On the twenty-seventh day of the Ethereal Moon, something strange arose within the capitol city of Enbarr. The day had long since been observed as the day of Saint Cichol. But in the aftermath of the war, worship of Seiros and her followers had fallen into decline. The Goddess was apart from these on-goings, of course. Not even the Emperor claimed dominion of the heavens, and so the belief remained untried. Those of the Saints was another matter. The Imperial citizens let each Saint’s day pass as any other, bland and unremarkable.
Save, for some reason or another, the day of Saint Cichol.
This happenstance did not go without notice, and within the palace a rumor stirred. Word traveled among servant and former nobility alike, until it finally came upon the ear of a certain Prime Minister. And so, as is the nature of his station, this odd rumor finally reached the Emperor’s ear.
“Celebration of Cichol?” Edelgard pursed her lips. Her tongue lingered upon the words, coloring them with marked disdain. She set down her quill. “Explain.”
Across from her, Ferdinand straightened. The man smoothed down his cravat with a nervous smile. Over his shoulder, Hubert could just be seen by the door. Her retainer was strangely silent, appearing content with letting the other man speak. It was uncharacteristic, and the Emperor frowned at the both of them. Ferdinand cleared his throat primly.
“Well, it would appear to be a holiday, Your Majesty. One that has spread across the whole of Enbarr. That is, if the cooks are to be believed.”
“I asked you to explain, Lord Aegir, not to merely state the obvious.” Edelgard leaned back in her chair, sighing. “Honestly. I may not support the Saint Days, but I know very well what they are.”
“Of course! I would never imply you didn’t. Yet...” Ferdinand’s smile changed into something far more sheepish. “It seems the Day of Saint Cichol and this supposed ‘celebration’ are rather different.”
“Much as it pains me to admit this, he is correct.” Hubert cut in suddenly. He, stepped out from the Prime Minister’s shadow. “The two are unrelated to one another. Other than the commonality of being associated with a Saint, there isn’t anything suggestive of Church doctrine.”
“I don’t understand.” The Emperor took in a deep breath and rubbed her temple. “You’re telling me that the people are worshiping Cichol, yet it has nothing to do with the Church? Do the both of you realize how ludicrous that sounds?”
“I hesitate at calling what they’re doing worship.” Ferdinand rubbed his jaw uneasily. “It’s more...hmm. How would you put it, Hubert?”
Edelgard looked to the dark-haired man, eyebrow quirking. The lack of formal address peaked her interest. While the two men had seemed to reach an understanding in the wake of the war, neither shied from needling the other. Still, they had managed to maintain a professional, if distant, relationship. Or so she had believed. Hubert, for his part, did not react either way. The man’s lime gaze remained steady.
“I would venture to call it reverent.” He said after a time. “But not with the fanatical devotion typically seen among the faithful. By all accounts, this holiday does not seem to be completely dedicated to Saint Cichol.”
“This isn’t clarifying anything for me.” The Emperor narrowed her eyes, irritation growing. A monstrous headache loomed. It had been a long morning, replete with ambitious up-starts clamoring for favor and the Ministry dogging her every step. Combined with news of civil unrest stirring in the former Kingdom, Edelgard was well on her way to a premature coronary. Now this? She took a steadying breath.
“Despite bringing word of this holiday to my attention, neither of you seem well-informed. I expected better from my Prime Minister and Spymaster.”
“I apologize, Your Majesty.” Hubert bowed low, genuinely contrite. “Normally this matter would be easy to settle. My resources are many, as you know well. However, the situation is more complicated than expected.”
“In what way?”
“The people.” Ferdinand answered simply. “We tried reaching out and gathering information, but no one is willing to give us a clear answer. Even Hubert’s men have been oddly reticent.”
“Much to my ire.” Her retainer exhaled sharply through his nose. “Whether by deliberate ignorance, or an inability to serve their task...it vexes me greatly. Whatever this holiday involves, the ones who birthed its inception do not want such knowledge reaching the Throne’s attention.”
“That’s only a theory, Hubert.” Ferdinand glanced at the other man, scowling.
“One which hold weight. Who knows what insidious plans are afoot under the guise of mummery.”
“Yes, yes, but that does not mean you should worry Her Majesty without need. As far as we know, this could be harmless. Throwing around baseless conjecture gets us nowhere.”
“Gentlemen.” Edelgard cleared her throat sharply, silencing them both. Their bickering was a tired habit she had no patience for at the moment. “Do try and concentrate. I have other matters that need attending to, and would rather not spend my valuable time hearing you argue.”
“My apologies, Your Majesty.” Hubert threw one last glare in the other man’s direction before turning back to his liege. “While we cannot say for certain the aim or intent, one thing is made clear. This celebration is an unknown; one we must be wary of.”
“I agree, but I say we go about this with care. You do not want to stir trouble over the innocuous. Goddess knows the people would see censure as an act of tyranny.” The Prime Minister folded his arms, confident. Edelgard eyed him for a long moment.
“You make a fine point, Lord Aegir. I thank you for your counsel.”
The man seemed to preen over the praise, chest puffing. He had cast much of his pompous attitude aside after the war, and taken heart in his station. That did not mean he had completely shed his enormous sense of pride. Hubert eyed him, expression a mix of irritated and analytical.
“That’s all well and good, but the people’s opinion should not be a primary concern. If this holiday is merely pretext for stirring unrest...” Her retainer trailed off, gaze shadowed with dark implication. Hubert hardly needed to finish the thought. The Emperor knew her rule was not secure, as of yet. While the razing of Fhirdiad had done much to sway the people in favor of the Empire, there were still those reluctant to accept the changes implemented. The nobility who had lost their titles were often vocal in their disapproval, as were those who still wore the vestments of Seiros. Thankfully, they had yet to act in earnest. Her military power was a force few wished to reckon with. The Strike Force, even less than that. But a revolution was not completely out of the question.
“Perhaps I should bring in a few of these revelers. A direct question from their Emperor would dissuade them from providing excuses.” Edelgard stood, and leaned her hands atop her desk. “Ferdinand, gather the guard and meet me by the palace gate. I will bring the truth of this matter to light.”
“That sounds dire.” An amused voice sounded near the office door. Edelgard blinked, craning her head. Glittering blue eyes met her own. Byleth, clad in dark training garb, loped inside. The woman was covered in a light sheen of sweat, having evidently returned from a vigorous training session. Her hair was damp, slicked away from her face in distracting sweeps of teal. Despite present company, Edelgard found herself flushing; quick and faint.
