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There was a legend Edelgard remembers well. It was in a book she read over and over during the lulls of her childhood and sometimes during the tumultuous parts as well. There had been some joy in imaging a hero of legend from her storybook coming to rescue her when her uncle spirited her away to the kingdom. Ten year old Hubert would have fought both the kingdom and all the nobles in the empire for her if he could, but he was not a hero of legend and no rescue party had come for her.

But Edelgard never expected to be rescued from anything in her life, and her attention turned to the faded pages about a silver haired girl whose shoes she could step into.

The silver haired maiden had cursed blood that she had to hide from the world, lest it turn against her. She loved her country more than anything else even though it was likely to torture her if her secret was ever revealed. She fought for liberation and then for a weak but good hearted king, and she kept fighting even when the great hero of the continent rose his blade against her.

The girl with the silver hair played on the prejudices and fanaticism of the people around her, tried to burn her enemies alive in boiling oil, and vowed she would continue on her path even if she went down in history as the mad queen.

On rereads, Edelgard always stopped a few pages before the end. Divine intervention saved the girl, and no more than a happily ever after was to be said once her personal goddess got involved.

The cathedral looms over the entirety of the monastery, and Edelgard is forced to acknowledge it and everything it stands for every morning.

She stands there, now, at the pile of rubble where worshipers used to gather. There’s a cool breeze flowing in, and the stars shining down through the hole in the ceiling cast a beautiful light that the goddess’s walls had kept out.

Edelgard thinks that if there is a god watching her, she’ll pluck their eyes out.

Hubert is twenty-five now, and he has killed more kingdom soldiers and empire nobles in her name than she can count. He looks at her in her full armor and worries about the night chill affecting her health. He knows better than anyone that she is made of steel, and Edelgard can never quite decide if she wants to reprimand or thank him whenever he pretends to forget that fact.

Tonight she thanks him and says it will be just a minute more. Hubert hovers and watches her while she watches the sky.

The introduction of her storybook had said there were many worlds out there, shining ones and blighted ones. In the earliest hours of the still dark morning, Edelgard wonders what her life would be like if she could switch places with the silver haired maiden and live on a shining star. In the daylight, she lifts her axe with one hand and cuts the archbishop’s general of the day into two halves.

Byleth tucks a strand of her own bloodied hair behind her ear and offers Edelgard a handkerchief to clean her crown after the battle. “The emperor should look…” Byleth always pauses in conversation, Edelgard has noticed. She always takes a second before saying whatever Edelgard needs to hear. “Untouchable when she pronounces her victory.”

“It wouldn’t due to look like I just clawed my way out of hell, no.” She takes the handkerchief and stares at its worn pattern, the crest of Seiros embroidered in delicate needlework. Edelgard recalls that it was likely a thank you gift from Flayn. “Even if that is rather close to the truth.”

“All the more reason to hide the evidence,” Byleth says. “Still, you did well today. Not a step out of place.”

Edelgard smiles. “I’m a little old to be praised by my professor for my footwork, aren’t I?”

“You are, but still—not one mistake from you.” Byleth looks somewhere over her shoulder to Hubert gathering the surviving empire soldiers together. “I think the emperor is needed.”

“I always am somewhere. There aren’t enough hours in the day.”

Byleth smiles to herself and takes the handkerchief into her own hands to clean a spot Edelgard had missed. Edelgard stares back into Byleth’s strange green eyes while they fixate somewhere else. For all of Byleth’s stoicism, it was the odd, intimate moments like these that always made Edelgard question if her quiet want for her old teacher’s favor was more than wishful thinking.

“Like it was never there,” Byleth says. The crest of Seiros in her hand is smeared with blood. “Untouchable.”

-

Edelgard stopped being a child as soon as she set foot underground.

Before the battle of Garreg Mach, she learned many of her peers were still children, or at least intent on being as mindlessly childish as possible.

Claude declared that she fussed over the students in her house too much and looked like a puffed up bird whenever she got defensive on their behalf. He alternated between clucking at her and making quacking noises whenever a few of the Black Eagles trailed after her.

It’s petty, but after having to explain Claude’s comparison to hens and ducks to Petra in excruciating detail, Edelgard deeply wished that those bandits had been just a little quicker in their mission to cave his skull in. Next time she vowed she’d have Hubert scout out the nearby territory of their ambush point for any unfortunately helpful mercenaries beforehand. The only question was when she would get a next time.

Edelgard did feel a little bad for Claude and Dimitri during their academy days. Claude saw her as an ally—or at least a potential one—Dimitri saw her as family, and she saw them as disposable. But she also felt bad for her deceased sister who had spent her last moments screaming and tearing her own hair out in bloody clumps, and she felt bad for all the students of Garreg Mach whose lives had been ruined by Crests in one way or another, and she felt bad for herself and how some nights she absolutely had to leave her room or she’d be back underground again.

She did like the Black Eagles, though, and while Hubert began nearly every private meeting with a reminder that they are just playing the role of students, she thought he does as well. At least, he offered to slip poison into Claude’s food whenever he annoyed her but brushed off Ferdinand’s boasting, Caspar’s yelling, and Dorothea’s flirting with a multitude of long suffering sighs.

Byleth drank tea with everyone from every house on their birthday. Edelgard had a cup with Hubert whenever they were to discuss a stepping stone on her blood paved path. She’d come to associate the taste of her favorite tea with stress headaches, but that is a small sacrifice even if it caused Byleth to ask if she was feeling alright when Edelgard spent her birthday party grimacing.

But Byleth gave Claude and his birthday a token of her time on the 24th of the Blue Sea Moon, and Edelgard spent the afternoon debating the merits of a second attempt on his life.

There was always a brief pause before their storm of planning while Hubert took the moment to sip his tea and wish his lady preferred coffee. Edelgard disrupted that quiet, and asked him, “What do you think of the Black Eagles?”

He raised both eyebrows. “I believe I already told you my thoughts on their current martial prowess earlier today. Unless I am misunderstanding your question?”

“The fault is mine—poor phrasing on my part. I meant to ask your opinion of them as people.”

Hubert regarded her for another moment before chuckling under his breath. “They are acceptable enough. If you are intending to establish any friendships for me, I must decline.”

Edelgard’s lips quirked into a smile. “Because of your distaste for all people and not because of any fault of their own?”

“Correct, Lady Edelgard,” he said. “However, I would add the addendum that I am preoccupied with matters more important than crafting friendships at the moment. As are you.”

“I’m well aware, but if we weren’t,” Edelgard pressed, “what would your answer be?”

Hubert gave her one of his sympathetic smiles—a gesture no other human was likely to ever be on the receiving end of from him. “I suppose I would say that having intolerable allies is an exceptionally irritating situation to be in, and,” he pulled a letter from his pocket and the sight of the handwriting on the envelope alone started the familiar pounding in Edelgard’s head. “I am glad we are not facing that on every front. At least Solon is prompt in his correspondence.”

