Chapter 1: Too Still
“Um, Sylvain? Hello? I asked you a question.” Rosalind drummed her fingers on the table impatiently. She had been keeping the fingernails long for him, despite Academy regulations, so the motion made an unpleasant clacking noise on the wood of the entrance hall table. The perfume she’d selected for the day, no doubt to signal to him that she wasn’t to be ignored, stunk of rosemary and narcissus. Actually, he may have bought it for her. Sylvain glanced from Professor Poppy Eisner, who had just entered the hall, back to his little brunette orbiter.
“Could you repeat it, baby?” he said, eyes drifting back to the Professor. Her face looked paler than usual, almost blue. Her eyes didn’t seem to be focusing on anything, and she swayed a little more than usual when she took a step.
“...a smart girl like me. So which is it? What do you want?” Rosalind continued. Usually, the venom in the girl’s high, raspy voice would send little needles of discomfort into his gut, but something about the way Professor Poppy was moving was drawing his attention to her every move. Not in a fun way, either.
“Excuse me for a minute, Linda,” he said, standing up from the table just slowly enough to seem natural. By now, Sylvain noticed, vaguely, that some other students were looking at the Professor, too. The Gloucester kid actually seemed to be trying to follow her subtly from outside on the bridge to the cathedral, which she’d just come from. It didn’t take long to catch up to her, she was moving so slow. Blearily, the Professor turned her head to greet Sylvain.
“Hey, Professor. Are you okay? Come sit down over here,” he said. Glancing at Rosalind’s face, which was twisted in confusion and annoyance, he decided differently. “Er, or, you know what? Let’s go get some hot food, huh? It’s getting almost as cold as Faerghus lately.”
“That’s not...I’m not hungry… right now,” said the Professor, quietly. Her placid eyes were wandering somewhere around the windows above his head. Suddenly, her breath hitched, and one of her knees buckled. She swayed forward, but caught herself, holding out her arms like a blind woman. “What? I…” she gasped. The students who hadn’t been paying attention were now. Sylvain heard quite a few chairs scrape against the polished stone floor, and then the sound of hurrying, booted footsteps came from behind them. Sylvain caught the Professor under his arms and eased her into his chest. A little moan escaped the Professor’s lips, but that was it before her legs lost strength completely, bringing her full weight down into him and making him struggle to keep her from falling forward into the ground. Instead, he just sat down with her, trying to lower her as slowly as possible. Somehow, they ended with the Professor slumping sideways into him, legs splayed unevenly.
Her body felt so small and fragile. Not at all like what the woman who led them into battle should feel like. Her smooth skin felt cold, too. And wrong. Wrong, somehow. What was it?
“Gautier. Would you like my assistance?” said Lorenz, who was suddenly standing beside them. He still adopted that damned regal pose, though his brows were wrinkled with worry.
“With what?” asked Sylvain, still feeling the Professor’s skin. He moved his fingers carefully to her wrist after removing her bracers.
“With carrying her to the infirmary, of course!” said Lorenz, shocked at Sylvain’s dullness. “Oh, what am I saying? Move aside, I’ll get her legs.” Sylvain was barely listening, because he was trying to concentrate on the Professor’s pulse. It was there, but slow. And weak. This was bad. Very bad. Sylvain took her shoulders and waist, letting her neck be cradled by the crook of his arm. Already, the awkward position was putting a twinge in his shoulders and neck. They couldn’t afford to jostle her, though.
“Let’s go. On my three. One. Two. Three!” Sylvain said. They lifted the Professor easily enough, but the real problem was the stairs. Sylvain had the lead, so it was him who had to walk sideways up the stairs. What a stupid place to put the infirmary—on the second floor. It was hard to tell how the Professor was doing, since he was going as fast as he could, but he could feel her chest expand shallowly against his stomach. “Good, good. That’s good. At least she’s breathing,” he thought. It wasn’t quite a cheerful thought, but it took his attention away from the other thoughts raging in his head, like “What’s happening to her?” “Is she sick?” “Is this what they’re getting in Remire?” and “Is she in pain?” Sylvain glanced down at the Professor. No expression was on her face, as per usual.
Footsteps scraped against the dry stone of the stairway below them.
“Sylvain! Lorenz! Let me help!” said Mercedes’s voice, echoing slightly in the tunnel-like space. She slipped past Lorenz and arrived at Sylvain’s side. Her hand found the Professor’s forehead at once, and then moved straight to the artery on her neck.
“No eye movement. Cold skin. Irregular...no, weak pulse. Strange. I’ll check again,” she said. Her hand moved straight to the Professor’s chest above her heart. “Short of breath, and...no! No, no, no!” Mercedes gasped out the last part. Sylvain had never heard that pitch in her voice, either.
“What is it? What’s—“ asked Lorenz, voice sharp.
“Her heart isn’t beating!” replied Mercedes, looking at the Professor as if she were already dead. She grasped Sylvain’s shoulder painfully tight. He could feel every finger through his jacket. “Go. Now.” It felt like someone had stabbed his guts with a sword of ice. For a few precious seconds, he froze as waves of numbness swept through his body. He couldn’t be holding a corpse, could he? She couldn’t really be dead. She was still warm. Unwanted, the memory of his first kill—a bandit—surfaced. He’d checked the body, then, too, and it was warm from the life it had held just minutes before. But, the Professor? It had to be impossible.
“Didn’t you hear her? Go, you idiot!” Shouted Lorenz. Sylvain took off, no longer caring if he moved the Professor too much.
They burst onto the second floor, gasping.
“Lady Rhea! Seteth! Professor Manuela! Flayn! Help us!” shouted Lorenz, wasting no time. His voice rang in the cold, vaulted ceiling. No one answered.
“They’re in the cathedral, doing a funeral for someone. We can’t run there and back in time,” said Sylvain. Shit. “We need to put her down. Damn, what was that thing Manuela taught us? I wasn’t, uh, paying attention.”
Lorenz lowered her legs to the ground, and Sylvain followed suit, making sure to keep a hand under her head. Shit, the floor was hard. He slipped the handkerchief he kept in his inner jacket pocket under her head. She didn’t look uncomfortable. She had no expression at all. She certainly looked dead. But that was impossible, because would mean the last real conversation they had was before Conand Tower, when he’d called her spoiled, all but said she somehow deserved to be hurt. That couldn’t be how he left her, could it? No, that would be unacceptable.
Mercedes, tears pooling in her eyes, got down on her hands and knees and pinched the Professor’s nose closed. She took a big breath and brought her mouth to the Professor’s, breathing the life-giving air into her lungs. Sylvain noticed he’d stopped breathing, and started again, bringing in a shallow breathful of cold air. Lorenz, also released from his paralysis, took off down the stairs without preamble, yelling for help the entire way.
Mercedes interlocked her hands and placed them on the Professor’s solar plexus. Wasting no time, Mercedes pushed into her chest with all her might. The air that Mercedes had breathed into the Professor’s body came out in a deep cough.
“Agh! What are you doing!” gasped the Professor. “Where am I?” Mercedes laughed nervous surprise, and then joy, clapping her hands to her mouth.
“Oh, Professor, I’m sorry. It’s just,” Mercedes began.
“Professor, you had no heartbeat,” shouted Sylvain. He hadn’t meant for his voice to be so loud, but he was so focused on the relief he felt that he simply couldn’t regulate his voice. Without thinking, he enclosed his teacher’s hand in his own, wanting to squeeze as hard as he could but only finding the strength to hold it softly. Again, without thinking and with no other motive but worry, he moved aside the Professor’s grey robe to lay his palm over her heart.
Still, he felt nothing. Some movement, but no reassuring thump, and precious little warmth. The feeling was more of a "shhhhhhh shhhhhhh" than the normal rhythm. Sylvain let out a strangled cry.
“Professor! Your heart! It’s still not beating!”
“Sylvain, calm d—“ the Professor said, wincing.
“Don’t worry! Mercy’s here! Lorenz is getting help. Just hang on, you’re gonna be fine!” said Sylvain, the strain of the fight against his tears evident in his voice. He ran his fingers along hers reassuringly, not knowing what else to do. Shit, he killed things, not healed them. Useless. Mercedes gripped the Professor’s other hand and brushed her hair away from her face, quickly hovering her hand over the Professor’s chest. She muttered something sounding like poetry, and a white glow appeared under her hand and moved into the Professor’s body.
“Shhh. Stay still. We’re not going to let you go,” she said, in an almost theatrically gentle voice. Mercedes seemed to be waiting for whatever magic she had done to work, but after several seconds, she gritted her teeth and tried to do the spell again. The Professor let go of Mercedes’s hand and turned her other hand, the one trying to work magic, away.
“That’s not going to work. I’m fine. It’s okay. Just let me up,” said the Professor, a rare edge of exasperation marring her almost perfectly emotionless voice. Sylvain found himself squeezing her hand a little tighter and pressed on her shoulder insistently.
“No. Don’t move. We don’t know what’s wrong with you. Let’s wait here until Rhea or someone else comes. Okay? That’s an order,” said Sylvain. To his surprise, the Professor smiled at him. The room felt warmer.
“Thank you, Sylvain. It really is okay, though. It’s normal. Just bring me to Da’s room. Don’t make a scene, please,” she said.
“It’s a bit late for that,” he chuckled. “The entire House, plus Alois, is probably going to be here soon. Maybe even Lady Rhea herself.”
“What? How?” Panic was creeping into the Professor’s voice.
“Lorenz went off to get them,” Sylvain said. The Professor winced again.
“Mercy, honey, go stop him. If you trust me, don’t let them know about my heart.”
“Why, Professor?” said Mercedes. “I can’t stop him now!” The Professor sighed, massaging her brow.
“Just. Just bring me to Da’s room. Not the infirmary, please,” said the Professor. Sylvain nodded. “Mercy, I’m telling you, go get Lorenz now. Don’t let him get to Rhea.” Mercedes opened her mouth to argue, but something in her teacher’s voice made her think twice. Mercedes got up slowly. “Quickly, Mercy!” Mercedes left.
“Can you stand?” he asked. The Professor nodded and started to rise. Sylvain took one hand from her shoulder to under her arm, and kept holding her hand with his other. With a little wobbling, the Professor made it to a standing position. Slowly, he guided her to Captain Jeralt’s room.
In the Captain's room, the Professor headed towards the bench that lay beside the huge writing desk. She tried to sit down, but Sylvain pulled her down to lie on her back. She obeyed with only a defeated sigh.
“I’m your teacher, not a dying grandmother,” she said in vain.
“Just in case, Professor. You don’t want to faint and hit your head into that writing desk, do you?” he said, attempting to sound jocular. The fear that something like that might actually happen made it impossible to sound joking, though. Resigned, the Professor closed her eyes.
“Of course. You’re being very careful. I understand,” she said. “You don’t have to be, though. I’m fine. The fainting isn’t normal, true, but everything else is.”
“Well, just for the fainting, then! You were out for a good few minutes. It’s not crazy to think it might happen again!” he reproached. “You’re always saying to pay attention and look out for ourselves, yeah?” The Professor just nodded.
“Fine. As long as you don’t make it into an ordeal,” she said. Sylvain pursed his lips looked into her eyes. They seemed honest. And worried.
“I promise I won’t,” he said, lying. He hadn’t decided yet. “I can’t make any promises for the others, though.” The Professor groaned again. “Are you in pain?” She seemed to think for a moment, turning the question over in her head carefully, as if she were considering a strategy problem.
“I thought you were going to ‘collect my debt’ for being ‘spoiled.’ Have you changed your mind about that, or are you waiting for later?”
“Professor, that was just...I don’t know what it was. Me feeling sorry for myself. Like a spoiled brat, you could say. Obviously I don’t really want you hurt. You believe me, right? I’m being serious,” Sylvain said. He looked for signs of resentment or disbelief in her face, but could find none.
“I believe you. I wondered if you meant it at the time. You certainly seemed angry, but I can’t begrudge you that,” she said.
“You can. You must, actually. It was misplaced. Very misplaced.”
“I know. All the same, it’s alright. As long as you’re honest about it,” she said. Sylvain struggled for words. How could her forgiveness be that easy? Why would she want him to be honest? Long experience had taught him that it usually doesn’t help relationships. Still, he might as well humor her.
“You still haven’t answered my question. Are you in pain?” he asked. “I honestly want to know.”
“Just a little headache,” she finally said. Fine. He could help with that. Pain, pain. What could he do, though? What had the Professor done?
In the ruined watchtower where Miklan had fled, where he died, she did something to his body to make him at least look less in pain. When he’d tried to take the Lance of Ruin from his dead hand, and he couldn’t break his brother’s gnarled fingers from the weapon that killed him. The Professor had done something, some sort of healing magic to make Miklan’s fingers relax their claw-like grip, to make his face go from agonized and afraid to peaceful. He was surprised that it worked even on a corpse, really. That was the first time he really started to think there might be a person behind the Professor’s emotionless face.
Could he do something like that? He remembered learning something similar, past the transfixing movement of Manuela’s body under her ridiculously skimpy dress.
Sylvain screwed his eyes shut and hovered his hand over the Professor’s forehead and tried to visualize a life source in the Professor. That’s what Manuela said you should start with. He imagined a poppy where her heart was. Why not? He imagined the life-flower growing and spreading to her head, speeding up healing and flushing out pain. A white light…
“Sylvain? Are you trying to heal me?” Sylvain opened his eyes again to see Professor Poppy looking up at him.
“Well, yes. Is it working?” he asked, hopefully. Professor Poppy shook her head. Sylvain blushed, and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Were you trying to do the spell I used on...the relaxing spell? I can teach you if you like,” she said. “It’s good to see you getting out of your comfort zone.”
“No, no. Not now. You still have a headache. I’ll look and see if I can find anything to help.” Sylvain got up from his place beside his teacher and looked around the Captain’s room. There was nothing on the desk besides papers and a bouquet of gillyflower and winter jasmine. The Professor had probably given that to him. The whole room was kind of sparse, really. There was a mirror, a dresser, and a washing basin in the far right corner, some well-polished suits of dress armor, a full-length bookshelf covering the left wall, and a modest bed and trunk of clothes in a little alcove in the corner. Plus, there was a slightly worn but well-taken care of lute that someone had painted little red and white flowers on. Some cold water from the wash basin might help if he dipped a cloth in it. Ah, no. Sylvain doubted she’d want her father’s stubble-infused shaving water on her forehead, though Leonie might be interested. Time to go to the infirmary.
There were quite a number of bottles and potions in the infirmary. The people who were occupying some of the cots, all from Remire, were fast asleep, turning fitfully and letting out barely perceptible groans. Just being in the same room as them gave him a feeling of dread, as if there were something watching him from behind their closed eyes. The whole place smelled of alcohol (the kind used to clean wounds, not the kind Manuela liked to drink) and the gnawing stench of death. The Professor had better not have whatever it was these poor people had. Sylvain, despite the feeling of being watched, turned his back on the Remire patients and started browsing the bottles. Just as he spotted a phial of teal liquid labeled “essence of papaver somniferum —for pain and sleep,” he heard Captain Jeralt’s gruff tones in the hallway, as well as many booted footsteps. He grabbed the pain potion, an eyedropper, a basin of clean water, and a towel, and headed back to the Captain’s quarters.
Sylvain found the Professor surrounded by students, with Jeralt looming over them, arms crossed. He glanced at Sylvain when he entered.
