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the white mulberry tree

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Most people’s roles in the royal castle in relation to the Emperor are defined by one— or occasionally two— titles. Vassal. Prime Minister. Minister of Finance. Minister of War. Mentor.

 

Except Lysithea can’t find only one title to describe her newfound responsibilities serving the ruler of Fódlan. She’s an advisor, a high general of elite mage battalions, an apprentice to the new scholar-in-residence, a confidant to the Emperor, and maybe even a friend. Some may say she’s spreading herself too thin, yet she’s performing each and every role admirably. Her coalescence into the political and functional world of the Empire has gone more smoothly than many other former Kingdom and Alliance nobles. It’s almost as if she’s been destined to be part of the Emperor’s inner circle, like she’s the cog in the machine that no one knew had been missing.

 

After all, if she wasn’t around, she wouldn’t be able to help Ferdinand sort out all of the parchment papers of his draft proposal he would be presenting in the meeting due to begin in five minutes.

 

“How unthinkable!” Ferdinand laments, shuffling through papers, trying to discern their original order. “Unorganization of this degree is despicable in a member of the roundtable! I cannot believe I let this happen…”

 

Lysithea barely pays his theatrics any heed, instead walking with him, flipping and turning through the parchment she’s gathered, passing some to Ferdinand when she slowly comes to place them in order. “To be frank, I don’t think anybody was expecting a servant to be running through the halls fast enough to knock someone over. I wonder what’s given her such a fright…”

 

“Ferdinand, Ferdinand, Ferdinand…” a voice from behind them says. “Do not tell me you are not prepared for your proposal briefing at the next meeting.”

 

Lysithea feels a chill run through her spine, though she isn’t actually fazed; that’s just how her body tells her Hubert’s arrived. “Nevermind. I think I figured it out.”

 

“I am not unprepared!” Ferdinand protests. “I have merely...run into an obstacle that’s given me some trouble!”

 

“Quite literally,” Lysithea says flatly, her eyes still on the papers in her hands. “Must you be so verbose in your writing, Ferdinand? I swear, a few sentences could more clearly deliver the points that you make spanning 10 pages…”

 

“My proposal is extensive! I must be as detailed as can be to ensure that there are not any misconceptions or loopholes when this policy is implemented!” Ferdinand says. “This policy must be perfect to breed the most success!”

 

“Must you project your voice so loudly with every word that comes out of your mouth?” Hubert sighs.

 

“I care quite personally about this idea, Hubert! My voice will carry the same passion in my heart!” Ferdinand says.

 

“Is this that education proposal that has gotten you so excited, Ferdinand? I can hear you from down the halls,” another voice says, and a peer over her shoulder shows Lysithea that it’s Edelgard catching up to them from behind.

 

“Is my voice truly that loud…?” Ferdinand asks, troubled, with a bead of sweat trickling down his brow. “But, yes, Your Majesty. That is the very proposal I will be presenting momentarily. I assure you that my arguments will be able to sway even you with ease.”

 

“We shall see,” Edelgard flashes a small grin. “But do not so count on it.”

 

“You know as well as I do that if a meritocracy is your ultimate goal, then you must establish some way for people outside of the nobility to be able to prove their merits, lest you want to keep those who are not so privileged uneducated and on the bottom rung of society forever,” Lysithea says.

 

Edelgard lets out an amused hum. “You would be correct. Though I shouldn’t be so surprised that the author of the prolific tax reform proposal that’s been applauded throughout the nation has such irrefutable logic.”

 

Lysithea huffs at that. “Let’s just say I know bad taxes when I see them. It wasn’t anything spectacular.”

 

“A member of Her Majesty’s esteemed duo of advisors shouldn’t be devaluing her work so deeply,” Hubert says. 

 

“T...Trio of advisors,” Ferdinand says, deflated. “Do not forget me amongst you two…”

 

“Enough of that,” Edelgard shakes her head, though she still holds that same bemused smile on her lips. “We’re going to be late if we keep going at this rate.”

 

Lysithea lets out a sigh. “I’m almost finished reorganizing these papers—”

 

“Lady Ordelia!”

 

Furrowing her brow in a mix of annoyance at that name and confusion, Lysithea turns to the source of the voice, seeing a guard hurrying her way. She stops in her tracks, as does everyone else in the group.

