Once again, there is no one to blame for any errors but myself. Pls be nice to me.
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.”
Since Almyra is said to have influences from the Middle East, I went with an Arabic influence in names and descriptions of the city itself. Which is why Claude’s wyvern is named Najima, which means “star”. Of course, the internet isn’t always great for translations, but I did my best! Hopefully I haven’t mistranslated anything but if anyone spots anything too glaring to ignore, hit me up and I’ll make some alterations.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It might come from years of blindly following orders, but Byleth has to admit she finds a petty sort of satisfaction in having her own commands followed, especially off of the battlefield. She’s not doing it to be authoritarian, but she’s a little tired of being treated like something fragile, especially when she absolutely did strike the finishing blow that effectively saved the world. But it seems it will always be the case that at least one specific person will always try to argue his way around her orders.
“I’ll be perfectly safe,” Byleth says, again, to Seteth’s displeased face. “Claude and I will arrive at the Locket by nightfall and then continue on to Almyra in the morning. We’re perfectly capable of defending ourselves should the need arise.”
“I would feel more at ease if you would allow a retinue to accompany you,” Seteth insists. “It is foolish not to expect any trouble on such a journey. Bandits still roam the lands, winning the war did not change that.”
Byleth finishes fastening her pack to Reus’ saddle. “I said no, Seteth. It would only prolong the journey and I refuse to enter Almyra with a guard behind me.” She appreciates his concern, is a little endeared by it which is why she isn’t currently losing her temper. In any other situation, yes, she would welcome an extra guard detail joining them, but alone she and Claude will be able to make the journey in half the time, and though she won’t admit it, she wants no one else along with them while they travel. She is tired of guards and servants lurking around her at all hours of the day. For a short while, all she wants is to forget her station and to spend time with Claude and Claude alone.
“I state my strong objections,” Seteth says tersely.
“Noted.” She pats his shoulder. “It’s honourable of you to worry so for your Queen, but I promise you I’ll be fine. I’ll send word once we arrive safely.”
Seteth narrows his eyes at her. “That’s what you think? I’m not worried about my Queen , I’m worried about my friend .” He folds his arms and scowls. “You’re about to cross into completely new territory and you refuse to take even the smallest precautions to guard yourself.”
Oh. That’s… Actually incredibly sweet. Byleth relents somewhat, sighing heavily. “Your concern is appreciated, but please remember that I am both capable and resourceful and I am not going alone.”
Seteth grumbles and finally surrenders. “Very well. But I would like regular updates on your well-being while you are away. Byleth.” The use of her name startles her and when she looks at him his eyes are soft, pleading. “Stay safe. Please.”
“I will,” she promises, clasping his arm. “And you as well. Don’t run the country into the ground while I’m gone. Or declare any new national holidays without at least running them by Hilda first.”
He huffs a reluctant laugh at that and steps aside so that Flayn might say her own, less overbearing goodbyes.
“I want to hear all about it when you return!” She tells Byleth, arms wrapped tightly around her waist as she hugs her farewell. “I shall miss you, but I hope you have a wonderful time!”
“You’ll have to come with us next time,” Byleth tells her, prompting a pleased gasp from the shorter woman. “I’ll make sure to bring you back something nice.”
By the time Claude joins them, leading Najima by the reins, Byleth is more than prepared to leave, impatient to be airborne and on their way. Seteth and Flayn bid their final farewells and once Byleth is seated on Reus’ back, she waves one last time before coaxing him into the air with a nudge of her heels to his sides. She and Claude rise rapidly over the estate, climbing until she can see all of Fódlan stretched out beneath them, and then they are gliding east towards the jagged mountains of Fódlan’s Throat.
Excitement thrums in her chest. Never before has she been so eager for the new and unknown. She knows nothing about the land beyond the Throat and cannot wait to experience it all.
“I'm assuming there will be formalities I should be aware of before we arrive,” Byleth calls to Claude, prompting him to glide closer so he can hear her better over the rush of the wind.
“Ah, not really. Nothing too different to Fódlan. I’m not planning on subjecting you to the Almyran court just yet, but it might help to know that Almyrans don’t believe in the Goddess.”
Byleth nods. She had known that, at least. “What do they believe?”
“It’s more a faith in the land,” Claude explains. “They believe that all life is borrowed and that when you die you give it back to the land. Anything you take from it, food and materials, you need to give proper thanks for and recognise that you don’t have a right to it, that it’s all borrowed and must be returned. They prize strength above almost anything else, which I guess is why Fódlan depicts them as war-loving savages. They don’t take joy in killing, it’s just that battle prowess is highly valued. They love a good fight, but it’s more for the victory than the bloodlust. And they love to feast. There are hundreds of festivals and holidays centred around overindulgence. It’s great.”
He tells her a little more about the foreign culture while they travel, about the libraries and the schools and how the palace is carved out of the very face of the red-rock mountain in the centre of the city. He tells her that the forests are vast and lush and evergreen, but that to the north a desert stretches leagues into the horizon. He tells her of the oases that litter the landscapes and how hot the days are and how cold the nights can get. He tells her of the freshwater springs that are heated by volcanic rivers underground, and of the flights of wyverns that can blot out the sun during mating season.
Byleth listens to all of it avidly, and the closer they get to the Locket, she becomes increasingly unable to shake the curious sensation that feels strangely like coming home.
As predicted, they reach Fódlan’s Locket just as the sun begins to set, landing in the courtyard of the fortress that is cast heavily in shadow by the foreboding battlements. The relief is palpable once they land, to be out of the bright glare of the sunlight. The soldiers that greet them are welcoming and gracious and Byleth is surprised to see a small number of Almyrans in their ranks. They show Claude and Byleth to quarters that are refreshingly humble and they take turns in the washroom to clean the dust from their limbs.
Once they’ve eaten - a small meal of bread and meat and cheese because no matter how often she flies, it always leaves her stomach too unsettled for anything heavy - Byleth turns to Claude as she brushes out the wind-swept tangles in her hair, and asks him about his parents.
“Do they know about me?”
Claude looks over at her from where he’s sprawled across the bed, hands tucked behind his head. “How d’you mean?”
Byleth tugs the brush through a particularly stubborn knot. “I mean, have you told them about me? About us?”
Claude grins. “Yeah. Well, sort of. I didn’t write home a lot while I was in the Academy because I was still hiding my Almyran lineage. Kind of hard to do if you’re sending letters through the Locket every other week. But when I went back, I told them about you. While I was waiting for my coronation, I think my dad accused me of pining, which I resented because I thought I was hiding it better than that.”
Byleth snorts, putting the brush down and climbing onto the bed to lay her head on his chest. His heartbeat thrums calm and steady in his chest, comforting. “You pined for me?”
“Oh, constantly. It got pretty embarrassing, actually. Once I’d realised I was in love with you, it all just went downhill from there.”
Curious, Byleth tilts her head to look up at him. “When did you realise?”
Claude is silent for a long moment and Byleth thinks he won’t answer her, but he takes a breath and wraps an arm around her shoulders rather tightly. “When you fell at the battle of Garreg Mach.”
Byleth stills, surprised. “That long ago?”
“Yeah.” Claude exhales the word on a heavy sigh. “It was incredibly jarring. Didn’t really understand it at first, I was a bit preoccupied because, you know, we were under attack and everyone was just a tad terrified for their lives. Took me a while to understand it, but after the initial shock wore off I realised that there was no way you could’ve died. Because I loved you and I had to see you again to tell you.”
Overwhelmed, Byleth wraps an arm around his waist, giving him a reassuring squeeze. “I’m sorry for that, by the way. I hope you know that I never meant to leave for so long.”
“I know. And it’s not your fault, but realising I loved you right after I lost you isn’t exactly up there with the best moments of my life. However seeing you at the Goddess Tower after you came back… Yeah, that’s up there.” He strokes a hand down her back softly and Byleth delights at the shiver it provokes down her spine, chasing the warmth of his palm. “So, come on. Even the playing field, when did you realise?”
Byleth thinks for a moment. “I think… I think I always did. You were the first person to treat me like a friend. Even if your intentions weren’t exactly honest at first, you never treated me like an outsider. You always teased me, you never acted like I was strange. You—“
Byleth cuts off with a squawk as a pillow smacks into her face. She shoves it away, laughing as Claude wrestles her into her back, fingers digging into the rare ticklish spots on her body. “Claude, stop it!”
“Hell no! You’re telling me you didn’t have a grand, eye-opening moment where you realised you adored me? I get the old ‘in my heart I always knew~’ schtick? That’s a cop out!”
“It’s the truth!” She wriggles underneath him, desperate to escape his ticklish onslaught, breathless with laughter. “Okay, okay! Maybe there was! Stop it or I won’t tell you!”
Claude relents but holds his hands up in a playful threat. “I’m listening.”
Byleth wipes her eyes, still snickering. “Okay… I think it was… When you took that arrow for Hilda when we fought at Myrddin. She was across the bridge from you and she’d left her guard open and a sniper nearly got her. You threw yourself in the way and took the shot for her.” Byleth runs a hand over Claude’s left shoulder, fingers pausing over his shirt in the place where she knows the knotted scar to be. “It was the first time I saw you really hurt, but you didn’t stop. You just snapped the shaft and kept going and I remember how much you complained when the medic had to pull it out. There was a look on your face that I recognised just before the arrow hit nd I think that was the moment when I realised that… You’d let them into your heart. The Golden Deer, I mean. That they weren’t just pawns anymore, they were your friends.”
Claude looks down at her, slowly lowering his hands. “I… Huh.” He nods slowly, looking thoughtful. “I didn’t realise you saw that.”
“No, but I did. I was the one who cut down the sniper that shot you. I was… decidedly less merciful than I would have been otherwise. I was angry that they’d hurt you. I’d seen you take hits in battle before, but that was the first time I’d seen you take a hit for someone else. And after that… Yeah, I knew I loved you.”
Claude leans down to kiss her then, soft and slow, warm palms cupping her face as he tilts her head up gently. When he pulls away, his eyes are warm and vulnerable in a way Byleth is still unused to.
“I never feel as seen,” he says, leaning his forehead against hers, “as I do when you look at me.”
“I see you,” Byleth promises, nudging his nose with her own. “And I love what I see.”
“Can you see it?” Claude calls to Byleth from below, bringing Najima into a gentle glide as he points northward. Byleth shields her eyes from the sun and squints into the distance where a red shard is just visible through the early morning mist.
“That’s Kasr Khanajr . Broken Dagger,” Claude says, banking Najima to the left to catch an updraft that brings him up level with Reus. “It’s the mountain the palace is carved from. We’re almost there.”
Below them, a sea of green stretches out for miles and miles, pine trees and conifers reaching up like grasping fingers towards the sky. Everything is blanketed in that cotton-thick mist but the air is already thick with the promise of a humid afternoon once the sun has fully risen and burned it away. As they approach and the mountain becomes more and more visible, the vibrant colour of the rock becomes clearer, so red against the orange hue of the sky that it gives off the appearance of a wound against the horizon. The colour is richer than any Byleth has ever seen, and the mountain itself is towering and impressive. She cannot see the palace from here, but once the forest gives way to the city, she cannot stop the soft gasp of wonder that slips out.
It’s not just the palace carved out of the rock, the entire city is, circling round the base of Broken Dagger in tiered rings. But what catches her eye most, are the unique buildings nestled among the structures of red rock that are domed and inlaid with glass in every colour under the sun, glistening mosaics in beautiful circular designs. The city glistens like a jewel in the morning sunlight, sparkling the way rubies and emeralds do, and she can almost hear the soft sound of light refracting through crystal as she takes it all in.
“It’s beautiful,” she murmurs and Claude looks immeasurably proud.
“Welcome to Al Zujaj Qalb ,” he declares, spreading his arms wide. “The Glass Heart of Almyra.” When he takes the reins again he urges Najima forward with a burst of speed and Byleth is quick to follow, guiding Reus into a steep dive as they spiral down towards the mountain. Claude guides them round it, down through chill clouds and the sharp blades of wind that whip round the edifice, until they are north of the mountain and Byleth can see the huge structure embedded in the rock, hidden from view until now. The palace is a structural marvel, twisting spires and curved roofs, all inlaid with that same beautiful glass from the city below. Claude leads them down onto a great stone outcropping that appears to be the only visible way to reach the palace that Byleth can see. A huge, curved archway stands at the edge of it and they glide through together as finally they come in to land.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Byleth says in awe. “Is this the only way to reach the palace? By wing?”
“Nope.” Claude hops from Najima’s back and holds out a hand to help Byleth dismount Reus. “There’s a pulley system inside the mountain itself. Takes about half an hour to ascend it, though, so most people take the easy way up.” He grins, eyes alight with an excitement Byleth has never seen before. “I can’t wait to show you everything.” He pulls her close, kissing her soundly and Byleth can feel the way he shivers with the excitement shining from his eyes, lighting him up from within. It’s infectious and she grins against his mouth, caught up in his joy.
Then someone clears their throat rather pointedly and Claude leaps away from her, cheeks reddening like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t have. Byleth looks over to see a man and a woman standing at the second archway that acts as the gate to the palace grounds, a good few hundred yards from the outer archway at the edge of the outcrop. She knows who they are immediately for they both look so much like the man she loves, though she’s never seen two people more different.
The woman is incredibly tall and slender, pale and light-haired, with eyes a familiar emerald green. Her hair is woven into a single, thick and intricate braid, decorated with beads and clasps of gold inlaid with rubies. The man is just as tall, but much more muscular, with dark hair pulled into similar braids, though his contain even more beads than the woman’s, and around his forehead is tied a yellow sash embroidered with red geometric pattens. They wear identically patterned robes of rich ochre, cinched at the waist with matching sashes of red and black, edged with tassels and little bronze disks that tinkle when they move. The ends of the sashes flutter in the wind as they approach and Byleth fights the urge to bow when they get closer.
The former King and Queen of Almyra. Claude’s parents.
“Mother,” Claude says, bowing low. “Baba.”
