A rosy hue was just barely lighting the eastern sky when the mercenary left Enbarr, looking for answers to questions she did not yet know how to ask.
The former capital of the Empire may have been under occupation by Kingdom troops, but for the common folk, life must continue as usual. The street vendors’ food tasted the same whether the shade of a red or a blue banner fell across their stalls. Kingdom horses left the same droppings on the cobblestones as imperial steeds, and they all went into the same street cleaner’s cart at the end of the day.
She clung to the edges of the streets, ducking her hooded head further down and slinking into the shadows when a patrolling guard came into view. If stopped, a quick reveal of her signature green hair would have sufficed to allow her to continue on her way unimpeded, but that would take precious time from her journey away from the city, and leave unwanted gossip that Seteth would no doubt have to clean up.
A pang of guilt threaded through her chest when she thought of Seteth. He had been shouldering the majority of the duties that came with leading the Church; although it was Rhea’s wish that she replace her as Archbishop when the time came, she knew very little of the actual tenets of the faith due to her isolated upbringing. Not that Seteth ever complained, of course. He was the type of person that thrived on being busy and having innumerable responsibilities, though he would be hard-pressed to admit it.
Technically, she wasn’t even officially the Archbishop yet. Rhea had been found, deep in the dungeons underneath the palace, weak and in no shape to lead the Church. Plans to officially hand over the reins had already been put in motion; once Rhea had recuperated enough to be seen in public and crown the new King of Fodlan, the heavy mantle of the church would be laid upon her shoulders.
“Seteth. May I ask you a favor?” The question lies strangely in her mouth. She is not usually one to ask for favors.
“What is it, my friend? You know I will do my best to accommodate.”
Hesitation. “I need… I need some space.”
He frowns, not understanding. “Space? We do all need quiet moments to ourselves from time to time. I have found the palace gardens to be particularly peaceful when I am in need of respite.”
A sigh. “No, that’s not it. I need to leave. I need time to… process. By myself.”
“Leave? To where? For how long?” She winces at the slight tone of panic in his voice.
“I don’t know where, really. Anywhere where people don’t call me ‘Professor’ or ‘my lady,’ I suppose.” She hesitantly meets his eyes. “And it wouldn’t be for five years again. I can promise you that. Two or three months at most. Before winter arrives.”
He puts his forehead in his hand and exhales. “I understand the war has been hard, Byleth.” He is one of the few people who actually do address her by her name. “You, perhaps most of all, have been shouldering the greatest burden of all of us, between commanding the army and acting as a figurehead for the church. I sincerely apologize if your personal needs have gone unnoticed during this process, and I cannot stop you from taking a period of time to yourself. However, I would be remiss if I did not ask you to reconsider. There is still so much work to be done to repair relations between the Kingdom and former imperial lands. Not to mention it would be devastating to the church if anything were to befoul you and we had no way of knowing.”
“I understand your position, Seteth. And please know that I take no pleasure in adding to your responsibilities. But there is… something I need to do.”
He contemplated her words. Softly, “I don’t suppose this something has anything to do with the recent reports of mutilated livestock being reported from rural territories.”
She remained silent.
A defeated sigh. “Very well. You have earned my trust twice over, and I know once you set your mind on something, the goddess herself cannot sway your decision. I only ask that you refrain from leaving any… mess… that would have to be cleaned up.”
A nod. “Thank you, Seteth.”
The blushing sky had evolved into a full palette of warm colors by the time she reached the city gate. Most traffic at this hour was entering the city: farmers bringing cattle in to be sold at the butcher, merchants pushing carts of their wares to be sold in the marketplace. A handful of guards, clad in recently issued blue tabards, were busy inspecting carts as they entered the city. Accounting for persons exiting the city was not a priority, and a lone person travelling on foot would have no cause to be questioned. Dodging a pair of children, clearly excited to spend a day in the capital, and slipping through the narrow space between a carriage and the stone archway of the gate, Byleth stepped beyond the walls that she never wanted to be enclosed within again.
Ragged, unplanned settlements where the poorest lived spread out a mile or so from the gate. Most people living here worked in the city but were unable to afford property and safety within Enbarr proper. Life woke up early here, already she could see women hanging up the day’s laundry, men slurping down a lean breakfast before beginning their day of work.
A mangy dog chewing on a scrap of cloth thumped his tail at Byleth as she walked by. Dust kicked up under her feet and hung heavily in the air, painting her boots the color of a rusted sword. She knew the ground wouldn’t have to wait long for its thirst to be quenched, however; the angry red sky was a sign that late summer showers were soon to follow.
The patched and weary shacks gave way to fields of crops, or what was left of them. What hadn’t been harvested prematurely to feed increasingly desperate imperial troops had been trampled or burned by the zealous kingdom army on their march to Enbarr. Despite the destruction, Byleth could see farmers dotting the landscape, tilling the fields, guiding work horses, clearing destroyed vegetation. It would be a meagre winter in the south; efforts had been put underway to ration what remained of imperial food stores but it was a raw fact that many throughout Fodlan would not live to see the spring.
