"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.
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."
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. "But...no! 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 with...an 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.
"Well, young lady, I'm shocked. I expected to find you in much worse condition than this."
The old physician patted Byleth's hand with a smile. She tucked her hands further into her red overcoat sleeves while she watched him take away the vial and needle. Her finger was still bleeding. Hubert stood beside the bedroom door, listening intently. Who could guess where Edelgard was? She hadn't seen her since yesterday morning.
At least she couldn't complain about being cold here. The overcoat was thick and warm, which was very much appreciated with how anemic she still felt. The collar, however, was less pleasant. The inner material was soft, but it was a tight fit that she wasn't used to.
Without the hidden armor underneath her old clothes, she felt vulnerable in a way she hadn't in a long time.
"Thank you," she murmured, pulling her overcoat up further with her other hand. "I already feel much better."
"Just the same, I would advise plenty of rest for the following week and a healthy diet. The suppressants you've been taking were of very poor quality. I know the kind. It's common for omegas to eventually develop an immunity to them. They can make you very ill as well as cause you to develop an erratic heat schedule if they're used too often. We try to regulate them, but for every unauthorized dealer we catch, five more take his place..."
The physician let out a quiet sigh. Byleth frowned. "I had no other choice."
"Hey, now," he gave her a fatherly smile and patted her on the shoulder. "I was a war cleric in my younger years. I've treated alphas, betas, and even a few omegas from all sorts of backgrounds out in the field. I do understand your situation..."
Hubert stepped forward. "Thank you, Master Theron. As for her diet and schedule, what sort of changes are you suggesting?"
"Nothing too out of the ordinary. Just healthy and regular meals along with plenty of rest. I can see that she has had an unusually busy lifestyle for an omega, but any sort of strenuous activity over the next few days could result in a setback. That's why I want you to take it easy this week," he said as he turned back to her. "Alright, Byleth? You are a royal consort, after all. You must take good care of your body from now on."
Byleth's gaze fell. The implications were not lost on her. "I understand."
"Well, then," he stood up. "If there are any complications, please don't hesitate to summon me back. For now, I will take my leave. Good day, er... Prime Minister."
"Good day. I will do just that if something should turn up," Hubert replied.
Byleth started in her seat. She had nearly forgotten to ask about the very thing they had been discussing this whole time.
He turned around. "Yes, child?"
She cleared her throat and stood up. "About my suppressants... Won't I need more later?"
He blinked slowly at Byleth, then let out a light chuckle.
"Perhaps. Considering the...current state of affairs, there may come a time where Her Majesty is away for extended periods. Yes, I can arrange a prescription for you. This could take some time due to the season, but that shouldn't be a problem in your case. You probably won't experience your next heat for a couple of months at least."
The physician nodded to Hubert. She swallowed back a sigh as the door shut behind him.
"Consort..." she repeated to herself.
Hubert turned around. "Yes, Byleth."
She sank back into her chair.
Although she didn't know very much about how nobles lived, everyone knew what was expected of consorts. Especially in her case. Being Edelgard's first claimed mate meant that she wasn't just any consort, but the queen consort. Pressure for her to produce an heir would come hard and fast. Not from Edelgard, she was sure of that after their...last conversation, but definitely from other nobles and physicians. Not to mention from her own body.
The thought of being impregnated on her next heat, with everything else that was going on, sent her into a borderline panic.
"I'm not ready to be a..."
Hubert's dark eyes softened. "As he said, the chances of you going into heat so soon after your last cycle are quite low. Focus on resting and recovering for now."
Byleth turned away. "There isn't very much left for me to focus on."
Or wanted to.
"Speaking of which, it is getting quite late. We must follow his advice and keep feeding you proper meals. If you will follow me back to the dining hall..."
He opened the door. She watched him stand there, sighing impatiently after a drawn out moment, before she stood up and followed him out into the stone hallways and winding red carpet underneath them.
"Well? What did you think?"
Byleth took another sip from the teacup Hubert had just given her as maids took away her plate. She was surprised that she was still hungry after such a large meal. But then, maybe that was understandable after spending a week in and out of consciousness, unable to stomach most of the food offered to her by the soldiers and clerics while they were on the road.
This particular dining hall was reserved for the Emperor and their family, which only consisted of herself and Edelgard at the moment. Important guests also ate there on rare occasions. Hubert, of course, was always welcome.
Edelgard had been absent all day. Once again, it seemed to just be the two of them.
"Tastes familiar," she said.
Hubert nodded. "Do you remember all of those afternoons when you would drink tea with Lady Edelgard after our lessons? I cannot say that I approved at the time, but I managed to retrieve the recipe."
"Oh..." Byleth trailed off as she took another sip.
"The monastery cooks were not very talkative, unfortunately. It costed me a generous tip. But I am relieved to be able to take a part of those memories home with us."
"Also," Hubert hesitated, giving her an unreadable look. "There is something I have forgotten to thank you for."
Her gaze fell. "I'm listening."
"As I'm sure you're aware, I was one of the few betas given the privilege to attend the Officer's Academy. Lindhardt and Dorothea were betas, as well. And yet, you treated us no differently than the alpha students. It was the first time I had seen such a thing, even from fellow betas or omegas."
Byleth's eyebrows furrowed. "All of you were a part of my class. That was all that mattered to me."
"You could not have said the same for the other professors. Until about five years ago, only alphas were eligible to attend. Even now, many do not consider this kind of education necessary for us. Common betas are typically encouraged to pursue menial jobs instead, or become soldiers or mercenaries. Meanwhile, those of us who are born into nobility often enter positions such as mine, very seldom entering the military unless we display a natural aptitude for fighting or magic. Even in those cases, I suppose that some of us are still biased against each other in favor of alphas."
Byleth frowned. "I wasn't aware of that."
She didn't get to know the other professors or knights all that well. Catherine and Seteth never stopped being suspicious of her. She hardly spoke to Shamir or Manuela. Rhea was one of the few faculty members who was kind to her, really.
Towards the end, she almost became like the mother she never had.
"You spent the most time training us and taking us on patrols. If it were not for you, my skills probably would have never developed to this extent. So for that, you have my gratitude."
"Hmm," she mused. "Since I'm practically a prisoner here, maybe I made a terrible mistake."
"I can assure you that you did not. As you are the Emperor's consort, I will now use everything you have taught me to protect you with my life."
Not the answer she expected or wanted to hear. She was looking for a fight. Not this again.
Byleth sighed, tracing the cup handle with her finger. "Thank you, Hubert."
Taking another sip of her tea, she glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece above the fireplace. It was nearly seven o'clock. A tall, full-body painting of the former Emperor, Ionius IX, hung above it.
Byleth leaned forward to examine it more closely. He looked at least thirty years younger here. Less tired. Prouder. He was wearing a bright red cape that added to the regal air about him.