 

“What is it?” she asks.

 

The soldier comes to a halt and stands at attention, bowing his head. “A messenger from House Ordelia has appeared at the palace gates in frantic search of you! He says he has dire news concerning the condition of your family’s estate!” 

 

Lysithea’s eyes widen slightly, and she looks back at the others in surprise. They all look back at her with the same concern and confusion, and Ferdinand is the first to break the silence by reaching out and taking the stack of papers into his arms.

 

“Please, allow me…” he says carefully, otherwise softspoken and of few words as compared to usual.

 

“Go,” Edelgard says with a firm nod. “We won’t approve anything without giving you the opportunity to look the proposal over and contribute to its amendments. You can rejoin us later.”

 

Lysithea spares Hubert a glance as well, seeing him nod too. She clenches her jaw tightly and looks back to the guard. “Take me to him. I need to hear it from him.”

 

“Please, follow me, Lady Ordelia!” the guard bows before starting in a certain direction.

 

It takes a few seconds for Lysithea to follow him, her expression a grimace. “Please stop calling me that…” she mutters to herself, but she ultimately starts walking after the soldier.

 

As she walks, a pit of dread wells in her stomach, and she balls her fists at her sides. She already knows that the news that awaits her cannot be anything good, and she tries to prepare herself for the many possible announcements could be made. Has one of her parents passed away? Are the people starting to revolt? Is there some sort of natural disaster threatening the territory? Is a neighboring territory stirring up trouble?

 

Each possibility worsens that pit of dread in her stomach, and Lysithea can feel her mouth start to go dry. Eventually she decides that fretting over every possibility is going to do her more harm than good, and she forces herself to push that hypothesizing out of her mind. All she can do is steel herself for the news she’s about to receive, choosing to just wait and see before working herself up before even hearing it.

 

“He wished to deliver the news in private. He is just ahead in an unused office,” the guard reports. “Do you need me present in the room with you?”

 

“I can handle myself,” Lysithea shakes her head. “Wait here.”

 

The guard nods and quickly takes up position by the door once Lysithea lets herself inside. When she steps into the room, she can see a man a few years older than her with shoulder-length black hair pacing about the room, disheveled and with his suit in tatters. Some blood stains his clothes, immediately catching Lysithea’s eye and filling her with a rush of panic.

 

“Osric!” Lysithea stammers, quickly crossing the room to his side. “What has happened to you?!”

 

“I-I’m sorry to frighten you, Lady Lysithea,” Osric says guiltily, averting his gaze. “I ran here as quickly as I could at the request of your father. The journey…was not kind to me.”

 

“Let me heal you,” Lysithea says sternly, her hands already aglow with light magic. She doesn’t give Osric the opportunity to resist before she begins the spell.

 

“I’m sorry for this burden,” Osric says in a quiet voice, his eyes trained on the floor. 

 

“Stop that,” Lysithea shakes her head. “Tell me what happened. That’s why you’re here, is it not?”

 

Osric slowly nods his head, and he lets out a breath to feel the relief of the healing magic on his wounds. “House Ordelia… It has been compromised. Your father tells me this isn’t the first time, either.”

 

Lysithea’s gaze snaps up to meet Osric’s own in a flash, shocked. “Compromised? By who?!”

 

“The same as the last time, I’ve been told,” Osric says gravely. “Your father sent me away shortly after they arrived so they wouldn’t notice me there. I only managed to catch a glimpse of one, but… they looked like Imperial mages.”

 

Her surprised eyes slowly come to narrow, a carefully contained fury building inside of her. “They’re not from the Empire.”

 

“You know of them?” Osric asks, surprised.

 

Lysithea nods her head rigidly. “They infiltrated our territory nearly 18 years ago, long before you were employed as a butler. Our house has barely even began to recover from the damage they caused.”

 

Orsic’s jaw visibly clenches as Lysithea tells him the tale. “Count Voltemand told me to relay this news onto you, saying you would know a way to correct this problem. I’m sorry I do not have a letter or anything from him… Once he became aware of their presence, I was set off immediately. There was no time for anything else.”

 

“Stop apologizing so much,” Lysithea says quietly, her concern otherwise unspoken. “I need to speak with the Emperor. As much as I would like to tear apart every one of those mages right now… we need to be smart about this. There’s a larger threat lurking in the dark that we have to be mindful of. We need tact.”

