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Rusted Feathers That Shone Gold

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Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

oh goddess, I’m going to die, aren’t i? I’m going to d-

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

i don’t deserve this please save me please goddess save m-

THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP

The running steps continue. Branches whip against his face as he pushes them out of the way with one hand, while pointing his other to the vague area behind him, murmuring to himself as he futilely shoots out embers and cinders. He already fired off the big one some time ago, he hasn’t had the time to rest, he’s going to die die die die-

Unf!

Reality hits him in the gut, taking the shape of a larger branch that he hadn’t noticed until it was too late. Air blows out from his lungs as he suddenly heels over and falls face first into the muddy ground, cheek brushing up into a puddle as he feels his fine fur coat get stained with dirt, leaves, and god knows what. Deer shit? Seems to be deer shit. The running steps behind him get louder and louder, until they come to an abrupt halt, a leather boot that’s been repaired at least five times over suddenly stomping down right next to his head, splashing mud into his eyes.

“Yer thought yer could run, eh? Boss Kostas is busy with ‘em brats, but ‘e told us to make sure yer wouldn’t get away either, professuh.”

A rough hand digs into his scalp and grabs him by his hair as he’s lifted, legs trailing against the muddy ground while his upper body freakishly held up. The mud in his eyes blocks his sight, but the twenty-year-old blonde can just barely make out the ugly mug of a bandit, ragged with scars and a coarse beard and gleaming eyes that scream for murder… And, oh, the burn marks left from the fireball he shot off earlier to cover his retreat.

“Originelly we just wanted t’ grab yer money an’ clothes an’ then let yer run off home, professuh, but yer hard t’go an’ make sure now even me mom wouldn’ call me pretty. Tha’s plenty rude of ya, professuh. ‘Round here when yer plenty rude, yer gun’ get killed an’ gutted like a salmon from th’ river. Ya got any last words?”

Die? He was going to die? Here? He didn’t deserve this! He was nobility, dammit! He had a comfortable home and a family to go back to! He wasn’t going to die here! Yet when he tries to move a muscle, his body just screams out and tells his brain to not do anything. His jaw barely hinges open as his throat, hoarse from panting and screaming and crying weakly delivers his message. His last words. No prayer to the goddess. No defiant denial of his upcoming fate. Not even something brave.

“Please… Don’t…”

It’s more of a whimper than actual speech, and the following roaring laughter that abuses his eardrums tells him that his begging went to the wrong ears. If he’d just stayed with those three kids, maybe he would’ve been safe. Maybe he would’ve survived, and he’d already be at the monastery, eating fine foods and socializing with the other professors. If he’d just kept the children safe instead of thinking of his own hide, maybe he, Xerxes Tristan Goneril, would’ve been able to live a happy life. He can hear the axe being lifted, and as the swing of it sings through the air, he regrets everything…

… Only for there to be no pain. In fact, the grip upon his hair suddenly grows lighter, and the roaring laughter is replaced by a guttural gurgle that soon snaps into a scream, the sound of battle suddenly echoing all around his limp, tired body. He can feel warm blood splash over his back and onto his neck, and soon the body of the bandit that had been holding him fell over next to him, a hatched buried deep within his chest. Someone had come?

He’d smile if he wasn’t so tired. He can hear the splash of mud and water splattering about as bodies fall to the ground one after one, until there’s silence. He can only hear his own breathing, and even that eventually fades out as there’s nothing left but darkness. Darkness… Darkness… He can feel something wrap around his leg as his face starts to drag against the ground. A voice that still manages to reach him before he completely blacks out.

“Heavy bastard… Better thank me when he wakes up --- ---

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The next day. Garreg Mach monastery. Seteth’s office.

Reports, reports, reports. Always something to report. Well, Seteth didn’t mind being the pencil pusher to Rhea, after all, she was busy with many of her own problems. Now that the lost child had returned to the monastery, she was absolutely abuzz with joy and wonder, although she rarely showed it. At least he knew how to read her emotions after years of knowing her.

However, a new problem had presented itself with her hasty promotion of the blue haired child. Turns out that the professor that’d been hired to teach one of the three houses has been found after all, having ran quite a distance away after the bandits appeared. While the normal procedure would be to let him go for abandoning his students without a second thought, the circumstances of how he’d been found, alongside the new vacant slot that’d opened with those students made him ponder.

The quill lifts to tap against his chin. The man wasn’t of any political importance, and he’d heard that he was sent over as a professor simply because he was an extra mouth to feed back at home. While house Goneril wasn’t by any means a poor house, their duty at the Locket meant that members of cadet branches would often find work elsewhere. So it was with this one as well… It’d be extra hassle to send him back, not to even speak of the embarrassment to the monastery. Meanwhile, that vacant position with them still had to be filled.

So, why not kill off two flies with a single strike? The quill is lowered and after about ten minutes of scribbling down names, directions, orders and other such things, he quickly finds his stamp and slams down the official seal of the church of Seiros. The transfer of one Xerxes Tristan Goneril has been arranged from Garreg Mach and to the Western Church, to act as the professor of the Rusted Doves. The documents are prepared and given to a messenger, and with his daily duties done, Seteth grabs his aged fishing rod from the corner of his office and heads out into the hallways, linking arms with a shorter green haired girl. They have some fishing to do.