Byleth followed the road, rutted from centuries of use, as it lazily curved northward. She walked at a steady pace; she had a general destination in mind, but for once in many moons there was no imminent need to reach a particular location. She travelled light: a basic pack that carried survival necessities, and a humble sword on her belt, much like the blade she once wielded as a mercenary. The Sword of the Creator had been left in Seteth’s care. The attention that weapon would bring would certainly outweigh its usefulness, and she had a feeling she would not have need of its power for a long time.
“So… That grotesque creature was Edelgard…”
They stand just inside the palace throne room. She can see Dimitri’s in rough shape but he hides it well. Most people wouldn’t notice the way he favors his left side, the slight tremble in his grip on Areadbhar. She is not most people. If their comrades had been as perceptive as she, they probably would have not let only the two of them enter the throne room alone. As it is, they are busy holding off reinforcements coming from upstairs, downstairs, and several hidden passages no doubt designed to make the palace difficult to secure to those unfamiliar with it.
Despite her position, Edelgard has surprisingly little defences in her throneroom. That is, if the nightmarish figure standing, no- hovering just in front of the Adrestian throne could still be called Edelgard. If it were not for the golden horns atop her stark white hair, she would be unrecognizable as the student she taught years ago at Garreg Mach.
A twisted snarl echoes through the chamber: “These fools are caught up in the sacrifices at hand and cannot see the future ramifications at stake… We must bury them.” Each word is inhuman, a mangled echo of the calm, evaluating girl she once rewound time itself to save.
“We must trample the past underfoot, and move onward to a brighter tomorrow!” The words are forceful but ultimately hollow; it is but the snarl of a cornered and desperate animal.
Nevertheless, her words have their desired effect on the remaining guards in the room, who begin to advance toward the intruders.
Just as she had predicted, by early afternoon the sky had opened to a downpour. Byleth trudged along, avoiding the muddiest bits of the road. Before leaving Enbarr, she had traded her signature fishnet stockings and coat for trousers and a hooded cloak that had been treated to resist water. Even so, a damp chill crept its way through her body. She stuck her hands in her armpits as she walked to keep them warm.
The wet squelch of hooves in mud steadily came from behind her, slowing as they neared. A soft “Whoa, there!” and the snorting of horses followed as a cart pulled alongside her. Keeping a hand on her blade underneath her cloak, she turned her body to allow the cart to pass.
Instead of continuing, however, the cart creaked to a halt. The driver, a heavyset, bearded man, pulled up his hood, blinking rain out of his eyes. “Hello there, friend! Not great weather to be taking a walk in, is it? Hop in and we’ll give you a lift to Belfort.” He jerked his head to the back of the open cart, where a handful of drenched fieldhands sat. “‘Fraid it’s not much shelter from the rain, but it’ll save your feet some work, eh?”
Byleth nodded and let out a brief “Thank you,” before climbing into the back of the cart, where the others shuffled to make room. A few peered at her curiously when the hilt of her sword came into view.
“You a mercenary or somethin’?” A young woman with a dark braid sat on the bench across from her. Her face was lined beyond her years, a sign of a life of hard work outdoors.
“Don’t see many of you guys outside of a company anymore, most I figure banded together to join the war.”
“I used to be in a company, but…” Byleth trailed off, leaving the woman to draw her own conclusions. It wasn’t exactly a lie anyway.
“Yeah, yeah, I get ya’. Well, we all do what we can to survive. Looks like the goddess was looking out for you.”
The corner of Byleth’s mouth quirked up at the mention of the goddess but she did not reply.
“So where’re you headed now? I hear there’s a need for blades up north in the old Alliance.”
Byleth blinked and contemplated for a moment. “North,” she confirmed. “I’m tracking… someone.”
She perked up at this; Byleth realized this was probably the most interesting interaction the woman had had all day.
“Oh, hunting for a bounty, eh? Tell me what they look like, maybe I’ve seen them. A lot of people pass through on the way out of the capital, you know.”
Byleth shook her head slowly. “They didn’t.”
The woman rolled her eyes, but a sly smirk graced her face. “All right, all right, keep your secrets. My ma always did say I ask too many questions for my own good.” She slumped back against the rail of the cart, toying with her braid. Her hair was a similar shade to what Byleth used to see in the mirror herself.
Byleth raised her eyes to the sky. The rain didn’t look to be letting up any time soon. “How far is it to, um...”
“Belfort. About thirty minutes at the rate we’re goin’. Normally, most travellers from the capital push on a few hours more to Willsfeldt, but I reckon this,” she gestured towards the heavens, “is going to last into the night...” The woman chattered on amicably, Byleth nodding along but only half listening. The names of towns, cities, rivers, entered and left Byleth’s mind like dry leaves. She had never had to worry about the specifics of location names or borders when she was a mercenary. Even the odd times a job separated her from Jeralt, she would have no trouble navigating using landmarks and the stars.
“... anyway if you’re looking for a place to stay for the night, my uncle’s inn is your best, well, only option.” The woman stopped talking, drawing Byleth’s attention away from her thoughts.
“Yes. That will be fine.” Byleth pulled her hood further down over her eyes in an attempt to signal that she was no longer interested in conversation.
Another grin. “Woman of few words, eh? Don’t worry, I can take a hint. I’ll buy you a pint at the inn to make up for talkin’ your ear off.” She chuckled and closed her eyes, not seeming to mind the rain in the least.
They continued the rest of the way in soggy silence.