It’s the man who moves first, pulling Claude into a tight embrace and clapping him hard on the back with a loud, boisterous guffaw. “About time!” He cries with a heavy accent, ruffling Claude’s hair. “We were about to fly to Fódlan and cause an international incident if you didn’t write soon!” He holds Claude at arms length, looking him over with narrowed eyes. “You look skinny. Are they not feeding you over there?”
“I’m fine,” Claude says, red-faced. “Baba, please.” He extricates himself from his father’s grip and steps back to place a hand on Byleth’s back. “This… This is Byleth.”
Claude’s mother steps forward and Byleth dips into half a bow before she’s halted by the former Duchess Reigan reaching for her hands and pulling her back up to full height. Her eyes are just as shrewd and calculating as her son’s, but there’s a warmth in them too. “You are most welcome,” she says, Fódlan accent tinged with the accent of Almyra that gives her words a lilting, musical edge. “I am delighted to finally meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Byleth says honestly.
“By, this is my mother Tiana,” Claude says. “And my father Salim.”
“Charmed,” Salim says, stepping forward to clasp Byleth’s hands when Tiana releases them. He leans forward to press his forehead to Byleth’s and she stills for a moment before she realises that this must be the Almyran way of greeting another and relaxes. He is handsome, a well-groomed beard framing his face and accentuating the soft brown of his eyes. His skin is slightly darker than Claude’s, closer to Cyril’s in tone, and he bears a scar across his left eye from forehead to cheek. “It’s wonderful to finally meet the woman who managed to steal our son’s heart. You’ve made quite an impression on him.”
“ Babaaaa ,” Claude groans. “Can you at least give it a bit before you try to embarrass me?”
“No,” Salim says pleasantly. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for years and you won’t ruin it for me.”
Tiana rolls her eyes fondly. “Enough, both of you. Come inside, you must be exhausted after such a long journey. Let’s get properly acquainted.” She takes Byleth arm, looping it through hers, and leads towards the palace while the men follow behind. Byleth glances back to see two attendants hurry forward to tend to their wyverns and she lets herself relax with the knowledge that they will be cared for.
Inside the palace is almost grander than the exterior. The floor underfoot is black marble, cracked through with veins of opalescent white and there are gilded columns holding up the high domed ceilings that cast colourful shadows on everything beneath as the sun refracts through the glass. She can’t stop herself from looking around with wonder and thankfully Tiana seems happy to let her indulge her curiosity rather than hurry her along.
“I remember when I first came to Almyra,” Tiana recalls fondly. “I’d never seen anything like it in all my years.”
“Never,” Byleth agrees. “It’s so beautiful. And so different .”
“I’m so pleased to have you here,” Tiana says. “I hope you enjoy your time here as much as I did.”
They gather in a room Byleth has never seen the likes of before. Similar to a greenhouse, it is full with verdant foliage and strange blooms of deep purples and stark whites, vines and leaves covering all the walls and reaching almost to the flat glass ceiling, with a table in the centre. Salim pulls a chair out for his wife and Claude does the same for Byleth, and when she sits down she watches Salim press a tender kiss to his wife’s cheek. She is struck, momentarily, at the love in Salim’s eyes when he looks at Tiana. Not because it is unexpected, but because she has seen that same affection in Claude’s eyes when he looks at her. She takes Claude’s hand the moment he sits down, lacing their fingers together and promoting a surprised but pleased glance from him.
“So!” Salim booms, clapping his hands together. “Tell me about yourself, Lady Eisner. Claude has told us a little, but you know what it’s like getting anything out of that boy.”
Byleth smiles when Claude groans again and Tiana winks at her as Salim pours them all tea, the scent of pine strong in the steam that curls out of the spout.
“I’ve never been very good at talking about myself,” Byleth says apologetically. “I’m afraid I’ve been described as closed off on more than one occasion, but I’m more than happy to answer questions when they’re asked.”
“Oh, that explains a lot,” Tiana laughs. “Claude has always been fond of puzzles. I would imagine he thought you a riddle to be solved. No wonder he took such quick fancy to you.”
“Mom, not you too, ” Claude laments. “I can understand baba teasing me, but I thought you’d be on my side.”
“You thought wrong,” Tiana says sweetly before turning back to Byleth. “Where did you grow up?”
“My father was a mercenary,” Byleth explains. “I grew up on the road with him. He used to say that the horse I rode on raised me as much as he did.”
“Was it just your father and you?”
Byleth nods. “Yes, but the mercenaries we travelled with became like family to me. We were a close knit group.”
“Your father was Jeralt the Bladebreaker, wasn’t he?” Tiana asks you which Byleth nods. “I heard of him when I was growing up. Famed Captain of the Knights of Seiros.”
“I never knew of his reputation before I began teaching at Garreg Mach,” Byleth says, retreating behind her mask of indifference. Claude, astute as ever, squeezes her hand gently. “I found out a lot of new things about him once we arrived.”
Byleth is inclined to believe that Claude gets his perception from his mother. Tiana’s questions stray naturally away from Byleth’s upbringing, towards her interests and her skills, to which Salim eagerly begins to question. She is grateful to speak about anything that isn’t Jeralt, because here now in the company of Claude’s parents, she cannot help but wonder what it would have been like for him to meet with them, too. He would have hated every second of it, but he would have made the effort for her, to be introduced to his future in-laws, to give his blessing for his daughter’s happiness.
She misses him terribly.
They talk for a while longer, and Byleth is treated to some cakes and small sweet desserts she’s never seen before, delicious and tart and nutty in a way that treats in Fódlan are not. Claude tells her the name of some and she tries to pronounce them which amuse and delight Tiana and Salim to no end. They are kind, warm people and Byleth is already charmed by them, almost as completely as she is charmed by their son. They love each other dearly, it’s plain to see, and they adore their son, as much as they enjoy teasing him.
“Please, make yourself at home,” Tiana implores Byleth as the table is cleared of empty cups and plates. “Claude will show you to your chambers, but please explore the palace as much as you’d like. Nowhere is off-limits and once you have rested we would be delighted if you would join us for dinner.”
“Your room is in the guest wing,” Salim adds, brushing crumbs from his beard. “If we had known you were coming it would have been better prepared, but unfortunately my son is not one for announcing his plans.”
“The guest wing,” Claude echoes flatly. “You’re not serious?”
“I’m deathly serious,” Salim retorts, eyes gleaming. “It is only proper, after all. Engaged you may be, but yet married you are not.”
Claude splutters at that and Byleth can’t smother the inelegant snort of laughter that pulls from her, which Tiana also cannot help but laugh at. Salim barks a loud laugh and shakes his head, leaning back in his chair.
“Of course not,” he says. “Spirits know I’ve never been one for propriety. Your rooms are waiting for you— Your mother knew we’d be expecting a visit after you sent word you’d formally announced your engagement. Which, may I add, we were not best pleased to find out about after the fact.”
“Wanted to make sure she’d say yes first,” Claude mutters, then louder, “I didn’t want to subject her to Almyra’s courtship traditions.”
Tiana hums at that. “I don’t know, I think they’re rather charming, if a little… Overwhelming.”
“I might’ve liked being courted,” Byleth says, just because she can’t help teasing him a bit herself when he gets so delightfully flustered by it. “Rather than being given a ring and told I’m to be Queen right before you hightailed it off to Almyra for six months.”
“Claude!” Tiana gasps. “You didn't?”
“Stop ganging up on me!” Claude cries, to their combined amusement.
Kasr Khanajr - Broken/Cracked Dagger, the mountain in the centre of Almyra.
Al Zujaj Qalb - The Glass Heart/The Vitreous Heart, Almyra’s Capital City, named for the treated glass most of their buildings are inlaid with.
We know next to nothing about Almyra so I’m going off the SHITS with world building here, thank you very much and goodnight.
Just gonna... scooch that rating up to E real quick...
In other news, the King of Almyra and the Queen of Fódlan Fuck Constantly and that’s that on that.
A brief, moist interlude.
I’m sorry, I that was awful, I take it back.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Claude guides Byleth through halls covered by ceilings nearly a hundred feet high, supported by columns of obsidian marble that rise up from the floor like volcanic formations. Each wall is lined with tapestries depicting scenes too busy for Byleth to decipher at a glance, but she’ll definitely take her time exploring once they’re settled into their rooms properly. For now she lets Claude lead her along, pleasantly overwhelmed by her new surroundings, and caught up in the fact that she is clasping her beloved’s hand in the palace he grew up in. He looks… relaxed here, in a way she’s not seen him before, unguarded though not fully carefree. The servants they pass do not bow to him, but offer a strange salute that consists of twisting the left hand over their sternum. Claude nods to each of them as they pass until he stops at a pair of deep oak doors almost as wide as they are tall.
“Ahh, the Prince’s chambers,” Byleth comments with mock solemnity. “Perhaps I should retire to the guest wing after all, lest he be inclined to take liberties.”
Claude rolls his eyes and shoulders the door open, dragging her inside just as her composure breaks and she starts to laugh. “I’ll take liberties all right,” he threatens with all the menace of a kitten. Byleth sniggers and shoves him, moving away to look around curiously.
It would be inaccurate to say the room is how she pictured it to look, for before today she knew nothing of Almyran architecture. But looking around she can picture a young, gangly-legged princling inhabiting the space as though she’s looking at a portrait. The floor is carpeted plushly with soft fabric in a deep ochre, and the walls are lined with low bookcases four shelves high, each stuffed with books and scrolls in various states of use, ranging from dog-eared to partly disintegrated. Towards the left side of the main chamber is a washroom, beside it a gilded floor-length mirror, and next to that a stately writing desk carved from the same deep oak as the doors and bookshelves. The only other furniture in the room is the wardrobe on the far right, and the unnecessarily large four-poster bed hanging with curtains of crimson.
Byleth gives a low whistle. “You were really slumming it at the Academy, huh?”
Claude snorts and moves over to the bed where their saddlebags and packs are already waiting for them. “You should know me well enough by now to know that I’ve never given a crap about that kind of thing.” He digs through one of the packs, pulling out a scroll that Byleth recognises by the ribbon fastening it She drifts closer, brushing a hand over one of the bed’s curtains. Velvet, by the feel of it.
“I’m pretty sure that belongs in the Monastery library,” she says, leaning against one of the posts.
“It’s possible,” Claude says, putting it down on the bedside table. “But since I’m in well with the Archbishop and the Queen, I figured she wouldn’t mind me… Borrowing it.”
Byleth raises an eyebrow. “Fully intend to give it back, I assume?”
“Eventually.” Claude regards their bags on the bed for a full second before he shrugs and shoves them all onto the floor. With a grin he jumps onto the bed, sprawling across it with a pleased moan. He shuffles up onto the pillows, stretching languorously and tucking his arms behind his head. “So, what do you think?”
Byleth looks around once more. “I think… I think it suits you. I can see you growing up here.”
“Mmh. It’s beautiful,” Byleth admits. “I’ve said it already, but I’ve never seen the likes of it. I had no idea what to expect but… It’s wonderful. Vibrant and unique.”
Claude regards her with a weight in his gaze. “Somewhere you could settle down?”
Byleth turns back to him, pausing to take that in properly. It doesn’t do to answer Claude without taking the time to properly think out your response, she knows that by now. And she also knows him well enough to pinpoint when he’s asking two questions instead of the one that passes his lips. She sees that now, understands it, and surprises both of them with her reply.
“In a heartbeat,” she says. Claude’s eyebrows climb up nearly a full inch. “Oh, let’s be honest, Claude, I’d go anywhere with you at this point. You get it into your head to cross the seas north of Sreng? Fine, just let me pack first. You suddenly decide you’re bored of life on this plane and want to ascend to the stars? Let’s go, just let me grab my toothbrush.” She sits on the end of the bed, tucking one leg beneath her. “If you’re there, I’m home. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Claude sits up slowly. “Not… quite what I was aiming for, but. Message received and understood.” He nods, a short, jerky motion and he sniffs abruptly, clearing his throat. “God, Byleth, you can't just come out with stuff like that, a man’s heart can only take so much.”
“Hush,” Byleth chastises him with no real heat. “You always pressed me to speak my mind, and that’s where my mind is on the matter.”
“Sure did, definitely not regretting it now.” He offers her a shaky smile. “So… We have a couple of hours before dinner… Let me show you something?”
Byleth raises an eyebrow. “I’ve heard that before.”
That pulls a proper laugh out of him and he shuffles off the bed, quickly rounding it to pull her to her feet. “Nothing like that, I promise. Well… Actually, I rescind that promise, but I do want to show you something I think you’ll love. Come with me.”
He pulls her quickly from the room and darts across the grand hallway to the room perpendicular to his. Inside is a space almost like a linen cupboard but four times the size, shelves lining the walls filled with towels and bottles in every shape and size. Claude releases her hand to snatch three bottles from the second shelf from the door, and directs her to grab some towels from the shelf next to that. Byleth does so, more than a little certain she knows where this is leading, and then follows Claude through yet another set of doors—
Into the best room Byleth has ever had the fortune of entering in her life.
The floor gives way to a huge depression in the ground, almost sixty feet wide in each direction, and filled with water hot enough that steam is filling the room almost as thickly as the Garreg Mach sauna. Claude steps up to the water, setting the bottles down at the water’s edge and turns around with a wide smile and a gleam in his eyes.
“So?” He looks at her expectantly.
“I’m never leaving,” Byleth states, prompting a laugh from him.
“Come on, the water’s always hot. The mountain is a volcano. Don’t worry, it’s inactive, has been for centuries. But lava lakes under the palace keep the water heated. My great, great, great… great? Grandfather built this because he wanted access to a hot spring in all seasons. Something about arthritis? I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention when my dad told me, but I knew you’d love this. Come on, get in. The floor’s heated too, it’s wonderful.”
In record time Byleth is disrobed and padding across the pleasantly warm floor to slip into the water, warmed to perfection and blissful for her travel-sore muscles. She actually moans as she slips in up to her shoulders, leaning her head against the pool’s edge as the heat seeps into her limbs. The water is disturbed momentarily as Claude presumably gets in with her, but she’s too blissed out to open her eyes and confirm. She doesn’t need to; he wades over to her and lifts her with ease, depositing her in his lap as he sits on one of the submerged benches in the pool, and then he’s rubbing some sort of oil into her skin that smells resinous and refreshing.