Edelgard squeezed her eyes shut for one brief moment of reprieve before accepting it from him. “He wants materials for some horrific spell?” she sneered upon finishing the letter. “Tell him no, and that he was a fool to even think of requesting such a thing from us.”

“He offered a proposal on its use,” Hubert replied, always calm in the face of horror. “There is little even the archbishop could do if she were to be trapped in an unending void of darkness.”

“And that would be fine. I take issue with placing such power into the hands of someone who slithers in the dark.”

“I assumed as much, but if someone else were to—”

“If you could manage that level of magic safely yourself,” Edelgard said, “then we wouldn’t be having this conversation, Hubert. The archbishop and all of her supporters would have been cast into the darkness years ago.”

“Perhaps.” To Hubert’s credit, he did not betray even a touch of distress, as was his manner. “However, I have trained much since our arrival here. And with time and the monastery’s own tools, it is likely to become a possibility—one I think we should consider.”

Hubert would never ask for a kind word from her. He would think himself a failure if Edelgard was ever to reach across the distance between them and offer him her hand. “Hubert, I have asked a lot of you ever since we were children, but I will never ask nor allow you to kill yourself, no matter how much you think it would further our cause.” A request of Hubert as a friend who cares deeply for him would never get her anywhere. Edelgard said, “And I order you as emperor of the Adrestian Empire not to destroy yourself with black magic before I have even claimed my crown.”

He nodded his head. “As you wish.”

She crumpled Solon’s letter in her fist. “It’s for the best anyway. Power like that is exactly what I am trying to rid this world of. Nothing good can come from the involvement of blood magic or gods or,” she shook her head, “anything inhuman.”

“You are aware that after we begin our plans in earnest, many will claim we are inhuman.”

“I’ve been prepared for that since I was old enough to pronounce the word ‘Crest.’”

“And I am as well. However, if you ever require me to—”

“I would never ask you to do anything I was not prepared to do myself, either,” Edelgard said. Conversations over how to rein in the darkness, whether within or without, always turned to silence.

Edelgard did not consider herself a humorous person. Dorothea’s forced laughter and unsubtle elbowing of Caspar after his blunt claim that her poor excuse for a joke wasn’t even a little funny did enough to convince her to never attempt comedy again. And yet, she couldn’t resist trying to inject a little light into their darkness now and then. “However,” she said. “Given your ability to tolerate Ferdinand for hours at the stable every weekend—”

Hubert pinched the bridge of his nose. “Do not remind me of—”

“I’d say there’s something inhuman in you.” Her lips quirked into a smile. “Us mortals shrivel up after about ten minutes of exposure.”

Hubert smiled, then. “You do not give yourself enough credit. Bernadetta did stalk you for the entire afternoon yester—”

Edelgard tipped her head back and groaned, and Hubert chuckled under his breath.

As children, one of their games had been to impersonate their fathers having serious conversations about serious things. Going back and forth with poor impressions of empire officials and their classmates alike was an indulgence Edelgard didn’t think she would ever truly grow out of.

At the end of it, she sighed, a smile still on her face as said, “They will be quite upset when their families are imprisoned.”

“From what I have heard, I am doubtful of that, Lady Edelgard.” Hubert took another sip from his cup. “But even if they are, they will likely credit your good will as the reason for why they will continue to draw breath at all. It is no mystery what a less merciful ruler would do.”

“Perhaps.” She stared off out the window, towards the cathedral. “They’ll have to believe I have an ounce of good in me first.”

Hubert did not answer immediately. The possibility of complete isolation lingered in both of their minds even on their brightest days at the academy. “If they are followers worthy of you, then they will continue to walk at your side without hesitation.”

Edelgard was rarely unsure of going through with the plans she had started concocting after stepping back out into the sun, alive and with blood boiled by flames. “‘Walk by my side…’ I pray they will.” She let out a short laugh. “Though I doubt the goddess would have any interest in granting that request.”

“Nothing good can come from involving gods, Lady Edelgard.”

Edelgard answered his sardonic smile with one of her own. “A wise phrase.”

“It was said by a very wise person.”

“Yes, it was.” She returned to her tea, finally shifting away from the cathedral altogether. “And in my wisdom, I think the world could always use a few more heretics.”

-

The monastery was littered with cats. Edelgard doesn’t have a particular fondness for animals, but she was grateful for their presence. Her biggest regret, perhaps, after seizing Garreg Mach is that with the decrease in their numbers, rats now scurry the halls.

Claude teased her endlessly over her silly, spoiled princess fear. Even compassionate Dorothea would comment on her cute squeaks at seeing one before offering comfort. Edelgard knows she can’t hold their reactions against them, however much the burning, angry part of herself wanted her to.

Hubert and then Byleth years later were the only two who she ever told her story to. A dead rat had rot on the ground in front of her cell until its brethren descended to feast upon its remains. The rats would already bite at her feet if she wasn’t careful to smack them away with her tiny fists, and Edelgard knew she was one botched experiment away from becoming the rat corpse the others would devour. Sometimes she still is in her dreams.

But it was a silly, cute fear. A fake rat was snuck into her room once, and the only reason there wasn’t a murder at the academy was because she managed to convince Hubert to not waste time tracking down the culprit. He would have likely killed them on the spot, and nothing would have infuriated Edelgard more than being deprived the opportunity of driving her axe’s head into her tormenter’s neck.

It remained a mystery, but she suspected it was Claude, and she separated his head from his body a few hours ago. He had wished her all the best, and his blood had been searing.

The Alliance was a casualty of war alongside many of their former classmates. Byleth had a strange look on her face after they seized Derdriu. She didn’t bother with making an excuse, merely stating that she would go for a walk but stay within sight of camp.

The necessary post battle tasks that Edelgard could not delegate to Hubert dragged on almost until sunset. A small price for conquering a nation’s capital. When the opportunity presented itself, she made the same excuse and wandered the same guarded path as Byleth.

Edelgard loved nature and majestic skylines. The destruction of both in their army’s wake was another price to pay for her war, but Byleth had managed to find one overlooking point that was somehow untouched.

Edelgard does not announce her presence, but Byleth seems to already know she is there. The clicking of her boots, Edelgard thinks, or perhaps intuition. Byleth says, “You did well again today. Though…” she pauses. “Hit and run tactics from five wyvern riders could fell anyone. Even if besting Nader would turn the battle in our favor, there is little use in rushing to him if you are swarmed by reinforcements en route.”

Edelgard raises both eyebrows. “Agreed, however I cannot recall anyone attempting to take on Nader’s forces in those numbers.”

“No,” Byleth says. She finally turns back, her eyes lowered to Edelgard’s feet and wistful. “Just something to think about. Would you like to sit with me?”

Edelgard would and she complies with only a brief comment of, “you say the strangest things sometimes, my teacher.”

