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Golden Chimera

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Ch 1.

The Beginning and The End

A child's voice whispers in the void.

*

I am That Which Is Behind Time.

I am Existence Eternal.

I am Being Beyond Being.

I am Sothis.

I am The Beginning.

A pause, in which a thousand years pass, and none.

Witness this Truth!  the voice cries. It shall lead to other Truths, but only one you may Choose. Only one may you Bear. And only one you may Keep.

WITNESS!

*

The rain shields the light of the sun, making the sky a shade of iron, mirrored below by the armor of knights on horses, helmed and armored with the finest metal the Imperial Guarda could supply. Men and women of the cavalry units file their mounts into cadres, with gloved hands tightening straps, and subdued voices muttering grim prayers or quiet, useless assurances. Overhead, the pegasi wheel in agitation, their riders straining to quiet their mounts excited by the scents of battle, the sharp tang of metal and the acrid one of fear. Infantry and archers line up behind calvary, with tense sergeants straining to control their soldiers’ behavior, veterans and recruits alike. Officers and messengers run back and forth through the ranks and argue with each other, a grim sign that battle is imminent.

Nemesis, the Black King, and his Army of The Elite was now approaching their position, according to the scouts. The Emperor and Lady Seiros herself had marshaled the bulk of the Imperial Army to meet the King of Liberation’s hordes here, on the Tailtean Plains, an empty windstruck land of grass and mud hunted clean by war.

The veterans in the ranks of the Imperial Guarda held no illusions. The man who could cleave mountains with his sword could only do one thing to human flesh. Death might be inevitable for those on the front lines, but they could possibly make their deaths mean something, rather than nothing. Yet each burned for the chance to not die, and perhaps even take out The Black King by themselves. It was a comforting delusion to muse about before the actual terror of combat, where all control and thought vanished. The recruits were besides themselves, some pasty white with fear and trembling, others quietly vomiting or voiding themselves in their armor without shame.

Suddenly, it is time. Lord Cichol and Lady Cethleann fly by on their magnificent mounts, a jet black wyvern and a pale white pegasus, and pause by each troop and company, blessing them in the Goddess' Holy Name. The more pious soldiers dutifully recite the Scripture of Seiros, but the veterans laugh and shout blasphemous obscenities back at the Lord and Lady. Order is quickly restored in the ranks by the caustic words of Lord Macuil, his hands flaming with his twin swords flashing as they float beside him, or the pitiless, inhuman gaze of Lord Indech, standing tall in his rusted plate armor with his shining magical longbow nocked and half-drawn.

Then she took to the field. Walking bright and tall like an emerald jewel come to life, the Lady Seiros herself walked silently through the ranks of her Holy Army.

Contrary to their braggadocio, most soldiers of the Imperial Guarda had never seen the Lady Seiros. She was a recluse, rumour said, given to constant holy prayer and meditation, or consultations with her husband, the Great Emperor Wilheim. So the stories told over the generations of endless war. Yet now she strode from the Emperor's vast and ornate command tent behind the front and slowly made a place for herself at the head of the Imperial Army, ignoring all comments or entreaties from her soldiers as she passed. A magnetic, fey brilliance seemed to surround this beautiful figure with a glowing sword sheathed at her hip and mighty reflective shield loosely held at her side, the golden dragon tiara on her head only heightening her splendor. Her pale green hair covered her ears and trailed down her back, unbraided, and wreathed a face flawless in fierce granite beauty. The effect on the army of thousands was immediate and electric as soldiers and officers alike spread the word.

The Goddess was with them. Lady Seiros would share the peril with her soldiers against the Black King. She would stand and bleed as one of them.

A mighty roar went up from the host, that was echoed by the Pegasi flights crying overhead.

Then another dull susurration of a roar, one tinged with finality and despair, responded back at the Imperial army across the dim shadows of the plain, through the rain that suddenly stabbed down like needles.

The Black King's horde had arrived. And even hundreds of yards away through sheets of mist and fog, the soldiers of the Imperial Guarda could see the ruby light of promised Death, the weapon of the Fell King Nemesis. The sword which could cut through anything.

The cheers of the Imperial Guarda sagged pitifully and died in throats. Some men and women in the ranks drew back in fear, yet shouts from the three Lords and Lady eased their burdens and calmed many hearts. Then the Lady Seiros stepped forward ahead of her troops, standing alone where all could see a glimpse of her, and regally drew her sword. Raising it, she wheeled about to face the Imperial army. The dim light beyond the clouds reflected on her blade and flashed it to a diamond brilliance, a matching beacon of bright hope to the red and dark glowing stain on the horizon. She raised her voice majestically to a note that every heart in the Imperial Guarda could hear.

"Soldiers of the Empire! Children of the Goddess! Darkness and Despair approach. Reject them! By the blood of the Creator, by the blessing of the Goddess, I will not forsake you! I will NEVER forsake you! Each of you who stands with me today is a Knight of Seiros, a Guardian of the Goddess! Though blood may flow, and flesh shall fail, your spirit, my spirit, and the spirit of the Goddess stand tall and eternal! She is the arbiter of every soul, the mother of all creation, and in my judgment, all who are with me now, in this moment, are...found...worthy!" A mighty renewed shout answers her call. "We stand together against the Bandit King, the Traitor King, the King of Thieves. Only one man, one mortal man, stands between us and eternal peace for our families! For the Empire!" A roar. "For Fodlan!" Another roar. "For Sothis!"

The final bellow from the Imperial Army shook the clouds of the raining sky, and as one, the Imperial Guarda leans forward into a charge against the hordes of Nemesis.

*

Sothis had indeed watched this battle, for this battle is still a part of her. She sees the charge of the Imperial calvary and pegasi break the front lines of the dark-armored barbarians and renegades, lances snapping as men and mounts scream their death cries. Well-disciplined and well-armed, the Imperials cleave through the horde’s ranks, splitting it with a flying wedge that threatens to break through the loose rear formations of the enemy army, bursting like deadly flower throughout their position. Imperial aerial units throw javelins or loose arrows at will down on hapless, defenseless men, raining death from the skies and dodging only occasional arrow shafts in return. Then the charge is broken in a flash of lava-bright light, the entire forward elements of the Imperial calvary falling apart like unstrung puppets before their cheering foes. Nemesis, the King of Liberation, is single handedly turning the rout with a mere snap of his wrist, a flick of his Sword. A Sword of bone, glowing like a sun, snatches Pegasi down from the sky, or blasts entire companies of soldiers into ash in a swirl of flames. Sothis is the Sword. She is Death. She is Destruction. She is Nemesis, a man unsurpassed in power or cruelty, a man killing an entire army, an entire Empire, by himself.

Sothis is Seiros, rushing to attack the one man she hates beyond all others. Nemesis, the Black King. She charges him with her infantry supporting her , heedless of safety, and they engage, as holy steel and corrupted bone crash, repeatedly, endlessly, while her loyal and faithful followers rush up to fight beside her and whisper her name with their dying voices. Men and women struggle and scream and die, but soon the mere mortals all avoid the Saint and the King as they struggle in their titanic duel, lest they are trampled underfoot carelessly by the mythical figures. The duel seems endless, with neither landing a blow, but then there is the moment the Lady has waited for, as Nemesis unchains his Sword, using it as a tremendous whip that can cleave stone, cut flesh...and miss as Seiros turns aside from the deadly bone links at the last possible moment. Nemesis is daunted, but fights on, trying to slash at Seiros yet again, but the green haired woman blocks his attack now, and wraps the links of the sword-whip, the vertebrae of her mother, onto her blessed blade. Giving a mighty pull of her sword, Seiros disarms Nemesis for the first and last time in his life, and the grey haired King is daunted as the red glowing sword leaves his hands. Seiros abandons her own weapons to rush forward to viciously beat the Black King with her fists and feet. Nemesis, his feral grin beneath his iron beard vanishing under the crunching blows, kicks, and chops of Lady Seiros, the Immaculate One, is battered into the mud, his armor stained with blood, his flesh battered beyond endurance.

The armies pause in their melee, and death struggles are halted, to witness Seiros pin the large man under her thighs, say something, then viciously stab the throat of the fallen King with a dagger. Caught up in her slaughter, the Lady Seiros shreds the old king's corpse apart with her knife until blood and viscera shine bright in the sunshafts through the clouds, her sobs and screams of unadulterated rage silencing the sounds of battle. Sothis lingers over the dead man, curious for a moment, then moves away to witness more.

Sothis sees the Imperial Guarda, or what is left of it, cheering the Lady Seiros as the sun breaks clear through the steel clouds in the sky, the rain finally ceasing. One age has passed and another begins. She lets her eye drift further, and so sees that some of Ten Elites are willing to take the knee before the victorious Empire, with others are spitefully swearing to fight on, regardless of their fates. Upon hearing the news in the Imperial command tent, the beaming Emperor Wilheim, his proud son Prince Lycanon, and the grinning Imperial Chancellor toast to Peace, their dreams of Empire crystallizing for the entirety of the continent-state of Fodlan.

Sothis floats above a dying woman, her mouth moving in a prayer only the Goddess can hear, who covers her bleeding, wounded daughter, while the Goddess listens to the despairing screams her husband as he abandons his wyvern, rushing to the side of his wife and child. Meanwhile, Lord Indech stands guard over some captured and wounded Elites, all with silver arrows from his bow, The Inexhaustible, sticking out from their bodies. The robed form of Lord Macuil hovers in the air in the distance with his arms folded, his bloody guardian swords still spinning in orbit around him, as he grimly regards entire ranks of ash and bone and armor, the results of his powerful magic.

Sothis is the retreating, scattering host of Nemesis, their hearts beating in terror to see their God-King fall as they flee to the north and east, away from the victorious Empire. She is a crushed flower, dead in the red mud of the trampled plain, along with so many others thoughtlessly destroyed this day. She is the silent blue mountains in the distance, witnessing the drama of these small creatures with her. She is three humanoids who stand on a sheltered cliff, who witnessed the battle, and now curse the failure of their plans and their hopes to restore their rightful station. She hears the shadowy figures vow revenge on herself and her daughter, and she wonders to hear such words as the dark ones disappear, teleporting far away from the world above with mighty magic. She is the Sun, giving light and warmth to Seiros who now cradles what remains of her Mother to her blood and tear stained cheek. She is the Sword, desperate to give her daughter reassurance, to tell her she is still here.

Seiros whispers to the Sword, and Sothis hears. "He's dead, Mother. Finally...you are avenged."

Sothis mourns for her daughter, who does not truly understand. She does not know that they will meet again, yet they have never been apart.

And Sothis feels another mourn with her as well, and she is comforted that there is at least someone else who understands this Truth alongside her.

Watching her daughter in the mud, cradling a bloody sword of bone, Sothis hears the Other within her speak.

Is this how it was?

"Come now, would I lie to you?" Sothis laughs the tinkling laugh of a little girl. "That would be rather difficult, you know."

Who are you?

Sothis tilts her head, considering the question as her braids sway. "I am that which is you. I am that which you were. And I am that which you are becoming."

A strange answer, yet I feel it is true.

Sothis smiles at the response. "It is good that you trust your feelings, for you will need to rely on them." Sothis regards the now time-frozen tableau before her, with Saint Seiros still kneeling in the mud, the dismembered corpse of Nemesis nearby. "These terrible events never end, you know. Not even I could stop them, even though I knew of them."

Then perhaps it is better not to know some things.

"Excuse me?" squeals Sothis indignantly. A small heel digs into the ground of the dreamscape beneath her. "I thought it was obvious, but apparently I have to paint you a picture! You WILL have to know what I know, and you WILL have to chin up and bear it!"

But I am mortal. This knowledge is not for me.

"Are you, and isn't it?" the child-goddess snaps back. The Other within is silent, but Sothis feels it pause, and consider. The Goddess nods to herself, humming an aimless tune as she wills herself to the sky, regarding the dwindling lives, now mere specks, now the ancient dust of history, beneath her. She twirls her vivid green hair as she waits for a response, for she realizes she cannot push too hard, lest the Other retreat away from her and the silence stretch on for years.

As it has happened so many times before.

Finally, an answer. I...I want to understand. I feel what is happening to you is happening to me. I think I am dreaming, but not dreaming.

"You see?" the child Goddess gives an encouraging smile, dancing in the sky. "It's not a bad thing, acknowledging Truths. Truths can be True simultaneously, you know. Every perspective teaches a lesson; you just have to take the time and effort to Know it. And once it is Known, it is not Forgotten."

Sothis was pleased to feel a flash of insight by the Other. And that is why you Witness.

Sothis smiles, and her smile and face and being now encompass all. The plain, mountains, and people fade into blackness.

But the Sword, the Sword of Nemesis, the Sword of the Creator, still remains, and glows an angry red, the color of spilled blood.

A small child's laugh, and a whisper, "I could never forget you. Byleth. The Ashen Demon."

Byleth. I had forgotten. I had forgotten...my name.

"Is it? Is it truly your Name?"

I am Sothis. I am Byleth.

I am a Goddess. I am a Demon. I am the demon Byleth. Byleth...

"BYLETH!" Jeralt called in a reville bellow. Byleth, a junior officer in her father’s mercenary company, snaps awake from her mat, struggling to stand, arm herself, and salute her father at the same time, failing at all three. While most mercenary companies were more casual, Jeralt insisted on a modicum of military discipline in his command. Including his daughter.

Chagrined at being caught asleep during muster, before a mission no less, Byleth sat up quickly from her pallet while scrubbing sleep scummed eyes with the back of her hand. Suddenly, a lumbering scarred figure in an orange tabard and patchwork plate armor was standing before her in the dim light of morning, regarding her plight with amusement.

Jeralt the Blade-Breaker, renowned mercenary of Fodlan, and Byleth's father, dad-smirked down at her with his battle scarred face, clearly enjoying the moment. "Pleasant dreams?" he drawled.

Byleth mentally groaned to herself, and to her shock and surprise thought she heard an echoing childlike whine in the back of her head.

"No sir," she grated, blinking her eyes up at the looming shadow of her father from the ground. "Not in the least."

*



Chapter Text

Ch 2.

Morning After

The cocks crowed in the distance, announcing dawn to all within the village of Remire.

Byleth sat near the large fireplace of Remire's nameless inn, her father restlessly pacing nearby. Carlos the innkeep bustled over to the table where the mercenaries were gathered, setting down a generous plate cold cuts of meat and fresh baked bread, along with mugs of small beer. He smiled and made customary greetings, but sensing the mood at the table, apologized and moved away to his chores and more pleasant customers.

Byleth soundlessly watched her father's agitation and brushed back her blue-black hair, and then pushed the plate away from herself. Guessing at his mood, she said "I'm sorry, Dad. I thought it was just a stupid dream. I didn't mean to upset you."

Jeralt stopped his restless agitation and made a visible effort to calm himself. "Not your fault, kid," he sighed gustily, sitting down himself. He reached for a loaf of bread and tore at it. "Hearing you describe such a vivid dream...just brings back old memories, is all."

Byleth nodded, and reached for a bite of meat herself. She didn't feel hungry at the moment but knew she had to make a pretense of eating to reassure her father. Silent for a moment over hiss of the hearthfire and the sounds of animals and people in the village awakening outside, she finally ventured a small query. "Mom--?" she guessed. Her father rarely spoke of her and refused to volunteer information about her to Byleth. Most of what she knew came from the oldest members of the company, passed down second-hand from Jeralt himself after he had been deep into his cups.

Jeralt paused in his meal and regarded his daughter. Eventually he slowly nodded at Byleth's query, and his eyes unfocused before him. "She...had dreams as well, kid. Almost exactly like yours. She would get so caught up in describing them, it was like listening to a story book." He smiled gently in remembrance. "She would ramble on and on, but I'd let it happen, just to hear her voice. She looked so happy to tell someone about her dreams. I guess no one took her seriously before. I almost didn't believe her myself, but to see her face shine like that..." Jeralt quickly swallowed, then continued roughly, "Um, it made me want to believe too."

Byleth ventured a small hard-practiced smile at her father, wanting to lighten his mood from his memories. "Thanks for telling me that, Dad. Although I mainly just told you to make sure I'm not crazy."

Heads turned from the locals as Jeralt laughed at that while the other two officers of their small mercenary band filed into the inn, returning from the duty of mustering the rest of the company. One was a dusky skinned mountain of a man in forest green and brown leather; the other was a pale woman with short blue hair dressed in white and blue robes. The man had a scarred cheek on his left side that made his smile appear demonic. "Someone's cheery this morning," the tall man muttered, sitting next to his commandant.

Jeralt chuckled as he grabbed another piece of jerky. "This kid of mine, Zarad, is messed up. Did you know that?"

"'Course I did. Look who her father is. Nuts and trees, man." A dark gloved hand shamelessly stole food from Jeralt's plate. "And you're eating all of my food."

"That's why we're leaving. Carlos says game has become scarce since a certain Almyran corporal showed up in Remire. Says the children might be next," grunted Jeralt as he chewed.

"Too true. A proper Alymyran meal always includes Fodlan babies."

Byleth looked to the small woman next to her and rolled her eyes without changing expression. "I think these two are still drunk from last night."

"What would you expect from Jeralt the Keg-Breaker?" Trips the company healer smiled sweetly at their leader, before leaning her white birch staff against the wall and taking her own seat. "The only reason we're going on a new commission is to pay for his current tab. Carlos can only brew ale so fast, you know." As Jeralt turned a mock glower in the magician’s direction, she murmured, "Thunder and the other horses are ready, Captain."

Jeralt nodded and stood from the table, wiping away the grease on his hands away on his tabard. "Eat up. We'll start heading north soon. I want to be in Kingdom territory today if possible. I'll make the rounds but I expect all of you to be outside and mounted shortly."

"Yes, Dad," all three of them chimed together in harmony. Jeralt rolled his eyes heavenward as he opened the door to the inn and left, but looked gratified to hear his daughter's small forced laugh in response to Zarad's bellows and Trips' giggles.

The group soon quieted and attacked their morning meal with gusto. "So," Trips glanced at Byleth as they ate. "Anything happen between you two? Captain seemed actually worried this morning."

Byleth shook her head, not looking at the healer. She didn't feel like being mothered and clucked over right now, not before starting a mission. "It's fine. Just stupid dreams again."

Zarad grabbed a small roasted bird and cracked it open. "Just stupid dreams that have happened before." He shared a look with Trips, and made a scowl when Byleth glanced at him.

Byleth stifled a sigh behind a smile and turned away from Zarad to look at the short haired healer. She knew Trips would get the story from Jeralt if she didn't volunteer it, and she might as well get it over with. Nodding to the healer, she said, "I saw what looked like Saint Seiros battling an old man with a red sword. There were massive armies clashing on an open field. It felt like I was there, in the battle. It seemed real."

"I see," Trips replied. She tapped a fingernail to her head as she thought. "Well, it was real, except I think that it happened over a thousand years ago. Sometime during the War of Heroes, when Saint Seiros and King Nemesis fought the dark gods. It's an old story you'd likely hear from the Church...."

"...not that we've been to many Churches ever..." muttered Zarad between bites.

Trips glared at the corporal before resuming her narrative. "As I was saying, from the Church or someone who knows a bit of history. Maybe I told you that story when you were young. Not that you were ever a good student," the older woman huffed.

Byleth ventured a mechanical smile towards Trips. The company healer was the closest thing to a mother she had, being one of the few women in Jeralt's rough band of mercenaries. Byleth had given her the name "Trips” when she was a child, unable to pronounce her real name, and it had stuck due to the enthusiastic approval of the rest of the company. Trips herself was more likely now to respond to her nickname than her given name. "I recall a lot of lectures for skipping lessons for more sword training," she said to the healer.

"You always did want to run around and fight with the boys," Trips agreed, then added, "And girls. Mind you, I wasn't that different myself growing up. But as you get older you learn the value of knowing history and the world around you. It's always changing around us. A mercenary has to know their history to know what they're getting into with the nobility."

Byleth felt herself nod. "That's why my father kept us out of the Tragedy of Duscar," she allowed.

"Exactly," smiled a pleased Trips, breaking another loaf and soaking the ends in her cup. "No matter who was paying what, some idiot young noble up in the Kingdom would have probably taken one look at Zarad and declared he was from Duscar and tried to kill him. Not even considering the fact that the Duscar natives have white hair, not black."

Zarad grinned at Byleth, his exposed teeth gleaming through the dark stubble on his face. "The key word is try. I'd kill him first."

Byleth’s stepmother rolled her eyes, but continued. "And then killing would go on and on, because some other noble idiot would decide that was just proof that we were all secret Duscar spies, and we'd have to fight out way through the entire Holy Kingdom just to get back to Remire." Trips chewed her bread thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "It's just now finally calmed down enough that we feel it's safe to take our first commission from a Kingdom noble in four years. Only took a genocide to finally pay for the Kingdom's debt of honor over the death of King Lambert." She waved over to Carlos for something more to drink. "Of course, it's not just the Kingdom. It's also why we stay out of House Goneril territory in the Leicester Alliance. Most other Leicester Lords are smarter than that, like Lady Judith or Margrave Edmund, but the Lords of Goneril like to offer bounties for Almyran ears occasionally, when they feel they have too many 'spies' about from Fodlan’s Locket. So our commissions among nobles in all three countries are limited, all because of this big dumb lummox," she finished, wagging an accusing finger at Zarad.

Zarad laughed as he stood, collecting his bow and quiver. "All true. The entire misery of the world can be laid at my feet. It is due to my wicked habits and shifty mind." He grabbed one last bite for the road and glanced at Byleth, his face becoming stern and solemn. "Listen to the wisdom of Trips, Byleth. She knows that I'm a bad man because of my sinful, Goddess-cursed skin."

Byleth blinked at Zarad, her expression artfully blank. "How can the Goddess curse you if you don't believe in her existence?"

"Ugh," snarled Zarad in theatrical display of shuddering revulsion. "Philosophy and theology? I hope we do not desecrate the beauty of nature with such topics on our journey." He nodded to both women and quickly left the inn.

Trips and Byleth finished their meal in companionable silence, washing down their food with mugs of small beer. Byleth made to stand and buckle her sword but Trips grasped her arm and said, "No, wait."

Byleth sat down, her earlier discomfort returning. "I'm fine," she said shortly, not wanting to meet the healer’s eyes.

"I'll determine that, thank you. Just sit still and be quiet." Trips closed her eyes and quickly laid her hands on Byleth, resting on various places on her face, throat, and body. Byleth resisted the urge to fidget on the bench as the hair on the back of her neck and head tingled as Trips examined her.

As always, Trips finished her exam by placing both hands over Byleth's heart. Byleth waited, restless. Trips eyes blinked open and she removed her hands.

"Physically, you're the same as you've ever been. But that's not what I'm worried about. What are you feeling right now?" she asked.

Byleth instantly knew better than to be too oblique, or Trips would pester her during the entire march to Castle Gaspard. For some odd reason, Trips had always been extremely interested in this subject. "A little tired. Uneasy, I guess."

Trips nodded to herself. "Aside from the dream, anything else?"

Byleth hesitated for a moment, and Trips used that opportunity to pounce.

"Come on, kid," Trips urged. "I know you're all grown up now but I raised you too, you know. I know you too well for you to be able to hide things from me." She gave an encouraging smile to the strange young woman she had raised from swaddling. "I can't help you unless you tell me what's going on in your thick skull."

Byleth had to give a rehearsed smile at that, but it quickly fled and she said seriously, "I'm just not sure anyone can help me, Trips. I don't want people to be distracted by something they can't control. Or I can't control. It's not like I want these things to happen to me."

"True," granted Trips, "but since we only get one body in life, it's important to take care of it, right? Only your dad and me have to know, kid. Zarad and the others know better to stick their noses too far into your business. And they'll trust us to handle it. But you have to take that first step."

Byleth slowly nodded, then glanced around the busy common room. All of the villagers were focused on their own meals or what passed for village gossip, and Carlos was engaged with an ale keg in the storage room. It was safe as it could be.

"Trips, I--" Byleth paused and swallowed. Somehow, saying this was difficult. She then took the plunge, comforted by Trips’ quiet attentive presence.

"I heard the Goddess, in my dream. Sothis was talking to me."

Trips' calm expression shifted only slightly, with the healer merely reaching out and to hold her hand. "What did you talk about with Sothis, Byleth?"

Despite the common gesture, Byleth felt better as she held her stepmom’s hand, and it gave her the resolve to continue. "She said I was to witness something. I...I don't know what. She said I was Her. That I was becoming Her." Trips did not comment, but still held Byleth's hand, her grey-blue eyes unwavering. Byleth looked away briefly in an attempt to focus. "She made me forget who I was. She made me forget my name. It made me not know what was real or not, and I couldn’t fight her, so I wanted to just run away, and...that's when Dad woke me up."

Trips smiled and patted Byleth's hand. "Thank you for telling me, kid. That certainly does sound terrifying and confusing." She gave a thoughtful pause for a moment as she considered what she learned. "I wouldn't want to be alone to experience something like that. If it ever happens again, just let me know, ok? I might not be able to stop it from happening, but I can make sure you're not alone when it does. I'll be by your side and help you, however I can."

Byleth slowly nodded. She blew out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and felt her muscles relax somewhat. "Thanks, Trips. I guess I do feel better now." They arose and Trips reclaimed her long ornate staff while Byleth checked her own gear and sword.

When they were ready, Trips gently led Byleth to the door. "You can't fool your old 'Trips,' right? Don't try to outsmart me, kid, it always goes badly for you. Remember when you tried to run away from me six years ago?"

Byleth grimaced at the memory. "I just wanted to fight my first battle with Dad. I thought I was ready for it and I could make my way alone to Sauin Village."

Trips gave muffled snort as they walked outside to the muddy streets of Remire. "You made it about two hours away from the village before I caught up with you. I'd been watching you trying to make an artful, sleeping shape with your laundry and bedding for days."

"And then you sucker punched me when I tried to argue with you."

"It convinced you. Although I'm not kidding about your thick skull; my right hand now aches when it rains."

"And that's why I'm hearing voices in my head now. Thanks a lot, Trips. Such a motherly figure."

Trips was laughing at Byleth's deadpan sarcasm just as Zarad came rushing up to them. "There you are. We were about to march, Trips, but Captain wants both of you to meet us at the gate. There's something brewing. Leave the horses in the stables for now."

Byleth and Trips ran back with the corporal, their faces immediately composed and battle-ready. "A fight?" panted Trips as they rushed through the muddy blocks of the village to the gate, dodging agitated animals and startled gawkers.

Zarad grunted as he kicked aside a pig in his path. It squealed in alarm along with its angry owner. He bit off as they ran, "Not sure. Captain was arguing with three brats who just came running out of the woods. Fancy cloaks and weapons. Nobles, by the look of them. A girl and two boys."

Trips groaned in disgust as they hurried up the main village road. "Oh, great. Not just nobles. Young nobles." She looked to the dawning sky as the gate came into view. "And it was such a nice morning, too."

Chapter Text

ch 3.

First Impressions, Last Expressions

Trips slipped through the gate as it opened, passing by a befuddled gate watchman. "What's going on?" she snapped as Byleth slipped outside with her.

The overwhelmed guard in patchwork chain armor shook his head at the healer. He was used to dealing with mischievous children, demanding merchants, and horse thieves, not three exhausted but important looking noble children. The clothing and armor they wore could feed his entire farm for a year, let alone the weapons they carried. "Not sure, ma'am, but they look to be quite important-like, if you catch me drift," he stammered to her face.

Trips wrinkled her nose. "I think I just did. If it's alright with you and your mayor, our company can handle it from here."

"Much obliged, missus healer," smiled the watchman with his brown teeth, and he turned to bark to a nearby gawking stableboy to run and get Mayor Millson.

Byleth waited behind Trips as the older woman took a moment to square her shoulders and seemed to assume a pose. She used the time to quickly assess the source of the commotion. One tall blonde man dressed in a blue and black uniform with assorted pieces of armor appeared to be the spokesman for the group, earnestly speaking to her father. The other two of the group hung back behind the tall youth, one being a pale girl whose small size made her age difficult to guess from a distance, and another young man of medium build with a bow and quiver slung to his back. Trips nudged her from her observations and glanced at her. "Let's get this over with." Byleth nodded as they moved to join the conversation between the three nobles and her Father and Zarad.

"--and that is why it is most urgent that you help us. I swear to you on my life that what we say is true. We need immediate sanctuary, although I fear it may only doom this village as well," said the young man in blue, leaning on a long spear taller than him. Byleth guessed he was only a few years younger than she, but despite his tall frame he still had the earnest quality of a youth in training.

"It is indeed a sizable force. I fear this may be a targeted attack because of who we are," said the stately young woman, poised as a statue even though her white hair was askew and sweat dripped from her brow. Her marble skin only heightened the impression. She had vivid purple eyes and was dressed red-black leather armor, complete with a red cape.

"Heh, yeah, it was a good chase but they've dogged us for the entire evening and night," smiled the dark haired young man in a yellow and black uniform, his skin the color of lightly stained wood. He let out a dramatic wheeze and rubbed his legs. "I know a few tricks for losing someone on your trail, but a night chase like that through an unknown forest is not something I can pull off again. And they've definitely got magical assistance, because they kept finding us over and over without them even bothering to spread out and search." His green eyes flicked occasionally to Zarad, who stared impassively back at the youth.

Jeralt turned to the dark-skinned youth. "You're certain of your count? And that they have magic?"

"Oh yeah," he nodded easily. "There's at least a company of them. Dunno how many mages, because you know how mages can be. Teleportation and stuff. Or floating on the winds."

"How remarkably informed you are," mentioned the pale teenage girl in red and black. "It appears you paid attention in some of your classes."

"Don't worry, Princess, I know how to read," assured the young man in the yellow half-cape. "Although maybe you could give me remedial lessons?" he joked with a wink.

"And the ass brays yet again," snapped the young woman.

"Enough of this nonsense!" growled the taller youth, his temper briefly getting the better of him. His face twisted for a moment, then visibly relaxed with an effort, along with his voice. "We must remain in control of ourselves. After all, we may soon be fighting for our lives."

"Well said, Your Highness," said Trips smoothly, flowing like a dancer in front of Jeralt. Without a word, he stepped back and signaled to Zarad. The two men began talking privately in low voices behind Byleth. "Please, allow us to introduce ourselves. My name is Beatrix, the healer and mage of Captain Jeralt's company." She gave a small bow from the waist to the tall blonde youth.

"Jeralt the Blade-Breaker? Former Knight of Seiros..." interrupted the young woman, her eyes wide in shock. Byleth looked back at her father with surprise to see his back to her as he watched Zarad run to the treeline, unslinging his bow as he did so. The Captain hadn't heard the comment, but Byleth felt her mouth hanging open slightly at the revelation. Her father had been a Knight of Seiros?

Trips stiffly addressed the question but kept her attention on the tall young man. She resisted the urge to look at Byleth. "Yes, I know he doesn't look the part, with chicken grease on his tabard and ale on his breath, but that is the legendary Jeralt the Blade-Breaker. I assure you he is worthy of his reputation, Lady--"

"Edelgard," supplied the albino woman. She recovered her poise sharply and bowed shortly to Trips. "I am Edelgard von Hresvelg, the sole living heir of Emperor Ionius IX."

"I am very pleased to meet you, your Imperial Highness," answered Trips, bowing deeply. "I recognized Prince Dimitri of House Blayddid at once, of course, although he has grown considerably taller."

The man called Prince Dimitri bowed formally in return to Trips. "I am pleased to be so memorable, Lady Beatrix, but I must confess that I do not recall having met you."

Trips gave a tinkling little laugh. "I would be afraid for you if you did, your Highness. And please, let us be informal. I am no Lady. I simply recognized you because you resemble your father so much." Trips bowed again, more slowly to the blonde young man. "Many of us grieved that day when he was lost, Your Highness. Even those of us here in the Empire."

Terrible hurt, swiftly masked, passed across the chiseled face of Prince Dimitri. "I can but hope to live up to his example," he said shortly in a tight voice.

Trips turned her attention to the third figure of the trio. As she did so, he blurted, "Oh, great! Is it my turn? Ok. I've been aching to try this. All right. Here I go," he coughed shortly, then drew himself up in a haughty, pompous pose, and announced in a dramatic baritone, "I am Claude von Riegan, sole living heir to the Dukedom of House Riegan, Leader of the Leicest-ah-ha-ha-ha-ha," the dark haired youth ended with a burst of laughter. "Oh man, I can't do it! I just start laughing! Oh, my sides," he gasped.

Trips gave a charming smile at his display and bowed informally. "Claude von Riegan, is it? How curious. I have never even heard of you." Her lips shifted into a small moue. "And here I thought I was familiar with most of the nobility of Fodlan. You have me caught me off guard, my Lord Duke. I must get to know you better."

Claude gave her a familiar wink. "Miss Beatrix, you may know all about me, as soon as I know all about the young lady who is standing behind you."

Byleth felt herself tense as the young coterie of nobles directed their attention towards her. "I am Byleth, daughter of Jeralt," she stated flatly.

"The daughter of the legendary Blade-Breaker? Wow! I hope you're as strong as your father, who I hope is really really strong, since we still have about a hundred enemies ready to attack us and all," exclaimed Claude. He paused as he regarded the strange stares directed at him. "What? I mean, she should be, right? And they are, aren't they?"

Dimitri let out a slow breath and said apologetically to Byleth, "Please excuse our fellow noble's rudeness. He has much to learn about propriety."

"Indeed," said a smirking Edelgard, "he has much to learn about Fodlan itself."

"And that is a marvelous discussion to have inside the village, where it is safest for three noble children under attack from mysterious assailants," chirped Trips brightly, moving to usher the three nobles inside the village. Eloquent and verbose protests were immediately issued, as each youth argued that they were Candidate Officers of Garreg Mach Monastery, and they could fight, and that they had already fought and killed people. "And each of you are the heir to an ancient and noble line," countered a smiling Trips. "Which is more important? Exposing yourself to assassination while you are exhausted, or preserving your lives and royal lineages? And don't give me any nonsense about Crests and what they can do. I've never heard of any Crest that can cure death..." With remarkable efficiency, Trips bustled the three still-protesting young nobles past the gawking villagers, inside the gates and walls of the village.

Byleth turned to face her father, who was regarding the treeline to the northeast. She hoped Zarad was doing his best to stay alive while he risked his life to give them the time to plan.

She moved to stand by him, following his gaze into the rising sun as it peeked over the mountains in the east. "That dust cloud?" she pointed toward a patch of wood in the northeast, noticing a slight haze in the air.

"Yeah," said her father in a clipped tone. "Zarad should slow them down a little bit, but if they've got mages leading them, not by much. Not by himself. He'll fall back into cover as needed."

Byleth nodded. "Do we meet them?" she asked, eyes straining for movement in the wood. Aside from the small rising dust cloud, she could see little that seemed threatening. But she noted an absence of bird songs that would normally call out to greet the dawn. That in itself was ominous. They had only minutes.

Her father grunted. "That's what I'm trying to decide. If they were just a company of bandits, I'd say we could just pick them off from the gates of the village until they gave up. But any single mage worth spit could mess up Remire good. They could fire the village, poison the water and animals, or change the weather..." Jeralt's voice trailed off.

Byleth looked back to the village, hearing an iron clanking bell ringing repeatedly, calling the village militia to muster. Cries of panic conflicted with shouts for order behind the brick walls of the village proper. "Looks like the debate's settled. Someone in the village must have heard the news from their Royal Highnesses."

Her father spat on the ground. "That's the other thing bothering me. Three nobles, all heirs to practically every throne in Fodlan, shouldn't just randomly show up in a horse and cattle village, covered in mud with no escort from Garreg Mach. Not even a single retainer or Knight of Seiros with them. Pretty coincidental..."

"...and coincidence takes a lot of planning," Byleth finished the thought. "Speaking of the Knights of Seiros..."

"What about them? If any of them were worth their swords they should be nearby already," Jeralt muttered viciously.

Byleth glanced at her father. "Were you one of them?"

Jeralt looked at her sharply, surprise on his scarred face. "Where did you hear that?"

"The Imperial princess. She said you were a former Captain of the Knights," Byleth said, regarding her father evenly.

Her father looked away and Byleth saw he was angry, but not at her. "Yeah," rasped Jeralt. "I was." He glanced at the considerably larger dust cloud, now growing closer in the woods. "I'll tell you about it when we get through this, ok? Right now we have a battle on our hands."

Byleth nodded and looked to the south. "Can we get a rider to Varley territory? Or Garreg Mach itself?"

"They'd probably return here in time to have a state funeral," said her father. "Varley's castle an open run across the plains and takes almost the whole day at a canter, and Garreg Mach is high enough in the mountains that any rider has to slow down too much or risk his mount."

"Trips could probably help," Byleth said slowly as they started to move back to the gate. Byleth had not seen everything of what her adoptive mother could do, but she had seen enough, and had heard plenty of other tales from the rest of the company.

"She probably could, but then again she could probably get herself killed, too," answered Jeralt. "Trips can't protect herself and take out an unknown cabal of mages at the same time, along with a hundred bandits trying to target her. Let's get back inside the village and hope that we can keep them from killing our noble guests."

Byleth rocked back a step at her father’s words, lost in thought for an instant. Jeralt looked back at her quizzically, to see his daughter quickly scan the treeline, scan the fields south of the village, and scan the walls of the village. "It could work," she mumbled.

"Let's hear it, kid," said Jeralt shortly.

"Let's get Trips and the horses. I just remembered something you told me about mages," Byleth told her father as they entered through the gate. Militiamen of the village rushed forward to bar it shut as they passed.

"I've said a lot of things over the years. You're going to have to help your old man out."

Byleth turned her blank face to her father, but there was an excited glimmer in her eyes. "Where do mages like to fight?"

Jeralt paused for a moment, then caught up with his daughter. "Right. At the rear," he said, grinning at his devious spawn, visibly pleased.

"Right. Let's inform 'Lady Beatrix' and their Royal Highnesses of our plan," said Byleth.

*

Kostas, the bandit leader, stared at the three noble brats with pouched eyes from the shade of the trees. His men all crouched nearby, some still angrily muttering or checking their weapons and armor in obvious agitation. Many over them glanced nervously above and behind them.

"Well?" he snarled at the masked man in dark robes next to him. "That's them, standing at the top of the gate of that pigfucking village. You blow the gate open, we kill everyone, we grab the girl."

"She is too close to them to risk an evocation. She is more valuable to our cause alive than dead," came the muffled voice. The black robed magician in mirrored goggles and a physicians' plague mask stood unnaturally still as he considered the village, staring at the three noble children perched on the gate wall where they were clearly visible.

"Bah!" spat Kostas after too many heartbeats had passed for his limited patience. "I'll tell you, my boys and me are pretty pissed. We might just take out our losses on her noble cunt. I've lost me four good fighting men just now to some asshole archer."

"The princess is to remain alive, and unspoiled." The plague bird mask swiveled to face Kostas. "Or you do not get to keep the remainder of your pay. Or your lives. Control your men, bandit, or I will control them for you."

Kostas' ugly face contorted in rage, and he might have attacked the magician despite the risk when one of his men called out "Boss, look!"

The bandit leader turned his back to see where his man was pointing. Riders were galloping south across farmland, cutting through planted fields and grazing land alike on their way south. Kostas counted only two and grunted, "Well it looks like some of the pig people got sense. They're headed south to Varley land. They know what's coming when Kostas' crew rolls into town."

Some of the bandits glanced at each other, and one said "They might be getting help, Boss."

"From where? Sheep boys and farmhands? Don't make me laugh," countered Kostas. "There's nothing that way for miles. This village will be a smoking ruin by the time they get back." He turned his back on his men and stomped back to face the weird mage again.

"I have decided our tactics," declared the masked man. He pointed. "The nobles and villagers make their stand at the gate, where they expect us to attack. Instead, I will cause an explosion there," he said, shifting a black gloved hand to a mudbrick wall to the right of the gate. "That should allow you and your men a point of ingress. While you are doing that, I will set fire to the rest of the village. That should cause enough chaos to allow us to complete our mission. But leave the princess for me."

"Got it," sneered Kostas, his good humor returning. The loss of Jaccen and some of his other lads was about to be avenged against that cowardly hunter's village. The outlaw company had been ambushed in the forest outside the village, the attacking arrows sending all diving for cover behind trees and logs. The masked mage had forced the band to move onwards to their objective instead of being delayed by such an obvious ploy. A quickly muttered spell by the dark mage had caused the arrows to cease, which had impressed Kostas because he could not even see the archer, but the loss of any one in his band of thieves made him angry at the work of having to find replacements.

Kostas reminded himself that he wouldn't need replacements, not if this scheme paid off. He could retire and grow old with some comely wench and sire some more brats. He turned to his crew and raised his voice to a grinning shout. "We're about to spill some noble blood, lads! Let's make some music to make them piss their fine fancy armor!" An enthusiastic, cackling call rose up from his men, as they stood forth from the trees to make obscene gestures at the figures in the village or to bang weapons on shields. The mage stood apart, gesturing and muttering in some arcane ritual, ignoring the clamor around him as he concentrated.

The bandits' shouts turned wilder as the mage in black raised his hands, pointing them at an angle upwards. A brightly glowing, sparking ball of intense heat was rapidly growing and expanding in a space between the mages' hands, and the mage shouted in a foreign tongue a barking word of command. The ball launched itself high into the air, expanding even more as it did so, to gracefully end its arc at the base of the village wall dozens of yards from the gate. It detonated with concussive force as it impacted, launching men and clay and stone high in the air, and created a large cloud of smoke and dust. Voices inside the village wailed in dismay.

The black-robed mage lowered his hands and nodded once to Kostas. Kostas laughed and called the charge, and he and his men ran at full speed to the breach in the wall in a berzerk frenzy.

*

Byleth was on the stairs to the gate wall, beyond sight of the bandits, ready to usher the young royal officer cadets to their assigned positions once the bandits committed to a charge. Eventually their protests to be included in the fighting had exasperated Trips to the point that she had surrendered on the issue, provided that the noble cadets obeyed any and all orders from the Captain, Byleth or her instantly. They all had enthusiastically agreed.

After talking with the three nobles, Trips had hurriedly consulted with Jeralt and Byleth, agreeing that she and Jeralt were the only ones in the company who had any hope of countering the magicians. Trips also had agreed that something about this situation seemed contrived. “I’m not certain I have the full story from them, Captain, but apparently they were on some training mission when these bandits attacked. The Duke kid is probably right that there’s someone using magic, because how else were they followed directly here to Remire? But if there was a mage or mages targeting these kids, they could have just ambushed them directly and smoked them right then and there.” Trips had looked back to the three nobles, being guarded by a squad from the company. All three had been gazing back at her frankly, and she turned and had told Jeralt and Byleth seriously, “Jeralt, I can’t be certain, but this feels more like a kidnapping plot. Any three of them would be invaluable to ransom.”

That has caused Jeralt and Byleth then came up with the idea to display the young nobles at the gate wall as bait for the bandits, but then move them to relatively safe positions where they could contribute to any fighting without them being individually targeted and swarmed. Claude and Dimitri had readily agreed, but the young Imperial Princess had started to protest and argue once again, until Trips had sweetly offered to dress her in peasant clothes and hide her in a locked root cellar if she was unable to follow orders on the field. The furiously blushing girl then silently moved to her appointed position without another word, but had glared daggers at Trips' back as she and Jeralt rode out the south gate.

Byleth now looked at the young woman in red and black, who was the closest noble to her on the rough wooden planks above the town gate. The one called Prince Dimitri was in the center, his face composed but his eyes betraying his excitement as he tightly gripped his long spear in his gloved hands. The dark haired youth with the half braid framing his face, named Claude, was lounging on the mud brick wall next to him. He was slowly stretching his arms and flexing his fingers, his bow still slung over his shoulder. Only the girl who was the Imperial Princess of Adrestia stood without any visible motion or emotion, her pale gloved hand loosely holding a wicked-looking half-axe. Byleth felt she had to say something to the girl while they watched the woods for signs of the bandits, as the tension around them became thick with fear and excitement as armed men raced about below them.

"Hey," she called out to the Princess, then immediately regretted the thoughtless address. Edelgard deigned her with a glance.

Byleth felt her thinking grow muddled at the royal attention. She managed to get out, "It's just...I remember my first battle too." Byleth paused, at a loss for words before Edelgard's stoicism. She wondered if people saw herself in the same way.

The Imperial Princess slowly arched a pale white eyebrow, the rest of her face passive.

Bylteth stared in wonder at her social better, her original thoughts crashing like a cart into a ditch. "How did you do-?"

The eyebrow, impossibly, rose even higher on the royal brow.

Byleth grew flustered and looked away as she realized she was being played with by this stranger. She ground out the words, "So...I guess it's not your first battle."

Princess Edelgard looked away from her, back to the woods. "No," she said. A pause, and then an imperious comment, tinged with finality. "I killed my first man when I was thirteen," she said dismissively.

Byleth thought about that, then gave a small snort. "Lucky," she said.

Edelgard's head turned slightly. "Lucky," she echoed. Then her curiosity got the better of her. "How so?"

Byleth turned her perfectly composed face to gaze at Edelgard's. "I'm jealous. I didn't get to kill my first man until I was seventeen. And I'm the daughter of Jeralt the Blade-Breaker." She looked down at the stairs and muttered, "You're making me look bad, your Imperial Highness."

Byleth was gratified to hear a non-Imperial cough of laughter. This caught the attention of the noble named Claude, who called out, "Well, well, look at you, your Princessness, making friends already. There's hope for you yet."

Byleth saw Edelgard's face swiftly compose itself back into a porcelain mask as the moment passed. "Your crudeness knows no bounds, Claude. One would think you were hardly a noble," Edelgard responded, not looking at her fellow cadet.

"Quiet, all of you," commanded Dimitri in a regal voice. "They have noticed our riders, and you might spoil Lady Byleth's plan with your noise."

Byleth flushed at the formal address, and busied herself with checking her steel arm guards and loosening the sword in her scabbard, while muttering under her breath, "I'm NOT a LADY." Only Edelgard heard, and she smiled again briefly.

Then they heard the bandits roar and shout vulgarities. Byleth saw Edelgard and Dimitri tense up, while Claude maintained his relaxed pose as if one hundred voices weren't demanding his blood.

"It's time," Byleth said quickly, standing on the stairs. "If they target the gate, jump to the hay pile below and run. But Trips doesn't think they will and I trust her judgement. Everyone knows where to go?"

Claude and Dimitri both nodded to her. Edelgard gravely regarded her and said, "You have a strange aura about you..."

Byleth impatiently grabbed a royal hand. "We can share palm readings after we're done, Your Imperial Highness. Please get into position and...luck in battle." She released the royal wrist and turned and ran down the stairs and through the streets, giving commands by whisper to her fellow mercenaries.

*

Edelgard was so bemused that she didn't move until both Dimitri and Claude were far past her, barely noting the explosion on Remire’s walls and the screams of the commoners. If her fellow nobles had made any comments her ears had not registered them.

She moved mechanically through the streets, absently noting wailing peasants in her wake and grim mercenaries hiding themselves expertly on rooftops, behind barrels, below carts. That mercenary girl, Byleth. No one had treated her with such familiarity in such a long time, and she couldn't recall much of her childhood before...what happened.

She remembered her uncle telling her it was for a good cause.

And it was for a good cause. All of it. To succeed, the decrepit Church and corrupt nobility of Fodlan must die. She was the only one who could bear this burden, and in the end, save the Empire.

Even if it included killing Byleth, the daughter of Jeralt the Blade-Breaker, former Knight of Seiros. Byleth the mercenary, who had tried to show her kindness before a battle. A battle that had been organized and arranged by Edelgard herself.

The Imperial Princess took her position behind a village cart, next to a pile of hatchets. She focused on her dreams for Fodlan. And tried to ignore the possible cost.

*

Nessas observed the battle unfold from behind his mask, keeping note of Princess Edelgard's position as he rested to let his will and spirit recover from his recent magical exertion. She had moved from the village gate with the other noble children out of sight when the battle was joined at the breach he had created, but he trusted her to know her part. She would merely defend herself or participate slightly in the melee, letting the other nobles or villagers take the brunt of attacks. Perhaps she could even have the opportunity to kill one of the targets herself in confusion. Thales and Solon had faith in this tool, and that was good enough for Nessas. The Central Church would be blamed for its negligence in the deaths of Prince Dimitri and Duke Riegan's new heir, and the "monastery" of Garreg Mach, the lair of that filthy usurping beast, would be further politically isolated and weakened. Fodlan would erupt into panic and chaos, paving the way for the salvation of the true heirs of humanity. All that would remain would be finding the Sword for their tool to wield, as well as the bones of the other so-called ‘Children of the Goddess.’

The battle seemed to be going well, with the bandits quickly rushing into the village through the breach he made. Only a few peasant archers were left on the wall to bother shooting arrows at the outlaws, before their courage failed them, and they fled. The bandit mob--expendable fools that they were--appeared to be encountering little resistance. 

It was time to burn the rest of the filthy hovels in this village. Nessas considered where his aim should fall, then saw the town granary further in the distance. Yes, that would do nicely.

Nessas raised his shaking hands--

Wait. His hands were shaking? What could be--?

The magician whirled about to see a man and woman on horseback charging at him through the trees, close, far too close! His mask had muffled his senses, he realized in terror, gracelessly backpedalling to give himself time to summon a killing spell at the lead rider, a grim grey haired man in dented armor and an orange tabard. The man lowered a lance in his direction but Nessas could kill him before the horse came near--

--and Nessas concentrated with all of the power of his glorious race, and gasped as he managed to create and push pure vacuum energy at the man, which would kill his horse, and he would fall, breaking his neck like the deranged animal he was--

--and the blue haired woman in blue and white, on a bay horse behind him, raised her staff and shouted at the same moment--

--and Nessas screamed in primal terror behind his mask as his magic was cancelled, the killing energies harmlessly absorbed against a white shimmering shield in the air before the rider. He turned to run away, the stink of horseflesh overwhelming him, but then the lance flashed in the sun and he arched his back, too agonized to scream, as it punched through his skin and inside his body, the unyielding wood and steel pushing aside the bone and blood to erupt from the inside of his chest, and he refused to believe this was happening as illogical, reality-sundering pain overwhelmed him--

--because it didn't happen. He was just resting, and it would not do to move from the ground until he was ready. He would just close his eyes and rest until the pain went away, and just roll onto his side...

*

Jeralt tossed the lance aside as he reined in his mount, the black robed mage's body slithering on the ground to meet its new equilibrium with a lever in it. He drew his sword while laying a calming hand on the neck of his mount, Thunder, as the war stallion grew excited and restless at the scent of blood. "Was that the only one?" he inquired.

Trips nodded convulsively, her hands grasping both her reins and the staff on her knees as she bent low to gasp for air, almost exhausted. She had barely managed to negate whatever that dark energy had been. "I think so...whoever he was, he...he was a big fish. That attack he cast could have taken out you and me both, if not for my spellshield."

Jeralt's muscles bunched up in the jaw behind his short beard. "Zarad?" he asked shortly.

"Hold on, and I'll focus..." she replied, raising a trembling hand. Her mount turned beneath her as her attention wavered, lost in a spell of localization. Sounds of combat soon erupted from within the town, and Jeralt muted his impatience as he waited. Trips' eyes suddenly opened and she grabbed her reins more firmly to control her own horse, securing her staff in a saddle holster. Her voice became more clear as her energy returned. "He's alive, but it looks like he caught some of it from our dead friend here. I'll tend to him while you help the others."

"Got it," he rasped, pulling on his reins, wheeling Thunder to fall on the bandits' rear through the breach in the wall. Trips turned her own mount to enter the forest and look for their friend.

Chapter Text

Ch4

The Divine Plan

The bandits hooted and whooped as they charged through the gap in the clay wall, which had been the outer facing wall of the town smithy. They blinked their eyes and coughed at the smoke and dust, which obscured all vision for a time, then entered through the smithy doors to the village streets, eyes seeking victims. They saw a pitiful assemblage of farmers with pitchforks and small game bows at the end of the lane in the village square, but their orders were to take out the noble brats. Men rushed up crude ladders and rough uneven stairs to the top of the town gate and mudbrick walls, but found no one.

The bandits began muttering as they gathered to regard the pale faced villagers assembled in the town square. Kostas, his blood up, pushed his own men aside as he bellowed, "Where are they, you Goddess-humping faggots?

Mayor Millson sweated with fear at the forefront of his people, but he forced his voice to firmness even as his jowls shook. "Come and get them, you motherless dogs."

While not the most imaginative insult, it had an immediate effect on Kostas and his men.

Kostas laughed, a nasty hollow sound. "At them, boys! Give no quarter! Let's burn this village to the ground, and crucify that old man first!"

The bandits roared as they leaned into a charge at the villagers...

...that was instantly checked by arrows and spears and hatchets from rooftops, windows, and doors. The bandits were met with a counterattack from Jeralt's Mercenaries, who leapt from various hiding places behind walls, between alleys, and under hay piles, to engage the bandits from all sides.

Byleth was behind Duncan, a young fellow mercenary, when he engaged the first bandit with his spear. As he clinched with his foe in a locked parry, Byleth lunged over his shoulder with her sword and pierced the bandit's eye. She disengaged quickly before the corpse could sag, and her senses alerted her to another bandit behind her, his face snarling as he tried for her with his axe. Byleth twisted towards him, the axe blade falling harmlessly past her cloak as she pulled hard on the handle, skewering the man’s belly onto her exposed sword. She shoved the dying man aside to seek more to kill with her fellow mercenaries, her face a blank mask that promised only death.

*

Claude laughed as he targeted bandits freely from his perch on the town hall roof. He had extra quivers, his bow felt good in his hands, and he and his fellow archers had a clean killing field to target without the risk of hitting an ally. He felt gratified that the merc's daughter, Byleth, had trusted him with such an important assignment. Finally, he thought between killing men, someone who recognizes and trusts what I can do without bothering to question how I look.

He peered around briefly at the scrum-like melee in between draws and caught a glimpse of dark-blue hair. For a moment he could only watch, seeing the young woman killing men twice her age with a casual and brutal efficiency that troubled him, a fighter from a culture of fighters. "There's a story there, isn't there," he muttered to himself, as he drew a bead on another bandit torso.

*

Dimitri threw his assigned lot of motley javelins, roasting spits, pitchforks and farming tools at passing bandits from his appointed window inside the village tannery, which was across from the smithy. He regretted the fact that the pitchforks and hoes tended to drift and skewer or break arms and legs, rather than the torsos of the bandits. He may be a killer, but he still didn't like to cause needless suffering. His supply of throwing objects was soon gone and he waited with his familiar lance for his moment to kill more, excited yet soothed by the purity of combat. Life and death situations were what made him feel the most comfortable these days.

A knot of five bandits, overwhelmed and seeking shelter, burst through the barred door of the tannery, their panic showing clearly as they gasped and peered around with sun-bright eyes.

One yelped as he recognized Dimitri coiled in the shadow of the room. "'Oy, Alec! That's one of them!"

"Then let's collect this bounty, Keltos!" yelled the young man who was Alec. He shifted his sword toward the direction of Dimitri. "It's just a noble brat! They don't know how to fight, Crest or no Crest!" The others shouted in approval, fanning out to surround the youth in the corner, weapons raised to attack.

Dimitri smiled.

*

Byleth saw the bandit in front of her scream and stumble as an arrow shaft pierced his collarbone. She quickly lunged with her sword, her arm jolting as the point skidded through armor and bone, finally striking vitals. The bandit fell suddenly and Byleth cleared her weapon as fast as she could, looking around quickly, but it looked as if the company was doing well, surrounding and cornering the remaining bandits with now-superior numbers. She raised her bloody sword to the yellow-caped figure on the roof, who returned a jaunty salute as he scanned the village for more targets.

It was time to check on the other nobles. She thought Prince Dimitri should be closest, as she tried to breathe and get oriented in the tingly aftermath of combat. Not sheathing her sword, she moved, on guard, around the corner to the tanner's shack where the Prince had taken position. Hearing muffled cries and deep, vibrating thumps, she picked up her pace...

...and gasped with pain and shock as a bandit's body exploded through the stout lumber wall, smashing across her sword and forearm with stunning force. Byleth dropped to her knees.

The body was barely recognizable as human, it was so battered and twisted. Even as Byleth tried to recover from a sense of wrongness at looking at the once living thing, she stumbled to her feet, her swollen arm aching as she collected her sword. Her fingers on her right hand had trouble gripping the handle with the blade, so she clumsily shifted her weapon to her left hand. Peering inside the broken wall, Byleth could see Prince Dimitri, blood splattered, standing stock still in the middle of the barrel filled shack, trembling and gasping with dripping fingers. Two bandits, both impaled from the Prince's lance, hung on the far wall like butchered carcasses. The other two were scattered on the floor; legs, torsos, and arms were tossed into corners. They had been plucked apart like dolls. Byleth started for a long moment at the remains, before asking in a low voice, "Prince Dimitri?"

The Prince snapped up his head at her voice, a wild look in his eyes, before he closed them as he took in one more deep, shuddering breath. When he opened them, the blue orbs were once again calm and regal. "Lady Byleth. I am sorry for you to see me in such a state," said the blood covered Prince.

Byleth shook her head. "It's fine. It's battle, Your Highness. It affects us all differently." She looked around at the carnage once more, her brain wanting the reject the reality of affecting the courtly manners Trips had repeatedly taught her in the middle of an abattoir. "I was worried about your safety, thought perhaps I should worry more about my own." She held her right arm against her body, feeling it throb.

Prince Dimitri belatedly took note of her state. "Lady Byleth! You are injured! Please, allow me to assist--" he protested, raising gory hands.

"I may be hurt, Prince Dimitri, but I can finish this with my company. Please stay here," said Byleth, tightening the unfamiliar grip of her sword in her left hand. Seeing the imminent burst of chivalry forthcoming from the tall youth , Byleth added what Trips had told her to say in case this happened. "It is your duty." 

Prince Dimitri strangely both tensed and deflated at those words. Finally, a royal mumble, "Yes, I suppose it is."

Byleth nodded and said quickly, "I will check on the Imperial Princess and return shortly." She hastened back outside. A questioning shout called to her, and she raised her voice in reassurance. She lithely moved to where Edelgard's position had been assigned, her wounded arm not slowing her.

Dimitri's eyes glinted in the dim light and the foul reek, and for moment all was still except the rapid drips of bodily fluids. Then the Prince moved. Turning lightly on his feet, ignoring what squelched and cracked beneath his boots, he yanked his lance from the wall with a single, sharp tug, and gave it an impatient shake. The impaled bodies tumbled to the floor.

Dimitri stalked out into the morning light. He listened to only one voice when it came to duty. And it was not Lady Byleth's.

*

Edelgard held back in her place behind a farmer's cart, her fury growing by the second as the bandits, clearly outmatched by the mercenaries’ ambush, screamed and died. The rough voices of the bandits rose even higher into wails and shrieks when Dimitri fully entered the battle. The chance to kill him or Claude had passed, when even one of their deaths could have easily been blamed on the Central Church's negligence. Her plan was fizzling as disastrously as a misfired spell, she raged to herself. This ruined weeks of preparation and planning by Hubert and her Lord Uncle, altering timetables and campaign schedules like dominoes. How could she have guessed that a company of mercenaries, led by a legendary former Knight of Seiros, had made this village his base? With the aid of her rivals and the villagers, these well-trained mercenaries were proving more than a match for her carefully selected catspaws, and aside from the single spell to blow down Remire's wall, there had been no further magical support from Nessas. It was time to cut bait and protect her cover as a student.

Edelgard arose in a fluid, elegant motion from behind the farmer's cart, and began throwing her assortment of collected hatchets at the fools that had failed her unknowingly. Her contributions only hastened the victory, which was now beyond doubt.

Between throws, Edelgard pondered the fate of Nessas, who had been sent as insurance in case Dimitri and Claude proved superior to her skill. Perhaps he was dead as well, she gleefully thought as she threw away her half-axe, wounding a fleeing bandit that was soon brought down by a collection of villagers and killed. That was a slightly encouraging upside to this debacle.

"YOU," growled a threatening voice behind her.

Edelgard whirled to see a bloody Kostas facing her, blocking her in the muddy alley. Stupid, stupid, she thought, as she drew her old sentimental dagger from its sheath. No bandits were supposed to be able to get here, and she was blocked by the village walls and the cart behind her.

"This is it for me and my boys," grated Kostas, looking up and hearing the sounds of combat and screams become more intermittent, fading like slowing music. He returned his mean gaze to Edelgard. "That asshole mage didn't help for shit. So I'm going to get back at him...by raping and killing you, you Imperial bitch," Kostas grated, his eyes wide with fear and hate. He was a desperate man, a cruel man. Edelgard tried to speak and explain herself, to tell this man this man who she was, that she was the one who had contacted and hired him, but her throat was dry with fear.

This can't be happening, screamed Edelgard mentally, as Kostas lunged forward into a charge, his heavy steel axe rising high in a blow she couldn't possibly block with her dagger while her back against the cart.

Then a blue cloaked, sweaty body moved into its path, taking the blow for her, and saving her life.

*

Byleth awoke from a dreamless sleep in a void with emerald stars. She had been in battle, she last recalled...she had wanted desperately to save that young noble girl, without knowing why...

And now she floated. She felt a wave of disorientation and nausea as she twisted without falling, floating in a nothingness with only green wisps for illumination...

"You FOOL! You utter, complete, imbecile!" A child's voice she recognized from her dreams. Byleth wiggled her body in the airless void, trying to face her accuser. She was soon assisted when the voice let out a childish groan, then she gasped as she was abruptly battered by gusts, not of wind, but force, that hammered her body relentlessly into a proper pose to face her tormentor.

An enraged girl in blue robes with colorful accents considered her, lounging on an ancient stone throne with a curious emblem at its enormously tall headrest. The child had thick unshorn green hair that reached to her knees, as well as twin braids of red and white that hung in front of her pointed ears.

The girls' face was contorted in a sneer. "You are such a MORTAL!" she hissed, as if it was the most vile insult. "You don't think beyond the current moment, do you? No, because that's all you live in!" A childish scoff. "And now we're dead! Again!"

Byleth tried to move but found her hands and feet bound by the unknown force. Only her mouth and eyes seemed to work. "Again--?" Byleth queried. No matter what had happened to her, she was determined to get some answers.

Sothis scowled down at Byleth from her glowing stone throne. "You don't remember, do you? Typical. I try to show you Truths, even try to make you experience them, and try, as gently as I am capable of, mind you, to show you what you truly are." The child goddess sighed and sank back into the throne, absentmindedly twirling a strand of hair. "So here we are again. With you and me dead, while we wait for our daughter to choose another vessel."

Byleth blinked in true incomprehension. "I don't have a daughter. I'd like to think I'd remember THAT."

Sothis giggled at her response. "Perhaps not in our current incarnation, but definitely in another." She tilted her head and the mass of green curls shifted with her. "But you have just sacrificed all to save one small albino girl. Why is that?"

Byleth tried to squirm free of the forces holding her. When that availed her nothing, and seeing that the Goddess could probably wait for an Eternity for her answer, Byleth looked away and mumbled out, "I didn't want that bastard to kill her."

Sothis regarded her, saying nothing.

Byleth fumed, sweated, and finally blushed. She couldn't move, and apparently nothing less than the full truth would free her to either life or death. At this particular moment, Byleth couldn't decide which was preferable.

"She..." Byleth cracked out, pausing, then swallowed and qualified, "She...reminded me of myself." She fixated a defiant glare to the Goddess, daring her to demand more.

"That is a Truth," Sothis nodded solemnly, ignoring Byleth's glare. She lowered her eyes and sighed. "And I suppose it is my fault, in part. You are so good at fighting, yet now you don't want to fight to just kill. You now want to protect. Even though your emotions are stunted, when you see an Other in need, you are still filled with such empathy to them cannot help yourself from interfering, from sacrificing yourself." The child Goddess paused. "Just like myself."

Byleth felt a surge of triumph and closeness with the Goddess, even though she still couldn't move. She wasn't even sure if she was still breathing. Gazing directly into the eyes of the Goddess, Byleth pleaded, "Then help me save her."

Sothis shook her head. "You do not know what you ask. She was destined to die by her own hand, in a twist of ironic fate unknown to all but a few. And she is a young woman who is deep in a dark place, manipulated by others who hide in shadows and masks innumerable to count. If you choose to spare her life, to save her, your life will become an endless trial, an endurance of will, where trust is always uncertain."

Byleth considered Sothis' response. Then she began to laugh, and laugh loudly, marveling in the strange sensation but unable to stop. Her laughter was interrupted as the forces binding her grew tighter and her soul gasped in pain, and Sothis' eyes began to glow, and the fey green power of the throne brightened intolerably even as the shadows around it deepened.

"YOU. DARE. MOCK. ME?" shouted the Goddess, as she floated before her throne, a dreadful energy and majesty surrounding her, her hair floating on intangible winds. A glowing Ankh, that which was Power Beyond Power, burst into sunlike radiance behind her, making the Goddess appear as a dark and grim eclipse.

Byleth gaped in awe then turned her face to avoid the searing light. Shamed and terrified for more than herself, she quavered, "Forgive me, Sothis. But what you described for this young woman and myself sounds simply like what a mortal goes through every day."

The glowing ankh of power behind the child faded quickly in response to her reply, and her eyes and hair of the Goddess returned to her usual appearance. She softly and slowly settled to her seat in her throne. She silently considered Byleth's words for a long moment, then said in a small voice, "You speak a Truth. Nothing can Live without Pain."

Byleth felt a surge of hope burn brightly within her, making her chest beat strangely. She nodded before the Goddess, the best she could manage for a bow, and made her plea. "Holy Sothis, I beg you for your blessing."

Now it was Sothis' turn to laugh loudly. "Well now," she giggled, "it seems that dying has made you more pious, at least. Very well. I will return you to the realm of the living, and you will have the opportunity to save the young girl who has captured your fancy." Sothis grew solemn as she regarded the distraught Byleth. "But be aware, this power is limited, because you are still encased in mortal flesh, and your body cannot stand the strain of Infinity. Use this power heedlessly, and you risk all lives, not just the ones you are trying to save." Byleth nodded, not sure if she understood, but then felt as if she was changing, returning...breathing? Everything about herself felt heavier and solid again. She was on the cart as before, her sword in her left hand as she saw a charging Kostas trying to kill a defenseless Edelgard, but she still saw Sothis on her green throne.

Byleth smiled with true happiness before she faded and returned to existence. "Sothis. Thank you for granting me this chance," she said as her body vanished into motes of green light, that swiftly departed into the immediate Past.

Sothis waited on her throne, for an age and an instant. She felt History and the Future throb inside of her, eternally at war, and it made her skull ache. "We shall See..." the Goddess whispered, watching the green motes swirl before her.

On impulse, she flicked a strand of her power to assist Byleth. Now Edelgard would remember the original timeline, only to see Byleth truly save her this time.

Sothis sat on her throne, brooding.

Yes, she did not lack for Empathy. Not at all.

Chapter Text

Ch 5.

Call for Help

Edelgard gasped as she didn't die. She blinked and recalled that the young mercenary had just taken an axe blow meant for her, sacrificing their life for hers...

Somehow, Kostas was still charging her, still yelling, but the axe had yet to fall. This is Death, the Princess thought wildly. A single moment that you regret over and over, forever helpless. The Goddess was punishing her for her hubris, damning her to an eternity of failure and terror. She had never felt more helpless...

Then a sword flashed in the sun as a blue cloaked figure leapt from the wagon behind her. It twisted in the air to land with a thud behind the bandit.

Kostas grinned as he swung his arms down onto the girl...

...to splash her with blood from the pumping stumps where his wrists used to be. He shrieked and stumbled backwards, and gibbered with horror to see his hands twitching around his axe on the ground. He staggered to the side and slid down a wall.

Edelgard blinked sweat from her eyes again as she saw the tall blue cloaked mercenary rising in front of her, holding her bloody sword in grim satisfaction. She dropped her dagger and stepped forward shakily, clumsily, and clutched at Byleth like the only thing that was real. "You...you're alive! I thought he had killed you! I thought he was going to kill me," she gasped, her Imperial defenses down. She looked back to Kostas, who was moaning and sobbing, trying vainly to stem the flow of blood from his arms.

Byleth looked at her strangely. "I just did what anyone else would do. I didn't want that bastard to hurt you," she said, then wondered at her own words. Her face felt hot as Edelgard directed her full attention on her while holding her arm. Byleth could not think of a polite way to disengage from the warmth of the young noble, but wasn't she sure she wanted to anyway.

"Not just anyone could have done that," Edlergard smiled uncertainly up to Byleth, who experienced a swift pain in her chest at that smile but couldn’t look away. A moment passed, then suddenly becoming aware that she was covered in blood, clutching the arm of an equally bloody mercenary soldier like a peasant girl in a fable, the young noble released her hold and stepped backwards, her formal nature restoring itself instantly save for a low flush on her neck. "I do most sincerely apologize. I'm not used to being saved. But I can tell you frankly that the Adrestian Empire has a need of exceptional individuals such as yourself," the future Empress said in an earnest appeal.

Byleth couldn't think of a response to such an immense request, and while she struggled for one, she heard her fellow members of her father's mercenary company sounding off, along with groans of wounded and dying men and cries for quarter and mercy. Byleth shouted in response, and after hearing a reply, directed her attention at the young noble in front of her. "The battle appears to be over," she said, watching as Edelgard suddenly appear to grow colder, more statuesque. Misinterpreting the masked emotions, Byleth finished lamely with the proper address, "...Your Imperial Highness."

"Not...quite," said the Princess, turning dangerous violet eyes onto the weak form of the bandit who attacked her. He was alive, but barely, turning up pleading eyes on his pale ugly face to the two women before him. Edelgard swiftly and elegantly picked up the axe at her feet, plucking the hands away from it like so much garbage as she casually strolled to where the man lay, the axehead resting on her shoulder. Byleth watched and felt cold suddenly, knowing she could and should stop this, her throat tight.

Edelgard smoothly shrugged her shoulder and wrist, slowly dropping the heavy axe blade onto Kostas' skull.

The Imperial heir dropped the axe, now stuck in the twitching corpse, and picked up her small dagger, resheathing it. She shouldered past Byleth to return to the town square, where an assembly of townspeople and mercenaries was forming, if the jubiant voices were any indication. Byleth could hear her father's voice in the din. The young white haired noble in red and black called out behind her without looking. "Thank you, mercenary. You will be adequately compensated for saving me, I assure you."

Byleth was bruised, battered, and was sure she had a broken arm, but none of that seemed to matter as she slowly turned her sword and with effort resheathed it without cleaning it. Byleth looked after the slowly retreating back of the Imperial princess. She decided she welcomed the deep ache in her arm, feeling it was better, more real, than some ghostly pain deep inside of her. She shook her head twice to clear her thoughts.

It was just another battle. Just another job.

*

Trips dismounted quickly, securing her horse's reins temporarily to a nearby strong tree branch. Rushing to the side of the form huddled behind another large tree, she peered deep into the shadows and leaves to see the curled up form of a softly breathing Zarad. Without her magical senses, she would have never found him behind the blind of branches he had built in a small depression against the roots.

Trips sniffed and almost gagged at the pervasive wrongness she felt around the corporal, the tell-tale aftereffects of dark magic. Knowing she had her work cut out for her, the woman reached out with a pale hand to touch her friend's scarred face, noting the vomit and blood across his chin.

Zarad's eyes opened at the contact. He smiled weakly and gasped, "Ah, so this is what Fodlan has come to. Even an Almyran man covered in vomit and shit is irresistible, no?"

"Hardly," said Trips, laying her staff to his chest and lowering herself to her knees. She closed her eyes and clasped her hands above his heart. "I just thought this was the local latrine, and I found you here instead. Hopefully I can heal you before I have to go myself."

Zarad leaned his bald head back against the crook of a tree root. He whispered, "I assume everyone else is lost, and you are here to grant me the quick mercy of death."

Glowing light appeared on Trips' interlocked fingers, enveloping her staff, lightening the forest shadows around them. She murmured softly, "I hate to disappoint you, but we won. I'm just healing you so I get to watch you suffer more."

"Spoken...like...a...Fodlan...wench," Zarad bit out as he felt his insides heave again, muscle and fluids and connective tissue being forcibly restored to their proper places. At last the glow from Trips' hands flared then quickly dimmed, and Zarad cried out once before fainting.

Trips sweated and trembled from the magical exertion as she checked the corporal's vitals slowly. She had to use her staff to slowly stand on wobbly legs, and wondered at his recovery time. She didn't have the strength to pull him up upon her horse. Perhaps it would be best to ask the Captain and Byleth to detail a squad with a cot to retrieve Zarad, although he would want waterskins to clean himself up first...

Lost in her musing, Trips was slow to react as her horse suddenly pranced and neighed. As she whirled to see what had alarmed her mount, Trips found her eyes crossing at an arrow point from a fully drawn bow inches from her face. She glanced down the shaft to see her assailant. A woman with violet cropped hair and pale skin in green leather armor.

A monotone alto. "Move and you die."

*

Remire village had never seen such a spontaneous celebration. At length, Carlos had simply rolled out the ale barrels outside the inn for easier access, as the interior had never been so full of singing, celebrating villagers. Jeralt was forced to bow again and again, along with Mayor Millson, to the young nobles who insisted on being serviced and acknowledged first, logistics be damned; even the one who didn't even act like a noble asked for special treatment and consideration. Never mind that there were still living bandits to consider for possible healing, imprisonment and interrogation, while fatally wounded ones had to be put down. Never mind that his healer and corporal were still missing in the woods, hours overdue. And never mind that his daughter was nursing a broken and swollen arm on her sword hand, while she stoically took charge of every chore that avoided the nobles, including the burning of the dead, assessing the damage to the smithy and the village wall, and detailing a squad of volunteers from the company to locate Trips and Zarad. Jeralt felt nothing but pride for his daughter's conduct this day, and tried to tell her as much. He got nothing more than a clipped "Thank you, Captain. Returning to duty." Jeralt took a moment to wet his throat with a mug of cool ale as he tried to decide what kind of idiot said daughters were a blessing, and savored a brief moment of peace.

"Captain!"

Jeralt took another hasty swig and dolefully regarded the interior of his empty mug. "What is it, Duncan?" he asked.

The tall young soldier leaned forward. "Company of Church Knights at the gate, sir. They've got our squad, the corporal, and Miss Trips prisoner," he said in a low voice.

Jeralt threw his ale mug to the ground and rapped out, "Get Byleth to herd those princelings to the gate to show the Knights they're safe. We've got to head this off." Without waiting for an acknowledgement, he rushed ahead past his subordinate.

Even at a flat run, Jeralt reached the gate just as he saw local men and even some of his own company rushing to open it frantically, their voices high with fear. He slowed to a trot and then waited with his hand on his sword. As the bar was removed and the wide gate pulled open, he saw the reason for the men's agitation. A blonde woman with tan skin in dirty white armor, armed with a faintly glowing sword of bone across her back, entered the village with a full company of the Knights of Seiros, their armor clanking as they marched into the village. Jeralt had never seen her before, but knew of her by reputation. He wondered if he could fool her as to his identity. 

"Hail to you, Catherine, wielder of Thunderbrand," Jeralt called out as she drew close, raising a mailed hand in salute.

Catherine returned the gesture. "Hail to you, Jeralt the Blade Breaker, leader of Jeralt's Mercenaries," she greeted, her eyes scanning the remains of battle before resting on Jeralt's surprised and chagrined face. She tilted her head in a familiar gesture. "What, you didn't think Lady Rhea didn't know you were still around? The Church has kept loose tabs on you and your company for years. Although I must admit I didn't expect to find you here."

Jeralt frowned in consideration, then sighed. "I should have guessed it was too easy."

Catherine laughed and said, "Yeah, you should have. Looks like we missed the fun. Are the students safe?"

Jeralt nodded. "My daughter is bringing them now. All three are uninjured aside from fatigue, and they acquitted themselves well in battle. If you've satisfied yourself that I'm still me, do you mind releasing my officers and men?" He looked behind the Holy Knight to see a weak and dirty Zarad and the gagged and bound form of a furious Trips.

Catherine nodded once and called out behind her. "Shamir, release the prisoners!" Hearing an acknowledgement, Catherine said slowly, "The Knights of Seiros are in your debt, I suppose. Lady Rhea will be surprised to hear who saved them. She still speaks of you often."

"Nothing complimentary, I hope," Jeralt drawled, then said more seriously, "I don't suppose we can walk away from this if we want?"

Catherine folded her arms and warned, "You would be walking away from Lady Rhea. You know how she'd react to that."

Jeralt looked to see where his daughter, her arm in a sling, was leading the three still-dickering nobles up the lane to the Knights. Yeah, I do, he thought. And that's the problem. Trips' icy commentary to the poker-faced Knight escorting her and Zarad to Jeralt was cut off as she squaked in concern and hurried forward to tend to his injured daughter. Finally he turned back to Catherine.

"You know what, I'm an old man, and I think we should relax a bit and take this indoors. Want to join me? We've still got some ale left."

Catherine's eyes widened, then she barked another short laugh and nodded with a grin.

*

Mayor Millson, miller, landowner, grandfather, representative of Lord Varley, and thus de facto leader of Remire Village, had never seen such a personage assembled in the town hall that evening.

At one side of his long table sat the Holy Knight of Seiros, Thunder Catherine, along with her second, a quiet and deadly looking foreigner named Shamir. The three young nobles sat beside them, the tall prince and pale princess looking tired but attentive, while the other noble from the Alliance sat dozing with his head down. Three helmed and fully armored Knights of Seiros stood behind each noble, tasked with the duty of bodyguards.

On the other side sat the leaders of the mercenary group he had grown to know well and welcome for the coin they spent in his village year after year. Jeralt's reputation alone had kept the village safe and law-abiding for decades, and poachers and thieves gave Remire and its outlying farms a wide berth. That a large band of outlaws--led by some dastard of a mage, no less!--had attempted and failed to sack Remire would only increase that reputation if Millson had anything to do with it. The big Almyran hunter was another matter, but Jeralt had vouched for him repeatedly and Millson had to make do with the foreigner's presence. And the value of the healing magician, Miss Trips, was a wonderful boon for the health and safety for many of Remire's residents and animals.

That left Jeralt's odd blue haired daughter, who sat stiffly by her father with her right arm still in a sling, and only vaguely resembled him in appearance and certainly not in mannerisms. The girl had a flat affect and a habit of asking blunt, direct questions and odd behaviors that made people in the village uncomfortable, but she had grown up to become a diligent worker and capable swordswoman. Some people were even saying she had personally rescued the young Imperial princess herself from the bandit leader! Yes, he must mention that in his next letter to Count Varley...

Catherine spoke formally to Jeralt and Millson after introductions had been made. "The Central Church and the Knights of Seiros owe your company and this village a deep debt of gratitude for your charity and bravery in saving our most important charges. Mayor Millson, whatever Remire may request from the Central Church and the Knights of Seiros is yours, if it is within our power to grant it. I speak for the Archbishop herself in this matter." Millson immediately beamed and began furiously thinking of what reward he could ask, as Catherine looked to Jeralt and his officers. "I am certain that Lady Rhea will want to thank each of you in person, as well as compensate you generously. She would also certainly wish to reinstate her most renowned and celebrated Knight--thought dead all these years--back into her service," Catherine finished with slight sarcasm.

Jeralt and Byleth were silent at this and looked at each other. Zarad was still pale and weak, but his eyes brightened as he leaned forward at the word "compensate." Trips, sitting next to him, shifted a foot slightly to kick him under the table. He mugged a face at her in return. When it was clear no remarks were forthcoming from the Captain or Byleth, Trips sighed and responded for the company. "While we are honored by the attention of the Archbishop and the Knights of Seiros," she began, turning a quick glare to quiet archer by Catherine's side, who stared back impassively, "Captain Jeralt has put that phase of his life behind him. We are an independent organization, with no political or religious allegiances, and are currently under contract to House Gaspard. We merely acted as any child of Seiros would in saving these poor, beleaguered children. We had no clue to their identities until they informed us."

Catherine looked baffled at the rejection, while the archer spoke quietly. "What if the Central Church insists?"

Trips stiffened and said with venom, "Excuse me, but while you were tying me up and shoving a gag in my mouth, I didn't get a chance to catch your name."

"Shamir. Knight of Seiros," said the foreign women.

"Well, Shamir, Knight of Seiros, it appears that the Central Church has larger problems than harassing a small independent mercenary group. Like letting the three heirs of the most important territories on this continent almost be assassinated," Trips finished and sat back, crossing her arms.

Catherine and Shamir shared a look, and Catherine said, "We're not certain it was an assassination attempt, although working on that assumption seems to be a good starting point. The students were on a joint exercise in the fields and woods nearby Garreg Mach when they were suddenly attacked by this group of outlaws. The professor of the Golden Deer house, who was leading the exercise, is still missing--"

The young noble named Claude snorted loudly, and raised his head to reveal his dozing had been a show. "Yeah, about him," he said in a derogatory tone, "I'm pretty sure he ran away."

Catherine quickly looked at Claude. "What?!" she exclaimed incredulously.

"I'm not kidding. When we ran into the woods I could see him running away from both the students, the outlaws, and Garreg Mach. I think he was heading west but it was hard to tell, since I was running for my life at the time," said Claude peevishly.

Catherine was outraged and hid it poorly. "All Garreg Mach professors swear an oath to keep their charges safe, and not to mention are held to be associates representing the Church of Seiros! That little shit weasel! When I get my hands on him--"

"Let's not lose focus," interrupted Shamir, cutting off the Holy Knight’s tirade. Catherine restored to silent fuming. "The Knights and the Church can put out a warrant for Professor Masterson's desertion and cowardice later. What's more concerning is that this 'bandit attack' occurred just as the Knights were conducting their own field exercises away from the students, which delayed our response significantly."

Catherine snorted at the memory. "Most of the other students were wise enough to band together or seek shelter nearby in Garreg Mach Town, but no one thought the three most important heirs in Fodlan would start using their 'noble sense' and run as far away from Garreg Mach as possible," she finished, glaring at her charges. Only Dimitri had shame enough to blush, while Edelgard and Claude ignored the comment.

Claude lazily smiled at Catherine, leaning back in his chair and putting his hands behind his head. "Well, when a bunch of crazy men with swords and axes burst out of the woods, take one look at you and one shouts, 'That's one of them! Get him!' you get to use what I would like to call your 'rabbit sense,'" he countered. He rudely yawned. "I was simply trying to make a strategic withdrawal. I don't know why the Princess and Prince felt compelled to join me. Maybe my glowing personality?"

"I made the foolish assumption that you actually had a tactical plan in mind," snipped Edelgard, staring straight ahead. "A mistake that nearly cost me my life. I do not intend to make it again."

Dimitri cleared his throat and said in a low voice, "And when I saw Claude and Edelgard alone against all of their foes chasing them, I felt it was my duty to provide assistance. I could not abandon them just for the sake of my own safety."

Catherine grunted at their explanations. "Well, I guess I can't get too angry, since it could have been worse. We'll return to Garreg Mach tomorrow and discuss this with Seteth and Lady Rhea." All three noble faces dropped at that prospect. Catherine tried to lighten her tone. "Besides, I'm sure your classmates will be excited to know you're all safe." The nobles perked up at that. She addressed the Knights behind each student. "Please escort the students to their assigned tents and see that they are refreshed and rested. We will march home at dawn."

"In the name of Seiros," the nearest acknowledged, saluting. The nobles rose and exited the room silently, but could be heard talking and arguing as soon as they were in the hallway, their escorts following.

Catherine and Shamir waited for several heartbeats, quietly regarding Jeralt, Trips, Byleth, and Zarad. Shamir tilted her head a fraction in the Mayor’s direction. Jeralt acknowledged it with a nod and turned his head to address Mayor Millson. "Millson, would you mind getting us a pitcher of ale and some mugs from Carlos? All this talking is making my throat dry." Millson blinked at the request, because he didn't remember Jeralt talking much during this meeting. Or maybe he had? No matter, it was best to make sure the mercenary leader was happy. "I will see to it right away, Captain," said the chubby old man, as he bumbled his way out of the room.

Another few heartbeats of silence passed after they heard the door latch close.

Jeralt looked frankly at Catherine. "It's that bad, isn't it?"

Catherine heaved a sigh and leaned forward. "I don't want to admit it. I hate doing this. But finding you out here in Remire Village was a blessing from the Goddess herself, Jeralt. If you and your company hadn't been here..." her voice trailed off and she seemed to be lost in thought.

Shamir said, "Even if this hadn't happened, Lady Rhea would have probably asked us to seek you out eventually, Jeralt. It's not as bad as any of us think; it's likely worse. We just barely avoided a disaster today that would have made the Tragedy of Duscar look like friendly training bout. All of Fodlan could have erupted into war."

Trips said slowly, "We would have to cancel our current commission..."

Catherine roused herself suddenly. "Not a problem. We'll buy you out, and send some of our own auxiliaries to Lord Lonato instead. He can deal with that and like it," she muttered darkly.

Zarad rumbled, "And what about having a blasphemous heretic like me?"

Shamir responded instantly. "Also not a problem. I'm equally blasphemous."

Catherine looked away from her fellow Knight. "That you are..." she said in a low voice everyone heard.

Byleth looked back and forth from her Father, friends, and the two Knights. "What's going on? We're joining the Knights--? Just like that?"

Jeralt nodded down to her. "Maybe, kid. We just got swept up in something big."

Byleth still seemed confused, so Trips qualified for her, falling automatically back into tutor mode. "The Knights are desperate, Byleth. They may not look it and definitely don't act like it, but right now they don't know who to trust. We would be more reliable allies than what they've currently got. And despite our personal feelings about the Church," she said as she looked at Jeralt and Zarad, then back to Byleth, "I think it's a safe assumption that whoever's trying to attack it and undermine it is probably worse." 

Shamir nodded, folding her arms. "Hmph. I couldn't have put it any better." She sighed and added, "This attack shows that Garreg Mach is compromised. Maybe Masterson did it; by running away, he seems to be a likely suspect. But it could be someone still inside the monastery itself. It could be a soldier, a monk, a priest. It could be all three. We don't know. All we do know is they have excellent intelligence. We're likely to see more attacks in the future. Just so you know what you're getting into," she said with a humorless smile.

Catherine looked down and said softly, "The fact that these no-name criminals are getting help from a mage points to a wider conspiracy. What's frustrating is that we know almost nothing about them or their motives. This attack could have been against the Alliance, the Holy Kingdom, the Empire, or the Church. Maybe even all four. We couldn't even examine the body. There was nothing but a pile of greasy ash near your discarded lance, Jeralt. Without you telling me what you had done we might have never seen it."

Trips' eyes widened at that. "Some kind of contingency spell on that guy," she breathed. "I've only read about those in books."

"Probably," shrugged Catherine. She laid her hands on the table, breathed out slowly, then looked up to stare at the Captain in his eyes. "I can't make you, Jeralt. And I'm not asking you why you left the Knights in the first place. But I beg you, for Lady Rhea's sake and for Fodlan's. Please rejoin the Church. Not just you, but the rest of your company as well. Your strength and reputation would be invaluable to us."

Jeralt grimaced and looked aside, his eyes far away. "I understand, but I left the Church more than twenty years ago to raise my daughter after her mother...died," he said, his voice rough with emotion. "I'm not sure I can go back to the Church and face her again." No one had to ask who he meant by her.

Byleth looked to her Father and laid her her left hand on his own. He still looked away but gave her hand a light squeeze.

The silence stretched long, and Byleth turned her attention to Catherine. "What's Lady Rhea like?" she asked.

Catherine chuckled at that and flushed. "I have dedicated my life to Lady Rhea and sworn Thunderbrand to her will. She is the kindest, gentlest, most loving person I have ever known."

"Catherine isn't exactly what you would call objective on this topic," interjected Shamir. Catherine's flush under her tan skin deepened as the archer went on. "But Rhea's always been fair to me and others. She's always looking for ways to help the most people she can." She shrugged stiffly. "She can be aloof and mysterious at times, but that's a religious leader's prerogative I suppose."

Zarad snorted and scratched his scarred face. "I care nothing for Fodlan or its Church. But wherever the Captain goes, I go as well. Even into the den of the Fairy Goddess herself. Besides," he added with a smile, "there is still the matter of that reward you mentioned..."

Shamir nodded and actually smiled back, while Catherine swallowed whatever retort she had in mind. All eyes turned to Jeralt who still sat with his head turned away.

Byleth felt something squeeze slightly in her chest, and couldn't name what it was. But this was odd behavior for her father. She had never seen him act so...afraid. "Dad--?" she said hesitantly. Then Byleth felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked back to see Trips looking at her father and herself with some unreadable emotion on her face. "Captain," she said slowly at Jeralt's back, "I think we both knew this day would come eventually. Shamir is right...the Knights would have sought us out. It was just a matter of when. Now that it's here...I say we face it together. Standing up. Besides," she more lightly, "I can't leave my father-daughter duo of botched medical experiments laying about unprotected. Someone might steal you both and take away my years of research."

Jeralt coughed at that, which eventually became a full fledged chuckle. He turned and smiled at Byleth, who gave a small mechanical small in return but with eyes bright with approval. He nodded to Trips and Zarad, then looked at Catherine and Shamir.

"Alright. We're in."



Chapter Text

Ch 6.

Fodlan In A Nutshell

"Ow," said Byleth, without changing expression, as Trips examined her arm after a quick healing spell.

"Yeah, that's what I thought too," said Trips, running her fingers up and down Byleth's forearm. "You certainly got hit hard. This is gonna take another week to fully heal correctly, even with me seeing you every day. You know, for some weird reason you’ve always been resistant to magical healing from me. How did this happen again?"

Byleth stared over the healer’s shoulder to where the gaggle of young nobles argued and laughed, their armored Knights following them like sunlit wraiths. They had been marching all morning, and in the early afternoon Catherine had called for a break near a mountainous stream in the forested hills nearby Garreg Mach. Byleth had had enough to do and attend without crossing paths with them since the meeting yesterday evening. "Something got thrown through a wall I was standing next to. Wasn't expecting it. It was an accident," said the young mercenary.

Trips followed Byleth's gaze. "I see," she said, carefully assisting Byleth to secure her arm in its rude leather sling. "Well, piece of free advice. Try to give such 'accidents' a wide berth in the future, ok? I can only try to heal you so many times a day. Eventually I'll have to start charging you gold."

"I hear you," promised Byleth. She stood quietly for a moment, watching Trips rejoining Zarad and Jeralt, who were speaking with Shamir and Catherine and some other Knights in the shade of a tree, while other Knights watered horses or checked packs and saddlebags. She thought about telling Trips about speaking with Sothis again yesterday during the battle, but a piping voice inside of her protested, wanting to protect the sanctity of that dream-like moment before she had saved Edelgard. After a time Byleth nodded to herself. There was too much change in the air, and too many things were uncertain. She would confide to her stepmother later.

Not wanting to disturb the older adults deep in conference, Byleth walked over to hear what the three royal nobles were saying by the running stream nearby. As she approached, she overheard Edelgard speaking to Claude, who was crouched in the water, filling up waterskins, while Dimitri sat atop a large rock. She just caught the trail end of Edelgard’s speech.

"...you must admit that there's a mystery there."

"Oh certainly," Claude said easily. "But everyone has mysteries, Princess. What's the point of making an interrogation about it? You could just as easily drive a potential ally away."

"Or you could use the inquiry as an opportunity of achieving mutual trust and benefit," said Prince Dimitri, looking into the forest. "I must agree with Edelgard on this, Claude. Too many secrets can be a toxic influence. Eventually, the truth will always come out..."

Edelgard was the first to notice Byleth's approach as her escort stepped slightly aside to let her pass. She turned and both Dimitri and Claude arose as she walked near. Byleth felt an awkwardness she had not felt for years as she said, "Excuse me. I wasn't trying to interrupt."

Edelgard gave a triumphant smile at her, startling for its warmth, and Byleth was stunned to see her uniform, her red cape, and her armor was nearly completely spotless and clean, despite yesterday's battle. "Why, speak of the mercenary!" she exclaimed. "Byleth, was it? We were just discussing you and your notable skill in battle." Even her silver hair shone as it fell in a tasteful arrangement down her back, with two stylish locks framing her face. Byleth couldn't stop staring at Edelgard as she wondered how the Princess had found time to do all of this. She felt like a dirty, sweaty rustic next to a gleaming queen.

Prince Dimitri graced her with a nod. "Indeed. I am for one most certainly glad you saved Edelgard from that monstrous cur. Death is the only appropriate punishment for such a violent beast," Dimitri spoke, his voice slowly shifting from regal ease to a low growl. The Prince was clean and rather put together himself from yesterday's battle, although his uniform, armor and cape were darkly stained.

"How fortunate we can agree on that, at least," said Edelgard with only a hint of sarcasm. "I must admit I was caught off guard. I have already described in detail to my companions about your daring aerial leap off of a wagon to save my life. But your skill with a sword--in your weak hand, while injured no less!--is quite remarkable, and I do not say such things lightly."

"Oh yeah! I mean, I can kill plenty of people with my bow, which I did yesterday by the way, but certainly not up close and personal with a sword like that. You were going through those bandits like a dancer. Thirsty?" said a smiling Claude, offering a sloshing skin. Unlike the princess or prince, he was still filthy and mud splattered from the excursions of the past two days, despite being knee deep in the cold mountain stream. 

Byleth nodded and accepted the skin with her left hand, but then winced as she tried to lift her right arm out the sling by habit to drink without spilling. She stood for an uncomfortable moment with the skin in hand, feeling warm despite the cool shade.

"Please, allow me to assist," said Prince Dimitri, leaping from the rock. He moved forward and gently held the skin so Byleth could drink her fill without an undue mess. Byleth nodded her gratitude to the prince as she finished.

Edelgard and Claude looked at them throughout. Claude simply grinned as he grabbed the skin from Byleth to refill it, while Edelgard said sharply, "It appears you two are quite familiar already."

Byleth felt herself start to sweat from the attention, while the tall blonde Prince retorted for her at the Princess. "It is nothing of that sort. Lady Byleth was concerned for my safety and was injured trying to provide me assistance in battle yesterday. The least I can do is show her due courtesy in return."

"That won't be necessary, Prince Dimitri," said Byleth, hastily. She racked her mind for further things to say, then managed, "But thank you for your kindness." The considerate attention of Dimitri was a stark contrast to what she had witnessed yesterday. A quick look at his hands noted they were clean, except for something dark under the fingernails. She stepped back away from him, wondering how much longer she could withstand the scrutiny from this crowd.

Edelgard, however, took her opportunity relentlessly. She announced in a tone meant to be casual, "I am pleased that you are returning with us to Garreg Mach monastery. As a child of the former Knight-Captain, you should certainly have your pick among the Houses when you enroll at Garreg Mach Monastery."

Byleth was bewildered. "Enroll? As a student?"

"Naturally," Edelgard frowned, and continued. "I had overheard that your father has agreed to rejoin the Knights, with his officers as his adjutants. There was no mention of you, so I simply took that to mean you wished to further your own military education at the monastery."

"I...never thought about it." A military education from the Church at Garreg Mach Academy was something for children of nobles and knights and the occasional wealthy merchant, not for a mercenary's daughter. Byleth thought some more and hedged, "I mean...I'm too old, aren't I? And isn't there a tuition?"

"Well, you're not too old to me at least," said Claude, handing out filled waterskins to all companions, singling out Byleth for a roguish wink. "But you certainly wouldn't be the oldest student there. And I've heard of the Church waiving tuition for children of Knights or certain nobles who are generous with the Church. After that, you'd end up in the Academy, boarding with the people from the land of your birth. I guess that means you and Edelgard could become classmates.”

Byleth's stomach did a back-flip at Claude’s comment, while her brain was suddenly picturing herself fighting side-by-side with Edelgard. But then she thought again and carefully admitted to them, “Actually...I'm not sure where in Fodlan I was born. My father told me I was only raised in Remire.”

Edelgard paused at that, then smiled again. “Well, you are quite the enigma wrapped in a riddle,” she said, smirking with a glance to her fellow nobles. “What could a legendary former Knight of Seiros--who was counted dead by all reports--be doing with a mystery child all by himself in a small Imperial village?”

“Please, Edelgard, cease tormenting Lady Byleth. If there is a tale of hers to tell, she will tell it by her own patience,” reproved Dimitri. Byleth was trying to formulate a response when Claude rudely burst in, immediately focused on the more practical aspects of Byleth's admission.

“Wow, really? That's great! I mean, it's not great you don't know where you were born, don't get me wrong, but it's great in that it gives you options. On rare occasions, there are orphans or adoptive children ignorant of their true parentage who are given the option to choose their House at Garreg Mach. That means you could pick any House! Anyway, you should think about joining me in the best House there is, the Golden Deer. We represent the most civilized part of Fodlan, the Leicester Alliance, and you should know that we welcome commoner and noble alike," he finished with a broad smile.

"As do all the houses, Claude von Riegan," Edelgard said primly. Byleth turned her head to try to politely look at her, but it was a strain. They were so used to listening to themselves talk, addressing the empty air before them, it was like they had forgotten she existed. "I am the House Leader for the Black Eagle House this year. We strive to eliminate the artificial barriers that Crests and nobility can create between worthy individuals of merit. Your company and strength would be most welcome among us." Still trying to follow Edelgard's words, Byleth was unprepared as the royal violet eyes tried to capture hers and succeeded for a moment. Byleth felt her brain and mouth seize looking into those depths.

She managed a stammer after an ungenteel pause. "I am--I mean I admit I...am unsure--"

Dimitri, well versed in courtly rescues, assisted her. "I believe Lady Byleth is uncertain as of yet," he declared. He inclined his head and offered his hand to her as they heard calls to resume march, the escorts stirring beside their charges with muted clanks. Byleth felt she could do nothing but accept, but felt the weight of Edelgard's glare and Claude's knowing smile behind her.

They began walking back to the others, the Knights' armor behind them singing softly, and Dimitri said, "I am the leader of the Blue Lion House at the monastery, although I will refrain from making rude entreaties for you to join my House. I believe it is best for you to cut your own path in life, the one that you choose for yourself." Edelgard stiffened and looked sharply to Dimitri at that, almost bumping into her escort. Dimitri failed to notice as he was still walking side by side with Byleth, his arm holding Byleth's uninjured one. With a cat-like bow as they resumed their place in line, he added, "Although I would be deeply honored if you find the Blue Lions of Faerghus preferable to your tastes."