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Some days later. Western Church grounds, border of the Empire and the Kingdom.

The rain had stopped a few hours ago, but even within the small carriage, Xerxes could feel the cold creep within his bones. He’d never been a fan of the cold temperatures of the Kingdom, and the fact that even here on the border it managed to reach him did him no pleasure. And this was to be where he’d be living now? Here, in the boonies? He wasn’t even going to be teaching students, he was going to be teaching…

Them.

He took a step out of the carriage and into the grounds of the Western Church. They’d passed through the town surrounding it some time ago, and while the townsfolk seemed as ordinary as anywhere else, he knew that these commoners had to be different. After all, living around them could do no good to anyone’s temperament. He couldn’t see any of them around here, though. Priests and other church officials, yes, but none of… Well. He would see them sooner or later.

His steps take him into the church, up the steps, through the halls, and finally into one of the many officers within the building. He wasn’t going to even be meeting with the Bishop, no, he’d be dealing with some lowly priest and nothing else. The office was small too, nothing like the one he’d been taken to when he arrived at Garreg Mach. No decorations, just a simple desk and papers strewn across it. Two chairs had been placed in front of the desk, so he took a seat in one and crossed his legs.

His face had become a little bruised from the encounter with bandits a few days ago, but he still considered himself passingly handsome, with a small dose of freckles blotting his face. At least he’d managed to get his blonde hair combed and cut to a respectable height, just barely reaching his shoulders, not to even speak of how pristine his professor’s robes looked. He was presentable! Respectable! Worthy of tutoring the upcoming leaders of the countries of Fodlan! And yet here he was, in the boonies, blue eyes scanning the walls out of boredom.

Before he could arbitrarily compliment and hype himself up any more the door behind him opened once again, two figures walking in to join him. The taller one, a girl with red hair styled in a ponytail (yet enough of it had been left loose for it to cover her right eye completely) sat down next to him on the other chair, not even giving him a passing glance. The other, a portlier priest with a reddened face and squinty eyes sat down on the desk.

“You are Xerxes, correct? We’ve already prepared accommodations for you at the camp of the Doves. The house does not reside within our church, but rather directly behind it in a camp ground funded by Garreg Mach.”

Ah. Excellent. He’d be stuck camping now, instead of having a comfortable office all to himself. Xerxes simply nods, and the priest continues babbling on.
“As you are already aware, the Rusted Doves are an “unofficial” house within the jurisdiction of Garreg Mach. I shan’t cover our house’s almost 1000-year-old history and will get right to the basics. Your duty here shall be to teach the “students” and to ensure that their rehabilitation goes according to plan, so that they’ll be able to rejoin society after they have graduated.”

Ah, yes. The Rusted Doves, the fourth “house”, joined by the Black Eagle house, Golden Deer house and Blue Lion house. In truth, the Rusted Dove house was nothing alike the other three houses. For one, unlike the other three it held no national allegiance, all its students hailing from different corners of Fodlan, and sometimes even outside of it. Membership did lean a little towards the Empire and Kingdom in specific due to the location of their base, however.

The second and more glaring difference was of course the fact that the Rusted Doves were actually criminals. Each ‘student’ was nothing more than a bandit, a thug, an impoverished noble or worse of all, a murderer. In some cases, the students could’ve also been nobles sent to act as hostages thanks to the mistakes of their family. While the Church did take precautions to ensure that criminals of the most horrid disposition did not attend, the matter was clear: Xerxes had been shoved off to look after the scum of the earth for his failures.

After a moment of just staring forwards with an empty look in his eye, Xerxes managed what amounted to the slightest of nods. The priest scoffs and lifts a hand, motioning over to the woman sitting next to him. She’d been quiet so far, clearly disinterested in the happenings around her. However, now she was looking over at him, and now that Xerxes took a closer look, she had the Garreg Mach uniform on her- although it’d been padded with enough armor to make her look more like a mercenary than anything else.

“This here is Tuutikki Nermel. She’ll be the house leader for this year, the first one chosen with consent from both the commoners and the nobles in the Rusted Doves. Use her popular support as a blessing and ensure that everything runs smoothly. I’ll be handing you documents detailing the identities of each Dove, although some of them can be… Lacking. Documenting the past of each member is difficult due to our limited manpower.”

He’d heard of how the commoners and the nobles within the Doves often fought, and how house leadership was a rare blessing. To be chosen without complaint by both factions meant that something about this woman had to be of interest. He just stares and does not reach out a hand, earning a scoff from the redhead.

“What? Too much of a commoner to shake milords’ hand? I went and saved your sorry ass a few days back, and this is how you repay that? Tch. I don’t know what I expected.”

