Everything Jeralt ever taught Byleth served a practical purpose.
Swordplay? That one was obvious.
Archery? Also obvious. Hunting game and hunting people weren’t too different. He taught her both.
Cooking? Duh. On the road you had to be able to provide for yourself and the group. The difference between a raw roast and cooked roast could be the difference between life and death, if you weren’t lucky.
Arithmetic? You had to make sure you weren’t getting swindled at the ends of deals. Of course he taught her that.
Card-counting? When you spent your formative years in smoky taverns and pool halls, knowing how to test your luck and the wills of your opponents just enough was essential.
Even fishing, which was by all accounts her only hobby besides hitting things with swords and flower pressing (fuck you, she’s allowed to have girly hobbies), was originally introduced to her by her father as a way for her to provide food for the company when money was too tight to let them buy nicer cured meats and vegetables.
Jeralt didn’t do things if they wouldn’t be useful to the group—as such, neither did Byleth.
It was for that reason that Byleth didn’t know how to read.
They had a guy for that, in the company: The Guy Who Read Contracts and Shit Like That. His name was Yves, but Byleth just called him The Guy. Byleth wasn’t The Guy so she never learned to read. She knew some words and things, like her own name and keywords like locations and coordinates and ‘danger’, ‘keep out’, ‘poison’, and she knew her numbers, of course! Check-balancing was essential, apparently, while reading wasn’t.
She didn’t really care, though. The stories and histories told to her were by word of mouth, in taverns and around campfires, so she didn’t carry books. Letters between mercenary companies were heavily coded and short. Important things were relayed face to face. It was fine.
It was fine.
Prophetic nightmares? Thrones and voids and little girls with green hair? Bandits? Nobles? Time-travelling, apparently, because whoever said there was a limit to how batshit crazy life could get was a fucking liar? Yeah. Sure.
She didn’t need to read to do that.
She said yes to the Archbishop, for some reason, when she offered her a teaching position. She took it gracefully, with that stoic face that earned her the name Ashen Demon. On the inside she was just as aghast and confused as The Seteth Guy, who looked like he wanted to rip his sideburns off, but she was better at hiding it than him.
It was fine, though. She could do this, right? She’d taught plenty of younger mercs how to fight.
The Seteth Guy caught her on the way out.
“You’re going to need to look over some forms and sign some things before you start teaching,” he said. “I’m also going to need you to review and submit your curriculum.”
“Okay,” she said tonelessly. Fuck, she said inside, with feeling.
“Normally only fifty percent of the course is written work,” The Seteth Guy said. “But as a first-time tutor, if you feel like ascribing more written work, I believe that might be pertinent.”
Byleth blanched. Written work? Like… Like shit she’d have to read?
Not okay at all.
Byleth had a very good poker face, and she was of the opinion that things only got better with use. So, she used her very good poker face to nod and bow and leave and walk and make it all the way to the bridge before she started panicking.
The little floaty ghost girl that lived in her brain perched herself on the side of the bridge and watched with no sympathy as Byleth silently screamed into the void below. The little floaty ghost girl sighed.
My name is Sothis, you know.
“I don’t care,” Byleth wheezed. “I’ve just made the single worst mistake of my adult life. I don’t care about your name right now.”
Being rude will not help your situation, Byleth.
“You’re not helping!” Byleth snapped, causing a passing guard to jump and yelp. Byleth lowered her head in apology.
Sothis just tittered. She hopped up onto the railing and began to slowly balance-beam her way down it.
Byleth hung her head, staring down at the gaping abyss of the ravine that separated the cathedral from the rest of the monastery. She wondered if she could make a good life for herself down there, among the alpine shrubbery and goats, hunting for survival, living in a cave. No one would ask her to mark exams if she became a mountain woman.
“Fuck. I’m a disaster,” she mumbled. “They’re going to kill me when they find out. Can they do that?”
I am not sure. Perhaps you should have checked their firing policy before you decided to work for them.
Oh there-there, child.
She felt Sothis’s weird, ephemeral hand pat her head in an attempt at a comforting gesture and looked up.
All hope is not lost, the little ghost girl whose name was Sothis said. There is much yet to do.
“Like what? You don’t honestly think I’m going to be able to get away with this, do you?” Byleth was struggling to keep her voice low. “When they said professor, I thought they meant, like, combat instructor, not… whatever the fuck this is!”
(Neither of them considered the option of just going back inside and telling Rhea she couldn’t take the job, because neither of them were fucking quitters, and neither of them were particularly wise.)
Sothis harrumphed, planting her hands on her hips.
Do not give up, Byleth Eisner! You will be a wonderful teacher!
Byleth winced. “Sothis, I can’t read.”
Sothis straightened herself up to her full height of not-very-tall, but from her perch on the railing she towered over Byleth with a blinding grin and a thumb thrust towards her chest.
But I can!
They spent the next day in and out of the library. Rhea had tasked Byleth with taking time to choose which house she wanted to lead, but she wasn’t getting anywhere fast.
“What if they find out I can’t read?” Byleth pondered aloud in a hushed voice.
Then we kill them all and try your mountain woman idea.
I know. Sometimes it is prudent to think of a ridiculous option in order to make others sound more palatable.
Byleth supposed that was… decent advice.
“I guess… I just need to find the house that isn’t going to screw me over if they find out I can’t read the essays they give me.”