 "Thank you, Your Highness," Byleth managed. She rallied herself to acknowledge the others. "And thank you, Your Imperial Highness, and thank you, my Lord Duke. It's...a lot to think about, but I will need to discuss this with my father and friends." All three of the nobles nodded, satisfied if not pleased.

Catherine and other Knights were issuing calls to march, and the ranks reassembled, with the Knights already in position at the head, the students and Byleth in the middle, and the less disciplined and boisterous mercenaries of Jeralt's company bringing up the rear. Blyeth was walking with Claude when she noted Zarad passing by, walking to the rear, his bald pate gleaming in a sunshaft. He gave Byleth a mournful look while rolling his eyes, indicating their company. Byleth didn't change expression but rolled her eyes at the nobles, indicating them. He barked a laugh at her, startling the others who had not seen the exchange, then began shouting for order in the rear ranks, bullying the mercenaries into silence and appropriate squads.

As the various mercenaries obeyed or protested and the march resumed, Claude hung back to walk alongside Byleth and said with exaggerated casualness, "You certainly do have some interesting friends." Edelgard and Dimitri were walking ahead with their escorts, seemingly lost in another argument.

Byleth looked behind her, hearing Zarad starting to shout at another veteren mercenary. " You mean Zarad? I've known him since I was ten. He came back with my dad while he was campaigning in Leicester and Dad had already made him his corporal." Byleth heard Zarad's elaborate insults echo through the woods, finally shaming men into obedience, and briefly smiled. "People call him names or disrespect him just because he's foreign. But he's a good friend to Beatrix and my father and me. He taught me how to smile when I was growing up, because people thought I was weird."

Claude was looking at her strangely. "He taught you how to...smile? Not swordplay? Or archery? Riding?"

Byleth nodded, and qualified for the younger man. "I had my dad and Trips to do that for me. But he saw that I had difficulty with other kids around my age and some adults, too. Boys would ask me to smile or laugh, and when I couldn't they tried to fight me. So I fought back like Dad and Trips taught me. They left me alone after that."

“Wait. I’m lost...who’s Trips?”

A brief moment of surprise, then Byleth extended her hand ahead of her. “I’m sorry. I mean Beatrix. My stepmom. I couldn’t say her name when I was young, so I called her ‘Trips.’ She didn’t mind, and soon I guess everyone called her that. She protected me the best she could from the other kids when I was small.”

Claude pursued his lips, then looked forward. "I know something about that. It can be cruel to grow up when you can't fit in the crowd." They walked in silence for a time, and Claude said, "But you were saying about Zarad?" 

Byleth nodded again and continued her story. "I said the boys eventually left me alone. The girls in Remire didn't. They would make every chore I did harder, like throwing my clothes in the mud or scaring the animals away when it was my turn to feed them. I told them to stop but they just laughed at me and called me names, trying to get me to cry. I wanted to punch them too, but...luckily, I guess, Trips stopped me from really hurting someone. My dad and Trips threatened them and their parents to make them stop, but it just made them scheme against me more." Claude made a slight sound at that, but nodded when Byleth glanced at him. She told him the rest. "So Zarad took me aside one day and showed me how to make faces."

"What kind of faces?" Claude said quietly. He was without his usual attitude, and this attentive listening made Byleth warm up to him.

"The kind of faces you need to talk to people," Byleth told him. "He told me people wear certain masks in certain circumstances, and expressed themselves with them by putting them on, or taking them off. It told people how you were feeling, or how you wanted them to feel with you. So we would practice our faces in the river water and he told me jokes and stories while we fished."

Claude was silent but attentive, and Byleth continued. "It took a lot of practice, but after a year or so Zarad said I was ready. And it worked. People still said I was strange, but they left me alone when I could stand up for myself with words and tell them how I felt. The girls were more occupied with boys by then anyway."

Claude gave a naughty chuckle. "I hope Zarad didn't try to teach you anything about that."

Byleth smiled her small smile at him. "He didn't. Trips did that. But he did teach me the most important secret of all."

They were silent for the next few dozen footsteps, and Claude finally asked, "What was that?"

Byleth solemnly looked at him. "That you seriously need a bath, my Lord Duke."

Claude's mouth dropped open as he halted. He looked gobsmacked.

"Or maybe Zarad just taught me how to joke," Byleth added. She blinked once with her right eye to Claude, her face still deadpan, and then walked ahead to join Edelgard and Dimitri.

Claude started to laugh until he was gasping for breath with his hands on his knees. "Oh wow. Wooooow. She set me up good."

His escort stood quietly behind him, but now spoke up behind her visored helmet. "That's very good, my Lord Duke. Shall we continue moving forward to Garreg Mach...in order to get our bath?"

Claude gave an exaggerated sniff of his armpit. "I am moderately ripe, aren't I?"

"Yes. Only moderately, my Lord Duke."

Claude grinned at his escort and continued walking, but soon lowered his head in thought. Then he looked up at the retreating blue cloak and hair of Byleth ahead in the forest, walking beside Edelgard and Dimitri. He muttered to himself, "I must admit, she's a much sharper player than I gave her credit for."

*

Near sundown they grew close to Garreg Mach monastery, with the deep woods growing more sparse as they passed by woodcutting shacks and farms growing large acres of fruit-bearing trees, or vineyards and fields filled various bushes of berries. Large gardens filled with all sorts of vegetables, known and unknown, went on endlessly next to man-made streams or wells. In the distance, innumerable herds of sheep, cattle, and horses roamed sheltered valley pastures. Children laughed and ran past the Knights as they travelled, while other villagers invoked the Goddess and Saint Seiros for blessings upon the company.

The interruptions caused their group to become separated slightly. Byleth and Dimitri walked alongside each other, while Dimitri's bodyguard cursed at a pack of boys swarming and laughing around him. Claude was chattering into Edelgard's ear, the Princess ignoring him aside from short retorts. The Prince took the opportunity for a quick apology. "I am grateful that you have not mentioned to anyone my shame in yesterday's battle, Lady Byleth," he said to her.

"What shame, Your Highness?" Byleth said, briefly confused.

Dimitri frowned and indicated her sword arm. "It was because of me, that I lost control of myself, that you came to be injured. I...am deeply sorry. Only a thoughtless brute would hurt an ally on the battlefield," he admitted, looking away from her.

Byleth shook her head and looked up at him. "It's fine, Your Highness. Accidents happen in battle. I don't blame you for anything."

Dimitri clenched his jaw stubbornly, and said, "I have a responsibility to control what goes on around me--"

Byleth overrode him. "But you can't. It was one of the first things my dad taught me, Dimitri." He looked at her oddly, but she went on. "Battles are weird, and anything can happen. And it often does. But you have to just react sometimes, to do something in the chaos, or you'll be dead. When you threw that bandit away from you, there wasn't any way you could have known I was behind that wall."

Dimitri had an expression of pained confusion on his face, and eventually sighed, facing forward. "I hear your words, Lady Byleth. But a King must always strive to do better."

Byleth stared at Dimitri as she walked beside him, wondering at his strange noble attitude and gestures, which she could barely comprehend. She hesitated, wondering what Trips would say to a situation like this, then said, "Prince Dimitri?" He gave only slight acknowledgement, so she reached across her body to touch his shoulder. He stopped and looked at her. "Thank you for apologizing. I forgive you."

The briefly walked ahead for a few more steps, but were halted by the crowd of a large farmers' market at the edge of Garreg Mach Town proper, with the Knights trying to funnel through the foulberg outside the town wall, and were now surrounded by stalls and pens and carts. Suddenly Edelgard and Claude had caught up to them. "There you guys are," groaned Claude. "I think I've worn out my welcome with the Princess here. She yearns for better company than me."

"Although the company of farm animals is admittedly better than yours, Claude, I was seeking out our female mercenary," Edelgard said. She nodded to Dimitri. "May I ask what you were discussing with the Prince, Byleth?"

Dimitri stiffened but Byleth turned simple eyes to Edelgard, only saying, "Prince Dimitri was just bragging to me about how strong he is. I told him how I'd cut him down, even left handed."

Claude laughed at that while Edelgard made an appreciative "Ah" but Byleth noted Dimitri nodding to her in gratitude out of the corner of her eye.

They resumed the march, with the annoyed bodyguards straining to stay with their noble charges. The stalls had innumerable varieties of food, most of which Byleth found unfamiliar. Strange breeds of pigs, goats, cattle, and horses made noises or offal behind stables and pens. Byleth caught the whiff of a forge nearby, as well as racks and displays of bright arms and armor. More mundane items, such as fine cloth, houseware, and tools also had displays with shouting hawkers in front of their stalls, demanding attention.

Dimitri noticed Byleth staring at the sights all around her. "Have you ever been to Garreg Mach monastery, Lady Byleth?" 

Byleth was too busy looking around to bother correcting him. "No, I haven't. Some of those farms were as big as Remire village itself! And the variety of food and livestock...and stuff...in these markets..."

Dimitri chuckled but it sounded hollow. "Indeed, we do eat quite well at the monastery. You should talk to my classmates Ingrid and Dedue about it sometime. It is said that this land has been blessed since the construction of the Holy Cathedral of Rebirth, as a sign of favor from the Goddess."

"Or it may simply be something to do with the local climate and soil, and the years of agricultural knowledge developed by the people" said Edelgard coldly, her locks swaying as she stared straight ahead towards their destination.

Dimitri looked scandalized but held his tongue. Claude had no compunction. "You'll have to forgive her Royal Highness, bearer of the Holy Crest of Seiros," he said mockingly as he waved a hand towards Edelgard. "I only wear my atheism on my sleeve. She goes ahead and puts on the entire outfit."

Byleth felt surprised and looked at them. "You don't believe the Goddess exists?"

"No," said Edelgard in tones of iron. She did not look at any of them.

Claude smiled easily towards Byleth and said, "I guess you could say I'm more agnostic than anything. The Goddess may exist, but she's not going to swoop in to save your hide."

"We of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus believe differently," said Dimitri coldly. "The Goddess divinely blessed the first Holy King, Loog the Lion, when he threw off the yoke of the Adrestian tyrants. And the Empire itself was founded by Emperor Wilheim the First and his Queen, Saint Seiros..."

"...or it could simply be that history is written by the living victors, not the defeated dead. The entire Church of Seiros might not have ever existed had King Nemesis won the War of the Ancients," returned Edelgard hotly.

"An interesting perspective, Princess, since that means you might never have existed either," said a winking Claude. "Over in Leicester we tend to be more...cosmopolitan, I suppose, in our beliefs. The Eastern Church mainly exists for charity and a means of education for the populace. But they don't zealously seek out apostates in every corner, especially since they might be traders from overseas with goods to barter and coin to spend! It’s an attitude that appeals to me. I think it's better for everyone everywhere to live and let live."

"Tell that to the Almyrans," sniffed Edelgard, tossing her head dismissively.

Claude laughed loudly. "I just might, the next time I go to war with them!"

Dimitri was still pressing the issue. "This disbelief of yours troubles me sorely, Edelgard. Is it something you learned at the Imperial Court in Enbarr?"

"Not learned. Experienced directly," she returned stonily. With visible tension, she confessed, "I prayed constantly to the Goddess as a child, to restore my father's power and health, or to save me from unscrupulous men, the selfish nobles of the Imperial Court, who saw me only for my status and my Crest. The Goddess did nothing for me. And so I will do nothing for Her."

Byleth's chest felt squeezed. "I'm sorry you got hurt," she stammered. Edelgard glanced only briefly in her direction, but Byleth forced herself to continue. "The Imperial Court sounds like a bad place for someone to grow up."

Edelgard's eyes widened at that, but Claude and Dimitri both nodded sagely at her words. Claude said, "You are not wrong there, Miss Jeralt. The nobles of the Empire--present company excluded!--are so poisonous that they scare away even the snakes and spiders. The only thing that unites them is their love of selfishness, which is totally ironic in a bad way."

"Not the way I would have put it, but I agree," said Dimitri wearily. "The Insurrection of the Seven was a scandal that caused much suffering for Edelgard and her...family."

"Your sympathies are appreciated, but not necessary," said a shaken Edelgard. Managing her voice with an effort, "But you are right that such treachery is still long remembered by House Hresvelg. And that is why I cannot believe in the Goddess. I was forced to forge my own strength and assert my own will on the world in order to protect myself." 

"I can empathize with that, Princess," said Claude, his levity gone. "Except for me, it's not a question of belief, just a question of relevance. Everyone has to endure by their own skill or choices, and find their own strength, Goddess or not. If you feel the Goddess helps, then good for you! If not..." he shrugged.

Sighing, Dimitri said with a frown, "It is a trial to hear such blasphemies nearly daily. The Goddess sees all that we do, and knows all of our hearts. To discount Her Divine judgement..."

"...has no consequences," snapped Edelgard at Dimitri, now clearly angry. "Everything strives and contests on this world, and Goddess spares no favor for those too weak to save themselves. Any prayer to the Goddess falls on either deaf or uncaring ears." The Knights of Seiros walking behind them shifted uneasily at this comment and began muttering among themselves.

"Lady Byleth, you must help me to convince Edelgard that such outspoken heresy will be her undoing," said Dimitri, now angry himself but tightly controlling it. He looked with trepidation at the blue haired mercenary, slowly realizing he knew nothing of her own beliefs. "You do believe in the Goddess and Church of Seiros yourself, do you not?" he asked.

Byleth slowly shook her head, considering her answer as they walked. Her father had avoided the Church of Seiros at every opportunity, except on Holy Days and Rites when to do otherwise might invite a suspicion of impiety. Now that she knew her father had been a former Knight of Seiros, it made a great deal of sense, although she still wasn't sure exactly why. "I'm not sure I can say I believe in them," she said after thinking of her childhood. Edelgard smiled in delight and Dimitri frowned, but then Byleth continued. "But I do know Sothis is real."

The Imperial smile vanished. "How can you know that?" hissed Edelgard.

Dimitri looked upset as well. "And dare take The Holy Name in vain so easily?" he said.

Byleth looked at them both, feeling the tilting motion inside of her when she had said something that angered people. She vainly tried to explain. "But I'm saying I don't have to believe in the Goddess. She's real. She exists." The three nobles stared at Byleth, all mute for once. Byleth felt her frustration with her own words grow, and she looked around herself for inspiration. "See that tree?" she said, pointing at the large green oak in the village square as they were walking past. "I just look at it and I know it's there. It's not like I have to believe in it so that it’s real. And when we walk past it, I don't think it goes away just because I can't see it anymore."

Claude was the first to understand. With a sly smile he said, "And you wouldn't ask it to help you, or save you, or talk with you, because it's a tree. That's not what a tree does. But you could use it to help yourself."

"Right," said Byleth with a grateful nod. She wanted to tell them more, to share her dreams with people of her age who had already accepted her and might understand. But she didn't want to alienate these young nobles away from her, whose company she was starting to enjoy.

"Have you seen the Goddess with your own eyes then?" said Edelgard scathingly, her pale hair flashing in the sun. "Just because you have your delusions doesn't mean that they're real." She stomped ahead quickly, ignoring the calls of her chasing escort, who raced to catch up.

Dimitri looked at Byleth uncertainty. "I cannot agree with everything you say, Lady Byleth, but you do have an interesting perspective. Please excuse Edelgard's behavior. It is most out of character for her," he said, then quickly moved with his escort to attend the Imperial Princess.

Claude sidled closer to Byleth as they continued walking, glancing her way but staying silent. Byleth was grateful for that, because she was unsure of what had just happened with Edelgard...or what was happening to herself. She felt like she hurt somewhere but without physical contact, and she reviewed what how the conversation with Edelgard played out over and over again, her fingers clenching and relaxing as if they weren’t connected to her. She felt cold and hot at the same time, which was the oddest sensation, and soon she was mentally berating herself for ever even thinking about Sothis...

"Congratulations, Miss Jeralt," Claude said easily, distracting her from her whirling thoughts. "You've just won your very first Imperial Princess put-down. I wouldn't worry about it too much. She hands out like twenty or so to me every day."

"It's not that," said Byleth with an effort. Claude pulled a face on her, and Byleth recognized it from Trips, Zarad, and her Dad. Byleth blew out a breath and allowed, "Ok, I guess it is that. But it's also...I'm not sure that she's wrong," she said softly.

Claude's tan face softened. "Hey, don't worry about that, either. I literally just met you yesterday, but as far as I can tell--and I can tell a lot--I think you're a good person surrounded by other good people. So what if you've got quirks or a troubled past?" Claude discreetly pointed to where Dimitri and Edelgard were speaking curtly, twenty paces ahead of them. "That's what they focus on. They focus on the darkness of the world and let it get them down."

Byleth nodded thoughtfully as she walked. "They've focused on the darkness so much that they can't see the light." She glanced at Claude. "Even if it might be standing right next to them."

Claude grinned and said "Aww, Miss Jeralt, was that a compliment? You know what, I'll gladly take it. One from you makes up for the twenty put-downs I had to endure earlier today."

Byleth turned her mouth up at an angle. "Now you're just getting a big head. But you know what I mean."

They walked forward for a while in an easy silence, and were slow to realize that Dimitri was once among them.

Claude’s face was serious as he instantly asked, "What happened?"

Dimitri frowned and shook his blonde head. "I regret to say I may have pressed her too harshly. Edelgard has changed since I last met her." Claude shifted restlessly at that, but surprisingly he held his tongue. Dimitri's clear blue eyes sought out both Byleth's and Claude's. "But do know that her pain comes from a very deep and genuine place. This I know for a fact."

Byleth felt something crystallize in her mind, a certainty she had no logic for. "Then she shouldn't be alone," she told Dimitri, and increased her pace, ignoring the protest it caused in her sword arm. Dimitri made to follow, but Claude grabbed the royal cape. Dimitri glared back at him in annoyance, to which Claude only gave an ingratiating smile and said, "Please wait, your Princeness. Let's see how this plays out. It couldn't hurt, right?" Dimitri tugged his cape free from Claude's grasp, but he nodded brusquely as they looked ahead. 

Byleth trotted up to Edelgard's side, her arm aching and her breath short as if she had run for miles. She addressed Eldergard's conspicuous shadow, the tall gleaming Knight of Seiros walking bare inches behind his charge. "I want to escort the Princess the rest of the way to Garreg Mach monastery. May I relieve you?" she demanded. Edelgard ignored her as she kept walking forward.

The silver helmet turned to face her. Byleth briefly wondered how they could breathe and stay cool under such heavy armor during a long march. Probably magic, she thought with a sour note. Aside from Trips' healing and other useful cantrips, nothing magic had eased her discomfort during the year-long campaigns with her father. The Knight's voice was an echoing rumble. "Lady Catherine has charged me to escort her Imperial Highness to Garreg Mach. I will not be forsworn in my duty, mercenary."

Byleth gathered her will and focus. It was time to try to act like Trips. She said more loudly, "I am Byleth, daughter of Jeralt the Blade-Breaker. We are now sworn to the Knights of Seiros. Knight Shamir told me I could have the honor of escorting the Princess once we were close enough to the monastery, and you could follow at a respectful distance." Byleth stared at the Knight with a poker face as she could almost see the Knight sweat under his plate armor. "Now, unless you wish to countermand her orders-?"

The Knight stood at attention. "Ah, Lady Shamir said that? Then I most deeply apologize, Lady Byleth. I am relieved," he said quickly, and his armor clicked in a fast pattern as he retreated behind Edelgard and Byleth walk near Dimitri and Claude, thirty paces behind.

Byleth walked slowly beside Edelgard, but the princess gave no indication of her existence, her pale face facing forward. They were rounding the last bend and hill to Garreg Mach, with the road becoming more defined with wagon ruts, with the thatched farming huts changing into slate roofed buildings as they passed high stone barbicans and entered Garreg Mach town. The column of Knights was losing formation as individual warriors paused to greet friends, family, and lovers on their way back to the barracks in the monastery.

As they rounded the last bend in a wide stone cobbled street filled with two or three story buildings, which Byleth had never seen before, they came to a broad avenue which clearly illuminated their destination. Byleth lost control for an instant and gave a small gasp at the amazing sight. Garreg Mach loomed up impossibly on a sheer cliff face of a mountain before them, its walls gleaming with pure granite and the Cathedral and Goddess Tower soaring even higher skyward above it, white arms stabbing towards heaven. Automatically Byleth noted and appreciated the defensive design of such a structure, seeing that while Garreg Mach might be a monastery in name, in truth it was a fortress that would exact a terrible price from any attacking army, with high walls and extensive gates and barbicans. Byleth tried to catch Edelgard's eye to talk to her and share in this moment, but the Imperial Princess refused to acknowledge it, even as villagers swarmed out to crowd the company. Byleth was forced to put a hand on her sword, uncomfortably sheathed at her right hip, to force rude gawkers back from the exotic Imperial princess. Despite her right arm being in a sling, it made a fair enough impression that people avoided them.

Catherine eventually called for a brief halt in the column to account for the commotion. The sun was low on the horizon, and the welcome of the Knights and students returning home safely made the scene bucolic. Black uniformed cadets and white robed priests streamed forward from the monastery gates itself, to greet the safe arrival of the House Leaders, missing in action for two days. At the rear of the troop, Zarad was overwhelmed by requests from the mercenaries, and so gave permission for the company to break ranks and join the crowd, where many of them moved to greet women or men they found interesting.

The halt of the column and social chaos gave Byleth the chance she had wanted. Looking quickly around her, she told Edelgard, "Come with me," and to the Imperial astonishment, Edelgard’s hand was grabbed as the mercenary took her away from the crowd to behind an ornamental tree on the wide central street, that hid a small alley between building walls filled with garbage and barrels.

As Byleth moved Edelgard into the shadows, the Imperial Princess whirled on her and announced hotly, "You do have some nerve, mercenary, for an ignorant Goddess-fool. I can--"

"Your Imperial Highness, please excuse me," Byleth said while stepping away, holding up her left hand, but then she faltered. She looked down, feeling exhausted without fatigue, and managed to speak. "I just wanted to talk to you alone. And to apologize for offending you."

Edelgard's face lost some of its marble composure. The younger woman sighed as she visibly calmed herself. "No, it is I who should apologize. I should accept that not everyone will feel the way I do, and respect differences of opinion. After all, you did save my life, but I let the emotion of my memories get the better of me."

Byleth studied the younger and shorter noblewoman, noting similarities in her movements to ways her father had acted over the years, especially when Byleth had asked about her birth mother. Hazarding a guess, she said to Edelgard, "Those memories sound...very painful, Your Imperial Highness. I'm sorry if I accidently brought them up to you."

The Imperial Princess shook her head quickly, too quickly. "You are kind to say so, mer--Byleth," she amended. "For the most part I have made my peace with them, and made something new from it. But if it will ease your mind, I accept your apology."

"Thank you," Byleth said, bowing awkwardly. Edelgard appeared ready to rejoin the crowd, and Byleth longed to make this moment and memory last, and to create more. Just as the pale silver head began turning, Byleth felt the words rush out of her. "I would like to claim that reward you mentioned, Your Imperial Highness."

Edelgard glanced at her side-eyed. "What? Oh yes, I did say something about that, didn't I?" she exclaimed. "I'm afraid I don't have any gold on me at the moment, but once I talk to my retainer Hubert, I could arrange for an appropriate fee--"

Byleth felt her head shake, knowing Zarad and her father, as well as Trips, would howl when they found out about the lost amount of gold--potentially thousands. But she forced herself to interrupt her social better. "I don't want gold!" Seeing Edelgard's eyes widen in shock, Byleth added quickly, "Or land, or title, or whatever. I mean...maybe my father would. I don’t know. But I just...want to talk to you more. Like this." Blyeth waved around vaguely the alley of rotting garbage, indicating the two of them.

Edelgard quickly lifted one white brow. "You want to drag me alone with you into more filthy places?"

"Yes! Uh, I mean no!" yelped out Byleth, and felt a brief stab of exquisite torture at Edelgard's amused smile at her expense. She stammered to finish her thought, feeling herself sweat. "It's just that...learning more about you...I...would like to be your friend." The Imperial jaw went slack as Edelgard was struck speechless by the request. Byleth saw her reaction and felt like everything around her was ten times heavier as she hung her head. "I'm sorry. It's stupid. I'm stupid. It's not practical. Please forgive me, Your Imperial Highness, for my rudeness," she apologized, bowing again quickly.

"No, I will not," Edelgard said after a moment. Byleth felt like the ground could swallow her whole, but then Edelgard tilted her head and smiled. “There is nothing to forgive. Indeed, I am a bit flattered. I have many acquaintances, rivals, and classmates, but not many...friends.” She scrutinized Byleth further, her smile fading a bit. “You are a strange mercenary, to ask for so little from royalty.”

Looking up at Edelgard, Byleth shrugged stiffly, not wanting to examine how she had saved Edelgard too closely. “I’ve been told I’m strange my entire life. But it was my choice to save you. Asking for gold after that just feels cheap.”

Edelgard’s smile returned brilliantly. “I see the material holds little interest for you. We share that much in common.”

Byleth nodded, feeling somewhat lighter. “That’s true. You don’t seem like a Princess to me. I mean, you still talk like a noble, but you just seem like...a fighter. A soldier.” She stammered as her brain caught up with her mouth. “I’m s-sorry, Your--”

“Again, there is no need. In fact, I know a genuine compliment when I hear one,” interrupted Edelgard, looking speculatively at her. She nodded once, as if reaching some inner decision and continued, “Yes, we may become friends...Byleth.” Byleth straightened at the sound of her name on Edelgard’s lips, and Edelgard smiled widely as she stepped closer. “I would be grateful to dispense with the formality. The bowing and titles do get rather tiresome, and we all strive to be equals in Garreg Mach, a notion that I commend. Let us go and return to the others," said the Princess. She reached down and clasped Byleth’s left hand with her right white glove, and Byleth tensed but accepted the grip. “I want everyone in my House to meet my new mercenary friend, and tell them the story of how you saved my life.”

Her large calloused hand feeling awkward in the soft firm grip of a Princess, Byleth felt much lighter as she smiled at her new friend, her first in years. "Thank you...Edelgard," she said, the name coming easily to her lips. As they walked from the alley, Byleth felt like the world was expanding and contracting all at once, but also felt an ease and comfort and rightness that she could not explain. Wondering at these strange feelings in her body, wanting to express them, she said quickly, "I guess now I can tell you the real reason for my request."

The fingers touching Byleth's hand clenched briefly. "And what is that?" asked Edelgard neutrally.

Byleth didn't look at Edelgard, but her friend noted the small smile on her mouth. "Now that I'm friends with the Imperial Princess, I don't have to bow to any other nobles. If anything, they should be bowing to me."

Edelgard could not help but laugh as they emerged into the sunlight.



Chapter Text

Ch 7 

Introduction to the Three Houses

Claude laughed, then wheezed, as he was enveloped in a bear hug by Raphael inside the gates of Garreg Mach. “Claude! I thought those bandits had gotten you!” the big blonde man sniffed, easily hefting Claude off the ground.

“Considering the fact that he’s here, I think it’s safe to say he’s alive Raphael. Although he might not be for much longer if you don’t put him down,” said the piping voice behind the giant. Claude wholeheartedly agreed but could not find his breath as he was squeezed.

“That’s enough, you big goof! The rest of us were worried too!” said another voice. A hand whacked Raphael’s head and he dropped his gasping House Leader to the ground, still beaming and giving no indication he felt the blow as he stepped aside. Lysithea, Lorenz, and Leonie stepped into view, with Leonie rubbing her hand while glaring at the oblivious Raphael. Lorenz sniffed into his omnipresent floral adornment on his chest, as if he sensed something foul.

“Ah, Claude. Somehow you have miraculously survived tremendous odds. I suppose I should commend you for your survival prowess,” the Gloucester nobleman commented disdainfully, his right hand limply hanging in the air. The foolish man somehow thought that was fashionable.

“If you let Raphael hug me again, forget about the surviving,” winced Claude, rubbing his ribs. Raphael blushed and muttered a quick apology. “But sadly, Lorenz, this time I can’t take all the credit. We mainly survived due to pure luck. The Prince and Princess and I met some kind people in Remire village that helped us and routed the bandits.”

“I assume you’re speaking of those uncouth rowdies who have traveled with you? They must have come along hoping for some reward from the Church,” Lorenz sniffed again.

“C’mon, Lorenz, it is appropriate of mercenaries to expect something in return for saving a noble’s life, right?” said Leonie, elbowing the nobleman in the side. He looked horrified at the contact as she blithely continued. “You must be the luckiest nobles in Fodlan, Claude, to find a company of them while being chased by bandits. Do you know which group it is? Captain Jeralt told me about some of them in the Empire when he was training me. There’s Marcus’ Dogs, the Crimson Eagles, the Golden Company…”

“Oh,” grinned Claude suddenly, his face shining. “Oh wow. Yeah, I know who it is, Leonie, but you’ve guessed wrong so far. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.”

“What, really? Darn it, let me think…”

“You really ought to stay closer to me from now on, Claude,” said Lysithea seriously, eyeing him from under her white bangs...but then again, she was always serious. “If you had run towards us instead of the woods, you probably wouldn’t have ended up in such a mess in the first place.”

“I will admit I panicked a bit,” smiled Claude easily. “Especially when I saw our Professor running in the opposite direction. That’s the sort of thing that can make you lose some morale. Whatever happened to him, anyway?”

His fellow students made various noises and comments of disgust. “He still hasn’t shown back up to the monastery,” sneered Lysithea, folding her arms. “I think it’s safe to say he’s a complete coward. I always suspected he was weak and ill-suited for such a responsible position. Frankly, it doesn’t speak well for the Academy as a whole.”

“No, it doesn’t,” mused Claude thoughtfully, his green eyes far away. He quickly returned his attention to his younger classmate and smirked. “You cute little sweetheart, I think you might be right. So fine, I guess I’ll rely on my youngest, fairest, and most capable classmate for my protection. It’s a big responsibility for such a little girl, but I will trust you with my safety.” He bowed elaborately.

“Ugh,” exclaimed Lysithea, waving a pale hand as if there was an odor. “This is your sad attempt at flirting, isn’t it? Now I see what Hilda has to deal with from you.”

“Speaking of our pink princess, where is she? Do I really stink that bad?” asked Claude, looking around the crowd of milling students and Knights. He smiled again as he saw Jeralt and his officers stride by an oblivious Leonie with Catherine and Shamir. The older teen was still lost in thought.

“You do, Claude, but Lady Goneril and Mr. Victor are currently attending Lady Marianne in her room,” said Lorenz with some smugness, sniffing his decorative flower again. “The poor creature has been in shock ever since you went missing, and was utterly convinced she was to blame for your misfortune, although I really cannot understand the reason why.”

Leonie roused herself and snorted again, this time in annoyance. “She’s always looking for an excuse to be sad, and conveniently she found one. I don’t understand her at all…”

“Hey now Leonie, that’s unfair! Marianne was just sad her Professor and Claude went missing. She’s just so nice she was worried about them! That’s plenty reason to be upset,” protested Raphael indignantly.

“I think there’s more to it than that, Raphael,” frowned Lysithea, her small face scrunched up in concentration. She looked back at Claude. “Despite your attitude, Claude, I really am glad you’re OK. Maybe this will teach you a lesson...if you even bother to take the time to learn it.”

“Oh, I definitely learned a lot of things on this trip,” said Claude with an easy smile to Lysithea, but let his eyes scan the crowd once more. After a pause, he saw a flash of blue hair and white hair. Focusing some more, he also saw the hands. Oh boy. Claude cursed himself at letting his curiosity again get the better of himself. He was going to see how that plays out all right....to see Edelgard swoop in and take advantage of him. He could only hope to head it off somewhat, and adopted a bright tone and posture. “Follow me, gang. I’d like to personally introduce you to one of the mercenary officers who saved me. She’s about our age...except for Lysithea, of course.”

The short albino student glared at him. “Claude…” she growled like a lion cub, which only made her appear cuter.

“I kid, I kid…kid,” Claude winked behind his shoulder, as the rest of the class followed him.

“CLAUDE!”

*

Byleth let Edelgard lead her through the crowd, interested in meeting her fellow classmates...classmates she might belong to as well. Byleth felt strange at the prospect, wondering why she felt so agitated, when it wasn’t battle time. She twisted her body as best she could through the press of people at the monastery gates, hissing slightly when her right arm was jostled. It still hurt when pressure touched it.

Edelgard had heard her. “I am so sorry, Byleth. I hope I am not making your injury worse,” she said while glancing back at her. “They should be not much farther...I think...there he is!”

The Imperial Princess led her down stone walled alley, where Byleth instantly detected the odor of a fish market. Along the stalls and docks, there was an engineered inlet from a tributary of the Airmud River walled inside the monastery itself. Byleth gawked further at the water locks and dams she saw in the dimly fading light in the distance that allowed such a small port to exist in the first place. “This is...incredible…”

Edelgard slowed somewhat, following Byleth’s gaze. “Hm? Oh yes, the Water Tower and docks to the river. It is quite elaborate, isn’t it? Something like this could only have been fashioned by magic. It was said to have been built by Saint Indech shortly before he died after the War of Heroes. Perhaps later, we may tour the monastery. For now, allow me to introduce you to the Black Eagle House.” Byleth obediently followed her new friend to a gaggle of dark-uniformed students nearby, with a tall black-haired young man at the forefront. She felt a brief tug on her left hand, and noticed Edelgard impatiently leaning up, clearly wanting to say something to her. Byleth lowered her head to allow Edelgard to whisper to her. “Most of my classmates are part of the nobility; despite your amusing words earlier, it might be best for you to be formal.” As she nodded her understanding, Byleth absently noted she liked Edelgard whispering to her.

She had barely absorbed the comment when they suddenly stopped before the group. The youth with the dark hair--styled over one eye to hang down over his face--stepped forward shortly and bowed to the Imperial Princess. “Lady Edelgard. We are most grateful for your safe return...along with Prince Dimitri and Lord Claude, I suppose,” he said. His left eye settled on Byleth, who stared back at him in return. He looked the part of a noble fop, but Byleth decided that that itself was a ploy. The man almost radiated menace, despite being unarmed. A mage of some sort, then... 

Edelgard dropped Byleth’s hand and stepped forward as well. “Thank you, Hubert. And thanks to the rest of my loyal classmates, for waiting so patiently for me. I am sorry to have concerned you. You are most likely curious as to my company. Allow me to introduce to you Byleth Eisner, a most capable mercenary from Remire Village. She personally intervened to save my life when it was in danger.”

The stares of the young class settled on her. Byleth bowed as formally as she could with her arm compromised, as Trips had so painstakingly taught her. “It is an honor to meet you, my Ladies. My Lords.” She paused ungraciously as she tried to think of an appropriate comment. “Lady Edelgard...is too free with her praise,” she finally said, feeling warm despite the sun setting.

“Well, that’s enough bowing and scraping, don’t you think, Edie?” said a tall brunette in a black cap, with a voice to match her beautiful features, stepping from the group. She frankly appraised Byleth. “My, my, don’t you look...valiant. You must be quite strong to be so familiar with our House Leader. I’m Dorothea Arnault, the Mystical Songstress.”

Trying hard not to stupidly stare at the young beauty, Byleth stammered, “Songstress? You used to sing for a living?”

“Ha!” barked a blue haired short teen as Dorothea paused in shock. “She’s got you there, Dorothea! I told you you’re not as famous as you think you are! Hey, nice to meet you, Byleth! I’m Caspar Berglitz. No Lord title for me, ‘cause I don’t need one! Maybe we can train together sometime!”

“Perhaps...Caspar,” said Byleth, struggling to remember his name in the midst of his loud chatter. “My company is joining the Knight Auxiliaries…”

“How fortuitous,” said Hubert slowly. “Yes, that is exactly what the poor Church needs at this moment. I am Hubert von Vestra, Miss Eisner. Please accept my thanks for ensuring Lady Edelgard’s safety in my place.” He bowed to her.

Byleth decided it was safer to be more formal with Hubert. “No thanks needed, Lord Vestra,” she said as she bowed again to tall nobleman. “It’s an honor to simply know Her Imperial Highness.” He seemed pleased at that comment.

An earnest redhaired youth stepped before her, gently grasping her left hand and lowering his face as if he was kissing her fingers, but not quite before gracefully releasing it. “Lady Byleth, it is clear by your diction and training you are more than a simple mercenary. Only a noble could carry herself with such ease, as well as have the strength and training to save our defenseless future Emperor. I am Ferdinand von Aegir, son of Prime Minister Duke Aegir of the Empire. I do hope we can become more acquainted,” he said, his face shining and sincere. 

“Ah...thank you, my Lord,” said Byleth, disarmed by his direct attention. She noted Edelgard and Hubert rolling their eyes as she said, “I’m afraid I’m just of common birth, but I guess you could blame my stepmother for my manners. She insisted that I learn how to deal with nobles.” Byleth mentally kicked herself for that comment as soon as it left her mouth.

“You must have an extremely wise stepmother, since so many nobles do need to be dealt with,” yawned a young man with hair the color of grass behind Ferdinand. “I’m Linhardt. A pleasure and such and thank you. Now, good night, I’m off to bed,” said the drowsy teen, as he rudely turned his back and started to wander off.

“Oh, no you don’t,” yelled the youth named Caspar, running back to grab Linhardt’s arm. He sighed and said, “Fine…”

“Please allow a chance for others to introduce themselves, Ferdinand,” said Edelgard with a touch of acerbity. “It is only proper.”

Ferdinand looked disdainful in reply but stepped aside to wave a hand at the remaining Black Eagles, and after a moment, so did an annoyed Dorothea. Two violet haired girls presented themselves before Byleth, with the smaller one hiding behind a fit girl with dark skin and brightly colored tattoos on her face, a stark contrast to her military uniform. She bowed deeply with her right hand on her heart and said, “I am Petra, Princess of Brigid and guest of the Empire. I am pleased to be the introduction to you. Ah, Miss Eisner. Yes, I thank you dearly for saving Lady Edelgard.”

Byleth felt her hard-rehearsed smile come easily to her lips. Petra was obviously a foreigner, and her stilted speech reminded her of how Zarad had spoken when she was a child. She bowed in return with her left hand on her heart to the foreign Princess, unfamiliar with the gesture but knowing it must be important to the girl. “Your Highness, you honor me with your praise. I’ve never met anyone from Brigid before, but I have heard stories of their mighty ships and their deep forests. I’d like to learn more about you and your country.”

“You delight me, Miss Eisner! We will speak again in the future,” smiled Petra, bowing again. She moved aside for the last member of the Black Eagle House to introduce themselves. A small, meek girl with purple bangs that tried to hide her face. When she saw she had no choice to step forward, she trembled before Byleth, like a rabbit in a snare.

“Uhm...hi,” she finally quavered.

“Hi,” said Byleth, confused. She waited patiently for the student to introduce herself.

A pause that stretched loud and long, while many of the other students sighed or folded their arms.

The girl flinched at the steady regard from Edelgard and Hubert. She turned back to Byleth and gasped and swallowed, then said, “Um...my name is Bernadetta von Varley. It’s uh, I mean ...I'm sorry!...uhhh, it’s nice to meet you!” The last was said in a panicked rush.

“Oh!” said Byleth, surprised. This was the supposedly crippled Crest child of House Varley, that Mayor Millson and others in Remire village dolefully mourned about? She seemed fine to Byleth, who bowed to the short noblewoman and said, “Lady Bernadetta, it’s nice to meet you as well. Remire village is in Varley territory, you know.”

Bernadetta paled at that. “Oh no! Oh no oh no, you’re one of my father’s agents, aren’t you? Well I’m fine, and he just needs to...stay away! I don’t want to see him...or you! But ...oh no, I’ve revealed too much!...I'm sorry, I’m such a worthless failure!” she wailed, as she turned and bolted. “Don’t tell my faaaaaatheeeerrrrr!” she screamed as she ran away out of sight, flying up a set of stairs.

Byleth stayed stock still throughout the drama, but slowly turned to Edelgard. “I’m sorry, did I do something—?”

“No, Byleth,” said the Princess, shaking her head sorrowfully. “Bernadetta is...difficult. She is extremely talented, but is...an unfortunate product of her upbringing. I have been trying to work with her to lessen her fear of others, but it is an uphill battle.”

“I have bonded with Bernie over archery,” said Petra firmly, glancing behind her. “We have become great friends. May I have the leave, Lady Edelgard, to attend her? She needs the friendship at the moment.”

Edelgard nodded her acquiescence. “Perhaps that would be best, Petra. Thank you for your hard work concerning her.”

“Tell her I’m sorry, Your Highness. It wasn’t my intention to frighten her and I would like to speak with her again,” said Byleth, feeling somewhat responsible for Bernadetta’s reaction. The smiling Brigid Princess nodded and bowed again, then left in the same direction as Bernadetta.

“Such a kind woman,” murmured Dorothea appreciatively at Byleth, casting a teasing glance at Edelgard. “Now Edie, do confess. Did she really save you or is that just a story to try to keep her all to yourself?”

“Absolutely not!” said Edelgard forcefully, her pale skin doing a poor job of hiding her blush. “Byleth almost died trying to save me from the bandit leader, a villain called Kostas. She disarmed him just as he was about to attack, with her sword in her weak hand.”

“Whoa! You can fight with your left hand?! You must be ambi-dextroyous!” whistled Caspar in appreciation.

“Byleth...Eisner...that last name does sound familiar, but I cannot place it,” said Ferdinand, eyeing Byleth with interest. Between his consideration and Dorothea’s candid study and Hubert’s unblinking regard, Byleth was starting to feel like a farm animal before it was butchered. “My father is Jeralt Eisner,” she said simply, hoping these noble students wouldn’t recognize the name.

“Ah,” said Hubert with satisfaction, looking at his liege. “Then the recent events are beginning to make a great deal of sense.”

“Wait...Jeralt the Blade-Breaker? The renowned mercenary?” said Ferdinand, looking between Hubert and Edelgard. “I believe my father has mentioned him before! He is reportedly without peer.”

“As well he should be,” muttered Linhardt without interest. “Since in all likelihood he is the same person as Jeralt Reus, who was Captain of the Knights of Seiros for almost fifty years, before his reported death in Year 1159.” He yawned cavernously as everyone stared at him.

“I don’t think my father is eighty years old,” said Byleth without courtesy, not liking the commentary about her family. “He could probably take down anyone in this monastery. I still can’t beat him in a serious sparring match.”

Hubert regarded her with a abrupt keen interest. He bowed like a butler and said, “Well, then...Lady Byleth. Perhaps you are famished from your march on the road? It is time for students to attend the dining hall for the evening meal, and you presently appear to be at liberty.”

Byleth suddenly felt unsure, thinking of a dozen good reasons for her to decline the invitation. “Ah...perhaps I should do that, later, my Lords…”

A chorus of protests immediately overrode her, and before she could raise another objection, she found herself hustled up the stairs to the dining hall with the Black Eagle House.

*

After relieving himself of his burdensome formal Knightly escort, Dimitri strode eagerly back into Garreg Mach monastery, smiling briefly as he passed Claude laughing and talking with his class of fellow Golden Deer in the inner gate. The mystery nobleman from House Riegan acted the part of wastrel and truant, but Dimtri could sense a genuine heart beneath the fellow noble’s ceaseless teasing. Dimitri admitted to himself that he both admired and deplored Claude’s candor at times, and wished he could effortlessly chat with Lady Byleth with the same ease as did his rival House Leader. Such a strange woman, Dimitri mused on a tangent. She had a hidden magnetism to her, and Dimitri had noticed that each of them--Edelgard, Claude, and himself--had fallen for it on the march back to the monastery. Something about her unassuming yet approachable nature, her blunt forwardness but coupled with surprising depth...made her seem accepting. Of everyone. Or anyone. A strangely naive and innocent attitude for a mercenary, who generally were guarded and cautious with nobility, not to mention rigidly focused on payment.

The Gatekeeper nodded to Dimitri with a wide smile and opened the entry hall doors with his fellow guardsman. Blinking as he entered the dim hall from the slowly fading sunlight, Dimitri grinned inside to see his friends and classmates gathered and waiting for him, along with Professor Hanneman. Ingrid, Sylvain, and Dedue were at the forefront, with Ashe, Annette, and Mercedes standing behind them. A quick glance to the walls confirmed the presence of Felix, glaring at him from the shadows. The Professor immediately rushed forward and bowed hastily.

“Prince Dimitri! I am delighted that you are safe and sound, and even more delighted to hear the others are safe as well. All of the Blue Lion House was deeply concerned for their Prince,” said the Professor, his gaze inquisitive. Dimitri’s smile became a bit strained. The Professor was probably only interested in hearing about him in battle, and an excuse to pester him for a “blood sample.”

“Thank you, Professor Hanneman,” he said with a nod, stepping past the man, feeling his smile return as he looked to his class. “And thanks to my classmates, as well. I apologize for worrying you, but as you can see, we are all well after this adventure, thanks to the villagers of Remire and an honorable company of mercenaries.”

Sylvain stepped forward and clapped a hand on Dimitri’s shoulder. “You gave us quite the scare there, Your Highness. Why did you chase after Edelgard and Claude anyway? Don’t tell me you fancy the Princess?” he said with a roguish smile.

“I was only intending to provide assistance to my fellow students on the battlefield,” Dimitri said frostily in response to Sylvain’s innuendo, but accepted the man’s familiar hug anyway. The heir of House Gautier was a true friend, despite his...habits. Sylvain stepped aside to make room as Dedue lowered his massive frame in a bow before the Prince. “Your Highness, I am pleased beyond words to see you are well.”

“Then no words are necessary, are they?” smiled Dimitri, bowing in return to his friend’s sensitivity regarding decorum. Dedue’s stern face showed a fleeting smile as he stepped aside, revealing Ingrid bowing before her Prince, with a frowning Felix scowling at him with his arms folded behind her.

“Your Highness, please regard your own safety first before plunging recklessly ahead. It’s hard for us to protect you when you do things like this,” Ingrid said with genuine concern under her blonde bangs. Dimitri smiled and was about to respond when Felix rudely cut in.

“Don’t excuse the boar’s behavior any more than you have to,” the heir to House Fraldarius said dismissively, his face set in sharp lines. “He just saw an opportunity to satiate his bloodlust. How many men screamed for mercy at you this time, Your Rabidness?”

The entire Blue Lion House erupted in protest, with both Dedue and Ingrid taking threatening steps towards Felix before glaring at each other. Professor Hanneman quickly interposed himself between the cadets and said sternly, “Felix, if you cannot speak courteously to your House Leader...not to mention your future King...perhaps it would be best to absent yourself for the remainder of the evening.”

“He’s no King of mine. I’m done here anyway,” Felix sneered and promptly turned his back on the rest of his class, walking away without looking back.

Ingrid and Sylvain were both trying to apologize for Felix. “Damn it, Your Highness, I really thought he was getting better. He was actually worried, you know. He’s hardly trained at all in the past few days and just sat alone in his room outside of classes,” said Sylvain, his handsome face showing regret.

“I thought so too,” said Ingrid, glaring at the direction Felix had gone. “But he’s still an ass who doesn’t know how to deal with himself. I just wish he wouldn’t take it out on you, Your Highness.”

Dimitri surprised them by giving a light hearted chuckle. “Felix is just trying to be like his brother. In that, at least, he’s succeeding.” He regretted the comment as soon as he saw the masked pain on Ingrid’s face, but in that instant Annette, Ashe, and Mercedes presented themselves before Dimitri.

“Don’t let Lord Frown-darius upset you, Your Highness! I’m already working with some other girls to get back at him somehow for being such a meanie. Um, what I really meant to say is--” blurted Lady Annette.

“Oh, Annie, don’t focus on that! Prince Dimitri, we’re so glad you’re safe. We wanted to honor your safe return, and we tried to whip something up on short notice, but--” said a smiling Mercedes.

“There was a commotion in the kitchen,” commented Dedue shortly, folding his massive arms and looking with disappointment at the other students.

“Ah, not to worry Dedue, we’ve cleaned it up...most of it. It will take some time to scrub down the ceilings, I’ll grant you, but once we find some ladders...or maybe just some ropes…” protested Ashe, blushing behind his freckles. The short silver haired boy looked sheepish with Mercedes and Annette chattering an explanation as Dimitri looked on in bemusement.

“Lady Annette, we’ve discussed this,” sighed Professor Hanneman. “You must do your utmost not to let your Crest activate while cooking meals.”

“There were only two explosions,” pouted Annette, her pigtails bobbing as she stamped a foot.

“Two?” smiled Dimitri in wry amusement.

“Um, in any case, Your Highness, we did finally manage to bake you a treat in the kitchen,” stammered Ashe earnestly. “We asked Lady Ingrid and Lord Sylvain what you might appreciate, and they mentioned some of your favorite childhood desserts….”

Dimitri could not help but broadly smile at the antics of his class, which Sylvain immediately noticed. “Well, now, your Highness, that’s a grin I remember well. Hungry from your march? There’s only a slight chance that Mercedes and Annette’s dessert will explode in your face. I think it’s well worth the risk,” he winked.

“Thank you my friends. That sounds delightful,” said the Faerghus Prince, feeling at ease for the first time...in a long time. After the long chase, the quick and brutal battle...he could admit he missed them. The continual chatter and laughter surrounding him made his burdens easier to ignore, and he was determined to maintain this feeling for as long as he could as they made their way to the dining hall.

He felt Ingrid bump into him as they were walking, the rest of the class teasing each other or offering pointers to help Annette’s cooking, over her verbose protests. Dimitri glanced down to his blonde friend to see her...focusing on him, but not quite frowning. “You’re not really interested in the Princess, are you? The way Sylvain kept going on, he had even me half-convinced,” she told him.

Dimitri tried to maintain his composed face, and only partly succeeded, if Ingrid’s now fully fledged frown was any indication. He sighed and admitted, “I am, but not in the way you might think. It is...a political matter. A sensitive one.”

Ingrid was not a fool. Her emerald eyes narrowed and she nodded. “I can see that. You have my pledge to say nothing more, Prince Dimitri.”

They walked with companionable ease towards the Dining Hall.

*

Byleth felt some gratitude for her condition as Edelgard and Ferdinand competed with each other for the honor of leading her inside the dining hall. It may have seemed spartan and martial to the noble students, but the high backed chairs and long feast tables and fancy, bright lighting marked it the most opulent eating place Byleth had ever seen, easily. The only sign of her awe and unease was her quick glances in every direction, trying to absorb all the sights and sounds, her trained mind noting exits and chokepoints.

Edelgard and Ferdinand were beginning to argue over something called “seating arrangements,” with Hubert and Caspar starting to take sides. Linhardt simply looked bored, but Dorothea walked forward to Byleth with an apologetic smile on her features. “I’m sorry, Bylie...do you mind if I call you Bylie? They’ve done this for the past month, and even I'm starting to get sick of all the drama.”

“Is that where you line up for food?” Byleth nodded to the northwest corner of the grand hall, where students and staff were mingling. The appeared to be a commotion among the staff, with some racing back and forth from the kitchen behind it, along with the faint scent of something burning.

Dorothea smiled at her, easily holding a gaze as she gave a small laugh. “It is indeed. At least you have your priorities straight, Bylie. Let’s go ahead and line up, shall we, while the nobles do their noble thing?”

“I am hungry,” Byleth admitted, realizing she had not eaten since a hasty breakfast back in Remire, her nose tickled by the more enticing scents of cooked and seasoned food. It was the one area where her father was likely to indulge her, since Byleth eyes always lit up at the mention of mealtime, especially if the food was hot. Trips had tried to teach her how to cook in her youth, but Byleth only picked up the rudiments of campfire meals, being too interested in becoming strong and skilled enough with her sword so she could finally ride side by side with her father.

“While we’re waiting patiently, I’m sure you can find it in your heart to tell me why Edie’s so interested in you? She usually doesn’t show up after a battle holding hands with some commoner like ourselves,” bantered Dorothea as they positioned themselves in line.

Byleth suddenly felt like the room was getting stuffy, and forced out her words. “I just helped her in a fight. She’s the one who wanted to make a big deal about it. I think it has to do with my dad somehow,” Blyeth said, shrugging her left shoulder.

“Hmm. Jeralt the Blade-Breaker, is it? I’ve never heard of him, but then again I’ve spent most of my time in Enbarr.”

“What’s Enbarr like?” wondered Byleth, curious. “I’ve never been there.”

“It’s a city that never sleeps,” smiled Dorothea, briefly lost in memories. The smile faded slightly. “In both good and bad ways. There’s grand palaces next to filthy slums where the servants live, long avenues of markets and taverns with sewage and rats running between them and down the alleys. Four story manors and towers with magical torchlight lamps shine constantly, with guards posted around each lamp so that beggars or children can’t huddle near them for warmth.” The last was said with a hint of bitterness.

“And you sang there?” asked Byleth. She had heard people singing in Churches or taverns, or occasionally on marches, but had trouble imagining someone who did nothing but sing for a living.

“Oh yes! Professor Manuela--you’ll meet her later, I’m sure--heard me singing on the streets one day and decided that I had a talent worth cultivating. I was only nine, but I learned to sing my heart out, because I was so grateful to finally have a place to sleep with two square meals a day! The Mittelfrank Opera Company treated me well, although I had to work and compete against other talented students. A few short years later, I was the lead diva of the opera company, and everyone...loved me,” Dorthea said with a wistful smile.

“And everyone still does! Good evening, Dorothea. This must be my lucky day, to share the company of a famous star such as yourself!” interjected a smiling Claude, coming up from behind them. An assortment of students in similar uniforms tinged with gold trim gathered with him.

Dorothea smiled now with a hard edge at Golden Deer House Leader. “Oh, Claude. Take it from someone who knows; your acting lessons need work.” She glanced at Byleth wickedly. “Don’t tell me you saved him personally as well?”

“She didn’t, but the rest of her company did, along with her home village. That’s worth a few introductions and a story, don’t you think?” Claude smiled rakishly. “Byleth, this distracted big guy with the glazed eyes behind me is Raphael. The flame haired archer is Leonie, and standing tall and proud behind me is Lord Lorenz Hellman Gloucester. And last but certainly not least, this is Lady Lysithea von Ordelia.”

Byleth’s arm was aching sorely and she was desperately hungry as she bowed or said her greetings to each, but a glance to her side showed her a determined Edelgard advancing with her own class to her position in line. Too many eyes were on her to think of appropriate conversation in time before Hubert spoke.

“Lord Riegan. You may excuse yourself for the moment. Miss Eisner has already agreed to dine with the Black Eagle House this evening,” said the tall young man in a silky tone.

“You have no real authority here, so your attitude is simply so much posturing,” sniped the short albino girl, Lysithea, trying to stare down the much taller Hubert and failing utterly. Byleth examined the young girl as she spoke, briefly wondering if she was Edelgard’s sister. But no...the features were wrong, she decided. Still, it was odd…

“Claude,” said Edelgard firmly. “Please tell your House respect some social boundaries, as well as Miss Eisner’s wishes--”

Leonie’s eyes were on Byleth the entire time, and she broke in excitedly, stepping forward to the older woman. “Wait? You look nothing like him...but you’re Captain Jeralt’s daughter?! He mentioned you when he was training me back at my village! Claude!” She whirled on her House Leader. “You never told me Jeralt’s Mercenaries was the company that saved you! Is Captain Jeralt Eisner here? I’ve got to see him! Oh, Goddess, I--”

“It looks like someone is a fan,” murmured Dorothea in amusement.

Leonie turned to glare back at Dorothea. “With good reason, since he’s only the strongest and toughest mercenary ever!”

Claude used the interruption to ignore Edelgard. “Miss Jeralt, feel free to sit wherever you’d like during mealtime. Don’t let the Empire bully you, like they do to everyone else in Fodlan.”

“You will not disrespect the Black Eagle House or Adrestian Empire again, Claude von Riegan,” said Ferdinand in a low voice.

“What’s going on here?” announced a resounding baritone. Dimitri had entered the dining hall from the opposite side, and suddenly he was crowding around Byleth with his classmates at his side. Byleth felt trapped by eyes and bodies, feeling the unyielding stone wall at her back. Her arm ached and throbbed along with her skull, knowing that everyone wanted something from her, something she didn’t know how to give...

Past civility, Edelgard snapped at the Prince, “Nothing that concerns you, Prince Dimitri.”

“Wow, so much for the Imperial Princess you tried to save. Wasted effort, I suppose,” laughed a tall redheaded young man.

“You would be the master on that subject, Sylvain,” said Linhardt with a disdainful, disinterested glance.

Claude nodded seriously to Dimitri. “I’m actually glad you’re here, Prince Dimitri. I was just trying to stand up for Lady Byleth here, telling her she can sit anywhere in the dining hall that she wishes. Her Royal Highness Edelgard feels otherwise, I suppose…”

Edelgard’s pale face flushed with anger. “And Claude is completely misrepresenting the situation, and trying to cloud the issue. We were trying to dine this evening after our march with my friend before his rude interruption,” she said with some heat. She glared at Byleth as well, as if the conflict was her fault. Byleth felt only more helpless under that gaze, and she wished that all of these noble children would just leave her alone...

“C’mon, everyone, let’s just get some food! You don’t have to be sitting to eat it,” complained the large man called Raphael.

Dimitri was more focused on what Edelgard had said. “Your friend, Edelgard? Lady Byleth is her own person,” he said severely.

“And we have mercilessly trapped the poor common girl,” said the purple haired Lord Lorenz. “I do believe she’s trembling. We have placed her in a social impasse--”

Dorothea sneered up at him. “Which is the fault of nobles like you. She and I were getting along just fine in line before your House Leader rudely butted in...”

“I’ve got your back, Dorothea!” grinned Caspar as he stepped forward and cracked his knuckles.

A blonde girl among the Blue Lions glared at the short young man. “You are not helping the situation at all, Caspar. Back off.”

“You back off!” he said, raising his voice. Soon all the students were stepping forward and speaking all at once.

“Prince Dimitri--”

“Don’t take that, Claude--”

“Shut up--”

“C’mon, let’s go--”

“Lady Byleth--”

“HELLO!” said a bright and cheery voice, at a volume to silence the rest. A girl with pink hair shorter than Byleth effortlessly wedged herself through the press of students to stand before the mercenary, smiling widely as her pigtails swayed behind her. A pleasant scent accompanied her presence near Byleth’s nostrils, astonished at how the young woman managed such a thing. Her ears, neck, and wrists glittered with shining jewelry. The pretty young woman spoke in an ingratiating tone and said, “Oh my, so nice to meet you! Miss Byleth Eisner, is it? My name is Hilda Valentine Goneril! I’m soooo glad you saved Claude, because he’s a boy that needs saving, quite often! Isn’t that right, Claude?” she said sweetly behind her, not looking at her House Leader.

“Err, well...I mean, not all the time…” muttered Claude, looking sheepish.

Hilda winked a vivid pink eye at Byleth once before she turned to address the other students. “Anyway, let’s all get our dinner now, since Miss Jeralt Eisner’s father is looking for her in the entry hall. She should really obey the orders of her father, and commanding officer, right? Right! One just can’t resist that combination, I’m afraid,” she ended with an eloquent sigh.

Leonie tried to twist around to look behind her. “Captain Jeralt? Where?” Lysithea elbowed her taller, older classmate in the ribs.

Byleth finally found her voice, her desire to find escape overriding her hunger. “I’m sorry, my Lords. And uhm...Ladies. And…” she tried to apologize directly to Edelgard, but words failed her once more. She finally managed, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be trouble. Please excuse me. I should go now.” She quickly walked past Hilda, nodding gratefully to the tall Lorenz as he gallantly stepped aside for her to exit the press. She stepped quickly past other students and Knights returning to the dining hall from outside, hoping the crowd formed enough of a barrier, and slipped through the door leading to another high ceilinged room, this one with a grand red carpet running through it.

Looking around briefly, still tense from her experience in the dining hall, she was surprised to see her father actually was in the entry hall at the lower level, along with Trips and Zarad, and Catherine and Shamir and a crowd of Knights of Seiros. Many of the Knights appeared to be old friends or acquaintances of Jeralt, and he was as mobbed as she had been earlier, although he was handling it much better than she just did, laughing and talking with multiple people at once. A brief pang of something...of not liking her father for doing that, somehow...caused her to hang back from the crowd as she stepped down the stairs, trying to hide in the shadows of pillar by a gently flowing fountain that ran down the stone. She stared at the water rippling down the wall, trying to understand what was happening with her thinking and the new people around her. Things had seemed so much simpler just a short time ago when she was on the road with the company or back in Remire Village. She wondered if this was Sothis’ doing…

“Boo,” said a deep voice near her ear.

Byleth jumped then winced in pain as her right arm tried to reach for a sword that was currently buckled under it. Zarad came around the pillar she had been resting against, his dark face apologetic. “Forgive me, Byleth! That was a poor joke to attempt while you are injured. But it is unlike you to be lost in thought.”

Byleth nodded to her tall Almyran friend. “It’s ok, Zarad. I was just thinking, I wish I could do what Dad does,” she said, tilting her head towards her father holding court. He appeared completely in his element, surrounded by former and new comrades and apprentices. Trips was speaking with Catherine and Shamir, who were introducing her stepmother to a tall man with green hair in blue uniformed robes.

“Why is that? Usually you are content to just observe. But now you are,” Zarad smiled and pointed to the ornamental waterfall, “being reflective.”

Byleth tugged the corner of her lip up in response. “Some reflection,” she said, but she suddenly felt fatigued as she tried to explain herself. “I was just up in the dining hall with the noble students.”

“Oh? You already ate? Lucky…”

“No,” said Byleth, shaking her head. “They all wanted to sit with me. They started arguing about it. I was in the middle of it, and...I couldn’t talk. There were too many of them.”

“Ah, I believe I understand. I dislike large crowds myself. It can be hard to follow, and pay attention to many things at once. It is hard to feel safe.”

“I guess that’s part of it,” sighed Byleth. “It was much better when I was talking to the cadets one by one. But why would they care so much who I sit and eat with? If we’re joining the Knights, I can sit with all of them eventually.”

Zarad regarded her solemnly and said, “You will not like my thoughts on the matter.”

“Try me,” Byleth challenged, her face stoic. “At this point I’ll take anything.”

His scarred face grinned. “I believe you are becoming popular.”

“Oh, that’s bad, even for you.”

“I’m serious,” he said, waving a hand up the stairs. “You have rarely had the opportunity to bond with people of your age. You have made a good first impression with the nobles. You couldn’t do that when you were a child in Remire, or travelling with the company. Nobles are always impressed by strong fighters.”

“Half of our company is around my age, Zarad. None of them have treated me like this.”

Zarad laughed at that. “And why would they, when your father is their commander and employer? And Trips is the healer and guards you like a bear with a cub? Or when I could kill them while blindfolded for simply looking at you? The three of us can be scary when we need to be.”

Byleth narrowed her eyes at her tall friend. “And when were all of you going to tell me this?”

“The moment when we thought you could handle it. So, hmmm, that would be...right now,” smiled Zarad broadly. He sighed as his smile faded. “Your father wanted to shelter you. I think he feared others with ah, silver tongues, taking advantage of you. Simply because someone smiles and calls you a friend does not mean they really are one.”

“And who would want to talk to me anyway,” muttered Byleth, looking away.

The Almyran grunted in displeasure at her self-deprecation. “You know that is untrue. We all saw you talking with the noble children during the march, and we were pleased. We did not want to interrupt you, when you were doing so well. If the three future leaders of this land find you interesting, you must be interesting.”

Put that way, Byleth felt herself relaxing somewhat, her tense muscles slowly softening. She stared off into the falling water and nodded for Zarad to continue.

“Tell me, where there any cadets that you met tonight that you wanted to talk to more? Over dinner?”

She nodded again, thinking of the three royal nobles, as well as Petra and Dorothea, or Leonie and Lysithea. “I did. But I couldn’t think of a way to satisfy everyone.”

“It is unfortunate. But you cannot make everyone happy all the time. It takes work and promises and explanations. But speaking something...anything...is better than saying nothing in a group. Or others will speak for you.” Zarad thought for a moment. “If someone talked to you when you asked questions, and explained themselves…you liked them more, did you not?”

Again Byleth thought about her conversations with the three royal nobles on the march, or talking with the approachable Dorothea or listening to the excitable Leonie. “I think so.”

“Then here is what you must do. Return to the dining hall. Your noble friends will still be there. Apologize to the friends who wanted you to dine with them. Explain your dislike of crowds, and promise to see them in the future. Then make your decision. A royal noble who requests to share a meal with you is an honor you should not refuse...less they take offense.”

“The other two might take offense no matter who I choose.” 

Zarad shrugged. “They might. Or they might take the opportunity that you present them. If they truly want to be your friend, they will make the effort as well.”

Her stomach agreed entirely with what Zarad was saying. But still Byleth hesitated, and asked, “Could you...come with me?”

The corporal scratched his bald pate. “I think that is a bad idea. You would appear weak. Some battles must be fought alone, and you do not need me there to wet-nurse you through conversations.”

“What a horrible image.” Byleth felt her lips move entirely on their own. But thinking of conversation as a different sort of battle put her at ease. Already, her mind was intuitively grasping it with strategies, tactics, logistics...

“Aha!” Zarad crowed at her expression. “That was a smile! The spirits have truly blessed me this day!”

*

Edelgard was distracted and was trying her best not to show it. She made polite inquiries, accepted thanks and well-wishes for her safety with ease, and pursued threads of conversation thoughtfully as she dined discreetly between pauses. She focused hard on cooling her rage.

Claude. She would not look in his direction. Or even at his table, where he laughed as if nothing mattered in the world. Of course he knew what he had done. Of course he manipulated the Dolt Prince into doing his bidding. And of course he knew that she knew, and would be looking for a chance to rub it in her face.

And then there was the fact that Hilda and Lorenz had helped him! How could some half-Almyran bastard have the entire Leicester House in his pocket? But it was just a minor, petty victory, like his attempts to get the last word or his penchant for useless mind-games. There was plenty of time to convert Byleth later….

“Oh, my, Edie, look who’s back,” whispered Dorothea next to her.

Edelgard looked up and around, but could not see past the taller students’ heads. Then she heard Byleth’s voice above the din of general conversation in the dining hall.

“What is she doing?” Edelgard asked her retainer, not wanting to twist in her seat to look behind like some mooning schoolgirl.

Hubert could easily see from where he sat across from her. “She looks to be chatting with the Golden Deer House. Claude and Hilda in particular…” he reported flatly. Edelgard’s emotions surged but she kept her mask in place. Hubert then continued, “...and now she is moving on. To speak with Prince Dimitri and the Blue Lions. It appears some informal introductions are being made.”

The other two Black Eagle students approached at that moment. Petra was speaking comfortingly to Bernadetta, who was trembling but willing to leave her room for a quick meal. As they set down their plates, Edelgard impulsively ordered the Brigid Princess, “Petra, is Byleth still about? Please ask her to join us at her convenience.” The girl frowned but nodded as she moved away from her meal to comply. Edelgard steadfastly refused to look at the steady gaze of Hubert.

Even Caspar noticed. “Hey, Edelgard, what’s the big deal about having Byleth eat with us? I mean, it’s nice and all, but she’s still gonna just be a mercenary right?”

“She is the daughter of the most famous mercenary in Fodlan,” Ferdinand replied before Edelgard could open her mouth. “Although she is a commoner, she shares that reputation. And since she was born in Remire…” The young nobleman stopped himself, and turned and said to Edelgard, “That’s it, is it not? She could become a new student for the Black Eagle House!”

“Whoa, really?” gaped Caspar around a mouthful of food.

“Now that is interesting!” said Dorothea appreciatively. “Although doesn’t she need, ah, noble sponsorship?”

“At the risk of stating the completely obvious, Edelgard was a noble the last time I checked,” said Linhardt, stabbing a fork listlessly in his serving of meat.

“Byleth is an interesting person in her own right,” the Princess told the table firmly. “But Ferdinand is correct. I do believe she would be a good fit for the Black Eagles. We are magically talented, or have training with archery--” she glanced over to Bernadetta with her plate of vegetables, who shrank further in her chair, “--but we are short on front line fighters.”

“It appears you may get your wish, Lady Edelgard. Petra and the mercenary are returning even now,” said Hubert. His eyes swept over the other occupants of the table. “Please display appropriate behavior for the Black Eagle House. It is important to our House Leader that we make an impression with Miss Eisner.”

“Um, she’ll need a chair, won’t she? Hang on! I’ll grab one!” said Caspar, leaping up and dashing off.

“Now we just need to make room for her, don’t we Edie?” said Dorothea with an impish glance, scooting her chair away from where she sat next to her House Leader. Edelgard refused to dignify the innuendo with a response. Caspar came back quickly with a chair held high over his head, setting it down with clunk in the tight spot between Dorothea and Edelgard just as Byleth came up with a heaping plate in her left hand.

The mercenary was flustered when invited to sit by Edelgard, but accepted with decent manners. Byleth awkwardly arranged herself in her chair, then nodded to Edelgard and the rest of the table, and said, “I’m sorry, Your Highness, for what happened earlier. I’m not used to crowds or being the center of attention. I hope no one was offended by my actions.”

“Please do not fret, Miss Eisner! It is only natural for a commoner to feel overwhelmed by nobility. No offense is taken by anyone at this table,” said Ferdinand with perfect confidence.

“That’s true, Ferdie. But I feel less and less overwhelmed by you every time you speak,” said Dorothea sweetly. The nobleman smiled brilliantly in response.

“Um....Miss Byleth? You feel scared sometimes by people too?” inquired Bernadetta nervously.

Byleth nodded to the short noblewoman. “I had never talked to a noble before I met Edelgard yesterday. It’s helped me realize nobles are just people too.”

“And that’s precisely the attitude I wish to foster among us,” declared the Imperial Princess, feeling delighted with events and the mercenary--soon to be classmate--by her side. “Byleth may be a commoner, but I owe her my life. My Crest and status meant nothing when I was trapped in an alley with the bandit leader. And what impressed me the most is Byleth told me she wished for no reward in saving me.”

Linhardt yawned, “A mercenary with a heart of gold? That sounds like the beginning of a bad fable…”

“Nonetheless,” said Hubert, his unblinking eyes fixed on Byleth as she ate. “I wish to hear every detail.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

The Will of the Goddess

"No, you may not come. The Archbishop has requested a private interview with Captain Jeralt and his daughter only," said Seteth, the High Abbot of Garreg Mach.

Trips and Zarad both glared at the green haired man. The four mercenaries, representing Captain Jeralt's company, now tentatively the 41st Auxiliary Knights of Seiros, stood in a small antechamber just outside the archbishop's chambers. Jeralt was putting a hand to his head to rub his temples, as if he had a headache, while Byleth stood silently, still overwhelmed by the events of the past two days at Garreg Mach, ever since her dinner with the Black Eagle House. Her mind was spinning like a child's toy. Too many names, faces, and events had passed for her to remember them all in the short time she and her father’s company had been quartered in a barracks near the monastery, but some of them stood out.

Edelgard had been eager to tell her class the story of bandit attack at the dinner after the march, turning it into a slightly embellished tale of Byleth’s heroism, while downplaying the actions of her father, Trips, and Zarad taking on the mysterious mage. Byleth had been then overwhelmed again by praise from the Princess’ classmates, even from Linhardt and Bernadetta. Hubert had pestered her with questions, delving into her past and upbringing in Remire, and her days as a mercenary. Byleth had tried to answer as completely as she could, but at the first chance excused herself finally to talk more with the more gregarious Ferdinand and Petra, with Edelgard at her side, and joined by Dorothea and Caspar. It had been a lively evening, only stopping once Trips had come looking for her to rejoin the company. Byleth had noted with interest that her throat felt sore from all the talking.

The next day was just as eventful. A promise to visit Claude after his classes turned into a full fledged tour of Garreg Mach, accompanied by Hilda and Lorenz. The three nobles chuckled frequently as Byleth looked upward constantly at the tall towers and flying buttresses like a simpleton, but she was too distracted by the sights to notice. The concept of a sauna still confused Byleth, who was used to washing in cold streams or the occasional tub of lukewarm water. Claude mischievously held an impromptu picnic for them in the monastery greenhouse, pointing out that the fruits and vegetables they were filching were going to end up in the same place anyway. Even Lorenz was amused by that antic. Again, her time was cut short as Byleth was called away by a stern yet tolerantly amused Jeralt. As an adjutant in her father’s company, Byleth couldn’t completely stay away from her duties, even while nursing a slowly healing broken arm.

Today had been just as interesting. Byleth had shifted restlessly through meetings and introductions with various Knights, learning how the Knights of Seiros conducted itself as a military force, as well as more information about the Holy Book of Seiros than Byleth really wanted to know. She was bemused to find herself now considered a serjeant-at-Arms of the Knights of Seiros, but she and Trips had enjoyed themselves teasing Zarad about his new rank, both of them laughing at his increasingly grumpy rejoinders.

This afternoon she had met Prince Dimitri at the training grounds, remembering to bow to the Prince in the presence of his stern retainer, a large Duscarman named Dedue. Byleth was curious as to the relationship between the Prince and the foreigner, but instead was content to watch with the two magicians, Annette and Mercedes, as the other Blue Lions trained and sparred. She was impressed by what she had seen. Knowing how strong Prince Dimitri truly was, Byleth judged him doing his best to be considerate of his teammates when he could have easily broken past their guards with brute strength. The sour faced nobleman, Felix of House Fraldarius, was impressively quick and powerful with his sword, and Byleth’s sword hand clenched restlessly at the idea of facing him. Knight Catherine was there as well, shamelessly providing unsolicited advice to all opponents during sparring duels. The strangely masked Combat Instructor, Jeritza, was silent most of the time but Byleth heard his deep quiet voice coaching the students in between drills and matches. He was about Byleth’s age, she judged, but very competent at his job, for nearly every student showed immediate improvement. After the bouts, she thanked Dimitri for his time, and nearly every Blue Lion wished her well and a speedy recovery, while Felix dourly insisted on dueling her as soon as she was able.

Byleth wondered if this was what making friends felt like.

That was a few short hours ago. She was so caught up in memory of recent events that she was oblivious to the current agitation of her father, Trips, and Zarad, and unmindful of meeting with the Archbishop. It was probably going to be just another boring meeting about being true to the Church of Seiros...

Zarad crossed his arms across his chest, his strength nearly fully restored due to Trips' healing and a bitter concoction provided by the Knights' infirmary. He rumbled in the direction of the Abbot, "You may call me part of the Knights of Seiros, but I am Bloodsworn to the Captain. Only he can truly order me about."

Seteth peered closely at Zarad. "Yet your hair is shorn, which means according to your land, you are without honor, correct?"

Sweat suddenly sprang out on Zarad's forehead and lips, but otherwise he made no response.

"I don't know anything about that," growled Trips, gripping her white staff tightly, as if ready for a fight. "What I do know is that I'm Byleth's...stepmom!" she burst out, without a glance to Jeralt. "Believe me when I say that I've changed enough dirty cloths on this kid to have the right to stand before anyone who wants to meet her!" Byleth snapped out of her reverie at that, feeling her skin heat all of the sudden at Trips' frank speech before this stranger of the Church.

"All right, you two, that's enough," said an exasperated Jeralt. "I've dealt with Lady Rhea for years. Decades, even. Although I might be out of practice, I think Byleth and I can handle ourselves for one short interview."

"Captain--!" hissed Trips in an angry whisper. Zarad glowered but made no move.

Seteth bowed shortly. "It is good you have agreed, Captain Jeralt. Please, just follow me--"

"Brother!"

The intruding voice belonged to a short girl in antique blue embroidered robes, her long hair the color of fresh grass in the sun. She quickly hurried to stand by the Abbot’s side. "There you are! I have been looking for you since--Oh, my!" she gave a wide gasp, peering up at Zarad. "How tall and imposing you are!" Zarad made no move aside from slowly grinning down at the short girl with his scarred face, baring his teeth. The girl gave a happy laugh in the face of the threatening giant and then investigated Jeralt, saying "Well if it isn't Sir Jeralt! I have heard so much about you from my brother and Rhea!"

Jeralt looked up at the flustered Seteth. "Your sister?" he asked, a knowing smirk on his face.

Seteth nodded the affirmative quickly, then in a voice of long patience, said to the girl, "I have duties to attend to at the moment, Flayn. You were supposed to be in your room, getting ready for bed," he said sternly.

Flayn stuck a tongue out at her much older brother. "Oh, that is so dreadfully boring! I simply could not sleep, not when there are so many new friends to meet!" She looked at Byleth, noting at once the blue haired mercenary's arm in a sling. "Oh dear, that does look painful. And on your sword arm! Assuming you are right-handed of course? I assume you are?" said the short girl, smiling up at Byleth.

Byleth looked at the girl, not knowing what to make of her, but feeling herself drawn in by her easy chatter and earnest personality. "Yes. I mean I am. It still is painful, but will heal in another week." She gave a mercenary's shrug. "Not my first injury."

"But it looks like it would be awkward to sleep on! And you would lose the opportunity to train and play and fish all during this week! No, I must see to this myself, I'm afraid," said the girl called Flayn. "Please remove it from the sling to let me heal you."

"Flayn, that is enough! We cannot--" yelled Seteth abruptly.

"Cannot what, brother?! Help someone in need? Why do we have these powers if we cannot even use them to do good?" returned Flayn hotly. She turned a sweet smiling face back to Byleth. "This will not take but a moment, Miss--?"

"Byleth," said Jeralt's daughter uncertainty while she unstrapped her arm free from the leather wraps, holding it carefully before her. She was not very willing to hold out her still sore and swollen arm, but the girl plucked it up with a touch of a gentle whisper, lightly humming to herself as her fingers danced intermittently across Byleth's arm. Seteth stood by, a look of poorly concealed chagrin on his bearded face.

Trips felt an obligation to speak up. "Look, little Miss--Flayn, was it?--I'm Byleth's healer, and a pretty darn good one too, so while I apprecia--AGH!"

Intolerable light flared around the girl’s handsl, causing Trips, Jeralt, and Zarad to cry out and avert their eyes, while a resigned Seteth, Flayn, and to her own surprise, Byleth, looked on. White motes seemed to gather from the surrounding air to the girl’s hands, then solidify, then flow like watery light into Byleth's flesh and bone, ignoring the metal arm guard and the rest of her clothing. The young mercenary felt a quickening flutter in her left breast, as if something was tapping her on the chest, that flowed inside her body down the blood vessels of her arm. Then the incandescent light abruptly faded.

"Gah! Now I am blind! Curse the moment we set foot in this witch’s castle!"

"Just blink, you oaf! It's just the afterimage," Trips muttered to Zarad, who was leaning against a nearby wall and gasping. Jeralt rubbed his eyes quickly over and over, looking with tearing eyes at where Byleth stood with Flayn.

The girl was staring up at Byleth, her eyes wide and her face looking enchanted. His daughter was looking at her right arm with interest, flexing and twisting it slowly.

"This is a delight! You are one of us, are you not?" whispered the girl.

"One of who, what? Never mind, kid, let me see," rasped out Trips, although everything still appeared as blotchy spots before her vision. Feeling Byleth's arm in her hand, Trips extended her magical senses, her mind’s eye feeling the strong pulse, firm tissue, and healthy bone inside.

"Captain," said the short-haired healer to Jeralt. "Her bone’s set. She’s cured completely." Trips blinked down in amazement at Flayn, who was yawning. "How did you do that at your age? Even I couldn't do that, and I've been a healer for twenty years."

"Oh, I've just been practicing for a long time...longer than that," said a dozy Flayn to a shocked Trips. "Please forgive me, Miss Healer-Lady, but I feel quite sleepy all of the sudden. Perhaps we can talk more tomorrow..."

"An excellent idea, Flayn," Seteth interposed rapidly. "Please do so before you expose yourself any further detection and--"

"Brother, I have had about enough of your attitude!" pouted Flayn suddenly, her drowsiness vanishing beneath her irritation.

Trips now sensed the dynamic between the two. She sneakily glanced at Jeralt and Zarad, catching their eyes, then knelt and lowered her head near the girl’s green curls. "You know, Miss Flayn, your brother here was saying my friend Zarad and I couldn't see Lady Rhea, even though we desperately wanted an audience with her. We've been pious members of the Church of Seiros all of all lives, you see, but he still won’t let us in to see her with our friends Jeralt and Byleth."

"What?! That is a lie--" Seteth started to shout, veins popping out on his neck.

"Enough, brother! Your overbearing interference ruins everything for everyone," the little girl shouted back, shocking the older man. She then turned to the rest of the group and said in a sweet voice, "I am quite certain Lady Rhea could accommodate just a few extra visitors. Isn't that right, brother?" she said, firmly defiant.

No one said anything for a long moment.

Trips rose away from the girl with a triumphant smirk and stepped forward to Seteth, her staff hitting the floor with a thud.

"We will all see the Archbishop now," she told Seteth. He stared down at her, his face caught between concern and anger. Both said nothing as they negotiated without words. "Very well," the High Abbot finally sighed, his face composed once more. "Please follow me. And you as well, Flayn!"

*

Byleth had been impressed by what she had managed to see of Garreg Mach, appreciating its luxurious yet martial accommodations. She hadn't found the time to broach the subject of enrolling at the school with her Dad, yet she could feel the insistent allure of spending a year next to Edelgard pulling powerfully inside of her. However, she was truly astonished by the room before her now. Multicolored mosaics lined the floor and ceiling of the entire grand room, with ancient statuary and artifacts tucked into niches lining the walls or set before ancient pillars smoothed by generations of human hands. The center of the room soared up to a high basilica, sparkling with gold and silver and red. Behind a single stone throne...a throne with a symbol that tugged at Byleth's mind...there was stunning stained glass artwork, detailed into complex patterns and scenery. Despite the night sky outside, the interior shone as if the stars themselves illuminated the entire chamber, their gentle light magnified a hundredfold.

Seated on that stone throne, upon a dias, there was a green haired woman in white robes, with an elaborate golden headdress.

And Byleth remembered her.

The four mercenaries walked slowly inside the room, displaying themselves before the woman on the dias. Seteth, his blue and black cape trailing behind him along with his small sister, approached the woman on the throne and genuflected once before her. "Archbishop Lady Rhea, these are the leaders of the mercenary company that have rescued the three royal students. Their Captain is an old friend we had once thought--lost--but is now returned to us," he said as he presented them, stepping to the side.

"So I see," said the tall aristocratic woman, arising in a silky motion, stepping slowly and carefully past Seteth and Flayn to stand before Jeralt. "It has been a long time since you were last at Garreg Mach, Knight-Captain Jeralt. Many hearts grieved on that day you were thought to be lost. But I am pleased to see you well, and even more pleased for your timely assistance to the Church."

Jeralt bowed smoothly before Lady Rhea. "Lady Rhea, you are as gracious as this old man can remember," he said shortly, but nothing else. He seemed to be trying to shield Byleth behind him, which Byleth did not mind at all, being overwhelmed by the feeling of being surrounded by countless unknown enemies. The room felt like ice while a burning pressure was forcing its way from inside her chest. She knew the woman on that dais. She knew her from her dreams! The shock of her realization was making her blood thunder in her ears.

"You are too kind," said the woman called Rhea after a bare pause. "And who are your companions with you, Jeralt?" Sighing, Jeralt introduced Zarad, who gave a bare nod to Rhea's serene one, and a 'Lady Beatrix,' who managed a barely civil, "Archbishop Rhea." Then finally it came, the moment that all of them had been dreading. Byleth felt a stab of something in her chest and head, but she had to walk forward to the woman as her father introduced her.

"And this," announced Jeralt hand on the shoulder of a visibly tense Byleth, "is my daughter, Byleth." Jeralt barely noted Byleth's tension, as he was pale and slightly shaking as well.

The Lady Rhea's smile grew. "I see. The years have truly blessed you with a fine daughter, Jeralt. You should feel proud. Now, my dear," said Lady Rhea softly. "Come closer. I wish to see you better."

"Yes, Lady," a pale Byleth managed to say, moving stiffly forward, her chest fluttering strangely. The beautiful woman outwardly was calm, alluring, and peaceful; yet Byleth had a wordless urge to either flee from her or attack her, remembering how quickly that pale smiling face could change into a bloody snarl of endless hate, teeth bared with the eyes red from madness....

Byleth tried to look away from the glittering figure, but felt a white soft hand gently guide her face upward. The Lady's holy face encompassed her vision, her smile indicating nothing but compassion and love, but her green eyes sought out and looked deep into Byleth's own, searching the core of her being, peeling each layer aside as easily as an onion. The pressure in her chest eased suddenly, making Byleth's head feel light and her knees weak.

"You look so much like her," said Lady Rhea gently, smiling widely. The hand touching her chin swept aside to a strand of blue hair near Byleth's cheek, briefly affixing it behind her ear. Lady Rhea's smile did not change, but her eyes flickered briefly.

"L-like who, Lady?" said Byleth in a shaking voice, wishing for the contact to end, suddenly wishing she had never come to Garreg Mach, had never seen this woman. The weakness grew through her limbs, and it was getting hard to breathe, to keep her eyes open.

Rhea stepped back and dropped her hand, clasping them again before her in a beatific pose. "Your mother. I...knew her well," she said, the smile dropping away briefly as she looked sad. Then she raised her head to look at her father. "Does she not, Jeralt?"

Her father sounded like he was choking on something. "Yes, Lady Rhea," he said roughly. "She does indeed look like her mother, before she was...taken untimely," he finally finished.

Lady Rhea was looking at her again. "I am pleased to know that you will also be in the service of the Church, Byleth, daughter of Jeralt. Do you wish to join the Knights of Seiros like your father? If not, we could find another, more suitable role, perhaps."

Byleth tried to breathe and stared up at the gentle pale face as it--gnawed at the exposed heart of Nemesis, a ventricle bursting to cause hot blood to gush down her throat and chin--gazed sweetly down at her. She fumbled through her scattered thoughts for a response, feeling uncertain and awkward as she noted her silence stretching past the acceptable time for an answer. But the only thought that dominated her mind was that she wanted to be far away from this woman, who made her only feel lost and nameless. A desperate wish to return to the comfort and routine of Remire or the campaign field, eating by campfires with her father and friends, sleeping under the stars, standing watch or engaging in brief episodes of thrilling combat, filled her entire being. She only wanted to escape...but that was no longer possible, she coldly realized. If she left the Church or denied this woman her service, she knew her father and friends would follow her, out of concern and care. The Church could follow them and harass them and hunt them down. They might even have to flee from Fodlan itself. 

And she might never see Edelgard, her new friend, who would be Empress of a mighty empire, ever again.

"Perhaps, Lady..." she started, then swallowed, looking at the tall Archbishop, who patiently awaited a response. She licked her lips and began again, her throat dry as kindling. "Could I enroll in Garreg Mach as a student?"

"Perhaps," Lady Rhea allowed, her voice a soothing melody. "I am certain you could learn more as a diligent student here. But Seteth has already seen to the scheduling and assignment of this current class of students."

"Indeed I have, Lady Rhea. It might not be a question of how old you are, young Byleth, but how experienced. How many years have you campaigned with your father?" Seteth asked her, crossing his arms.

"Three," said Jeralt, the same instant Byleth said "Four." They stared at each other, until Jeralt grudgingly said, "Fine, it was four, if we count that summer to fall campaign in Hyrm territory. Byleth had finally convinced Trips she was ready."

"You mean she finally got strong enough that I couldn't stop her if I tried," quipped the healer, looking at Byleth with fond exasperation.

"Four campaigns," said Seteth, shaking his head. "While we have many capable students, none have more than a years' worth of real fighting or field training. I am afraid that any House we placed you in might have the scales tipped decidedly in their favor. I am sorry."

"There might be another empty position in Garreg Mach that someone as capable as you could fill, however," mentioned Rhea.

"Archbishop Rhea, I must protest again! It already reflects poorly upon the Church that we have had a professor flee his charges! Now we will replace them with her--!" said Seteth, raising his voice.

Rhea simply raised her hand, and Seteth's protests lapsed into silence. "Seteth, you are a voice of caution and compassion, but she is my choice for the position, if that is acceptable to her," Rhea said, nodding towards Byleth.

"What position?" Byleth said with uncertainty.

"That of a House professor, for one of the Houses in Garreg Mach. You would have your pick among the three of them, the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer," said Seteth, his voice calmer, but still stern and angry.

All four mercenaries were shocked, and the older ones looked at each other. They knew Byleth's condition better than anyone, but now that they were under Rhea's power, they realized that Rhea could simply order Byleth to take the job if they spoke out against it. By framing it as a request, only Byleth could turn down the offer. Each hoped she had the wits to do so, knowing that unless the students were truly exceptional and forgiving towards Byleth's uniqueness, she could not succeed in such an intractable position.

Byleth was daunted by the request, her thoughts routed for a second time by the enormous amount of trust and respect that it entailed. She attempted to focus her feelings inward, thinking of her options. The intoxicating pull of becoming the professor of the Black Eagle House, where she would see Edelgard daily, and teach her, and know all of her classmates was almost too tempting to resist, but she tried to force her personal desire aside and focus on the choice rationally. She did have a friend in the Black Eagles; but, with a flash of intuition, she realized she also had one in the Blue Lions, and one in the Golden Deer, as well. Claude's easy manner and endless desire to create fun and laughter had reminded her of her childhood rapport with Zarad, but there was also someone earnest and helpful behind all those defensive witticisms. And Dimitri...Dimitri was kind and courteous to a mercenary woman when he didn't have to be, his caring nature extending to the point where the Prince--the future King of Faerghus--had abased himself before her in apologetic consternation.

She carefully tried to imagine herself making each choice, and what would be the responses of her new young noble friends. She could see Claude laughing her choice off, but that laughter and wit never reaching out to include her again if she did not choose him. Dimitri would accept her choice with courtly polish, but Byleth could sense it would rupture the precious, fragile trust he now shared with her if she went against him. And she could imagine Edelgard accepting the choice against her; Edelgard the Imperial Princess, poised and beautiful as an ice statue that would only cut open Byleth's hand if she ever dared to touch it again.

She didn't want to reject any of them, she concluded, and looked up to see Rhea still smiling down at her. But perhaps there was a way she could avoid it, if she knew more.

“Archbishop,” Byleth slowly said. “I'm sorry, I am just curious to know...do the Knights help teach the students? All of them? Because I have seen Cath...um...I mean Lady Catherine, and Lady Shamir, doing so.”

“They do,” Rhea answered, then gently waved a hand for Seteth to explain further. He told Byleth brusquely, “There are Knights that are assigned on a rotating schedule to certain Houses, in order to facilitate discipline and carry out the Professor's instructions for training. Sometimes they even lead students on missions. However, the Knights usually have duties and responsibilities of their own that sometimes carry them far away from the students. Why do you ask?”

“It's just--I'm sorry, Archbishop, Lord Seteth--I don't think I'm ready to become a Professor,” said Byleth, bowing quickly, the pressure in her chest easing somewhat as her confidence increased. “But I would like to see the students more, and maybe learn how to teach them. And I would like to help teach and protect all of them, if I may.”

Lady Rhea and Seteth looked to one another, considering. Rhea nodded slightly, and Seteth said thoughtfully, “It...might be possible to work with your suggestion. There is certainly merit in the idea of having more Knights in place with the students, in light of recent events.” But then his tone turned authoritative. “However, we could only accept a true Knight of Seiros in a position of such trust and responsibility, not merely a mercenary or an auxiliary. You would have to follow in your father's footsteps and have to pledge yourself to the Church of Seiros and take the vows of sacred knighthood from Lady Rhea, and commit your faith to the Goddess.” She felt her father move restlessly behind her in response to this proclamation behind her, but he said nothing.

Trips, however, did. “Hold on a moment, kid. Are you sure this is what you want?” she said, placing a hand on Byleth's arm, her face full of worry.

Byleth looked back at her healer, her friend, her mother in all but birth. “Trips, I...I think so. It is just...feels right, I guess,” Byleth told her. Trips nodded reluctantly, but the worry did not abate. She briefly tapped her head while looking into Byleth’s eyes. Byleth turned up her mouth to reassure her and whispered, “Well...who knows, maybe being here might help fix that too.” Trips smiled like her heart could burst and wrapped her arms around Byleth tightly, while Byleth put a hand on her back in return.

Looking at her father, Byleth saw that Jeralt's face was resigned but had the small smile she had learned to mimic from him. He nodded in approval, and that was all Byleth needed. Zarad was expressionless save for his sly wink. Trips stepped back from her with bright, proud eyes and nodded as well.

Byleth forced her mind to assert control of her breathing, her muscles. She still felt tingly and light headed, but tried hard to focus on this moment. Intaking a deep breath, she turned to face the woman on the dais, her face shining like the sun at her. Byleth drew her sword from her right hip slowly and knelt with it in front of her.

The Archbishop spoke and her voice was ringing with joy and triumph. “Byleth Eisner, daughter of Jeralt Eisner and Gylasa Eisner, you are hereby called to join the Most Holy Church of Seiros as a Knight of Seiros. Will you answer this call, and pledge your sword and life and honor to defend the Church, and become an instrument of the Will of the Goddess?”

Looking up to the face of the Archbishop, Byleth said in a firm voice as she knelt, hands on her bare sword. "Yes, Lady Seiros. I will join the Church of Rhea, as a Knight of Rhea."

Absolute silence. The Archbishop was staring at her in open-mouthed astonishment. Zarad stayed motionless. Jeralt and Seteth both put a hand over their eyes. Trips sighed, shook her head, and said, "Oh, kid..."

Byleth looked around her, not sure what she had said wrong.

Flayn abruptly giggled from where she stood next to Seteth. "I like you! I think we shall become great friends!"

*

Byleth had left--after hastily giving the appropriate oath--with Flayn and Zarad. The little girl had insisted on being the one to show Byleth to her new quarters with the Knights, and Zarad had followed out of concern for Byleth and as an excuse to be away from Rhea.

Trips gazed uncomfortably at Lady Rhea and Seteth, unexcited by the forthcoming conversation. For their part, Seteth and Rhea appeared reluctant as well. Lady Rhea still appeared shaken and withdrawn, and Seteth had lapsed into a brooding silence. Jeralt was so introverted he appeared to be in a daze.

Lady Rhea finally recovered her presence of mind, and said, “Captain Jeralt, Lady Beatrix, I believe we both owe it to each other to explain ourselves somewhat. Please believe me when I say I have no ill intentions concerning you, or your daughter. Let me repeat that I am most grateful that you are here, and offering your timely assistance in our hour of need.”

Jeralt roused himself and glared evenly at Lady Rhea, his scarred face impassive. “I don't know if I can ever fully trust you again, Lady Rhea. Catherine told me about your surveillance of us. And we both know that running from or fighting the Knights of Seiros was not an option. So you’ve found us. Now what?”

“Now we hopefully begin again, Jeralt,” said Rhea in a sad voice. “I am sorry for not confiding in you at the time, twenty-one years ago. Gylasa’s death affected me deeply as well. At the end of her pregnancy, while she was in labor, there were...complications. She begged me to save your dying child at the expense of her own life. There was no time to seek out your opinion on the matter. I had to make a decision, and invoke all of my powers in a ritual to save only one of them. So I choose...your daughter.”

“But what did you do?” growled Jeralt, his fury growing with each word. “You gave me a baby that neither laughed or cried. That had trouble reacting to anything!”

“Listen to me, Lady Rhea,” Trips said, her voice low after Jeralt’s shout and Rhea’s silence. “Jeralt brought that baby to me when I was just starting my career as a town doctor. At first I left it all behind because...reasons,” she said, with a glance at an unfazed Jeralt. Damn the man, she thought, but continued. “But I soon realized, and it soon became apparent that his child would need life-long intervention and care just to become a functional human being. If I hadn't been there for her while Jeralt was out on campaigns, or if we hadn't all gone out of our way just to try to teach the kid how to smile, or laugh, or cry, or...anything!” Trips burst out unashamedly. All the years of mothering, teaching, and raising were coming back to her in a rush, and the intensity of her memories demanded answers. “Just tell us why she doesn't have a heart! Just why! Because everything you see in Byleth today is there because we worked hard to put it there!”

Lady Rhea immediately bowed in response to Trips’ outburst, her headdress tinkling. “And you both have done most wonderfully well, my dear child. I apologize for the suffering you have gone through. It was my intention to help Jeralt with his daughter from the start, but my reticence...my own grief...created the very situation I had hoped to avoid.” The Archbishop bowed her head for a moment before she looked to a grim Seteth amidst Jeralt’s glare and the quiet, angry sobbing of Trips. “Seteth, please have some refreshments brought up from the dining hall, then please rejoin us. We may be talking for some time in my study, and I pray that all of you will find my explanations sufficient.”

“At once, Lady Rhea.” The green haired man bowed and left the audience hall.

The Archbishop motioned for Trips and Jeralt to follow her to the adjoining chamber, with comfortable chairs arranged around a low table, with well-lit lamps in sconces encasing the room in a gentle glow. After a moment while they composed themselves, they entered, and the Archbishop removed her tiara and placed it with the tinkle of gold chimes on a head mount next to a small altar. They all seated themselves slowly before one another, the tension easing slightly.

Jeralt shifted in his chair for a moment and then admitted, “I appreciate this gesture, Rhea. You could have hid behind your title and your position. You could have simply dismissed us. Perhaps I was wrong to judge you.”

“Perhaps not, Jeralt. Despite what you may think, I am not without regrets and guilt myself. But please reserve your judgement until you hear some of what I must say,” said Rhea, who somehow seemed more approachable, more human, when she did not tower above petitioners in her customary position of state and sat eye-level with them, and with her pale green hair undone about her shoulders. “I admit that I had agents following your movements over the years. The fire you set was a clever trick, Jeralt, but you had been in my service for too long. I knew at once the collection of burnt bones inside that chamber could not have been you or your daughter. And at first I must admit that I was...angry. And hurt.”

“It wasn’t me who first severed those threads, Rhea,” growled the Blade-Breaker, his hands gripping the armrests of his chair.

Rhea’s eyes flashed dangerously for an instant, but then smoothed into pools of deep sadness. “As you say. And that is why I let you go, my Knight. Because in the end, you acted as you did out of love. As any parent would do in protecting their child. And...I could not fault you for that.”

“And who exactly is Byleth’s mother? Gylasa?” Trips asked Rhea, still red-eyed from her tears. Jeralt grimaced at her, his face angry, but the healer glared back at him in defiance, saying, “After helping raise your child for twenty odd years, Captain, I believe I’m finally entitled to some of your secrets.”