“I meant what I said,” Byleth says though it comes out nearly slurred. “I’m not coming out.”
“That’s fine,” Claude murmurs, massaging oil into her shoulders with slow, hypnotising movements. “Use it as much as you like.” He moves his hands to her back, down to her shoulderblades where he momentarily digs his fingers into the knotted muscles there, prompting a low, pleased moan from her throat. Utter bliss. Sorry, Fódlan, you’re on your own from now on...
It doesn’t take long, though, for Claude’s hands to wander, and Byleth would be more put out about it if the feel of his hands on her skin didn't unfailingly manage to stoke a fire in her belly. She leans her head back against his shoulder and he presses a kiss to the expanse of throat now bared to him, hands slipping round her waist and up to cup her breasts, massaging those too as soon as he gets his hands on them. Byleth offers a lazy moan to his efforts and she feels the rumble of his soft laughter against her back, though as pleasant as this is, one thought stabs so sharply into her mind that her eyes fly open.
“Oh, absolutely not,” she says, half-sitting up and hating every second of it. “Other people use this!”
Claude snorts at that, then gives over fully to loud, ringing laughter that echoes through the room. Byleth turns to scowl at him but that only makes him laugh harder, head thrown back in his mirth. It takes the sting out of being laughed at, Byleth has to admit to herself, when he looks so good when he laughs.
“Sorry,” he chokes, tugging at her arms to try and coax her back against him. “Sorry, you’re just— So adorable. The water’s drained after every use. You see the metal pipe along the far wall? The fresh water comes in from there. Don’t worry.” He winks at her. “We can be as filthy as we like.”
Byleth feels a little foolish after that, but Claude’s sudden laughter has snapped her out of her heat-induced fugue, so even though he laughed at her she’s able now to fully reciprocate his affections. She turns in the water and slips back into his lap, knees propped on the bench either side of his waist, less uncomfortable than she would be if they weren’t mostly submerged. She’s not foolish enough to attempt to let him take her in the water, that would spell disaster for the both of them, but there are other things they can do instead.
“Oh, much better,” Claude agrees, looping his arms back round her waist. His hands dip lower than is appropriate, but that’s exactly what Byleth is aiming for, so when he grabs handfuls of her backside, Byleth pushes back into his touch, leaning down to kiss him deeply. He purrs, low in his throat, as her fingers tangle into the damp curls at the back of his neck and the slide of his tongue against hers is hotter even than the water around them. She feels him twitch against the inside of her thigh and delights in it, taking his lower lip between her teeth and tugging softly. The whine she elicits in response heats her body further and he palms at her backside eagerly, guiding her hips forward to roll against his for the friction they both want and need.
“Gonna have to get creative,” Claude murmurs against her lips. “How long do you reckon I can hold my breath for?”
Byleth huffs a laugh, moving her lips along his jaw to the lobe of his ear so she can nibble at it. “Even your silver tongue isn't that skilled. Now shush and let me work.”
“Ignoring the deeply personal slight against my abilities— Ow! Okay, okay, do your thing, I’ll keep quiet.”
Byleth presses a soft kiss to the space on his shoulder she’s just bitten red in admonishment, reaching back to guide one of his hands away from her ass and slipping it between her legs instead. Claude’s whine of protest morphs into one of pleased assent and he takes the initiative wonderfully, pressing the pad of his thumb firmly against where she wants him. The water ripples around them as Byleth shudders happily and she shifts slightly so she can reach her own hand between them, slipping down and wrapping around the length of him, way eased by the water. Claude sighs softly and turns his head so she can catch his lips again, moaning softly into her mouth as she strokes him long and slow. In return he rubs his thumb against her more firmly and she gasps, stealing air from his lungs.
It’s good, except— The angle isn’t great. Much more of this and they’ll cramp before the fun really starts. Claude seems to feel the same, because he pulls his hand away and grabs her waist. Byleth pulls back to question him but is cut off by an involuntarily yelp as he seizes her, lifting her up easily and setting her down on the edge of the pool.
“Claude—“ She doesn’t get to finish her breathless question, because in the next instant he’s spreading her legs with firm hands against the insides of her thighs and, quite literally, diving in. Byleth’s arms give out suddenly and she falls back with a sharp gasp as Claude’s clever tongue laves over her sensitive skin, flicking it up and over her clit and sparking pleasure down her spine. With one hand he reaches up to palm one of her breasts, rolling a taut nipple between his fingers and making her body sing. The other he uses to coax her leg over his shoulder and when her heel digs into his back in response, he growls and the sound vibrates through her like thunder, right to the core of her being.
“Claude, I-I— Ah! ” Byleth moans, back arching as he works at her relentlessly, hands grabbing at the edge of the pool as she reaches for something to hold onto and that’s— That’s perfect , because she can use it as leverage to rock her hips against his face, against the intoxicating pressure of his tongue as it moves over her overheated skin. Claude evidently approves because the hand holding her leg over his shoulder withdraws and moves between her legs, fingers slipping inside and curling just so in a way that drives her wild.
“Claude— Claude! ” Byleth gasps, fighting to draw enough breath make herself heard. “Get— Fucking get out of the water, you idiot. Get inside me this instant. ”
Pleasure evidently makes fools of both of them, because Claude pauses in his ministrations as her words register and a beat passes while Byleth laments the loss of his mouth, until he scrambles up out of the pool and she has to shuffle back to accommodate him. He leans over her, breathless and face wet with... not water, and lines up before sliding home with a heartfelt groan.
“Could’ve just done this to start with,” he pants, shuddering as he sinks in to the hilt. Byleth moans, nodding somewhat frantically while she adjusts to the pleasant ache of fullness. It takes a herculean amount of effort for her to wrap her legs around his waist but she manages, and it’s worth it for the way Claude’s eyes darken as he bows low over her and rolls his hips forward, not thrusting but grinding; deep and hard in such a way that it forces the breath from Byleth’s lungs in a rush.
“No talking,” she pants out, reaching a hand up round the back of his head to pull his mouth down to hers. “More fucking.”
Claude groans at that, surrendering to her easily. He must taste like her, she realises with a start. It’s not a wholly unpleasant thought, possibly even an enticing one, and as he licks into her mouth and rocks into her she quickly forgets about it, lost to anything that isn’t heat and pleasure and Claude. He plays her body like a master musician, eliciting moans and gasps and sighs with every touch and caress and harsh buck of his hips. Byleth claws at his shoulders, can do little else as she loses her mind to pleasure, and each drag of her nails across his skin makes him cry out and thrust harder. They’ll have to explore that a little more when both of them have enough brain function to do so. For now Byleth just holds on because that’s all she can do when Claude moves inside her like this, hot and hard and heavy and perfect.
Claude breaks first, muscles locking and back arching as he cries out his release. Byleth moans as he spills into her, then cries out because Claude fucking bites her, digs his teeth into her shoulder and that is what pushes her over the edge she’s been teetering on for what feels like an age, crashing down heavily into pleasure that ignites in her abdomen and sweeps all the way to the tips of her fingers and toes, aching blissfully to the back of her teeth. When Claude pulls out he whines and collapses on top of her, but she’s strong enough to bear his weight and wants him nowhere else, wrapping her uncooperative arms as tightly around his shoulders as she’s able.
“I fully agree with not leaving the bath,” Claude mumbles into her neck. “Less out of an unwillingness to and more because I can’t actually move, but what can you do.”
“You’re messing with my afterglow,” Byleth murmurs back and Claude’s entire body shudders with an exhausted laugh. He presses one last kiss to her neck before rolling off of her and sprawling out on the warm tiles.
“I know I said I was going to show you Almyra, but can’t we just… Stay in our room and do that for the next two weeks.”
Byleth snorts and turns her head so she can look at him. He looks dazed and sated and adorable. “If you can stand up right now without falling over, I’ll happily consent to that.”
Claude makes what looks like a valiant effort to get to his feet, but he ends up just uncomfortably contorted into a rather inelegant mess of his own limbs. He sighs heavily. “Okay, fine, we’ll go explore my stupid hometown, I guess.”
Byleth splutters out a faint laugh at that and manages, through sheer will alone, to drag herself back into the pool so she can wash properly. She throws Claude a warning glance though it really doesn’t look like he’ll be moving any time soon. “No touching until I’m done, okay?”
“Mmmmf,” is the eloquent response. She smiles fondly and dips herself under the water to wet her hair. So far, it’s shaping up to be a pretty spectacular vacation.
I’m @ProneToRelapse on the tweeter and I’m always down to scream.
I’m SORRY I’m just so in love with Claude and Byleth’s interactions when they’re not surrounded by war. Just the idea of them being together, happy and teasing and playful... It does stuff to my heart, you guyssss.
Also if you haven’t guessed, I LOVE writing about festivals because we have none where I come from, and in a fantasy setting there’s just so much to play with.
Also, also, it’s part of my author trademark to have no conceivable update schedule, I just Chuck chapters out as soon as they’re finished, so sorry ‘bout that.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They behave themselves long enough to get properly clean, though Claude’s hands do wander a little while he helps to towel Byleth’s hair dry, to which she responds with a sharp jab of her elbow into his stomach. She soothes his kicked-puppy expression with a placating kiss to his cheek before they return to their room and she begins the arduous process of deciding what to wear to dinner.
It hadn’t been something she’d ever really paid much mind to before. Still isn’t, truth be told, which is why she’d always deferred to Hilda and the other Deer for these sorts of things. The only one with an even slightly similar sense of fashion had been Leonie, who would wear anything as long as it was durable, practical, and functional. Byleth is of much the same mind, the only part of her usual attire that’s down to personal taste being her lace tights. Now, though, she wishes she’d cared more about her wardrobe because nothing she’s brought with her seems appropriate for dinner with Claude’s parents and that’s frustrating because for the first time she finds herself truly wanting to make an effort.
She tosses aside a few more articles of clothing as she pulls them out of her bags, frown deepening with each item she discards. It also seems like she’s going to have to acclimatise to the heat fairly quickly, because nothing she’s brought with her is especially airy, and if she doesn’t want to die of heart stroke before the week’s end she’s going to have to make some drastic alterations.
“Having trouble?” Claude asks, tying a sash around his waist. Annoyingly, he has no such difficulties because he has an entire wardrobe of Almyran attire to choose from. Even worse, he looks ridiculously good in the sleeveless tunic he’s chosen and the flowing fabric of his sirwal affords more comfort and breathability than any of her clothes will. Byleth sighs irritably and tosses another shirt down.
“I’m out of my depth,” she says, hands on her hips. “I have nothing to wear.”
Claude swans over to inspect the piles of clothing strewn about the bed. “Mm, I can see the issue. You’re underprepared.”
Byleth scowls at him. “I’m plenty prepared. And even if I’m not, it’s not my fault you didn’t give me any advice on what to bring.”
Irritatingly, Claude finds that immensely amusing and Byleth slaps his arm as he snickers at her. “I said you were underprepared. I’m not. Besides, even if I had given you advice, where exactly do you think you’d find Almyran garb in Fódlan, hmmm?”
He has a point, frustratingly, but that still doesn’t help Byleth with her current clothing predicament. She picks up another shirt, but even the loose-weave fabric is still too thick to help her weather the Almyran heat comfortably. She’ll just have to wear the nicest dress she has and hope she won’t pass out before dinner is over. She sighs heavily and drops her towel but is stopped from slipping the dress on when Claude snatches it out of her hands. She rounds on him to snatch it back when he tosses something into her arms. She grabs it automatically, looking down at the fabric in her hands. It feels like cotton but lighter, a bluish tint to the matte purple dye it's coloured with, and it has strange cutouts to it that she can’t quite make sense of. She holds it up and lets the full length of it unravel down to the floor. It’s a dress, of a sort, comprised of draping skirts and folds and accented by berry-red ribbons that drape down from intricate shoulder clasps made of silver. She looks up at Claude who looks far too smug for her liking.
“I was always planning on bringing you here,” he says with a shrug. “So I had some clothes made. Wouldn’t want my darling future wife passing out from the heat, after all.”
“You’re a little shit,” Byleth declares, to which he just snickers, and holds the dress out to him. “You’re going to have to help me, I have no idea how to put this on.”
Smirking, Claude steps forward to take the dress from her, gathering it up and helping to slip it over her head and unravel the hem so it falls elegantly around her ankles. The slits at the sides come up to mid-thigh and are a lot higher than she’s used to, but it’s not too immodest and is rather flattering, all told. Claude helps straighten it out once on, untangling the ribbons and adjusting the waistband so it all sits and flows where it should and the relief is almost palpable. The fabric is impossibly light and refreshingly cool against her skin and she’s quite taken by the colour of it. Claude steps back, admiring his handiwork and nods, satisfied.
“You look beautiful,” he says with a sincerity that colours her cheeks. “Comfortable?”
“Very.” She twists this way and that, and every time she moves the fabric ripples like water around her legs. “Shoes?”
He nods and fetches her a pair of sandals to slip on and then she is fully dressed and, outwardly if not inwardly, prepared for dinner. Claude kisses her cheek softly and takes her hand, squeezing it reassuringly and she takes comfort in his presence as they leave their chambers and he leads them to whichever of the probable thousands of rooms in the palace they could possibly be dining in. The Derdriu estate pales in comparison, and even Garreg Mach’s cathedral cannot hold a candle to the palace’s splendour, but Byleth knows she’s going to need a guide for at least the first few days because there are so many doors and rooms and rooms within rooms that she just knows she’ll end up getting lost a hundred times over before she can figure out where even the bathroom is.
Thankfully the dining room isn’t far, but even that is like a whole other palace inside the first. When they step inside Byleth is momentarily struck by how long the room is and how dark it is in comparison to the other rooms that are lit from above by the glass ceilings. This one is windowless and lit only by sconces on the stone walls. The table that stretches almost the entire length of the room has at least a hundred chairs set by it and Byleth reels as she tries to imagine that many guests seated at it. Cyril and Claude had both once said that feasting was an integral part of Almyran culture and this banquet hall seems suited to cater to that.