And where do you think you will find that? Or with whom, perhaps is the better question.
Byleth rested her chin on her hand and stared at Sothis, who was lounging atop the pile of books they’d amassed in the library’s far corner.
“Edelgard seems really serious,” Byleth reasoned. “I bet she’d get mad if she found out… think I wasn’t teaching right… she strikes me as someone with high expectations.”
Is Edelgard the red one?
Byleth scowled. “I—Yes? Were you not paying attention? I was just talking to her about her classmates.”
I am afraid I was out for that. It did not involve any reading, did it?
Then you were certainly capable of handling it on your own. I commend you.
Byleth opened her mouth to protest but Sothis was already distracted, leaning down to peer at the open book she was reading—the one Byleth was pretending to read. It was a historical record of families in the Holy Kingdom. As much as Dimitri’s run down of his classmate’s abbreviated life stories had been interesting, she wanted to hear a less biased view of them.
What did the blue one say his name was?
“The bl—you mean Dimitri?”
Yes. Quite. What is his ancestry?
“They have names, you know, it’s—” Sothis pouted and Byleth rolled her eyes, “—Whatever. His family name is Blayddid.”
Sothis tilted her head at a questioning angle, narrowing her eyes at the page. Her long green hair spilled down over the pages.
I did not know that D’s could make T-H sounds. This spelling quite hard to read.
“Wait, what?” Byleth hissed, trying not to draw the ear of the library attendants. “You can read it though, right? I thought you said you could read!?”
I can! Sothis protested, lips curling into a frown. I just did not know the people of the Holy Kingdom took to spelling their names with all the sense of blind children beating piñatas!
It does not matter!
She sighed and turned back to the book, frown never leaving her face. It was kind of adorable, all in all. Like an angry field mouse.
Shit. Byleth sure hoped she didn’t hear that.
I did hear it! Sothis kept complaining. Also, there are notes all through the margins of this poor book. It is a mess!
Byleth looked at where the little girl was pointing and sure enough someone had scrawled messy notes in the corners of the pages. Some of them seemed to connect to specific bits of the printed text by lines, but others were free floating and quite garish.
Who wrote these? Sothis cried. They are truly atrocious!
Byleth leaned closer, like she’d somehow be able to parse it at a closer angle. “What, like, bad handwriting?”
Sothis tutted. They are barely legible. I am not even sure half of it is real words! Or even the same language!
“It’s probably from a student,” Byleth murmured.
Sothis snapped her little fingers, and the sound was oddly clear. Go to the front of the book. There will be a record of those who issued it before you, no?
Byleth swiftly flicked back to the front page, where a slip of yellowed parchment was stuck to the inside cover, scrawled with text that were, presumably, names of past readers.
Sothis peered down at it, eyes flicking back and forth.
Who is Claude von Riegan? She asked finally.
Byleth rolled her eyes. “He’s the yellow one.”
Sothis’s face broke into an abrupt grin. Byleth leaned back just a fraction.
Child, I know what class you must choose!
“I’m flattered,” he said, flashing that same insincere smile he had the day she first met him. “But can I ask why you picked us? Surely having the ear of a future king or emperor might be more tempting?”
Byleth, to her credit, did not tell Claude that the reason she chose to teach his class was because the floaty ghost girl that lived in her head seemed confident that if he found out she couldn’t actually read they’d be able to use the fact he might not be able to write to blackmail him into keeping his fucking mouth shut.
What she actually told him was:
“You guys seem interesting.”
Byleth didn’t actually have to do a lot of reading for the first week of classes, which was nice.
She mostly used the time to get to know her new students, who were all wonderful and terrible in their own ways. Leonie was a fun surprise, as someone who trained under her father. Unfortunately, it seemed the philosophies Leonie picked up from Jeralt didn’t extend to literacy, because she saw her reading a combat manual in class and got kinda mad about it.
Sothis seemed only passingly interested in the class. In fact, Byleth was quite sure that by the end of the week Sothis had only bothered to learn Claude’s name, and referred to the rest of the class by hair colour only.
Byleth spent the first week assessing their combat abilities, which ranged from poor to adequate to Lysithea, who blew up half the training grounds during their first spar.
I like little silver-hair.
“Please learn her name,” Byleth muttered as she picked herself up off the ground.
“What was that, Professor?”
“Nothing, Lysithea! You’re doing great!”
The first hurdle came at the end of the week.
Lysithea put her hand up.
Byleth took a pause from where she was drawing platoon formations on the chalkboard. She could draw a lot better than she could write, which didn’t mean much but did mean she had been hinging most of her lessons on spoken word and nice pictures. It was working well so far, she thought.
Lysithea lowered her hand only after being addressed and sat straight-backed. “I don’t mean to nag, but when are we getting our course outlines?”
“Our course outlines?” Lysithea repeated. “The other classes already have theirs. I was just wondering when you planned to release ours.”
What is a course outline? Perhaps some kind of guide to what they will be learning? Were you asked to do that?
Byleth tried to recall her last few conversations with Seteth—who had spoken to her enough now to have been promoted from The Seteth Guy to just Seteth—and came up blank.
“Oh, is it a piece of paper with the school seal on the top?”
The class spent a long moment exchanging glances.
“Uh, yes?” Lysithea said. “It is usually printed on school letter stock—”
Cripes! That was not a unique feature?!