His expression, the way he carried himself, not to mention his white hair even back then, instantly reminded her of Edelgard.
She let her gaze fall back to the table, intently studying the designs on the teacup.
"He was quite different then, wasn't he?"
Byleth turned around, choking down a tiny gasp of surprise. Edelgard stepped into the dining room. She looked exhausted, but seemed to visibly relax as she came closer to Byleth.
"Although I did not know him when he was that young, I remember playing with him alongside my brothers and sisters when I was a child," she said with a wistful smile. She took the large seat at the head of the table.
Byleth blinked at her in silence. Listening to her speak about her family served as an uncomfortable reminder of their close friendship at the monastery. It wasn't the first time she had confided in her like this.
Only now... they were no longer friends, exactly. She had no idea how to navigate their relationship as it currently stood, nor how to react to such statements anymore.
For what it was worth, Edelgard looked just as uncomfortable as soon as she settled into her seat. She glanced over at Byelth as if she wanted to say something else, but then seemed to change her mind.
Byleth swallowed down the shiver that ran along her spine as alpha pheromones permeated the air around them.
"Your Majesty," said Hubert. "Master Theron saw Byleth about an hour ago. She does not appear to have suffered any ill effects from the...other suppressants, but he still advised plenty of rest and regular meals for her this week."
Edelgard listened intently. "I see. That is certainly a relief. I'm sorry that I could not have been there as I should have, but negotiations with the border houses took longer than I hoped."
Byleth took another sip of her tea, half-listening as the steam hit her face. More maids entered the room, serving a plate in front of Edelgard.
"He will also prescribe a dose of high quality suppressants for her within the next few months," Hubert continued.
"Oh," there was a slightly nervous edge in her voice. "That may be for the best. There could be times when I'm away from the palace for weeks on end. Until Rhea is captured, it comforts me to know that Byleth will not be suffering during those times."
Byleth's head shot up. Was Edelgard saying what she thought she was? She assumed until now that Rhea had been killed by the imperial army, along with the rest of the academy faculty...
"Lady Rhea is alive?"
Edelgard closed her eyes for a moment. "Yes. Rhea escaped. That is nothing to celebrate."
"I don't understand," Byleth said softly. "Lady Rhea could be a strict ruler at times, but she has been nothing but kind to everyone in the monastery. Especially to me..."
This struck a nerve with the young alpha. Her expression turned cold. "Was she?"
Byleth hesitated. "Of course."
"But don't you find it strange? That day in the Holy Tomb, when she placed you on the throne... She claimed that you would receive a revelation from the goddess, did she not? But when I saw her in that moment, the sheer desperation on her face... After everything that has transpired since, I now believe that she expected much more than a vision."
"I don't know what you're saying," replied Byleth, her brows furrowing. "She's the archbishop. Of course she would want to communicate with Sothis. It only makes sense that she would try something like that."
"The archbishop... Do you not remember what followed afterwards?" Edelgard's eyes went wide. "Surely you've realized by now that Rhea is, in fact, Saint Seiros. The Immaculate One. The very same Seiros who manipulated the people of Fodlan to wage war on Nemesis. This is the true story of the War of Heroes that has been passed down from emperor to emperor. What is lesser known is that she did not die after founding the church. She lived on to the present day, taking on different aliases as needed."
Byleth froze. She slowly shook her head. "That's impossible..."
"Is it? She proved as much when our forces retaliated to them. Do you at least remember that?"
Byleth glanced down at her lap, struggling to recall the details of that day. Faint memories of a giant white blur and inhuman roars flickered across her mind. But could that really have been...?
"I...I'm not sure..."
"Seiros is still alive. And I am quite certain by now that she was attempting to revive Sothis through you, plunging us all under Nabatean rule once more."
"But that's such a reach!" Byleth cried. "Even if she really is Seiros, she's still... why would she do something like that to me?"
"Because they are not human," Edelgard's face darkened. "They do not value our lives at all."
Tears stung the corners of Byleth's eyes. She managed to swallow them back. A part of her missed the days when her emotions were dulled.
To think that Rhea would knowingly try to sacrifice her, or worse...
"I can't believe that."
"She tried to take you away from me," Edelgard said. There was a low, barely audible growl in her voice. "I could not forgive her for that even then. Especially not now that you are my mate. Soon, we will face each other properly as alphas, and then I will free Fodlan from their influence once and for all."
Byleth looked up at her. She picked up her utensils and started to eat. Hubert said nothing while he stared ahead of him, his head resting on his hands. She choked down the rest of her tea while processing what she had just heard.
She couldn't believe it. She just couldn't.
More than anything else, she hated how much her pulse quickened when Edelgard talked about fighting another alpha over her.
The logical side of her brain was horrified at the possibility of Edelgard being right. What's more, that two women who were dear to her (even now, on some level) would meet each other in battle in the near future. Even if she still had access to a sword, this was one problem that could not be solved by simply cutting it down.
Meanwhile, her omega side swooned over the idea.
Jeralt was right. She was disgusting.
Frost still clung to the windows even as the sun rose high overhead. Byleth was lounging alone in the large drawing room on a couch near the window, watching her breath fog up the window panes. Maids, butlers, cooks, and occasionally other nobles hurried through the nearby hallway without acknowledging her.
It was her fifth day inside the palace. Nothing noteworthy had happened since the physician visit, except for the fact that Edelgard skipped most of her meals since that day. More often, Byleth found herself either eating in the dining room with Hubert or eating alone in her room when his work kept him busy.
Today was different. Hubert said that Edelgard had summoned her. He didn't say for what reason. Byleth no longer cared.
The door across the room opened. Hubert stepped out along with a messenger who had interrupted them earlier that morning as he was escorting her downstairs. It was urgent and couldn't wait, he had told Hubert. Byleth watched them with mild interest. The messenger looked desperate.
"But Prime Minister, are you certain? Duke Aegir signed the deal nearly seven years ago. I assure you, this will not improve relationships with the border houses."
"I'm afraid that Her Majesty has already repealed it," Hubert replied. "If you wish, you may hear it from her own lips when she returns to court."
"But... but Duke Gerth will not take this lightly..."
"Ah. There you are."
Hubert glanced past his shoulder. Byleth followed his eyes. Edelgard was standing in the doorway. Today, she had her hair wrapped up in twin buns on opposite sides, each held in place by accessories that looked like gold horns. A female soldier stood behind her, the wings on her shoulder plates identifying her as a wyvern knight.
Edelgard's eyes lit up when she noticed Byleth.
When she made no response, she reluctantly turned her attention back to the messenger.
"You are in the presence of the Emperor. Do you request an audience with me?"
