Chapter 1: November 1st (50,000 words? That's nuts!)
This was supposed to be Seteth's job. He's the writer in the family. But no, he's been so busy these last 5,000 years - or however old he is - and couldn't I just do him this one little favor? Jerk. He's probably off fishing with Flayn somewhere.
I'm pretty sure none of you will believe me. I don't have a fancy title like "queen" or "archbishop." Most people outside Garreg Mach are barely aware that I exist. But I'll write it all out, and if this ends up being sold on street corners for a handful of change instead of in a leather-bound and gilt volume on the library shelves, no one can say I didn't warn them.
I'll start with one of the first things I can remember. I was carrying in the wash from the line when a Tall Person stopped me.
"You must be one of Jeralt's daughters!" gushed the Tall Person. "What a sweet family you all make! Which of you is the oldest?"
I figured this Tall Person must be an idiot. "Dad is," I said.
"No, no, dear," said the Tall Person. "Which of you girls is the oldest?"
"Dunno," I said. "I gotta take this stuff in to Beth." And I escaped quickly.
As I was handing over the linen I figured I'd ask Beth the Tall Person's question. After all, Beth knew everything.
"Which of us is the oldest, Beth?" says I.
"Stop asking silly questions," says she, in her infinite wisdom. "And go tell Dad dinner will be late. The moon is made of green cheese and the mice got at it." (I don't remember the real reason for eating late. It was probably boring.)
So off I went to find Dad. I'm pretty sure he was in a tavern. I told him about dinner and, since he was only slightly less knowledgeable than Beth, I asked him the question too. "Which of us is the oldest?"
"I don't know, you or Beth, one of the two. Is she looking after the kid by herself? Get back and help her."
So I went, and having stumped the rest of my family, I decided to give the kid a shot. "Hey, Kid," I said as I tried to keep her still so I could dress her, "which of us is the oldest?"
"Me!" she said and stuck her thumb back in her mouth. At the time I figured she hadn't understood the question. Now I'm not so sure.
So there we were, Dad, Beth, the kid and me. Just your normal family of wandering mercenaries. So I thought, at any rate, until I got a bit older and realized there were some odd things about us, and especially about the kid, or Kid, or Nona if you want to be technical. After spending a little time with her, strangers would come up to me or Beth (they never dared say it to Dad) and whisper, "She's a nice girl, but she's not quite right, is she?"
Beth and I didn't know what they meant at first. We'd raised the kid and we could read her like a book, so we didn't notice anything wrong. But strangers saw a kid who didn't smile, didn't laugh, didn't cry, didn't get angry, didn't do much - as far as they could tell - except listen with quiet attention. It spooked them.
Eventually the kid got old enough to notice her effect on people and it bothered her. That's when Beth and I taught her to smile. Nothing elaborate, just a soft, friendly smile that said, "Talk to me." It took awhile to get it to look natural, but once she had it down it worked like a charm. "What a nice girl!" strangers said, and talked her ears off, and she listened and was happy.
The second strange thing about the kid was some of the things she said. We were riding along one evening with the moon rising in front of us and she asked where the other moon was.
"What other moon?" we said.
"I don't know," she said. "I just thought there were two."
And sometimes she knew things she had no right to know, like the color of the tailfeathers of a flightless bird from Brigid when she'd never been to Brigid, never met someone from Brigid, never even heard of Brigid as far as we knew. But we got used to that too. It was just the kid being the kid.
The third strange thing was that she could fling magic around like an archmage we'd worked with near Enbarr. That was what people really noticed. Fódlanders have always been good at magic, but the kid was on another level. "She must have a Crest," they said, but Dad flatly refused to let anyone try and find out. If they got too persistent he'd round up the company and move on.
"That Crest business is for nobles and their brats," he said. "Better we stay out of it."
There was one more strange thing, but I'm not going to talk about it yet. I'm going to talk about the rest of us - Dad, Beth, me and our mercenary company.
Dad was the most famous mercenary in Fódlan, Jeralt Eisner, the Blade Breaker. Eventually he led his own company which was named after him. We got into the family business as we grew, learning to fight, ride, fly (not the kid, she was scared of heights), and work as a team. We never stayed in one place long and didn't get to know many people outside the company. When we showed up somewhere we'd get asked about our lives and our job and our Dad, but we'd be gone before things got much further than that.
Dad didn't talk about himself much. He never mentioned our mom or what he'd done before the life we knew. He looked out for us, but he didn't keep the reins very tight. When we got old enough to look after ourselves he spent most of his time drinking. Not drunk, though. He'd fake it sometimes to get away from people he didn't like, but we never saw him less than sober.
Beth was the rising star of our group, the best fighter in the company. It seemed like nothing could hurt her and nothing could stop her. She spent every spare moment training or studying military treatises, unless there was a dance being held nearby, that is. Dancing was the only hobby she allowed herself. She could spend all night going round and round with the local boys and then work all next day without batting an eye. It was disgusting.
As we kids got better known we got our own fancy titles. At first we were just "Jeralt's girls." Then we were "the brave one", "the quiet one" and "the other one." Then it was "Jeralt's Juggernaut", "Sweet Nonie" and... "the other one." Not that I was bitter. Not at all. I was furious. I actually got in a fistfight with Beth over it one night, which was stupid because she had nothing to do with it and also because she could mop the floor with me in her sleep. Dad broke us up, took me aside, gave me a long talk and a hug, and I started to learn to accept it. When I finally did get a title, "the Shadow of the Eisners", I almost didn't care. Almost.
Strangely enough, the questions about our ages never stopped. No one guessed that Beth and I were twins. Some folks thought I was older, some thought she was older, and when the kid grew up sometimes they thought she was the oldest. The confusion included Dad too. People started saying he looked too young to have kids our age. He ignored them, but it was true. I guess if we hadn't moved around so much our family would have raised a lot more questions than we did. Maybe that's why Dad did it.
I guess I should tell you a few more things about me, specifically. I did various things in the company - archery, scouting, spying, carrying messages, drawing maps, causing trouble. If Beth was the face of the Blade Breakers and the kid was the heart, I was the blade hidden in a boot or up a sleeve in case of emergencies. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't amazingly skilled. I wasn't the fastest or the smartest or the best shot. But I had an advantage.
I could control time.
I could only go back, though, and not very far. A minute was the most I ever managed and I think it nearly killed me. Ten to fifteen seconds was safe, though it got exhausting if I did it too much.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out this wasn't a thing everyone could do. When I saw someone screw up without immediately jumping back to correct themselves, I figured they were either stupid or tired. Once I actually asked Beth, "Why did you let that happen? Why didn't you change it?" And she shook her head and said, "It was too late, silly. You can't go back in time."
As if it were obvious. Beyond question. Then I started paying more attention and realized she was right. I was the only one. But I never said a word. Who'd believe me? And besides, I liked being thought of as someone with reflexes so fast, I could react to things before they happened.
One more thing about me, though it's also about Beth and the kid. My whole life I'd had the same two dreams over and over again. One I'll tell you about later. The other one went like this:
There were dark towers against a red sky, and a cold wind blowing, and I was afraid.
That's it. When I woke up I could still remember the shapes of the towers and the shadows cast over them by the red glare behind, but why I was afraid I couldn't say. It wasn't like the fear of being chased or being discovered. It was a sort of dread that crept deep inside you and killed everything you loved.
I tried drawing the towers once. I could draw pretty well but I couldn't get them to look right, no matter how hard I tried. I was sketching and re-sketching when Beth came in and looked over my shoulder. That was the first time I ever saw fear in her eyes.
"Jo, what is that a picture of?"
"I don't know. Someplace terrible."
"How did you... think it up?"
"I didn't, exactly. I dream about it sometimes, and I wish I didn't."
"Me too. I remember the spire against a red sky." She gave me a worried look. "You don't think it could be a real place, do you?"
"If it is, I hope we never go there."
Of course I had to open my big mouth. As soon as I said it, it was inevitable.
Chapter 2: November 2nd (Everybody's writing on the weekend)
"From Remire Village, at the head of the valley, winds the long road leading up to Garreg Mach, closely following the banks of the young Airmid River. Remire is pleasantly situated on the edge of the fields and farmland which supply the Church and provides a comfortable resting place for travelers on their way to the monastery."
So saith Brother Genitivi's Guide to the Holy Places, and he's right. It's a very nice little town. Whenever the Blade Breakers were in the area, Dad would take us to visit the kid's old nurse, who lived there with her family. Nana was the closest thing to a mother any of us could remember. We were sure she knew things about our real mother that Dad was keeping from us, but she never betrayed his secrets.
Our visits were short. My sisters and I loved the town and the river and the distant hills, but Dad seemed nervous and only too glad to mount up again and be on our way. We knew about the monastery a half day's ride up the road among the hills, but Dad hadn't raised us in the Church and we had no interest in playing pilgrim, so we never strayed up that way. Not until our last visit.
It was a quiet day in early spring. We'd all gone out to fish in the Airmid and watch whatever traffic passed along the road - farmers with their carts, mostly, but now and then a carriage. My luck wasn't great and by noon I'd only managed to catch a few measly gobies. No one likes gobies. At that point I gave up, told the others I was counting on them for a decent dinner and took my pitiful catch over to the stables. Dessie would eat 'em, I thought, and she did, though with a disappointed look on her scaly snout.
To atone for my sins I took her out on a flight in the afternoon sunshine. I waved to the others as we passed overhead and let Dessie wander at will. She headed into the hills, swooping to spook birds from the trees and sometimes diving down to skim the surface of the river, probably looking for another, better meal. The deserted road ran beneath us or beside us, sometimes through broad meadows, sometimes hemmed in by the walls of the canyon which the Airmid had carved for itself. I was about to turn Dessie back when a man came into view on the road below. He was alone, on foot, headed down the road rather than up, and moving at a rather remarkable pace. Then two more men hove into view, shouting and waving axes at the man in front of them, and I took a real interest in the situation.
Dessie was built for speed, not strength, so I couldn't just swoop down and grab the man without ending up in a mess on the ground, which would become a bigger mess once the axe lovers caught up, especially since the only weapon I had on me was a dagger. Instead I turned Dessie's head and headed for a narrow bit in the canyon which wasn't too far down the road from the man in the lead. I picked out a nice little ledge on the canyon wall, not too high up and big enough to make a landing on, and guided Dessie to it.
"Okay, girl," I said, searching around for something to tie to her saddle and settling on one of my riding gloves, "if you didn't like my beautiful gobies, Dad is just down the river with a bucket full of pike. Go get 'em! Tell him I sent you!" I gave her a whack on the rump and she was off. Dessie was smart, even for a wyvern, and Dad was smart, even for a dad. My message would get through. Now I just had to wait and see if runner #1 made it to me without losing his head, or any other vital bits.
He seemed more or less intact when he finally came around the bend, but he looked like he was slowing down a bit. I whistled as loud as I could and waved like a maniac. He veered in my direction, tossing a quick look over his shoulder to see if the axe lovers were on his heels. They must've been tiring too because they didn't appear until their quarry had already grabbed my hand and scrambled halfway to safety. I yanked him up as hard as I could - for a skinny guy he sure was heavy - and he sort of collapsed on the back of the ledge against the cliff face, trying to get air into his lungs. It was then I noticed that he had a bow and quiver strapped to his back. I didn't wait for permission; I had that bow out and strung and was fitting an arrow as the axe lovers charged up to our little retreat. They reversed pretty quickly when they saw me take aim and ducked behind some scraggly trees on the riverbank.
"Hey! Hold up! We got no beef with you! We just want the boy!"
"Why? What'd he do to you?"
"He, uh... we..."
"I'm afraid I hurt their feelings by not standing still and letting them put an axe through my head," the young man gasped from behind me. "Can I have my bow back?"
"No. You just sit there and keep breathing."
The men below were whispering to each other, probably trying to figure out if there was an easy way to get at us. They seemed pretty determined for a pair of common bandits. Of course, robbing people - nobles, no less, going by the young man's clothes - on the road to Garreg Mach wasn't something common bandits did. Not if they wanted to live.
"Hey," one of the men said again, "look, this is none of your business. Stay out of it. We just need the boy. Why get yourself hurt?"
"You have a point," I said. "This isn't any of my business." I turned to my ledgemate. "Hey, want to hire me?"
"I can offer you a great rate. Just one gold gets you my services for the rest of the day. Payment due only if you live that long."
"I should probably haggle, for the honor of the Alliance, but I'll let it go. Deal."
"Now it's my business," I called to the men below. "He just hired me as his bodyguard. You got a counter offer?"
They grumbled and started whispering to each other again. "We'll give you 100 gold."
"100 gold? I could sell his bow for twice that! Try again."
They went back to whispering and my client nudged me. "Don't sell my bow."
"Hush. I'm working here."
He gave me an easy grin. "Stalling for time?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"To me? Yes. To them? I hope not."
I got the men up to 300g but their axe hands were starting to look restless. I'd also realized that there might be more of these guys lurking about. Maybe they were stalling too. I handed my client his bow back and was trying to decide between fighting, running or staying on this ledge for the rest of our lives when a thunderbolt fell from the sky and ended negotiations. And by "thunderbolt" I mean my sister Beth.
She didn't even have her sword; I think she just grabbed a big stick off the ground, jumped on Dessie and came looking for me. One of the axemen was knocked into the river before he knew what was happening. The other one got pounded into the ground a bit. Beth's stick broke after the third or fourth hit and the guy in the river was on his feet again, axe held high, when my client put a stop to all that with a couple of well-placed arrows.
We scrambled down off the ledge. Beth picked up the slightly flattened guy's axe and we were starting explanations when Dad and the kid came thundering up on horseback, bringing Beth's pegasus, her equipment and mine with them. The explanations were starting all over again when my client spoke up, running his fingers through his dark hair.
"Sorry to interrupt, but there's still a problem."
"Yeah?" Dad looked him over with a frown. "What is it? And who are you, anyway? Those are Riegan colors."
"Just a student up at the monastery - I will be, anyway, if I ever get there. The problem is that I left a couple other students, along with one of our future instructors, back up the road there. Surrounded by more of them, I might add." He nodded at the body under the trees.
"Oh boy." Dad turned to me. "Jo, go see what the situation is. Stay high."
I hopped back on Dessie (she really earned her fish that day) and flew into the hills, keeping well above the treetops and out of arrow range. It wasn't long before I spotted a couple of overturned carriages lying in the road. I circled a few times, trying to get a full view of the situation. It looked like a standoff. A few people hunkered down behind the carriages, the river at their backs; a few bodies on the road between the carriages and the high bank opposite; a few more people at the foot of the bank, looking up and down the road nervously; and a few archers on top of the rise, just within the shadow of the treeline, ready in case the carriage folks poked their heads out.
It looked like a fun time was about to be had by all. I brought my report back to Dad and we worked out a plan.
Lord "Just a student" and I had the job of taking out the archers. He was pretty stealthy for a nobleman - a little too stealthy, in fact - so we managed to creep close enough to make pincushions of two of our targets before anyone was the wiser. The third one raised the alarm and my client took to his heels through the trees, leading the enemy right past where I was waiting to introduce him to my dagger. Introduction made. No more archers.
Their friends down below were alarmed, but their worries were only just beginning. I whistled a signal and around the bend charged Dad and Beth, getting faster as they got closer. It was over pretty quickly after that. The kid trotted up as we regrouped; her firepower hadn't even been needed.
"Is everyone all right?" she asked. "What about the people behind the carriages? Hello? Are you still alive? Do you need healing?"
"We are here. We - " began one voice, but it was cut off.
"Your Highness, it may be a trick," rumbled a deeper voice. "More mercenaries."
"It's not a trick," said my client. "That is, they are more mercenaries, but they're on our side. Promise."
"Is that you, Claude?" said the first voice. "Thank the goddess! We thought they had killed you." The speaker stood up and began climbing across the overturned carriage. He looked like your typical northerner, blond, blue eyed, etc. He was followed by another young man about his age but taller, darker and stockier. Probably from Duscar, I thought. Odd, but then my client looked half-Almyran, so it was clear I should expect anything in these parts.
"Was it you who rescued us, then?" the blond man said, glancing around at our family. "We owe you a great debt. Our escort abandoned us when we were attacked. It seems they were not as reliable as I was led to expect."
"Funny how that happened," said Lord Claude. "They all just up and vanished. I don't think the bandits even wasted an arrow on them."
Dad crossed his arms. "And it was probably just a coincidence that they were escorting the heirs of both the Kingdom and the Alliance. Because that's who you are, aren't you?" He looked pointedly at Lord Claude.
"Guilty. We thought it would be safer to travel together, especially since we had the group tactics professor... wait. Dimitri, where's the professor?"
"He is... indisposed."
"He fainted," said the taller man. "He is useless."
"Dedue, that... perhaps he was... " the prince trailed off and sighed.
Dad shook his head. "Okay. Just focus on getting up to the monastery for now. Without horses you'll need to leave the carriages here, but if you start walking you should make it before dark. Good luck. Kids, we should go before... oh no..."
Down the road came the sound of horses galloping and armor clanking. A lot of horses and a lot of armor. Dad gave one desperate look at his own horse, but it was too late. The Knights of Seiros swept round the bend and were upon us.
At first I wondered if they were going to ride us down, but their leader shouted a command and they slowed gradually, coming to a stop almost in front of us. The man in front dismounted and took off his helmet. I always imagined the Knights to be grim, battle-hardened types, but not this one - he was all friendliness and sunshine. "Thank the goddess! One of our fliers said that travelers were being attacked on the road and I feared we'd arrive too late. Is everyone safe?"
"For the most part," said the prince. "I do not know what has become of our escort. The rest of us are here, though the professor is... resting... behind the carriages. We owe our salvation to this man and these women."
"Indeed?" The knight turned to us. "The Church of Seiros is eternally..." He stopped, staring.
Dad groaned. "Why him?"
"It is you," said the knight, beaming at him. "Captain Jeralt! After all these years!"
"I'm not captain anymore, Alois. Just a wandering mercenary."
"But what are you doing here?"
"Protecting visitors to your monastery. Has it gotten so bad that people aren't safe on the road to Garreg Mach?"
"No! Well, today it... but usually..." While searching for words his eyes landed on Beth and he lit up again. "Are these your daughters? I can't believe it! I used to gallop you around the stableyard on my shoulders! Well, two of you at any rate, the third was... Captain Jeralt, you're not leaving?"
Dad was inching toward his horse. "We should get back to town. And you should get these people to the monastery."
"But captain!" The knight ran forward to cut him off. "You can't leave without seeing the archbishop! What would she say to me? And all of your old friends, they'll want to see you too! How can I tell them I just let you ride away? And your daughters!" He turned toward us. "Garreg Mach was your home, at least for a little while. You were all born there. Don't you want to see it again?"
We looked at each other. We looked at Dad. He looked at us, and at Alois, and at the road leading back to Remire Village. "I... suppose it wouldn't hurt to visit," he said at last.
"Excellent! Now let's see what we can do about these carriages."
One was beyond any quick repair, but the other was mostly undamaged. We quickly had it set back on its wheels. The knights sent to the monastery for horses to replace those which had run off and all of the luggage was packed into the working vehicle. Dad sent a message down the hill to Nana and then we set off, Alois in front with us, the knights behind, riding in formation around the four travelers, and the carriage bringing up the rear. Dessie got a place of honor on its roof; she was pretty worn out after her long day.
Alois kept up a flood of talk about the monastery, filling Dad in on the events of the last twenty years or so, though sometimes he'd turn to share a fond memory of our childhood with us. The sun was setting when he said that we had come to the last turn. He told us our first view of the monastery would be "really something," and he wasn't wrong. It was something.
I think I actually screamed and started to turn my horse back down the hill. Beth pulled back on the reins so hard that her pegasus came to a dead stop. The procession halted behind us.
"What's wrong?" Dad and Alois kept saying, while the kid looked back and forth between us with wide eyes. There was no choice. We had to go on. I looked at Beth, and she looked at me, and we started forward again, toward the spire darkly shadowed against a burning sky.
Chapter 3: November 3rd (Beware the fanfic exposition)
Darkness kept falling as we rode into the monastery grounds. The whole place seemed to be made of walls - walls of stone, walls of people watching as we passed, the wall of the Knights riding behind us. Stables grew up out of the dark and we all dismounted; Alois assured us that our animals would be well taken care of before ushering us onward.
A few people recognized Dad as we threaded through grey passages. Even more recognized him once we reached the barracks. We heard his name called and gossiped and whispered all around us - Captain Jeralt, Jeralt Eisner, the old captain, the mercenary leader, the Blade Breaker. Dad and Alois kept moving steadily on as best they could, nodding here and shaking a hand there. Finally Alois guided us into a modest but comfortable set of rooms where a good fire was blazing.
"Your old quarters, captain!" he said, as if he'd magicked them up just for us. "They're mine now, but I don't really use them; I spend most of my time with my family in a little cottage Seteth gave us. You know the one, it's out by... never mind, that can wait. I need to go make a report. I'll let you know if the archbishop wants to see you tonight or tomorrow and, oh, you're probably hungry, aren't you?"
"Starving," said Dad.
"I'll see what I can get sent over from the dining hall. You know where everything is, just make yourself at home - again!" He laughed and headed out the door.
Dad looked around the room slowly. "So. We're here. I don't know about all this, but I suppose it's too late now. Let's get washed up. I wonder if I can convince someone to bring me a couple of beers..."
We all got clean and warm and when the food finally showed up, we pounced on it like a pack of wild beasts. Once our stomachs went from gnawing on our insides to contented murmuring we gathered around the fire and waited for Alois's return. Dad, Beth and I were still on edge, but the kid was taking it all in her stride. She seemed slightly more alive than normal, more curious, more sensitive, as if she was drawing energy from that dark, grey, horrible place.
"Dad?" she said. "Isn't this a church?"
"Of course it is. Why?"
"That man we met - Claude - said he and the others were students. Are they being sent here to learn their letters?"
Dad chuckled. "No. Noble brats have tutors for that sort of thing. They're sent here to learn how to fight."
"Fight? In a church?"
"Sure. The Knights learn how to fight here, some of them."
"They're learning to be Knights?"
"No. Not exactly. " Dad sat back and rubbed his eyes. "See, it works in the Knights just like it does in our company. If someone new joins, they have to be trained to work with the rest of us. And sometimes they need help learning the lance, or the bow, or they've never been flying before, so the others pitch in to teach them. Problem was, the Knights started doing that so well the nobles decided they wanted in on it. Their own masters weren't good enough any more, they wanted the Church to train their brats. And one of the Rheas - I think it was the sixth - finally gave in. She told them to send their kids here and some of the retired Knights would take them in hand. Not for free, of course. A large donation to the Church was required.
"Well, eventually some of the merchant families in the Alliance decided they'd like to send their kids here too. The nobles kicked and screamed and wailed about their precious heirs getting too near dirty commoners, but Rhea number seven, or eight, or whatever, told them to get over it and opened the school to everyone who could pay the money. After that they got more students than ever. It became too much for the Knights to handle and the Church started hiring masters from around Fódlan to help out. It's mostly taught by the outside folks now, but the Knights still help if they're needed. And that's why the prince and the Riegan kid and probably a bunch more blue blooded brats are hanging around. Once they're done learning how best to kill each other, they'll all head back to their own territories and go on fighting the stupid little wars that keep us in business."
"That's sad. I sort of thought the Church would want to make things more peaceful."
"Rhea does things her own way. If you want explanations, she's the one you'd have to ask. But good luck getting any answers."
Eventually Alois came back to fetch us. We followed him down more corridors and through a huge reception hall with rows of chandeliers hung from the ceiling, though their candles were dark and all the light came from sconces on the walls and a huge fireplace at one end. As we walked Alois told us how we were expected to behave in front of the archbishop. He kept saying, "Don't be nervous!", but I think the only nervous one was him. We didn't know enough about the Church to be intimidated by its fancy titles. We'd met nobles before - we knew to bow and keep our mouths shut and wait for it to be over.
We climbed a set of stairs and ended up in front of a huge set of doors. The audience chamber, we were told. Of course it was. Just once I want to meet an Important Person who holds audiences in a nice, warm, cozy room with comfortable seats and tables full of free snacks and drinks.
"Go on in, captain, they're waiting for you," the Knight said. "Can you find your way back to the barracks yourself or should I wait?"
"I can do it. Go home to your family."
"Thanks, captain. Good night. Good night, girls. Don't be nervous!" He waved and clanked off down the stairs.
Dad took a deep breath. "Let's get this over with." He pushed open the doors and we stepped inside.
It was a large room full of marble and carved columns and the other things you'd expect. Nothing to be nervous about. At the far end was a dais with a sort of throne sitting on it. Also nothing to be nervous about. But in front of the dais were three very unnerving people.
I don't know if you've ever met someone with green hair. I don't mean someone who's gotten into a dyer's vats and decided to try the nasty stuff out on themselves (I did that once - nice effect but half of my hair fell out afterwards). I mean the real thing. It's sort of off-putting because that's not a place you expect such green to be. And when the eyes are the exact same green as the hair, it's even more strange. What's funny is that my sisters and I had met - well, seen - someone with that same kind of hair and eyes before, but that didn't make things better. It made them worse.
There were two women and a man. One woman was taller and wearing a fancy headdress that screamed "archbishop." She seemed about our age, mine and Beth's that is, but she had the same funny ageless look that Dad did. She was smiling a benevolent archbishop-y smile and standing as still and poised as one of the statues which lined the walls.
The man matched the woman as far as age, but he wasn't smiling. Oh no. He had a stony look which hinted at disapproval around the edges. He wasn't wearing any fancy headdress either and his robes were more subdued. Maybe he was jealous of his flashy friend.
The third woman was the shortest of the three. She wasn't looking at us with distant benevolence or distant disdain. She was just looking, wide-eyed and curious, and that, combined with her height, made her seem like she was younger than the others - the kid's age, maybe, or even less.
We followed Dad's lead as he went up and bowed and waited for whatever was coming.
"Jeralt Eisner," said the archbishop in a low, motherly voice. "What a pleasure it is to see you again. The goddess must have sent you to us in our time of need." Dad shifted uncomfortably and she continued. "We have been told about the attack on the road. If not for you and your daughters, a great tragedy might have occurred. The Kingdom, the Alliance and the Church are in your debt."
"Yeah, well, we were happy to help. Maybe they'll pay us a little more the next time they give us a job."
"It seems you have raised your daughters well. They were very small when you left us. Beth, was it not, and Jo, and..." She paused as her eyes scanned the three of us, coming to rest on the kid.
"Nona," Dad said, putting a hand on the kid's shoulder.
"After her mother. I see." The archbishop's gaze remained focused on the kid for a moment, then moved on. "Your family handled the situation much more competently than our new instructor, it seems."
"Yes. It is a shame. Once word of his weakness spreads among the students, I am afraid they will lose all confidence in him. And yet classes are about to begin. We cannot do without an instructor in group tactics and maneuvers. It is the backbone of our training. And this year is especially important - the Empire's crown princess, the Kingdom's crown prince and the heir of House Riegan are all with us."
"I'm sure one of the Knights will be able to fill in."
"Possibly, but the goddess has provided us with an even better option, if you are willing, Jeralt."
Dad sighed and dragged a hand down his face. "You want me to teach the brats."
The frowning man stirred. "I hope you will not use the term 'brats' where they can hear you," he said. "We do expect a certain level of professional behavior."
"I'm sure Jeralt will behave himself appropriately, Seteth," said the archbishop, and looked back at Dad. "This would only be temporary. We will review our other candidates for the position and appoint one as quickly as possible. It should take little more than a month, possibly two. Can your company spare you that long?"
"I don't know. Maybe. What about my kids? Where do they fit in?"
"It is my hope that they will remain here with you and provide assistance if you require it. They, too, are part of our family, though they may not remember it. It would give me great joy to know the young women they have become."
Dad looked at us uncertainly. "Just for a few months? You're sure?"
"Unless you decide otherwise. It is entirely your decision, Jeralt."
"Kids? What do you think?"
Beth and I hesitated, but the kid spoke right up. "Let's stay. I like it here, Dad."
Beth shrugged. "If Kid wants to stay, I'm all right with it."
I glanced at the green man, who was as frowny as ever, and the quiet woman - girl? - by his side, still staring with wide-eyed curiosity. "Okay. I guess this might be interesting."
Chapter 4: November 3rd part 2 (Trying to get ahead of the workweek)
The company went on without us. Our luggage was hauled up to the monastery from Nana's house - we didn't have much, we always traveled light - and we were installed in a couple of rooms in the faculty wing, Dad in one, the rest of us in the other. He was immediately overwhelmed with preparing for the school year on short notice and we were left to wander the monastery as we pleased.
