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Golden Chimera

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Ch. 30



Trade Negotiations

 




Midnight finally fell upon Garreg Mach Monastery, after the events of a terrible day.

The pews were removed and stacked aside, for the Cathedral of the Goddess’ Rebirth itself was needed to be filled with the endless cots of the wounded and homeless. Garreg Mach Town was almost a total ruin, with reports of a plague of monsters descending upon the city in the late afternoon, and roars and shrieks still came from the ruins near the poor quarter and the shantytown known as the Abyss. The refugees demanding shelter, food, and mercy from the monastery proper came in an endless stream, and Seteth quickly set up the remaining able bodied Knights to enforce discipline and order as rations were handed out and water was distributed from the river. Fortunately, the monastery was already well stocked in anticipation of the influx of pilgrims for the upcoming Rite of Rebirth, and none who asked were forced to go hungry. A triage for the wounded and dying was set up with partitions and cots in the Academy halls and classrooms, and monks and nuns and even students in training moved about the injured, hoping to ease pain or bring comfort. Another full company of Knights and strong servants were ordered to move the dead, setting aside the defenders for Holy cremation (only used when burial was impractical) and stripping their heretical foes to be piled and burned to ash in hastily built midden pits.

And those were the simple tasks, handled by the Bishops and Abbesses and the Knights, led by Holy Knight Catherine and Knight Shamir.

More disturbing were the reports of Lonato’s fantastical weapon, that had destroyed the gates of Garreg Mach and allowed the nobleman to slaughter nearly at will. How almost every prisoner in the Central Church’s dungeons was killed, sometime during the attack. The confusion of how Lonato’s Army evaded Knight-General Byleth’s large expeditionary force out on the Magdred Way. Multiple credible reports of Prince Dimitri’s battle madness, and how and if the Prince could continue here at the Academy. A confusing and contradictory tale of how multiple students were trapped in Garreg Mach town before the attack, who then warned the monastery of the attack, leading other students to defy direct orders because they wanted to help their classmates. A demand for full pardons for a group of grey cloaked rogues from the Abyss, many of them giving false or assumed names, who claimed they helped save students. An inquiry about the whereabouts of Professor Jeritza, who had been instrumental in turning the tide of battle, only to begin indiscriminately attacking civilians in town. The mystery of how all of these monsters attacked at the same time as Lonato, leading to whispers of dark magic and occult practices.

Most worrisome and confusing were the multiple, credible eyewitnesses saying that Knight-General Byleth was capable of miracles of healing.

As the debate between the secretive Cardinals, the most fanatical and ardent supporters of the Church of Seiros raged on the second floor of Garreg Mach Monastery, Lord Seteth was busy down the hall in his office with an equally pressing matter.

“GREEN, Seteth? Not only did you violate my bodily autonomy, but you turned my hair GREEN?!”

Lord Seteth, High Abbot of Garreg Mach, Headmaster of the Officer’s Academy, Lord Protector of the Church of Seiros, High Clerist of the Knights of Seiros, Nabatean, concerned father, busy man, ancient Saint in disguise, and occasional children’s book author, tiredly rubbed at the bridge of his nose from where he sat behind his desk. “I deeply apologize, Professor. But you were dying from a broken spine,” he repeated for possibly the ninth time, his heavily sagged eyes almost pleading up at her. “I could not simply stand by and watch you die.”

Professor Manuela halted from her ranting and raving. For a woman on death’s door mere hours before, she paced the floor before him with remarkable energy. Manuela had been healed by his blood and the Fortify, but then immediately had thrown herself into healing the rest of the wounded and suffering in the overcrowded infirmaries. She was still bursting with tireless energy as she tossed back her dark blonde hair, now intermixed with slight threads of verdant green.

She stood before the High Abbot, fists on her hips, her revealing white robe and green dress bloodstained from helping a multitude of patients. Her beautiful face was locked into a grimace as she glared at the hooded green eyes of her superior. Then she dramatically collapsed into a chair opposite his desk, blowing her highlighted hair from her face with the force of her sigh before brushing the split ends behind her ears. Her question, repeated for the ninth time, came right back at him. “And how, pray exactly, does your blood have healing properties greater than the strongest elixir? No more games or evasiveness, Seteth! You promised me an explanation, so let’s hear it!”

“And I was trying to warn you, Professor, that any further explanations would have to be approved by Lady Rhea herself. While you are a capable Professor and diligent healer, secrets of such magnitude cannot be given freely. When she emerges from her meeting with the Cardinals, I will tell her what has occurred, including your knowledge of Flayn and myself.”

Manuela fixed Seteth with a gimlet eye. “You and Flayn aren’t human, are you?”

Seteth stayed absolutely still.

Manuela sighed and shook her head at the High Abbot, as if he was a truant pupil. “Oh dear Seteth. I do respect your privacy, but now that I’ve been roped into this little family drama of yours--without my input, and entirely by accident, to repeat the point--I do believe honesty is a better policy than any more furtive secrets. You want to know if you can trust me? Well the feeling’s mutual, buster!” she ended with an angry outburst.

Seteth looked pained at her response, and leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “Manuela,” he said flatly, and she perked up a bit, pleasantly surprised. “If it were up to myself, I would tell you all, here and now. But I am the Archbishop’s subordinate, and I must seek her approval to bring you into the circle of trust.”

“And what if she says I can’t be trusted? What then?” growled Manuela, folding her arms across her chest.

Shaking his head, Seteth said, “It will not come to that. You have proven your dedication to protecting Flayn. I swear I will do all I can to intervene on your behalf.”

Tilting her head, the Black Eagle Professor considered the man opposite her. Scrutinizing his features once more, she said slowly, “Flayn isn’t your sister. She’s your daughter.”

Seteth coughed and looked away, frowning.

Manuela smiled slowly, languidly, realizing Seteth was caught like a mouse in a trap. “It’s so obvious in hindsight. The dynamic between the two of you...well, she is a very sweet girl, and extremely talented in healing, although she hides her full talent at Faith very well.” Her energy dropped as well as she noted Seteth’s clenched jaw behind his beard and the faint sweat on his lip. Her behavior was making the poor concerned thing so nervous. She adopted a more clinical tone, her musical voice shifting notes easily. “But now since you’ve given me the basic non-denial, I’ll just have to try and be satisfied with that. I do hope you can put some faith in me, Seteth. It’s not as if I’m ungrateful for saving my life, but it’s the...not knowing what that entirely means that is getting to me. I hope you understand.” 

The High Abbot of Garreg Mach stood somewhat stiffly. “I do. But right before the battle…” he hesitated, then continued. “Your passionate defense of Flayn’s safety made a deep impression upon me. And as well as your recent efforts to repair and renew your reputation. You have reminded me of something, something that I have not felt in...years,” he said softly, almost to himself.

Her eyes widened, a slow flush spread across her cheeks. Her smile turned coy. “Why Seteth! Please be careful, that almost sounded...romantic. I do suppose we share a certain...intimacy now.”

Her banter only brought the slightest smile in return to the man’s stern face. Ugh, he was maddening. “I suppose so,” he agreed. “Let me just tell you this before we return to our duty. You have my full permission to speak with Professor Jeralt. He has undergone a...similar experience, shall we say, to your own. He can answer many of your questions, if he deigns to do so.”

“What? Really? He got a transfusion from you as well? Then how come his hair isn’t green?”

Walking to the door of his office, Seteth paused by it. “It once was...a century ago.” He quickly left and shut the door.

Manuela brooded in the dim office on that revelation, her mind reeling. Reaching into her pocket, she brought forth a small compact mirror and examined her face. Maybe a hint of green wasn’t so bad, after all. “A century, eh?” Then she sighed. “Maybe that will give me enough time to find true love…”

 




Jeralt the Blade-Breaker sat in his creaking office chair, pulled up next to the sleeping pallet he had hastily arranged for his daughter. He was still dressed in the blasted and scorched armor he had been wearing earlier today. The infirmaries were too crowded, and he wanted for both of them to have privacy after the momentous events of the battle. Her armor was piled in the corner, wet and messy, including her empty scabbard...he would have to have another talk with her, about losing your weapon on the battlefield...there was no excuse for that. Then he shook himself from his drifting thoughts to study his child once more. Byleth’s face was relaxed in sleep, looking so small and innocent that Jeralt’s mind had trouble accepting she was a capable warrior and officer, a true terror in the field. And the resemblance to Glyasa in the dim candlelight of the sconces was so strong that he had to blink repeatedly to see his daughter there, with her blue hair, not green.

He had been afraid of this.

Rhea had done something to his daughter. Something without his knowledge, without his consent. Maybe Glaysa had known something about it, but she was oh-so-conveniently dead in childbirth, according to Rhea, her body already buried by the time he had returned. The grieving Archbishop had then presented to him his daughter. A child with no heartbeat, who had never truly laughed or cried in her entire life until recently. A silent baby, who did not fuss for goat’s milk, or react in discomfort to a cold and dirty swaddling cloth. A tiny being that only watched and observed, her cornflower blue eyes eventually becoming the deep oceanic pools that stared fixedly from a blank face. Alone with this strange child, alienated from Rhea and his own religious vows, and nursing a boundless grief of a lonely man widowed far too soon, he had done the only thing he could think of.

He fled with his child, under the darkness of night, with the screams and flames behind him.

Beatrix had been a young wisewoman living on the fringes in the forests nearby Garreg Mach in those days. She had helped him claw his way back from madness and despair, telling him in no uncertain terms he was responsible for another life now, no matter how he felt about himself and his own grief. And eventually, it had worked. He had raised his daughter with the impulsive healer, both of them travelling far and working odd jobs with a small somber toddler in tow, riding in the saddle with them as they kept on the move from town to town. His relationship with Trips was...complex, but because of their mutual care for Byleth, both of them had settled into comfortable, familiar roles that needed no more talk or explanations. It was because of Trips that Byleth learned her words and letters, coaxing the frightening depth and unexpected intelligence out of his kid.

