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A Vow Remembered

Chapter Text

Part I: Vulnerable

House of the Golden Deer.

Byleth had to admit she liked the ring of it. House of the Blue Lions or house of the Black Eagles felt cumbersome. Like something trying to be what it isn't.

The door opened to her classroom. Her classroom. That would take some getting used to.

"Heya, Teach," Claude called out as he strut in, finding his seat. Ever confident, that one.

She nodded in response, eyes flicking to the seven others who entered the room. The eight were her students.

"So few?"

"You mean us?" Claude asked, gesturing to the other members of his—their—house. "You're looking at the cream of the crop, Teach."

She hadn't meant to say it out loud. Byleth had never been in a school and she could hazard a guess that the lessons her father imparted on her hardly counted for the typical.

"Forgive me," she said, "this is new to me, just as you are new here."

Claude waved her off in understanding, but a purple haired man frowned. "Forgive me, professor, but I harbor some reluctance at your ability. Sure, you saved Claude, something he will always need, but does that make you qualified for this position?"

It was a good question. Apparently the rest of the class thought so, though the way they hid it varied.

"I don't know," Byleth admitted. "But we've a mock battle this afternoon. I'll be participating alongside you, so you will have your chance to judge me then."

A small voice in her hoped they'd find her wanting. Some way to get out of this ridiculousness.

Her, a teacher? Teaching children who would lead the world or bury it?

Like she said, ridiculous.

"Anyway," Byleth sputtered, realizing the room had been quiet waiting on her to continue. "Would you all care to introduce yourselves? I only have a name for one of you."

Claude stood, giving a mock salute. "Claude von Riegan, heir to the Leicester Alliance and House Leader to the Golden Deer." He gave a perfect courtly bow.

The boy behind him rolled his eyes. "Pay that charlatan no mind, professor. I am Lorenz Hellman Gloucester, future leader of the Alliance. I am heir to the noble house of Gloucester and soon to be your best and brightest student."

Byleth nodded, taken aback.

Funny that now he seems wanting to impress you as his professor as opposed to questioning your credentials. That rivalry must run deep.

The girl's voice again.

The train of thought broke with: "Ignatz Victor. I don't have any noble titles but I do like to paint." His face turned red and he sat down, making eye contact with the floor.

The boy—giant—next time him stood, bumping the table. "Raphael Kirsten. I'm from a merchant family like Ig. If you're a fan of meat, professor, then you and I will get along just fine."

A girl in front of him didn't stand, but spoke next. "Lysithea von Ordelia." It was all she said and Byleth couldn't help but stare. A little girl was in her class, a child.

Goddess, she was teaching children to fight. Children that looked younger than she was when she picked up a sword.

You know that isn't true. I see your memories, you were far younger when you first saw bloodshed.

Byleth didn't want to think on that.

"I'm Leonie Pinelli," the girl next to Lysithea said. "I'm Jeralt's apprentice and going to be the best mercenary in the world after I graduate."

Jeralt's what?

Two girls had yet to go. Claude elbowed the one sitting next to him. She groaned threw a hand up in a wave. "Hilda. So this mock battle today, is it optional to participate?"

"Uh, no?" Byleth said, startled.

Hilda groaned again.

All eyes turned to the last girl, a blue haired woman who seemed to shrink with each glance. "Um…Marianne von Edmund." That was all she said.

"Well, nice to have names to faces." Byleth could remember eight names. That wouldn't be hard. Though she knew there were other classes she'd be teaching, plenty of other faces in the Deer and outside. "So next, I want to hear about your combat experience. Anything you've got, I want to know what I'm working with so we can win today."

They weren't going to stand a chance today.

Each student had weapon experience, but that was as far as some went. When Byleth asked how many battles they'd fought in, she'd been met with blank stares. Some had a little one on one combat experience, but none had killed anyone.

Except Claude.

Oh, he claimed he'd never taken a life. But Byleth had been around killers all her life. Some had kind eyes, but if you looked past them, there was an ire that burned. A ferocity that bubbled, simmering until it was ready to burst into a boil.

The students had long left the classroom. She'd bid them to go get ready for the mock battle. She could hardly help, she knew nothing about where such things were kept. It was a decent excuse that gave her a moment to breathe.

She'd spent ten years learning how to fight and in some occasions, lead. Jeralt's company sometimes housed too many mercs for just him to command, so once she turned seventeen, the burden fell to her to direct. Byleth wasn't fond of it, but her father seemed pleased with her results.

And if there was one thing she knew about leading, it was that you needed your soldiers to both trust you and each other.

Lorenz despised Claude. Marianne never spoke to anyone. Hilda didn't care and didn't hide her apathy. Leonie was too independent. Raphael and Ignatz trusted each other, but not the rest. Lysithea seemed irritated with everyone in the room, Byleth included. And Claude, well, trust seemed like a stretch, but he had a certain respect for each of his Deer. It counted for something, but not enough.

She'd made a mistake picking this house.

The Blue Lions were a unit, loyal as a group. She could see that and it fit with what she knew of Faerghus. Loyal to a fault, loyal to the end. And the Black Eagles…well, that had Edelgard at the head. The woman demanded respect and obedience and she got it.

These eight were the premier class of the Deer. There'd be other classes of Alliance students, but they weren't the elite like these students were. If this was indicative of what she was going to get, then it didn't bode well.

Byleth sighed and planted her face on her desk. She was more likely to journey to the eternal flames and back than meet Rhea's expectations.

"Everything alright, Teach?"

She looked up and saw Claude leaning in the doorway. He had changed from his uniform to expensive leather armor. A quiver hung on the back of his waist, filled with arrows.

"Never better," she said, standing. "Just still trying to catch up with what brought me here."

Claude laughed. "I don't blame you, the grapevine says that Rhea swept you up into this job without much notice."

"That's one way to put it." She walked to him. "Ready to see what your house can do?"

"Our house, Teach. We're your fawns."

Hilda Valentine Goneril hated work. She hated work so much that there was only one thing she hated more.

And that was fighting.

She leaned on her practice axe, wishing she were back in bed. Or at her desk, finishing the hairpin she started last night.

The rest of her classmates were spread out, waiting. Claude and their professor had gone to the center of the battlefield to confer with the other house leaders and teachers. And Jeralt, because he was there for some reason.

Ugh, she hoped none of them knew Holst. She didn't want to hear another lecture from him. That's what her parents were for.

He'd said in a letter that he might come visit her at the academy if he felt that Fódlan's Locket was secure enough. Hilda couldn't deny that made her a little excited.

Though she'd have to watch everyone praise the great Holst Goneril. She could hear it now, "The great Holst, hero of the Alliance! Hilda is his sister, she must be incredible too!" That excitement soured.

"Come, Hilda, look lively. It is unbecoming of nobles of our stature to slouch so."

Lorenz, ugh. "Go harass someone else, peacock." There was no bite in her voice, just boredom.

The nobleman himself, naturally, took offense. "Peacock! Why, Hilda, surely—"

"We're back," Byleth said tersely, walking up to the group with Claude in tow. "We're starting when the horn blows in ten minutes. Let's talk strategy."

Hilda groaned and circled up with the rest of the students.

Claude von Riegan had to admit he didn't like their chances.

Were it just him and Teach against the other house leaders and teachers, he was confident they could make something work. The professor seemed like she had quite a few years of experience under her belt and Claude, if he could allow a moment of arrogance, was clever.

But when the horn blew and he saw Raphael charge ahead without a second thought, he already knew what the outcome would be.

But he stuck to the plan. Ranged students to the forest. He, Ignatz and Leonie dashed into the cover of the woods and nocked arrows.

"Can you see any of them?" Ignatz whispered. He adjusted his glasses and squinted.

"Black Eagles are going to be coming from our left, Lions from the right." Claude looked in each direction, only seeing Raphael dash towards an opposing group of trees. Byleth and the others were skirting that same forest, several hundred feet away from Raphael.

It gave him another lens to see Teach's disheartened look through.

"Raphael's going to give us away," Leonie muttered. "Should we get moving?"

"Yeah," Claude decided. "It's best not to be sitting ducks in battle." He turned around to see Edelgard stepping over a fallen log as quietly as possible. She wore a triumphant smirk that told him all he needed to know.

He certainly didn't like their chances.

Ignatz Victor took an arrow to the stomach.

It was a practice arrow, so the worst he'd have was a blotchy bruise. He groaned, sitting up from the ground hewn with sticks and muck. Bernadetta's arrow had caught him so off guard that he'd tumbled over.

Claude had made a break for it. Leonie had drawn a sword to fight Edelgard and Bernadetta, but followed Claude's lead when it became clear she was outclassed.

Ignatz never thought they'd win. They were the Alliance, matched up against the Kingdom and Empire. But he certainly thought he'd last longer than a few minutes.

It gave credence to the feelings of doubt he had about being one of the top Deer. Their exams, written and practical, had earned them places in the academy's hierarchy. There might have been eight of them in their class, but there were plenty of other students who attended the monastery who would serve in battalions to be commanded. But it was his cohort and he that were expected to be representatives of their nation, excel, and lead said battalions.

A woman wearing armor had snuck up on him. How on Fódlan had Edelgard managed to do that? How had he been so distracted?

He trudged back to where the students who were 'out' were instructed to wait. Only Jeralt stood there, standing impassive with his arms crossed, observing the battlefield.

"You out, kid?" he asked, that gruff timbre equal parts soothing and intimidating.

"Yeah," Ignatz said, downcast.

"That makes you the first."

Ignatz wanted to vomit. He didn't belong here.

He was Lorenz Hellman Gloucester. He would not lose.

Sylvain parried his lance with a flourish, jabbing forward for a kill. Lorenz bat away the tip, albeit barely. Sweat pooled at the base of his back, his breathing labored. Combat proved harder than expected.

His opponent, Goddess damn him, was laughing. Sylvain was barely winded.

Envy crept up in his throat for a moment. Sylvain Gautier had trained with a lance since he could walk. Lorenz had studied the lance, sure, but also rhetoric and ruling. Sylvain wasn't originally meant to inherit until his brother had been discovered not to have a Crest. It had been a whole scandal that Lorenz had heard about, something oh-so-embarrassing. He'd pitied the family.

Now, as Lorenz lost more ground, he wondered if he'd misjudged him. This playboy had managed to outclass him in arms while still being destined to rule.

Were it a mere bout at the training yard, Lorenz wouldn't have thought anything of it. But this battle was a measure of pride for the Alliance and his father. It would not do for a Gloucester to lose in the first mock battle of the year.

Sylvain gained more ground and Lorenz felt himself pushed against a tree. Despair coiled in his stomach. But with a war cry, he pushed forward.

Leonie Pinelli thought her house's leader was a coward.

At the first sign of danger, he'd run. Surely had he stayed, they could have fought off Edelgard and Bernadetta. Claude might be a scoundrel, but he was a good shot.

But no. The future Sovereign Duke of Leicester turned tail and ran off.

An arrow clattered off a tree near her. Bile rose in her throat as she looked around wildly for any sight of their leader.

"Leonie, was it?" Edelgard's voice came from behind her. Leonie whipped around, sword at the ready. "You know, we could skip this nonsense if you surrender."

Jeralt was watching her, somewhere. He wouldn't look kindly upon a display like that, not in a mock battle.

Leonie raised her sword, ready to fight.

"Have it your way." Edelgard threw some of her hair over her shoulder and leapt forward, her axe falling with gravity.

Her sword met axe and locked into a contest of strength. Leonie threw a second hand up to brace her blade. Edelgard's expression never changed, stagnant in a look of calculating severity.

An arrow struck Leonie in her thigh. She faltered, and the axe came down on her shoulder.

"Good effort," Edelgard said, dismissive. She turned her back and motioned for Bernadetta to follow her.

Leonie growled. Claude should have been keeping Bernadetta distracted. This was his fault.

Marianne von Edmund detested competition.

It was one of the few things that she felt strongly about. There was no drive in her to be the best, to surpass others. There was no doubt in her mind that those things were unachievable.

So yes, she'd thrown down her sword in surrender when Felix charged her. He'd looked bothered by that, disappointed even. Marianne couldn't bring herself to care.

A breath of healing emanated from her hand over Lorenz' chest. Sylvain had bashed him up well, though that was more the fault of Lorenz for refusing to back down.

The thing with healing, was that it hurt to heal. Some called it taking the stress of injuries healed on as your own. Others just the body's limit for the amount of healing magic used.

Marianne thought it was the Goddess frowning at her using holy power through unholy hands.

"Thank you, Marianne," Lorenz said. He accepted the hand she offered him. He looked around the area that they had clashed with the Lions. Byleth and the survivors had fled, leaving the two of them and Ashe, whom had similarly been struck down.

He walked up to them, smiling like he always was. He looked so young to Marianne and she couldn't decide if it was the freckles or the optimism.

"That was quite the fight!" Ashe said, smiling.

Lorenz huffed. "Perhaps for your house." He fell quiet after that, stewing in a rage.

Ashe hesitated and turned to Marianne instead. "How come you threw your sword down?"

Marianne thought for a moment, not meeting his eyes. "I'm no good at this sort of thing."

Raphael Kirsten decided that it had been a mistake to charge in.

He couldn't help it, tactics went over his head. It was never his intention to pretend to be smart, in fact, Raphael would be the first to admit that he was brawn over brains.

That was why Maya was taking over the business, not him.

And that was the smart choice. After all, he was locked in combat with Dedue and relishing ever second. This is what he trained for, this is what he built his body for.

His fists smashed into Dedue's chest as he brushed off the touch of the axe. With each time a fist found purchase on Dedue, the man of Duscur lost ground from the impact.

An unspoken agreement passed between them as they fought past the rules, seeking only to fight for sheer dominance. It was primal, something stoking within them to fight for those they wished to protect. For Maya, for Dimitri.

Raphael pushed Dedue up against a tree and landed another set of punches in his abdomen. Dedue fell to one knee, breathing erratically.

"You fight well." His voice was so low it barely passed over the breathing.

Raphael laughed. "I'm just doing what I'm good at. You're no slouch either, we ought to train together back at the monastery!"

A smile spread across Dedue's face. "I would like that."

Bushes parted and Mercedes and Ingrid appeared, the latter charging toward him.

He charged too, realizing his mistake that he was outnumbered, even with Dedue out.

Lysithea von Ordelia knew the Golden Deer were a bunch of rapscallions and vagrants lumped together in a veneer of unity. But the battle had shown her just how much they couldn't work together.

Byleth had impressed her, to a degree. She'd started off the battle with plans, but that all fell through as soon as the horn blew and Raphael ran off.

Now it was just her and her teacher. Mage and a protector, which was a powerful combination.

But they faced Dimitri, a tired Sylvain, and Felix.

"Stay behind me," Byleth whispered. "What spells have you got?"

"I've some Dark. I can also sling fire."

Did she imagine it, or did a shiver pass through Byleth with her last word?

"Stick to the Dark. I'll make openings for you."

Before Lysithea could protest Byleth fighting three people at once, she surged forward.

Dimitri met her, jabbing forward with a lance. Byleth grabbed the shaft and yanked him forward, jolting to the left as Felix attacked. She blocked his blade, locking their hilts together for a brief moment before kicking him in the shin. Byleth leaned back, narrowly evading Sylvain's strike as Dimitri rounded behind her. This time he hit her with the butt of his lance, making contact with her leg.

She punched him in the face with one hand while arcing her sword down at Felix, forcing him to jump back. Sylvain mirrored his liege on her other side, the two attempting to skewer her like a kabob.

Lysithea brought up a hand. Dark wouldn't do in this close proximity, it was too messy and liable to hit Byleth. Fire ironically would work better in the forest.

But when she tossed the flame, it wasn't Sylvain's scream she heard. A conflagration erupted briefly as she intended.

When it faded, it was Byleth on the ground, panting. She looked terrified. Felix touched his training blade to her neck and the professor tossed her sword down.

Dimitri looked troubled and Sylvain was frowning. Neither of them were singed worse than their clothes bearing some marks.

They turned to Lysithea. "I surrender," she said, lip curling in frustration.

Even their teacher was incompetent.

Byleth Eisner was afraid.

There were a great many things that scared her in life. From the mundane to metaphysical, from spiders to the thought of being alone.

But fire, that was something different.

She picked herself up off the ground as Dimitri and the others continued on to find more Deer or the Eagles. Lysithea fixed her with a glower that tried to burn hotter than the Eternal Flames.

The look didn't work, Byleth wasn't the type to be intimidated by a child. Still the thought of that fire…

She shivered. A burning building was at the forefront of her mind, flames licking up the walls as she cried and cried, coughing and coughing from the smoke. She felt so warm so warm so hot like her skin was melting off like nothing would ever cool her down again and she screamed and screamed so loud so loud—

And then the breeze. Her father's arms.

Byleth shoved the memory down as she walked out of the forest. She saw her father and felt reassured. Around him stood the rest of the Deer, a few Lions and some Eagles. Even Claude had been knocked out of the battle.

Lysithea split off from her with one last reproachful look. Jeralt saw and pulled Byleth aside.

"What was that about, kiddo?" he asked, voice low. Some of the more curious students strayed a bit close but shied away as he glared.

"Just some fire." It was all she needed to say, all she ever needed to say to him.

He nodded, but conflict played out over his wrinkles. "Don't see Manuela about this. I'll find someone in town for you to see about this."

"Dad, I'm fine." And she was, to a degree. She'd stopped heaving for breath, her hands had stopped trembling. Outwardly, she looked fine.

Jeralt fixed her with a look, not believing her. "If you say so," he said, not pressing her. He turned back to the group, several new students having arrived. After a quick head count, he blew the horn.

He addressed the group. "It would seem that we have our winners. To the Blue Lions, winners of the mock battle of the Great Tree Moon!"

The Lions cheered and some of the nicer students from the other houses joined halfheartedly. Edelgard seethed and Claude looked pensive.

Byleth just wanted to crawl into bed.

On the journey back, her students made no effort to talk to her. With the exception of Lysithea, they didn't seem to harbor any ill feelings towards her. They now knew where they stood in relation to the rest of their peers.

It was Prince Dimitri who spoke to her.

"You're talented, professor," he said, falling in step with her as the monastery loomed closer.

Byleth shook her head. "I'm just experienced. There's no talent about it."

Dimitri chuckled. "Come now, professor. There's no need for modesty. Had that fight continued, I'm sure you would have brought the three of us down."

She shrugged. "Perhaps."

They walked in silence for a few moments, the scion of Faerghus visibly struggling with what next to say.

As they reached the outermost wall of Garreg Mach, he finally said, "Professor…should you ever wish to talk, I'd be happy to lend an ear."

Byleth finally met Dimitri's gaze. His expression was soft, almost sympathetic. For a moment, there was something of a kinship that sparked between them.

But then it faded as Dimitri's eyes swallowed up that flare in darkness.

"I'll keep that in mind," Byleth said with no intention of taking him up on the offer. She progressed on, the prince following in her footsteps.

Once night fell, she'd taken a walk to familiarize herself with the monastery.

Curfew was in effect, the students were all in their rooms or near them. The monastery was hardly so strict as to police movements, but they at least kept their charges out of the town after dark.

She sat by the fishing pond for an hour, watching the moonlight catch on the scales of the fish.

Byleth didn't want to face her class tomorrow. She'd heard some of the chatter on the way back. Not from the Deer, but from the other students. They marveled at how…lackluster the Deer were. She agreed with them.

You certainly have your work cut out for you.

Too tired to worry about voices in her head, Byleth agreed with the girl. At least the only direction to go now was up.

Byleth stood up, heading back to the dorms. She'd been shunted into a student's dorm due to a lack of housing for staff. Not that Byleth minded, it wasn't like she'd ever had a room before.

But before she arrived, voices drifted from the level above her. Familiar ones.

"Talk about a battle," Hilda moaned. Her voice was quiet, but drifting. Byleth stopped walking, listening.

There was a laugh. Claude. "Yeah, I won't lie, that didn't go the way I hoped."

"Like, I'll be the first to admit that we aren't the greatest house, but seriously? Even I feel embarrassed after that."

"And here I thought you too detached to care." Even through wood, Byleth could hear the smirk in his voice.

"Ass." Hilda sighed. "What're you gonna do about it? I mean, I don't care what my brother or father think, but I can't imagine your grandfather will be pleased to hear about a loss."

"I'll spin it positively. Something along the lines of pretending to be weaker in order to surprise them later," said Claude. She could almost hear his shrug.

They went quiet. Byleth almost left before Hilda spoke again.

"And the professor? What do you think about her?"

Claude didn't respond for a while. Then, "I expected more."

Byleth walked away after that. Her feet clacked against stone and the duo above's conversation hushed. She couldn't bring herself to care.

They were right, weren't they?

She'd let them down.

Chapter Text

Hilda loathed mornings.

Not because of waking up (though she did adore her sleep), but because it meant a whole new day. Her schedule filled her mornings and it wouldn't be until the afternoon that she could do whatever she wanted.

Some of the Black Eagles had declared there would be a party in the courtyard for their classes to get to know each other better. That had gotten her attention. It wasn't like she didn't like the rest of the Deer aside from Claude it was just…

Okay, it was exactly that. They were just so bland!

As she put on her uniform, she felt guilty for thinking it. Hilda barely knew them, it had been less than a month since they had all moved into the academy.

She could almost hear her brother telling her to give it time. And she would. At least there was Claude to keep her sane.

When she left her room, Claude already waited outside, playing with his braid out of habit. He smirked as he saw her. "Ready for school, Hilda?" He was entirely too cheery in the morning.

"Don't remind me," she groaned.

They began to walk together. Claude filled the silence. "I'm actually curious what she'll teach us. I'm keeping my expectations low, but curiosity is going to kill this cat."

Hilda yawned. "Think she'll let me get away with sleeping in class?"

Claude shrugged. "One way to find out."

They filed in, two of the last to arrive. The last, Raphael, dashed in a minute after they'd taken their seats.

Their classroom was spacious and comfortable, filled with décor from the Alliance. Banners displayed Deer with far more pride than she did. The only thing it lacked was a professor.

Byleth hadn't shown up yet. The monastery's bell tolled and the time for classes to begin came and went. No teacher.

"Ridiculous," Lysithea muttered. They all heard her. Hilda wouldn't choose that word, but she would cock an eyebrow at it.

The door swung open and a haggard Byleth walked in. Her hair was a mess and she wore the same clothes as yesterday.

"Hangover," Hilda muttered to Claude. He rolled his eyes.

"Bear with me," their professor began from her position at the front of the class, "as teaching is hardly my strong suit. Yesterday showed us all we have a long way to go. But we're not going to let a loss stop us. There are other opportunities for us to show the Lions we're stronger than them."

"Stronger?" Lorenz guffawed without mirth. "Professor, we were destroyed yesterday. Frankly, I think it has to do with some weak links," his eyes slid to Claude, "but we are certainly not a force to be reckoned with yet."

Hilda agreed with Lorenz on the latter point. And those words left a bad taste in her mouth.

Byleth sat down at her desk. "Yeah, we were. But that wasn't your fault, it was mine. I'll endeavor to do better and teach you what you need to know to survive."

"And what will that be?" Lysithea asked. Hilda balked at her tone. Little, harmless Lysithea with a voice filled with venom? Perhaps today would be interesting.

"I don't know how to beat enemies in the ways that Edelgard and Dimitri do. They've had tutelage far different from me. But if we can't fight them the traditional way, we sure can make up a way." There was a flicker of fire in Byleth's eyes, something that drew Hilda in for the briefest of moments before letting her go.

Claude had seen it too. He sat straighter, no longer lackadaisical, but alert. A grin played across his face. Hilda knew oh-so-well when a man liked what he saw.

Hilda didn't share the same interest, but she wouldn't deny it.

Maybe things weren't completely hopeless.

"That lesson was…not what I expected," Ignatz said over his meal.

Leonie couldn't help but agree. The past twenty four hours had told her that Byleth Eisner was not everything she was hoping she'd be. Byleth was quiet, unsure, and most certainly not her father. She'd been taught by Jeralt the Blade Breaker, and that's how she turned out?

And then today's lesson. Byleth explained when to drop your weapon in a fight. There were no tactics, no theoretical approaches or scenarios. Just instances when Byleth believed it was appropriate close the distance and punch your opponent.

"Hardly what I'd call honor." Lorenz scowled. He was slouched and Leonie already knew from the short time she knew him that he was angry. "This is an officer's academy, not a tavern brawling class. And to go about that for as long as she did?"

There was a murmur of assent, which Leonie joined.

"Well, there's always the afternoon lesson and our training yard time." Raphael, ever the mediator. "I'm sure the professor is planning something, right?"

"Claude, what do you think?" Hilda asked their silent house leader.

He sat at the end of the table. It had been his idea for them all to eat together for their lunch. House bonding, he'd declared after class. As Hilda asked, he blinked and looked up. Leonie saw a wolfish smirk.

"Oh, my dears," he said, twisting the pun as Hilda groaned. "I think we've come into a double edged relationship. Sure, Teach is no teacher, but she's got experience."

Leonie rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Claude, for that extremely illuminating answer."

Her house leader laughed. "These other teachers, these other houses, they'll be taught how to fight. We'll be taught how to survive."

Some of the Deer looked confused, but Claude refused to elaborate, much to Hilda's chagrin.

It made Leonie wonder how much she'd be learning this year.

Byleth looked up from her desk after the second lesson of the day. Claude had pulled up a chair and set down a wooden box.

"You have training soon," she said.

"Easy, Teach. I'll be there on time, I just wanted to pose a little game to you." He smiled, the way a vulture smiled as it watched a rodent struggle.

Byleth set down her quill. "Oh?"

Claude pulled the lid off the box, showing various gilded figurines and sheets of paper with maps on them. "In Fódlan, this is called War. In Dagda, the name's translation means 'Those with strength stand on top'. Almyra, it's called Domination. In Morfis they refer to it as 'the game for those with brilliant minds.'"

"I don't follow," Byleth said. But he had her attention.

"It's a game of tactics. Few rules, just two people who set their minds against one another and attempt to defeat their opponent. I thought you might find it interesting."

Byleth sighed. "Is this in response to my lessons today? I promise I'll cover tactics in the future. I'm just teaching you all the important things first."

Her student threw his hands up in surrender. "You got me, alright. There's some dissatisfied chatter with the fawns. You might be a bit too brusque for them."

"And for you?" she fired back.

His eyes shimmered with excitement. "My initial assessment of you may have been wrong, Teach. I saw you as Captain Jeralt the Blade Breaker's daughter, not the mercenary called the Ashen Demon. Quite the moniker."

She pushed aside the sheet of paper she was writing on, giving up on getting anything done. "And now?" Leaning forward and mirroring him, she stared him down.

"I think we have some things in common. We're survivors, killers. Were this a class of just me, I think we'd have a beneficial relationship." His smile wilted. "But this isn't. The other Deer aren't like me. Ignatz wants to paint, not to plant an arrow through a man's eye three hundred paces away. The mock battle doesn't sit well with them."

Her stomach churned. Of course they were dissatisfied. First she lost them the mock battle, now she taught them things they deemed useless.

It is not up to them to deem your teachings useless. Is it not the teacher's role to help students learn things they did not know they needed?

Byleth ignored her. "I'll bear that in mind."

Claude smiled. "Just a little food for thought. Now, how about after training I teach you how to play the game for the brilliant mind? Maybe you'll teach the house leader a thing or two?"

She nodded and stood. "After training. I think we ought to get going."

"Lead the way, Teach."

Contrary to their lessons, Byleth was in her element in the sandy training yard.

Ignatz could see it, all the Deer could see it, as could their observers. Their professor looked relieved to working in the physical realm instead of the intellectual.

Byleth flit to each of them, correcting Leonie on sword stances to helping Lorenz adjust how much weight he put behind strikes. She didn't spar with them, claiming they weren't ready for that yet.

He fired another arrow, landing it not far out of the bullseye. Another arrow in his hand, he drew back and aimed, holding until he was satisfied and then firing.

It landed on the line of the bullseye. He was pleased.

"Not bad," Byleth said. He jumped, startled. "You've got a good eye."

"Ah! Thank you, professor." He blushed.

"You take your time to aim, though. Every second you aren't letting loose an arrow is another the enemy can plant one in you. May I?" she gestured to his bow. He handed it over with some arrows.

"Try holding your ammunition like this." In her right hand she held the bow and the arrows in two fingers, running parallel with the bow itself. "You spend a lot of time reaching to grab an arrow. This way you can be quicker."

The arrow she already had prepared leapt from her bow to the target, hitting the outer ring. She grabbed one of the arrows in her hand and in a fluid motion, fired it and hit the target, closer to the center. She did it again, again, again.

Ignatz marveled. In the amount of arrows it'd take him thirty seconds to shoot, she'd done it in ten. The target wasn't as precise as his shots had been, but they all landed on the rings.

"Think of that target as a person. Sure, it's nice to hit a man in the heart and stop him dead in his tracks, but if you hit him in the stomach, he'll go down. He won't die, but you'll take him out of the fight. I've yet to meet the average soldier who can walk off an arrow in the gut."

Ignatz saw one of the knights watching the exchange. Shamir looked very interested in the technique Byleth had just shown him.

"Are you listening?" Byleth asked.

"Yes!" Ignatz said. "Sorry, I was just impressed."

She shrugged. "It's not great shooting. I prefer being up close to an enemy. But we'll make a war archer out of you yet." His professor patted him on the shoulder and walked to the next student.

Ignatz tried the technique and failed miserably. Byleth made it seem easy, but there were muscles in his hands that he wasn't used to using yet that failed him. His shots barely made it onto the target as he fired and he wasn't anywhere close to Byleth's speed.

Despite the failings, he swore he saw Byleth nodding in approval when she thought he wasn't looking.

He smiled and kept practicing.

"How's the first day of teaching, kiddo?" Jeralt said, sitting across the dining table from her.

Byleth shrugged and picked at her food.

Jeralt pulled out a hip flask and poured some alcohol into whatever was in his mug. Sighing contently, he took a long sip. "If it makes you feel better, teaching you wasn't some easy thing."

"Care to share some wisdom?" Byleth said, her tone betraying the levity her face didn't show.

Her father laughed. "Kid, I doubt there are any children who were quite like you growing up. But be patient, they'll start learning eventually. Hopefully they'll soak in some before the end of the month."

Byleth looked up from her plate. "Is there something at the end of this month?"

"Rhea didn't tell you? Each house has an assignment at the end, or sometimes during, each month. Think of it as selling out the students as mercenaries to take care of Church problems. Free labor." Jeralt waved a hand in annoyance. "You'll be taking your kids out into battle soon."

"That's a stupid idea. They're not ready. Claude told me that they were surprised that I wasn't teaching them honorable combat," Byleth said.

Jeralt laughed, drawing a few nearby students' eyes. "Ah, to be young again."

"What?" Byleth asked, irritated.

"Just reminds me of when I was that young. Young enough to think the battlefield obeyed rules." His expression grew more serious with a care he reserved for his only daughter. "Make sure you teach them how to survive, By. If one of those kids dies out there, you'll have that weighing on your conscience."

She nodded. He was right, of course. Byleth would have to focus on certain topics.

"But enough doom and gloom. If there's one thing I missed about the monastery, it was the food." Jeralt smiled as he speared a piece of seared meat with a fork, dripping a honey glaze.

"You'd like any food not prepared by you. Your cooking is terrible."

Jeralt coughed as he tried to swallow. "Girl, next time we train, I'll make you pay for that one." He tried to sound serious, but the badly restrained laughter was all but bellowing from his lungs.

Byleth shrugged. "If you can beat me." But she smiled.

Come along! Hilda had said. It'll be fun! Hilda had said.

Parties, Lysithea decided, were not fun.

Though the pastries the cooks had brought were divine. She nibbled on a tart at the edge of the courtyard as students from all three houses mingled and talked.

Hilda was at the center of it, chatting up anyone who came close to her. She and the other noble born thrived and the commoners lingered on the edges, apprehensive of diving into the nest.

Except for Marianne, who hadn't deigned to show up.

"Not a fan of crowds, Lysithea?"

She turned her head to see Edelgard take the seat opposite of her at the table. The woman smiled, though her severity still hung over her like a shadow. Or maybe that was just Hubert following her every step.

"Crowds are fine, I just detest gatherings like this." Lysithea frowned at the assembled students. She ought to be in the library, studying. Goddess knew that her professor wouldn't be of much help.

"We're in agreement with that." Edelgard's expression looked far away. "The nobles squabble and make friends without a care in the world."

Lysithea found herself nodding. "What a lovely future we have to look forward to." Not that she'd be a part of it.

Edelgard chuckled. "Something tells me that if nobles were as dedicated like you, Lysithea, that we'd have a much different world to inhabit."

She flushed at the compliment. Her drive wasn't for the compliments of others, but it did feel nice. "I just know what I want."

That piqued the house leader's interest. "And what is that?"

Not to die. "To make a mark on the world."

The princess nodded in approval. "A worthy dream. You and I are similar in that regard. If there is anything I might be able to provide you to help, please do not hesitate to ask." Edelgard stood and Hubert—she'd forgotten he was there—stepped behind her. "I must go mingle with the vipers. Appearances to uphold as princess, you understand."

"Don't get bitten." Edelgard laughed at that.

Lysithea looked for Claude. Her house leader wasn't even there, trying to get to know his cohort.

A slow anger began to simmer.

"Your move, Teach," Claude said, leaning back in his chair he'd pulled up to her teaching desk again.

Gold light of sunset reflected off the golden statues. They'd been a gift from his grandfather, a subtle reminder that he needed to learn at the academy. The reminder wasn't needed or appreciated from that man, but Claude knew not to decry a present. Especially one as valuable as this set.

Oh, how she inspected the map and figures. His intuition was right, she proved to be a quick study for the game. It was their third match and Claude found himself enjoying it. He'd fleeced her in their first two bouts, but now they had an array set up with smaller armies. Groups more akin to bands of mercenaries.

He'd never been so glad to lose. He hadn't lost yet, of course, but the confidence she moved her pieces with, the assurance! His professor was dismantling his army.

"You're better than I expected," he said, breaking the silence.

Byleth didn't even look up from the map as she responded. "And what did you expect?"

The question went unanswered as he ignored it. "I'm sure that had you more time before the mock battle, there could have been a rapport between you and the students."

That time she looked up. "So your analysis of the battle was that we weren't a unit?"

"That, and we weren't as dedicated. The Alliance only fights with itself, not the other countries." That mentality had disseminated into the academy, Claude decided. Lorenz occupied himself with surpassing Claude when they could be working together.

His professor nodded, finally moving her pieces. As he made his move, she said, "I agree. I've no idea how to foster that trust between you all, though."

"I'll make you a deal, Teach." Claude made his move, barely caring at this point. He'd gotten to where he wanted the conversation to develop. That was the only reason he'd brought her the game earlier. "Make them into killers. I'll make them into friends."

He had her attention. She stared for a few moments before saying, "And why do you want them to become the best? You don't strike me as the type to place the needs of others before your own."

Ouch, but accurate. "Show me the person who tells you they need less allies. Show me the person who seeks to make enemies out of everyone and then tell me their accomplishments. I have aspirations, Teach, goals to achieve. I need reliable people to trust to get me to those."

Byleth nodded and made her move. "You'll need to trust them yourself, first."

He blinked. "Pardon?"

She slid her wyvern battalion a few inches, the golden statue polished with her fingerprints. "You lose, no unmounted units in plate mail can outrun wyverns." Byleth Eisner looked him in the eye. "Is Hilda your friend because you care about her or because you think she's useful?"

When he didn't respond, she nodded. "Clean this up. I'd like to play again, sometime." Byleth walked around her desk and made her way to the door.

He packed up the game and perked up when he heard, "Oh, Claude?"

They made eye contact. "I agree to your deal." And with that, she left.

She groaned at the knock on her door. Byleth sauntered up from her desk and took a deep breath. Opening her room's door, she revealed a woman with light hair.

"Hello, professor." The girl's—woman's—voice was light and feathery. "I made pastries for all the professors. Hanneman and Manuela were easy to find, but you proved quite the challenge." She held out a small basket, a warm aroma telling her everything about what was under the cloth covering it.

"I'm sorry," Byleth said, "but who are you?"

"Oh! Silly me, so forgetful. I am Mercedes von Martritz and I just wanted to welcome you to the monastery!" She gave a curtsey and smiled.

Byleth nodded. "Are you another teacher?"

Mercedes thought that was the funniest thing. Byleth wanted to escape into her room as Mercedes laughed. "Oh, no, professor. I'm a student, though I will admit I'm older than most here."

"Oh, right," Byleth said. "Sorry."

She waved her off. "Here," Mercedes said as she pressed the basket into her arms. "I hope you enjoy them, but I'll admit I've come here selfishly. I saw what you were teaching Ignatz today to shoot faster. I was wondering if you could show me as well?"

Goddess, the basket's contents smelled so good. "Yes, I'll have time this weekend on one of the free days. Is that agreeable, Mercedes?"

She nodded with a smile. "But no need to be so formal! Call me Mercie, that's what my friends call me."

Mercedes bid her farewell and Byleth retreated into her room and attacked one of the pastries.

Later, as she lay in bed having eaten too much, she would realize that she was susceptible to bribes and that she agreed to help out her house's rival. Sleep came before she could consider either.

Raphael saw his professor walking back from the cathedral across the dewy grass. He waved and she walked over.

"You're up early," she stated.

Raphael smiled. He set down the large stone he'd been lifting. It was a part of the monastery's architecture. He'd noticed it was loose a week ago and decided it'd make a great way to train before he could get into the knights' hall.

"Best time of day to work out. Plus, it means I can go right to the dining hall after and fill up." Oh, today they were serving a Dagdan dish that he just had to try.

"Does Seteth know you're using the monastery as your personal training equipment?" Her lips curled, a smile ghosting across her face.

Raphael scratched his head. "Ah, no, he doesn't." That probably wouldn't be good for him to know.

The professor nodded. "Our secret."

"Hey, professor," Raphael started, then stopped, unsure what to say.

"Yes, Raphael?" She cocked her head to the side, waiting.

Raphael swallowed. "Was I the reason we lost the mock battle when I charged ahead?" Ignatz mentioned that Claude hadn't been pleased about it.

"Yes and no," Byleth replied almost immediately. "You're a strong man, the type needed to take the attention of enemies away from those who rely on staying back and attacking from afar. Were you to have stayed with us, we might've faired better."

His heart sank. He opened his mouth to apologize.

"But," she stressed, "you're not the only one to blame. I think there are things we can all do to improve after that performance. Particularly me. I let you all down as a commander."

Raphael's eyes widened. "No you didn't, professor! I was talking to Dimitri yesterday and he told me how you moved. He called you a hurricane. Said you were the fastest fighter he'd ever met."

Byleth rolled her eyes. "Unlikely. Anyone inexperienced would say that. I'm just a mercenary who's seen enough of the world to know what it's like."

"I'm jealous," Raphael admitted. When Byleth's gaze invited him further, he continued, "I take care of my sister, Maya. And I wouldn't give that up! Not ever! But I haven't seen much of the world outside my village and well, Garreg Mach now. I guess I'm wondering what it's like out there."

His teacher looked at him for some time before nodding. "Would you like me to tell you about some of the places I've seen while you train?"

He nodded eagerly and began to pick up the boulder again, heaving under its weight while Byleth's voice went on.

"In Faerghus, there's this city called Arianrhod. Though to call it a city is an understatement. It's a castle, a fortress, and a siege engine all rolled into one. Every inch was built to resist the Empire. As for why it's called the Silver Maiden, I think that's some military humor over how it's never been taken…"

She continued on and he kept working out as the sun began to crest the horizon. For the first time since he'd come to Garreg Mach, he didn't worry about his sister as much.

Chapter Text

His professor had his attention as soon as she said the word mission.

"As some of you may know, we have monthly missions from the church. Our first is rooting out some bandits. Rhea's having us ship out in two days, with the Knights going on ahead to make sure it'll work for our assignment." Byleth looked at each of them to make sure they heard her.

Lorenz was eager. After that travesty of a mock battle, he had to prove himself. Prove he was not a liability, prove he was better than Claude, prove that the Alliance would one day be his.

"I should note," Byleth said over the chatter. She moved in front of her desk and crossed her arms. "This isn't some training display. This isn't a bout at daddy's fencing grounds with an instructor who is paid a small village's yearly income. This is battle. The Knights are along for support, not to fight. They'll step in if necessary, but we are bringing the heads back to Rhea."

The chatter shriveled.

Byleth nodded. "You're going to kill people. You're going to snuff the life from people and they won't hesitate to return the favor. Give them a moment of mercy and you'll find a spear in your gut." She rolled her shirt up two inches and showed part of a scar that no doubt ran further up her torso. "I let a bandit live once. He gave me an axe across the chest. You do the math."

Lorenz smirked at young Ignatz wilting and Raphael's discomfort. Commoners, a softer folk. But he, a noble, would show them how fighting was to be done.

A small, but not insignificant, part of him stared at the scar Byleth showed.

"Anyone who wishes to speak with me about pre-battle nerves or concerns, come find me. You have tomorrow off from lessons. Be packed and ready to leave at sunup the day after next. Class dismissed." Byleth returned to her chair and began looking through homework they'd handed in.

The Deer mutely gathered up their things. A few shot glances towards Byleth, but made no effort to approach. One by one, they trickled out the door just like every day of the past two weeks of lessons.

But not Lorenz.

He stepped up to the professor's desk and cleared his throat. Byleth looked up to him and before Lorenz could speak, she said, "I found your answer to the homework interesting."

"Oh? Was it the best in the class?" He smirked.

"On the contrary, you said you'd deal with the ranged opponent with your lance. How?" Her eyes pierced into him.

That he was not expecting. "Well, a good question. I'd ride my horse up and charge him, of course. Naturally, my mount would get me close enough to enough to shoot so as to not miss."

Byleth nodded. "Have you ever charged down an archer?" Lorenz shook his head. "They don't wait for you to get close. That's suicide. They pin you down from a distance."

"But were I wearing armor—"

"So you'd survive an arrow from a shortbow. What if they have a better bow? Maybe an Adrestian Longbow?"

He didn't know what that was. "Well, perhaps the question could have specified that."

"I'm not going to baby you, Lorenz. Not you, not Claude, not anyone here. The question says that because that's all you'd know in battle. I once saw a mercenary hit with a bolt from an Adrestian Longbow at five hundred paces away. We weren't even battle ready." Byleth stopped speaking, eyes far away.

Lorenz didn't notice. "Five hundred, you say? Surely you must be mistaken, no marksman is that good."

"A Leicester sniper is. And Dagdan war archers are better. With an Adrestian Longbow, you have to draw it back with your shoulder. It's the only way a bow as big as that can fire. It punches through steel up to eight hundred paces away," Byleth said. "And you know why I'm making a point out of this?"

When he said nothing, she continued. "You're a noble, you're a target. A guard or armor can't do anything for you when an enemy shoots at you from a distance."

"Oh," he said, finding himself at a loss for words.

Byleth blinked and sighed. "Sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you. I meant it when I said I wanted you to know how to survive. I'm intent on keeping my students alive. Now, and in the future."

"I apologize, professor." A Gloucester was gracious in defeat. "I will endeavor to try harder."

"What I'll have you try is magic. Your Crest is known for magical ability. If we can arm you to fight from a distance, then that'll be another tool at your disposal. Meet me in the training yard this evening."

Lorenz didn't even know if he had a choice. "As you wish, professor. I do believe you'll be surprised. You'll find I have some magical talent."

"Excellent." He heard approval in her tone and he smiled.

"House Gloucester is second to none in the Alliance. That scoundrel Claude may pretend to be a leader, but he is a falsehood on a precipice of failure."

Byleth's face waned into a frown. "You should consider that attitude towards him. It would be beneficial to trust him on the battlefield."

Lorenz was cut off by a knock on their classroom door. Mercedes entered in with pep in her step. It vanished when she saw Lorenz and she grew apprehensive.

Ah yes, she'd turned down his dining invitation. How unfortunate. He'd heard something of her fall from nobility. Getting to know him was in her interest to climb back to high society.

"Lorenz," she greeted stiffly, then turned to Byleth, "and hello, professor!" He didn't miss the change in tone between greetings.

"Mercedes, have you gotten lost again? This is the Golden Deer classroom," Lorenz said.

"She's here to meet me for her lesson in archery," Byleth said. "Perfect timing, Mercedes."

Aghast, he said, "Professor, you would teach a student from another house? She's the competition!"

His professor stood up, gathering the papers on her desk and pushing in her chair. "And therefore I ought to deprive her of skills that might save her life? I don't care what country she's from, she wants to learn." Byleth paused and Lorenz swore she almost smiled. "I guess maybe I do understand that part of teaching."

Together, the two women walked out of the classroom, chatting amicably.

Lorenz frowned. He didn't mean for Byleth to damn Mercedes to a death by not learning. That was barbaric. He merely meant that her allegiance ought to be to the Alliance first. To help her own first, before looking to others. Was that really such a wrong thought to have? Should he doom people of Leicester for the sake of people from the Kingdom? Or the Empire?

Lorenz was so caught up in the notion that he forgot that he wished to ask her what it was like to kill someone.

Hilda had to drag her physically.

Marianne did not want to go for a late night meal before the dining hall closed. On the eve of battle, she wanted to rest and pray.

Though that was its own struggle. Pray for success or pray to be plucked up by the Goddess? A question she didn't have an answer to. Garreg Mach was better than Edmund Manor, that was for sure. But rumors still circled, classmates eyes lingered on her.

They knew. They had to know she was cursed.

And Hilda, bless her heart, was trying to befriend her. Marianne might be touched if she hadn't overhead Claude and her speaking a few weeks ago.

A deal with their teacher, that he'd make them all friends. It was a nice sentiment, Marianne supposed, but she'd rather not ruin it. Maybe they'd tolerate her for a time, but once they realized just how repulsive she was, they'd revile her.

But despite all that, despite saying to Hilda that it was dangerous to spend time around her, the girl still dragged her along. She chatted about everything imaginable and Marianne couldn't keep up.

When they got to the dining hall, they were the last to arrive. The hall was near empty aside from the Deer, sitting at their usual table in their usual spots.

After grabbing food, Hilda plopped down, Marianne following suit with much more elegance.

Claude nodded to them while Raphael kept telling his story.

"—and the farmer, he's this big guy. There's no doubt in his mind that he can lift more than me." Raphael was smiling per usual, but he waved his hands animatedly causing both Ignatz and Leonie to duck. "So I tell him that he's got nothing to lose and he agrees. Ten minutes later, he's on the ground panting while I drag the cart all by myself. The guy was so tired, he got into the cart and I pulled him too."

"Well, Ignatz? That true?" Claude asked with a smile.

Ignatz laughed. "Remarkably. Raphael never has shied away from showing off his muscles."

Hilda leaned forward. "I heard that you arm wrestled that Eagle, Caspar."

Raphael nodded. "He put up a fight!"

"Did you win some glory for the Deer?" Lorenz asked.

When Raphael nodded, Claude raised his glass. "To Raphael, proving brawn over brains can work." He winked and Raphael laughed at the jibe.

Hilda, Ignatz, and Leonie raised their glasses. Marianne half-heartedly followed, barely paying attention. She was tired, so very tired. But Byleth's words kept haunting her.

"You're going to kill people."

She shivered, but no one's eyes were on her.

A silence fell over the table and Marianne looked up from her lap in fright. Were they staring at her? Had she done something wrong? She started to apologize.

But it was Lysithea glaring at Claude. "Do you see me as child, Claude?"

"It was a jest, Lysithea." Claude flashed that winning smile of his.

The youngest Deer smacked a hand onto the table. "Stop treating me like I'm a child. I'm not! It's bad enough that I get it from our ridiculous professor, but I will not tolerate it from you." She grabbed her plate and left the table.

They all watched her leave. "Fuck," Claude muttered. "I didn't think she'd take it that badly."

"You asked if it was past her bedtime, Claude, I doubt anyone would take that well," Leonie retorted.

Claude frowned. "And she should be old enough to understand a joke for a joke. Maybe if she acted less like a kid, I'd have less ammunition."

Leonie scoffed and grabbed her things, leaving after Lysithea.

"Way to go, Claude," Lorenz said. "Your brilliant leadership is once again on display."

"You know, Lorenz, for all you talk shit about my ability, I hardly ever see you stepping up to offer better," Claude said, staring him down as he gripped his fork tight.

Marianne wrapped her arms around herself. Claude's voice reminded her of her father.

Ignatz and Raphael both grabbed their things and left while the two nobles started to argue. Marianne wanted to go with them.

"Hey, are you okay?" Hilda whispered as Lorenz's voice raised.

Marianne didn't have words. She just shook her head. Hilda practically pulled her from her seat, leaving their food.

They could still hear the two as they left the hall.

"You're an interloper who will destroy the Alliance from within, a two-bit charlatan who neither understands respect nor deserves it!"

"Oh, has daddy been hounding you hard after getting your ass kicked in the mock battle? I'm sure the stress must be great with you fearing he'll ride down here and spank you."

"Those two," Hilda tried to say lightly. But there was doubt in her tone.

"Sorry," Marianne apologized.

"What on Fódlan are you apologizing for?" Hilda asked, bewildered.

Marianne picked at a loose bit of thread on her uniform. "It was all nice before I showed up. Like I said, I'm cursed. I made it turn ugly."

Hilda waved her hands, exasperated. "You're not cursed, don't be silly. Those two are liable to bite each other's heads off without anyone's help."

Marianne didn't respond. Hilda was just being nice. It was her Crest's work again. She turned a nice meal into a fight.

"Marianne, you're being ridiculous," Hilda groaned.


"Oh Goddess, you're impossible," Hilda said, throwing her hands up. "I'm heading back to my room." And she did, leaving Marianne behind.

She took a seat next to the fishing pond and began to pray to the Goddess.

If taking her out of this world would make the rest of the Deer get along, then surely it was worth it.

Lysithea was the first one aside from the professor to be by the stables. The sun was just peeking over the horizon.

"They're late," Lysithea said.

Byleth nodded. "They'll get better at being on time. Or at least they better."

The mage walked to one of the mares, stroking its neck. She wasn't overly fond of horses, but they got the job done.

"Have you ever thought of being a mounted mage?" Byleth asked her, breaking her from a reverie.

"No, I prefer my feet firm on the ground," she replied.

Byleth shrugged. "Could be good for you to learn." Claude and Raphael arrived and Byleth moved to speak to them.

Lysithea growled. Talking down to her like that? Was there a single person in this entire academy who would see her for the woman she was? She was no child.

That anger occupied her while the rest of her house arrived. Byleth chastised them for being late and sent them to their horses to gear up.

As they all sat perched upon their steeds, Byleth addressed them. "It's half a day's ride to the Red Canyon. The Knights are already there, let's not keep them waiting."

As they began to set off, Leonie rode up astride her. "You alright up there, Lys?"

Lysithea frowned. "I am perfectly capable with horses."

Leonie nodded. "Just checking. Let me know if you want any help."

She just couldn't escape it.

"The bandits are down there, where the canyon splits open more. You'll find an area with some bridges, the bandits will be hunkered down past them," Shamir said, briefing them. "The Knights will be on standby. If you're overwhelmed, retreat."

"Thank you," Byleth said. She turned to the students behind her. "We're going to stick together while we're down there. It'll give the Knights an easier time keeping an eye on us and stop us from being separated. Questions?"

Claude waved a hand. "Archers in back?"

"Archers and mages. Marianne in the middle." Byleth looked over towards the meek girl. "Don't focus on fighting, focus on keeping us alive. Leonie, Raph, you're up front with me."

"And me, professor?" Lorenz asked, not one to be left out.

Byleth walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Got an important job for you, you up for it?"

He smirked. "Oh, is that even a question? This son of Gloucester is ready."

"You're bringing up the rear. Bandits especially will try and swing around us. There's not many of them, so they might come around the back. I need you to protect our ranged people and warn me if that happens, understand?" Byleth commanded. Her tone brooked no disagreement.

Lorenz snapped up a little straighter. "As you will, professor."

"Anyone else got a question?" Byleth asked.

Pre-battle silence ruminated. She turned around and began walking into the canyon as Shamir split off to go to a higher vantage point.

Behind her, she could hear two of her students speaking.

"I liked that phrase, Lorenz."

"If you're to mock me, Claude, then I'm in no mood for it."

"'As you will.' It's good line. Perhaps we should use it."

"If you jest, Claude, stop it."

"I'm not. It's a compliment. Accept it."

"Ah…very well. Thank you, Claude."

Byleth almost smiled.

Leonie tackled Marianne to the ground as she saw the shimmer high in the cliffs. An arrow lanced down to where the blue haired woman had stood.

"Down!" screamed Byleth.

They all obeyed with varying levels of speed, ducking behind a fallen column. The bridge that led to where the bandits were staked out was in front of them. From their distance, they weren't close, but some bodies moved, spreading word of intruders.

"There's a sniper on that cliff over there. With that kind of aim, do not poke your heads up," Byleth shouted.

"What's the plan, Teach?" Claude asked, panting.

Byleth leaned so her head poked a fraction of the way above the stone, looking at the battlefield. She ducked and an arrow struck the stone a second later.

"Claude, Ignatz, Leonie, on my mark, take aim at the sniper. Lysithea, use magic to bring the column down across the bridge. If you can't hit the sniper, all of you make for that position. We're not going to give up ground."

"What about you, professor?" Raphael said, trying to hide his bulky frame behind the stone. The shouts of the bandits grew louder.

Byleth's face grew cold. "I'm going to give him a target. Take aim in twenty seconds." She didn't wait for agreement before vaulting over the column and running across the bridge.

Leonie let out a slew of curses, sheathing her sword and pulling her bow off her back. All eyes looked to Claude, even Lorenz'.

"Crazy woman," he breathed. "Take aim!"

Three archers sprang up, drawing their bows back. They fired to where the sun glinted off the steel of the bow. Lysithea hurled a ball of sticky Dark magic at the base of the pillar. It detonated, devouring through stone and dirt and bringing the stone down.

Byleth hadn't stopped running. Arrows dogged her path, each one a single mistake away from hitting her. Two bandits had charged her, holding axes up high like idiots. She closed the distance, driving her sword into the first's solar plexus while his weapon didn't protect him. The bandit buckled as she withdrew the blade and she grabbed the other bandit by the throat, dragging him in front of her as the sniper's next arrow dug into her new shield. Byleth discarded the now-corpse and kept running.

"Now!" Claude yelled, letting loose his arrow. Leonie and Ignatz were right behind him.

They missed, arrows slicing by in the wind. But they weren't far off. "Again!" Claude shouted. "Raphael, go help Byleth!"

"On it!" the blond said and ran towards the professor.

The bandits' numbers were growing. Byleth cut two more down, but the enemy's force put pressure on her.

"Loose!" Claude shouted. The arrows flew, missing again.

Lorenz pushed past Claude and damn near snarled. "No, like this." There was a pulse of something from Lorenz, a raw power that some of them were familiar with. Had they looked into his eyes, they'd see a light flash of blue.

The scion of Gloucester snapped his fingers and some flame erupted near the sniper. It was paltry, weak. But it scared the shit out of the sniper, making him stumble back.

"Again!" Claude called. Three arrows flew at the bigger target, two striking him in the chest.

The Deer roared in approval.

She hadn't been ready for the fire to appear in the corner of her vision.

The sniper's perch erupted ignited, blowing the man out of hiding. Her students capitalized, feathering him with arrows.

Byleth saw none of it, the flame awakening the memories. Her father holding her. A building burning. One that was now all too familiar. Her shrill screams. A burning piece of the roof fell in front of her. No, she was the one falling, her sword limp in her hands, eyes fading to—

"Gotcha, prof," Raphael said as he grabbed her shoulders. He promptly dropped her as a swordsman ran up to them. With his sturdy gauntlets, Raphael knocked the sword aside and delivered a catastrophic punch to his chest. The man reached a hand down to where the gauntlet's blade had pierced him. Raphael smashed his face, the skull crumpling like paper.

Byleth returned to the world. She gasped a breath, heaving oxygen into her lungs. "Raph, you alright?"

"No time to dwell." He looked sick from what he just did.

She looked over her shoulder. Her fawns were getting closer as they ducked behind the cover Lysithea had made, Claude already firing arrows. Some of the bandits fell, bolts sticking from their bodies.

"Let's go." She grabbed her sword and leapt back in.

After the third man he'd stuck an arrow in, Ignatz realized that he had a knack for killing.

He'd vomited. Marianne had run to check on him, but he was physically fine.

It was his artistic eye that was pained. That eye for detail, for precision. It directed his arrows to gaps in armor, to points of vulnerability. And it wasn't as hard as hitting a bullseye.

His professor was right. An enemy with an arrow in their gut still went down.

Marianne put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, though she looked no better than he did. Then Lysithea cried out as a lightning bolt descended near her. She glowed with the same power Lorenz did earlier, hurling a miasma towards the mage who'd struck her. Marianne's hand left, the comfort gone, as she dashed to the wounded girl.

A roar to his left made him turn. A bandit had snuck around them, running towards him with a spear. There was no time to aim.

Ignatz fired, using his professor's technique. The first arrow missed, but he drew back again. Another miss. Another.

The man was on him and gave a warbled battlecry, stopping short. Lorenz kicked him of the spear he'd skewered him with. He nodded to Ignatz.

Ignatz nodded back, and as Lorenz left, the archer looked down to the man who'd charged him. He was younger than Ignatz.

He vomited again.

The leader was down. The bandits that remained began to flee.

"Kill them!" Byleth shouted when the Deer had made no move to stop them.

Claude's bow was in his hands a second later. "As you will," he whispered, planting an arrow in a man running for his life. He fell, no longer moving. Claude turned and picked a new target, missing once, then hitting him.

Leonie joined him, but Ignatz didn't. Claude's classmate looked weak, ready to keel over. There was a lot of blood on him, though none of it seemed to be his.

"I surrender!" shouted a man as Lysithea raised a hand to cast magic. He fell onto his knees, dropping his weapon.

"Smart," Lysithea said, lowering her hand.

"Idiot," Byleth said as she walked over. She bumped into Lysithea, pushing her to the side as she raised her blade, driving it down on the man, shattering the clavicle. The bandit screamed as Byleth brought the blade back up, slamming it down again. He did not scream a second time.

The rest of the Deer were stunned, albeit Claude. It reminded him of a time long ago in a land which was not this one, where surrender was intolerable. Not altogether happy memories.

"What the hell was that?" Lysithea shrieked. "He had surrendered!"

"No mercy," Byleth muttered, not all there.

Lysithea walked right up to Byleth and shouted, "So we're to kill those who flee? Those who throw down arms? We're no better than them!"

That provoked Byleth. "They were bandits. If they lived, they would have gone on to do the same thing all over again. Or maybe that man would have pulled a knife on you. They're better off dead."

"You're a monster," Lysithea realized. Claude knew the sight of someone who had an epiphany and it made him frown.

Byleth lost a lot of her anger in a sigh. "We're all monsters before the Goddess. The difference between us and them is that our killing stops theirs."

Lysithea stared at Byleth pointed a finger at the dead bandit and snapped. His corpse engulfed in flames, the sickly smell of burning flesh rising.

Byleth went rigid, taking a step back. Lysithea had all but vanished to her, her eyes were only on the fire, the flickering bloom of heat.

"Lys! That's enough!" Leonie shouted. She stepped forward and grabbed the young girl's shoulder. "Put it out!"

The mage huffed, but did so. She turned around, walking away back to where the Knights would gather to meet them.

Byleth collapsed, but Raphael caught her for the second time that day. This time he didn't drop her. The remaining Deer all rushed to her side.

"Give her some room!" called Claude.

It was warrior sickness. At least, that's what they called it where he was from. People who fought too much or too long became beset with visions.

Byleth, as she came too, did not look okay. Her episode left her ragged like the battle hadn't. Exhaustion sagged at her attractive features, a weariness that was usually reserved for older age.

"I'll be fine, I just need a moment." Raphael put her down and she seemed to regain some comfort by touching the dirt.

In a carrying whisper, Claude spoke, "No one is to mention this to anyone at the monastery."

He got nods of affirmation, though some seemed confused.

In his land, people like the professor were shamed for not being able to fight well. While Fódlan bore half his ire, Claude preferred their way of handling ailments like warrior sickness and not ostracizing the victims.

He'd help her as best as he could. And that meant not having it be the talk of the monastery.

After giving her report to Rhea, Byleth had gone straight back to her room. Some of her students tried to approach her, but she brushed them off.

She was in no mood to talk.

Inside her room, she fished out the flask she kept behind her bed. It was still full of the vile liquor she'd bought the previous week. Flicking the top off, she took three big gulps, the taste obliterating her taste buds.

Byleth slouched down by the side of her bed, taking another few drafts. She wanted to forget. No, she needed to.

The burning corpse. The smell of the flesh.

More reminders of that day.

Sothis tried to say something, but Byleth couldn't hear her. She'd bought the most powerful stuff in the entirety of Garreg Mach. Her mind would lose the last grips of control in minutes.

There was a knock on the door. Byleth mumbled for them to go away.

"Professor, are you there?"

She drank more.

The door slowly opened and Mercedes walked in. She said nothing and just wrapped her arms around Byleth.

The flask was gently pulled from her grasp, but Byleth was far too gone for that to matter. She slurred, voice far from comprehensible.

"Fourteen more." Her voice was already raspy. Good, she just wanted to sleep. The sooner she could fall asleep, the better.

"Fourteen?" Mercedes quietly asked.

Byleth grunted. "Kills. Dead." Another fourteen sets of eyes to watch her.

"Oh, professor," Mercedes said. She pulled her in tighter to the embrace.

Mercedes was warm. But a comfortable warm, unlike fire. She began to hum softly, moving Byleth's head so she was over her chest. The light heart beat was calming, rhythmic.

Byleth fell into the first peaceful sleep she'd had in years.

Chapter Text

"I heard about your mission."

Lysithea tilted her head up as Edelgard sat down across from her. With as late in the night as it was, the library was entirely empty. Curfew only applied to outside the monastery, so inside the grounds was fair game.

Though admittedly, no one came to the library as late as she did with the exception of Claude. Thankfully, he was checking on Marianne instead.

"What of it?" Lysithea said, barely glancing up. Her mind had been so distracted, rereading the same few lines over and over again.

"How are you feeling?"

Oh, that was a loaded question. What wasn't she feeling? Did Edelgard refer to the sheer panic of being pinned down by the sniper? To the man she'd seen flesh slough off of when she submerged him in a miasma? To the way her professor was incompetent?

The last was far easier to talk about.

"My professor leaves some things to be desired."

Edelgard raised an eyebrow. "I've heard you and her have been butting heads. Care to vent?"

Lysithea finally put the book down. "I want to learn everything. No, I need to learn every secret about magic that I can. There are reasons that put me on a time limit, I don't have time for this. I don't have time to learn when to punch an enemy instead of cast a spell."

"Because you're a caster," Edelgard observed.

She nodded. "The Deer are a physical house. Marianne is our healer and she wields a sword more than offensive magic. I have no one to guide me. I don't have time for my professor's style of teaching. I did not come to the officer's academy to have a professor who fears the most base magical spell."

Edelgard nodded, interested. "Hanneman, my teacher, seems to have more experience with that. Age begets wisdom, as they say. You might want to seek his personal instruction."

The young mage nodded absently. She hadn't the physicality to benefit from any of Byleth's teaching so far. A month of study, wasted.

The smile on Edelgard's face grew an inch. "If you like, I have a suggestion on how you could solve your problem."


Edelgard leaned forward and told her.

Hilda lay in her bed that night after the battle. She'd bathed for an hour, letting the blood soak off her skin. It'd even gotten under her nails so far that she'd resorted to using a toothpick to get them out.

She was no stranger to battle. Holst was her brother. Hilda was a Goneril. She grew up on the Throat.

She expected some sort of squeamish feeling, a sort of disgust.

But there was nothing.

Hilda had smashed the leader of the bandit's head in. His skull had caved in, cracking audibly and squelching as she removed the axe. Leonie had taken one look and refused to again.

And all Hilda felt was dull accomplishment. No feeling of horror. Just the pride akin to finally landing a hammer atop the head of a nail (though she'd admit that was just a guess. Hitting nails, her? Please.).

So while the rest of her house grieved in their own ways, Hilda felt apathy.

It was like the professor said. They would have harmed more people. They deserved to die.

Maybe there was some truth to what Claude was seeing in her.

Hilda stretched out on the bed, sighing. So much work today. Maybe the professor would let them off with a free day since other students weren't doing as well.

Though come to think of it, the professor didn't seem to be doing so well either.

"Ugh," she groaned, the idea too far in her head now. Hilda jumped off the bed and left her room. She made her way to the professor's quarters.

Thankfully it was dark enough out that no one would be able to accuse her of caring.

When she arrived, lantern light flickered under the door. Voices, hushed, trickled out. Hilda put her ear up to the lock and heard the soft voice of a woman singing. But it wasn't Byleth.

What was Mercedes doing in Byleth's room?

She withdrew, walking back to her room. A tryst? No, unlikely. Had Mercedes thought to check on Byleth before a member of her own house thought to?

Hilda's stomach twisted at that thought, but she fought the feeling. Bad emotions, go away, she commanded.

She pranced back to her room, pushing aside burgeoning feelings of guilt.

"Thank you, Claude," Marianne whispered as she dried her tears.

"I'd be a poor house leader if I didn't care about my Deer," he said, taking his handkerchief back.

They sat in her room. Claude had stopped by half an hour ago to check on her. He'd said that he was looking in on everyone, but Marianne doubted that. She was the weakest person, so naturally he'd make sure she was okay.

Marianne appreciated the sentiment, though.

Raphael would have a scar on his chest, a big nasty red one. All because her healing wasn't good enough, because she hadn't the power to fully heal the wound. Now he'd have that for the rest of his life because she was inadequate.

And then there was the man she'd accidentally stabbed. He'd run at her and she lifted her sword reflexively. It'd saved her life as he'd run himself through.

Hilda had laughed. Marianne had prayed.

Monsters they were before the Goddess. That's what Byleth had said, and Marianne agreed. Just some of them more than others.

How horrible for her classmates to find out that she was just as bad as the thieves they'd put down. They'd never look her in the eye again if they could see how cursed she was.

"Marianne?" Claude said. He'd been saying her name for a while, she realized.

"Yes?" she asked.

He looked concerned. "You sure you're feeling better?"

"I'll be better in no time," Marianne lied.

Claude nodded. "You know…" he seemed to search for something. "I killed my first man when I was thirteen. It was up close, like yours. A dagger into the neck. He was on top of me at the time, strangling me. I pulled a dagger from his belt and kill him. Blood poured down me, it was disgusting."

"Why are you telling me this?" Marianne asked. She looked up at Claude and he seemed a decade far away.

"It doesn't get better. But it does get easier. It helped me to know that if I'd have died, my friends would have been sad," Claude said, aiming for comfort. His voice twisted when he said 'friends'.

But she didn't have any friends.

"Thank you, Claude."

He nodded again. "Don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Any of the Deer would be happy to. Even Hilda, if you could bribe her enough."

Marianne giggled a little. Claude's smile grew.

He kept painting with red.

The view out of his window didn't have any red, just greens of various shades. But his mind kept gravitating to crimson. Ignatz set down the brush, sighing. A canvas wouldn't solve his problems tonight.

He damn near spilled his paints when Raphael barged into his room.

"Raph! You scared me!" Ignatz yelped.

He laughed, but it fell just short of his eyes. "Hey, Ig, wanna go get a meal? I'm starving!"

Ignatz almost rolled his eyes and told Raphael that maybe a sixth trip to the dining hall that day was excessive, even if they had a battle that day. Surely no one had that appetite.

But Raphael's stance wasn't the eager one he always had around friends. It was antsy, jittery.

"Sure, Raph. Let me pack up my supplies."

His friend waited while the artist made sure each brush was properly clean before departing his room.

As they left, Leonie poked her head out of her room. "Hey, can I come with you guys to get food?"

"Woah, Leonie, you must be psychic or something, knowing we were going to the dining hall!" Raphael laughed.

"Something like that," Leonie said with a roll of her eyes. "It had nothing to do with how your voice can be heard through walls, Big Man."

"Hey, when food is involved, how could I not shout?"

Leonie chuckled. "Never change, Raphael."

"If I never change, then my muscles won't grow. So sorry, no can do." Raphael flexed and now it was Ignatz' turn to roll his eyes before joining in with their laughter.

It was late evening, so the dining hall was rather empty. Empty except for Lorenz sitting by his lonesome, looking lost in thought.

"Let's go sit by him," Raphael said once he had a heaping plate of food. The cooks were beginning to anticipate the blond giant's eating patterns.

Leonie squirmed. "Do we have to?"

Raphael frowned. "Lorenz is a good guy under all the pomp." And without waiting for a reply, he heading off to sit by their housemate.

Leonie huffed and looked at Ignatz for support. She found none as he already was following Raphael. They sat down on either side of Raphael with Lorenz across the table.

"Lorenz! Your plate's so empty, how're you supposed to grow muscles like me without a nice big piece of meat on there?"

Lorenz almost jumped out of his skin. "Oh, hello, you three. I did not expect to see you all here at this time of day."

"I think we could say the same as you," Ignatz said. "Usually I see you eat your meals with Ferdinand."

"Hmm, he left some time ago, I think," Lorenz said. There wasn't any of the usual 'pomp' to Lorenz, as Raphael put it. He looked like a flag without wind, crumpled.

"Here," Raphael sliced a hefty piece off his chunk of meat, "that'll have you raring in no time."

"Raphael, I hardly think a piece of meat will help me come to my senses." Lorenz sighed but did poke at it listlessly with his fork.

Ignatz opened his mouth to say something, but Raphael cut him off. "Well, they say food is nourishment of the body and talk is nourishment of the mind. So what's on your mind?"

Their noble companion nibbled at the meat. "Those bandits, I suppose I can't get them off my mind."

Raphael nodded. "Same. The whole thing was a shame."

That lit a fire in Lorenz's eyes. "Wasn't it? I will not condone banditry, but sometimes it is the most commoners can aspire to in times of strife."


Raphael gestured for Leonie to stop talking. "Back in my village, it was hard to make do some years. Whenever I hear tales about bandits, I wonder if they're like the folk in my village who turned bandit to feed their children."

"I cannot help but agree. When a commoner turns to such barbarity, I would hazard a guess that it is not really their fault, but the fault of the nobleman who serves them." Lorenz sighed, cutting into his meal with more gusto. "I guarantee you, Raphael, that I shall not be one of those nobles who fails his subjects."

"Oh?" Raphael asked.

"Certainly not. A nobleman has a duty to know what his commoners are up to. That is the way of the world, commoners producing food and the nobles managing them. A fault in one affects the other, it is a symbiotic relationship. To see bandits like those today, I cannot but wonder how they came to that place in their lives." Lorenz blinked and uncharacteristically blushed. "Forgive me, I became passionate."

Raphael laughed. "Passion is good! It keeps you warm on an empty stomach."

Lorenz actually smiled, to Ignatz's surprise. "Quite right, Raphael. Thank you, it seems you were right about talk being good for the mind."

He smiled. "Anytime, Lorenz."

The nobleman rose, holding an empty plate. "I'll bid you good night, Raphael. And you too, Leonie and Ignatz." They seemed to be an afterthought, like he'd forgotten they were there. "I do require some rest before class tomorrow. It would not do to arrive late."

"Good night!" Raphael waved.

Ignatz and Leonie stared at Raphael, who'd gone back to eating.

"Raph," Ignatz started.

"How did you do that?" Leonie finished.

"Hm? Do what?" Raphael said, confused.

Leonie looked at him in disbelief. "You got Lorenz not to be an ass."

"Oh, Lorenz isn't bad. He's a good guy." Raphael shrugged. "He seemed down and I got him talking about it. That was it."

Ignatz wasn't sure he believed that, not when Raphael had shushed both him and Leonie when they made to interrupt.

While Leonie still floundered and Raphael played dumb, Ignatz afforded a small smile. He was lucky to have him as a friend.

Mercedes stirred as the woman in her arms moved.

Byleth groaned and brought a hand up to her head. "I don't suppose you have magic for hangovers?"

The holy woman giggled. "I'm sure Manuela knows a spell for it."

The professor sat up and yawned. "Mercedes—"

"Ahem." Mercedes gave the teacher a look.

"Mercie, I trust that what happened here won't leave this room?" Byleth said.

Mercedes stood up and brushed some wrinkles out of her uniform. "If that's what you wish, professor. Your secrets are safe with me."

As she made to leave, Byleth blocked her path, holding out a hand. "You have something of mine."

She bit her lip and slowly handed the flask back to Byleth. The lack of liquid in it worried her. "I said I'd keep your secrets, but that does not mean I wish to enable them."

Byleth stowed it in her pocket. "I'd just find more. Might as well save me the money."

"I'll pray for you," Mercedes said, still looking at the professor in disapproval.

Byleth had the decency to look somewhat ashamed. "Do what you will. I doubt the Goddess has room in her heart for a killer like me."

"I think she has love for anyone, no matter how far gone they are. I'm sure Sothis would welcome you with open arms."

Byleth froze.

Mercedes blinked. "Was it something I said?"

The professor shook her head, but Mercedes wasn't saint enough to not know a liar when she saw one. Still, she held her tongue and nodded. "Well, if you ever desire someone to lend an ear, don't hesitate to seek me out."

Byleth said nothing, and Mercedes left feeling as if she'd made a mistake.

"Okay," Byleth said, her voice shushing the chatter of her students as she stood up at her desk in the front of the classroom. "I've spoken with—"

She blinked. "Where's Lysithea?"

Every head turned to the empty seat. Even Leonie's, who sat next to her.

"Have any of you seen her today?" Byleth asked, uncomfortable. She knew they had all see her reaction yesterday. None had approached her on it and part of her was secretly thankful. That wasn't a conversation she wanted to have with anyone.

A series of shaking heads. Byleth sighed. "Well, hopefully she comes along. Anyway, as I was saying, I spoke with the other classes I teach for the Golden Deer. They've been preparing the past month for you to step in and command them. I don't know what Rhea will assign us for our next mission, but I will be putting you each in charge of a battalion for the next battle."

She held up a hand as nervous chatter sprouted. "But, we've a lot of work before that. So yes, we'll be concentrating on tactics in the weeks to come. Your battalions have been drilling. They will respond to your commands and obey you. Do not misinterpret their help, you are all in command of them."

More lives in their hands aside from their classmates. Do not ignore that fear.

Byleth swallowed sharply. She hadn't had time to dwell on Mercedes' words. "They are Deer, even if they are not your classmates. Treat their lives as such, like I would hope you'd treat any life."

Marianne in particular looked terrified, though the rest weren't far behind. It was Claude and Lorenz who both nodded grimly, acknowledging, but without fear.

She tried to smile, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on her students as some unconsciously reared back. "I don't foist this on you randomly. You all impressed me in the battle." Byleth could get away with that statement with their number down one. "Believe it or not, you are all ready for this. Or at least you will be before our next mission."

Byleth sat back down. "We'll discuss meeting your battalions and their lieutenants in time. As well, there will be a test in a few weeks." A collective groan, loudest from Hilda.

Claude raised a hand. Byleth nodded at him. "Now, Teach, pardon me for asking, but wouldn't you call us living through battle to be a passing grade?" He smirked as he spoke, baiting her into something.

