Lady Edelgard dismissed them all to go to sleep before their journey from Derdriu back to Garreg Mach come morning, but that doesn’t mean that Hubert is anywhere near done with his duties to Her Majesty. There are always reports to read, letters to write, plans to make, though he is often the only one aware of them. He doesn’t mind the work—he knows that it is his main purpose to make sure that all the background operations are working smoothly and inconspicuously, so that Lady Edelgard can focus only on the center stage right in front of her.
It is not the first nor the last time that he’s working late into the night, though the fact that he has a chair and a desk is a welcome luxury, after Her Majesty so generously rented nearly all of the Aquatic Capital’s inns to bring their army under after their well-earned victory—at least it would be a welcome change of pace, if he wasn’t suddenly overcome by a suspicion, a feeling of not quite being watched, but his space being invaded all the same. He halts his writing and stays still for a couple of moments, watching his surroundings and listening for any oh-so-little sound.
There’s a clunk on his window, he catches the slightest of movements of a rock falling back down, and Hubert promptly teleports outside, draws the dagger he always keeps on his person and points it at the masked stranger he finds in front of him.
“State your name and purpose,” he growls.
“Woah, woah, easy there,” the stranger replies with raised hands and a step backwards, and Hubert unfortunately recognizes the voice immediately. “It’s just me,” Claude continues superfluously, and pulls down the cloth he’d put over the lower half of his face.
His disguise is quite pathetic, actually, now that Hubert looks at it—just that one scarf around his face and a dark cloak thrown over his shoulders, barely even covering his characteristic light outfit and his golden armour plate. He would not shy away from commenting as such, but Claude is a self-aware man, so clearly his goal here isn’t espionage, probably.
“What do you want?” he repeats, less snappish, but he doesn’t lower his dagger in the slightest. His probability of having to use it is lower than before—if anything, he’d need to go all out with his magic, but Claude is also one for self-preservation first and foremost—a coward, if he were to put it rudely.
“Aw, c’mon, can’t I just visit an old friend?”
“Please do remind me of a time where we were ever ‘friends’?” Hubert asks, pouring magic into his hand and making both it and the knife glow threateningly. “Or at least give me a reason not to kill you right where you stand.”
“And right after Her Imperial Majesty spared me oh-so-mercifully?” Claude challenges. “You wouldn’t want to contradict her wishes, would you?”
“That depends entirely on whatever it is you want from me, and whether I deem you as a threat to Lady Edelgard or not. It would be terribly easy to make it look like you were overpowered by bandits on your way back to Almyra, you see.”
“Ah, you’re right,” Claude sighs in mock-defeat. “I’ll cut right to the chase then: I have a proposal for you.”
Hubert can’t help the urge to return said mockery in kind. “Why I’m flattered, but you must know that I’m fully devoted to Lady Edelgard and the war efforts at this time.”
Claude’s eyes widen in surprise before they roll back with laughter that seems inappropriately genuine for this time of night, being as secretive as the two of them are.
“Oh, Hubert, I really think we could’ve been great friends in another life,” he laughs and slowly raises his hand towards Hubert’s dagger. “Put that thing down, will ya? I know you won’t kill me before at least hearing me out.”
“Very well,” Hubert replies and grants his request. “Speak then.”
“So, you already figured where I’m headed after this,” Claude starts.
“It’s not as much of a mystery as you make it out to be,” Hubert replies. “Your outward appearance is telling as is, along with the suspicious way you came to become the old Duke Riegan’s heir, it seems quite obvious that you’re some sort of bastard child or the like.”
Claude keeps his posture and expression as easy-going as ever, but Hubert delights in the way that his nonchalant smile drops just the slightest bit from his eyes.
“Perhaps even for both sides of Fòdlan’s Throat, considering you were commanding some elite soldiers of the Almyran navy.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint, but I have no real command of them. I was more so cashing in a… personal favour, let’s say,” he replies, dancing around and deflecting Hubert’s hypothesis with the elegance of a true deer.
“Still, you must have quite the connections over there to cash in a personal favour from Nader the Undefeated himself.”
“Glad you mention it,” Claude suddenly perks up, “because it’s those connections that I’m willing to offer you.”
“... How curious,” Hubert replies with a cocked eyebrow. “And what, pray tell, are those connections exactly?”
“I can’t promise any military aid if that’s what you’re asking, but I can notify you of any movements from Almyra I happen to be aware of. I’m also still on pretty good terms with the Alliance nobles who used to oppose you, and I’d be happy to smoothe over some of their ruffled feathers in the coming months.”
Hubert makes sure to keep his face neutral as ever, but he cannot deny that it’s an incredibly valuable offer—even with Derdriu fallen and Claude gone, there still remains a threat of the rest of the Alliance nobles banding together and causing unnecessary diversions of their resources, when their next of course of action absolutely must be a unified, focused attack on the Kingdom. It is also advantageous to be aware of any stirrings beyond just Fòdlan, especially once the war is over. It’s such a good offer, in fact, that it’s almost unbelievable.
“What do you want in return then?”
“Just keep me up to date on the situation here in Fòdlan, who’s doing what, if someone we know happens to die, that sort of thing. Oh, and maybe put in a good word or two to Her Majesty for me, alright?” Claude says with another easy grin towards him, though the logical part of Hubert, meaning nearly all of him, is still processing the words, trying to find any hidden meaning, a loophole that could be exploited to the detriment of Lady Edelgard—and comes up with a blank.
