me greatly.”

And like that, she understands. He blinks; dares to lift his head. Her arms are wrapped tight around her, and her expression is flat, but for a sad little smile. As though she is proud of him.

“It will be a true revolution, reshaping all of Fódlan. With their aid, we will succeed where countless others faltered. You shall be an emperor wreathed in the flames of renewal.” He permits himself a smile, too; he’s getting swept up in his own eagerness, but when is he not, when it comes to serving her? “And they, too, shall not be spared.”

She holds her hands out to him. He hesitates; his hands are bare, and clearly undeserving. He would never wish to soil hers with the stains he bears. But she waits, and finally he laces his fingers in hers.

He holds tight. Sealing his oath.

“Promise you’ll make them suffer,” she says, her voice faint.

“I swear it.” Finally he meets her gaze. “No matter the cost.”


ONE WEEK AGO.

 “Stop fidgeting,” Shamir says, glaring at Ferdinand from across the pegasus carriage.

“Apologies.” Ferdinand stuffs his hands underneath himself, but in no time, his knee is jiggling with anxious energy. “I—I’m sorry—”

“We’ve got hours to go, so you might as well calm your shit.”

He nods. Twists a strand of hair around his finger. Untwists it. Twists it again.

“Fuck’s sake. If you’re not gonna read, then I will.” She leans over and snatches away the manuscript that was sitting beside him on the bench. “Not like I have any more guarding to do.”

“Sorry—” He starts to say again, but catches himself. It feels like the only thing he’s capable of saying anymore.

What can he possibly say to his king, beyond an apology? He’s supposed to be the most determined one for their cause. The one who chose this path, rather than lucking into it by birth.

He still chooses it. He’ll keep choosing it. Their work is valuable, necessary, just. Only—

No. No only. The history of Fódlan was written by the determined, those willing to cut out their own hearts for a greater good. Denying their own foolish wants allowed them to serve the people with their whole hearts and minds. He can’t get lost in sentimentality; it’s already cost him so much. Believing the man who’d been his prisoner was in any way still the man he’d known at school—and even then, he’d never really known him at all.

And anyway, the choice was made for him. Their efforts to shine a cleansing light on Fódlan meant their new government could never make room for shadows. For secrets. Let them in, make one exception, and they’d only fester and grow.

The choice had always been made for Ferdinand, and he’d only been too stubborn and damned hopeful to accept it.

“I thought you said those books were awful?” Ferdinand asks.

One corner of her mouth twitches. “You’re not the only one with awful taste sometimes.”


FOUR WEEKS AGO.

Hubert’s feet know the path in total darkness, which is for the best—they’re the only thing propelling him forward. If he had to stop and think or feel his way through the dark veins of the imperial palace, then he would never make it. He’d have too much time to doubt himself—to regret what he has to do.

Too much time to tangle himself in bright hair and delicate sighs and a burning, painful optimism that nearly sweeps him away in its tide.

He stumbles out of the passageway into his old workshop. As he’d feared, it’s long since been emptied, bare cabinet doors hanging open, all his instruments gone. But he doesn’t need them. He drops to his knees and crawls beneath the built-in writing desk.

Stops. Bites onto his fist to silence an unwelcome cry. Breathes in the scent of lavender on pale skin that clings to the leather still.

It isn’t too late. He can go back, try to make things right—

But to break a promise—a promise to her—is more than he can bear.

He looks up at the underside of the desk and traces his fingers over the magical sigil painted there. It’s been months since he’s been allowed to touch magic, let the darkness flood his veins and fuel him. The last time he channeled it—well. She was still alive. It will hurt, burning through him with a vengeance after so long without. But it is far from the most painful thing he’s done today.

He speaks the word and the world tears apart. His insides wrenching apart, his blood on fire, his lungs squeezed shut in a fist of astral force. When the world stitches back together, he collapses like a stretched-out band that’s finally snapped. He groans; slumps onto his back. Waits for the rest of him to catch up. But he’s made it—he is far away from the imperial palace, curled up in the burned-out remnants of the von Vestra estate.

All that remains of his father’s legacy. He smiles, now. He is von Vestra. His word means something; his oath to his lady, to Adrestia. But more valuable than his word are his actions. The results that no one but him can obtain. No matter the method, he will achieve what he swore he would, no matter the cost to himself—or even those he serves.

It has been too long since he tasted the satisfaction of vengeance and victory. Maybe, just maybe, it can help him forget the taste of Ferdinand’s name.

 


FIVE DAYS AGO.

It turns out that a glare is no less forceful—probably even more forceful, if he’s being honest—when the glarer has only one eye.

“You gave me your word.”

Ferdinand shrinks into himself as King Dimitri looms, unmoving, beside his desk.

“You gave me your word.”

“I—I wanted to believe he—I swear, Your Majesty. It truly seemed to me that he was beginning to accept that he couldn’t change the past.”

Ferdinand’s heart is in his throat, but here, at least, he knows—his own wishes have no bearing on the process of reconstruction they’re fighting for. Too late to undo what’s done, but enough to move forward.

“It’s why we are doing this, isn’t it?” Ferdinand asks. “I wanted to—I don’t know. Set an example.”

Dimitri’s hand curls on the corner of his desk. “Do I even wish to know what example you could have possibly thought you were setting.

Ferdinand groans; plants his face in one hand. “There are things in war that cannot be forgiven. But we cannot hold an entire people responsible for the war in the first place. And if he could accept the new order of things, then I had hoped that—well, maybe anyone could.”

“I do not hold the Adrestian people accountable for Edelgard’s actions,” Dimitri says. “But this is the left hand of the emperor we are talking about.”

“And is that not why we took him alive in the first place? To show that if he could be forgiven—anyone might.”

“That,” Dimitri growls, “would require him to show even one ounce of remorse.”

But he had. He’d been terrified and ashamed of the machines. Not even a von Vestra could feign the way he’d begged Ferdinand to see them destroyed.

If he would have just explained why

Dimitri takes a deep breath and lets it out with a shaky laugh. “I find I am not as ready for this conversation as I expected I would be. I have a referendum to hold and a wedding to plan, and now on top of it, we must widen our hunt for Edelgard’s loyal assassin—” His fist tightens on the desk’s corner with a groan of splintering wood. “Please see yourself out.”

Ferdinand tries to smooth out the stack of papers he’s been crumpling in his hands. “I do have other things to report, Your Majesty—The trip wasn’t a total loss—”

“Nothing I’m in the mood to hear right now. Get out, Ferdinand.”

“But the committee—”

Get. Out.

Ferdinand can’t scamper out of the king’s office fast enough.

 


THREE WEEKS AGO.

Greta von Kierchen sets down her wine glass, though her hand lingers over it, as if to shield it. She may be horrendous, but foolish she is not. In the parlor of her country estate, she sits as regally as a queen, every move precise and calculated, and Hubert has learned long ago that the only way to pry anything from her—affection, aid, acknowledgment—is to treat her as such.

“Well. You came to me faster than I expected.” She raises one eyebrow. “Already tired of that prancing ginger, are you?”

Hubert suppresses a twitch. Now, more than ever, he must be in control of himself. “I made a promise to see certain things through. I intend to keep it.”

“And so you come crawling back in hopes of securing the aid of your betters. Hubert. You’re still the same miserable boy you always were.” She huffs. “You are your father’s son, and always will be.”

She might as well be tearing open his scars herself. It is already humiliating enough to be here. To stand before her. To, once more, be forced to plead for her help. But he’s already paid such a price to do this; he can’t bear the thought of it having been for nothing.

“I wouldn’t say I’m the exact same. I’m better at staying alive, for one.”

At least she smirks at that. “For now.”

“You accepted my help before.” He says. “I cannot imagine your circumstances are any better than they were then.”

She only laughs at that. “Perhaps your help isn’t wanted. You weren’t enough to hold off the decimated Faerghan army, after all.”

“Neither,” Hubert says through gritted teeth, “was Lord Arundel.”

And now they’ve reached it, the center of the spiral they’d been talking around since she’d shown up at the armory amidst all the machines that she herself had been instrumental in creating. They’d both bargained with wicked creatures. But of the two of them, only Hubert carried any regrets.

He’d promised himself he wouldn’t regret it once—that the tremendous cost to his lady’s peace of mind would be worth it when she held all of Fódlan in her grasp. But it had been for naught. He’d failed her. He’d failed.

He never could have made Ferdinand understand how ardently he needed to atone for it. And the thought of revealing the true rot in Hubert’s heart, that he would put his lady through such pain in a gambit that failed and destroyed all her dreams—no. Ferdinand thought he saw the real him, but he never could. It was infinitely worse.

Greta taps one nail against the glass. “Thales was too single-minded. He wanted to resurrect a world that’s been long dead, and deserves to remain that way. I hope you aren’t looking to make a similar mistake.”

“I owe the Faerghans a debt I intend to pay in full. If you’re still carrying on the Agarthans’ work, then I want a part in it.” He almost keeps his voice from wavering. “It won’t bring her back, but it will be a fitting end.”

She makes a soft noise. Plucks up her wine glass. Swirls it thoughtfully before taking another sip.

“You wish a place in our new order?” she asks.

And Hubert hates the certainty in his voice when he says, “I do.”

She drains her glass and sets it aside. Walks toward him, where he stands in the doorway to her parlor, hands folded behind his back. Gloved fists tight. She assesses him—her gaze cold with eyes that match his own.

And then comes the Swarm. Darkness rips out of the air around them to coalesce in shards like onyx, swirling around him. Reflexively he reaches for his tome—but of course he doesn’t have one. The shards tighten around him, grazing him, and he shrinks into himself, backing against the doorframe.

Greta steps toward him, peering at him through the buzzing cloud of darkness, then dispels it with a snap of her fingers.

“If you want a place among us,” she says, “you’re going to have to earn it.”

 


THREE DAYS AGO.

Ferdinand has most decidedly not been hiding in his office in a distant wing of the royal castle; he simply needs the quiet to work on his proposals. He’s cleaned the office thoroughly, too, because a clean office is a clean mind. The shriveled husk of carnation is long gone. Various sentimental reminders of his youth, too have been pitched—his father’s letter opener, a ceramic horse figurine that once sat in the van Aegir library. A Garreg Mach academy badge. He needs space to think, to get away from himself.

He hasn’t spoken to Dimitri since their unfortunate debrief, and thank the Goddess, he’s yet to encounter Dedue. In fact, he’s been quite adept at seeing no one at all outside of the castle pages.

Unfortunately, even they are proving most disappointing.

“Nothing from Lady von Varley?” he asks again, tapping his pen against the side of the desk.

“No, Minister,” the page says, and Ferdinand tries not to wince. He isn’t entirely sure he is still a minister, but it seems best not to press the point. “I can check again, if you like—”

Ferdinand shakes his head. “It’s all right, I’m sure she’s busy. What about a new report from von Hevring?”

“No, sir. I’ll be sure to bring you anything as soon as it arrives.”

Ferdinand frowns, chewing at the end of his pen. “Thank you. I appreciate the diligence.” The page leaves, and Ferdinand sits in silence for a moment. His face and neck feel too warm; his stomach burns with hunger, but the thought of eating makes him feel nauseated. He twists his hair up and tries to pin it in place with his quill, but the whole construction just collapses under its own weight.

He can sympathize.

 


ONE WEEK AGO.

Hubert is curled up in the corner of his mother’s laboratory, exhaustion stinging at his eyes and his muscles throbbing in agony. At some point the lack of sleep has tipped him over into delirium as he works to reassemble countless sorcerous devices. But it isn’t the tedious labor that is truly wringing him out. It’s the nights spent trying to reassemble his own tome of dark and black magics, his hands shaky as he transcribes sigils from his mothers’ volumes, as he tears ink-damp pages out and begins again.

He wishes for his tome, the one he’d painstakingly assembled over years in his lady’s service, hunting down excruciating and powerful spells from the distant, cobwebbed corners of the world. But it was the first thing the Faerghans took from him, setting it on fire while he was helpless to do anything but watch. They’d bound his hands tightly enough that he couldn’t reach for the sigil he’d inked on his thigh the night before the battle, one of his emergency measures, and then this, too, they scoured off of him when they stripped him down.

He runs gloved hands over the tome’s cover. Yet another part of “proving” himself to von Kierchen. Each morning, she comes to inspect his work, then challenges him to a duel, darkness against darkness. Each morning ends with him choking on her Silence spell, or feeling the kiss of Dark Spikes digging into his flesh just before she dispels them, her point proven. Each morning, he fails.

He runs his hands over the cover. Brushes the hair from his eyes.

Stops. Frowns. His hair is—well. It is not where it was prior to his capture and Adrestia’s fall, but it is nearly there, bangs at least somewhat serving their purpose as he sweeps them to one side. It’s a realization both reassuring and vexing; he carries memories of his shorn hair as well. He remembers long fingers stroking his scalp; an elegant nose brushing against it as sighs tickled at his neck. Remembers, too, leaning forward in the carriage as Ferdinand trimmed it for him, evened it out, gaze dancing over him as he worked diligently, helped Hubert to feel like himself once more.

He clenches a fist to his mouth to stifle a cry. Breathes in; smells only leather.