Her words cut deep, voice surprisingly spiteful and poisonous despite her earlier quiet and seeming patience. It even left Xerxes a little flushed. So this woman had been the one who’d killed those bandits and dragged him off to the monastery? Perhaps she’d been training with the other four house leaders, and had simply been separated from them? Then again, he hadn’t seen her with the three when they started… How mysterious. Something he’d have to dig into more. For now, he clears his throat.

“Ah, ahm… My apologies, Nermel. I meant no offense. I just- The situation is a little difficult for me as well, teaching you and the others… Not that I think any less of you! I just-“

This wasn’t going very well, was it? Her sharp, intimidating eye cut him down to size with a simple glare as the lightly armored student rose up from her seat and simply flicked the side of his head. “Once you’re done settling into your office, come find me. I’ll show you to my inner circle… Prof.”

Xerxes felt that flush reach up to his ears now, his authority completely disrespected by the taller woman as she then left the office, leaving him to stew in his humiliation with the priest, who seemed more than amused. He wiped a little tear that followed his roaring laughter and reached over to pat Xerxes on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry about Nermel, she’s like that with everyone that annoys her. You’ll be in good hands if you make sure not to do that too many times. Her advice’s good, though. Go and settle in your quarters for a moment before joining her- she’s done great work in choosing her more trusted membership. Or, well, most of them…”

That little “most of them” at the end made Xerxes raise his brow, but he simply nodded and stood up. He’d never been one for many words. Not out of shyness, but rather because he simply felt like he was easy enough to understand without them. However, just as he reaches the door and grabs the handle, his head turns to stare at the bald priest one last time. “I didn’t catch your name.”

The priest pauses and then lifts a hand to bashfully hit the side of his head, an oddly cute motion for someone who appeared to be of about sixty years, maybe even older. “Oh, silly me! I’ve been so busy with settling matters here that I even forget something that fundamental. My apologies, truly. You may call me father Tuscan. Just as is done in Garreg Mach, I’ll be handing you your monthly missions- the Bishop is dreadfully busy, you see, so he has delegated the manners of the Doves unto me.”
So the Doves were unimportant enough to be handed over to a priest who was going senile, then? Xerxes almost sighs, but just barely contains himself and warps his frustration into a smile instead, exiting the room.

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A little while later, in professor Goneril’s office…

This wasn’t as bad as he’d thought, at least. While the camp grounds of the Doves were mostly dotted with tents and other less permanent structures, the Western Church had been kind enough to secure him a small cabin. Sure, it was only the size of a small room and he had no personal space, having to sleep right next to his work desk and all, but at least it wasn’t a leaky tent.

He'd secured his documents and ordered them into drawers within the desk, he’d made some space for himself, and he’d ensured that there were no disgusting rodents living within the space. Once all of that was done, he was prepared to leave and face Nermel, so that he could go and meet the remaining members of the inner circle within the Doves!

Instead of that, he fell face first onto his bed and let out a loud, almost scream-like groan into the old and dirty pillow. He was stuck here!! He was disrespected by one of his students on the first day!! A commoner, even!! He’d gone through Nermel’s file first, since he’d already met her, and the gall she had to disrespect him with the dirt she had was absolutely outrageous!

A commoner blacksmith from the kingdom heartlands, she’d been thrown into the local dungeons for almost beating a man to death. Something about the murder of her father and whatnot, he hadn’t paid much attention after the bigger bomb had been dropped: She appeared to possess a crest. Simply a minor one, and a more common one than Xerxes’ own. The minor crest of Fraldarius had blessed her bloodline at some point, and while there was no proof, the document handed to him had suggested that one of her ancestors had eloped with a Fraldarius noble, and thus ensured the crest entered her commoner bloodline.

No wonder she’d been chosen by both the commoners and nobility. A strong, central figure who gained respect from the commoners due to her roots and the nobility due to her crest, not to speak of her apparent strength… A student with a knack for axes, armor and horseriding, she had the makings of a great knight- if not for the fact that she seemed to be totally disinterested in anything but going back home.

Of course, that praise was all written by whoever made the documents- from his first impression alone, Xerxes had no respect for this Nermel figure. However, maybe she could prove her worth. For now, he chose to ignore her summons from earlier and laid in bed for a little while longer. After all… He wouldn’t be getting much rest now that his home laid with the Rusted Doves.

Chapter Text

Part one.

White clouds.

Great tree moon.

The icy winds of the Oghma mountains have begun to scatter, and the verdant fields once again spring to life across Fodlan, heralding the start of a new year. As they celebrate the dawning year, the people pray they may realize their full potential, just as a tiny sprout hopes to one day grow into a great tree.

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Rusted Doves camp, about an hour after Xerxes took a nap…

Embarrassingly enough, he’d ended up falling asleep after laying around and feeling sorry for himself. Who knew something like that would happen, eh? At least he’d waken up at a reasonable time and at least he’d managed to convince Nermel that he was just busy organizing his files, so all he earned from her was a slight glare instead of a beating! And hey, he wasn’t lying. He WAS taking a look through the documents!

