The stone walls were both a comfort and a curse. They were sturdy and ancient, speaking to the centuries and histories and traditions that passed like soldiers— as soldiers— marched through the gates of Garreg Mach. A sanctuary. That was what it was meant to be. It was possible that she was standing in the safest place in all of Fódlan.
Knowing what she knew, doing as she did, it seemed as though the shadows on the walls were watching her accusingly.
It was not enough to acknowledge the accusations. If this was the path she walked, then she would walk it with a head held high, and no regrets to speak of.
Even if it killed her.
Even if, when her feet stopped marching forward, she found that she had left her heart somewhere in the woods behind her.
Even if, at the end of it all, she did not notice or even seem to care.
Her feet did, in fact, stop marching. She froze, knee deep in blackened petals and glossy leaves that reflected the moon above her.
She turned slowly, extricating herself from the foliage with great care. In the dim courtyard, the approaching faces were stained yellow by a beacon of light. The voice belonged to the holder of that light, sweet and delicate.
Flayn smiled at her eagerly, her steps hastened by the sight of her in the flowerbed.
"Are you stargazing?" she asked. "It's a lovely night to do so. Oh, I hope you do not mind if I join you!"
"I don't," Edelgard told Flayn gently. She was so sweet and eager that it was likely she did not even notice that Edelgard had distractedly plodded right into the carnations. "Though I'm sure your brother might. Does he know you're out this late?"
"I got special permission," a cloying voice said brightly. Edelgard focused on Flayn's bright green eyes and sweet smile, and she kept those things in mind to soothe her grated nerves when she turned to glance at Claude. "We were supposed to stick to the cathedral, but Flayn wanted to see the moon, and Teach can't say no to her."
Edelgard turned her gaze to the guilty party in question. Byleth did, in fact, shrug sheepishly as Flayn giggled beside her. In Byleth's arms was an old tome, thick and peeling about the spine.
"And why," Edelgard said, "pray tell did you get special permission to escort Flayn to the cathedral in the middle of the night?"
"Escort?" Claude raised an eyebrow. "Nah, that's not it at all. I mean no offense to you, Flayn, you're lovely."
Flayn's bright eyes flicked curiously from Edelgard to Claude. If she was embarrassed by how Claude took Edelgard's interpretation of their meeting, she did not show it.
"Did you think Claude was attempting to court me?" Flayn giggled again, attempting to smother it with her hands. "Certainly, if that were so, he would not drag the professor along… nor, I do imagine, would my brother have allowed it."
"My apologies," Edelgard said delicately. "I don't trust Claude as far as I can throw him, and I assumed he had some ulterior motive with you, Flayn."
Claude whistled low, though his teeth glinted white from the sliver of a grin that he tried to turn into the shadows.
"Ouch," he said dryly, "you wound me, Edie."
"Don't call me that, please."
"As you wish."
Flayn's giggles died down, and she shook her head fiercely.
"Claude merely wanted me to teach him some healing magic," she said, gesturing back to her smiling companion with a flick of her sleeve. "I wonder why it is that even you find that so hard to believe. I see it, you know, in your face. You think he had some different reason for asking me to do this for him. You should speak to my brother, you know. You two are really quite alike."
"I am really not anything like Seteth," Edelgard said weakly, though she did not believe for a second that Claude was hanging around learning healing spells for fun. "What do you think, Professor?"
Byleth looked entirely too amused, her head cocked to one side as she observed the three of them banter.
"Mm…" Byleth cupped her chin thoughtfully. "A little?"
Coming from Byleth, that was confusing and alarming. Flayn could exaggerate, and Claude was half a liar on his best days, but Byleth made a trade on honesty. She had a keen eye, and though she had decided to teach the Golden Deer, Edelgard trusted her instincts.
It was annoying when Edelgard realized she simply could not understand said instincts.
"I don't understand that," Edelgard said, "not even a little bit."
"I don't either, if it makes you feel better," Claude piped up.
"Fair enough." Claude stretched his arms behind his head, and he shrugged. "Believe me, or maybe don't. It's no skin off my back if you think I'm scheming— especially when I'm actually not."
"I'm sure." Edelgard turned her attention to Flayn, who watched this exchange with her bright-eyed curiosity. "Is he any good, then?"
"At healing?" Flayn's smile already told Edelgard all she needed to know, which was that Claude was truly rubbish at the art. That was somewhat comforting for Edelgard. "He's… certainly trying, and learning quite a lot along the way!"
At that, Edelgard could not help but share a glance with Claude, who looked just as amused as Edelgard felt. Despite the fact that it was clearly amusement at his expense.
"She's kind, isn't she?" Claude laughed a little. "Flayn, you might as well tell Edelgard that I can barely close a wound to save my life— which, it could, but that's not the point, I guess."
"You really were trying, though!" Flayn shook her head. "No. You will get better, I'm certain of it."
"Maybe." Claude's smile was as easy as ever, and Edelgard stared at him intently. She wanted to know if that smile was real, and it made her irrationally angry that she couldn't tell.
"Flayn," Byleth said, "I need to get you back now."
Flayn's expression fell, and her serenity and curiosity were clouded by her disappointment.
"But…" Flayn winced, clearly hearing the whine of her own voice, and she sighed wistfully. "Yes, you are right. My brother… will be worried."
Byleth nodded. She turned her attention to Claude, a question held within her gaze. Claude met that gaze with a shrug.
It stung Edelgard deeper than she truly realized, watching this wordless exchange. A pang of sadness hit her, before that sadness melted into longing, and that longing settled deep in her bones in residual envy.
The fact that Claude seemed to understand Byleth with merely a glance bothered her in ways she could not fathom. Because Edelgard could not read the woman, no matter how long she stared into her large blue eyes, no matter how she studied the casual tip of her head, or tentative smile.
"I see," Edelgard said, her voice careful, clipped, and cool. "I won't keep you, then. Have a goodnight, Flayn, Claude, Professor."
"Yeah," Claude said, "goodnight, Flayn. 'Night, Teach."
Flayn's brow furrowed, and her mouth parted as though she meant to speak, but Byleth's hand was on her shoulder and ushering her forward before she had the chance to.
Feeling the urgency in which Byleth had followed some unspoken agreement, Edelgard turned away with every intention to flee. She would not be stuck in the dark with Claude von Riegan, not tonight, not tomorrow, not five years from now, not even in her dreams.
"Hey," Claude gasped, halting her escape with one firm hand on her shoulder.
With a jerk, she shrugged him off. His grip loosened without a fuss, and when she fixed a cold glare upon him, he held his hands up in surrender.
"Hey," he repeated calmly, "I'm not trying to fight."
"Then please," Edelgard said in her most diplomatic voice, "touch me again, Claude. See what will happen."
"Oh, I can imagine." Claude ignored her when she huffed, and instead studied her face, his usual care-free expression marred by a doubtful sort of frown. "Listen… I know I'm the last person in the world you'd confide in, but…"
"You'd be correct on that front," Edelgard said stiffly. "Please, quit while you're ahead."
Claude allowed her (and she realized quickly that he was allowing her this spat) to cut in with a strangely dignified patience. All the while, he merely watched her.
"Edelgard," he said, sounding more than a little tired, "are you okay?"
How frustrating was it that Claude could not keep to himself? That was not a fair question, especially coming from him. Perhaps if it had been sweet, curious Flayn who'd stayed behind and asked. Of course Edelgard would be warmed by her concern. Perhaps if it had been Byleth— steady, clever, infinitely wise Byleth, whose words were a rare and simple treasure that all seemed to crave. Of course Edelgard would be beyond pleased, in spite of herself, that her loss and confusion had not gone unnoticed by the professor.
That question from anyone else, really, would be more welcome than from Claude.
"Of course I am," Edelgard said, so defensively, in fact, that she felt the wall erupt between them with every word that slid between her teeth. "Are you?"
"Oh, I'm peachy." Claude nodded once, like that reassured her of anything at all. She had to keep herself composed. She could not let him get a rise out of her beyond defensiveness. "Unless you need a healer, then I'm not so peachy. I'm the opposite of peachy. What's the opposite of peachy?"
"Disturbed?" Edelgard offered, looking beyond his face at the moon in the sky.
"I was gonna say tomato-y."
Her eyes were dragged back to his face just to stare at him in disbelief.
"How would a tomato be the opposite of a peach?" she asked tiredly.
"Great question!" Claude snapped his fingers, and he grinned. "No idea! I just wanted to make you laugh."
"But you didn't."
"Yes, I realize that. I'm quite the failure, huh?" He winked. "It'll happen. Eventually. You don't have to tell me what's wrong, but you really didn't have to trample those poor carnations."
Edelgard did not spare a glance at the poor red flowers.
"They're dying anyway," she said with a sniff. "It's fine."
"If you say so."
Claude's smile fell away, and once more he was fixing her with a gaze that suggested that he knew more than he was saying. Like he could tell that she was in a bad state, which she wasn't, she was fine. Still, he stared at her, and she stared at the carnations, and the silence fell awkwardly between them.
"I'm just…" Edelgard inhaled sharply through her teeth. "… tired, is all. Why are you so concerned, anyway?"
"Am I concerned?" Claude blinked at her. "My bad. I'll try to be a little clearer next time, and reveal my ulterior motive from the get-go."
"Don't play with me," Edelgard sighed, "I've known you for long enough by now. It was stupid for me to pretend like nothing's wrong when you seem to notice everything."
"Not everything," Claude said, "though that might be the closest to a compliment you've ever paid me. I'll remember to cherish that."
"It wasn't a compliment," she said heatedly.
"Eh?" Claude's shrug was lazy. "I'm gonna take what I can get, okay? You don't seem to like being around me much."
"Can you really blame me?"
"No." Claude's smile was back again, like a moth that could not stay away from a flame, no matter how many times its wings got burned. "Not at all. It's more endearing than anything else, really."
"You find my disinterest in you endearing?" Edelgard couldn't help but roll her eyes. "Of course you do."
"You're not here to make friends," Claude said, "clearly."
"Clearly," she echoed, mockingly.
"Well," he said, "neither am I. Which I'm sure you've guessed."
"You're not quite as sophisticated and clever as you imagine yourself, Claude." She folded her arms across her chest, and she lifted her chin boldly. "I'm not fooled by you."
"Sophisticated?" Claude laughed at that. "Why does that feel so new? I don't think anyone's ever called me that one before. Congrats, you're the first."
"I suppose I will say my thanks, then," she said, turning on her heel and leaving him with a stiff wave goodbye, "and be on my way."
"You're most welcome, Lady Edel— oh."
At Claude's sharp inhale, Edelgard whirled around. She felt her hair get snagged in something unseen, and she heard the tear and the shuddering within the night air before she ever felt the cut on her arm.
"What was that?" she demanded, hearing metal clink off the cobblestones. She had left her axe in her room, like a fool, and her heart was racing.
"An archer," Claude gasped, scrambling closer to her. "We need to take cover now."
"An archer…? Here?" She shook her head. "No, that's—"
"Get down!" Claude's hand fell hard upon her head, and she swallowed a shriek as he pushed her to the ground. Her knees hit the cobblestones hard enough for the impact to reverberate through her whole body. His hand remained on the crown of her head, and his body half-shielded her as another arrow came shivering through the air. They both listened to it whiz past them, breathless and frozen. "Shit. Do you have a weapon?"
Edelgard was dazed. So dazed, in fact, she did not even realize he had let go of her.
"Edelgard!" Claude sounded far away. "C'mon, talk to me! I know you've got something."
"I…" Edelgard blinked rapidly. She realized that he was gripping her again, holding her steady. "Yes. I do… I…"
She felt his hand slide along the length of her arm. Then she heard him hiss a swear, and she became all at once aware of the stinging pain in her forearm.
"Here…" She blinked rapidly, prying a dagger shakily from her boot. "Here, I can…"
"Edelgard," Claude said, gripping both her arms, then reaching to grasp her shoulders. When she still swayed, her head lolling, he snatched her face in his hands. "Edelgard. You've been poisoned, okay?"
"What?" she mumbled.
"Stay with me. Name the members of your house for me, okay?"
"I'm not poisoned," she said.
"You are, and it's…" He turned her head from side to side. "Name them."
"Hubert," she uttered, "Bernadetta, Dorothea, Ferdinand, Caspar… Lin…hardt…" She winced. "Okay. Maybe I'm poisoned. I… can't move."
"Good news," Claude said, his voice swimming in her head. "I think I know what it is, and it's not lethal."
Her breath was coming quick as she stared at him, thankful very suddenly that he was holding her head upright.
"Bad news," she croaked, "what's the bad news?"
"The bad news is," he said, a bit too cheerful, "we've been surrounded."
One of his hands fell from her cheek, and even in her daze, she understood.
She shoved the dagger into his palm, and the moment he released her, she fell to the cobblestone, her pale hair pooling against he cheek. The fighting was abrupt, and in her ears it was riotous. All attempts she made to drag herself upright failed, and the panic was overwhelming enough that she thought maybe there was no poison, and she was, in fact, just paralyzed with fear.
It felt as though she had been here before, and her mouth and ears and eyes were stuffed with cotton.
Claude's smart, she thought dazedly. Claude's smart, and he can win.
When Claude hit the ground beside her, she wanted to scream. Scream for her brother, for her father, for a family that would never come. She wanted to scream for Claude, because she could not reach out to him, and she could not touch him to feel his cheek, to assess the warmth or the coolness of his skin.
Then, in the hazy light of the moon, she caught a glimpse of her assailants.
"You," she gasped, a chill sinking deep into her bones.
They had fought the brigands back, and she had assumed she was done with the fools who had made an attempt on her life at her own behest. Of course, of course she was wrong.
The Flame Emperor had accumulated enough men to fuel her vendetta, and Edelgard was not one to forget those her followed her. Even if they were fools. Even if she was a fool.
And she was, truly, a fool. Only a fool would lose track of her pawns and allow herself to be taken by them.
This will haunt me, she thought.
That was the last thing she thought, really, before she was dragged into an abyss of her own making.
The sunlight hit Rhea's hair just right, so the shine of it and the glint of her headdress was nearly blinding. He was already out of breath from jogging from the dormitories, but looking at her now made him hold it. She was as radiant as ever, and somehow that radiance made him feel small.
"Dimitri," Rhea said with a nod. "I'm glad you could join us."
"Y-yes." Dimitri nodded stiffly back at her. "I heard… I'm sorry, but it's not true, is it?"
To the right of Rhea, Seteth stood with both his hands on Flayn's shoulders.
"It is true," Seteth said heavily. "Last night, Edelgard and Claude were kidnapped."
"And you know this for sure?" Dimitri asked eagerly. "They couldn't have just… wandered off…?"
In his heart he already knew the answer. It seemed unlikely that the pair would wander off together. Yet it seemed more likely than the idea that they could have been kidnapped.
"The professor and I were attacked last night," Flayn gasped, looking every bit as distraught as Dimitri felt, "and no one has seen them since! There were signs of a struggle in the courtyard as well."
"Yet not a single knight nor guard saw anything out of the ordinary." Rhea shook her head. "Aside from the assailant whose attack on Flayn was thwarted by the good professor, no outside forces were spotted on monastery grounds. The only evidence that we have are one arrow, some blood, and a knight who incidentally fell asleep around the time that Flayn says she, Claude, and Byleth returned from the cathedral."
"Who could have done this…?" Dimitri blinked rapidly. He turned his attention to Byleth, who had separated herself from the group. She was frowning, her brow furrowed as she peered at him. "We will find that culprit, Professor. I swear to you, I will not rest until Edelgard and Claude are found."
Byleth's head fell curiously to one side. She did not respond immediately, but she did study him. That was always a bit thrilling. He hated to admit it, but Byleth's attention was an easy thing to crave. It wasn't like he was the only person at the monastery who wanted a small piece of it, but he also knew not to overstep. After all, Byleth had chosen Claude's house. Not his. Even if he secretly thought that was a mistake.
"Professor?" Rhea prodded, her voice insistent enough to cause Byleth to tear her gaze from Dimitri. "Do you have anything to add?"
Byleth took a moment to glance between Rhea and Dimitri. Then she shook her head.
"We will be looking into this incident," Rhea sighed. "Until then, I ask you all to keep the peace. No one saw Claude or Edelgard leave the monastery, which could very well mean they are still here."
"Or that someone here is clever enough to disguise their corpses," Dimitri said grimly.
When they all stared at him, he shrunk a bit.
"I only mean," he all but squeaked, "that we shouldn't discount the idea that someone who knows the monastery very well could have done this."
"Against Edelgard and Claude both?" Seteth scoffed. "I'm not so sure."
"Seteth is right," Rhea said. "It is unlikely that one assailant could have done this."
Dimitri was desperate to seem composed, but he'd already betrayed his pessimism, nervousness, and confusion to all of them. So he pinched the bridge of his nose and nodded.
"That makes sense," he admitted. "I just can't wrap my head around it. Edelgard is a strong fighter. Even without her axe. And Claude… he might not be made for close-range combat, but he would never be taken so easily. Something is wrong."
"I agree," Rhea said. "Now, however, is not the time to lose our composure. We must be vigilant, and look for clues. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Dimitri said this because he did not know what else to say. He wasn't sure what he believed right now. "What… what will you tell their houses?"
He was certain the rest of the Golden Deer already knew at this point. After all, Dimitri had been told by Sylvain, who had gotten his information from Hilda, who almost definitely had been told by Byleth herself. Sylvain, who flitted between houses like he was trying on a new coat, did not seem to forget where he came from. He came slinking back to the Blue Lions, bearing bad news and half a smile.
"The truth," Rhea said. "Why? Do you believe I should withhold such a thing from them?"
"No." Dimitri shook his head. "That… that's right. They should all know."
Although Dimitri wished he could vacate the continent before Hubert found out.
"Then I shall leave it to you, Professor," Rhea said, nodding to Byleth, who merely blinked up at her. "While Seteth and I speak to Manuela and Hanneman, I suggest you two check in with the other students. If anyone else is missing, notify me immediately."
"Anyone else…?" Dimitri could not imagine that anyone would be so bold as to kidnap not one, not two, but three students in one night. And yet Flayn claimed that she had been attacked too, and only had escaped due to Byleth's quick hand and good instincts. "Yes, of course, Lady Rhea. Perhaps we can rally together each of our houses under a shared goal. What do you think, Professor?"
When they all looked to Byleth, the professor in question was frowning slightly.
"I think," Byleth said, "that we should get this over with."
"How pessimistic of you, Professor." Dimitri frowned back at her, unsure if he liked this side of her. Sure, he wasn't looking forward to telling any of the Black Eagles about Edelgard, but he liked to think most of them would keep an open mind about working with him, especially if it bettered their chance of finding her. "But if you insist, shall we go?"
Byleth nodded. She shot a glance at Flayn, and she offered a small smile and a thumbs up. In return, Flayn cupped her hands together and watched Byleth turn away with a desperate sort of gaze, like she wanted to follow but had already decided against it.
Beside him, Byleth kept up a brisk pace. He was nearly left behind by her, and he hurried to keep at her heels.
"Professor," he said eagerly, "you've already told the Golden Deer, have you not?"
Byleth's forehead pinched a bit as she glanced up at Dimitri confusedly. He realized quickly that her look suggested that she did not understand how he knew that.
"You told Hilda," Dimitri said, patting the professor's shoulder sympathetically. "Even I recognize her penchant for gossip."
"If you've noticed," Byleth said, "maybe you should get her to round up the rest of the Deer?"
"Get her?" Dimitri grimaced. "I fear you are mistaken, Professor. I do not mean to say we are friends— we've hardly spoken."
"Okay." Byleth nodded, turning slowly away from him. "I'll go talk to the Deer, and you can deal with the Eagles, then?"
Dimitri opened his mouth, vaguely horrified and meaning to object, but he couldn't. Byleth smiled at him over her shoulder, and he merely stared at her.
"Great," she said. "Meet me in the dining hall when you wrangle them, please."
Then she walked away.
Just like that, Dimitri had to explain to Edelgard's companions that she was lost, in all probability kidnapped, and that in itself was a nightmare. A nightmare that kept on providing, it seemed like. So Dimitri sighed, mustered up the dregs of his courage, and he headed back to the dorms.
"Hello," Dimitri said, intentionally slipping between Sylvain and a female knight. "Am I interrupting something? I hope I'm not, because I need to speak with you."
"You should go and listen to your prince," the knight said, clearly laughing behind her helmet as she walked away.
Sylvain turned a steady gaze to Dimitri, and he scowled.
"And you wonder why I'm not in your house anymore," Sylvain huffed. "What'll it be, then? I already gave you the hot goss around the town, do you really think I know anything more than what I told you?"
"Would you like my honest answer, or my kind one?" Dimitri asked with a small sigh.
"Ooh," Sylvain cooed, "you're giving me a choice? How noble of you. Please, Your Highness, give me your honest answer. I'm curious."
"I believe you'd tell me as much as you know," Dimitri said, "because you did not care to find out more. Do you care now that Claude and Edelgard are missing?"
"Of course I care," Sylvain said, taken aback. "What kind of question is that?"
"An honest one," Dimitri said insistently, "remember? I'm only asking because you don't seem to know how to even feign concern, and that worries me. Are you a part of Golden Deer now, or aren't you?"
Sylvain's expression was dour to say the least, and when he glanced at Dimitri, it was clear in the way his lips tugged into a pout that Dimitri had won.
"You're so mean to me," Sylvain said, his pout growing more pronounced by the second. "Is it because I'm not in your house anymore? I said sorry, didn't I?"
Sometimes Sylvain was the most frustrating person, and it was not for any particular reason other than the fact that fundamentally, Dimitri and Sylvain always misunderstood one another. From when they were children, Sylvain had always gotten them into terribly stressful situations simply because he did not understand that there were things that they couldn't do, weren't allowed to do, and for a good reason. Before Sylvain had discovered women, he had still been an intolerable go-getter— though the things he thirsted over were the tops of tall trees and squishy lake bottoms.
Now it seemed he wanted everything, consequences be damned, and that frightened Dimitri.
"It has nothing to do with that," Dimitri said stiffly.
"Oh," Sylvain sighed, his fingers scraping through his hair as he rubbed the back of his head. "You are a terrible liar, you know that? Listen, it wasn't personal. I'm still your man, even if I'm not wearing your colors anymore."
Dimitri wanted to believe that, because Sylvain looked genuinely sad, but losing Sylvain had hurt him, and it seemed like nobody really cared that much. It had taken everyone about a week to notice that Sylvain was no longer in their class, and even then most of his own house had rolled their eyes and nodded to Byleth. There's your reason why, they said flippantly, before asking him about swords, or battle tactics. They did not take it seriously.
Trying to take it lightly was difficult when he hardly saw his friend, and when he did, it was always watching him get pitted against members of his own house in mock battles.
"You don't need to wear my colors," Dimitri said, plucking up all the courage he could to smile at Sylvain. "You… know I care about you, don't you? Don't feel like you owe me anything out of a sense of duty, or obligation."
Sylvain quirked a brow. "I didn't," he admitted. "Though now I kinda feel bad about that."
With a grimace, Sylvain nodded. Dimitri did not feel particularly good about making him feel guilty, but he knew that he had, which probably was for the best. Sylvain was far less likely to say no if he was wracked with guilt.
"Well," Sylvain said with a huffy little sigh, "go on. What did you want from me? I told you the truth, I really don't know any more about what happened to Claude."
"I'm not asking you for more information," Dimitri said quickly. "I need to know how well you know the Black Eagles."
"Well," Sylvain drawled, the suggestion in his voice causing an uncomfortable flush to rush from Dimitri's neck upwards.
"Please, no," Dimitri blurted, "not like that. I do not need to hear about your— various, erm… conquests, right now."
"Sure you don't." Sylvain's amusement would be the absolute death of Dimitri, probably. "Aside from my conquests, as you so eloquently put it, I've had some pleasant interactions. Which, you know, you could try one of these days. I'm sure none of the other houses would mind if you got to know them."
"I'll keep that in mind," Dimitri said awkwardly. "If I were, say, trying to gather all the Black Eagles in one place… who should I go to first?"
"Wait," Sylvain said, "you're on Black Eagle duty? What's Rhea doing?"
"Lady Rhea," Dimitri corrected Sylvain harshly, "is telling Hanneman and Manuela about last night's incident."
"That's not as important as breaking it to a whole house that their leader is missing," Sylvain sighed. "That's shit luck. Well, obviously steer clear of Hubert."
"Usually he'd be second-in-command," Sylvain said, "but, you know. He's Hubert. Um… honestly? Go for Dorothea."
"Dorothea." Thinking about the pretty girl who sang hymnals like the cathedral was a stage made him blink. He'd assumed Sylvain would say perhaps Caspar or Ferdinand. "That's… unexpected. May I ask why?"
"She's smart." Sylvain shrugged. "And she's loyal, but she's not crazy, and she won't assume you killed Edelgard immediately upon reporting her as missing. The others will listen to her. Except Hubert, but, you know."
"Yes," Dimitri sighed. "I know."
Dimitri would run from the Adestrian Empire to the northern coast of Faerghus if it meant he did not have to speak to Hubert.
"If you need me," Sylvain said, clapping Dimitri on the shoulder and smiling, "just give me a shout, okay? I meant it when I said I'm still your man."
Hearing Sylvain repeat his previous claim, hearing the genuine fondness in his voice, that made Dimitri relax. He had not even realized how tense he'd been until his shoulders shuddered beneath Sylvain's grasp.
"Thank you," Dimitri murmured. "I'll see you in the Dining Hall. Alright?"
Leaving him at that, Dimitri set out to find Dorothea. Who was, incidentally, a person he hardly ever interacted with. Still, Dimitri reasoned, she was better than Hubert. At the very least Dorothea might listen to what he had to say, and Sylvain had called her smart without a hint of infatuation. That was interesting enough on its own. It meant that Dorothea had, in all likelihood, done something to convince Sylvain to look at her as more than just a woman who might take interest in him.
When he found Dorothea, it was not far from the dorms. She was sitting on a bench, her ankles crossed, a book in hand. Beside her, to Dimitri's surprise, was Ingrid.
"Good morning, Dimitri," Ingrid greeted, not looking up from Dorothea's book. Dorothea was holding it just so, and both their heads were inclined so they could read it. "You're up early."
"Have you not heard?" That was baffling to him. Perhaps Hilda was not the gossip he'd assumed her to be.
"Heard what?" Ingrid reached over Dorothea's arm to turn a page.
"Perhaps the prince wishes to speak to his loyal knight?" Dorothea glanced at Ingrid, and Dimitri watched her expression glow with delight when Ingrid flushed. "If I didn't know better, I'd find that cute."
"Cute," Ingrid muttered, slowly rising to her feet and bowing her head respectfully. "What is it you needed, Your Highness?"
"Ingrid, please," Dimitri said, not entirely thrilled by her need to prove her loyalty before Dorothea. "You have no need to stand— continue reading, by all means. I am not here for you, anyway."
"Excuse me?" Dorothea tipped her head to the side, and one sleekly groomed eyebrow shot up as she peered at him. "You can't mean to say you're here to speak to me, Princeling."
His mouth hung open for a moment as he processed her taunting of him. It did not take long for him to notice she was mocking him, but her voice remained melodious and sweet. As he gawked at her, Ingrid sighed.
"Dorothea," she said gently, "I told you that Dimitri is not the kind of noble that you're expecting. If you continue to tease him, he might break."
"Break?" Dorothea's eyes were bright and curious as she snapped her book shut. "How interesting. Well, if you vouch for him, Ingrid, I suppose I must give him a chance."
And just like that, Dorothea was beaming at him.
"What was it you needed from me, Dima?"
He continued to gape at her, because it was all he really could do in response to such an abrupt change. It was easy to imagine Sylvain getting nowhere with this woman, and that was an entertaining thought, but it made Dimitri a bit frightened to ask her for her help.
"Oh, dear," Dorothea said, nudging Ingrid. "You know, I think you're right. I did break him."
Ingrid's smile was small, but at the sight of it, Dimitri closed his mouth. His attempt to compose himself was, admittedly, awkward and meager, and it caused Dorothea to laugh.
"Come on, Dorothea," Ingrid said. "Don't you see the look on his face? You're killing him."
"Oh, I'm aware." Dorothea smoothed out her skirt as she uncrossed her ankles and then re-crossed them. "Come now, Dima, I know something is weighing heavy on your mind. Should we go talk about it over breakfast?"
"Oh." Dimitri blinked rapidly. "Oh. Yes. Well, no." When Dorothea's eyebrows shot up, her lips pursing, he couldn't help but wince. "Yes, we need to go to the Dining Hall, but no… no, I can't have breakfast with you. Dorothea, listen, I've… I've got to tell you something."
Dorothea's attention was rapt as she observed him.
"Well?" She offered out her hands. "I'm waiting."
He sucked in a deep breath. Oh, he hated being the bearer of bad news.
"Edelgard," he said, his voice surprising him with its steadiness, "is missing."
Dorothea sat up much straighter. Her care-free attitude slipped away, and she fixed him with a sharp stare.
"Explain," she demanded.
"I don't know what happened," he said hastily, "I wasn't there— you'll need to speak with Byleth or Flayn. Apparently unknown assailants broke into the monastery last night, and we suspect that they have taken Edelgard and Claude."
"Claude too?" Ingrid frowned. "That's… peculiar. Have you spoken to Sylvain?"
"He's the one who told me to ask Dorothea for this," Dimitri admitted sheepishly. He turned his attention to Dorothea, who merely blinked at him. "Byleth is trying to gather all the houses in the Dining Hall so that everyone is informed at once. I'm going to do everything within my power to return Edelgard and Claude safely to the monastery, but I'll need your help."
"My help," Dorothea said with a throaty laugh. "Why ever would you need my help?"
"Because," Dimitri said firmly, "I need to know the Black Eagles are with me. I can't go ask Hubert, now can I?"
"No," Dorothea sighed, "I suppose not. Good on you, Dima. Perhaps there is a brain behind that pretty face."
Dimitri paused, processing that double-sided insult/compliment, and he cleared his throat.
"You're not going to skewer me on the spot for being the messenger," Dimitri said. "Plus, you're clearly very charismatic. They will listen to you, undoubtedly."
"Maybe," Dorothea said, "maybe not. Are you really just asking me to get the rest of my house into the Dining Hall so you can ruin their morning?"
"Um…" Dimitri thought hard for a moment. "Essentially? Yes."
"Done." Dorothea leapt to her feet and stretched her arms above her head. "Ingrid? Do you want to go on a little adventure?"
"Well…" Ingrid shared a glance with Dimitri, before she sighed and stood. "I suppose it beats waiting around here."
Dimitri wanted to ask if the two of them were close, but he decided it was not his business.
"Dorothea," Dimitri called. At the sound of her name she turned, and she placed a hand on her hip expectantly. "If I were to entrust any Black Eagles to aid me in investigating the disappearances, who would they be?"
"Who?" Dorothea's brow furrowed. "Well, me, obviously."
Dimitri nodded. Of course he'd already decided that. When he nodded, she merely paused, staring at him blankly. He felt as if he'd missed a joke.
"You clearly want Lin," Dorothea continued slowly. "If you really are sincere in your desire to save Edelgard… I'll make sure that Lin helps. Okay?"
"Thank you," Dimitri breathed, placing his hand over his heart and bowing. "Truly, you do not know how much that means to me."
When he looked up, he saw that Dorothea was standing before him, discomfort twitching on her face.
"Please never do that again," she said. "It's unbecoming of a prince to bow to a commoner. Is it not?"
"I hardly see why that should matter," Dimitri said.
Dorothea fixed him with a hard stare, something he had not expected after her languid glances and amused smiles.
"Huh," she said. Then she turned sharply, and her heels clicked against the cobblestone as she marched away.
Dimitri all but fell onto the bench, his head in his hands.
What was he going to do? If his companions died, what did that mean for Fódlan? It was an ill omen, that was for sure, and the more he thought about it the more afraid he was.
Where were they?
In the dark, there were rows of stained glass windows. She walked past each, and as she did, the shadows played upon her hands and feet. The light that shivered through the glass was tinted red and white. Faces watched her, their eyes cut in sharp, geometric shapes, dancing along her path with pain refracting from one gaze to the next, to the next, to the next.
Brothers and sisters, row by row, crying silently as she breezed past them. As the light got dimmer, the colors shifted, and the reds became crimsons and the whites faded away altogether.
All that was left was their eyes, and the red light that shined down from their glass eyes.
At the end of her path, she looked up and saw a twisted glass window, a girl with pale hair looming over her. Red streaked her hands, and dress, her cheeks, and filled up her eyes until everything was red, and it poured over her.
She awoke with a gasp, choking on the taste of blood.
It was dark, wherever she was, but not as dark as the backs of her eyelids where that path of windows seemed to go on endlessly. Her body was stiff and heavy, and the muscles in her shoulders spasmed when she attempted to move.
She hissed, realizing quickly that her arms had been pinned behind her back. Her hands were wedged between her spine and the cool, damp stones behind her.
"Oh, good, you're awake."
Part of her prayed, casting her eyes to the goddess in spite of herself, for that voice to be an illusion. That irrational spike of irritation nearly overcame her senses, and as she glared at Claude, she saw that he was in much the same position as her.
"What's with that expression?" Claude's arms were stuck behind his back. He looked exhausted, and when he watched her, his head tipped into the light. She saw the large welt that stretched from his cheek to his forehead.
"Is that blood?" she blurted.
"Ehh…" Claude's brow furrowed, and the dried blood crackled a bit. There was an unseen cut beneath the curl of his hair, and it seemed as though his brow had absorbed the worst of it before I had slid into his eye. "Maybe? It'd explain a lot."
"Where are we?" Edelgard demanded, shifting her position so she might lean forward. "I don't… I don't remember—"
"Do you remember getting attacked?" Claude asked.
Edelgard did remember that, though her memory got a bit hazy after recalling the arrow grazing her.
"Whatever they gave you, it was probably a heavy tranquilizer." Claude's shoulders shifted with a shrug. She noticed his short yellow cape was discarded upon the dirty floor. "I think they've got us in an abandoned house. Though, who knows how they got us out of the monastery."
Edelgard had a few ideas, but she wasn't about to share them.
"What happened to you?" she asked. "Did they overpower you that easily?"
"I was never going to win that fight," Claude said. He said it so flippantly, not a hint of pride in his voice, and she was annoyed again. Why couldn't he be haughty or foolish? Why couldn't he be stubborn or proud? Why was he so easy going, even now, even when their lives were at stake?
"You seem comfortable admitting that fact," Edelgard murmured.
"It's true." Claude sighed. "I thought I might have been able to hold them off for long enough that someone might have heard us, but we were out pretty late."
"In any case," Edelgard said hurriedly, knowing very well that she had unwittingly aided in her own kidnapping, "we're here now. Is there any way we are still in the monastery?"
"Nope." Claude jerked his chin upward, and Edelgard followed his gaze. The ceiling was wooden. The light was creeping in from between the boards. "I'd say we're being kept in some kind of abandoned structure."
"Well," Edelgard sighed, "we can't be too far from the monastery. Are we being guarded?"
She bit her lower lip and sank down further against the wall. This was a disaster. If only she'd been captured alone, she probably could have talked her way out of this mess. However, Claude caught everything. He would not miss her careful diplomacy with the brigands who'd kidnapped them.
"You good over there, Edelgard?"
"Shut up," she hissed, squeezing her eyes shut. "I'm thinking."
"By all means," Claude gasped, "think away. If I can be of any assistance, let me know. I'll just be… uh… sitting here."
She was already sick of this. Couldn't this have been anyone else? What she wouldn't give to be kidnapped with Byleth! A woman of few words, few questions, and an infinite skillset that would surely save them quickly from this hell.
"How long have you been awake?" she sighed. She needed to know what she was dealing with.
"I'm not entirely sure." Claude shifted again, and she cracked an eye open to peer at him. The sunlight was hitting his hair through the floorboards. "It wasn't long before you woke up, if it makes you feel better. Could've been twenty minutes, could've been an hour."
"Right…" Edelgard pushed herself upright. "Well, I won't sit here idly while our assailants plot our demise. I am not interested in dying today."
"Do you really think they'd want to kill both of us?" Claude asked, blinking in surprise. "That seems… ill advised."
"Why else would they kidnap us?" Edelgard asked heatedly.
"Um, for ransom?" Claude frowned. "Though I could be wrong. Honestly, we might not have even been their target."
"Regardless of their intentions," Edelgard said, "I do not intend to wait around long enough to find out. What are these shackles made of? Iron? I don't suppose you still have my knife…"
"Nah," Claude said sheepishly. "I threw it into the flowers."
"The—!" She choked down a shout of frustration. "Claude, you are not a fool, and yet you are determined to act like the grandest fool of all! Wipe that smirk off your face, I can't stand to look at it right now!"
Claude's good brow shot up, and even in the dimness she could see his eyes glint with curiosity.
"Aw," he said, "Edelgard, you wound me. I meant well by it, honest."
"You couldn't have hidden it?" She felt breathless and warm, her cheeks flushed with anger. "Did you even use it? What was the point? Tell me you plotted something ten steps ahead of ever needing to even use such a plan—!"
"Wow," Claude said, rolling his shoulders as he rested his wrists on his knees, "tell me how you really feel. Sheesh. I've never heard you get this angry before."
"That's because, as much as a nuisance as you are, it has never directly affected me in such a way—!" Edelgard's blood cooled in an instant as her eyes fell upon his free hands. They dangled off the edges of his knees. "Did you pick the lock?"
"While you were puzzling over how you ever got stuck with such a fool," Claude said, twirling a pin between his knuckles, "yes."
The pin glinted between his fingers. It was gold.
"Is that your broach pin?" Edelgard felt dazed and foolish. "However did you get it off your shoulder?"
"I do have a mouth," Claude said with a strange twist of his lips. "They didn't manage the shackle that."
"You must have looked quite foolish," Edelgard murmured. "I'm sad I was not conscious for that."
"You and me both," Claude said, scooting closer. "Your hands, Lady Edelgard?"
Her breath came out in a short burst from her nostrils, her frustration dying as she stared at the pin in his hands. She was not one to know how to pick a lock off the top of her head, and she longed for freedom more than anything. Hesitantly, she turned her back to Claude.
"Wherever did you learn to pick locks?" she asked softly.
"You learn strange things in strange places," Claude said cryptically as he cupped her bound hands in his. His fingers were callused, likely from years of tying bowstrings and notching arrows. She could feel him dipping his head to get a closer look at the shackles, and the heat of his breath tickled her palms.
"You can do it without looking," Edelgard said through clenched teeth, "clearly. Do you care to give me some space?"
"I can do it faster if I can see the keyhole," Claude said, lifting his head, "but if you insist—"
They both froze at the distant sound of keys jostling. Her eyes flashed over her shoulder, and when they met his, the alarm gleamed within them.