“—I guess ours would have the deer on them, though.”
Sothis’s little ghost hands started slapping at Byleth’s shoulder.
Oh! The woman with the large breasts gave you that did she not? You thought it was garbage!
“Yes, of course. I’ll be able to get it to your tomorrow, Lysithea,” Byleth said kindly. “Sorry I’ve been so late with it.”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit.
Claude smiled at her like he knew something. She frowned at him like she knew that he something and didn’t like it. He smiled wider. She rolled her eyes and went back to the lesson.
“What was it Seteth said? Fifty percent written… but first-time professors usually increase it?”
Correct. I am guessing you do not want to do that?
Golden Deer Course Outline – Graduating class of 1180
Compiled and approved by Professor B. Eisner.
30% written examination.
- Two (2) Class Certification exams (15% each)
- History of Alliance Combat essay (20%)
- Group project (50%)
70% practical examination.
- Active strategy course (15%)
- Mock battle performance review (15%)
- Field adaptability course (10%)
- Individual combat practical (30%)
- Team combat practical (30%)
Jeralt found her in the morning, slumped over a stack of painstakingly written course outlines. It was short, but it had taken her nearly all night to get the letters looking right.
“So, kid,” he said, leaning against the doorframe.
“So, dad,” she replied, packing up her papers.
“How have you managed to get a week in without having to read anything? Or is Rhea so enamoured with you that she’s letting you teach the baby nobles using pictograms and campfire stories?”
Sothis floated in the doorway, gesturing wildly at Jeralt.
Silence your father! The walls have ears!
Byleth jabbed Jeralt in the stomach. He made that oof sound that dads always did particularly well and chuckled through a wince.
“What was that for?”
“I can read!” she hissed.
Jeralt rolled his eyes. “Since when?”
“Uh, since forever?”
Jeralt raised an eyebrow.
“I’m kidding, ha ha,” Byleth forced out some laughter. “Yves taught me.”
Jeralt looked confused. “But… you’re not The Guy…”
Byleth wanted to yell and thank her father. She wasn’t The Guy! He was right! Why the fuck was she being expected to read when they already had Seteth!? He was basically their The Guy!
You are a moron, Byleth Eisner.
“Father. I am a capable young woman. I must set a good example for my students. The children are our future, you know.”
“It’s your funeral kid.”
A month went by.
Oh, so Sothis was apparently the Goddess the whole time? Crazy shit. Byleth’s weird-o-meter kept shattering its own record.
She liked her students a lot, though, which was a shred of normalcy to cling to like a boat in a storm. They were all fun and talented and kind. Claude turned out to be pretty great when he wasn’t looking right through her, enough that she felt bad about picking his class for Goddess-encouraged blackmail reasons.
She wondered if their assessment was even right. The notes he’d left in the history tome in the library had been objectively awful, but she hadn’t seen enough written work from him to confirm if Sothis’s suspicions about his writing skills were even true.
If they turned out to be false and their safety net was gone, she wouldn’t mind. She liked the students a lot, regardless of whether or not it was useful to do so. It wasn’t very Jeralt of her—to do things if it weren’t efficient and beneficial—but… Well…
It felt pretty good.
The first lot of certification exams rolled around and Byleth left them stacked on her desk for two whole days before she dared look at them. It was daunting, but she knew she had Sothis by her side.
Claude suspects us. Perhaps we should be more careful.
“What are you talking about?” Byleth asked. “Also, get over here, I need to mark Hilda’s exam.”
Sothis drifted over to Byleth’s desk. It was the middle of the night, so they could talk freely.
He suspects your weakness.
“He suspects everyone’s weakness. I think that’s his thing.”
At least we still have our secret weapon.
Sothis jabbed a finger towards the stack of exams. The top one was just as unintelligible as all the others, but Byleth recognized the hastily scrawled ‘CvR’ at the top because she wasn’t an idiot.
I was correct. This boy is a poor writer.
Byleth couldn’t really tell, but she took Sothis’s word for it. The handwriting was scratchy and uneven in places, and as far as Byleth could tell, the few words she recognized didn’t look… right.
Perhaps he cannot read too.
Byleth scoffed. “I’d entertain that theory if he wasn’t constantly reading during class. Maybe he’s just a bad speller. It happens.”
Byleth Eisner you must believe me when I say Claude needs help.
How so? The content is fine. Very intelligent and cleverly thought out, even—I think you should pass him, by the way—But his execution is clearly lacking.
Byleth winced. “Maybe he just… I don’t know, maybe it’s a second language or something, like Petra. But then again, he doesn’t have an accent, so…”
What is Petra?
Byleth rolled her eyes and made a gesture under her eye to mimic the girl’s tattoo. “Purple hair? She’s in my class, Sothis.”
Oh. Alright. Sothis drifted off contemplatively. Perhaps that is his situation. Though I would loathe to be one of his colleagues in the future if that is the quality of his communication.
Byleth frowned. “Hush. You like him.”
“You know how I know you like him?”
Sothis pouted and didn’t answer. Byleth smiled.
“You use his name.”
Sothis, bless her, did not scream. She just turned very very very red and said I am leaving and then disappeared in a huff. Well, that was exam marking over for the night.
“It’s fine,” Byleth said to herself as she crawled into bed later. “No one suspects a thing.”