 

“Something you don’t have,” Osric jokes in a quiet voice, allowing himself a fleeting smile.

 

“Why do you think I’m leaving the planning to someone else?” Lysithea replies, and even though her tone isn’t very playful, it’s clear that she’s playing along.

 

But that doesn’t mean that Osric can keep up with such a lighthearted diversion, and he watches as Lysithea pulls away from his side to go to the door. “Thank you for your help, Lysithea. I’m sorry that I had to disturb you in the capital. Everyone in the estate knows how much you’re enjoying yourself here and how you’ve found a place to belong,” he pauses for a moment, before gently adding, “Your father is proud of you.”

 

Lysithea feels a rush of emotion well in her throat, but she swallows it down and shakes her head, coming to a stop. “I thought I told you to stop apologizing.”

 

“My mistake,” Osric says with a bow of his head.

 

Lysithea glances back at him and takes a step forward, but she can’t move too far, since a question nags at her ever since Osric mentioned her father. “…And my mother?”

 

The hesitation in Osric’s voice tells it all. “...She does not speak of you often, but she is proud as well. I know it.”

 

Lysithea’s gaze falls to the ground and a frown pulls at her lips, though she shoves those feelings aside and refocuses herself. “Right. Have the guard escort you to the infirmary to treat you properly. We will be returning to Ordelia territory soon, and you’ll be home before you know it.”

 

Osric raises an eyebrow. Won’t she be returning home, too? “Yes, Lady Lysithea. I will await your decision.”

 

Lysithea nods her head and leaves the room, letting out a deep, burdened breath as she does so. She lowers her shoulders, only noticing now how high and tense they were. Yet even as she does so, she doesn’t feel any less tense.

 

Those who slither in the dark… She supposes their return was only inevitable after the end of the war against the Church. Still, their motives perplex her. Why have they infiltrated her house again? What could possibly be their goal that drives them?

 

She lets out another breath, her gaze flitting about the room, anxious. She needs to meet with everyone again. This isn’t something she can manage on her own.


When Ferdinand’s proposal briefing ends and everyone gathers their materials to dismiss the session for the day, there is an unspoken question aimed towards Lysithea that’s practically tangible through the silence. What was that messenger all about? they’re all thinking. She knows it. Ferdinand doesn’t even attempt to hide his stare, though Hubert’s eyes on her are far more disguised; she can only discern them when she feels that chill upon her skin.

 

Though Edelgard doesn’t operate that passively. Once she finishes gathering her affairs, she addresses Lysithea directly. 

 

“What was the nature of the situation with your estate?” Edelgard asks, no emotional bias to her voice, merely professional curiosity. “If it was a personal matter, then I do not wish to pry.”

 

Lysithea shakes her head. “No, it’s more serious than that,” she says. A beat of pause follows before Lysithea tersely relays the news to her. “They’re back.”

 

Edelgard’s gaze snaps up from the papers in her hands to meet Lysithea’s in a split-second. Before she can inquire further, she’s beaten to the punch by Ferdinand.

 

“Who’s back?” Ferdinand asks.

 

“Those who slither in the dark,” Hubert snarls, his tone filled with disgust.

 

“What are they planning…” Edelgard grumbles, her hands turning into fists where they rest on the table.

 

“I don't know, but my father has asked for my help. I need to figure out how to fix this,” Lysithea says.

 

“The Imperial forces haven't fully disseminated following the end of the war,” Ferdinand says. “We can rally them back to arms and take back House Ordelia—”

 

“Impossible,” Hubert says firmly. “Their reach extends far beyond whatever forces they have stationed in House Ordelia. An overt attack would cause them to unleash the full extent of their power on us within seconds.”

 

“Then we find their stronghold and target there and House Ordelia to save them from their dastardly clutches!” Ferdinand says.

 

“Hubert,” Edelgard cuts in. “How far are you in discerning the location of their stronghold?”

 

Hubert stays quiet for a moment, crossing his arms. “Not as far as I would like to be. Please forgive me, Your Majesty..”

 

“Enough,” Edelgard shakes her head. “If an overt attack is impossible, then we must act covertly. Lysithea and I will make the journey to House Ordelia to uncover what we can.”