"I can't pick it fast enough," he breathed.
"No," he gasped, "listen. I'm going to shackle myself again, okay?"
"What? That is the most ridiculous—"
"Edelgard," Claude said steadily, "if they believe we're stuck down here, they'll be less attentive. Please, listen to me. I can get out of these faster now that I've done it before."
A door opened above them, and she could sense Claude's mounting anxiety as he searched her face. He was already inching back to his shackles.
"You truly are a fool," she said, turning her hands back into the wall. "Fine. Do as you wish."
She heard the shackles clink softly as he pushed his back to the wall and raised his chin high. If she did not know what he was doing, she probably would not suspect a thing.
They both sat silently, their eyes cast toward the floorboards above them. Shadows of feet dragged across the floor, causing rifts in the slats of sunlight.
A trap door opened, and Edelgard closed her eyes, suppressing a flinch at the sound of a ladder descending. It rattled and squeaked beneath the weight of the man who climbed down it.
"So," a familiar brigand with dull blue eyes said, "you're both awake. That's good. Very good."
"I suppose you're not up for some friendly negotiations?" Claude offered gamely.
Another brigand, this one a little less familiar, but the way they were dressed struck enough of a chord in Edelgard's memory. Yes, these were definitely men she had hired at one time or another.
"Not today, brat," the more familiar brigand snapped.
"As we understand it," the less familiar brigand said, "we missed a kid."
He wore a helmet that cast a shadow over his scarred face. Edelgard was not intimidated, having dealt with brigands before, but she did not like his tone of voice. Or the way he was watching her.
"The most important one," the familiar, blue eyed brigand said. "Yep."
"Brilliant." The helmeted brigand pulled a knife suddenly, and on instinct, Edelgard stiffened. The helmeted brigand had brown eyes, she saw, as his head swiveled to her. "Someone's scared."
Her mouth was dry, perhaps from being drugged, perhaps from dehydration, or perhaps because that much was true— but she would never admit that.
She did not blink. She merely stared at him.
"I assure you," she said smoothly, "you will be paid handsomely the instant you return us to Garreg Mach— unharmed, might I add, lest you intend not to get paid at all."
Claude's left knee dropped to the dusty floor.
"Ooh," the helmeted brigand laughed, "and who, exactly, will be doin' this paying?"
Claude stretched out his leg.
"We are both nobility," Edelgard said. "Heirs to our respective territories… that should be enough to convince you of our worth, is it not?"
Claude's foot knocked against hers as he shifted his legs beneath him. When she spared him a glance, his green eyes were shadowy, even with the light pouring in from the trap door. She sensed he did not agree with her tactics, but his eyes were difficult to read.
The helmeted brigand laughed again. Edelgard eyed the man's knife tiredly, thinking about how much she would make him regret it if he used it.
"Could we kill two birds with one stone?" asked the dull eyed brigand. "One boss said kill an heir, the other wants blood from a little girl. Well, we got an heir and a little girl right here."
If she were not still processing the kill an heir bit, Edelgard probably would have objected to being called a little girl by these fools. She had all but forgotten her deal with Kostas, which she had assumed was null and void now that the man was dead. These brigands, now that she looked at them, did look to be his lot.
It was beginning to make sense. Her hired swords, the remnants of them, had fallen in with the rest of the Flame Emperor's ilk. Only she had not realized that just because a leader was dead, that did not mean the transaction was over.
But what was this about blood?
"You do realize that killing us is a waste, right?" Claude asked lazily. "If it's our blood you're after, and you're not even sure why… isn't it better to take a sample back to your leader to check?"
"Quiet," the dull eyed brigand snapped.
"No, no," the helmeted brigand said. "Let the boy speak."
Claude straightened up, his shoulders rising and falling casually, as though he was speaking with two random knights loitering in the gardens.
"Clearly you've got a conflict of interests," he said. "You want blood, and the person you wanted it from got away… you don't have to kill either of us. Just take us to your boss, and let them sort out what to do."
"And why would we do that?" the dull eyed one demanded.
"Because you already botched your mission enough?" Claude rolled his eyes. "I mean, whatever. Your choice. You can kill us in this third-rate prison cell, and let people speculate about what happened to us. Or you can take us to your boss, and have proof that you captured the heirs of the Adestrian Empire and the Leceister Alliance."
Allowing Claude to speak, in this instance, seemed to be her best option. She could practically see his words taking root in both the brigands' minds, even as they scowled and shifted uncertainly.
"Fine," the helmeted brigand spat. "You two will live— for now."
Edelgard relaxed against the wall, her eyes fluttering closed. Of course they would listen to Claude over her. Didn't they merely think of her as a little girl? She would relish in the sight of their faces when the Flame Emperor unmasked herself before them, and put them before the sword. She would take satisfaction in their fear, and in their pleas, before she lifted her sword and declared that she was not the Church of Seiros, and she would not execute men before they stood trial. Even if she had witnessed their crimes before her very eyes.
"Grab the boy," the helmeted brigand said gruffly.
Edelgard's eyes snapped open, just in time to catch sight of Claude's surprised glance. There was a flash of fear in that glance, something she recognized acutely before he blinked it away as he was yanked to his feet.
Part of her wished to object, and her mouth even fell open, a strangled sound falling from her lips.
Claude was gone before she could think of what to say.
A plate clattered in front of him, causing him to jump. He'd been waiting at an empty table in the dining hall, his mouth pressed to his knuckles, as he tried to think of how exactly Edelgard and Claude had been whisked away. It just seemed so unlikely.
Dedue's steady gaze watched him from above. He folded his arms across his chest sternly.
"I'm not hungry," Dimitri objected.
"My apologies for my boldness, Your Highness," Dedue said, "but I respectfully disagree."
"Please, Dedue," he sighed, "I… have a lot of my mind right now. I will eat later."
"I cannot force you," Dedue said, clearly choosing his words carefully, "but it would be a shame to put these sweet buns to waste."
Dimitri was keenly aware that he was being played, but his eyes trailed to the still steaming trio of glazed yellow buns, and he slumped a bit.
"You win," Dimitri mumbled. He pried a bun from its brothers, careful not the get the glaze on his fingers. "Will you sit? I'm… having a bit of a time, here. I can't quite figure out what's happening."
Dedue sat down beside him, his long legs slow to crouch down as his knees scraped the underside of the table. He peered at Dimitri with a furrowed brow.
"You mean about the other house leaders," Dedue said. "Hresvelg and Riegen."
"Edelgard and Claude," Dimitri said, smiling a bit at Dedue's distinct lack of respect for the other heirs, "yes. You know they're missing, don't you?"
"I heard murmurs of it in the dormitory."
That explained Dedue's quick work with the sweet buns. He must have suspected Dimitri would be stuck in his own head in an attempt to fix this mess.
"Then you know we must find them." Dimitri nibbled on a sweet bun tentatively. It was difficult to eat anything, with the knot of anxiety that was once his stomach, but he was too thankful to turn down the breakfast. "I know, I know, don't look at me like that. I'm aware it is not my responsibility, and that I cannot save everyone, but this is Edelgard. And Claude. I'm not going to sit by and pretend like their disappearances don't affect me."
"I did not say anything."
"I can tell you don't approve," Dimitri said.
"What does it matter if I approve or not?"
"I happen to care very much about your approval, Dedue," Dimitri said, sliding the plate in front of his friend. After glancing at Dimitri curiously, Dedue took half a bun. He tore it in half and offered the other to Dimitri, who took it without thought.
"Then we search," Dedue said simply. "We do not rest until they are recovered."
"Safely," Dimitri added.
"One can hope."
As they both ate, the bench across from them creaked softly, and Dimitri blinked at the shock of pink hair. Hilda's pigtails settled against her shoulders, and her gaze was fixed upon both of them.
"Hilda," Dimitri greeted, guilt trickling slowly through him as he observed her frown. "I… I'm sorry to hear about Claude. I intend to—"
"Yes," Hilda sighed loftily, setting her cheeks upon her knuckles. "Claude. I'm so distraught, really, I've hardly been able to function all morning. I even forgot to eat."
"Oh!" Dimitri pushed the plate of sweet buns in front of her. "Here, Hilda. Take one."
"Really?" Hilda already had a bun in her hands. "If you insist!"
Dedue sighed, glancing down at Dimitri. It was a glance that would probably be unreadable to Hilda, but Dimitri could sense his disbelief.
Dimitri did not know Hilda well, but from what he had heard, she was a lazy gossip. It hardly seemed prudent to keep such a person as one's retainer, though Dimitri could not pretend to understand the inner workings of Claude's mind.
"That was delicious!" Hilda gasped, licking the glaze off her thumb. "Compliments to the chef!"
"Thank you," Dedue said.
Hilda blinked. "Oh," she said, her eyes bright and curious. "You made that, Dedue?"
"Wow, you're so talented!" Hilda's smile was small and sweet. Dimitri was a little charmed. "Honestly, I'm a hopeless cook. Maybe you could show me how to make these sometime?"
"I don't think so."
Hilda's smile fell. It's clear she was not expecting Dedue to deny her, especially so callously, and Dimitri shook his head.
"Hilda," he said, "did you come here to talk about Claude, or did you just want food?"
"Hey!" Hilda blinked at him. "I'm very upset, here! Can't you spare some sympathy?"
Both Dedue and Dimitri merely stared at her. If it were not for Dedue, who clearly did not believe Hilda for a second, Dimitri might have continued to entertain the girl. He did not like seeing people sad, and Hilda had every reason to be upset. But Dedue was good at noticing liars, and Dimitri would follow his instincts.
With that, Hilda's demeanor changed with a dull shift, her eyes narrowing and the corner of her mouth turning upwards.
"Funny," she said. "I always pegged you as a bit more gullible than this, Dimitri."
"I'm… sorry?" Dimitri shifted uncomfortably. "You do happen to know Claude fairly well, and I'd like to get your honest opinion on the situation. If you don't mind."
She peered at him curiously. "Don't tell me you're actually concerned about him," she said in disbelief.
"You're not?" Dimitri could not imagine how she was not stressing at this very moment. After all, Dimitri could not imagine what Dedue would do if it was Dimitri missing, and Dimitri had spent the entire morning avoiding Hubert. Yet Hilda seemed unfazed.
"Of course I am!" Hilda scowled at him, the dip in her attitude alarming him. "What kind of monster do you think I am? Claude is my friend!"
"Then by all means," Dedue said, "help us."
"Fine!" Hilda's cheeks were suddenly pink, and Dimitri could not tell if it was embarrassment or anger that had done it. "Maybe I will! I mean, it's not like they're in actual danger, or anything, but fine."
"What do you mean?" Dimitri asked.
"Clearly Claude just…" Hilda bit her lip, her eyes darting away from their faces wildly. "He just ran off with Edelgard. Maybe they're in love, and Claude couldn't stand the pressures of being the next Duke of Riegen, so they decided to elope."
Oh, Dimitri thought, a sudden sadness overcoming him as he watched Hilda fiddle with the end of one of her pigtails. She is worried. But instead of panicking, she's convinced herself that Claude is perfectly fine— happy, even.
"That's certainly a theory," Dedue said.
"Do you really think Edelgard would run off with Claude?" Dimitri asked weakly.
"I don't know!" Hilda huffed. "The only time Edelgard ever talked to me was to tell me that I have wonderful form and incredible aim, but my execution when swinging my axe is lazy. But Claude's super smooth, so if anyone could melt Edelgard's heart, I'd bet it'd be him."
"It's… certainly a theory," Dimitri echoed Dedue. "Though I'm not sure you really believe that."
Hilda's brow pinched beneath her bangs, and she opened her mouth to retort, but the room had fallen silent. Dimitri turned to see Byleth standing on a nearby bench, her eyes raking over the room.
"I am sure that most of you have heard by now," she said, "but if you have not, I'll catch you all up to speed on what is happening. Edelgard and Claude have gone missing."
Scattered gasps filled the room, and a dull murmur replaced the steady silence. Byleth sighed, and she waited patiently for the murmuring to die.
"How?" Hubert demanded, rising from his seat. The Black Eagles had congregated together in the far corner of the room. Dimitri caught Dorothea's eye, and she stared at him intently. It must have been a chore for her to gather them all without having much of an explanation.
"We are still investigating," Byleth said. "This is… a hard thing for all of us, I think. But I would like us all to work together to find them."
"How do we know that Claude von Riegen is not responsible?" Hubert asked, rage causing his voice to shake.
"Claude?" Hilda laughed, not even bothering to turn to look at Hubert. She tossed a pigtail behind her shoulder. "Kidnap Edelgard? Oh, Hubert, I don't know why people don't like you. You're so funny."
"You'd take care to mind your tongue," Hubert said darkly, "you pampered squirrel."
Hilda rolled her eyes in response, clearly not interested in being baited by Hubert.
"If you care to have a tongue by tomorrow," the bold, matter-of-fact voice of Lysithea called flippantly, "I suggest you sit down, and take care not to speak about Claude or Hilda that way."
"Are you trying to threaten me, you little mouse?" Hubert chuckled, edging forward toward where Lysithea was sitting. Dimitri saw that she had only looked up at the sound of little mouse, and her pale face was contorted in sudden rage.
"What did you call me?" she snapped, slamming her large tome shut. It did, unfortunately, sound a bit like a squeak as the pitch of her voice heightened irritably.
"Enough!" Dimitri leapt to his feet and cut between Hubert and Lysithea, his arms flinging out. As much as he had very much not wanted to speak to Hubert, he was certainly not interested and seeing Lysithea, who was the youngest student at Garreg Mach, get spat upon by the man. "Why are you fighting the Golden Deer, Hubert? Everyone here is in the same boat! We all wish to see Edelgard and Claude returned to us, so please, do not pick fights with those who would be your allies!"
Hubert's nostrils flared a bit as he looked down his nose at Dimitri.
"And where were you last night, Your Highness?" Hubert hissed, his visible eye flickering with dull rage.
"Please, Hubert," Dimitri sighed, "pinning the blame on anyone who opposes you is not going to bring her back! If you would just calm down a moment, you will see that we are all on the same side! Please—"
"Enough with your begging," Hubert said, smacking away Dimitri's extended arm. "Are you a dog, or a man? No, do not answer that. I already know."
"Honestly, Hubert!" Dorothea gasped, pushing off the bench of her table and half jogging up behind him. "Do you know no reason at all? Dimitri is offering to aid us in the search— him, and the Golden Deer, and the Knights of Seiros! Don't you see how that benefits us?"
"I am not interested in playing nice with dogs and dinner," Hubert said, his eye flashing dangerously to Lysithea. Dimitri raised his arms again, but the girl behind him was undeterred.
"Well," Lysithea declared, "I am not interested in listening to empty threats. If you wish to fight me, say so plainly, and I will gladly take this outside and take that rotten tongue of yours, since you clearly have no idea how to use it."
It struck Dimitri suddenly, listening to Lysithea's small, haughty voice, that the girl reminded him painfully of Edelgard.
Suddenly, before Hubert could sort through his rage and respond to Lysithea's taunts, Byleth was between them. Her arms were folded sternly across her chest, and though she did not look angry per se, there was a warning in her eyes that made even Hubert wince.
"Leave your petty rivalries," Byleth said, her voice still somehow dangerously calm and devoid of emotion. "Leave your pride, too, for that matter. I will not abide it. I'm not interested."
"You speak as though I care what you are interested in," Hubert snapped.
Byleth tipped her head to one side, her eyebrows shooting beyond her hair.
"No?" She shrugged. "Okay. Search for Edelgard on your own."
"What?" Hubert hissed.
"I will help my students," Byleth said. "Not you. If the rest of your house feels differently, I will gladly aid them as well. You, however, will receive no guidance from me."
Dimitri's mouth fell open. For a moment he thought that Hubert would swing at the professor, but he didn't. Instead he just glared down at her.
"I do not need your help," he sneered.
"Um," Dorothea said, her hand shooting into the air. "Yes, hello, Professor? I do. I really, really do. Can't we chat? Over tea? You know how I love tea parties."
"You feel differently from Hubert?"
"Oh, yes," Dorothea said with a gasp. She clasped her hands and shot Byleth a radiant smile while Hubert scowled down at her. "You can tell me what to do anyway, Professor! If it gets Edie back to us safe and sound, I'll marry you if you ask!"
He expected some embarrassment from Byleth, a flush or a nervous laugh.
Byleth merely blinked.
"That's kind of you," she said. "If you are serious, would you bring yourself and…" She cupped her chin, looking almost puzzled.
"Linhardt," Dimitri suggested, leaning over Byleth to look into Dorothea's sharp green eyes. The corner of her mouth quirked at the suggestion, and she eyed Dimitri with curiosity.
If Byleth minded Dimitri's chest against her, she did not say anything. She merely glanced up at him, and she nodded.
"Linhardt," she said. "Bring yourself and Linhardt to my quarters when you are able. We will discuss more at length then."
"Me and Lin," Dorothea said. "Got it."
"You suppose that Linhardt would oppose me," Hubert said coolly.
"Lin doesn't give a shit about you, Hubie," Dorothea said delicately, giving Hubert a consoling pat on the arm. He stepped away from her touch, his glare roving around the room, before he whirled around and exited without another word. "Sorry about that, Professor. He's really worried, you know."
"I don't care."
"What?" Dorothea blinked. "Really?"
"As long as he keeps his hands off my students, he can do what he wants." Byleth turned to look at Lysithea, who was standing with a large tome in her arms. She scowled when Byleth shook her head. "That was not wise."
"Sorry, Professor," she muttered, her arms tightening around her tome. "But that guy gives me the creeps! I don't care if he's worried— we're all worried! And we're not going around insulting Edelgard to make ourselves feel better!"
"I apologize for his behavior," Dorothea said gently. "Really, I do. I want to help with this mission to find Edie and Claudie. And I think I speak for the rest of the Black Eagles when I say that."
"Okay." Byleth nodded. "Lysithea, I want you to come to my quarters as well."
"Oh? Me?" Lysithea frowned. "I suppose I can do that. Wait, this isn't going to interfere with classes, is it?"
"Claude is missing," Lorenz said, rolling his eyes. He had been sitting at the far end of the table, observing the exchange dully. "Not that I am one to complain, but it would be an emergency, you know."
"Careful, Lorenz," Ignatz said with a small smile. "Someone might think you care."
"I don't," Lorenz said quickly. "Of course I don't. If Claude isn't found, all the better for me."
Byleth and Dimitri exchanged a strange, meaningful glance.
"Hilda," Byleth called. "With me."
"Whaaaat? But, Professor, I haven't eaten yet. Couldn't, I don't know… Raphael do it?"
"I haven't eaten either," Raphael admitted. He was the furthest away, standing near the back of the dining hall. "But if you need some help, I'm your man!"
"Thank you," Byleth sighed, "but I need Hilda."
"Need me? Well, I guess if you put it like that…"
"Dimitri," Byleth said, brushing past him, "you too."
"Oh…? Okay." Dimitri blinked rapidly as Lysithea frowned up at him, her pink eyes narrowing. She trailed after Byleth, her chin held high. Her legs were rather short, so Dimitri allowed her to walk far enough ahead of him before he followed. Hilda slinked behind him, looking like a grumpy, disturbed cat.
"What's going on?" she whispered once they left the Dining Hall. The sunlight blanched her pink hair. "I mean, I know why the Professor asked after us, but… you're new."
"I think she is merely interested in joining all of our classes together in search of Edelgard and Claude," Dimitri said. "It's not much deeper than that."
"How did you find out, anyway?" Hilda asked curiously. Then, she studied him for a moment before huffing. "Sylvain."
"Yes?" Dimitri winced. "He and I have been friends for most of our lives, you know."
"Oh, I know." Hilda smiled at him, her hands hooking behind her back. "He talks a lot."
"He does, yes."
"Soo…" Hilda smoothed back her pigtails. "Finding Claude and Edelgard… that's certainly some task, huh?"
"It is a task I am more than willing to take on," Dimitri said firmly.
"I'm so glad to hear it!" Hilda gasped. "Because I'm totally stressed about it, really, and—"
"Hilda," Byleth called. "I need your opinion."
Dimitri was left behind as Hilda huffed a bit and put on a bright face before trotting up to Byleth's side. He was left with the keen-eyed Lysithea, who had slowed down so he was not at her back.
"You did not need to defend me from Hubert," she immediately told him curtly. "I can handle myself."
"I apologize… I merely—"
"It was my people he was insulting," Lysithea cut in. "And me. I did not miss that mouse comment. Do you think I am a mouse?"
"N-no!" Dimitri blinked. "Not at all."
"But you do see me as a child." Lysithea rolled her eyes. "Typical."
"If I have done something to offend you," Dimitri said, "I apologize—"
"Fine," Lysithea said. "Next time you see someone come at me, let me handle it. I can show you just how capable I am, and perhaps then you will stop looking at me like I am a little girl."
With that, Lysithea stomped ahead, and once more Dimitri was reminded of Edelgard.
Dimitri sighed, and he followed the Golden Deer to Byleth's room. It was sparse, very few trinkets lying around for someone who made a trade on collecting lost things and returning them to their owner. With the amount of gifts Byleth gave, Dimitri had imagined something far more cluttered. Hilda sat down on Byleth's desk flipping through what looked like lesson plans while Lysithea set her book down on Byleth's bed. Awkwardly, Dimitri hung in the doorway.
"I want to sweep the scene," Byleth said.
"Great!" Hilda smiled thinly, her laugh clearly forced. "I love cleaning."
"What I think the Professor means—" Dimitri began.
"She knows what the Professor meant," Lysithea said, folding her arms across her chest.
"Lysithea, hush!" Hilda kicked her legs idly. "I really am just lost here. I don't know if I'll be much help."
"Claude could be dead," Byleth said.
At that, Hilda's legs ceased kicking, and her shoulders stiffened. Her entire demeanor seemed to change, similarly to how it had in the Dining Hall, and Dimitri blinked as she slid off the desk with the sigh.
"What is it you need me to do?" she asked tiredly.
"You're observant," Byleth said. "Talkative. You and Sylvain will go into town tomorrow and gather intel."
"Aye-aye," Hilda said. She was surprisingly okay with going on a mission with Sylvain, despite Sylvain's… Sylvain-ness. It could be that she was used to him by now, because Dimitri doubted that a girl like Hilda, who seemed to be a master at talking, could be swayed by anything that came out of Sylvain's mouth.
"What about me?" Lysithea asked.
"Yes, yes," Lysithea sighed, "obviously! But on what, exactly?"
"Architecture." Byleth glanced around her own room. She seemed to frown. "Garreg Mach. Secret passages."
"You think that's how they got away with it?" Lysithea blinked. "I guess that makes sense. Claude would be better at this than me, you know. He loves the historical stuff."
"I know." Byleth rubbed her eyes, clearly more tired than she let on. "You may be working with Linhardt."
A sour look appeared on Lysithea's face. Strangely, she said nothing. Byleth, who was ever attentive to her students, pondered over Lysithea's silence with a blank look.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"No," Lysithea said. "It's fine. He's… just annoying. I can handle it."
"Okay." Byleth fixed her gaze upon Dimitri. "You and I will be going hunting."
"Excuse me?" Dimitri asked.
"I will ask Dorothea too." Byleth nodded, almost as if to herself. "Yes."
"Yes… what, exactly?"
The Professor cupped her chin. She blinked, and then looked at Dimitri. "You like Dorothea, don't you?"
"I don't really know her," Dimitri said. "But sure. Professor, I feel like we need to talk about Lorenz."
"Lorenz didn't do it," Lysithea said, rolling her eyes. "Quit while you're ahead."
"Yeah," Hilda agreed. "Lorenz may seem pompous and prickly and— well, he is. But he's also a nice guy!"
"Can you prove that?" Dimitri asked tiredly.
"Can you prove you're a nice guy?" Lysithea asked sharply. Hilda squeaked, and she ushered Lysithea to calm down.
"I only mean," Dimitri sighed, "are you certain that Lorenz would not go this far to secure his position in the Leicester Alliance? He is the next in line, is he not?"
"Well, I'm not going to stake my life on Lorenz's good nature," Hilda said stiffly. "But I really do believe he has nothing to do with it. Shouldn't we be looking at the people who'd want Edelgard out of the way?"
"Or Flayn," Byleth said.
"Oh, right!" Hilda nodded. "Flayn was attacked too! Professor, what happens if Edelgard and Claude weren't the target at all?"
"We die, I guess."
"Professor," Hilda sighed, shaking her head. "Is now really the time for your jokes?"
Dimitri smiled wanly. What on earth?
"If they weren't the targets," Lysithea said, "they are either in even more danger, or they will be freed."
"You think so?" Dimitri asked.
Lysithea's eyes flashed to his. "Yes," she said. "Depending on the people who took them… if they are smart, they will just free the two of them, or ransom them. If they are foolish, they will execute them."
"That is entirely disheartening," Dimitri said weakly.
"Aren't you the one so determined to save them?" Lysithea scowled at him. "I am willing to risk a lot, I think, to get Claude back here safely. We need to be aware of how time sensitive this it, though."
"You never know," Hilda said flippantly, "Claude might just escape."
They all stared at her.
"What?" she gasped. "Are we all not thinking it? No? Just me? Well, get to know the guy better, will you? He's slippery as they come, and I'm sure he's thought up a way to get out of being kidnapped before."
"He probably didn't account for Edelgard though," Dimitri said.
"No…" Hilda grimaced. "You're right. Probably not."
"Well," Lysithea said, "I am going to go look at the scene of the crime. If that's alright with you, Professor. There might be something… some residual magic, or… I don't know. Hair. Blood. Something I can work with."
"Okay." Byleth led them out of her room, into the corridor, and out of the dormitories. This time, neither Hilda nor Lysithea spoke to him. He figured the reality had set in, and they were both miserable.
The courtyard where it had happened was closed off. The guard stationed there objected at first, but a look from Byleth sent the guard stammering.
"You know, Professor," Hilda said, bopping her head from side to side, "having you around is awfully convenient. People just do what you say, and you don't even have to talk to them!"
"I think they're scared of her," Dimitri said delicately.
"Why would you say that?" Lysithea asked, her pale eyes once more piercing him. "Are you scared of the Professor, Dimitri?"
He wondered if the girl was goading him. It did not matter, he decided. He would be honest regardless.
"I think a man would be foolish not to fear her," Dimitri said.
If Byleth was flattered by this compliment, she did not show it. In fact, she hardly reacted. Instead she stood in the middle of the courtyard, her hands on her hips. Her coat sleeves dangled at her elbows.
"Flayn and I left them about here," Byleth said, pointing to a spot beside some planted carnations. Lysithea was already crouching, peering at the ground curiously.
"Why were you and Flayn with Claude and Edelgard?" Dimitri asked. Hilda was examining the flowers.
"Claude wanted to learn a healing spell," Byleth said.
"What?" Lysithea leapt to her feet. "He wanted to learn a spell? And he didn't ask me?"
"It's Claude," Byleth said with a shrug.
"That's not an excuse!" Lysithea's scowl was more like a pout, and her cheeks puffed out indignantly. "I would have helped him if he'd asked."
"Perhaps he thought you were busy."
"I—!" Lysithea blinked. "That's not fair."
Byleth appeared to smile a little. "Anyway," she said, "one arrow was recovered from the scene."
"You clear did not look hard enough," Lysithea said, kneeling before the dip in the cobbles that led into the dirt. "Look at this."
Byleth held out her hand and examined the arrow shaft curiously.
"Good job," she said.
"Where is the arrowhead?" Dimitri asked.
"Oh, Claude probably took it," Hilda said with her usual flippant tone. They all stared at her. She shrugged. "What? If he didn't have his bow, you know he'd want a weapon. An arrowhead is easier to conceal than a whole arrow. Also, I found a knife, if, you know, anyone thinks that's relevant."
"A knife?" Lysithea was by Hilda's side in an instant. "Oh… look at that! It's buried in the flowers. Claude must have put it there."
"That knife definitely is not Claude's," Hilda said as Lysithea yanked said knife from the dirt. It had been plunged nearly to the hilt, Dimitri saw.
He was struck by the image of Lysithea gripping the dagger, its onyx hilt too big for her pale hands, and he jerked back.
"That's…" He blinked rapidly, sucking in a deep breath to calm himself. "That dagger belongs to Edelgard."
"Really?" Lysithea glanced down at it. "Oh. Can you think of any reason why she might stab it into the flowers?"
"No…" If he thought too hard about it, he might go mad wondering about this dagger and its place here. Had Edelgard hidden it so he could recognize it?
"Unless she didn't do it," Hilda said. "What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"You think Claude did it," Lysithea surmised, her brow furrowing. "Why?"
"Because Claude's Claude, and he'd hide a weapon in the flowers so we'd know where it was he fell." Hilda pointed to the broken arrow. "He wanted us to find these things so we'd see that they were both taken alive. Or something. I don't know."
"Your instincts are good," Byleth said gently.
Hilda blinked, and she turned her face away as she flushed. "You think so?" she laughed. "I thought maybe I've just been hanging around Claude too much."
"Maybe that too."
"In any case," Dimitri said, "where do we go from here?"
Byleth fixed him once more with her dull stare.
"We work together," she said.
It got dark in the basement before the hatch opened again. In that time, Edelgard had already accepted Claude's death. She'd sat, fallen asleep, woken up to a dark, empty cell, and she imagined that she would starve here. That Claude was dead, tortured perhaps, and that she'd been left to rot.
Her imaginings grew more gruesome as the time passed, and that made her feel ill.
True, it might be easier for her in the long run if Claude died. She should be glad for it. But she had wanted him to die in battle, with a bow in his hand, because any other death was unworthy of him. As tricky as Claude could be, as irritating and haughty, Edelgard knew there was kindness in him. She had observed him with his classmates. He had a care-free attitude, but he seemed to dote on his fellow Deer. It was hard not to admire that.
When the hatch opened, she jerked upright. Her heart thudded in her chest, and she thought that maybe they would throw Claude at her feet. Alive or dead, at least she'd know.
But they didn't. She was surprised when she was snatched up by the arms and dragged up the ladder.
"Let go of me," she gasped. "I can carry myself, thank you very much!"
These brigands were different than earlier. One rolled her eyes. The other laughed. A third bound her ankles, and she knew better than to kick, but she glowered the whole time.
She was stuffed in the back of a carriage, which she imagined is how she had gotten to the house to begin with. She could see the stars glitter between a hole in the burlap roof. Her captors talked needlessly, and she tried to slide her hands out of her shackles. If there was any time to get away, on this road, in the cover of darkness would be the best.
"— should return her to Lord Arundel."
Edelgard nearly bolted upright. Volkhard. Had her uncle ordered this? If he had, she would gladly face him and give him a piece of her mind.
Her arms were still shackled behind her back, so it was difficult to reach her ankles to make any attempt at untying her binds. When the carriage finally stopped, Edelgard could hear the faint rush of a nearby body of water. She felt the breeze, too, as she was yanked from the carriage.
The minute a bag was shoved over her head, she nearly stopped breathing.
Don't throw me in the river, she thought dazedly. Don't throw me in the river…
She could not be sure what river this was, but she suspected that since Arundel had been mentioned, she was near her uncle's keep. Unless, of course, she had the wrong river.
"Where," Edelgard gasped, "are you taking me? Do you even comprehend what you are doing? I am Edelgard von Hresvelg, and if you answer to Lord Arundel, then you should be very concerned."
"Do you hear a word of what she's saying?" a brigand laughed. "Gods, shut her up."
Because there was a bag over her head, she could not anticipate the hit. It hurt, yes, and she briefly saw stars, but the blow was not enough to knock her unconscious. It did, however, teach her to hold her tongue.
Clearly there was no reasoning with these brigands.
By the time they yanked the bag off her head, she was nursing a headache. The river was loud enough as it lapped at the boat's sides. Edelgard exhaled sharply as she saw that she had been taken into the bowels of a riverboat.
She was tossed unceremoniously to the floor, and the brigands laughed.
"How graceless," one said.
"To think she's nobility." They eyed her for a moment before shutting her into a dark room.
She laid for a moment on the floor, taking deep breaths to calm her racing heart. The ship was safe enough. And they were taking her to her uncle, weren't they? There was no reason to get hasty. Soon she would get these shackles off and show them the mistake they had made.
The boat was moving, she realized quickly, as the floor beneath her seemed to shift. She stretched out her legs to get a better understanding of the space around her, only to toe something soft.
"Oh!" Edelgard sat up. She toed it again, not quite as hard, and she heard a soft moan. "Hello…?"
Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness now. There was a small rectangle near the ceiling that filtered in moonlight. That light hit the body on the floor beside her just right so that the yellow undershirt was illuminated.
"Claude?" Edelgard gasped, inching closer to him. "You… you're alive…?"
It was a silly question. He'd curled up on the floor, another moan falling from his lips. He did not respond.
"Claude," Edelgard whispered, "you need to wake up. This boat is small enough that it can't be manned by a large crew. If you can pick our locks, I am certain we can take them. Claude?"
But he was not responding. In fact, it appeared as though he had not heard her at all.
"Hey." She toed him again, the tip of her boot prodding his chest. "Claude, now is not the time to be sleeping."
At her prodding, Claude was rolled onto his back. His arms fell limply at his sides. Something wet grazed the back of her calf, and Edelgard instinctively touched it, her fingers stretching awkwardly behind her back. Her fingers came back damp, and the familiar metallic scent of blood stung her nose immediately.
"Claude?" Edelgard uttered dazedly. She glanced down, and she saw the dark stain setting into the grain of the wooden floor. "Claude! Wake up!"
To her astonishment, he actually stirred. His brow pinched, and he hissed through his teeth.
"Shit," he mumbled. "What…?"
"Your arm," Edelgard gasped. "You need to stop that bleeding— can't you use that spell you were learning?"
"Spell…?" Claude's eyes fluttered open just a crack, and though she could not quite make out the green of his eyes, she knew he saw her. "In this condition…? You're crazy, Edelgard."
"Fine!" Edelgard squeezed her eyes shut. She was not much use with her arms still bound behind her. "Die, then. See if I care."
"You are such a pain," Claude murmured. "I'm… not gonna die… from a little cut. Okay?"
"That's what you think."
"Just… come closer, okay?"
Edelgard eyed him uncertainly. He was clearly exhausted, and he could hardly even sit upright. Yet he patted his chest.
"Put your hands here," he said.
"Why?" she asked defensively.
"Why…?" Claude echoed her. A small, weak laugh fell from his lips. "Wow. I… really feel the love. The companionship. Aren't we supposed to be friends by now?"
"Hardly," she said.
"Well, I don't care." Claude's eyes flashed to her face, and she saw the determination there. "Give me your hands. Please."
Without much else to protest, she scooted closer to his side, blindly trailing a bit of his blood, and when the small of her back hit his thigh she stifled a squeak. What came out was more of a garbled gasp.
"Not my chest," Claude said amusedly, his voice thick and tired. "But, you know. I'm not complaining."
"You are quite literally bleeding out," Edelgard hissed, "on the floor of this dingy merchant ship, and you still have the audacity to make a pass at me?"
"That wasn't quite me making a pass," Claude said lightly. "And I'm not bleeding out, either. I'm… resting."
"Claude, I swear—"
"Can't you just scoot over? I'm having… a little trouble sitting upright, at the moment. Just… stretch your arms a little… there."
Once more, Claude's callused fingers grazed hers. He yanked her hands closer, forcing her to fall backwards onto his legs.
"Sorry, sorry. I've only got one good arm right now… can you relax your hands, please?"
"Can you hurry up?"
"Did you miss the one arm part…? No? Okay, right. I forgot you're heartless."
That hit her a little bit too hard, and she could not come up with a retort. Instead she merely listened to the sound of his pin needling away at the lock of her shackles.
Heartless. That was correct, wasn't it? She was a heartless person, someone who would murder her classmates if it meant advancing her goals. That was who she was, and she had only herself to blame for this mess.
"I'm sorry," Claude said after a few minutes of silence. "That… was out of line."
"You always do have a knack for recognizing your foe's weakest points," Edelgard said, hoping there was some degree of humor in her tone. Because she felt absolutely miserable.
"It would have to be true for it to be your weak point," Claude said quietly.
"Perhaps it is true."
That caused her to laugh. A sharp, disbelieving snort of laughter, but a laugh nonetheless.
"How can you possibly know that?" she demanded. "Do you presume to know anything about me?"
"Not really…" The lock continued to jostle. "Only… I don't think you'd worry so much about if I die here, you know… if you were really heartless."
The shackles fell away suddenly, and her raw wrists felt the sting of fresh air.
Immediately, without another thought, Edelgard sat up. She removed the shoddily tied binds from her ankles, and then she turned to Claude. He was still grasping her shackles against his chest. It looked as though he had no energy to move them.
"You are utterly hopeless," she murmured. Stricken by her own empathy, she plucked the pin from her own broach. She stuck the broach and pin into her pocket, and then she gathered her cape in her hands and she reached for his wrist. Her fingers grazed a protruding vein, and she followed that line up his arm until the blood amassed more and more, and finally he hissed. "They did nothing to wrap this properly. What is this?"
"Part of my uniform," Claude said through his teeth, "I think… I put it there."
"So they didn't wrap it at all?" Edelgard rolled her eyes. "However did we get captured by such foolish thieves?"
"Not sure. Hey, you don't have to use anything of yours. Wouldn't… want to stain it, eh?" He laughed weakly.
"My cape is already red," Edelgard said, pressing her cape to his wound. She would have to tear it up to create a proper bandage. "Unless you bleed yellow, I suggest you shut up and let me save your life."
"Is that what you're doing?" Claude chuckled. "I thought you were just pestering me for fun."
"I hate you."
"And yet, apparently, you hold my life in your hands." Claude's voice was a mumble now. "Poetic… really…"
"Claude," Edelgard sighed. "Go to sleep."
"You sure I won't die?"
That struck her as a strange question. She could not see the extent of his wound, or how much he had bled, so she could not know.
"Would…" Edelgard shifted uncomfortably. "Would you rather I keep you awake?"
"Please," he rasped. "Talk to me. Tell me a story."
"Any story I have to tell will certainly put you to sleep," Edelgard said.
"Fine. I'll tell you a story," he said, "how's… how's that?"
"By all means."
"Once," Claude said, and his voice was dazed and soft, "when dragons as big as mountains… moved the earth, and the stars themselves came down from the sky to see what wonders man had made, there was a freed slave who marched with the army of the king of… of a far-away land."
Edelgard had not been expecting this. What she had been expecting, she could not say. Claude was tricky, and he had a silver tongue, so she had been afraid to hear any story he might tell. Part of her had imagined he'd tell a childhood anecdote, but she could tell from his tone that this was a tale that he had heard and memorized and then told countless times.