Claude guides her to the far end of the table and pulls out the chair at the very end. Byleth makes to sit down to his right but he shakes his head and pats the back of the chair he’d just pulled out. She looks at him doubtfully.
“Shouldn’t the King sit there?”
Claude shakes his head. “The head of the table is for guests. Traditionally, the hosts sit towards the middle of the table and relatives next to them, then friends, then guests at the very end. It’s a sign of respect. Since there’s only the four of us, for now, you get the end chair. Feel honoured?”
She feels rather conspicuous, actually, but the last thing she wants to do is cause offence so she takes the seat as directed and Claude sits to her left. He takes her hand in his once seated, lacing their fingers together on the table. She relaxes as he strokes his thumb over the back of her hand and settles back in the chair, content to enjoy the quiet before his parents arrive and—
“Hang on, did you say ‘for now’ ? Byleth looks at him, eyes narrowed. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing!” Claude says, unconvincingly. “I literally just meant, for now, there’s only us and my parents. But at some point, we will probably have to have dinner with the rest of my family and… There’s a few of them.”
Byleth blanches a little at that. “How many?”
Claude makes a face. “Enough to fill this table. Twice.”
Byleth groans. “I knew it.”
“It won’t be so bad,” Claude says soothingly. “My mom can handle most of my cousins and a lot of them probably won’t even attend. They’re still a little sore about losing out on the crown after I came back.”
That catches her attention. “Is it not a given? Weren’t you the heir?”
“Yeah,” Claude nods. “But Almyran politics are a bit messier than Fódlan’s. The line of succession can be contested, my claim for the crown was opposed and if I’d been… indisposed, shall we say, before my coronation, it would’ve passed to the next in line on my dad’s side. So on and so forth until a ruler is decided on. Almyran coronations can get pretty brutal and take years, so I was actually pretty lucky mine only took six months, give or take.”
“Why did they decide on you?” Byleth asks. “If they were so dead set on usurping you?”
Claude smirks. “I guess helping to save the world gave me the edge I needed. I told you Almyrans recognise strength, and Nader put in a good word for me. He swayed a lot of votes in my favour.”
“He’s related to you, isn’t he?” Byleth guesses. Claude dips his head in assent. “Uncle?” He nods again. “Thought so.” Byleth tilts her head, satisfied to have her suspicions confirmed correct. “I’m glad you had someone by your side while I couldn’t be.”
Claude smiles softly. “If I’d had you with me, I’m sure I’d’ve been crowned in half that time. I’m starting to regret my decision to come back alone. After the way you decimated the Lords at the Roundtable conference, I should’ve known better. No one cuts right to the chase like you do.”
“I don’t care for the superfluous intricacies of court,” Byleth says with an affected air of regality that makes Claude snigger.
“Oh, spirits, neither do I,” Tiana says from behind them, sweeping round to take a seat at Byleth’s right. She looks resplendent in a dress similar to Byleth’s but dyed the rich red of the Almyran royal family. She smiles at the both of them as Salim hurries in after her and sits to the right of his wife. They both look a little flushed, hair slightly unkempt, which Byleth is not too keen on focusing too hard on, and neither is Claude by the way his nose wrinkles.
“Sorry to have kept you,” Salim apologises. “We had a matter of state to attend to.”
“Please don’t elaborate,” Claude begs a touch desperately. “It’s fine, we weren’t waiting long.”
“Affairs of state,” Byleth confirms, sensing an opportunity and taking it, self-consciousness and propriety be damned. “We know how it is.”
“Byleth!” Claude yelps, aghast, while Tiana and Salim snicker delightedly.
“Oh, I like her,” Salim declares, slapping a palm on the table and pointing an accusatory finger at his son. “You had no right to withhold her from us for so long.”
“Wasn’t my intention,” Claude says, holding a hand up placatingly. “Actual affairs of state got in the way. And can we please change the subject and stop making innuendos before I completely lose my appetite?”
Byleth pats his hand apologetically and four attendants spring forward from quite literally nowhere to set goblets down on the table and fill them with wine. Once the cups are filled they retreat once more and when Byleth looks she cannot see where they’ve disappeared to. Her attention is drawn back to the table when Salim raises his goblet to her and says something in the rich, flowing tongue of Almyra that she doesn’t understand.
Tiana translates before Claude can. “‘To our son and future daughter, may your hearts stay united and your blades stay sharp’.” She smiles and raises her own goblet. “To both of you. It does my heart good to see my son so happy. I thank you for keeping him safe while he was so far from home.”
Byleth raises her goblet to try and hide how pink her cheeks must be. “I didn’t— Um. I couldn’t have done what I did without him.”
“Ah, but we’ve heard of your exploits from reliable sources,” Salim tells her. “Not from him, he’s prone to exaggeration—“
“Hey!” Claude snaps.
“—But from others who have nothing but praise for your actions.” He smiles at Byleth and he looks so much like his son that she can’t help but feel at ease in his presence. “So thank you. Whether or not you feel as though you deserve it, we’re grateful.”
Thankfully that’s the only awkward, heartfelt praise Byleth has to endure for the rest of the meal. By the time the first course is brought out, Tiana has engaged her in a rather savage smack down of the state of Fódlan’s nobility. She’s fair of face and has a warm bearing about her, but her tongue is sharper than a well-honed blade and she actually reminds Byleth a little bit of her father which is as amusing as it is sad.
“I almost wish I could be there to see you dress the Lords down at the conference,” she says. “I always respect those who can see through their bullshit. The amount of times Gloucester opposed my father’s suggestions could fill a library. I’ve never met anyone as obstinate as he.”
“His son is markedly more flexible,” Claude says, sharing a look with Byleth. “Not a lot, he’s still very opinionated, but he was one of By’s students along with me so she got to training the bad habits out of him right away.”
“Good,” Tiana says, downing the contents of her goblet. One of the attendants is immediately at her side to refill it. She smiles at them and offers what Byleth assumes to be thanks in the Almyran tongue, to which the attendant beams gratefully. It’s a sight better than she’s seen the nobility of Fódlan treat their staff and that’s saying something. “What about Goneril? Is he still about?”
“Holst, his son,” Claude says. “A respected general on the battlefield, but not the best in the council room.”
“He’s insufferable,” Byleth complains, prompting a grin from Tiana. “I’m hoping that Hilda manages to manipulate her way into the conference in his place from now on or I may actually end up throttling him.”
“I’d pay to see that,” Salim snickers. “Oh, Claude, you have to bring Byleth by the pits, I think she’d love it.”
“I just might,” Claude says thoughtfully. To Byleth’s curious look he explains, “it’s kind of like the tournaments at the Academy, but less about earning a title and a weapon and more about beating the crap out of your opponent for money. You can place bets, too. It’s all legitimate but it can get pretty violent.”
Byleth loves the sound of that. “I’d like to have a go,” she agrees. “I think that would be fun.”
“It is,” Tiana says, surprising her. “I’ve entered a couple of times myself.”
“It’s how we met,” Salim says and Byleth finds that incredibly amusing.
“Knocked him flat on his ass,” Tiana says proudly. “Didn’t know who he was of course, but I think that’s rather romantic.”
“Suuuuure,” Claude says sarcastically. “That’s the pinnacle of romance.”
“It was plenty romantic!” Salim argues. “Getting my ass handed to me by an ethereal Fódlan beauty. It’s one of my fondest memories. Something to tell the grandkids.”
“Oh, speaking of!” Tiana says suddenly and Byleth tenses as her blood runs cold. Sothis, please don’t make her have to endure questions about childbearing during her first dinner with her future in-laws. She’s barely given it a thought, hasn’t wanted to, and she honestly doesn’t know how to answer any of the possible questions she might be plied with if Tiana starts asking her about when they can expect grandchildren. “Yes, while I remember, speaking of romantic things, you’re visiting just in time for the Hundred Moons . I do hope you’ll make an appearance.”
Byleth is only able to suppress her sigh of relief by falling back on years of practice of stoicism. Claude is nodding eagerly and when she asks, he explains to her what the Hundred Moons is.
“It’s my favourite festival,” he tells her, eyes bright with excitement. “There’s a lake to the west of the city and every year manta rays swim into it from an underground fissure that leads all the way to the sea. They swim into the warmer waters to mate and lay eggs and while they’re in there, the lake shines because they have bioluminescent markings on their backs. We call it the Hundred Moons because that’s how it looks from the banks, like a hundred tiny moons are sparkling in the water. It’s another excuse for a feast and it’s all held on the banks after sunset.”
“It’s a sight to behold,” Tiana says. “I sincerely hope you’ll make time to attend, especially since the King should be present as he has, up to now, not attended any formal functions like the slippery little rat he is.” She sips from her goblet, eyeing him pointedly over the rim of it.
“Mom, you wound me,” Claude says, clasping a hand to his chest. “Of course we’ll attend.” Byleth nods in agreement.
“Good,” Tiana sniffs. “I understand you have duties in Fódlan but you mustn’t neglect your people here.”
“Never,” Claude promises and that serves to effectively pacify her.
The rest of the dinner passes in a delightful blur of alcohol, delicious food, and pleasant company. Having spent more time with them, Byleth concludes that she is already deeply fond of Tiana and Salim, not only because they are so similar to Claude, but because they are sincere and genuine and unfailingly kind. Tiana has a wonderfully sharp wit and a refreshingly crude sense of humour, and if not for the decadent setting, Byleth could picture them trading ribald stories over a campfire accompanied by her old mercenary company. Salim is warm and boisterous and has a deep, powerful laugh that rings out whenever he finds something particularly amusing, and he never laughs harder than he does when his wife makes jokes. They are very obviously and completely in love and Byleth finds herself hoping that, after as many years of marriage between them, she and Claude still delight in each other’s company as much as they do.
“Thank you for your wonderful company, Byleth,” Tiana says as their empty plates are cleared away. Byleth manages to contort her tongue around that foreign phrase of thanks to the attendants when they appear and they all beam at her. Tiana’s eyes sparkle as she smiles at her. “It is an absolute pleasure to have you here and I hope your stay is an enjoyable one. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask. And if I might request a moment of your time one of these days to have lunch without these awful men present, would that be acceptable?”
“I’d like that,” Byleth says and means it.
“Wonderful.” Tiana looks satisfied. “Now, please excuse us. Husband?”
“Wife,” Salim answers, getting to his feet and offering Tiana his arm. “Have a pleasant evening, young ones,” he says and leads his wife from the room.
“I like them,” Byleth says when she and Claude are alone again. “I really do.”
“Yeah, they’re alright,” Claude says. “I’m glad you like them.” He smiles at her, dragging a finger absently round the rim of his goblet. “You want to talk about how badly you freezed when you thought my mom was gonna ask you about grandkids?”
Byleth winces. “Was it that noticeable?”
“Nah, just to me. Say no and I won’t ask again, I just don’t want you to be having some great inner turmoil about it while I can help.”
It’s sweet of him and Byleth is grateful, but to be honest she really hasn’t thought about it. With everything happening at once during the war and then her and Claude’s coronations and everything after taking up all her time, she hadn’t given any thought to the possibility of children. She doesn’t know how she feels about it because she never thought it was an option for her. She tells him as much and Claude nods in understanding. He doesn’t look upset, just thoughtful.
“I’m the same,” he says. “Never thought about it. Not until today. It was always an abstract concept, something for other people. Never pictured myself as a father.”
“I’m not… opposed,” Byleth hedges, nodding when the statement does instil an immediate sense of fear in her chest. “Just… Not now and…” She looks at him. “I’m not even sure if I can. After everything I found out about Rhea and my mother…” Claude understands what she doesn’t say when she trails off. Given that Byleth herself was stillborn and that her mother was created, not born herself, not even taking into account that Byleth houses an actual goddess inside her… The complications could be great and insurmountable. She isn’t even sure she wants to consider the possibility in the face of those odds.
“I get it,” Claude says, reaching for her hand and lifting it to his mouth to press a kiss to her palm. “And it’s not the only option. Adoption is always a perfectly valid choice, if we want to consider it. And that’s a big if. Right now…” He smiles. “Right now I just want to have you all to myself. We spent so long living for other people, is it okay if we live for ourselves for now?”
“More than,” Byleth agrees happily. “We can talk about it again later.”
“Much later,” Claude adds and his eyes darken suddenly in a way that sends a shiver down Byleth’s spine. “For now… Come to bed with me?”
“Gladly.” Byleth smiles and Claude’s get to his feet, offering her his arm just as Salim had done for his wife. She takes it and stands, making a surprised sound when her legs totter a bit.
“Yeah, Almyran wine will do that,” Claude says, amused and just as unsteady. “Stronger than the stuff you’re used to.”
They make their way back to their rooms, slowly and giggling as they have to keep stopping and leaning on each other for balance. Once safely back in their bedchamber Claude attempts, somewhat foolishly, to lift her and carry her the rest of the way to the bed. They make it, barely, and collapse in a messy, giggling heap onto the sheets in a tangle of limbs and fabric. Byleth’s dress serves a bit too complicated for Claude to navigate in his inebriated state so she simply hitches it up round her waist for now to let him have his way before he gets frustrated and ends up ripping it. They spend their first night in Almyra blissfully happy and carefree and Byleth dearly hopes that the rest of their visit will be the same, until her mind is lost to pleasure and coherent thoughts are banished until dawn’s first light.
I’m @ProneToRelapse on Twitter. Come say hi!
There was a book I read once as a child, I can’t for the life of me remember the title, but it stuck with me because it was about a young servant in a palace taken in by the royal family. I wanted to touch on that a bit because I know from some support dialogues you get in-game it sounds like Almyran orphans have a rough time of it, but I can’t abide that, I wanted it to be like... Almost a family-run palace, in a way. A place for all despite its grandeur, and the way I wrote Salim and Tiana didn’t fit with them being blind to the plight of their people. So, this is pure self-indulgence, really.