Once I got a look at the place by daylight I realized it wasn't so bad. Garreg Mach sits in a little valley of its own. There are fields and forests and the Airmid River stops to make a mountain lake before it gets on with things. There are buildings scattered all around the valley, even on the islands in the middle of the lake, but the monastery proper is the huge group of them near the cathedral - living quarters, stables, dining hall, training hall, reception hall with offices above, infirmary, gardens, greenhouse and a marketplace, surrounded by a wall except on the side facing the lake. The cathedral itself sits on a hill separate from the rest of grounds, with a huge bridge built between it and the reception hall; an awkward arrangement, I thought, but it certainly looks impressive.
Beth homed in on the training hall immediately. There she met a group of equally training-obsessed nutcases, most of them from the Kingdom, I gathered, including the prince. I spent some time hanging around them at first, but when I saw Lord Felix walking toward me with that "Let's duel" look in his eyes, I decided I'd be safer elsewhere.
The kid flitted about the monastery like a butterfly, and like a butterfly she usually ended up in the gardens or the greenhouse. She seemed fascinated by the cathedral, though also half afraid of it. "I think it's a bad place," she said, though she couldn't say why. In time she got over that and began attending services and singing in the choir as if she'd been doing those things her whole life.
I spent my time exploring the grounds and getting to know the faces of our fellow residents. I soon noticed that I never saw the archbishop wandering about; occasionally she'd hold a service in the cathedral, but she spent most of her time in the upper floors of the reception hall. It was the man, Seteth, who seemed to be most involved in the day-to-day workings of the monastery. I'd see him here, there and everywhere, always in a hurry, moving from task to task without a glance to the right or to the left, the same stern expression on his face. A hush seemed to follow him - when he walked by a group of people or entered a room everyone would fall respectfully silent until he was gone.
It was tempting. Too tempting. I had to see if he was a man or some kind of holy clockwork toy.
I started shadowing him around the monastery. If I found him talking to the merchants, I'd perch on a cart not too far away; if I found him examining the animals in the stables, I'd take Dessie out for a walk around the yard; if I found him fussing around the statues in the cathedral, I'd take great interest in the carvings. Still I caught no glimpse of humanity under that singly-focused exterior. He did eventually start to notice me, though. He'd glance over as he walked by, I'd smile all friendly-like, he'd frown and move on.
On the second day of this I was sitting atop a low wall behind the dining hall, watching him count supply crates and contemplating more drastic measures. Throw produce at him? Risky. Tell him one of Alois's awful jokes? He'd probably heard them all. Take a cue from Felix and challenge him to a duel? Could he even swing a sword?
I was still going over my options when I realized he'd finished counting and was off again. He glanced at me as he went past, I smiled, he frowned, but instead of moving on he changed direction and came toward me. I almost fell off the wall.
"Are you following me?" he demanded.
"Uh, yes," I said, steadying myself. "Wasn't it obvious?"
I guess that's not the response he expected because he was quiet for a bit. "Why?" he said at last.
"I wanted to see if you were a machine running on a track."
"Do you have hobbies? Take breaks? Does the archbishop wind you up with a key every morning?"
He was still frowning, but now it read more like confusion than disapproval. "Don't you have better things to do with your time?"
"Not that I know of. Why, are you not worth my time?"
He blinked at me. "Surely there are more interesting ways to spend your day."
"I dunno. This is getting more interesting all the time. I'm going to put it in my diary: 'Today Seteth actually talked to me. I guess he doesn't hate us.'" I grinned at him and he looked slightly embarrassed.
"I have nothing against you or your family. I apologize if I gave that impression. But your father's appointment was rather... unorthodox. My concern is for the reputation of our school."
"Dad won't let you down. And when you finally get someone here to replace him, we'll be off. Just like that." Seeing him up close, and with the frown lines smoothed out, I realized he wasn't bad looking. Even the green hair suited him. I started to wonder how old he really was. "How much damage could we possibly do in two months, anyway? Or shouldn't I ask?"
"Not a great deal. I hope." He almost, almost smiled. But then he glanced away and all the doors which had opened in his face slammed shut again. "I have a great deal to do. I should get back to it. Goodbye, Miss Eisner."
"Call me Jo!" I said, but he was back on his track again and didn't seem to hear. Oh well. It was progress.
The second target of my rather dubious attentions was the remaining member of the green-haired trio, who, Alois informed me, was Flayn, Seteth's little sister. She was more visible than the archbishop but less than her brother; she sort of existed on the edges of the monastery, watching what went on without being an active participant. I'd notice her in the middle distance as I went about my day, especially if I was fishing in the lake, but she disappeared if I got too close. So I decided to set a trap.
About a week after we arrived, just before school started, I went down to the lake at sunrise with my pole and bucket and favorite fly. I'd been out there for a good two hours and had a couple of shining trout stashed away when I noticed the telltale flash of green hair out of the corner of my eye. I yawned, stretched, stuck the pole in the bank where I was sitting and wandered off in the opposite direction, out of her line of sight. Then I made a wide loop to double back around. I wasn't sure she'd still be there when I reached her spot, but she was, gazing out over the water.
"Hello, Flayn," I said. "Want some fish?"
She jumped with a little "Eeek!" and whirled to face me. I kept talking.
"I've got a few nice ones already, but I think you'll like 'em better once they're cooked. My sister makes a mean fish stew. We'd love some company."
Flayn gaped. "Are you... inviting me... to eat with you?"
"That's the idea. Do you like fish?"
"I adore fish! But my brother does not like me to go fishing alone, and he so rarely has the time..."
"Great! It's settled. Kid's going to meet me up in the kitchen about an hour before noon, so there's still time to grab a few more trout. Want to join me?"
"Well... I do not know what my brother would say... but yes!" She clapped her hands and we walked back down to the water together. "This is such a treat! So few of our visitors are comfortable even speaking with me."
"Did I miss something? You don't seem very terrifying." I looked her over as I prepared to cast my line again. Her hair and clothes were a bit quaintly styled, and of course the hair was green, but that didn't seem so bad.
"I take it you were not raised in the Church?"
"No, Dad didn't think it was important. Why?"
"Have you heard of the Chosen?"
"Um... maybe. Vaguely."
Flayn tsked at me in mock disappointment. "I suppose I shall have to enlighten you, though I hope it will not change your behavior toward me. The Chosen are those the goddess has selected to watch over her church. We are the successors of Saint Seiros and her companions. At first Rhea was the only one, but later, when the Church had grown much larger, the goddess Chose my brother and I to aid her."
"When did all this happen?"
"Oh, many centuries ago. We have died and been reborn several times. It is quite exciting."
"No kidding. Is that what's behind the hair?"
"The color, you mean? Yes. Green hair and eyes are the token of being Chosen. They set us apart." She sighed and looked out over the water. "Though that is hard, at times. The believers revere me, but, as I said, they are uncomfortable in my presence. I am always glad when unbelievers visit the monastery, but they rarely stay for long."
"I guess that's true. We're not staying very long either. But we can be friends while we're here, if you want."
"I would like that!" She straightened up and smiled brightly at me. "I only hope Seteth does not object. I love my brother, but he can be trying at times."
"We'll have to work on him. I think I got him to unbend yesterday. About an inch. It didn't last, though."
She laughed. "He takes his duties very seriously. He is less... unbending when it is just ourselves. If only he could also make some friends."
"He's not married, is he? Or anything like that?"
"No. Why? Are you interested?"
"Maybe. Though if I've only got two months at the most, I doubt I'll be able to get anywhere with him. Want to try a cast?"
"Yes, please!" She took the pole I offered her and we spent the rest of the morning taking turns to fill the bucket.
The kid looked a little surprised when I arrived in the kitchen with my guest, though I'm sure Flayn didn't notice. The kitchen staff stopped and started whispering among themselves as she came up wearing her well-practiced smile. "Hello, Jo! And you're Flayn, is that right? How many did you get?"
"Four!" said Flayn proudly. "Is that enough?"
"I should think so! May I see?" As she peered into the bucket a familiar-looking young man walked across the kitchen to us. She held out the bucket and he glanced inside, then nodded to her. She nodded back.
"Dedue is going to teach me his stew recipe, though I'm afraid we'll have to use dried herbs instead of fresh, at least for now. Could you clean the fish while we get things ready?"
Flayn and I set to work. The kitchen staff slowly got used to their Chosen's presence, though it was much quieter in the place than usual, especially since Dedue and the kid had worked out some way of communicating without speaking. When the stew was done we removed to the dining hall, inviting Dedue along with us, and, despite some sideways glances at the strange group we made, had a very friendly meal together. Garreg Mach was already starting to feel like home.
Chapter 5: November 4th (Still officially ahead)
School started and everything went smoothly right up until we almost got kicked out of the monastery.
I want to make it clear that I was innocent. Well, mostly innocent. More innocent than my completely hopeless sisters. All a student had to do was make doe-eyes and say, "Help! My instructor won't train me 24 hours a day!" or "My parents don't understand me!" or "When I cast Fire my hands turn purple with green stripes!" and my sisters would practically adopt them on the spot. No family pride. I maintained an aloof and professional attitude at all times, and if Claude, Petra or Ashe say otherwise, don't you believe them! I was a rock!
Anyway, as far as we knew, everything was fine. Dad grumbled, but he slowed down on his attempts to drink the monastery dry, so he must've been enjoying himself. He only had the students three days a week; the rest of the time they were with their skill instructors. Morning would be for lecture and then we'd do drills in the afternoon. My sisters and I stayed in the background unless Dad needed some kind of demonstration, and on the off days we managed to keep ourselves entertained, though it was pretty quiet with all the kids in school and no holy days coming up anytime soon. I poked at Seteth (he ignored me) and learned more about the Church from Flayn. She told me a bunch of stuff about the goddess and how She'd left us and one day was prophesied to return. I didn't believe half of what she said, but I had my own reasons for that.
By the second week our routine was pretty well set. We'd wake up, eat breakfast and get to work. One of us would roust Lord Linhardt out of bed. Another would gently coax Lady Bernadetta from her room. Then we'd nudge Raphael and Lady Ingrid out of the dining hall, wake up Lord Linhardt again, drag Lord Ferdinand and Lady Marianne away from the stables, wake Lord Linhardt for the third time (it usually stuck by then), tell Lord Felix to stop whaling on whoever he'd suckered into dueling with him, pry Lord Lorenz away from the noblewoman of the week, and usher the unruly mob to class.
And that's the last time I'm using everyone's titles because it's too much to write and who cares anyway. Besides Lorenz. Sorry Lorenz.
Once school was over Beth would gather with her overachievers from the Kingdom, plus one or two of the Imperials and the Knights, and they'd all go to town on each other. The kid attracted the underachievers instead and they'd all meet out in the gardens. I don't mean that the garden-dwellers didn't care about their training, they just had other priorities - Linhardt (when he was awake) wanted to be a Crest scholar, Ignatz wanted to paint, Mercedes wanted to be a nun, Marianne preferred animals to people, Bernadetta preferred her room to anything, and so on. They were a peaceful bunch and I enjoyed hanging out with them. Ignatz even began teaching me; I'd never gone much beyond charcoal sketches before.
But I spent most of my time with my own little group, the ones I mentioned a few paragraphs back - Claude, Petra and Ashe. We put on archery competitions, horse races and wyvern agility courses, mostly so we could show off in front of everyone else, and in between times Ashe and I enjoyed teaching the other two about Fódlan. Petra's from Brigid, of course, and Claude was of mysterious origins, having only arrived in Fódlan a year ago, a fact which irritated Lorenz no end. I remembered what Dad had said about noble graduates going back home to wage their petty little wars and wondered if the Blade Breakers would end up fighting for House Riegan against House Gloucester someday, or vice versa.
The first storm clouds appeared when Flayn knocked on our door one night as we were going to bed. She looked worried and gathered us around so she didn't have to speak too loudly.
"There have been complaints. My brother is taking them to Rhea tonight."
"Complaints?" Beth said. "About Dad?"
"No. About you. You three."
"Us?" said the kid. "Did we do something wrong?"
"Unfortunately, my brother would not tell me the nature of these complaints, or of their origins. But I believe I can venture a guess - it was the other instructors."
"Those three?" Beth turned to me. "Jo, have you been causing trouble?"
"No! Not with them, at least! I don't think I've said two words to those people."
"Kid, have you had trouble with them?"
"I don't remember any. One of them said some things about Dedue I didn't like, but I think she thought she was helping me."
"What? What did she say? Does Dimi- does the prince know about this?"
"Oh, Beth, don't tell him. I didn't want - only you asked, and I thought - "
"Okay, Kid. I'll drop it. Though... ugh." She turned back to our visitor. "I'm sorry, Flayn, I don't mean to ignore you. Thanks for letting us know."
"You're quite welcome. I should go. My brother is no doubt looking high and low for me."
We talked about it with Dad the next morning. He was as confused as we were. The skill instructors hadn't exactly been friendly with him but they never mentioned any problems. The day passed slowly as we waited for the blow to fall, and in the evening, it finally did. We were summoned to the audience chamber. Just Beth and the kid and me.
The setup hadn't changed. Marble, columns, throne, green-haired welcoming committee. The archbishop and Seteth wore the same clothes and the same expressions they had last time; only Flayn had changed. She was staring at the ground, shoulders slumped, as if she'd just lost her only friend. But I was a rock. I beat down my urge to give the Most Holy Chosen of the Goddess a hug and waited to hear what our fate would be.
"Thank you for coming," said the archbishop. "There is something very important we wish to discuss with you. Have you been enjoying your time at the monastery?"
That wasn't quite the lead off we'd been expecting. The kid and I glanced at Beth. "I believe I speak for all of us when I say yes, we have, Your Holiness," she said.
"I am pleased to hear it. Your family is precious to us in many ways." She glanced at Seteth and he cleared his throat. Time to tell us the bad news.
"But," he said, "there are some here at the monastery who have found your presence disruptive. More specifically, you are having adverse effects on the students. I believe you, Miss Beth, have been holding additional, unofficial training sessions."
"I... have been training with some of the students after class, yes, and on their free days."
"While we appreciate your desire to help them improve, your style and technique are at odds with those of our instructors. The students learn one thing during the day, another from you at night, and when they return to class the next morning, our instructors find that half their previous work has been undone. This cannot continue."
Beth's face fell. Seteth waited a moment for a reply, then turned to the kid.
"Miss Nona, it seems that your actions have been felt in a different way. You are accused of causing disaffection in the student body."
She gasped. "Disaffection? What does that mean? Have I made them dislike each other?"
"No, that is not what I meant. I meant that they are neglecting their studies and disregarding their instructors. They seem... impatient to see the day over with."
"Oh. I'm so sorry. Have they fallen very far behind?"
"No, I'm told that none of them have actually fallen behind. As yet."
"I'm glad to hear it. I didn't mean to hold them back." She looked at Rhea. "Your Holiness, I'm afraid we've terribly disappointed you."
"Not at all," said the archbishop, beaming down at us. "In fact, it is exactly what I was expecting."
Now we were confused again. Even Seteth gave her a questioning look.
"Your Holiness, I don't understand," said Beth. "If you expected us to be a bad influence, why did you ask us to stay?"
"You have not been a bad influence. You are remarkable young women, and the students have recognized that, and flocked to your side. They listen to you. Respect you. Love you." Her eyes lingered on the kid for a moment. "This is a wonderful thing."
An awkward silence descended on the room. Seteth cleared his throat once more and picked up where he'd left off.
"As I was saying, this state of affairs cannot continue. We have a reputation to uphold. I hope you can see that."
"I... suppose so," said Beth. "What is it you wish us to do? Keep our distance from the students until Dad's replacement arrives?"
"I am afraid more extreme measures are required. The students seem determined to seek you out. In order to minimize further disruption, we have decided -"
" - to give you your own classes," the archbishop finished smoothly. Seteth's head whipped around as if he'd been slapped. Flayn looked up from the floor for the first time.
"You... " Beth couldn't finish the sentence. She just gaped.
"Small ones, of course," said the archbishop. "Perhaps five or so for each of you, assigned according to your individual specialties. If you focus on your own students, and no others, the objections which have been raised should be answered. Is this acceptable?"
We all stared at her for a bit. Seteth looked stunned. Flayn was jumping in place and clapping her hands silently.
"Can we talk it over with our father?" said Beth, finally.
"Of course. Please let me know your decision tomorrow, and if you choose to accept the offer, which students you would like to instruct."
"Thank you, Your Holiness. Are we dismissed?"
"You are. May the goddess guide you."
We walked back to the faculty wing in a daze. Dad listened to our story quietly, but he didn't seem thrilled when we came to Rhea's offer. When Beth was done talking he just sat and stared into the fire. We waited.
"I knew it," he said. "I knew something like this was coming. Do you kids understand what this means?"
"No," Beth said, frowning. "I don't understand anything. It's crazy."
"You've all gotten attached to at least a few of the brats, haven't you? Just in these few weeks?"
"And you're gonna get even more attached if you start teaching 'em. You see that?"
We nodded again.
"What'll happen when it comes time for us to pack up and go? Will you be able to leave your little friends? Send 'em back to instructors who'll probably resent 'em and try to fix everything you taught 'em?"
He let that sink in for awhile before the other shoe dropped. "Rhea doesn't want you to go. She's trying to get you to stay. Even if it means pulling one over on her buddy Seteth, which is what I expect happened back there."
"Why?" I said. "Why does she care? What does she want?"
"I don't know. But this is it, kids. It might be our last chance to pull up stakes and get free of this place. You can tell her 'No' and go join the Blade Breakers up in Faerghus, or stay and see this through, however long it takes. Which will it be?"
Beth was the first to speak up. "I want to stay. I like it here, and..." She blushed. I didn't know Beth could do that. "... I want to stay," she finished, not very eloquently.
"I want to stay too," said the kid. "There are things I still need to understand."
I shrugged. "I'm not going anywhere without Beth and Kid. Or you, Dad. If we stick together I'm sure we can handle whatever Rhea throws at us."
Chapter 6: November 5th and 6th (Double date!)
We put together a list of students to give Rhea. Most of our choices were easy: Dimitri, Dedue, Ingrid and Felix for Beth; Claude, Petra and Ashe for me; Linhardt, Marianne and Mercedes for the kid. I "adopted" Ignatz and Bernadetta from the kid, since they were archers, and the kid added Annette to her group because Mercedes was her best friend.
After some thought Beth decided to include Ferdinand von Aegir. He had some kind of one-sided one-upmanship game going with Princess Edelgard that Dad said was driving the other instructors crazy and Beth figured a little distance might be good for both of them. The kid also decided to bring her group up to five and, to our surprise, chose Lorenz.
"Him?" I said. "Before the year is out either he'll strangle Claude with a scented handkerchief or Claude will drive him straight into a madhouse."
"I know they don't get along," said the kid, "but maybe this way, we can help them understand each other."
So it was decided.
Classes were now more or less evenly split between us and the original instructors. During group sessions the divide was obvious. Dad liked to set the two sides up as rival teams and for a few weeks the advantage was all on the other side. The old instructors had been teaching these classes for years, while my sisters and I were exploring unfamiliar territory.
The transition from "friend" to "professor" was a bit rough too. Now Beth had to deal seriously with Ingrid's anti-Duscar sentiments, keep Ferdinand from dying while trying to prove he was better than Edelgard, and for the first time in her life she told someone to stop training already because she thought Felix was pushing himself too far. The kid had to work out a balance between go-getter Annette, sleepy Linhardt and shy Marianne, all while reminding Lorenz to focus on his own work rather than what Claude was doing.
My job was easy in comparison. Claude, Petra and Ashe practically taught themselves. Ignatz was eager to learn and Bernadetta... well, getting her out of her room was still a struggle, but once I told her the best way to keep enemies from charging her on the battlefield was to shoot 'em down quick, her aim really started to improve.
I mostly lost touch with Seteth and Flayn. I got the sense they were avoiding me, though it seemed to be his idea rather than hers. Sometimes I'd stop and wonder why he had so much influence over her, but with everything that was going on I didn't have time to mount a challenge. I'd smile and wave when I saw her so she knew there were no hard feelings on my part.
The big event of the month, for us Eisners at least, was the kid's birthday. We had a little celebration during class and another one in our room that evening. Dad seemed sort of distracted the whole time, but we didn't find out why until next morning, which was the start of a free day. He showed up at our door and said that after breakfast he wanted to take us to meet someone.
We walked to the far northeastern side of the monastery. There are no buildings in that quiet corner, just a wide lawn with trees and benches and flowerbeds, looking out toward the magnificent cathedral in the distance.
It's the cemetery.
Dad walked slowly along the rows of monuments, all neatly kept, a few with faded flowers on their green grass, until he came to a stop before one in particular. We read the letters on the grey stone.
Resting in the warm embrace of cherished memories.
"It was twenty years ago today," he said. "Sorry, Nona. I would've come back sooner, only I wasn't sure if I could ever leave you again."
"So she was here all the time," said Beth.
"She died right after... my birthday..." The kid made a strange little noise. "I killed her, didn't I?"
Dad put an arm around her. "No, Kid. Don't think of it like that. It's not your fault for being born, or our fault because we decided to have another kid. Life is rough. Sometimes folks... just don't make it through. And it's nobody's fault."
"Who was she, Dad?" said Beth, putting her arm around the kid from the other side.
"She was a nun, a foundling that the Church took in and raised. We met when I became a Knight. She'd spent her whole life here."
"What was she like?" said the kid.
"She was like the most beautiful summer day you've ever seen, all packed up in a woman who came to about here." He put his hand just above the level of his eyes. "She loved everyone. She loved the monastery. She loved Rhea. She especially loved you three; she was all excited about having a little brother or sister for the twins. And everything was going so well, right up until... until the end."
"Is that why you left?" said Beth. "Because she died?"
Dad looked at her and then all around us, slowly. "Come here, kids," he said, leading us over to one of the stone benches. There wasn't enough room for the four of us so Beth stood at the end. "I'm not sure now if I was right or wrong about this, but back then you couldn't tell me otherwise. I thought Rhea had done something to the baby. To you, Kid.
"She was there that night. She was there for the twins, too; she'd always been fond of Nona. But this time it all went wrong. She's the one who came out and told me Nona was... gone.
"Everything got fuzzy after that. I remember them bringing out the baby so I could see her, but she - you - didn't seem real. You were like a little doll, all red and wrinkled and not moving at all, with your eyes wide, wide open.
"The next few days were pretty bad. They said they'd given the baby to another nun to nurse, but I didn't go over there for a week or more. I remember the funeral. I remember you, Beth, got out of our rooms once and went wandering around the place looking for momma. Alois found you, but you wouldn't go back to our rooms without momma, so he followed you around and looked after you until I could get there. I don't think I ever thanked him for that.
"When my head finally cleared a little I went to see the nurse - your Nana. Found her half out of her mind with worry. She said it seemed like the baby was barely alive and... that you didn't have a heartbeat. Can you feel your heart, Kid?"
"Dad. Of course I can." She put two fingers on her opposite wrist.
"Not there. Here." He tapped his chest.
"Oh." She put a hand on her own chest and we waited. "Um... I don't know. Jo, can you try?"
I tried. I felt the rise and fall as she breathed, but no steady pulse beneath. "This can't be right," I said. "Her heart must be in there somewhere."
"It is," said Dad. "If you went to the infirmary and got one of Manuela's fancy listening tubes, you could hear it. But we couldn't. Nana said she'd gone to Rhea, but all the archbishop told her was, 'The child is well. We must give her time.'
"But I knew it was wrong. She'd done something in those hours between the time you came to us and the time your mother left. There are things Rhea knows. I shouldn't complain, they saved me once, but I paid that debt in service. My kid wasn't part of the deal."
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Nana said I was grief-crazed, and maybe that was so, but I couldn't stay here any longer. I told Nana I was leaving that night. She said I couldn't look after a sickly newborn and two small girls all on my own. She said I'd be the death of my child and I said I didn't care - sorry, Kid, I just wasn't thinking straight. Then Nana said she was coming with me for the children's sake, and if I kicked she'd go straight to Rhea. Bless old Nana. She had her own family to think of, but she stayed with us two years to make sure you girls would be all right.
"We packed up everything that day. It was just sunset when we drove the wagon out through the gate. Poor kids. You were so afraid. And the baby was so quiet."
He looked at the cathedral in the distance. "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you're just you, Kid, and Rhea had nothing to do with it. I don't know. I wish your mother was here."
The kid hugged him and we all let things sink in for awhile.
"Did she like flowers, Dad?" said Beth.
"Sure. All kinds."
"I'll get some for her."
"I'll go with you," I said.
"Oh, me too, Jo. I know just where to look."
We left Dad with Mom and went hunting for the best blooms. There were plenty to choose from; the gardens and greenhouse are full of color that time of year. We were going through the rare varieties indoors when Dedue appeared out of nowhere and had a few quiet words with the kid. Then he vanished, only to reappear as we were heading out the door. He handed the kid a little red flower, probably from his own plot near the back, and she smiled at him. Not the pleasant smile we'd taught her, though; this was a bright and shining one we'd never seen before.
Dedue stood and stared at her as she walked away. I'm sure you could've knocked him over with one of those little red flowers of his.
We brought the flowers back and gave them to Mom. She did look like a beautiful summer day, lying there with all those pretty flowers on her green breast, and the warm sunshine all around. Beth and I and the kid had each made plans for our free day, but they sort of faded away into the air. We spent most of the day talking to Dad and listening to his stories of how things used to be.
The first stars were coming out when our little party finally broke up. I wasn't tired so I wandered down to the lake for some fishing. It wasn't until I sat down that I realized I didn't have a pole, or bait, or any desire to try catching fish with my bare hands, so I just sat there and watched the little ripples run against the shore.
"Hello, Jo," said Flayn, and I jumped about a foot.
"You've sure gotten sneaky, O Chosen of the Goddess," I said as she sat down next to me.
"It is necessary. My brother is becoming an annoyance."
"Ah. I was wondering about that."
"He has always been overprotective, but never has he been so unreasonable."
"What changed, as if I didn't know?"
"It does seem to be connected to your family's... increasing influence in the monastery, but the more he speaks of the reputation of the school, the more I am convinced there are other, deeper issues." She sighed. "However, that is not what I wished to discuss with you. I was wondering - if it is not too personal a question - who your family knows that is buried in the cemetery?"
"Saw us there, huh?"
"Yes, and I had a feeling, though I may be entirely wrong, that... that you were visiting your mother."
A bit of moon was coming up over the eastern hills and making puddles of light on the lake. "Good guess. Though it was really more like meeting her for the first time."
"She died when you were very young?"
"So young that we only remember losing her. Nothing about her at all."
"I see. I... I also lost my mother. Many, many years ago."
"I'm sorry. How old were you?"
"Old enough to remember her quite well, though as the years go on, some of those memories slip away. It worries me."
"At least you can talk to your brother about her."
"Yes, though we do not talk as much as I would like. He is always so busy." Flayn sighed again. "Was your mother very young when she died?"
"Dad would probably say 'Yes'. But even if she'd lived a thousand years, as long as he was still alive and she was gone, he'd probably say she died too young."
"True. I cannot think I ever would have said, 'My mother is now old enough to die.' It would always have been too soon."
"Too soon. Too late." I put my chin in my hand and studied the moon ladder slowly reaching toward us across the water. "If only everyone could live forever. But I guess if nothing ever died, new things wouldn't get much chance to grow."
Someone coughed behind us and we both jumped. It was Seteth. I couldn't see him very well in the dark, but I assumed he was frowning.
Flayn hung her head. "I know. It is late. And dark. And you have come to scold me for worrying you."
"No, I... no." Funny. He didn't sound as stern as I expected. I wondered how long he'd been listening to us. "I only thought if you were through, we could walk back together. Perhaps I should leave you two alone."
There it was! An opening! I took a running leap. "You know," I said, "there is another option."
"You stay here. With us. Just look, Seteth! It's a warm night, the stars are out, the moon is rising across the lake. When's the last time you just sat and watched the moon rise?"
"A long, long time ago," he said, with the slightest hint of wistfulness.
"Then you're overdue. Why not sit with us?"
I almost had him. He was thinking about it. But at the last moment, he dodged. "Professor, you have class tomorrow morning. If you do not get enough sleep you will be inadequately prepared."
"Okay. I'll pretend you have a point and go to bed, but only if you promise me something."
"Promise to stay out here and watch the moonrise with Flayn. Do it for everyone who'll get no more moonrises with their family." I waited a beat. Timing is everything. "Promise?"
A silence, and then, "I promise." He didn't sound a bit stern or angry now. Just a little sad.
"All right. Good night, Flayn. Good night, Seteth."
As I walked away I looked back and saw them, each with their arm around the other, looking up at the sky. I counted it as a victory.
Chapter 7: November 7th (To quote Hamlet: words words words)
Things got better after that. Seteth eased up on Flayn and she could hang out with us again, though I don't know if that was due to my amazing plan or because we finally started proving our worth as instructors. We began to hold our own in group combat training. Ingrid's reluctance to work with Dedue vanished. Lorenz ignored Claude and concentrated on blowing things to smithereens. Bernadetta left her room (almost) willingly. Linhardt only slept through an hour or two of lecture a day.