I’m sorry, Ferdinand. And he knows exhaustion truly has hammered him down, because he thinks he might actually mean it. But he is exactly who he warned him that he was. A monster, doing monstrous things, in service to an oath he’ll never break. He cannot apologize for his loyalty.

He cannot forgive Ferdinand for making it impossible to be loyal to them both.

The door to the laboratory crashes open, and Greta sweeps in with someone else trailing behind her. Hubert looks up, blinking past his weariness, to find—

“Siegfried? Well, well. What would your brother think.”

Siegfried von Bergliez stops before him, arms folded, dark eyes glittering in the arcane lamplight. “I doubt he’d think much. That brat doesn’t pay attention to anything that isn’t Linhardt, or someone looking for a brawl. Truly, Greta couldn’t have picked a better life for me to slip into.”

Hubert clenches his jaw, his pulse ratcheting up with a flush of hate. “Ah. So you are—”

“Siegfried von Bergliez died at the battle for Fort Mercer,” Greta says. “Felled by a Faerghan lance. But when it became clear the way the tide was turning, we agreed it best to take the opportunity for Varkos to join us here, in daylight. Have one of their own in the new provisional government.”

Something in her too-tight expression piques Hubert’s interest. Oh, Mother. That was one thing Father never managed to teach you—how to hide your simmering disdain. She resents the Agarthans wanting to watch her so closely, then.

Perhaps he can use that. Perhaps not. But he needs to hoard every crumb he can.

Siegfried—Varkos—grips the edge of the laboratory table, and in a ripple of violet light, shudders back into himself. Skin gray and wan; eyes a swallowing black. Inky markings trail down one side of his face and neck.

Hubert wonders if they can hear his heart pounding, his rage building. It is not only his mother, then, who must pay. But if he cannot even best her yet, how can he possibly hope to stand against those who slither in the dark?

“I understand you are regaining control over black magic,” Varkos says, his voice like gravel. “Show me.”

Hubert and his mother exchange a look, and he stands. They head to the broad clearing at one end of the laboratory, Varkos following close by.

They begin by circling one another, Hubert trying not to look too much at his tome, trying to mimic the way his mother barely needs to but touch hers where it hangs at her belt. But he’s still recollecting, still shaky in his efforts to regain what he’s lost.

Then she is summoning a Miasma. Its fumes burn at his eyes, and he sputters and coughs as he fights to dispel it. Yet—before it is gone, he strikes with a swirl of Lunar energy, pulling and collapsing at the air—

And he sees it. The point at which she cannot fend it off. The point at which, if he kept pressing, he could crush her—

And then she laughs.

The force of the Aubin crest strikes him like a wave, throwing him back against the wall. It’s burned into his sight. He blinks, head throbbing—struggles to his feet.

But no—it isn’t just the Aubin crest he sees.

Her boots shuffle toward him, and she is looming, smiling, radiating the lingering effects of shadow magic as it rolls off of her. “You’re improving. But you will always have your limits.”

Another crest—that’s what he saw. One he doesn’t recognize outright. He blinks, trying to trace its afterimage, but to no avail.

“Mother.” He stares at her. “What have you done?”

She turns from him with a wry laugh. “I’ve found a new path.”

 


TODAY.

 Ferdinand has resorted to reading agricultural yield reports when the door to his office bangs open.

“Ferdie. Up. On your feet.” General Galatea storms inside, yanks his jacket from the hook it’s hanging from, and throws it at him. “Come on, right now.”

“Glregh,” Ferdinand manages to say.

“No one will spar with me now that Felix and Sylvain are out east, so guess what, you’re up.”

“I somehow suspect an ulterior motive in all this.”

Ingrid tilts her head with a grin. “Yes. You’re moping. It’s awful.”

“It’s not as if moping at you,” Ferdinand says, but grudgingly shoves his arms into his sleeves. “Very well. We can spar for a bit but then I have work to do.”

She scoops the report off his desk. “‘A 3.5% drop in barley yields from the second quadrant may precipitate some volatility in pricing—’”

Oh, fine.

In short order, he’s on the back of his favorite mount, a fearless gray mare named Avané who couldn’t be less bothered about Ingrid’s pegasus making repeated swoops and dives at them. When Ingrid manages to dismount him (repeatedly, at first, out of practice as he is) Avané trots up and waits patiently for him to yank himself back to his feet, though she isn’t exactly offering any assistance in the process, either.

Once Ferdinand starts to find his rhythm again, Ingrid keeps up a steady stream of chatter, or whatever amounts to chatter for someone like her.

“You missed Felix and Sylvain’s wedding.” A quick jab with the practice lance, and she’s darting away.

Ferdinand guards his left side this time, ready for another pass. “I rather doubt they missed me.”

“It was pretty mellow, considering Sylvain was involved. Felix’s doing, I’m sure.” She darts past, her pegasus’s hooves skimming the ground and stirring up dirt. “And then we’re on alert in case more guerilla activity sparks back up in northeast Adrestia.”

“Again?” Ferdinand frowns—then sneaks in a quick jab, scoring a point on Ingrid’s side before she can change the arc of her flight path. Avané whickers, amused.

“Different this time. One of the reports mentioned demonic beasts, but we’re hoping that was just superstitious farmer talk.”

“Goddess, let us hope.” But it prickles at his spine all the same.

“Listen . . .” Ingrid makes a direct strike, and their lances lock; after a brief struggle, she manages to knock his free, but only barely. One of the training grounds attendants rushes forward to toss it back to him. “It isn’t the same without you around, Ferdie. I’m sure you’re feeling pretty isolated right now, but . . .”

“I suppose I’m fortunate not to be in the dungeons myself, all things considered.”

She shakes her head and drops her pegasus back to the ground for a trot around the arena. “That’s just not how things work here. None of us want that. We all had friends on the other side . . .”

Ferdinand swallows. For a time, he was the other side.

“My point is, we’re all of us trying to find our way back out of the war. But it’s got some of us more tightly in its clutches than others.” She stops beside him. “I don’t want you to feel unwelcome, or as if you aren’t our friend.”

He’d chosen them. He’d chosen this family. And rarely did he regret it; his work within Dimitri’s new government left him positively giddy under other circumstances. But friends—that was something else, something he was still stumbling toward.

Or backward, now. He wonders whether this step back can ever be recovered.

“Thank you. I’m glad to hear it. But, uh—” He twists the lance nervously in his hand. “I’m not entirely certain I’m still going to be invited to His Majesty’s wedding, so you might need to find another date.”

She grins at that, but before she can reply, a page comes rushing up, clutching a fresh batch of missives. “Minister von Aegir? You asked me to let you know if I received any reports—”

Ferdinand leans forward in the saddle. “Yes? Did von Varley finally answer?”

“Well, no, sir. But you received a letter from Caspar von Bergliez asking you to let him know if Director von Hevring had arrived safely in Fhirdiad.” The page winces. “I wasn’t aware we were receiving the director.”

Ferdinand glances toward Ingrid, whose brow furrows, and she shakes her head.

“No. Neither was I.” Ferdinand sighs; gives Avané an affectionate stroke along her neck. “Can you respond immediately? Ask him what on earth he’s talking about. There’s something I don’t like in all of this.”

The page bows and runs off. Ferdinand turns back to Ingrid to find her watching him, her gaze still concerned. “Everything all right?” she asks.

“I—I’m not sure.” Ferdinand dismounts and hands Avané’s reins to one of the stablehands. “I think I’m going to get back to work.—Thank you, though, for the distraction.” He smiles weakly. “It helped.”

“Helped me, too.” She gives him a quick shoulder squeeze and sends him on his way.

Ferdinand rinses off in the baths, then makes his way back to his rooms in the residential wing of the castle, walking hastily to avoid running into anyone else. With a nod to the guards, he hurries inside, then slumps against the door. Catches his breath.

Pauses.

Frowns at the still-steaming cup of tea resting on the parlor table.

Ferdinand creeps into the parlor, careful not to let the wooden floorboards squeak underfoot, and scans the room. The windows are closed; the curtains drawn back. The door to his bedroom is open, same as he left it that morning. Surely a guard might have mentioned if someone had stopped by.

His whole body feels taut, ready for some unseen threat, as he approaches the parlor table.

A single cup of tea, redolent of southern blends he can’t find anywhere in Fhirdiad, and has so far failed to successfully import. Tempting though it is, Ferdinand isn’t about to trust that. He moves it aside to read the piece of parchment tucked underneath it, on which smudged, angry writing is tightly coiled.

 

Ruins of Loog’s Tower

Midnight

 

 


YESTERDAY.

They are—not trusting Hubert, precisely. But neither is he completely removed from their work. The past few days have brought a noticeable change to the estate. Greta, it seems, is gathering her allies; he can hear the footsteps of her guests in the upstairs rooms, though he isn’t exactly permitted upstairs himself.

Another new development is the unsettling sounds of soft crying he catches just on the edge of his hearing. Never for long, never from any direction he can discern. Certainly not identifiable. He hardly believes in ghosts, but he knows what it is to be haunted; this leaves him with an altogether different kind of chill, less guilt-ridden and more bewildered.

If his mother intends to inform him of its source—if there is any source beyond his own head—then she makes no indication of it.

Instead, she has called him over to a new portion of the lab. Finally leaving the mundane tasks behind, or so he hopes. He’s just barely managed to secure proof of his value to them at all. It will be difficult to destroy their plans without even knowing what they are.

Arrayed on the workshop table before them are a handful of polished stones. Not quite gemstones, but not merely hunks of rock, either.

“Crest stones.” Hubert squeezes his hands together to try to slow his breathing. He is so close to the answers he needs, and yet it still isn’t enough.

And crestless as he is, it may be nothing he can stop.

“Mm. Yes. Someone had to keep them safe from the Faerghans’ grasp when they ransacked the palace.”

Varkos hovers in the corner behind them; he couldn’t look less interested in the discussion. Impatient, even. Good. Hubert files that away.

“Von Kierchen,” Varkos says.

She shoots him a glower before turning back to Hubert. “We still have much work to do. And you still have much to prove.”

“I did not prove myself adequately in our duel?” he asks. “That is, before you used your crest.” Before you used more than one crest. Or is that not your game?

“Oh, no. You aren’t nearly there yet.” Her smile curves like a scythe. “You wish to help further our cause? Then bring me the Cichol crestbearer.”

Chapter Text

By the time Ferdinand has firmly resolved not to drink the tea, it’s gone cold anyway. Not that it matters. Certainly, it did smell quite alluring. And with the soft caramel color of the brew, it would be considerably more difficult to hide a wightshade compound in it without leaving an inky residue of any sort. But he’s not tempted.

Not by the tea, anyway.

The note is—well. What more can he expect? He’s never going to receive an apology, and an explanation seems even less likely. But all that does is make him wonder why Hubert would bother trying to meet with him at all. To finish the job of killing him? To taunt him for being such a hopeless fool? Even by showing up, he’d prove himself that much more foolish, that he could still be lured in on the merest whisper of reconciliation, anything.

But—and he rather hates that he keeps returning to this—if Hubert had, in fact, wished to kill him, he’d only needed to sit in this parlor and wait. He clearly had some way in and out undetected, a matter he’ll have to raise with Dimitri whenever they might be on speaking terms again. The castle is supposed to be warded against magic, after all, not that Ferdinand much understands the specifics of such things. And if it’s a matter of bribable guards, or moles in the castle staff, that’s an issue they can ill afford to leave alone.

He runs his fingers over the cramped handwriting on the parchment, remembering with a bitter tang the feel of the hands that wrote it—tangled in his hair, resting against his throat, cradling his head, clutching at his hips. He is both galled that Hubert would dare think that such a simple summons like this would compel him, and repulsed that he’s considering it still.

He checks the time—ten in the evening. He’s been deliberating here for far too long. It’s over an hour’s ride to the ruins of the tower in the foothills northeast of Fhirdiad. If he’s truly considering it, if he’s so desperate for answers, for—for—

No. He can’t afford any more optimism. He’s spent all his goodwill in spades.

But if Hubert truly needs help—if he has something to say—

Oh, who does Ferdinand think he’s fooling. He feeds the note into the fire in his fireplace and goes to pick out a fresh suit.

 


Fifteen minutes later he’s dressed for a nighttime ride and clutching a sealed letter in one hand as he exits his rooms. His guard raises an eyebrow. “Do you require accompaniment, Minister?”

“Not necessary.” He hands over the letter. “However, in the event I shouldn’t return by sunrise . . . would you see this is delivered to General Galatea?”

Another concerned look from the guard. “Are you certain everything is all right, Minister?”

Well, it isn’t as if the whole of Fódlan could think anything worse about him. “Just going to clear my head.”

“If you’re certain that’s wise.”

No, he absolutely is not.

Ferdinand makes his way toward the stables, though he pauses to pick up a pocketful of carrots from the kitchens and, because he is utterly hopeless, he also plucks a single white lily from an overflowing display near the banquet hall. He starts to tuck it behind one ear, but even he must admit it won’t exactly help with his story to do so, so he slips it into his lapel instead.

Only a bare crew of stablehands are out to help the mounted guards as they change shifts, but they pay him no mind other than a few confused looks as he heads straight for Avané’s stall. She’s drowsy at first, but a carrot quickly rouses her, and it’s all too easy to saddle her and make his way out the castle gates.