Claude dropped his lunch tray on the table with clatter and slid delicately into the unoccupied seat across from Edelgard and Dimitri.
“So,” he began with a drawl.
“So,” Claude agreed. He steepled his fingers. “You guys know how Professor Byleth can’t read?”
Claude smirked and leaned in close. The other two leaders leaned back, but that didn’t dampen his conspiratorial gaze. “Ten gold says I can catch her out on it by the end of the month.”
“Oh? That seems like quite the task,” Dimitri said sincerely. “If I were you, I would ask for more than ten gold.”
A shrug. “Twenty?”
“Ah! A gambler! I knew there was a reason I liked you, Dimitri.”
Dimitri smiled, then let the expression falter. “Wait, what is that supposed to—”
Edelgard cleared her throat, drawing the boys’ attention. She flipped her hair over her shoulder.
“While I think it is incredibly disrespectful to make wagers on matters of a teacher’s personal life—”
“Basic literacy is hardly a “personal life” thing.”
“—I think,” Edelgard continued in a warning tone, “that we could maybe sweeten the pot further, so to speak, if we are truly indulging this curiosity of yours.”
Claude looked like his birthday had come early. “Oh, Princess, I am all ears for whatever you are about to say.”
Edelgard smirked. “Why don’t we make it a contest?”
A small smile pulled at Dimitri’s lips as her meaning clicked. “As in… the first to get her to admit it wins?”
Claude looked about a hair’s breadth from squealing like a little girl. “Can we recruit our classmates?”
“Of course,” Edelgard announced. “Think of it as… a Battle of Eagle and Lion.”
It started slow, and then, like most awful things that started slow, it moved on to happening all at once.
It started with more students than usual coming to her to for advice on their writing.
Advice wasn’t an uncommon thing. She taught a lot more than just her homeroom class—but those were all seminars, so she didn’t know why students were coming to her with classwork to look over for help.
You specifically signed on for this.
She knew that. Didn’t mean it wasn’t the most terrifying part of her day when a kid came up to her with a letter or essay to proofread.
“Thank you so much for looking over it, Professor,” Ashe said.
“It’s no problem,” Byleth said, even though it was definitely a huge problem, while Sothis read Ashe’s essay aloud in her head.
Hmm… Tell him he should use passive voice less. It makes his opinion points less impactful.
“I’d suggest using less passive voice, especially in the bits when you’re expressing opinion. It’s more impactful.”
“How do I do that?”
How does he do that?
The subjects must be acting on the verbs in the sentence, rather than receiving the verbs actions. It is a more willful writing style.
“Uh, your subjects need to be acting on the verbs in your sentences, not being the recipient of the verbs… if that makes sense.”
Just tell him to ask the little orange one!
“Ask Annette, she’ll know what I’m talking about.”
Ashe looked confused then happy then confused again then extremely grateful. He beamed up at Byleth.
“Thank you, Professor!”
Annette found her later in the courtyard, carrying Ashe’s completed essay in both hands.
“Professor! Thank you for helping Ashe with his work!”
“It’s no big deal.”
Annette drifted forward, pushing the papers into Byleth’s hands. “Here, I proofed it for him, but maybe you could give it a second look-over?”
Oh, there are far more errors in it now.
Annette gasped. Oops, she’d said that out loud. Roll with it, roll with it.
Sothis leaned down to peruse the page. Her eyes went wide.
The little minx! She has done it on purpose! She is trying to test you!
“O-oh?” Annette was a bad liar. “W-Where are they?”
“There are a lot of them, Annette—” She has deliberately misspelled Faerghus eight times “—Faerghus has been misspelled eight times.”
Annette laughed nervously and fumbled the paper back out of Byleth’s grip. She looked significantly more panicked.
“Oh wow, uh, sorry! I’ll have another look at it, uhm, thank you for your time!”
She drifted away to the other side of the courtyard, where Felix was hitting a bush with a stick, and Byleth tuned out to listen to Sothis, who was floating over her shoulder.
Highly suspicious! I believe she is onto you! And if she is onto you then perhaps the grey one was testing you as well… this is terribly concerning, child. We should make plans.
“—show you how it’s done,” Felix was saying to Annette when Byleth tuned back in. “Hey! Byleth!”
Byleth looked up to see Felix stalking toward her like a man on a mission, fire in his eyes.
“Do you know how to—”
Ingrid, who Byleth had not noticed, leapt out of nowhere and tackled her classmate to the ground. Byleth just stared and the two started squabbling incoherently, Ingrid wrenching the stick out of Felix’s grip and shaking it at him.
So strange! Sothis giggled. Perhaps it is for the best we did not teach the Lions.
It came to a head a few days later.
Ah, the blue one approaches!
“Stop pretending you don’t know his—Hello, Dimitri! Can I help you with something?”
Dimitri came to stop in front of the pair. He looked a little out of breath, like he’d been running. He straightened up and smiled politely, though he looked a little more… serious… than usual.
“I have a favour to ask of you, Professor,” he said with a short bow, “if you would not mind indulging me.”
“That entirely depends on the favour,” Byleth smiled.
Dimitri held out his hands, in which Byleth noticed he was carrying a sheaf of important looking papers. She could tell they were important because the smelled like vanilla and were stamped with little crests.
“I am preparing some remarks for an important address back home. I was wondering if I could bend your ear regarding it.”