"The freed slave was a boy… about our age, who had garnered favor with the king by playing many magnificent songs. They… they say the stars themselves wept, when he played his lyre, and those fallen stars carved… canyons… valleys… mountains… out of the earth. All for a song. All for the love a boy had for a king." Claude's voice was thick, and she sensed his sadness somehow as he spoke. "For the boy was in love, and the stars knew it, and the dragons knew it, and the mountains that his voice had carved out knew it too. All the boy wanted was to be loved. He could sing forever, if the king just asked him to."
Claude paused to swallow, and she heard him struggle a bit.
"One day," he said, "there was a contest. Dance for the king, dance for the stars, dance until every man, woman, and child is satisfied. Dancers came, they went, but there was no dancer quite like the boy. The crowd was a mix of soldiers and nobles, of commoners and gods. They say the stars bet against the moon that the boy would win, and the moon, in turn, could only show its face once before fading into a cycle."
"And…" Edelgard felt strange engaging with a fairytale. "Did the boy win?"
"Of course," Claude murmured. He chuckled weakly. "He… was widely acknowledged as… the best dancer in the land— in the world, perhaps. When his prize was offered, though, he declined it."
"Because he had his eyes set on a different sort of prize," Claude said, in a voice that suggested he would smirk if he had the energy. "He stood before the crowd and demanded a kiss from the king."
"That…" Edelgard slumped a bit. "That is hardly appropriate. It puts the king in an unfortunate position where if he abides this wish, he might be seen as weak, to be manipulated by a mere boy, but if he refuses… well, an angry crowd is a king's worst enemy."
"You are thinking rather… logically about this, aren't you?" Claude sounded amused.
"Was this not a cautionary tale your parents told you to prepare you for ruling?" Edelgard asked, rolling her eyes. "My mistake."
"It's a love story, Edelgard."
"Are you saying that if you were put in that position, as king, you would not puzzle over the effect it would have on your people?" Edelgard demanded.
"You mean would I give a boy a harmless kiss if he won a dance competition for me?" Claude laughed this time, and the shackles slid from his chest. "Absolutely."
"You should be more prudent with your affection, then," Edelgard said curtly.
"Perhaps…" Claude countered, "you should give yours more freely."
"Are you going to tell me if the king gave the boy a kiss," Edelgard sighed, "or not?"
"Oh? I knew I had you hooked." Claude nodded. "The king was charmed by the boy's talent, and by his boldness too. He was more than happy to reward the boy with a kiss."
"And I'm sure that didn't backfire at all," Edelgard said with a roll of her eyes.
"Oh, no, it did," Claude said. "I'm not trying to tell you the historical version. The historically accurate version is far more uncomfortable. But the one you tell to children so they eventually do their readings is the one where the king is chivalrous and the boy had no hardships."
"This is a real story?" Edelgard asked, surprised.
"Of course." Claude peered at her. "Did you think it wasn't? All myths are based, even just a little bit, on fact."
"What happened to them?" Edelgard asked. "In the end?"
"Oh, the king died young," Claude said simply. "The boy died old. Life goes on."
"Oh yes," Claude said. "It is."
Edelgard gripped his forearm, pressing tightly so she might keep his blood from continuing to pour out. She wanted to know what they had done to him exactly. She could not imagine he would be so quick to talk if they had…
Well, she needed to focus on keeping him awake.
"Would you tell me another, Claude?" she asked.
He blinked up at her, and he was more than happy to oblige.
"Professor, I am going to tear my hair out, I swear it. I am at my wit's end here!"
Dimitri was collapsed at a desk in Byleth's classroom. Golden Deer paraphernalia was everywhere, and Byleth was currently at her desk, blinking at him. It had been a week, and they were no closer to finding Claude and Edelgard than they'd been the night they'd gone missing.
Currently, their research team consisting of Lysithea, Linhardt, Ashe, and sometimes Annette or Ignatz, was in the library. Initially the team had merely been Lysithea and Linhardt, but after two days, Lysithea had stormed into the classroom, finding Dimitri, Dorothea, and Byleth at Byleth's desk. She had demanded that she either work alone, or work with someone else, because she could not stand Linhardt.
"All he cares about is Crests," she'd said heatedly, her sharp pink eyes narrowing. "He is such an unbearable fool! And when he is not consumed with Crest research, he is falling asleep on my books! I can do double the research in the amount of time it takes me to get him on task!"
Their solution had been to just add more people, since Linhardt had actually refused to quit the research team. He had looked at Dimitri, blinked, and shook his head.
"I do want to save Edelgard," Linhardt said. "I imagine Lysithea has trouble seeing that, since I do not share her passion for… well, most things."
After setting Ashe on the task, Lysithea stopped complaining, and Linhardt was distracted from asking Lysithea about Crests. It seemed Ashe's raw enthusiasm mixed well with Lysithea's work ethic and Linhardt's… lack of one. Ignatz and Annette joined in at times, if they happened to be in the library.
Dimitri did not even ask about Sylvain and Hilda. The two of them were a match made in hell, and Dimitri was almost glad not to see them and be informed that they had gotten distracted while in the market, and Hilda had conned Sylvain again into buying her an expensive perfume.
Byleth and Dorothea had their theories, but without a lead, they were all rather stuck.
"There, there," Byleth said, reaching awkwardly to pat the top of his head. Dimitri had not expected this, and he blinked at the grain of the wooden desk.
"What do we do?" he asked when she pulled her hand back. "They could be dead. They're probably dead. What happens if they're dead? Lorenz will take over the Alliance, I suppose, but… Edelgard…"
"You worry too much."
Byleth studied him. She shrugged.
"You care a lot," she said. "That's nice. But you also stress yourself out with possibilities, and convince yourself that the worst possible outcome must be true."
"So I'm a pessimist?" Dimitri grimaced. "Professor… that's not fair."
"Do you want me to be fair," Byleth said, "or do you want me to be honest?"
That stung. Had he not said the same thing to Sylvain not too long ago?
"Must I choose?"
"Fine." Dimitri sighed. "I… do value your honesty."
"Good. I'm glad." Her eyes flashed somewhere above his head. "Oh, hello, Hilda."
Dimitri twisted in his seat, blink at the girl as she hurried past him. Hurried! Hilda. At the sight of her rushing to Byleth, Dimitri could only scramble to his feet.
"You've found them," he gasped.
Hilda's head snapped in his direction. "What?" she said, her voice strained. "No! No, we didn't."
At the viciousness of her voice, Dimitri felt the urge to sit back down. She was clearly upset, and that was the most troubling thing that could happen at the moment. His heart sank, and he gripped the edge of the desk hard.
The wood splintered in his fingers, and he blinked down at it dazedly.
"We found a rumor of them," Sylvain said, striding casually to Dimitri's side. He either did not notice, or thankfully ignored "A traveling merchant saw two men dragging a guy who matched Claude's description out the woods near Myrddin. The merchant said Claude…"
"Claude's fine," Hilda snapped, shooting a cold look at Sylvain. "I told you already, didn't I? Claude is okay. The merchant said it herself! She was too far to tell if he was alive or not."
"Explain," Byleth said. Her voice was clipped and unamused. "From the beginning, if you please."
"I was actually taking our job seriously," Hilda said in her flippant, high voice, a tell-tale lie, "while Sylvain here was flirting shamelessly with a girl who sold apples, when—"
"Hey," Sylvain cut in. "If I wasn't such a shameless flirt, would we have this information? No."
"Fine," Hilda sniffed, her chin jerking up impudently. "Sylvain actually talked to the right girl for once, and when he started talking about Claude—"
"The point of our mission," Sylvain pointed out. "Anyway, excuse Hilda, Professor. She was crying our entire walk back up to the monastery."
Hilda opened her mouth to object, and it hung open for a moment. It was then that Dimitri noticed the redness of her nose and eyes. Her mouth clamped shut, and she scowled.
"The merchant said that she and her partner had stopped to let the horses rest, and that she'd been picking flowers when she saw them," Sylvain continued. "Her partner was with the horses at the river, so she said she got lucky. Anyway, they pulled an unconscious boy out of the forest and dragged him toward the road."
"How did she describe the boy?" Byleth asked.
"Foreign," Hilda said, her voice very small.
"Foreign," Sylvain agreed, "to her. Dark hair, brown skin. Dirty, bloody, broken."
"Sylvain," Hilda murmured.
"Her words," Sylvain said, "not mine."
"I'd like to speak to her myself," Byleth said, rounding her desk. "Dimitri?"
He was at Byleth's heel in an instant.
They nabbed Dorothea on their way out of the monastery. She hurried after them, readjusting her hat as they moved hastily down the steps toward the town.
"It sounds peculiar, I'll give you that," Dorothea said, "but how can we know if it's Claude? Dark hair and skin does not mean anything. There are tons of people who fit that description!"
"Hilda seemed spooked," Dimitri said. "I've… never seen her act like that before. She was clearly upset, and if there is any chance…"
"Hilda?" Dorothea frowned as she smoothed out her skirt. "Well… that's not exactly reassuring. But there is also the lack of information about Edie to consider, isn't there? If it was the men who kidnapped them, why did they only have Claude?"
"Maybe they dumped Edelgard somewhere else," Byleth said.
"Professor," Dimitri said sternly, "that is not funny."
Byleth blinked up at him, and she looked almost sheepish.
"Sorry," she said. "Poor taste."
"I'd say," Dorothea said. "Would you like to offer another brilliant theory, Professor? I am all ears."
Byleth did not seem to catch onto Dorothea's biting words. Instead, Byleth seemed deep in thought.
"I think we'd need to see for ourselves," she said finally.
"You mean go out to Myrddin?" Dorothea's brow furrowed. "I mean… we could. But we don't even know if this story is true."
"Which is why we are investigating," Byleth said.
"Yes…" Dorothea pursed her lips. "Well, yes, that is true. You've heard all those stories about that Death Knight, haven't you? What are the chances it was him?"
"If such a foe could get within the monastery walls," Dimitri said, "why would he settle on taking just two students?"
"Well, clearly he wants three."
"Yes," Dimitri agreed. "But from what I've heard, the Death Knight is relentless… why settle on kidnapping when he could have burned the monastery to the ground?"
Dorothea looked up at him with sharp, disbelieving eyes. "Why would that be your first thought?" she asked.
"No," Byleth said, cupping her chin. "Dimitri is right. It makes no sense."
Dorothea glanced between the two of them, smoothed her curls behind her ears, and lifted her head high.
"It's fine," she said, "I'm fine with being the only well-adjusted person here. This is perfectly fine."
"What do you mean?" Dimitri asked, feeling embarrassed and confused. "It was merely a suggestion… it just seems to me that—"
"Oh, Dima," Dorothea said, reaching up and patting his cheek. The spot where her palm grazed his skin burned upon contact. "You are so very sweet, but you do frighten me sometimes. Do you ever think about what you say?"
"It was a suggestion," he repeated.
"A terribly morbid one," Dorothea said. "If you ask me."
They reached the market, and Dimitri wanted to hide from Dorothea's sharp stare. She looked up at him, her eyes glinting, and he squirmed a bit. It was not fair, how perceptive she was. The only reason Dimitri did not lump Dorothea in with Claude or Byleth was, perhaps, because she usually did not care enough to use her observant nature for anything more than polite conversation or casual flirtations. She was much like Sylvain in that way.
Perhaps too much like Sylvain.
Byleth moved on ahead, leaving Dorothea to study him closely. Then she laughed, and she shook her head.
"But certainly I don't mind," she said. "It's a… interesting quality to have."
"Dorothea," he said tiredly. "Can we please focus on searching for Edelgard and Claude?"
"Someone sounds stressed."
"Are you not?"
"Of course I am," Dorothea said, flashing him a brilliant, blinding smile. "I just don't show it, darling. Oh, looks like the Professor found our girl."
Byleth was indeed already speaking to a merchant who matched the description that Hilda and Sylvain had given. While Dimitri hurried to her side, Dorothea trailed behind at a leisurely pace.
The merchant was a small, round-faced peasant. Her eyes were set deeply into her face, and were a dull, watery blue. She managed a quick glance at Dimitri and Dorothea before she continued speaking.
"I can't be sure," she confessed. "I was frightened, y'see. I can't tell you if it was your friend, but whoever he was, he was in trouble."
"And you saw this boy a week ago?" Byleth asked.
The merchant nodded. "He was either dead or knocked out…" The merchant sighed. "Sorry. I know this is no help to you."
"Can you tell us what the boy was wearing?" Dorothea asked, smiling sweetly at the merchant. "It would be a big help, and it would help us determine whether or not the boy is actually Claude."
"Um…" The merchant closed her eyes. "Well… he wore black. I know that."
"Was there any yellow?" Dorothea urged. "Like a cape?"
"Not that I saw." The merchant's eyes snapped open. "Oh, but the coat he was wearing was rather long."
"Did it have an insignias on it?" Dorothea asked. "Look at our uniforms… was the style even at all similar?"
The merchant studied Dorothea and Dimitri for a long moment, a frown tugging at her lips. Then she nodded.
"Similar," she said. "Yes."
Byleth looked up at Dimitri, her gaze pointed. It seemed unquestionable now where they would be headed.
"When you saw him," Dimitri asked, quick and desperate, "was there a girl with him? At any point did you see a girl with white-blonde hair?"
He must have grown visibly distraught, because Dorothea sighed as she patted his shoulder.
"There, there, Dima," she said. "We'll find her."
And yet, he could not find it in him to be so optimistic.
Claude had survived the night. And the next week, for that matter. Edelgard had torn her cape to strips of cloth to preserve fresh bandages and stave off infection. It was difficult, considering the wound had not been washed, and though they did not discuss it, they knew that they needed to disinfect it soon.
When one of their captors, the female brigand who she recognized, came to give them food and water, Edelgard leapt to her feet.
"Please," she said, holding up her hands in surrender. "I won't fight, I won't run. You won't hear a peep from me. But he needs a healer."
The woman's eyes narrowed. "How did you get out of the cuffs?" she demanded.
"They were old," Edelgard said flippantly, "and clearly not well maintained. That is beside the point. We are useless to you dead, are we not?"
"I do not believe our boss cares if the boy lives or dies," she said with a shrug.
"Fine," Edelgard said tiredly, "at least… could you give us some wine? Or liquor if you have some?"
The woman merely scowled at her.
"We are at your mercy," Edelgard reminded her. "But I suppose it makes sense… I thought you might be kinder than those men who tortured Claude, but I was wrong."
"Steffan and Lou?" The woman watched her, and Edelgard felt some satisfaction in the way her lips turned in disgust. "They think they're big shots. Honestly, they didn't even check with the boss before collecting the boy's blood."
It was then that the woman eyed Claude, who was slumbering in the far corner of the cell. His arm was wrapped in a bright red bandage, and in the daylight, the dark stain on the floor was hard to miss.
Then the woman sighed, and Edelgard watched her disappear.
When she came back, she left a bottle with their food and water. When Edelgard next changed Claude's bandages, she poured what she determined to be rum on his wound, and she hoped for the best.
"You know," Claude said on the third day, as Edelgard gingerly unwound his bandage, "I never thought I'd live to see this."
"See what?" Edelgard asked, too focused to battle his tone.
"You taking care of me."
Edelgard paused mid-strip. Her cape had once been a lush red velvet, lined with the finest spun silk. She had taken the time to pry the velvet from the silk, creating more fabric for the bandages. The habit she had gotten into was winding a silk strip around the wound tightly before reinforcing the more at-risk portions with velvet.
"Ooh," Claude said, "have a struck a nerve?"
"I am doing this out of necessity," Edelgard said firmly, continuing to pull the fabric from the wound. It stuck stubbornly to the broken flesh. "Do you think I want to be stuck on this ship alone?"
"It would certainly be less crowded, wouldn't it?"
"Claude," Edelgard warned him. He had his head hung back, and the sun hit his hair just right so that those brown curls looked golden. Despite the fact that he had not bathed in days, and he had lost an uncomfortable amount of blood, he still somehow retained his carefree charm and good looks.
Edelgard would loathe to see herself in a mirror at the moment.
"Claude what?" he asked, his eyes flashing to her face. "Ooh, you think I'm joking."
"You better be." Edelgard looked at him hard. "I am not interested in any sort of self-destructive tendencies. We need to work together if we want to get out of this."
Claude was getting more lucid by the day, and when he stared at her now, she knew that he was assessing how serious she was. How much he could trust her.
She did not blame him for his suspicion— could not, really— but she did question why it was coming as she was changing his bandage. It seemed ill advised to distrust someone who had been making a point to save your life, and yet Edelgard had to wonder if that was exactly why he distrusted her.
If that was what this was at all.
Damn him, Edelgard thought, averting her gaze from his sharply. Damn his eyes and damn his mind. I cannot get a read on him, not even now.
"Are we on the sea now?" Claude asked. "Do you know?"
Edelgard did not know, but she suspected from the rougher current that they were either at sea, or close to it. She did not know how the riverboat would fare on the open sea, and she did not want to find out.
It turned out they were on the sea, a fact that utterly vexed her. She spent the next few days on edge, and it did not take Claude long to notice.
"You don't like the sea," he observed. "Tough break."
It was difficult for her not to bristle at the comment. They were seated on opposite ends of their cell, their backs to the wall, and they watched one another tiredly.
"Traveling by land…" Edelgard could only sniff. "Is that not much simpler? The sea is… open. Anything can happen."
"I guess so."
"I mean," Claude said, his grin crooked as he laughed, "is that not the draw of it, though? Anything can happen when at sea! It's an adventure waiting to happen. You can explore, discover new places, meet new people. Nobody knows who you are!"
"It sounds like you've done your fair share of sailing," Edelgard said bitterly. "Well. I find the whole process to be… irritating."
"Irritating?" Claude sounded amused. "Are you sure that's the word you're looking for?"
"Don't test me, Claude," Edelgard sighed, "I am not in the mood."
Claude settled down, to his credit, but he continued to watch her. That was unnerving. His eyes were dangerous, and she became more aware of that as he became less and less preoccupied with the idea that he might die on this ship. If she could call it a ship. It was exhausting trying to rein herself in so he might not guess her thoughts.
"You know," he said when she decided the change the bandages for the day, "I don't think my wound is infected."
Indeed, his wound was healing. She still poured a bit of rum on it, causing him to hiss.
"Just to be safe," she said, hiding a smile behind her hair.
"You're no fun, Edelgard!" Claude whined. "Why don't we tell stories again?"
"I'm not sure I'm in the mood for stories."
"You might be."
"I think I'd know better than you."
"Indulge me," Claude said eagerly, leaning forward. He surprised her by coming a bit too close, and when she raised her eyes, even he looked a bit alarmed by their proximity. She could see up close how green his eyes really were. When she did not reel back, and instead stared at him with a frown, he carefully went back to leaning against the wall. "Sorry. But seriously, I told you tons of stories, and you haven't told me any."
"Perhaps I don't know any," she said stiffly, nimbly winding the new strip around his arm. She was worried about the amount they had left. The wound was healing, but they needed to keep it covered, and they were running out of rags.
"Aw," Claude said, "c'mon, don't lie to me. Everyone has a story to tell. Didn't anyone ever tell you some when you were little?"
With that, Edelgard could not help but tie off the end of the bandage tightly. He yelped.
"What?" he gasped. "What is it?"
"Nothing." She slid backwards, away from him. "Nothing at all."
"Obviously not." He studied her face as she scowled at him. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize your childhood was such a sore topic."
"You did not realize," she said coolly, "because you do not know me, Claude. We are not friends! We are merely two people who wish to survive the same unfortunate situation."
"Okay." Claude blinked. "Sure. But the Adestrian Empire is supposed to be rich with history and lore. And you're telling me you don't have even one story?"
"Well, maybe I'm not like you!" Edelgard huffed. "Maybe I don't absorb every little lesson like a human sponge! I don't remember any stories that you might like, and I certainly don't have any tales from my childhood to regale, so if you would please stop asking, I would greatly appreciate it."
It took just a moment for her to realize that her outburst had already told Claude more about her past than any story possibly could. He nodded to her, as if that made things better.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I won't ask you for stories again."
"But I would argue," Claude said, his voice tinged with a playful tone, "that you are like me. I think you do retain every lesson you're taught. You're clearly very smart."
"Not as smart as you," she said bitterly.
"Ha!" Claude's eyes glinted merrily. "You think I'm smart?"
"Do us both a favor and cut the act," Edelgard sighed. "I know how shrewd you are. You might be the cleverest person at the Officer's Academy. I am well aware of how calculating and manipulative you can be."
"Manipulative is a strong word," Claude said. "I like to think I'm more… persuasive."
"Same thing," Edelgard snapped. The blunt edge to her voice caused Claude's eyebrows to shoot up in surprise. She gathered her knees up to her chest and scowled. "Does it bother you? That you do not fool me?"
He seemed to puzzle over that for a moment, a notch in the skin between his brows like a bowstring taut and ready to release.
"Don't be silly," he said. "Bother me? Come on. You're not the first person in the world to think the worst of me. Sure, I'm… what did you say? Shrewd? I guess I am shrewd. But only because I have to be. Would you have taken me seriously if I'd marched into Garreg Mach, the miraculous Riegan heir, all solemn and forthright about all my plans for the future of my people?"
"No," Edelgard said reluctantly. "I'd think you a fool."
"Yet," Claude said, his teeth glinting as he smiled, "with all my supposed charms, with all my shrewdness, with all my schemes… you still do not fear me. You think I am a nuisance, which, you know, fair, but you do not consider me a serious threat."
Edelgard eyed him, knowing she had to tread carefully with her response.
"We're classmates," she murmured. "Why should I think you a threat?"
Claude's smile got tight. He nodded.
With a sigh, Edelgard relaxed her legs and shook her head. "I do not fear you," she said calmly, "because at the moment, I do not see a reason to consider you my enemy. One day, perhaps, that might change. I cannot predict the future. And, as much as it pains me to admit it, I do not actually hate you."
"Wow!" Claude laughed. "You might as well have confessed your undying love for me, with that level of sincerity. I'm touched. Impressed, even."
"Shut up," Edelgard said, stiffening at the way he'd rolled right back into his probing, teasing, carefree tone. "You're impossible. I can't even manage a kind sentiment without you ruining it."
"Your kindness is much appreciated," Claude said. "I hold those rare moments of benevolence close to my heart. Of course I understand how painful it must be to swallow your pride and admit that you find me almost tolerable."
"Why must you twist my words?" Edelgard muttered. "I merely meant—!"
"I know," Claude said, his voice far gentler. She glanced at him confusedly. "I know what you meant. And I do appreciate it, Edelgard."
There was a sincerity to his tone that astonished her. Suddenly his voice was soft, and his words were not careful or carefree. They were not plucked with the intention of worming their way into her head, to convince her to slip up and say something she might regret. He merely spoke with a small smile and tired eyes, and he let the silence fall between them easily.
It was difficult to form a response. After all, Claude was not pushing her to say anything, and now that she watched him carefully, she saw his eyes fluttering closed.
"Claude?" she murmured.
He did not respond.
The ship rocked against the sea, and she let the sea sounds toil inside her head and tie up her nerves into tight knots.
The forest floor was covered in dead leaves. Ahead of them, Petra was quick on her feet, breezing along the terrain as if it were completely flat. She had insisted upon coming when she had heard they had a lead, which was kind of her. She and Dorothea had kept to themselves on the journey, while Sylvain and Hilda had similarly bonded over their shared… Dimitri was not even truly sure. Wasted intellect, perhaps?
At the moment, Sylvain was trailing behind them, Hilda on his back. Dimitri wondered why they had even bothered coming.
"I spoke to Lysithea this morning," Dimitri told Byleth.
Byleth glanced up at him inquisitively. He decided that was prompting enough to continue.
"She was angry that I did not ask her to come." Dimitri could only sigh. The small girl certainly did not lack in energy. She had berated him, called him names, mocked him, and then stomped off. "How was I to know she would get so worked up? After all, she is a researcher. I did not expect her to be so furious over not doing the leg-work of the investigation."
Patiently, Byleth listened. Then, she shook her head.
"Dimitri," she said gently, "you don't know Lysithea. She… is very stubborn. Very loyal, too. She will pretend she does not care what happens to Claude, but she cares about him deeply. The fact that you did not ask her when she has thrown her whole heart into this search… I think it might have hurt her."
"I did not mean to hurt her!" Dimitri winced. Of course he'd hurt the poor girl. He'd seen it in her eyes when she'd yelled at him. "I just did not consider that she would want to give up her research for a few days searching the wilderness."
"Ordelia is not far from here," Hilda called from her perch on Sylvain's shoulders. "Don't mind Lysithea, she's just annoyed because she thinks that by not inviting her to get her hands dirty, you're treating her like she's delicate."
"That was not my intention!"
"Yeah," Hilda said with a small laugh, "sure. Well, tell that to her. Ooh, Sylvain, look at those flowers!"
Dimitri held his tongue as he watched his childhood friend reduced to a horse as Hilda steered him in the direction of a patch of blue blossoms. It was not his business, and he was sure that Sylvain knew what he was doing.
That almost made things worse.
They came across Petra when she'd stopped by a thick tree trunk. She was examining it, her head tipped back.
"I think I can be climbing this," she said, "to seeing if there are any settlements near."
"If you think so," Dimitri said. "If that will help…"
But she was already gone. One minute she was in front of him, and the next there was rustling above. He blinked. Had Petra always been so fast?
"She's talented, isn't she?" Dorothea's grin was almost infectious. "Honestly, she surprises me sometimes too."
"She…" Dimitri struggled to find the words. "She is certainly unlike anyone I've ever met."
"Certainly," Dorothea said amusedly.
Then, as suddenly as she disappeared, Petra jumped down beside Dimitri. She landed on her feet with little effort, and her eyes were wide.
"I am seeing a small house," Petra said eagerly. Then, she thought for a moment, her nose wrinkling. "I have… seen a small house. It lies beyond that hill."
"Perhaps the owners saw something?" Dimitri asked.
"Perhaps," Petra said. "Though if I am being truthful, it has the look of abandonment."
"It still does not hurt to check." Dimitri turned to Byleth. "Would you tell Sylvain and Hilda to go back to the river? I'd like them to ask around the town and see if anyone here witnessed anything."
Byleth nodded curtly, and dashed away. The sleeves of her coat flew after her.
"Dima," Dorothea said, her arms hooking behind her back. "Not to hurry you along, but if there's anything in that house…"
"No," he said quickly. "No, you're quite right. Petra, lead the way."
Petra frowned, but nodded all the same. She led them up a sharp incline, scaling the hill with no effort at all.
"Is the terrain," Dimitri asked, careful of his own footing, "like this in Brigid?"
"Oh, yes," Petra said. "The trees are plentiful in Brigid. Many a child grow climbing before speaking. I am guessing it is not the same here?"
"Definitely not," he said, his smile tight. "I can only envy that freedom. Sylvain spent a lot of time climbing trees, when we were young, but I found that sort of activity only led to trouble."
"Trouble in climbing?" Petra frowned. "I cannot see that."
"I suppose you might say my upbringing was a bit more…" Dimitri weighed his choice of words in his head, tossing it from side to side. "Sheltered than yours? We played, certainly, but I felt like I was under constant surveillance."
Petra watched him, her frown deepening. "How sad," she said softly.
Dimitri did not consider this facet of his childhood to be especially sad, considering the rest. But he nodded anyway.
Petra got to the house first. She had a knife in her hand as she kicked down the door, unfazed by the brute force. Of course, Dimitri probably could have knocked the door down with little effort, but he was glad she had done it.
"Be looking for blood," Petra told Dorothea. Her eyes flitted to Dimitri, and he realized she was speaking to her too. "Do not be squeamy."
"Squeamish, you mean," Dimitri said.
"Squeamish," Petra echoed. Then she marched forward, eyes flickering over every surface of the long-abandoned house. She had been correct on that remark. No one had lived here in years.
The floor was wooden boards, thick and unpolished. They creaked as the three of them spread out along the cramped kitchen. A wooden table sat at the center of the room, a chair over turned, one nubby leg snapped in half. A cabinet door was missing, leaving the pantry above the wood-stove like a gap-toothed smile.
Petra took the heel of bread that had been left on the dusty table, and she knocked it hard against the table's edge. The sound it made was like steel knocking against wood.
"They were not here for a while now," she said, tossing the hard bread back onto the table and dusting of her hands. "It is like I was saying— abandonment."
Dorothea frowned at the floor while Petra wandered into another room. It seemed as though Petra knew what she was looking for, so Dimitri moved to follow her. Then he heard the sound of the floor creaking louder than before, and Dorothea's harsh footfalls as she stomped on floorboards.
"What are you doing?" he gasped.
He watched Dorothea's heels clap against the wood. It sounded hollow, and not very sturdy at all. It was hard not to worry she might fall through.
Yet Dorothea was practically dancing, her feet gliding in a square along the floor. Her eyes were glued to her feet. It was as though she was possessed, as though she had heard a rhythm in her head, and now she could only dance to a demonic tune that only she could hear. Dimitri was confused, and almost frightened by the way she threw herself to the ground, her fingers dragging across the wooden floor.
"There's a basement," she breathed.
Her fingers latched beneath the seam, and he scrambled forward at the sight of the floor opening before him.
"What…?" He gaped down at her. "How did you know that?"
"Oh, please," she said, unlatching a ladder from the underside of the door, "I was on the stage long enough to recognize a trap door when a see one."
The ladder went tumbling, and Dorothea fearlessly stuck one heel into the highest rung. As she descended, she tipped her head up at him, and she blinked.
"Are you coming?" she asked.
Of course, he didn't have an excuse not to follow her. So he did. He lowered himself into the basement, dusting off his hands on his trousers, and he squinted into the darkness. The low ceiling caused him to hunch, his neck bent awkwardly as Dorothea ducked into the depths of the dark cellar.
"It was probably meant for wine," she said. "Originally, I mean."
"And…" Dimitri had a strange, inexplicable feeling that he was being watched here. Like the rings in the wooden boards were eyes, and they could read his very mind, his very soul, his very heart. "Now?"
"Now," Dorothea said, lowering herself into a crouch. She rocked on the balls of her feet. "Now, I believe we have a prison cell."
Her arm stretched out to him, and dangling from the tips of her fingers, he saw a yellow cloth. Helplessly, Dimitri stumbled forward, and he snatched it from her hand. It was soft in his hands, despite the dirt that had accumulated on its fine features. He had to rush back to the trap door and hold it under the light, but now that he looked at it clearly, he saw the gold embroidery, light as rain, glint against the airy linen. Claude's cape was so much lighter than his own, which was thick, dyed blue wool, or even Edelgard's which he knew was red velvet. The embroidery on the yellow cape was small, interlocking gold antlers, invisible to the naked eye from afar.
"Shit," Dimitri hissed.
From above, through the trap door, Petra's bright voice floated down to them.
"Hello?" she called. "Dimitri? Dorothea?"
"Down here, Petra," Dorothea called right back.
Above them, the floorboards whined beneath Petra's weight. Suddenly, the light was blocked out by Petra's silhouette. Her braid swung at her shoulder as she bent over to peer at them.
"You two should both be coming up here," she said. Her face was pinched. She sounded concerned. "I was in an exploration of the bathing area, and I have found blood. Much, much blood."
The boat shuddered, and in that shuddering, her whole body shot up into the dark with a gasp and a plea stuck inside her throat. As the very floor seemed to slip beneath her, her breath came out short.
"What was that?" she breathed.
Across the cell, Claude groaned a bit. He sat up reluctantly, rubbing his head tiredly. He used his good arm to drag himself closer to her.
"What?" he mumbled. "Did you have a night—?"
Then he cut himself off, his eyes sliding viciously in the dark. He cursed under his breath, though she did not quite understand what he said. His hands were scrambling for his boots in an instant, and she could only stare at him through the darkness, frozen solid and feeling empty and useless as he fretted around her.
Finally, at the sound of rushing footsteps up above, she allowed herself to suck in a deep breath.
"What," she breathed, "is happening?"
Claude was pacing. His fingers were grasping at his hair, and she could make out the outline of his face. There was panic there.
"We've been stopped," he said.
"No," he said, "we've been stopped. We're about to be boarded."
When he looked at her, she saw the intensity of his gaze, even in the darkness, and that made her go cold. The anticipation of something, even if she was not sure what that something was, horrified her. It was almost easy to wish she could go back to her terrible dreams. Because at the very least a bad dream was something familiar, something known, something contained in the vile inner workings of her own brain.
The shouts alarmed her, and though she refused to shrink back into the darkness, she could not move either. Footsteps, unknown thunks, the slicing of swords… all of these sound and more filled her ears, and she could only sit and stare at nothing, waiting for nothing.
"Pirates," she murmured.
"Unfortunately," Claude said, dropping to the ground beside her. "Or fortunately, if we play our cards right."
"Fortunately?" She shot him a sharp look. "Only you could imagine that. How could this be fortunate?"
"Better to be a hostage than a freaky science experiment," Claude said bitterly. He was close enough to her that she saw the way his hand closed over the wrist of his injured arm.
It irritated her that she could not argue with that point, as she knew first hand the pain that came with the latter.
"Science experiment?" she demanded. They had not talked about what had happened to him, not really. When she had determined there had been no experimentation on him, that he had not suffered through the torture of a second crest, she had decided not to pry. Yet he seemed to know more than he let on.
Claude eyed her. He shook his head.
"I don't know," he admitted. "They wanted my blood for something. And wherever they're taking us… if I'm being honest, I don't think they intend on ever letting me go."
"And what about me?" Edelgard huffed. "You think they will simply let me go, no questions asked?"
"I think it's more plausible."
"Why on earth would that make any sense?" she demanded.
"Because," Claude said, his voice much harder than she'd ever heard it before, "you are not expendable. The Adestrian Empire does not have another heir lying in wait. Your people would rally behind you in an instant. And I think you know that."
"And yours wouldn't?" That, of course, was interesting. She did not think he was letting her have this info freely, but she did wonder if she could use this to her advantage. If they ever got out of this mess. "Don't be silly. Your classmates love you."
"My classmates," Claude sighed, "yes. Sure. Edelgard, you are going to get out of this. Whether you're ransomed, whether you're set free because you're useful… but nobody is going to pay my ransom. Not anyone from the Alliance, anyway. And no one else would even have the chance to know I was missing, if…"
He was rambling now.
He's scared, she realized. Like he was when he thought he was dying, that first night.
"Edelgard," Claude said firmly. "You need to go along with whatever I say. Kay? I'll explain later."
"Fine," she said.
"Oh?" Claude blinked down at her. "You agreed awfully quick. Are you finally coming around to me?"
"Certainly not," she hissed. "I merely recognize you are useful in a pinch. Lie through your teeth, Claude. It's what you do best."
He exhaled shakily.
"Aye-aye," he said. All his bitterness hit her hard. It felt out of place coming from his mouth.
When the door finally burst open, Edelgard was on the ground. Claude had advised her to keep low, and he sat beside her, huddled rather close at her side. His braid tickled her ear. She was alarmed when he stuck an arm out, placing a physical barrier between her and the intruders. Her body nearly toppled backwards due to the momentum caused by the breaking door.
The first person inside was a man. He was tall and scrawny, his lips thin and his skull protruding from his pale skin like a man already dead. He was older than Edelgard had been expecting, white stubble grazing his jaw and his head. His eyes, when he looked upon them, were cold.
"Prisoners," he barked behind him.
Heels clicked against the floor. The startling face of a woman, no older than forty, no younger than late twenties, made Edelgard gape. She was holding a lamp in one hand, light dancing against her warm brown face. Her cheeks were smooth, and her hair was a glossy deep purple hue. Two braids dangled against her ears, long and thin, until they fell smoothly against her shoulders. The rest of her hair was tossed up onto the top of her head, wisps of curls visible in the dark. The bottom half of her head, behind her ears, was shaved close to her scalp.
In the other hand, the woman held a sword. The edge of it was dark with blood.
"Well, well," the woman said, her voice oddly clipped. The way she spoke was familiar, a cadence to her tone that made Edelgard freeze. She could not place why, but she felt as though she had heard this woman before. "Look at what we have here."
Claude's hovering only seemed to get worse as the woman spoke. His eyes were glued to her face, to the dark tattoo that drew thick lines from her left eyelid, across her temple, and into her hairline.
"I will not have you harming Lady Edelgard," Claude spat at them.
Her eyes swiveled to his face in both shock and disgust. What was he doing?
The woman eyed him, her head tipping to one side. Her braids slipped against her shoulders and cheeks.
"Huh," she said lazily. "Lady Edelgard, eh? What do you think about that, Noah?"
Noah, the pale man with pale eyes, reminded her uncomfortably of Hubert in the way that his eyes narrowed at them. He glanced at the woman, and he nodded once, his jaw clenching. With a blink and a grin, the woman sheathed her sword and crouched before them.
"By the sight of you," she said, "it seems to me that you are having difficulty, hm? Well, I am more than happy to offer you safe passage on my ship."
"You're a pirate," Edelgard said in mild disbelief. "Do you truly expect us to believe in your good will?"
"You don't mean to kill us, then?" Claude sounded just as confused, but of course that could be part of his ruse. Edelgard could not tell at this point. "Really?"
"We are pirates," the woman agreed, shrugging. "I will hand you that. Though, not so mean as you are thinking. You two are prisoners, correct?"
"That's right," Claude said.
"When we were in port," the woman said, "we heard of your disappearance, Princess. Such few whispers have come out about you, what happened, when, or why, and your people think you have perished. Though I believe you must be lucky to have such a…" Her eyes fell upon Claude curiously. "… loyal companion. May I ask for your name, my boy?"
If Claude had thought about his response much before answering, he did not show it. He looked upon the woman coldly, and spoke clearly without a hint of deception.
"Shapur," he said.
"Shah pour?" Noah echoed.
The woman said nothing. She merely stared at Claude, her eyes glinting eerily.
"If I make an oath not to harm Lady Edelgard," the woman said, "will you come with us at will, Shapur?"
"Swear it," Claude demanded.
The woman's smile was frightening.
"I swear to you," she said. Then she considered Edelgard, as though an afterthought. "Both of you. I mean no harm to you. I will not hurt you. I swear it by— what is the name of that goddess?"
"Sothis," Claude supplied easily.
The woman looked at him curiously. "I did not realize you might share the beliefs of your lady's land," she said.
"My lady's land is my own land."
The woman's lips twisted into a frown.
"Pity," she said.
"And even if it weren't," Claude said quickly, "you clearly have no faith in the goddess, so swear upon something you believe in. Ma'am."
If the woman were not staring right at her, Edelgard would have rolled her eyes. Something about the way Claude placed the emphasis on certain words made him sound like Cyril, which she found grating.