What is was, she did not know. "As far as I'm concerned, you live to the end of the year, you'll graduate."

Some cheered, others looked queasy. Marianne and Ignatz most notably. Perhaps she'd need to train with them one on one. She made a note of it.

"Any other questions?"

There were none.

"Then let's talk strategy."

"Say hello to Lysithea who will be joining us today," Hanneman said. "On account of that, I figured we could talk about some more advanced magical theory." He stepped towards the chalk board. "For those casters in the room, bear with me for a few minutes while I touch on the bases for our less magically inclined friends."

"There are three types of magic." Hanneman drew an isosceles triangle. "White, Black, and Dark." He labeled the triangle, putting white at the top and the other two at the bottom, close to each other.

"Can anyone tell me what determines someone's aptitude for magic?" he asked, not looking over his shoulder.

"Innate talent," Dorothea answered.

"Correct. And the other?"

"Practice," Lysithea replied.

"Indeed." Hanneman set up a graph. "Both of those are true, but let's dive into them a bit more. Innate talent is, of course, the latent ability someone has for the magical arts. This can be observed when someone first learns a spell. Often people with Crests have the highest magical ability, even if their Crest is not known to correspond with magical enhancements.

"That is not to say innate talent cannot grow." He labeled the bottom of the graph 'Talent'. "But we shall speak on that in a moment. As for our other axis," he said, writing 'Muscle', "that is as Lysithea put it, practice. However, the put it more concretely, your magical ability is a muscle. Just like you must lift weights if you wish your biceps to grow, you must hone your magic should you wish your endurance to grow."

Lysithea scribbled notes. She felt Hubert's eyes on her, wary but mixed with approval.

"In tandem, these two facets are what make your magical capabilities grow. Everyone can cast something, but the degree to which that plateau is for you is entirely dependent on these two factors." He elaborated with a few examples, demonstrating on his graph he'd set up.

"Questions?" he asked. No one raised their hand. "Very well, let's talk about each type of magic." He flipped the chalkboard over to the blank side.

"Our first is White. In Fódlan, we would refer to the Goddess' radiance to be the source of White. The way we harness it comes from her divine love and our respect for it." Hanneman shook his head. "While that is correct, it is not wholly true. Across the world, there are religions who worship other deities. If White magic came from Sothis, then why do the Almyrans have access to it, believing in their gods? Or Dagdan priests, worshipping Mother Earth and Father Sky? Even down in Morfis, where religion isn't prevalent, atheists can still wield the power of White magic. Does anyone know why this is?"

No one said anything until a sigh echoed from across the room. Linhardt raised a lazy hand. "Belief."

"Quite right!" Hanneman exclaimed. He wrote the word next White and circled it. "Indeed, it is belief that drives White magic. For what do all these faiths have in common? A belief in something."

"How can someone believe in nothing?" Lysithea asked, raising her hand belatedly.

"Astute question. A belief in nothing is still a belief, is it not? If you were hoping for a philosophical debate, I'm afraid you'll need to turn towards Seteth or the Archbishop. As far as I understand it, there is no true way to understand what really works behind the scenes of the world. A belief in nothing is nothing more than that, a belief. Anyone who would argue otherwise dips into arrogance that you can find when one assumes that the Goddess is true simply because they believe in her.

"The Morfisians take it further, demonstrating that belief in an idea or friend, or perhaps a lover, can also suffice. Faith takes a variety of forms, it is not relegated to simply religious. You tell your trusted that you have faith in them. This follows that principle."

He cleared his throat. "Forgive me, let's hold more advanced questions like that until we finish the basics. Though do write them down, I want to answer them."

Lysithea caught Edelgard's approving gaze on her. Dorothea glanced between the two of them, a slight frown growing.

Hanneman chalked up Black in bold letters. "Black magic, or Anima as it is called in Morfis, is the most common form of arcane manifestation. This is fire, water, ice, lightning, wind, the exploitation of the elements. Just like its opposite, Black also has means by which its power is derived. Could anyone tell me what it is?"

Edelgard raised a hand. "Competency."

"Not quite, but close," Hanneman said. "The people of Morfis have done most of the scholarly research on magic in the world, and the word they use translates roughly to attunement." He wrote it on the board. "But of course, translation does not cover every base. Another interpretation is passion. Where the power of White magic grows with the intensity of belief, Black increases as you grow as a person.

"In some regions of Sreng, they call Black magic the Maker and worship it. Let us take Dorothea as an example," he said, gesturing to his student. "She is an acclaimed songstress, an artisan of voice. Black comes quickly to her because she has found something that evokes passion. I would wager that if you sang incantations, that they might produce stronger results."

He turned back to the class as a whole. "Black magic grows as you find who you are. It is a softer science, as that definition is flexible. Black magic forces you to find something that motivates you, that evokes passion from you. It ultimately forces you to answer 'who are you' should you wish to master it. It is the most curious of the magicks, if you ask me.

"Then we have Dark. Could someone tell me what sets Dark apart from the other two?"

"It is evil," Ferdinand answered.

Hanneman frowned. "Incorrect. Dark magic is a tool, nothing more. It does not have agency to be considered moral. Though there have been plenty who have used it for evil, as have there been with Black and White. And there have been some who use it for good. Assuming that an entire group of people is evil merely shows the color lens the speaker looks through." He fixed Ferdinand with a look. "Do remember that."

Ferdinand, suitably cowed, nodded.

"What sets Dark magic apart is that it is corrosive. When used often and frequently, it will harm the user. I do not refer to developing a pox or stopping your heart. Often this manifests through arthritis. A witch in a story is depicted as old and gnarled. Even in fiction there are grains of truth."

It was one of the few advantages her lifespan gave her. Where an ordinary Dark caster would be wary about consequence, Lysithea could sling spells to her heart's content.

He turned back to the class. "Hubert, Lysithea, would either of you care to share what it is that fuels Dark? Black has passion, White belief, Dark…?"

Hubert spoke up in his raspy voice. "Intellect."

"Excellent!" Hanneman wrote it next to Dark. "Dark magic relies on intellect. Obtaining knowledge is the primary goal of Dark casters. Again, to look at folklore, you will see the antagonist be a person on the pursuit of knowledge. That they'll wield Dark is no coincidence."

Caspar raised a hand. "But do you have to be able to remember everything? If I read a book and memorized it, would that work better?"

Hanneman smiled. "You've a quick mind, Caspar. Yes, it would be more potent if you can readily recall such knowledge in the form of memorization or true learning. But consider the time that could take comparative to simply moving on to another tome. While I do not frequently preach it, quantity has a quality of its own here."

Their teacher moved on. "So, three branches of magic. Black and Dark are often grouped closer together because people with latent talent for one oft find the other easier to work into. Their fields blend whereas White is its own domain."

Hanneman clapped his hands together and looked over the class. It was clear he loved, even lived, for teaching. "That covers the basics. So I asked you hold questions, now is the time before we start branching even deeper into this topic."

Lysithea's hand immediately shot up, a smile on her face.

Byleth ran a hand through her hair as she stared down at the sheets of paper on her teaching desk. The sun's slow descent kept heralding her to bed, her exhaustion apparent.

Why, oh why, had she said she'd have a test? It should have been easy, just writing some questions for her students to answer.

But it wasn't. How was she supposed to evaluate someone's strategic prowess from a few quill marks on a page?

"Maybe I need a practical exam," she muttered.

"Pardon, professor?"

She jumped, seeing a boy she did not recognize in front of her. Not one of her students. "Can I help you?"

"I don't think we've met. I'm Cyril, Lady Rhea's assistant." He bowed, looking like a child trying to imitate an adult.

Just like one of her students, she chuckled to herself. "Byleth. What brings you here?"

"I just have a message to deliver," he said, handing a sealed scroll of paper.

Byleth nodded. "I appreciate it." The boy lingered like the words that seemed to hang on his tongue. "Is there anything else?"

"No!" he said, face flushing red. He scampered out of the classroom.

You startled the boy! I don't have to be a Goddess to know when you should be patient!

"Not now," Byleth growled. Dear Goddess, not even her own head was safe for her thoughts.

Dear Goddess indeed! We must talk about this.

Byleth stopped paying attention. She unraveled the scroll and read the text.

Transfer paperwork.

Forms from Seteth telling her one of her students was switching to the Black Eagles.

And Lysithea hadn't even come to tell her in person.

Chapter Text

As they passed into the third month of their year at Garreg Mach, summer drew in and the rainy season continued. Claude spared a look out the window at the drizzle pattering against their classroom before his eyes wandered back to the empty seat next to Leonie.

He'd been doing that a lot. The Deer couldn't stop noticing Lysithea's absence. Whether it was at dinner or in the training yard, they saw her with the Black Eagles. And she was clearly enjoying her time there.

Claude wouldn't pretend to know how others took it. He had his suspicions, but all he knew best was his own anger. Anger that one of his herd had left over something so simple as a teacher.

Sure, Byleth wasn't perfect, but she had knowledge and secrets worth exploring. Someone so beloved by the Archbishop had access that Hanneman or Manuela didn't. Claude saw that.

He looked to her, speaking to his class. Claude's thoughts deafened whatever she had to say about their battalions. Here, she excelled.

They'd met their battalions last week. Each of them were in charge of a group students who would no doubt one day serve in the armies of Leicester. Some had taken to it immediately, like he, Lorenz, and Leonie. The rest struggled to come to the idea of leading. Particularly Marianne and Ignatz.

Claude sicced Hilda onto the former while he worked on the latter, each helping in their own way. He was confident they'd get there.

Two months into the academy and he was proud of his house. They weren't perfect, not at all. But they were working together more, a damn sight nicer than the mock battle. He'd caught Lorenz and Raphael sparring. Leonie and Ignatz had something of a competition between them with bullseyes during training. Marianne was showing Hilda horse riding tips. There were the sprouts of a community building.

And he and Teach…

Well, they continued to play their game a few times a week. It had evolved into more than that, now a way that she instructed him on how to manage an army. He picked her brain, prying information out that she didn't even seem to think relevant. How long does a bushel of apples last on the road? What are optimal strategies for packing supplies that will spoil? Best way to raise morale with as few supplies as possible? The kinds of things a mercenary who lacked funds was forced to learn and a ruler of a nation and leader of armies needed to learn.

Their promise still remained. Claude was pushing his cohort together with a vengeance with Lysithea's absence. If one of them tried to leave, he'd damn well make sure they were leaving behind friends rather than classmates.

Lysithea had betrayed them. She'd left. Had she been a person of no importance, Claude would be disappointed, but come to understand.

But she'd delivered House Ordelia to the Empire. Now a member of the Roundtable had direct interface with the future Emperor. A fifth of the Alliance's leadership was at risk of being sympathetic to the Empire and being compromised.

Claude and Lorenz had spoken about it in the late of night a few days ago. Duke Riegan had been most displeased when Claude informed him and Count Gloucester had written to Lorenz about how this could manifest into an opportunity. In one of the few times they agreed, both had decided that this issue transcended rivalry. Despite their disagreements, Leicester came first. A member of the Roundtable having undue influence from a foreign power only led to trouble.

Never mind that Claude was guilty of that just as much as Lysithea.

Byleth's influence was working on him. When he'd learned that it was Edelgard who planted the idea into Lysithea's mind, Claude got to work. With Hilda as his agent, he saw to it personally that she was poisoned before one of her practical examinations. The future Emperor, puking up her guts before an assessment. Word traveled from the monastery with merchants and pilgrims, it would reach back home for her. With luck, the people she'd one day lead would hear every sordid detail.

Hilda had slipped it to her, but he'd been the one to leave the note on her desk: "Don't fuck with my Deer."

There'd been a brief investigation. But Claude was busy with his battalion at the time, how could he have slipped it to her? He hid behind an alibi and innocent smile.

Byleth had sided with him at the time, berated him after, and begrudgingly approved of his methods. He thought she'd be happier. When he'd pressed, she admitted that she wished he'd let her in on the plan.

"Why?" he'd asked. "You'd be under suspicion if you were a part of it."

"I don't care about being under suspicion. My father is the head of the Knights. If I am reflected badly on, I don't want something untoward to come to him. There's tension between him and Rhea, and I'm worried. He won't tell me what it is."

Claude had filed that information away. Conflict between the most powerful woman in the world and one of the most respected knights in the world? That had the makings to be something.

And as Claude did his best to protect his herd, Byleth gave them antlers to protect themselves.

Lysithea had impacted her the most. She'd doubled down on her teaching, scheduling them extra time in the training yard and extra lessons. Her stories grew more gruesome. She told them about times when her soldiers hadn't trusted her command and acted different. Or the time her father had been betrayed by a member of their troupe. The stories changed, but the end was always the same. Death, often meted out by Byleth's own hands, be it traitors or the people who killed her people.

"—but since he hasn't been deigning to pay attention this entire time, let's turn to Claude for an answer," Byleth said, looking directly at him.

Crap. "Oh, wishing for my wisdom, Teach?" A mere distraction. His eyes wandered to the board, studying what she'd written.

Byleth sighed. "Yes. Got an answer?"

Ah, a tactical scenario. No wrong answer, so long as he had justification. Probably. "You want my answer or the textbook's?"

"I have a feeling there's a reason I ought to want yours as opposed to the book's?"

Claude reclined in his seat with a grin. "That book isn't useful on a practical application. That von Essar saw himself as a strategist, but he's no Hanneman. I looked into his history the other day, he saw three battles in his whole time in command. He knew a thing or two, but I highly doubt he'd have useful advice for dealing with that pincer maneuver on the board."

Byleth afforded something adjacent to a smile. She'd been doing that more lately. "Oh, and as the great Claude von Riegan, do share your analysis of what the correct approach is."

Claude sauntered to the front of the room and took the chalk from Byleth's hand. He began to draw arrows showing troop movement. "It's a pincer maneuver. In a textbook, you don't have a ton of individual humans who are marching on each side, it's just numbers. The risk of the pincer is that you divide your forces. You could retreat, but that lets them get back together and chase you. We've got cavalry here," he said, pointing with the chalk, "so we ought to just commit to one side. Ignore the right group and push with everything we have against the left. If that side begins to crumble, then the soldiers will flee. Scare tactics." He set the chalk down.

As he walked back to his seat, Byleth continued her lecture. "Well said, but not wholly correct. Your strategy works if you're not turning your back to a group of mages. They'd cook your soldiers alive if you tried that. But pushing against one side is one of the better ways to get out of a pincer."

Claude smirked and Hilda rolled her eyes at him.

"However, don't be so quick to dismiss Essar. People in the business of war don't often live as long as he did without learning something of value. You're right, he saw only three real instances of combat as a commanding officer, but he did serve as a battalion commander for over a decade."

The smirk shriveled on Claude's face. That hadn't been in the book he'd read.

"Pay attention to him when it comes to his chapter about battalions. You might all find it useful when instructing yours."

Teach looked at him with a raised eyebrow. A challenge, he realized. Had she expected that he would research Essar? Or was it something else?

His blinked. Oh, Hanneman had told her, of course. He'd know his family's history, even details that hadn't made the history books.

Clever, Teach. Very clever.

Hilda understood the need for a house meeting, she just didn't understand why it needed to be in her room. Ugh.

They were packed tightly, looking to Claude to speak. He leaned on her desk, careful not to disturb the mess she'd left on it. She supposed that she could forgive his choice of space so long as he didn't mess up her hairpin.

"We need to talk about Lysithea," he finally said.

Hilda bit her lip as the room lost some of its cheer. But she agreed, they did need to talk about it. No one had really said anything about her since Byleth had made the announcement in class.

"What's there to talk about? She left, end of story?" Leonie said, far too relaxed. Hilda knew the lie since she'd heard her and Raphael talking by the fishing pond recently about her.

"I want to make it clear," Claude said, "that it wasn't anyone's fault here. Lysithea didn't get along with Teach, that was no secret."

"So you would blame our professor?" Lorenz asked, unimpressed.

Claude shook his head. "No, that's on me. I should have tried to make this house more welcoming to her instead of teasing her relentlessly."

"I don't think you should blame yourself, Claude," Marianne's small voice interrupted. "You've been trying."

"Not enough." Claude shook his head. "I promised Teach something. I told her that if she could make you all into soldiers, I'd make you into a team. Lysithea leaving is my promise breaking."

"So what does that mean for us?" Ignatz said, raising his hand as if he were in class. "I mean, is there something you think we should do?"

Punch Edelgard, Hilda mused.

"I spoke with Dimitri a day or two ago. Edelgard has been approaching some of his house too. She's searching, trying to find loose pieces of thread that she can pull and tie to her house." A sliver of anger found its way into Claude's voice. "Her Empire dealt with that revolt all those years ago, she's set to inherit a lot less power than she could have. This might be her way of trying to bring some back to the imperial throne."

"Holst told me that a lot of times political alliances are forged at this academy. Students make friends and then inherit power and remember those friendships and debts," Hilda said.

Lorenz nodded. "It's true. When the powerful mingle, they scheme." No one missed the glance at Claude.

"I just want us all aware of what she's trying to do. She might come to convince some of you like she did with Lysithea." Claude looked every person in the eye. "I implore you not to do so. I believe in unity and working together, but Edelgard is trying to strip you away from the Deer. And I will not stand for that."

"Hear hear!" Raphael called out. "And how are we supposed to show everyone the Deer mean business if there aren't any Deer?"

"Do you think we have any chance of that, Claude? I mean, now we're one person down," Ignatz said.

When Claude smirked, Hilda got chills down her spine. He looked feral when he did that, like he saw his prey was weak and began to move in to kill.

"Why, Ignatz, I'm glad you asked. We're going to steal someone in return, of course."

Once she was satisfied that Byleth was asleep, Mercedes slowly closed the door behind her.

She'd visited Byleth most nights of the week since when she'd fallen asleep in her room. Not even Annette knew.

It wasn't like they did anything illicit behind closed doors. On the contrary, they usually just talked. A story for a story had become their deal. Mercedes had told her what growing up in the cold of Faerghus was like, Byleth about her father teaching her to hunt. Most of it was mundane.

Some wasn't. Mercedes in the cold trying to find medicine for her sick mother. Byleth earning the name Ashen Demon.

And since Lysithea had left the Deer, Byleth was in a worse state. Mercedes could admire how she held it up in front of her students, but it all came crashing down in front of her. The self-hatred flared, anger that she wasn't good enough, anger that she'd come to care about the students, anger that they'd die because of her.

Byleth had asked Mercedes if she'd switch houses. Mercedes had said she'd think about it.

And she was. It wasn't a non-answer, she really was considering it.

Mercedes just couldn't fathom why. The Lions had Annette. They had Manuela who was quite the teacher. They had a respectable leader in Dimitri. While she didn't feel like she was a member of the inner circle, she still felt kinship with them. Why would she walk away from that?

And why did Byleth feel like a sister? Was it just her compulsion to help other people? Did she see Byleth as a problem to fix?

Her feet had taken her to the bridge. The cathedral, illuminated in moonlight, loomed ahead of her. It was muscle memory to her, to go pray when she was confused.

"Hey, kid," a low rumbled called.

Kid? When was the last time someone had called her that? She turned and saw Jeralt leaning up against a wall, looking to the sky. He barely acknowledged her as she walked towards them.

"Sir Jeralt? Did you say something?"

"Why do you think the stars glow?" he asked, not looking down to her.

Mercedes spared a brief glance up. "Some say the light is the Goddess looking down on us at night, when the sun is gone and it's too dark for her to see without."

"I wasn't asking about some people." Now he looked to her. "I was asking what you think."

Unintimidated, she looked back up for longer. "I don't think the Goddess would need light to see us. I think they glow because that's just how she made them."

"In Morfis, they'd tell you that each star is a ball of fire far, far away." Jeralt rubbed a hand through his beard. "Me, I'd tell you that it doesn't matter. You can't touch them, so there's no point worrying about them."

"I can see how that sentimentality passed on to Byleth," Mercedes chuckled.

Jeralt gave her a sidelong glance. "She's a good kid. Better yet, she's my child. So forgive me if I'm a bit suspicious of the student who comes out of her room each night and calls a professor by her first name."

Mercedes balked. "Why, we haven't—"

The distance closed between them. Where Jeralt had previously been aloof and relaxed, now he stood rigid six inches away from her. He was towering, broad, and stern. If he wanted, he could crush her windpipe with a single hand. Her breath caught in her throat.

"You're lucky Byleth has good things to say about you," he growled. "And you're lucky that faculty have vouched for you. I know my daughter better than anyone. If you lay a finger on her, I won't stop at breaking it."

Mercedes said nothing, taking a step back.

Jeralt stepped forward. "If I find out that you're reporting anything Byleth says to Rhea, then you're going to wish for the Eternal Flames by the time I'm done with you."

She sputtered, "Th-the Archbishop? I've never even spoken to her!"

A moment passed before Jeralt stepped back. The moon caught his face, the wrinkles relaxing into something closer to exhaustion than anger.

"I wish more of you religious types were like you. And like Sitri." He looked up to the stars one last time. "I believe you, kid. I just wanted to make sure. Had to make sure. Can't be too careful here…" His gaze turned towards the cathedral instead of the sky. Jeralt turned back to Mercedes. "I'm sorry, that was beneath me to treat you that way."

"I forgive you," Mercedes said, not breathing easy. Frankly, she hardly breathed at all.

"Can't be too careful with that woman involved," Jeralt said. "I won't lose my daughter here either." That part was said quieter, as if she weren't meant to hear.

And without saying another word, Jeralt turned and left.

Mercedes reached out a hand and steadied herself against the wall. A shaky gasp slipped from her with a tremor.

Why would he think that she was up to something? Up to something on Rhea's orders, no less?

Questions for another time. Mercedes slid to the ground, catching her breath. She whispered a quick prayer to the Goddess, asking for some sort of sign and guidance.

Mercedes looked up into the stars, but they only looked back.

Another week went by and Byleth sat at her desk, watching her students take their test. It wasn't often that things were quiet in their classroom. It felt wrong, Byleth thought. Some chaos brightened the place up, especially when the rain continued outside. A dull crack of thunder startled Hilda and sent Claude snickering. She smacked him.

It hadn't even been three months and Byleth felt like a mother hen. It helped that she now trained each individually on points she felt needed it.

Did that make them friends? Byleth wanted to think so. Some had begun to open up to her more while others came to her for advice. It felt like friendship even if she didn't reciprocate.

Though perhaps that's where Mercedes came in. Things were different with Mercedes. And Byleth had no idea how to explain what she felt.

Her eyes went to the empty spot in the room. Hopefully Mercedes would join them, but Byleth couldn't figure out a reason why she would.

Because she was there? Please, Byleth couldn't even teach magic well.

Maybe they didn't need someone to replace Lysithea. Now her attention wasn't as dispersed.

Only a little more than two months and she felt all her students were so different. Maybe she could take a little credit for that. After all, that was the point of a teacher.

She could feel Sothis grumble something amidst a yawn.

Byleth allowed a smile as she looked over her students.

Claude made eye contact with her and smiled back. She shot him a glare and his smile turned into a grin as he looked back down at his test.

Byleth decided she liked the Golden Deer house.

Chapter Text

"We leave at first light tomorrow," Byleth said. "Orders from Rhea personally."

Her students nodded around the room, haphazardly sitting around her desk. She'd called off class for the day to give them time to prepare for battle. Of course, they would rarely have the luxury of prep time in the real world, but Byleth couldn't help but give them it. Let them live as children just a little longer, Sothis had told her. Byleth agreed.

"I, for one, won't complain about serving in a rear guard!" Hilda cheered as she sat on one of the desks. "Rear guards rarely have to do any work!"

Lorenz huffed. "They're the first attacked in the case of an ambush, Hilda. I hardly think that is means to relax."

"Shh," hushed Hilda. "You're ruining my fantasy." Claude laughed next to her and she patted him on the head like an obedient animal. He looked outraged and opened his mouth to fire back.

Byleth cut him off. "I know I canceled class for the day, but there is one thing I wanted to cover." She walked to each of her Deer and set a packet of papers in front of them. Their tests.

"There's no grade," Leonie realized as she flipped through. Ignatz and Raphael echoed the sentiment, next to get theirs.

Once she'd handed them all out, Byleth leaned against her desk. "Like I said earlier, you survive the year, you pass. I don't care about grades."

"Then why test us?" Ignatz asked.

"You all did well on the first three pages. Yes, even you Raph." Raphael blushed as she caught his surprised look. "In fact, I'm proud of you all for that. You've been paying attention."

The first three pages weren't too difficult in her opinion, but she had been glad that they had been paying attention. All of their responses were different, indicative to their personalities. Marianne tried to save as many of her soldiers as possible, Leonie sought to make best use of guerilla warfare, and Claude went all out to systematically destroy the enemies. They didn't see it, but Byleth wondered how adept a war council they could make. In her judgement, they had a collection of personalities that would mesh well for it.

"But page four?" Claude prompted, flipping to it.

"Leonie, would you care to refresh us on the problem and how you chose to solve it?" Byleth asked.

Leonie cleared her throat and spoke. "The setting is the Oghma Mountains, a chasm not too far from here. It's forested, allowing for plenty of cover. The problem asks us to escort the Archbishop from point A to point B. We've been pursued for three days and nights by soldiers that number four times our size. Wyvern riders have cut off our forward approach and transported plenty of archers. They've had time to camouflage and our scouts we sent ahead have been killed or fled without much intel. We have some cavalry, but not enough to push past a wyvern blockade. Our archers are from Leicester, but ammunition is low."

"And your solution?" prompted Byleth.

"Push ahead. Protecting the Archbishop is the goal, so we have to ride ahead and hope we can get through. It's certain death to let the army catch up from behind."

"Strong assessment, but incorrect." Byleth turned. "Hilda?"

"Retreat," she said. "If everyone goes in their own direction, then the Archbishop can probably escape."

"They have wyverns, they'd pursue. In a canyon, there's only two ways to go without wings. Marianne?"


Byleth nodded appreciatively. "Surrendering is certainly a tactic some would ignore. Saving lives is sometimes as important as winning. But this enemy isn't taking prisoners, certainly not the Archbishop. Lorenz?"

He shifted uncomfortably as he picked up on the pattern. "Make a stand, have one rider slip away with the Archbishop while trying to cause a distraction."

"Smart, but the probability of getting past archers that have set up nests is miniscule. When slipping past enemies during daytime, you better hope you have one hell of a distraction. It's inevitable that you're found. Ignatz?"

"Um, I didn't have an answer," he said, holding up a blank sheet.


"Attack the pursuing force. They wouldn't expect that." He didn't look confident in his answer, though.

Byleth nodded. "Surprise is absolutely a powerful weapon, but it can only get you so far. Claude?"

"Hide," he said with a shrug. "Wait for everyone to leave."

"The Archbishop is a public figure, people know her appearance. Her body would be searched for and when not found, it would be only a matter of time before exposure."

Her class was silent until Lorenz raised a hand. "So there is no answer?"

"Correct," Byleth said. She fixed each of her students with a look. "When it comes to tactics, sometimes you can't win. Sometimes you're totally out played and you find yourself between a rock and a hard place. If you screw up, this can be your fate."

"So then what do you suggest?" Lorenz asked. "What would you do in this problem?"

Byleth walked around her desk and sat down. "If they're going to kill you, you make them work for it. You make them pay for every inch they take with blood. Don't give up." She looked at each of them again. "The right answer is not to be in that place at all. All decisions you make on a battlefield have the potential to land you in that problem where nothing you do can fix things. Never forget that. The evening is yours, I'll see you in the morning."

Mercedes never shied away from visitors, but Claude von Riegan sitting down across from her during dinner certainly came as a surprise.

"Well, hello, Claude. I don't think we've had the pleasure of speaking alone before," she said, politely. Whispers around the monastery collectively agreed on one thing: watch out for Claude. The mock battle had made the less observant people dismiss him and the Deer, but the smarter folk were watching their training sessions. They trained more and harder than every other house. They had something to prove, something the other houses lacked entirely.

And there was the incident with Edelgard stealing Lysithea away. Mercedes saw how Claude reacted to that. It was the protectiveness of an older brother.

Maybe that's what was drawing her to the Deer, she realized in that moment. Something she longed for so much: family.

"Mercedes," he greeted. "I think you're right, and I sought to rectify that. I don't think I know anyone in the Blue Lions as well as I should."

Watch out for Claude. "Well, with your reputation, should I be concerned you've singled me out?" she asked with a smile.

He laughed. "And what is my reputation? Forgive a schemer, it's one thing to hear rumors, it's another to hear it to my face."

"Schemer, scoundrel, suave. I could go on, but they all seem to point to one thing and one thing only," she said.

"Oh? Do tell."

"That you have goals in mind and rarely do anything without reason. So what's the reason you're here, Claude?" Mercedes asked.

Claude clapped his hands in delight, grin never leaving his face. "I heard tales that you'd forgotten to put on clothes once, so forgive me that I wasn't expecting someone so sharp."

Must everyone bring up that story? "Well, I have a few years on you. Some things you just learn to look for. I won't deny being scatterbrained, but I can pay attention when I want to."

"You want to know what I want? A lot, Mercedes." Claude's smile turned melancholic. "I want to make a world that treasures people instead of trampling them. Every single person I've spoken to has told me about your kind heart. Your desire to help those who need it."

"You flatter me," Mercedes said, uncrossing and crossing her legs uncomfortably.

"Join my house," he said. "I won't pretend to be buttering you up. That flattery is true about you and you know it. Edelgard seeks to benefit herself for her own goals and Dimitri wants things to go back to how they were. I don't want either of those things. I want change and I want it to come from people who look past themselves."

"Did Byleth put you up to this? She's already asked me," Mercedes said. Was Byleth so desperate to recruit her that now she sent her student to hound her?

Had he longer hair, Claude's eyebrows would have vanished beneath bangs. "Oh, has she? Then I'm being redundant, my apologies. Still, I hope you'll think on what I said."

"What exactly are you trying to accomplish?"

"Am I not beholden to keep a few of my secrets? I play my cards close to my chest because everyone else is a cheater. Still, here's a little food for thought, you may be unsure of what I want, but can you honestly tell me you know what the other two want?" Claude stood up, not even having taken a bite of his food. "Think on it. The Deer need more people like you. Not the ambitious, not the ones who desire power, we want to protect the people of Fódlan. That is my dream. Our dream."

And he walked away.

Mercedes sipped the glass of water in front of her. Claude was confident, she'd give him that. And she'd give him that his assessment of Edelgard was correct. The woman was every bit the enigma he was.

But Dimitri? That thought gave her pause. Neither she nor Annette were privy to what went on between the inner circle. In her heart, she believed Dimitri was a good person. But part of her couldn't deny that she saw something festering in him.

Dorothea stood outside the dining hall, leaning on the stone wall that overlooked the fishing pond. Lysithea and Edelgard were speaking animatedly as night reigned.

Her plan was failing miserably.

Before Lysithea, Dorothea was Edelgard's confidant. There was comfort in that, the promise of future wealth and power. She didn't see herself as greedy, but Goddess forbid she lose her beauty and have nothing to show for the years she had it aside from past opera fame.

Dorothea had dreamed that maybe she'd sit aside Edelgard in the decades to come, hand in hand. There had been nights of lust where Dorothea just wanted to show Edelgard what she was missing by not taking any steps further with her.

But she'd waited.

Now Edelgard's focus had entirely shifted to their newest Eagle. The two of them seemed like they shared a history, with the way they talked and got along. But Dorothea had never heard Edie mention anything of her. Not once.

She'd tried to force her way into conversation like a jilted schoolgirl, but there was no way to keep up with them. The worst part was that it didn't seem malicious. Dorothea just wasn't as smart as Lysithea and Edelgard seemed far more interested in what the prodigy had to offer her.

If she studied harder, would that be enough? Dorothea doubted that. She wasn't dumb. Dumb, pretty girls didn't end up as divas on the stage. No, she was intelligent. But something drove Lysithea to push further than anything Dorothea ever saw. The girl understood magic better than her and she was three years younger!

So there left Dorothea, watching from afar as her dreams dried up in front of her.

"You could have been a consort to an Emperor," she muttered. "But you just had to not make a move, hoping she'd sweep you off your feet." That's what she got for wanting money, power, and love.

"I hope I'm not disturbing you," said someone from behind her.

"Oh, just my self-pity," she said, turning. Claude. "Come to pledge your love for me at long last, Claude? The world wouldn't know what hit it when looking upon us."

Claude laughed. "Dorothea, I think that if you and I hooked up, the world would be bowing down to us before long. Where would the challenge be in that?"

She returned the laughter. At least Claude had an excellent sense of humor, unlike some house leaders. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

He followed her eyes to where she was looking. She shifted her body to look away from Edie and folded her arms. Claude gave a soft nod of understanding. "I'll admit I came here to ask how Lysithea was doing."

Grateful to avoid the topic of Edelgard, Dorothea smiled. "Oh, it seems like a good fit for her. Linhardt in particular has taken a liking to her. Goddess knows why, all the man does is sleep, but they bonded somehow."

"I'll admit I haven't spoken to Linhardt much, but he does seem a little…preoccupied with sleep to care about much else. I'm sure Hanneman is beside himself with getting him to stay awake." Claude bent his back and put his hand up in a mock mustache. "'Why, Linhardt! You're sleeping through history! Does your Crest make you sleep?'"

Dorothea laughed, it was quite the impression. "Why, Claude, in another life you should have taken to the stage. Acting might have been your calling."

Claude bowed. "Talking to nobles requires its own acting, I'm afraid. One learns to be practiced or doesn't find themselves heir to the Riegan dukedom."

"As the stories go, you certainly found yourself a spot as that heir." Dorothea batted her eyelashes.

"So many people after my secrets tonight! Have I insulted the Goddess? Is this her divine punishment?" Claude placed one hand over his heart and reached another to the heavens. Dorothea laughed harder.

"Contrary to your excellent company, I did come to see you for a reason," Claude said. His eyes drifted back to Edelgard and Lysithea. Dorothea's laughter died down as she fixed her face into a frown. "I keep my ears open, but most importantly I'm not blind."

"Get to the point, Claude," Dorothea said. The mood for games quickly left her.

He shrugged, taking a step back and flashing that winning grin. "There's a spot open on the Deer, if you'd like it."

The songstress rolled her eyes. "And you'd ask me to turn my back on my country? And my friends?"

Claude smiled, but it looked every bit the actor's mask. "Forgive my forwardness, but you don't strike me as a patriot. Nor does Adrestia seem like the place that looks out for children of the streets, like yourself. And as for friends…" His eyes slid to Edelgard. "Well, I think the scenery speaks for itself."

"I don't think I will be forgiving your forwardness, Claude," Dorothea spat out. Was it anger? It was anger, but was it at him?

He held up hands in mock surrender. "I overstepped, that was my mistake," he lied through his teeth. Claude knew what he was doing and he knew she knew it too. "The offer remains. But you don't have to take it from me. Why don't you ask around? The Deer take care of each other." And with that, he retreated.

Dorothea turned away from him, looking to the moon. Another orphan had told her, over a decade ago, that the moon was the Goddess' mirror. That at night, she'd look into it before bedding down.

Poppycock, she thought. As if the Goddess actually watched from on high. Or perhaps if she did, she surely spent her days staring in that mirror, looking at something perfect instead of the imperfect world she'd left behind.

The Goddess didn't care about orphans. She didn't care about the world that destroyed more often than created.

Dorothea stood outside, staring at the moon long after Edelgard and Lysithea departed.

"Any luck last night?" Lorenz asked, riding up next to Claude. They fell back in the group, out of earshot. Not that it was the members of their house that concerned them, but there were far too many knights around for their comfort. Chiefly Thunder Catherine, riding alongside their professor.

"I spoke to Dorothea and Mercedes. Apparently Teach already asked Mercedes," Claude said.

Lorenz looked surprised. "Interesting. Did either agree?"

"No, but neither said no. I let the offer dangle like a carrot on a stick. How about you?"

His rival bit his lip, frustrated. "I spoke with Ferdinand. I talked about how his house has been at odds with the Emperor for decades. I…I thought for sure I could convince him, but it'll take a lot more than bad blood to sway him."

"Give it time, we might get lucky yet." Claude looked Lorenz over appraisingly. Their mutual dislike wasn't gone, far from it. But they had a goal, something that could unite them for the time being. And Claude couldn't deny that Lorenz had a way with nobles that Claude would never have. Commoners made sense to him, their desires.

"And Hilda?" Lorenz asked, eyes trailing over to the third member of their group, riding ahead.

"Spoke to Petra this morning. A polite refusal, from what she said. I thought you said she was a political prisoner?"

"She is," Lorenz said, scratching his chin. "Her late father, I believe, rose up against the Empire. Her being here and under Edelgard's control means only that she is leverage against her grandfather."

"You think she's grown to love her cage?"

"It's possible." Lorenz leaned closer. "But I think it far more likely that Edelgard is the last person she wants to make an enemy of. Her switching houses could prompt war."

Claude nodded and the two rode alone with their thoughts. They needed another member and not just for some mock battle. Perhaps the better way to phrase was that he needed another person. Another person he could count on, at least.

Mercedes was caring. Dorothea, charismatic. Ferdinand had political sway. Petra the future queen of a nation. All people he felt would make excellent members of his herd. And people he could count on when it came time to chisel open Fódlan's Locket.

And a not-so-small part of him just wanted to stick it to Edelgard.

An eye for an eye leaves the whole word blind, his father had once told him. Claude had protested, saying that if your enemy took your eye first, that meant you'd have more time to plot better revenge. His mother had been aghast.

He stood by it. Edelgard made the first move, but he'd make the last. He'd rip out one of the legs she stood on if he could, be that a political powerhouse like Ferdinand or a friend like Dorothea.

"Let's try again in a week," Claude said. "Let's talk over tea to find a way to persuade Ferdinand, or at least drive the wedge between him and Edelgard deeper."

"Strategies of a schemer," Lorenz said with a hint of distaste. "But I cannot deny they're effective. Plan we shall. I've an idea or two we might pitch to Petra. We might be able to use the history of Leicester to our advantage. Disparate lords, looking out for each other. It might be worthwhile."

The two continued to talk as the Church's forces made for Kingdom territory.

When the fighting had broken out, Marianne had to fight every impulse to not flee.

Bandits were one thing, but these were Kingdom soldiers. These weren't people who harmed others, these people had families, friends. People to go home to.

But when she'd turned around, a dozen healers stood behind her dressed in the colors of Leicester. They looked to her for orders.

In that moment, she saw why. They didn't look at her and see Marianne, the pathetic woman who had somehow ended up at the academy. No, they saw Margrave Edmund's daughter. They saw a woman who would be a crucial cornerstone of the Alliance before long.

She didn't believe any of that. Marianne von Edmund was a cursed girl who preferred the company of animals to people.

But maybe they didn't have to know that.

So she gave orders. They were quiet and she had to repeat herself a few times, but her healers obeyed. They followed her to where the fighting was thickest. When it grew especially ugly, their magic singed their enemies with its radiance.

When Marianne saw Hilda biting off more than she could chew, her hand already slung a spell before she could think. It sent the man staggering and Hilda smashed his head in with a mace. Just like that, she'd saved a life through violence. Would the Goddess approve?

As the battle progressed, Marianne had to shout more to be heard. And the more she shouted, the more her healers looked at her with respect. The more they saw her as her father.

It repulsed her. Being like him…it was the last thing she wanted.

But she shoved it down and kept healing. Marianne might beg the Goddess to take her away, but she'd be damned if she couldn't save the people she was starting to call friends while she could.

Thunder Catherine, Leonie decided, was an artist.

It was easy to kill. Leonie had felt revulsion after her first, but now it felt like second nature. She didn't dwell on it, just as she didn't dwell on each body that fell to the ground in her wake. No matter that each peasant was badly trained and fell prey to the techniques she learned from her professor.

Catherine showed none of that hesitation. It was clear that she was a killer, someone who took delight from competency on the battlefield. Someone like Byleth.

The Knight of Seiros fought like her teacher. Her entire body was a weapon just as Thunderbrand was. She threw haymakers with her free hand to offset enemies before cutting them down. There was even a moment when Catherine grabbed a soldier and held them in front of her, intercepting an arrow a second later. And she moved on, like none of it mattered to her.

Except it was clear Catherine payed close attention. Three months ago, Leonie would have been absolutely stunned by the display, but now what stunned her was the cooperation between the Knights. Catherine would take point and without hesitation, they would cover her back. They moved in tandem without communication.

And Leonie realized just what Byleth was pushing her house towards.

"You alright, there?" Catherine said as she kicked a body off Thunderbrand. Her white attire looked far more like it'd started crimson.

Leonie blinked. "Oh, yeah. Sorry, I was just impressed."

Catherine grinned. "That can get you killed out here. But I wager seeing a Hero's Relic in action is something new for you?"

The battle had hit a lull around them. The tide had turned, though maybe it never had to begin with, and the Kingdom soldiers were on the defensive. Those who stood bravely died and those who fled were let go. The real prize was Lord Lonato Gaspard.

"Have you been wielding it long?" she asked.

"A while, yeah. I know how she works," Catherine said fondly. "Without her, I wouldn't be able to protect Lady Rhea."

Leonie suspected that, while the blade helped, Catherine was just as deadly with a regular sword.

Both of them, the Knights, and Leonie's battalion marched across the battlefield to rejoin with the rest of their forces. Catherine barked orders as they went and her people moved to obey. Some left as messengers, some gathered up the wounded Church soldiers and others killed any lingering wounded Kingdom soldiers.

"Is that necessary?" Leonie asked, her voice shaking. A Knight stabbed a man as he cried out for his mother. Leonie swallowed her vomit down.

"It's not something I enjoy watching," Catherine said. To her credit, she looked queasy, but held her emotions in check. "But Lady Rhea wanted to make an example of those who would defy the Church. We're only taking one prisoner."


Catherine simply pointed forward. Byleth, Hilda, and Raphael were walking towards them with a contingent of soldiers. With them, a disarmed and defeated Lonato.

"Thunderstrike Cassandra," spat Lonato as he drew closer. "Come to finish my house off? Come to finish what you started with my son?"

"The only name I answer to is Catherine," she said, fixing the lord with a glower. "Be grateful that Lady Rhea has asked you be spared to plead your case to her in person."

"You're dogs of the Archbishop. All of you!" Lonato shouted as Byleth and Raphael began to escort him away.

Hilda caught up Leonie giving her a smile. It looked strained. "You seen any of the others?"

Leonie nodded. "Claude, about half an hour ago. He seemed alright, you?"

"Everyone else was fine when I last saw them, Claude made it back to the vanguard not too long ago." Hilda bit her lip. "You know, we were worried when you vanished."

Leonie balked. Hilda, caring? "Sorry, Catherine split off to take care of some reinforcements. She ordered me to come along for ranged support."

"Don't worry about it, I'm just glad to see you're okay." Now Hilda's smile shone brighter. But it dimmed as she cast a glance across the battlefield. Corpses were strewn about, mostly from the Kingdom. "They barely put up a fight."

"They were just conscripted soldiers. Ones that loved their lord, but they weren't professional soldiers," Leonie said. Sounds of distant fighting persisted as stragglers were dealt with. Word was spreading that they had their target.

Hilda nodded. "My brother once told me that strong soldiers only existed in wartime. During peace, people become complacent."

"It makes me wonder why the Church hasn't," Leonie muttered, her voice trembling.

A hand rested on her shoulder. "Those are dangerous words, careful." It wasn't a denial.

Tears spilled from her eyes. Why were they? Why now? "They were killing wounded." She was shaking, her body quaking. Her tears kept coming, she couldn't hold them back. Why?

"Shh," Hilda murmured as she took Leonie into her arms, holding her tight. "It was out of our control."

"It shouldn't be. Why couldn't we have helped them?" Leonie sobbed. She held onto Hilda for dear life.

Had she been looking, she would have seen Hilda's expression grow dark as she looked at the Knights of Seiros marching back to their encampment. "Why indeed…" Hilda muttered, pulling Leonie in tighter.

"Thank you," Marianne whispered, even quieter than usual. It was exhaustion, Raphael noticed, the poor girl was pushing herself to death.

But people needed healing. Raphael patted her on the shoulder before walking out of the healer's tent again.

He'd spent the past hour helping transport the wounded back. There weren't many loses on their side, and none of his direct classmates had fallen. One of Raphael's battalion members had taken an arrow to the throat after the first clash.

He hadn't even known his name.

Raphael found Ignatz sitting by a fire. He plopped down next to his best friend, leaning on a log that had been carried over.

"You alright, Ig?" he asked.

Ignatz nodded, not taking his eyes off that battlefield they'd come from. The smell was beginning to reach them as the wind changed, bringing the scent of flesh to them. The professor had said that some knights would stay behind to clean up and deal with the corpses.

Oh, they'd pray and bury them in accordance with the Church of Seiros, but Raphael wondered whether those people would want that or to be buried where their families could grieve.

When he'd buried his parents, their graves had become somewhere he went to talk to them. They didn't hear, or maybe they did in the beyond, but it let him get things off his chest, like his worry for Maya and taking care of her. As if he'd received their approval for him to care for her.

Graves were for the living, not the dead. The dead didn't care.

"What about you?" Ignatz asked.

Raphael threw a nearby stick onto the fire, watching the sparks float into the sky, flickering out long before they ever joined the stars in the heavens.

"I think," Raphael started, then stopped. He chewed on his words for a moment, trying to find the right way to say it. "I don't know if coming here was the right choice for me."

"Here? To Gaspard?" Ignatz asked, finally looking at Raphael next to him.

"That too. But I mean Garreg Mach. Fighting's just…a lot different than I expected."

Ignatz was silent, waiting for Raphael to go on. His best friend knew him well. So he continued, "I know I have to become a knight for Maya's sake. I've got to, we need the money. But I watched a man drown in his own blood today after I punched him in the chest." His gauntlets had carved between the ribcage, straight into the lungs.

"Fighting never was going to be pretty, Raph," Ignatz said gently.

He shook his head. "I know. That's not what I'm saying. I didn't even know the guy. And he didn't know me. If I met him yesterday, I bet we'd have gotten along." Raphael clenched his fist. "Why would Lord Lonato make innocent bystanders fight for him? It wasn't their fight."

"For the same reason we're here fighting the Church's fight," Ignatz whispered. "Because you need to work to provide for Maya. You fight so you might be able to give her a better life. I'm sure that man did the same for his family or friends. Lady Rhea might not pay you in gold, but education is payment, in a way."

It was, wasn't it? What really scared him was that he could have as easily been the one on the ground, leaving his sister behind. But instead hundreds if not thousands of men and women wouldn't make it back to their mothers, fathers, children. Sisters.

Raphael snapped back into focus as a hand rested on his shoulder. Ignatz smiled at him, though the strain was evident. "If it helps, every soldier knows the risks when the sign up. He could have run."

"That'd be desertion. That's a criminal offence."

Ignatz shrugged and said something Raphael would remember until he died.

"What does criminal matter in the face of never seeing your family again?"

One day later and Byleth wanted a bath and booze. Not necessarily in that order.

But she, along with the rest of her students, stood in the cathedral. They, along with Catherine who stood opposite them, had ridden with the vanguard and Lonato. Now Lady Rhea, flanked by Seteth, stood in front of a mass of onlookers. Clergy, Knights, students, everyone had mixed together to watch. Dimitri and Edelgard were present, having pushed their way to the front followed closer by Dedue and Hubert respectively.

All to see Rhea stand before Lonato, on his knees.

"Lonato Gildas Gaspard of the House Gaspard," Seteth spoke, his voice echoing through the acoustics of the cathedral. Byleth reckoned that even those far in the back could hear.

One person in particular certainly heard. Ashe, who stood by his liege's side, was visibly trembling at the sight.

And what a sight it must be, Byleth mused. On the right hand of Rhea, the Deer with Byleth in front. On the left, her most steadfast allies, Seteth, Catherine and Alois. Jeralt lingered further behind them, his face scrunched up in thought.

Seteth continued. "Your line extends back to the days of Seiros. Your territory is a part of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus. Your line's service to the Lion Kings of Faerghus is without question. Your devotion to the Church was, until just recently, something to be respected." He looked down on Lonato with firmness. "The Church is disgusted with your acts. Tell us, how did someone so well respected sink so low?"

If Ashe was shaking before, now he was an earthquake.

The Archbishop stepped forward in front of Lonato, who was along in the nest of his enemies. His head was bowed, still wearing the armor from yesterday's conflict. "Lonato, for many years you served the world in the name of peace. It would not be an exaggeration to deem you one of the best to rise to the calling of nobility." She bent down, cradling his face between her hands. "Why, Lonato, would you raise your blade against the Church?"

Lonato gave a hacking cough, spitting blood on Rhea's immaculate robes. Catherine immediately reached for her sword but the Archbishop raised a hand to stop her.

"Why would I raise my blade?" he growled, growing in volume. "You ask me that for your paltry theater here? Do you wish to make an example of me, you vile witch?"

Murmurs passed through the crowd. The clergy looked all manners of offended while the Knights didn't bother to hide their disgust.

"Fine! I'll play your game one last time, Rhea," Lonato shouted. His whole body shook in anger. "You had my son killed. Killed for a lie! You took a father's boy from this world, all to propagate your version of the truth. Christophe Gaspard played no role in the Tragedy. He loved his king, he would have died for him."

"Oh, Lonato," Rhea said quietly in a voice that could only be described as parental. Then, for all to hear, "Lonato speaks true, his son's death is tinged with deceit."

Gasps fluttered from the crowd, though Byleth looked at Lonato. His eyebrows had risen and disbelief hung heavy on him.

"Christophe Gaspard was a member of a group plotting my assassination," Rhea stated.

If there was noise before, now silence reigned supreme. A myriad of people reacted and Byleth couldn't keep up with them all. Rhea looking stern. Seteth frowning. Catherine grim. Ashe horrified. Jeralt pensive.

"Impossible," Lonato breathed. "You were at the trial. was there. I saw my boy executed for crimes he did not commit!"

"A necessary deception." Her tone was apologetic. "In the wake of the Tragedy, it would not do to sow fear amongst the people. Imagine the terror of an assassination attempt on their Archbishop?" She looked to the crowd. "For that, you have my apologies. I have led you astray and I shall seek repentance from the Goddess herself."

The tone of the crowd, from what Byleth gathered, wasn't that of a betrayed flock. No, they nodded along with Rhea. To them, she had always looked out for their wellbeing. This was just another example.

"Impossible," Lonato whispered, for only those near to hear.

"And to think," Rhea crowed. "You would attempt to pick up where your son left off."

A stunned silence fell over the entire room.

"You accuse me?" Lonato asked. His voice was covered is disbelief, not even trying to keep up the angry visage from before.

"I do not accuse, I charge. Lord Lonato Gildas Gaspard, I charge you with conspiracy to assassinate the Archbishop of the Church of Seiros."

"No!" Ashe screamed. He made to push forward but Dimitri grabbed him. Alois took a few cautious steps closer to the young Lion, ready. The boy continued. "Father! No, he wouldn't do that! Lonato is a good man!"

Rhea pushed on, ignoring Ashe. "Whatever your son wished to accomplish in my death, I will not pretend to know. Grief can drive us to terrible means, but you, Lonato, have succumbed to your own ambition for revenge. You are a heretic and a sinner."

"Father!" Ashe yelled again as a voice from the crowd shouted, "Sinner!"

Hell broke loose.

The mob began to chant. "Sinner! Heretic! Sinner!"

"He's my father!" Ashe bawled, tears streaming down his face. Byleth could see them from where she stood, dozens of feet away.

"All sinners must be punished in the eyes of the Goddess!" Rhea called out. Catherine rested a hand on her sword, beginning to step forward. But Rhea shook her head.

"Professor Eisner, execute the heretic."

The crowd roared in approval as Byleth blinked. All the breath vanished from her lungs as every eye turned to her.


"Teach," Claude murmured, a tremor of uncertainty in his voice.

"Professor!" Ashe screamed, fighting Dimitri's grasp and all but breaking it. "He's my father! Save him!"

Jeralt moved forward to intervene on his daughter's behalf but Seteth cut him off. The two began to argue emphatically, voices lost to the crowd.

Catherine fixed Byleth with a wary look, her hand still on her sword.

"Come, Byleth," Rhea said in a kind voice beneath the shouting. "Rid the world of this putrid man and his profane actions."

Byleth tentatively took a step forward and drew her sword. The blade's hiss from its sheath went unheard amidst the torrent of shouting.


She walked up to Lonato, holding her sword in both hands. It quivered like it had a decade ago when she first picked it up.

Lonato looked up at her and stared into her eyes. "You're not like the others," he said, almost not realizing he was speaking.

"Dad!" Ashe's voice cracked.

Lonato bent his neck.

"Professor," Rhea urged, steel entering her voice.

Byleth raised her blade.






Iron met flesh.

Chapter Text

The sword dropped from her hands, hitting the floor before Lonato's head.

Arms were around her. They were familiar. Her father's.

"Jeralt," Rhea said, audible only to them with the roar of the crowd. A roar of approval.

"My daughter is tired from her long ride," he growled. Byleth felt herself moving, her legs automatically following her father's lead.

Whatever Rhea's response was, it was lost to the mob as Jeralt didn't waste time. He kept her face hidden, blocking any chance of seeing her bloody handiwork.

She didn't know how long it took to get to her room, but she recognized her bed when her father set her down on it. The door closed and Jeralt knelt in front of her, grabbing her hands with his.

"By?" he whispered.

"I'm fine, dad," she muttered.

He shook his head. "Don't give me that, kiddo. Talk to me."

What was she feeling? What wasn't she? Sick, that was there. Something cold and dreadful settled in her stomach and made her want to vomit. "I was afraid," she breathed. "When Rhea turned to me, with all those eyes on me…"

Jeralt pulled her into an embrace. "You did what you had to do, Byleth."

"I shouldn't have," she said, letting her father hold her.

Her father pulled back and met her gaze. "No, Rhea shouldn't have asked you to do that. Asking you in front of all her followers like that was the same as holding a sword to your throat."

"I was worried what she'd do to you."

Jeralt's eyes darkened. "She ought to be worried about what I'll do to her." He bit back his anger. "Byleth, there are reasons that Rhea is so interested in you. The kind that are dangerous for you to know with her around. In fact, maybe it'd be safer if she weren't around us."

Byleth looked up, a question on her lips.

Her father's hands gripped hers again. "By, we can leave. Just the two of us, like the old days. We don't have to stay here and be pawns in that woman's games."

She shook her head. "I have students."

A glimmer of a smirk appeared on his wrinkled face. "Huh, never thought those brats would become important to you."

"I want to know why Rhea is interested in me," Byleth said.

He stood up and sat down beside her. "You deserve to know that. But that's a conversation we can't have at Garreg Mach. Too many ears here."

Byleth nodded, defeated.

"There are reasons that woman is interested in both of us. None of them are good. She wants me around here as much as she wants you." His eyes closed. "I left here vowing never to return. Especially not with you."

"It's okay," Byleth said, reaching out to hug him. "As long as we're together, daddy. We'll be okay."

He returned the hug and Byleth saw him try to hold back tears.

"Kiddo, you've got so much of your mother in you. Sitri would be proud of you," he said. "I'm gonna go, I'm going to need to head off Rhea from seeing you. I'm not letting her near you for now. You sure you're gonna be alright?"

Byleth nodded. "She scares me."

Jeralt smirked. "Suspicious like your old man. You hold onto that paranoia, it'll keep you alive. I'll come check on you later, once things settle down."

He stood up and walked to the door closing it behind him. Through the door, she could hear a conversation.

"Beat it, kid. The last thing she needs is a bunch of brats hounding her."

"She's our Teach, we just want to make sure she's okay."

"She'll be okay. Leave her alone, she needs time. You'll only make things worse."

Byleth ignored the rest of the conversation, crawling into bed. She still had her riding gear on and there was blood from Lonato on them. It would get on the sheets.

She didn't care. All she saw was Lonato, looking up at her with something akin to surprise.

You're not like the others. That was what he'd said to her. Why?

You fool! Because you aren't some dog kneeling at the feet of their master!

But I killed him, she thought. I followed orders. And she barely hesitated.

That woman commanded you in front of a legion of her followers. She riled up a mob, what were you supposed to do? The man was old, but he wasn't dumb.

Was that all Byleth was to Rhea? Someone to control? What was she trying to say by making her execute Lonato?

I shan't pretend to have an answer. That woman is dangerous. It is best that we avoid her.

"Are you…" Byleth felt silly for speaking aloud to the voice in her head. "Are you really Sothis? Like the Sothis Mercedes called the Goddess?"

There was silence for a long time.

I do not know. I haven't much in terms of memory. I know I am Sothis…but I do not know who Sothis is.

The maybe-Goddess fell silent and Byleth didn't try to prod her for more. Sleep nibbled at her, begging Byleth to succumb.

As she did, all she saw was Lonato with a smile, standing alongside what she assumed was his family. They looked happy.

Claude had shushed them all as they had began to talk on the way back. After Jeralt had stopped them from checking on their teacher, their house leader had ushered them to his room.

"We cannot speak about this unless we're in private," he'd muttered.

Marianne hadn't been saying anything. What did she have to add? Lonato had turned against the Church, was it not righteous for the unholy to go unpunished?

But she still heard Ashe's screams in her ears.

Perhaps Marianne was mistaken. Anything that made someone scream like that couldn't be right. Could it?

After they all filed into his room, Claude closed the door and locked it. He pressed an ear against the door, as if he'd hear someone following them.

He turned to his Deer, face grim. "We need to discuss this, and none of it can leave this room."

Marianne wrapped her arms around herself. She didn't know what to think anymore. Faith was supposed to be detached from this sort of thing. It was a relationship between one person and the Goddess.

No one spoke. They all looked at each other, waiting for someone to break the silence.

"That was wrong."

All eyes turned to who spoke. Hilda.

She continued. "Asking the professor to do that. She shouldn't have. That's not her job."

"Then why didn't she refuse?" Leonie argued. "She killed Ashe's father!"

Claude opened his mouth to respond, but it was Lorenz who spoke. "Professor Byleth was just asked in front of a crowd of thousands to kill a man. The Archbishop herself asked with the full weight of her position. Could you refuse that, Leonie?"

"Lorenz is right," Claude added. "I certainly didn't want Lonato dead, but you can't blame Teach for it."

"But you saw Ashe," Leonie whispered. She raised her hands as if they could say more about it, but flailed helplessly. "The way he screamed."

"Do you blame the headsman for carrying out a lord's orders?" Lorenz asked, though he didn't look as carefree as his question made him seem.

Ignatz took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I can't imagine that the other students will take this well."

Marianne agreed. As they'd left, she'd seen the way the Lions had looked to their professor. Most were displeased. Though that felt like an understatement. Marianne didn't want to think about it.

"They won't," Claude said. "And if we defend her, they'll pass judgement on us as well."

"Are you saying we don't defend her?" Raphael asked, glaring at Claude.

Their house leader smirked. "On the contrary. I say we stick up for her. She's our teacher, she's looked out for us. I'm not about to turn my back on her when she needs us." Claude looked over the six people arrayed before him. Marianne thought he looked like a king looking across his subjects. "But we can't do that as we are now. We need to come together as a house."

"We are a house, dummy," Hilda snorted.

Claude shook his head. "No, we're a group of students in a classroom. I call us the herd, but a herd looks out for each other. That includes our teacher. The next few weeks are probably going to come with challenges because of this, but we can't face them unless we unite."

"You've spread this word around a lot since we arrived here, Claude," Lorenz challenged. "I would ask that you explain what you mean, right here, right now."

The leader of the Golden Deer nodded absently. "What I mean? What I mean, Lorenz, is that we come from a land known for both unity and fracture. We may be united as Leicester, but that land is a bunch of bickering children trying to get their own way. I don't see that as the Leicester I wish to create.

"I see people like Lonato, beaten down by those more powerful. Or his son, reduced to a scapegoat. Was he even fairly tried if the Church went to lengths to cover it up? I see our own teacher, forced against her will to kill someone of great character and make enemies at the behest of those stronger.

"I want to break that world. I want to build a world where no one is judged for who they are or where they come from. I want to change the world so that the next Lonato can find peace, not killed in front of a mob. I refuse to see Leicester, the Church, anywhere, continue to trample those that Fódlan deems less important than the mighty."

He turned away from Lorenz to face the rest of the Deer. "What I want is your loyalty. Help me build this world. We have nobles and commoners alike in this room. Why, three heirs to the Roundtable and a daughter of Goneril. We have the sons of merchants and a woman loved by her village so much they sent her to the academy for a better life. This academy doesn't take in just anyone. It takes the bold, the driven and those who will succeed. So I ask, no, I beg, give me your loyalty and I'll give you mine."

Claude smiled and raised his hands like a king to his subjects. "Help me build this. Help me realize this dream. Let's work together and change the world."

There was quiet. He turned to Hilda.

Hilda stood. "Ugh, making me go first? Fine. Claude, you're my best friend. You don't have to ask for loyalty."

Raphael stood slowly. "I like your dream, Claude."

The house leader looked up to meet Raphael's gaze. "Help me make it reality."

The biggest Deer nodded, standing next to Hilda.

"Ah, well, I don't know what use you have for me," Ignatz said, beginning to stand. "But if you'll have me, Claude?"

Riegan's heir rested a hand on Ignatz's shoulder. "You sell yourself short. I would rather no one else at my side."

Leonie jumped up. "Claude, I don't want you to think I doubted the professor or anything, I just…"

"It's hard," he said, nodding, understanding. "What we saw, there's no easy way to explain it or reconcile with it."

She nodded. "I'll help you, Claude. I don't want to ever have to see that again."

Eyes turned to the last sitting Deer. Lorenz stood stepping over in front of Claude. "You talk of quite the world, Claude. In fact, some would call these words treason."

"It was the treason of our forefathers that built Leicester," Claude said with a smirk. "C'mon, Lorenz. What say we cause a little trouble?"

Lorenz snorted. "Someone is going to have to make sure you don't go blind with ambition. You'll need me to take over once you slip up."

"That I will, Lorenz." There wasn't malice in the statement. It was an olive branch. Claude reached out a hand. Lorenz hesitated, then shook it.

"Marianne?" Hilda called.

I want to build a world where no one is judged for who they are, he had said.

Deep inside Marianne, a spark of hope flickered to life. It had been cold there for so long. Hints of warmth filled her torso. For the first time in Goddess knew how long, Marianne felt excited by something.

She stood. "I would like to help, Claude."

Claude laughed. "You all had me so nervous! Standing up one at a time, so dramatic!"

Hilda elbowed him and Lorenz groaned. The rest of the Deer laughed and some of the tension vanished.

"I vow," Claude began. "I vow to make this a reality. I'll need everyone's help. Teach's too. We're the Golden Deer, and we're going to look out for each other and make sure we can achieve this dream."

"I never would have expected you to be the idealist of the house leaders," Ignatz admitted, face flushing a tinge of red. Heads around him nodded, including Marianne's.

"Idealists make it far in life." Claude shrugged with a smile. "Everyone who sees the world for how it is, they give up on change. It's the ones who see it for something better that keep going. And I'm not ready to stop seeing that better future."

Mercedes was one to take pride in being a comforting presence. Growing up in a church meant she saw her fair share of people in pain. Many only came to the Goddess when they desperately needed help, hoping they'd grant their desires.

She used to look down on those people. But like fine wine, time aided her. Faith wasn't so black and white. Everyone had their own ways of showing they cared.

So Mercedes took it upon herself to offer words of comfort to those in need. Sometimes people just needed to see someone care or share a prayer.

But Ashe didn't need that.

The head of her faith had just executed his adoptive father. Mercedes had never known her birth father. When she'd learned about Lonato from Ashe when they met, she'd been jealous. Every father she had that she could remember was an ill tinged memory or worse.

Her first instinct had been to comfort Ashe. But she'd stopped. What did she have to offer the boy? To sit there and tell him she understood?

She didn't. Couldn't.

"Mercie?" Annette asked, touching her hand. "You haven't touched your food."

Blinking, Mercedes looked down. So she hadn't.

The dining hall was almost entirely empty. Felix sat on the other side, looking to be in one of his moods. And without Sylvain at his side, that meant he was still with Ashe.

Sylvain, Mercedes found herself realizing, wasn't a bad man. Oh, he was a scoundrel, but like all people, there was more to him. Perhaps she'd judged him unfairly.


"Oh, sorry, Annie," she apologized. "I just have a lot on my mind."

"With Ashe?" she asked, gently.

Mercedes poked at the honey glazed meat. It smelled delicious, but tasted ashy when she took a bite. "That, among other things."

Annette looked at her, waiting for her to go on.

"Oh, Annie, you don't want to hear me ramble about my troubles," Mercedes said, trying to backtrack. Talking about it was the last thing she wanted.

Her best friend shook her head. "You spend so much time listening to everyone, mostly me! It's time someone returned the favor."

Ah, that was the crux of the whole thing, wasn't it? It was easy to ignore your own problems when you could focus on someone else's.

"I'm not sure what I'm doing here," Mercedes admitted. As soon as she said that, the words spilled out uncontrollably. "I'm at this academy at my father's hope that I'll fall in love with a rich man. I'm a part of a house that I feel an outsider in and I'm starting to think I'll never fit in. I just watched a friend's father get executed by someone I can't understand my feelings for. I can't even comfort that same friend I have here because the head of my faith ordered his father's murder. And to top it off, both Claude and Edelgard have approached me, asking for me to transfer to their house." Her eyes grew watery, but she would not cry. Her silverware clattered to the table as she raised a hand to hide her eyes before Annette noticed. "Annie, I just don't know what to do."

When Annette balked at the onslaught of words, Mercedes laughed. She felt dreadful about it, but her stress was reaching an all-time high.

Annette hugged her. Mercedes wrapped an arm around her best friend.

"Can I be selfish, Mercie?" she asked. There was a whimper in her voice.

Mercedes nodded.

"Are you going to transfer houses?"

"Edelgard told me that if I joined the Eagles, she'd attempt to restore the Martritz name and house. I don't have any interest in that." Maybe she once would have, when she'd seen less of the world. Now, the idea felt ridiculous to even think about. The world needed other things, not another noble family.

"And Claude?"

"His offer is enticing," she said honestly. An offer to protect Fódlan. An offer to make the world somewhere better. Is that not what her faith preached? What waited for her back in Faerghus, her father to sell her off like a prize goat? Her church was there, but if she could do more…

She had no desire for authority. But did the Goddess want her to? Did Sothis see Mercedes as someone who ought to wield power?

A not so small part of her wanted to run away from her father. To leave him behind and not deal with any of his greed. To whisk her mother away to somewhere safer.

I want change, he'd said. Initially, she'd wondered from what.

But his expression during the execution. The way he practically ran out of the cathedral after his teacher. Those were not the markings of a bad man. That man did not seek to break a world.

And then there was Byleth to consider, the woman who left the oddest feeling in her stomach. A woman she felt drawn to. Why?

Mercedes feared she knew the answer.

"Even if I did, that wouldn't mean we'd not be best friends, Annie," Mercedes said softly. "Our rooms are still right next to each other, are they not? We'd still go shopping, no? If I did switch, that wouldn't make you any less important to me."

She felt Annette relax in her arms and she smiled, glad no one could see the grim edge.

It was much easier to worry about someone else.

Byleth felt the flask slip from her fingers, clattering to the floor. As she sat up on the bed, her vision shook. Sinking back into her bed, she promptly forgot about it.

Sothis mumbled something, but Byleth's mind was far too gone for that. A mercenary had described this state as being smashed and it reminded Byleth of how her brain felt right now.

There was a knock at the door. Her father.

She pulled herself off the bed, still wearing the same clothes. The smell had ceased to bother her though. As she stepped onto the ground, her foot collided with her flask.

Byleth bent down to get it and fell. Bad idea. She grabbed the flask and found it empty. Disappointed, she started the get up.

The door opened. It wasn't her father.

Ashe stood in the doorway, in the torchlight of night. Byleth looked up to him, still on the floor. Even with dizzy vision, her eyes traveled to the knife in his hand.

Neither spoke while Byleth slowly got back to her feet and fell into a chair. Thank the Goddess she didn't topple it over.

Ashe stepped in and closed the door behind him. He wrinkled his nose at the smell and Byleth felt small.

"You killed my father." Why he felt he need to say it, Byleth didn't know. Did he think her so callous that she hadn't noticed? That she hadn't heard the screams?

"I did," she slurred. The words dripped like honey without the sweetness. Thick, slow, cumbersome.

The knife was shaking in his hand. Or was that her vision?

"You're an orphan maker," he said. "Christophe might be gone, but did you think I was Lonato's only adopted child? I have two younger siblings. Two sisters."

That pit grew in her stomach, like a seeping poison. "I didn't know."

Ashe laughed, but it carried a sharp edge. "I heard they called you the Ashen Demon. When I met you, I expected a monster. I didn't see one, so I thought myself wrong. But I just didn't look deep enough."

"Are you going to kill me?" she asked. Would she blame him if he did?

That stopped Ashe. He looked down to the knife. "I don't know," he admitted, voice wavering. "I just want to make you understand my pain."

He bent over and picked up the flask Byleth had dropped again. When had she done that? Ashe walked over to the window and opened it, tossing it outside.

"What are you doing?" The slurring was getting worse. Goddess, if she passed out now, she'd wake with a knife in her.

He glared at her. His gaze was judge, jury and executioner. And she was found wanting.

"You're running from the pain you caused. From my pain!" he shouted. "Don't you dare try and blot this out. You killed my father. You killed my sisters' father. You widowed a woman. You spat on Christophe's memory. You don't get to escape this, you will suffer." Ashe closed the distance, a wild beast on the edge of breaking its restraints. "I won't kill you, I won't sink to your level. But I'll change my mind if I ever see you drinking again."

When Byleth didn't respond, Ashe grabbed her throat and held the knife up. "Swear it! Live with what you've done!"

"I swear," she whispered and tears pooled in her eyes.

The door crashed open. Ashe let go of her throat and stowed the knife in his belt so quickly Byleth swore it was never out.

"Ashe, what are you doing?" a familiar voice said. Soft, warm.

"Just leaving," he said, his voice lighter. Ashe gave Byleth one last look before departing.

Mercedes stood in the door, looking between her friend and the professor who had begun to openly cry. Making a decision, she stepped inside and closed the door.

The woman said nothing as she helped Byleth up and got her changed. When the professor began to vomit out the window, Mercedes held her hair back. And when all energy had left her, Mercedes helped her clean up and get into bed.

"Stay," whispered Byleth, feeling weaker than she ever had.

Mercedes nodded and pull the chair up next to Byleth's bed, holding her hand. As Byleth's eyes began to close, the woman pressed a kiss to her forehead.

"Mercie?" she whispered, confused.

Her companion blushed, "Forgive me, that was much too forward." Her face was still close to hers.

Byleth wrapped a hand around her neck and pulled her in for a drunken kiss. And then sleep took her.

Jeralt looked up as the door to his office opened. It was Rhea. He'd been waiting for this all night. It was a surprise she hadn't come sooner.

The sun had long set. Checking on Byleth would have to wait for morning. With luck, one of her students would have come to see her. They were good kids, he had to admit. It took a hell of a soul to charm his daughter.

And he was mighty proud of that.

Sitri, he mused. Did I do right in how I raised her?

Rhea took a seat across from him. Jeralt kept his face neutral.

"How is she?" the Archbishop asked.

"Fine, she just needs rest," he said, telling a partial truth. "She isn't used to being the center of attention like that."

Rhea smiled. "I am so happy to hear that, Jeralt. I did not mean to cause such distress to the two of you."

Vile witch. Lonato's words echoed in his head.

"I'm confused why you would pick her instead of Catherine. She's your executioner, after all," he said. Time for answers.

Rhea's smiled dipped. You're treading dangerous ground, it said. "I thought it a chance for Byleth to prove her loyalty to the Church. And I sought to free Catherine from the guilt of killing someone she knew. The death of Christophe still weighs on her, though she will not admit it."

"Of course. I'm just a father, I worry for her," Jeralt said. That, at least, was true.

The Archbishop nodded and folded her hands. "As we all do, Jeralt. She is truly someone precious. If I didn't know better, she is the splitting image of Sitri."

Fuck. "I think she got some of my good looks," he deflected.

"Jeralt. Is Byleth Sitri's child? You claimed you had her after you left. Is this true?"

His hands were under his desk. He had a knife at his belt, but little else. Could he grab it without her noticing? Seteth's office was right across from his, could he get past him? "It is. After Sitri, I…was lonely. I found someone else."

Rhea stared at him for a long time and Jeralt damned his inability to lie. The older you grew, the more obvious it became if you weren't good at it.

"A pity," the Archbishop said. "I'm sure Sitri would have been quite sad that you moved on so quickly."

He stood without thinking. "Don't you dare speak of her like that!" He was shouting.

But Rhea smiled. "Forgive me, Jeralt. The night draws late and I misspoke. What you had with her was something to treasure. I'm sure you had your reasons for moving on so soon after leaving."

She knew. Of course she did. This was the nail on the coffin, this conversation. The last check she wanted.

"No harm done," he growled.

The door opened to his office and Seteth stepped in. He looked to Jeralt standing and eyes widened in alarm. "Forgive me, I heard raised voices."

"Peace, Seteth. Jeralt and I were just airing a disagreement we had. Jeralt, prepare for the morning, there is a mission I have to send you on. You'll be gone from the monastery for some time." She stood and walked to the door, guiding Seteth with her.

"Fuck," he muttered, sitting down and running a hand through his hair. He dare not refuse, not now.

The door opened again. He nearly shouted before seeing a familiar, albeit older, face.

"My apologies," Aelfric said, sitting down quickly. "I haven't much time. If the Archbishop sees me speaking with you, there will be consequences."

"Goddess, it's been years," Jeralt muttered. He'd last seen the man just a day before he'd left the monastery. Hell, he hadn't even known the man was here now.

"Twenty-one," Aelfric said, eyeing Jeralt. "The Archbishop is sending you away for a month, but I know for a fact that complications will arise and you will be delayed longer."


"I've been meaning to speak to you since you arrived back here," Aelfric said quickly. "But a Cardinal meeting with the Captain of the Knights would raise eyebrows if the wrong people saw."

"What do you want from me?" Jeralt asked, his breath hitching.

Aelfric chuckled. "Alas, ever the mercenary. This information is free. Our interests align in keeping Byleth safe. Sitri was my friend, you know." His voice twisted with melancholy on the word friend. "When you arrive at Arianrhod, there will be a message for you about bandits on the Rhodos Coast. There's no malice in the request itself, the region has seen increased activity from unknown individuals as of late. But Rhea intends to keep you busy with that as long as she can."

"Do you know why?" Jeralt whispered, leaning forward to a man he hadn't seen in two decades.

"Sadly, no. Ever since you and Byleth arrived back here, she's been much happier. More confident, rather. Like she expects something to come. It has me and a few other Cardinals concerned."

"And you think it has to do with Byleth?"

He laughed. "It doesn't have to do with you, Jeralt, I can tell you that much. You know the rumors about the fire just as I do. But we're the only two to know the secret."

"Shh," Jeralt urged, restraining the impulse to cover the man's mouth.

Aelfric nodded. "The secret is safe with me. I shall not let harm come to Sitri's child, worry not. I helped you back then, I'll help you now. I have friends among the Knights, they will keep an eye on her while you're gone."