“Jeralt?” said Rhea quietly. Trips stared back and forth between the two, amazed despite her concerns. The Archbishop of Fodlan asking the permission of a slovenly Knight-turned-Merc? The bond between the two must have been deep indeed…

Jeralt’s face slowly relaxed, and suddenly he looked a hundred years old and then some in his chair. “It’s fine, Rhea. Go ahead and tell her.”

Rhea was silent for a moment, gathering her thoughts. She started her tale to Trips slowly and said, “If you know anything about the Church of Seiros, you must understand this: the reason for its existence is a channel for the hope and prayers of the faithful, that the day will come when The Holy Goddess Sothis is once again made flesh, and will walk once more on the Earth, granting a thousand years of peace for every year of war and sin mankind has endured in her absence. And though you may know of the original Five Saints, the disciples of the Goddess’ Divine Covenant, there have been special...individuals, shall we say, throughout history, who have been known only to the Church as the Sainted. Some were mighty prophets, such as Adrestia the Seer, who spoke of the rise and certainty of the Divine Empire. Another Sainted was the quiet warrior Pan, who crafted the strategies of King Loog and Duke Kyphon in the first days of the Holy Kingdom.”

Shaking her head, Trips said, “You’re just throwing names out of history books here, Rhea. What makes you...and I guess the Church...so sure that they’re this ‘Sainted’ you talk about?”

Rhea’s green eyes bore into Trips. “Because it was recorded, on good authority with multiple sources, that all of these individuals had...dreams.”

Trips’ heart began beating very hard and fast in her chest, and she clutched her staff to herself tightly.

The Archbishop continued her story. “These dreams are of things that the Sainted could not have possibly known on their own. Dreams of the ancient past. Dreams of possible futures, yet to come. Of events thousands of leagues away, confirmed only months later. Some even confessed to speak with the dead...” Rhea trailed off, looking grief-stricken, before she continued. “A few succumbed to madness, living out their days trying to flee from phantoms of the mind. Yet it was the will of Saint Seiros that the Church seek out and record as much as they could of the lives of these individuals, for each dream may contain a clue, or a hint of prophecy of the Goddess’ Rebirth. Or so the Church had hoped.” Rhea’s face quickly became pinched and bitter. “Much was lost in the so-called Imperial Renaissance a century ago. Only a few fragments and copies have survived, and they are among the most precious sacred texts Garreg Mach houses.”

Finding she could sympathize with Rhea on this topic, at least, Trips nodded her understanding. “The book-burnings. I’ve read stories of that time. All the Imperial churches and monasteries were looted and seized after the rebellion of Julius, the Warrior Bishop.”

“From which the Church is still recovering,” added Rhea with a sigh. “Julius was one of the Sainted as well, and became convinced that his dreams were a divine message from the Goddess, that the nobility and royalty were decadent and corrupt, and a revival of faith was needed before the Goddess could be Reborn. When he fell at Fort Merceus and the Southern Church was dissolved in the Empire, many in the Church despaired of another Sainted ever arising once more. I...was among those who shared that belief. Even after my accession to Archbishop.”

Jeralt coughed suddenly and looked away, but said nothing. Trips shot him a curious frown, but inclined her head for Rhea to go on.

“Thus I was astonished and desperate when one of the young nuns here at Garreg Mach, a beautiful young woman named Glyasa, began to have dreams. Astonished, in that it had occurred relatively soon after the fall of Julius. Desperate, because I thought that her dreamings might finally be the long awaited sign of the Goddess Reborn, so near the Goddess Tower and the Cathedral of Rebirth. It has been over a thousand years…” Rhea trailed off again, but finally looked at Jeralt with a mix of unreadable emotions. “But I...overwhelmed the poor child, in my selfish desires. She wanted nothing to do with my wishes, and was frightened by what she could not control, despite my pledges of assistance. Instead, she...found solace elsewhere. And I had to respect her decision. I released her from her Holy Vows, and she and Jeralt were wed with my blessing, here at Garreg Mach, twenty-five years ago.”

Looking between the Archbishop and the Captain, Trips felt comprehension crystalize in her mind. Jeralt had confided to her and Zarad years ago of his status as a fugitive ex-Knight of Seiros, and for many of those years Trips had wondered what precipitated such a drastic fall from grace for the man. If he had truly been the Knight-Captain of the Church of Seiros, he and Rhea would have known each other for decades, as he had said. It was a personal bond that bordered on marriage. But then, Byleth’s mother had stepped in between them. Trips mentally snorted to herself. It was a classic love triangle, not that Jeralt or Rhea would ever admit it. No wonder their feelings concerning each other ran so deep and ambivalent. And now Byleth was the focus between them, just as her mother had been…

Shaking off the thought of omens, Trips said quietly, “I think I finally understand, Lady Rhea. You don’t have to tell me anymore. I understand now.”

Rhea nodded in gratitude to the healer and smiled. “Thank you, Lady Beatrix. It is a...difficult and painful memory. But there is joy in it as well, because of Byleth. Such a sweet and innocent girl, and from what I have been told, as capable as her father was at his age.”

“Ancient history,” muttered Jeralt, but there was a ghost of a smile on his scarred face.

Rhea gently smiled at them both. “I am delighted that she has decided to become a Knight. In time, I think she will become the greatest one of all. But once Seteth arrives, I will tell all of you what you must know about her...and what I had to do to save her life.”

Jeralt and Trips carefully looked at each other, and Jeralt said in a voice thick with suspicion, “You really do need us, don’t you, Rhea? That’s why you’re volunteering this information so easily.”

To Trips’ shock, Rhea wrung her hands and said desperately, “Please listen to me, Jeralt. We are putting on a brave face, but the Church is in crisis. Fodlan is in crisis. My authority is now tenuous, and our political support has been nearly non-existent since the death of King Lambert. You and Byleth...as well as your friends, Lady Beatrix and Zarad, and all of your company...are sorely needed to address the mysterious enemies we face. If any of those three heirs had died in that bandit attack, the Church could have...no, it would have been blamed. Garreg Mach itself would have been under siege by the nations of Fodlan. The people are already losing their faith in the Goddess and the Word of Seiros. This recent attack may well have been the fatal wound.”

Trips considered this at length and said, “Lady Rhea, we wouldn’t be here unless we didn’t believe that as well. You can trust us to help defend Fodlan, along with Byleth.” She nodded to Jeralt, who nodded back. “But you have to let us know the truth about her. About what you say you did to save her life. She’s worked hard and has come a long way to do what she can do. And anything more that she gets from you...must come through us. Is this acceptable?”

Rhea was silent for pause, but then inclined her head in agreement. “It is. And it does ease my mind that you are so willing to help. But while we are awaiting our refreshments, Jeralt,” said the Archbishop, leaning forward slightly, “perhaps we can discuss the role a returning Knight-Captain of Seiros can play at Garreg Mach.”



Chapter Text

Ch 9

The New Professor

Edelgard paused for one final look in the mirror, making sure the expensive power and creams were fulfilling their functions. Despite three days past a day of marching and revel, a battle the day before, and an exhausting midnight pursuit with imbeciles she had hoped to assassinate the night before that, the nightmares still constantly returned. It was an hour past dawn now and she could delay facing the world no longer, and had to simply trust her lightly enchanted make-up to hide the drawn circles under her eyes, and to help bring fullness to her hollow cheeks. The last thing she wanted this morning was some fool commenting on her appearance, openly speculating to everyone within earshot if the Heir of House Hresvelg was growing soft and weak. Particularly any fools named Ferdinand von Aegir.

She contemplated the previous days, reviewing the results of the botched mission as she dressed. Most of the Kostas' gang were dead, although some were now languishing in captivity in the dungeons below Garreg Mach, as prisoners of the Central Church. Edelgard idly reminded herself to have Jeritza or Hubert attend to them; not that they could tell the Church anything useful. Kostas had been her only go-between, and he was safely and satisfyingly dead by her own hand. Professor Masterson had been chased away, and the subtle notes and warnings he had been given beforehand would ensure he wouldn't be coming back. Jeritza's application for professorship to the Golden Deer House had easily followed, and soon Edelgard would have influence and access to every House and student within Garreg Mach. Professors Manuela and Hanneman, with their own prejudices against the nobility and their previous ties to the Empire, were already in her pocket. Claude and Dimitri were disappointingly still alive, and the Church was aware it had enemies, but let them jump at shadows, Edelgard thought dismissively. Her next plan to publicly discredit the nobility and the Church would not fail, and the Church would still be flailing about, fighting the last battle like it always has done.

The one bright point from this excursion was a powerful and potentially sympathetic ally in the mercenary who had saved her from Kostas. Byleth had a strange effect on her, making her say more than she meant or act in ways inappropriate to her station. Edelgard had found herself spending more time with the older woman than absolutely necessary the other night, to the understandable dismay of Hubert. But why not? Edelgard thought in a jealous huff as she clasped her red cloak around her shoulders. Was it so wrong to enjoy oneself just for one evening, with the eager attention of someone who could become their strongest convert yet? For all of her inconvenient religiosity and occasional graceless manners, the woman was good company--her dry humor a match for Edelgard's own--and she was skilled and experienced. She had lived in the Empire her entire life. Her membership to the Black Eagle House was all but certain, due to the shared and mutual rapport between the two of them. A win for her, meaning a loss for Dimitri and Claude, and eventually, the Church. That was a comforting thought.

A low knock on the door. Surely Hubert. Edelgard sighed, checked her appearance one last time, then assumed her bearing as she announced, “Come in.”

The tall man opened the door swiftly and entered, and then closed it behind him. Edelgard's eyes widened at the impropriety but Hubert evenly said, “The hallway is clear. I will tell you quickly and leave, but you must know. It appears Rhea has moved in an...unanticipated direction.”

Edelgard's eyes narrowed, her smoldering hatred of that monstrous thing in control of humanity threatening to engulf her. “Tell me.”

*

“Are they all in here?” asked Jeralt, standing with Trips and Zarad before the Golden Deer Homeroom.

“Yup,” said Claude, now clean and smartly dressed in full military uniform even though his hair was still uncombed. “I know at least one of them is likely to burst when she finds out her new House Professor is. She drops your name like, I dunno, every other minute.”

“What? I've met someone in here before? Who?” asked the former Knight, itching uncomfortably in his new Golden Deer tabard and moderately clean armor. Seteth had insisted.

“Leonie Pinelli, from Sauin Village,” said Claude. Jeralt's scared face looked blank at the response. Claude grew mildly concerned and said, “Your former apprentice? The one you gave a wooden necklace to?”

Jeralt was shocked. “Wait. Orange hair? Little spitfire of a hellkitten? From Sauin? How could she get into Garreg Mach?”

“Well, aside from the little and kitten part, all true. Apparently her entire village pooled money for her tuition. She’s made a bit of a reputation for herself in Leicester as an archer and a hunter while still a teenager. Seems you made an impression on her,” said Claude casually.

“Wonderful. More girls fawning over the Captain's prowess. His legend among ladies grows daily,” said Zarad in a grim tone. Trips snorted and laughed at that.

“Please behave, for my sanity's sake,” grumbled Jeralt. He didn’t need his authority undermined by his friends on day one. “Who else?” he asked Claude.

“Let’s see, there's Raphael Kirsten and Ignatz Victor. Two sons of wealthy merchant families, although Raphael’s parents’ estate has fallen on hard times. Raphael is as strong as a beast, and tends to learn by doing, not reading, if you catch my drift, and by the way you're nodding at me you have. Ignatz is a second son, so no inheritance, but he’s a talented archer, and could be better, but prefers books and art to training sometimes.” Claude’s voice turned deep with sarcasm. “Then there's “Lady” Hilda Goneril, the younger sister of Lord Holst. She's so spoiled even flies avoid her, but she could still probably murder me with an axe if she wanted. Something about her Crest makes her a lot more stronger and skilled than she appears.”

“Most Crests do that,” murmured Trips. “Do you have any magicians in this group?” Those students would fall under her responsibility.

“Oh boy do we ever,” grinned Claude. “We have Lysenthia von Ordelia, the fifteen year old magical prodigy from House Ordelia. She's cute as a button but deadlier than a wyvern. I like to tease her and she's mature enough that she hasn't turned me to ash...yet. Then there's the nobleman everyone loves to hate, Lorenz Hellman Glouscester. He's skilled and strong and smart, and has that extra special noble je ne sais quoi that makes his face appear extra punchable.” Claude sighed almost genuinely in regret. “He's actually quite decent and good-natured, but you have to put up with a lot of ego to even see a glimpse of it.”

“A Glouscester and an Ordelia,” said Trips, thinking out loud. “Anyone else?”

“Ah, finally, there's our resident wallflower Marianne von Edmund. I, uh, don't actually know if she has a Crest or not, because she freaks out and gets catatonically nonverbal whenever I bring it up. She seems to enjoy daily chapel and stable duty and...that's about it. She doesn't like to train, she doesn't like to cast magic, she doesn't even seem to like life. To be honest I thought she was deaf-mute at first, she spoke so little and ignored me so much.”

Jeralt grimaced at that. "Sounds like another young woman who needs a doctor’s intervention," he told Trips. She pursed her lips and nodded unhappily. "All right, let's get this over with." He nodded to Zarad, who opened the doors.

The Golden Deer students were lounging about and talking around a single table in the classroom, aside from the aforementioned Marianne, a light blue haired girl with bangs and a haunted expression. A girl in bright pink pigtails was the first to notice them.

"Hey, Claude, who's THIS you've brought with you? Oh wow, is one of you going to be our new professor?" she said in a wheedling voice. Jeralt tried not to take an instant dislike.

"Captain Jeralt! Oh Goddess, is it really you Captain? Are you really going to be our Professor?" said a tall girl in an orange bowl cut, her excitement spilling over.

"All right, knock it off, all of you," bellowed Jeralt. The students were stunned into silence, except for Leonie, who still seemed to be making high pitched noises in the back of her throat. "Yes, I'll be the new professor for the Golden Deer..."

Pandemonium erupted. Everyone began talking, shouting, or squealing all at once, aside from Marianne.

"THAT'S ENOUGH!" roared Jeralt in a battlefield shout of a general. "CADETS, FORM RANK! THAT MEANS YOU TOO, GOLDEN BOY!" He pushed Claude into the swarm of milling bodies.

Each noble and commoner formed into a single file rank, all at various degrees of attention. Lysithea, Leonie, and Lorenz were all flawlessly composed, while Hilda and Claude kept trying to elbow one another or make faces. Marianne and Ignatz looked terrified, while Raphael accepted it all with a smile. Jeralt walked up and down the line, his hands behind his back. Trips and Zarad rolled their eyes as they lounged near the door.

"All right, at ease, cadets," Jeralt announced. "Some of you know me, but most do not. Yes, I am Jeralt Eisner, former Knight-Captain of the Knights of Seiros. Lady Rhea has, um, pulled me out of retirement to be the new Professor for the Golden Deer.” Jeralt heard the twin smothered laughs behind him and he silently vowed to get his subordinates later. “I prefer to be informal myself, but if we have to be formal we can do that as well. I do, however, demand the respect of being listened to until I have finished speaking." Jeralt came to the end of the line and turned to the students there.

"My Lord of Gloucester, My Lady of Ordelia, and My Lady of Edmund," he announced. "I am grateful to say I know nothing of magic, except how to kill people who use it. Therefore you will be training with my assistant and fellow Knight-Auxillary, Lady Beatrix." Trips gave a smile and a wave to the students. "My Lady of Goneril and Mr. Kirsten will train in their chosen weapons and tactics with me."

"My Lord of Riegan, Mr. Victor, and Miss Pinelli will also train tactics and weapons with me, but also hone their stealth and archery skills with my corporal, Knight-Auxillary Zarad..."

"Whaaat? An Almyran Knight? You've got to be kidding me, right?" burst out Hilda. Claude closed his eyes and let out a slow breath, while every other student either smiled in glee or winced in sympathy. Jeralt wheeled immediately and suddenly loomed tall over the short pink haired noble.

"Hilda. The only thing I dislike more than being interrupted is repeating myself. So please leave, and start weeding," said Jeralt in a tone of death.

"Um. Ok. Where, Professor Jeralt?" said Hilda, subdued for once in her life.

"Garreg Mach."

"All of it?" the teen noblewoman gasped.

"If you start now, I may not include stable duty."

"Yes, sir...except I'm so fragile and not used to such hard labor. If maybe someone could help me? After all, we all interrupted at one point," she whined, using every ploy at her disposal.

"Hmmm," Jeralt said, his eyes roving at the other cadets. "You're right, Hilda. Someone should help you. Marianne!" he barked.

"Ah! Um, yes? Professor?" whispered the girl. Jeralt had seen mice that were more assertive.

"Please keep Hilda company while she weeds the grounds. Your job is to talk with Hilda and to watch her while she works, but you are NOT to help her. Understood?" demanded Jeralt.

"Um. Ok," whispered the pale girl. Jeralt had difficulty envisioning her on a training ground, much less a battlefield. He allowed Trips to help push the silent noble and whining noble outside the classroom to get them started on their chores, while Zarad beamed at an enraged Hilda in amusement.

"While those two are becoming good friends, I believe we have some more important things to discuss," smiled Jeralt at his students. "Such as winning the upcoming mock battle between the Houses."

Claude smiled broadly and looked at his remaining classmates. Leonie was grinning like a predator. Lysenthia and Lorenz both leaned forward with interest while Raphael smiled at an excited Ignatz.

“Captain Teach,” said Claude with solemn dignity, “I do believe that this is going to be a match made in heaven.”

*

“This is stupid,” grumbled Byleth, standing in a small sacristy inside Garreg Mach Cathedral.

“Not as stupid as mixing up the name of a Saint and the Archbishop, surely,” said Catherine in a mocking tone.

Byleth gritted her teeth for lack of a response. That little green haired imp of a girl--Flayn--had apparently told the story of Byleth's induction into the Knights of Seiros the past evening. It was now mid-morning, which meant everyone in the monastery had heard about it. She stood restlessly, wanting to get these inconvenient religious requirements out of the way. Apparently becoming a Knight of Seiros--especially one committed to the faith of the Church--was more involved and complicated than she had thought.

Shamir emerged from the interior of the sacristy closet. “Here we go. I think this one will fit you,” she stated, tossing Byelth a white robe. “Go ahead and put it on, and I’ll store your gear for you.”

Byleth nodded and set aside the sacred robe to begin unbuckling straps and removing armor and clothing without modesty, moving with careful efficiency to gather and fold her belongings. Catherine’s eyes bulged from her place by the doorway briefly, before she quickly turned her back and left, saying something under her breath.

The newest member of the Knights of Seiros stood naked as she handed her things to Shamir, who accepted them wordlessly. “What’s her problem?” Byleth said curiously, tilting her head at the doorway.

“I’ve wondered the same thing myself at times,” said Shamir with a smile. “Put on your robe and follow me.”

*

Byleth followed Shamir and Catherine outside the cathedral, which was so vast and empty and beautiful that Byleth’s mind shied away from contemplating it too much. Instead, she focused on following Shamir’s back as she carefully walked with bare feet on stones slick with moisture and moss. The stoneslick path eventually opened up to a beautiful wild garden behind the monastery proper, where a lightly bubbling natural pool gurgled, the view past it overlooking the all lands of the north, showing a high mountainous range that hid passes and valleys. Catherine swept one gauntleted hand to encompass the scene before her. “Behold, the Holy Pool. Legend has it that this is where Saint Seiros once bathed, to wash away her sins and worldly grief, to prepare herself to lead a life dedicated to serving the Goddess and await the time for her Rebirth.” She motioned Byleth vaguely to the pool. “Go ahead and hop in when you’re ready.”

Byleth examined the steaming water, but whether from heat or cold, she could not tell. “Did you have to do this?”

“Oh yeah. I didn’t have a choice at all. Any Holy Knight--and certainly one wielding one of the Sacred Relics --has to undergo all of the rituals and ceremonies for Knighthood. This is just the first one. Although the view is worth it, don’t you think?”

Byleth stood at the edge and contemplated the dark water of the pool. “For how long?”

Catherine’s armor clinked as she shrugged. “Long enough to get an idea of what you want to dedicate your Knighthood towards. I jumped in all at once, although the shock almost killed me. It was at that instant I realized I lov-” Catherine coughed, choked for a moment, and then she continued, “that I, uh, cared deeply for Lady Rhea.” 

Byleth nodded and unclasped her woolen belt and shrugged the white robe from her broad shoulders. She slowly stepped into the pool, feeling water-smooth rocks beneath her feet. The water felt...warm. She stepped in more quickly, enjoying the sensation of the water despite her earlier trepidation.

As she neared the deepest part of the pool, she heard Shamir lightly snort from where she admired the vista. “You’re bearing up well. That water is so cold I nearly died before I could get my clothes back on.”

At the archer’s comment, Catherine closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, massaging her sinuses. “Please tell me you did not come up here by yourself and desecrate the Holy Pool, Shamir.”

“Of course I didn’t desecrate it. I swam in it. Plus the view’s nice.” 

“I can’t believe you did that! You know there are sites that are only open to worshippers-” started Catherine hotly.

“Is that Zanado in the distance?” Byleth asked from the far end of the pool, hoping to head off another bickering argument both Knights seemed to thrive on.

Catherine huffed in disgust at a smirking Shamir and walked over to see where the immersed Byleth was pointing to the northwest. “What? Oh. Damn, girl. Good eye. Yeah, that’s where Zanado, the Red Canyon is. Strange place full of broken ruins and shattered rocks. It’s pretty green and brown, too. Don’t know why they call it the Red Canyon. Don’t think anyone knows.”

“I do,” said Byleth, sinking below the water for a moment. She seemed to be enjoying herself.

Catherine stared at Byleth as she swam through the cold dark water, bobbing through it without a flinch. “Really?” she gave a disbelieving snort. “Why is it called that, then?”

“Why is any geographic location called red when it’s obviously not? Probably because a battle was once fought there,” said Shamir, coming to stand by the pool. Byleth had been in there for a long time, for how cold the water felt.

Byleth dipped in her head again in the warm soothing water. It felt so welcoming. When she came up, she threw back her dripping hair and answered. “Shamir’s right. Seiros once lived there.”

Catherine threw an annoyed look at her stoic partner, then said incredulously to Byleth, trying to draw her out, “I’ve never heard of any story about Saint Seiros and the Red Canyon. Could you tell us more?”

Byleth moved her limbs slowly in the water and looked at the blue sky, feeling it pulse through her fingers and toes. The water covered her ears and changed the sound of her voice. “Shamir was right, but it wasn’t really a battle. It was more of a massacre. The Red Canyon is where Sothis died. Seiros came up here to wash off her mother’s blood, and her blood of her people, after the attack.” She flexed her arms and moved deeper into the water.

Catherine was at a loss for words for a moment, and almost jumped when she heard Shamir’s voice next to her. “What attack?” asked the archer quietly. Yet Byleth heard the question.

Byleth floated in the pool, her head above the water, and didn’t answer directly. She seemed to be in a trance, and said in a strange voice, “There were only six of them after the humans attacked, led by the traitor Nemesis. Seiros, Cichol, Aine, Cethleann, Indech, and Macuil. They had seen their guiding star, their mother Sothis, killed and butchered, her skin and bones used to make armor and weapons. They fled to here, exhausted and hunted, covered in blood. Seiros washed her mother’s blood from her face, her tears mixing with the blood in the water of the pool, and vowed revenge. Indech had lost his parents, Nuada and Boann. Macuil had lost his wife and child, Ogma and Ecne. As one, they all swore an oath not to rest until they had recovered the bodies of their loved ones. They then set off to the south, to Enbarr, to forge an Empire and a Church that could oppose Nemesis and his Elites.”

Shamir watched her partner closely, and noted that Catherine appeared rocked by what she was hearing. But she also noticed that Byleth was hardly moving, and was staring unblinkingly at the sky. She quickly knelt down to the water’s edge. “Byleth,” she called loudly.

“There is no Byleth,” said the floating woman.

“Byleth, follow my voice. It’s Shamir. You need to come out of the pool. It’s time.”

A low groan, followed by a whimper, came from the woman. She seemed to be at war within herself.

Shamir rose and hissed to Catherine. “She’s having some sort of stupid religious ecstasy! How do we get her out of there without diving in ourselves?”

Catherine snapped out of her shock and grinned at Shamir. “Like this,” she said, turning to face up the walkway. “Oh hello, Princess Edelgard, Prince Dimitri! Welcome! Please join us!” she shouted brightly.

A thrashing shriek came from the pool, followed by gasping coughs from Byleth as she tried to stagger upright in the chest deep water after falling under the water. She struggled to get her hair out from her eyes as water dripped from her nose and looked at her fellow Knights.

“Is it over? Did I do ok?” she asked between coughs.

Shamir and Catherine caught each other’s eye, and Shamir finally said, “You did fine, Byleth. Come out of the water and put your robe back on.”

As Byleth did as she was asked, now shivering and blue from the magically cold water, Shamir muttered in a low tone to Catherine, “Edelgard and Dimitri?”

Catherine winked at her and whispered, “Sometimes it’s best to cover all the bases.” Speaking louder, she told Byleth, “All right. Let’s get you back up to the Cathedral. We’ve got a lot more to cover.”

*

Dimitri smiled in gratitude towards Dedue as the large man, who was on kitchen duty today, served him a generous portion of thick stew for the noontime meal. Dedue nodded back with quickly hidden smile of his own to his Prince, then moved to attend the next student in line.

Dimitri moved away with his bowl and looked for an empty place to sit in the crowded dining hall. He wanted to hurry up with his meal and return to training, but knew from hard-learned experience that his food needed to cool first before he could consume it. The blisters and sores on his lips and mouth from eating hot food might be painless to him, but they would be unsightly, and it would cause his friends undue distress. He moved to an empty table and reached for a nearby basket of bread, crumbling a loaf into his bowl to help absorb the heat of his meal. He sniffed the stew experimentally and sighed. He could tell it was aromatic, but that was all. Dedue must have worked especially hard on this for him, trying to make for him a flavorful dish for his safe return to Garreg Mach, but it was useless. While he had fully recovered from the Tragedy in appearance, there were still aftereffects impacting his body.

And his mind.

“There you are,” sneered Glenn as he sat down in front of Dimitri. “How come you’re still alive and I’m dead?”

Dimitri blinked in shock, then tried to force his eyes to focus, to block out, as Glenn materialized into his younger brother Felix, sitting before him with his own tray but still looking at him with the same expression of disgust. “Felix. A good day to you, as well.”

“You didn’t even hear what I just said, did you? I don’t have time for this...” grumbled Felix as he made to stand and take his meal elsewhere.

“No! Please, I am sorry, I was merely...lost in thought,” apologized Dimitri. “Please, sit with me and talk.”

Felix sighed and relented. Resuming his seat, he told Dimitri, “I was saying you need to tell me what you know of those mercenaries that saved you. Turns out they’re now teaching the Golden Deer.”

“Who? Lady Byleth?” said Dimitri in surprise.

“No, she opted to become a Knight of Seiros. Typical. But Claude’s House Professor is now her father, Jeralt the Blade-Breaker,” said Felix, eyeing Dimitri closely. “You saw him in battle the other day, didn’t you?”

“I...I did, but not extensively,” Dimitri allowed. “He fought from horseback, with a well-trained war stallion beneath him, and fell on the bandits as they tried to flee the village. Most of them fell with cloven heads or missing arms to his broadsword. He appeared quite worthy of his reputation.”

“Hmph. Fighting from horseback gives you an advantage in combat, but only if your animal isn’t attacked,” muttered Felix, eating a bite. “Supposedly there was a mage he killed as well?”

Dimitri nodded. “I did not see the magic-user, but only magic could have blown a large hole in Remire’s modest walls,” the Prince said, stirring his stew with his spoon. “Lady Byleth and her father anticipated the villain’s movements, and arranged for a false retreat on horseback to turn into a quick charge on his isolated position. Lady Byleth’s stepmother, Lady Beatrix, is a spellcaster herself, and managed to negate any retaliation as the Captain killed the blackguard.”

“Interesting. Defensive magic protecting a warrior to let them do their job. Professor Hannemann has mentioned that before,” said Felix in appreciation. “What about--?”

“Hey, hey, if it isn’t the training ground zombies, out for a bite,” said a redhead man in an open jacket, sitting down next to Felix. “I swear I only see you guys at mealtimes. If that.”

Felix ignored the man and simply continued eating, but Dimitri paused to politely greet the newcomer. “Good day, Sylvain. I swear I only see you pursuing women...rather unsuccessfully, I might add.”

Sylvain’s handsome face grinned. “Ah, well, my string of tragic and completely faultless failures is coming to an end. The harder the chase, the greater the prize, as they say. And I couldn’t help but notice a certain blue haired beauty watching us the other day...”

Felix gave a groaning sigh, and Dimitri pointed his utensil towards his old friend as told Sylvain sternly, “You had better not be talking about who I think you are talking about....”

Sylvain laughed and said, “Oh my, does the Prince actually want to make a competing claim? I mean, she did get injured saving you, from what I heard. It’s your call, Prince Dimitri, you can stop me now if you want to. Otherwise, I’m cutting loose for a midnight rendezvous in Garreg Mach Cathedral.”

Even Felix was shocked enough to speak out at that innuendo. “You’re not going to try to seduce a knight-elect during their vigil in the cathedral, are you?” he said with a mix of amazed revulsion on his face. “That’s...that’s…”

“Utterly romantic if you think about it,” winked Sylvain. “After all, it just might be her last chance to be with a man before she swears her holy vows to only be true to Lady Rhea and the Goddess. Just picture it...it’s midnight and she’ll be lonely, sighing as she stares forlornly up at the altar, thinking of all her missed chances…then I step from the shadows, mourning that such beauty is about to be taken from the world...she smiles eagerly and invites me to join her on the floor…”

“Where’s Ingrid?” Dimitri abruptly asked.

Sylvain blinked as he paused in his lurid fantasy. “What? Oh, I dunno...I guess she went with the others to see Lord Seteth administer the liturgy of knighthood in the Cathedral…”

“Then let me inform you of something, Sylvain, as your future King. You have a choice. The first is that you can go and tell Ingrid everything you have just told Felix and me.”

“What?! No way, man, I mean...Prince Dimitri. She’ll slap the crap out of my face!”

“She will. Your other choice, however, is for me to slap your face,” grated Dimitri, his eyes burning. “The Lady Byleth was injured while providing me assistance in battle. She has been nothing but friendly and courteous and kind to me since. She is under my protection. And if you speak of her in such a manner again...then I will punch you in the face. Do I make myself clear?”

Sylvain thought it over briefly. Very briefly. He sighed bitterly as he got up to leave. “Fine, fine. I can take a subtle hint, Your Highness. You could have just said something…”

Dimitri glared at Sylvain the entire time until he left the room, making sure the other man knew he was serious in his intent. Doing so, he was slow to notice Felix examining him, an unreadable expression on his face. Dimitri gruffly took another tasteless morsel into his mouth, annoyed by the scrutiny. “Yes--?” he said shortly to Felix.

Felix’s eyes hardened at Dimitri. “The woman Byleth...you injured her, didn’t you? Because you were a careless beast. And all that drama with Sylvain was just your guilty conscience talking, right?”

Dimitri did not answer.

“That’s what I thought. Excuse me. I didn’t know I was eating at the pig trough. I’ll leave you alone to fatten yourself up,” Felix snarled and left.

Dimitri resumed chewing in silence, alone again, his meal half-done. He was almost finished. It was almost over. Then he could go train, and exert his body, and avoid…

King Lambert sat before his son, a bloody gash dripping across his throat and a look of hate and revulsion on his face. “So this is what you do all day. Eat, sleep, and think of girls, while I cry out for vengeance! When will you avenge my death, my son?”

Dimitri gazed fixedly at the empty chair before him, mindlessly chewing. He was giving his body, a machine for killing, the fuel it needed to become even better at what it did. What it was made to do.

“Soon,” he whispered.

*

“...and will you renounce the forces of wickedness in this world, that tempted even King Nemesis to darkness, and swear to be true the Words of Seiros?” chanted Seteth.

“I will,” said the blue haired woman in white robes kneeling before him.

“Hey guys,” whispered Sylvain, scooting into a pew. “Mind if I sit with you?”

Both Annette and Mercedes nodded and smiled, and Ashe looked enraptured at the scene before them, but Ingrid favored Sylvain with an annoyed scowl. “What are you doing here? This is the last place I expected you to be,” she crossly whispered.

“Ah, well, long story,” said Sylvain, sotto voice. Ingrid gave him another suspicious glance but looked forward to pay attention to the knighthood ceremony.

It was as boring as Sylvain had feared. Seteth droned on, asking questions about this or that, will you be true, will you be faithful, will you be charitable and dutiful and honest and defend the weak. The woman called Byleth bore it up well, stoically answering each question in a clear voice, while Catherine and an unfamiliar man that must be her father, the new Golden Deer professor, stood behind her as her sponsors into the Knights of Seiros. There were readings from the Book of Seiros. There were hymns written by Saint Indech and by Saint Cichol. Sylvain thought with annoyance that he wouldn’t mind attending Church services with Seteth leading them if only the man didn’t appear to be so smug and joyous during the entire event.

Desperate for distraction, Sylvain tried to surreptitiously cran his neck and scan the rest of the occupants of the pews while Ingrid was distracted by a prayer. He saw the lime green mass of curls that was Seteth’s sister in the front...no surprise there...as well as Ferdinand, Dorothea, and Professor Manuela nearby. Probably just wanted an excuse to sing. Looking in the opposite rows, he saw Lorenz, Ignatz, and Lysethia...typical crowd...but then with a start noted Leonie, as well as Claude of all people next to them. That was a surprise. Claude and Leonie skipped services almost as much as he did.

When the congregation stood for the closing hymn, where the procession would exit to leave the knight-elect alone at the altar to begin their holy vigil, Sylvain glanced behind himself while pretending to stretch. He only caught a glimpse of silver hair and black hair on pale faces, but it was enough. Wow, he thought. Even Edelgard and Hubert showed up for this one, and they were almost religiously irreligious, like most nobles of the Empire. This mercenary girl--Byleth--must have really made an impression on all three house leaders. FInally, mercifully, Seteth gave the closing blessing and they were done, except for the blue haired woman in white robes who still knelt before the altar with her sword, her back to all of them.

Mercedes smiled at the beaming Ashe and Ingrid as they left the nave of the cathedral. “What a lovely ceremony!” she said quietly. “It’s always touching to see someone dedicate their lives to the Divine, and try to be a bridge between the physical and spiritual.”

“It was fantastic,” sighed Ashe in wonder. “Imagine being found worthy of such honor, such recognition--!”

“I agree with Mercie,” said Ingrid. “While it is an honor, the true test of knighthood is pursuing the ideal, while knowing it will always be out of reach.”

“I think I know what you mean,” said Annette excitedly by Mercedes. “It’s like when no matter how hard you work, there will always be more to do! But as long as you never give up, you still manage to succeed.”

“What did you think, Sylvain?” Mercedes asked sweetly as they walked across the monastery bridge.

Sylvain considered his earlier thoughts about the vigil ceremony, and tried to hide his blush. “Well, ah, I thought it was great. Really. A beautiful young woman, dedicating her life to endless combat and toil and strife. A dream come true, for sure,” he said with bare sarcasm.

“Oh, come now, don’t be facetious. It’s her decision to make that choice. Why does it upset you?” inquired Mercedes, her smile gone. For Mercedes, this was the equivalent of a storming frown.

“Probably because he’s sad he’s lost access to another woman he can’t shamelessly flirt with like a rutting dog,” declared Ingrid with a toss of her blonde hair. “He’s only disappointed because he’s lost the opportunity to humiliate and disrespect her.”

“What? No! No, it’s not that!” protested Sylvain. “Who’s prejudging who, now?”

“Then what’s wrong with it?” asked Ashe, his face boyishly curious. Sylvain thought for a moment as they walked before replying.

“Ah, well, I dunno, there’s something sad about it. Maybe I did start thinking about it that way because of her gender, but it’s tragic when you think about it, that some people have to dedicate their lives to be so good, just because there’s so many people out there that are just the opposite. It’s almost like...a funeral, I guess, or even a wake. We’re celebrating someone giving up everything except duty and fighting just so the rest of us can be a little bit safer and enjoy life. They can never be one of the crowd again because of what they’re sacrificing, and we honor them to keep that commitment.”

Sylvain stopped walking as he realized he was talking to nothing but empty air. He turned around to see his classmates standing completely still, staring at him with varying degrees of amazement.

Annette finally looked at the others. “I swear, he does it on purpose.”

Ingrid resumed walking past Sylvain and said with a hint of bitterness, “He can’t, he doesn’t have enough self-awareness to do so in the first place.” Annette and Ashe followed, with Ashe saying, “I guess he’s social enough to have some insight into human nature...” as the trio entered the Great Hall.

Sylvain was befuddled by the reaction of his classmates. He looked back to Mercedes, who was still nearby and rubbing her eyes. “Mercedes? Did I say something wrong?”

She smiled at him, although it was mixed with a tremendous sadness as well. “No, Sylvain. What you said was right, and beautiful. It was just...it was like I got to see the real you for the first time,” she said softly.

“Real? I’m as real as it gets, Mercie!” he joked. Looking around, Sylvain said, “In fact, now that we’re alone and church is over...maybe we could grab a real dinner? It’ll be a special treat for you and me to spend some time together.”

Mercedes sighed. “And he’s gone again.”

Sylvain was trying to decide if he was being insulted, but Mercedes walked past him, saying “Whenever you get tired of playing games, Sylvain...I would like to meet that man again one day.”

The heir to House Gautier stood alone on the bridge in the afternoon sun. He looked up to the sky.

“Yep. Definitely being insulted.”

*

“You know, she will be alone in the Cathedral. It will just be a matter of disposing of the body and cleaning the bloodstains…”

“Hubert, this discussion is tiresome. My answer is no. We will not risk discovery when we are so close to achieving our goals,” responded Edelgard.

“Then why are we here?” asked Professor Jeritza, with lazy menace behind his white mask. It was evening at the monastery, and nearly everyone was either in the dining hall or preparing to retire to bed. They were alone in the dark monastery graveyard. 

Edelgard stopped in her thoughtful pacing to consider the man. A useful acquisition from the fallen House Bartels in the Empire, Jeritza was a nearly peerless warrior whose ability to use the Crest Gem, the Rafail Necklace, made him nearly invulnerable to conventional weaponry. Not that he worried much about defense in the first place. It was hard to do so when many of your opponents were felled by your first, and only, strike. Unfortunately, such expertise had also made him rather one dimensional; the man was almost literally unable to think of anything other than combat and death.

The plan to place him as the head Professor of the Golden Deer House had failed. Edelgard briefly worried if Rhea was trying to subtly counter the moves against her from behind the scenes, but shook her head at her imagination going wild. The reptile was anything but subtle. If Rhea had any idea of what was planned against her, she and Hubert would already be sliding down her gizzard. But now Jeritza did need a new mission goal, or he could lose focus, and start killing for simple enjoyment of it again.

“Jeritza. You will keep your current occupation as a Combat Instructor here at the monastery. When you judge the moment ripe, kill the remaining fools from Kostas’ group in the dungeons with an unmarked blade and clumsy blows. You must remain free of suspicion. In the meantime, take the measure of Jeralt and his group of mercenaries and...Byleth,” Edelgard said with reluctance. “Since they are no longer within my...our...sphere of influence, we must be prepared to act accordingly. But only at my command. Do you hear?”

“The Blade-Breaker and his daughter…” murmured Jeritza, with a feral glint behind the eyes of his mask. He bowed in gratitude, his pale blonde ponytail shining in the moonlight . “Yes, it is possible they might be worthy. I hear and understand, Your Imperial Highness,” he said, then took his leave for the training grounds.

Edelgard turned to see Hubert looking at her rather directly, with arms folded as he stood tall above her. She looked away, refusing to meet his gaze. “What is it, Hubert?” she said in an irritated voice.

“You are not thinking clearly, my future Empress,” he said bluntly, with an apologetic bow. “You have commanded me to speak my mind in all matters. But you may not wish to hear what I have to say to you now.”

Edelgard turned her back to him, but only said, “Say on, Hubert.”

“You are becoming distracted,” whispered Hubert in his sibilant voice. “You care for that mercenary, and have developed feelings for her...possibly against your will, but they are there just the same. But now, after her vigil tonight, she will become a Knight of Seiros , one of your enemies. You must force yourself to accept this.”

“And I will!” Edelgard snapped, still not looking at him. “Remember to whom you are speaking, Hubert,” lowering her voice, husky with strong emotion. “While you were being instructed in your own role as the future Count Vestra, I was being forged into something beyond even your experience. I was forced to become the Flame Emperor, and I think I have demonstrated beyond doubt that I am capable of anything to achieve my goals.”

“As you say, my Lady Edelgard. I am merely warning you that you will be called upon to demonstrate such conviction again. Not just once. Or twice. But always and constantly, as we follow you on the path you blaze for the Empire.”

Edelgard said nothing for a long moment. “I...understand, Hubert. Thank you for your wisdom, and for reminding me of my duty. Now...I believe...it is time for me to retire for the evening,” she said, still not looking at him. She turned and ascended the stone staircase from the graveyard to the monastery proper.

Hubert stood in the graveyard for some while, contemplating the headstones. When he judged it time, he slowly moved to the edge of the graveyard terrace, where a steep drop guarded by a stone barrier lay. It afforded him a clear view of the Cathedral in the distance, and the pale small figure in red walking across the ancient stone bridge into it.

Ah, Lady Edelgard, thought Hubert with a slight mental rebuke. This infatuation could not have come at a worse time. And so, he thought grimly, it falls to House Vestra to defend House Hresvelg once more. Even from the most pernicious and deadly poison of all.

Chapter Text

Ch 10

The Vigil

Byleth’s knees ached.

The cushion helped for the first hour or two, but eventually even it started to chafe her skin, even through the soft woolen smoothness of her white sacred robe. It was now nearing late evening, and Byleth wondered how she was going to be able to stand or fight again if her stance was compromised. She tried to relax and clench various muscles in sequence to avoid cramping, but then ceased her flexing when she felt her full bladder protest inside of her. No one had told her where a night pot might be in the Cathedral, and she had forgotten to ask for directions to one. She looked at the altar, illuminated by the five large glowing candles, representing the five saints of the Church, that had begun to shine in her eyes, making the rest of the empty Cathedral appear as a soundless black void. Surely Sothis would forgive her if she laid down her sword, very quietly, and got up to go outside…

“Hey,” echoed a whisper from the darkness. Byleth twisted in surprise at the voice, trying to get up and raise her sword on guard at the same time. Her stiff muscles betrayed her as her legs refused to function, forcing Byleth to drop her sword in mid-turn with a clatter that thundered like an orchestra of cymbals in the dark cathedral.

Edelgard strolled forward into range of the candlelight, amused in spite of the woman’s rejection of her. “You are going to be the clumsiest Knight of Seiros in history if you keep that up,” she said in a normal voice, the air of the cathedral still ringing in reverberations.

Byleth stood slowly, rubbing her knees through her white robes. “Your--I mean...Edelgard. I’m sorry, you surprised me. What are you doing here? I don’t want you to get into trouble,” she half-whispered, not wanting to raise her voice. The empty cathedral magnified any sound to a seemingly deafening roar.

Edelgard didn’t answer Byleth directly, instead moving past her to look at the altar, with the golden and ivory Symbol of Saint Seiros atop of it. “So you chose her after all,” she said, not looking at Byleth.

Byleth felt her skin grow cold as she shook her head. She swallowed past a suddenly dry mouth. “Edelgard...I’m sorry. Lady Rhea didn’t give me much of a choice. I wasn’t allowed to become a student with you. Seteth said I was too experienced.” Edelgard looked back at her angrily, but Byleth tried to finish. “I don’t even know if I want to become a Knight,” she finished lamely, looking at the white ornamental robes on her body.

“It’s a little late now,” said Edelgard in an obvious tone, her face still locked into a scowl.

“I know. But I had to accept,” appealed Byleth to her, her eyes wide. “I wanted to be able to stay here...somehow...and I thought that this was the best way I could do it.”

Edelgard’s anger was leaving her slowly, making her appear small and sad. “Was there really no other way than this?” she asked, almost pleading.

“I’m...not sure,” Byleth said, stung by Edelgard’s disapproval. “I knew I didn’t want to become a Professor, and they couldn’t let me be a student…”

“Wait. What did you say? They offered for you to become...a Professor? Of the Golden Deer House?” exclaimed Edelgard in shock.

Byleth shook her head quickly. “Oh no! They said I could have a choice of any House,” she said. “I...I couldn’t decide. It was just too big of a job. I only know how to fight with a sword, and some hand to hand combat and wrestling.” Byleth grimaced as if she had eaten something foul. “I don’t know anything about Crests, or nobles, or magic or healing. I know how to ride horses and do some lance work, I guess…”

“That’s...astonishing,” said Edelgard with unfeigned interest. “So Rhea wanted you as her first choice? To be a Professor? Of any House? And you’re just...twenty-one, is that correct?”

“That’s what she said,” Byleth shrugged. “I thought it was strange too. Seteth seemed mad at the idea. Even my Dad told me later he thought it was better that I become a Knight. They said that it was the only way I could continue to see students.” She turned to face Edelgard directly. “I’m sorry if it makes you mad. But...I thought Rhea wouldn’t let me talk to you again if I didn’t…”

“No,” Edelgard said slowly, looking tired suddenly. She sat down on the altar steps. “You are right. I cannot be not angry with you, Byleth. I am simply...upset at the situation. We let ourselves be lulled into a childish fantasy.”

Byleth’s knees creaked as she sat next to Edelgard, feeling comfort in her warmth nearby. “I’m still your friend, Edelgard...if you want me to be. We may not see each other as much as we may want, but I’ll request my service to be placed with the Black Eagles. Rhea seems to like me.”

“Now, there is an offer that is hard to refuse,” said Edelgard, smiling at her. “My own personal Knight of Seiros, at my command. What shall I order you to do first?”

Byleth felt more at ease with the teasing joke and smile from her friend. It made her feel weak and loose, but in a nice way. “Well, I could ask Lady Rhea to assign me to be your bodyguard. Your loyal Hubert can’t be by your side all the time. But I can,” she said, feeling very odd to be joking with a friend in the enormous dark cathedral, while she was supposed to be on a silent sacred vigil until morning. But it felt much too fun to stop.

“You are incorrigible!” chuckled Edelgard in the dim light. “So much for your sacred vows as a Knight. But...I am pleased you are so at ease with me. You don’t treat me like I’m made of glass, or constantly remind me that great things are expected of me. It is a refreshing change of pace.”

“I’m just…” Byleth wondered at herself, and what these strange sensations in her mind and body actually were. “I guess...um, oh, I know. You mentioned something about auras, when we first met in Remire. You said I had one to you. Well...I guess what I’m trying to say is...you have one for me, too.”

Edelgard sat quietly at that, seemingly lost in thought. Byleth took the opportunity to admire her friend in the candlelight, wondering at her past, wondering what unique noble burdens she was considering and calculating. She was three and a half years younger than Byleth, but so serious and formal that Byleth was sure she was hiding scars. Dimitri had said something about an insurrection...and her father, the Emperor. And now she’s afraid of something, Byleth realized, but it must be so outside of her own experience she could hardly guess what it was.

“Byleth,” said Edelgard eventually, looking away. “I want to privately tell you something about myself, so you might realize why it is so difficult for me to accept you as a Knight of Seiros. Will you listen, and keep this secret to yourself?”

Byleth said, “Always,” as she rose to her feet, grateful for the release in her stiff muscles, raising up a startled Edelgard by her hand. “But let’s not do it here. Let’s go outside.”

Edelgard stared at her. “But there’s no one here. Why go outside?”

Byleth’s face became pained, the strain finally getting to her, and she whispered to the younger woman, “I need to piss like a horse.”

*

Edelgard was still chortling when Byleth rejoined her, too relieved to even care. They stood outside the Cathedral, near the Goddess Tower and on the battlements that overlooked the mountains to the west, leaning against the crenulated walls and staring at the infinite starlit sky above, with the dark and dim earth below. For long moments, each said nothing, occasionally stealing looks but mostly content to simply share the night together, hearing the softness of the wind and trees play counterpoint to the moaning warm springtime gusts through the stone barbicans and gates of the monastery.

Eventually Byleth stirred and said, “Thank you for visiting me tonight.”

Edelgard sighed and looked away in the dim light. “It was not intended to be a visit. Not at first. I was going to yell at you for abandoning me. I wanted to tell you to never talk to me again, that you hurt me by picking the Knights over the Black Eagles of Adrestia, and that you would regret that. While walking over the bridge to the cathedral, I rejected you a hundred times over in my thoughts. I was expecting tears, screaming, even blows. I wanted to do anything to end our new friendship. I...I thought it for the best.”

Byleth suddenly found air difficult. “Then...what changed your mind?”

“You did,” confided Edelgard, with a shy glance that clearly had an effect on the ex-mercenary. “I wanted to fight, but you were just...yourself. Completely without guile...if still a little clumsy,” she teasingly added. “But you just want my approval, to still be my friend, to even be my Knight...I cannot be angry with that. It’s quite touching, if I may be honest. It has been...a very long time since I have had anyone treat me like that.”

Edelgard could feel more than see Byleth turn her face to her. “I’m sorry. It seems all I do is bring up bad memories for you.”

“No, they are not...not all bad,” Edelgard tried to say clearly. “In fact, you remind me of how I felt when I had good memories. Before...”

“You don’t have to tell me about all that,” said Byleth firmly, now stern. “If it’s noble stuff, you really don’t. I don’t want you to complicate your life or make you feel sad just because you met me.”

Edelgard thought her heart couldn’t ache any more. She was wrong. Oh, Byleth, my sweet fool, you have. The proud Imperial Princess mastered herself slowly. Maybe...maybe she could still thread this needle, still untie this bag of knots she had unwittingly created for herself. She took a deep breath and began speaking.

“Very well. However I was going to tell you my secret, Byleth. Perhaps it is not appropriate for me to share this with a knight-elect on the night of their Holy Vigil. But you should know that the Church has many secrets. Dark secrets. They have burned or confiscated countless books to hide the truth about their origins and the origins of the nobility. They have even killed scholars who have accidently discovered the truth in their research. But as the heir to the Empire of Adrestia, I have learned much of what the Church tries to hide. What Rhea tries to hide.”

Her companion absorbed this quietly in the darkness. “So you’re mad at the Church for keeping secrets?” Byleth finally asked.

“In part,” Edelgard answered. “But I am more angry to know that the Empire...that Fodlan itself...suffers because of the system they keep in place. A system of nobles and secret cardinals controlling common people, just because they have Crest bloodlines, and commoners do not. My dream, when I am finally Empress, is for individuals to be placed in positions of authority and trust because they are worthy and conscientious, not simply because of who had noble parents or grandparents. ”

“But you’re a noble with a Crest, too. You’re the heiress of the Empire. You’re going to take the throne and control people...to make them stop being controlled?”

The Princess shortly laughed at that. “It does seem like a contradiction, doesn’t it? But without the power to fulfill my dreams, that’s all that they will remain. So I must use my own title, my own position, to try and help common people...like you...be recognized for your ability. I would like for you...a capable person without a Crest...to share that dream with me. To help other common girls feel that they can be friends with a noble, and for that artificial barrier to be forgotten like the ancient relic that it is. But if you are part of the Knights of Seiros, then you become a part of a system, a part of an army, supporting something I abhor.”

Byleth was silent for a moment. “I think I understand,” she said quietly. “It’s like when my Dad and I fought against another mercenary troop in Gloucester territory. They had helped us put down bandits and pirates in Hyrm territory the year before that. We had fought together, lived together, ate together...but the next year we had accepted new contracts, and suddenly we were on different sides. So we had to fight. And kill. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

“Precisely, my friend. I would like to stay on the same side with you, Byleth,” Edelgard said softly, wondering if she was being too obvious for even the commoner to notice.

“We will,” said the mercenary turned Knight, her tone ringing with faith. “We’re friends now, Edelgard. Friends never change sides.”

Edelgard smiled gratefully, “Then you should know that the Church…”

“But I also agree with what you said at first,” interrupted Byleth, acting strangely assertive. “Maybe it’s not appropriate now. Maybe you shouldn’t try to drive a wedge between me and the Church tonight. If their lies are as bad as you say, it will become obvious to everyone, won’t it?”

“But this is a lie that has existed for a thousand years, Byleth,” Edelgard said now in earnest appeal. “Wicked men like the nobles who supplanted my father support it, as well as the blind noble fools of the Kingdom, and the selfish, petty nobles of the Alliance. They are lies that are the stone foundations of the Church, embedded into the Book of Seiros itself. Lies they made you repeat, today, during the knighthood ceremony.”

The Princess could sense Byleth becoming agitated. “What sort of lies were those? I wanted to help people and agreed to that. I can be true and charitable. That’s easy. But I wasn’t listening to Seteth all the way through, if I’m being completely honest.”

Edelgard felt a surge of triumph and pleasure. Her plan to convert this powerful mercenary might actually work. “Well, Seteth lied about the history of the Church, such as Nemesis and the Ten Elites, the progenitors of the noble system. And the true origins of their power.”

“Oh, that,” said Byleth dismissively, looking at the stars. “I just assumed they’d just gotten their history wrong at some point. I think it’s understandable, though. People wouldn’t want Crests so badly if they knew where they really came from, right?”

The silence in the darkness lasted long. Byleth turned her head to look at the shadow of her friend. “Edelgard--?”

“Y--yes, I’m here, Byleth,” said Edelgard, her equilibrium still shattered. This mercenary knew! She somehow was privy to the darkest, deadliest secrets of the Church, and of the nobility of Fodlan. At once Edelgard revised her plans. Hubert undoubtedly wanted the woman dead, and Edelgard had been almost reluctantly ready to agree to the necessity. She bitterly remembered her last lesson from her Lord Uncle: a Flame Emperor cannot be distracted by love. And then had personally forced Edelgard to kill it, to extinguish it from her life.

But this revelation changed everything. Byleth, the Knight of Seiros, her friend, must live, because she might be a source of vital knowledge or power. Edelgard was convinced she had accidentally stumbled onto a new facet of the Central Church’s history. Her father Jeralt had left the Church; had he inadvertently stumbled onto the truth about Rhea, and fled for his life? But then why return with his daughter, and allow her to become a Knight in turn? Why confide to her this dark secret? And why was Rhea allowing her to roam free, to say these secrets to anyone? Had she told Claude? Or even Dimitri? Edelgard slowly mastered her speculating thoughts, focusing on the here and now. She had been silent too long, and Byleth was no doubt curious about her reaction.

“So,” the Princess eventually asked, “I see you know all of this, yet still wish to swear to the Church?”

“I don’t know,” Byleth admitted after a silence. “It’s a way to stay here with you...along with Claude and Dimitri, and all of your friends. I get to help protect all of you and help teach. My family thinks we need to be here, for now.” She sighed. “Maybe you’re right as well, and the Church is full of secrets and lies. But we can help change that, right?”

“What if the Church...if Rhea...doesn’t want to change?” challenged Edelgard.

Byleth shrugged, even though Edelgard could hardly see it. “My dad left the Church. I’m sure he had a good reason.”

Edelgard chuckled at that in the darkness, and said, “Well, at least you are planning to keep your mercenary attitude going into the Knights. I suppose that is the most I can hope for at the moment. Although you must keep what I revealed secret. From anyone, including your father. Or our friendship ends at this moment.”

Byleth reached out, clumsily, to touch her friend’s hand. She grabbed Edelgard’s uniformed arm, and slowly moving her hand across it until she could clasp her gloved fingers, the contact sending thrills. “I, Byleth Eisner, Knight of Seiros, do swear to keep the secrets of my friend Edelgard von Hresvelg, until she releases me from my oath.”

Edelgard squeezed the fingers of her friend’s hand in turn. “I accept your oath, Byleth Eisner,” said the Princess, feeling overjoyed by this turn of events. She had done it. Byleth belonged to her now, and not to some preening dragon leading a cult...

In the dark, with stars spinning above them, holding the heat of Byleth’s hand, Edelgard suddenly felt like a young child again, when the past was inconsequential and the future limited only by imagination. She felt a pressure in her lungs and suddenly was breathing deep gulps of air, smiling for the simple joy of it. She could tell her friend--her Knight now, not Rhea’s!--felt similarly excited, if the strong trembling grip on her hand was any indication. Suddenly Byleth spoke again. “May I tell you a secret, Edelgard? It’s a secret about who I am. But please keep it to yourself.”

Edelgard tried to control her interest, wondering if this might lead to the information she sought. “Very well. You have my word, as the heiress of the Empire, that I will keep your secret.”

“Thank you,” said Byleth, pausing for a moment. Edelgard could almost see the woman try to coalesce her thoughts, forming a narrative that might provide valuable information. She did the best she could to cool her excitement while they were still shyly holding hands.

Slowly Byleth started to speak. “Edelgard...I’m...not like most people. I had a...condition...while I was growing up in Remire. I still have it. It made it hard for me to relate to others, since I couldn’t act the same way that they did. They would make repetitive barking noises, or show their teeth, or scrunch up their face and make water from their eyes. I didn’t know what any of it was.” Byleth took a breath. “Over time, I learned by habit. The noises were laughing, the teeth was usually a smile, and the water from the eyes was crying and sadness. But I still have difficulty doing anything like that myself.”

Edelgard stirred at this information, slightly disappointed but still interested. “You always did appear to be a master of your expression. I assumed it was just a stoic mask to hide your emotions.”

“A mask, yes. But I can’t control it. Or help it. After I grew older, my father and Trips...ah, I mean Beatrix... told me I would have to tell people how I was feeling, since they couldn’t tell by my face. But that was easy, since I usually felt nothing like how they were telling me it would feel. I guess that’s why I trained so much. It was easier to know what getting stronger was, or feeling tired, or hungry, or hot or cold. But all the emotions...the inside feeling stuff...I just couldn’t do it. Or find it.”

“You cared for your family and friends, surely?” said Edelgard slowly, already toying with this revelation in her mind.

“I...think so. I want to be around them. It’s fun to think of jokes, or make faces. I like to be around them. I want to defend them and I know they’ll defend me. I’m used to it and comfortable with it.” Now Byleth swallowed. “But you...I’m sorry. But...being with you makes me feel the inside things. I think. I’m not sure. I’ve never felt like this in my life.”

Edelgard forced herself to full attentiveness, slowly realizing in shame and horror what Byleth was trying to reveal. She wanted to let go of Byleth’s hand, but could not. Instead she said in a weak voice, “Tell me, Byleth. Tell me all of it.”

“I...want to see you when you’re gone away from me. I’m always grateful when you’re with me. I want to protect you, even though I know you don’t need it or want it. I’m worried you’ll leave me behind without telling me why. It’s...confusing to me. And...um...it makes it hard to think. Or say the right things. Often. And sometimes I feel warm on my face. Or cold on my skin. Do you feel those things?”

Edelgard did, but she reigned them in tightly and ruthlessly. “Sometimes,” she allowed, forcing her voice to firmness.

“Good,” said Byleth, sounding more relaxed and confident. “Maybe you can tell me what they are one day. Because I think you’re the only friend I have who can.”

Edelgard was feeling shaken to her core, still fascinated by a mixture of pity and horror at Byleth’s self-discovery. “I...I do not think that is wise, Byleth. I am hardly an expert in such matters.”

Byleth shrugged in careless ignorance. “I don’t think you need to be. You just need to be normal compared to me. But it’s now very late, Edelgard,” she said, looking up at the sky. “I may have to stay up all night, but you don’t. You should get some sleep.” She let her hand drop from Edelgard’s, slowly, reluctantly.

“It is of no consequence,” said Edelgard, struggling to maintain her mask. “Sleep provides little rest for me. But you are right that I should return to my room.”

They walked slowly in the darkness together, moving through the massive cathedral door they had cracked open, reentering the dimly lit nave, the five candles on the altar burning low in their wicks.

As Byleth walked back to her place by the altar, where her sword lay nearby her knee cushion, Edelgard cursed herself but had to ask. She had to know now. “Byleth...do you know what love is?”

Byleth stared at the Princess without comprehension, then her eyes widened. “Oh, that. Trips explained it to me. Is that when two people take off their clothes and lie down like--”

“No, Byleth! No. That’s not what it is. Not all of it,” said Edelgard, shaking her head rapidly, cutting off the poor simple girl. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, laying a white gloved hand over her eyes. She felt the stirrings of a headache starting as she said, “You really do have a condition, don’t you? I was hoping for a moment that you were joking.”

Byleth shook her blue mane. “I wouldn’t joke about something like that, Edelgard. Not with you. I guess you see now why I need your help.”

“Yes,” murmured Edelgard sadly. “I do. Good night...my friend. I will see you tomorrow.”

“Good night, Edelgard. Thank you for spending time with me,” said Byleth, bowing. She turned to collect her sword and resume her place before the faintly glowing altar.

The Imperial princess walked blindly back through the darkness, moving quickly away from the unfortunate woman she left behind at the altar. She bumped into the cathedral doors and quickly opened and closed them, not wanting Byleth to hear her break down.

Byleth had fallen for her. Byleth...that strange, solemn mercenary...had fallen in love with her, Edelgard von Hresvelg...and she didn’t even know it. Edelgard wasn’t manipulating Byleth’s emotions as she had thought; she was literally creating them for her, who had never felt them before, and she enjoyed the new sensation of “inside” feelings so much that she probably would willingly let Edelgard continue to do so until the end of her days.

It was too overwhelming. It was too much innocence, too much naive, childlike trust that was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into Edelgard’s cold and calculating hands. It opened up memories and emotions the Imperial Princess thought locked away forever, buried under a pragmatic iron will that focused only on the concrete, on results and nothing else.

Her Uncle had tried to make certain of that. Had tried to forge away her weakness. And it had worked, until the Flame Emperor had met a wide eyed, blue haired, trusting woman who had saved her life, saved her from her own ill-intentioned plans, then stepped easily through her masks and defenses like they were not even there.

Edelgard paced up the dark stone stairs slowly, each footfall sounding like an accusing thud of damnation. Byleth loved her. Byleth just wanted Edelgard to teach her how to feel. Just wanted to be her friend. Just wanted to protect her after saving her life.

And in return, Edelgard had been making plans to kill her.

She was finally back to her room on the second floor dormitory. She closed the thick wooden door behind her, locking the latch quickly, and finally let her own emotions, her “inside feelings” reign as she slid down to the cool stone floor.

Hating herself for the hot tears, hating that sweet foolish woman-child, hating her Uncle, hating Rhea, and hating life itself, the Imperial Princess of Adrestia sat curled up in a ball on the floor by her dormitory door.

*

Chapter Text

Ch 11

The Peerage

The Holy Sword of Seiros, gleaming in the light of the noon-lit Cathedral, bounced off of Byleth’s shoulder.

“You are now Lady Byleth Eisner, Sanctified Knight of Seiros. Join your peers, Lady Byleth,” announced Lady Rhea in a triumphant voice that rang throughout the cathedral.

A thunderous cheer and applause sounded out before Byleth could even rise and turn to face the crowd. She was dressed in gleaming white chain and leather armor, complete with a white cloak with the red Symbol of Seiros, provided and customized for her by the Knights, after trading in her simple white robe after the end of her vigil this morning. It felt good on her body, but she knew it would take time to get used to the heavier weight of the chain links on her shoulders. Her tired eyes sought out her mercenary friends in the pews, proudly clapping and whooping and waving, trying to show her how happy they were for her. She gave them a smile and a nod, then looked to another pew to see the House Leaders with their professors, including her father, Trips, and Zarad standing next to a whistling Claude. A drawn and hollow-cheeked Edelgard was politely clapping next to a white robed woman--Professor Manuela, Byleth recalled--and a masked man with bleached hair...Professor Jeritza. She felt a stab in her mind over Edelgard’s haggard appearance, and mentally noted to talk to her friend to take care of herself. Dimitri was smiling and clapping for her as well, next to a grey haired man in brown and grey robes, although he appeared sad as well for some reason.

There was a press of people gathering about her after the ceremony, congratulating her and welcoming her to the Knighthood. Byleth tried to nod and greet and make the most appropriate noises her exhausted brain could allow. It seemed to go on forever, and after a full day without food and two days without rest, Byleth was nearing her limits.

“Well there she is, the Knight of the day,” yelled a booming, cheerful voice. Byleth distinctly heard her father’s groan rise over the noise of the crowd.

A mustached and goateed man with brown hair in elaborate white armor forcibly turned Byleth around by the shoulders, then bent forward to shake her hand vigorously while grinning all the while. “Alois Rangeld, Knight-Captain of the Knights of Seiros, at your service Lady Byleth! I am so pleased that I managed to get here in time to see you become one of us! I was your father’s former squire when he was with the Knights, you know. And now like father, like daughter!” He was still shaking her wrist.

Byleth had to use both hands to disengage herself from the sunlit, laughing face of the Knight-Captain. “Thank you, Captain Alois. It is nice to meet you. We’ll talk later, hopefully.” Turning away, she heard Alois shout, “That’s right! We’ll meat and greet at your feast of honor, won’t we? I hear the food will be so good it’s...divine! Ha!”

Claude’s dark handsome face was suddenly before her, along with the scarred face of her father looking at her with amused sympathy, as they hustled Byleth away from Alois. “Hey, Miss Jeralt...I mean Lady Byleth. Don’t worry, we’re here to rescue you from the wicked Knight of Puns,” smiled Claude.

Byleth gave a steady look at her father, and Jeralt started chuckling. “I’m sorry, kid, but there’s nothing that competes with your first time meeting Alois. I couldn’t resist letting it happen, until Zarad and Trips decided to run interference. We’ll escort you to the dining hall.”

“Thank you,” said Byleth, adjusting her armor as they walked across the bridge from the cathedral. “I’m sorry, but I am getting tired.” She concentrated on smoothing her gait under the new weight, but soon looked at Claude and her father. “How do you like the new Golden Deer professor, Claude?”

Jeralt snorted, and Claude grinned. “Miss Jeralt, your father is almost as good a schemer as myself. Although he doesn’t approve of my more innovative ideas.”

Jeralt said with long patience, “Poisoning your enemy is a perfectly valid tactic, Claude. I just wouldn’t poison your classmates or professors, people with whom you are trying to bond with at the academy. That sort of thing causes ill will among the nobility.”

“It’s not poison, just a minor inconvenience…”

“Yeah, kid, no. Belly flux is no laughing matter. End of debate.”

Claude sighed mournfully. “And that’s the downside of having a mean mercenary as your professor. He’s a stickler for class discipline. Although I thought sending Hilda to the infirmary was a bit much.”

“I did not send her to the infirmary,” growled the Professor defensively. “Your little kind soul of a classmate took her. Besides, when you told me she had never worked a day in her life, I didn’t know you meant that literally.”

Byleth’s gaze turned inquiring, and Claude told the story with relish. “Little miss Lady Hilda Goneril decided to pull her spoiled rich kid act with your dad. He was not amused and sent her out to weed the gardens of Garreg Mach.”

“All of them?” Byleth asked her dad with reproof.

Her father sighed. “It was meant to be a lesson, and I was going to stop her when I felt she had learned it. I didn’t know she was going to cut her hands open bloody after the first plot. How can someone her age not have calluses on their hands yet, anyway? Doesn’t she train with an axe?”

“And how many other students ended up injured after their first day?” Byleth questioned Claude.

“No one else, surprisingly. Your father was very patient, and didn’t even kill Lorenz or Ignatz even though I could tell he clearly wanted to.”

“They’ve got some growing up to do,” allowed Jeralt. “Lorenz needs to get his head out of his ass, and Ignatz needs to get his head out of the Goddess’ ass. At least Leonie and Raphael are normal enough, and that kid Lysenthia…” He looked at Claude. “I think you’d better stop teasing her, for your own sake, or I’m going to have to send you back to your Grandfather in an urn. A small one.” Claude laughed but nodded. 

Rapid steps behind them heralded the arrival of Trips and Zarad catching up with them. “Oh Goddess save me,” gasped Trips. “Jeralt, when you said you knew some characters here at Garreg Mach, you were not kidding.”

Zarad still looked back to the cathedral in appalled bemusement. “That man’s mouth is a weapon, and he carelessly injures all within earshot. Yet you made him your squire! Captain, my already low respect for you has now vanished into the spirit realm.”

The group of them were still laughing and chatting when they were met at the door of the dining hall by a large Duscar man, who bowed to Byleth.

“Lady Byleth. Prince Dimitri has invited you to join him at your convenience. I hope you find the food prepared to your liking.”

“Yes, ah, thank you, Dedue,” Byleth said, her tired brain barely remembering the Blue Lion’s name. The large man nodded and rejoined the kitchen staff. The dining hall had been converted to a standing room, with steaming trays of food available for a line of hungry students, mercenaries, and Knights waiting with plates in hand. Couples and cliques of students gathered together in corners, some with food in hand, while in the rear of the room, a single long table for professors and Knight-Captains had been set. Byleth examined the crowd, but only saw the green hair of Flayn interweaving with the uniformed cadets and armored knights and mercenaries. “Where is the Archbishop and High Abbot?” she wondered.

Her father muttered something, then said clearly, “Lady Rhea and Lord Seteth like to take their meals in private. Something about the dignity of their offices or such rot. Not the best practice for inspiring trust and loyalty in my opinion.”

“Well,” said Claude brightly, “speaking of trust and loyalty, this is an excellent time for Lady Byleth to familiarize herself with her charges, don’t you agree?” Byleth had barely nodded before she was being led off by her arm with the young man. Zarad and her dad smirked at her while Trips laughed as they queued up for food.

The first group they neared were the Brigid Princess and Duke Aegir’s son talking with Lorenz and Leonie, two of her father’s students. “Ah, here we have Lorenz and Leonie chatting it up with Ferdinand and Petra. Good,” Claude murmured in her ear, gently reminding her of the students’ names. She acknowledged each of them as they were reacquainted.

“Congratulations, Lady Byleth,” said Leonie, admiring Byleth’s new armor. “It looks like the Knights don’t spare any expense for new recruits!”

“Indeed, it is quite unusual to receive such a personalized gift so quickly. It appears you have found a favor of sorts in Lady Rhea’s eyes,” said the tall Lord Gloucester.

“It wasn’t my idea,” said Byleth, extending her arms to display the gleaming chain links and arm guards. “But I couldn’t refuse it. I’ll have to train to get used to wearing it. And be worthy of Lady Rhea’s expectations.”

“Well said, Lady Byleth! For my part, I think a suit of armor is the least the Archbishop could do for the savior of three nobles. I heard that you not only saved Edelgard and Dimitri, but killed the mage that was about to slay our Lord Duke here himself!” said Ferdinand with a dazzling smile.

“Actually, my father…” started Byleth, but she was interrupted by the Brigid Princess.

“Lady Byleth, Ferdinand has telled me many stories of your strength. It is only natural for you to be recognized for the salvation of our friends,” said Petra earnestly.

“Ah, thank you, Your Highness. But as I was saying everyone did their part. Claude’s marksmanship and Prince Dimitri’s strength counted for much, as well as Princess Edelgard’s skill with axes. I was merely part of the team.”

“Such modesty,” said Ferdinand with admiration.

“Indeed, she wears it well. It is something of a lost art among the nobility of Fodlan. Lady Byleth, you will doubtless be a catch on the market,” commented Lorenz slyly.

Byleth blinked in confusion. “Market...my Lord…?”

“Oh don’t mind Mr. Marriage over here,” huffed Leonie, fixing Lorenz with a glare. “It’s practically all he thinks about, mixing and matching bloodlines and Crests and what-not.”

“I am merely pointing out to Lady Byleth that she has to consider all the ramifications of her new found status,” said Lorenz with a disdainful sniff.

Byleth still gave a blank look to Lorenz, and Claude smiled and gently said, “Ah, well, they didn’t tell you that part, did they? It turns out that as a sanctified Knight you carry a title in every noble court in Fodlan. And, um, I think you probably have land somewhere. And an estate. With servants. You’ll have to ask Seteth.”

“No...they didn’t mention that at all,” Byleth stammered out with difficulty. She had grown up in an attic loft above Trips’ drafty apothecary shack in Remire with a single warm blanket and a straw mattress that had to be checked regularly for vermin. The former mercenary tried to imagine herself owning farmland and ordering about servants and farmers. “I’ve...never actually owned a home before. I guess I’ll have to learn…”

“Well, your home should include a castellan or baronet who manages the holdings in sacred trust for you,” explained Ferdinand easily. “If you like, I could give you tutoring on the subject, in exchange for personally hearing the tale from you of how you saved Edelgard from that bandit.”

“There isn’t much to tell, my Lord. But please excuse me, I haven’t eaten since yesterday…”

“By the Goddess, you poor thing! She’s right! Wait here, Byleth, I’ll get you a plate,” exclaimed Leonie before she hurried off.

Petra added with a frown, “Claude, for shame to you! Letting a friend starve while you deserve to chat-chit. Come with me, we must improve her condition with meat from the hunt.” In short order, Claude was dragged off by the Brigid princess, sending an apologetic roll of his eyes to Byleth as he passed.

Lorenz turned a poorly feigned lazy look to Byleth. “I trust you have gotten familiar with our Lord Duke of Riegan.”

Byleth watched Claude being dragooned by Petra in the line to pick some choice cuts of food. “Yes, he’s been nothing but friendly. He seems easier to get along with than most nobles I’ve heard about…” Byleth belatedly realized her words and who she was speaking with, and bowed quickly to Lorenz and Ferdinand. “Ah, excuse me, my Lords, for my rudeness.”

“No apology necessary, Lady Byleth. Your words may be blunt, but no less truthful. In fact, Claude’s ease with the commons causes much of the nobility to distrust him,” said Ferdinand.

“Why? Just because he acts like a commoner?” Byleth asked in bewilderment. These nobles and their rules were giving her a headache.

“Yes, but not for the reasons you might think.” Lorenz waved magnanimously over the dining hall. “There is nothing wrong with a noble fraternizing with the common folk. I believe such behavior is to be commended, even encouraged. But my father, Count Gloucester, has intimated to me that he believes that Claude von Riegan is not a real noble. And that would be the true offense.”

Ferdinand again helpfully supplied background to ease her understanding. “This is not common knowledge, but Duke Riegan’s son and Claude’s uncle, Lord Godfrey, was slain last year in a tragic ambush by unknown assailants. Less than a month after the attack and Lord Godfrey’s funeral, Claude was presented to the Leicester Alliance as the son of Lord Godfrey’s sister, Lady Desdemona, who disappeared from her House twenty years ago and never returned. As it was presumed she was dead, Claude’s claim was briefly in dispute, but since it was verified that he does have a Crest of Riegan, his claim is accepted for now.”

“Only publicly accepted, mind you,” said Lorenz, adjusting his rose on his doublet. “In the meantime, his deplorable manners and lackadaisical attitude have caused numerous scandals at the Alliance Councils in Deidriu.”

Byleth shrugged, quickly losing interest. “He hasn’t acted that way with me. I think he’s smart and skilled. And funny. He likes to make a joke out of everything.”

“And that is precisely the attitude that irritates me to no end! You may be newly elevated to the Knighthood, Lady Byleth, so your ignorance is understandable. But there are rules and manners and protocol that must be observed in order to function in noble society, which Claude ignores completely! It is most terribly upsetting,” Lorenz complained with a dainty wave.

“Then it’s good that Claude doesn’t know what upsets you, Lorenz,” deadpanned Byleth.

“What do you mean--?” asked a shocked Lorenz.

Ferdinand started smiling and nodding. “I believe Lady Byleth is trying to tell you gently, Lorenz, that you are being played like a lute by Garreg Mach’s resident schemer.”

Byleth nodded at his perception. “I’ve seen him flirt with Edelgard and make sport of Dimitri. They hate it. He likes making fun of people when he thinks they’re being too serious.”

“Really, now?” said Lorenz, calming himself and becoming intrigued. “So Claude is merely nettling me to gain an advantage for himself, by manipulating my weaknesses. That is astonishingly insightful, Knight Byleth. What, ah, pray tell is the appropriate response to such a tactic?”

Byleth gave an upward turn of her mouth as Leonie, Claude and Petra returned with steaming plates, hoping her stomach wasn’t growling audibly. “It depends. You can ignore him. Or make sport with him in return. Watch.”

Claude handed her a plate with a juicy haunch of venison as he arrived with a smiling Petra and Leonie. “Miss Jeralt, I’m sorry I left you alone with the two snootiest nobles in all of Fodlan. I hope they didn’t bore you to death reciting their geneology.”

“They tried, but I lived. Thank you, Claude. It smells delicious. What poison did you use this time?” asked Byleth, poking at the meat.

“Salt and pepper,” smirked Claude.

“Really? My favorite. You’re too good to me, my Lord Duke. Lorenz, Ferdinand, perhaps we can talk more later. Right now I need to eat my poison,” said Byleth, nodding to the two noblemen as she left with the others as they laughed in appreciation.

Ferdinand and Lorenz were quiet for a moment as they overcame their revulsion. “Such common familiarity…” murmured Lorenz, still shocked.

“And so disingenuous!” replied Ferdinand, looking at the laughing clique with a shade of envy as they ate. “But if that is what it takes to build comradery among one’s fellows, and disarm Claude’s charm among the commoners...” 

“Indeed. My Lord Aegir, I think we ought to do our best to learn this technique, so we will not be disadvantaged in the future by our social lessors.”

“I am in complete agreement, My Lord Glouscester. But who among the Houses can teach us about insincerity?”

The two noblemen were lost in thought until a third joined them. “Hey guys! Pretty nice party, don’t you think? These pork buns are great! I think Dedue really outdid himself this time,” said Sylvain, chewing food from his plate. He slowly noticed the two other noblemen looking strangely at him. “What?”

Byleth eventually ate her fill, and excused herself from Petra, Leonie, and Claude when they got involved in an extensive argument about archery and hunting. She made polite greetings to Raphael, who was attempting to eat twenty cuts of meat, and a much smaller young man--Casper, she realized--who was attempting to outdo him, while other students surrounded them in stupefied disgust or admiration. Not wanting to stay for the inevitable ending, Byleth wandered aimlessly through the crowd, her fatigue catching up to her now that she had eaten.

Somehow, she had ended up at the entrance of the dining hall to the ornamental gardens. She idly wondered why Garreg Mach was so big yet still had these odd twists and turns…

“...but don’t worry, we’re safe here. And look what I have! Ta-DA! Carrots for Dorte!”

“Th-thank you. You’ve been so helpful...I’ll tell Dorte that you helped me get him a treat. He’s friends with all the other horses…”

A giggle. “And I’m friends with all the plants! We make a good team, Marianne!”

“Y-yeah...I guess we do. I...I wish we could just do this, instead of all this fighting…”

The voices she heard dropped into conspiratorial whispering. Byleth stepped into the garden and peered past a fern into a hidden nook between the hedges that had been taken over by two female students. They were murmuring a conversation Byleth couldn’t hear.

Not wanting to be rude, Byleth said “Hello.”

“AH! Who’s there!” screamed a small purple headed girl wearing an apron. It took a second for Byleth to recognize Bernadetta von Varley in her cooking attire. “What kind of malefactor would sneak up onto two innocent maidens? You’re here to steal our souls, aren't you? Well you can’t, because they’re already long dead! Dead!” 

“Oh! Um...Lady Byleth…” stammered the taller blue haired girl with bangs.

Byleth brushed past the fern leaves to see the small Black Eagle turned away in the corner of the hedge, not looking at her. The other student--Marianne, Byleth recalled--was standing with a bundle of carrots in one hand and a bag in another.

“I’m sorry I interrupted you. Were you planning on taking a treat to the stables?” asked Byleth to Marianne. She glanced at Bernadetta’s back, but the other girl appeared determined to not turn around and face her.

“Ah...yes. Bernadetta was helping me…” whispered Marianne. She sounded despondent.

“That’s kind of both of you. I haven’t had a chance to visit the stables yet. Are Canis, Thunder, and the others doing well?”

“Oh! Those are the new horses, right? Your horses? They’ve been so restless and worried. They’re not used to Garreg Mach yet,” said Marianne, visibly brightening.

“I don’t think I’m used to Garreg Mach yet either,” said Byleth. “They’ll enjoy the carrots. But what’s in the sack?”

“Ah...Bernie--Bernadetta--gave me some seeds to give to the poor birds. Some of them are so hungry after winter…”

“What birds? Chickens?” puzzled Byleth.

“Oh! Oh no...the jays and the robins, and the nuthatches...they’ve just migrated back…” said Marianne softly.

“That’s nice of you,” said Byleth, unsure if she was doing something wrong. Marianne could barely look at her, and Bernadetta was still trying to hide in the corner. But she felt she had to say something, if only to be polite, like a proper Knight. “Ah...thank you for helping prepare my food, Bernadetta. It was good. And for thinking of the animals, Marianne. I’m sorry I bothered the two of you. I’ll see you...around.” Remembering to bow to the two noblewomen, Byleth turned and left them alone.

Marianne and Bernadetta said nothing for several dozen heartbeats.

Finally, Bernadetta turned around to face Marianne again. “Lady Byleth...seems nice for a Knight…” she ventured.

Marianne gave a jerky nod to her friend with her bounty still in hand. “Her horse really does miss her,” she whispered. “I think only a nice person could be like that.”

Bernadetta rubbed sweaty hands on her apron. “I have to get back and help clean, or Dedue will scowl at me again. We’ll talk later tonight, right Marianne?” Without waiting for a reply, she dashed off to the kitchen.

A final, wistful whisper. “Um. Ok. Thank you, Bernie…”

 *

Byleth sat on a bench in the gardens, appreciating a moment of quiet from the sounds of the crowd in the dining hall. The events of the past few days were catching up to her. By this time, her father and her were supposed to have been staying at Castle Gaspard, under the command of Lord Lonato, a noble of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus in its western region. The contract was meant to be a security detail for the surrounding lands, likely involving more bandit or poacher hunting. Instead of working as a mercenary with her rough and tumble family, she was now a member of the gentry as a Knight of Seiros, friends with an Imperial princess, eating at Garreg Mach monastery with strange noble students, and under the command of a mysterious Archbishop she recognized from her dreams. Her exhausted state was making a hash of her thoughts, and she could not begin to articulate clearly what was going on inside of her. She almost felt like she could doze off, but her new armor was heavy and uncomfortable, pinching her body in new spots where her skin was not used to it.

“Aw, are the limits of mortals so constraining for us now? Are you regretting our choices already?”

Byleth opened her eyes in shock to see a child’s impish face inches from her own. Sothis was hovering in front of her, her robes and hair twisting on immaterial, ethereal winds.

“Sothis,” said Byleth shortly, looking around her. The garden still appeared the same, with the sun’s rays lengthening the shadows towards evening. “This isn’t your realm…”

A small giggle. “Everything is in my realm. But no, instead of you visiting me, now I am visiting you.”

“Why?” said Byleth, eyeing the girl.

“Because we are one. Someday, you must accept this. You are not a mortal. You are not a demon. You are me.”

“Go away!” demanded Byleth, standing up to confront the Goddess.

“Lady Byleth--?”

Byleth blinked and turned to see Prince Dimitri standing in the garden, tall and kingly and an expression of concern written on his face. He bowed shortly. “Forgive me. I was seeking you out to congratulate you on your accession to the Knighthood, but you appear to be in some distress.”

Byleth looked to where she had seen Sothis, seeing nothing but grass and greenery. “Prince Dimitri. I’m...sorry you saw me do that,” she apologized. She rubbed her blurry eyes. “I guess I’m tired. Tired enough to talk to myself.”

The Prince’s face combined between a grimace and a smile. “No apology is necessary. I understand completely. I know what it is like to struggle with unwelcome thoughts or feelings that manifest themselves rudely.”

Byleth stared at Dimitri, curious, then awareness dawned. The Tragedy. The Prince was the only survivor of the attack that killed the rest of his family and friends. “Of course, Your Highness. I’m sorry I reminded you of it. I was telling Edelgard that I seem to only bring up bad memories for her. I don’t want to do the same for you.”

“Yes...Edelgard…” Dimitri said, frowning, lost in thought for a moment. Byleth felt a hint of something within her, but was suddenly consumed by her bone-deep fatigue. She sat back down heavily on the bench as Dimitri asked her, “May I talk with you for a moment, now that we are in private, Lady Byleth?”

The newly made Knight gave assent. “Go ahead. But please sit with me, Dimitri, as we talk.”

The Prince moved gracefully to his seat, then seemed to fold up as he lowered his rangy frame onto the low bench. Byleth tried to give him her attention, but noticed the Prince was like herself in one regard; when speaking or listening sometimes, he turned his face away. Unlike Claude, who was always trying to make her smile, or Edelgard, who could look her in the eyes and cut to the heart.

Dimitri was still looking out to the garden when he spoke. “Lady Byleth...? May I speak to you about Edelgard?”

Byleth was unsure of Dimitri’s intent. “Why? She’s just...my friend,” she said shortly, trying to get a read on the Prince.

Dimitri’s handsome face smiled without humor. “That is precisely why I wish to talk to you. I am glad you are familiar with her. Edelgard has changed...quite literally...from the charming girl I once knew in my childhood. Since we have arrived at the academy, she has rebuffed my every overture to renew our ties...to the point where I am not even sure if she remembers how close we once were.”

Byleth restlessly repositioned herself at his words, remembering her vow to Edelgard mere hours ago. But as long as they spoke in vague terms, she could still protect her friend’s secrets. “You think something happened to her,” she said carefully.

“I do. But for you to understand that, you need to know how our histories intertwine.” The Prince faced Byleth. “You have heard of the Insurrection of the Seven?”

“Somewhat,” she nodded. “I was eleven or twelve when it happened. Something to do with the Emperor trying to take control from the nobles of the Empire, but instead, they took control from him.”

“Largely correct,” nodded Dimitri. “Emperor Ionius was trying to centralize his power and authority, and bring the nobility of the Empire to heel. He failed to do so. The seven most powerful nobles of the Empire, led by Duke Aegir and Lord Arundel, subdued the Imperial household in a quiet coup that left the Emperor and his family virtual prisoners in their own palace. What is not largely known is that Lord Arundel and Duke Aegir struggled behind the scenes. Lord Volkhard von Arundel is a hard man, a man long used to the dance of Imperial politics. But he was also once reputed to be deeply pious and by all accounts cared much for his family. His sister, Anselma von Arundel, was the First Wife of Emperor Ionius. She was Edelgard’s mother.”

Byleth tried to follow as closely as she could. “Ah...First Wife?”

Dimitri chuckled briefly, startling for its spontaneity. “Oh, that’s right. Yes, the Emperors of Adrestia have been divinely mandated since the War of the Ancients to practice polygamy. Some did not, but the practice has returned in the past few generations. I suppose it was simply a convenient excuse to attempt to have as many Crest-bearing heirs as possible. And yes, Anselma, Edelgard’s mother, was not the first woman to wed Emperor Ionius. But she was his favorite, and so accordingly, that granted her a title and special privileges in the Imperial Court. Lord Arundel used his sister’s marriage to the Emperor to catapult himself at the forefront of Imperial politics.”

“So...this Lord Arundel is Edelgard’s uncle.”

“Correct. And while Lord Arundel was one of the nobles who helped overthrow the Emperor, reducing his liege to a mere figurehead, he apparently lost influence somehow in the aftermath. So he fled the Empire, taking with him his sister and his niece into exile. They escaped Duke Aegir and their fellow Imperial nobles by coming to Faerghus and my home city of Fhirdiad. Lord Arundel, Edelgard, and Anselma--having changed her name to Patricia--were the guests of the King...my father...for three years.”

Byleth’s eyes widened in comprehension. “You grew up with Edelgard.”

“Yes,” said Dimitri in a low voice, looking away again.

“But you’re saying she doesn’t remember that? She doesn’t know who you were...or are?” asked Byleth, now fully alert. “That’s...Dimitri…”

“Apparently not,” said the Prince in the same low intonation. “I am sorry for disturbing you with this information, Lady Byleth, but you can well imagine how I feel. In many ways, Edelgard is...or was...the only family I have left.”

Byleth was distressed by Dimitri’s suffering, but more distressed by the knowledge of Edelgard’s suffering as a child. Something terrible had happened to her friend, she was now certain, and she said urgently, “Tell me what you know, Dimitri. Please.”

Dimitri was about to begin, but looked up to see other students and Knights start drifting into the gardens after the meal. Instead, he quickly said in Byleth’s ear, “I will tell you everything later. But know this: Edelgard was the fourth daughter of the Emperor. She told me she had many brothers and sisters while she stayed with me, and how much she missed them.” Dimitri unlimbered himself from the bench, raising Byleth up effortlessly by her elbow. His face was twisted between anger, pity, and horror as he whispered, “But now...Edelgard is an only child, according to her own words. The sole living heir.”

Byleth was stunned, and Dimitri quickly bowed to her and left the gardens. He left behind a woman who was feeling, for the first time, that the world was a dark and evil place.

*

Felix stormed into the garden, chased by a trio of chattering girls.

“Oh, come on, Felix, I made this especially for you,” said the short redhead in curled pigtails, holding a plate with a slice of red and white cake.

“Feeeeelix,” crooned the brunette in a cap. “I’ll sing a song about you if you don’t try a bite…”

“That’s a great idea! You sing the harmony, and I’ll sing the melody! Ohhh, I baked a cake for a man to take and slake his hunger oooooooonnnnn…”

“Oh dear, Annette. You...might have some talent as a lyricist, but you could use some vocal lessons…”

An albino girl with bangs and long white hair scoffed dismissively. “No song should be necessary for someone to want to eat cake. Although it might be necessary for someone who is so rude that he turns his back while people are speaking to him.”

Felix had stomped himself into a corner. The three girls, exchanging triumphant looks, fanned out to surround him and block any attempt at escaping.

“Well now,” said the albino girl, folding her arms, her tone arch. “You really might as well give up. We’re in the gardens. There’s no one here to waste your cold words and mean looks on. We’re all not impressed. You just need to be courteous, for once in your life, and then we’ll let you go.”

Felix snorted, still not facing them. “I could still climb the walls.”

The albino’s hair began to stir on an intangible wind. “And I could still break your legs by snapping my fingers. You might find it hard to train when you’re a cripple...”

Annette paled at that. “N--now Lysithea, we’re all still friends here. Um, so, Felix, I made this spice cake for you because Mercie and Lysithea told me you didn’t like cake. I...that is to say we...just wanted you to try a bite. Just to change your mind.”

“Maybe I don’t want to change my mind,” said Felix teresly. He still refused to face them.

“Maybe not,” said the brunette musically. “In that case, what’s the harm of trying a single bite? Unless you’re just afraid of three girls offering you a slice of moist, delicious cake…”

“I’m not afraid, Dorothea,” Felix nearly shouted as he spun around. “I just don’t want the bother of all three of you giggling and simpering and fawning over me in the future. I don’t want to try it. All of you are refusing to listen to me. So what am I supposed to do?”

“What’s going on?” said a new voice.

All four students turned to see Byleth slowly step from the shadows of the garden. She looked worn, as if her blank expression was hiding burdens. Yet she also looked determined and brilliant in her newly fashioned ivory armor.

“Lady Byleth,” said Dorothea with a charming smile. “What a surprise to find you in the gardens. I had thought you had retired early after your vigil.”

“The thought did occur to me,” admitted Byleth, her eyes shadowed. “Yet I am...compulsive enough, I suppose, to see this event through to the end.”

“Byleth...I thought you and the boar were still talking sweetly to each other,” said Felix with his eyes narrowed.

Byleth stared at Felix for a long moment. Finally, she turned to Annette, who was closest to her. “Am I missing something?”

“Felix likes to disrespect Prince Dimitri by calling him that. We’ve all told him to stop, but he doesn’t listen. The Prince just ignores him,” said Annette, offering the laden plate and fork to Byleth to see if she wanted to try it, but she had resumed staring at Felix.

“Dimitri is not a boar,” said Byleth flatly.

Felix scoffed. “If he isn’t, then how did you break your arm in the battle at Remire?”

Byleth’s stare hardened. “It was a battle, and it was an accident. Sometimes that happens. If you’d been in any real fighting, you’d know that.”

“Don’t act like you know him,” said Felix, raising his voice. “I have been in real fighting with that murderous animal. I’ve killed men beside him. But at least I don’t laugh like a maniac while I’m doing it, or torture dying people just to hear their screams. I’m the only one that sees what he truly is! He’s an untamable, single minded beast that wears the mask of a human being.”

“Well then, I guess the rude and obsessive man who thinks about nothing except fighting and has no friends has issued his expert opinion on the subject,” said Lysithea with acid sarcasm.

“Oh my. This is escalating quickly,” murmured Dorothea. “Believe me when I say that drama is best saved for the stage.”

“Um. Good idea, Dorothea. Look, Felix, I’ll just set the plate down here,” said Annette, balancing the plate on a nearby low hedge. “I guess if you don’t eat it, at least the ants and birds will appreciate my effort.” She quickly walked back to the dining hall.

Lysithea sneered at Felix. “Upsetting your own classmate like that. I would tell you to be ashamed of yourself, but why bother since you clearly have none to begin with?” She turned and hurried after Annette.

“Ah, Felix. You can kill a mood as quickly as you can kill a man. That’s...not a compliment, by the way. Coming, Lady Byleth?” Dorothea asked, smiling and holding out her arm.

“In a moment, Lady Dorothea,” said Byleth firmly, still not taking her gaze from an equally grim Felix. “Please go on ahead.” Byleth didn’t see Dorothea’s blushing yet pleased expression as she left the two of them alone.

When she was back in the dining hall and they were alone in the garden corner, Felix grunted, “Are you going to try to stare me to death? You’re wasting your time. And mine.”

“Why do you hate him?” asked Byleth stonily.

“I don’t. I don’t hate animals. They just act out according to their nature,” said Felix. He folded his arms and looked away. “What I hate is people bowing to one. Or telling me about how kind and generous and polite it is. Or what a good king it will be, or how you want to forgive it for injuring you during battle. As far as I’m concerned, the Prince Dimitri I knew died in the Tragedy. All that’s left is a broken shell and an instinct to kill.”

“That’s cruel to say,” said Byleth, remembering the mean children in her village. Felix sounded exactly like them.

Felix gazed at her with scornful pity. “It’s the truth. I’m not like the rest of my classmates who love deluding themselves with meaningless pomp about Knighthood and glory and duty. The world is what it is, and only the strong survive. All I care about is being strong enough to survive. And I don’t care what you or anyone else thinks.”

Byleth tilted her head now to study the young man. “Life isn’t just about survival. Even I know that.”

“Then you’re wrong, just like everyone else. That’s all it is. It’s all it ever will be,” snorted Felix. Turning away to leave, he added without looking at her, “Take it from me. Don’t get too close to him. You’ll just end up getting hurt again.”

Silent for a moment, Byleth nodded. “Thank you for the warning, Lord Fraldarius. But I will do my job.” She turned and entered the dining hall.

Felix glared at the blue haired Knight’s back as it receded from him, then stared resentfully at the cake. A barely audible sigh escaped him.

Moments later, he was walking to the training grounds, leaving behind an empty plate.

*

Byleth entered the dining hall and saw Lysithea and Dorothea, as well as Mercedes and Ingrid, supporting a tearful Annette at the end of a dining table in the corner. Not wanting to disturb them, as well as wondering why Felix was getting so much undeserved attention in the first place, Byleth scanned the hall. It appeared most of the students had left, including Claude. She was disappointed that she had not seen Edelgard, but reminded herself that her friend probably needed rest since visiting her late last night. She also had no idea of what to do with the knowledge Dimitri had shared with her. She knew Edelgard well enough to know that any confirmation of such terrible events would have to be slowly cajoled from the Imperial Princess, in a secure and safe environment with no prying ears. Knowing Edelgard’s feelings about the Church, Byleth knew those chances would be brief and hard to arrange.

Seeking distraction from her dark thoughts, she spotted her father holding court with the rest of her mercenary friends as well as Catherine and Shamir and the other professors, laughing and talking. Students on kitchen duty bustled about the hall, helping the regular staff clean up the remains of the meal held in her honor. Byleth made an effort to thank each one of them, earning a short nod from Dedue, a frightened squeak from Bernadetta, and a grateful smile from the silver haired boy named Ashe.

Eventually she made her way towards her father, intending to bid him goodnight, now that the sun had set. Monastery brothers and sisters on duty moved about the hall, lighting wicks and torches as the dining hall darkened. Jeralt was snorting and laughing with Trips, Manuela, and Catherine while Zarad was conducting an animated conversation with the grey haired professor and a mildly interested Shamir, who was the first to notice Byleth approach.

“Welcome to the party,” said the archer, smiling easily as she handed Byleth a small mug filled with a liquid.

“What’s this?” said Byleth, sniffing the mug. It clearly wasn’t water.

“Aque vitae,” said the foreign woman, downing a mug of her own. “The monks of Garreg Mach do a brisk trade across Fodlan for it. We decided to broach a cask to celebrate all of you joining us. After all, we’ll be fighting together, right?”

Byleth frowned. “I’m not sure...I don’t do well with lots of ale or wine…”

Unfortunately, her father took that moment to notice his daughter with a drink in hand. “That’s my girl! It’s time to celebrate the good life! Let’s hear it for the Hero of Remire!” All at the table gave a lusty cheer, aside from a smiling Shamir.

Byleth felt like a teenager all over again. “Dad…” she began warningly.

The table erupted into riotous laughter. Catherine snorted into her cup uncontrollably, and Professor Manuela guffawed outright in a dulcet voice. “Oh my Goddess! You actually got her to do it!”

Trips was giggling, but tried to smother it as she told Byleth, “Sorry, kiddo. Jeralt made a bet with the rest of the Knights that he could get you to do that. Zarad and I said no deal.”

The Almyran grinned boisterously as he raised his own cup. “The only deal we need to see now is for ‘Lady’ Byleth to toast herself! Drink up the water of life! Drink with your fellow Knights!”

Byleth still hesitated, looking into ominous contents of the mug, but then felt Shamir lean in close to her ear. “You’re only Knighted once. Tomorrow Rhea may send us out on a mission that gets us killed. Sometimes you have to take all the life you can get in this line of work. And who knows? Maybe having fun like this will prevent death on the battlefield, and make you want to live that much harder.” She stepped back and genuinely smiled, making her normally stoic face appear dazzling, as she raised her own mug in salute.