"That is fair," the woman admitted. She grasped the hilt of her sword, and she pried it from its scabbard. "I swear upon my sword, then, shall I? I swear on this sword that I will not harm you, Shapur, or you, Edelgard." With that, she stabbed the sharpened end of the blade into the floor, using her sword to push herself upright. "Will that suffice?"
Claude looked to Edelgard expectantly. She realized, with this scheme of his, that he couldn't make the decision for them. It was ridiculous. He was a nuisance, and at one time she would have gladly seen him dead, but she had never considered him beneath her. If nothing else, he was a worthy opponent. Worthy was as good as dangerous, and that was why death had seemed a simple solution for him.
Now she was just confused. She did not know what to say. They really couldn't trust a pirate, even a charming, beautiful one with an ornate antique sword and very pretty words.
And why would this woman question Claude's belief in the goddess, as though the belief of this land was not his land to begin with?
"I suppose," Edelgard said hoarsely, "we don't have much of a choice."
"Well," the woman said with a laugh, "you may sink with this boat, if you are choosing."
Then it struck Edelgard hard, like the blunt edge of a blade smacking into the back of her skull.
"You're from Brigid," she gasped.
The woman's laughter only got bolder. "Oh," she said, "you are a smart one, are you not? That is funny. Yes, Princess. My homeland is Brigid. You know it?"
"I know your princess," Edelgard said, rising slowly to her feet. Claude followed the suit, his eyes trained on her. "She is… endlessly kind. Thoughtful, too."
"Sad to say it, I do not care much for my princess," the woman said with a shrug. "I am certain she is lovely, kind, thoughtful, and all the things. Those things do not interest me. I did not become a pirate for love of royalty, little lady. Now, shall we be leaving?"
"Yes," Edelgard said, her mouth dry.
"Good," the woman said, shoving the lantern into Noah's hands. "Oh, and you both may call me Captain Kala. It is a good pleasure to meet you both."
"Oh, hello, Professor!" Hilda said sunnily. As she turned, her pigtails fluttered against her shoulders. "Finley here saw a strange ship anchored near here about a week ago. You should really look into that!"
The man to Hilda's left was elderly and clearly tired. Dimitri imagined gabbing too long with an anxious Hilda would do that. It seemed only Sylvain, and probably Claude, could withstand her. It took Byleth just a moment to fully address the man, her hands on her hips and her eyes expectant.
"This one is yours?" the man asked Byleth tiredly.
"Unfortunately," Byleth said, deadpan as always. Hilda's mouth dropped open in clear offense.
"Professor!" she whined.
"All I can tell you," Finley said, "is that the boat was large enough to fit cargo and set sail, but hardly a ship, not by a long shot. That's why it was so weird, y'know, that it was here for as long as it was. It must've left real late, 'cause I walk this road to get home from work after sundown, and I live just over there." He gestured vaguely to his left. "There was no ship at dawn. No smart merchant captain is gonna go downriver at midnight. I thought for sure they were smugglers, 'til your little lady here started spouting her nonsense about missing princes and princesses."
"Oh, Claude's not a prince," Hilda said. "Though I can see the confusion."
"I don't suppose you know what direction they went?" Dimitri asked weakly.
"East," Finely said with a shrug. "And if they left at night, I don't suppose they were planning on stopping before they hit the sea."
"Are you planning to walk there, Dima?" Dorothea asked cheerfully. As if she had not just seen a tin bath full of dried blood "Shall we make a day of it?"
"You should not be teasing," Petra scolded Dorothea. "If Dimitri wishes to walk to the sea, it will be taking days. Maybe weeks. Shall we make a week of it, Dimitri?"
The worst thing was, he could not even form an intelligent response to the pair's heckling. Byleth was already moving, and it was easy to get distracted when Byleth was on the move.
"Thank you for your time," Byleth said, snatching Hilda by the sleeve and dragging her away. Dimitri could only follow helplessly.
"Where is Sylvain?" he asked her.
"With some girl," Hilda said. "I didn't catch her name. I know they didn't go far, though."
"Should we head back to Garreg Mach, then?" Dorothea asked. "As much as it pains me— and truly, Dima, if I could walk to the coast to find Edie, I would— we really can't just keep going until we reach the coast. Especially if we don't have a ship to chase with."
"We would be needing to gather supplies," Petra said solemnly. "Preserves, maps, hands. Nothing is worse than being ill prepared on open sea."
"Does anyone in the Academy even know how to sail?" Dimitri asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. He held up a hand sharply when Petra opened her mouth. "No offense, Petra, but besides you. You can… literally do just about anything."
"She can, can't she?" Dorothea, whose smile was almost too broad, draped herself over Petra's shoulders. "She's so talented."
Petra merely blinked. "If I am not making a mistake, Claude knows. Not that this is helpful, but he does."
"Ordelia and Hrym are right on the Airmid," Hilda said, examining her cuticles. "Lysithea, if nothing else, can tell you all the theory behind sailing, and how to do everything, but I doubt she's ever actually done it. Jeritza might, too, if you can convince him. Ferdinand definitely can."
"You've asked him?" Dorothea asked, sounding surprised.
"Oh, no," Hilda laughed. "I just mean… well, look at him. He probably goes rowing for fun."
Dorothea's eyes glazed over, and Dimitri did not understand why this seemed to strike her so, but it did. An understanding passed between Hilda and Dorothea, and it seemed to him that he might not ever understand why rowing was such a bad thing. Perhaps it was just Ferdinand himself.
"We will go back to Garreg Mach," Byleth said, eying Hilda. "You will give me a list of students who can and will sail. I will figure it out from there."
"Professor," Petra said. "There is something you need knowing, before we…"
"Before we go back," Dorothea supplied for Petra gently. "Before we face everyone."
Byleth's blank eyes seemed to search the three of them tiredly. She folded her arms across her chest and nodded.
"First," Dorothea said, glancing at Dimitri. He realized she was gesturing with her eyes, and he quickly pulled the yellow cape from his pocket. It was such a light fabric that it was easily bundled. "We found this in a basement of a house in the forest."
Without Dimitri even unfurling the bundle, the cloth was snatched from his hands so fast that his fingers burned from the fabric chafing his skin. Hilda shook out the cape, held the soft yellow fabric toward the sun, and she blinked wildly.
"You found this?" she whispered.
"In the house," Dorothea said, grimacing. "Yes."
"Then it was him." Hilda hugged the cape to her chest, and she looked a little shocked. As though she had not insisted from the beginning that very fact. "He… do you think he's…?"
It was difficult for Dimitri to speak when he could practically feel Hilda's distress. The role of retainer was something that the respective kingdom's heir got to choose, and he had never understood why Claude had chosen Hilda. For a while he had assumed that Claude had decided to forgo the tradition entirely. Hilda was, after all, ill-suited for the tasks that came with being a retainer. Her laziness often outweighed her sense of duty, and she would do anything to get around fighting.
Yet she did care about Claude very deeply, and Dimitri did not have the heart to tell her that he might be dead.
It seemed his companions had a similar issue, as none of them spoke for a few moments.
"I am sure," Petra said gently, "that Claude is doing fine. We will find him and Edelgard. Will we not, Dorothea?"
"Yep." Dorothea's smile was tight, but her voice was casual and easy. "We're getting close to a breakthrough."
Hilda smiled weakly. "Oh," she said. "Oh… that's… good."
At least they'd fooled her for a bit.
"Hey!" Sylvain's voice caused Dimitri to whirl around. As expected, he was strolling toward them, a girl at his side. Something about her struck Dimitri immediately, and he realized that it was her uniform. She was wearing a Garreg Mach uniform, as though she had followed them right out of the monastery. Around her shoulders was Sylvain's overcoat, which she grasped with dainty hands. "Professor! Dimitri! I think I've got someone you'll want to meet."
"Hello," the girl said, smiling up at them. Her hair was a deep red hue, and beside Sylvain, the two of them almost looked like siblings. "I think I know who took your students, Professor."
Byleth looked at her, blinked, and shared a look with Dimitri. She had gotten into a habit of that. Perhaps she often shared mute looks with Claude, but Dimitri had trouble reading them sometimes.
"How interesting," Dimitri said, knowing Byleth would not speak unless she had something important to say, or a joke. "And how did an Officer's Academy student get so far out here?"
"I was kidnapped," the girl said, her fingers grasping a bit tighter at the black coat draped across her shoulders. "I don't even know how long I've been gone. But once he had his hands on your princess, and the duke's heir… I suppose he didn't need me anymore."
"Who?" Byleth demanded.
"Oh," the girl gasped, her eyes sparkling, "the Death Knight! Did you not know?"
It was Hilda who laughed at that. They all looked at her, expecting her to seem a little crazed, and yet she still looked radiant and poised as she giggled into Claude's cape.
"Oh," she said, "but of course."
Her laughter turned bitter in her mouth, and Dimitri gaped at her as she turned on her heel, her pigtails fluttering around her head, and she marched off.
"What's her problem?" Sylvain asked obliviously.
Byleth watched Hilda go with a frown. She made a move to follow Hilda, but Dorothea held up a hand.
"Allow me," she said gently. "I think I understand the girl's troubles, and I think I may be of help."
It took a moment for Byleth to decide, since it was clear she wanted to go after her own student. But Dorothea was just as good at talking as Hilda and Sylvain, so it seemed fair to let her go deal with Hilda's outburst. Dimitri was relieved when Byleth nodded and Dorothea hurried after Hilda. Dealing with this Death Knight nonsense would be better with Byleth's mind to sort it out.
"So," Dimitri said cautiously, "the… Death Knight?"
"Yes," the girl said. "He's terribly frightening! It does not surprise me that he got your friends."
"Wouldn't someone have noticed if this Death Knight person was in the school?" Dimitri asked.
"Not at night." The girl shook her head. "He is very tricky. And scary! So, so scary."
"Okay." Dimitri sighed, and he glanced at Sylvain tiredly. He did not know if he believed this girl. "What's your name? We'll see what Rhea says about this… Death Knight, and move on from there."
"Oh, right," the girl laughed. "My name is Monica. Thank you so much for saving me!"
As expected, they were met with jeers and mocks when they were paraded into Kala's ship. It was a far bigger vessel than the riverboat, and she was not sure why they had gone far enough out to sea for a pirate ship to spot them anyway. All the while, Claude hovered close by her, visibly protective and keeping a physical barrier between her and the sneering pirates. Kala herself did not stop the taunts until she was at the center of her ship.
"I want it known that these two," she said, "are to be treated as you would one of the crew. Lay a hand on them, and that hand will be mine to take and toss into the sea. Am I clear?"
The crew was quiet for a moment before a chorus of voices grumbled, "Aye."
"We will stop by Aksis to clear our stores and gather supplies," she said, "then go out to sea again. If our guests wish to stay on the island, they may do so."
"That one's a Lady," some snide man near the front of the group said. In the dark, Edelgard could hardly make out his face. He looked fair-skinned and young. "I can tell."
"And how can you tell that, Markus?"
"The way she looks."
"Certainly you know better than to judge a girl by how she looks."
"Speak, then," the man snapped.
Edelgard eyed him warily. She was not interested in entertaining the man, though she knew why he wanted her to speak. Her voice was entirely too difficult to mask, even with a device to distort it. She knew she sounded haughty and aristocratic, even when her voice was disguised, so even if she said a simple word she'd likely be proving the man right. It was an infuriating thought.
"It don't seem wise," Claude said, his voice taking on a strange effect, like he was trying to mimic Cyril's cadence and accent, "to be questioning your captain."
"He is right," Kala said, unsheathing her sword. "If there is a problem, allow me this chance to rectify it."
"N-no," the man said nervously. "That's… that's alright, Kala."
"Good." Kala snapped her sword right back into its sheath, and she nodded to Noah. "Take them to my cabin. Give them water to drink, a basin to clean themselves. Thank you."
They were led away from the crew, much to Edelgard's relief. Noah was not talkative, and the more she looked at him, the more she imagined him to be Hubert. She thought that if she and Hubert survived long enough, she'd want them to be like Kala and Noah. Thick as thieves even while the entire world looked down upon them with scorn and hatred.
Kala's cabin was surprisingly spacious. It was bathed in a warm yellow glow from a lamp in the corner, behind a mahogany desk. On that desk was a map, a compass, a stack of books, and a closed inkwell. She saw that the latch on the inkwell was gilded. Below their feet was a woven carpet, cloth made of bright greens and purples dazzling Edelgard's eyes. The design on the carpet was simple, but a tapestry on the wall made of the same tied cloth was bold and intricate. There was an animal skin mounted on the wall to their left.
Noah found a basin in the corner, and he moved the map to set the basin on the captain's desk. He stood back and waited by the door, watching them expectantly. Edelgard stood very still as Claude glanced between her and Noah, and then practically closed the space between them. She blinked, holding her breath while he gingerly plucked the remnants of one purple ribbon from her hair. Pale strands slipped against her cheek, and it felt straw-like and greasy. Claude deftly ran his fingers through it, his joints snagging on tangles. She felt him tug through a few before giving up and using the comb that Noah had left beside the basin.
Seemingly satisfied, Noah left the room.
Claude was halfway through combing her hair when she yanked her hair from his fingers and rounded on him.
"What," she hissed, hoping Noah was out of earshot, "was all of that?"
"He clearly doesn't believe I'm your servant," Claude said, tapping his chin thoughtfully with the comb. "I knew I laid it on a little too thick with the accent on the deck. What do you think?"
"What do I…?" Edelgard stared at him. Truly stared. In the light, he looked exhausted. His normally healthy brown complexion had waned, and he looked… not pale, per se, but sickly. Sallow, even. A yellowish undertone peeked through, and it made him look particularly bad. There were dark circles beneath his eyes, dirt clinging to his pores, and even a blemish on his forehead from the grime accumulating, and the grease of his hair against his oily skin. She suspected she did not look much better, but Claude was careful with his appearance in ways that others… well, namely Dimitri, was not.
She knew that any hair out of place on that enormous head of his had been perfectly aligned for maximum messy charm. Yet even his messiness seemed preplanned, as though he had mastered the art of looking a fool. He had always felt like a one-man production to her. A play on the concept of playing you, starring Claude von Riegan.
In the past week, Claude had lacked all the things that made it easy for him to keep the act going around her. His fellow Deer, who adored him for the most part, despite his questionable claim. His books. His professor.
After all, the boy was smart, but he did not hold a candle to Byleth.
Now, looking at him, sizing him up, she realized that he really was just a boy. His face was round, if not a bit sunken due to malnourishment, and his eyes were big and unblinking as she searched them. He knew things she didn't, and she would always be well aware of that, but she knew just as many things that he could never know.
And she thought that might scare him. Or… maybe not scare, exactly, because she had now seen Claude afraid, and she knew how he reacted to such a thing. No, he was… wary of her, like how an outdoor cat that had been domesticated was wary of too many footsteps and carriage wheels. He found her interesting, and he was curious about her, but his fear of the unknown kept him from diving into something real with her.
Perhaps that was for the best.
Now he looked at her strangely, like she had shrunk several inches in their captivity. Somehow she was the one acting odd.
"What?" Claude asked, peering down at her. "What is it? Do I have something on my face?"
"Yes," she said, "actually. You're quite dirty."
"Oh." Claude actually laughed at that. "So are you."
Edelgard did not want to seem desperate to wash her face (though she really was), so she merely arched an eyebrow and shrugged. That only made Claude laugh more.
"Can I finish combing your hair?" he asked.
"No?" She nearly sneered at him in disbelief. "It's my hair. I can comb it myself."
"Okay," he said, "but Noah could come back at any time."
"Then let him? I don't care."
"We've already established my cover as your servant," Claude said, rolling his eyes. "You're… bad at playing along, you know. C'mon, Edelgard, there's an actress in you somewhere, I just know it."
"Why should I be acting in the first place?" she demanded. "What is the point of this stupid charade? We are both nobles! If they plan to ransom us—"
"You and your ransoms," Claude muttered. He sat down on the captain's desk, so they were just about eye level. "I've already explained this. Have you thought about it at all? The Alliance isn't exactly wealthy, not collectively, and House Riegan… it's not a viable option for me. I'm not like you, Edelgard, I'm not the sole heir to an empire, I'm expendable. If anything happens to me, Lorenz has every right to take up my place, and I would not blame him a bit for doing so. It's his right."
"I don't understand," Edelgard sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "That's all well and good, but why would being my servant put you in a better position? You could be killed far more easily by these pirates for being of little economic value to them."
"See," Claude said, smirking at her, "that's where you completely misunderstand them. All you know about pirates is from stories that are meant to spook good little Fódlan children before they sleep."
"And you know so much more?" Edelgard scoffed. "Because you are so worldly and cultured, Claude. Please, spare me."
"Maybe stop to consider that I am, in fact, more worldly than you." Claude was being serious. She stared at him, noted the tiredness of his gaze, and realized that he was probably being honest. That irritated her more. "Besides, I'm not saying all pirates are good. They're pretty nasty for the most part, if I'm being honest. But they don't go around killing people for fun. Usually they just steal stuff and leave. The reason why I decided to play your loyal servant is because I knew if I fought, they'd kill me, and if they can't make a profit off me as a hostage in the long run, they'll kill me. But if I'm your servant, willing to do anything and everything to protect you, they'll keep me on as another hand on the crew. They'll let me near you as a courtesy, so I, as a witness, can testify before whoever comes to pay your ransom that you were treated fairly and well."
At this, Claude seemed to deflate a little. He smiled at her thinly.
"It's not in the stars for me to die today," he said, "or tomorrow, for that matter. If I am going to die, it won't be by the hands of pirates or brigands, I can assure you. I'd rather you kill me here and now than die like that."
"Don't be so dramatic," she murmured.
"I am being realistic," he snapped, surprising her. "Whatever happens now, we escaped our captors. We will be free, and that is all that matters. Not how we get there, but getting there. If I have to play at being your mindless, unquestioning servant to live to see tomorrow, I am going to do it. But please, don't mistake my acting for reality. I don't know if I'd ever truly serve you, and I'm not exactly itching to find out what it'd take to push me to that."
That was… unfortunately put, but Edelgard was more curious than annoyed at this point. Once more, she could tell that he was scared, and that intrigued her. His fears, she noticed, stemmed from the very real idea of him dying. So he was scared of death.
"The goddess," she said tentatively, "takes care of those who pass."
"Can we not?" Claude asked, shooting her a cold look.
"Pretend like either of us give a rat's ass about the goddess," Claude said. "Honestly, Edelgard, you're very smart. Keep up."
"Don't," Claude said, holding up a hand. "I literally don't care. You don't believe, neither do I, it's fine. Just don't lie to me and say you're pious and true, or whatever. I already have a headache, and I'm kind of done letting you say things just to cover your own ass. Did I mention that I don't care? Because I don't. That's a problem for Dimitri to have, not me."
"Must you bring him up?" she asked bitterly.
"Must I?" Claude raised an eyebrow. "Like he's not obsessed with you?"
"He isn't…" She licked her lips. They were dry, and they tasted like brine. "Okay, but you won't tell him, will you?"
There was a spark in Claude's eye. "So you do care what he thinks," he said, resting his elbows on his thighs and setting his chin in his hands. "Tell me more. Is this a crush? Because that is certainly a way to unite Adestria and Faerghus… though I must admit, I'd probably object to the union from a purely political standpoint."
"I do not have a crush on Dimitri," she said firmly. "First of all. Second of all, I would not need a marriage contract to take Faerghus."
She realized too late how that sounded, and she cursed herself inwardly while she pulled at the ends of her hair casually. As though she were talking abstractly. Because, yes, of course she was. What a funny idea.
"No?" Claude, ever observant, smirked at her. "That sounds like it bodes well for the future of Fódlan."
"I was talking objectively," she sighed. "Honestly, Claude, I'm not going to march an army into Fhirdiad and demand the country bow at my feet."
"I hope not." Claude's smile was plastered on, and they both knew it. "Warn me if you do, will you? I'd like to high tail it out of here before you conquer my country and my people."
"You act as though I'd open negotiations," she said, allowing a bit of a teasing tone to creep into her voice. If that soothed Claude, he did not show it.
"It would be smart to," he said. "Tactically."
"Oh?" Edelgard could not help but roll her eyes. "Okay. Enlighten me. Tell me why I'm wrong."
"Well," Claude said, "you should always try to negotiate with an enemy, because there should always be a peaceful solution to a conflict even if you do not immediately see one. Blood is spilled once all parties agree that no terms can be met. Obviously sometimes fights erupt, and you cannot negotiate until after blood has been shed, but… you're not listening to me."
"I am," she said, blinking at him. "I'm just… surprised."
"Yeah," he said, looking visibly irritated. "I can tell."
"I did not think you thought so…" Weakly? Naively? Idealistically? "… deeply about battle tactics."
"I am in battle enough to notice some things," he said. "Thought clearly I've discovered negotiations don't always turn out."
"And if I or Dimitri happened to invade the Alliance," she said, "you'd try to negotiate a way out of it?"
"Dimitri, no offense to him, but he really would not do that," he said. "But if he did, yes."
"What would you offer?"
"To Dimitri?" he asked. "Or you?"
"I'm an equal opportunity sort of guy," Claude said, "so I'd probably assess your armies, the strength of them, see how badly I'd lose, if at all. Then I'd have to speak with the other Houses. I could spare land, if I needed to, if I lost and survived the fight to negotiate afterwards."
"And if you knew you had no chance of winning?" Edelgard asked. "Would you just… give up? That sounds unlikely."
"I would probably offer marriage," he admitted. "Last ditch effort."
He glanced at her, and then laughed in her face.
"What's that look for?" he asked, pointing to her with the comb. "You look so flustered. Again, I'm an equal opportunity type of guy. Though, trust me, that would be my last-last resort. Dimitri's not really my type, and you…"
"Please choose your words very carefully, Claude," she warned him.
"You are perfectly lovely," he said brightly, "just a little bit…"
"Too much like me," Claude said with an easy roll of his shoulders. "We don't get along well. It seems like all we do is argue. It would be a terrible match."
That made her swallow hard. Her mouth and throat were dry as dust, and she found that she could not meet his eye.
"You're right," she said. "It would be."
"I'm so glad you agree," Claude said, his smile tight. Yet if he was disappointed, he did not show it. That was a relief. The last thing she needed was Claude of all people pining for her affections.
Not that what he had suggested was… a terrible idea, really. It was, as he said, tactically smart. If she had any plans to allow him to keep the Alliance. Which, as it stood, she didn't.
She folded her arms across her chest as they both settled into a strange, uncomfortable silence.
"Can I have the comb?" she asked.
Claude handed it to her without a word. She dipped it in the basin and began to tug the tangles from her hair. The teeth of the comb scratched at the strands softly. It was a soothing, familiar sound.
"Dimitri really isn't your type?" she asked him, feeling the need to break the silence.
"Nope," he said cheerfully.
"Because he's a boy?"
"I said I'd marry him, didn't I?" Claude blinked at her, puzzled. "Honestly, what did you think I meant by that?"
"I… don't know," she admitted. "I didn't see you… liking boys."
"How many times must I say I'm an equal opportunity type of guy before it hits you," he said, almost as though speaking to himself. He shook his head, and he glanced at her curiously. She'd decided to lean against the desk beside him, grasping at bundles of her hair and combing furiously. "What about you?"
"Are you… an equal opportunity type of gal?"
She paused, her comb stuck on a particularly tough knot. Her heart thudded hard in her chest as she tried to banish the soft face and dazed eyes of a certain professor from her brain.
"I…" She blinked, her cheeks growing painfully warm as she ducked away from Claude's prying gaze. "I never thought of it like that, but… yes. I suppose so."
When she shot a glance at Claude from over her hair, he was grinning.
"I knew it," he said.
"There is no need to brag," she murmured.
"Sure." He winked at her. "It feels great though. You should try it."
"Ugh…" She scooted away from him, not keen on being close enough for him to see her blushing. "You are impossible, you know that?"
"Impossible people should never be ignored or silenced," he chided her.
"If you have something to say," she said, "say it."
"I always have something to say," he said brightly. "I just choose not to say it, because my opinions, frankly, might be considered unpopular."
Edelgard twisted a smooth lock of hair around her finger, glancing up at him curiously. That intrigued her, of course, but Claude… he had a silver tongue. He was dangerous.
This is why a negotiation would never work, she thought. I'd see his face, be angry, but then I'd want to listen. I'd want to hear what he'd have to say. Maybe I'd even be swayed by my heavy heart.
"What do you consider unpopular?" she asked.
"Well," he said, "that bit about not believing in the goddess? I know how that sounds."
"It's something we can agree on," she pointed out, "for once."
"Yeah…" He laughed a little. "Hey, can I braid your hair?"
"What," she breathed, "is your obsession with my hair?"
"Not your hair specifically," he said defensively. "I just like braiding."
"It's soothing." He twisted his own braid around his finger, much like how she had a lock of her own hair around hers. "And, if you haven't noticed, I'm pretty anxious right now."
She had not noticed. How could she? He was not acting any different. Perhaps he was a bit chattier, or at least a bit more open than usual, but…
"Okay," she said, feeling defeated and vaguely ashamed for giving in so easily.
She eyed him suspiciously. "Will you make me regret this?" she asked.
"No!" He smiled, and it almost seemed genuine. "Thanks, though. Um… can you… turn around."
With a hard sigh, she turned her back to him. Eventually they both ended up on the ground, kneeling so he could ease her hair back into two tight braids. She felt his fingers working through each lock of hair, and eventually it became soothing to her too. It had been a very long time since anyone had played with her hair, and she was grateful that Claude seemed to know what he was doing.
When he was done with her two braids, he took her discarded purple ribbons and tied the end of each braid with them. Then he took the end of a braid and tickled the tip of her nose with the curl of pale hair that poked from beneath the purple bow.
"Stop that," she said, swatting his hand away. And yet, in spite of herself, a laugh urged itself into her voice.
"Was that a laugh?" he demanded, clapping his hands on the floor of the cabin. His voice was eager and bright. "Have I made the unshakeable Edelgard von Hresvelg laugh?"
"You have certainly made Edelgard von Hresvelg annoyed," she said, laying her hand on his face and shoving him to the floor. "Do not look at me. I revoke that privilege. Go stare at a wall."
"As you wish," Claude said, lying on the floor with a crooked grin, "my lady."
"And never," she hissed, flicking his ear and swallowing another laugh as he cackled at her, "call me that again."
"Is Claude dead?"
It was too early in the morning, Dimitri thought, to be dealing with Lysithea's bluntness. Dimitri needed coffee first. He needed more than just a cup, he needed to swim in coffee before he answered that question.
Instead of answering, he merely stared at the small girl.
"I don't know," he admitted groggily.
"Hilda said he is," she said sharply. "I really must know. Is he?"
"I don't know."
Lysithea's owl eyes zoned in on his face. She had cornered him in the hallway of the dormitories, and despite the early hour she looked absolutely golden. As though she had been awake for hours already.
Out of desperation, Dimitri moved around her and started down the hall. She trailed after him, her feet pattering softly behind his, like a little shadow.
"You must know something," she insisted.
"But you were there!" Her voice was small, sharp, and indignant.
"So was Dorothea and Petra and Sylvain," Dimitri murmured. "Yet I do not see you pecking on their windows at this hour. Why not ask the professor?"
"Because I am asking you." Lysithea stomped down the stairs after him, her heels clipping the floor. "Dimitri, you have garnered enough of a reputation for being fair and honest that I have decided to ask you if Claude is dead. Now, you can answer me, or I can go ask the professor, who might make some horrible joke about it."
"The professor…" Dimitri winced. Lysithea wasn't wrong, which was concerning, but also he did not wish to be considered the go-to person for Claude and Edelgard related news. Specifically Claude related. "She's doing her best to find Claude and bring him home."
"Even if he is a corpse?"
"Must you put it so bluntly?" Dimitri asked tiredly.
"Yes!" Lysithea scowled up at him, and to her credit, her glower was formidable. "It is the only way you will quit treating me like a child, and understand that I need the truth if I am to continue my efforts to find out how anyone got into the monastery to begin with."
"I am not trying to treat you like a child," Dimitri said sharply. He hated being short with the girl, but she really was too stubborn. "I am merely telling the truth."
"Then give me details about what happened," she said. "Tell me what you've found. Hilda knows something's wrong, but she said she didn't want to ask. Dorothea will never tell me, and Petra… I don't know her well. Please, Dimitri?"
With a sigh, Dimitri stopped short. Lysithea skidded to a stop, blinking up at him with her huge, wise eyes. Dimitri understood her, for the most part, and he knew that she was merely worried. However, he did not appreciate that she seemed to mistake his honesty for coddling. Especially when she had admitted herself that she saw him as an honest person.
"I will tell you," he said, holding up one finger as she glared up at him, "all that I know. In return, I would like you to listen carefully and quietly. Can you do that?"
"Of course I can," she said, her scowl deepening. "I am not a—"
"A child," Dimitri cut in, his voice softening. "Yes, I realize that. I am not treating you like a child, Lysithea, please try to understand that. I am only trying to be honest. I won't lie to you and say I know that Claude is dead, or even that he is alive, because I haven't the faintest idea which is true. I will allow you to make your own decision based on what we have found. Does that sound fair?"
Her scowl loosened, and he watched her bite her lower lip in an anxious sort of guilt.
"Yes," she murmured. "That… does sound reasonable."
"Good." He stretched out his arm for her to keep walking. "Shall we get breakfast?"
She eyed his arm, and she nodded hesitantly.
"Yes… yes, alright."
They made their way to the dining hall, Lysithea once again trailing after him like a shadow, or a very persistent kitten. Normally, if he were walking with Annette or Ashe or Ingrid, he would slow his strides so that they could keep up with him. However, Lysithea would likely see such a thing as an insult, so he let her scurry behind him, frantically trying to match his pace while he moved through the monastery.
"You," she said once they sat down in the dining hall, "are surprisingly quick."
"I just have long legs," he said. He studied her a moment, watching her attempt to manage her quickened breath. "Are you alright?"
"Fine," she said through gritted teeth.
Dimitri was not convinced, but he also did not care to get yelled at again, so he nodded.
"Wait here a moment," he said. He went quickly to grab two plates, and he shoveled some crepes onto each, spooning some strawberry jam onto the plates. He had to ask if the cream was sweet, and once he did, he added a dollop to both plates. When he returned to their table, Lysithea was already sipping tea.
"Oh," she said, her eyes brightening at the sight of the crepes. "Is that for me?"
Dimitri slid the plate over to her, and he smiled a bit when she dug in, looking entirely content with her breakfast. He allowed her to eat before setting into an explanation. He hesitantly ate as well. The texture of the crepes was softer than expected.
"This is delicious," she said brightly, looking far less grumpy now that she had a fork in her mouth. Dimitri smiled at her, setting his own fork down.
"I'm glad," he said. He waited for a minute longer, patiently allowing her to slow down. "Lysithea… you care about Claude a lot, don't you?"
That made her grimace. She set her fork down, chewed slowly, and swallowed hard.
"Care about him…" She frowned. "I suppose if I needed to classify my feelings, yes, I do hold some affection for Claude. However, I… don't know him all that well. And all our conversations have always focused on him babying me."
"Which is something you hate," Dimitri said quietly.
"See!" She gestured vaguely at Dimitri's face. "Even you get it, and you're the leader of another class entirely. Claude thinks of me like I'm his baby sister that he needs to fuss over. It's insulting."
Dimitri wondered if she realized how meaningful that truly was. If Claude was fussing over anyone, it likely meant that he genuinely cared for them. After all, Dimitri had not seen Claude outwardly fuss over anything in the months they had been at the academy.
"Perhaps you need to look at things from Claude's perspective," Dimitri said. "I'm sure he does not see it as babying the way you do."
"He should consider my perspective," Lysithea said with a sniff, "not the other way around."
"Yes, but…" Dimitri shook his head. "Honestly? The way I have always seen it, if someone goes out of their way to try to take care of you, it is not out of condescension. It's more likely that Claude worries about you simply because he likes you, and he cares about your health and safety."
"But I'm fine," she said, scowling at her plate. "I can do things myself."
"You can't do everything," Dimitri told her gently. "Claude knows that. And he cares. You shouldn't be afraid to let people care about you."
Her eye twitched, and Dimitri wondered if she was angry with him. She leaned back, taking a deep breath, and she nodded.
"If Claude is alive," she said steadily, "if he comes back, I will… be kinder to him. I will listen to what he has to say , and not… snap, I suppose."
"So will you tell me what you know?"
Dimitri smiled at her, and he nodded.
She listened patiently while he explained the blood stains they had found. How that in itself did not mean much, considering their witness had seen Claude being carried away from the house. After all, it made little sense to pull a dead body out of the forest when one could just as easily discard or bury the body in a remote place.
Dimitri winced at the voice, not even bothering to look at Lysithea to see her reaction. He knew it would be a poor one. Linhardt had appeared at Dimitri's back, sitting down at their table without an invitation. He dropped a book between them, his tired eyes fixed upon Lysithea's face.
"Someone is up early," Lysithea muttered.
"I was actually up all night," Linhardt admitted. At that, both Lysithea and Dimitri looked at Linhardt in utter disbelief.
"You?" she said. "Up all night? Have I misheard you?"
"Yes, yes, go ahead and laugh," Linhardt sighed, rubbing his eyes tiredly. "I am running on quite a bit of coffee, so after we speak, I am going to go to my room and sleep all day, if you don't mind. But, the truth is, after Dorothea and Petra told me of their excursion…" With a quick hand, Lindhart opened up the book on the table to a marked page. "I thought it was strange, all the blood—" Linhardt sucked in a very deep breath. His expression was pinched, and he looked a bit queasy as he spoke. "I mean, especially in a basin, like what was described. Normally an execution would be far less painful. So the options are that Claude was either tortured, or his captors wanted to drain and collect his, well... blood for some reason."
"What?" Lysithea asked in a flat voice. "Wait, hold on… what? Blood collection? What are you talking about?"
"Look at this," Linhardt said, turning the book about and sliding it to Lysithea. His finger tapped on the tome, leaving an impression on the thin, ancient paper. "Crests are connected through bloodlines. They are physically imprinted on a person's body, and—"
"I know how Crests work," Lysithea said coolly, looking up from the tome to glare at Linhardt. "Please do not patronize me. Say what you are thinking plainly. Say that you think Claude is being experimented on."
"That is not exactly my hypothesis," Linhardt said, blinking. "But…"
Lysithea stood up abruptly. Her small hands clapped against the wooden table, and the whole row of tables shook as she glowered down at Linhardt.
"I," she said harshly, "am sick of you, and your stupid Crests! Don't come to me acting like this is some sort of breakthrough when clearly it only makes it all so much worse!"
"Lysithea…" Linhardt peered up at her, clearly alarmed by her reaction. Dimitri did not blame him. He had gotten used to the girl's prickly nature, but she was by all accounts utterly furious right now, and he had no clue why. "I don't understand why you are so angry."
"Of course you don't," she said, her eyes narrowing. "You never seem to understand anything."
Then, without another word, she stomped off.
Linhardt gaped after her for a moment. He looked down at his tome, and he shook his head.
"I am almost positive that Crest research was involved in Claude and Edelgard's disappearance," he said quietly. "She will not listen to me."
"She only seems to react like that around you." Dimitri scratched his head, and he smiled sympathetically at the boy. "Sorry. I don't know if I can help you."
"You can help by believing me." Linhardt glanced up at Dimitri tiredly. "I know she thinks I am a lazy fool— and I am, of course, but that is beside the point. I know that there is something odd about all this, and the only justification I can find is that Claude and Edelgard were taken for their Crests."
"Crests, huh?" It always did seem to boil down to Crests eventually, didn't it? "And what about Flayn? Why was she a target, then?"
"Oh," Linhardt said. "I believe Flayn has a Crest as well."
Dimitri frowned. "Have you… talked to her about it?"
"No." Linhardt yawned. "I… honestly just came up with the hypothesis. But I am certain I am correct."
"Well," Dimitri said, "go talk to her first before making claims you can't support. Okay?"
"When I said I believe," Linhardt said calmly, "I actually meant that I would stake my life on my hypothesis that Flayn has a Crest."
"That…" Dimitri sucked in a deep breath. Dealing with the Eagles was tricky. His own class was relatively mellowed out, save for Felix's prickly nature, and the Deer had no issues communicating or collaborating with anyone, yet the Eagles were a mixed bag. Dorothea and Caspar were relatively fine, well-adjusted individuals, and Petra was sweet, but Linhardt… really was something else. "That is a bit extreme, Linhardt. Don't you think?"
"No, I don't think so." Linhardt shrugged. "Anyway, this is my theory. I will speak with Flayn and see if I can confirm my hypothesis."
"Oh… okay." Dimitri was not sure what else to say. "Don't scare her, okay?"
"Why would I scare her?"
Dimitri opened his mouth, and then he closed it. How did he explain to Linhardt that his curiosity could seem a bit invasive to others? It seemed as though this was a conversation that Edelgard should have had with him, not Dimitri.
"Well…" Dimitri cleared his throat, and he shifted in his seat under Linhardt's blank stare. "You can… often come on a little bit strong. When you talk to Flayn, you should approach the subject of Crests carefully with her."
"That seems counterproductive," Linhardt said. "It's just a harmless question, and this situation is time sensitive. I'd rather get an answer by asking bluntly than endure a boring conversation just to get half the information than I would have gotten if I had just been forthright about my intentions."
"I am not saying lie," Dimitri sighed, "just… don't just dive into the interrogation, okay? Flayn deserves more respect than that."
"Oh, I certainly respect her." Linhardt blinked. "That is not an issue."
"That's… good, then?"
"Good." Linhardt dragged his book back toward him, and it coughed up a small cloud of dust when he clapped it shut. "I will ask her about it later. If you see Lysithea again, would you mind telling me?"
"So you can apologize?" Dimitri asked, surprised yet hopeful.
"Apologize?" Linhardt's brow furrowed. "For what?"
"For…" Dimitri sighed. "Oh, never mind."
Linhardt considered Dimitri for just a moment before offering a shrug, and disappearing from the dining hall. Dimitri was left feeling more than a little lost. After all, the longer that Edelgard and Claude were missing, the less likely it was that they would be found. Especially if they'd been taken on a ship somewhere. He knew it would take a miracle for them to actually find them.
That terrified him more than he could say.
The ground beneath her shifted when she wobbled left or right. She'd been hiding, biding her time, sticking her knuckles between her teeth, lowering her head between her knees, wishing a well full of wishes as the screams rushed like water over her feet, over her knees, and washed up over her head until she was drowning in the rattle of pain and horror. All there was in all the world was screams, and all she was now was an extension of that. One scream lost to the ether and caught inside her eyes. One more scream, tossed into the sea, lodged inside her heart.
When it stopped, she was afraid. The darkness had trapped the screams just as it had trapped her. She was afraid to go walking through it, to have more screams erupt and feast upon her.