“General Eisner.” The Emperor gathered herself, glancing quickly at her lover. “You’ve come at an excellent time. Would you be so kind as to assist the Prime Minister?”
“I am at your disposal, Your Majesty.” Byleth looked to her, seeming contemplative. “But may I know what it is I will be assisting with? Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Not at all, Professor.” Ferdinand cheerfully offered. The man swept back his hair with a flourish. Hubert was far more sedate in comparison. He offered Byleth a slight bow.
“That is a matter of some debate, General. News of the Celebration of Cichol has reached us, and we were debating whether or not this could be prelude to something...dangerous.”
“Oh.” Edelgard watched fondly as Byleth tilted her head. The woman often did as such when faced with new information. Her lover was silent for a time, mulling over something unknown. Then her lips curved into a perplexed frown. “You mean that odd little festival by the docks? I don’t see how that would be dangerous.”
“Docks?” The Emperor flinched back in surprise. “Byleth, you know something of this?”
“The army has been talking about it during drills.” The taller woman lifted her shoulders into a light shrug. “They invited me down to see it, but I didn’t want to go without you.”
Byleth paused, looking mildly conflicted.
“I suppose I wasn’t meant to tell you, but I don’t like keeping secrets between us. Doesn’t sit right.”
Edelgard didn’t have response for that. Across from the desk, the two men were staring at her lover with varying amounts of confusion.
“General, are you saying that you knew of this before hand?” Hubert asked slowly. Byleth just nodded, airy and unconcerned.
“For about a week now. It sounded harmless enough to me, but they said not to tell you.” She turned her head to flash a gentle smile at Edelgard. “Does this mean you’re interested in seeing it? We could go together, if you like.”
The Emperor placed a hand to her brow. She exhaled, long and slow.
“Gentlemen, if you would leave me and General Eisner alone for a moment?”
Ferdinand opened his mouth to object. Hubert placed a firm hand to his arm, stopping him from doing so. They shared a look, one Edelgard couldn’t decipher, then both bowed formally.
“By your leave, Your Majesty. We’ll be waiting in the hall. Come, Ferdinand.”
“The gall of you, to order your Prime Minister.” The fairer man grumbled, but moved to follow. He sent a speculative glance between the Emperor and her general. Then, with a twirl of his cape, both disappeared out the door. The Emperor relaxed her stance.
“Finally. Byleth, can you please-”
Edelgard's voice was stolen as her lips were seized into a firm kiss. She startled, caught off guard, but Byleth was undaunted. The woman pressed close, cornering the Emperor against her desk. Hands sought beneath silken fabric, tracing patterns along skin and cloth. Edelgard bit back a yelp as her lover attempted to lick into her mouth. She turned her head, breaking the contact, and sputtered.
Cobalt eyes just stared down at her, mirth and want deepening the color.
Edelgard blushed further at the husked tone, heart galloping. That voice was not often heard outside the bedroom, yet here they were. She brought her hand up and pushed the taller woman back a step.
“I didn’t get you alone for...this.” The Emperor tried to compose her flustered expression, yet it was proving rather difficult. Byleth wasn’t often aggressive, but their trip to Brigid had loosened the reins so to speak. Edelgard swallowed hard, feeling heat roll off her lover in waves. She tried to hold the woman’s gaze without revealing her scattered concentration. “The Celebration of Cichol. I wanted to speak about what you’ve heard.”
“Ah.” Byleth pulled away, blinking. She smiled apologetically. “Forgive me, El. You don’t often order everyone else away, unless...well...”
“Be that as it may–” Edelgard coughed before straightening her clothing. She ignored the draft she felt where eager hands had pulled. “This is important, and I need you to focus. You said the army has been talking about it?”
“Yes. Enthusiastically too.” The general looked up thoughtfully. “I don’t know the specifics, but it originated somewhere in Faerghus. Apparently, a group of Imperial scholars got wind of the practice and decided to spread word into the Empire.”
“For what purpose?” Edelgard demanded. Byleth rubbed her neck, brows pulling into a deep furrow.
“I’m not sure. It might be something simple as cultural diffusion.” Her voice changed into something more impartial. It was vaguely reminiscent of their academy days, and Edelgard nearly smiled at the nostalgia. “I was told the Celebration revolved around something Saint Cichol had done. I never got a definitive answer, sadly, but there didn’t seem to be anything malicious about it.”
“If that’s true, why did they want you to keep it from me?”
Byleth did not quite pout, but it was close. The woman’s mouth twisted.
“They seemed to be under the assumption you would put a stop to the holiday.” Her eyes became lidded, tinged with sadness. “I tried to tell them you wouldn’t, but I don’t think they believed me.”
“Well...” Edelgard looked away, focusing her eyes on the far wall. She leaned back on her heel; uneasy. “Considering its origin and the nature of who its venerating...I can’t say I wouldn’t.”
“What?” Genuine surprise flit across Byleth’s face. “But El, it’s not hurting anyone. And everyone seemed so excited.”
“Yes, but who can say this is indeed a simple gathering? What if it’s merely a vehicle to spread anti-Imperial sentiment and Church propaganda?” Edelgard leaned up and pressed a hand to her lover’s cheek. “Byleth, you know how tenuous my reign is. I have the military, but the people? They are still divided. I cannot afford letting anything fracture the foundation we have worked so hard achieve.”
“I can’t deny your logic,” Byleth admitted. The woman slipped into a brief period of silence. Then, quick as lightning, her expression brightened. “How about this? We visit the festival and find the truth in person.”
“Pardon?” The Emperor responded hesitantly. Byleth just smiled, lopsided and warm.
“You want to know if people are spreading dissent, correct? So let’s celebrate among them as normal citizens for a change.” She nodded to herself, anticipation appearing to grow. “We can bring Ferdinand and Hubert too. This way, everyone is satisfied.”
“Byleth, I don’t know if-”
Edelgard stilled, both at the pleading tone and the lips pressed to her palm. Eyes bright and vivid like the sea stared back softly; pleading. It was unfair, the Emperor decided, how easily she was swayed by those eyes. Edelgard breathed out, smiling in resignation.
“You said the festivities are by the docks?”
Byleth’s answering grin was broad. She dipped her head, catching Edelgard in another ardent kiss. The smaller woman allowed herself to fall into it, relaxing under the scent of her lover. She reached up and tangled her hand within damp hair. The taste of salt washed over her tongue, and it reminded her of a night spent along the shore; stars above and sand beneath.
Perhaps the rest of Fόdlan could wait. Just for a bit.
