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The Savior King, The Master Tactician and the Queen of Liberation

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If someone had told Dimitri just after he met Claude von Reigan for the first time that he would knock a man's teeth out for insulting him, he would have given them a strange look. 

It wasn't that he disliked the other man – he just found him incredibly exasperating. Claude was capable, intelligent and charismatic; all traits worth admiring; however, he went out of his way to tease and bedevil people, rarely acting like the duke he would become in a few years at best. That in and of itself wouldn't be too off-putting – Dimitri was friends with Sylvain, after all – if it weren't for the way he smiled.

For all that Claude joked, teased and generally acted casual, his eyes...were always cold. When he smiled, bright and friendly, those green orbs were remote and unreadable. Dimitri wasn't a man easily unnerved after what the things he'd experienced...but it did unnerve him, that Claude could act so warm without feeling a thing. It was a carefully practiced act; had to be, seeing how many people fell for it and believed he was nothing but a troublemaker. If seeing the life leave people's eyes hadn't taught Dimitri to look more closely at them, he might have been fooled as well.

People – even Edelgard, brilliant and people-savvy as she was – dismissed the young duke for the person he pretended to be. Dimitri, meanwhile, feared that Claude was a good deal more dangerous than he appeared. If he could smile so warmly while being so cold inside...how could he trust anything the other man said? If he could feign friendship easily, without it meaning anything, didn't that mean he could discard his 'friends' without a care the moment it was expedient?

So perhaps Dimitri had been more aloof toward his fellow house leader than he should have been. Part of the reason he was at the academy was to foster good relations with his fellow future rulers, after all; he was hardly achieving that by being overly critical of the other man in the name of hiding his unease.

Fate, however, as it so often did, was playing a trick on him. Dimitri wasn't sure what else to call a random happenstance that exposed him to Claude's best kept secret.


Dimitri had been headed to the training grounds when he heard the shouting. Someone was in a hideous temper, screaming abuse at another, and that never heralded anything good.

Alarmed, he turned and hurried back the way he came and into one of the monastery's many alleys, where a disturbing scene lay out before him. Cyril – a young man he'd seen a few times before in the Archbishop's company – was sprawled out a few feet away from a reedy man in church armor, a number of weapons scattered across the ground around him. Claude was standing a few feet back, a resigned look on his face. “-could've killed me, you little brat!” The soldier was spitting, hands clenched into fists.

“Hardly,” Claude countered, taking a step forward and helping Cyril to his feet. The poor boy looked incredibly rattled; he didn't quite cower behind the older student, but he visibly backed away from the soldier, shoulders hunched. “He doesn't have the strength to do that by accident. Besides, you're in full plate armor. At worst you would've had to knock out a dent.”

“Did I ask you, you Almyran mutt?” The soldier spat.

Claude's demeanor changed instantly, greater than anything Dimitri had seen before. He went completely rigid, one hand sliding down to his belt and shifting back into a defensive stance. Those cold green eyes momentarily flared with alarm...and what almost looked like panic. “Geez,” He complained, his voice amazingly calm, “get a bit of a tan and everyone assumes you're from the outside world. It really doesn't take much, does it?” Somehow the prince didn't think he was talking about his skin color.

“Don't be coy, it's degrading.” The soldier sneered, puffing himself up so he seemed taller. “Even if I couldn't smell it on you, I've fought at Fodlan's throat. I could recognize your kind a mile away. How humiliating for the duke, for his only heir to be baseborn half breed.

Cyril twisted and stared up at Claude, who seemed unmoved. “You know, considering you're a man of proper breeding,” He said flippantly, “It's odd I'm not the one screaming bloody murder at a kid for bumping into me around a blind corner.”

“You have no right,” The soldier took a menacing step forward. “Neither of you. You have no right to disgrace the monastery with your presence.”

Enough!

It took Dimitri a moment, when all three spun around to face him, to realize he in fact had spoken. He'd rather felt like he was in a dream – or maybe a memory. How many times had he needed to confront a soldier speaking to Dedue in this very manner? How often, since the man had entered his house, had he needed to sternly order his servants to stop whispering behind his back, chew out soldiers for 'accidentally' causing an injury during training? It didn't matter that he'd never set foot in Almyra; he couldn't let this pass by without speaking up.

“You forget yourself,” He told the soldier, intentionally switching to the tones he used when speaking to his people. Even though he'd only done so a handful of times, Rodrigue had praised his oratory power. “The Archbishop invited Cyril and Claude von Riegan into these halls. No one has more authority under the goddess than her! It is you who has no right – not to harass them, and certainly not to abuse Cyril over an honest mistake, the likes of which happens every day in this busy area!”

“The Riegan bastard prays to foreign gods!” The soldier burst out, disbelief and anger warring in his voice. “He's spat on her kindness! It's in his blood. No good will come from having him here. He is -”

“-a man!” Dimitri cut him off ruthlessly, pitching his voice so it drowned out whatever bile was meant to follow. “Claude is a man no different from you, and he is no bastard – not under law, and I doubt he is one in spirit either. His mother returned with him to her place of birth, and that I believe speaks for itself. You owe him an apology, and Cyril too, and I suggest you start to consider what you will say to the Archbishop after I speak of this incident with her!”

“Dimitri...” Claude's voice trailed off. Dimitri looked over the man's shoulder to see the archer staring wide eyed at him. His expression, while still largely unreadable, seemed stunned.

“Aplogize?! To the son of a whore?! You would have-”

The sensation of his temper snapping was a palpable thing; Dimitri felt rather than saw his fist slam into the man's jaw. The force of the impact sent several teeth flying through the air; the man himself flew several feet back into the wall and dropped like a stone to the ground, out like a light. For a moment Dimitri worried that he might have killed him; fortunately, movement in the soldier's chest put that to rest. Dimitri stared at the result of his work for a moment, then sighed, wiping the splatter of blood off his face.

“I shouldn't have done that,” He said, slightly embarrassed. “Hit him, that is. Hopefully this won't buy him more sympathy than he deserves.” He stepped around his fallen victim and began gathering up the weapons that had caused the conflict. “Did he hurt you at all, Cyril?”

“Ah...n-no, he didn't, Claude was there,” The young man stammered out, scrambling to help. “I – c'mon, you don't have to -”

“Please, it's the least I can do,” Dimitri picked up the lance and carefully balanced it in Cyril's arms. “I'm so sorry you had to deal with that. Has that happened often?” Cyril opened his mouth, hesitated, then stammered out a weak-sounding denial. “Please, be honest. And not just with me, but Lady Rhea as well. She won't stand for this, I assure you.”

“She wouldn't, huh...” Claude murmured, just barely audible to them.

Dimitri stood up and held out the few weapons to his counterpart. “Would you take these?” He asked politely. “I have to see to him. And speak with Seteth. The fact that he felt comfortable attacking you and Cyril...” He shook his head.

Claude took the weapons without saying a word, green eyes sharpening. Dimitri was struck with the intense sense that he was being analyzed, though those emerald pools were as frustratingly enigmatic as ever. For him to slip so easily back into that calm...how often had he heard people say such things about him...? “Yeah, no problem,” The brunette said casually. “Though I'm not sure how you're going to explain that,” he nodded toward the unconscious soldier.

“Oh, I intend to tell the truth,” Dimitri said firmly, striding over to the man and slinging him over one shoulder. The plate armor dug uncomfortably into his neck, but he ignored it with long practice. “and by the goddess, he will never mistreat either of you again.”

He left the alley, feeling Claude's gaze burning into his back long after he reached the infirmary.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

Seteth, fortunately, seemed almost as unhappy as Dimitri himself after he was told the full story. Oh, he was displeased by the prince's lack of control over his temper, but punishment that consisted just of two weeks worth of weeding the gardens was a small price to pay for insuring the ornery soldier would be thoroughly disciplined and reassigned to border duty. Dimitri knew it wasn't very princely of him, but he couldn't help the satisfied smirk he gave when Seteth informed the man of Lady Rhea's great displeasure. The soldier turned white as a sheet.

“To think he had the nerve to abuse the Archbishop's guests behind her back,” Seteth muttered afterwards, glowering. “I need to speak to the other knights and see how much they knew of or enabled this behavior.”

Dimitri was quite grateful; both because Cyril and Claude were clearly disturbed by what happened, and because this inspection would likely catch those giving Dedue trouble as well.

“Thank you, for bringing this to my attention.” Seteth nodded at him. “Though it would behoove you not to use your fists should this happen again.”

“Forgive me,” Dimitri bowed, contrite. “It's just that...I have been using words alone to defend my friend for the longest time. The frustration I feel in those moments is immense. I hope that as I continue to master my weapons, my emotions will follow.”

Seteth nodded. “See to it. You are dismissed now; dinner will be served shortly, after all.”

The walk down to the dining hall did wonders to clear his head; even though he couldn't taste anything these days, some good food from home was always welcome. The warm racket of conversation engulfed him as he entered and went to serve himself; the Hunting Festival was on, meaning there was enough food for everyone to have seconds. His classmates were already there; even at the front of the hall, he could hear Annette enthusiastically discussing the desert menu with Mercedes, Ingrid telling Ashe about the new book of tales in the library, and Dedue scolding Sylvain for flirting with the maids amidst the chatter of the hall. He stood there for a moment, plate in hand, just...trying to absorb that warmth he could feel from everyone present.

It made his demons feel far away.

It was almost ironic. He had come to the monastery primarily to find out the truth about Duscur, to chase down the one truly responsible for the brutal deaths of his loved ones and end them. Yet even as he worked, he found himself distracted by...little things. The cheer of his fellow Blue Lions as they pulled him this way and that way, chasing things that caught their eye. The lazy Wednesdays he spent fishing, not often catching much (his tendency to break things extended to fishing lines, unfortunately) but enjoying himself all the same. The tournaments that allowed him test his skills in an innocent way, harming no one while still imparting valuable experience. It was as if, as long as he stayed here, no voice would trouble him.

“There you are!”

Except perhaps for one!

Claude appeared at his side as if out of the ether, beaming brightly and catching his plate before he dropped it in shock. “Been looking for you,” He said blithely. “C'mon, we saved you a seat.”

“I-what? Claude – wait – but I'm not one of the -” Dimitri's confused protests fell on deaf ears; Claude grabbed his arm and half tugged, half dragged him to the far right of the dining hall, where the Golden Deer claimed their long table. Sure enough, there was an empty seat tucked right between Raphael and the leader's own chair; Claude casually put his plate there and dropped back in front of his own meal, which was almost untouched.

“It's the last Friday before our first live training exercise,” The brunette said by way of explanation, “Sounds like a reason to celebrate to me. Seeing as you're already a step head, why don't you impart your wisdom on our unruly gaggle of misfits?”

“So it did happen!” A white haired girl – Lysithea, Dimitri was fairly certain that was her name – leaned forward with an eager smile. “You really did knock out that guy harassing Cyril in one punch?!”

Dimitri's ears burned. “Don't tell me everyone's already heard of that,” He pleaded.

“Eh, too late,” Hilda von Goneril cackled at his embarrassed facepalm. “That was awesome, by the way. That guy is a total creep; he's only at the monastery because my brother kicked him out our household!”

“I heard you knocked his teeth out, and you weren't even wearing gauntlets!” Raphael said eagerly. “That's not all; I asked around, and I heard that you lifted an entire carriage by yourself once!”

“It was for a good cause,” Dimitri protested, “My crest aside, physical strength is in my blood. My father-” He stalled, swallowing hard over the emotions the memory brought up, “-my father once lifted a tree off Felix and I after it fell and nearly crushed us. Before that, he told me a story about my grandfather where he carried a foal through the woods so a healer could tend to its leg. It's a – a family quirk, you could say.”

“I'd love to hear the stories,” Leonie said, stretching before pushing her empty plate toward one of the serving bowls. “Especially if they end with you dropping jerks like rocks.”

Dimitri sputtered and turned to halfheartedly glare at Claude. The brunette grinned at him, eyes dancing with amusement. Something got stuck in the prince's brain at the sight when he realized he'd never seen that before. Not quite. He was smiling, pleased with himself...and it didn't seem artificial. Guarded, maybe; rooted in Dimitri's current awkwardness, absolutely. But...it was real.

It changed Claude's whole face. Suddenly everything in his demeanor was playful, welcoming...and the effect of that was immediate and overwhelming.

The discomfort he'd so often felt around the man evaporated like morning mist; his lips started moving, and he found himself telling stories he had kept to himself...well, ever since Duscur. About his grandfather. About his father, and stepmother, and Glenn. It amazed him that he still remembered those good times; even though, in moments, he would flash back to that terrible day, the laughter and fascination of the lively people around him drove the images away.

It was strange how alike, yet how different the Golden Deer were from his own Lions. They were relaxed in a way noble children weren't; Raphael and Leonie casually swore on occasion, while Ignatz was nervous and fascinated by art, twice offering to paint him a picture. Lysithea was obsessed with sweets and Marianne hardly spoke; Hilda, meanwhile, seemed to get a kick out of being as lazy as possible and was proud of it. Lorenz was the most like a noble Dimitri might have met at home, yet his shameless flirting was dangerously akin to Sylvain. Yet they welcomed him without batting an eye. Suddenly Dimitri wondered if this was Claude's strength; that anyone could come to him and his people and feel like they belonged there.

That...was an incredible power, indeed.

And Claude...Claude kept drawing him into conversation – through jokes, though casual observations...once again, the weight of his attention was a felt thing. Dimitri didn't know what to make of it...and there were moments where the young man casually touched him and he just prayed he wasn't as visibly baffled as he felt. What had changed? Surely such a basic kindness as he showed earlier wouldn't be enough to drop the barriers the future Duke Riegan had built around himself?

Dimitri lost track of time in the midst of this; dinner ended before he knew it, Dedue removing the empty plate in front of him while regarding him very curiously. Claude smiled cheerfully at his retainer and said, “No need to make that face~! We were only borrowing him; just one more moment and I'll give him right back.” He winked at Dimitri and sauntered out of the room, clearly expecting him to follow.

“It's no trouble, Dedue,” Dimitri assured hastily, scrambling to get up. “I enjoyed myself, actually.” He smiled at the Golden Deer, earning friendly grins in return. “I'll be right back.” He left the hall at a jog, a strange hope in his chest that he had earned honesty, somehow, from this morning.

Claude wasn't loitering just outside the door. Instead, he waited for Dimitri to emerge and then left down the stairs to the fishing dock and toward the greenhouse. This late in the evening, there was rarely anyone there except for Dedue or maybe Bernadetta; sure enough, it was empty except for them when the door swung shut behind the prince and the duke.

“So that was nice,” Claude said brightly. “And here I thought you were another boring, stuffy noble. It's good to be wrong sometimes.”

“Claude...” Dimitri sighed, before deciding to cut through to the heart of it. “Was this spurred on by what happened this morning? When we spoke at the table, you mentioned Cyril being harassed, but not yourself. Why?”

The brunette raised his arms, linking his fingers behind his head. “You saw why,” He responded easily. Dimitri flinched, instantly thinking he'd made a mistake, because those green eyes were cold again. “I'd appreciate it if you didn't spread that around; it's what I wanted to say. People in Fodlan look at outsiders like they're some kind of monster. I've heard everything that jerk said before and more besides; there have even been attempts on my life.”

“That's...” Dimitri stammered, dumbfounded by the implications. More than one attempt on his life? How was that possible? Was Claude's grandfather unwilling to protect him? How...how could Claude look so calm while saying that? “That's horrible.”

Claude shrugged. “The scriptures claim the Goddess said that no one born in Fodlan belongs outside its borders, and no one born outside was chosen by Her.” His voice was sour. “Isn't she supposed to be loving and compassionate?”

“That's -” He swallowed his instinctive response hard. “The scripture was written by her children, after Serios defeated Nemesis. Perhaps they made a mistake. I cannot see the goddess saying such things...”

“But don't you?” Claude said, dropping his arms and staring intently at him. “You surprised the hell out of me, you know, barging in and defending the honor of two Almyrans.”

“Why would that be surprising?” Dimitri protested, offense bubbling up in his throat. If he was going there...

“A lot of reasons,” Was the even response. Yes he was. “You're the prince of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus; your people have the closest relationship to the church out of everyone in Fodlan. You were raised on those scriptures. You have access to sacred rites that the Emperor no longer does, after the schism. And you have more reason than most to be wary of outsiders. I figured-”

It's not like that!” The words came out like a whip crack; Claude actually jumped back a step at the force of his response. “Duscur...Duscur was a mistake!” He let out a harsh breath. “If I am to know your most dangerous secret, Claude, in return let me tell you my greatest shame. I do not believe Duscur was responsible for my family's death! The day it happened...the day I lost everyone I loved...the weapons of Duscur are made in particular shapes; distinctive ones, forged in accordance to the will of their gods! The sword that tore my father's arm off was Fodlan made! The arrows that laid Glenn down had no feathers, no ornamentation! I saw men of Duscur struck down trying to help Glenn and I escape the flames; they put their lives down for us! But...but when I returned home...I failed. I failed to convince my father's council of this! I failed to convey the truth!”

Claude stared wide-eyed at him; he went on almost maniacally, gesticulating when words failed. “My father's men...they lead a massacre of innocent people! Even if men of Duscur had killed my father, the brutality shown upon them...! Dedue's sister, his mother... shopkeepers, farmers, street children...! Even if men of Duscur had been responsible, people who would have had no way of knowing it, no way of stopping it, they were all killed. They died because I failed to sway the very people I am meant to rule over! Because it was easier to blame the strange, foreign people of Duscur than attempt to hunt an unknown culprit!”

Dimitri raked a hand through his hair, letting out a seething sob. “Truly, Claude, you may think what you will about me, but do not ever believe I would wish for, or allow, any harm to come to you on account of your Almyran blood. May the goddess have mercy on anyone who tries, because I won't.”

A very still silence hung in the air. It felt oppressive. Dimitri had told precious few people, after that day, about what he'd seen. Even his fellows in the Blue Lions were largely in the dark. The goddess alone knew why he'd just blurted it all out; had the words really felt like an accusation?

“Um...w-well, I clearly shouldn't have said that,” Claude managed after a minute, and at any other time Dimitri would have marveled at the other teen being so clearly on the back foot. “Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that; really, I only figured on understandable distrust and suspicion. You're too much of a knight in shining armor to attack me without provocation.”

A knight in shining armor?, Dimitri wondered. For a man as observant as you...you don't even suspect? I suppose you simply haven't had the chance... “Apologies for that tirade,” He said with a sigh. “That was immature of me.”

“Seriously?” Claude shook his head, his expression softening significantly. Dimitri suddenly felt trapped, a mouse mesmerized by a hawk overhead. “You were talking about people going over your head to commit a massacre. I would have been more disturbed if you could talk about that as if it were a mildly interesting day out.” He frowned. “Don't you realize how ridiculously brave what you did was? You walked into a room full of bloodthirsty, vengeful soldiers in a borderline frenzy and told them they were wrong; that could have ended extremely poorly for you.” He raised his palms up. “There wasn't much you could have done; you weren't king then; in their eyes, you were just the fragile orphan prince who was confused by his grief.”

“Which is a great comfort to Duscur, I'm sure,” Dimitri replied bitterly.

“I doubt it would be, but it's true. None of what happened is your fault.” Claude said in such a matter of fact way; the sun was hot, water was wet, it wasn't your fault. Dimitri almost reeled. “Hey...Dedue is part of your household, right? I guess you've had to defend him from a lot of slander.” He actually smiled. “I'm flattered someone like me, from the wrong side of the landscape, was worth the trouble.”

“You're correct.” Dimitri managed a weak smile in return. “Truly, Claude, if any kingdom soldier gives you trouble, please – tell me immediately. I swear I'll deal with it.”

“You're serious...” Was there a little wonder in Claude's voice? “I should have expected as much from you. Old habits die hard, I guess.”

“If people have honestly tried to kill you over something so petty, you had every right to be wary,” Dimitri responded with a shake of his head. “If it is your wish, I won't speak of your heritage. Though...perhaps someday you won't have to worry over people knowing.”

“Someday, when fish can fly and stars can be woven into crowns,” Claude deadpanned, but there was no bite in his voice. “I guess you can stop wondering why I look like Cyril now.”

“Oh, that.” He was a little embarrassed to be reminded of that comment he'd made earlier in the month. “Honestly, I'd meant to remark on how, if he was blessed by the same arcane magic that touched you at birth, he'd grow up to be quite handsome. Yet I only managed to make you anxious instead...I'm sorry.”

“Arcane magic?” Claude parroted, blinking rapidly. “What, uh, what exactly is the context for that?”

“Well, it's your Almyran blood, I realize now. It makes you incredibly striking,” Dimitri said in all seriousness. “Something about your skin and your eyes...truly, when I first saw you, I thought you'd stepped out of an old northern fable about a star that fell to Fodlan and took on human form. An image that was somewhat tarnished the moment you opened your mouth...but not completely. It's no wonder it's so easy for you to charm people.”

He expected a joke, a flirtation, any number of things in response to something that he realized the instant after he spoke the words could be construed as a clumsy invitation.

Instead, however, he was greeted with the unusual sight of Claude von Riegan stunned completely speechless. The brunette's mouth moved silently, green eyes full of a cascading emotion Dimitri wasn't sure he could name. The silence stretched on for several moments, until the prince could finally bear it no more. “You say such pretty things,” The brunette said at last, cutting off his worried inquiry. A small smile broke across his face. Small, yes, but brilliantly warm, one that made his expression glow. “You know, if you did something with that unruly hair of yours, you'd be getting lots of attention yourself.”

Dimitri felt his face turn burning red. “Ah...is that right?” He ran a self-conscious hand through his eternally unmanageable locks. “I'll...have to consider that.”

“Heh...” Claude's laugh rang through the empty greenhouse, stirring it to life. Is that his real smile? Goddess, it's amazing. “I've detained you long enough; we better get back before Dedue starts to think I've kidnapped you. We leave with the princess for live training tomorrow, don't we?” He winked. “I'll see you then.”

With that, the enigmatic Riegan heir slipped out of the building, leaving a slightly flustered and very contemplative Dimitri in his wake.

It's like he's a different person. No...no, that's not quite right. It's not that he changed, it's that he felt safe. Dimitri looked down at his hands. It must be lonely; living as a child of two worlds, kept only in one or the other. But what does that mean for us? Can we be friends, Claude von Riegan?

Would you feel safe being friends with the boar prince?

Chapter Text

The one time I run into bandits hungry or stupid enough to try and murder royalty, I get paired up with two rulers who don't know how to beat a strategic retreat, Claude thought dryly when he glanced over his shoulder and realized he had not, in fact, managed to slip off and circle about on his own. Dimitri and Edelgard were right behind him, and as a consequence, so were the bandits. Sheesh, do Fodlan generals teach anything besides charging straight ahead?

Or maybe Dimitri saw him disappear, thought he was using himself as a decoy, and was too bloody noble for his own good. That sounds about right. The thought gave him a mix of amusement and a really irritating backflip in his chest. Gah, this is not the time!

“Claude,” Dimitri gasped out after nearly crashing into a tree, “where are we going?” The bandits shouting was getting closer; give it another few minutes and those axe wielding nutjobs would be right on top of them...

“Remire!,” He shouted back, “Hurry up!”

“That's just a tiny farming village!” Edelgard said incredulously. “If we go there, we'll only involve the civilians.”

“You need to keep up with the chatter!,” He chided her, stomping on his annoyance. It was strange on the face of it. “Lately, Remire's been the favorite haunt of the Ashen Demon and their fellow mercenaries, and that's not a fight some run-out-of-the-mill bandit wants to pick!”

“The Ashen Demon?” Dimitri parroted, matching his pace with his own as an arrow whipped past, missing them both by a foot. “Claude, that mercenary...! All the stories say that person has no feelings; no pity, no remorse, nothing! Even if they were sympathetic, we have little gold to offer!”

“If you've got a better idea, I'd love to hear it,” Claude rasped as they burst out of the trees into a dimly-lit field. “Otherwise, run now and argue strategy later!”

Dimitri choked out a frustrated sentence in what Claude suspected was Old Fodlanese but kept up regardless, repeatedly glancing back to make sure they weren't loosing Edelgard. Fortunately, despite the surprise attack she hadn't gotten hurt at all, only startled awake. Claude, meanwhile, suspected he had bruised ribs judging by the pain radiating from his side. Dimitri's hand was balled into a fist to slow the bleeding in his palm which still had an arrowhead embedded in it.

Claude would give that bandit leader this much credit – it was the first time someone had tried to murder him in his sleep for a while. Fortunately, experience had taught him to keep a knife under his pillow; so he'd been able to slice the tendon of the foot pinning him and free himself before the ax came down on his neck.

Granted, he'd had to immediately throw said knife at the bandit choking Dimitri; it caught the guy in the back of the neck, dropping him. Edelgard then shoved the corpse off of him and the three of them were able to grab their weapons. Of course, they'd quickly been overwhelmed by the sheer number of bandits, including two archers, and he'd known they'd had to run for it. Alois was nowhere in sight, nor was the honor guard – a fire in the distance suggested they'd been lured away. With that in mind, Claude had recalled their last location on the map (and the map itself, it must be said) and drew up a plan as quickly as his tired and pain-addled mind would allow.

The Ashen Demon...really, the name was half a myth. Stories trickled in from traveling merchants and artists about a cold, emotionless mercenary who could carve through dozens of enemies with no more effort than dicing vegetables. Of a single swordsman(woman?) facing immense odds and walking out the other side with a nail embedded in one foot and a ship full of corpses to show for it. It was virtually impossible to tell fact from fiction, but after villagers from Remire mentioned the individual repeatedly in the same breath as the mercenary band that had taken to regularly visiting their home...well, he'd planned to investigate under less frantic circumstances, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

They crossed the first plain, then cut across the second one, where the town's iron-wrought gate were illuminated by torches and the late evening sky. Thankfully, they were still open. Good; there had been a couple of moments in running where he'd thought he'd faint from the pain radiating from his side. Plus we really need to do something about Dimitri's hand. Hopefully the town had a cleric who could tend to him...

“Hey!” Ah, the gods of fortune were smiling on them after all – rushing through the gates nearly caused him to run right into a pair of men in upscale leather armor and golden earrings. Mercenaries who were skilled enough to thrive in the business showed off their wealth in subtle ways. Be it jewelry, silver weapons, or the latest armor; the more expensive their equipment, the longer they'd been around. And long-lived mercenaries were as valuable as any anointed knight. “What's going on out there?!”

Dimitri staggered to a stop just inside the village, wheezing and clutching his wrist. Claude circled back around to him and grimaced, grabbing his arm when the prince tried to hide the injury in his cloak. The blood seeping out of his impaled palm was getting thick enough to stain most of his hand. “Please tell me you didn't rip the arrowhead out,” He said a bit sarcastically.

“I needed my hands free,” Dimitri protested. His face was significantly paler than normal, visible even in the low light of the torch. He tried to flex his hand and flinched, grimacing. “I can't use my lance otherwise.”

“If you'd left it there, it would have staunched the bleeding and you wouldn't have given yourself muscle trauma!” Seriously, don't Fodlan nobles know anything about how to handle war wounds? “You can't use your lance if you pass out from blood loss!”

Dimitri shook his head. “It's fine, Claude; I've fought with worse than this.”

“You can't rely solely on adrenaline to stay conscious! Do that, and you only need to stop for a moment, or get distracted once, before you're too light-headed to do anything but collapse. I can cover you against three or four of them, maybe, if I had a good bow and favorable terrain, but if you pass out in the middle of the field I can't fight and carry you!”

“I take it you kids are in trouble?” One of the mercenaries said dryly, causing Dimitri to start and Edelgard to make an exasperated noise. Claude turned back to the twosome and noted that they both had visible scars, and similar-looking ones to boot. So either they were working as a pair...or they were part of a company that was currently in town.

The other took a step closer and hissed at the sight of Dimitri's hand. “Damn, that's nasty. You were ambushed, weren't you?”

“Yes; they came while we were asleep.” Dimitri said, quickly burying his surprise under his usual princely demeanor. “Forgive us; this was the only place we could reach with them right on our heels.” Distant shouts echoed across the plains behind them. “There were too many of them for us. We...are still in training, after all.”

The two mercenaries looked at each other for a moment, then out at the plains. “Hell...they look like kids,” The first one sighed. “More pro-bono work. Well, whatever – we needed to break in the new horses at some point.”

“I'll go get Captain Jeralt and his girl,” His friend said, glancing at Dimitri. “She'll be able to take care of his hand.”

The first one snorted. “She can do that and a whole lot more.”

“I know. I try not to think about that sometimes.” With that totally-not-ominous remark hanging in the air, the man disappeared up the road.

That gave Claude a moment to address something that was bothering him. “Hey, Dimitri, remind me – how did you end up with an arrowhead in your hand? Did one of the bandits use it in place of a knife?” He hadn't seen the guy he'd managed to knock off holding an arrow, but maybe he'd been looking from a wrong angle.

“Oh...” Dimitri blinked, and shook his head. A look of unease crossed his face. “No. I had...a premonition, I guess. I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye and brought my hand up in front of my face.”

“...You need better gauntlets.” Claude said, his voice carefully dry and observant. A 'premonition?' Is that what you call those little things you try so hard not to react to? A little thing visceral enough to make you throw your hand in front of your face, inadvertently saving yourself? “Can you not buy anything hardier than the standard handouts all students get from the blacksmith?”

Dimitri looked ruefully down at his trembling, bloody hand. “I came here with a limited allowance; the same as you, I wager, seeing as you have little to no armor at all.”

Claude rolled his eyes a bit. Has anyone told you you're too bloody noble for your own good? “I'm an archer. If I let people get close enough to stab me, I'm already up a creek.”

“Truly talented archers are capable of firing point blank,” Edelgard said, her tone slightly lofty. “It's considered an important skill in the Empire. Something worth considering, perhaps?”

Claude made a production of looking contemplative. Before he could fire off a witty retort, the crunch of feet on the gravel and a booming baritone heralded the arrival of their saviors. “What's the situation?” The old man asked; he had the voice of someone who was used to being obeyed, someone who demanded respect, and someone who did not suffer fools lightly. The three of them basically turned around as one, as sure as if one of the teachers had caught them misbehaving.

Claude's first impression of Jeralt the Blade Breaker was holy shit are you actually a walking mountain?, because the man towered over him even more than Nader or his own father. His blue eyes were steely and impassive as they swept over him, Dimitri and Edelgard, assessing them, deciding whether or not this was a trap. He wore heavy leather and fur, with a lance strapped over his shoulder and a sword at his belt. Also, he looked muscular enough to bodily lift Marianne with his left hand and Hilda with his right without even breaking a sweat. Scars cut rough edges into his rugged face, old and faded ones that spoke of many hard won battles. Claude could admit to feeling a little bit of awe, just as his eyes slid to the figure right behind him and the world tilted quite suddenly.