Hers, especially. He wasn’t sure why- He didn’t find out anything new even though he went through them five times over. Blacksmith, she almost killed someone, good with axes, doesn’t talk much, bad at teamwork. Yet as his eyes wandered across her back while she led him across the campsite, he couldn’t help but to wonder… Why did she have a crest? How did she deserve one? After all, she was of such lowly breed. He himself possessed one as well and he was of much higher rank! Perhaps her whole existence infuriated him.

Before the infuriated noble could stew any more, Nermel came to a quick stop, which then led to him bumping against her back and almost falling over. Goddess, why did she have to wear those pieces of heavy armor with her uniform? He could’ve knocked himself unconscious if he walked into her any faster! His hand lifted to rub against his nose, groaning before swiping some blonde hair away from his eyes. “Why’d you-“

“Oi, Bazyli. That prof I mentioned is here.” Nermel’s coarse voice calls out and lifts her fist to heavily slam against the bark of an old tree sitting right in the middle of the camping grounds, causing the whole tree to shake and quake for a moment before a few leaves drop down onto the damp ground. Xerxes trails his eyes up, spotting movement between the many branches. It was an old oak, one of the largest he’d ever seen, and after a while-

Thump!

A little man of brown complexion dropped down in front of them, causing Xerxes to jump a little. Xerxes himself was about average in height for his age… Nermel towered over him, and yet this man was noticeably shorter than he was, and his hunch didn’t help at all. Despite the odd stance, Xerxes got a good, clear look at him. Pink hair that was cut rather short, a small goatee of the same color, green eyes… He was reminded of an acrobat with the way his body moved, straightening up with a certain kind of fluidity.

While Xerxes takes in his appearance, Nermel motions over to this ‘Bazyli’ with a lazy thumb. “Bazyli’s about the best I can come up with if you asked me about a right-hand man. We work together well enough and he’s not infuriating to be around, so. Keep on his good side and chances are you’ll keep on mine too. Just make sure to not put him on the frontlines- He’s more of a sniper than a frontman.”

While Nermel kept up the exposition about her right-hand man, Bazyli himself extended out a hand to shake. While at first suspicious, the surprisingly gentle smile of the shorter man softened Xerxes enough for him to take the hand and shake it. “Bazyli Macdermott. It’s a pleasure, professor.”

And he was respectful as well! Oh, Xerxes could almost cry tears of joy from this simple act of politeness after such a long time of nothing but disrespect over a small, small mistake. People abandoned children to the wiles of bandits all the time! He shakes the hand with vigor and smiles back, a little too brightly. “Xerxes will do, please. I checked your documents earlier, Bazyli… You’re from Brigid, yes? I am a little unfamiliar with your country, but I’d love to-“

Before Xerxes can continue, Nermel grabs him by the ear and starts dragging him off, lifting a hand to wave to Bazyli. “Keep up the watch, Baz. We need at least 3 more birds shot and dead if we want to feed everyone today.” While Xerxes struggles, he can just barely hear what appears to be some chuckling and the rustling of leaves as Bazyli climbs back into the tree.

Bazyli Macdermott. Nineteen years old. Charged with banditry for a period of five years, stranded in Fodlan after his parents brought him with them during the Brigid/Dagda war the Empire had some years back. Formed a small group of like-minded survivors to live, eventually got caught, joined the Doves. At least, that’s what he remembers from the document right now- currently he’s too busy to recall nay more, what with his ear being pulled!

“Stop that-!”

Xerxes manages to slap Nermel’s hand away, groaning to himself as he finds that they’ve been dragged off into another section of camp, this one a little further away from everywhere else. Oddly, it appears that only one tent occupies this area, and when he looks around, he notices that the ground has been burned at various points, plotting the landscape like scars. Nermel sighs and taps her foot against the soil, hand on her chin.

“… I hoped Yorick would be here to make this easier, but we’ll make do. It’s not like we need to talk to him for long.”

Yorick? Were they here to see a Yorick? No, that couldn’t be it, the way she described the situation made it clear that Yorick was not the one they were visiting. Xerxes has his trail of thought stopped when Nermel suddenly walks forwards and lifts the flap of the tent. “Wulfric. Hey. Out- The professor is- C’mon, Wulfric. Out.”

That exchange of Nermel talking into the tent with a surprisingly gentle voice continues for a while, to a point where Xerxes grows tired of waiting. He quietly walks over to where Nermel is and looks past her, just barely squeezing his head in through the opening and into the tent. What he sees is… A little concerning.

Was that a little child? No, it couldn’t be, he knew that the Doves were all of age, although the youngest of them were about 18… He squints a little closer and can somewhat comfortably guess that the boy seems to just be sat and hunched over, quietly staring at the entrance. His Garreg Mach uniform is much less customized than Nermels, although he’s pulled the hood completely up, blocking much of his head. Xerxes must squint to make sense of his features.

… By the goddess, what’s with his eyes? A deep blue, alike the ocean, yet there are dots of a lighter purple, as if his eyes are about to switch shade at any point, yet they never do. And those eyes, they’re staring right at him through the pale white frail hair that covers them partially. It’s like Xerxes is staring right at a ghost, and that scares him. Sweat starts to run down his face.

