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A Gilded Cage

Chapter Text

Byleth shot upright, panting. Sweat ran down her forehead as the sheets fell around her waist. They were completely soaked through. She glanced around wildly.

She was in her new bedchambers - the upper omega quarters. The imperial palace. Sunlight streamed through the balcony doors and lashed viciously at her eyes. Everything was red and gold.

She groaned and raised her hands to her face.

Of course it wasn't a dream.

"Good morning, my teacher."

That voice.

That scent.

Edelgard sat in one of the chairs by the fireplace with a book in her lap. She looked over at Byleth with eyes full of concern. She blended in so well with their surroundings, it was no wonder Byleth didn't notice her at first. She had traded her school uniform for a bright red and gold gown with matching red boots and gloves. Her long white hair still hung down along her back.

Byleth rubbed her eyes, biting back a shiver as the scent from her nightmares entered her nostrils once more. She hated how she instinctively gravitated towards it, how much it calmed her down.

"Better than yesterday," she replied.

"Oh? That's good," Edelgard hesitated. It was a strange thing to see her do. "You were very weak until we arrived at the palace. I do not know if you remember, but my soldiers helped carry you away through that passage while Rhea and the others were distracted."

"Really? I hope I wasn't too much trouble."

"...I'm afraid that I was much more trouble than you. If Hubert had not been there, I probably would have attacked them, as well."

After a short stretch, Byleth got to her feet. The robes she had laid on the edge of the bed fell to the floor. She gave them a disdainful glare before picking them up. "I remember the carriage and tents."

Edelgard's gaze fell. She stared at her gloved hands for a moment. "If you wish, I will arrange an appointment for you with our physicians. They have been in my family's service since I was a child. They are the best in Fodlan."

Byleth's temper briefly lost it's edge. She sighed. "It's fine. I'll only be weak for a few more days. This wasn't my first heat. I know how to take care of myself."

"Yes... I would suppose that's true," Edelgard gave her a curious look. "But it has been a long time since your last heat cycle, hasn't it? I understand that you were taking suppressants."

Byleth paused, studying her face.

This was an uncomfortable subject for her. She was so used to hiding it or lying. Her life had depended on it as a mercenary, and her career depended on it at the academy. It came as naturally as breathing. It felt odd to repress that initial urge to deny it.

She gave a short nod. "Five years ago."

"I see," said Edelgard, frowning to herself while she processed this information. "Your coat hid your scent very well."

"Jeralt gave it to me," Byleth said softly. "We were never very close, but he tried to protect me as much as he could."

She made her way to the chair on the other side of the lit fireplace. The warmth felt especially good after spending the last few nights tossing and turning in a camp while a healing mage hovered over her uselessly.

Edelgard's scent agitated her. Not in the same way it did when she was in heat. Now it served as a painful reminder of her past at the monastery...and of her all-too-certain future.

Edelgard let out a nervous laugh. "I always believed that I would spend my first rut here, locked away in some room with an arranged consort I did not even know. Not fighting one of my own soldiers in the middle of battle over you. It all feels...quite surreal."

"And I never would have believed that my mate would end up being the one who ordered my father's death," a sharp edge entered Byleth's voice. "Why did I think for a single moment that you would actually help me? I suppose I should be thankful that you stopped at my neck."

The amusement died on Edelgard's face. She narrowed her eyes. "I did not give that order, nor did any of my commanding officers. Kronya acted on her own. I was truly sorry when I heard about what she had done. If I had your ability to turn back time and undo it all, I would. Not only for that reason, but so that you would not have had to be further affected by Rhea's experiments."

Byleth clenched her fists. "The crest didn't work that way. Otherwise, there are a lot of things I would change, as well."

"And as for what happened in the Holy Tomb, perhaps I should be the angry one in this situation. As I just mentioned, that was my first rut. You must have been aware of that. Simply dragging you as far as I did took more restraint than anyone could possibly have! I was just about to leave you in peace when you pulled me back!"

"I wasn't aware of anything except for you pinning me to the wall."

"Byleth. The Holy Tomb is the very last place I would have chosen for such a thing. I despise every inch of it."

"Why should I believe anything you've just told me?"

"You may believe what you like. In the end, neither of us were in full control of ourselves. So in truth, neither of us were to blame," Edelgard fixed her attention back on her book. Her head was angled down so that Byleth couldn't see her face anymore. "That is our curse as alphas and omegas. One of many curses the Nabateans left us with."

Byleth went quiet. The sun had finally risen above the balcony doors and out of her face. She leaned back in her chair and let Edelgard's scent wash over her, as much as she really didn't want to. It was unavoidable while they were this close to each other.

Some things weren't, though.

"It's not too late," she said. "You can still walk away from this. It was only the bite."

Edelgard glanced up in stunned surprise. She stared at Byleth, waiting for a follow-up that didn't come.

Then she laughed bitterly.

"Your father taught you nothing, I see. I'm afraid that it is too late."

Byleth frowned. "I don't understand."

"Of course not. You were raised by a clueless beta. No, my dear Byleth. A bond mark is not a simple bite. Our incisors secrete their own scent, which is then embedded into an omega's neck glands. It remains there afterward, keeping us tied to each other."

Byleth's eyes grew wide. "I...what?! Are you telling me that this is it, then? That we're stuck like this?"

Edelgard nearly flinched at the word 'stuck'. Then she quickly smoothed her expression into something more neutral. The watery sheen in her eyes couldn't be hidden as easily.

"Even children know that much. Surely you've heard it somewhere before?"