"Aelfric," Jeralt said, "it's been years. You walk in here unannounced and expect me to trust you?"

The smile he received could only be described as pained, the kind he saw on someone who had lost something. "I loved her, once upon a time. Sitri," he said, noticing Jeralt's confusion. "But I was content that she was happy with you. And she was so excited about the idea of children…" Aelfric slipped into memory. Catching himself, he added, "She'd want me to help. She'd want me to protect her child."

Damn it, he believed him. Part of him protested that he had coveted his wife, that he couldn't be trusted for that. But Aelfric, for whatever faults he may have, helped him fake Byleth's death. He'd been an ally. A friend once upon a time.

"Alright, I trust you," Jeralt said. To hell with it. He needed someone to trust here.

"Head to the Rhodos Coast instead of Arianrhod, I'll have one of my people meet you along the way. You can have deniability then, say you got the message in transit. That can shave off some time." Aelfric stood with a genuine smile. "I've arranged for a group of Knights to be on a scouting mission in the area, they'll join up with you to help."

"Huh, wouldn't have expected you to be able to command my own Knights." Jeralt grinned. Memories came back of better days, before he was Captain and before Aelfric a Cardinal. Back to days where they'd plotted their rebellion of faking Byleth's death.

"A Cardinal has his own defenses should the need arise," Aelfric said. He held out a hand, "I'm sorry we must part so soon. We'll catch up properly when you get back."

Jeralt chuckled. "You owe me a drink for all this, that's for sure." He shook the hand.

Chapter Text

They didn't talk about the kiss when they woke up.

Byleth had opened her eyes to the worst hangover she'd had in years. And Mercedes was sleeping in the bed next to her. The woman was already awake, face turned to Byleth.

The professor looked at the student and the memory came back to her. A kiss, a drunken one where Byleth had probably just slobbered all over Mercedes. It wasn't like Byleth had ever been with someone. Well, that was a lie. There had been a man or woman here or there, but it wasn't like she cared about them.

They hadn't been a friend like Mercedes.

Byleth tried to approach the issue, but Mercedes had beat her to something else. "I'll join your Deer," she said.

"Why?" It was honestly the first possible thing she could think to ask.

"Because I think it'd be a good fit for me. And I'd like to have a teacher who is a friend," Mercedes said, voice twisting on the word 'friend'.

The bell tolled in the distance. She counted the number and cursed. "Dammit, I'm late," Byleth muttered, throwing the covers off the bed.

And revealing her and Mercedes' naked bodies.


She moved her leg to feel. Yep, those sheets were dirty.

Neither said anything, Mercedes staring at Byleth for a response.

"I'm sorry, I don't remember doing…that," Byleth whispered.

A look of hurt passed over the woman's face, but she covered it up. "I'm not surprised, you were pretty far gone at that point. Drunk, I mean. You passed out after the kiss, but woke back up a bit after."

"I didn't…" Byleth waved a hand, afraid what could have happened.

"No!" Mercedes nearly shouted, before slapping a hand over her mouth. If someone heard her in Byleth's room, that'd be the end of their time at the academy. "No, you were actually very sweet about it all. Made sure to go slowly and everything with me. You did nothing wrong."

"Oh," Byleth said. Relief washed over her. "I need to get going." It was all she could think to say.

Mercedes nodded and slipped out of the bed. "I ought to as well, I'm late too."

"Leave after me." Her mind switched from its uncertainty to a tactical approach. That, at least, she could do. "You were late because you overslept."

"And you were late because of your day yesterday," Mercedes supplied. She paused for a moment. "We should speak later about," she waved a hand to the bed, "this. Unless there's nothing to talk about?"

An option of rejection, Byleth realized. Kind to a fault, Mercedes was offering her an out.

Did she want it?

No, Byleth thought. Mercedes was her friend.

But was that all she was? Was that all she'd ever be to Byleth?

"We'll talk later. Let's meet by the fishing pond tonight." Why did she have to not remember their night? Byleth could hardly remember the kiss. Did Sothis remember?

If you find yourself in the position where you are the passenger in someone else's body, I think you'll find you try to block out every single detail possible when it comes to this.

Byleth couldn't fault that.

Though she did seem to enjoy her night, from how she sounded.

Byleth blinked. Mercedes smiled. "Tonight sounds good, after dark. You better get going."

They both quickly got dressed and Byleth threw her hair up in a ponytail so it looked less like sex-hair. Her outfit, as usual, took far too long to put on. Mercedes helped her with her cloak and pecked her cheek as she was close.

"We'll talk about my transfer tonight as well," Mercedes said.

Goddess, Byleth had already forgotten about that. "For sure. I'll see you tonight."

"Could you honestly blame her if she doesn't show up?" Leonie asked the class.

They'd been in their seats for the better part of half an hour. Normally, Claude and Hilda would have encouraged them leaving by now, but Teach was never late. Well, never this late. And circumstances had never been as they were.

"I wouldn't," Raphael said. "If I was feeling like she was, I doubt I'd be eager to teach. Maybe she went to the dining hall instead when it was emptier."

Raphael wasn't talking about food. All the Deer had felt it this morning. Eyes were on them at breakfast. They sat together, and there wasn't a single other student at their long table. Initially, Claude had been excited that everyone sat together in their house. They talked about their plans to stick up for Byleth and who might give her trouble.

Claude hated to admit that he hadn't thought the same trouble might visit them. He'd been thinking solely about his teacher, someone who no doubt would face scorn.

But then he saw an Eagle look at Ignatz with distrust. At Ignatz.

There were some Knights who got the same look, but they were Knights. Students didn't dare openly resent them. But some unspoken memo said the Deer were fair game.

Some, of course, didn't share the animosity. He caught Dorothea looking their direction, contemplative. Annette looked like she was considering sitting by them with Mercedes' absence. Dedue gave him an impassive stare.

Others, not so much. Edelgard passed judgement on him as he locked eyes with her. Dimitri evaded meeting his eyes. Lysithea ignoring him.

"Regardless how everyone thinks of us, we have each other," Claude said.

Hilda rolled her eyes. "Corny, von Riegan."

"He's right though," Ignatz spoke up. "We're the Golden Deer and friends. Even if the rest of the school isn't a fan of us, we've got each other for support."

Hilda was saved from teasing Ignatz too as Byleth pushed open the doors. Claude took one look at her and quirked an eyebrow. Her hair was a mess, she looked exhausted and even her clothes were haphazardly put on. She must have a rough night.

"Good morning," Byleth said, practically falling into her chair. "Apologies for being late, I…lost track of time."

"Professor, do not worry. I kept them all in line in your absence," Lorenz said.

Byleth chuckled. "Thanks, I appreciate it."

Silence hung in the air as no one responded and Byleth stared at her desk. Hilda shifted uncomfortably next to him, looking like she itched to break it but didn't know how.

"If any of you want to transfer, you're welcome to it," Byleth said quietly. "I won't blame you or hold it against you."

"What?" Raphael blurted.

Their teacher blinked. "I mean, I can't imagine you'd want to be in this house after yesterday."

"Teach," Claude called out. "Do you mind if I speak for all of us for a second?" He pushed on, not waiting for a response. "You're stuck with us. We don't give a rat's ass what everyone else thinks. You're our teacher, we're your fawns. We're here with you, whether you like it or not."

Byleth smiled. Actually smiled. Claude thought he was dreaming for a moment. Had she ever smiled? It looked good on her.

"The rest of you think that?" she asked the class.

There was a chorus of agreement. Smiles, ranging from wide with Raphael to subtle from Marianne.

"Oh." And she genuinely seemed surprised. As if the very thought hadn't occurred to her that they would still want to be around her. Bile rose in Claude's throat as annoyance grew. Annoyance at Byleth for not seeing that they cared for her, but mostly for whatever life was responsible for her thinking that way.

"Well," Byleth said and the air felt lighter in the room. "I suppose I should teach you something then. Ignatz, can you tell me the benefits and shortcomings of fighting in fog?"

As Ignatz answered, Claude wondered if he should approach her to ask how she was doing. They had something of a relationship, playing their game at least once a week. Was that enough to facilitate asking, 'Hey, Teach, you feeling okay after executing a student's adoptive father?'

Probably not. But he didn't particularly care. He settled on a compromise, waiting until their next meeting to talk.

Manuela hadn't been pleased with her tardiness, but at least she hadn't asked any questions. Annette, on the other hand, clearly had been waiting all class to corner her.

"Mercie, you're never late! What's up?" Annette said the moment they stepped outside of the classroom doors.

She didn't respond, instead looking Ashe in the eyes for the first time since last night. "Hang on a moment, Annie." As she walked towards him, he stopped.

There was apprehension on his face, anxiety. But there wasn't regret amidst the anger he still wore.

"Mercedes," he said, politely. Sylvain, who had walked out after Ashe, took one look at the two of them and began to relentlessly tease Felix. All other attention drew towards him as he led the other Lions away.

"Would you tell me what you were doing in her room last night?" she asked quietly, aware that Annette stood not too far away.

"It was nothing, Mercedes," he replied, breaking eye contact.

Mercedes shook her head. "Nothing doesn't have a woman in tears, Ashe. What did you say to her? And don't tell me nothing. We all saw yesterday."

His eyes narrowed, as did his tone. "Whose side are you on, Mercedes? That woman," he spat, "killed my father. And you'd show sympathy to her?"

"I understand you're angry, but that does not give you excuse to take it out on her. Two wrongs do not make a right," she said.

Ashe blinked. "Why were you there, Mercedes?"

She blanched. "That's not the point here, Ashe."

He took a step towards her. "Leave it alone, Mercedes, and I won't bother you with whatever tryst you have going on with her." Ashe stepped back, and walked away in a huff.

Mercedes felt sick. Surely it was an empty insult, that he was just angry and lashing out. He couldn't know, could he? Right?

If the Archbishop found out? If Seteth found out? She'd be kicked out of the academy. Byleth too.

And her father would be furious.

"Mercie?" Annette murmured as she stepped closer. "What was that about?"

Mercedes wasn't so naïve to think it was love. But it was something, something more than a crush. She was drawn to Byleth.

Did Ashe know? Had he eavesdropped? And if he knew, who else could?

Had…had she been loud?

"Mercie, your face is all red, what's wrong?" Annette asked, worry in her eyes. She grabbed her hand, squeezing it.

Goddess, she'd made a mistake.

"Annie," she whispered, "was anyone talking about me in class? Like where I was?"

"I mean, they were wondering where you were, but there weren't any specifics," she said after a moment's thought. "Why?"

Good. She knew how kids were with gossip. If word was out, Annette would have heard. All she had to do was make sure it didn't happen again.

Byleth on top of her, kissing her. It was sloppy, but Goddess had it felt real. The way she looked at her, that way that Byleth looked at her like the rest of the world had melted away. It made her feel beautiful.

Her heart hurt. Maybe it was love.

But it couldn't happen again.

"Mercie, you're scaring me. Please tell me what's wrong?" Annette pled. Were those tears in her eyes?

Mercedes hugged her. "Oh, Annie, it's okay. My heart is just a bit broken, that's all."

Annette's eyes widened. "Oh my gosh, who? I mean, like who so I can beat them up!" Annette went on about what she'd do to the 'evil man' who broke her dear Mercie's heart. She didn't think the orange haired girl was capable of most of those things from a moral standpoint, but it was a nice distraction.

No need to tell her that it was Mercedes who broke her own heart. For both hers and Byleth's safety.

Some of the memories had trickled back to her. Just mere moments. Byleth leaning down to kiss Mercedes. A hand running down her back. Mercedes' perfume.

Byleth's head between her legs.

She'd remembered enough to recall enjoying it. And thankfully there wasn't a soul to see her red face as she sat by the fishing pond, bare feet kissing the water.

Until Mercedes sat down beside her. She took off her shoes and let her feet touch the water as well. And for a while, that was all that happened. Neither said anything, content to look up to the stars instead.

"I don't know how to start this," admitted Byleth.

Mercedes nodded. "I doubt many would. I've been thinking a lot about last night, though."

"I have too," Byleth said. "More of it came back to me."

She felt Mercedes tense next to her. "Anything specific?"

"I enjoyed it," Byleth said honestly. It felt inadequate. How do you describe that being with someone who actually appreciates you was better than not? She wasn't Claude, there wasn't a silver tongue between her lips.

It didn't seem to be what Mercedes wanted to hear. She drew into herself.

Byleth noticed. "Did I say something wrong? I thought you liked it too."

"I did. But it's possible someone might know about us," Mercedes said. Her voice wavered, quivered, with worry.

Ice ran through her veins. "Who?"

"Ashe. He and I got into…it doesn't matter. He made a comment that I didn't know was in jest or not."

Byleth was silent.

"I know the academy rules, just as you do. What we did is against academy policy. We just saw how the Church gives out punishment, what if that happened to us?" Mercedes was shaking now. Terrified. Byleth had no idea what to do.

"They won't kill us for this," she said with certainty.

Mercedes shook her head. "Of course not, but you'd lose your position. I'd lose my place here. My father would be displeased. And my mother would be crushed."

"So where does that leave us?" Byleth asked, surprised to hear how small her voice sounded.

"I have no idea. We can't do that again, it's too risky." She sighed. "And here I am still with feelings for you." Her laughter was soft, but pained.

Byleth wrapped her into a hug, acting on instinct. She bit her lip. Did she have feelings for Mercedes? Or was it just her caring for the woman as a friend?

She'd never understood feelings. In fact, she'd never felt like this before. Never. There had been people interested in her before, people that weren't bad to look at. But there hadn't been even a sliver of affection for them. Not even a curiosity for it.

Byleth hadn't felt affection for anyone aside from her father before she came to the monastery. She'd known mercenaries for years and she'd never particularly cared about them. What had changed? Now she cared about her students as if they were her own children. And she'd barely known them for a few months. Her pride when one of them grasped something difficult, that was foreign to her. And now she sat, holding a woman, and wondering if the dread she felt was for the fact that they couldn't continue.

And it clicked.

Sothis. Sothis had appeared in her head when it all started.

In clarity, sense came to Byleth for the first time in a while. "Perhaps after you graduate, we could try?"

Mercedes looked up at her and there was hope in her eyes. "That…that could work." Some of her energy and cheer had returned to her voice, hesitant like it threatened to evaporate.

Byleth bent down and kissed Mercedes and the woman melted into her arms. They held onto it as long as they could before Byleth pulled back, wishing it could go on longer.

"Something to make up for being drunk for the first time. Something a beautiful woman deserves," Byleth said, looking back up to the sky to avoid the embarrassment.

Mercedes began to laugh. And she continued to, clutching her stomach as she kept laughing. It was a nice sound.

"Byleth Eisner, you can be rather romantic, in a way. I like this side to you. With that, I think I can be patient." Mercedes smiled and Byleth thought she looked radiant in the moonlight.

In case you hadn't put it together, you have feelings for her. And don't you dare blame me for emotions, they're yours, not mine!

Byleth ignored her.

Instead, she said, "If anyone asks about tonight, tell them we talked about switching houses." Byleth reached into a satchel and pulled out a few pieces of paper. "I picked these up from Seteth today after a meeting. All you have to do is fill them out."

Mercedes picked them up slowly. Goddess, what did Byleth call Mercie now? Lover? Companion? Student?

She settled on friend.

"I'll miss some of the Lions," Mercedes admitted as she folded the papers and tucked them in one of her uniform's pockets.

Byleth nodded. "Well, feel free to invite them to come join the Deer."

Her friend thought about that for a moment, then shook her head. "On second thought, I think it might be nicer to spend time with some other people." She muttered something under her breath, but all Byleth caught was something about Ashe. "I'll let Annie know, though. Perhaps she'd like the Deer."

"I'm glad you're joining us." Byleth smiled.

Mercedes returned it. "I am too. It'll take some getting used to. Golden Deer," she said, as if trying it on for size.

"Welcome to the herd," Byleth said with a hint of laughter. Mercedes joined in.

Claude had invited the professor to have lunch with them. Hilda didn't mind, the more the merrier. But when Byleth had said she'd bring the newest addition to their class with her, that piqued Hilda's interest.

Especially when she saw how their teacher and Mercedes looked at each other.

No one else noticed. Everyone was far too preoccupied with the newest fawn. Hilda doubted any of the men would pick up on it. Leonie wasn't the most adept at romance. And Marianne…well, maybe she would. But the poor girl would never say anything about it.

Which meant Hilda was left to consider what that meant.

Was she a gossip? Maybe. It was what had drawn her to Claude as a friend. Claude horded secrets of all kinds, Hilda lorded over a trove of gossip like a dragon. There was no impulse to share any of it, just a desire to know.

Even back home she'd held her fair share of snippets of noble gossip. Holst was the Alliance's most eligible bachelor. For all his strengths, his emotional intelligence was not one of them. The man was a dog in the best ways, loyal, strong, smart, friendly, and downright oblivious. So Hilda had quite enjoyed watching him struggle with suitors. The various men and women who tried to court her brother were met with a stone wall of emotion. Somehow, they found that romantic. Aloof, they called it. Mysterious, they whispered.

Dumb, she preferred.

But she knew when someone looked at another with desire. And she knew the difference between wanting to jump in their bed for a romp and the kind that had love. These two had the latter.

And Hilda stayed silent on the matter, letting everyone fawn over Mercedes. Hilda wouldn't deny she'd make a good addition. Their magical prowess was split between Lorenz and Marianne, both of whom favored magic and a physical weapon. With Mercedes, they'd have someone who could be their magical ace in the hole. And she was nice, perfect to sluff chores off to.

"Please, call me Mercie," she said with a giggle as Raphael tripped over her name in excitement when he learned she was an adept cook.

Gosh, she just was cute as a button. Hilda could see what the professor saw in her.

"Hilda?" Marianne whispered to her. "Is something wrong?"

Hilda blinked in surprise as Marianne looked at her. None of the rest of the Deer were paying attention. "Of course not, Marianne. Well, if you must know, I am dreading my chores this afternoon in the library. They have delicate ol' me stacking books. How revolting!"

Marianne giggled. Actually giggled. "Would you like some help? I have a free evening."

Batting her eyelashes, Hilda smirked. Ah, a victim. Though thinking of Marianne like that felt wrong, somehow. Her henchwoman? Minion? Hmm, wrong too. Savior? Nah. She'd think on it.

"Oh, that would just be the best, Mari!" Hilda cheered.

Marianne opened her mouth to reply, but all chatter at the table ceased. The Deer all looked up at Dimitri and Edelgard standing over their table. The rest of the dining hall had quieted down, eyes directed at them.

"Mercedes," Dimitri greeted. "Are you sure you wish to turn your back on the Lions?" He seemed melancholic about it, like saying good bye to a friend.

"It's nothing wrong with you, Dimitri," Mercedes said diplomatically. "This class just seems better suited for me."

Dimitri frowned, but said nothing else. Instead, Edelgard spoke up, "Transferring to another class is nothing to be ashamed of. Lysithea is succeeding among the Black Eagles. I'm sure this change will be good for Mercedes."

The future king balked and made to say something. Edelgard plowed over him. "However, I invite all of you to consider learning amongst the Black Eagles. We'll welcome anyone who wishes to come."

Hilda had a feeling that Dimitri hadn't known Edelgard was going to pitch her class. What had he thought she'd say?

"I'm sure every student will come to their own conclusion of where they would like to learn," Byleth said without emotion. At least it looked like no emotion, but Hilda saw a hint of anger. So the professor was bothered by Lysithea leaving. Good.

Edelgard nodded. "Of course. Though it goes without saying, as the future Emperor of Adrestia, I would love to be surrounded by capable people. Service is never forgotten in Adrestia. Unlike your house leader, I have no doubt in my inheritance."

Claude stiffened next to her.

"Edelgard, that is uncalled for," Dimitri said, turning on her. "We came here to ask for a truce, no more poaching students from anyone."

"You came over here to do that. I came for my own reasons," she said simply. "Anything to say, Claude?"

"Only that my inheritance is just as sound as yours," Claude said. Hilda could see irritation, anger in him. One of his hands was clenched under the table. She reached out and grabbed it, hoping to give her friend comfort.

"Oh? Care to share the nature of your birth, then? I must admit, I am very curious to it. It has to be quite the story if you keep it secret." Edelgard wore a smirk that said more than she did. She was just as much a schemer as Claude.

Then, of all people, Lorenz stood up. He stared directly at Edelgard as the entire dining hall looked on at the conversation. "Edelgard, you shame yourself in front of all your peers here. In Leicester, we understand that some things are our own secrets to keep. Perhaps Adrestia has suffered under autocracy for so long that you have forgotten this, but I would have thought that the Insurrection of the Seven ought to have jogged your memory on what people think of your family's rule."

And the smirk on her face was gone. With a glare cold enough to freeze hell, Edelgard stared down the son of Gloucester.

"Perhaps you're one to talk. Bothered that your family's chance of success was thwarted by some outsider with a Crest? Sad you can't make daddy proud by leading the Alliance?" Edelgard growled.

Lorenz's eyes flashed as he tried to keep his cool. "Perhaps with how desperate you are for new students, it shows how little you trust your own subjects after the insurrection."

Byleth stood up, moving between them as Edelgard moved closer to Lorenz. "Enough, you two."

"I don't need orders from the Archbishop's dog," Edelgard seethed. She didn't back down.

Claude stood up, his hand leaving Hilda's. Leonie did as well. "Take it back," Leonie said.

"What, the truth?" Edelgard said with a grin. "I'd never lie."

"Enough," a new voice spoke.

Shamir had materialized behind Dimitri. Had she been there all along? Hilda hadn't even seen her approach.

"All of you, go back to your seats," Shamir ordered. "If you don't like taking orders from one of Rhea's dogs, I'm sure we can arrange a meeting between you and her to discuss it."

Dimitri hardly needed convincing, he'd looked like he wanted to leave for a while. Edelgard fixed Shamir with a hard look before walking away. Byleth sat down without a word, followed by Leonie. Claude threw an angry look towards the future Emperor before following suit.

Lorenz nodded. "Your intervention is appreciated, Shamir."

"I was talking to you too. Sit down, shut up. I come to the dining hall to relax, not hear noble squabbling. If you have a problem with someone, arrange a training bout. You fight in here, I'll make you regret it," Shamir growled.

Lorenz sat down quickly, cowed.

"Professor," Shamir said in a lighter tone. Or at least as light as Shamir could be. She reached into a pocket and pulled out a scroll. "A message from your father. He says he'll be away from the monastery for a while. He wishes you luck with your next month's mission."

Byleth wordlessly accepted the scroll and slipped it into a pocket. Shamir turned around and went back to where she was sitting. Hilda watched her and saw her keep Byleth in her line of sight. Not the Deer, just Byleth.

Claude was rubbing off on her. She saw schemes everywhere. Still, she didn't dismiss it.

"Well, I suppose I picked quite the eventful house," Mercedes said lightly.

Raphael and Ignatz laughed before doing their best to resume conversation. Leonie turned to Lorenz, "You've got a quicker tongue than I expected."

He chuckled. "I merely presented the facts." Still, the compliment warmed him, she could tell.

Claude reached out and grabbed Byleth's hand for support. Hilda raised her eyebrows. "You okay, Teach?"

"I'll be fine. Thank you, Claude," she smiled. Her gaze turned briefly to Mercedes and they shared a private smile as the rest of the Deer settled back into their chatter.

Hilda tried to ignore all the eyes on her house. She felt even further away from the rest of the students than she did yesterday.

Chapter Text

Hubert stood impassively as his liege smashed her axe against a training dummy. It was late, they were the only two in the training grounds. Everyone else was still at the dining hall, which Edelgard had deigned not to return to after Shamir broke up the argument.

As he was wont to do, he looked on silently as she trained. Ever since Claude had slipped her poison, he was loath to let her out of his sight. How? How had he gotten past Hubert? There was an accomplice, that went without question.

He had been lax with his duties. It would not happen again.


He refocused on the woman in front of him. She was panting with a heavy sweat. Even tired, she looked powerful. One of her many attributes.

"Yes, Edelgard?" he murmured. Hubert held out a towel for her and she accepted it, wiping at her brow.

"Speak your mind. I know you've your thoughts on the matter." She gestured for him to follow, leading Hubert to a bench. They sat.

He disliked speaking ill of her to her. The thought of saying such things to anyone else repulsed him so much that he never considered it. But, as she'd argued once to him, pointing out moments of weakness to her let her grow. That he could understand and bear the pain for.

"You got angry," he said. "You let the Gloucester boy get to you."

Edelgard nodded. "I thought as much. I haven't had anyone speak to me like that in years. It was unexpected."

Hubert nodded. Oh, when he got his hands on Lorenz, the boy would rue the day he uttered those words. If his liege willed it, he'd have a knife in his back before the day closed. But the Gloucesters might be allies with them in the war to come, so he'd wait.

"Your attack on Claude was reckless, too. Put the poisoning from your mind, leave it to me to wreak vengeance on your behalf."

She looked at him, nodding again. "You're right, per usual. Though you need not get vengeance, this is my problem to handle."

"Your problems are mine to solve, Edelgard." And it was true. It was his birthright as a Vestra. Protector of the ruler of Adrestia. His father took that in a more overt sense, but Hubert knew that knives in the dark bit harder than a sword in the day.

Edelgard chuckled. "I had a feeling you'd say that. But this is petty school drama, do not worry about it. I made the mistake of letting him get to me and I lowered my guard."

Hubert bowed his head, acknowledging her words. "As you wish, my lady. I am at your command, as always."

"Tell me, how do you think the rest will react to tonight's events?" she asked.

He thought for a brief second. "Caspar and Linhardt are unlikely to comment. Even if they did express doubt, all we must do is let their fathers know. Both are on our side and would keep their sons in line. Ferdinand, while ever irritating, believes in Adrestia without doubt. I don't think Bernadetta even was there tonight to hear."

"And the others?" she prompted.

"I know I have expressed my doubts about her, but I do believe Lysithea is loyal to you. I will not stop watching her, but she is proving to be a good addition. The Ordelia name will help, as well."

Edelgard shook her head. "You know it isn't her I'm worried about."

"Petra?" he murmured. She nodded. "I am sure she will see this as a sign of weakness, but what can she do? If she rebels against your authority, Brigid is finished. They cannot fight a proper war since the last with Dagda. The scars are still red and unforgotten, she knows that all too well. Nevertheless, I shall keep an eye on her."

"Thank you," Edelgard said. "And Dorothea?"

Hubert frowned. "She has been acting differently, as of late. I'll admit, that woman is much harder to read than the rest."

The future Emperor laughed. "She is an actor, after all. I'll speak with her, see what she thinks. I don't want to put too much on your plate."

Ah, but that was exactly what he was for. A Vestra served, his father had always told him. And Hubert had listened, one of the few things he agreed with his father about.

Byleth, I'm going on a mission in northern Faerghus. It might be a while before I'm back, but don't worry, your old man will be back before you know it. Remember what we talked about.

She folded her father's note and tucked it back in her pocket. Her students had all gone on without her. Byleth wanted to sit by the fishing pond again.

Footsteps behind her. Byleth half expected Mercedes.

But Shamir sat down beside her. "There's more than just what's written there."

"You're a Knight, aren't you? I've seen you around," Byleth guessed.

"Shamir Nevrand. Mercenary. I saw you teaching Ignatz that way to hold arrows in the bow hand. That's a Dagdan technique, where'd you learn it?"

"There was a man from Dagda in my father's mercenaries. After the war, he'd been stranded here. He taught me a few archery tips before dying," she said. "But you're not here to talk about my teaching, right?"

"It's good to hear he found a group to stay with," Shamir said with a ghost of a smile. "But no, I am here on behalf of Aelfric. A friend of your father's," she said when Byleth looked confused. "He says that Rhea is trying to get your father out of the monastery for as long as possible."

"Why?" she asked. That same paranoia Jeralt had expressed began to flare wildly in her stomach.

"He says she might try to talk to you, to get something out of you. Not that he told me what that was, of course. Aelfric wants you to be careful around her."

"Don't you serve her?" Byleth asked.

"Cautious, I like that. Yes, but I serve the Church. And I owe Aelfric a favor. He's asked me to keep an eye on you, fend off anyone trying to give you harm and give you aid in any form." Shamir shrugged. "If you require assistance, you can call on me."

"I've never met an Aelfric," she said. And Byleth hadn't, and her father had never once mentioned the name. All she had was more questions. "How am I supposed to trust him? Or you, for that matter?"

"His position demands secrecy in the Church. Should he deem to meet with you, he will. That's his business though, I just do as I'm ordered." Her lips curled. "As for trusting me, from one mercenary to another, I stick to the job once I've been paid. And this gets me out of a debt, of sorts. I'm at your beck and call."

Byleth frowned. To be honest, it wasn't the Knight that she didn't trust. Shamir was a face she'd seen around. Byleth knew more about her than she let on. The rogue Knight, some called her. Black sheep. One who didn't serve out of blind devotion, one who served to repay a debt to the Archbishop. If she served to repay a debt to a religion she didn't believe, then Byleth thought she could trust her.

"Tell this Aelfric that if he wants my cooperation with whatever he wants from me, he'll need to meet with me." She stood. "And if you're at my command, then help me train my archers in the Deer. If you're Dagdan, you can show them more than I ever could."

Shamir chuckled. "I'd heard you had a reputation. Good to see you live up to it. I'll pass your message along. And play teacher. Your kids seem tolerable enough."

Byleth opened her mouth to protest that they weren't her kids, but couldn't find the words. They were her students, right? Calling them her kids made her feel like a parent.

But maybe that's what she was.

"You're my students today," Shamir said, quick to the point. She paced back and forth in the training grounds, addressing them. "Your professor is working with the rest of them on close combat. She has asked me to teach you three some things to keep you alive."

Ignatz shivered under Shamir's gaze. He wasn't scared of her. Well, okay, maybe a little. She just looked so intense! Whenever she looked his way, his blood raised a few degrees from the sheer heat of her eyes.

"Your teacher has shown you a technique of holding your arrows in the hand with your bow." Shamir demonstrated, holding three arrows in a hand with her bow. She quickly landed them all in the target, moving far quicker than Ignatz expected her could ever be.

Claude whistled appreciatively. Leonie clapped politely. The three of them were her victims today. Students, he meant.

"It's a good method, faster than even a Leicester sniper if you practice. And it isn't too hard to pick up if you're standing still." Shamir scowled at that. "But archers that stand still die. I lost a partner to that foolishness, and I won't see any kids meet the same fate. You will be moving when you fight. You will be running. No one in Fódlan expects an archer to charge."

"Is it possible to be accurate with that kind of movement?" Leonie asked.

Shamir snorted. "Accuracy is important, but not necessary. If you think an archer is about hitting the bullseye, you're mistaken. Hit a man with four arrows in the stomach if that's what puts him down. Hit him in the arm and stab him in the throat when you get close. Everything is a target. What's important is that the less distance you have between you and targets, the less time for wind to affect your shot and for them to dodge. Simple logic."

Their new teacher pulled three more arrows out of a quiver. "Another lesson, no back quivers. Takes too long to grab an arrow. That's stupidity meant for archers who stand still. I will not be training you to be wasted on that. A waist quiver if you must, but ideally I shall push you to this." She took the arrows and put them in the draw hand, the one holding the string.

And she fired. Her hand moved fluid like water and all three arrows hit the target faster than they had before.

"Fuck," Claude let slip out of surprise. "I had heard Dagdan archers were good…"

"Language, Riegan," Shamir chided with a smile. "In Dagda, to fight in the royal army as a war archer, you had to shoot three arrows in less than two seconds with accuracy. That could take five years of training or more. You won't be as good as me, but we can make you close."

And their lesson began, as did Shamir's mantra. "Move or die. Everything is a target. Faster! Do it again!"

At the end, Ignatz's hands hurt more than they ever had. Before Shamir pushed them much harder than Byleth ever did. Not that their teacher wasn't as difficult, but the rigor Byleth deemed necessary was a different type than Shamir.

"I expect you to practice at this on your own time," Shamir said before dismissing them. "As a Knight, I have duties that will take me from the monastery. But during your tenure here at the academy, you'll be training under me. I'll know if you haven't been keeping up with your training."

Despite her cold exterior and harsh words, Shamir did let a softer side slip through. When Ignatz grasped something quicker than she expected, Shamir gave him an appreciative look.

"How did Teach manage to get her to train us?" Claude wondered aloud after Shamir had left and the three archers put their equipment away. "She makes it sound like this isn't temporary."

"I wondered that too," Leonie said. She'd done the best with Shamir's lessons and there was a glow to her with the praise Shamir had given her. "This isn't just helping out from time to time. Not to mention it's just us, not either of the other houses."

It made Ignatz curious. Shamir didn't seem like the altruistic sort.

"Regardless," Claude said, "we're learning from one of the best archers in Fódlan."

On that, they all agreed.

Sylvain didn't feel like he was the oldest in the Blue Lions.

Age beget wisdom, though Ingrid certainly wouldn't agree there. She'd call him a child. He'd correct her, saying he acted like a child. There was a difference.

But Sylvain couldn't act like a child now.

Mercedes was gone and Sylvain had stood watching Ashe from afar. The boy sat by the fishing pond, lost in his thoughts.

Sylvain ought to talk to him. But what would he say? He was good for making people laugh and cheering them up. Sympathy? Words of comfort? Those were harder.

Ironically, Felix should be the good one for this. He was the one who'd lost so much. Or Dimitri, but that was its own problem. Sylvain sighed. He couldn't relate to Ashe.

But, being the oldest of a group had its duties. Someone had to stand up and do something. Fate decided to deal him in for this round.

"Heya, Ashe," Sylvain said. "This seat taken?"

His friend shook his head and Sylvain joined him. The greenhouse was directly behind them, so there was no risk of eavesdroppers.

"It's been a week, how're you feeling?" Sylvain asked. Better to be direct, he supposed. Mercedes was the one who had been good at talking a circle until you said what was on your mind. He hadn't the same talent.

Ashe sighed. "I don't know. I'm really tired, I haven't been sleeping well."

That didn't surprise him in the least. When Felix had lost Glenn, Sylvain couldn't remember his best friend sleeping for at least a month. That was back before he'd changed so much. If Sylvain died, would Felix lose sleep over him?

"Manuela might have something to help you," he suggested.

"I tried, it just gave me nightmares," Ashe shuddered. In that moment, Sylvain thought him a scared little mouse. Too afraid to sleep, driven mad from not sleeping enough.

"Back when Felix lost his brother, I think he had similar issues," Sylvain said wistfully. He looked out over the pond. Goddess, just thinking back to that time hurt. Where had life taken his best friend that he'd turned out so different? Sylvain loved him all the same, no matter what, but he missed the smiles. The ones without an edge to them. "He'd only collapse from exhaustion. But when he did, he'd actually sleep."

"What are you suggesting?" Ashe asked curiously.

Sylvain shrugged. "I want to help and I really don't know how. I don't have the magic words to heal you. But maybe if we focus your mind on something else, we can get you thinking about better things."

"What did you have in mind?"

He grinned. "Wanna learn how to fight with a lance?"

"How are you feeling?" Claude asked as he swept the figurines off their latest battle map. He'd taken to getting Ignatz to help him customize some for different challenge. Teach had loved it, there was real thrill in her eyes. As he'd predicted, she'd turned out to be quite capable at the game.

Byleth blinked. "I'm fine, why?"

Oh, his emotionally stunted professor. It didn't take a genius to see she had trouble expressing her feelings. "I mean with Lonato. I know it's been a few weeks now, but I wanted to check in. Perhaps I should have sooner."

"Ah," she said, taking a sip of her tea. Byleth turned to look out the window of the Deer classroom. Claude waited, going about setting up another match. He'd spent enough time with her to know she'd answer when ready.

That turned out to be a full ten minutes later. She finished the last of her tea and said, "To be frank, it was a lot to deal with. But I am better."

Claude nodded. He didn't detect a lie. "Has Ashe confronted you again? I caught word from Mercedes that he blames you." Never mind that he'd been eavesdropping on her and Annette.

Their newest Deer surprised him. She fit in well, almost too well. Claude wasn't the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, but he was the type for suspicion. The only Lion she still talked to was Annette. There wasn't conversation between Mercedes and any of the rest of her old class. He'd asked Hilda why she though Mercedes transferred, but his friend had just given him a faraway look and said it wasn't his business.

"What if she betrays us?" he'd asked.

"She won't," Hilda said. "She's got reason not to."

When he'd pressed, she claimed it wasn't her secret to share. Though that was a comfort that Hilda apparently was without concern. He trusted her.

It didn't stop him from keeping tabs on Mercedes. There was lack of suspicion and there was stupidity. He'd never fall for the latter.

"Ashe is within his right to be angry at me," Byleth said, bringing Claude to the present. "I can't fault him for that. Were someone to kill my father, I can't imagine I'd react much differently. I don't hold it against him."

But that wasn't what he wanted to know. Did she hold it against herself? Frustrating Teach, he groaned inwardly.

"Fair, but you let me know if he gives you trouble," he said without thinking.

Byleth raised an eyebrow with a slight grin. "Oh? Are you my protector, Claude?"

Backtrack. "Of course not. I just mean, if you'd like him to stumble into a little stomach poison, that could be arranged. A little vengeance goes a long way."

She laughed. "Oh, I'm sure you're familiar with that. But on the topic of poison, are you familiar how to dip arrows in poison? Or more importantly, concoct something lethal enough to take effect on the battlefield?"

"Don't doubt my proficiency, Teach." He smiled widely. "If you can dream it, I can make it happen. The problem is access to ingredients. The kind for lethal poisons are stretched far and wide. So unless you can get me those, we're out of luck."

She hummed, lost in thought. "I'll look into it, see if Shamir has any connections. For now, let's play."

And how did she have Shamir's obedience so quickly? His Teach was wrapped in secrets and Claude couldn't help delving deeper into them.

"I applaud your effort, Lorenz. Dedication is a noble virtue, I just must say no. Still, good tea and company are never a waste."

Lorenz nodded calmly, while inwardly he groaned. He thought for sure he could persuade Ferdinand this time. He'd cited the Daphnel split, he'd spent the week researching that for his argument! But Ferdinand was ever loyal to the crown, even if he might have disdain for its wearer.

There was genuine concern with Edelgard in his eyes. Lorenz could see that. Ferdinand had his doubts, but unfortunately he saw himself the savior who would swoop in and rescue Adrestia.

It was all too familiar to him.

Oh, Lorenz got along better with Claude now. The man had asked to set aside the rivalry for the greater good. He respected that. Claude had his issues, but Lorenz saw something his father didn't. Count Gloucester wanted to take power by force.

But power didn't have to be a Sovereign Duke's position. Power could be at the Duke's right hand, through influence. Surely it was a step down from leader of the Alliance, but Lorenz could be content with that.

His father was many things, but gracious in defeat was not one of them. He grabbed at power wherever he saw it.

Lorenz wasn't blind. He knew the commoners in his territory were struggling as his father diverted attention to political machinations. And that would not do. When Lorenz inherited his father's seat, he'd make sure they were cared for, as was his duty as noble.

But a seat in Claude's good graces would go a long way for him, not to mention if Claude was no longer fit to lead by some reason? Well, then Lorenz would do what would be natural and assume power.

"Surely you will not shame me for trying," Lorenz chuckled. "The Deer would certainly be getting an asset in having you join the fold."

Ferdinand smiled. "Oh, you aren't wrong about that. Ferdinand von Aegir would look good with any house. But alas, it is Adrestia where my heart lies. It is no secret that these classes are forging political alliances for the future."

Lorenz sipped his tea. "One of the reasons we seek you, in fact."

"I'm afraid it will take much more than that to sway me, Lorenz." Ferdinand laughed. "Have I commended you on your comments to Edelgard yet? If I haven't, well done. I haven't seen her that taken aback in a long time."

He blushed a bit. "It was nothing. If anything, I ought not to have been so impulsive."

His companion shook his head. "Nonsense! Passion is nothing to be shied away from. You were sticking up for your own. She spoke ill of your leader and you stood up for him. It's what a good vassal does."

Vassal. His stomach turned. Perhaps he wasn't as at ease with letting go of his dream of leading the Alliance. "I couldn't leave it to Claude to handle that. He would have been too diplomatic. Sometimes a firm hand is needed to dissuade."

Ferdinand nodded his assent. "Wise words, Lorenz." He paused for a moment, then said, "May I pick your brain for some advice? I've something I've been struggling with that I'd like another's opinion on and, well, I trust you to keep a secret."

Maybe this was his chance to indebt himself to Ferdinand! If the noble felt that debt grow, maybe Lorenz could leverage it for him to change sides. "Of course, my friend. What troubles you?"

"A matter of the heart, I'm afraid," Ferdinand said, looking grim.

Ah. Well, that was not what he expected.

"I'll pour more tea," Lorenz suggested and Ferdinand nodded emphatically.

"It's someone I never expected to grow close to, I'll admit. Frankly, I doubt they even know I exist. That's not true, they know I exist, but you know what I mean? Like I look to meet their eyes and they stare through me, unseeing." Ferdinand accepted the now full cup from Lorenz. "I've never concerned myself with troubles of the heart, I just always assumed that those things would fall into place as time went on."

Desire to take advantage of the situation slowly slipped away from Lorenz. "Do you two interact regularly? Get meals, perchance?" He hoped his friend was having better luck than he was.

"We do, but it's not alone. They're there because of another person." Ferdinand sighed. "Ah, listen to me, so wrapped up in this. How unlike me."

Lorenz felt like there was something he was missing. "Can you not approach her? Perhaps she harbors feelings for you too and is afraid of rejection?"

Ferdinand didn't meet his eyes. "Him."


"Him. Not her." Ferdinand still didn't look towards Lorenz.

"Why is that an issue?" Lorenz cocked his head. "Who cares…ah, I see. Adrestia."

Romance had managed to evolve across Fódlan differently despite all belonging to Adrestia once. In Leicester, there wasn't a care about who you took to bed. Noble houses joined and left the Roundtable all the time. Lorenz supposed there was some pressure on Riegan to provide an heir, but it wasn't a rule by any means. The country was founded on a desire to live freely without rule and that mentality had permeated much of culture.

Adrestia and Faerghus were different matters. The latter had a stigma within noble families. Providing an heir was of paramount import. If a noble were to enter a relationship that would not lead to an heir, they would face heavy discrimination from their fellow nobles. Lorenz's father had once told him about a war that had been started when two married men had passed away without an heir. That land had been torn apart by rivals seeking power at the sight of weakness. It was a story fresh in the mind of the people of the north, as his father had explained.

And Adrestia was worse. Whereas in Faerghus it was cultural stigma, there it was law. Lorenz admitted he didn't know the source of the law, though if memory served it dealt with a radical sect of the Church that no longer existed. A living law from a dead order, preserved in Adrestia's desire to continue tradition. How very typical of the country.

"I shouldn't bother with it, I know," Ferdinand said, backtracking. "My duty is to provide an heir. It is a dalliance, nothing more."

Lorenz shook his head. "Perish the thought, my friend. I hail from Leicester, I shall not judge you for that." A cold, cruel part of him know he could twist this to his advantage. To manipulate Ferdinand into leaving the country of his birth for the sake of love, be it for whoever it was now or whoever it'd be in the future.

That thought made him gag.

"Tell me about this person. Of course, I shall maintain your secrecy. But perhaps we could plan a strategy together." Lorenz smiled in what he hoped was a comforting manner. "A plan never goes remiss in battle, why not here too?"

Ferdinand relaxed. "Well, I shan't name him, but if you'll indulge me…"

They sat talking for hours, trading thoughts on romance, life, and other trivialities.

Lorenz felt like he was making a friend. And by the end of their conversation, thoughts of convincing Ferdinand of anything were far from his mind.

"I appreciate you coming to see me on such short notice," Seteth said. He was all business and looked exhausted. "As you know, the Blue Sea Star is nearing its most visible point. The annual celebration that follows will be large."

Byleth nodded, sitting across from him in his office. "I assume there is some irregularity?"

"Quite." Seteth sighed. "What I say shall not leave this room with the exception of your students' ears, as this will pertain to their mission this month. The Church conducted a raid on Lonato's home. In it, we found plans for an assassination attempt. It's description is…ludicrous in execution, but precautions are to be made. You will be helping guard the Archbishop for this month."

"Ludicrous?" Byleth probed.

Seteth waved a hand. "I'll spare you the details, but relies on the hands of fate. It a word, it is ill-conceived. If this is the same group that plotted with Lonato's son, then their work has gotten shoddy. I suspect a different plan."

"And that's where I come in?" Byleth guessed.

He nodded. "I wonder if this is a diversion, a means to make us look elsewhere so the enemy can strike while we're exposed. My informants are seeking information and I trust they will come up with an answer, but you will be my point woman to handle it."

"Because the Knights would draw too much attention," Byleth mused. "You want to catch them in the act, so we can have answers as to who it is trying to fight the Church."

Seteth raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps my assessments of you were lacking. You're quite right. I'll admit you're smarter than you let on, professor."

She shrugged. "It's what I'd do."

He gave her what she imagined was the first real smile she'd seen on his face. Good to know he was capable of that. "I think I see what the Archbshop sees in you."

Byleth hid her glower a second too late. Seteth noticed.

"Forgive me, but I must say this for my peace of mind. I support the Archbishop with full loyalty, but we are not without disagreement. I agree that Lonato met the appropriate fate, as traitors must be punished. But I do not agree with forcing that burden upon you." The look he gave her was one she'd expect on a man much older than he. "Allow me to apologize for that. You are a professor, not executioner. If there is any help I may provide, do not hesitate to ask."

She nodded. "I'll remember that. Thank you, that does bring me some comfort to hear."

Seteth smiled again. "You may go, Byleth. I appreciate your cooperation in all these matters. I know the last few months have been quite the whirlwind."

A smirk. "I have a bed and food every day. It's paradise for a mercenary, in a way."

He found that amusing and laughed as she departed. Instead of returning to her room, she entered her father's office.

It'd been a month since he'd left. There was no word from him as to when he'd be back. Byleth knew there was no cause to worry, but Shamir's words still echoed in her.

The Archbishop hadn't made a move to speak with her since he'd gone. Was her father wrong about that? Byleth didn't know, these machinations were for people like Claude.

Perhaps she could enlist his aid? But Jeralt had told her not to speak of it to anyone. But she trusted Claude. He was skeptical about everything. As much as she'd like to tell Mercedes, speaking ill of the Archbishop could bother her. Byleth didn't want to mess anything up between them.

They'd had tea the other day. It was nice. It was the first time she'd gotten to spend time with her alone. Byleth wanted more of that, but she knew she couldn't be greedy.

"Ah, pardon me," a light voice spoke.

Byleth whipped around, looking at the man who'd seemingly stumbled into her father's office. He was thin, dressed in Church garb. A mane of brown hair cascaded down his back and he smiled at her warmly.

"This is Captain Jeralt's office, but he isn't here right now," she said with narrowed eyes.

The man closed the door behind himself and nodded. He paused for a moment, as if listening for something. Then, "No need to be suspicious, Byleth. My name is Aelfric, I was the one to send Shamir your way."

She relaxed, but not fully. "Pardon me if I'm a bit wary of someone who has such control over a Knight."

Aelfric smiled again. The way he looked at her, there was something off about it. As if he wasn't seeing her, but rather someone else. "Shamir is the only Knight that I have such loyalty over, I'm afraid. Others listen to me, but I have done Shamir quite the service." Aelfric took a seat and gestured for Byleth to do likewise. She remained standing.

The man didn't seem bothered. "I helped her smuggle a few of her friends out of the country after the war with Dagda. I oversee the Abyss below the monastery, a place where refugees frequently flow through."

"But why have her help me out? I don't understand your interest in me," Byleth said, slowly taking the offered seat at last. Abyss?

"I knew your mother. We were close friends. Consider my help a way to repay her kindness." He smiled again, again seeing someone else in her place. "I also know your father well, but I would not be surprised if he hasn't mentioned me."

"He hasn't," Byleth said. Every part of her body told her this man was hiding something. "Who are you? I mean, really."

"Ah, well, I'm Aelfric Dahlman. One of the Cardinals of the Church." When that didn't seem to register to her, he continued. "The identities of the Cardinals are kept secret within the Church, thus my need for secrecy when contacting you. Each of us have differing duties to keep the Church running. In fact, see us as arms of the Archbishop. All working to the design of the Goddess."

He spoke in circles, avoiding straight answers. But her father trusted him, enough to give him a note to pass on to her. That gave her at least enough to humor him. "Well, whatever you want from me, go ahead and ask."

"Oh, there's nothing I want, by any means," he waved off. "I'm looking out for you, that's all. I'm hardly so mercenary as to seek repayment, no offense."

Some taken, she didn't say.

"I spoke with Jeralt before he left. We're both concerned about Rhea's interest in you. The last person Rhea was so interested in was your mother. Neither of us are particularly trusting when it comes to those we care about, so I sought you out to warn you that she may have plans revolving around you."

"Your concern is appreciated," Byleth said, unsure if she meant it.

He stood, bowing to her slightly. "I shan't keep you any longer, I know you're a busy woman. I merely wanted to warn you in person. I understand if I haven't earned your trust, but I hope that I have gone some way to doing so." Aelfric smiled again. He was always smiling. "Have a pleasant rest of your day, professor. Should you wish to reach me, merely ask Shamir."

And he departed, leaving Byleth more confused.

"So dark," Raphael murmured.

Ignatz could feel the big man next to him as he clutched his bow nervously. In the front of their group, Byleth led them. All Ignatz had to guide him were the quiet footsteps of those around him.

She and Claude had pieced together that whoever was using the assassination threat as a cover was heading for the Mausoleum. Though both had admitted they didn't know the why of it all.

"Lights up ahead," whispered Leonie. She must have been in front of him.

"Everyone, slow," Byleth ordered. They were approaching the light as it came through a doorway. Everyone stopped at the edge as Byleth peered around the corner. She waved a hand. "Claude, come here. Do you recognize their insignias?"

Claude crept forward, not making a sound. He peeked above Byleth in an almost comical manner. "Those are Church soldiers," he whispered. "I don't know that sign they carry, but if that's their gear, they're soldiers of Seiros."

Ignatz shivered. That meant they weren't Knights, but still. Not an easy opponent.

"Leonie, ready to practice your scouting?" Byleth said.

"Of course, professor," she said, moving up to the front of the group in a crouch.

Before she could slip into the light, Byleth rested a hand on her shoulder. "No heroics, I'm not losing anyone today."

Leonie nodded and slipped into the light. None of the soldiers noticed her, thankfully. From their vantage point, there weren't enough of them to patrol effectively. That meant they had to be expecting to not be found and to get out quick.

He smiled, despite the situation. Byleth's lessons were helping.

Leonie returned, minutes later. "About twenty-five of them, maybe thirty. Most are clustered towards the back and it's a long room. Might not hear us if we're noisy at this end."

"Cavalry? Mages? Archers?" Byleth drilled.

"Oh, right," Leonie said. "Five archers, I think, in the back. Few mages, their leader seems to be one. Can't be more than half a dozen, though. And one rider, he might be a leader too."

"Good job." Leonie preened at the praise. Byleth turned to the rest of the group. "Two teams, one led by me, the other by Claude. You are to kill as many as you can without raising the alarm. Look out for each other."

She quickly assigned the teams. Claude, Hilda, Marianne, and Leonie went out first, sneaking low like the latter had before. Byleth, Raphael, Mercedes, Lorenz, and he were the other team.

"Stick close to me," Byleth muttered. "Mercedes, Ignatz, you're to keep the ranged off us. Pick their mages off if you can. Raph and I will bring up the front, guarding you. Lorenz, you join us, but fall back and provide support with magic if you must."

A low chorus of agreement met the orders. She began to lead them all out, ducking low. They followed suit.

None of the Church soldiers had seen them. The lighting wasn't good, only a few sconces dousing the area with light. Leonie certainly had better vision in the night than he did.

There was a clatter off to their left. A Church soldier fell to the ground with an arrow in them.

"Ignatz, take any shots you know you can make. Mercedes, hold back until we're discovered," Byleth ordered.

He looked for anyone he could hit, taking one such shot. A mage, dressed in holy robes, had red mix with silver as he fell, dead. The same revulsion Ignatz had once felt was there, but dimmer. It was getting easier to shove that feeling aside.

What took his attention was the strange tiles on the ground. They were square and large, pulsing magic so thick that even he could feel it.

"Are they dangerous?" Byleth asked Mercedes.

"No," she whispered. "They're wards of protection. But with how long they've been down here, to be active still is a marvel." There was artistry in them, the intricate design weaving beauty like he'd never seen before.

Light erupted on the other side. A fireball sailed through stone columns at their classmates, missing barely. The mage in question crumpled before the silhouette of Hilda.

"Go!" Byleth urged to Raphael as they ran up to two unsuspecting soldiers. With surprise, they made quick work of them. A javelin from Lorenz bit into a third who yelled for help. It brought the man low, but not enough to squelch his scream.

His bowstring pulled taught as he fired at the oncoming soldiers. A quick count gave him ten as the one he hit fell. Ten! They were outnumbered two to one!

As the plan went, the three provided a shield of flesh before Mercedes and him. Wounds that sprouted on Raphael closed a second later as Mercedes wove White magic. Ignatz's arrows claimed two more victims. Perhaps they had a chance after all.

And that was when he heard the hoofs. Ignatz looked to his left, through two rows of columns, to see the lone cavalry rider.

They horse's legs beat like drums, smashing the cobblestone with fury. Atop the midnight steed, a man dressed in black armor. A weapon hung from his hand, dragging against the floor. A scythe. As it ran against the floor, noxious purple sparks flung up, igniting the stone with sickly violet flame.

"Professor?" Ignatz called out weakly

Over his shoulder, the woman screamed, "RUN!"

The reaper got there first.

He swung his scythe and Ignatz had the presence of mind to jump backwards. He stumbled and fell, but the blade passed harmlessly in front of him, leaving a sulfur smelling wake.

"My blade," breathed the rider, muffled through his mask. He sounded labored, overcome with something. Was that excitement? "It will claim you. Let me see your struggle."

Ignatz grabbed his bow and fired. The reaper knocked aside the arrow with a gauntlet.

Words whispered in his ear. "Everything's a target." Shamir.

His second shot aimed at the horse, striking it in his head.

The knight let out an inhumane howl, distorted through his mask. He fell to the ground with his horse, and Ignatz hoped it might be over.

It wasn't. The knight slowly stood from the corpse of the horse. His scythe's blade had ignited in the same spectral fire it had given off before. The light showed the mask of the knight, a wicked grinning skull. Breath blew out of the mouth, visible in the air that now had a chill clinging to it.

Ignatz began to crawl away on his back, not taking his eyes off the knight. His attacker took steps forward, until Byleth stood in front of him, sword aloft.

"Face me," she growled, a feral mother bear watching over her cub.

The knight shifted his scythe. The purple flame grew dark, turning black as it flashed like thunder. The knight spun the scythe in front of him, attacking Byleth. She swung her sword, deflecting the strike.

A hissing sound began, followed by metal hitting the floor. Ignatz and Byleth looked at the sword which had been severed in half, corroded by the same fire that did nothing to the scythe.

While his opponent was distracted, the scythe whipped back and smashed into Byleth's abdomen with its blunted end. Ignatz watched his teacher be flung ten feet from him. She groaned loudly, but didn't get back up.

"Your life for my steed's," breathed the reaper, striding closer again. Ignatz could see Mercedes running his way over the knight's shoulder.

Ignatz stood up, fumbling for an arrow to knock. The scythe careened down again, this time breaking his bow cleanly in half. He began to back away, but not quick enough.

The reaper tucked his scythe's blade behind Ignatz's leg. Still pulsing with purple fire, he yanked the scythe back towards him.

Time vanished for Ignatz as he fell to the ground. He'd been tripped.

But what was that warm feeling at his feet?

He looked down at his feet. In the dim light, one of his legs looked longer than the other. In fact, what was that white thing protruding from…?

He screamed as he looked at his severed leg five feet away from him. Vision vanished not in darkness, but in the pulsing white light Mercedes attacked the knight with.

Chapter Text

When he woke, it was to the crow of a rooster.

Sunlight dripped in through the windows, the windowsill gleaming with morning dew. Ignatz's vision was bleary as he opened his eyes. Goddess, he ached all over.

Blinking several times, his blurry vision faded and revealed Manuela's office. He lay in a bed, one reserved for patients. And if he were in Manuela's room instead of where all the regular patients went…

It came back to him. The Mausoleum. The knight. The scythe.

His leg.

A blanket covered him and he slowly reached to pull it towards him. He had to see.

When he revealed two feet at the end, he sighed. The image of his mutilation would be relegated to memory. He wiggled his toes.

Only his right foot moved. The left struggled to mimic it.

Ignatz's breath caught in his throat. He tried again, attempting to bend his toes. And they did after considerable effort.

He pulled the blanket up more, revealing a ring of sorts around his leg. It was a scar, angry and red, wrapping around his leg in a jagged circle.

Could he even walk?

Ignatz bit his lip hard, focusing on the pain instead of the tears beginning to pour down his face. He had to try to walk. He had to know.

As he sat up in bed, he finally saw the rest of the room.

The rest of the Deer were arrayed around the room as if in vigil. They all looked exhausted and were passed out in various states of sleep.

Raphael was leaning against the other bed, softly snoring. Hilda had flopped onto the ground without a seeming care, Marianne near her, attempting to take up as little space as possible. Leonie sat beneath the window, mouth hanging open. Lorenz had collapsed into Manuela's chair, slouched in a position that most nobles would frown upon. And Byleth was against the wall, looking straight at his bed. On her right, Claude was dozing and on her left, Mercedes had leaned her head on the professor's shoulder.

In his professor's hands, a large greatsword. She'd almost curled up with it like it were a pillow, holding it protectively.

It looked like a Relic. The same texture, color, even a hole where a crest stone ought to be. But unlike Thunderbrand, this one looked like a spine. Ignatz looked away from the macabre blade.

His tears dried with his leg forgotten. His friends had stayed with him. He was hurt and they hadn't left his side.

Ignatz smiled amidst pain.

A day later and Ignatz was up walking.

Granted, he had one arm around Raph's waist and he still could barely walk without stumbling. His left leg couldn't support much weight now. Manuela had explained it like trying to sew the sleeve of a shirt back on. It was inevitable that there would be stitch marks and it'd never be as strong as it was before.

She'd also forbade him from leaving his bed, but Raphael had helped Ignatz escape to get some air.

"Okay, let's stop here," Ignatz said, trying to hide how much pain he was in. They'd made it to the courtyard. More importantly, they'd made it to chairs. He slumped into one, sighing with exhaustion.

Raphael noticed. "I'll carry you back."

Ignatz didn't try to fight him on it. It just felt good to get some air. The bed in Manuela's office was thankfully comfortable, but nothing beat the breeze. Growing up, he'd loved to paint outside. Painting nature came easier to him when he was amongst it. Some artists could picture a landscape and put it on canvas, but Ignatz wasn't able to do that. He needed to see it, breathe it, experience it.

"You're quiet, Raph," Ignatz said, looking back to his friend.

Raphael looked like he was on the precipice of saying something. In fact, he'd looked like that ever since he'd come to visit him today.

Ignatz waited. Rushing Raphael to do anything (except eat) never worked out well. He did things at his own pace, be that fast or slow.

"I'm just mad at myself for letting you down," he finally said, not looking at Ignatz.

He blinked in surprise. "How did you let me down?"

Raphael still didn't look. "In the Mausoleum. I was in the front with the professor. I was supposed to help her protect you and Mercedes. I failed."

Memory trickled back. Byleth rushing to defend him. Her getting knocked aside. Mercedes appearing before he lost consciousness. No Raphael.

"Raph, you were holding off the other soldiers, weren't you?"

The blond nodded. "I mean, yeah, but I—"

"Raphael, look at me," Ignatz said with more certainty that he'd ever felt before. His best friend turned his head and locked eyes with him. "You did everything you could. If you hadn't held off the soldiers, we might have all been killed."

Raphael slowly nodded, but didn't look totally convinced. Still, it was a start, Ignatz supposed. "What happened to that knight?" he asked, turning the conversation away for Raphael's comfort.

His best friend frowned. "I'm not sure. You'll need to ask Mercedes or the professor. I turned to look and he'd vanished and Mercedes was bent over you, trying to heal you."

"Well, well, Ignatz, I didn't you had such a rebellious streak to you."

Both friends look to their right to see Claude sauntering up. He stole a seat across from them with a smile. "Manuela's in quite the mood, having found you gone. I told her I'd track you down for her."

"Ah," Ignatz sputtered, embarrassed. "Perhaps it was a hasty decision on my part."

"How's the leg?" Claude asked.

Ignatz looked down at it. Even idle, he barely felt it. His mother would read him stories when he was younger, stories about heroes and knights. In one, there had been a pirate with a wooden leg. That was how Ignatz felt walking around.

"Better than yesterday," he said instead.

Claude nodded. "Whatever happens, you're a Deer, Ig. You've always got a place amongst us."

"Why do you say that?"

His house leader's expression turned somber. "There's some talk from Seteth and Rhea that you won't be able to stay a student here. I wasn't supposed to hear, but I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Outside his office door with an ear to the keyhole." A glimmer of a smile, but it didn't reach its typical luster.

"Oh, I supposed that makes sense." Ignatz sighed.

"Teach was furious when I told her, you should have seen her. If you want to stay, she'd going to fight tooth and nail for you."

"Really?" Ignatz gasped.

Raphael clapped him on the back, lighter than usual. "You're one of the Deer, Ig! The herd doesn't let each other down!"

His face warmed at that. "Thanks, guys."

Claude smirked, this time with its usual radiance. "Not a problem. Now we should get you back, before Manuela has my head too. I'm quite attached to it, after all."

Ignatz rolled his eyes as Raphael scooped him up. His two friends bantered back and forth on their way back, both trying to make Ignatz laugh harder.

Ignatz would look on the moment as one of the first where he thought of the Deer as family.

"No class, just talk," Byleth said as she slouched in her chair. "I think we all have things to say."

All her Deer, sans Ignatz, sat in their usual spots. Mercedes had taken Lysithea's old spot next to Leonie, near the front.

"I'm proud of you all for being there for Ignatz as he's recovering," she said. "He's going to need our support, especially now."

Goddess, she needed a drink. Byleth hadn't had any alcohol since Ashe had threatened her. Coincidentally, she had barely had any sleep since then either.

Now her dreams were visited by a man in armor, trailing purple fire in his wake. She shivered just thinking about it.

"None of you failed him," Byleth said.

Several students shifted uncomfortably. Mercedes, Claude, others. She didn't see them all in time.

"None of you," she repeated. "In battle, there are things we can't expect. A warrior of that caliber was not something to be expected."

"Teach," Claude piped up. "You can't blame yourself either. There wasn't any way you could have seen that coming."

Byleth shook her head. "I'm the commanding officer when out in the field. Failure ultimately leads back to me."

Lorenz stood up and walked to the front of the room. Claude's reply died on his lips, holding back to allow the noble to speak.

"Professor, not everyone was there to witness what you did. Allow me to regale them with it," he said.

She said nothing, frowning.

"Our teacher jumped in front of the knight as soon as he appeared. She threw herself into danger to protect Ignatz. I have grown up hearing tales of soldiers, from the Gloucester army to stories about Lord Holst's victories. This was my first time ever hearing about a commanding officer doing something like that," Lorenz said, fixing her with a firm gaze, imploring her to understand his point. "You blame yourself for much, professor, and I cannot stop you from doing that. But I will not have such a noble risk be overlooked."

He walked back to his seat and sat down.

Leonie spoke. "Is that true?"

"Yes," Byleth said softly.

"Then I see no blame that should go to you," Leonie said. "Captain Jeralt would have done the same thing. If there's one thing you've taught us, professor, it's that people can and will fail. It's what they do about it that matters."

She taught them that? When?

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Um," Marianne murmured, raising her hand timidly. "Well, we lost the mock battle. But you didn't dwell on it, you just had us practice more."

"Right!" Leonie said, smiling. "And we've seen you pick yourself up again and again, professor. I think we all see when you do that."

"My dad once said," Hilda began, "'Hilda, true strength isn't by winning a battle, it's about getting back up after you fall.' He was talking about that in regards to me eating my vegetables, the weirdo, but it still applies here."

Marianne giggled and Hilda's smile grew.

"We owe it to Ig not to be down," Raphael said. "I've been blaming myself for this, but Leonie's right. Even if we do, we have to get back up and keep fighting."

Byleth had expected to teach them sword stances, battle tactics, and whatever other tips she had for battle. Instead she was watching children grow into adults.

They adore you. Don't you see? Can you not love yourself the way they do?

She didn't know. But she could try.

"Back where I was born, we had a lot of crows," Claude said. "When one of their flock dies, they gather around to mourn it. My father told me they saw it as a learning experience, so that the other members of the flock could understand what had killed it so as to avoid the danger. My father told me to learn from mistakes, mine or others. We may be a herd, but I think we can apply that here.

"Teach, let's get stronger. Let's make sure what happened to Ig never happens to one of us again."

Byleth felt her eyes leaking. Leaking? No, she was crying.

She turned to the chalk board, hiding the tears. "Then we haven't time to waste. No training yard time today, we're going to cover cavalry, their advantages and weaknesses. By the end of today, I want you all to know how to dismount a rider and be ready to practice it tomorrow."

He'd left Teach a hastily scribbled note on her door. Judith hadn't given him any warning.

"I was hoping to meet this professor of yours, boy," she mused as he saddled up his horse.

Claude laughed. "Well, maybe you shouldn't have sprung a visit on me so suddenly?"

The woman rolled her eyes. "Perhaps if you wrote home more often, I'd be more inclined to keep you in the loop."

"Thanks, mother. Last time I checked, I was busy learning to lead the Alliance at the academy." Claude hid a smirk. He enjoyed their verbal jousting.

Judith grinned. "Were I your mother, I think I'd have you spanked for all the disrespect you show me. You're speaking with a lady, boy."

"And you're speaking to the next sovereign duke," Claude shot back.

Judith shrugged as Claude got onto his horse. They began to trot towards the gates of the monastery. "Your grandfather isn't doing as well as he used to be."

"I suspect that is the reason you're here?"

Judith nodded. "He's not kicked the bucket yet, but he barely leaves his bed these days. His stewards are handling Riegan affairs with you gone. I worry what Gloucester will plan with him indisposed."

"If you can help him hold things down until I graduate, I can take over everything. That is, if the old man will let me," Claude said, voice sour.

"You know how likely he is to do that," Judith said, eyes shifting to make sure there were no eavesdroppers. They'd passed under the gate and were far from people, but Judith hadn't risen to fame without being careful. "He was quite angry about the Ordelia girl."

"Let him be," Claude growled. That man was one of the few who could draw out his ire. "I'll be sure to give him a piece of my mind when I see him."

"Be careful," warned Judith. "The Alliance will need you. If you push him, he will punish you."

"Where my grandfather burned bridges, I am building them," Claude said. "If he decides to make more of an enemy out of me, then I will make him regret it."

"Hello, Ignatz."

He broke out of his concentration and set down his pencil. Being confined to a bed didn't make the proper environment for painting, but sketching was easily done. Manuela had been quite angry with his little rebellion a few days ago, insisting he stay in bed.

So he was drawing her. Hopefully it would earn some forgiveness. Ignatz didn't like it when people were displeased with him.

"Oh, hello, Mercedes," he greeted with a smile. "What brings you here?"

She returned the smile and sat down in the chair next to his bed. "I just wanted to check up on you. There's always someone speaking to you, I figured I could steal a little of that time for myself. Unless you're busy?"

He laughed. "I welcome the company. It gets pretty boring in here, the visitors help remind me to smile."

Mercedes smiled and began to speak as the door opened. Both of their heads turned to see Dorothea and Petra walk in.

"Oh!" Petra exclaimed. "Would we be bothering you here?"

"The more the merrier!" Ignatz said with a smile. "What brings you here?"

Dorothea chuckled. "Dear Petra just couldn't stand the thought of you thinking poorly of her."

"Dorothea! Do not be teasing me!" pouted the princess. Turning back to Ignatz, she moved and knelt by his bedside. "In my country, when a warrior becomes hurt, we…" She paused and shook her head. "I do not know Fódlan word for it. But we are gifting this to injured warriors." And from her pocket, she drew out a carved figure.

It was a deer, shoddily carved, but not hastily. Petra must have done it herself. "In Brigid," she continued, "offerings to the Wood Spirit are made for getting better in health. When a soldier comes home from a hunt hurt, the village is giving them carved offerings so the Wood Spirit may heal them."

Ignatz took it in his hands. It was hard to see, but she'd even made eyes and a mouth. "Thank you, Petra!"

She laughed. "It is not good. Before coming to Fódlan, I have not been seeing deer. We do not have them in Brigid."

"Do I do anything with it to help the Wood Spirit heal me?" he asked, interested. He knew absolutely nothing about Brigid aside from where it was on a map.

"Be keeping it close by while you are healing. That is all." She rose to her feet. Petra said something in her native language quickly. At his confused look, she answered, "A blessing."

"Are you feeling any better, Ignatz?" Dorothea asked, sitting on the edge of his bed.

"A little," he said with a shrug. "Manuela says it may take a while. She can't tell since she wasn't the one to personally heal me."

Mercedes shrunk into herself. Dorothea's eyes darted over to her briefly, but said nothing.

"I once broke my leg when I was rehearsing for a role," Dorothea said. "It's not the same problem at all, but I am familiar with some exercises to help your muscles recover. If you'd like to try, just say the word."

"Thank you!" Ignatz smiled. "You're both so kind to me, it's a shame we haven't had much interaction before."

Dorothea and Petra exchanged a look that was not lost to him. "It is a shame," the songstress said. "Perhaps we can rectify it. But we must be going, I'm afraid. Hanneman's lessons call, after all."

They said their farewells and left Mercedes and Ignatz in the room alone.

"I apologize," Mercedes said. "For your leg."

He cocked his head to the side. "How do you mean?"

"Were I more experienced in healing, I could have attached it better. You might not have had any consequences." Mercedes bit her lip as it quivered. "It is my fault you are crippled."

"Oh," Ignatz said. "But you saved my life."


Ignatz leaned forward in his bed so he sat closer to Mercedes. "If you hadn't healed me, I'd have bled to death. I might not remember much, but I do remember how much blood there was." The hairs on his arms stood up just thinking about it. "You saved my life, Mercedes."

"I suppose," Mercedes whispered. "I can't help but regret not being able to do more."

"Maybe you could help me with my recovery?" he suggested quickly. He had no idea what to say, that was Claude's area. "Not that I blame you at all! But maybe you'd feel better if you could help me?"

"You're a sweet boy, Ignatz." She smiled warmly and he knew he'd said something right. "I'll come to terms with this on my own time. I'm pretty sure Byleth will say something similar to you."

It always felt odd to hear the professor's first name. Mercedes seemed to be the only one in class to call her that. Maybe it was just their close ages?

"Is there anything I can do to help? Right now, I mean," Mercedes asked.

"If you hand me my crutch, you can keep me company while I have lunch," he suggested, gesturing to where it rested against the wall. Byleth had brought him it a few days ago from town. And judging from how nicely it was made, it had cost a quite a bit.

"Why, that sounds lovely!" Mercedes clapped her hands together.

"He's expecting me," Claude said as he stepped up the guards outside his grandfather's room.

One of them nodded, and with a golden armored hand, opened the door for him.

Claude strolled in, still wearing his academy uniform. Let his grandfather mock him for that as opposed to any Leicester fashion.

The room was spacious, as any Duke's personal chambers would be. Off to the side was a sitting area that led to a balcony where his grandfather would receive visitors. Though the room had become a makeshift bedroom with his deteriorating condition, as seen with the bed near the chairs. It was opulent, like everything in Riegan Manor. The finest silks money could buy alongside a gaudy bedframe. It disgusted Claude.

Claude did not take a seat. He stood at the foot of the bed, hands behind his back, waiting for his grandfather to address him. His eyes lingered to the left side of the room, where the Relic Failnaught hung on display, unused.

"Boy." It wasn't the playful jab Judith's address was, it was pointed. A dagger, driving home a point. "About time you made it back."

"I came as soon as I received word," Claude said evenly.

His grandfather was a handsome man and fortunate that his condition hadn't marred his looks. Even in bed, his hair was well tied back in a ponytail. Few wrinkles and grey stubble were the few indicators that his grandfather had been aging.

Hazel eyes bored into him, stony and calculating. His mother had once told him that he got his intellect from his grandfather. In his youth, Silas von Riegan had been one to make the Riegan name feared or respected, depending who you asked.

"The Gloucesters have begun to push their tariffs again. They're insisting we double the tax paid on lumber." Not a word wasted on Claude. His grandfather didn't particularly care about his life.

"House Goneril benefits from that, not Gloucester," Claude said. "What is Goneril pushing instead?"

Silas snorted. "Hmph, so you do pay attention. At least you inherited some of my brains instead of your father's."

Don't rise to it, he reminded himself. The man will be dead soon anyway. "Is this another attempt by Lord Gloucester to keep his armies at home instead of at the Locket?"

"Indeed. The idiot keeps his army maintained to not use it." Silas coughed, grabbing a handkerchief. Claude saw, as he moved it away, that it was flecked with blood. "I might not have cared were it not for you letting the Ordelia girl slip through your fingers."

Claude said nothing.

Silas attacked. "Did it cross your mongrel brain that we need her? Riegan is not wealthy with allies. The Ordelias were steadfast allies of us once, but now you've let them get away from us. Only months after transferring and they have begun to already show stronger ties to Adrestia."

Hate him as much as he did, Claude couldn't help but share the anger. The Ordelias were no longer a family to depend on for them. "Any luck with Edmund?"

"Losing the Daphnels at the Roundtable will haunt our legacy," Silas said. "Edmund has no goodwill for us, nor does he despise us yet. Gloucester has yet to sink his claws in him."

Claude again said nothing.

"Do you understand what I'm saying?" growled Silas. "We have no allies. Lord Goneril has stepped down, finally relinquishing charge of House Goneril to Holst. The Ordelias are traitors, Edmund too careful to do what we say, and Gloucester is Gloucester."

"I understand perfectly," Claude shot back. "Perhaps it is a lack of faith in Riegan. Once I graduate, I promise you I will get them back in line."

Silas' eyes flared. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? Power to let your friends across the border and take Leicester. My servants tell me you're in correspondence with Nader. You take me for a fool?"

Fuck, he thought he'd been careful with the notes.

"You will not have charge of Riegan until I make certain arrangements," Silas said. "While the great families do not favor Riegan as they once did, there is a host of minor families that will be present to keep you in line. Toe out of that line and I'll know." The old man smiled. It wasn't kind. "You might be my heir, but you are not my progeny. Your father's line taints what I might have passed on to you. That you have a Crest at all is reason to pray to your pagan gods in thanks. Or whatever you do over there."

For the briefest moment, Claude's eyes shifted to Failnaught. If he killed the man…

"Hmph." His grandfather had seen. "Kill me and you start a war or at least lose your right to inherit. You think me without contingencies?"

When Claude looked back to Silas, he fantasized about wringing his neck. Hands wrapped around, pressing him into the ground as he slowly felt his body lose the strength to struggle.

No, he chided himself. He needed to be patient and wait for the man to die. Horrid he may be, it was the ticket Claude needed for power. Power to change things.

