"Here we are."
Byleth stood in the doorway, watching in silence as Hubert entered the most beautiful bedroom she had ever seen. A large red canopy bed stood against the wall beside the balcony. There was a fireplace across from it with two red chairs on each side. The decor matched the red and gold walls perfectly. It made her quarters inside the monastery look humble in comparison.
"These are your bedchambers, Prof...ah, Byleth," Hubert gestured for her to follow.
Her only response was a blank, level stare. It used to intimidate most people. Not Hubert or Edelgard, though.
It wouldn't intimidate anyone now.
The butler let out a quiet sigh, letting his hand fall back to his side. Then he approached the wardrobe in the left-hand corner of the room and opened it.
Byleth took a few hesitant steps onto the soft carpet. She had never felt more out of place in her life. She wondered what kind of omega had stayed in this room before her. Were they taken here against their will, like she was? Or were they your typical docile, noble-born omega who had not only accepted their fate from the start, but actually wanted this for themselves?
After a few moments of shuffling around, Hubert pulled out a set of white robes with red designs around the trim and handed it to her. Then he pulled out another garment, a loose, knee-length red overcoat.
"This will be your attire from now on," he said. "Since the frost has arrived early this year, we have already provided you with your set of winter robes. All omegas who reside in the palace must wear these robes whenever they are in the presence of others."
Byleth reached out and took them. They were heavier than they looked. In spite of what they meant for her, she had to admit that they were beautiful, too.
"Oh. That's right."
Hubert pulled something out of his coat pocket and placed it on top of the robes. Byleth's eyes narrowed as she took in the strip of black cloth.
"This shall be your collar," he continued. "Of course, you must wear this at all times, as well."
"Why?" Byleth's voice came out sharper than she meant it to. "I already have a bond. I see no need for this anymore."
Hubert's jaw tightened. "Because you are not a peasant anymore. Bonded or not, it's not decent for omegas to go out bare-necked, nor is it safe. Your scent can still affect other alphas even now. This collar will suppress that scent for the most part. You will wear it whenever you set foot outside this room from now on. Do I make myself clear?"
"You're not my mate. You have no right to tell me what to do," Byleth snapped.
"If you would rather hear Her Majesty say the same, then by all means, take the matter up with her tomorrow. I'm sure she will wish to see how you are doing after our long trip." He closed the wardrobe doors. "With that said, however... I have every right. Lady Edelgard has assigned me as your secondary caregiver, and I am going to uphold my duties."
Sweeping past her, he paused at the door and turned around. His cold demeanor softened. Hers did not.
"I am trying to help you, Professor."
"Yes. I understand that you have recently been through a traumatic ordeal. And I also understand that you have been suppressing this part of yourself for several years now. You aren't used to your new life yet. But these rules are for your own protection. The Imperial Palace is not without it's own dangers, for an Emperor's omega especially. Please listen to my guidance. It's the very least I can do in exchange for everything you taught me last year."
Byleth glared at him. Her emotions were a whirlwind of rage and betrayal.
In a way, they weren't just professor and student. The three of them had almost become friends. She remembered when Edelgard had lowered her guard around her enough to tell her more about the recurring nightmares she suffered from. She had been there for Byleth when her father died, as well. Ironic in retrospect.
At the time, it made her seem less like just another unapproachable alpha noble. More human.
She never imagined things would turn out like this.
Byleth turned her back to Hubert and placed the robes on the bed. "I don't need your help."
Hubert stifled another sigh before shutting the door behind him with a soft click. She stood there motionlessly, holding her breath until she could no longer hear his footsteps.
She touched the side of her neck. She winced as her fingers grazed the indention of teeth underneath the shirt material. She made a point to avoid looking at the mirror beside the wardrobe.
Moving the robes aside, she collapsed on top of the canopy bed with an exhausted groan. It was incredibly soft and comfortable.
She froze. It also smelled like her.
She wanted to jump to her feet that very instant.