“I do,” Byleth confesses with a smile in her eyes but not on her lips. “Perhaps what I meant to say was… I’m glad such a fate did not befall you, and I am glad that you and everyone else can continue to live and speak with me and be baffled by the strange things I say.”

“And I am as well.”

“I wish…” Byleth says and lets the words linger in the air.

Edelgard does not interrupt the silence. She has her guesses, however. Edelgard had heard Byleth, even less emotive than usual during battle, curse under her breath when Bernadetta’s arrow struck far harder than anyone had been expecting and pierced straight through to Hilda Goneril’s heart. Edelgard remembers her as little more than the silly girl with an even poorer work ethic than Linhardt, always hanging around Claude and tricking Ferdinand into doing her cleaning assignments. She had no notion that she and Byleth were close, nor that the professor would continue the rest of the battle with a new grimness following her death.

“It was necessary,” Byleth says. “I only wish our enemies would retreat when they know they have no hope rather than fighting on to their death. You agree with that, don’t you?”

“I believe I’ve said similar to Hubert in private, yes,” Edelgard says. “That also seemed to be Claude’s philosophy. It was hard not to hear his shouts for his troops to retreat rather than risk death.”

Byleth nods. “Perhaps that is what I wish—that more of his army listened.”

“I do as well,” Edelgard says, watching Byleth as Byleth watches the sunset. “I find that… I am of two minds when I think of this war and the death it brings. I think the cost of human life will haunt me for the rest of the days, but still… there is something oddly comforting about knowing everyone here believes strongly enough in me that they are willing to die for my cause.” She shakes her head. “Though I pray it will never come to that, of course.”

There’s another silence as Byleth seems to be fond of them. “It won’t,” she says. “No one will fall. I swear it.”

Edelgard has avoided making such statements in the past. The lofty promise makes the inevitable failure all the more difficult to pull through, but Byleth doesn’t have a touch of doubt in her expression.

Byleth says, “Hilda’s death was necessary. She would have killed Linhardt if we hadn’t struck her down first.”

Edelgard admits that was a possibility. Byleth insists it was a certainty.

“Claude as well,” Byleth says on their way back to camp, so much later in the night that Edelgard has almost completely lost the thread of their initial conversation. “We missed our window to deal with him peacefully. We couldn’t afford any mistakes at that point either.”

Edelgard isn’t sure what that means, but she does know Byleth always seems tenser at a battle’s end even if every preceding fight had gone perfectly in her mind. “I’m not sure if there’s ever a time in the heat of battle when I’d prefer we make a mistake.”

She’s met with one of Byleth’s usual small, mysterious smiles. “Agreed.”

-

If Edelgard were to feel gratitude to Ferdinand for anything, it would be for how he is so unlike his father that she wouldn’t believe the two were related if not for the shared shock of red hair. The lack of similarities is likely what eases her ability to follow through on her noble promise of vowing not to let the sins of the father weigh on her judgment of the child. She is still plagued by the occasional dark thought that the Insurrection of the Seven should have been satisfied with giving their own children over to experimentation if they were that desperate for power instead of forcing her siblings underground.

But while Ferdinand boasts about many things, his Crest and his father’s work never seem to come up in his lists of accomplishments, and Edelgard knows he has many, many lists. She’s seen them first hand to the point of nausea.

The paper in his hands was not one of them, and silence was not Ferdinand’s usual state either. For all her grace, solemnity, and poise, Edelgard could not deny that she was still an endlessly curious person. “News from home?”

Ferdinand jumped at her voice before folding the letter away from her prying eyes. “N-No, of course not. My father only writes me once a month, so news from home or anything of the like would be impossible, and—”

Hubert, ever at her side, jutted his chin towards the letter Ferdinand was inadvertently waving around in his panic. “You received a letter that just happens to bear the von Aegir seal from someplace else then?”

Ferdinand paused, looked at the letter in horror before sighing, slouching his shoulders in a notably un-noble way. “If you don’t wish to say anything, you don’t need to force yourself to,” Edelgard said. “I doubt either Hubert or I will suffer for not prying into your family matters. I only asked because you looked… troubled.”

“It…” He took one second to gather himself then seemed to bounce back all at once from his demolished state. “It is really only a trifling thing. Highly likely to trip up nobles less noble than myself, but perhaps it would be in your best interest to know, given it affects, ah…”

Hubert raised an eyebrow, obviously just as interested as Edelgard in whatever could possibly make Ferdinand run out of words. “If it affects Lady Edelgard, it would be in your best interest to spit it out and cease wasting our time.”

“Not Edelgard,” Ferdinand huffs. “Bernadetta. My father received a new proposal from her father, and I… have to answer.”

“A proposal?” Edelgard asked.

Ferdinand seemed to lose the ability to make eye contact, instead fixating on the letter in his hands. “Of marriage. Her father attempted to set something up once in the past before either of us knew each other, and given our mutual attendance at the Officer’s Academy, he likely thought now would be an opportune time to try again.”

“Oh.”

Edelgard knew marriage was always in the back of most students’ minds, given Garreg Mach’s secondary purpose as a gathering of the young and wealthy, but the idea that an engagement could actually take place among her friends while they still attended classes and ate in the dining hall and slept in tiny dorm rooms did not seem real. Given how pale Ferdinand had become upon receiving his mail that morning, she doubted it has seemed possible to him either.

“Well,” Edelgard said, clearing her throat. “If your father accepted your rejection once, I see no reason why he wouldn’t tolerate it now.”

“It is not my family I am worried about,” he said. “I did not know the state of Bernadetta’s home life the first time. I had only heard the rumors about her hiding in her room all day and making cursed dolls. I thought there would be greater consequences to saying yes than no, but…”

What likely happened at the von Varley household on that day hung in the air.

Ferdinand shakes his head, forcing a smile back on his face, though still unable to quite meet either Edelgard or Hubert’s gazes. “But that is all of no matter. Politically, it is very sensible, and even if she has an… unorthodox nature, Bernadetta is very kind, and it is always noble to assist a friend in need. Well, I will be off to deliver her the, ah, happy news.”

He fumbles to stand from his desk and strides out of the classroom, seeming to have recovered himself by the time he makes it to the exit. “A peculiar situation,” Hubert said, staring after him. “I can’t recall many nobles treating marriage as a favor between friends. Your thoughts, Lady Edelgard?”

“I have quite a few, but most of them are just about how the system of nobility is a blight on even the nobles,” she said. “And I think Bernadetta and Ferdinand would both agree with that right now, and preaching to the choir does little.”

“For most yes,” he said. “But you are the emperor.”

“Not yet, Hubert. I don’t have the power to force the nobility to do anything.”

Hubert smirked as if enjoying a private joke. “But you can lie to their children.”

Edelgard thought on it for only a second before smiling back.

They found Ferdinand outside of Bernadetta’s door attempting to tell her there was no need for panic as the sounds of her panic carried across the entire dormitory landing. Over her hysterics, he managed to stammer, “I-I will slide the note under the door, so you can see for yourself, and—”

“There is no need,” Edelgard said on her approach.