The class was coming together.
I liked group sessions best. They brought out everyone's strengths and weaknesses and made our students really think about what was going on around them. They were also very entertaining. Dimitri, for instance, could charge around a mock battlefield exactly like Beth charged around a real one, although he was much more fun to watch for, um, technical reasons. I suggested that the prince and Ferdinand should form their own special morale boosting squad, in which they rode around on horses all day and looked good doing it, but Beth shot me down. Said it wasn't professional.
But do you know what she was doing? Giving the prince dancing lessons! That's right, she'd found out about a dancing competition held at the school every year (Dancing? Really? Whose idea was that?), and while instructors couldn't compete, they could help their chosen entry improve. She had a whole list of impressive-sounding reasons for choosing Dimitri - charisma, experience, leadership qualities, setting a good example, getting him out of the training hall - but we all knew what was really going on. Hypocrite.
Young love was flourishing in other parts of our class, but in some very strange ways. Claude and Ingrid could not stop arguing. Every time they got within ten feet of each other they started up again. It made arranging air cavalry formations interesting, let me tell you.
Felix was another kettle of fish; he never gave up on pestering me for that duel, so out of desperation, and to give myself more time to think of a better excuse, I said that he could duel me if he defeated all of my students first. I didn't expect this to do much more than slow him down a bit, and given the smirk on his face when I told him, that was his opinion too. His first victim was Bernadetta and I made sure to be nearby to help soothe her nerves afterwards. I needn't have bothered. I'm not quite sure what happened, it was all sort of a blur, but he came at her, she screamed, flailed around... and knocked the sword neatly out of his hands. Then she picked it up and more or less warped to the other side of the training grounds.
He was stunned. I was stunned. For the rest of the year he was much more interested in learning how she did that, and then in other things about her, than he was in dueling me. I told everyone I'd planned it.
There were a few who went about things less violently, but just as oddly. Ignatz, for example, fell in love with Brigid. Not Petra, Brigid. He couldn't hear enough about the place. He made a few sketches from Petra's descriptions, but his dream was to travel there someday. It all came in very handy when Petra's birthday rolled around and we decided to create a little piece of home for her. Ignatz was a big help with the planning and decorations; he even contacted his family and had them send us a bunch of Brigidian feathers, shells and other things they had in stock. Petra was thrilled and I made sure to let her know whose artistic vision was behind it all.
As for me, the course of my true love didn't exactly run smooth, or anywhere at all. Seteth was as distant as ever. I spotted him once, about twenty feet above us, as Flayn and I were sitting together atop the tower which overlooks the dressage field, where Ferdinand just happened to be putting his horse through its paces. I got a little distracted.
"Your brother sits a wyvern well," I said.
"I am sure he does," said Flayn, who was much more interested in the proceedings below. "He has had a great deal of practice."
"Is he riding Belenos? It looks like Belenos."
"Most likely. That is his usual choice." She still wasn't looking.
At some point Ferdinand must have finished his exercises and left the field because when I finally dragged my eyes back down again, Flayn was grinning at me. "I see you remain interested in my brother."
"Sort of. Assuming his good points outweigh his bad, which is still in doubt."
"They do, I assure you. And I am glad to hear you say so, because I have already told him of your interest."
"Oh. Ooooh. How, uh, did that go?"
"He said I should not concern myself with such trivialities."
"Great. That's encouraging."
A few days later, but before the trouble really started, Linhardt walked up to me after class with a predatory look in his eyes. I knew what was coming. There was only one subject that could keep him from taking his post-class nap, and he started right in on it.
"Professor, have you ever been tested for a Crest?"
I decided to play dumb. "No. Why do you ask?"
"If you're willing, I'd like to perform the experiment."
"On me? Why not ask Kid? She's the most obvious test subject for you."
"I did ask. She has no Crest."
"Of course she does. Everyone knows it."
"That is puzzling. Professor Hanneman and I can't understand it. She shows all the signs, yet our tests revealed nothing. That's why I'd like to test you, professor. As a blood relative perhaps you can shed some light on the situation."
"And you don't want to ask Beth or Dad."
"Precisely. They're rather intimidating. I assume your father, as a former Knight, possesses a Minor Crest of Seiros, though some of the evidence leads me rather to believe - "
"Let's just get this over with."
Hanneman's laboratory was on the second floor of the reception hall. I hadn't been much farther than the audience chamber so Linhardt showed me some of the landmarks - Seteth's office (locked), Alois's office (I waved to him as we went by), the library (complete with a dusty old librarian named Tomas), and finally the den of science. Hanneman, monocle firmly in place, bustled up to meet us.
"Professor Jo! I take it you've agreed to aid us in our research?"
"I'll do my best. Are there needles involved?"
"No, no, nothing so crude. Allow me to show you my apparatus." He led me to a table which was covered in a complicated arrangement of magical flames, boiling mixtures, tubes, brass fittings and screens.
"It looks like something from Morfis," I said.
"So it is, so it is," said Hanneman, "though I have made a few modifications of my own, of course. All we need from you, professor, is a strand of your hair."
"Easily done." I broke one off and handed it to him.
"Thank you. Now..." He and Linhardt worked the burners for a while, pouring in carefully measured amounts of various powders, before turning their attention to a pane of glass at the far end of the table. A hazy pattern of lines began to appear. I didn't recognize them, but I assumed the others would.
"A Minor Crest," said Linhardt, "of... of..." He trailed off and the two scholars stared at the glass in silence. Linhardt finally spoke up again. "Was there some sort of contamination?"
"It's... possible," said Hanneman. "My apologies, professor, but can I trouble you for a second specimen?"
I gave it and they repeated the process carefully. The same lines appeared again.
"A new Crest?" said Linhardt. "Could it really be a new Crest?"
"It would be the first in nearly 600 years," said Hanneman, inspecting the glass thoughtfully. "But... it seems familiar for some reason."
"It appears in none of the respected catalogues, I'm sure of it. What a discovery! I need to start documenting this at once!" Linhardt sat down and started scribbling away. I kept my attention on Hanneman. He moved to the shelves of books along one wall of the room and took down an ancient folio.
"Is that a book of Crests, professor?" said Linhardt, looking up.
"No. It's a history of the War of Heroes. One of the oldest." He turned over the leaves until he came to one in particular, paused and glanced at me. "Professor, how much do you know of the origin of Crests?"
"Just that the goddess handed them out to the Ten Elites, the Four Saints and... a few others, I guess, since there are more than fourteen."
"Yes. And one of those others was the one who betrayed Her."
"So She got angry, took that Crest away from humanity and flew back to the Blue Sea Star to sulk. Right?"
"Essentially correct, though not how the Church would put it. The relevant point is that the Betrayer's Crest has not come down to us. It's a mere historical curiosity to scholars who are only concerned with the House Crest of the particular family they serve. But I am the first to serve no house, and I flatter myself that my view is wider as a consequence." He put the book on a side table so we could all look at the page he'd turned to. It was a list of heraldic devices - a bunch of funny-looking animals in strange colors, with a symbol beneath each one.
"These ten," said Hanneman, "were seen upon the banners of the Ten Elites. The symbols correspond to the signatures of their Crests. And this," pointing to the bottom of the page, separated from the others, "was the device upon the banner of the Betrayer. Flames of fire, and beneath them..."
Linhardt sat down slowly. "But this contradicts the fundamental teachings of the Church."
"Are you telling me I have the Crest of the Betrayer? Basically the worst person of all time?"
"Not of all time. Only in the recorded history of the Church," said Hanneman.
"Yes, the Church. The one that half of Fódlan belongs to. The one that's currently employing my entire family. How did this happen?"
"In all cases of which I am aware, Crests are passed down through the blood. The most obvious explanation, therefore, is that the Betrayer had at least one child, and you are a direct descendant."
"But the Church!"
"Yes. That may become an issue. To be certain of our results, perhaps Professor Beth would consent to be tested? She is, as I understand it, your twin sister."
"Okay. I'll get her. Don't go anywhere, don't do anything, and don't tell anyone."
I dragged Beth out of the training hall and up to the laboratory. The scholars did the same test, got the same result, and told her the same story they'd told me.
Hanneman and Linhardt were all atwitter. Their love of knowledge beat out their fear of blasphemy and they practically begged to study us. Eventually Beth and I agreed - it was hard to say 'No' to Linhardt - but only on condition of silence. Then we went home to have another long talk with Dad and the kid, which, as usual, left us with more questions than answers.
Chapter 8: November 8th (Tin foil hat time)
So the Eisner world was a little unsteady, but that got put into perspective real quick when Ashe's world fell apart.
As far as we knew it came out of nowhere. Yes, there'd been a little more activity around the monastery than normal, especially among the Knights, but we were caught up in skill drills and missed it when they actually marched out of the monastery. The first clue we got that anything unusual had happened was when Dad showed up. He normally let us alone on "our" day with the students, but that day he walked in with a storm cloud over his head and headed right for my little group.
"Jo, I need to talk to you. Not here."
I told the students to have fun and remember to shoot the targets, not each other, then followed him into the empty classroom. He closed the doors behind us and took a seat at the far end.
"Bad news?" I said, sitting next to him.
"The Knights just left to kill Ashe's father. I figured one of us should let him know."
"My ears must be playing tricks on me. I thought you said the Knights just left to kill Ashe's father."
"I did. Lord Gaspard and Bishop Decima have raised a rebellion. They're marching through Central Church territory, burning as they go."
"You can't be serious. Who's with them?"
"No one, as far as I know. Those two and their followers are in this alone."
"They're out of their minds. The Knights will crush them."
"I know. Really it's not any of our business since it doesn't affect the school, but Ashe is going to find out sooner or later, and I think it should be now, from one of us."
I kicked things and swore and said I'd do it, so Dad went back to the range and sent Ashe in to me.
For Ashe's sake and mine I'll skip the next few minutes. He'd been adopted by Lonato Gaspard when he was ten and practically worshiped the man. Once he was over the worst of it and we could have a sort of conversation again, Ashe kept coming back to the same question that bothered me. Why?
"Lonato was devoted to the Church," Ashe said, pacing the room. "He was proud that I chose to study here at the monastery. I had a letter from him only two weeks ago. Everything was fine. What happened? If I could only talk to him!"
"Was he close to this bishop? Do you know anything about her?"
"Not very much. Just that she's in charge of the whole Western Church. Lonato must have known her, but she never visited the castle." He stopped suddenly. "The castle. Professor, my brother and sister are in the castle! Unless Lonato sent them away, but I can't be sure... you don't think there will be a siege, do you?"
"I don't know. Gaspard might retreat back into his territory. The Knights will have to ask for help from the Regent if they want to try a siege, though."
"Maybe they'll get out on their own. But they're so young. My sister's only twelve." He started pacing again. "Professor, can't I do anything but sit and wait? I may lose my entire family!"
"Is there a safe place your brother and sister could go? Outside the castle - maybe outside the town?"
"Well, there's...." He thought about it, then walked over to the big map of Fódlan on one wall. "If Lonato withdraws this way... and a levy from the Regent would come this way... then this would be the best place, up in the hills to the west. We know a family there." He sighed. "But will anyone think of it?"
"Actually, I have an idea. But it might get you killed, or at least expelled, unless you can get the Church to agree. Begging could be involved. Are you up to it?"
"I'll try. What's the idea?"
I explained my plan and then sent him off to Dad to try and raise support. Dad took him to Seteth, then to Rhea, and in the end the plan was approved, but only if Ashe had an escort to make sure he didn't try anything funny. All the Knights that could be spared were gone, of course, so they decided to assign the most expendable member of the faculty - me.
Before nightfall Ashe and I were flying off toward the west, right over the mountains. I couldn't take Dessie - we needed mounts with strength and stamina, not speed - so I borrowed Phoebe from Beth, while Ingrid agreed to let Ashe use her mount, Snowfall. We had the bare minimum amount of camping gear and supplies. As the pegasus flies it's about a two day journey to Castle Gaspard and we were in a hurry.
Ashe told me a lot about his family and Lonato as we went, but nothing that helped us understand the situation. Inter-Church rivalries weren't a new thing but they'd mostly happened back when the Southern Church still existed, before the emperor decided to create the Church of Adrestia. Ashe vaguely remembered that Bishop Decima had a reputation as a firebrand, but not to the point of violence. And while she'd found an ally, Lonato Gaspard was no emperor. This seemed like a suicide attempt.
We arrived in the western hills above Castle Gaspard on the morning of the second day. We'd seen no sign of either army. Ashe took off for the castle while I waited with our mounts, though trying to manage two tired, hungry, thirsty and feisty pegasi was more trouble than I'd imagined. Ashe was gone for hours; I started wondering if I dared leave Phoebe and Snowfall alone to go look for him, at the risk of being stranded in more-or-less enemy territory, when I finally spotted him climbing the path to the farmhouse on the next hill over, with two children beside him.
He joined me in our hidden aerie not long afterwards, looking sad and relieved at the same time. "They're safe. No one at the castle had any news about Lonato. Everyone's worried." He sat down against a tree trunk to catch his breath. "A few days ago he... changed. He was angry. Shouted a bunch of things about Rhea and the Church that the servants didn't understand. I guess he'd been on edge for a while, though he never let me see it. I... broke into his study."
"You're kidding. You?"
"It's not as strange as it sounds. That's how I met Lonato - breaking into his study. I was a thief. Trying to feed my family after our parents died. But instead of turning me in, he took care us. He said it was the will of the goddess." Ashe sighed. "Is this Her will too, Lonato? How could it be?"
"Did you find anything in the study?"
"Lots of things, but only one that seemed... odd. I found it in the locked drawer of his writing desk, on top of everything else. Here."
He handed me a small roll of parchment. It said, "Christophe Gaspard will serve. Inform Eadric of our choice."
"Christophe Gaspard?" I said.
"Lonato's only child. He was executed for high treason about eight years ago, not long before Lonato took us in."
"I don't know. I don't recognize the seal, either. Do you?"
"No." I handed the scroll back to him. "Hold onto it. Just in case. I think we'd better head back to the monastery."
Chapter 9: November 9th (Uh, this might be a long one)
By the time we got back to the monastery, Lonato Gaspard was dead. The battle had been swift and decisive. Some of his allies surrendered, but most made a fighting retreat back into Gaspard territory, where they were finally chased down and dealt with. Bishop Decima wasn't among the prisoners or the fallen; a half-hearted search was made for her but by that point the Knights had other concerns. Apparently someone was planning to kill Rhea.
The news spread through the monastery as soon as the first of the Knights got back. A letter had been found on Gaspard's body. In it were plans to assassinate the archbishop during the Goddess's Rite of Rebirth, which was just two weeks away. The letter didn't say who was involved and no one was sure if the assassins had died with Gaspard or if they were still out there, waiting. It was the talk of the classroom the next day; our students whispered to each other constantly, and we even had a deputation of sorts come up to us at the end of the next skill day, led by Dimitri.
"Professors, we had some concerns. Would you be willing to discuss them with us?"
The kid and I looked at Beth. "All right," she said, pulling up a seat to one of the tables. "What's on your mind?"
A cloud of students grew around us, some sitting, some standing - half of the people in our class, it looked like. Dimitri stood until we were seated, then took a chair himself. "We've been discussing the letter, though not so much its contents as its very existence. Granted, the entire affair seems inexplicable given Lord Gaspard's previous attitude toward the Church, and his actions were... poorly thought out." He looked apologetically at Ashe. "But as Claude pointed out to us, carrying that letter into a hopeless battle all but ensured that it would be recovered and acted upon by the enemy. Why would he do such a thing unless that was precisely his intent?"
"You think we're being fed false information," said Beth.
"Yes, though we've been unable to agree on the purpose behind it. Our attention - and more importantly, perhaps, the attention of the Knights - has been directed to a very specific time and place. The Goddess Tower on the night of the ritual. If that is where they want us to be looking, then we should be looking somewhere else. But where? And for what?"
"We need to figure out their goals," said Claude, leaning against one end of the table. "Kill Rhea? Sure, why not, but they could've done that any number of ways. Starting a doomed rebellion that'll get half their people killed seems like the worst one. That can't be their plan. But what else would be worth risking so much? In fact, why fight the Church at all? Gaspard and Decima seemed perfectly happy with it before."
I looked at Ashe. "Do you still have that note you... found?"
"Yes. I keep trying to make sense of it. Should I get it?"
"Can't hurt. Maybe someone here will know more about it."
I filled the others in on where the note came from, though I left out that Ashe had technically stolen it. They gathered around to look when he got back and laid it on the table.
"Eadric," said Dimitri. "I know that name. Leticia, Lady Eadric, was the crown's chief prosecutor at Lord Christophe's trial. She assembled most of the evidence against him. Lord Gaspard was convinced of his son's innocence, but there could be no doubt - Christophe had supplied money and arms to the rebel lords, though as far as we could tell, he never took the field with them. His involvement only came to light a few months after my father's death."
"Looks like there was more going on than you thought," Claude said. "Do you recognize this seal?"
"No. I remember there were rumors that the Empire had supported the rebels, but they seemed to be groundless. The Seven were too busy consolidating power after their own coup to concern themselves with our affairs, and the emperor, of course, was little more than a figurehead."
Linhardt pulled the scroll over to get a better look at it. "How interesting," he said. "This appears to be the personal seal of the archbishop. The current one, Rhea the Ninth."
There was a stunned silence. "How do you know that?" said Beth.
"Oh, I've seen it hundreds of times. Each book in the library is approved by the archbishop herself and stamped with her seal. Rhea the Sixth's seal was particularly interesting, its charge was a dragon rampant with -"
"Hold on, hold on," said Claude. "Does this mean the Church framed Christophe Gaspard for conspiring against the king? Why? Unless - "
"No, I won't believe it," said Dimitri. "The Church condemned the rebellion. What advantage could they have possibly gained by it? My father was -"
"Will you please listen to me?" said Linhardt with sleepy exasperation. "I didn't say it is Rhea's seal. I said it appears to be her seal. It's been forged. Someone should probably let her know."
"Wait, a forgery? Can you prove it?" said Claude.
"You can prove it yourself. Get a book from the library and compare the two. I admit the differences are small; the new seal must have been made from a good imprint, and by an expert. Quite impressive."
"Maybe Rhea got a new seal recently," said Beth.
"It's possible, but this document is supposed to be almost ten years old."
"Lonato was tricked," said Ashe. "Lonato was tricked."
"But was he tricked by Decima, or someone else?" Claude said. "Could she have done all this herself? I think we should find out more about her. But in the meantime, there's the Rite."
"Okay," I said, "if you're right, Claude, and they're not after Rhea, they must be after something else, something they want to draw the Knights' attention away from. We've got two weeks. Let's search the monastery, talk to everyone in it, and try to figure out what the thing could be."
We did our best. The whole class got in on the investigation, some exploring, some questioning, some poring over the books in the library, and at the end of each day we'd gather to compare our findings. I hadn't realized until then what a big event the Rite of Rebirth was. Pilgrims had already started arriving, and by the day of the Rite the monastery would be full to overflowing. There was talk among the knights of closing the monastery to visitors, but it didn't get very far. The Rite was the holiest day of the year. At best, the poorer and less prepared pilgrims would suffer from being suddenly turned away; at worst, there would be riots.
I decided to survey the monastery and its surroundings from the air, mostly because it was quieter and less crowded up there. I was sitting with Dessie on one of the outer turrets when she snorted and shuffled back. I looked up, then moved back too. Someone else was coming in for a landing.
"Good afternoon, Miss Eisner."
"Well, well. Seteth. I don't suppose you could call me 'Jo'?"
"Figured as much. What about you, Belenos? You'll call me 'Jo', won't you, boy?" I tickled the wyvern under his snout and he clicked happily.
"There is something I wish to speak with you about," Seteth continued. "It concerns -"
He was interrupted when Belenos sat down abruptly, thumping his tail as he stretched out his head to meet my fingers. Seteth tried to maintain his dignity, but that's pretty hard to do on a friendly wyvern who's getting tickles. I couldn't help laughing at him.
Eventually he sighed and dismounted. "If you would please stop attempting to bewitch my wyvern, I need to speak with you," he said.
"Well, I'd prefer to bewitch you, but you're immune or something and I need to keep my hand in." I tapped Belenos on the snout. "Sorry, boy. Maybe we'll meet in the stables later. What can I do for you, Seteth?"
"Your students have been behaving rather peculiarly. Asking questions about the monastery and the Rite, finding their way into secluded areas. What have you put them up to?"
"Oh, that. We're looking for something."
"We don't know. In fact, even if we find it, we might not recognize it."
He sighed again. "Miss Eisner..."
"We think something's going to happen during the Rite, but we don't think it's going to be an attack on the archbishop. That's all a blind. Trying to figure out what it will be is the tricky part. There's got to be something here they want pretty badly." An idea came to me. "Look, Seteth, you've been here - in one form or another - for hundreds of years, right? You must know the monastery better than anyone, except the archbishop. Can you tell me anything that would help?"
He stroked his neat beard with his fingers as he thought it over. "Unfortunately, I am not as knowledgeable as you imagine. I did not arrive to aid the archbishop until the monastery had already been established, and every time I... return... I find it has changed a great deal in my absence. The archbishop allows me to make no changes myself, only to maintain the Church as she left it until her new incarnation arrives. She is very particular. She is likely the only one who is truly familiar with this place, and there are some secrets only she keeps."
"Even from you?"
He just looked away, out at the horizon. I wondered if I'd struck a nerve.
"Seteth, if you ever want to talk about things... not secrets, I mean, but just... things..."
I trailed off, not sure where I was going with that. He kept looking at the horizon and I kept looking at him, trying not to notice the close fit of his well-tailored robes.
Suddenly he came out of his daydream. "I apologize, I was... distracted. I should be going."
"Of course. You're a very busy man."
"I am, and I've stayed far longer than I intended." He brought Belenos to attention and mounted up, then turned to look at me again. "You're more bewitching than you think." And with the merest hint of a smile on his face, he flew off.
I stood there about five more minutes trying to figure out what just happened. Was he flirting? Insulting me? Proposing marriage? It was so hard to know where I stood with the man.
The day before the day of the Rite arrived. There were no classes; school wouldn't start again until the second day after the Rite ended, just in case the students wanted to hold an all-night vigil down below while the Chosen held it in the Goddess Tower. There were pilgrims everywhere. We didn't need to be told that the Knights were stretched thin even during normal Rites, trying to keep order and maintain their posts around the monastery.
All of our investigating had pointed in one direction: the Holy Mausoleum. It was only open to the public during the Rite; at all other times it was guarded by powerful magical wards. Inside was the sarcophagus of Saint Seiros, along with various priceless relics. It was normally kept under heavy guard during the Rite but now, with the threat to Rhea, only two Knights would be posted there at a time. And all day, and all night, and all of the next day, pilgrims would be filing through to pay their respects to the Founding Saint.
Our classroom was blessedly empty, so we met there to strategize. Beth had already wheedled permission from the Knights for us and our students to act as additional security; now we just needed a plan. Many of the students had visited the Mausoleum with their families during previous Rites and I made a sketch of its layout from their descriptions. It lay beneath the cathedral and was reached by a steep set of steps ending in a set of double doors. Beyond the doors was a long, somewhat narrow room with a wide flagstone pathway leading to a high platform at the far end, where the stone coffin sat, and a lower platform just in front of it, where pilgrims left candles and flowers and other offerings. On either side of the path was a line of braziers, and beyond them other artifacts were on display, though pilgrims were confined to the flagstone path by a wrought iron railing.
We assumed that whatever was going to happen would take place during the actual Rite, which lasted from sunset to sunrise, though we couldn't be completely sure. Beth divided us up into two shifts, each with a mage who could cast Warp and a healer, so we were able to trade off every few hours. The setup was pretty simple. Two melee types near the coffin backing up the Knights. Two mages near the stairs at the back to help evacuate panicking pilgrims. Two people ranged between the melee types and the mages, two more people upstairs to handle any mess that might develop, and the rest left to position themselves as they pleased.
Dad knew about all this, of course, but he wasn't quite sure if our hunch was right. He was going to be roaming the monastery helping the Knights keep order, but he promised to check in on us from time to time. And so the day came.
As expected, nothing happened during the day. The pilgrims filed in, made their devotions and filed out - nobles, merchants, commoners, Kingdom, Alliance and more than a few Imperials who still held to the old ways.
Though we were officially working in shifts, most of us who were "off" didn't go very far away, and when sunset came the whole class was present either upstairs or in the Mausoleum. I was one of the buried ones. Dimitri and Dedue had duty up front, followed by me and Beth in the middle and the kid and Marianne in back. Ferdinand strode up and down one side of the room while Felix stalked the other. Linhardt was asleep in a corner somewhere. Most importantly, we were all sure to keep out of sight of the pilgrims as much as possible - we didn't want to spook our targets.
I don't know what time it started. Time didn't have much meaning down there. The ranks of pilgrims tramped past us endlessly, speaking in awestruck whispers. The fires in the braziers made shadows on the walls. Nothing happened. Nothing. Nothing. And then Something.
I jumped up from my hiding spot when I heard shouting. The mass of pilgrims began to fall back, stumbling against each other. I whistled as loudly as I could to alert our friends upstairs and then we began trying to clear the area without causing more panic. Linhardt had woken up and he and the kid were warping people out as quickly as they could to try and prevent anyone being trampled. Marianne did her best to heal those who got crushed against the railing and Beth and I worked crowd control. There was still shouting coming from the front but we couldn't tell what was going on with all the pilgrims in the way.
Finally I got a glimpse. The Knights were down - maybe dead, maybe not. Dimitri and Dedue had formed a shield wall in front of the lower platform, blocking the advance of a group of hooded pilgrims in front of them. Hooded and armed pilgrims. Ferdinand and Felix were already engaged with two of them but the railing made swordwork difficult. I was still dividing my attention between the fight and the retreating pilgrims when I noticed a flash of light on the higher platform. Three pilgrims had warped up there and were trying to break the wards on the sarcophagus.
Of course we couldn't have that. So I undid it. Blinked back in time about ten seconds and yelled at Beth, "They're warping to the coffin!" She broke off from herding duty, sprinted forward and leapt onto the lower platform, scattering offerings everywhere. The mages flashed in above her and immediately had to scramble to the other side of the coffin to be out of her reach.
Beth started scaling the second platform. The pilgrims just had time to break the wards before she was on them. While she took care of one and another ducked away in panic, the third shoved the stone lid aside, put their hand in and brought out... something. I didn't get a good look because the next moment the pilgrim was dead and whatever-it-was had gone sailing through the air into the shadows. The third pilgrim took a quick peek into the coffin, but apparently didn't see anything worth dying for because they half-jumped, half-fell onto the lower platform and warped themselves away. I thought about undoing time in order to put an arrow through them, but it was a tricky shot and I decided I should save my energy.
The last of the pilgrims, both true and false, were dealt with in short order. It was quiet in the Mausoleum again. Blood was everywhere - on the students, the offerings, the artifacts, and spreading slowly out across the floor from the little piles of bodies. Poor Linhardt went back into his corner and was sick. Marianne and the kid headed forward to check on the downed Knights.
"What happened to that... thing?" Beth said, looking around. "The one from the coffin. It flew off somewhere."
"This?" said the kid, picking something up from the floor. "It looks like a funny sort of - "
A blaze of white fire shot out of her hand. She screamed, flailed and stumbled back; the light dropped to floor level and faded. She looked around at us with wide eyes. "Maybe I... wasn't supposed to touch that..."
"Are you all right?" said Beth, coming over.
"Yes. I'm fine. I think."
"Okay. We'd better get things in order, I'm sure the Knights will be here soon."
Beth posted a guard over the holy whatever-it-was to prevent further accidents. Annette came down from upstairs now that the way was clear; she said they'd managed to keep the crowd from panicking, but the cathedral was still full of frightened and confused pilgrims. Beth had her go up and tell everyone that the Mausoleum was off limits until further notice. The two Knights were recovering, slowly, and had just started to ask questions when a group of their friends arrived. Soon we were all ushered firmly out of the Mausoleum, Marianne supporting a still weak Linhardt, and told that a full account of our actions would be demanded from us in the morning.
Chapter 10: November 10th (Very funny, Seteth. NOT.)
We got as much sleep as we could. In the morning, since we had no classes to teach and the Knights would probably come looking for us, Beth and the kid and I sat in the little courtyard outside the faculty wing. Dad got a full account of things before he went off to patrol the monastery; he was proud of us, of course, but a little worried about how the Church would react. The kid was worried about that too. Very worried. She was afraid she'd broken the holy whatever-it-was, or desecrated it, and we were all going to be thrown out on our ears.
The morning went by and no one showed up to interrogate us. Our students came to visit in ones and twos; some of them had been questioned, but they were told nothing about either rewards or punishments. Marianne said that she'd stayed up part of the night with Linhardt who, for once in his life, hadn't been able to sleep, and when Ferdinand came by he didn't look like his usual shining, confident self either. Apparently this was the first time he'd ever actually killed someone.