In the midst of gathering like-minded, decent souls who wanted to protect people, not kill them, they had traveled all across Fódlan, throughout the Alliance and Empire, eventually settling in Remire after they had felt enough years had passed for Rhea to stop looking. Byleth was almost six by then, quickly becoming strong enough to handle a small sword. He had trained her with Trips and Zarad, making certain she could defend herself in this crazy world, to be as strong and as capable as she could possibly be, even teaching her how to mimic emotions to better protect herself and build something of a normal life as a mercenary’s daughter.

But they had never taught her magic.

Years before, Trips had attempted it, but any attempt to educate Byleth in Black or White anima was only met with frustration by both pupil and teacher. Byleth hid it all beneath her usual stoicism, but it was one of the few skills she hadn’t picked up quickly. While Byleth was off training with the rest of the company one late afternoon, the doctor-turned mercenary healer laughed it off with Jeralt and Zarad over drinks in a tavern, saying “Well I know she’s your kid, Captain. She can’t cast a spell to save her life. Not even a cantrip, and even Zarad can manage those! I’ll just tell her the basics about identifying magical spells in battle.”

Jeralt allowed himself a brief moment of recrimination. This was all his fault.

He had known being back here, in the seat of Rhea’s power, would do something to Byleth. Known Rhea’s obsession was still in full force. It had disgusted him then, and it disgusted him now. Byleth was a person, not an object, and should be given the option to say something in her defense in the midst of all this crazy religious crap. He knew returning to Garreg Mach would be dangerous for them, but he had little idea of how dangerous until now. If the Archbishop had been obsessive before with his daughter, by now she would be positively manic.

The fucking Crest of Flames. Byleth, naively and innocently informing her father and stepmother of talking to the Goddess. Dreaming of ancient battles, high stone thrones, and glowing bone swords. Rhea, perhaps the most powerful individual on the planet, taking an unhealthy interest in his only daughter.

Reluctantly, Jeralt considered the other side of the coin. Hours ago, Lord Lonato had nearly ended the career of the Blade Breaker and snuffed out the Hresvelg lineage in a single, magical strike. Gaspard couldn’t have acquired something that powerful on his own. No, that’s why he attacked now, despite putting his stepson and heir at risk. He must’ve been ordered to do so. And Shamir had mentioned a magical, forest enveloping fog on the Magdred Way, dense enough to halt the advance of the Knights of Seiros. He wondered if Alois and Zarad were getting along and if they had managed to find their way out of that.

Something was brewing, and he needed help to sniff it out. The students--hell, the entire monastery--was already whispering about his daughter, the “Saint Reborn.” But someone in Fódlan was masterminding the attacks on the Church. On Rhea. Unless he got to the bottom of this secret war being conducted behind the scenes, every one of them was in great danger. And now they were associated with the Church again, there would be extra bright targets painted on their backs, all in the blood red Symbol of Seiros.

War’s coming. I can feel it in my bones. Governments collapsing, the nobility running mad, the Church attacking itself, bandits and outlaws everywhere. And we can’t run anymore... Jeralt mused on the fateful bandit attack that had brought him and Byleth back to Garreg Mach. A strange mage in a mask...wielding Dark magic...

A low knock on his door roused him from his musing. “Captain Teach?” came Claude’s whisper. 

Sighing, Jeralt rose and allowed the Duke’s heir to slip inside his office. “Wanting to sneak out past curfew to visit your old Professor? I don’t think I’ll ever understand your brain, Golden Boy,” he drawled, shutting and locking the door behind him.

Claude grinned back cheekily, dressed in dark black garb that Jeralt eyed in professional appreciation. “Well, there are a lot of agitated Knights and healers down there, but fortunately for me, I have a talent for sneaking around.” His green eyes flickered down to Byleth as he removed his hood. “How is she?”

“Sleeping comfortably,” nodded Jeralt, motioning Claude into a chair as he sat down. “Beatrix looked at her and said she was just exhausted from magical exertion.”

Claude wasted no time. “You don’t really think she’s a Saint, do you?”

He could only snort at that. “At this point, I think fish can fly. I’ve had some crazy days, but this one’s in the top five, at least.”

Claude nodded. “I’m still trying to absorb it all, myself. If it makes you feel any better, I nearly died today too? I can’t say I recommend the experience, though. I think that’s my fifth time.”

“If you need help processing, my door’s always open.”

“I knew it would be,” smiled Claude. Then he bowed his head. “I hate to break the manly code of facades in front of my epically scarred Professor, but I have to admit I’m scared. A magic weapon blew open the gate of Garreg Mach like me ripping a piece of paper. What can we do against something like that?”

Jeralt grunted. “Expect something like it in the future, I guess. I hate to break it to you Claude, but there’s no real certainty or wisdom that comes with age or status. We’re all making it up as we go along, same as you.”

“Well that’s reassuring,” said the young man sourly. “So much for my vulnerable side.”

“You should’ve known it would be wasted on me. How’s the rest of the class?”

The Golden Deer House leader sighed. “Bearing up much better than I would have ever hoped. Lysithea’s staying with Leonie; despite her brave front, I think she was a little shaken up. Fortunately nothing really bad happened, so I heard, but maybe Beatrix or Manuela can talk to her again.”

“She’s tough as nails. If she needs help she’ll ask.”

“Seteth’s not really gonna expel Lorenz and the rest, is he? I sort of...as embarrassing it is to say...owe him one,” said Claude worriedly.

“I think we’re going to make it a good teaching moment. Cadets should still be allowed to be cadets; making an emotional mistake before your first real battle is understandable. Just know that in a real army, they’d be held as oathbreakers and mutineers.”

Eyeing his Professor, Claude went on relentlessly. “You heard about what happened with Dimitri?” Jeralt sighed and nodded. “Marianne still won’t leave his side and I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. Ignatz told me the whole story. Good thing, too, since I would’ve only gotten snarls and growls from Felix and Dedue, and maybe a squeak from Bernadetta.”

“Marianne’s not alone with him is she?” said the Captain, sitting up straight in his chair.

“Oh no, Hilda’s staying with her. She’s not happy about it, but I’m a little glad, since I think she’s the only Deer who can approach Dimitri in strength. They’ve got two cots next to the um…’room’ they’re currently keeping the Prince. I could probably rope Raphael into helping as well. He’s still down there helping clear the rubble and bodies I think.”

“Between them and Dedue...and maybe a dozen fully armed Knights...that might be enough,” said Jeralt, frowning as he considered. An idea struck him. “Do you have any...let’s just say, herbal remedies for the Prince?”

Claude made an indelicate sound. “I do, but I suggest keeping that option limited. They might all have the side effect of making his mental state worse. I’d prefer to subdue him with words, not drugs or blows. I’m trying to recruit Princess Edelgard to that effect. She’s the reason he lost it. He thought she was dead when Lonato blasted the two of you. I sent her a note.”

“I’d heard they had some sort of relationship in the past. Something about being long lost friends--?”

“More like brother and sister. They were raised together from 1171 to 1174. It had to do with Edelgard’s mother. I’ll tell you the whole story later,” Claude said, waving a hand dismissively. Then a crease appeared in his smooth forehead. “More importantly, what’s going to happen to us? As in, the students? Pretty sure the Monastery and Academy getting attacked is going to put a damper on the school year, not to mention the Town being devastated.”

Jeralt could imagine the reactions of Duke Rodrigue Fraldarius and Duke Holst Goneril when they heard the news. The Imperial Ministry and the Emperor and his Lord Regent would have issues with the Central Church as well. Not to mention others, like Margrave Edmund or Margrave Gautier. But uprooting this nest of vipers behind the incident would take a more skillful hand than his own. They would need to divvy things up between the two of them to make this work.

“I need all the Deer to write home to their parents immediately,” the ex-Knight ordered. “Tell them to spare no detail. Whoever did this attack just succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. The obvious and responsible thing to do would be to put the Officer’s Academy semester on hold until Garreg Mach could be determined to be safe again.”

Claude was grinning in realization. “Ah, so we do the irresponsible thing. We continue as if nothing has happened, and help rebuild things here.”

“Right. I think I can get Rhea to lean in that direction, but we’ll have to reassure the other nobles that the Central Church can handle it. We’ll let the story spread far and wide that this was just Lonato finding a magic weapon, raising a rebellion in the name of the Western Church, and attempting to attack the Archbishop with it.”

A nod in return. “But the real story--about the people who are instigating these events--we keep to ourselves.”

“Right again, Golden Boy. From here on out, we’ll have to be careful who we share that with.” Jeralt’s brown eyes meet Claude’s green ones. “You asked to be tied to the hip, well then, this is it kid. If you have any objections, spit them out.”

“Hmmm,” Claude paused thoughtfully. “I mean, I know something’s up. But who? Or what? Or why? I mean, the Princess, Prince and I were attacked several months ago, everyone just acted like ‘oh some weird mage hired all those bandits!’” The boy shook his head. “I know enough about mages...good ones...to know they have no need to ever resort to banditry. So obviously a targeted attack, but against who? But then another one also gives a rebel Kingdom noble something as powerful as a Relic? That’s not something you can just pick up in the market, I’m thinking.”

Nodding in respect, Jeralt said, “You’ve made a good start, kid. So let me fill you in with my own thoughts, and what I’ve heard from Rhea and Seteth and Catherine. Something big is coming down, but none of us know who or what it is. But consider the facts. The Insurrection. The Tragedy. And your own family tragedy. If you had never been named your grandfather’s Heir, what would have happened to the Alliance?”