Wondering at the woman’s strange mix of fatalism and optimism, Byleth nodded to her and lifted the mug to her lips. The liquid was cool, but had a soothing sweet warm taste about it. She tilted her head back and swallowed the rest…

...and felt her sinuses explode. Choking, barely able to hold the liquid down, Byleth gasped for air as snot and tears rained from her face, falling into a seat more by accident than design. Trips was up in an instant, patting her back, while the table laughed again, but with a sympathetic note.

“Ah, young Byleth,” said Zarad, shaking his head. “It is just as well you are now a pious Knight of the Fairy, rather than a mercenary. You would not do well in taverns by yourself.”

Catherine peered at Jeralt with one eye under her blonde mane. “You sure she’s your kid?”

The new Professor waved his cup in the vague direction of his daughter, nearly backhanding Manuela in the face. “She’s young. Give her time, she'll be a worthy heir to my name.”

The grey haired gentleman with a monocle leaned forward with interest to a mostly recovered Byleth, who was wiping her face with a rag. Shamir discreetly refilled her mug with the decanter, ignoring a glowering Trips. “Lady Byleth,” he said in an unctuous tone, “I know your father is a bearer of the Major Crest of Seiros from the archives here at Garreg Mach. If you don’t mind, I would very much like you to visit me in my laborato---err, I mean office sometime. After hearing of your exploits in battle from your friends, I quite suspect you may have Crest bearing blood yourself.” Byleth looked at him with watery eyes, barely recovered from her choking fit.

“Captain…” said Trips in a warning tone, raising her voice.

Jeralt was tipsy but still caught on immediately, and turned to his colleague. “That’s...reasonable, Professor Hanneman. But if you don’t mind, Lady Beatrix has helped raise Byleth since she was in swaddling. I know that Crest examinations can sometimes be...intensive. I think having Lady Beatrix with Byleth would make her feel more comfortable.”

Hanneman seemed to puff up, as if he were debating on whether to take umbrage or not. Finally he nodded and said, “Very well. I agree with your conditions. I suppose I should be thankful that I was not refused outright.”

Byleth was starting to feel numb warmth filling her, now that her fit was over. She looked at all the older adults talking and laughing, and started to feel a connection, a bond with every other person she had never quite felt before. Shamir was sitting next to her, and Byleth didn’t mind the archer being close to her at all. She noticed her refilled mug and sipped at it, noticing the fiery liquid was not that bad now. Her exhaustion fled as she started to feel...relaxed.

Her stepmom leaned next to her. “Hey kid...you don’t need to try to keep up with your dad or Zarad. Or Manuela! Goddess, that woman…” Trips looked at the Black Eagle’s Professor, her cleavage threatening to spill out as she cackled with Catherine and Jeralt. “Anyway, this might not be the best idea anyway…” she whispered to Byleth, tapping her head.

Byleth smiled unsteadily at Trips. “Oh, that. I just tell Sothis to go away now, Trips. It works most of the time.”

“Kid, if you are trying to make me feel better, you are failing miserably.” But Byleth didn’t listen, and was soon deep in a sniggering conversation with Shamir and Zarad. Trips sighed and regarded her own half-full mug, then pushed it away regretfully. Someone was going to have to be responsible, and it looked as if that someone was going to have to be her.

Chapter Text

Ch 12

The Mission

Awareness returned slowly. Something was shaking her.

“Get up, you two,” said an echoing voice of damnation. Byleth tried to open her eyes, but they felt stuck together. Her mouth felt like it was full of sand.

“Aw c’mon, Shammy. Just another hour more…” croaked a voice in her ear.

Byleth rolled over in shock, barely catching herself from falling out of the bed. Catherine was asleep next to her, her face puffy and red. Both of them were still in most of their armor, aside from breastplates and shoulderguards, and Byleth felt her joints and muscles ache and the pain forced her mind to alertness. She tried to swing her legs down to the stone floor, somehow tripped over her own boots, and slid out of the bed onto her rump.

A full water bucket and ladle was placed in front of her on the floor. Shamir’s pitiless gaze looked down on them both, the sunlight from the window illuminating her flawless composure. She was already fully geared.

“Drink up, and try to make yourselves presentable. Seteth wants to see us.”

Byleth tried to focus up at her fellow Knight. “What happened?” she asked, her voice as low as her father’s.

“You had fun. Now you need to recover. Chamber pot is in the corner if you need it. I’ll be back in a few moments, but hurry it up.” The archer turned her heel as gracefully as any dancer, and exited the room.

Byleth shakily used the ladle to wet her mouth with water. She had thought she had drank to excess before with her father, but that was usually with ale or wine that made her feel naturally inclined to stop after enough cups. This was something new and unpleasantly different, and it made her feel ill. She unsteadily rose to her feet, and considered herself, as well as the lightly snoring form of Catherine. Their swordbelts were nowhere in sight, which was just as well, Byleth thought sourly. She stumbled over to the chamber pot, noting that Shamir had left her the task of waking up the Holy Knight of Seiros. She was not looking forward to it.

*

Catherine and Byleth’s eyes were only slightly less puffy when they stood at attention before the High Abbot with Shamir, in the Knight’s training grounds near their quarters. Byleth was wondering if she had put on her armor back on correctly, noting it felt much more uncomfortable now than yesterday. She saw Catherine’s bedhead next to her and held only slight hope her hair was not a similar mess. Shamir’s own violet hair gleamed with perfect grooming, her eyes sharp and focused with both her leather armor and iron shoulder plates shining with polish. Byleth felt faintly resentful towards the archer.

“Well,” said Seteth in his most disapproving voice, “I suppose I should be grateful you can stand up, at least. I have to substitute today for Professor Manuela...again. At least your father, Byleth, is unaffected. I want the two of you to take the rest of today off. By tomorrow morning, Lady Rhea has ordered the three of you, with your choice of company, to sweep the hills to the east of Garreg Mach. Lord Gloucester has graciously allowed us to use the woods in the eastern foothills for our training grounds. You will reconnoiter the area to make sure it is clear of any hostile forces. This needs to be done within the week, so while you have this day to recover, you need three days to travel to the site, and then at least another two days before we can declare the area secure. The three of you will be the judges for the initial House Mock Battle. You will be aided in your observations by my sister Flayn and Lady Beatrix, who will also provide medical support. That is all. Dismissed.” With a flash of blue uniform and black cloak, the High Abbot was gone.

Catherine was attempting to discreetly lean on Byleth, and failing. “Hey, hon, did you get all of that?” she inquired to Shamir. Byleth tried her best on not being sick.

“I did,” Shamir said shortly. “I’m going to train with Cyril this morning, but you two might want to go back to bed. I’ll have some bread sent to you. Just remember you owe me.”

Byleth and Catherine staggered back to the room they had woken up in, which Byleth belatedly realized were Shamir’s quarters. Her own new room was further down the hall, she vaguely remembered. “Where’s your room?” she asked the older woman.

“Upshtairs,” mumbled Catherine. “I don’t feel like going there right now. Not the first time I’ve slept here.”

“Oh,” said Byleth. Then, after several more unsteady steps, she added, “Oh. Um, well, I’ll go to my room then.”

“You do that, Byleth. Maybe we can finish that wrestling match some other time. You’re pretty strong, y’know’that? Good night.” With that, Catherine reeled back into Shamir’s austere room, slamming the door closed. A stumbling thud was heard moments later.

Hoping the noises signified Catherine had at least made it to the bed, Byleth walked carefully down the hallway to her own room. She wanted to make it there without incident, before anyone…

“What’s this? Did a Knight have a night to remember? HA!”

...noticed her. 

The current Captain of the Knights of Seiros stood in the middle of the hallway, hands on hips, blocking her access to her room. His hair and beard were oiled, his face beamed, and his shining armor reflected knives of sunlight into Byleth’s eyes. Shamir and Seteth’s voices had sounded like thunder in Byleth’s skull. The voice of Alois felt like an army fighting during an earthquake.

“Well, look at you! I must say, Byleth, you’re looking a little green around the gills! No rise and shine for the daughter of Jeralt, I guess! More like rise and BRINE, am I right?” he boomed, his grin wide behind his beard.

Byleth was sick.

She woke up later in bed in her own room, her armor removed, in bare clothing. Byleth opened her gummy eyes to see the grey robed form of Trips leaning over her.

“Hey, kid,” she smiled down at her child. “Did we learn something today?”

Byleth groaned and tried to rise. Trips pushed her back to the straw pallet with ease.

“Hold up, Byleth,” she said. “Let me just do this real quick. You’re lucky that I stopped early last night, thinking you were going to need it.”

Humming, Trips knelt down by the bed and laid one hand on Byleth’s bare midriff, her other touching a bucket of water. White light began to shine throughout the small chamber, brighter than the sunlight outside. Byleth immediately started to feel better, strength returning through her body and her limbs.

Trips leaned back as the glow ceased. She was sweating and breathing heavily, but her expression was sweetly indulgent. “Now, how’s that?”

“What...did you do? '' said Byleth, rising from the bed with ease now. She swung her legs to the floor and looked with curiosity at the now empty bucket.

Trips smiled as she stood slowly. “You needed water, so I decided this was the best way to get it into you. Goddess knows I’ve had to do this for Jeralt enough times. In fact, it was because he drank so much when you were a baby that I developed this spell.”

Byleth felt confused. “He still drinks…”

“Yeah, kid, you didn’t see how he was in those first few years. It was bad. Believe me, where he’s at now is moderation for him.”

“Moderation sounds like a good idea for me, too,” Byleth said, stretching her arms slowly. The healing might have improved her general condition, but her muscles still protested strongly. She saw with shock extensive bruises around her body. “What happened--?” she asked for the second time that day.

Trips looked down on her with a wry expression. “You and Catherine got into an arm wrestling match, which soon devolved into a real wrestling match. It didn’t help that Zarad and the Captain were shouting encouragement at the two of you. She finally got you into a hold when the two of you passed out on top of each other. Shamir and I hauled your asses to bed. Your dad and Hanneman carried Manuela back to her room upstairs. I think Zarad curled up somewhere in the gardens .”

Now that she had recovered, Byleth felt her memories return slowly. She had been confident in her ability to beat almost anyone in a test of strength, but Catherine had surprised her. The Holy Knight seemed just as strong as she was, and Byleth remembered with guilt being drunkenly beligerant at the realization. She couldn’t look at Trips. “I’m sorry. I guess I made an ass of myself.”

“Well, you’re still a Knight, so don’t worry about that. I think Alois will forgive you...although you might have to put up with him joking about you puking on him for the rest of your life.” Byleth sighed at the thought. Trips smiled as she wandered to the window to look at the sky. “I think it’s about mid-afternoon now. Classes for the students should be ending soon. Maybe we can knock out that meeting with Hanneman this evening.”

“Hanneman? Oh. That Crest thing--”

“Yeah. You don’t have your Dad’s Crest of Seiros, I know that much. But maybe it’s a good idea to get checked out by an expert. Every test I did on you came up inconclusive. I have to admit I’m curious.”

Byleth began dressing herself, but then sniffed at her old clothing, and made a mental note to wash it later. She tossed aside her armored gambeson and heavier armor to wear her lighter loose shirt jacket and stockings. She found her sword and belt in a corner of her room and buckled it. Nodding to her stepmother, she said, “Let’s go ahead and do it.”

Trips winked at her. “You need some food first, kid. Let’s visit the dining hall, then we’ll go.”

*

Feeling refreshed but uncertain, Byleth stood with Trips outside the door of Professor Hanneman’s room. “Is he here?”

Trips nodded. “I sent him a message earlier. He’s here. He’s probably still getting ready.”

At that moment, the wooden door swung open, with Professor Hanneman looking like a giddy boy despite his age. “Welcome, welcome, come in, come in. Please step inside and make yourselves at home. I made some tea.”

They stepped inside a comfortable office, with bookshelves and odd devices lining the walls. Byleth tried her best not to gape like a country bumpkin. She had never seen so many books in one place in her life. Two small chairs had been set in front of a cluttered desk, with a small tray holding a ceramic teapot and three delicate cups with saucers nearby. Trips discreetly motioned for Byleth to sit properly in a chair, and Byleth tried her best to mimic her stepmother’s pose as Hanneman went through the motions of pouring the tea, before settling into his creaking high back chair.

Trips gracefully picked up a cup and saucer with both hands, delicately holding the cup by its handle as she sipped carefully at the steaming liquid. She sighed in pleasure. “Black tea flavored with the essence of bergamot! Professor Hanneman, you have exquisite taste.”

“Well now, Lady Beatrix.” Hanneman’s bushy grey eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Not many in all of Fodlan have such discriminating palettes. If I may presume, are you a declasse noble like myself?”

Trips smiled easily. “You do presume, but I am afraid your shaft is off the mark. In addition to being a town doctor, I have also served as a village apothecary. A discriminating palate was essential in my line of work.”

“You were a noble?” asked Byleth, after she had sipped her own tea. It tasted soothing and floral, with a hint of lemony flavor, but that was all she could tell. She wondered what bergamots were.

“Ah, yes,” said Professor Hanneman, briefly looking at Trips for a moment longer. He turned his attention to Byleth as he sipped at his own cup. “I was a noble of the Essar family in the Empire, an offshoot of the Varleys. We possessed the lineage of the Crest of Indech in our blood. My father was a bearer of a Major Crest of Indech. However, during my career, I saw the cost that the current system of Crests was having on...families. Male children of the nobility are treated as breeding bulls, Crest or no Crest, while noblewomen are judged solely for their fertility and little else. As a Crest scholar, many nobles and wealthy merchants came to me, hoping that I could make their wives or daughters have more than ten children or increase their sons’ breeding potential...or their own. It was really quite disgusting. Eventually I rejected such a life entirely, and renounced my ties to the Empire and its nobility, well before the Insurrection of the Seven and the rebellion of House Hrym. I came here to Garreg Mach, to find peace and quiet...as well as to have ample opportunities for my research, of course.”

“Of course,” said Trips quietly. “You are to be commended, Professor Hanneman. I wish more of the nobility had your foresight.”

Hanneman peered again at Trips, and said slowly, “Well, I admit my past experiences have colored my research. But by studying Crests from all over Fodlan...and by having samples of each type of Crest bearing blood...I hope to eventually do away with the current system of nobility all together. Or, at the very least, make it no longer the destructive force it is to children and families. And I have Lady Rhea to thank for providing my inspiration.”

Byleth sipped her tea, but she noticed Trips was losing some of her poise. The healer set down her saucer and mug with a clink. “How so?” she asked.

Hanneman smiled slowly behind his mustache. “Transfusions,” he whispered. “It took a long while, but I eventually teased the story out from Lady Rhea and Seteth, as well as Alois. Tell me, Lady Beatrix, how old is Captain--I mean, excuse me--Professor Jeralt?”

Byleth could tell that Trips was nervous. “Older than dirt, according to him,” she mumbled. She seemed to be trying to shake her head at Hanneman.

Hanneman ignored her and turned to Byleth. “Well, Lady Byleth? Do you know how old your father is?” His monocle seemed to gleam from the sunset in the window beyond.

Byleth shook her head. “I’m not sure. He’s never told me. I’m twenty-one, though, so I’d guess he’s in his...forties?” Even as she said it, Byleth knew that was wrong. Her father had looked as if he had been in his forties for her entire life.

Hanneman stayed still for a moment, and then nodded quickly. “Of course. In his forties. However, we have more important business at hand.” He opened a desk drawer, and drew a curious device out. It looked like a large magnifying glass, except it was tinted purple and covered in runes. “I called you here to discover if you had a Crest yourself, Lady Byleth.” He rose and stepped from behind the desk, moving to stand over Byleth. “If you don’t mind, hold out your arm. Either one is fine.”

Trips rose herself, her hands clutching her birchwood staff as she stood behind Byleth. She laid a reassuring hand on Byleth’s shoulder as the young woman set down her teacup and saucer, then held out her right arm before her for Professor Hanneman to examine. He slowly moved the strange purple glass object over her arm, murmuring unheard words under his breath as he did so, and Byleth could feel the subliminal tingle of magic being worked. The device began to glow faintly, but nothing happened for a long moment.

Suddenly, the glass blazed forth white with a pattern of lines and curves. “By the Goddess and all her Saints…” Hanneman whispered.

“What Crest is that? I’m looking at it upside down, I don’t recognize it,” said Trips, her voice sounding higher than normal. Her hand was clutching Byleth’s shoulder tightly.

Hanneman inverted the device for the healer to examine. Trips gasped audibly. “No...that can’t be right…”

Byleth felt concerned, as if something was going over her head. She twisted in the chair to look at Trips, who was paler than Byleth had ever seen her. “What is it?”

“It...may be nothing, Lady Byleth,” said Hanneman slowly, almost reverently. “I will need to cross reference this. There have been missing Crests that have turned up before, spontaneously, in bloodlines. This may be one of them. I do not even know if it is Major or Minor. I will also need to consult with our resident librarian, Tomas.” He looked up with a piercing gaze at Trips. “You appear to be something of a scholar yourself, Lady Beatrix. Will you assist me?”

“Yes...at least for the next few days,” Trips said slowly. Byleth stared worriedly at her stepmother, who looked as if something had just walked over her grave. The older woman quickly noticed and forced her voice to lightness. “Kid, do you want to visit your dad? I think his room is just across the hall, two doors down. You’re not going to see him again until the mock battle.”

Byleth rose slowly, looking at the white pattern on the device with curiosity. “So does that mean I have a Crest?”

Hanneman was busy looking at a chart on his desk, looking back and forth between that and the device. Trips patted Byleth on the shoulder in a reassuring manner, although her fingers were still shaky. “You certainly have a Crest, Byleth. We’re just not...not sure which one it is yet. For now, you’re going to have to be satisfied with being the medical mystery you’ve been all your life. I’ll talk with Professor Hanneman and we’ll try to narrow down the possibilities for you.”

“Oh. Ok,” Byleth said with uncertainty as she went to the door. She leaned closer to Trips, even though Hanneman appeared oblivious to their conversation. “It doesn’t have anything to do with...me, right?” she whispered.

Her stepmother looked helpless, which sent an unpleasant surprise through Byleth, as she said, “I don’t know, kid. I really don’t. That’s what I’m going to try to find out. When we have a good guess, I’ll let you know, ok?” The young Knight nodded at her stepmother once and left the office, closing the door behind her.

*

The healer turned around to see Professor Hanneman regarding her. He had overheard them after all. “Thank you for being circumspect, Lady Beatrix. I trust you realize that this might be the discovery of a lifetime?”

Trips snorted and ran a hand through her short hair. “Or it could be the mistake that ruins your career and reputation, Hanneman. King Nemesis had no children, according to every available source. There is no evidence of this Crest ever showing up in history, in any Saint’s or noble’s genealogy. It’s unlikely in the extreme.”

“Oh, I agree entirely. But we know so little about what makes a Crest reveal itself in a human being, don’t we? There was the rediscovery of the Crest of Lamine, for example. House Lamine failed to produce Crest bearing heirs for six generations, and had to sell their estates and Hero’s Relic to simply avoid starvation. Then a descendant of that line marries a humble carpenter, and viola…”

“...all of their children ended up with Major Crests of Lamine, forming the House of Martritz. One of the few noble Houses named after a woman. Everyone’s heard of that,” Trips finished Hanneman’s thought. She moved to look at the device and the chart on his desk. “What about a Lost Crest? There’s only six that we know of based on the historical record.”

“That is a possibility as well. My, my. It is stimulating to discuss these matters with an equal, Lady Beatrix.” He resumed his seat behind his desk and clasped his hands. “Most of my students and colleagues tend to ignore the study of Crestology as much as they can, but you appear to be quite informed.”

Trips smiled demurely at Hanneman’s directness, and settled slowly back into her chair. “Yes. Well, you can blame my education. I was trained at the Royal Academy of Sorcery in Fhirdiad. Many of my classmates were among the nobility. It was distressing to witness so much promise and power wasted, whether a person had a Crest or not. Extraordinarily talented and hard-working Crestless children were disinherited, while wastrels with Crests could set themselves up for a life of ease as long as they danced to their parents’ tune. And all for what? A power or talent in your heritage that manifests itself capriciously, if at all?”

Hanneman was nodding as Trips was speaking, but then shook his head at the last. “I am afraid I must disagree with you there, Lady Beatrix. We appear to both agree that the current system is untenable, based on moral and practical grounds. But the reason it has endured is because the Crest-bearing have a tremendous advantage over the Crestless. Perhaps, in times of peace, Crests give little advantage in the more mundane activities. But in times of conflict, their true potential is expressed.”

Trips’ face became sad and thoughtful. “And who could compete against that, or an indestructible Relic that can carve through magic as easily as it could steel?” She sighed. “You are right, Professor Hanneman. It is simply depressing to think about.”

Hanneman adjusted his monocle. He leaned forward and said carefully, “Lady Beatrix, we have only been briefly acquainted, but I believe I would like to hear more about you...and Lady Byleth, of course.”

Trips looked at Hanneman frankly, then gave him a wide smile. “Of course, Professor Hanneman. But first...I would like some more tea, if you don’t mind.”

*

Byleth exited Professor Hanneman’s office and closed the door behind, hearing the murmurs of Trips and the Professor deep in conversation. She didn’t know Hanneman very well, but she trusted Trips to stand up for her, if need be. She looked down the quickly darkening hallway to notice Claude lounging outside a door that must lead to her father’s office. He looked up at her as she walked towards him.

“Heya, Miss Jeralt. So, did you find out from the Father of Crestology what Crest you have?” he asked, smiling his easy smile.

Byleth looked around the hallway, seeing no one. This was the hour when almost everyone was in the dining hall for the evening meal. She locked eyes with the Leicester nobleman. “Claude. Were you eavesdropping?” she asked in a flat tone.

“Miss Jeralt! I am wounded to the quick! Does this look like the face of a person who would drop an eave?”

“Claude,” she said warningly, raising her voice.

Claude’s face lost its expression of poorly feigned innocence. “Ok, fine. I’ll admit I was curious. Like a cat, but um, don’t kill me. It's just that...Crests and what they can do are something of an obsession of mine. Hanneman was so excited he spilt the beans to his class about you, and I overheard Annette gossiping with Lysithea.”

Byleth nodded in gratitude at his late attempt at honesty. She should have guessed this issue might become a big deal. Having a Crest meant you were related to nobility, somehow, someway. She briefly wondered if it had anything to do with Lady Rhea’s interest in her, and felt an uncomfortable flash of recognition that it likely had everything to do with that. What if her father was a former noble as well as former Knight? She then remembered Hanneman saying last night during their party that her father had a Crest of Seiros...the Crest of Adrestian Imperial royalty. What if her father was related to Edelgard? What if she was related to Edelgard?

Discomfited by her realizations, Byleth couldn’t answer Claude immediately. Unusually, he did not attempt to fill the silence with chatter, and even stepped backward slightly to allow her more space. However, he folded his arms and leaned against the wall, patiently waiting for a response.

Byleth had to fold her arms herself, more to hug herself than to be defensive. “Is my father in?” she asked. She didn’t want to look at Claude, feeling confused at what her answer should be. But she saw him nod slowly.

“He is, Miss Jeralt. I was just going to make some plans with him for the mock battle. But...if you need to visit him privately, I promise I won’t intrude. Pinky swear.”

Byleth had to smile at that, but it faded quickly. “I think I know how much a pinky swear from you is worth, Claude. But it’s fine. I think I’d like for a friend to be with me now. The only conclusive thing Professor Hanneman found out about me is that I’m weird. Like that’s news to me.”

Claude’s eyes narrowed. “Then you do have a Crest--?”

Her shoulders shrugged. “Apparently. But they don’t know which one. Trips is going to help him find out.”

The nobleman looked briefly lost. “They...don’t know which Crest you have?”

“That’s what they both said,” said Byleth, who could only shrug again at Claude as she opened the door. “I told you I was weird.”

“Who’s weird?” asked Jeralt. He was standing over his desk in his new armor, examining a map, with several other scrolls nearby. His old rusty dented armor and orange tabard hung on an armor rack nearby. Lamps were already lit, hanging on sconces embedded in the monastery’s stone and mortar walls. 

“Me,” said Byleth, coming over to look at the map with Claude. She could feel her father’s eyes on her, but she ignored him and studiously examined the sparse markings on the map. “I’m taking the company with me tomorrow to secure the field for the students, along with Catherine and Shamir and their Knights. I don’t think we’ll see any action.”

After a beat, Jeralt said, “Probably not. Lord Gloucester secures his borders quite well, and he knows we’re coming. You might run into some wildlife, though. Cattle herds tend to attract dire wolves and rocs.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t kill them if you find any, Miss Jeralt. Just light enough torches and bonfires to scare the local fauna away. I wouldn’t mind a bit if Lord Gloucester’s herds just happened to be decimated by a bunch of fire-crazed predators…” said Claude smoothly, but there was a glint in his eye.

Byleth looked at Claude with mild surprise, but Jeralt only snorted a laugh at the vicious plan. “Nice try, Golden boy. I don’t think the Knights of Seiros want to be involved in internal Leceister politics anymore than they have to be. Maybe when you’re all grown up and graduated from the academy that’s something you can do.”

“I guess you don’t like Lorenz or his dad,” said Byleth.

Claude put his arms behind his head. “Oh, I like Lorenz just fine, despite his ego. But his ego is just a faint little star next to the sun-sized ego of his father. Count Gloucester has some very personal ideas of who should be the next leader of the Leicester Alliance, and thus the man is contrary to my existence. I’ve had to foil...let me think...at least four assassination attempts.” He waved an arm expansively towards the window. “I know you’re still adjusting to this lifestyle, Miss Jeralt. Just remember, all the nobles you’ve met here at the monastery are the young and sweet ones. The really mean ones are back home on their territories busy plotting against their fellow man.”

“I think Byleth’s done fine for herself so far,” said Jeralt defensively.

“She has,” admitted Claude. “But soon word of her exploits is going to spread. Lorenz will write to his father, and Hilda will write to her brother, Lord Holst. Ferdinand will tattle everything to the Imperial Prime Minister, if Count Vestra doesn’t already know. And the entire Blue Lion House is already swooning over the newest Knight of Seiros, aside from maybe Felix.”

“Why would any of those nobles care about me? I’m just a merc--I mean, Knight now,” wondered Byleth.

“Not just any knight,” said Claude, his face severe. “You’re a Knight who helped personally save the three royal heirs of Fodlan, including myself, and thank you again by the way. But you’re also a Knight of Seiros at age twenty-one...not a record, I think, but still pretty remarkable. And if you have a Crest, that makes you a Holy Knight of Seiros. You’ll probably be getting lots of mail soon. And visitors.”

“Goddess damn it,” sighed Jeralt, collapsing into a protesting chair, his eyes far away. “He’s right, Byleth. I didn’t even think about this possibility. Damn Rhea and Seteth. No, wait, excuse me--Fuck them.” Claude looked impressed at the casual blasphemy, and Byleth felt a bit of alarm at her father’s reaction. She could tell her father was furious, but bottling it up. His scarred face looked up at his daughter. “So Hanneman said you have a Crest?”

Byleth spread her arm out that Hanneman had examined. “He and Trips think so. But they don’t know which one yet. They said it might be a missing Crest and something about having to do research in the library.”

“Garreg Mach has the best library in the world,” said Claude confidently. “And the librarian, Tomas, is basically a human encyclopedia. I’m sure he’ll have an answer after the mock battle.”

Byleth looked at her father, who still appeared upset. “But that shouldn’t matter, right? I’m sworn to Lady Rhea and the Church, now. I can’t fight for any other noble unless I’m ordered to.”

Claude did his best impression of Alois. “It’s not your martial prowess they want, but your marital!”

Jeralt groaned at the pun, and Byleth looked only more confused. “Marital? As in...marriage? You mean nobles would want to marry...me?” she asked in growing astonishment.

“Through any means possible,” said Claude grinning, thought his smile quickly fled. “I know first hand that noblewomen with Crests of any sort are especially prized by the Fodlan nobility and families. I don’t think your dad is going to force you into an arranged marriage, so you have that going for you, but you’re still going to have to beat off suitors with a stick, because they’ll be lining up for miles. I’ve also heard about attempted kidnappings of noblewomen, and even assassinations by particularly unscrupulous families to prevent another noble family from getting a brace of Crest-bearing heirs.”

“I’d like to see them try,” said Byleth in a dead tone.

“I’m not saying it’s common, but it’s best to be prepared, right?” Claude paced as he mused thoughtfully, “I think the Church of Seiros will protect you from most of it. Not many nobles want to risk an excommunication from Lady Rhea by dishonoring one of her Knights, even now when anticlerical sentiment seems to be on the rise in Fodlan. But if any noble thought they might get away with it, they’d jump at the chance.”

The thought of some noble idiot trying to claim her as a prize made Byleth simply reject that thought, with every fiber of her being. She sat down in a chair herself, her mind trying to absorb all the implications of her new status.

Jeralt spoke with a Captain’s voice. “Byleth, we’ll make a plan for this once we get back. Maybe you can ask Catherine how she handles it. I’d imagine once she broke enough noses and jaws the suitors backed off, but I’d prefer to avoid that. In the meantime...take Zarad with you. He can watch your back personally while you’re in the field.”

“I can take care of myself,” Byleth told her father, folding her arms defensively.

“I know that, and you know I know that,” said Jeralt with sternness. “Call it a Dad thing, if you want. But take him with you. I want you to have a good scout and woodsman by your side. And...someone you know,” he admitted, less harshly.

Byleth wanted to argue more, but then she realized with a start that she might never fight side by side with her father again. Both of them had separate duties and responsibilities within the Church now. While she was anxious for a chance to lead the former mercenary company on her own, making her own decisions in the field and not just simply follow orders, Zarad would be a link between her and the rest of the company. In fact...this would be the first time in years they had not all been together for any length of time.

Fighting a vague sense of uneasy disappointment, Byleth looked at her father seriously. “Is it too late to go back to Remire village?”

“I hear you, kid. Believe me, I hear you.”

*

Two days later Byleth was cursing her father for his foresight as she quickly dismounted her bay warmare. Activity had erupted along the column as two huge dire wolves crashed into the company while in the woods, their snarls and growls sounding over the screams of men and horses. The wolves were peppered with arrow shafts up and down their bodies, weakening them, but each was still easily twice as large as the biggest horse. Byleth shouted orders before one of the animals came close to her, biting at a kicking, screaming packhorse. She drew her sword and lunged at the head of the creature, piercing the snout but her attack stopped short by thick bone. A slavering snap in her direction barely missed her arm as she slashed desperately to keep teeth as big as her head at bay. The wolf soon quickly lost interest in her as her men, all hand picked and trained by her father, rushed to blindside the animal and pierce it with barbed hunting spears. The wolf spun and snapped at the pain, but its flanks were now punctured and the animal was quickly losing breath and strength. Byleth turned from the dying animal to look for the other one. It too was surrounded and wounded, but in its single minded viciousness it had pounced on one of her men, pinning him to the ground as he weakly cried out in helpless terror.

Byleth screamed in rage as she ran towards the creature, holding her sword against her as she used her own weight and momentum to sink her blade below the ribcage. A gush of steaming, musky blood and other fluids spurted from the wound as the wolf attempted to twist and bite at this new small morsel. The hilt of her sword wretched from her hands, Byleth tried to roll forward to evade, but the wolf’s jaws clamped shut on her cape. She was jerked backwards into the air and fell hard, helpless on the ground, but the sword in wolf’s torn abdomen finally registered in its feral brain. With desperate, jerking hops, it attempted to flee, but was soon brought down with more men rushing forward to stab the animal with spear and sword. With a rumbling, pathetic whine, the animal finally died.

Zarad and Shamir, along with her score of rangers and archers in forest green armor, came out of the trees with bows drawn, but quickly relaxed and moved forward to provide assistance. Dazed from the brief exertion and her near-brush with death, Byleth was slow to notice Zarad’s hand above her. She gratefully accepted the help and he lifted her easily to her feet.

“Sorry, Byleth. We killed two of them, but these beasts made it past us.” Zarad looked at the massive corpses. “Biggest damn wolves I’ve ever seen. They must’ve caught scent of the horses.”

“Do you think there are any more?” Byleth asked.

“Probably not any that we need to worry about,” said Shamir, joining them. “The ones we killed earlier were juveniles. These two were the alphas. If there’s any more they’ll probably be even smaller.”

Byleth nodded. “I think this might be it, but go ahead and take your skirmishers up north to Catherine’s position when you’re ready.” She looked over at the men, listening to those which were groaning with injuries, as well as restless cries of horses that were lamed from the attack. “We might as well make our southern picket here. I’ll send Zarad and a half-company to the east. Tell everyone to build banked bonfires and light plenty of torches. Just in case.”

“It will be done,” said Shamir. She left to gather her men as Duncan approached. The brown haired young man looked despondent.

“I’m sorry to say, Captain, that Eric’s dead. The wolf got his throat.”

Byleth felt...something…inside of her that went through her before she could identify it. She said, “Let’s get him stripped and have his kit secured. We’ll dig a grave for him tonight.”

“Yes, Miss,” said Duncan. His eyes flicked to Zarad, then back to Byleth. He moved uneasily and added, “It’s just...a lot of us felt close to Eric. He was one of us. We’d like for you to say some words, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“I knew Eric,” began Zarad. “He was a good man. He sent coin back to his family. If you want, Byleth, I can…”

“No,” said Byleth shortly, cutting off her friend. “He was my responsibility. My soldier. He died under my watch.” She looked directly at Duncan. “Call every man over that’s not busy.”

She turned her back on Zarad and Duncan, wanting to ignore their looks, wanting to see the remains of the man who had died because of her carelessness. She looked blank to the rest of the company as she stared at her soldier’s mangled body, but inside her thoughts tormented her. Her fault. Her arrogance. Her infatuation with herself had killed this man. If she had been quicker, or stronger, he would still be breathing, and his wife and children would still have a father. She desperately wanted to reject the reality of Eric’s death...

Everything seemed to warp. Instants seemed infinite to her. Her anger, her pain, and her sorrow overwhelmed time and space, bending them to her will with power made incarnate. Byleth felt herself dissolve, her life and memories vanishing as something else rose in its place. She abstractly wondered why she wasn’t terrified or alarmed by what was happening, but it felt as natural as breathing.

She had turned quickly away from the first wolf, trusting in her men to guard her back. She sprinted forward to the second, just as Eric missed a thrust and the drooling maw brought him low. Her sword entered the wolf’s side, and this time she kept her grip on the hilt and used her momentum and weight to hang onto the blade, the edge parting thick muscle widely to expose guts and blood, a foul smelling tide that washed over her…

The blue haired woman in soiled white armor blinked. She was standing in the woods again, and for instant of soul-searing terror, she desperately tried to recall her name. But then she heard it, from voices all around her. Byleth.My name is Byleth.

“...Miss Byleth, that was a hell of a move. You saved Eric’s life, no doubt,” said a relieved Duncan, standing tall before her. Zarad and Shamir were staring at her in admiration. Men were clapping and cheering, while Eric was alive and only slightly wounded. His blue eyes held tears of gratitude.

Her white armor and hair was covered in reeking blood and bile, and her sword was still stuck in the wolf lying dead several yards nearby. Byleth felt dizzy and nauseous, her head aching and her muscles trembling in reaction and fatigue. She looked to her men and officers she tried to catch her breath.

“Um. Yeah. Just doing what came naturally, I guess.”

As people crowded around her, she heard Sothis’ voice suddenly whisper loudly in her brain. Remember, you cannot save them all.

Byleth felt her thoughts turn white-hot at the Goddess. I can.I will.

Sothis sat alone on her stone throne, staring at the green wisps that swirled in agitation in the blackness around her. Her eyes looked sad. Finally she whispered again, to herself. “Foolish child...do you honestly think you are the first one to try?”

*



Chapter Text

Ch 13

The Mocking Battle

The students of Garegg Mach arrived two days later. Some of the men attempted to skin and cook the massive wolf corpses, but were dismayed by the prospect of trying to clean or even transport such a gigantic hide. The flesh of the wolves also tasted foul, no matter how much it was smoked or salted. Finally Byleth ordered the corpses burned, which required the attention of a full company and most of a day. Thick, greasy smoke still hung in the woods as the professors and House leaders approached Byleth, Shamir, Catherine and Zarad. Trips was also there, her face looking annoyed as a chattering Flayn walked beside her.

Byleth addressed the group, but only had eyes for Edelgard. “Sorry about the smell,” she called loudly as the group moved within speaking range. All were wrinkling their noses aside from Dimitri, her father, and Claude.

“Blech,” said Professor Manuela, taking a quick sniff of a powder from a small ornate box. It quickly vanished back into her robes. “Really. Can’t we move to a different venue for this bout?”

Catherine laughed. “We’d have to move the pickets and patrols surrounding this area. If you’re willing to wait another two days…”

Jeralt regarded the foul smelling fire embankments. “Wolves?” he teresly asked.

Byleth felt a hand on her shoulder. “Nearly the size of elephants, Captain. Byleth killed the pack leader herself. Thanks to her skill and leadership, we had no significant casualties, although some poor horses had to be slaughtered,” said Zarad, his scarred face still showing admiration.

All eyes turned to her, aside from Hanneman and Trips, who were soon involved in a whispering conversation. Byleth felt blood rush to her face at Edelgard’s frank gaze of respect. She had to avert her own eyes as she muttered, “Zarad and Shamir had already wounded them, and brought down the rest of the pack with the archers.”

Shamir nodded to Jeralt. “I don’t know how you raised a modest mercenary, Professor Jeralt, but you did. Your daughter disemboweled the animal in a single strike. Don’t let her devalue herself.”

“I won’t,” declared Jeralt, his lips in a proud grin. “Feel free to pat yourself on the back, Byleth. You did good.”

“Lady Byleth,” said Dimitri in a forward voice. “That is a not-inconsiderable feat. Please accept your accolades. Sham modesty is just as insulting as bragging.”

“Wow,” exclaimed Claude with a brilliant grin of his own. “You know you’re good when even Dimitri is telling you soldier up and accept praise.”

“I think it is a fair question to wonder what this Knight of Seiros cannot do,” announced Edelgard, a large training axe resting easily on her small shoulder. “I fear our poor exercise will seem anticlimactic compared to her exploits.”

“Well yes, Princess, losing a mock battle is usually anticlimactic…”

“Claude, please cease taunting Edelgard…”

The three royal nobles were starting to argue again, and their professors’ expressions behind them turned long-suffering. Jeralt reached into his belt for a small silver flask. After taking a long pull, he handed it without looking to Maneula. She drained it.

Catherine raised her voice over the chatter. “If My Lords and Lady are quite done with their discussion, we can get this mock battle underway…” Both Edelgard and Dimitri quieted down with their faces showing anger and resentment, while Claude’s smirk was smugly self-satisfied.

Shamir addressed the assembly. “I’ll lead Professor Hanneman’s class to the north with Flayn. Byleth will lead Professor Manuela’s class further east. Professor Jeralt’s group will stay here with Beatrix and Catherine and only be allowed to advance from this position in two hours. If any student or professor runs into our picket line or patrols, they will be disqualified for the remainder of the battle. The signal to begin will be a fire lit on that bluff to the west.” She pointed to a ridgeline where a small group of Knights were camped, white tents visible against the green and brown background.

The blonde Holy Knight stepped forward as well. “We’re using training weapons, and relying on your honor as future nobility and Knights to cease fighting and sit for the remainder of the battle when you receive what would normally be a fatal wound. Transgressions on this point will lead to expulsion from the Academy, so yeah...don’t do it. We have many observers, some of which have spyglasses,” warned Catherine.

“Please remind your classmates that this is a mock battle, not a real one,” added Trips, raising her voice to include the other students. “Spells should be designed to incapacitate or clearly mark their targets, and Crest bearers should rely on skill instead of strength. I’d prefer to not have to try to reattach any severed limbs today.”

“Wait, so I shouldn’t have brought my razor tipped arrows?” joked Claude. Everyone in the group ignored him.

Byleth bowed to Edelgard and Professor Manuela, wanting to be formal in public and for the occasion. “If Professor Manuela and your Imperial Highness would follow me? We will gather up your classmates and depart.”

“Of course, Knight Byleth,” said Edelgard, smiling at the pleasing image of Byleth bowing before her. She turned to face Dimitri and Claude for one last jibe. “I do hope both of you will give it your all. I intend to disabuse you of any antiquated notions of chivalry you might harbor.”

“Fear not, Edelgard,” said Dimitri firmly. “I have always respected you as a worthy opponent. But I plan to uphold the Kingdom tradition of sending the Empire of Adrestia running with its tail between its legs.”

“Oh, goody, is it tete-a-tete time? Ok. Here we go. Ahem. I intend on beating both of you with my awesome new professor and then bragging about it for the rest of my life. Sounds good? Great! I’m glad we had this chat. I think it really helped me grow as a person,” declared Claude. Both Dimitri and Edelgard turned their backs and studiously ignored the Duke’s heir, refusing to be baited anymore before the battle.

The groups of Knights and students began to disperse to their assigned positions. Jeralt smiled and waved to Byleth as his class of Golden Deers gathered around him and Trips, nervously chatting or making battle plans in excited whispers, aside from the pale blue haired girl, Marianne, who looked as if she were ill. Shamir led the Blue Lions to the north, while Byleth walked with the Black Eagles towards the east. Zarad nodded and winked to Byleth before turning to back to the forest, intent on patrolling the perimeter of the field of combat. She wanted to walk with Edelgard, but Hubert and Ferdinand seemed determined to monopolize the Princess’ attention during their short march on pre-battle trivia. The Imperial violet eyes sought out her own at one point, and Byleth tried her best to give her friend what she hoped was an encouraging smile.

Somehow during the short walk she ended up in the middle of the Black Eagle students. At the rear, the Brigid Princess was having a stilted, one sided conversation about hunting with the nervous Bernadetta. Professor Manuela and Dorothea were talking and laughing ahead of her, arm in arm. Byleth could not help but overhear the conversation between the two remaining students, Caspar and Linhardt.

“...you have to have a Crest to do that, right? I mean, killing a wolf that size in one hit? Did you see the bones in the pit?”

A voice yawned before ending in a sigh. “I did. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility for someone normal to do it. She admitted she had help.”

“Yeah, but that’s just a Knight being a Knight. You gotta support your team. I mean, Edelgard’s impressed, right?”

The other voice started lecturing. “Casper, if you paid any attention in class...or even cracked open a book...you’d know that some people with Crests can sense Crests in others. I sense nothing from the new Knight in front of us. Ergo, she does not have a Crest.”

“Well, the other argo might be your lazy ass is wrong. I’m a pretty good judge of fighters! At least I actually go out and train and see what other people can do...”

“Please. Like muscles achieve anything in this world…”

An answering laugh. “Oh yeah! Don’t make me prove what muscles can do to you, boy…”

Byleth had had enough. She stopped shortly and looked behind her, seeing a weary Linhardt trying to ignore an increasingly excited Caspar. “Excuse me,” she said to them.

The blue haired young man rolled his eyes in exasperation to his companion. “Thanks Linhardt. You and your big mouth…”

The green haired man yawned, and then said, “I could yawn bigger than Fodlan, and that still could not compete with your loud voice…”

“Loud!? I’m not loud!” yelled Caspar indignantly. Birds in the woods nearby screeched and flew away in fright.

Byleth interposed herself between the two students, as they continued walking forward. “I simply thought...that it might be more convenient for the two of you to talk with me, instead of behind my back.”

Linhardt appraised Byleth frankly with half-lidded eyes. “Well, it certainly can simplify our argument. So, Lady Byleth? Do you have a Crest?”

“Yes,” said Byleth shortly.

“I knew it! You’re some unacknowledged child of a noble, right? Maybe you’re disinherited like me, right? That’s why folks like you and me gotta train and fight so much. Check out the result right here! A hundred and fifty one pounds of pure rockhard meat!” grinned Caspar as he thumped his abdomen with a fist.

His friend Linhardt barely stifled another sigh. “Please just ignore him, Lady Byleth, or he might start beating his chest and racing about on all fours.” The listless young man ignored his friend’s shout of protest. “So, Professor Hanneman prodded and poked you as well? Which Crest do you have?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Byleth. “Professor Hanneman said he had to do some research.”

“Well now, that is a surprise,” said Linhardt, sounding interested for the first time. “There are the ten Elite Crests and the five Holy Crests, but there are supposedly six missing Crests as well. No one knows if those bloodlines still exist. There was the House of Aubin, which was wiped out in Imperial Year 467, then all of House Timetheos supposedly died in the Plague of Blood in year 731…”

“You’re warped, Lin. We’re about to fight a battle, and you’re getting excited about Crests and century old dead people. Can you at least get your head in the game a little bit?” complained Caspar.

“You’re a simian, Caspar,” groaned Linhardt.

“Why thank you!” beamed his classmate.

“In any case, why bother with the effort?” the young mage said snidely. “The Golden Deer are obviously going to win. Lady Byleth can’t help but be biased in favor of her father’s class.”

Byleth ignored the comment, as well as Caspar’s continuing chatter. She had known that this issue would come up, but Catherine and Shamir had dismissed her earlier concerns, rather blithely to Byleth’s dismay. She gazed down the trailbroken path to the see the appointed starting place the scouts had marked days before. “There is your initial position, up ahead,” she called loudly to the rest of the Black Eagle class. “You should have an hour to position yourselves as you wish, or form any defensive fortifications or traps.” The Black Eagles quickly gathered together in a huddle, eager to discuss their battle plan.

Hubert smiled coldly, a meaningless movement of his lips. “There are defensive runes I could draw, but alas, I know only the lethal ones.”

“Now Hubie, you can’t kill anything today. But you do look handsome when you’re bloodthirsty. Maybe when we get back to the monastery, I’ll let you slaughter something and make me dinner to get you in the mood,” Dorothea flirted with a toss of her brown locks.

“Professor? Lady Edelgard? Is it...um….ok...if I go...ahead-and-hide-away-thanks?” whined Bernadetta.

“Yes! It is important that Bernadetta and I hide ourselves for the bushings. There will be many bushes today with our bluntful arrows,” said Petra with excitement.

“I believe you mean ambushes, Petra darling. There’s something to that idea...most of use can use magic or wield bows, or throw hatchets and spears. So now we just need good cover and placement…” mused Professor Manuela, looking around the clearing into the trees.

Caspar scoffed loudly. “Ambushes? No way! That’s a cowardly tactic, and it just shows you’re weak.”.

“Or it shows intelligence,” corrected Linhardt without missing a beat.

Ferdinand stepped forward, right in front of Edelgard as she was about to speak. “I must agree with Caspar on this. I am of House Aegir, and the main representative of the Adrestian Empire at Garreg Mach! A forceful display of strength is just what is needed to put the Blue Lions and Golden Deer in their place,” declared the proud nobleman as he lifted up his lance to gleam in the sun. The entire group was soon arguing back and forth loudly, with the exception of the Princess and the Knight.

Byleth used the opportunity to discreetly sidle closer to Edelgard, who was looking up at the blue sky with despair. As soon she got near enough, Edelgard whispered crossly to her, “See what I must deal with daily?”

“My sympathies. Your classmates do seem...spirited,” said Byleth in a similar low voice.

“Spirited yes, but they’re all fractious noble children. Although Dorothea and Manuela are commoners, they certainly have enough attitude to be nobles. All they want to do is butt heads uselessly. We’ve already wasted at least five minutes.”

Byleth looked back at the gathering. Hubert, Manuela, Dorothea, and Linhardt were arguing about which spells were acceptably non-lethal, most of them looking impatient with an evilly smiling Hubert. Caspar and Ferdinand were trying to convince Bernadetta and Petra to cover them as they charged the enemy. She mused, “Maybe you can decide tactics by voting...that’s what I did with my dad when the company disagreed sometimes…”

Edelgard looked blankly at her. “What’s ‘voting?’”

She stared at her friend, pleasantly surprised that she could teach the noble Princess something. “Like vowing. Everyone gets a choice between several alternatives. They vow themselves to their choice, and then you count who is voting for each choice, and the majority rules. Sometimes our company did that, especially when it came to matters of pay and shares and contracts. My dad didn’t want to do what a majority of the men were against.”

“I see. That seems logical. But we’re limited for time…”

“Good point. I guess the other thing you can do is compromise. Let everyone do a bit of what they want. Hubert wants to set traps, so let him select the placement, but only allow Professor Manuela and Dorothea to make them. Bernadetta wants to run away, so position her with Petra so she can’t. Ferdinand and Caspar want to charge in, so let them, and then use them as bait.”

Edelgard was now smiling wickedly up at her. “Well now, look at you. I have thoroughly corrupted you, it seems. A Knight of Seiros, supposed to be an impartial observer, now giving unofficial tactical advice to the Black Eagles before a battle. What would Lady Rhea think?”

Byleth flushed and muttered, “Brat,” her face holding nothing but wide-eyed innocence when Edelgard’s gaze turned sardonic. “I’m only giving it to you because you will likely need it, against Dimitri and my father. Although the Prince does...care about you, I think. If you personally face him, he’s unlikely to use his full strength.”

“Really? How...interesting,” said Edelgard, her face composed back into a mask. “That is a useful tidbit to know. Although I can’t understand his inordinate interest in me, unless it’s our mutual dislike for Claude.”

“Claude’s not that bad,” said Byleth dismissively, but seeing Edelgard start to scowl at her, she added, “Making a joke about everything is just the way he deals with life. He’s more serious and behaved with me because of my dad.”

Edelgard was gazing at her sternly, gauging her words. She said slowly, “You are a curious person. You have the trust of Dimitri and Claude, and yet...you also have mine as well, I suppose, since you are telling me all of this.” Edelgard’s eyes thinned suspiciously at her. “But why?”

“Edel...gard,” Byleth amended quickly, preventing herself from using the diminutive. She was getting too familiar. “I...may have been told some things in confidence. It’s something I would like to talk to you about...alone, if we may. But not now.”

Edelgard’s artful white eyebrow rose up, and Byleth felt a brief pang of jealousy at the Princess’ expression. She had once tried to mimic the look in a mirror, and had yet to achieve the skill of it. Instead she just seemed to scowl unattractively or raise both eyebrows up like an unlettered loon. But the Princess accepted her explanation for the moment. Byleth could see Edelgard’s patience becoming strained as she returned her attention to her nattering classmates, and the chatter of the group finally eased enough for her to interject her opinion. “Enough of this!” she demanded in a shout to daunt even Caspar. “I have decided on our approach for the mock battle.”

Hubert, Ferdinand, and Caspar crossed their arms almost simultaneously. Dorothea, Manuela, and Linhardt noticed, and sighed in despair. Only Petra and Bernadetta were respectfully attentive and patient towards their House Leader. Byleth leaned back against a nearby tree and prepared herself to watch, wondering how Dimitri and Claude were managing with their classes.

*

“And...Felix...where is Felix?” Prince Dimitri asked, looking about the small clearing that was their starting position. He glanced back at the distant bluff between the trees, anxious for the smoke signal by the Knights’ banner to go up and the battle to begin. He wiped his brow impatiently, wishing he could simply make his headache go away.

“I do not know, Your Highness. I believe he was here a moment ago,” said Dedue, checking his armor, shield, and bone and wood training axe carefully in his calm pre-battle ritual. He paused to examine Dimitri more closely, then added, “Would Your Highness like some water?”

“Ah...yes, thank you, Dedue. That might be just what I need in this heat.”

Ingrid and Sylvain turned back to face Dimitri, giving up on finding Felix in the woods. “Sorry, Your Highness. I think Felix cleared out. Maybe he wants to take on everyone by himself?” apologized Sylvain.

“He’s an idiot,” grumbled Ingrid. “If he pulls a stunt like this in a real battle, he’s going to get himself killed. He’s just like…” She stopped herself and swallowed hard, and turned her face aside for a moment. “Damn stinking smoke...this forest smells like the Valley of Ailiel.”

Sylvain laid a hand on Ingrid’s shoulder, which she shrugged off with a sniff. He sighed and leaned on his training lance. “I guess he got jealous that you sent only Ashe ahead to try to lead the others to us. We don’t have time to go looking for him now. I guess we’d better just stick to our original plan without him.”

Dimitri emptied a waterskin handed to him from Dedue, the cool water in his mouth easing his angry tension only slightly. “Disobeying his commanding officer…” he growled.

Professor Hanneman was attempting to clean his monocle on his robe, and addressed the young prince, “Well, technically, Prince Dimitri, you did not give Felix any specific orders. And you understandably avoided addressing him until the last, and he used that to his advantage against you. Part of your education is knowing how to adapt to the human elements of battle and combat. It is not simply moving markers on a map.”

“I understand that, Professor. But at the same time, an army without discipline and focus is just a mob. The lack of respect and trust…” said Dimitri, raising his voice in anger.

“...are your responsibility, Prince Dimitri. We have to take Felix’s attitudes into account while making plans, and we can only change them with training.” The professor waved a grey robed arm to Shamir and Flayn, observing them in the shade of a large tree. “I would not put Miss Flayn or Shamir on the front lines, for example. There are roles they are much better suited for, based on their skills and their temperament. Felix feels more comfortable fighting alone at the front. In the future, we will have to acknowledge his preferences, or attempt to convince him otherwise. In any case, you now cannot let Felix’s behavior affect your own acumen. Or that of your comrades. You might end up destroying the very virtues you are trying to espouse.”

The Prince breathed hard, trying his best to calm his features and not confirm Hanneman’s words. The Professor may be correct, but the truth of it only fanned his anger. He finally opened his eyes to see Mercedes and Annette smiling before him.

“Don’t worry, Your Highness. If Felix doesn’t want to be a part of our team, that’s his loss. We’re going to win this thing together, because we’re the Blue Lions of Faerghus!” said Annette cheerfully.

Mercedes added with a wise smile, “Annie’s right. Whatever will be will be, and we don’t control Felix’s behavior. The only way he’s going to learn his lesson is the hard way, sadly.”

Dimitri tried to bravely smile in return, for the benefit of his classmates. “That’s the truth...and Felix would not be Felix unless he did things the hard way.” The Prince was gratified to see Ingrid briefly smile at that, finally snapping her out of her memories. He saw a brief flicker in the distance, followed up by a thin column of smoke that started to rise in the air. “And there is the signal, my friends. Let us advance carefully in our formation, and keep our wits about us.”

*

Felix crouched low around the bole of a tree, trying to extend his senses. The white smoke on the ridge had gone up recently, seen from the branches of the tree he was currently hiding behind. He had quickly dropped to the ground after that, trying to get a better line of sight. He had to try to anticipate the movements of the Black Eagles and Golden Deer. Dimitri...that boar...would simply plod the Blue Lions into a stately, chivalric ambush. Felix intended to ambush the ambushers.

The woods were quiet and green, with fallen leaves at their seasonal minimum. Grasses, flowers, and other vegetation were sprouting all around him, muffling noise. He slowly drew his flat edged training sword soundlessly, then placed the sheath with similar care at his feet. If Ashe was going to make contact with the enemy…

An impact, followed quickly by a muffled curse.

...it would be about now. Someone else had sent out skirmishers. Felix glanced from behind the tree, seeing his fellow Blue Lion carefully sit down a good distance ahead. He had a guess as to where the bow noise had been, but wanted to know exactly where. Ready to dodge in an instant if necessary, Felix padded quietly over Ashe, as if he were checking his teammate.

Ashe grinned up at Felix from the ground, although his demeanor could not completely mask his pain as he clutched his ribs. “Well, I guess I can tell you that I’m dead. Arrow came from my left,” he whispered. Felix did not reply but decided to drop flat down at that instant. His instincts saved him as another blunt arrow sailed above him where his torso had been a moment earlier.

Rolling to his feet, Felix ran in a quickly accelerating sprint toward the archer’s position, keeping trees between him as he advanced. He could see a flash of dark skin and purple hair as the archer moved in turn through the trees. Ah. The princess from Brigid. A worthy sparring partner, and a worthy opponent. She was skilled. Taking her out would increase his team’s chances.

At the last tree before he could fully see her, Felix feinted to his left, his sword leading. An arrow from close range hissed by. Felix spun quickly to his right, bringing his sword around the trunk in a wide slash. Petra had already realized her miss and quickly blocked his sword with her bowshaft, her face snarling as she sacrificed her recurved bow to leap backwards and draw her short training sword a single feline motion.

Felix smiled at her over his blade in a draw position. “My sword is longer. You can’t win.”

The foreign Princess crouched low, her sword held wide. “Talking less, fighting more,” she bit off shortly as she attacked.

Felix parried her first slash easily, and they quickly exchanged blows. Petra was trying to bait him with repeated feints, and Felix quickly realized that he had underestimated her speed and craftiness. If he carelessly attacked and she dodged or parried correctly in anticipation, he would be overextended with his longer, heavier weapon and would become vulnerable to a winning thrust from her in return.

Felix’s smile soon vanished, his sudden need for caution drawing the combat out much longer than he had wished. For a Crestless foreigner two years his junior, his opponent was appallingly good. The ring and clash of iron from their combat in the forest would be a clarion for the rest of the classes. He concentrated on increasing the quickness of his own attacks, turning aside her short blade with increasing strength and authority as he shifted weight and stance, forcing her to concentrate solely on defense from his own long-practiced attacks and follow-throughs.

Finally, he saw his chance. A small stumble by Petra as she backtracked on the uneven forest ground behind her made him pounce with a swift overhead strike. Petra tried to desperately block, but cried out as his slightly curved blade broke past her guard and struck between her shoulder and neck. She fell to her knees, her face tight with pain. He rested his sword there on her neckline for a moment, frank admiration in his face.

“You put up a good fight. But you lose,” Felix said with a rare smile.

Petra grinned wolfishly up at him from the ground. “Sameness!” she said brightly.

Something struck him hard between the shoulderblades, and he fell gracelessly against his opponent, the pain making his world turn white.

Felix opened his eyes to see blue sky, green trees, and two smiling girls with violet hair, one dark, the other pale. He was on his back, which ached miserably. His limbs felt like they were floating in water.

“He is the handsome,” said the Brigid girl in her broken speech as she looked down on him, her left arm clutching her opposite shoulder. “Especially when his face loses the meanness.”

“Oh no--! P-petra! He’s awake!” gasped Bernadetta. She blushed and turned away quickly, her bow still in her hands. The bow that must have brought him down.

“It is not a matter, Bernie. I and Felix will stay and be good friends. You go and help Edelgard.”

Felix resolutely closed his eyes as Petra sat next to him on the grass. Bernadetta. Bernadetta had killed him in the mock battle.

Sylvain would never let him live it down.

*

The Black Eagle House edged cautiously back the Golden Deer position, taking cover behind trees as they approached. The faint musical tings of metal clashing had already come from the north. Either Petra or Bernadetta had already met some of the Blue Lions. Now Edelgard ordered everyone to seek deeper cover, whispering angrily with Ferdinand and Casper as they crouched behind a small depression. Too much time had been wasted by arguing to set traps or a defensive perimeter. Byleth silently followed at a hundred paces behind her charges.

The woods and small clearings ahead of them were silent and motionless in the noon heat. Ferdinand and Caspar thought that this was the perfect opportunity to charge ahead.

“Of course they’re hiding from us, Edelgard! That’s what I’d do if I knew I was coming!” grinned Caspar. He held two throwing hatchets tightly in his fists.

“I don’t need Caspar’s assistance, but if you want me to take out the entire Golden Deer house, I need to move quickly, without my frail future Empress getting underfoot,” smiled Ferdinand with shining confidence, standing up and striking a heroic pose with his lance. Both of them were speaking far too loudly, their voices echoing through the woods.

Edelgard carefully set her wide bladed training axe to the ground and buried her face in her white gloves. A muffled “Hubert” came forth from between her hands.

“Yes, Lady Edelgard,” said her retainer softly, standing tall behind her.

“Cover them.”

“Lady Edelgard, there are even limits to my loyalty.”

“I know, Hubert, but there are no limits to their stupidity.”

“Their condition is terminal, Lady Edelgard. I recommend euthanasia. But I will attempt the impossible.”

“Thank you, Hubert.”

“ALL RIGHT!” screamed Caspar at the top of his voice, causing his classmates and Professor to flinch. “Here comes the pain!” He leaped high to land upon the embankment above, somehow kept his footing, and charged into the woods. Ferdinand quickly followed, his spear leading. Hubert dropped low and tried to watch them discreetly from behind the tree.

Both nobles, one legitimate and the other a bastard, charged forward twenty paces before they fell abruptly onto the ground, their weapons falling out of their hands. A single hidden tripwire had ensnared them both.

A loud noise sounded from the tree above them, one of which held the tripwire. Caspar and Ferdinand were instantly covered in globs of a disgusting thick yellow substance. A moment later, a smiling Lorenz floated down from the branches.

“That could have easily been a fireball, you know. How careless of you two to expose yourselves like that…”

Hubert stood and gestured quickly at the other nobleman. Lorenz went flying head over heels through the air, landing hard as a mighty wind forced him to the ground, pinning him helplessly against the vegetation and dirt.

The dark haired Empire noble smiled as he kept his palm out, casually sauntering to stand over the helpless Lorenz, who glared upwards at him. “You were saying, My Lord Gloucester?”

Lorenz suddenly smiled from the ground, his gaze now as condescending as Hubert’s own. “That’s right. I was talking about carelessness. How rude of you to interrupt me, My Lord Vestra.”

Hubert was suddenly lifted from the ground against his will. He hissed and tried to focus his powers, his black gloved fingers moving in the patterns necessary to cancel this other mage’s attack, but then he heard a high voice cancelling his magic completely, and he found himself simply...overmatched.

Lysithea descended from the other tree, hovering in the air. “Maybe next time, you will learn to dispense with the one-liners during combat,” she said, her arms crossed before her. Her long white hair and bangs swirled in the breeze as she flicked a single small finger.

Hubert was thrown backward through the air into the still rising forms of Ferdinand and Caspar, and the three of them rolled around on the forest floor in a less than dignified heap, cursing at each other. Lorenz quietly clapped in polite admiration from his seat on the ground. 

“Attack!” yelled Edelgard, throwing a hatchet from her belt at the small white girl in black.

Manuela and Dorothea both fired off the strongest non-lethal spells that they knew, the air flickering with sparks of magic, while Edelgard threw axes and even noticed an arrow sailing in at the albino girl. All of them either missed or Lysithea brushed them aside contemptuously with her mastery of the air. Linhardt stood and tried a long and complex incantation that he unleashed with a surprisingly loud shout and a clap of his hands. The air suddenly roared as leaves, sticks and dirt swirled around Lysithea, seeking to batter her. All that it accomplished was that she unfolded her arms and raised them, bringing them down quickly. The winds in the vicinity immediately ceased, dropping Lysithea to the ground where she landed lightly. She arose from her kneeling position with her eyes promising murder. Another blunt arrow tried to sail into her at that moment, and she halted its flight without looking at it with a single upraised hand. As it trembled mere feet away from her, she clenched her small fist and the arrow shaft broke in twain, falling to the ground.

Linhardt was wiping sweat from his brow, backing away. “Ah, Lady Edelgard, this is probably a good time for a tactical withdrawal.” 

“She’s fifteen!” hissed the Imperial Princess, her face aflame as her thoughts raced. How could this child be so powerful? Could it be…?

Linhardt was already running in surprisingly fast flight through the woods, with the other women wordlessly following him in agreement. Edelgard picked up her unsharpened battleaxe and ran away with them from that disgustingly powerful teen magician. Fortunately for them, black arrows continued to sail at Lysithea, forcing the young mage to protect herself rather than pursue them.

The three women and man halted a short distance away, doing their best to conceal themselves in high grass or behind trees. Dorothea was panting but smiling as she leaned against a tree trunk. “So that’s...what a noble with a Crest can do…”

“She’s more than that,” said Professor Manuela in an angry tone, covering herself with her robes. “She’s inhuman. Hubert should have been able to cancel her spell. I know what that boy can do. Our strongest magician was outmatched…”

“Excuse me, Professor Manuela, but I’m still here,” murmured Linhardt, his hands on his knees as he panted.

Edelgard was still burning with humiliation, but she was listening as she tried to keep a watch while her remaining mages recovered. Petra covering their retreat had been an amazingly adept tactical feat. The Adrestian Princess promised herself that she would pay more personal attention to their guest from Brigid in the future. Reviewing the brief battle in her mind, she turned to Linhardt. “You tried a lethal spell, did you not? To test her?”

“Ah, you saw that. Yes, I did. She ignored it almost completely, although it finally did make her put some effort into it. But she’s just a minor Crest of Charon…” Linhardt started thinking out loud, soon lost in thought as he panted on the ground.

Dorothea straightened up, her beautiful face suddenly serious. “I smell smoke,” she announced.

Manuela sighed. “Oh darling, I know. These woods simply reek of it…”

“No, it’s not the corpse smoke, Manuela,” said Dorothea. “This is wood smoke. A new fire…” she stood and tried to scan the woods cautiously.

All four of them arose. Now that she was higher in the air, Edelgard could smell the woodsmoke as well. Green wood was burning somewhere. Soon they heard faint shouting, and then the clash of weapons.

Edelgard hefted her battleaxe to her shoulder. “Excellent. There is still an opportunity for us to claim victory, my friends. The Golden Deer and Blue Lions are fighting.”

*

They had come across the cheerful but silent Ashe, who pointed wordlessly to Felix and Petra in the distance, the former still on his back with the young foreign girl kneeling beside him. Ingrid and Sylvain both smirked and shared a gleeful look, delighted with Felix getting some well-deserved comeuppance. The rest of the Blue Lions understood the need for caution, and they began to fan apart and seek cover the closer they came to the Golden Deer position. Dimitri and his classmates soon spotted low, taut ropes strung between trees and hidden in vegetation, which they evaded using eye contact and hand signals. They also soon heard distant sounds and indistinct raised voices, but those quickly faded. 

Their first intimation of trouble was an arrow cracking against Dedue’s upraised shield. The imposing man instantly knelt, hiding his large frame behind his tower shield, holding it as firmly as a castle wall against any attack. Dimitri and the rest of the class laid down low or hid behind tree trunks large enough to break the archers’ sightline as a fusillade of arrows came at them.

Dedue held his position as arrows banged uselessly against his thick shield, although soon some were whistling past his ear as the archers moved and changed positions. “Your Highness, I can stand here. Advance with the rest,” he called out.

“Not yet,” responded Dimitri to his loyal companion. He attempted to claim Professor Hanneman’s attention, who was hidden some behind large bushes with Annette. Can you respond, Dimitri tried to motion to the Professor with his hands. He saw the grey mane shake its head, but Annette had seen Dimitri’s sotto voice request as well and was tugging on the Professor’s robe and whispering. Soon the older man was smiling and he nodded sharply to Dimitri, his hands drawing themselves out.

So. Annette had a plan, and Hanneman had agreed, but they needed time. It was time for one of their drills they had practiced privately. “Blue Lions!” Dimitri roared at the top of his voice. An answering yell from his classmates sounded back. “At my signal...we charge!” He paused for a moment, then yelled, “For Faerghus!” He quickly feinted out from his cover, then just as quickly returned, nodding in satisfaction as he saw Ingrid, Sylvain, and Dedue do the same. Mercedes held her cover behind them, attempting to sporadically return arrows against their unseen opponents.

As expected, arrows sailed into and nearby their positions, thudding uselessly against the ground and trees, as well as Dedue’s shield, but none did harm. The archers were distracted and now Annette and Hanneman were standing, working some mysterious magic. Both of them put their hands together and shouted.

Twin black fireballs erupted from their hands, racing forward through the woods. Dimitri’s eyes widened at the potentially deadly assault, but he soon realized the dark, smoking fireballs were aimed at the ground and tree trunks ahead of their position, in the direction of the arrows. The woods ahead of them erupted into dust and smoke, with minimal flame, and the Prince smiled as he heard hacking coughs from the tree boughs inside the obscured air.

Dimitri gave the true call to advance. “Forward!” With a shout, the Blue Lion House charged into the obscured field.

The brief flames and voluminous smoke had caught the Golden Deer archers off guard. They stumbled and dropped from the trees, coughing desperately to clear their lungs and to evade the blinding air.

A small blonde man with glasses stumbled from a tree, gasping for clean air, his bow and quiver forgotten as he dropped them behind him. He stumbled blindly, rubbing at his eyes and coughing.

Suddenly the lenses on his face were plucked away by a hand. “NO! Where are they...my glasses?” said Ignatz in a panic.

Ignatz whirled around to see a blurry red haired monster standing over him with an upraised lance, with his glasses on its face. “Oh man! How do you see in these things!” The blunted lance swung easily in one hand, clouting Ignatz across the ear. “Bop. You’re dead.”

“So...are you,” coughed a voice behind him.

Sylvain quickly twisted around himself, blocking the intended blow with the shaft of his lance as he smirkingly swept the glasses off his face. Ignatz saw the glint of reflected sunlight through the melee and tackled the ground to secure his most prized possession, ignoring the battle above him. Leonie and Sylvain faced off, both of them wielding lances of equal length.

Leonie rapped a knuckle with her shaft and was delighted to see Sylvain become angry in response. Quick clacks filled the wood the two students used their weapons as quarterstaves, and soon both of their hands and fingers were battered and bleeding, despite their thick gloves. The commoner woman and nobleman glared at each other through the smoke as their arms soon trembled with the effort of trying to grip their weapons. Ignatz stared up at them in mute fascination throughout their duel.

“My my. You’re actually pretty when you’re angry. Got any plans tonight?” smiled Sylvain wickedly.

“Too bad you’re not pretty when you’re stupid. Guess that means you’ll never be,” sneered Leonie. She attacked.

Sylvain’s smile widened as he quickly reversed his grip on his lance and swung it against his body, bringing the blunt end upwards with all of its momentum to knock out this tomboy.

He failed to notice Leonie doing the exact same thing, on the opposite side.

Two sharp hollow thuds. Two lances fell into the grass. Leonie staggered into Sylvain’s arms as he fell backwards, although both were already senseless.

Ignatz stared at the image of his two unconscious classmates tousled together on the ground, enchanted. The Lioness Sleeping In The Forest. He could hardly wait for the opportunity to sketch this idea down. He gazed up at the soot obscured sky. “Thank you,” he whispered in reverence.

*

Chapter Text

Ch 14

The World Entire

Dimitri grinned as he rushed through the smoke, delighted by the familiar sensation of combat. A shred of order, a core of decency inside his brain, tried to remind him not to use his full strength. But it would feel so good to batter his foes to the ground, watching them topple down like ninepins. He gripped his lance tightly in his hands, the feel of it as familiar as a brother.

A coughing laugh sounded ahead of him. “Wow...and they call...me a schemer. You could teach me lessons, Dimitri!”

Claude. The Leicester Duke was doubtlessly trying to bait him forward, hoping for a clear shot. Well, he would move unpredictably, to his left. Dimitri strode confidently through the smoke filled wood, even though visibility was limited. He breathed deeply and steadily, refusing to cough, even though his lungs were burning from the foul air. He would not give away his position so easily.

A swirl of a breeze revealed a dim shadow by a tree, lightly coughing in the smoke. Dimitri ran forward to leap and swing his lance at the figure, a wild swing that the Golden Deer archer would see and dodge, then he would shift and follow through with a punch from the shaft to incapacitate…

...except that the archer did not dodge.

Dimitri felt a flash of incandescent terror. He was a murderer, a killer. Nothing more than a destructive monster who broke everything and everyone around itself. But he would not kill his classmates, his friends, like a careless beast. He could not. Dimitri tried to desperately check his swing, all of his tendons and sinews quivering in protest to halt the momentum of his lance.

Despite his efforts, the lance struck something hard. The Prince of Faerghus froze.

The smoke cleared enough for Dimitri to see his lance had clipped the tree above the figure. He had torn the thick bark off, leaving a deep gouge into the wide tree trunk.

Lady Marianne von Edmund stood listlessly before him, her bow and quiver hanging lightly in her fingers.

“You missed,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. She did not look at him.

Dimitri was still shivering from the burst of adrenaline. His armor and uniform were now soaked with sweat from heat and stress. “Lady Marianne--! Why...you...I…I could have killed you! Are you no longer fighting?”

“Maybe you should have killed me,” she said hopelessly as she looked up at him with red rimmed eyes.

“I…” Dimitri was at a loss for words. It was too much for him to sort through, even as his ears picked up the sounds of combat and raised voices all around him. Glenn, Patricia, and Lambert were suddenly around him, sneering and yelling at him as he refused to function, could not function in the midst of combat, even as his allies fell around him. A helpless child. A weak prince.

But he recognized the pain in Marianne’s eyes. He knew the despair in her voice. And he remembered her words, the same words of a dark skinned boy of his age, with cropped white hair, standing above the bodies of his parents and sister. People his soldiers had killed. Dedue had forgotten those words, but not Dimitri.

He was not a monster. He was not. His chaotic thoughts clung to it like a mantra.

He could envision only one course of action, and Dimitri chose it without hesitation. “Lady Marianne. You are in distress. Please...drop your weapons, and come with me.” He held out his hand.

“Ok,” she whispered, dropping her bow and quiver. She obediently took Dimitri’s hand, her face downcast.

Her passivity was by far the most alarming trait. Dimitri firmly led her north, away from the combat and the smoke and the fire, away back into the green woods. He saw a figure in the foggy haze and steered Marianne towards it.

He had hoped to find Shamir and Flayn, but instead found Mercedes fumbling with her bow and arrows, the wide blunted arrowheads still giving her difficulty as she attempted to draw. “Oh, Prince Dimitri?” she gasped. She gasped again to see Dimitri drag Marianne forward by the hand, the girl still not looking at either of them. “Marie? What’s this about?”

Prince Dimitri waited for Mariannne to respond, but when it was clear she could not,he slowly formed his own words. “Lady Marianne...is fatigued by the combat. She needs the care of a healer now. Mercedes, you have my permission to withdraw from the fighting and assist her. Please.”

“Of course, Prince Dimitri. I will be happy to do so,” said the older girl, dropping her bowshaft immediately and untying her sweater to lay it about Marianne’s shoulders. The girl seemed bewildered by the attention she now received as Mercedes kindly fussed over her.

Dimitri tried to drop Marianne’s hand, intending to turn away, but suddenly her fingers clenched his own with a strong grip. He turned to see Lady Marianne staring directly at him.

“Prince Dimitri...why?” she whispered.

He attempted to squeeze her fingers gently in return, but was surprised to find that she could match his grip, seemingly by instinct. She was stronger than her frail appearance suggested. He returned her frank gaze with one of his own.

“Because, Lady Marianne, you are not alone. Seeing you so...I could do nothing else.”

Something passed between them. He was not sure what. But he thought he saw in her eyes a glimmer of understanding.

“Ok,” she said, nodding. She released his hand. “I’ll stay here, then.”

Mercedes smiled at Dimitri, a hand on Marianne’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about us, Prince Dimitri. I’ll take good care of her. The Knights will understand.”

“Thank you, Mercedes. Lady Marianne. We will speak later.” He nodded to them both and ran back to the battle.

*

“Oh, yuck! More smoke--! I’m going to have to buy a whole new outfit…”

“Hilda, you can shut up now,” growled Professor Jeralt. He was gazing at the smoke and dust billowing from the trees, his face frowning. None of the Golden Deer archers were falling back, and they soon heard combat noises inside the haze.

Hilda stuck her tongue out at her new Professor’s back, but then stopped and smacked her lips as more ash entered her mouth. Bleh. That was stupid of her. Raphael was smiling and winking at her with encouragement on his craggy face. He was a nice boy, thought Hilda. He had a little sister, and he understood that women were delicate, frail creatures, who deserve to be protected. Captain Jeralt was just mean, but Claude and the boys seemed taken with him. And Leonie, but she was basically a boy anyway. Hilda could not understand why everyone at Garreg Mach made such a big deal about this scary man.

Jeralt spoke without looking at his students. “Alright, we’re going to split up and enter it. I’ll take point, and both of you follow behind me, on my left and right.” He hefted a heavy training pole axe and walked forward with quick strides.

“Yessir, Captain,” grinned Raphael, slamming his training gloves together before following on the Professor’s left.

Hilda gave a groaning sigh and lifted her massive war axe to her shoulder. “Fine,” she muttered, tossing her pink pigtails. She was going to have to wash her hair for a week. She had to actually run and sweat to catch up with them, and then the smoke started getting into her eyes. It made it dreadfully hard to see anything.

Iron rang against iron suddenly from her left. Well, maybe big mean scary men were useful in one way. They were good at fighting at other big mean scary men. Jeralt and Dedue were locked in combat, with Jeralt shouting at the silent Duscar native.

Hilda decided her Professor could take care of himself, because if he couldn’t then he wasn’t much of a Professor, was he? She looked around the smokey woods for any other people not belonging to her House, and saw a short figure several yards to her right pointing at her and gesturing.

Well, that was just rude. Hilda ran forward with her axe ready to swing. This person must be a mage, because something sticky and nasty tried to shoot out at her as they pointed. She was not touching THAT stuff. Hilda spun aside from the filthy substance, then continued running forward to swing at the figure with the butt of her training axe. The small person shrieked in pain as the impact spun her to the ground.

“Ow! Ow ow ow ouch owie ow with extra ouch sauce!” yelled Annette, clutching her left arm on the grass, rolling into a ball.

“Sorry, Annie!” Hilda sang brightly, her axe back on her shoulder, before turning around to look for any more opponents. She would get someone to bake some cookies for Annette later…

A premonition of danger made her raise her axe before her face. Something clanged off the front of the wide blade, causing the back end to clout Hilda in the forehead. It dropped to the ground at her boots. An arrow. A black arrow.

Hilda was beginning to become irritated. She felt a bump on her head beginning to grow. Someone was out there, trying to ruin her looks.

“You’re making...me...work!” she shouted indignantly to the forest. A faint squeal was heard through the haze, then nothing. The pink haired short noblewoman stalked forward through the woods and smoke, axehead leading, too angry to even cough.

More voices and sounds of combat were rising around her, but Hilda ignored them. Whoever that Black Eagle sniper was, they were going to regret that.

Suddenly she heard chanting...between coughing...somewhere nearby. Someone was trying to cast a spell at her and ruin her armor--her hair!--with mage goo. Again! This day was just full of inconveniences. Hilda veered to the sound, seeing someone in robes and shoulder length hair before her, and swung her axe again.

The mage managed to duck under her swing but had to interrupt his own spell, and Hilda only grew more frustrated at seeing her opponent. Linhardt, the sleepy boy who hid in the library, who was too lazy to do anything for Hilda. Hilda hated lazy boys.

Linhardt tried to run out of range, but Hilda was having none of that. She caught up with him and swung her axe again, this time connecting, battering the boy to his knees.

The green haired nobleman grimaced in pain on the ground, clinically examining himself. “Ow. My favorite arm,” he said, probing his right shoulder gingerly. 

Hilda raised her axe threateningly. “Should I have hit the other one?”

“No. Well. Yes. Probably,” explained Linhardt between winces, holding his swelling limb. “It’s just that this is the arm that I use at night for…”

“Ew! No! You really are a disgusting weirdo, aren’t you?” exclaimed Hilda in revulsion.

“...fishing. I was going to say fishing, before you rudely interrupted me. I don’t know what you were thinking about. I guess it’s something only disgusting weirdos think up. And also, you should probably look out behind you,” said Linhardt offhandedly.

Hilda almost didn’t believe him, but something about the way he said that made her spin around with her weapon on guard. Another axe clashed into her own, driven by an enraged Edelgard, but Hilda managed to strain enough to shove the other girl’s weapon aside. “Linhardt, I’m going to kill you,” the Princess growled shortly as she attacked again.

“Figuratively, I hope…”

Neither Edelgard or Hilda gave Linhardt another thought as they furiously sparred. They were of a size and strength, although Edelgard was a touch faster. But my axe is bigger, Hilda thought viciously, feeling her arms and shoulders jolt with every block and parry. She wasn’t going to let this spoiled little Imperial Princess win.

A few more blows and swings were exchanged, with both women falling into a rhythm, the fight becoming a question of who would tire first and make a mistake. Edelgard began to dodge more, ducking or side-stepping Hilda’s swings, each one capable of serious injury despite the blunted edge of the large blade. Hilda grunted with effort, trying to match Edelgard’s speed as she swung her axe again in a wide, crossing arc--

--that caused it to become embedded in a tree trunk. Hilda’s eyes widened in shock, and she struggled for an instant to free her dull training weapon. In that instant the the Imperial Princess rose from her low crouch below the axehead, yanked one of Hilda’s long pigtail braids to the side, and rapped Hilda smartly on the head with the flat of her axe.

Hilda released her axe handle to clutch her now-thoroughly aching head. “Ow! Was that really necessary?”

“Yes,” snapped Edelgard shortly. “Now sit down or I’ll do it again.” Hilda looked belligerently at the white haired Princess, and Edelgard coolly raised her weapon again.

The Lady Goneril did as the Princess demanded, but glared at her red cape as she stiffly walked back to Lindhart. She rubbed the second, larger sore knot rising on her head beneath her scalp.

She despised investing any more training hours than minimally necessary at the Officer’s Academy. But she decided that she just might make an exception for Edelgard, because beating that smug little bitch would be worth it in the end.

*

“Linhardt.”

“Ah, hello, Edelgard. Please forgive me if I do not give you my full and complete attention. I’m in a bit of pain right now.”

“My sympathies. I am merely checking to make sure you are still on my side.”

“Oh. That. I was just trying to trick Hilda by stating the obvious. So many nobles tend to ignore it, you know. I thought she would scoff and give you the time to land a surprise attack.”

“Linhardt.”

“Or I could say I had complete and utter faith in my future Empress…”

“Linhardt.” 

“Ok, fine. Maybe I just wanted to witness an actual battle between two noblewomen with Crests. I tried to take notes but the fingers of my writing hand are a little numb at the moment.”

“Very well. Thank you for being honest with me, Lindhart. But if you do that again, I will send Hubert to deal with you.”

“That sounds interesting on a number of levels, Edelgard. The possibility of noble intrigue being one, your blatant display of ruthlessness towards me being the second, and the third is my imagination running wild about how Hubert might ‘deal’ with me…”

“Linhardt.”

“Oh all right, I agree to your demand. I will never let my desire for Crest research endanger you again, Lady Edelgard. Except for...maybe one last time.”

“What are you babbling about now? Why one last time?”

“Well, because Prince Dimitri is standing behind you.”

**

Manuela stumbled forward through the vegetation and dirt and soot, her robes quickly becoming stained. At some point she had decided to draw her sword, although she didn’t remember doing that. But then again, she didn’t remember doing a lot of things these days.

This battle was just going wrong. Just like her life, she thought tiredly, but quickly grew irritated at the thought. Of course she was a mess of a woman, but that’s because she didn’t have anyone to care about her! If she had a strong, dependable man in her life, of course she would put effort into...cleaning herself up. Appearances were everything, after all. She would gladly trade drinking and...other things...just for someone she could settle down with and enjoy evenings. She still had her looks, and her voice was only getting better with maturity. She enjoyed teaching and spending time with the students and the Knights. So why was everything always going wrong around her?

Something whistled past her ear, and shouts and clangs mixed with some cries of pain intruded on her, as well as that awful smoke. Oh, that’s right. The mock battle. At least that interesting Captain Jeralt was here now, along with many other men who didn’t know about the scandalous rumors that had all those oh-so-pious monks and nuns and Knights gossiping about her. Maybe she could find him, and pin him helplessly to the ground with her magic. Then...who knows? Manuela chuckled richy at the pleasing image.

She did end up finding a man in the woods, but he was already on the ground, absently rubbing a shoulder. Hanneman. Of course the poor old man had already been taken out. Manuela looked around the forest, but her senses told her the fighting must be drifting away from this location. After all, who would want to spend time with Hanneman? Nothing but blah blah blah about Crest this and Crest that.

Well, she was a physician. She should check on the poor thing, if only to gloat for a little bit. Manuela stood and sauntered over to her colleague, her sword on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong, Hanneman? Playing with the youngsters too exhausting? I could heal you, if you like, and make you feel more...rejuvenated.”

Hanneman favored her with a sour squint behind his monocle from the ground. “Manuela. I would tell you that you’re acting very foolishly, but you’ve ignored me every time in the past. Why should I bother again?”

Manuela was about to respond with some brilliant rejoinder, but at that moment something whistled into her and punched her in the chest in a most delicate spot. She cried out with a note that would put many divas to shame and limply fell to the ground, dropping her sword and clutching herself.

A distant voice called out. “Oh! Uh, sorry, Professor Manuela! That looks like it hurts. Um...I hope you’re ok! We all do! Uh...really! Please forgive me...” The shouting faded away.

The songstress gasped on the forest ground, her mind and body still throbbing with deep aches, nearly oblivious to the world. Slowly, then more quickly, her agony eased and she gasped as she was able to open her eyes again.

Hanneman was leaning over her, his mouth moving quietly behind his bushy moustache as he held hands above her. He leaned back suddenly when he saw her eyes on him. “Oh. I’m sorry, Manuela. I was hoping to ease your discomfort. I am not skilled in the medicinal arts, but I do know some basic techniques…”

“No...that does feel better, Hanneman. Ugh. This is what I get for wearing my opera robes and not my armor, I guess…” Slowly Manuela sat up, examining herself. She would have to heal herself again, later, but Hanneman’s work for now was...adequate.

She realized suddenly that the arrow had caused her to be...uncovered. Oh my. She quickly drew her robes about herself, trying to adjust herself discreetly. Fortunately, Hanneman was polite enough to stare at the sky while she did so.

As she did so, Manuela dimly grew aware that she did have people in her life that cared about her. That would even...heal her. To be considerate of her feelings.

They sat together for some time, before Manuela said slowly, “Professor Hanneman...thank you.”

Hanneman said quickly, shortly, “Think nothing of it, Professor Manuela.”

Manuela looked to the ground. “Au contraire, Hanneman. I believe I will think about it...a great deal.”

*

Raphael dodged to the left, looking for anyone to punch...lightly, he reminded himself...with his leather gloves. This smoke and stuff in the air was making it hard to breath, causing him to sneeze loudly and his eyes to water. But a Knight always had to be prepared for anything, didn’t they?

He heard sounds ahead of him, but by the time he got there--he had tripped over a log, breaking it--he saw only good old Ignatz sitting besides Leonie lying on top of Sylvain. Raphael thought that kind of behavior was positively indecent in the middle of battle, but who was he to judge? Ignatz promised to tell him what happened later.

He heard the new Professor shouting behind him, still fighting that Blue Lion. Well, maybe he could help him out. Two against one might not be fair, but then again, war wasn’t fair, was it? All you had to do was win. And the new professor was a real professional, a real Knight! He knew all the ins and outs of the business. If he impressed the Captain, maybe he could get Knighted just like the old man’s daughter. That had been something special. Raphael ran all the way back through the woods as fast as he could, remembering to step over the logs this time.

He had to admit, that Blue Lion, Deduey, was putting up a hell of a fight against the Professor. Raphael frankly admired the expert way the other man hefted his shield and swung his axe, and the way he ignored the Professor’s taunts and swings. Deduey was basically a Knight already, but all devoted to Dimitri and the Kingdom. He was also a dang good cook. Too bad for him.

Raphael tried to consider the best way to ambush the Blue Lion. He could just run forward and punch the man in the back of the head, but that seemed un-Knightly for some reason. He could alternatively distract Deduey by coming behind him anyways, but he really wanted to do something for the Captain that would show off his muscles. Plus, Raphael was anxious to show the Professor he could be sneaky too. The Professor approved of Claude’s ideas for stuff like sneaky tricks and traps and trying to “think like the enemy.” Things like that just made his head hurt, because Raphael thought it was silly to think like someone else when you were just yourself, but he had to try.

Planting his large boots as carefully as he could, he snuck up behind Deduey. Captain Jeralt saw him and adjusted his stance and swings accordingly, but gave no other acknowledgement of his student’s presence. His plan was working! Captain Jeralt did an overhead chop with his long axe, causing Deduey to shift backwards rather than risk catching that on his shield…

...and at that moment, several other things happened.

First, Raphael swung his arms up into the Blue Lion’s armpits. He flexed and tried to hold, straining his grip against the equally large Deduey trying to break free. He had hoped the Captain would have intervened at this point, but the blonde haired girl, the one that reminded him of his sister, chose that moment to attack the Captain. He was alone against Deduey.

The second was the cute little magician girl, Lysithia, floating back to her House just as it was under attack. The brown haired opera girl had also stepped from behind a tree and was yelling at her, making her distracted.

The third was that arrows started whizzing back and forth. A lot of them. That distracted everybody.

Except for Deduey.

The other man took advantage of Raphael’s briefly relaxed grip, and bent down low. Raphael was fleetingly disoriented by feeling the unfamiliar sensation of his feet leaving the ground as Deduey flexed forward, holding Raphael’s arms tightly against his body with his arms. Raphael was startled, but not for long, as Deduey shifted his left arm to raise the top of his tower shield to meet Raphael’s face.

White lights exploded between his eyes and nose as the rim of the shield connected.

Raphael released his hold and staggered backwards, clutching his face and hacking as blood filled his mouth and sinuses. But he felt only admiration for the big Blue Lion as he stumbled to his knees on the forest floor, unable to do much of anything other than spit blood.

“You’re strong,” said a deep voice above him.

Raphael looked up through his watering eyes and gave a bloody smile up at the Blue Lion. “Not strong enough, I guess. But maybe you can teach me your moves?”

“I will consider it,” smirked Deduey. He turned back to the combat.

That was real Knightly behavior. Acknowledging your foe, accepting him...or her...as worthy. As an equal. Even if you beat them, fair and square .

Yep, that was what Knighthood was all about.

*

Jeralt was feeling his years amidst all of these kids. That Duscar boy especially. He reminded Jeralt of himself at that age. Strong, serious, devoted, taciturn. Not willing to give an inch, not intimidated by anything. That kid was going to go far.

This other kid Ingrid was good too, if what Claude had told him was true. Pretty noble girl. Wanted to be a Knight, more than anything.

Jeralt longed for a chance to tell her all of it was bullshit. Unfortunately, combat was not the place for waxing philosophical.

He dodged or deflected most of the girl’s initial thrusts and swings with her lance, but then heard a blow behind him and Raphael loudly coughing. That was damned inconvenient, but he was encouraged to see Lysithea float by. He tried to move aside to keep both Blue Lion students in his field of vision, but an arrow sped past him at Ingrid at that moment, causing both opponents to hesitate.

The Golden Deer Professor had to think to remember the color of that fletching. “Claude!” he yelled to the woods. “You’re going to hit me!”

“No I won’t,” a shout came back, ringing with confidence.

He dodged a quick renewed thrust from Ingrid, but his battle intuition made him leap to the side abruptly, saving him from a swing from Dedue’s axe. He stumbled backwards without grace through the smoke and vegetation, but the Blue Lion students were uninterested in pursuing.

“I don’t need your help, you black bastard!” spat Ingrid with venom towards her teammate.

Dedue regarded her without changing expression for a long moment. The man could give Byleth a run for her money. “Very well,” he said, stepping away and lowering his axe and shield.

Lysithea called out across the clearing from where she faced Dorothea. “Professor, let me handle these cretinous children. Especially that Ingrid, who apparently hates her own classmate. Most of us are down. Edelgard and Dimitri are fighting about a hundred paces behind you.”

“My Prince!” yelled Dedue, instantly focused, his face showing expression at last. He feinted his axe briefly to Jeralt, but it was clear his intention was to move past him. Jeralt feinted a parry in return, then swung his pole axe in a long arc with his hands gripping the bottom of the shaft, jumping forward slightly to get the precise angle. He struck the Duscar boy directly in the back with the flat edge as he tried to run past him, and the kid grunted softly before turning.

The former Knight hit the ground with his armoured shoulder protesting, leafy dust and ash filling his nostrils, and it left him totally open to an attack from Ingrid. But Lysithia had chosen her taunts well, because Ingrid was advancing on her instead of him. Jeralt slowly rose up from the ground to regard the still-standing Dedue, who was glaring at him with his weapon and shield at the ready.

Jeralt smirked at the young man as he got up. “Admit it, kid, if my blade held an edge, your spine would be severed. You’re a good fighter and a completely worthy person. You held your ground. But such obvious devotion makes you...predictable.”

“You do not know my limits,” said Dedue sternly, and for a moment Jeralt wondered briefly if such an excellent cadet would deny himself honor and get himself expelled. But then the large Duscar boy released his axe and shield and eased himself to the ground, all the while staring at him. “But also...your words hold truth. I let my concern for my Prince endanger him. That is what defeated me.” 

“Strong and smart,” complemented Jeralt warmly with a wink to the stoic kid. He glanced behind him, but Lysithea seemed to have things well in hand against Ingrid and Dorothea. Raphael looked like a mess where he sat with blood running down his chin and uniform, but he gave a reassuring wave to his Professor as he held his nose.

It was time to take out the big fish. “Claude!” he yelled again, then coughed as more soot entered his lungs. Damned smoke, but it was a good tactic against his students, as full of archers as they were. He had underestimated Hanneman. The fussy nobleman apparently knew a trick or two.

A sing-song voice came back to him through the woods. “Yes, teacher?”

Jeralt scowled at Claude’s antics. “Follow me!” he bellowed.

The voice changed its notes even higher. “Yes, teacher!”

Jeralt strode past Dedue, his weapon at the ready before him. Claude was also really good. But Jeralt promised himself to have a long talk with him about battlefield discipline.

*

Dorothea was used to the spotlight. But these Crest-flaunting noblewomen were trying to steal it, treating her like a mere stagehand.

She had tried to draw Lysithea to her position, hoping her preparations were enough, but only got a sneering declaration of “You’re not a threat to me.” before the ramrod little girl floated away from her. Dorothea wanted to gently explain to the child that if she did not want to be treated like a brat, she needed to stop acting like one.

Even that handsome noblewoman, Ingrid, glared at Dorothea and her sword dismissively when she had tried to taunt her towards her. And promptly turned her back on her, to attack the scarred new Professor.

Maybe she really didn’t belong here.

She could always go back to the opera company in Enbarr, of course. But that meant going back to her...patrons. Who would expect things from her. Who would use her until her voice and beauty faded, then seek fresher meat.

It was a familiar feeling. She had been treated this way her entire life. After being overlooked or used constantly, it eventually stops hurting.

After all, you can’t be hurt when there’s nothing left inside of you to hurt.

It was the source of all her talent, really. She could suffer any degradation, throw herself completely into a role, put up with almost anyone or anything.

Except for maybe...rejection. Yes, that was intolerable.

But perhaps this would work out in her favor after all. Lysithea and Ingrid were fighting each other instead of her. Captain Jeralt had called Claude away, so she no longer had to dodge arrows. That was thoughtful. Now Dorothea just needed to be patient and wait for one of them to win, then come join her on her carefully prepared stage. So, she would settle for being the audience first. Dorothea decided she didn’t mind because this little drama before her was shaping up nicely.

Lysithea was glaring down at Ingrid, hovering three feet above the air several yards away from the blonde cadet. The smoke swirled around her, refusing to touch her through the bubble of clean air she had made for herself, and she disdainfully said, “Why even bother trying? You should just go ahead and sit down. I don’t want to hurt you by accident.”

“You really don’t know me very well if you think I’m just going to lay down and give up,” snapped Ingrid, her grass-green eyes glaring back fiercely. She was pacing in a battle stance around the Golden Deer student, her lance held firm and ready before her.

“You’re right, I don’t, and I’m quickly losing interest. Just remember I warned you,” declared Lysithea as she held out an upraised palm and muttered an incantation.

The atmosphere in front of the short girl shimmered, then distorted, then hardened into a blade. A dull blade, Dorothea quickly hoped, watching as Lysithea flicked a finger in Ingrid’s direction. Dorothea winced in sympathy as the shimmering force of air quickly flew straight at a charging Ingrid…

...and Ingrid ran through it without missing a step, ignoring the concussive impact behind her.

Lysithea’s pink eyes went wide in shock, and she had no time to recover as Ingrid leaped up to swing her lance, knocking the small mage out of the air to hit the ground hard with a full swing of her lance. Lysithea rolled once on the forest floor after landing and did not move.

“Some people are resistant to magic, you know,” sniffed Ingrid at her fallen opponent. Seeing Lysithea lying motionless on the ground, Ingrid sighed as she bent down to check the fallen girl, trying to make her more comfortable. This gave Dorothea time to discreetly adjust her sketch on the ground, her mind concentrating very hard to increase its power as she motioned a sparking hand above it. The extra effort drained her to her limits, but she managed to finish in time, hiding a discreet wobble, to stand again before Ingrid turned back to face her.

“Well, now that you’ve finished beating up a child, ready to play with the big girls?” Dorothea said with a flippant wink. Her lungs burned and her muscles ached from the effort of controlling her breathing. She had no magic, no energy to fight. All she had were words.

“You’re no match for me. I’m better at sparring than you, and there’s no magic you can do to stop me. It wouldn’t be fair,” said Ingrid, a frown on her elegant face.

“Lysithea thought it wasn’t fair, too,” reminded Dorothea. She put effort into a saucy smile. “If you’re giving me special consideration on the battlefield, darling, that’s not going to help the rumours about you.”

Ingrid was about to turn and look for Dimitri, but turned back to Dorothea, bringing her lance up, her face now set in unattractive hard lines. “What are you talking about? What rumours?”

Dorothea laughed gaily, drawing on all the spiteful scorn she could muster as an actress. “Oh, you mean you haven’t heard? The ones about you putting off your suitors. Constantly. You say you want to be a Knight, but I think you just want to bed all the girls at Garreg Mach like a bitch in heat.”

Dorothea blessed and cursed her acting skills as Ingrid snarled and sprinted to her. She had gotten the Blue Lion to play her part, all right. Perhaps a little too well. She held her smile as she held out her sword above her, as if ready to attack. 

The instant Ingrid got within a pace of Dorothea to swing her lance, she screamed loudly as sparkling arcs of galvanic energy raced across her body, coming from the rune on the ground Dorothea had drawn before herself. The songstress breathed heavily then, dropping her poise of confidence, showing her exhaustion as she thought she had won. But Ingrid did not fall, even as her muscles jerked involuntarily and spittle ran down her chin. Impossibly, she raised her lance again to thrust it forward while falling to the ground. Dorothea shrieked herself as the blunted tip of the weapon slammed into her abdomen, punching the breath from her lungs and doubling her over, her sword lost from her hand. Dorothea helplessly fell to her hands and knees and vomited into the grass.

Both women gasped and panted on the peaty ground, writhing in pain. Ingrid still moaned and twitched in spasms, while Dorothea was focusing very hard on finding air to breathe, occasionally spitting to the ground to clear her mouth. She was vaguely aware of some rushing feet nearby padding quickly over to check on the two of them. The new Knight, Lady Beatrix, bent over and checked Ingrid, while Dorothea was helped to sit up by a kneeling and upset Thunder Catherine.