Oh no, Byleth hated that idea.
“Dimitri, I’m flattered, but I don’t know if I can be of much help—”
Dimitri shook his head, silencing her. “Nonsense. Though you may not be my teacher, I respect you greatly. It would mean a lot if you gave me your thoughts on what I have.”
Then he shot her a look that Byleth could only describe as challenging.
Sothis was yelling, floating in erratic patterns around the human pair, pulling at her long green locks like their swift exit from this hell-scenario was hidden deep in her braids.
The blue one knows! She cried. We have no contingency for the blue one! This is a disaster!
Byleth had no idea how Dimitri could possibly know. How could he? For one, she rarely taught him outside seminars. It should be impossible. Plus, she even made sure to move her eyes back and forth when holding papers so it looked like she was reading!
Usually…. at least.
She locked eyes with the prince, icy-blue and calculating. They narrowed just a fraction—Analytical in a way she’d rarely ever seen on him.
Oh, he totally knew.
The words on the page were unintelligible, but Sothis was too busy freaking out to help her read it. There was only one thing left to do; Jeralt had never taught her to read—but he had taught her how to bluff her ass off.
“Listen, Dimitri, you… you have to be more confident in your abilities.”
Sothis stopped yelling.
Dimitri’s eyes went wide.
Fuck it. What was that expression? In for a gold… in for a bullion?
Byleth clapped a hand on the prince’s shoulder, squeezing a little too hard. “You’re a strong and capable young man, Dimitri—” What are you doing?! “—I know you’ll be a fine king one day, and a great leader, but part of that is having confidence in yourself.”
She shook the paper—which she still couldn’t fucking read—at the poor boy. He blinked wildly.
“You don’t need someone like me to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. You have good sense, and a strong personal code, and so long as everything on this page is coming from in here—” she jabbed a finger into his chest, over his heart, “—I know you’ll be alright. I don’t have to read it to know that.”
Sothis looked dumbstruck. Dimitri—oh, yeah, he looked like he was about to cry.
“Do you mean that?” He said in a small voice.
“Of course I do—” Do you? “—now get out of here and go do your best!”
“Oh, um, alright…”
He walked off, looking a bit dazed, occasionally shooting a confused glance back over his shoulder.
Byleth waited until he was completely out of sight to go back to her room, lock the door, and scream into a pillow.
It wasn’t until the Eagles started coming for her that Byleth realized all of the students she’d been approached by so far had been Lions. The plot began to thicken, taking shape in a way she didn’t like.
Something rotten is afoot.
“I wouldn’t call it rotten,” Byleth said under her breath, watching Hubert watch her from across the courtyard. “It’s definitely something though.”
She bustled quickly past and slipped into the Golden Deer classroom.
They are up to something. All of them. I fear our secret is not so well guarded—Look out!
Byleth ran face first into a person, bouncing off their chest like she’d just hit a wall. She stumbled backwards a little.
“Oof,” she said, in a very good approximation of Jeralt.
“Oh! Professor! My apologies!”
Byleth blinked up at the wall of smiles and orange and well pressed clothes standing before her. “Ferdinand? What are you doing in my class?”
He beamed. “I’d like to join it!”
Okay, she could handle that.
“That’s great, Ferdinand, we’d love to have you.”
“Perfect,” he smiled warmly. “I’m all set to go. I just need you to read and review my transfer papers.”
FUCK. SETETH USUALLY DID THAT.
Byleth took the paper with a still hand born from years of not letting people know when she was pulling her hair out on the inside. It was probably fine, right? He’d said he had it sorted, so all she had to do was sign on the dotted line. Right?
Sothis’s ghostly hand tried to grab her wrist. Stop, child! He has entered incorrect information! His name is in the wrong place!
“Ferdinand… you’ve written your name in—” The country of origin section! “—the country of origin section.”
SNAKE! HE IS A SNAKE!
“Oh!” Ferdinand was a slightly better liar than Annette, but still not good. “I didn’t even notice! Thank you for pointing it out!”
“Get it fixed and I’ll be happy to sign,” Byleth said, passing the papers back a little too quickly.
Ferdinand left the class, drifting past Hubert who was lurking a little ways away. They exchanged hushed words. Hubert shot a glare at Byleth.
It had been a smarter move, she realised. Not just a misspelling, but an actual matter of reading multiple words and knowing where they were supposed to be—a reading comprehension test, rather than just words on a page.
Those Eagles could be scary smart.
“Hey, Professor! Do you like my shirt?”
Caspar had written something on his shirt in vivid black ink. It was definitely words, but of course Byleth couldn’t read it. She stared anyway, impassive as always.
For once, she didn’t need Sothis to tell her what she was seeing was probably something stupid.
“Take that off. We’re not subsidizing another uniform set for you.”
Caspar visibly deflated. “Shit.”
Lindhardt, who had not looked up from his book once during the entire exchange, gave Caspar a half-hearted pat on the shoulder. Caspar’s lip trembled.
Yeah, okay, maybe not all the Eagles were smart.
But those that are smart… well… they were formidable.
“Professor, may I have a moment of your time?”
Ah! It is the red one. Do not worry, Byleth Eisner! You are strong!
“Hi, Edelgard, how can I help?”
Edelgard stood prim and proper in the door to Byleth’s room, not entering out of politeness. She held a folder of nice smelling papers. Byleth broke into a cold sweat immediately.
