The cloying smell of pine trees was making Byleth’s nose itch. She wrinkled her face and buried into her father’s back, only somewhat masking the obnoxious odor with the smell of horses and sweat that seemed to radiate from the man mounted in front of her. It wasn’t much better- boys were stinky, after all- but the familiarity of it was soothing nonetheless.
Their horse pulled to a sudden stop, and Byleth was instantly on high alert, drawing her dagger from its sheath. Her fathers’ men- the few that had accompanied them- saw this movement and followed suit, their training kicking in as they formed up around their leader and his young daughter. Her father snorted and motioned for her to dismount before following suit himself.
“At ease, soldier,” he said, ruffling his hand through her already messy hair. She swatted him away half-heartedly as he took position in front of his steed. Not a moment later another group appeared from within the thicket, their leader stopping halfway. The two men sized each other up for a moment before the stranger spoke.
“So you are Jeralt. Not what I expected, but you come as highly recommended as it gets,” he said, looking her father up and down. “Alright. Follow me.” The man turned back to his crew and barked out an order in Almyran.
“Mount back up,” is all her father said before hoisting her back on his horse. His men follow his orders, although they share uneasy looks as they do so. Byleth wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whole situation, so she settled for watching the scenery pass and discreetly wiping her still itching nose against the back of her father’s tunic.
It was a week before they reached their destination in the city of Kral Şehri in southern Almyra. Luckily for Byleth’s sensitive sinuses the pine forest had thinned and all but dispersed after the first few days of travel. The downside, however, was that Byleth was completely and totally unaccustomed to the level of heat that the sun gave off the further south they went. Having spent a majority of her ten years of life in Kingdom territory, the heat was quickly overwhelming her, and she let out an audible sigh of relief as they entered the shaded city proper.
“You okay back there, kid?” her father asked.
Byleth nodded, silently cursing the man for not even breaking a sweat in the midday heat. “Can I go explore?” she asked quietly, desperate to find more shade and stretch her legs after two weeks straight of hard riding.
Her father acquiesced with a nod of his head.“Meet me back here at sundown,” he said.
Byleth scrambled off of the horses, quickly dashing off into the sidestreets. She stopped in an alcove and watched the last of her father’s men disappear from view. As soon as the last was out of sight she began to follow the distant sound of music in the air.
The shaded alleyways of Kral Şehri provided some relief from the sweltering sun, although Byleth was still far too warm for comfort. City natives dressed in colorful silks and decadently colored linens stopped to double take at her as she passed, with her oddly colored hair and fair skin and black leather. She resolved to purchase new garments as soon as she could. She hated being stared at. A few whispered hurriedly upon seeing her, which was confusing, but she was on a mission and nothing would distract her from that.
After some time a grand market came into view. Byleth could smell roasting meats and the sound of music was much clearer. Seemingly hundreds of people swarmed the marketplace and surrounding streets, bartering and gossiping and carrying on in the melodic Almyran tongue. Byleth only knew a few words- altin for gold, haydut for bandit- and only one of those would help her now. Slipping into a deserted alley she began to plot out how to go about acquiring what she needed, when a hand grabbed her shoulder.
Reacting on instinct she whirled around, drawing her dagger and hooking her leg behind the stranger’s knee, knocking him to the ground as she held the dagger under his chin.
“Ah, sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” the boy said, opening his eyes to meet her own. They were a startlingly vivid green, and it took Byleth a moment to drag her eyes from his. He spoke in the common tongue of Fodlan, which was odd, but she had greater concerns at the moment.
“Who are you and what do you want with me?” she growled, pressing further onto him.
“I’m Kerem,” he explained quickly, a bit of panic seeping into his expression, “A local boy. You looked lost, I was just going to offer to help, really!” Byleth snorted and let him up, tucking a strand of hair that had fallen from her ponytail behind her ear. A local boy her ass. No ‘local boy’ spoke common Fodlan with such a flawless accent. Probably some rich lord’s kid off for an adventure amongst the common folk.
“So?” he asked, rubbing at his throat, one eyebrow cocked.
“So, what?” she asked, giving him a harsh once over.
“Do you need help?” he offered. Byleth pondered his question for a moment. Nothing in the world was free, not even help, her father always said.
“That depends, what will it cost me?” she responded. The boy looked shocked for a brief moment, but his carefree mask quickly slipped back into place.
“That depends,” he parroted, pushing his dark brown hair out of his face. “Depends on what you need help with.”
Byleth hummed noncommittally. She weighed her options. She looked Kerem over once more.
“Fine,” she said.
Kerem beamed. It wasn’t comforting.
“So are you an assassin or something?” Kerem asked, munching on some sort of fruit, his back turned to Byleth as she changed into the clothing he had bought for her.