It got to be afternoon, a very warm summer afternoon, even up in the hills, and still no one came for us. We decided they must be waiting for Rhea and the others to finish resting after the Rite. When Dad swung by during his patrols he said the crowd of pilgrims was beginning to thin out. The Holy Mausoleum had been closed to visitors and the Rite itself was over so most folks had no reason to stay. There were all sorts of rumors flying around about what had happened last night - Seiros rising from the grave to smite unbelievers, the goddess returning from the Blue Sea Star to save Her people, monsters, a conspiracy by the Church of Adrestia, etc. Funny thing was that we had no more idea what was behind it all than the rumormongers did.
Evening came along. The monastery was almost empty by this point. The monks and nuns were doing their best to tidy up the place after the festivities, and it was then, finally, after the kid had nearly worried herself to death, that we were called to the audience chamber. Things were a little different than last time, though. For one, Flayn wasn't there - not inside, at least. She was hovering around the doors as we walked up.
"Professors! I have been hearing the strangest things ever since we awoke this afternoon. Rhea and Seteth had a report from Captain Alois about a disturbance in the Holy Mausoleum, but they would not let me hear it, and when I listened outside the door I caught very few words. And now... now they have been talking for hours, and... I think they are arguing. I have never known them to disagree so strongly. But I do not know what it is all about." She sighed and gave the door a dejected look. The kid immediately put an arm around her shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Flayn. We didn't mean to cause trouble in your family. Maybe once the others have told us... whatever they're going to tell us... you can come back to our room and we'll try to explain what happened, as much as we can. Would that be all right, Beth?"
"Of course. Unless the archbishop tells us to keep it secret, but I don't... well, even if she does, we'll tell you, Flayn. You deserve to know what's going on in this monastery as much as anyone does."
"Thank you! I will await you here."
This time no one was lined up in front of the archbishop's throne. Seteth, as stern as ever, beckoned us into a little room that opened off the left-hand side of the chamber - Rhea's office, apparently. She was standing behind the desk, waiting, with that gentle smile on her face. Seteth took his place beside her. He didn't say a word.
"Please, sit down," said Rhea, gesturing to the three seats before the desk. We sat. There was an uncomfortable silence as she beamed at each one of us before continuing. "We have been informed of what occurred in the Holy Mausoleum during the Goddess's Rite of Rebirth. You defeated an attempt by the Western Church to steal the holiest of our relics. We were told that you also took great pains to ensure the safety of the pilgrims during the attack, for which we are most grateful." She turned her head ever-so-slightly to look at Seteth, as if she expected him to say something. He stayed quiet. Almost sullen.
"Our healers were able to save the lives of several of the conspirators and they will be interrogated by the Knights. If they cooperate, they may be spared. Unfortunately, we could not locate the one who escaped. No doubt he or she vanished into the crowd of pilgrims in the cathedral. Fortunately, their aim remained unachieved. The treasure of the Holy Mausoleum remains with us."
She picked up something that had been resting on a table behind her. It was the hilt of a blade... sort of. If you mashed together a dress sword hilt and a statue of a dragon, you'd get something close to it. The tail coiled around to form a loop guard, the wings and feet acted a crossguard, the body was the grip and the head was lowered, its mouth wide open, as if the blade was supposed to be set between its jaws. It was cast in some bright metal that looked like copper and there were small, red stones set into its eyes and all along its back.
Rhea set the hilt down on the desk in front of us. "This is the Sword of the Creator. It was gifted by the goddess to Her most favored disciple, the one who came to be known as the Betrayer. He used it for evil, and when he fell, Saint Seiros recovered it and entrusted the Church with its safekeeping. Only those most fully blessed by the goddess can wield it. Even I do not have the power." She paused, gazing at the hilt as it shone softly in the candlelight, and then turned to Beth. "I have a favor to ask of you. Please take up the hilt and grip it firmly."
Beth blinked at her. "You... want me... to...?"
"If you would."
Beth slowly reached out and picked up the hilt, slipping one hand into it just the way she held her own blade. Then she jumped back, startled, though she didn't drop it. A dim, faded flame had come pouring out of the mouth of the dragon. It grew to the length of a short sword blade and then was steady, flickering a bit around the edges, and when Beth moved the hilt the "blade" moved with it, just like a real one.
Rhea and Seteth were watching with an intensity that was frightening. "Thank you," said Rhea. "Place it back on the desk, please." Beth set the hilt down, and as soon as she let go, the ghost blade vanished. "Now, Jo, I would ask you to also take up the Sword."
I wasn't thrilled with the idea, but I did it. At least I had an idea of what to expect, and when the weird, dead flame shot out, I didn't fall backwards or break anything. Then Rhea had me put it back on the desk, which I did, gladly.
"Nona." Rhea's eyes were shining and there was an edge of excitement in her quiet voice. "I hope that you will also oblige me by taking up the Sword. Please try not to be alarmed by anything that may happen."
The kid reached forward slowly. The weight of those two pairs of eyes on her was probably enough to hurt. She lifted it gingerly off the table, put her fingers through and, after hesitating a bit, gripped the hilt hard.
This time the flame was like a blaze of lightning. It steadied and faded slightly as we watched, but it still lit up the room as if someone had taken off the roof and let in the midday sun. The hilt was a mass of copper fire and the red stones shone like strange stars. The kid was trembling.
"Please," she said, "can I put it down? I... I feel like it's trying to dig out my heart..."
"As you wish," said Rhea from somewhere behind the glare. The kid quickly dropped the hilt on the desk and its light faded. As our eyes tried to fix themselves, the kid backed up and hid behind Beth, peeping over Beth's shoulder at the sleeping sword.
Rhea looked... I don't even know how to describe it. It was sort of the way I'd seen Ingrid look at food and sort of the way Ignatz looked at a beautiful painting and sort of the way Beth looked at Dimitri when she thought no one was watching. It was not the way Seteth looked. He looked quietly furious.
"Thank the goddess," said Rhea, and there was relief pouring out of every word. "I have waited so long for this day."
"What day?" demanded Beth. "What's going on?"
"Do not worry, child. All is as it should be. Or it will be, in time." Her eyes went to the kid. "I have no more questions. Go and rest and prepare yourselves for the days ahead. I only ask one thing. Nona, I would like you to take the Sword with you."
"With me?" she squeaked. I saw Seteth's hands turn into fists at his side, but he still didn't say a word.
"You need not wield it if you do not wish to, although I think you would... would find that mastery came quickly to you with practice. You could learn to call up and extinguish the blade at will. You could set yourself to learning its powers, for they are many, and while the Sword can be used to kill, that is not its only, or even primary purpose. This is the Sword of the Creator. It... gave life. Please take it. It is yours."
The kid slowly emerged from behind Beth. "If that's what you want. But suppose someone tries to steal it again?"
"I believe that you and your sisters and your father can keep it safe."
"Oh. All right." She picked it up carefully by the guard. "I suppose I'll, um... keep it on a chain or something."
"As you wish. And if you have any questions at all, I hope you will feel free to come and ask me. I will aid you in whatever way I can."
The kid tucked the blade away in her robes and we retreated from the room. Flayn was still waiting for us outside. She took one look at our faces and her eyes went wide. "What has happened?"
"I thought we had quite a story to tell you before we went in there," I said. "Just wait 'til you hear our story now."
The conspirators were executed a few days later, but almost no one noticed because by that time our story was all over the monastery. The kid's life got... complicated. Everyone wanted to meet her, everyone wanted to see the Sword, everyone wanted to see her use the Sword (which she refused to do), and the rumor mill spun so fast it nearly flew off its shaft. People were starting to look at her with awe. Even Beth and I came in for a share of it. And Rhea just sat up in her audience chamber and smiled, and Seteth fumed.
He didn't just sit on the second floor and sulk, although Flayn told us he was doing a lot of that too. He actually started trailing the kid around the monastery, not because he wanted to watch the kid, we figured, but because he wanted to keep an eye on the Sword. We didn't really blame him, it was probably the holiest relic in the entire Church.
After a week it all started to get on the kid's nerves and Dad had had enough. He started taking us all on "patrols" - long rides around the valley outside the monastery walls so we could relax and talk and get some time to ourselves as a family. According to Flayn these patrols made Seteth even more angry, but there was nothing he could do except glare at us as we rode out the gate.
It all came to a head about two weeks after the Rite. We were headed out the gate together and saw Seteth ahead, glaring as usual, but this time we were surprised to see Flayn with him. She smiled and waved at us to stop.
"Hello!" she said. "Are you going out to patrol, as Jo put it?"
"Yes, we are," said Dad. "Is there something you need from us?"
"Oh, no. I merely wanted to see what had my brother so upset. He seems to think this will cause the downfall of the monastery."
"He could be right," I said. "We might miss the gate as we go out, crash into the walls and bring them down like a house of cards. Walls couldn't stop Beth and Dad."
Flayn giggled. "My brother might like to see you try it. Do you know what he said to me just today?" She glanced at him and I realized she was up to something. There was a sort of angry mischief in her green eyes. "He said, 'If only they'd patrol themselves right into coffins and leave us in peace.'"
Seteth flinched, sucking in his breath. "That... that was said in jest, Flayn. And in confidence." She just lifted her chin defiantly at him.
We were all sort of staggered by this, but Dad recovered first. "Oh. Sure. Real funny, Seteth. I'm sure you'd laugh if I made the same 'joke' about your sister, here." He snorted and nudged his horse forward. "I don't know what your problem is with us," he said over his shoulder. "None of this was our idea. Take your beefs up with Rhea."
We made the first part of our patrol in silence, though Dad kept grumbling under his breath. "I knew coming here was a bad idea," he said as we got to the forested edge of the valley and started to turn back. "We should just give Rhea back her sword and get out."
"It's not yours, Kid, it belongs to the Church. I'm not sure Rhea had any right to hand it over to you."
"But Dad, it is my sword, not theirs. I'm just... a little afraid of it, that's all."
He gave her a funny look but he didn't argue. It was never any use arguing with the kid.
We rode in silence a little more before Beth spoke up. "Jo, didn't you kind of like Seteth once?"
"Don't get me started on that guy. He's good looking, but every time I think he's about to run hot he just turns around and runs colder than ever. Now it sounds like he'd prefer to never see my face again. Guess I'll oblige him."
"It's fine. Okay, it's not fine, but I'll get over it. Flayn's still a great kid. I wonder how she got stuck with that for a brother."
We got back to the monastery, washed and brushed the horses, grabbed some food from the kitchen and ate it in our own rooms to avoid being pestered in the dining hall. We were settling in for a quiet evening when a summons arrived. From Seteth. For all of us, Dad included.
We were not summoned to the audience chamber this time; instead the messenger brought us to the door of Seteth's personal office. Inside it proved to be as neat and orderly as expected, but surprisingly comfortable, even homey - plush chairs, low tables, bookshelves, a large window at the back, and in one corner a weapon rack which held antique swords. But the things that interested me most were the drawing table to one side of his desk and a huge display board on the wall covered in diagrams, architectural sketches and weapon designs.
Seteth was there too, of course, waiting at his desk. If we weren't sure what to expect before, we were even less sure now. He didn't look angry or stern or suspicious. If anything, he seemed... embarrassed.
"Good evening," he said. "I'll come straight to the point. I called you here in order to apologize. I've been unfair to all of you these last few weeks, and to some of you, perhaps," he glanced at me, "during your entire stay thus far. I'd like to explain, if you're willing to hear me."
"Did Rhea put you up to this?" said Dad.
"No. It was our... exchange this afternoon which forced me to confront my own behavior."
Dad shrugged. "Okay. Guess I might as well hear you out. Kids?"
We all agreed with Dad. Seteth took a deep breath.
"Very well. I don't know how easy it is for you to understand the position that Rhea and Flayn and I are in. We consider ourselves family, and we are particularly close because we are otherwise so isolated, due to both our position as Chosen and our... peculiar mode of life. We are constant, while you change around us. We have come to rely on and trust each other completely. Without that, we would be adrift.
"For all these hundreds of years we've worked together to protect, aid and instruct the believers who put their faith in us. It's a duty we take quite seriously. Rhea is our leader, but she has always consulted me on important decisions and valued my opinions. Always, that is, until... you arrived. Now I've become increasingly aware that Rhea does not trust me as I've trusted her. She takes action not only without my consent, but without my knowledge, and ignores my objections. It is frustrating. Not only that, it is... hurtful. And since these incidents were all tied to your family, I'm afraid I came to lay the blame at your family's door instead of in its proper place. I didn't want to face what was happening. Flayn, of course, has become quite fond of some of you, and my behavior also drove a wedge between her and me, which I laid at your door as well.
"You were quite right, Sir Jeralt. I've been holding your family accountable for Rhea's actions. I promise I will not do so in the future. And I wish to say, having reviewed the past five months carefully in my mind, that in truth I owe you a debt of gratitude. You have - all of you - made the best of several difficult situations and conducted yourselves admirably. I'm sorry that I insisted on regarding you as enemies. I hope we can be allies now. Perhaps even friends. That is all I had to say."
Dad chuckled. "I gotta admit, Seteth, you're a bigger and better man than I took you for. I hope you work out your problems with Rhea. I got nothing against her, long as she doesn't do anything to hurt my kids."
"I understand, better than you might think. But I won't interrupt your evening any further. Thank you for listening to me."
And so the pendulum swung the other way again. Maybe Seteth wasn't so bad. Maybe I should inch myself out on that ledge one more time and take a flying leap at getting somewhere. Or maybe I was an idiot. Those were the sorts of things that kept buzzing through my mind all night and all of the next day. Once class was over I grabbed my fishing rod and a bucket and headed down to the lake. I didn't bother taking any bait; I wasn't trying to catch anything, I just needed to break out of the circles I kept going in.
I'd been out there maybe an hour when someone walked up beside me. "Hello, Miss Eisner. May I join you?"
He was carrying a rod and tackle - nothing fancy, but serviceable. "You fish?" I said, brilliantly.
"On occasion. I rarely have the time, but I find it very relaxing." He kept looking at me and I realized he'd asked a question somewhere back there.
"Sure. Join me."
He sat down and began organizing his equipment. "You haven't had much success," he said, glancing into my bucket.
"No. That wasn't really the point. I just wanted to think."
"About anything in particular?"
"Well... to be honest... you."
"I see. Should I go?"
"No, no. Wherever you are, you'll be just as confusing."
I think he laughed. Or maybe it was a cough. "Am I so difficult to understand?"
"Seteth, you're the king of Difficult to Understand. Mostly because you're also the king of Mixed Signals and Refuses to Communicate. How can Flayn be so... Flayn and you be so... you?"
"We are quite different. My wife often remarked on it."
I stared at him. "Wife?" I said, yet again brilliantly.
"Yes. She died, many years ago. In battle."
Wife. Of course he'd had a wife. He'd probably been married a dozen times over all his lives. Maybe a hundred times. Thousands. I felt like they were suddenly all around us, an army of Seteth's Spouses. "Oh?" I said, weakly. "Who was she?"
"Her name was Aemilia. I met her in a church in Enbarr. She was... relentlessly positive. She neither feared the future nor allowed herself to be chained by the past. She taught me how to fish and we spent many pleasant hours together, just like this. But she died young. I still miss her very much."
My head was spinning. All of Seteth's Spouses had turned into perfectly beautiful, perfectly accomplished women who had led perfect lives with him, then died young, taking a piece of his heart with them. And then there was me. Not perfect. Barely important. Just "the other one," a passing shadow in the dark. What chance did I have at whatever tiny piece of his heart was left?
Somewhere outside the well of self-pity I was wallowing in I heard Seteth's voice. "Miss Eisner? What's wrong?"
"Wrong?" I said. "Nothing's wrong. I give up, that's all. I'm an idiot. Why did I even try?"
He leaned over, lifted my chin with one finger and kissed me gently. "Don't give up, Jo," he said.
Chapter 11: November 11th (ACTION SEQUENCE i hate these)
I don't think I touched the ground for three days. Life was grand and Garreg Mach was the best place in the world. But it was cursed, apparently, because not a month could go by without something horrible happening. And this time the horrible thing happened to Flayn.
It was about two hours after class had started, with Beth up front giving a talk on the differences between rapiers and sabres or some other such nonsense, when Alois charged in. He wasn't smiling, which meant something must be seriously wrong.
"Sorry, Beth - professor, I mean - but I'm afraid all classes have been canceled for the moment. There's an emergency." He walked to the front of the room and faced the class. "Everyone, the Knights need your cooperation. Flayn is missing."
"Missing? Where? How?" said Beth, while the students all began whispering to each other. Most of them knew Flayn, at least a little, because some days she'd sit on the sidelines and watch us run drills.
"Sometime this morning, somewhere between her room on the third floor and... well, we don't really know. No one realized she was missing until she didn't show up for the morning audience. Seteth has the entire monastery shut down and searching for her. We'd appreciate any assistance, but those who aren't looking are asked to remain in their own rooms until further notice. I wish I had more to tell you, but I don't. This is... well..." He sighed. "We just need to find her, somehow. I have to get going, Beth - professor - I need to let the other instructors know."
As soon as he left there was a minor uproar. The kid and I hurried over to talk to Beth while the students all began discussing things among themselves. After a minute or so Beth raised her voice to cut through the noise.
"Eyes front!" The room quieted and everyone turned to look. "If you want to help with the search, stay here. Otherwise, go back to your room and wait for further instructions." The students looked around at each other, but nobody moved. "All right. Now we need to work out some sort of search pattern, but more importantly, we need to know what everyone else is doing out there. Jo, Claude, Petra, Ashe - split up the compass between you and take a quick look around. Don't be gone more than half an hour."
When we got back we found the other students reviewing a hastily-drawn sketch of the monastery. I sat down to improve the drawing as best I could while we made our report. Things were a mess. Monks and nuns were running around the grounds like headless chickens. The Knights were attempting an organized search both on the ground and in the air but it was slow going. The main problem was that the monastery was huge. And we couldn't even be sure that Flayn was still in it; if someone had knocked her out, put her in a cart or on a heavy flier and taken off, she might be out in the valley somewhere.
We were discussing strategy when the doors burst open a second time. This time it was Dad, carrying an armful of huge rolls of parchment. He walked up to the table we were gathered around and dropped them in the middle of it, then looked around.
"Yes, I'm here."
"Good." Dad began spreading out the rolls on the table, covering our map of the monastery with... maps of the monastery. "When I was captain, I knew these plans like the back of my hand, which wasn't easy because they've been added to and altered and expanded so much over the years that they're like a rat's nest. This is the oldest set of maps we've got. There are a bunch of newer copies made about ten years ago, but I don't think they'll help us." He grabbed some books to weigh down the curled edges of the maps. "Tomas wasn't too happy when I took these out of the library, but I wasn't about to waste any time. Okay, Linhardt. Listen up, kid. I got a feeling something that was on these maps twenty years ago isn't here anymore. Have you seen parchment that's been scraped?"
"Of course I have," Linhardt said, looking insulted. "I've done it myself."
"I don't know anything about it, except that it's done. And I think it's been done somewhere around this bit." He waved a hand above roughly the southeastern part of the monastery. "There's a room missing. They must've drawn a different room on top of it to hide the gap. We need to find that room, and I need your eyes to do it, along with anyone else here you think can help."
"I'll help!" said Annette, bouncing up. "We did lots of parchment work back in the school in Fhirdiad, didn't we, Mercie? All those old spells and things."
"Oh, yes. I remember. So many dusty scrolls. Once a whole pile of them fell and got dust all over Lorenz's new clothes." Mercedes giggled.
"It was clearly sabotage," grumbled the young nobleman. "But let us set aside ancient history and lend our hard-won expertise to this cause."
The four scholars gathered around the section Dad had indicated and began scrutinizing it with practiced eyes. It seemed to take a long, long time for them to find something, but finally Annette made an excited little noise.
"Oh! Mercie! Look at this!" She began pointing out tiny defects in and around one of the drawings. It wasn't part of the main plan; it was one of the satellite drawings meant to show details the main one had no room for. The others leaned over to watch, but Lorenz soon frowned and turned to another of the maps.
"I thought so," he said. "That is clearly a duplicate. The drawing also exists here, on this sheet. It is an expanded plan of the interior of a large storeroom adjacent to the dining hall."
"What used to be there?" said Dad. "Can you tell?"
"No, not very well," said Annette. "I suppose it was about the same size. And I suppose it was sort of near the barracks, since the drawings all around it are from there."
"The barracks," Dad said. "Huh. I wonder. There were some old barracks built down into the hill that didn't get used anymore, not since the new ones - well, they're a hundred years old, but that's new around here - were built. And there was a door. Somewhere. But I don't see it."
"I'm sure they scraped that off, too," said Linhardt. "It would be careless to do otherwise."
"Right. You four see if you can find where it was. The rest of you, arm yourselves and come with me."
"Arm ourselves?" said Ignatz. "Do you think there'll be a fight?"
"If our hunch is right, I'd bet on it."
All the Knights were out searching so the area around the barracks was deserted. It was better than searching the entire monastery, but it was still a pretty big area and we didn't know where Dad's door might be. Probably hidden behind a tapestry or a bookcase or something, if the kidnappers were smart. And they were. It was.
I found the doorway behind an empty bookcase in one of the outbuildings. The door itself was long gone, probably rusted off its hinges, so when I moved the bookcase back all I saw was a darker gap in the shadows. I wondered how they'd moved the bookcase back in place from inside. Just more evidence of accomplices in the monastery.
Hoping I hadn't made too much noise moving the bookcase, I put out my candle and stepped through the door of the outbuilding. The only person in sight was Petra. She ran over when she saw me waving to her.
"Professor, have you been finding something?"
"Yes, I have. There's some kind of passage behind the bookcase in here. I'm going down to see if I can find Flayn. You go find Professor Jeralt and bring him back here, along with anyone else you can find - but tell everyone to be quiet."
"I am understanding. May the spirits walk with you."
"Thanks. Good luck to you too."
I went back inside and let my eyes adjust to the dark. I needed to move the bookcase just a little more to squeeze through, which I did as silently as I could. Then I crept through the dark opening and started feeling my way down a long flight of stone steps.
At first I thought it might be a dead end. Maybe it was just an abandoned, forgotten set of rooms, and they'd just shoved the bookcase in front when the door fell off. But when I got near the bottom of the stairs I began to realize there was light ahead. I stopped on the lowest step and listened. Voices. Not nearby, but not too far away. I edged forward to peek around the corner.
I was looking down the length of a long, low room, with a disused fireplace at the far end. There was an equally long table in the middle of the room with benches on either side, but they were literally on their last legs - parts were collapsed, rotted away, with only a few usable sections left. On two of those sections were two dark figures. Men, from their voices. A couple of candles on the table between them provided the light.
On both sides of the hall were three dark openings which, I assumed, led off into bunking areas. With no idea where Flayn might actually be, I'd have to search them all. Fortunately the guards seemed absorbed in their own conversation and I had darkness on my side. I began exploring.
The first opening, and all the ones after it, led to a corridor with individual rooms branching off from it. About half of them still had doors. Some had light coming from inside. Inside the lighted ones were people - from the quick glances I took, I guessed they were mercenaries - either sleeping or playing cards to pass the time. Once or twice someone noticed me, but I just jumped back in time a couple seconds and undid all that. The unlit rooms were deserted. No sign of Flayn.
I moved to the next corridor, though I had to be very careful because I was close to the guards and their light now. I could hear pieces of their conversation as I slipped past and it followed me as I checked the rooms. I didn't understand much, but what I did understand, I didn't like at all.
"... only get half the money if you kill her!"
"... insists on outdated methods. Simple quenching in the lifeblood is more than sufficient."
"Our orders are to wait."
"... in case of discovery... an opportunity wasted..."
"... don't like your blasted dagger..."
"... first opportunity in almost a millennium. Any delay is to risk losing it entirely."
"You sit there and keep your hands off her."
I'd finished the second corridor. All the rooms were dark. No sign of anyone. I moved to the furthest corridor on the left, again passing cautiously by the men at the table.
"I am not trapped here," one of the men was saying as I slipped past. "Unlike your mages, I am highly skilled in the arts. I could be at the gates within a minute."
"You skilled enough to keep my blade outta your back? I don't think so. We want all the money, so you shut up about your theories and your experiments, and just wait with the rest of us."
I started searching the third set of rooms. In the very last one there was a lighted candle on the floor, and nearby, curled up in a ball against one of the rotting bedposts, bound and gagged, was Flayn.
The room had a door, but it didn't fit right in its frame and stood slightly ajar. Slowly, carefully, I pushed it open far enough for me to slip inside. Her head jerked up as the door scraped softly against the floor but she saw the finger on my lips and didn't make a sound. I pushed the door closed again, listened to see if anyone was coming, then moved over to cut her free. Once the bonds were loose and she'd given me a hug that about knocked the wind out of me I decided to risk a little noise.
"Are you hurt?" I whispered.
"My head aches."
"Can you walk?"
"I believe so."
"Get in the corner behind the door." She shuffled over there as quickly as she could. I followed with the candle. "Are you afraid of the dark?"
"Sorry about this, then. It's safer." I blew the candle out. "Stay here. Keep your head down. If anyone comes in, I'll handle them."
I moved to the other side of the door and waited, listening. I tried to imagine what Dad's strategy would be and wondered how many sellswords were lurking about. I'd counted eight, including the two at the table, but I'd only searched half the rooms. How they got down there unnoticed I didn't know - maybe the mage had something to do with it.
"It is very dark."
"Yes, it is."
More silence. I hoped Petra hadn't fallen down a well or something.
"One of them said some very cruel things."
"Ugly-looking guy with a goatee?"
"Yes. Please don't... don't let him touch me again."
"Only over my dead body." There was still no sound from outside. I was starting to worry. "Flayn. Listen to me. I'll protect you as long as I can, but if things go wrong... you may have to run. Run as fast as you can and don't look back. From here, take a right down the corridor. When you get to the hall, take a right again. Run until you hit a wall, then take the stairs to your left. Keep going until you see our friends." I repeated the directions and had her repeat them back to me. I didn't have the heart to tell her our friends might be as dangerous to her as the enemy if close-quarters fighting in the dark was going on.
It was about ten more years before something finally happened. People started shouting off in the distance. There were crashes and thuds and the sound of running footsteps. One pair of footsteps came down the corridor toward us. I backed into the corner and held my dagger ready.
Light shone around the edges of the door and someone shoved it open, took two steps inside and then stopped to look around in surprise. It was the last thing they ever did. As they slumped to the ground, dropping the torch and dagger they were carrying, I saw it was the ugly bearded mage from the hall. Good riddance. I made sure he was dead and stomped out his torch, but as I was doing it I noticed something odd. The dagger he'd been carrying was only a hilt. There was no blade at all.
I didn't have time to think about that too hard because there was more shouting and someone else was coming up the corridor. No time to reset the trap - the mage's legs were blocking the door from closing. As fast as I could I backed up, unslung my bow and was fitting an arrow just as someone stepped into the doorway, all lit up in the glare of their torch. I shot them point-blank. Probably should've taken half a second to make sure it wasn't someone I knew, but if it was, I knew I could fix the mistake easily enough. Controlling time makes you a bit lazy, I guess.
The shouting and crashing and thudding kept going on, but I didn't hear anyone else coming toward us. I slung my bow back over my shoulder, dragged the ugly mage further into the room and checked on the person in the hall. She looked pretty dead. I dragged her inside too, shut the door and went back to my hiding spot. The big smear of blood outside was a pretty obvious giveaway that I was waiting inside, weapons ready, but maybe no one would notice. I listened to the noise from the hall and waited.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Help's on its way. I heard Beth out there. Once Beth shows up, it's pretty much over."
"Oh, thank the goddess."
Sure enough, the shouts and thuds and whatnot began to die away. Soon all I could hear was a low murmur of voices out in the hall. I thought one was Dad's, but I couldn't be sure. Safer to wait. And wait. A bit of light suddenly came filtering around the door, as if someone had lit a torch nearby. I heard someone walking slowly down the corridor, and it sounded like they were checking each door as they went. When they got to mine the footsteps stopped. I guess they saw the blood.
"Jo?" This time the voice came from outside.
"In here, Beth," I said, opening the door. "What took you so long?"
"We had to get everyone back together. We didn't know what we'd be facing." The light was coming from behind her somewhere, shining all around her body as if she was a goddess descending from the stars. "Is Flayn with you?"
"Yes, she's here. Come on out, Flayn. Mind the bodies."
Flayn was a bit cramped from sitting so long but she wasted no time getting out of that room. "Oh, Beth, I am so glad to see you!" she said, giving my sister the same kind of hug she'd given me.
"I'm glad to see you too. Are you both all right?"
"I'm fine, but Flayn's head could use some looking over. Is Kid here?"