Silence reigns for a bit until Nermel just sighs and lifts a finger to poke Xerxes’ cheek. “This is the new professor I told you about. That’s all. You want me to tell Yorick that he should come over when I see him next?”

The boy slowly nods, and after a little more silence, Nermel simply leaves the tent, dropping the flap so that only Xerxes’ head was keeping it up. He stands there for a little while longer before straightening out and waving his hand, starting to retreat. Once he’s out and the flap totally closes the hole into the tent, he can hear a quiet, frail… And most of all pathetic voice. “… It’s nice to meet you, professor.”

Something about that tugs at his heartstrings and he looks over to Nermel for some guidance. She just looks back with a blank face, although her eye does hold some form of sorrow as well. She awkwardly coughs.

“… I don’t think most of us exactly know what Wulfric’s deal is, not even Yorick, but- From what I’ve gathered, he’s some minor noble from the Kingdom’s northernmost reaches. Apparently, he even attended Garreg Mach for a bit, but…” She lifts a hand and motions to all the burnt patches of land around them.

“He just sometimes… Combusts. It’s weird. Some kind of magical instability causes flames to just blow out of him. Sometimes it’s lightning or ice, but usually fire. He must live away from the rest of us so that he doesn’t accidentally hurt anyone. Apparently, the magic doesn’t hurt himself, but…” She glances back to the tent. “You can tell the isolation and all that power’s not doing good to him.”

Xerxes also looks back and ponders. He did read about one Wulfric Gaston Lothston in the files, but they never mentioned all of /this./ All he got from the file was that he’d been sent to the Doves due to vandalizing church property at Garreg Mach. Why didn’t his parents take him back home? Why the magical instability? Who’d be so cruel to what was barely an adult? His hand tightens to a grip, and for once the snobbish professor feels genuine sympathy towards someone else. However, he turns his head and raises a brow.

“Who’s this Yorick you keep mentioning?”

Nermel pauses and then scoffs. Seems like she was assuming that Xerxes just knew things… Or she’d been meaning to tell and promptly forgot. For the sake of embarrassing her in the back of his mind, he chose that she’d forgotten. Nevertheless, Nermel looks around for a bit before then motioning over towards the main camp.

“You can ask the man himself. There he comes.”

Xerxes turns his head and pauses at the sight. In a way, he’s reminded of father Tuscan, although that’s not quite the right- the man making his way over towards Wulfric’s tent was not as round nor as bald as father Tuscan, although he was a little round and there were clear signs of balding. He’d taken it in a seeming stride though, styling what remained of his green hair into a ponytail, and the lush beard helped support his image. The man known as Yorick seems to have substituted the usual Garreg Mach uniform for the robes of a monk instead, although the color scheme was still the same.

“Hoy, Nermel! Were you here to see how little Wulf was doing? I’m glad you’re starting to take your duties as the house leader to heart, hahahaha. If we want to work together, we need to ensure that he trusts you!” The joyous-sounding man bellows in a surprisingly deep voice as he reaches Nermel and jokingly pats her shoulder with what appears to be a prayer book, before turning to face Xerxes.

“You must be the new professor everyone’s been buzzing about! It’s a pleasure, my friend! You may call me Yorick, Yorick von Vestra!” There’s an overexaggerated bow that’s soon followed by another bout of laughter. “Of course, that is just my wife’s name. I was born a Hevring, but you must understand how these things go with nobles- My, you don’t even look a bit like a Goneril, my friend!”

Before Xerxes can even comment further on his looks, he feels the larger man’s hand on his head, and soon enough his hair’s getting ruffled to a point where no combing will save it. However, despite his usually snobby attitude, something about the presence of this man just stops him from being mad, instead awkwardly chuckling as he looks to Nermel for some support, or at least sympathy. He gets neither, leading to him just standing there until he is freed, with Yorick moving past them both.

“I’d love to stay and chat more, professor, but I must go and ensure that Wulfric knows of this month’s schedule! I’ll make sure he gets to class in time, hoho. Hoy, and see you again!” With a wave, Yorick disappears into the tent, leaving behind an astonished and hair-ruined Xerxes, along with Nermel, who’s barely keeping a poker face.

“How’d someone like that end up here? I don’t think that man could have a criminal bone in his body.” Xerxes looks over to the tent. Sunny, loud, friendly, and he even possessed a crest from one of the saints- a holy man by the looks of it, a jolly one at that, so what act had he performed to earn a position here, among the scum and traumatized?

Nermel shrugs her shoulders, already walking off to goddess knows where, leaving Xerxes to follow after her. At least she has the decency to answer while they walk. “I don’t talk to him that much, but I think he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Something about his house doing something bad and him being a good enough scapegoat to send here. He’s happy enough to be a part of something bigger than himself, so why care?”

Xerxes looks over his shoulder and frowns. He did mention a wife, didn’t he? How’s she doing? How’s he doing? For once he feels genuine concern.