I also think it would be a lot different to Fódlan in that, because of how we see nobility act there, there’s more of a divide between the upper and working class than there is in Almyra. That’s my personal headcanon, anyway.
Also the idea of baby Claude being the favourite of the palace staff was too good to pass up.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Byleth is roused from an otherwise blissful slumber by two very pressing matters demanding her attention. The first is that she is unbelievably thirsty, mouth drier sandpaper and throat twice as rough. The second is that her entire back is on fire, burning so hot that she’s absolutely drenched with sweat and that is not how she prefers to start a morning. She claws her way out from under the burning slab of heat that turns out to be Claude, practically sizzling away like he’s a slab of meat on coals because he’s always been warm-skinned but coupled with the sultry Almyran heat it’s nigh on unbearable, and nearly tumbles out of bed to stagger into the washroom and splash cold water on her face. She’s too overheated for that to suffice, though, and ends up grabbing a washcloth and sluicing herself from head to toe with refreshingly cold water.
Suitably cooled and rehydrated, Byleth considers slipping back into bed but even the idea of subjecting herself to that oppressive warmth again is enough to send a prickle of uncomfortable heat down her spine so she elects to dress instead in another one of those wonderfully cool dresses Claude had made for her, and go exploring. She won’t go far, just have a curious nose around until Claude wakes, and possibly hunt down some breakfast while she’s at it.
She slowly pushes open one of the huge wooden doors, taking care not to wake her peacefully sleeping molten pile of fiancé, and steps out into the hallway, pulling the door closed behind her. She nearly jumps a mile when she hears a soft “good morning, your Majesty,” and whirls round to see a young Almyran woman smiling at her politely.
“Ah, good... morning,” Byleth says. “Who might you be?”
“My name is Aisha, your Majesty,” the woman says, performing that curious Almyran salute instead of a bow. Byleth honestly prefers that to the awkward Fódlan obeisance. It looks more natural and less… subservient. “Her Majes— That is, Lady Tiana requested I attend you for the duration of your stay. She thought you might need assistance and since I can speak your tongue, I volunteered.”
“That’s kind of you.” Byleth glances furtively back towards the door of their chambers. “Uh, you haven’t been out here long, have you?”
Aisha shakes her head. “No, your Majesty. I arrived an hour after dawn.”
Well, that’s a relief. Means they didn’t alarm the staff when they got a bit… carried away. “Your Fódlan is impeccable. Where did you learn?”
Aisha blushes at the compliment and Byleth is suddenly reminded of Marianne so acutely that she takes a liking to the girl almost immediately. “Lady Tiana taught me.”
And… that’s about it for Byleth’s skills at small talk and Aisha doesn’t volunteer anything else. At a loss for how to make this interaction any less awkward, Byleth fidgets, wringing her hands while she thinks of anything to fill the silence with.
“Do you… Know where I might be able to get some breakfast?” Byleth asks lamely.
Aisha nods. “I will have some food brought to you at once.”
“Oh, no, it’s okay,” Byleth says hurriedly. “I’d like to see the kitchens if I may? Perhaps you could give me a little tour of the palace on the way? I just know I’ll get lost otherwise.”
Looking a little confused, Aisha nods and gestures for Byleth to follow her. They head down the hallway, all the way down to the far end, past six huge doors - six, that’s just unnecessary - and all Byleth knows is that one of them leads to the dining hall but she can’t for the life of her remember which. Aisha holds the far door open for her and that door leads to a series of steep, spiralling steps that go so far up and down she can’t see the end even though she cranes her head right back to try and get some idea of how many floors this place has.
They descend for at least a minute until Aisha beckons her through a smaller door and then they’re stepping into a low-roofed room with a flagstone floor and what appear to be eight entire separate firewood ovens and multiple worktops covered with utensils Byleth doesn’t even know the names of. And that’s saying something because even she had taken her turns in the Monastery kitchens to help the staff with the workload of feeding a hundred hungry teenagers.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Byleth says, staring. “But surely you don’t need eight ovens?”
“Not usually,” Aisha says, hiding a smile. “Only when there are many guests present for feasts and festivals.”
There are about ten people already hard at work in the kitchens, kneading dough and mixing ingredients in huge bowls and stirring enticingly scented concoctions on stove tops, and they all look up as Aisha and Byleth pass, murmuring to each other in quiet words of Almyran in a way that makes her ears burn. Aisha doesn’t seem too bothered, chatting amicably with the staff as she passes and Byleth decides that she absolutely must start learning Almyran if she’s to be spending more time here. She can’t stand not knowing what people are saying when they look at her, and it’s not something she’s ever had to deal with before.
“Aisha?” She asks softly and the girl leans in close to catch what Byleth says in an undertone. “You’ll tell me if anyone says anything rude about me in Almyran, right?”
Aisha giggles at that. “Don’t worry, they won’t. They were just saying that it’s strange to see you down here and that they can see why his Majesty took a liking to you. Your hair and eyes - they’re a very uncommon colour in Almyra, and the Prince was always known for having an interest in unusual things.”
For some reason, that amuses Byleth greatly and she makes a mental note to ply Tiana for more information about his Majesty’s younger days. She’s fairly certain Tiana will be delighted to share any gossip she has.
“This is Nia,” Aisha says, stopping beside an older woman with kind eyes and brown hair streaked with white, though that seems to be equally as much due to the flour she’s covered in as well as her hair greying. She gives Byleth that Almyran salute and says something to Aisha that makes her grin.
“She says you look like you know your way around a kitchen,” Aisha tells Byleth. “She says you don’t hold yourself like royalty.”
“No, I don’t suppose I do,” Byleth says, rather pleased about that. “Tell her it’s nice to meet her, please.”
Aisha must do so because Nia grins at Byleth and starts chattering away happily, to which Byleth can only smile politely while she waits for Aisha to translate.
“She says she can tell you’re no stranger to hard work and that she’s glad to meet you, too,” Aisha says. “And she wants to know what you’d like to eat?”
“No idea,” Byleth says, making Aisha laugh. “I don’t know what you eat for breakfast here. Coffee? Toast? Are those safe options?”
Aisha snorts. “Yes, of course, but there’s no way Nia will send you back upstairs with just toast. Wait a moment, I know she’ll have something you’ll like.”
Byleth does so and Nia turns away to start gathering things while Aisha fetches a tray. The other staff smile at her when she looks over and while it’s slightly awkward not being able to speak with them, she enjoys watching them work as they prepare the food for the day. They chat happily amongst themselves and work well as one cohesive unit, moving around each other efficiently and they look to be enjoying the work they do, which Byleth is happy to see. The staff at the Monastery had been happy enough, if a little overworked, but here there seem to be enough people to share the workload evenly.
She’s drawn out of her thoughts when Aisha brings the tray over to her, now filled with a mouthwatering array of hot, fresh treats and a clay pot of something that smells a little like coffee but sweeter somehow. Byleth thanks her takes the tray from Aisha, offering thanks to Nia as well, using the phrase she had learned during dinner last night. Nia beams at her and says something else that has Aisha smiling happily.
“She likes you,” Aisha says as they head back up those winding stairs, Byleth taking extra care not to drop the tray. “She’s worked here since before his Majesty was born. He used to come down to the kitchens all the time trying to sneak food away so I think she’s happy you came down to ask for it politely.”
Byleth snorts. “Sounds like him. Are the staff here happy? They look to be.”
“The King and Queen look after all their staff,” Aisha tells her, holding the door open for Byleth so she can walk through without jostling the tray too much. “A lot of us don’t have anywhere else, no family or anything, so usually we’re given work in the palace. The Queen— Lady Tiana, she teaches all the palace children on Sundays, which is how I learnt to speak your language.”
“You have no family?” Byleth asks. Aisha shakes her head but doesn’t look particularly upset about it.
“Not biologically, but I was taken in when I was a baby,” she says. “I was raised by Nia, so she’s like my mother. There have been hundreds of wards of the royal family, I think it was shortly after His Majesty’s father was crowned that they made a lot of changes to make sure people without homes or families had somewhere safe to sleep and food to eat. Lady Tiana and his Majesty, they made a big difference to all of us.”
Byleth thinks of Cyril and wonders just how much Tiana and Salim must have changed to make such an impact on so many people’s lives. She wonders how far that reach extends and thinks of the orphans left behind in the wake of the war. She knows that, for her part, she thinks of it as her duty to help as many people as she can in the wake of the Empire’s crusade and she knows that Claude feels the same.
“Aisha, thank you so much for your help,” Byleth says as they stop outside her and Claude’s room. “You’ve been lovely company and it’s been a pleasure talking to you.”
Aisha beams, cheeks flushing. “Thank you, your Majesty. Would you like me to wait out here for you?”
“No, that’s quite alright,” Byleth says, terrified of the prospect. Claude’s affectionate in the mornings and she definitely doesn’t want anyone in earshot. “I’m sure his Majesty is more than capable of making sure I don’t get lost. You can go.”
Aisha nods. “It was lovely to meet you, your Majesty. Please don’t hesitate to call on me if you need anything.”
“I’ll make sure I come straight to you,” Byleth promises. “If you could do me one small favour?”
“Please,” Byleth says, smiling, “call me Byleth.”
Aisha’s smile falters as she stares at her. “I-I think I can do that… Are you sure?” She sounds so confused that Byleth can’t help laughing softly.
“I’m sure,” Byleth says. “It’s my name, after all. And Nia was right, I don’t hold myself like royalty. I’m still not used to it and I’m worried that one of these days I’m going to forget my actual name and think it’s really ‘your majesty’.”
Aisha giggles. “Then I’ll make sure to remind you… Byleth.” She waves and scampers off down the hall as Byleth shakes her head fondly and nudges the door open, pushing it shut behind her with enough force that the sound of it makes Claude stir on the bed. She smiles affectionately at him as she carries the tray over to the bedside table and sets it down.
He’s always been an early riser, though she’s starting to understand that he only ever rose early out of necessity and not choice. Given the chance, he’ll gladly sleep in until at least noon, but she does actually want to explore more of Almyra than just the palace today, so she takes it upon herself to interrupt his slumber, poking his cheek lightly with her forefinger until he groans and clumsily slaps her hand away.
“Five more minutes,” he mumbles, shoving his face into the pillow stubbornly.
“You’re late for class,” Byleth says, laughing when Claude yelps and scrambles upright, blinking blearily as he looks around like a startled hare.
“What— Gods, don’t scare me like that,” he says, clutching his chest. “I was late to class once and I’m still traumatised.”
“Sorry,” Byleth snickers. “Couldn’t resist. Don’t pout, though, I brought you breakfast.” She leans back to gesture to the tray on the table and Claude perks up at once, scooting up to sit against the headboard. “I don’t know what half of this is, but Nia seemed to know what you’d like.”
“Oh, you met Nia!” Claude says. “Excellent cook, terrifying with a wooden spoon. Got smacked on the knuckles countless times when I was a kid.”
“For trying time steal sweets from the kitchen,” Byleth says, “yes, I heard.” She grins at Claude’s guilty expression. “Oh, you should know I’ve made it my personal mission in life to uncover all your secrets and I know your mother will be more than happy to oblige me.”
“Okay, time to go home,” Claude says, making to through the covers back and climb out of bed. Byleth stops him with a hand curled in the back of his shirt, and she laughs when he sprawls across the bed as she yanks him back.
“You should have seen this coming,” Byleth tells him, leaning over him and dropping a kiss to his forehead. He grins at her upside down, stretching up past her to snatch something off the tray. “Of course I’d want to know what kind of mischief you got up to as a child.”
“Well, you’re in for disappointment,” Claude says, taking a bite of what looks like a scone but darker in colour and filled with glazed berries. “I was an exceptionally well behaved child.”
Byleth snorts, taking one of the scone-like pastries off the tray for herself. It’s sweet and tart all at once and absolutely delicious. “I call absolute bullshit on that, my dear.”
“I’m wounded,” Claude bemoans, lifting a hand to his forehead and languishing across the bed. “I’ll never recover. You’ve dealt me a mortal blow!”
“I’ll mourn your passing for an appropriate length of time before I remarry,” Byleth deadpans. “Coffee?”
“Plans to remarry already and we’re not even wed! Cream and three sugars, please. My body’s not even cold yet!”
Byleth lets him carry on his dramatic lament while she pours them both a cup of that deliciously scented coffee. A tentative sip reveals it to be rich and smooth, tinged with a spice Byleth can’t name but enjoys immensely. She adds cream to Claude’s and stirs sugar in for him before passing his cup over and settling back against the pillows with her own. He stops his dramatising to finish his scone and coffee and they pass a few minutes in comfortable silence, tangling their legs together while they eat.
“So, what’s the plan?” Byleth asks, selecting a sort of fruit tart from the tray to nibble on next. “What’s first on the list for our great tour of Almyra?”
Claude leans his head on her shoulder. “Can I let you in on a little secret, Teach?”
“I’m completely winging it. This whole trip, bar a few things I definitely want you to see, was entirely spontaneous. I planned a few things, sure, but I wanted to just… enjoy it all naturally.”
“The Master Tactician doesn’t have a plan? Not even a little one?”
Claude grins. “I’ve got little ones. Always got something cooking, Teach, you know me. But no big plans, as much as it might pain me to say it. I figured we could just… Go out and see what kind of trouble we can get into”
Byleth hums, resting her cheek against his soft, sleep-tousled curls. “I think that sounds wonderful.”
“Good. But before we do anything you should probably send a letter to Seteth telling him you arrived safely. Preferably before he rallies the full might of the Knights of Seiros to come find us.”
“Ah, crap, I forgot about that…”
If anyone knows how you should address the ex king and queen, please tell me. I haven’t exactly got experience with addressing royalty here. Thank god.
I mean, I haven’t got experience with riding wyverns either but I make that work so... Moot point, I guess?