"Yes. Let's go back to the hall and regroup with Dad."
It was a very different place than when we left it. Stationed at the head of each corridor were two of our students, one with a bow and the other holding up a torch, just in case a lingering mercenary decided to poke its head out. The table and benches were completely destroyed. Bodies were everywhere, but fortunately the students had come through more or less unscathed. They all cheered when Flayn walked out into the hall and she smiled so much it must've hurt. We found a mostly intact bit of bench for her to sit on while the kid fussed over her and Dad sent a runner to tell the Knights, who were waiting patiently upstairs (at Dad's insistence, no doubt), that things were under control and Flayn had been saved. A deputation came down to escort her back to the world of light. We followed once a thorough sweep of the area confirmed the enemy had been disposed of.
Were we heroes? Oh boy were we heroes. I'm pretty sure we were unofficially declared saints, the lot of us. Most of the students ate it up like candy, though Felix just grumbled and Bernadetta didn't come out of her room for a week. The kid was thrilled because everyone mostly forgot about her fancy sword. Dedue wasn't sure what to do with himself - for once, no one seemed to care that he was from Duscar.
I made sure to downplay what I'd done to anyone who asked. I said I'd found Flayn and stayed with her until the cavalry arrived. That was it. And it was true. If they wanted stories of flashy heroics, I directed them to Beth or Ferdinand or Lorenz; after all, it's best for shadows to stay out of the spotlight if they want to survive. But there was one person who learned everything that had happened down there in the dark, because Flayn told him.
I didn't realize it until a few days later. Flayn was still up her in room, not receiving visitors, and I was trying to escape my adoring fans by hanging out with Dessie on a little island in the lake. The Church made good use of those islands; the larger ones had lovely cottages for important visitors or those who wanted an extreme amount of privacy, but the smaller ones were left alone, to be used by wildlife or boaters or anyone who wanted some real peace and quiet. I'd found a perfect rock and was about to beat my previous skipping record when I spotted Belenos coming toward me. Oh, and Seteth too. They settled down on the beach a few feet away.
"I hope you'll excuse the interruption," Seteth said, walking up to me. "I assume you came out here to be alone."
"I did, but you're always welcome. How's Flayn?"
"Recovering quickly. She was reluctant to speak about her experiences until this morning, but I think at last she is beginning to feel safe again."
"Good to hear. Although..."
"What is it?"
"Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder how safe the monastery really is. There are a lot of... peculiar things going on. Is it always this way?"
"No, certainly not. Normally our lives are quite peaceful. Conflicts have occurred in the past, of course, but within the walls of Garreg Mach is a haven. Or so I have always believed."
He looked so sad and disillusioned that half of me wanted to hold his hand, but the other half was chicken and started squawking about pushing too hard, and why would someone who was 5,000 years old need his hand held, and maybe he didn't like holding hands anyway, so I just stood there like an idiot. Again. Why does love do that to people?
But I had to say something, so I went with, "At least you have the Knights around. And the instructors. Which includes us, I guess, at least for... however long we're here." Smooth, Jo.
"Yes, and that is, in a way, what brought me out here. As I said, Flayn described her experience to me this morning, and I learned a great deal from her that was not in the official report. Particularly about you, Jo."
"Me?" I had a vague idea that I might be in trouble. "What did I do?"
He gave me an amused look. "You did nothing. Or, rather, you did a great deal. The skill and bravery you displayed were exceptional. And without you..." His voice got a touch wobbly. "Well, suffice to say we owe you more than words can express."
"Um. Thanks. I mean, I was glad to do it, or, uh, whatever it is I'm supposed to say. Beth and Kid are much better at these things." I'm pretty sure I was beet red.
"I am greatly in your debt. Perhaps I can never repay you, but if there is anything you want from me, anything I can do..." he trailed off and looked at me expectantly.
If it's possible to turn redder than a beet, I probably did it. I felt like there were flames shooting out of my head. I couldn't even look at him, I had to pretend I was fascinated by a piece of driftwood while I tried to collect the thoughts which had escaped into very, very inappropriate places. I cleared my throat. Several times.
"That's... uh... There are, uh, things I want from you, but not as... payment. For anything. I just want them, you know, from you. Because you're you. And I'm me. And, uh..." I groaned and covered my eyes with my hands. "Oh, goddess, what am I saying? Dessie, where are you? Please kill me before I make things any worse."
"Don't fret, Jo. I understand you perfectly. Let me just assure you that if you are ever in trouble, you can count on me for whatever aid is in my power to give, regardless of our personal relationship. I hope you will remember that."
"Yes. Right. I'll remember." I took a deep breath. "Boy, it's hot today. I think I'll just go... sit in the lake. For a few hours."
"One more thing, before you go?"
He stepped toward me, took my head in his hands and kissed me so thoroughly that I felt it for a week. When he let go I was seeing spots. "That was from me because you are you, and for no other reason. Good afternoon, Jo."
I assume he got back on Belenos and flew off after that. I didn't descend from the clouds until Dessie ran up and knocked me flat on the sand, begging for treats.
Chapter 12: November 12th (Short sweet chapter plz, kthx)
We didn't see Flayn again until a week after the kidnapping. She marched into our room one night, Seteth in tow, and after we all said how glad we were to see her, how was she, etc., she made her announcement.
"My brother has been hinting that we should leave the monastery for my own safety. Naturally I am also concerned for my own safety, but I have a much better plan than simply fleeing in fear, and I hope you will aid me in convincing him to adopt it. I would like to join your class.
"Let me explain!" she added quickly as we looked at each other in surprise. "I wish to learn. I wish to become stronger. I wish not only to avoid these situations in the future, but to overcome them. I cannot always rely on others to protect me. Also, where could I be more safe than in your class, surrounded by your family and your students? Do you see? It is perfect!" She looked around at us expectantly.
"You make a good argument," said Beth. "What are your objections, Seteth?"
"That she is not only completely inexperienced, but she would be joining your class with the school year more than half over. She would be hopelessly behind."
"I will work hard!" Flayn protested. "And I am not as unskilled as my brother believes. I can ride, fly, I have great skill in magic, and I have watched your drills carefully. I know I would be a burden at first, but not forever. Will you do it? Will you speak to your father?"
Beth looked at the kid. "I suppose she'd be your student. What do you think?"
"I think it's a wonderful idea! I'd love to have her in my class, and I'm sure the others will be happy to help her catch up."
"All right, then," said Beth. "Let's go talk to Dad."
Dad was on our side, Seteth accepted defeat and Flayn was enrolled in Garreg Mach Academy.
The more devout students had some trouble adjusting to the idea of the Most Holy and Worshipful Chosen of Our Beloved Goddess being one of their classmates, but Flayn's charm eventually won out over their awe of her. Linhardt, on the other hand, was so thrilled with the opportunity to study one of the Chosen up close that he eagerly agreed to sit by her in class and act as a personal tutor. She found his inquisitiveness a little odd, but she put up with it.
She quickly made friends with Claude, Ignatz, Dimitri and Dedue, but her main focus was on Ferdinand, as was that of half the young, unattached people in Garreg Mach. The kid helped out by assigning her to Ferdinand's squad during small group exercises, and I pointed out, when Flayn showed an interest in the upcoming dance competition, that Ferdinand was an excellent dancer and would probably be glad to help her practice her moves. She took things from there and made excellent progress in her area of interest, both on and off the training grounds.
The only fly in this ointment, at least from Flayn's perspective, was Seteth. He stuck to her like glue. For the first week or so she was okay with it, and I was especially okay with it because whenever Flayn and I did something together, Seteth tagged along. Fishing in the lake, eating the kid's delicious fish stew afterwards, wyvern flights, even just sitting in the gardens after sunset and talking about fashions in Enbarr or hunting in Faerghus, Seteth was there. I'm not sure how the Church kept functioning without him, but we were all having a lot of fun so I didn't ask any questions.
Eventually, though, Flayn got a bit annoyed, especially if Seteth hovered too close while Ferdinand was around. That's when I got put on "Keep Seteth busy" duty - luring him just far enough away for her to have her space. When he started to become a distraction on the training grounds it was the kid's turn to gently shoo him away so Flayn could concentrate. He was reluctant, but he obeyed. Of course he'd still happen to pass by at different points throughout the day.
Her inexperience did show, especially during large group sessions. The students had been working together for nearly six months now and they all knew their places and their roles and worked together smoothly. But Flayn was slow and awkward and out of place. No one resented her for it; we did our best to watch her and work with her and make her part of the team. Still, one day there was an accident.
We were staging a grand melee with training weapons and flashy, harmless spells. The healers hung back around the edges of the chaos but sometimes they'd run in to help get someone who was down back on their feet. We instructors watched for problems and mostly stayed out of things.
Edelgard, the Imperial princess, was a real wonder during those sessions. She never lost her head and her axe work was perfect. Everyone knew to stay out of her way as much as possible - everyone except Ferdinand. He couldn't quite let go of his urge to best her. Some kind of political thing, probably - it usually was with Imperials. The fact that Edelgard barely noticed his attempts just made things worse. So there was Ferdinand, as focused on Edelgard as ever, and there was Ignatz, who hadn't noticed the axe-wielding whirlwind coming his way and got a bit flattened. Flayn ran out to help, Ferdinand ran after Edelgard, there was a collision and Flayn ended up on the ground, bleeding.
That's what almost happened, anyway. Instead I backed things up a bit and ran in to pull Flayn out of the way. Ferdinand was horrified at what he'd almost done; he fussed over Flayn for the rest of day, and of course she ate it all up. They both got a lecture about paying attention to your surroundings and that was that. Or so I thought.
After class Flayn had dancing lessons and I was back to keeping Seteth busy. We stood and talked outside a little courtyard near the student quarters while Flayn and Ferdinand twirled around inside to the pretty little tunes Bernadetta coaxed out of a lute. Seteth wasn't paying much attention to anything I said, so I figured he was leading up to something. Finally he sprang it on me.
"Training went well today?"
"For everyone or Flayn specifically?"
"For... everyone. No unusual incidents?"
"Sounds like you already know the answer."
"It's only that I happened to be in one of the towers which overlook the training grounds, and I noticed that, during the melee, there was... I could not make out the exact situation, but..."
"It was just one of those things that happens. We handled it."
"But..." He frowned and glanced toward the courtyard. "That Aegir boy..."
"We handled it, Seteth."
He crossed his arms and glared at the colonnade across from us.
"You need to let us do our job."
"Was Flayn upset?"
"She never mentioned it. I asked her how class had gone today and she only said, 'Very well.'"
He sounded more disappointed than angry. I put a hand on his arm. "She's probably afraid you'd overreact and throw Ferdinand out on his ear."
"Of course not. I would simply like to know these things without needing to... to..."
"Spy on her?"
He sighed again.
"You'll just have to wait until she's comfortable telling you. Definitely don't let her know you've been stalking her, that will not help."
"This is ridiculous. I am her... brother. No one loves her more than I do. I have protected her, comforted her, fed her, clothed her, written her stories, sung her to sleep -"
"Wait, you wrote her stories? What kinds of stories?"
"Children's tales. Fables. She was very fond of them. I still copy one out from time to time for the priests to read to our youngest visitors."
"I'd love to read them myself. Can I?"
He stood up a little straighter, looking pleased. "Certainly. I only have the one complete manuscript, however, and I would prefer that it remain in my office. You may read it there, if you don't mind."
"An excuse to hang around your office? I don't mind at all. Though you may regret it."
"Perhaps if you could - " He stopped, raising an eyebrow at me. "This is not what we were originally speaking about."
Busted. I tried to come up with something brilliant and insightful. "Look, I know Flayn's like a daughter to you, but... well..."
"She is not like a daughter," he said softly. "She is my daughter."
I stared at him as the lute trilled on in the background. "What?"
"It is something we have carefully concealed."
"And... her mother?"
"My wife, Aemilia."
"I don't believe it. I don't... no, I do believe it. It all makes sense. Except... why? Why the secrecy? What difference does it make?"
"There were reasons, once. It was safer for her this way. And even after all this time, I have never been quite willing to risk the truth."
I kissed his cheek. "Thanks for risking it with me. I won't let you down. But... wow. There are so many secrets in this place. I suppose this one is a good thing, though."
"Why is that?"
"Well, I've got two sisters but I've never had a... step-daughter, I guess it would be. Sounds nice. Will you marry me, Seteth?"
He gave me a little smile. "Do you want a step-daughter so badly?"
"We're not just talking about any step-daugher, we're talking about Flayn. How about it? Can Chosen perform marriage ceremonies? Can you perform your own or should we ask Flayn?"
"This seems a bit of a leap."
"I don't like that answer, sounds too much like 'No.' How about this - I'll make it a standing offer. When you finally decide to marry me, just let me know. By the way, Seteth, do you dance?"
"A little. Why?"
"I'm hopeless at it, but Bernadetta's playing one of my favorite songs and I can't resist. Come on."
Chapter 13: November 13th (Distracted by the sexy)
Time glided along happily for us all and things were forgotten that shouldn't have been. Worries about a traitor among us faded. Questions went unanswered.
Credit where credit is due: Claude didn't get distracted. He was driven in a way no one quite understood at the time. He kept digging into Decima's background, though he didn't learn much more than that she'd defected from the Church of Adrestia years ago. He poked around the library under Tomas's watchful eye, trying to track down the origin of the altered map. He wondered out loud about the Chosen, the Sword and the Church. But he was alone. Everyone else was thinking about the ball.
It was the event of the year at Garreg Mach, with the dancing competition as its highlight. Officially it was a ball for the students and the students only, but the instructors, Knights, clergy, cooks, merchants and everyone else associated with the monastery got involved somehow. There were legends about the things which happened on that night - silly, romantic legends, mostly. The skies were always clear, the night was always warm and if Somebody met Somebody in such-and-such a Place, well, it was Fate, that's all. The will of the goddess.
I didn't care for balls so I was immune to the general air of excitement, but I wasn't immune to Seteth. I took him up on that offer to read his stories and became a nightly presence in his office. He rarely received visitors there and kept the door locked, even when he was inside, but he gave me a key so I could let myself in. It was peaceful in there, as if the rest of the monastery had ceased to exist and we were floating in our own little private world of books and drawing pencils and wine and candlelight.
At first I just read the tales and gave my honest opinion of them, something he said he never got from the priests. Of course not, who'd criticize the writings of the All High Whatchamacallit? And no else even knew he wrote the stories, or any stories at all. Not an especially dignified occupation for the aforesaid Whatchamacallit. But I told him what I thought and I guess my opinions were helpful, because he didn't throw me out.
Once I got done reading, though, I couldn't leave it there. There was a drawing desk in his office. I'd barely even seen one of those before. I had to use it. So I began making illustrations for his stories; not as good as the ones Ignatz probably could've made, or Bernadetta, or anyone with more than my limited amount of experience, but I was determined. Also, I got to sit really close to Seteth while I was making them, and that had its own benefits.
School was out the day of the ball and the day after, which meant we had a lot to get done the day before, without much success. Annette and Mercedes kept suggesting elaborate new hairdos to Ingrid, who absolutely refused to listen; Petra was busy explaining Brigidian dance traditions to Ignatz; Linhardt was looking forward to two days of uninterrupted sleep; in the end, Felix was the only one who still cared about hitting other people with sticks. Dad gave up on lecture halfway through the morning and told everyone to "Go practice something". We spent the rest of the day herding students around as best we could.
I was back in Seteth's office that evening working on my latest masterpiece, Papa and Mama Bunny are Reunited. I decided to have Mama Bunny do a little foot pop as she kissed Papa, just like the one I'd seen an actress do on the stage in Enbarr. "Visual interest" is what Ignatz would've called it. "Ridiculous" is what Seteth called it.
I argued. He counter-argued. I pleaded artistic license. He cited verisimilitude (I had to look that one up afterwards). I proposed an experiment. He agreed. After some testing we forgot about the illustration completely.
I'd learned weeks earlier that Seteth didn't like me touching his hair. He kept it closely and neatly arranged and every time my fingers brushed it he'd shudder, pat it down into place again and the mood would be ruined. But his hair was smooth and silky, plus it was a great way to cool things down if they got too overheated, so my hands still wandered up there on rare occasions. They wandered up that night, but Seteth didn't react the way I expected. He shuddered, all right, and then just kissed me harder. That was a new development and I tried to think what it might mean, but I was quickly turning to mush, and if a knock on the door hadn't solidified me who knows what might've happened. Couldn't they have waited five more minutes?
Anyway, Seteth dealt with the intruder and then shooed me unceremoniously out of his office. I reminded him of my marriage proposal as the door closed, but he gave no sign he'd heard me. Jerk. I drowned my sorrows by going to help Dedue and the kid make flower arrangements. I didn't learn until weeks later that Seteth went off to have a very long talk with Dad after I left. Ever since then I've wondered what it was, exactly, that they said, but if I ask Seteth, he just smiles.
The day of the ball arrived and Flayn set up shop in our room so we could help her prepare. Together we put up her hair, arranged her dress and Beth even found a few bits of jewelry for her to wear. Flayn was radiant because Seteth had promised not to be at the ball. In fact, he promised she wouldn't lay eyes on him until the next morning. It was her night and she gloried in it.
When we finally arrived at the reception hall we found the chandeliers all lit up, the furnishings cleared away and the musicians already starting to play. Flayn glided off to find her friends and, she hoped, a lover. I waved and I left.
I only have a vague idea of what Beth and the kid got up to that night. Apparently Beth didn't even make it through the first set; it was too painful to just stand around while all the students, most of them near her own age, got to dance. The music could be heard all over the grounds, though, so she headed to the top of the Goddess Tower where she could dance with the shadows to her heart's content. But somehow, one of those shadows turned out to be Dimitri. Neither of them came back to the ball that night. I asked Beth the next day what they'd been up to and she said, "Never you mind. In a few months he and all the others will be gone and nothing will matter anymore." Dramatic Beth.
The kid stayed longer, but she got tired eventually, or so she said, and wandered back to her gardens. Not alone, though. One of the groundskeepers saw her walking with Dedue in the moonlight, his dress jacket around her shoulders. They came back to the ball later on, but they just stood in a corner, smiled, said nothing and were very happy.
What did I do? I went to see Mom. We'd kept the flowers on her grave fresh all those months and she looked as pretty and peaceful as ever, lying there in the sunset. It's hard to have a conversation with someone you've barely met and who doesn't talk back, but Nana was far away in Remire and there were some things Dad couldn't tell me.
A flapping noise nearby spooked me. If anyone wonders, though, I am not afraid of ghosts. Just of unexpected noises in graveyards at dusk. I turned around and there was Seteth coming in for a landing.
"Am I interrupting?" he said.
"Not really. I'm about twenty years too late to get what I was looking for."
"Can I help?"
"Oh, Seteth. What dangerous questions you ask sometimes." I took a second look at his mount. "That's not Belenos."
"This is Grannus. Belenos wasn't large enough for my purposes. Are you occupied tonight, Jo?"
"No. I hope you're not going to ask me to spy on Flayn for you."
"Not at all. This is about you, not Flayn."
"Oh? Sounds interesting. What about me?"
"You're certain you have no plans for the night?"
"Why? Am I about to?"
He moved Grannus toward me. "I wish to take you up on your offer."
"What do yo - !"
He swept me up beside him and a moment later we were in the air. I held tight, laughing. "Seteth! Where are we going?"
We flew out over the lake, its face pink and gold and deep blue like the sky above, and landed near one of the island cottages reserved for important guests. We were the guests that night.
Now, I assume the ordinary - not to mention modest - thing to do would be to leave my readers here at the door while Seteth and I go in, then skip ahead to the next morning. But I can't do that; a few things happened in-between which I need to tell you about. So let's skip ahead, say, an hour or so, and hope no young children are reading.
After the aforesaid hour, and once I finished thoroughly mussing Seteth's hair, which was great fun, I suddenly discovered what he'd been hiding from me. Two of the things, at least.
"Do they disturb you?" he said.
I think I just stared. Possibly I said "Uh" a few times. Discouraging from Seteth's point of view, no doubt, but I couldn't help it. He had the ears.
"Please say something."
"Yes. I should expl - "
"You have the ears."
"... the ears?"
"The ears. The Green Girl's ears. Where did you get the ears?"
He turned very serious. "Jo. Please explain. What do you know?"
So I told him about the dream. The other dream, not the one about towers and a red sky. The dream about the Green Girl.
In a dark place far away, a Green Girl slept. She was dressed in strange clothes and her strange, green hair fell all around her, like a shroud. She was as small as a child, dainty as a doll, but she was older than old and stronger than strong... if only she'd wake up. But she never did.
And that was it, the whole dream. Strange enough in itself, but her ears, where they peeked out of her hair, were more like an animal's than a human's. She wasn't human at all, really. What she was I didn't know, and now those same ears were here, in front of me, and I wasn't sure what Seteth was either. Were pointy ears another sign of the Chosen? If so, why did he hide them? Was Rhea hiding the same thing? Flayn normally wore her hair down around her ears, but I'd seen underneath and I knew her ears were as human as mine.
Seteth was very quiet. Trying to put together a puzzle without enough pieces, just like me.
"Did you have an explanation ready?" I said at last.
"I'd decided to tell you they were a deformity."
"A lie, then."
"I'm afraid so. Unfortunately, I can't tell you the truth. These are not my secrets alone."
I sighed. "The Church and its secrets again. I suppose I've got no right to complain; my family has plenty of secrets too. But... please don't lie to me, Seteth. If you can't tell me, just say so."
"Fair enough. Believe it or not, I was once a very honest man. I would like to be so again."
"Well, we'll work on it." I leaned forward and kissed him. "By the way, I suppose you've got the right to know now - I have a Crest."
"Oh? What is it?"
"Just a Minor Crest of the Betrayer. No big deal."
It was a strange way to start a marriage, but I suppose you had to expect such things in our family.
Chapter 14: November 14th (Wham)
And now it's here.
I don't want to think about what happened. I definitely don't want to write about what happened. Seteth keeps saying the truth needs to be known. I don't think so. I think I should write, "Dad retired to Derdriu and started an inn called the Eisner Arms. Stop by if you get a chance, he serves the best beer in town." See? That's nice. Maybe if enough people read it and believe it, it won't be a lie anymore. I'm pretty sure that's how things work.
Maybe I'll just start with the first part of the day and see how it goes.
Everyone slept late after the ball, not surprisingly. Seteth and I got back around mid-morning and found the monastery very quiet. We'd decided not to make any public announcements yet, but I went to tell my side of the family and he went to tell his. No one on my side was surprised. I think Dad already knew where I'd been and hinted it to my sisters. They were all pleased and happy for me and couldn't wait to tease Seteth mercilessly. A brother in the family was something new.
Dad went off to take care of some business and the three of us sat in the courtyard of the faculty wing discussing the ball, the rest of the school year and the future. The kid said that Flayn and Ferdinand had won the dance competition - probably a foregone conclusion given she was one of the Chosen and he was, well, Ferdinand. I was starting to prod Beth and the kid for more details about their own nights when Dad came back with Tomas.
Old Tomas. He'd been a librarian at Garreg Mach for at least forty years. Old Tomas, who shushed you for talking too loudly and gently scolded you for putting books back in the wrong place. Old Tomas, shuffling along with his cane at a snail's pace, so bent over that he had to crane his neck to look up at Dad. Forgetful, amiable, harmless old Tomas. Damn him.
I guess Dad had heard that our friend was asking questions about us three, questions Dad didn't like. Tomas had been so sorry when Dad confronted him, though. It was merely academic curiosity, he'd said. He would come down and apologize to us in person, he'd said. So there he was, old Tomas, in his wide sleeves and his baggy robes, with nothing to hide except a dagger hilt which didn't have a blade.
If you're ever passing through Derdriu, be sure to stop by the Eisner Arms. Dad serves the best beer in town.
For my wife's sake, I will make this record of Jeralt Eisner's death.
My information is secondhand and taken from the report made to us by Beth Eisner only a few hours after the tragedy. Tomas, head librarian at Garreg Mach, pierced Sir Jeralt through the back with an evil weapon of very ancient make, subsequently escaping by use of magic. Sir Jeralt's daughters did everything in their power to save him, to no avail. He had the - I would not say pleasure, but perhaps wonder - of seeing his child, Nona, weep for the first time in her young life before he was forced to abandon his children to their grief. We do not know what he found waiting for him beyond death; I prefer to imagine him united with his wife once more, walking in the springtime gardens of Garreg Mach.
That was Seteth, in case you haven't guessed. He won't write any more but he's promised to sit with me while I go on. So I guess... I'll go on. This next part will be bad, though, so you should probably just skip it. I wish I could.
I don't remember much of the rest of that day. The kid and I weren't well. They stuck us in the infirmary for awhile, but I got sick of that and escaped while Manuela's back was turned. I actually got out of the monastery somehow and was wandering down the banks of the Airmid when Seteth caught up to me. Maybe I was trying to find Tomas so I could stick a dagger in his face. I don't know.
I wouldn't go back to the faculty wing so Seteth brought me up to his rooms on the third floor, where he and Flayn mounted some kind of guard over me. I built myself a little box with invisible walls, crawled in and stayed there. It was a very nice box. Quiet. Peaceful. And I was so, so tired. Flayn and Seteth poked food at me through the walls sometimes, but I ignored it. I didn't want anything from outside the box. I was just going to lie there and not think, not work, not exist, and eventually everyone would forget about me and we'd all be happy.
Beth and the kid handled things differently, as I learned later. Beth just didn't stop moving. She helped plan the funeral. She fetched Nana from Remire. She packed up the things in Dad's room. She hunted for Tomas. I guess she figured that as long as she didn't slow down, she could survive.
The kid was back to her old self. Her old old self, the one that frightened people. She wandered about the monastery more or less as she normally did on her days off, but she seemed barely awake. Barely alive.
Classes were canceled indefinitely.
I heard that the funeral, two days later, was attended by basically everyone in Garreg Mach. I didn't go. I waited in my box. Something was coming. If I left the box, it'd get me. I couldn't let it in. But it did get in and it was all Seteth's fault. He came back talking about the funeral and I opened my box a little to listen and got clobbered.
Maybe it was the thing Nana had called "grief-crazed". I remember being furious that they'd put Dad in the ground. Somehow that meant I was too late. I couldn't try again, even though I'd already tried over and over and over and over and over again, and I couldn't get past the dagger in Dad's back. Somehow that dagger cut time as it went by and I was trapped. I couldn't save him. I'd failed. The first time in my whole life I failed and it was Dad who paid. I failed everyone.
I'm not sure what part of my screaming and crying and incoherent rambling translated to "Jo can control time", but I guess it was in there somewhere because later on, after I got a few hours' sleep and some food in me, Seteth brought it up. That was a shock. No one but me had ever known, much less believed it possible. He wasn't even surprised. He said he'd half expected it, but he wouldn't tell me why.
I got a little better after that. Enough to start living outside my box, at least. Flayn sat up with me half the night talking about her mother's death and how she'd dealt with it, and by next morning I felt ready to face the world again. I went to find my sisters.
Chapter 15: November 15th (Quick, deep breath before the weekend)
The monastery had changed. I'd seen it nervous before, but never frightened. All of the other attacks had been by outsiders; this one came from one of its own, someone known, trusted and respected. And a Knight had fallen. The best of the Knights. What chance did everyone else have?
I walked around, getting a mix of sympathetic nods and odd glances, until I found Beth. She was hurrying somewhere with a letter in her hand.
She stopped, hesitating. "Hello, Jo."
"What are you up to?"
"I'm notifying the Blade Breakers. Then I need to check the classrooms and training grounds to make sure everything's in order for whoever the Church appoints to take over. Then I - "
"Okay, okay." I wasn't as prepared for this as I thought. "Where's Kid?"
"I don't know. The usual place, most likely."
I headed for the gardens. It was getting late in the year for flowers, but a few were still making a go of it. The kid was examining them.
"What are you up to?"
"Picking a few things for Dad. And Mom."
"Oh." I followed along as she moved slowly down the rows, no expression on her face. "Kid, are you... all right?"
"I'm fine, Jo. I was just tired for awhile. I tried to heal Dad, you know, but it didn't work somehow. It only drained me."
"Yeah. I think there was something funny about the dagger."
"Really? How strange." Her voice was flat. She'd even forgotten how to smile, or maybe she just didn't care to make the effort anymore.
Dedue was in the greenhouse when we got around to it. He didn't say anything. He looked at us, bent over his personal plot for a moment, walked up to the kid and offered her something. Two little red flowers. She stood there and stared at them for what seemed like a long, long time. Then she dropped everything she was carrying, threw her arms around him and started sobbing into his shoulder.
I backed away and left them. He seemed to have things well in hand.
The classrooms and training grounds were deserted, of course. I wondered if they'd actually appoint someone in Dad's place or just send the students home. Either way, in about a month and a half, before winter really set in, everyone would be gone. I was wandering away again when I met a familiar pair of green eyes.