He’s on the northeastern trail toward the seaside foothills before he can even give himself a chance to think.

What is he possibly hoping for in this? If it’s tearful apologies and remorse and prostrated groveling, he should’ve fallen for someone else. Someone . . . Ferdinand grimaces . . . normal. But that was never what he sought.

He sought that low, wicked voice and the warmth that only ever seemed to enter it for Ferdinand’s ears alone.

He sought how easy, how dangerously easy, it was to fall into a pattern with him like a graceful waltz, their conflicting ideas about—well—everything pushing and pulling elegantly, the friction of that back and forth unbearably warm.

And—goddess, he hates himself to even contemplate this part—the idea that there was something of Hubert that he could possess, even one tiny fragment of him, that was his alone, and not Edelgard’s—

No. It wasn’t even about his childish contest with Edelgard that thrilled him, as if Hubert were ever something he could take away. It was the fact that even a man so loyal and unswerving as Hubert could find it in him to adore Ferdinand, too. It was the highest compliment he could ever pay.

And then there was a silver tongue behind even sweeter lips, sharp teeth, possessive and jealous hands, and utterings that somehow managed to be reverential and filthy all at once. His hands were weapons, yes, but they were so much more than merely that. And—

Ferdinand groans and slumps forward in the saddle. He is hopeless. Hopeless. At least Avané is paying his theatrics no mind.

Hopelessly smitten, dangerously optimistic, and almost certainly walking into a trap. That is what it means to be Ferdinand von Aegir these days.

But a tiny part of him can’t help but think that if he is doing so, then at least he’s doing it away from the castle, away where he can’t possibly cause any more harm than he’s already done. He hopes the other Faerghans will give him credit for that.

The tower ruins loom at last on the horizon, dark twisted chunks of stone jutting from the hillside against a backdrop of endless stars. He can just barely smell the salt of the northern sea on the autumn breeze as Avané winds up the hillside path toward the ruins. Ferdinand pulls out his pocketwatch; he’s early. He’s grateful for the chance to get his bearings. Not that—if he’s in any danger at all—it’ll do him much good.

He hobbles Avané in a thicket away from the ruins’ entrance with plenty of vegetation around her, and offers her another carrot from his pocket. Then he loosens the bindings—enough that, if she’s desperate enough, she can unlash herself. At least he’s watching out for the well-being of one of them, he thinks.

Nervous fingers pluck the lily out of his lapel and tuck it behind his ear, because if he’s going to be an utter fool, he might as well be one to the extreme.

And then he’s crossing the crumbling stone bridge to the shattered ruins of Loog’s Tower.

Moonlight paints the structure unevenly; the stairwell for the central tower is still choked in shadow, but the fragments of rooms branching off of it are dappled in liquid silver from the broken roofline. The note didn’t specify where in the ruins, so Ferdinand decides to climb all the way to the top, feeling only a little bit petty as he does so. Let Hubert be the one off-balance for once.

The topmost chamber, as it turns out, offers a breathtaking view of the surroundings: foothills to the east, a glimpse of coastline to the north, and to the south and west, the dense pine-heavy forests of northern Faerghus. Aside from the missing roof and part of the southern wall, though, the room is surprisingly intact. Ferdinand approaches the northern wall’s window and gazes out, and for a minute, his whole world is only this: forest and waves, silence and stars. Everything else retreats. No war, no empire, no regret.

But then he hears the crackle of dark magic and a humming in the air, wind pulling and sparking behind him—

“Ferdie.”

It sounds disbelieving—awed, even. Ferdinand closes his eyes and squeezes the window ledge to stop himself from turning around. How could he possibly have thought he was prepared for this? How did he ever think he could resist that voice, that worshipful gaze—

“I . . . wasn’t sure you’d come. I couldn’t have blamed you . . .”

Boots crunching against stone as a shadow falls over Ferdinand. He is close, so close, his breaths audible in the crisp air. Ferdinand can’t turn around. He must not look. If he does, his resolve will collapse beneath them like the ruins.

There is the lightest touch at his hair, and it’s all Ferdinand can do not to sigh with overwhelming relief, with all-consuming want. Hubert is brushing his hair back to one side, tucking it behind Ferdinand’s ear, and then leather fingertips feather across his neck. Slowly, hating himself for it, Ferdinand turns, but keeps his eyes shut. He’s afraid of what Hubert might see in his eyes if he opens them now.

“Flames, I’ve missed you.” The fingers at Ferdinand’s neck curl around his jaw, now, and Hubert’s thumb strokes his cheek. “I—” Hubert laughs at himself. “I’m sorry, there was so much I wanted to say, and now I—”

Ferdinand grips the window ledge behind him to hold him up, because he can’t trust his knees right now. “P-please don’t touch me.”

Hubert’s hand instantly draws back, and he takes a shuffling step away. Only now does Ferdinand trust himself to open his eyes. But this, too, he immediately regrets.

Hubert looks . . . incredible. His hair has grown back, and he’s styled it once more as it was during the war, as much a part of his armor as anything else. His pale skin all but glows in the night. He’s dressed in a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled nearly to his elbows, revealing sturdy forearms that end in the black gloves, and Ferdinand hates the way his stomach flips to see him still wearing that gift. A silver and violet patterned vest hugs his torso before giving way to black riding slacks and boots.

“No. Of course not. Forgive me.” Hubert runs a nervous hand through that dark thatch of bangs swept to one side of his face. “I should have asked . . .”

And that’s what breaks him. Ferdinand buries his face in his hands with a miserable, manic laugh. “That’s what you want to apologize for. For that.”

“. . . Um.”

That, at least, seems to shatter this cursed spell he’s had Ferdinand wrapped in. Ferdinand shoves past him to pace to the far end of the broken room. “You lied to me. Poisoned me. Ran from me. You asked me to trust you, and immediately broke that trust.”

“Ferdie, wait. I didn’t poison you!” He’s moving toward Ferdinand, but slower—keeping a careful distance from the tower’s edge. “I swear, that was never my intent. I didn’t get a chance to warn you—”

Ferdinand stops. Clenches his fists. The worst of it is that it’s so easy to believe him. So easy that even without this, Ferdinand could almost believe it himself. He’d climbed onto the bed with the tray of coffee for them both, and Hubert’s eyes had gone wide when he’d begun to take a sip—

Damn it, Ferdinand. No. Hubert himself had warned Ferdinand about this. If he let him get inside his head even a sliver, Hubert would corrupt him all the way through.

“The . . . coffee.” Hubert has stopped a safe distance behind him. “I used to . . .” And is that a tinge of humiliation creeping into his voice? “I mixed it with a low dose of wightshade to build up a tolerance. Wightshade affects many of the same pathways as several other poisons, so it’s a wise choice for someone in—someone who was in my position to learn to tolerate.”

How regularly were you expecting to be poison—” Ferdinand groans. “No. Never mind. I don’t even wish to know—”

“And then—I never even had a chance to warn you. My reaction was . . . sluggish. I allowed myself to become distracted. You were . . .”

Ferdinand wraps his arms around himself. He’d wanted so badly to make Hubert happy, to show him he had no regrets about their night together. He’d been thinking—Goddess, what had he been thinking. That it could be the first of countless mornings like that? Waking in a sun-dappled bed, eating a lazy breakfast together as they traded kisses and nonsense utterances before Ferdinand attended to his ministerial duties and Hubert—

And that’s where it all fell apart. There is no option for Hubert, not in Ferdinand’s world, that doesn’t end with him back inside a prison cell.

“You still ran,” Ferdinand says.

A ragged exhale. “Yes. I did.”

He wants to ask why. It’s burning inside him, an arcane core of frustration he can’t snuff out. But there is only one possible answer, and it’s not one he can bear.

Ferdinand and his life can never be enough for him.

“You . . . were right about me,” Hubert says, his voice drawing closer. He’s over Ferdinand’s shoulder again, but this time, this time, Ferdinand knows better than to look. “I am a weapon. And there is one more thing I must do before my purpose is served.”

Ferdinand rolls his eyes toward the starry heavens. “You have to kill King Dimitri, blah blah, exact your lady’s revenge.”

Night rushes into the long silence between them, shimmering.

“As it happens . . .” Hubert says softly, “no.”

That makes Ferdinand stand up straighter. Carefully, he turns; checks the distance between them. Safe enough for now. He can do this, he can look at Hubert, his shoulders slumped and his visible eye cast downward. He is beautiful, in a way Ferdinand could never bear. Something cold and distant that Ferdinand can only covet, and never claim.

“I made a promise to Her Majesty that I would punish the people who hurt her. Who engineered her suffering with the same callousness that they engineered those . . . machines. Dimitri and the royal Blaiddyd family—they were only ever pawns of these people, too. And while, make no mistake—” Hubert smiles now, that liquid cyanide grin that makes Ferdinand’s blood race—“I would greatly enjoy making your king suffer for what he did . . . That is not a promise I’ve left unfulfilled. Dealing with these people—it isn’t a choice for me. I swore it, so it must be done.”

He raises his chin, and moonlight glistens along his lower lashes. Ferdinand feels it once more, that fishhook reeling him in. But he thinks he almost understands this time. He can almost sympathize. Everything Hubert lived for, worked toward, fought for, is gone—and his promises to the dead are all that remain.

He was born, and molded, and trained to serve. Without his lady, he has no purpose.

Ferdinand could never possibly compete.

“And what will you do,” Ferdinand asks quietly, “once you fulfill your promise to her?”

Hubert looks down. Laces his hands together before him. “—I don’t know.”

Ferdinand shakes with sour laughter. Of course not. Why he’d ever dared to believe, to even pretend

“When I let myself imagine it,” Hubert says, “I imagine you.”

Ferdinand leans back, panic prickling at the back of his neck. “Damn it, Hubert, don’t lie to me. I’m done with your games—”

“I know, all right? I’ve made such a future impossible with my actions. I can’t begin to blame you for hating me for everything I’ve done.” He evens his gaze, jaw steely. “But if you must know the truth, it’s that. That I wish there could have been a way for us. I wish that keeping my promise to her didn’t mean hurting you this way.”

And it’s such a dramatic, utterly Hubert answer that all Ferdinand can do is groan. “What,” he manages, even as he hates the pleading in his voice, “about your promises to me?”

Hubert goes very still. “Ferdie?” he whispers.

Ferdinand drags a hand down the side of his face. “Maybe—promise is a strong word for it. Pledge, perhaps. Offer. Reassurance. Who gives a damn.”

Hubert’s brow furrows, and it’s all Ferdinand can do not to reach out and smooth it. Take that face in his hands, that wicked face he’s missed so goddess-damned much, and lose himself again. Because he’s always been lost around him. He’s always believed impossible things, foolish things, when Hubert was near. He’s believed in Hubert. Because Hubert has always, always been himself—no matter how painful or inconvenient or murderous it might be.

“If I swore something to you,” Hubert says carefully, “then I meant it.”

And the Hubert who stalks his prey in darkness, who thinks nothing of cutting through his foes, the Hubert who manipulates and lies and murders—It’s true. He may not give Ferdinand the truth. But lying to him, breaking his oath . . .

“You told me you’d give me the best of you.” Ferdinand’s voice breaks; he shakes his head at himself, his pathetic optimism that’s tried to marry the way Hubert is with him to the Hubert who exists for the rest of the world. “You said even she couldn’t have all of you. And yet—”

“And yet you chose something else,” Hubert snaps.

Ferdinand glares at him.

Hubert groans; shakes his head, hair falling endearingly across his eye, and oh, it isn’t just armor, is it, Ferdinand realizes—it is very much a weapon crafted for the express purpose of tormenting him.

“No—I’m sorry, Ferdinand. That was unfair, and I know it isn’t the whole of it. It’s only that—when you left, I thought it meant—you didn’t want it. Didn’t want me.”

“I did.” Ferdinand shuffles back again. I still do. “You just—you never gave me anything to believe in that there could be any possibility . . .”

Hubert laughs bitterly. “Like being a most appalling opera date?”

“Among other things.” Ferdinand can’t help the slight upturn to his mouth.

They regard one another in silence for a moment, a cloud dancing across the moon, shadows shifting and alive. Then Hubert takes a step toward him, flexing gloved hands at his sides. “I must fulfill my promise to her. I can’t change that. If—” And now it’s his voice breaking—“If there is any chance, afterward, if you can accept me as I am—”

“Damn it, don’t you see how everything you do fights against the very possibility of an after?” Ferdinand can’t help it—he’s shouting now, his words ringing off the stone. “We aren’t in the empire anymore, no matter how much you might wish it were true. We can’t just—forget the past, we can’t just wipe it clean because you make a promise for how things will be moving forward. I gave you my heart—I gave you all of me, unconditionally, at great cost to my safety and my work and the kingdom I chose, knowing who and what you are. And you couldn’t even give me a fucking explanation as to why you ran anyway, much less an apology—”

Hubert steps toward him. “Ferdie, please—”

As Ferdinand leans back, the heel of his riding boot grinds against the ragged edge of broken stone, and pebbles skitter and slip beneath him. Time stretches wide as he feels himself tipping backward, starlight blurring—

—And then Hubert is there, arms coiled around him, wrenching him back from the ledge despite his absolute terror of heights, and he carries Ferdinand back toward the center of the ruins before, still shaking, he releases Ferdinand and holds his arms wide.