The man jumped to attention before bowing low. "Your Majesty, I am a messenger from House Gerth. I have been sent on Duke Gerth's behalf to remind you about the agreement made between your families in the Year 1173."
Edelgard's posture stiffened. "We will discuss this matter privately," she replied. A sharp edge crept into her voice. "Hubert, please see that our guest is fed and made comfortable by our servants until I summon him back."
"Of course, Your Majesty," Hubert bowed. Byleth watched them vanish into the hallway, leaving her alone with the two women.
Edelgard turned to the knight. "Thank you, General Ladislava. You are dismissed."
The knight bowed, her long brown hair falling over her face. "I will serve you as well as a general as I did as a soldier, Your Majesty. The Empire will prevail."
She stood straight, surveying them briefly. Byleth's breath caught in her throat, along with the sharp scent of alpha. It was different enough from Edelgard's that she could easily tell them apart in a pitch black room. It didn't have the same calming effect on her, either. Instead, it put her on edge.
Ladislava's eyes rested on Byleth for a moment before she whirled around towards the palace doors.
Edelgard exhaled softly. A relieved smile played at her lips. "Good day, Byleth. I did not expect for Hubert to bring you downstairs this early. But I'm glad he did."
Byleth turned back to the window, shifting in her seat. "Good day, Edelgard."
She watched her smile fade away in their reflection. "Ah... Well, then. The reason I summoned you was to discuss my coronation ball, which has been scheduled for next week. Traditionally, it will also serve as our official wedding. You will need dress robes for the occasion."
Curiosity filled Byleth in spite of herself, followed by a grim realization. She glanced up. "I wonder how the other nobles will react to me being a commoner."
"It doesn't matter," her eyes flashed in defiance. "I can choose whoever I wish as my mate."
"Unlike me," Byleth retorted.
Edelgard nearly recoiled, the hurt in her eyes obvious. "I-I will not force you to attend if you truly do not wish to. However, it would mean a great deal if you did. Not only to me, but to the rest of the Empire."
She let out a quiet sigh when Byleth turned away again. "In any case, I will still arrange to have them made should you ever need them for other occasions."
Her footsteps moved away from her. Byleth ignored the tightness in her chest as she made brisk strides across the room.
She was almost through the opened doors before another knight nearly crashed into her headfirst. Edelgard let out a tiny gasp of irritation. Byleth instinctively jumped to her feet.
"...Oh! Hey, Edelgard! Wasn't the general supposed to be around here? I forgot to ask her something!"
Byleth's eyes went wide. The blue-haired boy's gaze drifted to her. For a moment, he was stunned into silence.
Byleth blinked at him in disbelief. "Caspar? But... what are you doing here?"
"Are you kidding me? I should be asking you that question!" his voice rose. "We all thought you were dead! O-or worse! I mean, Edelgard just told me they actually rescued you, but..."
"Rescued," she repeated. "That's...true. She did rescue me that one time."
Edelgard's expression shifted into something carefully neutral. Caspar rubbed the back of his neck. His scent was much fainter than hers, although she could still make out traces of alpha in it.
"So, you're like the queen now? Or consort, I guess?" he stared at her with a new sense of curiosity. "I haven't seen one in a long time. Not since my father took me to a ball when I was little."
"Y-yeah," she frowned, unsure of how to answer that question. 'Queen consort' was such a strange concept to her. Were there any major differences between the two?
In an effort to change the subject, she aimed a puzzled look at Caspar. "So, then... you've joined the imperial army?"
"I have now! Well, actually, I came to confront Edelgard about what happened after she sent me a letter. But when I found out you were here and that you were okay, I signed up right then and there. We're the Black Eagles! We've got to stick together!"
He beamed at her. Byleth felt at a complete loss for words.
"I'm just glad that you have finally decided to take this seriously," Edelgard said dryly.
"Oh yeah. Dorothea's in, too. Why is she not here?" asked Caspar. "She left a day before I did."
"Because I assigned her to Arundel. She will be working for us as an undercover agent there."
His eyebrows furrowed. "Really? Now that I think about it, she would probably be good at that kind of thing."
"Wait. Dorothea was here?" Byleth turned to Edelgard. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because she wasn't here in person, and I heard her final decision yesterday through a letter. In fact, I had planned on telling you the news earlier. Before Caspar nearly murdered us, that is."
Caspar snorted. "That's a little harsh."
"It's no less than you deserve," Edelgard's voice had a hint of playfulness in it.
"Then everyone has returned to the Empire," said Byleth. Mixed feelings were attached to that statement. "The Black Eagles, I mean."
Edelgard's face fell. "No. Petra did not respond to my summons."
Byleth fell silent.
Although she didn't know the whole story, she was aware that there was trouble between House Brigid and the Emperor that resulted in her father's death. In that case, it would make sense that Petra would want to break away from the Empire at the first opportunity.
Byleth knew it was probably selfish to hope she would be able to see her here, a place she must no doubt hold plenty of resentment towards. But she did.
Caspar glanced from her to Edelgard, uneasiness creeping into his face. "Hey, maybe she hasn't gotten it yet. Or maybe she's on her way right now. Anything could still happen, right?"
Edelgard returned his smile with an empty one. "I suppose you're right."
"Right," Caspar grinned. "Hey, wait a second!"
"I've got to show you something! Especially Byleth! You're not going to believe this! Follow me!"
Caspar rushed towards the main hall and shoved one of the front doors open. Edelgard hesitated, glancing back at the drawing room with a look of sheer dread. Then she gave Byleth a considering look before breaking into a smile. "I suppose a few more moments of self-indulgence won't hurt."
Byleth didn't want to smile back. Not at Edelgard. But Caspar's bright mood was getting the better of her. She chuckled softly to herself while watching him rush outside.
Caspar kept a steady pace as he led them across the wide brick pathways that winded around the palace grounds. It didn't take long for Byleth's breath to start coming out in short pants. The fact that a simple walk like this could exhaust her to such an extent frustrated her to no end. How long would the herbs' side effects last, she wondered.
Edelgard shot an annoyed look at Caspar ahead before turning back to her with growing concern. "Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea."
Byleth shook her head. "I-I'm fine."
Edelgard frowned, but let the matter go.
Now Caspar was leading them across a bridge. They were approaching one of the guard towers. Remembering their argument last week, she wondered if Edelgard would stop. But she kept her pace as they entered it's shadow. Low growls and shrieks could be heard in the distance as Caspar vanished around a wall. Byleth's stomach sank. She knew those sounds.
After they turned the same corner, she was met with the sight of winged reptiles lined up inside stables.
She froze. Edelgard's eyes narrowed.
"I'm learning how to ride wyverns!" Caspar exclaimed.
He ran up to one that was slightly smaller and had a white mark on it's throat. It let out a shrill growl as it stumbled away from him, beating it's wings threateningly.