"Very well," Claude said. "Then do say your orders for me, grandfather. I'll make your will happen at the Roundtable."

He was strong enough to bid them off.

Rhea had commanded the Deer to retrieve the Lance of Ruin, a Relic that Sylvain's older brother had stolen. And Ignatz wasn't strong enough to come with.

Though what would he do if he were to go with? Act as moral support? He could barely walk, let alone fight.

"Come back safe," he said, giving Raphael a hug.

The big man smiled. "Oh, don't you worry about me. Or the rest, I'll keep an eye on them. Especially Mercedes, because she's so reckless."

The woman in question rolled her eyes at the joke and went back to speaking with Annette who had come to see her off. Claude, Byleth, and Lorenz were all looking at a map, planning their route. Leonie and Hilda assisted Marianne in getting the horses ready. They worked quickly, quietly saying their goodbyes to him when they had a chance, unsure how to approach the subject.

His friends all gathered up their things, leaving to Conand Tower.

And Ignatz was left along at the gates. His whole house, off without him.

He turned around and began to walk aimlessly. Ignatz debated painting briefly, but the cold pit in his stomach preoccupied him far too much to seek his passion.

Walking was getting easier. Manuela had said his leg would steadily improve with time, but the limp would stay. The more he worked at it, the more its severity would lessen. But some things magic couldn't fix.

"You done moping yet?"

Ignatz blinked. His mindless wander had brought him to the training grounds. To Shamir.

The woman wasn't even looking at him, still firing shots at a target. She wasn't training, her stance was far too relaxed for that. Instead, she passed the time, landing bullseye after bullseye.

"Pardon?" he finally said.

Shamir looked to him. "It's been a month. I've been waiting for you to come to me. But I guess you're still stuck in your head."

Ignatz just looked at her confused.

The mercenary sighed. "Fine, I'll spell it out for you. There's talk of making you return home since you can no longer fight. But you'll be able to stay if you can fight. So, obviously, I teach you."

"How?" he said. "You would do that?"

Shamir chuckled. "You've got potential and I'm helping your teacher out. Better to teach a student who can get better than one who won't." She walked over to him, offering over the bow. He slowly took it.

She continued. "As for how, there's two options. First, I make you into a sharpshooter. I may have distaste for archers who stand still, but that doesn't mean I can't make you one. Then…"

"Then?" he prompted.

"We teach you to fight mounted." Shamir folded her arms. "Not the easiest thing to do. Mounted archers are the hardest people to train in all of combat. But I think you've got a chance to be one."

Could it really be that simple? He'd thought the ability to be a knight was beyond him with this.

You don't need two good legs to paint, a small voice said to him.

He shook his head, dispelling the rebellious notion. No, he'd learn. He wouldn't be left behind again.

"I accept," he said, holding the bow tighter.

Shamir spared a rare smile. "Good. I still have missions, so we'll be training in the mornings before your class. You're my student now. Come hell or high water, you will listen to me, understand? No matter how bizarre the lesson."

Anything. "Yes, ma'am!" he said.

She snorted. "This'll be quite the adventure. Cut the ma'am, I'm not old enough for that."

They set aside the bow and got to work on assessing Ignatz's mobility. It hurt, it was agonizing. His leg screamed, giving out and planting his face right in the dirt more than once.

But he persisted.

Chapter Text

They arrived to the training grounds later than usual. Ignatz was getting better, but he wasn't capable of running yet. Originally, Leonie had thought he'd be coming along to watch them train. But when she'd mentioned it, he'd said otherwise.

Shamir took one look at them. "Ignatz, go start your warm ups." He nodded and immediately split off.

Leonie took a look at Claude. It was their first lesson with Shamir since Conand Tower. It had taken them longer to get back than expected on account of Miklan's transformation.

Bringing down such a huge monster was not what they had prepared for. It had taken the better part of a day and resulted in plenty of injuries. They'd had to flee down the tower, fighting as they ran. Gilbert had almost died as he'd braced against a blow. After they'd slain the beast, they spent time in the tower resting, recovering.

And it seemed in that time, Shamir and Ignatz had struck up some sort of rapport.

"I wanted to talk to you two before we started," Shamir stated. "The kid is going to be doing some different things from you from now on."

"Is he okay to?" Claude asked, concerned.

Shamir nodded. Leonie looked over at Ignatz stretching his leg. He was already sweating from exertion.

"That kid has drive. He's committed to staying in your league, even at a disadvantage." Shamir folded her arms. "Help him only if he asks you for help."

"What if he needs help and doesn't ask?" Leonie said.

Shamir shook her head. "No. He needs to understand his new limits. It doesn't sound kind, but it'll save his life. But there's something I need from you two." Her gaze burned, like she was giving orders to insubordinate soldiers. "I understand that you're just students, but you need to push yourself as hard as he is. Ignatz was devastated that he couldn't come with your class this mission. Do not give him reason to feel discouraged."

Claude, ever the one to feel responsible for his house, said, "And how do you know what's best for him?"

She glared. "Riegan or not, watch your tone. I'll make you do laps." Shamir sighed, calming down some. "My old partner was an archer too. He lost an eye and we had to retrain him. Is it the same as having your leg crippled? No, but the discouragement is. Seeing you slack off will make him feel bad about how much more he has to practice."

Leonie thought she understood. Her village had never had any sort of education procedure, but one thing that everyone was taught in Sauin was to hunt. And truth be told, Leonie had been abysmal at first.

Other kids had been naturally gifted. They spent an hour where she'd spend four. When she'd finally find a quarry and bring it down, they were swimming and having fun in the river. It was infuriating.

Leonie had almost given up. If the village had good hunters like her, what was the point?

But then Jeralt had showed up.

He'd been gruff, but gentle as he taught her pointers. He'd been patient, giving her time to work and come back to him when she was ready. When she didn't understand something, he figured out how to show her in a different way.

In a week, he taught her more than she'd learned in years. And then she began to excel, showing those same kids just who was the best in the village. It had brought her to the officer's academy.

Before he had left, Jeralt had told her, "Nothing easy is worth accomplishing. Pride isn't something to have in excess, but have pride when you can do something no one else can. When you can fill that niche, then you'll have a place in the world. And that's worth accomplishing."

Leonie had to ask what niche meant after he'd left. But that bit of advice had helped her focus. Helped her decide she'd become the best and show Jeralt just how right he'd been. He'd be proud.

"Yes, Shamir," Leonie said like she was reporting to a superior. Claude raised an eyebrow, but nodded along.

Shamir gave a breathy laugh. "Don't sound so appreciative. I heard about this monster you had to fight. I'm not going easy on you anymore. You need to get better, fast. By time our training sessions are done, you'll be lucky if you can walk."

"You were going easy before?" Claude blurted.

"Yep. Both of you, run laps around the training yard. I'll be sparing with Catherine hand to hand. Archers are attentive. When each of our spars end, you better be able to tell me just what each of us did wrong. If you can't, you keep running. We keep it up until you can do that three times in a row or you throw up. Whichever comes last."

Claude and Leonie exchanged looks.

Shamir grinned with a hint of sadism. "By the end of the year, I'll have you outshooting soldiers a decade older than you. Get running."

Two hours later, both of them were cleaning their vomit off the ground.

"It's been what, two months? Three? I don't think I've ever seen you take a break."

Lysithea looked up from her book. Edelgard took a seat across from her table in the library. She had her own tome while Lysithea had a castle of eight stacked around her.

"I take breaks," she said defensively. "That's what sleep is for, as well."

Edelgard raised her hands in surrender. "I meant no offense. It's my role as house leader to make sure my fellow students are doing well. With you, I'm hardly concerned about grades, but I do worry you push yourself too hard."

Only because I must, she didn't say. "My future is something I take seriously. To slack off at the academy would be such a waste of resources."

Edelgard smiled. "Then perhaps I could assist you in your research? My own questions have gone unanswered in this library, so taking some time away could help."

Lysithea froze. Oh sure, Edelgard, if you could help me figure out how to remove a second Crest? Asking for a friend.

"Well," she said, pausing to give herself time. "It's rather of personal nature to me, I'll admit. Though I appreciate you offering!" Please don't be mad.

She wasn't. "I can respect that, we all have our secrets. Still, I insist you spend some time with me. A break for both of us, house leader's orders."

"As you wish." So long as it let her avoid the topic of her Crests.

"Excellent. Tea and, if I am not mistaken, some of those little cakes you love so much. I do believe the dining hall has some fresh ones for us." Edelgard's lips curled.

"For us?" Lysithea's eyes widened.

The future Emperor laughed. "House leader has its perks. And I can be persuasive. And, well, Hubert was the one who noticed how much you enjoyed them one night."

Lysithea's face flushed red. "Well, how observant of him."

"Then let's go. Come, I'll help you bring your books to your room." Edelgard reached across, taking care not to dwell on the titles. Her hand brushed against Lysithea's as she pulled the book out of her hands.

She was so flustered she didn't even protest as Edelgard scooped them all up, not leaving any for her to carry.

Dorothea hated jealousy.

She had not doubt that's what the prickly emotion was in her stomach as she watched her white haired classmates leave the library. And she'd been having a nice day before that.

It was supposed to be her who made people jealous, not the one who became so. In the opera, she'd turned heads of men, women, everyone. Fights had broken out over her. Not that she encouraged them, but a girl couldn't be blamed for enjoying being desired.

Dorothea hated to admit it, but she'd been so sure she could woo Edelgard. But of course she couldn't. She was an orphan girl dressed in pretty silks. Dress up trash however you like, but it was the same underneath. Beauty and vocal talent she had in excess, but both were fleeting with time. Emperor Edelgard wouldn't fall for a pretty face alone.

She closed her book. Moping wasn't a good look on her. She needed air.

After a short walk down the stairs, she saw the duo she was avoiding heading towards the dining hall. Not wishing to deal with that, she turned and headed the opposite way, hiding her face with her hat.

But that, naturally, brought Dorothea to the last place she enjoyed going to in the monastery. The cathedral was beautiful and she did enjoy singing there in the choir. But it was just so…holy.

The Goddess hadn't given a shit when she'd been on the streets. She hadn't cared when Dorothea watched other children die in the cold of winter. She hadn't cared when Dorothea got caught stealing. She hadn't cared once.

Dorothea took a seat in a pew in the back. She'd hide out here for now, just until she knew the coast was clear.

"Oh hello, Dorothea!"

Goddess spare her. Mercedes.

The cheerful woman sat down next to her. Dorothea tried not to groan.

It wasn't fair of her, but some part of her just expected Mercedes to preach to her. It was why she avoided her and Marianne. Ferdinand infuriated her with his talk of religion too.

But her mask didn't fall. "Hello, Mercie. I was just in the area and wanted to take a seat for a quick rest."

Mercedes smiled. Why was it that every girl that went to the academy was attractive? Dorothea felt like Sylvain. "Well," her new companion said, "I was just on my way to pray. Usually that's why I'm in here, but you're right, it's a nice place to just sit."

"It's quiet," Dorothea said. "And you can get lost in the architecture."

"You're right! I don't have an eye for that kind of stuff. The church I spent most of my time at was far more humble." Mercedes lowered her voice. "To be honest, I was intimidated my first week to come in here. What right did I, a poor woman, have in here?"

"Doesn't your Goddess see everyone equally or something?" Dorothea asked, managing to keep her scorn from her voice.

Mercedes nodded. "Oh, I think so. I'm sure some would disagree. Don't you think that if the Goddess could create the whole world, she would value everything she creates?"

Probably only the ones who groveled at her feet, Dorothea thought. "I'm not much one for religion. I suppose that you're probably right."

The fair haired woman looked forward. "I won't try to convert you, don't worry, Dorothea."

"Am I that obvious?" Dorothea asked. "Perhaps I'm not as good of an actor as I thought."

Mercedes giggled. "Oh, no, you're quite talented. You're just not the first person to think that around me. I suppose I'm holier than most. So people assume." She didn't seem overly bothered about it.

It made Dorothea relax. Perhaps she'd judged her wrong. "Thanks for understanding. In the Empire, there's plenty of those types."

"Ah." She nodded. "A shame. Faith needs to be something you come into on your own. To believe, it requires a certain certainty, I think."

Dorothea shrugged. "I'll admit that it's admirable that people like you can believe in something you can't see or confirm. I couldn't do that."

Mercedes offered a small smile. "Well, seeing is the death of believing, isn't it? I know that the leaves change color in autumn because it's fact. No one praises me for believing that, do they?"

Dorothea opened her mouth to respond, then stopped. Huh. She'd never thought about it that way.

The Deer didn't seem to be paying attention. "That's not to say it isn't hard. Bad things happen to everyone. You can devote yourself to the Goddess and some things she continues to test you with. Like my brother…" The last words were muttered, as if she'd forgotten where she was. Blinking, she gasped. "Oh, forgive me! I'm preaching, just what I said I wouldn't do."

"No, no," Dorothea reassured her, unoffended and still off-kilter. "Don't worry about it. It's a passion of yours, like singing is for me. Maybe that's why you're so talented at White magic."

"Oh, flattery." Mercedes batted her eyelashes playfully. "Word around the monastery is that you're quite the charmer, Dorothea. Some say there's not a person you won't flirt with. Depending on who you ask, some say you've even tried to woo Seteth!" She giggled at her own joke.

Dorothea laughed, feeling hollow inside. Is that really what she was seen as? A flirt? No better than Sylvain?

Was that what Edelgard saw her as?

"Oh dear, I've said something wrong," Mercedes said, noticing immediately.

This woman noticed everything, Goddess. "Not you, dear. I just didn't know that's what people thought about me," she said.

"Everyone likes a compliment," Mercedes said, trying to reassure her. "A little praise feels good."

"Mercedes," Dorothea began, "does your Goddess frown on jealousy?"

"Oh!" She leaned back, thinking. "I don't think the Goddess frowns on it, per se. She created us able to feel it. At least I think so. If it makes someone else unhappy, then maybe she'd disapprove…" Mercedes drifted off.

Dorothea laughed, feeling a slight bit better. "Do you think the Goddess got a laugh out of making us so flawed?"

Mercedes just smiled. "I think it's the flaws that help make people beautiful. If everyone were perfect in every way, then there certainly wouldn't be that special someone to find."

Again, Dorothea was at a loss for words. Mercedes didn't seem to mind. She looked lost in thought. Dorothea almost swore she was thinking about someone, not something.

The bell tolled the hour, breaking them out of their respective hazes. Mercedes stood up and smiled. "Forgive me, I seem to have lost track of time. I told the professor I'd meet her for tea now. Silly me, keeping track of things was never a talent of mine."

"Don't let me keep you," Dorothea said. She was surprised that she felt disappointed that Mercedes was leaving.

"We should chat again sometime." When Dorothea nodded, Mercedes sped off.

And fifteen minutes ago, Dorothea hadn't thought much of Mercedes.

"You're better with people than I am," Dorothea muttered to herself. "Jaded Dorothea. Dorothea the slut. Maybe that's what they call me…"

She stayed in the pew for the rest of the afternoon, thinking.

Byleth woke from her nightmare without much affair. They were regular occurrences now, ever since she'd stopped drinking. So were the headaches. But thankfully she had a nice pillow.

That pillow in question was Mercedes, curled up next to her in bed.

Neither had exactly planned on their sleeping arrangement. But ever since the Mausoleum, Byleth had been having trouble sleeping. Mercedes had snuck into her room and stayed. Now, whenever they could, they slept together.

It wasn't anything racy. They just took comfort in each other's presence. When Mercedes was near, Byleth could actually fall asleep. The nightmares persisted, but they weren't as bad with her near.

Mercedes' breathing was slow when she slept. When Byleth woke up like this, she just watched Mercedes' chest rise and lower.

Her room had never really felt like a home before, but when Mercedes was there, it felt warmer. Like there was reason to find her way back each day instead of passing out drunk somewhere.

A hand ran its way through her hair. Mercedes kissed Byleth's forehead and whispered, "You okay?"

She nodded and nuzzled into Mercedes more. The hand in her hair kept going while Mercedes began to hum softly.

Byleth slowly was lulled back into sleep.

Lorenz stared at the piece of paper in front of him. Night had fallen and the monastery was quiet. There was nothing to disturb him.

Yet he could not find the will to write to his father.

Count Leander Beauregard Gloucester had spared his son a single letter in the entirety of his stay at Garreg Mach. A request, to deal with Acheron. Lorenz had written back that his mission at Conand Tower conflicted with it. He'd received no response.

So it seemed proper to write back again. He did not like to be in the habit of disappointing his father. Surely he could chronicle his exploits of worming his way into Claude's good graces. About how his studies in magic were going. About how one day he'd wield Thyrsus and make his father proud.

But the letter stayed blank.

Lorenz scoffed and stood up. He'd go for a walk and attend to it later.

Students were discouraged from wandering the grounds late at night, but it wasn't prohibited. Going up on the ramparts were, but that was for the sake of the Knights patrolling them. There was a story or two about a student who snuck up there and was harmed, thought to be an intruder.

But Lorenz didn't seek to violate any protocol, at risk of punishment or running into whatever students planned trysts up there. He'd overheard some planning it, as if it were a good idea.


Instead, he sat on the staircase closest to the greenhouse. The moon hung in the sky, dousing the grounds with light. It was a beautiful sight, if a bit chilly.

It was the middle of the Horsebow Moon. Fall had arrived and with it the reminder that he had been here for near six months.

The academy hadn't been what he expected. His teacher hadn't been what he expected. The missions hadn't been what he expected. The Church, Edelgard, Dimitri, his house, none of it he could have anticipated.

Six months ago, he'd been planning to take control of the Alliance. Now, he saw Claude for someone different. A rascal, of course, but one with good intentions. Should he keep his wit in check more? Yes, but that could hardly be a reason to hate the man.

It surprised Lorenz that he considered Claude a friend.

He'd hated the man when he heard about him. The heir from nowhere. One who would take away the windfall that was to give Lorenz the most powerful seat in the Alliance.

That Lorenz had thought about power. Now, duty rang true in his mind. Power didn't give him the capacity to make the world a better place. His lands, well, his father's lands, were teeming with strife. Not even a minor lord like Acheron would stay in line.

Did Lorenz really deserve to lead the Alliance?

No, he'd decided.

It hurt, a knife through his chest. He'd been raised to know he was noble and know that he was capable. Coming to the academy made him realize just how much trouble there was among the commonfolk in the Gloucester lands.

Speaking with Ignatz, Raphael, Leonie, he'd payed attention. They'd been so apprehensive of him at first, he'd been bewildered by it. But now he knew they'd seen him for his father. Leander didn't see commoners with the same eyes that Lorenz did. Love didn't describe what he felt for his father. Respect, more likely. He wondered what the others felt about their parents.

Leonie, orphan. Raphael, no parents. Claude, secrets. Marianne, not forthcoming. Hilda, apathetic. Mercedes, loving. Ignatz, fond.

With a few exceptions, their families were scattered. Lorenz hadn't a mother. She'd passed away when he was young. He'd been more attached to his nursemaid.

He sighed towards the moon. Coming outside wasn't doing anything to clear his head, alas. Still, the crisp air felt good.

Whatever had happened to that nursemaid, he wondered. Strange to think someone like that had just vanished from his life as his father pushed him into lessons to prepare him.

In a single moment, he felt alone sitting on those steps.


He turned to see Ignatz out of breath. The merchant's son leaned on his crutch, holding a bow in his other hand.

"Oh, hello, Ignatz. Care to join me?" he invited.

His friend walked up slowly. Lorenz moved to help but Ignatz waved him off as he slowly lowered himself to the ground with a grunt.

"What in the Goddess' name has you up so late?" Lorenz asked, bewildered. Some students he expected to run into late at night. Ignatz was not one of them.

"Training," answered Ignatz. He seemed sheepish, reticent, as if he worried about judgement. "Shamir is training me, but I want to get better. I want to come with on missions. She made Seteth back off from sending me home, I can't let her down."

Lorenz' eyes widened. "Training at night? Have you been sleeping?"

Ignatx hesitated. "I have to get better."

"You'll run yourself into the ground at this rate." Lorenz shook his head. Foolish boy! Did he not realize that sleep was as necessary to improvement as training was? "Cease this, or I shall let Claude know. I hazard a guess he won't be as gentle as I."

His friend chuckled. "He's a regular mother wyvern. Lorenz…" Ignatz trailed off for a moment. "I'll take it easy, but I need to get better. You all, you're…" He chewed on the word for a couple seconds. "You're important to me. I can't let you down."

Lorenz scoffed. "As if you'd let us down. Not everything is about saving each other's lives on the battlefield. You need not save my life for every time I save yours."

"I just want to repay everyone somehow."

You have, Lorenz didn't say. You're my friend. You've shown me what family should act like. You didn't turn me away.

Instead, "Friendship is not about repayment. It just is. We help each other as needed. Let's help each other by saying it's time for us to turn in. Sleep late, I shall appeal to the professor in the morning for you."

Ignatz nodded, already yawning. For once, he accepted Lorenz' help standing up. They walked slowly to their rooms, Ignatz' first.

"What were you doing out so late, Lorenz? I never asked," his sleepy companion asked.

Lorenz brushed a strand of hair out of his eyes. "Oh, just getting some air. A beautiful night ought to be enjoyed."

He made sure Ignatz made it into his room before departing for his own. The letter went unwritten.

And that didn't bother him.

Claude never knew a library not to have answers.

He was there late, again. Though he was there late most days now.

The Relics, so many questions. The conversation with Silas had been a reminder that he wouldn't be walking back into a place of power after graduation. His grandfather was, unfortunately, made of sterner stuff than he expected. Even from his bed, he ruled. Not well, but enough to not warrant Claude to appeal to the Roundtable.

He ought to poison him.

The plan had occurred to him before. Slip poison in the old man's meals, have him die from symptoms similar to his condition. No one would think otherwise. No one would know.

But could he kill his own family? Bastard he was, he was Claude's flesh and blood.

Tiana von Riegan hadn't had many pleasant memories of her father, but she hadn't ever complained about him. According to her, he was like many things in life. Average.

She wasn't Almyran. And she hadn't stuck around to see how furious Silas had been with her marriage. Or maybe it was Tiana's marriage that drove him that far.

Sympathy for a devil, Claude sighed to himself. He'd been graced with the talent of seeing the logic behind anyone's argument.

Even once he got power and became the Sovereign Duke, busting open Fódlan's locket wasn't something he could snap his fingers and make happen. He needed something that would make anyone listen to him.

The Sword of the Creator was an idea, but Teach was her own woman. He could use her, but what if she hated Almyrans? Claude didn't think she did, but snakes hid from their prey. You could never be sure.

The first man he'd ever killed hadn't been a man. Malik was a cousin of his, trying to kill Claude. The boy just two years his senior was several spots down the line of succession and he'd thought to remove Claude while he could.

Claude had pushed Malik out a window in their scuffle. He'd gone down into the courtyard to clean up the body as best he could. It'd taken hours to put the body beneath another window sill and wash blood off the stone.

Fódlan's Goddess, the Almyran gods, whomever, had sent a rainstorm that destroyed the evidence that night. And his crime was a secret.

Oh, there had been an investigation, called for by his own father. But why suspect Claude? An innocent boy couldn't do something so horrid.

It was then that he learned a smile was the best lie of all. Smiles on his relatives, on the guards, on other princes, all of them. Everyone plotted and Claude played catchup.

The reason he wasn't dead was Nader. The man took a liking to him, somehow. Liked his jokes, he told him once. When the greatest general in the history of Almyra liked someone, it scared away all but the bold.

And that left Claude, alone, pitted against the smartest of his relatives who coveted his direct line to the throne.

Silas' offer for Claude to come to Leicester had been an opportunity to not only come into power unopposed, but to survive into his adulthood. His parents had invented a story about going to Morfis to buy him time. Not even they knew his true goal of bringing nations together. They simply thought him curious about Fódlan.

He let them think that. It'd keep them worrying less.

Failnaught would be his. One day, he'd have friends in nearly every major noble house in Leicester. His dream, he realized, could be accomplished in mere decades.

But how many poor boys would be spit on as he was? How many lacked his resilience?

Claude was no moron. Being noble meant that he hadn't faced the discrimination others in his shoes met. But his slights were of different make. Lack of dance partners at balls, gazes that never left him, the insults, all of it. He could tolerate them, but he had no friends in Almyra.

That had hurt.

A ten year old boy who only had a wyvern for a friend. All because all the other parents pointed him out and told their kids that he was a half-breed. A mongrel. Pretender. Not to be trusted. The list went on.

Claude set his book down. He wouldn't get any more work done tonight.

He headed back to his room, avoiding anyone he saw on the way back. Even he liked alone time.

Just as he opened up his door, Hilda poked her head out of her room, next to his. She was smiling mischievously for a moment before the look vanished. "You're upset," she whispered.

Claude sighed. "I don't have the energy to talk tonight, Hils. We can chat tomorrow."

Hilda looked up and down the hallway and saw no one, then stepped out in only her nightgown. She grabbed Claude's arm and pulled him into her room.

"Being sad means I get to cheer you up," she said, simply. "You're lucky I like doing it, Claudey." He couldn't help but smile as she began to ramble about her day with Marianne to distract him.

Having friends was still taking some getting used to.

Chapter Text

Xavier von Adel always had a fondness for the end of the Horsebow Moon. Back in his youth in Adrestia, he and his friends would take to the fields of Gronder to hunt.

Every year he'd present the largest stag he'd hunted as a tribute to Lord Bartels. His lord would commend him on his hunt and Xavier would rise feeling a little taller.

House Bartels was no more, of course. House Adel, his house, hadn't survived well either. Oh, they persisted with him, but Xavier was the remaining scion.

He shifted in his armor. The problem with passing into his fiftieth year meant his mind was wont to wander. Back when he was in his youth, he could focus on something for an eternity. Guard duty never got away from him. Goddess, what a knight he'd been back then. Before they'd been led by the Blade Breaker, the Knights of Seiros hardly could call itself an order. Jeralt had turned a holy militia into an army the continent respected.

Wandering, again.

Xavier huffed, but saw a welcome distraction. Flayn was walking towards him, waving.

"Oh hello, Xavier! Have you been waiting for me?" she asked with a smile.

He chuckled. "You gave me the slip, little one. Your brother wouldn't like that."

At the mention of Seteth, Flayn rolled her eyes. "Brother ought to worry about more important things. Plus, I am here now and that is what matters."

Xavier never had any children of his own. At one point, he'd had some prospect at finding someone to spend the twilight years with. But that was before the collapse of Bartels.

"It's getting late out, Flayn. I do wish you'd at least allow me to accompany you on your mischief." He couldn't be annoyed with her. She was just so innocent.

Flayn bowed slightly. "Forgive me, Xavier. I shall make it up to you!" She held up a small wrapped basket. "The fish I caught was prepared at the dining hall! We can share."

Xavier laughed. "You and your fish. Sure, I'll accept a bribe from you."

They entered her room, which he'd been standing guard outside of. When Flayn gave him the slip, he knew she'd always turn back up there. To be honest, he had no idea why Seteth was so protective of the girl. She was his sister and all, but the man seemed hell-bent on keeping an eye on her.

Flayn quick set a small table in her room. Despite having a brother high up in Church, her room was modest. A simple bed, dresser, little else. The nicest thing about the room was the view across the grounds.

Xavier sat down in the chair she'd pulled out for him. It wasn't their first time doing this, nor would it be their last. If there was anything Flayn was known for, it was her love of fish. And he had to admit that she had an excellent palate for them.

"I've gotta thank you for introducing me to all these dishes," he said as Flayn divided the meal. Half for him, half for her. "Adrestia doesn't have a lot of unique seafood meals. At least where I grew up."

"Worry not, Xavier. We have corrected that atrocity. Now you are properly educated on what the best ingredient in any food is." Just as Flayn was about to plop down in her seat, there was a knock on the door.

Xavier hoped it wasn't her brother. He'd gotten a lecture about proper decorum the last time he'd stumbled on them.

Flayn opened the door. Professor Jeritza stood in the doorframe.

"Professor Jeritza?" Flayn asked. "What brings you here?"

"Get the other," he said in his low tone.

Xavier began to stand up with a question on his lips just as Jeritza grabbed Flayn, wrapping a hand over her mouth. Her muted gasp was all Xavier heard before a shorter man revealed himself behind the professor.

The man was clad in rich, black silks, a kind Xavier hadn't seen in his entire life. They looked otherworldly like his face, so pale it could blend with snow.

And that was when the Dark magic struck him.

The mage spun a web in his fingers, tendrils of dusk shaping to his will. It lashed out at Xavier, lancing through his stomach, and knocking him to the ground. He groaned in pain.

"No witnesses, Myson," Jeritza growled.

The man scowled. "Don't pretend like you're in charge here." He raised a hand over Xavier and spoke in a language he didn't recognize.

He, a Knight, bested by some magician with the element of surprise? Jeralt would be disappointed in a veteran like him. Perhaps that meant he'd never been fit for the Knights after all.

Xavier felt his body turn to ash.

"Let's take a rest," Shamir said, gesturing to a lone tree in the field.

Ignatz was all too glad. Though he suspected that Shamir had been paying close attention to how tired he was.

They each sat down against the trunk. Shamir passed him a canteen wordlessly and Ignatz guzzled down the water.

She'd taken him out before the sun rose to practice on some real targets. Most of the animals he'd missed, but to his surprise, and Shamir's pride, he'd brought down a young stag. A deer much like himself, new to the ways of the world.

Shamir had been carrying it back with the intent to bring it to the kitchens for meal preparation. "In Dagda, you don't waste," she'd said.

When he'd asked her what would have happened if he hit more than they could carry, she'd just said that she knew he wouldn't.

It'd taken time to realize that remarks like that from Shamir weren't meant to be mean, just honest. Still, Ignatz hoped next time he could prove her wrong.

"How're you feeling?' she said after a few minutes of rest.

"Alright. It's nice to get out of the monastery."

She chuckled. "I forget how little you kids leave the place. If I were trapped somewhere for a whole year, I think I'd lose my mind."

"Have you seen a lot of the world?" he asked.

"Decent amount of Dagda, most of Fódlan. That's about it." She shrugged. "Haven't traveled much for pleasure since I got to Fódlan."

Ignatz smiled. "Still, seeing all of Fódlan must be incredible. I've always wanted to see more of it."

"Hmph. Faerghus is cold, Leicester is tolerable, and Adrestia is warm. Those are all my takeaways from this country." She was smirking so he knew she didn't entirely mean it.

"Do you miss Dagda?"

Shamir tapped her fingers idly against her bow. "Not really. It was just a place. And everyone I knew there is gone. There's nothing to miss."

"Home is where the heart is, right?" Ignatz guessed.

She shot him a look. "I had a partner once. Not anymore."

Somehow he found courage to approach a question he'd wanted to ask for a while. "A partner like you and Catherine?"

The look she gave bordered on disinterested. "What does that mean?"

"Uh, I mean, aren't you two…you know," he said, dancing around it.

Shamir blinked. "You think we're fucking?"

"What? No! I just meant I thought you were together," Ignatz gasped. "Which, I mean, I guess that could…" His face turned completely red.

Shamir howled with laughter. The kind laugh Ignatz expected from a hyena, not a person. "Kid, Catherine's an idiot. I'll admit she's pretty, but me and her? Please."

Ignatz wasn't Mercedes, but even he could tell Shamir seemed to be trying to convince herself more than him. "I just thought you two were close."

"She's a good fighter, if entirely too reckless. She's tolerable, I guess. A friend, if you will." Shamir looked off into the skyline as the morning sun brought with it autumn heat. "And she's much too interested in someone else for that to happen, anyway." The way she said that almost sounded like it wasn't for him to hear.

What did that mean, anyway? Ignatz had never seen Catherine in the company of anyone except Shamir, the Archbishop, or Seteth.

"Sorry, I know it isn't my business," Ignatz apologized.

Shamir shook her head. "Don't worry about it. I grew up in a place where there was a lot less," she waved a hand, looking for a word, "pomp and circumstance around romance. Certainly we didn't have ceremonies like you have here. Marriage was a word I had to learn when I got to Fódlan. Or at least your definition of it."

"What do you mean?"

"The way you shied up when I said fucking." Shamir smirked when he flinched in embarrassment. "I think your Alliance poets would call it 'loving freely' in Dagda. Some people settled down with each other, but it was acceptable to fuck someone for a while and then part. Or love someone for a while. Whatever relationship you had, you were open about it and the fact that you could lose interest in that person."

"That sounds horrible," Ignatz blurted.

His teacher shrugged. "To you, maybe. But that's how it is where I come from. Here, the idea of tying down to just one person for the rest of your life without option to explore seems weird. I understand the appeal and might even like it more than I expected, but it's still absurd to me. Your people start wars over marriages." She said it like it summed up her whole argument.

"Do you like it here?" Ignatz asked. "Would you ever go back?"

Shamir looked off into the sky again. "It's alright here. I've got a reason to stay here right now. But it might not always be that way. People drift apart, that's reality. In five years, I might go back. Who knows?" Her eyes abruptly zeroed in on him. "You're asking a lot of questions. Something you're getting at?"

"I was just curious," Ignatz said. "You don't talk much about yourself."

"I got attached to someone once. He died." Her voice grew soft. "Better to not get attached in this line of work."

Shamir, Ignatz decided, lied to herself more than she knew. She was by Catherine's side almost always. He was no expert on people, but he thought that qualified as attachment.

"Okay," he simply said, willing to let that be the end of it.

He knew from his professor that some people just had things they weren't ready to confront yet. Byleth had fire, Shamir had Catherine.

Ignatz smiled at his own joke. Had her in more ways than one, if Shamir would open her eyes.

"I see you smirking there. Better not be at my expense, or you'll regret it," Shamir said loudly. Her own strange brand of humor.

Ignatz liked it.

Marianne had managed to avoid Mercedes for weeks.

One part of her said that it was because Mercedes was a new person in her life. As much as she'd come to trust the Deer, the newest fawn was someone new. Marianne had been scared of change her whole life. A new parent, a new place to live, a new school, she'd been thrust into so many things before she was ready. And now a new person in her group of burgeoning friends? Marianne just wanted to curl up in her room and sleep the world away. What she would give for a week where the world would just stop.

But a smaller, more truthful, part of her knew it was because Mercedes would see right through her.

"Hello, Marianne," Mercedes said, approaching her at the stables.

"Oh, hello, Mercedes," Marianne whispered as she took a step closer to Dorte. The horse nuzzled her, hoping she would give him more treats. Though if she gave him much more, he'd be a fat horse. But who could resist such a cute face?

Mercedes reached forward and stroked Dorte. The horse immediately looked to the newcomer, nuzzling her instead for affection.


"Please, call me Mercie," she said. "All my friends do."

Friends. Marianne still couldn't get over that. All of the Deer called her friend. What had she done to deserve that?

And then there was Hilda. Hilda, who never seemed to let her out of her sight. All because she'd let slip that she had no friends back home.

"Well, then I'll have to be such a good best friend that it makes up for that!" she'd said.

"Is everything alright, Marianne?" Mercedes asked, in the present.

"Oh, yes," Marianne said, ducking her head behind Dorte with the excuse of bushing lower on him.

Mercedes was silent for a while, but Marianne didn't see her depart. "Have I done something to offend you, Marianne?"

"What?" Marianne said. "No, we've barely said a word to each other."

"That's my point," Mercedes said, tugging on her hair. "I'm worried that I said something to cause you to not like me. Whenever I see you, you just seem so sad…"

Marianne's breath caught. She was right, Mercedes was seeing right through her. "Oh, I'm always like that." She cringed. Mistake.

"Whatever do you mean?" Mercedes said, alarmed. "You're always sad?"

"It's nothing," Marianne brushed aside. "Just homesick." Lie.

Mercedes nodded. "I can understand that. I miss my mother some days. We're very close."

What was it like to miss a mother? Marianne barely knew anything about her real parents. Alister von Edmund, her adoptive father, said they were good people, but Marianne doubted his sense of what was good.

Had she been kind? Had she loved horses as well? Marianne didn't know and wouldn't know. Despite being a relative, Alister said he never got to know them.

What about her father? Had he been a fair noble? Alister had taken his lands—her lands eventually—under his control when he'd adopted her.

All the more reason she was just a pawn in someone else's game. Cursed and used, ready to be thrown away. She was so tired. It felt like she couldn't keep her eyes open much anymore.

Last night, Marianne had a dream. She'd dreamed she was sitting on the edge of a gaping pit. There was no bottom, just an echoing expanse of darkness. A voice in her mind was telling her to jump, to let go. A quieter voice, it sounded like Hilda's, urged her to walk away. She'd given into jumping.

Then she'd woken up, more tired than usual. But that wasn't anything special. Marianne spent every day of the past five years exhausted. Sleeping through a night was a luxury she'd never known, would probably never know.


"Huh?" she said.

Mercedes was close to her know, looking more than a little worried. "Are you sure you're alright?" Her voice was softer this time, like it was hidden away from the world in a small box that only Marianne could open.

"I haven't been sleeping well lately." A half-truth.

Arms wrapped around her. Marianne stiffened immediately. But it was just Mercedes hugging her.

When had she last gotten a hug?

"You leave the stables work to me. Head back to your room and get some sleep. I'll let Byleth know you're a bit tired. Let me take care of everything."

Idly, Marianne wondered if this was what it was like to have a mother. She nodded, stifling a yawn. Perhaps she was more tired than usual.

Mercedes nodded upon seeing the yawn. "Doctor Mercie's orders. You head back to bed."

Marianne agreed and began to slowly walk back to her room. Would she even sleep? Doubtful. But maybe she'd get lucky and die in her sleep. It'd be painless, quick and without effort. A death a blink away. It felt intoxicating.

When she got to her room, she looked back to her desk. On it sat the letter from her adoptive father. Alister von Edmund's neat penmanship had told her exactly who it was from before she'd opened it.

It'd had her vomiting for an hour after she'd received it. She'd skipped out on seeing Hilda for their planned tea, half-lying through the door that she was too sick.

When she'd actually gotten to reading it, it said everything she'd thought it would, feared it would.

Dearest Marianne,

I've heard reports from my people at Garreg Mach. They have informed me of your closeness with the Hilda of House Goneril.

Do not forget our discussion. And consider your curse and what that could mean for the Goneril girl.

Margrave Alister von Edmund

It was short, lacking all of the flourish and poise he was known for. With her, he didn't need to dress up a threat. Not when he'd said it to her face months ago after she'd disobeyed him and applied to Garreg Mach. Oh, how angry he'd been when he found out she'd been accepted, that for the first time in her life she'd made a decision for herself. How angry he was that his daughter was expected to go and he simply couldn't pull her out.

"Marianne," his cool voice brushed against the back of her mind in memory. "Garreg Mach might keep you away from me for a year, but after that, you shall know hell like the Eternal Flames themselves. If you think you've a chance to escape me, you are wrong. While you are away, I am your curse. Disobey me and I shall kill whomever is closest to you. And I won't stop at the first person."

She prayed the Goddess would take her. She prayed like she did every day for as long as she could remember. She prayed her curse would stop harming those close to her. Her parents, her new friends, anyone.

Alister von Edmund had adopted her for her Crest, the one thing he lacked. The one thing that held him back from further gains in the Alliance. The thing the separated him from Riegan, Goneril, Gloucester, and Daphnel.

The friends he kept, she shuddered at the thought of them. And the one time she walked throughout town at the monastery, she'd seen one. A figure, dressed in a cloak that obscured their face and the rest of them except for the pale, milky white hands. The same kind of hands that had taken her blood in the Edmund Manor countless times.

Marianne laid in bed and thought of Hilda. Claude. Leonie. Lorenz. Raphael. Ignatz. Even Mercedes.

She sobbed.

Byleth was ill at ease as she sat down opposite Rhea.

The Archbishop had tried to get Byleth one on one since Lonato several times, but Byleth had always wormed her way out of it.

But now it was an official summons. One she dared not refuse. Thankfully they weren't alone.

"Forgive the abruptness, Professor," Rhea said. Over her shoulder hovered Seteth, looking far less well kempt than he usually did. "But we've an urgent matter to discuss."

"I am here to serve," Byleth said. Usually when she had a meeting with these two, it was in the cathedral proper, never in her office.

"Flayn is missing," Seteth said without wasting a breath. All pretense of poise left his posture. "We've been searching the monastery high and low and we cannot find her."

"Calm yourself, Seteth," Rhea soothed. "Level heads triumph at times like these." Her expression hardened. "And we shall make whomever is responsible pay for this crime."

Byleth didn't doubt it. "When did you last see her?" she asked. And why bring Byleth here?

"Two days ago she never emerged from her room," Seteth said. He'd begun to pace erratically. "The man I'd instructed to watch over her is nowhere to be found either. Normally I'd consider him a suspect but…"

"The Knight was found disintegrated, suspected to be at least," Rhea said without missing a beat. She didn't even look overly bothered, as if it were nothing more than a fact. "Ashes were at the scene, Hanneman deduced that were the left overs of powerful Dark magic."

"I don't understand," Byleth said. "Why would someone want to kidnap Flayn? She's just a little girl."

Rhea glanced at Seteth. "Flayn bears a rare Crest," she said. "I cannot claim to know why they would want that, but possess it she does."

"If they harm so much as a hair on her head…" Seteth seethed.

Byleth saw a different man standing before her. Not Seteth, right hand of the Archbishop, but her brother, her family. Whenever Byleth had been hurt on a job, Jeralt had been furious. Not with her, but with whomever had hurt her.

Seteth looked capable of anything. Gone was the appearance of a glorified secretary of the Archbishop. Instead, a tall man stood capable of vengeance upon those who would harm his sister. Byleth saw someone who was a warrior, who belonged on battlefields instead of behind desks. It occurred to her that she didn't know anything about Seteth's past.

"I trust you need help searching?" Byleth asked.

"You as well as your house. Secrecy is necessary, but we must find Flayn as quickly as possible." From the way Rhea said it, Byleth wondered if she knew more about why Flayn had been kidnapped than she let on.

There was a knock at the door. Seteth nearly jumped out of his skin as it caught him by surprise. He opened the door an inch and exchanged a few hushed words.

He opened it fully, letting the knight in. Byleth recognized him, the friendly gatekeeper.

"Archbishop, I have something to report," he said, saluting. "Lady Edelgard sent me to you with a message. She says she has found Flayn and Monica."

"Excuse me?" Seteth gasped.

"Monica?" Rhea's eyes widened.

Flayn's older brother pushed past the gatekeeper, not even thinking to stop to ask where Edelgard was. The gatekeeper stood awkwardly, unsure what to do.

"Take me to them," Rhea said, standing up. "Forgive me, Professor, but it seems the problem has resolved itself. We shall speak later."

They left Byleth in the room by herself to try and process everything that had happened.

Two figures met under to cover of nightfall in the Garreg Mach cemetery.

"Are you having followers?" her companion asked.

Dorothea sighed. Discretion was apparently necessary, but anyone who heard Petra talk knew exactly who was speaking. "No, no one saw me. Why are you so uptight about this?"

The Eagles had thrown a celebration with rescuing Flayn. Petra had been distant at the party. When Dorothea had asked her about it, she'd arranged the meeting.

Petra sat down on one of the gravestones. Part of Dorothea wanted to tell her that was disrespectful to the dead, but the chill of autumn nights didn't agree with her. Best not to draw it out.

"What I am saying will be kept close to us, okay?" Petra asked.

Dorothea nodded, then remembered it was dark out. "Yes," she said instead.

She could hear Petra sigh. "I am thinking Edelgard is behind Flayn's childnapping."

"Excuse me?" Dorothea said after a moment.

"Dorothea, I am having trust in you. Please listen to me. How did Edelgard know where she was?"

"Well, she followed Jeritza, didn't she? She'd been suspicious of him and found the secret tunnel in his room when she got there," Dorothea reasoned. It was the explanation Edelgard gave when Ferdinand asked a similar question.

"Three nights ago, I am seeing Hubert speak to Professor Jeritza. Their conversation was hushed, like a mouse. When I was approaching in stealth, I heard them say 'Flayn.'" Petra leaned forward, close enough that Dorothea's eyes could see her through the dark. "Dorothea, I am having worry about whether we can trust Edelgard."

"That's silly," Dorothea said with an uncertain laugh. "Why would she kidnap Flayn?"

"I am not knowing. But more days ago, she is asking me about Brigid, about how we are the Empire's vassal state. She is making it clear that I am not to oppose her."

"What do you mean?"

"In Brigid, there is talking of revolt. Edelgard is saying that if I encourage thoughts of anger, then she will hurt Brigid." Petra wrapped her arms around herself. "I am scared, Dorothea. I was thinking Edelgard was kind, but there is worry that I am wrong."

"She threatened you?" Dorothea gasped. How could anyone threaten a sweet thing like Petra? That didn't sound like Edelgard. Or did it? What did she really know about Edelgard?

That stark realization scared her.

Petra nodded. "She was being quiet about it, like we are speaking now. This language is hard for me, but I am not being stupid."

"What will you do?"

Petra laughed. It lacked mirth, falling far closer to hysteric. "Dorothea, I am a prisoner of the Empire. There is no doing I can do. My people have dependence on my obedience." She sobered, growing quiet again. "I am hoping you can be careful. You are not treating me like an idiot even though I am not speaking your language well. You are my friend."

"Petra, I—"

"Be listening. I was speaking to Lorenz before. He is saying the Death Knight was in the Mausoleum. If Professor Jeritza is the Death Knight, then I am fearing that Edelgard has plans. Please escape, Dorothea. I am frightened."

"Escape to where?" Dorothea asked. "What are you saying?"

Petra's mouth shut. She stared at Dorothea for a few moments. "Dorothea. What I am wishing to share could be hurting my people. You must not be speaking of it."

Dorothea was confused. "Petra, I'm sorry, but I just don't understand where all this is coming from. What's really going on?"

Petra reached into her uniform, right above her heart, and removed a piece of paper. She held it out to Dorothea.

The songstress was glad it was dark enough to hide her blush at the thought of where that piece of paper had been. She opened it carefully.

It was a list of numbers with a few words she didn't understand. The writing was akin to mere symbols to her.

"Petra?" she asked uncertainly.

In the light of the fire, she could see Petra's face. Tears fell from her eyes. "That note is coming from one of my grandfather's spies in Enbarr. He is with the Sky Spirit now."

It didn't take a genius. "Dead?" whispered Dorothea.

"Before he was being found, he is sending two notes. One to me, one to my grandfather."

"Petra, what are you saying?"

"Those numbers are being soldiers, Dorothea. Many thousands and thousands. The Empire is preparing for war."

Chapter Text

Jeralt had never looked forward to a bed like he did now.

The mission had taken longer than anticipated. Much longer.

The bandits of the Rhodos Coast turned out not to be simple bandits. Well, they were, but their leader was the head bishop of the Western church.

So, after three months or so away from the monastery, Jeralt rode through the gates with the bishop as prisoner. Two of his cronies were chained on horses as well, seeming coconspirators. Behind them, four Knights.

He'd ridden north himself with three Knights. At Arianrhod, he met with Aelfric's three dozen.

The five of them had been the only survivors. And that was what had convinced him the Archbishop had tried to have him killed.

He gave a few orders to the surviving Knights, bidding them to report to Rhea with the prisoners. He'd report in person later, after he saw his daughter.

Seteth and Rhea wouldn't be pleased with that detour, but Jeralt hadn't seen his baby girl in three months. Could they blame a father for caring about his daughter?

It would be an argument that would work on Seteth, at least. That gave him a rueful smile.

Byleth, predictably, was by the fishing pond. What the girl's obsession with that pond was, he didn't know. But whenever he looked for her, if she wasn't in her room, that was where he'd find her.

As he approached, she didn't notice him. His face crinkled into a smile. Oh, this would be good.

He pushed her in.

Byleth yelped like a child as she submerged. Her head poked up and she sputtered out water, seething with anger as she looked for who to blame.

Jeralt couldn't help it. He doubled over with laughter. Goddess, he was exhausted and it hurt his stomach to laugh that hard. But it was the first time he'd had something to smile about in months.

"Dad!" Byleth cried when she realized who it was. She leapt from the water and wrapped her arms around him.

"Kiddo, you're getting me soaked too," he protested without much effort.

She pulled back and crossed her arms. "You deserve it." There was annoyance on her face, but it was overshadowed by the smile.

His daughter, Jeralt realized, was happy.

He'd raised her alone. Well, some of his mercs helped out from time to time, but he bore the brunt of parenting her. So when he thought that Byleth was happy, he knew that it was the first time in her life.

Though that was far too much a broad stroke. It wasn't that she hadn't been happy before. When he'd given her a stuffed wyvern as a child, she'd been happy. When she first beat him in a spar (he'd let her), she'd been happy. But it had been different. Muted, almost. A soft happiness.

The smile on her face was anything but. Byleth, the best part of his life, was alight with happiness.

A melancholy hit him, a bittersweet sadness. Had he not been enough for her to be happy before coming here? Maybe she really needed people her age. He could remember being a teenager, almost, with how he hadn't had much attention for his parents.

He supposed he just always thought that the relationship between he and his girl were different.

She was hugging him again and he smiled, returning it. Maybe he was overthinking things.

"Where have you been?" she asked, finally pulling away completely. "I thought you said you'd be gone for a month or so? It's been three."

He sighed. "You'll get that story later, I promise. It was a mess, but it's done. More importantly, how have you been?"

She began to ramble. His daughter, rambling.

Had he ever seen her this full of emotion? Goddess, he'd resigned himself to thinking that his daughter would grow up to be as stoic as him.

In truth, when he looked at her as she spoke, all he saw was her mother. The smile was all Sitri's, the same smile that had made him fall in love with her.

Would you be proud of her, Sitri? He thought she would be. He certainly was.

He ruffled her hair. She groaned. "Dad, quit it."

"If you ever have children, you'll understand," he said through a laugh.

"Oh! Sir Jeralt!"

They both turned to see a fair haired woman with a kind expression. What was her name?

"Mercie!" Byleth said, her smile growing wider.

Ah, Mercedes, right. The one he'd talked to several months ago. The quiet one or at least soft spoken. Hell, he barely knew her.

Wait, what was that smile on Byleth?

Jeralt did not consider himself an expert in emotion. Sitri had always called him a rock that a stream passed around. Strong, consistent, unwavering. He'd liked that comparison.

But he had been in love before. And it didn't take a genius to put two and two together.

"Mercedes, a pleasure to see you again," he said.

She turned to him and bowed her head. "Forgive me, Sir Jeralt. I believe our last conversation got us off on the wrong foot. My name is Mercedes von Martritz. I am in your daughter's class now, much to my delight. I am very sorry for giving you any impressions that I was up to anything untoward before. Allow me to assure you that isn't the case."

Jeralt blinked and looked over at a very confused Byleth. But that goofy smile was still there despite it.

The suspicion Jeralt held cracked under seeing his daughter so happy. "The fault was mine. I sometimes am too paranoid for my own good."

"Did I miss something?" Byleth asked.

"No," both Jeralt and Mercedes said at the same time.

Jeralt smirked. He liked her, for the little of her he knew.

"I'm sure you two have much to catch up on," Mercedes said. "I'll take my leave now. Jeralt, I'm glad you've returned unharmed. Byleth, I shall see you later."

"What was that all about?" Byleth asked as Mercedes departed.

Jeralt chuckled. "I'll tell you when you're older."


"Who is she?" Marianne asked.

"Monica von Ochs," Manuela answered. "She went missing last year."

Linhardt frowned at the unconscious woman in front of them. Manuela had called him, Marianne, and Mercedes in for some practice healing on a non-critical patient. He hadn't been expecting that person to be his future classmate.

They were the only four in Manuela's room, sans Monica. The rest of their classes were off learning who knows what. Linhardt couldn't care less.

"Will she be okay?" Mercedes asked.

Manuela nodded. "It seems like exhaustion is what she's suffering from, primarily. Sleep is the best antidote for any ail."

And the former songstress was right. Save for a few cuts and bruises that she had them tend to, Monica seemed unharmed. Flayn had been as well, for that matter.

Curious, Linhardt thought. Odd that someone who apparently was after Flayn's blood would have another captive for a year and not substantially harm her. He of course didn't advocate for harm, perish the thought, but it stood out as strange to him.

He knew House Ochs. Not well, but to a degree. His mother was, unfortunately, a prolific gossip. Monica von Ochs had vanished and it had broken her father. His darling girl, taken away from him. If the rumors were to be believed (and his mother always believed them) then Lord Ochs now dealt with affairs of the nefarious variety. Maybe it was to find his daughter, maybe it was to get back at someone.

Regardless, Linhardt afforded a smile. He'd be glad to have his daughter back, that was for certain. Hopefully it would bring the man a measure of peace.

He yawned. Oh, he'd missed bedtime. Damn, he'd been looking forward to that. Maybe he could sneak a few minutes of sleep in the free bed.

"How come her skin feels so cold?" Mercedes asked as she was checking her pulse.

Manuela reached out a hand and pressed the back of it to Monica's cheek. She frowned. "You're right. Linhardt, grab a blanket from over there."

He groaned inwardly and did as he was told. Manuela kept talking. "It's not uncommon for someone who is suffering from exhaustion to catch a chill. Still, she was doing fine before—"

Monica opened her eyes.

"Eep!" gasped Marianne, nearly jumping back.

"What, never seen a corpse move?" Monica growled. She blinked, as if taking in her surroundings, then smiled. "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry! Did I scare you?"

"Oh, um, it's fine," Marianne said, very much not fine.

Manuela sat down on the edge of the bed. "Monica, do you remember me? Do you know where you are?"

"Manuela, of course! And this is the monastery, why do you ask?" The redhead certainly was cheerful, that Linhardt could be certain of.

With a few more probing questions from Manuela, she stood up. "The three of you, keep an eye on her. I need to speak with the Archbishop."

"Why was she asking me what year it was?" Monica asked, cocking her head to the side.

"Seems you've lost a year of time somewhere in captivity," Linhardt said with some renewed interest. Amnesia wasn't exactly common, but it wasn't unheard of. Perhaps she'd been struck with a blow to the head at some point. Had her captors gone to lengths to cover up wounds? Had they intended to let Monica go? Questions upon questions.

He was much too tired for this.

"Lost a year?"

"It's not 1179, the year is 1180," Mercedes said gently.

Monica's eyes widened for a moment before she shrugged. "Oh well, that's the way the cookie crumbles."

"You're not bothered by that?" Marianne whispered. "Your family is probably worried about you."

Monica fixed Marianne with a glower. "Mind your own business. Worry about your own family that doesn't love you."

Linhardt's jaw dropped, Mercedes gasped, and Marianne said nothing. She stood up quietly and walked to the door. Linhardt could hear her sniffling.

Mercedes was up and going after her in a second. Linhardt turned to Monica, but the door opened again. In walked Rhea and Manuela.

"Linhardt, you may go," Manuela said. "The Archbishop wishes to speak to Monica."

He bit his tongue and did as he was told. He threw one last look at Monica before he walked out the door, watching her cheerful exterior.

Witch. She had something to hide, that he was certain of. For a brief moment, he considered going to speak to Marianne. But Mercedes had already gone after her, he'd just be in the way. Plus he wasn't much for comforting. And, well, nap time called.

But as Linhardt walked back to his room, he wondered about Baron Ochs. He wondered what he'd do when he heard his daughter was alive.

And how he'd react when she clearly had changed. After all, she hadn't recognized Linhardt.

"You're late," Lorenz huffed.

Claude ducked behind the tree that his fellow Deer was crouching behind. Ahead of them, practicing in the open fields outside the monastery, the Blue Lions drilled in preparation for the upcoming mock battle. The sun was beginning to descend for the evening, giving both of the Deer the cover of nightfall to blend with.

"I was helping Hilda with something," he replied. Lorenz had picked a good spot for their spying. Or maybe he'd just gotten lucky. They were elevated, giving them an excellent view of the Lions.

"What on Fódlan would that woman actually need help with?" Lorenz grumbled. "The day she does anything will amaze me."

"We put Monica back in the infirmary," Claude said with a wink.

Lorenz fully turned to him for the first time. "Tell me you're joking."

"Monica said something that made Marianne cry yesterday. She finally admitted what it was to Hilda." Claude smirked. "So naturally, Hilda beat the shit out of her."

Lorenz floundered for words.

"You should see her hands. Hilda's, that is. Her knuckles are all bloody. I seriously haven't see someone so angry. I was late because I was bandaging her hands."

The Gloucester boy groaned. "This is a nightmare. The scandal—"

"Won't happen. I slipped behind her and put a sack over her head. Hilda and I brought her into the stables during riding practice when everyone was gone. Let Hilda do the work, for once she was willing to, and I kept lookout. Made sure the only thing we said was about the Death Knight." Claude's eyes twinkled, the way they always did after a scheme. "She didn't know what hit her. Literally."

Lorenz' mouth still hung open. "Claude, this will work itself back to you."

Claude's smirk was far more vicious this time. "She made one of my Deer cry. I put that bitch back into a coma. Seems fair to me."

"Your utter lack of decorum, political savvy, and caution is going to tear the Alliance in shambles," Lorenz moaned in pain, as if Claude had punched him.

He clapped the purple haired man on the back. "You're telling me that if you saw Marianne crying, you wouldn't do something?"

"I never said that. Just that we should be careful about how we enact vengeance." Lorenz sighed. "Do you know what Monica said?"

"Something about Marianne's family. She wasn't very clear about it, but it upset her a lot," Claude said softly.

His friend, and he was his friend, look back out at the Blue Lions, not seeing them. "Have you no remorse for beating someone bloody who was just rescued from imprisonment?"

"No," Claude said immediately. "No, I don't think so. Some things need to be done and some lessons need to be taught. Just like Teach teaching us how to kill, there's some messages that need to be communicated. I'm not going to let anyone walk over my Deer or the Alliance. I swore I'd protect what was mine and I will."

Lorenz turned his head to him and offered a small smile. "I'll never repeat this, but you are a far better person that I expected, Riegan."

"Oh?" Claude grinned widely. "What was that?"

He huffed. "You're insufferable, I don't know why I expected anything less."

The heir to Alliance laughed. "C'mon, let's do what we came here for so we don't report back to Teach empty handed."

"Hmph, spying on other classes for our own teacher. It's somewhat pathetic for a mock battle."

"She's teaching us to use our resources!"

"Ever the schemer, Riegan."

Marianne hadn't moved from her place on her bed in some time.

It was silly to be hung up over something for so long. Monica had said that to her yesterday, she should be over it.

No amount of blankets she'd wrapped herself in would make it go away. The truth, that is. The one she was running from.

She wasn't loved. Dead parents or Alister, there wasn't love for Marianne. No one wanted her around. Some woman who woke up with amnesia could even see that.

Marianne pulled the blankets tighter around her. Hilda had left her some of hers, but she still felt cold.

Where was Hilda? She'd left a few hours ago with a promise to come back soon. A dark voice in her mind whispered that Hilda was like the rest. Marianne felt sick for thinking it.

Hilda wasn't like that. None of her friends were, but Hilda most of all.

Over a decade ago, Marianne had a maid that had enjoyed reading stories to her. One of the stories involved a princess from Morfis who learned to talk to animals through magic. She'd loved that one. The first time she'd heard it, she'd cheered at the ending when a prince came to save the day and broke the spell that had transformed her into a beast.

When she grew up, she learned what a damsel in distress was. Some women sneered at it. In her heart, that was what Marianne wanted.

Even all those years ago, she knew she was a monster. Why couldn't someone come and break the spell with a kiss? Why couldn't someone whisk her away into the sunset?

Why couldn't she have someone who loved her so much that they would go to any means necessary to save her?

She prayed to the Goddess for salvation. Marianne knew she needed saving. And for years, she'd contemplated taking things into her own hands. She could be her own savior.

But she thought about that princess. Her prince had come to rescue her at the last second, just when all hope seemed lost. It was the hope of a child, but Marianne had held it.

Maybe it wasn't worth the effort. She was tired, so tired. It was as if her very bones were stressed, so weak from burdens that they were ready to collapse like brittle wood. Each breath that escaped her lungs was a shudder on the verge of collapse.

Marianne closed her eyes.

The door slammed open.

"Oh, Marianne!" Hilda sang, drawing out the last syllable. There was a pep in her step as she skipped inside the room.

Marianne barely turned her head at first, then gasped when she saw Hilda's hands. "Hilda!" she said, dropping the blankets that she'd clung to so tightly.

Her friend's hands were wrapped in bandages, blood seeping through them in some spots. Hilda looked embarrassed as she held them behind her instead. "Oh, it's nothing. Just had to do a little work. These dainty hands weren't made for things like that."

Marianne got up and pulled Hilda to her bed. Her own fingers caressed Hilda's, slowly pulling the bandages away. Blotchy, half formed scabs marred Hilda's skin.

"Why didn't you go see Manuela? Or come to me?" Marianne whispered. She raised her free hand and felt radiance pour from her, meticulously healing Hilda.

Hilda shifted in discomfort at the healing. "Oh, it wasn't a big deal. It doesn't hurt much."

Marianne paused, looking up at Hilda, and spoke honestly from her heart for the first time in years. "It hurts me to see you hurt."

Neither said anything as Marianne continued her work. Were she Manuela, the light scarring could have been avoided. But Marianne wasn't skilled enough for that.

When she finished, Hilda's hands were caked with dried blood but free of wounds. Underneath the grime, her beautiful hands were scarred because Marianne was inept.

Beautiful, Marianne caught herself. She'd called Hilda's hand beautiful. That was strange, they were just hands. But they were Hilda's hands and that made them special.

"Oh thank you, Mari!" Hilda said, throwing her hands around her.

"I'm sorry, there'll be scars," Marianne murmured.

Hilda drew back and laughed. "I don't care. It'll be a nice reminder how that bitch had it coming."

She blinked. "Hilda, what did you do?"

"Nothing," Hilda replied like a child with a hand in the cookie jar. When Marianne looked at her disbelief, she crumbled. "Okay fine. I just had a conversation with Monica about what she said to you. I don't think you'll have to worry about it again."


"I mean, I did most of my talking through actions. They speak louder than words, you know?"

"Hilda…" Marianne looked down. "I'm not worth that."

Freshly healed hands cupped each side of Marianne's face. Hilda's eyes looked into hers with a melancholy she'd only seen in the mirror. "Oh, Marianne," Hilda said. "When will you realize just how much you're worth? Just how much there is to love about you?"

Hilda leaned in, slowly, waiting to see if Marianne would pull back. When she didn't, Hilda pressed her lips against hers.

They were soft.

Later, Marianne would be embarrassed with that having been her only thought. But now, there was little else for her mind to focus on aside from the woman kissing her.

Byleth leaned back in her chair as the last of her students filed out for lunch. She'd join them in a bit for the meal.

They'd been working harder with the mock battle coming up. In two weeks, the three houses would cross blades at Gronder.

If it were up to her, she'd not have cared at all about a mock battle. Practice was important, sure, but they'd been getting real experience out in the field for the past months. It felt unneeded to put gloves back on for safety.

But Claude's silver tongue had pitched her an idea. "Show the other houses that we're the best and lure more students to transfer to us."

That she couldn't argue with. With that in mind, she drilled harder than ever before. Shamir worked her archers to the bone and even enlisted Catherine to assist some of her other students. Her father tended to give a few pointers whenever he passed by to watch her teach.

She still needed to talk to him about Rhea. Maybe she'd skip lunch and find him.

"Professor?" a melodic voice called out.

She looked up and Dorothea strut down the classroom's center. Byleth opened her mouth to respond as the student set down a sheet of paper in front of her.

Transfer papers.

"Dorothea?" It was all Byleth could say.

The songstress smiled, but something held it back from being full. "I've been very impressed with the Deer so far. I thought it seemed like better prospects for me than the Eagles. After all, there's only so many nobles to turn down and this girl has high standards."

"Ah, well, welcome to the herd?" Byleth's mind still worked to catch up.

Dorothea laughed. "Don't you worry about it at all. I just wanted a change of scenery." She turned around and walked out the way she came. Petra stood outside, arms crossed, nodding at Dorothea as they walked away together.

Dare I say that was odd?

Odd indeed.

Chapter Text

Eamon von Ochs,

Forgive the sudden letter. It has been quite some time since we've seen each other. I've been remiss with keeping up with you. My father has always spoken highly of you and, I suspect, has always hoped I would grow up to wed your daughter.

But it is your daughter I write on behalf of. I'm certain the Church has already sent correspondence of some sort to you. Yes, your daughter lives. I have seen and spoken with her myself. Allow me to offer congratulations. While I have no children of my own yet, I could wager a guess that a child is the most important thing to a parent.

I do not write to tell you what you already know. Yes, your daughter is alive, but I hesitate to say well. I do not write to dampen your spirits or ruin the good news, but she did not recognize me. Me, the person who would one day be her ruling neighbor. The person she danced with at events, who spent time with her as a child.

Your daughter is not as she was, Baron. In fact, I have noticed other strange circumstances around the monastery. Strange men around, a knight clad in armor earning him the moniker Death Knight, and even the strange actions of Empire soldiers in the area.

I will not pretend to tell you what to do. You know full well what is best for you and your daughter. But I found sleep come to me slower as of late as I ruminated on this.

I fear there is something brewing here. Be on your guard. I pray that I am wrong, but I am not unintelligent. A degree of caution would not go amiss.

Linhardt von Hevring

"You are having transference?" Petra asked as Dorothea left the Deer classroom.

Dorothea nodded. "Yes, but I fail to see how this will help." She looked around for a moment for anyone who would be eavesdropping.

Petra stood closer to her, the same thought on her mind. "I am with agreement. But I fear the Empire means to fight Brigid. I am not wanting to be fighting my friend Dorothea when the time comes."

"Oh, Pet," she said, wrapping the younger woman in a hug. "You're sweet, but that won't stop me. You're my friend. I'll fight on your side if need be."

"I am appreciating that, Dorothea. But that is not your fight. It is my grandfather and I who will be fighting the Empire. And…"

"And?" prompted Dorothea.

"If it is not against Brigid, then war is coming to Fódlan." Petra bit her lip. "Leicester is being safer with their neutrality."

It occurred to Dorothea, that in her quest to find a spouse that would care and provide for her, she'd failed to consider the Brigid princess. Maybe that had been an oversight on her part.

They walked across the grounds, the colder winds had them standing closer together. Each day brought them close to the Battle of the Eagle and Lion, the biggest event in the academic year. And she'd just transferred to a new class.

It was impulsive. Reckless. Petty. Perhaps not in that order.

Edelgard's…lack of interest had frustrated her. Though it wasn't as if Adrestia particularly welcomed a couple of two women. Was Dorothea judging her too hard?

No, she thought. Edelgard, whatever she was, was not weak willed. She'd take what she wanted.

Like Lysithea, a voice whispered in her mind.

Maybe the Deer would be a better fit. No more lazy Linhardt, hovering Hubert, or perfect Petra.

Perfect? Ugh, Dorothea had to stop falling for every pretty girl who cast a glance to her. If the rumors called her a slut, then she had to be mindful of who she bat her eyelashes at. Or maybe it just meant she had to find some victims to electrocute. That'd shut them up…

She shook her head. Leicester. She'd just chained herself to the Deer. As a commoner, the house she graduated in meant far more. Nobles had families to go back to. Her? If she attempted to find work in the Empire, they'd question why she'd left the Eagles.

"Dorothea? Are you having deep thoughts?" Petra asked.

"Just contemplating the entire fate of my future based on the choice I just made," Dorothea murmured. "How about you? How are you going to get out of this?"

They stepped into the greenhouse. The gardener inside cast them a smile and continued her work. They were otherwise alone.

"If war breaks out, I will be having to go back home. My grandfather is having the same information I do. He is smart, he will be preparing."

"And if Edelgard doesn't let you go?"

"She won't, so I will be having to sneak away. With war already coming, I am not thinking she will have anything to threaten."

Dorothea frowned. "What about your friends?"

Petra gave her a sad look. "My only friend is just having transferred to a new class."

"What about Caspar? Linhardt? Bernie?" Dorothea protested, flushing inwardly. Petra thought that highly of her?

"They are being nice, but I am thinking it is you who understand me, Dorothea." Petra crouched down by one of the flowers, brushing a finger down one of the petals. "This is from Brigid," she whispered. Was that longing in her voice? A longing for home, for some sense of familiarity amidst a strange country with strange customs and strange people.

Dorothea didn't know her flowers, despite getting so many after shows. It looked like a lily? Maybe? She couldn't say. "I hope you get to see those flowers again soon, Petra."

"Fódlan is nice," she said with melancholy. "But Brigid is home. I miss it."

Dorothea didn't know what to say to that. Home wasn't a concept she was intimately familiar with. And she'd been just starting to think Garreg Mach might be something like that.

Then she set down a mantle of feathers for a crown of antlers.

You'd do anything a pretty girl told you, she scolded herself. Dorothea wanted to protest that, but could she? It wasn't that radical an idea.

"War or not, we'll get you home," Dorothea said.

Petra smiled. "This is why I am being friends with you, Dorothea."

She blushed.

"Here you go," Raphael said, handing the coins over to the postman. The man in question gave them a quick count and smiled, offering confidence that the letter would be delivered as soon as possible.

And who was Raphael writing to? Maya, of course. He'd been so busy with training lately that he hadn't been able to write her. It had taken a rather strongly worded letter from his dearest sister to give him kick in the butt to finally write her.

It warmed his heart, though. His sister was worried about him, just as he was of her. Family was important to Raphael and he would protect Maya to the end of his days. She'd protest, but it was the best he could give. He lacked a head for numbers and business, but brawn? Oh, that he had all too much of.

Raphael strolled through the market inside the monastery gates. Vendors hawked at him, but he passed them by. Why buy food when he could eat for free at the dining hall? Though, now that he thought about it, that cinnamon scent from one stall certainly caught his attention. Duscur cuisine, no doubt.

But before his stomach could change his direction, he saw his professor and Shamir at a stall, talking animatedly.

"Heya, professor!" he greeted. "And hey, Shamir! What brings you two here?"

Shamir turned around and Raphael's eyes widened. Somehow he'd missed what she held, a longbow that measured taller than her. Shamir wasn't particularly short either. Eternal Flames, it was probably even taller than him. "Oh boy, that's a heck of a bow."

Byleth was handing coin over to the merchant, attempting some last minute haggling. She chimed in, "It's an Adrestian Longbow. I ordered it for Ignatz."

Shamir continued. "It was one of the few things we feared about Fódlan in Dagda. A bow that was rumored to shoot further than a league." She chuckled. "Horseshit, but this bow can punch through armor at five hundred paces away. Maybe longer."

Raphael whistled. "The professor taught us about those. You have to draw them with your shoulder, right?'

The mercenary knight nodded with approval. "That's why I'm going to teach Ignatz with it. Since he's in no condition to fight on front lines, we're figuring we can teach him to fight from the back where danger is minimal."

Raphael's smile was anything but small. "So he can fight in the Battle of the Eagle and Lion?"

Byleth turned a sour face away from the shopkeep with red hair, who from the looks of it had fleeced her. "Not quite. That's not exactly a training bow. Anyone Ignatz would hit with it in the mock battle would be killed for sure."

"Ah," Raphael chuckled. "Well, don't want that. Still, it's too bad he can't participate."

Shamir offered a slight smile. "Give the kid some credit. He's learning quickly. I'll have him ready to fight soon. The fact that he's learned so much in just, what, two months? No, three," she corrected herself. "I think we have a master archer in the making with him. Give me another month and I'll have him back at your side."

"That's great!" Raphael cheered. "Shamir, thank you."

She blinked. "Not that I won't take a compliment, but care to elaborate?"

Raphael reached forward and hugged her, saying, "You helped him in more ways than I could. Me, his best friend! I didn't know how to put a smile back on his face and you did that."

It was at that moment that he realized how stiff Shamir had gone in his arms. He let go.

Shamir stepped up to him, recovering. "No hugs. Come to the training yard in twenty minutes, I'm gonna teach you what happens when you hug me."

"Uh…" he turned his head towards his professor.

She was laughing. "Raphael, don't look at me. Shamir's your teacher too."

The archer scowled. "I appreciate the words. But not hugging me. I am a Knight of Seiros, not some teddy bear."

Raphael dug his own grave further. "But hugs are great! How else do you show appreciation for someone?"

"By not killing them."

"But isn't a hug way better? The tighter you squeeze, the more you care."

"I'm going to make you run so many laps."

"Here, let me show you just how good a hug is—"


Byleth laughed hysterically and Raphael hid his own smile as Shamir punched him in the gut as he approached.

His teacher could really do with smiling more. When she laughed like that, she reminded him of Maya.

"Here's far enough," Jeralt murmured.

Both he and Byleth dismounted by the stream. In silence, they got their fishing equipment out and baited their hooks. Dipping their bare feet in the cool water, they waited for their catch.

Trees blew slowly in the fall winds. Autumn was soon to be over, and Byleth suspected this to be one of the last few days that could be considered warm.

"Rhea try anything while I was gone?" he asked her.

Byleth shook her head.

Jeralt sighed with relief. "I guess I owe you that explanation now, right?"

"I mean, I'd prefer to know why the most powerful woman in Fódlan is so interested in me," she said, giving her father a look.

"Brat." He chuckled. "Well, it's not something I have all the answers to. But I have suspicions. You see, your mother, she passed while giving birth to you."

Byleth said nothing. Her father rarely talked about Sitri. Emotions weren't her forte, but she knew her father's best. And the melancholy that came over him with her name, it wasn't something she liked to disturb, like a pond at sunrise.

"Rhea was the only one present when she gave birth. She told me she tried her best to save Sitri, but could only save you. I'll admit, I believe her. Rhea is many things, but I don't think she'd let a friend die. Sitri was a friend, or at least a favored acquaintance.

"I took you to see a healer, someone who owed me a favor. Had him look you over to make sure you were okay. Call it a suspicion, maybe paranoia. Or both. Anyway, he said you were fine, but you had no heartbeat."

Byleth nodded slowly. A memory resurfaced from her childhood.

She lay on her father's chest as he was dozing. When she'd heard his heartbeat, she'd woken him up in a fright, afraid his chest would burst. He'd laughed and explained that she was different, that she had no heartbeat. That she was the abnormality. And then he'd made her swear not to speak of it to anyone. And she'd held that promise, as she would anything her father told her.

"I paid closer attention to things after that," Jeralt said, drawing his line out of the water and rebaiting it. He was no gifted fisherman. "Rhea was very intent on spending time with you. At first I thought it some sort of comfort to her for missing Sitri. I couldn't blame that." His jaw set into a firm line. "But the way she looked at you…it scared me. I'd seen her look at people like that, that possessive gaze. I didn't like it.

"And then there's the fact you never cried. You didn't laugh, smile, cry, scream, anything. I'd never heard of a baby doing that. That's when I knew there was something different about you."

"What did you do?" she asked quietly.

He bared his teeth in uncharacteristic smugness. "I fooled Rhea. I'm still a bit proud of it. A fire broke out and I stole you away. She thought you'd died in that fire and I left out of grief."

She shivered at the word 'fire'. "Then my dreams, the ones where I'm on fire?"

Jeralt looked down at the ground, a pained look on his face. "I…I had to grab you out of the fire when it broke out. I didn't think you'd remember it, but you did. I'm sorry, kiddo. Those nightmares are my fault."

Byleth reached an arm around her father and hugged him. "I don't blame you. You did what you had to do."