“That was risky, Dorothea. I don’t know whether I should congratulate you or expel you,” said the blonde Knight seriously.

Trips quickly assessed Ingrid. “She’ll be ok, although she’s going to be sore. I can help with that, I think. Both of them might want some water.” Trips nodded to Catherine and Dorothea. “I think Dorothea did great. Who taught you runes, kid?”

Dorothea gave a shaky smile as she swallowed a mouthful from Catherine’s waterskin. “Professor Manuela. She taught me everything I know. But is Ingrid really going to be ok?”

Beatrix gave a confident smile. “As soon as I heal her a bit. She’ll be up in no time.”

“Good,” sighed Dorothea, finally leaning back against Catherine’s arm, her torso still aching, her breathing still difficult. But she smiled as she said, “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to my sweet Ingrid.”

*

Dimitri spun his lance to block any follow throughs as he retreated a step, but saw that Edelgard was uninterested in pursuing. She was too busy catching her own breath, as was he.

Their training weapons were chipped to ruins. Both of them had broken fingers, clipped wounds to the head, shoulders, torso, the occasional leg. Neither of them were willing to admit defeat, this small break just a brief respite before they enjoyably engaged again. Dimitri marveled that a girl almost a foot lower than his height, and several stones beneath his weight, could so effortlessly and easily match him in strength.

He felt something stir in the ashes of his soul, wanting him to bare all to Edelgard, to confess everything to her, all that he knew about their...family.

But as always, something dark in Edelgard’s now pigmentless eyes glittered, a severity and a ruthlessness to match his own, as cold as her hair, held him back. She was a different person now...as was he. And as always, his mind skittered away from confronting the day of the Tragedy directly...but Dimitri was now convinced, beyond doubt, that Edelgard had been forced to undergo a similar Tragedy. One that had started the day she had left Fhirdiad with a cruel and abrupt Lord Volkhard von Arundel.

Edelgard was rubbing blood from a superficial scalp wound from her eyes, matting her snow white hair. “Prince Dimitri...if this...is...your version...of going easy,” Edelgard coughed suddenly, and hacked a large gout of blood from her mouth. Unmindful of the ghastly image of blood down her pale chin, Edelgard smiled at him between pants. “It seems...I have...underestimated you.”

“Edelgard...I have always known you...as a worthy...opponent,” Dimitri said firmly, trying to control his muscles and breathing once more. Blood and sweat deeply stained his own hair and uniform.

Edelgard wiped her chin on a white glove already stained dark red, holding her axe ready behind her as she steadied her voice to its regular, haughty tone. “There you go again. When have I known you, Dimitri? I have never met you, aside from when we were introduced a few months ago at the start of the semester. Perhaps we met as suckling babes during some cross-Fodlan noble conference, but only that!”

This was too much. Dimitri felt himself losing himself, losing his control at her words. It was all he could do to not snap at the voices in his head, or snarl at their faces so close to his own. He was losing the last link to his childhood, feeling that it was falling away forever, because it did not remember him. Trying to tightly control his emotions, focusing past his pain, Dimitri leaned heavily on his lance, his face only holding sadness and despair. “You really do not remember, do you?”

“What? You said something to Byleth, didn’t you?! What secret do you think you know about me, Dimitri?” she demanded, suddenly enraged beyond poise. Her face revealed nothing but disgust and contempt. “What could you possibly know about me?! You do not know me!” Edelgard shouted, her control lost, her face raw and exposed. Hilda and Linhardt both watched from the ground with mute fascination, as they had throughout the entire duel. The Imperial Princess looked almost to rush and attack at that moment, her rage clearly burning her, scorning the look of pity on Dimitri’s face. Dimitri felt an icy stillness form inside of him as he stared at her in shock, feeling the last door to his idyllic childhood slamming shut with the finality of a coffin lid. 

“Very well,” rasped Dimitri harshly. “...Edelgard. I suppose I am simply sorry that your mother died in the Tragedy. The…” Dimitri interrupted himself and shook his head quickly, blinking, then growled, “Shall we continue?” He raised his lance in a ready stance.

Edelgard gave another bloody smile as she raised her axe on guard. “What are you speaking of? My...mother...died…” she stammered and swallowed, briefly, but then the mask was back in place. “She’s dead. She died a long time ago, you delusional fool. Although I must say, your attempts to confuse and distract me are quite skilled, Prince Dimitri. Again, my compliments. You are much more competent than I have judged.” Edelgard readied her swing, and both of them tensed to charge, their stances widening before the clash.

A sudden arrow sliced the air next to Dimitri’s ear, coming close to almost striking Edelgard as well, before it bounced off the ground and skidded before Linhardt, still kneeling at the edge of the small clearing. It was an unfortunate miss by Claude, as Dimitri immediately dived forward and rolled on the ground, turning around to bring his weapon before him, his bloodstained face grim and ready. Professor Jeralt crashed through the forest at the opposite end of the clearing, his pole axe ready and an uncharacteristic expression of softness on his battle scarred face. Edelgard whirled around to face the former Knight, her axe held before her in a two handed grip. Unconsciously, both Prince and Princess stepped backwards from their new enemies until they were back to back.

Jeralt gave a groaning sigh that could be heard across the entire woods, then shouted, “Claude! What did I say about interrupting duels between worthy opponents?”

Claude’s voice came back in reply after a short pause. “Um...you didn’t say...but I guess doing that was bad…?”

“Yes Claude! It was very bad...for us. Hold your draw for a minute,” yelled Jeralt, then resumed in a more normal voice, one still hoarse from soot and smoke. “I heard you kids talking. If either of you need time to deal...I’m prepared to call it if need be. There’s just the four of us left I think. You two, and me and Claude. Otherwise we can keep going. It’s up to your Highnesses to decide.”

Now it was Claude’s turn to loudly groan from his hiding spot. “Captain Teach!” he whined loudly. “I can end this right now! You distract them and I’ll take them out...”

“It’s called honor, Claude,” yelled Jeralt back loudly. “It’s a bit important to us here in Fodlan. Yeah, it’s not always followed, or obeyed, or recognized...but still...it’s important. Somehow...you just know when it’s right to count on it.” He locked gazes with Edelgard, holding his pole axe in a loose grip. “Well?” he drawled.

*

Edelgard regarded the Professor with interest, realizing this man’s offer was genuine. More than that, his easy banter had reigned in Claude, who could have easily ambushed either her or Dimitri by now. He had also drawn his speech out, giving both her and Dimitri the time needed to recover from their emotional outbursts. His casual leadership was...uncanny. She also recognized another uncomfortable flash, an instant recognition of a certain kinship between the two of them. This man...Byleth’s father…

“Edelgard?” whispered Dimitri behind her.

So, Dimitri was deferring to her decision. His passivity and weakness would be his undoing, one day. Although this thread between them must be later teased out. That could wait. She was on a battlefield at the moment, and she could still stand, and fight, even if she was the last Black Eagle left.

Edelgard made her decision without hesitation.

“Dimitri...we will continue later,” she murmured almost soundlessly, hardly moving her lips. “For now...the Golden Deer have us at a disadvantage. I say lance against lance, axe against bow.”

“I hear,” he whispered back. She felt him tense behind her.

Somehow, wordlessly, they timed their movements with perfect synchronization. Edelgard twisted under Dimitri and his lance, running to where she had last heard Claude’s voice, while the Blue Lion House Leader rotated to charge directly at the Golden Deer Professor, who merely raised his weapon on guard. Quick clacks in between grunts sounded behind her as Edelgard ran forward low to the ground, her axe on guard.

She sensed more than heard an arrow coming from her left, and she shifted her axeblade to deflect it desperately. Somehow she succeeded and dove to her right, scrabbling low on her elbows and knees until she could place wood and vegetation between her and where she expected Claude had placed himself. Seconds passed as she tried to anticipate Claude’s movements in response to her own, her honed mind bent towards the challenge.

Dimitri exchanged several more blows, parries, feints and disengages with Professor Jeralt, but felt with dismay that his fine training lance was weakening, despite being made from stout wood, sheathed in the finest steel, and reinforced by magic. It was bending and cracking with every parry and thrust he made with the grim Professor, and Dimitri was soon left holding a mass of splinters. And he saw the new Professor knew it as well. 

With a final snap from a blocked swing of the poleax, Dimitri’s lance was broken in two. Dimitri grabbed the longer end, desperately thrusting it toward Jeralt’s face. The old Knight knocked it aside, but Dimitri made his true play as he abandoned his ruined weapon and grabbed at his foe’s weapon in return. With his superior strength, he could rip it out of the Professor’s hands, he thought, as he flexed his broad shoulders and leaned backwards…

Nothing happened.

Astonished, Dimitri tried again. And again. Sweating and straining he tugged and pulled, digging in his heels, but Jeralt simply held firmly to his poleaxe, planting his feet and regarding Dimitri with something between amusement and respect.

“Done yet?” grunted Jeralt.

Dimitri suddenly snarled and tossed his head at his opponent’s face, feeling satisfied as it connected although the impact only increased his migraine and left him slightly dazed.

Jeralt stared at the Prince, still holding his weapon, his nose askew and dripping blood. He smiled suddenly at Dimitri, who was still trying to blink the cobwebs away. Then pitched his head forward in return, his large forehead impacting against Dimitri’s royal brow. The Prince released the poleaxe and staggered backward, and with a spin of his weapon haft, Jeralt knocked the woozy Prince stumbling to the ground. Jeralt let out a slow breath and used the time to try and carefully reset his nose somewhat properly.

Edelgard crept low through the woods, hurling herself to the ground near trees, then scrambling forward quickly behind more cover, the slightest depression, or the smallest log. She thought she might be near Claude’s position, but she heard nothing, saw nothing. The forest seemed unnaturally still and artificial as she peered slowly around. The tension was slowly building as no more arrows came forth, and she cautiously led with her axe through the woods, scanning tree boughs and ground cover alike, her heart pounding as she tried to breath only slowly and soundlessly through her nose.

A rustle and a thump to her right. Edelgard instantly bent lower to the ground, blades of weedy grasses tickling her face as she tried to strain her neck upwards to look around.

The sound repeated.

Finally, she saw it to her left. A skillfully woven hunter’s blind, hidden near a young tree and log. So. Claude was trying to make her expose herself, by tossing pebbles or some other detritus through the air to make her reveal her location. But she had found him first. Tensing, she gripped her axe tightly in both hands, knowing she would have only one chance. With an explosion of muscle, the Princess lept upward to throw her large axe directly at the blind, hurling the large weapon like a maul with a single spin. Her aim was unerring as it tore through the sticks and vegetation, revealing...nothing.

Even as her eyes widened in shock at this, Edelgard felt something punch her hard in the right shoulder, quickly spinning her off-balance body to the ground. The twin impacts deprived her of breath and she laid on the bed of rotten leaves and grasses, stunned, gasping for air through lungs that didn’t seem to want any.

*

To her right, Claude rose from the bushes where he had been tapping the ground, a broad smile on his face. The reward of a sneaky reputation was that you could occasionally play it straight. Edelgard sounded like she was breathing steadily enough, and he wanted to see if Captain Jeralt needed help against Dimitri. He quickly sprinted back to the clearing where he had last seen them, just in time to see the Professor rubbing his nose with a disarmed Dimitri on his hands and knees before him.

Excitement bubbled through Claude. He gave an irrepressible whoop of joy and gave a thumbs up to a grinning Hilda on the ground, as he walked up to the Professor. “Captain Teach! I think we did it!”

Jeralt’s voice sounded nasal, and his nose was bloody, but he appeared unharmed otherwise. “That it?” he said shortly.

“Yep!” Claude beamed up at his Professor. “That’s the Golden Deer House for ya! We won the mock--”

A hiss of air, and Claude pitched forward suddenly, landing face down in the trampled dirt and grass next to Dimitri. Jeralt looked surprised and tried to bring his weapon back on guard, but a second black arrow thumped him in the chest on his sternum, causing him to wheeze and stumble backwards even though his armor. A third arrow slammed into his hip as he tried to desperately turn, and Jeralt, unwilling to take any more impacts, surrendered his weapon and dropped the ground as he bellowed out, “That’s enough! Whoever’s doing that, I’m dead! You got me!”

The woods were silent aside from the sounds of harsh breathing and Claude’s snores. A long minute passed.

Then, faintly, a whimpering voice called, “Um. Uh...L-Lady Edelgard? Did I do ok?”

*

Chapter Text

Ch 15

Confirmation

“What a mess,” Catherine sighed.

Byleth was inclined to agree. The smoke in the woods was being cleared by Hubert, under orders from Professor Manuela. The young man had looked briefly rebellious at the thought of anything that would take him from Lady Edelgard’s side, until Trips suggested that breathing cleaner air would aid in the Princess’ recovery. The grim young man immediately pursued the task, conjuring moderate breezes throughout the immediate vicinity to fan the smoke away.

The smoke from the battle was finally clearing, with every remaining fire doused by dirt by diligent students and knights, and Manuela, Trips, and Flayn hurried about between the injured students, setting bones, mending wounds, and easing pain. Several cadets had to be tended to on site, such as Felix, Edelgard, and Ingrid. Others, such as Leonie, Claude, and Dimitri were forced to settle themselves and not move too quickly after the blows they experienced. To aid in compliance and discipline, Catherine posted additional Knights by these students, despite the constant, rebellious protests. Relatively uninjured students, such as Caspar, Dedue, and Ferdinand were set to various campground tasks to keep them from getting underfoot. Mercedes moved among classmates and rivals alike, giving freely whatever healing magic or assistance she could provide, followed by a silent Marianne who did her best to mimic the older woman. They were allowed to tend to more minor injuries, such as Raphael’s broken nose or Ashe’s broken ribs. Now Jeralt, Hanneman, Catherine, Shamir, and Byleth were huddled in conference, several dozen yards away from the students, near the Golden Deer starting position and main camp of the Knights.

Shamir spoke in her flat tone. “If we go by the traditional rules of the field, then the Black Eagle House wins.”

Jeralt nodded but felt he had to stand up for his class. “But the Golden Deer had the most individual victories…”

“And then there’s the gallantry shown by Prince Dimitri,” said Professor Hanneman, with a touch of pride. “He aided a foe in the middle of combat, at considerable risk to himself. And there’s also the tactical ingenuity of young Lady Annette! I do believe that these acts deserve some token of recognition.”

“What do you think, Byleth? You’ve not said anything yet,” said Jeralt, looking at his daughter. Byleth frowned up at her father, deep in thought. She wasn’t sure if she was being influenced by Sothis or not, but she heard nothing in her head. Then she reproached herself at her display of hesitancy; she was a full Knight of Seiros now, so she needed to start acting like it and stop being so passive, and allowing her dad to run everything for her.

Byleth looked around at the group. “No one wins,” she stated firmly.

To her surprise, the others nodded in agreement. Catherine said, “I think I agree. Considering how close this battle was, and how there was only one person left standing at the end of it, that’s the right lesson to impart to the students, even though we’re technically violating our own rules.”

“War is hell? That’s the oldest lesson in the book,” muttered Shamir, looking away with a roll of her eyes.

“But one that I think we must emphasize,” nodded Hanneman. “Despite our merciful actions and adept tactics, the Blue Lions availed themselves nothing in the end. The Golden Deer were defeated despite their superior strength and strategies, when one could argue they did everything right. And the Black Eagles technically won, but...ahem...shall we say, left the least qualified individual, in terms of command and leadership, in possession of the field.”

Jeralt rubbed his sore and swollen nose gently as he turned it over in his mind, and eventually said, “That all has merit, but I think that some honors should be given. Maybe we could nominate two or three students from each house for individual contributions? Excluding professors,” he added with a smirk at Hanneman.

Hannaeman was distressed at the attention. “Ah, yes, of course…” he said quickly, absently massaging his shoulder. “Well, I’m prepared to defer to Knight Shamir’s recommendations for the Blue Lion House…”

The archer held a hand on her hip as she regarded the milling forms of the students and Knights. “Dimitri for certain. Chivalry is overrated but he did the right thing for his classmate. We just need to make him learn that he can’t do that with everyone. The other two would probably be Sylvain and Ingrid, although they both could have done better.”

Catherine harrumphed at the end. “Right. Ingrid could not have been struck by lightning…”

Shamir gave a dismissive toss of her purple hair. “You walk into a trap, you get trapped. Especially if someone is obviously taunting you. Good lesson.”

“We told them not to use lethal spells--!” Catherine protested to her fellow Knight angrily. “We coached them on this over and over again!”

Byleth interrupted her senior. “But it wasn’t lethal. Dorothea has already apologized and told me she’s willing to face any consequences for her actions. I think that speaks well for her.”

Catherine crossed her arms, her armor clanking together. “Fine. Who wants to tell her to clean out her room, you or me?”

Byleth simply stared at the older woman, and soon Jeralt coughed discreetly and said, “Catherine, don’t tell me you’ve never hit someone harder than you should have in training.” Shamir snorted at that.

Looking around herself with none of the others speaking, Catherine gave a final dismissive grunt and said, “It seems I’m in the minority here. Fine, but I’m definitely going to bring this up with Lady Rhea.”

The group continued talking, and eventually came to a consensus. The initial Mock Battle would have no declared victor among the Houses, but certain students were noted for individual valor. Shamir’s choices held, and Catherine nominated Lysithea, Hilda, and Claude for the Golden Deer. Byleth chose Bernadetta and Petra, and to Catherine’s irritation, Dorothea as notaries for the Black Eagles. Perhaps a bit spitefully, Byleth was then ordered by the Holy Knight to ride to each picket and the ridgeline to notify the other Knights to prepare for return march tomorrow. Byleth nodded and saluted in unemotional compliance, but noticed her father discreetly signaling her, using hand signs they had developed years ago. He lingered by Byleth as she moved to the rope corral where the Knights had placed the horses.

Laying a hand on her shoulder as if in fatherly affection, he faintly squeezed it as he leaned close. “This is why I had doubts about rejoining the Church, kid. Did you hear what Catherine did there?” he breathed into her ear.

Byleth thought she did, and murmured up to him, “It was unfair.”

He smiled easily but his eyes were hard. “Exactly. Catherine is willing to bend or break the rules when it suits her, but for anyone else, she’s black and white. And she learned that from Lady Rhea.” He smiled more widely and patted her shoulder in a display of fatherly affection, but his quiet warning chilled Byleth. “We’re fighting for the Knights. But we’re not going to trust them.”

*

“He did not say single words while we sat together. I worried greatly that his back was crippling him,” said Petra, sitting by a cookfire with Annette. Both girls had their arms in slings and splints, as Knights and students moved about on various duties.

Annette shook her head. “That’s typical Felix. He’ll waste your time with mean words or criticism, and then when there’s something important going on he either shuts up or disappears. You’re good with the Fodlan language now, Petra, but you still have to learn Felix-ese.”

“Ah...my pardon, but why is Felix easy?” wondered Petra curiously.

Annette giggled. “I was making a joke. Felix-ese is the language of Felix. We’re all still learning how to translate it into the Fodlan language.”

Petra brightened at her fellow student. “I think I have the understanding. Felix is hard to understand for the all, not for just me.”

“Exactly!” said Annette enthusiastically, then winced as her arm pained her. She sighed as she considered her fellow Blue Lion. “It’s just so hard to talk to him. So don’t feel bad, Petra. It’s not anything you did wrong. He pushes everyone away, because that’s who he is.”

Petra sat thoughtfully for a moment, staring at the fire. “It is sad. He is very strong. Such a strong man could have many wives, much family in Brigid, because he could provide many for them. But if he does not talk, then no one would want him. No one wants a man who cannot talk, no matter how strong he is being.”

The Fodlan noblewoman considered and slowly said, “I think it’s the same way here in Fodlan...um...although, maybe except for the ‘many wives’ part.”

The Brigid princess sighed and stirred the fire with a stick. “It is so a tragedy. He is the handsome…”

On this Annette felt she could fully agree. “Oh, I know! Grrrrrrrrr...it’s so irritating it makes me want to smack him! Um...except, he’d probably slice my hand off. Darn it! Why is it that the cutest boy in the monastery only talks to swords?” Annette said mournfully, putting her chin to her uninjuried hand.

“Talks to...swords?” Petra asked, dropping her stick. She turned to Annette in excitement. “Annette, this is it! You have given me an ecstasy!”

“Ah...Petra? I think you meant ‘epiphany’…”

Petra was so excited she wasn’t listening. “You said we had to be learning the language of Felix, yes? Then what you said is right! The language of Felix is the sword language!” she exclaimed, her brown face shining as she clenched her fist. “I will train hard with my sword, and have a great long talk with Felix until I have done the beatings!”

“Aw, c’mon, Petra, that doesn’t help the rest of us at all!” protested Annette. “That means only you, Dorothea, and Leonie would have a chance! This stinks!” she pouted.

“Do not worry, Annette! I can help train you in the sword arts…”

“Excuse me.”

Both girls looked up from the campfire to see Linhardt standing above them, his right arm in a sling similar to their own. “Do you mind if I sit by your fire? I think I’ve done all the healing I can do today with my left hand, and I am beat.”

Petra smiled warmly. “Linhardt. You may share the fire, if you are wanting.” Annette smiled uneasily, not sure about the odd noble boy from the Black Eagle House. Although he was better than Hubert. Ten Linhardts would be better than a Hubert. Maybe even a hundred.

“Thank you,” said Linhardt, carefully easing himself to the ground by the fire. He looked at each girl, then fixed lazy eyes at Annette. “I’m sorry to interrupt your chat, but something very important has just come up.”

“What?” asked Annette cautiously.

“I talked to Professor Manuela, and she has agreed to approve of my charter of forming the Student Broken Arm Club. I think three cadets are enough founding members, don’t you think?” Linhardt smiled. Annette took a moment, but then started laughing with Linhardt. After a bit of back and forth, Petra laughed as well.

The young Blue Lion unconsciously rubbed her sore arm. “How does Hilda swing an axe almost as big as she is? It almost seems physically impossible...”

“That, Annette, is something I could talk about for days...but I won’t. Suffice to say, certain Crest-bearers have affinities for certain weapons. Something to do with their Crest-associated Family Relic. I’d imagine you’d might have an affinity for hammers,” said Linhardt with a yawn.

“What, you mean like Crusher? Like I’d want anything to do with that creepy thing. It gave me the heebie-jeebies just to look at it, hanging above the family seat in Castle Dominic,” Annette shuddered. “Give me a good spellbook anyday.” Linhardt nodded in wholehearted agreement.

“What...what is the Crusher?” asked Petra curiously.

“My family’s Relic,” explained Annette. “I have the Crest of Dominic, and our House Relic weapon is a giant bone hammer called Crusher. I hated looking at it when I was younger. It made me feel...strange, just looking at it.”

The Brigid Princess looked confused. “Why bone weapons? Is not the steel much better? In Brigid, there are artisans who make bone crafts from the bodies of the sea-kings. But they are much only a tradition for these days.”

This prompted a longer explanation for the island teenager by the two Fodlan nobles, which left her only slightly less confused. “It is oddity that I have never heard of such...Relics,” she said slowly, sounding out the unfamiliar word. The tattooed Princess faced Linhardt curiously. “Do not the noble families of the Empire have such great weapons?”

Linhardt smiled broadly at the question. “They used to, although some of them were not bone, but made of an ancient blessed silver from the Church of Seiros that was almost as powerful. However, they all disappeared during the Imperial Renaissance about a hundred years ago, when the Southern Church was dissolved and the Ministry of Religion rose under House Varley. My House’s own Holy Relic, the Caduceus Staff of Cethlenn, was thought to be stolen by Knights of Seiros in disguise, under the orders of Archbishop Oghma. It’s still a sore subject among most nobles in the Empire that the Holy Kingdom and Alliance nobles still have their own Relics and they don’t.”

Petra poked at the embers of the dying fire with her stick restlessly as she tried to listen. “Then where does Knight Catherine get her Thunderbrand? It too must be a Relic?

Annette said slowly, “Thunderbrand was always associated with House Charon, from the Kingdom…”

Linhardt yawned and nodded. “It seems likely she’s a noble from that House. Maybe she decided to swear herself to the Central Church. I heard many Kingdom nobles did so after the Tragedy. I would like to see it in action sometime….”

Petra shuddered and stood in a smooth motion, despite her broken collarbone. “I would not. My homeland has legends of powerful weapons of great magics, being sought by young and foolish warriors. But all of them soon learn that the spirits never are giving blessings for free. There is always the price.” She bowed briefly to each of her companions. “The fire needs more wood to be fuel. I will return.”

As Petra left their small campsite, Linhardt seemed to be struggling to not doze off in the afternoon sun, while Annette studied him. She ventured reluctantly, “You know...you’re not half bad company when you’re awake, Linhardt.”

The dozing nobleman snapped awake at that. “Oh. Um, yes well, I was trying to make an effort. I’m pleased you appreciate it.”

“Uh, actually, I did. But I’m also wondering what you really want.”

“You know, I’m quite happy that I’m so completely transparent. It seems to simplify matters, allowing for more naptime.” Linhardt made an effort to force his lidded eyes open on Annette. “I must admit, yes, I wanted to learn something. So I thought of my most approachable redhead acquaintance in the Blue Lion House, and here I am.”

Annette blushed at his directness. “You must have me mixed up with Sylvain…”

Linhardt shook his head easily. “You’d be surprised to know that he hates both sexes equally. And besides, even if I could get him to talk, would I believe anything he said? No, of course not. My desire is to get history right on something. Trying to chase down inaccuracies in the historical timeline is so tedious and boring. And it’s a small detail, really. As a mutual scholar, I was hoping you could aid my understanding of the history of Faerghus nobility.”

Annette rolled her eyes at his attempt at flattery. For Linhardt, this was probably the height of romance, but she decided to humor him. “Ok, fine. What do you want to know?”

“Just one thing. What was the name of King Lambert’s Queen?”

“Oh, that’s easy! That was Queen Consort Patricia. But...she was just Prince Dimitri’s stepmother, because his real mom died right after he was born. Some kind of disease or plague I think, that Archmage Cornelia managed to cure.”

“I...see. And may I assume Queen Patricia was on that fateful journey to Duscar?”

“Yeah,” said Annette shortly, not willing to add more. Like most of her classmates, she had difficulty discussing the events of the still recent Tragedy, being personally affected by it. Briefly absorbed in her own thoughts, she glanced over to Linhardt, noting with interest that for once, his eyes were wide open, with his brow furrowed in concentration.

*

“Wait, I’m confused. Why would Dimitri think Edelgard’s mother died in the Tragedy? That’s...random.”

“I don’t know! I was hoping you could tell me! You’re supposed to be the smart one!”

“By the Gods, Hilda, keep your voice down…”

Claude looked up around the tree where they were sitting and whispering, but no one was paying any attention to two “injured” noble cadets. Knights and healers moved about, readjusting lines and perimeters and camps to be nearby students that were too injured to move just yet. Claude only still had a headache from Bernadetta’s arrow, but he was considered a ‘high priority student,’ meaning extra Knights and mercs were placed around him. At least he got to share company with Hilda in the meantime, and had learned these extra morsels of information from their surreptitious whispers.

He had already seen several Knights move by, carrying cots for the critically injured students. Felix had passed by first, the stoic, sarcastic swordsman looking relaxed for once while apparently asleep. Dimitri had been placed in a cot too, despite his angry protests to Flayn and Manuela, which were only finally silenced when his loyal retainer Dedue spoke a private word to him. He then agreed but looked like he was angry with the sky itself as his cot went by where Claude was sitting. Finally, just now, Edelgard was passing by with four Knights easily carrying her, looking nothing more than a pale white corpse staring sightlessly upwards as she was brought closer to the main camp of the Knights, save for the slow rise and fall of her chest. Claude winced at that. Beating the Imperial Princess in this battle might result in a long term grudge, despite his best efforts at equanimity. Maybe a gesture of conciliation would be appropriate, but what form should it take…?

A potent rush of apple and floral scents...mixed with the smells of battle...washed over him. Hilda was now leaning over him and staring, her face and hair inches from his own. “Well?” she demanded imperiously.

“Well what?” asked Claude innocently.

“I asked you to do something.”

“And here’s a shocker for you...I’m still thinking about it. Sorry, Hilda. Thinking takes time and effort, just like everything else,” Claude said, giving her his most brilliant smile.

Hilda didn’t smile back at first. “Claude...I try to tell you things in confidence, but if you want me to keep telling you things, I think you need to tell me things. After all, I probably shouldn’t have told you in the first place. And if I tell everyone else...” she ended sweetly.

Claude closed his eyes...she was trying to distract him...and said easily, “Go ahead, then.”

She was rocked briefly by the dismissal, and he could hear her lean back. “Whaat? Claude, this is a mystery! I thought you liked mysteries--!”

“Oh, I do...but, as you said, Linhardt also saw everything that happened too, right?” he yawned and made a show of getting comfortable against the tree. “I’m sure he’ll solve it for us…”

Hilda scoffed in his ear. “Yeah, he might solve it for you, but will he actually find the time of day to tell you? Besides, this is personal for me. I wouldn’t mind getting back a bit at Edelgard…”

“Then get back at her.”

“I can’t, without you!” A silence. That stretched on by, heavy with threat. Then a small, refined sigh, one that signalled Hilda at her most dangerous. “Oh dear...I guess you really won’t help me, will you? So I guess I need to go ahead and just spread the gossip. Let’s see now...oh look, there’s Dorothea across the clearing…”

Claude instantly opened his eyes and sat up, touching Hilda’s arm before she could rise. “Wait. Ok. You got me,” he smiled up at her. “Heh...you called my bluff pretty easily.”

“Really?” Hilda smiled as she sat down again. “You did have me going there with your act. You’re hard to read sometimes, even for me! So, did you use all that time to come up with some great ideas?”

Claude settled back into lounging against the tree trunk. “Not really, but maybe we can trade ideas for a bit and come up with something. So...do you think Dimitri was being honest?”

“Totally. I don’t think he’s even capable of being dishonest, now that you mention it…”

“So, he’s a reliable source. What about Edelgard’s reaction?”

“Hmmm. Whatever he said to her made her extremely upset. You know how she struts about, always being so serious and ruining everyone else’s fun. She even shouted at Dimitri! Edelgard never shouts!”

“So that means she was worried about what Dimitri said. Now, do you think Edelgard was telling the truth?”

“Hm. She accused Dimitri of making stuff up...I think Edelgard can lie when it suits her, but I’m not sure if she was lying then. I think she believed whatever she was saying…”

“Good read, Hilda. I was thinking the same thing. Now, how could Dimitri know Edelgard’s mother? And what would she be doing on a Kingdom diplomatic mission to Duscar?”

“Oh, Claude...you jerk! You’re making me do all the work…!”

“Please Hilda?” he wheedled to her. “You’re much smarter than you think you are--! I’m just trying to get your insightful opinion...you’re so much more up-to-date on Fodlan nobility than I am.”

“Wow, Claude, you truly think so? That’s so nice! I think I might be…”

“Focus, Hilda.”

“Aw, can’t a lady take a moment to appreciate a compliment? Urg. Fine. Hm. Let’s see. Edelgard is a legitimate heir, and her father is certainly the Emperor. So her mother would have to have been married to him.”

“I think that sounds exactly what I was thinking. So what could possibly make her leave the Empire and end up in the Kingdom?”

“Arg! I don’t know! Maybe she stopped being a noble? Maybe she was disinherited? Maybe the Emperor divorced her?”

“Wait, that’s my fault. I asked the wrong question. Let’s try it this way: what event in the Empire would be impactful enough to cause her to do any of those things?

“Oh goshes, that’s almost as big of a list, Claude--!”

“Not that big. It would have to be something fairly recent, so she could end up in the Tragedy four years ago.”

“Well...there was the Dagdan-Empire War. I remember my family going on about that. There was also the Insurrection of the Seven, and the rebellion of House Hrym…but the only thing that affected the Imperial Family directly was the Insurrection...”

“That’s it, Hilda! I think you’re done. And you figured it out all by yourself! Give yourself a pat on the back, you should be proud of herself. I knew you could do it.”

“What--?!” Hilda was flabbergasted. “You...you actually made me do all the work? Of figuring this out?” She was quiet as she thought over it, before a slow smile came over her face. “Huh. I guess I did. But why me?”

“Well, I just wanted to prove to you that you can do things on your own. You’re strong on the battlefield, quite the little social artiste, and I think you’re smart. You just need to put the same amount of effort at showing all of that to everyone instead of putting all of your effort into being lazy and whining. It’s the same amount of work, you know,” Claude said with an indolent wink. 

“Claude--you--that’s--” started Hilda in a thick voice, breaking off each time.

Uh-oh, thought Claude, tensing himself for a hasty exit.

“--that’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me!” she exclaimed, wiping tears from her eyes, her face beaming like the moon. Soon she was genuinely crying out loud.

Claude was astonished enough by her reaction that he failed to hear Dorothea talk her way easily past the Knights and approach them. She sauntered up to them, her face alarmingly angry at Claude.

“Ok, Claude. I can tell when my delicate sweet Hilda is truly crying. What did you do?”

Claude was in a panic. “Me? I didn’t do anything--! I don’t even know what I did--! It’s not my fault!”

“Oh...Dorothea...it’s ok,” said Hilda between sniffles. “It’s just that…”

“Yes, my poor dear Hilda, what is it? Please tell me,” said Dorothea, kneeling by the other girl.

“...Claude believes in me--!” she burst out. “He thinks I’m smart, that I’m capable, that I’m strong....”

“Oh Goddess, Hilda! Really?” Dorothea gasped, her hands to her mouth.

“Yes! No one’s ever treated me like this! It’s just too much--!” Hilda fell hard against the taller woman in a hug. Soon both girls were whispering to each other, glancing back at Claude with calculating eyes.

Claude slowly edged away backwards from the two Fodlan women. At least they weren’t attacking him. Yet. He managed to scoot himself to the other side of the large tree, trying to think about what he had done to elicit such a reaction. He had gently coached Hilda along during the conversation, and then he had genuinely praised her--

Oh. It was hard to remember, especially after a battle with teammates and comrades, that after the battle everyone stopped being teammates and comrades. Instead, you went back to being noblemen and noblewomen. And he, Claude von Riegan, had effusively chatted with and complimented a fellow Alliance noblewoman. He had meant to only tease her with his playful manipulating, but then realized Hilda probably thought someone manipulating her meant you were showing...oh. Oh boy. He wasn’t sure how to deal with this new development. She was probably going to write about him in her next letter to her brother. Well, that was probably inevitable. What he had not anticipated in his schemes was an easy and apparently mutual attraction between himself and the sister of Lord Holst, Defender of Fodlan.

Claude’s thoughts were jumbled, but one flashed into his mind clearly. Heh...see, Dad? We’re not that different after all….

*

It was late afternoon when Byleth returned to the main camp from her assignment. At least Canis had enjoyed the ride, and Byleth dismissed the younger Knight-errant on stable duty, wanting a chance to bond with her mount. By the time she had finished grooming and feeding her, it was early evening and the companies and students were relaxing for the evening meal, at ease in secured territory. Byleth exited the rope corral where the horses were hobbled and found a smiling Hubert waiting for her.

He nodded curtly to Byleth. “She has been asking for you. If you will follow me.” Without ceremony, he turned and walked away. Byleth thought it amusing that he felt his petty noble insults would bother a former mercenary as she followed his back.

They did not travel far, walking shortly to the four wagons that had been brought in case any students were too badly injured to march...or for their bodies, had they been accidently killed. Trips and Manuela were nearby the first wagon, talking in low voices, while Flayn chatted away with Mercedes and Marianne. After hearing the story of what had happened to the young quiet noblewoman, the healers agreed to take Marianne off duty for the moment and had asked Mercedes to continue chaperoning her. The kind student enthusiastically agreed. Hubert led Byleth to the first wagon.

“Professor Manuela. Knight Beatrix. A good evening to you both,” said Hubert, bowing.

“Oh, there is Knight Byleth. Thank you for coming, dear. Poor Edelgard is recovering nicely after being healed, but I’m afraid she’s upset about something. She has refused to eat a meal or finally rest until she had the chance to speak with you,” said Manuela with worry in her tone.

“She’s an Officer cadet at Garreg Mach Academy. You could, perhaps, simply order her to take care of herself…” suggested an exasperated Trips, her omnipresent staff resting on her shoulder.

“Well, I could, but then she might refuse, and that would just create a political nightmare, wouldn’t you agree?” Manuela argued in a dulcet tone, waving her wand. She smiled with a slightly hard edge. “And it should be harmless. I think the Princess looks up to our young Knight, and just needs reassurance about her performance in the mock battle. After all, the other Black Eagle girls all got recognition…”

“Edelgard just wasn’t given her chance!” interrupted Byleth. Trips looked oddly at her, and Byleth felt heat on her skin as she tried to get the words out to explain. “I had to pick Bernadetta, because she was the last one standing, and I selected Petra because she was the most appropriate officer in the company. Then I had to pick Dorothea last to help her make a case for her to not get expelled for using too much magic. The Black Eagle House could have won easily, but aside from him--” Byleth waved at the quiet tall form of Hubert “--no other male student accepts Edelgard’s leadership. That’s a problem.”

Hubert grunted and nodded towards the Knight of Seiros, his face showing guarded respect. “As much as I wish I could say otherwise, that assessment is entirely accurate. It will be something for us to review, Professor.”

“In any case, I don’t think you need to tell this to us, kid,” said Trips, smiling with affection at her stepdaughter. “Go ahead and climb in. Manuela and I can keep busy. I trust that Lord Vestra will stand guard, at an appropriate distance?”

“Indeed, Knight Beatrix. I am the very soul of discretion.”

*

Byleth blinked as she entered the dim covered wagon, which was dark aside from a faint small lantern hanging from a rib beam hook overhead. Edelgard was lying on a pallet, sitting against the back wall of the wagon bed, her armor removed and bandages covering nearly the entirety of her body, the rest hidden by a single loose woolen shift. Without her armor and gear, piled in the corner, Edelgard looked even smaller and thinner than normal.

She was looking away from Byleth, into the wagon wall, examining the waxed cloth as if the mysteries of the world lay within. “Please sit down,” Edelgard said softly, not facing her. Byleth did so, feeling like she was about to be attacked at any moment. After a moment of difficulty, she removed her sword belt and eased down to the wagon floor.

Edelgard raised her voice slightly. “Hubert, do you hear?”

“I hear, Lady Edelgard,” came the muffled voice outside the wagon, behind the tarp flap. He chanted something in the language of magic, then his voice abruptly stopped.

Byleth felt nothing but confusion as Edelgard finally faced her. “There. Now we may speak.”

“What?” said Byleth, her voice sounding overly loud. “What did he do?” she turned her head, trying to understand what was different.

“Hubert has cast a spell of silence around the wagon. We cannot hear the camp beyond it, but no one can listen in on us as we...talk.”

Byleth strained her hearing to the utmost, but the only sounds were the two of them, breathing inside this enclosed space. It must be true, she thought, but then realized the implications. She faced Edelgard once more, who was regarding her intensely.

“What did Dimitri tell you about me?” Edelgard rang out with a tone an Empress.

Byleth quickly grew flustered at the direct question. “I’m sorry Edelgard, but I’m not sure if it’s good for me to say. I think you should talk to the Prince yourself--”

“Byleth,” said Edelgard loudly, her face fierce. “You misapprehend. This is not a question. This is a command. If you will not tell me, then I have no further use for you.”

The young Knight looked at her small friend, astonished, but saw in her Edelgard’s violet eyes pure will. She meant every word she said, Byleth saw, and felt herself grow cold at the realization, while something inside of her ached poignantly. Then the icy coolness settled in her own mind. If Edelgard wanted things to become formal between them again, she could do that. Easily.

“Your Imperial Highness, forgive me. But I hesitate to broach this subject because it directly deals with your...past.”

“Thank you for your consideration. But I will remain the judge of that. Continue, please.”

“Ok,” said Byleth, looking at the floorboards. Something was happening between them, and Byleth felt certain that what she was doing might be unwise. Dimitri might be angry at her, as well, for telling this to the Princess. But if she wanted to stay friends with Edelgard, she had no choice, even as she felt her mind rebel that Edelgard was pushing her to do this. She sighed and began her narrative, still looking at the bed of the wagon.

“At the feast for my Knighthood ceremony, I was in the gardens when Prince Dimitri approached me. He said he was glad we were friends, and wanted to tell me something about the two of you. Something about how you and he shared history, and he wanted to be friends with you again. He told me about the Insurrection of the Seven, and how your Uncle and Duke Aegir were the leaders, and how they hurt your father and family.”

“And how did Prince Dimitri know of all of this?” asked Edelgard, her voice now more intrigued and less authoritative.

Byleth continued in a dull tone. “Because he said something happened that made your Uncle lose, or something. Duke Aegir took charge of the Empire instead of him. So Lord Arundel, your mother, and you fled the Empire. You came to the Kingdom, to the capital in exile. Dimitri said he knew you for three years while you and your mother stayed with King Lambert.”

Silence stretched. Byleth waited stoically for the next command from Edelgard, not wanting to see what was happening. “I...I see,” came a shaking voice after minutes had passed. Byleth looked up, and saw with interest that Edelgard’s face twisted up in anguish. “What...what else did he say?”

Byleth shook her blue hair. “Not much else. Just...he thinks something bad happened to you. Something that caused you to lose all of your other brothers and sisters. That made you become the only heir to the throne.”

Edelgard was breaking down, trying to keep her emotions in check. Byleth watched in helpless fascination at the emotions writ plain on her friend’s marble face. “Yes...they all died…” she whispered. “But...I survived. I was the only survivor, the one to become the heir. But my poor brothers and sisters…” She suddenly, shockingly, hit herself with both hands in the head, her fingers curved like claws as they tangled into her silver hair. “They all died! All of them!” she wept, her sobs sounding like the cries of a wounded animal.

Byleth stared at Edelgard’s outburst, surprised to see the commanding Princess lose all poise for the second time today. She knew Edelgard was sad, because of her tears and crying, but she also seemed...angry. At herself. Byleth wondered at what could cause such pain that you could still feel it years later, and what had happened to cause it. The ache in her chest intensified, and Byleth wanted to help her friend. But she didn’t know how to do so at this moment, and could only sit there, and feel useless.

The Princess’ fit was over almost as abruptly as it had begun. The storm of weeping passed, and Edelgard grimaced as she quickly rubbed her eyes with her bandaged fists, breathing hard. The princess swallowed once and began harshly in a thick voice, “If you tell anyone…”

“I won’t. Ever. On my life,” said Byleth instantly with a nod, cutting the threat short.

The Imperial heir stared at her, her breathing starting to slow down. “And you told Dimitri nothing about what we shared the night during your...vigil?”

“I gave you my oath,” Byleth muttered towards the Princess. “I meant it.” Reminded of the position she had been put in, Byleth looked back to the floor, feeling confused by her conflicting emotions.

Another silence stretched long between the two of them, until Byleth sensed Edelgard carefully moving to sit beside her. She turned to look at the Princess, and saw that Edelgard was regarding her with her chin propped on her knees, a mix of interest and amazement on her tear stained face.

“You really are my Knight, aren’t you?” asked Edelgard, her violet eyes searching Byleth’s own.

“I’m whatever you need me to be,” said Byleth firmly, meeting that gaze without a flinch. Then her thoughts turned dark, at what could make this proud noblewoman, her precious friend, cry so hard that it could almost rend her apart.

Edelgard looked at her strangely when she said that, but she was suddenly past caring at that moment. “Who did this to you?” Byleth demanded loudly. Her jaw was clenched and her nostrils flared as she grabbed her sword.

Edelgard looked pleased, then eventually surprised and faintly alarmed as Byleth swore and struggled with her sword and scabbard in the confines of the wagon without hitting her friend. Does she not think that I’m being serious? thought Byleth with a flash of renewed anger.

Edelgard now spoke quickly. “They are people who I intend on having my revenge, my friend. But...they are too powerful, and too entrenched for now. I do not want your death to haunt me as well. Please...stay your anger, as I have done, until we can release it at the appropriate moment. Together.”

“They should pay for what they’ve done to you,” snarled Byleth, trying to buckle her sword belt in the cramped quarters. “You were hurt! As a child! And your poor brothers and sisters...I can’t allow that! I won’t! That’s evil! Evil!” She turned her back on her friend.

Edelgard grabbed Byleth’s wrist in a grip of iron before she could duck and leave the wagon, despite her finger splints on the wounded hand. “Byleth,” she commanded again. “Calm down, please. Now.”

Byleth struggled against her friend’s strong grip, but eventually dropped down in resignation. She didn’t want to hurt Edelgard accidently, or anyone else. And of course it was a stupid and pointless gesture, but the thought of Edelgard in pain…. She blinked her eyes and tried her best to do as Edelgard had said, and the immense blaze inside of her calmed, then cooled completely as a spark of wonder stole through her. She looked quickly back to Edelgard, feeling her violent rage gone and replaced by...something else. “Anger. That was anger,” she wondered to her friend with the directness of an innocent. Byleth felt her breathing increase as she felt...something inside of her...

Edelgard stared at her friend, amazement now shining on her face, making her face almost glow. “Yes, Byleth. And what I did earlier...”

“Sadness. I think...I think I felt sad as well. You were in such pain, I think it made me sad. My chest almost...hurt. On the inside,” said Byleth, pressing her hands to her chest. It felt so strange, but she gripped it with all she had, not wanting to let it go. To let anything inside of her go. “I think I hurt along with you...while you were...you know....

Edelgard looked almost ready to cry again at whatever she was seeing on Byleth’s face. Instead she smiled widely, a sincere smile that made Byleth feel...even more strange. “Yes, my friend! And what are you feeling now?”

“...I...I don’t know. I feel...good. And right...am I doing it right?” said Byleth self-consciously, pressing her hands against her own heart, her stomach, her head. She had never done this before, and she faintly hoped Edelgard didn’t think she was acting foolish. Trying to study the strange things inside of her, Byleth slowly said, “It’s...strange...and light. I can’t describe it. It feels good though. I do know that.”

Another pleasant shock went through her, when, unmindful of her station or her wounds, the Princess next to her reached out and gripped Byleth’s armored shoulder firmly. “I told you I am not an expert on such matters, Byleth. But I believe what you are feeling now is...happiness. You are simply happy, my friend. And you are right...it was...I mean it is...a good feeling,” she said slowly through an odd smile.

Of course. It was so obvious. Looking at her friend, with her hands pressed against her chest, Byleth found she could only say, “Edelgard...you make me happy.”

Somehow that was the wrong thing to say. Edelgard’s face suddenly twisted at her words, her smile falling away as if it were banished. Tears began to fall once more, and she removed her hand and curled as far away from Byleth as she could get, as if Byleth was a source of pain. Byleth felt the good feeling vanish in an instant.

“Edelgard? I’m sorry, did I do something wrong?” she asked, feeling confused. Even this familiar feeling of confusion had a new, shaky sensation that came with it. Byleth thought this one did not feel nearly as good.

Though her shoulders were shaking and her head was averted, Edelgard’s voice came to her clearly. “No, Byleth. You’ve done nothing wrong. Just...please go, and leave me. Remember your oath, but leave.”

“I don’t understand…”

“No, you do not,” agreed Edelgard, still muffled. “Return to your duty, Knight of Seiros. Thank you for your time.” She still refused to look at Byleth.

The phantom pain returning, Byleth stared at the form of her friend, knowing another strange thing was happening, but she did not want to do the wrong thing. There was too much at stake to carelessly dismiss her new friendship. Edelgard looked like she was in pain again, but Byleth didn’t know anyway to make inside pain go away for someone. She didn’t even know how to do it for herself. The manners and lessons of respect for others that were taught to her were quickly reviewed in her mind. Trips had explained it to her one way, and Zarad another, but something her dad had told her after one night stuck with her: “Sometimes when people feel sad, kid, they feel dirty. So they just want a chance to clean themselves up.”

Byleth felt some of the phantom pain ease. Edelgard was still her friend, but she just needed time alone. That had to be the reason for her friend acting odd. And her terrible memories, she reminded herself. Somehow she was making them worse for the Princess. That made sense. Byleth nodded and rose into a crouch.

“Edelgard...please get some rest. And eat. I want you to feel better. I promise I won’t say anything…except to tell Hubert you need some food,” Byleth said quietly. The wagon rocked slowly as the Knight brushed past the tarp, and the brief moment of silence Edelgard had to herself soon vanished as the mundane sounds of Knights and students settling into camp for the night suddenly intruded like a roaring ocean.

*

Edelgard angrily tried to wipe her eyes and nose clean, not caring if Hubert saw her, but more angry at herself for the loss of control. After all, he had seen her in far worse states. And he was absolutely loyal, even if he did keep secrets. Musing on the subject of loyalty, Edelgard pondered if Byleth was ensnared enough by her overt displays of emotion to be fully on her side. Perhaps. Her own dawning sensitivity should make sure of that. The simple mercenary turned Knight could still be easily led by the nose, like a naive child trusting the first stranger she met. Edelgard had to admit the subject matter was...difficult. The risks of this game were high, but the reward of stealing a Knight of Seiros to her cause, right from under the despicable reptile; that was an appealing thought which kept her focused on her goal. And there were still secrets to be cozened from the daughter of Jeralt…and Prince Dimtri.

So she had known Dimitri before….she had changed. She had lived in Fhirdiad? Unconsciously, her eyes lingered over the bloody shreds of her armor and uniform, drawn for a moment on her sentimental childhood dagger. She would have to dwell on this. But she had Byleth to thank for being such a useful covert agent. Too bad she didn’t know it, and Edelgard hoped she never would.

It had taken some effort, but now the strange woman was a source of reliable intelligence. She and her father had almost ruined her plans in Remire, but Edelgard was used to setbacks. For her entire life she had been fighting against them, turning them into goals, motivations, opportunities. Byleth might be a Knight of Seiros, but she was anything but devout and could be slowly turned away from the Church in time. They already shared several precious moments, and now with Byleth slowly becoming awakened to true emotions, due to her infatuation, there might be a possibility of a...relationship. In a limited sense. But regardless of her own feelings--or Byleth’s--naivete and weakness had no place in this world. Her Knight would have to be tempered and hardened to the reality of the world before she could trust her. Edelgard began to sense that Byleth’s condition would soon begin working both ways. The more she learned about her own emotions, the more she would start redirecting them towards others. Edelgard just needed to be there when it happened, to make sure she had access to Byleth first before Dimitri or Claude, and force those new feelings and emotions to flow towards her instead of towards them.

She was deep in consideration of future plans when she looked up at a sound, to see Hubert leaning inside the wagon, intending to pass a tin of camp food to her, complete with a fork. He looked concerned, doubtlessly noting the tear streaks on her face. Edelgard gave him her most triumphant, charming smile in return, adding a saucy wink that Dorothea would shamelessly admire. He smiled in return, and tied the tarp flaps shut.

It wasn’t entirely an act, Edelgard promised herself as she dug into her meal. Let Hubert think so for the moment, which would hold him off against harming Byleth for a time. But the mutual desire was real. The mercenary was certainly attractive, even though she put little care into her appearance, but even that had an appeal. She was a commoner, accustomed to rough living, and held a disdain for nobility that Edelgard shared wholeheartedly. An honest woman, without guile, and a born fighter. And she already knew of the Church’s treachery, but her behavior towards those secrets were almost as if that she did not comprehend it. Of what it meant, and what the downstream implications would be of such truths being revealed. After more consideration, Edelgard reluctantly concluded that this made sense. From a commoner’s perspective, such truths about Crests and Relics were just another noble abstraction. So what if the nobility’s power came from an ancient, nearly extinct race of immortal dragons, or a make-believe Goddess? That meant nothing to commoners, who simply saw power and protection and followed it, like moths around a flame. And the nobles would follow their “Goddess” simply out of naked self-interest. Edelgard felt a flash of doubt at her own high-minded ideals. They could easily be shrugged off as just another noble lie by her enemies, without a history of concrete actions to back them up. Byleth, with her common mercenary cynicism, had shown her that much. It would be up to her to convince her friend--and others like her--of her sincerity. 

Like an icy tendril extending across a leaf, her thoughts slowly progressed to how the powerlessness of the commoners reflected her own current helplessness. She dreamed constantly of the day when she could finally seize the throne and rebel against her Lord Uncle...but it was not really her uncle. “Lord Arundel” was just another pale freak from the depths of the earth who existed to torture and bully her, who had turned her into a weapon, while he soaked up palace life in Enbarr like the parasite that he was. When she tried to think about what had happened to her real uncle...it just made her feel confused. But then she remembered he had been weak. Gone. Dead. And it wasn’t important anyway. There was more than enough to concern her right now. Rhea. Claude. Dimitri. Ferdinand. His father. Seteth. Jeralt.

Byleth.

There were moments in her life when she still felt as if she was back in the dungeons beneath the Imperial palace. With rats, skittering, squeaking, nibbling rats, skulking all around her in the darkness, where she belonged. But by her actions, no matter how ruthless and sordid, she would buy freedom for the Empire. And for the rest of humanity as well.

But one thing at a time. Fighting briefly against her awakened memories, Edelgard sighed at the necessity, then called for Hubert and requested him to bring her a sleeping potion from Professor Manuela. A strong one.

Chapter Text

Ch 16

Acceptance

Byleth felt restless and giddy when the Knights and students finally returned to Garreg Mach, and currently the three Knights and three Professors in charge of the exercise were giving their reports to the Archbishop and Seteth. While there was no declared victor in the match, there were no long term injuries, and all students had acquitted themselves well with only two outliers. Seteth said he would interview Marianne von Edmund and Dorothea Arnault in the coming week, and Professor Jeralt recommended the intervention of Knight-Auxillary Beatrix in the former case, and summoning the cadets Lady Ingrid Galatea and Lady Lysithea von Ordelia concerning the latter. The High Abbot agreed that those suggestions were reasonable. Knight Byleth was recognized for her efforts in securing the site of the match, and Byleth felt the familiar heat on her face. She awkwardly accepted Lady Rhea’s praise for her service.

When Catherine spoke, Byleth waited for the Holy Knight to condemn her to Lady Rhea’s face, in front of her father and the others. But Catherine said nothing against her, and Byleth felt her tension go away as they exited the interview. It was now her first chance to privately talk with her father in days, ever since her...change. Edelgard had attempted to coach her in her newfound wellspring of feelings as they had escorted the wagons carrying the injured students back to the monastery, over meals and in surreptitious meetings in the wagon bed. Byleth was simply grateful for time near Edelgard, even though their progress was slow and hesitant. Mostly they just talked of other things, dancing around topics they both sensed were too weighty to broach during a simple march back to Garreg Mach. Hubert assisted them with his spells, and Byleth noticed his attitude shift from concealed hostility to...tolerance. Byleth had commented on the change the third day, the day before they reached Garreg Mach. “Her Imperial Highness has been gracious enough to inform me that you are...useful,” Hubert told her. “As she holds you in high regard for the moment, I see there is little need for further antagonizing.” Byleth thought that was a strange comment, but thanked him for the courtesy anyway, and he bowed in return.

The day they arrived at the monastery and town, young Knight of Seiros had wanted to tell her father what had happened, and told her friend the Princess as much. Edelgard had some unreadable emotion on her mostly healed face, then slowly had agreed that was Byleth’s right, but that she should minimize any role the Black Eagles played. Their remaining time together was then spent on crafting a carefully edited version of Byleth’s slow awakening. Before she had to go, Byleth had reached out impulsively to rest a hand on Edelgard’s bandaged shoulder. “Thank you,” she had told her friend, feeling light and strange.

Edelgard’s smooth face had been softly mocking. “It is a hanging offense to lay hands on royalty without their leave…”

Snatching her hand away as it was on fire, Byleth then realized Edelgard was joking with her by her face, and had managed a burst of laughter that somehow came deep within her. Edelgard had laughed as well, but then stopped when she saw the Knight checking herself in confused wonder.

“I knew how to pretend to do that,” she had told Edelgard seriously. “But I think that’s the first time I’ve really done it.” Edelgard had nodded back in solemn recognition. 

Blinking the memory and the swirl of quicksilver feelings away, Byleth was slow to realize that the Knights and Professors were splitting up finally after the week long mission. Hanneman was wandering back to his office, and Manuela had gone to check on the students in the infirmary. With the generous assistance of Flayn and Trips, they would soon be released, but Manuela had insisted on at least a cursory element of monitoring before she would release all of her patients, despite the verbal abuse from some of them. Catherine announced she was starving and headed to the dining hall, while Shamir was almost tackled by a short teen with dark skin who ran up and hugged her. Shamir smiled one of her rare smiles as she tousled the boy’s dark hair as he laughed. Byleth realized that boy must be her apprentice, Cyril.

“Alright, kid, are you going to finally tell me what’s up?” her father demanded behind her, the Golden Deer tabard over his armor newly--and proudly--creased and stained from the time spent in the field.

A tingle of something like combat excitement ran through her. Of course her father knew about her and Edelgard. So much for secrets, she thought ruefully, as she turned around to look up at her father. “Sure, dad. But I think we need to talk with Trips as well. And just in your office.”

Jeralt’s scarred face glowered at his daughter. “This better not have anything to do with your nightly visits to a certain Imperial Princess on the march back. You’re getting unprofessional, Byleth.”

Byleth felt another thrill go through her, this one more disappointing, but she gave her practiced small smile. “It does. But maybe not the way you might think.”

*

It took a while, but Trips was found in the dining hall, enjoying a decent meal with Zarad that was more than just trail rations. Along with Jeralt and Byleth, they were all now seated or lounging in Jeralt’s office.

“Ok, Captain, this joke is bad, even for you. You say Byleth demanded this meeting. Byleth never demands meetings. So you will now tell us what is really going on,” said Zarad as he leaned against a bookshelf near the door, a hand idling scratching his scar.

“Well, I wouldn’t count that out, Zarad. You were out on point most of the time during the march, and Byleth’s behavior has been...odd. Odd for her, I should say. So go ahead, kid. What have you and Edelgard been doing for the past three days?” asked Trips, leaning her short blue hair against her staff tiredly. Her eyes had deep bruises beneath them, due to all the healing she had done recently, and she looked exhausted from her place in front of the desk.

Byleth looked back and forth between her friends from where she stood in the center of the room. Her family, with her father at the core of them, sitting crookedly in his large wooden chair at his desk, his face the unreadable mask that she had quickly and easily learned to mimic as a child. Trips, her healer and stepmother, looking at her with gentle concern, with whom she shared a deep and unshakable bond of trust. Her friend Zarad, who had been a stranger her father had come home with one day, one that had to suffer a thousand insults and indignities for simply existing in Fodlan, but who had accepted her just as easily and quickly as she had accepted him. She felt old familiar feelings of being here close to them, but there was also something new. Like the grateful feeling she had when she was alone with Edelgard. It was expanding slowly inside of her, making her feel warm, somehow including all of them within her in some interesting way, even as they all looked at her expectantly, with varying degrees of impatience or concern.

Without thinking, she blurted out, “I like this.”

“Like what, kid?” yawned Jeralt. It had been a long march and it was late, and the sconces and candles of the office were dim.

She was torn between trying to examine the strange novel feeling, and talking. It was like trying to call out orders in battle while still fighting. Distracted, Byleth waved a gloved hand to indicate the occupants of the room. “This. All of us together. It’s a good feeling. It feels nice.”

Zarad looked to Jeralt, and laughed to ease the tension. “And it’s nice to see you too, Byleth.”

Her stepmother was rising slowly from her chair, her eyes wide. “Wait, Corporal. This might be important. Let me talk to her, guys.” She stood before her stepdaughter, searching her eyes and face for...something. “What’s happening, Byleth? How are you feeling?”

Byleth shrugged her white iron pauldrons in uncertainty. “It feels good. I’m glad we’re all together, I guess. I feel good. And thankful. Everyone here is important to me.”

The chair behind the desk creaked as it was scooted back. Her father was looking at her strangely. Somewhat similar to the way Edelgard looked at her, sometimes, but different. But he was looking at Trips as well. “Bea…”

“Yeah. Ok. We need to,” said Trips shortly, in the professional healer mood Byleth recognized from the dozens of times before. Looking back at Zarad, she mouthed something, because Zarad also looked interested but battle-ready somehow. He nodded shortly but still managed a wink to Byleth as he quickly opened the door and exited.

Confused by the reactions, Byleth looked at her father, saying, “Dad--?”

“It’s ok, Byleth. I’m happy you’re happy. Keep talking, kid, while Trips examines you. It’s just to reassure us that you’re ok. Zarad’s guarding the door to make sure we stay private. When did you start feeling like this?”

“Ok,” she allowed, feeling discomfited to keep talking to her Dad has Trips held the tip of staff on her chest, lost in a spell. The tingles of magic being worked on her made it even harder to talk. “I don’t know how this happened. It started after the battle in Remire. And I felt it more and more here at Garreg Mach.”

“Before or after you became a Knight?” her father asked, his expression intent.

“Um...before. I don’t think being a Knight has anything to do with it. But I feel it around the students. All of them. I really do.”

Her father considered this for a moment, then said, “What about Lady Rhea?”

“What about her? She makes me feel strange. I don’t like it. Even though she seems nice.”

Her father was satisfied with that answer, but still pressed her. “But you feel good around the students? And me and Trips and Zarad?”

Another nod. “Yeah, I do. It’s right. Or easy. I don’t know.”

The unwelcome question came from her father. “And Princess Edelgard? How do you feel about her?”

The very roots of her hair suddenly seemed to be on fire. “Uh...she’s...good,” Byleth said lamely. She would rather die in combat than discuss this with her father.

Her father had the definite beginnings of a Dad-smirk at her expense, but fortunately Trips blinked and came out of her spell at that moment, distracting him. “Jeralt...I felt it. I heard it beat! Whatever you did just then caused it…”

“Heard what beat?” said Byleth, then felt herself tilt forward off-balance. Her combat poise instantly allowed her to recover from a stumble and she shook her head to clear it. “Now I just feel weird…”

“Beatrix, let’s get her to sit down,” ordered Jeralt. Byleth felt the strong hands of her father and the softer, skilled hands of her stepmother ease her into a chair. That eased the dizziness a great deal.

“I’m sorry. Not sure what that was. It felt strange,” Byleth apologized, trying to breathe deeply. Something was wrong with her eyes, making everything look tilted.

Her stepmother was excited, despite her exhaustion, a hand on Byleth’s shoulder as she leaned over her. “Jeralt, you did it! I think she’s learning them, finally…”

“I don’t think I can take the credit, lass,” said her father, kneeling to look Byleth in the eye. “Although I am proud of you, kid. I’m happy for you too. And whatever makes you happy...makes me happy. You know that, right?” 

“Sure, Dad,” Byleth smiled uncertainly at her father, feeling as if his words had blessed her in some unknowable way. Her dizziness slowly abated, and she was even more grateful and warm to him for holding her shoulder in his strong gauntleted hand, keeping her upright. Trips was conducting another impromptu examination of her, but Byleth was used to those by her stepmother. They were oddly comforting now, a ritual of concern and care that she now welcomed, along with the old sensation of the fey buzzing of magic being worked near her.

Trips opened her eyes again, and laid down her staff and knelt by Jeralt, focused entirely on Byleth. “Kid, listen to me carefully. Have you had any dreams recently? Anyone come and talk to you...like...The Goddess?” said the healer, swallowing hard.

Byleth sat straighter in her chair, her strength returning quickly. She shook her head, the blue locks swaying. “No. No dreams since Remire. And I haven’t talked to her in days. Maybe a week.”

Jeralt and Trips looked askance to each other, then back to Byleth. “What did Sothis say to you this last time, kid?” Trips asked reluctantly.

She ignored their looks and concentrated. She concentrated hard.  Something had happened...during?...or after? The wolf attack. But she wasn’t completely sure. Maybe that was just combat stress. Fatigue. Her father and Trips, even Zarad, had spoken about that with her. That sometimes you remembered things one way after a fight, but it was all made-up in your head.

Frowning, Byleth told her parents, “I’m not sure. It was after the wolves attacked, and I saved Eric. Sothis told me something. That I couldn’t save everyone. That’s it. ‘You cannot save them all,’ she said to me. And I got angry at her. Really angry. She went away after that. I haven’t talked to her since.”

Another glance between the older adults. “You got angry?” asked her father slowly. Byleth nodded. “At the Goddess.” Another nod. “What did feeling angry feel like, kid?”

“White-hot,” said Byleth instantly, confidently. “I just remember feeling white-hot. She was so wrong. It made me want to hit her.”

Trips giggled despite the solemnity of the moment. “You wanted to hit the Goddess? Kid, that’s…” she tried to smother her laughter, and failed.

Jeralt started deeply chuckling as well. “That’s my girl.”

Both of the older adults were laughing, and it made Byleth smile. This wasn’t the mean laughter, but more genuinely happy laughter. Laughter was still strange for her, since there were so many kinds of it. She wondered if an answering laugh was going to bubble up like it had with Edelgard, but nothing happened. Still, it felt nice to just smile and watch them. And hitting the Goddess...well, that was funny.

Looking up after her fit, Trips’ laughter died away, and she nudged Jeralt. “Captain...she’s grinning.”

“So she is,” smiled her father widely, similar to what she felt on her face. “Ok kid. I think it’s time to fess up. Did your spending all that time with the Princess have anything to do with this?”

Her smile to her Dad instantly faded. Byleth looked instead at her boots, finding that much more appealing than talking all of the sudden.

Her father grumbled as all levity faded. “Kid, don’t make me order you…”

“You can’t,” mumbled Byleth.

“What?” said Jeralt, now shocked.

“You can’t,” she repeated, looking up at her father, her face stoic and reserved again. “I’m a Knight of Seiros now. Not a mercenary. Since I have a Crest, that makes me a Holy Knight of Seiros. You can’t order me to do anything.”

“Now wait just a Goddess-damned minute…” started her father as he stood tall over her, his face starting to flush red as glared at his rebellious daughter.

Trips rose from her knees, picking up her staff. “That’s enough, Jeralt. Let me deal with her, ok? Privately.” Byleth felt a sinking feeling in her gut at her stepmother’s assessing expression. She might be able to keep a secret from her father; he’d eventually drop the subject. But keeping a secret from Trips? The young Knight thought she would have better odds keeping the legendary hordes of Almyra at bay all alone. Her stepmother sweetly smiled down at her, never taking her steel grey eyes away from her own. “I think it’s time for some girl talk.”

An hour later, Jeralt and Trips lingered in his office, still wrung out by the intensity of the feelings and revelations discovered this night. Twenty-one years’ worth of emotions in the poor girl, mused Trips, trying to express itself all at once. It was both heart-warming and heart-breaking at the same time. Zarad had helpfully offered to walk a subdued Byleth back to her chambers, after a mostly one sided chat. But she could tell enough from Byleth’s furious blushing and awkward, clipped answers. She and Jeralt looked to each other now to reassure themselves of reality, and acknowledge that they had both witnessed what they saw.

“Trips--Beatrix--I’m inclined to give you the credit, for all your years of hard work,” said Jeralt, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “But was being here at Garreg Mach what we needed to do all along to help her…? What a shitty cosmic joke…”

“Jeralt...I think you might be right, but I also think Byleth was telling the truth to me about Edelgard. She’s not lying about that. She’s still the dopey, honest, straightforward kid we’ve raised all these years. You saw how bad she still is at trying to hide things. Maybe she just had to be attracted to someone of her own age first before she could learn to feel true emotions...but I’m like you. I just wish her first schoolgirl infatuation wasn’t with the Goddess-damned future Empress. Talk about complicated…” Trips said in frustration, ending with a yawn.

Jeralt yawned sympathetically as well, and said, “That’s probably providing cover for her. If it were any other student, Rhea or Seteth would probably intervene. But I don’t think the Church wants to alienate the future leader of the Empire any more than they already have in the past. Especially since Emperor Ionius is expected to take a dirt nap any day now.” He glanced at Trips significantly. “When I hugged her before she left for bed...I couldn’t tell that anything was different. Her heart still isn’t beating regularly.”

Trips nodded sadly. “I don’t know why, Jeralt. And I don’t know if we can trust Rhea’s story about a special ‘healing stone’ either. I’ve never--ever--heard about anything that could do that. But then again, from all the stories you’ve told me about Rhea...maybe she has access to things we don’t. Byleth has always been hard to heal for me for some reason...”

He sat up as a more unpleasant thought came to him. “Could this change in Byleth be due to something else--like Rhea--?”

Trips spread her arms out helplessly. “Who knows? Possibly, but I don’t think so. If Rhea was responsible, you’d think she’d want to be personally around for something like this. You know, just to take credit for it. We both saw how obsessive she still is about Byleth and...her real mother,” Trips added, uncertain of her own emotions about the woman. Jeralt had come to her small village hut near Garreg Mach with nothing but desperation, an infant, and grief twenty-one years ago. She had impressed him enough in examining his child that he had accepted her impulsive offer to follow him into mercenary life. While she had gotten over her childish romance with Jeralt--the man was a much better officer and leader than a partner--Trips still felt a strong sense of parental ownership concerning Byleth. And the Goddess knew, Jeralt had been in no position to take care of an infant back then...

The old man looked almost apologetic to her. “I’m glad you know the truth now, Bea. I wanted to tell you myself, but…”

“Forget it, Captain. Ancient history, like you’re so fond of saying,” said the healer with a sigh. “Another thing it could be is Crest empathy…”

“Crest empathy? What the hell is that?”

“Sometimes there are Crest-bearers who can tell what type of Crest another person has just by looking at them. It was theorized to be a throwback to how close the original ten Elites and five Saints were to each other, when the first nobles of Fodlan started intermarrying after the War of the Ancients. Byleth may have it and not even know it, since the only Crest-bearer she’s known before now has been you. But now...just by being here, and being in contact with so many other Crest-bearing students and Knights...maybe that’s what made her...wake up. And so it’s making her feel an emotional connection with the majority of the students here.”

The Captain eyed her from his chair. “You know what Crest she has, don’t you? But she doesn’t?” A slow, reluctant nod from Trips, which made Jeralt frown. “Well, don’t keep me in suspense. My old heart can only stand so many shocks these days.”

“Well, I hope it’s ready for one more. Hanneman and I did some extensive research before the mock battle. But we keep coming up with only one answer. Keep it to yourself for now. Rhea might take it...poorly,” Trips warned.

“No surprise there,” muttered Jeralt, but he nodded at her to continue.

Trips heaved a sigh and said, “We think Byleth has...the Crest of Flames.”

Jeralt stared blankly at her.

The healer magician mentally groaned. Fighters. She sighed again and qualified for him. “Jeralt...the Crest of Flames is the Crest of Nemesis. The King of Liberation...who was personally granted his power by the Goddess herself.”

Jeralt bowed his head and looked at his broad arms for a long time. Finally he stirred and rubbed his beard, and said, “So, that would explain the dreams, wouldn’t it? One way...or another.”

*

During the night, another clandestine meeting was held in Garreg Mach monastery, on the third floor of Cathedral, in the Archbishop’s bedchamber.

“Report, Catherine.”

“Yes, Lady Rhea,” the Holy Knight of Seiros answered as she rose from the ground where she had knelt before Archbishop. Lady Rhea stood tall and beautiful before her, her glowing robes and headdress of state traded for a simple white gown that only heightened her ethereal grace.

Catherine stood at ease and began, “Byleth appears to be a strong and capable officer, well equipped to lead and defend her men in the field...although she isn’t afraid of getting in trouble now and again, like me. Heh. But I believe you’re right in your suspicion that she has feelings for the Black Eagles. She intervened twice for them that I could tell. She was seen talking to the Princess right before the mock battle, and afterward she advocated for a student from that House who used a potentially dangerous spell to take down her opponent.”

“Seteth is investigating the matter,” said Rhea quietly. “I will trust his conclusions once he has finished.”

Catherine ran a mailed white gauntlet through her thick blonde hair. “There’s more. I think Byleth has feelings for Edelgard personally. She visited the Princess every chance she could get on the march back to Garreg Mach. And she spent long hours in the hospice wagon where the Princess was recovering. I would have said something to stop it, but Manuela had already given her permission. Some rot about the Princess needing rehabilitation as she healed. I think she’s afraid of offending Edelgard.”

“I see. I suppose it is natural to have lingering feelings for one’s homeland. And Hanneman?”

A snort from Catherine. “He’s acting strange. Strange even for Hanneman, I should say. He’s excited about Byleth for some odd reason, but he kept putting me off the entire march back. Says he needs to do more research.”

“That is wonderful news to hear,” smiled Rhea suddenly, her face becoming radiant.

“What? Why?”

“Do not worry yourself over it, Catherine. I suspect Hanneman will explain it to us in good time. Tell me, what of Jeralt and his companions?”

“Jeralt was impressive in the mock battle. If I didn’t have Thunderbrand even I would hesitate to face him. He looked even stronger than Prince Dimitri if you can believe the reports. The Golden Deer students adore him, but he gets along well with Hanneman and Manuela too. He might be a good long term fit for the position. And Lady Beatrix--Byleth’s stepmother--is a top notch healer. She worked herself to the bone helping to heal all of the students.”

“And the Almyran?”

“Shamir says he’s not bad. Coming from her, that’s high praise. Never thought I would meet an Almyran woodsman in Fodlan. As long as we don’t threaten Jeralt or the rest, I think he’ll stay professional.”

“That is acceptable.” Rhea smiled again. “Thank you for your efforts, Catherine. Too many individuals are turning away from the Word of Seiros during these dark days. It is important for us to evaluate all of those that hold positions of sacred trust.”

Catherine smiled in return and bowed at the praise. “By your will, Lady Rhea. But what about Byleth? Should I reprimand her for her actions?”

“Not at this time, unless the behavior escalates. I would like to know one more thing, however. Has young Byleth behaved in any fashion that you would consider...odd?”

“Now that you mention it...there was one really strange thing that happened at the Holy Pool, before Byleth’s vigil. She swam around in that cold water like it was a bathtime for a kid. She then started saying a bunch of nonsense.”

Rhea stepped closer, her expression piercingly keen. “Tell me all of it. All that you can remember, Catherine.”

The Holy Knight flushed at the attention, and looked away from the intense beauty of Lady Rhea at the stone walls to concentrate better. “Ok...let me think. Byleth had noticed Zanado from the view. She told me and Shamir a battle had been fought there. No, that’s not it. She said it was a massacre.” Rhea made a noise at that, her hand to her mouth, but nodded quickly for Catherine to continue. “Ah...then she said...she said Saint Seiros lived there, and washed off the blood from the attack. Something about...others, with her. She then listed all the Saints, but mentioned some other names, like Aine.” Catherine shook her head in consternation. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think about it too much at the time.”

When she looked back, Lady Rhea’s expression was so heartbroken that Catherine felt alarmed. “Oh, Seteth…Flayn...” she whispered almost inaudibly. The Archbishop drew herself up and nodded to Catherine. “Continue, please, Catherine. Anything else, I beg of you.”

Catherine took a moment to consider. “Um...what did they do? Byleth said they washed off the blood in the Holy Pool, then vowed revenge on Nemesis. Then they founded the Church and the Empire. It was freaky, as if she was telling us some bastardized version of the history of the Empire and the Church. I thought she was just mixed up from nearly freezing to death in the water. We got her out after that, and her skin was like ice. Shamir said she looked like she was in a trance.” Catherine looked up from her narrative to see Archbishop Rhea was no longer paying attention, her gaze unfocused, her face holding a desperate hope.

When the silence had stretched long, Catherine asked quietly, “Lady Rhea? Are you...well?”

Rhea turned her attention back to Catherine with a quick intake of breath. She forced a smile that poorly hid the dark pain in her eyes. “Yes, Catherine. Quite well. If you don’t mind, have Shamir visit me tomorrow at her convenience. I would also like to hear the story from her. In the meantime, please continue with your observations.”

Catherine bowed low again, then hesitated. “Yes, Lady Rhea. Do you need me for...anything else?” said the Holy Knight, her voice low.

Rhea smiled now with gentle love. “Not tonight, my dear one. You may go to your rest. Goddess watch over you.”

Catherine genuflected once more before the Archbishop and left the room, quietly closing the door behind her. In the meantime, the Archbishop’s hands were grasped together so tightly that her knuckles were white, her eyes staring into infinity. Unconsciously, she started humming an ancient, wordless lullaby.

*

Marrianne sat in her room in the dormitory, looking at the empty chair under the chandelier. The room was dark and dim, but there was enough moonlight and starlight coming from the window to make out vague shapes. Besides, lighting a candle seemed too difficult and bothersome. What was the point?

The past few days had been very confusing. Ever since the mock battle, the other students and Knights had been very kind to her. They constantly asked if she needed anything, or how she was feeling. Even Bernadetta had come to check on her, and gave her a small embroidered bird she had made. She had been taken off regular duty for a cadet, so nothing was expected of her and she had nothing to do. Mercedes had been with her almost constantly for the past four days, even to the point where she shared a tent with the kind older girl, even though she wasn’t part of her House. She was so gentle and sweet, constantly inquiring Marianne on what she needed or if she was hungry, or if she would like to pray together to the Goddess for comfort and guidance. Prince Dimitri had been kind and solicitous during the march and evening camps back to the monastery, to the point where Professor Manuela had shooed him away finally. Professor Jeralt hadn’t spoken to her at all since the mock battle, which was a relief until Marianne had figured out why. The blunt healer Knight, Lady Beatrix, had asked her several direct questions over and over again, and Marianne eventually stopped answering her entirely.

These stupid people didn’t understand that they were just making everything worse.

It was more proof that she was an unbearable burden to the world. All of them would have their lives improved if they didn’t have to worry about her all the time. Especially in battle, where someone might get foolishly killed trying to protect her cursed life. And they were only being nice to her out of pity, because she couldn’t do anything for herself. It was easy for them to be sweet to her just to feel good about themselves, and congratulate each other on what a good deed they were doing, even as they talked about her in whispers behind her back.

It would be better for everyone if she just went away.

No one would be hurt by her cursed blood anymore. She wouldn’t have to dream every night about the day her parents went missing and never came home, leaving her all alone in the manor for weeks before the strange armored men came and took her away, forcing her to leave her childhood home behind. She wouldn’t have to stay here at the Officer’s Academy and learn how to only hurt and kill people. And she wouldn’t have to return to her new home with her loquacious, overbearing stepfather, Margrave Edmund, who only cared about turning her into a tidy profit for himself. The thought of an arranged marriage, of being forced to bear children who could be just like her...it was too much. Too horrible. If that was the future she had to look forward to, well, she was glad to be rid of it.

She admitted to herself that she would miss her new animal friends. Like Dorte. And Leo, and Mercer, and Faine, and Windrunner, and Chestnut, and all the rest. She would miss the sweet birds as well, and the silly dogs and cute cats. All of the animals were nice to her and thought in simple terms. She could understand them and they could understand her. But someone else could take care of them and feed them. They would be sad and miss her for a while, but still be fine in the end.

The only thing she worried about now was the Goddess. About...meeting her. She hoped the Goddess would understand that this was about protecting other people, and was about Marianne saving them from herself. In a way, Marianne was sacrificing herself to help others, just as the Goddess had sacrificed herself to save humanity so long ago. Surely the Goddess would understand the necessity of what she had to do. It was a drastic step, but ultimately a brave one. Marianne felt confused at why no one else seemed to understand this.

Except for possibly...Prince Dimitri. He had told her she was not alone, and wondered what he meant by that. But then Marianne remembered the Tragedy. Maybe Prince Dimitri did understand. Or maybe he was just being nice because that’s what everyone expects from a Prince or a King. Yes, that had to be it.

Marianne stared at the dark shadow of the chair for the longest time, replaying her thoughts over and over in her head, feeling comfort in reciting her flaws, recalling her impossible burdens, and listening to the teasing promise of a soothing oblivion that would free her. She felt the night stretch and grow long, dumbly existing without her senses intruding on her thoughts. It might be past midnight by now. Everyone else should be fast asleep. It was time. Marianne briefly wondered for a moment if she should write something. At least to Bernie, and maybe Mercedes and Prince Dimitri. Or even Hilda, or Claude. They had at least tried to talk to her. There was a small capped inkwell on her desk, along with some parchment and quill.

But then again, she had never been very good with words. Or talking about herself with other people. And by the time she was done, words wouldn’t matter, would they?

Marianne stood. It was time, and there was no point in dragging things out. It might be scary and painful at first, but then it would be over. Forever. And she would be at peace. She started feeling curiously enlivened, and excited. Yes, surely this was a sign from the Goddess Herself that she approved of her actions. A final blessing for a poor, cursed soul who could soon rest in the bosom of the Goddess. She stepped over to her bed, thinking about how she could best twist and tie the sheets...

*

“I’m fine,” snapped Felix to his doctor, sitting up against a board to keep his back straight while on the infirmary bed.

“Ah’m fiahn,” mocked Manuela to her patient, dragging out the syllables. She scoffed at him when he gave her a scowl. “Are you a skilled doctor now, trained extensively in the medical arts? You, young man, are about the worst patient I’ve had in six years. You would think that a back injury would teach you something about acting recklessly, but apparently…”

“Good evening, Manuela. Or should I say morning?” said Trips as she rapped the open infirmary door with her staff.

“Heh. Then a good morning to you as well, Beatrix. I was just explaining to our young rebellious Lord Fraldarius that he needs to take it slow and easy for another week, and follow his doctor’s orders,” said Manuela, saying the last through clenched teeth at Felix. The young man grunted and looked away, unimpressed.

“Ah, poor Felix just misses his sword since we took it from him. But don’t worry kid, we’ll get you back into shape,” said Trips lightly, moving to stand by his bed as well. Felix gave no indication he was listening, which Trips ignored. “Let’s see, maybe we can compromise in some way, to keep this active young mind busy.”

“That’s an excellent idea, dearie. Felix does miss his sword training and martial arts, but it will be a week before he can safely do a simple kata,” said Manuela, not-so-discreetly taking a sniff from her box before it vanished under her robes. Trips glared in disapproval, which Manuela ignored.

“None of you are listening to me,” declared Felix, still not facing them. “You don’t know my body, or my limits. I can feel my toes and legs, and move them. Everything works. You shameless old hags are just looking for excuses to grope me.” Both Manuela and Trips ignored that, having heard and seen far worse in their careers.

Trips turned away from Felix’s bed to investigate Manuela’s bookshelf on the far wall. “Let’s see here...I think Felix needs some reading material…” she mused out loud, scanning the spines. Some of them were unmarked, leading to a longer investigation of each volume, but eventually Trips found the object of her search. “Ah! Here we are. Manuela, maybe we should have Felix look at Antistrophe’s Investigations of The Webs of The Brain. Maybe that will give him an appreciation of spinal injuries, and the consequences and risks he faces if he doesn’t let himself heal correctly.”

Manuela yawned and stretched languorously. “Perhaps. If he can treat the spines of my books better than his own…”

“Don’t bother,” scoffed Felix in a bitter tone as Trips approached with the volume. “I know what you’re trying to do. So stop.”

“Stop what, Felix? From preventing you dying alone on the battlefield? Because that’s what’s going to happen if you keep pushing everyone away,” said Trips bluntly. She held out the book to him.

“Tch. You don’t know me, then. And doesn’t everyone die alone on the battlefield?”

“You’re right. Thanks for proving my point that you have an active mind, Felix. But you don’t know me either. Consider this another way of fighting your battles,” Trips said, tossing the book onto the bed by his form. “In fact, maybe you would like to learn more…” the healer quickly turned back to the bookshelf, and selected another volume she had seen, returning to place it next to the other one. “This is Erasmus’ Colloquies and Cantrips, Or How To Make A Boy Polish His Speech and Learn His Anima. It’s a basic spellbook. You might find it interesting.”

“You really are a witch, aren’t you? Trying to make everyone learn magic,” muttered Felix. He was not quite looking at her, but watching her with peripheral vision.

Trips flinched at that, but held her smile. “You might want to read these. The spellbook at least. It teaches you the basic rules of spellwork. Who knows? Maybe you might have a talent for that as well. I know you’re dedicated to the sword above all else, but then again, there are many types of strength in the world, right? So while you’re on bedrest, perhaps you can give some effort to try to continue to improve, instead of just stewing in your own juices. Just a suggestion...from a shameless old hag.”

Felix said nothing and didn’t move, which Trips figured was acquiescence for him. She turned back to see Manuela outside the door, trying to signal her. She resolutely turned her back and stepped outside the room and closed the door behind her.

The Black Eagle Professor was leaning hard against the door jamb. “Beatrix, thank you so much for your assistance. That boy gets under my skin…”

Trips eyed the other healer. “Manuela, you’re tired. I’m tired. It’s been an exhausting week for both of us. But...try to take care of yourself, too, ok?”

“I’m perfectly--!” Manuela started to raise her voice in protest, then sighed in acquiescence, “ ...fine. You’ve barely known me for a week, and even you are harping on me. I guess it is getting obvious…” 

“Well, take it from someone who’s been there too. It doesn’t end well. Besides,” Trips suddenly grinned without humor, “I don’t want for you to collapse and then Rhea has to give me your job as well.”

Laughing at the jibe, Manuela said, “How wonderful to meet such a kindred spirit, Beatrix. I must say, your assistance during this escapade has been most helpful. I don’t know if I could have managed all of it alone. Would you care for some evening tea in my quarters before bed? I feel we both need to unwind somewhat.”

“That sounds delightful at this moment, Professor,” said the former mercenary, hoping the woman meant what she said by “evening tea.” The two healers began walking from the infirmary towards Manuela’s study upstairs, carefully navigating their way past darkened hallways and worn, uneven paving in the gardens of the monastery outside.

“By the way, Manuela...where did you assign Marianne to sleep tonight? Mercedes’ room?” asked Trips as they slowly walked to the main halls, dimly lit by the few remaining burning sconces.

Manuela peered at her in the gloom. “I thought you were the one taking care of Marianne.”

Both women halted in sudden consternation, and Trips’ face went rigid. In the confusion of bringing all of the students back…what had they done? She quickly spoke. “You don’t think--? She’s in her room?”

“She was with Mercedes--!” protested Manuela instantly. “Surely that sweet girl wouldn’t leave her behind…!” 

“Where’s Mercedes’ room?” said Trips urgently.

“Let me think...it’s near the greenhouse, the furthest one away on that level I believe,” pointed Manuela. With wordless agreement, they turned from the assembly hall, making their way down the steps past the dining hall to the dorms, hurrying their pace but not quite running. Soon they stopped before Mercedes’ closed door, and Trips rapped smartly on it, suddenly not caring who she woke up with her noise.

“Mercedes! Mercedes, open up!” Trips called out loudly.

After a torturous minute that felt like hours, Mercedes opened her door, dressed in a short shift for nighttime and blinking sleepily in the dim light at the two anxious healers. “Oh? Professor Manuela? Ah! And Lady Beatrix? What’s all this about?”

“Mercedes, is Marianne with you?” said Manuela, anxiously cranning her head to try to see behind the Blue Lion student inside the dark room.

In the midst of rubbing her eyes, Mercedes perked up at the question. “Oh, the poor thing. She said she was tired of being near me all the time, and wanted to spend the night in her own room here at the monastery. I couldn’t say no to her--”

“Where is her room?” said Trips urgently, clutching her staff.

“Um...oh! Upstairs, I think…”

Trips took off running immediately, not bothering to waste time with pleasantries, trying to ignore a gnawing sensation of dread. She hurried up the stairs past the greenhouse, but missed a step in the darkness and nearly fell hard onto the hard stone. Cursing, she concentrated her tired willpower briefly on her staff for a quick cantrip. Immediately, the top of her white staff burst into flame, lighting her way but not consuming the enchanted wood of the stave. She came to the top of the stairs and cursed again, because in her haste, she had forgotten to ask Manuela or Mercedes which room belonged to Marianne. She should wait, and ask Manuela...but that pit of dread inside of her would not go away.

Heedlessly, she marched up to the first door she saw in the long hallway and banged on it loudly. “Hey! Open up! This is an emergency!” Trips cried.

Muffled sounds occurred behind the door, but in short order a frazzled Ingrid in night clothing cracked open the door, blinking her eyes at the brightness of Trips’ staff. “Lady Beatrix? What’s happening?”

“Ingrid, where’s Marianne’s room?”

Ingrid blinked again, but said, “Oh, she’s next door to me…”

Trips rushed to the next dorm down, and immediately started banging on the door. “Marianne? Are you in there? Marianne!” She tried the latch, rattling it, but it was securely fastened. “Marianne!” she yelled again, her tone rising, knocking on the door again. Something about the tone of the knocks sounded different. Trips leaned her shoulder against the door and threw weight against it, testing it. It barely moved and only hurt her shoulder. “Marianne, open the door!! That’s an order!” Trips called again, banging her staff against the door.

Silence.

Trips stood there, helplessly clutching her flaming staff, her mind running wild with dreadful possibilities, with horrible images. In helpless frustration, she smashed her staff against the door, sending sparks flying, yelling loudly, “Marianne! Open up!” over and over, not caring that curious students were now opening doors and peering down the hall, trying to see the source of the commotion. After her outburst, Trips pressed her ear against the door, hoping for any sound or movement.

Silence yet again.

Manuela and Mercedes stumbled up the stairs, and Ingrid joined them, crowding around Trips, asking meaningless questions. Trips ignored them and whirled on them, focusing only at the face of Manuela. “We need to break down her door. Now!”

Manuela frowned at that but nodded at the necessity. “Hold on...I should be able to cast something that might work…”

“What’s going on?” demanded Lady Hilda, stomping down the steps from her room up the hall in her pink nightgown. “What’s wrong with Marianne?

Trips ignored her and continued to speak to Manuela. “No! No spells...I think...she’s barricaded herself. The door is blocked, by something. Maybe her desk. I can’t budge it. If we blow it open…”

“Oh dear, I see. How are we going to get in there? I guess we could call Dimitri and Raphael…” said Manuela, looking around at the students’ pale faces.

“Why do we need to get in there so badly?” wondered Hilda, still rubbing sleep from her eyes.

“She might be trying to hurt herself, Hilda,” said Ingrid, suddenly stern and determined. “Fine. I’ll break it down.”

“You’ll what?”

Ingrid stepped away from the door and the professors quickly cleared a path, and the Blue Lion charged directly into the stout wood, shoulder leading. The doorframe shook and cracked, but the sound of wood scraping stone clearly came forth behind it.

Ingrid grunted. “It is blocked! Hilda, help me!”

“Oh, fine. If we really need to...”

Trips and Manuela could do nothing but get out of the way as the two Crest bearing students set themselves against the far wall, then charged quickly against the door. Both door panels splintered and buckled and the hinges bent, but the desk behind them was now clearly seen.

A quick crash and thud, with the ominous sound of a chair being knocked over, came from inside the room.

“Marianne!” yelled Trips, anguished.

“Hilda! Again!” shouted Ingrid, rubbing her shoulder. Hilda was uncharacteristically silent, her face now composed with the same grim determination. They moved backward, and charged at the doors again. This time the doors collapsed completely off their hinges, and the desk blocking the door was rocked backwards enough to allow for a path forward.

Trips dashed forward between them in an instant, her staff crackling as she entered the dim room, climbing past the ruined desk and cluttered debris, including two clay bird statues that had fallen and shattered into pieces on the stone. Marianne…

Marianne was on the floor, a white bed sheet tied around her neck and still connected to the chandelier with its broken chain, which had fallen at her feet. A chair was knocked over nearby. She weeping and rubbing her arms, rocking back and forth, curled up into a miserable ball. Trips stood over her for a moment, tears misting her own eyes, and she reached out in uncertainty. “Marianne? I’m so glad you’re ok...no one’s mad, no one’s angry at you...you’re ok kid…” she whispered.

The small young noble raised her face. “You should have left me alone,” she cried out between sobs, her voice hoarse.

Others were now entering the room, slowly. Trips shoved her staff into the hands of Professor Manuela and bent down to kneel next to Marianne, who had returned to utter despondency.

“Marianne? Listen to me. Marianne,” she said firmly through her own tears, grabbing the girl’s shoulder. “I know what you’re going through. Look at me. Please.”

“No you don’t! You’re wrong...no one does,” cried Marianne, shrinking away from the other woman’s touch.

Trips decided to focus on any potential injury. Reaching behind the crying girl, she worked quickly to untie the bedsheet from her neck, tossing it aside and running gentle fingers across the girl’s chaffed and bruised neck. Looking behind her, she firmly caught Manuela’s eye, who nodded and turned to begin ushering students from the doorway, whispering to all of them in the most soothing voice she could manage. She carried Trips’ flaming staff with her, and soon Marianne and Trips were left in the dim shadows of a room, filled with broken things.

*

Chapter Text

Ch 17

Sequitur

Bernadetta woke early before dawn, as always. She wanted to savor every moment alone that she could steal, here at the Academy. It was so nice to finally be back in her room, after all that awful marching and fighting.

Humming an aimless tune, she went about her daily morning ritual, lighting the candles first, then washing herself in the water basin at her armoire, before finally dressing in a fresh uniform and curling up on her bed with a good book of poetry. Well, maybe ‘good’ was relative in this case; Bernadetta found herself frowning at a lot of the rhymes, finding them mawkish, and she hastily crossed them out and wrote new ones in the margins with her inkwell and quill. Maybe it was a book from the library, but honestly, people would thank her for her efforts later, even if they did not know who had done it.

She blinked to realize she had rewritten an entire poem on one page. Hm. That was probably excessive. Now she needed to wait and let the ink dry a bit. She set the open book aside and recapped her inkwell, and turned to regard her room, her sanctum. What could she do next in the short amount of precious time she had? Oh! She had promised Mr. Bernie-Bear that she would sew him a new jacket. It was spring now, so he didn’t need his woolen sweater anymore. Let’s see...now she just needed to work on a design, and pick out the right scraps of cloth from her collection in her basket. Still humming, completely secure and safe in her domain, Bernadetta went about her new task with relish, becoming utterly absorbed with her precious scissors, ruler, needles and thread. She ignored the fact that sunshafts were now slowly moving across the room, and it was now midmorning.

A single, sharp rap sounded against her door. Bernadetta froze in incandescent terror at the intrusion, hoping against hope that the intruder would go away.

The sound repeated, louder this time.

Oh, no. It was probably Lady Edelgard, coming to get her for morning classes. Bernadetta feared leaving her room, dreading being exposed to stares and forced interactions. But she was afraid of Lady Edelgard even more. Not even daring to breathe a sigh of disappointment, she put down her things and timidly walked to the door from her desk, preparing herself for a lecture. After another moment to steel her nerves, she opened the door.

Unexpectedly, a tall, pale, dark-haired apparition dressed in a black uniform loomed before her.

“Ah! Nosferatu! I--I t-thought you could only come out at night!” yelped Bernadetta, cowering backward.

“I do agree that moonlight suits my features better,” said Hubert, torn between annoyance and amusement as he stared down at his short classmate. Amusement won out as he coldly smiled. “Please come with me, Bernadetta. You may follow at a distance if you wish.”

Oh, it was only Hubert...but he looked like one, didn’t he? Maybe he really was! It made perfect sense! “Follow--y-you? N-no! I don’t want to become one! I’m not ready to accept the Dark Gift! I like the taste of regular food!” wailed Bernadetta, frantic at the prospect of looking like Hubert.

Another chilling smile. “No need to persist with your delusions. I am merely summoning you to come with the rest of the students to the cathedral. Lady Rhea is holding a prayer service, and your attendance is mandatory...along with my own,” sighed Hubert with a grimace.

Bernadetta snapped out of her terrified imaginings at that. “What? P-prayer service? But it’s not Goddess Day. Is it?” she asked uncertainly.

Hubert said smoothly, “We are praying for the healing of your friend from the Golden Deer house, Lady Marianne von Edmund. She did something quite drastic during the night, and attempted to harm herself. Amateurish work, really, but tragic all the same. What could be a more devastating blow to one’s self-regard than failing to kill yourself?”

“Kill...oh no, oh no! Poor Marianne...oh no...she’s not hurt, is she? I mean…” said Bernadetta anxiously, her fingers twisting her purple hair into tangles.

“She is resting comfortably in the infirmary. Perhaps you might be allowed to visit her eventually. But for now, life goes on for the rest of us poor mortals. Please attend, and join the rest of us. The service is starting shortly.”

*

While Rhea was giving her sermon, Seteth, the Professors, and the leaders of the Knights faced a crisis in the Archbishops’ throne room.

Trips and Manuela were miserable, each of the physicians feeling they had failed, albeit in different ways. Mercedes was there as well, her eyes red but at least no longer inconsolable with guilt. The others were grimly waiting for Seteth to speak, as he stood with his back to them, facing the stained glass windows behind the Holy Seat, gathering his own thoughts.

Byleth felt confused at Marianne’s actions. She couldn’t understand how someone could feel so bad on the inside that they would just...try to end it. Why bother to seek out death, when it could find you at any moment? Why rush towards it, when it always claimed everyone? At the same time, with her newfound emotions, she could see how some people might view their life as unbearable. Since sharing that first emotional evening with Edelgard, Byleth had glimpsed how much sadness and anger could overwhelm someone. She felt another unwelcome insight come to her, as she tried to consider the consequences, and what Trips and Manuela were now facing. How could you convince someone else to live?

“Lord Seteth...it is my fault. I was foolish, and thought she was doing better. If only I wasn’t so scatterbrained,” said a still upset Mercedes, quietly sniffing.

“Please stop, my child. There is no fault here, except perhaps my own. I suspected she was unsuited for it, yet I allowed her to participate in the first mock battle anyway. That was thoughtless of me,” said Seteth, turning to face the group.

“She’s a liability,” said Jeralt with a severe frown. Byleth winced at her father’s bald statement but it was too true at the moment.

“Then it is our duty to make certain she is not one,” said Seteth, equally severe. “Normally, I would grant a medical leave of absence for such a student, and enroll them in next year’s class. However, Margrave Edmund is a significant patron of the Church, and I do not wish to offend him. I will compose a letter to him explaining the situation at once.”

Alois frowned, his boisterous personality subdued for once. “That poor girl. I can’t understand what drove her to such an extreme act.”

“And it’s going to be hard to trust her from now on,” added Shamir from where she leaned on a pillar, looking towards Mercedes meaningfully. “She used her fellow student’s kindness against her. She waited days for this opportunity.”