"It's still a juvenile," Byleth remarked, her voice barely above a whisper. "Be careful."
"We start training them for riding as soon as they leave the nest," said Edelgard. "Ladislava gave *this* wyvern to you...?"
"Yeah. Uh, for now. Even soldiers who don't specialize in riding have to know the basics about horses and wyverns in case of an emergency. And she said this one needed to start getting used to people," he said, glancing behind him with a nervous frown.
"She should know that you're here," Edelgard eyed it with increasing unease.
"But the Emperor's here. That's even better!"
When Edelgard didn't reply, he opened the stable gates and grabbed the saddle hanging up on the wall.
Her eyes widened. "Wait. What are you doing?"
"What does it look like? I'm about to show you what I learned this morning!"
He attached the brindle around the wyvern's head. It's breathing calmed down, but it was still eyeing them warily. It beat it's wings a few more times as he moved to attach the saddle, but then relented and folded them back.
"Stop this at once," Edelgard demanded. "It's still wild, and you have only ridden it one time!"
Confused disappointment filled Caspar's eyes. "But I got this far with her, didn't I? See, she's fine now. And it's not like she can breathe fire yet."
It clambered towards out of the stable with it's unsteady wings. He reached up to stroke it's nose. It started making a strange trilling noise, it's orange eyes drifting from Caspar to Edelgard and Byleth.
Byleth took a cautious step forward. When it didn't make any sudden movements, she took another step. Edelgard made an alarmed noise in the back of her throat. When she was close enough, she slowly reached her hand out to touch it's head. It's reddish brown scales were dry and smooth.
"That's right. You're a good girl, aren't you, Stormy?" Caspar patted it's neck.
Byleth raised an eyebrow. "Stormy?"
Caspar chuckled nervously. "I'm open to better ideas."
"It suits her," said Edelgard, her tone flat.
He climbed onto the wyvern's back, using it's neck for support. It grunted but otherwise remained still.
Edelgard's fists clenched. "Caspar, I mean it. I order you to return her to her stable this instant. I will inform the general of this, as well."
She stepped forward, hand outstretched towards Byleth.
The wyvern let out an ear-piercing screech.
Caspar flew backwards as it reared up, beating it's wings violently. Byleth was thrown to the ground with a sharp gasp as her sleeve ripped open. She felt something hot run down her arm.
"S-Stormy, stop! Hey-"
Caspar's voice faded into the background. All of Byleth's attention was on the creature towering over her, a piece of her robes still hanging on it's wing. In the blink of an eye, the spindly little dragon turned into a vicious predator with 10 times their strength.
She reached for her sword, only to abruptly remember that it wasn't there. Her reflexes stopped working. Time slowed to a standstill as a mouth full of dagger-like teeth closed in.
A red blur pushed her to the side and covered her body.
The wyvern struck the ground beside her. It flapped it's wings one more time and backed away towards it's nest inside the stable, letting out another warning hiss. The other wyverns snarled and screeched in unison.
Edelgard leaped up and pulled Byleth to her feet, eyes wide with terror. Caspar quickly closed the gate and hurried to their side.
"Byleth! Are you okay?! You...oh no, you're bleeding!"
Byleth's gaze trailed down to her exposed arm. It's talon made a long cut that stretched from her upper arm to her hand.
"It's not deep," Byleth muttered, still winded and partially stunned from being knocked to the ground with so much force.
"No. No... you almost..." Edelgard's voice was shaky. Her grip around Byleth's shoulders was becoming uncomfortable.
Caspar stared dumbfounded at them. He was trembling. Byleth, by contrast, felt a strange sense of numbness wash over her from the surge of adrenaline.
"What's going on over here?"
General Ladislava stepped into view from behind them, her sharp frown deepening as she took in the situation. She roughly grabbed Caspar's shoulder and pulled him to the side.
"I told you to never go near these beasts without a trained wyvern knight or lord present. One half-decent lesson does not change my orders."
"I-I'm sorry," he withered under her furious gaze. "She can't breathe fire yet, and you said she needed to be around more people. So I thought it would be okay..."
"Quiet!" she pointed at Byleth. "Look. You caused the injury of a royal consort. On your first day of service, no less. Get back to the barracks. You will be punished for this."
Caspar's eyes widened. He shot a despairing glance at Edelgard and Byleth before sighing and bowing his head. "Yes, General..."
With slumped shoulders, he slowly dragged himself across the stable fields and out of sight. Before Byleth could say anything in his defense, Edelgard's grip around her tightened to the point where only a wince came out.
The sight of her losing control of herself like this disturbed Byleth even more than the wyvern.
"Edelgard... El. It's gone now," she whispered. She reached up to pry her fingers off, but to no avail. She made no discernible reply.
A look of understanding crossed Ladislava's face, as well as caution. She came closer with slow, deliberate steps.
"Your Majesty. Let's get both of you inside where that can be treated."
She reached out to Byleth's bleeding arm.
Something between a gasp and a growl emerged from Edelgard's throat. She jerked Byleth away from Ladislava's hand. A feral light sparked in her eyes.
Ladislava pulled back. Her expression turned cold.
"...I understand, Your Majesty. With your permission, then, I will take my leave," she bowed.
The strange light in Edelgard's eyes slowly faded. Her grip slowly relaxed. "General... I do not know what came over me just now."
"Please, don't give it another thought, Your Majesty. I can imagine the kind of fright you experienced before I found you. That new recruit will never do something like this again, you may rest assured."
With another bow, she swung around and left them there, heading in the same direction as Caspar. Edelgard watched her in silence. Before Byleth had time to worry about what was in store for Caspar, she was being herded back to the palace.
"I can't believe I let this happen," Edelgard mumbled to herself in a frenzy. She huddled close to Byleth while they retraced their steps to the palace, her heart hammering against the omega's arm.
"It's really not that serious..." Byleth replied quietly.
Edelgard just shook her head.
The front doors to the palace swung open for them as they approached. Servants glanced their way curiously as she dragged her up the stairs and through a series of hallways. She wondered where Edelgard was taking her until she opened a door to a lavishly decorated room that could only belong to her.
Once they were inside, Edelgard buried her face in Byleth's chest, inhaling deeply. Byleth stared down at her in shock, heat creeping into her cheeks. Not too long ago, she was ordering her around like one of her servants while announcing that she was about to kill her friends. Now, she was beside herself almost beyond speech over a scratch on her arm.
Was it the mating bond? But what about Byleth, then? Her feelings obviously went in a very different direction than Edelgard's.
How much of all this was genuine and not just instinct?
"I... I thought for a moment that..." Edelgard stammered.
"That my head was about to be bitten off," Byleth finished for her.
"I-it's my fault, I suppose. I must have startled it by approaching it too quickly. I should never have let things go so far to begin with."