Yet she needed to know. So she went.
The long hall was familiar. She walked. Her knees were knobby. Her teeth chattered.
At the end of the hall there was a table. A flat, metal slate. The stench of blood hit her so hard her stomach turned, and she wanted to run, but she was frozen in terror as she stared upon the table, at the body lying there.
Blood poured out of every orifice. The body rejected the thing that gave it life, and that blood had turned dark. Blackened, poisoned. It reeked. There was a tube connected to the man's arm, which dangled limply from the table. His blackened fingernails nearly scraped the floor, as though the table were too small for him.
His face was tipped to the side. Black ooze clung to his cracked, shriveled lips. It dribbled down his chin in thin, slow rivulets. It was smeared along his nostrils, caught the crease of his cupid's bow. It glistened in his tear ducts, sliding down his cheeks like black tears.
He stared with glassy, unblinking green eyes, and she thought she might run to spare herself from being looked at and judged by a dead man.
Claude's mouth was open, like he meant to warn her.
"Claude?" she uttered softly, taking a step forward in spite of herself. Panic flooded her. "Claude, no. Not… this… not this. Not this. Anything but this. Please, please, Claude, wake—"
And then unseen hands came and snatched him by the ankles. He was whisked from the table in a blink, and she jerked back, her heart in her throat.
A pair of hands grabbed her from behind. Under her arms, yanked up and dragged. She kicked wildly, but another pair of hands had her ankles.
"No," she gasped, her heart thudding so hard that she thought she certainly must die of a heart attack first. She prayed for it. "No, no, no, no, please—"
Her pretty red dress was torn at the shoulder. She wriggled and twisted, she snapped and hissed.
"Let me go," she begged, her limbs becoming suppressed by the unseen hands. Her bare legs and arms were stuck in the black bloodstains, still warm from Claude's recent demise. "I will— I will be good, I promise, I promise I'll be good—"
She saw the needle.
"NO," she screamed, thrashing once more against the unseen hands. "Let me go! Let me go! No, no, no, no, no—!"
She was wrenched off the table by those unseen hands, and there was only darkness to greet her. Darkness, and a pair of hands shaking her so hard that white spots flickered in the dark.
"—gard? Edelgard, can you hear me?"
She could not speak. Instead, she blinked through the darkness, and she saw a familiar face.
Claude. Of course. Claude wasn't dead. Of course he wasn't dead. He'd never been in danger at all.
Well, that wasn't really true, but she could pretend.
Claude was holding her. He wasn't hugging her, and for that she was oddly thankful. It would not be becoming of either of them of they formed any sort of attachment to one another. No matter how much she felt like she needed to be held, it would be better if she had standards, wouldn't it? He held her arms to her side, likely to keep her from thrashing, and as she sank a bit, blinking dazedly into the dark, she could only stiffen once more as he pushed her braids back from her face and held her head gingerly.
"Look at me," he said. "Okay?"
She stared into his eyes, and she realized she was shaking.
"Okay," he murmured. "Okay… you're okay…" He sounded unsure. "Are you okay?"
Instinctively, she nodded. Then, after she processed her own thoughts, and the shakiness that plagued her, she shook her head furiously.
Claude was quick enough that he noticed her gag, and he released her face to grab a nearby bucket. There was not much in her stomach to vomit, and yet she expelled the contents of it. Tears stung her eyes. She heaved a deep breath, falling back onto her hand and scrubbing her eyes with her forearm.
"I don't," she rasped, "want to talk about it."
"I wasn't gonna ask," Claude said pushing the bucket away carefully.
Somehow, she didn't believe him.
The events of the previous night hit her. The pirates, the ruse, the new ship. The captain, Kala, had gotten two hammocks set up in a small storeroom for the two of them. Edelgard remembered being infinitely grateful, not only for the privacy, but for Claude. Kala had promised her that no one would harm her, but she knew her fair share of stories about pirates. It made her feel a bit better that she had someone near her that she knew, even if she was not fully sure if she trusted him.
She sniffled. The taste of bile burned her mouth.
"How long was I screaming?" she murmured.
"Not too long." Claude didn't sound as worried as she'd expected, which worried her. "I was awake, so I woke you up when you started getting loud. Is… that okay?"
She almost laughed. What kind of ridiculous question was that?
"I was having a nightmare," she said, shooting him an irritated look. "If you must have my permission to wake me from the grips of my own terror, you may have it. A hundred times over."
"Oh." Claude blinked. "Alright."
Edelgard licked her dry, cracked lips. Once more, she tasted bile, and she grimaced.
"Did I speak at all?" she asked quietly.
Claude shook his head. It took Edelgard a moment, a moment in which she relaxed, to realize that he was lying.
"I did," she said with a groan. "Just… tell me, okay? Don't lie, tell me. What did you hear?"
It was strange to hear him sigh. It was stranger to watch him pull his knees up to his chest like he was a child trying to make himself smaller.
"You said my name," he said. "That… woke me up for real. Before that I didn't really realize you were having a nightmare."
She swallowed hard. She nodded. "Okay," she said. "Anything else?"
"Just…" Claude winced. "I didn't mean to listen. I'm sorry. You were just… begging, I guess. To be let go. I don't know."
"That's…" She held her head even as she shook her. "Okay. Fine. That's fine."
He stared at her as she lifted herself up, wobbly on her feet, and moved toward her hammock.
"I'm sorry," Claude repeated.
She set herself up so she was lying down, and she was happy to look at the black ceiling rather than his face.
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I could have woken you earlier," he said. "I… didn't. I wanted to keep listening. And that's terrible of me."
Her teeth sunk into her lower lip. She did not move.
"Yes," she said. Her voice was hard. "It is."
"Was I dead?" Claude asked. "In your dream?"
She closed her eyes. Of course he would pry even when he said he wouldn't.
"Yes," she said.
They sat in silence. She would not sleep anymore tonight, she knew that. That did not mean she could not pretend.
"Would you really be that upset?" Claude asked, breaking the silence. "If I died… would you…?"
"It wasn't about you."
She rolled in her hammock, her eyes open and fixed upon his face.
"My dream," she said firmly. "I dreamed you into the death that befell someone else. My feelings on the situation were based solely on that. It was like I was transported back to that moment. I could only feel the grief I felt then, for that person. It doesn't matter that your face was on the body."
Yet she had recognized Claude as the face in front of her, and the pang of regret and grief had been all the same.
She would not tell him that.
"Oh." Claude gave a small, short laugh. "Good. That's good. Great, even."
"Why," Edelgard said, "would my disinterest in you be a good thing?"
"Well," he said, "I'd hate it if you came to care about me. It would make things difficult for you, wouldn't it?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Me either." Claude yawned. "Boy, I'm tired."
"No," she said, "you're not."
"Oh? Are you the authority on my feelings now?"
She nearly snorted. "Claude," she said. "I am not a fool. I've come to understand your sleeping habits. You have too much on your mind to sleep."
"What's on my mind right now?" Claude asked her curiously. "Do you know?"
"Not exactly," she said. "But I'm a good guesser."
"I'm sure you are."
She sat up in her hammock, sick of him already, and the day had not even started.
"Why do you care if I care about you?" she demanded.
"Why is it so bad to admit that you do?" he countered.
"I don't," she said.
"Okay?" Claude laughed a little, holding up his hands in defeat. "I won't argue with you about it. Feel your feelings, Edelgard. It's not my business."
"It directly involves you. How is that not your business?"
"Because clearly," he said, "you don't care about me. So why should I care about you?"
"I—" she began, only to be at a loss for words. "That's unfair."
"I can't always be fair."
"You can't always be anything!" She scowled at him. "Who are you, anyway? You have a lie for every day of the week. You put on a new mask for every person you meet. I'm so— I don't know who you are, so why should I care about you? Who cares for a stranger? Why would I take that risk?"
"Because I am not a stranger," Claude snapped. "Edelgard, we have been stuck together for a week, maybe more, and you still think that I am not showing you my true face? Why? What have I done to deserve that?"
"I know nothing about you!" she gasped. "You clearly have no qualms lying about yourself! You told Kala you were Almyran!"
"And," Edelgard hissed, "you said that I rescued you at a young age, so you owe me a life debt. You just stole the stories you heard from Cyril and Dedue and spun them to fit a narrative you concocted!"
"A hundred percent," Claude said, a laugh in his voice, "yes, I did in fact do that."
"Why?" she asked. "What is the point?"
"I already explained why I'm pretending to be your servant," he said. "It's annoying, yeah, but it's not like it's real for me."
"It's degrading for you," she said, gritting her teeth. "You are doing yourself a disservice."
"Because I'm a noble?"
"Because you are a person!" She glared at him. "I don't want any person to serve me, pretend or not, under the impression that they are doing so merely because they feel they owe me something."
"Imagine how Cyril and Dedue must feel," Claude said dryly.
"That's not the point," she said. "You know that."
"That's not your point," he said, "but it's entirely mine. My "service" to you is entirely a fabrication. I'll say some fancy words, brush your hair, make up wild stories for the crew, but it'll never mean much to me. I could never pledge myself to you, even if I really wanted to. Hypothetical marriage proposals aside, we both know it could never happen. But the oath that Dedue and Cyril have pledged to Dimitri and the Church… those are very real. And neither of them see anything wrong with it."
"Those… are their choices," Edelgard said stiffly, "I suppose."
"Oh, but my choice to be your fake servant until we get out of this mess is bad?" Claude scoffed at her. "Are you listening to yourself? One is so much worse than the other."
"I have no control over what Dimitri or the Church does," Edelgard said coolly. "I do have control over myself. When I say I'm not comfortable with this, I mean it. I don't want you to feel any obligation towards me."
"It's fake," Claude groaned. "It's play-pretend. It's a child's game!"
"It's your very real life," Edelgard said, "with very real stakes. Is everything a game to you?"
"No." Claude looked up at her tiredly from his spot on the floor. "Not everything. But I'm tired, and stressed, and my arm hurts, so maybe I want to have a little fun with my stupid lie, so I don't go crazy wondering what's going to happen next."
That forced Edelgard to blink down at him, because she had not expected something so… wildly honest coming from Claude. To put it simply, Edelgard had never heard him complain quite like this before. He always seemed to take everything with a stride, like it was all part of his plan. But now he was admitting that he had no plan.
"So…" Edelgard rested her arms against her knees. "What now?"
"I don't know," he said. "I could keep telling you exactly what I think about Dedue and Cyril, but that wouldn't really get us anywhere."
"I like both of them," Edelgard said genuinely. "Though I… must begrudgingly agree that Cyril's situation in particular bothers me."
She could almost see a light go on in his eyes, even in the dark. He scooted a bit closer.
"Right?" he gasped. "Right? I've done everything I can think of to get the kid to sit with me, have some tea, read a little Almyran poetry… he just runs off. Says he has work to do. You know how many times I tried to find a way to get him into my class? He's technically staff, so he's not allowed, unless he wants to lose his job."
"That's…" Edelgard could only grimace.
"Yeah," he said. "Exactly. I asked Rhea if it was possible for Cyril to work part time and go to class… after all, all the students do odd jobs for the monastery anyway, and Cyril fights for us on occasion. But she said no."
Edelgard made the wise decision of biting her tongue. She nodded, feeling Claude's eyes on her.
"You're angry," he noted.
"How can you tell?" she asked flatly.
"You're not saying anything," he said, "so you're either angry, or you think Rhea is right. Which I know for a fact is not true."
"And how do you know that?"
"Because of what you just yelled at me for?" Claude rested his chin on his knees. "You care a lot, even if you hate to admit it. I want Cyril to have an education, not just to be a glorified custodian. But I also don't want to come on too strongly. You've seen the kid, he doesn't take well to being forced into things, and we have very different opinions about the Church."
"You mean your opinion that he was indoctrinated, and his opinion that he was saved by the goddess?" Edelgard smiled tightly. "What could possibly go wrong?"
"Hey, I never used the word indoctrinated," Claude said. "Even though, yeah, it is totally indoctrination, and I want to just… tuck him under my cape and take him home with me. Is that so wrong?"
"I believe," Edelgard said, "that you of all people should know that kidnapping is wrong, Claude."
He barked a laugh at that, and then cut himself off. "Wait," he gasped, "that was a funny joke. Edelgard, who are you? Is this the real you? Are you secretly really funny, and I've been missing out?"
"That was a one-time thing," she said. "You will never hear it again, so savor it."
"You are funny." Claude grinned up at her. "I'm entranced. Wait, did I say marriage was off the table? I take that back."
"I'm going to throw you overboard," Edelgard said, shaking her head. "Honestly."
"Aaand," Claude said, "she's back. Consider my proposal revoked once more."
It was a little bit strange how a little bit of freedom had changed their behavior. They did not seem so melancholy, and they bickered until someone came to knock on their door.
Kala explained to them, with some amusement, that there would be no freeloaders on her ship. They would work if they wanted to eat, and Edelgard saw no problem in that. Until, of course, Kala turned to her said gave her a once over.
"Perhaps leave the more strenuous tasks to Shapur," she said.
"Excuse me?" Edelgard said.
"I did promise you that you would not get hurt," Kala said. "If I left you to the gunning, your hand might be lost. Have you ever shot a cannon before, Lady Edelgard?"
"No?" Edelgard had handled many weapons, and she hated to admit that this was not one of them. "But I assure you, Captain, I am a quick learner."
"I am sure of this," Kala said, rolling her eyes. She turned to a young man in a floppy suede hat. Bright red curls peeked out against his freckly forehead, and he stood at attention when Kala glanced at him. "Be sure that Lady Edelgard stays away from the guns, Michael?"
"Aye," the man said, blinking rapidly. "I 'magine you'll want the other one to keep away too?"
"You are correct," Kala said.
"Gotcha." Michael blinked, and he shot a grin at Edelgard. His teeth were snaggled and yellow. He lifted his hat from his head and swept into a mock-bow. "Sorry, miss. I'm Michael Grace, the Master Gunner."
"Pleasure," Edelgard said dryly.
"And Dana," Kala said, addressing the tall man who had come to wake them that morning. Edelgard had not missed the way he was eyeing Claude, and it made her uncomfortable. The man's features were long, but also very dark. His skin was a deeper brown than Cyril's, though lighter than Dedue's, and his beard was thick across his sharp jaw and chin. When he did manage to tear his eyes from Claude, he glared at her, and then went right back to staring. "If you might be kind enough, tell Adeline to keep Lady Edelgard off the rigging."
"Aye," Dana said, his dark eyes flickering coolly to her face.
"Dana is our Sailing Master," Kala explained to Claude and Edelgard as the man slipped back onto the deck. "Our navigator, if that is more… precise?"
"He must be real smart," Claude said.
"He is," Kala said, smiling at Claude. "Now… let us see… Adeline is our Boatswain, so she will give you your jobs. No handling explosives. No fighting. You understand this?"
Both Edelgard and Claude nodded.
"If Adeline wishes," Kala said, nodding to Claude, "you will be fixing. If you get put in the rig, you do your best not to fall. Understand?"
"I can handle it," Claude said firmly. It was strange how he expertly hid his carefree persona and replaced it with this odd mixture of Cyril and Dedue.
"If you need anything," Kala said, "or have a question, go to Noah."
And with that, they were sent to work.
Adeline was stout and matronly. Her hair was kissed with sunshine, faintly orange curls shot through with sporadic shocks of gray. If Dana's eyes were cold and piercing, then Adeline's were warm and tender. She glanced between Claude and Edelgard, and she laughed in their faces.
"Neither of you have worked on a ship in your lives," she said.
"I have," Claude said, making the attempt to sound brave. Or, maybe he was pretending to sound faltering, beneath it all. Edelgard could not tell. She did not put it past Claude to have his act so well thought out that he made sure to place flaws in his own character to make it more believable.
Adeline gave Claude a once over. She looked skeptical. "What'd you do?" she asked.
That made Claude truly falter. She could tell this one was not planned by the way his eyes swiveled away from Adeline.
"Manned the pulleys," he said stiffly.
"Uh-huh," Adeline said, grinning down at him. "You're lyin'. That's fine by me, though. Keep on lyin'. It's funny. How's your strength in the upper arm region?"
"Fine," Claude said, his brow furrowing.
Edelgard bit her tongue. It was better than fine. What was he doing? He was an archer! Of course he was strong! Not to mention Edelgard had just as much strength, considering she wielded and axe, but nobody was asking her these questions. It was infuriating.
"Pulleys it is," Adeline said. She turned to Edelgard. She pursed her lips. "You look a bit ill, girl. What is it?"
"Nothing," Edelgard said, her nails biting into her palms. Was it that obvious? She had been on deck for all of three minutes, and the Boatswain was already calling her out for her strange behavior.
"You don't like the sea?"
"That's not it," Edelgard said coolly. "I… am just not sure what use I will be anywhere. I've never had to man a ship before."
Adeline nodded. "I'll have you doing odd jobs, then," she said, almost too patiently for Edelgard to stand. This woman shouldn't be kind. She was a pirate. A thief. Yet of course there were kind people in strange places. Edelgard wanted to forget that, because forgetting kindness made things easier.
Later, when Edelgard asked why he had paused, he looked surprised.
"You noticed that, huh?" He smirked at her. "Good for you. I think you're learning to read my tells."
"You made it rather obvious."
"Maybe so." Claude shrugged. He was lounging in his hammock, letting the natural sway of the boat rock him from side to side. "If you're really that curious, I didn't know how to answer Adeline because until that point, I hadn't really been lying."
"What do you mean?"
Claude sighed, and he sat up. "Like…" He bobbed his head from side to side. "I really was part of a crew for a bit. Not for super long, but it happened."
"I take it you didn't man the pulleys?" Edelgard asked amusedly.
That earned her a laugh. She laid in her own hammock and listened as he muffled his laughter into his hand.
"Navigator," he said.
"You mean, like the Sailing Master? Dana?"
"Why didn't you just say that?"
"Why didn't I…?" Claude groaned. "Edelgard, come on, keep up. You know how smart you need to be to be a navigator? Have you ever read a star map?"
She sat up and turned to face him. "Did you just insult me?"
"No," he said, rolling his eyes. "I'm saying that you are a very intelligent person, and you've never acquired the skill. It's not something an average person off the streets of Enbarr can do."
"And yet," she said, her eyes narrowing, "you can?"
"Oh, what can I say?" Claude winked at her. "I'm just that good."
"I hate you."
What she realized, a few days later, is that Claude was implying that Dana was far more well-educated than Edelgard might have assumed. Actually, many of the crewmates were smarter than Edelgard gave them credit for, which she felt guilty about. As much as she believed that there was little difference between commoner and noble, she still had preconceived notions about the people around her based on their… was piracy a job? Perhaps vocation was the best word for it. She had to catch herself when making baseless assumptions and reroute her brain to recognize that she did not know these people, or their pasts, so it was tasteless of her to think that they were beneath her in any way.
Even she did think piracy was rather extreme, dangerous, and more or less any reigning monarch's nightmare.
Dana proved her wrong one day when she was retying the knots of some of the rigging. Adeline was kneeling beside her on the deck, carefully pointing out what she had done wrong, when Dana came up behind Claude and caused Edelgard to halt what she was doing. Unable to look away, she zoned in on Claude's shoulder blades, which were visible beneath his stained yellow shirt.
For a moment, Dana merely studied Claude as he pulled at the ropes. Then, he barked something very loud, and very unintelligible at Claude, whose entire body went rigid in shock.
Claude turned slowly, his grip on the rope firm enough that he tipped himself back on his heels to peer up at Dana. The man was very tall, and rather intimidating. He had his hands on his hips while he frowned at Claude, who blinked up at him with a furrowed brow.
Once more, the man spoke, and Edelgard realized that it was in a language she did not understand.
To her surprise, Claude snorted. He bounced his head from side to side, considering the rope before him with a frown, and then he shrugged. He offered the rope with both hands to Dana, and replied in the same strange tongue. Effortlessly.
Edelgard stared at him as he shifted positions with Dana. He caught her staring, and he stared at her for a moment before winking, then turned back to Dana.
They continued to speak to one another, though the sound of the sea and the crew drowned them out. Adeline smacked Edelgard's hands to get her attention, and she returned to her knotting dazedly.
She cornered Claude at dusk in their small, shared storeroom. He was already lounging in his hammock, swinging idly.
"Dana is Almyran," Claude told her before she could even ask him.
"And that language was…?" Edelgard studied him. He did not sit up to address her, nor did he really tear his gaze from the ceiling. "Why do you know Almyran?"
"I'm a student of many tongues," Claude said amusedly. "Almyran is just one of them."
"Isn't Almyra the enemy of the Alliance?"
"I…" Edelgard sat down heavily on her own hammock, blinking at her hands. "I suppose I can see the tactical merit of understanding an enemy tongue… but did Dana suspect anything?"
"How?" Edelgard demanded.
At that tone, Claude glanced up at her tiredly. He sighed, and sat up, halting his hammock by tossing his legs over the side.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"How are you so good at it?" she asked. "How are you so good at everything?"
It took a moment for Claude to really digest what she had said, and when he did, he laughed in her face.
"What do you mean?" he gasped, stretching out his legs to cross his arms over his stomach. He guffawed. "What does that mean? I'm not good at everything, I'm just— I have skills that you don't! That's okay, you know."
"You are," Edelgard said, her eyes sharp as she watched him. "You really are good at everything. You just pretend you're not, and that you're a fool, but you're a genius. I hate you."
"I'm not a genius," Claude said, settling down and smiling at her. "But thank you for inflating me ego, it does mean a lot."
"What languages do you know?" she asked him. "Almyran? Fódlan?"
"Ancient languages," he admitted. "There are different ones for different regions of Fódlan. So Adestrian, that's its own ancient language in itself. Like—" He spoke suddenly in a strange, guttural tongue. It was harsher than the Almyran he had spoken earlier, and it surprised her. "Did you understand that?"
"Okay." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, that's not your fault. All these languages are pretty dead anyway. You might find a random book in a library in Enbarr written in Ancient Adestrian, but it's not gonna affect your life, or anything."
"I was aware that our languages were not…" She searched for the words. "We weren't always able to understand one another in Fódlan. I just did not realize how foreign it might have sounded."
"Sounds," Claude corrected. "People will still speak those ancient languages. Though there were a lot of them, and the dialects…" Claude sucked in a harsh breath between his teeth, and he shot her a meaningful look. "Yikes."
"Who speaks them?" she asked with a frown. "Besides over achievers like you?"
"I'm an over achiever?"
"Fine." Claude smiled a bit. "You got me there. I do love to learn. Um… well, the Church."
"The Church of Seiros?" Claude peered at her curiously. "Did you not know? If you decide to pledge yourself to the Church, you need to study one of the ancient tongues. Seteth and Rhea know, like, all of them."
"All of them…?"
"I go to Seteth all the time when I get stumped translating," Claude said, his smile small but strangely warm. "I think that's why he didn't mind when I asked if Flayn could teach me a healing spell. I think he likes feeling like he has some authority."
Edelgard had no idea. It surprised her that Claude had gone out of his way to befriend Seteth, and she wondered if his true intention had been getting Flayn to teach him a spell all along. She would not be surprised if so.
"What…" She looked down at her hands, examining the dirt stuck beneath her nailbeds. "What did Dana say to you? On the deck?"
"Oh." Claude scratched his head. "Nothing much. He just told me I was pulling wrong, and I'd hurt my back the way I was doing it. So he showed me how to do it better."
"Why did he have to speak in Almyran to do that?"
"I think," Claude said, grimacing, "he wanted to let me know that he was watching me."
"You think he suspects that you're not really Almyran?"
Claude smirked. "Nah," he said. "More like… he's concerned?" He nodded, maybe more to himself than to her. "Yeah, it seems more like that. I don't think he likes the idea that his fellow Almyran is running around, pledging himself to some random Fódlan princess. Which, you know. Fair enough."
"Is that why he's been glaring at me?" Edelgard held her head, blinking at the floor with wide eyes. "I didn't think about it like that. I thought he was just…"
"Scary?" Claude asked amusedly. There was a shuddering laugh in his voice as he spoke. "Intimidating? Mean?"
"Well— you know— that's not—"
"Fair?" Claude laughed at her, and she realized she was blushing before she could even object. "I mean, I don't know him well enough to defend him, but perhaps you shouldn't make hasty judgements on the man because he's very tall and does not speak much."
"I'm sorry," Edelgard murmured. "That… is correct, I should not have assumed. I keep doing that here, and I keep needing to reevaluate my surroundings. These people… are not all bad."
As if to prove her wrong, Claude forced Dana to formally introduce himself to Edelgard the next day.
"I am told you wish to be a navigator," Dana said, hardly a greeting at all. Claude stood beside the man with an encouraging smile. Edelgard merely stared.
"Did I say that?" she asked, her eyes narrowing on Claude.
Dana frowned at her, and Claude eagerly stepped in with a volley of words in Almyran that Edelgard did not know. With a small snort, Dana glanced at Edelgard, and he folded his arms across his chest.
"You are smart?" he asked.
"Is that what he said?" Edelgard nodded to Claude, who blinked at her innocently.
"Well," Edelgard said, "I could hardly call my loyal servant a liar, now could I?"
Dana's lips flattened out, and he stared at her with a hard gaze. She realized, looking up at him, that it was less hard and cold than it was utterly incredulous. He did not realize that she was joking.
"I could not say," Edelgard corrected herself gently, "if I am as smart as my friend says. If you believe I have what it takes to navigate, then… perhaps I can."
In her mind, learning how to navigate a ship, as much as she despised being on one, meant that if the need ever did arise, she could manage her way back to shore. So long as she was still on the boat, of course.
It turned out to be a lot harder than she thought. Dana drilled her on math that she had not done in years. He gave her a gold device the size of her hand that sat heavily in her palm, and told her to tell him what she saw. She saw a lot of symbols that she did not understand. When she told him that, he stared at her for a moment before laughing.
"Funny girl," he said. "This is called a star-taker. I will show you."
He explained it, said it like it was simple, and Edelgard spent the next few days trying to figure out how the hell anyone could puzzle out north and south using a tiny ruler, a bunch of random symbols, and just about a thousand needles pointing inwards.
"— isn't the point. If I'm going to believe you, you better have more to say than that."
Dimitri rounded a corner, blinking down at Hilda's solemn face. She spotted him immediately, and her expression changed like a flame flickering. Her lips turned upwards into a bright smile, and she waved at him.
"Hello, Dimitri," she said, a bit too forcefully. He frowned at her, and that frown only deepened when the man in front of her whirled to face him.
Hubert's shadowy eyes narrowed on Dimitri's face.
"Hilda," he greeted, nodding to her. "Hubert. How are you two this afternoon?"
"How are we?" Hubert hissed. He moved forward, and in an instant Hilda's hand was gripping his bicep, physically holding him back with panic in her eyes. "Is that an honest question? If, perhaps, I thought there was a brain behind that thick skull of yours, I would tell you to think for a moment."
"No need to be so dramatic, Hubert," Hilda gasped, causing Hubert to twist around to sneer at her. "Honestly, you're so tense. Why don't we go have some tea?"
Hilda, with a surprising amount of force, shoved Hubert around the corner and away from Dimitri.
"See you later, Dimitri," she said brightly, waving back at him. Hubert glowered the entire way, his teeth half bared as Hilda shoved him out of sight.
That is bad, Dimitri thought. That is very, very bad.
He went immediately to Byleth, who was not in her classroom or her quarters. Dimitri stumbled upon Sylvain lounging on a flight of steps with Cyril sweeping around him.
"Hey!" Sylvain sat up with a grin. "Dimitri! Did you know Cyril's a great singer?"
"Please," Cyril mumbled, leaning heavily on his wooden broom. "I'm begging ya, Sylvain… leave me alone."
"He's amazing!" Sylvain beamed up at Cyril. "Go on, sing that song again."
"Please?" Sylvain clasped his hands together and shook them. "I'll move! I'll leave you alone, even!"
Cyril groaned into his arms, and he shook his head. He glanced at Dimitri desperately, his cheeks growing darker as he turned over the offer in his head.
"There is no need for that, Cyril," Dimitri said to the boy gently. He could tell how uncomfortable this made him, and though Dimitri was certain that Sylvain was doing this because he saw it as a benefit to Cyril, it certainly would not seem that way to the poor boy. "Sylvain, get up. Let the boy do his work."
"You," Sylvain said with a pout, "are no fun."
Dimitri physically hauled Sylvain to his feet. "You're being cruel," he murmured in Sylvain's ear, "whether you realize it or not."
"What?" Sylvain jerked back, clearly puzzled. "That's not true! I—"
"I'm sorry for his behavior, Cyril," Dimitri said, nodding to the boy. "If he does something like this again, feel free to come to me. Without Claude around, he's not being held accountable for his actions."
"I don't need some duke's son to tell me when I'm being a bad boy," Sylvain said, rolling his eyes. "And I wasn't trying to make you feel bad, Cyril! I just liked hearing the music. I've never heard anything like it."
"Okay…?" Cyril grimaced. "Um… thanks? But I kinda have stuff to do, and I don't like singin' in front of people. So. I'm gonna get back to work now."
Cyril promptly ignored their presence, and continued to sweep the area where Sylvain was lounging.
"You're mean," Sylvain said as Dimitri dragged him away from Cyril. "That kid never has any fun. He doesn't even know what fun means. So what if I was stopping him from working? Why does he have to work all the time, anyway?"
"It's not our place, Sylvain."
"How is it not our place?" Sylvain scoffed. "Do we live here or not? We do chores, yeah, and I don't really mind weeding or cleaning out the stable, but we get an education out of it. What does Cyril get?"
"A question, perhaps, for him," Dimitri said tentatively. "What is this about? Why are you so angry about Cyril's position here so suddenly?"
"Hilda told me that he can't read," Sylvain said, cutting Dimitri's grip on him with a sharp jab. "Did you know that?"
"I… did not." Dimitri cast his eyes toward where he had last seen Cyril, but the boy was gone. "Where did Hilda hear that?"
"Oh." Dimitri frowned. "I did not realize she was close with him."
"How could they not get along?" Sylvain rolled his eyes. "Mr. and Mrs. 'I'm too busy to talk to you right now, so go away.'"
"Have you ever considered that they both are actually too busy to speak to you, usually?"
"And yet," Dimitri sighed, "you still bother them. How Sylvain of you."
"Ha ha… what does that mean?"
"Nothing," Dimitri said. "Have you seen the Professor?"
"Uhh…" Sylvain scratched the back of his head. "I think I saw her heading toward the library."
"Thank you." Dimitri turned on his heel, paused, and then turned back to face Sylvain. "I assume you have spoken with Hilda, since you two seem… close."
"Close," Sylvain said, slightly mocking. "You think she and I are a thing? I mean, I can't blame you, but… ha. She's not really pining for my affections, I'll tell you that."
"No?" Dimitri could have been fooled, but then, Hilda was hard to pin down. "So… you two are not…?"
"No." Sylvain rolled his eyes. "She's probably in love with Claude, though I don't think she realizes it."
That did make some sense. Especially considering how she has been acting.
"I saw her speaking with Hubert earlier," Dimitri said quietly. "Does that sound… correct, to you?"
"Hilda?" Sylvain wrinkled his nose. "With Hubert? Are you sure?"
"It seemed like they were having a very serious conversation."
"Hilda? Serious? Are you sure?"
"That's bad." Sylvain threw his hands into the air. "I am not touching that, not with a whole lance, I'm not going near that. That reeks of trouble. You'd be smart to stay away from it."
"I think it might have to do with me," Dimitri said with a grimace.
"Why?" Sylvain raised an eyebrow. "What did you do?"
"Well," Sylvain said, clapping him on the shoulder. "I love you, but you're not getting any help from me. If Hubert somehow gets Hilda to believe some crazy theory of his, like maybe you're behind this whole mess, you are going to really be in for it. Nothing is scarier than Hilda on a mission. Best of luck!"
And then Sylvain disappeared, because of course he did.
Without much else to do, Dimitri went to the library.
Byleth was leaning against a table, surrounded by what Dimitri could only imagine was hell's own band of misfit researchers. Lysithea was glowering at the table, framed by a small mountain of books. Ashe, Annette, and Ignatz were on the floor, listening intently to Linhardt, who stood at the end of the table. Linhardt paused when Dimitri walked in, blinking at him curiously.
Behind Linhardt, a small girl peered at him curiously.
"Flayn?" Dimitri halted for a moment. Then, a bit too hastily, he pressed his hand to his chest and bowed apologetically. "My apologies for interrupting. I was looking for the Professor?"
"Did you need something?" Byleth asked, tilting her head. "Or would you like to join in on the fun?"
"I'd hardly call this fun," Lysithea muttered bitterly.
"I had a question," Dimitri said, "but it can wait. Have you made progress on your hypothesis, Linhardt?"
"I have, in fact." Linhardt gestured vaguely to Flayn, whose brow furrowed when all eyes fell on her. "Flayn has confirmed that she does indeed have a Crest. Meaning, of course, that it is possible that she was the target the whole time."
"I regret if my presence is what caused this misfortune to happen," Flayn said, holding her hands to her chest. "I am unable to say what might have happened to me if I had been captured, but I am certain it would not be a pretty fate. That is why I want to aid you, all of you, as best I can."
"That is very kind of you, Flayn," Dimitri said.
"Linhardt is implying that Claude is dead," Ignatz said, sounding a little miserable.
"I am saying that it is more than likely, given the reports from Myrddin, that his blood was forcibly taken," Linhardt said calmly. "I did not say how, or if that might be lethal."
"The way you talk about it," Lysithea said coolly, "Claude might as well be dead anyway. He's not a person to you, just a hypothetical case study."
"I can only speak hypothetically," Linhardt said, "without a body to study."
"There you go again!" Lysithea scowled.
"Lysithea is right," Ignatz said softly. "You… do have a way of acting rather flippantly about people's lives, Linhardt."
"Am I the only one worrying about Edelgard?" Annette asked, sounding more than a little panicked. "How do we know that the blood that was found was Claude's anyway? Oh no, what if they're both dead?"
"They both could just as easily be alive!" Ashe patted Annette's shoulder consolingly. "Right, Linhardt?"
"That is hard to determine at this point," Linhardt said. "Annette has a point that the... blood in the basin could have been Edelgard's, but we know for a fact that Claude was unconscious when he was dragged out of those woods."
"Is it a fact if you only have eye witness testimony?" Ignatz asked curiously.
"Ooh, that's a good question," Ashe gasped. "What makes a fact a fact?"
"Evidence, obviously," Annette said quickly. "But now I'm worried and confused. Thanks, Ashe."
"Have we even talked about what the kidnappers might use this blood for?" Ignatz shook his head. "I'm still a bit unsure on that part."
"Intense Crest research can be done using blood, unfortunately" Linhardt said. "If one has the tools and the ability, they can do incredible things."
A book slammed shut, and Annette squeaked in surprise. Lysithea had stood up from the table, stuffed her book into her bag, and shot one last furious glare at Linhardt before stomping out of the library.
"Is… she okay?" Ashe asked worriedly.
"I can go after her," Annette gasped.
"No." Byleth shook her head. "You all stay. Dimitri?"
She was already sweeping toward the door, her sleeves trailing behind her. She barely cast a glance back at him to make sure he was following. He caught up to her in a few quick steps.
"What is it about Linhardt that makes her act like this?" Dimitri asked, grimacing. "She is more than rational, usually, and when she steps out of line she will often apologize. Never with Linhardt, though."
"Linhardt might be the one who is stepping out of line."
"He…" Dimitri sighed, rubbing his head. "He can be insensitive. That is for certain."
Byleth did not reply. She kept walking briskly, and Dimitri matched her brisk pace, peering down at her. She did not seem fazed by any of this, which was curious. He wondered if she actually knew anything about Hubert and Hilda, or if Dimitri was growing paranoid.
Something about her vacant expression unnerved him. Her eyes were blank, even when she was clearly concerned. Dimitri never knew how to feel about her, yet he trailed after her like a lost puppy and was at her beck and call consistently.
"I suppose it might be the talk of Crests that gets her riled up," Dimitri said thoughtfully.
Dimitri eyed Byleth. He had to wonder if she knew something he didn't.
They found Lysithea in her room. Byleth knocked before entering, but she did enter without waiting for a reply nonetheless. Lysithea was at her desk, and she looked up as they entered, her jaw slackening. Her nose was a bit rosy.
"Professor," she said, her shoulders slumping. "And… Dimitri. I expect you are here to scold me."
"None of that." Dimitri closed the door behind him gently. "We came to see if you were alright is all."
"No," Byleth said, "I am pretty sure I came to scold you."
Dimitri gaped at her, but when he noticed the corner of Lysithea's lips turn up, he realized Byleth was joking. It was so hard to tell sometimes.
"While I am sure you both came expecting some explanation for my behavior," Lysithea sighed, "I am afraid I really cannot give any. Linhardt… he just frustrates me. I cannot keep my head around him."
"It's okay," Dimitri told her gently. "Sometimes anger gets the best of us, and we cannot help but lash out irrationally. You hardly even lashed out. It is not a crime to make your displeasure known, and it is hardly uncalled for that you left. Even if you did so a bit dramatically."
"I just hate the way he talks about Claude," Lysithea said. "And Crests. Stupid Crests. Like there's nothing else in the world! I wish he understood that there is so much more to being alive than obsessing over something so destructive."
"I cannot speak to his Crest obsession, but it seems the rumor has spread that Claude is dead." Dimitri folded his arms across his chest. "I wonder how that happened."
"Linhardt does not understand if something is a secret unless explicitly told." Lysithea scowled. "He is oblivious to such things. Petra might have let it slip accidentally. Did you tell Hilda?"
"No," Dimitri said carefully, "I did not. She seemed upset at the time, and I did not want to make things worse."
"Oh," Lysithea said, rolling her eyes. "You definitely made it worse by not telling her. She probably figured it out immediately."
"I actually came to ask the Professor about this, but I am pleased to ask you as well." Dimitri glanced between the two of them. Byleth folded her arms across her chest expectantly. "Are Hilda and Hubert conspiring against me, or am I being paranoid?"
"Hilda and…?" Lysithea wrinkled her nose. "Why?"
"I saw them together. They were talking, and it… felt very much directed toward me."
Byleth cupped her chin thoughtfully.
"They are in love," Byleth said, "clearly."
"Something helpful, Professor," Dimitri begged, "please."
At that, Byleth shrugged.
"Hubert thinks you are responsible for the disappearances," she said flippantly. "He is trying to convince Hilda, most likely. We will prove him wrong."
"Hubert thinks it's Dimitri now?" Lysithea huffed. "Can he make up his mind? And Hilda is actually listening to his— his— utter lies."
"Bullshit," Byleth supplied lightly, "if you will."