A lithe silent shadow trotted to a halt at her father's board shoulder, impassive blue eyes meeting his evenly with the barest hint of curiosity. She was freakishly tall as well, having at least three inches on both him and Dimitri (which was just unfair) and slender figure built solely of hard muscle and smooth, tempting curves that even the loose-fitted robes of a swordmaster couldn't conceal. She had a blade buckled to her belt, a quiver and a cheap but reliable bow slung over her shoulder. Dark blue hair swept down to her pale neck, cut practically short and pinned away from her face by silver clasps; the only thing she seemed to possess that was at all expensive. The scars she had that he could see, tracing sharp lines across her collarbone, circling the crown of her head, and nicking her jaw, hardly detracted from the divine sight – nah; they enhanced it. Did she have more, concealed by those long sleeves?

Whoa, down princeling! Your Almyran tastes are showing.

Admittedly, her complete lack of expression was a distracting enough that he didn't say or do anything ill advised with her scowling father standing right in front of him.

“Forgive our intrusion. We wouldn't bother you if the situation weren't dire.” Dimitri said, keeping an admirable straight face even though Claude bloody well knew he'd had to mentally pick his jaw up off the ground. A quick glance at Edelgard and what do you know, they were all in agreement about something!

The living mountain – the captain, Jeralt (was it that Jeralt? The famed Captain of the Knights?) – raised a solitary eyebrow. “What are a couple of kids like you doing out at this hour?”

“We're being pursued by some bandits. I can only hope you'd be willing to lend your support.” Dimitri bowed politely; Claude amused himself by imagining Acheron throwing a shrieking fit at the mere thought of showing respect and deference to someone of lower social standing. If the prince who lives and breathes chivalry can humble himself without complaint, what does that make you, weasel?

“It's true!” Edelgard jumped in, gazing exclusively at the girl. “We were resting in camp when they jumped us.”

“We've been separated from our companions, and we're outnumbered,” He tossed in casually. “They're after our lives...not to mention our gold.”

The swordswoman tilted her head, then walked forward in silent steps and took hold of Dimitri's injured hand. She frowned, studying the gory wound for a long moment, before placing her other palm over it. Claude was pretty damn surprised when a flare of white magic surrounded the prince's bloody skin, wiping away the injury as though it had never been. Okay, since when do physically inclined fighters have aptitude for faith magic?

“Thank you,” Dimitri said gratefully, flexing his fingers easily in wonder. “Claude is injured as well – one of the bandits tried to kick his ribs in.”

Without a word of acknowledgment, her attention swung straight over to him. If he swallowed when she placed her hand on his side, pretty face lightly bent with concentration, he blamed it on the disorienting run and lack of sleep. The blessed warmth washing the pain away also made for a half decent story.

“I'm surprised you're so calm, considering the situation,” The Captain said dryly. Something changed in his expression when he looked closer at them. “Wait...that uniform...”

“Captain Jeralt, sir!” Another mercenary ran up to them, panting for breath. “Bandits have surrounded the village. The ones south are trying to start fires. We've moved the civilians further in, but-”

“Right. I'm on my way.” Jeralt rubbed the back of his neck, letting out a tired sigh. The mercenary nodded and darted off the way he'd came, taking the two from earlier with him. “All bark and no brains, these ones.” He turned to his daughter and said without preamble, “Kid, you see that?” He pointed out the front gates. The bandits had left the forest and were making their way towards them.

She nodded once. He smirked at that and said, “Good. You're in charge here. No one gets in, no one falls, and these three are your responsibility. I'll take care of the fires.”

“Wait, what?” Claude said blankly. Jeralt ignored him, whistling sharply. A large gray stallion shot up the road to his side; without breaking stride, he grabbed the bridle and saddled up before the animal even came to a stop. Then he vanished towards the smoke, leaving just the four of them to protect the entrance to town.

“He can't seriously expect you to fight alone?” Dimitri blurted in surprise. “There have to be at least nine of them – ah, my lady?”

She strode past him, out to the mouth of the gates, one hand dropping easily to her sword hilt. Pausing in the grass, head tilted slightly, she waited, fingers idly tapping against the weapon's guard. After a tense moment of silent planning, she turned around and openly sized them up. What little light had been in her eyes the moment before was gone, replaced by a blank coolness.

“You.” His pulse jumped quite without his permission at that rich, resonant contralto. That was an incredibly deep voice for a girl no older than him. “Do you have anything to defend yourself with up close?”

Claude shook his head and gave her his most charming smile. “Unfortunately, I lost my knife in a bandit's neck a while back.”

“Mm.” She drew her sword – a good steel blade, well maintained – and pointed at a thicket further up the plain. “That's your vantage point. Take out anyone you can reach; I will cover you.” Her gaze swung over to Edelgard. “You, take him” she nodded at Dimitri “and make yourself visible further to the right. Let them come to you, and fight together. If one of you gets injured, retreat into the thicket and make use of these.” She pulled a number of familiar looking vials out of her coat. Concoctions, unless Claude missed his guess. She shook them pointedly, causing the royals to quit staring and accept the gift. “The cover will provide you a few seconds of reprieve. It may limit your movement, however, so bear that in mind.”

She glanced at Claude and said very matter-of-factly, “I will go out ahead and engage them. Your job is to hit them, and try not to hit me.” Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked away. “Get going. They're almost on us.”

It was almost hilarious how all three of them immediately scrambled to obey. Claude would have liked to blame flashbacks to Judith and her frequent use of what he called her 'listen, brat, and listen well' voice; that flat order was almost as intimidating despite the lack of an age gap.

He reached the tree with no problems; his head was much clearer without constantly spiking pain to distract him. The blue haired teen – dammit, he hadn't gotten her fucking name – raced ahead of him, attracting the attention of three enemies. The nine bandits were spread out, the biggest and baddest of them (and thus likely the boss) hanging back with two goons flanking him. A few headed off toward Dimitri and Edelgard, but the others seemed to figure that the single woman made for an easier target. He took out an arrow, notched it and waited.

The mysterious girl's first opponent swung his ax in a wild arc; she jerked her blade up, catching it in the curve and wrenching the weapon from his grip, sending it flying into the grass. Immediately she lashed out driving her foot into his gut and sending him a few steps backward, before bringing her sword down. The blade hacked across his face and dug into his chest. His choked scream indicated she'd hit a lung; she drew back and cut sideways, slicing open his throat. Blood splattered her gauntlets as he fell to the ground. She stepped over her pray without pausing, the battle over in mere moments, approaching the two behind him with easy grace.

Letting out a sharp breath, he aimed for one and – keeping movement in mind – fired. She didn't even flinch at the arrow tearing past her to hit one of her enemies dead in the eye; she shifted her stance accordingly and ducked under a graceless swing aimed at her head. Her sword turned sharply and sliced the tendons on the brigand's leg, bringing him down to one knee as she reoriented herself. If her sword biting into the neck didn't kill the man, then the arrow buried in his collarbone did.

Flicking her blade in a gesture that was a bit too deliberate to be contemptuous, she stowed the weapon away and slung the bow off her back. A roar from further up the field told him what's she'd seen – the boss's two goons were charging. She casually strung two arrows and fired; it was a bit far from where he stood, but he was pretty sure she hit one of them in the thigh and the stomach, dropping him before he got within a dozen feet of her. She jumped back a foot as his partner approached, bow pointed straight at the man's face.

Perfect Point-Blank firing posture. She was highly proficient in at least two weapon types, enough to transfer between them without breaking stride? He felt a twinge of inadequacy even as his third arrow struck home, staggering the brigand right before she put an arrow through his throat.

The tides of battle turn rapidly, don't they?, he thought with perhaps more glee than necessary. Hey, just because he was familiar with murder attempts didn't mean he didn't resent them.

His thoughts were interrupted by a high, familiar string of whistled notes. His heart sped up; gods, how many times had he heard Nader use that old standby? Her troupe must have spent some time in Almyra. That signal meant that there was a change in plans without any dialogue getting lost in the chaos of the battlefield. He stepped out of the tree's shade; she nodded, the gesture barely visible, before gesturing sharply toward Edelgard and Dimitri.

The royals were managing, though they seemed to be flagging a bit. Dimitri had gotten himself hurt – again! – judging by the way he was holding his lance, and Edelgard seemed to be favoring one leg. The girl pointed to a tree closer to them and then darted off, sword in hand.

Really, the brigand stood no chance. He was too preoccupied with Dimitri to notice the girl coming up behind him. Just as Claude reached the tree, he watched her smash the hit of her sword into the enemy face – likely obliterating his jaw, given the cringe-inducing crack he could hear despite the distance – allowing Dimitri to shove his lance into the gut and finish him off. With her managing the prince, Claude took aim again and took out the knee of Edelgard's opponent. He crashed to the ground and was promptly decapitated.

Is that all of-? No, of course not, the boss... The man was making his way toward them, clutching a throwing ax in one hand. Yeah, because that worked out so well for your friends. Claude whistled sharply, getting the girl's attention. If he was the big man in charge, he'd probably be harder to kill than his grunts.

She drove the tip of her sword into the ground, slung her bow off her back and fired. The first shot went wide, but as the man turned to face her directly, the second shot glanced off his arm and a third one sank into his stomach. He didn't fall like the others; clearly he had some actual armor. Claude debated trying to go for a headshot, but the brigand was running away from him and toward his companions, so it wouldn't do to miss.

Fortunately, she didn't need help. She just dropped her bow, pulled her sword free of the dirt and feinted left; his attack missed her as she danced aside and swung her sword upward, slicing his nose judging by the murky screech that followed it. Again she spun past his sloppy retaliation, crouching and cashing into him with her full weight. When he hit the ground, she reversed her grip on her sword and slammed it into his face once, twice, three times. Then paused.

A few seconds went by. Claude licked his dry lips and silently lamented his weakness for men and women who could take him on in a straight fight. After yesterday, that is so unfair. Why show me a menu I can't eat from?

The girl got up, casually wiping her sword on the body of her last victim. Something prickled at the back of Claude's brain, the ease, the casualness of it...she wasn't even injured, was she? He stepped out into the open again, walking over to Dimitri and Edelgard where they stood aside from the bodies. It was all over except for the bleeding.

“Done,” Her voice broke the early morning silence. Their rescuer was kneeling in the mud, collecting her bow. She still had a few arrows left; by contrast, his own quill was empty.

“Are..are you uninjured?” Dimitri managed, somehow sounding both awestruck and almost wary within the same breath.

“I'm fine,” She replied absently, examining her weapon with a frown. “Damn, the string is broken again. That's a nuisance.”

He suppressed a chuckle and asked, “Is that all you have to say?” Her eyes turned to him, cool and empty except for the faintest curiosity. Was she carved from stone? “That's an awfully subdued reaction from someone who cut down five bandits in as many minutes.”

“Technically, two of those kills were yours,” She responded with a shrug. “Your support was appreciated; I was able to escape without injury this time.” She looked over at Dimitri and Edelgard. “You all acquitted yourself quite well, for amateurs.”

Claude's burst of laughter was almost involuntary. It wasn't often that someone casually dissed the three most important heirs on the continent! “Ah, you got us there! Oh dear.”

“Claude...!” Dimitri groaned in exasperation...though his voice had much less bite in it than it might have a week ago. “That's no way to show gratitude.”

He bowed with a wink. “I assure you, I am entirely grateful to our glorious war goddess.” She shifted on one foot, blinking rapidly. “It's because of you I'm not dead right now. Thanks for that!” He smiled playfully. “I'd heard there were mercenaries lingering in Remire, but I didn't think you were this good.”

“That's true,” Edelgard mused, regarding the girl intently.

Claude was finally about to ask for her name when a yell cut them off. Somehow – somehow, considering how freakin' bloody his face was – the brigand leader was back on his feet. And he was running straight for the princess.

Something rippled in the air; he could swear it, he felt something shift, could taste magic like ozone surrounding them as thick as rain. But in a blink, the girl moved again, throwing herself in front of Edelgard and catching her sword in the curve of the man's ax. She jerked backward, wrenching the weapon away from its wielder and launching it somewhere in the woods. The brigand staggered backwards, breath heaving, staring at her.

“You...” He gurgled, “It's you. That soulless creature...the Ashen Demon.”

Claude heard Dimitri suck in a sharp breath next to him; a chill of vindication swept over the alarm and surprise that had ruled him only moments ago. The girl, however, merely sighed. “My father warned me that name would stick,” She remarked with tired irritation. She brought her bloody steel blade up and pointed it at his chest. “You should have played dead. Goodbye.”

A death threat had never sounded so gentle and serene.

Evidently, that was too much for the brigand, because he turned and booked it, fleeing into the forest like a terrified child. The girl, as soon as he was gone, smacked her palm against her forehead. “Bloody stupid, basic mistake,” She berated herself. “Cut off the head, sever limbs, and if you don't do that, always check for breathing. Goddess damn it.” She looked back at Edelgard. “I'm sorry. That was sloppy of me.”

Edelgard recovered quickly for someone who'd nearly been gutted, and shook her head earnestly. “He took several blows to the face! That would stop most men. Please, don't trouble yourself. You saved me, again.”

The neigh of a horse cut Dimitri's concern off; Jeralt appeared from the village. Looking at the sky showed that the smoke was clearing up. He must have come as soon as he finished up on his end. “That was...Byleth, did you just...?” He looked worried.

Huh. That was weird. And the weirder thing was...she kind of looked confused too.

Naturally, after everything was over and questions were laying thick in the air...that was when Alois thundered into the clearing, the knights at his side, bellowing about how justice had arrived. “We shall cut you down for terrorizing our students!” He raised his ax triumphantly, only to be thwarted by the empty clearing and fleeing bandits. “Wait, they're getting away! After them!”

Claude rolled his eyes and called out cheerfully, “Sir Alois! You missed all the excitement!” Dimitri facepalmed, and he could just hear Edelgard rolling her eyes at him. The girl...Byleth, Jeralt called her...tensed up, one hand dropping to her sword.

Jeralt groaned as Alois hurried towards them. He dismounted and placed a hand on his daughter's shoulder. “It's alright, kid. He's no threat.” She relaxed, before offering up her broken bow with an apologetic look. “Don't worry about that...I'd been meaning to buy you a new one anyhow.”

Alois skidded to a halt in front of the mountain of a man, eyes widening comically. “C-Captain Jeralt? Is that you?! Goodness, it's been ages!” Byleth started visibly. Wasn't that interesting? “Don't you recognize me?! It's Alois! Your old right hand man! At least, that was how I thought of myself. It must have been – what – twenty years ago when you vanished without a trace?! I always knew you were still alive!”

Jeralt sighed. “You haven't changed a bit, Alois, just as loud as ever.” Claude smothered a snicker in his hand. Dimitri tried to look disapproving, but the twitch of his lip betrayed him. “And drop that 'captain' nonsense. I'm not your captain anymore. These days I'm just a wandering mercenary. One who has work to do.” He nodded. “You've got the kids back unharmed; you'd better return to the school. I'll see you around, old friend.” He made to walk off. Byleth looked back and forth, then tried to follow him.

Ser Alois spluttered a bit, before saying, “Wait! This is not how this conversation ends! I insist that you come back to the monastery with me.”

Jeralt stopped walking and stood very, very still. Claude's eyes narrowed.

So Jeralt hadn't gone missing, he'd chosen to leave without explanation, leaving everything he'd known – and everything he'd gained as the most prestigious Knight of Seiros – without a backwards glance. The man's body language screamed that he didn't want to go back, but he had no way to refuse without looking suspicious as hell. Yet another mystery dangled just out of his reach, begging to be solved. As if he didn't have enough to dig through...especially now.

Why are Fodlan's borders closed...where do the relics come from...the riddle of Duscar's tragedy...and now, why did the strongest man who ever lived run away from the church?

Byleth walked over and placed a hand on her father's wrist. The gesture was small and concerned, and it was the most visible emotion he'd seen from her since the start. “Garreg Mach Monastery.” Jeralt enunciated heavily. He looked at her for a moment, then shook his head. “I guess this was inevitable.”

And one more, Claude added with perhaps greater curiosity than the rest, What happened to his daughter that she seems less alive than the statues of the saints?

Chapter Text

As much as she could say she had emotions, Byleth was quite confounded.

Her father was – with the exception of her mother – not a sentimental man. It had never struck her as odd that he didn't talk about his past. She'd never felt the need to ask (she'd never felt much of anything) where he'd come from before her birth, or why they never lingered in one place for very long. He avoided the church in spite of how precious faith was to members of their own team, so she followed his lead – he never did things without a reason. Why did it matter where he'd come from? He was there with her, that was all that mattered.

Or so she'd thought.

Her mind was whirling as her father vanished back into Remire with that knight, to inform the band of their change in plans. Her father had been a captain, an immensely important man, and now they were going somewhere he would rather avoid. He seemed resigned to it. Why not refuse? Why did he leave in the first place? What in the seventh hell was happening?!

And after that happened earlier...

The girl Edelgard...the power...Sothis...

Byleth bit her lip hard; something indescribable was bubbling violently in her chest and it greatly discomforted her. Though perhaps that was only to be expected, since she had nearly died.

It wasn't the first time she'd brushed with death; she'd been fighting alongside her father ever since she was old enough to properly wield a sword. But it was the first time she would have died for sure without intervention – divine intervention, at that. The thought was...discomforting, for lack of any better descriptor. She reached up and rubbed her left shoulder; she couldn't quite reach the place near her spine where the ax would have come down. There was a twinge of phantom pain there, an ache just strong enough to gnaw at the back of her mind.

It will not linger overlong, a familiar girl's voice promised. 'Tis merely an echo of what might have been. You did live through the moment, after all.

Byleth bit her lip, letting her hand fall down to her side. I see, she thought 'back' at the strange green haired girl she'd dreamed of all her life.

Sothis hummed. It is a good thing. That would have been a shameful way to go, would it not?

...Would it have been truly shameful to die saving another?, Byleth asked in turn, wondering. It was true she did not know Edelgard, but to imply that her life was not worth saving, even at great expense – well, the thought did not sit right with her.

It is a far greater thing to live for another than to die for them, Sothis responded sternly, the childish amusement gone from her voice. If you are to forget everything else I say to you, you must remember that above all. Promise me that right now!

I swear it, Byleth responded quickly and seriously, bewildered by the sudden change in mood. Sothis was mercurial, lazy, and sharp tongued, but her moods up to this point had been playful, exasperated and contemplative – to invoke such a tone must be intentional, to add more weight to the words. She did not know what manner of spirit the girl was (a guardian spoken of in Brigid's myths? A lord of the rising dawn as described by Almyra? A sky god of Duscar? An emissary of Fodlan's goddess?) but it was clear that she was older than her appearance suggested, and likely more powerful than Byleth could imagine.

Only a fool ignored the warnings of the divine.

Good, Sothis responded, pleased, her demeanor reverting as quickly as it had changed. I shall hold you to that, Byleth Eisner. She chuckled lightly. Ah, it seems your presence is required. Get going!

Blinking, Byleth cast her eyes about, instinctively looking for her father. There was no sign of him, however – instead, her eyes fell upon the three lordlings they had saved, all of whom were clearly watching her. Edelgard smiled and gestured lightly with one hand, asking without words for a moment of her time in an almost coy manner.

She paused. As a rule, her father handled contracts and business. But this wasn't such, was it? No doubt a couple of young aristocrats who'd just suffered a near-death experience would feel inclined to keep a powerful warrior close by, especially if this was the first time they'd realized they could, in fact, die violently just as the common person did. There was little she had to offer in the way of conversation, and her instinct was to wait until her father returned.

But...they were young as her, perhaps younger. Byleth spent precious little time around anyone outside her fellow mercenaries, all of whom were – if not peers of her father – older than her by a not insignificant margin. Perhaps...it couldn't hurt to see what they wanted?

Hesitantly, she made her way over to them.

“I appreciate your help back there,” The silver haired ax maiden said with impeccable politeness. Her purple eyes swept over Byleth in a way that made her skin tingle, a sensation she couldn't even begin to explain. “Your skill is without question. The Ashen Demon...I must confess, I had thought you to be a myth. A combination of various mercenary teams attributed to a single individual. Obviously, I was wrong.”

“It...is no trouble,” Byleth hedged uncertainly. “My father doesn't like that name much. It is not used as a selling point.”

“Your father, that would be Jeralt the Blade Breaker, wouldn't it?” Edelgard assumed a thinking pose. “Former Captain of the Knights of Seiros, often praised as the strongest man who ever lived. Am I missing anything?”

“I didn't know he was a captain,” She said honestly, feeling as much up in the air as when she'd ridden with the mercenary Hannah on a borrowed pegasus.

Edelgard blinked in surprise. “How curious. I'd wager the explanation for that is fascinating indeed.”

“Hey,” Claude interjected, smiling brightly at her. Byleth turned slightly toward the archer; isn't that strange? His expression is so warm...yet his eyes are closed off from me. “You are coming with us to the monastery, right? Of course you are. I'd love to bend your ear as we travel.”

You want to talk to me?, Byleth thought in confusion. Aren't you unnerved by me? Isn't that why that smile of yours isn't quite sincere?  Perhaps it was a matter of honor; nobles were often quite hung up on that. It would be 'rude' to blatantly ignore her after she'd saved his life, so he would speak to her despite her disturbing disposition?

“Oh!, I should mention that the three of us are students at Garreg Mach Monastery. We were doing some training exercises when those bandits attacked.” He raised both his hands. “On average, I'd say it was my third most disastrous camping trip.”

“Third?” Dimitri, the blonde knightly young man, repeated blankly. “Dare I ask what you're ranking above us nearly having our throats slit in our sleep?”

Claude chuckled. “Maybe some other time. It's up there, though, if only because I was the only one who knew out to beat a strategic retreat.” He sighed. “Alas, I looked back and found every single one of those bandits chasing the three of us, leaving me to improvise. Again.”

Dimitri's eye twitched. “So that's what you were doing? And here I thought you were being a decoy for the sake of us all. Pray tell, how was I supposed to interpret that amidst the perfectly rational panic we were experiencing?”

“His intentions were as clear as day,” Edelgard replied chidingly. Byleth decided that the three must know each other quite well to bicker so easily after having nearly lost their lives. “You will prove a lacking ruler if you cannot see the truth behind a person's words.” Wait. What. Ruler?

Distracted from remonstrating his comrade, Dimitri chuckled lightly and retorted, “You will prove a lacking ruler yourself if you look for deceit behind every word and fail to trust the people around you.”

Ruler. An able ruler. Byleth didn't quite have the words for the sinking feeling in her stomach when she looked between Edelgard and Dimitri, various memories twigging in her brain about how the Empire and the Kingdom's current heirs were her age...a boy and a girl, not yet at their majority, who quite possibly were sent off to finish their studies before taking the throne. You fought well for amateurs, her own words rang in her head like a roaring fire. She swallowed in a hopefully unobtrusive way. Oh goddess, did I just sass the Prince of Faerghus and the Princess of Adrestia? After ordering them around like common mercenaries?

“Oh joy, a royal debate between their highnesses,” Claude snarked. Byleth felt her face burn and resisted the urge to bolt for her father. Yes, yes I have. A musical giggle did nothing to soothe her newfound anxiety – Sothis, the cruel wretch, was laughing at her! If they held a grudge, her father and their troupe could be blacklisted in both kingdoms! There was nothing funny about this! “I wonder how being predicable affects one's ability to rule.” His grin took on a sharper, teasing edge. “As the embodiment of distrust, I'd say your little exchange is rather idealistic!”

Both heirs pivoted to scowl at him. “Me, idealistic?” Edelgard demanded, indignant. “Tell me, are you physically incapable of keeping quiet, or is your lack of self awareness a condition of some sort?!”

“Is that so wrong, Claude?” Dimitri asked, looking exasperated. “It might do you well to be less suspicious yourself.”

Byleth's eyes darted between the three lordings – between the prince and princess argh what – wondering if she should take this chance to escape. Once they recovered, they might forget all about her in favor of arguing over who should have done what during the attack...

“Ah, but forgive our digression,” No dice; Dimitri returned his attention to her at that very moment. “I must speak with you, if you could spare a moment.”

Byleth might have sighed, if she was capable of much expression. Here we go, she thought in resignation.

“The way you held your ground against the bandit's leader was captivating,” The prince said earnestly, causing her to blink twice. What. “You never lost control of the situation. You're an immensely capable woman; it showed me I still have much to learn.” What?

“Your skill is precisely why I must ask you to consider lending your skill to the Empire,” Edelgard said confidently. Byleth blinked again, the bewilderment she felt ratcheting up beyond anything she'd ever experienced before. “I might as well tell you now, I am no mere student. In truth-”

“Halt, Edelgard,” Dimitri interrupted, looking affronted. “At least allow me to finish my own proposition.” He bowed to her. Him, a prince, bowed to a common, disturbed mercenary! She felt warmth in her cheeks and resisted the odd urge to tug at her hair. “The Holy Kingdom of Faerghus is in dire need of exceptional individuals like yourself. Please, do consider returning to the kingdom with me.”

Byleth shot a quick glance at the treeline, just to make sure the sun was, in fact, rising in the east. Because what else could possibly explain this?

“Whoa, there!” Claude laughed, giving his two companions a mock-disapproving stare. “Trying to recruit someone you just met...tactless, really.” Byleth's relief lasted roughly three seconds before he followed that up with, “I was personally planning to develop a deep and lasting friendship on our way back to the monastery before begging for favors.” He shrugged dramatically and gave her another intimately friendly smile. “But it seems there's no time for niceties in this world. So, capable stranger, where does your allegiance lie?”

It sounded like a joke, but how could she be sure of that?!

“I'm a mercenary,” She protested, amazed that her voice remained as calm and even as ever. “I swear by the sword before politics. I have no permanent home, and I move where the job takes me. I cannot answer that!” Wracking her brain, she tried to think of something to say that would satisfy at least one of the absurdly powerful teenagers in front of her. “I, I am a sword for hire. Whenever a moment arises, I am at your disposal. Myself and my father, that is.”

She waited for a response for an agonizingly long second. Claude responded first...by clapping, “A clever answer, and one that fits the job,” He said playfully. “It's a hard bargain, though. The two of you together are an expensive prospect! What would it cost just for you?”

Byleth's pulse jumped. (That so rarely happened) ...Despite her skill, attempts to poach her from Jeralt's Mercenaries were rare. She unnerved people with her coldness, her lack of expression, the lack of humanity. Why didn't he...those eyes are deep and dark, mysterious as the ocean...what is it that he desires when he looks at me? I...an so unfamiliar with this. I don't know what to do. Father, help me!

“There you are!” The loud knight's voice came to her rescue – at least for the moment. They turned to see her father and the man – Ser Alois – standing just a few feet away. “Come, it's time for us to go! I know you're likely tired, but it's better that we return to the monastery as soon as possible!”

“I doubt your attackers will come back for a second go-around,” Jeralt contributed, arms crossed, “but concerning you three, it's better safe than sorry. We're about ready to move out; if necessary, you can rest in the supply carts on the way.”

“Got it,” Claude said blithely. “Guess we'll pick this up another time.”

Byleth let out a breath and headed over to her father. He squeezed her arm, smiling sympathetically at her. It restored her equilibrium somewhat. I can ask him on the way, surely.

My my, everyone is in such a hurry, Sothis said with a yawn. You know...each of them is most unique.

...It's true, Byleth acknowledged, glancing over her shoulder at the three lords. They were following behind her, talking amongst themselves again, but still clearly keeping her in their sights. Claude...he's welcoming, yet guarded. He has not shared his true self with me, or perhaps anyone. Dimitri...everything he does, all his movements – in battle and off – are carefully controlled. He's very sincere, yet something is weighing on him. And Edelgard...she's refined, yet she looks at me the way a blacksmith regards a fine sword. Carefully judging, wondering what the price is.

Yes, I thought the same, Sothis mused. Something significant has happened here, Byleth. It means something...I must sleep on this...

You 'need' to sleep on bloody everything, Byleth grumbled.

Sothis did not dignify that with a response.


Roughly two hours later, Byleth realized she had greatly underestimated Claude's tenacity, Edelgard's fascination, and Dimitri's chivalrous need to keep her included in conversation. These proved to be the longest and most confusing hours of her life so far. Her father's men weren't this interested in her. Sothis wasn't this interested in her! As they traveled and the sun rose, Alois had become bound and determined to keep her father talking. His jovial remarks about this and that thing that had happened in the Blade Breaker's absence filled the air without end; leaving Byleth adrift and bewildered.

Her father's men were grumbling a bit, annoyed that their guaranteed paycheck in the Kingdom was put on hold and wondering what exactly was going on with their boss. It seemed they had been as much in the dark about her father's past as she was. The Knights of Seiros occasionally gave her curious looks, but largely remained silent guards at the front and back of their impromptu caravan.

However, for the first time that she could remember, this did not mean that Byleth had been left with alone with her thoughts and Sothis's voice.

“You're trained in hand-to-hand as well?” Edelgard said, her tone somehow both impressed and skeptical. “To juggle three disciplines simultaneously is a daunting prospect. Most students at Garreg Mach are limited to two!”

“I learned sword and the bow first,” Byleth clarified, “Brawling came later, as did the lance – and I cannot say I am very proficient in the latter. It is useful to have multiple ways of approaching a fight, and being able to enter tournaments is a good way to shore up the accounts when the troupe is between jobs.”

“And Holy magic?” Claude asked slyly. “That threw me for a loop. It's so rare that anyone outside of mages and priests have any aptitude for it.”

“Is that right?” She shrugged. “I'm not sure what to say; I've always had a knack for it.”

He actually pouted in response, clearly not believing that she was being honest with him. He is such a strange lord! Even compared to Dimitri and Edelgard, who were clearly putting effort into making her comfortable, he was casual and coarse and nothing like the usual haughty or cold (cruel, heartless) men her father was occasionally contracted by. She kept finding her eyes drawn to him, to his golden skin and mysterious green eyes and friendly disposition, and feel a tug of some nameless foreign feeling. Whenever she fell out of step with him, she would speed up or slow down until they matched again. It was silly, and she couldn't explain it even to herself. Was it just because he was a handsome man? Surely not. Even as she'd grown into her body, she'd felt very little emotional or physical inclination towards intimacy.

Such things were associated with a humanity that had always been lost to her.

Yet she couldn't deny...what she could only describe as a curiosity. Why didn't that warm, welcoming smile – a look so very few people had directed at her – reach his eyes? What melancholy made him reserve himself? Perhaps it was merely meant to ensnare her...that thought should offend or worry me, yet it doesn't. Being troubled was not something she experienced, after all, no more than anything else. All she felt was a tugging need to know, to understand...

...To repay the strange feeling his bright smile gave her.

Which wasn't to say she wasn't curious about the others. Dimitri seemed more relaxed now; his posture less rigid, his gaze less distracted. It definitely brought out his gentler features; he looked every inch a prince, a man who valued that aspect of his being quite deeply.

That was not something Byleth saw overmuch; her job exposed her to many freaks, fools and monsters, but the times she ran into actual knights and heroes...well, the results were often memorable, for good or for ill. His fascination bewildered her, to be sure, but his earnestness was charming. It was odd to think of him as the prince of the holy kingdom within the cold north; she would have thought him aloof, chilly or even slightly hostile to a mercenary such as herself. After all, those who sold their swords to the highest bidder were not famous for upholding the sacred laws of the church.