Ferdinand is trembling; dizzy. Confused. Pissed, still—and made even worse by the rush of gratitude he feels—

What in the hells are you doing.

“I—I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to touch you, except—”

Ferdinand growls and shakes his hair out of his face. “Why? Why do you do that?”

“Save you from falling?” Hubert blinks.

“Not that. Why are you so oathbound to respect me, treating me with so much reverence? Why do you have to be so damned kind?”

Hubert tilts his head. “Isn’t it what you deserve?”

Ferdinand suppresses a groan. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, just—I don’t exactly think the Butcher of Enbarr is asking his assassination victims for permission to stab them in the back—”

Hubert is still frowning as though he doesn’t understand. “If I kill someone, it is because it is my sworn duty. Impersonal.” He stares down at his feet. “You, on the other hand, are—are—a gift. Something I don’t deserve.” His gaze roams wildly, refusing to settle on Ferdinand. “I have to be certain it isn’t some mistake, that you truly want me too, because I couldn’t bear to be wrong—”

Adrenaline still pumping through him, Ferdinand feels about ready to set himself on fire. “Of course I want you, you deranged bat.”

And he shoves Hubert against a crumbling wall.

Hubert’s eyes go wide as Ferdinand leans up to kiss him, but in no time, he’s answering eagerly, cradling Ferdinand’s head against his, sighing as Ferdinand pins him in place with his whole body. Hubert’s kisses are slow and gentle, but Ferdinand is burning, burning alive with his frustration and fury and heartbreak and want and he’s clamping Hubert’s wrists to the wall, closing his thighs around one of Hubert’s, possessing him, possessing him, determined to never let him go again.

It’s like spring blooming bright in his chest after an agonizing Faerghan winter. An irreversible process. They are unfolding to each other, and all Ferdinand can do is cling to him, kiss him, adore him, and swear to himself from this moment forward things will be different, they will be better, and the fragile push of Hubert’s lips and twist of his wrists in Ferdinand’s grasp makes him believe they really could.

“Darling.” Hubert lets out a shaky breath as their mouth’s part; his eyes glitter darkly, hungry. “I missed you. How I missed you . . .”

“You could’ve damned well fooled me.” He nips at the lobe of Hubert’s ear, and relishes the feel of the terrifying shadow of the late emperor melting and whimpering under him.

“Shit. Stop being so . . . divine for a minute.” Hubert flexes his hands, but Ferdinand keeps them pinned. “I—I must ask you something first. I need your help.”

“Yes, I’m well aware,” Ferdinand says, shifting his thigh to brush against Hubert, and Hubert inhales painfully and closes his eyes.

“No, I—Please. Ferdie, I need . . .”

Something in Hubert’s gaze is so painfully exposed, so open, that it robs Ferdinand’s breath. Ferdinand releases his hands, and rests their foreheads together. His heart is thudding frantically, and he wonders if Hubert can hear it; if his is doing the same. If they’re pounding as one.

“I need your assistance. To fulfill my promise,” Hubert says. He closes his eyes and looks as though he wants to melt into the wall at his back. “I know your aid is nothing I’ve earned, and certainly nothing I deserve . . .”

“Stop that.” Ferdinand kisses the corner of his mouth, then does so again, for good measure. “Stop speaking of yourself that way.”

Hubert’s mouth closes on his as he curls his fingers beneath Ferdinand’s chin, and he draws out a savory kiss that stokes the fire in Ferdinand’s veins. “Flames, I adore you.” Ferdinand’s heart flips at that, but before he can formulate a response, Hubert asks—“I—I just have to know if you can ever find it in your heart to trust me again.”

And their current situation makes Ferdinand all too willing to say yes, but even his trust can be shattered. He glances down and allows himself to be distracted by the sharpness of Hubert’s collarbones where they peek from the neck of his dress shirt. “I . . . want to,” he says. “Goddess, I want to.”

Hubert’s throat bobs with a nervous swallow. “But that isn’t a yes.”

“It’s not a no, either.” Ferdinand’s hands slide around his waist. “I suppose my trust is yours to rebuild.”

“Then I will do my best to be worthy of that task.”

He looks up to find Hubert smiling. A heartbreaking, hopeful smile. And for once, Ferdinand hopes—it’s something he can believe in, too.

He clasps Hubert’s face in his hands and kisses him, kisses his chin, his throat. He lets fingers dance over buttons and clasps for them both. He allows himself to surrender—to gloved hands, to whispered prayers over his skin, to a promise pressed against his lips.

He surrenders and tries not to think of yesterday or tomorrow or anything but one moment after the next.

And when Hubert thinks he’s drowsed off, when he strokes slow fingers through his hair, when he mumbles the words my love

Then it is almost, almost enough to forgive.

“If you can trust me a little bit further—”

Ferdinand opens his eyes now—

“If you can trust me to spare you from the worst of what’s to come—”

Ferdinand frowns now—

“Then I swear to you, I will earn it.” He kisses Ferdinand’s forehead. “I will spend my life earning it.”

And the world tears open around them, enveloping them both in a violet grasp.

Chapter Text

The mere sight of Ferdinand, unconscious and restrained in Greta’s laboratory, is nearly enough to shatter Hubert’s cold façade. He remembers, now, why he has never allowed himself the burden of these emotions before. All he wants is to brush the hair from Ferdinand’s face; cradle his head in his lap; apologize again and again that these monsters—that he himself—have let it come to this. All he wants is to spend his life atoning to Ferdinand, worshiping and sheltering him the way he deserves.

But with Greta and Varkos watching him closely, there is nothing for him to do but clench his jaw so tight he swears his teeth might crack.

“You aren’t harboring regrets, are you, von Vestra?” Greta asks, smirking as she readies a syringe. “I would hate to think that you are considering something . . . foolish.”

He offers her a venomous smile. “There is no cost too steep for realizing the rebirth of this world. For carrying on the dream my lady intended.”

But that, too, is a lie too far for him. What Greta and the Agarthans aim for is nothing like what Edelgard sought. She wished to end the tyranny of crests, of Seiros, of the madness that drove Fódlan to bind one’s worth to one’s blood. As far as he can tell, what these monsters intend is to commodify it. Hoard that precious blood as their own.

“Your face betrays you. It always has, boy.” She tilts her head at Varkos. “Restrain him.”

In an instant, Varkos is on him, wrenching Hubert’s hands behind his back. Hubert wrenches to one side to slip from his grasp, old instincts taking over, but he’s too out of practice—too slow for whatever vile enhancements the Agarthan has given himself. Even then, he once was able to take any weapon pointed at him and turn it on his attacker before they had a chance to blink. It’s a skill he needs to regain if he’s to survive what’s to come, he thinks.

There’s a hiss and click of magnetic restraints clamping onto his wrists, and Varkos forces him into the nearest chair.

“Hardly a way to treat your ally,” Hubert snaps. “And after I brought you him at great personal risk.”

Greta laughs at that. A dark strand of hair falls in front of her face as she leans over Ferdinand’s arm, sleeve rolled back to expose the soft, pale flesh at the crook of his elbow. Hubert can’t help it; he flinches as he watches the syringe slip into that skin.

I’m so sorry, darling.

I swear, after this, I’ll never allow harm to come to you again.

I’ll swear myself to you.

The thought is so sudden, so treasonous, as it comes to him—but he forces himself to let go of that instinct, too. His lady is dead and soon, his purpose will be fulfilled. If they can survive this, he will be . . . free.

Free to choose a life for himself. Or, perhaps, to devote himself to another’s life once more.

And that freedom terrifies him most of all.

The tubing attached to the syringe flushes with red as blood flows from Ferdinand’s vein. It feeds into the bulky machine beside them, and an electric hum fills the air.

“You brought us Cichol. I’ll grant you that.” Greta straightens, and turns to the machine. “But there are far greater challenges to come.”

Electricity flares, dancing in an arc along the tubing, and even though he’s heavily sedated, Ferdinand whimpers. The sound burrows like a parasite into Hubert’s heart. There is a brilliant flash, and its afterimage sears itself in the air above Ferdinand: the crest of Cichol.

“Careful, von Kierchen,” Varkos says. “We can’t afford to burn him out just yet.”

She pats Ferdinand’s cheek, and he turns away from her with a groan. Bile burns in the back of Hubert’s throat. “Ah, but we can come so close.”


Ferdinand only remembers time in fragments.

That bitch magister, von Kierchen, hovering over him like a shadow. Needles. Shooting, crackling pain.

Stumbling down a corridor, dragged, bound, crammed into a cell that’s more like a cage.

Whispers all around him. Sometimes words, sometimes sighs. Once, a delirious voice calling out—“Ferdie? Is that . . . you?”

Von Kierchen and her gruesome ally with his black eyes and tattooed face, cataloguing saints as if they were chemical compounds. Cichol. Indech. Cethleann. Dragging him back to that table, that vile table. Not enough. We need to make it last.

He remembers things he can’t possibly remember from a life that wasn’t his own. Winged beasts soaring overhead; gathered with his loved ones, weeping over shattered bones. An oath forged amongst them and sealed in blood. Breaking themselves apart, becoming weapons, weeping across the land with a sorrow that can never be known. His siblings, his daughter, his wife all clutching the same dagger, forging a bond no mortal can break.

If.

If this terrible knowledge can be contained.

And then he remembers Hubert. Hubert, nestled against him, arms around him as if to shield him from the night. Hubert making promises he can’t possibly keep. Hubert worshiping him, adoring him even as he wounded him once more—

I’ll spend a lifetime earning you.

Ferdinand isn’t sure either of them has a lifetime left to give.

He remembers, too—writing a letter. A warning for Ingrid. A resignation and a confession, all in one. If Ferdinand is to be the biggest fool in Fódlan, then he hopes, at least, to contain the damage to himself.

He isn’t sure he’s succeeded.


“Ferdinand.”

Hubert leans against the bars of his cage, shooting frantic glances over his shoulder. He doesn’t have long, not long at all. Greta and Varkos are out testing their crest infusions on one of Greta’s willing supplicants, and he wants no part of the likely bloodshed to follow. He shouldn’t be here. She’ll find out, somehow, she has her ways—but if he couldn’t see Ferdinand again, he feared he might break.

She’d warded this portion of the laboratory, of course. But his mother only ever sees him as a reflection of herself: the ways he is like her, and the ways he’s fallen short. She forgets the von Vestra in his blood, the wounds it’s inflicted, the gifts it’s given him. Sometimes, magic is unnecessary, if you can be cunning and clever enough.

He carefully extracts the makeshift lockpicking tools from the third and final latch and makes his way inside.

Even now, the sight of Ferdinand, curled in one corner of his cage with his head resting on his knees, is liable to unravel him. Dark grooves are carved under once-bright eyes now dull and weary. When he looks up at Hubert, it’s as though he’s seeing through him.

“What do you want,” Ferdinand mumbles, and this, this, is going to be what ruins Hubert. He isn’t even angry, only—weary beyond words.

“I’m sorry.” Hubert tries to look away, but finds he can’t. “I had to see you. I had to make sure . . .”

For a long time, Ferdinand doesn’t respond, and Hubert’s heart ratchets higher up in his throat. But then he lifts one hand; curls his fingers around a bar of the cage. Stretches them forward, as if to reach for Hubert.

“Darling,” Hubert breathes, disbelieving.

Ferdinand nods, slow and careful. “Yours,” he manages.

Hubert laces ungloved fingers through Ferdinand’s. Soft, perfect skin bound to his bloodied, ink-stained, scarred and mangled flesh. As if it doesn’t matter. As if Ferdinand thinks nothing of the sins that mar him; or at least, knows he is more than these, too.

Hubert tightens his fingers’ grip, just enough to hold tight. He needs something to hold onto—something to anchor him before this sudden flood of feeling inside him carries him away. If Ferdinand can ever forgive him after this, if ever they can find a way back to each other . . .

Hubert will tear down anything, everything, to hear that word on Ferdinand’s sweet lips once more.

“Stained,” Ferdinand says, frowning, as his thumb traces over the back of Hubert’s hand.

Hubert looks at the smear of ink where he’d been trying to practice his teleportation sigil. He needs somewhere to hide it that his mother won’t find. But it smudges too quickly underneath his gloves, and anyway, it seems a likely place for her to check.

“Just another failed plan,” he explains with a sigh.

Ferdinand’s legs drop into cross-legged position and he leans forward until his forehead rests against the bars. With eyes lidded, he closes his lips on the tip of Hubert’s index finger, and somehow through all the calluses, Hubert feels a delirious jolt as Ferdinand’s tongue brushes against skin.

“You owe me,” Ferdinand mumbles, and moves to the next fingertip.

“Anything you desire,” Hubert breathes.

He pauses, thoughtful, as if gathering his strength. “Pegasus rides. The opera. A four-course supper at the Garritz.” He savors the next finger, and Hubert’s whole body is tense, yearning. “That thing with your mouth the other night. I want that too.”

“Over and over, until you beg me to stop.” Hubert smiles, because if he doesn’t, he fears the tears will start to fall.