She distracted herself with rebaiting her hook while her father composed himself. He didn't like to bare his emotions and Byleth knew he liked it even less when someone pointed it out, even her. A minute later and he ruffled her hair.

"You're the best daughter a father could ask for, By," he said gruffly.

"I better be, cuz you're stuck with me," she said.

He laughed. "You've got your mother's sense of humor. I think she used that same line on me." He sobered, smile fading. "Byleth, I don't know more than that. Rhea…I fear she did something to you while you were being born. I've tried to poke around and find out, but I'm not sure where to look. Aelfric, I heard you met him, has told me he'd find out. I trust him more than most people here. But as far as Rhea goes, be wary of her."

"What if we're overthinking this?" Byleth asked, meeting her father's gaze.

He shrugged. "Were I a praying man, I'd pray to the Goddess for that. But I'm just a mercenary who has seen more of the world than most. In my experience, if someone seems like they're hiding something, they usually are."

"I'll keep an eye on her. If she tries anything, I'll let you know," she said.

Jeralt nodded approvingly. "Good girl. She's the only one you need to watch out for, I think. The Knights are all good people. And Seteth is a good father too, I may not find him the best conversation companion, but he's a good man."

"Seteth is a father?" Byleth cocked her head.

"Ah, shit. Um, yeah, that's supposed to be a secret. I don't know why they're posing as brother and sister, but Flayn is his daughter. Do me a favor and don't mention that. I only know because I knew him back when I was here with Sitri." He trailed off for a moment, as if putting a puzzle together in his mind. "And he looks just the same as then…"

Byleth's rod went taught. She jumped up and yanked, setting the hook. The pole nearly shot out of her hands.

"It's a big one!" she yelled.

Jeralt cast his aside and grabbed onto Byleth's fishing rod with her. "C'mon, kiddo, let's show this thing who's boss!"

They hauled in an embarrassingly small fish for how much trouble they'd had with it. But when cooking it up that night, it almost made taste better.

Claude had arrived to find Teach sleeping at her desk.

The Battle of the Eagle and Lion was almost upon them. In a mere week, he'd thrash Dimitri and Edelgard and show them just how much they ought to fear the Deer.

Not that he'd ever say that to anyone. He had an appearance to keep. But still, Claude knew he'd enjoy beating the both of them.

Granted, though, that required them to win.

It wasn't that Claude wasn't confident. After all, they'd just gotten Dorothea, an impressive caster and charismatic beacon on the field. Their firepower wasn't lacking, not at all. Neither was their coordination. And their training wasn't anything lax, either.

Why wasn't he confident?

Simple, they'd lost their first battle and they were Leicester, the inherent underdogs of Fódlan.

He'd checked the records of past mock battles. There last time the Deer had claimed a win was when Holst had led the house. The Deer rarely won, who was to say this time would be different?

Well, he did. That is, if his teacher would wake up so they could continue to strategize.

Claude moved closer to tap her shoulder, but stopped. Something made him pause, something akin to a realization. Maybe it was the last drips of sunlight pouring through the window or the messy hair of hers tucked into a ponytail. Maybe it was how even when asleep, her hand was resting on the knife at her belt. Or maybe it was just the curve of her jaw.

Claude realized, not for the first time if he was being perfectly honest, just how beautiful his professor was.

Oh, it wasn't a beauty that belonged to a fragile princess or some noblewoman tucked away in a castle and silks and frills. No, it was a rugged, natural beauty. A kind he remembered fondly from Almyra.

His father had fallen in love with his mother because she was a great warrior. She was beautiful, sure, but it was the sheer prowess she had that drew him to her. Claude didn't think himself that focused on battle. But the vulnerable expression on her face, that drew him in.

And that wasn't to say she wasn't gorgeous when she was in the middle of battle. Claude would never admit it, but he'd spent more than a little time looking at her back when she was training. She wore that damnably small top that showed off her shoulders, toned beyond definition with muscle.

Really, Riegan? The voice in his head was exasperated. Shoulders?

His wandering eyes had liked what they'd seen. He'd gone to the training grounds to watch Byleth train several times. Often he had a reason to. And sometimes it was just ogle her.

Every part of Byleth was a killing machine. Yet she wasn't without softness, vulnerability. She tried so hard to be everything for their class. No one could be that, but try she did.

Claude saw how much she pushed herself. Everyone in the class did. But as their leader, he spent the most time with her. Planning training schedules, routines, battle exercises, chores, they did it all together.

One day, he'd asked, "You put a lot of effort into all this, don't you?"

With a breathy voice, clear distracted, she said, "You all deserve it."

He didn't think she'd really noticed what she'd said, but Claude had fallen in love in that moment.

Love? Don't be absurd, he told himself. He'd known the woman for all of seven months and change. Claude didn't believe any of that 'love at first sight' garbage. A world where one could take a single look at someone and fall for them, that was a myth. The world where someone took one glance at him and saw hatred, now that was reality.

Still, there was something he felt for his professor. Friendship? Something more? Or just lust? He didn't know.

"You've been staring for a while. Something to say?"

Claude swallowed. Byleth was looking at him with a cocked brow, very much not asleep. "Just wondering whether to wake you or not," he decided to say.

"Uh huh," she said, clearly not convinced. But she didn't pursue it, instead launching right into their plans.

He tried to pay attention, but each time they met he felt it harder to listen to her words. Her voice was a siren song, something lulling him out of his senses.

Not that any of it mattered, the practical half of him said. Teach was involved with Mercedes.

It was hardly a secret, at least to someone who paid attention. They spent significant time with each other, even Mercedes sneaking out of Byleth's room and vice versa. He had a brain, he could connect the dots.

And so Claude von Riegan bit his tongue. After all, it was probably just a childish affection. Something he'd grow out of.

Gloved hands turned the doorknob slowly. He winced as the hinges of the door squeaked. For a moment, paranoia told him to run, to flee, to get out of the enemy's den.

But no one came. He slithered into the room, palming a small flame in his hand. As if he held a candle, the room's darkness shied away.

He knew the layout well. Bookshelves lined the walls and a stout desk sat in the middle of the room. Papers were scattered about its top. He scoffed.

Captain Jeralt certainly wasn't neat.

With light in hand, he scanned the books on the shelf. Most were droll titles. The fact that they were titled at all meant they weren't what he sought. What he wanted was far more personal, something Jeralt wouldn't keep out in the open.

A thin volume was wedged in between two larger tomes. With a lithe hand, he drew it out and flipped it open. The man's lips curled into a smile as he paged through.

He never thought Jeralt the man to keep a diary, it went against what a lot of people said about him. Such a stoic man keeping record of his thoughts.

"A child who doesn't cry. No heartbeat," he whispered to himself as he read. So that witch had done it. That complicated things.

But that meant the Progenitor God wasn't so dead as thought to be. That could be potentially useful. He'd have to confer with his associates.

He closed the book and returned it to its spot. With a breath of eldritch words, his disguise reaffixed itself to his face.

Pressing an ear against the door, he listened. Silence.

He opened and exited, looking both ways. Still no one.

A sigh escaped his lungs. Undetected.

He'd have to leave the monastery for a while to confer with Thales. Sothis could prove problematic for their plans.

Myson sneered as he left the building and stepped into the moonlight. Everything would go to plan. He would ensure it.

Byleth left the faculty tent to find that sunset had come and gone. The fields of Gronder were alight with the moon's glow. The whole area had been monopolized by the Church in their annual pilgrimage south for the mock battle.

Three distinct camps were set up, one for each house. They were lower on the hill than the Church leadership's encampment. The Archbishop had come herself, an odd occurrence judging from Seteth's paranoia at having Rhea out in the open.

But none of that was her concern. She, Manuela, and Hanneman had finished their discussions for the night. At midday, the battle would commence. Sleep was on her mind now.

But naturally, her fawns had different plans.

When she arrived at the Leicester camp, she passed students who bid her greetings. Many were from the lower classes, relegated to battalions instead of her individual attention. She tried her best to instruct the lesser Deer, but there were far too many to shape like her elite class. Still, Byleth was pleased with their progress.

As for her crème de la crème, they all sat around a fire making conversation.

She stood back, listening.

"I saw a man get hit with wyvern droppings once." Claude.

"You tell that story right now, mister." Dorothea.

A chorus of other voices chimed in. Claude began.

"It was actually during a Wyvern Moon, so the whole migration was going on. One of my tutors was taking me to go see them. I think his name was Nardel? Sounds right. Anyway, it was a day off from learning for me so I was so excited. I was asking so many questions. 'How far do they go?' or 'What's the fastest a wyvern can fly?' That kind of stuff.

"So he's not paying super close attention to his surroundings, but I am. I'm staring at the sky at all these majestic creatures, and I see a shape growing bigger."

"Oh no." Hilda.

"Yup. I think it's a wyvern diving, like Nardel is just telling me they can do, so I jump out of the way. Nardel sees me do so and steps closer to me to find out what's up. Then…" He paused for emphasis. "Splat."

"That is the single most disgusting thing I've ever heard," scoffed Lorenz.

"And the funniest," Leonie giggled.

Claude bowed as he sat on the log that lined one side of the fire. "I called him 'shitface' whenever I was annoyed with him."

"Creative," mocked Hilda.

"I was like, eight, cut me some slack!"

A smile curled at Byleth's mouth.


She blinked, seeing Mercedes waving. Leave it to Mercie discover her.

"Come sit with us, Teach!"

Byleth scratched the back of her head. "You're all having fun, you don't want your teacher to intrude."

"Poppycock," Lorenz said.

"You're one of us too." Ignatz.

"I don't mind." Marianne.

Claude shifted over to make room for her. "Seems like the crowd has spoken, Teach. You've got no choice. Come tell stupid stories with us."

Her class cheered as she took the offered spot.

Leonie leaned forward. "We've heard about Claude's wyvern shit story, Dorothea slapping the kinky noble in public, Ignatz' one and only theft, Hilda making Holst carry her around like a horse. You got a story to add?"

Byleth bit her lip. "I don't know if it's as funny as yours, but I once punched Trevor von Albrecht in the face."

Dorothea grinned widely. "Say more right now."

"Albrecht? As in the Leicester house?" Lorenz asked.

"The same," she answered.

Byleth took a moment to look around at her class. Leonie and Lorenz sat closer than she'd have ever expected them at the beginning of the year. Hilda was playing with Marianne's hair while the shy girl sat straighter than ever before and with a smile. Raphael played armrest for Ignatz who sat with them despite not participating in upcoming battle. Claude smiled a smile that reached his eyes. Dorothea had lost the apprehensive tension she'd had, looking like she sat amongst friends instead of strangers. And Mercedes had a small smile, just for her.

They were completely different from the first day she met all of them.

You are too, you know that?

Byleth found herself agreeing.

"So, we had this job in Albrecht, that tiny territory north of Edmund. There were these pirates we were dealing with that were easily taken care of. But on the way back, we got hassled by debt collectors, apparently looking for one of the Albrechts…"

They traded stories over the fire, staying up irresponsibly late on the eve of battle. Their mouths all ached from smiling so much, lungs heaving for breath when Lorenz regaled them with the time he disrupted a Roundtable meeting by falling asleep under the table as a child.

The fire was warm, but that had nothing to do with the warmth they each felt. That came from the makeshift family that sat around the flames. From newest member to oldest, it was camaraderie.

Byleth was content.

Chapter Text

Ferdinand von Aegir sat proudly atop his horse with a noble posture.

"You look like a fool, stop puffing your chest out," Hubert sneered next to him.

Ferdinand von Aegir deflated, wind taken from his sails. "Hubert, we represent the future of Adrestia here. It is prudent for us to make sure we give a good impression.

Hubert, who was without a mount, folded his arms and looked up at Ferdinand. "They will not remember how we stood or sat, they'll remember who won."

Ferdinand blanched, unable to find a rebuke. This was always how it turned out with Hubert. In his heart of hearts, he curled tighter into a ball, just wishing that Hubert would pay him even the slightest compliment.

But that was too much to ask at the monastery, so of course it was no exception on the fields of Gronder. When Edelgard had paired them up to watch their north flank, he'd been ecstatic. Surely this was his chance to prove himself to the man he dreamed about. He'd swoop in to Hubert's rescue and save him like a proper knight always did.

Except Hubert had nothing but distaste for him and those stories never ended with the knight kissing his male lover. Not in Adrestia, at least. And Duke Aegir hadn't seen fit to have his heir read children's stories from Leicester.

So Ferdinand shut his mouth and resigned himself to the quiet that Hubert seemed to prefer. The mage glanced at him for the briefest moment and Ferdinand caught his triumphant smirk.

Goddess curse him for falling for a bastard.

Lorenz had once asked him what he saw in Hubert (the Leicester noble treated his crush like it were common knowledge, scaring Ferdinand more than he cared to admit. The fear of Duke Aegir finding out was not insignificant). Ferdinand had recounted reason after reason, from physical attraction to emotional.

What he'd give to have Hubert look at him like he did Edelgard. Were he being totally honest with himself, that played into his ambitions to be Emperor. Were he the highest authority in Adrestia, then it would be Hubert's role as Vestra to protect him. His heart did backflips just at the thought of it.

Maybe it could be more than a passing dream.

A horn sounded in the distance, from Lady Rhea's encampment. It was the signal for the mock battle to begin.

Ferdinand turned his mount around to look at the soldiers he led. He held his spear aloft. "Soldiers of Adrestia, let us prove that we are the strongest on the continent!"

His soldiers raised their weapons in a rousing cheer. He smiled. At least his people respected him. Hubert and Edelgard might not have the highest opinions, but this showed he was doing something right.

Sylvain, if he was being honest, didn't care about a mock battle.

The wooden lance in his hand was too light and there was a lack of urgency in his veins. What was the point of a mock battle when they'd already been fighting in real skirmishes? Some petty pride of who had bragging rights?

It was hard for Sylvain to look at battle as some competition, not after he'd been ending lives and coping with the death of his brother.

There was no love for Miklan in him. The bastard had treated him awfully. Any care for the man had left him a decade ago, but sympathy remained. Miklan hadn't had it easy. Sylvain was old enough to understand that now.

"You're distracted," Felix said.

Sylvain smirked. "Oh? Someone's paying close attention to me."

Felix scoffed and continued walking forward. They were going north to head off the Deer, approaching slowly to lure the Deer into the forest. Faerghus soldiers were more accustomed to fighting in dense woods than their Alliance counterparts.

"I was just think about Miklan. And what a waste of time this battle is," Sylvain said.

Felix said nothing. Not that Sylvain expected him to say anything. They each had their brother problems. Maybe that's why they got along so well. Of their group, Ingrid and Dimitri were close, and he and Felix were. Not that the other two weren't close to Felix, they just didn't understand him like Sylvain did.

"Miklan wouldn't shed a tear over you, you shouldn't for him," Felix finally said.

Sylvain considered it. He wasn't wrong, not in the slightest. "Who said anything about tears?"

There was almost a smile on Felix's face, which was as close as it ever got these days. "Fair enough," he replied.

"Say what's on your mind, I know you want to," Sylvain said with a chuckle. He barely even paid attention to the battlefield now.

Felix, of course, did. So his response came after several moments of casing the surroundings. "I'm glad he's dead."

His laugh came out dry. "Good to see you're still the same, Felix."

The man growled and turned away from Sylvain. It was as close as Felix ever came to expressing care: hating those who harmed those he cared for. It was very Felix of him, if Sylvain thought about it. Even when they were kids, he was the protective younger friend. When Miklan hurt Sylvain, he'd have to hold Felix back from doing something.

An arrow stuck into the ground at Felix's feet.

Sylvain glanced into the forest. No one.

Another practice arrow struck his pauldron.

"The trees!" hissed Felix, drawing his sword.

There, up in the canopy, was Leonie poised with her bow. Other Deer appeared from the bushes and tops of other trees, bows drawn.

Felix immediately charged forward as their Leicester barrage began.

Sylvain laughed. He was too old for childish games like this. But seeing his friend run forward made him remember happier days of adventures with wooden practice weapons just like they held now.

"Lions, go!" he shouted, spurring his horse forward.

Ashe held an arrow in his clenched jaw as he lay prone on the ground. Dimitri and Manuela had planned to meet the Eagles head on while laying ambush forces.

From within his bush, Ashe was completely hidden. His battalion was spread out, each with arrows knocked ready for the confrontation.

Two days ago, he'd received word from his adoptive mother that Lonato had made him heir to their house. It was unprecedented, having a commoner take a mantle such as that. Ashe now saw just why Lonato had been so insistent on Ashe attending at Garreg Mach. Let him learn the ways of nobles to quell rumors.

The problem was that Ashe did not want to be Ashe Gaspard.

He wanted to track down Lonato's killers. He wanted to find who framed his father, he wanted to punish Rhea and Byleth, and he wanted to avenge Christophe and Lonato.

"Rage only gets you so far," Sylvain had told him months ago. "You can be angry, but that alone isn't going to fix anything. You need to use that as motivation."

His friend had been trying to coax him into letting go of his hatred. Sylvain, despite what he would tell anyone, was a good man. He played the dastard heart-breaker, but it wasn't him at his core.

After Lonato had been butchered, Felix had come to him too. He'd been sitting by the fishing pond when Felix had sat down next to him.

He'd only said one thing to him before leaving: "Don't let them get away with it. It will haunt you forever."

Both of their advice weighed on his mind as he was running out of time to decide whether to be the next Gaspard or not. Chase justice on his own, or bide his time for something?

Lonato would tell him to give it up, to care for his people. But Ashe wasn't Lonato.

The ground beneath him trembled. Edelgard's forces, surely. His grip tightened on his bow as he waited.

If the Eagles were an army of soldiers, then the Deer were a group of vagabonds.

Lysithea's mage corps flung spell after spell at them, but they retreated into the woods before any hit, content with their single arrow shot.

It was guerilla warfare, something Hanneman had explained as the weapon of the weaker. Throughout history, smaller nations would fight off larger armies by using hit-and-run tactics and other underhanded maneuvers. Not that Hanneman spoke ill of them, he just expressed what they truthfully were: messy, but effective.

Lysithea had quickly come to realize that she was ill-equipped to deal with them.

Edelgard had focused their primary force on dealing with Dimitri. It seemed that both the Eagles and Lions considered the Deer the weaker opponent and focused on taking down the stronger first.

"Delay the Deer," Edelgard had commanded her. "Once I finish Dimitri off, I'll reinforce you."

It was a sound plan. For a mock battle, lives weren't on the line.

Except that the Deer had decided to play dirty.

"Hold your ground," she said as the recent group of archers fled back into the woods. "Edelgard has asked us to hold this spot and we shall do so. They want us to follow them in there so they can destroy us."

She wanted to make Edelgard proud of her.

Byleth stalked through the bushes like a cat eyeing prey. Lysithea and her soldiers were ill defended, to the point that Byleth anticipated a trap.

She raised two fingers in the air just above the bush. With them, she gestured sharply twice forward.

Dull crinkles of leaves were the indication that her battalion was moving forward. Were the battlefield quiet, Lysithea's troops might have heard them, except for Dorothea making the sky scream with thunder. It might have been blue skies for a battle, but the dense storm cloud signaled the Deer's main advance.

Leonie had pulled her battalion back after peppering Lysithea, moving to reinforce Claude and Lorenz at the front flank. If everything was going to plan, then they would have lured the Lions into flanking distance from Raphael. He'd charge in, as was his best skill, and smash them against the tower with the ballista. And with Dorothea's lightning raining havoc, the siege weapon would be suboptimal. After all, nothing conducted lightning like a big, metal bow.

But that was neither here nor there. Hanneman and Edelgard weren't idiots, they'd be ready. Lysithea was in their way and she needed to be taken out.

Luckily, Byleth had a secret weapon.

"Ready?" she whispered.

Hilda nodded with a grimace. "I can't believe you made me crouch in these awful bushes. You owe me a bath after this, that's for sure."

"I'm sure if you ask nicely I can convince Marianne to join you," Byleth muttered with a slight smile.

"Oh professor, such a tease. You could join us too, might see something you like," she said with a wink. "Or maybe you can bring Mercedes with?"

Byleth opened her mouth to protested but Hilda shushed her. "It's sweet, I think. You don't have to worry about me talking. You two make a good match. Pair of mother hens and all that."

Distraction was the last thing they needed. "I regret bringing up Marianne, we need to focus."

"No, you were giving us both motivation. Let's bring a victory back and earn a kiss from our sweethearts, shall we?" Hilda raised two fingers in the air like Byleth had, except she rotated them in a circle before pointing forward.

"Good luck," was all Byleth could whisper before Hilda charged out of the forest. Her battalion moved with her, screaming war cries.

The mages reacted slowly, several mucking up their hand motions for their spells. Glyphs muddled in the air, blurring as wooden axes rained down.

"Now!" Byleth hissed and ran forward.

If Hilda's soldiers broke upon the mages like a wave, Byleth's was the second wave that would topple the ship. You strike strongly to shake someone, then quickly to kill, she'd said the night before. It was a proven way to handle mages.

Because mages needed time to cast. It was why distance was their friend.

By sneaking up on them, it took the advantage out of their hands. Lysithea's corps of mages were able to sling a few spells, but most fell short. Hilda's battalion took the brunt, but they were built of stockier stuff than to fall to simple fireballs.

Byleth's battalion smashed into them as they still reeled, swords meeting flesh. Wooden swords, granted. The rules bade that someone was 'dead' if they surrendered or suffered what could be considered a mortal wound.

Mages were supposed to pull their punches, which made Lysithea's next move all the more surprising.

She crouched down and pressed her hands to the ground. The ground rumbled, glowing an angry red. Byleth knew that spell.

The bolganone erupted, literally. Ground exploded with flames, searing Byleth's flesh as she was one of the closer people.

To her fortune, her clothes bore the brunt of the attack as she was flung back. Her back collided with earth, skidding a few feet.

Byleth blinked, eyes blurry. Fighting still continued despite the spell and the smell of smoke took her back two decades.

Flames licked her crib, as if they were greedy for any kind of fuel. She felt small, so small, so swaddled in blankets that she couldn't move.

A voice shouted her name. What was her name? All she could do was cough. Her father would come for her. Daddy would come, he always did. He promised her he'd always protect her.

The voice shouted again. But it was lost as the roof began to cave in above her, snapping with the same sound as the arm she broke when she was eleven. Or was it twelve? Or two thousand? Were these her memories?

Someone stood above the crib. A woman with light green hair and a fierce expression. She was someone important. Was she?



The professor gasped for air, held in Hilda's arms. "Shh," whispered Hilda, patting Byleth's back. "You're back, you're here." She turned her head back towards where Lysithea sat on the ground, panting. "You did this on purpose. Just like before! You knew how she'd react and you still did it."

Lysithea said nothing.

Hilda snarled. "Be glad this is just a mock battle and I have to hold back. I'm glad you left the Deer, we're better without you."

Lysithea flinched.

"It's okay, By," Hilda soothed, running a hand through her hair. "Is there anything I can do?"

If Byleth had anything to say, it was cut off by the rumble. A rumble far louder than any bolganone spell.

There was a roar in the distance. A foul, bestial roar that shook the very bones in her body. The kind she'd heard once before at the top of a large tower.

"That wouldn't happen to be the Archbishop's horn, would it?" Hilda said nervously, knowing full well it wasn't.

She knew just as well what a demonic beast sounded like.

A tree became kindling beneath its leg as it marched into the clearing so recently decimated by the flames.

"Wait here," Hilda urged as Byleth protested. "I'll hold it off."

Oh yeah, great idea. Hold off a demonic beast with a wooden axe.

"Everyone form up!" she shouted. Terrified students flocked to her, beckoned by her tone more than her words. "There's too many wounded, we can't run. We hold it off!"

At least two dozen people lay about with various burns from Lysithea's spell, not counting Byleth who certainly wasn't in the right frame of mind to think.

The beast saw them and bounded towards them. Hilda hadn't seen anything as terrifying as it before. Its dull crimson body broke through trees as if they were quills, snapped without effort. The glowing red symbol in its forehead was hypnotic, holding her attention for a near fatal time.

"Attack!" she screamed, running forward if only to make it stop running towards the wounded. One of the claws sliced through the air towards her and caught the edge of her armor as she was just a bit faster. With a winding chop, she smashed her wooden axe onto its leg. It didn't cut into skin, but damn if the practice axe didn't have a weight to it. Other members of her and Byleth's battalions followed suit, happy that Hilda was the center of attention.

They weren't as happy when the monster turned on the spot and smashed its tail into near fifteen of them. Their screams were a chorus of pain, reaching the furthest reaches of Gronder.

What the hell was Hilda doing? Charging a near-dragon with a stick?

In that moment, Hilda had an epiphany. If people had an expectation for her to protect them, then maybe that wasn't so bad. She thought about Byleth and how there had been no hesitation to run to her defense. People depended on Holst to win wars and change the world which was all huge and scary. But protecting someone, that was simple. Something Hilda could understand.

It didn't save her from the beast backhanding her as she was too slow to move.

She skid across the ground, kicking up dirt and slowing right before the tree line started. "Fuck," she sputtered, pushing herself up. Her everything hurt, especially her ass.

Hilda looked up to see the demonic beast above her. A purple mist coalesced in its mouth, like warm breath on a cold day. It had hunger in its eyes or maybe hatred. Whatever it was, it bored into Hilda's soul.

She held the wooden axe, unable to steady her tremble. Without thinking, she pushed herself back, trying to slide out of its reach.

A titanic foot slammed down next to her, mere inches away. The creature was toying with her. It had sentience to understand that contrary to myths about such monsters being mindless.

But all of that was gone from Hilda's mind. As she stared death in the eyes, she saw her family in their reflection. Holst, her father, but also the Deer. Claude's smile, Lorenz's eye roll, Leonie tacky fashion, all of it. All the annoying moments, all the pleasant.

"Goddess dammit," she whispered as the beast opened its mouth, the putrid mist beginning to congeal into something more solid.

"Get away from her!" screamed an angel.

Hilda blinked and Byleth stood in front of her, no wooden sword in hand. Instead she held a knife, the one she carried on her belt at all times. The only real weapon brought onto the battlefield.

"Run," hissed Byleth.


"Run!" she yelled, lurching forward. She swung the miniscule blade at the gargantuan creature, clipping the tip of its snout. Hilda could hear the sound of metal meeting thick skin in all its ineffectiveness.

But it startled the beast, causing it to rear back. Hilda scrambled to her feet, standing at her professor's side.

"I gave you an order," Byleth growled, not taking her eyes of the monster as it recovered.

"Guess I'm just a delinquent of a student," Hilda said through a weak smirk. Goddess, she hurt. She could feel blood dripping down her back under her armor. It wasn't an insignificant amount.

Byleth bit back whatever she was going to say as the beast slammed a foot down on the ground in fury. There was none of the glee in its eyes anymore, now they shone devoid, lacking any and all emotion. It was the expression of a predator focused.

"Lysithea, any time would be good now!" Byleth hollered.

For a precious second, nothing happened. Then, spikes of darkness erupted from the ground beneath the beast, each a blade into the underbelly.

The demonic beast screamed and Hilda dropped her weapon to clutch her eardrums. She thought she screamed as well, but her voice was a warble against the ringing of her eardrums, the faint thud of a soft knock at a door.

Byleth did not double over. Instead, she moved. The beast had lowered its head as its howl tore through its lungs, almost touching the ground. And that was enough for Byleth.

The professor leapt at its maw, catching her foot in the lower jaw. She jumped from the point, giving herself enough height to grapple onto the top of its head. The beast's eyes locked onto her, almost confused.

And she buried the knife into the glowing stone. The noise of it shattering was louder than any cry that came from the demon.

The demonic beast's body glowed briefly before blossoming into thick, black and red smoke. Byleth fell to the ground and barely caught herself. In the beast's place, just like Miklan, lay a man. Instead of a Lance of Ruin, he wore different accoutrement: two large gauntlets that could hardly be considered such as they had massive claws protruding from the ends.

Byleth collapsed to the ground and Hilda rushed to her side. She checked her teacher's pulse and breathed a sigh when she felt it. Exhaustion, no doubt.

As if on cue, soldiers flooded out of the forests. The bore the sign of Seiros. The Church had arrived and with them students from all the other houses. Before anyone could take control of the situation, voices rang out from terrified students.

"Where did the beast go?"

"Is that Professor Eisner?"

"That Relic, what is that?"

"That man, he was the beast!"

"That's Baron Ochs!"

The last voice came from a man who Hilda had never known to shout. Linhardt slowly approached, almost as if he was in disbelief. He stared down at the man, shock covering his normally pensive face.

"What happened here?" Seteth called out, looking at the students who lay in various states of harm.

Hilda answered, surprising herself. "The professor killed the beast and it turned back into that man, just like with Miklan."

The right hand of the Archbishop looked taken aback while the Archbishop, who had just walked up astride Seteth, glowered at Hilda. There was an anger in the gaze. Was it something she had said?

Hilda found she didn't care. Students began to murmur.

"Do people who use Relics turn into monsters?"

"Don't be silly, that Relic must be different. Right?"

Sylvain walked up next to Hilda and crouched down by her teacher. He looked at her and said, "That happened to Miklan?" She nodded.

"I'll help carry her. The rest of your house is on its way." He scooped Byleth up with far more gentleness than Hilda expected out of Sylvain of all people.

And so Hilda followed Sylvain back to his house as the rest of the Deer arrived, looking winded but ready to protect their own. They escorted Sylvain as he carried their unconscious member back to the encampment, leaving the Church to try and explain away what had just transpired.

Chapter Text

(The text is adorned with neat writing, I's dotted with hearts, and a picture of a fawn at the bottom)


Quit being such a grumpybutt, I'm fine. It's been busy here so I haven't had a chance to write. Clearly you don't have much work to do at the border if you can send me five letters in a week. Just what kind of rumors have you been listening to? As if me, your delicate little sister, could face down a giant demonic dragon thing and live, please. Rumors of my valor have been greatly exaggerated. You can bet I ducked and ran behind a tree at the first opportunity.

But the professor, she stood her ground. She deserves all the credit, honestly. You'd like her, all action and no talk. Well, not no talk, but very little talk. She's actually quite sweet in how much she cares about all of us, she just shows it in different ways. Also, she could totally kick your ass in a fight. She killed a giant monster by herself practically!

So yes, to answer your incessant questions in your letters, I am fine. Claude is fine. Marianne is fine. We are all fine. There were no deaths, just some broken bones. You'll be horrified to know that I, Hilda Valentine Goneril, got a bruise on my butt. Took a little stumble as I was backing away. It hurts and I need lots of care and attention and presents from my dearest brother.

I'm glad to have the mock battle behind us. It all ended in a catastrophe like you heard, but the general consensus was that the Eagles are the winners. Poor Prince Dimitri got attacked from both sides as Claude and Edelgard seem to have both assessed him as the biggest threat on the battlefield. He got taken out of the combat before the beast raced in (though if you believe the rumors, and I do, they say it took a dozen Eagles to bring him down. Sounds like you may have a rival!). Claude's plan had been to pick off the Lions and distract Edelgard while the professor and I came from the other side and hit them in a pincer. But that didn't happen and Edelgard smashed Claude's force. Apparently they did better than she expected, but it wasn't enough.

So sorry to ruin your legacy, dearest brother, savior of the Alliance, protector of the border, fighter of legends. But yet again the Deer fail to live up to your reputation. Guess being a once-in-a-lifetime general means never having a rival. So I guess you'll have to get married to some old hag and have lots of children and busy your time with giving me plenty of nieces and nephews to spoil.

And, may I add, Marianne has been doting on me all week. It's adorable. She's so concerned about my well-being (something a certain older brother would know nothing about, right?) and has told me she won't leave my side in battle again. Isn't that just so sweet? Ugh, I might just be in love. After we graduate, I'll introduce her to you. Not that I care about your approval, but she's the type to be shown off. You'd understand if you ever courted someone.

Okay, serious time, I'm sure you also heard the rumor of the beast turning back into a man, right? It's no rumor. We saw it at Conand Tower when Miklan Gautier stole the Lance of Ruin. Baron Ochs apparently turned into a monster when he held some strange gauntlets (some new Relic? No one is sure) and reverted after his death, just like Miklan.

Relics tie these two together. The professor has told us that Rhea told her that using a Hero's Relic without a Crest turns someone into a monster. The Church is saying that the transformation is a result of this new fabricated Relic. That is a lie. This is not a new occurrence, this is something they've known about.

Perhaps Claude is rubbing off on me, but secrets like this make me not trust them. Don't trust them either, Holst. The Eastern Church might be a joke, but they're an extension of the Central. Be careful, I'm wary of Rhea. What else could they be hiding?

Be careful, dearest brother of mine. For once I say that without sarcasm (odd, no?). I know you've always preferred a sword over an axe, but do not use Freikugel. I know you have a Crest, but I worry. These weapons, they feel alive. There is a presence to them. I felt it when looking at the Lance of Ruin and I recall the same feeling from Freikugel. I've spoken to Lorenz about this and he thinks there are more to the Relics than we could know. Claude and the professor agree. They're all scouring the library quietly, looking for anything. Should I hear anything, I'll relay it to you.

But please, I don't want to lose you.

Give my love to pops,


(The writing is rigid and cold, betraying the writer's emotions)


With circumstances as they are at the monastery, I can no longer ignore that something odd is happening here and in Fódlan at large. I hereby request my birthright, Thyrsus.

Do not think that this is myself being some petulant child hung up on power. The Deer were outmatched at the mock battle and we have disgraced the Alliance. There is talk of a redo of the fight on the eve of graduation and I would not see us trodden on again.

As well, what better way to show up Claude than to show everyone that the future Lord Gloucester holds his Relic and uses it with ease?

I hope all is well with you and that we can agree upon this.


(The words are squished together, written from a hand that barely can keep up with the mind)


Forgive me for not writing sooner! It's been an awfully busy few months, that's for sure. I've transferred classes and it's been a much better fit. But I'm not writing about that.

I've met someone. Romantically, that is.

She's so sweet, strong, and beautiful. You'd like her, I think. And I can't wait to introduce you to her once I've graduated.

Your husband won't be pleased, though. She has no title or money. I will not resign myself to seek such material gains, but I worry about you. I am your daughter, not his. But you are his wife and I don't wish to make things harder for you.

I'm at a loss as to how to approach this. He is not an unkind man, but he is focused on his goals. And as I am here on his gold, I fear that it will anger him. Not fear for myself, he could never do anything to me with Byleth at my side. But it scares me that he might take it out on you in some way.

I have prayed to the Goddess for guidance and I feel that she is urging me to speak with you and he about it. At least, that is what I believe to be right. She values honesty, so honesty shall be my policy. But I am still selfish, so I come to you first for advice. I hope She does not look poorly on me for that.

Your beloved daughter,


(The text is in native Almyran, appearing like scribbles to those not fluent)


Sorry for the lack of communication, Silas is onto me. Last time I visited him, he threatened that if I disobeyed him he'd reveal our connection. Better check dad's agents in the capital, one of them is a traitor.

There haven't been any new developments with our plan, but I am confident in the foundation I am creating. I came here to find allies and I have found friends. It might sound the same, but having people I can trust is a benefit I had not expected, to be honest.

I already know what you're thinking. No, I haven't told any of them anything. While I don't think they'd betray me, I am not throwing caution into the wind.

I'll be in touch more. Your last letter proposed a plan to deal with Silas. I'm considering it.


(The words are deliberately written, as if great thought was put into their creation)


Meet me atop the Goddess Tower. I want to talk.


(There's a fold in the center of the note from being slid under the recipient's door)

Professor Eisner,

As per your request, I've looked into the whereabouts of Baron Ochs. According to his staff, he hasn't been the same since his daughter originally vanished. There were erratic trips and meetings he participated in with varying levels of secrecy. Some things he took greater care to hide than others.

Some of my associates are looking into it, but I can already tell you my suspicion. And granted, I do not speak for everyone in the Church, but I suspect that someone within the Church is responsible for Monica's disappearance. She went missing on the grounds of Garreg Mach. I will not pretend to guess at a method, but the depths of Garreg Mach are deep. It would not be difficult to contain someone in them. I trust you remember our previous conversations to which I mentioned someone to watch out for. I suggest you consider them a possibility. But my associates will get back to me soon, in which I hope to confirm my suspicions. Better an enemy you know than one you don't.

As for the Relic, of that I have more info. A vassal, of sorts, that serves me identified them as a fabricated Relic, one he could use. Seteth has them locked up, so that does not help us, but it is confirmation. He called it Vajra-Mushti, something that was passed down in his family. According to him, its creation predates the Kingdom. I have sent people to investigate its origins, but I'm not hopeful. Were there a means to create weapons like Relics, then that organization would conquer Fódlan. That's far too tempting for any group to hide away.

Hopefully those answers shed some light on your questions. I am ever at your service to help.


(The letter is crumpled into a ball, shoved behind her desk to never be seen or finished)


I will not be returning after graduation. Hilda has invited me to stay at Goneril for as long as I desire.

I understand this will anger you, but I do not care. I shall speak to Claude and renounce my title, abdicating any and all rights as your heir. I do not desire to be Margrave, I never have. Nor do I desire to be a pawn in your schemes.

I shall not tell anyone of your plans. I do this in faith that you will not seek revenge. You and I both know we share no love for each other, but I have learned from you. You once told me, 'Never give something for nothing, Marianne.' You told me this when you let the poacher go and then shot him in the back with your crossbow. Do you recall that memory?

I asked you why you let him go. Your answer was, 'He will never poach from the grave.'

I give you this assurance as I disobey you. Do not pursue me and I shall not take action. I need not remind you of my closeness with the heirs to Riegan and Goneril, your two biggest allies.

I deserve a family that cares—

(The bottom of the letter is marred with dried teardrops)

(The paper is expensive and folded carefully in its envelope)

Mother and Father,

I hope you and the girls are well! It's been so busy here as the year is coming to a close. Everyone in my class seems like an entirely different person than the one that began to year.

My professor told me a few days ago how much I was impressing her lately. She told me that I have what it takes to be a knight with my determination. So, in short, I've been well.

I believe I told you about Shamir in my last letter? Well, she and I are taking a trip with the Princess of Brigid to go out hunting. It's apparently a tradition for her to take promising archers out to hunt wolves. I'm excited, if a bit nervous. We'll only be gone for a few days and I won't be in any danger with Shamir around, but I'm concerned with disappointing her. I'll do my best to live up to your expectations of me.

As for Petra, I think you'd like her. She came and visited me when I had a small injury (nothing to worry over) and told me about Brigid. I think I'd like to travel there, someday.

Apologies for the shorter letter, but there hasn't been much to say. I'll write you again after our hunting trip.


P.S. The drawings enclosed are for the girls.

(The letters are smashed together as if they were written in the dark)


If you never want to see me again after that, I understand.


(The letter is written on the fourth piece of paper, previous drafts discarded)


I'm sorry, but I need more time to decide. In my heart, I have always been a Gaspard. You and Lonato have raised me and my siblings from the goodness of your heart. Christophe was the older brother I never had. Know that my choice isn't made out of distaste for family or anything as absurd as that.

I want to discover the truth about what happened to Lonato. I fear taking up a noble mantle might inhibit that. I need more time to decide, to figure out what I need to do.

I'll come visit soon. I miss you and the others.


(The letter does not have an addressee, as if its recipient knows exactly who it is for)

One of the most important lessons I learned in my childhood was that ignoring something or doing nothing is seldom the right move. Bullies don't lose interest, problems don't solve themselves. You want something to change, you go out and make it happen.

Prepare to go forward with our plans. Damn you all to the Eternal Flames, but we root the Church out. They would ignore their problems as if that would make them disappear.

Prepare to begin marshalling the troops as we discussed. I shall work with your agent to assist with her mission.

(As above, so below; the bottom of the letter lacks a name)

(The slip of paper is barely big enough to fit the words on it)


You're avoiding me. It was stress relief, it doesn't have to be any more. Get your head out of your ass and be professional. Sex doesn't mean attachment where I'm from.


(The writing is the messiest in existence, with only his daughter having the ability to decipher it)


I know you've been a bit down since the mock battle. What say you and I go on a little fishing trip your next free weekend? I found a small lake to the north that looked calm. Might be the next big one in there, huh?

Leaving this note on your bed. Goddess, you run around so much lately that I can't even find you. Don't you go leaving your old man in the dust now.


(There is a chocolate stain in the bottom corner and the words curve around it)

Mother and Father,

I spoke to Edelgard. She is willing and would welcome you in open arms, should you decide. If not, she says she understands.

Things have been…stressful, lately. Some of the other students from Leicester are rather cold to me, but I continue down my path. I believe that joining the Eagles was the correct choice, I've learned far more from Edelgard and Professor Hanneman than I would have in the Deer. If a cold shoulder is all I must deal with, than I do not think that is much to worry about.

I'm sure you heard of the monster that attacked. I'm fine, don't worry. In fact, I helped play a role in bringing it down.

I'll be home to visit soon, once the year ends. It will be nice to see you both, I've missed you terribly.


(The script is entirely alien from any Fódlani language, written with haste from a stressed hand)


I received your letter. I can't believe you risked sending me something like this. Had the Empire caught your messenger, the both of us would have been doomed.

Still, your concern moves me. But you need not worry, I am safe here.

But since you will still worry, let me be blunt, do not try to save me. Brigid has a leader in you, do not throw away your life and our people's to come rescue me. If I am captured or used as leverage against you, let them kill me.

I know this is not what you want to hear. And it is not what I want. But a ruler thinks of her people first, you taught me that. You also taught me that an heir rules before she takes a crown or throne. Let me make this choice, for our people.

If the Empire attacks, bring the fury of the Flame Spirit down on them. Stand resolute like the Wood Spirit. But most of all, bring home our people safe like the Water Spirit does each day. Do this as a request from me in case the worst happens.

I love you, grandfather. As much as the circumstances are dire, I have found friends here. Hopefully I can be selfish and ask their help should war come.


Your messenger traveled fast and was not caught. He was lucky. Don't risk anyone else's life to bring me a message, you know what the Empire would do if they had read your letter.

(The words are unintelligible, written in a cipher)


Proceed as planned.

Chapter Text

Normally, the library would be silent in the dead of night. Curfew didn't extend to the library, but it wasn't often that students liked to spend their time for sleep elsewhere.

This night was different, just like the past few nights. Five figures sat around a table, noses buried in books with tomes stacked like castles around them.

"I hate reading," groaned Hilda as she snapped her book shut.

"No, you don't," Claude said without hesitation or looking up.

Hilda pouted. "Why couldn't I come when Marianne was here?"

Lorenz sipped at a cup of long cold tea, grimacing. "Because then you'd get nothing done."

Byleth chuckled as Hilda protested. She privately agreed with Lorenz. It was why when she scheduled them all for researching times, she made sure to create groups that would function.

Not that she'd had to convince them all of it. Claude had proposed studying Relics more after the mock battle and the rest of the class agreed. He'd shared some research he'd done in his own time and like the close house they'd become, the others jumped to help. Some were less suited to research and helped in other ways. Raphael took over chore duty and Mercedes took over dining hall duty to free up the bookworms.

Claude and Lorenz were almost constantly in the library with Hilda of all people following up. Despite her protests otherwise, she wasn't stupid.

Their fifth member, Ignatz, wasn't actually at the table at the moment. She looked around and saw him chatting with Tomas.

Dorothea had been with them as of an hour ago, but Byleth sent her to her room when she'd fallen asleep in her tome. Leonie had left hours before that to get in some practice with Shamir.

These students will work themselves to the bone for you. Do you see that?

Byleth did. She tried to pretend it wasn't so. How could anyone follow her so dutifully? It had to be Claude. He had charisma, the passion she did not.

The man in question leaned forward to rib Hilda further. When had she started to consider him a man and not a boy? The thought started Byleth. No longer did she sit with boys and girls, now she saw men and women. What had changed it?

And Claude himself, that smile on his face was real now. When had she been able to tell that? And when had it become to infectious that she started to smile too when she saw it?

Was it the mock battle? No, it was before that. Maybe it wasn't a specific point.

You are such a fool, you know that? For someone who sees so much, you are astonishingly blind.

Sothis was another matter.

After the mock battle, after she'd recovered from the fire, she confronted the girl in her head about the vision. She'd been reticent, unwilling to share much.

"They aren't your memories of the fire," Sothis had told her. "They're mine. I was awake in you and was there to remember it for you. I am the reason you fear fire so. For a baby to see and experience that at such a young age, it must have been terrifying."

Byleth hadn't know what to say to that. So she'd said nothing.

"It seems that even while I was dormant, I could see…" she had trailed off, and those were the last words Byleth heard from her for a week.

Until Sothis began to chirp away again in her head, whatever ailed her seemingly gone. But that time away had given Byleth time to think.


So basic, so necessary. It was everywhere in the world. When she was younger, Byleth had been scared of campfires. Her father hadn't known how to react as it had been the winter. Someone who avoided campfires froze. So he'd held her, keeping her close to show her that the flames couldn't harm her.

She didn't mind campfires now. Or torches, or any of its mundane uses. That wasn't to say she was ready to sit close to a bonfire or hold the torch, but it was a progress in the grand scheme.

A nightmare had paid visit last night. It was one she'd grown accustomed to in her life, as one became used to a sword in the gut as a mercenary. Excruciating, but familiar.

She'd been tied to a stake as cloaked figures began to light her pyre. Byleth would burn alive, waking only when the flames reached her neck. But this time, it'd been Lysithea who dropped the torch onto the woodpile.

Mercedes had been furious when Byleth told her about how Lysithea attacked her in the mock battle, but Byleth calmed her down. Said it was just a way to play to advantages which she could hardly fault. But deep down, Byleth wondered if it was that or a vendetta. But a vendetta for what?

"For nothing," Claude had said when she finally mentioned it to him as they reviewed the mock battle one cold night as the first wisps of snow blew in from Faerghus. "Lysithea is a child, plain and simple. She wants to prove herself amidst people older, and in some cases, more skilled than her. You're an easy target to put down to gain Edelgard's approval."

The scorn in his voice shocked her. She voiced it.

"She hurts you, Teach. I see it, Mercedes sees it, we all do. It's one thing to turn traitor to your class like she did. That I could forgive, it's just school. But to use fire like she has to get to you, that I cannot abide." His knuckles had gone white as he clenched his hands. "If she ever does it again, you tell me, Hilda, or Lorenz. We'll take care of her for you."

Byleth didn't want to admit it, but it felt good to hear those words. To have someone aside from her father to look out for her.

And so therein came her newest resolution. Once the school year ended, she'd focus on getting over her fear. How, she had no idea. But there was drive in her soul, in her heart. If these students—no, these friends—were willing to go to such lengths for her, then she owed it to them to get better to be able to return the favor.

"Hey, everyone!"

Byleth snapped out of her daze, having been reading the same paragraph repeatedly for Goddess knew how long.

It was fifteen minutes.

Ignatz tended to hobble when he got excited. The crutch under his arm could barely keep up with his pace. On one hand, she was ecstatic that he was recovering so well. On the other, the poor man looked like he'd fall over when he moved too quickly.

He set down a small wooden case on the table. "Tomas just showed this to me, something from his personal collection," he babbled. "I mentioned to him we were studying the Relics after what happened at the battle and he suggested I might be interested in this as an artist."

"I'm not sure how art is going to help this," Lorenz replied, though he still looked intrigued.

Ignatz offered no reply, instead lifting the lid off the box. Inside was a deck of cards far older than Byleth had ever seen.

"It's an old fortune telling deck," Ignatz said. "The kind you might see at a carnival or fair."

"Shit," whispered Claude. He'd picked them up and looked at the first card.

It was a worn and faded image, but still visible. The paint had lost luster in its color, but it did not dull the ferocity in the image of the dragon. The beast was a deep red like an autumn sunset. The card was labeled, 'Creator'.

Hilda and Lorenz still looked confused. Claude began to share in Ignatz' excitement. "Old decks like these," he said, "were filled with various depictions of the Relics in order to tell fortunes. You'd have a set of the Relics, the Crests, and the holy stars, like the Blue Sea Star. Depending on what you drew, the dealer was supposed to tell your fortune."

"That's great and all, but how does that help us?" Hilda said. Beside her, Lorenz nodded in agreement.

"Look!" Claude cried. "You were the one who suggested the Relics felt alive, Hilda. Look at this art!"

As she thumbed through them, her eyes widened.

Each Relic card displayed a different one of the weapons. Freikugel. Failnaught. Thyrsus. Thunderbrand. Something called the Fetters of Dromi. But like the 'Creator' card, they had mythical animals.

Freikugel had a colossal bear, but the weapon was displayed in the leg of the huge animal.

Thyrsus an inflamed bird, the weapon its claw.

The Fetters of Dromi, the back of a crab's shell made entirely out of stone.

The Sword of the Creator, the great dragon's jaw.

"See?" Ignatz said eagerly. "I always thought that the Relics looked like they were made to look like bones. What if they aren't made to look like that, what if they actually are? Bones of animals and creatures that have gone extinct?"

"That could explain why they feel alive," Hilda realized. "Maybe these Crest Stones in them do something to make them still be alive."

"These creatures, they aren't any I've seen," Lorenz said. "Look at them. This bear is taller than the humans in the picture. This crab is wider than a tree. This dragon—"

"Looks like a demonic beast," Byleth said quietly, looking at the card in question.

The five of them fell silent. An implication hung over their heads.

"Maybe the animals aren't representative of where the Relics came from," Ignatz said slowly. "I mean, this art is old, but it isn't a thousand years old. What if it wasn't animals that the Relics came from, but Demonic Beasts?"

"And when people who don't have Crests hold one…" Byleth muttered.

"They turn into one," Claude said. "A failsafe on the weapons? Or maybe the Crest Stones hold some sort of power that corrupts?"

"My wetnurse told me a story once," Lorenz said. All heads turned to him. "It was a fiction, but this reminds me about it. The details are unimportant, but the hero drew his power from a rock, a gemstone of some sort. With it he could turn into a powerful creature. Dragons, lions, all manner of beasts. This seems a little too similar for coincidence."

"So when someone with a compatible Crest uses them, they become more powerful," Hilda said. "And if they have no Crest, they turn into a beast. Maybe it was some sort of bargain the Goddess made when she gave the Elites them?"

"One thing is for sure," Claude said darkly. "There's much more to these Relics than we could have thought. The gauntlets that Baron Ochs wore aren't in this deck. Instead, there's this Fetters of Dromi. I've never heard of it."

"Are there Relics that were hidden? Or more than Ten Elites?" Byleth asked.

"This one too," Hilda said, laying down another card. "Blutgang. I've never heard of it either."

"This deck already has more cards than most like it do," Claude said. "It could be missing more."

Ignatz removed several other cards as well. "Don't forget the other Crests in here. Noa, Aubin, Chevalier, Timotheos, Ernest, Maurice. Some of these I've heard of, but others…"

"For each of the Elites there was a Relic," Lorenz said, excitement creeping into his voice. "What if there's more Relics that have been lost? If we assume the Relic to Crest ratio is one to one, then there are more. Perhaps these gauntlets?"

"It would debunk Aelfric's theory of it being a manufactured Relic," Byleth said. "But we have no guarantee that theory holds water."

"The Church is hiding things, that much is clear," Claude said. "I guarantee they know these things, that they know what the answers are."

No one was in the library to hear them as they carried on. It was the dead of night and all students and faculty had long gone to sleep.

That is, except Tomas.

He watched them, a smile on his thin lips.

"It'll have to be a short lunch," Shamir said, agreeing. "I'm training the Deer in half an hour."

Catherine hid her frown. She'd been looking forward to spending time with Shamir after they'd cleared up that…tension between them.

Shamir's hand between her legs, breath hot on her neck as she worked Catherine ragged. Each movement of her fingers was another wave through the knight's body, another moan that she'd never known she could moan. Shamir's lips on her breast, kissing more gently than Catherine thought the woman capable, mouth trailing up to her lips for a kiss, teeth lightly biting her lips as she pulled back. The muttered words of Shamir when she thought Catherine wasn't listening as she recovered from an orgasm. You're beautiful.

"Your head is in the clouds."

"Huh?" Catherine sputtered.

Shamir rolled her eyes and Catherine was back to the present, plate of food in hand as they walked back to a table. She'd thought about that night a lot.

A lot.

Especially the part where she'd woken up and Shamir was gone. The part where she'd had a panic attack that she'd taken things too far with the woman she considered friend—no, the woman she loved—and that everything was falling apart just like Cassandra's life had.

Then came the note, calling it a mistake and begging for forgiveness, only one of which she meant. And then the palpable relief she felt when Shamir blew their night together off, but also the hurt in the pit of her stomach. The aching regret that told her if she had done something different, maybe she could be holding Shamir's hand right now. That maybe Shamir would look at her with that same smile and tell her again what no one had ever told her.


Cassandra hadn't been beautiful. She'd been rambunctious. Chaotic. Masculine. And Catherine was the same way. Rhea had been the only one to pay her kindness, true kindness. That's what she thought. Then she met Shamir.

"You're staring," Shamir said, blunt as ever. She hadn't even looked up at Catherine, instead sipping something from a mug. Probably the Dagdan coffee she'd bribed one of the chefs to stock. The stuff tasted disgusting, in Catherine's opinion, but its aroma was unmistakably Shamir and that made it intoxicating.

"Sorry, just a bit distracted is all," Catherine tried to laugh off. It didn't really work.

A small part of her dared to hope that Shamir felt the same in the blissful moments before sleep took her, Shamir wrapped in her arms. But were that true, Shamir would still have been there in the morning.

And how she'd fantasized in that moment, how she'd pictured it. They'd whisper to each other, the way all lovers did in private after a climax, panting, clinging to nothing worldly aside from the adoration in the other's eyes. They'd lean closer and lock lips with a passion that dwarfed what they'd just shared, emblematic of their future lives together. Those whispers would carry the weight of a world—their world—in a single slip of breath. A whisper so quiet it could be forgotten by anyone, would be forgotten, but not by her. Never by her.

Catherine loved Shamir. She had for a long time. Their night together had just been the last latch on the box sprung free so that her feelings could be qualified. She loved the way Shamir looked out for her, how hard her trust was to earn and that Catherine had indeed earned it. She loved the curve of her jaw, the way she poked food she didn't like with a fork as if it'd vanish. Everything about her rang true in Catherine and there was no way she could measure up in comparison.

Cassandra never had the chance to find love, but Catherine could. Or perhaps she had the chance and it'd slipped away.

She blinked and Shamir was staring directly at her. Catherine gulped nervously.

Her partner sighed. "Look, if something's bothering you, I'm not gonna make you say it. Especially if it has nothing to do with me." Shamir narrowed her eyes. "But if it does, then you best come out and say it."

The words she wanted to say were on her lips and a mile away. So she said nothing.

Shamir sighed. "Fine. If you change your mind, you know where to find me. I'll be with the Deer."

The archer left her spot, leaving Catherine alone with a bowl of soup, untouched. She felt cold, colder than the meal in front of her.

She felt alone, like Cassandra had felt before the monastery.

"Shamir, wait!" Catherine damn near yelp as she took off after her.

Hilda could count on one hand how many places in the monastery she hadn't been. That number was reduced by one as she stood in Rhea's office, the Archbishop seated at her desk.

"Miss Goneril," the Archbishop greeted kindly. But while her voice conveyed the gentile aura of a mother, her eyes betrayed a hardened fervor of a warrior. No, a conqueror. "Thank you for coming. I know things have been busy for all the houses since the mock battle."

"Oh, it was no trouble," she said. Which was, of course, a lie. Her saliva was the consistency of sand as anxiety fried her nerve endings. Being called in front of the most powerful woman in the country? Sure, not a problem, thank you very much.

"My condolences on the mock battle. The Deer were putting up quite a fight before the beast arrived. It may have been a year for the Deer, in fact. I'm sure you were eager to impress your brother, no?"

Yuck, no. "Holst has his skills, I have mine." Hilda shrugged. "Winning and losing both suit me just fine in a practice bout. The goal was training and I feel I got that."

Rhea nodded. "Very mature of you, Hilda. I can see now how you stood up to the beast as it attacked. I forget sometimes that the students here often arrive as children and grow into adults within these very halls."

She knew where this was going. Lorenz had agreed when she'd gone to him for advice. He'd coached her, telling her to play the innocent damsel. He told her that was not only her best defense, but also a role she acted well. Part of her wanted to be offended that he thought that of her so quickly, and another part took note of how he'd said acted, as if she weren't fooling him.

"It was the professor that did all the work. I just had her back," Hilda smiled. "Byleth hardly needs my help, you know that. That's why you used her to take care of Lonato, because you could trust her to get things done."

That comment wasn't in Lorenz' plan. Oops. Well, the witch had it coming. Now to dig herself out of that hole.

The motherly exterior turned frigid in a blink. Rhea's lips thinned out of a smile. "Indeed, she is reliable. I can trust her to keep a secret, such as the true nature of the demonic beasts. A secret, that if I recall correctly, I told her and your house to keep."

Just as she and Lorenz had guessed. "Forgive me, Archbishop. I was just so scared of what had happened, I must have forgotten. What if the Baron had stood back up and attacked? I wanted everyone to know that the Baron was the enemy, that he had been the beast."

"And in your foolishness," Rhea ground out, "you have revealed a secret the Church has sought long and hard to protect."

"Why, though? It seems like it isn't safe to keep that hidden. That's like telling a child a hot pot won't burn them." She rested a finger on her chin and gazed off to the side, playing the ditz.

Rhea shook her head. "I do not expect you to understand, simply for you to know when not to speak of others' secrets. This is a transgression against the Church—"

"One which you will forgive, I'm sure, Lady Rhea," a new voice said.

Hilda glanced over her shoulder to see a tall man standing in the doorway. He had brown hair and a soft face. It reminded her of when she and Holst were exploring a local fair with their father. An elderly vendor had given her an apple and told her what a beautiful woman she'd grow up to be. It was a kindness in the eyes, Hilda decided.

"Oh, is that so, Aelfric?" Rhea didn't seem surprised at the man's arrive. In fact, she just looked more annoyed.

"Can you blame a woman for being scared?" Aelfric said, gesturing to Hilda. He began to pace around the room, slinking almost like a spider along the edge. "That was a beast of legend, the kind of which we have seldom seen in the past century. Survival is more important than a secret."

"Careful, Cardinal," seethed Rhea. It was as if she forgot Hilda was in the room. "Some secrets are more important than fear."

"I don't question that, your holiness," Aelfric said. "What I find concerning here is that the secret was revealed in the first place. Sending Professor Eisner's class to deal with a bandit who holds a Relic? Disaster was bound to strike."

Lorenz had suggested she try to learn what she could about the Relics. This was far more juicy. This was drama.

"I trust Byleth," Rhea said. "She is a dependable servant of the Church."

"If you trust in her so much, let's not discipline one of her favored pupils, shall we?" Aelfric stopped his pacing and looked at Hilda. "Miss Goneril, you understand that some secrets keep the world in order, do you not? Consider this one that keeps the nobles in power and the commoners safe. It isn't one we want to spread around."

"Aelfric," Rhea said, tone anything but kind. "I think you might be the one who needs to remember the need for secrecy."

He smiled. "As a Cardinal, I do believe that is my own purview to oversee. Some beliefs are just too antiquated to keep to."

"Miss Goneril, you are excused," Rhea said immediately. "The Cardinal and I need to have a chat."

He bowed. "If that is your wish, my lady. Allow me to see dear Hilda out and then I shall return." Without waiting for a response, he lifted his arm to shepherd Hilda out.

"Um," was all Hilda could say when they were far enough away, almost at the doors which would lead to Manuela and Hanneman's offices down the hall.

"Give Professor Eisner my regards," he said lightly. "And remember the things that were said in that room. I trust they might help your late night library sessions out some."

And with that, he departed.

What in the Goddess' name had that been? But she didn't stop to dwell, exiting to the staff hallway.

She needed to tell her house.

"You still pass on tea?" Seteth asked.

Jeralt nodded, removing a flask from his pocket and taking a swig. He set it down on Seteth's desk and smiled. "Never took to that boiled leaf water."

"Uncouth as ever," the man said with a smile. "I've missed that wit."

"Seems like I'll be at the monastery for a while, with Byleth taking to teaching so well," he said. "Plenty of opportunities to catch up."

Seteth reclined in his chair, exhibiting a relaxed expression he reserved for close friends and Flayn. "How is she taking to it, from your perspective?"

"Well. Rough around the edges, but you did drop her in the deep end," Jeralt said while shrugging. "Her Deer seem to like her."

He nodded. "I thought the same. I won't lie, I wasn't enthused at the idea of a rookie teaching the future leaders of the world. But consider me impressed, Jeralt. You raised a good daughter."

"With all my bad habits," he said, raising his flask for another swig.

The green haired man laughed. "I've actually stopped seeing her drink. She used to fill out requisitions for alcohol, but that has since stopped."

"Huh." Jeralt hadn't known about that. Byleth drank a lot, that he knew. But why had it changed? "I suppose that's one habit of mine she'd do better without."

"Then you don't know anything about it?" Seteth raised an eyebrow. "I always thought a father was an expert on their daughter's wellbeing."

"Hmph, not all fathers are you," Jeralt said with a wry grin. "My girl does her own thing, always has. Just like Sitri."

Seteth narrowed his eyes. "Jeralt, do recall my need to protect Flayn."

"Yeah, yeah." He waved a hand. "I ain't told anyone, don't you worry. I'd never harm a hair on that girl's head, intentionally or not. You've got nothing to fear from me."

The tea cup rested down on its saucer as Seteth relaxed. "I'm sure you can understand a father's worry."

"We've been friends for years, Seteth. I'd understand your worry were it about anything." Jeralt took another pull.

"Then in the name of friendship, allow me to apologize," Seteth said.

"For what?"

"For Lonato. For not stepping in when Rhea commanded Byleth to play executioner. For cutting you off from intervening. The role should have fallen to Catherine." Seteth's lips were locked in a sharp frown, the kind one wore when beating themselves up. "It wasn't right."

Jeralt chewed on his words. His daughter's face had been stony when it happened. Impassive, cold, reticent, whatever the proper word was. The point was that she clearly hadn't liked it.

"No, it wasn't. Why did you stop me?" Jeralt asked.

Seteth ran a hand through his hair, but didn't break eye contact. Jeralt respected that in a person. "I trust Rhea. I've served her for more years than you know. She's commanded me to do things I do not necessarily agree with, but understand why later. I assumed this to be another of those moments." He took a breath. "I was wrong. Whatever game she plays with your daughter, it is a cruel one."

He nodded. "I figured that had something to do with it. I'm not going to blame you for her actions."

"Understand that I still respect Rhea. She is an incredible woman with our best wishes at heart." Seteth sighed. "But everyone is fallible. I can sometimes forget that when it comes to those I care for."

"I've always respected you, Seteth. You're a good man. You and I both have our morals and stand by them," Jeralt said. He leaned forward with a wry grin. "But at the end of the day, we both want what's best for our daughters, right?"

Seteth smiled. "Indeed. I won't allow it to happen again, I promise you that."

"You better, I'm not in the habit of third chances," Jeralt said. The threat hung in the air and Seteth nodded, understanding it clearly.

"Sitri would be proud of the daughter you raised, Jeralt. You may have married her, but I knew her since she came to work at the monastery. She'd be so proud of Byleth."

Jeralt smiled. "I know."

Chapter Text


It is unfortunate that your house did not win the Battle of Eagle and Lion. I was expecting greatness from you, but it seems I must lower my expectations. Perhaps it is for the best you did not come home to handle Acheron. He is dealt with for the time being. In fact, he and I have come to something of an understanding.

But that is neither here nor there. I cannot allow you to take Thyrsus with you. My apologies, but such a powerful weapon needs to be in the hands of someone I can trust and who has proved themselves to me. We shall reevaluate this once you come home after graduation.

Continue with your studies. Remember that you are a Gloucester and heir to the house. Continue to keep that in mind as you represent us.

Leander Beauregard Gloucester

"The others have been looking for you."

Leonie blinked, looking over her shoulder. Dorothea of all people had found her on the ramparts.

The songstress walked up beside her, leaning on the stone wall. One of three encircling walls around Garreg Mach, it was the highest point in the monastery aside from the Goddess Tower. And that meant it had the best view.

"Did I miss dinner?" Leonie asked softly.

Dorothea nodded. "Lorenz saved you something. I think he's rather sweet on you."

"As if," Leonie chuckled. "I'll tell them sorry, I know how they enjoy the house dinners when we have them."

Her companion smiled. "They're nice. The Eagles didn't do anything like that. Edie and Hubert would eat together, Caspar and Linhardt, who knows when Bernadetta would, and so on. I'm glad I transferred."

"Why did you transfer? You're a commoner like me, transferring means giving up your home." More or less, it was true. Graduates of the academy would be employed by the nobility and everyone knew that each country favored its own graduates.

Dorothea sighed. "Oh, there were plenty of reasons. Some are mundane, some are ones I'd rather not talk about."

"You think you'll get homesick?" Leonie asked.

Dorothea stared out into the horizon as the last wisps of sunlight drifted beneath the mountains. She didn't answer for a long time, so long that Leonie thought she never would.

"I'm an orphan. There's not much of a home waiting for me," she said. "I'll miss Petra, but she's from Brigid. I don't think she'll be in Fódlan forever."

Leonie laughed and Dorothea looked offended. Backpedaling, she said, "Sorry, it's just that I'm an orphan too. Sauin village is where I'm from, but it never felt like home. The people there are good, but it's never felt like the place for me. So in some ways, I can relate."

"Ah, I see," Dorothea said. She smiled and it comforted her. "You miss it, don't you?"

"I guess," the huntress said, almost surprised with her answer. "But also I don't. I feel happy here, but I miss having a place that I know is mine. Somewhere that isn't a room at a school I'll be leaving in a few months."

"I think you're dreading leaving." Dorothea's face was harder to see in the dusk, but there was melancholy in it.

"What do you mean?"

"I think you're like me," said Dorothea. "There's a little attachment to where you lived and it's scary to give that up because it's all you've known. But now you've suddenly found a new home in these people…" She drifted off.

"And you don't want to lose it?" Leonie provided.

"Am I that transparent?" Dorothea said through a chuckle that carried a weight. "Life before this wasn't good. I adore singing, but the rest was…hard. Things here, things are nice. If I could live in a moment for eternity, I'd have a lot to choose from since I joined the Deer."

Leonie turned around and sat down again the stone wall. "Is it odd that I understand completely?"

Dorothea joined her. "I think we both have found home here."

"Very insightful," Leonie said, a glimmer of a smile present.

"Blame Mercedes. I've been spending too much time around her."

They sat in silence as the dusk grew to night and torches began to light across the monastery. From their view, Garreg Mach was its own constellation on the mountains.

"Hey," Leonie said after a while.


"After this year, what do you plan to do?"

Dorothea didn't answer. Eventually she turned, face nearly obscured, and said, "I have no idea."

Leonie smiled at that. "Neither do I."

"Professor, is this seat taken?"

Byleth looked up to see Sylvain, a scheming grin and top button of his shirt undone. Well, the latter was normal.

"Go ahead," she said, shifting aside the tome she had in front of her. Her students had headed back to their rooms or wherever the rest of their night took them. She'd deigned to stay behind to catch up on a little reading. The fact that the dining hall was serving delightful little cakes had no reason to do with it.

Okay, maybe a little reason.

Sylvain sat down. The rest of his house was a few tables away. They were talking idly, but nowhere near as animatedly as the Deer did. Raphael had challenged Hilda to a pushup contest during dinner which clearly meant they had to do it in the dining hall instead of going outside. Byleth had been surprised Hilda accepted, but she'd seen the way the woman kept glancing at Marianne. It made Byleth smile.

"So, professor," began Sylvain. He broke off as he looked over at the Lions. Felix and Dimitri were staring daggers at each other over something that had just been said. Byleth frowned. Felix, she expected, but Dimitri?

Sylvain was frowning too, clearly coming to the same conclusion. He was a mediator and his charges were biting at throats. Byleth wondered if his house knew his value.

"Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about Ashe," Sylvain said, putting his two friends out of his mind.

"What about him?" Byleth asked, rigid. The memory of the boy pulling a knife on her hadn't been lost or dulled.

"He told me about how he reacted after Lonato died." The smile was still on Sylvain's face, but it fooled no one. She wondered if he even knew he wore it, or if it were so reflexive that frowns were foreign.

Byleth said nothing.

Sylvain took that as encouragement. "Look, I want to help him as much as possible. Family is…complicated. I don't blame him for exploding." He looked Byleth in the eye. "But allow me to apologize on his behalf. What he did was wrong. I told him to say this to you, but he still doesn't forgive you."

"It wasn't my fault," ground out Byleth, only half believing it. She could have resisted. Said no to Rhea.

He waved a hand. "I know that. I think a lot of people see that now, emotions cooling with time and all that. But he lost his father, the man who gave him a second chance. I can't say I exactly blame him for not moving on yet. I've known people who lost family and spent decades hung up on it."

Byleth afforded a small smile. "I'd be the same way, I think. I…I don't dislike Ashe. He said some things that night I maybe needed to hear. But having your life threatened…"

Sylvain grinned, this time with mirth. "Trust me, I'm not here asking for you to forgive him or for you two to become friends. I just wanted to do my part on his behalf. Hopefully, someday he understands."

"Hopefully," whispered Byleth. She didn't know what else to say.

Her companion gave a casual glance around. Looking for eavesdroppers, she realized. His voice dropped an octave in tone and volume. "We both know who is really responsible. Rhea."

"Dangerous words," Byleth replied, just as quiet.

A halfcocked smirk was all she got. "Faerghus is more religious than the other two countries. There's a long line of faith in its history. My father is a very pious man. I am not."

"You ought to be careful who you share that with. Especially here."

Sylvain winked. "They can't touch me, not with my Crest." His words had a dark lilt to them, an undertone she wasn't privy to. "And I'm speaking to a co-conspirator, am I not?"

She did not deny it.

"Look, I just want to offer my help. I've heard rumors of your house's research. I can help. I have the Lance of Ruin with me."

Her eyes widened. She caught herself, holding back her excitement. "Are you certain you want to throw in your lot with us?"

"Your herd seems to be doing the right work," he said. "I'm not joining your house. I just want to…lend a hand."

"Any help would be appreciated." She paused. "And should you want to join the Deer, I don't think that would be an issue."

Sylvain laughed, the sound breaking their quiet. "Professor, it'll take more than your good looks to convince me to swap." His voice grew softer as he looked back over to his house, at two in particular. Dimitri and Felix were still glaring at each other. "Besides, I've got someone depending on me. Though I don't think they realize it, yet."

She nodded, understanding. "The offer is open."

"I won't forget it." He stood up. "Now I better go make sure they don't kill each other. I think all the blood will spoil the food."

He departed and Byleth watched from afar as he pushed apart the two and sat between them, saying something immediately to gain Ingrid's ire. All attention at the table shifted to him, whatever the argument was forgotten.

He was a good man, in his own way, Byleth decided.

"It's good to see you're awake," Linhardt said, sitting down by her bedside.

Monica looked over at him with an unamused expression. "What do you want?"

Definitely not the woman he remembered. "I know you woke up recently, so I thought you might like a little company."

They were alone in the infirmary. Manuela had stepped out, content to let Linhardt watch Monica.

When she didn't answer, Linhardt continued. "Any idea who was responsible?"

"No," she growled. "They put a sack over my head."

"Likely the same people who kidnapped you. It brings into question why they would leave you instead of capturing you, but I cannot think as to why anyone else would wish you harm." Well, if one believed the rumors, Hilda had bloody knuckles the same day Monica was found. But those rumors had strangely died when both Claude and Lorenz began telling people Hilda was with them at the time, dangerous smiles on their faces. The truth? Or fear? Linhardt didn't particularly care.

As far as he was concerned, this wasn't Monica.

It was a young hypothesis, certainly. It needed testing. But there was magic that could be used for disguise. It was something discovered in Morfis and not very common, but it did exist. And it had its limits, limits that had been broken by Monica. Glamours couldn't stand up to physical abuse.

Such as Hilda beating Monica with her fists, for example.

"Maybe," Monica said noncommittally. "It was dark, I didn't get a good look."

Linhardt nodded. "Have you heard the news from the past month or two? There might not be official results, but most agree that the Eagles won the mock battle."

"Neat," she said, lacking all emotion. She didn't even look at him when talking. In fact, now that he thought about it, the only person she actually engaged with was Edelgard. He made note of it.

"Indeed. We are lucky no one was hurt by Baron Ochs' attack," he said carefully.

"Quite lucky," she said, still bored.

And there it was. Another point towards his guess.

Even if he pretended that the Monica he knew had somehow deteriorated her close relationship with her father, mention of her father should trigger some emotion. Anger, distress, sadness, joy, something.

Either this charlatan truly had amnesia, which he sincerely doubted, or she had no attachment to the man. Perhaps she'd even forgotten that the man was her father? Perhaps her cover was such a means to an end she didn't even try to maintain it?

Questions upon questions.

"With the Baron having passed, his territory is in chaos," Linhardt said. "Thankfully you were found, Monica. Else there would be major concerns with the end of one of the great noble families in the Empire."

Her eyes slid to him. "Are you getting at something?"

His eyes met her with resolution he didn't think he had. "I might be."

She continued to stare through him. "My father has passed. I do not wish to speak of these things."

"Forgive me," he apologized. "But I was merely curious what your plans were after this. Would you have it, I could begin to send out some letters in your stead to the minor families in the Ochs territory. Reassure them their scion of Ochs will return home soon to take up her father's mantle in order to quell confusion."

"How generous of you." She was sitting up now, pretense of disinterest gone. The way she looked at him, it made him feel like prey. A slight shiver went down his spine.

"Quite. I merely seek to help a friend from my childhood. Or have you forgotten me as of late?" he asked.

She smiled, baring her teeth. "Linhardt, as if I could ever forget you. I appreciate your kindness, but I will have everything handled."

"Excellent," he smiled, hiding the wavering confidence he now had. One final push. "I think you'll make an excellent Monica von Ochs."

Her eyes flashed. "Excuse me?"

Too far, backtrack. "Ah, Baron von Ochs. Pardon me."

Monica didn't take her eyes off him. "Quite. I'm feeling tired, Linhardt. I hope you don't mind leaving me to get some rest."

He stood. "I wish you a speedy recovery, Monica. Hopefully we will have your attackers captured soon."

"Soon indeed."

Linhardt left the infirmary. Once out of earshot, he let the breath he'd been holding go.

Dear Goddess, he belonged in a library, not trading barbs. But he was certain that person was no Monica von Ochs.

Should he go to the Archbishop? To Seteth? How could they believe him? Such advanced magic to hide an appearance didn't exist in the realm of White or Black. Dark, perhaps. But he'd never heard of it. The monastery library had nothing on it.

He'd do another pass. He could have missed something. Then ask Hanneman. Could he confide suspicions in his teacher? Well, perhaps if he didn't mention Monica. Purely scholarly interest. Yes, that could work. Then go to Lysithea, his friend? Perhaps, though her closeness with Edelgard was an issue. Perhaps not.

Linhardt dashed off to the library, for once all idea of sleep forgotten.

"You're distracted," Byleth murmured.

Mercedes bit her lips as she leaned into the woman's shoulder. Her lover's arm tightened around her, holding her close. It was safe, lying in bed with Byleth holding her. It was safer than she'd felt in a long time, as if the Goddess herself had come down to comfort her.