Byleth had no reply to that. The most her father had ever said about omegas was that they brought nothing but trouble to everyone and to not get involved with them. Betas preferred to keep to their own, and he was no exception. Aside from the fact that they had a heat cycle, that was the extent of her knowledge about how her own body worked until now.

But she wasn't going to admit that out loud.

The conversation died. Byleth watched her glance out the window, take a deep breath, and sink further into her chair before flipping through her book. Byleth, by contrast, tried to breathe as little as possible. Edelgard's scent was soothing. It made her feel secure, an entirely unwelcome sensation at the moment. She was supposed to be angry and terrified instead.

To distract herself, she tried to catch a glimpse of the book's contents. It was written in a language she didn't understand. She did, however, recognize the picture on the other page. It was the regal white dragon from the stained glass window back at the monastery. The Immaculate One. She had seen it in some of the library books, too. Edelgard had showed her one, actually.

She had always seemed very interested in the Four Saints. Byleth forgot to ask her why that was, or why she wanted the artifacts in the Holy Tomb so badly. Considering how her brothers and sisters died, she had a hunch.

But with the monastery back on her mind, she had a much more pressing question right now.

"What happened to the other students? The Black Eagles?"

Edelgard's posture stiffened. "Ferdinand has returned to House Aegir. Lindhart and Bernadetta have returned to their own houses, as well. The others, to my knowledge, are either in hiding or chose to remain with the church."

Byleth's throat went dry.

She knew what she would do to them. She could already envision it. She had seen the cruelty she was capable of firsthand. She wouldn't put it past her to kill them all without a second thought.

"Promise me you won't hurt them," she pleaded. "They didn't ask to be caught up in this."

Edelgard sighed heavily. "You know I cannot make that promise. If they do not side with the Empire, then I'll have no choice but to treat them as traitors."

"I won't let you!" Byleth jumped up from her chair. "Stop it, Edelgard! Come back to your senses!"

Edelgard gave her a hard glare. She closed her book and stood up.

"You are not my teacher anymore," she said. "I am the Emperor of Adrestia, as well as your alpha. And it's highly inappropriate for you to speak to me in this manner."

Byleth met Edelgard's gaze levelly - a steep uphill battle against instincts no longer dulled by herbs. "I don't care. As long as I'm alive, I won't let you hurt them."

"And they are no longer your students. They are fully trained soldiers who now stand against the Empire. Your home. This is your home now, Byleth, and I am your mate. Do you understand that?"

"They were your friends," Byleth hung her head in despair. "And they were the closest thing I've ever had to a family besides Jeralt. Show some mercy. At least to them."

"I cannot afford to take that risk," said Edelgard. She gave her former professor a long, considering look. "I thought you would understand by now. I thought my father was wrong. Perhaps he wasn't, after all."

Byleth looked up, suspicion crossing her face. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"You are not a beta, as much as you still want to believe it. You are physically weaker even than them, and your heat cycle renders you completely helpless once every few months. Even outside of those times, your scent still has such an effect on us that it places not only yourself but everyone else around you in danger. If you still cannot accept that even after witnessing it firsthand, then I will do what I must to keep you from further endangering yourself."

"Thank you so much for your concern, Your Majesty," Byleth snapped. "Once again, may I ask where this going?"

"Until you have adjusted to your new life, you will only be allowed to leave the upper omega quarters when accompanied by Hubert or myself. The dungeons and guard houses will always be off-limits regardless. You will, of course, be free to roam the main halls, ground floor, and gardens after I have given you permission to do so."

Byleth's eyes narrowed into slits. "I'm older than both you and Hubert by several years. I do not need to be watched over like some child."

"Hubert will guide you to the dining hall for breakfast at nine o'clock every morning, at noon for lunch, and at six o'clock in the evening for dinner. Ah, that reminds me," Edelgard shot a glance at the pile of robes on the bed. "You will need to be properly dressed. After you put on your robes, I will see that your old clothes are disposed of. You no longer need them."

Byleth's eyes flashed. "! You can't just-"

There was a knock on the door. Both women jumped and swung around.

"Byleth?" Hubert's voice called from the other side. "Are you still asleep?"

"No, Hubert. We were just having a discussion. Come in," said Edelgard before Byleth could react.

The door clicked open. Hubert stepped into view.

"Good morning, Byleth. You look well."

Byleth crossed her arms. "I'm fine. As I have told you both repeatedly."

"Just the same, I would like to arrange a visit with the physicians for her, considering how long she has been taking suppressants on the regular," Edelgard told him. "I'm worried about the long-term effects those dirty backwater herbs could have on her health."

"Understood," Hubert replied, his mouth curving into a frown as he looked Byleth over. "And I see that you slept in your clothes last night. If you will kindly change, I will take them down to be washed. Then I will return to show you to the dining hall. I'm certain that you must be starving."

Edelgard shook her head. "I'm afraid I won't be able to join you this morning. I have an appointment appointment that cannot wait, and I cannot delay it further than I already have. Perhaps you could keep Byleth company in my place."

Hubert bowed. "Of course, Your Majesty."

Edelgard turned back to Byleth, who shot both of them a sour glare. Her violet eyes faltered briefly before she closed the distance between them. Much to Byleth's irritation, she reached up to undo her white shirt collar, looking over the painful marks she had left the other day. Ignoring the open hostility in the omega's face, she covered it up again with a soft sigh.

"I will see you at dinner, Byleth," she said.

"Tell Thales I sent my greetings," Byleth replied.

Edelgard opened her mouth, then closed it again. She turned away without another word, with Hubert trailing behind.