Her stepmom stepped forward to the Abbot, her staff tapping the ground. “It’s my fault, Lord Seteth. I became distracted while she was in my care. Now she’s even worse off than before,” said Trips, miserably exhausted. She had been up the entire night, helping Manuela monitor the young noblewoman, who had been so distraught that Manuela eventually had given her a sleeping potion to force her to rest. Byleth worriedly hoped her stepmother would remember to care for herself as well as her patients.

Seteth raised a hand before him. “Please, Lady Beatrix. As I have said, no one is at fault for Marianne’s actions. Recriminations serve no purpose now. Let us focus our energy instead on finding the best path forward for her.”

“Maybe we can cheer her up by throwing a party! Cook her a favorite meal!” suggested Alois eagerly.

“Dear Alois, your heart is in the right place but I’m afraid that won’t do much for poor Marianne’s melancholy. Unfortunately, it might make it worse,” explained Manuela with a sigh.

Catherine folded her arms with an armored clink. “I’ve already got four Knights assigned to watching her on a rotating schedule. How long is this going to take? We’re short handed as it is, and we can’t baby-sit her forever.”

“It’s going to take as long as it needs to,” Trips said, glaring at the younger woman. “She’s a sick young woman, and sick people don’t think right all the time. Manuela and I will come up with something.”

“Seteth,” Jeralt said, stepping forward slightly to the High Abbot. “Could Rhea, or Flayn--?”

“Unfortunately not,” said Seteth, frowning deeply at her father. “The mind, like the webs and threads of the body, is resistant to healing by any known method of conjuration. To even attempt to do so might cause great damage.” Seteth paused, looking around the room, focusing on Hanneman who was deep in consideration at the far side of the room. “Professor Hanneman? You have been...uncharacteristically silent. Do you have anything you wish to say?”

“Yes...I believe I do,” said Hanneman slowly. Looking up, he addressed the group. “Lady Marianne might possibly be suffering due to Crest hysteria,” he said, looking meaningfully at Seteth. “In the past, young noblewomen of marriagable age have acted out in similar ways, some because they did in fact have a Crest, while others did so because they did not.”

“Ah,” Seteth nodded. “I believe I see your meaning, Professor. Marianne feels the way she does because of her status.” 

“Precisely. And if I recall correctly, Margrave Edmund was but recently appointed to the nobility?”

Seteth nodded again in affirmation. “That is true. He was once a wealthy merchant who contributed much needed funds for the reconstruction repairs of Fodlans’ Locket. The Leicester Lords unanimously voted for his accession to their ranks just a few years past.”

“Then the underlying cause of Lady Marianne’s melancholy is clear,” said Hanneman, spreading his arms to the group. “Lady Marianne is simply stressed by the new expectations placed upon her. She believes herself unworthy, or perhaps unable, of fulfilling them. And she is currently unequipped to confront them. We must convince her that she can do so, or can find another path that suits her.”

“Easier said than done,” said Manuela bitterly, tapping her wand against her hand restlessly.

“We could toss her into the river,” muttered Zarad.

Jeralt sighed and regarded his corporal, lounging in the shadows by the door. “Zarad, you’re not in Almyra anymore. We don’t do that here.”

“But it is a simple solution, Captain. If she wants to live, she will swim to shore and we can care for her. If she does not, she will not come up,” shrugged the woodsman.

Shamir surprisingly chuckled. “You’ll find that Fodlanders aren’t big on pragmatism.”

“Marianne is sick, Zarad. I wouldn’t throw you in the river just because you had an arrow in your belly,” snapped Trips at her friend. “I would find a way to cut it out without you bleeding all over me. This is the same thing, just different.” She grew angrier at seeing him smirk and wag his head at her. “Shut up. You know what I mean…”

“A useful insight, Lady Beatrix” interjected Seteth, pacing behind the throne. “Diseases of the mind and spirit are no different from a disease of the body. So my sister has taught me over the years. But the treatment can be difficult, because the patient can be uncooperative.” He looked at Trips and Manuela. “When is Lady Marianne likely to wake?”

The two healers glanced at each other. “Probably sometime later this evening,” said Trips. “We dosed her pretty good.”

“I want to see her!” said Mercedes spoke up firmly, then blushed beneath her blonde hair as she looked down in shame. “I’m sorry...I am...if that is acceptable and I have your permission…but she’s such a sweet, gentle person. We’ve prayed to the Goddess together, and she’s a true believer, I just know it. I think of her as a friend.”

“I don’t believe anyone finds that objectionable, Mercedes,” smiled the High Abbot gently. “But we must defer to those with the most medical expertise among us, such Professor Manuela and Lady Beatrix.”

“Mercedes, dear, you might be...onto something,” said Manuela, chewing her lip thoughtfully. “My Lord Abbot, I believe we have erred in our treatment of poor Marianne. We left her with nothing to do, by pulling her off of active duty. Instead, I believe we should fill her time with duties that she prefers, to help include her back into normal life and living. A regular routine is just what the poor thing needs. Perhaps we could train her to be an acolyte? Or assign her to the choir...err, regardless of her, ah, enthusiasm?”

“Oh no! She wouldn’t like that,” Mercedes told the Professor hurriedly. “She’d much prefer to help behind the scenes. And...I know that she loves animals so dearly. She knows the names of every horse and pegasus in the stables.”

“So assign her stable duty. Permanently,” said Shamir shortly.

Byleth saw her stepmother’s eyes turn shrewd. “Shamir, that might not be a bad idea. And I think this underscores Manuela’s point. I don’t think Marianne wants to see...us,” said Trips, vaguely waving her hand across the room to indicate the Knights. “She needs friends at this point. People her own age, like Mercedes, who know her better than we do.”

“Lady Bernadetta is a friend of Marianne’s,” said Byleth firmly, surprising the group. “A good friend. She’ll want to meet her. So will Claude and the other Golden Deer.”

“Bernadetta? That timid little mouse archer?” laughed Catherine.

“Just the timid little mouse archer that took me down in the mock battle,” retorted Jeralt. Catherine gave him a mock salute as he shook his head. He turned to Trips. “You have a possible guess when she can be reintegrated back into classes?”

Manuela and Trips looked at each other speculatively. “A week--?” suggested Manuela.

Trips nodded, her eyes distant. “Maybe two. But no longer than that, Captain. We need to get her past this event.”

The omnipresent wand in Manuela’s hand suddenly whipped to the stone bas-relief wall with a crack, and the former diva sweetly addressed the startled group by saying, “And let there be no more jokes or misunderstandings at the expense of our dear students. I think these poor things need to be shown the courtesy and camaraderie one would expect from any fellow officer on the field, despite their backgrounds or dispositions. Little pitchers have big ears, as my mother used to say.” 

Seteth nodded at that and looked at all the Knights. “This is true. There will undoubtedly be talk concerning Lady Marianne. I trust all of you to limit such talk to respectful and pious well-wishes regarding her health...regardless of any temptations otherwise,” said the stern Abbot, and Byleth almost heard her father speaking through this man. Seteth obviously did not expect his orders to be fully followed, but he was warning against egregious displays in front of the lower ranks. After a moment’s thought, Byleth nodded. Marianne was still a soldier, an officer. She would have to work doubly hard to earn trust now, and she would need the support of her Professors and the Knights to earn a chance for that basic respect.

*

The Golden Deer House quickly gathered in their homeroom after the prayer service.

Claude was kicking himself mentally over and over about Marianne, as he stood apart from the group. He prided himself on his observant nature, but he had completely missed the signs in retrospect. It was so obvious that Marianne had been suffering. Yet he had done nothing to help her, thinking her trouble would resolve itself on its own. And it almost did.

Hilda was quietly thoughtful as she sat near him, twisting her bracelets around her wrists over and over. Lorenz was conversing in whispers with Leonie and Ignatz, all of their faces marred by frowns. Raphael was being lectured by a stern Lysithea, which would have been comical if the subject wasn’t so serious. The poor guy still had a hard time understanding what was wrong with Marianne.

A further depressing thought entered Claude’s head. This event made the entire Golden Deer House’s reputation suffer, especially after they had nearly won the mock battle. He could already imagine Hubert and Edelgard not-so-subtly spreading “rumours” about his leadership. The Blue Lions would also shake their heads about the lack of noble chivalry in the Alliance. Then he mentally kicked himself for taking his focus off Marianne. Somehow, they had to find a way to help her without making her feel worse. Even if they hadn’t known each other for very long...she was still a Golden Deer. And it was his responsibility….

“Claude...a florin for your thoughts,” said Hilda, still wringing her bracelets, bringing him out of his musings.

The House Leader for the Golden Deer turned around, noticing all eyes upon him, with all conversation ceased. Time to play-act as a leader, but he was not feeling capable of scheming his way out of this one.

He visibly struggled for something to say, but words and platitudes seemed empty and useless. Finally, he sighed and said, “I’m sorry, gang. I’m a bad leader. I didn’t watch out for her enough…”

“Claude. Shut up. You’re a perfectly acceptable leader, as long as you listen to me,” snapped Lysithea rudely, shocking him out of his dark thoughts. “We need to help Marianne, but without hurting her more. So we don’t need you getting her malaise as well.”

“If there’s anyone you should blame, Claude, it’s me,” said a pensive, downcast Leonie, her hands balled into fists. “I...lost my temper with her. Earlier this month, when we were on stable duty. I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand how bad she felt about herself…” the older teen trailed off.

“We need to give her more support, but I don’t think she needs to train or fight right now,” stuttered Ignatz, blushing under his spectacles as the others regarded him. “Maybe she could be a company healer, or a stablemaster. She’s like me, because she doesn’t like being on the front lines. But an army needs all sorts of officers…”

Hilda perked up at that suggestion. “Wow...Ignatz, that’s a great idea! She could be our supply officer or something!”

“She is good with sums and figures,” said Lysithea, frowning as the small magician considered it. “It makes sense, since her father is a wealthy noble. I’ve heard that he lends money to other nobles all across Fodlan.”

Lorenz saw an invitation to contribute to the discussion. “Margrave Edmund may be nouveau riche, but he has been a worthy addition to the ranks of the Five Great Families,” Lorenz said with poor grace. “Lady Marianne must find her elevated status overwhelming. But she is such a graceful and elegant creature, and quite the suitable match for any noble…”

“Lorenz, please shut up before I murder you,” sang Hilda sweetly, standing up quickly.

“You beat me to it,” said a glowering and fey Lysithia, glaring up at the tall form of an oblivious Lorenz.

Claude felt compelled to play peacemaker, just because Lorenz’s goodwill might prevent another assassination attempt from his father. “C’mon, guys, he was just trying to be nice in his own way…”

Despite his best efforts, they were soon starting to bicker again. Leonie was siding with Lorenz, surprisingly, arguing that someone needed to take care of Marianne. Soon Hilda’s blood was up and she was quarreling with them both. She had always made an effort to include Marianne into the group, despite the shy girl’s reticence, and Claude vaguely remembered she had been determined to make her new friend “popular.” Claude could do nothing but sigh, and prepared himself for a long wait for another opportunity to speak. Then noticed that Ignatz was quietly moving over to him, which was a surprise in itself. The bespectacled merchant’s son was almost as shy and unassuming as Marianne.

“Ignatz, buddy, if you’ve got any ideas, I need them now,” said Claude, rolling his eyes at his arguing classmates.

“I don’t know if it will help, Claude,” said Ignatz, holding a hand behind his blonde head and looking away. “I’m sorry if it doesn’t…”

“Let’s hear it anyway, Iggy.”

“Um...well...I think Marianne feels trapped. She’s always had this hunted expression on her face, like there’s something constantly watching her. And she’s always convinced that she’s cursed somehow, so...maybe that’s why she constantly prays to the Goddess to watch over her. I remember she was certain when you and the others disappeared last week during the bandit attack that it was all her fault. Hilda and I could barely get her to take care of herself, and we tried our best but...we couldn’t reassure her otherwise. Even after you showed up, she just told us it would happen again.”

Claude absorbed the words thoughtfully. Whatever other faults he had, Ignatz was extremely perceptive. He said to the shorter man, “She told me before that she’s bad luck. I thought it sounded like just another troubled noble past. Didn’t her parents die or something?”

“Claude,” said Ignatz solemnly, so serious it surprised his House Leader. “Her parents vanished, years ago. Completely. No bodies, no warning. They left no will or guardian for her. The Margrave is a distant third cousin to her, according to my parents. Something horrible must have happened to them, and to her as well. Until we understand why she thinks she is cursed...I….um...well, I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t believe she will get any better.”

The Golden Deer House Leader nodded thoughtfully at that. Intuitively, he knew that Ignatz was probably right. So it wasn’t just a troubled noble past, and there was an underlying cause for Marianne’s behavior. Ok. It was taking a little longer than normal, but his brain was finally kicking itself awake again, and now he had the rudiments of a plan. “Lysithea!” he called out to the group.

The short albino child turned away from a triumphantly smug Leonie, still furious by whatever the commoner had said. “What is it, Claude?” she demanded.

“Come over here,” Claude beckoned. “Ignatz needs to tell you something.”

With some more stuttering and apologies, Ignatz repeated his theory to Lysithea. To the relief of both young men, she was soon lost in thought. “Cursed?” she muttered to herself. “There are legends of cursed weapons and objects, of course. Then there’s the voodoo magic of Morfis, and the shamanastic teachings in Almyra. And I’ve heard that Relics can curse their wielders if they don't at least have a matching Crest themselves. But I'm not familiar with a general curse of misfortune and bad luck that affects only others. Maybe it can be something to look up in the library," she told Claude.

"I think the three of us can focus on that," nodded Claude to Ignatz and Lysithea, and he was gratified to see their enthusiasm in return. "In the meantime...Hilda! Stop arguing and get over here! The rest of you too!" Slowly the group calmed themselves enough to approach and listen to their House Leader.

Claude studied the faces around him for a long moment, then announced without a smile, "All right. A teammate of ours just happens to be sick, right? So we're going to make her better, and treat her no differently than we have before...except maybe a little nicer, a little more like we would like to be treated ourselves," he said with a nod to Leonie. She flushed but nodded back evenly. "Lysithea, Ignatz, and I will do some reading in the library on our own to try and help her. Hilda, I'm putting you and Lorenz on point to spend time with Marianne, any time the healers don't chase you out of the room, and asked to be informed about whatever we can do to help out. Leonie and Raphael, maybe with you can get with some of the monastery staff and see if you can clean and repair her room, if they're not doing it already. We don't want to give her any more awful reminders about last night." He was grateful to see affirming nods all around him. Maybe he could start taking this leadership role a bit more seriously...

*

Hanneman bustled into the Blue Lion homeroom with Mercedes trailing behind him, rubbing his mustache absently with one silk gloved hand, still abstracted over Marianne's condition. It was surely related to her Crest, but a condition of young Marianne's enrollment into the Academy had been a stipulation asking for no investigation into her Crest status. Most unusual. There were only several possibilities. One was that some parents did not want a multitude of suitors distracting their young charges while studying at the Academy. That could be distracting, or more likely, the parents already had a match in mind. He would have to ponder this more…

“Professor!” Prince Dimitri and his classmates crowded around him as soon as he entered the room. “Please tell us at once of anything we can do for poor Lady Marianne! I am afraid Archbishop Rhea was rather short on specifics, although we are all earnestly praying for her swift recovery,” declared the young Prince, his smooth face lined with worry.

“Professor Manuela and Lady Beatrix have the situation well in hand, young man,” responded Hanneman, his face softening as he considered the young Faerghus Prince. A good boy, if entirely a product of the Crest system. Indeed, considering his personal history, he had come far and would go even further. He peered around to see the three female Blue Lions standing nearby, with varying expressions of concern. A glance at the not-so-innocent Sylvain and the too-innocent Ashe nearby decided him on his course of action. “This may sound odd, but I believe it is for the best, and may make for a good teaching moment. My Lord Prince, you and the rest of the gentlemen of your class may be seated. Lady Ingrid, Lady Annette, and Miss...Martritz. Please join me privately for a moment, because I believe you may be the best suited to aid Lady Marianne going forward.”

Confused, the Blue Lion Class did as he asked, although he could see Sylvain lounging by the door as he closed it behind him. Ah well, he could only do so much. Outside the classroom, he quietly told the three women of the Blue Lion House, “The reason I called the three of you here is because I believe you can best explain, and help your classmates understand, exactly what Lady Marianne is experiencing. Lady...forgive me, Miss B--I mean Martritz. Please go on and tell your classmates,” he nodded to Mercedes.

The noble turned commoner looked reticent, but did as she was asked to a concerned Annette and an attentive Ingrid. “Ingrid...Annie. I think the Professor may be right. Marie is feeling anxious about her future...in a way only the three of us can understand,” the older woman said quietly to her classmates.

Ingrid turned her face away but not quite. “She was going to be married off like chattel, wasn’t she?” she said tightly.

“No! Really? That’s every kind of awful! I mean...I’ve heard about it happening...but…” said Annette helplessly, looking from face to face.

Mercedes sighed and closed her eyes. “She’s the right age. In the Empire, she might even be considered old for it.”

Annette made a gagging sound. “And this is my barf-face, Mercie…”

“Even in the Kingdom, too,” said Ingrid in a cold tone, her eyes far away. “Even in the Alliance. We’re not considered as people, if we have a Crest. We’re just...things. Livestock.”

“But you are all people,” said Hanneman sternly to the young women, determined to put an end to such self-defeating notions. “People with dreams, that are just as worthy as any other individual. And...despite my good intentions...well, I know that I am ill-equipped to reassure you of my sincerity, but please listen. I urge each of you to find your own happiness first, and society’s happiness second. I once had someone close to me...do what she felt was her duty to the family. And it did not go well. Not at all,” he ended in sad reflection. 

“Professor Hanneman, that’s very sweet of you to tell us,” said Mercedes with a smile. “For myself, I feel I can trust you. You reached out to us first, because you respected our own thoughts on the matter. That does mean something.”

“Um, yeah! Just what Mercie said! You’re the greatest, Professor Hanneman, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You always try to think things through, just like I do!” exclaimed Annette, but then she blinked to herself. She said to herself excitedly, “Oh wow, that would make a great song…”

“Annette, please try to focus,” said Ingrid primly, but even in the young Lady Knight’s eyes there was guarded respect that gratified the ex-noble somewhat. “Professor, this does mean something. And thank you for coming to us first...without Sylvain blathering on, or Felix spitting at us, or Prince Dimitri being overbearingly concerned. But what should we say to our fellow classmates?”

“That is up to you, Lady Ingrid,” said Hanneman as he inclined his head. “I am not leaving the matter entirely in your hands. I am available for any poor advice I can give. But it was my thought that you could use this frightening event and make something positive of it. Lady Marianne does need care and support...but primarily, I believe she needs understanding. Something that all of us should strive for, and be mindful of concerning others. That is why I wished to talk to the three of you first. But I do not wish to direct your ideas on the matter. You know your own classmates and House Leader far better than I do.”

“We do,” nodded Ingrid confidently, smiling widely now. “Thank you for this talk, Professor. I’ll handle Sylvain and Felix, Mercedes can handle Dimitri and Ashe, and Annette can handle Dedue by demanding more cooking lessons. We’ll make them understand what we have to go through...whether they want to or not.”

*

At Edelgard’s request, the Black Eagle House was using the unanticipated free time this morning to review the mock battle. Edelgard was only mildly put out that the Church had denied the Black Eagles a victory. Byleth had explained to her it was a necessary compromise, especially since Dorothea was now being considered for a conduct review. And ultimately, such practice bouts were soon going to be meaningless anyway…

Edelgard made sure to see that Bernadetta, Petra, and Dorothea were singled out for praise, which was accepted with various degrees of grace. Ferdinand was appropriately chastened by his performance, and bowed low in apology to Edelgard for his actions. Caspar was difficult and required more vigorous coaching, but eventually he agreed that there were times it was better to be quiet and less reckless on the battlefield, especially after Linhardt complained that their argument was waking him up. Edelgard chose to ignore the narcoleptic mage and his conduct for now; Linhardt was too intelligent and slippery beyond words when it came to defying authority. Soft power was more likely to work with him rather than direct confrontation.

She was so absorbed in reviewing her classmates’ future training routines, as well as her own plans and contingencies, that she was surprised to witness Bernadetta speak out of her own volition when there was a pause in their study. “Lady Edelgard! Um...forgive me, but please...I have to know! What are we going to do for Marianne?”

Edelgard blinked, recalling the reason for the time-wasting prayer service this morning. “I’m afraid we can do nothing for her at the moment, Bernadetta. She will have to find the strength to live on her own. I believe that is for the best, because we cannot be there for her all the time. Professor Manuela is quite experienced and skilled, and we must trust in her ability to bring about a cure.”

“Such a waste,” said Petra softly. “Is Marianne feeling shamed by something? If so, I can be her second for the next attempt, so that she may complete the atonement to her ancestors…”

“Not quite, my dear Brigid Princess,” said Hubert, smiling widely at the dark image. “Marianne is merely suffering an imbalance of humours. She is a melancholic individual, meaning that she has too much of the black bile flowing through her veins, and simply cannot overcome her own morose nature.”

“Oh, perfectly said, Hubie, for someone who has never missed a meal in his life!” gasped Dorothea sarcastically. Her lovely face then scowled. “Don’t listen to his rubbish, Petra. You’d be amazed how much better someone feels about life when they think they have a future worth living for!”

“Another argument? All of you are fools…” breathed Linhardt from his seat as he stretched out his arms with his head down on a book. Edelgard could not reprimand him since she agreed wholeheartedly.

“Lady Marianne has many expectations on her, as a member of the nobility,” added Ferdinand, winding himself up for a speech. “It is obvious she just needs some expert advice on how to be a worthy noble. When I am done with classes, I will be happy to go with you, Bernadetta, to visit her…”

That was entirely too much. “Enough, Ferdinand! I have told you earlier I am very nearly done with you embarassing the Black Eagle House!” commanded Edelgard. This was the situation she had precisely hoped to avoid, with her House becoming sidetracked by trivia once more. Her poltiical rival glared at her stubbornly, but she growled to him, “I do not wish for the suicide of that poor girl to be traced back to your unsolicited ‘expert’ advice…”

“Suicide is bad! Don’t say that word! It’s awful and no one should think about it!” yelped Bernadetta, her purple bangs now in knots from constant, anxious twisting and pulling.

“Hey yeah! For once Bernadetta is right! We don’t want to catch suicide from Marianne! Agh! I’m thinking about it myself now! What’s the cure?” yelled Caspar, looking frantically about and clutching his head.

“Quiet!” demanded Edelgard at the forefront of the classroom, and fortunately Bernadetta and Caspar subsided enough to give her their attention. She sternly lectured her classmates once more, “The cure is to have a reason to live and the will to see it through, the same as any dream. As I said before, the situation is out of our hands, and I would like for it to remain so. We may pray to the Goddess or think well of the poor creature, but we cannot live her life for her. Only she can do that.”

“Oh, very well said, Your Imperial Highness! Please excuse my tardiness, darlings,” said Professor Manuela, sweeping into the room in her voluptuous, revealing white robes. A flick of her wand over her shoulder caused the doors to spontaneously shut behind her as she came to stand beside Edelgard to address the class. “We are indeed doing something of the sort for our patient. In a few days, perhaps, we hope to reintegrate her back into a normal, happy routine, where everyone can see her and be her friend. All that we ask is that you be respectful of boundaries, and be the same courteous little angels you always are while speaking with her. If anyone is still confused about how best to approach your fellow student, please speak with me after class. Any questions? How wonderful! Then let us…”

“Excuse me, Professor Manuela?” Linhardt was alert, awake, and raising his hand.

“Oh my. Linhardt is asking a question in class! Someone make a note of this historic event, please,” smiled the Professor wickedly. Caspar and Petra began writing studiously in their notebooks.

Linhardt lazily blinked at his teacher’s sarcasm, and said, “Well, it may be more of a comment than a question, but since it’s making you so happy, I’ll do so. What is the source of Lady Marianne’s depression? Do you know?”

“We have theories we’re not at liberty to discuss…” started the Professor, her eyes narrowing at the blase Linhardt.

“So it is her Crest that is making her unhappy, right? Her secret Crest? The one no one is allowed to talk about here at school?”

“Linhardt, please ask no more questions in class. Ever,” said the Professor, with an angry twist and swirl of her robes.

“Well now. How delightful,” smiled Linhardt as he lowered his head once more on his pillow, an open spellbook with the pages covered in runes. In the space of two breaths he was lightly snoring once more.

As she resumed her seat in the front row by Hubert, Edelgard’s heart was pounding at the revelation she just heard. A swift look at her tall retainer was confirmed by a nod. He knew as well. For once, Edelgard blessed Linhardt’s behavior and intellect. A beautiful young noble nearly committing suicide at Garreg Mach was uncommon, but not remarkable. But a beautiful young noble nearly committing suicide, simply because of her Crest? This was a golden opportunity to discredit and embarrass the nobility and the Church. Utterly golden.

At once Edelgard began reviewing everything she knew of Margrave Edmund and his ward, Lady Marianne, as Professor Manuela started the lessons.

*

Chapter Text

Ch 18 

Confessional

Trips was still exhausted, but a nap in her quarters while the students were in class had done wonders. She almost felt completely human once more, but there was yet more to do. The sun was dipping below the horizon now, and she had been victoriously gratified to see Felix completely absorbed in one of the books she had given him, slowly turning the pages as he read in the infirmary. Marianne was still sleeping behind her quickly arranged makeshift partition, her bedsheets newly clean. The potion Manuela had provided last night was one of her stronger ones, and it made the body ignore its functions while a person slept. Trips and a silent Maunela had bent towards the task after classes, figuring they owed the girl to perform this chore without complaint. The helpful orphaned Almyran boy, Cyril, had accepted the laundry tub from the infirmary with stoic resolve.

Now she and Manuela faced a dilemma, as Trips thought to herself furiously outside the infirmary. They had promised to themselves that Marianne would wake up to a friend, but did Marianne have friends? That had prompted a panicked inquiry to Professors, but not House Leaders. Too much political drama was the last thing they needed with this case. That had not prevented Lord Claude, Prince Dimitri, and surprisingly, even Princess Edelgard from demanding time with Lady Marianne once she was awake. Their nominal status as cadets unfortunately did not prevent the royal children from flexing their status, and Marianne did not need a burden like that right now.

The list of other potential candidates was small. Mercedes was kind and sweet...too sweet. Marianne had already taken advantage of her gentle nature, and that she was still capable of that level of manipulation and planning worried Trips. Bernadetta was asked per Byleth’s suggestion, but the poor girl had been too frightened and anxious of making her friend worse, so much that Trips was left wondering if they would soon have another patient. Both physicians decided that Marianne did not need to be near another depressive and anxious personality.

Jeralt had suggested Hilda and Claude as likely candidates. Trips decided to trust her Captain’s recommendation, although she found the Goneril noble too flighty for her tastes, while Claude was a politically fraught candidate. She thought the Riegan noble had Almyran blood; since it was writ on his skin, how could he not? But when she broached the subject with Zarad, her usually chatty friend became tight-lipped all of a sudden. That made Trips all the more curious, but with reluctance, she disqualified Claude. That left only Hilda…

“Knight Beatrix.”

The deep voice surprised her, and Trips looked up from her musing to see the tall Duscar man, the Blue Lion Dedue, before her in the hallway.

“Ah. Cadet Dedue? You’re the one who fought Captain Jeralt to a standstill,” said Trips, recovering from her shock.

“Yes. I am. Although I was defeated. I do not wish to talk about that,” said the massive Blue Lion, with nary an expression on his face.

Trips decided straightforwardness and repetition was the best approach. “Then what do you wish to talk about, Cadet?”

He surprised her again by bowing deeply before her. “I am here to plead Prince Dimitri’s case. He must be the one to speak with Lady Marianne once she wakes.”

“Is that entirely appropriate?” said Trips, raising an eyebrow.

“Do not insinuate faults of my Prince. He has none...except for perhaps his great heart,” said Dedue with a touch of sorrow.

Trips sighed to herself. It looked like she was going to have to explain her reasoning all over again to someone. “Prince Dimitri meeting with Lady Marianne might be politically complicated…”

“There are no political considerations between an individual’s life and death,” stated Dedue flatly.

Blinking at that, the healer tried once more. “It might be awkward for Lady Marianne…”

“The Prince would welcome you as a chaperone. Lady Marianne’s integrity must remain beyond reproach.”

Now Trips was frowning mightily at the boy’s stubbornness. “And is Prince Dimitri qualified to be a healer?”

Deude frowned down at her in return from his height. “Prince Dimitri convinced me to live, after my mother and father were cut down before me, as well as my sister. He shielded me from death with his own body, from the swords of his own Knights and soldiers. They defied his commands to spare my life, even though he still bore bandaged and bloody wounds from the Tragedy. My Prince is eloquent with his words, and in his care for others. He can hardly speak now but out of concern for this woman.” The massive frame of the cadet bent low in a bow once more. “I have pled my case for his intervention.” The tall Duscarman stood silent and still after his speech, his gaze steady.

At times, Trips felt defeated by unstated emotion. She had worked so hard and so long to drag the slightest bits forth from Byleth over the years, and the constant effort left herself vulnerable when exposed to it. It was momentarily overwhelming when confronted by something so similar...yet so different. She turned her face away to master herself and breathe. Once she felt she was composed, she faced the tall man once more. Jeralt had told her this one was smart.

“Very well. Where may I find Prince Dimitri?”

*

Dimitri strode quickly behind the short form of Lady Beatrix, the rustle of the woman’s grey travel-stained robes and the rapping of her staff on the stone seemingly the only sounds in the hall. His after-class training session had been adequate, and there were no tics or chaotic visions or sounds currently intruding upon him. Indeed, his attention was entirely focused on what he could possibly say to Lady Marianne, and why he felt so certain he had to be the one to say those things. He was acting presumptuous; his behavior was that of an arrogant and entitled Princeling noble. He had hardly spoken a dozen words to Lady Marianne before the mock battle, and that event had been their only meaningful conversation they had ever had. It was foolish, ridiculous, and irrational for him to be here.

But then again, Dimitri acknowledged he was not feeling very rational these days.

They were nearly at the infirmary doors, when they abruptly opened before them to reveal the short form of Hilda, along with the taller ones of Professor Manuela and Claude. They closed the doors completely, but stopped to await Dimitri and Beatrix.

An arched eyebrow from Professor Manuela at his presence persuaded Lady Beatrix to explain herself. “Great minds, I guess, Manuela. I was thinking of Marianne’s housemates, but someone reminded me of how Prince Dimitri helped Marianne during the mock battle. I figured he deserved a visit, at least. How is she?”

“She’s so sad...it makes me sad, and I usually don’t have any reason to be sad, ever,” sniffed Hilda, her eyes downcast. “I just wish I could take it out of her and lock it away…”

Claude was eyeing the tall Prince thoughtfully. “I didn’t really try to say anything to her. Just tried to be there, to be physically present, you know? But for what it’s worth...I’m glad you’re here, Dimitri. It means a lot.” He reached out his hand.

Dimtri nodded and smiled as he clasped wrists with the young Duke. “Any poor service of mine I am happy to give, Claude. I hate to see any soul suffer in this way, but seeing it in someone so fair and beautiful makes it even harder.”

“This is the difficult part, children. Getting her to eat, to take care of herself and her appearance. We must rely on the Goddess to see her through the darkness, and remind her of the joy and blessing of her own life,” said Professor Maunela, making a small sign of piety. Lady Beatrix pulled her aside and began demanding the latest updates on her patient’s health. 

Dimitri leaned close to his fellow House Leader as the two healers conversed, with Hilda chiming in with surprisingly astute observations. “Claude, is there a reason for Lady Marianne’s distress? She has not been...mistreated, has she?” asked the Faerghus Prince in a low tone to his fellow noble.

Claude made a show of consideration as he eyed the Blue Lion. “Please keep it to yourself, but she does have a tragic past. She is only the adopted daughter of Margrave Edmund. Her parents vanished four years ago…”

Four years ago. Despite his efforts, Dimitri could not maintain his mask at those words. His expression became strained, and Claude vanished, replaced by screams, flames, and...bodies...so many bodies...all of them covered with thick blood, with the cloying stench of cooked meat that overwhelmed him….

“Um, Dimitri? Are you all right, buddy? You look kind of...lost,” Claude was saying, now worried.

With great effort, Dimitri bent all of his will to ignore the flashback. After all these years, he should be used to them by now. And somehow he managed, for there was another that needed him now. A pale blue haired girl with downcast eyes, who had also lost her parents…

“I...I am sorry, Claude. Your words just reminded me of my own...tragic past,” the Prince strove valiantly to smile to ease the tension.

To his credit, the Leicester Heir was abashed by his words. “Dimitri...oh, damn it, I put my foot in it, didn’t I? Um...sorry. I keep forgetting how much you’ve been through.”

“Do not trouble yourself over it, Claude. It is my burden, not yours. But you were saying of poor Lady Marianne?”

Claude appeared unconvinced, but continued his narrative, selecting his words with more care. “Right, sure. Uh, I managed to get most of the story pieced together from Lysithea and Lorenz. You probably know Margrave Edmund is the newest Great Lord of Alliance, and basically bought his way into the nobility, but from what I can tell, he’s pretty much on the straight and narrow, despite making a fortune in the shipping trade. Donates to the Church, lends to the nobles and merchants, gives alms to the poor. The guy may be a little long winded, but he’s an ok noble in my book. He was just recently appointed nobility by my grandfather, and the one thing he didn’t have was an heir. Or a recent Crest lineage. And...poor Marianne, um, was still a minor noble, apparently without a guardian at her family estate. Somehow--don’t ask me how, I heard enough about it from Lorenz--they’re distant cousins even though he’s much older. As a brand new Margrave, he was within his rights to appoint her to his household, since her parents left no will or testament.”

“And what happened to her parents?” asked Dimitri in a deep reluctant tone. His control was better, now. He could handle the memories and guard his face.

“Ah...so, yeah, they just vanished. Poof! Completely gone one day, if you can believe Ignatz’s version of events. Marianne was fending by herself for weeks at her family estate and farms, if not months before the Margrave took custody of her,” explained Claude, spreading his hands helplessly.

The Prince instantly felt a new flash of empathy. At least he knew what had happened to his parents, as terrible it was. Lady Marianne didn’t even have that. He was about to respond when he became aware of the presence of the three ladies rejoining them.

“I think we’re ready to have this visit. Let’s keep it short, please, Your Highness?” pleaded Lady Beatrix earnestly.

“Um, you know that Prince Dimitri is basically the biggest teddy bear in the school, right? He’ll be fine with poor Marianne, won’t you Dimitri? I know I can trust you with her,” said Hilda with uncomfortable familiarity as she winked a pink eye up at him. He could hardly respond to such intimate banter, especially with Claude sniggering behind him.

“Yes, please follow the example of these dear Golden Deer children, Your Highness,” said Professor Manuela, unaware of her pun. “You were such a sweetheart to help her on the battlefield, that I’m sure she’ll remember that and have feelings for you.” Then she smiled at the others, ignoring Dimitri’s flaming cheeks. “Hilda, I’ll come fetch you sometime tomorrow so Marianne may visit the stables. And my Lord Duke, you may escort me to the dining hall in recompense for your very poorly aimed arrow at me during the mock battle.”

Claude elaborately bowed to the Black Eagles Professor. “My mother always told me to show respect to fair and beautiful young ladies off the battlefield, Professor Manuela.”

“Oh my. Such terrible, shop-worn flattery! Maybe I can teach you something after all, young man--”

“I believe I’m feeling hungry, too,” announced Hilda suddenly, glaring up at Manuela. “C’mon, Claude, let’s go.” The dark haired man gave a doleful, long-suffering roll of the eyes to DImitri as he was dragged away by the two women down the corridor.

Shaking her head at the scene, Beatrix said to Dimitri, “Unbelievable. How did she get into Garreg Mach? How did any of them get into Garreg Mach?”

Dimitri shook his head in return. “Do you really want to know, Lady Beatrix?”

“On second thought…”

They entered the infirmary quietly. Felix looked up from his reading momentarily, scowling at the sight of Dimitri. Dimitri politely inclined his head to Felix, but his old friend snorted and looked away, ignoring his presence. The Prince returned the favor easily enough, seeing a profile in shadow with curtains drawn around a bed in the opposite corner of the room. A Knight of Seiros stood nearby, unarmored and looking restless and bored. She bowed shortly as the cadet and healer approached.

“Has Marianne eaten or drank anything?” asked Beatrix in a quiet voice.

The female Knight shrugged carelessly. “She ate some of her stew. Perhaps a cup of water. No meat in the stew though. Who likes food with no meat?”

“Some people do,” said the healer shortly, apparently not wanting to debate dietary preferences. “Marianne?” she called in a more normal voice. “It’s Beatrix. I have one more visitor who would like to see you. Is that acceptable?”

The form shifted behind the partition. “Um. I guess. But no more, please,” said the delicate voice.

“This is the last one,” reassured Lady Beatrix. She motioned him forward.

Dimitri suddenly felt self-conscious as he was prodded past the curtain. He had just finished a training session, and his uniform and hair were still damp with sweat. Trying to enter the small space at the foot of Marianne’s bed was difficult as well, as he felt clumsy and rash trying to shift to sit on the stool before her. A glimpse of her in the lamplight was quickly averted. Lady Marianne’s hair was down across her shoulders and face, and she was dressed in a simple white shift. Somehow...seeing her in such a vulnerable state...made himself feel as he was intruding on her privacy. He quickly rebuked himself for such thoughts.

“Ah. Prince Dimitri,” breathed the girl, trying to shrink into her covers and bed. “I’m sorry…”

Years of training at the court helped him find his voice. “Please, no apologies. I have...simply come to see that you are well, my Lady,” said Dimitri, avoiding her eyes. “And to also say...that I am glad you are still with us.”

“But you--someone like you--shouldn’t trouble yourself with me…” sighed Marianne. She looked down at her bedding, her hands restlessly plucking the sheets as she continued. “You wouldn’t understand. I’m a wicked creature, one that only brings misfortune to others.”

Dimitri nodded thoughtfully at words. “And you hurt inside...so much that you can’t explain it, but you think it’s obvious that everyone can see it...but they don’t, do they? They just...walk right by.”

Marianne was silent save for a quick inhalation, but he saw her answering nod.

He forced himself to continue. “Lady Marianne...I told you before, at the mock battle, you were not alone. I meant that. I know what you are fighting against. I have felt the same urge myself at times.”

That shock sent her voice above a whisper. “Y-you? But you’re a Prince. You...you must have so much to live for…”

“Do I?” Dimitri said with dour chuckle, now looking away himself. “A lifetime of burdens and expectations and examples that I will never live up to. Endless responsibility and endless duty. Tell me, what do I have to live for?”

“But...you still must have people who love you. Unlike me…” she whispered, looking down again.

“I do not believe that is true, Lady Marianne. And if you had died...I would have mourned for the rest of my days. And that is the truth.”

“But why? Why me? I’m no good.”

“Because I would have lost a friend, if I may presume. Someone who understands the pain of being...left behind. When your family was cruelly taken instead.”

Her silence answered for her.

He swallowed past his dry mouth, but it needed to be said. For the first time, he wanted to say it to someone else, and it felt...not good, but at least right. “You...you may know my story. About the Tragedy of Duscar. I saw my father killed in front of me. My mother’s carriage, burning until it collapsed and only the ashes remained. My closest friends, my knights...all of them dying...even servants and retainers I had known since childhood. And sometimes, when alone at night...I still see it. I see the flames, and the bodies. And while I used to feel sorrow, now I feel merely...empty. Or numb. Or angry. The Goddess let everyone die that day on the road to Duscar...except for me.”

A sympathetic whisper. “Y-yes. I’d heard about it. I’m sorry, Prince Dimitri.”

“Thank you, Lady Marianne,” he said, and he meant it. They were silent for a few long moments, and Dimitri found himself appreciating her presence. He had to briefly fight against his memories, and the terrible whispers that came with it, but being with another person made it easier to banish them, and ground himself once more.

He looked up to see her studying him, but she shyly averted her gaze once she saw his eyes. Softly, he asked, “May I ask you what your story is, Lady Marianne?”

She was silent for another long moment, but slowly whispered, “It was just after I had been confirmed in our local Church. My mother was so happy for me, I remember. She had been...planning a celebration, with the servants. But my father came home that day from the fields. He was worried. I don’t know about what. He talked for a long time with Mother in private, and then when they returned she hugged and kissed me, and said that since I was a grown woman now, I could watch the estate and the farm and the horses on my own. She said that...she and Father had to do something, but they would be back in a few days. They rode away together, to the south. And...I never saw them again.”

“I see,” replied Dimitri. “So your parents just...disappeared one day. And you feel like you did something wrong…”

“But I did,” she interrupted him, her voice stronger. “You can’t understand, but it was my fault that they vanished. Because of me, and the bad luck that I cause in other people. And that’s why everyone should stay away from me, Prince Dimitri. Especially you. I...I don’t want to give my misfortune to an entire Kingdom.”

For the first time with her, Dimitri frowned. “Forgive me, but I do not believe that you will. In fact, I consider myself fortunate to have met you.”

“F-fortunate?” She was shocked again.

“Yes. Had you not acted the way you did in the mock battle...we would not be speaking. I would not have known about your story, and how much pain you feel. Lady Marianne...I think we are very similar, in many ways. And have gone through similar experiences. May I guess as to what happened to you after that day, my Lady?”

“Uhm. Ok. Go ahead…”

Dimitri focused his eyes on the cold stone at his feet. “Something terrible happened to you and your family. But when you survived, everyone around you focused on you, ignoring the family that was so important to you...that you had depended on. They told you to move on, probably. Leave them at rest. Am I correct so far, Lady Marianne?”

“Y-yes. Dimitri…”

The Prince continued without listening, caught up in his bitterness, his anger. “Move on. Leave them at peace. Almost like telling you to forget them. And that hurts. It hurts so badly that people say nice things, but then move on with life as if nothing has happened. When they don’t realize that everything….everything...has changed. They just want to move on with their own busy lives, not realizing they’re making everything worse. And then it hurts even more, because now they want you to perform. To play-act like it doesn’t matter that your parents died. Telling you to be happy, or to cheer up. To pretend that your life wasn’t devastated. But then when you tell them…” Dimitri swallowed, then harshly continued. “...they remind you that your parents are not here. That you have to live up to them. Or live on for them. Even as you grow older, and miss them more with every birthday, every Saint Seiros day, every moment that was special. You feel like you are all alone. And no one understands. No one shows you...understanding. Or acceptance. The way that only your parents did…”

Marianne had been silently crying during his entire speech, but now she burst out with a loud sob. “P-please...n-no more-e…” she wept, overwhelmed.

He blinked out of his reverie, aghast at the sight of Lady Marianne in tears. What had he said? What had he done? Desperate to ease her pain, he reached out to her. “Lady Marianne! I’m sorry...but I just thought...since we are both orphans…”

“And that’s enough visitation time, right, Prince Dimitri?” said Lady Beatrix, throwing the curtain of the partition open, her face a marvelous study. “I knew this was a bad idea…” she started to reprimand.

“N-no!” said Marianne in sudden force at the healer, still hiccoughing through her tears but trying to compose herself. “He...I mean...Prince Dimitri didn’t do anything wrong! He was just trying to tell me he understands. I...I think he does...” she ended in a coughing whisper.

“No, I am sorry, but Lady Beatrix is right,” interrupted Dimitri, his voice harsh. He stood quickly, raging at himself. “I have hurt you at your most vulnerable, Lady Marianne. Only a thoughtless beast would act in such a way. I will trouble you no more, and pray for your swift recovery.”

Lady Beatrix was all too ready to usher him past the partition, but Marianne sat up and spoke. “Dimitri…” The sound of his name from her lips was the only thing that could have stopped him from leaving. “I’m sorry...but I do believe you now. You...you do understand. Th-thank you for coming, and...for thinking about me.”

The healer looked incredulously at Marianne, who was demurely looking at her covers again. Dimitri forced himself to turn and bow, unable to look at anything but the floor. “Thank you for your forgiveness...Marianne. I do not deserve it, but perhaps I may enjoy the pleasure of your company again?”

“I’d...like that,” the young noblewoman whispered, turning hopeful, innocent eyes to her healer.

Even the ex-mercenary was helpless before that gaze. Her eyes softened. “Ok, Marianne. Maybe Prince Dimitri can meet you for stable duty?”

“Yes...that would be nice,” Marianne said, smiling for the first time. “Do you like horses, Prince Dimitri?”

“Very much so,” he agreed with a smile of his own, enchanted by the way her face lit up at his words. “They are peaceful, noble creatures. I find riding to be very calming.” 

“I do too,” she replied timidly. “I’ll introduce you to Dorte. He’s my best friend here at the monastery…”

“I will look forward to it,” managed Dimitri after a bare pause, his heart almost breaking at her words. Her best friend here was...a horse. He allowed Lady Beatrix to shoo him from the infirmary after that, still caught up in the pathos of Marianne’s words, and stood quiet in contemplation as the healer shut the doors firmly behind him.

*

It was absolutely disgusting. What a farce.

At least the mercenary healer, Beatrix, seemed marginally aware of what she had inadvertently done. Felix watched her from his bed and backboard without pity, as she paced back and forth, muttering under her breath, to the obvious amusement of the Knight assigned to watch that suicidal Alliance girl. He felt a brief moment of revulsion as he considered the “Lady Marianne.” That kind of behavior was something Felix had no sympathy for. If you couldn’t value your own life, then it was better for you to just hurry up and die, rather than dragging the rest of your family and friends down like a useless grave monument. Just like she was doing to Dimitri now.

So. The boar had found himself a noble girlfriend to help him wallow in his misery with him. Felix grunted to himself in a brief flash of amusement as he considered the match. It would be the worst sort of relationship, with both of them codependent on each other just to live their sad, meaningless lives. They would gaze endlessly into the past and call it growth or insight. Just another mirror to narcissistically gaze into, as far as he was concerned.

Felix held no such illusions about himself. The sword was his only true family now. He despised nobles like his father, a ghoul who relished in the egotistical honor the death of a son could bring him. And he had no time for frivolous noble girls looking for a match, with their petty, self-absorbed interests. His friends were no better. All of them were ill-suited for true battle, true war. Even Ingrid, despite her persistence in following her childhood fantasies. They were too soft for such a life. Glenn had taught him that. One wrong move, and you’re a corpse. No one cares about corpses. And corpses don’t care about you. He remembered that brutal childhood lesson very well...

There was always the rare exception. Cassandra...oh, I meant Catherine, he snorted to himself, managed to escape the trap of many Faerghus heirs. And then she had abandoned noble life the first chance she had gotten, hadn’t she? How convenient for the Church to find a Holy Knight right on their doorstep, utterly dependent upon their largesse. Another form of enabling, shallow, codependent relationships.

Caught up in reflection by the boring enforced bedrest, Felix had to admit to himself that the commoner women at Garreg Mach were a different story. Leonie held herself to high standards, and didn’t care about who had a Crest or not. Having met Professor Jeralt, Felix couldn’t help but respect her choice in mentors. That singer, Dorothea, was almost as flighty as a noble, but she had hard edges underneath her soft exterior that he easily noticed. She had trained in both swordplay and magic, and since reading these magical texts, Felix was just now appreciating what an advantage that could bring in battle. To call down a lightning bolt upon someone from a distance...well, it would save time on the field. Not that he would ever tell healer Beatrix. Or thank her.

And then, there was Petra…now, that had been a duel...

Feh, Felix mentally reprimanded himself. He could hardly accuse Dimitri of being smitten if he acted in a similar fashion. Besides, the girl was an Imperial, and a foreigner to boot. She could barely speak intelligibly. Just another collared dog on Edelgard’s leash to bark for the Empire.

He frowned as he realized the healer, Beatrix, was now leaning over him, drawing him from his musings. “How are you feeling tonight, Felix?” she inquired, still half-looking over her shoulder. Seeking distraction from her mistake, no doubt.

“Bored,” he grunted. “My back feels fine. Can I please just go now?”

“Just a moment,” she said, closing her eyes and resting a shining hand on his shoulder. He felt pulsing warmth tickle through his body, sending probing tingles down his spine. Felix cursed himself as a twinge of searing nerve pain down his lower extremities made him hiss involuntarily.

Nodding, the woman opened her eyes. “I say give it at least another day, Felix. If you’re cooperative, we’ll let you out to attend classes after that, but still, another three days of limited activity. That means no sparring, no swordplay, but you can at least go to the training grounds and observe. Deal?”

Finally. “Deal. Anything to get me away from the boar’s melancholic girlfriend.”

The healer paused in mid-turn, and Felix cursed himself again. Him and his big mouth. All this bedrest was making him soft. “Boar?” she echoed curiously. “You mean the Prince? What is that, some sort of childhood nickname?”

That made him actually laugh out loud. That was a good one. Unfortunately, it only made the stupid mercenary woman more curious, and she said, “Ok, it’s nice to know you can laugh, but I don’t see what’s so funny.”

Still chuckling, Felix told her, “He’s a boar because that’s what he is. A mad beast wanting blood. You’d best keep him away from that Golden Deer girl. It’s only a matter of time before he breaks her heart...or her neck.”

“A beast…? I’ve heard he’s strong, but...”

A flash of pure irritation. This old blue haired bint couldn’t read a sign. Uncharitably, he said, “It has nothing to do with strength. It has everything to do with sanity. The Tragedy broke the beast. Forever. Oh, he can still put on the courtly airs, like a trained marionette. But it’s in battle that he shows his true self. He’s obsessed with pain, and death.” Feeling satisfied that his words were finally registering for the old woman, he smiled and added, “In fact, your own Knight Byleth was injured because of him. That’s why he’s so nice to your daughter. And Marianne. The animal can still feel guilty occasionally after it bites. But eventually, it always will.”

“Interesting,” she mused thoughtfully after a long moment of eyeing him carefully. “So...you think Prince Dimitri is dangerous?”

“I know he is.”

*

Later that evening, the High Abbot was finishing up his final interview of the night.

“So when you cast the spell...you say that Lady Ingrid stepped through it, correct?” asked Seteth, glancing down at the various written testaments before him.

“I’m getting tired of repeating myself, but yes, she did. I didn’t suspect she was magic-resistant when she attacked me,” said Lysithea, scowling at the memory.

“And what would your spell have done if she had not resisted?”

The small young girl shrugged slightly. “It was a moderately powerful wind spell. It should have stopped her in her tracks, or maybe knocked her to the ground.”

“So then Miss Arnault witnessed this? And that’s what made her improve her rune spell, in your opinion?”

An affirming nod, and then the young child launched into a lecture. “She did take a risk in doing so, because it can be hard to anticipate the degree of magical resistance you’re facing. Although her rune spell was a clever variation of a galvanic energy trap, and was purposefully designed from the start to incapacitate, not injure or kill. All the magic-using professors approved of her effort, by the way. So do I.”

Seteth smiled. Being spouted off to by this child reminded him of Flayn, although Lysithea was much more serious and somber. He went on with the interview, and said, “You mentioned risk, though?”

“Well, yes, but it’s difficult to explain. Intent matters so much in conjuring anima. Dorothea meant for her trap to focus on the muscles of her target, not the organs. That’s how Ingrid was relatively uninjured afterwards. But even if your magic is precise, the person’s body can react in different ways you can’t anticipate. Similar to how striking a blow to the head to just knock someone out can accidently kill.”

“And Miss Arnault tried to entice you to the trap earlier, as well?” said Seteth, rubbing his bearded chin thoughtfully.

Another shrug from the cadet. “She did. I think she was going to try to get me to chase after her, so that I wouldn’t see the ground. It might have worked, but I probably would have seen it and negated it.”

Seteth nodded and rose from his chair behind his large officious desk. “Very well, Lady Lysithea. Thank you for your time. Let me just add that your confidence and intelligence are exceptional for your age. But do be careful to not succumb to the sin of pride and arrogance,” said the Abbot.

Lysithea slowly stood as well as he finished, and then she snorted, “That’s typical, coming from a high ranking member of the Church, and the headmaster of this Academy.”

“And just what do you mean by that?” said Seteth with his most severe frown. Unfortunately for him, it only had the opposite effect.

“And I even have to spell it out for you?” snarked the child, her pale red eyes boring fearlessly into his own as she continued in a scathing voice. “No wonder you’re running such a slip-shod mess around here. Let me list the extremely large problems you’ve completely failed to address to everyone’s dissatisfaction. One, our first professor runs away three weeks into the semester, after a bandit attack near Garreg mach. Two, said bandit attack is aimed at all three House Leaders, which you won’t even acknowledge. Three, one of our classmates tries to kill herself after the mock battle, but you’re here conducting meaningless disciplinary investigations over a trivial non-issue. So don’t you talk to me about arrogance, when you’re obviously not immune to it yourself. I had that burned out of me a long time ago.” Seteth could only gape in response, shocked beyond words. No one, not even Flayn or Professor Manuela, had spoken to him in such a manner. The small albino cadet finally finished her tirade. “And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go to the library to study. Good evening, Father Seteth.” The small girl flounced from the room with a flash of white hair.

It took him longer than he wanted to get over his shock, and then even longer for his anger. Being lectured by a fifteen year old cadet did that to him. But eventually his blood cooled, and he acknowledged to himself the pert little student was entirely right, if not in the specifics. The monastery, and by extension the Central Church, the central rock of faith for the Goddess across Fodlan, was failing.

And Seteth could not hold it together by himself.

Part of it was simply human nature, and the evolution of Fodlan society. He had grieved when he had learned the grand project of his brothers and sister, their grand Empire for humanity, had at last succumbed to internal corruption and tyranny, leading to Loog’s Rebellion. Then came the inevitable divisions within the Kingdom of Faerghus itself, when three competing Crest bearing heirs of the House of Blayddid attempted to divide the region without war, a decision which only postponed the succession crisis to the next generation. And Leceister had always considered itself a land apart from the rest of Fodlan anyway; the region’s climate was mild, with an access to a bounty of food and numerous warm-water ports. It was inevitable that once the Faerghus region of Fodlan rebelled, the eastern regions would follow.

And now the continent of Fodlan was divided into three countries, with Garreg Mach bordering all three. The Academy, which was founded to train Crest-bearing nobles in the defense of their homelands against the hordes of Almyra, was now simply a de facto institute for match-making and noble intrigue, rather than military college. Rhea’s spiritual authority was still high among the people, but her political influence was severely curtailed. And now the three heirs of all three countries were here, at the same time…

Seteth frowned as he walked to the Archbishop’s chambers, absorbed in the recent events during his time here next to Rhea. All three of the royal noble houses had been targeted politically in recent years. Duke Godfrey of House Riegan, a charming graduate of Garreg Mach that Seteth remembered well, had died last year in mysterious circumstances while meeting some merchants. King Lambert had died in the Tragedy of Duscar four years ago, on what was supposed to have been a peaceful visit. And then there was the Insurrection of the Seven against Emperor Ionius, nine years earlier. And now all three royal heirs, the children most directly affected by these events, were attending the Academy in the same class. It was an unprecedented situation in the two hundred year history of the Academy.

Someone was coordinating these events, Seteth decided. Some group, undermining Fodlan and its Church from within. A foreign power? Possibly Almyra? They had been more quiet than usual in recent years, although skirmishes were still common along the Leicester border. Or perhaps it was an alliance of recently defeated nations, such as Dagda, Brigid, and Duscar? That was unlikely, although rebellions and raiding incursions were still sparking unrest. Maybe a cabal of internal dissidents, sharing information and material across borders, waiting for the time to spring their own coup? But then how could such a group be assured of conquering all three nations at the same time, not to mention the Central Church itself?

If only he could tease out the thread that tied all of these events together…

Absorbed in his thoughts, he nearly bumped into Shamir as she was exiting the Archbishop’s chambers as he attempted to enter. “Knight Shamir,” he said, surprised. “What did Lady Rhea want with you at this late hour?”

“Just telling a story about bath time, Seteth,” said the Dagdan woman, her face locked in its usual stoicism. She brushed past him and walked to the stairs.

That was an odd comment, even for Shamir. Surely Rhea would explain in more detail. He entered the dim throne chamber, and seeing the glow of light in Rhea’s nearby study, made his way there.

At the portal, he silently paused and waited, not wanting to disturb his sister. Rhea was praying, kneeling before her own private shrine. He hoped any such communion she was having with their mother was bearing fruit. His own faith was being sorely tested after the past twelve hundred years of silence. But such was the nature of their mission.

With inhuman patience, Seteth observed Rhea for the next hour, not wanting to intrude as his sister occasionally swayed and hummed a familiar, sorrowful song as she knelt. The lullaby of their mother. It was beautiful and touching, but also...concerning. Seteth had only had occasional contact with Rhea over the centuries, until her desperate plea for him to join her twenty years ago. Flayn was but just recently awoken from her healing sleep, so Seteth decided to place her with trusted members of the faith, who could care for her in his brief absence until they could be eventually reunited. But the desperate call for aid from his elder sister had demanded his attention. Rhea, as the firstborn of the Goddess, had taken the death of their mother much harder than her brothers. Yet she had held steadfast throughout the centuries, adopting new identities as needed to constantly lead her creation, the Church. Alone, but unwavering, for years and centuries unending.

So why did it break his heart to see her now? Two personas, eternally at war with another. A woman, unfathomably ancient by human years, with the wisdom of thousands of years of history inside of her. A child, still longing for little more than a glimpse of its mother, still nursing a grief as fresh as the shock of the first moment of horror. Between the two sides of her nature, Seteth feared Rhea was losing herself. Not in a benign way, such as Indech, who had willingly secreted himself away from humanity, or delighting in a misanthropic, territorial existence, like Macuil.

No, what Seteth feared most is what would happen if Rhea realized that her mission was, indeed, a hopeless quest. What divine madness could follow then... 

Eventually his sister straightened, then roused herself away from her personal altar. While most symbols in the monastery reflected the Symbol of Seiros, Rhea’s Sign, her own shrine displayed a different symbol, carved from rose quartz marble. A symbol of Fire. Of Creation.

“Thank you for waiting patiently, Seteth,” said the Archbishop, turning to face him, her face gentle. “Have you completed your interviews?”

He gave Rhea a sour grunt. “After being chastised by a fifteen year old, I believe my investigation is complete.”

Rhea was amused. “Chastised? By whom?” 

“Lysithea von Ordelia. She thinks we are fools. I am finding it hard to disagree with her.”

“Doubts, dear Seteth?”

“Always. I sometimes envy Indech at the bottom of his lake. You are used to this dance, Rhea. These mortal dramas. I am not.”

Shaking her head, Rhea said, “Seteth, you were once the rock all of us depended upon. That was your gift. I believe you are simply...out of practice.”

“I am worried, Rhea,” he admitted to his sister. “These mock battles, this teaching, these administrative duties...I fear we are being distracted by minutiae, while our enemies are out there. Waiting for the opportune moment.”

“Then these fools will discover the high price of wickedness and sin,” said Rhea sternly, but soon she smiled again. “Besides, Seteth, I have not been idle myself. For Catherine and Shamir have told me the most encouraging news, and Hanneman has confirmed it, though he knows it naught. Please, let us sit, and I will tell you.”

“That does remind me. Shamir made a strange comment about bath time?” asked Seteth as he settled into a chair.

As Rhea seated herself, she actually laughed outright, a rarity. “Is that what she called it? It makes sense that as an unbeliever, her view of us is...jaundiced. But first I would hear of our charges. How is young Marianne?”

“The classes have rallied in support of her, and Manuela and Beatrix have arranged a solid plan for her care. I have sent a letter to Margrave Edmund, though it might be some time before our courier reaches him. She may be back in class within a week.”

“That is assuring news. May the Goddess light her path going forward. And what of our young actress?”

“Dorothea is without fault, in my judgement. The entire conjurer community amongst us agrees. I admit I remember little of Macuil’s lessons in magical theory. And it has advanced considerably since then,” Seteth confessed ruefully.

“That is sufficient. It has been some time since I have conjured anima myself. Not in this current guise, at least.”

“So what is your news?” he asked anxiously.

Rhea’s voice lowered. “It concerns our most recent Knight. During her immersion rite at the Holy Pool, both Catherine and Shamir reported to me that she had...visions. Of what truly happened at Zanado. Of the attack by the Traitor.”

Seteth felt himself go absolutely still. “She is Sainted?” he whispered finally.

Rhea seemed to glow with holy satisfaction. “More than that. Hanneman and Beatrix have discovered that she has a Crest. No, not just a Crest. The Crest, Seteth.”

Involuntarily, Seteth’s gaze was drawn to the symbol on Rhea’s shrine. “Mother’s--?”

“Yes, my dear brother. It may be, at long last, that our wait is at an end. She has been gone for so long from this world, but finally, our faith and prayers have been answered!”

“But...in the form of a human girl--? Raised outside the faith…!”

“Not just any girl. Jeralt and Glyasa’s daughter. That is why I begged for your assistance twenty years ago. Glyasa was Sainted as well, but had...difficulty...controlling the dreams and visions. Instead, she fell in love with my most trusted Knight-Captain, Jeralt Reus, who had been in my service for decades. He was a recipient of my blood, and it manifested in him a Major Crest of my Sign. It was a potent match that has borne fruitful.”

“But then Jeralt abandoned you, taking the child…” mused Seteth. Much of Rhea’s recent behavior was now making sense.

Motionless for a moment in her memories, Rhea eventually sighed in regret. “It was more that I abandoned Jeralt. He and I were close for many years, but as he grew older and his comrades around him grew old and died, he began to see our relationship as...one-sided. And I understood his plight, having endured it for myself, many times over. But he did not have our patience, our wisdom for such an existence.”

 “And we do?” asked Seteth bluntly, feeling the bitterness of ages sweep over him.

“What do you mean?” Rhea asked in surprise.

“Just this, Rhea. So much of what we have done, and what we are doing, rests on assumptions. Without Her guidance, we have done what we thought would be Her wishes. Now that we have a sign of Her Rebirth, in this woman Byleth...I still find myself apprehensive. Mother’s Crest of Flames is the Sign of Creation, of Rebirth. But it can also herald Destruction….”

“Of our enemies, Seteth,” said Rhea confidently, interrupting him. “Only our enemies, and the wicked sinners who have rejected our teachings. And that is why we must help teach Byleth, dear brother. We must bring Mother’s Divine Judgement to the forefront of her consciousness, and encourage her visions, her dreams. She is still asleep within her for now. But eventually, with our help, she will Awaken.”

Seteth felt uneasy with the fanatical light in Rhea’s eyes. He looked away from his sister and asked, “And what of Byleth’s soul?”

“It will be saved. She is still a Child of the Goddess, Seteth. Nothing that She creates can be destroyed.”

It was unusual for a religious leader of his stature to find blind faith repellent, but Seteth saw that he was not going to convince Rhea otherwise. Instead, he asked, “Are there any other signs or dreams that we know of concerning Knight Byleth?”

Rhea smiled. “She did call me Seiros.”

He tried to maintain his frown, but soon smiled as well at the memory of the young woman’s accolade. “A slip of the tongue, Rhea…”

His sister made a small pout. “I thought it was quite endearing, however. But, as for your question, the only other sign that I know of are her ears. The tops are slightly pointed. Not enough so that she has to hide them as we do. But it is a sign of Nabatean heritage coming from two humans, Seteth! That alone is a miracle.”

Seteth thought that could be interpreted as so much wishful thinking, if not for the evidence of the Crest itself. But that was not important now. Rhea was convinced on this course of action; it was his duty to see her will done. He clasped his hands in front of him and leaned forward. “So how do you intend to guide your young Knight going forward?” he asked.

“For the moment, we will simply observe. But later this Garland Moon I intend to take her to Zanado myself. Hopefully, there among the holy ruins, she might remember something of her previous incarnation.”

“So soon?” asked Seteth, surprised.

At last Rhea’s composure started cracking. Her pale face, normally so serene, finally revealed her deep seated anguish. “Seteth, please...we need Mother. Only she is capable of healing this land once again. As for myself…” Rhea hesitated, then reluctantly said, “I am...unworthy of being part of such a gift. The necessary tasks of maintaining the Church, of seeking for signs of Her throughout the centuries...they weigh upon my soul. When this is done...I think I will rest. It has been a long time since I have truly Slept.”

The High Abbot nodded. He and Flayn no longer needed the decade-long Dragonsleep, having voluntarily given up most of their ancient heritage, but it would be vital for Rhea to maintain it for her to stay in control of her divine blood. He cocked his head in curiosity. “How long, dear sister?”

The Archbishop of Fodlan adopted a guilty and evasive expression that only another sibling could detect. “Over a century,” she confessed ruefully.

*

Lysithea entered the dim library, pleased to see Ignatz at least was diligently reading a single book at one of the numerous desks, like a polite person. Claude, in contrast, was looking back and forth between an even dozen tomes, carelessly creasing pages and stacking fragile spines on top of one another without care for the condition of the volumes. Such behavior deserved only a reprimand, but Lysithea held her tongue for a moment as she realized the boys had set out the most important volume out on a seperate desk just for her...Ille Historiees Ofth Ille Empyre. The language was archaic and the spelling was atrocious, but it was a faithful copy of the original book, written by the founders of the Empire, tracing the events of the War of Heroes since the reign of Wilheim I. Indeed, this copy was ancient in its own right. 

She opened the massive book carefully with a light touch of her anima, scanning the pages quickly. She was not interested in descendants or cadet branches or cousins. Instead, there were brief biographies of each Saint and Elite, as well as Emperor Wilheim and other notables of that ancient, century long war that founded the Empire of Adrestia. Lysithea shuddered to think of how powerful the dark gods must have been for King Nemesis and Saint Seiros to have fought so long together, side by side, only for the King of Liberation turn at last to their dark whispers of possessing god-like power. What terror these ancient folk must have experienced…

“Oh, Lysithea! I didn’t even hear you come in,” said Claude after a while, scooting back from his chair to greet her.

“You weren’t supposed to,” she replied, not looking at him, absorbed in her reading of ancient Crest-bearers.

“Ouch. And here I was going to ask your intelligent opinion on something I found…”

“Stop bothering me, Claude. I’m reading,” she huffed, flipping through yet more brittle pages with her mind and magic. She studiously ignored him as he stood patiently nearby. She would not get annoyed by him, and his petty, childish ways. She was perfectly capable of ignoring him as he tried to outwait her. If he wanted to play stupid games, that was his problem, not hers. In fact, Claude was really quite foolish and immature, if you really thought about it, and nothing that her House Leader regarded as interesting could possibly be interesting to her. So she would just keep reading, even though she had just lost her place on this page numerous times…

Ugh. So be it. “Fine,” she sighed. “What did you want me to look at?”

“C’mon and I’ll show you,” he beckoned her. He was wisely not smiling at her. Lysithea smothered her irritation and followed him.

He pointed to a drawing in an open book before him, where he had been reading. It was a depiction of a sword.

“The Sword of the Creator,” nodded Lysithea in recognition. “King Nemesis’ weapon during the ancient wars. It vanished after his death, though.”

“Can you imagine it, though? A flaming sword that could carve mountains! I bet that made people stand up and pay attention,” Claude enthused, a gloved hand tracing the drawing. He was acting like a kid that wanted a particular doll for Saint Seiros Day.

“I can imagine,” drawled Lysithea, trying to clamp down on her impatience. “Why is this particularly relevant to what we were supposed to be doing?”

“It isn’t, but I noticed something odd. Look at the crosspiece and hilt of the sword.”

Frowning, she looked at the drawing again. The artistry was stylized and faded, but in the middle of the crosspiece… “It’s empty,” she realized, becoming intrigued despite herself.

“Isn’t that interesting? I thought Crest Stones were needed for the Relics to work. At least, that’s how my grandfather explained Failnaught to me.”

Lysithea nodded up to him. “They do. A Relic without the corresponding Crest Stone is just a hunk of bone. It’s incredibly dangerous and careless to handle a Relic that way, however, which is why nobody does it.”

“So let me see if I have it straight: without a Crest Stone, anyone could pick up a Relic, even if they didn’t have a Crest. Sure, it might not have its full power, but it’s still an indestructible weapon, right?

“In theory, yes. In practice, no noble family would be insane enough to do what you’re describing.”

“King Nemesis’ family did,” said Claude, tapping the page.

She crossed her arms. “Claude. King Nemesis has no descendants, so they probably all died in the war a thousand years ago, along with this sword, which also disappeared a thousand years ago. Don’t you think if someone had access to this Relic, they would have found it and used it by now? It’s simply another vanished treasure, and just a historical curiosity at this point. I guess you can use this knowledge for a trivia contest or something…”

“But maybe that’s just it!” he broke in excitedly. “Maybe the Relic and Crest stone were kept apart to keep the other Elite families from using the Sword, after the war. Right? I mean, according to legend, weren’t the ten Elites granted their power by the Goddess as well? Just the same way you or me could wield Thunderbrand if we had to.”

“Hmph. An interesting theory, but it’s just so much supposition about the motives of people forty generations removed from us, not to mention the Goddess herself. Try to think about poor Marianne first, Claude, before you start getting sidetracked by your own private projects. And clean up this mess while you’re at it,” she finally added with a wave to the pile of books, unable to resist any longer.

“Sure, sure,” winked Claude, his brown face rueful. As he started closing books and stacking them, he looked up suddenly, his eyes now serious and intent. “Wait. Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Lysithea demanded, tired of his teasing games. Then she shuddered as she heard a dusty floorboard give a squeaking groan behind her, just beyond the massive metal globe atlas in the center of the library. It was impossible, ghosts were NOT real, and there was nothing there, it was just Claude playing another foolish prank on her…

A groaning, ethereal voice echoed through the library in a long, moaning sigh.

Somehow, she found herself behind Claude, clutching his uniform as she huddled behind him. “There’s something here--!” she gasped, her voice rising in pitch.

“It’s the library’s resident ghost,” Claude said, folding his arms. “And here I thought the three of us were all alone here…”

A dim outline of a figure moved into the shadows beneath the globe. Lysithea squeezed her pink irises shut from the apparition, waiting for Claude’s screams to begin. At least he would die first when the vengeful revenant attacked them...

“Good evening. Quite an interesting discussion you two were having there,” said the ghost in a smooth tenor. 

A rustle of movement beside her. “Oh! It’s Linhardt! Um, a good evening to you too. Uh, Lysithea, why are you hiding under Claude’s cape?” said another young male voice near her, this one with a hint of a tremor.

“I was not hiding,” said Lysithea hurriedly, opening her eyes and moving over to the desk. “I’m busy doing research, that’s all.” She opened one of Claude’s stacked books and started flipping through it at random, refusing to look at any of the three boys.

Claude and Ignatz both withheld commentary about their classmate’s behavior, but Linhardt had no such compunctions. “I’m sure whatever you found underneath Claude’s cape was fascinating, Lysithea, if not broadly applicable. So, the three of you are here looking for a way to help your classmate? Extremely commendable behavior. Unfortunately,” said Lindhardt, pausing for another gaping yawn, “you’re wasting your time.”

“I don’t see it that way,” smiled Claude, but there was a glint in his eye. “Research is always its own reward, after all, right Linhardt? Besides, I wouldn’t wager against Lysithea when it comes to anything magical or Crest related…”

“That’s an interesting challenge to consider, but let’s table it for now. I can tell you exactly why Marianne is feeling the way she is, although that knowledge is less likely to help you than you might think.”

“Really?” said Ignatz, his face boyishly transparent. “I mean...you’ve just got to help us, Linhardt! Any bit of information that we can use to help her…”

“Well, you see that’s the problem. I’m curious about one other thing, and hopefully Claude can answer it for me. Without the usual games and evasion, of course,” said Linhardt, his face seeming blank and uninterested.

“Hah, that seems easy enough. Go ahead, Linhardt. Hit me with your best shot,” grinned Claude widely.

Linhardt smiled lazily in return. “Why are you here, Claude?”

“Um...that sounds like a really obvious and stupid question,” Claude said without faltering. “I mean, why are we all here? Probably because our parents...or grandparent, in my case...forced us to be here.”

Shaking his grass green mane, Linhardt stepped forward and wagged a finger. “Ah-ah-ha, Claude...I want an answer. Why. Are YOU. Here?” he asked, dragging out each syllable, still smiling.

“Well, as the future leader of the Alliance, I think a good military education is in order, don’t you?” Another glib reply.

“Ah, but you’re not just the future leader of the Alliance, now, are you?” Linhardt’s lazy smile turned a bit sinister. “You’re an Almyran with a Crest, Claude von Riegan. Come now...it really wasn’t that hard to put it together.”

Claude finally dropped his affable facade, his face becoming something grim and dangerous, as Lysithea noticed from her peripheral vision. She noted the return of something she had seen only rarely in her House Leader’s eyes. A flash of an attentive and vast intellect, hiding beneath the mask of a class clown. She had made her own conclusions weeks ago that Claude was more than he seemed, but had respected his need for privacy. Just as he had respected her own, despite all of his relentless teasing. Who knows what could lurk in someone’s past, after all, she thought with a grimace of bitter empathy.

Unfortunately, it seemed that Linhardt had made the same conclusions about Claude. Which meant the Empire would soon know as well.

Her House Leader was struggling with this impasse, she saw, from his pursed lips and clenched jaw. Lysithea felt another flash of empathy. He wanted to be a good person, but also was afraid of exposing himself and his secrets. But maybe there was a way to accomplish both.

She set the book she had pretended to read down with a thump, and walked in front of the chagrined Claude and timidly observant Ignatz, while turning her back on the smug expression of Linhardt. She sighed dramatically for the benefit of the Black Eagle and said to her House Leader, “Claude...we don’t have any choice, do we? We need any help for Marianne that we can get. I think you just need to go ahead and tell Linhardt everything.” As she finished her artfully reluctant speech, she looked into Claude’s eyes and deliberately winked, hoping he would get the message, then turned to face Linhardt with the boys.

Claude sighed gustily behind her. She carefully watched Linhardt as Claude said, “Ok, fine, Linhardt, you got me. I’m the Prince of Almyra.”

“Aha! I was right,” smirked Linhardt. His gaze turned condescending. “There now, see? That wasn’t so bad. And since you showed me yours, I’ll show you mine. Marianne has the Crest of the Erased Hero. The Crest of the Beast--”

“Xyl’rup!” shouted Lysithea abruptly, concentrating very hard on the dual power sources within her, flinging forward a small wrist towards Linhardt’s face. The candles and lanterns of the library nearly went out as a smoking darkness condensed in the air before her pale hand and entered the surprised Empire noble’s nostrils, ears, and mouth. He tried to briefly fight against it, but the magical attack was too strong and too sudden. Linhardt collapsed to the ground as the windy darkness swirled away, the lights slowly brightening against the unnatural blackness.

“L-lysithea! Y-you killed him!” Ignatz whispered in horror. He looked visibly sick.

Claude had already stepped forward past her, quickly kneeling down to check on the fallen Linhardt. He smiled as he looked up at his classmates. “Actually, aside from the bruises he might have when he fell, he’s just asleep, Iggy. Nice moves, Lysithea, but won’t he remember our little chat?”

“That spell includes a brief disorientation,” Lysithea explained, waving at the snoring Linhardt. “I think if we put him back at his desk, the monks will catch him in here asleep again. He’ll be too busy being mad over getting extra physical training tomorrow for him to remember this as anything more than a dream.”

“You sly little…” Claude stopped himself, fortunately for his own sake, and grinned up at her. “Thanks. I’m glad I trusted you.”

Lysithea didn’t bother smiling in return, and turned to their classmate. “Ignatz, put down the book and help Claude get him into his chair. No, not on the floor, Ignatz, on a desk, like a normal person. Do I have to tell you how to do everything?”

With multiple apologies from Ignatz and some soft grunting from Claude, a rumpled and dishealved Linhardt was put back at his desk in the far corner of the library. The trio stepped back to examine their handiwork.

“Well, at least he’s in a somewhat normal position. He won’t wake for hours, and by that time, it will be morning,” announced Lysithea. “Now we can clean up and go to bed ourselves.”

Claude was eyeing both Lysithea and Ignatz from the shadows of the globe. “Um. Listen guys, about what I said…”

Lysithea folded her small arms and shrugged back at Claude. “It doesn’t matter to me where you’re from, Claude. I really don’t care what your title is or what scheme you’re up to...as long as it doesn’t threaten my family’s well-being.”

“I believe that, and you have my word I won’t let anything harm House Ordelia,” the self-confessed Prince nodded, and then both of them looked at a nervous Ignatz.

“Um...is it really true, Claude?” the young man asked shyly. He was sweating beneath his uniform, and his blonde hair was damp.

Claude nodded slowly, and stepped further into the light, so Ignatz could see his face. “Hey, it’s still me, Iggy. Claude von Riegan. Although the “von Riegan” bit is my mother’s surname, and "Claude" is a bit of...translation. My real name is Khalid al-Malik. My father is Aharon al-Malik, the King of Almyra.”

“Whoa...a Prince in disguise...really?” whispered Ignatz. He was getting lost in the romance of it all. Lysithea forbade to roll her eyes at his childish behavior.

“Yes, in disguise, but not for any particularly sinister reason,” explained Claude with reluctance, running a hand through his dark hair. “My mom was outraged when she heard about her brother’s death. My grandfather desperately needed an heir to secure House Riegan’s position as the head of the Alliance. My father thought it was a good idea to get intelligence on a foreign adversary. And...truth be told, I was simply glad for any excuse just to get out of Derbend. The climate there was becoming rather...poisonous, one might say.”

“Noble intrigue is the same the world over,” sneered Lysithea, shaking her white hair.

“So I’ve learned,” grimaced Claude sourly. “Imagine me, thinking Fodlan would welcome me with open arms, just because I have a Crest of Riegan, after all the crap I had to deal with in Almyra. Nope! To the Gloucesters, Hresvelgs, Aegirs, and Fraldariuses of Fodlan, I’m still just a half-breed outcast, just on the other side. Some of them are all right, like Dimitri and Hilda. I might be able to make progress with one or two of the others, but as far as I’m concerned, most of the nobles in Fodlan are just as crazy as the ones in Almyra.”

Ignatz visibly swallowed, then took a step forward. “Claude...I swear to the Goddess that I’ll keep your secret! You’re a good noble, and a good person at heart. I’m like Lysithea...I don’t care where you come from. You’ve always treated everyone in our class as fairly as you could. E-even me,” he said, his eyes shining behind his glasses. “And I’m proud to know you. Proud to follow you.”

“That’s enough, Ignatz. You don’t need to marry him just to keep a secret,” snarked Lysithea in reproach. She looked back at Claude, watching him brush his eyes for a moment in surprise. That was careless of her. Of course something like that would mean so much to Claude. Now she felt foolish...and a bit childish, she admitted privately to herself. “Claude...I’m sorry. To both of you. That was mean of me to say. And of course your secret is safe with us. But if Linhardt can figure it out in a month or two, it obviously can’t stay secret for long, can it?”

Her House Leader made an unattractive groaning noise, and said, “I’m aware of the color of my skin, Lysithea. I was just hoping I could pass it off like Lady Judith of House Daphnel. Fodlan and Almyran nobles do occasionally mingle, you know. But...I’ll admit, I’m not sure how widely known my mom’s existence as Queen of Almyra is here in Fodlan.” He glanced over at the sleeping LInhardt. “I should have known that the son of the Imperial Minister of Domestic Affairs would be able to put it together. Despite objections from the nationalists on both sides, the Empire still does quite a bit of trading with Almyra. If a single merchant or smuggler knows about the ‘White Queen of Almyra’, and here I am bearing a Crest of Riegan, and my grandfather only had two legitimate Crest-bearing children….” There was one more sigh and a shake of his head, but then he looked up to both of his classmates and grinned. “It actually does feel good to tell someone, though. But please, let’s not let it become common knowledge for as long as possible. I might get into a bit of trouble.”

Lysithea tried to maintain her serious demeanor, but she started chuckling at her House Leader’s words. “Claude, only you would consider being a secret Almyran Prince in the middle of a Fodlan military academy just ‘a bit of trouble,’” she giggled.

All three of them laughed a bit at that, and they started clearing the desks and putting books back on the shelves. The task was quickly done and soon they were standing at the entrance of the library.

“So...Lysithea...um, what did Linhardt mean about a Missing Hero?” asked Ignatz.

“Erased Hero, you mean,” she primly corrected the older boy. “But yes, that means Marianne has the Crest of Maurice. Unlike nearly every other Crest, this one is despised rather than celebrated when it manifests itself. It makes perfect sense she would think of it as a curse.”

“Wait, really? I’ve never heard about this Crest. Why is it a secret?” wondered Claude, his face intensely curious.

“Because the bearer of Maurice's Crest is said to transform into a hideous monster, one that feasts upon the blood of innocents to sate its endless hunger. Maurice was said to be the first Elite to fall to darkness, and Nemesis and the other Elites cast him out for his crimes, not knowing they would soon be corrupted as well. So there’s a lot of superstition here in Fodlan about that Crest that goes back centuries.” Lysithea paused in her lecture to shake her head in disgust. “I’ve read that entire families were burned at the stake by frightened peasants or rabble-rousing witch hunters. Husbands would kill their wives, and mothers would kill their own children if they suspected that they had the blood of the Beast Crest. I hope the grotesque irony is not lost upon you two.”

“Oh...I see. That’s why Marianne thinks she’s responsible for anything tragic that happens. She believes she’s the bearer of a curse, in the form of her own Crest,” said Ignatz in realization, biting his lip.

“And that’s why Linhardt was snidely hinting that knowing this information wouldn’t help. Because we either have to cure everyone else of their stupid religious superstition, or convince Marianne that she’s really not cursed despite her own Crest, which she can’t do anything about,” said Claude grimly, looking back into the shadows of the library where the Black Eagle was sleeping. He shook his head. “What a complete asshole.”

*

Chapter Text

Ch 18

Dreams and Schemes

They discovered Marianne in her room that morning. Trips was inconsolable, along with Hilda and Mercedes. Many of the other students, male and female alike, were in tears. Catherine, Shamir, and Byleth were summoned out of bed to cut Marianne’s body down, while Jeralt, Seteth, and Alois attempted to calm the students.

Even the brash Catherine was subdued, as she shoved the writing desk over near the corpse where she could stand and cut the sheet from where it had been tied. The chandelier had fallen; Marianne must have tried to hang herself from that first, before switching to the beam. It may have made a noise during the middle of the night, but everyone in the dorms had slept through it. No one had noticed.

Stop it.

Byleth stoically grabbed one of Marianne’s cool thighs, with Shamir grasping the other one. Catherine swung Thunderbrand and the bedsheet ripped. The other two women quickly eased the stiffening body to the ground. Byleth ignored the moisture and stench on her hands that she felt through Marianne’s uniform. Ignoring the black face with the bulging red eyes and dark tongue, of what had been a sweet and handsome young woman just a few hours earlier, was a little harder.

This didn’t happen. Stop it. Stop it NOW.

Shamir quickly moved part of the white bedsheet over the bloated face, and Catherine jumped down from the desk to stand by her partner. Wordlessly, she put a hand on Shamir’s shoulder where she knelt. Shamir placed her white knuckled hand on Catherine’s, still staring at the body, her face pale and her lips tight.

Byleth rose from Marianne’s side and stared at her hands. They were dirty, and she had to wash them. Even though Marianne was dead, you still had to do certain things. LIke washing your hands. She silently moved over to the dead girl’s washbasin. There was still water, fresh pure water, in there.

As she put her hands into the basin, the water changed to blood. Her hands were vivid red, dripping with iron wetness. They were drenched up to and past her wrists, with the viscous liquid flowing like waterfalls down her elbows.

“There you are, you bitch,” snarled a voice behind her.

She turned. Marianne, Shamir, and Catherine were gone. Garreg Mach was gone. Instead, a motley band of pirates, poachers, renegades, and bandits stood in their place. There were dozens, maybe even hundreds. The bandit leader from Remire that had attacked Edelgard, his ugly face smiling widely, stood at the front of the mob as their spokesman.

“Finally awake, you stupid cow? Look at the cute little mercenary cunt, all grown up to be a nice and pure Knight. Still proud of the way you cut us down? You finally got to kill people like us, just like daddy. You’d do anything to be daddy’s little girl, right? Including murdering all of us.”

Byleth ignored the crowd, ignored the blood. She glared at the ugly bandit. “It was war, you shitstain. I’m not responsible for the choices you made. For the lives you chose to lead.”

The bandit turned uglier, and meaner, if that was possible. “Oh no?” he chortled nastily. “You hear that boys!? We’ve got a fucking philosopher here. She’s not responsible for killing us!” A cacophony of hellish laughter rose up, as each man--as well as a few women--cackled and shrieked with mirth. All directed at Byleth. It was infuriating. It was deafening. She gritted her teeth through it all, refusing to cover her ears. She could take this. She could take anything they dished out.

A straw haired man in peasant clothing stepped forward, his chest still pumping blood. “My children were starving. I had to poach deer in m’Lord’s Forest. Otherwise my children would have starved. But you ran me through, even though I didn’t even aim an arrow at you. Why?” Byleth’s throat turned dry, and it was hard to breathe now. She had no answer.

Stop. It was weaker now, more plaintive.

A red haired woman stumped forward from the press. She looked ill-used, ill-treated, yet still held a stiletto in her hand. Her throat was cut, yet her voice was still clear. “I was jus’ a slave girl that the pirates captured. I’d with the band since I was fourteen. They started treating me nicer when I stopped fightin’ back, stopped bitn’, and started givin’ me jewelry and things. Pretties for their pretty, they said. Then one day they told me to arm myself and fight back against those mercenary bastards, so I did. Maybe you could’ve freed me. Maybe we could’ve been friends. Guess we’ll never know now, right luv?” She spat blood on the ground before Byleth.

She attacked me. She tried to stab me so I killed her. It’s not my fault. A weaker voice. It wasn’t her fault...

“That’s right,” the bandit leader crooned, watching how the accusations affected Byleth. “You’re not responsible for what you did to us, right? You fucking Ashen Demon!”

“NO!” Byleth shouted in pure denial at the screams and the laughter, squeezing her eyes shut, turning away, wishing everything away. She could do it...she had done it before…

It worked. The dead were gone when she at last opened her eyes. She was alone in a grassy field, and the sun shone gently down upon her. There was still misty fog swirling around copses of trees and the occasional odd hummocks, but there was no one amidst the slowly rolling hills and sparse forest in every cardinal direction.

She wandered aimlessly through the warm field, feeling the grasses tickle her legs and hands. Insects scattered before her path, as well as the occasional small mammal. She looked behind her to see her trail clearly marked, a winding, half-straight path through the grass, her feet breaking stalks and bending shoots as she walked forward.

She continued through the field, wondering what was happening, why she was here, when she finally rose to the top of a slight gradient and looked below her.

Five figures awaited her in the field, each standing several yards apart from one another. They had made trails in the heath as well, although almost all of them were stained with red. She made her way to the nearest one, then started in shock as she drew closer.

It was herself, but...older. More sure, more confident, dressed in the shining and gleaming heavy white plate of the Church, complete with a white but bloodstained cape, with a bright red symbol of the Church of Seiros on the back. The not-Byleth gave a roguish smirk through a scarred face that was worthy of Catherine. “Hey, loser. Glad you could finally make it.”

Byleth felt only confusion at being addressed by herself. “Who...who are you?”

The Holy Knight laughed loudly. “Goddess, I can’t believe I was this slow only a few years ago. I’m you, you stupid...um, girl. Ha! It’s weird, having to talk to my younger, more innocent self. And I’m trying to be the nice one here. But you are what I was before I sided with Seteth and Lady Rhea. Before I decided to cut down anyone who disagreed with the Will of the Goddess. The secrets of the Nabateans had to be protected. Since I was Nabatean myself, it was only logical I side with them.”

“What’s a Nabatean?”

The smirk turned into a savage grin. “You’ll find out. Now, I’m done with you. I made my choices. I don’t regret any of them. Dimitri? He was long gone. He had to die. Claude? A cheat and a liar, who fled at the first sign that he would personally lose, after sacrificing the lives of every one of his ‘friends’ first. And Edelgard...she was simply riding out her death wish. I just happened to be conveniently nearby.”

Byleth turned from the not-Byleth, feeling ill. She ignored the mocking, sardonic laughter behind her. That was not her. She stumbled forward blindly, tears rising unbidden in her eyes….

“That’s enough,” said another version of herself who intercepted her, this one in red and black armor, looking as deadly as an elegant scorpion. The red caped Byleth nodded to her with her heart in her eyes. “I understand. It’s hard to confront, but we have to make our own choices in this world. We have to do right by those who trust us. Who love us.”

She could not help but lean against the older woman. She seemed confident, and self-assured. She seemed approachable and likable. Yet as Byleth clutched her, the other woman continued speaking.

“We had to do it. Once we found out everything was a lie...everything...we had no choice. She wasn’t even human. And she had...done things...to us. Things that Trips knew, and Dad knew, but they died before they could tell us...but we saved Edelgard, Byleth. We at least saved her. And by saving her, we saved ourselves. And the rest of humanity.”

“What?” gasped Byleth, looking up at her own face, gazing down on her with deep empathy. She was horrified and revolted by the thought of her parents dying. Even if she was with Edelgard...the thought of a future without her father and stepmother repulsed her. She rejected that thought. Rejected it utterly.

Stepping back from the red-black Byleth in horror, she bumped into a third version of herself. This one wearing blue and white armor, clearly magical in the way it hugged tightly against the not-Byleth’s body, completely with a heavy white cape and broad blue pauldrons.

“You’ll see,” said this new Byleth, her older voice grim and angry, her face turned away. “He had been through so much, sacrificed so much, and yet they still tortured him and abused him. And he didn’t deserve it. Any of it. And we were willing to do anything to ease his pain. To bring him back from the edge. Even if it meant betraying...her,” the third older Byleth grated, swiveling her head to face her directly. Byleth cried out as she saw this version was blind in the right eye. Angry red scar tissue covered the socket completely. But that lone left eye seized both of her own easily. “Trust no one, Byleth. Even yourself. Especially yourself,” the blue Knight said darkly.

The version of herself had nothing more to say to her, and settled back into desolation as soon as she stepped away. Twisting around, she saw a fourth doppelganger, this one clad in jaunty yellow and black uniform armor. The figure waved as she approached through the grass.

“Hey,” the fourth older not-Byleth said, smiling easily and with some sympathy. “I’m sorry you had to go through all of that. Those three tend to not be very fair.”

“And you are?” asked Byleth thickly.

“Well, you could say I’m just a tit-for-tat girl,” said the fourth Byleth, her voice carefree. “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine. It’s an attitude that suited a mercenary such as ourselves. We were never cut out to be a Knight. He helped us realize that.”

Byleth felt she knew who he was. “So what are you now?”

“Eh, I dunno. I was just a merc with a knack for battle, but somehow he put me up as the Archbishop of Fodlan? ArchQueen? Empress? I don’t know. I can’t remember. But he promised that he’ll come back for me. We trust him enough to wait for that. He’s a nice guy, a good guy. And he always comes through, one way or another.”

“After killing everyone else,” said Byleth suspiciously to her counterpart. “Even Edelgard.”

The fourth not-Byleth shrugged and looked regretful. “Edelgard had problems. That’s the thing about relationships. You know someone has problems, and you think you can help them out. To help them change for the better. But sometimes people don’t want to grow. They don’t want to let go of the past. They fixate on something they think will change their past, or change themselves. But you don’t have to live life shouldering the burdens other people heap on you. He helped me realize that, and saw what a bad place I was in, when everyone started fighting over me. He told me what I had to do to break out of the cycle, and live for myself, not anyone else. So he’ll be here. Any day now. I trust him with my life,” said the yellow and black Byleth, her voice shining with confidence.

“No,” growled Byleth at this fourth version of herself, but the figure ignored her after that, staring into the distance. All four versions of her were looking into the afternoon sun at the horizon, waiting for someone to join them on the paths they had tread. She closed her eyes, trying to ignore the grass, the sounds of the field. This was a dream. It had to be a dream. She was in bed, and she needed to wake up.

A hand squeezed her shoulder in a familiar fashion. A murmur of reassurance, as well as robes and the familiar grain pattern of a white staff enveloping her, hugging her. Sensations she had known since childhood, but she had never known how much she needed them, and how much she had missed them.

Trips. Somehow, impossibly, her mother was here with her. Byleth felt herself collapse, her limbs weak from the storm of accusations, of revelations. This was too much, and she needed her mother.

The arms held her up, stopping her from falling. They held her even as the tears came, hot and shameful and dirty down her face. Byleth coughed and gasped for air, just finally glad for the release, at last giving voice to the terrible things inside of her. Even as she cried, her mother held her through it all.

Somehow, time passed in this dream world, and Byleth eventually calmed herself enough to feel the brush of a strand of long hair against her head. She opened her eyes, surprised, seeing a bright green strand in front of her nose. Curious, she drew back to look at the figure that held her.

It wasn’t Trips, but was another version of her, with bright green hair the color of spring. This one was dressed in white robes, and held Trips’ staff in her hand. She smiled down at Byleth, her face full of tenderness.

And then one bright green eyebrow quirked up, all on its own.

Byleth laughed at that expression, smiling through her tears. She wiped her face and looked at the figure before her fully. “You appear different from the others.”

The green haired Byleth in white nodded and leaned on the staff.

She tilted her head at this counterpart. “So you’re not going to talk? Or tell me what the future holds? Of who lives or who dies?”

White shoulders shrugged, although this Byleth held a small, secretive smile on her face.

Looking behind her, she saw that all of the other versions of herself were still gazing into the distance, with each one of them still having her own dark blue hair, some of them having it tied in a long ponytail down their armoured backs....

She turned back to the white robed Byleth holding Trips’ white staff, examining her more closely in the golden sunlight of the field. “You’re not a fighter,” she said slowly. “You’re a healer.”

The fifth Byleth smiled widely and nodded.

“And you? Are you waiting for anyone?”

The healer-Byleth shook her head and vivid green hair, then appeared to reconsider. She smiled again and pointed to Byleth.

“I don’t understand…”

At that the healer Byleth suddenly threw up her hands, tossing the white staff behind her. “That’s it,” it said in Sothis’ childish voice. “I give up for now. You’re obviously not ready yet. Honestly! This is just getting sad at this point…”

*

Byleth awoke with a gasp, her blanket and mattress damp with sweat, her skull aching. The morning sun was shining dimly through her small stone open air window.

A dream. Or a vision? She wasn’t sure what it had been, other than it had been strong and powerful. She still felt sad and angry from it, as well as confused. She also felt, for the first time in her life, fear. She was afraid of confronting those sights again, of seeing Marianne’s dead face, of confronting all of the dead souls of the people she had killed, or especially seeing herself as callous and indifferent to it all.

For once, she could not blame Sothis for this dream. The alternative versions of herself were too real, too familiar. She could feel each of them within her, as if they were waiting for the proper moment to assert dominance over her body and mind. The bloodthirsty crusader. The devoted protector. The scarred martyr. The cagey mercenary.

And then there was a different one...

Marianne. Another stab of the unreasoning fear went through her. She had to get up. She had to get dressed. She had to check for herself. Byleth tossed aside her blanket and arose from the bed.

*

Marianne woke up still feeling sad. She still felt like something was missing inside of her, which made her feel numb and incomplete. But at least she knew she wasn’t alone in the world now. Somehow, that made all the difference today.

Lorenz and Leonie had brought her her books, as well as an encouraging note from Professor Jeralt. They were nice and pleasant, if overly talkative, before leaving for classes. But the note had been surprising. The Professor had written that the hardest victory to have was the one over yourself. But if you managed to do that, everything else became easy. Marianne thought she understood his meaning, and wondered if the Professor could understand her in the same way Prince Dimitri did. Maybe she could tell them the truth. Eventually.

She was allowed to get up and move about as she wanted, but was not allowed to leave the students’ infirmary. That was fine. There was hardly anyone else here, except for Felix, the Knight watching her and a monastery nun in the role of nurse. They were polite enough to ignore her, and she avoided them in return. She didn’t want to talk to a friend of Prince Dimitri’s, anyway, after what had happened last night.

Instead, she sat by the window, occasionally watching the sun rise while she read from her magical textbook. She had always had a talent for anima and healing. Marianne had always felt happy at the times she had been able to heal a horse with thrush or lameness, or banish the worms and parasites away from the doggies and kitties. She could swear that the animals knew that she was responsible for making them feel better, and appreciated her for who she was. They loved her because she helped them, and rubbed against her without words, without judgement. They accepted her without question. It was so easy to understand, and to feel love for them in return.

People were harder, though. Sometimes people said one thing, but did another. She didn’t like that, or the way people communicated with each other, with looks and glances or faces that went by too fast for her to keep up. Looking at their faces, full of weird things, just made her sad and uncomfortable, because she couldn’t think of any way to respond. It was much easier to avoid them, or simply talk to the Goddess. Talking to the Goddess was easy, because she imagined that the Goddess was a beautiful white horse, strong and proud, but also loving and kind. She had gentle black eyes that you could just look at and know, without any of the confusion. The Goddess just knew, and just loved. That was so comforting. 

But now she realized Prince Dimitri was like that too. Once he stopped talking like a Prince, that is. Then his face was without the noble games, or other masked emotions. He was just like an animal. You could know what he was feeling just by looking at his face. He talked only to you, without looking at other people. He also felt things, and you knew he was truly feeling them. It was reassuring to Marianne to know that there was someone like that. She realized with a bit of surprise that she was looking forward to stable duty today. She reminded herself that she would have to reassure Dorte and the others that she was not sick. Her animal friends could sense it when she was feeling too sad.

The door behind her opened and closed, but Marianne ignored it, feeling content to daydream about meeting the horses and pegasi this afternoon. She didn’t want to talk to a person at this moment. The intruder apparently sensed her mood, as she merely heard a rustle and the metallic song of armor behind her. Another Knight must be here to fuss over her, but Marianne knew better. The monks and nuns were kind, but the Knights had no patience for her now. She didn’t even have to look up to see their faces, because the contempt they radiated for her was obvious in their voices. Marianne supposed it was only natural when someone was confronted with such a burden like herself, a spoiled noblewoman who couldn’t even decide whether she wanted to live or die.

She tried to concentrate back on her textbook, but it was impossible with this rude Knight simply standing behind her, saying nothing. The sun rose even higher in the sky, until it was fully past the window. She would have to ask this person to leave her alone, but she was good at that, at least. It consisted of the majority of her verbal experience in recent years.

Marianne closed her textbook and got up, but was surprised to see who was behind her. Knight Byleth was standing behind her, tall and powerful in her white mail armor. She usually looked so proud, so strong. But now even her face was showing concern for her. This is all that I do, Marianne thought in despair. Even the strongest and best of the Church are being brought down by my curse. Oh Goddess, please guide me…

“Excuse me, Knight Byleth. Did you want something?” she mouthed in a barely audible voice.