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‘The Underbelly’, about half an hour later…

Nermel wanted to show him a specific place, although the fact that they had to climb up multiple steep hills and then go through a massive thicket had already soured Xerxes to the idea of whatever this place would be. He spits a few leaves from his mouth (put there by a branch that Nermel “accidentally” smacked into his face) as he finally gets out of his personal hell, panting as he rests against a tree for a while.

“You really- haah- you really ought to get… A few lumberjacks from Garreg here and… Figure out your- pheww…”

Nermel ignores his deep panting and starts to walk down the last steep hill they’ve just climbed. Xerxes would follow, but he can already see what The Underbelly is from here- A large, somewhat curved cliff! It was as if some giant had taken a sledgehammer and struck a giant portion of the middle out, leaving the top of the cliff to threateningly hang over nothing, creating a sort of canopy for the ground underneath.

It seems that this had been a quarry at one point, what with some wooden structures remaining that indicated such. Rotten platforms with missing planks, stairways that led to nowhere as they crumbled, and not to even speak of how even the lower portion was clearly missing chunks of rock. And on one of these platforms, legs spread a little so that she could evenly stand on the remaining planks… Was a woman.

And below her another, someone who Nermel was approaching. He couldn’t see her expression from here, so with one last wheeze Xerxes straightened himself out and set to walk down the hill, although the genius idea of sliding down entered his mind. For a bit, it even succeeded! However, soon enough he’d tripped and practically rolled down the hill, stopping in front of Nermel and the mysterious woman with a ‘oof.’

“Well, if we were to grade our good professor on how well he rolls, I’d give him an A and certifications then and there.”

The soft chuckling doesn’t endear Xerxes all too much as he finally pushes himself up and, once more, straightens himself out. Goddess, his back is going to be the end of him at this point. Nermel has already moved on for some reason or another, seemingly climbing up the stairways and the platforms to reach the other woman far above them. For now, Xerxes is left alone with this jester…

… And she certainly does look the part, at least in his mind. Her Garreg Mach uniform wasn’t all too modified, although her headwear was ridiculous. A wide brimmed hat that he’d sometimes spotted in artwork meant to depict knights, although hers was quite the patchwork after multiple repairs, crowned with a black crow’s feather. The curiosities didn’t stop there- Xerxes couldn’t quite nail her face either. It was a little narrow, yet the nose was noticeably larger. Her eyes were red and droopy, as if constantly half-lidded, yet the hair was blonde, not much matching with how she otherwise presented herself. She was… Confusing, visually. Yet her height seemed to be about average.

“Do you always stare at people who make jokes at you, professor? You’ll waste your good posture and disposition if you don’t use it for socialization. I’d like to hear your voice too- Come, come, out with it.”

Xerxes looked around with brief embarrassment. Ugh. He’d gotten used to analyzing people, too much even. He keeps forgetting to speak, clearing his throat for a moment. “Mmrhm. I don’t see how my voice would matter, miss…?”

The woman flashes a little smirk and tips her hat. “Sapfo Grigori, at your service. Bard, descendant of the King of Lions, connoisseur of swordsmanship styles from lands as far away as Dagda, and quite the popular topic among the women of th-“

Xerxes lifts a quick finger. “Well, if we’re to be technical, many people from the Kingdom are probably somewhat descended from Loog at this point…”

Sapfo clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth and sighs. “No appreciation for showmanship now, do you professor? Well, I know when I’m not welcome on a stage.” She looks pitifully dejected for a bit before perking up right away to a point where Xerxes isn’t even sure if she was insulted at all. She takes a few hopping steps back and seats herself on a small rock, grabbing the lute laying next to it as she starts to strum. “I’ve been getting the cold shoulder from lovely Bradamant all day as well… Oh, the star of the goddess just isn’t in my favor today.”

Bradamant must be the woman above them, then. Xerxes lifts his head to look straight up, only to notice that she’s gone from the platform above them. His head tilts and manages to scan Nermel up on one stairway, and through following her gaze he manages to find (who she assumes to be) Bradamant… Scaling down the cliffside, just a few feet above him and Sapfo.

“The goddess would favor you if you tried to sing for yourself and not for me. I think your voice is much prettier when it’s not trying to make me swoon. When I swoon, I just end up feeling dizzy, and that makes me feel annoyed. I think I already told you that, though… But you keep ignoring what I say. Is it because you keep saying my eyes steal your attention? I hope they won’t. If that happens in battle, you’re just going to die. I don’t want blood on my overalls while in battle, and that happens enough with the enemies anyways. You dying would be pretty bad too. Oh, hey professor.”

Xerxes opens his mouth and then closes it. How does he answer to that absolute flood of speech with anything but silence? He does end up muttering a quick “hello” while inspecting Bradamant, however. A smidge taller than Sapfo from what he could gather, she almost reminded him of a deer. Large, green eyes and a sort od spacey disposition, her attention already lured away by a passing bird. A men’s Garreg Mach uniform with some basic leather overalls and many, many patches of dust… She was quite dirty. Even her brown, ponytailed hair had some of that dust speckled in.