 

“‘We’?” Lysithea furrows her eyebrows. “Are we sure that’s a good idea? They know who you are. If they notice you making a personal house visit, they’ll know something is up, and they’ll act accordingly,” she says darkly. “And you know that’s not a good thing.”

 

“Then we can send Hubert alongside you so he can ascertain their stronghold’s location!” Ferdinand interjects.

 

Edelgard shakes her head again. “His main network of information can only be accessed through Enbarr. He’d be of much more use here than he would in House Ordelia.”

 

“Then send me!” Ferdinand says. “Anything is more practical than sending you, Edelgard! It’s too dangerous!”

 

“I cannot agree to that, as well,: Edelgard says. “Your policy work cannot be halted now. The Prime Minister’s position is too key for a leave of absence in the midst of policy reform and implementation. My responsibilities, on the other hand, can be divided and partitioned to each of my high officers in my absence.”

 

Lysithea watches Edelgard carefully as she speaks, her expression skeptical and her arms crossed over her chest. For the life of her, she cannot pin down Edelgard’s motives when otherwise, it’s quite easy to discern them. “Why are you so hellbent on joining me, Edelgard?” she asks warily, her eyes narrowed.

 

“I will not stand aside as my uncle and his followers stage a direct act of aggression against one of my main advisors, not when this isn’t the first time they’ve done so, either,” Edelgard says gravely, her eyes meeting Lysithea’s own, steeled in determination. “They are taking risks, and so shall we. We no longer require their alliance— they know this. They are moving to get a foothold into the Empire to strike, and your territory is the stepping stone. I’m finished with setting aside my grievances with them. Now, I act.”

 

“Your Majesty, I highly suggest you reconsider—” Hubert begins, though he’s interrupted.

 

“You know what I say is true, Hubert,” Edelgard counters. “Any sort of appeasement or turning the other cheek will only come to hurt us in the long run. They’re moving to strike, and we have to act accordingly.”

 

Letting out a sharp breath, Lysithea clenches her jaw and lowers her gaze. There’s little she can do to refute with that logic, and she knows that well. Now, all she can do is find a way to make this plan move as smoothly as possible. “...Then we’ll need a cover that makes this visit seem like just a coincidence, and that would warrant a long stay.”

 

“You can negotiate a new trading treaty with the capital!” Ferdinand says. 

 

“Something that was already done with my father a month ago,” Lysithea sighs. “At this point, a revision would only warrant a weeklong stay at the most, if one of us pretends to play hardball long enough.”

 

“The other territories would think we’re playing favorites with Count Ordelia if they learned about another trade deal so quickly after the first,” Hubert says.

 

Edelgard looks to Lysithea, and they meet eyes, with Lysithea looking at Edelgard expectantly for any ideas, given this is all at her insistence. Though Edelgard doesn’t speak up, and Lysithea sighs again and closes her eyes, lowering her head. She wracks her head for any reason she’d have to bring Edelgard back to House Ordelia. She even tries to think of ways she could take Edelgard with her outside of anything political or relating to the Empire, like as a friendly visit. Yet, they’d have trouble justifying themselves if Lysithea brought Edelgard home as just a friend—

 

Lysithea swallows, regretting the idea as soon as her stream of consciousness leads her there. She tries to pretend like she never thought of everything, but her expression must have given her away.

 

“Have you thought of a plan?” Edelgard asks.

 

Lysithea hesitates. “Y…Yes, but it’s not a good one. Forget about it. Let me try thinking for a little while longer.”

 

Edelgard shakes her head. “Anything is better than nothing. Let’s hear it.”

 

Lysithea has to let out a deep breath to ready herself, and she can feel a fluster brew in her cheeks just thinking about it. It doesn’t help that Hubert and Ferdinand are in the room with them, making it all the more difficult to share the ridiculous idea that’s crossed her mind.

 

“The…The ring,” Lysithea begins, her voice just barely level. “We can return to my territory to receive the ring that’s been in my family for generations.”

 

“A...ring?” Edelgard asks, raising an eyebrow in confusion.

 

Lysithea slowly nods her head. “If we go to get the ring, we can introduce you to my parents, and… we’ll have the issue of event planning as an excuse for us to stay for an extended amount of time. It…It might work.”

