Autumn creeps in like a thief in reverse, unseen nor heard as it steals through the streets, but leaving behind gilded leaves in its wake. The days, though long and bright, bring the promise of a chill winter by season’s end. Byleth watches the season change through the thin windows of Derdriu’s council room, has been watching the leaves on the trees outside as they catch and flicker in the wind, longing for something she’s unsure of how to name. With each day that goes by, the leaves burn a deeper and deeper red, and as days pass through into weeks, the leaves finally begin to fall and Byleth has watched it happen, does so now, elbow propped on the arm of her high-backed chair, cheek propped on her hand in turn, while Holst Goneril talks about…
Ah… Something about… Grain? Grain prices? Maybe wheat? She’s fairly confident it was wheat. Unless wheat and grain are the same thing and he’s actually talking about barley. Hopefully he won’t ask for her input until she can pick up the thread of this one-sided conversation again.
“What are your thoughts, your Majesty?”
Byleth straightens in her chair and opens her mouth to come clean, when Claude leans forward in his own chair, one hand half-raised in a polite gesture of interjection. “Forgive me, Lord Goneril,” he says, effectively redirecting the attention of every Lord and Lady present at the Roundtable conference away from Byleth. “Just allow me to clarify, there’s a concern for the distribution of resources through Faerghus? I was under the impression that we had already agreed to reroute the convoys through Magdred.”
“The route is not the issue,” Holst says testily. “As I said before, it is the amount that we are sending which is causing concern. Of course we understand that Faerghus suffered most during the Empire’s crusade, but we cannot expend all of our resources to assist them. We are leaving our own people vulnerable if we do.”
Byleth frowns. “Our ‘own people’? Lord Goneril, I mean no disrespect, but Fódlan has been one people since my coronation. And if I may, might I request that you please tell me how much grain we yielded from the last of the summer crops in Airmid?”
Holst blinks, looking mildly affronted. “I have no way of knowing that, your Grace.”
Byleth smiles thinly. “I did not expect you to. Nor do I expect you to know, to the grain, exactly how much rice currently sits in the storehouses of the estate you currently stand in. I hope you can see the point I am making. You are not concerned for the amount of food we are supplying, because there is no way you can be if you know nothing of the quantities we have. You are concerned about who we are supplying to. And I do not make this comment idly.” Byleth gets to her feet, waving down those among the assembled who move to rise with her. “We have more than enough to provide to those who need it. Faerghus is not yet in a position to survive on its own crops. The land was razed, as I’m sure you will recall, when the royal family fell. Until the region is at a point where the people can farm sustainably once more, we will continue to provide food for all who reside there. We have more than enough, we are no longer at war, we do not have to stockpile and hoard our resources jealously out of fear of reprisals. We are in an era of peace and to foster that peace, we must cooperate. Fódlan stands united and I will not see her people wanting. This is the last I will say on this matter.”
Holst flounders, cheeks reddening. “I am not finished—“
“I am,” Byleth says sweetly. “You are dismissed.”
She departs the room without another word, cape fluttering as she takes her leave, bored of politics, bored of arguing simple points, bored of duty and status and all the bastard things that come with it. She stops in the antechamber, taking a deep breath to try and expel the tension caught heavily in her shoulders, but try as she might she cannot shift it, dug in deep to her muscles from the weight of her title.
Large, warm hands come to rest on her shoulders, thumbs pressing firmly into her shoulder blades.
“Caught you slipping a bit there, Teach,” Claude says, massaging her shoulders gently. “I know Holst’s not the most charismatic guy in the world, but he does make some important points.”
“It’s his points I have a problem with,” Byleth says, sighing as Claude slowly coaxes the stress from her shoulders. “Thank you for that, by the way.”
“Any time,” Claude leans forward, dropping a kiss to the side of her neck. “Glad we’re on the same page. I said the points were important, not that they're good. But I can see where he’s coming from. It comes from a headspace of wartime struggles. I don’t think he's left it behind yet.”