“It would have been total chaos,” responded Claude glumly to the rhetorical question. “Count Gloucester probably would have taken over after my uncle’s death, maybe getting enough support to force my Lord Grandfather to step down as soon as he wheezed a cough. To give him credit, Lord Holst wouldn’t take that lying down, but Count Ordelia and Margrave Edmund would sit on the sidelines to see how it shook out. Lady Judith...dunno what she would do in that situation, but her territory borders Gloucester’s. She would probably be forced to wait and see as well.”

“So something not too dissimilar to what the Kingdom is going through, right now,” agreed Jeralt. He hesitated a moment, then said, “I know you’re not a believer, Claude. I’m not really either, I guess...but this place, Garreg Mach, it means something to me. Call it an old man’s sentiment. I’d rather not see it destroyed.”

The Alliance noble nodded back. “I can live with that, Captain Teach. In fact, that aligns perfectly with my hopes and dreams. So what’s your take on things?”

“I think whatever this cabal is after is thinking big. So big we can’t see it.” The old man spread his hands out. “It’s Fódlan. It’s the whole damned continent.”

Claude was silent for a long minute.

After a while, Jeralt sighed and said, “Fine, it’s okay if you don’t believe me…”

“Hang on, Teach, just thinking,” replied Claude automatically, his eyes distant and a frown on his face. “That...makes sense,” he eventually said slowly. “That makes so much sense it’s scary. They went after the Empire first, then the Kingdom, then they tried it with the Alliance, but they didn’t know about me because I wasn’t in the Alliance yet. And now they’re going after…”

“...Rhea,” supplied Jeralt, pleased with his student. “I know it’s a blow to your ego, Claude, but some other people may be assassination targets in this world.”

“A world without Rhea…” mused Claude. Jeralt cleared his throat and Claude came to attention. “...would be a bad thing, totally! Obviously. Okay, so she’s a target as well. I guess that explains the overreaction of the Knight’s Expeditionary Force to try and crush Lonato in the bud, as well as sending Catherine to ensure it. And it also explains Byleth.”

“Explains my daughter how?” rumbled Jeralt with a frown.

“It’s clear as day, Teach. Rhea likely knew Byleth could do Saint-magic, so she was putting her into a situation where it would have to come out. And if the rumours are true...it did.”

“That’s…” Jeralt blinked, then allowed, “...smart.”

Claude preened himself at the praise, then laughed as he dodged a half-hearted cuff from his Professor. But it quickly faded, and he said, “Okay, I think we’ve got a decent working hypothesis. But what do we do about it now?”

“Claude…” Jeralt murmured quietly, forcing the teen to lean forward to hear. “I can handle Rhea and Byleth, like no other person can, aside from maybe Seteth.”

Claude’s brows rose. “That’s interesting. I thought he was absolutely loyal.”

“He is, but he’s worried, the same as us. The Monastery is compromised beyond doubt now. The prisoners being killed in the dungeons proved that. But Rhea’s…” Jeralt grimaced as if he had eaten something foul, then continued, “...pure obsession with my daughter is blinding her to everything below the surface. The Cardinals don’t have enough autonomy to gainsay her authority to start a real investigation. And besides, I’m not sure how far it would go without the full cooperation of at least one nation of Fódlan.”

“And what about Byleth herself?” replied Claude, whispering now as well. “How will she feel about all of this?”

Jeralt tiredly rubbed his eyes. “You’re asking my girl, who just recently discovered how to feel, about how she feels about the most momentous political intrigue on the continent?”

When he looked up again, Claude was frowning at him. “Don’t underestimate your daughter, Captain Teach. Rhea may be obsessed, but she might not be necessarily wrong. Your daughter is very special, and she’s been given a great deal of authority in the Church. If anyone can hunt down these weirdo magic users, it’s probably her. She might see the situation more clearly than we do.”

“When she wakes up, I’ll let her know of your glowing opinion,” smirked Jeralt, glancing at his daughter’s slow breathing. Claude’s suggestion had merit; but what if that meant he was giving up his daughter completely to Rhea? Would he be playing directly into her hands, a puppet Knight still dancing to her tune?

His student didn’t rise to the bait, the worry back in his eyes. “So are we really tied to the hip, Captain Teach? I don’t need to know everything, but I am sort of good at survival. I think that’s going to be a key skill in the upcoming days,” asked Claude.

“This fellow survivor agrees. But we can’t do much from these positions, here at the Monastery. We need outside help.”

The worry vanished as Claude’s jade eyes started to gleam with excitement. “What kind of outside help do you need, Teach? I have managed to build some connections in the Alliance, not to mention elsewhere.”

Jeralt’s smirk returned. “Who in the Alliance has the best spy network?”

 


 

“BEASTS! You filthy animals CANNOT stop us! You are nothing more than ignorant, defiled savages who have drunk deep from the corrupt teat of your so-called ‘Goddess’...”

WIth even his holy patience tested past the breaking point, Bishop Aelfric’s hand raised up with a slight green glow, and the spell Silence descended on their ghostly white prisoner once more, helplessly bound to the main pole of the command tent. The pale man snapped and raved and struggled helplessly in pure quiet against the thick ropes around his hands and feet, despite his poorly bandaged thigh.

“Aw, you stopped it just while it was getting good!” smiled Zarad, hugely enjoying the scene of Aelfric attempting an interrogation.

“Now, now, Corporal Zarad, let’s take a quiet moment here to think. While I too would enjoy beating the information we need out from this pastey patsy, Commander Byleth left the Cardinal here to orderly manage our forces. The game is clearly afoot, and the Knights will loyally follow any move he makes, based upon what we know about these Black Bishops!” exclaimed Knight-Captain Alois from his cot, bandaged and wounded from the recent skirmish yet still able to pun.

The three men and the prisoner were alone in the command tent, and other Knights and mercenaries rushed about, breaking camp and preparing to march. After most of a week, the fog had finally cleared from the Magdred Way and visibility was returning, although it was still hours before dawn.

The battle with the strange warriors had been brutal yet never in doubt. Their armor and weapons were exceptional and for some unfortunate Knights of Seiros, quite deadly. Yet the silver swords and heavy axes and lances of the Knights, along with Aelfric’s well-placed Auras, had been more than enough to subdue the small escort force. When realizing they were overwhelmed, the strange warriors opted for suicide on their glowing blades, or had fought so ferociously that they were forced to be killed. The mage that Zarad had hamstrung was the only survivor.

After examining the corpses, Bishop Aelfric ordered them all immediately preserved and embalmed as much as possible by the quartermasters and healers. The strange armor and weapons, along with all of their clothing, was taken as well and stored in several quickly emptied wagons, and a full company of Knights of Seiros were ordered to guard it with their lives. While glad to celebrate the victory and heal some wounds, Bishop Aelfric quickly became grim and quiet, his earnest face now lined with worry.

“Knight-Captain,” he said softly, and Alois attempted to sit up straighter in his cot. “Your recommendation?”

“Why, we must hurry back to the monastery at all speed! No haste, no waste! Who knows what Lonato has done to Garreg Mach! I am sure that the Captain and the Commander will rush to the rescue, but the Cardinals and Lady Rhea will find this prisoner fast-cinating, I’m sure!”

Nodding, Aelfric glanced at the lounging form of Zarad. “And you, Corporal?”

“There’s still rebels in Lonato’s territory, and at Castle Gaspard. The Fairy High Priestess wanted them taken out,” said Zarad, shrugging. “So the job’s not finished. They will await news from the attack before they make their own moves. If we move fast to the west, we can encircle the rest of the rebels and crush them at the root. Otherwise, Castle Gaspard and its church will become a beacon of rebellion against your religion.”

Aelfric considered, but then the mental struggle of the Silence spell against the strange prisoner claimed his attention, as the man struggled to cast his own Dark anima through the spell. Ah, well. Sometimes drastic times called for drastic measures. “Zarad, please kick the prisoner in his wound, to gently remind him to behave,” sighed Aelfric, softly rubbing his temples with his headache building.

The Almyran renegade grinned. “Ah, it is good to know even a highly ranked Goddess-worshiper has teeth. Observe my own brand of magic.” Stepping forward past Aelfric’s slight form, ignoring the pale glare of the bound form below him, he drove a bulky hard foot into the prisoner’s bandage on his leg, causing the man’s mouth to gape wide in agony and his veins to bulge on his neck. Zarad followed this by bending low and punching him in the face, which was also disconcertedly done in complete silence. The pale mage in black sagged against his bonds, head bowed.

The Seiros Cardinal frowned at the punch. “I pray you didn’t kill him or addle his wits,” he rebuked.

“I leave magic to you; please leave punching to me,” said Zarad with mock cheerfulness.

Shaking his head, but grateful he had to no longer maintain his Silence spell at full effect, Aelfric beckoned the mercenary to join him at the map table, illuminated by a single oil lamp. “I think a compromise is in order. Your words concerning the rebellion are true, yet since capturing this man and the remains and equipment of his comrades, it has become of secondary importance. Archbishop Rhea must be aware of these strange men at once, capable of feats of magic that are well beyond us. Can you imagine such a fog covering cities, towns, castles? While they could see through it completely?”

“Perhaps that’s why they wear those goggles!” suggested Alois brightly from his corner.

“A surprisingly astute observation, Knight-Captain,” murmured Aelfric, looking at the map. Zarad snickered at Alois’ pleased expression. The Cardinal looked up at Zarad. “How skilled is your mercenary company at reconnaissance and information gathering?”