* * *
Despite the years Edelgard had lived within the capitol, the city streets were still an unknown. Her younger years had been spent within the palace walls, huddled behind her mother’s skirts. Father had never mingled with the common folk, and so neither would his family. What little she had seen was usually from within the confines of a carriage. Edelgard had been curious, of course. What child would not ponder the land glimpsed beyond their boundaries? Then, after Thales and all his machinations, there were more important things to think on. Allowing her to run around Enbarr was never his priority, stern task-master that Thales was. Once, her world had been constrained to nothing but him and his plans. But now, she was free and the throne was hers. Which meant so too were these very streets.
The Imperial Palace was nestled within the center of Enbarr. Truthfully, it was an ostentatious monstrosity that she had never particularly cared for. The original building was more modest, built by the first Emperor himself as the tale would have it. It was one of her predecessor’s; presumably Ionius IV, who decided to rework not only the Palatial grounds but the city itself. The man had declared that the Emperor should be at the center of all things, and so every road was constructed to lead back to the Throne. This display of pride and arrogance led to the network of streets which wrapped around Enbarr like a spider’s web. It had some benefits, of course. One of those being a rather straightforward path to the docks.
Edelgard looked around curiously, analyzing every structure as she walked. Winter had gripped the city in full. Snow lined roofs of every size and quality. Frost spread crooked fingers along glass, covering window and shutter both. Ice formed rows of jagged teeth everywhere she looked. Coastal and temperate as it was, Enbarr did not often see such things. However, this winter had been unusually fierce, which made the bustling streets seem rather strange. She had not expected so many people to be about, even with Enbarr holding claim as Fόdlan’s largest city.
A fierce chill was in the air, stealing the Emperor’s breath away. They had all dressed conservatively for this jaunt; a necessary contingency per its covert nature. As such, she had done away with her crown and left her hair free. She doubted anyone would recognize her like this, save for any officers higher in the chain of command. Even then, they likely would not mistake the woman bundled up to her ears as royalty. Edelgard attempted to huddle deeper into her coat.
“Are you cold, El?” At her side, Byleth looked down in concern. The woman had forgone an outer covering herself, merely garbed in a sleeved tunic. She had a high tolerance, they found, for any climate. It helped that Byleth typically radiated heat. The Emperor eyed her lover enviously.
“I’m fine, really. Just impatient to get there.” Edelgard discreetly stretched stiff hands and folded them beneath her arms. “You said it was the next street over?”
“That’s right. Near the central market. At least, that’s where most will be gathering.” Byleth hummed, glancing once more to the shivering Emperor. Her arm lifted in a clear invitation. Not one to let an opportunity pass, Edelgard snuggled into her side. She felt immediate relief, warmth seeping back into her bones.
“I heard there’s to be a smaller event to the north. Right outside the Scholastic Society.” Her lover continued to say. “But I thought this would be more to your taste. Plenty of food, people, and merchant stalls.”
“You know an awful lot about this. Were you really not planning to attend?” Edelgard frowned up at her. Byleth lifted her shoulder into a light shrug
“I thought about it, but I knew I wanted to see everything with you.” Affection glittered in her eyes, and raised the corner of her mouth. “I’m happy we’re going. Even if you think its a ruse.”
Just behind them, a scoff was heard. Edelgard twisted to send the perpetrator a vicious glare. She did not tolerate slights upon her lover’s person. To her surprise, neither Hubert or Ferdinand were looking at them. The men were staring up at a nearby building, the taller of them sneering in particular.
“The crest of Cichol.” Hubert spat the words like a curse. His nose wrinkled with distaste. “Without the Church standard, but it’s still disgusting to see.”
“Well it’s not exactly the same.” Ferdinand chimed in. He scratched his jaw as he stared up at the flag. “Actually, they’re extremely dissimilar now that I look at it. And what are those odd plants meant to symbolize?”
“I’ve never seen its like before.” Hubert’s scowl deepened. “White berries, is it? Paired with a Saint's crest. Mayhap this is a code of some sort.”
“It could just be the traditional emblem for this celebration.”
“Don’t be a fool. Surely there’s a deeper meaning there.”
“Or it’s just a simple flag. Completely meaningless. Only a real fool would see trouble everywhere he looks.”
Edelgard rolled her eyes. Were they really incapable of acting properly? Even at the academy they had never been this combative. Her intervention might be required should they refuse to stop sniping at each other. She heard Byleth chuckle next to her.
“They seem to be getting along well.” The older woman mused. Edelgard clicked her tongue in annoyance.
“Quite. And here I thought they had finally resolved their petty issues. Ever since we returned from Brigid they’ve been behaving like a pair of territorial house cats.”
“Is that what you see?” Byleth’s tone shifted, taking a playful cast. She sounded uncharacteristically sly. The Emperor favored her lover with a perplexed look. She tried to press the on what she meant, but did not get the chance to. A booming voice rang through her ears, piercing the cold air.
“Everyone, gather round! Stop and hear of the Celebration of Cichol!” At the very end of the street, a man shouted atop an apple crate. His arms were filled with paper, all of them rolled and bound with string. A modest crowd had surrounded him, pausing to listen. As Edelgard neared, she took in the man’s measure. At first glance, it seemed he was just a normal citizen. He had an unruly mop of flaxen hair, tied into a messy tail. The clothing he wore was simple, not indicative of wealth, and lacking in the way of Church cloth. The man smiled brightly at the new comers, bearing a row stained teeth.
“Hark, as I speak of a deed which happened long ago. One of generosity, kindness, and self-sacrifice!” He swept his arm wide. “The greatest work of Saint Cichol!”
“That’s hardly a grand accomplishment.” Edelgard could not help grumbling. She felt Byleth laugh quietly, chest shaking against her back.
“Peace, El. I’m sure it was something of note. I don’t think people would be so eager to participate otherwise.”
“Then why have we not heard about it until now? All texts on the Saints paint them as mindless sycophants trailing behind Seiros.”
“You speak true, My Lady.” Hubert sniffed. He weaved through the crowd and stopped by her arm. “If Cichol did anything worthy of veneration it would be heavily documented.”
“That might be the case, but the Church tended to censure anything from that era.” Ferdinand placed a hand on his hip, flashing the taller man a superior grin. “Linhardt made that discovery back at Garreg Mach. It’s just like you to forget something so significant. Right, Your Maje–”
Swiftly, Hubert muffled the other man with his hand. The Prime Minister balked, jumping at the abrupt touch. Edelgard shot them both an unimpressed stare.
“Do try and keep your head about you, Frederick.” She remarked coolly, emphasizing the name. The Emperor looked around the crowd, noticing more than a few curious eyes turned their way. “You as well, Henry. And none of this Lady business. Everyone knows Her Majesty did away with noble titles.”