Taking a deep breath, she released Byleth from her iron grip. Part of her wanted to throw herself back at the alpha.
"Thanks for saving me," she mumbled instead.
Edlegard's face lit up, contributing to the painful feeling in Byleth's chest. "At least you're calling me El again."
The girl stumbled to the ground in front of Byleth. She kept a firm grip on her wooden toy sword while the other girl's fell to the ground beside them. The two boys watching them began to snicker.
"S-shut up," she coughed out, shooting them all a venomous look. "What'd you do that for?!"
Byleth gave her a blank look. "But you wanted to fight."
The other girl scowled up at her. Byleth wasn't even tired. With another cough, she got to her feet and brushed the dirt off her skirt.
"You're all in for it now! Didn't I just tell you guys I'm an alpha?! I bet you're all just plain old betas!"
"Oh, what do you know?" one of the boys scoffed.
"That's what my papa's doctor said. Sothis only made a few people alphas and omegas."
The other boy burst into laughter. "Well, guess what I'm telling MY father tonight. Sothis made you the wimpiest alpha this side of Airmid River, and you're STILL bragging about it."
"What's an alpha?" asked Byleth.
The other girl's eyes widened. "Huh?"
"Rina? What are you doing out here?!"
The four of them instantly went quiet. A man charged out of the nearby shop, leaving the door swinging behind him. He wore a brown overcoat over his clothes and a black collar over his neck. He glared down at them before pulling his daughter to the side.
"What did I just tell you this morning? You aren't allowed to play with them anymore."
Tears formed in the corners of the girl's eyes. "B-but Mama..."
"Stop it. I won't listen to another word. You're going to be a captain in the army someday, do you hear me? And when that day comes, all these other children will be following your orders. That's why-"
"Raise your own brat how you want, but leave mine out of it."
The man's head shot back up. Byleth looked up to find Jeralt standing over her. He placed a hand on her shoulder and pushed her behind him.
The other man gave him an indignant look. "Gladly. My husband is the wealthiest merchant on the western coast. We have no reason to speak to each other in the first place."
"Yeah. I know your husband," Jeralt crossed his arms. "The only reason he's a merchant now is because he was kicked out of the monastery for stealing."
The man narrowed a vicious glare at him.
"Come on, Byleth. We don't have time for this idiot."
Byleth blinked up at him with wide eyes as he grabbed her hand. She tried to look behind her one last time, but he was pulling her along too quickly. A few more turns down the street and they were back at the inn.
Once they were in their room, he let go of her hand.
"Well, you don't look hurt," he told her. "Get an early night's sleep. We're moving out tomorrow."
Byleth watched him sit down and lean back in the chair beside the window. Frowning, she walked over to the table beside him. "Papa..."
"I told you not to call me that," Jeralt aimed a sharp look at the door. There was a hint of sadness in his eyes when he looked back at Byleth, but it was quickly replaced with a strict frown. "We've been over this before. Your parents died when you were a baby. I...don't think it's respectful to him to call me your father instead."
Unhappiness stirred within her. Even if he wasn't her real father, he still adopted her. He was one in every other way.
"If it's about that kid, don't let it get to you. Some alphas have it in their heads that they're better than us because they have a little more arm strength. When they grow up, that is. Know what, though? Betas aren't the ones throwing the job if they so much as look at each other wrong. That, or catch the wrong scent at the wrong time. They're almost not worth the trouble."
His expression became distant. Byleth stared at him, remembering the last mercenary he sent away.
"Am I a beta?" she asked.
"Maybe. Your parents were betas," his mouth curved into a slight smile.
"I think I'd rather be an alpha instead..."
Jeralt placed a hand on her shoulder. "Kid, don't wish to be anything except who you are. For all their power and status, alphas are always bickering with each other over the smallest things. Omegas aren't in much better shape, to put it lightly. They're always hurting themselves, yet we're the ones left to clean up the mess."
"They...hurt themselves?" Byleth tilted her head. "But I didn't see any bruises on the shopkeeper or that other man."
"Good," Jeralt replied gruffly, suddenly eager to cut this conversation short. "All I've got to say is that I'm not hiring another one after last week's nightmare. The militaries can have them. I'm glad I don't have their nose, and they can keep whatever they've got going on with omegas. I'm glad I'm me, and I'm glad you're you."
He ruffled her dark teal hair with a smile. She slowly smiled back.
Byleth shuddered as her eyes slowly opened. It was still dark. Dim light came from the embers that were left in the fireplace.
She sat up with a groan. Once again, her thick bed sheets were soaked in sweat. She raised a hand to her face. So was her forehead and bandaged arm, along with the rest of her body. More than the usual extent.
Her eyes snapped wide open. The physician's words rang through her head.
"They can make you very ill and cause an erratic heat schedule..."
The herbs... But it had been nearly two weeks since she'd touched them...
She leaped out of bed and ran to the mirror. A pitiful sight greeted her. Her hair, now light green, was damp around her face and the shoulders of her white nightgown. Matching emerald eyes stared back in growing panic.
She couldn't go into heat. Not yet. Not now.
Hubert probably wouldn't notice anything. But what about Edelgard?
On one hand, she seemed almost as eager for the new prescription to go through as Byleth was. Maybe she would be capable of speeding up the process if Byleth asked her to.
Unless she went into rut, that is. The next time she caught that scent, would she be able to stop herself even if she wanted to? Would Byleth?
Her gaze fell.
Jeralt... I wish you could have told me more about this.
She pushed herself away from the mirror. Her head was starting to throb.
She couldn't wait for her fancy official suppressants. She had to find something now.
Byleth glanced out the balcony window. Shades of pink and purple were bleeding into the sky. Opening the wardrobe doors, she pulled out a set of robes and hastily threw them on. After putting on her slippers and running a comb through her hair once or twice, she crept to the door and carefully opened it.
The hallway was empty. Candles flickered along the walls. Armored footsteps could be heard making their rounds further away.
She knew how tight security was. Her chances of even making it past the gates were slim to none, let alone all the way to the marketplace. But there was a chance that one of the beta servants in the palace might be able help her. With this problem, anyway. Maybe the cooks had similar herbs stored in the kitchens.
For the first time since she came here, she was disobeying Edelgard's orders. She ignored the sinking feeling in her stomach and forced herself onward.
She had just made it to the staircase when she heard voices coming from another room.
"Understood, Your Majesty. I just wish I could have had more time with the new recruits first."
It sounded like Ladislava.
"I believe in them," Byleth would know that voice from any distance. "I have seen what they can do. I'm left with no doubts that we will return victorious."
"Your words reassure me, Your Majesty."
"...How is Caspar doing?"