Instead, she buried her face even further into the pillows, deeply inhaling as much of the scent as possible. It had an immediate effect on her. The anger and nerves melted away within seconds.
She wondered what Jeralt would think, seeing her act so pitifully.
He would probably give her a hard, emotionless glare, cross his arms, and say that it was inevitable before turning away in disgust.
She remembered well enough how he reacted when her first heat came about five years ago. By the grace of Sothis, it happened inside a kind villager's house who had let them stay overnight as thanks for clearing out the local bandits. This put her a good distance away from the other mercenaries who might have otherwise caught her scent and realized what was really happening.
He was absolutely shocked. No wonder. The birth rate for omegas was already low among alpha and omega couples. It was nearly unheard of for one to be born to betas. She didn't know he was her father yet at the time, but his reaction probably should have been a hint.
Then came the look of disappointment on his face.
It was quietly agreed on that she would keep her secondary sex a secret. If she wanted to keep traveling with him as a mercenary, she had no choice. He would sometimes buy her heat suppressing herbs from back alley dealers when the opportunity arose, and he continued training her and letting her fight. But as far as everyone else was concerned, she was just another ordinary beta who blended into the background, doing odd medial work where she could find it while trying to find her place in the world. A part of her had even started to believe it herself.
All for nothing. Byleth, the Ashen Demon, was now just like any other omega under some alpha's thumb.
And out of all the alphas it could have possibly been, it ended up being Edelgard.
With another groan, she shifted to pull the covers over her. Her entire body still ached. She had nearly forgotten how exhausting heats could be, even days after the fact.
Of course, Hubert was right.
There was no escaping what she was. She could try to climb out through the balcony. She could evade the imperial army briefly. She could live in hiding for the rest of her life, going into town once every few months to hunt down suppressant dealers and hope for the best.
She could go back to that life. That was technically true.
But at the end of the day, she was still an omega. Her heat cycle would still come, and the herbs would only remain effective for so long after so many repeated doses. They had already failed her once. What about next time? Or the time after that?
Byleth shut her eyes tightly. She didn't want to think about it anymore. She wanted to forget everything that happened after the Holy Tomb, if only for a little while. The dull throb in her neck wouldn't let her, of course. But it didn't stop her from trying.
Maybe it would all turn out to be a dream.
Wasn't this what omegas dreamed of?
"By order of the Adrestian Emperor, Edelgard van Hresvelg, I order you to collect the Crest Stones. If anyone attempts to stop us, kill them."
"As you command, Your Majesty," Commander Metodey grinned before barking more orders to the imperial soldiers behind him. Byleth watched in stunned silence with the remaining students as the formidable army stormed the tomb, making their way towards the ancient artifacts scattered around it.
"I see... I'm disappointed in you, Edelgard," Rhea's emerald eyes narrowed. "To think that a descendant of your House would dare disobey the holy church..."
Byleth's gaze fell on the unmasked Flame Emperor, her best student, and one-time friend. She had finally discovered who was responsible for her father's death. It didn't bring her the peace she thought it would. If anything, it added to the nausea growing in the pit of her stomach. The herbs in her system only seemed to make things worse. It became increasingly difficult to stand straight.
Perhaps she should have listened to Rhea, after all. The archbishop had tried convincing her to put off the trip after they met in her chambers that morning. It was Byleth who had insisted on going. She was perfectly fine. She had taken the herbs. Her coat securely covered her neck and scent glands. Nothing should have gone wrong.
Why did it have to now, of all times?
Why did the Flame Emperor have to be Edelgard?
"My teacher..." Edelgard's expression faltered slightly as she took in Byleth's weakening state. "I'm sorry. I cut this path, and now I must follow it to the end. I will only ask you to stand aside once."
Byleth took a shaky step back in response, her eyes full of pain and betrayal. Her hand inched to her sword hilt.