“Ah, good, you’re back. Close the door and lock it,” Captain Jeralt said, several muscles in his jaw tensing. Pent up fury, or an emotion close to it, was emanating from his stormy face. He’d felt something similar from his father, before, and Miklan. Sylvain did as he was told. Putting the goods down on the desk in front of the bench where the Professor lay and sliding the heavy deadbolt on the Captain’s oaken door into place.
Lorenz stood by the captain, arms at his sides and looking uncharacteristically cowed. Ashe was busying himself with the Professor’s tea set, which he was making tea with on the Captain's dresser. Mercedes, Ignatz, Dimitri, and Annette were all crowded around the Professor. Mercedes and Ignatz were seemingly focused entirely on the Professor, while Dimitri and Annette were seated and facing the Captain.
“So. Gloucester here claims he only said Poppy’s heart stopped to you. Is that true? Did you hear him tell anyone else?” the Captain said. Dimitri gripped his knees and adopted his usual earnest expression.
“Yes sir! He just said that Professor Poppy needed help, and that she was dying,” Dimitri said.
“We were the ones who caught him and asked why before you got to him,” added Annette. Mercedes continued to straighten the Professor’s hair and attempt to find her pulse, while Ignatz looked on in absolute bewilderment.
“Victor. Martritz. Ubert. Answer me now,” growled the Captain, his grip on his arms tightening. The joints in his gauntlets creaked.
“Y-yes, Captain. Only us,” whimpered Ignatz. Mercedes and Ashe assented.
“Good. I understand perfectly well that you’re worried. I was worried when I first found out her heart is different, too. But Poppy is alive, and has been for longer than you have. This is our personal medical issue. It’s private. Understand?” the Captain demanded. Most muttered in the affirmative, but not Ignatz or Sylvain.
“But Captain! She told me once that she couldn’t remember her own hobbies! That she had trouble feeling emotions!” said Ignatz. “Do you think that could be connected?”
“Do you think it’s a curse?” asked Ashe. Sylvain nodded, and dipped the cloth in the water basin he’d brought from the infirmary. Wringing it out, he deliberated.
“She might be fine without a heartbeat, but there’s this fainting issue, and then the Remire disease. Don’t you think they might be connected? We’re in Garreg Mach, now. We have the best healers in the world. Don’t you think Lady Rhea can help? Why keep it a secret? There’s no point in letting her suff—“
“You shut your mouth, Gautier!” boomed the Captain, slamming an armored fist on the table. The crack resounded so loudly that Sylvain thought he might’ve broken the table. Then, his voice dropped to a hoarse growl. “I like you better when the only thing that you can talk about is your pack of silly little girls. Poppy is my daughter, damnit, not your little subject to look after like a pet!”
“No! I won’t! Why do you think you get to keep her away from help, away from everything? We need her!” yelled Sylvain, still wringing nonexistent drops out of the cloth in his hands. He tried to match the Captain in ferocity, but he noted how boyish and pathetic his voice sounded next to Jeralt’s. The Captain slowly strode towards Sylvain. With his height, it only took two steps, and every second was filled with hot dread. Sylvain fought to keep from backing up.
“I know you think you need her, but you don’t,” said the Captain, calmly and deliberately. “I need her. I need her safe. I need her secret. Especially from Rhea. You don’t know Rhea like I do, but I would’ve thought you lot, of all the students here, might’ve guessed how dangerous this place really is. Remember Lonato? Do you recall how a rumor of heresy got your brother Christophe slaughtered without a trial, Ubert? Do you remember how a faculty member, or someone working with that faculty member, was experimenting on two students, one upwards of a year—a year—and somehow it took Seteth’s own sister being hurt to really stop it? Experiments run, I might add, because of Flayn’s special crest? And now villagers near the monastery are coming down with some new plague, and yet the Knights of Seiros aren’t getting sick. Wrack your little brains, Gautier! Think! I want you to really dust those cobwebs off. Is my daughter’s special condition safe knowledge with the faculty? Hm? My daughter, the only known bearer of the Crest of Flames?”
Sylvain started to say something, but couldn’t manage it.
“That’s what I thought. What about you, Victor, anything to say? Blaiddyd? Gloucester? No?” continued the Captain. “You may think that someone is safe, kind, trustworthy. But they’re not. Don’t you dare let your guard down. Poppy’s life is on the line, here. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.” At this, he made sure he had looked directly into every student’s eyes, even going as far as to grab Ignatz’s head and tilt it up to face him. “If I find out that one of you told anyone affiliated with the Church in any capacity a single word about Poppy’s heart, Poppy and I are gone the next morning. But first, I will find you, and I will make sure that you never finish school here. I don’t care what I have to do. No one finds out about Poppy. No. One. Not Cyril. Not Alois. Not the cook. Not even a damn horse. Understood?”
“Yes, Sir,” they said.
“Good. Gloucester here was just overreacting about Poppy fainting. Right? Because of Remire,” said Jeralt, laying a hand on Lorenz’s shoulder. Lorenz gulped and straightened his posture even more, though Sylvain had scarcely thought that possible.
“Y-yes, that’s correct,” said Lorenz. “I’ve never really seen someone faint before. With the funeral happening, I thought the Professor might be dying.” Jeralt stared at Lorenz, silently judging his sincerity. The verdict must have been good, because he smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes.
“How precious,” said the Captain, voice still steely. “I’m going to go for a little walk. When I come back, you'd better be gone.” He turned towards the door.
“Wait! But if it’s a curse or something, can’t we try to help?” asked Ashe. The Captain put his hand on his hip and tugged on his beard, jaw muscles working.
“It is what it is. I’ve tried to make it better, but the only thing that helps is time. This is the best I’ve seen seen her since she was born. As far as memory and feelings go, anyway. Just make sure she rests.” With that, the Captain was gone. Dimitri, who had mostly been very still and quiet until then, turned and laid a hand on the Professor’s shoulder.
“Professor, is it true? Do you want to keep this a secret, too?” asked Dimitri.
“Yes. I trust him. Please don’t tell anyone,” she pleaded.
“You have my word, Professor,” said Dimitri, squeezing her arm.
“Thank you, Dimitri,” she said. Dimitri smiled. Seeing that genuine smile, a welcome sight on on Dimitri’s face, relieved him more than he thought possible in the moment.
“Here Professor, I brought some tea for you! We can have a little tea party right here,” said Ashe, bringing a tray of fruits, sweets, and teacups over. Mercedes, for her part, took the pain medicine and squeezed a tiny amount into the eye drop, and then, methodically, dropped it into one tea cup. Ignatz took it from her and put it into the Professor’s hands, keeping his hands under hers until he saw that she wouldn’t drop the cup.
“Ashe, did you get this from my room?” The professor asked, slyly. Ashe blushed.
“Y-yes. I thought it might help. I didn’t look at anything else,” he sputtered.
“It’s alright. It was very thoughtful of you. Just don’t make lockpicking my door a habit,” she said. Dimitri and Lorenz laughed at this—Dimitri’s laugh low and musical, Lorenz’s slightly maniacal. The other students took their tea cups and drank, chatting the Professor up. All except for Sylvain, who was still in a daze. The click of the Professor’s teacups against porcelain brought back his clarity. Right. Her headache. The cloth.
Sylvain brushed the Professor’s hair from her forehead and laid the cool cloth over it. He pressed is fingers together in the center on the cloth and slowly spread the tips out, trying to massage the worry out of her. She stirred a little and sighed in relief.
“There, is that working?” Sylvain asked, smiling. She nodded. A little grin made her lips curl ever so slightly.
When Captain Jeralt came back, he found his daughter fast asleep, still wearing that smile.
In the days that followed, the Professor acted as normal, and so did the students, albeit watching her a bit more closely. Sylvain couldn’t forget the feeling—or rather, lack of feeling—of the Professor’s dead heart. He couldn’t forget her doll-like face and inability to connect to herself, and the fact that apparently, it’s been like that since her birth. It was wrong, and every time the Professor dined with them, taught them strategy, or offered them tea, it grated on his nerves like a rusty nail on a whetstone. He couldn’t pretend like there was nothing wrong with her, could he? He was a noble with a crest, as much as it tore him apart. There had to be something good he could do with what power and influence he had, at least, outside of fighting and breeding pedigree children. That’s what the Professor claimed, anyway. Why not test her theory?
Chapter 2: The End of a Long Day
“...so that is the unfortunate result of receiving two crests,” finished Hanneman. Sylvain put down his fork, suddenly disgusted.
“I see. Do you know of anyone here with two crests? What about abnormal body functions? Changes in physical appearance, even?” Sylvain was trying to keep his mostly nonchalant demeanor to avoid attention, but at the thought of the Professor going through what his brother did, his voice hitched a little. Hanneman noticed his discomfort.
“I am not at liberty to disclose other students and faculties’ crests, though I do appreciate your concern,” said Hanneman, his eyes softening. “It seems that those whose crests—or lack thereof—are not compatible with the relics they use can transform into—ah, forgive me. You know that of course.” Sylvain grimaced in what he half heartedly intended to be a reassuring smile. Then, a thought occurred to him.
“Wait, how’d you know about happened to him?” he demanded.
“You didn’t think Rhea would keep such an important detail from me for long, did you? Especially not with the strange experiments in Remire. No, I was notified about roughly what had happened as soon as the Remire victims began to show violent tendencies. Rhea wanted you to keep it secret, but she can tell whomever she wants.”
“For people with just one crest, though. Is there any chance it could react badly to their body? Take something away?” Hanneman’s eyes widened as he pursed his lips, mustache bristling.
“Why, not that I’ve seen. Have you been experiencing anything unusual?”
“Yeah. My heart has been beating a little strangely, lately. I fainted the other day in my room,” said Sylvain, reflexively looking around the dining hall. No Captain Jeralt, of course. He’d be gone until the Millennium Celebration. The only person that seemed out of place was Briallen, a little orphan from Remire. The black-haired girl was hunched over and tugging at one of her threadbare sleeves, nervously scanning the room for someone.
“That shouldn’t be crest-related, based on my research. It would have shown up much sooner. I could be wrong, but I am the world’s foremost crest scholar. I can always run an experiment to make sure.”
“Don’t you mean examination?” Sylvain asked, twirling the gooey cheese on his shepherd’s pie around his fork.
“Of course,” replied Hanneman.
“Well, I’ll just take your word for it, then.”
“Are you sure you don’t…?” A look at Sylvain’s raised eyebrow told him his answer. “I understand. Try to drink water, get some rest, eat red meat and green vegetables. That sort of thing. I’m sure it’ll sort itself out. Manuela can help you if it doesn’t.”
The thought of going to that desperate woman with more questions almost made Sylvain shudder. He’d gone to her first and helped her with treating the survivors of Remire. She opened up as soon as he acted the least bit charming. Whatever curse afflicted the poor people of Remire, it probably wasn’t the same as what afflicted the Professor.
They had bouts of anger and delirium, whereas he’d only ever seen her angry after Conand Tower, and after Solon had fled into his cowardly little teleportal. Once he’d gotten the information he needed, it had taken a few days of half-hearted banter, and then the cold shoulder to shake the ex-songstress.
Hanneman finished his meal and went to his office soon after, perhaps to jot down Sylvain’s “symptoms” in his notes. Sylvain was left to finish his meal, which had gone cold and almost rubbery, and watch Briallen. The little girl’s sister or friend, whose name Sylvain didn’t know, tried to get her to walk toward the kitchens, but Briallen shook her head and continued her wait. Finally, her eyes lit up a small bit when she saw the Professor walk through the door. Of course. Briallen had been glued to her since they’d pulled her from the wreckage of her house. She’d even found the courage to sit in on a few classes, lately, though she was terrified of Dimitri.
The other little girl screwed up her face in disgust and left. Briallen ran up to the Professor and embraced her legs like she was seeing her for the first time after several years. The Professor ruffled her hair and led her to get some food. They took some plates and went to sit down with Edwina and Conleth, Ashe’s brother and sister, and Ashe. After the events in Gaspard, Edwina and Conleth had been injured, and were taken to the monastery just like Briallen and other homeless survivors of Remire. It made sense they would group together. Sylvain sighed and took his plate over to them.
“Professor! Ashe! Kids! How are you doing?” he said, pasting on a smile.
“I’m well, thank you,” said the Professor. Ashe and Edwina smiled and said their polite responses, while Conleth just nodded. Briallen glanced up at him, and then back to her food. Conleth was about Cyril’s age, and wore what seemed to be an accusatory expression at all times. Edwina, whose face was covered in a galaxy of freckles, was unusually cheerful in her mannerisms, like she was trying to reassure everyone she met.
“Bria, answer the gentleman! he’s nice!” scolded Edwina. Briallen screwed up her little mouth and slowly raised her eyes to look somewhere past Sylvain’s shoulder.
“It’s okay, Edwina! She doesn’t have to if she doesn’t want to!” said Sylvain, before Briallen could say anything. She looked back at her food and tugged on her sleeve. The Professor gave him a little half-smile, and he felt a little of the made-up symptoms he’d described to Hanneman.
“Um, so, how’s the leg? Has Ashe been teaching you how to shoot a bow? You’d mentioned you wanted to learn how to fight,” asked Sylvain. He’d never really been good with kids.
“Yeah, he has, sir,” Conleth said, ignoring the issue of his leg. “How to work a spear, too.” At this, Briallen’s eyes lit up.
“Master Ashe! Teach me, too!” she said. Sylvain realized he had never heard her voice before.
“We’ve talked about this, Bria. You’re too young. You can listen to my lessons for now,” said the Professor.
“She’s right. You need to work with the training weapons I showed you for now,” said Ashe, gently.
“But I can’t kill the Death Knight with those dumb sticks! I want to hurt him!” protested Briallen. Sadness registered on Ashe’s face before he switched back to the patient, paternal look he usually wore around the kids.
“You need to be bigger to do that, Bria. Eat your meat, and keep training with Conleth,” he said. The Professor squeezed the little girl’s shoulder, but that just seemed to make her more agitated.
“No! We don’t have time to wait! Him and the bad old man could come back any day! It’s my birthday, soon, anyway, so you should give me what I want!” she said, almost bordering on yelling. She set her sights on Sylvain and shrunk again, her voice becoming softer. “Milord? You’re friends with the Professor, right? Do you have spare daggers? I’m big enough to have one of those,” This is not what Sylvain had in mind when he came over. Goddess, he didn’t like arguing.
“Well, my father did start me pretty young with daggers, maybe—“ A double glare from the Professor and Ashe froze him up temporarily. “Look. I’ll tell you what. If you do what Ashe said and help Professor Manuela in the infirmary before your birthday, I’ll show you a few dagger moves. I’ll be there the whole time, though, and only on your birthday.” Briallen puzzled over this for a bit. The Professor raised her eyebrows. It was hard to tell whether she was annoyed or appreciative. He would no doubt find out later, after she had shepherded the little ones away to their little encampment near the stables, where the smaller ones slept in the spare stablehands’ rooms and the stronger ones slept in tents.
“Can I see it, milord?” she asked, eagerness creeping into her voice.
“I’ll bring it to the next class.”
“Okay,” she said, and promptly started eating. Sylvain looked to Ashe to see if he was almost done eating. He was.
“Hey Ashe, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. Come join me?” he asked. Ashe looked puzzled at his intense look, but nodded.