"Oh, he is adjusting well enough. For an alpha who hasn't even presented yet, I'm already impressed with his fighting prowess. His impulsiveness is the only thing that bothers me."
"Yes. He is one of the most genuine people I've ever met. It is people like him who help strengthen my resolve."
A door somewhere opened.
"Oh, Your Majesty. That just reminded me. There is something I need to discuss with you."
"Can it wait?" Impatience crept into Edelgard's voice.
There was a pause. The door slowly clicked shut.
Byleth swallowed and kept moving. After traversing more halls, she reached the second flight of stairs.
She stopped in her tracks when she reached the ground floor.
She didn't know the way to the kitchens or pantry. On her first trip inside the palace with Edelgard, she had followed her directly to the throne room and back out to Enbarr. Since she had started living here, Hubert usually just guided her to the dining room and back, or to drink tea in the gardens on some days. Or in yesterday's case, he led her to a drawing room. She had no idea where the rest of these corridors led.
Hesitating, she picked the one next to the hallway that led into the dining room. Silence surrounded her. No maids could be seen. She tried one of the doors but found it locked. The second led to what looked like a meeting room. Other rooms were similarly empty or had nothing of note inside.
The door at the end of the hall was left open. An icy breeze was coming through it. Glancing around, she peeked through it and found what looked like a small courtyard.
Something caught her eye.
A cluster of vines wound up the side of the walls. Some were brown and half-rotted, but others were still relatively green. They looked thick enough to support her weight.
A hurricane of emotions rushed through her.
She could get out this way. There wasn't a tree in sight for miles, but if she could just find walls and buildings to dodge behind and stay out of the guards' view, she might be able to make it as far as the marketplace.
An overwhelming sense of anxiety set in. If only it was out of fear from being caught. The thought of being separated from Edelgard's scent and protective presence nearly caused her to shut down then and there.
There was no good reason for it. She trained the girl, for the goddess's sake. She had plenty of experience both fighting and being on her own in general.
Reminding herself of that didn't stop her heart from pounding hard in her chest.
She froze when she reached the stone wall, taking in the dizzying heights stretching above her. The sky was transitioning into a dull gray as the sun rose.
Shaking her head, she grabbed the lowest vine and tested it. It started to fray. Uneasy, she reached up for the next one.
She landed on her backside with a pained grunt.
"Yes, I'm afraid they are not as sturdy as they look. I made the same mistake once."
Her head swung around. Edelgard stood outside the door she just came out of, watching her with an analytical expression.
Byleth moved to scramble to her feet when she held her hand out to her. Heart hammering, she hesitantly let the girl pull her up. She steeled her nerves for her to get angry or announce some sort of punishment.
Instead, she reached up to straighten out Byleth's robes.
"Before I was sent to the academy, I would often come here when I had trouble sleeping," she shot one last frown at the bandages on her arm. "Aside from that reason, your scent is rather hard to ignore."
Byleth felt her face heat up. This was almost punishment enough.
Edelgard relaxed as soon as she was satisfied there were no new injuries. Releasing Byleth, she leaned against the wall and began studying her red boots.
"I leave for Garreg Mach the day after tomorrow," she said quietly. "I have been in many battles since I first arrived there. I shall have the entire Adrestian army behind me. And yet, I feel so vulnerable now..."
For a split second, Byleth forgot the Flame Emperor and was reminded of the princess she once rescued. Then both memories gave way to a sudden instinctive urge to comfort who was standing here now - her mate.
Once more, she found herself pushing those thoughts away.
Edelgard looked up at her. "Perhaps because, for the first time, I will be fighting without you by my side."
Byleth blinked, stunned.
Out of all the things she expected her to say, it wasn't this. Not after, well, everything so far.
Edelgard's eyes drifted down and lingered on the second sword attached at her hip. Byleth hadn't noticed it until then. To her greater surprise, she unsheathed it and handed it to her.
"I want you to test me one final time, my teacher," she said. "I wish to have you by my side again. And I wish for you to prove to me that I am wrong...about both of us. That the general, my father, and all the rest are wrong..."
Byleth stared at the plain steel sword. It looked like the kind Ladislava and Caspar used.
Slowly, she reached down and wrapped her fingers around the hilt.
Edelgard took a few steps back and reached for her own sword's decorative gold hilt. Byleth stepped away from the wall, positioning herself.
The sword met her own with a force that nearly knocked the breath out of her.
She staggered backwards, eyes widening as she held it up defensively. Edelgard hesitated, then advanced with another swing.
This... this was nothing like their lessons back at the monastery.
Each blow came harder than the next. Or so it seemed to Byleth. Edelgard, by contrast, showed no signs of straining herself. Each swing that Byleth parried was followed by another one of equal, devastating strength.
She could only recall three other human foes that could match it. The first two were bandit leaders that she had fought alongside her fellow mercenaries before she became a professor. The third was Sylvain's older brother, Miklan. Even before he transformed, it easily took both Edelgard and herself back then to match him. And it was still a difficult fight.
With her skills, betas were manageable enough even one-on-one. That also went for alphas who hadn't presented yet, if her time teaching was anything to go by.
The scent that Edelgard was giving off right now was so soothing...
Why were they doing this, again? Wasn't this her mate? The lesson flew out of her mind, replaced by thoughts of a different nature.
She wanted to feel her teeth in her neck again.
Her hands began to tremble. She took a few shaky steps back.
Edelgard paused, waiting for her to get a hold of herself. Her eyes held mixed emotions. The most infuriating one was surprise. But now Byleth saw an opening to disarm her. With what little self-control she had left, she darted in and swung the sword at an angle meant to loosen her grip.
"Ngh..." Edelgard flinched, barely.
Before Byleth had time to retreat, the counter swing knocked her flat on her back. The steel sword clattered to the ground beside her.
Her eyes widened as Edelgard stepped closer.
"I was holding back."
She sheathed her sword and stared at Byleth, who was still panting.
"That's impossible," Byleth snapped between breaths. "You were never this strong at the academy. It must be some kind of spell."
Edelgard let out a bitter chuckle. "If only it were. I've broken several things by accident since...since then. This is new to me. It's so difficult to control."
She took her hand and pulled her up.
"You lost focus."
Byleth shooke her head irritably. Their talking was starting to clear it a little bit. "Of course not."
"Then explain to me what happened."
It wasn't a question. Byleth couldn't find an answer. Just before she tried to disarm her...what was she doing? Was she just...standing there?
Edelgard fell silent for several long moments.
Then she pushed Byleth firmly against the wall. She let out a startled gasp.
"Are you still focused, Byleth?"
"How...could I not be?" she snapped.
"Oh? I cannot say the same for myself. Each day is worse than the last."
Byleth went quiet as the Emperor's cool composure began to fall apart.