Nermel manages to join them soon enough, grumbling. “I told you to stop climbing up the damn quarry, von Essar. You’re going to fall and die and then I’ll have to explain it to someone, and I’m not about to do that. And Grigori, you were supposed to be helping Bazyli with the hunting today! Get off your ass and go!”

While there’s some teasing objections from Sapfo, she does eventually get up and casually waltz away while still strumming along with her lute, the medley slowly disappearing along with her and Bradamant, although she seems to be going into a completely different direction. Nermel rubs her temples and groans even more.

“What’d I do to deserve all of this…”

Xerxes almost points out that she nearly killed a man but decides to keep quiet and recall his documents. He did read about one Bradamant von Essar, a minor noble from the empire heartlands who’d taken to being a professional sculptor. She even worked for Garreg Mach for a bit before it turned out she’d been embezzling funds meant for sculpts of the Saints for personal use. Now that he thinks about it, he recalls another von Essar teaching at the academy… He wonders if they’re close, but that thought is cut soon by a realization.

“… What’d that Sapfo do to get here? Her documents were fairly bare.” Those words seem to bring Nermel pause as she glances over her shoulder and straight at him, offering a thoughtful yet puzzled expression before bluntly shrugging her shoulders.

“No idea. She keeps changing up the story. If I had to wager, she’s just some petty criminal and she wants to keep up the whole bravado act as long as she can. Ask Tuscan if you want some official clarification.” She handwaves the whole issue with such a casual attitude that Xerxes can’t help but to feel flabbergasted. She’s meant to lead these people and she can’t even bother to learn about them? Ugh. What’d he done to deserve this. Guess all he could do was walk and follow after her.

-------------------------------------------------------

The Chapel of the White Dove, later that evening…

Xerxes never thought he’d get a crash course on finances from a blacksmith of all people, but he had to agree that this information was quite vital. The Rusted Doves, while theoretically funded straight from Garreg Mach, were often lacking in funds. This translated to a lack of professors and other general staff, not to mention that food had to purely be foraged and farmed. No greenhouses were available, and fishing ponds were but a dream. Battalions could not be funded, and the lack of magical textbooks meant that the magical abilities of the Doves were heavily skewed towards the religious, rather than the reasonable. There was no sauna, no baths… Honestly, no nothing.

Which was incredibly depressing! And, Xerxes thought, rather counterproductive as well. If the goal of this place was to ensure that these misguided youths(?) were to reintegrate into society after paying their penance, then why were they so poorly funded? He had no love for them yet, mind, but this felt very counterproductive. Nermel didn’t have any answers, as always, and just led him into the chapel planted at the very corner of the campsite. Apparently, this was where the sick and wounded came, along with those who needed prayer.

And, according to her, one of her few trusted men spent most of his time here. For such a small chapel, finding him took a large amount of time, eventually making their way down to the cellar. The damp atmosphere and the broken-down barrels which had once contained wine gave Xerxes a sense of unease, but here they finally found one Alfred Vannin, pale shaky hands slowly working on stitching up the wound of a patient. Xerxes lifts a hand to his mouth and gags at the sudden stench that invades his nostrils. So vile… Pungent. Eugh.

Nermel moves over next to the quietly working doctor and squats down, tilting her head. “Boar really got him good, didn’t it? Nice work saving him, Vannin. You’re going the goddess’ work out here… Especially when we need all the blessings she can give for actual battle.” She even gave the man a comforting pat on the shoulder, which was probably the kindest notion he’d seen her perform so far.

“Please,” the soft yet at the same time gravely voice spoke, needlework professional despite the constant shake and stutter of the hands that held it, as if physical problems were completely denied by sheer professionalism. “this is nothing. I’ve worked on much tougher cases… And failed them, of course. I’m just thankful that you let me practice despite knowing the risks.”

Vannin was from Alliance territory, although from the opposite end of where Xerxes was from. Yet, even he had heard of the genius commoner, a doctor who through sheer will and skill rose to such prominence as a doctor without the use of magic. An inspiration to many, he’d quite suddenly disappeared from the limelight after a scandalously catastrophic failure with an important surgery. Honestly, Xerxes had assumed he drank himself to death in a ditch…

… Yet here he was. The genius commoner, working in the cellar of what amounted to a penal colony. Dressed in a tattered and dirty uniform of Garreg Mach with tons of pouches and bags wrapped around his body, no-one could guess that he’d ever been respectable. Shaggy hair that was unkept and dirty down to his back, a full beard that reached down to his pectoral, both it and the hair dark blue- honestly, if not for the fact that he looked like a beggar, Alfred would’ve been a very handsome man.

His musings are paused when Alfred finishes his craft and gently pats the patient on the shoulder, rising with an audible, disgusting creak of his back. He turns to face Xerxes, smiling. Gentle… Yet in a way broken. “You must be the new professor… It’s a pleasure. Alfred Vannin. Please, do take good care of us. I wouldn’t want to risk the lives of my dear allies with my work.” Xerxes took note of how Vannin instantly started to fiddle with the same needle, as if his hands constantly needed to be on the move.