"Sorry," Mercedes whispered. "I just have a lot on my mind."

Byleth pressed a kiss into Mercedes' hair. "I can listen," she said. It wasn't a demand, just an offer. Mercedes liked that. Byleth never pressured her into anything.

"It's my father," she said. "I received a letter from him recently. He claims to have a match for me, someone rich who could save his business."

Byleth said nothing, but the brief tense of her arms told Mercedes everything she needed to know.

"Don't worry," Mercedes said with a smile. She reached a hand up, brushing her fingers against Byleth's jaw. "I have no intention of giving you up, dear. My father can be difficult, that's all."

"Do you want me to fight him?" Byleth asked.

Mercedes laughed, not because it was funny, but because she knew Byleth was completely serious. "You're sweet. My knight in shining armor, ready to save me from distress."

Byleth smirked. "You're no damsel."

She wasn't. Mercedes had never told Byleth the things she'd had to do to take care of her mother when she was younger. Things the Goddess frowned upon. Stealing, lying, whatever she could do to keep her mother safe before she remarried. The road to Faerghus from the Empire had been long and hard.

Did she regret those actions? Yes and no. She prayed constantly that those she harmed were able to recover, that they were well off with happiness. But her mother might not have survived had she not done so. Mercedes hoped Sothis understood that.

"No, I'm not," she murmured. "But still, I like having a protector."

Her lover smiled, saying nothing. Waiting for her to continue.

"I'll write him back and tell him no." Mercedes sighed. "If I tell him I'm involved with someone, he won't be pleased to find out you're a mercenary." Her eyes went wide. "Not like I have a problem with that!"

Byleth chuckled. "I understand, dear, trust me. I know you've not a judgmental bone in your body. I think you might be one of the most kind people I've ever met."

Mercedes blushed at the praise.

"As for your father, maybe there's a way we can work around telling him I don't come from money. Tell him about my Crest or maybe that my father is the Blade Breaker. Or that I'm the Ashen Demon. I'm sure we can think of some way to make me seem more than I am."

Mercedes tilted her head up and pressed a soft kiss to her partner's lips. "Oh, Byleth. You are everything and more."

"If he cares about you, he'll care about your happiness," Byleth said amidst the clear embarrassment she felt at the praise.

One of these days she'd make the woman accept a compliment. Mercedes considered it a challenge.

"He cares, in his own way, I think. He's complicated. But I will make it very clear I am not giving you up." Mercedes turned over and climbed on top of Byleth, all too ready to show Byleth just how much she was hers.

Byleth didn't complain.

"You're looking terrible," Lorenz said, taking a seat next to Claude.

It was the evening, the rest of the Deer off doing their own things. But he'd known where to find Claude. If the man wasn't in the library, he'd be in the classroom pouring over something.

"No wonder you do so well with the ladies," Claude said without missing a beat. But there was no malice, just a faint grin.

"What've you got?" he said, leaning back in his chair.

Claude sighed. "Not too much, I'm afraid. The cards got me thinking about other instances of art for reference. I've been digging through remote areas of northern Leicester, Faerghus, and Sreng for their mythology or artwork. Basically looking for anything resembling a Relic or giant monster."

"Dull?" Lorenz guessed as he snagged one of the tomes and began to page through it. It was dense.

"Oh, not at all. The people of the world have so many interesting creation stories. You can see similarities between the faith of Seiros as well as the Almyran gods mixed together. It's not so much segmented into religions as it is a bunch of spilled paints on a canvas, plenty of overlap." Claude yawned. "The problem is that I'm not finding answers."

Lorenz set the book down. "How much sleep did you get last night?"

Claude shrugged. "Enough."

Lorenz narrowed his eyes. He'd have a word with Hilda later. Claude paid attention to her when it came to his health, though Goddess knew why. The poor man looked on the verge of collapse.

The thought of his father entered his mind, the acrid disappointment all too present in the letter he'd received. Were his father to have his way, then Lorenz would capitalize on Claude's weakness right now and take control.

But that wasn't becoming of a friend to do.

A part of Lorenz still detested it, conditioned to hate the name Riegan and all it stood for. But a brighter, more kind part told him that cooperation was better than dominion. It felt good to listen to that voice.

"You look your own share of terrible, though," Claude commented as he snapped the book shut. He leaned back in his chair, tension shedding off and aging him a few years. Claude could barely keep his eyes open.

Lorenz shrugged. "Just correspondence from my father, nothing to worry about."

Claude opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. Then, "You know, have I ever told you about my grandfather?"

"Lord Silas?" Lorenz said. "No, what about him?"

The scion of Riegan grinned. "That I want to kill him."

Lorenz' breath caught in his throat. "Claude—"

His friend laughed. "Sounds odd, doesn't it? He's family by blood, but I never really saw that as important."

He stayed silent while Claude continued on.

"Growing up, I didn't have friends. Just my parents and their friends. I wasn't well liked, I didn't get along with people. That's the way things were. So I assumed that family was the people who stood by you no matter what. When I learned who my grandfather was, I thought I was lucky. Lucky! I'd get a new member of my family, someone who I could connect with like my parents.

"You know what the first thing Silas said to me? He called me a mongrel, someone unfit to be his heir. He made it very clear that I was only in that position because he had no other choices and that he was doing his best to find another heir."

Lorenz said nothing.

Claude tilted his head to Lorenz. "It's okay if you don't like your father. Family isn't everything. It isn't binding. One of these stories, you know how they decided family? By pure choice. Family wasn't even the word they used, it was something like 'togetherness', or at least that's what the translation had it as. Seems like a nicer way of life than having family chosen for you."


The characteristic leader-of-the-Deer smile was back on his face. "I'm not going to judge you if you hate your dad. I'm not gonna judge you if you continue to stick around him. This house, I think it feels like family. What family should feel like. We look out for each other here."

For a while, neither of them said anything. Lorenz stared at his feet while Claude's eyes closed.


"Yeah?" he said, peeking an eye open.

"Thank you."

"Of course."

"There's three powers in Fódlan," a husky voice said, raising three fingers. "Do you know what they are, Emile?"

The masked man scowled. "Don't call me that."

The other laughed. "Luckily I don't answer to you, Death Knight. So, Emile, can you tell me what the three powers in Fódlan are?"

Jeritza rolled his eyes. With the way he shifted in his chair, the small dusty room was the last place he wanted to be. But he had orders.

"The three countries," supplied Jeritza.

"Close," he said. "Leicester is a joke of a nation, they're nothing." He held up one finger. "There is the Empire. They have the largest army and the fertile lands of the south. Not to mention some of the most brilliant tactical minds of the century. Thus why they will be our instrument."

"Second, Faerghus. All that snow managed to not kill them and instead bred strong, resilient people. They'll be the first target. Beat them into submission, Leicester will follow suit."

"And finally, the strongest. The Church." The scorn in his voice curled around the word. "They are a bunch of fanatics, extending their control into each country. It is not without the Church's consent that things are done. That is why we must remove this cancer from the world."

"Get on with it, Myson," Jeritza said, bored.

Myson smirked. "You're the one who asked me why this business in Remire was necessary. I simply am explaining just why."

"If I wanted confusing answers, I'd read a book of riddles," the masked knight scoffed.

"Luckily, Emile, the plans do not hinge on your understanding of them," Myson said. He ran a hand through his long hair. "You are but a tool to help our deal little Emperor-to-be to take her continent."

Jeritza said nothing.

Myson stood up. "It's dark enough out to not be seen. Head to Remire, I'll meet you there."

"Why aren't you coming now?"

"Oh, so curious about me now? If you must know, I have business to attend to here."

Claude covered his mouth to smother another yawn. He'd barely managed to avoid Hilda on his way to the library, knowing full well she'd drag him back to his room and lock him in.

He'd get some sleep. Sometime. There'd be plenty of time once he had his answers.

The monastery was calm at night and the few knights he passed gave him nods of acknowledgement. Early on they'd been concerned about his wandering, but now they knew full well his only destination was the library.

Which was especially effective when he had to ferry notes to his contact. A man half Almyran and Fódlani like he was. He'd take the notes to another person who'd bring them across the border to Nader. It took time, but it was covert.

But that was not his destination tonight. Tonight he had plans with a tome he'd seen about small villages in northern Faerghus. A book he'd read today referenced them, deeming them completely cut off from the world. If knowledge survived from ages ago, perhaps it could be found there.

Claude bounded up the steps and to the library, careful not to make a racket. He might be allowed to go to the library at night, but that didn't give him permission to make lots of noise. At least, that's what Seteth had said when he'd done just that before knowing better.

Opening the library door, Claude was disappointed to not see Tomas anywhere. He'd hoped to pick the man's brain. He was old and clearly starting to lose it, but in moments of lucidity he was a wealth of knowledge. Most of the time he spoke quietly to himself and acted erratically. Poor man, Claude thought. But such were the pains of growing old.

Other than him, there was just Linhardt, collapsed on a table fast asleep. Claude exhaled softly in a breathy laugh. That man got enough sleep for the entire student body.

Claude busied himself by taking to the shelves in the back of the library. He'd let to investigate some of the top rows. As quietly as he could, he grabbed one of the ladders and rested it against a shelf, beginning to climb.

About halfway up, Claude realized that he'd put it at far too dangerous of an angle.

And so Claude, heir to the Alliance, quickly becoming one of the best archers in Leicester, quicker on his feet than almost all his peers and cleverer by half, fell off a ladder.

"Fuck," he mutter, rubbing his shoulder. It hurt, but didn't seem to be broken. Oh, Hilda would sure chew him out now. Something about blaming his fall on his lack of sleep, which was probably true, but that didn't mean he wanted to hear it.

Claude looked up as he stumbled to his feet, eyeing Linhardt. Perfect, he'd wake the man and get healed and Hilda would be none the wiser.

"Hey, Linhardt?" he said, whispering. When the man didn't respond, he said it louder. "Linhardt?"

No response.

Claude rolled his eyes. So lost to dreamland, Linhardt. As if the man could ever focus on anything more than a pillow.

He grabbed Linhardt's shoulder and shook him a little, calling his name again. Nothing.

"Hey, Linhardt? You okay?" Claude asked, no longer whispering.

No response.

Claude shook him harder and felt the body slip from his grasp, sliding to the floor in a crumpled heap.

And in his chest, a knife stabbed right over his heart, blood staining his uniform and face locked in shock.

Chapter Text

He'd seen a dead body before. Hell, he'd seen plenty. This one felt different.

"Shit," he swore softly, standing frozen over the man he'd barely known. He could have looked asleep, were it not for the shock frozen on his face.

Did he move the body? Hide it? His first thoughts were that of a criminal, the kind that would come to a murderer's head. Usually he was the one holding a knife, standing over one of his many cousins.

Claude took a deep breath. No, he'd done nothing wrong here. This wasn't one of the attempts on his life.

He needed to get out of there.

His feet crept across the floor, avoiding the floorboards he knew squeaked, and made it to the door. He opened it and walked out, immediately colliding with a body.

"Oh!" gasped the person he hit and the adrenalin lit like a fire in his veins, screaming at him to fight, fly, or flee. Anything to get out of there.

"Oh, Claude! Forgive me, I wasn't watching where I was going," the soft tone of Aelfric said. He smiled, though it wavered as he focused on Claude's face. "Are you alright?"

For the first time in his life, words failed him. He opened his mouth to speak and said nothing.

"What are you…" his voice drifted off as he looked into the room, towards the body crumpled on the floor. Aelfric pushed past Claude, heading toward Linhardt.

Nader's voice itself was screaming in his head. "Run, boy!" it cried. "Get out of there, leave this foul nation and come home!"

Aelfric bent down by the body. Claude didn't move. Couldn't move.

"Claude…is this your doing?" he asked slowly, his voice clouded with an emotion Claude was far too distracted to discern.

"No," he whispered, but it was loud enough to fill the whole room.

Aelfric turned and looked at him, eyes hard, searching him. The gears began to turn in Claude's mind. Were he to bolt now, he could make it to the stables quick enough. There were wyverns there. It'd been a while since he'd rode Tishtar, but she was a queen amongst wyverns. He could manage a simple trained one. If he broke it out, he could be on his way back to Almyra in no time—

"Come with me," Aelfric said, standing next to Claude and resting a hand on his back in the way a parent might to guide their child. The kind that was ready to grab the back of his shirt.

Claude followed. There was a knife strapped to his leg, one he never went anywhere without. Nader had given it to him. The edge was coated in a poison that would dissolve the victim's veins. If he could get away, he could grab the shiv and stab the Cardinal.

They entered a large room before Claude could act: the Cardinal's Room. Aelfric removed his hand and shut the door behind them.

"You'll be safe here," Aelfric breathed. "Or at least, you will be soon. There's a window on the opposite end. Vines grow down the edge, you should be able to climb down."

Numb, Claude could only say, "What?"

"I don't know if you killed that boy—and I don't want to know if you did!" Aelfric said. He looked tired, like he'd been working late. "But you are the heir to the Alliance, you becoming implicated in something like this does not end up well for anyone."

Claude's mouth hung open. Hilda would have teased him about it. Something about the silver tongued man being speechless. "I don't understand."

Aelfric chuckled. "Let me cut to the chase then. I am not a good man, Claude. I have a favor to ask of you. A favor in repayment for not mentioning your whereabouts to anyone."

Oddly enough, blackmail calmed Claude down. That, at least, was familiar territory. "What did you have in mind?"

The Cardinal smiled in a way that could only be called wolfish. "You are to be one of the three most powerful leaders in Fódlan. Having you as an ally would be a boon for any goal. And this goal of mine, well, it requires substantial support."

He breathed and blinked. When he opened his eyes, Claude realized that he was looking at another schemer, just like him.

"I aim to become the next Archbishop."

The news swept through the monastery the following morning.

At first came rumors. "A body was found in the library!" a nervous, but excited, student said to their friend. After all, it was probably nothing to worry about. Something macabre, something that fell in line with the strange going-ons as of late. Maybe just fuel for a ghost story. Perhaps an assassination attempt thwarted, some of the more intelligent students guessed.

But then came the orders. Knights moved left and right, spreading out across Garreg Mach and beyond, searching for something. Those rumors quelled, a quiet fear taking their place. After all, what could have happened to scare the knights so badly?

Whose body was it?

Word got out, as it always was want to do. A Black Eagle had been killed in the library. Rhea ordered all students to their rooms, but that only made it easier to figure out who it had been.

Linhardt von Hevring, murdered.

Was it a grudge? An enemy of his father? No one knew. The boy almost was always sleeping, the few people who knew him best said he'd never hurt a fly. Though if one was to believe Monica, he'd been researching the Church as of late. Perhaps he stumbled into something he shouldn't have.

At dinner the night after the news broke, Edelgard stood on her table and addressed the entire student body.

"Whatever cowards murdered by subject—my friend—I will find you. I will not rest until vengeance is had against the one who did this. Linhardt von Hevring was a gentle soul. You ripped that life away from this world. I cannot and will not abide that. As Emperor, I will put my subjects first. If any of you have any information, I ask you come to me. Trust me, whoever committed their heinous crime will suffer." Behind her, a mute Lysithea who was near comatose after the death of her friend.

A student came forward, not right away, and remarked how they hadn't seen Tomas lately.

Hanneman admitted, in private, that Linhardt had come to him looking for tomes the Church might not give access to. But word of that got out.

While nothing was confirmed, smarter students began to put together a story in their heads. A story where an innocent boy was killed to stop him from finding out more than he should. And one of the Church's own servants carried out the deed.

Tensions rose, with no signs of falling.

And everyone pretended not to notice Caspar's screams.

Dorothea hadn't known him well.

She hadn't had anything against Linhardt. They just weren't interested in the same things. She tried to tell herself that was fine, that it wasn't a problem that she hadn't gotten to know him before his death. But the songstress did a piss-poor job convincing herself that.

So now she stood vigil over the body, alongside Mercedes.

It was custom to stand vigil for heroes after they passed. The Church also extended that to nobles, but for once Dorothea couldn't find it in herself to be angry about that. She just felt exhausted.

The cathedral was quiet. A few people came and went, paying their respects. But both of them remained so as to not leave the body alone. Mercedes had explained it to her on the way over.

"They say the pathway to the afterlife is a journey in and of itself. Seiros teaches that for the best of us, we should watch over them to protect them as best we can."

Dorothea hadn't liked that. She'd voiced to Mercedes a question about what happened to the commoners who passed away.

Mercedes just gave her a sad smile. "They die," she'd said.

She didn't press Mercedes further.

The woman in question had been praying without stop, the only sounds she made were the sniffles that accompanied tears. It made Dorothea feel awful.

She, this woman who had been a Lion, could cry over the body of a man she'd never spent any time with, never shared meals with or even conversation. And here Dorothea knelt over his body in the middle of a cathedral and couldn't even find tears.

Was she broken? She always thought she had a wide capacity for emotion. She was an actor, after all. The wide palette of emotion was her greatest weapon to make an audience cheer, cry, die with laughter.

But here she was, looking over the body of someone she might've called friend, and felt nothing.

As they knelt, she pulled Mercedes into a sidelong embrace, trying to give comfort where she could. Mercedes returned it, seemingly grateful for the contact.

Sothis, are you there? Dorothea found herself praying. Do you listen to the people who cry to you every day? Do you even care that a man died who followed you? Don't you protect people in your own monastery?

Sothis said nothing, of course.

Dorothea looked down at Mercedes, who had her hands folded and moved her mouth in silent prayer. She truly believed there was someone up there, watching over them. How could she, seeing this world for all its ills?

Mercedes wasn't stupid. Dorothea had spent enough time around her to know that. If she believed, maybe there was something to it.

Dorothea suppressed her sigh. If Sothis sent her some sign, maybe she could be convinced. Believing in something other than humanity's cruelty would be nice.

Footsteps hit the floor behind them. Dorothea turned a head to see who approached this time.

It wasn't someone she recognized, but it was someone familiar. A tall man with rough stubble that spoke of a missed morning of shaving. He wore a trim tunic that was free of any baubles a noble might wear, but made of fine enough material to make clear the man's status. His face, shrouded by shoulder length green hair, was chiseled from soft features. Looking at the man was the same as looking into the would-be future for Linhardt had he lived.

The man stepped closer to the raised casket, displaying Linhardt's body. He looked at peace there, as if he were napping. As if he was waiting for Caspar to find him and drag him on an idiotic adventure.

"Thank you for watching over my son," whispered the man. "I can take over. I'd like time alone with him."

"Are you his father?" Mercedes asked, wiping some of the tears from her eyes.

He nodded without taking his eyes off Linhardt. "I am Remus von Hevring. I came as soon as I heard." He stepped forward to the casket, running a hand along the polished wood. Remus crumpled to his knees beside it.

Mercedes stepped forward and lay a hand on his shoulder. "I didn't know your son well, but I didn't need to know him well to see how good of a man he was. The world was richer for having him."

Remus' sob shattered Dorothea's heart and she turned away. Whatever hushed words Mercedes gave him were lost to her, with reality only coming back when Mercedes grabbed her hand and began to guide her out of the cathedral.

Tears now trickled down her face. A wave emotion she'd not known she had—never had—had broken through. Her vision was so blurry she didn't know where Mercedes brought her.

When she wiped her eyes away, they were outside the cathedral on one of the benches. The few students that milled about kept their distance.

Next thing she knew, Mercedes wrapped her into a hug. "It's okay to cry, Dorothea."

Part of her felt like she should say it wasn't, that she had no right to feel sad over someone she barely knew. She wasn't good like Mercedes. She was a street kid who had fooled everyone into thinking she was one of them. No one would cry for her if she died as a child, least of all nonexistent parents.

"I just," she said between sobs, "I can't—"

"You don't need to do anything, Dorothea," Mercedes whispered, rubbing her back tenderly.

She just felt broken. And how selfish of her, to be so self-absorbed to be concerned with herself instead of the man who lost his son. No wonder Linhardt and she hadn't ever connected, he'd probably been a good person, unlike her.

"Did I ever tell you about the loaf of bread I stole as a child?" Mercedes said, moving her hand to run through Dorothea's hair. She'd call it romantic if she didn't know about the professor and her.

"You stole something?" she managed.

Mercedes' laugh was light. "More times than I'd care to admit. But I stole a warm loaf of bread from a baker once to feed myself and sick mother. We had no money upon arriving in Faerghus. Winter had just set in. Times were…tough."

Dorothea concentrated on the words and the woman's heartbeat as she went on. "The owner saw me and sent his son to follow me and report me to the guards. When he found us, he saw how much we were struggling. In fact, he promised to bring us more food from the bakery over the next few days. And he did, as well as bringing me stories about a church nearby that would take in those who needed help."

Mercedes smiled and Dorothea could tell without even looking that she did so. "Dorothea, it isn't something to be ashamed of to cry. Crying, laughing, anger, it's all empathy. We all feel. Empathy saved my life and my mother's that day. Empathy made that grieving man feel like he wasn't alone for a moment. Empathy helped him bear that load for a moment."

"I don't know what to feel, Mercie," she whispered. "First I can't find tears, now I can't stop crying. First I feel fine, now I hate myself. I don't know what's going on with me."

"We don't have to solve problems the second they appear," Mercedes said. She chuckled a little. "If every problem had to be solved the moment it appeared, I think we'd never be able to relax. Some things just need time. You lost a friend, I don't think anyone is prepared to handle that."

And it made sense. A friend. She'd hid behind that barrier of pretending they hadn't been friends. Pretending they hadn't studied together or talked. They'd been friends and he'd been one of the first friends she'd ever had.

And now he was dead.

She began to cry again and Mercedes held her.

"I will kill them," hissed Edelgard.

That was what Ferdinand heard when he passed his house leader's closed door. He paused outside, unsure if he'd heard correctly.

"Lady Edelgard, we cannot be sure it was them. I have spoken to Myson, he claims it wasn't them."

"And you trust him? Hubert, we're in bed with snakes but don't be so naïve as to think they won't bite."

"I would never. I simply advise caution. These would be dangerous enemies to make at this point."

Ferdinand pressed his body against the door, ear to the keyhole. He looked down the hall briefly. No one.

Hubert spoke again. "They said they were busy with business with Remire. Monica and Tomas were both accounted for at Garreg Mach. Monica was in the infirmary and Tomas was in route to Remire. It's possible they didn't kill Linhardt."

"As if Myson could not have gone there and back in a heartbeat. Or even Thales. These are the people that did this to me, do not think they have consciences." Whatever gesture she clearly made was lost on him.

"You're right, my lady. Would you like me to sever ties with them? We could still turn things around and stop the plans."

Edelgard was silent for a moment.

"No. We continue. Don't let Remus leave the grounds before I speak to him. I need to offer condolences."

"We have still yet to ensure his loyalty to us. Will you…?"

There was anguish in her voice, as if on the verge of tears. "Yes, I know the rumors. I'll use it to get his support."

Another moment of silence. "Fuck."

"My lady, I am here to serve you however you need me."

Ferdinand stood up from his crouched position. His hands trembled. Was that fear? Nerves? He'd never felt this way before.

No, he thought, neither of those. It was anger. A quaking, visceral anger that threatened to break him in two. Before he'd give himself away, Ferdinand walked down the hallway and entered his room, locking it behind him.

From the door, he could see his full length mirror showing his reflection. He walked towards it and saw the disgust written all over his face.

"You've followed her," he whispered, trembling. "You've obeyed her, seen her as a leader."

Ferdinand began to laugh at things that were not funny. It was haunting, empty, and bereft of sanity. "You fucking moron!" His fist lashed out, smashing into the mirror. Shards of reflective glass sliced through his fist, blood pooling before the last of the pieces could fall to the ground.

And in that moment, clarity.

He breathed, staring at his hand. And his instinct was to seek out Linhardt for healing.

Oh, Lin.

Calmly, he grabbed one of his cravats. With his uninjured hand, he tightly wrapped the maimed one.

There was a knock at his door. Lorenz. "Ferdinand? Did I hear you shout? Are you okay?"

The mirror fragments at his feet still showed him, broken as he felt. The woman he followed was a murderer. Or at least complicit.

His hand clenched and the pain was excruciating. Oh, he would not forget this. An Emperor did not kill her subjects—or sit silently by. It was time to take things into his own hands.

"No Emperor of mine," he swore. "I will never let you rule."

It was a vow he meant to keep.

Less than a week later found Ignatz in the saddle of a horse alongside his house, several Knights of Seiros, and the Blade Breaker himself.

Rhea's orders had come to all of them. Find Tomas and bring him back to Garreg Mach for sentencing. For he was the guilty one, according to Rhea.

Ignatz didn't know whether that was true or not. Things had been quiet amongst the Deer. He hadn't known Linhardt, but others had. Marianne had been an utter wreck since it happened, but she still rode with them, Hilda keeping close.

Each house had gone in a direction to assist with the search. They'd been given Remire as their destination to ask around at, as well as investigate an abnormal occurrence. At least, that's what Jeralt had said their other objective was. He'd been tight lipped about it, not saying more.

Still, Ignatz took comfort that he was allowed to come. Shamir had given him permission as she'd be going as well and could watch over him.

At some point, he needed to tease her about the kiss she and Catherine had shared when they thought no one was looking. Though he'd need to do it when he was certain he could escape. It'd bring levity to the others, perhaps a laugh to see stoic Shamir blush like a fairytale maiden. That's what they needed now.

"Kid," he overheard Jeralt say to Byleth. "Your students okay with spending the night in the forest?"

"They'll manage," she said. Oh, how tired her voice was. Ignatz saw none of it, but he'd heard from several of the Deer that she'd been up late in the training yard, running herself ragged. "Why the forest, you think we need cover?"

"If we can hide our approach, it might be better for chasing Tomas." Jeralt scratched his beard. "There's no hiding this many of us, but better he not stumble across our campsite and give us the slip."

"Works for me," Byleth said.

"Hey, kid."


Jeralt sighed. "Nothing. It's nothing."

Ignatz stopped paying attention to them, feeling as if he were intruding.

Shamir groaned as she walked through the trees. That apprentice of hers, she'd get him back. Ten laps around the monastery's outer wall. Twenty!

She usually was the one to rib her fellow knights, not the other way around. Several of the knights had smiled and told her they weren't surprised, that 'we all knew you and Catherine would end up together eventually' or 'Catherine did follow you like a puppy everywhere, after all!'

It was one thing for the Deer to hear about her and Catherine, but the knights? Her captain? Dear Goddess, there'd be some hell to pay when she got back. And it'd probably be in the form of an insufferable lout named Alois telling her how he'd 'known all along.' She loved her stoic personality. This wouldn't do that any favors.

When night perimeter duty had come up, she'd volunteered and walked away from camp without even waiting for affirmation.

Make that thirty laps for the boy. He'd run until he puked blood, leg be damned.

Not that she'd had venom in her thoughts, but as she thought of Catherine, it cleared away. Being with her was…nice. It was exciting, if she was being honest. In fact, she even looked forward to getting back to the monastery.

Ugh. She sounded like one of the students.

"You're a killer, not some slattern fumbling around to impress a lover," she growled to herself. Were she someone else, she'd be smiling wide and thinking about the way Catherine looked at her when they were together.

But she wasn't, so it was a faint grin and a passive appreciation of Catherine's handsomeness.

"You'd never let me live this down, partner," she whispered. Not Catherine, but her partner from Dagda. They'd had something of a romance, though it was casual. No strings, just enjoyment. She'd liked that. But what was growing with Catherine was much more terrifying.

And like most of her problems, she swallowed it to never speak about.

A twig snapped.

The arrow drew back on her bow, pointing in the direction of the sound. Her breath stilled and she made not a sound.

Another twig snapped. A tree branch rustled. A silhouette appeared not ten paces away from her. It was a man dressed in the simple clothes of a peasant.

She blinked as he stood there. He looked like a commoner that might live in a village, even with his head turned down to the ground like it was. Shamir let her bow ease, keeping the arrow nocked.

"Hey," she said in a low, carrying whisper. "Are you okay?"

The head snapped up straight and slowly turned towards her. And that was when she heard it, the deep, empty breaths. The man's head tilted to the side, cocking like an owl's.

Shamir took a step back.

He wailed, bile and spittle shooting from his mouth as it turned to a scream as he charged at her, arms waving in front of him as he made to grab her.

Without a thought, she drew and let loose. The arrow sprouted from his forehead, dropping him to the ground.

She drew another and pointed her bow at the body. It moved, still, on the ground. Death rattle twitches of his arms and legs, except they didn't stop moving.

"What the fuck are you?" Shamir whispered.

The man—thing—heard her and his head swiveled on the ground to face her. His arms began to pick himself up as she feathered him with another arrow to the head. This time, the gurgle that followed was the last sound it made as brain leaked from the wounds.

She looped the bow around her shoulder and took her knife out, approaching the creature. Flipping the body over, she pushed it into the moonlight. She gagged.

It was a human, but its face wasn't recognizable. Deep purple veins colored its face, arms, legs, chest, everywhere. With the knife, she used the tip to poke one. It cut in easily and blood didn't dribble out. Instead, some inky ichor bled. Shamir tilted her head and vomited as the smell of rotting flesh reached her nose.

Breathing, she looked back at the thing. Had it once been human?

That question went unanswered as she heard the same wail in the distance. Cursing, she stood up and knocked an arrow.

Then she heard another

Then three more.

Five. Ten. Twenty.


Shamir ran.

Chapter Text

Ignatz' leg hurt like hell, but he wasn't going to say anything.

It had taken weeks to convince Shamir he was ready. Byleth had told him that once his archery instructor gave him a pass, she'd let him come along.

Shamir had made him run. She'd made him dodge. She worked him until she was satisfied he could survive adequately. And even then, she made him promise to stay in the back of the group. He'd agreed, of course. The Adrestian Longbow on his back certainly wasn't a close-quarters weapon.

The one thing he had not practiced was riding a horse. It turned out that the constant bobbing up and down as the horse trot and ran made for pain.

And after his little teasing of Shamir (not all that little), he knew one mention would have him at Garreg Mach for the rest of the year.

It was frustrating, but Raphael had pointed out that it was care. That Shamir was concerned about him.

At first, he'd rebuffed it. Shamir caring about anyone except Catherine? Lunacy. But as he paid more attention, he saw it.

It made him work harder.

Though for today, he was content to let Raphael set up their tent while he tended one of the fires in the small clearing. It could hardly be called a clearing, it was just an area where a few trees had fallen down. The knights and some of the Deer moved them aside.

"I hope you're ready for a true delicacy tonight," Claude said as he sat down at the fire which had become the Deer's despite the other two campfires being far less populated. "I bring to you squirrel."

Hilda gagged and Marianne looked horrified. Dorothea chuckled at the both of them. Claude rigged up a spit to cook them on, which of course he knew how to do. The man seemed to be filled to the brim with situational knowledge.

"Don't worry, squirrel is good," Leonie said as she took them from Claude, beginning to skin them. "Way better than rat."

"You ate a rat?" Hilda said, jaw dropped.

"You haven't?" Dorothea answered with a smile. Ignatz didn't think she was lying.

Raphael plopped down as Hilda fumbled for words, gazing longingly at the meat that was beginning to be cooked.

Lorenz walked up with his arms crossed. "Claude, there's deer the knights caught. Quit torturing Hilda."

Hilda cheered and Claude sighed. "But Lorenz, it's just so fun."

This, of course, prompted Hilda to smack Claude.

"Ah! Mercedes, Marianne, she has wounded me! Please, I require healing!" Claude called out, hand over his heart dramatically.

Ignatz saw Byleth, speaking with her father, turn towards them and raise an eyebrow.

"How about a nice pat on the head?" Mercedes offered as she just joined them.

Food began to be distributed. Everyone partook of the deer, though the squirrels didn't go to waste as Raphael, Leonie, and Dorothea made sure of that.

"I can never look at the squirrels at Garreg Mach the same," Marianne whispered. "We're eating their friends."

Hilda helpfully said, "I mean, the winter is pretty much here, they probably wouldn't have lived super long through it."

Marianne damn near wailed and every eye turned to Hilda with an incredulous expression, all asking the same question of how she thought that would help. She pulled Marianne away from the fire to go play damage control.

"Those two," Claude chuckled. "Give them to the end of the year, they'll be together."

Dorothea laughed. "Claude, you are so unobservant at times. They clearly already are."

But whatever defense Claude could mount went interrupted by Shamir.

The archer burst from the tree line, haggard and bereft of breath. Her eyes darted around the campsite as all eyes had turned to her, conversation dwindling.

"We're under attack," she said, quietly.

Meals were forgotten as weapons were taken up out of sheer training instead of conscious effort. Jeralt walked to her. "From who?"

"There are these…things," Shamir said. She stumbled over words, hands shaking. Shaking from fear.

Shamir Nevrand, scared. Ignatz felt his blood go cold.

"They look like people, but they're not," she went on. "Their veins, they're black. They tried to kill me out there. I put an arrow in one of their heads and it didn't stop them."

Jeralt put a hand on her shoulder. "Shamir. What are they?"

She opened her mouth and there was a scream. But not hers.

One of the knights was on the ground. He'd had his back to the forest and a man in ragged clothes was biting at his neck, tearing through flesh and muscle.

Someone had the presence of mind to cast, sending the creature back in a spout of flame. The creature wailed, falling off the body and jittering as the flames snuffed life.

Dorothea let out a breath as she lowered her hand which still trailed wisps of smoke. "What was that?"

Howls erupted in the forest, reverberating all around them.

"Form up!" shouted Jeralt. His lance was in his hand, a sword in the other. "Whatever they are, they're around us. Create a circle, casters in the middle! Archers, you too. Take any shot you can!"

The knights and Deer scampered to obey. Ignatz felt himself get pushed into the center of the circle by Raphael, where he was useless. Archers clung to the sides, but their bows didn't require as much room as his did.


A woman ran out of the forest on all fours, bounding like a dog. An arrow caught her below the jaw, tearing her head half off. The spurt of black blood landed on the ground, sizzling.

"Watch out for their blood," Claude said as he knocked another arrow. The creature still twitched, but didn't move from the ground.

"Ignatz," Mercedes said, standing next to him. "Stay close to me, I'll protect you."

He nodded, wringing his hands helplessly. There was nothing else to do with them.

Then, they came.

Ten emerged from the woods, slobbering and screaming and shambling in various states of decay as the black veins that were present on all of them had completely encapsulated aspects of them. Arms, legs, even faces; the color of night.

Ignatz felt heat around him as all the mages who could cast fire. With each thing that entered view, they were met with magic. Those who hadn't mastered fire summoned lightning, wind, and Marianne hurled shards of ice.

None of the creatures even made it to the melee fighters. When one slipped past the magical barrage it was met with a hail of arrows or the tip of Byleth's sword, which had a greater reach.

The few healers they had ran back and forth, checking their charges when the creatures got too close.

"Watch—ahhhhh!" screamed a knight as his shield was knocked aside. A monster beset upon him, biting into his nose before Lorenz skewered him. But it left an opening.

Two more ran into the circle, attacking those closest to them. One a Church healer and the other Mercedes.

Ignatz moved.

With his hands, he grabbed the arm as it swung down on Mercedes. Ignatz lost balance as he put weight on his bad leg, tumbling to the ground with the creature. Its claws stabbed into his back, but he grit his teeth and held it down, placing his other hand around its neck.

A sword sunk directly into its septum, causing one last spasm before it stilled. Jeralt barely spared a glance to Ignatz as he reinforced the gap.

The cuts on his back closed as Mercedes' light touch brushed against his skin, her muffled words not penetrating the pounding of his adrenalin heartbeat.

He grinned almost manically.

Maybe not so useless.

Hilda finished off one of the…things as it tried to crawl away. With an overhead chop, she severed its head, careful to avoid the splatter of blood.

Their camp was in tatters as the still standing rounded up the remaining creatures. Whatever had happened to the people, it inhibited their drive to flee. They didn't even try to escape, fixated on a taste for blood or murder or something. That was a better question for someone smart, not her.

The question for her, now that took the form of a blue haired woman staring at one of the corpses. She'd been doing that as the remainders were hunted down. Hilda had been watching her, making sure her despondency didn't get her killed.

Hilda didn't say anything as she walked up, taking a handkerchief out and cleaning the blood off. She wrinkled her nose at the smell and tossed it to the ground. She had more at the monastery.

Marianne said nothing at her approach. Not even when Hilda reached out and squeezed her hand.

"Marianne?" she whispered.

"Oh, hello, Hilda," she said, still not turning to her, not acknowledging her. Her eyes bored holes in the body.

"Are you…hurt?" Hilda asked, unsure how or even what to ask the woman.

Marianne said nothing for a time before shaking her head. "Would you call these monsters?" she finally asked.

Hilda frowned. "I mean, yeah. Once I finally come to terms with what the fuck just happened, I'm gonna have nightmares for months." She said it in jest, but she wasn't liable to forget the jaws snapping in her face before Raphael pulled the creature off her. "Why do you ask?"

"Do you think someone could love a monster?" Marianne asked.

"Mari, you're scaring me," Hilda said, clutching the woman she loved's hand. She knew that without a doubt even if what they were was still cloudy. She was certainly willing to wait for Marianne to come to terms with it.

Marianne turned her head to meet Hilda's gaze and the latter recoiled and the sheer darkness in her eyes. "Can someone love a monster?" she repeated.

Hilda opened her mouth to respond but had no words.

The woman nodded. "That answers my question. I'd like to be alone, Hilda."

Hurt, Hilda nodded, withdrawing her hand. "Is there something I can do?"

"I'd just like to be alone."

Biting her lip, Hilda nodded. "Okay."

Remire, or what was left of it, was burning.

"Dear Goddess," breathed Dorothea near her. Byleth couldn't help but agree.

She and her father had been to Remire plenty of times. It was one of the main hubs of activity before entering the greater Empire. Many people lived there, a delightfully agricultural community that needed help with bandit activity more often than other places. Good people lived there.

Had lived there.

Byleth grimaced as she stepped over a body. It wasn't marred like the creatures they encountered in the woods. Just a normal corpse. Sickening.

"Fan out and search for survivors," Jeralt commanded. "Saving those we can is the priority. If you find anything that might indicate cause, holler."

"Stay in groups," Byleth called out. Jeralt nodded in agreement and their party split into multiple groups.

"Let's search the east, Teach," Claude said as he leaned on his bow. He looked tired. They all did, Dorothea, Lorenz, Ignatz, and Shamir. They'd ridden hard and fast after the attack.

The six of them began their pass of the nearby area. Each body was checked if it looked like it could be alive.

Some had been strung up in a tree, staked to the trunk by lances. Shamir had been the only one to move to take them down. The rest of them were too overcome with shock.

"Dagdans do worse things to their prisoners," she said lightly, but it didn't hide the unease in her voice.

Other bodies had been caught by the flames. Houses either had collapsed in shambles or still burned. The Goddess' grace had overlooked Remire today.

The fire was easy enough to avoid for her, though that didn't stop the sweat pouring down here that had nothing to do with the heat. Her students instinctively moved to handle the scorched and still burning places, saving her from as much pain as they could.


Byleth turned to her right as she checked the pulse of a body. Nothing. But that call, it was a child. Someone living.

Claude was already moving. The cry came from a house, one still engulfed in flame.

"Claude!" she yelled, but there was no stopping him. He leapt through the door over a piece of burning wood.

"Dammit!" she yelled, throwing her cloak to the ground as she followed. Her vision darkened as she got close to the flames, the brightness almost muffling to tiny beads of light. Her body worked on muscle memory, mind no longer functioning.

My student, a voice in the back of her head whispered, is in danger.

She blinked and vision came back as she leapt over the same piece as Claude did. When she did, Byleth was in a house fire. The lick of heat touched at her bare legs and arms as she wildly looked around for Claude.

He was walking down the stairs, holding a little girl in his arms. Claude made eye contact with her just as the stairs collapsed under him.

She ran to his side, reach out to take his hand. He slapped it away and shouted, "The girl! Get the girl!"

Byleth swore and grabbed the child, who was screaming with her eyes shut. She couldn't be more than five. Burn marks covered her arms and the tears evaporated as soon as they were shed.

"Go!" Claude shouted, swearing his own storm as he tried to push himself up from the wood surrounding him. It collapsed under his hands, sinking him more and more into a pile of cinders.

Byleth ran to the door, holding the girl tight. When she cleared the entrance, Dorothea was there looking to jump in herself. She pushed the child into her arms and turned around, back into the conflagration.

Just as the cleared halfway through the house, one of the wooden supports broke above them. Byleth looked up as the roof fell onto them.

"Byleth!" screamed Dorothea. Lorenz grabbed her arm and urged her to wait, but she resisted.

That was their teacher in there! And Claude, their friend!

"Dorothea, let's be smart about this!" Lorenz shouted back, though he'd yet to take his eyes off the collapsed building. "Can you use ice?"

"Dammit," she sobbed. "No."

"A signal!" Shamir said, throwing her jacket off. "Throw up a signal, draw the others here. I'll get them out, but they'll need aid." And she was off.

Dorothea watched one of the bravest women she knew do the stupidest thing she'd ever seen and jump into a burning pile of wood. But it didn't stop her from raising her hand to the sky and snapping her fingers. A singular stream of electricity rocketed to the heavens, a cacophonous boom following its stead.

"Uh, everyone?" Ignatz' quivering voice called from behind them. Dorothea and Lorenz spared a glance behind them.

Two armored titans stood, one familiar and the other not. One, the knight who took Ignatz' leg minus his horse, the one the people had begun to call the Death Knight. His skeletal mask breathed a black mist from its mouth, some sort of enchantment that disfigured the voice.

But next to him stood a somehow more imposing figure. A similarly black armored individual who wore an expressionless mask while holding an axe.

"The professor ran in. But the Alliance boy is in there," their voice said. It was muffled, but resounding around them.

"Let them burn," growled the Death Knight. "Or let me finish them."

Lorenz raised his spear, the hand near the tip licking with flame. "Ignatz," he said, "get behind me." The archer complied, hobbling behind both Lorenz and Dorothea.

"Who are you?" Dorothea asked, raising a hand. Lightning began to tickle at her fingertips.

"I am the Flame Emperor," intoned the one with the axe. "Stand down, there is no need for us to—"

Dorothea didn't wait. The lightning jolted from her hand at the Death Knight, an iridescent streak that exploded into the armor of the skeletal man. With the same hand she brought it back in a fluid motion and snapped her fingers again.

The ground erupted beneath the armored figures, as if it had opened up to swallow them into its burning maw. Dirt and ash flooded back onto the three of them, Lorenz covering his eyes while Dorothea shut hers as tightly as she could.

When she opened them, the breath left her as there stood the same figures, armor a little worse for wear, but unharmed. The Death Knight spun his scythe menacingly and began to stalk forward.

Lorenz wasn't frozen by fear. He drew his lance back and hurled it. As it sailed he clapped his hands together and it ignited with embers, a streak of orange across the air. It crackled and sizzled and detonated upon hitting the Death Knight.

When the smoke cleared, the knight held a gauntleted arm up, having blocked the attack.

"Talented," the Flame Emperor said. "Death Knight, remove them. They're more trouble than expected."

"Finally," the sadistic knight growled. He began to traipse forward, holding the scythe in both hands as its blade began to leak a darkness that sucked in light.

"Lorenz…" Dorothea whispered.

"It's been a pleasure," he said as weak electricity crackled in his hands. "My friend."

She nodded. "Ignatz, run. We'll buy you time." Her hands lit ablaze as the black soldier walked ever closer.

But Ignatz walked up to her side, holding Shamir's discarded bow. He shook his head, staring directly at the man who'd crippled him. "I'm done hiding."

The Death Knight charged and Ignatz fired. The arrow plinked against the armor but Lorenz' bolt of lightning struck the arrow as it impacted, acting the conduit for the electricity to leap to the knight's armor.

The Death Knight roared in fury, his advance slowed but not stopped. Dorothea whistled and the glyphs around her hand began to speed in their rotation. Her hand began to shake as the sky opened up above them.

The Flame Emperor lurched forward, far faster than someone with their armor should, and collided with the Death Knight as the meteor hit them. The explosion knocked the three Deer back and off their feet.

For a moment, silence.

"No…no way," Dorothea gasped.

Standing in the crater were both armored soldiers, the Emperor glowing with a faint brightness that often lingered when someone's Crest activated. They'd survived and were none too worse for wear.

"Kill them, they've seen too much," the Flame Emperor hissed with the first real indication of emotion since their encounter.

"Get the fuck away from my students."

Dorothea looked over her shoulder.

Walking from the wrecked house was an armorless Byleth. All she wore were her tights and crop-top, her skin covered in ash. On one shoulder, she supported Claude who was breathing heavily, but alright. In her other hand, the Sword of the Creator glowed malevolently, just like the angers bleeding from her eyes. Dorothea had never seen such a raw emotion.

Shamir, who'd emerged coughing smoke as well, took Claude from the professor.

"Don't touch my students," Byleth seethed.

"Kill them all," the Flame Emperor commanded.

Byleth reacted instead of thinking. She closed the distance between herself and the two figures. They stood in a crater of molten rock and dirt, pieces of flaming stone around them.

She raised the heavy blade, facing the serrated tooth-like side to the ground. Her opponents moved slow, but began to encircle her. She let them.

"Hmph. Seems like the name Ashen Demon isn't far off for you," the Flame Emperor chided as they spun their axe in their hand. Neither of their weapons were bloodied, so Byleth took it as comfort that her students were unharmed.

"You haven't seen the demon yet," Byleth hissed. The Flamer Emperor was on her left while the Death Knight on her right.

Punish them.

Her sword broke into pieces and she whipped it at the Flame Emperor while moving towards the Death Knight. The whip barely made contact before she pulled it back into its sword form to strike the Death Knight's scythe, blocking its side strike before it collided with her arm. The darkness emitted a cold foreign to winter that leeched flakes of skin from her arm.

Byleth turned, removing her sword to let the knight's strike follow through. He lurched forward with the lack of resistance but raised a hand to catch the toothed edge of the sword. She grinned, slashing into the hand. The teeth pulled on the gauntlet, stripping it from the arm of the Death Knight.

The Flame Emperor closed the distance and smashed her with the butt of the axe. Byleth fell backwards into the boiling ground and rolled the side with speed only made possible by her lack of armor. She leapt up, grabbing the dagger at her belt and throwing it at the recovering Death Knight who easily blocked it. The Flame Emperor's next strike sailed above her head as she struck, taking the same teeth to armor, pulling instead of slashing.

The breastplate of the Emperor bent down before her sword lost its grip, exposing a gap in the plates. But before she could exploit it, the knight swung his scythe in the way a brawler would throw a haymaker: wild. She ducked backwards once, twice, and on the third time brought her massive sword up to catch the scythe, pulling backward the moment it connected and using the scythe's curved head yanked it from the Death Knight's grip.

She swung the blade at the now defenseless man, teeth grabbing the horns of the helmet and pulling like she'd done with the armor before.

The helmet sailed off, revealing the fair hair of Jeritza.

Jeritza leapt at her. Byleth swung but blade was caught by his remaining protected hand, this time him wary of the teethed edge. Instead she shifted the sword, Jeritza now holding a single segment of the whip as he lost his footing without the resistance of the boney blade. She retracted the sword and the shifted it again, raining whips strikes down onto the black armored man on the ground, the red fury in her eyes matching the crimson her blade bled in its vibrant energy.

Jeritza rolled out of the way of the first strike, but the second and third wailed on him. As the fourth rained down, his bare hand gestured towards her as glyphs surrounded it. A weak spout of flame smashed into her, knocking her back more than burning her. She fell to the ground, losing the grip on her blade.

The Flame Emperor walked towards her, hefting the axe. "Pray to your Goddess," they intoned.

A bolt of lightning struck right in front of the Emperor. A warning. They turned around.

The rest of the Deer and Knights of Seiros stood, weapons at the ready. At their head, Jeralt holding both a blade and spear in his hands.

"Get the hell away from my daughter," said Jeralt, his anger far colder and severe than the bleeding hatred Byleth had shown.

"This won't be the end," the Flame Emperor said. Instead of complying, they held out a hand to Jeritza who grabbed it. In a flash of violet light, they vanished as arrows flew past mere moments too late.

Byleth grit her teeth and pushed herself up as Mercedes ran to her side, a healing spell already on her lips.

Chapter Text

Leonie helped burn the bodies.

Jeralt, Byleth, Claude, and a few choice knights had already left Remire with their prisoner. Tomas, or Solon as he appeared to be called, was in their custody. They took him to Rhea for judgement, wasting no time for him to spin a web of magic and escape. His first escape attempted resulted in a dead knight. The second injured three more. Now he was unconscious and Byleth was under strict orders to bash his head whenever he moved.

Leonie couldn't help but be jealous of that duty. That man had caused this.

The dead people were hard enough, but the dead children were the worst. There was a tree in the back of the town where there had been a pile of corpses, all kids. She'd vomited until she couldn't breathe, then volunteered to help with their bodies to spare the surviving villagers some agony.

As she carried them, she cursed her sharp mind for keeping count.

The silver lining is that there were survivors of the Remire Calamity as it was being called already. Some people had hidden and run, trickling back now that the town was liberated. The girl Byleth and Claude had saved from a fire reunited with her father. It was a small comfort, but comfort nonetheless.

She'd asked a few of the villagers what had happened. One told her that the wells had started to taste funny according to some of the villagers. Another mentioned a man named Myson who'd come to the village inn and mysteriously vanished one night. Someone else spoke of the first kill, a woman killed by her husband who'd turned feral.

A young girl who stared listless with a long gaze that never really saw her told her that the pale man and the skeleton man had strung up the bodies. She pushed a bit more, and with the promise of sweets, got the girl to tell her the pale man's name. Myson.

They'd caught one of the culprits in Solon, but others had escaped. Myson, the Death Knight, this Flame Emperor. They were working together.

Lorenz and the others who remained agreed. Lorenz, who'd been put in charge by Claude in his absence, assembled them to scour the village for evidence or clues. They'd found nothing. Whatever the truth behind Remire, the orchestrators had cleaned up their tracks. Or so it seemed at first.

An old man, far older than the eldest in Sauin, had been staring at one of the trees where bodies had been strung up. Leonie had approached him to see if he needed help.

He'd started to cry and told her how much the children had been screaming as the fires had burned. The people doing it, the Death Knight and Myson, spoke of sacrifices which he'd overheard. A ritual to locate something. She'd stayed by his side for hours, calming him down.

After the sun set and she got him into one of the makeshift beds that'd been set up, he raised a hand to brush against her cheek and said, "It's always the beautiful youth who die. Not the ones who've had our time."

He'd said nothing after that. Not that she was in the mood to speak.

She'd never been the type to warmonger. Violence bred violence, her village elder once said. She agreed, the logic was sound. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

But that night as she lay awake in bed, Leonie knew there was a war she'd be all too glad to wage. Given the opportunity, she'd wipe whoever did this off the world.

Leonie prayed to the Goddess for the first time in years for guidance. There was no answer, but a small measure of comfort settled into her and let her manage to find a fitful sleep.

Ferdinand waited in the training yard as the sun set. It was when Hubert usually came to train. The late hours meant there were few people around, therefore easier for him to get the man alone to talk to.

Sure enough, Hubert showed up after the sun's last rays vanished and the torches became the only source of light.

Unsurprisingly, he noticed Ferdinand. "Have you come to hassle me yet again?"

A few weeks ago, a comment like that would be a lash across his heart. Now, he wondered other things.

How had he, Ferdinand von Aegir, fallen for a man such as that? Oh, he was certainly his type. Tall, dark, mysterious, but that wasn't the issue. Had it just been simple infatuation rather than the deeper feelings he'd thought?

Perhaps they had been shallow feelings. For now he could not find any of them in his heart. He looked at Hubert and Edelgard now and saw different people than he did before.

Gone was the handsome aide to the princess. A man with blood on his hands had taken his place. Or maybe he'd been there all along, were he being honest with himself.

So when he looked at Hubert in that torchlight, he saw nothing but a villain.

"Not to hassle. To confront," he said. Ferdinand was surprised to find he wasn't nervous—no, he was confident. There was a righteous anger burning in the pit of his stomach.

"Hmph. Well, prattle on. You're wasting my time." Hubert folded his arms and waited.

"Was it you who killed Linhardt?" he whispered.

Hubert tensed. He wouldn't have noticed it were he not looking for it. Ferdinand stepped closer, bringing them just inches apart.

"Or was it one of your associates?" Ferdinand whispered. He'd fantasized about standing this close to Hubert before. "Did you give Tomas the order?"

One of Hubert's hands was moving. A glimmer of magic pulsed in his hand.

"Kill me and you spark war," Ferdinand said. He smirked. "I've sent word home. Any word of my death, my father will know it was at Edelgard's hands."

Hubert stopped. His face had gone blank, dangerously so. "I do not see how this is your business."

A cruel part of him loved seeing Hubert so off-kilter. He pushed it down. "I've made it mine. Tell me who these friends are of yours or else I put Edelgard in the dirt."

If Hubert had been tense before, now he was deathly still. He said nothing, but those eyes were boring holes through him.

"You bluff, Aegir," Hubert snarled. "What do you want, to be Emperor? As if you could be any fraction of the person Edelgard is."

"I rather think not being like Edelgard is a compliment," Ferdinand responded.

Hubert visibly suppressed a jerk of his hand, no doubt an attack. "I don't believe you. You're an oaf, you've no contingencies. And if your tiny mind somehow thought of a halfway reasonable plan, then I must only dismantle your idiocy."

Ferdinand stepped back. "Then let this remain a threat, Vestra. I know who your enemies are."

Hubert's face contorted into a furious smirk. "You're a fool if you think you can keep up with me when it comes to threats. You're a noble who thinks with his sword, not his mind."

Ferdinand smiled. "And perhaps a schemer such as yourself has forgotten just how much more lethal the tip of a sword is than a plan. Or maybe the tip of a pen. You might want to check in with your allies. The Aegir name carries more weight than Hresvelg these days."

"Cocky to reveal your plan," Hubert said. "I hazard a guess whatever paltry promises you offered pale in comparison to what the Emperor can offer."

"Except she isn't Emperor yet," Ferdinand simply said.

Hubert scowled and turned around, departing.

Ferdinand smiled. The man was confident that he was an idiot. And Ferdinand couldn't deny that he wasn't one to come up with a scheme. A sword in his hand with an enemy ahead was his style.

But a little advice from Lorenz had gone a long way.

"If it's dangerous for me to know, then I'm afraid I can't be much help unless you clue me in," Lorenz had said with a sigh after repeated attempts to get Ferdinand to explain further in his room. "But if there's something I've learned from Claude, if you're trying to fool someone, you should consider what they expect from you."

Hubert expected Ferdinand to be a fool, to be cocky about a plan.

And now Hubert would be rushing out to contact his allies, his associates. All Ferdinand had to do was watch and wait. That was no easy feat, but the first step of his plan had begun.

"An idiot?" Ferdinand chuckled to himself. "Perhaps as far as you're concerned. But I have morals and a soul. I'm content with that."

Ferdinand left the training grounds as he wondered just how to let Rhea know Edelgard was up to something.

"I thought I'd find you here."

Byleth looked up and wasn't surprised to see Claude walking into their classroom. "I figured you'd be going to sleep after that meeting." The two of them, with a host of other knights and Church officials, had all been wrapped up in a meeting about what to do with Tomas. After the discussion turned away from their report of the situation at Remire, Byleth asked for her and Claude to be excused.

Rhea had seemed to want to keep Byleth there for some reason. Seteth hadn't shared the opinion and gave them leave to go.

"I would have thought the same for you," Claude chuckled, pulling up a chair and sagging into it. He looked as tired as she felt.

"Tired as I am, sleep isn't something I'm looking forward to," she sighed. "After all that, I'm not sure I'll be sleeping well for a while."

Claude chuckled. "I thought that's what Mercedes helped with?"

Byleth's face burned red and she opened her mouth to protest, but Claude's laughter cut her off. "I kid, I kid. Just teasing, Teach. And don't you worry, your secret is safe with me. That's what family does for each other."

"Thank you," Byleth mumbled.

"She's good for you," Claude said with a smirk that missed his eyes. "I can't deny I'm a bit jealous."

"Jealous? Of what?" Byleth asked.

Claude shrugged. "You two seem to have a good thing going. That's it." But his tone of voice didn't seem to agree. She'd spent plenty of time with him, enough to know sadness when she heard it.

"But I didn't come here to talk about her with you," he said. "I came to thank you."

Byleth blinked and leaned back in her chair. "What for?"

"You ran in after me." Claude's voice was small. "Byleth, my friend, do you know what I thought as that house fell on me? I thought I was dead. That I was dead and that the people I knew cared for me would be left alone without me. That my dreams would go unpursued."

"I did what anyone would do." Byleth lowered her gaze to not make eye contact.

Arms wrapped around her. Claude knelt by her chair, hugging her. "No, anyone would have paused. You ran in. You saved me, even though it meant passing through fire."

Byleth said nothing.

Claude let go and stood. "I'm all too aware of what fire does to you. Yet you came after me. I owe you my life, Teach." He paused, then chuckled. "My friend. Teach has its own ring, but I consider you friend and family, Byleth. Like the rest of the Deer."

"I would do it again," Byleth said, meeting his gaze.

He nodded. "I know, that's what makes you incredible. There's…something that I seek to achieve here in Fódlan. A task that seems insurmountable. I hope…I hope you stand by my side in accomplishing it." He looked like he wanted to say more, but stopped himself.

"Claude." Byleth stood so their gazes were leveled. "You're a good man. I'll stand by your side if you wish me to be there."

The smile that he gave in return, it was full. That was all she could describe it with. He looked at peace when he smiled like that, as if all the difficulties of the world were an afterthought.

"Thank you," he said, quietly. "That means more than you know. I'll tell you more eventually, I swear."

"We're all here to help," Byleth said. "All of the Deer."

He smiled again. "I came to this academy expecting to learn. I did not expect a second family. Cheers, Teach. It's been a hell of a year."

Byleth sat back down. "That's one way to put it. Now go get some rest. You look like death."

Claude laughed. "Ha! That's what they're starting to say about you, you know that? Word is getting around about your battle. Seems people are getting impressed."

"They better temper their expectations," Byleth deadpanned.

His eyes twinkled with a mischievous glint that said more about where those rumors had started. "Oh, I don't think they need to."

And word did get out.

In the coming days, Solon was sentenced to prison until appropriate punishment could be decided on. But the real reason wasn't a lack of decision, but rather a need for questioning. Rhea's inner circle was at a loss as to who this new group was and what they were after. Answers were needed from Solon, answers he seemed entirely unlikely to give.

But the rest of the monastery didn't dwell on the Remire Calamity, but rather on the Ashen Demon. Word spread like wildfire, Professor Byleth single handedly saved the future Duke Riegan and fought off both the Death Knight and the Flame Emperor by herself.

"The way she looked at them," Dorothea could be heard saying, "it was like a demon made flesh. She stared with judgement in her eyes and found them wanting."

Byleth's moniker took on a new meaning. Gone was the dispassionate warrior, in was the guardian of the Deer. Not a few requests came to Byleth for practice bouts, several of them from Felix.

When addressed, she brushed it off. "I fought them like anyone would. That's it." It only endeared people to her more.

When Claude was asked, he spun a whole story about her saving his life and vanquishing the two assailants, pushing them into submission before they fled like cowards.

The Knights saluted her as she walked past. Seteth thanked her publicly. Even Rhea made a point to congratulate her in the name of the Goddess.

The legend of Byleth Eisner was taking a new turn.

The Deer, who'd seen a glimmer of it since their beginning, reveled in the rest of the monastery seeing her as they did. Not that they had any intention of giving her up.

When Shamir got together with Catherine, she wasn't expecting things to change too much. They already spent all their time together. All that would change was some physical intimacy. And that was fine.

Shamir did not expect Catherine to corner her in her room after arriving back and hug her so hard she couldn't breathe.

"I thought you were dead," she whispered.

"Why the hell would you think that?" Shamir murmured, voice quiet only for the fact that her lungs were being crushed.

Catherine sniffed. Sniffed? Was she crying? "I saw Captain Jeralt arrive back with the prisoner. No one else came back and they immediately went into an audience with Lady Rhea. I tried to ask around about you, but no one had heard from you."

"Well, I'm fine. Also, I can't breathe," she said.

Catherine let go and pulled back. She was crying, though she wiped away the tears before she thought Shamir would notice. "Then you came back and didn't even come to find me to let me know. Shamir, I was terrified."

"Catherine." Shamir stared at her lover. "It would take a lot more than that to kill me."

She recoiled like a kicked puppy and Shamir swore silently. "Sorry for worrying," mumbled Catherine, trying to push past her and leave.

"Cath," Shamir said, grabbing the woman's shoulder. She sighed. "Look, I'm sorry for not coming to see you sooner. This is all still…new to me."

"It's new to me, too," Catherine admitted with a forced chuckle. "When I heard the news about Remire…well, they said everyone was dead."

Shamir pulled Catherine into a hug, the tender kind she'd never display in public.

"Was it as bad there as they're saying?" Catherine asked.

Shamir nodded. "Yes."

"I've got a present for you," Raphael said, his hand behind his back.

Ignatz closed the book in front of him and turned around. "You forgot to knock, Raph."

"Huh? Oh, oops," Raphael scratched his head sheepishly. "You weren't busy, so it all works out."

Ignatz chuckled. Just like when they were children. He grabbed his crutch next to his desk and stood, moving to the center of the room and to his friend. He was getting better at moving around, but it'd barely been months. Remire had been a reminder that he still had some ways to go.

"Anyway," Raphael continued, "I made you something!"

"Raph, you didn't have to make me something," Ignatz said, though his curiosity was piqued.

"Too late!" Raphael said, bringing his hand out from behind his back to reveal a stick.

Except it wasn't a stick. It was a long piece of wood with a curved end. Etched in the sides were carvings of deer, though Raphael's artistic talent left quite a lot to be desired. At a glance, he couldn't tell what they were meant to be.

It was a cane.

"Ta-da!" he said. "That crutch seemed kinda hard to move around with, so I thought maybe you'd like something that was a bit smaller."

Ignatz leaned the crutch against the wall and grabbed the cane. He slowly put weight onto it and it held.

"The wood should be really sturdy," Raphael went on. "It took me a really long time to chop the branch off the tree. Carving it took forever too. So I bet it won't break!"

"Thank you, Raph!" Ignatz said with a grin. He took a few steps and it was different, but definitely easier to get around on. "This is going to help a lot."

"Yes! I was hoping to hear you say that," his friend grinned. "Now how about you and I got get something to eat, yeah? Nothing like some meat to get you recovering even faster."

"Of course, let me just put some things away." Ignatz walked back to his desk and organized a few papers.

"What were you working on?" Raphael asked curiously.

Ignatz frowned. "I was just reviewing some reports. Seems there are some monsters preying on merchants in Gloucester territory."

He didn't need to look to know Raphael's smile had faded. "Again?" the big man asked.

"Hasn't stopped, according to my father," Ignatz admitted. "He asked that I petition the Archbishop for aid."

Raphael nodded. "If the Knights of Seiros get on the case, I'm sure they'd be able to stop the monsters."

"Raph, it's Gloucester territory, do you think…"


Ignatz blinked, looking over at his friend.

"No, Lorenz would never condone something like that. He's our friend," Raphael said. His smile slowly came back. "Tell you what, why don't we head to the Archbishop or Seteth before going to eat? The sooner aid is sent, the sooner more lives can be saved." He walked to the door and opened it.



Ignatz swallowed. "Your parents, I—"

"Ig, enough." Raphael sighed. He sounded tired. "We've talked about this. Let's just…leave it. I don't want to go through this again."

Ignatz nodded, grabbing his new cane and beginning to follow after Raphael.

"Hey there, Hilda."

"Oh, hello, Sylvain," she mumbled in response.

"Now that was very uncharacteristic," Sylvain said, sitting down next to her. The library was quiet, completely empty aside from the two of them. Talk of Linhardt's murder had driven almost every student away from it aside from the bold and the stupid.

Hilda planted her face in her book that she clearly hadn't been reading. "Ugh, Sylvain, I don't know what to do."

He reclined in his seat, hands behind his head. "Lucky for me, I'm stumped on something too. We can help each other out."

Hilda groaned. "What if I don't wanna talk about it?"

He laughed, picking some dirt from underneath his fingernails. "Hilda, I think it's the stuff we don't want to talk about that needs to be said."

"You sound like Holst," Hilda grumbled. "Okay, fine! Marianne is being all quiet since Remire and I don't know what to do."

His expression mellowed. "What happened?" he asked softly.

"Oh, I don't even know. We got attacked by those crazy villagers and suddenly she's all moody. And I'm here being adorable and trying to cheer her up and nothing's working. I even asked her she wanted to go for a ride on Dorte and she said no. No! She never says no to that!"

"Have you asked her what's wrong?"

"Of course, dummy. She just says that nothing is wrong and everything is fine." Hilda brought her head up for a moment only to let it drop and smack back into the book. "Ow."

"She might just need some time alone." Sylvain shrugged. "Let her know you're there for when she needs it, but let her have some time to herself."

"That's some poopy advice. How am I supposed to make her feel better that way?"

Sylvain laughed. "Sometimes the only person who can make you feel better is yourself. I've seen the two of you around the monastery. There is no doubt in my mind that she likes you a lot."

"You sure?" Hilda said, vulnerable.

Sylvain patted her back. "Trust me, I've been with enough women to know I haven't been looked at like that before."

"What about you?" Hilda asked, lifting her head and resting her chin on the book instead. "Did you sleep with the wrong person again?"

"Would you believe me if I said it's the complete opposite?" Sylvain chuckled darkly. "My problem is more of the masculine persuasion."

"Just ask him to the dance."

"Who?" Sylvain asked, playing coy.

"Playing coy won't work. I've seen you watch Felix while he trains. Wait, scratch that. I've seen you watch Felix everywhere," Hilda said, wiggling her eyebrows.

Sylvain leaned his head back. "Fuck."

"There, there, Sylv. Let mama Hilda know what's wrong."

"I want to ask him to the dance," Sylvain said. "Hell, I want to do everything with him. It's just…"

Hilda waited patiently.

"Faerghus isn't that welcoming of that kind of stuff," Sylvain muttered, as if scared to speak loudly even when alone. "It's getting better, but Felix's dad is…traditional."

"Hmm, well, good thing you came to me," Hilda said with a smile.

"You've got an idea?"

"And I might just share it."

Chapter Text



Forgive me that we could not meet in person. With the nature of the Millennium Festival approaching as well as these horrid occurrences in Remire, my attention is spread thin. Be that as it may, I appreciate your patience and flexibility.

As for your petition, pain me though it does, I'm afraid the Knights of Seiros are spread thin. With dealing with the Western Church, helping Remire, addressing the bandits on the Rhodos Coast, and related duties for Lord Hevring, there is little aid I can offer.

I suggest beseeching Count Gloucester for aid. As it is in his territory, I suspect he would be quick to do away with the creatures that would inhibit his trade routes. Additionally, Leander is a very pious man, I've had the pleasure of speaking with him on many occasions. I believe he will help deal with these monsters terrorizing the merchants.

I shall pray for your success and the safety of the merchants.

Archbishop Rhea

"You are having a long face. Why is that?"

Ignatz looked up from the letter. He'd read it three times and knew that rereading it wouldn't give him what he needed. Reading it a fourth time wouldn't quell his anger. A fifth wouldn't find an answer.

"You're getting better with expressions," he said with a smile as Petra sat down beside him. She was damp with sweat as she leaned on her training sword.

"Your language is odd," she said. "I am not disliking it, but it is odd. Why is sadness long? For your face, when you are having sadness, your face is becoming long. Is sadness long in Fódlan?"

Ignatz chuckled and folded up the letter. "I never really thought about it like that. It's just something people say."

Petra giggled. "As I am saying, odd."

Shamir approached them from the other side of the training yard upon seeing Petra sit down. "Is it break time or something?" she chided, not maliciously.

"Apologies, Shamir. Ignatz was looking long, so I thought to ask." Petra blinked and scowled. "Sad! He is feeling sad. Fucking language."

Shamir raised her eyebrows. "Who taught you that word?"

"Fucking? Sylvain is teaching me it. He says that is a word for expressing anger, but also excitement. When I am asking, ahem, when I asked him, he said it is a word that can mean many different things depending on what I am saying." Petra looked proud.

Shamir chuckled. "Right, I'm not getting involved with that." Instead she turned to Ignatz. "You missed training this morning. Why?"

"Oh, sorry, Shamir. I guess I got distracted," he deflected.

She shook her head. "You've been early to every single session we've had. Hell with distraction, what happened?"

Ignatz sighed. "It's just news from back home. There's been a lot of monsters attacking merchants where my family operates. They're safe, but I'm worried for the future."

"You found that out this morning?" Shamir said, gaze softening to as close to sympathy as she got: not wearing a frown.

"No, I found out a few days ago. I asked Lady Rhea if she would send the Knights to help, but I received word this morning that the Knights are too stretched thin right now. She can't send aid." He sighed again, frustration leaking in. "I'm just at a loss of what to do."

"Are monster attacks being common?" Petra asked, dropping her hair down from the messy bun it had been in before tying it up again firmer, tighter.

Ignatz shook his head. "It's not uncommon, but it's more about how they're happening. They only are reported on the routes to Riegan. Routes to Gloucester are completely safe, or at least as safe as they usually are. My father believes that Count Gloucester is responsible."

"Ah," Shamir said. She took a seat beside her two students on Ignatz' left. "And I take it Count Gloucester denies it?"

"My mother approached him with several other merchants. Apparently 'monster attacks are an unfortunate disaster, but everything that can be done is being done'. Not that we expected anything."

"I am having confusion. Does Fódlan have a way to remove a leader if they are doing a crime?" Petra asked.

"Kill the leader," Shamir scoffed.

"In some ways we do. If the citizens revolt, they could cast out a leader by force. Sometimes in Leicester the Roundtable can remove a noble from power, but that's very uncommon." Ignatz looked at her and gave a weak smile. "There's unfortunately little to be done."

Petra nodded. "In Brigid, my grandfather is leader. But if our people are not liking him, we have a…group? No, that is not right. I do not know the word. A group of people who can remove a leader?" She looked to the other two for help.

"A council?" Ignatz guessed.

"A tribunal," Shamir said.

"Tribunal." Petra nodded, testing out the unfamiliar word on her lips. "Yes, there is a tribunal which can take my grandfather's power. If the people are not having pleasure with his rule, then the tribunal can take away it from him. I am thinking this is a better way than Fódlan."

"Wouldn't argue that," Shamir said, laughing darkly.

"So what would happen if he was removed?" Ignatz asked, curious. "Would you become leader?"

Petra bit her lip. "It is possible. The tribunal would be picking a new leader that the people like. I could be it."

Ignatz leaned forward, fascinated. "Does that happen often? It's so strange to think about."

Petra laughed. "It is not so strange. If a leader is bad, they should not lead. I believe it has happened a dozen times, I do not recall perfectly."

"Dagda could learn a lot from that," Shamir snorted. "If the people don't like a leader, they put an arrow in their throat. Then a war starts. The only reason Dagda hasn't conquered the world is because they keep eating themselves alive. That war you Fódlani had with them? That was only against half of Dagda. Yet the Empire touts it as this grand success." She smirked. "I'd like to see them fight all of Dagda."

"I thought you didn't care for Dagda?" Ignatz asked.

"Eh, sometimes. Right now, hearing what Count Gloucester is doing isn't really making me love Fódlan." Shamir growled. "There's not anyone who can help those people?"

Ignatz shook his head. "Mercenaries aren't exactly lining up to fight giant wolves and vultures."

"Fucking!" Petra exclaimed with a smile. Several people around the training yard cast a glance at her with confusion, Shamir and Ignatz among them. She blanched, embarrassed. "Ah, I am forgetting that the word is needed other words to tell. But I am using the excited fucking this time."

Shamir looked between aghast and a grin. She settled on neutral, as she always did. "Pray tell, why?"

"What if we are going to fight these monsters?" she said animatedly. "Perhaps we can find the source of their coordination and be stopping it!"

Ignatz sighed. "I don't think we—"

"I'm in," Shamir agreed.

"Excuse me?" Ignatz gasped.

"Gloucester is an ass, I've met him. Called me a mongrel no better than the Almyrans. But he donates a lot to the Church, so I've never gotten to give him his due." She cracked her knuckles.

"Wonderful, then we shall all be going!" Petra said, clapping her hands together.

"I'm sure I can convince Catherine to come," Shamir chuckled.

"Wait! I mean, why are you two wanting to help so much? This is my problem, not yours." Ignatz found himself looking back and forth between the two women rapidly.

"Cuz I'm petty," Shamir chuckled. "But also because you're my student and your family needs help." She stood up. "I'm going to find Catherine. She's probably somewhere around here. She's always close to me." There was affection in her voice, akin to shaking her head with a smile. She walked away without waiting for a response.

Petra smiled. "Ignatz, you are being kind to Dorothea. I can thank you this way."

"That's nothing though, this is risking your life!"

"Perhaps I am just wanting to do a nice thing," she said with a smile.

Ignatz didn't know what to say.

When she'd been the star of the Mittlefrank Opera Company, there'd always been a person at her side who sought her affection or attention.

At Garreg Mach, no one had asked her to the Millennium Ball. Not that she was so arrogant to think she would be swamped, but she had expected at least someone to ask her.

At first she'd been disappointed. But that had quickly faded into nothing. She felt nothing for it. In fact, there was almost relief.

Relief! To think, she who wanted to marry and find money, power, and love all at once would be relieved that not a single person asked her.

She'd asked Hilda for her opinion.

"Well, whenever there was a ball at our estate, Holst usually scared off the people who wanted to ask to accompany me. Then I punched him. He only scared off some of them after that."

While it had resulted in an utterly delightful recount of the story, she'd still no clue.

She'd gone to Leonie.

"To me, some random person asking you to the ball seems weird. Like, why would you want to go with someone you don't know instead of the house that you do?"

She had a point.


"Who you go with is your choice. If no one asks you, that doesn't mean they don't like you. It probably means they're intimidated by you."

She thought about how at Remire she'd sundered the landscape with a meteor. People did talk, she supposed.

She even sought out Marianne.

"Oh, I don't know much about balls. No one's ever asked me to something like that and I've never gone. I probably won't go to this one."

(Dorothea had made sure to make Marianne promise to go, with the condition that they dance together).

She was, in short, at a loss.

So she found Mercedes.

"Do you think love can happen at first sight? You know, like the stories?"

Mercedes chuckled. "Oh, I think there's lust at first sight. There's nothing wrong with that, so long as you can distinguish between the two. But it takes time for love. No one falls for someone in a day or a week or a month."

"I wish it were easy," she bemoaned, planting her face into the table. Dorothea managed to avoid toppling her tea.

Her companion laughed again, to the songstress' delight. "If it were easy, then what would be the point? If everyone could have it, no one would want it."

"You and the professor are doing well then?" she teased.

Mercedes blushed. "Oh, I mean, there's nothing to complain about. I like being with her. She makes me feel good about myself."

I could make you feel good about yourself. Words she didn't say. Where had they come from?

I could brush the hair behind your ear and whisper that everything is going to be okay, that the sun will rise tomorrow as surely as the moon sets. That despite all the trouble in the world, the words 'I love you' will ever be a constant from me to you, a promise that I'd never imagine breaking.