“I am sending reports back to some of the councillors in Enbarr regarding my assessment of the academy and its operation. I was wondering if you would perhaps want to add something to it. I very much respect your insight.”
She blinked in a show of extreme calm, lilac gaze unflinching. Sothis was screaming.
Fuck it. It worked on Dimitri, didn’t it?
Byleth reached out and took Edelgard’s hand, which seemed to startle her slightly.
The girl’s eyes went wide. “Yes?”
“You’re one of the most intelligent and driven young women I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”
Edelgard blushed deeply, looking as confused as Byleth felt terrified.
“Whatever you want to say, you should say yourself,” Byleth urged. “I’m a simple mercenary. Though I might have insight on the world others don’t, it’s small and particular. Your own experiences, as the heir to a throne and a great nation, are more valuable to your council than any advice I could give you.”
“I—” Edelgard stammered, which Byleth was pretty sure she had never seen the girl do before. “Do you truly believe my own experience is enough?”
“I do—” You’re really doing this again?! “—and I don’t need to add anything to this. I’m sure it’s perfect just the way you’ve written it.”
“Professor,” Edelgard graced her with a small smile. “You… you have quite a way with words.”
Too bad you cannot read any of them.
“Thank you, Edelgard,” Byleth said, waving as Edelgard turned to leave, resolving to get back at Sothis for that dig later.
Byleth waited for the next shoe to drop for two whole days. She was a fighter, trained by one of the greatest warriors Fódlan had seen in a century. She was trained for confrontation and conflict. She had a third enemy on the horizon and this time she knew they were coming.
The Deer, oddly, didn’t seem to have gotten that same memo. In fact, everything was… normal.
Byleth was on edge anyway, seeing as they were the only class that hadn’t yet tried to annoy her lack of literacy into the blinding light of day where all could see it. But they didn’t… do anything. They didn’t approach her. They didn’t ask her to read anything.
Believing she was secure was her first mistake.
Byleth internally yelped, though her practiced calm face didn’t twitch.
The Golden Deer greeted her in a cluster at the door to the classroom.
A herd, perhaps.
They greeted her in a herd at the door to the classroom, holding a small wrapped gift and a card between them. Oh. They’d remembered her birthday.
Byleth smiled. “Thank you.”
The card, quite lovely and handmade, was thrust into her grasp. She opened it, revealing a colourful array of notes she couldn’t read.
“Which is your favourite message?” Hilda chirped. The rest of the class leaned forward eagerly.
The little motherfuckers…
Sothis floated back like she’d been struck, clutching her heart. A class of traitors! You have been teaching a pack of wolves wearing the guises of deer! What fools we have been!
“Oh. I couldn’t possibly pick just one,” Byleth replied through gritted teeth. “I’m sure they’re all lovely.”
The class grinned, as sharp as knives.
Byleth shut the card.
“Oh? You’re not going to read your well-wishes, Teach?” Claude called from the front of the class. He was the only one not out of their seat. He leaned back, looking at her with the most shit-eating grin she’d ever seen plastered on another human being’s face.
Sothis was in front of Claude now, shaking her fists wildly—and uselessly—in the air.
Jail! Jail for a thousand years!
“I still have a lesson to teach,” Byleth replied coolly. “Thank you for my card, but I have a job to do before I can enjoy it.”
Claude seemed to give up then, and the rest of the class dispersed back to their seats and Byleth started the lesson.
Believing Claude had actually given up was her second mistake.
He approached her later that night, leaning against the door of the classroom while she tidied up from a late seminar.
“Teach, can I ask you a question?”
Sothis hummed from where she was floating overhead. Shock and horror! The yellow one has questions.
“Go ahead,” Byleth said, trying to bite down a smile at Sothis’s antics. She’d stopped calling him by name after the card incident.
Claude cocked his head in a show of smarmy nonchalance.
“Can you read?”
Sothis tumbled to the floor, grabbing at Byleth’s coat with tight fists. We have been had, child! Code yellow! Swerve! Swerve!
The words fell from Byleth’s lips with no hesitation.
“I don’t know. Can you write?”
Claude narrowed his eyes, fixing Byleth with a calculating stare that would have made a woman with anything to lose nervous. Good thing she wasn’t that woman.
It didn’t stop her brain from screaming though, but she was fairly confident Claude couldn’t read minds, so that was safe to do.
They continued their silent, tense stare down for a few more moments. There was an electricity in his green eyes, an energy she matched with a hard and impassive stare of her own. They stood there, frozen…
Like… like two feral cats crossing paths in an alley.
You are not very good at allegory.
Claude broke first.
“Okay, okay! Yeah, I’ll admit it was a weird question,” he laughed, putting his hands in the air.
Byleth schooled her expression. “Very weird.”
He nodded. “Sorry for bothering you.”
“It’s okay.” She offered him a small smile while Sothis did a victory lap of the room. “I’ll see you later.”
He left quickly.
Claude sat down at the table with significantly less energy than the last time. Dimitri and Edelgard dragged forlorn glances up to their new addition.
“So,” Claude began slowly.
“So,” he agreed with a sigh. “She’s up to something. Something tricky.”
“I think we should call off the contest, though.”
“Here’s my essay.”
“Thank you, Claude.”