“The Emperor is a wise woman.” Byleth nodded sagely. She drew Edelgard closer and kissed her temple. Her next words were a mere whisper against ashen hair. “Beautiful too.”
The disguised Emperor fought hard not to react to that. She kept a hard gaze upon the ministers, letting her disapproval be known. They both stole a glance at each other before averting their eyes. Maybe now they would finally behave. Satisfied, Edelgard looked once more to the odd man. The crowd surrounding him had grown, intrigue painted upon each face. The man tossed a pile of scrolls to the air, and many went scurrying to retrieve them. One fell conveniently at her feet. She frowned down at the paper and plucked it off the ground.
“We should be on our way. The sun is beginning to set,” Byleth said, gaze turned to the sky. “I would hate to miss anything.”
“General, can you please at least act like this is a pressing matter?” Hubert groused. The man was still glaring in the distance, lips pursed into a tight line. Byleth paid his rotten mood little heed, merely smiling in the distant way she was known for.
“I am. Failing to see something that comes once a year would be a shame.”
Edelgard sighed, stowing the little scroll away in her coat. There would be time to peruse its mysteries later. For now, she had a moody retainer and oddly irate Prime Minister to attend to. Byleth...was just being Byleth.
“Let’s take our leave. We can’t interrogate this man with so great an audience. It would be best if we sought answers elsewhere.”
With one last glance to the Celebration crier, the Emperor led her party out of the streets and into the lower district. If Ferdinand and Hubert were unusually silent on the trek, she made no mention of it. The Emperor would rather not chance spurring another argument.
* * *
The upper stretch of Enbarr had been rather devoid of the Celebration’s presence. Save for the rare flag or two. By contrast, the docks were a colorful explosion of festivity. White and green ribbons raced up and down buildings and port alike. The market stalls had tripled in quantity and their typical wares were exchanged for foreign oddities. Along the docks itself, people were gathered in droves. Some eating strange, brightly colored sticks; others haggling over trinkets and wrapping them tight in paper. Edelgard had never seen anything of its like, and certainly not within the Empire. Brigid had come close, but the archipelago had a reason to be so uniquely alien.
This, seemingly, had sprung from nothing. She watched as a woman bought a sprig of some sort of, before weaving it into her hair. Edelgard narrowed her eyes as many more followed to do the same. Perhaps Hubert had not been far off in his assumption. The plants seemed to hold some sort of significance. She was unfamiliar with its species, but that did not mean anything. Her tutelage had never encompassed horticulture, nor had she the desire to learn. It reminded the Emperor too much of her mother.
Pushing away those thoughts, Edelgard turned to ask her lover for an opinion. Perhaps Byleth would be a bit more knowledgeable. However, the woman was nowhere in sight. Alarmed, she canted her head in search for the wayward general. Edelgard finally spotted her at a nearby stall, chatting with the merchant amiably. Exasperated, the Emperor trailed after.
“How much for these?” She heard Byleth ask. The woman was holding up a handful of the strange twigs, staring expectantly at the portly stall owner.
“Twenty a piece, so eighty for the lot,” The merchant supplied happily, running a meaty paw along his goatee. “A price you won’t beat anywhere! I can guarantee that.”
“Twenty gold for a little branch?” Edelgard sidled up to them, glaring. “This must be a joke. I’ve had meals that cost less.”
“The nature of the beast, little miss.” The man seemed unconcerned, lifting his shoulders with glib affect. “Rarity drives price, and it was a hurdle just to get these imported from Itha.”
“Why would you do that in the first place? Are these plants really so important?”
The merchant quieted. He favored her with a long look; considering.
“You don’t know? And here I thought everyone in Enbarr had heard by now.”
“Would you mind filling us in?” Byleth inquired, placing a gentle hand along Edelgard’s forearm. The Emperor lifted her brow, but allowed the woman to take over. Impatience often soured her people skills. The merchant appeared to think for a moment. Then he sucked his teeth and scratched the side of his nose.
“Sure, don’t see why not. Mind you, most of the details escape me.” The man twirled one of the twigs, thumb passing across pale berries. “They call it Cichol’s Grace. Might have gone by another name once, but not anymore. Tied to the gifting, it is. The one where Cichol helped that village with those orphans.”
“A village of orphans,” Edelgard repeated slowly. She mulled the information over, incredulous. The merchant snorted and leaned on his stall.
“Not all of them were orphans, ‘course. Just had a bunch of them in the story. Poor and starving village...you know how it goes.”
“Story?” Byleth perked at this. “Do you happen to know it?”
The man shook his head, appearing a bit reluctant.
“Nay, not the full one. Don’t matter much to me either. I’m just here to turn a profit. The working man knows no hardship, after all.”
“How pragmatic of you.” Edelgard remarked dryly. The merchant didn’t seem offended by this. He smiled, close-lipped and just shy of smug.
“Got mouths to feed, little miss. Nothing wrong with that.” His dark eyes shifted to the sprigs in Byleth’s hand. “You buying or…?”
A handful of coin later and both women departed the stand; leaves of Cichol’s Grace weaved behind their ears. Byleth was chuffed, eagerly drinking in the festival sights. Edelgard was less impressed, but she dared not say as much in consideration for her happy love. She didn’t have it in her to dampen the mood. The Emperor stilled as she saw the extra twigs dangling from Byleth’s fingers.
“Where in the world did those two go?” Edelgard exhaled heavily, realizing both of her ministers were now absent. They had likely been distracted by some sort of unrelated nonsense. Hubert had always been focused and diligent, but Ferdinand’s influence was rarely a positive one. Who knew what trouble they would get up to while alone? Byleth didn’t seem worried. She hovered near a food stall, blinking curiously at an array of vibrantly colored candy.
“I’m sure they’re doing fine. Both are more than capable of looking after of themselves.” The older woman hastily purchased two multi-hued sticks. She placed one of them in her mouth, emitting a noise that betrayed her satisfaction. “These are rather good, El. Would you like to try one?”
“Byleth, please concentrate. We came here for reconnaissance; an endeavor that has gone miserably awry.” Edelgard crossed her arms, aggrieved. She tried to keep her features stern. Sadly, the effect might have been lost upon the preoccupied woman. Byleth was gnawing contemplatively at the stick, letting it scrape against her teeth. It was decidedly childish, but rather compelling at the same time. Cute, even. “...Do really like it that much?”