"Hey, teach. Nice to see you're still with us."
I changed course and walked up the staircase he was perched on to sit beside him. "Hey, Claude. What are you up to?"
"Not very much. It's too quiet around here. And if they didn't like me asking questions before, they definitely don't like it now."
"Just don't try breaking into the archives again."
"Aw, c'mon, teach. I got away with it last time. Mostly." He rubbed the back of his head. "Anyway, there's something else I'm trying to get a handle on. I found out that Tomas originally came from the Empire."
"Lots of people do, Claude."
"I know, but listen. Decima was from the Empire too. And those mercenaries who attacked us on the road had Imperial coins in their pockets. So did the ones who took Flayn."
"Lots of people also use Imperial coins."
"I know, I know. Probably a coincidence. Still, as a wise man once said, 'I believe in coincidences. Coincidences happen every day. But I don't trust coincidences.'" He winked at me and settled back against the steps. "By the way, teach, are the rumors about you and Seteth true? There are some questions I'd love to ask him. Maybe you can put in a good word for me."
"More rumors? What are they this time?"
"Just that you're having a torrid love affair. I'd go into details, but there might be children around. So? How about it?"
"I'll... think it over."
"Great. Let me know. I need something to do until class starts again - if it ever does." He got up, waved and trotted off down the stairs.
There had been rumors about me and Seteth before, of course. Also about me and Flayn, me and Claude, the kid and Linhardt, and Beth and everyone. Trading rumors was part of morning and evening devotions at Garreg Mach, which was the only reason Claude ever showed up for them. But, I thought, maybe I should start being a little more discreet. Maybe I should move back to the faculty wing.
I walked slowly over there. I must've stared down that courtyard for a full minute. Then I dashed through, packed my few belongings and brought them up to the third floor. Discretion be hanged, I was sleeping with my husband and far, far away from that awful place.
Next day, they found someone to replace Dad. That someone was Beth. She'd volunteered because of course she had. She wanted to stay on as a skill instructor too, which meant her workload more or less doubled. She didn't even blink. She just kept on moving. Poor Dimitri looked as if she was leaving him behind; she barely glanced his way anymore.
The kid and I stayed on too. We didn't want to leave our students in the hands of relative strangers. It wasn't easy, but we told ourselves we only had to hang on for a month or so and it would all be over.
A lot can happen in a month.
Chapter 16: November 16th (So much to write, so little time)
I took Dessie out for a ride after the first snowfall. It was a cold, clear day, and once we got away from the monastery the ground below us was white and clean and sparkling, with just the little dark tracks of animals here and there. We made a wide loop which took us right to the wall of the encircling hills and back again. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but snow can be a useful tool for a scout. It remembers.
We were flying along the treeline when I noticed more tracks below, scattered all over a little clearing. In one spot there seemed to be the remains of a campfire. I took Dessie in for a closer look; the clearing seemed to be deserted, but someone was scrambling along the hillside nearby. Someone in wide sleeves and baggy robes. Someone I owed a large debt of pain.
My first impulse was to swoop down and put a dagger in his eyesocket. My second impulse was to go find Beth so she could put a sword in his other eyesocket. That's what I did. I found her as busy as usual, even on her day off, helping the kid clear snow off the greenhouse roof. Dimitri was trying to lend a hand, but he looked sort of discouraged. I landed Dessie right in the middle of them and told my story as quickly as I could. As soon as I mentioned Tomas's name I had Beth's undivided attention. A deadly gleam started to creep into her eyes. When I was done she stood there, brushing her hands off slowly, thinking.
"He could've escaped long ago," she said. "He's setting up a trap."
I hadn't even thought of that. I'd been concentrating on how painfully I could kill him. Beth started off for the stables, the rest of us trailing behind. "I'll get Phoebe," she said. "Kid, can you run back to our room and grab my gear for me? Hurry."
"Get my horse too, Beth!" said the kid before dashing off.
"May I help as well?" said Dimitri.
"No. Stay out of it." We were in the stableyard now. Beth took her saddle down from the wall and I grabbed the kid's. Dimitri kept arguing as we headed for the stalls.
"You don't intend to do this alone?"
"You want me to drag the whole monastery into a trap? This is our fight, Jo's and Kid's and mine. No one else needs to get hurt."
"But he could kill you. You're too important -"
"Important?" She glared at him as she cinched the saddle in place. "Dimitri, I'm a mercenary. People like me die every day for no better reason than a few stacks of gold. All I want is to go down fighting, and if I take Tomas with me, then when I see Dad I can tell him to rest easy. How are you coming with Bellflower, Jo?"
"Almost ready. Should we keep him busy from the air while Kid blasts him?"
"If we can. Mostly we just need to make sure to stay out of each others' way. Once Kid softens him up, we - "
"I forbid you to do this!" Dimitri must've been desperate; I'd never heard him throw his royal weight around before.
"I'm not one of your subjects," said Beth dryly. "That's not going to work."
She led Phoebe out into the yard and I followed with Bellflower. The kid came running up, arms full of equipment; Beth threw most of it over Phoebe's back to don as she flew.
Dimitri hadn't given up yet. He put a hand on Phoebe's reins, practically vibrating with frustration. "How can your life be worth so little to you and so much to us?"
"My life is worth about a thousand gold on the open market. You'll be king, Dimitri. You can buy ten more just like me if you need them. Ready, Kid? Let's go."
As we lifted off I saw Dimitri running out of the stableyard, but not, as any reasonable person would've done, toward the barracks to get the Knights. No, the big, lovestruck idiot was heading for the student quarters. Nobody was thinking straight that day except Tomas and... well, you'll see.
Beth and I spotted the speck on the hillside that was Tomas from some distance away, but as we got close the wind began to pick up. Soon we were flying through a whiteout and had to go to ground. After regrouping with the kid in the shelter of the trees we forged ahead, making for the last place we'd seen our enemy. The wind fell and the snow settled again, covering up our tracks, as we entered the little clearing. He was waiting for us.
He wasn't old Tomas anymore. He stood tall and straight and moved easily, with no need of a cane. The kid threw her whole arsenal at him - fire, ice, wind, lightning, thunder, piercing light and suffocating darkness - but he was shielded by some kind of magic of his own and just stood there, grinning, as the spells broke against the hillside. My arrows couldn't touch him. Beth made a sign for us to stop, drew her sword and charged across the clearing. We followed more slowly to back her up if we could and then -
The world went out.
I stopped. Everything was gone. No hillside, no clearing, no Beth, no light, no sound. I tried to back up to ten seconds ago, but nothing happened. I tried again. Still nothing. Then, finally, I heard a noise behind me. I turned and there, by a little pool of light, were Beth and the kid, and in the pool of light was the Green Girl, yawning and looking very disappointed in us.
"What in my name has been going on?" she said. "I was having such a lovely dream, all about strawberries. Do humans still eat strawberries?"
"Um, yes," said the kid. "They're quite nice."
"Good. I worked hard on them. They're tricky, you know. Where was I?" She frowned and rubbed her eyes. "Oh, right. I was scolding you. Something's obviously gone wrong. Tell me what happened, quickly."
The kid explained things to her while Beth and I looked on. The kid, you see, had been talking to the Green Girl in her dreams for years. Short conversations at first, but they got longer as she got older, and since coming to the monastery she'd even been able to talk with the Green Girl while awake. She usually told us about these conversations afterwards and that's how we all learned two important facts about the Green Girl.
First, that she didn't remember very much about herself, not even her own name, but she did know a lot about Fódlan - the Fódlan of thousands of years ago, that is. Second, there was one very important thing she did remember about herself. She was the goddess. The goddess. Yes, that one.
I'm not saying we believed her, exactly. The goddess was supposed to be far, far away, somewhere round about the Blue Sea Star, answering prayers and sulking over the Betrayer and doing whatever else goddesses do. The Green Girl seemed more interested in sleeping than anything else. A lot like Linhardt, come to think of it. But she was funny and had lots of stories to tell and we all liked her, even if Beth and I only knew her when she was fast asleep, so we didn't question her delusions.
The kid finished explaining the situation and the Green Girl ran a hand down her face like Dad used to do when we'd screwed up badly and he was trying to find a gentle way to tell us. "I see. There was an obvious trap and you decided the best thing to do about it was... fall in. I understand you're upset about your father's death, but really?" She sighed. "And now we're here. But where is it we are, exactly?"
She hopped up from what I guess was the ground and looked around. We looked around too, but there wasn't much to see. It was dark. Just... dark. We jumped when the Green Girl suddenly squealed with excitement and clapped her hands together. "Oh, I do know this place! I remember! It's my nursery!"
"Your parents put you in a place like this?" said Beth.
"No, silly, I put my children here. But it was different then, I... I could... well, it was just different. I gave them their own rooms eventually, when they grew up, you know, with their own little keys, but I kept the nursery for myself, in case I ever made more children. I wonder how your Tomas found it. He must have looked very hard."
"Green Girl," said the kid, "do you remember there being a door anywhere? So we can get out?"
"A door? Oh, yes, of course. Umm..." She looked around at the darkness carefully. We waited. "I think... I got rid of it."
"What?" said Beth.
"Well, I hardly expected anyone else to get in here. You'd need my key and... and... oh." She looked at the kid. "That's how he did it. Very clever."
"Then how do we get out?" said Beth. "We can't stay here forever."
"Well, no," said the Green Girl. "I couldn't keep you alive nearly that long, and you're far too human to be able to sleep properly. If only I had a form. I had a very nice form, once. I wonder what happened to it?" She yawned and blinked rapidly. "Oh, I am tired."
"Can't we cast a spell or something?" said the kid. "To get out?"
"Why? Do you know one?"
"No. I thought you might."
"I didn't use spells. I had -" The Green Girl paused, thoughtfully. "Nona, where is my torch?"
"I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean."
"My torch. I know you have it. Don't you know what a torch is?"
"You mean this?" The kid lifted the chain with the dragon hilt from inside her robes.
"How odd. Do humans wear torches around their necks now?"
"We thought it was a sword," said the kid, half-apologetically.
"Humans wear swords around their necks? How strange you all are." The kid held the sword-torch out to her but the Green Girl just laughed. "I can't use it, silly! I don't have a form, remember? Unfortunately, I don't think any of you can use it either. There's not enough of me in there. Well, there is in you, Nona, but it's just... in you." She stepped forward and tapped the kid's chest lightly. "What a funny thing to do. I can't imagine it works very well. If only I had... "
She paused. She tapped her chin. She scrutinized each one of us carefully. "Hmm. I don't know. You're all so very human - especially your ears. I'm not sure what would happen. But if I used all three of you... and the key... then... " She sighed and dropped her hands to her sides. "I suppose it's time. Perhaps it'll be like going to sleep again. Would you all please put your hands on the torch? Just anywhere, it doesn't matter."
We obeyed. She lifted her own small hand and let it hover above ours. "My children, I must leave you. I give this world into your charge until - oh, well, never mind. Pretend I said something suitably impressive. It's been great fun, Nona. Let's have a little more before I go!"
To explain the mild sensation our reappearance made, I need to tell you what was happening back in the world we'd left. Dimitri had rounded up most of his fellow students to form a rescue party. At some point the Knights finally realized that shenanigans were afoot, but by then the students were thundering out the gate. Claude and Petra got in the air within minutes of Dimitri's call to action and managed to track down where we'd gone, aided in part by the flashy fireworks the kid was putting out. They'd just started circling overhead when Beth made her charge and we all vanished into thin air.
Dimitri did not take their report well. Normally Dedue could've reined him in a little, but Dedue took the report just as badly. It was a disaster in the making. Tomas may have only been one man but when that man is a very old, very powerful, very unhinged archmage, he's more than a match for a crowd of twenty-something-year-old military cadets. Fortunately he seemed more interested in cackling and calling himself "Solon the Liberator!" and "Solon the Savior of All!" than in actually killing anyone. No doubt he'd have got around to the killing eventually but he was rudely interrupted by a miracle.
The goddess returned.
No one can quite agree on what She looked like. Marianne said She was made of a flock of beautiful, tiny birds that swooped down, singing, out of the clear sky, and formed themselves into a woman clad in bright feathers. Petra said She was like a great fire spirit of Brigid, all light and flame. Ignatz said She was too beautiful to look at directly, but She made the trees greener as she passed, and the snow whiter, and the sky bluer, and everything more vibrant and alive. Ingrid and Felix saw a towering warrior with a flaming sword in Her hand.
Dimitri would never forgive me if I repeated his description because it was, well, a bit erotic, so I'll just say that he thought She looked like Beth. Ferdinand saw a strong resemblance to Flayn. Linhardt didn't see anything; he only felt a sense of deep contentment, as if he were snuggling into his warm bed at the end of a long, hard day.
I don't know what Tomas saw. They tell me he was screaming in terror at the end. Not as good as my dagger in his face, but I'll take it.
The bird-fire-warrior-Beth-Flayn-bedtime-woman brought down holy vengeance on Her enemy's head and then quietly, peacefully faded away. All She left behind were Beth and the kid and me, unconscious, lying in a field of strawberries. The kid's hair had changed to match the color of their leaves.
Chapter 17: November 16th and 17th (Uhhhhh now what)
We drifted in and out of sleep in the infirmary for the next two days. I'm not sure how much of what I remember from that time is real. I remember people grouped around the kid's bed, speaking in hushed whispers. I remember Rhea standing and looking down at her for what seemed like hours. I remember Dimitri talking softly with Beth and her hand brushing his cheek. I remember Seteth and Flayn hovering over me, but they seemed very, very far away.
And I remember my first glimpse of the kid's new hair and eyes. Those took a lot of getting used to, especially for her. To this day she avoids mirrors because she feels like a stranger looks back. We didn't get to talk about the change, the three of us, until late at night on the second day, when we were finally all awake at once and Manuela had gone to bed. We put our heads together and tried to figure out what had happened to us.
"I feel sort of... stretched," said Beth. "Like I'm a glove which has been outgrown and needs to be replaced."
I nodded. "I know what you mean. My insides have gotten too big for my outsides, somehow. I'm not sure it's a good thing. Kid, how do you feel?"
"Sort of the opposite. I feel like my insides and outsides fit together for the first time. But," she sighed and touched the hair at her shoulders, "everyone seems to be expecting something from me, and I don't know what. Especially the archbishop. She said all these strange things - that she'd been waiting for me, and she was ready to turn over her burden, and that she hoped I'd approve of the things she's done."
"Uh, Kid, it kind of sounds like she wants you to be archbishop."
"But that's ridiculous! I'm not even in the clergy! How could she want that?"
"Well, you're all dressed up for it." I waved in the direction of her head. "Maybe that's all they need."
The kid put her face in her hands. "I don't think it's me she wants. I think she knows about the Green Girl, somehow. But the Green Girl's gone."
"Gone?" said Beth. "Are you sure?"
"I can't hear her. I can't feel her. I don't see her in my dreams. Do either of you?"
Beth and I shook our heads. "Then if it's really the Green Girl, or the goddess, or whatever she was that Rhea's after, we may have a problem," I said.
Manuela let us go back to our own rooms the next day, though we were all still exhausted. Once Seteth got me alone he started a long lecture on responsibility and how I should consider my husband and step-daughter before going off on suicide missions. He wasn't wrong. In fact, I already felt pretty guilty for not even thinking about him or Flayn back there. I apologized as sincerely as I knew how and the issue was settled. Temporarily.
That evening there was a big stir in the monastery. Flayn came running upstairs, breathless, carrying a printed handbill. It was a proclamation from Rhea.
Be it known that on the 21st day of the Wyvern Moon, in this the 62nd year of the reign of Rhea IX and the 999th year since the establishment of Garreg Mach Monastery, the goddess revealed Herself once more to her beloved children, and one among them was Chosen to be the vehicle of Her power.
Be it further known that on the 26th day of the Wyvern Moon in the same year a ceremony is to be held wherein the newly Chosen, along with her closest kin, will receive full divine revelation and proclaim the will of the goddess. Let us pray that Her return is at hand and make ourselves worthy of Her renewed presence among us.
I had to read it over a few times. "What kind of ceremony is this? Flayn, was there a ceremony when you were Chosen? Did you receive some kind of divine revelation?"
"Ah." She looked a little nervous. "I didn't... that is, I... ah..."
"You can't tell me?"
"No. I'm sorry, Jo. But I've never heard of a ceremony like this before. I don't know what Rhea is doing."
"Huh. I guess we'll find out in a couple of days, but to be honest, I'm not looking forward to any more revelations. The last one was almost too much for me."
Seteth had much the same reaction to the handbill that Flayn and I did - worried confusion. And that was the mood I found my sisters in when we met next day for breakfast in the dining hall. The staff was nice enough to set aside a little table just for us, and Dedue, looking as forbidding as possible, had set himself up in front of it to ensure the kid got a chance to eat without interruptions. Beth showed me a copy of the handbill as I sat down.
"I've seen it," I said. "Do either of you know more about it?"
Beth shook her head. "I guess we don't get a say in things. We just show up and accept whatever happens."
I shrugged. "How bad could it be? The archbishop doesn't want to kill us or anything, right?" My sisters exchanged glances. "Oh, no. You think the archbishop wants to kill us."
"I don't believe she wants to kill us," said the kid. "Only I think she wants the goddess back more, and there's just... not enough room for us and the goddess too. Though I'm not sure you and Beth are involved this time, it might just be me. Because -" she frowned and touched her green hair.
"But she likes you, Kid. Doesn't she?"
"I don't know. She's been very interested in me, I suppose, but I think now it wasn't really me at all." She sighed.
"But," I sat forward and lowered my voice, "the Green Girl's still gone, isn't she, Kid?" The kid nodded and I sat back. "Then everything's fine. Nothing will happen." My sisters exchanged glances again. "What? What could happen?"
"Maybe it won't work. But maybe the ceremony not working will be just as bad," said Beth. "What happens if we're opened up for 'full divine revelation' and nothing comes? What happens to us? What will the archbishop do? Jo, have you asked Flayn and Seteth about this ceremony?"
"Yes. They've never heard of it before. They're... worried."
A gloomy silence fell over our table. It was interrupted by a voice I hadn't been expecting at all - Dedue. He'd left his post.
"Are you in danger?" he rumbled at the kid.
"I may be," she said. "We don't know."
"I will inform His Highness."
"What? No!" She jumped up and caught his arm as he started walking away. "Why would you do that?"
"He would wish to know, and I have sworn to serve him in life and death."
"But he might try to stop it!"
She shook her head in exasperation. "Dedue, this may mean the return of the goddess! The Church has been waiting for Her a thousand years. I know you're not a believer, but if my life is all that's needed to bring the goddess back, I think it'd be worth the sacrifice. Don't you?"
They stood there, her still holding his arm, and looked at each other in silence. Finally she let go, slowly. "But what can Dimitri do?" she said.
"I do not know, but he once saved me, a stranger, alone and despised, at risk of his own life. He will do no less for you."
Dedue walked away and the kid sat back down, looking even more worried. "Beth, Dimitri wouldn't do anything desperate, would he?"
"I don't think so. He's a sensible man. Usually." Beth smiled, but it faded quickly. She sighed and stood up. "If you're both done eating, let's go talk somewhere else."
We didn't really plan it that way but we ended up in the cemetery. All of the snow from a few days ago had melted, the grass was brown, the trees were bare and the flower beds were empty. It was a pretty dreary place. We sat on the stone bench near Mom and Dad and tried to figure out what we should do.
"If we'd never come here, we'd be in winter quarters right now," I said. "All warm down on the southern coast, with ships leaving every day for the islands or for Morfis in case we wanted a bit of adventure. And Dad would still be alive. And we'd see the Green Girl in our dreams, just like always."
"But Claude might be dead," said Beth. "Dimitri and Dedue too. And all the things that happened this year - the attack during the Rite, Flayn's kidnapping - what would've happened if we hadn't been here to stop them?"
"And we wouldn't have met any of our friends. And Jo, you're married now. Aren't you happy?"
"I'm happy. I'm too happy. I feel like I don't have any right to be." I looked over at the grave and wondered what Dad would say.
Beth crossed her arms. "Anyway, it's too late to run now. We have to face this ceremony, whatever it is, and then... then everyone will go. It'll just be the three of us. We're all that's left."
"Seteth and Flayn too," I said. "They're family now."
"Are they?" Beth gave me a skeptical look. "We've never had secrets, not from each other. But those two - they've got a lot to hide."
"It's Rhea's fault," I muttered, but I couldn't really argue. We didn't feel like a family. We felt like two different families with me pulled back and forth between them.
"Someone's coming," whispered the kid, and we all turned to look. It wasn't easy to recognize folks now that everyone was wearing their winter furs, but as he got closer it proved to be Dimitri. He was carrying something. At first I thought it was one of the handbills.
"Professors," he said, making a little bow to us, "pardon me for interrupting. The other students and I have drawn up a petition which we wish to present to the archbishop. With your approval, of course."
He handed the thing he was carrying to Beth and we looked over her shoulder. It was a sheet of fine vellum, written over in a beautiful hand which I recognized as Mercedes's and signed by all the students in our little class. They were asking permission to be present at the ceremony tomorrow.
Beth was frowning. Apparently she didn't like the idea. Dimitri, however, had come prepared for that. "Professor, don't you want us to be there?" he said, with just the right note of plaintiveness in his voice, and she melted like butter. Claude was rubbing off on him.
"Of course I'd like you there. All of you," she added hastily. "But I'm not sure the archbishop will consider it."
"Will you at least let us make the attempt? Surely she will understand our desire to be witnesses at such an important occasion. And if something unexpected should occur, we will be on hand to offer our assistance."
I smirked. Claude's influence was showing all over the place now. Beth hesitated, then handed the petition back to him. "I suppose there's no harm in trying. Just keep in mind that her answer may be 'No'."
"We've accounted for that possibility. Good day, professors." He bowed again and strode off.
"Now I want her to say 'No', just so I can see what they're planning," I said.
"I don't. The last thing we need is to start a war in the monastery over this," said Beth.
But a small war was already brewing, though we didn't know it until early that evening. We'd gone back to our room - well, it was their room now, I suppose - right after dinner, and we'd only just got settled in when someone knocked on the door. It was Flayn. She charged inside, ran over to where I was sitting and threw her arms around me. "Jo! They're fighting! It's terrible!"
"What? Who?" I said as we all tried to calm her down.
"Rhea and Seteth. He sent me out, but I could hear them. He's never raised his voice to her before!" She looked up at me, frightened. "It all started because of the petition. Claude and Dimitri seemed so sure - did we do something wrong?"
"If something was wrong, it's my fault, not yours," said Beth. "I told Dimitri it was all right. What didn't they like about it?"
"I don't know." Flayn let go of me and started twisting her hands together. "I was sitting with my brother, waiting to hear her decision, and she came in and said that she was denying the request. My brother asked why and she said that she intended the ceremony to be private. Then my brother told me he was very sorry, but at least I could still attend the ceremony, even if my classmates couldn't. And then Rhea said no, no one else could be there. Only her and the three of you. And then my brother sent me from the room."
A little chill ran down my spine. I'd assumed Seteth would be there, at the very least. Beth got up and started pacing. "Alone?" she said. "Not even the other Chosen? Why - "
Another, louder knock on the door startled us. Beth opened it and Seteth came in. He looked a little pale. Flayn jumped up when she saw him and ran over to give him a hug; he returned the hug, then they both came over to sit with me. Seteth took my hand and looked around the room.
"I assume Flayn has informed you that Rhea and I are... in disagreement."
"To put it mildly," I said. "Something about wanting us all to herself at the ceremony."
"Yes. I could not accept that. I understand from Flayn that the students are concerned for your safety, and while I believe their concern is unjustified, I... I cannot dismiss it entirely. Rhea's insistence on conducting this mysterious ceremony unsupervised is especially worrisome." He sat and stared at the fireplace for a minute or so. We glanced at each other, but no one said anything. Finally he took a deep breath and looked around the room again.
"I'm afraid I've given you little reason to trust me. Jo could tell you there are some things I've refused to share even with her. The Church keeps many secrets. By now you've no doubt realized that some of them involve you, yet you are being deliberately kept in the dark. If this makes my request seem hypocritical, forgive me, but I must ask. Please, tell me everything. Everything about yourselves and your family and your history. Jo has made strange revelations and hinted that there is more behind them. I must know. Please."
Beth and the kid looked at each other, then looked at me and kept looking. Well, then. Time to come up with something brilliant. I sat up straight and cleared my throat. "I think we should trust him," I said. "People need to start trusting people around here. The right people, I mean, not the wrong ones. Um... that includes Flayn, by the way. We should trust her too."
My irrefutable arguments delivered, I sat back and waited. Beth and the kid looked at each other again. Beth raised an eyebrow. The kid hesitated, looked at me, Seteth, Flayn and Beth, then nodded. And we told them everything.
It took a long time. We started with Dad's mysterious encounter with Rhea years and years ago that got him into the Knights and ended with our conversation that morning. We got the order of some things mixed up and probably forgot a lot along the way, but we did our best. Seteth and Flayn never interrupted us. They didn't ask questions. They just sat and listened and their eyes grew wider and wider, especially when we talked about the Green Girl.
I'm not sure what kind of reaction I was expecting at the end of it. Obviously it all sounded crazy, heretical, blasphemous and impossible, but other than that there was no reason for them not to believe us. At least they'd probably pat us gently on our heads before kicking us out the gate. But when the kid finally rambled to a stop and we all turned to look at them expectantly, Seteth surprised me. He just laughed. He laughed and laughed until Flayn and I were exchanging worried glances over the top of his head.
"Um, Seteth?" I said. "Dear? Sweetheart? Sugarplum?"
"Yes?" he managed between gasps.
"Knock it off, you're scaring Flayn."
That calmed him down to the point of chuckling and wiping his eyes. "Nona," he said, "are you sure, are you completely sure that Sothis - your Green Girl - has gone?"
The kid gasped. "Her name is Sothis? You know her name?"
"Yes, of course I do. But is she gone?"
"I think so. I don't know how I could be more sure of it than I am. She's nowhere she used to be."
"Would you consent to an experiment?"
"I suppose so. You mean like what Hanneman and Linhardt do?"
"No, no, though that might be interesting as well. I only hoped you would allow me - no, that might be considered improper. I hoped you would allow Flayn to place her hand over your heart and feel it for herself."
"Oh. Of course. If you want to."
Flayn, her eyes full of curiosity, walked over and put her palm against the kid's chest. She frowned. She got down on one knee and actually put her ear against it. She stood up again. "Nona, there seems to be nothing amiss. Your heart sounds just as it should."
"What?" Beth and I said, falling over ourselves to confirm Flayn's discovery. It was true. The kid's heart was beating away just like anyone else's. Seteth started chuckling to himself again.
"Rhea's plans will come to nothing," he said. "She is too late. The goddess was there, but She has left us. To think She was so close all this time..."
"We don't quite know that her plans will come to nothing," I said. "No one's sure what this ceremony of hers does."
"True." He cleared his throat and composed himself. "I suppose I could try to convince her - no, she wouldn't believe me. She must see it for herself. Nona, I believe you will come to no harm tomorrow, but it may still be comforting to have your friends about you. I'll speak with Rhea again, now that I am... more at ease."
He took a deep breath. "And there is one more thing I should do, both because you all most generously put your trust in me and because... because I believe you have the right to know. I'll give it to you soon. I think it will answer many of your questions." He leaned over and kissed me. "I'll see you in our rooms later, Jo. Good night, Beth. Good night, Nona."
He wrote us a story. We didn't get a chance to read it until a few days later, for reasons that'll become obvious, but I still have it and I'm going to copy it down here between that night and the next morning. Then everyone - everyone who bothers to read this thing, at least - will know.
Chapter 18: November 17th (Storytime with Seteth)
A great while ago, when the world was full of wonder, a traveler came to Fódlan from the Blue Sea Star. She was a very clever woman who could fly and fight and turn tricks with time, but most of all she loved making new things and exploring new places. Her name was Sothis.
Sothis wanted to befriend the humans of Fódlan, but they feared her because her body looked very different from their own. She went back to her workshop and created a new body, a lovely human one with green hair and green eyes, her favorite color, though she kept her pointed ears because she was very proud of them.
In her new body the humans were not afraid of her. They became great friends. She taught them many of the things she knew and built wonderful toys for them to play with - birds for the trees, flowers for the meadows, fish for the rivers. She even helped the humans build workshops of their own.
Sothis lived with the humans for many long and happy years, but while she never grew old, for her body was strong and she could repair it at need, the humans around her aged and died, and more were born and grew. Some of them became envious of her great power and long life and plotted to take those things for themselves. They used their workshops to create terrible weapons, made in imitation of the tools of Sothis, and used them to wage war against her and her followers.
Many humans died. The crops were blighted and the rivers became unclean. Sothis defeated her enemies, but Fódlan was dying and her friends cried out for aid. Sothis worked and worked until the green came back to the grass and the blue to the waters and the sun shone brightly once more in the sky.