“W-What? Why not?” Bernadetta asked. “Ferdinand kept saying it was no big deal over and over again so it has to be really important! Wha—is it an assassination plan like the one we found against Lady Rhea!? O-Or is someone declaring war on the empire!? Ahh—I can’t fight in a war!”

Edelgard barely held back her grimace at the declaration. “It is nothing,” Hubert said for her.

Ferdinand furrowed his brow at him. “How can you say it is nothing? I know you are not fond of me or Bernadetta—”

“S-So that’s it! It’s Hubert! Aughhh! I knew he would try to kill me one day!”

“—But even you must have more sympathy than to write this off as ‘nothing.’”

Hubert rolled his eyes. “It is not a matter of sympathy or dislike, but rather that Lady Edelgard has yet to give her blessing.”

There was a moment of silence before Bernadetta’s voice carried through her door. “Edelgard has to give a blessing? Is she… joining the monastery?”

Her words broke the spell. “Oh absolutely not,” Edelgard laughed. “And no one here will be going to the monastery to ask for the goddess’s approval any time soon.”

“Edelgard?” Ferdinand said, struck dumb once again.

“For unions of such high ranking families, the emperor should get a say, don’t you think?” She said. “And given the numerous distractions that we all know would happen, I cannot approve of this arrangement while we are still at the academy.”

“O-Oh, of course!” Ferdinand said. “How foolish of you not to mention so earlier, Edelgard. Clearly you need to review your—”

“Wait—what’s going on?”

“—responsibilities as the future emperor. If you had been a second later, poor Bernadetta would have been worried to death over nothing!”

“What would have worried me to death!?”

Hubert narrowed his eyes. “Are you really lecturing Lady Edelgard now after the favor she just paid you?”

“It was not a lecture. I was merely trying to suggest—”

“It was foolish of me to expect a sensible response from someone like—”

“Someone please explain what’s going on!”

Edelgard sighed at the chaos. Hubert and Ferdinand could argue over nothing for hours, and her contribution to calming Bernadetta down was to wave the two away to bicker somewhere else.

“So, um,” Bernadetta said once their voices faded down the hall. “What just happened?”

“Some manipulations by your father that likely would have made your life miserable.”

“Oh… that sounds like him…”

“It’s solved now, though, so don’t pay it anymore mind.”

“But,” Bernadetta stammered. “Y-You said that you were stopping it until we graduated? After that—”

“After that, I’ll take matters into my own hands,” Edelgard said. “I know I may seem cold sometimes, but I will fight for you if you ever ask, Bernadetta. I know you are also not a particularly religious person, but don’t waste your time praying to any higher power to come save you when my room is just upstairs.”

There is a moment of silence. “Thank you, Edelgard—but… isn’t that a little bit blasphemous?”

Edelgard laughed again. “Just a little. But take my words to heart, okay? I’m better in a fight than I seem.”

“B-But you’re already really, really good in a fight!”

“Good enough to fight the goddess?”

“That’s definitely blasphemy!”

Though Bernadetta could not see, Edelgard’s eyes sparkled with mirth. “Not if you win.”

-

Caspar always fights on the front lines. Even if he barely managed to stay on his feet after her retaliation, Edelgard has a fond memory of him sucker punching Rhea in the face twice with his spiked gauntlets. She has less fond thoughts that he’ll likely be the first of the Black Eagles to die. But as Caspar fights more, Linhardt fights less, always staying a few paces back, his hands aglow the moment any weapon even grazes Caspar’s form.

Faith magic has always been a curious thing to Edelgard. Linhardt is not religious like Manuela or the strange girl, Flayn, who had waltzed in and out of their class. Linhardt had subjected the entire class to scolding for falling asleep during the routine sermons to the point where Edelgard hardly remembers them making it through a single service without seeing Seteth red in the face. Even if faith was more than that, Edelgard did not think Linhardt simply lacked the drive to be a good follower of Seiros in practice but was a true believer at heart.

Edelgard had long since had quiet doubts that it was the goddess granting such life saving power. If Hubert could create darkness from nothing but the depths of his mind and Dorothea call fire from the skies out of sheer devotion to her friends, then Edelgard believed Linhardt could draw his faith from somewhere else.

It was rare in battle that Caspar did not take the worst of it, and Byleth welded him and Linhardt together to keep him standing against the rain of blows. Linhardt takes the fighting harder than almost anyone else. Edelgard wonders if it has anything to do with watching Caspar’s back every fight, knowing he is the only thing standing between his oldest friend and death.

They all knew the church would try to take back Garreg Mach at some point, but the sudden ambush is still a surprise when it finally strikes.

Caspar and Linhardt seem to be managing the left side fairly well by themselves with minimal assistance of Petra flying back and forth when needed. Edelgard hears Manuela whisper a quick thanks to the goddess that Lysithea joined when she did, bringing another healer into the fold. With the two supporting them, the fight stays in their favor, even when they’re outnumbered or Ferdinand’s horse can’t charge through the bushes as fast as Byleth would like or Dorothea takes a nasty strike from a pegasus knight that sends her to her knees.

Manuela rushes over to her side when it happens, chanting to her that she will be fine, Petra’s already disposing of the horrible thing, the fight will be over soon. Byleth nods along with her whisperings until her eyes flash.

“Professor Manuela,” she says. “Caspar needs you. Hurry over there with a ward spell as fast as you can.”

Manuela blinks at the command. “Are there mages on the left side, professor?”

“There will be.”

Edelgard stares at Byleth as Manuela mutters to herself. “Petra didn’t say anything about that, and she was there just moments ago—”

“Professor,” Edelgard says. “There is no time for debate.”

Manuela pauses only a second more for Dorothea to insist she will be fine on her own before rushing over to fight troops no one but Byleth seems to know exist.

Edelgard turns to her. “My teacher—”

Byleth stares past her. “They should be fine now.”

Dorothea looks as confused as Edelgard feels, but there is no time for questions in the heat of battle.

After Seteth falls, already deep in despair from something that most have escaped Edelgard’s notice, Petra swoops down to their side.

“We have gotten our objective with no casualties, Professor,” she reports. “However, Professor Manuela said Caspar will be lying—er, needs to lie down in the infirmary. Flayn’s sudden attack had great might.”

“Flayn?” Edelgard asks.

“She had sudden appearing right after Professor Manuela arrived to be assisting,” Petra frowns. “Linhardt has yet to learn any spells that protect from magic, though he vowed to be learning them soon. Caspar likely would have been… would have fallen had they been facing Flayn alone.”

Edelgard manages to conceal her shock with a nod of her head. “I see. Tell Caspar he did well and should take all the rest he needs. Insist on it when he argues with you, too.”

Petra smiles. “Linhardt has already achieved that. He has quite a few arguments in hand—on hand in favor of napping.”