Byleth pauses at that. “No, I think you’re right. But I can’t fault him for that. It will take time before he stops trying to prioritise the needs of the Alliance over the needs of all Fódlan. Even I…” She trails off. “No, enough of this. I’m tired of it. This kind of talk can stay in the council room. I’m going to fly.”
“Oh, can I come?”
Byleth turns to smile at him. “I assumed you would.”
It may be the wrong time for it, there are many things Byleth should probably be focusing on, but right now all she wants is to leave her problems and her duties behind and race the wind until everything else is a blur. She has so much to do and not enough time in which to do it all, so she finds solace where she can, and most often it can be found astride her wyvern. Or her fiancé, but that’s another matter entirely.
The Lords will probably have more matters to bring to her attention come tomorrow, and she’ll most likely have to offer Holst some cursory apology to keep him placated, but for now she wants nothing more than to spend the rest of a wasted day with her two favourite people, so that’s what she does, slipping unseen from the estate with Claude close behind her as they make their way to the royal paddock, both stealing furtive glances behind themselves as though they’re doing something illicit and irresponsible.
Their wyverns are napping together the fading light of the setting sun, Najima’s larger body curled around Reus’ smaller form, but both raise their heads when they hear their riders approach. Reus, still young and excitable, wriggles away from Najima and bounds over to Byleth with a happy growl, nuzzling at her face with his snout and begging for pets. Najima regards her rider with a mask of indifference until Claude scritches under her chin and her tail starts thrashing happily. There’s no one she loves better than Claude, and Byleth is definitely in her corner with that.
They saddle their mounts quickly, grinning like teenagers sneaking out after curfew to get into trouble, and it’s that rush that blows away the last cobwebs left by the dull drag of the conference, giving way to the stirrings of wager excitement deep in Byleth’s chest. She climbs into Reus’ saddle, feels him thrum beneath her with that same anticipation of flight, and when Claude is seated on Najima’s back, Byleth digs her heels into Reus’ flanks, coaxing him into the air with a flick of the reigns.
And then they’re off, soaring up through the air in unison as they leave the ground and the world behind. They’ll race to Fódlan’s Locket and back, gliding low over forests and rising with eddies of the warm air currents from the valleys below. They’ll coast and bank and climb and dive until everything is forgotten except the exhilaration of the sky. And when they are breathless with exhilaration, Claude will leap from Najima’s saddle to Reus’ in a foolish, daring manoeuvre he’s been practicing for months, and he will kiss Byleth under the amber glow of the setting sun, fingers gentle against her sensitive, wind-bitten cheeks.
For a few reckless hours, Byleth will forget that she is Queen, and she will be happy.
The last leaf on the branch visible from the council room breaks from its stalk and flutters out of sight. Byleth watches it fall and thinks it an apt metaphor for the final thread of her patience snapping. Unfortunately she is not at liberty to lose her temper here, no matter how much she would love nothing more than the opportunity to silence Holst permanently.
It’s a dark thought, unbecoming of her, but she’s at her wits end with this man. He’s convinced himself that the Alliance is falling, even though the Alliance is no more he cannot - will not - open his mind to the fact that there are no borders in Fódlan anymore. Claude’s comment about Holst being caught in the headspace of a wartime General is scarily accurate, but that’s to be expected from him.
In any other situation, Byleth would empathise. Her fingers long for the hilt of her sword, but she is long past the need for wielding weapons. That should be a good thing, but it still leaves her bereft and unbalanced. So she would absolutely be able to empathise with Holst if he weren’t currently being so damn insufferable.
“Forgive my bluntness, but you say we have stores of supplies to send to Faerghus,” Holst says, not in the least bit apologetic despite his words. “Are these not the supplies belonging to the Alliance? Are we to offer everything we have without acceptable compensation? We cannot keep endlessly giving. It will ruin us.”