"Yes," Lysithea sniffed, "that. And— and— you know that Hilda probably doesn't even believe it, too, she is just feeling hopeless and desperate, which I understand, because I miss Claude too, but Hubert is half a madman when it comes to Edelgard! He's rude and he's horrid, and— oh, if he touches her!"
"If anyone can deal with Hubert," Dimitri said to Lysithea gently, "it is Hilda. Come now, Lysithea, please don't cry."
"I'm not crying!" Lysithea shouted, fat tears streaking her pale face. "I'm angry. I am so angry! I do not understand why Hilda would listen to such a wretched person. Are you sure they were speaking? Perhaps Hilda was toying with him. I— I— I am not crying, I am just angry—"
Her voice broke, and her lower lip trembled. Byleth blinked rapidly, her brows furrowing in concern. Yet she made no move to help the poor girl, whose shoulders rattled at she sobbed into her hands.
Dimitri dropped to one knee before Lysithea, and he peered up at her.
"You are allowed to be angry," he said. "That is within your right. I only wonder if you know who you are truly angry at."
"I—!" Lysithea's small voice cracked. "I… I don't know. I don't know. I just know that I am angry, and I am not… not s-some fragile thi-i-ing. I swear."
"I believe you." Dimitri offered her a gentle smile. "Sometimes, when you work yourself too hard, when you leave yourself little room for your emotions to run free, they will build up inside you. I do not think you are weak or fragile for crying, Lysithea. I think that you have overworked yourself, and your body does not know how to handle all of this stress. You are merely feeling too many emotions at once, and… perhaps the anger that you feel is at yourself for feeling too much and becoming vulnerable."
Lysithea raised her head shakily, and she sniffled as she stared at him in disbelief.
"No one's ever put it like that before," she mumbled, hiccupping a bit. "I-is that true? Or are you making stuff up to make me feel better?"
"This happens to me sometimes," Dimitri told her, staring into her eyes to drive his point home. "I overwhelm myself, and I have to cry it out. I usually time it well enough that I am alone… and perhaps you knew it was coming, since you hid in your room. I apologize for intruding if that was the case."
"You cry?" Lysithea gave a hollow laugh. "I find that hard to believe."
"I cry all the time." Dimitri offered her a small smile. "There is no shame in that, is there?"
"Crying…" Lysithea hiccupped again. "It just… it feels so immature."
"I think you are being too hard on yourself." Dimitri shook his head. "Anyone who thinks you are being childish for crying clearly has not faced the kinds of hardships those of us who have been through real battles have. And even if you have never seen bloodshed in your life, I find it hard to believe that some people just do not cry. If anything, I think it is very adult to recognize that you are overwhelmed and allow yourself to cry about it."
"Y-yeah?" Lysithea sniffled. "You think so?"
"I do." Dimitri smiled up at her. "May I give you a hug, Lysithea?"
That made her falter. Her shoulders were still shaking, and she scowled for a moment. Then she sighed, and she nodded.
"Alright," she said. "But it's not because I need a hug, or— or anythi-ing like that. You asked, so I-I shall allow it."
"Thank you." Dimitri scooted a bit closer, still on his knees, and he wrapped his arms around Lysithea's tiny frame. She practically melted against him, gripping his cape and burying her face in his shoulder. He hoped that if Claude were here, he would do the same in Dimitri's position.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Byleth staring at them. She stood awkwardly, looking dazed and unsure what to say or do.
Dimitri had not consulted her about her own feelings on crying, and she did not offer any insights.
Edelgard's skin was peeling.
Though Edelgard was no stranger to heat, she was not used to being in the sun from sunrise to sunset, and her skin paid the price for that. She sat glumly in their shared little storeroom, wincing a bit when she brushed her sensitive nose.
She envied Claude, whose skin seemed to soak in the sun graciously. His face had gotten darker, and this only made his green eyes more striking. Somehow, despite everything, Claude seemed to be in his element. He had integrated himself into the crew seamlessly, and Kala often asked him to come to her cabin during the day. Edelgard thought she might fancy him.
When she asked this, still nursing her reddened face, Claude laughed at her.
"You still don't understand," he said.
"What am I not understanding?"
"Forget it." Claude kicked off his boots and rolled into his hammock. "If you haven't realized by now, even after I've spelled it out for you, I'm not going to tell you."
Edelgard tried to be more attentive, but she found it hard the more she was exposed to the sun. The tip of her nose had turned a blistering red, and she tried to ignore it while she tipped the ruler of the star-taker tentatively.
Dana, thankfully, did not tease her for her sunburn. Claude had been right about him, for the most part. He was quiet not because he was especially mean, but because he was merely a man of few words. When he did hold a conversation with Edelgard, he told her about places he had been and jobs that he had had. He had been a musician once. A barkeep. A stable boy. A courtier. Edelgard did not believe that last one.
"Sit in the shade, little El," Dana said, plucking the compass from her hands. "You may believe whatever you wish. It does not change the truth."
"I don't want to sit in the shade," Edelgard argued, feeling impudent and childlike as she turned over the nickname in her mind. Little El. This man knew so little about her, and yet he called her El. It was odd. "I can still help you. Allow me to do the calculations."
"We are done with that for today." Dana waved her off. "Go below deck or sit in the shade. If you fall over into the sea, I will not come save you."
Now that caught her attention. After all, things had been going smoothly enough that if she worked hard enough, most of the time she could just pretend they were not sailing on an open ocean. She could forget about the ocean spray, even as it hit her face and lit her burnt skin on fire, and she could forget the depths of the sea if she just looked at the stars on a golden disk.
So Edelgard sat glumly in the shadier portion of the deck, watching the crew shuffle by. According to Dana, they would reach Aksis before nightfall, spend two or three days resting, and then make their journey back to Fódlan. There was no mention of a ransom yet, but Kala wasn't exactly very secretive about her motivations. It made sense, and Edelgard did not blame the woman for taking advantage of a lucrative situation. If Edelgard and Claude were prisoners here, they were incredibly well-kept prisoners.
Dana believed that they would be back home within the week, if the weather permitted it.
Edelgard was not one to pray, but she was more than a little eager to wish for fair weather.
Something fell upon her head while she stared out onto the horizon, and she blinked rapidly as her view of the sea was obscured. She lifted the wide brim of the suede hat and frowned up at Claude, who had snuck behind her while she'd been daydreaming.
"What's this?" she demanded.
Claude shrugged. "Call it a gift," he said, "for my lady."
Claude winked at her, and if they were not on the deck, she knew he would have stuck out his tongue and laughed in her face.
Then, as quickly as he'd come, he disappeared back into the throng of crewmates.
It did not take her long to realize how much the hat actually helped. Her face stung, but the sun did not hit it directly, and she went back to Dana with a head held high and a thirst for knowledge pushing her forward. He glanced at her, rolled his eyes, and told her to read out the time.
By now, looking at the star-taker for as many hours as she had, she did it without an issue.
When they finally made it to land, Edelgard wanted to weep. The moment Dana spotted land through his spyglass, she exhaled shakily, and he offered the spyglass to her wordlessly so she could see the strip of land for herself.
Noah, the Quartermaster, was the one who rounded Claude and Edelgard up before they anchored.
"You two would be wise to keep close," he said. "Kala is extending as much kindness as she can spare, and kindness is not cheap in our trade. Go under fake names while you are here, if you must. Say you joined the crew. But do not, under any circumstances think you can get off the island without us."
"Aye-aye," Claude said a few minutes later, when they were alone. He said this with a dramatic roll of his eyes. "Do they think we're fools?"
"A spoiled princess and her witless servant," Edelgard said mockingly. "Of course, you know they don't. Dana would not teach me if he thought I was stupid. You… must have been very convincing."
"I just told him the truth," Claude said. "That you're a smart girl, and a fast learner. Almyrans are eager teachers, so I knew he'd teach you if I pushed the topic enough. And look how well that turned out! Now who's the genius?"
"Is that how you learned the language?" she asked curiously. "From an Almyran?"
Claude looked surprised at this question, perhaps because she had entirely ignored his compliments.
"Yes," he said. He did not give any indication how he felt about that, or if he had any feelings at all in that moment.
"Even though Almyra is the Alliance's enemy?"
Claude considered her for a moment, and he offered her a shrug.
"You'd be surprised," he said, "how simple things can be when you don't think about stuff like that all the time. Perhaps Almyra is the Alliance's enemy. Shall I condemn every individual with Almyran blood for deigning to come from my so-called enemy?"
"It's not exactly so-called if said countries have a long history of animosity," Edelgard pointed out.
"The Adestrian Empire was at war with Brigid," Claude reminded her. "Yet you seem to enjoy Petra's company fine."
"That's different," Edelgard said hastily, though even as she spoke she knew she was wrong and he would prove her wrong.
"She—" Edelgard glared at her feet. Stupid Claude. Stupid Edelgard for not thinking before answering. "We are not at war any longer."
"Neither are the Alliance and Almyra."
"And you have an Almyran in your house?"
"I've been trying," Claude said with a huff. "Cyril, remember?"
"Oh, yes," Edelgard said. "How could I forget our conversation about indoctrination?"
"Perhaps we need more people like you to think about it thoroughly," Claude murmured. He seemed to consider what he said, and then he laughed. "Not that it matters, anyway, since Cyril will never believe that Rhea could have brainwashed him. Anyway, I have to go help with the sails."
He was gone before she could fully process what he'd said.
Could we both wish for the Church's downfall, she thought, and not realize that we want the same thing?
Yet she knew it was too dangerous to ask. Even if he said yes, even if he agreed with all of her ideas, he would still have too much stake in the Church of Seiros due to his position in the Alliance. She could not risk her own neck or her own plans for the sake of a possible ally, even if that meant possibly getting Byleth on her side.
But she could not think too hard about such things.
She made it onto the island before Claude. Kala had her taken to a tavern, and on that tavern's second floor, Edelgard had the longest bath of her life. Partially due to how incredibly dirty she was, and partially because it felt so nice to be clean. The clothes that had been left out for her were threadbare and coarse, but they were clean, so Edelgard had no complaints. There was a long shirt that she thought perhaps was meant to act as a nightgown, and now that the sun had set, she was keen to go to sleep.
"Would you ever have the consideration of releasing Shapur from your service?" Kala asked suddenly.
That surprised Edelgard, who had been coming out her hair. She stopped to glance up at Kala as she stood by the door.
"Release?" Edelgard frowned at that. "He is not my slave. He does not serve me because I forced him to. If you have something to say, perhaps you should say it to him."
Kala looked momentarily stunned. Then, with a smirk, she nodded.
"My apologies," she said. "You will understand my… skepticism, let us say, that he would serve you without question. Yet you two have a bond. I do not understand."
"Do you care for your Quartermaster?" Edelgard asked.
"Noah?" Kala nodded once. "I see where you are heading with this. You suggest the bond is similar?"
She thought about Hubert's unflinching loyalty when she nodded. He wondered what he'd think if he could see her now, inching closer and closer to trusting Claude, of all people.
He would likely be furious.
"Ah." Kala smiled. "I see. If that is how it is, then I will leave you both."
She was not entirely sure what she meant by that until Claude appeared half an hour later, his hair still damp as it curled against his forehead and ears. He stood in the doorway a moment, eyed the single bed that Edelgard had already made herself comfortable one, and he jerked a thumb behind him.
"I'll go ask about a different room," he said, turning away.
Edelgard opened her mouth, not really sure what to say. He disappeared, and she looked down at the bed, puzzled and wondering if it was rude of her to take up the entire thing. After all, two people could easily fit. Three people could, even, if they were small enough, and laid sideways.
When Claude returned, he looked a bit sheepish. He closed the door behind him.
"I'll sleep on the floor," he said.
"Claude…" Edelgard was glad she had decided to put on the pair of black trousers that had been left to her as she tossed her legs over the side of the bed. "I appreciate your concern for my modesty, but we have been sleeping in the same room for well over a week. Do you truly wish to sleep on the floor again?"
"It's not a rickety old boat, now is it?" Claude was already situating himself on the floor. "I've slept in worse places. Just… toss me a blanket, will you?"
Edelgard felt more than a little guilty as she reached over toward the end of the bed and gathered up an itchy woolen blanket in her arms. As she passed it to Claude, her guilt overwhelmed her.
"I can sleep on the floor," she said, pulling the blanket back. "I don't mind. I've also slept in worse places, and I can—"
"Are we really going to argue about this?" Claude was grinning up at her from his place on the floor. "This? Of all things? We really cannot agree on anything, can we?"
"I don't think," Edelgard said stiffly, "that I care for your gentleman act. I am perfectly capable of sleeping on the floor."
"I'm not trying to be a gentleman," Claude said. "You got to the bed first."
"Why don't you give up?" Edelgard muttered. When Claude tore the blanket from her hand, she yelped. "Seriously, Claude?"
"A boy's gotta sleep, my lady," he laughed.
"Do not call me that," Edelgard snapped, grappling for a pillow and flinging it into his face. He fell over at that. "And stop laughing! Stop that! I am not your lady, not now, not ever. I will be your friend, though, if it will keep you from acting like an utter fool."
"No promises," Claude said, albeit weakly. He folded his legs beneath him, and it took him a minute to speak again as he plucked at the yarn of the scratchy wool blanket. "Do you actually consider me a friend now?"
"At the moment?" Edelgard swallowed hard. "Yes."
"And in the future?"
"Claude," she sighed, feeling exhausted and needing him to stop while he was ahead. "That's… not a fair question."
"I think it's completely fair."
"I think," Edelgard said, "that you are dodging the real issue. I, for one, have no problem sharing a bed with a friend. Granted, you must keep to your side, and if you touch me while you sleep, I cannot guarantee the safety of your limbs."
Claude looked up at her, and she thought that she might have truly, deeply shocked him for a moment. Then, he laughed, and that seemed like a dream in itself.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I really don't mind the floor."
"Okay, okay." Claude gripped the pillow she threw, and the blanket. "Relax, jeez."
Edelgard scooted over to the far side of the bed, thinking about how silly it was that they'd argued over this in the first place. If it had been anyone else, save perhaps Sylvain, Edelgard would not have allowed the conversation to devolve into a meaningless argument. She would have ended things succinctly, because that was usually easy. Yet with Claude, everything was a staged Drama, and they were the leading players.
"Will you turn out the light?" Edelgard asked.
"You don't want to stay up and swap spooky stories?" Claude teased her, carrying the oil lamp to the bedside table. "I've got some good ones. Lysithea nearly cried when I told her one of them."
"If I can avoid having nightmares," Edelgard said, "I will do so happily, thank you."
Claude shrugged, as if he had not seen first hand what her nightmares could do.
"Suit yourself," he said. Then, without a word, he leaned close to the oil lamp and extinguished the flame with a sharp exhale.
The dagger looked the same. It was strange, holding its onyx hilt in his palm again. He twirled the point of it over the desk, and wondering why Edelgard had kept it all these years. It was almost a relief, having proof of that time with her, since she seemed entirely too eager to forget it.
What would he do if he could not find her? What would happen to them all if two out of three of the future leaders of Fódlan disappeared forever?
There was a short knock on the door, and Dimitri gazed at the dagger for a long moment before sighing.
It was time to get on with this, he supposed.
The door opened without waiting for a reply, something that had been discussed prior to this… gambit. Lysithea strolled in, Hilda on her heels, and the moment Hilda locked eyes with him, her smile seemed to stutter. She blinked rapidly.
"Dimitri," she gasped, looking the dormitory curiously. "Where… where's the Professor?"
Dimitri stared at her levelly. This would be difficult. He had known that the minute Lysithea had suggested it, and yet the temptation of cornering Hilda and forcing her to confess was too great for him to resist. So here he sat, judging the girl before him with harsh eyes, turning her own friends against her, and he wondered if he was exactly the monster she feared him to be.
"That will be all, Lysithea," Dimitri said, ignoring the flicker of shock in Hilda's eyes as she turned slowly to face her small friend. Lysithea's owl eyes met Hilda's, and if she felt guilty, she did not show it. She gripped the doorknob with white knuckles, nodded once, and closed the door as she left.
Hilda folded her hands at her skirt, blinking at Dimitri with a small, tight smile.
"What is this about?" she asked. Her eyes slid from his face to the dagger in his hands. "Oh, is that tea? May I have some?"
"Of course." Dimitri set the dagger down and busied his hands with the teapot beside him. Lysithea had anticipated Hilda's nerves, and told him to keep tea nearby. Byleth had confirmed this, and even procured Hilda's favorite for him. It was a strong rose petal blend that immediately hit his nose upon pouring. It smelled almost like a lady's perfume. That was interesting. "Why don't you sit?"
Hilda hurried to Byleth's bed, sitting at the edge of it and watching him carefully. She was nervous, he knew, and that was… unfortunate.
"Here you are," Dimitri said, handing over a saucer and cup gently. It was from one of Byleth's sets, and the lip of the cup was trimmed in gold. Hilda gripped it gingerly. "I believe you know why you are here."
Hilda smiled down at her tea bitterly.
"You know," she said, "no offense, but I did not think you were smart enough to devise a scheme like this to corner me. It is rather…" She eyed him curiously. "Unlike you?"
"It was not my plan," he admitted.
"I knew it!" Hilda grinned to herself, clearly outweighing her own self-satisfaction over her discomfort. "Was it the Professor? Honestly, she and Claude are two of a kind."
"It was Lysithea," Dimitri admitted, "actually."
"Really?" Hilda hummed softly to herself, and she took a sip of her tea. "Wow. I'm so proud of her."
"You were rather nervous just a minute ago," Dimitri said uncomfortably.
"Yes, well…" Hilda shrugged. "As offended as I am that Lysithea turned traitor, I admire that she was able to trick me. I really did not suspect a thing! And it was her idea to set me up to meet you here? Color me impressed."
"I'm glad you're not angry with her," Dimitri said, relaxing a bit. "It made me nervous, that I might be putting a rift between friends."
"Oh, no harm done," Hilda said, balancing her saucer on her knee and waving him off. "Unless you decide to use that dagger. Then you might regret a whole lot of decisions."
"Huh?" Dimitri glanced down at Edelgard's dagger, which he had been idly toying with. "Ah. My apologies. You see, I gave this dagger to Edelgard."
Hilda looked puzzled for a moment. "Oh?" she said.
"When we were children," Dimitri said hastily. "I… doubt she really thinks of it often. I did not realize she kept it. But knowing that she did means a lot to me. I… care about her, and I feel responsible for her in a way." With a deep breath, he turned fully to face Hilda, his jaw set. "Which is why I need you to know that I would never do anything to hurt her. It is upsetting that you would go behind my back and listen to the paranoid mutterings of Hubert, who has never and will never like me, over your friends, classmates, and professor."
Hilda actually winced at that. She lifted her teacup to her mouth, and she said nothing in her defense.
Dimitri sighed, knowing this would only get more difficult, and he poured himself a cup of tea. He dragged the saucer closer to him, stared at the bottom of his cup, and he slumped.
"You have about ten minutes to tell me why," he said heavily, "before Dorothea brings Hubert. So please, Hilda, explain to me. Why would I hurt Dimitri and Claude?"
She stared at him over her teacup, and then set it down carefully on its saucer. Setting it aside gently, she smoothed out her skirt, and she lifted her chin up high.
"I don't want to believe that you would," she said firmly. "Personally, I thought that it was unlikely that it would be you. At first."
"And then we found the blood in the basin," Dimitri murmured, cupping his chin. "Yes, I can see how that might be disconcerting."
"You might care deeply for Edelgard," Hilda said with a shrug. "You might even love her. That does not mean you extend the same courtesy to Claude. It's not like I want to believe you're actually an evil mastermind, or anything, but you have to admit it is suspicious that you're the only heir apparent of Fódlan left."
Of course it was suspicious. He had been wondering about it for days, trying to parse out if this was all just a terrible coincidence, or if someone was really trying to frame him. Was it merely misfortune that had brought Edelgard and Claude together on such an occasion that they both might be outmatched? Dimitri could not say.
"I recognize that." Dimitri thumbed the handle of his teacup. It was gilded, like the trim of the lip. "I also recognize that you are smart, despite all your laziness. I cannot blame you for blaming me, if that is what you choose to do, and I cannot miraculously prove you wrong and produce Claude and Edelgard. I can, however, give you my word, on my honor, on my crown, on my very life that I did not harm either. Nor did I plot to endanger their lives."
Hilda wet her lips with her tongue, her expression drawn and her eyes flitting away. She seemed unsure, perhaps even desperate.
"I want to believe you," she said, squeezing her eyes shut. "I really, really do."
"And if you don't," Dimitri sighed, "I suppose I will have to live with it. Hate me for the rest of your life. But please, tell me to my face. If I have made an enemy, I would rather be aware of it than have to step on egg shells until the end of my days."
"I'd hardly hold a grudge until the end of your days," Hilda said cheekily. "Perhaps when your future heir replaces you, my wrath will be quelled."
Hilda held a straight face for approximately three seconds before bursting into a fit of giggles. It was an infectious sort of laugh, and certainly a real one. Dimitri could not help but chuckle along with her.
"I really do not want to believe it is you," she said earnestly. "But I can't exactly… minimize my options here. If Claude is… gone…" With a deep breath that shuddered through her whole body, she shook her head. "If he's gone, that means that we— the Alliance— are back to square one. Lorenz could become our leader, and he's already begun to fulfill more than his fair share of duties in that way, but…"
"Lorenz is not Claude." Dimitri nodded. He paused, thought on it for a moment, and then he smacked his fist against his palm. "Oh! Why don't you do it?"
"Me?" Hilda wrinkled her nose. "That… would be too much work. I don't want to."
"No sane man wants a kingdom," Dimitri said. "You are more than qualified, I'd say. And, if I may, you are more personable than Lorenz. And more likely to step down in the event that Claude does resurface."
That struck her interest. She leaned back against the bed, frowning at the ceiling.
"So I would be an interim leader?" Hilda groaned. "Dimitri, what are you trying to do to me? If this were anything else, I'd get you to do it, if you're so keen on it, but obviously that is not possible."
"Just think on it." Dimitri smiled at her. "And please, for the goddess's sake, stop scheming with Hubert."
"Aha…" Hilda rubbed the back of her head. "Noted. What will you say to him?"
"The truth." Dimitri glanced down at his teacup. "Not that he'll believe it."
"I will stay for it, then," Hilda said, picking up her tea once more.
"So he doesn't hex you inside out and fill Byleth's pretty teapot with your blood," Hilda said, taking a sip. "How did you know this was my favorite blend, by the way? It was the Professor, wasn't it? She's so sly about these things. I didn't even tell her, she just knows!"
Dimitri of course was still imagining getting hexed inside out.
When Dorothea appeared at the door, she did not knock. In fact, she burst in, her hair askew and her hat long gone. At the sight of her frantic appearance, Dimitri jumped to his feet.
"Dorothea?" Hilda gaped from her seat. "Are you… alright…?"
"It's Manuela," Dorothea gasped. "Dimitri, she's been attacked and I think— I think it was Professor Jeritza!"
The boat was taking in water. She couldn't move, she couldn't think, she could only feel the rising water as it licked her ankles. Alone, in this boat, there was nothing but the inky blackness of the sea and the starless sky above.
Then, a hand shot out of the water. She screamed, lurching away from it as it clapped against the side of her small boat, bloated and sickly pale. Cracked, blackened nails scraped against the wood. Another hand smacked at the board beside her, scratching ceaselessly. Then another, and then another, until the hands were grappling at her. They snatched her dress, yanked on her hair, slithered against her neck, and she screamed and thrashed as they hooked themselves around her and dragged her backwards into the sea.
El, they cried. El, come back to us. Come back, come back, come back.
She awoke to a pair of hands around her wrists.
Half sitting up off a lumpy bed, she coughed and sputtered, still wriggling away from the sight of hands.
"Edelgard," Claude's voice cut through her reverie, and the dream settled into the back of her mind like another bad memory boxed away. "Deep breaths, okay? Come on, don't look at me like that. With me now. In." He sucked in a deep breath, and he waited for her to imitate. She did, shaky and unsure. "Out. Again. In, out. In, out."
After her breathing was somewhat regulated, Claude released her wrists. She fell onto her elbows, blinking rapidly.
"I'm sorry," she murmured.
"Don't be." Claude looked down at her, and she could not even wonder if he was being genuine. He looked concerned, even in the dark, and he folded his legs beneath him. "Do I look bothered?"
"It's rather dark…"
Claude managed a chuckle at that. "Here." He tossed the scratchy wool blanket over her. "How about we bundle you up so no monsters can get you. What do you say?"
The idea that she might be haunted by monsters like a child amused her.
"I am sweaty enough, thank you," she said, peeling the blanket off her and throwing it back over his head. "Also, if the temperature of your toes is anything to go by, you need that more than I do."
"Oop!" Claude winced a bit. "Sorry. Did I kick you?"
"Only a dozen times."
"You said you didn't mind," he reminded her. "I can go sleep on the floor, I really don't have a problem with it."
"No." Edelgard was surprised with how aggressively that came out. Claude seemed to be too, because his mouth fell open momentarily before he grinned at her. "I— I appreciate it, you know. That you wake me when I…"
"Scream?" Claude's smile was thin and tired. "I can do that from the floor."
"I will not have this argument again," Edelgard said firmly. "Lie down and go back to sleep, Claude."
"As you wish," he said, his voice light and mocking.
"Say 'my lady,' and you will sleep much farther down than the floor, I swear to you."
But Claude was already asleep again. She did not know how he'd done it, but his head had hit the pillow, and he was out cold. It took some tossing and turning before Edelgard could fully succumb to sleep, and once she did, she was in a boat, hands grappling at her, pinching her skin, and she felt water flooding her mouth as she screamed. The hands were wet and clammy, and the skin was sloughing off them as they snatched her by the arms, by the neck, by the waist, and yanked her down into the depths of the ocean. She could not breath, she could not think, she could not speak.
They held onto her, and they cried.
Save me, El, they sobbed, pulling her down, pulling her close. She saw their faces in the depths, and she could not sob with them. Her mouth was open, and bubbles rose rapidly from her lips.
Save me, El. Save me, save me, save me!
She could not save them. She could only scream—
This time, she clutched the sleeves of Claude's shirt, tears in her eyes.
"Don't," she choked. "Don't."
"Don't what?" Claude murmured.
"Don't," she rasped, squeezing her eyes shut, "let me fall asleep. Not again. Not after that."
Claude nodded, perhaps not truly grasping what she was asking. But, then, had he not asked the same thing of her, that first night?
"Okay," Claude said, laying a gently hand against her forearm until she relaxed her grip on him. "Okay. Let's talk."
"No." She couldn't. She just couldn't think right now. "You talk. I'll listen."
"That's not exactly going to help you stay awake."
"I'm curious, you're prolific." She sniffed, wiping her nostrils and the ridge of her nose hastily. "Just… go on. I can listen."
"What should I talk about?" Claude tilted his head. "I'm kinda all out of stories. I gave you my best ones during our last all night vigil."
"Tell me about you, then."
"Ehh…" Claude made a strange face, and she glared at him. "What? What is that look for?"
"I just cried in front of you," she said coolly. "Not many people get the privilege of seeing that. Tell me about yourself, Claude. I think we are at that point by now."
"Well, fine, then." Claude wrapped the wool blanket around his shoulders, and bundled himself up so only a few wisps of his truly unruly brown hair peeked through. "Shall I tell you about my introduction to poisons? That's always a fun one."
"Okay." Claude readjusted himself so his feet were beneath him. "I guess I should start with… well, my mother is a daughter of House Riegan. I didn't come from nowhere, obviously. I know people question my legitimacy, but… you know, Crests are a nuisance, but I am relieved I have blood proof that I'm not a lying upstart vying for Duke Riegan's seat. Anyway, my mother is a Riegan but my father… he's…" Claude licked his lips. "He's just something else entirely, isn't he? When I was very small, he used to—" Claude laughed, looking a little sheepish as he bundled himself tighter in his blanket. "He used to call me Claude Soft-heart. Like… 'Oh, looks like Claude Soft-heart has found a pet toad. Will Claude Soft-heart grace his gloomy father with a song? A dance? Claude Soft-heart, come here, I am going to shoot this apple off your head.'" He sank a bit, a laugh bubbling in his throat.
"It's possible," Claude said with a smirk. "You just need to be very skilled. Which, of course, my father is."
"Did he teach you archery?" she asked curiously.
"Not… entirely." Claude's smirk fell into a grimace. "It's complicated. But that's not the point. I have not always been the handsome tactical genius as you so eloquently put that you see before you."
"When I was little," Claude said, "I was actually quite trusting and naïve. There was a reason for the nickname. I liked talking to people, but people didn't… really like talking to me. So I got terribly lonely, and anyone who sat still for long enough was, to my five year old eyes, a friend."
Edelgard pulled her knees to her chest and watched him with a frown. He seemed to grow only more somber.
"A man came," he said. "He found me playing in a garden. I remember I was babbling to the flowers about… some war, I think, that I'd learned about that day. And the man heard, and he asked me about it." Claude shook his head furiously. "I was so desperate for… for anyone, really, to take notice. To listen to me. My parents were very busy, so as much as my father loved a good dance, and my mother a good story, they hardly had the time to entertain it. So when this man asked, I trusted him without question." Claude looked at her, as if to make sure she was still awake. When she nodded, he continued. "He told me that he had sweets from… from where my mother was from."
"The Riegan territory?" she asked.
"Yeah… basically. Um… I took them. And of course I fell helplessly ill." He laughed, like this was a joke to him. Edelgard could only stare. "It was pretty awful. I think it was supposed to be lethal, but slow. The healers could do nothing without an antidote, and we didn't know what the poison was. My father came… bursting into my room, just… demanding. He demanded to know who I'd talked to, what I'd eaten, what I'd said, why I'd been so foolish. I…" Claude's eyebrows twitched upward as he blinked down at his hands. "I don't know. Those few days are hazy. But I'd never seen my father act like that before. I remember, at one point, waking up… and I was in so much pain, but I could hear someone crying… and when I turned, I saw that it was my father." Claude pushed his blanket from his head, and he looked at Edelgard levelly. "Now, my father is not a small man. He's not an emotional one, either. I had never seen him cry once in my whole life, and I've never seen him cry since."
"He…" Edelgard was at a loss. She did not know what she had imagined Claude's childhood to be like, but lonely and loved were not two words she'd expected to align with him. "He must love you very much."
Claude did not respond to that. He averted his gaze, and he offered a shrug.
"When I saw him, I remember I tried to tell him it was okay. Like, 'Don't cry, B—Papa. I'll be okay, Papa.' Stuff like that." He sighed. "I think I might have died. Actually died. But of course, my mother is too stubborn to give up on anything, and she found the man who did it in time to get the antidote. Which is why you got the pleasure of meeting me."
"And now," she said, "you enjoy a good poison?"
"Oh." Claude looked sheepish, like he'd forgotten what he was saying. "Right. Yeah, that experience certainly put little Claude Soft-heart to bed. I ended up poisoning the man."
"He deserved it," Claude said with a frown.
"How did a five year old get his hands on the poisons to do that?" Edelgard asked.
"I made it?" Claude offered out his hands in another shrug. "Keep up, Edelgard."
"The more I learn about you," she muttered, "the more I think I was right to avoid you."
He laughed when she hit him with her pillow. He laughed, and then told a few more harmless stories. Most were about strange adventures he would have as a lonely child. Edelgard, strangely, found herself wondering if she would have been friends with him if they had met as children.
When she voiced this curiosity, he eyed her dully.
"I would have probably wanted to be your friend very badly," he admitted. "Though I'm not sure you would give me the time of day."
Claude smiled at her, and it was almost a secret smile.
"I just…" He shrugged. "I know. Okay?"
"Well," she said, "I think you're wrong."
And Claude's smile widened. That, at least, could be a comfort.
The next morning, after realizing they were left to their own devices, Claude and Edelgard began to explore the small port town on the island. It was, essentially, a village of pirates. Claude had no problem fitting in, and actually seemed to relish in interacting with some of the more unsavory characters of the town. Edelgard tipped her hat over her eyes to avoid making eye contact with men. Just men, in general, because she currently trusted no man on this island except, begrudgingly, Claude. And possibly Dana.
Claude's charisma turned out to be an incredible asset, however, because he returned to her with a small basket full of fresh fruit.
"Breakfast is served," he said, tossing a mango her way.
She caught it easily, eyeing him as his feet bounced carelessly along the dirt road.
"How did you manage to get these?" she asked. She still did not understand how he'd wrangled her hat from Michael.
"I helped the man selling them fix the umbrella over his stand," Claude said, looking all too proud of himself. "So he gave me a bunch of fruit to make up for it. See? I can be a helpful, upstanding citizen. Now let's go mess with some pirates."
They spent a decent chunk of the morning playing rather harmless tricks on people. Claude delighted himself with switching out flagons of beer with sea water and stuffing cannons with wildflowers. Edelgard trailed after him, half out of curiosity, half because she really had nowhere else to go.
By the time they made it down to the beach, their basket was filled with not only mangos, but fresh cut flowers.
"You look far too pleased," Edelgard said, toeing the sand while Claude merely plopped himself down without any regard for his clothing.
"I am," Claude said, "without a doubt, having the time of my life."
"Well," she said stiffly, "I'm glad you're having fun. I envy your carefree attitude."
"We are on an island where nobody knows us," Claude said. "Isn't that just a little bit freeing to you?"
"Huh." He studied her for a moment as she stood in the sun beside him. He had to crane his neck to look up at her. There was a breeze from the ocean that made her hold down her hat. Her hair, which had dried in uneven waves, fluttered against her cheeks. She'd left it unbound, and her ribbons remained around her wrist. When she met his eyes, he smiled a little.
"What?" she demanded.
Claude kicked off his boots, peeled off his socks, and Edelgard watched in mild horror as he rolled up the hem of his trousers. Then he leapt to his feet and offered her a hand.
"Come on," he said eagerly. "Let's go wade in the water!"
"What?" She lurched away from him, nearly tripping over her feet. "No. No way. You go, I'm staying right here."
"Really?" Claude's eyebrows shot up beyond his fluffy brown hair. The humidity and the fresh wash had caused it to curl tremendously, and he looked rather wild at the moment. "Are you sure? It's pretty hot."
"It is perfectly cool right here," Edelgard said, plopping herself down where she stood. The rush of waves spooked her, and she listened to it with a frown.
"Suit yourself," Claude said. Then he turned and ran at the sea like it was an old friend.
Edelgard could only sit and watch him skirt the edge of the ocean, never delving too far into it. She watched him bend multiple times, and she realized he was gathering seashells. She waited, baking in the sun, sweat gathering under her arms and at the small of her back, and she swallowed back her pride and her fear as she stood up. She dusted the sand off the back of her thighs, and she carefully removed her shoes and her socks before rolling up her trousers.
Her heart thudded hard in her chest as she approached him. She tried to act cool and calm as the water, which licked icily at her toes, sucked the ground beneath her into oblivion.
"Felt lonely, huh?" Claude held an odd piece of bluish green glass up to the sun, squinting through it.
"Please do not rub it in," she murmured, wiggling her toes against the wet sand. It was… a strange sensation, but not an unwelcome one. "I think that I have grown used to your constant prattling."
"You like me," Claude said, sounding vaguely astonished. Her mouth fell open, and she went to object, but realized how stupid that was. Instead, she turned her face away sharply. "Edelgard, don't turn away like that! Just admit it. Admit we're friends!"
"We are not friends," she said firmly.
"We are friends," Claude sang, his voice carrying a tune, to her surprise, "and you like me."
In her frustration, Edelgard moved to kick him, and instead watched as sea water sprayed across his dry trousers.
They both stared at the result of her kick, and when Edelgard saw the mischievous look that passed over Claude's face, she backed away slowly.
"Claude," she said, holding out her hands defensively. "Please, do not—"
"Oops!" Claude stepped deeper into the ocean and splashed her with a much greater amount of water than she had kicked him with. "My hands slipped!"
Angrily, without heeding her own fear, she took a step closer to him, and she pushed back as much water as he'd tossed at her.
He shrieked a bit, and that shriek became a laugh, and he splashed her again. Then it seemed they could not stop, and they were both splashing at the same time, and she realized she was laughing before she even recognized that she was not afraid anymore.
Until, of course, she realized she'd moved nearly waist deep into the ocean, and she froze.
Claude seemed to take this as a challenge. Without warning, he'd scooped her up, and it took her a moment to realize what was happening.
A shriek of pure terror fell from her lips as a tame wave brushed her back, and she flung her arms around Claude's neck.
"No!" she cried, digging her nails into the back of his neck, her hat and her hair squished between their cheeks so that he could not feel how warm hers were. She was entirely embarrassed, and ultimately terrified. "Claude, please no, don't drop me, I— I can't swim."
He gripped her for a moment, one arm under her knees and the other looped around her back.
"What?" he uttered, gripping her a little tighter as she buried her face in his shoulder. "Oh. Oh. Shit, okay."
And then they were moving backwards. All the while, Edelgard gripped the back of his neck like it was her only link to life. Claude set her down far enough from the water, and still she was digging crescent moons into the back of his neck, her breathing short and uneven. When she sucked in deep breaths, she could smell the scent of his skin, which was strange, and she dragged herself backwards.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled, untangling her arms from his neck and scooting away from him. Hot sand stuck to the backs of her calves. "If… you would be kind enough, could you not tell anyone about this?"
Claude's green eyes seemed to burn gold in the midday sun. He studied her face long enough that she knew he saw her blushing, and she pushed her hat down over her face.
"Tell anyone about what?" he asked. Then he winked.
At the very least, that made her relax. "You," she mumbled, "are insufferable."
She hugged her legs, too shaky to stand, and they sat in silence for a while staring at the ocean. Sometimes Claude glanced at her, but mostly he focused on the ocean.
"Your earring is gone," she realized, blinking at him. "Did… did you lose it in the ocean, or…?"
"Don't worry about that." Claude looked at her, and she saw how serious his expression was. That might have terrified her more than the water. "Why didn't you tell me earlier that you couldn't swim?"
"I'm surprised it wasn't obvious to you," she said coolly. "I've been scared of water this whole time. Did you really miss that?"
"I was kind of bleeding out the night when it would have been the most apparent, so…"
"Well," Edelgard said stiffly, "now you know."
"Now I know."
Edelgard stood. Her knees wobbled, and she ignored her anxiety, and she ignored her fear, and she ignored her embarrassment, and she ignored Claude.
She marched up the embankment of sand, and she did not look back.
"What," Dimitri gasped, stumbling to a stop in the doorway of Jeritza's room, "happened here?"