"I used to judge other alphas quite harshly, you know. Their behavior disappointed me. Particularly nobles who fully embrace it. The outbursts hiding just beneath the surface, their utter lack of self-control around a scent that only vaguely registered to me until the last few weeks. Now, I understand it all too well."
She tensed. Her face turned red.
"Do you know that some part of me...actually wished to kill Metodey even before he touched you? My own commander, who swore fealty to me and followed me into battle, in spite of knowing full well what Rhea was. Whenever another alpha so much as lays eyes on you, I relive the moment when I swung my axe into his back. My muscles burn constantly. Even though I'm not in rut right now, I struggle to not launch myself at any other alpha within reach. Ladislava, the captain, the gatekeeper, even Ferdinand and Caspar. Any of them would do. For no particular reason," she breathed. "You smell so good, Byleth."
Byleth shivered. Maybe she should have been disturbed. Instead, it all threw her into a hazy excitement just like before.
"Push me away," Edelgard ordered.
"I told you to push me away. I want you to show me what you would do if another alpha disarmed you and you had no heat suppressants. Or if, by some chance, they failed again."
After a pause, Byleth lifted her hands and strained against her shoulders. Although Edelgard was smaller than her, it was like pushing against the stone wall behind them. What's worse was that she wasn't even struggling to hold her in place.
She didn't have to. Her scent was as good as any set of chains.
At some point, she stopped struggling. She stared down at her with a blank, clouded expression.
Edelgard let her go.
"I stood outside of your tent each night, watching the cleric tend to you while the captains leered in our direction. They were no different from Metodey. I could see the same look in their eyes," she whispered. "The other students, the ones who were alphas like me, I knew then that they would be the same. If not now, then someday. But I was not like them."
She looked down, clenching her fists.
"That's what I kept repeating to myself. While your scent and the mating bond was driving me mad, I promised myself that I would do what I must to protect you from alphas like them. Even if you did not understand why. Or rather, refused to accept it," she shook her head. "But that is quite impossible, isn't it? After all, I am the very thing I wished to protect you from."
Byleth scanned the girl's face for a long moment, attempting to process what she had just heard. "I... I won't defend your actions as the Flame Emperor, or the way you've been keeping me under a constant watch. But your commander tried to rape me. You stopped him. Whatever else you may have done, you aren't the same as him."
Edelgard let out a dry laugh. "Do you still believe that? I would be a liar if I told you that practicing was the only thing on my mind right now. In truth, the only difference between Metodey and myself is that I was the one who survived."
She took a step back.
"You will remain in the palace until you have been nursed back to full health," she said. "Then, if I have finally succeeded in frightening you away...I will not stop you if you still wish to leave. But I cannot guarantee what I might do next. I am no longer my own master, it seems."
She turned around, her long white hair swaying behind her.
"You will not accompany me to Garreg Mach. Although I say that I dream about fighting alongside you again, I do believe that I would lose my mind if I saw you on the battlefield now."
She left her standing there without another word. For all her talk about scaring Byleth, she was the one who looked afraid.
Loredump chapter. I've always liked the idea of alphas and omegas being more animalistic than betas even outside of their heats/ruts, and I can sort of see Edelgard feeling this way about it at first. Byleth is starting to become more affected by pheromones now that she's been off the cheap suppressants for a while.
I'm doing the 70/30 percent birth rate split some other stories do for betas vs alphas and omegas. So most of the humans that Byleth fought before were either betas or (in the monastery) younger alphas who hadn't presented yet.
"Then my father's title..."
Edelgard nodded, handing Ferdinand a scroll across the desk. "Yes. His title, his land, everything that he owned is now yours. You are now the Duke of Aegir, as well as my Prime Minister. Hubert will step down and assume the position of my adviser and new tactician."
Hubert gave a low bow. There was a hint of relief in his face. "I will serve you in whatever way you feel is best, Your Majesty."
After a moment's hesitation, Ferdinand took the scroll. Satisfied that he was no longer needed, Hubert excused himself and left them alone in the office.
"I always thought I would be the one to unseat my father," the redhead frowned. "You keep besting me at every turn, it seems..."
A flash of annoyance coursed through Edelgard that, for once, had nothing to do with the other alpha's scent. "What matters is that it's done. This petty rivalry of yours really must stop. I've always considered you a valued friend, Ferdinand."
Ferdinand's orange eyes lit up. "Even so, sometimes I simply cannot help myself. I have to admit that I enjoyed our rivalry, as you say, back at the academy. In a way, I don't think I would have improved quite as much without you."
His words rubbed Edelgard the wrong way. In reality, he couldn't come close to rivaling her. She had thoroughly destroyed him in every single one of their practice duels. She could still do it again with ease.
A restless thrill gripped her. She shifted in her seat.
"You give yourself too little credit," she murmured. Her gaze fell to the documents in front of her. She picked up her quill and began to look them over.
"I presented a few months before you did."
She glanced up, her violet eyes boring into him. "Hm? I don't recall hearing of this."
"You could say this was the one thing I did manage to beat you to," he let out a hesitant chuckle. "It was at the marketplace. I never saw the omega, but I remember their scent well enough. Fortunately, Catherine happened to be nearby just then. When we reached the inn, she gave me something that helped."
There was a pause.
"I believe I know what you're about to suggest."
"They do make you feel quite ill for a few hours. But they also do away with the edge, so to speak. My father has always taken those herbs regularly. If only he had thought to send some with me when I first left for the academy," his eyes narrowed. "When this battle is behind us..."
"I will consider it," she replied quietly.
Ferdinand gave her a sympathetic smile. "It does get better, Edelgard. Just slowly. The first three months were frightful! It's...well, not as frightful now..."
He turned for the door and closed it behind him with a click, leaving her alone with her troubled thoughts and the mountain of paperwork in front of her.
She pulled out a new stack of documents that she was supposed to sign and began glossing over them. The invitation list for the scheduled ball caught her attention. She hastily pushed it to the side, moving on to Commander Randolph's daily report.
It had been arranged by her father directly after her coronation without her knowledge, and she had only just been informed of it a few days ago. She should have expected it. It was an old tradition. But with all of her other preparations to see to, it completely blindsided her.
The only positive aspect was the wedding ceremony that would now be a part of it. That, she didn't mind so much. That is, if Byleth had changed her mind by then...and if Edelgard survived the upcoming battle.
How ironic. She had always despised formal events and ceremonies such as these. Yet it was pleasant to think about Byleth standing there beside her while the priest gave a formal announcement of their bond to the nobility of the Empire. She would be wearing her imperial collar and robes, marking her as her consort as well as warning other alphas what the penalty was for touching her.
The quill started to drift out of her fingers.
She used to daydream about Byleth in class. Back when she was simply her dear professor and yet another beta who was innocently unaware of the harsh world alphas and omegas struggled to survive in. She used to find it endearing. Oftentimes, she had wished to be a beta herself. For more reasons than one.