Zarad shrugged but smiled. “Decent enough. In the field, I doubt many could best me. In a town or a castle, there is the small problem of me being so obviously heathen.”

“How I wish Yuri were here…” whispered Aelfric to himself. Zarad waited while he deliberated, and Aelfric was pleased at the foreigner’s discipline. The noises and calls of camp being broken down continued outside the tent, against a slowly brightening sky.

Eventually the Cardinal spoke his orders. “I will place one additional member of the Church under your command, Corporal. Her name is Wilhelmina. I think the two of you will get along well. If your specialty is the forest, her specialty is the city. I want your company--Jeralt’s Mercenaries--to continue west and act as if you are an independent mercenary group, with you acting as its Captain. Get her close to Castle Gaspard and she will attempt to collect evidence of the conspiracy behind the rebellion.”

“I have men who can do that, Fai--um, Cardinal,” rumbled Zarad, crossing his arms. “Do you not trust us?”

“I do, but Wilhelmina will know exactly what to look for, after I brief her. There are levels of trust. Please understand,” said Aelfric with a firm nod.

Zarad sneered, clearly unhappy, but shrugged. “She’d better pull her weight with our company. The Captain only expects the best, as do I.”

“Yes, that does sound like Captain Jeralt,” smiled Aelfric. “Please gag and blindfold the prisoner. I will heal Sir Alois one final time, and the rest of us will march back to Garreg Mach. I am anxious to know if the town is still intact…”

 




Byleth’s eyes opened, although she was not awake.

It was the darkest hour before dawn, yet she had to hurry. There were still too many humans awake and about for it to be truly safe.

Green eyes glanced over to the form of her vessel’s father, hunched over on his desk, snoring into his folded arms. A good man. A decent man. She remembered well his frustration and grief. It deserved answers.

But first, she must speak with her daughter.

She rose from the pallet as silently as a wraith, and with the slightest whisper of anima, unlocked and opened the door in front of her. Floating past it into the hallway, she closed it in a like manner.

Questing for a moment in the darkened hallway, she found her daughter was still locked in debate with her human followers. It threatened to go on til morning. That would not do.

Becoming invisible and ethereal, Byleth’s body floated upwards, through stone and mortar and wood to the Archbishop’s bedchamber. Her borrowed feet settled on the tiled floor, and she glanced into a nearby full length mirror to consider her appearance. Just boringly dressed in a short black shift and shorts, with bare feet. Byleth’s mouth frowned at the unruly mane of blue locks. Tch, surely the mercenary girl must be taught better haircare…

Ach. Time was an issue, she reminded herself. Very well then. Byleth’s arms spread out, fingers opening wide as her mind issued the summons. Daughter. Come.

She sensed her child’s sudden agitated consternation. Her firstborn made abrupt excuses to her human followers, and dismissed the proceedings. Ordered all of them to their roles, reminding them of their duties. They would reconvene in the evening after they had rested and refreshed. Some of the Cardinals sensed the Archibishop’s excitement, as she fairly raced down halls and up the stairs to her bedroom.

Byleth’s body smiled.

Moments later, Archbishop Rhea burst inside her bedroom, fairly slamming the door and fumbling to lock it behind her, her tiara almost sliding off her head and her green hair loose and frenzied across her face. She hesitantly looked around the austere bedroom with wild green eyes. “Mother--?” she whispered in the dimness.

“Boo,” whispered Byleth’s voice from behind her, the vessel becoming visible once more.

Rhea fairly jumped, before scowling fiercely. “Knight Byelth! What are you--?” She stopped herself and gaped at the iridescent jade green eyes of Jeralt’s daughter, a shocking contrast to the normal deep blue pools.

Sothis smiled gently with Byleth’s mouth, still floating above the ground.

“Oh my dear Seiros. It has been too long, hasn’t it?” whispered Byleth’s voice, opening her vessel’s arms.

The simple phrases convinced her daughter beyond any doubt. “Mother!” moaned Rhea, sinking into Byleth’s strong arms, tears falling like rain.

Byelth’s strong grip flexed around her daughter, hugging her tightly. “Shhhhh. Child. You have grieved for so long. None of it was your fault. None of it.”

Rhea bawled out a loud sob, falling to her knees, dragging the Knight’s body down with her. “Noo...I--I failed you, Mother. I failed all of them. They trusted me to keep them safe! You trusted me, in your stead, while you Slept! But...but…” sobbed Rhea, an animalistic retching sound coming from her throat.

Byleth’s hands removed themselves after a few moments, untangling the elaborate tiara from Rhea’s green hair, brushing away the tangles and frayed ends, even as Rhea cried and wept into Byleth’s bosom. The ancient tiara was tossed aside carelessly on the floor with a metallic rattle, and soon Byleth’s hands moved to Rhea’s face, tilting her chin upwards.

Byleth’s mouth smiled. “I absolve you, my daughter, for the Red Canyon. You will always have my blessing. And my love. I have always been with you.”

Rhea only wept more piteously at this reply, but this time in gratitude. The soul in Byleth’s body gave her a few more moments, but then said sternly, “Seiros. Attend. I do not have infinite time to spend with you.”

The Archbishop composed herself to the best of her ability, wiping snot from her nose on ornamental robes and clearing her eyes. She scanned Byleth’s mortal frame through watery eyes. “So...y-you are now here? Within Byleth?”

A nod. “I am, daughter. You have chosen well, this time. I have even gifted her my divine power.”

Seiros’ tear-stained face betrayed shock. “To transform?”

Byleth’s head shook. “No, she cannot endure that and live. But she has the fortitude to bear the bursts of Divine Pulse. Her soul--and her caring--is strong enough to withstand it.”

“I knew it. I knew she was the one. I knew it.” Rhea smiled in joy. She hugged Byleth’s body to her again, tightly, familiarly. “And now you have returned, Mother. You can heal this land once more.”

“No. I cannot.”

The flat refusal left Rhea confused. “But Mother...you’re here now...we can cleanse this land, purify it...sweep everything aside, as we once did before…”

Byleth’s mouth sighed. “And that was wrong, my child. We fought together against the hubris and folly of men, when it became too great. We felt we had no choice, seeing their power as a threat to our own. Yet It has only led to greater death and destruction, and to centuries of stagnation.”

“I...I...Mother, I confess I do not understand…the desecration of Ailiel after they attempted their attack...Zanado…”

“Were crimes, daughter, crimes that have inflicted countless years of needless suffering upon all. Our sacred duty is to minimize such horror, not compound it. And what have you done instead? Supported and propped up a system where the bodies of your brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, are used as weapons?”

Her face twisting at the mild chastisement, Rhea sobbed again, bowing her head in despair, despite Byleth’s hands trying to hold her up. “Failure...such a failure...I’ve become such a disappointment in your eyes, Mother…”

Never.

Rhea lifted her eyes up in wild hope. Desperate for affirmation and love, so long denied.

Byleth’s hand cupped her chin, forcing her gaze steady. “You are my precious one. My oldest child. You have tried your very best, and have succeeded in many ways, yet...your mind has become clouded. By grief. By pain. By rejection. You have felt so alone for so long. Do you deny it?”

Tears welled up again in Rhea’s eyes, but she bravely tried to meet the bright green eyes of Byleth. “No...Mother. I do not,” she gasped reluctantly. “I...I had no one, after Wilheim died. It took Seteth a thousand years to forgive me for Aine’s death and Cethleann’s slumber. Indech wanted nothing more to do with the humans, and Macuil and I had a...a falling out.”

The hands of the avatar petted her child’s hair once more. “Thank you for being honest, Seiros. We may speak again. I will only give you this advice. Seek out your other brothers. They are lonely and hurting as well. They must regain their humanity. They are needed, for what is to come.” Byleth’s hands dropped away from Rhea.

The Archbishop of Fódlan desperately grabbed at Byleth’s scarred hand, her face wretched and pleading. “Mother! Don’t go...please don’t go yet…”

Byelth’s mouth smiled, a small sad smile. Byleth’s head bent low and kissed her daughter’s fingers. Then she rose.

“Silly Seiros. I never left you. Never. You just never listened to me, inside of you. Inside here,” Byleth’s mouth said, as her hand pressed hard against Rhea’s left breast. Then Byleth's green eyes became stern. “And please do not pester this dear vessel after it wakes up! I can see you now, cajoling and begging and badgering the poor child until you get what you want! Well, have you ever considered what SHE might want? Of course not! It’s time to grow up and put on your big girl panties, my dear Seiros. It’s time to stop being selfish and hurt! You have a chance to begin anew, but will you use it to change and grow, or only stagnate further and nurse your past griefs?” Byleth’s voice laughed in a light gay twinkle, as she twirled in the air in front of her daughter. “I will visit you again. But remembered my advice! You have waited to hear my voice for more than a thousand years! But when did you stop to listen? Now, it’s back to bed for my dear, adorable vessel! Please harken, Seiros!” With another twirl, Byleth’s body became insubstantial and floated down through the floor of the Archbishop’s bedchamber.

Rhea’s hands slapped futilely against the cold stone floor of her bedchamber, where the last afterimage of Byleth’s forest green eyes had slipped through the tiles. For long minutes, she gasped and quivered in release, weeping harsh gasping sobs between unadulterated joy and black despair, hugging her arms so tightly than soon blood, dark red with flecks of green, dripped and soaked into her robes of state.