“I do.” Byleth raised her head and swallowed a piece. She flashed a crooked smile; the curve of canine both playful and challenging. “Here. I bought this one for you.”
Edelgard watched as her lover offered the other stick, pinching it between thumb and index. The Emperor eyed it warily. Hard candy was a confectionery favorite in the Empire, but it typically did not come in such a strange form. Stripes of green raced up and down a white surface, melting into one solid color near the tip. Perhaps syrup or filling?
Despite her reservations, Edelgard took the stick and placed one end in her mouth. The taste was sharp. An odd way to describe it, but sweet did not quite fit. Actually, the flavor reminded her of…
“Mint?” Edelgard blurted, surprised. She had never considered that particular herb for candy. Byleth bobbed her head in agreement, locks of teal drifting into her eyes.
“I think you’re right. Clever. Do you think this originated in Faerghus as well?”
“It’s possible, I suppose.” Edelgard bit off the end, and chewed thoughtfully. It was nice, if a tad much to be eating on a chilly day. Inhaling created the oddest sensation upon her tongue “Well, I must admit its a far sight better than that Brigid taffy we ate. Though you didn’t seem opposed to that either.”
“A picky mercenary is a hungry one.” Byleth recited clearly. She devoured the rest of her treat in three large bites. “My father taught me that. There were many jobs where a village was too far and game sparse. He had a knack for creating edible meals from practically nothing. If we ever camp in the wilderness, I could show you.”
“As fine an offer that is, I pray we never have need of such skills.” The Emperor paused, thinking. “Ingrid might be interested. She’s a surprisingly talented outdoors-man.”
“It’s rare that you compliment another person so readily.” Byleth’s eyed gleamed with something unknown. One any other person, Edelgard might have named that emotion for envy. But her lover was odd in the best of ways, and her thoughts often did not follow the same track as everyone else. “Should I be jealous, El?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. The thought never crossed my mind, and assuredly not in hers.” Unlike Byleth, she took her time with the flavored stick. The Emperor did not have a similar excuse for a lack of manners. The gleam in cobalt eyes changed and sharpened, ease traded for unabashed intensity. The woman appeared unnervingly catlike as her mouth slanted upward.
“I can't say I’m convinced. After all, five years is a long time. Can you honestly say attraction never sparked?”
“Wha–” Edelgard flushed, mortified. “Are you mad? Of course not! She’s a friend and nothing more.”
“Friends often ignite into more. Was that not how it was for us?” Byleth leaned away, wistful. “Words are one thing, but I’m afraid proof may be needed.”
“Proof? How...” Edelgard trailed off, realization dawning. She glowered darkly, not amused in the slightest. “This is a trick. And I bet I can name the person who put you up to it.”
Byleth just laughed, expression smoothing into easy mirth.
“You’re too quick for me, El. I’ll have to tell Dorothea her ploy failed.” She stared down at Edelgard, adoration softening her features. “A shame. I really wanted to fool you for once.”
“Why exactly would you need to? And what was all that about?” Edelgard demanded, more than a little baffled.
“Can’t say.” Byleth stepped close, and swept back silver locks. The tip of her fingers hovered above pale skin. “But let’s pretend I am a tad envious. Would it not be prudent to assuage my fears? I think a simple kiss shall do.”
Edelgard stared back at her, a confusing mix of charmed and annoyed. But she could never refuse her lover anything. She threaded her hands around Byleth’s neck and pulled the woman into a firm embrace. Their lips slid together, perfect and familiar; a dance they both knew by heart. The winter air was barely felt as they melded together; hands catching quick underneath coat and along nape. When Edelgard pulled back, she felt pleasantly warm. Byleth seemed to be the same, pink dusting evenly across her cheeks.
“Are you convinced?” The Emperor looked away, and crossed her arms. A noise of amusement rumbled from her lover’s throat.
“For now, yes. I may need more in the future.”
“...You’re insufferable.” Edelgard sighed, rolling her eyes.
“True,” Byleth admitted. She swooped down, stealing another quick kiss. “But I’m also yours. It’s an immutable fact.”
“Yes, well...” Composure regained, Edelgard turned her back. Their task had been waylaid long enough. Since Byleth was content to traipse around the festival aimlessly, it would be up to the Emperor to set them back on track. She couldn’t afford to be distracted again, especially with their party spliced in two. Edelgard looked around once more, tempted to shout for their lost friends. Surely the men would come if they heard their sovereign calling? Her musings were halted as a faint noise caught her attention. Byleth appeared to hear it too, head tilted to the side.
“Is that music?”
“I believe it is.” Edelgard squinted, able to make out a thick crowd of people in the distance. The unmistakable sight of wild tawny hair revealed the location of a certain Prime Minister. “Why did I bother bringing Ferdinand? I should have just left him at the palace. At least Hubert wouldn’t have wandered off in pursuit of that layabout.”
“That’s just your anger talking. I think you’re secretly fond of him.”
“Fond is a gross exaggeration. I tolerate him at best. If he wasn’t so efficient at his job, I would be far more incensed.” Edelgard murmured. She pinched the bridge of her nose, shoulders slumping. “Let’s just retrieve him. Hopefully, Hubert isn’t too far away either.”
“I’m sure they’re together.” Byleth was firm in her certainty, drawing a long look from the Emperor. Her confidence was strange as it was puzzling. Was there some pertinent information Edelgard was missing? Save for an increase in their vitriol, she hadn’t noticed any significant change. No. She was probably just overthinking it.
“If you insist. Let’s go find out, shall we?”
* * *
In the end, neither of their predictions came to pass. The Prime Minister had seemingly disappeared once more, and the dark form of her retainer was no where in sight. Momentarily defeated, and inordinately miffed, Edelgard forewent her search. She took in the whirling chaos that had opened up before her.
At the eastern edge of the docks, market stalls retreated in favor of an open cabal. The area was free of ice and snow, creating a floor to which many could pass with ease. Dancers weaved up and down the planks; movements haphazard. It was a far cry from the perfumed and proper who consisted of Enbarr’s upper echelon. These were the common people; lacking in pedigree, but bolder in heart. They smiled openly as a folk band, consisting of worn drums and a smattering of flutists, played briskly in the shadows.
Edelgard watched them for a moment, rapt. She had seen something similar in Brigid. A frenetic sort of enthusiasm that spread and consumed like an ocean tide. Originally, the Emperor had assumed the energy felt there was something unique to the archipelago. Yet here it was, displayed without shame in the crown jewel of the Empire. It disarmed her, but quickly realized that it shouldn’t. These were the people she had fought for. Not just those who had bled for her cause; but the many who could not stand with her yet placed their faith nonetheless. Edelgard observed their unguarded interactions. The way they laughed and smiled. The simple trading of hands as they passed along their gifts.