Rhea placed a hand on her shoulder. Her pupils almost seemed to glow in the tomb's dim lighting. They seemed smaller, almost catlike.
It must have been her imagination. It was so hard to think clearly right now...
"That's enough. I will not allow you to trample this holy resting place any longer!" Rhea's voice rang out sharp and cold. "Professor, kill her at once. She has proven herself to be a danger to all of Fodlan!"
"So you are mad, after all," Edelgard frowned. "Is it not obvious that she's ill? Fight me yourself, Immaculate One."
"You... What did you just call me?" Rhea paused, studying Edeldard. "Hmm. You were always an interesting child. Very well," Rhea's grip on her shoulder tightened, eliciting a low growl from Edelgard as she shoved her to the side. "Then I will grant you the privilege of disposing of you myself! Byleth, stand asi..."
Then their voices became a faded blur as a wave of dizziness came over her. It took all of her remaining strength to pull out her sword.
It fell to the floor with a loud clatter as she collapsed beside it.
She was dimly aware of stunned gasps and shouting all around her as she began to shiver violently. Sweat began to pour down her forehead. A mixture of sharp, arresting scents filled her nostrils, completely clouding the rest of her senses.
Dimitri grabbed her shoulder and started pulling her behind Rhea and the rest of the class.
Silver flashed in front of them. Dimitri gasped in pain and recoiled.
"Keep your hands to yourself!" Metodey shouted. His voice was more strained than before. "I-if any of you move a muscle before we're finished here, your lives will be forfeit!"
Dimitri drew his sword. His arm was bleeding. "No. You will steal nothing else, and none of you will lay a finger on the professor. We... I will not allow it!"
"Is that so?" Metodey cried.
Byleth was shoved aside by an unseen force as their swords met. Sounds of battle erupted all around her. The Sword of the Creator was tossed away somewhere out of arm's reach. An inhuman roar echoed across the tomb.
Dim panic flickered across her mind. Did the imperials bring wyverns with them? Or worse, demonic beasts?
With as much strength as she could muster, Byleth scrambled backwards from the sea of armor in an effort to get out of harm's way. A white blur rushed past the corners of her vision. She raised her head, trying to make out what the towering beast was. She had never seen anything like it before.
A loud, metallic clash to the ground far too close for comfort distracted her. An imperial soldier now laid motionless in front of her. She remembered his face. He was one of the guards stationed at the Imperial Palace's front doors when she attended Edelgard's coronation. She gasped and stumbled away.
She made it a few more paces from the throne before powerful fingers grasped her ankle. She slammed face-first to the floor with a pained moan.
"I knew you'd wait for me."
Byleth slowly shifted around and looked up. Metodey was hovering over her with a clouded expression on his face. She let out a tiny whimper as he moved to pin her down before she could react.
"I knew you were the one for me... Yes, the second I saw you back at the palace... Don't worry, I was never going to let that blond brat take you away from me... I'm just going to get you out of here, and then... then, we'll finally be able to be together..."
"Ah...no..." she choked out. She struggled weakly as Metodey began to drag her across the floor.
"That's enough, captain."
Metodey swung around. He let out a furious snarl at the sight of Edelgard glaring down at them.
"You! I knew it would be you next! Couldn't keep her eyes off her, could you?!"
"I-I will not repeat myself," Edelgard began stumbling over her words. Her grip around her axe tightened as her hand began to tremble. "I order you once again to oversee collecting the crests. The professor is incapable of h-hindering you right now. In return, you are not to harm her in any way."
"Oh, I know what your game is!" Metodey's face contorted in rage. "You think this is my first go over an omega, you little whelp?! You just want to steal her for yourself! Well, you can collect this, Your Majesty!"
He charged at Edelgard, still fumbling for his sword. She gasped and leaped away from his oncoming swing. Her eyes widened in surprise as he rebounded and charged again with more blind fury than before. She glanced from Byleth to Metodey with a look of confused desperation, followed by regret.