It’s my personal belief, after playing this game through like 73837 times, that after Sothis and Byleth merge properly, Byleth starts to feel more than she could before. Like Sothis was an inhibitor which is why Byleth was so stoic before and that after the fact I feel like she smiles more and laughs more and I have plans to expand on this in other fics but I just wanted to make a note of that to sort of loosely explain why Byleth seems more... vibrant than she does in game.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Once, when Byleth was so small that she had to sit in front of Jeralt on his horse, legs too short to reach the stirrups, they had ridden through a village market while he had been looking for their next job. She remembers little about that day, lost as it is by time and muddled so by newer experiences that take up so much space in her memories, but she remembers her father dismounting his horse to buy something from a cart that smelled like cinnamon and hot fruit. She remembers him leading the horse by its reins while she nibbled on the sweet pastry and she remembers thinking that humble market the most exciting place in the world.
That memory will always be a treasured one, but that market of years past pales in comparison to the stalls that fill Almyra’s streets. She’s never seen colours so vibrant, never tasted scents so heady and rich on her tongue, never seen jewels so fine or wares so unique and all of it is so quintessentially Almyran that she finds herself falling in love with the Kingdom all over again.
She cannot tell, as new as she still is to the intensity of her own emotions, whether the joy is singularly hers or whether it is the secondhand jubilance that is shining so brightly from Claude’s face as he leads her through crowded streets and from stall to stall, but either way the good mood is infectious and by noon her cheeks ache from smiles and laughter.
She holds up a necklace that catches her eye on a stall beside a fountain on one of the cities lower tiers and the way the peculiar rose gem sparkles in the sunlight reminds her of a girl with hair in a shade much the same, just as sparkly in nature. She pays the vendor and adds the necklace to the bag of trinkets full to bursting with gifts she wants to take back home.
For Hilda, that beautiful necklace and a pair of barrettes to match. For Lysithea, a collection of sugared candies sweeter than honey. For Marianne a shawl of pale blue with the motif of pegasi embroidered in gold. For Ignatz, a collection of rich pigments in shades Byleth has never seen. For Raphael, a boar-tooth necklace and a cuff of fine leather. For Lorenz, a collection of tea leaves so rare even Claude is intrigued by the aroma. For Leonie, a bow carved flawlessly from silver birch.
She is almost impatient to return home just so she can see the expressions on their faces when she gives them their gifts. Almost. Because being in Almyra makes Claude shine and she wouldn’t trade that for anything.
The only thing she must buy for herself, however, is the collection of herbs written on a scrap of parchment that Tiana had given her with a surreptitious wink.
“What’s this for?” Claude had asked, frowning at the list when Byleth had asked where she might find them. “Carrot seeds… Pennyroyal… Blue cohosh root? I’ve never even heard of that one. Are you trying to concoct something insidious?”
Byleth had rolled her eyes and snatched the list back. “No, I’m not you,” she’d sniped to Claude’s amusement. “They’re contraceptives.”
“Oh!” Claude had flushed at that. “Right. Um. Probably the apothecary, then.”
And with her only errand out of the way, Byleth had happily conceded to let Claude drag her around what may well have been the entire city of Almyra in a single day. She can’t remember the last time she ate and drank so much, partly out of curiosity and partly because every other sentence out of Claude’s mouth had been “you have to try this!”
They don’t get back to the palace until long after sunset, exhausted but happy, though in Byleth’s case horrifically sunburned. She hisses as Claude helps rub a gelatinous substance on her back and shoulders that feels disgusting but instantly soothes her angry skin, and Claude sheepishly keeps his hands to himself when he realises the full extent of the burns. And though even lying down is uncomfortable, she regrets nothing of the wonderful day they’ve spent together.
“I’ve been thinking,” Byleth says as they help themselves to the platter of fresh fruit Aisha brought them when the thought of dinner was too much but they still found themselves hungry for something light. “About what we can do back home to being Fódlan and Almyra together more cohesively.”
“Oh, work talk, okay,” Claude says, tossing a grape up in the air to catch in his mouth and missing spectacularly. “I’m listening.”
“You said yourself that when you were at the Academy, you ate and drank with people you never would have met otherwise.” Byleth takes an orange from the tray and sets about methodically peeling it in her lap. “What if we sent students from Almyra to study in Fódlan, and vice versa? An exchange program of sorts.”
Claude’s brow furrows as he thinks, no doubt weighing up every single pro and con that could possibly present itself before he answers. But his eyes answer before his mouth does, because they light up like lanterns and Byleth knows she’s won him over without even having to try. She’s still not used to seeing him wear his thoughts so openly on his face, and she doesn’t think she’ll ever stop being grateful that he trusts her enough to do so.
“They could stay with host families to learn the language and the culture,” he says, sitting up so suddenly he nearly sends the tray flying. “They can experience the festivals and the celebrations first hand. Learn how the other side lives.”
She knows exactly what he is picturing, because it’s exactly what had occurred to her when she first thought of it. People in the cities of both kingdoms, experiencing life and peace in harmony, no boundaries and no prejudice. It’s his dream, fully realised, and now there’s nothing to hold them back. Byleth will return to her duties once they get back, will continue on her path to reforming the Church and rebuilding the land for the better, and with every new tenet they put in place, they get one step closer to fulfilling their goal of complete unification.
“Think of it this way,” Byleth says, discarding the rind of her orange and breaking off a segment to pop in her mouth. “In a hundred years’ time, there will be festivals to celebrate events that haven’t happened yet, but that will be comprised of two cultures that have never mixed before. In a decade, perhaps we will be celebrating the Day of Unification, where people across the continent will dance and feast until dawn, united by what we’ve achieved and there will be children born who have never known our countries apart.” She smiles and leans forward to wipe juice from Claude’s lips, mouth slack with awe as he envisions what she is describing. “Your dream may not be completely fulfilled, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.”
He takes an unsteady breath. “I can hardly believe it.”
“But it’s true, whether you believe it or not. Fódlan’s Throat is open, the lid is off the bottle. All that remains now is to lead the people through. The rest will unfold as it should, I have faith in that. Also,” she sighs heavily. “Our wedding will probably be the catalyst we need. The most literal display of unification we could ever hope to achieve.”
Claude hums. “Is it stressing you out as much as it is me?”
Byleth nods. “Please don't take that the wrong way, I want to marry you. But I could easily do without the fanfare I know will follow it.”
Claude winces. “Yeah. It’s gonna be… Well, it’s gonna be something, that’s for sure.”
Byleth does want to marry him, and that’s the honest truth. She wants to call this man her husband and call herself his wife. She wants that so dearly she can hardly breathe from the force of it. But she doesn’t want a spectacle, and that is what their wedding is fated to be. Their hands are tied once again by duty and she cannot help but feel a little resentful once more for the role she must fulfil but never wanted. She is so new to wanting that it still feels strange to do so, even if she only ever admits it to herself in her most private of thoughts.
“Can I ask you something?” Claude says, suddenly serious tone overtaking his excitement of moments before.
Byleth side-eyes him. “I’m wary, but sure.”
“Where do you see us in ten years’ time?”
It’s not the loaded question she was expecting, but it catches her off-guard all the same. It’s a good question, and one she’s been asking herself more and more frequently as the days go by. There are many answers she could give, but she’s not given them much thought because she’s honestly just seen them presiding over more Roundtable conferences, tied up in bureaucracy and duty until their hair turns grey. But the longer she spends away from her throne, the more she starts to think of a future she never pictured for herself and the more she thinks of it, the more she wants it.
And again, she is not used to wanting things for herself.
“I see us…” She begins slowly, and by the look on Claude’s face he’s already on board because she’d said ‘us’. “I see us travelling.” An easy answer and a safe one because their duty will see them crossing Almyra and Fódlan for many years while they oversee the unification. “Settling our kingdoms and reinforcing our bonds and setting a foundation that will endure.” It’s a given that she would answer in such a way. This was already decided when she accepted her crown. But it’s not what she wants. Why can’t she say it? What’s stopping her? Surely her trepidation should have lessened by now?
A thought flashes into her head, so clear it could almost be a memory. She sees Claude, older, with streaks of grey in a beard fuller than the one he wears now, a soft smile on a face lined with with age that he wears gracefully and attractively. She sees a child in his arms, brown-haired but with eyes as blue as her own had once been. She sees a family of which she is the matriarch, a lineage that will carry their own beliefs close to their hearts. And with that lineage founded on a dream of a new dawn, she sees herself removing her crown and turning to the horizon with Claude at her side.
“I don’t want to be Queen,” Byleth says like it’s a revelation, which it isn’t at the same time that it is. “I want to set down the foundations of your dreams so firmly they’ll never falter and then I want to leave.” Claude looks aghast at that and in her hurry to soothe his shock she finds herself rushing to explain, words spilling out so honestly she surprises even herself. “I want us to go wherever we want, do whatever we want, I want us to have the time to be ourselves with no more duty or expectations. I want to know what lies to the north of Sreng and to the south of Dagda. I want to know what is beyond the known world and I want to see it all with you.” She can see it, so vividly she can almost taste the salty sea air on her tongue. “I want our children to grow and lead in our stead when the time comes and then I want to fade into legend beside you, living our lives on our own terms.” She laughs, a soft exhale that is no louder than a whisper. “I guess that’s my dream. To live the life I never thought I could have.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say ‘I want’ so much before,” Claude says faintly. “And now that I have, I find I’m absolutely powerless to do anything but give you what you ask for.” He takes her hand in his and presses a kiss to her palm. “I want that, too. Everything you just said, I’ll do everything I can to give it to you.”
She believes him. She could never do anything else.
“And, um.” Claude looks up at her, a look in his eyes so foreign she cannot explain it even now, long after Sothis’ inexplicable hold on her emotions has been loosened. She is learning herself just as much as she is learning this man before her, as much as he is learning her, too. “Hearing you talk about our children? We might need to come back to that conversation sooner than we planned.”
“If it’s possible for us,” Byleth says, unable to stop wanting now that she’s finally given herself over to the enticing notion dreaming, “I want them with you. Not yet, but in time. I do. With you.”
Claude nods somewhat frantically. “Are you scared?”
The laugh that bubbles out of her is high and shaky. “Terrified. This is completely uncharted territory for me. Going where I’m told, obeying orders, that’s been my life since I was a child. Taking things for myself, wanting things for myself… I’m out of my depth. But… I like it.”
Claude moves the tray and sits up against the pillows, drawing her into his arms as tightly as he dares while her skin is still so tender. “It’s going to be amazing,” he says and Byleth can feel how hard his heart is beating in his chest, enraptured by the endless possibility of what they can do, will do, together. “I can see it. All of it. I thought one dream was enough for me, but it’s not. I was only thinking of my dream. I didn’t account for yours.”
“I didn’t have any before you,” Byleth murmurs, leaning her head on his shoulder. “You taught me how and now I don’t think I can stop.”
“Don’t,” Claude says fiercely. “Never stop. I’ll help you fulfill every one of them.”
She really believes he will.
I’m trying so hard to resist just sending this fic into angst town because that’s what I’m good at. I promise no angst will touch this fic, but I cannot promise that this series overall will not dip at least a teensy bit into angst territory. I have Ideas, my dudes. Consider yourselves warned.
Oof, sorry this took a while to get out, I was torn between two ideas and decided I wanted this one out first before I went into more Almyra exploration.
Up next: Tiana and Byleth bond over tea.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
What would her people say if they could see her now? The once great mercenary, hero of Fódlan, vessel for the goddess and appointed leader of the reforming Church of Seiros, fiancé to the King of Unification… Unbreakable and unbending…
Peeling. Like a descaled fish.
It’s disgusting, and not at all funny, which is why Claude has been banished from the chambers while Byleth covers herself in aloe and languishes on the bed like a half-peeled tomato, morose, pink, and flaky. She can still hear him laughing outside and she’s going to throttle him the moment she can move without hissing in pain. He’d tried charming his way back in, crooning softly through the thick wood of the doors separating them, but if there’s one thing Byleth can do well, it’s ignore the pretty words of beguiling idiots. Her future husband is no exception.
“Byleth, I’m sorry,” he whines through the door, scratching at it like an abandoned kitten. “I didn’t mean it, it was a joke .”
She ignores him, spreading more aloe on her arms. That’s what you get for laughing at your partner’s misery. You get exiled to the hallway of your parents’ palace. That’s exactly how it works. Why didn’t she pay more attention to Manuela’s seminars? She’d be able to heal this quicker if she had. She’s so uncomfortable. Pain she can handle. Prolonged discomfort is going to drive her insane.
“Please let me back in. I won’t laugh again, I promise.”
“Absolutely not,” Byleth says with as much affronted dignity as she can muster. “This is your punishment. I can’t believe you called me an overcooked lobster.”
“I said you looked like a— I said I was sorry!”
“Too late. I’m sulking. Look at what you’ve done. I’m sulking now.”
He falls silent at that. He falls silent for so long that Byleth actually looks over at the door, wondering if he’s given up on apologies to nap outside or if he’s gotten bored and wandered off. She considers letting him back in, briefly, but then steels her resolve and picks her book back up, determined to let him suffer outside while she suffers inside but for different reasons.
Stupid Almyran sunlight. Even her eyelids are sunburned. What the hell.
The door clicks suddenly and Byleth looks up in surprise. She’d locked it, obviously, so Claude must have disappeared to find another key, the scheming little—
But it’s not Claude who steps in.
Poking her head round the door, expression one of sympathetic concern, is Tiana.
“Oh, you poor thing,” she murmurs, stepping into the room and closing the door behind her. “You should have come to me, I have an ointment to prevent this.”
“It’s okay,” Byleth says, sitting up and wincing. “It’s not that bad.”
“Darling, if it’s as bad as it looks, there's no need to put on a brave face.” Tiana sweeps over to her, pressing gentle fingers to Byleth’s burning cheek. She tuts and reaches into the folds of her robes, procuring a cloth-covered jar. “Here, put this on the worst of it. It will help more than the aloe. At least once it heals you’ll be lovely and tanned. Though I fear it might clash a little with your unusual hair colour.”
Byleth takes the jar, suddenly very aware of the fact that all she has covering her sore skin is a thin sheet. Tiana smirks and turns away so that Byleth can preserve some of her modesty while she rubs the ointment into her skin. It smells… It smells awful, quite frankly. Thick and viscous and a startling orange colour. Still, Byleth is willing to try anything at this point, and spreads it onto her skin in a thick layer.