“Your hands.” Ferdinand rubs his cheek against Hubert’s fingers now. “So much violence.”

Hubert frowns. “I—was only ever serving—”

“No.” Ferdinand shakes his head. “Violence done to them.”

“Oh.” And the tension in his body is gone, as though he’s been wrenched open wide. Bared to the world, and he’s beyond being ashamed. “I—I suppose so.”

“I can bear this, too.”

Hubert closes his eyes. “I’m sorry you must. If it’s any consolation, we’re so close—”

“My family is here. Aren’t they?” he asks abruptly, words still a mumbled mess. “I saw them. They suffer, too.”

Panic rakes like ice down Hubert’s back but he refuses to let go of Ferdinand’s hand. “Your . . . family?” When Ferdinand doesn’t elaborate, he says very gently, “Your father is—ah, well, dead,” and he certainly isn’t going to linger on that point, “and your mother too. Your little sister’s at school on the southern coast, I believe—”

“No. The other one.” With his free hand, Ferdinand sketches something on the filthy floor. A column flanked with wings that curve like a drawn bow. “Indech and Cethleann . . .”

Hubert nearly drops his hand.

 

“This is unacceptable,” Cornelia huffs, folding her arms and hoisting her substantial bosom upward, as if she thinks that might be the thing to properly motivate him. “I can’t believe they call you the . . . Dentist of Enbarr or whatever. You couldn’t extract juice from an orange.”

Hubert pinches the bridge of his nose. He isn’t even going to try to make sense of what that is supposed to mean. “The Butcher of Enbarr.”

“I don’t care.” She flicks one hand with annoyance in the direction of the dungeons. “He is completely isolated from his friends and allies and that hulking liege of his. His kingdom has fallen. There is no chance of rescue. If you can’t wrench a confession out of someone like that, then frankly I worry for the Empire.”

Hubert twirls his favorite slender dagger, letting it dance across the back of his knuckles. Anything to keep himself from jamming it between the ribs of this pretentious bitch who can’t stop insinuating that she deserves to be emperor instead.

“What is there left for Dimitri to confess? He’s given us everything. The capital’s hidden defenses. The last known location of the Knights of Seiros. Her Majesty’s intelligence needs have been met—”

“You haven’t asked about the holy relics in Faerghus’s possession, you imbecile. Where do they store their crest stones? The artifacts? The holy weapons? We must find them. We must uncover every last one.”

Hubert narrows his eyes at her. “I’m not sure this is quite the urgent matter you seem to believe.”

And then her nails—her claws—are gripping his jaw; her skin is rippling, slithering with darkness as her eyes go fully black. It takes every last considerable bit of his self-control not to turn the blade in his hands on her, but his lady would find that most . . . inconvenient. So he endures this humiliation as she glowers at him. He adds it to the lengthy tally of debts she’ll repay when Her Majesty’s reign is secure.

“Find out where the Blade of Subjugation is being held. I know Faerghus has it. Find it for me, you worthless little troll.”

Hubert carefully pries her claws off of his throat, one by one, and to his credit, his hands do not shake; his gaze does not falter. He is, by all accounts, the portrait of restraint. “It would help me, perhaps, if I know what in the hells the Blade of Subjugation is.”

Cornelia sneers. “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”

“And that’s why I’m the interrogator, and you’re merely . . .” Hubert glances at her sideways. “What exactly is it, again, that you do?”

“I am your pathetic little emperor’s salvation, and you’d do best to remember that.”

He busies himself with reorganizing his interrogator’s tools arrayed on the table beside him, because otherwise he’ll be too tempted to put them to use. “Be that as it may.”

“Hrrgh. Very well. The Blade of Subjugation is a relic forged by the Four—Cichol, Cethleann, Indech, Macuil—said to only be able to be wielded by someone possessing all of their blood as well. It was meant to grant them complete control over the Ten and those who bear their blood. A safeguard, they claim, against corruption, like what happened with Nemesis.”

“Well, unless you have four crests I’m unaware of,” Hubert says, “I don’t see what good it’ll do you.”

“You let me worry about that. You worry about locating the damned thing in the first place.”

It hardly seems the sort of thing he wants falling into the hands of the Agarthans. But if he can claim it first, give it to his lady—or better yet, see it destroyed . . .

His gloved hand caresses a wickedly curved little knife as the most delightful possibility comes to mind. “I think I know just what to do.”

 

“The Blade of Subjugation.” Hubert looks at Ferdinand. “It must be what she’s after. We tore Fhirdiad apart, I interrogated Dimitri daily—” and he supposes there’s no real need to remind Ferdinand what he did to Dimitri’s eye—“but we never could find . . . Wait.” He looks up. “Who do we know who bears the crests of Indech and Cethleann?”

“Bernadetta,” Ferdinand says, at the same time Hubert says—“Linhardt.”

“Shit,” Hubert says. “Shit.”

“Have you seen them?” Ferdinand asks. “I thought I heard a—a voice—”

“No, but I think she’s deliberately ensuring I’m only witness to your torture. Damn it all. If it’s the Blade she’s after, if she’s able to absorb the power of the Four’s crests even for a short while—I don’t know how to stop her.”

Ferdinand smiles wearily at him. “If anyone can outmaneuver a crest-crazed maniac . . . It’s you, you dreadful shadow.”

Hubert clutches the insult close to his heart. “For you, love, I’ll be positively nightmarish.”


He must return to the main laboratory then—he’s spent too much time with Ferdinand as it is, and they’re bound to return any minute. If Bernadetta and Linhardt are locked away as well, then they must be undergoing a similar process, Greta and Varkos torturing the crest-infused blood from them. Hubert’s stomach is far from weak, but what he does find himself feeling, more than he ever expected, is fury.

It is inconvenient. It makes it difficult to steady his hands as he whiles away long hours, sketching new sigils in his tome, rebuilding the muscle memory he’s lost. The first time he practices his disarming technique he nearly stabs himself in the thigh. The next few hundred times he can’t get the blade turned quickly enough, and it nicks the leather all up and down the fingers of his gloves.

But enough long hours trying to drown out the crackle and bite of the damned Agarthan machine, trying not to think about the blood and power being ripped from Ferdinand and possibly others besides, and he has it back again. He remembers how it feels to slam his heel into the soft back of his target’s knee; crush the fine bones of their wrists with his thumb. Jam up and forward, their own weapon seeking the frantic pounding of their heart before they can react.

And as he tries to buff out the nicks and tears in the leather of his glove, turning it inside out to do so, this, too, gives him the inspiration he needs.

He dips the nib of a quill in ink. Tests it on the soft wool lining of the glove. Waits. Lets it dry.

Rubs his thumb over it—but it remains in place.


A frantic tapping, and then—“Ferdie?”

Ferdinand might be dreaming again, or hallucinating, or—his head hurts too much to finish the thought. It’s been a few days, or so it seems, since the last extraction, and the haze of sedatives is finally wearing off.

“Ferdie. Are you awake?”

The tapping is coming from the other side of the wall he’s curled against. The words themselves, muffled and echoing. The voice, though, warm.

Ferdinand jams the heels of his palms against his eyes, trying to clear the haze of sedatives and pain. “Bernie?”

“Goddess. It is you.” Her voice seems liable to break. “Linny’s here, too. It’s the first I can think straight since . . .” She trails off. “Is there anyone on that side?”

He shakes his head, and it’s a few seconds before he realizes she can’t see him, of course. “Only me, for now.” He suspects it might be best not to note Hubert’s involvement just yet. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

There’s an even more muffled voice, drowsy and distant, before Bernie answers. “Linny thinks she’s trying to find a safer way of blood reconstruction. Temporary, so it doesn’t cause the lasting effects that permanent crest transfusions can cause. I dunno. He’s saying something about ‘short-burst arcane infusion.’”

“Apparently she needs the blood of the Four for something,” Ferdinand says. “But no one bears Macuil’s crest any longer.”

More muffled conversation, then Bernadetta says, “Linhardt says that isn’t strictly true.”

“Well, that’s news to me—”

A scratching sound, like someone dragging themselves upright. “It’s my fault,” a second voice says. Linhardt. “I’m the one who sent the magisters to try to recover missing blood in the first place.”

“Please. You hardly told her to plot a coup with illicit crest experimentation.” And there are Ferdinand’s long-dormant diplomat’s skills, as effortless as riding a horse. “I think when we’re out of here, we need to seriously consider rewriting the treatise on ethical use of magics and crestomancy from the ground up—”

“Ferdie.” Bernadetta again. “We kinda have to get out of here, first.”

“Right. Um.” Ferdinand swallows. “Um. Well . . . von Vestra might be working on that.”

The deathly silence says more than enough.

And then the latches on the door are beginning to click open, one by one.

“She’s coming,” Ferdinand hisses. “Hang on. I’ll update you when I can.”


Hubert peels back the glove again and checks the back of his hand. No smudges, no stains. He’s about to test actually teleporting it when the door to the laboratory crashes open, and Varkos sweeps in.

“Hands,” Varkos snaps.

Regrettably, Hubert knows this routine well now. He offers up his hands, crossed at the wrist, for Varkos to bind. But before he does so, the Agarthan yanks his gloves off. Inspecting. Satisfied there’s nothing inked on Hubert’s flesh, he jams them back on and seals the manacles in place.

“Are we going for a journey?” Hubert asks, trying to sound sufficiently contemptuous.

Greta enters from behind him, suited in her full magister’s regalia: black cloak, black gloves, black hood. She casts one look at Hubert and rips the tome from his belt. “Not tonight. You’re serving a more practical purpose.”

“And what might that be, Mother?”

“Guiding us through the catacombs of Fhirdiad. You do still know your way around them, don’t you, boy?”

“You know me, Mother. Skulking through catacombs is one of my strengths.” He offers a bitter smile. “Though I think you’ll find they’re rather more full of the city guard than might be to your taste.”

“Not tonight, they’re not.” Behind her, a stream of magisters carry equipment and supplies from other parts of the lab. “Because tonight, every guard in the whole damn capital will be protecting the royal wedding instead.”

Hubert manages—barely—to suppress his first instinct, which is a mad laugh. “You’re crashing the royal wedding? Even for you, Mother, this is terribly dramatic—”

“Oh, I won’t need to crash a damned thing.” She exchanges a look with Varkos. “Once we possess the Blade of Subjugation, they’ll obey me willingly.”

 

 

Chapter Text

FIVE YEARS AGO.

 Hubert makes his way to the imperial palace’s conservatory, feeling distinctly as if he’s wrenched his heart from his chest and is holding it, beating and bloody, aloft for all the world to see. What he is actually holding is a bouquet of Enbarr carnations speckled with briar root, and it’s almost as gory a sight, almost as exposing. Possibly worse.

He catches sight of himself in the glass-paneled doors, his newly styled hair, the cape of his new uniform he spent too long buffing. He must be losing his mind. To agree to meet with Ferdinand like this, after the man all but disappeared from the day-to-day functioning of the new emperor’s administration; after the man declined the prime minister’s post Her Majesty offered to him outright. After their late-night study and strategy sessions back at the library in Garreg Mach have come to a grinding halt—as has everything, since the onset of the war.

Also since the whole matter in which he assassinated the former Prime Minister von Aegir. But he’s rather hoping they can sidestep that. Yet another casualty in the rush of progress and victory swept in on Emperor Edelgard’s new reign, nothing less and nothing more.

He winds his way down the various paths of the conservatory, searching for which alcove Ferdinand has chosen for them, and finds a tea service set for two amidst the cascading bougainvillea. Ferdinand isn’t seated though; instead he paces behind his chair, white-gloved hands fluttering anxiously as if he’s at war with himself.

Hubert’s heart stutters at the sight of him, that same traitorous surge of affection and longing and infuriation that afflicts him every time the von Aegir heir is near. His lady has made it clear he is free to pursue personal relationships however he pleases, so long as his work doesn’t suffer, but it has never been in his nature before. His father saw to that well enough when he was younger. Even without the fear of the late Count von Vestra’s punishment, Hubert’s not made for idle indulgences—and it terrifies him to even imagine splitting his heart between Her Majesty and another.

Not so much that he does not imagine it, however. That he does not let himself slip and indulge in the fantasy of such a future, from time to time. But until now he has kept that wish bundled up as tight as he can, and it is only now—with Ferdinand’s summons, with the war progressing as splendidly as it is, with Ferdinand’s continued absence in their daily life gnawing a hole straight through his core—that he dares to examine it head-on.

And in letting himself acknowledge it, he feels staggered with that want.

“Von Aegir.” Hubert slips into the alcove, ducking under a plant frond, and pulls a chair out for himself at the table. “What a pleasure to be graced with your presence once more.”

Ferdinand grips the back of his own chair and draws a heavy breath. “I—yes. Von Vestra. I—Damn it all.” He pushes a shaggy lock out of his face. “I have something to say.”

Hubert gently rests the bouquet on the tea table. He starts to reach for the steaming teapot, but Ferdinand has made no move to sit. “Is everything all right?”

“I—No.” Ferdinand’s jaw works from side to side. “I don’t know how else to say this, but . . .”

And then those dazzling eyes sweep over Hubert as his shoulders sag.