Her Mother loved her. She had Returned. But even the mildest words of rebuke from a Goddess can sear the soul, laying open scarred wounds that now burned bright and fresh. Sothis loved her daughter, as an indulgent parent might be constantly amused and forgiving to a stumbling child who could never match their stride. Rhea’s skin felt so hot as to be aflame, as she knew beyond doubt her Mother disapproved of her sinful actions, the unhappy compromises at the end of the War of Ancients that had etched much of the history of the continent into immutable stone law. The endless and constant forbidden experiments attempting Her Resurrection, from the Chalice to the Crest Stone of Flames. Rhea had thought she had prayed and begged for a revelation after the war, and in the end, thought she had heard Her Mother’s voice, and experienced a revelation to expand the cult of Seiros into an actual Church. A Church that would pray along with her for the Return of The Holy Mother.

But perhaps that had only been the exhausted Seiros’ own pride and vanity, smugly content with the defeat of Nemesis and the Elites, the unworthy Child of the Goddess who had an Emperor for a lover and thousands of deluded humans who had falsely worshipped her, instead of Sothis.

Her Mother saw every heart, and was the arbiter of every soul. With Her Return, and in Her own Eyes, she saw the actions and thoughts of Seiros were found wanting, despite the kind words of love. The Archbishop felt the shame of ages sweep over her.

And Rhea did not know what to do.






Felix opened his exhausted eyes to the brightness of dawn, only semi-aware of where, or who, he was.

A sharp twinge in his left knee brought reality back. He was in his bed, still in his blood drenched, ripped clothing of yesterday, although he could see the bare minimum of armor he had used was carelessly strewn across his writing desk. His swords and sword belt were on the seat of the chair, with his boots by the legs. Assured his gear was intact, Felix slowly and methodically moved his stiff limbs, flexing slowly and carefully moving his previously injured knee. Probing it with his fingers, he noted only the bare minimum of healing had been performed, and that it was still weak and swollen. He was forced to acknowledge this made sense; the healers of Garreg Mach undoubtedly had more devastating, life-threatening injuries to attend to last night than a young nobleman’s injured extremity.

Biting his lip, Felix forced himself to ignore the pain and hot burning stretched and swollen skin, bending his knees and swinging his feet off the bed.

His bare toes touched warm skin.

“The FUCK!?” he screamed, scrambling up back onto the bed in raw panic, his wounded knee screaming along with him.

Petra’s tan tattooed face rose up from where she had been curled up next to his bed. “Good morning, Felix,” she said, yawning and sitting up. Her right arm was in a sling with a bandaged splint, with her main braid taken down. She examined Felix more closely. “Are you having the moment?”

Felix managed to calm his breathing. “Why are you in my room?” he asked abrasively, still confused.

Her violet gaze turned concerned. “Do you not remember? You were having difficulty last night. Your leg was troubling you greatly, and you moved it against advice by the walking back up to Garreg Mach. You wanted to know of Dimitri’s care by the Knights. By this point, you could walk with assistance only. So,” she said slowly, as if he were a Goddess-touched child, “I assisted you.”

Vague memories stirred. That was right. He remembered being briefly healed by a Sister, and they had gotten some food, and he had been determined to return to his own room, his own domain. He had been leaning against Petra the entire time. Despite her own injury. His eyes flickered to two half eaten bowls of broth by the far bench shelf. They had eaten, and then his head hit the pillow and he knew nothing more. Petra must have just curled up on the floor with a blanket.

Guilt warred briefly with anger. Anger won out. “You didn’t have to do all that. One of my class--or even my worthless bookworm of a Professor--could have taken care of me.”

Petra lithely got to her feet, not showing a shade of stiffness. She was still in her torn and bloodied clothing as well. Shrugging with a small smile on her lips, she said, “We were forgotten in the aftermath of battle. Too many wounded, too many townsfolk begging for the mercies. Too many miracles that the Seiros Church is now thinking on.”

Felix brushed past her, moving his gear carefully to sit--slowly--in the chair. He impatiently tugged on his right boot, trying to casually hitch the laces. “That still doesn’t explain why you curled up on my rug in my room. I don’t need a nursemaid.”

He felt more than saw her tilting her head. “You will not need assistance back down the stairs?”

Grunting sourly at that, Felix grabbed his left boot and attempted to shove his foot into it. His injury betrayed him, however, and he hated the involuntary intake of breath that immediately alerted Petra.

“See? You need assistance now,” she said firmly, moving over to the chair to kneel and pick up his boot.

He tried to snatch it from her, and they briefly tugged at the leather. “Give me that! I don’t need your help!”

“Yes you do! Why do you do denial of the obvious--? You are being so--” she stopped and let go of the boot suddenly, muttering words in Brigidish.

“You’re the one not listening to me! I can do things on my own,” he muttered, savagely grimacing as he tried to force his foot back into the boot, sweating past the pain. “Stop being so annoying,” he added. “I don’t need a mother.”

He thought that was mild, for him, but Petra’s jaw dropped. “I would never be…” she trailed off, and then rocked back to her feet, her violet eyes uncertain. “Why do you say such untruths? Are you--not liking my company?”

This time guilt won. Felix stopped trying to force himself into his footwear, his knee aching interminably now, throbbing in time to his rapid pulse. It was like kicking a dog. No, it was much worse than kicking a dog. It was kicking his best opponent, the person who had saved his life multiple times yesterday, the person he had kissed...

He couldn’t look at the hurt and vulnerability on her face for more than an instant. It was so pure, so honest, and didn’t belong to such a strong person. “It’s not that,” he ground out defensively, looking away and clenching his teeth. “Just...ask my permission next time.”

Petra didn’t say anything for a long moment, and Felix suffered the scrutiny in silence. He knew he was the asshole more often than not, but Petra wasn’t a childhood friend or a classmate who had gotten used to his tics by now. Ingrid would have already been in mid-lecture and Sylvain in mid-tease, ignoring him completely and the boot already on him. Petra however didn’t know his language that well, and took his words literally more often than not. Which was fine. He was usually literal more often than not. But for Petra...in the future, he would have to watch what he said. He wasn’t any good at that, had never been any good at that. For her though...it might be worth it to learn.

He didn’t know many others in the monastery who would fearlessly take on the Boar in hand to hand combat.

A careful glance back at Petra showed her face was composed, but there was now definite steel in her eyes. “I see. You wish to be formal, for your rank? Then that case, may I put your boot on for you, Lord Fraldarius?”

He couldn’t stop his scoff even if he had tried. It turned into a grunting laugh. “Oh, Goddess, please, anything but that. I mean...you’re a Princess, so you outrank me anyway. It just feels wrong. I don’t care about that.”

Another head tilt. “Then what do you care about?”

You. Studying the woodgrain of his desk, he instead carefully said, “I don’t like being weak.”

At that, she nodded in recognition and knelt down to help him once more. This time, they worked together instead of fighting. She chatted as they worked his boot up his stiff leg, saying easily, “I have understanding with that feeling. If you depend on others, that can father weakness on you. But also, it can father strength. It is according to contest, so I have heard said.”

Sighing, he patiently explained to her as he did the laces of his boot the difference between ‘foster’ and ‘father,’ and ‘contest’ and ‘context.’ Petra scrunched up her face as she listened, nodding and trying the difference between the words under her breath. Felix instead focused on hitching his sword belt and sword back to his waist, wondering what he could add to help her. “Your Fódlanese is good,” he said at last. “I don’t know any other languages, so you’re better than me at that.”

Instantly Petra grew quiet and solemn. “I was forced to learn,” she said softly.

He grimaced at himself. He shouldn’t have brought her hostage status in the Empire up. Oh well.  Dust yourself off, and learn. Keep trying. “To become stronger,” he said to her.

She nodded back to him. “To become stronger.”

They both were silent for a moment. Slowly, he held out his hand, and Petra pulled him to his feet. He leaned against the desk as he watched Petra pull on her own laceless boots, then amazingly strap her own sword scabbard to her back one-handed, simply balancing its weight perfectly by leaning forward as her left arm secured it. She rose and Felix had to remember to blink, but then he heard her hiss in displeasure as she touched her hair.

“What?” he grunted.

She had that uncertain look in her eyes again. “Do you know of the...braiding of hair?”

That brought a rush of unwelcome and unwanted memories. “I guess,” he said noncommittally.

Her face lit up. “That is good. My hair has fallen, and I must set it before I am seen without it. I know it is imposing on you…”

“Just turn around,” he bit off. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a hair tie.

She actually snickered at it. “It is blue!” she laughed.

“So?” Was Petra a fashion-plate, like Dorothea and Hilda?

“Oh, it is just amusing. You may go ahead,” she sniggered again and turned around. He would have rolled his eyes except for the dismay as she turned to present her undone hair.

An ocean of purple greeted Felix. It went all the way to the small of her back. Sighing gustily, he pulled the mass up, trying to remember her braid style and working from memory. He worked the top tie for the ponytail, being careful of her smaller braids and securing them, and reached back to the drawer for another hair tie. “Why do you need your hair braided? I saw you with your hair down,” he asked as he tried to adjust the rest of her hair into two large strands. He supposed there was a logical reason.

He swore Petra started feeling warmer beneath his hands. “Ah...it is for my culture.”

Working the large strands back and forth tightly, but not too tight, he continued. “Is it about being Brigid royalty?”

“Something...something like that. I strive to be proper, even in strange lands.”

Giving a hum of acknowledgment, Felix finished the braid, leaving a small pouf at the end, securing the rest with another blue tie. “There.”

Reaching up and feeling the braid, Petra’s face lit up once again. Felix was starting to like that expression on her face. “You did well! For..a Fódlan boy.” She graced him with a smile. “Is braiding common in Faerghus? I have seen Ingrid’s.”

Felix again struggled against his emotions. Ruthlessly, he beat them down. Petra had been nothing but kind to him about Glenn. “Not really. But...sometimes my brother wore them.”

Petra’s smile fell away in an instant. “I am sorry,” she said with a quick bow.

“Why? You didn’t do anything wrong. Forget it.”