Edelgard...her fascination was a tangible thing. Byleth wouldn't say she was discomforted...just uncertain what it meant. Appraising eyes had found her a few times before, and it had made her father irritable. To this day, Byleth wasn't certain why.

“Being able to heal has proven invaluable,” She insisted in the face of Claude's disbelief. “Particularly when I'm sent to retrieve hostages.” She rubbed her left arm, feeling for an old scar that ran up to her wrist.

“Have you taken many such jobs?” Dimitri asked curiously.

“Some,” Byleth nodded, her thumb idly tracing the line beneath her coat. “The first time involved slavers; pirates raiding the northern Alliance border to keep the salt mines running.” She blinked and mused, “I think that was when people started calling me by that title. Odd, in retrospect. I did not cut a very imposing figure at thirteen.”

“Wait, I heard about that...” Claude said slowly, “One of the ships drifted ashore, the mast burning and a lower deck covered in corpses. That was you?”

“Not wholly me,” Byleth frowned slightly, “I had infiltrated the hold, posing as a slave, to ensure they couldn't massacre the 'merchandise' before we rescued them. Father and the mercenaries dealt with those above deck.”

“They didn't take your weapons?” Edelgard inquired.

“I hid razor blades in my hair.” Byleth shrugged. “After I killed the first two, I stole a bow off a corpse and used the door to pick off the rest who approached via the hall. It was a very favorable position; most of them died before I ran out of arrows. I had to improvise a bit at that point; fortunately, the first mate was drunk, and I've always been unusually strong considering my slight frame.”

“You were so young...” Dimitri sounded faintly incredulous.

Byleth looked quizzically at him. “Do you not start weapons training at five in the Kingdom? I was a bit older than that when I began to learn from my father.”

“Well, yes...but you cannot be made a squire, or be sent to the officer's academy, before you turn fifteen. It's too dangerous, otherwise.”

“I had never thought of it that way,” She said, unsure what to parse from that remark. “Though I suppose my upbringing was not typical, even for a common born mercenary. Father was always on the move, and as a consequence so was I. I've lived in so many places they've become a blur, I've wandered the shores of Almyra and the forests of Brigid...” She looked up at the sky. “And father always worked so hard for my sake...one day, I decided I wanted to help. So I learned how to wield blades and arrows, applied myself with the whole of my concentration.” She dragged a foot lightly in the dirt, shifting gravel as they walked. “Now I fight alongside father. It never felt unnatural. It just was what it was.”

“So you've never wanted to do anything else?” Claude asked lightly. “Never wanted a break?”

Byleth tilted her head. “I'm not sure what you mean. We have lives outside of contracts and battle. My father likes to fish, Hannah cares for horses...Gustav tends to plants and feeds birds whenever possible. I've done all those things, it's...pleasant.”

“Hey kids!” Alois's voice caught their attention; the man was looking over his shoulder at them, waving at the trees ahead. “We're almost there! Lunch and other amenities await!”

A cheer went up from the mercenaries. Jeralt even let out a good-natured chuckle. Byleth was keenly aware of the fact she'd only eaten a bowlful of grapes since they set out that morning, and she accepted those words with a great sense of relief.

“This will be your first time at the monastery, right?” Dimitri asked. “I'd love to show you around, if you'd like.”

“It really is Fodlan in a nutshell,” Claude mused, “The good and the bad.”

“Like it or not, we'll be there soon,” Edelgard said mildly.

Any comment Byleth might have decided to make was swept away when they stepped free of the trees and her eyes fell upon one of the most amazing sights in the known world. Sitting upon vast, sweeping fields of grass and greenery was a sprawling and elegant castle who's many towers scraped the sky itself. Byleth was not a very verbose woman, and in that moment she was speechless with awe, stopped mid step to gaze up at the glorious building.

Sothis was right. This...this was significant, somehow. This place...

+ _ + _ + _ + _

Things moved fairly smoothly after that. After a warm meal in the dining hall, the lords split off from them, and Byleth found herself missing their presence as she rejoined her father and waited in a large, beautifully decorated cathedral within the second floor of the massive complex.

Jeralt was worried. The stiff way he held himself and his rigid back were all but screaming his unease to to the heavens. “It's been years since I last set eyes on this place,” He admitted. “To see her again...”

“Her?” She repeated softly.

Jeralt glanced at her. “Didn't you see her in the courtyard? The lady looking down on us from the balcony? That's the archbishop. Lady Rhea.”

Now that he mentioned it... “I think so.” She frowned at him. “Who is she?”

“You know the majority of Fodlan follow the teachings of Saint Seiros, who brought word from the goddess in our darkest days.” Jeralt said by the way of explanation. A small frown crossed his face. “The leader of that ridiculously large organization is the archbishop.”

“...Are you afraid of her?” That thought made Byleth about as uneasy as she came. Her father was a fearless man. He was more powerful than anyone she'd ever met in their many travels, fighting the likes of Nader the Undefeated and coming out victorious. He only ever worried about her and her unnatural stoicism. For him to be afraid...what sort of woman were they dealing with?

Jeralt didn't get a chance to answer. The door swung open and admitted two people the likes of which Byleth had not seen before. “Thank you for your patience, Jeralt,” The man said, his voice sharp and to the point. He had dark green hair and stern green eyes several shades lighter than Claude's more natural-seeming orbs; he wore dark blue silk with gold embroidery that likely cost the same as their entire monthly budget. A handsome man, if a strange and very taciturn-looking one. “My name is Seteth. I am an adviser to the archbishop.”

“Right,” Her father murmured. Apparently, he didn't recognize the man. “Hello.”

“It has been a long time, Jeralt.” The woman said softly. Byleth's eyes riveted to her; they were the same height, yet the woman had more poise, more...softness. Her long green hair offset the significant oramentation she wore – a gold circlet, a large silk headdress, lilies...she wore primarily white and other soft colors. She looked...motherly, though what gave the young mercenary that impression, she could not say. “I wonder...was it the will of the goddess that we have another chance to meet like this.”

Byleth did not remember the mother who died giving birth to her. Her father had no pictures, and it pained him to speak of those days. Perhaps that was compelled her to pad forward a few steps, remove herself from her usual haunt in her father's shadow so she might be seen.

“Forgive my silence all these years,” Jeralt said, bowing deeply. “Much has happened since we last spoke.”

“So I see,” Lady Rhea said lightly, her gaze moving to Byleth. “The miracle of fatherhood has blessed you. This is your child, is she not?”

“Yes. Born many years after I left this place. I wish I could introduce you to her mother, but...we lost her to illness.”

Byleth blinked once, twice, and resisted the urge to give her father a strange look. That was different from what he'd told her...

“I see. My condolences,” The archbishop said, her voice soft and soothing. Her attention didn't move, however. “As for you...I heard of your valiant efforts from Alois. What is your name?”

Byleth swallowed lightly, and wondered if her mother had looked like Rhea. “I am Byleth,” She said, bowing her head.

“A fine name indeed,” Lady Rhea murmured. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for saving those students of the officer's academy.” Her father sighed. Byleth discreetly elbowed him, quietly impressed that he needed reminders of politeness after all the grief he'd given Gustav over the years. Rhea must have seen it, though, because her smile grew visibly. “Jeralt. You already know what it is I wish to say, don't you?”

“You want me to rejoin the knights of Seiros,” Jeralt ran a hand through his hair. “I'm not saying no, but...”

“Your apprehension stings,” Lady Rhea said gently. “I had expected Alois had already asked this of you.”

“He did,” Byleth noted. “Loudly. Many times.” Jeralt ran his hand down his face and gave her a rueful look. She flushed and clasped her wrist with one hand, averting her eyes.

“I must step away now,” The Archbishop said. Byleth felt a funny warmth in her chest at the clear amusement dancing in the stately woman's eyes. “but I expect they will desire a word with you soon. Please listen carefully to what they have to say. Until tomorrow...farewell.” Giving Byleth one last smile, she and Seteth departed.

Byleth rocked on her heels, bringing both her hands up to her chest. This day was strange, strange, strange. She hadn't felt so, well, lively for lack of a better word, in a long time – only some scattered days in her childhood could compare to the number of feelings she'd experienced ever since the morning...

Look at you, Sothis thought in amusement. Bouncing like a child with sweets. Enjoying all the attention you're getting?

Mean, she fired back without heat. It is...nice...to not be looked at with unease, suspicion and fear. Don't you understand? You are with me, after all.

“C'mon, kid.” Jeralt said before Sothis could retort. She turned to him; he was trying to smile, but it came out as a grimace. “I'll show you the room they've set up for you, and where the bath house is. Then you can eat and rest. It's been a long day.”

“Okay,” She said softly, deciding not to prod him right now.

He always explained things to her eventually.

 

Chapter Text

you promised me son you promised to avenge us

Dimitri woke violently in the middle of the night, the sweat soaking his skin causing him to shiver. A whiff of smoke burned at the back of his throat along with a lingering piercing scream; yet aside from the roaring wind, the upper dormitories were as silent as a crypt. “I will, I will,” He whispered pleadingly, “I haven't forgotten, I just need more time...” He heard his father scoff and squeezed his eyes shut. “I swear, it will be done, I will find them!”

The words echoed through his spartan room, with nothing but the wind to answer him. Dimitri drew his legs up to his chest and pressed his forehead against his knee, gulping for air as he tried to remember how to breath. Tried to forget the weight of Glenn's corpse, pinning him to the ground even as it saved him from the arrows falling from the sky. Tried to forget his father's dying shrieks. Tried to forget the stench of flesh burning throughout the chaos.

Don't ever forget me Dimitri

“How could I?” Dimitri uttered, raking one hand through his hair. “Glenn, how could you believe I would?”

A dryly amused chuckle, a sound Glenn had always reserved for Felix when his little brother dramatically failed to understand something he was driving at, was his only answer.

Suddenly his room was suffocatingly small; the walls pressed in and the shadows were malevolent, living things. Dimitri got up and fumbled in the dark, grabbing the long coat he usually reserved for Faerghus's cold winters of the wall. It didn't matter that it was late summer; he was cold and couldn't stop trembling. Sliding the familiar fur on over his clothes – he'd trained late into the evening and forgotten to change before collapsing on his bed, all in a vain attempt to avoid these very dreams – he grabbed the door handle and walked out into the dark halls.

It was a cool night, with a soft breeze echoing off the stone as he wandered from hall to hall, not really knowing where he was going. Torches snapped and crackled as he passed, one hand trailing along the wall. The physical sensation was comforting, an anchor in the present.

He kept walking, his uneven breathing echoing in his ears. At first he thought he would go to the library – unlike the training grounds, its doors weren't locked after the sun went down – but instead he found himself taking a winding path down to the stables. One of the monastery cats wandered over to him as he stepped out into the open air, winding between his legs. Hesitantly he knelt and petted it; the orange tabby rolled over in contentment.

Animals were good companions when you couldn't bear to speak to anyone. Dimitri had learned that in the days after the Tragedy; holed up in his room, frequently slipping into delirium with flames blazing every time he closed his eyes. The castle cats had been his saviors then – whenever they didn't surprise him by jumping down from shelves, that is.

Dimitri scratched the cat behind the ears, the hard knot in his chest loosening just a bit at the resultant rumbling purr. “Good girl.” He straightened up and looked up at the sky.

It was a brilliant clear night; the silver cross – a thick stream of stars that formed a visible interconnected pattern across all the land – glittering like precious jewels. What was that story Dedue told me?, Dimitri wondered as he gazed upwards. It was something about Duscar's sky god and his last visit to the mortal lands...there was a woman there, one he loved. Was she murdered, or did she willingly walk to her death? Either way...the cross is her blood, raised up and formed into a great and powerful gateway; the final barrier between heaven and earth. How did that tale go? I can't believe I've forgotten...I'll have to ask him to tell me again...

There was something in the scriptures of the Goddess about the silver cross, but it seemed a more mundane tale; a gift fashioned by Sothis for a particularly devout priestess after the deaths of her entire family. Strings of silver gems, hung from the gates of heaven, so all could look up and see their loved ones in the sky.

A simple story, one many found comforting. Perhaps it was unworthy of him as the holy prince that he felt afraid instead.

The cat let out a small whine and headbutted his leg. Dimitri gave it a final pet and walked out of the main monastery. Perhaps animals are wiser than we like to believe. Ever since his...troubles had emerged, he'd quickly taught himself to hide it, to be stoic or merely frustrated when inside he was screaming. Only Felix has seen under the mask; he lamented that, missed their old friendship...but perhaps it was good that someone knew of that dark, swirling undercurrent.

It meant there was someone who could stop him if he lost himself.

He shuddered. Why was it so cold? It was still summer... He pulled his coat tighter and focused on walking. The stone ground turned into sand and gravel as he walked into the stables.

That was when he noticed the person singing.

For a moment, he thought it was another lingering memory – his stepmother had loved to sing, and her lullabies frequently haunted him in the nights when sleep was evasive or disturbed. But...no. He didn't know this voice very well. This was... He turned, casting his eyes around in the dim light, looking for the source. They weren't here...but they were close by...? Hesitantly, he turned and tried to follow it. After a few false starts, he found himself walking down the overcast path past the Knight's Hall. The words grew clearer and more distinct as he went, a beautiful and achingly melancholic tune he'd never heard before...

He turned the corner near the church cemetery and his breath caught in his throat.

Byleth – Professor Byleth, he reminded himself quickly; even if she wasn't teaching homeroom for him and his, she would still lead seminars and auxiliary combat and it wouldn't do to address her otherwise – was standing at the stone railing with her back to him, singing to the night sky. She wore a long black dress that hung down to her ankles, sleeveless and backless that hung loosely off her body. She was barefoot and seemingly untroubled by the wind and stones in the ground; she sang softly, gently, with a little hesitation here and there suggesting she wasn't certain she remembered the notes correctly.

She's beautiful. I had noticed before, but... he thought dazedly, before quickly chasing that errant teenage thought down and throttling it. What is she doing up so late...?

Quietly he made his way over to her, carefully, not wanting to interrupt the song. He'd never heard it before, pure and simple notes of joy mixed with grief and longing...what were the words meant to go with it?

The song tapered off suddenly; Byleth twisted and looked over her shoulder, tense. “Who's there?”

“I'm sorry,” He responded, abashed, as he stepped into the torchlight. She shifted in what he thought might be surprise, before visibly relaxing. “I didn't mean to intrude.”

“Prince Dimitri?” She frowned slightly. “What are you doing awake so late? So early, to be truthful. The sun will be up in a scant few hours.”

“I...some old thoughts were troubling me. When I couldn't get back to sleep, I decided to try and walk it off.” His eyes lingered on her bare shoulders for a few seconds too long before he could pull his attention away, face burning. “I wasn't expecting to see anyone.”

Byleth titled her head and gazed curiously at him for a moment. “I felt confused too,” She admitted, her tone soft and even as ever. “I keep waking, as if my mind can't decide which world is the dream.” She looked up at the sky, tugging unconsciously at the neckline of her dress. “It's strange. I'm so rarely sleepless, even on the worse days.”

“Truly?”

Byleth blinked. “Well...yes.” She let out a huffed breath. “It must be this place. It's strange.”

“Are you not cold?” He asked nervously; she'd heard him walking up behind her, surely she'd noticed his wandering gaze. Ingrid was very aware of the way people looked at her...Glenn had always been openly appreciative of his fiance, mind you, so perhaps she'd simply learned to recognize that look in people's eyes.

“Hm? Oh no. I think it's rather pleasant, actually.” Her expression didn't change one iota. Did she just want to watch him squirm? Perhaps that was fair enough. “...I didn't mean to wander this far from my room. I had a strange thought in my head...but once I got here, I lost it.” She frowned, looking down the stairwell toward the cemetery, the stone monuments casting long shadows over the grass. “I suppose it must not have been important...”

He wasn't sure what to say to that. “I'd never heard that song before. Do you know what it's called?”

She bit her lip lightly. “I don't, actually. I'm not sure where I heard it, or what the words are. It's an old memory of mine...someone sang it to me. I don't know who, or when it happened, or if it's even real...but I find it comforting.”

“It's very soothing,” He said softly.

She looked at him again, very intently, and asked, “I can sing it again, if it would help you. You look haggard, your highness.”

Dimitri's breath hitched. “That's very kind of you,” He said softly. “And – you don't have to call me by my title in this place. Here, I'm nothing but another student.”

Byleth blinked twice, and he thought he saw the faintest trace of a surprised smile if only for a moment. “Alright,” She said, a note of warmth in her voice. Then she took a few deep breaths, and began to sing again. Dimitri closed his eyes, placing one hand on the ledge and leaning his weight on it as the sweet, sad tune filled his entire world. He missed his stepmother, moreso than usual in that moment; he remembered how he crawled to her as a child, shivering from nightmares, and she would hold him in his arms and hum until he fell asleep. He didn't remember his birth mother; whenever he tried to picture the woman, he saw Patricia instead.

She would laugh if she could see him now; flustered by his barely-older professor. Her gently amused smile while watching him give the dagger to Edelgard stuck with him, after all.

Byleth had a pretty voice. Annette would be delighted if she could hear her sing.

“I don't know what's troubling you,” The professor murmured after she wound the song to a close, “but I hope you can put it to rest someday. It's casting a shadow over your face.”

“..Is it that obvious?” He whispered without opening his eyes. His shoulders had slumped, the tension gone out of them, and it no longer pained him to breathe. He wondered if Ser Jeralt would recognize the music if asked.

“Not obvious. Not quite. But I've seen a lot of people with haunted eyes.” He hears her move slightly. “After all, I am the Ashen Demon. Sometimes I'm the cause of it.” ...She...sounded sad...? “We should go back and try to sleep. The Mock Battle will need all our concentration, after all.”

Dimitri wanted to say something, but the words wouldn't come to him. “Perhaps I more than you,” He said with a rueful chuckle. “Claude looked as pleased as a particularly content cat at dinner yesterday, and I have no doubts as to why.”

She let out a startled giggle. “He is strange,” She said in a rush. “He's a mysterious man, and I think that I should be a bit wary of him but I'm not. Not at all. I chose his house almost in spite of myself; I don't understand it at all.”

“Claude von Riegan is a charismatic nuisance, and if you told me he charmed the goddess Herself into transforming the Valley of Torment into rich farmland, I would believe you.” Dimitri said dryly, opening his eyes to see her vexed expression. He could only smile sympathetically in response. “But he is a good man, if a lonely one. You don't have anything to fear from him.”

She blinked. “Lonely? That...is not a word I would have used.”

“Ah, I shouldn't have said that,” Dimitri groaned sheepishly and ran a hand through his hair. Unbidden, Claude's teasing words suggesting he do something with 'those unruly locks' echoed in his mind, and he suddenly flushed a bit. A nuisance indeed! “If and when you start to understand him better, it'll make sense.”

“I see. ...I suppose...I thought it was because I disturb people; I always have. That old fear, the reason he couldn't quite smile honestly at me.”

“That...is not my story to tell,” Dimitri said with a sigh, a tinge of pity and sadness sweeping through him as he remembered that hateful soldier and his ugly words. “But I doubt it had much to do with you yourself. He's fascinated by you.”

“That much I can tell,” She wrapped her arms around her stomach, that vexed look deepening. “I don't understand it, but I can tell.”

“Why does that confuse you so?”

“Because people other than my father do not look at me like that.” She looked away. “I am not completely oblivious, despite my disposition. I've heard frightened people compare me to a gargoyle ever since I was a child. I don't react to pain or fear the way most humans do. That coldness lingers around me like a veil I don't know how to remove. Sometimes I wonder if there's anything under it to reveal by doing so.”

She shook here head in disbelief. “Then here comes this boy – this duke – and he drags me all over the monastery, showing me things, teasing me over that stoicism, laughing and joking like there is nothing strange about me at all. So yes, I am most vexed, Dimitri. I can't really help it.”

There was a small spark of guilt in his chest. He'd had those very thoughts, watching her carve through bandits without a single change of expression; as though killing meant nothing to her. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, he has that effect on many people.”

She gave him a look that contained that tiny almost-smile again. “Heh...maybe it does.”

Dimitri chuckled a bit, enjoying their mutual bewilderment over the brunette, and then offered her his hand. “Shall I bring you back to your dorm, Professor? It's quite dark; it may be good to have another set of eyes about.”

Byleth blinked twice at him before accepting the gesture. Her fingers were slender and strangely delicate, her skin calloused from many years of wielding weapons. It amazed him that she wasn't a little chilly despite being so lightly dressed. “Thank you.”

They didn't say much as they retraced her steps back to the lower dormitories; Byleth took to humming again while Dimitri listened. She knew a lot of music, it seemed, though they all sounded mysterious to his ears. Likely she'd heard them outside of Fodlan; she had made mention of Jeralt's mercenaries travelling outside the borders before. Dimitri had never traveled so far, though he wished to, despite all that was tied up with Duscar. The night air swirled around them as they crossed the courtyard, the grass soft underfoot.

Byleth stopped at the foot of the stairwell to the dormitory, gently pulling her hand free. She turned back toward him, her eyes a bit brighter than he recalled yesterday, and said, “I hope your rest is peaceful, Dimitri.”

He smiled weakly and bowed, as he always did when people said such things. He appreciated the sentiment but suspected it was in vain.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

When the sun bled golden light into his room some indeterminate amount of time later, Dimitri only felt partly like a corpse. Which was better than some other nights when he'd been rendered unable to sleep, but not exactly ideal with the mock battle looming mere hours ahead. Staggering out of bed and into a bath, he splashed hot water in his face repeatedly as he began to consider potential strategies. He had some practical experience, but none of his fellow Lions did, and Byleth was an intimidating opponent – even with Hannamen's support, Dimitri did not like his chances against her. The best he could think of was distracting her from Dedue, who could potentially overwhelm her through sheer physical strength. However, Byleth had vaguely referenced being stronger than one would expect from her frame, so he was uncertain that would pan out as he hoped...

And, of course, he had to consider Claude. Dimitri knew little enough about Almyra, but their love of war and strength was a well-told story. It was entirely possible that his fellow house leader knew his way around a fight as much as he himself did – perhaps moreso, seeing as Claude managed to kill the man pinning him during the ambush and save him from being choked to death. Fortunately, the other teen preferred the bow, so as long as Dimitri could get close enough, he was confident he could take him out.

Admittedly that didn't account for the other Deer who would be joining them...and he didn't know any of them particularly well. Marianne and Lysithea were magically adept with the former likely specializing in the magic of Faith, Raphael was very physically strong and bulky, Ignatz was likely an archer given his constitution, Lorenz and Leonie he had seen handle lances from time to time, and Hilda...he'd never seen her in the barracks, so he wasn't sure what she did. If she didn't weasel her way out of the battle completely. Not all the students in house participated in the mock battle, since it was merely a warm-up for the Battle of the Eagle and Lion, so he could only make an educated guess who Claude would bring with him. Likely he'd choose at least one mage and someone strong enough to shrug off weaker attacks. He can cover distance attacks himself, unlike me. So...Raphael, Lorenz or Leonie and either Marianne or Lysithea.

Edelgard will bring Hubert, no question about that. Other than him...I'd be surprised if she chose Ferdinand given how much she obviously dislikes him, but he is capable with a lance. I've hardly ever seen Bernadetta out of her room, so I doubt she'll come...and Dorothea is another obvious choice for a ranged attacker. Petra is also a possibility for a front line attacker, though she's lighter and comparatively frailer than Ferdinand. So...expect Hubert, Dorothea, and either Ferdinand or Petra.

The warm water was a blessing. He didn't know what witchcraft had gone into the water system of the monastery, but he would pay good money for the secret.

I should bring Mercedes, Dimitri thought after a moment of contemplation. She knows basic healing and she'd likely have more of an effect on Raphael than any blunt hit. He tapped the edge of the tub. Dedue, I need for the professor and possibly Edelgard as well. Ashe can provide long range cover; even if he isn't very strong quite yet, he doesn't need to be. Between them, myself and Hannamen...we are prepared.

Felix will be cross at being left out, but he simply isn't good at defending himself. The professor would outmaneuver him and drop him on his back without too much effort. Ingrid is still building up her physical strength, and Annette may be slightly more adept than Mercedes, but she hasn't trained in Faith. Healing is very important on the battlefield...especially since we're restricted to a single vulnerary each.

Brushing his wet hair away from his eyes, the prince let out a long breath and crawled out. Ah, my head still aches...well, it's not as bad as it could have been. He was largely rejuvenated, as a matter of fact. That made this one of his better days.

He got dressed in his usual dark leathers with some care until he found himself staring at his reflection the mirror. As usual, his hair was a rumpled mess. Only you can spend an hour in the bath and still look disheveled, Glenn's old joke haunted him. ...you'd get a lot more attention yourself... another voice said in a low purr.

On a whim (surely that's all it was), he took the hairpins Annette had given him a little while back and pulled his blonde locks away from his eyes, pinning them back behind his head. The low ponytail emphasized his angular face, and would keep his vision clear during battle. Giving himself a bemused smile, he turned and left the room, heading for the officer's academy.

It was a brilliant clear day; the sun shone like a golden shield in the clear sky, there was a mild breeze and it was warm without being sweltering. He made his way across the fields, vaguely hoping that some tea before the battle would drive his familiar-feeling headache away. Sleep deprivation was an old friend, and even if he was numb to the small aches and pains it gave him, that didn't mean they weren't distracting.

Dimitri pushed the double doors to the Blue Lion's classroom open and was pleasantly surprised to find all his fellow students milling about, waiting for him. He had been certain he would have to chase down Sylvain at least. Annette and Mercedes were sitting together hunched over a book, having an animated discussion. Ingrid was trying to tell Felix something he clearly wasn't very interested in while Sylvain tried to flirt with her, Ashe was studying, and Dedue was standing off to the side – likely having been debating whether or not to go get him.

“Good morning, everyone,” He said.

“Oh, Dimitri! There you are,” Annette said cheerfully, looking up. Then her eyes widened. “Y-Yooou look different! I mean, it's nice, it's nice, I just – um, when did that happen?”

“This morning,” Dimitri replied, slightly bewildered.

Mercedes giggled lightly. “Is that so? It's a good look on you. Who recommended it?”

“Ah...I couldn't say?” The prince had no idea what to make of the way Annette and Ingrid were both gaping at him – or Sylvain's curious expression, for that matter! Clearing his throat awkwardly, he went on, “The Mock Battle takes place after lunch; let's discuss strategy a bit, shall we?”

“C'mon, you're not getting off the hook that easily.” Sylvain responded with a very irritating and worrying smile, making his way over from the shelves. “You've never done anything about your hair before, no matter how many times I nagged you. Do you have a date? Looking to impress someone?”

“No, of course not!” Dimitri said while gave the skirt chaser an intensely exasperated look. “It's hardly important right now. I've largely decided on our team for the battle, but I want to know what the rest of you are expecting.”

“The new professor is the biggest threat,” Felix pronounced evenly. “She has to be taken out for victory to be possible.”

“Is she really that strong?” Ingrid wondered. “I met her yesterday when Claude was dragging her all over the monastery. I know you said she's skilled, your highness...but she just seemed kind of awkward and strange to me.”

“What do you mean?” Ashe said in surprise. “I spoke to her, and she very polite. A bit quiet, but kind. It's hard to believe people call her by that creepy name...”

“I assure you, Ingrid, she's exactly as dangerous as Felix believes,” Dimitri responded wryly. “However, we cannot completely discount Claude and his fellow students. With that in mind...”

Sure enough, Felix scowled when he announced his choice of fighters for the battle, arguing vehemently for a few minutes before finally giving up. Mercedes suggested – somewhat to his surprise – that Claude would in fact bring Hilda with him, despite her layabout tendencies, because she was quite good with an ax. Dedue believed that Marianne and Dorothea would both make appearances; he also agreed to help Dimitri attempt to subdue Byleth. Sylvain expressed the opinion that Edelgard would sooner wait for them to exhaust themselves fighting the Deer before moving in to clean up, while Annette argued that the future empress would charge first because she disliked leaving things to chance. Ashe nervously offered to take out Hubert and Marianne/Lysithea, given his decent ability to resist magic. Suggestions flew thick in the air on who would go on the offensive first, how they should adjust depending on the circumstances, what the terrain would be like...Dimitri quickly found himself thinking that he was lucky to be surrounded by intelligent people willing to argue with him.

“Should I bring a bow, Dimitri?” Mercedes asked sweetly. “I'm not very good with it yet, but it will give me another option to attack.”

“It couldn't hurt,” Dimitri agreed. Using too much magic in a short space of time was known to stress even experienced mages out, after all.

Poor Ashe looked so anxious when he was definitively told that he'd be close to the action. Dedue asked extensive questions about how Byleth fought and what his liege would recommend. It wasn't much, and Mercedes looked fairly intimidated when Dimitri talked about how the professor cut down two bandits one after another without breaking stride.

“It'll be a good fight, boar,” Felix snorted, that slightly resentful look remaining. “If you can take her.”

Dimitri made himself smile in return. “I'm sure you'll find her lingering in the training grounds before long, Felix. The year has only just begun after all.” He clapped his hands together. “We've prepared as much as possible, I think. Come, let us go to the dining hall and eat before we depart for the field.”

His classmates nodded collectively and followed him out of the room.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

The field chosen for the battle wasn't far from the monastery. It was a forested area, gently rolling hills dotted with trees and bushes. Dimitri took a deep breath, his brain buzzing with anticipation. There was no real high ground, only a few ruins one person could use as decent cover. No advantages, unless one was good at exploiting terrain. I had only ever fought with a city before, discounting that bandit ambush. Atop the hill north of the field – the highest vantage point available – stood Seteth and Ser Jeralt, there to oversee the match. The archbishop herself was absent; apparently, something important was demanding her attention.

Dimitri shifted his grip on the lance he'd been given and grimaced at its lightness. They'd all been given blunted training versions of their favored weapons to avoid series injuries; live steel wasn't used outside of the Battle of Eagle and Lion. A good idea, yes, but the difference between this and his usual lance was just noticeable enough to be off-putting.

Edelgard and the Black Eagles were to his far left, with Ferdinand and Hubert out front while Dorothea lingered amidst the trees with her house leader. Manuela stood a bit further back, perched atop what might have been the base of a monument long ago (it was hard to tell). About what he expected, though with the branches and bushes in the way it would be hard to approach his step-sister on anything but her terms. That was how she'd always preferred it...

The Golden Deer, meanwhile, were out in the open, due south of his position. Claude looked to be conferring with Byleth, gesturing up the plain. The professor was too far away to read what minute expression she had, but he got the impression she was disputing whatever the archer was saying. With them were Hilda, Raphael, and Marianne, the latter of whom was fidgeting quite visibly. It reminded Dimitri a bit of Bernadetta. Perhaps Claude would have been better served to bring Lysithea...

It looked like Byleth was restricted to one weapon, or perhaps had chosen to go without her bow for one reason or another. That was a bit of a relief, actually. Now, if he could only lure her toward Dedue...he'd need to catch her off guard, and he'd need the other deer to be preoccupied.

Perhaps he should wait it out while Edelgard fought them? He disliked the thought. It was dishonorable.