Edelgard smiles back. “I’m sure he does. If you would mind doing me another favor, please check on Dorothea. She’s fine now, but she was quite shaken earlier.”

“The fighting is a hardness on her,” Petra says. “She and Linhardt take it the worst.”

“All the more reason to stay by her side.”

Petra dismisses herself with a bow and hurries off. Byleth is only a few paces away and says, “Petra is right,” after she leaves.

“I know,” Edelgard says. “I think everyone knows.”

For all Edelgard admires her, Byleth is creepy sometimes with her analytical voice. “Dorothea would fight on if someone close to her died, but Linhardt would shut down in the middle of battle.”

Edelgard is better at holding back her grimaces these days. “You speak with such certainty.”

“I do.”

Byleth begins to walk away, already finished with their exchange. “That was a good call,” Edelgard calls after her. “About Flayn and her reinforcements. You knew before our scouts.”

“I did.”

“Care to illuminate how?”

Byleth smiles, small, mysterious. “You’re beginning to sound like Hubert.”

“Only when I feel someone is keeping secrets from me,” Edelgard answers. “I do trust you, and I trust that you trust me.”

“That is good to hear.” Byleth’s smile grows just a bit larger. “I’m glad to know I walk this maze for a reason.”

No more is said. Edelgard paces her room that night debating whether or not she should ask Hubert to place a spy or two on Byleth. She collapses into bed deciding to keep true to her word of trust.

Besides, she has little doubt Hubert already has their enigmatic professor under surveillance. All that comes back from the reports she steals off Hubert’s desk are trips to the pond to fish. Flayn would be pleased, Edelgard thinks.

-

Whenever Byleth would assign essays, Edelgard was always impressed at the quality of Petra’s. Though speaking escaped her, she was true to her word in that her writing was near flawless.

“The difficulty I find,” Edelgard overheard Petra say, her voice echoing off the walls of the cathedral. “Is that when speaking, I need to speak with fastness. It makes me seem with confidence.”

Edelgard turned her head at Dorothea’s hum. Petra and Dorothea were in the pews, a piece of parchment in Petra’s hands as she puzzled out how to phrase her request for advice.

It was not the strangest thing Edelgard had heard in the few times she wandered the goddess’s most hallowed halls. Alois attempting to tell the archbishop and true supreme leader of Fodlan a pun was always an amusing sight, if only for the sheer audacity. There was also Claude’s casual blasphemy that he so exuded from his every pore that he couldn’t stop even when standing in the saints’ shadows. And then there was the confessional. Edelgard once caught Hubert putting in a message about how he wanted to be a pegasus knight.

The most peculiar things happen right under the goddess’s nose.

“That is true,” Dorothea said. “There are a lot of empty headed nobles who get away with seeming smart by talking fast.”

“But I do not seem smart when I talk fast,” Petra said. “My speaking has many errors because I do not slow down to think with correctness. But if I fall… falter…”

“Anyone who would think less of you would be foolish to,” Edelgard said, striding over to them. “Everyone who knows you is more than aware of your intelligence.”

“Ah, Edie,” Dorothea said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before. Do you need some advice, too? Or,” she clapped her hands together, “are you here to finally accept my invitation to choir practice?”

Edelgard answered her with a smile. “Maybe some other time—I’m afraid the hymns still don’t really speak to me.”

“Edie,” Dorothea said. “It’s not about what the hymns ‘say’ to you. It’s about singing, and I’m sure someone as lovely as you has to have a wonderful voice, right Petra?”

“Dorothea speaks with much flattery,” Petra said. “But she is not wrong about…” she furrowed her brow. “I do not have memory of the exact word, but I do not know the hymns either. They lack meaning to me.”

Dorothea frowned, turning her head this way and that. “I understand what you mean, but this might not be the best place to say things like that.”

“Ah, my apologies.”

“Then we can lower our voices,” Edelgard said. “I’d like to continue this conversation, if you don’t mind. If you get in trouble, I can take the blame for leading you astray, Dorothea.”

To Edelgard’s surprise, she was met with a laugh. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ve been astray for a long time now. Still, best to keep our voices down.”

“I agree,” Petra said. “I do not know the goddess, but I have understanding that…” she whipped her head around, her long braid swinging with the quick motions. “That it is important to. That is why Dorothea taught me the hymns.”

“No, I taught you the hymns because I knew you’d have a lovely voice,” Dorothea said. “And even if they don’t mean anything to you, you can get other joy out of them. I know I do.”

Edelgard raised an eyebrow. “I never knew you were so irreligious, Dorothea.”

“Neither did I,” Petra chimed in. “You seemed to have much excitement when you were talking about the choir and the cathedral.”

Dorothea paused, her lips twisted into an uncomfortable frown. It’s an expression Edelgard thought she had only seen on Dorothea once before—when some of the guards were talking about the things she must have done to slip her way into a place locked up tight by nobles and wealth.

“Well,” Dorothea said. “I do like it here. Even if your faith is… fractured, it’s hard not to think it’s beautiful. It reminds me of the better parts of my childhood.”

“You spent a lot of time in churches?”

Dorothea’s eyes were distant. “On rainy days.”

Petra furrowed her brow, very aware she was missing whatever the truth behind Dorothea’s words was. “It means,” Edelgard said before Petra could ask. “That Dorothea has had a difficult life.”

“Oh,” Petra looked down at her lap, clutching her still blank confessional note tight. “My apologies.”

“There’s really no need, Petra,” Dorothea said. “And no need to throw a pity party either. I’m here, and I can sing as much as I want—nothing about that deserves pity.”

“If that’s what you’re concerned about then, be at ease,” Edelgard said. “I don’t think I could ever pity someone as strong and capable as you.”

Edelgard was met with another laugh and flutter of eyelashes. “And you said I was a flatterer, Petra. Just listen to Edie!”

“She speaks with truth.”

Dorothea laughed and protested again and showered the two of them with more compliments. “But really, compared to the two of you, I’m nothing. If something bad were to happen, I’m sure I’d fall apart like a house of cards.”

“Like a house of… Playing cards!”

They’re shushed by someone in a distant corner of the cathedral. It only made their giggling louder.

“Also, you know that’s not true at all, Dorothea,” Edelgard said. “You know it takes far more strength to be compassionate. That’s the kind of strength I hope to achieve.”

“Compassion…” Petra hummed. “I would like more of that as well. Where does one obtain that strength?”

“Well, I think both of you have no idea what you’re talking about since you’re some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met,” Dorothea said, always the first with compliments. “But I’m afraid I don’t really have an answer for you. Most would probably say the church, but…”

She looked up to the domed ceiling. “From somewhere else, then,” Edelgard said. “The opera maybe?”

“Oh no. The opera was full of backstabbers and schemes. Of course, that’s also what made it fun.”

“Maybe Edelgard meant when you sing,” Petra said. “You said that brought joy.”