Mercedes tittered on about Byleth, talking about how they'd gone shopping for house supplies. Dorothea could only watch her smile. The smile saved for Byleth. Softer, warmer, kinder, a little more everything for her.

And Dorothea's heart broke before she even realized someone else had it. But she did not cry. No actress of her caliber shed tears before the last act. No, she'd smile and nod, asking for more details about the lake in the forest Byleth took her to, gasping at the right moments when the woman had kissed Mercedes.

She'd shed her tears in the solace of her room where they'd bother no one.

And once her eyes dried, she'd remembered that relief when no one asked her, because Dorothea knew she didn't want some stranger in her arms for a night. She wanted Mercie.

"She's too good for you," Dorothea decided as she leaned against her bed, hair a mess and hat scrunched in her hands. The same hat that Mercedes had tried on a scant hour ago that made Dorothea want to take her to Enbarr to buy her the latest fashion.

Too good for her, but perfect for Byleth. Two lucky women, Dorothea decided. Perfect for each other. She really believed that. Both of them were incredible.

First Edelgard, now Mercedes. Goddess did she have a penchant for the unobtainable. Maybe money, power, and love were in that category too.

Not that Mercedes could give you the first two, her mind reasoned.

And not that she'd need them with her, her heart replied.

"They are having closeness, do you think?" Petra asked.

Ignatz suppressed a smile as he looked at Catherine and Shamir. They were completely ignoring the other two, busy trying to start a fire. It was a windy day and both of the women were split between deciding the type of fire to make with the log structure in the forest clearing they'd made their camp. Tents were set up as sunset dripped into dusk. Ignatz and Petra watched from the other side of the fire as the two knights bickered as, Ignatz and Petra were learning, they were often wont to do.

They'd traveled this way for a few days setting off for Gloucester. Byleth had given her consent on the mission, as had Hanneman. Shamir hadn't bothered to ask Rhea (much to Catherine's chagrin) and Catherine had obtained permission to escort Ignatz home. It was a half-lie she wasn't pleased about, but Shamir knew how to get her way.

Ignatz had been afraid of what Lorenz would say when he found out, but those fears turned out to be unfounded.

"Ignatz, if you find who is responsible for this," he said, shaking with anger, "as your lord I command you to put them down like you would a sick animal. Though that does assume the deference of respect ought to be paid to them. I assure you that those who prey upon the weak will have no place in the Alliance. Ensure they can never harm again, Ignatz."

The fervor in Lorenz' voice, even the memory of it, helped keep him warm in the chilly wind of winter. The Alliance might have a kinder climate than Faerghus, but winds from the north still blew down to sink their fangs in prey.

"They're happier out here," Ignatz said with a smile. "Where they don't have to hide it as much." Shamir slapped Catherine's hand away as she tried to grab a log and a new argument ensued.

"How are you meaning?" Petra asked.

"In the Empire, there's discrimination against couples who are of the same gender. Male, female, in between, any gender," Ignatz explained. "That isn't present at Garreg Mach from what I can tell, but there's plenty of Empire people there. I'm sure it's easier for those two to not make a big deal out of it."

Petra was silent for a moment. "The more I am learning about Fódlan, the more I am disliking it. Is it this way in the Alliance or Kingdom?"

"Less so in the Kingdom. Not at all in the Alliance. There's a rather crass expression actually. 'The Alliance has gotten fucked so much, they've stopped caring who they fuck.'" Ignatz blushed at it. "It's not wrong, though."

"I do not understand why there is caring about this," Petra said. "I am liking anyone I want. What they call themselves is being unimportant to me. I am just liking. Is this not common in Fódlan?" She looked genuinely bothered.

Ignatz had no answer. "I don't know," he said. "It might be in the Alliance. I've just never really had case to think about it."

"I am enjoying my time in Fódlan, but there are times when I am glad it is not my home." Petra sighed and laid back on the ground. "Your country is having coldness, in your hearts and in your weather. I am having sadness." Her eyes brightened. "My face is being long!"

Ignatz laughed. "Well, you can go back home after this year, right?"

Petra's smile died. "I am hoping so. But it shall depend on many things."

"If you do, let me paint you a picture of Fódlan before you go. To remind you that it isn't all bad," he quickly said through another blush.

Her smile came back, softer. "Ignatz, I am knowing this already. I am meeting people like you and Dorothea here. A country cannot be having terribleness if it is having you."

If he were blushing before, his face turned blood red as he stumbled over one of the highest compliments he'd ever received. But he was saved from responding as Shamir tackled Catherine in some effort to prove her way to set up camp was better.

Petra stood up, chuckling. "I am forgetting I am young when I am around them. They act more like children than children!" She walked forward to break them up.

Ignatz wondered what it'd be like to visit Brigid.

Marianne didn't even read the letter. In a rare act of defiance, she ripped it up and threw the pieces from her window.

Margrave Edmund wouldn't be pleased. Not that he ever was.

His letters had come with more frequency as the year turned towards its end. She'd read the first few.

Alister blended threats with faux affection of familial love. Ambition with greed. The man was an orator by trade, his newfound position at the Roundtable a testament to that. Marianne existed to him as both a means to wed to another family and for her Crest.

He wanted it, her Crest. She did not know how he'd get it. But ever since her youth, the man with pale hands had visited their estate. He'd take her blood and speak to the Margrave about it. Whatever Alister's plans were, they involved both Pale Hands and her. She'd outwitted Alister by escaping to Garreg Mach, but her time was soon to be up.

And so that left her wrapped in blankets in her room as light snow touched the ground, a week before the Millennium Ball. She'd been avoiding everyone. And everyone had come and knocked on her door at least once. But she'd turned them away.

Hilda had sat outside her door for hours one day, but now she only came by once a day to leave a piece of jewelry outside her door along with a note detailing her day, her affections, and her desire to help however she could.

Marianne wanted to open up that door. But doing so would be the final nail on the coffin. It would mean that she could no longer stop herself from wanting Hilda, wanting to live. It would mean that Hilda would see the monster in her, no better than the creatures in Remire.

It would mean Alister would have a way to get to her, like he had the few friends she'd had as a young child.

For Hilda's safety, she couldn't go to her. Hilda was everything. Just the thought of Alister hurting her made her nauseous.

But the thought of Hilda made her feel safe. Those strong arms around her, so carefully hidden to avoid expectation. Marianne could understand it. With her adoptive father, everyone expected her to be confident, composed.

Though, if she were being honest, the pair of earrings Hilda had made her two days ago made her feel confident. She tried on all the jewelry Hilda gave her, if not in person then by herself. They were sapphires, Hilda had written, in the shape of teardrops.

Hilda had written: "Even though they might look sad, sapphires are incredible hard to break. Tears might look bad at first, but all it takes is a hand to wipe them away."

She hadn't taken them off the entire day, even though she didn't leave her room.

She'd show Dorte sometime. He'd like them. Not that he would appreciate the sentiment, he just liked blue things. They reminded him of her hair which reminded him of her. At least, that's what she hoped.

Maybe she'd wear them to the ball. They went well with her dress uniform.

There was a light knock at the door. A familiar voice. "Marianne!" Hilda called softly. "I brought you lunch. I hope you're feeling better today."

From within her blankets she wondered what she'd done to deserve that affection. Marianne couldn't remember a moment in her life where she'd had it.

And in that moment, she made a decision.

"Hilda?" She bit her lip. "Do you mind bringing it in here?"

Shamir had given her the chance to say no, to let her handle it. Ignatz had opted out, as had Catherine per her honor. But she didn't.

They'd tracked one of the groups back to a small cabin. Only eight people, two of which were mages wielding bracelets that they had seen in action.

A scant hour before, one of the mages had a massive vulture mere feet in front of him at their beck and call. The monster did not attack. It was docile.

They'd pursued, enough distance back that there was no chance of being seen. While Ignatz' leg slowed them, it didn't hinder their pursuit. He was improving more and more each day.

One of the men was sleeping outside, supposed to have been keeping watch. Shamir slinked up to him and, in a heartbeat, covered his mouth with a hand and jammed a knife up through the bottom of his jaw. He gurgled, falling silent.

Shamir nodded to her, unperturbed by the blood that had soaked her clothes. With two fingers she gestured to the door. Petra nodded, creeping forward across the dirt and grabbing the door. It had a rudimentary handle that gave a low groan as she pulled it open. Petra cringed, staying still.

No noise emerged from inside.

Shamir grabbed the door from her and gestured to her to enter. She did so. Shamir closed the door silently behind her.

Seven people lay out in front of them, sleeping on bedrolls.

Petra pointed at two men on the right side of the room. The mages. Shamir nodded and crept through the assorted bodies to make it to one of them. Petra got to the other.

Shamir executed the man in the same fashion, hand over the mouth and blade into the brain. Petra grabbed her mage's mouth and tried the same. She must have missed the spot, because the mage didn't go still immediately after, he jerked and shook, trying to grab at her as he quickly bled to death. He bit her hand and she could feel him draw blood from her fingers.

Petra gasped, but didn't let go. She yanked the knife out and jammed it in again. This time, the man jerked, then laid still.

Like a hawk, Shamir looked over the other five in the room. None had so much as stirred. She gestured to the next two closest people. Petra nodded, hands still soaked with blood.

They killed their next two in similar fashion, Petra landing the strike correctly this time. This woman had died with her eyes open, staring at her. Petra tried to forget the gaze.

Shamir took care of the next. There were only two left. The woman moved to take the next, but Petra shook her head and got there first. As before, she covered the mouth.

Except the man took the moment to turn in his sleep and she missed.

His eyes snapped open at the sudden contact and Petra panicked, ramming the knife into his windpipe instead. The scream he uttered was short—but loud.

The last remaining person in the room snapped up in bed. A younger man, barely an adult. He took one look at the room and with remarkably quick reflexes bolted to the door. Shamir threw her knife and missed him, the blade sinking into the wood.

Petra leapt up and ran to the door in time to see the man's head snap to the right as an arrow appeared in his skull, the whiplash breaking his neck and sending him to the ground, dead.

Shamir ran outside and relaxed once she saw. She called out, "Good shot, kid."

Ignatz and Catherine emerged from the foliage, the former holding his massive longbow. "I'd never hit a person from that close with this bow," he admitted as he took a morbid look at his work.

"Good thing it worked," Shamir chuckled.

Catherine walked up to her and assessed her for injuries. Upon seeing Shamir fine, her gaze turned from concerned to disapproving. "I still don't like this. It's not right to kill people in their sleep."

Shamir frowned. "Some people forfeit their rights for honorable deaths."

Their conversation carried on, but Petra looked towards Ignatz as he approached. "Good shot," she complimented.

"Oh, thank you," he said, caught off guard. "Are you okay? Was everything fine in there? Are you hurt?"

Petra shook her head and smiled. "I am fine. Shamir is very talented at stealth."

He smiled, but when she looked back at him all she saw were those eyes of the woman she'd killed in the house.

"Enough, we'll discuss this later," Shamir said, hushing Catherine. "Let's get moving, we don't know if there are more of them nearby."

The four entered back into the forest, back on the hunt.

Chapter Text

"Ensure this is delivered," Ferdinand said.

The postman nodded, taking the letter and the gold coins. He gave Ferdinand a nod before turning his back and leaving the market place, not knowing that in the letter he carried a warning from son to father that war was on the horizon, that the Aegir Astral Knights needed to be ready.

The letter was destined for Aegir, for Duke Ambrose, his father. Ferdinand couldn't pretend that he and his father got along well, but hopefully he'd listen to him this time.

But the outgoing mail was old news. The letter in his hand was far more interesting. Being heir to Aegir meant more than a wealthy title for him, it meant access to resources.

Spies being one facet of that.

So in his hands he did not hold a letter addressed to him, but rather to Count Bergliez. Theft of mail was a crime in the Empire, but war required getting one's hands dirty.

Departing from the market, Ferdinand went to his room for privacy. When he bolted his door shut, he wasted no time in tearing the wax seal open.

In the letter, there was little to read. In fact, there were only three words.

'Deploy to Merceus'.

The writing was Hubert's. There was no indication anywhere on the letter than it was from him, but Ferdinand knew that man's hand writing well enough to place it.

It didn't take an idiot to figure the message out. Sending a message to the Count of War to deploy was tantamount to declaring war itself.

Ferdinand had another piece to the puzzle, but it left more questions. Who would they be targeting?

The Church was a possibility. Edelgard wasn't quiet about her disdain for some of the Church's tenets. But they'd done nothing to attack her. Not to mention Edelgard wasn't Emperor. Ionius IX wasn't outspoken against the Church at all, in fact he seemed to work with them following the Insurrection.

Brigid was another option. Could the Empire be working on a show of force against their vassal state? Perhaps Brigid was planning rebellion. Petra did look more haggard as the year went on. But then why deploy for Merceus? The fort wasn't anywhere close to the coast.

The Kingdom? Unlikely. Assault against the Kingdom was idiotic with Dimitri poised to take the throne at a moment's notice. The man would bring stability and make the Kingdom infinitely harder to fight. A knife in the dark was a far better strategy, remove Dimitri like the Tragedy of Duscur took care of Lambert.

And the Alliance? Why? No doubt the Empire would love the territory, but taking the Alliance was considered ultimately considered not worth the effort by the Empire. With their superiority with archery, any war with the Alliance became a high cost.

So then who?

As Ferdinand looked at the letter in his hands, he frowned. There were still these associates of Hubert's to consider. Whoever they were, they killed Linhardt, heir to one of the great noble houses of the Empire.

Ferdinand blinked.

Of course. War wasn't coming, but a civil war was. Ionius, perhaps with Edelgard as his weapon, would wrest back the power Duke Aegir had stripped.

Ambrose von Aegir had made himself into the most powerful noble in the Empire, and this would be his downfall.

For a blissful, terrifying moment, Ferdinand contemplated doing nothing. How incredible it would be to see his father's fall from grace, to earn a comeuppance that he'd long had coming.

But that was his father. His family. Despite the recent years, childhood wasn't bad. After his mother passed, then things were rougher.

"Family is everything," Ambrose had told him once, when he was very young. "Nobles have many things, but it is our lineage that is most grand. We protect our own, no matter what."

He'd wholeheartedly believed that for a long time. When rumors arose of Ambrose's handlings of the Hrym territory, Ferdinand dueled those who'd spoken ill of the family. Those were some of his first bouts. He killed his first man in one.

Then Ferdinand had traveled to Hrym, against his father's wishes. They hadn't gotten along since.

That was neither here nor there. He needed to speak with Caspar.

His fellow Eagle wasn't far, the man never left his room much since Linhardt's death. Ferdinand had tried to comfort him in the beginning, but he had been despondent. Ferdinand hadn't known what to say.

His knuckles struck the door, breaking his train of thought. "Caspar?" he called out. "May I come in?"

There was no answer.

He sighed, curling a hand around the doorknob. Unfortunately, grief would have to wait with the fate of the Empire in the balance.

The door creaked as he pushed it open, but that was lost with the smell. Ferdinand wrinkled his nose as he stepped in.

Caspar was on the floor, back against his desk, with a bottle of alcohol in his hand. A nearby bucket filled with vomit told him exactly what the smell was and he walked to the window, opening it.

"Caspar, you awake?" he asked, receiving a groan in response. "Well, at least you're alive. I know we don't have class today, but I wasn't expecting this sort of libation."

"Ferd?" Caspar slurred, still drunk. "This is my room."

"Yes, yes it is," Ferdinand sighed, kneeling down by the man. He grabbed Caspar's chin and turned his head towards his, looking into his eyes for any sort of issue. They were unfocused, trying to center their gaze on him.

"Just drunk," Ferdinand muttered. "Caspar, the way you spend your free time is your business, even if it is rather unbecoming of a noble. I've a question for you, then I'll leave you be."

Caspar groaned, but gave a slow nod.

"Your father, he named you his heir instead of Randolph von Bergliez not long ago. He obviously thinks highly of you as his son. Has he spoken of what you'll be doing after our year here is done? Does he wish you to succeed him, lead armies, anything?" Ferdinand asked.

"I don't…" Caspar paused, rubbing a hand against his temple. "Dad and I don't talk much. He's busy with something back home."

That'd have to do. "Thank you, Caspar." Ferdinand paused. "My friend, is there anything I can do for you? I do not wish to intrude, but I would extend my hand if you would take it."

Caspar looked up at him, as if seeing him for the first time. "Can you bring Lin back?"

Ferdinand's breath caught.

The man broke eye contact, drifting back off into his own world. He picked up the bottle and took a long draught.

"Well, you know where my room is," he said, weakly. "Should you think of something I could do, do not hesitate to ask."

"Bye," Caspar said, and it was all he said.

Ferdinand recognized dismissal when he heard it.

"Can you hit that center tent?" Shamir whispered.

Ignatz pushed his glasses up closer to his eyes. The tent was out of range of a normal bow, but well within his bow's. It was at the center of the encampment, a wide range of tents that their quarry had set up. Whoever they were, they were about to regret their actions.

Could he hit the tent? Sure, without a doubt in the daytime. But they'd waited until nightfall and to make matters worse, the rumble of thunder grumbled above them.

Catherine looked up as she brushed a hand over Thunderbrand. "It's going to be a bad storm. Not much longer now."

Petra cocked her head. "How can you tell this?"

The soft red glow of Thunderbrand illuminated a wry grin as Catherine chuckled. "Rain has a habit of following me. Just know the signs, I suppose."

"It's a clean shot," Shamir said, holding out an arrow. The tip had a small bit of cloth tied around it, soaked in alcohol. One of her homemade flaming arrows. "Or you want me to take it?"

"No, I can," Ignatz said. He took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders, loosening the muscles.

Shamir nodded, a glimmer of approval in her eyes. "Good."

Thunder bellowed above, a loud shout in the air. Catherine looked up, unperturbed. "Better make it quick," she said.

Ignatz drew the bow with his shoulder. He caught the string behind his shoulder blade and pulled back, grabbing the arrow.

Shamir took her flint and steel and struck it once, twice, thrice, then fire. The tip of the arrow ignited, bathing them all in a warm glow amidst the beginnings of the storm. A droplet hit Ignatz' cheek.

He released the arrow.

It screamed across the sky, a bolt of flame as the lightning mimicked it, but slower. The arrow struck home in the tent, sticking into one of the wooden posts. Fire began to catch.

"Good job," Shamir approved, pulling away. She picked her bow up from the ground. "Let's get down there."

The four of them climbed down the ridge of the hill as they'd come up it. The rain began to drizzle, then pour.

"That fire isn't going to last," Catherine muttered as they hunkered down in the tree line.

"It doesn't need to," Shamir replied.

"You sure about that?" Catherine shot back.

"You're the one who wanted this plan," hissed Shamir. "I could have snuck in there and killed them all myself, but your honor objected to that."

Catherine growled. "I'm sorry I have problems killing the defenseless."

"Just not when Rhea orders it, huh?" Shamir snarled with uncharacteristic rage. "I'm sure those times you killed the injured on the battlefield were fine because she ordered it. Those rebels out of Gaspard were fair game because Lady Can-do-no-wrong ordered it?"

"Shush," Petra hissed as Catherine open her mouth to retort. "I don't hear anything."

"Well, of course we…" Catherine said, trailing off as she listened. The rain was loud, but it was the only noise they heard. No cries of surprise, no consequences of the fire that still raged on the center tent amidst the storm. A blot of light flashed across the sky, shedding light for a brief moment.

"Something's wrong," Shamir said. "Wait here." And without waiting for a reply, she crouched low to the ground and moved to the camp.

"Could they just not be here right now?" Ignatz asked softly.

"We saw them earlier though," Catherine muttered, Thunderbrand now glowing a menacing red in her hands, its Crest Stone like a feral animal's eye.

Their wait wasn't long, Shamir returned in a matter of minutes.

"Come on, it's safe enough." She hadn't lowered her bow yet.

"Enough?" Catherine asked.

"You need to see yourself."

The four crept into the camp. Each burst of lightning from the sky lit up the ground to reveal dozens of corpses.

"What the hell?" Catherine gasped.

"Is everyone…?" Ignatz asked.

Shamir nodded, nudging a body with a foot. "Entire camp is like this. In the tents too. Not a mark on them."

Petra bent down to the nearest. "No breath," she said, "and no wounds. What is happening to them?"

Ignatz limped over to another, a man with a gold lapel. "These are Gloucester soldiers," he said. "Their officers wear this."

"You don't just kill people without leaving a mark," Catherine argued. "These were trained soldiers, they should have fought back. Or something."

"Poison?" suggested Petra.

"The bracelets!" exclaimed Ignatz. "Are there any of those bracelets the mages were carrying?"

"Shit," Shamir cursed. "That slipped my mind. Catherine, with me. You two, together. Let's sweep the camp."

The combed the camp, sloshing through the mud and searching every single corpse. Then they searched every tent, looking for something, anything.

All the bracelets were gone. Not a single body had one on them.

"Ugh, these uniforms are awful," Hilda groaned. She tugged at her neckline of the dress uniform. "This is like being tortured!"

"You look fine, Hils," Claude laughed, joined by the rest of the Deer and the recently returned Ignatz. They'd all met in their classroom before the Millennium Ball to go together. Some, of course, went together. Marianne's arm was locked in Hilda's clutches from the moment she walked in. Mercedes sat just a little closer to Byleth than a friend would.

"Well, Teach?" Claude asked. "Any sentimental talk before you watch all your little fawns go off to the dancefloor?" His eyes were glowing, the radiant smile on his face contagious. "Maybe a little family planning advice?"

"Grow up," Leonie said as she rolled her eyes.

"As far as I'm concerned," Byleth said lightly, "you're all adults. I'm not gonna play babysitter."

More laughter, Claude the loudest. He cleared his throat. "Well, I at least have something sentimental. In five years, it'll truly be the Millennium Festival—a thousand years since Garreg Mach's construction. Seteth said there would be a festival the kind the world hasn't seen." He turned and looked to everyone. "I think we should all meet here in five years."

"A class reunion?" Lorenz mused. "It would be good to see everyone. Sothis knows that the winds will scatter us."

"But I don't wanna be scattered," Hilda complained. "I like having you all here to be my minions and do my work."

"Winter winds scatter, spring winds gather," Marianne murmured. All eye turned to her and she blushed. "I'm sorry! It's just a saying I heard once."

"I like it," Claude approved. "The Millennium Festival in five years will be that verdant wind for us. What say you, Teach? Care to come see your children all grown up?"

Byleth smiled, and it was a soft smile. "It feels like I already have. Yes, I'll be there."

Claude winked at her. "I'll hold you to it. Better not leave us hanging."

"Claude, I promise to be there," Byleth said with a chuckle. "I don't go back on my word." Mercedes squeezed her hand.

"Well, if this mushy stuff is all done, let's get to that dance," Dorothea said. "I, for one, think it'll be a lucky night for romance for me, and I shan't waste it!"

Raphael's laugh boomed as he clapped Ignatz on the back. "C'mon everyone, we made our promise, now let's go eat."

They all gathered their things and began to make their way over as a class. The beginnings of a dusting of snow fell from the sky, a small chill on the warm group. Their smiles were each a glow as they talked to each other. Byleth glanced over her shoulder at her fawns and smiled.

Maybe she had been a good teacher.

But she turned back, holding Mercedes' hand briefly before letting it go as they approached the building, the warm light inviting them in.

It'd be a night to remember.

Chapter Text

As the song finished, Sylvain pressed a light kiss to Dorothea's hand. She rolled her eyes and he smiled before stepping away.

The musicians began another tune and Sylvain retreated to a refreshments table, taking a glass of champagne.

The ball was beautiful, with gorgeous golden light bathing the entire room. Students, teachers, and even a few knights danced across the floor as servers flitted through conversing couples offering h'orderves here and wine there. The din of chatter fluttered just below the volume of the music, stringed instruments plucking and playing away as nobles and commoners mixed as they danced, spinning and twirling.

All the students wore their dress uniforms, ornamented with just a singular addition: a cape from their shoulder denoting their house if they were noble. They all differed in colors, some fancier than others, some with house crests or mottos emblazoned on.

Sylvain had abstained from wearing one.

Who had he not danced with yet? The night was still young and he was on a mission to dance with everyone he could before the evening passed.

"Dedue!" he cried, seeing the Duscur man pluck a tart off a server's tray. "Come, dance with me."

Dedue paused, mouth open as he stopped mid-bite. He chewed and swallowed. "An odd request, Sylvain."

Sylvain grabbed his hand and tugged him to the dance floor. "I try to make a habit of it. Come."

The music slowed to a close and Byleth didn't want it to be over. Mercedes, from her smile, felt the same. Feeling bold and a bit foolish, Byleth brought her lover's hand to her lips and kissed it.

Mercedes blushed and pulled Byleth off the dance floor. "Someone's forward today," she murmured.

"Must be the company," Byleth teased back. A server walked by and Byleth stole flutes of champagne from the tray.

"You haven't been drinking lately," Mercedes observed. "When we met, you seemed deep in that habit."

Byleth handed one off to her and clinked her own glass against it. "Must be the company," she repeated, teasing. After a moment she sighed. "You're right. But things are better now. I have you, the Deer. Life is better."

Mercedes smiled brightly. "I'm happy to hear that, Byleth. My heart broke when I first saw you like that. I wanted to help."

Byleth leaned in, bold once more, close to Mercedes' ear and spoke, "You have in so many ways, love."

"If you keep that up, someone's going to ask questions," Mercedes said, calm despite the blush that ran rampant across her cheeks.

She tipped her glass back, feeling the familiar burn of alcohol down her throat. Though this was pathetic, weak, nothing like the liquor she used to down. "Let them. I've got all I need in front of me."

"Unfortunately for you, I think you're more popular than you expected," Mercedes said with a wink.

"Professor," Lorenz said from behind her. "Might I trouble you for a dance?" He stood with a long purple shoulder cape that displayed the Crest of Gloucester. "Unless, of course, you're occupied."

Byleth laughed. "I've never been the belle of the ball before. You'll have to fight to get to me, Mercie." Mercedes giggled and Byleth turned to Lorenz. "Of course, but I'm not your professor here. Byleth is fine."

Lorenz' lips curled. "As you wish, Byleth."

Mercedes blew a subtle kiss as Byleth went to the dancefloor with Lorenz.

Claude had managed to find a quiet corner of the room to be able to breathe. Every woman outside his house had asked him to dance, from Monica to Ingrid. How many were seeking something more and how many were mere obligation, he didn't care to think on.

After all, his sights were on Byleth.

Every student was in their dress attire, with the exception of the teachers and knights who wore similarly fine garments. Byleth hadn't seemed to have had such, so she came in the same dress attire as her students.

What a different world it'd be if Byleth was a student alongside him. Perhaps he could have picked up the courage to say something sooner then. He certainly respected Mercedes, she hadn't been afraid to make a move from the looks of it.

He'd watched them dance earlier. Not intently, just small glances as they passed on the dance floor. He saw their smiles and it made him happy. He'd be a poor friend to be displeased at the prospects of his companions' happiness.

Claude just wished it could be easier to let go of feelings.

"Shouldn't sit in the corner, kid, people will mistake you for me."

Claude chuckled. "Hello, Shamir. On guard duty?"

Shamir snorted. "More like babysitting duty. But you look like you ate a lemon. What's wrong?"

Claude sighed, leaning against the rough high table he'd claimed for himself. "I suppose they're just childish problems."

"Problems are only childish if you act like a child. Though moping in a corner isn't a good start," Shamir said. She fixed him with a look that was almost a challenge.

"I'm well aware of how things look." He sighed. "Just taking a moment to think."

Shamir nodded. "There's nothing wrong with that, but you've got an image to maintain. People remember this ball, and you haven't the anonymity I have." With that, she walked away.

He hadn't expect to receive advice from Shamir, though to be frank, he knew next to nothing about her. She looked out for Ignatz, so that was good in his book.

"…wasting time with it. We could prevent such a thing if we pressed him."

"The Archbishop has made her decision, Aelfric. The methods you propose are too extreme."

Though perhaps he could tarry a bit longer if a secret was at stake.

Standing at the only table further into the corner were Aelfric and Seteth. Neither seemed to notice their surroundings as they argued.

Claude turned his back to them and listened.

"He claimed there were more of them. Each of them could cause another Remire. I don't particularly like what I suggested, but the idea of that happening elsewhere horrifies me."

"Torture will not make Tomas talk."

"Neither will sitting pretty waiting for him to speak of his own accord!"

"Enough," Seteth said. "We can discuss this later."

"Indeed, we shall," Aelfric said. The sound of footsteps passed Claude and Aelfric vanished into the crowd.


He froze, turning his head to see Seteth watching him. "Yes?"

"It doesn't suit you to skulk back here with the old men. Go, dance, enjoy the day." There was a faint smile on his face, one Claude couldn't decipher. Did he know? Did he care?

Claude retreated to the dance floor, quickly swept up by Hilda into a waltz. He smiled, laughed, and dwelled on what he heard.

If he were being perfectly honest, he had forgotten dancing meant footwork until he actually arrived at the ball.

Though perhaps it was the fact that he'd arrived back from Leicester hours before. Their trip back had been quieter, the four of them thinking on what had happened.

For him, his mind was on the Gloucester soldiers. As much as he'd suspected it, the fact that Lorenz' father was responsible for it rocked him to the core. Nobles were supposed to be like Claude and Lorenz, friends and defenders of the people.

Whatever those bracelets were that could control beasts, they had to have come from a wealthy patron. Someone who had gold to spare—and perhaps was known for magical talent as a result of their Crest or their house's Relic.

Questions upon questions. He needed to speak to Lorenz soon, there hadn't been a chance since getting back.

"I am thinking you are also unsure how to dance?"

Of course Petra had found him in the back of the room.

"Ah, well, my leg," Ignatz said, embarrassed.

Petra blinked and then gasped. "Ignatz, I am sorry! With how you handled yourself on our trip, I am forgetting. Please have forgiveness for me."

"No worries, Petra." Ignatz smiled. As if he thought Petra could have a single mean bone in her body. And she certainly looked pretty tonight in her uniform. Moments like these made him forget he was actually older than her. "I'm sure with work, I could dance, but I haven't exactly been practicing my steps."

She nodded. "I have understanding. Let me keep you company. I am not knowing these Fódlan steps and I have already embarrassed myself. I should like not to be remembered for my feet."

"Plenty of room at the table," Ignatz said, gesturing to the small round table he leaned on while standing.

Petra stepped around it and stood beside him. "The music is nice. In Brigid we do not have instruments with strings like this. We are making drums and flutes and—" the next word that came out of her mouth was in her language. "That one is my favorite."

"I don't recognize the word," Ignatz said, leaning forward in interest. "Could you describe it?"

Her eyes lit up. "It is made from stone, traditionally. I am not taught how to make them, but I believe they are hollowed out stones. We are carving holes in them to make different sounds when struck. But we also make them from metal. The sound is much sharper, like a bird singing."

"If I ever visit Brigid, I'll make sure to listen to them," Ignatz said.

"They are played in the Empire as well. After this year I could be taking you to show you on the coast." Petra smiled. "Some of my people have been moving to the Empire for different lives and they are playing concerts."

Ignatz blushed, but nodded. "I accept. Once this year is over, I want to hear one of these…" He pause, then tried to pronounce the word.

Petra giggled. "Close enough."

The song changed from a waltz to a slow tune as dancers stopped their elegant steps and adjusted to slow dancing.

"Would you be caring to dance, Ignatz?" Petra asked.

"Huh? Oh, well, I don't think I really can," he said.

"I am thinking you can." She stepped closer to him and put her hands on his waist. "This slow dance, this I am familiar with. We must just be swaying."

His protests died on his lips as the two of them began to sway back and forth, in the corner of the ballroom away from all others. Any reply he might have had fell away as he found himself staring at Petra from mere inches away.

"Hello? Is Ignatz in here?" Petra giggled, bringing a hand up to tap his forehead.

He chuckled nervously, still unsure where to put his hands. Petra guided them to her back, not that it made him any less nervous.

"Your tattoo," he said, eager to fill the brief silence with something, "what does it mean?"

"Which one?" she asked.

"You've more than the one by your eye?"

Petra laughed, unconsciously pulling Ignatz closer to her. "I am having several. My arm, my back, my legs, all are having markings. They are prayers." She paused. "No, that is not the right word. They are protection of the Forest Spirit."

"You've mentioned the Fire Spirit before, is the Forest similar?" Ignatz asked.

"There are many spirits and if I am telling you everything, then I am afraid the ball would be long over." She grinned. "But the Forest, Flame, and Water are the three we pray to the most."

The song ended.

Ignatz stopped swaying and felt disappointed. Petra looked it too.

"Thank you for the dance, Ignatz." She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his cheek. When she pulled back, she looked as red as he felt. "If you will be excusing me, I must be speaking with Dorothea." And with that she scampered off before he could even reply.

"You're welcome," he breathed though she would not hear it. A smile tugged at his face, threatening to outshine all others at the ball.

"Professor," a stiff voice greeted.

Byleth turned around from the table of food and saw the last person she expected to see.

"May we speak for a moment?" Ashe asked.

"Of course," Byleth said, gesturing for him to follow her. He nodded as she walked through the crowd.

He wore a cape of Gaspard. As an adoptive son, he'd only wear that cape if he were acknowledged as heir to the house. Ashe seemed to be making a conscious effort to appear older. The dress uniform and combed back hair helped, but it was still the same boyish face that looked at her when she turned around.

That face had steel in its eyes, but it relaxed when he sighed. "Forgive me, professor, I don't intend to take up more of your time than necessary."

"It's quite alright," she said, nervous herself. "I can always make time for a student, no matter what house."

He nodded. "I'll still make this quick. I've been speaking with Sylvain recently. He's helped me see some things differently. I would like to apologize for how I treated you this year."

That was not what she expected. "No apology is necessary, Ashe. I can't imagine what you were going through."

"However," he said, some of that steel returning, "I do not forgive you, or the Church, for the murder of my father. The way I reacted was fueled by grief and wrong, but it does not excuse you of wrong doing."

"Ah," Byleth said. "I think I understand."

"You don't," he said bluntly. "But the sentiment is appreciated." And with that he walked away.

She barely had time to breathe before being beset upon by another student.

"Forgive me, professor, but I saw Ashe speaking with you," Dimitri said. "Is everything alright?"

She swore Dimitri was taller than when the year first began. Or maybe the uniform just suited him well. "Yes, it's alright. We just had a light chat."

"Good, I am relieved." Dimitri smiled. "Ashe is a good man, but he has had to suffer through much this year. To lose one's parents is…" He visibly faltered.

"No need to dwell on it, Dimitri," Byleth said.

"Right." He cleared his throat. "I'd actually meant to find you earlier this evening. I wanted to speak about Mercedes."

"What about her?" Byleth said, defensive.

Dimitri noticed. "Nothing untoward, I assure you. I've just noticed her being happy lately. Happier than when she was with the Lions. I may not be the smartest on matters of the heart, but even I can connect dots. I wanted to thank you, she seemed so sad before transferring to your house."

"Sad?" Byleth asked. Talk about a word she wouldn't use to describe Mercedes.

"Ha, strange, I know. But I could not help but think she was melancholic…" he drifted off, before blinking. "Forgive me, I think I'm overstepping my bounds."

"It's alright, Dimitri. I appreciate your words. She makes me very happy, too." Byleth said with a smile.

He returned it. "Excellent. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that. I'll allow you to return to your evening, as I believe my date should be returning soon—ah!" His smile grew as he stepped away from Byleth towards Ingrid, a look in his eyes that Byleth remembered seeing in Hilda's.

Were she a romantic, she'd have probably wanted to speak to the two of them. But she was not, so she sought out Mercedes again.

"Hey Leonie!" Raphael said between bites.

She took the chair next to him and chuckled. "Seems like you found your one true love just like all those couples out there."

"Huh?" He looked down at his plate, filled with slices of ham glazed with honey. "Oh, well, can't go wrong with a full belly. It never lets you down."

"That's certainly true. May I?" she asked, gesturing to his plate. Raphael handed her his fork and she stole a piece off his plate before handing it back. "I expected to see you on the dancefloor. There's plenty of people can't take their eyes off you at the training yard."

Raphael burst out laughing, but that laughter slowly subsided as he saw Leonie's confusion. "Wait, you're serious?"

"Yeah. I can't say they have good intentions, but some people like muscles a lot." Leonie shrugged.

Raphael blinked. "Huh. I never noticed. I guess that's nice."

Leonie laughed and elbowed him. "You're pretty dense, big man."

He stuck out his tongue at her. "I'm aware, Ignatz tells me often. But, uh, I'm just not interested in anything like that for me. I'll leave that stuff to all of them." He gestured to the dancing duos away from their table.

"Huh," Leonie said. "Well, I bet that makes things easier. Here I am trying to get up the nerve to ask someone to dance."

"Jeralt?" asked Raphael.

She rolled her eyes. "Silly. No, it's Lorenz." Leonie looked away as she said it, shy.

"Why would you…oh," he said.


The sat there for a few seconds before Raphael began to chuckle. "I think you came to the wrong guy for help with that."

"Oh, I don't know about that. You've got a big heart, Raphael. All of the Deer see it." She smiled at him and patted his shoulder.

"Aw, thanks Leonie!" He smiled. "I try to do what I can. If you're looking to dance with someone, I'll dance with you as your friend."

"I'll keep that in mind." She looked off across the hall and sighed. "Seems strange that we're mixing with so many nobles here. You, me, Ignatz, all of the commoners. This doesn't happen every day."

"You got that right," Raphael said. "Seems like we all get along fine though. So that counts for something."

Leonie sighed. "I hope you're right. Did you hear what Ignatz found on his trip with Shamir?"

Raphael's smile faded. "I haven't actually talked to Ignatz much yet."

She cocked her head to the side, frowning. "Why not?"

"It's dumb." He stared at the plate in front of him and it looked like for once in his life, he wasn't hungry. "I just wish he'd brought me along."

"Is this because of your parents?" Leonie asked softly.

He nodded. "You know the story?"

"Ignatz mentioned it to me."

"Yeah. I think Ignatz has it in his head that he has to fix things to repay me, since my parents died instead of his. It's stupid of him and it makes me angry to see him take risks like this, especially with his leg," Raphael said, anger oddly absent from his voice. Instead he sounded tired, like a century old debate. Leonie guessed he and Ignatz had had this conversation several times.

"You're worried about him," Leonie said.

"Of course I am. He's my best friend, practically family. I want to keep him safe. If he'd asked me to come along I wouldn't care, but he left me behind." He sighed. "I've made peace with my parents' death. He hasn't."

"I don't think you're wrong to feel that," Leonie slowly said. "But he's trying to recover from guilt, I think. I can't say I blame him."

Raphael speared a slice of meat with a fork idly. "I agree, that's what makes it hard. It feels like I'm being selfish or something."

"Tell you what, let's get your mind off it tonight and we'll try talking to him tomorrow. I'll help," Leonie offered.

Raphael smiled. "What did you have in mind?"

"Let's go make fools of ourselves on that dancefloor. Maybe I'll work up the courage to ask Lorenz," she said.

He laughed. "Works for me!"

Felix brooded in a corner, cycling between cursing his father, Glenn, Sylvain, Dimitri. When he ran out of names to call one, he moved to another.

It was a common pastime of his.

Sylvain was dancing with everyone. And that meant everyone. Felix watched him like a cat, his every partner was someone knew as if he were checking off boxes.

The worst part about it, was that Felix couldn't even be mad at Sylvain in good conscience. He'd told Felix he'd be okay with going against Rodrigue's wishes, that he didn't care at all about the thoughts of others.

Felix had refused. So they came to the ball separately. Maybe it'd been a mistake.

"Hello, Felix, I brought you a snack," Annette chirped as she walked up to him.

Ah yes, his constant companion for the evening. He couldn't seem to get rid of her. Though if he could be honest with himself (a rarity), he enjoyed the company.

"What's this?" he grumbled taking the small cake from her.

She shrugged. "I have no idea, but Mercie always says that you can't be sad with sweets in your belly. And I had one, it was so tasty!"

He took a bite and it was good. Something with lemon, which was uncommon in Faerghus. He'd have to snag another.

"Thank you, Annette," he said.

"You're welcome!" she said with a bright smile.

"Aren't you going to dance with Mercedes some?" he asked.

"We already did a few times," Annette said. "You're not paying much attention tonight, are you?"

More like his attention was all fixed on a certain someone.

"I guess not," he muttered. Felix crossed his arms as he leaned against the wall.

Had he actually been looking at her, he would have seen her eyes follow his to Sylvain. Had he been paying attention, he would have seen the sadness in her gaze and realized she knew what was going on and had decided to comfort him.

"Do you think you could teach me some swordplay?" she asked.

"Hm?" That broke him out of his haze. "You want to learn swords?"

"Well," she paused, "not like you do. But I figure a little knowledge could go a long way with it. Like if I run out of spells!"

"That's true," he admitted. "I guess I could teach you some things."

He continued to babble on about the only topic of which he would babble and completely missed Annette's smile as his attention didn't turn to Sylvain again.

Edelgard bowed her head before separating from her.

Lysithea hid her pleased smile behind a blush. Even adults could be embarrassed, right? Especially when the future Emperor just danced her around the room.

The warmth that had filled her for the past minutes slipped away as she walked away from the dancefloor. It was back to not having company at the dance.

Linhardt would have been her first choice to spend time with. Caspar had left early after drinking too much (she'd tried to talk to him, to have him ease up, only to be rebuffed). Bernadetta hadn't even come to the dance. Monica flitted to every person she could, seeming to have the time of her life. Ferdinand had spoken to her quite a bit which was nice, though he seemed to have found a good dance partner in Dorothea. And Dorothea of course spent time with her Deer, not that she'd ever like Lysithea to begin with.

And Hubert was…somewhere.

Her friendship with Edelgard was incredible. Finally, finally someone saw her for who she was. Competent, smart, not a child. Though friendship was tenuous, if the kisses Edelgard had stolen over the past month were anything to go by. Perhaps she was in for more.

Politically it was incredible for her. House Ordelia was on the verge of collapse and without an heir after she expired. If she married the Emperor, then her house could defect to the Empire and be spared its woes. Edelgard would take care of them.

And the resources she'd have at her disposal, who was to say she couldn't cure herself? Garreg Mach was one thing, but the entirety of the Empire meant so many more possibilities. Hanneman had told her himself that back when he lived there, the sheer amount of scholarly knowledge hidden there was incredible.

But of course, therein lied several problems. The first was that the Empire did not approve of two women wedding. Though with how Edelgard spoke about change, Lysithea had a feeling that wouldn't stop her. The woman was far too driven to succeed to let prejudice stop her, in fact, those were the types of things she wished to eradicate from the world.

Then there was the fact that she didn't love Edelgard.

Not to say she didn't like her. She admired her, respected her, adored her. Love her? Lysithea just didn't feel it. She'd not object to something physical with her, Edelgard was gorgeous. But there was more to it than just that. Edelgard had feelings for her. She'd said as much.

Such was her problem. String Edelgard along for her selfish gain or break ties and lose everything?

Maybe I could fall for Edelgard, she argued with herself. Perhaps there was room for romance amidst her goals.

But to potentially damn her closest friend on a lie? It made her sick.

She sighed. None of it would be decided today. Lysithea plucked a tart from a table and nibbled at it, waiting for Edelgard to finish dancing with others so that she could have someone to spend time with.

"I'll admit, I did not expect you to be much of a dancer," Dorothea admitted.

"Well, I've gotten a lot of practice," Ferdinand answered, twirling her around. "Plus, I had the pleasure of seeing you perform once, perhaps it rubbed off on me."

"Did you now?" she asked, surprised. "It shouldn't shock me anymore, it seems every noble in the Empire saw me perform at some point."

They moved to the music, not even thinking about the steps. It was ingrained in their beings, reflex with each note that was plucked from the harp. To them, this was their stage, their battlefield, above all others.

"Rightly so, you were an incredible performer. The country was dazzled with you." Ferdinand said. "So many people I knew had dreams to woo you."

"Were you one of them?" she asked, half teasing.

Ferdinand laughed. "Oh, perhaps for a bit, but I think I was more enchanted with the opera itself. That, I fell in love with."

"Ever considered acting, Ferdie? It seems like something suited for you."

"I'd be curious to give it a try someday, but I don't think it'd be for me. I love to listen to stories, not act them." He smiled widely and they danced in a moment of silence while he searched for words. "Forgive me, but I would not have guessed you and I could be rather civil to each other."

It was Dorothea's turn to laugh. "In my time in the Deer, I've come to miss some of you Eagles. Even you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder?"

"I thought you were out for me," he admitted, nearly missing the next step. "Was I mistaken?"

"No, there was something…" She paused. "It's not important anymore. Let's just say you're a better person than I took you for. Lorenz speaks highly of you."

"A man does not turn down a compliment from a gorgeous woman," he chuckled.

"Why, Ferdie! You can banter!" Dorothea said in faux astonishment. "Had I known this before, mayhaps I wouldn't have left the Eagles."

"Are the Deer to your liking?" he asked after a bout of laughter. "Pardon me for asking, but you've seemed rather sad around the monastery these past few weeks."

"Ah," Dorothea said, growing cagey. "Well, I've just some complicated feelings at the moment."

"Care for a second perspective?"

"Well." She bit her lip. "Let me tell you a story and pretend this is not analogous for myself."

Ferdinand chuckled, and she began.

"Once upon a time," she said, a new song beginning as they began to dance to a slower tune, "there was a beautiful princess. She was strong, fierce, loyal, and above all else, kind. Many fell for her, how could they not? Beauty does not often intersect with those qualities. But chiefly among these people were two knights.

"Each fell for her, their desires only to spend their days with her. But therein laid the problem, the two knights were friends. To pursue such a desire would rend their friendship asunder, no doubt. The first knight was oblivious to his friend's feelings, but the second knight noticed and was far too scared to make a move.

"But the princess had other plans, she fell just as hard for the first knight, her constant protector. For he was handsome, strong, gentle, and above all else, kind. Suddenly, he was placed in a precarious position that he did not know what to do about.

"The second knight noticed. How could he not, as they were longtime friends. There was melancholy at first, a sadness at the way things were unfolding. But when he saw his friend with the princess, he saw real happiness in their eyes, both in the princess and the man he called friend.

"He plucked up the courage and pulled his friend aside one day. He told him that the first knight had his blessing and to pursue the relationship. The second knight's lie broke at the last second, and that sadness slipped in. But still, he assured the first knight that he should wed the princess, that he would be fine.

"The first knight and the princess were married and lived happily. The second knight was happy for them, but never could quite smile the same way he did when speaking to the princess."

"It's a beautiful story," Ferdinand murmured. "Bittersweet, but beautiful. You seem to know it well."

"I played the princess once," Dorothea chuckled. "One of my first roles."

"I would have loved to see that performance," Ferdinand said.

"To this day, I still have not decided," she said, "whether the second knight made the right decision. Sure, he was noble about it, but was he not sad for the rest of his days?"

Ferdinand was silent for a full minute, thinking. Dorothea did not pressure him, content to move to the music.

"I think both answers have merit," he concluded. "To step aside as the knight did is noble and selfless and the mark of a true friend. But to condemn yourself to sadness such as that? It takes a powerful person to do so."

"The princess probably wouldn't have reciprocated his feelings," Dorothea pointed out.

"True," Ferdinand answered. "But never trying means we have to live with it for the rest of our days not knowing. Better to try and fail than never at all, in my eyes."

The song came to a close and Dorothea stepped back.

"You've given me a lot to think on," Dorothea said. "If you don't mind…"

"By all means," he said, allowing her to withdraw.

"Thank you, Monica," Sylvain said, bending to kiss her hand. She allowed him to before flitting away. A strange one, that one.

But he'd done it, danced with every student. Well, except one.

Thank the Goddess he was tall. Locating Felix was easy. Being the loner he was, the man leaned against one of the far walls brooding. Annette leaned next to him, even from this distance clearly running her mouth. Someone who didn't know her would have taken her for a chatterbox. Sylvain knew the look of someone filling silences to comfort.

After all, he did it to Felix all the time.

Brushing off several requests for more dances, Sylvain cut his way through the crowd. Annette noticed him first, her eyes widening. Felix didn't bother looking at him.

"Annette," he greeted with a wide smile. "Enjoying the festivities?"

"Of course!" she exclaimed. "This dance is far better than any I've been to before. The food is way better."

Sylvain laughed. "Well, that's certainly always the most important part of a party. Would you excuse Felix and I for a moment?"

She looked between the two, extremely aware of the tension. Annette nodded slowly. "Felix, come find me if you need me." Retreating from the two, she cast one look behind her again before going off to find Mercedes.

"Felix," Sylvain greeted.

"Get whatever you want done with. You scared off my company," Felix growled.

He blinked, filing that strange friendship away for later before throwing on a smile. Not his usual, the kind that masked agony, but a softer one, a true one. "I just wanted to ask you to dance with me."

The noble scoffed. "Finishing your rounds with me?"

"If you want to look at it that way," Sylvain said, almost hurt. "But no one is going to question the whore of Gautier for dancing with everyone at the ball, least of all your father."

Felix was silent.

"You'll have to tell me what he calls me this time," Sylvain said through laughter. "Will he call me whore? Slut? Philanderer? Something worse? I'll admit I've a morbid curiosity."

"This was your plan?" Felix asked quietly.

"Oh, I can't take credit for all of it. But better your father hate me than give more contention to your relationship. Plus, there's no way I'd let someone take away from me a dance with the man I want." Sylvain's face had lost all its mirth. It was serious, asking questions better left unsaid. Do you want this? Do you want me? Is what I'm prepared to do for you enough?

Do you love me back?

"You're an idiot," Felix hissed. But he extended a hand.

Sylvain smiled and took it. "I'm aware. Guess you'll need to stick around to keep me in check."

Felix was pulled in close, closer than Sylvain had held anyone he'd danced with that night. Sylvain bent his head down for the briefest of moments. "Sneak away with me after this dance, I have somewhere we can be alone."

His lover nodded, saying nothing. Sylvain had rendered him speechless, something he was proud of. And if he had looked up at that moment, he would have seen Annette trying not to cheer and make a scene. He would have seen her happiness for them.

But their eyes were on each other, memorizing every moment of their first dance.

Somewhere amidst the slew of people asking her to dance, Byleth had lost track of Mercedes. There was a light stumble in her step, having drank a little too much.

She blamed it on Seteth instead of herself. The man had procured such excellent wine for the ball. How could she not help herself?

"Chin up, kiddo," a gruff voice said, holding back laughter.

"Dad?" she asked, whirling around. "What're you doing here?"

"Here to play chaperone for you. You handle your drink worse than you used to." Jeralt was still dressed in his regular armor, making him standout amidst the students.

"I thought you were guarding the chapel?" Byleth asked, ignoring the jibe.

Jeralt nodded. "I am, but my shift ended. Figured I'd stop in, see how you were doing. Enjoying the night?"

"Yeah," she said, smiling. "But I think I've danced more than anyone ever will in their life."

He laughed at that, the booming laughter drawing some gazes. "Mercedes enjoying herself too?"

Byleth blushed. "Yes. I was just looking for her now."

"Can I steal a few minutes for a dance? I'm rusty, but too selfish to care," Jeralt chuckled.

She rolled her eyes. "With that charm, it's a wonder that you wooed mother." Byleth stepped closer to her father and let him begin to lead.

Another laugh. "Well, I always wondered what she saw in me too. Figured it had to be my wit."

"We're going to have to work on that in the next few years," Byleth mumbled.

"Speaking of the next few years, you considering staying on here after the year closes?" he asked. "We can do whatever you want, baby girl."

Byleth bit her lip. "I think I like it here. Maybe another year, just to see if it was a fluke."

Jeralt quirked his lips into a smile. "Sounds like someone's snakebit. If I told Sitri we'd have a daughter who was a teacher, she'd laugh to no end."

"You think she'd be proud of me?" Byleth asked in a small voice.

Jeralt looked at her with what could only be described as love in his eyes. "Yes, she would consider herself the luckiest mother alive, as I do as a father. You've done so well, Byleth."

She looked away, lest she cry. But she smiled. "Thank you, daddy."

They said nothing for the rest of the dance, just lost in their own world. The music slowed to a stop, as did their feet.

"Well, I ought to stop slacking," he chuckled. "Got an early morning tomorrow. You're helping out with the guard shift tomorrow, right?"

"Yeah, Archbishop's orders," Byleth said. "Going to sluff off work on my students?"

"Isn't that what they're for?" he chuckled. "I'll see you in the morning, By."

He turned around a waved a hand in farewell. Byleth turned around and scanned the room for Mercedes. Ah, there she was, talking to Annette across the room. Byleth smiled, pushing her way through the crowd. Perhaps they could dance for a while longer yet.

Or sneak away. Byleth had heard of the Goddess Tower, where wishes between lovers were said to come true. It was stupid superstition, but Mercedes would like it. That was enough for her. And after that, she wanted to give Mercedes a night to remember. Byleth pushed past more people, wondering how she could shake Annette to have time alone with her lover.

A woman screamed.

Dancers stumbled in their steps, knocked out of their romantic reveries. Confused murmurs tittered about the couples. The music fell silent, replaced by students beginning to cry out in horror. Byleth's hand fell to her side, a reflex to the sword that wasn't there. The cacophony of voices rose and Byleth pushed her way through several students.

Her scream joined the others.

Her father's body was crumpled on the ground as Monica stood over him, holding a wicked, curved knife. She looked at Byleth and blinked innocently, as if realizing she was there. "Sorry, dear," Monica said, uncaring. She turned heel and ran while the shock reigned.

Byleth's feet moved on their own and she was at her father's side. "Dad?"

"Dammit," grunted Jeralt. His face was wracked with pain. A hand covered the wound, but it did little to stop the blood pooling out.

"Father!" Byleth screamed. "A healer, someone! Anyone! Hurry!"

The ballroom erupted into chaos, students running in fear. A knight made it to her side and began to weave a healing spell.

But life did not return to his eyes.

The healer tried again. And again. And again.

Jeralt Reus Eisner had passed into the Goddess' hands.

Byleth wailed.

Dark magic was an incredible tool, it was why he favored it. The greater one's intelligence, the stronger they became. It made an excellent pairing with his role.

It was also acidic. The droplet of darkness that had burned into the lock got as far as it could before rupturing, blasting the lock off the door, briefly illuminating the darkest dungeon of Garreg Mach.

"Well," a wizened voice gasped. "She sent her dog to fetch me?"

Hubert frowned. "Kronya's piece is done. We're in the clear, but expedience would be a boon."

"Hmph, no need to tell me, boy," Solon huffed as he walked out of the cell. He leaned on his cane, which he'd been allowed to keep. "I hope you aren't counting on me for your escape."

Hubert shook his head. "I have my own out."

"Smart boy, maybe Thales will make something of you," Solon mused. "Any word from Myson?"

"None." Hubert crossed his arms. "Not since Linhardt."

"Is that anger in your voice, boy?" Solon asked, looking over at him.

"My liege has lost one of her allies. No, I am not pleased."

Solon's raspy laughed echoed in the dungeon. "You've the might of Agartha on your side, there's no need for a fop like him. He was digging too deep into Kronya's cover. It was necessary."

"So you say," Hubert scowled.

"Hmm, does the dog have some feelings?" Solon asked, a sadistic glint in his eyes. "Careful not to bite the hand that feeds, dog." With his cane, he began to draw glyphs on the floor.

"Where is Myson?" Hubert asked, ignoring the insult.

"Working on a pet project," Solon said. He chuckled. "We've plans if your princess doesn't pan out."

"Is that a threat?" Hubert asked.

Solon looked at him for a moment. "Yes," he said as his lips curled. He drew the last glyph with his cane and then vanished in a flash of magic.

Hubert scowled and turned heel, exiting the dungeon.

Chapter Text


In light of recent events, you are needed back in Derdriu. As heir to the Alliance and my title, having you stay at the monastery is entirely foolish. Despite our differences, I will not risk my progeny's life for an education. If the most decorated Captain in the history of the Knights of Seiros can be killed at a dance, then the next Riegan should not be sheltering within its walls.

When you return, we have much to discuss. The Roundtable will see a change soon and I require your presence to help put a new family into one of the five seats. It is imperative we seat an ally as Leander is unseating one of ours.

Do this and we shall overlook your friends from outside our borders.

Silas von Riegan

"Red hair, the kind of face you'd want to punch?" Hilda asked.

The merchant shook his head and she huffed, turning her back on him and walking back to the center of the market place.

How had no one seen Monica escape? After murdering Jeralt, she'd run out of the ballroom, disappearing entirely. But it wasn't like she could have evaporated into nothing.

She sighed, tired. She needed a nap. Or a massage. But Lorenz was right about needing to find anything they could about Monica.

In the span of just a few days, the Deer had changed.

The humor was sapped from them, replaced with grim determination. As the ball fell apart and Mercedes was spiriting Byleth away from the crowd, Claude pulled them all aside.

"We're Golden Deer," he'd said. "All of us, no matter what country we're from." He was shaking, so much so that someone might mistake it for fear. That was false. Claude was livid, Hilda could see it. An attack on his people was an attack on him.

"You are all my friends, my family. After this year is done, you will have seats at my table for the rest of your lives in Derdriu and beyond. I would give my life for any of you." He'd commanded quiet, something he was good at. Hilda admired that. When Claude spoke, people listened.

"One of our own is hurt. And we will extol vengeance on the one who did so. I have contacts outside of the monastery who can search for Monica. Lorenz, I need you to lead everyone while I make contact. She could be still around."

Lorenz had nodded. "You can count on me, Claude."

"Monica will die," Claude decreed. There was fire in his eyes, a smoldering flame that Hilda had always seen him try to hide. Those days were behind him, at least with the Deer. "You all have my promise until the end of your days, that if you need help, I will come. I will always be there. And Teach needs us right now. She's as much one of us as any are."

For all that the fire burned in his eyes, the others were even more emblazoned. Claude was a calm person, the rest of them were not necessarily.

Hilda pictured beating Monica again, this time going further. Oh, if she got her hands on her, there'd be hell to pay.

Times like these reminded her of that she was related to Holst. Thoughts like these were the ones that joined them as siblings, the same anger ran in their blood.

She'd kill Monica. She make her suffer.


You've got moxy, boy.

I agree to your proposal. Oddly enough, I think this is the first thing you and Silas have agreed on. I'll admit that my time away from the Roundtable was relaxing, but I'm not a woman to sit idle long. And these years away from the action have been much too long.

Silas has told me he will force the vote when you arrive. I can delay him until the end of your year at Garreg Mach. We'll need to find out who Gloucester will replace the Ordelias with anyway. I swear if he chooses some pig like Acheron, the Goddess herself will have to descend from on high to prevent me from punching him. But I do not think that will come to pass.

In regards to this Nardel you mentioned, yes I can find him a position in my household for the time being. However, in return I expect the story about where you met him.


P.S. I'll buy you as much time at the monastery as I can. Stay safe.

Dorothea hadn't taken her eyes off the grave for a while. When she's arrived, it was still light out. Now the sun dipped behind the horizon.

I didn't know him, she'd realized. She'd never spoken to Jeralt for all that Byleth was an important person to her. It just never had come up.

It surprised her to find regret pooling in her stomach. Why? Regret over someone she hadn't known?

There were uneven footsteps. She looked up and saw Ignatz walking towards her, standing not far off. He nodded to her, but said nothing, instead looking to the grave.

Was he thinking similar thoughts? Or did he have more of a heart than her?

No, she berated herself. She wasn't some cruel person. Her friends had taught her that. Mercedes had taught her that.

Finally she took a step back from Jeralt's grave with a sigh. He was no doubt in a better place than this dreadful world. As she passed him, Dorothea rested a hand on Ignatz' shoulder briefly. She smiled to him and he nodded back to her.

As she walked away, she swallowed her self-hate for what felt like the first time ever. Selfish as it was, in the wake of such a disaster she felt closer to her friends. She'd hugged Hilda as she cried. Lorenz, Marianne, and she went riding as a distraction. Claude and she flirted to distract themselves. Small thing, important things.

Here, she had a place. It felt good.

A cold wind blew as she walked back to her room. She shivered, wrapping her scarf tighter.

Hopefully it would last.


I heard there was turmoil at Garreg Mach recently. We're so relieved you are unharmed. Javad was ready to break the Locket to come exact vengeance should you have come to harm. Not that I disagree, but it seems war isn't in our future over you.

I jest. But we were scared. Please, stay safe. You've a bright head on your shoulders but a nose for trouble. We support you in following your dreams, but your safety is far more important. Stay safe.

Come visit us, Khalid. We miss you.

Tiana von Riegan

P.S. Javad is telling me that if you aren't back soon, Tishtar will devour more and more livestock. She's growing too big and needs her Khalid.

"Do you think she listens?"

Marianne von Edmund had been raised to not ask questions, to bow the head and trudge on. Alister had never liked it when she asked any. So she stopped.

Her audacity surprised herself. Asking such a question in a cathedral, no less, next to the most devout woman she knew.

Mercedes glanced at her. "I think she does."

Marianne looked down at her feet and picked at the pew she sat on, running a finger along a tiny splint of wood jutting from the seat. "So many people ask for help, but still there's so much sadness."

The older woman wrapped an arm around Marianne to pull her in closer.

"I think," Mercedes said, softly, "that the Goddess is trying her best. We assume she is omnipotent, but we don't know that. Maybe she just helps out everyone she possibly can?"

Marianne was silent. Then, "Mercedes, have you ever asked the Goddess for anything?"

"Many things," Mercedes giggled. "Sweets when I was younger. Safety when I was older. Now…just to find my brother."

"Did you ever get those things?"

"Some, when the time was right."

Marianne nodded and looked around cautiously. Whispering, she said, "Please don't tell Hilda, but I…"

Mercedes' relaxed disposition shifted to concern. "Honey, whatever you say to me will not be heard by anyone else."

Tears were trickling down her face. "I asked the Goddess to let me die. I…I'm so ashamed of it now. I thought no one would miss me, but…Jeralt…everyone hurts…"

Mercedes pulled Marianne in, letting her cry into her shoulder. Pain splayed across her face, but Marianne never saw it.

"Of course we'd miss you," Mercedes whispered. "I hope you realize that."

She nodded mutely.

Mercedes stroked her hair. "This pain you feel, I can't pretend to know it. But I know you are in pain." She chuckled. "For a healer, I may be at a loss, but I can tell you this. I love you, my friend. The Deer wouldn't be complete without you."

Marianne nodded again, crying and letting out years of pain as Mercedes rubbed her back. Her heart broke.

But when they left the cathedral hours later, Marianne stood a little taller.

Claude von Riegan,

I'll be the first to admit, politics isn't my scene. I'm as new to it as you are with my father stepping down, so you have my sympathy. Just as you have my sympathy for having to deal with my sister.

I'm not one for political games. It's not my specialty. With Riegan and Gloucester at each other's throats constantly, it doesn't make for a particularly strong nation. The Alliance is strong for our unity when we have, weak when we don't.

Yet here we are as Gloucester supplants the Ordelias to replace them with one of his own. Your grandfather rushes to do the same and houses Goneril and Edmund are left to decide who they back.

I don't condone this. Nor do I have a decision about my vote. Taking a side in this struggle between your houses just fractures us more. I appreciate your fresh perspective you've brought to the Alliance, which is why I write to you now.

Do not encourage this infighting. Build bridges, not walls. I am not blessed with your silver tongue. I do well at fighting, at leading my soldiers on the battlefield. And never have I won a battle with half an army. You can't lead a nation with half its people.

My advisors tell me this is a presumptuous action, writing such a candid letter to you. But I would like to trust you, Claude von Riegan. I think we could make good allies, friends even. Riegan, Goneril, Gloucester, Edmund, these houses all fall under the banner of the Alliance. Let us work together, not apart. And whether that seat is filled by Daphnel or Albrecht, I extend the same courtesy their way.

I am not a politician. I am a soldier. I see this world as anyone on the front lines does. And when marching to battle, you want the person next to you to be on your side.

Holst Andrea Goneril

P.S. Give my sister my best. Since she's no doubt been too distracted to write, tell her something for me. Just tell her, "I approve."

Claude climbed in through the window.

It'd been a week, too long to let her stay in her room. In his defense, he'd tried to come in through the door. But she hadn't responded.

Byleth lay on her bed, head turning slowly to Claude as he slid into the room.

"I'm really not in the mood, Claude," she croaked. Her voice was the kind of hoarse that came from hours and hours of crying, the strain of pain in her vocal chords.

Claude said nothing, walking to her bed and sitting on the end of it. He sat there, silent for a while, so long that Byleth laid back down in bed.

"Can I tell you a story?" he asked quietly.

She said nothing, so he began.

"One of my uncles once attempted to murder me," Claude said. "My father's younger brother crept into my room one night and slipped a knife between my ribs. Barely missed my heart, nearly killed me. Guards came in and apprehended my uncle while he screamed I was an ingrate, a vile imitation of a child. For the longest time, that was my impression of what family was."

"Why did he try to kill you?" Byleth asked, not turning her head.

"I…well, to be blunt, I am heir to a not insignificant royal family in another country." Claude sighed, playing with his braid and not meeting her eyes. "There, back home, I was a target of many assassinations by my own family. I thought that was all family was worth, a knife in the back. Until I met you, Byleth."

She said nothing.

"You and Jeralt, I couldn't believe how close you were. I love my parents, but it's hard to love a king as a father or a queen as a mother. I'll admit, I was jealous of it. What you and Jeralt had was special. I wanted that so desperately." Claude's voice drifted off.

Byleth scowled, he could hear it in her voice. "And now my father is dead and I'm alone. Thanks for reminding me." He knew she didn't mean it and wagered she knew as well. It was grief speaking.

He looked at her and smiled softly. "Oh, Byleth, it's never just you. No person is an island and family isn't relegated to a blood tie. I said I was jealous, past tense. These Deer we've met, this herd we've made, this is a family. These people, I feel the same closeness with them that you had with Jeralt."

Byleth looked down.

"I don't say this to ignore your father's memory. I miss him, though I can't fathom how you feel. But you've a whole family in this monastery that wish to comfort you. We want to help however we can. Ignatz has painted a portrait of Jeralt for you. Hilda and Leonie worked together to make you a necklace to remember him with. The others are trying to help how they can." Claude smiled. "Monica took something from you, hurt you. The Deer are one body, a wound against one is a wound against all. The herd protects. We will find you Monica and we will get you your revenge."

She looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time. "Claude, I—"

"You don't need to say anything to me. I barged in here against your wishes. I know you don't want to talk, I know you want to be alone. But there's a family out beyond that door waiting for you to open it to make you feel better. I'd just like you to consider that."

He stood up and walked to the door. Pausing, he turned. "Mercedes also misses you. If no one else, I'd let her in to comfort you."



Byleth pulled the blankets around her tighter. "I'll think about it."

He smiled. "That's all I ask." Claude opened the door, and slipped out into the night.

Lord Riegan,

I was delighted to receive your correspondence. As I suspected, I find you far more delightful to converse with than your grandfather. Old Silas has little interest in goals outside his own.

Your message asked for support for Lady Daphnel. I've also received word from Lord Gloucester about supporting the young Trevor von Albrecht.

I am a man who weighs choices carefully. And each of these options are admittedly strong candidates. A renowned war hero or a rising star in the Alliance? I am spoiled for choice.

But I did not make it to where I am by generosity. I would ask you, Claude von Riegan, what is it you offer me in exchange for my support? I can deliver the Roundtable seat to Daphnel or to Albrecht assuredly, and you know this. It is why you come to me, after all.

Luckily, I ask for little. I wish my daughter to return home to me. She and I parted on ill terms and I wish to mend our relationship. I should like you to convince her to return to Edmund Manor.

There is no reason we cannot be allies. I think you have far more drive than Silas. I'm very interested at where you're going to point that in the coming years. I know you will not disappoint.

Margrave Alister von Edmund

Chapter Text


The Archbishop wouldn't want me to tell you this, but I have a lead. Rumor has it someone saw Monica leave the monastery that night of the ball. Temper your expectations, but I'm optimistic about this one.

In return, I ask you look out for Vajra-Mushti. The Relic is invaluable to Church and retrieving it is of paramount importance. I know your motivations are revenge, and I shan't chastise you for that. I just ask you recognize that a Relic falling into the wrong hands is not good for anyone.

And, in a more selfish vein, should you bring Monica to justice, I trust you can remember to mention who gave you this information. A bit of glory would do a lot for my ambitions within the Church. Here we can help each other out. I, of course, would never forget a favor done for me.

Let me know if you're in need of anything to prepare. I'll be in touch soon about this lead.


Marianne folded her hands to stop her from scratching her arm. Said arm had her sleeve rolled up on display for Hilda to see in her room.

Hilda said nothing as she reached forward and brushed feather-light fingers across the scars that ran down her arm. Marianne shivered at the touch.

The hand shrank back. Hilda looked her in the eyes, afraid. Afraid for her. "Did you…?"

Marianne had to commend Hilda's bravery for asking that. But that was just one of many things that drew her to Hilda.

"No, it wasn't me," she whispered quietly. Quietly, but not weakly. No, Marianne had found something of a resolve. It was young, like a sapling, but it weathered the storms all the same. The old Marianne would balk at talking about this with anyone. This Marianne could manage it with Hilda.

"I never knew his name," she said. "He was always cloaked when visiting the Edmund estate. Except his hands, he took off his gloves to draw my blood. I always called him Pale Hands." She shivered and Hilda's arms were wrapped around her in a second. "He took my blood for experiments, I think."

"And your adoptive father was okay with this?" Hilda asked, rage kept at bay but all too there with a tremble.

Marianne laughed. Actually laughed. Oh, now that was a good joke. "Hilda, he did so at behest of the Margrave's orders. I…have this Crest." She bit her lip, not ready for the unvarnished truth. "It's rare, something not many people know about. The Margrave had this man running tests on me. He'd draw my blood and fill it in vials."

"Marianne, you don't need to tell me all of this," Hilda said, grabbing her hands. "This is hard for you, I can see it."

Marianne shook her head. "I need to say it. I was my adoptive father's research subject. My childhood was not like other children's."

It was a weight off her chest, a weight she'd carried for years. To finally be able to say it to someone, even if that someone was just one person. She'd said it, it was real. It was terrifying.

"I'll kill him," Hilda seethed. She squeezed Marianne's hand tightly, painfully.

"Hilda," Marianne said softly, brushing a hand against Hilda's cheek. "It's the past, killing him wouldn't undo any of it."

"It'd be revenge," Hilda said, grabbing Marianne's hand at her cheek. "It'd be justice."

"Hilda," Marianne repeated. "I don't want those things. I just want to be with you."

"What do you mean?" Hilda asked, shyness creeping in, a side only Marianne could bring out.

Marianne pecked her on the lips. "Take me to Goneril after this year, would you? I'd…" She took a deep breath. "All I'd like is to be somewhere safe with someone I love."

Arms wrapped her in a hug and Hilda said, "Yes." She pulled her in tighter. "Yes. Yes. Yes, yes, yes."

Marianne giggled. "Why, it seems Lady Goneril is pleased."

Hilda tackled her into the bed. "You have pleased the Lady Goneril! Now you shall have your reward of cuddles."

Tension had fled from Marianne's body, an ease and exhaustion coming over her at once. She felt more at peace than she had for a long time.

Behind Hilda's smile, there was anger, an anger pointed at Alister von Edmund. She silently swore to protect Marianne from him.

No matter the cost.

"I wondered if I'd find you here."

Claude blinked, folding the letter in his hands shut. Seeing who it was, he smiled. "Hey, Teach. What brings you up here?"

There was an unasked question that didn't go answered. Why was he up there to begin with?

"I was looking for you," she said, walking up and leaning over the side of the tower, looking down. "You've been avoiding me."

Ouch, though she was right. "Just wanted to give you space. With how people have been swarming you, I thought they might be overwhelming you. The ball was only a few weeks ago." Your father's death, he didn't say.

She nodded. "Considerate of you. But I have a question for you."

He walked up and joined her. "Oh? I thought the student was supposed to ask the questions?"

She didn't answer. "Why hide it?"

"It?" he asked, knowing full well what she meant.

"Your land of birth. It's Almyra, is it not?" She looked at him, her gaze daring him to lie.

He smiled softly. "Yes, I suppose it is."

Byleth turned away. "I wouldn't have judged you for it. I don't judge you for it, rather. I just want to know why keep it a secret?"

"That," he said, "is a long story. And you deserve it sometime, but I haven't the heart to tell it right now. Too much loss in it. But the short version is, the people of Fódlan dislike my heritage just as much as the people of Alymra dislike it. My mother, she was from Fódlan and my father of Almyra."

She nodded, thinking. "Was the story about your uncle true?"

"Yes," he simply said.

"Okay," she replied.

Wind wicked past them as they said nothing, looking out across the monastery. She didn't know what to say and he had too much to say.

Instead, he said, "You'd have liked where I grew up. Not the palace, the countryside. There was a field of flowers so large, you could walk an hour and only smell pollen in any direction."

"It sounds nice," she said.

Oh, nice didn't begin to describe what it was like to ride a juvenile wyvern across a field of flowers, a beast so full of energy it tired the rider out far quicker than the other way around. Tishtar loved flowers, especially eating them.

"It was," he just said.

"Will you go back?"

In hindsight, he should have expected that question. Perhaps it was the one that brought her up here in the first place. For all that his heart beat quicker when she was around, he wasn't fool enough to think she didn't value their friendship. They were important to each other, even if not in the way he dreamed. Friends, a word that used to be as foreign on his tongue as he was in Fódlan.

"Perhaps," he said. "Perhaps I'll go back to show you that field of flowers. Or the palace, or the city I grew up in. Or perhaps when my work here is done."

He paused, choosing his next words carefully. "Byleth, I know it is selfish to ask this, especially as you recover from such a wound, but I have a dream. A dream where children who grow up with different skin colors become friends. A dream where a man of two places can be of two places, not forced to choose one or be an outsider. This world is cruel, Byleth. I've seen my fair share and more. I don't want more children to have to ask their mothers why their friends kicked them to the curb and kept kicking.

"People should be judged by their hearts, by who they are. Fódlan…I want to bring it together with the rest of the world. I want to soothe wounds, not inflict them. I want…ha, I suppose I want a lot. But my father once told me that it wasn't selfish to want a better world."

A hand touched his shoulder. He looked to her, not having realized he'd been focused on the horizon. She was inches from him, far closer than she'd ever been.

"What do you need from me?" she asked, only it wasn't a question. A question would have diluted the conviction in her eyes, the love, the care. It was a promise, a vow offered in the eyes of the Goddess, on her tower where she deemed the whims and wants of mortals folly or not.

You, he didn't say. "Your help," he said. "I am better suited than many to actually make change due to my lineage, but Derdriu was not built by one. You, the Deer, everyone else, I need all the help I can get."

Byleth nodded. "You'll have me, from this day forth."

He smiled wider than he ever had before, until it froze with what she did next.

Byleth drew the ceremonial sword from his belt, and knelt. She bowed her head and set the sword point first to the ground, holding the handle firmly. She was the picture of a knight pledging loyalty.

"Claude von Riegan," she said, "I swear I will help you in any way that I can to realize your dream."

Claude dropped to his knees. "Byleth, what are you doing?"