Byleth pointed at something. He wasn't sure, given the angle through which he could see her. Interestingly, though, Claude jolted back a few steps. He waved his hands slightly. Byleth nodded, the gesture brisk and sharp. The archer looked up at the plain, chuckled, and bowed his head in submission. Both Raphael and Hilda twisted to stare at their leader, who clapped and repeated whatever the professor had said to him.

“Oh dear,” Mercedes murmured. “What are they saying, Dimitri?”

“They're too far away to tell,” He replied apologetically. “Be prepared for anything.”

“Of course, your highness,” Dedue said stoically. Ashe made a noise of agreement that couldn't quite hide his trepidation.

Then the starting horn blared.

Dimitri's pulse jumped.

“Ashe, I need you on the front lines. Stay close to the woods! Dedue, Mercedes...get ready!” He hit his lance against the ground and readied it. A surge of excitement washed over him. Professor, Claude, Edelgard...show me what you can do. Makes this a challenge!

The Golden Deer scattered in both directions. Ferdinand was charging Raphael, Hubert lingering just behind him. Dimitri's brow furrowed. He'd thought Edelgard would play more defensively, that's why she's chosen the trees...Ah, but Ferdinand was quite bent on showing her up, wasn't he? He was loudmouthed enough about it the few times they'd crossed paths. She should have brought Petra in his place.

There was a flare of bright light – Nosferatu, unless he missed his guess – and Ferdinand staggered backward. Raphael then slugged him into the chest, once, twice, and then finished him off with a kick that sent him sprawling onto his back in the grass.

That was a mistake. He left himself open to Hubert – wait...

The flicker of an arrow whisking through the air struck the dark mage. Dimitri strained, trying to see Claude – he must have retreated into the forest – then watched as a black clad figure hurtled across the ground and slammed the flat of her training sword into his stomach. Was that Wrath Strike? There were certain techniques one could use if you had even the slightest affinity for magic; he knew at least one himself and it wasn't a surprise to see her use it.

Hubert staggered backwards, clutching his stomach. There was a flash of pink hair before Hilda put him in an armbar and forced him to his knees. Hubert struggled for a moment before Seteth shouted for the students to know when they were beaten; then he slumped, clearly furious with himself for being tricked by Raphael's apparent vulnerability.

To use one of their own as a feint...in a pitched battle, that would put him in severe danger. Especially if he has low resistance, given how Marianne is fussing over the burn Hubert gave him. Claude, what are you thinking?

Marianne shrieked in surprised pain as Ashe's arrow struck home. Raphael jolted and immediately threw himself in front of her, cradling her so anything that followed up would have to strike through him to reach her. Byleth whirled on the spot and hurtled toward the Ashe's position without a moment's pause.

“Your highness, wait,” Dedue's warning made him realize his feet had carried him forward instinctively. “Claude will snipe you before you reach him.”

Ashe's pained yelp made him flinch. “I sent him too far ahead,” He groaned.

“An easy mistake to make,” Hannamen rumbled from somewhere behind him. “Usually in this battle the students spread out in an attempt to take out as many opponents as possible. It was frugal of them to stick closer to each other, clearly.”

Claude's distinctive golden form appeared from the trees. Ashe stumbled out a moment later; it was too distant to tell, but it looked like the boy gave him an apologetic grimace before leaving the field. Dimitri silently promised to make it up to the young man later on.

Byleth stepped out into the light and began walking directly up the pathway between where Edelgard was holed up and the place the Blue Lions were waiting for them. Her students promptly fell in a loose circle around her, holding their weapons out in an open challenge.

Is she serious?

Some small part of his brain told him that it was too easy, that any of the dozens of thoughts that crossed his mind in that moment would already have been raised by Claude (his schemes were more than just absurd pranks, he'd proven that in the ambush), that he should wait and maintain his position. Of course with Edelgard appearing from the side along with Dorothea – well, with half the team occupied, this was as good a chance as any to try and remove the professor from the field.

He nodded sharply at Dedue and surged forward.

The fight was not an easy one to enter. Claude shot Dorothea with two arrows in the stomach, taking the heat off of Raphael who needed to clear a few feet of distance before he could seize the slender mage. Hilda covered her house leader from Edelgard, who brought her ax down in a powerful arc that made the pink haired girl's arms buckle when she blocked it – barely stopping a nasty blow to the shoulder. Marianne took that chance to fire another Nosferatu at his stepsister while she was caught in blade-lock; El flinched, but held her ground rather better than Ferdinand. She was aware of Byleth approaching her, quick as the wind, but she couldn't quite prepare, not when Hilda broke the impass and took a swipe at her.

Byleth darted around her and struck the future empress harshly from behind with the hilt of her sword; avoiding her spine, of course, but the blow was anything but pleasant given Edelgard's pained shout. She followed it up with a kick, sending El sprawling to the ground.

His stepsister rolled over with some effort, throwing her spare weapon – an ax – at Hilda. That struck home, causing the pinkette to stagger.

Despite that distraction, Byleth either saw him coming out of the corner of her eye or heard some tell, because she turned around just as he closed in on her. Mercedes and Dedue were right behind him; Mercedes took a potshot at Marianne that clearly hit on a bruise Ashe had left her earlier, because she collapsed back against a tree trunk. Claude swore and rushed to cover her; and with Hilda distracted by a flagging but ever determined Edelgard...

He swung his lance up, just missing her shoulder. She jerked aside and stumbled when she hit Dedue's back; the tall man immediately trapped her arms at her side in his stone grip.

Byelth gasped out something distinctly unfriendly-sounding in what was either an Almyran or Dadga dialect, and jerked her head back. The impact against Dedue's face was painful-looking; the unfortunate fact of the matter was the professor's unusual height made her one of the few who could say they could do so. He held firm, though.

Unfortunately, just as he raised his lance to try and take the young mercenary out, something hard and painful hit his back. Dimitri staggered and looked over his shoulder and found Claude several feet away, already lining up another arrow. He swore the brunette smirked triumphantly before letting loose.

Dull-headed arrows weren't nearly as painful as the real thing – but getting hit in the stomach, no matter what with, was often entirely debilitating. He heard Marianne shout, followed by Dedue grunting in pain. Coming to the realization that he was surrounded, Dimitri shifted his grip on the lance and threw it directly at his opponent. The split second of Claude's eyes widening in surprise before the impact – which knocked him back into a tree – was well worth it.

Something hit his shin, unbalancing him so the follow-up attack sent him crashing to the ground. A moment later, a knee pressed against his chest and Dimitri blinked blearily up at the bruised and faintly impressed face of Byleth Eisner. She was panting slightly as she placed the blunt blade of the training sword across his neck, uttering, “Not bad. But not enough.”

When had she...? Ah, Marianne. Dimitri looked slightly to the right and saw the blue-haired girl frantically apologizing to a prone Dedue as Raphael helped the Duscur native back to his feet. Mercedes was leaning heavily against a rock, a bruise visible at her collar. El and Dorothea were both gone, clearly having already lost.

Letting out a shaky breath (he was fairly certain he was winded), Dimitri opened his hands in surrender. Byleth nodded and stood up, thankfully removing her weight from his aching body. “Claude, how are you holding up?”

“Haha...ow,” The brunette laughed before coughing painfully, “I'm good, really. Just, ah, need a minute...”

“Marianne, do your best for him. Raphael, with me. Hilda, Claude, keep an eye out for Manuela, she's on the move.” With that, Byleth walked out of the area, rubbing her side with a thoughtful sort of discomfort. Raphael hurried after her an awkward gait.

See something you like?, Glenn's voice asked mirthfully. Dimitri closed his eyes and carefully sat up, his stomach still roiling. Perhaps you ought to learn a bit from Claude, if you're going to charge every trap you come across.

Riegan's plan was harebrained; His father mused. Engaging both opponents shouldn't have worked, yet he defeated two forces with half the numbers. He made best use of his fellow student's capabilities. Remember this well, Dimitri, for the days when you face overwhelming opposition.

I will, he assured them, catching his breath. It was odd, he should be disappointed...he was, to an extent...but he felt oddly excited as well. At the Battle of Eagle and Lion, I'll be ready for them both.

Now that would be something to see, Glenn purred. Just don't forget why you're here, my prince.

Never, Dimitri promised silently. I will find your killers...I'll find them if I have to tear Fodlan apart.

Good, his father replied, the tone of his voice calm, soothing and pleased. Good...

 

Chapter Text

...the final push into Duscur is to be lead by Rufus, the late king's brother. He has been convinced to take up stewardship of the kingdom in his nephew's stead by the court...”

“Who was previously disqualified from the line of succession for not having a crest.” Claude mused. “There's no other reason the eldest son wouldn't inherit the throne barring an untimely death or committing murder. Isn't that interesting?” He folded the letter carefully and placed it back inside the drawer. It was good for him that Seteth kept his office so orderly; it meant chasing specific older documents wasn't much of a challenge.

Nah, the challenge had been getting that stuffy bishop tipsy enough to swipe his keys. How paranoid did you have to be for your desk to have individual locks on every single drawer?

It feels too easy, though, He frowned, thumbing through the church militia's reports throughout the aftermath of the massacre. If there are any rumors about Rufus attacking or otherwise trying to undermine his brother, they're well-hidden. Of course, he's a bit more important than Miklan Gautier; if there were murder attempts, the kingdom wouldn't want them to become public.

His fingers brushed against records of the Faerghus emergency meetings that the church mediated; he quickly took it and pulled one out.

My grandfather said that King Lambert was attempting a major political reform. Reading all of this...even that feels like an understatement. Open trade? Bringing Duscur warriors and scholars into his court? Talking about sending Dimitri and the Fraldarius boys to foreign land to learn the traditional fighting style? I'm amazed only a third of these letters are peppered with disparaging remarks about his 'heretical worldviews'.

He rather hoped that no one had said such things to Dimitri's face. A feeble thought, likely, but it was there.

It's a wonder anyone believes Duscur is responsible. They're a third the size of the Kingdom, and they have bountiful land but little else. They had far too much to gain from King Lambert's offer to do anything but accept; they don't have that old Almyran 'warrior's pride' getting in the way.

Of course, that means the real question is 'who in the kingdom benefits the most from the slaughter of the royal family'?

Claude squinted at the transcript in the low candlelight; the late hour meant there was no sunlight coming through the window. A description of anarchy in the eastern half of the kingdom, talk of how the knights needed to be reorganized to suppress it...and that was left to the lord of Arianrhod, who'd frequently made no bones of his dislike for Lambert's 'naivety'. Yet he was not one of the three lords who made a lot of loud noise about how Dimitri needed to get married as soon as possible to 'secure the line of succession'; one of whom was aggressive enough that he had his eldest daughter try and slip the prince a knockout drug so she could get pregnant. Claude's lip curled in revulsion. That's disgusting. Seventh hell, he was fourteen! His father hadn't even been dead for two months at that point!

Fortunately, Lord Rodrigue was there when Dimitri passed out and interrogated the girl; having been pressured into it, she broke pretty easily and her father lost his title as a result. Good riddance. So he's not a concern anymore... He could have been involved with Duscar, even tangentially, but I doubt he was smart enough to mastermind it. Not with that mess in mind.

Count Rowe of Arianrhod is a better bet. He's sitting on top of one of the most fortified cities in Fodlan, next to Fort Merceus. If he got caught, he could try to wait out any retaliation, and he has many 'friends' who want to be able to run there if they got invaded. There's no obvious route to the throne for him, of course, lacking both the crest and any close relation...but if he was involved with the mastermind, he might believe his children have a chance at it. Let's see if your name comes up again...

Distant footsteps in the hallway caught his attention. Quickly he shut the drawer and folded himself into the shadow behind one of the room's bookcases; listening intently.

“...only three glasses in and he needed to be helped to Manuela?” Sir Jeralt's voice echoed through the empty hall. “Sheesh. I know some people have a low constitution, but only three?”

“That's Seteth for you!” Alois laughed. “I'll tell you what's amazing; that the Riegan boy convinced him to drink anything! He avoids anything 'improper'; partly because of Flayn, I'd wager. He dotes on her and doesn't want her to have any bad habits. It must have been years since he drunk anything, if it just took three to leave him lurching about!”

Three glasses of the strongest wine in the monastery isn't quite the same as the stuff they serve in your average Fodlan bar, Claude thought with a dry smile. I snagged it alongside the good cheese for Teach and the others. The doors weren't even locked tight.

“He's awfully overprotective, that's for sure,” Jeralt said with an air of dry observation. “Flayn herself looks a little stifled, wandering about alone whenever he's busy. She's probably be happier if she had something to do.”

“Hm! Perhaps she could join your daughter's class? Or maybe she could work with that young lad the Archbishop brought back from the Goneril estate; he always seems busy, and he might like it.”

“Somehow I don't think Seteth would appreciate the suggestion.” Their footsteps carried them past the doorway without pause.

Claude waited patiently until they faded away completely before returning to the desk, an amused smile on his lips. His candles were melted down to a halfway point; even if Seteth was laid out for the rest of the night, he didn't have all the time in the world. He leaned over the wooden table, turning the pages of the transcript again as he looked for the little hints he'd learned to be wary of ever since joining House Riegan. The mediators painted the picture of a disjointed court, nobles arguing with each other over what to do, public order deteriorating, citizens expressing fear for Dimitri who spent the better part of five months hidden away from the public for the sake of his recovery. Five months...I knew he was the only survivor, but somehow I hadn't thought he'd been injured that badly...Claude went back into the drawer, paging through the folders until he found a relief report that was referenced within the page he had been examining.

It turned out that, upon the Church arriving to the capital in order to distribute food to the surrounding towns that had suffered from banditry, Dimitri had unexpectedly appeared from his room and asked to travel the circuit with them in what Lord Rodrigue described as 'more words he'd spoken at once than he had in all the days since his return'. The report didn't explain how Dimitri argued his case, but he clearly succeeded because he went with the detachment through every village with a bag of fruit from the castle gardens. The author spoke of how the peasants cried with relief at the sight of him, crowding at his feet as he passed out food, hovering and rushing to prevent him from doing anything strenuous. A couple of bandits had been holding up a storehouse, threatening to set it on fire; apparently Dimitri went to talk to them, and they surrendered out of shame almost immediately.

His people really love him, Claude thought in awe. He felt a twinge of something unpleasant, something that almost tasted like envy. The conspirators are up a creek. Those people would never accept anyone propped up in his place if they got what they wanted. They'd probably slaughter them if they even suspected foul play.

...That explains why it happened in Duscur. Any 'incidental' death that looked even remotely suspicious would bring riots down on them that would put even this chaos to shame.

He flipped through the remaining pages and let out a sigh before returning it to its folder. It looks like the King Regent is the only one with the means and ability to directly seize the throne...he's a known womanizer; sure, he might just like the company, but it's possible he hopes to end up with a kid bearing the royal crest. If that were to happen...well, Rufus was older than Lambert. That child would technically inherit ahead of Dimitri. And wouldn't that be a mess...unless something tragic befell the orphan prince not long after he met his sibling.

It was neat, it covered all the bases, and the very record he'd just put away described Rufus and Dimitri arguing heatedly over the latter's decision to go among his people. Claude was willing to bet that a few sly questions would reveal that the two didn't get along in general. It was a perfect setup.

It also felt way too easy.

Gah. I feel like a character is a play, being mislead by some charming rogue while he robs me blind. And I can't even put my finger on what it is that feels so off; it's just a nagging sense that something is wrong...He shut the drawer and locked it, shifting through the keys to find the one for the upper-right compartment. At least this isn't a complete bust. The reports in the library are so heavily edited they're barely comparable to these. That makes some sense; if the Alliance or the Empire knew how badly damaged the lands were, they'd likely offer their help in exchange for 'favors'; there's that old popular rant in the Empire about how they never should have let go of their 'old territories', after all.

Though the sheer extent of the alterations...did the council ask that of you, Lady Rhea, or did you do it?

There were a couple of letters in the small drawer, stacked in a neat pile. Taking them out revealed unmarked envelopes and Seteth' neat, precise handwriting. These hadn't been shared with other church officials. Brow furrowing in curiosity, Claude opened one.

...no sign of the force that would have been necessary to get past King Lambert's honor guard, but I did find remains of that magic, near an empty carriage abandoned on the road. Rhea, I wonder if Duscar did this at all. I think those people may have been here...perhaps stirring chaos and confusion, perhaps dripping poison in the ears of the reckless and aggressive. I have no proof...but it's worrying to think about.

“Those people?” Claude repeated aloud before he could stop himself. He snapped a quick look toward the door; it was still silent, with a few people walking around in the distance. Cursing himself for the slip, he looked down and finished reading the letter.

Nothing. He looked through the others, which chronicled Seteth's short-lived investigation of the Duscur area at least four weeks after the battle itself had ended. Nothing elaborated on 'those people', or the strange magic, or who was supposed to be in the empty carriage, which had the emblem of the Faerghus royal house.

Could that have been the queen's wheelhouse? Did she escape the immediate slaughter only to get caught trying to run for the road? It makes some sense, I guess; all records say that she died there, but the bodies that might have been her were burned beyond identification. They can't be sure exactly where and how she died, aside from the fire. Claude frowned as something odd occurred to him. Was she separated from Dimitri and the others? How did she end up so far away from them? ...I suppose she probably ran off in a blind panic. Nothing I've heard about Lambert's queen suggested she was a warrior.

'Those people'. Who the hell is that supposed to be? The church – at least the central church – has its detractors, but who among them would orchestrate a slaughter up north for seemingly no purpose? Is it an organization? Is he just referring to some group of nobles with grand, crazy aspirations? Are they heretics? What the hell?

...Those footsteps are getting louder. Shit.

On impulse, Claude grabbed the letters off the desk and tucked them into his coat, blowing the candles out. Dropping the keys on the wooden surface, he hurried over to the window he'd left ajar and climbed out onto the windowsill. The door to the study rattled as he swung his feet over the side and found a foothold in the old worn stone; glancing over his shoulder, Claude saw one of the many trees surrounding the building creaking in the wind, a couple arms-lengths away. He grimaced, braced himself, and jumped for the lower branches.

Pine needles stabbed face, and he nearly lost his balance due to slamming his knee into the trunk hard enough to bruise. Cringing, he grabbed an upper branch and stared warily up at the window.

He had good hearing and eyesight – something he could thank his father for. He remained still as a statue, listening to the person – two people – stagger about, one of them kicking the bed with a pained curse. Manuela's voice drifted down, murmuring inaudible comfort as she helped the other person, who must be Seteth, get settled. Geez, it was just three glasses old man! Marianne can drink that much without getting tipsy, much less wasted!

He waited, his attention on the footsteps disappearing until all was still again. That was close, Claude thought ruefully, slowly reorienting himself so he could begin descending to the ground. And I have far more questions than answers. Not to mention absolutely nothing to pass on to Dimitri that he hasn't already at least suspected. There's only 'those people', whoever they're meant to be. The grass was wonderfully cool under his feet as he dropped down and slipped into the shadows cast by the monastery. If he went around the long way on the outside, he'd be able to scale the wall up to his dorm room. Ah, I bet that's the most that's in Seteth's office. He addressed the letter specifically to Rhea; if there's anything else about them on paper, it'll be in her office – and that's a damn sight harder to sneak into. Not to mention potentially dangerous.

A half breed born under foreign sky, taking advantage of the archbishop's endless kindness? There were less painful ways of killing himself.

I'll think of something. I wouldn't be much of a strategist if I couldn't sneak around dangerous people, would I?

The tree beneath his window was one of the oldest in the monastery; it towered over the others near it and it's highest branches scraped against the high towers. It took him back to the forest he had so loved wandering through as a child. He'd spent so many hours there, wandering, seeking adventure, sometimes hiding from the cruel words of his peers. His mother liked to joke that he had been meant to be a bird upon once again finding him up in a tree, asleep against the trunk. He loved those trees, that familiar place he was always welcome in.

He let himself smile at the thought for a brief moment before putting it away.

He was not Prince Kovu, not right now. His father's son was traveling, gone on a long pilgrimage to strengthen his will in battle. There was only his mother's son, venturing to her homeland in the faint and vague hope of building bridges. It was one thing for Claude von Riegan to be a layabout, a troublemaker, a dangerous trickster; it was another entirely for him to be at all influenced by foreigners and savages.

At least, not right now.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

The first day of class with Byleth – with Teach – was...interesting.

She'd arrived ten minutes late, a quick stride in her step and a textbook under one arm, her demeanor brisk and no nonsense. Dropping the book onto the table with an unceremonious thud, she turned on one heel to face them and said, “Good morning; I apologize for my lateness, my preparations ran overtime.”

She put one hand on her hip and looked out at her new classroom. “Have any of you been informed of what this month's mission involves?”

Ignatz hesitantly raised his hand, flinching when her cool stare fell on him. “I...I heard we're being sent out for a practical training exercise. Are we sparring with the Knights?”

“There will be an auxiliary battle at the end of this week that this house will be attending,” Byleth said with a nod. “However, the mission itself will see this class dispatched to The Red Canyon to dispose of the remaining bandits who made the attempt the lives of your fellow students just prior to my arrival.”

Claude blinked curiously. Huh, they found that guy after he took off? I would have thought he would have kept running until he reached a border, any border.

Byleth crossed her arms, her severe expression darkening a bit. “Let me make one thing clear – bandits are far from the greatest threat you will face on the battlefield. Bandits are often stupid. They are rarely loyal. Much of the time, they are either peasants who turned to pillaging in the face of crop failure or deserters too violent, insubordinate or disliked by the local lord to remain in society. However, bandits are desperate people, and that is and will always be dangerous.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “When we embark on this mission...you will get injured. There will be real danger. They will not care about your age, your status, your family...anything. They will kill you if they get the chance. None of you are to give them that chance. Am I understood?”

A moment of stunned silence lay thick in the room; Claude watched Ignatz's expression become stricken, Lorenz sit up as straight as if his father were in the room, Lysithea link her hands under her chin, and Marianne shrink back as though struck. “Got it memorized, Teach,” He promised, coming to the rescue of his housemates when the moment dragged on.

“Good,” She said briskly. “Now, from what I experienced during the mock battle, each of you is competent in at least one kind of weapon. In the two weeks before we leave, I want each of you to pick one specialization...” She walked to the blackboard and began writing, “...and begin to make some progress on it. By the time we return, I expect you'll be able preform well in that role. Practical, real-time experience has no replacement. Especially in war.”

She dropped the chalk on the desk. On the board there were now several columns, each with the heading Myrmidon, Soldier, Fighter, and Monk. Garreg Mach's famous starting lessons. “If you already intend to progress down a certain pathway, please use the board to inform me of your choice. If you're uncertain which way to go about this...come here and speak with me, and I shall do my best to approximate what will work with your strengths.”

With that, she leaned against the desk and waited.

There was an awkward quiet there for a very long moment. Hannamen and Manuela, who had overseeing them before, had always tried to ease their way into this moment with jokes, rambling stories and other socialization tricks. Hearing the situation laid out so immediately, so bluntly, without a single second spent on pleasantries was pretty startling.

And the most frustrating thing was her face was a blank goddamn slate. He had to strain to see any tick, any reaction that might indicate her thoughts. In the backstabbing, social-climbing high society that was the ruling body of the Leiscter Alliance, Claude prided his ability to read his older contemporaries like open books. It had saved his life on a few occasions. It prickled at him, being unable to guess exactly what the mysterious Ashen Demon was thinking.

The silence was broken by Lysithea standing up, speed walking to the front of the room and writing her name under Monk. Dropping the chalk, she bowed to Byleth and said, “I'm ready to begin.”

Did Byleth smile a little there? Ah...it was gone so quickly, I'm not sure. “Good to hear.”

That drained the tension away. Marianne hesitantly got up and made her way forward; Leonie shot ahead of her, scribbling her name under Soldier before proclaiming, “I'll show Captain Jeralt how much I've improved since we last met!” Marianne squeaked when the girl walked past her, meekly adding her name to Monk with a mumbled apology before hurrying back to her seat. Raphael and Lorenz came one after another, with Raph picking Fighter and Lorenz surprising him slightly by picking Monk.

Ignatz came the front, paused, and then gave Byleth a helpless look. Her lip twitched upward again as she gestured for him to come closer. Claude made his own way up to the board, watching as his new teacher walked in a circle around the diminutive painter, one hand raised up and resting against her neck as she considered him.

He was mildly impressed that Ignatz didn't blush at all under the scrutiny, and perhaps a little bit jealous.

“You'll be quick, if you build up your stamina just a bit.” Byleth said thoughtfully. “You don't have much in the way of muscle...but with the right weapons, and skills, you won't need it.”

“I won't?” Ignatz repeated uncertainly.

“There are people who can kill the hardiest of soldiers by exploiting small weaknesses; I've met a few on the job, and they thrive on being quick and hard to hit.” She walked around him once more before leaning against her desk again. “I suggest you go with Myrmidon; keep your bow along with the sword. You can adjust along the way if other possibilities present themselves.”

“O-Okay. Thank you, professor.”

Claude handed him the chalk (having written his own name under Fighter. It was as good a time as any to get better with axes; the bandits had proven that having a close range weapon to fall back on was a good idea) and wondered if he realized that Byleth was hinting at him making a decent assassin.

“Good.” Byleth waited until they were back in their seats before speaking again. “This afternoon, we'll be in the training grounds. Until then...” She took a small, glittering crystal from her pocket and placed it on the desk.

“Is that memory prism, professor?” Lorenz asked, his tone carefully polite.

“Indeed.” She nodded slightly. “I want you all to have a good idea of what to expect from battle, and I hope that you will learn a bit from observation. Jeralt's Mercenaries have taken many missions over the years, and I will be building my lessons around them.” She tapped her finger against it. “Shall we begin?”

+ _ + _ + _ + _

Do you know the story of Asch and his gargoyles, my little prince?

Of course! He's the god of war. In a time of strife, when the land was overrun by enemies, orphaned children prayed to him for help. He turned stone pillars into winged wolves and filled them with his power. They felt no pain, no fear, and they fought until they were completely destroyed. But they had no souls, so when there were no more enemies to fight, they just stood in place, and all but three of the children died from injuries sustained in the battle.

...Honestly, Claude had thought Teach had been joking about not noticing having stepped on a nail until an hour after her battle with the slavers was over. Seeing the unstoppable Sir Jeralt freak out when he saw the bleeding only underscored his daughter's completely apathetic reaction to, again, having a nail driven into her foot. Not a lot surprised him these days, but...damn.

The fact that she showed them that part of the memory, rather than stopping directly after she defeated the last of the pirates below deck, spoke volumes. She wasn't embarrassed by her injury or by letting them see her father fuss over her. She didn't make any mock-serious observations about watching your step to downplay what it was like. She didn't even acknowledge it until Hilda asked, at which point she merely observed that she'd felt pain, but had put it aside to focus on fighting.

Knowing she was dead serious made the casualness of the words a little terrifying. How badly could Teach get injured before she stopped fighting? Could she take a mortal wound and keep whaling on her enemy regardless until both were dead? Would she stab herself if she needed to get at an enemy behind her?

So, why are there gargoyles on the palace, if they failed to save the children?

Because they didn't loose the fight. They won, they drove the enemy away and the children that didn't survive died free of captivity. They would never stop fighting for Asch's people.

Claude shook his head, watching as Byleth smacked Hilda's shoulder as her momentum carried her to a crashing thud on the floor. The new professor he'd snared, who'd been so endearingly awkward as he introduced her to life at the monastery, complemented the other girl's footwork before critiquing her inability to control her momentum. Despite the fact she hadn't known she'd been made a professor until a few days ago, she slipped into the role as easily as breathing, remaining in the training grounds long after the class day technically ended so her students could test their readiness against her.

So deadly, so beautiful... Hah...I might be in over my head...

He didn't believe that the war god sent his Teach (he generally didn't think about such things; being told that his mother's goddess considered him unclean was enough for one lifetime, thank you very much), but that old story just wouldn't leave him alone.

There's no way that's natural.

Claude would very much like to try his hand at fighting Teach...unfortunately, he was best with his bow and had yet to master Point Blank. It wouldn't be a fun fight if he sniped her from far away – or she simply knocked him over upon getting close enough. Nah, he'd learn the ax first, then he'd challenge her. He rather hoped she'd enjoy that as much as he would.

Teach was human. She couldn't possibly be soulless. There were feelings there, somewhere, buried deeply under something he couldn't understand – not yet, anyway.

And what kind of prince would he be if he didn't try to help her?

He closed his eyes ruefully. He knew what that sounded like, after all. How many lords and kings abused and stomped on the people they needed to achieve their ambitions, only to be totally surprised when those same individuals backstabbed them when shown a kind hand? Why did they get off, treating someone so invaluable to them like dirt? Did it really stress them so hard to be kind?

Yes, he hoped that a friendship with Teach would sway her to supporting him in the future. That didn't mean he meant her any ill will. Far from it! He'd much rather bring a smile to that pretty face than see her troubled.

“You look like your thinking hard. Are you not going to try your luck?”

Through long practice, Claude did not fall over in surprise at the unexpected interruption of his thoughts. Turning toward a quietly amused looking Dimitri, he gallantly replied, “Somehow, I don't think I'd fare any better than you. Not yet, anyway.”

The prince chuckled. “Fair enough.” He watched Hilda stumble off the training grounds, only to be immediately replaced with Raphael. Teach's body language shifted into something Claude was tentatively classifying as bemusement as she nodded, idly passing her training sword between her hands. “They're sending you after the bandits.”

“Is that a question or a statement?”

“...I had a thought, though I'm loathe to mention it. I don't want you going out on a limb looking for trouble.”

His smile widened slightly until it was a bit coy. I already have, and for you. There's a couple of things I wouldn't mind doing for you, as a matter of fact. “I promise, it's really hard to offend me your highness. Ask away.”

Dimitri gave him a Look (and yes, there was a capital letter for that particular expression) before saying, “Oh, do stop calling me that. You saved my life, Claude. The very least I can do is insist you use my real name.”

“I can? I'm touched, Mitya.”

“Wha-oh, for...only you,” The prince sighed in defeat. Then his expression became serious – well, more serious than usual. “It's that man who got away that night. If the possibility presented itself, I'd like to know why he tried to kill us.”

“Hm...I can't deny a bit of burning curiosity myself, but it's entirely possible the answer would be immensely unsatisfying.” Claude put his hands behind his head. “I've had people in Alliance territory not recognize me before; he might have just seen some rich kids and decided to try his luck.”

“And if he didn't?” Dimitri asked simply.

Claude raised an eyebrow and thought about that for a moment. “That...would a raise a number of questions.”

Chapter Text

“You seem well, kid. Are you adjusting to life at the monastery?”

Byleth blinked up at her father, distracted from the Almyran Pine tea she'd prepared for both of them. “...I think I am.” She said simply, and felt a little surprised at how true it was. Just yesterday, she'd been wavering back and forth on her final lesson plan before their mission to the Red Canyon to the point of flailing before finally shoving it at Hannamen for examination. He'd had to insist that it was a good idea, if not perfectly constructed, for a couple of minutes before she calmed down.