A nod from the Knight. “I wanted to spend time with you. And maybe talk, if you feel like it.” She waved her hand in the direction of Marianne’s partition in the infirmary. The stool next to it was empty. “I relieved the other Knight, so it’s just you and me.”

“Um. I’m sorry. But I don’t know if I feel like talking. I’m not very good at it,” Marianne whispered in a pleading explanation.

Another nod. “I’m not either. Maybe I can try talking first, and you can listen to me?”

“Just...listen?” Marianne looked up, surprised. “I don’t have to respond?”

Byleth’s shoulders clanked in a shrug. “Not if you don’t want to.”

This was too much. Marianne looked to the floor again. “You shouldn’t bother. I’m nothing but trouble. To anyone who gets close to me.”

A pause. “Does that include the horses? And the birds? What did you call them...nutpatches?”

“Nuthatches,” Marianne corrected automatically, slighting raising her voice. But that was silly enough that a small laugh escaped her. She immediately regretted it. “Oh, um. Lady Byleth. I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”

“I’m not offended. It was my mistake,” said Byleth, waving vaguely to the chair. “Mind if I sit next to you?”

“Err...ok.” To her surprise, the Knight stepped past her and settled on the floor, lounging against the wall opposite Marianne’s chair, unmindful of her clean white cloak on the stone floor of the infirmary. What a strange woman. Marianne sat down in her chair, her inborn noble posture unconsciously perfect, her textbook in her lap.

“What do you want me to talk about?” asked Byleth.

This was becoming rather overwhelming for Marianne, but she tried to play along. It wasn’t like she could run away. “Um. I don’t know. Anything you want.”

“Ok. I know you like horses. Maybe I can tell you how my Dad got me Canis? My horse?”

“Oh! Um. Yes, I would like to hear about that. She’s very strong and beautiful, but so well-tempered…” answered Marianne in a stronger voice, pleased with the topic.

Byleth smiled up at Marianne. “She is special, isn’t she? I guess you could say she was my eighteenth birthday present. We had just finished fighting another merc company in Gloucester territory…”

*

Manuela and Trips used the mid-afternoon break between classes and training as an opportunity to check on their charges. Both were still anxious about Marianne, not to mention eager to rid the infirmary of Felix’s dyspeptic personality. But what they found surprised them.

A monastery priestess and Flayn stood at the door of the infirmary. The young girl’s face was enchanted under her green curls. The other woman’s face was more guarded, but she motioned for silence to the two physicians as they approached and looked past the door.

Marianne was having an animated discussion with Byleth, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor. “...most pegasi are hard keepers. Their diet has to be strictly monitored when stabled, or they quickly get colic and can no longer take flight. They’re very sad and vulnerable in such a state.”

Byleth nodded and said, “But don’t they need less water than most horses?”

“Oh! Only if they’re allowed to fly every day, and if the area isn’t too dry. They can find water much more easily than horses, since they have a much wider range. They can also dive through the clouds, and drink some water that way, you know.”

“Huh. I guess that makes sense…”

Most poets and minstrels sang wistfully or enviously of the time of childhood, bemoaning the loss of the childlike state of continual wonder of youth. Trips’ counterargument to such longing was that the wonder of a child was nothing compared to the wonder of a parent. Of rediscovering hope in the midst of loss. Of a future within failure. Of finding in something so mundane, so defiant, so stubborn...there was something inestimably precious. The sight of Byleth effortlessly speaking with an effusive Marianne was making Trips struggle to stay silent, even as tears started running freely down her face. The other women studiously ignored her vulnerability, but the strange child Flayn was soon looking up at her. Trips could not acknowledge her until the aberrant teen reached up and rested a small hand upon her own, covering the weathered skin and veins. She looked down into a pale face and mass of green hair.

“I would tell you that your daughter is very special. But I can see you already know that,” whispered the smiling child, patting her hand kindly.

Beatrix could only nod to her. Yes. I know.

*

“Now exhale. Slowly,” instructed Shamir, looking at the painted circle in the straw dummy.

The archer attempted to do so, and released the bowstring. The arrow sped into its target.

“Nice shot!” complimented Leonie. A whistle of admiration came from Caspar, along with exclamations from Petra and Ashe.

“Wow...I did it!” glowed Cyril, his face shining as he lowered his bow.

“You did. Just remember that’s just one shot. The next hundred could miss completely. Keep it up. The rest of you get back to practicing,” ordered the pale archer, glaring at the gathered crowd. The knot of students moved back into their appropriate lanes for archery training.

Shamir looked over her charges with a critical eye, with most cadets adjusting their stance or grips properly with a glance of disapproval. Caspar required a verbal reminder, but his tenacity shone through as he continually improved in increments. That was fine. Everyone was different. Shamir noticed some lanes were empty; Bernadetta was not attending, of course, but also the majority of the Golden Deer, aside from Leonie. Ah, they wanted to support their emotionally fragile teammate this afternoon, Shamir reminded herself. That was fine too. Some people weren’t cut out for this life. Noblewomen especially. Although Fodlanders went on and on about their Crests, about what they could do or how powerful they were with their precious ‘blessings from the Goddess,’ without the proper mindset, a Crest was just so much untapped potential, just like anything else. Letting the sad little girl play with her ponies was the obvious solution.

A shift in air currents on the training grounds and a slight hint of forest and woodsmoke alerted her to a presence behind her. “Here to train with the rest of the students?” she asked casually, not looking behind her.

A dramatic sigh, then a deep voice intoned. “I see my stealth skills need work, so yes, it appears so.” Zarad stepped up beside her, observing the practice. “Although watching a Dagdan train an Almyran was interesting in itself.”

Shamir shrugged carelessly. “Kid’s got potential. I made him train with a stick with string for a month before I let him hold a bow.”

“And he put up with that?” Zarad raised his brows.

“Ye Gods no. He whined nearly daily about it. But I had to know if he was serious.”

Zarad grinned down at her. “Maybe you wanted to know if you were serious, as well.”

“Maybe,” Shamir allowed with a small smile. “Teaching at Garreg Mach has been more rewarding than I thought it would be. Although the pay could be better.”

“Ah, yes, that reminds me. The men have been grumbling for their reward for saving the royals. Extra work and toil and duty is fine for the Captain, Beatrix, and Byleth, but the rest of the men and I require sustenance beyond the spiritual.”

“I think Seteth is working on it. Soliciting ‘donations’ from the nobility and faithful requires time. I also believe he’s trying hard to hide just how bad the attack was from the nobles. Which makes sense.” Shamir raised her voice to bark at a cadet. “Caspar! Use your back, not just your arm, when you draw! Hold for a moment, then loose!”

“How long is a moment?” snarked back Caspar in irritation.

“Long enough for your eye to reacquire the target. Petra, help him.”

“What?! She’s younger than me!”

“And ten times better than you. Also, are you really talking back to me?” At Shamir’s cool inquiry, Caspar’s grumbling slowly ceased with the attentive encouragement of his classmate. Finally satisfied she had a moment, she turned and nodded up to the tall Almyran, who nodded back to her. He plainly wanted something, and she said abruptly, “Let’s speak behind the pillar.” Without waiting for a reaction, she strode a short distance away from the students behind the large stone support columns of the sandy training arena.

Zarad silently joined her a step behind her, but not so close as to be threatening in the shadow of the afternoon sun. He also pleasantly wasted no time on social niceties as soon as they were speaking out of earshot of the students. “I wish to beg a favor of you. In return, perhaps I can aid you in your search for the enemy that has infiltrated your employer.”

“I’m listening,” said Shamir, her face composed.

“You must tell me of your observations of Byleth. Ever since we came to this fairy castle, her demeanor has changed. We wish to know the reason why.”

Shmair snorted to herself. Was that all? Bluntly, she replied, “She’s growing up, being apart from you. Don’t take this wrong, but I think you people have been smothering her. I can tell how overprotective all three of you are about her.”

The Almyran grimaced within the shadows of the pillar. “We felt it necessary. She can be very...innocent, at times. But the world is not kind to such people.”

“Oh please,” said Shamir, exasperated. “She’s a Knight of Seiros now, and more capable than you think. The sooner she gets rid of any such innocence, the better off she’ll be.”

“She has a Crest,” said Zarad, his voice a low whisper.

That gave Shamir pause. Now she knew where the other mercenary was trying to lead her. Thinking of Byleth as another silly soft Fodlan noblewoman made her feel mournful for the waste of such raw talent. Hazarding a guess, she said, “She’s nobility?”

The man spread his hands helplessly. “I do not know. I can only repeat what my Captain has told me. It was discovered by the Blue Lion professor using his magical tools. But there is intrigue now concerning my young friend. I do not like it. I do not think she, or my Captain, are in positions to deal with it. So I must approach you, who can see situations...practically.”

Bowing her head, Shamir thought it through. This would take time, she quickly realized. The other Knights, and Rhea and Seteth, would not appreciate her sharing intelligence of one of their own with an Almyran, even if he was working for the Church of Seiros. But looking at him, gazing at her as frankly as she regarded him, Shamir decided he truly was as he seemed; a concerned friend who needed assistance from a fellow outsider. And although Byleth could be strange at times, Shamir admitted to herself she liked the young Knight. She was an interesting person.

Now if she could only pull this off without Catherine finding out…

Decided, Shamir gave another quick nod. “I can get you what you want. But you’re right, I’m going to need something in return. More than just a vague promise to help.”

The man’s lips quirked up. “Something to know if I am serious?”

She smiled in return. It was nice to finally deal with a fellow mercenary in this strange religious culture. “Something like that.”

*

Sylvain wiped his brow, trying to keep sweat away from his eyes. He wished he could take off his woolen uniform jacket, but His Highness and Dedue were being excessively formal today, with Catherine and Professor Hanneman observing them. No logical argument he could think of made any sort of impression upon the Prince and his huge man-bear of a retainer; even the innocent protest that they could take their jackets off, train, then put them back on after they were done with training earned him extra scowls.

“You need a break?” Ingrid cooly inquired at him, her ponytail tied into a topknot to keep it out of her eyes. If she was fatigued at all it did not show in her stance, her wooden stave still held in ready position before him. Nearby, Dedue was still grappling with Prince Dimitri. It was a credit to the large man that he was the only one in the class who approached the more slender Prince in terms of strength. Across the Knights’ training hall, Catherine was instructing Mercedes and Annette on their swordplay, while Professor Hanneman sat nearby, murmuring notes to a magical quill that wrote them into a nearby booklet.

Desperate for distraction, as well as unwilling to admit to his childhood playmate that he was indeed out of shape, Sylvain looked around and saw a familiar figure in the entryway. Felix was scowling himself, and walking with a shade of stiffness in a loosely buttoned uniform, but still was a welcome presence nonetheless.

“Hey guys!” he called out, waving towards Felix. “Look who’s back!” Activity soon ceased across the grounds as the other Blue Lions halted their training, and Sylvain eagerly rushed up to greet his oldest friend.

Felix’s sour expression only intensified as Sylvain approached him. “Don’t touch me!” he barked. “I don’t want to be sent back to the infirmary just because you wanted an excuse to get all feely. I can only watch for the next three days.”

“All right, all right,” smiled Sylvain at his shorter friend, grateful for a chance to rest on his training lance. “I’m just glad you’re back. Without you, things might get boring around here.”

“Hello, Felix. Did you learn anything from your behavior in the mock battle?” said Ingrid as she approached her childhood friends, a frown tugging at her lips. 

“I learned not to rush into traps. Did you?” he sneered back. Ingrid was on the brink of an angry retort when Mercedes, in the midst of handing out towels to her team, smoothly intervened. “Oh, Felix, do let me know if you need any extra healing. I’m not very skilled in sword fighting, but I do know how to do that, at least.”

“I’m fine,” said Felix in a more normal tone, unable to snap at Mercedes in the Professor’s presence. “But thanks for the offer. That old merc--Beatrix--isn’t a bad healer. At least she’s sober, unlike some other doctors I can name here at Garreg Mach.”

“Please refrain from spreading more rumours about Professor Manuela, Felix,” sighed Professor Hanneman, overhearing the remark. “We don’t need to go about and add to her troubles.” Catherine smothered a laugh at that.

His gaze dismissively passing over the tall forms of Dimitri and Dedue, Felix turned to Hanneman. “Professor. I would like some tutoring over the next three days.”

“Oh?” The bushy grey eyebrows of the ex-nobleman rose high in surprise. “May I inquire in what subject?”

Silently, Felix stepped backwards, and traced a sigil in the air, flexing his wrist. Sylvain felt the hair on his arms stand up as sparks suddenly traveled up Felix’s arm, crackling into life into a small collection of arcs in his palm and fingers. The swordsman maintained it only for a few seconds before his astonished class, before clutching his fist quickly, dissipating the energy.

“Felix!” gasped Annette. “How did you learn how to do that?”

“It was in a book Beatrix gave me. Something about Colloquies and Cantrips. It was ok,” Felix shrugged, shaking a stinging hand.

“Wait! Erasmus’ spellbook? Felix, that’s advanced anima conjuring!” the young girl exclaimed. She worriedly turned to her best friend. “Mercie, you might want to check him…”

“Oh dear. I’m afraid Annie’s right. But to learn how to do that so soon! Felix, you really are quite talented. Let me check your hand, please,” said Mercedes, handing her sword to Annette. Felix grimaced as he held out his right arm for the older woman.

Their Professor was over the moon at this display. “Truly astonishing, my Lord Fraldarius. To learn how to conjure so quickly! But unfortunately, that’s only part of learning spells. You must also incorporate the appropriate signs to protect you from the backlash of energy. Still, it’s apparent you have an obvious affinity for galvanic forces. I will be happy to teach you more,” said Professor Hanneman with a bow.

“Felix learning magic. Doesn’t that beat all,” laughed Catherine shortly. “Next thing we’ll be seeing is Prince Dimitri sewing or Sylvain settling down to become a devoted husband.” 

“Hey! At least one of those things is theoretically possible,” Sylvain protested to the Holy Knight.

“Dimitri sewing,” Ingrid said automatically. “Dimitri sewing,” piped up Annette with a firm nod. Felix nodded as well, his eyes taking wicked delight at his childhood friend’s chagrin. Mercedes blushed but said nothing as she laid glowing hands on Felix’s arm.

“Oh, come on, Your Highness,” said Sylvain, turning to his Prince. He wasn’t that bad. “You know how awful you are at needlework. I mean, not that you couldn’t do it, it’s just if everything didn’t just break in your hands…”

“Like a woman’s heart in yours, Sylvain?” asked Dimitri smoothly and politely, amusement shining in his face.

It took him a second or so to recover from his Prince burning him that badly. “Ouch. Um, wow. Ok, I guess I deserved that. It’s barely been over two months since we started here at the monastery, and already my reputation is dead and buried,” Sylvain said with a loud sigh.

“You confuse me,” said Dedue, his frown more severe than usual. “You obviously do not care about your reputation, based on your behavior. Why would you then mourn its loss?”

His ears felt like they were starting to match the color of his hair. “Uhm. It’s ok, guys, you can stop now. Really,” muttered Sylvain, looking around the visibly entertained group of students, desperate for an escape. It soon came from an unexpected source.

“Guards! Guards! Help! Come quick! The Blue Lion Class is murdering one of their own! It’s horrible! All the blood, everywhere…” said a voice in a mocking shout.

Sylvain felt supremely grateful as a grinning Claude fully entered the training hall, flanked by Lorenz and Lysithea. Both of them had amused expressions on their faces.

“Good afternoon, Claude,” greeted Mercedes politely with a smile. “How is dear Marianne doing?”

“Better,” said Claude noncommittally. “Lady Beatrix and Knight Byleth are bringing her to the stables even now. We’re here to extend an invitation to anyone who wants to be there to support her. We don’t want to overwhelm her, but we can at least show how much we want her around, right?”

Deciding it was better to let his classmates take the forefront as they surged forward to pledge support, aside from Felix, Sylvain hung back with his friend to simply observe for a moment. Lorenz was trying to chat up Ingrid and Annette, but only having marginal success if Ingrid’s scowl and Annette’s uneasy shuffling were anything to go by. Dimitri and Mercedes were pestering Claude for more details on Marianne, with Dedue looming behind his Prince with a stern face. Lysithea was having an animated discussion with Professor Hanneman and Catherine, but he couldn’t read their faces because their backs were toward him. She must have been saying something interesting, though, because he could see both adults rock backwards in surprise at one point. Catherine was soon grabbing at the old Professor’s shoulder as she started whispering urgently into his ear. Sylvain was thinking of stepping closer to listen when he noticed Felix coming up to stand next to him.

“For a useless layabout, I’m glad you’re here doing some training,” said Felix, eyeing him critically. “If you didn’t booze it up constantly with every loose woman in town, who knows what you could do?”

“After what I just went through, I’ll take even a backhanded compliment,” said Sylvain, happy for his best friend to be back up and about. “That was pretty impressive with that lightning, yourself. And hey, if you need some magic tips, be sure to come to me first, ok?”

Felix glared at his old friend. “Don’t tell me…”

Smirking, Sylvain held his right hand out to trace a sigil in the air, adding the appropriate countersign to prevent himself from being injured. A small flame burst into his hand, and he immensely enjoyed Felix’s expression as he playfully made it roll across his knuckles and dance across his fingers.

The swordsman quickly mastered himself. “And just when were you going to show us this particular talent?” Felix asked in disgust.

A flick of his wrist extinguished the magical flame. Gratified by the attention, Sylvain smiled and said, “That’s a long story, and it involves a girl I was dating when my father took me to Fhirdiad two years ago. She was a student at the Royal School of Sorcery, but very pretty…”

*

Seteth stood at the Archbishop’s balcony, watching the scene unfold before him in the monastery stables below. A large crowd of students had gathered as the small forms Byleth, Beatrix, and Marianne took slow, tentative steps towards it. The young noblewoman appeared overwhelmed by the clapping and cheering of her classmates, but the considerate attention of Lady Beatrix and Knight Byleth aided her through it. Only a few students were allowed to approach the ill noblewoman, and the interactions were limited for the sake of her health. Most of the crowd dispersed after that, heading for the dining hall, although Seteth noted with interest that the tall form of Prince Dimitri lingered with his Duscar retainer to aid the young woman in her duties. Lady Hilda and Lord Claude stayed as well, their faint and distant chatter attempting to put everyone at ease. He nodded to himself. Such an outcome was about the best to be expected in this situation. He reminded himself to talk to the Abbess about which lay duties Lady Marianne could assist with in the cathedral.

In truth, Seteth was preoccupied at the moment, as his mind was still reeling from Rhea’s revelation the night before. In more than a hundred years, his sister had not Slept. Had not rejuvenated her mind, or her body, against the immense draconic power that lay within her. Her obsession with resurrecting their mother was driving her mad.

Seteth could not help but wonder if she already was past the brink.

He could unfortunately not discuss this with Flayn. His precious daughter had slept for over a thousand years, healing from the terrible damage from the fall she had endured when Nemesis had killed her pegasus beneath her. For the past millennium, Seteth had guarded his daughter’s comatose form, where she lay shielded from the outside world in a sacred vault, emerging only occasionally to guide the Church or keep current with local languages and customs. Her awakening in the past twenty years had been slow and difficult. She had grieved to learn that an entire age had passed her by, leaving almost everything and everyone she had known and loved in the past as so much ancient dust. He could not begrudge her grief, and understood her resentment of him. He was a different person now as well. He had not told his daughter of the centuries he had spent by her side, seeing to her needs, reading books to her small form, or the days where he locked himself inside the impenetrable and solid stone vault during times of war or unrest, simply observing her body heat in the darkness, listening to the soft sound of her gentle breathing. Flayn would completely understand the desire to never fall asleep again, for fear of missing a lifetime that could be snatched away in a single, careless moment.

And then there was the discontent with the Church of Seiros itself over Rhea. Archbishop “Rhea'' now had served for over fifty years, and the story to the faithful that she was blessed by the Goddess with long life and vigor due to her “miraculous” Major Crest of Seiros within her. But Seteth had noticed the current crop of bishops and cardinals across Fodlan were becoming suspicious and resentful of their unaging religious leader. Rhea should have stepped down by now, and used the years that a human could lead the Church of Seiros as a chance for rest. With the Crest of Flames being rediscovered, Seteth knew his sister would not even think of that option at this time.

Seteth could only pray that Rhea’s obsession would not prove to be their undoing...

“Good evening, Seteth,” said a voice behind him.

Shocked at the intrusion, the High Abbot quickly spun to see the Golden Deer Professor before him. Jeralt smiled easily at his reaction, although he seemed to be swaying slightly as he looked around the ornate marble balcony. “Place hasn’t changed much. I thought I could use this chance when everyone else was busy for us to have a little chat.”

Sniffing the air before him with more than human senses, Seteth frowned at the former Knight. “You’re drunk,” he accused. “I already have enough trouble trying to cure Professor Manuela of her vices. Must I start on you as well?”

“If you want,” burped Jeralt, in an equitable mood. “‘Scuse me. I’m just gonna sit on one of these benches, then we’ll talk. We need to get something straight between us.” He weaved unevenly to one of the stone benches before the decorative meditation pools nearby, but somehow managed to settle himself into it.

Stepping away from the balcony’s edge, Seteth stood before the new Professor, his frown now thunderous. “What topic could possibly you want to talk about while this inebriated? And for that matter...how did you even get up here in the first place! I locked the doors to the Archbishop’s quarters behind me!”

“Blame Rhea,” grinned Jeralt up at him from his seat. He started fishing in a pouch pocket on his belt. After a long moment, he displayed an old, tarnished, ornate silver key before Seteth with a leer. “It’s not my fault she hasn’t changed her locks in a hundred years.”

Caught off-guard, Seteth stared at the small object. The implications of that key were staggering. Seteth had known Rhea trusted Jeralt with much; the Knight-Captain had been the only Knight of Seiros Rhea trusted to transmit correspondence between the two Nabatean siblings. Seteth knew at once something drastic had changed when a young and eager Alois Rangeld had been sent to him with an urgent summons to come to Garreg Mach more than twenty years ago. He now regarded Jeralt steadily, and the other man glared back at him blearily.

“Don’t give me that look,” sneered the new Professor. “It’s easy to guess what you’re thinking. ‘How old are you Jeralt?’ ‘How much do you know?’ When you’re in charge of the Knights of Seiros for almost a century, have to change your name and appearance every generation, and knock boots with the Archbishop of Fodlan on a regular basis, well, let’s just say that you manage to pick up on some things here and there.”

“And just how old are you, Jeralt Reus Eisner?” asked a subdued Seteth quietly.

The former Knight turned Professor looked at the late afternoon sun, beginning to set over the Oghma Mountains. The man looked as if he wanted to spit. “I was born in Enbarr in Imperial year 1037 of the Wyvern Moon. You do the math. I stopped caring a long time ago.”

“I see. Rhea has already told me you were a recipient of her blood. But I must admit,” Seteth said, with a glance at the key, “I had no idea you and she were once this close.”

“She is good with secrets, isn’t she?” said Jeralt wryly, but his face darkened once more. “And that’s what I want to talk to you about. My daughter. My little Knight of Seiros. My little Holy Knight of Seiros. With a Crest none have seen for over a thousand years. Quite the nice little trap the two of you planted for us, there.”

The tone of his voice was relaxed, but Seteth sensed Jeralt was becoming...dangerous. He also realized with an inward shock that he could not alienate this man. Rhea had somehow done so before during Byleth’s birth, and Jeralt had reacted by setting Garreg Mach on fire and fleeing with his child. With the secrets he might know from Rhea, Jeralt could set much more on fire throughout Fodlan than a bedroom in a monastery. Seteth was quickly beginning to realize he needed Jeralt’s support much more than the Professor needed his own. If an anticlerical noble had access to the secrets of an ex-Knight-Captain of the Knights of Seiros...

Blunt honesty was the only choice, he decided. “We did not know of Byleth’s Crest before Hanneman investigated, Jeralt. I give you my solemn vow that I have spoken extensively with the Archbishop on this topic. We did not know. We discovered it at the same time that you did, and even allowed someone you trust to investigate as well,” said Seteth, crossing his arms.

They stared at each other for some time, green eyes matching brown, and Jeralt finally looked down. “I almost believe that, Seteth. But now look at the position my daughter is in. She’s the Goddess Reborn. Or Nemesis Reborn.” He snorted to himself in a half-laugh. “It doesn’t matter which. Once news of her Crest comes out…” the man despondently trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished.

The High Abbot could well imagine the impact that news of the Crest of Flames appearing in a Holy Knight of Seiros would cause. Every nobleman in Fodlan would dream of catching this prize. There would be promises of marriage, land, gold, or nations to Byleth. War might even break out between territories as rivals sought to eliminate each other, over a prize not yet won, each noble dreaming of his House and heirs becoming the next “Kings of Liberation.” It was a wretched title that Seteth despised, but despite all of his and Rhea’s efforts, they could not erase that villain’s mark on history completely. But this meant even the most ignorant member of the laity would have an inkling of Knight Byleth’s significance. His previous misgivings over this ominous young woman bringing only destruction might well prove true. Seteth finally said, “The Central Church can protect you and your daughter.” Belatedly, he realized that was the last thing he should have said to Jeralt.

“How convenient,” commented Jeralt with arid sarcasm. He huffed in disgust and tore a hip flask from his belt. Fumbling with the screw top, he said, “Only Rhea and Seteth can shield my daughter. So we have to stay here and protect the Church, whether we want to or not. Like I said: a nice trap.” With that, the man started draining the flask of its foul smelling liquor.

“Jeralt, please stop,” said Seteth, raising a placating hand. “I understand your distress. I may have a solution, if you wish to hear of it.”

Wiping his mouth, Jeralt squeezed the empty tin flask in his fist, crushing it, and tossed it behind him with a splash into the reflection pool, ignoring Seteth’s glower. “We can’t keep it secret. Claude knows. Who knows who else. Byleth didn’t know the significance of what it meant to have a mystery Crest. She’s probably told others, so it’s just a matter of time now. And if you order them into secrecy, it will get out that much faster. It’s inevitable at this point.”

“I am well aware of human nature regarding secrets. I see that you are also. But no, I have something different in mind for your daughter.”

“Fine. I’ll listen.”

Seteth looked to the balcony edge where the stables lay below. “We must carefully edit this truth…” he began to say.

Jeralt rudely barked a laugh. “Just like every other truth the Church gets its hands on…”

Clenching his jaw behind his short beard, Seteth held his anger at the interruption and continued. “As I was saying. We will maintain the air of mystery around your daughter. We will call it an unknown Crest, with possible undesirable side effects. That is not necessarily a lie, unfortunately, as you well know. A few of the more desperate noble families and merchants may wish to still consider it, but the uncertainty surrounding Knight Byleth will give the more powerful Houses pause. As the Central Church is considered the final authority concerning Crest legitimacy, we can use this to your daughter’s advantage. It will be up to her to handle the rest, and make her intentions plain, whatever they may be.”

Seteth could see Jeralt playing it out in his head thoughtfully. Finally he asked, “What about Hanneman? He’ll want to examine her more. And doubtless he’ll want to take credit for the discovery.”

“Professor Hanneman can be excitable,” the Abbot allowed. “However, he does respect boundaries if they are set clearly and firmly. I have set them around my sister and myself. More to the point, I will make certain he is aware of the gravity of this discovery, and how its eventual announcement will have to be coordinated with the consent of the Archbishop and her cardinals.”

“Which is why I’m talking to you instead of Rhea directly,” said the former Knight, his face now almost mournful. “I know you care about...well, your sister. But I’m not sure what Rhea cares about. Not anymore. I made sure she was occupied with a meeting at the Cathedral before coming here to talk with you.”

Peering at the man, Seteth was slowly realizing that the drunkenness might have been a pose. But then again, Jeralt had the advantage of Nabatean blood in him. Alcohol had a meaningless effect on himself. And he probably had the experience of decades of building up his tolerance, as well. Reminding himself of the subject at hand, Seteth said to the former Knight, “I understand your misgivings, even if I do not share all of them. And I understand what it is like to be concerned for more than just yourself. I was not eager to bring Flayn here to the monastery, yet she wanted to see Rhea once more after she was...well enough to do so.”

The Golden Deer Professor rose from his seat and nodded firmly at the Abbot. “I think we can trust each other enough, Seteth, to help protect the people we care about,” he said. Walking over to the balcony edge looming over the stables, he stared down at the small figures below. Seteth joined him as they watched his daughter assisting the students as they went about stable duty, cleaning stalls, walking horses in the adjacent exercise yard, and replacing feed and water and straw. Monastery handlers and farriers moved among them, while pegasus riders strapped themselves into their specialized saddles, readying themselves to ride their mounts through their evening flight.

The two men were silent for a time, watching the dim figures in the shadows of the monastery walls below as the sun slowly settled against the mountains. Claude’s laughter could be heard as Dimitri easily carried four square bales of hay, with Hilda’s verbose protests rising as a counterpoint as she put up an exaggerated struggle with merely one. Marianne and Byleth were hauling buckets of water to the troughs, as Beatrix stood by the nearby well, priming the pump by hand.

“I had my doubts about your daughter, but she appears to be adapting well to the life of a Knight. She has made a deep and lasting impression upon the students,” the High Abbot mildly observed.

“Saving the lives of royalty does that,” muttered Jeralt.

Another tense silence followed, then Seteth ventured quietly, “What will you tell your daughter?”

“What am I permitted to tell her?” said the other man bitterly.

Seteth almost said everything, but paused as he considered the desires of his sister, the Archbishop. But he did not wish for Jeralt to leave with ill-will either, and he could feel the man growing tense again beside him.

“Before I answer that, I believe I would like to hear the story of how you left Garreg Mach,” he answered, turning to face the former Knight-Captain.

Jeralt snorted to himself. “You’ve already heard it from Rhea, when we first got here.”

“I am beginning to think I would like to hear it from you, as well. I understand that those memories must be painful. I struggle with the memories of my own wife’s passing, at times. But I would prefer to hear it told from your perspective...to make certain that there are no inconsistencies,” Seteth said grimly.

The ex-Knight was surprised, although he hid it well from a human’s perspective. Meeting Jeralt’s gaze, Seteth gave a short nod. They were both committed now. For the sake of their daughters, they had to trust one another. From anything, or anyone, that could possibly bring them harm.

*

Lady Edelgard had wanted to linger by the stables as well after the outpouring of support to Marianne, clearly as an excuse to be near Knight Byleth, but he subtly drew her attention to a green haired figure he had noticed in his habitual scan of rooftops and windows, observing them from the top of the Archbishop’s quarters. Her Imperial Highness was disappointed to lose a chance to speak with the object of her fancy, but she was at least still self-aware enough to realize that the timing was poor.

Soon they were eating dinner with their House in the dining hall, where Ferdinand was being insufferable, as per usual. Linhardt was exhausted from his numerous laps around the monastery and could barely speak during the meal, after being caught falling asleep in the library again. Well, he could only smirk at such well-earned comeuppance. The man needed the physical exertion, anyway. A healer was useless unless he could keep up with his soldiers on the battlefield. Across the table, Caspar and Petra had apparently bonded during archery practice, and were speaking excitedly to each other, although his command of the Fodlan language was barely stronger than her own. Dorothea and Bernadetta both ate their meal next to each other in a subdued manner, with the commoner quietly informing Lady Varley all of the details she had overheard concerning Lady Marianne von Edmund. Bernadetta’s hair was looking much worse; it had obviously not been groomed since she had heard the news of her friend. Both of them were obviously feeling helpless in how they should approach the suicidal girl with their support.

Hubert allowed himself to reminisce for a moment during the meal, because contrary to whatever others might think of him, he did feel something for what that unfortunate noblewoman was going through. He had been in a wretched state when Lady Edelgard was taken from him ten years ago, during her interminable exile in Fhirdiad, and had briefly considered the thought himself when he had been dragged back to the palace by his father’s knights. But eventually he had brutally reminded himself that as long as he and Lady Edelgard still lived, even though they might be a thousand leagues apart, he was still her servant, and she was his mistress.

He had spent every waking moment in those long three years preparing himself for Lady Edelgard’s return. He had thrown himself into his studies, and by thirteen, despite having no Crest of his own, he had more skill and power at his fingertips than many adults who had studied sorcery all of their lives. 

It had been a joyous reunion when Lady Edelgard finally returned to the palace at Enbarr, under the care of her maternal uncle, Lord Arundel. Hubert had been surprised to see the man, as he had thought Arundel had been permanently exiled by Prime Minister Duke Aegir, but the Duke, his father, Marquis Vestra, and the other Lords of the Empire greeted him effusively, to the point of sycophancy. He had noted that there seemed to be something different about Lord Arundel, something imperious and fey that made Hubert instantly put up every mental shield he knew as he eyed the man from his place in the Imperial Court. The newly named Imperial Regent had merely smirked in his direction once, then continued speaking with his hated father and the other Imperial Lords.

Lady Edelgard had been delighted to be reunited with her siblings, of course, hugging and kissing each of them in turn, and for one last brief afternoon, the halls of the Imperial Palace rang loud with the laughter of children. Hubert had been merely content to see Lady Edelgard smiling and laughing, feeling secure in her presence once more. Then came the moment where Lady Edelgard was presented before the Emperor, as the Lords of the Empire went through with the puppet show of paying that powerless old man homage. Edelgard had attempted to embrace her father, but as the withered, royal arms hugged her, the man started weeping so profusely, so bitterly, that it had frightened the children. Hubert had even briefly wondered if his father had been right to seize reins of power from such a weak, pitiful man.

Of course, he now knew what Emperor Ionius IX knew at the time. The Emperor had not been weeping for his daughter’s safe return; he had been mourning what was soon to come

Strange, pale mages with unfamiliar accents arrived with Lord Arundel that day. Some were masked, while others hid behind cowls and hoods so deep in shadow they might as well have been. The morning after he was reunited with Lady Edelgard, he was immediately whisked from her side again, before they barely had shared one single precious moment of happiness together. His father turned him over to a dark robed mage named Myson, an albino freak of a man who reeked of musty earth and raw power. He thought he had been pushed to his limits before in conjuring anima, but it was nothing compared to what he learned that year.

There was magic that was the mere conjuration of the four elements; paltry evocations that were bound within the limits of the world itself. Myson was his harshest taskmaster yet, but he taught him the true magic, REAL magic, the secret signs and sigils and invocations that could evoke the very essence of Time and Space, or probe the edges of Life and Death. Under such pitiless tutelage, Hubert found within himself a wellspring of power undreamed of by any living mage in Fodlan. During his brief moments of rest, or while he was recovering from another beating, he had wondered and feared if Lady Edelgard was undergoing similar training.

Hubert later found out that she had. He remembered his shock upon seeing the white hair…

“Hubert!”

“Yes, Lady Edelgard?” he replied automatically, cursing his lapse. He immediately reprimanded himself for his self-indulgence.

His mistress was gazing at him with a soft expression next to him and said quietly, “I usually do not have to call you to attention twice. Is something the matter?”

“Forgive me, Lady Edelgard. I was thinking of Lady Marianne’s burden...and it made me think of how difficult it can be to escape one’s...heritage.”

His mistress smiled indulgently at him. “And is it better to escape it, or to accept it?”

Hubert smiled back at the rhetorical question. “Or is escape merely another acknowledgement of acceptance? Such philosophical navel-gazing could last for years, couldn’t it?”

“Possibly. But a philosopher could do worse than gaze at his navel,” said Lady Edelgard, clearly enjoying herself for one moment. “After all, it is the place where they all come from.”

“Ah, ha,” he delighted in her wit. “Touche, Lady Edelgard. Your humble servant salutes you.” Hubert controlled himself, feeling a grin tug at his lips. It was not a...conventional relationship, he acknowledged to himself. Instead it was a melding of the minds, something purely intellectual without the burdens and minutia of bothersome and inevitably disappointing corporeal contact. Or perhaps they shared such rapport because they were merely the only family each other had left. There was hardly anyone left for them to care about, back in the Empire.

Now, if only he could convince Lady Edelgard she didn’t need a smelly commoner Knight of Seiros in her life…

As they finished cleaning up from their meal in the dining hall, his Lady touched him for a brief moment at his elbow. He instantly bent his dark haired head low for his mistress to quickly whisper in his ear. “You have two tasks. Deliver this missive to Prince Dimitri. It is an invitation for tea in the gardens at his leisure, after classes.” He could barely hide his shock as he pocketed the envelope in his uniform, but he governed himself in time. “The second is to check upon Jeritza, and make certain he is managing himself.”

Rising, he nodded once and went about his duty. Dimitri had not entered the dining hall yet; he was doubtlessly still lingering over Lady Marianne at the stables. Hubert slowed his strides as he exited the eating area and walked through the gardens, considering if it would be best to deliver this envelope in full view of witnesses. Then he remembered Claude might still be at the stables as well. The merest hint of an Imperial-Kingdom alliance would no doubt send the self-named “schemer’s” mind reeling. More eagerly now, his long legs propelled him quickly to his destination.

He arrived just as the two royal nobles were saying their good evenings to the pale noblewoman, with Knight Byleth and Lady Beatrix ready to escort Lady Marianne back to the infirmary, as other squires and monks continued with the care for the animals. The timing could not be more perfect. However, as he approached Claude and Dimitri, he nearly collided with a figure that stepped from the shadows that was taller than even he was, not to mention twice as massive.

“What business do you have with the Prince?” intoned the tall Duscarman blocking his path.

Ah, the Prince’s pet, Dedue. Only Faerghus noble would consider it in good taste to flaunt a reminder of his country’s genocidal ways by having it follow him daily. Or perhaps the lumbering vassal was a sign of the Prince’s guilty conscience, as if saving one soul for a life of abject servitude made up for the many other thousands that were put to the sword by his country. Whatever the relationship between the two men, it was fundamentally unhealthy. Unfortunately for Hubert, however amusing it would be to shred the man’s bulk apart with his magic and step over the steaming carcass to deliver his missive, he had his cover as an innocent student to consider.

Still, he could not resist one verbal barb. “Whatever business I have, I don’t see how it concerns someone of your...caste,” he smiled wickedly at the Blue Lion. 

“I am merely making certain that you are not a threat. Is that beyond your capacity?” rumbled back the dark skinned foreigner, not rising to the bait.

Hubert’s face became more reserved at this question. Well, that was interesting. In training his dog to bark and sit, the Prince must have taught it some rudimentary reasoning abilities as well. He filed that bit of useful intelligence away in his memory as he spread out his dark gloves hands out slowly, before reaching up into his doublet and pulling the sealed envelope free, his opposite’s dark eyes tracking his every movement. “A letter,” he announced, smiling coldly. “From Lady Edelgard. May I deliver it to His Highness?”

“What’s this, Dedue?”

Instantly the large man stepped aside with a nod of his head, and Hubert saw Dimitri, Claude, and Hilda approach him. This was shaping up wonderfully. Now to play his role…

“Excuse the interruption, Prince Dimitri,” he said with a low bow, before presenting the envelope with a flourish. “But I have this summons, from her Imperial Highness, for you to join her for an afternoon with refreshments. You may send a reply to her through me, at your convenience.” He held out the envelope with double-headed eagle seal on its wax, observing the suddenly still form of the Blue Lion House Leader. A long moment passed where no one moved, the sounds of monastery life seemingly shut out from their tableau.

The Lady Goneril was the first to break the tension as Dimtri gazed unblinkingly at the invitation. “Aw, it looks like the two of them really bonded from nearly killing each other in the mock battle! That’s sooooo sweet,” smiled Hilda with an exaggerated sniffle.

“Wait, I didn’t get one too?” Claude’s handsome face shifted into a dramatic pout. “But I was the one who took down Edelgard in the mock battle. The Imperial Princess should be paying attention to me, not Prince Dimitri! Oh, Hilda!” he moaned as he swayed in a derisive swoon. “It’s just not fair!”

“Oh, Claude, I know…!” She fell back against him and they leaned on each other.

“It will be easier for the Prince to reply without your common wit plumbing new depths of vulgarity, Claude,” smiled Hubert, pleased at the antics of the Alliance nobles. This was going better than expected.

“His Highness may need some time to frame his answer…” started Dedue from his place by the wall.

His retainer’s voice roused the ice blue eyes of the Prince to look up from their blonde crown of locks. Dimitri quickly took the envelope, meeting Hubert’s eyes, while biting off his words. “Yes. Of course. An invitation. I will accept, and I look forward to meeting with the Imperial Princess when our schedules permit. Now, forgive me. Dedue and I must join the rest of the Blue Lion House in the dining hall.” With stiff strides, the Prince of Faerghus brushed past Hubert, his brute of a retainer following in his shadow.

Hubert watched them go past, pleased by the display, as well as awed by his mistress. Whatever Lady Edelgard’s game was here, it clearly had rocked the Blue Lion Prince on his heels, and placed him off his balance. He turned scornfully to the duo of Alliance nobles who were now whispering to themselves by the garden wall and said, “So sorry to disappoint you, Claude, but you are hardly worth a moment of Lady Edelgard’s consideration. Enjoy your petty victory over her in the mock battle while you can.”

The Leceister nobleman had the gall to laugh in his face. “Hubert, I’m crushed by such cold words. And here I thought we were such good friends,” said the heir to Alliance with a mendacious smile. “But, you know what, I get it, I really do. I’m sure Edelgard and Dimitri have a lot of catching up to do. After all...family comes first, right?”

Despite himself, Hubert could not hide his shock.

“Oh, Hubert! You might want to visit the infirmary! You look really pale! Oh, wait, silly me, you always look pale,” smirked Hilda. She stretched out her arms with a lazy yawn. “I’m beat from all that work! Let’s go get some food, Claude.” With mock gallantry that made the pink-haired trollop giggle, the Alliance half-breed escorted her past him, tossing a wink and another false smile to the Black Eagle.

It took more than a few moments to move his mind past initial thoughts of murder. Somehow, those two Alliance dogs had stumbled across a secret only few were living to remember, and one that Lady Edelgard herself had forgotten. In this, Hubert had decided to be merciful, for it would merely cause his mistress undue suffering to know of her previous relationship with one of her primary targets. 

Unless...Dimitri had told her himself during the mock battle?

No, no, no. This would not stand. Hubert strode from the stables, through the gardens, and walked quickly to his room. He needed quiet to think, and to plan. Contingencies must be made for this dreaded ‘tea party.’ The last thing he wished for his mistress was to see her suffer even more. She had endured enough of that in Enbarr.

Caught up in plotting and counter-plotting, Hubert completely forgot about his second task.

*

Alone in his room, Jeritza stared dully at the small cameo locket he had kept throughout the years. At times, tears dripped from his eyes, unrecognized, unacknowledged. He was nothing; he felt nothing.

But now he knew she was here. It had been so long, he had forgotten her...

He had not moved in hours. Time was meaningless. There was only life, and death. And only death made him feel alive.

But the memories…

Snarling, he ripped the thin silver chain of the cameo, crushing the small metal painting in his fist before throwing it across the room. It didn’t matter anymore. It did not matter!

He needed to feel alive. He needed to see something die. That was the only reality. His only reality. The tall pale blonde man went immediately to his large locked chest, unlocking it quickly with his private key, and began pulling out the pieces of dark armor, one by one, his long white fingers pausing once to lovingly trace the blackened death’s head image of the faceplate of his helmet.

As the Death Knight donned his armor, the crumpled picture of a young woman with pale blonde hair, with two young smiling children, lay forgotten beneath the unused writing desk.

*

Chapter Text

Ch 20

Bonds

Despite the mock battle and the near tragedy that had almost happened with Marianne, life at Garreg Mach soon fell back into a routine for the students and knights. Byleth’s official duties as a Knight of Seiros were surprisingly light, consisting mainly of daily chapel sessions in the Cathedral in the morning and afterwards lessons from Catherine, Alois, or another Knight of how to conduct herself as a representative of the Church of Seiros. Byleth thought the personal attention quite odd but enjoyed the boisterous Knight-Captain’s stories of her father’s younger days. Catherine was more reserved around her, but Byleth found she could easily bond with the older woman by sharing stories of their different campaigns and training together. They were surprisingly well-matched in swordplay, although Catherine was by far the better wrestler, easily bending Byleth into an armbar or a headlock within seconds of the swords being dropped. The veteren Knight also told her not to worry about her unknown Crest, and that the Church would handle it for her. Byleth was doubtful after hearing Claude’s stories, but accepted the explanation for the time being.

Byleth tried to make more time for visiting Marianne, but soon found out that the slight noblewoman was fairly mobbed with attention already. Claude, Hilda, Dimitri, and even Bernadetta were regular visitors to the young woman in the infirmary, with Trips quietly hovering over her patient at all times. The young noblewoman was often seen either in the cathedral, preparing the altar for services, or at the stables, where she eagerly assisted in any task that involved the animals. Byleth made every effort to smile at the sweet shy girl every chance she saw her, if only to prevent the horrible image she dreamed about from never coming true. She was delighted one day to see Marianne’s small beautiful smile in return.

The majority of Byleth’s afternoons were spent with the remaining students. Byleth was determined to show no favoritism between the Houses of her three friends, or be seen too much in the company of her father. She laughed with Claude and his friends at their bizarre antics during training, sparred incessantly with Dimitri and his company, and with Edelgard and her House she found herself...simply talking. Talking brainlessly until she was gently reminded of her duties.

She was humbled at first, but as she spent the occasional afternoon with the Black Eagles, she soon found herself unconsciously drawing closer to Princess Edelgard than was necessary during the times she was visiting. Byleth kept waiting for Hubert or Manuela to snap at her or report her behavior, but both of them studiously ignored the Knight of Seiros lingering by the Princess while she was training or performing chores in the monastery. However, Byleth soon found out that it did not prevent the other students from commenting.

“Ohhh, Edie and Bylie! The two of you look so cute standing awkwardly side by side!”

“Hey Edelgard! Linhardt says he needs to watch Knight Byleth train, so I’m gonna borrow her from you, OK?”

“Knight Byleth, thank you for the arrival. Lady Edelgard sings much praises of you, and I believe you are a better friend for her.”

“I am relieved that my future Empress has found such a reliable bodyguard! Lady Byleth, thank you from the bottom of my heart for protecting her in my stead. At last, I can focus upon my own studies and training without worrying about her!”

Byleth thought she knew what blushing was before these events, but observations such as these sent the flames in her cheeks and neck to heights she had never before experienced, which made it only more awkward. And thus she was amazed at Edelgard’s verbal skill in disarming the tension in these encounters, one by one.

“I know this might be hard for you to imagine, Dorothea, but two women can simply be friends with one another.”

“Why are you asking me, Caspar? Ask Knight Byleth yourself. I promise she won’t bite.”

“Petra, you have been good to me as well. I value your company and friendship, just as I do Knight Byleth’s.”

“Thank you for informing us about that fascinating tidbit, Ferdinand. If you are satisfied, then please continue with your training.”

After a few times of this, Byleth was pleased, but also felt herself growing...restless. She was extremely honored that Edelgard was defending their friendship to other people, but felt something gnawing at her, inside, making her feel agitated without cause. She could not put the feeling into words, but somehow, she knew she wanted to be more than just a friend to Edelgard. Byleth desired something more...even though she could hardly imagine what more could possibly be.

With uncanny intuition, her short white haired friend seemed to sense her disquiet. As they observed the rest of the Black Eagle House caught up in their training in the practice yard, Byleth nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt a small white gloved hand slide into her fingers. And brush them, ever so gently.

The contact lasted for less than a second, and Edelgard was already stepping forward to loudly reprimand Caspar and Ferdinand for a lapse in concentration once more. Byleth absently rubbed her fingers, even as she felt something similar to blushing steal through her. Except the flames were not centered on her face this time, but rather...within her.

She also wondered why she was sweating, when she hadn’t even started sparring yet.

*

Two weeks had passed since the mock battle. It was the middle of Harpstring Moon. Most of the students had gotten over their performance, or lack thereof, in the mock battle between the Houses.

One had not.

Ingrid was dripping with sweat as she practiced on the training grounds, but she refused herself a break, even though the sun had long set. She had been defeated on the field of battle, but what made her burn was the humiliating way it happened. No one had made any mention of it (aside from Felix, damn him), but it was only a matter of time before someone used her disgrace against her. Her Prince could not help her in this matter, nor did she wish to burden him even further. And Sylvain had surprisingly (and wisely) kept his trap shut about it. But what she told no one was how seriously she considered each proposal that was carried to her, at an expense her family could not afford, by pigeon or pegasus from her Lord Father. She had also told no one how often she imagined herself in the role of a disgusting noble housewife, just existing to belch out Crest-bearing spawn she might resent just as much as their father…but on the other hand, she did not want to see her own noble father and brothers reduced to poverty, and the Galatea name fall to ruin just because she decided to be selfish...

“You know, you really shouldn’t overdo things, dearie.”

The Galatean noblewoman spun to see a sword-wielding Dorothea behind her. In full armor. Ingrid wondered for a long moment at how the Black Eagle had managed to fit into that breastplate, before her face turned red at her own thoughts and the intrusion.

“Here to gloat, are you?” said Ingrid bitterly, gripping her lance tightly before her body.

The brown locks swayed as the beautiful woman shook her head slightly. “No,” she said simply. “I’m here to apologize.”

“In armor?” scoffed Ingrid.

Dorothea winked brazenly as her smile broadened. “Well, I’m also here to put you to bed. Forcibly, if I have to.”

“You can’t beat me,” growled the Blue Lion at her counterpart, knowing how ridiculous that sounded after what happened.

“Maybe, if you were at your best,” agreed the songstress. She shifted her stance on the sandy floor, her training sword up and ready.

Ingrid charged.

Dorothea parried the first thrust easily, but then had to quickly dodge aside from the second. The two women quickly exchanged attacks and counters, with Ingrid’s burst of anger quickly tiring her. The actress began pirouetting aside from the lance, moving faster and more elaborate than necessary as she twirled her sword around her body, as Ingrid’s moves became more and more sluggish.

“Aw, tired already, sweetie?” smiled Dorothea. She spun her sword over her head easily.

Ingrid gave one last hopeless thrust of her lance that Dorothea easily batted aside with downward slash--

--which caused Ingrid to spin rapidly in the direction of the parry, bringing the lance quickly across her body like a lever--

--and the full weight and momentum caught Dorthea on her opposite side, punching her off balance.

A quick renewed jab from Ingrid knocked the wind from her, despite her chestplate, another spin and wide arcing slash caused the sword to drop, and a final overhead swing of the lance batted the songstress to the ground.

“You were saying?” said a panting Ingrid, still holding her lance, but grinning triumphantly above the Black Eagle.

“Ow, is what I am saying,” groaned Dorothea, rolling slowly on her back. She attempted to rise, but her armor--or injuries--prevented her from doing so. “Can you help me up?” she asked plaintively, her brown locks covering her face.

Dropping her lance, Ingrid complied with the request, grasping the offered hand. Dorothea sat up, blowing her hair from her face with a gusty sigh. “You’re so good! I don’t get it…”

“Thank you for the compliment. But what don’t you get?” asked Ingrid, sitting down on the sandy floor herself. After winning, she could finally admit her fatigue.

Dorothea made an indelicate sound of disgust, waving in the general direction of the monastery. “You’re clearly in the top tier of students. You’re almost immune to magic. You can ride horses or pegasi with ease. You adapt. You think ahead. You never give up. You’re basically a perfect Knight already…”

“What’s this all about?! I’m nowhere near the level of being a ‘perfect Knight!’” protested Ingrid, flustered by all the praise.

“You should be,” said Dorothea, wincing as she probed her injuries. But then she looked seriously at Ingrid. “But you’re not. And I’m not. Because we’re not...boys.”

She didn’t really know what to say to that, but nodded anyway. For a long moment, neither of them spoke.

Softly, Dorothea started, “I...said some terrible things to you, Ingrid, just to win during the mock battle. And...I’m...what I’m trying to say is...I really am sorry. To say those things to a noblewoman…” Dorothea paused again and swallowed, looking away. “I don’t ever expect you to forgive me. Truth is, I’m having a hard time forgiving myself.”

Seeing the school beauty so despondent over her was just distressing, and Ingrid quickly said, “I wasn’t mad about that, Dorothea. Or about the magic. I just hate to lose. If you hadn’t beaten me, maybe I could have helped His Highness win the mock battle. You showed me how much farther I have to go in maintaining my focus and discipline.”

Dorothea was pleased by the forgiveness, but added, “But that’s just it, my dear! Don’t you ever feel like you're overcompensating?”

Defensively, Ingrid spluttered, “I don’t see why you need to criticize my training…”

“Ingrid,” said Dorothea gently, “I’m not. I guess what I’m just trying to say is...no one would question your decisions if you had been born...differently.”

“Maybe,” Ingrid conceded, thinking about it some more. Then she shook her head. “But Dorothea...I know what you’re talking about, but I’m happy to be me. Even through all of the marriage proposals, or the scorn I get for wanting to be a Knight...I think it has helped make me who I am today. If I had been born as a boy I probably would have just turned into another Sylvain or Felix.”

“Oh, perish the thought!” shuddered the actress in mock revulsion, and the two women laughed.

“And don’t worry about what you said to me in the mock battle. It wasn’t anything I haven’t heard before,” snorted Ingrid. “I’ve heard it since I was eight years old.” Her voice dropped to a mocking baritone. “‘Stop acting like a boy!’ ‘Put on some makeup!’ ‘Wear a dress!’ ‘You’ll never be a Knight!’”

Dorothea laughed loudly at that, her voice ringing over the training grounds. “Oh my! And here I thought I was the actress..!”

Ingrid laughed again as well, starting to feel more at ease with the Black Eagle. “I’ve learned not to overthink things, Dorothea. If it makes you feel better, then I accept your apology. As far as I’m concerned, we’re even.”

Strangely wistful for an instant, the actress said, “Even, huh?” But then the rakish grin was back as she slowly got up. “Thank you, Ingrid. I just...well. Just know that someone sees how wonderful you are. Even if no one else seems to notice.”

Surprised but pleased, Ingrid arose as well, moving to pick up her lance to hide her blush. “I don’t know what to say to that, Dorothea, but...thank you.” She reached behind her hair to undo her ponytail, letting her blonde hair, stringy with sweat, fall free. “I suppose it is time for bed…”

“Unless…”

Ingrid turned to see the songstress back in a training stance, her sword now in a two handed grip before her. “Best two out of three?” she smirked evilly.

The noblewoman felt her heart start to beat faster in anticipation as she returned the smile. She tossed her blonde hair back behind her head and raised up her lance again. “You’re on!”

*

To my gentle and loving son, Ashe Ubert of House Rowe:

I hope this letter finds you in good health and cheer. Your devoted sister and brother miss their older brother dearly, but Bethany and Hans are both doing well and are growing like weeds. You will never know how precious you have made my days by allowing me to adopt all of you. You say I saved you that fateful day when I caught you in my library, but I tell you now, my son, it is you and your family who have saved me.

I hope your studies at Garreg Mach are going well. I am firmly confident that you will one day be a proud Knight of the Holy Kingdom. Worry not about the cost of the tithe that secured your position among the Blue Lions. Hold up your head high, lad, and ignore those who will whisper against you. To me and my vassals, you have already proven your nobility.

I fear--

There may be--

I am sorry--

Ashe...please forgive me. Emotions make this old Knight grow weak in his twilight years. But there is something I must do, and it cannot be undone. My faith in the Goddess and the blood of my eldest son demand justice. Archbishop Rhea must answer for her heinous crimes against the teachings of Seiros, as well as that filthy murderess who calls herself a Knight.

Should trouble come to Garreg Mach, I urge you with all of my heart to avoid it. It has nothing to do with you, or your brother, or your sister. You are all faithful children of the Goddess, and I would have you remain so.

You are my heir. All that I have in this world, and all that I am, is yours.

No matter what may come, I will always be proud of you.

Your loving father,

Lonato, Lord of Gaspard

Ashe trembled as he read and reread the tear stained letter, his own eyes watering as he considered the contents. What was Lonato doing? Who was Christophe’s murderer? Was he really going to throw his life away?

No, his adoptive father had been proud when he was accepted to the Officers’ Academy. He had promised to write to Ashe soon, but nothing like this--! What was his noble stepfather thinking?

Maybe it was a noble thing. Ashe had learned to read well enough to know that there were some things that were not spelled out, but became obvious once you ‘read between the lines.’ Christophe had taught him that, as he gently worked Ashe through The Sword of Kyphon, the legend of Duke Kyphon and King Loog....

His poor noble stepfather. Ashe had no idea that he still carried this terrible grief. He remembered his stepfather had grown strange and cold when House Gaspard had learned that the Central Church had executed Christophe. Ashe had hardly understood the implications at the time, and only remembered that he was sad that his tall blonde stepbrother had been caught up in a net of conflicting loyalties. Caught between the Church and the Kingdom, Christophe had chosen his King, the grieving Lonato explained to Ashe. The former thief could understand that, at least. The Church of Seiros had opposed Loog and the Rebellion of Faerghus until the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. After that, the Church finally acknowledged the heroism of King Loog and Duke Kyphon, and granted its blessing upon the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus. So even the Church could be wrong, sometimes.

Ashe folded the letter into a pocket of his uniform. There had to be someone he could talk to about this. It couldn’t be anyone in his House, he decided firmly. He didn’t want to force his classmates to choose to be disloyal to their own Houses and oaths. And no one in the Black Eagles of Adrestia could help him either. Noble rules in the Kingdom were bad enough. The rules for the nobility in the Empire were convoluted to the point of absurdity.

Maybe someone from the Golden Deer...

Finally determined, Ashe arose from his bed and exited his dormitory room on the ground floor, pausing to politely greet or acknowledge his fellow students and teachers as he walked to the classrooms. He was surprised to see Felix talking with Petra in the gardens nearby, but they were so engrossed in their own conversation he decided not to intrude, although it made him smile briefly at seeing Felix so...happy? Was that even possible? He also saw Ignatz and Raphael having an animated discussion with a red haired young woman in the gazebo. Ashe thought she looked familiar for an instant; then, he remembered he had seen her at the merchant stalls. Oh, that was...Anna, wasn’t it? Ashe was curious about the merchant himself, but his family errand took precedence.

He wandered slowly into the Golden Deer homeroom, the large golden banners on display making him feel uncertain. He had hoped to find someone like Lorenz, who might have deciphered the noble secrets within Lonato’s letter, or perhaps Lysithea, who had an uncanny knack of cutting straight to the heart of matters. Even Professor Jeralt could have given him some down to earth perspective, but he wasn’t here this afternoon for some reason. Ashe sighed in disappointment and was ready to leave…

“Are you lost or something?”

The voice behind him nearly made him faint with fright as he turned about. “Gah! Leonie! Don’t do that to me!”

“Do what? Ask you a question?” snarked the tall teen hunter, before she laughed. “It’s just me, Ashe. But you should work on being aware of your surroundings. If I had been an enemy, I could have taken you out easily.”

“I’m sorry, I was hoping someone...maybe someone highborn and noble to help me, but not in my own class. I just received a letter from my noble stepfather, Lord Lonato….” stammered Ashe, fumbling for the letter in his pocket.

“Must be nice being adopted by a noble,” muttered Leonie to herself.

“Um, well, I thought so too at first. I thought I was the luckiest boy in the Kingdom, but now...I think something’s happened. He had this delivered to me, by courier...and...it sounds like he’s going to war, over my stepbrother.”

“Whoa,” said Leonie in surprise. “A war? Really? With who? Where?”

“I’m not sure but I think...here. Against the Church.” Ashe waved his hand to indicate Garreg Mach.

“Damn, Ashe. That’s big. Really big. Can I see it?”

Wordlessly, Ashe handed her the letter, and the archer spread it out on a nearby table, a finger tracing the lines, before she looked up, her jaw set. “This is serious. Your stepfather sounds...final. Do you understand?”

Tears started to mist his vision, and Ashe muttered, “No...I hoped he wouldn’t do something like this…”

Unnoticed, Leonie’s face softened as she considered the silver haired boy. Then it hardened in resolve as she declared, “Ashe. We need to tell someone. Someone who can help you! ”

Ashe was emotionally overwhelmed, and felt utterly heartbroken. Thus he was surprised by the gloved hand of Leonie grabbing his own, literally dragging him from the classroom. “Come on. We’re going to find Professor Jeralt.”

*

“I am glad you are speaking with me.”

“Is that so?” Actually, he wanted to spar with her again. But somehow he couldn’t just say it.

“Yes. I was worried Bernie’s arrow did much damage to you.”

“I...concede it was a clever trap you laid for me.”

“Ah. So, it was when Bernadetta made hiding so no one would notice her. And she fooled even you!”

“She...did.”

A silence.

“Felix…”

“What.”

“I am sorry. I have heard tales of the Tragedy. I...I wanted to learn more of you. And it..was sadness.”

Another silence. Put so simply, even Felix was having trouble maintaining himself.

“....yes. It was,” he agreed.

Another long silence. He was no good at this. Maybe he should just leave...

“...Felix…?”

“...yes?”

“I think we are...alikeness. My father died to the Empire. Your brother died to Duscar. But instead, we do not mourn. Instead, we compromise, no? Despite our pain, we make ourselves stronger.”

“....fair enough.”

Another long silence, minutes seeming like hours.

“Felix?”

“What?”

“Will you walk with me?”

He glanced at her sharply at that. Petra was standing before him with her hand outstretched to him. Felix regarded it suspiciously. Did she even know what that might signify?

“...where?”

She smiled at him radiantly. “Anywhere. In the forest. In the fields. We will walk together, and feel the wind and the sun on our faces, and we will live life.”

That did sound...almost nice. And she had her sword, sheathed on her back. Maybe he could get another duel from her in the bargain?

He smiled back up at her before he remembered himself. “...fine.”

*

Jeralt thought he could actually take a day off. What a laugher that was.

His workload was increased, due to Shamir sending Zarad off on some kind of mission. He made inquiries, which somehow stirred up a hornet’s nest of activity, and he just dropped the matter. Whatever those two were cooking up, Jeralt decided it was best for him to stay out of it. Assassins always got huffy when they were forced to explain themselves.

Thus, he had to lean on Ignatz and Claude to make certain they were keeping up on their archery practice, and also to keep Claude out of mischief on free day (something Jeralt had found out was necessary in his first week of classes). And truth be told, for Claude, there wasn’t much he could really teach him that he didn’t already know. Instead, he just made them have increasingly elaborate archery contests against one another. Right now, they were taking turns shooting the still ripening apples and pears off the tops of trees in the orchards, to the rage of monks and farmers in charge. Jeralt noted that Ignatz was slower to draw, slower to aim, slower to keep up...but he didn’t miss. Not once. As long as he never lost his glasses, that kid was going to be a terror on the battlefield.

He hardly had sat down in his office when Leonie arrived with a young freckled Blue Lion in tow, and he knew at once it was going to spell trouble. Jeralt tried his best to be considerate; it was obvious that the young nobleman, Ashe, was nervous around him. And this letter from Lonato….hmm. He DID know what to make of that, but he didn’t want the students to know that. He doubted he fooled his former apprentice, but Ashe gratefully accepted his assurance that he would take this issue up with Lady Rhea herself.

Like Rhea would give up an asset like a Crest-bearing, Relic-wielding noblewoman from House Charon to answer for her crimes in the Kingdom.

Jeralt wanted to chide himself for his cynicism, but at the same time...he had seen too much. People revealed themselves by their actions, or how they spent their time. And the Kingdom of Faerghus had collectively responded to the death of its King by going absolutely berserk.

He reminded himself that there were Kingdom nobles that did hate the late King Lambert. Political reform in Fodlan was always a tricky thing; Houses that owned Crest bloodlines could be instrigiant and indignant to the point of breeding that non-compliance across generations. A King or a nobleman taking up the cause of the Crestless was often literally risking the existence of his House. Marriage proposals to heirs would dry up; border skirmishes or “bandit attacks” would increase, forcing the noble family to risk themselves or their heirs on the battlefield. And inevitably, the Central Church was forced to take sides and adjudicate peace between the survivors, or send its own agents out to “clean up” a noble House.

Lord Lonato was sounding like he was adding himself to that list.

Sighing, Jeralt wearily got up from his office chair with the incriminating letter and went to see the Archbishop. That took an hour, because Rhea was busy in a meeting with a conclave of priests, then was addressing a petitioner from the Northern Church on concerns of blasphemy in Fhirdiad, and finally was hearing another report from an abbess over some strange disappearances of young women within Garreg Mach Town. One thing he had not missed in the past twenty years was Church bureaucracy.

“What is it, Jeralt?” asked Rhea when he could finally approach.

“Something that requires privacy, Lady,” he said flatly, offering her the letter. 

Curious, she took the pamphlet and quietly absorbed the contents. Looking up, she nodded and they both silently retired to her office, shutting the door on the audience chamber.

“So, Lord Lonato thinks that trouble will come to Garreg Mach?” said Rhea, deceptively mild as she sat at her desk.

“I heard of his son’s execution by the Church. I imagine he’s still upset about it,” said Jeralt dryly.

“The Tragedy…” murmured Rhea softly, as she shook her head in sorrow. “It is terrible that this vile event still lingers in the hearts of so many. I suppose it will be decades before the aftershocks die down.”

“Why did the Knights bother with his execution to begin with? You should’ve just turned him over to the secular authorities,” mused Jeralt. “There’s something to be said for keeping your hands clean…”

“Faerghus...was in chaos,” said Rhea, reluctantly he thought. “It was all I could do to keep the Northern Church from participating in the slaughters that followed. And Christophe Gaspard’s crimes were not merely regicide. Now it seems as if the father is taking up his son’s cause.”

“Fine.” It was clear Rhea was being evasive, but Jeralt did not want to press his luck. “But I don’t think we want the Knights of Seiros marching on House Gaspard, slaughtering Lonato’s peasant levies. Can’t Grand Duke Rufus handle it?”

“Lonato, or whoever is standing behind him, has planned this well. The bulk of the Kingdom knights were but recently sent to Viscount Kleiman’s lands, in order to participate in another senseless massacre of the Duscar natives.”

“What about the Western Church?”

Rhea was lost in thought for a long moment. “I...have my doubts as to their reliability. The Western Bishops are barely civil with the Central Church these days. They may be even covertly supporting this rebellion. I am not certain.”

This was going from bad to worse. Jeralt started to pace, trying to play out the scenario in his mind. “So why now? This doesn’t make sense. Lonato waits four years after his son’s death, sends his other son to attend Garreg Mach Academy, and then two months later decides to attack it?”

“Ashe may be a part of the conspiracy…”

“So he shows us this letter?” Picking up the parchment from her desk, Jeralt snorted to himself; then sobered as he considered it more seriously. Ashe seemed more decent than that, but still…

Rhea shook her head, this time with uncertainty. “Or he may be a pawn in his stepfather’s plotting. We will have to question him, unfortunately. I do not see how it can be avoided.”

Jeralt nodded at the necessity. “I imagine that our auxiliaries that were sent to Castle Gaspard might be lost.”

“I will write inquiries to the surrounding territories of their whereabouts. We must find the reasoning behind Lonato’s actions. If he has harmed them in any way, then his rebellion has already begun.”

“It’s absolute madness, though. Lonato must know he has no chance against the Knights of Seiros and the Central Church. He can barely field two thousand, maybe three if he has done a full levy of his region. But hardly any of them will be Knights…”

“He may be growing desperate. Catherine told me that Lonato wished to hire you specifically before the bandit attack. He may have discovered your identity, and wished to take advantage of an ex-Knight’s knowledge.”

That was an unstated question if he had ever heard one. The Professor of the Golden Deer blinked, then growled, “Think what you will of me, Rhea, but this was my home. This was her home. I would never have done that.”

“I believe you, Jeralt,” Rhea smiled sadly, but her expression quickly turned more grave. “We will have to muster the entirety of the Knights. We cannot let the townsfolk or the students be put at risk.”

Jeralt halted his restless movement. “That’s what they want us to do. This is too coordinated, Rhea. It’s too timely. Barely a month after a bandit attack on the three royal brats, and now this? Someone’s taxing us, trying to bleed the Church dry of resources before they make their true play.”

“I agree,” replied the Archbishop, and there was a note of steel in her voice that Jeralt well-remembered. “And if they are asking to see the full wrath of the Church, then I say we let these fools witness it.” 

Jeralt stubbornly held his ground. “Rhea. You’re being provoked. They’re practically inviting us to use that Blue Lion kid as a hostage. You told me the Central Church’s reputation is in doubt. If we send out the Knights to meddle in Kingdom affairs, gossips and rumour mongers and half the nobles of Fodlan are going to be blaming you and the Church of Seiros the very next day.”

“And you suggest we let a rebellion against the Church fester and linger?”

“No. I’m suggesting to let the Kingdom handle it, and let them get the blame when it goes south, as rebellions inevitably do. Send emissaries, by pegasus, to the other Houses of the Kingdom. Tell them they have bigger fish to fry than killing women and children in the hills of Duscar! If they want a real fight, then there’s one waiting for them in Western Faerghus and San Aubin. You told me before that you need to conserve your political power, Rhea, so for the Goddess’ sake, do not march five thousand Knights of Seiros into rebellious territory! It only makes Grand Duke Rufus appear weak and dependent, and you will only become more of a target!”

Rhea stood up abruptly, the large ornate desk chair sliding backwards until it hit the wall with a loud crack.

Jeralt blinked to realize he had pressed his luck.

The Archbishop approached him silently, her face serene and composed beneath her long green hair and tiara. Jeralt still stood tense as he eyed her warily. He had seen Rhea kill men with the same expression on her face.

“It has been over twenty years since anyone in my service has spoken that way to me, my old friend.” Rhea tilted her head. “Not even Seteth raises his voice with me.”

Jeralt nodded once, meeting her gaze.

“I have missed it,” she admitted quietly, then walked from the room, asking a nearby monk to bring Alois and Seteth to attend her.

Jeralt let out a slow breath, realizing he had fallen back into his old role without even thinking about it. Like a rickety wagon following ruts in a well-worn road. Was he still the devoted Knight, determined by love and duty to protect Lady Rhea? Even from herself?

No. He had done that for a lifetime and more. He had a daughter now, something more worthy of fixating on, and a bunch of misfit brats from the Alliance who depended on him now.

Rhea had a score of secret cardinals, a host of lesser bishops and priests, five legions of Knights, and numerous other figures to advise her. He wasn’t going to get involved with her governance of Fodlan anymore.

Besides, he thought grimly as he left the office, it wasn’t like it was his idea to be here in the first place.

*

Lorenz Hellman Gloucester was relishing the free time on this day. While training and instruction at the Academy was all well and good, there were so many aesthetic pursuits of the nobility that needed diligent effort as well. Maintaining his singing voice could be accomplished with choir duty, and training with the lance or sword made certain that his feet and legs were in the proper condition for elegant dancing. But poetry...ah, poetry demanded quiet for reflection, and the proper setting for his Muse to transpose the spiritual into sublime prose. Thus he was secluded in a corner bench of the gardens of Garreg Mach, allowing his noble mind to wander as he absorbed the power of this ancient environment. He wrote slowly in a small book, trying out various words and phrases, and enjoyed the exquisite agony of picking the right rhyme or imagery. Truly, there was no greater bliss than this.

A shadow fell over his page. “Excuse me for intruding.”

Lorenz looked up, not quite frowning (frowning causes wrinkles) to see who was bold enough to disturb him.

Prince Dimitri stood before him, looking quite transparent for a future King. Indeed, the man appeared positively bashful as he asked, “Lorenz, may I have a moment of your time? There is something I must ask of you.”

Ah. Now this was an opportunity to seize. He could well imagine the looks on peoples’ faces when he told them how the Prince of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus had come to him, the future Lord Gloucester, for advice. Lorenz quickly put his quill and book away in an elegantly crafted leather satchel, while politely inquiring, “Of course, Prince Dimitri. What is it you wish to ask? I will hold whatever you may say to me in the strictest confidence.”

“Yes, I appreciate it,” stammered the blonde Prince, looking from side to side evasively. “It’s...it’s something quite sensitive, and I did not want to admit my shame to my classmates, but Sylvain mentioned in passing that you were the resident expert on the topic...although, maybe he didn’t phrase it in such laudatory terms…”

“My dear Prince,” said Lorenz, smoothly cutting off the man’s babble. How interesting. The Prince was positively aflutter about something. Was this about Lady Marianne? “I am delighted to aid you in any trifling way that I can. Please, just state your request.”

Wild, desperate blue eyes fixed on him. “Um, well, please do not think less of me...but Lorenz...can you show me how to have tea properly?”

*

An hour later, Lorenz unfortunately could not hold himself true to the Prince’s last request. He did think less of him. 

All went well in the first few minutes when they retired to Lorenz’s quarters. The Prince could be taught to sit at ease, be somewhat charming in discourse in his forthright manner, and could even name several flavors of tea that he preferred, but his favorite (when pressed) was chamomile. Chamomile was best when the flowers were fresh, and luckily, Lorenz had several in a jar enchanted with a mild preservation charm. He had no cakes or pastries on hand, but he did have a tin of candied mints that could serve in a pinch. Lorenz selected the saucers and cups and tea pot with the white and gold flower pattern, and gently thanked Prince Dimitri for his aid and concern over Lady Marianne while the tea was brewing. That was something of a mistake, as it did not at all set the Prince at ease, nor could he accept the accolade in good grace as Lorenz poured the tea. Thus Gloucester nobleman partially blamed himself for what happened next.

“Thank you, Lorenz. The...scent does have a relaxing aroma,” said the Prince, then reached for his teacup and saucer.

As he lifted the handle, the thin porcelain handle snapped off from the cup, spilling its contents to the floor. Dimitri was ashamed, and in his distress accidentally crushed the saucer in his other hand. Hot tea and shattered pottery covered Lorenz’ favorite rug, imported at great expense from Almyra. Chagrined for a moment, Lorenz could only stare at the scene as the Prince stammered out an apology.

Forcing a lighthearted chuckle, Lorenz waved all apologies and explanations away. So, the tales of the Prince’s great strength were not exaggerated. “Prince Dimitri, please do not feel any shame on my part. Here...I believe I have some napkins that we can use to clean up…”

The mess was quickly cleared away, aside from the tea stain ruining the delicate dyes in the middle of his rug. He would have to get it magically restored, and that would be a bother, but he was already committed to helping the poor Prince. Mournfully glancing at the remaining cups in his now-incomplete white and gold tea set, Lorenz considered his cabinet for a moment, then brought out three more, determined to teach Dimitri some grace and poise. They could try it out with empty cups at first.

Three more cleaned messes of shards and powder later, Dimtri was bowing his blonde head in complete humiliation. “Forgive me, Lorenz. This was wrong of me to ask of you. I am afraid I will be forever hopeless in these matters. I suppose I will have to cancel my upcoming engagement…”

Trying very hard now not to frown (because frowning causes wrinkles, he sternly reminded himself!), Lorenz at this point decided to admit that there were some things that even he, Lorenz Hellman Gloucester, could not do alone. But the Prince’s despondency refused to make him admit defeat, especially since he heard that the Prince would be disappointing a potential future partner. And the Blue Lion House Leader had been so kind and chivalrous to Lady Marianne. That merited a reward, even if it cost him every teacup in his cabinet! But who’s opinion could he trust in this hour of need?

At that moment, voices drifted through his door from the hallway of the nobles’ second floor dormitory.

“Oh wow, Ferdinand, thanks so much for polishing all of that armor and getting the rust off! You’re such a sweetie!”

“I should thank you, Hilda, for being so attentive and respectful. I’m sure you will now do a fine job in the future by yourself!”

“Aw, thank you, Ferdinand, but I’m afraid it might not have totally stuck with me, even though you’re such a good teacher. Wait, I know! We can schedule another session next week! See you then!” A door slammed shut.

“Ah, um, yes, of course…”

Lorenz swiftly interposed himself between the Prince and the door, preventing the dejected man from leaving, and all but ordering him to remain seated. “Our tea party is not quite finished yet, Prince Dimitri. But please excuse me for a moment. I must consult with my fellow tea enthusiast on how to aid you.” With that, Lorenz opened his door and darted through it, leaving a bewildered Dimitri behind him.

Lorenz quickly marched down the hall, intercepting a muttering Ferdinand, who looked up as he approached. “Ah! Lorenz! You look uncharacteristically out of sorts. What may I do for you?”

“I am currently hosting Prince Dimitri of Faerghus for tea,” said Lorenz grimly. A brief, bald explanation followed, but the von Aegir nobleman immediately saw how dire an emergency this could be. A Prince of any nation in Fodlan that was unable to participate in teatime was...unthinkable. The unfortunate man would be a social pariah in the halls of nobility for the rest of his days, if they did not intervene.

Ferdinand immediately diagnosed the cause of the ailment. “Lorenz...we must be considerate about this. The Prince has lost his parents, after all, and he may have never practiced having tea at all in the past four years. It must mean very much to him that he wants to learn again. And as for his strength...we must be sensitive to his disability, and provide an alternative as his hosts.”

“An alternative to a matching tea cup? You would break up the harmony of the set?” said a horrified Lorenz.

“Better that than not being able to have tea at all,” Ferdinand declared sternly. “Let me get some things from my room, while you rebrew the tea for our guest. I will join you in a moment.”

Lorenz was so flustered he forgot to thank Ferdinand, but managed to hasten back to his room to prevent Dimitri from shamefully sneaking away once more. Seeking to put the Faerghus noble at ease, while emptying the teapot and rinsing and refilling it, Lorenz said with most empathy he could express, “My dear Prince, I am so sorry to not understand at first why this is so difficult for you. I am sure you have experienced numerous moments like this in the past. Many people in this world wish for great strength, but I believe you can see it can be a curse as well.”

“It does make me feel...isolated, at times,” Dimitri said reluctantly. “My trainers and companions would often scold me for being too excitable or thoughtless. There were occasions when I broke swords simply by swinging them too hard, and I nearly caused grave injury to those dear to me. Only my father really understood my turmoil. Like him, with anything delicate I was at an utter loss, as you can see. Sewing, painting, cooking…” 

“How terrible,” said Lorenz, with not entirely unfeigned sympathy as he set the water to boil with a silent cantrip. “I imagine learning your letters must have been exceptionally difficult.”

“They did...come later for me. But fortunately, our Court Magician, Archmage Cornelia, kindly enchanted a set of magical, unbreakable quills for me, as well as indestructible inkwell. I brought them here to Garreg Mach with me, and they are the only way I can write in class...or at all, really.”

The admission struck Lorenz hard, and his Muse was suddenly devastating him when he least expected it. This poor man...his entire life had been a search for control, over something he had no control over. It was shocking. It was tragic. It was...poetic. He needed to write this down...

However, Ferdinand entered the room at that moment, displaying his contributions. Dimtri was suddenly overwhelmed again, and protested at the attention, but Ferdinand distracted him effortlessly with his news that he had recently purchased a Shield of Zoltan, displaying the magnificent artifact to the Prince with a flourish. Dimitri was enchanted enough by the tale of the Prime Minister’s son’s acquisition that he did not notice Lorenz pouring the chamomile tea into two white porcelain tea cups, and one heavy and ornate silver goblet discreetly placed on the serving table by the Black Eagle. Pouring hot tea into something metallic repulsed Lorenz, but he noted that at least the Prince’s hands were gloved, and the man was passionate enough about the ensuing conversation that he noticed not at all the differing cup that he sipped from.

The poor Prince had suffered enough Tragedy, Lorenz decided, as he generously passed the tin of mints around the table. He would speak to Claude and Hilda and Lysithea about this. Prince Dimitri deserved an acknowledgement of his inherent nobility from the Golden Deer House, and it was going to be gifted to him by the thoughtful perception of none other than Lorenz Hellman Gloucester!

*

The preparation for the evening meal was going well. The potatoes and onions were roasting in the ovens, the potages and stews were on the stoves, plenty of hot water was available, and the roast birds and fish were being steamed, while he kept a close eye on their temperature... 

He tried not to look at the small, purple haired form that dashed around him in a white apron as he went about his duty. It was the Black Eagle of House Varley, Bernadetta. The girl seemed contrary to his existence, squealing and stuttering every time he spoke to her, but that was understandable. She must have heard tales of the Tragedy. Or else she was avoiding him out of self-preservation for her own noble status. That must be it. He could hardly blame her. It truly was better if all but his Prince avoided him.

He had been unprepared for the day when Prince Dimitri declared before the Court of Faerghus that he was his vassal. He could feel nothing but pride for his Prince that day, and a secret pleasure in his Lord’s acknowledgement of his worth. Dimitri had risked everything before every Lord of the Kingdom to defend one man from Duscar. His title, his blood, his life.

His Prince had bled for him. Dedue would never forget that fact, even as he never forgot the gang of illiterate thugs that called themselves Knights who had killed his family and people.

The Holy Kingdom of Faerghus could burn for all that he cared. By their own collective actions, they had revealed their natures.

But by a Prince’s action in Duscar, Dimtri had revealed his own. Since that day, he had never left his Prince’s side. At first, it had simply been a numb survival reflex, knowing that a pale noble boy’s whims were the only thing preventing him from ending up in another shallow grave. However, he soon saw how the Prince was dealing with his own terrible grief, and the young noble’s dawning horror to realize that Dedue was the only one from Duscar he would be allowed to save. He could not trust his own Knights and leave Dedue by himself in a camp full of blood-drunk soldiers, and he was physically restrained multiple times from leaving the royal tent by a full squad of Knights, on orders from his uncle the Regent, even as he sobbed and screamed at them to stop the killing.

In the days that followed, they were two young men clinging to a single spar in a raging sea of grief, and so they clung to each other to reassure themselves of reality in a world that had fallen to madness. They were sent away from Duscar with an escort, travelling far to the east, to the territory of House Fradalrius, along with a coffin. A small coffin.

He snapped out of his musings as he was chopping the carrots to see Bernadetta hovering over one of the massive pots on the stove; the one containing the Prince’s stew! She was on her tip-toes, liberally sprinkling something inside…

“Bernadetta,” he intoned, setting down his kitchen knife.

“Aiieee!! What?! I didn’t do it! Spare me!” she squealed in alarm, hiding a small jar behind her back.

“What are you doing.” A statement.

“No-nothing! Ha ha! Just stirring the soups, seeee! La-di-da, nothing to see here, Bernie’s just making sure they don’t scorch,” she sang out, her small frame sweating and trembling as she whisked the many ladles back and forth, one hand still behind her back.

“You are not following the recipe,” he said, moving to stand behind her.

She gasped as he came near. “Eeep! N-no, I m-mean yes, I am! Bernie would never disobey Chef Dedue! Uhhh...because...th-that’s a big De-don’t! Ha ha ha...um...get it? Sm-small joke…like me...”

“...may I have a taste?”

“--wh-what do you mean? No! You can’t!” she panicked again as she stared up at him, backing away. “Don’t put me in the oven! I’m gamey! I’m stringy! I’ve got worms!”

He could only be silent at that last remark.

“...eeeehmmmm…” whimpered Bernadetta, swaying back and forth.

He tried to nod as gently as possible. “Please stand aside.”

“Ri-right!” the small girl nodded frantically, trying to undo her apron with one hand. “Bernie is ss-so done for today! Ju-just all tuckered out! I’ll just head back to my room now…”

“Wait,” he asked, getting a clean spoon ladle from the rack on the wall.

“Um! Yes! Sir! Waiting! I will wait!” said Bernadetta, looking as if she was about to burst through her uniform while standing at attention...still with one hand behind her back.

Stirring the Prince’s stew gently, Dedue lifted the spoon and its contents and blew on it softly, hoping that it had not been ruined. When it had cooled enough, he tasted it.

Perfection.

That was the only word he could use to describe it. Whatever Bernadetta added, it only enhanced the flavor profile, adding new depths and aromas that might possibly satisfy his Prince. For years, he had bent his talents in the kitchen to help his Prince find the simple joy of food once more. The freshest ingredients, the most choice cuts, or even the most aged cheeses only brought a sad, wistful smile to Dimitri’s face. But this…this might finally be what he had been looking for all these years.

He set the ladle down on the counter and turned to the small form of Bernadetta. She looked somewhat blue in the face, holding her breath.

So he bowed to her like the lowest of servants.

“Bernadetta. Your skills in the kitchen exceed my own. Please accept my humble apologies.”

“AHhhhhh,” gasped Bernadetta for a moment, and he was silent as she regained her breath, before she looked up at him hesitantly and whispered, “I--I’m sorry...I just wanted to do something for Prince Dimitri for being so nice to my friend Marianne...and, I know it’s a bad idea, bu-but this was all I could think of…” she stammered, finally revealing a small clay jar she held before her.

“I will trust your judgement,” he nodded down to her, ignoring the proffered jar.

Pure shock. “Wh-what?! What does that mean?”

“Just that. You are a more talented cook than I. From now on, you may inform me on how to prepare meals, if you desire.”

“....ohhh, ohhhahhmmmm, G-goddess, w-wow! Umhm...ok, wow. Y-you really think I’m good enough?” she asked shyly, smiling for the first time in his presence.

“I do,” he smiled back at her, before considering a moment. Unfortunately, that made his face stern and stoic once again. “But...do you wish to be near someone of my skin? You will not wish to associate with a man of Duscar…”

“Um. What? Y-your skin? Wh-what? No no, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s big and smooth, with lots of muscles...b-b-b-but ahmm, forget I said that, hah hah hah!” Bernadetta falsely laughed and rubbed the back of her head while the other hand swayed nervously. “I mean...it’s just that you look so s-s-serious sometimes…or maybe all of the times...”

“I have been told before my face is frightening to most people,” he sighed with regret, closing his eyes briefly. “I can only apologize…”

“Well...m-maybe I can help you again? If it’s ok with you!” she hastened to add, before timidly lowering her eyes. “But...y-you probably th-think I’ve done too much already…”

“Bernadetta,” he said sternly. That made her jump to attention and hold her breath once more. He was going to have to put effort in modulating his tone around her. “I told you that I will trust your judgement. I meant it.”

Another gasp of air, but this time the short girl nodded once as she recovered. “Um...ok. Yeah! So...you wait right there. Bernie will be right back!” Setting her jar on the countertop, she sprinted away before he could coutermand her.

His curiosity finally getting to him, Dedue picked up the small jar. It was labeled ‘herbes du provence.’ He had never heard of such a thing. Perhaps it was used in Imperial cuisine? He uncorked it and gave a cautious sniff, and immediately identified savory, thyme, and rosemary...and there, that was oregano...but there were other scents that he was mystified by. Was Bernadetta an herbalist as well? He had to admit, his previous experiences with his Blue Lion classmates made him doubt her proficiency. But here was a talent that complimented his own in the kitchen.

Bernadetta returned just as quickly as she had left. “B-back! Umm...here!” she said, thrusting something white up towards him. “I-I made it for you, f-for your birthday, but...um...you can have it now! And...I hope it's a good fit...but you can throw it away if you think it’s too silly…”

Handing the jar of spices back to her, Dedue solemnly accepted the gift. It looked like a cleaning cloth, but one side was puffier than the other...

Recognition dawned. “Ah.” he said, then opened it up to place it on his head. It was a perfect fit.

A chef’s hat.

“Does this help my appearance?” he asked as he smiled down to Bernadetta.

Another shy smile from Bernadetta, who was turning red beneath her purple bangs as she swayed, this time in happiness. “...um. Yeah. Yeah! It...it kind of does, actually.”

*

Catherine stormed through the halls of Garreg Mach, full of all the righteous indignation she could muster, which was more than most members of the Church, including the cardinals. Thunderbrand seemed to match her mood, and was glowing a fiery orange on her back in its shoulder sheath.

She barked at a trio of students in her way, and they fled before her wrath. A pair of nuns in the middle of a walking prayer were rudely shouldered past. Beatrix and Marianne, on their way to the stables, wisely stepped aside long before she passed them, although the older woman glared at her as she stomped by. Catherine ignored her, single-mindedly focused on her goal in the Knight’s quarters.

Shamir’s door.

She barely restrained herself from breaking it down. Instead, three hard slams into the wood with her gauntleted fist would do. Even then, the door nearly shook off its hinges.

Barely five heartbeats passed, and Catherine had her fist raised again, when the door opened and the Dagdan woman stood by it, cooly assessing her up and down, before saying in her flat voice, “Catherine. I’m not in the mood.”

“Then you had better damn get there! What the hell have you done?” she snarled, her anger almost making the words inarticulate. She moved to push past her partner and enter the room.

Instantly the edge of a dagger was at the skin of her neck, the keen blade nearly touching the veins and arteries, forcing Catherine into absolute stillness. Shamir’s eyes were as cold as a glacier as they met her own. “I warned you to never touch me unless I asked you first. I highly suggest you calm the fuck down. Now.”

The tension between the two women stayed charged for an instant longer, before Catherine nodded slowly and carefully stepped back. She closed her eyes and took a long shuddering breath. And another, while clenching her fists in rhythm. Finally her blue eyes snapped open again, her fury now turned to smoldering resolve. “May I come in?” she growled.

Shamir held her eyes as she flipped her dagger back into its sheath. A single brusque nod. “You may, if you can prevent yourself from shouting. You raise your voice at me again, and I’ll toss you out on your ass, Relic or no Relic.” She stepped aside from the portal.

Catherine was still trembling with anger, but she managed to enter the bedroom and quietly shut the door behind her. “Tell me about the Almyran.”

“Cyril’s training is coming along well.”

“Don’t--” Catherine almost shouted, but she stopped short at Shamir’s raised brows, and continued at lower volume. “--don’t fuck with me, Shamir. Jeralt’s corporal. Zarad. Where did you send him?”

“On a mission. He just got back.”

“You should have cleared it with Seteth. Lady Rhea. Alois. Anybody with authority.”

“It was a private thing.”

“I’m sure it was,” said Catherine sarcastically, grinding the words out. “Care to now inform the rest of us?”

“First tell me how the hell you found out. I thought I had covered all my bases.”

“Blame Jeralt. He was looking for his corporal when he had missed too many archery training sessions for the Golden Deer.”

“That big dumbass. He told me he was free this month.”

“That’s what you get.” But Catherine’s voice softened and she pleaded, “Why didn’t you tell me at least?”

Shamir stretched into the air, before sitting suggestively in a chair. “I figured it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

Catherine ignored the archer’s attempts to distract her and scowled down at her. “So where is your best friend Zarad now?”

“In the dungeons,” Shamir smiled up at her.

Now she definitely had to turn around to avoid being distracted. That fucking smile was a killer, and Shamir knew it. This woman might be the death of her...literally, she acknowledged, rubbing at the fine bloody scrape on her neck. Her anger was slipping away but Catherine forced herself to maintain it. It was her duty to Lady Rhea to get to the bottom of this. “And why is he in the dungeons?” she said to the wall. 

She heard the chair scoot back as the younger woman stood, seemingly all business again. “He’s there with an old friend of ours. Let’s go and I’ll show you. And if you think I’ve been a good little Knight--” the smile returned as Shamir stepped close and whispered into her ear “--maybe I’ll ask for a reward.”

Catherine consciously forced her knees not to wobble. Nobody, not even Lady Rhea, had this effect on her. By the Goddess and the Five Saints...

She managed to nod to her partner, intrigued despite her earlier rage, but led the way to the dungeons. Following Shamir’s deadly saunter was the last thing she needed to see right now. Past the Knight’s Hall, past the graveyard, they walked until they entered the vaults. The two Knights then took a small inconspicuous door hidden the shadows, away from the well-lit entrance to the main vault. Down, down, down they went on unevenly cut stone stairs, with the dark passages becoming alarmingly narrow and claustrophobic. They opened the door at the end of the steps, and Catherine impatiently unsheathed Thunderbrand and let its glow light the way, not bothering with striking up a torch. Nodding to the single bored Knight on duty in the relatively bright watch room below ground, they passed by heavy-iron reinforced doors and deep oubliettes in the heavy stone walls surrounding them, some of which had feeble voices raised up in pitiful begging. Both Catherine and Shamir ignored the sounds of misery.

At the first intersection, she muttered to the woman behind her, “Where?”

“Second cell on your left.”

The one where a torch was lit on a sconce by the door. That made sense. Nodding, she moved towards it, hearing muffled noises with the distinct sound of fists against flesh. Testing the door, she noted it was unlocked and looked to Shamir for confirmation. The Dagdan smiled evilly and she inclined her head.

Catherine opened the door to the interrogation cell, seeing the large form of Zarad in travel stained clothing causally beating a robed prisoner with a black hood over his face. Gagged moans echoed from the hood as the prisoner struggled feebly against the heavy manacles that bound his limbs to the far stone wall. The Almyran paused in his blows as the lurid orange glow of Thunderbrand filled the room, shining brighter than the dim candles within.

Seeing Catherine with her sword drawn, the big man froze momentarily. “Um...I’m just following orders…?”

“You are,” said Shamir behind her. “Sorry about this. She was using it for light. Is he softened up enough?”

“I think so. But you told me I would have an hour with him,” said the Almyran to Shamir, a pouty frown on his scarred face as he moved to the side.

“Change of plans,” said Shamir easily, moving to the opposite side of the prisoner. She gave a cruel smirk to Catherine, her hair and face appearing devilish in the light of the Relic. “I think my partner wants a turn as well.” With that, she yanked the hood off.

A man of medium height and a pinched, mousey look turned pleading eyes up to the faces around him. When he looked past the glowing sword and saw Catherine, the brown eyes went wide with terror. The prisoner thrashed about, attempting to shriek words through the gag bound tightly across his jaw.

Catherine’s eyes narrowed with vicious delight. She was definitely going to reward Shamir for this. For a week. Hell, maybe even for a month. She thrust Thunderbrand’s tip into the stone floor, the sword Relic piercing rock as if it were sand, and casually strolled forward until she was eye level with the prisoner. “Well, well, well...Professor Masterson, I presume.” She grinned humorlessly as she leaned near his bruised face as he whimpered. “Your former students in the Golden Deer House have missed you.”

*

Chapter Text

Ch 21

Doubts

The dark form slipped past the Knight guarding the stairs, the noise of a simple tossed pebble easily distracting the armored figure from the movement behind him. The second floor hallway was dimly lit, but he carefully padded past the slight glows he could see behind Professor Jeralt’s door and Professor Hanneman’s door. Those two were night owls, like himself. A quick glance past the corners showed the T intersection was clear. To the left were the Cardinals’ conclave chambers; slim chance of getting into those. But his main goal was to the right.

The library of Garreg Mach.

Previous experience made him hesitate; who knew who could be lingering late at night amidst the towering bookshelves of the massive, multi-story room. But his dreams demanded he find answers. And he was going to find them here, in the center of power of the continent of his mother’s people.

A light was coming down the hall. He slipped into an alcove holding a stained glass window, shielding his face so that the light would not reflect off his skin, and trusting in his ability to blend into the shadows. The slow tap, tap, tap of a cane indicated it was Tomas, the Head Librarian. He waited patiently for the old man to pass, ignoring the protest from the muscles in his arms and legs as they held a contorted position.

The past two weeks had been nervous ones. He had been convinced that he had taken an extreme and foolish risk in trusting Lysithea and Ignatz. But they stayed true to their oaths, acting no differently in public with regards to him and his secret. Except maybe Lysithea seemed to snap at him less, waiting to hear him out first before she spoke, while Ignatz smiled and nodded at him frequently with perfect trust in his eyes.

Maybe he had been going about this all wrong. To trust someone, you had to have a relationship. To have a relationship, you had to know them. And the reason his classmates weren’t trusting him was because they didn’t know him.

It must be his royal upbringing in the courts of power, he decided. Nobles paraded about with innumerable masks, false smiles, and insincere gestures and flattery. That was expected, and those were the rules. You never played your true hand. Never admit. Never confess. Never trust. Always make it obvious you were hiding something. Good rules to live by, amongst kings and queens and rivals for the throne, with a dagger behind every back and poison in every pocket. Mom, at least, had coached him relentlessly on how he was expected to survive amongst clan gatherings and royal feasts in Derbend. His father, forever disappointed in his smaller build and shorter height, had once looked down his nose at him and declared that he might never be King, in front of all the clan leaders of Almyra. All but declaring open season on his own son.

When he arrived at Garreg Mach, Edelgard, Dimitri, and Rhea all seemed to wear the same masks he had previously seen. So it was easy to slip into the facade of another ne’er do well noble with a shady past. But then he met people who refused to wear masks. He had mistrusted some of his classmates at first, thinking that they knew it was a game as well, and thought that they were all wearing masks of their own. He was wrong. It had amazed him to see people completely comfortable in their own skin, like Leonie and Raphael, who freely acknowledged their faults and their desire to grow past them. Amazed, and more than a little jealous.

And then there were people like Byleth and Captain Jeralt. They were strange, but they weren’t wearing masks either, as far as he could tell. Along with that sassy healer and the renegade, they were like a scrappy band of heroes from an old legend, fighting for no one but themselves and their own morals. But their origins were a mystery for another day.

He turned his head and listened in the dark for a long moment. Tomas had passed him by, and the corridor was completely still again. His hand against the walls, he guided himself gently through the darkness until he reached the library doors. Rattling the latch, he noted in satisfaction that it was locked. Good. That should mean nobody inside.

Reaching into a belt pocket stuffed with cloth, he withdrew a key shaped exactly like the one Tomas had used just minutes before. Sometimes it was just tragic how people left their keys unattended in their rooms. Where somebody could sneak in, make a clay mold of it, and slip out in less than a minute. He unlocked the door and slipped quickly inside, his nerves jangling at the creak of the rusty hinges as he shut the door behind him.

It was pitch black. But he was alone in Garreg Mach’s library, the single greatest repository of knowledge in Fodlan. The thought made him a bit lightheaded.

He had memorized the layout, but still moved slowly and carefully to where he knew the closest lamp would be. It wouldn’t do to shatter some glass and leave evidence of his presence behind. He undid the glass bulb from the wick, sniffed it to make sure there was still oil, then reached into another thick pocket for a flint and a small blade.

It took more than a few scrapes, but eventually a spark struck the wick and he had light.

Time to do some reading.

The lamp leading in his hand, he slipped past the rope barrier at the stairs to the upper story restricted section. Normally only bishops, cardinals, and Professors were allowed up here, along with the library staff. He moved quickly as he could between the dusty volumes, hating every sound he was forced to make or the tell-tale swipes he was making in the dust. Clearly no one had been up here for a long time, but that couldn’t be helped.