Manuela was sprawled across the white plush carpet. A bit of blood had pooled in the crevices of the white fabric, and he saw the small abrasion on her forehead that caused the mess. Beside Manuela, Marianne knelt carefully, her left and on a spellbook and her right hand drawing a circle in the air before pushing her palm out as though to resuscitate a man, and her magic visibly pulsated through the air as a rune appeared beneath her fingertips.
Dedue stood at her back, observing this with a frown.
"Marianne," Dorothea gasped, pushing past Dimitri and into the room. "Thank goodness. She's still breathing, right?"
"Yes." Marianne's small, timid voice shook a bit as she stared up at Dorothea. "I… have stopped the bleeding, I believe. But…"
"Jeritza seems to be missing," Dedue supplied carefully. "This passage was open when we got here."
"I know," Dorothea said, eyeing the open hole in the wall distrustfully. "Hubert went down to check it out while I ran to find help."
"Oh?" Marianne looked suddenly very worried. Her tired brown eyes flitted to the open passage fearfully. "Oh no…"
"What?" Dimitri asked her gently. He knew the girl well enough, often coming across her in the cathedral and chatting with her after they prayed. And because he talked to her often, he knew that she feared her luck had probably brought Hubert misfortune. "Marianne, if you're worried about Hubert, I'm sure he's fine. Honestly, he probably—"
"We sent Mercedes, Lysithea, Cyril, and Leonie," Marianne gasped, her eyes growing shadowy. She twisted, her fingers still grappling with her spell, and she looked up at Dedue. "If something has happened to them…"
"They are all quite strong," Dedue said. All the same, he gave her a curt nod. "I will go down and have a look myself, if that would assuage your concerns."
"I…" Marianne looked conflicted. "No, I—"
"I'll go as well," Dimitri said, stepping into the room. He did not like the idea of Hubert being alone with Mercedes or Lysithea, regardless of the actual threat. "If there is an actual threat down there, does it not make sense, tactically, to send us in, wouldn't it? A lance, a sword—"
"An axe," Hilda said firmly, rounding Jeritza's room and kicking open a chest at the foot of the man's bed. She retrieved a silver axe the size of her head, balanced it over her shoulder, and then bent down to drag a sword from within. "Dedue?"
"I have my own sword," Dedue said, blinking at Hilda in surprise. "But… you have my thanks."
Hilda shrugged. She eyed Dimitri. "There isn't a lance in here," she said.
"I have a sword as well," Dimitri said, laying his hand on the hilt of it. "Though I am more comfortable with a lance or a spear, this will do fine in a pinch."
"I'm taking this anyway." Hilda fastened the scabbard to her belt with one hand, her fingers working deftly. Then, faster than he'd ever seen her walk, she was at the hole in the wall and blinking back at them. "Are you all coming? Dorothea?"
"I'll stay here with Marianne and Manuela," Dorothea said, biting her lip.
"If you could," Dimitri sighed, "would you mind flagging down the professor?"
"Professor… Byleth?" Dorothea blinked, and then she nodded. "Yes, of course. Though I… do hope this is not that extreme that you might truly need her expertise."
"I hope so too."
It was Hilda who led them down the stairwell. She seemed to be a woman on a mission, axe in hand, utterly unshakeable.
"I'm worried about Cyril," Hilda admitted. "I've seen him on the battlefield, and… we often need to draw him back because of his inexperience. If something is wrong…"
"If they are in trouble," Dimitri said gently, "I am sure that Lysithea can cover Cyril. They are both long-range fighters, after all. And Mercedes may be very sweet, but she is not someone to be trifled with."
"I can believe that." Hilda glanced at Dedue. "What were all of you doing together? It seems like an unlikely group."
"You would be correct in assuming that all of us were not together at first," Dedue said cautiously. "I was gardening. Marianne and Mercedes happened to be there at the same time as me. They asked me to join them for dinner, and on the way we stumbled upon Lysithea, Cyril, and Leonie."
"And Mercedes, I imagine, invited them to dinner too?" Dimitri smiled fondly. "That sounds about right."
"When we found Manuela as she was," Dedue sighed, "Lysithea insisted they go into the passage. Cyril adamantly stood by her. I suggested against it."
"Wise man," Hilda said, bouncing off the last step and squinting at their surroundings. "Ugh, it's so dark. Where are all the lanterns—"
An arrow glanced Dedue's drawn sword, and it ricocheted off the ground. Hilda blinked, her mouth gaping for a moment as she looked down at Dedue's sword. It had shielded her from the stray arrow.
"Dedue," she gasped, "your reflexes are amazing!"
"Eyes front," Dedue murmured. "We have company."
Said company was, in fact, not friendly. The archer went down quickly by Hilda's hand, while Dimitri and Dedue focused on the more powerful grunts. It seemed almost too simple, until Dimitri became aware that the room that they were in was part of an elaborate maze.
Hilda wiped the blood from her cheek onto her sleeve, and she looked at the stain for a moment and looked utterly heartbroken.
"This is never gonna come out," she whined.
"Put a bit of lemon juice on it," Dedue told her comfortingly. "If it truly concerns you that deeply, I will fix it."
"Oh, no," Hilda gasped, "I couldn't possibly—"
"Are we beneath the monastery?" Dimitri cut in, turning about in place and peering at the odd panel inserted into the floor nearby. "It does not feel like we are in the same place."
"What?" Hilda glanced at him, her façade dropping as she looked around. "I don't feel anything different."
Dimitri could not place it. He stared at the panel in the ground, and he felt strangely drawn toward it. He took a step, and the moment his heel hit the panel, he felt a strange dragging sensation, as though the tile beneath him had been swept away by a wave, and suddenly he was staring at the back of Lysithea's fluffy white hair.
Out of the corner of his eye, a helmeted man dove at her, and Dimitri lurched forward. His sword clanged rather noisily against the brigand, and Lysithea yelped at the sound.
"Dimitri," she gasped, sounding strangely relieved.
With a hard kick, the man's head cracked against the tile. Dimitri tried to ignore the sound and the force behind it.
"Are you hurt?" he demanded, holding his sword above him as he eyed her. "Where is Cyril?"
"I don't know," she confessed, looking rather tired and worn down. "We got separated! I think he must be with Mercedes. Oh, look out!"
Another brigand, this one far bigger than the one Dimitri had kicked, dove at Dimitri. Before he could raise his blade, the man's head was consumed by an odd, thick ooze of darkness that curled along his neck. He made a garbled sound before his neck cracked, and he toppled over.
Lysithea blew a bit of hair from her eyes, and she banished the rune that she'd summoned with two fingers. The deep purple light it had emitted fluttered like a candle.
"I tried going back the way we came," she said, pointing to the strange tile behind them, "but it only works forwards. We were going to round the corner, but then we were attacked."
"I can cut us a path," Dimitri told her firmly. "Leonie!"
The redhead's eyes swiveled toward him as she stuck a sword into a man's neck. She clearly had forgotten her bow.
"Yeah?" she called back.
"You take the rear," he said, flicking the blood from his sword and striding forward. "Lysithea, stay between us. Destroy any man who seems too quick for either of us."
It was a fair enough strategy. It worked as he'd expected it to. Lysithea, he realized, was more than just competent with magic. She was rather frightening, and exceedingly powerful. He watched her obliterate a man without so much as blinking. It might have been disturbing if he had not seen worse things.
Eventually, after managing the maze and navigating through the tiles, they found themselves reunited with Dedue and Hilda.
"There you are!" Hilda huffed, looking a bit more disheveled than when he'd last seen her. Her pigtails had come loose, and her pink hair had fallen around her shoulders. "We found Hubert."
Said Hubert was tossed over Dedue's shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
"What happened to him?" Dimitri asked, trying his best not to laugh.
"Who knows?" Hilda shrugged. "We found him like that."
"Concussion," Dedue surmised.
"I see you found Lysithea and Leonie, though," Hilda said, visibly relaxing. "Good. That's good."
"That's all the Deer accounted for, then," Dimitri said, relieved.
"No," Lysithea snapped, "it's not! We still haven't found Cyril."
"Oh." Dimitri blinked, and he nodded to her apologetically. "I'm sorry. I did not count him because he is not technically a part of your class."
"He's Golden Deer," Lysithea said, her hands turning to fists at her sides. "He's a Deer through and through! Just because he doesn't take classes doesn't mean—"
"Um," Leonie said, "I'd hate to break up Lysithea's little rant, but there's a door over here, and I can see the Death Knight."
Dimitri exhaled sharply. Of course she did. Things could never be simple.
And of course, Lysithea was rushing forward, not heeding the danger that the Death Knight of all things presented. Dimitri rushed after her, knowing well enough by now that as powerful as she was, she could probably get taken down in one steady blow.
"Cyril?" Lysithea gasped, wavering in the doorway. Dimitri spotted the boy's limp body a few feet away, and he prayed that Cyril was merely unconscious. He could not think too hard about it, because Sylvain's words were burning inside his brain.
"Wait a minute—!" He could not stop Lysithea from darting forward, blasting through two mercenaries and skidding to her knees beside Cyril. "Lysithea…"
Before he could make his way to her side, he saw that Mercedes was standing before the Death Knight, and his entire objective changed. He stood frozen, his eyes widening as he watched Mercedes lift her hands gingerly to the Death Knight's skull mask.
The Death Knight slapped her hands away viciously, so hard that she cried out and stumbled backwards.
"Mercedes," Dimitri snarled, his fists gripping his sword with both hands as he started forward.
The Death Knight had caught Mercedes by the wrist as she fell to his knees before him. He looked down at her momentarily, and then at Dimitri.
Without a word, the Death Knight released Mercedes's arm and took a step back. Dimitri realized too late that his heel had hit one of those strange tiles, and the man disappeared with a startling flash.
Dimitri had to skid to a stop, his breathing irregular and his jaw clenched tight.
"Mercedes," he murmured, dropping his sword and falling to his knees beside his friend. She was staring at the spot where the Death Knight had vanished, her blue eyes big and distant. "Mercedes, speak to me. Are you hurt?"
"Hurt?" Mercedes's dreamy little voice flitted through his brain. She did not look at him. "Me? No." She blinked. She pushed Dimitri's hands aside, and her skirts rustled as she swayed to her feet. "Cyril. Oh, no, Cyril…"
Dimitri sat and stared as she darted to Cyril's side, placing a firm hand on Lysithea's shoulder.
"It's okay," she said gently, "I can heal him, I have this. Do not try to overexert yourself, even if you can heal him, I know that is not where your strength lies… and look at you! Do you have a fever? Do not make that face, please, let me feel your forehead."
Dimitri sat. He watched dazedly as Mercedes healed Cyril, and he wondered how any of this had happened in the first place.
"I would like to apologize."
Edelgard sat in her chair, her back turned to Claude as she combed out her long, tangled hair. Her suede hat, which was no worse for wear, thankfully, was sitting beside her. She'd tended to the burns on her nose and cheeks with the inside of a cactus that one of the powder monkeys had procured for her when she'd returned to the tavern. The boy was no older than ten, and she suspected his dangerous job aided his medical knowledge. He was also a budding mage, which was a much sought after talent in the pirate world, it seemed. She told him that he should let the captain know that he had such an affinity for the mystical arts. After all, if he was a learned mage, he would not have to tend to the cannons any longer.
He'd admitted he was afraid of Kala, which made Edelgard ponder about the risk of power. Even Kala, who was by all accounts a kind person, had a fearsome reputation that kept her crew in line.
"We will be on our way home tomorrow," Edelgard said quietly, examining the split ends of her pale hair. "It is not of any consequence. I merely ask for your silence on the matter."
Her chilly attitude and distance from him made him frown, and she saw it from the corner of her eye.
"In any case," Claude sighed, "I apologize. I understand that what I did might have truly harmed you, and I want you to know that that was never my intention, and…"
She set down the comb a bit too hard, and her eyes slid up to his face coolly.
"And?" she pushed him.
"And," Claude continued, sitting very carefully at the edge of the desk, "I care about you. I want you to know that."
Edelgard's brain seemed to stutter at that. He cared for her? And he was admitting it? Well, this must be serious.
"Do you?" she asked, too curious to stop herself. "Really?"
"You'd doubt it?" Claude's smile was thin and twisted.
"It is easy to doubt you, I suppose." She averted her eyes when he stared down at her. "And… I should apologize too. For that. I think I have always assumed the worst of you, because you are easy to mistrust."
"It's funny," Claude said, getting a bit more comfortable on his perch. "I spent a long time trying to cultivate this… easy, carefree attitude, so people don't look at me like… like someone who will undoubtedly plot to destroy the very fabric of Fódlan." He laughed bitterly. "And yet, I still garnered that reputation somehow."
"You do scheme quite a bit," Edelgard reminded him.
"I need to be underhanded," Claude said, "to keep up with the oh-so great Eagle and Lion."
"Don't sound too bitter about that."
"Am I bitter?" Claude offered out his hands in a shrug. "Or am I just realistic? It's no secret that us Deer are considered the underdogs at the Academy."
"That is true," Edelgard said, "but your house has garnered more of a reputation in the last few months than possibly generations. You should be proud of that, since it is clearly in no small part due to you."
"You paying me a compliment always makes me feel like I've won a great prize, you know," Claude said, smiling down at her. "Even if part of me does not quite believe you mean it."
She stared up at him, peered at his face, and she wondered if he was right. Was she saying these things out of courtesy?
No. Not to Claude. To Dimitri, she might, but Claude was cut from different cloth entirely than that of any other ruler she'd ever met.
Perhaps he was not wrong when he had said that they were too alike to be compatible.
"Perhaps you should be more trusting," Edelgard said, "Claude Soft-heart."
His eyes shot wide briefly, and a small, disbelieving smile tugged at his lips.
"That's not fair," he said with a short laugh.
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"I clearly trusted you enough to give that little tidbit of information," Claude said, shaking his head, "and you go ahead and use it against me?"
"Well, I'm not exactly pleased with you right now," she said. She shifted in her seat as she turned to face him fully. "However, I do appreciate that you have been… open with me, truthfully. You are more guarded than I think anyone expects, and I recognize that you keep your past close to your chest. So thank you for telling me what you have."
They watched each other silently for a few moments. Claude's eyes flitted across her face like he meant to memorize it before he cracked her head open to peer into the contents of her brain. She imagined her own expression was much the same.
She turned her back to him abruptly, tossing her hair over her shoulders and onto her back.
"Braid this?" she asked him, straightening her spine as she listened to the floor creak when he hopped off her desk.
He did not even say anything before carefully sectioning off her hair. He merely did it, his fingers dexterous and strong as he moved strands of her hair into a thick, even plait at the back of her head.
"You know," she said quietly, "you may call me El. If you'd like."
She felt his fingers stop short against the back of her neck. The sensation reminded her of that afternoon, when she had clawed her fingers into his neck and gripped him like her life had depended on it. Friendship always felt like a luxury that Edelgard could scarcely afford, and when she happened to stumble upon it she often felt guilty for not being able to pledge herself one hundred percent to the commitment of a relationship. Yet Claude was just as guarded as she was, and he considered her a friend. So perhaps it was alright to toe this line with him.
"El," Claude repeated, starting up where he had stopped with her braid. "You know now that you've told me, I will never stop calling you that, right?"
"I already knew you were insufferable," Edelgard sighed. "You will make me regret this before we even return home, won't you?"
"Oh, definitely." Claude laughed a bit. "El, El, El. I will call you that forever, even when you hold a knife to my throat."
"You say that as if it is a certainty," Edelgard said cautiously. "Would you call me that even with a knife to mine?"
"It would be the utmost courtesy."
"Sometimes," she sighed, "I think I understand you. And then you say things like this, and I realize that you are an utter enigma."
"Perhaps that is why you like me?" he suggested.
"No," she said, "it's definitely not that."
"But you do like me," he teased.
"Unfortunately," she said, "you have grown on me, Claude."
He held out a hand over her shoulder, and she pulled a purple ribbon from her wrist and set it in his hand. He tied off the end of her braid, and then rounded the chair she was in.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said, his smile a bit crooked. He offered out his hand to her. "What do you say we go find something to eat?"
She eyed his hand uncertainly. Then, with a tired sigh, she took it.
"If you insist," she said.
Cyril and Hubert were both confined to the infirmary alongside Manuela. When Dimitri went with Byleth to get Manuela's story, he met Hubert's eye.
"You," Hubert hissed.
"Do manage to keep yourself calm," Dimitri sighed. "I just need to speak to Manuela, and I will be on my way."
Cyril, who was sitting in a bed on the end, peeked over the top of a thin book. Dimitri had a feeling it had been left for him by Lysithea, who he knew was taking the time to teach him to read, but he did not comment on it.
"But I thought you wanted to speak to me," Hubert said, sitting upright and glowering at Dimitri's back. "As I understand it, you seem to have gotten ahold of Hilda. I will be candid."
Beside him, interestingly enough, was Monica. Dimitri had not actually seen or spoken to the girl since she had been rescued, but she looked curiously between Dimitri and Hubert.
"I'm sorry," she said, blinking up at Dimitri curiously, "but what's wrong? Are you and Hubert having a fight?"
"Hubert," Dimitri said, "believes I am responsible for the disappearance of Edelgard."
Hubert glowered at him. "I find it suspicious that you are the only House Leader left," he said. "But, of course, who am I to object when His Highness gets his way?"
"I will say this once," Dimitri said, his voice falling dangerously low as he felt an undeniable spike of rage swoop over him, "and only once. I would never hurt Edelgard or Claude. I had nothing to do with their disappearance, and you would be wise to accept that!"
"The mad dog of Faerghus finally snaps," Hubert mused. He settled back in his cot, and he shrugged. "I do not care what you claim. I will not believe a word you say until Lady Edelgard is safe before me to corroborate your story."
Dimitri wanted to throw something at the man. How could he be so blind? How could he risk peace for the sake of his own vendetta? He'd nearly dragged Hilda into his lunacy. If Dimitri was not careful, he could be facing a war on two fronts just because Hubert did not like him.
"I'd imagined you might be a bit smarter," Dimitri said, gritting his teeth. "But of course you would use Edelgard's disappearance to suit your own ends. You may hate me all you want, Hubert, but do not drag your classmates into your crusade. I will not warn you again."
Dimitri turned on his heel and walked away from Hubert before he could respond. Byleth peered at him from the other side of Manuela's bed, and her brow was furrowed.
"It's fine," he said quickly. "Please, do not worry about it. Hello, Professor Manuela. How are you feeling?"
"Well," Manuela sighed, "my head hurts quite a bit, but I do suppose it could have been worse, hm?"
"Yes." Dimitri smiled thinly. "I imagine so."
"Could you tell us what happened?" Byleth asked, tipping her head to one side. "I got called into the fray very late."
"Oh." Manuela smoothed back her hair with shaky hands. "Well… I have been watching Jeritza for quite a while now. He… has always been standoffish and strange, has he not? I wondered if he might have something to do with the students' disappearances. I checked his room out of curiosity, and I found a vial of blood under his bed."
"Blood?" Dimitri demanded.
Byleth's lips tugged downwards, and she cupped her chin.
"Claude's?" she asked.
"Hanneman would have to do some tests to prove it, but…" Manuela shook her head. "It seems likely, does it not? And I, of course, was horrified. In my horror, I did not notice Jeritza, and by the time I did… it was too late. The next thing I knew, I was here."
"That's rather disheartening," Byleth said. She turned to look at Dimitri. "What did Mercedes say about this Death Knight business?"
"Not… much." Dimitri had tried to ask, but Mercedes had seemed busy. And stressed. And anxious. Which made him feel guilty. "I… I will ask her."
Dimitri glanced at the door and saw that Ferdinand had sprinted into the room, his eyes wild and his mouth open. Byleth turned to look at him, her eyes widening a bit as Ferdinand offered out a scroll.
"You need to read this," Ferdinand gasped. His hair, which was usually pristinely swept away from his forehead, was disheveled and sticking to his skin in places. He looked anxious as Byleth took the scroll carefully, and rolled it over in her hands.
"I see you already broke the seal," she said, tapping the remnants of the snapped wax. "This is… a Crest, isn't it?"
"The two-headed eagle and the Crest of Seiros," Ferdinand murmured. "It's from Edelgard's father."
Suddenly Hubert was on his feet. Dimitri half dove out of the way as he charged forward, tearing the paper from Byleth's fingers. He unrolled it without a care, even as Cyril shouted from his bed.
"Hey! You're not supposed to be up and about… oh, well, if you can do it…" Cyril slipped from his cot and wobbled a bit as he used the rows of beds as a crutch. Dimitri saw this, and he rushed up to the boy, scooping him up by his underarms.
"Your injuries were far worse than Hubert's," he said, ignoring how Cyril shouted and wriggled against Dimitri's grip. He kicked Dimitri hard in the side, and he had to pause to consider the boy before tossing him over his shoulder. "Back to bed with you."
"Let me go!" Cyril's small fist collided with Dimitri's back. "I wanna know what happened to Claude!"
"You're growing into a rather loyal little subject, aren't you?" Dimitri chuckled, setting Cyril back down on his bed. "That's all well and good, but I'm sure Claude would like to see you unharmed when he gets back. You have multiple broken ribs, and though Mercedes stopped the bleeding, you are still healing from getting stabbed."
"I'm fine!" Cyril's nose wrinkled, and it was a little bit adorable the way he folded his arms across his chest indignantly. "I want to help, y'know. I'm getting stronger. I can fight!"
"I know that," Dimitri said gently, sitting down on the edge of Cyril's cot. "But you're also… not quite strong enough yet."
Dimitri, aware of Lysithea's issue surrounding her age, bit back a comment about Cyril's youth. The boy was small and desperate to please. Dimitri could see quite a bit of himself in Cyril's constant desire to be of use.
"Are you sayin' I got hurt because I'm weak?" Cyril demanded.
"No." Dimitri winced. Was that what it sounded like? "I'm saying that it's okay to rest. One day, maybe you will be able to take an entire army out on your own. Actually, do not try that, please. But really, you have only been training a few months. Give yourself some time, okay?"
Cyril scowled, but he did reluctantly nod. That was enough for Dimitri to feel like he could leave him in his cot, and he wouldn't try to escape. He turned back to Ferdinand, Hubert, and Byleth, and he saw them all frowning.
"What is it?" he asked with a sigh. "Tell me it isn't more bad news."
"Read it for yourself," Hubert spat, tossing the paper at Dimitri, "Your Highness."
Dimitri caught it easily enough. He glanced down at the paper, and read aloud (mostly for Cyril), "'Late last night my most trusted adviser, Duke Aegir, received a letter from pirates. These pirates claim to have my beloved daughter and heir, Edelgard, and demand a ransom be paid before she is returned home safely. In their letter, they stress that they mean Edelgard no harm, and will leave her on the shores of Hyrm's territory with a messenger to collect the debt. The deal shall happen in four days. I ask all students of the Black Eagle House attend this exchange. Signed, His Imperial Majesty, Ionius IX Hresvelg of the Adestrian Empire.'"
"Your father's doing," Hubert murmured to Ferdinand, almost too quietly to hear. Almost. "I presume?"
"Obviously," Ferdinand hissed back, his brow furrowed. "But what does it matter who wrote the letter? Edelgard is safe!"
"Safe?" Hubert shot back with a sneer. "She is in the hands of pirates! Who knows what could have happened to her!"
"Oh, please," Ferdinand scoffed. "Is she not still Edelgard? Fearsome, bossy Edelgard? She probably lectured the captain on how to properly lead."
"Hrym," Byleth cut in. "That is at the mouth of the Airmid, is it not?"
"It is," Ferdinand said with a curt nod. "I can get us there. If we take a boat down the river, we should make it in less than four days… if the wind favors us, we'll make it in two, and have the time to prepare—"
"We?" Hubert eyed Ferdinand. "Who is this we? In case you have not noticed, Ferdinand, but the Professor is not a Black Eagle. She does not serve the Empire."
"No…" Ferdinand glanced at Byleth, and he sighed. "I'll admit, she does not. But she is a bit of a tactical genius, and if this boils down to a fight, I'd like to have her near! You cannot deny that strength in numbers can win the day."
"You will have the strength of the Blue Lions as well," Dimitri told Ferdinand firmly. Ferdinand looked briefly surprised as Dimitri crossed one arm over his chest and the other behind his back as he dipped into a deep bow. "We will fight if we must to retrieve Edelgard."
"We do not need—" Hubert spat.
"What about Claude?"
They all turned to look back at Cyril, who sat in his cot with wide, fearful eyes. There was a hint of irritation there, and the boy sat and stared at them in disbelief.
"You all forgot about him," he said bitterly, "didn't you?"
"I didn't," Byleth said. "Though, perhaps I should not have assumed he would simply… be with Edelgard."
"Oh." Dimitri smacked his forehead. "Oh no. Cyril is right, where— where is Claude?"
Hubert stared at him coolly. He folded his arms across his chest and said nothing.
"I can…" Ferdinand smoothed his hair back and took a deep breath. "I will send a message to my father and tell him that we will be in Hrym in three days. Hopefully this was all a misunderstanding, and Claude is on the ship as well."
"And if he's not?" Byleth asked him pointedly. "What do the Golden Deer do then? Have you considered that?"
"If Claude is dead," Byleth said, her voice hard, "I will not forgive any of you."
"Me either!" Cyril cried from his bed.
Byleth nodded to him in acknowledgement. She eyed the three of them with her blank blue eyes, and she pushed through them.
"Excuse me," she said. "I have a battle to plan."
"Hrym…" Edelgard chewed on the inside of her cheek, and she glanced between the star-taker and the compass in her palm. Then she pointed to her left. "We need to head west."
"Good." Dana nodded to her. "Mark that down on the map."
Edelgard did as she was told. Now that she was relatively clean, and she was wearing clothing suitable for seafaring, she felt much better about this whole ordeal. Sure, she was being ransomed, but she had been in worse positions. And the pirates were nice, all things considering. Plus, she got to learn something she never in a million years would have anticipated learning.
The sun was going down, which meant work was slowing for the night. Edelgard watched the sun creep closer to the horizon until it disappeared completely. When she was done working with Dana, she found Claude lounging with Michael and another crewman. He was tapping his foot to the beat of a sea shanty the two men were singing. One of the nearby children caught on, and she began to play the flute. Another got out a fiddle.
Edelgard eyed him curiously. "Do you want to dance, Cl—" She swallowed his name with a tight smile. "Shapur?"
"I thought you would never ask, my lady," Claude said, on his feet in an instant. She bit back a shout as he grabbed her hand and dragged her to the middle of the deck, and she ignored the whistles and the laughter of some of the crewmen and women. "Hold onto your hat, alright? This is gonna be a bit different from your average waltz."
"I'm sure I can keep up," she said smoothly. Nevertheless, she took off her hat and stuffed it into the small satchel she'd managed to acquire on Aksis. The sun was gone by now anyway, and the deck was brimming with yellow lantern light.
At that, Claude grinned. He twisted his head to the boy playing the fiddle, and he shouted something in Almyran. The boy raised an eyebrow. He barked a laugh before pulling the fiddle from his cheek and plucking at it like a guitar.
Claude released her, stepped back, and held out his hand. When she reached for it, his feet tripped in an unusual way, and he swayed to the side with a jerk from the accompanying flute. Edelgard stared at him. He drew his right arm up over his head in a fluid motion. She cautiously mirrored him.
"Watch my feet," he murmured.
It was far more complicated than she'd expected.
Edelgard refused to be shown up in a dance, however, so she stepped quickly, matching Claude's quickening speed, her ankles clicking against one another as she made three sharp ball-changes in quick succession. Step, ball-change, arms up, heel ball-change, arms away, and again. The minute she got used to this choreography, her body sliding left as Claude's slid right, their arms dipping over their heads in parallel, Claude spun and slid beneath her arm until his back was against her back.
"Again," he murmured. And they did it again, but every time she moved, she felt Claude's back against hers. When her arm dipped over her head, his did too, and they caught one another's eyes.
Then the fiddle started properly.
Claude grasped her hand, and the tune changed abruptly. She blinked as Claude's arm hooked around her waist, and he led her with a leaping bounce to his step to the rising tempo of clapping pirates. She met his speed and enthusiasm, gripping his hand tight and holding onto his shoulder when he lifted her off the ground and swung her around.
By the time they finally stopped, she was laughing breathlessly into Claude's arm as he half toppled onto a step and took her down with him. There was uproarious laughter all around them, some drunken, some just delighted. Claude was laughing too. His arm was slung over her shoulder lightly, and he let his arm act as a pillow between her and the wooden steps.
"You," he said delightedly, "are very good."
"What was that dance?" Edelgard sat up and peered at him eagerly. "I have never seen anything like it."
"Yet you did it so well!" He grinned at her. "Can't it be our little secret?"
"It is Almyran."
Claude's smile fell a bit, but the remnants of it remained plastered to his face as Dana sat down on the highest step. He was peering between Edelgard and Claude.
"That makes sense," she said. "You spoke to the boy in Almyran, didn't you?"
"I did." Claude rolled his shoulders. "It isn't uncommon. We have many, many, many traditional dances, and that one—"
Dana said something in Almyran that made Claude flinch.
"What?" Edelgard asked, her eyes flitting between the two men. "What about that one?"
"Nothing," Claude said to her softly.
Dana's gaze slid to her. He snorted softly, and continued to speak only in Almyran, his lip twitching. Claude shook his head sharply, and he replied in a very quiet, very sharp tone.
"She does not know," Dana said amusedly, "does she?"
"What don't I know?" Edelgard demanded.
"Nothing important," Claude sighed, waving Dana off.
"That hardly seems to be the case."
Dana looked at Claude pointedly. He murmured something in Almyran, and Claude once more waved Dana off.
"All in good time," Claude said, "brother."
"Brother?" Edelgard frowned.
"It is not the way you think it is," Dana told her. "In Almyran, it is more… what is the word?"
"It's like a term of endearment," Claude said. "Perhaps I should not have switched back from Almyran in that instance. No matter. If you are so interested, El, we were discussing how that dance is often seen at weddings."
She turned her head forward so he would not notice her blush.
"Oh?" she said, her voice a touch disaffected. "That's fascinating. I will have to attend an Almyran wedding one day. Will you excuse me?"
Edelgard pushed herself to her feet and skirted around the circle of onlookers until she was on the other side of the deck. She swallowed a strange mixture of insecurity and despair as she realized that they were going home. She could not be this friendly with Claude at the monastery. That would kill her. That would kill him. She was on a path that she knew might destroy him, and she did it with a head in his arm in a knife to his neck.
I will have to do it, she thought dazedly. If my plans align, I will have to kill him, won't I? And he will call me El as I do it.
But no, no, there could be a way around it. She could find a way around it.
Objectively, she could marry him, but the minute that thought crossed her mind she felt a bit like throwing herself into the sea. Then she chided herself, in her head, for being so dramatic, because marrying Claude could not be all bad. After all, she could gain control over the Alliance bloodlessly.
And Claude could live. If he chose to. If he joined her.
Edelgard looked to the horizon, which was a great expanse of darkness, and she realized that she saw a light.
A light that looked distant, but her lessons with Dana had taught her better.
Oh no, she thought, pushing off the rail and looking around her rapidly. She spotted the ropes of the rigging just beside her, and she craned her neck up at the mast. She could feasibly get aloft to get a better look.
Without another thought, she dug into her bag, picked up a spyglass, and then set the bag down on the deck. Then she took a deep breath, and she began to climb. At first maneuvering with the spyglass was difficult, but as she climbed higher, her heart thudding in her chest, it seemed like she wasn't holding anything.
She made it between the middle two sails, and she gripped the shroud as she peered through the spyglass.
The lights on the horizon, as she suspected were a ship.
And that ship was approaching fast.
Edelgard exhaled shakily. Of course it was.
She reached for the forestay as she maneuvered herself back down onto the rope ladder. She closed her spyglass and wedged it in her pocket before she lost her footing, her foot sliding out of the ropes. She had just a moment to realize her crucial mistake before she was plummeting.
Before she even hit the water, she thought she was dead.
So when she realized she was consumed by the thing she feared so completely, she thought to scream, but she could not move. So she sank. And as she sank, she thought about the arms of her siblings, coming up from the depths and wrapping around her tenderly. A warm welcome after years away.
She thought, okay. Let it be like this, then.
But the sea rushed up to meet her, and she was still conscious enough to gasp when she hit the surface. She coughed, she sputtered, and she blinked saltwater from her eyes.
"What," Claude gasped, pulling her up into his arms one-handedly before he dragged himself up a rope ladder on the starboard side of the ship, "the hell were you doing?"
Edelgard clung to him the minute they were out of the water. He allowed her to get readjusted onto his back. He hauled himself back onto the deck, and she was immediately met with the expectant stares of twenty or so pirates.
Kala was at the forefront of them all, her arms folded across her chest.
"There's a ship," Edelgard rasped. She stared up at Kala desperately. "It is coming right for us. We need to go."
Kala stared at her for a moment, and then she looked where Edelgard had pointed.
"Noah," she murmured, holding out her hand. Noah dropped a spyglass into it. She crossed the deck, peered into the spyglass for just a moment before she cursed in what Edelgard could only assume was her native tongue. "Ready the cannons!"
The next half hour was utter chaos. Edelgard managed to get her satchel back, but she was dripping wet, shaken, and she could not think. Claude could not comfort her, either, as he had to tend to the pulleys.
She looked up at Dana, her eyes wide. She was frightened. She knew she had nearly drowned, and she'd almost welcomed it. Now there was a ship coming, and if they sank…
Dana took her hand, and he dropped something cool into her palm.
"There is a life boat," he murmured, "at the stern. Kala and I have already readied it."
"What?" Edelgard asked dazedly.
"They are not here for us." Dana shook his head. "Kala says the only reason a ship would be attacking us like this is if your kidnappers caught wind of you."
"You must go," Dana said.
"No." Edelgard shook her head. "If… if these are the people who kidnapped us, you will need us!"
"We do not need you," Dana sighed. "We will be fine—"
Cannon fire cut him off, and they both hit the deck, their hands over their heads.
"You were saying?" Edelgard snapped. "Listen, we can help."
"You can help," Dana shouted over the roar of voices, "by getting to shore safely. We will get by. Without you, they have no reason to fight us."
The ship was close. It was so close now that Edelgard could see over the rail of the other ship, and she saw a man whose face was a skull staring back at her.
"Oh," she said. "Oh, no…"
"What?" Dana demanded.
She turned to look at him, her jaw tightening. "We will go," she said firmly. "But you need to leave. Do not let the man in the mask get to this side, do you understand?"
"Not fully." Dana clearly saw the Death Knight, but thought nothing of it. Edelgard was worried for them because, though they were fairly skilled pirates, these fighters were now professional killers. "But I am glad you agree."
"I will find a way to get the money to you," Edelgard promised. "You… all have been very kind, despite everything. I want you to understand that you have my gratitude, and that this is not a ransom. This is me paying my debt."
Dana studied her for a moment. Behind his beard, she almost saw a smile.
Another cannon fired, and this time the ship rocked in response as a cannonball struck them. Dana pushed her toward the stairs.
"Go," he gasped, shielding her from the rain of salt water and debris. "Go."
"Claude," she gasped, twisting to look around the deck. "Where is he?"
Dana looked around, and he shook his head. "Stay here," he said, pushing his way into the crowd.
Of course, Edelgard did not stay there. She rushed across the deck, her eyes darting around her, until finally she spotted Claude. He was shooting arrows expertly into the dark.
"Hey, El," he said, shooting her a smirk. "Nothing can be simple, huh?"
"Did you see the Death Knight?" she asked.
"Yep." Claude notched an arrow, drew it back, and loosened it. "He just cut one of my arrows in half. Can you believe?"
"We need to go."
"What?" Claude glanced at her in alarm. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we have a life boat," she said. "They are only here for us. We need to go."
"What about these people?" Claude demanded. "Are we just going to abandon them? After everything they've done?"
"You know that the Death Knight is only after us," Edelgard said. "The boat has a sail, doesn't it? We'll be long gone when he realizes."
"That isn't the point," Claude sighed. "The point is—"
Edelgard, who had been keeping one eye on the Death Knight, yanked Claude down to her level as she swerved in front of him. She had done it completely on a whim, and the pain startled her. She did not know what she had expecting, seeing the glint of silver in the dark, but she had acted on instinct, and now pain bloomed from her back outwards.
She slumped a bit, her head falling onto Claude's shoulder as he shouted her name and sank to the deck floor with her.
"El?" he gasped, supporting her head. "El?"
It was funny. She was laughing.
"What…?" Claude grimaced. "What are you laughing about? Hold on, okay, I can… I can…"
It was funny. She had saved him from a knife after all.
Hubert was ready to turn on him again the minute the sun went down on the fourth day. The mountainous coast of Hrm was craggy, which meant that they would have the advantage if any battle did happen to break out. Byleth had surveyed the map, and collected students from each house that she believed to be of use. Most of those students were long-range fighters, due to the nature of the stronghold.
Cyril was out of commission, so Ashe, Lysithea, Ignatz, and Annette were paired together. Ingrid was stationed on a Pegasus near the palisades, and Dedue was on the beach beneath her. Petra was alongside him, and on the other side of the beach was Hilda on a wyvern, and below her were Caspar and Raphael. At the center, Hubert, Ferdinand, Mercedes, and Byleth. Other long-range fighters like Bernadetta, Leonie, Marianne, and Dorothea were higher up on the crag.
Linhardt had opted to stay back at the monastery and research some more. Flayn stayed behind as well, and though Lorenz objected to the idea of being left behind, he was also forced to stay. Sylvain and Felix were also left at the monastery, though neither were too keen on it. Felix wanted to fight, and Sylvain had pretended to be relieved, but Dimitri knew his old friend well enough to see that he was terribly worried.
Dimitri was getting an earful from Hubert as they watched the horizon and saw not a single ship.
"I understand," Dimitri sighed, "that you are worried. However—"
"Is it possible to take a ship and go find them?" Byleth cut in.
"The Professor has a point," Hubert said. "We should go to them if they refuse to return Lady Edelgard."
"We do not know the circumstances that have transpired," Dimitri said, struggling to remain calm. "Anything could have delayed the ship! A storm, or lack of wind. I ask you both to remain patient while we figure this out."
Byleth tapped her sword idly, but nodded all the same. Dimitri did not know how she truly felt about the situation besides the fact that she was clearly angry that Claude might really be dead. Hubert was just a ball of anxiety, which was more annoying than usual.
Mercedes was a bit of an angel at this point.
"I think," Mercedes said with a tranquil smile, "we would be wise to wait a bit longer before making assumptions."
"You are quite right, Mercedes," Dimitri said softly.
After another hour or so of their vigil, Hilda swept down on her wyvern and leaned over the beast's head to eye them.
"What's going on?" she asked. "Not that I mind doing nothing, but wasn't the ship supposed to be here by now?"
"We do not know what is happening," Dimitri admitted. "I have to ask you to remain patient until we have more information."