This work made her very tired and she needed Sleep, but she knew the healing was not yet done, and she also feared that her enemies might return. She decided to create children to mend and guard Fódlan while she Slept. She gave them each two forms: one was like her first form, large and strong and frightening, while the other was like her second form, a lovely human with green hair and green eyes and pointed ears.
She also gave each child two gifts: a room, set apart from the world, and a key engraved with their own name which she set into their very blood. When ill or injured they could use the key to hide in their room and Sleep in safety, leaving only a round, flat Stone behind that no hammer could break.
She made one more room and key for herself, hoping to Sleep in peace, and when they were finished she gathered her children together in her workshop. This is what she said to them:
"My children, I must leave you. I give this world into your charge until I return. Be kind and patient and tend it well, for our friends' sake and for mine. I worked very hard on it, after all."
While Sothis Slept her children learned of Fódlan and its people, just as she had done. Many fell in love with humans and decided to marry. They soon found that their children did not inherit Sothis's gifts; the secondborn had only one form, which lacked the lovely pointed ears, and they had no rooms or keys of their own. Their bodies also needed food and withered with the flow of time, though if they were taught to Sleep they could regain their youth and strength.
In time the secondborn also married. Their children, and their children's children, hungered and sickened and aged and died as other humans did, but some of the old strength remained, and in their blood ran the memory of the keys.
The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Sothis built a city near the place where she Slept. There many of them lived with their families while others spread across Fódlan, keeping the wisdom of Sothis alive and tending to her creations. The land flourished and, for a time, there was peace. But not forever.
A sorrow came upon the children. The secondborn began to vanish. Fear spread and many of the firstborn concealed their children from the world. A hidden enemy was at their gates, but the first and greatest blow of the second war fell on Sothis herself. A human with an evil weapon bathed in the blood of the secondborn crept into her workshop. With his blade he drained the Stone in which she Slept, taking her power into himself. Then he stole the dead Stone and her tools and fled.
The children grieved. They hunted for the one who had murdered their mother, but he could not be found until, one day, he descended upon their city with fire in his wake. The stolen power of Sothis was terrible to behold; weapons could not harm him, the most powerful magics were his to command and time bent to his will.
With him were ten humans he had won to his cause. Ten firstborn were Sleeping in the city within their Stones, and with their evil weapons the ten humans drained the Stones, stole them and their power and fled.
The city was abandoned. Many of the remaining children hid themselves in the far corners of the world, along with those secondborn who had survived. When their enemies reappeared years later in the north, leading an army of conquest, only four firstborn remained to stand against them: Cichol, Indech, Macuil and their leader, Seiros. Beside them stood many human allies, one of whom was Cichol's beloved wife.
Seiros was the favored child of Sothis. She had studied for long years in her mother's workshop and learned much of what Sothis knew. She rallied the humans of the south and bestowed her own power upon some of them through secret means, creating a body of knights capable of resisting the ten generals of the enemy. A great battle took place. Many fell on both sides, including the wife of Cichol, but at last Seiros saw her mother avenged. She recovered the dead Stone and the tools from her enemy's body, laying them to rest in a memorial built above Sothis's workshop.
The man who slew Sothis had no family, but it was found that his generals left behind wives, husbands and children. These were given into the charge of Seiros's greatest human general, who treated them well and saw their needs were met. This general stepped forward to lead the people of Fódlan as they recovered from the war and eventually became their king.
Indech and Macuil withdrew into the wilds, no longer caring to live among humankind. Cichol, in his grief, also hid himself and his young daughter Cethleann away. Seiros alone remained to carry on Sothis's work. With the help of the king she formed a church based around the teachings of her mother, and to prevent any more attempts at stealing the children's power she did her utmost to erase all knowledge of their existence. She feared there might yet be enemies lurking in the dark.
When Fódlan was at peace, she "died," promising that the goddess would choose a successor in time. When she reappeared as that successor, she called herself by a new name. Again and again she was "reborn", hoping in this way to continue guiding her church without revealing her own inhuman nature.
And the church grew. When she found she could no longer shepherd it alone, she sought out Cichol and Cethleann. Cichol, though still very fond of humans, preferred to remain in hiding, but Cethleann was eager to experience the world and convinced her father to agree. He asked, however, that Cethleann be presented as his sister rather than his daughter, for he still remembered the vanishing of the secondborn and, like Seiros, remained unconvinced that their enemies had been destroyed.
Cichol and Cethleann took new names. They, too, "died" and were "reborn" throughout the years. In time their fears faded. Fódlan changed; new nations formed, new ideas took root, humans were born and grew and aged and died, but the Chosen and the Church remained.
Chapter 19: November 18th (Where would you sleep if you were a time-traveling ancient dragon goddess?)
I don't know what Seteth told her, but when we met Rhea next morning in front of the cathedral everyone was there - Seteth, Flayn and all our other students - and she didn't say a word about it. She greeted us as calmly as ever and asked us to follow her.
Instead of going in the cathedral, which is what we'd been expecting, we went around. There's a little strip of land in back which connects the hill the cathedral sits on to the mountains behind it. Two paths branched off in front of us when we reached that point; one led up to a low pass through the peaks, the other down to the valley floor. We took the second one.
Within a few steps we were out of sight of everyone in the monastery. The path wound gradually down the hill, barely wide enough for two of us to walk together, until it ended at the hill's base. Rhea waited until we were all assembled.
"This is the holiest of all holy places," she said. "It is the sanctuary of the goddess Herself. You will be among the few who have ever been privileged to see it. Please behave yourselves accordingly."
She knelt and placed her hand on a flat rock which stuck out of the ground. A doorway appeared in the hill. I don't mean a door opened or anything like that - nothing moved. The opening in the hill was just there all of a sudden.
Rhea stood up. "Follow me," she said, walking inside. We did.
The passage led straight into the hillside. Looking back, I saw the light from outside disappear just after the last of our group passed through the opening. It wasn't dark, though. There were little lights set into the walls and the cut stone we were walking on actually glowed. Occasionally an arched stone support ran overhead to hold back the hill above us.
When the passage ended we only knew it by a change in the echoes around us and the sudden distance of the lights and something odd about the ground. We could barely see Rhea or each other, but we heard her voice and it was trembling. "Nona, please hold up the Sword. Even if it hurts you, child, please - hold it high."
A warm and steady blaze leapt out of the shadow that was the kid. She lifted it above her head and a thousand tiny sparks grew out of the darkness to surround it, dancing like fireflies. And then there was light.
And now you're going to expect me to describe that place. Of course you are. It was... a room. Sort of. It seemed as big as the cathedral above us. And it was full of... things. Colorful, furry, feathery, leafy, moving, glowing things that floated or scurried or lounged about on the floor lazily. I assume there were walls, but I didn't notice any. Everything that had been asleep came alive around us. Bird-things sang. Beast-things grunted. Somewhere I could hear the rush of rapids, or maybe a waterfall.
I think it was a garden.
Sticking up here and there, though, and not very garden-like, were black walls and tables - at least that's what I'm calling them - covered in strange drawings. There was writing on some of the drawings, but I couldn't even recognize the characters. And above us was... the sky? But it couldn't have been. We were inside a hill.
Anyway, we were all still staring in awe when Rhea gave a happy sigh and spoke up again. "Does it hurt you?" she asked the kid.
"No, not like before, but my arm is starting to get tired. Do I need to hold this up so everything... keeps going?"
"No. You may put the Sword away now."
"Thank you. Though, um, it's a torch. Not a sword."
Rhea gasped and her face lit up even more. "You remember!"
"No, not... not really," said the kid. "I'm sorry. It's just what I was told."
"I see." The joy faded a little from Rhea's face, but not far. "Let me aid you. Walk with me."
Everyone trailed along as Rhea took the kid on a tour of the sanctuary. She was like a child with its mother, constantly pointing out the wonders of this little world as we passed them by and hoping for recognition and approval. "Do you remember?" she said, over and over again, and over and over the kid said, "I'm sorry, archbishop. It's lovely, but I don't remember it."
Most of us were lost in wonder and admiration and all that stuff, but I noticed that Seteth was different. He looked at everything with such wistful nostalgia that I thought he was going to cry. I drifted back to take his hand and we walked on together. Some 5,000-year-olds do, in fact, need their hands held on occasion. I'm sure you'll find that bit of knowledge useful someday.
We wound up our tour in what I took to be the center of everything. It was a wide, open space covered in what looked like moss, so deep and soft that our feet sank into it. In the center of the center was... well, a bed, I think, but it had all these odd bits sticking out of it, as if it were part tree. The black wall-tables with their drawings grew out of the ground all around it like petals. Rhea took the kid to the tree-bed and had her sit down, then, to our surprise, knelt down in front of her and looked up into her eyes.
"I heard you here, long ago. That is how I knew you could return to us. I have waited so long, mother. Do you remember nothing of this place? Of our work together? Of me?"
I think the kid would've rather died than break Rhea's heart, but there was nothing she could do. She reached down and took Rhea's hands. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, archbishop. I know who you want, but she... she's gone. We were foolish and she saved us and that was all she had left. I'm sorry. If I could bring her back for you, I would. She was my friend."
We waited for Rhea to do something, or say something, but it was Claude who finally broke the silence. "Ah, excuse me archbishop, professors, but if I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing, we may have a problem."
He was standing at one of the black petals full of drawings. When I came over to look I realized they weren't drawings, exactly - parts of them were moving. The one he pointed out was a drawing of the monastery gate looking down from one of the towers nearby and there were tiny people moving around in it. Running, panicking people. And there was a strange animal in the middle of them, much bigger than the people, and it was...
"We must return to the monastery. Immediately," said Rhea.
It was eerily quiet up there at first. Most folks had shut themselves inside when they heard a monster was destroying the marketplace. We headed there as fast as we could go and the sound of fighting came from up ahead and when we rounded the last corner, there it was.
Someone afterwards called it a demonic beast. It was huge, almost as big as the gateway behind it, all thick hide and sharp teeth and glowing red eyes. The Knights had it surrounded but they didn't seem to be doing any damage. The beast would charge and toss a few of them around and break the circle, then let it reform again. It was playing. Whatever it was, it was smart.
Beth took one look and ran off again, shouting at our archers and melee types to arm themselves. The kid and her spell-slingers stuck around to help the Knights wherever they could. I, too, knew my job in this situation. If an unexpected threat appears it is not Jo Eisner's job to heroically try and hack it to bits. It's her job to figure out where the threat came from and, more importantly, if there are any more like it on the way. I ran to get Dessie.
At first glance nothing out in the valley seemed unusual. A giant ravening monster coming through might be expected to leave some kind of trace, but this one had been very considerate, apparently. There were some travelers on the road but I didn't take much notice until I realized they weren't moving. They were just close enough to make out the monster through the open gates, yet they weren't riding forward to help or riding away in fear. They were just watching. Curious, I steered Dessie toward them.
One saw me coming and alerted the others, at which point they turned their horses and galloped off. Now I was suspicious. I tried to pick out something, anything about them that could tell me who they were or what they wanted, but they looked like ordinary - although well-armed - travelers. I did notice that they seemed reluctant to look back at me. At most they'd cast a quick half-glance over their shoulders. Very interesting.
Dessie was slowly catching up but I knew she couldn't keep pace with them very long. I picked out the one who seemed to be the leader, based on their shiny axe and the fancy little plume on their helmet, and nudged Dessie forward until she was moving at top speed. Then we went into a shallow dive, aiming right for my target.
I plucked it off as we whisked by overhead and then I turned to get a look at the rider's face. But... oh no. Oh no oh no oh no. Please no. I let the riders go and Dessie and I headed back to the monastery as fast as she could fly, but they had their own problems. Someone had finally managed to hurt the thing in the marketplace and it. Was. Angry.
Two hours later - two hours - we killed the thing. Four people who had come to visit the monastery that day were dead. One of the Knights was badly injured and the rest were exhausted. In those close quarters the beast had many advantages and it used them well. Very well. Too well. And when Alois finally finished cutting the life out of it, and we stood there and watched the huge body shrink in front of us, we knew why it fought so well. It was a man. Just an ordinary-looking traveler.
And when I told everyone about the group of riders our problems went from "Monsters at the gates" to "Possible war with the Empire," because leading that group was Princess Edelgard.
Chapter 20: November 19th (School's out forever)
Beth got the job of telling the students they were all being sent home. For the first time in the history of the school, no one would graduate.
The official reason given was that the Knights couldn't guarantee the safety of the students. We were told, specifically and repeatedly, not to mention Edelgard. It could all be a misunderstanding and no one wanted to see the Imperial students harassed in misguided attempts at revenge. Not surprisingly, the students thought the official explanation was bunk, and told us so. Loudly.
"You're sending us away?" said Annette. "Now?"
"Surely our efforts deserve more than a summary dismissal," said Lorenz.
"You must be joking," said Felix. "The Knights can't protect us? That's nothing new, for half the year they've been useless."
"Look," said Beth, "I can't -" she paused and glanced around the classroom. Only our little group of students was left. "There's more, but I can't tell you about it. It's very important that you all go home, now, and... and hope that you don't need to use the things we taught you, but be prepared in case you do."
Claude raised an eyebrow. "Woah, ominous, teach."
"And we'll just never see each other again? Ever?" said Bernadetta. "I don't want that. You're my only friends! And... well... " she looked miserably at Felix. He just grunted, but he snuck an arm around her later when he thought no one would notice.
"Why must we leave so quickly? Is there an immediate threat?" said Dimitri.
"Where has Edelgard gotten to?" said Ferdinand suspiciously. "Is she already on her way to Enbarr? Why did you tell her before me? That is, us?"
"Listen," said Beth, "I've told you everything I can. Once things are... sorted out, maybe we can make it up to you. Have a delayed graduation or something."
"Why don't we do just that?" said Mercedes. "Let's all agree to it right now. Next year, on the second day of Red Wolf Moon, we meet here and celebrate. A year should be long enough to sort things out, don't you think?"
"Mercie, you're a genius! And it'll be the millennial celebration too!" Annette clapped her hands and turned to us. "You'll still be here, won't you, professors?"
"I... don't know," said Beth, glancing quickly at the kid and me. "But wherever we are, we can try and make it."
A few hours later the crowd of students was moving off down the road, escorted by a group of Knights. I found the kid sitting in one of the turrets and watching them go. She tried to smile at me, but couldn't quite manage it.
"I sort of thought he'd stick around," I said, sitting beside her.
"No. He's sworn to Dimitri's service. We always knew he'd have to go. But he left me his flowers and... and I hope I do get to see him again, someday."
Flayn told me later that she'd had a quiet, tearful farewell with Ferdinand. If Beth and Dimitri said goodbye, I didn't see it. All I know is she got busy again. Very, very busy. Always moving.
And there was quite a bit to do. The busiest people were the scouts, which included Beth and me when they needed extra hands. A constant watch was kept on the road and the Church lands around Remire. Food was stored up against a siege and we began to discuss plans for evacuating the monastery. And in the middle of all this, Hanneman and Manuela made a revolutionary discovery which basically went unnoticed.
Manuela had autopsied the body of the beast-man and found a very strange thing. A flat, round stone had been placed under his skin and over his heart. On it was a mark that reminded her of Crest signs, so she turned it over to her expert colleague. He promptly went insane in a very cultured, Hanneman-like way. He barely slept. He studied the stone, the body, everything related to the beast, but he didn't have much to say beyond, "If only young Linhardt were here. Oh, if only he could see this!"
Hanneman also took more samples from the three of us, but even finding that we all now had Major Crests of - well, let's call it Sothis - couldn't distract him from the beast stone, despite Major Crests being all but unheard of. Everyone just shrugged and left him to his work.
We didn't see anything of Rhea after the ceremony. Seteth said she still couldn't believe their mother was gone. When you've worked and hoped and dreamed of something for over a thousand years, I guess it's tough to let go of. Also, she'd loved her mother. We could understand that. I've wondered sometimes how far I'd go to bring Dad back to us.
Seteth gave us the story he'd written. He showed it to me first, actually, then went to give it to my sisters while I was still in shock. It certainly did answer a lot of questions, even ones we didn't know we had. He spent some time trying to teach us to sleep the way he and Flayn and Rhea did, but we were pretty stuck in our human ways and he didn't get far before the war started.
I'm not sure if it was a coincidence or if Edelgard was showing off a dark sense of humor, but the Imperial army arrived on the second day of Red Wolf Moon - graduation day. They sent no messengers and made no demands. And they brought catapults. They were serious.
We had about a day's advance notice thanks to our scouts. It didn't take long to decide, based on the size of their army and Garreg Mach's limited defenses, that we needed to abandon ship, though Rhea wasn't happy with that decision at all. The low pass through the mountains led to Kingdom lands, and if it was unsafe there we could attempt a forced march to Fhirdiad where Dimitri was sure to protect us. Moving an entire monastery's worth of people and goods and animals and whatnot through such a small gap takes a long time, though. That's why half the Knights were with the refugees and half were manning the walls as a token defense to stall for time.
Beth and the kid wound up there too, since they represented about half the fighting strength of Garreg Mach at this point. With their help the Knight's mission might not only succeed, it might actually not be suicide. I was there too; Seteth, Flayn, Beth and the kid all knew about my time control at this point and figured it could be pretty useful. They were right, but I know Seteth regretted the decision later. He and Flayn were far from the walls, helping folks evacuate, so I wasn't too worried about them. The enemy did have fliers, but we had our own mounts close by. We could handle them, temporarily, if need be.
Those catapults in back slowed down the army a bit. Beth and Alois were hopeful that we might get off the walls and take our posts as rearguard before their archers were within bowshot, but the catapults were worrying. The monastery's walls were meant more as a deterrent than an actual defense. Not much we could do, though, without catapults of our own or a flying battalion of fire mages.
We were talking about our options when we noticed something out in front of the army. At first I thought it was a group of horses which had bolted, but they were pretty big for horses. And shaped funny. And moving very, very quickly.
"No," said Beth. "Oh no."
Demonic beasts. Three of them. Now it was a suicide mission. I kept my promise - I considered my husband and step-daughter before deciding to stay on that wall. I considered them getting torn apart by gigantic, slavering demon-beasts. Nope. Nope nope nope.
Our only hope was that the gates could hold them back, not long, of course, but maybe long enough, and we could throw everything we had at them in the meantime. That plan worked for about ten seconds because they didn't bother with the gates. They started climbing the walls. It was over then and we all knew it was over. Alois said a little prayer for his family. I said one for mine and hoped someone was listening.
The first beast climbed onto the battlements, taking the width of them in its stride. There was a roar and a rush of wings and the beast - was gone. Something had passed over us, blotting out the sun, and when we looked we saw it had the beast clutched in its claws.
It was a dragon. And it was on our side.
We didn't have much time to gape because the other beasts pounced on us. They seemed a little nervous, though. They kept watching the sky. Beth attacked one, Alois the other and the rest of us did what we could.
Beth can fight - I think I've mentioned that - but she fought that day like I'd never seen. She backed the beast right up against one of the towers and kept it there almost single-handedly. I guess the Knights were having a tougher time of it but I didn't have much attention to spare. I kept aiming arrows at the beast's eyes whenever I got a chance.
There was a rush of giant wings. The second beast was gone.
This time, as we ran to help the Knights, I kept my eyes on the dragon. I couldn't decide if it was Rhea or Seteth or someone new entirely. It had glittering green and white scales and a wingspan the width of the cathedral. The beast in its claws was putting up a fight but it just kept climbing, climbing, until it was far above the main body of the Imperial army and then it - let go.
The third beast seemed to be wavering between attack and retreat. When Beth arrived it finally decided on retreat. It went back over the wall and ran off towards its army.
Here's where we made our big mistake. We should've run. We should've let the dragon handle things and headed for the pass and never looked back. But... there was a dragon! And it was family! The best view was from the turret which slightly overhangs the lake, so that's where Beth and the kid and I went to watch the dragon and the beast clash in the middle of the valley. We watched until we heard a whistling sound overhead and looked up. We'd forgotten about the catapults.
Okay, that was dumb, but it's why they'd brought me along, right? I backed up a good twenty seconds, enough to scream "Get off the walls!" at the Knights until I was hoarse and then get off them myself. If I'd backed up further, or spent less time screaming, we would've made it. If Beth and the kid had taken off instead of waiting for me, they would've made it. But I guess our good luck had run out. As we went tearing down the stairs from the turret there was a noise and a jolt and before I could do anything about it the world went out again, and I was so, so tired...
Chapter 21: November 20th (Symbolism!?!)
The kid woke me up. I tried to ignore her, but she wouldn't stop. "Jo, don't go back to sleep! Jo!"
"Why? What's happening?" I opened my eyes. It was dark, except for a bit of light around me and the kid and Beth, who were both bending over me.
"We don't know," said Beth. "We think we might be back in the nursery."
"The... oh, not again." I sat up and looked around. "Um, did you notice that we're not wearing any clothes?"
"No, Jo, we didn't notice," said Beth with unnecessary sarcasm.
"Is the Green Girl here?"
"No," said the kid. "Just us."
"Then how do we get - oh, there's a door." And there was. Just a plain, ordinary door, standing in the darkness not far away and glowing innocently. Beth and the kid glanced in its direction.
"I don't see it," said Beth.
"Neither do I," said the kid, "but don't worry, Jo. I can't see Beth's door either, and she can't see mine."
"Is this a nightmare? Weren't we fighting? Wasn't there a dragon?"
"I guess we died."
"Beth, your sense of humor shows up at the strangest times." I staggered gracefully to my feet. "So we don't know what happened, we're not sure where we are, no gear, no clothes, we might be dead, and there's a door or possibly doors. Okay." I yawned and rubbed my eyes. "I have a plan. Might be embarrassing, depending on where that door goes, but I'm not getting trapped here again."
I marched through the door and found myself curled up on the edge of a lake, covered in mud. My clothes and gear had decided to join me, which was good because it was cold. I got up and started moving around to keep warm and figure out where I was. At first I assumed it was the lake by the monastery, but an obvious lack of monastery soon convinced me I was wrong. My next guess was the lake near Remire Village, and yes, there were roofs in the distance about where Remire should be. I was cold and hungry so I took the next logical step. I headed for Nana's house.
I figured she'd be surprised to see me, but "surprised" doesn't quite describe her face when she opened the door. She screamed, then she laughed, then she cried, then she bundled me inside saying things like, "Where have you been? Don't you know how worried you made me?" But, of course, she'd seen the army go by, and it didn't take a Nana to realize they wanted to kill us, so it all made sense - right? I sat by the fire and scraped mud off me while she got some food together, but as I listened to her talk an uneasy feeling crept up my back. She had a lot of news to share. More than could've been stored up in a few weeks, or even a few months.
"Nana, what day is it?"
"It's just the start of the Red Wolf Moon, dearie, the very first day."
She kept talking after that, but I didn't hear it. I was trying to wrap my mind around that sentence. I was still trying when someone else showed up at Nana's door - Beth, fully clothed but dripping and shivering. She'd come out of her door partially underwater. After another round of crying and scolding, she was posted at the fire with me. Last to show up was the kid, a bit scratched and with twigs in her hair, who'd stepped out of her door into a thicket.
And by the time the kid's fuss was over I'd figured it out. We'd been gone almost an entire year. I whispered this to Beth and the kid as Nana bustled around, then, while they slowly went into shock, did my best to pick Nana's brain for information.
Here's what she knew. The Empire was at war with the Church or the Kingdom or the Alliance or some combination of those things. The army that had passed through a year ago never came back again, save for a few deserters wailing about the wrath of the goddess. The main body of refugees from the monastery turned up two days later, heading slowly home, silent and grim. Seteth came to visit Nana the next day after that and asked if she'd seen anything of us. She said he looked tired.
Since then a sort of uncomfortable peace had settled over the valley. Few pilgrims came with news of the outside world. The Knights were coming and going almost constantly, usually in little groups of two or three, because Rhea had gone missing and they were looking for her. Sometimes stranger-knights would be with them - a large group had gone by up the road yesterday - but that was all of the war Remire had seen.
Around noon the next day we passed through the gates of Garreg Mach, or what was left of them, on a farmer's cart bringing in the last of the harvest. The walls around the gate were partially collapsed, though most of the debris had been cleared away. We'd hopped down and were looking around, picking cornsilk out of our clothing, when we were attacked.
"Professors! I knew you'd come back I knew it I knew it I knew it!" Annette jumped into the kid's arms and almost knocked her down.
I was grappled from behind. "Jo!" said Flayn's voice. "Jo, you're alive! I'm so glad!"
Soon we were surrounded. Some of the faces looked more than a year older, most looked a little wiser, and all were full of welcome. But there were only thirteen. Beth and the kid kept looking around as we were dragged into the dining hall, but the faces they missed most weren't there. Neither was Lorenz. A few minutes later, seated at one of the tables with our ex-students, we learned why, and a lot more besides.
Edelgard was now Empress Edelgard and she'd declared war on the Church and all its allies. Battle lines divided Faerghus into east and west; the east held with former regent Lord Rodrigue Fraldarius, the west stood with the Empire. Lady Eadric, the last king's most trusted advisor, had staged a coup. The capital had fallen. Dimitri and Dedue were missing, presumed dead.
The Alliance was holding to a shaky neutrality. Several of its houses had gone over to the Empire, including Lorenz's, House Gloucester, and he'd gone along with it. Refugees from both the Empire and the Kingdom were fleeing to Alliance lands, making the situation even more difficult. Claude told us he was managing to hold things together, but his cheerful grin wasn't nearly as cheerful as it used to be.
By some miracle, all of our Imperial students had made it to the monastery. Linhardt had only been gone a few months, in fact. Hanneman still had contacts in the Empire and he used them to send a message about "groundbreaking discoveries" to Hevring Castle. Linhardt was back within a week, bringing a chunk of his family's treasury with him as a sign of good faith.
Brigid was in revolt against the Empire, but Petra's grandfather had allowed her to make the journey in hopes of opening a war on a new front. Ferdinand was a wandering exile. He'd collected a group of fellow exiles, though, folks who still held with him or with the Church or had their own reasons for opposing Edelgard. Occasionally he'd visit Garreg Mach (and Flayn, I gathered) in semi-secrecy - "secrecy" because he thought it was a secret, "semi" because there's no disguising Ferdinand. Bernadetta had defied her parents and made a mad dash across the very dangerous country between Varley lands and Castle Gaspard. She showed up on Ashe's doorstep one morning and asked if he had a room she could hide in.
Ashe had a quite a collection of his classmates by reunion time. He took in Annette and her mother after Fhirdiad fell and House Dominic switched sides. He took in Felix after the latter had some kind of argument with his father, Lord Fraldarius. Even Mercedes showed up there; her adoptive father had sided with the Empire and put her almost under lock and key, hoping to marry her - entirely against her will - to one of his new allies. But one of those allies turned out to be Lorenz. He smuggled her out in his own carriage, set her down as close to Gaspard territory as he could and apologized for not being able to do more. That was a ray of hope. Maybe we could win him back to our side eventually.
Ingrid had been fighting valiantly under Lord Fraldarius, but like Petra she'd been given leave to travel to Garreg Mach. She collected Ashe and his group along the way, joined with Claude, Marianne and Ignatz near the border, and all finally arrived at the monastery, only to learn that their professors had disappeared a year ago.
The monastery itself had been left alone after that first attack. The army had been utterly destroyed by the dragon we'd seen, but the dragon, too, vanished into thin air that day. The Empire eventually accused the Kingdom of sheltering Rhea and concentrated their attacks on it. Seteth and Flayn were left to run things in Rhea's absence and the Knights had been searching constantly, both for Rhea and for us.
News of our return got around the monastery and the whole place stopped by to take a look at us. The whole place minus one - Seteth never showed up. Every time the doors opened, I expected him to come through, and every time I was disappointed. This went on for hours. Where was he? Busy? Angry? No longer interested? Had no one bothered to tell him I was back? I wanted to interrogate Flayn, but I couldn't get her alone.
It was getting dark when I finally stopped waiting. I slipped out as quietly as I could and headed for the second floor. Unless things had changed - which was very possible, of course - he'd be in his office, and I still had my key. I hesitated at the door, though. There's nothing in the mercenary manual about awkward reunions with husbands who might not love you anymore.
The office was the same as it had been and maybe as it had always been, just a bit more worn. Like him. He looked up slowly, got out of his chair and waited for me to say something. Just waited. Staring at me across the desk.
I was tempted to pull him across that desk and kiss him. Easy. Straightforward. No complicated wordy things. I took a couple steps closer and... chickened out. "Um," I said, instead. And chasing up that brilliant opening, "Uh, hi, Seteth."
Silence. Flailing desperately, I shoved more words at him. "Uh, I guess I never finished those illustrations, huh?" I tried a rueful laugh. It was ghastly. "I should probably do that, unless... unless you'd rather not. Maybe you'd rather have someone else do it. It's okay if you do, I... never thought I was really any good..."