“I’m leaving.”

Hubert’s vision narrows, blackness squeezing in around him.

“I can no longer be a part of Her Majesty’s campaign.”

Hubert’s mouth opens, but the only thing he seems able to wring out of it is a strangled guh.

“I’m terribly sorry, von Vestra. I do wish it hadn’t come to this, but I can’t ignore my instincts on these matters. I wanted to tell you in person because . . .” Ferdinand’s teeth click together. “I wish that we had . . .”

Hubert’s mind has paused, the words refusing to crash together into anything resembling sense. “Leaving where?”

“I’ve already spoken to Her Majesty. It’s all very—well. Amicable may not be the right word for it. But . . .” Ferdinand looks away first, and it wrenches something deep inside Hubert. “I just thought you ought to know.”

“Leaving,” Hubert echoes, because he is still not able to fully process any of this.

“Yes.” Ferdinand runs a hand through his hair, which is looking much shaggier than he usually keeps it. Odd, for him to look so out of sorts. That’s when it finally registers that he’s dressed in long-distance riding gear. “She gave us the choice to bow out of this crusade of hers, and I’m taking it.”

Before he can think what he’s doing, Hubert has lunged up out of his seat, butter knife in hand. He drops it instantly, but it’s too late—the look of terror is firmly lodged on Ferdinand’s face. Hubert tries to breathe, but the air won’t come; he turns away. He can’t look at what he’s done.

“Are you out of your mind?” Ferdinand cries. “What in the hells was that?”

Hubert stares down at his hands, his gloved hands.

“What were you going to do, assassinate me for leaving with her blessing?”

I’m a fool, he thinks. I’m utterly mad around you and I lose all sense. And then you threaten to leave—you threaten to leave her, to leave meHe snarls, fists clenching.

“We do not tolerate traitors in the new age of Adrestia,” he says instead, but even he can hear the hollowness in the threat.

“Right. Of course. That’s all this means to you. It’s always about people’s loyalty to Edelgard, and nothing else.” Ferdinand huffs. “You are unbelievable, von Vestra. Completely unbelievable.”

Hubert steps back into the foliage, wishing it would swallow him up right about now. “If this is about—erm, your father—”

“For Goddess’s sake, von Vestra. Yes. Does that make you feel better? It’s about my father, and it’s about Emperor Ionius IX, it’s about the Church of Seiros and nobility and justice and war and—and blood, so much blood—” Ferdinand shudders. “It’s everything. All right? And you certainly are a part of that everything.”

Hubert fears his chest might cave in as that weight of everything takes hold. “I know I’ve—the things I’ve done.” He swallows. “But it has only ever been my duty. I thought that you . . . that we . . .”

Ferdinand’s eyebrows dart upward. “What we? There is no we. You’ve made that splendidly, appallingly clear.” He groans; pinches the bridge of his nose. “You’re a sadistic little shadow better with knives and poison than actual human emotion. No—wait, no. You can’t be a shadow, because I’ve never known a shadow as dense as you are. You’re like . . . tar. Some kind of poisonous sludge.”

“Dense?” Hubert echoes, because his brain has apparently left him for the evening. The cloying stink of flowers all around him is too much; the sight of Ferdinand, closed off from him, angry and hurt—too much still.

“Yes. Dense. And if you can’t figure out why, then all the better. The point is, I’m leaving. I can no longer abide Her Majesty’s plans, and the tremendous cost she is willing to accept for them. And I can no longer abide—you.”

Now Hubert’s brain is finally catching up. And like any cornered animal, he is prepared to lash out with everything he has.

“The feeling is perfectly mutual, I assure you, von Aegir.” He bares his teeth in a nasty mockery of a grin. “You are a loathsome little terrier, forever nipping at her Majesty’s heels, and the empire is better off without you.”

Ferdinand winces. “Hubert—”

“You have always been ignorant. Pathetic. Blind to the opportunities right before your eyes, because you’re too much a coward to take them, too worried about your precious noblesse to soil your hands with true labor.”

“I’m doing this,” Ferdinand says, his shoulders shaking, “because I want to do the right thing. The hard thing. Violence is easy. Senseless. There has to be a better way—”

“A better way? Listen to yourself. Foolish to the last.”

Ferdinand closes his eyes. “Maybe it is. But this is the only way I can be sure.”

“I hope you enjoy chasing whatever mythical better path you think exists. This path of blood is the only way to bring lasting change to this accursed world. And if you get in my way,” Hubert snarls, “I won’t hesitate to carve through you.”

Ferdinand turns from him, one hand to his forehead. Laughing, he thinks, from the shake of his shoulders. Let him laugh.

“You told me once . . .” Ferdinand starts, but then shakes his head. “No. Never mind. Farewell, von Vestra.”

“Good riddance, Ferdinand.

He turns, bootheels slamming against the terrace stones. Until—

“Wait,” Ferdinand says.

Hubert squeezes his eyes shut. If he turns now, his face is sure to fall. His shoulders draw up to his ears, and he waits.

“Don’t forget your flowers. I’m sure Edelgard will be missing them.”

Hubert snatches them back up, red petals skittering through the air as he does so, and stalks away.

 


NOW.

As much as Hubert detested the bitter cold of winter in Fhirdiad when he’d been stationed here, he can appreciate the vast network of underground tunnels it forced the Faerghans to build. After warping their way into the sub-basement of the Faerghan antiquities museum, they’re able to sweep their way beneath the central square, the cluster of administrative buildings in the castle’s shadow, and the gardens surrounding the Cathedral of Seiros without encountering another soul.

Varkos and Greta are leading the grim processional of magisters and captives, with Hubert’s arm locked in Varkos’s grip. It’s Greta’s behavior Hubert is watching most carefully, though. She’s already paused once to inject herself with something from a wicked-looking syringe, and Hubert doesn’t miss the sharp, hissing burst of magic around her as she does so. Nor the flash of red in her eyes. The ghost of tangled knots of crests that linger in the air. She must think her temporary infusion will protect her from the long-term ravages of blood reconstruction, but judging from the way her veins burn black against pale skin, he isn’t so convinced.

“You must have some clue,” Greta says, as they scour through the royal catacombs beneath the cathedral. “You were here long enough.”

“Your friend Cornelia was convinced of it, too.” He shoots a venomous glare at Varkos. “The best we ever got out of Dimitri, though, was that they’d entombed a number of relics in the royal catacombs. Cornelia opened all of the sarcophagi, though. I think we would have known if she’d recovered it.”

Somewhere overhead wafts the ghostly sound of organ music from the main cathedral, but down here in the darkness, Hubert can only hear the anxious thudding of his own pulse. He has some small semblance of a plan coming together, but his mother and what she’s capable of with her vile, bloody cocktail is the most dangerous and unpredictable variable. So, too, is the fact that there are people here he actually needs to protect. Terribly inconvenient, that.

He risks a glance behind him, to where the robed magisters are hauling Ferdinand, Linhardt, and Bernadetta, bound even more tightly than Hubert is. Ferdinand’s eyes meet his, and they are rounded, white-edged with fear, and if Hubert were any less determined a man that sight would break him right here. This is his doing. His doing for accepting the aid of monsters. His doing for throwing away everything to try to bolster his lady in a war they couldn’t win. It’s his fault, his fault she suffered needlessly, his fault the empire fell, his fault the one man who saw all his scars and his fangs must pay the price for him, again and again.

He is a monster. It’s his blood. It’s the way his life has been shaped from the start. Wickedness burns under his skin, and he is a weapon, a vessel, for every gruesome thing that can be done.

But he does it in service of something. A person, a cause. He is the shadow stretching long behind those who are bathed in light.

For Edelgard—and for Ferdinand—he will gladly crawl in darkness, again and again.

Greta is checking the sarcophagi, hand sweeping over them, head tilted with a frown. For a brief moment, there is a flicker as she passes the tomb of Queen Catherine III, but then she stops herself. Passes over again. A flicker on the sarcophagus’s front—the engraving of Saint Indech flares bright.

Hubert tilts his head. Catherine III had married into the Blaiddyd bloodline with the crest of Indech, if he recalled correctly.

A thin strip of light races from the sarcophagus toward the center of the chamber, where a spiraling wheel has been inlaid in the floor, with the crest of Blaiddyd at its heart. Each wedge is marked with a different crest—and right now, the crest of Indech is illuminated.

“Place the Four on the corresponding line,” Greta calls.

Hubert flexes his hands inside the manacles. Overhead, the organ music reaches a crescendo in one staggering chord.

Greta’s magisters arrange Ferdinand, Linhardt, and Bernadetta on the appropriate wedges, and Varkos stalks among them, a thin blade in hand. Hubert lurches forward—plan be damned. “What are you—”

“Down, lapdog.” Varkos points the blade at him. “We aren’t killing our sources just yet. You, on the other hand, are considerably more expendable.”

A quick flick of the blade, and he opens a thin wound on Ferdinand’s forearm. Ferdinand winces, and Hubert bites back a growl. Blood trickles from Ferdinand’s arm to the wedge of stone beneath him, and the crest of Cichol blooms to life in the stone’s grooves.

“A good point. Why haven’t you killed me yet?” Hubert needs to lure him in. Tempt him to use that blade. It won’t take care of Greta, but it’s a start. “I don’t know what more use I can possibly serve to you.”

But Greta answers as she shoves her sleeve up for another injection. “You never understood, did you, son? The greatest punishment has always been to make you live.”

Hubert thinks it’s a mark of his considerable growth that he doesn’t lunge for her right then.

“Live with your useless father. Live in the shadow of that von Hresvelg brat. Live to watch everything she’s worked for collapse around her as her own hubris ate her alive. And now I want you to live through this, too.”

And all the rage and contempt he’s harbored for her for so long—it dries up. All he can do is laugh.

“All this,” he says, “because I didn’t inherit your crest?”

“It’s not just you. It’s all the bloodlines. Left in the hands of weak, undeserving children. You play at war, you play at progress, you think you’ve earned the world that you’ve been given, all the power already dormant within it. And you turn your backs on it. You speak of throwing it aside, of ending your lineage, of letting what little advancement we’ve been given—like the Titanus, like the relics—of letting it rot. You don’t deserve our world.

“And for that,” Varkos says, slashing his blade across Bernadetta’s forearm as she whimpers, “we are taking it back.”

Bernadetta’s blood drips on the seal of Indech, and it too begins to glow and hum.

Hubert glares pointedly at Varkos. “It would seem to me that it’s you and your kind who fucked it all up in the first place, and all we can do is make the best of the mess you’ve left.”

And one more slice across Linhardt’s arm to awaken the seal of Cethleann. “You’ve already squandered your chance.”

One of the magisters brings forth a vial of blood and tips it over the seal of Macuil, and Hubert narrows his eyes. “Do I even want to know where you found that?”

“It was his idea.” Greta smirks at Linhardt, who narrows his eyes. “‘We should gather samples of all the known crests, for archival purposes.’ Didn’t expect it to be another one of those dreadful beasts, but can’t say I’m surprised.” She raises her hands and jerks her head to Varkos to get him to move. “Now. Out of my way.”

Greta presses both hands against the seal of Blaiddyd at the heart of the floor’s design.

Something rumbles deep beneath them, the earth itself shuddering. Bits of plaster and stone sprinkle down around them—then larger chunks. It feels as though the whole catacombs and cathedral above it might tear apart.

Hubert dives forward without thinking to shield Ferdinand, but a swift kick to the ribs from Varkos sends him sprawling. He rolls onto his back just as a column of light tears through the center of the seal—and rips a hole straight up to the cathedral above.

The rumbling continues, chunks of stone cascading down around them now. A particularly large wedge pins several of the magisters underneath it. In the distance, he hears shouts and screams as the rumbling slows and halts, and the shower of stone abates.

Hubert turns his head to the side. Greta is bathed in the golden glow, both her hands enveloped in ghastly, blinding light as she pulls something from the pulsating heart of the stone flooring. Above them, a small crowd of onlookers is gathering, peering down into the catacombs from the sanctuary.

Then Greta raises a dagger high overhead, electricity sparking along its blade, her arms. The Blade of Subjugation.

“Finally.”

She climbs up the landslide of rubble, a fierce glint to her eyes. She seems . . . larger somehow, fuller of shadows and seething hatred, and it’s a sight Hubert both detests and, in the dark and scheming cobwebs of his heart, admires. There is some of that ambition and fierceness and forcefulness in his blood.

But he has always been more than just his anger. He is more than just directionless fury.

He is the weapon.

Hubert crawls to his feet. After a quick scan of Ferdinand, Linhardt, and Bernadetta, he climbs after his mother, into the sanctuary itself.

Faerghan guards surround the hole, glaives drawn. Beyond them, on the raised platform of the narthex, the wedding party is staring: King Dimitri in a suit and flowing cape of velvet silver and blue, with similarly dressed Lords Gautier and Fraldarius at his back, and his groom Dedue in a high-collared Duscur suit of teal with hatching geometric designs. Lady von Martritz, it would seem, is presiding over the ceremony, while her wife Lady Dominic and a woman in Duscur garb stand on Dedue’s side.

So many crests, Hubert can hardly count them all. In the crowd, as well. Blaiddyd, Gautier, Fraldarius, Dominic, Daphnel, Charon, Lamine . . . His mother certainly knows how to pick her targets, he’ll give her that.