Byleth looked down at the front page, scrawled with words she couldn’t read but could absolutely tell were untidy and clumsy and rough. They locked eyes.
“I always like reading your writing,” she said carefully. Claude’s expression remained neutral.
“I hope you enjoy it,” he replied, and walked off. Byleth watched him leave.
Like two cats….
Shut it, Byleth Eisner.
Things got bad very quickly after that. Said things didn’t even do Byleth the courtesy of getting bad slowly then all at once; things just got bad all at once.
Fire and fate? A father, torn from her hands because whoever said there was a limit to suffering was a fucking liar? This was not okay. Maybe she would never be okay again.
Byleth held her father’s diary in her hands and then held it out. She knew what she was doing, giving away a shred of her father. Letting it slip through her fingers.
It wasn’t like she could read it anyway.
“I’ll look after it,” Claude said. She knew he meant it. She trusted him.
“Just… tell me what it says,” she said in a quiet voice. “If it says anything useful.”
She hoped he wouldn’t write in the margins of this one.
He left and everything was silent.
Sothis moved to face her, holding her hands in the odd way she always did, where her skin almost touched Byleth’s own, but instead sat upon it like wavering, delicate water.
Oh child, fate can be so very cruel.
“I’ve lost everything,” she said softly, like the words were breakable.
You have not lost everything. You have me.
Sothis put a hand on her cheek, drawing her gaze up to her face, a green-eyed stare full of love.
You will always have me.
But she didn’t. Not really.
Revenge? Dying (maybe)? Fusing with a Goddess but actually, in the end, it’s at its core a goodbye between friends?
What the fuck was Byleth’s life?
You’ll be good to them, won’t you? Your students?
Byleth choked back a sob—or maybe a laugh. She couldn’t tell. “Of course, how is that even a question?”
Maybe I should have loved them more, but they were never you. That made it ever so hard. So, love them for me, won’t you.
Love them like I love you. Love the world like I love you. Love yourself like I love you.
Sothis lay hands on her, for just a fraction of a second, in a way she never had before. Byleth could feel her, not wavering like a stream but strong, like a person. Her hands were warm and soft and steady, and there was a love and care in her eyes Byleth realized, in this instant, she had been taking for granted.
You will always have me, Byleth Eisner. We are partners, no?
And then she was gone, leaving Byleth alone in a void. More alone that she had ever been in her life.
Byleth drove the sword into the world and pulled. Her muscles screamed and burned. She felt blood in her mouth.
Why? Why was she doing this?
The muddled faces that greeted her on the other side were wide eyed with relief and love and care and—
Oh. Okay. That was why.
Maybe this could be good. Great, even.
Byleth tore the world in two.
She didn’t fucking need to read to do that, did she?
There were a lot of strange things that happened after that—hair and eyes and an odd emptiness, a yearning for a voice in her head to laugh with and make snide comments to when no one was listening—but the smallest and strangest came a few days later, when classes resumed.
Byleth tied her hair back, still not used to seeing wispy green strands in her peripheral instead of blue. She trotted down to the classrooms, crossing the threshold into the Golden Deer room with her head high because she hadn’t been crying this morning thank-you-very-much and—
She stopped just past the doorway and sighed.
The blackboard had been pulled out into the centre aisle, and on it, in huge letters, sat a lovingly rendered sign that read:
WELCOME TO BIBLE STUDY: 24/7 GODDESS LOVING HAPPY HOUR & BYO.
“Take that down,” she said immediately, unable to keep the smile from her voice. These assholes really knew how to ruin the bad moods she planned for herself.
The class erupted into laughter. Byleth struggled not to.
“Aw,” Sylvain whined over the noise. “But it’s so nice!”
Byleth rolled her eyes. “Yeah, uh-huh, sure. But I’m not explaining it to Seteth if he comes around for inspections today and has to read—”
The words on the board were words. Letters, next to each other, phonetics clicking in her head, the sounds playing on loop as her eyes skimmed the looping text and she understood.
She could read.
She’d fused with the Goddess, gained insight and power, or something like that. Sothis had given her many gifts—but no one had mentioned this one.
You will always have me.
“Holy fuck,” she muttered. Very eloquent.
“Hey!” Claude yelled from the front of the class. His hands were suspiciously white with chalk dust. “Don’t cuss, Teach! Aren’t you supposed to be God now?”
“God” flipped him off, and all she got in return was a musical peal of laughter and a returned gesture.
Yeah she could get used to this.
The Archbishop (as of, like, yesterday) and Duke Riegan (not for much longer) lay in the grass outside the monastery, staring up at the stars and getting drunk.
“You go next.”
“Truth,” Byleth said, with no hesitation at all.
They’d only been picking truth. They were too tired after a near year of fighting to do anything besides lay on the ground and talk.
“Can you actually read?”
“Yeah? I did a whole speech yesterday.”
“No, I—” Claude laughed. “I know you can read now, but could you read back at the academy? The others and I had a running bet that you couldn’t for a while. We thought you were using a trick to pretend.”
He didn’t say their names, and Byleth wouldn’t blame him, because the blood of friends was still hot on their hands and blades, even if they looked clean.
She wouldn’t think about that for too long, though. Cause it was a fucking bummer.
“You were right,” Byleth said.
There was laughter in Claude’s tone. “So, you couldn’t read at all?—pass the bottle over here—I need the rest of this story.”