“And that’s all Hanneman and Manuela had to say,” said Sylvain, striding down the steps to the market area. Ashe was keeping up at a slight jog. It was a very bright, cloudless day, the sun blanching everything below it in a stark, bare relief. Despite the light, it was still a very cold day. The students had donned warmer jackets, gloves, and hats. Even the horses and wyverns got warmer saddle blankets. The small crowd of people that was usually in the courtyard at this hour after breakfast almost seemed to be in the middle of a slight mist, as their hot breath made little ghosts in the cold air.
“So we’re just going to talk to Jeralt’s old mercenary group? Won’t they tell Jeralt?”
“He told us not to tell anyone affiliated with the Church. The Fire-Forged aren’t affiliated with the Church, and they would have to have known something about the Professor’s condition after spending so much time with her,” replied Sylvain. He saw a welcome sight in front of the blacksmith’s shop: Dimitri and Annette. Dimitri was showing the shaft of a very ornate axe to Annette and explaining something, while she looked sheepish.
“Dimitri! Annette! Hey! Come and help us a bit!” Sylvain called, smiling. He and Ashe waited as Annette put the axe back and bought another one.
“What is it?” asked Dimitri. He looked suspicious. Sylvain supposed he couldn’t blame him, given how his plan to get him to lighten up was so disastrous. Maybe telling him the full plan wouldn’t be necessary.
“We’re going to see if Jeralt’s mercenaries will train with us,” said Sylvain. “The Professor is so busy with the little ones, we thought we’d give her a break.”
“What about the other teachers?” Dimitri asked, brow already creasing.
“When have they ever had as much practical advice as Professor Poppy? Plus, the Knights are gone or busy. Come on, let’s just meet them. It’ll be something different! You want more experience talking to commoners, right?” said Sylvain. Dimitri considered, while Annette clapped her hands together excitedly.
“Oh! Great idea! I wanted to ask her about how to combine magic and weapons, but I’ve been afraid to bother her again!” she said.
“Right! And if we happen to learn any old war stories the Professor can’t remember, maybe that’ll jog her memory a bit,” Sylvain continued.
“Sylvain, she said she didn’t want our help,” said Dimitri. There was a warning in his voice.
“This isn’t about that! I gave her my word as a Knight of Faerghus! It’s about training! With the added bonus of maybe helping her with her memory. It wouldn’t kill her to have us help her once in a while, anyway. Remember the Red Canyon?” said Sylvain. “That was your idea, you know, going after her. I guess I could say you inspired me.”
“Fine. I suppose my advice has never stopped you from doing anything foolish. I’ll come along to make sure you don’t get anyone into trouble, yourself or the Professor.”
There were a few representatives from various mercenary groups in the shade of the Battalion tent. Captain Jeralt’s old group, the Fire-Forged, had no uniform like the groups affiliated with nations or lords, but they did have an insignia and the obligation to wear something orange or black. A man wearing a black chaperon and a burnt orange pheasant feather pinned to his tunic was the most likely man. Upon closer inspection, the black embroidery on his oxblood tunic was the same pattern that Jeralt had on his tunic and the Professor had on her robe.
“Hello, young masters! Are you interested in employing the services of the Fire-Forged today?” The man said in the velvety voice of an auctioneer. Sylvain recognized the accent as somewhat like Leonie’s. “I’m afraid our main detachment has just been engaged by the Knights of Seiros, but we have many groups the discerning commander may employ, including archers, skirmishers, and sappers.” The man, though bowing his head and using niceties, had the calm air of a man who didn’t give a damn about anyone’s opinion.
“We’d like to employ some of you for a day of training to supplement our schoolwork,” said Sylvain. He considered adding on a bit about it being extra credit, or some such garnish, but quickly decided against it. That little extra bit may become too hard to manage, if the recent fiasco with Rosalind taught him anything. Even a few days later, he still checked his cheek for the slap mark. The man took out a pair of rudimentary reading glasses, the kind that fold at the bridge, and began fiddling with them.
“The young master has a rare eye for value! Rare indeed, as we’ll have to negotiate a new price!” said the man, smoothly. “Which skills would you like to study, master? All but sapping, we can teach. For obvious reasons, of course.”
“I’d like to learn about the axe! And do you have any mages?” asked Annette. The man grinned broadly.
“Not a problem for us, mistress. And for you, masters?” he asked, addressing Dimitri, Sylvain, and Ashe.
“I need to get better with a sword,” Dimitri stated, projecting his best humble and sincere attitude.
“I should probably learn to fight with my hands better,” admitted Ashe. “Just in case.”
“What’s the oldest Fire-Forged known for?” asked Sylvain. The man thought carefully, placing his hands into a steeple.
“Captain Stygge is known for her offensive magic and swordsmanship. However, she may be too busy preparing for our next job, I’m afraid. Will the masters be furnishing their own weapons?” The man asked. The mention of their new captain’s name rang a sort of alarm in Sylvain’s subconscious, but his nerves were so focused on making this as perfect as possible that he brushed the feeling aside easily. He needed the oldest one, no matter how busy she was. The oldest would know the most.
“Of course,” answered Sylvain. “I don’t normally brag about this sort of thing, but the heir of Gautier doesn’t need to borrow anything. Especially weapons.” The man’s eyebrows almost disappeared into his chaperon. Good. That got his attention. His easy posture did not change, but an edge of some sort of tension entered his words.
“Well, we are very privileged to be employed by the blood of such an honorable house. May I ask the names of your friends?”
Dimitri didn’t let Sylvain answer. “I am Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd. She is Annette Fantine Dominic, and he is Ashe Ubert, a future knight of Faerghus. What is your name?” The man nodded is half-disbelief, as if he’d heard a bit of entertaining gossip in the pub that was too strange to laugh at.
“How thoughtless of me!” said the man, convincingly faking embarrassment. “You may know me as Fiorenzo Liborio Battaglia. The revelation of your condescension is touching, Your Highness, Lady Dominic, and Master Ubert. It also waives any fees you might have incurred. The time of our humble fighters is much less valuable than your own. You are, no less, our little Poppy’s students. However, this does raise a concern. Does Lord Gautier object to training with a Srengian?” he said, voice still as smooth as a duke’s valet's.
A Srengian. Sylvain had only seen them as they fled ruined villages filled with mutilated corpses, or as they cursed his family and future descendants as they were led to the gallows. He doubted she would be worth his time outside of this special situation. Captain Jeralt trusted this Stygge enough to die with her, though, and the Professor needed help. It was only several hours of training. He could take it.
“I want to train with the oldest one of you. That’s it,” said Sylvain. It seemed from his almost forcefully calm expression and blank eyes that Battaglia was leaving his body for a few seconds. He quickly snapped back to his previously affable face. Dimitri shot a sharp look at Sylvain. On anyone else, he might think it was anger, but Sylvain knew this to be how Dimitri looked when he was worried.
“I see! Very good, Lord Gautier. Please follow me.” Battaglia set out a sign at his place at the table, and set out past the monastery’s main wall.
The Fire-Forged were camped in the grasslands that surrounded the mountain the monastery sat on, and a short twenty to thirty minute walk from the main town that supplied Garreg Mach. At this time of day, the windmill’s shadow was growing and dappling the rippling fields of grass. Herds of sheep drifted across the dried brown sea like clouds. The camp itself was being engulfed in the windmill’s shadow. It was easy to see the setup as they walked closer down the steep hill. It was arranged like a military encampment, with its own palisade, stable and blacksmith’s area, rows of sleeping tents, an administrative tent marked by the Fire-Forged knot insignia, and a forum and training area in the center. Where in most military camps, the commander’s tent would be to the far back and obviously demarcated, that didn’t seem to be the case here. The mercenaries’ tents were orderly and clean, but of different shapes and sizes. The whole thing looked to be about 400 men strong, mostly infantry. Certainly not as big as some free companies, but big enough to turn the tide of a small battle.
The sentries outside gave the students a bit of a look when they passed through the gates, but Battaglia’s unconcerned nod set them at ease. Inside the walls seemed to be a colorful little city. The mercenaries themselves wore clothing of all styles, and most seemed to be on some type of errand—moving ore, packing bags, sharpening swords. There were what seemed to be civilians mixed with the mercenaries, too, carrying armloads of laundry or chatting with the fighters in front of their tents. The shouting coming from the center of the camp suggested some sort of fight going on, but no one seemed to be paying it any mind. The sweet smell of woodsmoke and leather cut through the stink of sweat and horse.
Battaglia led them to the west, directly to the cook and blacksmith tents. A giant, musclebound man pounded at a horseshoe, while a platinum blonde woman wearing an apron poured melted ore into a mold.
“Menno! Be a good man and tell me where Anthusa is, would you?” Battaglia said. The muscular man looked up, revealing a face latticed with scars.
“She’s with Nightwork at the stables,” he drawled in a coarse monotone.
“Excellent! Another little thing. Alba, love, could you get someone else to help you today? We have a few of Poppy’s students here who want teaching, and this little one wants to learn axework,” he said cheerfully. The woman wiped her brow and looked from the hulking Menno to the tiny Annette, who was starting to sweat despite the cold.
“Of course. I’ll get Ilias or Goose to help, if he’s finished fletching. Will Rainard, er, be at hand?” she asked.
“Indeed! The entire time. Can’t be too careful,” he said, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He seemed to be enjoying this. Menno nodded at Alba, wiped his soot-stained and burn-scarred hands on a rag, and stood to his full height. His shaved head brushed the tent’s high canopy.
“Lady Dominic, this is Menno of Rusalka. He’s our sapping, bomb-making, and axe expert. There’s no better axeman in all of Fódlan, excluding perhaps Sir Alois Rangeld,” said Battaglia. Annette gulped and pasted on an unsteady smile.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she said, gripping the axe she’d just bought with Dimitri. Menno smiled genuinely, showing the gaps in his teeth.
“The pleasure’s all mine, milady. Let’s head to the training area. Meantime, you can tell me how Poppy’s doing,” he said. The mountain of muscle prowled off to the center of the camp, Annette in tow.
“Alright, to the stables, my lords, and future sir!” said Battaglia, grinning widely. They cut through the front section of camp via a path slightly larger than the main one through the center. The smell of horse and sweat got stronger as they progressed.
“Sylvain, promise me you won’t turn this into some sort of incident,” muttered Dimitri. Battaglia walked ahead, but turned his head slightly with interest. Dimitri didn’t seem to notice.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Sylvain.
“I mean, don’t try Captain Stygge. We don’t want to get on Captain Jeralt’s bad side,” said Dimitri. “Or worse, offend the Fire-Forged.”
“Oh, don’t you worry, Dimitri. I’ll be on my best behavior. You know how I can charm women.”
“Something tells me that won’t work here.”
“Ah, your Highness! You’re the head of the Blue Lion House, yes?” interrupted Battaglia. The sound of stifled laughter was in his voice. “You must tell me how the Battle of Eagle and Lion went. Who is the Golden Deer head now? Is it the Gloucester boy?”
“We won fairly handily, but the Deer fought well. And no, it’s actually Claude von Riegan,” replied Dimitri, trying to pretend he hadn’t just been trying to surreptitiously scold Sylvain. Battaglia burst out laughing at his answer.
“Oh, I bet that stings!” said Battaglia, still cackling.
“Am I right in guessing you attended the Officer’s Academy as well, Master Battaglia?” replied Dimitri.
“Why yes, Your Highness! I was a Golden Deer. We won the first year I attended, though…” The two continued that little conversation until they reached the stables. Sylvain zoned out, instead focusing on how the mercenaries and the other commoners were staring at them. It wasn’t hostile—most were obviously either very curious as to why these sharp-dressed children were on a tour through their camp, or simply surprised. Still, Sylvain didn’t like the feeling. Ashe didn’t seem to be used to it, either. He kept adjusting the strap of his satchel.
Finally, they reached the stables, where they found a brunette woman wearing a greatsword on her back and a nondescript man wearing dark green clothing helping others saddle up horses.
“Anthusa, Nightwork! Which one of you wants to teach the Crown Prince of Faerghus a little swordsmanship?” said Battaglia. The man laughed, looking from Battaglia to Dimitri to Anthusa. His smile wilted when Dimitri didn’t suddenly strip off his blue cape and introduce himself as John the baker.
“Are you serious, Fiorenzo? I can’t do that!” said the man. “I ain’t no feckin’—excuse me, Your Highness. I ain’t no royal tutor!” he said.
“I would be happy to teach him, Fiorenzo, but don’t you think he’d be more comfortable with you?” asked the woman. It seemed Dimitri didn’t like her tone or the pointed looks at Battaglia and himself. He was twisting his mouth in annoyance.
“Thank you, I’m happy training with whomever you think is best, whether or not they’re noble.” said Dimitri.
Battaglia clapped his hands. “Excellent! Anthusa, please train His Highness in the subtle and noble art of the sword. I shall train young Master Ubert.”
“What about the ging—beg pardon, the red-headed gentleman?” asked the man in green, whom Sylvain judged was called “Nightwork.”
“He’s Lord Sylvain Gautier, and he wants to train with Captain Stygge, seeing as she’s the oldest Fire-Forged” said Battaglia, deadpan. Nightwork laughed again, and stopped just as awkwardly. Dimitri shot a stormy glance at Sylvain. Anthusa shrugged and started to address Dimitri, but stopped to look at something over their shoulders.
“A Gautier and the Lion Cub of Fhirdiad, and come to talk with me at that. I wonder what the old gothi would say,” said a sharp, dry voice behind them. Sylvain turned. The woman that stood behind them was taller than any of them, and wore a blend of cultures in her armor. Her gray and black gambeson was typical, if above-average in quality. In the fashion of Srengian bandits, she wore a leather and steel-plated chest protector only on her right breast, so as to more easily draw her sword, which was an Almyran karabela. In addition to the sword, she had two daggers crossed on a sheath on her belly—one an unusually curved hunting knife, and the other long and gilded with golden-hued metal. She had lined her armor and made a mantle with fox fur, and fastened the mantle at the neck with the lower jawbone of some sort of large predatory beast. The bone was carved with Srengian patterns of wide-eyed, screaming animals. Her blonde hair, streaked with white and gray, was in tight braids close to her head. The braids pulled her hair back away from her face, which was creased with age. She parted her black-painted lips into a snarl-like smile.
“Stygge Two-Knives, though some folk call me Stygge the Coward,” she said.
“I’m Sylvain, and this is—“ he began. Stygge held up a hand.
“I know. Poppy’s told me about you,” she said, looking him up and down. “Why aren’t you learning from her?” She made no effort to hide her suspicion.
“She’s busy taking care of the survivors from Remire. It’s really tired her out. Plus, the Knights are trying to find those responsible,” said Ashe, stepping forward. He walked so that he was closer to Stygge than Sylvain was, moving his shoulder to slightly block him from her direct line of sight. Stygge’s look softened a bit.
“I see. So this is about helping her?” Stygge said. Sylvain nodded.
“Good. Follow me, then, Gautier,” she said, turning. “We’re going outside of camp.” It was Dimitri's turn to step forward, then.
“Train me, too. Can you do both of us?” Dimitri asked. Stygge smiled again.
“No. Play with Anthusa. It’d be good for you to learn what you’re up against with a greatsword, spearman like you. I said come, Gautier.” She strode off. Sylvain trotted off after her.