She just couldn't forget how mortified the Golden Deer students looked after they saw her memory of that fight with the slavers. Even Claude's endlessly cheerful disposition had cracked just enough for him to look taken aback. It was a harsh reminder that she wasn't dealing with the other mercenaries from their troupe; she was in charge of a group of children who hadn't, ever once in their lives, been in a life or death struggle.

In the last week and a half, she hadn't slept much. Instead she stayed up late studying old lesson plans, asking Hannah for help setting up drills, wracked her brain for how she could possibly prepare them for fighting and killing in the time she'd been given! It made her...anxious, she supposed. That was what Sothis called the awful knots that kept forming in her stomach.

“That's not the answer I expected,” Jeralt said, blinking. He said that she got the habit from him. “When we were mercenaries, I handled everything. You never spent much time with people outside of the troupe, even when we weren't on the clock. Here I thought getting thrown into a swarm of noble brats would be too much for you.”

“They're not brats,” Byleth argued, then paused. “Well...maybe Lorenz.”

Jeralt sputtered out a laugh, nearly choking on his tea. She patted him on the shoulder, apologizing hurriedly. He ruffled her hair in response, wheezing, “I'm fine; just didn't expect that either. When did you start getting catty?”

“I...had not intended to be?” She ducked her head. “It just sort of slipped out.”

“Was it him or the Gautier boy who propositioned you in the entrance hall? If it was him, 'brat' might be a good word for him.”

“Oh no. That was Syvlain...and I'm not altogether certain he was being serious.” Her brow furrowed. “Prince Dimitri apologized on his behalf somewhat frantically, implying that this is a frequent occurrence.”

“Nobles,” Jeralt muttered, before shaking his head. “They're sending you out after those bandits...that's fairly routine for you now, but don't forget it's the first real taste of battle for those brats.” He frowned. “It'll be tough to sleep at night if any of your little pupils die, so be careful out there, alright?”

Byleth bit her lip, staring intently down at her tea. “...I know.”

Jeralt looked at her in silence, then reached over and gently squeezed her wrist. “I wish I could be there to give my support, but Lady Rhea has me deployed elsewhere.” He grimaced. “The church has always been quick to make use of their knights...”

Byleth tightened her grip on the cup slightly. “Father...why did you tell Lady Rhea mother died to an illness? You said to me that she had died due to birthing complications.”

“...It's a long story.” Her father replied evasively. “Listen, kid. I don't mind you settling into your life here...but don't let your guard down. Ever. I'll try and figure out what she wants from you, for now.” What went unspoken were the words, and if I don't like it, I'll ensure we can disappear again.

“Then you are afraid...won't you tell me why?”

Jeralt gave her a pained look. “I will, I promise. Just...not right now. You have enough to think about, wrangling those brats.” Then he surprised her with a faint smile. “Hey, are you worried?”

“Worried?” She parroted, nettled. “Of course I am worried. Why?”

“Sorry. I just know that's hard for you, always has been.” He leaned back against the couch. “I'm not much of a teacher without a weapon in hand, but if you want me to look at your plans for the battle, just know I'm right here. Okay?”

“...I would like that,” Byleth allowed, letting out a long breath and feeling the knot in her stomach loosen a bit.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

So, we are taking children into battle, are we? Sothis muttered as the Golden Deer house and a detachment of the Knights of Seiros left the monastery, beginning the march toward the Red Canyon with the sun high in the sky. I'm not sure I'll be sleeping soundly after this...

I thought the Archbishop couldn't spare any men to deal with something as trivial as a bandit attack, Byleth admitted with a small frown. But there are enough of them to protect the entire class if something unexpected happens...why not just send them?

Mmm...I doubt any of the villages those men have raided would call them 'trivial', Sothis remarked sourly. The young mercenary winced in response. In her mind's eye, Byleth could see the child spirit leaning on the arm of her throne, eyes closed as though lost in thought. Bah, do not feel so reproached. I know well what you meant by that.

Still...

Let us focus on solutions, yes? Do you believe your students are ready?

Byleth glanced up at the sky. I believe I've prepared them as much as I could within the time frame. They're all competent and decently capable of rolling with the punches, so to speak. Claude could take command of some of them should we need to split up; he's a good deal sharper than I'd expect for a noble in a crisis.

It's true. He puts a lot of effort into playacting the fool, doesn't he? Sothis tapped her jaw.

...Yes. It's likely a necessity, as the one who will eventually take command of the Alliance. Byleth shook her head. My father and I were contracted by one of the leading houses once. Edmund, I think; he wanted us to investigate rumors involving demonic beasts. While I was there...one of Lord Glouester's retainers had a servant attempt to drug me into a coma and frame Acheron's diplomat for it. She scowled at the memory. I don't think he believed I was one of the mercenaries.

I imagine he regretted that, the green haired girl responded mirthfully.

Father called that 'just a taste' of what the jockeying for power among the highest nobles could be like, Byleth recalled. Even with the man demoted and Lord Glouester's firmest apologies, it was a while before he had us take a job from the Alliance again.

“Professor?”

Byleth blinked twice, belatedly realizing that Lysithea was trying to get her attention. “Yes? What is it?” She asked.

“Are you sure about this?” The diminutive white-haired girl lifted her arm. The thick leather shield sitting upon it glittered in the sunlight. Byleth, upon taking one good at her, had dug through her troupe's inventory until she came up that and an iron counterpart she'd immediately forced on Marianne. “I haven't paid you for it yet...and it's kind of heavy.”

“Don't worry about money,” Byleth dismissed firmly. “Healers are priority targets on the battlefield. Even if you don't know any healing magic, your opponents will act on the assumption that you do.” She frowned. “If the blacksmith wasn't having so many logistical problems, I would have had gotten you proper armor. It will have to wait, unfortunately.”

Lysithea gave her a look she couldn't interpret before glancing away. “I can't. It would weigh me down too much. This is alright.” She hefted the shield arm.

“I see...You'll need a guard then...” The newly made professor mused, looking about her other students before deciding, “When the fighting starts, stay close to me. If we get separated, stick to Raphael. If you loose track of him, find Claude. Never stray too far from your fellow students, understood?”

“I –” For a second Lysithea seemed to gear up to protest, but she withered under the stern glare Byleth sent her in turn. “Yes, Professor.” Byleth relaxed just a bit at that and clapped her shoulder in a way the older mercenaries had always done to convey their friendliness and support. The small girl jumped a bit at the gesture, but didn't pull away.

Why, why, why did Alois recommend me? The Ashen Demon wondered in hopeless confusion. I've never held command before! Father would have told him that!

There's no use complaining about it now, Sothis mused. There is simply nothing for it. I shall allow you to turn back the hands of time.

Me?! You can do that? Byleth nearly said the words out loud, only managing to choke them down at the last second with long practice. You can transfer the power to me? I...would not have thought that possible!

Perhaps, Sothis replied thoughtfully, but some manner of bond exists between us, as this strange position we are in proves. My power is yours, though know that it is not infinite! Your magic, as it is now, can only sustain its use three times in a single battle. Reserve it for only the most crucial moments. She could see the girl frowning. For the children's sake.

I see...thank you.

Byleth saw clocks and stars wheel behind her closed eyes, the sun setting and the moon rising, the tides rolling in and out. There...was no adequate way to describe Sothis's power over time rushing through her. The greatness, the vastness...she felt like a child again, lying in the sands on Almyra's shores staring out across the ocean. She felt like she was standing at the foot of Faerghus's snowy mountains, the peaks so far above her they vanished into the clouds. She felt small, insignificant, a speck of dust in an hourglass.

When her eyes opened again, she smiled. Thank you.

“Professor? You seem kind of distracted. Are you okay?”

Byleth glanced over at Ignatz, who had appeared at her elbow at some point. “I'm fine, thank you. I was just lost in my thoughts.”

“Are you a little worried too?” The young man fidgeted with the strap of his quiver. Out of all her students, he seemed the least confident, and honestly, the least fit to be a knight. She wondered what it was that brought him to the monastery – perhaps he wanted to stay with his friend, Raphael? “Oh, I-I'm sorry. I know you've done missions like this before countless times...I just-”

“I don't have a wealth of experience leading, compared to my father.” She didn't have any, in point of fact. But fear would undermine his capabilities just as much as a poor leader, and that was the last thing she wanted. “As a result I've felt compelled to consider my strategy from many angles, and I may well be overthinking it. That is all, I promise.”

It got Ignatz to smile, at least. “T-That's reassuring...thank you.”

Her father would smile, Byleth knew. He would chuckle and make some offhanded comment that would throw the troupe into a fit of laughter. Suddenly she found herself wishing she could do the same, but no clever or uplifting words would come to her.

“We're almost there,” She said instead. “Be prepared.”

Ignatz swallowed, nodded, and focused on the sky ahead of him. They walked the rest of the way to the mouth of Zanado in uneasy silence. Byleth could almost taste the nervous anticipation among the children surrounding her, could see it in the way they fiddled with their weapons and looked over their shoulders. (Perhaps it wasn't fair to call them children, when she was so close in age to them, but she wasn't sure what else to call a person who'd never had to kill before.) Only Claude was relaxed, his body language overtly casual even as the knights retreated to set up a perimeter, leaving Byleth alone with those she'd been entrusted with.

The entrance to Zanado was a slender stone bridge that could take three people walking side by side, chipped and cracked by age. Withered trees and dried grass covered the white gravel and hard parched earth; life was hard to come by in this place. Leaves crunched under Byleth's feet as she examined the area, frowned, and sharply gestured for her students to stop. “The targets are close,” She said calmly. “Get ready.”

Blood and salt sank so deep into the earth that nothing living could ever flourish here.

A hot spike of something stirred in her blood.

“So this is the Red Canyon...” Claude mused, shrugging lightly before slinging his bow off his shoulder. “Doesn't look red to me...” She turned towards him with a confused frown on her face. “Anyway, let's get started, Teach.”

“Archer just beyond the stairs,” Byleth warned him, gesturing for her healers to come closer to Raphael. Lysithea had taken the time to learn the Heal spell on her instructions; though she was better suited to fighting than staying back and healing as Marianne seemingly was, the more of her students could heal another, the better.“And he's not alone.”

“Then let's get them to come closer,” Raphael said with a laugh. “Just like the mock battle.”

Something inside Byleth squirmed, reminded her that the mock battle used blunt weapons and had Raphael ever been seriously injured before, then she righted herself. “I'll go with you. Claude, cover Lysithea and Marianne and get ready to take care of the archer. Leonie, Lorenz, Hilda, when we engage come in from the side and finish them. Ignatz, keep an eye out.”

The first shot came with so little warning that Byleth only caught it thanks to long practice; she snagged Raphael's shoulder and dragged him back a foot, causing the arrow to hit his shoulder instead of his eye socket. Either the massive young man had a high pain tolerance or enough muscle mass to not really notice, but he did not falter, throwing the first punch when one of the bandits charged towards him, cheap rusted ax at the ready. The iron gauntlet crashed into the man's jaw, knocking him back; Lysithea darted up just behind her classmate and threw a spell – Miasma, if Byleth didn't miss her guess (there was only one mage in Jeralt's mercenaries, and she was an ordained Bishop) – that burned a hole clean through the man's chest. He swayed on his feet for a moment, the three of them able to gaze through the ugly, smoking hole to see the land beyond it, before falling to the ground.

Raphael made a knee-jerk noise of mortified disgust. Lysithea barely reacted at all, however, her hands clenched in preparation for another attack. Byleth didn't have time to say anything to that; the archer was lining up another shot while his second companion rushed the stairs. She moved forward to meet them.

An arrow whisked past her, nailing the archer directly through the throat at over a dozen paces. He let out a gurgling noise before collapsing to the ground. Byleth spared a moment to be impressed by Claude's marksmanship; hitting a moving target was hard enough without contending with allies potentially obstructing one's view. Has he been in real fights even before this?

She swung her blade up and then brought it down in Wrath Strike; the blow sliced through the brigand's leather armor; it was old and worn but well used, clearly he'd been in the peasant militia at one point in his life. If Hilda realized this as she brought her ax down on his head, cleaving it nearly in half, her shaky cheer of victory left no hint of it.

“Nice work,” She said, walking past her.

“Hee; I did it!” The pinkette's usual timber was a bit strained, but she seemed to be bouncing back quickly. “I was planning to hang back a bit and watch my classmates be amazing, but it seems I got it after all!”

Byleth's lips twitched upwards, despite an undercurrent of annoyance at the implication that Hilda would make herself a burden in a dangerous situation. Behind her, she could hear Marianne removing the arrow from Raphael and healing the resulting wound. Leonie hurried up behind her, lance in one hand and bow slung over her shoulder.

“The canyon mouth can be approached from two different directions.” Claude said easily, falling in step with her.

“Our team is full of green recruits and you want to split up?” Byleth asked mildly.

“Do you trust me?” The brunette replied her in turn, smiling at her in his usual manner.

What a question... She liked him. She was fascinated by him, for lack of a better description for the way he made her feel. But she didn't really know him, and he was concealing his thoughts from her with long practice. There was something that felt a bit like a challenge in his eyes, telling her that he knew her thoughts, asking her if their partnership was built on solid ground or mere fancy.

“I do,” She responded firmly. Something darted across his face in response to that, but it was gone too quickly for her to untangle. “Lorenz undermines you too much. Leave him with me. Take...Ignatz, Marianne and Leonie with you. Though, we need to take the field across this bridge first.” He smiled brightly at that, causing her an odd sense of relief.

The Golden Deer fell in a circle around the two of them as they made their way across the bridge. “There sure are a lot of them,” Hilda noted with a slight whine as a dozen men in the distance started shouting. “Claude, I thought you said only that one guy got away!”

“He did,” Claude noted dryly. “Clearly he has a lot of friends.”

“I'm not sure I'd call them friends,” Ignatz mumbled. Byleth blinked and had to stare for a minute before she saw what he saw – namely, one of the bandits repeatedly smacking a shorter comrade with the hilt of his ax before shoving him back further into the misty canyon.

“Eh, it depends on your definition.”

“They're coming this way,” Leonie looked about, frowning. “Ugh, there's no decent cover unless you're walking under a bridge. This place is too exposed. What should we do, professor?”

“Archers, form up.” Byleth ordered calmly. “Raphael, Hilda, come with me; Lysithea, stay with Claude, pick off anyone who gets close to you. When they're brought down, we'll split up and capture both bridges; otherwise we risk this man pulling another disappearing act.”

There were two archers in the gaggle of bandits; fortunately, Jeralt had followed through with his promise of buying her a new bow. It allowed her to throw off their aim with debilitating hits and protect her students. It was necessary...Ignatz, despite having a perfect opportunity to pick off one of the bandits, hesitated – perhaps horrified by seeing gore slipping out of the stomach wound – and nearly caught an arrow to the eye for that moment of pity. Byleth was more than a little surprised when Marianne avenged his near death with a single well-placed Nosferatu.

“Please forgive me, goddess,” The blue-haired girl whispered, her hand trembling as she lowered it. “And save their souls...”

Those...those might have been the first words Byleth heard her say, except perhaps for introducing herself. It was surprisingly compassionate...from a noble to a bandit... Nosferatu is not a powerful spell. How did she-? No, this is not the time.

“A nobleman does his duty,” Lorenz sneered before throwing a fireball directly into his opponent's face, killing him in a few painfully long seconds. The smug confidence didn't last when the stench of burned flesh surrounded him; Byleth watched out of the corner of her eye as the noble boy turned first gray, then green, then threw up on the hard ground while Leonie stepped forward to guard him.

Leonie... Jeralt had spoken of her from time to time; always with strong note of fondness. He would speak about a girl who never gave up, no matter what life threw at her. Watching the girl draw her bow with steady hands and pick off an archer trying to harass Lysithea with two well-aimed shots, Byleth believed it. “This is what I trained for,” The short haired girl bit out, stringing another arrow as she moved forward.

Byleth walked over to Lorenz's side and grasped his shoulder. “Are you ready?” She asked briskly.

“O-Of course, Professor,” Lorenz said, affecting his usual lofty tone. “Naturally.” He scowled. “Where in the eternal flames does Claude think he's going?” His house leader was already slipping away toward the far left bridge, Ignatz and Leonie hot on his heels.

“To carry out the plan we agreed on,” Byelth replied chidingly, annoyed. Lorenz balked and started to stammer an apology, but she shook her head. He could be a ridiculous noble on his own time. “Keep up. The last thing you want to have happen out here is to be separated from the army.”

Raphael was prying Hilda's ax out of the head of a bandit when Byleth came up to join them. Hilda was splattered in blood and wore a thoroughly sickened expression; if the Ashen Demon was to hazard a guess, she'd nearly been overpowered and, in a panic, slammed her weapon into the man's face with more strength than she'd intended.

“It's always more visceral up close,” Byleth offered when Raphael managed to dislodge the weapon with a stomach-churning squelch. “You're all doing well.”

“Ehehe...thank you, Professor,” Hilda took the ax gingerly.

“Yeah! We're pretty strong, aren't we?” Raphael boomed with a bright smile. Uncertain what else to say, Byleth nodded. “We just did what you told us, and we're winning! That's awesome!”

At least he's looking at it positively? “Well, we haven't won yet. Stay vigilant.”

The bridge into one of the deepest areas of the canyon gave a good view. There were roughly seven-eight brigands left, and a few of them were already rushing off toward the pathway Claude and the others were approaching from. That meant the experience could be spread evenly among her students, and they'd be able to wrap this up.

...It grated on Byleth to be holding back, which she'd had to consciously to do an extent ever since the fight started. She knew, intellectually, that she couldn't simply storm the canyon and slaughter the bandits single-handedly. Her students (the thought still sat funny in her head) needed to bloody themselves if they were going to become knights and lords of a good caliber. Largely she restricted herself to protecting them, weakening their enemies, and her muscle memory was fighting her every step of the way.

Do not think you aren't protecting them, Sothis murmured. You are; focus on that. Train your mind around it.

...Okay...

Lysithea stepped onto the bridge; a black flicker whistled upward, piercing her wrist. Amazingly, the girl didn't scream, instead as Byleth hurtled to her side, drew an arrow and fired down at the archer who'd been hiding under the stone, she prepared a spell and finished the boy (and it was a boy, a shaky, skinny little thing who'd frozen in either shock or horror upon getting a good look at her) off.

“Lysithea!” Raphael grabbed the small mage's shoulders as she buckled and made the critical mistake of looking at the arrow was skewered partway through her arm. Byleth uttered a number of words her father liked to use when the tide of battle changed unexpectedly; in a small blessing, the arrowhead didn't need to be cut out, but they still had to remove it.

“This will hurt,” She warned the young girl; Lorenz quickly produced an ice pack to numb the skin around the injury (she spared a single second to be surprised that he was carrying that sort of thing before shuttering it aside).

Lysithea made a face. “This is nothing,” She replied darkly. “I'm ready.”

She did make a sound at the arrow coming out – an involuntary sob – but nothing more than that. Byleth quickly cast Recover – better to do more than necessary when muscles connected to the hands were involved – and contemplated how that was more akin to her own reactions to injuries than anything normal. “Consider this a lesson in situational awareness,” She informed the girl sharply. “That is why you have the shield!”

“I...can see that,” Lysithea managed, gulping deep breaths to manage the shock settling over her. Raphael carefully patted her on the shoulder; she tried to glare at him, but it wasn't particularly strong. “Thank you.”

“Are you steady? Lean on Lorenz if you're not.” Byleth turned and glared down toward the little raised pile of stones where the bandit leader was cowering. “It's time to wrap this up.”

She led them and took on the two bandits remaining near their chief. Something boiling hot was burning through her blood; how dare these rats hide in here?! Stepping over the corpses, she looked up to see the bandit abandon his high ground (not a smart man, this one) in favor of going after Claude, taking a wild swing at him.

“Spoiled little noble!” The man raged, flailing wildly. Claude ducked past his strikes with the ease of a dancer and readied an arrow. “Just die like a good little rich kid!”

“Being a noble has nothing to do with how hard your life is!” Claude retorted with a note of exasperation. Then he raised the bow and fired. His point-blank stance was hardly perfect, but an arrow to the shoulder was far more debilitating than most songs and stories made it out to be. The man shrieked and stumbled back. “Your logic is illogical.” In the blink of an eye, he spun an arrow around his fingers and fired it, this time hitting the man in the knee.

That's an amazing draw time, Byleth thought in wonder, even as she put her sword away and drew her own bow. It wouldn't do to get in Claude's way, after all.

“So, how much were you getting paid to knock off this spoiled rich kid?” Claude asked lazily, circling around his opponent like fox creeping up on a hen. “Or maybe you were being paid for the prince of Faerghus, and I just happened to be there? They must be pretty desperate to employ the first brigand they tripped over...” He smirked. “Then again, that does make you pretty disposable, doesn't it?”

The bandit screeched and moved to throw his ax at the teenager; Byleth's arrow pierced through his arm, causing him to drop it instead. Claude gave her a cheerful wave of thanks without breaking stride. “You must not have had anywhere to go after your boss cut you loose; most people who piss off the church don't try to hide in sacred grounds.” He let out a small chuckle. “It's embarrassing to think someone like you successfully ambushed us.”

“He...heh...” The brigand spat out blood. “They're going to destroy your kind. You know that? One day...there will be none of you left. No one to steal our livelihoods, no one to take food from our children's mouths, none! You'll all be laid in a filthy open grave on the roadside like so many of us...” His whole body tensed. “Starting with you!”

What he'd hoped to accomplish, Byleth wasn't sure. Claude's third arrow hit him in the eye, killing him within a couple of seconds.

This time, just to be sure, Byleth made her way over to the corpse and examined it. Confirming his death, she took stock of her students. Lysithea was standing upright again, looking satisfied. Lorenz was hovering at her shoulder with slightly overbearing concern displayed in a manner typical of his personality. Hilda and Raphael trotted up behind her, asking without words if this was over. Claude was frowning down at the body, his remote gaze swirling with thoughts. Marianne came up behind him, also staring. “Who do you suppose he was?” She asked softly. “Before this?”

“...I don't think even he'd remember, now.” Claude said, shouldering his bow. “Whatever he had back then, he'd long since lost. Or it was taken from him.”

“Do you suppose...?” Ignatz started, then closed his eyes. “He said 'they'. Claude, do you think...?”

“I don't know what I think,” The brunette said sourly. “There's just not enough to go on from that. I'd hoped to bait him into saying something useful, but it's no good. It could be somebody with a grudge against nobility...but they also could have just used that line to string him along.”

He huffed out a breath before smiling again. “Your leadership was amazing, Teach.” It was?, Byleth thought, surprised and...a little warm? “Let's leave the rest of this work to the knights.”

She nodded, gesturing for Lysithea to signal their escorts. The knights would comb the canyon, take care of any stragglers, and look for any sort of indication of what the bandits had been after. Her students started to walk back to the mouth of the canyon, chattering wildly amongst themselves...Byleth followed them for a short pace, and then paused, looking all around.

This place was peaceful once...

But how did she know that? And what...what about the bandits being here made her so angry?

+ _ + _ + _

“Hey Teach, on the way back you seemed transfixed by the canyon. Did something happen there?”

Byleth stopped mid step in the entrance hall of the monastery, turning to look at Claude in surprise. “I...” She hesitated under that earnest gaze before saying, “It's...hard to say. In the time we spent there, I felt strange. That place felt...familiar.” She shook her head. “As if I had been there a long time ago.”

“...Huh. Can't say the same,” Claude put his hands behind his head. “Maybe it was a memory from your childhood. Or a past life.”

She blinked. “You believe in reincarnation?” Tales of lover's souls bound together, chasing each other through time...she'd heard them in Brigid, in Almyra, but not often in Fodlan.

“'Believe' is a strong word, Teach,” He replied easily. “It's just a thought. And I have to admit...I'm a bit curious about Zanado myself. How did it come to be called the Red Canyon? Nothing there was actually red.”

Yet another nameless feeling prickled up Byleth's spine. “I don't know...” She sighed, then looked at him. “Are you worried?”

“Huh?”

“About what that man said. Shallow graves and being wiped out.” Byleth raised one hand and leaned her cheek against it. “You were targeted just for being born...”

“Aw, Teach, fussing over your students already?” Claude beamed at her. “I'm fine, really. All I feel right now is a desire to catch the next guy sent after me, hold them by the ankles and shake them until all their secrets fall out.”

“I'll protect you.” It was his turn to blink in surprise. She felt it keenly herself – why had she... “I'm promising you that, alright? Whoever is causing this...has to get through me to get to you.” She hesitated, then bowed just a bit. “They'll lose.”

“I...don't doubt that,” Claude said after a moment, gazing at her with sharpening eyes. “What brought that on? We're pretty safe here...Garreg Mach hasn't been taken in all the years since its construction, though it's been assaulted in times before. Why-?”

“Because I'm grateful.” She interrupted him quietly. “That you aren't afraid of me. Or repulsed by me.” He fell silent, eyes widening. “I have wished for...” She hesitated, the words on the tip of her tongue suddenly slipping away from her. She felt a warmth rise to her cheeks, followed immediately by an inexplicable anxiety. “I mean...ah! I have to file the report with the archbishop. I...I shall see you at dinner, I guess.”

And so the infamous Ashen Demon ran away from a boy with all haste, blood thundering in her veins, wondering what in the eternal flames had come over her.

Chapter Text

“You're doing fine, Ashe,” Dimitri said reassuringly, walking back to the other end of the training ground. His fellow Blue Lion scrambled to get up, wincing from the fall he'd just taken, and brought his lance up with shaky hands. Ruefully, the prince of Faerghus noted that he had yet to successfully distract his classmate from his anxieties. “Do you want to take a break?”

“N-no, your highness,” Ashe said. His usual earnestness didn't reach his eyes. “I'm really grateful for your help here. I didn't mean to take up your entire afternoon...”

“It's no trouble.” Dimitri responded, his tone carefully gentle. I wish you'd call me by my name, he thought but didn't say; this was hardly a good moment for such things. “I always have time to spar.” He smiled lightly and prodded the other boy's leg lightly with the blunted training lance. “Shall we begin again?”

Ashe nodded, trotting warily back and forth as he looked for some way to approach his opponent. The former thief wasn't physically inept, but his comparatively slight frame had it's downsides – when one used a lance, strength and momentum are fairly important. Dimitri was so physically strong that any attempt to overpower him in a straight fight had proven useless. That said, Ashe knew full well there was more than one way around a battle; Dimitri wanted to see if he could exploit one.

The more he concentrated on that, the less he was dwelling on the news of Lord Lonato's rebellion...

Dimitri thought he might have frowned, because Ashe darted forward, smacking his arm with the edge of the lance and darted back immediately, the retaliatory strike only grazing the air. Ashe jumped back again as he pursued, leading his prince in a circle around the training grounds. The boy was quick on his feet, even more than Ingrid.

The huge double doors groaned as they swung open to admit someone, though Dimitri paid it no mind. Ashe had decided to try and wear him down until he made a mistake, and while there was some wisdom to that especially if you were weaker than your opponent...there was an inherent flaw to it. You needed to not get hit.

When most people evaluated him during training, they tended to focus on his unnatural strength to the exclusion of all else. While it was an easy thing to get distracted by, it frequently caused them to fail to notice something important – that is, the fact that Dimitri was deceptively quick on his feet.

He bided his time, letting Ashe feel more confident until he overextended. Then he struck; knocking the lance aside and landing a solid kick on the smaller boy's stomach. Ashe sputtered painfully and dropped onto the smooth stone ground.

The prince was instantly contrite. “I'm sorry, Ashe! Are you alright?”

“I'm...ah, ow...I'm okay.” Ashe wheezed a little, pushing himself up onto his knees. “You startled me...”

“I didn't hit harder than I intended to, did I?” Dimitri asked worriedly, stepping forward and offering his hand. “Felix has remonstrated me for that before...”

“No, it's okay,” The archer took it and got up the rest of the way, smiling reassuringly. “You didn't hurt me. I just failed to brace myself.”

“You guys are going to miss dinner at this rate,” A new voice cut in. Dimitri blinked and looked over Ashe's shoulder to see Claude leaning against a pillar, watching them with his hands behind his head. The prince, not for the first time, envied how relaxed and at ease his fellow house leader was so frequently. With the way he held himself, you'd think he was on a lazy vacation to a southern beach rather than at academy.

Though...now Dimitri wondered how much of that was an affectation. “Come now, Claude. The sun isn't that low.” He ran a hand though his hair. “And I thought you were in a seminar.”

“Hannamen ended it early,” Claude said with a shrug. “Some important meeting got rescheduled. Everything here is a bit chaotic in light of the event that's apparently coming this way. And Teach is fishing, so I have to go bother someone else.”

“And you picked me instead of Lorenz? Should I be flattered?” Dimitri glanced back at Ashe, who was standing very still and staring intently at the other archer. The silver haired boy opened his mouth, closed it, and shifted from one foot to the other in a way that telegraphed his nervousness.

Technically, they weren't supposed to know that Lady Rhea had assigned the Golden Deer house to follow the Knights of Seiros sent to confront Lord Lonato and his troops. Ashe, in his distress, had spoken to everyone he could get a hold of and eavesdropped on those he couldn't; and thus overheard two knights discussing the matter – specifically, one saying that it made more sense to send the Alliance students for mop up because they wouldn't feel compelled to let any heretics they found alive escape. The other had apparently snarked back about valuing a lack of compassion in young soldiers and how the Alliance being pitiless backstabbers was the literal oldest joke in the book so his friend should get new material.

Sylvain laughed; Ashe didn't.

“Lorenz wouldn't be nearly so fun to wind up if he wasn't such a drama king,” Claude said with a shameless laugh. “Actually, I happened to walk by Mercedes and Annette; who were having a very polite fit over how you two missed lunch and wondering where you'd been all day, respectively. I thought to myself, where in Fodlan will I find an overworked prince who might still be upset Teach knocked him on his ass in a mock battle?” He spread his hands. “Lo and behold, here you are.”

“Oh, Mercedes...” Ashe looked down at the ground. “I told her not to worry.”

“She really needn't do so,” Dimitri complained. He wasn't Felix, damn it! “I've been keeping an eye on the sky.”

“How are you not starving?”

“The same way you can so expertly annoy people,” Dimitri said in a fit of exasperation, “That is, long practice.” After a second, he flushed slightly. Where had that come from?

Rather than be offended, Claude's face broke into an incredulous smile. “Was that a joke?” He turned his attention to Ashe. “You heard that, right? Or is the humorless prince actually cracking a joke still a fantasy of mine?”

“I-I'm not sure that was...” Ashe shook his head, “Ah...! L-leave me out of this!”

Claude just chuckled in response as Dimitri gave his classmate a faintly betrayed look. Feeling something between annoyance and a strange amusement, he smiled to himself and walked over toward the rack holding the training weapons. If that's how he's going to play... “Well, if you're so lacking in distraction, come spar with us.” He grabbed one of the blunted axes, turning and sliding it across the ground to the brunette's feet. “There's still an hour of daylight before the kitchen opens.”

Looking up blessed him with the remarkable sight of Claude's emerald eyes widening in momentary alarm. “Oh, I didn't mean to intrude,” He said innocently.