"Have you considered that we've been set up?" Hilda asked in a flat, strangely bitter voice. It was not too surprising. She had read the letter and had a similar reaction to Byleth. "Pirates can be tricky like that."
"A boat," Byleth reminded.
Perhaps if Byleth had chosen Dimitri's class over Claude's, he would consider what she had to say in this moment.
But she had not, so he did not.
"Hilda," Dimitri said, "I need you to take a message to Duke Aegir. Ferdinand, go with her."
"What?" Ferdinand gasped. "But—"
"Go," Hubert told Ferdinand sharply. "For once, His Highness has a point. We need to know if there has been any update from your father or the monastery, and we cannot all leave."
Ferdinand studied Hubert, his eyes frantic and confused as he searched his face. Then, with a sigh, he stepped toward Hilda's wyvern.
"If this is what it takes to get Edelgard back, I suppose," he said. Hilda did not help him onto her Wyvern.
Once they were gone, Hubert frowned at the space where they had left. Byleth tapped him on the shoulder until her glared down at her.
"Is it possible," Byleth said, "that Duke Aegir might want Edelgard dead?"
Hubert said nothing. Instead, he continued to stare into the sea, his one visible eye shadowy. It was like he had not heard her at all. Dimitri did not think that it could be true, but he was anxious about this whole situation. At this point, what wasn't possible?
"We cannot give up," Mercedes said firmly. "I am certain that Edelgard and Claude will return to us, and they will be just fine!"
Yet when Hilda returned, she returned without Ferdinand. Her expression was sad and bleak.
"We've been told to retreat," she said.
"Of course we have," Hubert spat.
"That does not make sense," Dimitri said, stepping forward. "Did he receive a message? Should we prepare to—"
"There was no message," Hilda said. "There was no warning. Ferdinand is trying to talk his father out of declaring Edelgard dead. We need to get back to Hrym's fortress before Duke Aegir leaves for Enbarr."
Hubert made a sound like a knife had gotten stuck in his throat. He looked angrier than Dimitri had ever seen him, his face contorted and his teeth bared. Dimitri felt like he knew this rage well.
"Go," Dimitri told him.
Hubert's eye flashed to him. Shock glimmered there for a moment, overtaking his rage and causing his jaw to slacken.
"Go," Dimitri gasped, shoving him toward Hilda's wyvern. "You understand the politics of Adestria far better than I do! Put a stop to this madness. I will gather everyone here."
It seemed like Hubert was torn, but he shot one look around them, and he shook his head fiercely. He eyed the wyvern as it landed beside him, and Dimitri thought he looked almost… fearful as he approached it.
"This," Hubert said, "does not mean—"
"Just get up here," Hilda gasped, leaning down and snatching him by the shoulder. "Come on! We are wasting time."
Hubert was a bit too big for Hilda's saddle, and the minute the wyvern flapped its wings, his arms flung around Hilda's waist, and he shouted. They were gone in an instant, and Dimitri could only stare at the place where they had been before looking out to the horizon.
If Edelgard was not with these so-called pirates, then where was she?
She was lying still in the cold ground. The sun was gone, like it had been swallowed by the moon, and she stared up at the sky as her body seemed to reject itself. It seemed like her blood was boiling in her veins. In her nostrils, there was only the wicked amalgamation of a metallic scent, bile, and excretion. She could not think or breathe properly.
This would be her end, and she would never see the sun again.
Then, like a strange light in the dark, someone took her trembling hand. She turned her head and stared at a boy beside her whose eyes were glassy and green. He wore a yellow doublet, and he looked very small.
"I do not know," he said, "if I will ever see the moon again. It frightens me."
"I'm sorry," she murmured.
"Don't be." He turned his head toward the sky. His small fingers squeezed hers. "I am not alone, so I do not feel sad or lonely anymore."
Edelgard wished she could say the same.
"Would it be such a shame," he said, his green eyes drilling into her head and peeking into the inside of her brain, "to die here, together, El?"
She did not know.
The wind hit her cheeks, and a jolt sent her eyes snapping open, and she grappled momentarily with the acute pain that lanced through her back and side. She choked a bit, her eyes darting along the gradient of blue sky, and she realized the floor beneath her was rocking.
"I did it," someone murmured close to her ear. "I did it… okay. Okay!"
"Wha—?" She winced a bit, her arm slinging over her ribs and gripping her side. "What's happening…?"
Claude was sitting beside her, his face wan and stricken. He put a hand on her shoulder when she tried to sit up, and he shook his head.
"You need to stay lying down," he said. "That wound… could have been lethal. If it had hit me, I definitely would have been."
Edelgard laid there, staring at the sky, and she tried to recall what had happened.
"Where…?" She sucked in a deep breath. "How…?"
"We're in a small boat," Claude sighed. "I've been navigating the best I could, based on the stars. Now it's a bit hard. I just have been steering us the opposite way of the rising sun, and hoping for the best."
"I can—" Edelgard swallowed hard. Her mouth tasted like blood. "I can navigate— where is my… satchel…"
"I have it."
"Okay…" Edelgard blinked rapidly. "Am I… no longer bleeding?"
"No." Claude smiled at her thinly. "I managed to stop it. Though it was touch and go for a bit there. I'd never actually used the healing magic Flayn taught me before."
"Oh…" Edelgard felt guilty. He had been able to heal her, yet when he had been lying in a boat, bleeding out, all she had been able to do was talk him through consciousness and wrap the wound. "Well… I… that's—"
"A thank you will suffice," Claude said gently. She glared up at him, and his amused expression turned somber. "But really, I should be thanking you. That knife was meant for me. The Death Knight was going to kill me. You saved me. And that was not the first time."
Claude closed his fist over his heart and bowed, as best as he could bow sitting on this small boat, and Edelgard stared at him dazedly.
"Don't do that," she murmured.
"However else will you know how grateful I am?" he teased her.
"I think I've gotten to know you well enough by now," she said with a sigh. "You… are truly insufferable. But, I think, a world without you… would be rather boring."
"I agree," Claude said, his smirk saying one thing and his eyes saying another. Edelgard had to tear her gaze away. "Listen… I don't know where we're going to end up, but… I swear to you, we will make it back to Fódlan. Soon. Okay?"
"Yes," she said. "I understand. Now, will you… please pass me my satchel?"
In the end, she was able to set out the compass that Dana had given her, the spyglass in her pocket, and a map. Unfortunately, there was no star-taker, so she could not say exactly where they were. Only where they were headed.
"If nothing else," Claude said, "I am grateful for this sail."
"Yes," Edelgard agreed. Claude had finally allowed her to sit up around midday. She'd put her hat on, much to Claude's amusement, to block out the sun. "Could you imagine if we had to row?"
"Who's stronger?" Claude joked. "You or me?"
"Perhaps we need to arm wrestle to find out?"
"Once you're all healed up," he said with a wink. "Swinging an axe might get you muscles, but bows are no joke."
"We shall see," Edelgard said amusedly.
Claude sat at the bow, mostly, his hand on the steering mechanism as Edelgard puzzled over the map and compass. Claude said that they had been going north through the night, and now they'd been heading west for… a while. They did not actually have any food, so that was fun. Edelgard was already rather weak, and she knew she needed to drink water soon.
They did not talk about it, though.
"What are you going to do when we get back?" Edelgard asked curiously.
"Sleep," Claude said. It was only then that she realized he had been up all night steering the boat.
"Would you like to sleep now?" she asked. "I can… steer for a bit."
"You're injured," Claude sighed. "Plus, I need you to navigate. Do you see land yet?"
Edelgard pulled out her spyglass and looked to the west.
"Not yet," she said.
"Then we keep going."
She was eager not to let the silence go for too long. Her own thoughts were brimming with anxiety, and she was terrified that their boat might capsize. On top of that, part of her was dreading returning to the monastery. She knew herself, and she knew her goals, and Claude…
Claude did not fit anywhere in her future. It was as simple as that.
"I wonder how everyone else is doing," Claude said. The sun was dipping low on the horizon. He sounded very tired.
"I…" Edelgard was growing weary, dizzy, and nauseous. "I suppose they have been looking for us. Hopefully they have not murdered one another in our absence."
"The Deer are probably fine," Claude said. "I'm sure Lorenz took over the instant I turned up missing. Dimitri and Hubert, though…"
"Oh," Edelgard said with a short laugh, "I am sure one of them will be dead when we get back."
"Don't sound so crushed!"
"Hubert would win," Edelgard said firmly. "No matter how strong Dimitri is, Hubert is more cunning. And Dimitri, as you know, can be a little bit…"
"Straight forward?" Claude smirked. "Naïve?"
"In so few words, yes."
"You know I agree," Claude said, "but it would be foolish to underestimate him. He may be simple, but that does not make him a fool."
"I know that," Edelgard said heatedly.
"Do you?" Claude tilted his head at her. "I imagine you think you know Dimitri better than he knows himself. You like to think you know me pretty well too. Right?"
"Don't," she sighed. "I do not have the energy for an argument."
"Who is arguing?" Claude looked mildly offended. "Are we not having a friendly discussion?"
"Are we friends?" she retorted.
"I want to believe that," Claude said, his voice softening. "Why can't you?"
She bit her tongue and turned her eyes back to the map and the compass. She knew they had to be nearing land. So she pulled out her spyglass and peered through it.
"Claude," she said, lowering the spyglass. Her face broke into a small, relieved smile. "I see Fódlan."
He looked at her, and she thought he might burst into tears. Instead, he let out a bright, shaky laugh, and he turned his head to look at the shore that was not quite within sight for him just yet.
"Never thought I'd be so relieved to see that," he said when they neared the shore.
"What do you mean?" she asked. She studied his face, the way his brow pinched, and she had to wonder.
"Nothing," he said. He nodded to her. "Gather up all of your things. There's a dock coming up, and I think I can steer us to it."
Edelgard stuffed her remaining navigational tools into her satchel. It was dark now, and they had to follow the light of the moon to find the dock. When they did, Claude tied the boat up, helped her to her feet, and set her down gently on the wood.
"Stay here," he whispered. "I will be right back."
Then, without saying another word, he disappeared. Edelgard sat and stared out at the sea dazedly. She was sure that she might have died there. Perhaps this was all a dream. She and Claude could be dead, could be ghosts, and she would spend eternity roaming her homeland searching for her lost siblings with Claude at her side.
She wondered if that would be such a terrible existence.
When Claude returned, he knelt beside her and offered out his back. She hesitantly wrapped her arms around his neck, and allowed him to hook his arms behind her knees as he hefted her up.
"We're just outside Goneril," he said.
"The Alliance?" she breathed, somewhat relieved. She did not know what she would do if she had to face anyone from Adestria in her condition.
"Yes." Claude carried her carefully. The wind chilled at her back. "I am going to get us a room at an inn, and then tomorrow I will speak to the Duke and… hope for the best, I suppose."
"You're Duke Riegan's heir," she said. "Doesn't Duke Goneril have to listen? And… aside from that, he is Hilda's father, is he not? Certainly…"
"Duke Goneril is Hilda's brother, actually," Claude said. "And… well, not that it matters much, but before I showed up, a lot of people expected Holst to be Riegan's heir."
"Wow." Edelgard held onto his neck tightly. "The line of succession in the Alliance is…"
"Messy?" Claude laughed. "Yes, it is."
"I was going to say fascinating," Edelgard said. "But if you say so."
When they arrived at the inn, Edelgard realized they had no money. She wondered if she had anything in her satchel that she could sell, but Claude was already dropping a handful of coins on the desk.
"I sold the boat," he explained to her quickly as he helped her up the stairs to their room. "It seemed like the smartest thing to do. Goneril… their territory is pretty large, and they basically command the entire mountain range separating Fódlan and Almyra."
"That… is a lot," she admitted.
"We can't climb any mountains in our condition," Claude continued. He opened their door and allowed her to hobble by herself to the bed. "I'm going to get us some food and water. Want anything in particular?"
"Peach sorbet," Edelgard said, making the mistake of lying down on the bed and realizing she would not be able to get up. "And sweet buns. And saghert and cream. And bergamot tea."
"As you wish," he laughed at her from the doorway.
She nearly fell asleep, lying there. Her back and side ached terribly, and the rest of her body was feeling the strain of the last few weeks. Being… safe, it seemed, had caused her body to feel all the fatigue of the stress and pain the last few weeks had caused her.
Claude returned just in time to jolt her out of a half-waking nightmare, and she struggled upright. The lantern on the bedside table flickered a bit.
"Peach sorbet," Claude said, setting a bruised peach on the bedside table. "Sweet buns." He produced a soft enough looking loaf of bread. "Saghert and cream." It was just milk. "Aaaand bergamot tea."
"Oh," she gasped, taking the warm cup gratefully. She could smell it, and she realized he was not lying. "How did you find this?"
"The inn is stocked with different types of teas," Claude said, tearing off the heel of the bread and munching on it. "Bergamot isn't that out of the ordinary."
"Thank you," Edelgard murmured, taking a sip. It sent a shudder of warmth through her, and she sighed in relief. "I… finally am beginning to relax, I think."
"I'm glad." Claude smiled at her. "It's… been tough on you."
"On you as well," Edelgard said sharply. "You nearly died that first night, do you recall?"
Claude smirked as he held a hand over his forearm. It was still healing, but he had not mentioned it hurting.
"How could I forget?" he asked bitterly.
"We have both had a tough time," Edelgard said, peering into her cup. "We… have both suffered, and yet we have both saved one another. I do not think there is any debt to pay."
"No." Claude eyed her. "I suppose not."
"Good." Edelgard sipped her tea, not truly understanding her own conflicted feelings in that moment. "I… believe you should sleep."
"I'm not that tired."
"You," she huffed, "are an absolute fool."
He grinned at her, and he plucked the tea right out of her hands and took a sip.
"Securing three days," Hubert murmured, "when we do not have a boat to go out and find the pirates— it is ridiculous."
"I know," Dimitri sighed, "but what can we do?"
"Wait," Ferdinand offered in a cheery tone. Dimitri and Hubert glared at him.
"We could go back to the monastery," Dorothea said.
"That," Hubert hissed, "is not an option."
"No?" Dorothea tilted her head. "And you have a better plan, Hubie?"
"I think we need to consider," Hilda said, half draped over a cushy velvet chair, "ignoring Duke Aegir and stealing a boat."
"Stealing?" Ferdinand sputtered. "A boat?"
"Love that," Byleth said. She had been silently observing them. "I am in favor of that."
"So am I," Hubert said.
"We are not stealing a boat," Dimitri gasped, glancing around at the faces around him desperately. "We are not thieves!"
"Not yet," Hilda said.
"She is the only one here with a lick of sense," Hubert declared. "I trust none of you."
"Hubert, please," Ferdinand gasped.
"How would we steal a boat?" Dorothea asked, her smile tight. "Hilda, you have big ideas, but how do you plan to implement them?"
"Send Ashe, Hubert, Lysithea, and Marianne," Hilda said with a shrug. "They'll get it done."
"I am in favor of this," Hubert said.
"Whose boat?" Ferdinand asked. "What boat? Honestly, we could just buy a boat!"
"With what money?" Dorothea demanded.
"I—" Ferdinand frowned. Clearly he just realized that his accounts were tied to his father, who was against them leaving by sea. "Well."
"If nobody has a better plan," Byleth said, "I am going to back Hilda."
"That is ridiculous!" Ferdinand gasped. "It is not a noble deed to just— just steal a boat, like common criminals!"
"I literally will steal it myself," Byleth said in her calm, flat tone. "If you are worried about the consequences, I will shoulder them. But also, it is just a boat. We can bring it back."
"Professor," Hilda gasped, "you are, without a doubt, my favorite."
"Can't we talk about this?" Ferdinand asked desperately.
"We have two days," Hubert said, "to find Edelgard. What do you want us to say? We do not have the time to delay and think of a proper plan! Who knows where those pirates have gone."
The door burst open, and they all turned to look as Lysithea rushed into the room, heaving a bit as she clutched a letter to her chest.
"Lysithea!" Hilda rushed to the girl's side. "Did you run all the way here?"
She nodded. Her breaths were short and thin. Hilda led her to the chair she had been sitting in, and Lysithea sat down heavily.
"I—" She blinked rapidly. "I came— because— Hilda, your brother—"
"Holst?" Hilda jerked back in alarm. "What…? What about him? Is he hurt?"
"No!" Lysithea shoved the letter into Hilda's hand. "Look!"
Hilda glanced down at the letter, and she sat down heavily on the arm of the chair. "It's from Holst," she surmised. "That's why? Well, he probably found out how close we are to Goneril territory and wants me to stop by for tea, or something."
"Hilda," Lysithea breathed, "honestly! You think I'd run up here just to hand you a tea invitation?"
"Well," Hilda sniffed, "if the invitation involved sweets, then perhaps!"
"What?" Lysithea gasped, her cheeks turning red as she ducked under the intense gaze of Hubert, the curious eyes of Ferdinand, and the understanding glances of Dorothea and Dimitri. Byleth simply stared blankly. "Just read the letter!"
"Fuh-ine," Hilda scoffed. "No need to take such a defensive tone with me, Lysithea. I was only—"
And then Hilda began to read the letter. Her eyes shot wide.
"Oh," she said. "Oh!"
"What is it?" Dimitri asked her. "Your brother… he is Duke Goneril, is he not?"
"Yes." Hilda's shoulders slumped a bit as she blinked rapidly. "He… he said: 'Hilda, I hope you are doing well, and I miss you very much—'" Hilda waved offhandedly at that. "He is very sentimental, excuse him. 'I have it from reliable sources that you and your classmates have arrived in Hyrm due to the disappearance of two students. As it happens, I believe I might have uncovered their whereabouts—'"
"He what?" Hubert gasped, lurching forward. "How? Where?"
"Let her finish," Byleth said sharply.
"'— I will come to Hyrm territory soon to deliver this news personally. I do hope you have time for tea—'" Hilda smiled down at Lysithea almost wickedly in her satisfaction. Lysithea scowled. "— Signed, with Love and Adoration, Holst.' Ew, he's so mushy, I hate him."
"Did he say when he is coming?" Dimitri asked, a bit desperately.
"Nope." Hilda handed the letter over to him, and Dimitri's eyes swept over it. Indeed, there was nothing in Holst Goneril's loopy cursive that suggested his arrival. "Damn it… that does not bode well for us."
"Could we show this letter to my father?" Ferdinand asked eagerly. "It is proof that Edelgard is not dead, is it not?"
"There is no proof," Hubert said bitterly. "Merely the vague promises of some Alliance Duke. His word means nothing to the Adestrian Empire."
"Um, excuse me!" Hilda pouted a bit. "That is my brother you are talking about! He might be a flighty, sentimental dunce, but he is my flight, sentimental dunce!"
"Is Holst Goneril not praised as the Leicester Alliance's greatest general?" Dimitri asked, staring at Hilda confusedly. "How could a man like that be, as you say, a dunce?"
"You have not met him." Hilda shrugged.
"He is probably a dunce in the same way that Hilda is a slacker," Byleth piped up.
"So you mean," Dimitri said, "that he is actually incredibly capable, but he comes across as an airhead?"
"Oh, have you met him?" Hilda's eyebrows shot up behind her bangs. "That was a spot on description."
"No," Dimitri said. "I just have grown used to you, I think."
"I guess I am an airhead," Hilda sighed. "An airhead who cannot possibly think of what to tell Duke Aegir. What a shame."
Lysithea straightened up. Her expression had grown taut, despite her breathing growing regulated, and she frowned at her hands.
"Duke Aegir wants to go to Enbarr himself," she said, "right?"
"It seems that way," Ferdinand said. "I think he might want to see the Emperor, um… I think he would like to be the person to tell the Emperor about Edelgard."
"Yes," Hubert agreed. "That is exactly the reason."
"And if he couldn't possibly leave for Enbarr in two days," Lysithea said, meeting Hilda's eye sharply. "What then?"
"Why wouldn't he be able to leave?" Ferdinand asked confusedly as Hilda and Lysithea stared at one another, seeming to have a conversation with their eyes.
"They are going to poison him," Hubert said, snapping his fingers twice before Ferdinand's face. "Come now, be vigilant."
"Poison?" Ferdinand sputtered.
"Not lethally," Hilda sighed, rolling her eyes. "Though it would cause him a great deal of discomfort. Are you serious about this, Lysithea? We could get in trouble if anyone found out."
"Is anyone in this room going to rat us out?" Lysithea demanded, pushing herself to her feet and glowering around at the faces before her. "I dare you."
"Where would we get this so-called non-lethal poison?" Dorothea asked, crossing her arm over her chest.
Hilda reached into a small pouch at her hip and held up a thin crystal vial.
"Gotta keep it handy," she said sheepishly.
"You really are Claude's vassal," Hubert said, looking a bit like he was torn between disgust and honest respect.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You promise it won't kill him?" Ferdinand asked uncertainly.
"I swear on my life," Hilda said firmly. "Claude is very good at making poisons. This one was meant to be a prank, I believe, but he hadn't decided who to pull it on, so he had me keep it until someone annoyed him enough. It will make Duke Aegir ill for a few days, but it can easily be chalked up to food poisoning."
"And how will we get him to consume it?" Ferdinand eyed the bottle with a frown. "My father is not a fool. He will not accept a drink or food from just anyone."
"I can slip it in his cup when he isn't looking," Dorothea said passively.
They all looked at her in astonishment. She glanced around at them, and she shrugged.
"Don't worry," she said, stepping up to Hilda and plucking the vial from her fingers. "Entertaining old men is kind of a skill of mine."
Hilda's brother was, if Edelgard was being honest, exactly what she was expecting, and yet entirely strange.
They had managed to be granted an audience with Duke Goneril despite looking entirely like urchins, no doubt due to Claude's silver tongue. The estate was fairly large and ornate, white stone walls and stained glass windows. Duke Goneril met them in the courtyard. He was fairly tall and slim, and his pink hair was half-pulled back in a prim top knot. His doublet was composed of a pink and black diamond pattern, and he tilted his head curiously at them.
"So you're the infamous Claude von Riegan," he said.
"Infamous?" Claude asked with a weak laugh. "Who's been talking about me? Hilda?"
"Her letters mention you here and there." Goneril smirked. "Do not speak of it to my father, though. You might leave here with a fiancée if you are not careful."
"Oh, there are worse people to marry than Hilda," Claude said, shrugging. Edelgard glanced at him curiously. He truly did not seem to care much about the prospect of marrying for love. That fascinated her.
"You would be lucky to have her," Goneril agreed. "In fact, you might be lucky enough to have her and Goneril, if you want it."
"What?" Claude asked flatly.
"Well," Goneril said with a shrug, "mostly, I want Hilda to take over. I find the prospect of ruling over a territory rather boring, and it is far too much work. Oh, where are my manners… come in, would you?"
Edelgard and Claude exchanged bewildered looks. What, Claude mouthed at her from behind his hand, the fuck?
She managed to toss him a stunned sort of shrug before Goneril turned back to them.
"Well, come on," he said brightly. "Oh, we will need to get you dressed, those clothes are simply tragic."
"He's definitely Hilda's brother," Claude murmured to her as he helped her limp into the estate.
Holst Goneril made good on his promise, and Edelgard was essentially thrown into a bathtub and scrubbed by various servants until her skin felt a bit raw. She hoped Claude had to endure the same torture. At the very least, she came out of the experience with shiny hair and dewy skin that smelled intensely of roses. A servant had even insisted on sewing rosebuds into Edelgard's hair, which left her feeling rather elegant.
The unfortunate thing was that she now had to choose an outfit from Hilda's large collection of dresses. Nothing seemed appealing to Edelgard, who yearned for her sturdy brown trousers and cotton white shirt that some random pirates had given her. She could have handed Dana any one of these dresses, and that alone would have been worth her ransom.
Edelgard had to settle for a pair of black tights, which, much to her dismay, servants had to help her put on due to her injury, and a black dress with a high collar. The fabric over the top of her chest was sheer, and gold embroidery slithered against the collar, the chest, the sleeves, and crept downwards.
Literally nothing in Hilda's wardrobe could be considered simple. Edelgard was thankful that this dress, at the very least, contained not a hint of pink.
Claude found her in Hilda's room. He took a good moment to stare at her, almost pointedly, and she stared back.
"If you are here to gape at me and tell me I look beautiful," Edelgard said, "you may say your piece, and then leave me, thank you."
"I was going to ask what they've done to your hair," Claude said, stepping into Hilda's room and shrugging off any sort of enchantment a pretty face could really have on Claude.
She was annoyed that he seemed to be able to pull off the pale pink shirt. Nobody should look good in that color.
"Braid it if you must," Edelgard sighed, turning her back to him. It felt almost like a normal routine.
"Are those rosebuds?" Claude leaned a bit closer to examine her hair.
"Does it look bad?"
"It looks lovely," he said. "Though I it seems a bit of a waste. Not to mention hellish to take out. Would you like me to work around them?"
Claude braided her hair quickly. When he was done, she saw that the rosebuds remained in two twists that led into a longer plait.
"Thank you," he said.
"Anytime." He offered out his arm. "I'm going to go explore the library, if you are interested."
"Sadly," Edelgard said, "I resigned myself to staying in Hilda's very pink, very cluttered room."
"Sad," Claude drawled, his arm still extended. Edelgard smiled, and she took it.
The library was enormous, and she could see Claude itching to pull books the moment they stepped in, so she sat down on the nearest table and observed him as he skimmed the shelves. At one point, he passed a large window, and he stopped for a moment to stare out of it.
"What?" Edelgard pushed herself to her feet and moved slowly to his side. She needed to hold onto chairs for support, which was annoying. Hopefully she could find a healer who could deal with this soon. "Oh… I did not realize how high up we were."
Claude glanced at her. He offered a small smile, and an arm to lean on. She took it gratefully.
"That," he said, jerking his chin out the window, "is Almyra."
Edelgard looked out into the expanse of land on the horizon, which was flat as far as the eye could see.
"Oh," she said. "That…"
"Is a thing," Claude said, turning her away from the window. "Yes."
Edelgard studied Claude as he led her away from the view of Almyra, and she had to wonder.
"You know," she said, "I've been wondering about you… and your… view on marriage."
"What view?" Claude tilted his head at her confusedly.
"The view that marriage is merely a political bargaining chip."
"What, like it's not?" Claude grinned at her. "Are you going to prove me wrong?"
"I just have to wonder," Edelgard said innocently, "why you think so, when your parents clearly married for love."
That hit him hard, she could tell. He shot her a look, and she shot him one right back.
"It is because they married for love," Claude said smoothly, "that I feel I am doomed not to."
"That is ridiculous," Edelgard sighed. "You are to be the leader of the Leicester Alliance. That should give you the freedom to—"
"Does power, in your eyes, equate to freedom?" Claude demanded.
She looked up into his eyes, and she said without hesitation, "Yes."
"Perhaps you should rethink your ideals," he said. "Power, El, is just another type of shackle. It is just another burden. It will not free you, not your mind, not your heart. It will only weigh upon you until it crushes you, or the pressure turns you as hard as a diamond."
"Perhaps," she countered, "one must be hard as a diamond to rule fairly and efficiently."
"So no one can break through your barrier?" Claude scoffed. "What a good ruler that would make."
"Would you rather I leave myself open and vulnerable," she demanded, "Claude Soft-heart?"
The muscle in his jaw leapt with tension at that.
"My heart may be soft," Claude said, "even still, even now. But at least my people will never call me cold."
"Even if they call you weak?" she asked sharply.
"Even then." Claude inhaled deeply through his nose, and he exhaled through his mouth. As though he was trying to calm himself. "You know how to rile a guy up, huh, El?"
"It is a talent," she said, rolling her eyes, "to make men irrationally angry."
"Why ask about marriage, anyway?" he asked.
Edelgard eyed the bookshelf before her. She tapped a book idly.
"You know," she said, "I… wonder if we could… have a trade, perhaps."
"Yes." Edelgard stood stiffly. She was grateful that he was propping her up. "I would willingly hand over my own secret… if you would tell me yours."
He stood beside her silently. It felt awful, the anxiety of staring at the books, feeling his eyes on her face and wondering what he could possibly be thinking.
"El," he said softly, "you don't have to tell me anything. My secret is already yours. All I ask is that, if possible, you can protect it."
"If possible," she echoed.
"I am not a fool," he said with a small laugh, "no matter how many times you call me one. You could ruin me with a whisper, and that… would be fair, in a war. But we are not at war."
"No," Edelgard murmured. "We are not."
"So I am asking you," he said, looking down at her with tired eyes, "to please consider me your friend."
"I already do," Edelgard said, albeit bitterly. "You know that."
"Then," he said, "as my friend, will you promise to keep my secret close to your heart?"
She blinked as he held out his pinky to her. As a child might.
"Really?" she murmured.
"Promise," he said firmly.
"Oh," she huffed, hooking her pinking with his. "Alright. I promise."
Claude smiled. "Thank you," he said.
She decided, despite all her curiosity, despite all the questions she had—about Cyril, about Dana, about Claude's father— she decided to let it die there.
They were granted a few more days. That was worrying for a number of reasons, considering the people of Hrym were steadily growing in their unrest. Ferdinand was anxious his father might find out they'd poisoned him. Hilda was anxious because she did not know when her brother would arrive. Hubert was anxious because they had not gotten news about Edelgard in days.
Dimitri was just anxious. Period.
Byleth seemed fine, though.
It seemed to him that they were biding time until something inevitably crumbled and gave way. They could not stay here forever. Half the students had already returned to the monastery. Lysithea had nearly been ordered back, but Hilda had pled for her to stay. Dimitri had sent every single student from the Blue Lions back, including Dedue, and that decision was haunting him. He felt rather lonely.
Until rather early one morning, Hilda burst into the room while Hubert and Dimitri were discussing hypothetical battle tactics over coffee. They very much still hated each other, but in the past few days they had come to a tentative truce.
"He's here!" she gasped.
Hubert was on his feet and out the door in a second. Dimitri was not far behind him.
They gathered outside in the water garden, awaiting the arrival of Duke Goneril with bated breath. Dorothea had done herself up quickly, likely to impress Hilda's wealthy, powerful brother. Ferdinand was as composed as a boy who was guilty of conspiring to feed his father poisoned wine could possibly be. Lysithea was stone-faced, but her knuckles were white and shaking at her side. Hilda was actually biting her cuticles, looking incredibly nervous as she paced from one shallow pond to the next.
Byleth had her chin in her fist. If Dimitri had to name her emotion, she seemed… concerned, at the very least.
"Your brother," Ferdinand said, "is trustworthy, right, Hilda?"
"He's a bit of a dummy," Hilda sighed, "but not that dumb. If he says he has information, he's telling the truth."
"Will we need to give him anything for it?" Hubert asked.
"Probably not," Hilda said. "Though, that doesn't mean he doesn't have an ulterior motive. Holst can be tricky sometimes."
"I suppose a great strategist like Duke Goneril would be tricky," Dimitri murmured.
"Oh!" Dorothea gasped. "I hear horses!"
The horses did, in fact, appear. Along with wyverns. The wyverns got to the entrance of the gardens first, and a man immediately slipped off it and ran for them.
"Hilda!" the man cried, his pink hair fluttering in the wind behind him.
"Holst!" Hilda ran to meet him. "Your hair is so long! Are you trying to steal my look? You could have at the very least asked! I would have given it to you!"
Holst, who was strangely flamboyant and most certainly related to Hilda, laughed in her face as he patted her head.
"I will be sure to style it in pigtails before we next meet," he said to her. He glanced at the rest of them, his eyebrows shooting up. "Oh, hello. Are these friends of yours, Hilda?"
"Ah…" Hilda glanced back at them. "Well, Lysithea certainly is. Oh, and our teacher, Byleth! The others are kinda…"
"I strongly resent that," Dorothea said with a pout.
"That's Dorothea," Hilda said.
"Dorothea," Holst repeated. "A wonderful name. Say, Dorothea—"
"Cut to the point," Hubert said sharply.
Dimitri hated to agree, but he agreed. Even if he only did so in his mind.
"Oh." Holst smiled, and he nodded. "Yes, of course. Hold on a moment."
Holst peered beyond his wyvern, and he gestured at the men at the gates. Another wyvern swept into the garden. It took a moment for anyone to recognize the rider, but when he slid down from his saddle, Hilda gasped.
"Claude!" she cried.
Claude turned his head, and he shot Hilda a lopsided grin.
"Heya, Hilda," he called. Then he turned back to his wyvern and offered a hand to the second rider. Dimitri stared as that offered hand grasped an arm, and his other hand fell upon a slim waist as she was lifted off the wyvern and deposited on the ground gently.
He heard Hubert let out a little breath of relief as Edelgard turned to glance at them, her pale eyes softening.
Hilda and Lysithea were already running.
"Careful, careful," Claude yelped as both girls nearly tackled him. Dimitri noticed he still had a grip on Edelgard, who'd attempted to move out of the way. "Wow, miss me much? I wasn't gone for that long."
"Claude!" Hilda cried. "That isn't funny! None of this was funny!"
"It wasn't," Lysithea said, her voice trembling. "It wasn't, not one bit. Claude, don't ever do that again!"
Claude looked a bit bewildered as both of them buried their faces in his chest. He glanced to Edelgard for help, but she merely looked amused.
"I'm sorry," he told both girls gently. "I did not intend to cause anyone any distress. Look, I'm fine, see? Not a scratch on me."
"That is not necessarily true," Edelgard said in her cool, matter-of-fact tone.
"At least I can walk by myself," Claude retorted.
"Perhaps if you were a better healer," Edelgard said, "I would be walking fine by now."
"I see being stranded together for weeks has not tempered your argumentative natures," Dimitri said amusedly, taking a small step forward. They both looked at him in surprise. Then they glanced at each other. It was an odd look that Dimitri could not read. "Did I hear correctly, Edelgard? You are injured?"
"I'm fine," she sighed.
"She's not," Claude said. "She'll need to go to the infirmary. And Flayn should probably look at her."
"I will be fine," she amended. "Obviously I can walk. It just hurts a bit."
Edelgard's eyes snapped to Hubert. She stared at him, looking dazed for a moment, and then a small smile rose to her lips.
"Hello, Hubert," she said. "I hope you did not miss me too terribly."
Hubert looked at her as though she had strung the sun up in the sky. Then, in an instant, he was composed, and he bowed.
"You know me well enough, I think," he said, "to know that I did not rest until I knew you were safe."
A strange, stricken look passed over Edelgard's face.
"Rest now, then, Hubert," she said gently. "I am safe."
Then her eyes slid to his. Hilda and Lysithea had finally let go of Claude, and Claude led her carefully forward. She seemed to be able to walk fine, so he did not sense the problem was in her legs. It was her gait that was strange. She favored her left side over the other. A stab wound, perhaps?
"You both look exhausted," Dimitri said. "I… cannot imagine what you have been through."
"Eh, it could have been worse," Claude said with a shrug.
Edelgard scoffed a bit. She pulled at the end of her long braid, a hairstyle he had never seen on her before, and she shrugged as well.
"It all worked out in the end," she said. She reached up and patted Dimitri on the shoulder. "Shall we all go home?"
They saw each other in passing. They made eye contact. Claude winked. She scoffed. It was a game, you see, or maybe it was an act. Maybe she had joined Claude's elaborate show, and every set of eyes was her audience as she ignored his quips and jubilant laughs. She ignored the way his smile did not reach his eyes, or the way he deflated when Cyril insulted Almyra, or the way he stared at her when he assumed she was busy speaking to Hubert or Ferdinand or Dorothea.
It felt like it had never really happened at all, and yet she felt like something had changed. Something had changed and nothing had changed. She had to accept it.
Dana came by the monastery, and Claude welcomed him with a hug and a grin. He did not speak Almyran in front of anyone, even when Dana spoke it at him.
"Hello, Dana," Edelgard said, unable to help her smile as he approached her. "I was afraid you would not come. Though, I suppose the promise of money is rather enticing."
In truth, Edelgard had feared that Kala's crew had been lost. She did not want to ask about the casualties.
"I wanted to see you two safe," Dana said. "Though, the money is not bad either."
Edelgard laughed. "I have to thank you," she confessed. "By teaching me to navigate… by fixing us both that boat, we were able to get home. You saved us."
"I did no such thing," Dana said.
"Of course," Edelgard said smoothly.
Dana sniffed, and he looked away. He paused, his brow furrowing, and Edelgard followed his gaze to a very shocked, mildly terrified Cyril. Dana tilted his head, and he barked something in Almyran at him. Cyril's big eyes narrowed, and he snapped something viciously before stomping off.
"Ouch," Dana said. "Rude."
"What did he say?" Edelgard asked.
"I won't repeat."
Edelgard choked on another laugh.
"He's Almyran," she said, "but he… had a hard time in Almyra. He prefers it here."
"Shelter," Dana said, "food, honest work… a waif's dream. Sad, though, he could not experience the joy of home."
Edelgard supposed that was the case for many children, but she did not say a word about that.
"You know," she said thoughtfully, "there is a ball tonight."
"I am too old for you."
"That's not—" Edelgard groaned, shaking her head. "No. Listen. I know… to put it plainly, I know about Claude."
Dana's dark eyes flickered over her face.
"I see," he said.
"Yes." Edelgard folded her arms across her chest. "And there is a ball tonight. You should attend. I heard a famous musician might show his face. Did you know he was a courtier as well?"
Dana's smile was visible, and Edelgard felt relieved.
"Well that," he said, "I cannot miss."
The ball came quickly enough, and Edelgard moved through the stiff waltzes and the pleasantries with ease. Her back nearly brushed against Dimitri's at one point, and she tried not to meet his eye. When she glanced at the fringes of the dance floor, Claude stood there, eyeing the crowd.
As the song faded out, Edelgard saw Dana out of the corner of her eye, and she broke away from her partner with a small smile. Then she waited a moment, drifting organically between students until she made it to the edge of the dance floor. She smiled, she nodded, she laughed a bit, and her feet scuttled closer to Claude's side. They did not look at each other.
Dana's thumb struck the strings of a violin.
Claude's eyes shot up in alarm, and she almost felt the tension in his body as he recognized the tune.
Still, he did not so much as glance at her.
She waited for him to react, but instead he merely stared at Dana. So she knocked her fingertips against his knuckles, and she tipped her head back.
"I have a feeling," she said, "this is not meant to be danced alone."
Claude looked down at her, and shock seemed to overcome him as he searched her face. His expression softened.
"It's not," he said quietly.
"Well," Edelgard said, "then dance with me."
And Claude stared at her, because he knew that she knew, and perhaps he was analyzing the threat, perhaps he was trying to decide if it was a trap, or perhaps he just had forgotten that he'd trusted her once.
Then, he smiled, and he clapped his hand into hers.
"I thought you'd never ask," he said softly.