They didn’t speak until they reached a circle of stones outside the camp. The ground was gravelly, but some edelweiss had found a way to sprout through the rocks. The morning sun had almost reached its noonday post by then.
“So, has the little demon taught you anything about offensive magic?” Stygge asked when they reached the circle. As she paced, crunching the rocks beneath her feet, she stroked the hilt of the gilded dagger sheathed on her stomach. Something about it wasn’t right.
“‘Little demon?’ Do you always talk about your captain’s daughter that way?” snapped Sylvain. Not smooth, but deserved.
“Aye. Answer the question, boy.”
“Yeah. Yeah, she has.”
Sylvain took a wide stance and traced a circle with both his hands, letting the sparks of potential fire warm the cold air around his fingers. What should he do? Mess up, or strike true? Perhaps she’d be less aggressive if he appeared weak. Or perhaps she was the sort of person who hates weakness. No doubt she’d chide the Professor if he was terrible. Fine. He’d show this hag what he was really made of.
Sylvain punched forward, concentrating his swirling ball of flames into the center of one of the taller dolmens. It burst into the stone with a hiss and left deep black burn marks.
“Can’t you go any stronger, Gautier? How many Srengians are you gonna kill with that? One?” she said, sounding bored. Sylvain thought of Stygge’s face on the dolmen, hoisting up a knight’s head in her fist and sneering. Rosalind and her gaggle of backbiters, too, for good measure. He let that contempt pool in his finger and expand out into more fire. This time, the fireball covered most of the dolman in soot. A nearby crow, which had been watching them curiously, flew off cawing.
“Not the worst I’ve seen,” Stygge admitted. “You spell like a big dog ruts, though. No deliberation. Too much emotion. Like to get caught in the act by a real predator.”
“We didn’t herd pigs together, my lady. Don’t be so familiar with me,” snapped Sylvain.
“Too true. Never herded a pig or planted a single weed in my life,” laughed Stygge. “I got all my food from raiding spoiled boys like you, so you’d best pay attention. Don’t you know anything about using your brain when you spell?”
“Of course I do!”
“Show me an arc of fire along the strongest vein of energy in this circle,” she demanded. Sylvain sighed and tried to concentrate on feeling the natural flows of magical energy. There was a line in between almost every dolmen. Which was the strongest? Ugh, this was probably some trick question. Sylvain walked around with his hand out, his face reddening. Not wanting to search longer than needed, he picked the one going from the center of the circle to a smaller dolmen with a circle cut in it. The arc of flame he sparked along the vein was as hot as he could muster at the moment, but not his best. It ended in the middle of the hole in the dolmen, lingering on in a little ember.
“Hmm. Not the strongest vein. Seems like you was busy ogling our little demon’s tits instead of listening to her. Well, now you’re talking to the one who showed her what she knows about battle spelling. If you like fire, you should really be looking under you,” said Stygge. Sylvain felt a prickling of energy to his left just before the ground cracked and let out a geyser of fire that spewed spiraling petals of flame. His instincts got the best of him, and he backed up so fast that he fell on his back. The air smelled acrid, as if someone had lit fifty matches and suddenly blew them out all at once.
“What the hell? You could’ve burned me!”
“Only if I wanted to. I can control my fire pretty well, unlike you. Or so I’m told,” Stygge said, almost purring. “Why the anger, boy? Are you more of an ass man? Did I get you pegged wrong?”
“That is none of your concern! How did Jeralt even let you near him and his daughter?”
“He was hired to get rid of me and my band when we was raiding into Gautier lands. He spared me, and so I owe him,” she said simply, as if she were telling him what she’d eaten for breakfast. So that was what was wrong with those daggers. They had Faerghian designs.
“You were… let me see those daggers of yours,” said Sylvain. Stygge smiled nastily.
“Gladly,” she said, taking them both out and handing them to him hilt-first. The curved one was sharpened fully on the long edge and on the top third on the back. It was a dark steel, and bore a small Gautier crest and the dog insignia of the margravate’s constabulary. The gilded dagger was a misericorde, long, spike-like, and with four slight blades fused into a star shape. On the pommel, it had the three-snowdrop insignia of the Gagnon family, who were Gautier retainers. It seemed she had engraved a crying woman-headed bird on the strong of the gray, curved one, and a laughing woman-headed bird on the narrow, square crossguard of the misericorde.
“You took these. You killed their owners and took them,” stated Sylvain. He fought to keep his voice even—he was there for a purpose, and he needed her for it —but it shook from contained anger. As much as he hated being a Gautier, he couldn’t change that he was one, and his retainers had lost their lives for these knives.
“You’re half right. I took Alkonost, but ol’ Gagnon gave Sirin to me himself,” she said.
“That dagger should go to his family!” Sylvain growled.
“Why? I didn’t see none of them on the battlefield. He didn’t scratch out a will on a rock before he left this world. I need her. As for Alkonost, well, her owner took what he wanted from me. I’d a right to take what I wanted from him,” stated Stygge coldly. “Right. Give ‘em back. We have a lot more to cram in your precious head.” Sylvain practically shoved them back at her, and she lovingly slid them back in their sheathes. “Good. Reach out with your mind and look at that hole I just opened in the ground. Try bringing some fire up from there.”
Sylvain did so. The heat of potential was already practically shimmering with tension just under the rocks. He gripped his hand and sparked it into fire, making it sprout up like flowers through the earth. A bloom of sparks and flame almost as tall as Stygge’s had been burst from the ground, consuming several of the sparse edelweiss from the roots. The smell of burnt grass joined the acrid stench. Stygge clapped.
“Better, Gautier! Not as precise as I’d like, though. Those little flowers could’ve been your allies, you know. Focus on the vein.”
Sylvain did it again. The blast was smaller, but more localized.
“Good enough for now. Do it again,” she said. Sylvain started to do as she asked, but was hit roughly in the ribs by the flat of Stygge’s sheathed sword. Sylvain backed up a few steps, gasping. “Not bad, Gautier! You didn’t fall over this time.”
“I’ve never done anything to you!” wheezed Sylvain.
“I suppose you didn’t, Gautier” said Stygge, swishing her sword around, admiring the glint. “Maybe I just think you need some harsh training.”
“Do you even want to teach me, or are you just going to punish me for who I am?” Sylvain.
“Is that what you think I’m doing, boy? I’m punishing you because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s folk who dance around and try to hide what they want. Go ahead, ask me the questions. I am ‘the oldest Fire-Forged,’ after all,” she said. Her voice was dangerously low. Sylvain sighed and crossed his arms, trying to adopt a more confident pose. So she was one of those people.
“Okay. Fine. You caught me. When did you meet Professor Poppy?”
“Ha! You could have just talked to that mustachioed fop with half a pair of spectacles who came round a while ago. I’ll just tell you the same things. I met her when I joined up with the Captain. Captain Jeralt, that is. She was just a babe. Thought it was right strange for a mercenary to be trekking round with a child that young, but who am I to judge?” she said.
“Did Jeralt seem to know she had a crest?”
“Not a clue. I didn’t care about all that, just as you shouldn’t. Why, d’you want to marry her soon as you graduate? Pop some strong little bairns out of her? A Gautier clan with two crests and two relics, what a thought! I’m shaking in my boots just imagining.”
“I’ll do us both a favor and pretend you didn’t suggest those disgusting things. Did she act differently at all?”
“Hmm, yes. She could kill a wild boar with her bare little hands by the age of two. She once found a nest of wyverns up in the hills when we was hunting, and the momma wyvern didn’t attack her,” she said, exaggerating her voice and waving her hands as if she were telling a story to a small child.
“It’s a serious question!”
“Oh, I’m dead fucking serious! I saw it with my own two eyes! Once, there was this bandit that almost got her, right? ‘Put your sword down like a good little girl,’ he says, ‘and I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.’ And she looks at him with her soulless eyes, and he starts shaking like an aspen leaf. Soon as you can say ‘stuck pig,’ he drops dead right where he stands! And then the sky’s rent with a lighting bolt, and a voice from heaven says—”
“I said I’m serious! We’re worried about her! Did you know she can’t remember anything about herself?” Sylvain said, almost shouting at this point. Stygge’s exaggerated expression dropped to a more serious frown.
“Aye, Gautier, I know. Are you worried she’s damaged goods? Well, she is, and she’s not interested in you or any other noble jackal, so you can fuck off and examine someone else.” Sylvain had expected venom, but the irony of just how wrong Stygge had gotten his motives temporarily took away his ability to respond. All he could do was stand there and blink. “I hit the mark, I see. Are you going to leave, or do you want me to keep spanking you like the whore you are?”
Sylvain held his hands up in surrender and tried to take a conciliatory tone. “No, no, that’s not it at all! We’re worried because her heart doesn’t beat and she felt sick for a month! She fainted at school, and we thought she’d died! Aren’t you worried she’s, I don’t know, cursed?” he pleaded. “Ask the others who came, they’ll tell you the same thing.” Stygge walked up so close that her breath stirred his hair. She took his chin in her hand roughly and tilted his face to look into her wintery gray eyes.
“Say it again. Say you’re here to help her,” she whispered.
“I’m just here to help her. I want her to be able to live normally.”
“Huh. You don’t seem to be lying,” she said, turning and giving him some space. She started tracing the lines of “Sirin’s” pommel, lost in thought. “Fine. Poppy’s asleep to herself. She’ll remember basic things about the world and her allies, but she can’t remember the first thing about herself or her emotions. She certainly doesn’t show them. At least not until recently. Ha! I remember how angry she looked helping us clean up the wreckage from Remire! She looked about ready to wring that old, owl-looking fucker’s neck.” At this, she looked positively proud.
“Yes, but is there anything else? Does she seem to change when she does something, or you do something? Did she truly have no emotions before she came here?”
“I said she don’t show her emotions, not that she don’t have them. She’ll say things about an enemy, say, or a nice view if you ask her in the moment. She won’t remember what she said, after, though. I know she’s had likes and dislikes because she’d avoid doing some things, and would do others more often. But if you’d ask her ‘Hey Poppy, do you like this food?’ or ‘Hey Poppy, what do you think about riding through graveyards at night?’ she’d say ‘I don’t know.’ She likes singing and dancing. If I taught her a dance, she’d do it upwards of an hour, sometimes. After she stopped, though, I’d have to teach it to her again. Same thing with songs and poetry. The Captain even made her a song and tried to get her to remember it, sang it over and over. She’d sing along, but forget it afterwards. He’d keep teaching it to her, though. At some point he gave up on her remembering it, and he’d just sing to her if he was happy, or if she seemed upset about an assignment or some such. You could tell she was upset because she’d pace around starting to do things and forgetting halfway through. Either that or break things.” Stygge stopped, lost in thought as she shifted her attention from “Sirin” to “Alkonost.” A clear, alpine wind moaned through the holes in the dolmens and blew away the smell of burning.
“...Oh. Is there nothing else?” Sylvain asked. He had thought he sounded fairly normal, but something in his voice made Stygge’s expression into something hard to decipher.
“No, there really isn’t,” she said. The crow Sylvain had scared off had returned to stare at him on one of the dolmens behind Stygge. It croaked softly.
“Then, can you teach me that song Jeralt made for her?” Sylvain asked. Stygge rolled her eyes and stopped playing with her dagger.
“Fine, Gautier. I suppose Poppy’s too smart to fall for a boy because of a little song.”
“Thank you, Captain Stygge.”
Stygge chuckled. “After you spar some more. Do the spell again, this time while you’re dodging me.”
After he’d finally had enough, panting and soaking his shirt with sweat, she’d hummed the tune to him. It was simple and pure, but with a melancholic lilt. He imagined it would be hair-raising if anyone with a good voice sang it. Hopefully he’d be enough for her.
The others were waiting for him near the gate into the marketplace when the sun was setting in the sky, painting the whitish stone of the monastery rose-red. Dimitri jolted up when he saw how the sleeve of his uniform was singed. Annette gasped. Sylvain noticed she was wearing a flower crown of pink and purple asters.
“Sylvain! What did you do this time?” he said, the worry triumphing over the annoyance in his voice.
Sylvain smirked and put his hands in his pockets. “Nothing but get us a little lead, thanks to my famous charm. Apparently the Professor’s a music lover. Her father tried to teach her a song he made for her for a while, but she could never remember it. What did you learn?”
“Regarding the Professor? Nothing that we didn’t already know,” admitted Dimitri. “Anthusa is a newer recruit.”
“Master Battaglia said that she likes lavender tea, but that she doesn’t really remember that she likes it. That’s as far as he went before he started ignoring my questions,” said Ashe, massaging his shoulder.
“Her favorite color is pink, and she enjoys flowers. We could’ve guessed that ourselves, though,” said Annette, clearly upset with herself. She kicked the ground. “Oh, and there aren’t really any mermaids in Rusalka. Not that that matters. What can we do with this information, anyway?”
“Plenty! We know she’s becoming more aware of her feelings. Maybe if we give her some of that tea, or some pink flowers, something’ll spark in her memory! Better yet!” Here, Sylvain leaned in closely. “One of us can try and enter the White Heron Cup! We can teach her that song then!”
“You actually know it?” Ashe asked, rotating his shoulders slowly. Annette’s head snapped around to look at Sylvain.
“Sure do! Ladies can’t resist me, even old Srengian bandits. Come on, let’s go! I’ll teach you the tune on the way there.”
They found the Professor directing Bernadetta as she tried to steer a dun gelding in a circle around the open part of the stables. Edwina, Briallen, and Conleth were watching under a couple of large blankets and snacking on some apples. Their entrance to the area soon drove off Bernadetta and Briallen, which was probably for the best. Conleth started after Briallen, almost falling over when his injured leg spasmed. Ashe jogged over and got him steady before he let him go, the limping boy’s face red as the setting sun. Sylvain caught up to the Professor as she led the gelding into the stables to be curried.
“Professor! We’ve been thinking about the White Heron Cup! Do you know who you’re picking, yet? I’d like to be considered,” he said, putting up his usual, jocular mask.
“Hang on, ‘we?’ And what happened to your sleeve?” she asked, handing over the reins to one of the stablehands, who looked Sylvain up and down and grunted disapprovingly. Sylvain winced. This dancing idea surely wouldn’t be good for his already-low reputation. Oh well, it was for the Professor.
“Welllll…” he began, leading her out and gesturing to the other three. “We decided that we really want to win the Cup. Y’know, to further the honor of the house, and to teach...diplomacy.” Dimitri coughed, looking embarrassed. Annette looked eager, while Ashe looked shy, especially when Edwina gave him an encouraging smile from up on top of her perch of crates. The Professor looked over the three, arms crossed.
“You still didn’t tell me how your sleeve got singed,” she said, still thinking.
“Oh, we went and got some training in with your old mercenary group! Your magic lessons were so interesting I had to go straight to where you learned it.”
“Meaning you trained with Stygge? She is an excellent teacher, though she isn’t the most charming person in the world. I hope she wasn’t too hard on you, Sylvain. Can you repair the uniform yourself?” the Professor said. Sylvain smiled so hard it reached his eyes.
“Of course not! I mean, of course I can mend it! And of course I could handle her! I’ve met a lot worse, believe you me! Now, who are you going to pick?” he said quickly. The Professor hummed, deliberating.