“Blaiddyd,” Greta bellows, her voice warping with something feral as it rings through the sanctuary. “Your false reign ends now. The crests return to those whom they are owed.”

She raises the blade, and Dimitri drops to his knees with an agonizing howl. Twists her wrist. The king is wrenched across the tiled flooring—

“My king—” Dedue lunges for him, but is thrown off in a crackle of electricity—

With considerable irritation, Hubert supposes that he ought to put an end to this. Even if the sight of his lady’s executioner being pulled across the floor, writhing on Greta’s strings, does bring him some bitter reprieve. But she’s distracted at last—her full concentration on wielding the blade even as it tries to rip Dimitri—and her—apart.

The crest of Blaiddyd flares brilliant in the narrowing space between the blade and Dimitri, the king screaming, unable to move. “Blaiddyd is mine now,” Greta snarls.

“Sorry, Mother.”

Hubert presses his left thumb to the back of his right hand. Traces the shape of the sigil inked inside his glove.

In a veil of violet magic, he warps forward until he’s standing right behind her. His arms close around his mother’s; his hands cover hers where she grips the blade.

Thumb applied to the thin, delicate bones of the wrist.

The blade’s angle twisted as she reacts to the pain.

And then he thrusts upward, the blade piercing beneath her rib cage and up until he feels the thick muscle of her heart.

“This one’s for me.”

Hubert uses her hands to rotate the blade, then, cradling her still, lowers her slowly to the floor.

“S-son . . .” The static dancing over the blade sputters. “What have you—”

“I am a von Vestra.” He keeps the blade in place, though the hot blood gushing over his hands more than ensures she won’t be fighting back. “And I don’t need your fucking crest.”

She goes limp—but still he waits a moment before releasing her. His vision is blurring; his arms are shaking from the strain of keeping the blade plunged deep. He looks up to find the king and all his wedding party staring at him with varying shades of horror and disbelief.

But his work isn’t done yet.

“Enough of this pathetic display.” Varkos has crawled up from the crypts, basking in a putrid glow. “I will end you Fódlan ants myself.”

Hubert plunges one hand into the gaping wound in his mother’s chest. Blood—he needs more blood. Blood infused with the crests of the Four. He sucks in his breath—now or never as he wraps his gore-smeared hand around the Blade of Subjugation—

The sudden rush of power feels like he’s splitting apart, a white-hot sun blazing too bright. The crestbearers in the room spark like neighboring stars in his vision, the blade hungry to control them all. And, oh, how tempting it is to make the false king dance for him too—to make him feel what his lady felt as her crests ate her alive. He may yet still. He may yet destroy them all—

Promise me, Hubert, Edelgard says, her eyes so full of fear, of hate for these monsters, of hope for what might be.

And he tells Ferdinand, with his daydream eyes and boundless heart—I’ll spend a lifetime earning you.

Hubert von Vestra is conniving, he is darkness, he is poison and deception and lies. But he is loyal. He does not break his word.

A crackle of the blade, and Varkos is wrenched toward him. And whatever arcane magic, whatever technological wizardry, the Argathans can work—it is not enough against these relics they covet so. Varkos is caught up in his grasp.

“And this,” Hubert says, “is for Lady Edelgard.”

The blade rakes easily through Varkos’s throat, gouting thick black blood.

Hubert drops the dagger. He doesn’t dare grasp it for a second longer. Before the infused blood gives out—before he gets too lost in whispered temptations, in the thousands of Faerghans surrounding him—

It clatters, anvil-loud, to the sanctuary floor. Hubert smiles, and uses the heel of one blood-drenched hand to shove his hair out of his face.

Then, dozens of city guard pressing in closer, he drops back down into the crypts. Kneels beside Ferdinand, still bound and gagged, who stretches weary fingers toward his face. Ferdinand, who still looks at him like a treasure, and not something to fear.

What a dreadful sight he must be. But no, he thinks—he only looks as he always has, as he’s always been. A monster. A weapon. But above all, loyal.

“It’s done,” Hubert murmurs, exhaustion gripping him and pulling him under—“I’m free.”

Chapter Text

Ferdinand weaves in and out of consciousness. Dreams. Echoes in his blood. Memories of a future he’ll never have.

Hubert sits beside him, hands clasped, face drawn, sallow from what he can see that isn’t hidden by hair. Holds his hand, sometimes. Brushes his hair, others. Tells him stories they both forget, things that never happened, dreams that never will.

Other times there’s a shoreline, the smell of brine and fresh fish thick in the air, and he’s lost so much, he’s lost so many of his siblings, but he still has someone to hold on to—someone to love. A daughter who smiles at him like he’s her whole world; a hunting bow at hand; daybreak rising from the sea like a promise of more to come.

Sometimes he sits on a throne. The worshipers writhe at his feet. But there’s something threatening, sickening in their voices as they chant his name. You aren’t fit to rule, he thinks, and maybe it’s Edelgard telling him so—maybe it’s his father—maybe it’s himself. You have no idea what it takes.

But then it all melts back into the shadow keeping watch over his bed. Head tilted forward, chin on his chest now, eyes closed. He jolts forward—breaks into a slow, fragile smile at the sight of Ferdinand. My love, he breathes. Are you awake?

 


When Ferdinand awakens, though, it isn’t Hubert, but Bernadetta who’s sitting at his bedside. He blinks a few times—unsure if he’s still wrapped up in the grips of sedatives, or whatever that foul painkiller was the castle’s physician was feeding him. The castle—right. He’s back in Fhirdiad, with the cold stone walls in the older wings, the high lead-lined windowpanes pouring weak wintry light in around them. There’s a sharp smell of camphor and soap hanging in the air.

“Heya, Ferdie.” Bernadetta offers him a tired smile. Aside from a gauze bandage wrapped around her left forearm, she’s looking in good health, which Ferdinand is relieved to see.

He squirms his way upright so he’s propped against his pillows. “We’re . . . safe?”

“Thanks to your—well. Your Hubert.” Her cheeks redden and she leans forward, like they’re sharing a secret. “Apparently we missed quite the dramatic scene at His Majesty’s wedding.”

“I wouldn’t say we missed it.” Ferdinand winces; his matching gauze bandage is itchy. “The bit we saw was plenty.” He can’t help it—he takes a quick scan around the infirmary. Linhardt is snoozing to his left, curled around a spare pillow, and there’s a stack of belongings on the chair beside him. Caspar, Ferdinand hopes. Otherwise, though, the room is empty. “Ah . . . what did happen, exactly?”

“Hubert gutted his mom,” Bernadetta gushes.

Ferdinand blinks. Then groans, sinking back into the pillows. “This is precisely why I didn’t invite him to His Majesty’s wedding. Can’t take him anywhere. Honestly.”

Bernadetta smirks at that. “And then that—other guy? With the face tattoos? He’s dead too now. Just between you and me, your—Hubert is kind of amazing. Definitely saved our lives.”

“One could argue he endangered them in the first place, by working with his mother.”

“Well, working to stop her,” Bernadetta says. “If she’d gotten ahold of that relic, it sounds like she could have killed way, way more people.”

“Right . . . that’s right. Hubert said it had something to do with the machines Linhardt is examining. I don’t suppose he’s elaborated any further on that?”

Bernadetta bites her lower lip. “Not yet. He, ah, wanted to wait until you were doing better first.”

Unease traces an icy finger down his back. “What do you mean? Where—where is he?”

“He’s here! Honest. The physician made him get some rest, is all. He basically sat right here for three days waiting for you to wake up.”

Ferdinand sits up straighter. “They didn’t . . . throw him in the dungeons again?”

“Well. Uh. About that.”

Bernadetta glances over her shoulder, and now Ferdinand sees it: the phalanx of castle guards barring the infirmary from the inside. Ferdinand’s very empty stomach twists as he recalls the letter he left for General Galatea what feels like ages ago.

 

I hereby resign as Minister of Adrestian-Faerghan Unification (or whatever we’re calling this endeavor these days). I cherish the role I served for the people of Fódlan and my fellow Adrestians, and I believe fully in the valuable work we all have done to rebuild after the war. However, I cannot in good conscience serve Faerghus in the manner it deserves when my own heart is conflicted thus. I wish you all the best in continuing our dreams.

 

“You’re kinda . . . not allowed to leave until King Dimitri has a chance to question us,” Bernadetta says. “Something about you defecting and running off with a wanted war criminal?”

Ferdinand squeezes his eyes shut. “I suppose that might be a reasonable interpretation of the events.” Then he can’t help it—he has to laugh. “I’m sure there’s some law against disrupting a royal wedding, too.”

“The uh, do-over wedding was more their style anyway. A cliffside overlooking the northern sea, autumn leaves everywhere, Duscur cavalry processional . . .” She sighs dreamily. “Everyone’s getting their happy ending, aren’t they?”

“Some, at least,” Ferdinand says. “Perhaps His Majesty will take that into consideration when passing judgment on me?”

“You’re silly.” Bernadetta kisses his temple as she stands. “Take care of yourself, Ferdie. You can worry about the rest of the world soon enough.”

 


As it turns out, though, he doesn’t see Hubert again until Dimitri himself summons them both to his office, accompanied with a squadron of guards. He catches Hubert’s eye as they’re ushered through the castle’s corridors; the poor man looks a wreck. Dark circles under his eyes; complexion even paler than usual. His gloves are gone again, and Ferdinand seems to recall a glimpse of them covered in blood. Probably unsalvageable—though who is Ferdinand kidding? Hubert would likely wear them anyway.

Yet seeing him knocks Ferdinand off-balance, righting everything wrong in him even as everything orderly skews into chaos.

Hubert is a goddess-damned nightmare, but he is Ferdinand’s nightmare—Ferdinand feels this with such certainty now that it steadies the ground beneath his feet. Makes whatever they’re heading toward feel like just another storm to weather. From the way Hubert’s whole face softens and the ends of his mouth twitch up, Ferdinand wants to think that maybe, just maybe, he feels it too.

“You’re awake,” Hubert says, awed and smiling. But they’re whisked into the king’s office and each pressed none too gently into wooden chairs, side by side, that face the king at his desk.

King Dimitri is dressed plainly today, in a fur-lined blue tunic and brown leather trousers. He looks . . . well, Ferdinand thinks, which he hopes is a good sign. Dedue stands behind him, white hair loose for once, one hand on the king’s office chair and the other on the axe at his belt. Aside from the axe, he, too, is dressed in considerably less armor than he typically wears when accompanying the king.

Ferdinand would like to take it as a good sign, but the guards circling around them seem to disagree.

“No shackles today?” Hubert holds his hands out in front of him. “My. Aren’t you terribly generous.”

“A courtesy. One you would not have showed me,” Dimitri adds, tone sharp. “And one that can easily be revoked.”

“Now, Dimitri. That was only business. Same as all of . . .” Hubert gestures around the office. “This. But, alas, that business has come to an end.”

“Has it, now?”

“Indeed. It would seem congratulations are in order, Your Majesty,” Hubert says, in his slipperiest voice. The one Ferdinand remembers cursing a great deal when it would appear out of nowhere right at his ear, back in school. But like everything about Hubert, it’s grown on him, and he catches himself smiling. “And . . . Your Majesty, as well? I confess I’m not certain of the appropriate titles in this situation.”

“No thanks to you,” King Dimitri says. He’s already frowning. A bad sign.

Ferdinand laces his fingers together and props one ankle on his knee. The more he lets Hubert talk, the worse this is going to go. “Your Majesty,” he starts, “if I might be permitted to explain myself—”

“Not now, von Aegir.” Dimitri raises one hand. “I’d like to hear an explanation from Edelgard’s pet here as to just what in the hells transpired at our wedding. The first one.” Dimitri turns toward him, giving the full force of his one-eyed glare one more. “I’ll get to you in a minute.”

Ferdinand shrinks down in his chair.

“I’m certain I don’t know.” Hubert makes a show of looking at his damaged hands. “I was just as much a prisoner of those villains as von Aegir here.”

“Hubert,” Ferdinand says, pleading.

“That was your mother, was it not?” Dimitri asks. “The one with that abominable relic.”

“Could have been.”

“You escaped our custody,” Dimitri continues, “poisoned von Aegir, in order to work with her on some appalling plot against me—”

“I never poisoned Ferdinand,” Hubert says coolly. “Ferdinand poisoned himself.”

Dimitri groans. “I can see this is pointl—”

“No, that part’s true,” Ferdinand says. At Dedue’s incredulous glare, he hastily adds, “Not on purpose. It’s—it’s rather a long story—”

Dimitri makes a different, more exasperated groan. “All right, so Ferdinand poisoned himself and you took the opportunity to escape our custody to run straight into some mad scheme with Magister von Kierchen, all for the opportunity to attack me—”

“I know it’s shocking, Your Majesty, but not everything in bloody Fódlan revolves around you,” Hubert snaps. “You had nothing to do with this.”

Dimitri’s eyebrows raise at that, but he says nothing, waiting for Hubert to continue.

“I made a promise to Emperor Edelgard. A promise bigger than you and your . . . kingdom. Bigger than her war. I swore I would avenge her, and as you saw very clearly, I have.”