“You're not; I'd meant to give Ashe a break after my misstep there.” Dimitri gave the archer in question a faint smirk. Ashe blinked owlishly at him, then nodded before retreating to the marble sidelines. “You ought to know that not everyone will engage you on your terms. Get ready, Claude.”

His fellow house leader grimaced for a moment before his charming smile returned. “As you wish, your highness.” Dimitri had no idea how he managed to make the given title sound like an endearment; it was either a gift or a weapon. He rolled his eyes and watched as the brunette initially took on an aiming stance before remembering which weapon he was using, and moved accordingly.

Dimitri walked in a lazy circle around his new opponent, eyeing him speculatively. A lot of fresh trainees underestimated how much upper body strength one needed to effectively use any sort of bow; Claude was surprisingly slender with that in mind, his figure largely hidden by his loose academy clothes. The brunette could outrun him, easily; their mad dash to Remire (while he'd been nursing bruised ribs at that) had proven as much. A hit and run strategy would be somewhat more effective in his hands than Ashe's (at this point in his training, anyway).

Claude watched him prowl with a familiar lazy smile, eyes empty except for the dispassionate calculation that had unnerved him for the longest time. His fingers drummed against the hilt of the training axe, whether that was nerves or merely getting used to the weight couldn't be said. Dimitri could feel Ashe watching from the sidelines with wide eyed interest.

“Too nervous to fight up close and personal?” Dimitri asked with a small grin.

His opponent's eyes flashed. “You insult me,” Then he moved, darting forward on light feet.

Dimitri parried, letting the momentum turn him to the side. Claude didn't waste a step, bringing the ax down on the middle of the lance. Briefly Dimitri remembered reading a paper with Glenn years ago; 'the theory of the weapon triangle'. It wasn't a widely accepted postulation, but the crux of it was that the weight of an ax allowed it to crack or outright break a lance, a sword could cleave an axe in half with a well placed strike, and the superior range of a lance put a swordsman at an inherent disadvantage. He seriously doubted Claude had read it, but the precise way he countered Dimitri's strikes suggested he aimed to use the curve of the ax to either break his weapon or disarm him.

You don't like your chances, do you?, Dimitri thought with a spark of heady amusement.

He raised his lance with both hands, blocking Claude's overhead strike. Then he kicked the other boy in the shin. The knee-jerk stagger threw off the brunette's center off; pushing his lance to the side, he leaned forward and lashed out again, this time hitting him in the thigh. Unbalanced, Claude crumbled to the floor, loosing his weapon in the process.

Dimitri re-centered himself and brought his lance down. Claude jerked to the side, rolling over and onto his knees looking up at his opponent. Dimitri made as if to impale him, though aiming for his shoulder rather than his throat.

Claude merely swayed to the right, then reached up and grabbed the shaft right below the 'blade' with his bare hand mid-strike. He smirked up at the prince's surprised face, then fell backwards dragging Dimitri down with him. The prince suppressed an unflattering noise of displeasure after hitting one hand and knee against the rough ground; Claude let go and rolled over one shoulder back onto his feet, hurrying to reclaim his axe.

Dimitri was on his feet by the time the brunette turned around; his knee smarted, but it wasn't debilitating. Claude darted past him, taking a swing at his unprotected back; forcing him to duck and turn, now on the back foot.

The brunette chuckled. “What? Never seen anyone use their hands in a fight before?”

“If there are many people mad enough to try and catch the blade of a sword or axe in their bare hands, I've yet to meet them,” Dimitri responded, taking a stab at the other teen's shoulder. Claude swayed to the right, dodging smoothly, and that's when the prince saw it; without realizing it, he was carrying the fight toward one of the building's pillars. More fool he.

He feinted right, and managed to hit Claude's stomach with the blunt end of his lance. A quick kick knocked the brunette into the pillar, wincing as collided with the hard stone. When those green eyes opened again, they became crossed as they looked down at the tip of the lance pointed at his throat.

“You think I'm still embarrassed by my loss?” Dimitri chuckled. “Hah. I've always enjoyed a good fight...and, might I remind you,” He lightly and gently pressed the lance point against Claude's chin, “If not for the Professor, I would have had you then too.”

Claude took a couple of deep breaths, staring back at Dimitri with a strange gleam in those eyes. “Haha...that was hardly fair, using your crest like that...only the prince of Faerghus could throw a training lance hard enough it hits like a mace to the stomach.”

Dimitri snorted and grinned, lowering his lance when his partner opened his hands in defeat. “I don't need to hear about fairness from the duke of schemes!” Turning on one heel, he walked back to the center of the training ground. “You have your own advantages borne of the golden moon in your blood; I merely leveraged mine better. Now come, unless you've given up?”

He heard the scrape of wood on stone and a low whistle before he turned around. Claude walked towards him, his expression alight with amused curiosity. Training always relaxed him, and getting one over the enigmatic teenager was enough of a victory that he felt immune to the obvious scrutiny. “Hardly.”

This time Claude waited for Dimitri to come to him; he knew he was faster than the prince, even before his crest was factored in. The Crest of Riegan was famous for giving its holders inhuman stamina; stories abounded about various heirs running for a day and a night without stopping, outlasting a room full of foes by fighting until their opponents exhausted themselves one by one, climbing mountains while weighed down by unconscious partners. Claude wasn't physically stronger than Dimitri – few, if any, were – but there was little doubt in the prince's mind that the duke could easily outlast him. As he threw one flurry of attacks after another, Claude focused almost wholly on parry and dodging, occasionally smiling but largely wearing an expression of calm concentration. He wants something to exploit. Dimitri could admit he wasn't the most graceful fighter, and that his fighting style 'clunked' in certain places since he'd largely taught himself after the household knights were slaughtered in Duscur. (No don't think about that right now) He couldn't give the other teen a chance to exploit the vulnerability he knew was there.

Claude's ax hit his exposed leg, as if to underscore his thought. You're too slow, Dimitri, Glenn chided him as he jumped back to avoid the swing at his upper leg. You're still too slow.

I know! I know! He parried, side stepping past Claude to lash at him, regain control of the fight's momentum. Claude slid past the attack again, taking another swing at his chest. Dimitri stepped back, grimaced, and quickly drew up a plan. He circled back and made to visibly favor his bruised knee, squaring his shoulders and taking a more defensive stance.

He saw a brief flare of wariness in Claude's eyes. The brunette swayed in place for a moment, curious, then – quick as an arrow – threw his ax at Dimitri's chest. Swearing, Dimitri dropped his lance and brought up both arms to protect himself; the impact rattled his arms. Claude darted forward and kicked his leg directly on the bruise (on purpose or by accident, who knew with him); the shock was debilitating enough to unbalance him.

Claude grabbed his arm as he stumbled, pulling it behind his back and locking it there. Dimitri winced, instinctively going to one knee in response to the pressure. “Oops,” He said, not sounding sorry in the slightest.

The joke inflamed him, though not in a visceral way – goddess help him, but Dimitri was tempted to laugh. I truly do enjoy this too much, he thought ruefully, right before grabbing Claude's arm and pushing his back into the other teen's chest. The brunette barely managed a squeak of surprise before Dimitri pushed upwards, flipping over his shoulder and onto the ground. The arm Claude had been holding was nearly jerked out of its socket, causing Dimitri's vision to briefly blur as the muscles loudly screeching their displeasure at his tactical maneuver. Claude was starting to get up, though, so he paid it no heed, tackling the slighter teen and pinning him to the ground, one hand on holding his wrist above his head while he sat upon the boy's legs.

Claude blinked the stars out of his eyes and stared up at Dimitri. Their closeness in that moment let the prince see the flush in his opponent's cheeks and how rapidly he breathed as he took stock of the position he was in. “Okay,” he said in odd voice (Did I wind him? I didn't mean to do that-) “so trying to pin you is pointless. Good to have that ruled out.”

“You threw that fight?” Dimitri asked, shifting his weight a bit as he waited for the brunette to signal his surrender and grabbing the teen's other hand when he felt it on his hip. He couldn't help feeling a little annoyed at the implication.

“No,” Claude said, still sounding breathless. His wide eyes darted about Dimitri, and when he clearly decided he couldn't wriggle out of the pinning, he opened his palms with an oddly meek smile. “I thought I had an opportunity. I took it and it backfired. ...Though I figured I'd at least take your arm out.”

“You almost did,” Dimitri allowed, relaxing. He quickly crawled off the teen's legs and got back to his feet. “In a real fight, if you'd dislocated my shoulder straight away I wouldn't have been able to do so.” He regarded the schemer curiously as he slowly sat up, staring at him with yet more careful consideration. “You're doing better than I expected. Are you alright?”

“I'm fine,” Claude waved dismissively, before heaving himself to his feet. He looked past Dimitri, walking over to pick up his ax again. “That's not much where I come from.”

Dimitri swallowed a noise of surprise, wondering if that was a reference to training in the Alliance or an oblique description of combat instruction in Almyra. He didn't have time to debate asking, however; Claude turned around, one hand on his hip while his axe leaned against his leg and smirked, lazily gesturing for the prince to come and get him. Dimitri felt a tinge of embarrassment and thought, only you could make that look insinuating, before snatching his lance up and striding forward.

As they clashed again, it briefly occurred to Dimitri how differently Claude fought compared to Felix, who also greatly favored speed. Felix relied wholly on his strength; he could and would dodge to get the advantage, but he seemed to actively loathe fighting defensively. Claude, meanwhile, would leverage his strengths in whatever way would bring him the win. It was fascinating, really. If he had the chance to watch the two of them spar...

Well, a sudden hit to the side reminded him to concentrate.

He focused on trying to keep control of the battle momentum; no easy task when Claude would simply dart back whenever he tried to initiate a blade lock. Even as his undoubtedly bruised knee keened at points throughout the 'dance', Dimitri couldn't help but grin. This was good. It was too bad that Claude preferred bows; this was completely unlike fighting Ingrid, Dedue or his other classmates. He could see the brunette shifting his strategy moment to moment, changing how he moved just in time to slip out of his grasp. It's so rare that someone makes me work for it, other than Felix.

“You look so cheerful,” Claude remarked between breaths, taking a swipe at his leg again. Dimitri parried it. “Am I that good?”

“You're elusive,” Dimitri replied, feinting vulnerability for a moment. It seemed Claude had caught onto that, though, because he merely stalked around the prince as if to catch him from behind. “I know how to beat you; it's nice when it's not easy, though.”

“Oooh, is that right?” The brunette crooned, slipping past him once again. Swinging behind the prince, he tapped him on the shoulder with the flat of the ax and jumped back when Dimitri turned to jab him. “Cockiness doesn't suit you, your highness.”

“You never let up, do you?” He's overextended himself, again. Dimitri lunged forward, knocking the ax away again and forcing his opponent back. Then he swung again.

Claude dropped to his knees, letting the strike fly over his head. The prince had a split second to realize it...What Dimitri hadn't noticed was that this time, he was the one being lead to one of the pillars. He barely checked his momentum in time to avoid crashing into it, and started to turn about...

...Which was when Claude's hand grabbed his hip – almost like he was about to take him to a dance – and spun him around. Surging upward, the duke shoved his back against the pillar and pressed hard leather against his throat. His free hand grabbed Dimitri's wrist, arresting the lance mid-movement. “Gotcha,” Claude panted triumphantly, emerald gaze alight with glee.

Dimitri swallowed hard against the weight against his throat. He knew what he felt was a sheath, but even still... “...You've had that in your boot all day?”

Claude raised an eyebrow. Hesitantly, Dimitri opened his palms in surrender, and at that Claude pulled back the short dagger and let it rest by his side. “Force of habit,” He said breathlessly, looking incredibly pleased with himself. “Spend a few weeks in the Alliance, if your honor can stomach it. You'll start keeping one at both ankles too.”

“And here I thought the rumors had to be exaggerated...” Dimitri twisted his wrist a bit in Claude's grip, but the other teen seemed content to keep him pinned for a moment, perhaps to immortalize his victory. He could feel a flush rising to his cheeks as he gazed into those intense eyes, eyes Professor Manuela had so accurately described as 'drowning pits for the soul'.

“Eh, they are. But the rumors that stick around tend to come from somewhere.” The prince could feel Claude's breath on his lips. His heart was still hammering; his sudden loss aggrieved by the lingering closeness. W-What's this...?

After a long, confusing moment, Claude released him and stepped back, grinning, his brow slicked with sweat. “Well...as entertaining as that was, Mercedes will be cross with me if I don't do my job and ensure you and Ashe make it to dinner. Let's go and find him again, shall we? ...And we might want to bathe before the first course hits the tables. Lorenz will take all the fun out of dinnertime conversation otherwise.”

Dimitri caught his breath and let out an awkward laugh. “That's true enough.” A glance up at the sky showed him the shift in the sun's rays; the celestial body had begun it's descent, and soon there would be streaks of pink and gold coloring the clouds. “Thank you for that, Claude.”

“Maybe I should thank you,” Claude responded easily. “Teach was most put out at my having 'neglected close combat'.”

As they put their training weapons away, Dimitri winced and rubbed his knee. “Hey, I didn't mess up your leg with that little stunt, did I?” Claude asked with a frown in his voice.

“No, no. It's just a bruise; it's the placement of it that makes it hard to ignore.” Dimitri hung the rack back up and ran a hand through his hair. “I'll go see Professor Manuela after dinner. You're sure you don't need to do the same? I threw you pretty hard.”

“What, that? That's nothing I can't sleep off. No need to worry quite so much.”

Dimitri snorted. “Remind me never to leave Ingrid in charge of your well being. If you think I'm prone to fretting, the two of you might drive each other to frustration.”

+ _ + _ + _

Finding Ashe wasn't a problem; he was lingering outside Professor Byleth's dorm, walking back and forth and clearly frustrated with his inability to approach her privately. Dimitri had a sinking feeling he knew what his friend wanted, though it wasn't his place to protest. If anyone should have the final word on it, it was Ashe...he was the one who had the most as stake with Lord Lonato's Rebellion gaining more momentum.

It baffled Dimitri. Frustrated him. What on Earth was Lord Lonato thinking? It would be one thing if he had the soldiers to back up his revolt against the church, but even his cursory knowledge of Castle Gaspard told him that such a thing wasn't possible unless he had outside assistance. All he would achieve by marching on Garreg Mach with the men he had would be the sacking of the devout villages that littered the road to the monastery. The Knights of Serios may not be a 'true' army like those that could be fielded by Faerghus, Adrestia and the Leiscter Alliance, but they were the greatest soldiers on the continent, and a powerful force when brought to bear. There was a reason the threat of their appearance was used to settle disputes between warring nobles. There was a reason they were feared by those who turned against the compassion and wisdom of Serios's teachings.

What did he hope to achieve? Why drove him to such a drastic action?

It did aggravate Dimitri a bit that Rhea had chosen Claude and Professor Byleth to handle this mission instead of his own house. He had no desire to kill men and women that he, as their prince, was sworn to protect, but he was the Prince of Faerghus. If one of his Lords was doing wrong, did he not have a responsibility to set things right? It rather felt like the ugly matter was being pawned off on the Golden Deer out of political expediency, and that rankled.

A quick bath did little to ease his swirling thoughts on the matter, but it did soothe his joints, and having skipped lunch finally caught up with him when he entered the dining hall and smelled vegetable soup, cooked fish and beef.

“What do I have to do to make sure you eat lunch, Dimitri?” Mercedes complained while he devoured the meal before him, irregardless of being unable to truly enjoy it. “And you too, Ashe! That's a terrible habit to get in to!”

“I'm sorry,” Ashe mumbled, staring down at his untouched soup. “I...I didn't feel like eating.”

Mercedes gently squeezed his arm. “Oh Ashe, I'm sorry too..I know you're upset, but you really must keep yourself healthy! It won't do any good, for yourself or Lord Lonato, for you to be running around without food.”

“I know, I know...it's just...” Ashe fiddled with his spoon. “Whenever I think about eating, it's like my stomach's in knots. I've been trying to concentrate on anything else, but it doesn't help.”

“C'mon,” Annette leaned over Mercedes to ruffle his hair. “Just eat a bit of it! They're serving Peach Sorbet for dessert tonight, and Mercie won't let you have any if you don't try to finish the soup."

Ashe managed a weak smile at that, staring down at his bowl.

“It should be us going out there,” Felix muttered darkly from Dimitri's far left. “Why are the Deer given a Kingdom matter to settle while we're being sent to hunt dime-a-dozen bandits?” The prince was half-tempted to cuff his old friend's head as he often did when they were children for being so tactless within Ashe's hearing. Unfortunately, that gesture would not be taken as it had used to.

“You got me,” Sylvain shrugged, the gesture offset by the genuine uncertainty in his face. “I mean, what could go wrong? Best case scenario, Dimitri or Ashe could maybe talk Lonato down or at least figure out what's going on.”

“Perhaps the Archbishop fears a conflict of interest.” Dedue shrugged, draining the remains of his own soup. “Or perhaps she believes a more neutral party could better assess the situation's aftermath. They are being sent after the vanguard, not alongside them.”

“I don't like this,” Ingrid said, pushing fish bones around her plate with her fork. “Why would Lord Lonato prepare to march on Garreg Mach after having sent Ashe there to study? Maybe we're being fed a lot of misinformation. Maybe someone else is acting in Lord Lonato's name and hopes to use him as a pasty.”

“That's...a rather tempting scenario,” Dimitri acknowledged after swallowing. “Unfortunately, I doubt it. Ordering a march on the heart of the Central Church...his people would insist on hearing such orders from their Lord's own lips. He would have to convince them to join them on such a crusade. It's too mad a suggestion otherwise.”

“The Kingdom has always been blessed with a close relationship with the church,” Mercedes murmured. “What could have kindled such hatred in such a kind man?”

Ashe swallowed a mouthful of the soup and let out a mournful sigh. “I don't know! I've been loosing sleep, wondering and wondering...Lonato is devout. He taught me the prayers and the songs. I just...I can't...” He frantically rubbed at his eyes. “I guess...it must be because of Christophe...”

Dimitri blinked. He'd heard that name before, of course...attached to the list of supposed conspirators involved with the Tragedy of Duscur. Even in his most haunted moments, it had seemed strange to him. Castle Gaspard was the house of a minor noble, and one that had little effect on court. He couldn't imagine what they might have gained from being involved. His father had spoken well of the family.

Then again, he knew in his gut that whomever had slaughtered his family and friends must have had help from within the Kingdom. There was no other way such a total slaughter and decent framing could have been pulled off in a short window. If Christophe truly had...

No. This wasn't the moment for such thoughts. Ashe needed his support, not the cruel bite of his demons. He lowered his eyes away from Glenn's flickering specter, leaning against Ingrid's chair opposite him, and finished his meal.

Ashe made a small noise. Dimitri blinked, following his gaze to see Professor Byleth stand from table where she was surrounded by her students, say something to them, then quietly wander from the room. She doesn't enjoy crowds much, does she? Ashe got up so quickly he knocked his chair over, darting through the crowded hall after her.

“Ashe!” Mercedes cried in surprise, scrambling to chase after him. Dimitri wasn't sure what compelled him to follow, but he did so, apologizing to the serving girl Ashe had nearly knocked over in his haste.

The two of them paused at the top of the stairs that lead into the lower dorms. Byleth hadn't gotten too far; she stood still, one hand tugging at a knot in her hair, as Ashe came to a halt in front of her.

“Professor, please – please,” Ashe said breathlessly. “I-I want to come with you and your class on the mission to Madgral Way. I won't get in the way, I promise, I-I just have to be there.”

“Why?” There was no accusation in Byleth's even tone, just a calm desire for clarification. “Our mission isn't to take part in the fight itself. Just to clean up afterwards. It won't be much different than the bandit cleanup you're being sent on. You may actually face less action coming with us than on your assigned course.”

“I don't really care about that,” Ashe insisted. “It's doesn't matter. I just have to go and see it with my own eyes. Speak to Lonato, if I can. I need this chance, professor, please bring me with you.”

“You're calling him...” Byleth shifted a bit, tilting her head and raising one hand slightly. “Wait. Dimitri told me you were...” It was hard to tell from the distance, but Dimitri swore her face settled into a gentle frown of concern. “I don't understand. Ashe...do you know what we're being sent to do?”

“I do,” He winced as the younger boy's voice crack. “I know the people who will be there. I grew up around them. They were always kind to me. But...but...! I need to know why this is happening. M-Maybe I can convince some of them to surrender. Maybe I can't. But I have to try. I c-can't just sit here while everyone I know and love goes to war.”

“...But...do you really want that? Do you want to see them die? Do you want to identify bodies for the Knights? Do you want to watch...” Byleth's voice cracked into bewilderment. “I...” She wrapped her arms around her. “I...I believe I'd need to ask the Archbishop. Or else your class will be short one member for their mission this month.”

“Thank you, Professor.” The painful relief in Ashe's voice was palpable. “Thank you so much...”

Dimitri's heart clenched as though it were in a vice. He wished Byleth had refused the request. Especially since she seemed uncomfortable. He hoped the Archbishop would agree with him.

He'd watched his father loose his head, be murdered and desecrated....he didn't want kind, gentle Ashe to wake screaming from the same nightmares that plagued him every night.

Chapter Text

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thwip!

Claude reached for another arrow and frowned when his hand brushed against his shoulder blade. “Whoops,” he muttered, slinging the iron bow over his shoulder and walking across the field to the targets he'd set up much earlier. It was misty out, the sun just barely peaking out over the treetops; few people were out and about besides him, which suited him fine. No one needed to see him venting. Venting implied something was eating at him, and the less anyone suspected that the better.

Stupid, idealistic fool, he thought irritably, yanking one arrow after another out of the bullseye. Are you really so starved for a kind smile and sweet words that you'd practically throw yourself to someone who couldn't have you even if he wanted to? He'd yet to decide if Dimitri's apparent obliviousness was a curse or a blessing. Get a grip. You've had your head in the clouds ever since that chat in the greenhouse.

His heart thumped traitorously at the reminder; he wrenched the arrow out of the tree trunk hard enough to snap it, leaving it dangling uselessly in his hand. “Damn it.” Forcing himself to breathe out slowly and count to ten, he made his way toward the next target, toes sinking into the cool grass. “Why do I do this to myself?”

...A stupid question, really. It was like asking why a desert traveler drank so deeply from the well when he stopped in civilization.

Why? Why was it like this? How could a single compliment, not even a direct flirtation!, cut straight through all armor and scar tissue around what might have been his heart to pierce something so desperately vulnerable? It was because he meant it. He wasn't mocking me...he defended me from that very sort of verbal assault. He really looked at me and saw something so breathtaking it left him quoting his country's most famous romantic fable.

Of course he only realized it now. Upon meeting him for the first time, Dimitri had stared at him for several seconds without speaking while he had acted his usual self – that is, mocking the overly serious knights looming in the doorway and sarcastically addressing him as your kingliness. Then, apropos to nothing, the blonde had blurted out, 'lord, El, why didn't you warn me?' Naturally he'd been offended (he'd heard much less friendly variants of that ever since arriving in Deirdru), and promptly dedicated that afternoon to annoying the other royal as much as possible.

If he'd had the chance to read the fable beforehand, he might have realized that those were nearly the exact words the protagonist spoke upon beholding the now-human star, completely mesmerized by the sight of him.

The skin, the eyes, the very things that brand me as mixed blood, an outsider, are beautiful...? Claude shook his head violently – as if the gesture could somehow scatter his thoughts.

He'd just woken from dreams so sweet they were poison in his chest, and it seemed no matter how many arrows he fired, none of them would rend the illusion apart. Send the blissful images back into the depths of his mind where they could be locked away.

Why couldn't he be sensible about this? Observing Dimitri in the weeks before Teach's arrival had proven that the northern prince was staggeringly, mind-blowingly dense. Claude wasn't sure what else to call someone who's bodyguard was in love with him and making no attempts to hide it, yet whom operated entirely on the assumption that they were merely friends. Sure, Dedue seemingly had no intention of ever seriously pursuing Dimitri, but he was so obvious Claude had thought the prince had to know. But no, a few probing jokes made it clear that he didn't have an inkling.

So, Dimitri was socially clueless. If he ever managed to flirt with someone, it was probably by accident, and there'd be no way to mistaken any actual advances for anything else. He'd be too direct and clumsy. If he had any intimate interest in men, he either didn't know it or was hiding it. (Claude had caught him admiring Teach occasionally, but then again so were half their classmates. Dorothea in particular couldn't quite seem to help herself.)

Oh, he didn't doubt that Dimitri meant it when he said...said that. It just...probably didn't mean what it did in the story.

No one's ever said that before. Never said it seriously. When they said it, they were offering me a chalice full of poison so thick I could smell it. Claude strung up an arrow and fired it, hitting the bullseye again.

In the days coming up to the mock battle, he'd gone and made the grand mistake of actually reading the damned fable. He'd spent that night wide awake, heart racing, the constant descriptions of the star's divine beauty ringing in his ears. Serious, honorable Dimitri, who couldn't tell a joke to save his own life, had thought of that when seeing him for the first time...

His arrow went wide, landing somewhere in the grass. Claude nearly swore in his birth language before checking himself.

He had no idea what ambrosia he'd drunk a week ago that made him confident enough to flirt after Dimitri challenged him to a spar. Carefully, quietly, leaving himself an out if it was needed...but he still did it. While Dimitri didn't seem to have picked up on it, Ashe might well have – the kid had excused himself right after the prince had pinned him, momentarily leaving him a flustered mess. Even now the memory of that moment brought blood rushing to his face.

What the hell was getting into him? You'd think this was the first time he'd ever teased an attractive man; generally speaking he preferred girls, but boys had their charms, and he was hardly oblivious to the effect he often had on them (until they realized where he was from). Why the hell was this getting to him? Why couldn't he just laugh, shrug and move on? (Because Dimitri knew, he knew and he still said it and meant it-)

Asch's blood and bones, he was turning into Aisling! He had no idea how a pure blood, properly raised Almyran girl like his cousin could be such a swooning romantic, and sometimes he wondered if his mother had something to do with it. Come on, think about something else, anything else...

I'll protect you.”

Claude's hands shook on the bow. He tightened his grip, swallowing. That's not much better.

Teach...why would she promise that? Just to him. Not the whole class, unless she'd done so after leaving dinner that evening. (And, well, she might've, but he'd been too distracted to notice!) It was her job, yes, but she'd blushed and then fled in embarrassment – that was a stronger reaction than what she'd had to winning the mock battle!

Anyone who would hurt me has to fight you? The attempted poisonings, the weapons thrown in spur of the moment hatred, the beatings, you'd tackle them all in my place? Do you...do you know what you're promising me? Did you mean it? Did you actually mean it, cold and pitiless Ashen Demon?

...She'd thrown herself in front of an ax to save Edelgard, a girl she didn't even know. She let strangers examine her memories in order to prepare them for a battle. She spent several patient evenings improving his and Ignatz's firing posture, telling him that he was close to pulling off point-blank. Even though they'd had to approach her, not the other way around, she always took to their needs with serious attentiveness.

People say all sorts of things, he reminded himself harshly. They always have.

But doesn't it mean something different coming from her? Is an emotionless girl who watches with that look of lost confusion when Raphael and Ignatz laugh at an old joke, when Hilda teases Marianne, when Ingrid yells at Sylvain for being trouble, truly capable of screwing with you that way? Maybe she's serious. Maybe she thinks of you as a friend worth shielding.

Claude angrily strung two arrows and fired. They at least hit the target, though they were off center by a wide margin.

This wasn't safe, this wasn't safe. Hope was a mistake. It always had been.

He reached for that indifference he had cultivated, tried to force all those warm happy feelings back into the vault he'd locked them in after two boys who'd claimed to be his friends left him to drown in a swollen river for the sin of being a half breed as a child. After that lord had his men beat him unconscious for being 'too friendly' with his daughter. After his grandfather's face twisted with revulsion when he looked upon him for the first time and only saw the face of the barbarian king who stole his daughter from him.

He was good at fooling people, but he'd rather not add himself to the list of those he'd tricked into letting their guard down. Wouldn't that be embarrassing?

He was being kind. He's like that with everyone, even Felix, who's constantly antagonizing him. It doesn't mean anything special.

She's concerned about not knowing where the enemy is, not knowing what to expect. It's natural for a mercenary to want their escort to feel confident and safe. She was just trying to reassure me, and felt awkward about it. She's clearly not used to other people her age.

His arrow hit the target, wildly off center, but it struck true.

He's handsome. He's amazing in a fight. It's fun to tease him just to see his flustered reactions. It's just a little game, a mutual joke between us, and I'm thinking too hard about it. Anything more requires trust and I don't trust anyone. I can't afford to.

Another arrow hit closer to the bullseye. Claude thought about that darkness he'd seen shadow Dimitri's expressions, the tightly controlled behavior that only someone who feared the results of humoring their thoughts utilized. He'd seen warriors who'd repressed themselves that way back at home. The moments when their control gave way...were frightening.

I can't truly trust him, not completely, until I know what's inside him that he's so afraid of.

He felt a twinge of guilt for that thought, especially now that he attached it to a warm, compassionate, friendly face. But his own darkest secret had been dragged out of him, in a frightening, humiliating way, and he knew that until he saw Dimitri the same way the prince had seen him in that moment, there would still be a barrier keeping them apart. He would be kinder, gentler, more careful when seeking this secret...but he wanted to know it. He wanted...

...He hesitated on the next draw, coming to the startling realization that he genuinely wanted Dimitri to entrust it to him. The way he was trusting him to keep his heritage secret, a trust that had yet to be betrayed. How long had it been since someone did that for him?

He couldn't have you even if he wanted you, he repeated to himself. Nope, with him being the last legitimate heir to the throne, Dimitri's future marriage involved a socially acceptable woman who could give him lots of children. It was silly to even whimsically contemplate otherwise. He couldn't have you even if he wanted you...

The arrow hit bullseye.

And Teach...oh, Teach. She was wrapped in so many secrets he doubted even she could fully untangle the knot without help. Unnatural stoicism aside, even several weeks of listening to rumors and gossiping knights had given him little to no insight about why Jeralt had left the church's services. Everyone seemed to regard him highly despite the fact he technically deserted and hid from the archbishop for twenty years. They talked about how powerful he was, about the many missions he had completed in the face of absurd odds, how loyal he had been and how much he admired Lady Rhea. It was as if one day he'd suddenly decided he needed a change of scenery and that dealing with resignation paperwork was too much of a hassle, so he just packed up and vanished in the middle of the night.

A disappearance that took place mere days after a massive fire swept through the building, doing more damage in a single night than some actual military assaults had ever managed. Apparently a baby girl died in the fire; the two clerics he'd heard this from mostly remembered that because of how distraught the Archbishop had been over that particular death.

He couldn't help a slightly relieved smile when that arrow, then another one both hit bullseye. His heart calmed a bit at the perfect marks.

The timing was a rather suspicious... If that baby girl and his Teach were one in the same, that suggested that perhaps Archbishop Rhea wanted Jeralt back less than she wanted his daughter in arm's reach. ...Which would certainly explain why she would make a random young mercenary, particularly one with such a, well, colorful reputation as the Ashen Demon a professor at the academy in the face of all logic and Seteth's blatant disapproval.