“But I know you...do not wish to speak of him. I do not want to be disrespecting you, Felix.”

“You didn’t.” He couldn’t look her in the eye.

“That..is good. I do not wish for our hearts to be clouded.”

He suddenly realized she was close to him, inches from his face. Felix fought back an irrational surge of panic. Most of yesterday’s battle was a blur, but one thing stood out clearly. The kiss they had shared. But...was he ready? What did it mean? Would this just complicate things? Could it even last?

Would it make me weak?

“I guess we should be going,” he said instead of talking about any of those things.

If she was perturbed, he couldn’t tell. “Of course,” she nodded, moving to his right, but then she shifted suddenly. “Ah...although. Before we do. I must...see to my needs,” she said abruptly.

Now he was very confused. “What?”

She was growing frustrated. “Ah Felix...this is a shame for both...but may I use your chamber pot?”

Comprehension dawned. “Oh. I forgot that they only have those or privies for bottom floors. The top dormitory floor has water closets. Down the hall. You can’t miss them.”

Pure confusion from Petra, and it made her face scrunch up again as she tried to translate what he was saying. She had such an interesting profile, but he didn’t want to torment her at this moment. Instead he held out his arm and said, “Come on. I’ll take you to them.”

A few minutes later, he was leaning against the hallway wall as Petra emerged from the women’s room. “Those are a delight! So much easier and cleanlier! And you say servants clean them for you?”

He shrugged, but an amused smile was tugging his lips.

“I am jealousy!” she declared. “When I return to Brigid, I will make my own closet of water!”

“No doubt,” he agreed, leaning against the wall as they moved down the hall. “Let’s see what’s happening downstairs. I want to know where they put the Boar…”

A door to their left opened and a figure emerged. Edelgard, dressed fully in her red and black royal officer’s uniform, her white hair and purple ribbons clean and shimmering. Petra and Felix halted as the Imperial Princess regarded them as she locked her door. “Felix. And Petra. Good morning to you both.”

Petra grinned brightly and rushed forward, gripping a white glove on the royal hand. “Lady Edelgard! I am delighted beyond measurement to see you so well! I thought I had seen your death!”

“Thank you, Petra,” smiled Edelgard, accepting the familiarity. “Knight Byleth helped save me, although I’m not quite sure what to make of the rumours. Perhaps she is simply a natural talent at White Anima.” The smile fell away as she stepped back to regard her classmate. “Petra. Is this a new look for you?”

Felix blinked and coldly realized the implications of the blue ribbons in Petra’s hair. Oh no. No, no, no. What have I done?

Petra laughed lightly. “Felix let me borrow those. I could not do my braid myself, so he assisted me generously. He did well...for a boy,” the Brigid Princess winked back at him.

A composed Edelgard looked back and forth between the two of them. “I see,” she said carefully, the political heir’s mask back in place save for a slight narrowing of her eyes. “I hope there was no major breach in etiquette, Lord Fraldarius.”

Screw it, and screw you. It isn’t your business. He said indifferently, “I couldn’t walk on my own. She helped me back to my room. I didn’t expect her to stay.”

“Battle is fatiguing!” Petra protested to both of them, unaware of the daggers being glared behind her head. “Once I had eaten I fell to sleep instantly. Also, I could not risk Felix being foolish, and attempting to climb down steps in his own.”

“How...kind of you, Petra,” said Edelgard, her posture subtly shifting. “Shall we go break our fast? After that, it looks though as if the two of you need more medical attention. I shall seek out Linhardt if he’s available.”

“Awake, you mean,” muttered Felix, but nodded to Petra and they descended the small landing before the last few rooms. At the end of the hall by the stairs, outside the last dormitory room, a tall figure was huddled miserably by the door in the shadows.

“Dorothea!” exclaimed Petra, moving him by the wall once more and rushing to her fellow Black Eagle’s side, Edelgard a spare step behind. Felix regarded the scene. Why was Dorothea sleeping outside Ingrid’s room? Did they have a lover’s spat or something? He could have easily told the songstress how difficult Ingrid could be. She was simultaneously bull and wool headed, rushing into things without thinking but also a fuzzy headed romantic. A dangerous combination. Then he remembered Ingrid’s absence at the gates. That’s right. She had defied orders. What a waste of time and money and effort by House Galatea. And so much for Ingrid’s dream.

Then Felix considered Dimitri, and his thoughts turned even darker. So much for a lot of dreams in Faerghus.

“Dorothea! What is the meaning of this?” demanded Edelgard, as Petra knelt close to the brunette.

“Edie?” came the whisper, and Dorothea lifted her head. The other women gasped, and even Felix was shocked. She looked like hell. Clearly she had been crying all night, and...was that blood on her earlobes? Even her cap was crumpled and askew, her hair in knots. She looked more like Bernadetta after a bad fright than the typical Dorothea. “Edie, please...just...make sure she gets this,” Dorothea sniffed, reaching beside her for a large silk bag that clinked.

“Dorothea,” crooned Petra, patting her hand. “You are in stress. Have you slept? Why should Ingrid need these things now?”

Dorothea didn’t reply, and Edelgard impatiently took the bag and opened the string, glancing inside. She paused for a long instant, then looked again at her classmate on the ground. “Oh, my dear Dorothea...why?”

“She saved my life,” mumbled the actress, curling back up into a miserable ball. “She’s getting expelled because of me. I ruined her life.”

Edelgard laid the bag to the ground and knelt beside the songstress as well. “That doesn’t mean you should ruin your own.” Petra murmured a quiet assent. The girls were soon whispering quietly, although Dorothea’s shoulders slumped and soon began quivering once more.

The curiosity finally got to Felix. He stiffly limped over to the bag, ignoring Edelgard’s glare and Petra’s frown at his intrusion, but ignored them. He peeked into the bag and saw a collection of glittering gewgaws, but as an appraiser of ceremonial weapons and ancient and royal swords and armour, even he could appreciate the value of the gemstones and gold and silver inside. It must have been all of the jewelry Dorothea had been gifted throughout her career: bracelets, earrings, rings, necklaces, mirrors, hairpins, and other things he couldn’t even identify. The contents of this entire bag could easily feed the territory of House Galatea for a year. Maybe even two or three. And these were simply presents, fostered to a commoner actress who sang for a living in Enbarr, trinkets given by foolish nobles and merchants vying for her hand. Felix knew Faerghus was impoverished compared to the other nations in Fódlan, but he didn’t realize just how much until now.

He lowered the bag to see all three Black Eagle girls staring up at him, as if he was primed and ready for a sarcastic, scornful remark. Unfortunately, he knew how important Ingrid was to Dorothea. Even if his friend didn’t--or couldn’t--realize the same. And he saw Petra’s eyes, coolly regarding him even as he swallowed what he would normally say. “I’ll make sure she gets it, Dorothea,” he said quietly.

Edelgard and Dorothea regarded him with surprise, but Petra smiled her small proud smile at him. He rolled his eyes and sneered at her, irritation back in full force, even as the other girls lifted the actress to her feet. It only made Petra smile wider.

“Why Felix,” sniffed Dorothea, her face still puffy and red even as she vainly tried to smile. “How surprising. I guess even you can act out-of-character sometimes.”

Felix hefted the bag. “And I’m surprised you realized you can live without this stuff. It will make sure Ingrid doesn’t go hungry back in her territory. We both know she’ll appreciate that.”

Dorothea tried to laugh, but it was more of a hiccup, and a sad one at that. Edelgard was eyeing Felix, as if trying to divine his intent, while Petra hovered by her friend, saying, “Dorothea, you should return to your room. Ingrid will not like you falling to parts in front of her.”

“I believe she is right, Dorothea. Petra, please escort her. I will stay with Lord Fraldarius and help him in your stead,” interjected Edelgard smoothly.

Petra stiffened, but Felix shrugged and nodded once to her. She quickly smiled back and soon Petra’s left hand began guiding the tall brunette down the stairs, even as she began to sniffle once more. Felix waited for a long minute to make sure they were fully out of range, then turned to regard Ingrid’s door.

“Hold this,” he said, carelessly tossing the heavy cinched bag to Edelgard. She deftly caught it in a white glove. Raising his fist, he slammed it hard three times into the stout wood. “Wake the fuck up, Ingrid!” he yelled. “You’re not fucking thirteen anymore! Rise and fucking shine!”

“If this is how you treat your friends, perhaps it is best if we remain acquaintances,” murmured Edelgard. He snorted in agreement.

It didn’t take long. Stomping noises echoed inside the room, and in only a few moments a tearful and frazzled Ingrid, dressed in little more than a robe with a shift underneath, fairly ripped her door open to confront him. “What the hell is your problem, Felix?” she fairly screamed back, tears and bright blonde hair flying freely. “Here to gloat? Happy that you were right about me? That I’ll never be a Knight? Happy that Dimitri’s never going to be King? That Sylvain and I got expelled from the Academy? Well fine, you were fucking right about everything!” She raised her fists defensively. “Now get out of my face before I--”

In response to her tirade, Felix simply stepped to the side, revealing the slight Imperial Princess behind him.

Ingrid’s sense of propriety was instantly reasserted, even as she vainly tried to compose herself. “Y-your Imperial Highness! What’s--Felix--what’s this all about?” she asked, trying to wipe her face, looking bewildered between them.

Felix was silent and folded his arms, and Edelgard took up speech in his stead. “We found Miss Arnault outside your room, in a state of some distress. She wished to give you something.”

Now Ingrid looked away and crossed her arms over her chest, in a mirror image of her childhood friend. “I don’t want to see her,” she mumbled.

“You did yesterday when you defied orders,” said Felix snidely. “At least make your sacrifice worth something.”