Edelgard swung her sword at Metodey as she side-stepped his next attack. Her shoulder piece flew off as his sword met it, grazing the skin underneath. He crashed to the floor with a low, choked growl as his hand flew to his throat. She fell on him with renewed fury, launching her axe into his back as he attempted to regain his footing. He let out a strangled cry as she landed a second blow, then a third.
Blood pooled out of the commander's body, seeping across the floor and around her boots.
He stopped moving.
The Emperor turned back to Byleth. There was a foggy, vacant look in her eyes. She mumbled something inaudible.
Byleth's stomach turned.
She was certainly no stranger to death. She had killed more than her fair share of bandits before joining the monastery.
But this... this was different.
She had just watched the two imperials, two allies, instantly forget everything that was going on around them and fight each other to the death. All over her scent. And she was entirely helpless to stop any of it. Or to get away, for that matter.
She couldn't so much as stand anymore.
Edelgard hurried her side. Flecks of the commander's blood ran down the side of her cheek. After checking for injuries, she managed to pull the professor to her feet with a strained effort.
Two nearby imperial soldiers stopped fighting and ran up to them. Edelgard gave them a sharp glare.
"Your Majesty, is everything all right? Can we be of assistance?"
"N-no!" Edelgard snapped. "I mean... I'm perfectly fine. The professor will be fine. Yes, I have everything under control... Get the crests!"
The solders saluted her and rushed back into the fray.
With her arm across Edelgard's shoulder, she managed to guide her into a nearby passageway. It was nearly pitch black inside, but at least it was empty. As soon as they had rounded a corner, she helped lean her against the wall.
Then she grabbed her roughly by the shoulders.
"What were you thinking?!" Edelgard cried out. "An omega mercenary! It's...it's absurd! This could have happened at any point prior to today! You have put us all in danger!"
Byleth barely registered her words over the overpowering scent flooding her nostrils. It was unnerving enough out in the open. Here in the quiet, narrow passageway, it drowned out everything else.
"I didn't ask for this," she whimpered.
"Silence! I had to kill my commander because of you! You understood exactly what the risks were when you accepted this job! What if it had been one of your students instead? Like Petra or Ferdinand, or even one of the betas?"
"I...I just wanted..." Byleth's voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. "I never asked...to be born an omega..."
Edelgard's violet eyes darkened. She took a step back, raising a hand to cover her nose and mouth. "N-no... I must leave you now, professor..."
Did she just say she was going to leave her here? All alone in this dark tunnel? What if Metodey came back, or some other strange alpha?
A fresh wave of panic washed over Byleth.
She grabbed Edelgard's arm before she could retreat further. "N-no! I have to get back to my room... You have to help me..."
"Help you?" Edelgard trailed off, her expression distant. "But I can't... The crests..."
"Please," a choked sob escaped Byleth's throat. She was beyond hysterics. All she could process in that moment was the threat of other alphas outside and the overwhelming, yet strangely comforting scent in front of her. Even the thought of getting back to her bed was fading away.
"Please help me, Edelgard..."
Edelgard's body turned rigid. She fixed the professor with an intense look she had never seen in them before. Her hands were clenched in tight fists. Silence hovered over them while the fighting continued outside.
Then she quickly closed the distance between them, shoving her further against the wall. Her slender body held Byleth's in place with surprising strength. She shouldn't have found it as pleasant as she did.
"O-of course I'm going to help you," Edelgard's voice began to tremble. "I was going to come back for you. I-I've always c-cared for you, my teacher."
Byleth blinked at her. "What are you..."
Edelgard leaned further in. Byleth shivered as her hot breath hit the side of her neck. She paused there, inhaling deeply. Her scent this close drove away what little was left of Byleth's mental faculties.
All that was left was a tiny voice in the back of her head telling her that she was safe now. Her alpha had fought off the threat, and now she was about to make sure that every other alpha knew to stay away.
She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed.
Then she felt sharp incisors pierce her skin.