“I did, and it does,” Dorothea said. “That’s why I keep telling you to come to choir. The words don’t matter, just how much fun you’re having and how you feel. If you don’t like the ‘real’ meaning, you can just ignore it and appreciate it for what does come alive to you.”

“I think I have understanding,” Petra said. “There is a saying in Brigid, ah, ‘birds do not sing because they have answers, but because they have songs.’ Is it something like that?”

Dorothea smiled, something genuine and rare sparking in her eyes. “It does. Just between us, I don’t think any song, person, or,” another look around and a lowering of her voice, “goddess has all the answers. Or even an answer. Or if they do, then I haven’t met them yet.”

“No answers…” Petra said, staring hard at her paper.

Edelgard leaned over Dorothea to take the paper and quill from Petra’s hands. “It still wouldn’t hurt to ask for some, though. What question did you have in mind, Petra?”

“Oh, that’s right. We got you so horribly off track.”

“There is no need for apologies,” Petra said. “I was going to ask something for myself, but now…” she paused before taking the paper back from Edelgard.

Dorothea looked over her shoulder, both eyebrows raised high as she said, “Good thing Seteth doesn’t check these.”

“It is unlikely he would be having recognition of my handwriting,” Petra answered.

“And mine, as well,” Dorothea murmured before taking the quill into her own hands.

Edelgard barely saw the message before Petra folded it in two.

Does the goddess sing?

And below in Dorothea’s hand, Would she sing for me?

-

Hubert’s spies always have a clean report on his desk about the general mood of the soldiers and common folk alike all the way from Garreg Mach to Sreng. He writes briefs and summarizes its contents to her during meetings and whenever prompted, dutiful as ever. Edelgard still snatches it in full whenever her curiosity consumes her whether Hubert is present or not.

He does not stop her, nor look up from what other document he is working on, yet his face darkens. “A warning, Lady Edelgard,” he says. “Shamir is a blunter reporter than I am.”

“Then you should learn a thing or two from her,” Edelgard says. “You can’t really think me so delicate as to need your protection from mean words and idle gossip, Hubert.”

“I do not. I just think it is a waste of your time to worry over matters I have already made headway in solving.”

Edelgard would argue with him, but they have been having this fight since she was ten and he was twelve. Hubert had changed in many subtle ways Edelgard assumed only her eyes picked up since the war’s beginning. He had softened to Byleth and all of the Black Eagles once they had joined them in pointing their blades to the heavens. The point of no return had been so grand, even Hubert couldn’t help but extend a fraction of trust once they were on the other side in the ruins of the monastery.

He still wouldn’t hesitate to maim, torture, or kill anyone who stood in her way, but Edelgard got the feeling he’d be rather upset about it if a member of their strike force did find themselves on the wrong side of her path. Edelgard wouldn’t argue with him about that. Her vision made it necessary, and she knew the truly sickening reports would never reach her sight. Edelgard was never sure whether to be infuriated or grateful for that.

“These potential conspiracies?”

“Already investigated and the probable ones disbanded with prominent figures disposed of.”

Edelgard hums then laughs at the next page. “‘Rumors the emperor’s tactician is a vampire.’”

Hubert rolls his eyes. “And here I thought I had left such childish accusations behind.”

“You would if you stopped lurking around in the dark.”

“And I will once I am the only one there.”

“No, you won’t. Absolute peace could come to the entire world, and you’d still keep your networks overworked.”

Hubert pauses for a second in his writing, shrugs, and says, “Most likely.”

Edelgard smiles, feeling nostalgic all of a sudden. “Dimitri once said that it was naïve to assume there was a dagger in every shadow. Do you remember that, Hubert?”

“You told me he said it after our failed assassination attempt, your Majesty.” He scowls. “Also I resent being called naïve even in jest.”

She turns another page. “And even by me?”

It’s rare she manages to provoke a long suffering sigh from Hubert, and her lips quirk into a smile. “I would tolerate it.”

“And the others? I’m sure I’ve heard Ferdinand say something of that nature once or twice.”

“And he has my resentment.”

“Does he now?”

Hubert sighs again. Edelgard doesn’t bother to hide her laughter. It’s a small miracle of their own creation that a day where she can tease Hubert, of all people, about being affectionate has come.

Their official statement about the fate of Arianrhod had been disseminated and accepted by the rest of the Imperial army, and the report in her hands indicated as such. With their plans to march on Fhirdiad reaching the final stages, Edelgard couldn’t help but take a sigh of relief. It was a good day that seemed to promise her dreams of leisure where she could relax in her room and gorge herself on sweets were in a very near future.

She flipped to another page, and her good humor faded. The noble and holy king of Faerghus declared he would have her head and mount it on a pike along with the other infidels for all to see in a public appearance. The applause had been uproarious.

Edelgard says, “Rhea dawned the appearance of Saint Seiros.”

Hubert nods. “She did.”

And then in her speech she announced her own intentions to rip Byleth’s traitorous heart from her chest with her bear hands before burning the empire and every heathen within it alive. The people’s reaction is not noted, and without prompting Hubert provides, “Shamir’s agent had to flee shortly after. The crowd got rowdy, and with the witch hunts in Faerghus for Imperial spies—”

“We would not have a report if they did not retreat.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

This was Edelgard’s war, and all bloodshed would be on her hands. Yet chivalrous Dimitri had somehow become even more mired in the sheer gore of it all. His dagger still laid in the bottom drawer of her bedroom desk, and with each report, her dreams of it leaping of its own will to fulfill his promise of chopping her head off felt increasingly real.

She closes her eyes and closes the report. Her mind couldn’t quite fall to pieces yet.

“Something curious, your Majesty,” Hubert says. “Whenever Rhea speaks of Byleth, she always mentions her heart.”

If it were anyone but Hubert, Edelgard would likely dismiss the seemingly random observation out of hand. “I suppose that is an oddity,” she says after a moment of consideration. “Dimitri is always more varied in his threats of bodily harm. Have you uncovered some rhyme or reason behind it?”

“No,” Hubert says. “But it is a point of interest, and on matters concerning our former professor, I have learned to defer to you.”

Edelgard doesn’t believe for a second he hasn’t already pried into every inch of Byleth’s personal life he could get his hands on. “See that you do, Hubert.”

He bows his head in concession as she departs their makeshift office in Rhea’s former throne room. The light through the remaining chips of stained glass cast jagged halos over both of them.

The pretty dagger was exactly where she left it more than five years ago when she declared war on the goddess, herself. Rust dulled its blade, but the fine ornament decorating its handle only needed a few brushes of her hand to shine through its dust coating. It really is a dagger meant for a child, and it stains her red gloves with dirt.

A few possibilities float through her mind. If it was a bit sturdier and less decorative, she would gift it to Petra for her routine hunting. Ferdinand enjoyed unique weapons, but placing it in a collection like it was something to be revered didn’t sit right with her. And she could always gift it to Hubert, who was practically a brother to her at this point, as a final act to shred whatever familial ties with Dimitri still lingered.