“Well, Mercedes has already approached me about it, but she’s already so good at dancing. The same goes for you, Annette. Dimitri, if you competed in the Cup and began the dancing at the ball, it might seem a bit greedy to the other houses. Sylvain...I have no doubt in your abilities, but I’m afraid you might try and use it as some sort of flirting gambit, frankly,” she stated. Sylvain’s smile dropped. “How about you, Ashe? Are you really willing to branch out this far? I’d be happy to help you.” Ashe almost jumped, twisting the strap of his bag.
“Oh! I didn’t think you’d pick me! Um, do you really think I can do it?”
“Of course! You want to be a knight, right? Really great knights are confident, and can charm any dignitary that comes to them. The health of your fief will lean considerably on the alliances you can forge.”
“If you say so,” said Ashe, smiling shyly. Sylvain went over and patted his shoulder. He’d never thought he’d become envious of the nervous boy, and yet there he was with a continuously sinking feeling in his chest. It felt like someone was peeling the warmth from him and replacing it with cold, prickling loathing. For himself or Ashe, he didn’t know.
“Lucky guy! You get to dance with the most beautiful lady in the academy! Well, when will you start?” Sylvain thought his voice sounded almost comically chipper, but if it was, the Professor gave no indication she noticed.
“We can start after dinner if you’re that eager. It’s late, so let’s eat.”
They went to the dining hall again, Sylvain muttering the tune to Ashe and making him repeat it to him until he was satisfied. Sylvain insisted on getting the Professor lavender tea to go with her meal, and Annette snuck up behind her as she was eating to put the flower crown on her head. There was no moment of realization for the Professor, at least that Sylvain could see. She just smiled slightly at the gestures. That was good, he supposed.
He tried to go with Ashe to their first dance lesson, but the Professor shooed him off, saying something about not making Ashe too nervous. Ashe couldn’t really argue, just giving Sylvain an apologetic shrug. According to Ashe, she’d quickly remembered the steps to various dances after the other professors had helped her. When Ashe had tried to prompt her to teach him the dance to go with Jeralt’s tune, she paused for a good minute or so.
“It looked as if she’d seen a ghost,” Ashe said, twirling his dress saber in the way the Professor had taught him for the unconventional sword dance they had planned as a show-stopper for the Cup. “Then, she just said that there isn’t a dance for that song.”
Something about the tune had worked itself into her mind, it seemed. In the days that followed, she would hum it to herself setting up the blackboard, asking up papers and quills, watching them spar, and pouring tea.
Jeralt caught her humming it the day he came back to the Monastery, soon before the day of the school dance. Sylvain saw him across the Knight’s Hall when he heard the sweet notes coming from his daughter as she plucked a book from a tall shelf. The tall knight, still dirty and smelling of horse from the road, engulfed his daughter in the longest embrace Sylvain had ever seen as soon as she’d gotten down from the ladder and turned around to see him. Captain Jeralt hadn’t said anything, but it looked like the grizzled knight was valiantly holding back tears as he just stood there, stroking her hair and kissing the top of her head.
When Jeralt was killed, the Professor sang the song to him as the rain poured around them, almost completely muffling the sound of her voice. She only stopped when it was clear that Mercedes’s ministrations and her own pressing on the wound would do nothing. Then, a miracle: her gentle sobs turned to heartrending screams of grief.
The callous, detached part of Sylvain thought it was a good thing she was finally experiencing so much emotion. The prideful part of him supposed that maybe she wouldn’t have been able to unlock so much of her heart if she hadn’t remembered that little tune he’d re-revealed to her in such a roundabout way. The best part of him, though, could only try to comfort her as she kept sitting there on the ground wet with rain and blood.
She reacted to nothing. She only let herself be led to her room, and then the funeral when it was necessary, staring straight ahead and sobbing the song quietly to herself. It was as if neither he nor anyone else existed to her. Just the empty husk of her dead father. If Sylvain had truly had any part in giving her back part of her emotions, he wished he hadn’t.
Chapter 3: The Orphan
Sylvain’s breath made the inside of his training helmet sour and humid. His arms and torso ached from the hits Felix had landed in their hours-long training session. The sweat that dripped under his shirt served to cool his overheated body a little, but he was quickly reaching his limit. He needed to win one bout, though, before Felix would let him go. The long string of lost matches was starting to wear even his ego down.
Sylvain paced, looking for an opening in Felix’s defense. Felix held his Aegis far in front of him, hiding the position of his training sword. Sylvain tried to feint to get him to drop the guard, but Felix didn’t take the bait. He could see he’d have to commit to an attack. Sylvain crouched into a lower stance and jabbed at Felix’s calf. Felix moved Aegis to block it, but also coupled it with a downward slash towards Sylvain’s head. Aegis blocked his spear, but Sylvain turned his body far enough that Felix missed him by a hair. Thank the Goddess for reach. Sylvain retreated while Felix followed, matching his steps perfectly. He had brought Aegis back up to shield his sword’s position. Fine. He’d have to move it to make an attack, and then he’d be open.
Sylvain led Felix around their portion of the training grounds, careful not to back himself into a corner. Felix, still full of aggression, never failed to pursue. Sylvain kept his spear in a neutral guard at his hip, point towards Felix. If Felix seemed to make a move, he would sometimes shift to the guard that Dimitri liked so much: butt of the spear towards his own head and point down, protecting most of his body. Still, Felix made little more than easily-dodged slashes. Sylvain tried to land retaliatory blows, but Felix blocked them just as easily. Sylvain would have to leave himself more open.
He thought back to a recent training session with Battaglia, who had started to help fill in for Professor Poppy while she grieved. Battaglia had assumed a guard that looked completely ridiculous at the time: holding his spear vertically, point up, on one side of his body. “Boar’s Tusk,” he’d called it. At the time, Sylvain thought he’d have an easy time hacking at any spot on his opponent’s body. He was wrong. Now, he would see if Felix would fall for the trap as thoroughly as he had. Sylvain stepped farther to the center of their ring and used the guard.
Finally, Felix shifted Aegis up at an angle, revealing his sword. He was making another downward slash at Sylvain’s neck.
Sylvain stepped diagonally to the right, closing the distance towards Felix’s shield side, and flipped his spear straight into Felix’s wrist. The strike was hard enough to make him loosen his grip on his sword. If Sylvain was using a real weapon, Felix’s hand would be gone.
In that instant, he wasn’t lifting Aegis far enough up to protect his head. Felix, realizing what was happening, started turning and whipping his sword around. His shield, however, lowered to an even less protective position. Sylvain thrust the butt of his spear into Felix’s chest, knocking the breath out of his lungs in a surprised gasp. Felix was sent staggering back, neither his sword or his shield blocking his body. Sylvain stepped forward into a deep lunge and plunged his spear up under Felix’s ribs. The flexible wood and wrapped padding of the training spear had enough give to spare Felix any harm, but the impact was not gentle. Felix dropped into a kneel and held up his hand.
“Agh! Damn. I was wondering if you’d ever drop the act,” huffed Felix. Sylvain straightened up and held his hand to his friend, who just looked at it and used his training sword to help himself up.
“Don’t try to be cute. You know, holding back. Making me wait.”
“Ha ha. I wasn’t, for the most part. You’re just that good. Anyway, that’s not good for your sword, you know, sticking it in the ground,” said Sylvain.
“That’s what you get when you shirk on practice for so long. And it’s not a real sword, it’s a stick shaped like a sword,” replied Felix. “Speaking of fake weapons, why don’t you put away that thing and show me how you use the Lance of Ruin.”
“What? Can’t we take a break now?” Sylvain said. He glanced towards the side, where he’d placed the Lance in one on the weapons racks. “I thought you said you just wanted to see it, anyway, not get stabbed by it.”
“I do want to see it. I can’t see it very well if it’s just sitting there like a broom,” said Felix. “I know you don’t have a good history with it, but you’re going to have to use it to fight the Flame Emperor, at least, so just swing it around. Surely you can do that, can’t you?”
Sylvain sighed and took off his helmet, wiping his forehead. “Fine, but I’m not fighting you with it. And we’re getting breakfast afterward, like you promised me.” Felix simply nodded and sat down on the raised ground that surrounded the exercise area of the training grounds. When he took off his helmet as well, Sylvain took a little comfort at the fact that his hair seemed soaked with about as much sweat as his was.
There it was, sitting in the rack along the other spears, a spike of woven bone amongst ordinary steel, iron, and wood. In the early morning shade, you could ignore the barely perceptible twitches of the blade’s phalanges. It was almost still when no live person was touching it. Sylvain could almost forget what it was if he just looked at it, then. Just a strange-looking spear that could’ve been made by any smith with enough skill. He could take it and use it like any other, or leave it alone and go about his business. Sylvain relished in that illusion for a comforting moment.
“Well?” called Felix, impatient as ever.
Sylvain took the Lance from its place in the rack. As soon as his hand touched it, it almost seemed to breathe and come to life, becoming warmer, lighter, and suffused with a red glow that reminded him of bright fire seen through a veil of skin. The vertebrae-like strong of the Lance’s blade separated noiselessly, and the extra bone spurs that branched from the main spike whirred and clattered to greet him. Sylvain hated that moment, the moment where Just Any Spear became the one that certified his birthright. The spear that turned his brother into a beast. The spear that pinned him to the Gautier Margravate like an insect in a display case. The spear that gave him the power and responsibility to protect his friends.
Even swinging the Lance around wasn’t the same as any other weapon. Normally, he’d have to visualize other weapons as part of his body, but the Lance felt like it had always been a part of him. It was even a little surprising that he didn’t feel it like a limb when it glanced against another weapon or swung through the air. When he held it, he felt as if the memories of many other people were just there, under the bright red surface of the Lance, filling him with...urgency? Power? Anger? Fear? Regret? He tried not to think about it enough to isolate whatever it was the Lance seemed to want to tell him.
Going through a basic series of guards normally took some concentration even for him, but that was less than nothing with the Lance. A series of swift stabs to the vital points of an imagined foe, too, was as easy as breathing. The foe, the demon who called herself Monica, smiling and holding her wicked dagger, didn’t even look fazed in his mind’s eye. Without even thinking, he launched into the movements of the attack his father called “Ruined Sky,” flourishing for momentum and thrusting downward as sure as a lightning bolt. The imaginary Monica fell down, bleeding, and held up a hand for mercy. Sylvain ended his routine with a coup de grace into her heart. His father told him that was the attack used to strike Tryzna the Shrike and her raiders from the sky, so he was sure it would suffice for that slinking wretch.
The sound of murmuring surprised him out of his focus. Some other students had entered while he was performing for Felix, and were looking at him like some sort of warrior hero. Some girls were among them. Their smiles looked almost hungry to Sylvain. One of them, an auburn-haired one, looked like she was about to walk over and talk right then and there. The prospect drained away the little energy he had left. Sylvain quickly looked back to Felix, who looked slightly less irritable, though still unimpressed.
“Okay, that’s good enough for today,” said Felix. His gruff nonchalance was a relief for once.
“Right. Let’s go clean up.”
Their walk from the second floor dormitory passed in relative silence. For once, Sylvain didn’t feel like trying to get Felix to talk. That seemed to suit Felix just fine, as he graciously didn’t try to argue with or insult him on the way to the dining hall. Their quick breakfast of fish and vegetables, too, was peaceful. The few people there at that hour seemed a bit more talkative than usual, in contrast to Felix, though they didn’t exactly seem happy. No wonder. It was as if Jeralt’s funeral had never ended those two or so weeks ago. The whole monastery was a house of mourning. The Knights of Seiros were particularly hard to watch. Sylvain was almost glad they’d soon be leaving to hunt for Jeralt’s murderers.
A flash of green hair caught his eye outside of the doors leading to the fishing pond. Flayn.
“I’ll see you at the seminar. I might be late,” he said to Felix, getting up abruptly.
“Skipping again? Are you really that predictable?” said Felix, his expression quickly souring.
“I sure am! Nice talking to you,” shot Sylvain over his shoulder.
“If you say so,” muttered Felix.
Sylvain didn’t usually leave his plates for the servants to pick up, but he did then. He caught up to Flayn as she neared the bottom of the steps from the dining hall. She was not holding the box she’d started using to deliver food to the Professor’s room at this hour.
“Flayn! Hey, Flayn! Any news?” he called.
Flayn turned, a cautiously happy smile on her face. “Good morning. Actually, yes! She’s finally left her room. I am looking for her now. She ate breakfast on her own not too long ago, so she shouldn’t be far.” The clouds blocking the morning sun almost hid the glimmer of the thin layer of ice covering the pond. Despite the bleak weather, Sylvain felt a bit of hope. He grinned widely.
“Really? I’ll help you look! Have you checked the—”
“Sylvain. Don’t you have something else to attend to?” said Seteth. The advisor’s icy voice came from behind him, not so much spoken as hurled. The man himself soon planted himself one step closer to Sylvain than Flayn, arms crossed.
“I don’t, sir, as a matter of fact. It’s Saturday.”
“I must confess I miss the days where I could say the same. Perhaps you could do with some occupation,” said Seteth. “There are, for instance, many duties I must complete today.” Flayn stepped up beside Sylvain to face Seteth. Seteth’s eyebrows furrowed in displeasure.
“Actually, brother, he was just about to help me look for Professor Poppy. She left her room this morning! Did you know?” she said. Her posture and voice were cheerful, but her eyes had a pleading urgency to them.
“Flayn, have I not forbidden you from...well, it would be best to discuss this matter later. You say Poppy has left her room? Where is she now?”
Sylvain answered before Flayn, hoping to appear more helpful. “We don’t know, but she’s already been to breakfast. I think we should probably check the greenhouse first, or the Knight’s Hall.”
“Forgive me, I do not recall asking for your advice on the matter. In fact, I would personally advise you not get involved,” said Seteth. He was already starting to turn away, the stiff bastard.
“Why not? I know her just as well as you. Better, probably.”
“You asked, so I have no choice but to answer,” said Seteth, not seeming regretful at all. “It is because your interactions with women, and perhaps all people, are intended only to inflate your ego and occupy your weak and trivially-inclined attention. Ultimately, of course. I don’t care to comment on what accommodating your pride and occupying your attention entail in the short term. Poppy is grieving her father at the moment, and requires caring treatment until she can deal with you.” Sylvain tried to rally a witty response, but could only think of feeble protests that he knew he couldn’t prove to Seteth’s satisfaction.
“Well, what’s this errand you want me to do that’s so important?” was the response he could muster. Seteth smiled coldly and took a letter out of the leather satchel he was carrying.
“Please deliver this letter to Sir Alois or Captain Roland. One or the other needs to see it before the Knights leave on Monday,” he said curtly. Flayn gripped her little hands into fists and shifted her feet into a marginally stronger stance.
“Brother, I do not think this is entirely fair. He was about to help me look—”
“That is all I have to say on the matter. Come, Flayn.” He had already started down the stairs. Sylvain just stood there like an idiot with the letter in his hands. Should he really just let them take care of it? The song plan might have worked in some capacity, but it might have also made her emotions harder to deal with. She had never answered him when he tried to talk to her through the door, anyway. Why would she want to see him now?
The sight of Professor Poppy herself walking from the greenhouse froze Seteth and Flayn in their tracks. She looked thinner, more tired, but her hair was brushed and clean, and there was purpose in her eyes. She looked alive, and not the half-dead ghost Sylvain had seen at the funeral. He straightened up unconsciously and realized that he had started smiling. Suddenly, the gloomy day didn’t seem so grim anymore. He drew breath to say something to her, not knowing what.