Perhaps the inception of this Celebration was not the portent of revolution the Emperor had thought. If it could bring this much joy...elicit such genuine delight...who was she to stop it? Suddenly, it felt incredibly foolish to believe all this was created with malice. Edelgard looked to Byleth, doubt growing. If the other woman sensed her unease, she did not let on. Her lover was watching the dancers with interest, eyes reflecting the violet-blue beams of twilight. She was lovely in her genuine appreciation, and the Emperor did not wish to tear her from that. A thought came to her; one that stirred recent memory.
Deigning not to disturb the woman by her side, Edelgard fished out the scroll she had retrieved. She stared at it in silence, as if all the answers in the world lay in her hand. And perhaps, this one time, it did. She pulled the string loose and unfurled the paper with a snap of her wrist. The sheet was heavily creased, edges curling deeply upon each corner, but the words were still legible. In truth, she had not expected much in the way of coherency. Nor eloquence. But the story inked before her illustrated the trouble with assumption.
At the dawning of the Empire, long before Fόdlan split into three disparate parts, Saint Cichol walked the land. Honored by Goddess and fellow alike, he enjoyed great privilege as only one of his station could. His was a life of comfort, earned in deed and enjoyed in full. He had done a great many things, and it was only his right to reap pleasant reward. But as is the nature of man, Cichol became complacent. He dared not look beyond the constraints of his station, and so he fell to prideful ignorance.
Until one day, he passed through the village of Myra. Unfortunate were the people here, beset with endless winter and lacking in mortal wealth. But they were devout to the gods they kept, and prayed for salvation to reach their doors. It is said, the Goddess sent the Saint to spread word of her boundless grace. But there are those who speak in contrast, who say Cichol made the journey by his own direction. The truth is not one to ponder, for it was the result which would echo throughout this age.
As Cichol walked along the frosted ruins of their village, he was aghast by the squalor he saw. All manner of people wasted to bone, children orphaned by the cold, and animals which preyed upon the weak. Guilt burning in his heart, the Saint was humbled. He went to the village headman, earnest and yearning to help.
“Pray, good sir, let me right this wrong,” Cichol had entreated. “I have more than enough to keep me warm. Let me assist and provide for thee.”
“We of Myra are proud, fair man,” The headman had unfortunately denied. “We do not take more than our share. ‘Tis not your wrong to right.”
“ I ask for nothing in return. I merely wish to help, is this not an acceptable trade?”
“No trade at all, for we have nothing for you. Cast us from you mind, Saint. Go back south and forget this wasteland.”
Despite the order, Cichol remained unmoved. Rather than obey, he concocted a brilliant plan. The next day he brought with him a barrel of food and plenty of blankets to share. With the supplies in hand, he made a pile of gifts of similar size. He packaged them carefully, so that none would tell what lay inside. Then he strode into the square, and bellowed to all who would hear.
“ Noble people of Myra, please listen! I have a request that I need answered. You see there is a plant I keep sacred, one you might know very well. Leaves of deepest green, crowned with pearls of white berry. They are plentiful in these lands, are they not? I beg you, bring me at least a twig and I shall give you a just reward.”
Now the villagers were far from fools, and the plant he spoke of was a known poisonous sort. But desperate enough were they, to place their faith in the Saint. So they did as he bid; soon, a mountain of green and white replaced the gifts he had brought. Upon the last box relinquished, Saint Cichol finally took his leave. Accounts differ on what happened next; but it is known that soon after he left, winter lost its grip and spring bloomed upon the land. But had he not intervened, it is accepted the village would not have lasted another night. Twas by one act of kindness that the people yet lived.
In the village of Myra they still tell the tale, of their savior who had appeared in the harshest winter ever known; and who, upon his leave, brought joy and hope to those who had none. Yet while this deed may be great, ‘tis not the man himself we should keep close.
So please consider this: Help those weaker than thee , give earnestly without recompense, and most of all appreciate what you have already been given.
Edelgard lowered the sheet, mind turning. She had never heard of this story before, but that did not come as a surprise. The Church had not allowed anything from the days of Seiros to be leaked to the public. Though it was possible they were simply unaware. Myra was a rather isolated settlement, hovering dangerously near the border to Sreng. Since she had toppled the Central Church, Imperial soldiers and academics alike wandered north freely. Therefore, it should come as no surprise they learned of this strange festival. It was the nature of humanity, spreading information and traditions that appeared incomprehensible at first. The Celebration of Cichol was no different.
Her initial hostile reaction seemed even more ludicrous in hindsight. Loathe as the Emperor was to admit it, there might have been some merit in keeping this from her. If only to prevent the inevitable backlash. She winced, biting her lip.
“I was wondering when you would read that.”
Caught off guard, Edelgard looked up into soft cornflower. Byleth had turned away from the revelers, watching the younger woman patiently. The Emperor squirmed in place; abruptly self-conscious.
“Did you know…?”
“No.” Byleth ran a distracted hand through her hair. “But I didn’t need to. I had faith it was nothing serious or divisive. Was I right?”
“So it seems,” Edelgard replied softly. She rolled the paper neatly and stowed it once more. “It’s just a harmless holiday. Regrettably tied to a Saint, but the underlying message is...inoffensive. I would venture to call it wise, in a way.”
“So should we consider this ‘rebellion’ crushed?”
The Emperor swatted the Byleth’s arm; chiding. She may love the woman endlessly, but such cheek deserved to be scolded. The other members of the Strike Force were a terrible influence, Dorothea especially. At least the songstress was prevented from meddling too terribly from Brigid.
“Point taken. I concede to acting with undue haste, but I maintain that it was meant in the Empire’s best interest.” Edelgard glanced at the dancing throng of people, feeling a pang of regret. “But neither should they hesitate in celebrating what they like. It wasn’t my intent to censure to the point of resentment, nor alienate myself from their trust.”
“They don’t resent you.” Byleth wavered for a time, rethinking her words. “Most don’t, I should say. Even the soldiers who wanted me to keep quiet didn’t mean to offend.”
“Yet they believed I would silence them. That’s not a comforting reality.” Edelgard fell into a contemplative silence. The story of Myra came to mind, as did the supposed actions of Cichol. “I’ve grown complacent on my throne, and that is a dangerous attitude to have. A ruler must tread among the least fortunate, to fully consider what is best for them.”
“See through the eyes of the beggar, for they notice all.”
Edelgard blinked, brow furrowing. A small grin answered her unspoken question.