One of her most common fantasies was proposing to her after the war was over.
An alpha and beta. The Emperor and a commoner. It would have been scandalous. It would have broken every tradition Fodlan - no, the world - had. After turning down all the families who no doubt sought to use their omegas to raise their own house's social position with her, she and Byleth would spend the rest of their days taking walks in the garden and talking about whatever was on their mind over bergamot tea, just like they used to.
Being an alpha and a beta couple, they wouldn't have been able to have children. For some reason, betas were unable to with anyone except other betas. But that didn't matter to her. She wasn't concerned with continuing her bloodline, and she had even planned on naming someone completely unrelated as her heir when the time came.
However, more troubling problems arose from their differences.
That was the one concern in the back of her mind that gave her the most pause when it came to her feelings for Byleth. Alphas were not built like beta men. Even alpha women were not only stronger than they were, but...bigger. And that wasn't taking into account their knots or the state Edelgard would enter if they ever triggered her rut. The fact of the matter was, chances were high that she would have seriously injured Byleth if they had consummated their marriage.
But that was no longer a problem, was it?
Edelgard's vision glazed over with memories of the overpowering, sweet scent that drove her over the edge. Of Byleth panting underneath her while she nosed the scent glands in her neck and her pants became strangely tight.
And then, of Byleth's furious rejection afterward...
Her chest suddenly felt tight.
She was all too aware that Byleth hated her. Perhaps she had several good reasons to. Edelgard was prepared to ally with anyone who would help her unite Fodlan and dismantle the church - and dispose of anyone who stood in the way. For all of Byleth's years as a mercenary, there were still certain realities of war and politics that she obviously couldn't bring herself to accept yet. Edelgard couldn't blame her for it. She hadn't grown up in the cutthroat world of nobility like she had, nor did she have to watch as her brothers and sisters...
Now that Byleth bore her bond mark, she felt an overwhelming compulsion to do whatever was necessary to protect her. If she still hated her for it in the end, then...so be it.
The painful reality of the situation didn't stop a new barrage of thoughts about Byleth whispering 'please' over and over again while pinned beneath her. Only not in that horrible tomb this time, but in her bedchambers.
Her breath hitched. She pushed the report away from her with an irritable sigh. A coppery taste ran down the inside of her cheek. She hadn't realized that she was biting down so hard.
It almost reminded her of how Byleth's skin tasted.
There was a knock on the door.
"Enter," Edelgard called out, swallowing nervously.
The door clicked, and a servant peeked out from behind it. Her neutral, bland scent was more noticeable than usual.
"Your Majesty," she bowed, taking a deep breath. "Lord Ionius has requested your presence."
She might as well have just thrown cold water in Edelgard's face.
Edelgard had not been inside her father's room in years. She couldn't have been nine. Very little had changed since then. It was somewhat bigger than her own, and most of the furniture had black accents instead of red. He was sitting in his old chair beside the window across from his bed, with blankets wrapped around his legs.
He glanced up when she shut the door behind her. He gave her a small smile, and it struck her just how feeble he looked. While she didn't want to admit it, she knew deep down that he was right - he didn't have much time left.
She took a hesitant step forward. "You wished to see me, father?"
"Yes. Of course, I always welcome your company, my daughter."
Gathering her dress skirt, she sat down in the other chair nearby. She placed her hands on her lap, waiting for him to continue. She was almost tempted to bring up her concerns about the coronation ball again, but thought better of it.
"I am aware that you are returning to Garreg Mach..."
Edelgard paused. She blinked at him.
"I know what you're planning."
A long silence fell between them. She had anticipated this conversation happening at some point. Just not yet.
"I made an oath that everything that I do as Emperor will be for the benefit of our people. Starting with this."
"Then what I have heard is true," he sighed. "But the monastery... I was not only forced to watch helplessly as my children were taken away and tortured, but now I must stand by as my dear daughter destroys a sacred place...one that holds many fond memories for me."
"For me, as well," replied Edelgard. "But sometimes we must force things to go our way. Otherwise, the peace I swore to bring to Fodlan will never be achieved."
"Such ominous words... and yet, I still feel such pride when I look at you. Why..."
Edelgard's chin rose. "The church has already done enough damage. If left unchecked, it will destroy us. I will unite Fodlan under a new order, one where crests no longer determine our worth or are forcefully implanted within us. In my new Empire, this irrationality shall be left in the past where it belongs. Unfortunately, this is the only way forward."
Ionius listened in silence. His expression held mixed emotions. She couldn't tell if her words had reached him. She hoped that they had. Either way, she was certain that someday both her father and Byleth would see the truth.
"My only remaining hope is for you to return home safely," he replied after a long pause. "Not only for myself, but for your new consort."
She tensed at the abrupt change of subject. "I understand."
He stared at her for a moment. A curious look entered his eyes. "An omega in the Officer's Academy... I knew she reminded me of someone. Your mother smuggled herself in, too."
Distant childhood memories of a pretty woman with light brown hair smiling down at her briefly crossed her mind. "...Yes."
He leaned back in his chair. A wistful look came over him. "I made some regretful decisions in my youth. If nothing else, I do not wish for you to repeat those mistakes. Do not forget to protect your omegas. No one else will, not in the same way that you would."
"I...understand. I promise that I will do all in my power to keep Byleth safe," she nodded, her voice faltering. "But I decided long ago that I would only have one mate. That is where we differ, father."
His frown deepened. "It concerns me to hear you say it. As you're well aware, the Hresvelg House has many enemies. The more omegas you have by your side, the greater your chances are of having a surviving heir after you have passed away. You never know when that time will come."
"I understand this. But I have made my decision."
"Maybe you will come to understand when you're older," Ionius shook his head. "May the goddess bless and guide you, my child... I fear you will need it."
Her shoulders relaxed slightly. "Thank you, father."
Edelgard all but dragged her feet back towards her office, her thoughts a tangled mess. A few servants gave her flustered bows as she passed. She was too distracted to pay them any attention.
She came across Byleth's door on the way.
She paused, listening. No sounds came from the other side. She must have still been sleeping.
Her fingers grazed the outside of the door. Byleth slept until nightfall after their fencing lesson yesterday morning. Even now, she still hadn't left her room. She must have been exhausted. Had Edelgard hurt her by accident?
It was entirely her fault. How childish of her. She had already broken the promise she just made. What's more, the thought of leaving her alone in this state pained her more than she imagined it would.
Edelgard would have to find the courage to walk tomorrow's path alone, for both their sakes.
A vaguely sweet, pleasant scent hit her. Byleth wasn't in heat, it wasn't that strong yet. But it was still enough to send a shiver down her spine.
She backed away and hurried down the hall.