I trailed off and just stared at the floor, hoping to sink into the carpet. That's when Seteth leaned forward and pulled me across the desk. And this time, when somebody knocked, we ignored them.
Chapter 22: November 21st (In case you haven't heard before, I think they think we're going to war)
Next day we all got together, the sisters and the ex-students and the Chosen and Alois. No more mock-battles for us. Time to face the real thing.
Now, if you're going to fight a war it's convenient to have an army. Preferably a large one. Hopefully a good one, but the bigger it is the less you have to worry about skill. We had skill, all right, and not much else. On top of that, most of the Knights were still scattered hither and yon looking for their archbishop; who was going to convince them to give it up? Who had the authority to pull them back?
The answer is not Seteth, or Flayn, or Alois, because that would be too logical. The answer is: the kid. In Rhea's absence, she was archbishop. Seteth had the papers to prove it, all written out by Rhea a few days before she disappeared. Had she lost her mind? Absolutely, but the kid now had the authority to do a whole lot of things, and we were going to use that. She officially recalled the Knights.
It took over two months for our messengers to find them all and deliver the order, but with winter on our doorstep we weren't in much of a hurry. We waited for spring, along with the Empire and the Kingdom and the Alliance, gathered supplies and laid our plans.
Claude had to leave pretty quickly, lest the Alliance crumble to pieces without him, and maybe that was a good thing - he and Ingrid were still working through the combative stage of their courtship. Everyone else stayed on. The Knights trickled slowly back from their search and we all worked on repairing the walls as best we could.
Linhardt kept pestering Seteth to let him into the sanctuary again, but Seteth refused, so he had to focus on research with Hanneman. They studied us Eisners, the Sword, and the four things they now called "Crest stones." They were definitely related to Crests somehow, because each of the beast-men's and -women's bodies bore a Crest which matched the sign on their respective stones, but it wasn't any Crest we recognized. The stones also seemed immune to damage from all sources but one - Sothis's torch. That experiment burned one of the precious stones to a crisp and made our researchers very upset.
We assumed that all this activity hadn't gone unnoticed by the Empire, and sure enough, when spring finally rolled around, there they were on our doorstep again. Predictable.
It was a small expeditionary force, upwards of five hundred strong. No siege weapons this time - I guess they figured they'd already done enough damage. Also no demonic beasts, to Linhardt's disappointment and everyone else's relief. They came through the valley below and paused, a little uncertainly, before starting up the road. Maybe they were expecting a dragon to jump out at them.
They advanced toward the monastery until they were just outside of bowshot. There they stopped. The walls were still in bad shape, but they weren't completely gone; we had a few archers standing ready on the good parts and the newly-repaired gates were tightly shut. It was quiet for a few minutes while we eyed each other. Then Beth gave the signal to charge. The gates swung open and out she rode with seventy Knights and most of our friends behind her. The opposing army was getting ready to receive the charge when a dragon jumped out at them.
Okay, he didn't jump at them, exactly, it was more like near them, posing on one of the intact towers and roaring and flapping his wings a bit. It worked. The enemy wavered. Then Ferdinand and his fellow exiles charged out of the trees toward their flank, yelling, "Down with Edelgard!" or some such nonsense, and the army turned and fled. So much for that.
From my spot on the wall I watched the fliers and ground troops pursue them. Once they were out of sight, Seteth came down, smoothing his hair back in place. "Couldn't you've done just a little flying?" I said. "I barely got a good look."
"Jo, be glad that I didn't stumble over my own wings. It's more than a thousand years since I last used that form, and even then I wasn't particularly proficient. I've always preferred this one."
The Imperials fled down the road and out into the valley, where our people gave up the pursuit. We didn't let the new grass grow under our feet, though. It was time to make a move of our own. Beth sent a message to Claude and our little army started off for the Great Bridge of Myrddin, currently under Imperial control. We had to pass through enemy territory to get there. Gloucester lands. Time to see Lorenz again.
Chapter 23: November 22nd (Creepity creep, Empire, creepity creep)
The Imperial garrison was having a really good day, by all accounts. Beautiful spring weather. Cushy assignment. Nothing to do but play cards, fish from the side of the bridge and feel sorry for those folks on the front lines. What a time to be alive.
Then an unsightly smudge of dust appeared on the horizon. A smudge that said, "Someone's coming, and they'll probably want to get across the bridge." Annoying.
The smudge got wider and closer until the lookouts could see two separate groups of people riding hard toward them. One group was wearing Imperial uniforms; probably the expeditionary folks who'd passed through days earlier, though they were down to less than a third of their original numbers. The other group looked like forces of the Alliance, and not the friendly kind. The Imperials were in front, though, and they could probably make the bridge in time to have the portcullis lowered before the enemy arrived.
The whole garrison crowded around to watch the chase. It was the most excitement they'd ever had at this post. The first of the Imperial riders clattered through the gateway, then more, then more. The war cries of the Alliance's force could be heard in the distance now. As the last rider cleared the opening they hauled the gate down behind him; the pursuers slowed, volleyed some abuse at the defenders and then rode away disappointed. Oh, yes. It was a very good day.
The garrison commander stepped up to greet the newcomers, who had paused on the bridge to catch their breaths and regroup. "Who's in charge here?" he said.
"I am," replied one of the riders. "Thank you for letting us through."
"You had a close call. What happened to your people? Ambush?"
"More or less." The leader looked around as her group settled into formation again. "Is it true that Count Gloucester surrendered this bridge to you without a fight?"
"Not to me, personally, but that's what I hear."
"I would like to take it back the same way. If you and your people surrender, you can all walk through the gate over there and go back to your families. No one needs to die today."
There was a long pause. "Who are you?"
"My name is Beth Eisner, and these are the Knights of Seiros."
We were still in a hurry, though. Once the last of the Imperials had left, Beth assigned twenty Knights to hold the bridge and the rest of us took off again, shedding Imperial uniforms as we went. We met the troop of horse who'd been "chasing" us and headed northeast, straight through Gloucester territory toward the Riegan border, where Claude was playing a dangerous game.
We'd met no opposition riding through Gloucester lands because it was all concentrated there, at the border with Riegan, which followed a small river running between the two territories. There was one bridge - already burnt, probably by Claude - and a ford downstream of it. Banners were flying on both sides of the stream. Riegan, Daphnel and Goneril held the far side, while the Imperial supporters, Gloucester and Acheron and a few minor lords, held the near one. There was skirmishing at the ford already, both sides trying to make room to get across, with reserves standing by upstream and shooting at each other occasionally.
Gloucester's forces were the furthest upstream on our side, gathered near the burned bridge, flying their house standard, though the personal standard of the count was absent. He hadn't bothered to show up, it seemed, which meant Lorenz was probably in charge. We figured he must be one of the group of knights stationed on a low hill.
Alois raised the standard of the Knights of Seiros. Beth raised another standard for us and our former students, the "Knights of Eisner" as we half-jokingly called ourselves: a green dragon on a white field, spitting fire. Along with our friends the cavalry troop - who looked oddly Almyran close up - we charged the enemy from the rear and broke their ranks, aiming right between the Gloucester line and Acheron's. The cavaliers wheeled to chase down Acheron and we turned to handle Gloucester, if we could. They were already scrambling to form a defensive half-circle around the little hill, the river at their backs.
We drew up our lines and faced them. We figured they'd sent a messenger for help yesterday and were counting on reinforcements from the Empire, but no one was getting across that bridge to help them now, and the smaller bridges were a day's ride east or west. We had them. They just didn't know it.
The kid looked at Beth worriedly. "Can we parley? If I ride out alone, maybe he'll meet me."
"It's worth a try. Remember to tell him about the bridge - he'll believe it if it comes from you. But if they start shooting, get right back here."
So the kid rode out on Bellflower with a bit of white cloth tied to the end of a lance. There was no way Lorenz couldn't recognize her, not with that green hair shining in the sun. If he was there. If we hadn't already killed him in our charge, without even realizing it.
The kid sat still on that bit of plain until one of the knights rode down to meet her. They talked for a long time, until I got the feeling it was sort of a half parley, half confession; Lorenz had always been scrupulously devout and the kid was both Chosen and archbishop. Finally the knight bowed, turned and rode away. The kid galloped back to us.
"He's agreed to become our prisoner in exchange for safe conduct for his troops," she said, smiling one of her new smiles. "Is it all right?"
I'm not sure what kind of reception prisoners usually get when they're led into the enemy ranks, but I'll bet it's nothing like the one we gave Lorenz. His classmates gathered around and cheered and slapped him on the back and carried on as if he were the hero of the day. His aristocratic training almost held up under the strain, but when Mercedes ran up and hugged him he finally broke down, crying all over everyone. He'll deny it, but it's true. No one seemed to mind, not even Felix, and Mercedes gladly took charge of him as we rode off to see what the Alliance's forces had been up to.
With their reserves gone, reinforcements nowhere in sight and hostile forces at their heels, Acheron and the rest had scattered. Acheron himself died in the rout. The battle went to Claude and the loyalists. We found him waiting for us, grinning, as we forded the stream at the end of the day.
"Told you it would work. How'd my cavaliers do? Put on a good show? I was thinking I'd send them to hold the bridge when you call off the Knights."
"They're very Almyran," said Beth.
"Really? Huh. I didn't notice."
"Claude, what's going on? Where did you -"
He held up a hand. "Now, tea- commander, you have to admit, no one could guard that bridge better than a bunch of crazy Almyrans, right? Trust me. Besides, I can't wait to see Lorenz's face when -" He suddenly looked worried. "He's with you, isn't he? He's alive?"
"I am alive," said Lorenz, stepping forward. "Technically I am a prisoner of war."
Claude laughed and put an arm around his shoulders. "Welcome home. Think you can convince your father to rejoin the Alliance?"
"I believe so. I... apologize, Claude. My parents feared what the Empire might do to us, and though I disagreed with their decision, I understood their reasons. I could not abandon them, or our lands."
"I know, you were torn. Did you hear I'm sending Almyrans to hold Myrddin?"
Lorenz groaned and shook his head. "We have a great deal to discuss, Claude."
"We do. Come on." He began leading Lorenz away. "Oh, hey, Felix," he called back over his shoulder, "can you take care of that other thing for me? I'm going to be busy these next few weeks."
What the "other thing" was Felix wouldn't say, he just rode off with a few days' worth of supplies and said he'd meet us back at Garreg Mach. Next day, after collecting the Knights from the bridge, that's where we headed.
Chapter 24: November 23rd (So close to the win)
We started making new plans as soon as we arrived. Then Felix returned and we threw all those plans out the window. Dimitri and Dedue were with him.
Now you expect me to say, "And there was great rejoicing!" Which there was, naturally, especially from Beth and the kid, and from everyone else too. Everyone except.... Dimitri. Within an hour we'd gone from screaming happiness to quiet uncertainty. Dimitri went where we led him, sat where we asked him to sit, listened when we talked, but he didn't care - not about Faerghus, not about Beth, not about anything. We might as well have been actors in a play with him as our politely bored, almost-ready-to-walk-out audience.
This was not encouraging. I suppose an indifferent king is fine if you're just looking for a figurehead, or a symbol, or a puppet. We were looking for a leader, a source of inspiration and, most importantly, an old friend. What was going on? What could we do? Besides ambush Dedue and Felix and demand explanations, because of course we did that right off.
Dedue couldn't point to any one specific problem out of the dozens they'd had in the last year and a half. Dimitri hadn't wanted to leave the monastery, or a certain person in the monastery, at least, but he could've gotten past that, if not for the news that she'd been lost in the attack. And maybe he could've gotten past that, too, if not for the betrayal by his most trusted advisor. And maybe he could've gotten past that if he and Dedue hadn't been forced to slaughter their own countrymen in order to escape. Then there was the hiding in ditches and living like animals and not knowing who to trust until Felix found them.
Felix didn't know who to trust either. Half of the Kingdom had fallen and the other half was none-too-stable, so he figured the best option was to stash Dimitri and Dedue in the Alliance with Claude until things got better sorted out. But the Alliance had its own problems, and Claude had to be very careful about letting anyone know he was sheltering his friends; the Empire would've strongly objected. So the two Royals were kept in a quiet corner of Riegan territory, watching more or less helplessly as their country fell. And as these things went on Dimitri just got more and more depressed.
Dedue had tried his best. When news came (via Claude) that we were alive, he thought it would help. It didn't. When Felix came to bring them to the monastery, he thought that would help. It didn't. Dimitri had lost all hope.
Well, now what? Our friends all had different ideas about what to do. Annette and Mercedes baked wonderful little sweets that Dimitri barely tasted. Linhardt gave him expert advice on how to get a good night's sleep, which he desperately needed, to no avail. Ferdinand took him on long rides around the valley. Marianne took him for long walks in the garden. Felix sparred with him, Lorenz read poetry to him, Ignatz painted his room with cheerful colors, Petra hunted, Ingrid lectured, Ashe fussed, Bernadetta knitted - everyone tried the things which picked them up when they were down, but nothing seemed to work.
Seteth's advice was, "Be patient, and when he's ready to speak, listen." But we were running out of time. Lord Fraldarius couldn't hold the Empire back forever and the momentum we'd built up was draining away. After two weeks of this, Claude returned to Garreg Mach with news that the Alliance was united and ready to act. Time to push forward and try not to leave Dimitri behind.
Ingrid flew north on her own mission while the rest of us rode east to meet some troops Claude had gathered. We passed over the Great Bridge, waved to the Almyrans and set foot in the Empire for the first time. Our target was Fort Merceus.
This was familiar territory for our Imperial allies and we made good time, meeting little resistance. Merceus was resistance enough and the Empire knew it. We must've looked pretty silly riding up to it with our little army, no siege weapons, no cannons, and apparently no idea what we were up against. For an entire day we had scouts checking out the walls, looking for weak spots - there weren't any - and engineers at work cutting down trees nearby to build siege towers. The next day was misty, as usual for that time of year, and when the mist lifted and the defenders looked out to laugh at us again - we were gone.
"Gave up and went home" is the impression we hoped for. It was partly true; we were going home, and at a quick pace, too, hoping to stay ahead of any news of our movements. We didn't want to spoil the surprise.
Back at Garreg Mach it was a drizzly, gray day which turned into solid rain when evening came along. The Alliance's troops made camp in the valley below while the Knights of Seiros and Eisner climbed to the monastery. Orders were clear: for the rest of this day and the next, everyone was to rest. We had a hard march behind us and an even harder one coming up. If you didn't get a hot meal and some sleep now, you weren't getting another chance for awhile.
So far things had gone pretty well. We were especially hopeful about Dimitri. All the excitement and activity, the new places, the occasional skirmish, had brought him out of his stupor for awhile. Unfortunately, settling in at Garreg Mach seemed to bring it back with a vengeance. The kid says that Dedue showed up in her and Beth's room with a story about Dimitri getting irritated, ordering Dedue to leave him alone and storming out into the darkness and the rain. Dedue, being a good retainer, did as he was told. He didn't throw Dimitri over one shoulder, haul him back to his room and lock him inside; he came to ask Beth to do it.
Based on what Beth and Dimitri have told me, I can give you a very rough idea of what happened from there, though I'm not quite sure of the order:
Number one, they ended up on top of the Goddess Tower, in the dark, in the rain, for who knows what reason. Eventually they moved inside the tower to find a fireplace where they could get warm and dry. That was the most sensible thing they did all night.
Number two, they did a lot of talking, along with various other activities I couldn't get details on.
Number three, Dimitri says that at some point, Beth threw his old line back in his teeth, the "Your life means so little to you and so much to us" bit. Of course it didn't work on her, so I'm not sure why she thought it'd work on him. He remembers it, though.
Number four, they eventually agreed that one of them should be queen of Faerghus, and since Dimitri was already going to be busy as king, Beth seemed like the better choice. In case of there being no Faerghus left to rule, they'd go off and be mercenaries together. I can't see Dimitri as a mercenary, personally. He's the type who'd refuse payment in a good cause. Never refuse payment, folks, or you won't last long in the profession.
Anyway, by the next morning everything seemed to be sorted out. Dimitri was much less depressed, Beth stopped pretending she wasn't madly in love with him, and we all got back to rest and relaxation until the sun went down. Then we packed up our gear and we marched.
The Knights - both varieties - climbed through the low pass behind the cathedral and down into enemy territory. Then we double-timed it north-northeast. The Alliance's troops moved north out of the valley, through Charon and Galatea lands, traveling as quickly as they could with the baggage train in tow. We were both headed to the same place, Fhirdiad, and we didn't want anyone to even suspect we were coming.
We marched all night and all the next day. The second night we made a quick camp out of sight of the city walls, rested our mounts, ate a little, caught what sleep we could, and with sunrise the next morning we moved in from the west, flying the standard of House Blaiddyd along with our own, hoping that Ingrid's mission had been a success. It was time to try and take back the capital.
And now I'm going to describe for you, in great detail, the Battle of Fhirdiad.
No, I'm not, are you kidding? Go read a history book. Ferdinand wrote one, it's called The War of the Eagle and Dragon. It's even mostly true, if you're into that sort of thing. All I'm saying here is that our plan worked. Ingrid led one of Lord Fraldarius's flying battalions in from the north, we came from the west, Lady Judith Daphnel and her vassals charged from the east, where they'd been waiting in Galatea territory after crossing the border, and by the end of the day the troops we'd left behind came up from the south. The citizens of Fhirdiad rose against the Empire and, within two days' time, Dimitri returned home.
We had to take back the palace first, though, and that proved interesting when two demonic beasts charged out to meet us. We hadn't seen those things since the first attack on Garreg Mach. None of our allies had ever seen them. It went... badly. No one likes close-quarters fighting in city streets, plus we had frightened soldiers, frightened citizens, and everyone was already tired from days of fighting.
It was Linhardt who suggested burning them with Sothis's torch, mostly, I think, because he wanted to see what would happen and take notes. We weren't going to send the kid out there to do it, though; Beth tried using the torch herself, and this time it worked for her, a nice, steady flame. Then she ran out and applied it to any part of the beasts she could reach. She got clawed a few times for her troubles, but it worked very well. The torch cut through where our weapons couldn't.
Once the beasts were down they shifted and changed and all we had left were the bodies of two women. One was identified as the treacherous advisor, Lady Eadric, and the other, eventually, as Decima, ex-archbishop of her newly instituted Church of Faerghus.
Chapter 25: November 23rd part 2 (Goal! I have pride and accomplishment!)
Some of the western lords surrendered, some fled to the south, some fought until the end, but by late summer Faerghus was finally back in order. All we had left to do was deal with the teeny, tiny problem that was the Empire.
Fortunately, the Empire wasn't quite at the strength it had been before the war. Unfortunately, we weren't either. The Kingdom had suffered heavy losses and the Alliance lords insisted on keeping a portion of their troops at home, "just in case". We decided to see if we could bring in extra help. Petra went back to Brigid for warriors and shamans, Beth hired the Blade Breakers - now led by Dad's old apprentice, Leonie Pinelli - and Claude, well, Claude showed up at Garreg Mach with a squadron of veteran wyvern riders. From Almyra.
Beth took one look at them, then at Claude. Not a word came out of her mouth, but her eyes said, "You'd better tell me what's going on right now."
"Okay, okay," he said, raising his hands in mock surrender. "We'll talk, but we have to find Lorenz first. I can't wait to see what he does when he hears this."
Once we pried Lorenz away from Mercedes - which felt just like old times - we also gathered Dimitri, Ferdinand and the kid, at Claude's insistence, and met in our war room on the second floor. He let us all settle in before he began.
"Now, the commander had some questions. Isn't that right?"
Beth looked at him suspiciously. "You just pulled an entire elite unit of the Almyran army out of your sleeve. How?"
Lorenz nearly spilled his tea. "A what? Claude, we have been at war with the Almyrans for - "
"I know, I know, hundreds of years. But has it really been so bad lately? Skirmishes at the Locket have died down, and some of the houses are even trading with them. Ignatz could tell you it's been very profitable."
"Certainly, but - "
"And they've done a great job defending Myrddin, right?"
"True, though once again you have never explained how or why they came to be there."
"'Why' is simple. If we'd put Gloucester troops there, the other houses would've objected; if we'd put other troops there, you would've objected. A neutral third party was the best choice, but we could hardly ask the Knights to do it, could we? And as for 'how' -" He shrugged. "I just asked the prince."
Lorenz gave Dimitri a confused look. "I was not involved," said Dimitri. "He must mean the prince of Almyra. I admit, Claude, I am impressed - this could be an important step toward lasting peace. How do you know him?"
Claude's easy grin crept over his face. "Well, just between the seven of us - I am the prince."
We had to adjourn for a minute to save Lorenz from choking to death.
"The heir to House Riegan and the Almyran throne!" said Ferdinand, once the emergency was over. "Even I could not manage two such heavy responsibilities. How do you intend to do it?"
"I don't," said Claude. "Once I'm sure the Alliance is in good hands, I'll head back to Almyra. If I intend to be king - and I do intend to be king - I need to work for it. They don't just hand you a crown for being born where I come from."
"But," said Lorenz, still gasping a little, "that means - Riegan will not be - leading the Roundtable."
"That's right. Though if you want the spot, you'll have to do some work. You've got a lot of trust to earn back."
"I am aware." Lorenz took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Upon further consideration, this may be an excellent arrangement."
"I agree," said Claude. "We just need to deal with the empress first."
We sent messengers to the Empire with terms, but they were turned away. That was when our united army began its march and it was war, real, all-out war, which is something I never want to see again. Ferdinand had expected help from his father, who'd never been in the empress's good graces, but to his shock and grief he found that Duke Aegir had died months ago. We clashed with Linhardt's father during our siege of Fort Merceus and took him prisoner. The family reunion was awkward, to say the least. Bernadetta's parents never showed their faces on the battlefield. She couldn't decide if she was angry or relieved.
Laying siege to Merceus took a full month and it was late summer before the Battle for Enbarr began. Ferdinand gives it three chapters in his book and I'm sure it was very exciting, but I just remember being tired and telling Seteth over and over again that I wanted to go home and let Edelgard have the stupid place. He was glad to see it, though; apparently he still had some fond memories from the old days.
There was no sign of the empress as we approached the city. There was no sign of her as we entered the city. We slogged our way to the palace and there was still no sign. I slowly realized that none of us had laid eyes on her since she fled from Garreg Mach. Was she still alive? If not, who was giving the orders?
I lost interest in answers when I heard a deafening roar. Dragon. A huge, white, shining dragon, swooping down on us from the roof of the palace, and it was not on our side this time, and we were not prepared.
Our forces scattered. Our horses and wyverns and pegasi bolted, refusing to even get close to the thing. It swooped and soared above the city, though at first it didn't do much damage, preferring to focus on spreading chaos. This is where the Almyrans really proved their worth. They were the only ones who regained enough control over their mounts to harass our enemy and force it down.
Dessie and Belenos had bolted together to a rooftop some distance away, where Seteth and I were trying to calm them. "Do you know that thing?" I said. "Is it Rhea? Is it one of the other children?"
"No, I don't believe so. It seems... young."
The dragon was on the ground now, dealing death with teeth and claws and wings and tail, while the Almyrans wheeled overhead. I groaned. "Where did the Empire find a young dragon? And how do we kill it?"
"This feels like a betrayal of sorts, but the best way to kill such a being is from underneath."
"Underneath? Who'd be crazy enough to - oh, of course. Beth would."
And she did. It was a close thing, even for Beth, but while our allies distracted it, she picked her opening and plunged through, holding Sothis's torch high. The dragon burned. It thrashed and clawed as it died and nearly crushed Beth beneath its weight, but it did die in the end, and she survived. We found them lying side by side - Beth, still holding the torch, and Empress Edelgard, looking very young indeed. I sometimes wonder if she was really an ally of the lurkers in the dark, or simply another of their victims.
Chapter 26: November 24th (THE END i can stop now, right?)
From there it was a little more war and a lot more politics. I thought we'd be out of it back at Garreg Mach, but no such luck; apparently it's the perfect place to hold weeks-long conferences about who owes reparations to who and whether so-and-so should be allowed to keep their head. Claude gave it up as a bad job after a month and sailed back to Almyra, but Beth stuck to it, along with Dimitri and Lorenz and Ferdinand, though I think she would've rather fought another dragon.
The kid got caught up in archbishop-y things like feeding orphans and finding new homes for refugees before winter set in. Our friends left one by one to get back to their own lives, except Linhardt, who stayed on to continue his Crest research, and Mercedes, who wanted to help the kid with her work. The last folks to leave were Dimitri, Dedue and Beth, heading out just as the trees started to change their dress for fall. I found the kid watching them go from the same old turret.
"I'll go drag him back. Just give the word," I said, but she wiped her eyes and shook her head.
"He gave his oath. It's very important."
"Aren't you important? I'm sure Dimitri would release him."
"He would never ask. And I would never ask."
I sighed and knocked my head against the wall a few times. "I don't understand you two. Fine. Be unhappy, if that's what you want."
"It's not what I want," she said, flaring up all of a sudden. "I hate it, and I hate him and I hope he never comes back!" I stared at her in shock. She sat down against the wall and started crying again. "What's wrong with me, Jo?"
I sighed and sat next to her. "I'm sorry, Kid. Maybe you won't love him as much someday."
All that day and the next, I watched the kid fade. Oh, the archbishop was still there, same as always - smiling, giving audiences, walking the grounds with words of encouragement for everyone. But the kid went away, tucked back in some corner where she could sleep and forget. I didn't like it. It reminded me of Rhea.
But then, at dusk the following day, he came back. By the next morning they'd eloped together, off to spend two weeks in Duscar, where the hills were covered in little red flowers and no one cared that she was archbishop. They still go back there in the autumn every year.
As for the rest of us, I'm not sure what there is to tell that you don't already know.
Ferdinand and Flayn are taking good care of the Empire. There was some talk of disbanding the Church of Adrestia, but in the end they decided to just let people choose who or how they worship for themselves. Flayn doesn't call herself "Chosen" anymore and makes no claim to a special relationship with the goddess. I don't know how much she's told Ferdinand about her true history; hopefully this book won't come as too much of a surprise to him. If it does, I hope she writes and describes what his face looked like when he read it.
Ignatz has made quite a name for himself as a painter, especially his Impressions of Brigid series. He can't turn them out fast enough to meet demand. He's prince-consort too, of course, but he leaves the governing to Petra and she leaves the marketing to him. It's a perfect arrangement.
Hanneman and Linhardt are still knee-deep in Crest research. So far they haven't turned anyone into monsters - at least, not that I know of. I'm counting on Marianne to keep an eye on them. There's been a lot of interest from Morfis and a few of their mages have even traveled here to study the Crest stones for themselves. Maybe I should send them a copy of this book. See if they believe it.
Annette and Mercedes are working here at Garreg Mach, Annette as a skill instructor and Mercedes as a nun. They've both had marriage proposals, from Ashe and Lorenz respectively, but they're still deciding whether to accept; for the moment, they're very happy where they are. Ashe is Lord Gaspard now, of course, and Lorenz is Count Gloucester, leading member of the Alliance.
Claude is King of Almyra. I'm told the Almyrans weren't very happy with his choice of queen, but once Ingrid trounced a bunch of them on the sparring grounds, they warmed up to her. Seteth and I are supposed to pay them a visit next year. I can't wait to get my hands on one of their wyverns, I hear they're the best in the world (sorry Dessie).
Felix became Dimitri's right-hand man after Dedue defected to the Church. Bernadetta is Countess Varley now, technically, but she spends most of her time on the road with her husband. Between her bow and his sword, they can kill just about anyone who tries to bother them, which suits them both just fine.
Beth and Dimitri have put a lot of work into rebuilding the Kingdom, while the kid and Dedue have worked equally hard on reforming the Church. Neither of my sisters have shown much interest in learning how to "sleep properly", as Seteth puts it. They'd rather grow old beside their husbands. We're not sure what'll happen when it finally comes time for them to die. Maybe they will die or maybe they'll just wake up in the nursery again. All that pesky human blood confuses things.
The kid definitely doesn't want to be archbishop forever. She intends to turn the office over to someone new, eventually. Maybe a man. Maybe an Almyran. Who knows? Anyway, Seteth and I intend to stick around long enough to get the new archbishop on their feet, but then we have our own plans. There's a whole world outside Fódlan, chock full of new places to see and new things to create. Maybe we'll even find a new world once we're done seeing the old one. Why not? His mom did.
Oh, right, you're probably wondering about Rhea. So are we. As best we can figure, she's sleeping, somewhere, tucked away in her stone. Who knows how long it'll be before she wakes up or what she'll think of the things we've done in the meantime. I guess that'll be a problem for future generations to figure out. Good luck, folks.
And hey, if you're ever wandering the hills around Remire Village and come across a flat, round rock with a funny mark on it, let us know. We're right up the road.