Jeralt himself was a man of few words and plenty of scowls; Claude doubted his charming personality would make much of a dent in the man's unwillingness to talk about his past. And he really didn't want to have to explain himself to Teach if she found out he'd gotten her old man drunk, so out went that usually-reliable scheme. So instead he'd have to work on Teach herself; coax her to open up a bit.

Why did you grow up away from the world? Why do you never smile? Why does watching Raphael and Ignatz acting like the old friends they are cause you to make that pained, confused expression? What is it that you want so badly you don't mind having your life upended to be Rhea's pet professor?

Why does the mercenary famous for her frozen heart care about protecting me?

The next arrow went wide again. Damn it all! He'd come out here to distract himself, not vanish deeper and deeper down the bottomless swamp that was his mind. He let out a groan and stared up at the sky, wishing for his wyvern. A good long flight, where he could marvel at the world that seemed so small below him, always made him feel better.

He wondered what Teach would look like if she smiled. If even that cold, emotionless state couldn't obscure her unkempt beauty, what would a smile or a laugh do to her...?

Because I'm grateful. That you're not afraid of me. Or repulsed by me. I...had wanted...”

You wanted what? Tell me....

His last arrow sank into the wooden leg of the target.

Okay. Clearly this isn't working.

Sighing, he let the bow rest by his side and went to collect the arrows again, this time to bring them back to the training armory. He'd read a bit until everyone else woke up – something nice and safe and bland, like the church-sanctioned biography of the Ten Elites. He'd barely gotten started on that before life decided to be really weird...

I hope Hilda gets up soon, He thought. Watching her try to weasel out of training while Teach stands there with her arms crossed and frowning just a bit will never stop being funny.

+ _ + _ + _

Teach's style of whipping her group of 'brats', as Sir Jeralt ever so kindly called them, into actual knights...well, it was both very very obvious she wasn't trained to be a professor, yet her eye for their strengths and weaknesses allowed her an unorthodox, demanding yet capable instruction style.

In her case, 'demanding' meant treating the Golden Deer less like a group of polished nobles and rich merchant class hopefuls, and more like green recruits in her father's mercenary troupe. She frequently pitted them against each other and herself in sparring. She gave them strategic problems to solve that others would have saved for near graduation. She didn't run them into the ground, but she made few of the allowances that other instructors would have for noble students. She would pair them up based on how their abilities would work off each other, rather than any social cultivation for high society or social climbing. It was enough that Lorenz had complained quite a bit in the first few weeks about being treated 'like a commoner', but Byleth's stony refusal to yield and unimpressed scowls had quieted even him.

Claude loved it. Thrived in it. This was a thousand times better than that know-it-all priest who'd abandoned him, Dimitri and Edelgard to the bandits. Gods help him, but sometimes it reminded him of home.

What was even better was that mere observation showed him that it wasn't just him who was learning rapidly under Teach's stern instruction; Ignatz was making visible improvements, Lysithea had three new spells under her belt, Marianne had begun to focus on Reason as well as Faith...Hilda, for all that she moaned about the professor being a 'ruthless taskmaster', was picking up brawling with speed and style...Raphael was testing out heavy armor...Lorenz, once he quit complaining, was making decent progress with his lance as well. Not nearly enough that Dimitri couldn't absolutely demolish him in a cross-class sparring session, but he was improving!

It was why he felt confident when they left the Monastery to meet with Thunderstrike Catherine and her contingent of knights to clean up after the destruction of Lord Lonato's ill-thought-out rebellion. Even having the man's adoptive son in tow for reasons known only to the Archbishop and whatever gods existed didn't fully undermine that; he just decided to stick close to the kid in order to support him whenever he inevitably froze up.

Teach approved, when he sidled over to her to pass on his intention in a whisper. He swore that she looked pleased with him, though it only lasted for a brief moment.

Of course...it wouldn't be that easy. At the end of that day, he wondered if anything that came to pass after Byleth's arrival would be.

+ _ + _ + _

It was raining. It was raining and foggy. Claude had to strain to see more than a couple yards ahead of them, and literally everything his father had ever warned him about the weather was echoing in his ears. The highway they were walking on right now, should it be a battlefield, was a seasoned warrior's nightmare – poor visibility, the ground rendered treacherous by mud and water, and any enemy they encountered would have the advantage of knowing the area very well. They were drawing closer to the border of Gaspard lands, after all.

He didn't say any of this out loud; between Hilda's constant complaining about being wet, Ignatz stopping every ten minutes to clean his glasses, Raphael bemoaning the quality of the lunch rations, Lorenz and Leonie's frequent bickering and Lysithea's dire threats about what she'd do to any knight that didn't surrender immediately after bringing them out here in this dead weather...class morale was not exactly stellar.

“Are we there yet?” Hilda whined plaintively.

“Will you please cut it out, Hilda? Somehow you're making the weather feel even worse,” Lysithea groused, her boots splashing in the mud. The shield Byleth had given her sat comfortably on her arm; she'd made a point of wearing it whenever practicing, so she got used to its weight and having it as protection.

“I can't believe it's been this bad for so long,” Ashe mumbled, pulling his coat tighter. “The skies were clear when we left the monastery...and it in this area, it doesn't usually rain hard unless it's early spring or mid fall.”

“It is rather strange,” Byleth murmured tonelessly, glancing up at the sky. She was wearing her usual gray cloak and heavy black boots, and while she didn't look cold, Claude swore that her sleeves were getting soaked through. Nothing even slightly akin to a complaint ever passed her lips. “It would be one thing if we were a week or so out from Garreg Mach when this started, but we're only a three day's march. The weather shouldn't be so drastically different.”

“Out on the ocean, sailors fear white squalls, because they appear without warning and great violence,” Marianne said, seemingly to herself. “I wonder if there's something similar for over land travel...”

“Well, over the ocean there's nothing to obstruct the winds,” Byleth responded, causing Marianne to squeak in surprise. “So it's easier for them to pick up speed. There is such a thing as cloudbursts, but they rarely last long and they don't usually come with fog. At least, I don't believe so.”

“Do you think this isn't natural, Teach?” Claude asked, tilting his head to look at her. This rain was driving him spare; he'd brought a cloak, but not a very heavy one, and his shoes had taken a bit of water when he had to climb over a tree a ways back.

Byleth looked sharply at him. “It's possible,” She said warily, her eyes flickering throughout the trees on either side of the path. “A strong dark mage could conjure fog, if they were learned enough. But rain as well? That I've never heard of.” She paused for a moment, frowning darkly. “Everyone be on your guard. Pair up.”

Pair up...Claude negligently waved for Ashe to join him while he marveled at the simplicity and strength in this maneuver Jeralt's Mercenaries had pioneered and perfected. Two people, usually with different weapons and fighting styles, who fought at each other's side at all times; one defending or supporting the other, switching places whenever necessary. Byleth had shown them members of the mercenary troupe practicing the maneuver, and even in a relaxed, restricted spar, it was incredible to behold.

Long practice kept him from cringing when Byleth explained that the maneuver's full value could only be achieved by two people who deeply trusted each other. He did appreciate it that she followed that up by having him and Hilda practice together; she was the closest thing he had to a true friend, and the Golden Deer he knew the best.

As of right now, though, he had sweet, innocent-as-a-lamb Ashe to worry about, so Hilda skipped over to Marianne and latched onto her old friend's arm. Leonie sighed heavily as Lorenz made a show of standing protectively in front of her, sliding her bow off her shoulder. Raphael slapped Ignatz on the back hard enough to make his friend stumble, laughing brightly. Lysithea floated over to Byleth, hovering at her shoulder and trying to stare into the fog.

“How do you do that?” Ashe asked him out of nowhere.

“Eh? How do I do what?” Claude put his hands behind his head and grinned at his fellow archer. “How do I be so effortlessly charming and good looking?”

Ashe quickly turned a dark shade of red – lord, it was adorable; were all boys from Faerghus this easy to tease? – “N-no, I-I mean – how do you smile like that right after noting that the enemy might be covering the fields in fog? That's...that's not good for us, if it's true, but you don't look worried at all.” He fidgeted. “His Highness said you were cracking jokes like nothing happened mere minutes after the Professor and Captain Jeralt saved you from the bandits. How do you manage that? Is there...something that makes it easier?”

Claude relaxed a bit and allowed himself to look a little more serious. “To be honest, not really. Smiling makes me feel more confident. There's no point worrying ourselves into a panic before the fighting even starts, right? Not that we're going to be doing any fighting.” Hopefully.

Ashe tilted his head, eyes glittering. “...Does that work?” He fingered the grip of his bow anxiously. “I'd never thought of smiling when a fight started. It – it doesn't really seem right.”

“I get it,” Claude replied easily. “But think of it this way...are you smiling because you're happy you're in a bloody battle? Or are you trying to tell your friends that everything will be okay? One of those things will help everyone keep it together; the other is terrifying.” No lie. Claude loved his father until his heart bled, but it had taken some time before watching him grin while splitting someone in half with his ax was no longer frightening.

“Oh, I see.” Ashe thought about that for a moment, before hesitantly smiling back at him. It was wobbly and strained, but Claude didn't have the heart to comment on that. Instead he wondered, yet again, why in the eternal flames the Archbishop approved of Ashe coming with them.

“Hey there!” A boisterous voice echoed from the far end of the path. Hilda let out a whine of relief and picked up the pace, leading the pack as the bedraggled students rushed to meet their mission leader.

Sir Catherine laughed and clapped her hands together as the Golden Deer formed a rough semi-circle around her. The youngest knight of Serios to reach the rank of second-in-command at twenty-seven, the tall blonde woman was surprisingly cheery and friendly-looking. Given her rank and the trust Lady Rhea had in her, Claude had expected someone more akin to Seteth – that is, an uptight stick in the mud who's suspicious scowl was practically carved into her face. Instead, the famed swordswoman greeted them with a vibrant energy that emphasized her remarkable good looks.“You finally made it, good! What a day for a rebellion, huh? How are your kids holding up, Professor?”

A chorus of muffled complaints sounded from the others. Claude repressed a laugh and Catherine herself looked pretty amused.

“We've had little trouble so far, only discomfort.” Byleth responded, shifting her cloak slightly. “I'm a little worried about the terrain, to be honest, if there are stragglers. What's happening up ahead?”

“Assuming all went well, the main vanguard will have reached Castle Gaspard an hour ago,” Catherine said. Ashe went tense enough to shake; he looked like he might say something for a moment, but he only shook his head. “By the time we get there, they should have the castle and town under control. Our biggest worry should be displaced civilians and anyone who lingered in hopes of setting traps.”

“Traps...what sort are you expecting?”

Claude barely heard the exchange. His eyes were drawn to Catherine's side, where her hand was resting on the hilt of a sword unlike any he'd looked upon. A massive sword hung there, with no sheathe to speak of, protrusions like fangs jutting out from the main double-edged blade. It was a dull gold that seemed more like stone than any steel he'd ever seen, and a dully glowing red gem burned in the heart of the hilt. This is Thunderbrand. This is a relic.

Briefly he remembered being a child, perched on the edge of his chair eagerly listening to his mother's stories of the relics. How the Fallen King Nemesis tore a mountain in half with the Sword of the Creator in order to defend the thralls fleeing from their demon-backed masters, how Blaiddyd Lord of the North fought half an army to a standstill wielding Areadbhar, how Lady Fraldarius deflected Meteor and Excaliber spells with the Aegis Shield to defend Gautier the Horselord as he drove back his former king's army at Tailtan Plains...how his own ancestor, Tempest Master Riegan, stormed an occupied castle on his lonesome to free his companions armed only with Failnaught and his not insignificant cleverness borne from years scraping by as an orphan.

His mother called them weapons of fate. They contained power so great they could tear down the borders of the world and reshape them to the will of their masters.

“Is there something on my coat, Riegan?”

He blinked and smiled charmingly at Lady Rhea's loyal enforcer. “Sorry, couldn't help myself. It's an honor to be accompanying Catherine, wielder of Thunderbrand. I hear your intimidating enough to silence the howling winds!”

Byleth tilted her head at him. “Thunderbrand?” She repeated blankly.

Claude nearly lost the battle with his will that kept him from gaping at her. She can't be serious. I know she was raised away from the church, but she can't be serious. She doesn't expect us to believe...

Catherine merely raised an eyebrow, drawing the sword from her hip and lifting it in one hand. “You mean Lady Rhea didn't tell you? The Archbishop bestowed Thunderbrand upon me when I entered her service. It's one of the Hero's Relics.” Byleth gives her the same deadpan look Claude has come to associate with her being confused by something, and amazingly Catherine didn't immediately ask her to stop being ridiculous – she had to know, how could she not... “A long, long time ago, the goddess gifted ten warriors with divine weapons, which were then passed down to their children and their children's children.” She shrugged, letting the blade rest at her side. “It's an honor to wield, but I'm afraid there won't be much of a chance for that today. Our mission is to clean up the aftermath, not to fight.”

That seemed to be a bit more than Ashe could take. “Why would Lonato incite such a reckless rebellion?” He asked plaintively.

The look Catherine gave the smaller boy was sympathetic, but it also told Claude she bloody well knew why. “You would know more about that than any of us, Ashe.”

“Well I don't!” Ashe protested, shaking his head violently. “Lonato never mentioned anything of the like to me! He's always been so kind, I don't understand...” He frowned, his hand trembling on his bow. “I guess...it has something to do with Christophe...”

“Christophe?” Byleth prompted cautiously.

Ashe flinched; Claude came to his rescue with a matter-of-fact “How much do you know about the Tragedy of Duscur, Teach?”

Byleth blinked twice and crossed her arms. “I heard there was a massacre that only Prince Dimitri survived,” She said hesitantly. “We stayed south that year; many lords hired us in an attempt to restore order afterwards, but no two people told me the same thing about what happened.”

“Well, that's about the size of it,” Catherine said with a sigh. “Among the people Dimitri outlived was his father, the king. It's suspected that he was the sole intended target, and everything else was collateral damage.”

I wonder about that... Claude thought, his mind darting to the stolen letters hidden in his room. Did they really mean to kill him but not Dimitri?

Byleth seemed to wince. Her eyes flickered with thought, and she asked, “Why? I never met him, but the people I talked to had nothing but love for the man.”

“The common people loved him, yes. The lords, however?” Catherine sighed. “That's another story entirely. It became clear in the aftermath that those who instigated the massacre had accomplices in the kingdom as well. Lord Lonato's son, Christophe, was accused of being involved in the whole awful affair...he was executed by the church.”

“King Lambert was attempting a pretty significant political reform,” Claude offered, seeing as Teach's question was only partly answered. “And it's hard to do that without offending a lot of dangerous people.”

Byleth glanced at him, blinking, then back at Catherine. “I didn't realize the church executed criminals,” She said. Her quiet, even voice made it unclear if that was a question or an accusation.

“Speaking from the church's perspective, we took over the judicial matters in the stead of the kingdom, which was in complete chaos.” Catherine's response was so smooth and inoffensive it had to be rehearsed. “Whatever the truth of that matter may be, Lord Lonato has harbored resentment toward the church ever since.”

Ashe looked down at his feet. “I never knew,” He said in a small voice. “He never...I never...”

Claude was finally about to open his mouth and suggest that maybe Ashe shouldn't come with them to survey the wreckage when a soldier clad in the splendid, expensive armor of the Knights of Serios stumbled out of the treeline covered in dirt and blood. You have got to be kidding me, he thought dimly as the man rushed over to Catherine.

“Report,” He wheezed, “Sir Catherine, there's a force from Castle Gaspard coming straight for us.”

What?!” Catherine barked, any trace of her affable stance vanishing like morning mist.

“Their numbers are far greater than we predicted,” The man gasped, clutching his side. Marianne hesitantly raised one hand and cast her newest spell – Physic. The knight looked about, gave her a grateful smile and rapidly said, “This dense fog is the work of a dark mage serving Lord Lonato; they used it to slip past our perimeter. What's coming is their main force – all that was waiting for us in Castle Gaspard was a skeleton staff, his two children and his confused servants.”

“Y-You're kidding...they're coming straight for us?!” Ignatz sputtered, terrified.

“That's most of Gaspard land's standing army,” Lorenz said numbly.

Claude said a number of words he'd learned from Felix when they'd been paired up for cooking duty and notched an arrow. “He knew when to expect us,” He muttered, mostly to himself. “He must have been told what to expect at the beginning of the month; information doesn't travel this quickly, especially not enemy marching orders.” Which means Garreg Mach has a very important turncoat.

Catherine scowled, clearly both hearing and agreeing with him, and brought Thunderbrand to bear. “It looks like our mission has just changed, Professor. All of you, prepare for battle!”

“Get away from the trees! I want you in the center of the path!” Byleth actually shouted – Claude nearly jumped out of his skin, because he was fairly certain he'd never heard her speak above monotone before – as she drew her sword. “They'll be coming out of the woods! Leonie, Ignatz, Ashe, guard our mages; and I want you watching for snipers! Raphael, Lorenz, Hilda, you're up front! Lysithea, Marianne, until we get our bearings I want you on healing duty and lighting torches!” She turned toward him. “Claude, I'm leading ahead. You shadow me; you're hunting for that damned dark mage. Killing them should disperse the fog, and I want it gone before we're overrun!”

Claude barely had time to nod before a fighter burst out of the treeline. “Lord Lonato doesn't deserve such sadness an anger,” the militia man in cheap leather bellowed. “Now it's your turn to suffer!”

Lysithea threw Miasma over Lorenz's shoulder, catching the man in the chest. Leonie followed that up with a shot that curved gracefully and struck the man in the collar, sending him stumbling to the ground. Already leagues better than her work in Zanado.

Civilian militia. Then most of these men would be... As he ran to keep up with Byleth, he looked back for Ashe, who was shaking so badly he couldn't see how the other boy intended to aim, much less shoot anyone down. The kid would know these people. They lived in the villages around Gaspard manor. They worked in the marketplaces he would have visited. He knew them, and they him.

Rhea, why the fuck did you let him come with us?!

Arrows whipped through the fog, one missing him by an arms-length. Byleth was off like a shot, fading into the fog just before a woman's agonized shriek rang out. Claude saw Catherine zip off in another direction, magnificently unconcerned by her lack of backup, and a hot red flare cut through the fog as another person died with gurgling cry.

More men materialized out of the trees and fog. Axes and bows, mostly...no armor or lance knights, which was weird, given what the kingdom was famous for. “What the hell?” One of them said amidst the confusion. “These are a bunch of kids. Where the are knights?”

“Does it matter?! They were sent here to bring back Lord Lonato's head! Come on!”

“So we're dealing with that kind of crazy,” Leonie griped somewhere behind him. “Oh, that's just perfect – hey, Lorenz! On your left!”

“Be careful, Ignatz!” The glorious light of a magical torch washed over the muddy, ruined earth in a wide sweep around them; Marianne jammed it into the ground and quickly cast Heal on Lorenz, who had caught an arrow to the shoulder.

Claude swore when another militia man charged at him. He slid back a step, brought up his bow, and let the arrow loose as the man got right up in his face. The resulting blood splatter hit his cheek and his lips as the eye it hit was destroyed; fortunately the arrow lodged far enough in to kill the man instantly. Perfect Point Blank, he thought dully, and I'm using it on farmers.

Something cold was forming in the pit of his stomach; he tried to ignore it as he hurried forward, doing his best to keep Byleth in the corner of his eye despite the fog. As he moved, he searched, straining his eyes, for a dark costume and the tell-tale flicker of black aether. He'll be hiding in the trees, the schemer thought. He can't be far away if he's maintaining the fog. so...that means...gods, I wish I could fucking see...

“You're irrelevant!” Lysithea's shout and the following explosion of dark magic – Swarm, judging by the hideous buzzing noise it made as it consumed the unfortunate target – was comforting in a strange way. His classmates were keeping up, Marianne lighting another torch that brought blessed light to the area.

“Guess I've got no choice!” “I'm so sorry!” "I'm on a roll!" “Get away from me!” “An offensive sight!” “I'll keep this simple!” “I've got you!”

None of this had to happen, Claude thought, even though his relief at knowing his classmates were handling themselves. He shot down another fighter, and then another, hurrying toward the fork in the road where Byleth was dodging between two more enemies.

He took care of one with two consecutive shots, allowing her to cut the other one down. Catherine was on the militia coming up the left pathway in seconds; red flares followed every swipe of the sword, which blurred and struck twice for every single swing in spite of Claude's eyes telling him she couldn't possibly have moved her arm that fast. Heat followed every strike, sizzling in the air and turning the rain that hit it to steam.

An archer took aim at Byleth. Claude ran forward a few steps, aimed, and fired. His first shot went wide, but the man simply couldn't prepare himself in time to dodge the next one. The trouble with fog, of course, was that it made life difficult for their enemies as well.

“Lord Lonato,” The man choked, curling up around the arrow in his stomach. “Please...don't die...”

The young prince swallowed over the bile rising in his throat. “The nobles start the war, but it's the commoners who spill their blood first,” he whispered to himself. That cold feeling intensified, spreading to his hands. If I want to unseat Rhea, change the person controlling the doctrine of Sothis, will I be the one to...?

“Claude, there! In the trees!”

Byleth's shout snapped him back to the moment; he whirled and saw the blast of dark magic right before it was launched his way. Dropping to the ground, he rolled forward and back to his feet (he'd have to thank Dimitri at some point) grabbing his bow and firing one arrow, then another. It was hard to hit with the underbrush in the way, but his father always said he had good eyes. Thinking back to the combat artes Teach had so carefully explained, he bent his bow in his hands, lined up another shot and fired.

The dark mage let out a gurgling scream, staggering, falling through the trees. A second arrow put him out of his misery, and the effect was almost instantaneous. A bright light flared across the battlefield, followed by a strangled hiss as all that fog disappated at once, evaporating as though it ever was. Rain still gently fell upon them (as if some god, somewhere, was in fact weeping), but the clouds parted, sunlight beamed down on the bloody, corpse-strewn battlefield, and everything became clear.

Relieved, Claude glanced over at Byleth and smiled as warmly as he could manage in the face of his discomfort. She nodded back before turning around, taking a headcount as Hilda and the others rushed up to them.

“How is everyone?” Byleth asked, looking around.

“Need you ask, Professor?” Lorenz responded lightly. “We are putting your instruction into practice. The Lord of Gaspard has much to answer for, throwing untested rabble at us to die.”

“Where's Catherine?” Hilda asked. “Not, uh, not that I think she needs our help, but shouldn't we be sticking close to her?”

Shouts – and the clanking of armor – rang out from beyond the thicket. The Golden Deer house exchanged a single look before rushing forward as a single unit, the understanding shared between them without a word – there was no victory until Lord Lonato fell.

The scene they came upon on the other side of the fork in the road was almost something out of a book; Catherine stood among the corpses of several heavily armored knights, staring down a wall of knights and fighters lead by an old man astride his horse, lance in hand.

“Thunderstrike Cassandra,” The old man snarled. He had a dignified sort of voice, unsuited to the animalistic snarl he applied to every word. “It was your wretched zealotry that killed my son! Dishonored him before his people! Threw his corpse at me to bury in a field far from sacred ground, as if he were a based heathen...!”

This is Ashe's father...so that's how he found out about Christophe's death? When he was sent the body? People were only barred from being buried on church grounds when they had committed heresy. It was considered an ultimate punishment of Fodlan, denying one's soul the ability to return to the goddess. That was cruel, if that's what they did...Christophe and the Gaspard name never came up in those transcripts I read. I'm willing to bet he wasn't anywhere near Duscur. If that's so...

The blonde knight snorted, unmoved. “The only name I answer to is Catherine,” She informed him, readying Thunderbrand with an ease that told him she was not at all intimidated by the forces arrayed against her. “Prepare to taste the blade of one who serves the goddess. Now you face a Knight of Serios!”

“Kill her! Bring me her head!” Lonato roared, sending his troops forward. Troops armed with iron and steel, against a woman wielding a relic. Fool...you grief-blind fool.

“Better keep them busy,” He told Byleth grimly. “I'll go around.”

Her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth for a moment without saying anything. She eyed him...almost anxiously...before saying, “Be careful. I'll be right behind you.”

Claude smiled and gave her a small bow before darting off to the side, stepping among the trees and letting the lower visibility hide him from the lance knights that were running into Catherine's sword. Hilda and Raphael rushed the two soldiers, Marianne blasting clean through the helmet of one knight approaching her with a single Blizzard, Ignatz taking potshots wherever he could.

It took him a handful of minutes to approach Lord Lonato from the side, eyeing him warily. The man wore heavy armor, as did his horse. It probably couldn't build up much speed weighed down like that, but if he were to charge and try to run someone down...Claude felt a knee-jerk sense of distaste at where his thoughts immediately took him, but he readied his bow regardless. It was an ugly trick, yeah...but it would save his classmates.

“Lonato!”

Claude nearly dropped his damned bow when Ashe somehow slipped past the melee surrounding Catherine, Teach and their classmates to approach his adoptive father. The other boy's bow hung down by his knee, his quiver virtually empty; he just reached pleadingly for the man who took him in when he had nothing.

It wasn't quite obvious from where he was standing, but Claude was pretty sure he saw Lonato's eyes grow really wide for a moment. But...it was only a moment. Then his face snapped back to the cold rage that he had thrown at Catherine – Cassandra. “Stand down, Ashe. I must destroy these evil-doers by any means necessary!”

“Please surrender, Lonato!” Ashe begged, taking another step forward. “Whatever your reasons for doing this, w-we can still talk it out! I – I'll plead for you, the archbishop-”

“Speak not of that devil woman,” Lonato snapped. “Rhea is an infidel who is deceiving the people and desecrated the goddess!” What the hell?, Claude thought fuzzily as he steadied his bow again. What did that have to do with Christophe? “We have virtue and the goddess herself on our side!”

“The goddess would have you kill my fellow students?” Ashe asked in disbelief. “It's – it's virtue that brought all those villagers out here to die?! Even if that's true, why did you bring them into this?!”

“Your classmates have been reduced to pawns of that witch! Do you think it was an accident that she sent you all out here?! She wanted to threaten you with the consequences of defying her obscene whims!” Lonato's horse stalked forward a few paces. Claude's heartbeat picked up as he crawled to the edge of the treeline. “Do you think it matters a jot to her if any of you die, when she has thousands of believers in her thrall?! She thinks nothing of you, nothing but minds to mold into her pet murderers! We must set Fodlan free from her grasp! Only then will everyone have justice!”

“Lonato, that's crazy. Justice?” Ashe's voice broke. “How many people would have to die in the name of 'justice'? Please, I'm begging you...Christophe is gone...”

“Christophe was murdered!” Lonato raged. “If you will not stand aside and allow your brother to be avenged, then you leave me no choice. If that's how you feel, prepare yourself! I'm putting an end to this!”

Claude's eyes widened as the man took a javelin from his pack and threw it. By either a miracle or a chink in the man's resolve in only grazed Ashe's shoulder, sending the boy stumbling backwards with a startled, agonized cry. Lonato moved to urge his horse forward, dropping his other hand to the base of his lance.

He's going to kill his own son.

With that thought, the coldness rushed forward and swallowed up his heart in its icy maw.

Hitting the horse in the neck wasn't hard. There were gaps in its armor that might have been hard for Leonie to exploit...but Claude had been hunting ever since he was a child, and his arrow flew true. He strode out of the woods with an eerie calm blanketing him as the horse collapsed, throwing Lonato in the process. The old man scrambled to get up, looking around wildly until he saw him.

Claude's lip curved in revulsion. “Kinslayer,” he said, his voice so serene it belied the snowstorm raging inside him. “Child killer. I'll admit, they weren't words I would have associated with the Lord of Gaspard in the face of the love Ashe bears for you.”

“You...” Lord Lonato all but snarled; vaguely, Claude thought it reminded him of a wolf infected with rabies. Something once beautiful and majestic laid low in filth and ruin. “How dare you? I march to avenge the murder of my son, butchered by that fanatic and her puppetmaster-”

“I'm sorry, is there a prettier word for a man who'd kill his son?” Claude asked, an exaggerated note of innocence in his voice. “I'm afraid I'm not nearly as verbose as Lorenz, so I have to make do with the basics.” He took out an arrow, idly twirling it around his fingers. “Though, I suppose you figured that since you planned to die here, your lifeblood would provide you some sort of atonement for that little crime?”

Lord Lonato's expression paled slightly. “You know nothing!” He staggered a bit – clearly one of his legs was injured by the fall – and tried to charge at him. Claude rolled his eyes, raised his bow and fired. The arrow skimmed the man's cheek, stabbing his ear, and let Claude simply dance around the man with ease. “You understand nothing! My son is defiled, his soul cursed to wander, on a lie! My gentle, devout son, who served the goddess every day-”

“What would you say when you saw him again?” Claude asked sarcastically. “Yes, son, I avenged you; I slaughtered your younger brother like a fawn in the butcher shop and walked over the corpses of his friends to reach the Archbishop. The memory of your compassion and kindness was so precious to me I'd spit on it by murdering someone who mattered to you because he tried to talk me out of my suicide attempt. I value what you held dear so much I discarded it like a pebble in my boot so I could kill a teenager unhindered by his love for me.”

“Shut UP!” Lonato spun to face him again, thrusting his lance forward.You indoctrinated brat, how dare you presume what Christophe-”

“What? I dare presume that he loved Ashe in spite of him being adopted? In spite of him being a commoner? I dare presume he was a decent, kind man who disapproved of the killing of children? I wonder precisely what's become of you that you think those are shameful traits to assign someone.”

“Lonato, Claude, please, I, I,” Ashe was beyond coherent words at this point; Byleth rushed up behind him, grabbing him by the arms and pulling him to his feet.

“Get him out of here, Teach.” Claude's attention didn't waver. “I'm seriously afraid he'll let this walking corpse drag him into his grave.”

“There is no grave here but Rhea's!”

“Oh really? So a militia half the size of the Knights of Serios is going to walk up to one of the most strategic locations in Fodlan and...do what, exactly? Force your way in, past their stockpiled weapons, past the reinforcements they'd have plenty of time to call upon before you reached them, past the ballista and the magical defenses, and kill the archbishop? Please.” Claude fired another arrow at him, watching him dodge. “No. You want her to look ruthless. You want her to look savage. What better way to do that than have her slaughter villagers armed with woodcutter's axes and fire pokers because a bereaved father wanted answers from her?”

“This is a righteous cause! The goddess will see us through! She'll protect us until we've deposed the devil lounging in her castle!” Lonato lunged at him, but it was so clearly telegraphed that he barely needed to dodge.

“I have a little theory, if you'd spare me a minute.” Claude said, his lips curving into a cruel smile. “You want to die. You've wanted to die ever since Christophe's body was given back to you. You spend nights awake, wondering why he died, what he got involved in, why he never told you anything that made you realize he was in danger. You blame yourself, you blame Catherine, you blame everyone but him for whatever decision he made that put him on the church's list.”