“Not my words, nor my father’s. But a wise consideration nonetheless.” Byleth relayed airily. “But there’s one phrase I’ve read that may be far more applicable.”
“And what is that?” The Emperor questioned, humoring her.
“Be keen and be wary, but of yourself rather than the rest. For the person who does not trust will not receive it in return.” Byleth reached out, fingers entwining with Edelgard’s own. Her touch was comforting; warm and encompassing like a favorite scarf. “Give the people time, and I know they will see what I do. A woman who cares so very deeply about the world around her.”
“Is this another lesson, my teacher?” Edelgard smiled shyly, unable to resist from uttering that nostalgic title. No matter the countless years which passed, that was who her love would always be. The guiding hand she needed in a time of painful uncertainty, and the light which pierced through endless dark. Byleth’s eyes flashed, and the woman drew her near. Then she swept them both into a graceful sway. Edelgard nearly stumbled in shock, but recovered swiftly.
“You could have asked, General Eisner,” She muttered with faux reproach. Byleth wasn’t fooled. The taller woman just rolled her shoulders, lips twitching.
“You already said yes, remember?” She brought the Emperor in for a delicate twirl. “Back at Garreg Mach. You had just come out of a dance with Sylvain, looking for all the world like a princess and he the princely cad.”
“I didn’t realize I was agreeing to all dances in the foreseeable future,” Edelgard mused. She let one of her fingers graze past her lover’s collar. “Though I do find your perspective interesting. If I played the princess in your eyes, and Sylvain the prince, what did that make you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Byleth dipped her head, breath whispering past the Emperor’s ear. “I’m the wolf, Your Majesty. Come to steal you away for myself.”
A pleasant shiver raced up Edelgard’s spine, this one having nothing to do with the unbearable chill. She pressed her heated face into Byleth’s neck.
“Honestly, the embarrassing drivel you spout sometimes...”
Her lover was far from abashed. She hummed thoughtfully, and the sound mingled with the beat of her heart. Edelgard felt both underneath her ear. She let herself relax, tension evaporating like water. The Emperor felt lighter suddenly, the weight of the morning gone in an instant. Byleth was right. Trust was something earned, and both her and the Empire were learning to place their faith. All she could do was listen when needed, and hope they learned to accept the changes she had made. In return, Edelgard would strive to see things as they did; learn from it and make it better, just as Saint Cichol. Loathe she was to admit it, but perhaps there was some good in the Saints. Even if only evidenced by one winter’s tale.
“So the ploy wasn’t for naught,” Byleth remarked, breaking the quiet. “Dorothea will be pleased.”
“What?” Edelgard frowned, but did not draw away. The heat of the other woman was far too enjoyable. She felt Byleth smile against her head.
“I sent her a letter, asking for advice. We both know you have a terrible habit of overworking yourself, and I admitted to being concerned. So she said to distract you until those troubles were long forgotten.”
“Is that what your behavior has been about? I should have known.” A peeved exhale escaped the Emperor. “Well, you succeeded. Are you proud of yourself?”
“Very much so,” Byleth nodded firmly. “I should write to her again. Maybe you can send her a letter as well?”
“It seems I shall never be free of her meddling, but...” Edelgard let her annoyed mask slip, revealing the simple joy beneath. “I do not hate the result.”
The older woman laughed, carefree and bright. Then she quickened their steps, and they floated across the dock in a dizzying waltz. Together they forged a path just for them, paying no mind to the numerous people who had stopped to witness. All the while, Edelgard kept her smile; in love and happy as ever. But time moved ever onward, and the sweetest of moments did not occur in a bubble. As Byleth brought her in for a dip, the mingled colors of black and saffron caught her eye.
Just a handful of steps away, Hubert and Ferdinand were sharing a dance. Her retainer was appearing to lead, though not without a few missteps as his partner tried to take control. Then, in a movement so quick it might have been imagined, they shared a kiss. Edelgard gawked at them, shock stealing her decorum. Byleth followed her line of sight, and chuckled.
“I was wondering when they would drop the pretense.” Her lover straightened, and the Emperor was placed back on her feet. She barely noticed, startled even further by the implication.
“Indeed.” Byleth whirled them away, until they were well out of sight of the two. “It happened while we were away, if I had to hazard a guess. Did you not notice?”
“I knew they’ve been acting...peculiar. But romance?” Edelgard stared blankly at her lover, thoughts in a whirl. Of all the things to happen, this had never seemed like a possibility. Hubert had always been vocal about his intense dislike, as had Ferdinand. Though now that she knew what to look for, some of their behavior made an odd bit of sense. Stealing away in private, arguing fervently in her presence despite compromising elsewhere, the familiar way they addressed one another…
Well then. Edelgard sniffed, chagrined this realization had not come sooner. Matters of the heart were admittedly not her strength, but to this extent? Perhaps she should work on improving her emotional intelligence.
“This has been a night full of surprises.” She grumbled at length. “Though I would love to know how you, of all people, figured it out.”
“There’s a simple answer to that.”
“Is that so?”
Byleth, obliviously charming as she was, smiled; soft and sweet. Edelgard felt her heart ache. The woman’s expression was a portrait of love someone could never capture in full, but she was willing to try.
“They look at each other, as I look at you.” Their eyes met and held. “And as you appear to me now. That sort of naked affection could never be mistaken.”
With the sound of laughter and merriment to their backs, and the evidence of love all around them, Edelgard could only agree. So she let the matter go, and allowed the infectious mood of the crowd to consume her. Just a distance away, her two friends continued their dance in peace; partners in more than just politics. And even further than that, a songstress lay content in the arms of her Queen. And somewhere, she was sure, the rest of her Eagles were just as happy and fulfilled.
The thought brought a smile to her face. She sank back into Byleth, worries finally laid to rest.
* * *
“Well, Your Majesty, I must regrettably say our efforts were futile. Had it not been for an easily distracted braggart, I might have more to report.”
“Distracted? I was being thorough, unlike an unreliable boot-licker I know.”
“Yes, your father was terribly unreliable. Which is why he was soundly removed from his position. A fate you might share.”
“I meant you, not him! Besides, the circumstances were irregular. The Von Aegir family is now Her Majesty’s greatest anchor and support. The audacity of you to claim–“
“That’s enough.” Edelgard sighed raggedly. They had been enjoying a nice, if incredibly cold, walk back to the palace. Then the two men suddenly burst into a spat. Now that the reality of their relationship had been revealed, their stale arguments only served to frustrate as well as annoy. The tension she had so easily cast off before returned, much to her ire. “Would you cease this asinine prattle? You’re not fooling anyone.”