 

Edelgard still looks at Lysithea, confused by her vague terms. Yet Hubert seems to understand them, prompting him to speak up.

 

“...Lysithea,” Hubert begins warily. “Are you proposing that you and Her Majesty use a wedding engagement as a ruse to return to House Ordelia?”

 

Edelgard’s eyes snap back to Lysithea in that moment, slightly widened from surprise. Ferdinand’s expression is far less muted in terms of his complete shock.

 

“I do not believe that ‘propose’ is an appropriate word to use in this context, Hubert…” Ferdinand stammers, his face reddening from embarrassment.

 

“Is this true, Lysithea?” Edelgard asks, still unable to fully mask her surprise, and frankly confusion. “Is this your plan?”

 

Lysithea doesn’t trust herself to speak immediately, and she reluctantly nods her head. “It...is a foolish idea. Let me think of something else, please—”

 

“No, I—” Edelgard clears her throat. “This might actually provide us with sufficient enough time to accomplish everything we must. Wedding planning, especially among nobility, is an arduous process. We will be able to stay for quite a while in order to properly sort out the arrangement…”

 

Lysithea can feel herself tense from disbelief, startled that Edelgard is even entertaining her idea. “Are you sure about this?”

 

“Are you?” Edelgard asks. “This is your territory on the line, and your family in danger. How far are you willing to go to protect them?”

 

Lysithea’s jaw tightens the more she holds eye contact with Edelgard. It’s a challenge and Lysithea knows it well, and Lysithea can feel herself unwilling to fail. The answer is unmistakable. When her family has been the crux of her motivation since enrolling in the Officers Academy, even to siding with the Empire in the war to avenge their suffering, she knows full well deep down that there’s no lengths that she wouldn’t go to for their sake.

 

“Whatever it takes,” Lysithea replies in a low, grave voice. 

 

“As am I,” Edelgard responds with equal conviction. “I will put an end to this alliance with my uncle as soon as we are able. It’s high time that I hold them accountable for everything they’ve done— to us. To you.”

 

Lysithea’s expression falters at that last addendum to Edelgard’s words, but she composes herself enough to nod her head. 

 

Hubert crosses his arms and clears his throat, his eyes closed in displeasure. “If this is the course of action we will take, then we must take great care in discerning the details. A ruse of this nature can only be successful if we are thorough, and committed.”

 

“And I will reorganize duties among the ministers and high officers,” Ferdinand says after a pause.

 

“Then it is settled,” Edelgard says, glancing at Lysithea. “Once we have detailed everything, we will make the journey to your territory. Does that sound agreeable to you?”

 

“Yes,” Lysithea says with a short breath. “I’ll go inform Osric…”

 

Everyone files out of the room after that, though Lysithea lingers behind. She wrings her hands together, closing her eyes and shaking her head to herself.

 

She’s willing to do anything for the sake of her family, but that doesn’t mean that she has to like it...


The carriage ride to Ordelia territory from Enbarr is done in mostly silence. 

 

Lysithea and Edelgard sit on opposite sides of the carriage, and Lysithea has both her arms and her legs crossed, her head low and her eyes closed. For a good portion of the ride, Edelgard has her gaze fixated out of the small window to the outside, watching the passing scenery. The closer they get to the old border between the Empire and the Alliance, the greener the land becomes.

 

Though, even with the scenery, sometimes Edelgard can’t help but glance Lysithea’s way. Lysithea doesn’t look up to catch Edelgard when she does so, but she can feel her gaze on her. Unlike the chills that course through Lysithea’s spine whenever Hubert nears her, Lysithea can discern Edelgard’s presence through a sudden flash of heat that hits her head and then swarms her all at once. Whenever that burst of heat occurs, Lysithea knows Edelgard’s looking at her.

 

At one point, when the warmth is particularly strong, Lysithea lifts her head and opens her eyes, meeting Edelgard’s gaze. Edelgard doesn’t flinch, nor does she seem surprised that Lysithea knew she was watching her; instead, she just holds Lysithea’s gaze for a moment, expression plain and pensive. Lysithea clenches her jaw. Edelgard always looks plainer and less hardened with her hair down. It just makes her gaze on her all the more…delicate. Like they’re already pretending.

 

Have they already started?