“There is no us,” Byleth snaps, slamming a hand down onto the table. All eyes in the room snap to her in unison but she is far past decorum and propriety. “I don’t know how many times I have to explain this concept to you, Lord Goneril. There is no Alliance. There is no them and us. There is one people and it is to those people that I owe my service. I will not play favourites, I will not bestow favours on one region over another because of arbitrary allegiances upheld during a time when we had a common enemy. We have stores of resources, Faerghus do not. Leicester will not suffer if we aid them. You are trying to hoard goods because you are seeing enemies where none exist! Now be silent or I will have you deposed!”
Holst turns an ugly shade of puce, shaking with rage. “You have turned your back on your people!”
“ I have given everything to my people !” Byleth roars and draws her sword as Goneril lunges for her, face twisting into a grotesque mask of fury. Their blades meet in a shower of sparks and then Holst’s face is melting and it’s not Holst she’s crossing blades with, it’s Edelgard and she’s weeping tears of blood.
“Your path lies across my grave,” she hisses and drives Byleth back with a mighty shove and brings her blade down, burying the edge deep into Byleth’s chest—
Byleth wakes with a start, sitting bolt upright and clutching her chest as she fights for breath. Sweat has slicked her hair against the back of her neck and her hands are trembling, adrenaline beating tattoos deep into the lines of her veins. She throws the blankets off and climbs out of bed, crossing the room on unsteady legs to pour herself a glass of water. Her hands are shaking so badly she spills most of it and she is horrified to find that her cheeks are wet with tears.
“By?” Claude’s voice is soft and rough with sleep. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she says shortly, taking long gulps of water and wiping her eyes roughly. “Go back to sleep.”
“Yeah, not gonna happen.” Claude grunts as he gets up, padding over to her and pulling her into his arms. “Bad dream?”
Byleth nods against his chest, fisting her hands in his shirt. He strokes her damp hair softly, rubbing his other hand in slow circles down her back. They stand there like that for a length of time Byleth cannot measure, trying desperately to lose herself in Claude’s embrace and hating herself when even that doesn’t help ease her troubled heart.
“Okay,” Claude says like he’s made a decision. “Enough is enough, I think. I’ll send word to the Lord’s that the conference is over, you can’t go on like this.”
“I have to,” Byleth says into his chest. “I have to do this.”
“No,” Claude says, kind but firm. “You don’t. Leave it to me, okay? You’ve done enough. I’m not about to sit and watch you drive yourself into the ground. That was never part of the plan.”
He coaxes her back to bed with gentle but insistent hands, never letting go of her and pulling her tight to his body as he tuck them back in. He holds onto her until dawn brightens the sky outside, humming softly until some of the tension leaves her body, stroking her hair and pressing kisses to her face and shoulders until she is settled enough to slip into a fitful, restless sleep. When she wakes again, the sun has fully risen but the estate is quiet and Claude is nowhere to be seen. Anxiety creeps through her chest, seizing her lung in a vice, but then he walks through the door, dressed in his travelling cloak, and offers her a soft smile.
“I was hoping you’d still be asleep,” he says, leaning down to kiss her forehead. “We’ve got a long journey ahead of us, maybe try to get another hour in?”
“I’m fine,” Byleth says, pleased to find that it’s truer than it was last night. “What do you mean? Where are we going?”
Claude nudges her over, sitting down and opening his arms so she can tuck herself into his side. “I’ve sent the Lords home,” he says, carding his fingers through her hair. “We’re taking a break.”
“A break?” Byleth lifts her head to look up at him. He winks at her.
“I think it’s the perfect time. You’re about to burn out, By, and I’m at least two hundred percent responsible for that, so I took the initiative and made some arrangements.”
“You’re not being nearly as mysterious as you think you are,” Byleth tells him. “You’re just being vague and annoying. Where are we going? Tell me or I’ll not move from this bed.”
Claude laughs, tugging a lock of her hair playfully. “I’m plenty mysterious. You’re just too used to my antics by now. And fine, since you’re so opposed to pleasant surprises, we’re going to visit my parents.”
Byleth sits up abruptly, looking at him with wide eyes. The anxiety relents immediately, replaced by a sudden rush of excitement. “You don’t mean…”
“I mean,” Claude says with a grin, “we’re going to Almyra.”