“What’s the catch?” he asks outright, because no one can afford to be this generous in war, especially not someone as shrewd at Claude.
“No catch, really,” Claude replies. “I was serious when I said that I want to repay Edelgard’s kindness towards me.”
“Then why are you standing in front of me, and not her?”
“I’m sure Her Imperial Majesty has more important things to worry about than writing letters to some old classmate,” he drawls on, but then fixes Hubert with a knowing look. “Besides, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had the most well-connected person in all of Fòdlan standing right in front of me.”
Hubert can think of a couple of slithering rats that might just have the slightest edge on him in terms of their spy network, though he wouldn’t be surprised if he was at least in the topmost dozen or so.
“That may very well be the case, especially with your addition,” he replies, crossing his arms, “though I’m still not quite convinced by the selflessness of your reasoning.”
Claude chuckles. “You’d be right about that, but I truly don’t intend to stand in Edelgard’s way, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He straightens his posture and drops his easy lilt for the first time in this conversation. It’s almost eerie, seeing the man so serious, for once.
“I have my own ambitions that I want to fulfill no matter what, and for that I need Fòdlan to be at peace as fast as possible. As such, I simply decided to trust you guys to get the job done, and am ready to help out as much as I can. Without endangering myself, of course,” he adds the last part with a teasing wink, but the sincerity of his words is unmissable.
“Tell you what, I’ll even put up a little advance payment to sweeten the deal,” he continues.
Hubert raises an eyebrow. “You seem awfully desperate to cooperate with me.”
“I genuinely think that it’s the best choice for all of us,” Claude replies, honest determination in his eyes. Hubert was inclined to agree from the beginning, because Claude would truly have little to gain from the information he demanded, but somehow it’s this that pushes him over the edge of trust—perhaps because it’s reminiscent of Lady Edelgard, for a split second.
“So what is this ‘advance payment’, you speak of?” he still asks because, well—he still has a reputation to maintain.
Claude grins. “Now, as you very well know, I’m headed for Almyra after this, but I thought I’d accompany Hilda to visit my good old friend Holst, you know?”
“General Holst is still doing well, I assume?”
“Oh, he’s alive and kicking, always ready to defend our precious Locket,” he replies. “And speaking of the Locket, I also happen to know that Nader and his forces are preparing for another attack on it in two weeks’ time—without my involvement, of course.”
Hubert’s internal gears already start to turn, start assessing the situation and how it could affect Lady Edelgard and the Empire as a whole: General Holst is a renowned man, not just in the Alliance, but in all of Fòdlan, and it is frankly a miracle that man was not present for the battle today; otherwise their chances of victory would be orders of magnitude slimmer and they surely would have suffered a lot more losses than they already have. At the same time, House Goneril ist just about the second most influential house in the anti-Imperial faction of the Alliance, and Hubert remembers well the time when it was widely accepted that the general might succeed Duke Riegan in being the Alliance’s figurehead, years ago. With Claude gone, he is just about the only man left that could lead that faction and rally it against the Empire, and another victory against Almyran forces at Fòdlan’s Locket might just be the catalyst needed for such voices to gain enough confidence to do exactly that.
“I see you catch my drift,” Claude smiles up at him, and Hubert deepens his frown on purpose. “Now, it would be a terrible shame if dear Holst were to, say, eat a couple of mildly poisonous mushrooms, and be incapable of defending such a vital location, now would it?”
Even if Hubert is caught a little off-guard by the turn this has taken. “You would truly poison your own ‘dear friend’, as you say?”
“Oh, I didn’t say that I would do that, just that it would be quite a shame,” Claude retorts. “But, just hypothetically, if that were to happen—”
“Then House Goneril would struggle greatly to ward off the threat, and with the Alliance shattered, they could not rely on the surrounding lords to come to their aid,” Hubert continues, realization dawning on him as he speaks. “They would have no choice but rely on the Strike Force for a quick and effective defense—”
“—Which would secure Fòdlan’s borders, make House Goneril indebted to you, and also show that Her Majesty is a capable leader who is ready to fight for the Alliance’s sake even in times of war.” Claude’s grin turns positively shit-eating. “Exactly.”
Hubert can’t help but release a laugh at the brilliance. “Very well,” he finally concedes and reaches out his hand. “I suppose you have yourself a deal.”
Claude returns the chuckle and his handshake, a piece of paper nestling itself between their hands that Hubert takes note to look at right after.
“Pleasure doing business with you! Just write to the name on there, it’ll get to me just fine,” he winks, and then pulls up the hood of his cloak. “Well, guess it’s time for me to go. It won’t do to see Her Majesty’s right hand consorting with the enemy, now would it?”
“We already defeated you, so you’re no longer an enemy to us, unless you want to make yourself one,” Hubert replies lightly.
Claude smiles at him yet again. “I can promise you, I won’t. Good luck, Hubert.”
“... Good luck, Claude.” The other replies with a two-finger salute before rounding the corner and disappearing through ill-lit back alleys that Hubert can imagine Claude knowing like the back of his hand.
He returns to his own room soon enough, after making sure no one else was listening in on their conversation, and pulls out the little piece of paper again. Most of the address looks foreign to him, but he does recognize the name of the Almyran capital at the very bottom, though the addressee of ‘Prince Khalid’ does not ring any bells.
A thought nestles itself in his mind then, and he huffs out a laugh. Perhaps his hypothesis wasn’t as off as he thought.