Edelgard squeezes her eyes shut. The fact that Dimitri has any effect on her is an embarrassment. She is too old and has too little time left to dither other what should be nothing.

She takes it in her hands, cleans it as best she can with the supplies she keeps in her room, and goes to find Byleth.

As much as Edelgard fears the ocean, Byleth always manages to make whatever dock or pier she’s perched at seem inviting. Her light green hair is in the same choppy condition it was when they first met—no doubt the work of a mercenary bumbling their way through a task they never thought need to practice.

The wind sweeps up Byleth’s coat and the uneven ends of her hair alike, and both whip her face when she turns at the sounds of Edelgard’s footsteps. She tilts her head and smiles just a touch in recognition. The color of her hair and eyes has been tainted with magic, but she is otherwise exactly the same—perfectly preserved for five years. Time’s only touch has been her new smile.

“You spend so much time by at the docks,” Edelgard says, “I’d think you were a water nymph.”

Her appearance is certainly ethereal enough to be one, but that starts another cascade of thoughts Edelgard doesn’t quite know how to come to terms with.

“I don’t think I’m graceful enough for that,” she says. “Maybe a swamp dragon.”

“It would certainly be fierce enough to match your poise in battle,” Edelgard says with a laugh. “But to speak of something else, I have a gift for you. Just a small repayment for the shower of flowers during our time at the academy.”

She presents the dagger, and Byleth takes it with both hands. She turns it over, weighs it as a weapon, and observes it just as an interesting aesthetic object. “There is no need to return that favor,” she says. “I grew those carnations by the hundreds for you all on own prerogative.”

Edelgard feels new warmth spread over her face that does not stem from the breeze. “Well, I’m glad to hear no one put you up to it. But please, my teacher, it means much that you take this from me.”

Byleth nods. “I will then. Thank you, Edelgard.”

It’s so close to being a perfect moment if only her name were a few letters shorter. But such flights of fancy have been simmering for years and can wait a month or two more. “My teacher,” Edelgard says. “I have something else to ask you. We are going to be facing The Immaculate One in battle again soon.”

“I will not disappear this time,” Byleth says. “Not so close to the end, but,” she cradles the dagger against her face as if it were a person. “Do you sometimes long for the beginning?”

“For the peaceful days at the academy? Sometimes, but I think everyone feels nostalgic for those idyllic days now and then.” She shakes her head. “I say that, but the monastery was always on the edge of boiling over with resentment and horror. Now at least everything is out in the open.”

“It is,” Byleth says. “Though that’s not quite what I meant. Sometimes I miss the voice of The Beginning.”

Edelgard frowns. Byleth looks less a goddess-touched mortal and more like a fleeting spirit, ready to slip below the water or up into the heavens. It makes Edelgard feel like it’s her heart being squeezed by The Immaculate One’s claws.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, my teacher.”

“I don’t either,” Byleth says, and she stares back out across Garreg Mach’s humble pond.

-

Remire Village went wrong in everyway. Hiding in the forest, scrambling out of the Flame Emperor’s armor in a bush while Hubert led the others in a wild goose chase around camp was not one of Edelgard’s prouder moments.

The flames from the peasant’s former houses made everyone sticky with soot and sweat during the battle, and Edelgard’s snowy hair was all too eager to plaster itself to her face in odd angles when she removed her helmet with sweat slicked hands.

Edelgard tossed the helmet to the ground alongside the sweltering black coat, the rest of her dark clothes suffocating enough as they stuck to her skin. And for the briefest moment, Edelgard had an epiphany about what she was doing. She was sweaty and dirty and changing from one bloodied set of armor to another. For some reason the hot wind offering no reprieve but dirt cemented the poor choices she had made for herself more than seeing the results of Solon’s experiments firsthand did.

One she could delegate as a necessary sacrifice or an unforeseen setback to be overcome. The other made her a pathetic, dirty child in the dark.

Then she heard retching.

Her first few stumbling steps out of forest gave Edelgard sometime to compose herself and pull out of her spiraling thoughts. On the far side of the village, there was a river, and Linhardt and Caspar must have somehow escaped her notice on their trek there. Her presence had escaped them as well, and as Edelgard approached, she realized that was for good reason.

From that early battle cleaning up loose ends in the Red Canyon, it was inevitable something like this was bound to happen.

Caspar kneeled at his side, his hand on Linhardt’s back, and his babbling words of comfort barely rising over the river’s own babbling. Edelgard couldn’t recall a time she’d ever heard Caspar so quiet.

“Lin—just,” Caspar said, clearly at a loss. “Just take as much time as you need. We’ll be out of here real soon.”

Edelgard moved fox-footed through the grass, her steps silent and presence unobtrusive. Linhardt was on his hands and knees for a moment more, letting out strangled gasps when his stomach failed to produce more bile. With slow, deliberate movements, Caspar shifted his hands to his shoulders to assist him in moving back into a kneeling position.

Linhardt remained silent besides his heavy breathing, while Caspar started to pat down the front of his uniform. “I, um, crap—do you have a handkerchief or something on you? I never carry mine around, and, uh, you’d probably feel better if we got you cleaned up a little before—”

“You can use mine,” Edelgard said, striding forward.

Caspar jumped at her voice. Linhardt didn’t budge an inch. “E-Edelgard? When did you—”

“I noticed you were missing,” she said, coming to kneel beside them. “I was worried you could be ambushed so far from camp on your own.”

Caspar scratched the back of his head. “Uh, thanks. We didn’t bring any weapons—well, guess Linhardt always has his magic, but…”

“Linhardt,” Linhardt said. “Is done fighting. Forever.”

Edelgard leaned around Caspar to get a better look at his pale, clammy face. His eyes were screwed shut and hands clenched in the loose fabric of his uniform’s pants.

“Hey,” Caspar said. “I know this was really bad, but you don’t actually mean tha—”

“I do,” he said. “I’m done. Tell the professor I’m quitting.”

Edelgard’s mouth thinned into a tight line. “Linhardt, you’re a rather selfish person.”

Caspar gaped at her. “Hey—Edelgard, you can’t just—”

“Do you really think anyone here in this army is happy about what happened? Or excited to face more horrors like this?”

Linhardt opened his eyes then to sneer at her. “I don’t respond well to tough love, mother.”

“Guys,” Caspar said, the levelheaded one for likely once in his life. “Let’s just calm down. Everyone’s on edge after what happened, and fighting amongst each other is—”

“Pointless,” Linhardt said. “All fighting is just pointless horror.”

“You don’t really believe that,” Edelgard said. “Even if you can’t see past your own revulsion now, on the way back to the monastery you will see the faces of the villagers who survived thanks to our intervention.” She nodded to Caspar. “Many of your classmates survived thanks to your intervention, and that’s something you’re going to have to live with.”