“Shut...up!” hissed Ingrid back at him, her face still tearful and furious but now turning beet red. “I’m tired of your sanctimonious bullshit, Felix! If her Highness may forgive me.” Edelgard nodded back in clear amusement. “I don’t have time to deal with you. I have to pack my things and write to my Lord Father--”

“Then pack this as well,” interrupted Felix, grabbing the bag from Edelgard. He all but shoved it into Ingrid’s hands.

“What is this?” snarled Ingrid suspiciously, looking darkly between them, then she gasped when she looked inside.

“From Dorothea,” supplied Edelgard. “She wished to reward you for saving her life, Lady Galatea. I think it’s quite touching, if I may be honest.”

The blonde noblewoman was soon shaking her head back and forth, while her shoulders began trembling. “No. No, I won’t take this. This is all of it, isn’t it? All of her jewels, from the opera. She was so proud of them. And she wouldn’t be Dorothea without them. I can’t. I refuse the gift. Please give them back to her, Your Imperial Highness.” She held out the bag.

“Ingrid,” said Felix quietly, his eyes hooded. “Stop being an idiot. She thinks you’re worth it. You sacrificed everything for her. Your mount, your dream, and almost your life. Let her do her best to return the favor.”

“But--”

“You know how much your family--your people--need this,” he continued ruthlessly. He paused for a beat, then added, “Lady Galatea.”

Ingrid visibly flinched at the title. She lowered the bag in her hand, her handsome face crestfallen. They were all quiet for a long moment.

“Anyway,” said Felix roughly. Ingrid really was going to leave, he belatedly realized. Somehow, he had denied that reality, even as he knew about it and acknowledged it. They would probably never spar again. She might be married off and living in Goddess-knows-where by the time he graduated. They even might never see each other ever again. The thought left him slightly nauseated. “You should...get busy,” he finally said, rather lamely. “Packing. I’ll write to you sometime.”

“You never write to anyone,” Ingrid sniffed at him, still downcast.

“I know. I will to you. And I’ll let you know how the boar--how Dimitri,” he amended himself. “Is doing. If they let him stay too. Who knows.”

For another long moment, neither one of them spoke. Edelgard stood still and quiet past the door, observing them.

Abruptly, Ingrid stepped forward and wrapped Felix in a fond hug. He rested his chin on her shoulder and hugged her back with one arm. “You are the biggest jerk in Fódlan,” she whispered bitterly past his ear. “I’ll miss you all the same.”

Damn it. This isn’t fair. “Don’t get soft on me,” he said to her instead, pushing her back and looking her straight in the eyes. “You should keep training. Be who you are.”

“I’ll try,” she promised him with a ghost of a smile, stepping back. She turned her green orbs to the Princess. “Lady Edelgard, please convey my thanks to Miss Arnault, and tell her I will see her before I leave.”

“I think she will appreciate that, Lady Galatea,” said Edelgard gravely. “Very much so. We will excuse ourselves now, and give you some privacy.”

“Thank you,” said Ingrid softly, sorrowfully, and she shut her door, latching it with a clink.

Felix was already hobbling away, trying to stomp down the stairs. Edelgard quickly caught up with him, but kept his pace as he limped down each step, one by one. He could feel her soft violet regard settling on him, but he ignored her.

“You are a strange man,” said Edelgard as they slowly rounded the stairwell landing.

He shrugged, trying to keep his knee joint locked and immobile. “You’re a strange Princess,” he replied.

She actually laughed in response. “And with all the tact of a sword tip! I am beginning to see Petra’s interest in you.”

“She’s just interested in me because I beat her more often than not in sparring,” Felix said dismissively.

“Yet she can easily hold her own, against a Major Crest bearer even,” reminded Edelgard. “And you are more than a year her senior. I witnessed the two of you on the battlefield. Your coordination was impressive.”

“Was this before or after you almost died?”

Edelgard’s smile faltered a bit. “Beforehand, of course. On the wall. You saved Lysithea and Hubert from those cruel men. You have my gratitude.”

“Keep it,” he said rudely, wincing down the last step into the open air before the greenhouse and near the first floor dorms. Then he glanced down at the Princess. “Where is the Imperial Spider, anyway? Usually he never leaves your side.”

“‘Imperial Spider?’ That’s a new one. Hubert would appreciate your wit...just as I would appreciate your skill,” declared the Princess, moving to block his path and confront him.

“Ah, I get it now. You’re trying to recruit me to the Black Eagles,” sneered Felix. “You can save yourself the effort. I’m not interested.”

“Oh?” said Edelgard with an arched white brow. “I do realize it is early in the morning, and you are in pain. But I thought you were sharper than this. Your conversation with your former classmate should have enlightened you.”

“As to what?” ground out Felix, trying to casually lean against the stone. His knee ached and his reeking uniform from yesterday’s battle was becoming even more sweat stained.

“Ingrid is leaving, is she not? Along with Lord Gauiter. And Prince Dimitri may not regain the capacity or capability of staying on as the House Leader of the Blue Lions. Making the most likely candidate to replace him…” she spelled it out for him with acerbic sweetness.

Felix stared at the Princess in growing horror, his amber eyes wide and terrified. She was right. Inescapably, damnably right. Dedue couldn’t be House Leader; in fact, he would probably leave the Academy if Dimitri left. Ashe and Mercedes weren’t assertive enough. Annette, as House Leader? They would be lucky to only die within the week, if not within the day.

“Please keep my offer in mind,” said Edelgard, smiling broadly now. “Ferdinand is being expelled with the rest, so I could use a new right hand in my class. One that appreciates how the world truly works. And as a bonus, you could...train...with Petra every day.” As she held out her arm for him to lean on, she said, “Shall we?”

 




Blyeth opened her eyes to see her father and stepmother leaning over her pallet.

“How are you feeling, kid?” said Jeralt roughly.

She blinked her deep blue eyes. “Fine,” she said shortly. Her stomach growled noisily. “And hungry? I can’t remember when I last ate.”

“See Captain? I told you she’s all there,” snorted Trips, but noted the relief in her stepmother’s voice. Her robes were darkly stained with bodily fluids, and she instantly sank into a office chair in pure exhaustion. A blood wreathed bundle that was soon fast asleep.

“How bad is it?” asked Byleth, accepting her father’s strong grip as he lifted her to her feet. She wobbled a bit, but then stood tall and erect, looking up at him.

Jeralt scowled in memory. “Bad enough. A lot of casualties among the Knights; maybe two hundred dead, another fifty missing, and an unknown number of brothers and nuns were lost in the fighting…”

“The students?” whispered Byleth anxiously.

“Amazingly, they all survived...thanks to you, mostly.”

Byleth leaned hard against her father. “Thank the Goddess.” Then her stomach gurgled again, an echo audible throughout the room.

Her father laughed, a bright sound. “We’ve already broken fast, kid. We’ve got some leftovers for you on my desk…”

Byleth was past her father in two strides, grabbing a gnawed block of cheese from the tray on the desk and taking an enormous bite. She quickly washed it down with a tankard of iron-tinged well water and ripped another bite off the block.

Jeralt chuckled again as his daughter ate voraciously for the next two minutes. “I’d never thought I’d have to tell you this, but slow down, Byleth.” A light snore came Trips, her head bowed to her chest.

“I think it’s been two days...but you’re right,” sighed Byleth, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and sinking into her father’s chair. It creaked and groaned even for her weight. She glumly looked at her father. “I bet Lady Rhea’s angry at me. I failed in my first command. Outmaneuvered in the field by a simple trick,” she grunted bitterly, biting into a loaf. 

“A magical trick,” reminded Jeralt. “No one here blames you for that, kid. Not even Catherine.”

“Yeah, right. She has it in for me. She admitted to being Lady Rhea’s spy on me. Along with a hidden Cardinal in the army.”

“Welcome to the Church of Seiros. If anything, the lousy games of politics and back-biting and spying are even more intricate than those in the Alliance. At least the assassinations tend to be more verbal in nature,” chortled her father. But he grew serious once more. “Honestly though, Catherine and Shamir have had nothing but praise for you. Without your warning, and without the four hundred extra Knights, things could have gone bad. Real bad. Remember, kid, no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

“I know, dad. But I don’t think I’m qualified, or have the temperament to be a full field general. I’d feel better with a smaller, more agile task force. Leading my people from the front.” Taking another swig of water, she asked, “What happened to the town?”

That made her father frown. “We’re still trying to figure that out. Lonato sacked it and was trying to burn it to the ground, but Rhea caused the rainstorm that put the fires out. Most of the townsfolk survived, underground or in cellars, but then something weird happened just as the battle was ending. Somehow, just as the sun was setting last night, packs of monsters started swarming the entire town. Catherine detailed Shamir and a full company of archers with a squad of mages to clear it out as soon as it was dawn...”

“Hapi!” exclaimed Byleth.

“Huh? Whazit? Who’s happy?” snapped Trips, jerking awake from her stupor.

“You know something about this, kid?” inquired Jeralt keenly.

Byleth nodded around a mouthful of fresh bread. “Hapi is the name of a Dark Mage working with the gang that saved me and some of the students. She has the power to summon monsters when she sighs.”

Trips looked interested, despite her fatigue. “Whenever she sighs? What does she do, sew her mouth shut when she doesn’t want to summon something?”

“I think she’s trained herself to do it on demand, but she mentioned the power was forced on her, or something,” grunted Byleth, mournfully looking at the last bite of cheese. She hadn’t even noticed the taste, but now was grimacing at the large spots of mold on it and the pungent smell on her breath. She set it down and crunched back into the bread instead.

“What’s this about a gang?” asked Jeralt, less than interested in magical theory.