His work was quick and mechanical, but he was delayed by the restricted section being even less organized than regular library. Eventually, though, he found what he was looking for. An authoritative book about Crests. And Relics.

And...a dragon? No, dragons. 

He stared in fascination at the open page of the musty tome beneath him, the large ornate illustration captivating him despite the dim light. There was the Goddess and the Five Saints...so not just a pentology, but a hexology, he noted...with the largest star in the night sky representing the Goddess and her bounty of life, in the summer...but then five lesser stars beneath it, with one white dragon and four black dragons representing them...very interesting. With a start, he saw that there was another layer of deep symbolism associated with each beast and its associated star as well. One was for earth, one was for air, one was for water...

This was going to take time to absorb. Decided, he closed the oversized volume and quickly secured it to his back with long leather straps he had brought just in case for this purpose. It was time to go. He was going to feel much safer reading this in private.

He quickly adjusted the bookshelf the best that he could to hide the fact there was one less book, slipped silently down the stairs, and returned the lamp to its original placement, extinguishing the wick with a quick turn of the knob. A quick creak of the door and metallic clink as he relocked it. Now to get out of here. Back along the wall, slowly and carefully in the dark...except it wasn’t that dark now…there was a faint light in the intersection...

Voices. He cursed to himself. Where could he hide?

“...I do believe she is one of us.”

“...Flayn, I have nothing to say to you on this matter. Please keep your observations to yourself. I promise that all will be revealed in time.”

“...it is quite obvious you are hiding something. That only makes it more suspicious, you know.”

“...and if it is quite obvious something is being hidden, then it should be equally obvious that there is a good reason not to pry. You have but recently Awoken, Flayn. There is still much for you to learn...”

“...which I could do, if you allowed me to enroll into the Academy…”

“...that would only put you at more risk…”

Seteth and his sister, Flayn. Shit. Shit. They were blocking his path to the stairs, lingering near the Archbishop’s audience chamber. And Seteth had a...what did they call it? “Nose for trouble.” “Eyes in the back of his head.” “Like he could read my mind.” The High Abbot’s awareness and senses were legendary among the students of Garreg Mach, reputed to border on the preternatural. He did not want to test his stealth skills against them.

“...Flayn, go to your room…”

“...but I don’t want to…”

“...now, Flayn. This is not a debate. Go!”

And just as he thought of it, Seteth had sniffed him out. Was this the Gods telling him he needed to bathe more often? He looked wildly in the dim hallway around him, doubting simply hiding in an alcove would work this time. There had to be an out. There had to be an option.

Gambling it all on a wild guess, he tried to open the first door to his right, just as a beam of light nearly rounded the bend of the hallway.

The Gods were with him. The door was unlocked, and he closed it behind him quickly, blessing his fortune that the hinges did not creak. Professor Manuela must have them oiled regularly. And the Professor herself was in her regular stupor on her bed, curled up with an empty bottle next to her. She was sound asleep in a nightgown, snoring like a Beast in its lair. As long as he didn’t step on the myriad other empty bottles on the floor in here, he was safe. Seteth’s sense of propriety wouldn’t let him intrude on a woman’s bedroom in the middle of the night.

He leaned an ear at the door, listening. Footsteps approaching. Pausing, near the door. And then very hastily retreating, with a distinctly scandalized tempo to their pattern. A door further down the hallway quickly slammed shut.

Claude grinned to himself. Tomorrow’s battle between Professor Manuela and Father Seteth was going to be epic. He could imagine the look on her face when the High Abbot all but directly accused her of sleeping with a student, and her shocked and outraged denial would be completely genuine. Now to get his bounty safely back to his dorm.

He made it back to his room without further incident. The forbidden book was quickly secured in a hiding place beneath his other scattered open books and maps strewn all over every available surface in his room. Who would look for it in this mess? Satisfied, he quickly stripped off his black clothing and gear and returned them to his footlocker. A look out his window showed that it was almost dawn. Time to start the day!

A towel wrapped around his waist, the Golden Deer House Leader was soon on his way to the saunas and baths, whistling a triumphant, appreciative song to greet the rising sun.

*

Linhardt knew he was forgetting something important. It was most irritating and distracting, like there was always something on the tip of his tongue. It invaded his dreams, troubling him from naptime, and preoccupied his every waking thought, disturbing his reading and research. It was terribly bothersome, and it had been going on for weeks now.

Finally, he remembered.

The Black Eagle House was left at loose ends this morning when a furious Father Seteth had confronted a bemused Professor Manuela and summoned her from the classroom. They had no idea what that was about, but the shouting between the two could be heard all over Garreg Mach. Without a lecture for the morning hours, the students improvised as best they could manage. Bernadetta immediately fled back to her room. Ferdinand and Petra were deeply immersed in a hypothetical wargame of Adrestia and Brigid versus the forces of the Kingdom and the Alliance, consulting their maps and moving small colored stones representing Knights and legions. Dorothea and Caspar had gone to look for someone to explain what was going on with Professor Manuela.

This gave him the chance to speak with Edelgard, especially since what he remembered concerned her recently acquired white armored, blue haired shadow, Knight Byleth.

The Imperial Princess and Hubert were having some kind of argument in whispers in the corner of the classroom, but each halted and regarded him with thinly veiled hostility as he approached. “We are in the middle of something, Lord Hevring. Your presence is not required,” said Hubert in a near hiss.

“I do want to be as far removed from any conspiracy involving the two of you as I can possibly be,” agreed Linhardt easily. Both pairs of eyes narrowed at him suspiciously at that. This already was exhausting. And Hubert always wanted to be oppositional simply for the sake of his self-image. “But I just remembered something that Princess Edelgard might wish to know. It concerns her ah, shall we say, friend. The Knight of Seiros.”

“Speak on, then,” said Hubert, looming over him with folded arms.

Linhardt merely slid a lazy gaze to the shorter form of the Princess.

“Just a moment, Hubert,” she said. “I believe I can handle myself alone with Linhardt. If he falls asleep on me, you may toss him into the river with the fish.”

“My Lady,” said the dark haired mage with a bow. With a final glare at Linhardt, he strode from the classroom.

“Such a tense man,” Linhardt said, shaking his head. “I do believe both of you would benefit from a week or two of vacation. You could go to the mountains, or out in the countryside, or down to the beach…”

“Linhardt. If you have a point, I suggest you make it,” said Edelgard crossly.

“Oh. Right. Yes,” he yawned. “Your friend, Lady Byleth. Apparently she really is a Lady.”

“And just what are going on about now?” demanded his short future Empress.

“Just that. Lady Byleth must be nobility. She has a Crest.”

“What--?!” exclaimed Edelgard, shocked out of her poise for once. Heads turned as Ferdinand and Petra looked up from their game. The Princess grabbed Linhardt by the collar of his uniform and nearly lifted him into the air dragging him further in the corner, bringing them eye to eye. “Are you absolutely certain?” she whispered harshly.

He tried to shrug, but that was difficult at the moment. Edelgard’s interesting reaction was making this entirely worth it, however. “As certain as someone can be when they were told by the person in question. It came up right before the mock battle. Caspar and I were discussing how she might have killed that dire wolf.”

“Th-this doesn’t make sense,” said Edelgard to herself, letting go of him. She appeared to be lost in thought. “I haven’t sensed anything from her…”

Linhardt’s eyes widened at that. “Ah-ha. Lady Edelgard. So you have Crest empathy as well?” he smiled.

Edelgard looked distressed at her lapse, and the violet Imperial glare was immediately back upon him. “That is something of a state secret, Linhardt. It would be wise, for the sake of your health and well-being, not to share it. With anyone.”

“Any state secrets are safe with me, Your Highness, as long as I know about them,” he smiled easily again. “But I can’t promise that I won’t uncover more independently in the course of my research.”

“Fair enough, I suppose. So which Crest does Byleth possess?”

“She didn’t know.”

Edelgard was shocked again, and barely prevented herself from another outcry. “How--?” Lowering her voice to a whisper, she started again. “How is that possible?”

“She said she was examined by Professor Hanneman. He determined she did have a Crest, but apparently it must be a Lost Crest. Obviously if it was one the Ten Elite Crests or Five Holy Crests, he would have informed her right then and there. And there was a mention of something about him having to do research.”

“...a Lost Crest…” murmured Edelgard to herself, before eyeing him once more. “Would that prevent our shared, ah, ‘talent,’ from detecting it in her?”

“That...is an excellent question, Lady Edelgard. I honestly have no idea. Maybe, since those Crest bloodlines were once considered extinct. If you want, I could do some research on the subject. Lady Byleth is a stimulating person, so I won’t lose interest, I can promise you that.”

“She is, isn’t she?” smiled Edelgard briefly, but she soon looked pensive again. “Please do so. This news is...rather revealing to me. I admit I can’t help but feel some disappointment. She is usually so honest and forthright with me. Why would she tell you and Caspar but not me?” she said, more to herself than to him.

Linhardt grew concerned. Byleth was good for Edelgard. Anyone with a brain, even one as limited as Caspar’s, could see that. The equation ‘Byleth plus Edelgard equals more sleeping and reading time for Linhardt’ flashed intuitively in his mind. This was really not his forte, but he had to do something.

“Um, so. Edelgard. If I may be so bold,” he said seriously to his Princess. That caught her full attention. Good. He drew in a deep breath. “Byleth is, or shall we say, was, a commoner. She only told us because we asked her directly. If she hasn’t told you...it may be because she doesn’t know how to deal with it. And also, to put it bluntly, she may be afraid to tell you. She might think, for good reason, that you would treat her differently because of it.”

Edelgard absorbed his speech for a long moment. Linhardt recognized what she was thinking behind her eyes. Of how you wanted to be angry with someone, but you just couldn’t. He often felt the same way about his childhood friend. Also, he felt too lazy to seek out anyone else.

He was about to doze off when the Imperial Princess stirred from her thoughtful repose. “Thank you for those insightful words, Linhardt. I have to admit, your intellect has proven to be...a boon to me lately, if not a reliable one.”

“Ah, yes, um? I’m awake,” snapped Linhardt out of his catnap, his mind quickly recalling her words. “I’m happy to provide assistance, Your Highness. But maybe not...on demand, to phrase it delicately.” He brightened as an ingenious thought came to him. “Perhaps we can schedule little talks such as this for...um, let’s say, once a week? I can provide all the insight and wisdom you need from me for an hour, and in return, you leave me alone. No badgering, no lectures, no chases through the halls, no interference.”

“Two hours,” said the Imperial Princess stonily, her regality fully restored. “And you will not fall asleep once during that time.”

That sounded just...well, excruciating, to be blunt. Staying awake in a meeting with Edelgard, and possibly Hubert, for two whole hours? Talking the entire time? But there were another hundred and sixty-six hours left in the week, he reminded himself. Still, could he really do it?

He struggled with it. He really did. At the last, he admitted defeat. “...fine. You drive a hard bargain, Edelgard.”

“I am pleased you think so,” she smiled briefly at him, delighted at his acquiescence. “I will leave it to Hubert to inform you of the details. And now, please excuse me. I have a rather important meeting later today.”

*

“Your Highness, this is a terrible idea.”

“Your candor is noted, Sylvain.”

“Dimitri,” said Ingrid seriously, before immediately amending, “...Your Highness. For once I agree with Sylvain. There’s too much at stake. Please, don’t do this and just decline.”

“It is only an afternoon of tea, my friends,” said Dimitri, shaking his head at his old childhood playmates. These two were giving him a headache. Did they really think so little of him? It was after morning classes, and he had been busy preparing for the event in his room, but of course Sylvain, the social butterfly, had somehow found out about his tea engagement with Edelgard. The fact that Sylvain and Ingrid were united meant they were quite serious in their opposition, however. “I promise that I will not embarrass myself. Ferdinand has generously gifted me this goblet to sip from, so I need not worry about breaking anything.” He hefted the large and fairly gaudy silver cup before his friends, with a double headed eagle emblem engraved upon it.

Sylvain and Ingrid glanced at each other, irritating Dimitri further, before Sylvain sighed and said, “Fine. What’s your objective here, then?”

“What do you mean?” blinked Dimitri.

“C’mon, Your Highness. You don’t do ‘fun.’ You don’t do ‘social.’ And I’m really sorry for saying this, but I don’t think you have done ‘girls.’ You never do anything without a purpose. So what’s your real reason for meeting alone with the future Empress of Adrestia?”

“I...well, I…errm...” Dimitri stammered, at a loss for words before Sylvain’s blunt phrasing.

“Your Highness...I heard that the two of you fought during the mock battle. It has something to do with that, doesn’t it?” asked Ingrid, her eyes concerned.

“...we sparred, yes,” he said as he turned to Ingrid, still dismayed by Sylvain’s direct words. “It was an engaging battle, before we were interrupted by Claude and Professor Jeralt.”

“I heard you guys got into a real fight,” declared Sylvain, crossing his arms.

“Then you are misinformed,” said Dimitri in a low tone, starting to tense up.

“Oh, really? Hilda told me something different, while I was helping carry some books back to the library. And she said she witnessed the entire thing.”

“Dorothea mentioned something similar to me,” said Ingrid. She paused, then began to glare back at the two men as they stared at her. “What? She’s been helping me train. Get your minds out of the gutter, you two.”

“Oh, my mind’s not in the gutter, believe me,” grinned Sylvain at his old friend. “Maybe more of in between the sheets…”

A solid punch to his shoulder from a Crest bearing noblewoman distracted Sylvain for the next two minutes. As he leaned against the wall and groaned in pain, Ingrid looked up at Dimitri through her blonde hair. “If we’re going to do this, Your Highness, you’ll need someone to be your second. Where’s your so-called vassal?”

“Ah...yes,” Dimitri said, briefly frowning at Ingrid’s barely hidden antagonism concerning his loyal friend. “Dedue asked me permission to work in the greenhouses today, and I allowed it. I think he is working hard to increase our options in the dining hall.”

“Meaning that even someone like him would think this is a bad idea, and you just wanted him out of the way, right?” scowled Ingrid. She shook her head as Dimitri didn’t answer. “Fine. I’m coming with you. And if I tell you it’s time to leave, Your Highness, then we’re going to leave, for the good of the entire Kingdom of Faerghus. Do you understand me?”

It was entirely inappropriate for someone of his station to be...well, bossed about in this manner, Dimitri decided. But he decided to overlook it and nodded in submission, if only to focus on the tea party ahead.

He had lacked the courage to confront the Princess since his arrival at Garreg Mach. But...what if he had been wrong to do so? He finally acknowledged to himself that he needed to know. He had to find out lest the uncertainty drive him mad. He had to know who he would be speaking to when the time finally came.

Would he be talking to Edelgard, the sole heir of the Adrestian Empire...or El, his big sister from his childhood?

He truly did not know. But he was now determined to find out.

*

In the dining hall, Byleth finally managed to find her father and Trips, and with a bit of surprise noted Zarad with them as well. She hadn’t seen her Almyran friend in weeks.

“Thought you were dead,” she said, sitting down next to the man with her tray.

“As if anything in this pathetic land could kill me,” he sniffed haughtily. He reached out and tousled her hair playfully, and she quickly swatted his hands away as he laughed.

“Could you do that maybe after you’ve had a bath? Or five?” Byleth groused. He was no bed of roses at the moment. When he opened his mouth to protest, Byleth immediately added, “Jumping into the river doesn’t count.”

“One for her side,” noted Jeralt, and Zarad complained about the softness of Fodlan women. Loudly.

Trips smiled at the antics, but then motioned Byleth to focus. Leaning over her food, her stepmother said in a low voice, “He’s been on an important mission, kid. It wasn’t Church sanctioned, but I think they’ll overlook it because of who he brought in.”

“A bounty?” asked Byleth curiously as she dug into her meat pie.

“A pretty big one,” nodded her father. “Zarad found the old Golden Deer Professor. The one who was here before me. Maybe he’ll explain why he abandoned the kids during that bandit and mage attack.”

“Where is he?”

“In the dungeons, and that’s all you need to know,” said Trips firmly to her stepdaughter. Jeralt grunted in assent beside her. Maybe it was hypocritical of them, but they had both long agreed with each other to shield Byleth from the reality of coercion and torture as much as possible. Previously it was because in her emotionless state, she might discover a passionless capacity for it; now with her flowering emotions, they worried she might develop a taste for it.

“He may have been a mage, but the man was definitely an amateur at hiding. It took me only ten days to find him, cowering in his mother’s cellar in his home village,” said Zarad disinterestedly as he ate.

Jeralt narrowed his eyes at his corporal. “Were you seen?”

“I hope so,” said the black man around a mouthful of food.

“Wipe the crumbs off your chin, if you want me to take you seriously. What do you mean?”

“Behold,” said Zarad with a flourish, reaching into a belt pouch, and ignoring his Captain completely. He produced something white and fuzzy, which he unfolded out on the table.

Byleth leaned closer at the object. It looked like it was made of horsehair. “Is that...a wig?”

Trips made the connection immediately. “Oh Goddess, Zarad. You didn’t,” said Trips, looking at the Almyran in horror.

He snorted scornfully. “As if it is my fault the people of Faerghus are mad dogs. I just made sure those mad dogs would not follow me south back to the Fairy Castle. Their crime and ignorance is of their own making.”

“I hate to say it, but he’s right,” said Jeralt. Trips gasped at his acquiescence and Jeralt held up a hand to speak. “I don’t like it anymore than you, Trips. But Masterson might be essential to getting a lead on the conspiracy against the Church. And that little bit of misdirection might help us in the long run.”

“At the cost of innocent Duscar lives,” said her stepmother darkly, her appetite gone.

“This is war, lass. We can’t save them all.”

You cannot save them all.

Byleth sat straight up and turned in her seat at hearing the voice, looking around for Sothis. She really didn’t know what she would do if she did see her, but at least she could…

“What’s up with you?” said Zarad curiously.

Byleth realized all of her family was looking at her. She shook her head in quick denial. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

“Byleth…”

“I’m fine, Dad,” she almost snarled at him. Blinking in confusion and embarrassment at her outburst, but equally determined to not back down, she abruptly left the table, heading back to the Knight’s quarters.

Trips made to stand and follow, but Zarad whispered intently at the healer, “Wait. There is something I must tell you.”

The healer eyed him doubtfully, and Jeralt looked askance as well. “What, Zarad? We don’t mess with the magic stuff. You know that.”

“Shamir told me something, in exchange for the prisoner,” the corporal intoned quietly. “Something you must know about Byleth. About what happened during the Rites she underwent as a Knight.”

The two parental figures became instantly grim. “Let’s hear it, Corporal,” said Trips, sitting back down.

*

Flayn walked through the halls of Garreg Mach, humming brightly to herself. There was such fine weather today. She had wished for a chance to go fishing with her “brother,” but he was terribly preoccupied with some business concerning the Church. Something about a rebellion or some nonsense of the sort. Despite existing only in dreams for a thousand years, Flayn thought some things about human nature simply never would change, and at times it made even her soul struggle against a sense of futility.

But not today, she thought as she stopped to admire the view from the long monastery bridge from the Academy to the Cathedral. The air was warm, the sun was bright, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky, making the mountains appear magnificent in the distance and the water of the river sparkle with a shimmering clarity. The world was bright and full of possibilities.

She smiled politely to a pair of abbesses who patted her head and blessed her in Sothis’ name, while she replied in a gracious acknowledgement. Flayn still found it decidedly odd to see women of all ages walking by or kneeling in pews, murmuring prayers in her true name. An entire order of nuns, the Sisters of Saint Cethleann, went about their duties at the monastery of healing the sick or injured of Garreg Mach Town, or giving aid and comfort to the needy and dying. They even styled their hair in the manner of her own. Flayn had forgotten how many times she had been mistaken for a novice, of an order that was founded a thousand years ago in her name! It had been amusing at first, but now it was also making her a bit sad as well, that she could not reveal herself to these poor souls who worked so diligently and so faithfully, and do the work of the Goddess beside them.

But her “brother” had forbidden it. It was too dangerous, he said, and he sternly reminded her that humans, even members of the faith, could only be trusted up to a point. Auntie Seiros had wholeheartedly agreed, despite being herself the leader of a faith had millions of human worshippers across the entire continent. Only “special” humans, they informed her, such as the Holy Knight Catherine or Professor Jeralt, were to be trusted in case something happened to them.

Flayn was of the distinct opinion that heads of religions were not, in fact, infallible. She had noticed that her aunt’s behavior had also changed quite a bit over the years. Flayn did not remember her acting so...remote. Something in the intervening centuries had changed her.

She eventually tired of the view, and wandered towards the Cathedral. It was probably empty, this being the hours between services, but she liked to look upon the statues of herself, her “brother,” and her two uncles. She wondered what Uncle Indech and Uncle Macuil were doing these days. When asked, Seteth would only say they were alive, but living far away now, and that they were hiding. She missed them, but was happy to know they were still safe and sound. Looking at the four golden statues, sometimes her eyes watered and shed tears as she imagined another statue that should have been there, that of Mother. Somehow, her sacrifice had been forgotten by history, while her unworthy daughter remained behind. Seteth promised that they would visit her soon…

There were few priests and parishioners moving about on various duties in the vast Cathedral interior, but Flayn was surprised to see the large armored form of Alois nearby, shaking his head, subdued and downcast for some reason. That was definitely unusual, and she immediately veered to speak with him. “Good day, Knight Alois. You do not usually appear so troubled.”

“Ah, hello, dear Flayn,” he nodded down to her. “I must admit I’m in a bit of a pickle. Your brother asked me to interview one of the students, but the poor lad is so distraught I couldn’t get much out of him. We’ve already had that awful trouble with Lady Marianne, and now I fear we might have a similar problem with Lord Ashe.”

“Oh, I know the young man,” smiled Flayn, ignoring Alois’ odd look. “He is usually quite cheerful and helpful. We must attempt to improve his mood at once!”

“I’m sure a sweet girl like yourself should find that to be a cakewalk,” chuckled the old Knight, but his face soon fell once again. “But that’s the trouble. His father is the one starting this awful rebellion against Lady Rhea, and he won’t have a prayer when the Knights of Seiros take the field. The poor boy’s already in mourning for the man, and has been that way ever since the sun came up. Nothing I can say, not even my best jokes, have made him crack a smile.”

Flayn’s smile became a bit strained as Alois explained himself. She couldn’t tell if he was doing it on purpose or entirely without thinking. And she could well imagine the effect Alois’ “best jokes” would have on a young teen upset over a family member. “I’m sure you did your best, Knight-Captain Alois. Where is he? I would like to speak with him.”

Alois nodded further into the nave of the Cathedral. “Up ahead in a pew. I do hope you can raise his spirits. Be sure to sing his praises for me, all right? Sometimes you just need to sit down and count your blessings in this life…”

Flayn quickly stepped past the Knight in mid-sentence, hurrying the silver haired Blue Lion boy. She may be more than a thousand years old, but there were limits to even her patience.

Ashe’s head was bowed where he was sitting, as if in prayer. Flayn knew better from the tension and stress she saw quivering in his shoulders. She stepped quietly into the pew, but still far away enough from the teen to give him privacy if he wished.

The motion made him look up. “Oh,” Ashe sniffed, running a hand across his nose. “Flayn. Are you here to tell me to cheer up as well?”

“That would be very insensitive of me,” she said, shaking her green hair. “I am just here to offer you comfort, in any way that I can manage. You do not need to endure such suffering alone.”

“I look that bad, huh?” said Ashe as he tried to bravely smile through his tears, but soon his face twisted once more. “It’s just...I’ve never felt this helpless in my life. Even when I was stealing food for myself and my family. But now, Lonato is doing something terrible and...I just don’t know what’s right anymore.”

“That is a natural feeling to such distressing news,” agreed Flayn sadly. “And if you were wondering about your stepfather, I believe it is acceptable to acknowledge that you still love him. He always sounded like a gentle and kind man from your stories of him.”

“He was...he is!” whispered Ashe in confusion. “If only there was some way I could say something to him, or do something to make him stop…” 

“And if you spoke to him, and he still would not stop, what would you do then?”

“Then...I’d guess I’d have to fight him...wouldn’t I?”

“You would fight your noble father?” Flayn was astonished by his admission.

“I’m not going to lie...I’m not yet sure if I will be able to do it,” said Ashe, staring at his hands. “But...Lonato taught me that a Knight has to fight for what he believes is true. And just. He told me that sometimes, that’s a hard choice to make. I didn’t understand him earlier, but now...I think I’m beginning to.”

Flayn smiled and patted the boy’s shoulder. He looked up at the contact, and she said, “Ashe, please let me say that only the bravest Knight could endure what you are experiencing now. And you are accepting it well with a maturity beyond your years. I think I can say confidently that whatever choice you make, it will be the one that is the best for yourself. And for others.”

“Um...thank you, Flayn. That...that means a lot to me,” Ashe started sniffing once more. Flayn did not want him to wipe his face on his hands any longer. It would not do to catch illness from such distress. Reaching into an embroidered pocket, she offered him a handkerchief that was hundreds of years old. It did hold some sentimental value, but…

“What? Oh, Flayn, no, I couldn’t. I’m fine, I’ll just,” protested Ashe, ashamed as she held it out to him.

Flayn smiled in deep sympathy. “Please take it, Ashe. You need it much more now than I do.”

*

It always amazed Hubert how a carefully constructed plot could fall awry to the simplest of things.

“You have an important task this afternoon,” Lady Edelgard declared to him after the noontime meal, in the relative privacy of an unobtrusive corner near the saunas. “Linhardt has finally decided to inform me that Byleth somehow has a Crest. We must get to the bottom of this and learn all we can of her possible heritages. Speak with Professor Hanneman or anyone else that might have knowledge which Crest it might be. We must discover the truth about her and her father, no matter what.”

“And what will you do with that truth, Lady Edelgard?” he inquired subtly.

He was satisfied to see his mistress at her most grim and deadly. “Whatever needs to be done.”

“As you say,” he murmured in pleased satisfaction. “But you would not have me leave you alone and unattended against Prince Dimitri and his pet Duscarman this afternoon? That is an unacceptable risk, my Lady.”

Edelgard briefly considered who from the Black Eagle House would not embarrass her. It was a short list, but then said, “Petra may attend upon me. I believe she has sufficient command of the language now for an afternoon of tea and conversation. And you trust her skills as a hunter to protect me, do you not?” Hubert was forced to agree with the logic. Bernadetta and Caspar would make poor company, and Ferdinand and Dorothea would spend the entire event trying to dominate the proceedings. And Linhardt was self-disqualifying for obvious reasons.

Well then, he thought to himself as he went about his duty. So much for trying to derail the dreaded ‘tea party.’ He had planned to cause a scene between the Duscar dog and himself, angrying both Dimitri and Lady Edelgard out of the necessary poise and solemnity such an occasion called for. But now her orders demanded that he must let things take their course. His mistress might be hurt and dismayed by going through with the wretched event, but after some reflection, he trusted in her to have the strength of will to move past such petty things as a long-lost childhood stepbrother. The shocking news that Knight Byleth possessed a mysterious Crest obviously took precedence. Such a revelation indicated that Lady Edelgard’s previous interest in the woman was completely justified. She was clearly going to be a major player on the board for some time to come.

He headed straight for Professor Hanneman’s office, but he was engrossed in some meetings and could not be disturbed, possibly for hours. He considered entering the library, but that might put him in contact with...Tomas. He was not ready for that confrontation, not yet. Besides, it was a risk that might blow both of their covers.

He seriously considered speaking with Professor Jeralt, but knew the man was likely too wary to be played for secrets. He doubted any of the Blue Lions knew anything about this, and most of the Knights were rushing about in grim agitation, spending their time locked up with each other and not with the students, preoccupied as they were with Lonato’s rebellion.

Then he considered an individual in the monastery who he might approach. Highly intelligent, to be sure. Mysteriously powerful, as well. Competent and capable and hard-working.

Yet still...a child. Able to be manipulated. Perhaps even vulnerable to such pathetic things such as emotions and morality. Or baubles or trifles. Then he remembered something Dorothea had mentioned to him the other day, when she had been attempting to distract him with prattle. Something about...cake.

It would be very wrong of him to take advantage of such an obvious weakness, wouldn’t it?

Hubert chuckled darkly to himself, and went out to seek Lysithea.

*

Marianne had made good progress this month, Trips decided, as she left her patient in the infirmary. She had already arranged for the slight noblewoman’s new room. Hilda von Goneril had eagerly and enthusiastically accepted the assigned responsibility of bunking with Marianne, and Marianne said she didn’t have any objections to seeing the flighty noblewoman daily. Her chores in the cathedral and stable duties appeared to cure her of her malaise, but Trips knew better. There was no “cure” sometimes, merely prevention. She would check on the young woman as best as her schedule would allow in the coming months. It was time to tell the Captain she could return to daily classes, if she could find him or his daughter this afternoon. She sighed. It would probably have to wait until late evening.

Byleth had been a great help on that second day, but she was now fully occupied in planning and councils and intelligence meetings, as per her duties as a Knight. The news of Lonato’s rebellion in Western Faerghus had set the Church leadership on its ear, and Trips struggled to mentally prepare herself, as best she could, for the upcoming large scale campaign, where death and misery were assured. This would be Byleth’s first involvement in a campaign with armies numbering in the thousands, and she knew the young woman was eager to prove herself on the field. She also hoped desperately her condition would not act up during battle. Zarad’s tale of visions Byleth couldn’t control from Shamir was deeply worrisome. Trips could only trust that Zarad and the other Knights would be able to guard her back, while she and the other healers would be at the rear of the army with the baggage train, busy deciding who would live and who would die among the wounded. She was not looking forward to her own experience.

She had just ascended the stairs to the monastery’s second floor when she nearly bumped into an absently muttering Professor Hanneman, who looked up from attempting to smooth his robes. “Ah, there you are Lady Beatrix. Just the person I was looking for,” said the former nobleman, adjusting his monocle. 

“And a good afternoon to you, Professor. What’s this about? It must be drastic for you to be so impolite.”

“Oh, forgive me, but there is someone here in my office to visit with Lady Marianne. I believed that they should consult with you first, since you have been the young woman’s primary physician. Please follow me.”

Curious, Trips briefly wondered who would be wanting to meet with Marianne from outside Garreg Mach. Very briefly. There could only be one possible visitor.

Steeling herself as much as she could in the short walk to Hanneman’s office, Trips prepared herself for another preening, egotistic nobleman, the one reputed to be the wealthiest in all of Fodlan. Thus she was not prepared for the figure that greeted her in Hanneman’s study. A short, quiet man in austere mud-stained merchant’s clothing, with a rapier sheathed to his belt. His features were hawkish and his dark, upswept hair was only slightly grey at the temples and the edges of his styled beard. After Hanneman had made the introductions, he swept into a precise bow to Trips. “Lady Beatrix, thank you so much for your interventions on Marianne’s behalf. I came at once when Lord Seteth’s courier reached me. How is she?”

“You are very welcome, Margrave Edmund,” she bowed in return. “While I cannot say she has made a full recovery, she is no longer in need of round the clock observation. I do believe she will be attending classes again soon.”

“Thank you for your trouble, but that will not be necessary. I have come to take her home,” the Margrave said simply.

“Ah...I see. That is your right as her guardian, of course. But let us discuss the matter further, and consider what Marianne might wish to decide for herself.”

While Hanneman poured his bergamot tea, Trips took the time to rearrange some opinions of the nobleman seated across from her. He was not malignant or indifferent to his stepdaughter’s suffering, but perhaps just inexperienced. He was a widower, and had no living issue, he explained dispassionately, all of them victims of the Plague of 1166. “When I was honored by Duke Riegan and welcomed into the nobility,” he said, sipping his tea, “the fact that I had no direct heir was a major issue for most of the Lords. I suspect that is why some of them, such as Count Gloucester, have treated my accession with mockery, and believe it is merely temporary. But Lady Judith of Daphnel graciously presented me with a possible solution, whereby I could perhaps adopt a young noble who had fallen onto hard times in her territory.”

“Marianne?” Trips asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “The poor girl was in distressing circumstances, and by herself in her small family manor in the country, aside from a few loyal servants. The other staff had looted much of the estate, once it became apparent that their master and mistress would not be returning. I suppose we must be grateful they simply didn’t burn it all down around her. The girls survived by hiding in the cellar, and that is where my associates found them. The remaining servants were rewarded for their bravery and charity, but of course you can imagine how traumatic this was for the young woman.”

“What a terrible tragedy,” murmured Hanneman. “This poor girl has suffered so much.” Trips agreed, but had a feeling that wasn’t merely it. Marianne often had hinted that there was even something darker in her past.

“And hence my concern for her, to provide an environment where she can feel safe,” Margrave Edmund nodded. He sighed, “But in truth, I am often at a loss to know what she desires, aside from horseback riding. Her family’s horses were once famous around Leceister, so that is perhaps natural. But while a dutiful child, she does not show much desire or interest in many things. She does not think of courtship or suitors, or balls or dresses, or jewelry or cooking. She appeared to take solace in prayer, so I encouraged her interest and activities in the Church. And when she began to show a wonderful talent for healing and conjuration, I thought perhaps she could blossom here, at the Academy, with other noble children similar to her.”

“And despite her attempt on her own life, I believe she has,” explained Trips. “Many of the noble students are particularly taken with her. If you want my professional opinion, my Lord Margrave, I believe it would be best to have her remain here, among a community that has rallied around her. Changing her environment too quickly could cause her harm.”

The Margrave sat down his empty cup on the desk table with a clink. “I see. But that may become a problem. Tell me, have there been any...suspicious individuals, shall we say, asking about Marianne since she has arrived at the monastery?”

Trips deferred to Hanneman, who shook his head, “I don’t recall anyone of the sort, Lord Edmund. Is this related to her...status?”

The nobleman frowned behind his goatee. “Yes, I believe so.” He raised his brows. “You are no doubt curious as to why someone of my station has come alone, are you not?”

“I simply thought you enjoyed saving money,” said Trips mildly.

A brief smile at the joke, but he sooned turned grim again. “I do, but not so in this case.” He reached into his doublet and pulled out a slip of paper. “When I was in Derdriu, securing passage by wyvernback to Garreg Mach, I saw these being distributed by criers in the marketplace.”

Trips set down her cup and examined the smudged leaflet. It was in typeset, with bold letters proclaiming “The Beast of Garreg Mach: Central Church Corrupted by Witchcraft” A stylized Crest engraving covered the rest of the page, along with woodblock illustrations of children and women being eaten by dark shapes.

“What rubbish!” scoffed Trips. “Have you seen anything like this before, Professor?” She crumpled the leaflet and bounced it on to his desk.

Hanneman cleared his throat at the childish display, but soon smooth out the paper and examined it carefully. He looked up to the Margrave, his expression intent. “Oh dear. I must confess I now see why you wished to keep her Crest a secret.”

“A secret that is now exposed, somehow, unfortunately. We must decide what to do about this.”

“Wait, that’s a real Crest?” said Trips, blinking. “How come I’ve never seen it before?”

Hanneman looked to the Margrave, but he nodded firmly. “She is her healer. I don’t believe this kind woman would turn on her now.”

The Professor nodded and let out a slow breath, clasping his hands on his desk. “The reason for Lady Marianne’s melancholy is now plain. It appears the poor child is a bearer of the Crest of the Beast.”

*

Edelgard double checked Petra in Garreg Mach dress uniform one final time in the mirror. She was not of the opinion that the Brigid girl was incompetent, far from it. Perhaps it was her own anxiety of Hubert not being by her side, or the disquieting information about Byleth that Linhardt had revealed to her this morning.

Or it may be her growing, jittery unease over discovering that the tall young man who tried to treat her with kindness and respect, and deferred to her judgement almost unconsciously, was one of her prime assassination targets. She had assumed he would become an intractable foe of a foreign nation once her plans were revealed, but instead she was now trying to get closer to him. Could anything really be gained by this? What if she was wrong? As the hour of the event came near, she was not dealing with the internal questions with her usual controlled detachment, and noticed with frustration that she was sweating through her own military dress and red cape. 

She did not remember much of her childhood before the darkness and the pain and the chains. But slowly over the past weeks she found herself recalling more, sometimes against her will. She remembered long sleepless nights amidst the nibbling and squeaking, and how she used to dream of dancing with a gentle boy with long blonde hair. As she wept at the bite of wet cold chains, she recalled instead wanting to feel his warmth as they leaned together in her mother’s lap, as she read them stories of Emperors and Kings, Saints and Heroes. And she vividly remembered how she sat awkwardly holding a dagger as she stared out the carriage window, carrying her away from her mother and the boy and her home for the past three years. She had tried to surrender it to her Lord Uncle, but he chuckled in dark amusement at the weapon in the child’s hands, and magnanimously allowed her to keep it; she was going to need it soon enough, he explained. He was right. Less than a year after leaving Fhirdiad, that dagger stole its first life….

“Lady Edelgard, we must be leaving now,” said Petra firmly, standing at the door of her dormitory room. “There are no more moments to lose.” Edelgard nodded numbly, her breathing unconsciously becoming hitched and her giddiness increasing.

Somehow, she made it down the stairs and walked up the paths to the gardens. She had made arrangements for the garden tea tables by the gazebo to be empty this afternoon, with only the settings for the tea ready upon their arrival. Being the heir apparent of an Empire occasionally did have its perks.

Upon arriving, Edelgard noted with surprise that Dimitri was attended by Lady Ingrid instead of his commoner vassal. Most unusual. They were standing at attention by the gazebo, both impeccably clean and pressed in their own dress uniforms by the tables. The moment was upon her, even as the feeling of uncontrollable tension increased within her.

Technically, she was playing hostess, and must observe the forms. “Prince Dimitri, Lady Ingrid, thank you for joining us,” Edelgard started, forcing her voice to steadiness.

“The pleasure is all ours,” replied Dimitri though somewhat stiff lips. Edelgard was suddenly pleased to note he was just as nervous as she was. That was something, at least. “Thank you for your gracious invitation, Princess Edelgard, Princess Petra. We have been looking forward to this.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Petra said proudly, delighted to be acknowledged by her title. “Lady Ingrid,” said Petra with a smile. “We have set a table for just us two aside from Lady Edelgard and Lord Dimitri, so they may converse stately on matters. May I have the pleasure of serving you?”

“I will enjoy it, Princess Petra,” bowed Ingrid formally to the tattooed girl. She rose and briefly touched Dimitri’s arm. “Your Highness, I will come fetch you later. Please behave while alone with Princess Edelgard.”

It was meant as a joke, but no one present was laughing.

*

The four of them were soon seated and the tea was poured, with Petra already chatting excitedly with Ingrid at a table a few meters away. Dimitri explained to Edelgard about his difficulty handling porcelain, showing her the cup he had brought, and she poured the Hresvelg blend into the hideously ugly silver goblet with good grace, although she found her perception of Ferdinand souring even further, if that was possible. He sipped briefly, and she did as well, until they set their cups down and sat staring at each other for a long moment.

“Edel--”

“Dimi--”

They started simultaneously, and Edelgard quickly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Prince Dimitri. Please go first.”

“Yes, that is, I was going to say...Edelgard,” he said deeply, becoming grim. “There is something I have to know. Now, before this goes any further.”

“Yes?” she asked, dreading the coming question. She had been fearing it for some time now.

“Is anyone...I repeat, anyone, to your knowledge, within the Empire responsible for the Tragedy of Duscar?” the Prince fairly growled. 

Edelgard sighed in relief. This was actually safe territory. “No, Dimitri. No noble of the Empire, nor my father, nor I had anything to do with the wicked attack that killed your father and friends. I am deeply sorry for your loss, but I will swear to that, upon my honor as a Hresvelg.” Not technically a lie. She didn’t really consider Thales a true part of the Empire.

Dimitri stirred briefly in his seat, and his eyes seemed far away for an instant. “But...I saw red and black armor that day…”

“Armor can be painted,” Edelgard pointed out. “Armor can be used as a disguise by provocateurs, who wish to avoid culpability for their actions.” She picked out a sweet, but not too sweet, small danish from the serving tray and set it on her plate. “In any case, the Empire was still recovering from the War with Dagda and Brigid, and the horrific destruction of House Nuvelle. There would be no gain by immediately provoking another war with the Kingdom.” Not yet, anyway. Not until their glorious weapon, the Flame Emperor, had fully grown and matured, she thought coldly.

The Prince struggled against her words, but eventually took another sip of tea as he said tighty, “What you say may be true. Father had so many enemies for daring to attempt political reform, and for trying to ease relations with foreign nations with words instead of Relics. So it had to have been a group originating within Fodlan, but my difficulty is knowing even where to look for vengeance.”

The Princess smiled and laid her carefully considered bait. This would easily win his trust, and had the further advantage of being completely true. “So who benefited the most inside the Kingdom from the massacre of all the people Duscar?”

“My uncle the Grand Duke certainly did not. Now he is forced to actually govern, instead of chasing every skirt in Itha, hoping to spawn a Crest of Blaidydd,” said Dimitri bitterly. “Gustav vanished, and Lonato lost a son because of his suspect involvement…and Rodrigue would not wish to endanger Glenn...”

“Dimitri,” she interrupted him gently. “You are thinking in terms of people. Who gained the most land after the Tragedy? An entire country of his own, now conveniently depopulated of its original inhabitants?”

He looked shocked, but immediately focused on her words. “Viscount...Kleiman…” he muttered, the edges of his metal goblet starting to bend alarmingly in his grip.

“It is merely my own conjecture,” Edelgard hastened to add, taking a small bite of her pastry. “I am sorry, but I have no evidence or proof to give you. You will have to prepare yourself that there may never be a satisfactory explanation of what happened to your family and friends.”

Dimitri stared dully into his cup, then shook his head, in a jerking motion. “I--cannot accept that. Maybe one day. Perhaps. But...not today.” He took a deep breath before taking another sip of tea, his blue eyes gazing directly at Edelgard. “But...I am not the only one who has had something happen to my family. Isn’t that right...El?”

Now it was Edelgard’s turn to hesitate. There it was, the forbidden question. She looked away from her guest but nodded firmly. “Sadly, you are correct...Dima.”

*

Petra decided that she liked Lady Ingrid while they conversed, as she sipped her spiced tea. She greatly enjoyed hearing more stories of Felix’s childhood, and the Kingdom noble listened politely and with interest to her own dreams and passions concerning Brigid. Petra was astonished to realize that Ingrid had never even seen the ocean. But then she considered the Galatean noblewoman’s stories of flying high on a pegasus above snow capped peaks equally odd. Why would anyone want to live somewhere so cold and barren? Perhaps that explained the pile of fruit scones, laden with butter, on the Blue Lion’s plate. She had thoughtfully left the last one for Petra.

They noted with mutual relief that their superiors appeared to be getting on well, and the conversation moved to lighter matters for a moment.

“Dorothea mentions often your name,” smiled Petra over her teacup.

“She’s been a good sparring partner. I can actually give her a chance to cast magic at an opponent while sparring with weapons, and it doesn’t do much to me. Except tickle,” said Ingrid, shrugging, and taking an enormous bite.

“She did mention to me that she wished to test her magic charms against you,” nodded Petra. “Is it working?”

“Well...I think she’s going easy on me, to be honest. I keep telling her I’m not made of glass, that I can take her best shot, but I think she’s afraid of hurting me.”

“I will inform her of this. Dorothea has always shown to me kindness and perception. She once even tried to cook a Brigid meal for me.”

“Oh, no. Could you finish it?”

“I did. I have eaten worse. Though perhaps not in...a long while,” Petra grimaced.

Ingrid laughed appreciatively. “Well, maybe it’s the thought that counts. At least she doesn’t cause explosions, like Annette and Mercedes. I’ve heard the cook staff performs evacuation drills when those two enter the kitchens.”

“Dorothea is very much thoughtful of others,” agreed Petra. “ You are lucky to have her.”

“What?” Ingrid looked up from her plate at that. “Wait, um...I think we’re having a language problem. Dorothea is just my training partner now. We’re just friends.”

Petra tilted her head. “Ah, so you only train together? Not doing the...oh, what is the word...the dates?”

Ingrid was starting to blush, and quickly said, “No, nothing like that. She’s just been trying to make up with me since the mock battle. She’s helped me out with a few other things, like declining proposals from suitors sent by my Lord Father, but we’re not...dating. I’m not like that.”

“I see. Forgive me. That is my crack in the earth. Caspar told me Dorothea wanted to crush you, so I may have misunderstood.”

“Let’s just leave it at that,” said Ingrid with a shake of her blonde hair. “Besides, what about you and Felix?”

Petra smiled unashamedly. “Yes, I with certainty want to crush Felix. I hope that does not trouble you.”

“Actually, to be perfectly honest, I’m more relieved than anything. Out of all of us, Felix changed the most from the Tragedy. And in the four years since then...I don’t think I’ve sat down and talked with him about it. Or else I can’t remember. That was...a difficult time, for all of us.”

“Yes. I learned of it from Ferdinand. It made me very sad to hear it. I lost my father to war, and that is to be expected and understandable. But the Tragedy is not...understandable. Ah, I am sorry. Is my meaning clear?”

Ingrid looked with sadness at her Prince, seated with the Imperial Princess, and said, “Yes, Petra. I understand your meaning completely.”

*

“Dima…” Dimitri murmured. His eyes were shining like stars. “So you do remember…”

“For that I have you to thank, during the mock battle,” said Edelgard truthfully, reaching to her waist. She pulled the dagger from her belt and rested it upon the tea table. “You gave me this, so many years ago.”

“I...I did…” smiled the Prince, lost briefly in memories. “I am sorry. That was a foolish thing to give to a Princess, and even then, I knew better…”

“It did surprise me at the time,” smiled the Princess. “But please do not be sorry. This dagger has hardly left my side since then. With it, I never once lost heart, even in the darkness. It gave me the strength and confidence to endure my trials.”

“It means so much to me to hear you say that…” whispered Dimitri, and he quickly wiped his eyes and covered his shame with a hasty sip from his cup. “But El...what do you mean by trials? Your hair...something happened to change you, did it not?”

Edelgard forced herself to nod. “Yes. It is an unpleasant subject. But when I returned to Enbarr, the Imperial Ministers forced every heir of the Emperor to undergo...tests. The punishment for failure was death. Even for the children.”

Dimitri was shocked into stillness, which fortunately prevented him from breaking anything. “Monstrous…” he whispered. “Surely not...your father?”

“My father was forced to watch. All of it. Helplessly, as tears ran down his face and blood dripped from his fists. The Imperial Ministry is in total control of the Empire. And now, save for my father, I am all that remains of House Hresvelg.”

Still stupefied with disgust, Dimitri muttered, “But why...why such grotesque evil...simply for the sake of evil…against one of their own? Against their future Empress?”

Edelgard controlled herself very tightly. This was the main thrust of her gambit. She had not even told Hubert of this plan, for he would surely object. But her newly awakened memories in the weeks since the mock battle had inspired Edelgard to cultivate...options. Possibly sympathetic ones, to her cause.

“Because of who we are. Because of our blood and a heritage we did not ask for. Because of Crests.”

“Crests?” asked a confused Dimitri.

Nodding, Edelgard explained. “The Imperial nobility was disappointed in the perceived weakness of the House of Hresvelg. So they sought to purge it, with the aid of dark magic, and vile experiments with royal blood. My entire family was punished for the sin of being born. Never once have I considered my bloodline a ‘blessing’ from the ‘Goddess,’” she fairly spat the last words.

“That is...understandable, from your perspective,” said Dimitri slowly. “But surely it does not mean it must be so? Crests are like any other talent or tool. It depends on what meaning you make of it yourself. There may be many wicked nobles, I agree, but there are many good and kind ones as well. Just as there are simply bad and good people.”

She shook her head gently. “But at what cost? Ask your friends Ingrid and Sylvain about how they feel about their Crests. And then consider how their bloodline has changed their natures, and forced them to behave just because they have it. And how your own Crest has forced you to behave,” Edelgard said, with a significant glance to Dimitri’s silver goblet.

Dimitri traced the dents in the rim he had made with a gloved finger. “I...have never considered it that way. I suppose I have never thought of an alternative way of life...being caught up in...other matters.”

“I understand that impulse as well. It is a natural instinct to seek revenge, but at the same time, I know it will not bring back my brothers or sisters,” said Edelgard, refilling their cups. “Instead, I have made it my life’s ambition to replace the invisible system behind such evil acts, to prevent them from happening in the first place, and never again. When I am Emperor, I intend to bring reform with me.”

“And finally fulfill your father’s dream,” murmured Dimitri in appreciation, nodding.

Edelgard looked up at him in surprise, but agreed. “I have not thought of it that way, but you are right. I will succeed in his stead one day, and make him and his legacy proud.”

“But...what of the Church? To go against the teachings of Seiros…”

“Should be up to each secular leader to decide on their own. Would you willingly submit yourself to the commands of an Archbishop, and merely become a puppet? Suppose you found the perpetrators of the Tragedy, yet the Central Church forbade you from vengeance. Would you obey?”

Dimitri appeared to be at least considering her words, while Edelgard sipped at the exquisite Hresvelg blend in pleasure. This was going much better than she had expected. Why hadn’t she studied this possibility before? Why had she simply assumed Arundel and Cornelia had him under their complete control? That was obviously not the case.

Eventually, Dimitri replied, “Your thoughts are running deeper than my own, Edelgard. I must confess, to me it sounds like someone who has been robbed declaring that they will rid the world of gold, so that nobody else will suffer its theft again.” Edelgard began to stiffen in offense, but the Prince forestalled her and continued, “But I believe I understand that in the main, you wish to change the Empire for the better. And you have selflessly put your own desires aside to accomplish your goals, despite the tragedy you suffered. While I selfishly have looked for nothing but revenge…”

“Please, Dimitri. Do not be too hard on yourself,” said Edelgard, amazed to hear herself say it. “And I have not put myself aside entirely. That is impossible. But you are right that I intend to bring change when I rule. I have come to believe dwelling in the past too much is a mistake. We must always have an eye to the future, lest we merely wander aimlessly in the present.”

“Well said, El,” said the Faerghus Prince, his eyes shining in admiration once more. “I think...maybe it is presumptuous for me to say this...but I sincerely hope you can feel as if you do have one little brother remaining, at least.”

Edelgard smiled and laid her hand on the dagger, still on the table. “I do. And I believe that somehow...I always have felt that way. Thank you, my old friend, for reminding me.”

Dimitri smiled briefly, and so broadly, that it looked as the sun peeking behind the clouds. But then his somber nature asserted itself again. “Perhaps one day we will avenge the death of our mother, together. That is a pleasing thought,” he said firmly.

“I...I hope so too,” said Edelgard, her composure starting to crack slightly.

Unfortunately, Dimitri saw her distress, and said softly, “Forgive me. Often I am so absorbed in my own memories, I do not consider their effect upon others. It must have been devastating to learn she died in the Tragedy, while you were so far away from her. And...I did not mean to bring it up, to hurt you, in the mock battle. This I swear.”

“I believe you, Dimitri. And I will accept your apology, although it is not necessary. But please, do try to eat something that the staff has prepared…”

Her efforts to distract him succeeded, and the Prince was preoccupied for a moment in carefully adding a small sandwich to his plate, not wanting to break anything and spoil the mood. It gave Edelgard time to ruthlessly assert dominance over her emotions and memories once more.

She could not tell him the truth, sadly. That Anselma von Arundel of the Empire, former First Consort of Emperor Ionius IX, formerly known as Queen-Consort Patricia of Faerghus, had been executed in Enbarr on the orders of the Imperial Regent, Lord Volkhard von Arundel, for the crime of High Treason.

And then he had cruelly forced Edelgard to swing the axe herself.

*

Chapter Text

Ch 22

The Fog

Rhea gazed at the Knights in her audience chamber one final time. It was the first day of the Garland Moon. Now was the time for this rebellion to be crushed, and show the faithful the Church of Seiros could still be the Sword and Shield of the people, even as they prepared for the Rite of Rebirth.

She acted on Jeralt’s suggestion, but despite his sound advice, the response from the nobles of the Kingdom had been mixed. Viscount Kleiman pleaded excuses, citing continuing Duscar rebellions in his own territories. Grand Duke Rufus Blaidydd had pledged aid, but any companies from Fhirdiad had yet to arrive. Probably another empty promise from the man. However, Count Galatea, Margrave Gautier, and Duke Fradalrius responded at once, each sending a levy of cavalry to aid the Central Church, including a full flight of pegasus Knights. Rhea had been quick to reply back with her own pledges of mutual defense and assistance.

There had been no response from House Rowe, but it was possibly preoccupied with guarding its own borders from its recalcitrant vassal. House Dominic also replied with many excuses, citing political neutrality in any conflict of the faith. And her letters to the bishops and priests of the Western Church were met with responses approaching open hostility. Their missives cited ominous quotes of the Book of Seiros in their replies to her, especially the ones concerning corruption and tyranny, yet still they promised to put aside their “differences” to attend the upcoming Goddess’ Rite of Rebirth. Those replies had been anything but reassuring, which was likely their point.

She would not let another schism affect her Church. Not now, when her Mother had finally revealed herself, in the form of the strong and silent blue haired child in white plate and chain standing before her. For far too long, Rhea felt she had tolerated heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy.

No more.

She addressed the assembly. “The time is now upon us to fulfill our sacred oaths to the Goddess. By his own words and deeds, Lonato Gaspard, once a Lord and Knight of the Holy Kingdom, has fallen away from the Church of Seiros and rejected in the depths of his eternal soul the promise of the Goddess’ everlasting love and mercy. Worse, he has deceived others to follow him on his path of damnation, turning them from the Word of Seiros with falsehoods and slanders, and has encouraged lawlessness and rebellion, causing misery and woe for countless innocents. Though he once walked through these halls and worshipped at our side as a child of the Goddess, we must harden our hearts and raise our hand to strike him down, for by his own volition he has already cut himself away from the Holy Body. For those who wish to cast themselves willingly into the darkness, there can be no return to the Light.”

Affirming nods all around her, yet none spoke. Rhea’s bright green eyes centered on Byleth, standing at attention before her. It might be too soon...but no, Rhea reminded herself. After hundreds of years, her faith was rewarded. So she must nurture it and maintain it still, and allow Mother to demonstrate her power through her vessel.

“Knight Byleth Eisner, step forward.”

There was a restless shuffle among the Knights as the young woman did as she was asked, kneeling in front of Lady Rhea. The Archbishop placed a pale loving hand on top of the blue hair. “Knight Byleth, you are hereby placed in command of the Knights of Seiros and our loyal allies for this mission, as Knight-General Byleth. You are charged with the punishment of Lonato Gaspard and his band unshriven heretics, will execute them for the crimes of High Treason, Sedition, and the foul promotion of Heresy and Schism.” There were gasps and whispers at the pronouncement, but Rhea watched with interest as the woman said nothing, hiding her surprise only with a quick swallow. She bowed her head in submission before the Archbishop. “In the name of Seiros, I will do your will, Lady Rhea,” Byleth said in a clear voice.

Rhea smiled in deep satisfaction. “Bless you, my child. May the Goddess protect you and guide you.”

*

Claude lingered in the Golden Deer classroom after Professor Jeralt dismissed the students. Leonie, Raphael and Ignatz went to watch the Knights ride out from Garreg Mach, while Hilda announced she was off to visit Marianne in the infirmary, to discuss how they should decorate their room together. Lorenz was working on a private project involving something magical and tea. And Lysithea immediately made a beeline to the library.

The news had already filtered through the entire monastery, and Claude could tell his scarred old Professor was worried, even though he didn’t show it at all. But maybe he was off-balance enough for some gentle probing, or maybe even something more if Claude was lucky.

“So, Captain Teach, your daughter is hardly a Knight for a month, and now she’s in command of an expeditionary force. Rhea obviously thinks a lot of her,” he said without preamble.

“Rhea obviously is mentally deteriorating in her old age, you mean,” muttered the ex-Knight, sorting through stacks of paper on his desk before him. He looked up with a scowl. “Is this a social visit, Claude, or do you actually have a point to make?”

“Well, I guess my point is why pick Byleth as a leader? Why not Alois, or Catherine? Someone more trusted by the majority of the Knights?”

“Why don’t you ask the Archbishop yourself instead of bothering me about it? Just because I’m an old Knight doesn’t mean I can see into her head.”

Claude smiled and leaned back against a desk. “I can imagine how that would go. Let’s just say I’m asking you because even my danger sense is starting to tingle. Mysterious attacks, mysterious Crests, mysterious ex-Knights, mysterious new Knights, with a mysterious Archbishop doing mysterious acts for mysterious reasons…”

“You’re not exactly on the straight and level yourself, Golden Boy,” Jeralt snorted.

“Touché, Teach. But still, if you need someone to talk to about all of these mystery events, I’m always here to offer an outside perspective.”

“And what’s in it for you?”

An artful shrug. “Maybe I get to know you guys better? Also, I won’t blab to anyone about there’s a new unmarried Holy Knight of Seiros with a mystery Crest…”

Jeralt rose slowly out of his chair, standing tall over his shorter student, his gauntleted knuckles resting on his desk. “Claude,” he said easily, his face serious, “are you seriously trying to blackmail me?”

He raised his eyebrows innocently. “Now, that’s just one very negative way of seeing things, Teach. Maybe I’m just pointing out that we’re kind of tied to the hip already, and we’re much more useful to each other as lifelong friends and companions. I like you, Captain Jeralt, because you look like you’ve seen it all, you’re obviously not a zealous follower of the Goddess, and you’re also not prejudiced, like most people in Fodlan. So you’re a rare breed, and there’s definitely something special about Byleth. So I get to know about you and maybe you get to know about me. And also...maybe you don’t kill me right now in the bargain for this little speech? That would be a nice bonus.”

The teacher and student stared at each other for a long moment.

With a smirking grunt, Jeralt smiled. “Fine, Duke boy. We’ll do it your way. But you threaten me or my daughter again, and I’ll haul you up to Seteth, have a long talk with him, with the end result being either Lorenz or Lysithea named the new House Leader of the Golden Deer, and you being sent back to wherever the hell you came from. Deal?

“Deal, Captain Teach,” smiled Claude, quickly rubbing the back of his neck, hoping it hadn’t been too obvious how bad he was sweating.

Jeralt eyed the position of the sun in the window. “And in fact, maybe you can help me right now,” he said, grabbing his papers and moving towards the door. “Follow me.”

“Ah...really? Sure, with what?” 

“Marianne’s father, Margrave Edmund is here. I have a meeting with him in my office. Want to tag along?”

Claude grinned in delight. He could be useful right from the start. “Actually, yeah I do. There’s something we need to talk about privately, Captain Teach...”

*

An impatient demand. “Do you have it?”

A silky baritone. “I do indeed. Do you have your research?”

A page and a box quickly changed from two equally pale pairs of hands in the library.

Lysithea clutched the stiff paper box to her chest, her nostrils already inhaling the divine fragrance concealed inside. “There. I don’t know why you’re so interested in getting me to do this, by the way. Linhardt or Professor Hanneman are the better choices.”

Perusing the contents briefly, Hubert folded the note and placed it within his uniform jacket. “Professor Hanneman could not help me, sadly. Lady Rhea has prevented him from sharing the results of his research publicly at this time. And Linhardt is unreliable at best, while you are a hard-working individual willing to accept...compensation.”

Lysithea’s mouth was beginning to water in anticipation, but she swallowed and said, “Well, I could only narrow the possibilities down. And it’s still possible it may be a Major Crest not seen in quite a few generations. Like Macuil, Cichol, or Indech…”

“Thank you for the reminder of how low the Imperial nobility has fallen.”

“Are you positive you don’t want to share a bite with me?” she pleaded. “I love it, but this might be too much for me. I don’t want to accidentally make myself sick and waste time by going to the infirmary.”

Hubert shook his head. “I despise sweet things.”

Lysithea nearly dropped her magnificent bounty. “You did not just say that. I misheard.”

“No, you heard me quite clearly. A sweet tooth was one of the things I never developed in my childhood. No time for it.”

“So your time was better invested in becoming tall, dark, and creepy? There simply has to be one thing you indulge in.”

Hubert smiled down at her. “Well, obviously--”

Lysithea halted him with a glare. “If you say Edelgard, that really does not help with the creep factor. Trust me. It just doesn’t.”

“Fine. If you must know, my one weakness is coffee. It must be smuggled at great expense from Dagda, what with the last war and all. It helped me focus on my studies, and I’ve come to prefer it to tea nowadays.”

“Coffee?” the small magician retched. “Why not just boil some water and throw some dirt in it? Far cheaper and more efficient.”

“Perhaps it does take a more mature palette to appreciate such complex and subtle flavors,” Hubert agreed smoothly.

“That’s one thing I’ll never have to worry about,” said Lysithea, feeling bitter herself now. But then the sweet aromas of spongy cake and fluffy icing distracted her once more. She had to get back to her room where no one would see her. Maybe she could eat half of it now, and then half of it later tonight. Her stomach ached happily at the thought.

She was almost to the door when she noted Hubert following her, his stride easily matching hers. “There is one thing I am curious about,” he said obliquely. “That spell you used to overcome me in the mock battle was...powerful.”

Lysithea refused to cran her neck up to look at him as she hurried down the stone halls. “Then maybe I’m just a better student than you, despite you being practically middle-aged. It’s not my fault you were held back so many times.”

“Please. I assure you that you have not seen the barest hint of what I can do. Being constrained by the rules of the game, I merely desired to remain by Lady Edelgard’s side rather than being expelled for slaughtering you or your classmates.”

She easily followed that threat with one of her own. “And I assure you that if you ever try that, your last remedial lesson will be in anatomy, as you watch with great interest your own heart ceasing to beat after I rip it from your chest. I’m not some weak girl you can intimidate with gory words, Hubert,” Lysithea sneered.

“Oh, I completely agree with you there. But...what if I came back from the dead to have my revenge?” An evil chuckle.

Lysithea stopped still in terror at the thought. No. Surely he wasn’t...he couldn’t do that…but he was just so creepy enough, that maybe...

Hubert smirked down at her through his dark, stringy hair one last time. “Do enjoy your cake, Lysithea. And try to sleep well tonight.”

*

Byleth almost wished she had never discovered emotions. In the Archbishop’s audience hall, they had almost made her collapse into a storm of laughing and crying from the shock of being promoted to a General. That was just a weird feeling, and she didn’t like it.

However, the more she concentrated on the work necessary to be done in her new position as a Knight-Commander, she felt herself falling back into her old self and habits, as if there was something solid and cold within her, that she could still access and use at will. She quickly adopted into her stoic mannerisms once more, but noted with this time they acted as a place of safety and security, rather than wonder and confusion. It gave her the strength necessary to ignore Catherine’s jealous anger, Alois’ terrible attempts to lift morale, Trips’ and Zarad’s overbearing concern, and all the numerous and insufferable, inconsequential details that came with being in command. The constant defiance, the blatant disrespect, the unsubtle sneers and reflexive sarcasm. Did all people treat their leaders this way?

Byleth simply ignored all of it from her new officers and soldiers, and exercised her authority from the start. She was going to get things done, with an absolute minimum of bother. There were too few hours in the day for her to massage every bruised ego.

Most of the vertern Knight leaders greeted her politely in a meeting chamber next to the Knight’s quarters, understanding there was some nuance here behind Lady Rhea’s orders. To her surprise, all of the auxiliary officers were with her as well, with her reputation as the ‘Ashen Demon’ from her own father’s troops aiding her a great deal among the commoner soldiers. But there was one Knight, apparently the head of some knot of disaffected noble idiots, who confronted her as she was trying to introduce herself to the remaining officers. He interrupted her while she was speaking. “Lady Rhea is out of her mind if she believes I’m going to follow some common mercenary brat into battle!” the man spluttered, his handlebar mustache sending spittle through the air.

“Your name, Honored Knight?” Byleth asked calmly, not bothering to wipe her face.

The man drew himself up imperiously. “Sir Henry du Airimid, formerly of House Dominic. I have been a Knight of Seiros for longer than you’ve been alive!”

Byleth nodded and turned to the closest familiar face she could see, which luckily belonged to Shamir. “Sir Henry du Airimid is now stripped of his rank and command. Please escort him back to Lady Rhea’s chambers so that he may tell her personally she is out of her mind. If he resists, we will turn him over to a Holy Tribunal headed by Lord Seteth to face trial.”

The man gaped at her in horror, his face now a pasty white. Shamir had to almost push the bulky armored figure out of the room.

Despite her anger, Catherine added her voice in Byleth’s support after that, as well as a glowing, rambling, somewhat pointless story from Alois, but the man was nothing but effusive in his praise for her, so that helped. From there, the morning was filled with the logistical nightmare of moving the thousands of Knights and horses and pegasi from Garreg Mach in an orderly fashion.

It took all morning, but at noon they were ready to ride forth from the monastery, the loyal peasantry of the Central Church turning out to cheer and wave at the gleaming Central Church Knights in their bright armor. A column of fifteen hundred Knighted cavalry, with two thousand men-at-arms and Knight-errants on foot, with another two thousand auxiliaries and support troops, trickled down the hills and into the trailbroken forested roads to the west. Overhead on their flanks, there flew two hundred pegasus Knights as well, which she would use for recon and later as air support and harriers. They would barely make it out of sight of Garreg Mach’s walls before sundown, but they would eventually meet Lonato’s forces on the Magdred Way, which at last report were heading east towards Garreg Mach, looting villages for food and supplies as they passed, as well as possibly swelling their numbers. Lonato had barely three hundred Knights and horses, along with whatever mercenaries, peasant children, and old soldiers he had following him on foot. But every report said the peasant army was poorly trained, poorly armed, and poorly disciplined.

Lonato and his Knights would fight, and die, for their beliefs. The mercenaries would probably flee at the first sign of battle, and turn to banditry. The peasants would try to make a stand, then scatter in every cardinal direction. They would have to be cornered and hunted down. It was going to be a slaughter.

Byleth, Knight-General of the Church of Seiros, was no longer eager to prove herself on the field.

*

Marianne sat in her chair, for once looking proud to be in Garreg Mach Academy uniform. The Margrave and Hilda sat nearby, with Jeralt and Claude standing aside by the door.

“Yes, Father. I am certain of my decision.”

Margrave Edmund was silent as he studied his adopted daughter before he spoke. “There is danger headed this way, Marianne. And somehow word has leaked widely of your...condition. I do not wish to cause you anymore suffering. I have many hidden chateaux and estates. Or else we could travel by ship, and leave Fodlan altogether for a time.”

“Wherever I go there will be danger,” she said bitterly, hugging herself. “But at least here, I’ve found someone who knows how I feel. And I don’t know how...but…I believe the Goddess wants me to be here. Despite...everything.”

“But you would be reminded of everything that has happened, child. That would be a risk. And I do not wish to force Archbishop Rhea into...difficulty, of having to make a choice between you and an ignorant mob. Your safety is paramount to me.”

“My safety means nothing to you!” sobbed Marianne suddenly, raising her voice. “I’m just another money-making scheme to you! Go away! I don’t want to see you anymore! My life has been horrible ever since I’ve met you!” She reflexively jumped from the chair to move to the door, but cried bitterly when she remembered she could not leave the infirmary without someone by her side. Hilda and one of the sisters on nurse duty immediately moved to attend to her.

“Oh, you poor sweetie, let’s go over here for a moment, ok? I’ve shouted at my dad before too, but never like that…” Hilda’s eyes caught Claude’s, and the young Duke skillfully motioned the Margrave out the door with his Professor to give his daughter time to compose herself. 

When the door latch closed, the short Margrave let out a slow breath to the other two men. “My Lords, I am sorry you witnessed that. Now you see my difficulty. For some reason, she remains beyond my comprehension. Or else I remain beyond hers.”

“Your Grace, I’ve made the same mistake as well. It took her trying to hang herself to finally make me pay proper attention to her. So please believe me when I say however badly you feel about it, I feel even worse. At least you were on your estates. I was here right by her side and did nothing,” sighed Claude with regret.

The Margrave bowed. “Lord Claude, please. I do not blame you. But I thank you for your kind words.”

“Lady Marianne is a kind girl,” said Jeralt slowly. “I think in her talent for healing others, her care for animals...there’s still the real Marianne deep down inside of her. But from what Lady Beatrix and you have told me, there’s something in her that acts like she’s been betrayed. I’ve seen this happen sometimes. Some people are gentle and good-natured, and then something bad happens to them that they can’t explain, or can’t make sense out of it. So then they turn the complete opposite, and assume everyone is bad. Including themselves.”

“Something of that nature happened to me,” nodded the Margrave in sympathy. “My first family was struck down by the plague. I fell ill as well, yet it was only after that my fever broke that I learned my wife and sons had passed. I was not able to attend their funerals. When my strength returned...my workhouses and businesses were all that I had left. So I threw myself into rebuilding them, not out of ambition necessarily, but out of...survival, perhaps.”

Claude’s eyes lit up. “That’s it.”

“What is it, Gold--er, my Lord Duke,” Jeralt coughed roughly in correcting himself.

Claude almost grinned but managed to stay solemn as he explained himself. “Your Grace, I think we can agree Marianne is in a precarious position. Somehow, I think she’s been reliving what happened to her. And I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, Your Grace, but when Marianne sees you, she’s simply reminded of her birth parents.”

“I have never attempted to replace them, my Lord Duke,” said the Margrave, growing angry.

“What I believe Claude’s trying to say,” said Jeralt, glaring the younger man into submission, “is that young people can act out in ways you don’t expect. I have a daughter, You Grace, so let me tell you a story through hard-learned experience. I raised my daughter to be the best damn swordswoman in Fodlan, but I had trouble preparing her for the killing part. At first, she handled it fine, but as the months wore on, I could tell it was getting to her. She wasn’t eating, or taking care of herself. So I wanted to get her to sit down, take a break, and talk it out. To let everyone know what she felt about that last mission, or the people we had to cut down. By talking it out, she could let herself know how she was feeling, and could finally get back onto an even keel.”

“But my daughter and I were talking just now, Captain. I must confess I do not understand.”

“Well, here’s the thing. It turned out I couldn’t be the one to talk to her,” said Jeralt, tapping himself with his thumb. “Byleth for a long time was almost willing to do anything to impress me. Or kill anyone to impress me. She thought she had to prove herself to me, and that meant showing she wasn’t weak. So every time I tried to bring it up, she shut me down before we even got started. And then we just did it all over again.”

The Margrave was silent as he absorbed these words, while Claude tried his best to hide his keen interest.

Claude discreetly motioned for permission to speak, and eventually the ex-mercenary relented. “Hey, sorry, Your Grace, if I offended you. But for what my opinion’s worth, I think the Professor’s right. You guys are trapped in a cycle of where you try to keep giving her the world, but she doesn’t want it...because deep down, she thinks she doesn’t deserve it.”

“So you believe I must leave her...here, at Garreg Mach,” the short nobleman said quietly.

“It’s something she can throw herself into,” Claude said, meeting the man’s eyes. He could see that the Margrave was starting to agree, then added, “I could help her write to you about her progress, if you like. I know she has trouble with words sometimes. And we--all of her friends here--can begin chipping away at the walls she’s built around herself.”

“A regular line of written communication between the two of you,” nodded Jeralt. “I think that would be a good idea. We can hold her to that.”

*

Dimitri paused, hesitating before the door.

There was a high probability he was simply going to make things worse. Ashe was intimidated by him at the best of times, and often expressed difficulty as seeing him as a fellow classmate and soldier. But what kind of Prince, what kind of King would he be, if he simply turned his back on someone’s suffering, merely for the sake of his own convenience?

Resolved, Dimitri raised a black gloved hand and rapped gently on the door.

There was a muffled “Coming” from inside, and soon the portal opened, with Lord Lonato’s adopted son standing before him, his eyes red and his freckled face downcast.

“What can I do for His Highness?” mumbled Ashe.

Dimitri was silent for a moment, the sense of dread returning. He tried to ignore it and instead quietly asked, “May I come in?”

Ashe listlessly stepped away from the door, turning his back on his Prince.

Alarmed now, Dimitri stepped inside and closed the door. The room was dim aside from small shafts of sunlight, and there was a definite odor of malaise as well. He could not smell it, but it was bad enough to bring tears to his eyes. His vision slowly adjusted to see Ashe seated despondently at his writing desk.

“Ashe, I am sorry. I grieve at this situation as much as you do. I wish...I wish I could change it for you. You deserve better.”

Silence.

He tried again. “Sometimes...life doesn’t make sense. We think we have answers, but we don’t. So it can feel comforting...to fall into a black despair, where things do make sense. To embrace futility. Hopelessness. And...death.”

Ashe was silent again, but he stirred slightly at Dimitri’s words.

“I nearly lost myself to that black madness four years ago, my friend. Dedue...he saved me. He helped me live. And just recently, with Lady Marianne…we nearly lost...” Dimitri broke off, unable to continue.

Putting his hands to his face, Ashe began to tremble.

Mastering himself, Dimitri continued. “But outside of this room Ashe...outside of yourself...there’s me. And Dedue. Ingrid and Sylvain, Mercedes and Annette. Even Felix. All of us want to listen to you. To be with you. Your pain...we feel it too. We suffer with you, although...we can never know it truly. But our hands are there. Waiting for you. Your family. And even Lord Lonato, in his terrible madness and grief. We can take your pain...the pain of life...because one day, you will be strong enough to live it again. I swear this to you.”

“I’m sorry...Highness,” said Ashe, his voice low. “I wish I could believe that. I really do…”

Dimitri shook his head. “I’m not asking for you to change today, Ashe. Or even tomorrow, or a week, or a month from now. You do not have to ‘cheer up.’ But...may I at least escort you to the dining hall? We can eat together. Without speaking. And I will have some staff clean your room, so things may be brighter upon your return.”

Slowly, Ashe nodded. Dimitri smiled gently and opened the door, allowing sunlight and fresh air to work their usual wonders. It had eventually worked for him, years before.

“C’mon, Mercie, we’re gonna miss them!” Annette yelled behind her as she sprinted ahead, racing towards the edge of the parade of the Knights.

Panting, Mercedes tried her best to keep up, her pony tail and sweater falling apart as she tried to match her friend’s rush. “Ah...Annie...wait...please…”

“Here, lean on me, Mercedes...trust me, there’s absolutely no hurry…” said Sylvain, moving with gallant eagerness to lend the blonde woman a hand and assist her through the crowd.

“Do you even stop for a second of the day?” groaned Felix beside him.

“Nope!” grinned Sylvain, linking his arm with Mercedes’ own. She was so out of breath she did not bother to protest.

Annette couldn’t hear her friends, unfortunately, as she weaved between the rest of the crowd with delighted ease. Sometimes being small and short was really convenient! she thought in pure joy. Sure, she bumped into people and things occasionally, like barrels, but everyone was waving and shouting at the Knights anyway. She caught a glimpse of Knight Byleth, the Commander for the forces in the lead; maybe her father would be somewhere nearby, at the head of the column.

A susurrating roar went up around her, and in a flash, all these bellies and arms and, oh yuck, even some butts from the crowd were pressing up against her as she was suddenly wedged in tight between two laborers. She felt like a piece of flotsam carried out to tide. Now being small and short seemed really, really inconvenient.

She was being jostled by the milling peasants around her, and as they leaned forward to the edge of the street barricade that allowed the Knights clear passage, she saw they were forcing her towards a large old man’s backside near the edge of the crowd. His rough hewn pants and belt were...inadequate.

Really, super, incredibly, tremendously inconvenient…

“One side, you rude mechanicals! Do not treat a noble lady so!” a male voice cried, and with some shoving and grunting, a hand reached out and grasped her own and pulled her free of the press. She was lifted easily by strong arms that set her down gently by a large wooden post of a closed merchant’s stall, where she could finally breathe again.

Shaking from her near-brush with absolute grossness, Annette looked up to see her savior. It was the Black Eagle, Ferdinand. He turned his back dismissively at the jeers from men nearby and said earnestly, “Are you well, Lady Annette? I am glad I saw you in time!”

“Y-yeah. I think. Oh, wow, thanks a bunch, Ferdinand!” she sighed in relief, with a shudder. “I guess I got seperated from my friends, trying to watch the Knights…”

“Annette, you have my sympathies. I know it can be difficult for people like us to stand out in a crowd,” said the Imperial Princess nearby, standing eye level with her.

“That’s right, that’s why Edelgard brought us to be her bodyguards,” bragged Caspar, standing next to her with his arms folded. Linhardt was leaning heavily against Caspar’s back, half-asleep. Petra barely shifted a glance in her direction, quickly classifying her as not a threat, and turned her head once more to examine the crowd, a hand on her sword.

“Why am I here again--?” Linhardt mumbled, but it was lost as the crowd roared again. The Knights in the lead of the column were passing them by.

“Um, ohhh, noooooo--!” cried Annette, her red pigtails bouncing as she hopped from one foot to the other. “I’m missing them! I need to find him!”

“Who you lookin’ for?” asked Caspar curiously. A snore from Linhardt.

Annette whirled around herself, considering each of them. Linhardt was asleep, while Caspar was strong enough, but barely taller than she was, and Edelgard was calmly staring at her...but no, asking that of royalty just felt wrong. Petra was too busy in her duty to even notice her. So that left…

“Ferdinand!” she ran to his side, eyes wide in an appeal. “There’s someone I need to find among the Knights! Can you give me a boost? Um...I need to stand on your shoulders!”

“Ahm...well, Lady Annette, that is rather…” said Ferdinand nervously, a hand going to the back of his orange locks.

“What a proper and accurate assessment of Ferdinand’s capabilities. You heard the noble lady, my lord,” smiled Edelgard, clearly enjoying the moment. “Surely you would not be so rude and thoughtless as to decline her request?”

“Well, no, of course not!” sputtered Ferdinand defensively. “As a true noble, it is expected of me to meet her plea for aid. It’s just that…”

“Great! Thanks Ferdinand, you’re the best in the land!” interrupted Annette happily, and began climbing. She almost lost her balance when Ferdinand belatedly bent lower to assist her, but with a wobble managed to get both of her feet on his shoulders.

She nearly fell again as Ferdinand rose to his full height. Annette found herself going up, and up, and up…

Her stomach nearly flipped out of her mouth, but she felt Ferdinand holding firmly on to her ankles. Annette experienced a brief moment of transcendence, as if she was analyzing her own mind as she thought. At one instant she felt like a bird almost, because she didn’t think she had ever been so high above other people in her life. The other was curiously and analytically remarking at how she was so reckless to trust a boy she hardly knew with her safety. She tried to ignore the inner dialogue, because now she could clearly see the Knights, and smell the horses, and peer close at each face riding by, trying to see someone familiar…

Annette did her best not to fidget on her perch, but as the minutes passed with more and more Knights riding by, she realized that her hopes were foolish. The vast majority of Knights were helmed, and she did not see any glimpse of red and white hair among the other men. Her one best chance to find her father was simply passing her by, and now the noises and sights just grated on her nerves as a new rush of bitter disappointment filled her. He was probably going to die in the upcoming battle like an idiot, and she would never see him again, or even know his final fate. She had worked long and hard for absolutely nothing.

Climbing down on Ferdinand’s back, Annette struggled to put on a brave smile to the Black Eagles in gratitude. “Um...thanks, Ferdinand. I really mean it. But I didn’t see him…”

“Do you know someone among the Knights of Seiros, Lady Annette?” he asked gently.

“Well, no...but I thought I might,” sniffed Annette. “I guess you should know after I made such a big deal about it. I’m looking for my father. He was a Knight of the Kingdom, but he disappeared after the Tragedy. I haven’t seen him since then, and since he was so faithful to the Goddess, I thought he might have taken Holy Vows as a Knight of Seiros…”

“And he thought his faith could be a replacement for his family?” said Edelgard in amazed disgust. “Annette, I am so sorry to hear that.”

“Oh, um, thanks. But I’m mainly upset that he just...left. Without so much as a good-bye. And I don’t hate him...I think,” Annette sniffed, wiping her eyes. “I just want to hear why he did it, from his own mouth. Why did he leave me and Mom alone? We just miss him. That’s all,” she said in a voice as small as herself.

“Your dad better hope he’s not around here. I’d kick his ass!” declared Caspar, shadowboxing the air. Linhardt somehow remained asleep against him. Petra shook her head briefly and ignored the idiosyncrasies of Fodlan nobility once more.

“I would not take it that far, but I would most certainly have words for the man,” said Ferdinand grimly. “To put yourself, no matter how deep your own shame and regret, over the needs of your family shows a blatant disregard of every principle of noble character!”

“You guys don’t get it!” yelled Annette, feeling absurd but also indignant. “I don’t want to judge my father! I really don’t! I just want to find him! I just want to see him!” she sniffed again, hating herself for breaking down. “I just want to know if he’s still around…”

Ferdinand was immediately abashed by his behavior. “Please forgive us, Lady Annette. You are right that we should not jump to conclusions. I do hope you find your father one day and that it is an occasion of joy for you,” he said with a bow.

“Oh, Annie--! There you are! We were so worried,” said Mercie, pushing Sylvain away and hurrying up to her side as the rest of the Blue Lions approached 

“Why is Annette crying?” asked Felix quietly as he stepped forward, his left hand on his sword sheath and his thumb on the hilt.

“Felix. There is misunderstanding. But no closer,” warned Petra by Edelgard’s side, her own hand on her sword, although she started to look excited.

Edelgard stepped forward to ease the tension, although Felix was smiling at Petra. “Lady Annette was looking for her missing father. Ferdinand graciously assisted her to try and find him among the Knights of Seiros, but I am afraid her disappointment is proving too much to bear at the moment.”

“Oh, you mean Lord Gustav?” nodded Sylvain in recognition. “Yeah, there were rumors he bailed on the Kingdom four years ago. It was said he thought he had failed King Lambert and Prince Dimitri, so he couldn’t return home.”

“Another old man who used the death of others to flaunt his ego,” muttered Felix, locking his sword back in place and folding his arms, still eyeing Petra. She soon grinned broadly at only something she could see and nodded.

“I’m sorry for being such a bother, everyone,” said Annette, wiping her eyes with Mercedes’ handkerchief. “No one needs to worry about my messed up family…”

Ferdinand said sternly, “You are wrong, Annette. Seeing you in distress is cause enough to look for your father. I promise that I will help you find him, by my honor as a noble of the Empire.”

“What? Really?” Annette asked in astonishment.

“I promised to give you a boost, and yet you have not found your father. As far as I am concerned, my obligation to you is not fulfilled. I will help you find Lord Dominic, or my name is not Ferdinand von Aegir!”

*

“...and that is why I feel I cannot consider an engagement with Viscount Kleiman’s son at this time. Perhaps when I graduate, I will feel the confidence I need to choose a suitor with clear eyes and a gentle heart. Then sign!” Dorothea dictated as she waltzed around the dorm room.

Ingrid scratched out the last phrases with her quill on her desk, then set aside the parchment to dry. “And that’s another one down. Oh, Goddess, thank you so much, Dorothea. I don’t think I could have managed all of these on my own.”

“Well, your father does get points for persistence. Frankly, I’m a bit jealous,” said the songstress as she examined Ingrid’s pitifully bare make-up counter by the armoire with a critical eye, along with the tiny smudged mirror. “I wish I had a family that was helping me find a match.”

“Yes, yes, I know I should be grateful. And that’s why I struggle so much with these proposals. I know he just wants me to be taken care of. I know he’s just worried about me, and the family, and the future of our territory. But for some reason…” Ingrid trailed off, gazing into the distance.

“Not just ‘some reason,’ dear,” Dorothea lectured. “If you feel like you don’t want to marry, you shouldn’t be forced into it. Be confident in your feelings, because no one else can really know them.” Then she laughed. “I’m sorry. I’m starting to sound like Professor Manuela to you.”

“I just wish I had some of your confidence,” Ingrid sighed, looking at the letter.

“Oh, trust me Ingrid, this isn’t confidence, it’s a facade,” smiled Dorothea easily. “Now that that’s done, shall we go for a walk before lunch? With everyone watching the Knights, we should have our first choice of food.”

Ingrid’s eyes lit up and Dorothea almost laughed again in amusement. The way to this Knight’s heart was definitely through her stomach. She would have to ask Bern or Manuela for serious cooking lessons.

As the two students left Ingrid’s room and walked down the stairs, Ingrid tried to explain herself once more. “I’ve tried to stand firm on my dreams, but he is starting to wear me down. Even the tuition to come to Garreg Mach was almost too much for our family, but we finally managed to sell off some land to the freeholders. And the only reason he agreed was because he thought I might ‘fall in love’ here.”

“You’d think he’d realize it’s a little early in the semester for that,” Dorothea teased. “After all, you have yet to go on a single date. Granted, the pickings are slim…”

“Tell me about it,” Ingrid grumbled. “Like I would go on a date with Felix or Sylvain. Or His Highness. I honestly think I would die from the humiliation. I bet you have the same trouble in your class.”

“Oh, definitely. Caspar is sweet but a bit dim, and Ferdie is...Ferdie. Hubie wouldn’t let any other woman come between him and his ‘Lady Edelgard,’ and Lin only cares about books. Edie...that just feels wrong, like you feel about Dimitri I guess, while Bern has even more issues than I do. Petra is certainly attractive, and a Princess to boot, but you told me she was seeing Felix…” Dorothea trailed off as she noticed Ingrid staring at her in amazement. “What is it, dear?”

“How can you do that so flippantly?” asked Ingrid, shaking her head. “Doesn’t the thought of two women being together just...I don’t know. Doesn’t it seem unnatural?”

“No more unnatural than two men being together dearie,” winked Dorothea. “Trust me, it happens a lot more often than you think. Don’t you ever wonder about your Prince and Dedue?”

“Oh, just about all the time,” growled Ingrid as they exited the dorms. “That damn Duscarman follows him around day and night. Even into his bedroom. It’s embarrassing to the Kingdom as a whole, but Dimitri won’t hear of any alternatives.” The Kingdom noble eyed the commoner. “I mean, wouldn’t it bother you if you heard Petra and Edelgard were spending days and nights together?”

Dorothea grinned playfully to her blonde friend. “Well, yes. Frankly, I would feel deeply offended...that they didn’t think to invite me to join them…”

“Oh Goddess no! Please no! You are so...so...I don’t know what you are!” said Ingrid, torn in between disgust, exasperation, and amusement. “I already have enough trouble managing one friend’s escapades. Please don’t add yourself to the list, Dorothea.”

“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, my sweet Ingrid. Truth be told, I’ve taken myself off of the market for a while. Mainly for the reasons we just said...the pickings are too slim at the moment,” sighed Dorothea as they walked past the docks to the river.

“Oh c’mon. What about the Golden Deer? I’d bet my lance you’ve considered some of them,” challenged Ingird.

“Briefly. Very briefly. Ignatz is attractive, in a cute submissive sort of way, but too meek for my personality. And while Raphael has some very nice muscles, he is sweet and dim just like Caspar. Claude is...well, let’s just say he’s very exotic and appealing, but…”

“I think I know what you mean. He’s so...afraid. Or something. He never likes to talk about himself. He’s friendly but...somehow...oh, I’m not making sense….”

“No, sweetie, I think you are. Take it from someone who knows...Claude is acting like someone who’s been hurt in the past. And he’s doing his best to minimize his risk of being hurt again. But we’re digressing, aren’t we? Finally, there’s our noble Lorenz Hellman Gloucester, who has money, looks, nobility…”

“...and is a total ass.” Ingrid grinned, elbowing Dorothea.

Dorothea grinned back. “Yes. The biggest ass in Fodlan. After all,” she said in a fair imitation, “nothing less than being the biggest jerk-ass in Fodlan would be a worthy title for Lorenz Hellman Gloucester!”

Ingrid leaned hard against her as they both laughed about that. Dorothea’s heart pounded with the contact, but she smiled back as if nothing was wrong in the world with her friend. This was just going to end in heartbreak for both of them. She wanted something from Ingrid that she couldn’t give her. Why am I doing this to her? Dorothea reprimanded herself.

Why are you doing this to yourself? her mind replied smugly back at her.

Because it felt nice just to be near someone, damn it, thought Dorothea firmly as their laughter eased. Without herself getting in the way. Ingrid didn’t need to be bothered by her compulsive neediness, or her deep insecurities, or her fears of being unlovable. She just liked the facade. Dorothea herself liked the facade. Being friends was just mindless fun. No need to belabor the issue by becoming all serious if Ingrid didn’t see her that way.

She blinked to realize Ingrid was looking at her strangely, as if for the first time. Dorothea panicked, even as she bent her operatic skills to keep her face calm and composed. She was not ready for anything resembling the conversation she had just broached in her own mind. She did not want to be rejected again, or to listen to worthless, timid excuses, or to hear the ‘It’s healthier this way’ speech. She didn’t want to be healthy, Goddess damn it. She just wanted...someone who complimented her.

Salvation came from an unexpected corner, as Dorothea spied something that had to be seen to be believed. “Holy Seiros! Ingrid, we need to hide!” she exclaimed, grabbing the Blue Lion’s arm and dragging her past the staircase to the dining hall.

“What is it?” said Ingrid, playing along with her and following her gaze. Dorothea was grateful that the Crested noblewoman trusted her enough to follow her lead. She shushed her friend with hand waves and pointed to the two figures walking to the greenhouses, one short, one tall. Both were wearing matching white chef hats. They could just barely hear them over the waterfall of the magical river dock.

“...the recipe is different based on what you need. The one I used had tarragon, but you can make it with savory, or thyme, or marjoram. Or even all four! I’ve tried different combinations in the past…”

A deep modulated voice. “...and did your experimentation bear fruit?”

“....waaaaaait a second, did you just make a joke? You just De-did, didn’t you?” A nervous giggle.

“I was simply using an idiom…”

“Ohh, no you De-don’t! You’re just a big old softie, aren’t you?”

“I am hardly at the age to be considered ‘old.’”

“Ah! That was too much, wasn’t it?! I’m sorry…!”

“Please calm yourself, Bernadetta. We need precise clippings from the herb garden…”

“R-right! Um...Bernie’s on the job!”

Both Dorothea and Ingrid’s jaws were left hanging as the pair wandered by their hiding place into the gardens. The actress recovered first, and whispered, “Did you just see what I saw?”

“Dedue was talking to someone other than Dimitri,” Ingrid whispered back, still shocked. “He hardly ever does that.”

“And Bernadetta never leaves her room voluntarily. Ever. And she’s chatting him up like they’re…”

“No way,” Ingrid shook her head.

"Then they're wearing matching..."

Another denial, louder. "No. Way."

“Oh Goddess, I’m so proud of Bern! She really is growing up!” Dorothea exulted in a squealing whisper.

“No way!” said Ingrid even more loudly now, her mouth still hanging open.

“Why not?” suggested Dorothea with broad smile. “They’re the ones who volunteer for kitchen duty the most. Perhaps they’ve bonded together while making all of our delicious meals!”

Ingrid was so dazed by what they had seen that Dorothea had to gently lead her into the dining room. “Bernadetta and Dedue...I would have never have thought…” the Blue Lion trailed off.

Dorothea hugged Ingrid’s strong arm with something more than affection, not that the noblewoman knew. “Well my dear. This just goes to show we shouldn’t live by assumptions. For all that we know, love may even bloom in the most unlikeliest of places!”

*

A lazy week passed by for the students of Garreg Mach. With the majority of Knights absent, the students spent their afternoons in differing pursuits, since a majority of the training specialists were absent. That did not prevent students such as Felix, Dimitri, Leonie, Ingrid, Caspar, and Raphael from spending long hours with Professor Jeritza in the Training Hall. Likewise, magic using students such as Hubert, Lysithea, Linhardt, Annette, and Lorenz spent most of their time in the library studying new applications for anima. Marianne spent her time in the company of Hilda, Mercedes, and Bernadetta, under the supervision of Professor Manuela, who was insulted and angry enough by Seteth’s completely baseless accusations that she proved to be an upstanding role model for the week. Others, like Dedue, Ignatz, Dorothea, and Sylvain, decided this was a perfect time to pursue their own private projects, whether it was cooking, art, or romance.

Including one Claude von Riegan.

Claude closed the forbidden volume, having just finished the last page in the privacy of his room. He had learned enough from the book he had nicked from the library. There was more to the ancient War of Heroes and founding of the Church of Seiros than what was on public record, although the tome had been written with so much religious allegory and metaphor it was unclear what was literal and what was figurative. It was clear the Church was hiding secrets concerning its origins, but whatever the motivation was, he couldn’t seem to come up with a good theory to fit all the variables. The Church of Seiros had had dozens of Archbishops throughout the centuries; how could all of them keep this sacred knowledge in confidence? Then there were the hundreds of secret cardinals throughout the years; how had all of them remain so loyal and so true to the Church, that in more than a thousand years, no Cardinal’s identity had been exposed or discovered? His mind kept shying away from the answer, but it persistently returned to it time and time again.

The Goddess really existed. Byleth had been right all along.

It was the only thing he could think of that would be powerful enough to keep the Church hierarchy in line for hundreds of years. The thought of some invisible, intangible force witnessing his every word and deed made his skin crawl, and Claude shuddered involuntarily. But there was too much evidence that some inhuman strength was flexing its will upon Fodlan, moving human lives about like pawns on a chessboard. The entire noble system of Fodlan owed its existence to the Goddess. The Church kept that system in place, no matter the behavior of said nobles, unless they rebelled against the Church itself. Then the Knights, a small but elite cadre of shocktroops, many of them former nobility themselves, moved ruthlessly to crush any dissent. He wondered if Byleth now thought being a Holy Knight was all she had hoped it would be. Be careful what you wish for…

The thought of dissent gave him some pause. Lonato had rebelled, but his rebellion was centered against Rhea herself, and there had been numerous other rebellions against the Church in the past, such as Loog’s rebellion or his own House of Riegan leading the charge against the Holy Kingdom. But those had been careful to distinguish themselves as secular, political matters, merely pitting noble against noble. So the Church tolerated a degree of dissent, so long as that dissent was not focused against the authority of the Central Church itself. Even Captain Teach, for all of his disagreements with the Church, didn’t even seem to countenance outright defiance against the Archbishop. If his Professor was intimidated by Rhea, then Claude definitely felt so.

Claude rubbed a hand on his wrist, feeling his pulse. He didn’t feel special, or different, or blessed by any divine force. Even so, he had to acknowledge that training in matters of war had always come easily to him. The first time he had held a bow and arrow, he had instinctively known what it was for and how to use it, able to pull the drawstring before Nader could even show him how. Maybe his mother had pushed him so hard in his childhood training because she was trying to get him to understand his natural advantages. Even so, such “gifts” were a mixed blessing at best. They didn’t turn enemies into friends, or feed him when he was hungry, or prevented him from being poisoned. So the Goddess of Fodlan had made it easy for him to shoot arrows. Big whoop.

But...the Goddess was supposedly dead. That had been the entire point behind ‘healing the land’ and ‘granting divine power’ to mortal intermediaries, like the Saints and King Nemesis. He had attended enough Church services to understand that at least. If the Goddess or something like her was real...were the ‘dark gods’ of the ancient past real as well? Now Claude well and truly shivered. Imagining a benign deity was bad enough. A malicious one was too nightmarish to contemplate.

A knock on his door roused him from his contemplation.

Claude quickly moved the large book beneath his bedding. “Coming!” he called out, quickly glancing around to make sure no other incriminating evidence was in sight. Probably one of his classmates coming to get him for training. Captain Teach had frowned on his many recent absences. Composing his face into a roguish smile, Claude opened his door.

He was not prepared for the bent figure in white robes standing before him. Tomas the librarian stood in his doorway, his leathery face showing the kindly smile of an old man as he leaned on his wooden cane. “Ah, young Claude,” he said in a voice as dusty as his bookshelves. “How are you this fine summer afternoon?” 

“Tomas! Um, what a surprise. What can I do for you?” Claude grinned, hating himself for sweating involuntarily in a guilty reaction.

“Oh, forgive me. I don’t usually make it a habit to disturb inquisitive young minds at work. And I don’t wish to cause you any more...discomfort...than absolutely necessary,” said the old man, his eyes twinkling. “But I have my duties and obligations as an old monk of the monastery. So...do you have it?”

“Aaahm....have what, Tomas? Nothing here in my room but dirty stockings and undergarments!” Claude protested, even as his mind realized he was well and truly busted.

“Come now, young man, let us speak plainly. You have recently taken something from the library’s archives. There is no shame in admitting your curiosity about the history of the Church. I’ve been the librarian of Garreg Mach for over forty years. Did you really think I would not realize something was missing?” The old man’s grin turned a bit sinister.

“You know, now that I think about it, a book may have accidentally, um, ended up in here?” said Claude, almost tripping over himself in his haste to retrieve the volume. His grin turned pleading as he proffered it to the librarian. “See? Good as new! Just me being curious little ol’ me. And no need to inform anyone else, right?”

“No, of course not,” chortled the elderly monk, tucking the large book under one voluminous sleeve. “We are merely two intellectuals, able to discuss matters in a calm and practical manner. How did you enjoy this history of the Goddess?”

“Um...well, it was interesting, but I guess...confusing? I’m not really good with symbolism or allegory.”

“It is distressing to hear that, but not unexpected. The Word of Seiros has become littered with ostentatious jargon and mixed metaphors these days, while the underlying message is all but lost. I argued long into the night with Rhea back when I had just taken my Holy Vows into the Adrestian Order…”

Claude blinked. “Wait. You knew Rhea...in your youth?”

The old man gave a diffident shrug. “Oh yes. She and Knight-Captain Jeralt were at Garreg Mach even before I was. Amazing how they have stayed so remarkably well-preserved over the decades, while my skin withered and my rheumatism twisted my back. The Goddess works in mysterious ways, I suppose, although I wish she was more free with her blessings. Perhaps you can broach the subject with your Professor one day.” Tomas gave one last kind smile to a shocked Claude. “Farewell, young Claude. If you ever feel the urge to broaden your mind in the future, remember you have but to ask me.”

*

“Where the hell are they? We should have found them by now.”

Byleth ignored Catherine’s question as she leaned over the map table in the command tent. It was merely stating the obvious. Shamir and Alois stood nearby, but they had no answers either. Even though it was morning, she still had to light a lantern to see inside the shadows of the tent.

A week marching west out of Garreg Mach, and all had been going well. The Knights had some of the best provisions and supplies, along with dedicated brothers and sisters devoted to keeping the soldiers and mounts healthy. The Magdred Way was wide and well-traveled, the ancient causeway still paved and marked in many places through the rolling hills of the western Oghma Mountains. Her pegasus mounted scouts had reported Lonato’s army was marching east in a slow fashion, towards their position. They were anticipated to meet them at dawn. Byleth had ordered entrenchments dug and palisades built from the nearby woods, and told her officers to be read