“Seteth. I need to talk to you,” Professor Poppy called from the lowest steps. There was no anger or sadness in her voice, but it was clear she had nothing pleasant to say. Seteth paused in shock. “Follow me to your office. I’d rather not have this discussion in the open,” she ordered.
“Professor! It’s good to see that you are feeling better,” said Seteth. His voice had turned gentle, suddenly, if bewildered.
“Am I?” the Professor replied, dead-faced. Those two words dissipated the joy in his heart like the mist over the pond in the rising sun.
“If you are not, you may certainly turn to me. Now, what is it you wanted to discuss?”
“Monica,” the Professor replied. An edge of anger was slipping into her words. “Now, will you come with me to your office?”
“Good idea, Professor! It’s cold out here,” said Flayn. The Professor smiled wanly at her in response.
“You don’t need to hear this, Flayn,” she said.
“Oh,” Flayn replied. She looked about to protest, but then she saw Seteth’s look. “I see. Please come to me if you need any more help.”
“Of course. Sylvain, please do deliver the letter. Seteth so dearly needs help completing his duties, after all,” said the Professor. She promptly turned on her heel and left. Seteth followed. Sylvain was still frozen from the shock of seeing the Professor after what seemed like months, but the need to know what was the matter gave him energy. It was a good thing the Knight Captain's Office was right across from Seteth’s. Alois was usually there nowadays, helping old Captain Roland sort through the detritus of Jeralt’s life while he led the Knights. If he went around from the graveyard, he might be able to reach it soon after they did.
The door to Seteth’s office was thick, but Sylvain’s ears were sharp. By some stroke of luck, most of the monastics were busy with something or another. They certainly didn’t have time to pay attention to a student leaning against Seteth’s door, presumably waiting for his turn to be counseled.
“Before we talk about Monica," began Seteth, "or who took her place, rather, I would like to bring up something that requires privacy. It’s the matter of why your father took you from the Monastery." Sylvain’s heart began to patter a bit faster in his ears. He tried to hold his breath as long as he could to slow it, and to make sure he didn’t miss a word.
“Oh no. I’m not answering questions today. You are,” said the professor, calm as a blank tombstone.
“It isn’t so much a question as an explanation, if you are inclined to listen to it. I understand if you are not,” Seteth said.
“I see. In that case, I’m curious to see what you think you know.”
“I don’t know if you know all this, yourself, but I shall try to start as small as possible. The day of your birth—”
“Was in Horsebow Moon. My mother died giving birth to me before Da left the Monastery, not after. Did you go through his books and find his diary? I did that this morning while Alois was out. I hid his diary, too, so no one else can paw through it,” said the Professor. Miraculously, her voice was still calm, but the anger was building. Sylvain didn’t know what to make of the seemingly trivial information, but it certainly seemed important to them. He wondered why.
“I apologize if you feel I violated his privacy. I wanted merely to see if he had noted anything unusual that he did not report to me,” Seteth said, matching the Professor’s anger with kind tones. Sylvain struggled to hear.
“Stop. I’ve heard enough. We’re not here to talk about him,” said the Professor. “We’re not here to talk about me, either. We need to talk about Monica von Ochs. Not the demon, the girl. You say she disappeared shortly before graduation, correct? You thought she had run away. Why?” Her voice, usually low, had become sharp enough for every word to be as clear and plain as an axe head in flesh.
“Why? Well, she was a troubled girl. She didn’t do well in school, and Manuela said she had stopped going to classes. I trusted her judgement in the case of Black Eagles students,” he replied, carefully.
“So it’s Manuela’s fault? I know she’s partially to blame, but you sometimes deign to look into students' personal affairs. As I’ve seen just now. But no, I’m forgetting, that’s only to ‘protect’ Flayn from bad people like Sylvain. You do such a good job of figuring out who the bad people are, don’t you?” she said. “If it’s another student who might need help, that’s when you keep your distance. Manuela is incompetent, but everyone knows that. You should’ve known better.” The rage in the Professor's words surprised Sylvain enough to have to keep himself from gasping, though she did not shout even in her fury. He had never known her and Manuela to be close, true, but attacking Seteth? Hadn’t he wanted to help her? He had never known her to insult anyone short of Solon, let alone one of her colleagues. This was her emotions returning, he supposed, but the way it was happening was worrying. Would this affect her fighting?
“I...Professor, I really do not think that her death could have been discovered as easily as simply talking to her friends,” began Seteth. His words were delicately defiant, but his voice betrayed pain.
“Did you even try?”
“I understand your feelings, Professor. I regret my inaction, deeply so, but there were so many other matters that seemed to be more pressing at the time.” Seteth pleaded.
“What were they? What could possibly have been more important than our students’ safety? Whether someone was talking to Flayn too much?”
“No.” Seteth made a sound as if to continue, but stopped.
“You should have investigated her disappearance just as hard as you did with Flayn’s. Who knows how long Monica was waiting for someone to come help her? How long she suffered because of your apathy? Now she’s dead, and some...some thing took her identity, her place, killed even more students, and then killed Da. Who knows whose lives she’ll ruin next, due to your negligence? Was it you who hired Jeritza, too?” said the Professor. Seteth sighed, shakily, as if holding down either a sob or a scream. Sylvain didn’t blame him. Imagining the real Monica scared and alone, not to mention thinking of Jeralt’s death, was sending an ache of grief through his chest, and he was barely connected to either of them. If Seteth really did fail to do his responsibilities so horrifically, the guilt must have been unthinkable.
"I do realize my mistakes now. I do,” said Seteth, quaveringly. “I have failed you, but I promise you that I will—”
“It’s too late for that now. Go do whatever it is you feel is important, but try not to let any more murderers into the monastery,” the Professor said. There was finality in her tone. Sylvain didn’t wait for her to start walking out. He strode to the Captain’s quarters as softly as he could. The door was slightly ajar, so he slipped into the room, catlike. He silently thanked himself for all the practice of sneaking through doors unnoticed.
“Sylvain! To what do I owe the pleasure?” said Alois, about a decibel too loud and not two paces away from him. Sylvain almost jumped backwards into the doorframe. Alois was wearing a simple, gray tunic and breeches not unlike those that the monks wore. He didn’t look unkempt, but he did look as if he hadn’t slept well.
“I, er, have this letter for Captain Roland,” he said, offering the sealed envelope.
“I can take it. Well! A report from the Fire-Forged’s scouting unit. Excellent! Just what I was hoping for. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have some help looking for those bastards. If you ever have the option to skimp on mercenaries when you’re a margrave, don’t,” Alois said. He immediately turned his attention to the envelope, so Sylvain thankfully didn’t have to comment on the idea of him being a margrave. Alois’s strained smile soon slipped off his tired face as he began opening the envelope, distracted. The Professor’s high-heeled boots clacked on the stone outside.
“Alois?” she called.
“Poppy?” Alois said, immediately dropping the letter on Jeralt’s old desk. Alois swung the door open to reveal the Professor, expression uncertain, gripping her own arms like she was trying to hold herself together. Her image in the doorway looked like an illustration from a book from some tragedy. All that was missing was a label reading “The Hero’s Orphan.” Alois ran up and enfolded her in his arms. The Professor gave a little gasp of surprise. Sylvain couldn’t see her face anymore, but the way her hands were clutching Alois’s ribs suggested relief. Alois started to pull away.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Poppy, I should have asked first,” he said, embarrassed. The Professor clutched him tighter and shook her head in response. “Alright, then. Just a bit longer,” Alois said. The Professor sniffed. They stood like that for a good while, the Professor holding on like her life depended on it.
“I have to kill her, Alois,” the Professor said into Alois’s chest. Her fingers were holding Alois so hard, Sylvain was surprised her knuckles weren’t white already.
“We’re going to get her. Don’t you worry, your big brother is taking care of it,” said Alois, giving her shoulder a squeeze. Big brother? Was Alois talking about himself? Sylvain wondered what it was like to have a brother that didn’t want you dead. He recognized the envy, in shame, but that still didn’t kill it completely.
“No. You don’t understand. I have to do it. I couldn’t stop her. I have to make it right. I have to protect everyone else,” she said, tearfully. Alois sighed and squeezed her tighter.
“Oh, Poppy. It wasn’t your fault. There was so much no one had seen for so long. You and Jeralt were just there when it came to a head. There was nothing you could do,” Alois soothed. Sylvain wanted to comfort her like Alois was, but he wasn’t sure he should. She might see it the wrong way, might be repulsed. Or it would have no effect on her, like his knocking on her door every day, but make Alois chase him off. Big brothers usually didn’t like him, including adoptive ones. He considered the consequences of doing nothing: the Professor feeling more alone than she should. No, that was definitely worse. Sylvain approached the two like he might approach an injured wolf. He gingerly laid a hand on her forearm.
“You’ve protected us, Professor. You’ve done better, actually. You’ve taught us to protect ourselves. We can help you now,” said Sylvain. It took a few seconds for her to react. Sylvain’s heart started racing painfully. Mentally, he prepared an apology.
The Professor looked up almost shyly from behind the crook of Alois’s arm and smiled.
“Thank you, Sylvain,” she said softly. Sylvain’s pulse quickened even more, and he darted a look up to Alois. If Alois took offense, he didn’t show it. Sylvain ran his thumb along the Professor’s soft shirt sleeve, hoping that wasn’t too much. He also hoped the heat rising to his face wasn’t showing. Why was that happening, anyway?
“Er, what do you want to do today? We can have some tea, or help you garden, or…something,” said Sylvain.
“I want to talk to Stygge, and then I want to train,” she said, her voice getting sadder. Sylvain stroked her sleeve again.
“Okay. Let’s train. I’m sure the others would love to see you,” he said.
“Oh! That reminds me!” said Alois, releasing the Professor from his embrace, but still holding her shoulders. “Stygge’s out hunting for the murderers so we can send a bigger unit after them. But! She told me to tell you something when you came out.”
“Not here? I guess I left her waiting a long time,” she said, guilty.
“Don’t worry! She should be back tomorrow morning! And she’s not angry with you at all, that I could tell,” assured Alois. “She says she wants to throw a wake with the other Fire-Forged and the Knights of Seiros. She wouldn’t do it without you, though, so she wants to know if you’re ready.”
The Professor looked down, holding her arms again.
“I-if you’re not ready, it can wait,” said Alois, quickly.
“No. No, I can do it. I owe it to them,” she said, straightening, her expression going from uncertain to unreadable again. She gently slid Alois’s hands from her shoulders, and he patted her on the head before stepping back to let her talk to her student. His arms were crossed, but he didn’t look suspicious. That was a good sign.
“A party! We need to go to the kitchens and let them know!” said Sylvain, looking back to the Professor.
“Yes, true. I think I’d like to help cook, though I should probably practice the song,” said the Professor.
“The song?” asked Sylvain.
“Yes, there’s a song we do when one of us dies,” the Professor replied, brow creasing in confusion. “A dance, too, I think. I think...I usually lead. Yes, that’s right.” Sylvain smiled to see her remembering more.
“Sure, sure, but come to the kitchens, first. I’ll go get the others,” said Sylvain. The Professor matched his smile just a little. “Just curious, though. Do you remember anything else, now? Anything at all?” The Professor thought carefully, her eyes boring into the stone wall beside Sylvain.
“No. I don’t. Though, I do know more about Da. I don’t want to talk about it now. Maybe not ever,” she said, finally, her smile disappearing. The elation he’d just felt disappeared, too.
“Alright. I won’t press you,” said Sylvain, holding his hands up. The Professor raised an eyebrow, smirking despite her tired eyes.
“Really? Will you not try and pry the funeral song from Stygge and teach it to me?” she asked.
“...Ashe told you, huh?”
“Are you angry?” he asked. The Professor raised her eyebrows further. Looking closely, Sylvain thought he might have seen a playful glint in her eyes.
“No. Why would I be?” she asked.
“Well, I was afraid—”
“Seteth? I have some questions about a party. It’s a little sudden, I know,” said Alois loudly, behind the Professor. There was no response. He raised his hand to knock, but the Professor interrupted.
“Let’s not disturb him. He said he wanted to pray alone before I left,” said the Professor, turning. Sylvain wasn’t sure if she was lying, but he was fairly certain they wouldn’t be seeing much of Seteth for a while.
“Oh. Sorry, Seteth! I’ll take care of it myself!” said Alois to Seteth’s door.
“We can talk about it later. There’s a lot of preparation to do now,” said the Professor, smiling again. It wasn't exactly a happy smile, but it was something,
“Not for you, there isn’t. You just wait in the kitchens, try and remember that song, and we’ll do it all for you!” said Sylvain, adopting a confident pose. He flexed his bicep for effect. The Professor laughed softly, and Sylvain felt his face heat up again.
“No, I’ll help you start, at least. I’m tired of doing nothing,” she assured him. “I’ll need Fiorenzo to teach me the song again, anyway.”
Soon, they set off. The Professor, to the kitchens, Alois to the Fire-Forged camp, and Sylvain to fetch the other Blue Lions.
The Lions converged on the kitchens en masse, Annette and Mercedes bearing armfuls of sweets, Ashe bringing Edwina, Conleth, and Briallen in tow, and Dedue holding a garland of evergreen branches and gorse flowers. Ingrid was with Dedue, holding a bouquet of heather that hadn’t made it into the garland. Sylvain had found them working on it together in the herb garden behind the greenhouse, surprisingly. Briallen reached the Professor as she left the kitchen first, knocking into her like an arrow. Mercedes and Annette reached her next, helping her walk to a seat as Briallen clung to her leg like a training weight.
The others crowded around, barely taking turns speaking before interrupting each other in their relief and joy. Dimitri's words were free of their usual hint of darkness. Even Dedue was cracking a grin. Felix, or course, was not smiling, but he still stood close by and tried to get a few words in, not that the girls would let him. Sylvain stopped to admire his handiwork before joining the kitchen staff in their frenzy to descale the titanic pile of fish they’d need to furnish the wake. Word had spread fast, and it turned out a lot of people wanted to come.
The Lions allowed the Professor to return to the kitchen after she sampled a few of Annette and Mercedes’ sweets. She had the chance to prepare quite the pile of carrots and potatoes with Dedue and Ashe before Battaglia practically burst into the bustling kitchen with Menno, who was already wearing an apron that was far too small for him. Annette raised her head from the chicken she was slicing and waved to the giant, who nodded back.
“I’ve got reinforcements for you, Poppy. Now come, let’s show you how to sing again,” Battaglia said. To Sylvain’s shock, the proud man had tears streaming down his face.
“Don’t cry, Uncle Renzo,” she said, tears forming in her eyes as well.
“Oh, look at you. It’s so good to see you again,” he said, grinning widely. He turned her face this way and that, admiring the Professor’s tears in the pale afternoon light coming from the small windows. “Just look at you. Incredible. I just wish...oh Poppy, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry, dear heart.” He kissed her head, just as Jeralt had done not so long ago, and began wiping the tears from his eyes, laughing shakily. At that point, every person in the cramped room, made more cramped by Menno’s mountainous frame, had stopped to listen to them. “You’re right of course,” he continued. “I apologize. I’d never want to embarrass you in front of your troops.”
Her “troops” promptly went back to their tasks, focus redoubled. The Professor let go first, and led Battaglia away by the hand.
“Come on. We have a lot to catch up on,” she said.