 

“What?” Lysithea asks amidst the silence. Neither of them spoke for a long time since meeting each other’s gaze.

 

Edelgard shakes her head. “Nothing. You just looked bothered.”

 

“Ah,” Lysithea hums, looking away.

 

“Is something bothering you?”

 

Lysithea lets out a breath and blinks, staring at the carriage wall to the side. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

 

Edelgard’s eyebrows knit together in a flash of concern. “Having second thoughts?”

 

“No,” Lysithea sighs, burdened. “Our goal is more important than the means, and nothing will change that for me. I’m just…hung up on the means.”

 

Edelgard lets out an amused hum, but she doesn’t smile. “It’s a bit unconventional, I understand. But the ruse shouldn’t be too hard to maintain. We detailed things rather meticulously. I doubt between you and I that there’ll be any issues sticking to that protocol.”

 

Lysithea closes her eyes. Yes, they did comb over each and every little detail. Almost embarrassingly so— to the limits of affection they can and cannot bring themselves to engage in. Everything is so well-thought out, and Lysithea knows that they’re not the type to go past the outlines they set.

 

Yet she still feels that dread and discomfort at the thought of it all, of being so intimate with Edelgard, in front of her parents, and to have all of it be a lie, no less—

 

Lysithea doesn’t respond. She just looks out the window, feeling a miserable frown pull at her lips.

 

Edelgard turns her gaze to the window when she realizes Lysithea won’t reply, and she tilts her head, feeling a pleasant contentment wash over her.

 

“I never knew the Ordelia territory was so beautiful.”

 

Lysithea hums in confusion at first, but when Edelgard’s words settle in for her, she looks away again and slowly nods. “We do have impressive greenery and forestry. Our estate is relatively small as to not infringe on the nature around us,” she pauses, adding with a bitter note. “That, and we’re not exactly the most esteemed noble family around.”

 

Edelgard raises an eyebrow to that. “I thought you didn’t care for the high nobility and frivolous displays of wealth.”

 

“I…I don’t,” Lysithea huffs. “I guess I’m just…a little self-conscious. Our estate is nothing like the royal palace in Enbarr.”

 

“Oh, so you think I care about the high nobility and frivolous displays of wealth,” Edelgard flashes a smile. “There’s no need for those reservations, you know. If the wildlife is half as impressive as you say, I’m sure this change in scenery will be a nice change of pace compared to Enbarr.”

 

Lysithea scrunches her nose. “You’re acting like this is a vacation.”

 

“Forgive me for choosing to see something positive in this scenario as opposed to your constant sea of negativity.”

 

There’s a prick to Edelgard’s words that stings, and Lysithea lets out a begrudging sigh. “...You’re right. I’m sorry. This whole thing is stressing me out. I’m worried about my parents.”

 

“We will protect them,” Edelgard says, and her tone is that same hardened one she uses as the Emperor. When Lysithea looks back at her, she can see the deep, determined furrow of Edelgard’s brow to match her resolute words. “Between you and I, we can handle this. Hubert should have information regarding their stronghold soon. Their reign of tyranny over this continent— over us— will soon come to an end. And to that, you have my word.”

 

Lysithea swallows as she holds Edelgard’s gaze, unable to say anything else to that. Fortunately for her, the carriage comes to a stop, and a knock soon comes at the door.

 

“Lady Lysithea, Your Majesty,” Osric says, opening the door. “We have arrived.”

 

Osric holds the door for Lysithea, who makes her dismount from the carriage first. Once she’s on the ground, she turns towards Edelgard and lets out a soft breath to prepare herself before holding out her hand. Edelgard takes a gentle hold of it and uses it to help herself out of the carriage. Once they’re side by side on the ground, they meet each other’s eyes, and there’s an unspoken question shared between them, asking if the other is ready.

 

Edelgard nods, and Lysithea lets out a pointed exhale before turning towards the estate that rests at the end of the stone path. Their hands, still joined from when Lysithea helped Edelgard out of the carriage, slowly move to interlock their fingers, and Lysithea feels a pit of unease surface in her stomach.

 

But she forces herself to pay that no heed, and to move forward.

 

And Edelgard’s hand in hers, a comforting presence yet still so firm and resolute, helps to spur Lysithea onward.

 

In the heat of that moment, all Lysithea can feel is conflicting emotion.