Caspar seemed equally confused by her argument and Linhardt’s sudden violent move to wipe his mouth on the back of his sleeves. “I hate you.”

“Linhardt!”

“And that’s fair,” Edelgard said.

“And I hate this village, and Tomas or Solon or whatever his forsaken name is, and I hate Miklan and Lonato and every demonic beast and Rhea and—”

Edelgard had never seen Linhardt cry before. After the Red Canyon, he had become dead to the world in his shellshock. Both times Caspar had jumped to comfort him, whatever trauma he was bearing rolling off of him as soon as he saw Linhardt.

Sometimes Edelgard got caught up in her head so much that the two were regulated to a thought experiment for all that’s wrong with Fodlan’s current order. Caspar was a perpetual victim—a talented individual stripped of any possibility to achieve anything at birth—and Linhardt an undeserving winner—a noble who shirked every duty set to earn an estate and carry on a noble lineage. Their humanity could get as lost as hers in her vision of the future if she wasn’t careful.

Caspar was coming just shy of telling Linhardt he could quit being a solider if he really wanted when Edelgard decided to speak up. “Things aren’t going to get better,” she said. “And then sense of responsibility is only going to weigh heavier.”

“Uh, Edelgard,” Caspar said. “You’re not really helping.”

“I wasn’t quite finished,” she said. “There are things in this world that are out of our control, but as your house leader and future emperor, I will take responsibility for everything we encounter and every mistake you make.” She stood, waving a hand out towards the smoldering remains of Remire Village. “I take responsibility for this—every last part.”

The confession was admittedly more for herself than for them, and the weight lifting off her shoulders was only intensified when her words carried their intended effect.

Linhardt looked up at her from Caspar’s shoulder. “Then I’m right to hate you?”

“Yes,” Edelgard said with a nod. “So there’s no need to take your frustration out on anyone else.”

His anger was replaced with a quick flash of guilt. Caspar furrowed his brow, looking between the two of them with obvious confusion. Edelgard said, “Caspar, how are you feeling after the battle?”

“Huh?” he blinked. “Me? I’m fine. Got a few burns, but Dorothea helped patch me up.”

Linhardt sighed, pulling away from Caspar. He stood, brushed himself off and offered him a hand. “That’s not what she means. She said it earlier—no one is okay after what we just saw.”

Caspar bit his lip. “I, uh, I really am though.”

“And we’d all like to believe that,” Edelgard said. “But if you’re not, you know how to move forward and who to blame.”

Caspar took Linhardt’s hand to stagger to his feet. He paused, looking at the ground, then said something Edelgard had not been expecting. “Catherine said something like that to me a while ago, and it’s… kinda been haunting me.”

“Did she now?” Edelgard asked.

“She said when she’s in battle and awful things are happening, she just… stopped thinking and put all her faith in Lady Rhea.” He shrugged. “She said it was easier that way to get through it all.”

Edelgard felt like she had been stabbed by the sword of the creator, itself, and the sweltering heat was suddenly replaced by ice sliding against her spine.

“That’s stupid,” Linhardt snorted. “Maybe I’m going to start blaming Edelgard for everything, but I’m not about to let her think for me.”

“I,” Edelgard said, barely finding her voice in time to answer. “I wouldn’t want you to.”

Caspar frowned, looking even more lost than before. “Then… was that advice wrong?”

“Y-Yes,” Edelgard said, stumbling over herself. “Of course it was. No one—king, emperor, archbishop, or goddess—should have that kind of control over you. That’s,” she shook her head, taking a shaky step back. “Linhardt, forget what I said. You can quit if you want to. I’ll let the professor, and—”

“I’m not quitting,” Linhardt said. “But I think you both already knew that.”

Whatever anxiety Caspar had had was replaced by cheers of joy.

Then there were shouts of a search party, and Edelgard schooled her features back into passive composure enough to announce that she had seen the two run off and followed after them, nothing strange, no cause for alarm.

That night, she told Hubert, “After the war is over, and Fodlan is at peace, I’m going to abdicate.”

Hubert raised an eyebrow. “Lady Edelgard?”

“My thinking was wrong,” she said. “Simply replacing Rhea and the goddess with myself goes against everything we have been working for.” She looked out at the cathedral, the sky, the stars and the other worlds that lay in the distance. “There will be no gods at all.”

-

The Immaculate One bleeds green. The slime pouring from where Edelgard had buried Aymr into her skull exudes a thick and foul smell that mingles in a horrific cacophony with the already burning flesh surrounding them.

The ancient being ruling from the shadows for centuries was just as mortal as the rest of them in the end.

But none of that mattered.

Edelgard threw Aymr and any thoughts of Rhea aside the second Byleth’s legs gave out from under her.

Byleth’s orders in the battle had become increasingly erratic as the fight wore on, and she gave up on providing justifications or mysterious excuses after the seventh near miss they encountered. Edelgard knew the memory of herself, Byleth, and Dorothea taking cover behind a platform’s ledge, and Byleth screaming they had seconds to move was going to be seared into her mind for the rest of her life. It was only by force of her battalion’s flames that she was able to keep the swarm of pegasus knights from skewering Dorothea, and she had become so focused on the task at hand that she nearly lashed out when Byleth dove into her side.

The piercing arm of Rhea’s mechanical golem scorched the ground she would have been standing on. Byleth offered no explanation, only her hand, and Edelgard took it.

She had no doubts then, seeing Byleth surrounded by the crimson flower of flames. Byleth was a descendant of the goddess—the new Seiros come to walk among them—and if Edelgard was to be a good Nemesis, she would run her through with Aymr’s glowing blade.

Now, Edelgard presses her ear to Byleth’s chest and prays that the goddess will save even the child who killed her.

There is nothing, and Edelgard feels her own heart break in two.

The others gather, all looking half dead themselves. Caspar helps Linhardt down from his horse, catching him when he stumbles on his dismount. Petra holds Dorothea up, promising to her that the fighting is finally over. Bernadetta flutters around Ferdinand supporting Hubert who had taken a nasty fall from his own mount during the Immaculate One’s onslaught.

They are all arm in arm, and Edelgard hangs on to the center of her world.

The world shifts, and the magic leaches from Byleth’s hair.

She gasps, her heart beats, and she blinks her blue human eyes in confusion at the tears on Edelgard’s face.

Byleth reaches a hand still stinging with burns out to brush away Edelgard’s tears. “You saved me,” she rasps.

Edelgard is at a loss, but the pure elation welling up inside her at Byleth’s heartbeat overrides everything else. “My teacher? B-Byleth?”

She lolls her head over to Rhea’s remains. “I’m free…”

“All of Fodlan is free,” Edelgard answers, her voice shaking. “Th-There is much work to be done, but you are alive and right now we can celebrate, and—”

Byleth leans up and places a kiss on her forehead. “May Sothis watch over,” she says, a mysterious smile on her lips. “The Future.”