“Mercenary,” she responded truthfully, wrapping the brown sash around her waist, securing her grey linen skirt in place. She wished she could wear her breeches, but according to Kerem only men wore breeches around here. There wasn’t much she could do to hide her oddly colored hair, but she tucked what she could under a brocade scarf nonetheless. Kerem hummed in interest.
“So I could hire you, if I wanted to?” He turned to look her over. “Much better.”
“You couldn’t afford me, local boy,” she responded, subtly reminding him of his earlier attempt at deception. This boy was going to get himself robbed if he couldn’t even remember to stick to his own story.
“But what if I paid you in something other than money?” he asked.
Byleth looked up from where she was tying off her boots- she had refused the flimsy silk slippers he had attempted to foist on her. Admittedly she was curious as to what he meant. Her father had worked for things other than money before, after all. Food, supplies, a dry place to sleep. Seeing that he had caught her interest Kerem began to explain.
“Look. I don’t know you, I don’t know why you’re in my country, my city, but here you are. While you’re here you’re going to need to blend in, right? That’s why you came to the market, after all. So here’s my deal. You help me out when I need it, and I can teach you how to blend in. How to speak like us, eat like us, dance like us, all of it.” His voice grew more and more eager as he spoke, until he was almost vibrating with excitement, his arms gesturing wildly. “You and me? I think we’d make a great team.”
Byleth stared at him blankly until he calmed back down. She had never been very expressive to begin with, but she made sure to keep her face as neutral as possible as she considered his proposition. He had a point- her father had mentioned that they would be in Almyra for at least a few months- and being able to blend into the crowd would be immensely helpful in that time.
“I’ll think about it,” she said finally. Kerem sighed.
“Alright. But in the meantime, let’s discuss your payment for the clothes.”
The architecture of Kral Şehri’s houses reminded her in many ways of eastern Fodlan. Were it not for the oppressive heat she could almost fool herself into believing she was wandering the streets of Fraldarius or Goneril. The white plaster walls of the passing houses gleamed in the mid-afternoon sun, and Byleth had to keep herself from looking too long at them, lest she prematurely blind herself. Most citizens were indoors right now, Kerem had explained before she left, avoiding the heat of the day at its peak, so at least she didn’t have to worry about being spotted. The area was pretty, but there weren’t enough hiding spots for her liking.
Byleth turned down the final street that Kerem had described to her- into the residential area, third street on the right, two lefts, up a staircase, a right, then the third left- and counted until she reached the thirteenth house on the right. It was nondescript, the same white plaster and heavy wooden accents as every other house on the street. Despite having just met the guy an hour ago- despite her instincts telling her to run the other way- Byleth was forced trusted Kerem on a certain level. She wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but really she didn’t have much of a choice, after all she did owe him for his favor. Her father would scoff if he knew that. Make some quip about how badly placed trust would be the death of her. But it was true. So if Kerem said this was the house, then Byleth would trust him. For now.
Gathering her skirt, she tucked the edges of it into her sash, freeing up her legs as she crept to the back of the house. Sure enough, on the second story was an open window, with a tree leading conveniently to it. She rubbed her palms together and quickly stretched out her arms and legs before beginning to scale the tree. She made it up rather quickly, and began to shimmy her way down the sturdiest branch she could find. As she reached the halfway point, Byleth heard the sound of loud, rapid footsteps from within the house. She cursed and shimmied herself back into the thick foliage of the tree, tucking herself away just behind a large branch right as the door to the room she had been about to enter swung open.
A male and a female were arguing loudly. She wished she knew Almyran- wished she knew what they were saying. Instead, she did her best to memorize as many phrases as she could. The two fought for several minutes more before one of them- the man, she assumed, due to his heavy footsteps- left the room.
Byleth waited for what was close to an hour before the woman left the room as well. Once she was certain the coast was clear, she restarted her earlier journey. Once she reached the windowsill she left the painted rock that Kerem had given her- it looked like a green eye, if you asked her- on the ledge.
The sun was low in the sky by the time she returned to the marketplace. Slipping into the back alley where they had met, Byleth came face to face with an eager Kerem.
“Well?” He asked. “How did it go?”
Byleth recounted her adventure to him, watching with interest as she recited the phrases she had memorized to him. Kerem’s face turned contemplative, then cold, then furious, before slipping back into his mask of cheer.
“Well now, that’s unfortunate,” he said. “Your pronunciation is beyond atrocious, but we can work on that. Now, let’s meet here again tomorrow. Say, high noon?” Byleth bristled at his assumption that they would be continuing this, well, what it was, but in all honesty it was bound to be more entertaining than staying in her room in the inn all day, practicing sword forms her father was determined to never let her use. So Byleth nodded her assent. Kerem beamed, and with that she turned and walked away.
“So how was your day?” her father asked over a spicy broth at the inn that evening.
“Interesting,” she replied.