Chapter 4: Wake
They held the wake on Sunday night, the night before the Knights of Seiros were going to pursue the best trail the Fire-Forged had found. They held it outside the walls of Garreg Mach, in a grassy plain in the foothills. The lines of long, makeshift tables and the giant wood piles the Fire-Forged had set up were set in relief against the twilit sky as Sylvain and the rest of the Lions took the long walk down. The sun went down with them, turning the sky brilliant shades of orange, red, and violet before it sputtered out behind the trees and left them in the blackness of the night. Luckily, they were almost there before the darkness set in.
The woodpiles weren’t lit yet, but there were torches burning throughout the area, as well as candles on the tables already arrayed with simple food. The clouds were veiling the stars and the rising moon, which was barely a sliver of light, so the fires were the only thing lighting the mourners and their gathering. It seemed they and the scattered Knights, Fire-Forged, and others were the only people in a universe of darkness, cold wind, and the sweet smell of dry grass. The mourners were already talking amongst themselves, their voices turned to murmurs through the distance between the torches and candlelit tables they huddled around. Sylvain could hear some crying scattered in the voices, as well. Still, he couldn’t hear or see the Professor amongst any of them. It was still strange to him, going to the wake of someone who distrusted him. Still, he needed to talk to the Professor. He had made her cry, if indirectly. Just something he was good at. She had said she didn’t blame him or hold anything against him, but that was probably just her being her normal, unassuming self. If there was any possibility he had caused her pain at all, he had to address it. She certainly wouldn’t.
He could make out, however, Sir Alois, Dame Catherine, Captain Roland, Seteth, Claude, Leonie, Battaglia, and a Fire-Forged he didn’t recognize sitting at one of the larger tables nearest to the biggest woodpile. If the Professor hadn’t come yet, she would probably go there at some point during the night. He started walking towards them slowly, fiddling with the string holding together the stack of letters and poetry he had brought with him. The hastily-written flyer put up in the marketplace had said to bring “an item personally valued, but dispensable” to the wake if he wanted to participate in the festivities. He did, but choosing one was hard. He needed all of his clothes, none of which he cared about particularly. There was training equipment, too, books, papers the Professor had written comments on, and personal battle equipment. All he either cared about, needed, or couldn’t bear to part with. So, he chose the papers people, mostly girls, had written him, along with poetry and letters he’d been in the process of writing. Many of the papers were flirtations or love declarations, while some were angry letters written to him by his targets, their friends, or their siblings. A few were letters he’d written to Miklan or his parents and never sent.
Dimitri, Annette, and Ashe followed him to the main table, while the others spread out elsewhere. They couldn’t all fit. The tables, even the main ones, were essentially just long planks set on trestles, after all. Most of the people at the head table, looking gaunt in the sharp shadows cast by the flame, stood and raised their glasses to salute Dimitri as he came to join them. Leonie was too busy staring into her mug to really notice what was going on. Claude gently prodded her to stand as well, but Dimitri waved him off. Sylvain squeezed in between Battaglia and Ashe. The Knights were much finer clothes than they’d usually wear out of armor. The blond man Sylvain assumed was Fire-Forged wasn’t wearing anything worthy of any party he’d been to, but his clothes were still clean and more festive than the usual clothes he’d seen mercenaries wear. Battaglia wore a fine-quality red and yellow doublet that had been in fashion a decade or so ago. Despite the cold, he’d not worn a chaperon that day, instead baring his close-cropped brown hair. Seteth wore a plain black version of his usual clothes, with no embroidery or brocade.
“Good. We were just about to begin, Your Highness Prince Lambert,” said Captain Roland. The man had to be well into his late sixties, and his face was already being consumed by wrinkles. Alois cleared his throat next to him. “Pardon me. Your Highness, Prince Ru...Dimitri.”
“I apologize if we’ve kept you waiting,” Dimitri said, stiffly. Alois winced apologetically at Dimitri. Sylvain searched Dimitri’s face for a reaction. The prince stood at polite attention, his face a rigid mask. His mouth and jaw twitched, maybe to proffer a polite smile. Whatever the intention, the result was that he looked about to say something he might later regret. Sylvain subtly patted Dimitri on the arm, hoping it would snap him out of it.
“This isn’t such a strict event, Your Highness,” said Battaglia quickly. “There is no need to worry yourself too much. Now, is Her Highness Lady Hresvelg attending?”
“No,” said Dimitri, in a dead voice. “She told me to pass on her condolences.”
“Well then. Shall we? The food is getting cold,” said Battaglia.
“What about Professor Poppy?” asked Sylvain. Battaglia gave him a somewhat appraising look. Strange. It was a perfectly reasonable question.
“She’s getting ready with Captain Stygge. We can begin without her,” he replied, taking hold of his rough ceramic goblet and standing. Tapping his goblet wouldn’t work in a crowd this size, so Battaglia put two fingers in his mouth and whistled three distinct notes. The murmuring and soft sobs coming from the other tables, which stood out in the night like stars, quieted.
“Every one of us here has come in grief for Jeralt Eisner,” shouted Battaglia. “Our grief is deep and truly deserved, for he was a truly towering man. A man of integrity, principles, and simple human kindness. A man we all looked up to. This is not the time for tears, however. We are here not just to grieve, but to celebrate and give thanks to Jeralt’s life. Eat, drink, and remember him! Be grateful that you had the chance to share the world with the best knight who ever lived!” At this, the blond man started banging their mugs on the table and cheering. Claude and Leonie joined in enthusiastically, and then the rest of those at the table after. The constellation of little fires was soon resounding with cheers of “Captain!” or “To Jeralt!”
The food the collected manpower of the monastery kitchens, the nearby village, and the Fire-Forged had been able to prepare was rustic and plain—peas, borscht, baked fish, and a salad of lettuce and wild berries at his end of the table—but Sylvain devoured it greedily. Something about the night just seemed to call for honest food, and he hadn’t really eaten anything since lunch. The others at the table began by eating as well. Catherine was the first to raise her mug in a toast.
“To Jeralt. He was the greatest fighter I knew. Brave enough to face a dragon by himself, clever enough not to,” she said.
“Indeed,” agreed Captain Roland. “He was still the Knight Captain when I was just a young squire. His skill was as obvious then as it is now. I’ll never forget the way he kept us all calm the first time we went to battle.” All of the students at the table but Leonie paused in shock.
“He was the Captain of the Knights of Seiros when you were a squire?” said Claude incredulously.
“He looked so young! Comparatively,” gasped Annette. “Um, I mean, not that you’re…”
“Old. I am, and I know it,” said Captain Roland, seemingly annoyed at Annette’s embarrassment. “It’s hard not to, as much as my joints ache. And just this year, when I was talking to the monastics about my back pains, in walks Jeralt, spry and handsome as the day the Goddess first chiseled him out of whatever boulder he came from. The dastard. If I looked like he did, oh the things I could do…”
“Better not talk too much about ladykilling around Lord Gautier over here, or that’s what we’ll talk about all night,” said Claude, chuckling. As always, his smile didn’t reach his eyes, and he looked at Captain Roland intensely. “How old was Jeralt, really?” Sylvain felt a wave of dread. Seteth was sitting there, as well as Alois and Catherine. If they found out something Jeralt didn’t want known, he did didn’t know what would happen. Especially with Catherine.
“Oh, I don’t know that. Old man was always secretive. Wouldn’t tell you how to get to the outhouse,” said Captain Roland. Sylvain breathed a sigh of relief. Alois laughed heartily at that and took a swig from his mug.
“You aren’t wrong, Sir Roland! Once, though, when ol’ Jeralt was in his cups—“ started Alois. Sylvain choked a little on the weak ale he’d started to drink.
“Let’s change the subject,” he managed to interject, spluttering. Battaglia gave him a slight nod and smile.
“Yes. Enough about the deceased’s age and vices,” agreed Seteth sternly. “I have heard enough confessions to realize everyone’s weaknesses are the same. We might as well be talking about anyone. Why don’t we talk about the good deeds Jeralt did?” Claude looked disappointed, but ultimately put his smile back on. Sylvain was surprised Seteth was the first to back him up. He tried to meet the advisor’s eyes, but he was stubbornly looking elsewhere.
Ashe straightened up and raised his mug confidently.
“To Jeralt. He was amazing when he was defending those villagers from, well...the other villagers,” said Ashe. “He knew exactly what to do. I knew we would save as many as we could with him in charge, and we did. If it were anyone else, more would have been lost.” They all took a gulp of their drinks. Sylvain became aware that the blond Fire-Forged was watching him.
Annette raised her mug as well.
“To Jeralt. He always helped me when I asked. He was always so busy, but he did it anyway. I know I shouldn’t have bothered him, but he just knew so many things. He never made me feel bad for asking,” she said, sadly. They all took a drink again, Leonie more deeply than the others.
Claude raised his mug solemnly.
“When the one who was going to be our new professor abandoned Edelgard, Dimitri, and me when the bandits attacked, he never hesitated to help, even without knowing who we were. Him or his daughter. I thought we were going to die in those woods,” he said. This time, he actually wore no fake smile.
Dimitri drank and added to Claude’s testimony.
“I thought all mercenaries cared about was coin, but he never asked it from us. He just helped us because it needed to be done. That’s a knight’s honor.” They drank again, as Sylvain wracked his memory for something to say. What could he say, though? The man hated him. Leonie hiccuped after her long swig.
“He didn’t die like a knight,” she said, setting the mug down hard. Her words weren’t quite slurred, but she clearly wasn’t all there.
“Slow down, Leonie, we don’t need to be exactly like Jeralt,” said Claude, voice lowering in concern. “Eat some more food, yeah?”
“I will when I’m finished, damnit,” she snapped. “Captain Jeralt was was stabbed in the back by the person he was trying to help, and there was nothing he could do to defend himself. He couldn’t fight back. If he had just had a chance, maybe he could’ve lived.” After she said that, her anger boiled over into sobs and fat tears that ran down her cheeks. Claude almost put a hand on her shoulder, but drew his hand back at the last second. Seteth shifted in his seat to look at Leonie, his expression softening in concern.
“It’s true,” he said. “Perhaps he could have lived. Perhaps he would have died that day anyway. Perhaps another, later death would have been more painful for him. Wishing him an end we, in our imperfect knowledge, deem better, will not help anyone.” Leonie was not satisfied with that answer. In fact, she looked ready to throw her drink in Seteth’s face.
“So I should stop caring?” she shouted “It was wrong! It was degrading! It shouldn’t have happened! So what if something else could’ve been worse?”
“No, of course it was wrong, but we shouldn’t focus on things we can’t change,” said Seteth, his calm straining. Leonie, enraged, struggled to form words for a few seconds.
“You’re not—y-you don’t...” she finally managed. The blond Fire-Forged turned his gaze from Sylvain and Dimitri to Leonie.
“I get it,” said the mercenary. “How he died is important, true. But I think he died well. If I could have chosen a death for him, it would’ve been comfortable-like, in bed, with his grandchildren around him. We know that never would’ve happened, though, don’t we? This was the next best thing.”
“What? How was it good, Goose?” asked Leonie, her confusion overcoming her anger. She sniffled again. “Goose” seemed to be a bit embarrassed at being called that, blushing and darting a glance at Sylvain and Dimitri.
“It’s Marceau of Colm. Er, Your Lordlinesses,” he said. They exchanged greetings. Colm. Where was that? It sounded Faerghian. The crunch of dry grass interrupted Sylvain’s train of thought and joined with the soft clinking of serving ware as the others ate quietly. A cloud of breath which looked like fire in the light of the torches preceded the Professor and Stygge.
Stygge was wearing a long dress and embroidered coat, a many-beaded necklace, and her fox fur mantle. She had shaved off her hair and applied ashen war paint to her face. In one arm, she carried a longish bundle wrapped with a blanket.
Sylvain didn’t recognize the Professor for a good few seconds. The most striking thing about her was she had braided her lovely forest-green hair into a circlet of braids, and woven a flower crown of dried poppies and wheat into it. Complicated white face paint brought out her deep indigo eyes. She was wearing a loose, embroidered white dress and a long, wolf fur-lined vest fastened at the waist with a green sash and Jeralt’s studded belt. Both dress and vest ended at the knees, over some tall leather boots, presumably to let her dance more easily. She looked strong and sublime, like some sort of wilderness spirit come from a fairytale.
Sylvain felt more heat going to his face. He hoped it was just the ale, but Stygge’s hard, canine grin assured him he was getting red. She whispered something in the Professor’s ear. The Professor adjusted a flower in her crown and looked down, shaking her head. Her discomfort didn’t get past Stygge, who pulled her into a rough side-hug and whispered something else. The Professor smiled a little, too, and they came forward, arm-in-arm. It struck Sylvain, then, how similarly the two women carried themselves: deliberately, as if every movement was a step in a plan. He stood up to greet them.
“Professor! Captain Stygge. Welcome!” Sylvain said. Dimitri and Claude joined him, Dimitri muttering some apology for being rude. The rest joined, not to be left sitting when the future leaders of two countries were standing.
“We’re flattered,” said Stygge, her manner less predatory than when he’d met her before. It was probably because of the occasion, Sylvain concluded. “Why so miserable, girlie?” Stygge continued. “You disrespect the night. We’re to be celebrating.”
“Sorry, Captain,” Leonie muttered.
“Well, let’s continue the tales. Where were you?” Stygge asked. She and the Professor sat down across from Sylvain ad Dimitri. Claude and Leonie had to shuffle closer to Captain Roland and Dame Catherine to make room.
“We were just speaking of how he died,” said Goose, or Marceau. “I was saying it was fitting.” Sylvain looked to the Professor. Her eyes were far away, studying the night sky thoroughly.
“True. It was Jeralt to the hilt. Helping the weak, even if this one didn’t deserve it,” Stygge said.
“Monica isn’t weak,” said Leonie.
“She is. That’s why she chose the coward’s way to kill Da,” said the Professor, softly. “She was afraid of him.”
“It doesn’t sully Jeralt’s death in the slightest, though,” Battaglia quickly added, looking to Leonie. “He was a charitable, decent man. I would’ve gone to another company if he weren’t. Why don’t you think of a time Jeralt was kind to you, Leonie?”
Leonie wiped her eyes and sniffed. Claude judged it safe to rub her back, then. “My village had a poaching problem, and the Fire-Forged were sent there to take care of it. He was just amazing. I’d never seen anything like it before, living in a place where everyone knows everyone else at least three generations back. I went right up to him one day and said I was going to be his apprentice. Most strangers would’ve just laughed, but he taught me how to train, how to fight. Everything I’m about, really, he taught me,” she said. The Professor took a ladylike sip from her mug, and everyone followed suit. Sylvain’s ale was more liquid bread than alcohol, but he started to feel a little bit of the warmth spread through his body.
“He took me as his squire when I was just a common orphan,” said Alois. “I suppose he was common, too, but it was still something I never expected could happen in my life, not after my parents died. He said it was just because I reminded him of his old squire, but I think he felt sorry for me. That was his way. For some reason, he didn’t like it when people paid attention to his good deeds.”
“A quality we would all do well to emulate,” said Seteth, who started another toast. The Professor just seemed to notice he was there then. Her brow creased in confusion or displeasure, and her lips parted. Seteth noticed her look and held her gaze meekly. The Professor shook her head slightly, as if clearing the fog of sleep away, and looked down.
“Do you remember Colm, Poppy?” asked Marceau, hopefully.