Lonato's wild jab missed him by an arms-length. He jumped back a bit, keeping light on his feet, keeping moving. “But it's shameful to just drink a little more wine than was responsible, and that doesn't get Chrisophe any justice. So instead you figured that you'd make yourself a martyr; goad the Archbishop into ordering the death of a grieving man who'd lost everything, convince other people to be suspicious of her, maybe force her to step down. You want more, you want her to die, but you're weak, you've been weak ever since Christophe died, and you don't want to spend years struggling to depose her. You just want to see him again.”

Lonato is starting to shake, tremble, his attacks weaker and easier to avoid. Claude wasn't smiling now; he bared his teeth like a wyvern. “You want it so much you haven't thought about Ashe. You haven't thought about how the minor lords will circle him like vultures, poking at his past, looking for excuses to take the castle, lands and titles out from under him. You haven't thought about his siblings, who will have to live years and years with the shame and the stigma of your failed rebellion hanging over them. You haven't thought about your lands and how they'll be left to a boy who's barely started his knightly training, who's never done any administration in his life, with winter approaching in the wings and so many men who would have tilled the fields dead.”

“You cannot...” Lord Lonato gasped, his leg buckling beneath him. He was so pale now he was practically a ghost. “You...you...”

“Martyrdom sounds so pretty in the songs, doesn't it?” Claude mused. “If you were canonized, even just in the eyes of the people, Christophe's transgressions – real or otherwise – would be forgotten in an instant. He'd probably be moved to a church burial ground. A happy ending, for a man who values his dead son over his living one to the point he'd try to kill him.”

Lonato simply stared at him for long moment. “You're a devil,” He whispered, clutching his lance.

Claude laughed harshly. “I'm not the one who just threw a spear a boy who loved me unconditionally.” He growled, taking a step forward. “I'm not the one who looked at the boy who I taught to write, who I watched grow up, who worships me and models his honor and ethics upon me, and tried to kill him. I'm not the one who listened to him plead for my life, pour out his love for me, promise to risk the archbishop's wrath on my behalf, and spat on that affection. If I'm a devil, Lord Lonato, what does that make you?”

And, as if slowly succumbing to poison, Lonato sank to his knees. “My...my sons...”

“So you wanted to die,” Claude said. “But you couldn't do them the kindness of dying without dragging all of them down with you. You brought fathers and mothers out here to die useless deaths in order to comfort yourself. You tried to kill your son. Tell me, why didn't you just quietly send Ashe to bed and drink a cup of nightshade? What would Christophe have been less horrified by?”

He stopped walking when he was standing right in front of the man. Lonato stared up at him. All the fight, all that fire in his eyes...it was just gone. Drained away.

“So you wanted to see him again?” Claude whispered, taking aim. “Fine. I'll send you there.”

The arrow hitting home sounded so loud in the rain. It only took one. Older bodies are frail, after all.

Claude stared down at the cooling corpse lying broken at his feet. The rain was starting to soak through his cloak. That cold feeling in his chest didn't abate, not right away, but there was a certain sick feeling in his stomach.

A devil, huh...aha...ha...and there I was, thinking about how Dimitri had something dark inside him...

“Claude?” Teach's voice sounded right behind him. Quiet and soft as ever.

He hesitantly turned to face her. Mortification mingled with that coldness. How much of that had she been watching?

She gazed deep into his eyes, as though she were trying to read his soul, and quietly asked, “Are you okay?”

“...You should really ask Ashe that, Teach.” The words slipped out without him thinking.

“That would be a useless question, though, wouldn't it?” She shook her head. Dimly Claude realized he could hear someone crying...the sort of uncontrollable wailing that followed the loss of all composure and dignity. “Are you okay, Claude?”

“...” He readied himself for a lie...and yet... “No. I'm not.”

She stared at him for another moment. Halfheartedly he wished, once again, that she was easier to read. Then...then she reached out and took his hand, gently tugging on his wrist. “Come on,” She murmured. “Let's get out of here.”

For once in his life at a loss for what to say, Claude let her lead him away from the body. Amidst all of the confusing feelings in his chest, he felt a speak of warmth. ...Thank you...

Chapter Text

“Flayn, no, no – you never add spices to cookie dough.”

“Oh? I am so sincerely sorry!” The green haired girl cried, wilting. Mercedes smiled patiently in turn, taking the containers from her and placing them back on the shelf. “I had thought the flour and butter needed to mix with something else to cook with flavor!”

“It's sugar I was referring to.” Mercedes responded, altogether too kind to ask where the shorter girl had gotten the impression that one should add any sort of spices to cookies. She reached up and brought down one of the stone jars; Byleth wasn't sure how she could read the carved label from that angle, but the blonde girl was clearly familiar with the kitchen and where everything was. “Here, let me show you how much we need. Professor, how is the butter?”

Byleth stared doubtfully at the bowl on the counter before her. “I've made some progress...I think,” She said hesitantly. She prodded the smooth pool of yellow with a wooden spoon, frowning at its continued resistance to the beating she'd been giving it. “It's still stiff.”

Mercedes paused in her measuring to look over her shoulder. “Don't worry. Creaming takes a little while, and it's coming along very well! Keep it up.” With that, the other girl – a year or two older than Byleth herself – squeezed her arm encouragingly before turning back to Flayn. “Alright, look at the directions, tell me how much sugar we need to add...”

Byleth hesitantly stirred the butter around so more, feeling more out of place than when she'd first stepped foot in the Golden Deer classroom. She'd never worked in the kitchen whenever the troupe had been given access to one, usually as a thank-you gesture from the village inn for their work – Hannah always took charge then, kicking her father (and the rest of the men for that matter) out of the room, and put together the best meal they'd have for the foreseeable future. Yet here she was, fumbling with ingredient jars under Mercedes's patient instructions.

...It was for Ashe.

Ever since they'd returned from Magdred Way, Byleth had been in a state of frustrated discomfort in spite of – or perhaps because of – their victory. Ashe had sobbed like a child until he passed out after Lonato's death; Raphael had taken to carrying him after the first few times he stumbled, unable to keep his feet under him on the walk back. The young archer was so distraught he didn't even attempt to protest it; Marianne walked alongside him, alternating between prayers for the passing of the souls and singing in an attempt to comfort him.

One of the Knights of Serios, disgruntled by how everything had turned out, had lowly muttered about how undignified the display was. Before Byleth could retort, Marianne had turned around, skewered the man with a look she'd been unable to see herself, and coldly demanded he apologize. He did so, under Sir Catherine's withering glare.

Ignatz and Leonie had flittered back and forth, radiating distress and discomfort in spite of Claude's offhanded reassurance that they'd done the best thing they could in this situation. Marianne had walked with her head hanging, the grief that hung over her like a shroud seemingly heavier than ever. Lysithea and Lorenz were the calmest, and the white haired girl seemed largely grave, eyes closed as if lost in memory in many moments.

And Claude... Claude had taken one look at her, buried the unnerving persona he'd used to kill Lord Lonato, and after a few hours of uncharacteristic quiet, started talking and lightly joking as though nothing troubled him at all.

He had told her he was a liar, hadn't he?

Byleth did not like the foreign sensation of helplessness that sank into her bones as she observed this, completely at a loss for what to do. So she resolved to skulk about until she found something resembling a solution.

Admittedly, Ashe had been on her mind most prominently. Upon their return to Garreg Mach, he'd retreated to his room and hid within. His classmates had brought him dinner yesterday, of which he ate very little. In the night, Byleth had woken at the sound of someone walking past her room; going out to investigate had revealed Ashe in a night cloak heading into the monastery. She'd followed him at a distance as he went through the entrance hall, along the bridge and into the cathedral, where he'd knelt before the statute of Saint Cichol and prayed with shaking breaths for his adoptive father's salvation.

She didn't show herself. Perhaps she should have, but it felt wrong to intrude. Instead she shadowed him, making sure he got safely back to his room. Mercedes had found her standing outside his door the next morning, hand raised as if to knock, paralyzed with indecision as she tried to remember how her father had spoken to the families of men who had died during their missions. The gentle priestess-to-be had smiled, squeezed her arm, and asked if she would be willing to lend a hand with her own plan.

And that was how the Ashen Demon, living god of war, ending up fighting to a draw with the bowlful of butter-that-refused-to-be-creamed.

“I see! So it was the pinch of salt that adds flavor to the batter,” Flayn gasped with earnest enthusiasm. “I had not thought it would take so little!”

“Flavor boosters are always meant to be used sparingly,” Mercedes explained. “Or else they overwhelm the meal to the point of spoiling it. Now, we need leaven, and no more than the salt that you just added. Do you know where it is?”

Byleth twisted the spoon in her hands, continuing to mash away at the stubborn yellow mass with an odd sense of righteous frustration. This has no right to be so difficult, she thought indigently. I ought to apologize to Hannah. Clearly I've never been properly grateful for the number of times she cooked for us over the years.

“Aha!” Flayn snagged one of the smaller gray stone jars from the middle shelf and presented it to Mercedes with the beaming smile that seemed to be her default expression. “This is it, is it not?”

“Yes it is,” Mercedes looked like she was trying to suppress an amused giggle. “Thank you, Flayn.”

Byleth set the bowl down on the counter, unsure if she could improve any further, and walked over to the oven. Heat blasted her face as she opened the door to check the embers and charcoal; Mercedes had made a point of explaining that different foods cooked at different temperatures, so she shifted the burning stones around a bit with a fire poker before retreating. The temperature in the kitchen was teetering on the edge of being greatly uncomfortable; they were nearing summer, and the warm weather penetrated even the lowest stone floors of Garreg Mach. That was the reason Mercedes wanted to occupy the kitchen earlier, before the cooks filled the kitchen to prepare dinner; that would have made the endeavor truly more difficult than it had any right to be.

“Well done, professor,” Mercedes's voice drew her attention away from the blasted heat; the blonde was carefully pouring the other ingredients into the butter bowl. “I'm glad to have help; it makes the work go by faster to have good company.”

“You're sure that's good enough?” Byleth asked, fidgeting a bit. “I had not thought it completely smooth yet.”

“Oh, it's perfect, really. A few small lumps here and there are no trouble at all.” Mercedes began to stir, slowly and carefully so as not to spill the flour. “Now all we need are the chocolate pieces and the trays, and then all that's left to do is wait.”

Flayn's eyes lit up, and she darted down the kitchen hallway, throwing herself to her knees to pull the iron trays out from under a lower oven rung.

“She's so cheerful,” Mercedes said with a smile. “It's too bad she isn't a fellow student. I think she'd be happier spending almost all of her time with other people.” She tapped her finger against her chin. “Or maybe apprenticing in the kitchen...once she's gotten better at reading the cookbooks!”

Byleth nodded slightly. Flayn was an...odd figure, around the monastery. She could often be found flitting about the greenhouse and the fishing docks, and would happily talk to anyone who would spare her a moment of their time; but no one really knew anything about her, except that she was Bishop Seteth's little sister. Apparently he'd simply turned up on the doorstep one day with her in tow, asking for sanctuary since their home had been invaded by some unknown thugs and he was worried about her safety. Flayn herself, when questioned, would babble nervously about her childhood in Enbarr and how pretty it was and how much she missed it, clearly uncomfortable with any questions into where she'd been before now. She was also prone to a very formal, anachronistic style of speaking and occasionally would say entire sentences in Old Fodlanese of all languages – seemingly without noticing. Seteth, apparently, was very proud of his sister's knowledge of old tongues.

Despite the oddities, though, Byleth...strangely didn't mind Flayn frequently accosting her on her day off, begging for a fishing partner. The green haired girl talked a lot, but she didn't mind Byleth's responses being short and to the point. She just seemed...well, happy. Innocently, sweetly happy.

“Here we go!” Flayn raised the two trays with a triumphant smile, as though she'd snatched them from the very jaws of death. “Two trays for many cookies! For Ashe's good health!”

“Yes indeed,” Mercedes said with a fond smile. Then she grabbed Byleth's hand and pressed two spoons into her palm. “Now remember not to make them too big or too small, or else they won't cook evenly.” Unperturbed by the professor staring at the utensils as if they were foreign objects, she steered her in front of one of the trays and placed the batter bowl between them. “Make them just a bit bigger than the spoon, and that should be perfect.”

“Um...right...” Byleth managed. She hovered on the spot for a moment, watching carefully as Mercedes scooped some of the dough out and rolled it out onto the tray. She judged the size, frowning with concentration, and then set about her task.

Was it strange, how awkward she felt doing such a mundane task? Unbidden, she remembered Claude's question about what she liked to do in her spare time. Outside of fighting. Outside of the sword. She bit her lip, carefully scraping another round dough ball onto the tray.

Mercedes slipped a pair of thick mitts over her hands and grabbed a tray in each hand. Flayn skittered around her, pulling the oven door open so she could place them in side by side. When the door slapped closed, the older girl sighed contently and said, “All right! It'll take about half an hour for them to cook, so if you two want to take care of some small thing or another, feel free. And thank you, again, for helping.”

Byleth nodded, bowed slightly, and excused herself with a half grunt of acknowledgment. Something in the back of her head (surprisingly not Sothis) called the gesture unfriendly; she argued back that a professor needed to be somewhat aloof. That little voice reminded her that she didn't know the first thing about proper professional teaching; that she had resorted to training her students as mercenary recruits while ordering them to do the necessary (or at least curriculum-required) readings on their own time. She protested that it was working, the voice noted that Lord Glouester would probably have a stroke if he knew that she was having his son up to his elbows in dirt weeding the gardens weekly, Duke Riegan would be offended by her assigning Claude tend to the pegasi and clean the stables, and Lord and Lady Ordelia might keel over when they saw what she had their fragile daughter reading.

“Whoa!” Distracted as she was, Byleth walked directly into something warm and hard; utterly unbalanced, she scrabbled for a handhold as her legs buckled and dug her fingers into a pair of very broad shoulders. “Hey there, professor!” Raphael said, wrapping one strong arm around her waist and saving her from a very embarrassing tumble. “Didn't see you there.”

“Neither did I,” Byleth mumbled, her face flushed with embarrassment. “I'm sorry.”

“Ah, it's nothing Prof. These muscles don't bruise easily!” Raphael pulled her forward a bit to help her reorient herself and stand up straight. “You okay?”

“Of course.”

Her student's brow furrowed a bit. “Are you sure? You have that dark face that Ignatz gets sometimes when he's worrying about something and thinking really hard.”

“That is...” She crossed her arms, frowning slightly. “I suppose I am a bit concerned for Ashe.” And Claude. “He didn't eat much yesterday, or the day before. His classmates are fretting.”

Raphael's expression eased with understanding and a gentle look of compassion that softened his rough-looking face. “Yeah...I can't say I'm surprised. It was pretty awful what he saw back there. We managed to get a handful of those guys to surrender and go home, but the rest of them just kept coming until they died. Then his pa went and...did what he did,” he frowned at that. “It'll be a while before he's really normal, Prof. But he really shouldn't stay shut up in his room like that. I know the lions want to give him his space, but if he just spends all his time lying there, he won't be able to think about anything but how sad he is.”

“...I suppose so,” Byleth hedged, twisting her heel in the dirt. “I am uncertain how to proceed, though. If he doesn't have the strength to do anything, I'm not sure how we might compel him to.”

“Treat it like a normal day,” Raphael replied without hesitation. “Just knock on his door, tell him he's expected, walk off before he can protest, come back in ten minutes if he doesn't show up. Bring food or water with you. Tell him you've got a little thing for him to do – just one little, easy to do thing you don't have time to manage – and when he's done he can go and rest if he needs to. Keep that up, and eventually he'll start coming out on his own.” He grinned. “My little sis did that to me a whole bunch once. Got me back on my feet.”

You were...? “I see. I...shall attempt that, then.” She let her arms rest at her sides again. “Perhaps Hannamen should be the one doing so, but I commanded him during the mission...I think – well, I ought to see to him until the aftermath is settled, shouldn't I?”

Raphael let out a little laugh, a booming sound that made her flinch back a bit at the sheer volume. The boy had a pair of impressive lungs on him, benefiting his size. “You worry an awful lot, Prof! It's kinda nice, you know. If you need any help dragging Ashe into doing something all gentle-like, let me know.”

“Okay.” She said hesitantly, then felt her lips twitch upward when he grinned at her. “Are you heading up to train? Felix is in there right now, and he can be rather intense. Don't take whatever he says too seriously.”

“Ah, yeah! He's awfully serious, isn't he? No worries, Prof. I can handle him. See you later!” With that, Raphael continued his way up the path toward the training grounds.

Byleth looked about, having been sufficiently distracted from her thoughts, and wondered what she should do with the small intervening time she had. After a moment, she found her feet carrying her down the pathway toward the docks, letting the breeze card through her hair and soothe her warm skin. The sun bore down on them from a cloudless sky as she stepped around the kids playing tag near the greenhouse and past the dockmaster. Her shoes clacked on the wooden dock until she was at the edge of it, staring across the lake in front of which the monastery had been built.

The smell of wind over the lake and the soft lap of the ripples against the dock legs welcomed her as she sat down, taking off her shoes and socks and dipping her feet into the cool, crystal clean water. Closing her eyes, Byleth thought to herself, Rhea is very calm for a woman who has been targeted for an assassination.

Hm, Sothis hummed in agreement. That is true. Mind you, this is her seat of power. I find it difficult to imagine how these foes might penetrate through all that is here to protect her.

They must have considered that, Byleth pointed out. The high lords believe they're safe in their castles, boast of it even as they drink from poisoned goblets. If whoever had done this was working with Lonato, they must have planned for multiple results that his crusade made possible.

If they were to plan for his failure, how would they do so?

They might have moved a mole of theirs into position during the confusion last month, Byleth suggested, letting her feet splash in and out of the water. They may have hoped to remove Catherine from the equation, either by injury or death...or by having her preoccupied with patrols while the assassin moves about within the monastery. We're presuming that Lord Lonato was working with this mysterious person or persons, but what if they were working through him? Corrupt lords, magistrates and merchants much prefer to work through disposable pawns.

Working through him...hm... In her mind's eye, Sothis leaned on the arm of her throne, her expression thoughtful. That sounds familiar, somehow. I wonder why...

...It's strange that you can't seem to remember anything, Byleth thought wonderingly. You have such immense power, yet you're restricted to being but a voice in my head who can only offer me your magic through some strange bond between us.

Do not remind me, Sothis grumbled. If I had been able to influence your body, I would have prevented you from that silly romantic hero nonsense you pulled, nearly throwing both of us into the next life.

Are you ever going to let that go?, Byleth thought, a bit disgruntled. I told you, I panicked and moved without thinking. I've yet to make such a mistake again!

That is true, so far, Sothis said with a damning chuckle. However, watching you fret and mother these delinquents is enough to make me concerned. You're awfully invested in them for a cold-hearted mercenary!

They're my charges, Byleth responded, feeling an odd twist in her chest. It is my duty to ensure they are safe and become as capable as I can make them. W-what's this about mothering? How can I mother anyone when I never knew my own? How can I fret when I barely feel anything?

Oh? What else shall I call a famous mercenary awkwardly attempting to make cookies in order to raise a sad boy's spirits, if not fretting? You yourself said that his grief were not truly your concern, yet you've been worrying about him ever since you left the battlefield.

Byleth sat, stunned, her feet so still that a fish brushed against them without fear. I... she looked down at her hands. I...I...suppose?

Hmm...I realize this is all a little confusing. Sothis frowned. I am not the only one in a strange position here. You should not be as you are now. Your body is cold and numb in a way that is not the work of a broken mind. This is not natural... She scowled. And I do not mean in the way people have always muttered around you. I mean that something must be wrong that is distinctly non-mortal in its mechanisms.

A chill went down the young mercenary's spine. Is that so...?

Unfortunately... I know not what those mechanisms are, Sothis let out a single frustrated sigh. If only I could recall...this feels as if it is something I should understand.

A mewl interrupted her thoughts, before something headbutted her arm. Byleth twisted and found herself blinking down at a large, round-bellied tabby cat rubbing up against her, demanding attention in the way overly affectionate animals are wont to. She watched it for a moment before patting it a few times, then scratching it behind the ears. Its rumbling purr seemed to make its whole body vibrate.

“Hello professor. Are you going to fish today?”

Byleth looked up at Leonie, who'd come up behind her at some point she was talking to Sothis. Despite her caution, she frequently lost track of what was going on around her when she conferred with the spirit in her head; it was a good thing she had a reputation for stoicism and quiet thought, or else more people would think it odd... “Not today. I've been attending to some other things. Shall I move out of your way?”

“I'm not in a rush.” Leonie put a hand on her hip. “I gotta ask you something, though. How old is Captain Jeralt? He was always fairly nonchalant about it, but I've heard some weird anecdotes from the knights compared to what I know.”

“I...don't think he's ever mentioned it to me.” Byleth admitted, tilting her head. “In fact, I've heard him give different numbers on a couple of occasions. Looking back on it, I think it's a sign he was trying to avoid going back to the church.”

“Did he ever say anything about that? Because that's kind of weird too, given how happy everyone is to have him back.”

“He really doesn't want to say. I've tried to ask.” She looked down at the cat again. “Maybe you'll have better luck than me. He said that you always had a way of getting the things you put your mind to.”

Leonie made an odd sound deep in her throat. “I guess it couldn't hurt.” She heard the other girl shuffle a bit. “You seriously don't know his real age?”

“...I don't think he's ever said,” Byleth admitted. “My father can be tight lipped when he wishes. Even to me.”

“That sounds about right, honestly.” Leonie sighed. “Nearly a whole year he spent training me, and he never even mentioned having a daughter. Where were you back then, by the way? I can't imagine he just left you behind for no reason.”

“...” Byleth mind darted back to a burning village, a knife buried in her back, and a dark-skinned man drenched in blood and soot lifting her from the ground onto his wyvern. “It's a long story. I'll tell you about it some time, when I won't be interrupted.”

“Eh? Isn't this your free day?”

“I volunteered. Or I got volunteered. I'm honestly not sure. Either way, I'm helping Mercedes with some pastries.”

“Oh.” Leonie said in a tone of voice that told Byleth she was trying quite hard not to sound utterly confused, yet not quite succeeding. “All right then.” She paused. “I would like to hear that story sometime, though. It sounds like it was a bit of an adventure.”

“...It certainly was.” ...All that I can remember of it, anyway. She gave the cat a final, decisive pet before bringing her feet back onto the deck and grabbing her shoes. “I'll see you at dinner, Leonie. Good luck with the fish.”

“See ya.”

+ _ + _ + _

Ashe didn't show up at dinner again. That was about what Byleth expected, but she was prepared this time. Carefully balancing a plate of fruit, chicken, and three fresh cookies in one hand, she hammered on his door and spoke. “Ashe. You can't miss dinner again. Open up.”

For a moment, there was no response. Byleth waited, prepared to force the door if he decided to ignore her – she'd had to do that once or twice when her father had shut himself in his study and overworked to the point of exhaustion – but fortunately, after a minute she heard a lethargic 'oh...professor', and the rustling of someone standing up. Moments later, the door swung open about a foot, Ashe blinking tiredly at her, dark rings emphasizing his pale eyes.

“May I come in?” Byleth asked, adopting the troupe medic Falrie's tone as best she could; the kind tone that asked for permission, yet made it clear she would assert her authority as a healer if she had to. Ashe stared at her for a moment, then nodded hesitantly, opening the door the rest of the way.

He was dressed in street clothes, albiet they were rumped and messy in such a way that it was clear he'd been sleeping in them and likely hadn't changed since yesterday. His room was a mess, books strewn across the floor, shoes kicked carelessly aside, bow lying propped against a chair. “Sorry,” Ashe mumbled. “I just sort of...dropped everything when I got back. Haven't fixed it up yet.”

“Don't apologize. Here.” Byleth took one of the cookies off the plate and placed it directly on his palm. “Compliments from Mercedes and Flayn.”

“Oh,” Ashe gasped, cupping the treat in both hands. “F-For me? They shouldn't have...” Hesitantly, he nibbled on the edge of it. Byleth twitched a bit, waiting for him to say something about it. “It's so good...” He took a bite and managed a tiny smile.

“I hope so,” Byleth muttered. “Creaming is more trouble than it's worth. I think I might reserve it for punishment detail for interrupting me in class.”

Ashe blinked at her. “You...you worked on it too, Professor?”

“Yes.” She shuffled her feet, then walked over to the desk and put the plate down. “If you want to eat the other two, you have to manage most of the chicken.”

“You...didn't have to...” The younger boy's lip trembled a bit. Quickly he scarfed down the rest of the cookie and sat down on the edge of his bed. “I...”

Byleth frowned uncertainly, then in a flash of inspiration, commandeered the chair and let her hands rest in her lap. “I'll take your plate back when you're done,” She said calmly. “Then I suggest you have a hot bath. Now that the sauna is installed, the bathhouse has been reopened. It shouldn't be any trouble for you to go there for a little.”

“T-That's...you don't have to stay professor. I'll eat, really.”

“Mercedes said you barely ate yesterday, I didn't see you at breakfast, and Dimitri was literally leading you by the hand to lunch.” Byleth said flatly. “Forgive me, but I'm a bit concerned.”

Ashe said nothing in response, though he did flinch a bit. They sat there together, the silence lingering. Byleth didn't mind. Jeralt was often quiet when gathering his thoughts, and she'd long learned to be patient. Finally, the young archer moved...picking a book up off the ground. It was an older one, the corners worn, some pages dog-eared. It had been kept in care for a number of years, that much was clear.

“This was the first picture book I'd ever seen.” Ashe said softly. “Even when my parents were alive, we weren't in the merchant class. My father's work as a cook in the restaurant he owned jointly with several others in our village wasn't enough to buy me a tutor who could teach me how to read; there were simply too many other expenses compared to his salary. When he and mother died in an accident, I tried to manage what little savings they left behind to keep my siblings fed. But between the taxes, bandit attacks, and the house...it ran out so quickly. ...So I started stealing.” He frowned. “I was angry then. So angry. I hated the merchants and lords that I saw walking by us on the road, not a worry to be had, occasionally kicking and throwing things at us when we begged for coin. If they could afford to be so pleased with themselves, they could afford to pay for our dinner. ...That's what I thought at the time, anyway.”

Byleth sat still, listening carefully. That's a fair thing to think, she thought but didn't say. She didn't dare interrupt.

“I was pretty good at it. I looked cute, I was quick on my feet, and I knew my way around well enough to loose anyone who chased me.” Ashe closed his eyes. “I got confident. Enough so that I decided to break into Castle Gaspard, see what I could steal and resell. Maybe I could get enough to buy our old house back. Maybe I could pay someone to adopt myself and my siblings. I got inside easily enough – I can pick just about any lock you showed me, then. I still can, to be honest.”

He paused. “I believe you,” Byleth said quietly, when it seemed he wouldn't continue.

“I was looking around,” Ashe murmured, “throwing whatever seemed shiny and intricate into my bag. Then I came across a room that clearly hadn't been occupied at the time...I hadn't been paying attention, or I might have realized it was the room of Christophe's mother, who'd died to some illness a while back. But I went inside, and sitting open on the table was this book.” He smiled softly. “You have to understand...I'd never seen illustrations before. No one in my village had the money for something so valuable. I was transfixed, turning the pages, looking for all those glittering images. I didn't even hear Lonato come up behind me, until he asked me if I was enjoying the book.”

“That...” Byleth blinked, trying to reconcile the image of a man gently teasing a thief who'd broken into the room of his dead wife with the man driven to murder over the loss of his son.

“I was so panicked,” Ashe recalled, still smiling. “but he just asked me if I wanted to take it and finish reading it at home. I found myself admitting that I couldn't read...and he said that if I wanted, I could come back tomorrow and he'd teach me. I thought it was a joke. But I went back the next day and Christophe was waiting in the yard for me, told the guards to let me through. Every night after that, Lonato set aside an hour in his day to teach me my letters.”

He stopped, slowly raising his hand to the scar on his cheek. The scar from Lonato's javelin. “He saved me.” He said quietly. “But I couldn't...I couldn't save him.”

Byleth slowly got out of her chair, sat on the bed next to him, and put an arm around his shoulder. “Ashe, can I tell you something I've learned throughout all the jobs I've taken?” She asked. After a pause, he nodded. “Sometimes...sometimes you can't save everyone. Sometimes you can't even save the people you want to. Not if...not if they don't want to be saved.” She tugged at him, pulling him toward her until his head rested on her shoulder. “And that's not your fault. It's never your fault.” It's his. “Lonato...put a lot of effort into locking you out of his plans. And with that assassination plot to consider; there's clearly more going on than we know. I hope that we find some answers when the plot is unraveled.” She squeezed his shoulder, feeling him shaking.

“I hope so too,” He sobbed out. “I hope I can help.”

“Well, you won't have the strength to help if you don't eat,” Byleth said gently but firmly. “So please start on that.”

Ashe rubbed at his eyes. “I should have thanked Claude,” He mumbled. “Y'know, for saving me back then? I meant to, I swear...I just...I haven't been able to...”

“Take your time,” She responded. “Claude isn't going anywhere. I could pass it along, if you'd like.”

“N-No...I'd rather say it myself. But...thank you, Professor. Thank you...for everything...”

Byleth stayed for another twenty or so moments, rubbing his back and watching carefully as he choked down most of the chicken she'd brought him. Leaving the cookies with him, she took the plate and quietly excused herself, deciding she'd direct Annette over to him in a little while.

+ _ + _ + _

“There you are.”

For some reason, it took Byleth longer than it should have to realize that Claude was hiding out in the library. It was obvious, when she thought hard enough, that his sharp mind would hunger for knowledge with great frequency, but his disarming persona kept tricking her into thinking he'd be goofing off someone obvious she could corral him from.

Claude jerked up from his seemingly lazy position, bent over a book written in middle common – the version of the common tongue used when Loong won his kingdom's sovereignty from the Empire. “Oh, Teach! You shouldn't sneak up on people like that,” He complained.

“Yes, well, you shouldn't pretend to be alright when you're not,” Byleth responded mildly. “Up you get. I'm going on patrol, and you're coming with me.”

“Whhaaat? Of course I'm fine! Why wouldn't I be?” Claude complained when she snatched the book out from under his hands. He smiled carefully at her. “Seriously, I'm just contemplating this whole assassination plot. The whole execution of it is bothering me.”

Byleth put her hands on the desk and looked deep into his eyes. “Do you know that when you smile like that, it doesn't reach your eyes?” She asked him calmly. His expression faded with a flicker of shock. “Up you get, and grab your bow. While we're patrolling, I want you to tell me everything that's 'bothering' you about the plot. Because I think we're 'bothered' by the same things, and I want to compare notes.”

“...Well, since you're asking so nicely,” Claude deadpanned. His expression grew more guarded, almost wary, but he got up and moved to join her with little to no hesitation. “You realize this is a trick?”

“It has to be.” Byleth replied. “Why else would a man who planned to kill the archbishop with his own hands be carrying around a letter plotting her assassination at a later date?”

Claude chuckled. “That is the question of the day, isn't it?”

Something about the way he said those words prickled at the back of Byleth's mind, but she set it aside. “So it seems.” If this was a plot with that sort of trickery, then its roots ran far deeper than one grief-stricken man on a doomed quest for revenge. It had already damaged one of her students.

Byleth refused to let it succeed any further than that.