“What do you mean?” Ferdinand ventured tentatively. The man plucked nervously at his coat, eyes wide. Hubert trailed into silence, shutting his mouth with a click. He watched his liege carefully. The Emperor tossed her hair and favored them with a cutting stare.
“This act you insist on keeping. You do realize the docks are hardly private.” She enjoyed the stark alarm that covered their features. “Though I must admit, I never expected Hubert to be the one who leads.”
Ferdinand stammered ineffectually, a bust of color staining his cheeks.
“W-We were only surveying the area. And he’s taller than me so it’s only natural! Your Majesty, please, you cannot possibly think…”
“Ferdinand.” Hubert spoke suddenly, glancing at the other man. “I think Her Majesty saw more than just a dance.”
His apparent lover did not respond. Instead, Ferdinand’s blush deepened until his face was one bright shade of puce. The Prime Minister hunched his shoulders as if trying to disappear. Edelgard took pity on the poor man, her severe expression fleeing in favor of something more genuine.
“You didn’t need to hide it from me. I would never begrudge any of my friends the opportunity to find love.
“...Then you don’t disapprove?” Hubert appeared stunned by that, his usual composure breaking.
“Not at all.” Edelgard replied evenly. She stole a look at Byleth. The woman was watching the proceeds with veiled delight, laughter dancing in those beautiful eyes. “It would be rather hypocritical of me, wouldn't it? Of course, I expect you both to behave with the dignity your station requires. I will be very displeased if you allow your duties to fall by the wayside.”
“Never, Your Majesty.” Hubert’s posture visibly unwound; relieved. Ferdinand had calmed as well, expression only bearing a hint of timidity. While he did not speak, the man met Edelgard’s eyes with his typical verve. Neither were ashamed, merely conscious of her opinion. It was heartening to see, and a testament to the unexpected bond both men shared.
“Perhaps now we can travel back to the palace in peace. I was tempted to banish the both of you from court until you settled your differences.” The Emperor mentioned casually. They shared a look; Ferdinand’s nervous in nature and Hubert’s darkly amused.
“We would have come clean before it came to that, right Hubert?”
“Hmm, I wonder? Maybe I would have kept the ruse. I rather like watching you squirm.”
“I-Is that so…?”
The men took the lead, becoming consumed with nothing save each other. Edelgard could not fault them. She tended to do the same when it came to her favorite general. Byleth remained with her, hands brushing as they walked. She was grateful for it, though she knew the woman would never leave. Neither far ahead, or lingering at her heel. Byleth’s place had been, and would continue to be, by her side.
Edelgard wanted to say as much, but the sight of a familiar figure stopped her. It was the man they saw before; the crier who was tossing leaflets. His arms were bare, having completed his task, and for the first time the Emperor noted his thin clothing. The man looked up at their approach, and he tipped a worn cap in greeting.
“Coming from the Celebration, eh?” Bare hands rubbed together, the skin a mottled patchwork of white and pink. Burn scars, Edelgard realized. She brought her gaze up to inspect the man’s face.
“We were, in fact. I must thank you, the scroll you provided was most informative.”
He laughed, a stuttering whistle akin to cracking ice, before it devolved into a wheeze. Then he waved his hand quickly.
“No need! None at all.” The man wiped his mouth along a torn sleeve. “It was an honor, you see. I had never thought the Empire would take so kindly to a favored holiday of mine.”
“Are you from Faerghus, sir?” Byleth asked curiously. The man’s grin faded, tipping into something solemn.
“Was, until recent. Lived in Myra most my life before moving to...” He looked away, seeing something beyond the current moment. Edelgard recognized the look well. “No matter about that. It’s wonderful to see all this excitement. Reminds me of better times.”
“Did you not join the festivities?” The Emperor pressed, interest alighting. She watched as he blinked rapidly, as if unused to being engaged in conversation.
“Nay. Didn’t have it in me.” He rubbed his hands, trying to generate heat. The man coughed again, and thumped his chest. “It was enough to see people smiling. It’s the spirit of the thing, that makes the Celebration special.”
“I suppose you're right.” Edelgard stared at him for prolonged period, taking in the tattered hem of his pants. He was thin, and slight of shoulder. The top of his head barely crested her own. Something cold and wet touched her nose, diverting her attention. She looked up into the sky. It had begin to snow, flakes of pale drifting down upon them. An idea blossomed forth, and the Emperor unbuttoned her outer coat.
“You should get to a shelter soon. Spreading cheer is well and good, but catching your death would be unwise.” She offered the garment meaningfully. The man drew back; stunned.
“No, young Miss. The gesture is kind, but I’m not–”
“Take it.” The Emperor pushed the coat into his hands. “As I said, the information you provided was invaluable. And I have far more than I need.”
She took the sprig of Cichol’s Grace from her hair, and held up it to the moonlight.
“It’s the spirit of this day, is it not? Or had I misunderstood?”
The man gathered the coat in his arms, touching the fabric reverently. He raised his head, and swallowed.
“It is. Very much so. Thank you, Miss.” His voice was near inaudible, filled with awe. Then he bowed clumsily, before retreating into the night. She stared after him, pleased as he donned the coat and disappeared through an alley. Perchance he would soon find the coin-purse she had left. It would be a nice surprise.
“That was kind of you, El.” Byleth commented. The other woman’s brow was raised, appearing impressed. The Emperor smiled up at her, even if she had to suppress a shiver doing so. The coat had the thickest she owned and lined in wool, but it had been worth it.
“I’m merely abiding by holiday tradition. That old thing was too large for me, anyway.” Edelgard leaned into her lover, hoping to steal body heat. Byleth dutifully wrapped her arms around the younger woman.
“As you say." The general chuckled. Then she looked up in thought. "You know, it’s bit of a shame we didn’t have enough time to see more. But it was still great fun.”
“There’s always next year.”
Byleth brightened, eyes sparkling with anticipation.
A wind stirred and tossed her hair, teal shining beneath the winter moon. Lips parted to reveal a broad grin; white as frost, yet bearing the heady warmth of summer. Affection burned in the Emperor’s chest. Suddenly, the cold could not reach her; regardless of how little she wore. Rather than speak, Edelgard leaned up for a kiss. Their fingers entwined, melting the snowfall between them.
...and most of all, appreciate what you have already been given.
It was a lesson she would not mind keeping, even if the source was circumspect. Saint or not, perhaps Cichol had done something of worth after all.
Next Part – The Cold as it Was and The Warmth of Now