The Professor slowly finished the meat she was chewing and sighed. “No, I don’t. I would remember your story if you told me now, I think.”
“Well, we were a new village, just set up in the land The Shield of Faerghus, the King, and the Margrave took back from the Srengian clans,” began Marceau, bowing his head awkwardly to Dimitri and Sylvain. “Of course, that didn’t sit well with the Srengians. They started sneaking past the new border and attacking us. Stealing things, you know, killing livestock and such. The margrave was hard-pressed elsewhere, so he sent the constable’s men to the area. I don’t suppose you know of this, do you, my lord Gautier?”
Sylvain paused, spoon of peas halfway to his mouth. “Er, no. I don’t think I do,” he said. His father had probably said something about it at some point, but Sylvain had actively tried to forget everything having to do with actually running their territory. Marceau blushed again, looking down.
“Well, it’d be too small a trouble for you, my lord, just a little trading village. Some sheep, some goats. Nothing special.” The man looked ashamed. Had Sylvain seemed dismissive? He wracked his memory, but couldn’t come up with anything, save not remembering the place this man obviously cared so much about.
“No, no, of course it’s not too small. I’m not very good at remembering things, is all. Please continue,” said Sylvain emphatically. The man roused himself at this.
“Right. Well, the constable’s men helped a bit, but they wanted extra money from us. Said it wasn’t their job, so they deserved more of a cut. The alderman just had enough one day and lost his temper. Then, the constable’s men started taking things, too. Caught between two sides, we were.”
“And Da was there?” asked the Professor, fidgeting with a braid of yellowish fiber that was tied at her wrist. It almost looked like a braid of hair, actually.
“He was hired by the constable. He was just a lone sword for hire,” explained Marceau.
“Stop the wagon, Goose, you’re getting ahead of yourself,” interrupted Stygge. “Jeralt wasn’t in Colm yet. The constable’s men had him fight us—Geirr and his band, that is—in the wilds, first, even though he had a baby with him.”
“Oh, but how did feed her?” gasped Annette, setting her fork down. They were almost all finished eating by then. Stygge smiled in response.
“Be patient, and you’ll learn,” she replied. She straightened in her seat and adopted an impressive tone. It reminded Sylvain of the mocking tone she’d put on while she was pretending to tell him about the Professor, but this time Stygge was obviously serious. “Geirr and I had a bit of a disagreement. I lost, and he took my weapons and left me for the Hounds to find. The constable’s men, I mean.”
“And then Jeralt found you, right?” asked Leonie, perking up a bit.
Stygge’s expression darkened, and an edge of bitterness entered her voice. “Yes. Him and the Hounds. They took me in for questioning. Night came, and Jeralt gave me a little visit,” she said. A moment of grim reflection passed as she swirled the drink in her clay goblet around. “As soon as he came in and locked the door, he said, ‘You know this area, don’t you? You've raided some villages. Tell me where to find a woman who’s nursing, and I'll get you out,’” she continued, imitating Jeralt’s gruff voice. She was able to hit on a pretty passable impersonation. “You see, he’d been feeding Poppy goat’s milk since he’d had to leave the last town he’d spent time at. It wasn’t enough. She was starving. He had to take on jobs to keep them alive, but new families with healthy women were hard to find on the move.”
“Wasn’t that around the time of the Plague? Was there anyone, y’know, left alive?” asked Ashe. It was a simple question, but the boy was gripping his fork and knife like his life depended on it. It sounded like he was asking for the details about some horrible accident he didn’t fully want the answers to.
“It hadn’t quite reached that far north yet,” said Stygge. “I happened to remember seeing a woman with a young babe while I was staking out Colm for food. He put me and Poppy on his horse, though I could barely sit up on the thing, and we rode straight for the village. They almost didn’t let us in. Hard to blame them, a lone soldier and a Srengian in binds banging on your gate near midnight. For some reason, though, they did.”
Marceau was smiling, his whole air more relaxed. “I remember. Militia commander had me on patrol that day. I had no idea what to make of you. I thought Jeralt was maybe a vagabond who’d captured a raider to squeeze some reward money out of us, but then I saw the babe. Jeralt was about to start banging on every door in the village, but the commander took pity and took him to the right house. I tied Stygge up to a wheel in the old wagon shed. That’s all we had for a prison. Before he left, though, Jeralt ordered me to go get whatever healer we had and fix her up. I suppose I didn’t have to do it, but he just had this way about him.” The others had Marceau ad Stygge’s undivided attention, but something had been bothering Sylvain ever since they’d brought up the Constable.
“Hang on,” cut in Sylvain. “Who was the Gautier constable? Who was in charge of the men in your area? What about Colm’s militia commander?” Marceau looked at him in genuine surprise.
“Oh! Well, the constable was Bellamy. Don’t know his given name. The constabulary leader there was Red Ismael. Don’t know his family name. The old commander was Louis, the village blacksmith,” he said. Sylvain nodded, repeating the names in his mind.
“And the woman who helped Jeralt. Who was she?” Sylvain asked.
“Thomasine. Her son is Artaud,” said Stygge, searching his eyes. She was no doubt looking for signs of guile, judging by what she’d said about him before. The power of rumor was strong, and, if he was honest, it wasn’t like the talk of him being insincere wasn’t justified.
“It’s been a good while since we returned them to Colm, my lord,” said Marceau. “They might well have moved village or died.”
“I’ll see. It shouldn’t be too hard to find them,” Sylvain replied. He’d have to bring them up to his father.
“Why do you ask, little lord?” asked Stygge, eyebrows raised.
“Well, they saved the Professor. The Professor saved Prince Dimitri. Therefore, they deserve some sort of reward. Red Ismael and the constable deserve punishment for hurting citizens under our care,” he explained. Stygge smiled, her black lip paint making her teeth seem to stick out of the darkness. He couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic or not. Marceau, however, was beaming with such intensity Sylvain was surprised there wasn’t light coming from his face. Professor Poppy was actually looking at Sylvain with a clear expression of pride. Sylvain’s heart fluttered. If the Flame Emperor appeared right then and there, he felt like he could beat him all by himself.
“Red Ismael’s dead. Saw it meself,” said Stygge. “We stayed in Colm while Poppy got better. Ismael figured out where we were pretty quickly. Jeralt sent a letter to some noble or other for help, but in the meantime, we had to fight him and Geirr. That’s how the Fire-Forged were made. After we’d survived them, me, Thomasine, Artaud, and some of the militia left with Jeralt.” Leonie perked up, eyes shining with excitement through the leftover tears.
“Tell us about the battles! How did Red Ismael die?” she asked.
“Like a b—” started Stygge, grinning wider. Seteth flinched and opened his mouth to interrupt, but the Professor beat him to it.
“Why don’t we save this for later?” she interjected. “Let Stygge finish eating so we can get on to the dance. Sylvain, have you said anything yet?” All eyes turned to Sylvain as Stygge started tearing into her food savagely.
“Oh, well, no. I didn’t know him very well,” said Sylvain. He thought of Jeralt’s stormy face as he stared him down. It wasn’t so long ago—only a couple of months—but it felt like years. It wasn’t like he’d deserved it then, but he still felt a bit guilty. “I only managed to get him angry at me.”. The Professor shook her head at this.
“He was never angry at you. He was worried, so he just wanted to scare you a little,” she said.
“Really?” asked Sylvain. “Did he tell you that?”
“No. I couldn’t feel my emotions, but I could still recognize them in others,” she said. The time had come for him to bring up his involvement in her emotional awakening, he sensed. Fear of he knew not what built pressure in his lungs, making it hard to breathe and easy to keep hesitating.
“Calm, Sylvain,” he thought. “It’s just an apology. It’s not like you haven’t done plenty of harder ones before.”
“Incidentally, I’m sorry your emotions came back at such an awful time,“ he said.
“I’m not,” said the Professor. “It made him glad. Me, too. Even feeling sad satisfies me in a way, because that’s part of my love. Love is my duty, and I was afraid I couldn’t do it before.”
“And you’re sure I didn’t make anything worse? Anything at all?” asked Sylvain. Doubt was dragging down the relief that had sprung up in him. This was something new, and almost too good to be true.
“I’m sure. I feel more human now, after everyone’s help,” she replied. “Thank you.” A sliver of a smile played on her lips, a soft peach in the slight illumination of the torches. Relief didn’t hit him immediately. It was more of a slow, cautious swell that grew second by second. There were few visual cues to indicate she was actually grateful, but Sylvain had never known the Professor to say something she didn’t mean. Perhaps he could relax.
“Oh. That’s good. I mean, you’re welcome, any time,” Sylvain managed to say through a sudden wave of nerves. “A-anyway. I regret not getting to know Jeralt better. All I know is he loved the Professor a lot.”
“Undeniably true,” agreed Battaglia. He looked to the Professor, eyes cautious but kind. “Poppy, is there anything you want to share?”
“Well, I…” she began, hesitantly. Sylvain considered changing the subject. Thinking of things she could actually remember and say without fear must be hard. The Professor gathered herself and went on, though. “He cared about my mother, too. Whenever he talked about her, he looked so...happy isn’t the word. Peaceful? He wanted me to be as good as she was. I hope I can,” she said, looking over Sylvain’s shoulder into the darkness. Unless he was mistaken, that could very well be lack of confidence. Which, of course, was unwarranted and dangerous for a commander. And it was the Professor.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Sylvain said before he could stop himself. He knew a wake wasn’t the time, but the opportunity presented itself so perfectly. The Professor looked at him in surprise. Looking directly at her was difficult, but he did it anyway with an encouraging smile. Stygge looked like she might be ready to reach across the table and choke him. Sylvain didn’t look at Seteth, but he felt his anger in the air. Dimitri reached around Ashe and prodded him in the liver. It might have been meant to be soft, but Sylvain had to stop himself from yelping.
“It was an honest compliment,” Sylvain said through gritted teeth.
“Thank you, again,” said the Professor. She didn’t look like she doubted him, though it was hard to tell if she did. That was good enough, he supposed.
The Professor looked to Stygge and left her place at the table. She stopped in front of the largest woodpile and stretched before performing some practice turns. Sylvain had never seen her dance before, but if even those movements were anything to go by, he thought it would be very impressive. Stygge stood up and put two fingers in her mouth, letting out three piercing whistles.
“Friends of Jeralt! We have lost not only someone precious to us, but what he gave to us in our lives,” she said, projecting to all in attendance. “It is time to let that treasure go. Place your treasure on a pyre.” At this, she unwrapped the bundle she had brought to reveal the worn but well-maintained wooden training sword the Professor has always used in drills with them, along with Stygge’s hair, which was tied in a knot. She walked to the Professor and gave her the wooden sword. The Professor gazed at the sword, turning it over and seeming to memorize every detail. Then, she placed her forehead on the hilt for several seconds, and kissed it. Finally, the Professor put the sword on the central pyre, where it was lost in the untidy thicket of kindling, and stepped back. Stygge put her hair on the pyre next to the sword with the solemnity of placing a flower in a casket.
Battaglia and Marceau stood, holding some sort of medallion and an old bow, respectively. Sylvain could make out other Fire-Forged getting up and moving to the pyres through the darkness. The stack of letters and poems felt heavy in Sylvain’s lap. He didn’t care for the people they were connected to, true, but most of them did remind him of happier times. Times that were more fun, anyway. Then, there were the letters to his family. The words to Miklan that no longer had any possibility, however miraculous, of affecting him. Words to his parents that they desperately needed to hear, and that Sylvain desperately needed to make physical, but that they would laugh or sigh at if read. Sylvain wondered whether if he burned Miklan’s letters, his brother would be able to read them, wherever he was. He was a murderer and a thief who dragged others down with him all his life, but he truly was a being worthy of sympathy. He was a victim. Would there be a place in between the Goddess’s flames and where Jeralt was? If Aillel truly did exist and Miklan could be cleansed, experience some of the happiness life hadn’t given him, he hoped it was gentle and quick.
Well, Sylvain had gotten those words out of him, anyway, so they would no longer do him any good. He put the letters on the pyre next to Seteth’s ecclesiastical stole and Alois’s small harp. After they were finished, Stygge opened more veins of burning potential in the earth and sent everything to Jeralt. The acrid stink of the fire magic mixed with burning woodsmoke and other smells to prickle at Sylvain’s eyes. The flickering orange firelight submerged all the mourners in an orange glow that drowned out superficial details and imperfections. The edges of his letters glowed and pulsed like embers, then blackened and curled inward. The wood of Alois’s harp warped and turned darker, stretching the stings and making them snap with twangs that went down in pitch is the fire got hotter. Seteth’s stole turned to ashes intermixed with bright motes. Sylvain saw Seteth staring at it as if watching himself committing all the mistakes in his life. Flayn had found him from across the field and nestled up beside him, holding her brother’s hand in an act of familial affection Sylvain had never witnessed between the two. Wood hissed and whispered as it broke down. Alois stepped forward.
“I’m going to say a few words,” announced Alois. “I look at you all here, and I can’t help but be proud of Jeralt,” said Alois. “All of you are here because he was a father to everyone who would let him be. He put others first. He may not have been the happiest man, far from it, in fact, but he had one of the fullest lives of anyone I’ve known. That made him satisfied in a way others can’t be. So, don’t be sad for him. I know you made his life what it was.” There was murmuring of assent among the Knights. Stygge cleared her throat from next to the Professor.
“Through Jeralt’s leadership.” Stygge declared, her voice full of conviction. “his heart now beats in your blades as long as you hold true to his words and virtues. We live in an age of winter now, when men have to kill each other to survive from the cruel earth, but one day the birds will sing and the spring will come, and the souls of all the honorable dead will meet their bodies in the earth and will rise to burn the evil from the world!” At this, the fire burst higher and the mercenaries added yells of excitement.
“The skies cried when he died,” she continued, “which means the gods and heroes cried for him, too. Their tears and ours will help the seed of his soul grow through the winter. The blood of his enemies will warm the soil, and one spring morning he’ll come back, and we will walk with Jeralt again to face the world together!” Stygge’s voice climbed the heights of emotion so much it took Sylvain with it. The Fire-Forged and the Knights raised a clamor. If this was Srengian belief, it might not be so bad.
The Fire-Forged and some Knights of Seiros were forming circles around the pyres, and Stygge had taken a place behind the Professor with a drum. Sylvain walked away from the center to let the important people do what they needed. It was the Professor’s turn to speak, or rather, sing.
I was born into this life as a weak child
I’ve seen younger souls die
Now I join them on the path North
And the road is long and cold
My body crumbles, only my name remains
Who will remember it in the night?
Her breath poured out into the frigid air and was caught in the light. A breeze stirred the poppies and wheat in her hair, and for a moment the swaying flowers and stray strands looked like fire. Sylvain had never heard her sing before, and the beauty of the sound sent shockwaves of numbness through him. He could no longer concentrate on the words. He could only recognize the steady, marching rhythm of the song and her figure outlined in red and orange against the black. Stars above. The rustling of grass and the sound of flames. Her voice. Beauty in everything.
The others sang a response to her verses, and Sylvain tried to follow. Poppy started to dance and spin, her grace on the knife’s edge of unsteadiness. The drum was beating, and the circles of mourners imitated her movements, which were slowing and steadying. They linked hands, and by some act of fortune Sylvain took her hand in the chain. The circle pulsed in time, and they were together in the cold.