“Ha! Please, sir. I’ve heard of your handiwork, I am a Leicester native after all! Every noble’s heard about the genius commoner in at least passing. With you in tow, I’ll be sure to know that our wounded will be in very good hands.”

Despite the winning smile and the praising tone that Xerxes took, he could see that gentle expression on Alfred’s face die down and then get brought up again in a more stiff, awkward manner. As if his smile was just to be polite now. A little chuckle follows as the pile of hair and robes starts to move, gently patting Xerxes on the head as he passes by. “… Mm. I am glad to hear.”

Man, he can just see the giant arrows going down above the man’s head as he heads upstairs, looking over to Nermel for guidance with the eyes of a kicked puppy. Why can’t anything go right!!! He tried to be nice!!! Nermel folds her arms and shakes her head, whisking her hair to the side for a bit so both eyes can look accusingly at him before the hair then whisks right back, as if magnetically attracted to her right eye.

“You should’ve taken the hint. That accident he had some years back is public knowledge among us, who haven’t heard crap about him otherwise. It’s a big red button, along with his whole reputation… Not that he can actually get mad. Don’t think he has enough self-worth for that.”

Oh, great, he’d gone and made an apparently depressed man even more depressed. Great job. Xerxes really felt like a winner as he headed up the stairs and out the chapel, knowing that Nermel still had one ‘pointman’ to show to him before they’d be done. Coincidentally, the chapel was quite close to the ‘official’ exit from the camp, leading down a swirling path through a valley, which eventually then ended up leading to the village downwards from it.

This village was the main source of news and trade for the Doves, or at least news and trade that wasn’t heavily influenced by the church. Latest rumors from around Fodlan, along with the more exotic goods, flowed through here and into the pockets of those Doves who’d somehow come up with enough valid tender to trade or to buy. And from this valley, and through that path, and then finally through that gate lumbered that supposed point man. Xerxes had an easy time guessing she was the one passed on a simple identifier Nermel had given him-

The fact that she was Almyran.

A decidedly brown tone of skin and the Almyran flair to her uniform that he’d seen while visiting the border made her identity clear. One Lupe, no last name given, a merchant from Almyra that’d been detained by Imperial forces at the great bridge of Myrrdin for supposedly smuggling illegal goods, she’d been moved to the Doves at her own request. A yellow-and-blue sash around her chest and a headband of similar color, along with a braided ponytail… And also, the fact that she was carrying what seemed like a horse’s worth of bought goods. That didn’t remind him of Almyra, mind, but it did sure make his jaw drop.

He just watches her go, a little awestruck. How’d she carry that much? Unlike Nermel her build was not as clearly muscular, and she was carrying some heavy things! He could spot what appeared to be a few swords pointing out from the pile, books, food, items such as bird cages… And she did it all by herself? It’s not until that her brown eyes and smile pierce through his confusion.

“Hey! Wanna come and help? These kiiiinda weigh a ton, and I’m on my last legs! I think I can’t feel them, in fact! I’m gonna collapse soon and if these fall on me it’ll break them AND my bones! Hahaha, I don’t wanna put doc Alfred through that!”

Her cheery tone and the casual wording she used made Xerxes almost take the matter just as casually, but he did have the sense to rush over and help her by grabbing as much as he could, ending up with a leg-breaking load as well. At least they could die and crumple together, but somehow, they managed to get a move on together, hobbling along and into the storage area. After what felt like an eternity of arranging and re-arranging goods, along with throwing away a few mushed down tomatoes, the pair could do nothing but fall down to sit against the storage wall.

“Phew… Thanks a lot, pal! So, what’s your sin? You here for smuggling too? You sure do carry things like a merchant would, despite the noodle arms.” As if to illustrate, Lupe grabbed his arm and stretched it out. His poor muscles screamed out, although he could only cringe and rip his hand away.

“No! Goddess no, I’ve done no crimes… I’m a professor! YOUR professor, mind! Xerxes Tristan Goneril! Ugh, thanks to you I’ve lost my bearings and Nermel-“

He’d expected his name to elicit some reaction from her, not to even mention his profession, but all he got from that was a raspberry and the sight of her bouncing back onto her feet with a jump, dusting off herself before wiping away some sweat. “Pllrt. Don’t sweat the details, Xerxes! I’m sure you’ll find her again in a bit, and if not, I’m sure father Tuscan’s got her location! It’s getting late anyways. We’ve got a big job tomorrow, ya know? Go and turn in.”

For the nth time this day he felt his head getting pet before he watched his student leave the storage building, leaving Xerxes to sit there alone. He was tempted to cry at the absolute death of his authority, but he pushed on up. Lupe had a point, if nothing else- the day was almost at an end, and he should report to father Tuscan regarding meeting Nermel’s chosen few. Then… He could go and sleep, and perhaps consider if he should run away the day after or not.

He steps out and the moon and the stars greet him, the howl of a wolf in the distance perhaps a signal of things that were to come in the way of Xerxes Tristan Goneril’s quiet life as a teacher at the Rusted Doves- after all, father Tuscan already had a mission waiting for him at his office, whether he knew it or not.