The relief is immediate . So immediate that she actually sighs with relief. Tiana inclines her head, not looking round. “Better?”
“Much. Thank you.” Byleth wraps the sheet around herself and clears her throat. “I didn’t expect the sun to be so harsh.”
“It takes some getting used to,” Tiana says, turning back round. She smiles in amusement at Byleth’s makeshift robe. “Almyran skin is not as susceptible as ours is. Even now I have to be careful if we’re out in the sun for too long. Thankfully there are steps we can take to prevent too much damage. I’ll have some ointment brought up to you. I expect you’ll need it, my son has a lot of things he wants to show you.”
Byleth sighs guiltily. “Is he still outside?”
“No, I sent him off to find his father. His absence was felt keenly and they’ve a lot to discuss. I thought I’d take the opportunity to get to know you better, if you’re amenable. Don't worry,” she adds hastily, no doubt in response to Byleth’s startled expression. “I’m not going to grill you for hours about your personal life. I’d just like the chance to spend some time with my future daughter-in-law.”
“I’d like that,” Byleth says, quite surprised to find that truthful. She’s not spent much time around mothers, finds the whole concept of them rather foreign to her. It would be nice, she thinks, to speak with one. And to learn more about the woman who raised the man she loves. “We don’t have to go outside, do we?”
Tiana laughs. “Nope. We can have tea in the arboretum. The glass is thick enough to shield your poor skin from the heat.”
Byleth nods. “Give me a moment to dress and I’ll be with you.”
Tiana nods and slips out the door to wait for her. When she’s gone Byleth gingerly moves off of the bed, sighing in relief when the ointment stops her skin from chafing, and steps over to the wardrobe to dress. Acceptably and appropriately bedecked in the airy Almyran finery she’s become quickly fond of, she heads out of their chambers to find Tiana. She smiles at Byleth kindly and takes her arm, looping it through hers, and leads them towards the arboretum, which is not a word Byleth recognises so she has no idea what it is.
Turns out, it’s that room she’d been brought to when they’d first arrived, the beautifully bright dome of glass filled with plants and flowers of all kinds. Tiana gestures for her to sit at the little table in the centre where a small spread of tea and food is already waiting for them. Byleth leans forward with wonder as she takes in what appears to be an incredibly detailed butterfly on top of one of the cakes, but she’s quickly embarrassed by her assumption when Tiana waves a hand and shoos the very real butterfly off of the confectionary.
“I love the things but not on my food,” Tiana mutters, removing the cake from the tray and setting it to one side. She takes a seat opposite Byleth and pours them both a cup of tea, though instead of the familiar scent of pine filling the air, the scent of lavender and citrus tinges the steam instead, calming and refreshing and reminding Byleth, just for a moment, of cooler summer days spent in classrooms with young, smiling faces.
She’d not been aware she had a favourite tea blend. Months of divining her students’ preferred flavours and she’d neglected to find her own. That probably says more about her than she’d like it to.
“Please, help yourself,” Tiana says, gesturing to the food. “It’s quite possibly my favourite thing about Almyrans. The sheer amount of food they consume is astounding. I was no stranger to the concept of snacking, but they have an additional four meals as well as the the Fódlan three I’m used to.”
Byleth smiles faintly. “I have a friend I think would do well here.”
“Raphael?” Tiana guesses, startling Byleth. The King-mother smiles at her surprise. “I know a lot. Just assume that I know pretty much all there is to know about your students. Claude can’t keep much from me.”
Byleth doesn’t doubt that. She’s really starting to love Tiana.
“I wondered what sort of person you’d be,” Byleth says, selecting a small sandwich from the platter nearest to her. “To have raised Claude. He didn’t speak of you at all and I understood that was because you’d asked him not to?”
“Correct,” Tiana nods. “I value my privacy, and I wanted no one to know where I’d gone. If I had wanted them to know, I’d have told them and I certainly wouldn’t have stolen away in the dead of night like a fugitive. There’s not much to say, I’m forthright and I don’t suffer fools gladly. And I was more than happy to let my family name die out, but my father was always a persuasive old bastard and I knew he’d manage to get into Claude’s head with his talk of duty and the “greater good”.” She rolls her eyes. “They were stunningly alike.”
“How so? I never met the Duke.”
Tiana sighs heavily. “Both were unfailingly selfless and idealistic to the point of foolishness. Claude may seem logical at times, and he can be, but at heart he is a dreamer and he lets his dreams run away with him.” She smiles and it’s tinged with something melancholy. “He was such a sweet boy. It was hard, watching the people who should have been family ostracise him. To the Almyrans he was an outsider and to the Alliance he was a hidden gambit. I resented both sides for a long time.”
“The first time I invited him for tea he kept sniffing it,” Byleth says, fairly certain she’ll be forgiven for divulging this secret to Tiana of all people. “At first I thought he was just being cautious.”
Tiana looks at her and it’s clear she knows that’s not the whole truth. “And after? What did you think it was then?”
Byleth taps a fingernail against her teacup. “I think he was afraid of being hurt. Which concerned me, but now I think I understand why.”
“My son has survived several attempts on his life,” Tiana says in a tone that makes Byleth feel momentarily sympathetic for those who foolishly thought it wise to try and harm the woman’s son. The sympathy is brief and gone in a heartbeat, because Byleth knows full well that if the person responsible for attempting to harm Claude was brought before her, the force of her rage would be all-consuming and unstoppable. “He learned a hard lesson at a very young age and I have spent most of his life trying to help him unlearn it. I think you succeeded where I could not.”
“What lesson was that?”
“Trust no one.”
Byleth thinks of the young archer fleeing for his life from bandits and stumbling, purely by chance, across a mercenary group in his fear. She thinks of smiles that never reached wary green eyes. She thinks of deflecting jokes and guarded humor. And she thinks of the boy who didn’t learn how to trust until he was a man.
“He’s getting better,” Byleth says. “You should see him around the rest of the Deer. It was… a privilege to watch him grow to love them.”
Tiana’s answering smile is positively blinding. “If I were a terrible mother I’d show you the letters he wrote to me during his time at the Academy. It was the most wonderful thing to see them transform from dispassionate notes to joyful essays. He used to write about his lessons and his goals, keeping us updated with his situation but not himself. It was always so impersonal, like a writ from a stoic herald rather than claims from a willful young boy. It wasn’t until after you joined the Academy that he started to write about real things. I hold each of those letters dear to my heart. And I am very grateful to you for helping him find joy again.”
Byleth suddenly finds herself unable to look Tiana in the eye. She’s no stranger to compliments but the sheer weight of Tiana’s gratitude for something Byleth never thought of as something she had done is… Immense. All she had done was trust Claude. Love him. Something so easy she doesn’t feel like she should be praised for it.
“I don't deserve praise for that,” Byleth mumbles, staring into her teacup because at least her teacup isn’t lauding her as a saviour. “He… He did the same for me.”
“I know,” Tiana says. “And isn’t that wonderful? You owe each other everything and nothing. All good, lasting relationships are founded on give and take. It can take years to strike the right balance, yet you two seem to have found it quite by accident right at the beginning of your journey together. I can’t wait to see where you are in ten years’ time. Happy, is my prediction, and my most sincere wish. After everything you’ve done, I think you deserve it.”
“Can…” Byleth swallows and forces herself to look up at Tiana. “Can we talk about something else? Not to be rude, but I’m really bad at this kind of stuff.”
Tiana laughs. “Noted. Would you like me to tell you some stories of that little horror when he was a child?”
“Tiana,” Byleth says seriously, “I’d love nothing more.”
When Claude was six years old, he went missing from the palace. Due to the recent unrest and dissent in Salim’s side of the family that had only been intensifying as the boy grew, Tiana had been beside herself with worry. She’d turned the entire palace upside down looking for him, alone because she trusted none of the guards to find her son without harming him, because she didn’t know the extent of the sedition that had been festering among his bastard cousins. When she’d found no sign of him, she’d taken to the city below, searching for two days without food or sleep. When she was close to collapsing from grief and exhaustion, Nader had come to her, helping her up and wiping away her tears, to tell her that her son had been found.
He had wandered off and gotten into the Nesting Grounds, where only the finest warrior’s wyverns were housed. He’d been there for two days and had been adopted by one of the broodmares, a great white beast who had just birthed a clutch of copper eggs, and she had taken an immediate liking to the tiny child that had stumbled into her nest.
Had it been anyone else, she would have torn him apart - brooding wyverns are viciously protective of their nests - but she had just snapped him up by the back of his shirt and drawn him into her clutch as though he were a strange, wriggly drakeling.
That was when Salim had decided to teach Claude how to fly. The only white egg from that clutch had been promised to him for when he came of age. When that egg had finally hatched, Claude had named the wyvern Najima after the stars he loved so dearly, and she had been his as completely as he had been hers.
He had wanted to name her Clawdette and Salim had asked him to please not do that and call her something a bit more noble. There had been a week long tantrum about it. From both father and son.
When Claude was eight and he was bedridden from the first attempt on his life, Tiana had sat by his bedside for weeks, reading to him and soothing him as his tiny body had been ravaged by the toxins. During his recovery, when he had to submit himself to rigorous physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles left wasted by the poison, Tiana had suggested he learn archery to help hone his upper body strength. She had secretly wished that he learn it so that he would be kept away from the front lines of battle. She’d known since coming to Almyra that they found joy in the heat of battle and the rush of victory, and she had wanted Claude as far away from it as she could get him.
The first time he tried to draw a bow, he’d lost his grip on it and the wooden frame had snapped back into his face and broken his nose. He lost his first baby tooth that way. He was incredibly proud of that, until he became a teenager and learned what it was to be embarrassed.
When Claude was thirteen he won his first tournament, to the humiliation of his seditious cousins and the intense, unbridled satisfaction of his parents. Each winter the Almyrans held a competition to honour the land and test the mettle of budding hunters. The events were riding, archery, and sparring. Claude had entered the riding event astride his fledgling Royal wyvern, grinning smugly as he told the officiants that nowhere in the rules did it specify he had to be on a horse. Tiana had whooped from the stands like a madwoman, hurling abuse at the referees when they attempted to dock Claude points for every little misstep, and had actually vaulted the fence to fight one of them bare-handed when they overlooked another competitor attempting to stab Claude in the side during the sparring event.
Despite the odds being stacked so heavily against him, Claude had emerged victorious, and it had been after, when they were celebrating his victory, that he survived the second attempt on his life. Barely.
Tiana had never been a master of subterfuge. She’d always been upfront and combative about her opinions and beliefs, never shying away from a challenge. But it had been then that she realised she needed to teach Claude how to gain the upper hand through misdirection and dishonesty. It went against her very nature, but she knew she had to teach her son how to survive.
She hated herself for it for years, but by the time her son was fifteen, she’d had him immunised to every poison she could get her hands on. It broke her heart to hold him through the side effects, the vomiting and the seizing, but she was doing it for him. And not once through it all did he ever complain. Never did he come to resent her for what she had done. Through it all he had only smiled and accepted the difficult lot he had been given, and many times Tiana had considered stealing her son away and leaving to find them another, safer life somewhere else.
But she loved Almyra, despite its flaws, and when Claude told her of his dream to one day unite Fódlan and his homeland, she knew he had a heart strong enough to weather the adversity he was fated to face.
When his grandfather came for him and beguiled him away, Tiana nearly followed - attempted many times to do so - but her husband’s gentle words and her son’s letters always stopped her. She believed in him. So she would wait.
And when that first letter came, telling her of a strange young woman with a heart just as guarded as his, she knew without a doubt that the universe was unfolding as it should.
“He drew on one of the tapestries once,” Tiana says, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “The one in the main hall. That thing is three hundred years old and he drew on it because he thought it needed a bit of improvement. I thought Salim’s head was going to explode.”
“He used to make corrections in the library books,” Byleth tells her, taking a deep breath to try and smother her laughter, ribs aching with it. “It would send the librarians absolutely spare.”
Tiana shakes her head, still giggling. “He was an absolute pain as a child and he still is, he never grew out of his mischief. I’m so glad he didn’t, but honestly I thought that boy would have sent me grey by now.”
Byleth huffs a laugh, rubbing her sore stomach. “He’ll never change,” she says, both exasperated and endeared by that fact. “He’ll always be a troublemaker, but he has such a good heart you can’t even be mad at him for it.”
“Oh?” Says a familiar voice from behind her. “Does that mean I’m off the hook for the lobster comment?”
Byleth makes to turn around in her chair but he’s already close behind her when she does, hands on her shoulders as he leans down to kiss her cheek softly. He looks bedraggled and exhausted, like he’s been dragged through a hedge backwards, and when he steps up to join them, Salim looks exactly the same.
“Men,” Tiana says, rolling her eyes. “Were you down in the pits again?”
“No, actually,” Salim says, moving round the table to kiss his wife in greeting. It’s a little too enthusiastic for present company and Claude makes a retching sound. “We were flying. Claude said he could beat me to Qabr Hadidiun and now the brat owes me fifty gold.”
“I’m intensely disappointed,” Tiana says, glaring at Claude. “You bet your father fifty gold? What kind of pathetic sum is that? I didn’t raise you to be so stingy. If you’re going to bet, do it properly.”
“Why is that what you’re mad about?!” Claude demands. “If I’d bet higher I’d have owed him more! And the only reason he won is because he’s a dirty cheater who cheats.”
“I won because I’m the superior flier,” Salim says, brushing unseen dust off his sleeve. There’s a massive tear in it. “You were showing off and wasting time. Who stands up in the saddle? You’re flying not surfing.”
“It looked awesome, you’re just jealous.”
“Did you see Reus?” Byleth asks, tugging Claude’s sleeve. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Claude reassures her. “He’s getting fat and lazy, so we should take him out soon. Let him see his homeland properly.”
Byleth nods, already fantasising about the thrill of the open sky and the wind in her hair. “Soon,” she says. “Once I stop looking like a boiled ham.”
“Experience tells me not to comment,” Claude says, lips pressing together against a laugh.