“I think it was the local thieves’ guild. The leader mentioned they knew Rhea, but that may have just been a con. Still,” Byleth shrugged, “they did pull me and Catherine and Mercedes out of a tight spot with Lonato. If they hadn’t he could have just blasted us right there with his thingamabob.”

“Hanneman’s going nuts trying to study it right now,” mentioned Jeralt dryly. “He’s been locked in his room with the pieces of it all night.”

“Pieces?” wondered Byleth.

“Dimitri broke it.”

“Dimitri nearly broke a whole bunch of other things,” winced Trips. “That reminds me, I need to get back down there and check on him. Make sure he’s still under and send Dedue and Marianne off to bed.”

“He is going to be better, right?” said Byleth innocently. “That was just battle madness...I remember you telling me about that, dad. It’s just a one time thing. Isn’t it?”

Jeralt and Trips glanced at each other.

“No,” Byleth frowned, angry at their expressions. “He’s not...he’s got to get better, I saved Edelgard, there’s no point for him to stay that way, he just has to see she’s okay…”

Jeralt raised a large fist to forestall his daughter. “We don’t know kid. The students were damned tight-lipped about it, except for Claude. And what he said wasn’t good. Apparently the Princess and I getting blasted into next week triggered a flashback in Dimitri. When that happens, he thinks he’s back in the Tragedy. He thinks everyone he sees is the enemy, trying to kill his family and friends. That’s why he nearly killed Dedue...almost choked his own vassal to death.”

“No,” said Byleth, shaking her head in firm denial. “The Prince Dimitri I know would never do that.”

Dimitri wouldn’t, in his right mind, Byleth,” said Trips shortly. “But yesterday he was anything but. He tore up Felix’s knee--nearly dislocated it completely--and damn near broke every bone in Petra’s sword arm. Luckily Marianne arrived and was able to put him under.”

“That girl’s got some brass ones hiding underneath her scared kitten act,” muttered Jeralt in frank admiration. “I think I’ll have her graduate from the Academy just because of that.”

“‘Certified brass ovaries, signed Professor Blade-Breaker?’” snickered Trips at her Captain.

“Don’t give him any ideas,” deadpanned Byleth, regarding her father evenly. “He’ll do it.”

Jeralt rolled his eyes heavenward. “Sothis save me. Two of them. Ganging up on a helpless old man, far in his dotage.”

The three of them laughed, born of stress and exhaustion, when Byleth heard a voice yawn near her ear, Hmmm, I was sleeping. Did someone call my name? Oh! Is it morning already?!

“GAH!” screamed Byleth, leaping out of her father’s chair in a battle stance, hands on guard. Her parents jumped up as well, eyes wary.

Floating on an untouchable wind, the green veils of her dress and strands of hair billowing in an imagined breeze, Sothis’ childish face smirked down at Byleth from above her father’s desk. Ah! So it is morning! And you didn’t even let me know! I so would have enjoyed getting a full belly along with you! Although you may want to pick your teeth and wash your mouth after all that cheese…

“Mom? Dad? Please tell me you can see her,” whispered Byleth in a cold sweat, not relaxing her stance in the slightest.

“Kid, it’s okay…” started her father, helplessly searching the empty air before him. “See? There’s nothing there. It’s not real.” A scarred forearm waved in front of the desk in the direction where Byleth was fixedly staring, passing through Sothis’ body without resistance. Sothis rolled her large green eyes and made a slapping motion at the hand of Byleth’s father.

“Ow! What in the name of Saint Seiros’ tits was THAT?” yelled her father, clutching his fist.

“Leave him alone!” Byleth yelled, her anger building.

“Captain! What happened?” said Trips in a wild, shaky voice, gripping her staff.

“Something bit me!”

The child Goddess sniffed. Oh shush. It was just a little sting. He’s being such a baby about it. Besides, what better way to settle this issue once and for all?

Trips was torn, looking between Jeralt and Byleth, but hurried to her stepdaughter and grabbed her, forcing her to look into her eyes. “Byleth, look at me. Just listen to me. Not Sothis. Ignore Sothis. I’m real. Not her.”

Please give me a break! You mortals are so transfigurally challenged! There are multiple levels of reality, in any case. Tell her that, Byleth.

Byleth’s eyes kept flickering to the side, but her stepmother’s grip was as to iron, her eyes boring into hers. Licking her dry lips, Byleth stammered out, “I’m sorry, Trips. I can’t ignore her. She’s too loud. She says she wants to talk to you.”

Trips’ eyes squeezed shut, as if in pain. But her gaze was still firm when she opened them again. “What does Sothis have to say to me, Byleth?”

Cocking her head, as if to hear better, Byleth listened, her mouth trying on words in silence. Then she spoke. “Sothis says there’s different layers of reality. She’s part of one...well, wait, now she’s yelling at me, she says there’s many...but we’re on another. She says she’s on a separate...plain? Of existence? The one where Gods dwell, but here in the...Prime universe, our world, she’s limited because she...died here. A long time ago. But now she can act through me as an...ava...avatar?” Byleth looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, she keeps yelling at me, and I can’t really understand it all.”

Her stepmother’s eyes were as hard as flint as they bored into her. “That’s because she’s not real, Byleth. You have some powerful natural talent in anima, somehow, but that’s only because Rhea did something to your heart when you were a newborn. Whatever these visions are is just a consequence of you not controlling whatever abilities she gave you. That’s it, kid.”

Byleth’s face suddenly blanched. “Wait, Sothis, don’t--!”

“Ouch!! What the FUCK was that?!” screamed Trips, clutching her arm and dropping her staff, her eyes wide. “That fucking stings like blazes!”

“I’m going to get whatever this shit is,” growled Jeralt, unsheathing his broadsword and hacking through the air. Byleth’s head reverberated from Sothis’ giggles and taunts towards her father and stepmother.

Trips had picked up her staff again and was soon lost in a spell, trying to magically locate whatever was attacking them. Soon, her staff shone with a bright blue glow, along with Jeralt’s sword, and...Byleth’s chest.

Byleth patted at her breast, where the blue glow seemed to be localized. “Um, Mom--?” she quavered.

“See, Captain? Look at her! That’s whatever Rhea did to her!” shouted Trips, pointing at her stepdaughter.

“Then what’s attacking us?” growled the Blade-Breaker, still swiping at the air. Sothis blew an inaudible raspberry at him as his sword flew harmlessly through her.

“I don’t know! Some defense mechanism? Whatever it is, it’s trying to protect itself!”

Of course I’m protecting myself! I’m protecting myself from idiots! Why can’t they just simply believe? whined the Goddess. Another slight gesture from her caused yells of agony from her parents. Just tell them I’m real!

No, thought Byleth icily, glancing around for an option. If her parents didn’t want to believe, she wasn’t going to force them. Sothis was acting like a brat. It was time to bring her in line. And her only leverage was herself.

Byleth’s eyes settled on her gear, and she lunged for it.

Jeralt was still swinging his enchanted sword, along with Trips and her staff, with Sothis giggling and cackling like a mad thing when all three heard Byleth scream, “Stop it! Stop this right now!”

All three turned to see Byleth holding her dagger to her neck.

“Byleth…” said her father, dropping his sword with a clatter.

“Kid…” murmured Trips, holding out her hands.

And just WHAT do you think you are DOING? yelled Sothis, her small face enraged.

“Wait, guys,” said Byleth holding out her left hand to stop her parents. “I know what I’m doing. This is the only way to stop her.” She glared at the Goddess, floating above her parents. “Isn’t that right, The Beginning? Well, what if I just end us right here?”

You wouldn’t dare! hissed the Goddess. Not when we are so close!

“Kid, you don’t have to do this…” started Trips again.

“It’s okay, Trips. Let me keep talking with her,” grunted Byleth, digging a fine line into her neck, her eyes gazing off into empty air. “If I die, you die, right? That would be a big setback for you, wouldn’t it? So here’s what’s going to happen. You’re not going to hurt anyone...ANYONE...that I care about. Not even with what you call your little stings. Or I either slice myself open right here or jump off the nearest bridge.”

Sothis pouted and crossed her arms. I just wanted some respect, that’s all.

“That’s just what you want. Not what you need, or I need. You’ve been gone for a thousand years, Sothis. It’s going to take time.”

Using slight hands signals, Jeralt and Trips looked to each other and started inching closer.

“Wait!” yelled Byleth again, still holding the dagger to her neck. “I’m almost done! She’s agreeing!

Hmph. Fine. Have a couple of complete unbelieving imbeciles for parents. See if I care.

“And anyone else I care about,” growled Byleth at what only she could see. “My hand’s getting tired, Sothis. The edge is getting a little slick with our blood. I might slip.”

The Goddess’ gaze grew veiled. You may regret extracting this vow from me, Byleth Eisner, daughter of Jeralt and Glaysa.

“I’ll take that risk. Freely,” said Byleth in a tone harder than the steel at her throat.

Very well. All that you care about are under my protection. And I shall not harm them...even when I could have. Wake me up when it’s lunchtime. Oh, and say hello to Seteth and Rhea and Catherine for me. With a yawn and a twirl, the Goddess vanished

The door to her father’s office slammed open. Catherine had Thunderbrand out and leading, the fey orange light filling the room, its glow illuminating the green haired concerned faces of Seteth and Rhea a step behind her.

Byleth realized she was in her black underclothes, holding an arm out in front of her parents, with her other hand holding a dagger scraping at her neck, and they had been screaming at each other in this room for Seiros knew how long. She lowered the blade and belatedly tossed the dagger into the corner of the room. “Uh, this isn’t what it looks like--?”

That was as far as she got before she was fairly tackled by five bodies.

 

*