He’s speaking with force, but there’s a tremor in it. Ferdinand has to close his hands into fists to stop himself from reaching over—taking Hubert’s hand. Because he sees, now, the thing he always missed in his assessment of von Vestra, the thing he admired without being able to explain why. The reason he first adored him, even as it repulsed him; the reason he trusts him, even after seeing his most fearsome depths.

It’s his devotion.

He’d spoken of laying a foundation of trust for them that night at the tower. And this, Ferdinand thinks, just might be the first stone.

“My purpose is served. So you may punish me as you like.”

“And how do you think I should do that?” Dimitri asks. “Set you free?” he scoffs. “An eye for an eye? I fear both options are a bit extreme for my liking.”

“If it were for me to choose,” Hubert says, “then I’d like to live simply as myself—free and unburdened. Free to—to choose a new purpose for myself, if I so wished.” And at this, he glances toward Ferdinand, and Goddess, if it isn’t the most dizzying thing Ferdinand has ever felt—like leaping from a great height, knowing his pegasus is there to catch him. “But I suspect you intend otherwise, King Dimitri.”

Dimitri turns toward his husband, now; Dedue bows forward, and they confer in low tones. Ferdinand has always envied their easy way with each other, but the sight of it aches for him now—aches with what could have been his, could still be, if only it weren’t for the war and the wounds they all bear. He looks back toward Hubert, but his gaze is fixed somewhere before him on the ground.

“In the end,” Dimitri says finally, “it really depends on you, von Vestra. How much you’re really willing to share about those . . . people. That weaponry, and . . .” He tilts his head. “Just what you mean when you say you avenged her.”

Hubert says nothing, still staring toward the floor. The king waits patiently, but Ferdinand’s chest feels wound too tight, ready to spring.

“Hubert,” he says softly.

Leans forward.

He slips his hand beneath Hubert’s own, and Hubert draws in a slight breath. Bare fingers close around Ferdinand’s, lightly, but with a tension behind them. One built for violence, but equally gifted, Ferdinand thinks, for exactly this.

“I did say I owed you, didn’t I, love.”

The words come out breathy, barely audible, but Ferdinand’s heart soars at them all the same.

“No,” Ferdinand murmurs, “this much, I think you owe to yourself.”

Hubert looks up at him. His smile is a slow, careful thing, ill-practiced and unguarded. Ferdinand thinks it might be the most beautiful smile he’s ever seen. But he isn’t entirely sure. He could spend a lifetime with Hubert trying to find out just how many smiles he can draw out of him like that.

“Flames, I adore you,” Hubert breathes, and Ferdinand’s face must be a deeper scarlet than his coat at this point, but he couldn’t care less.

And they could have been staring at each other for seconds or for hours when Dimitri finally clears his throat. “Well?”

“Well,” Hubert says. Stronger now. Grinning. He raises his chin to look His Majesty King Dimitri I square in the eye. “Tell me, Your Majesty. What do you know of the ancient civilization of Agartha?”


Hubert watches as the last of Ferdinand’s many suitcases is loaded onto the pegasus carriage with an expression that can only be described as extreme wariness. Ferdinand nudges him with an elbow. “Don’t worry. I’ve already sent word to have your belongings brought out of storage.”

“That’s not what concerns me.” Hubert flicks one hand in the direction of the lead pegasus on the carriage and, to Hubert’s credit, it is a rather crafty-looking thing with a moody sneer. Not usually the temperament one wants in a flying mount, but he’s been surprised before. “It’s the fact we must travel by air. Again.”

“Well. I suppose the good news is that after this, you won’t be traveling such great distances anytime soon!” Ferdinand laughs, then nudges Hubert again at the sour expression on his face. “Oh, loosen up. It’s the start of a new day. A new dawn.”

“A new aerial nightmare.”

Ferdinand can’t help it—he slides his arms around Hubert’s waist and faces him, forehead to nose, until he can feel Hubert’s warmth, savor his breath skimming over Ferdinand’s temple. “Trapped for over a day’s journey in a little carriage. Whatever will we do to pass the time?”

“Vomit, probably,” Hubert says, and shoves him off—but then immediately pulls him back in to kiss his forehead. “There.” He steps back. “That’s perhaps all the affection we ought to be rubbing in the Faerghans’ faces for now.”

“How boring,” Ferdinand says, but he knows Hubert has a point.

The fact that they’re standing here at all, readying for the long voyage back to Enbarr—on a rather more permanent basis this time—is downright miraculous. But as much shame as it clearly brought Hubert to confess, his confession was worth it. He told Dimitri everything about the Agarthans, their vile technology and magic, and—and this, Ferdinand thinks, was the rather crucial part—the location of their home base. Advance scouts confirmed it, and even now, the king’s council is debating how best to cope with the burgeoning threat.

A council that Ferdinand is not a part of, to his considerable relief. Almost relieved enough, in fact, to counterweight the new burden he’s received.

“Oh, Governor!” Ingrid calls, striding out onto the landing platform as she playfully waves a handkerchief at him. “Governor von Aegir!”

“Shh! For Goddess’s sake, not so loud.” Ferdinand closes his hand over hers. “Don’t make me start being all . . . govern-y just yet.”

The terms of Dimitri’s not-so-unconditional pardon for Ferdinand are still a gargantuan thing weighing down on Ferdinand, and he’s not yet ready to look it in the eye. You haven’t even asked after the results of your referendum, von Aegir, Dimitri had teased. Turns out, the majority of Adrestians voted for the middle option rather than outright independence or outright absorption. Independent local governance, but under the blanket of Faerghus’s larger government and economy.

Oh, Ferdinand had said, his collar suddenly too tight, how very nice for them.

Indeed it is. And I do think their first leader should be an Adrestian himself, to prove Faerghus’s commitment to letting them self-manage. One who understands the intricacies of Adrestian culture and society and tradition, but still has an eye toward the sort of progress you and I have worked so hard to advance.

Dimitri’s smile then was about the most sinister thing Ferdinand had seen in recent memory. Well, the most sinister thing that wasn’t Hubert or Hubert-adjacent.

I’ve selected just the man for the job.

H-have you now?

Yes, well. Let’s consider it the ‘conditional’ part of your royal pardon . . . Governor von Aegir.

Ingrid beams. “Well, I’d get you a going-away present, but the wedding season’s done a number on House Galatea’s finances.”

“Your presence is gift enough.” Ferdinand sweeps into a bow and kisses her hand. He glances past her, but sees none of the other Faerghans around. “I, uh, suppose it’s only going to be you, then.”

Ingrid’s mouth twists delicately. “Err, His Majesty was . . . indisposed.” She softens. “I’ll miss you, Ferdie. But I expect regular reports from Enbarr.”

“I think my life is about to become nothing but.”

“Not true. I’m sure he’s going to be taking up a considerable amount of your time and energy, whether you want it or not.” She tilts her head in the direction of Hubert, standing behind them with a deep scowl. “Good luck, Ferdie. I don’t envy you there.”

“I’ll do my best. At least I only have to worry about him running amok on one half of the continent.”

“As if that’s ever stopped him before.”

The conditional part of Hubert’s royal pardon, as it was offered by Dimitri through gritted teeth and under considerable duress—and only then after Hubert’s information proved its value—specified that he was never to come within five hundred miles of Fhirdiad. Violation was grounds for immediate execution.

Don’t worry, Your Majesty, Hubert had said, you couldn’t beg me to come back to this frigid hellscape.

 After a quick hug with Ingrid, Ferdinand heads back toward Hubert, and the waiting carriage. He’s about to reach for the door to open it for Hubert when Shamir drops down out of absolute goddess-damned nowhere, crossbow at hand.

“Hey.”

Ferdinand jumps back, while Hubert merely raises his chin. “Hello, mercenary.”

“Glad to hear you figured your shit out,” Shamir says to Hubert. “Sorta.”

“Glad to know your king won’t be permitting you to skin me alive anytime soon,” Hubert counters.

Ferdinand wraps an arm around Hubert’s. “All right, let’s maybe go easy with the threats—”

“Oh, no one’s threatening anyone,” Hubert says.

“Not yet,” Shamir agrees. “It’s only if you try coming back here that all bets are off.” She runs one hand along her crossbow. “Then we’ll have some fun.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be obliging.”

“No, we will not be obliging, because we’re going to be so Goddess-damned busy trying to run the Adrestian state that there won’t be time for meaningless threats and scheming, right?” Ferdinand squirms past both of them and finally yanks the carriage door open.

“I hope so,” Shamir says. “Just remember what I told you.”

Ferdinand feels his whole face go hot again. “I’m trying very hard to forget.”

“Not you. Him.” She gestures to Hubert. “Find what you stand for.”

Hubert shoots a meaningful glance Ferdinand’s way, which only deepens his blush. “I think I’m at least on that path.”

 


They settle in, and as the carriage lurches into the air, Hubert’s nails about tear through Ferdinand’s trousers as he clenches his thigh in a death grip. When at last they even out, though, he manages to relax, and even tolerates Ferdinand sliding a tentative arm around his shoulder. Ferdinand can’t stop himself from touching him. A reassurance, he supposes, that this is real—that they are here, together.

“How is the vomiting outlook now?” Ferdinand asks.

“I think I’ll survive.” Hubert nestles into his arm and exhales loudly. For a long moment, they’re silent this way, and Ferdinand would be hard-pressed to imagine anything more perfect.

When they reach Enbarr will be another matter—but for now, he will cling to this for all he can.

Eventually, Hubert begins to fidget, and starts digging through Ferdinand’s satchel at their feet. His hands close around Bernadetta’s new manuscript, and with one eyebrow raised, he tugs it free.

“More tales of tragedy and unresolved lust from Bernadetta, I see?”

Ferdinand tries to keep a straight face. “I don’t know what you mean. Those are written by A Lady.

“A lady whose work demonstrates an eerie synchronicity regarding all our old classmates from the Officers’ Academy,” Hubert says, flipping through the pages. “‘Fenris cried out in agony as Silvio slammed him to the wall, hand squeezed tight around his throat—’”

“Well, when you put it that way.” Ferdinand eases the manuscript out of Hubert’s hands and gathers those hands into his own. “Perhaps she just saw what none of us could, at first.”

Hubert looks up at him now, eyes glinting with something sharp. Dangerous, Ferdinand might have called it once—might still. But a different sort of dangerous; the kind he’s made peace with. The kind that’s tamed him, and that he’s tamed alike, and both of them have become an altogether new force.

“I’m . . . sorry,” Hubert says, voice tacky as though the words themselves are sticking to his mouth. “I truly am, Ferdinand. For the difficulties I’ve caused in your life. For being difficult.”

“This is sounding suspiciously like an apology,” Ferdinand says, one eyebrow raised. “I thought you said you had nothing to apologize for?”

“Well, I’m not repenting for the things I’ve done. Only, I am truly sorry that you’ve had to deal with the fallout from my actions.” He brings their joined hands to his lips, and kisses the ridge of Ferdinand’s knuckles, stoking sparks deep in Ferdinand’s gut. “I hope that going forward my . . . meness . . . will only be of benefit to you instead.”

“I adore your youness, so that’d be delightful.” He works one hand free of Hubert’s grasp and cups the side of Hubert’s face with it instead, keeping them face to face. “I just adore . . . you.”

Hubert sighs, eyes lidding, and tilts his face against Ferdinand’s hand. “And I you.”

Ferdinand’s smile feels so huge he doesn’t think he could smother it if he tried.

“I—I love you, Ferdinand von Aegir. I love your boundless optimism and rambunctious zest for politics and the way your nose crinkles when you laugh. I love the taste of you. I love the smell of you, even when you’ve been out for a long ride.” He leans closer; nudges his nose against Ferdinand’s to speak directly against his lips. “I love when I make you smile, especially when you’re trying to do anything but, because you’re so fucking proper, and how I love to see you properly f—”

Ferdinand cuts him off with a kiss, mouth open and hand gripping his jaw, and Hubert tastes like the perfect edge of twilight, dark and cool and alive with the promise of stars. Hubert moans as Ferdinand strokes his thumb along the underside of that cut-glass jaw, then chases it with his lips; chases it into the collar of Hubert’s shirt.

“I love you, too,” Ferdinand says, against pale skin and a fluttering pulse. “You’ve always been there. In my head, in my heart, under my skin sometimes, but always—you.”

“Like a splinter?” Hubert teases, as Ferdinand leans over him—pushes him down onto the carriage bench. “A poison, perhaps?”

“Like a fire. One I never could snuff out.” They’re face to face, Ferdinand’s hips cradled between Hubert’s thighs, and as Ferdinand kisses him again, it will never be close enough.

“Then we’re even.” Hubert pushes Ferdinand’s hair back where it’s starting to drape over them both. Gathers it reverently in a bared hand and twists it over one of Ferdinand’s shoulders. “Because I’ll be damned if I ever find religion, but you, Ferdinand, are my every prayer.”

And it is enough—to line up the jagged edges of their hearts; to give form and function to Hubert’s shadow, even as Ferdinand fumbles toward light. They can spend a lifetime rebuilding. Striving. Moving past. But to see each other as they are, even now, even imperfect—it is enough.

THE END.