“Mm, you’re a fast learner.” Byleth grins and leans her head against his side. He wraps an arm around her shoulders, resting a hand gently against her shoulder. She’s relieved when her skin doesn’t protest.
“Another layer of ointment and you’ll be right as rain in the morning,” Tiana says, observant as always. “I’ll let Claude steal you away for now, I’ve monopolised enough of your time.”
“It was lovely,” Byleth says. “We’ll do this again.”
“Absolutely,” Tiana agrees, smiling. She looks to her son. “I’m proud of you.”
“Oh?” His expression smooths out into casual disinterest. Absolutely no one is fooled by it. “What for?”
Tiana smiles softly. “Everything. For learning how to soften your heart when it mattered. For taking joy for yourself instead of running from it.” She stands, taking her husband’s hand. “Be good to each other.”
“Oh, mom,” Claude says, pulling Byleth tighter against his side. “You don’t have to tell us that.”
“Perhaps not,” Tiana says. “But it never hurts to be reminded of what’s important every now and then.”
“No arguments from me.” Claude looks down at Byleth when she tilts her head back to gaze up at him and there’s something in his eyes she’s still not used to seeing. “I know how good I’ve got it.”
“Same,” Byleth says. “By the way, I think I’ve found my favourite tea.”
“Took you long enough,” he teases, tapping her nose, but he looks delighted at the knowledge. She’d known he’d understand.
“Gross,” Salim says. “Get a room.”
“Baba!” Claude yells as Tiana cuffs him round the back of the head.
Qabr Hadidiun - Iron Tomb. This is a landmark in Almyra that will be explained next chapter.
Just a quick note, I’m so blown away by all of your wonderful comments and I am so grateful to every one of you for liking my ramblings enough to take the time out of your lives to tell me. I wish I had time to answer them all personally and I will get to them eventually, but I just wanted to say a big thank you! ❤️
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Byleth had known something was up when she opened her eyes that morning to find Claude already wide awake and staring at her. Perhaps she should have found it rather sweet, that he was watching her sleep, but the expression on his face just screamed that he was up to no good and it had set her immediately on edge. Well, not on edge per se, but she’d definitely been wary when he’d all but leapt out of bed to fetch a folded set of clothes for her the moment she opened her eyes, a mischievous glint in his own.
“That’s your scheming face,” she’d said, taking the clothes and peering at him distrustfully.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he’d said like she’d insulted his entire lineage. “Get dressed, I've got plans.”
Despite the fact that he’d effectively confirmed her suspicions, Byleth had abluted and dressed without comment, momentarily distracted from Claude’s suspicious behaviour by the sheer joy of finding that her outfit consisted of trousers. Trousers! And a simple shirt! At last! Light and soft but durable and resilient and though she’d still been deeply suspicious of Claude’s plans, she’d been so ecstatic to wear something more practical than the flowing robes she’d been wearing constantly since they arrived that she’d decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and follow along with his whims.
And currently she finds herself wondering why she’d ever doubted Claude at all.
Najima and Reus are waiting for them outside on that great platform in the mountainside, saddled and harnessed and ready to take off at once. Reus wriggles when he catches sight of her, thrusting his snout into her chest the moment she approaches, snuffling at her like an oversized puppy and purring when she scritches under his chin. His scales are shining in the late morning light and he looks happy and well-fed, but that doesn’t quite ease her guilt at having neglected him for so long, though he’s so happy to see her that it soothes her misgivings considerably.
She checks over the straps on his back and chest, making sure the buckles are fastened well, and she’s intrigued by the strange saddle sitting between his wing joints, less bulky than the one she always fits him with, little more than a padded diamond of cloth that molds to the curves of his spine.
“It’s built for speed,” Claude explains, tightening one of Najima’s own straps. “The saddles you’re used to are for long-distance and battle. We won’t need those today. Today you’ll get to learn what flying is really like.”
Byleth can’t deny the rush of excitement the notion sends thrilling through her chest as she climbs onto Reus’ back. The saddle isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, too thin to afford much protection from the hard scales of Reus’ back, but when he moves she can feel every twitch of his muscles, feel the way they coil and tense as he strains impatiently towards the sky. This way, she can move more easily in synchronicity with him, bank when he banks, dive when he dives. She understands now that the Almyrans have developed these saddles so that rider and wyvern can move as one.
Claude ties a pack to Najima’s saddle and mounts her quickly, waving the attendants away when they step forward to assist him. He winks at Byleth and guides Najima towards the very edge of the platform.
“Try to keep up, dearest,” he calls to her over his shoulder and Najima roars deafeningly before throwing herself off of the platform into a steep dive.
Byleth laughs and guides Reus to follow, heart lurching with a heady mix of fear and excitement as his entire body uncoils like a tightly bound spring released, wind rushing through her hair as they spear through the air like an arrow, and when the ground falls away beneath them, opening up into the vast, burnt orange of Almyra far below, she cannot help the wild cry of exhilaration that bursts out of her.
Below them, starkly white against the dark landscape, Najima corkscrews through the air in a tight spiral, flaring her wings at the last moment to catch the updrafts and soar back up into the sky. Reus bellows joyfully and swoops up to join her and as they near her Byleth can hear Claude’s delighted laughter faintly over the rush of the wind.
“Do you see the edge of the forest?” Claude calls down to them, pointing towards the horizon where a dark slash of grey sits between the verdant sea of pine trees and the violent orange of the desert. She nods and Najima dips lower to their level, great wings spread wide as she glides easily on the currents from the earth below. “That’s Qabr Hadidiun. The Iron Tomb. That’s where we’re going.”
Curious, Byleth looks towards their destination, squinting to try and decipher what it is that awaits them. From this far away it’s hard to make out, the dark shadow on the landscape that borders the desert and the forest refusing to be defined from a distance. The lure of the unknown is strong, and Byleth touches her knees to Reus’ sides, urging him eagerly forward. He responds instantly with a powerful beat of his wings and Byleth gasps as they’re propelled forward at a speed she’s never experienced, slicing through the air like a honed dagger.
The saddles are a marvel of engineering she finds, crafted expertly so that they might move as one. Byleth gets to experience the exhilaration of flying as intently as Reus must, almost as though she’s being carried forward on her own wings instead of his. He careens through the air like joy incarnate, as though he’s quite forgotten the rider at his back and he and Najima soar around and around each other in a beautiful dance so perfect and wild it could never be choreographed. All Byleth can do is grip the reins and flatten herself to his back, swept along by his radiant jubilation.
They fly for just long enough for Byleth to forget what it is to be confined to the land, existing so separately from what is below and what is above, that when their wyverns finally level out into a languid guide she feels as though her head is still spinning and her limbs do not belong to her. She can feel every breath in Reus’ lungs expand hers, every beat of his powerful heart rock through her own chest. She feels unbound and limitless and it’s in the midst of discovering the intoxicating sensation of true freedom, that she gets to watch Claude do the most stupid and irresponsible stunt she has ever seen him attempt before in her life .
Before she can even think no don’t— he is throwing himself from Najima’s saddle and somersaulting through the air like an acrobat, yelling and tumbling down through the air at such a speed that Byleth feels her own stomach drop. He spreads his arms out, exhilarated cries snatched away by the wind, and panic sets in like a vice around her heart as the ground rushes up to meet him.
But just before the ground can claim his life, Najima swoops underneath him and catches him safely on her back, spiralling back up through the air as he clutches her round her neck, expression wild and fierce with frenzied elation. She evens out so he can right himself and then they’re easing into a slow descent towards Qabr Hadidiun while Byleth has a mild heart attack in her saddle.
Reus follows them down without a word from her to do so and Byleth finally gets to see what the Iron Tomb actually is. It’s a huge stone temple, a pantheon with huge ivory columns holding up a long arching roof, wide stone steps below it leading down towards the umber sand of the vast desert they’ve crossed in seemingly no time at all. The forest looms up behind it like a wall of shadowed green, regal trees taller than she's ever seen standing silently sentinel over the forgotten temple.
Reus alights rather roughly, panting heavily and slumping onto the stone of the temple’s forecourt. Byleth carefully dismounts, her own legs unsteady, and has to clutch his neck for balance while she remembers how to stand. Claude is nowhere near as steady, to her amusement, trembling with adrenaline as he rolls off of Najima into a heap on the ground. He laughs breathlessly, hair a snarled mess and cheeks tinged pink from the wind.
“You’re an idiot,” Byleth tells him. He gives her a shaky thumbs up. “You could’ve died.”
“Yup,” he pants, grinning. He struggles to his feet, using Najima’s leg as a prop. “Except no because Najima would never let that happen, would you, girl?” She turns her great head toward him and regards him for a moment before parting her jaws and licking him from jaw to hairline. “Oh, gross!”
Byleth snorts, patting Reus’ neck as she takes a step towards the pantheon. “What is this place?”
There’s something in the air here, similar to the strange, otherworldly presence that she had felt thrumming in the Holy Tomb at Garreg Mach, or in those faded, dreamlike moments when she’d stood before Sothis. There is power here, she can feel it, but it is deeper and far, far older than the power she’d grown used to from the progenitor god. It’s an uncanny sensation to be standing in a place that feels older than the god named as the beginning.
“The Iron Tomb,” Claude says, untying the pack from Najima’s saddle and hefting it over his shoulder. He steps up behind her and takes her hand. Perhaps he can feel her unusual disquiet, or perhaps he just wants to be close to her. Both options are reassuring. “It’s not made of iron, so it’s seems like a bit of a misnomer, but I think it fits and you’ll see why. Come on, I’ll tell you about it inside.”
And inside is… Remarkable.
The doorway is humble for such a vast monument, a doorless entrance set within a ridged frame chiseled from the surrounding stonework. It’s a misleading entryway in that it hides the sheer size of the room within; an unbounded hall interspersed with similar columns to the ones set outside, supporting a high arching ceiling. Their footsteps echo almost endlessly through the cavernous hall and Byleth’s soft gasp is almost deafening when it reverberates through the stillness.
Before them lie rows and rows of rusted swords, each varying wildly in craft and design, driven blade first into the ground like unusual gravestones. And Byleth suddenly understands the name, but that small sense of comprehension pales in comparison to the sudden intense desire to know what this place really is.
“Oh, now I feel bad,” Claude says, watching her face. “You want to know why they’re here.”
“Yes, of course I—“ She breaks off, tearing her gaze away from the blades to stare at him. “You don’t know ?”
Claude shakes his head. “No one does. It’s been here since before the city was built. There are no records about it, no explanations in any of the texts. It’s just something that is. There are hundreds of mysteries like it in the world, some explained and some not, and as much as it drives me crazy, I quite like not knowing.”
“It’s… Incredible,” Byleth breathes. “I can’t believe it. There’s really no information about it?”
“Not a scrap,” Claude says, leading her through the rows of forgotten weapons. “Some religious factions heralded it as a place of power, made pilgrimages to it, but it died out a couple of centuries back. Some people still come here, but it’s more for sightseeing than veneration.”
“There is power here,” Byleth confirms, reaching out to touch the hilt of a nearby claymore but snatching her hand back at the last moment. It feels wrong to disturb something so inexplicably hallowed. “I don’t know how to explain it. It feels… Old. Ancient. And powerful. Something sleeps here but I can’t understand what it is.”
“Oh, good, that's not terrifying at all,” Claude says, laughing nervously.
“Don’t worry, I don’t think we can wake it.”
“Byleth, I am begging you not to say anything else. For my sanity and also in the interest of leaving my britches unsoiled.” Claude’s hand tightens around hers. “Might never come here again, actually. Might never sleep again.” He glances at her out of the corner of his eye. “You can really feel something?”
“Yes.” She stops amid the weapons, tugging his hand to make him stop too. He turns to her, confused, and he stills when she steps forward to cup his face, leaning her forehead against his.
She doesn’t know why she does it, doesn’t know what it is that tells her that she can do it, but when she touches her forehead to Claude’s and closes her eyes, she lets her consciousness drift away from her, into that hazy place between wakefulness and sleep. It feels like second nature to do it, like blinking or taking a breath, she doesn’t have to think about it, just lets the power in her body - her crest - shimmer and expand like a single ripple in a pond. It drips down through her body and into the ground beneath her, humming in her ears like the first roll of thunder in a summer storm and prickling along her skin like the static of the lightning that follows. At her whim Sothis’ power bleeds down into the ground below them. And from far beneath, somewhere hidden and unknown, a fathomless power answers.
“Holy shit!” Claude cries, jerking away from her. “What— What the fuck— What the fuck?!” He clutches his chest, fingers clenching into his shirt. “You can feel that?!”
Byleth nods, overwhelmed. “I told you I couldn’t explain it. Better to show you.”
“I’m terrified,” Claude says, eyes wide. “I’m terrified and awed and a little bit aroused, I’m not going to lie to you.” He reaches out to take her hand again. “You’re incredible.”
She flushes and shushes him. “Let's move, I don’t think we should stay here too long. If we’re curious about whatever sleeps here, then there’s every chance it might be curious about us, too.”
“And we're moving!” Claude says, a touch frantically, and drags her through the hall. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but never do that again. My tiny, mortal mind can’t handle it.”
“Noted,” Byleth says, unoffended. “I’m not sure I want to.”
Momentary terrifying encounters with ancient unknowable forces of power aside, Byleth is more curious about where Claude is leading her than the entity slumbering below. The only furnishing in the hall seems to be his destination; a moth-eaten curtain draped along the far wall, held up by large iron nails hammered into the stone. He lets go of her hand when they reach it, grabbing one corner to pull it back and revealing a hidden, crumbling hole in the wall just big enough for a person to fit through.
“While I would normally say ladies first, I have to make an exception on this occasion.” He grins and ducks through the hole, calling out a moment later. “Okay, come through!”
Perplexed, Byleth follows.
And her jaw drops.
me, the author: hey wouldn’t it be fucked up if i created an entire landmark and then didn’t write an explanation
also me: fucked UP let’s do it
also whoooaaaa cliffhanger! a lot tamer than my usual cliffhangers, i’ll be honest. I’m not used to writing so much fluff this is completely uncharted territory for me.