Byleth obliged, passing the bottle of wine they’d swiped from Seteth’s office over her head to where she was pretty sure Claude’s hand would be waiting. Sure enough, with a bit of fumbling, it was pulled from her grip.
She looked up at the sky.
“No, I couldn’t,” she admitted finally. “Kinda glad, too. Sothis said your writing back then was beyond shitty. I’ve read enough of your battle maps now to believe it.”
Claude actually cackled. “Okay. First of all—uncalled for—and frankly mean, coming from a goddess.”
“Wanna know something? We picked your class because she thought if you found out I couldn’t read we could use your bad writing to keep you quiet.”
Claude laughed himself to tears, after that. Byleth joined him with a wide smile and swigs of wine.
“Gods above, Byleth,” he wheezed. “This is the best turn of events I could have asked for.”
Byleth smirked. “Oh? How much money are you owed?”
“So much. I’m going to chase up Ferdinand tomorrow. After you brought him into the class, he bet me fifty you could read and called me a cad for believing otherwise. I got it notarised.”
“Strong words. I’m glad someone was defending my honour.”
Claude hummed, probably mentally tallying how much money he was going to have by this time tomorrow.
“Can I ask you a question?” Byleth asked.
“Could you write, back then? Properly?” When he didn’t answer she kept going. “See… Sothis used to read for me, so I could mark exams, and she always said you wrote poorly—”
“—she said you got better over the year, don’t worry, but I guess… No offense but you talk like a native speaker. It’s an odd disconnect, you have to admit.”
Claude hummed thoughtfully.
“It’s sort of the same with Petra, except the opposite? She didn’t speak well but she could read and write fluently,” he began to explain. Byleth remembered failing to justify a similar line of thinking, so she paid attention. “So, yeah I spoke it—I grew up speaking it with my mom as long as I can remember—but I never had any Fódlan books or anything. I didn’t start reading and writing the language until I moved here.”
Byleth paused, blinking up at the starry night.
“You’re fucking kidding me, right?”
Claude snorted. “I’m dead serious—here.”
He passed the bottle back and Byleth took another swig as Claude rolled over onto his front to look down at her. She looked up at him, upside down in the dark, from where she lay on the grass.
“It wasn’t like I was learning how to read from scratch,” he continued. “It was just trying to fit a new alphabet to the phonetics I already knew. Easy breezy, right? It just meant I was a garbage speller for the first few years.”
Byleth frowned. “Still… if I’d known you were that new to it… I would have told Sothis to make fun of you a bit less.”
Claude looked more amused than offended. “The Almighty Goddess of Fódlan made fun of me?”
“Yeah. A lot.”
“Is that grounds for deportation?”
“Nah, you’re okay,” Byleth reached up to pat Claude’s head. “I think she liked you. She actually bothered to use your name.”
“Oh, I’m… flattered?” Claude didn’t sound sure. “What did she call everyone else?”
“Dimitri and Edelgard were usually “the blue one” and “the red one”, I don’t think she knew anyone else’s names, if I’m being honest. She was kind of a bitch.”
Claude, who had unwisely chosen that moment to drink, choked on mouthful of wine and curled up in a fit of hacking laughter. Byleth let him ride it out with a smile on her own face. It was… nice… to think about Sothis as she was in the day to day. She missed her a lot and it was nice to see her effects on people as a person, a rude and loving and weird person, rather than a larger-than-thou Goddess.
“You’ve got to be the craziest Archbishop in history,” Claude wheezed.
“I’m mad with power,” Byleth said in a toneless voice. “I blaspheme for breakfast.”
“Okay, give me a shout when you legalize that for the masses. I have some words for your brain lady.” He leaned over her for a moment to tug the wine out of her hands and placed it on the grass. Undivided attention. Got it. “Back to the original subject though. Why couldn’t you read?”
Byleth shrugged. “Never needed to. Dad didn’t teach me. He preferred to give me “usable skills”.”
She made the air quotes. Claude snorted.
“Like what? Sword-fighting?”
Byleth counted them off on her fingers. “Sword-fighting, fishing, math, how to skin a rabbit, sign language, counting cards—”
“Counting c—Shit, Byleth, we should’ve hung out when we were younger. I think we would have got along really well.”
“Probably. I think we get along fine now, though.”
Claude flopped back on the grass, and Byleth heard him let out a big sigh.
Tired. They were both so tired. And old. And tired. And flying by the seat of their pants. And tired.
At least they could both read now.
“Yeah, took us long enough.”
Oh, she’d said that last bit out loud.
“Props to us for sticking with it though,” Claude laughed. “Leaders of the free world! Literate at last, and it only took us until our twenties!”
They weren’t drinking out of glasses, so they toasted by way of rapping their knuckles on the wine bottle.
“The language here sucks anyway,” Claude sighed. “It makes no sense. Too many ways to say the same thing. Don’t get me started on regional spellings.”
“Pfft. You can say that again.”
“Right? Like, why the fuck is Blayddid—”
Byleth lurched up into a sitting position, starling Claude into silence.
“—Spelled with D’s?!” She whirled around, finishing his sentence with a gasp.
Claude reached out and gripped her hand, tears welling in his eyes. “It’s the fucking worst,” he whispered.
Somewhere, in a vague unchanging ether deeply hidden from awareness and the world, a little Goddess suddenly felt incredibly vindicated.