She looked up at him with an uncharacteristic smirk. "Your dream, I can't do something for it. I'm a soldier, a mercenary, a tactician even. None of those help smooth prejudice. But I sure can stop a knife at your back."

He blinked.

"My father is gone," she said, emotion finally cracking through the almost manic grin. "I've nothing to keep me at Garreg Mach. The people I've come to care for, they'll be in the Alliance in two months. I'll stay at your side, Claude, and do my best to protect you."

Claude rested a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it. "Byleth, are you sure?"

"Yes." That same conviction was back.

He nodded. "I would be honored if you would serve at my side."

"Someone has to keep you out of trouble," she said, standing.

Claude's mouth quirked to a grin. "If a whole year of your teaching hasn't fixed that, then I'm starting to doubt there's a chance of fixing that."

The woman he loved flipped her hair over her shoulder with a grin. "Good thing I'm stubborn."


Asking to send the Astral Knights to Garreg Mach is foolhardy at best and a declaration of war at worst.

I do not know what it is you hope to accomplish, but I have sent a small contingent on their way to Garreg Mach, small enough not to rouse suspicion. They shall also double as your escort home once the year ends.

I expect an explanation of this once you return home, as well as why some of my spies have reportedly been doing work for you between their tasks.

Duke Ambrose von Aegir

"I won't say I didn't see this coming," Lorenz admitted. "Though frankly I expected it sooner."

Ignatz looked down into his teacup. "I…I wasn't sure how to say it."

Lorenz leaned forward, taking a subtle glance around for eavesdroppers, but no one else sat under the gazebo on the cold day. Claude really was rubbing off on him. "My father," he began, "is not a good man. I learned that when I was only ten. My nursemaid had fallen on hard times. She'd served loyally for well over a decade, before I was even born. I spent far more time with her than I did my own mother.

"She had fallen on hard times, yes. Money was tight as a result of a trade war between Gloucester and Riegan. She was on the verge of losing her house with a family to support. My father has more money than you can imagine. So she begged him for aid in any form."

"He refused?" Ignatz guessed.

"Worse, he threw her out. Something about how the integrity of house Gloucester would be marred by taking in beggars and employing those who did not reflect the best of the Alliance." Lorenz sighed. "I never saw her after that and it took me many years to understand what that said about my father."

Ignatz said nothing.

"So no, hearing that my father likely employed soldiers to control monsters to terrorize merchants, that does not surprise me." He sighed again. "It is a dark day when evil and malice no longer surprise you about someone. I think that is the day you ought to give up any hope for them."

"Do you hope that he can be redeemed?" Ignatz asked. Not as if he believed that, but he was curious what his friend thought.

Lorenz nodded. "Does not any child wish to think well of their parents? My father…a time ago, I think he might have been a decent man. Time has wizened that memory, alas. Perhaps it is best to give up hope."

Ignatz took a sip of his tea. "Well, when you're the Count I bet you'll be far better to your citizens."

"Or will I end up like my father?" he mused. "Am I damned to become him as I am damned to carry his blood?" Lorenz shook his head. "Forgive me, we've strayed from topic. Thank you for telling me about what you found out there. I'll bring it to the Roundtable myself."

"Will that make an enemy out of your father?"

"Most assuredly. Then again, he's been quite irate that I stopped spying on Claude. I believe the company I keep signed away the relationship we could have had."

"I…I know that even with what he did, what he's done, I know the Deer wouldn't think less of you if you didn't want to go against your father," Ignatz said.

Lorenz smiled. "Please, I've found family here. I've no need for an old fool like him."

Dimitri wiped the sweat from his face with a towel. The dusting kept the southerners out of the training yard, but a man from the north would need more that to keep him inside.

Plus it saved him being ogled by other students when going without a shirt. The attention was embarrassing at best and distracting at worst.

Though, he thought idly as he went through his next repetition of his kata, if it were Ingrid watching then perhaps he wouldn't mind.

But it wasn't Ingrid who clapped behind him, startling him into a stumble.

"Good form, prince," Claude chuckled. "A few marks off for losing focus."

Dimitri shook his head. "Hello to you too, Claude."

"I need your help," Claude said, dropping the smile and turning serious.

His eyes widened. "You're never so direct. What is it?"

The heir to the Alliance sighed and held out a leaf of paper he'd been holding. A letter. Dimitri took it and unfolded it.


My lead was right. She's in the Sealed Forest.

"She?" asked Dimitri.

"Monica," Claude spat. "Look, I'm trusting you to not go running to Rhea about this. Or Seteth. But we need more help than just the Deer. We have no idea what we're up against."

"Slow down," Dimitri said, handing the letter back. "What is it you're asking of me?"

"I need your help killing her." Gone was the serious look on Claude's face, replaced by a snarl so uncharacteristic of him Dimitri was reminded that in Faerghus, they didn't call Claude the Schemer. They called him the Deceiver.

"Revenge?" he asked softly. "For the professor?"

"Yes," Claude said, "but for all of us as well. An attack on Byleth is one on us all. I need the Lions to back us up, we don't know what we're walking in to."

A younger Dimitri might have jumped at it immediately for the thought of revenge. And part of him still wanted to, the ugly side that seemed to rear its head more and more as of late.

And he nodded, not for that part of him, but for the sympathetic side that saw a friend in need. "I'll help, though I cannot promise anyone else to assist."

Claude chuckled. "Good thing Sylvain and Felix have already agreed and Mercedes is talking to Annette now. I was hoping you'd convince the others."

Dimitri couldn't help the smile that crept on his face. "Been busy, I see."

Claude looked away, abashed. "I don't like withholding this information from Byleth, but…" He sighed. "She'll want to charge in as soon as she knows. And this is a trap, obviously, we need to be prepared."

"So you drag my Lions into it?" Dimitri asked, not accusatory.

"There's an adage about friends," Claude said. "One friend falls into a hole and needs help and asks his friend to help him out. The second friend jumps in. The first asks, 'Why did you jump down here? Now we're both stuck here.' And the second replies, 'No, now we're here together.'"

Dimitri held out a hand. "I know we aren't close, Claude, but as heirs to bordering lands, I think this is a good moment to deepen that friendship."

Claude grasped his hand tightly. "Dimitri, you beat me to the punchline. How did you know this is what I wanted to say?"

He laughed. "Because as much as you might try to deny it, you are a good man."

"It takes one to know one." Claude took his hand back and shivered. "Now, unlike you, this cold is far too harsh to be out in. Let's go find the rest of your Lions."

Him? A good man? Dimitri doubted that. But he wouldn't lie, the compliment made him smile. "Let's go, you have a house to commandeer."

"Why, Dimitri, I have entirely no idea what you mean!"

He found her outside his room.

Fate of the Goddess, Claude would have said were he a believer. But he wasn't, so coincidence was the mistress that set Petra outside his door as he went to look for her.

"Funny, I was meaning to ask you something," he said, inviting her in with a wave of his hand.

She didn't smile. "I am wanting to ask you something too, Claude."

Claude nodded, the jovial smile running off his face like wet paint. "Well, you or me first?"

"You," she said, still not meeting his eyes.

The natural curiosity in him ate away inside, begging him to find out what troubled her. Instead, he said, "I was hoping to ask you to help bring Jeralt's murderer to justice. We've found where she's hiding."

Petra gasped. "You are finding Monica? Are you sure?"

"Yes. I have it on authority from a good source. I haven't told Byleth yet, I want to gather the party I mean to bring," he said. "You're the last one to ask. Will you help us?"

"Yes," she nodded. "Your house has been kind to me. I would be liking to repay the favor."

"Excellent," he said. "Now, what was it you wanted from me?"

Petra was silent, eyes locked with the floor.

Claude waited.

Finally, she said, "How does your country work? After this year, will you be taking power?"

"Well, some, I suppose," Claude said, surprised. "I'm heir apparent already, but after this year I'll take part in the Roundtable officially. My grandfather isn't long for this world either, so I expect to become Duke before long."

"We are sharing that," Petra murmured. "I have received notice from home. My grandfather, he is falling ill."

"My condolences, Petra," Claude said, frowning. Lying through his teeth, he said, "As someone who has a sickly relative, I know the feeling."

She laughed without mirth. "Yes, it is why I am coming to you instead of Dimitri." Petra met his eyes. "Claude, I am not thinking my grandfather will last long. And when he passes, I am in the Empire's custody. They will control Brigid."

"And your people love you," he said, connecting the dots. "They won't disobey anything the Empire says for your safety. You'll rule in exile."

"And Brigid becomes less of a vassal state and more the Empire," Petra said sadly. "We are maintaining some freedom now, but without my grandfather it will be lost. I am coming to you because of this."

His eyes widened, seeing what she was getting at.

She chuckled, this time with some humor. "You are clever, Claude. Yes, I wish to make an alliance with the Alliance. The Empire is preparing for war against Brigid. I am not knowing if my grandfather's sickness is their plan or simply ill luck. But I cannot be fighting them without help." The proud woman bowed her head. "I wish to free Brigid from any control, Claude. I do not wish to deceive you of my intentions. But I am recognizing that Brigid cannot fight an Empire by itself, not without exposing ourselves to Dagda."

Petra looked at him again, coming up from the bow. "Claude, I would be liking to pledge fealty to you in return for protection from the Empire. My ancestors, they used to placate war with Dagda and Adrestia by making alliances with the other. I am wishing to put my trust in someone better and a country with better people."

"War?" he asked. "Are you sure?"

"Our spies are seeing the preparation," she said miserably. "Many people will die."

Claude stepped forward, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I may not be Duke Riegan yet, but I accept, Petra. I don't have power to make a pact in front of nobles yet, but you have my word as a friend."

She smiled, tension easing away. "I am preferring that, actually. Bowing, kneeling, these Fódlan things are strange to me. But I understand words between friends."

"After we kill Monica, I'll work with my friends back home to get you out of the Empire's grasp," Claude promised. "At least with war, we can safely get you out of Enbarr without worry on consequence. On that, you have my word."

"Then when are we going to find Monica?" Petra asked.

Claude smirked. "Today. Hope you're quick to prepare."

While Claude was speaking to Byleth about Monica, Mercedes steeled herself.

Whoever Monica worked with, her brother was among them. She might see him there.

She'd put it from her mind for so long since Remire. Jeritza, the Death Knight. Oh, she'd figured out Jeritza was Emile, that hadn't been difficult. He was her family. Emile might have been almost entirely unknown to her, but he looked like his father.

But the Death Knight? That was something she hadn't foreseen. Had he recognized her? Had he attacked their group knowing she was among them?

Would he have killed her?

Many had asked what she prayed for and she always told them about her selfless desires. They had such high opinions of her, when in reality what she prayed for the most, above all else, was to meet her brother again. Little did they know that the holy Mercedes von Martritz was just as selfish as them.

She hadn't told anyone, not even Byleth, about Jeritza. Mercedes had thought about it, even found the words to do so. But then Jeralt was killed.

Byleth had changed. There was an unhinged quality to her, a recklessness. And her drinking, she'd gone back to carrying her flask.

Mercedes admittedly was pleased that her lover wasn't losing herself to it like she used to, but with how bad it'd been before, Mercedes was worried.

It wasn't something she'd been able to bring up, just like Jeritza. The latter was unimportant in the wake of Jeralt's death and the former…she just didn't know.

Byleth pretended she was fine, an exterior no one believe but everyone bought into for her sake. But Mercedes, she worried about the upcoming battle, about how Byleth would react to seeing Monica. How did she put the sense of dread into words, the fear she might lose someone so important to her?

So when Dorothea asked her why seemed to be lost in her thoughts, Mercedes couldn't help but say the first thing that popped into her head.

"I'm worried."

Dorothea had taken the seat beside her on the stone steps up to the dining hall as they waited for Claude and Byleth, expecting the latter to wish to leave immediately.

"What's wrong?"

How did she say it all? How did she communicate a lifetime of desire to meet her brother and nearly a year's worth of being with someone she cared deeply for and the fear of that slipping away?

How did she say that all to someone who had become her closest friend aside from Annette?

"A lot," is what she ended up saying with a light chuckle.

Dorothea put an arm around her and Mercedes leaned in to it, welcome warmth in the cold.

"Well," Dorothea said uncertainly. "If you like, I'll listen to it. All of it."

"It's a long story. Several long stories, I think," Mercedes said.

Her friend laughed. "I do love a good story, Mercie."

And in that singular warm moment as the two of them sat in the cold, Mercedes decided she trusted Dorothea implicitly.

"Well, I have a brother I've never met…"

Byleth's horse was at the front of the pack, followed by the rest of the Deer and Lions. Prey and predator rode together to the Sealed Forest.

Claude slowed his horse to match pace with Lorenz'. The scion of Gloucester turned his head to him, curious.

"The Ordelia vote," Claude called out over the wind as the forest began to approach on the horizon. "Has your father mentioned it to you?"

"Briefly," Lorenz answered in kind. "Trevor von Albrecht isn't the worst pick, the Alliance is strapped for talent not at the Roundtable already."

Claude laughed. "Damn, I was hoping he'd have shared some plan. I'll admit Albrecht isn't a bad choice, but Judith would be a good person in our corner."

Lorenz' gave him a look. "Our corner?"

"Yeah, what's wrong?"

"Forgive me, it's nothing," Lorenz tried to dismiss.

Claude shook his head. "Lorenz, you're my friend. If you have doubts about what I say, say something, I want to hear it."

"It's foolish," he admitted. "I worry this alliance of ours will fade after this academy year ends."

The howl of laughter drew glances from the rest of the party. Claude caught his breath before replying. "You're a smart man, Lorenz, and an idiot. This isn't an alliance, this is friendship. I don't like you for what you offer me, I like you because you're a good man, if pompous."

"Ah," Lorenz said, embarrassed.

"He's speaking for all of us!" Hilda hollered from the other side of the party.

"Including the pompous part!" Sylvain shouted, drawing laughter from both houses.

Lorenz looked down, embarrassed, but not displeased. Claude kept his horse by his for a few minutes before Lorenz finally spoke.

"Thank you, Claude."

He just smiled.

Too late, she wondered if it had been a trap.

The Sword of the Creator deflected Monica's—Kronya's—dagger. The orange haired woman danced back, licking her lips as her attention never left Byleth.

They stood in the middle of four stone pillars, a battle raging around them but not touching them. Dread had settled in when Kronya had ordered off her soldiers, wanting to fight Byleth herself. Something was wrong, something she should have seen were she not focused on breaking the woman's neck.

Byleth lashed out with her sword, slicing air as Kronya leaned back. "So feisty!" she called out with a grin. "Guess killing daddy made you angry, huh? That makes me the lucky one for having no one like that!" With the last word she dashed forward, quicker than Byleth could react, and drove the pommel of her dagger into Byleth's chest.

She stumbled back, keeping her balance as Kronya danced away again. Growling, Byleth squeezed the sword and the boney Relic shifted to its whip form. "Good," she snarled. "There'll be no one to mourn you when I kill you."

The smile evaporated from Kronya as her eyes narrowed. She flipped the dagger in her hand and crouched low.

Byleth lashed out, the whip streaking red just shy of Kronya's head as her opponent rolled forward. Her dagger lanced out, catching Byleth's leg.

"Fuck!" Byleth swore, leaping back out of Kronya's follow-up.

She said nothing, no taunts, just a predatory smile. Kronya circled her, as if herding her to stay on their stone battlefield.

The whip collapsed back into a sword and Byleth grabbed the dagger at her side. She threw it at Kronya, easy enough to block.

Kronya did so, the blades meeting with a sharp metal ring. Byleth closed the distance, keeping low as she swung with the Relic.

The minx danced back again, though this time Byleth squeezed the blade. The Sword of the Creator shifted again and Byleth kept the momentum of her previous swing by spinning, lashing the whip against Kronya.

It connected. Red electricity burned Kronya's skin as she gasped in pain. She stumbled, making her first mistake.

It was one Byleth wouldn't let go. As quick as it had shifted, the Sword of the Creator was back to its blade, in time for the assault she laid into Kronya.

She blocked the first strike, but the power behind the blow made her stumble again. The second hit came too fast, glancing off Kronya's ribs. One hand lowered instinctively to the side to touch the wound, and the third strike smashed into her with the flat of the blade, finally knocking her off balance.

Kronya gasped as she hit the stone. Byleth raised her blade and swung it down, biting into Kronya's shoulder.

/The woman looked up at Byleth and hissed, "That all you got, bitch?"

Byleth's eyes were dark. "No."

In a fluid motion, she dragged the sword to the left and severed Kronya's head from her neck. The corpse collapsed while the head splat against the ground and rolled, her final shock frozen in rigor mortis.

Darkness began to collect around her, as if it were emanating from Kronya's body. Byleth looked around wildly.


Sothis' scream resonated through her, knowing something she didn't. Byleth turned heel to run. She stumbled and fell as she put weight on the wounded leg.

The darkness grew to an amorphous cloud and swallowed her.

Chapter Text

"You idiot!"

She opened her eyes.

Byleth blinked, thinking her eyes not working. But after repeated attempts, she still saw nothing. Looking up, she saw Sothis, her ever constant tag-along, sitting atop a stone throne.

"You absolute buffoon!" she screamed, her shriek vibrating Byleth's eardrums.

"Where are we?" Byleth asked, standing up from the ground where she lay.

"Where are we?" scoffed Sothis. "How could I have such a fool of a host, who would walk knowingly into a trap thinking that she were invincible?" Sothis vanished, reappearing in front of Byleth at eye level.

"You, Byleth Eisner, are reckless to a fault with an utter disregard of consequence," she accused.

Byleth scowled. "Complaining about how I act isn't going to fix this. Where the hell are we?"

"Oh, now she wishes to confer with me? Ignoring my advice about this trap just like you ignore me regularly?" Sothis disappeared.

Her voice resounded throughout the black void, as if inside her head again. "Suffer in this hell, see if I care."

"Sothis!" Byleth called.

There was no answer.

"Childish brat," Byleth muttered. She looked around the expanse of nothing, the throne having vanished as Sothis had.

She walked forward, gingerly holding a hand out to feel anything before she could run into it. But there was nothing. In fact, it didn't even feel warm or cold. It just felt…empty.

"Hello?" Byleth shouted. She tried a few more times to no avail, voice not echoing at all. It simply ended after she spoke.

A cold pit opened her stomach. This place…she was in over her head. Perhaps Sothis was right.

Byleth huffed. The girl—Goddess—was being childish. She hadn't asked to have someone live in her head, overlooking every single thing she did, providing commentary on every action she made. Was it wrong to want some damn peace and quiet, to have her thoughts her own?

And she'd killed Kronya. Her lust for revenge was sated. How was she supposed to know she'd fall into a black void upon killing her? That wasn't something that just happened to people on whims. She'd ignored Sothis' advice and Sothis had stopped badgering her.

Perhaps angering a Goddess wasn't the best idea.

But if she really were a Goddess, why hadn't she done…something resembling what a Goddess should do? Not that Byleth exactly knew what that ought to be, but it had to be something aside from speaking in her head. Something with flash, she supposed. From the way Marianne and Mercedes spoke about the Goddess, she was capable of anything and everything.

If Sothis was a Goddess, why was she so angry that they were in this mess? Could she not just warp them out of wherever here was?

"And a Goddess wouldn't lose their memory," she murmured to herself. The thought didn't comfort her.

So Byleth began to walk, searching for anything. Surely there would be something after a while.

But there wasn't.

She walked for an hour. Then two. Then more.

Then she lost count of how long it'd been. But she kept walking, despair growing.

Byleth stumbled to the ground, tripping on her own feet. How long had she been going? There was absolutely no way to tell. Sothis was right to call this a hell. Even the Eternal Flames would be better than this.

Was she stuck here forever? Stuck with nothing but an angry supposed-Goddess?

"Sothis?" she called out nervously.

There was, of course, no response.

Byleth folded her legs inward, curling into a ball. Her breathing was so loud, amplified by the silence. In. Out. In. Out. Constant. Maddening.

"Sothis?" she called out again, louder. "Can we talk?"

No response.

She laid there for a time shorter than infinite and longer than she could handle. Byleth did not grow hungry, nor did she grow tired. She felt suspended, like her body merely…persisted instead of lived.

With the Sword of the Creator, she slid it along the back of her hand, drawing a shallow cut. When she blinked, the cut vanished as if it never were there, an utter absence of pain.

It took her a period of time she could not quantify to realize the real horror of the situation.

This was not a void, this was a prison.

"Figured it out?" Sothis mused, though she did not reappear.

"Sothis!" Byleth cried. "We need to get out of here, this place—"

"I did not exaggerate when I called this hell," Sothis said, as if not hearing Byleth. "I created this place, Zahras. It was a prison for those that opposed me a long time ago."

"How do we get out?" Byleth pushed, voice cracking.

But Sothis did not respond. Byleth called out several more times and got no response.

Byleth ran through drills with her blade. Just as she did not suffer wounds, she did not tire. It was the only thing to keep her sane.

Her muscles did not develop any further. She couldn't even have the satisfaction of getting stronger. But nevertheless she persisted, practicing complex maneuvers with her whip-sword.

It staved off the nothing for a time, but there were only so many hours that could be occupied with honing technique.

There wasn't the joy of rest either. She didn't grow tired. Sleep never came to her, as much as she tried.

Byleth fell to her knees. "Sothis, please," she begged.

There was no response.

She didn't know when the hallucinations began. They mixed with memory, a dangerous concoction.

They flitted in and out of her vision without rhyme or reason. Her students took up most of them. They were always smiling, speaking without sound. When she reached out to them, they disappeared.

Byleth sat on the ground, as she had for the past span of time of which she had no length for. She rarely trained now, instead brushing her fingertips up and down the Sword of the Creator. It had texture, something she could feel. Something that reminded her she was alive.

"I am the Beginning," Sothis said, looking down at her.

Byleth shivered under her gaze, her back still feeling warm from where the bandit's axe had struck her. Was blood seeping through her clothes? Was the girl she'd saved alright?

"You are a strange one," Sothis said, looking down at Byleth. "Your name, what is it?"

"Byleth," she croaked.

"Hmm, an odd name for sure," Sothis mused. "But you mortals have always had the penchant for oddities like that. Though…how is it that I know that?"

"Where am I?" Byleth asked, looking around the dimly lit green room that housed the stone throne Sothis sat upon.

"I shall admit, that is a good question. My memory…I do not seem to remember where we are," she said, a brief look of horror passing over her face. "Indeed, my memory is gone."

Byleth opened her eyes and saw the scene she'd seen before, a bandit running with an axe towards Edelgard. She started to run, but stopped herself, confused.

The bandit got to Edelgard, burying the axe in her side. But he was close enough for her to dig the dagger in her hand into his clavicle.

He howled in pain, dropping the axe and falling to the ground, scrambling away as he tried to stop the bleeding.

Edelgard swore and dumped a vulnerary onto the wound for a messy fix. She looked at Byleth with anger. "Some help you were, mercenary."

"Sorry," Byleth breathed. "I just thought…"

"Your inaction speaks of ineptitude," scowled Edelgard.

Byleth looked down as Edelgard walked away.

"So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet. So quiet."

Do you not care for my input? According to everyone I am a Goddess, my advice is valuable.

"I never asked for someone to live in my head. If it's a trap, it'll work itself out."

Grow up, Byleth, this is the circumstance we're in, we need to make our best of it. And that comes with understanding that I can see what we're walking in to.

"I'm going to kill my father's murderer."

At the cost of our life? My life is tied to yours, you fool.

"I've made my decision."

You've gotten reckless. You'll get killed. It is so obviously a trap.

"I don't care what you think. Go bother someone else who cares."

Would that I could, this isn't a vacation for me. Living in your head and watching you make poor choices is not my idea of entertainment.

"Just stay quiet. This is my life."

If only your students knew how stupid you are. You have a death wish.

She cried. She did that a lot.

The line between reality and her hallucinations had blurred. Not even all her hallucinations were of real events anymore.

Sothis hadn't spoken to her again. Or maybe she had and she'd thought it a trick in her mind's eye.

Byleth had absolutely no way of knowing.

Claude sipped at his tea. "Surely you've noticed, By."

"No," she said.

He stood up, bending down and kissing her. "I've never loved someone more than you."

"We lost the mock battle, you still think this house is worth transferring to?"

Mercedes smiled at her. "Yes, yes I do."

Petra pressed the blade against her throat. "You're a fool, Eisner."

Byleth buried the blade she held in Petra's stomach. The princess snarled.

Byleth screamed.

"Something wrong, kid?" Jeralt asked.

Byleth stood up, breathing heavily. It was all she could hear.

"Woah, kiddo, you've gotta calm down. You're panicking, just tell me what's wrong."

"Everything!" She screamed again, taking the Sword of the Creator and separating it into its whip form. Taking the tip of the whip, the pointed blade, she jabbed it into her stomach to feel something, anything.

When she pulled her hand back, there was no wound and she felt nothing.

"It's alright, By. Deep breaths. Your mother would be proud of you."

"There's a way to get you out of here," Sothis said, her lip curling with distaste. "It isn't something I'd prefer."

Byleth said nothing. She hadn't said anything for a long time.

"I'd fuse my soul with yours. To be frank, I believe that is what slowly has been happening to you this whole time since I awoke. Rhea did something to put me in your head."

Byleth said nothing.

"You're a drunk, obsessing with your students to forgo caring for yourself. To do this I would obliterate my free will. Tell me, why should I do that for you?"


"I apologize for being angry that you were shutting me out. I know having a person in your mind isn't easy. I can forgive you for not talking to me, that isn't the reason why I'm furious. But knowingly walking into a trap? You have damned me to this choice, to give up my very being."


Sothis appeared right in front of Byleth. "Mortal minds, so fragile. Has it occurred to you that walking into that trap was a mistake?" When Byleth didn't respond, she huffed. "You're tangling with people you don't understand and expect to not suffer consequences. They sealed you here. This was your fault that we ended up here. If you had listened to me, we wouldn't have walked right into a trap."

Byleth blinked.

"Oh? Is that recognition? Is Byleth home now?" Sothis chided. "Got something to say?"

There was nothing for a long time. Then, "Sorry."


Byleth felt herself get lifted up onto her feet. She blinked several times, as if seeing for the first time in eons.

Sothis looked at her. There was a note of worry in her eyes. "I fear I may have overestimated the difference between a Goddess and a mortal's mind."

She said nothing.

"I will fuse with you. It should help you perhaps forget some of this," Sothis explained. "It should. But if nothing else, my power will let us escape."

"Okay," grunted Byleth.

Sothis sighed. "At least you're still there." She pressed a palm to Byleth's forehead. "This may feel…strange." There was a warm tingle against Byleth's skin.

Then her world exploded.

Chapter Text

She was a phoenix.

Burning bright, golden, scream on her lips as the Sword of the Creator ripped through reality, his professor leaping from the schism.

His Teach was different, her hair the most obvious, but the faraway look in her eyes subtle. He was lost in them more than before, as if there was now an absence in them he could fall into.

Solon's magic ceased as he stared at her. His wizened face transfixed with horror, rigor mortis onsetting before her sword freed his head from shoulders. And it really was that quick, as soon as her feet hit the ground Byleth leapt forward and decapitated him.

The battle that had raged crumbled, Solon and Monica's forces slipping away as soon as the head of the snake fell. The Deer and Lions let them go, far too blindsided to pursue or understand quick what was happening.

Their eyes were locked on her; the woman on fire. Byleth's sword was alight with flame, not burning her, and had spread to the rest of her body, fire so hot it burned white.

She turned to them, the fire flickering out. Byleth's eyes swept over them all as if not registering they stood there. Stepping forward, she opened her mouth to speak.

Her legs gave out and she began to stumble. Claude was at her side already, catching her.

"Teach?" he whispered, terrified. He felt for a pulse, finding one.

With a sigh of relief, and far more relief than he expected, he marshalled the other students to return to the monastery.

Like they had with Ignatz, they waited for her to wake up.

The infirmary was crowded. Manuela had given up trying to get them to return to their dorms. Those not in the Deer stopped in often, stressing the room beyond its occupancy.

It was an impromptu celebration of sorts. They'd leapt into the maw of the beast and escaped without much harm. Injuries sustained were healed and they got their professor back. The Deer were invincible.

Amidst the chatter, Ferdinand smiled to Lorenz. "I'll admit, at the start of the year, I wasn't expecting such strength from the Deer."

His friend chuckled with a nod. "I'm somewhat ashamed, but I was the same way. To see us now…well, it's certainly something else."

A spell of laughter fell over the group as Raphael reach the punchline of a story. They'd slowly become rowdier as they realized Byleth was genuinely okay and apparently the world's heaviest sleeper (when she actually slept, Mercedes never said).

"I've considered switching houses," Ferdinand admitted with a tinge of melancholy.

Lorenz' eyes widened. "Really?"

He nodded. "Quite. But, and I'm sure you understand, my father would be quite displeased at me turning my back on Adrestia. Plus with but a month and change left, I'm sure it might not be worth the trouble."

Another spell of laughter, keeping their conversation private amidst a crowd. Lorenz nodded slowly. "I think I understand."

Ferdinand laughed lightly. "Would that I could rewind time, mayhaps I would have made a different decision." His eyes darkened. "But such is life. I must take my leave, though. I was hoping the professor would wake before I needed to, but I'm to receive some troops from my father."

"Trouble?" Lorenz asked.

"Well," Ferdinand paused. "I believe I may have stumbled onto something rather dire about the Empire that I must take into my own hands."

Lorenz frowned, but nodded. "Do tell me should there be anything that I can help with. You're my friend, Ferdinand, and if the Deer have taught me anything, it is that friends help each other."

Ferdinand smiled and stood up, resting a hand on Lorenz' shoulder. "I think I'll take you up on that. But when I return, I'm afraid I've lingered too long."

He said some farewells and walked to the door, closing it just as he heard Hilda shout, "Byleth!"

Ferdinand smiled and for the briefest moments considered turning back to stay with the Deer. But he sighed, summoning his resolve.

She would be there when he returned. He needed to bring Hubert to justice like all nobles were in Adrestia, by marching them back to the Emperor and laying them at his feet.

Worry boiled in the pit of his stomach. Perhaps that was the wrong word. Concern. That was better.

Petra was supposed to meet with him today. Claude and she were going to iron out some tentative agreements on their alliance—as well as make a plan to keep her safe.

But the heir of Brigid never showed. He'd asked around to the Eagles, and when he got nothing from them, he turned to Dorothea instead.

"Well, Edelgard left to return home yesterday. Rumor has it she'll be back within a week. Petra went with her, along with Lysithea and Hubert."

The songstress hadn't looked pleased with that, but didn't seem to expect ill of the trip. Not that reassured Claude, but he at least had an answer.

When he'd asked Ignatz, the man had blushed profusely, not understanding why he would be privy to such knowledge. To that, Claude smiled and hoped his friend would pursue his and Petra's growing…well, whatever it was or could be.

Still, unease lingered.


He jumped out of his skin as Marianne's soft voice woke him from the reverie. It'd gone and gotten dark out while he was leaning against the bridge to the cathedral, watching the wyverns pass. She must have been returning from prayer.

"Hello, Marianne," he said lightly. "How has your day been?"

She lit up a bit. "Hilda promised we'd get dinner, so I'm off to meet her. What about you?"

In a brief moment, Claude remembered the woman who hadn't looked him in the eye or ever asked him a question. He smiled. "Oh, just doing this and that. Unremarkable, ordinary, a usual day in life of Claude."

She giggled. "Somehow I think our definitions of unremarkable differ. At least, I don't think ordinary describes you."

"Careful, Marianne, you'll make Hilda jealous," he winked.

She blushed deeply. "Claude, that's—we're not—I can't—"

"Relax, Marianne." He laughed. "You know, I haven't ever seen Hilda as happy as when she's with you. You mean a lot to her."

Marianne blinked, managing to recover. "Oh, well, I'm sure you're just being nice."

"I mean, she told me herself how much you meant to her," Claude said, laying the bait.

"…what did she say?"

"You'll have to ask her, I'd never reveal one of Hilda's secrets like that," he teased. "Not even to the woman she loved."

She laughed, blushing madly. "I stand by what I said about ordinary."

"You enjoy your dinner with Hilda," he said, turning back to looking off the bridge.

"Oh, um, would you like to join us?" she said.

He grinned, even if she couldn't see it. "Trust me, Marianne. I think Hilda would be entirely displeased if I took even a moment of your attention."

Marianne sputtered something, a denial perhaps, but he could hear the smile in her voice. She turned and set off to meet Hilda.

Claude smiled sadly, thinking about a letter tucked away in a textbook in his room. Margrave Edmund…Marianne deserved better than him.

He'd burn the letter, he resolved. The offer to bring Marianne back to him would go unanswered, hopefully buying him some time to get back to the capital and figure out a compromise.

Betraying her would be tantamount to betraying his own family, something he couldn't stomach. Thankfully he could trust Hilda to protect her. His best friend had it bad for Marianne. It made for excellent material to tease her about.

But he was happy for them. For all this year had been a tempest, good had come of it in the end.

When she awoke, she'd felt empty. Like there was something missing Byleth's mind, a hole unfilled.

Her first breaths were shuddering, hugging herself as if she'd slip from reality again. But she sat in the infirmary, somewhere that made sense. Not the expanse of nothing.

Byleth wept.

"Oh, my child," whispered a feather light voice.

It was her luck to not wake to her friends, her family. No, it was Archbishop Rhea who sat on the edge of her bed, looking at her like a mother.

She squirmed under the gaze, tears ceasing immediately. "Archbishop," Byleth spoke, voice hoarse.

"I am so relieved you are back with us," Rhea said. She smiled a genuine smile, one that profoundly unnerved Byleth, like she saw something other than her.

"Me too." Byleth coughed.

Rhea raised her hand and pressed it gentle to Byleth's throat, White energy flowing into her skin. "Byleth, I know you've only woken up, but your hair…" Her hand left the throat and instead brushed it through hair that wasn't hers.

Then she realized it was. Her hair, a green almost the same as Rhea's. It caught her so off guard that she was only uncomfortable with how Rhea had touched it after her had pulled back.

"That's…a thing," she said, dumbly.

"Byleth, do you remember what happened when you disappeared?"

She almost, almost, waited for Sothis' inevitable response. But she didn't. "I don't remember."

But she did. Oh, did she remember. The last moments, when Sothis fused with her. And the long hours, days, weeks, time, alone.

Your god is dead, she wanted to snarl. There was nothing Byleth wanted to do with this religion any longer.

Rhea nodded, as if it didn't faze her. "Byleth, what happened to you—" she stopped herself. "Rest, there shall be time later. The Goddess has blessed you with her power. This is an auspicious day."

Byleth said nothing.

The Archbishop stood. "We shall speak again soon, of the revelation as well." She turned heel, pausing one last time to say, "I am glad you are safe, professor." Her gaze, once again, looked through her, seeing something—no, someone—else.

She left and Byleth was alone.

An immediate chill set about her. For all that her surroundings were that of reality, it was far too quiet. A quiet far too reminiscent of what had been a small eternity for her, one she was falling into again—

"No," she whispered, blinking furiously. "Focus!"

The door opened.

Byleth spun in her bed to see Aelfric standing in the doorframe. He looked…tired. Perhaps that wasn't right. But something certainly was off about him.

/"Forgive me for barging in," he said. "I had to see for myself."

"What?" she asked.

"You," he breathed, staring at her, her hair. "You are…not what I expected, Byleth Eisner."

"I'm nothing special," she assured.

Aelfric smiled, too widely. "Of that, I disagree. Someone touched by the Goddess is special by default."

And with that, he left without goodbye.

And that silence reigned again. Byleth slid out of her bed and opened the window. Bird chittered and tittered and the sound of the world soaked in.

Relief washed over her. Reminder that she was here, in the world she belonged.

Chapter Text

He met the Astral Knights at their camp, just shy of two days from the monastery.

Internally, he was displeased. With them so close, could they not have made their own way to Garreg Mach? No doubt this was some sort of ploy by his father, though to what end, Ferdinand did not know. Perhaps it was just the old man being petty, making Ferdinand come collect his troops for having the gall to ask for them.

Nevertheless, when Ferdinand crested the hill to the camp and saw the one hundred soldiers, his heart brightened.

The Astral Knights had a long history in Aegir. Fluctuating between being the most elite force in the Empire and the personal guard of both the Aegirs and Hresvelgs. When an Emperor chose new guards to serve on their personal detail, most came from the Astral Knights.

Time at the monastery had given him a new appreciation for their ability, not only on the battlefield, but also in the mundane. Their camp, for example, was tucked between two of the Oghma Mountains, out of sight from all but the most attentive travelers. Despite his father's interference, it appeared his orders for secrecy went heard.

Soldiers looked up as his horse approached the camp. There was brief, palpable unease at the sight of him before relaxing into recognition at both his uniform and mop of orange hair.

The Astral Knights saluted him as he dismounted. All were out of uniform, dressed in drab attire like mere mercenaries. Some still wore armor and carried weapons while others simply looked alert.

"Lord Aegir," several intoned, bowing or saluting.

"At ease," he said.

A woman approached, dressed in light armor unlike the rest who had set aside their armor. She snapped into a crisp salute, her brown pony tail sashaying. "Lord Aegir, the commander is expecting you."

"Lead the way," Ferdinand said.

She turned around and led him through the tightly packed tents to one just a little larger than the rest. The woman cleared her throat. "Commander, Lord Aegir has arrived."

"Come in."

They stepped into a tent sparse of ornamentations typical of a man ranking as high as he did. Ferdinand smiled and closed the distance. "Sir Regis, thank you so much for coming."

Regis von Heimdallr, commander of the Astral Knights, man of just under forty years, was Ferdinand's distant cousin. He had hair as black as soot with flares of silver, showing off brilliant white teeth as he smiled through a well-kept beard. "Lord Ferdinand, the pleasure is mine. Welcome to our camp. Was your journey safe?"

"It was," Ferdinand said with a smile. "You made it here sooner than I expected."

"Hmph, I'm not so old as to be slow yet," he said with mock offense. "'Fast as shooting stars.' The Astral Knights will always be where needed." His mirth turned serious. "Now, business first. Your message—"

Ferdinand cleared his throat. "Would it not be best to speak in private?" He cast a glance to the woman who had led him to the tent.

Regis chuckled. "My manners are lacking, as ever. Lord Ferdinand, this is Ladislava, my second."

"A pleasure, Lord Aegir," Ladislava said, bowing. "I look forward to working directly with you on this venture."

"She's tough stuff," Regis said. "If she doesn't get herself killed, she'll command the Astral Knights after I die."

"Or retire," Ferdinand jabbed back with familiarity, relaxing once again.

"And die on some farm? I think I'd rather drown," Regis scoffed. "Regardless, you may speak freely around her."

"Very well," Ferdinand said. "Forgive me for withholding information, this is something of sensitive nature."

Regis nodded. "I figured as much. Urgent as well, I'd wager. Forgive me for not offering you a chair, but we didn't pack them."

"None needed," Ferdinand waved off. He looked over his shoulder at the entrance to the tent. Breathing, he spoke quietly. "It concerns a traitor within the high nobility of the Empire."

The commander shifted, crossing his arms. His brow knit into focus.

"Hubert von Vestra is behind the murder of Linhardt von Hevring," Ferdinand whispered.

Regis said nothing for a moment. "I must ask, but only once, are you certain?"

"Yes," Ferdinand said.

"It is my vow to believe you as my liege. But as something akin to a friend, I hope you have proof," Regis said.

"I appreciate your concern, Regis."

"Have you proof?" Ladislava asked. "I do not wish to demerit your claims, Lord Aegir, but protecting such evidence would be paramount."

"Ladislava," Regis said in a warning tone. Warmly, he said, "Forgive her, she takes such matters seriously."

Ferdinand laughed. "Rest assured, several of my father's spies have intercepted communication. They have assured me it will be sufficient."

"Satisfied, Ladislava?" Regis asked.

She nodded, bowing her head. "Forgive me, Lord Aegir. I am but a woman of caution."

"I anticipate you want us to ride in and apprehend Vestra, right?" Regis asked. "He won't be expecting us, I assume, so that's a boon."

"I am no expert on subterfuge," Ferdinand admitted. "You are both far more experienced in such matters than I am. Any suggestions or plans you have, I would hear them."

Regis nodded, thoughtfully. "Whatever we do, midday is not the time for it. We have a little time to plan. Give me an hour and I'll give you a plan to capture Vestra."

"Alive, Regis," Ferdinand reminded.

The commander chuckled. "Lord Ferdinand, I assure you, treason will be punished swiftly with us as your tool. Ladislava, show Lord Ferdinand to the tent we set up for him to rest in. He's had a long ride."

Far shorter than theirs, surely. But then again, the Astral Knights were hardly amateurs unused to such things. He said his thanks and followed Ladislava from the tent.

"Are you from Aegir, Sir Ladislava?" he asked, breaking the silence.

She laughed. "Lord Aegir, you are mistaken. I am no knight. I was born in Enbarr though."

"Indeed?" he said, interested. She led him through the tightly packed tents. Several soldiers nodded to her as she passed. "I would have thought being with the Astral Knights would have meant a knightship."

Ladislava looked at him over her shoulder with a half grin. "If you may forgive my candor, Lord Aegir, that isn't my world to live in."

Ferdinand's mind wandered to Catherine, who had renounced her name as a Charon. He could understand that, she hardly cared for life in and surrounding nobility. Ladislava would be the same sort.

"I think I understand," he said.

She looked surprised and said nothing else until they arrived at the tent, packed firmly away in the back of camp. A year of military tutelage told him that was the best place to hide the person to be protected, at least with the mountains as cover.

"You may rest here," she said, holding the tent flap open for him. "I'll fetch you in an hour once Regis is ready to speak."

"Thank you, Ladislava." He smiled to her and she nodded in return, departing.

He sighed, taking a seat on the cot that had been set up. It was the only thing as far as furniture went in the tent. They truly had traveled light to make it there. He'd need to thank them for forgoing comfort in order for the mission and for giving him some time to be with his thoughts.


Ferdinand clenched his fist. Where adoration had bloomed in his heart before, now anger stood. Killing Linhardt, killing their friend?

He'd make him pay. Him, the people he worked with, Edelgard too, if she truly was complicit.

The thought of the future Emperor killing one of her own troubled him deeply. That could have been him, could it not? Left in the library with no one to spend the last moments with.

Had Linhardt been scared? Had he cried out for his father?

Remus von Hevring and his son hadn't been close, but the way the man looked at his son's body? Ferdinand wondered if his own father would look at him the same way if he died.

A shout outside his tent broke him from his thoughts. Ferdinand frowned and stepped towards the opening of his tent as another shout followed.

Just as he was about to open the flap, it opened on its own. Something white hot pierced his stomach.

"That was easier than I thought," Ladislava said, unperturbed as if she hadn't just stabbed him.

Though she were not his teacher, Byleth would have been proud that Ferdinand's immediate reaction was to punch Ladislava. His fist caught her jaw, knocking her back.

He stumbled into the follow through, the knife still sticking from his gut. Ladislava was far quicker to recover than he was, drawing her sword and holding it up to swing.

"Bitch!" screamed a deep voice as someone tackled her. Ferdinand fell to his knees and grabbed the hilt of the dagger. All of his training told him not to yank it out, but they didn't tell him how much it would hurt to have six inches of steel in him. With a scream, he pulled the blade free.

Ladislava kicked her attacker off. Regis fell onto his back and quickly stood up. He was unarmed as the chaos raged around. Ferdinand looked with bleary eyes. Aegir soldiers were fighting Aegir soldiers.

"Fuck," rasped Ferdinand, understanding the situation if not the reason.

Regis was under no such confusion. "I took you in. I trained you. This is how you repay us?"

Ladislava wiped a trickle of blood from beneath her nose where Ferdinand punched her. Or maybe Regis had. He didn't know. "This has nothing to do with you, old man. These are just orders."

"Ferdinand," Regis said. He bent his legs, adopting a stance Ferdinand didn't recognize as his hand cackled with electricity. "Get out of here. I'll hold her off."

And with that, he leapt at her, gauntlets flaring with lightning as he attacked. Ladislava swore loudly ducking out of the way.

Ferdinand coughed, a bit of blood hitting the ground. His lung was punctured. Or his stomach. He didn't know, medicine wasn't his discipline.

Shakily, Ferdinand stood and began to stumble back to where his horse had been. When he passed a tent, he saw into the main area of the camp. The knights were tearing each other apart, knights sworn to him. It was a coup. Regis' loyalists against Ladislava's. But why?

His stomach turned, having nothing to do with his injury. Hubert. It had either been a trap or an opportunity. Regardless, he'd walked right into it.

Fire had broken out from stray spellflame and Ferdinand's horse was nowhere to be seen. Poor beast must have bolted, he thought. But whatever sympathy he had for his mount vanished as another fit of coughing came over him, bringing him back to his knees.

"No," he ground out. "Not…here."

Pathetic, truly. A simple stab would brought Ferdinand von Aegir low while soldiers sworn to protect him died around him.

A man flew from the main area of the battle, body racked with electricity as he hit the ground, unmoving.

Regis stepped into view and the relief Ferdinand felt was palpable.

"C'mon, lordling, this isn't your place to die," Regis muttered, crouching down by him. "Shit, this is gonna hurt."

Before he could ask, a flaming hand touched his skin where the wound was, cauterizing the flesh. If Ferdinand had screamed before, it had been a lie, as this was truly a scream. He gasped for air, body still feeling like it was on fire as Regis extinguished his hand.

"Sorry," he apologized. "Let's get you—"

A blade bit into Ferdinand, though barely an inch.

He blinked, Regis and he both looking at the blade stuck through Regis' chest, Ladislava standing behind him.

"Shit," he muttered, almost as if impressed, before slumping over as Ladislava pulled the blade free, raising it to strike.

Ferdinand said what he assumed would be his last prayer.

"You okay?" His voice was quiet, questioning, wary.

Byleth looked out the window of her private room. The sun was nice, even as it set. Daytime was far preferable for her, after what had happened. For a brief moment, she almost forgot it all.


"It's nothing." It wasn't, it was everything. She really didn't want to be alone. But how did she tell Claude that she'd seen hell? How did she tell her students she was terrified of solitude?

How did she tell Mercedes she wasn't the same person as before?

Byleth finally turned around to see him, dressed for battle. "Is it time?" she asked.

He nodded. "The Archbishop sent me to collect you. She was…stressed. I assume that has to do with the shouting?"

They hadn't been that loud when they argued, had they? Byleth bit her lip. A revelation, that's what Rhea had called it. She'd receive Sothis' blessing or something akin to it. The way she spoke of it, Byleth had no choice in the matter.

So she'd snapped.

"I don't want your Goddess' blessing," she'd snarled.

Rhea, affronted, gaped. "Child, the Goddess Sothis is the salvation we need for this world. That you have taken on this appearance means you already have her favor."

Byleth had stalked right up to Rhea. "Your Goddess is dead. I don't give a shit about whatever revelation you want."

The Archbishop had gone stone cold. Colder, even. The harshest winter in Faerghus couldn't rival her. "Girl," Rhea growled, "you are treading in dangerous territory. You'd be wise to consider what you say next carefully."

"I'm not your fucking pawn," Byleth shouted. "First Lonato, then your errand girl for taking care of Church business, I've had enough! My father is dead because of your religion's enemies! Dead! That's on your conscience!"

Rhea's hand jerked, as if she were making to draw a weapon. Only she was unarmed. Instead, she hissed, "I gave you everything. You only here because of me, you ungrateful child."

She scoffed. "Is this about when I was born? With what happened to my mother?" Rhea looked stricken. "Yeah, father told me. I didn't ask for whatever you did. I don't even know what you did. But I sure as hell want out."

"You think there's an out?" Rhea said in a low voice. "Cry a river if you must, but this is the way things are. You will receive the revelation."

"Or what, you threaten me?" Byleth said. "With what, my father's life?" The pain in her stomach was worth Rhea's flinch.

"I am above such things." Rhea looked furious. "Cooperate and I shall let you leave the monastery at the end of the year."

Byleth didn't believe her, but she'd hold her to it. "Sounds like you weren't planning to let me leave originally. Fine, I accept. You can have your revelation from a dead god, I don't care. Just leave me out of it after."

She'd stormed out of the Archbishop's office, on display for the bystanders who had heard the raised voices. Byleth left and returned to her room.

"Yes," she said to Claude, back in the present. "We had a disagreement."

He folded his arms and raised an eyebrow. "Word on the street says you told her, and I quote, 'Your Goddess is dead.'"

She frowned. "That's going to be a problem, right?"

He shrugged. "Would have been, but you're underestimating Rhea. Everyone in that room was fed some lie about the whole thing. You were delusional or having a crisis of faith, I dunno, didn't stick around for it."

"You were there?"

"Of course," he said, surprised.

She blinked. "Why?"

He chuckled, abashed. "Well, I was hardly going to let you go meet her alone, yeah? I don't trust her, and I certainly don't trust her with my friend who just went through something nasty."

There was that word again. Friend. It felt nice in the wake of the darkness, like a little warm in her heart.

"Thank you, Claude."

"Well, at least that's the excuse I'm giving to cover up my addiction to eavesdropping," he said, deflecting the praise with a joke. Still, he looked pleased.

Byleth stepped closer to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Claude…"

"Yeah?" he said, clearly all too aware of how close they were standing.

"You're a good man. I'm proud to have met you," she said.

Claude began to make a joke, she could tell by his expression, then stopped. "Thank you, Byleth," he said instead. "You're the strongest person I've ever met."

"Doubtful," she said, a dry laugh creeping into her voice.

"Hey, if you can find me someone else who can yell at the leader of the biggest religion in the world and de facto leader of Fódlan, then I'll rescind my statement." And there was the joke. She laughed.

"Well, you may have a point," she said with a smile. "Come on, let's not keep her waiting."

They'd all been led into a room surrounded by torches. Lorenz hadn't seen any doors, sans the one they'd entered. But then the Archbishop waved a hand and the floor beneath his feet began to move.

"Be not afraid, this is safe," she said, though Lorenz wasn't convinced. It reminded him of an earthquake, something he'd experienced once in his childhood and was content never to again.

At least there was some satisfaction that Edelgard also looked uneasy with the contraption. All three houses were coming to be present for whatever this 'revelation' would be.

Claude had confided in him that it was likely a power tactic. Show everyone a light show, have them become fervent believers. This, of course, would be in the wake of Byleth and Rhea's rather…public argument.

Were Lorenz a gruff mercenary, he'd probably say Byleth had balls. But he wasn't, so he told her she was either the stupidest woman he'd ever met or the bravest. She'd laughed.

Ignatz had stayed behind for Petra. No one had seen her since Edelgard had returned. She'd departed with Hubert, Lysithea, and Petra, returning with only the former two. Lorenz wanted to dismiss it away as not his business, but there was an ominous feeling in his stomach, as if something were coming. Ignatz had been worried.

Or maybe that was the palpable tension between Rhea and Byleth. The two woman stood at the front of the group, neither looking at the other. Lorenz thought himself an insightful man, but he was certain there wasn't a person in the room who couldn't see it.

"You alright there?"

He blinked and looked over at Leonie, who now stood next to him. "Oh, hello, Leonie," he said. "Yes, I'm quite fine. These circumstances are…strange, but that seems to be all."

"Wish I could have your confidence, then," she said, looking around. "Because this sure doesn't feel natural to me."

He scratched his chin. "Hmm, well I think that goes without saying. Though the Archbishop seems to have faith in whatever this is, so we should be fine. After all, were it dangerous she wouldn't step foot onto it, yes?"

"Good point," Leonie nodded.

At least he hoped everything would be fine.

The throne was cold, punctuating just how empty it truly was.

She trailed a hand on the stone, feeling the smooth surface somehow spared time's erosion. The grooves carved in hadn't weathered at all since its construction, well over a thousand years ago.

How did she know that?

She blinked. Had someone told her that? Or—

"Professor," Rhea said, tone impatient.

Oh, she thought Byleth was going to back out. A woman of faith without faith. Byleth might have laughed, were it not for the circumstances.

Byleth lowered herself onto the throne, on display for the all the students' eyes. She held back a roll of her eyes, feeling quite silly atop the throne that didn't fit her.

And nothing happened.

Crossing and uncrossing her legs, she looked at Claude. His eyes were locked on Rhea, watching her like a hawk. She turned her own eyes to the woman.

"Well? What does the Goddess say?" Rhea asked, eager.

The thought did cross her mind, briefly, to lie. To pretend, to masquerade, to do something to use the moment to her advantage. But that was Claude's domain, not hers.

"Nothing," Byleth said. "I hear nothing." And it was true, nothing but the silence of the tomb.

"We done here?" a new voice spoke, familiar.

Rhea turned on the speaker: Caspar. "Bergliez, I trust you to understand the implications this ceremony has."

The once cheerful boy—no, man—looked at her with something akin to sorrow. He crossed his arms and sighed. "I wasn't talking to you."

A beat of silence passed before his answer.

"Indeed," Edelgard answered, snapping her fingers. She stepped away from the group as purple auras of magic condensed and vanished, leaving behind imperial soldiers. She, Caspar, and Hubert stepped away from the group of students.

"What're you doing, princess?" Claude asked, warily grabbing his bow from his back.

"Emperor now, I'm afraid," she said without a smile. "Soldiers of the Empire, grab the Crest Stones. Kill anyone in your path and capture the Archbishop."

"You!" Rhea's eyes lit up. "You vile cockroach. You're the Flame Emperor."

Byleth was the only one to see Dimitri go stock still, frozen. He began to turn his head towards Edelgard, face devoid of emotion.

"Crest Stones are the priority," Edelgard said, untethering the axe strapped to her back, and noticeably not disagreeing.

"Wicked girl," Rhea breathed, voice still echoing in the chamber. "You would commit sacrilege against the Goddess? Defile her divine sanctum?"

Edelgard laughed. "Archbishop, I saw everything I needed to see in regards to your Goddess today. I fear no retribution from the nonexistent."

"Insolence!" Rhea screamed. "Kill Edelgard von Hresvelg. Bathe the Goddess's soil with her blood and make her beg for the Eternal Flames."

"Protect the Archbishop," Claude called out weakly, sounding unsure of the circumstances. Nevertheless, the Deer rallied to his position, near their charge.

But the Lions didn't. Or rather, one didn't.

"Archbishop…Edelgard is the Flame Emperor?" Dimitri asked, his lance shaking in his hand.

"Yes, Prince Dimitri," Rhea said, eager. "Will you answer your Goddess' call?"

He stalked forward, alone, boring holes into Edelgard as she stood, unflinching. "Your will shall be done, my lady." As he stepped forward, some of the Empire soldiers who weren't plundering the tomb stepped forward to intercept him.

"Get out of my way," he growled. They didn't.

Dimitri became a whirlwind with his lance.

Byleth climbed off the throne and ran down the steps to her students. She pushed her way to the front of the group encircled around Rhea.

"Professor, bring me Edelgard's head!" she shrieked, furious.

"We're your guard detail, not your assassins," Byleth retorted, drawing the Sword of the Creator.

The screams she didn't know she'd been listening to died. She looked up.

Dimitri stood, covered in blood, though seemingly none of it his. He pushed now red hair from his eyes. And then he began to laugh.

Everyone across the tomb stopped moving, turning their gaze to him.

"All this time," he breathed between bouts of manic laughter. "All this time, it was you. You!"

Hubert bent down and whispered something in Edelgard's ear. She nodded. A second later, she, Hubert, and Caspar winked out of existence.

Dimitri's laugh turned into a howl of rage. He pointed his lance at the remaining soldiers. "Lions, kill every single one of them." And he ran alone at the imperial forces.

"Goddess, he's going to get himself killed," Lorenz groaned. "Apologies, professor, Claude." And he broke ranks as the Lions charged after their leader.

"Protect the prince," Byleth called, following suit.

A week had passed and the monastery was quiet.

Classes had gone on hold as soon as Edelgard had absconded. Hubert and Caspar had left with her with word coming from the Empire soon after.

War. War on the Church of Seiros.

Around Garreg Mach, it was as if a fog had come over the people. Black Eagle students were fleeing and the rest pretended not to notice. Petra never returned, nor did Ferdinand. Bernadetta stole away in the night, fleeing with the company of a few other students. No one had seen Lysithea. And with that, the flock of Eagles was no more.

Rhea had secluded herself in her chambers, taking no visitors. Excuses were made on her behalf, but in the light of the war, few focused on them.

Seteth took charge of the defenses. With the help of Alois, Catherine, and Shamir, they prepared. Messengers brought word of an imperial army making its way north, less than two weeks out. Time was up.

Aelfric took up the duties of the Archbishop, reaching far and wide for help. Local nobles sent contingents of soldiers, but they were paltry. The grand armies of Faerghus were too far for aid and Lord Holst sent apologies from the border, caught up in another skirmish.

The time for Garreg Mach was short. The Aegir Astral Knights already were raiding outposts of the Knights of Seiros, slowly breaking the hold they had over the Oghma Mountains. Each day that passed wrote the story that much more: the final battle for the Church would be done on their own soil.

Aelfric allowed any students who wished to flee to do so. And some did. But most stayed. Some for moral obligation. Some for a sense of right. And others simply because their friends were staying.

The Lions remained. As did the Deer. All of them were tasked with helping with the defense. There were no complaints, just grim resolution.

They all knew the end was nearly there. Each day the imperial army marched closer and, perhaps, their end.

"What do you think of this?" Claude asked, handing Lorenz the sheet of paper.

With the incoming battle, Claude's room had become something of a center point of Alliance business. Letters were constantly being composed and answered. His grandfather's health had taken a turn for the worse, leaving him something of an authority.

Lorenz took the letter from his hand, scanning it quickly. He had his own stack of communication he was going through, though the two lordlings had the same goal: secure whatever support they could.

"Too grim," Lorenz said. "Don't phrase it like 'coming to save us'. That implies a lack of confidence on our part. If we make it seem like we can't do it, they'll send no one."

Claude nodded, exhaustion apparent. "Right."

They returned to silence, penning letters and occasionally handing them to the other for opinions. Every hour, Raphael would knock on their door, take what they had written, and bring it to messengers. And then the cycle would repeat, no rest for either of them.

Mercedes had brought them food a few hours ago, the only break they'd taken in the past twenty four hours. They'd asked how Byleth was doing.

"Not well," Mercedes had said. "She won't tell me what's going on in her head."

And they'd kept working, pausing only again when Hilda had come to check in on them, offering them some reprieve.

"We got the ballistae ready on the southern wall," Hilda groaned, flopping on the bed and narrowly avoiding messing up Lorenz' organization. "Seteth was happy, though I'm supposed to go oversee the north and west walls in an hour."

"Never thought I'd see the day you were helping prepare for a battle," Claude teased.

"Oh, shut it, Riegan," Hilda moaned. "I am far too delicate for these things."

"And too reliable, it seems," Lorenz chuckled.

"Why can't I just go spend what may be my last days in Marianne's arms?" Hilda said. But after a few minutes she departed, far too committed to the cause than she would ever have admitted.

And they continued to work.

As dusk came and went, as candles burned brighter into pools of wax, there was a knock at the door.

"Come in, Raph," Claude called, not looking up.

But it wasn't Raphael in the door.

Ferdinand von Aegir stood in the door frame, caked in dirt and grime. His hair was mussed, even burned in a few places. The once immaculate officer's uniform he wore was torn open, hanging on him like a ragged jacket. His chest was covered in his own blood as well as a large burn mark.

"Ferdinand?" Lorenz gasped. "We heard you were dead!"

He chuckled, which turned into a hacking cough. "Take more than that to stop me," he grunted, all former poise gone in the moment.

Claude rushed to his side. "Ferdinand, you need medical attention—"

"Not yet," he croaked. "Something to do first." He was clearly in pain.

Lorenz and Claude exchanged glances.

"My father is dead," Ferdinand said, eyes closing. "He was put under house arrest and resisted. I heard what happened with Edelgard on the road here. I know war is coming."

"We don't know for sure about Lord Aegir," Lorenz began.

"Makes no sense to keep their greatest opposition alive," Ferdinand cut him off. "I am Lord Aegir now. My own soldiers tried to assassinate me. Whatever country the Empire was, it wasn't mine."

He fell to his knees, prostrate as a beggar.

"Claude von Riegan," he began. "And Lorenz Hellman Gloucester. You two have shown me kindness this past year. I am without a home and without a country I love."

Claude bent down, touching Ferdinand's shoulder. "What are you saying Ferdinand?"

He grinned weakly. "I am yours to do with as you wish. No one will follow me if my own soldiers won't even. I give you House Aegir. I will be your personal guard if you would allow me. And if not, I'll lead any force you ask. And if you don't trust me to do so, send me to the front lines and I will obey as a soldier."

"Ferdinand, I cannot accept this," Claude said.

"My father is dead!" he rasped, damn near cried. "Hubert killed his own father. Bernadetta's is under house arrest. The rest of the families have sided with Edelgard. I have no country, no home. Let me…let me do this, please."

Lorenz bent down and gently embraced him. "I believe I speak for both of us here. We will not allow you to destroy yourself over this. You are a good man, Ferdinand, whatever you may think otherwise."

Claude smiled. "And I'm loath to turn down a friend, Ferdinand. Come on, let's get you to Marianne or Mercedes."

They helped Ferdinand up, leaving the room.

"I don't understand," he said, leaning heavily on the two of them as his injuries caught up to him.

"It means, welcome to the Golden Deer, Ferdie," Claude laughed.

Chapter Text

Hands brushed against her shoulders and she melted into the embrace without wanting to.

"I was worried," breathed Edelgard. "You didn't come with to the Tomb."

"I wouldn't leave you," Lysithea said quietly so that the words wouldn't escape their tent.

Edelgard pulled back, then pulled her in for a kiss. It was gentle, caring. Somewhere in Lysithea's confused heart, there was a flutter. Was that love? Lust? Her inexperienced showed but she hid it.

"How did you escape?" she asked.

Lysithea bit her lip. She did not like to dwell on those people. "Myson helped me. I let him in like you asked, there were no complications. But he…" She shivered. His eyes, those familiar eyes. She'd seen them before. And if there had been warmth in them at one point, they'd long frozen over.

"And?" Edelgard asked, pulling Lysithea to her bed to sit.

"He had me tamper with some of the locks in the cathedral while he saw to other matters. He said that he would assassinate the Archbishop during the battle." Lysithea wrapped her arms around her chest. Not over the Archbishop, no, she'd shed no tears for that woman. War just left a bad taste in her mouth.

Edelgard pulled her in closer, stroking her hair. "They're not who I want to work with," she whispered, brushing a hand through her own white hair. "Would that I could, I'd kill every last one of them. And I will. But I made a deal with a devil to dismantle the Church."

"I understand," Lysithea said.

Edelgard shook her head. "Lys, I will deal with them after. The Fódlan of the future has no room for them. Even if I had never met you, I'd scatter their bones from Sreng to Brigid. And now that I have you in my life, I will not tolerate them a second after this war ends."

"I trust you," she breathed, leaning into the embrace even if the pale mages Edelgard had sold her soul to lurked in her thoughts.

"I know, and I am grateful for it," the Emperor returned. "For what they did to you, to me, I have no right to ask or expect your help, yet you give it to me anyway." She brushed lips against the top of her head. "Lysithea, I love you far more than you'll ever know. And it's with that in mind that I will punish them for what they did to us."

Lysithea tilted her head up to meet her apparent lover's eyes. She'd had doubts about a relationship between them before, but reasons for hesitation were starting to disappear. Against all logic, she felt her heart race at the vow. Lysithea prayed she wasn't just taking advantage of the situation.

"I know," and she moved in for a deep kiss, pushing Edelgard onto her back across the bed.

"Good, you're here," Seteth said with barely a glance.

Byleth and Claude separated as they walked into the room, each taking a different side of the table. The Cardinals' room had been rearranged into a war room. Tables were smashed together to accommodate the maps laid across.

Nearly all the Deer were in attendance, as were the Lions. Along with the few authorities present in the Knights of Seiros, they were it for the defense. Knights who spent more time teaching and children.

No, Byleth chided herself. That wasn't fair, not to anyone. They were the best they had. Students trained by some of the best military minds in Fódlan. Knights who had survived into elder years, lived long enough to accumulate a wealth of experience. It was Edelgard's fortune or intel that had her attacking when so many of the Knights of Seiros' best were on missions.

And at their head, Seteth, the Archbishop's right hand. She'd had her doubts when he took up command as defacto general. But he'd shattered them, managing the oncoming battle preparation far better than any she'd seen. It was second nature. Gone was the demure attendant to Rhea, full of concern only for the Church and Flayn. Instead a soldier stood at the head of the table, calm features making way for a sharp disposition, a focus that Byleth had only seen in Jeralt's eyes.

It was not Seteth's first war, of that she was certain.

"Did we receive a report from the outskirts?" he asked, head turned to Claude.

Claude cleared his throat. "The Astral Knights have wiped out another of our scouting parties. Of the six we sent, only two remain and they've yet to rendezvous." He pointed to the map. "Judging from where I found their corpses, we can estimate they're position to be here. The Astral Knights are likely the van, judging from what Ferdinand's intel told us."

"Were you able to see their location from wyvern-back?" Seteth looked back to the map, stroking his beard.

"Of the main army? Yeah, they're trailing behind the vanguard. We'll get hit by them first to soften us up, then the rest will pour in. I estimate that at the rate they're pushing, they'll arrive by dusk tomorrow."

Seteth swore under his breath. "Sooner than we expected. Shamir, any updates from our spies?"

She nodded. "I have good news and bad."

"Give me the good."

"The Minister of War, while orchestrating the plan, is not marching with them. His brother, Randolph, has taken his place, along with Caspar. This is of course concern for what Victor von Bergliez is doing if not here, but I believe it's our good fortune that a tactical mind such as his is at least not present."

Seteth's mouth softened into something akin to relief. "That is indeed good news. Perhaps we're not in such dire straits. And the bad?"

"Edelgard leads the army herself," Shamir said. "She has won remarkable favor from her people in a short time, and I imagine they'll fight just as hard with her there."

"Damn," Seteth muttered.

Byleth leaned forward. "Seteth, this is perfect."

He looked to her and nodded for her to continue.

She addressed the two dozen people who surrounded the table. "She's the mastermind behind this, isn't she?" A few heads nodded. Claude smirked across from her, following her logic in the eerie way they schemed alike. "We kill her, they'll fall apart. Respect she might command, but she can't do that from the grave. She's the linchpin in all of this."

"Oh, it'll be my pleasure," Catherine snarled before anyone else. "Seteth, let me take her. I'll make her regret declaring war on Rhea."

Shamir shifted uncomfortably and Seteth slowly nodded. "True," he said, "you're likely one of our better chances at beating her. Speak with Hanneman after this meeting, see what he can tell you about her technique. I'll find some other knights who would stand a chance." Seteth turned back to Byleth. "Strong analysis, your father would be proud."

Dedue, who had stood stalwart next to a silent Dimitri, cleared his throat. "Forgive me, but does this not hinge upon her actually entering the monastery?"

"If she doesn't," Claude said, the look in his eyes when he was thinking through a plan off the cuff, "I could drop Catherine off by Edelgard's position on wyvern."

Ashe, of all people, shook his head. "It won't work, you'd be torn to pieces by their artillery. Their archers aren't anything special, but if you get close, you'll get shot."

"Just drop me by her," Dimitri growled, speaking for the first time in hours. "Arrows, sword, imperials be damned. I will go with Catherine and kill Edelgard."

Seteth frowned at the king-to-be. "I will not allow that. Confident in your abilities you might be, Catherine is one of the most experienced fighters here and in possession of a Relic. She is our best bet."

Catherine preened at the praise while Dimitri clenched his fist. He said nothing more on the subject, his anger in his eyes saying plenty.

The commander sighed. "Ashe is right, it would be too risky. Though the idea does have merit. We could have you drop the team away from Edelgard and have them make their way to her position. Under cover of nightfall, that should help with stealth."

"How confident can we be that they'll attack at night?" Lorenz asked while studying a map.

It was Ferdinand who answered. "The sun will be in our eyes as it sets, forcing us into a disadvantageous position. As well, we need light to defend the walls so we can see what we're doing. We're going to be bright targets for their archers, particularly on the walls. Once they break through it'll be even ground, but darkness will help them get there."

Seteth sighed. "It won't be an easy battle."

"Do you think we can win?"

All heads turned towards who had just walked into the room. Aelfric, back from performing the Archbishop's duties in her absence. His brow was knitted with worry, but he looked far from afraid.

Seteth stared at the table for a long moment. Then, "If we don't give up, use this last time we have adequately, and pray for the Goddess' aid…then yes."

Byleth did not know if the rest of the room saw through it, but she did. It was a lie a commander said when things were hopeless, a lie to get the people through the night.

Byleth looked to Claude and he gave her a small nod. Their only hope laid in reinforcements, it was the only possible way they could turn a victory. They'd called on the Alliance for aid, and Sylvain had told them he'd done the same for the Kingdom in Dimitri's stead while his anger rendered him incapable. But those were long journeys to make on short notice.

Mercedes gripped her hand next to her and she squeezed it back. Byleth leaned forward and a feral grin. "Then we make them bleed, we've Sothis' divine protection on our side."

There were sounds of affirmation around the table. Seteth looked to her and nodded, respect in his eyes.

"Now," he said. "With Aelfric here, let's discuss the evacuation of the civilians."

Dusk was two hours away.

Their assessment had been correct about the Empire army waiting for the cover of darkness. They were halted at the base of the hill the monastery was built upon, no doubt preparing.

The Church did the same, the call to arms had been sent out. Everyone was expected to take their post.

Byleth looked to the people arrayed in front of her in front of the cathedral. Their final strategy meeting had just concluded and she'd held her students back before letting them go where they needed.

She swallowed. Each of them were looking at her, different expressions plastered on their faces. Mercedes, worry. Ignatz, fear. Dorothea, faux confidence. Claude, apprehension.

All of them, little more than children, were about to fight a war.

"My fawns," she said with a light smile. "My students…"

That earned a smile from them, even from their newest addition in Ferdinand.

A few of the other students, ones she hadn't taught, lingered to say their own last words. Annette, Sylvain, even Felix. She couldn't keep them waiting.

"I'm so proud of you all," Byleth said, little more than a whisper with held back tears. "Thank you all for being the best students I could ask for."

"Don't talk like we aren't coming back, Teach," Claude said through a grin that fooled even her into thinking it genuine. "We made a promise. Five years from now, we're meeting up here no matter what. Can't very well do that without a monastery."

She laugh. Goddess, did she laugh. And she smiled a full, real, beautiful smile. "I'll hold you to that," she said. "All of you."

Ferdinand scratched his head. "I don't suppose it'd be too presumptuous for me to come as well?"

Lorenz grabbed his shoulder like a brother might, pulling him in closer. "You're a Deer now, Ferdinand. Your wings might be clipped, but we only care about antlers here."

Hilda giggled. "Oh, are we going to get him a crown of antlers or something now?"

"Ig and I can hunt it!" Raphael exclaimed. "A victory deer, a feast!"

"Raph!" Ignatz said with a bit of fake horror. "We can't eat our mascot."

Dorothea bent down to Marianne, pretending to whisper, "Don't tell him what was in our dinner then."

"Dorothea!" gasped Marianne, trying to look aghast but having trouble keeping a smile down.

Leonie had no such trouble. "Better yet, let's make some for all of us!"

Mercedes laughed as Marianna gasped again. She stepped closer to Byleth and grabbed both of her hands. "We wouldn't be here without you, Byleth. We're the ones who owe you thanks."

Lorenz cleared his throat. "If I may be so blunt, I did not expect much from you at first, professor. But now, as we stand here, I can think of no one else I'd rather call a friend."

"Friend," the other Deer echoed in near unison.

Byleth blinked, shocked. "Is that really what you think?"

Claude laughed. "Teach, you're daft if you think you aren't the favorite professor here. Anyways, we need to get to our posts. Everyone," he looked at them all, growing a shade closer to serious, "I expect you to survive, if only we can convince Byleth that she taught us well."

Their individual responses mixed together and the group broke apart, some on their way to the walls, others speaking to the Lions who had lingered.

Mercedes, though, held back. She squeezed Byleth's hands again, leaning forward and pressing a chaste kiss on her lips. Annette gasped behind them and Sylvain whistled.

"For luck," she breathed, smile radiant.

"For luck," Byleth echoed back with a smile just as bright.

"It's time," Ashe breathed, next to her. He stood up, stretching.

Hilda nodded, groaning as she stood. In the distance, horns blew. Signals, signals to begin the imperial assault. Church wyvern scouts were pulling back as Empire reds took the sky, racing to ferry any last minute information to their superiors.

Holst had once told her, "More of a battle is decided before than during. I don't win because I'm strong, I win because I plan. Remember that, little sister."

She hadn't forgotten, but she had the humility to admit that she wasn't her brother. She was no strategist. But she was strong and that was worth a damn.

So she stood on the walls, where the ballistae were mounted. They stood high, high above the ground but with wyvern riders being fielded, there was just as much danger as the ground. If it came to it, she and her battalion would defend the armaments.

"Load bolts!" called Ashe. Hilda couldn't help but notice how much older he looked. His hair had grown in the past year as he'd stopped cutting it. Where he usually just brushed it back, now he had it pulled into a small ponytail. That, mixed with the armor he wore, made her wonder where the Ashe of yesterday had gone, the one who had come to the academy to be a knight.

But this was not the time for that.

"We should say something to them. The soldiers," he said, looking to her and keeping his voice low.

Hilda nodded.

A beat of silence passed.

Oh, he'd meant her.

"Alright, everyone!" she shouted. "Let's kill these fuckers. For the Goddess!"

The roar she received was not what she expected as the soldiers cheered, yelling variations of what she'd said.

Ashe nodded with a bit of approval. "That works, I suppose."

She huffed. "Oh, hush, this is my moment."

That drew a laugh. "If that keeps you alive, then we won't complain. Looks like the wyverns are approaching."

"Get going," she said, mirth leaving her voice.

He nodded. Ashe raised a hand and for a flicker of a second, she saw that same child who'd entered the academy. The child who stood on the ramparts of the monastery, ready to order the deaths of scores of soldiers. A child who commanded part of an army and stared down death with wings.

That was all they were, right? Children playing adults. Frauds in positions only because the real knights were elsewhere.

"Loose!" yelled Ashe, dropping his hand.

Rhythmic thwunks followed as the ballistae discharged, two dozen bolts sailing through the air. Hilda gave up trying to watch them, instead focusing on their targets.

The sun was setting, but the light made her squint. All she could see were shadows slowly growing bigger. Then, shrill squawks as bolt met wyvern.

It made her uncomfortable to hear the beasts dying, but it was the most efficient way to kill fliers. Drop the mount, let the rider die from the fall. That was just common sense.

"Reload!" Ashe yelled. "Support archers, knock arrows!"

The remaining archers on the wall drew arrows to their bows, waiting for the command to fire to cover the ballistae.

"Draw!" he yelled.

Hilda blinked, hand tightening on her axe. There was a bigger shadow on the horizon, bigger than the wyverns. Something so large she could hear its wings flapping from where she stood.

"Dragon!" screamed a soldier in fear.

"Steady!" Ashe shouted, voice quaking with just as much fear as the fellow soldier, but holding firm. "Aim!" He raised a hand.

"Defenders, get ready," Hilda called out, hefting her axe to her shoulder.


The volley of arrows were shooting stars, twinkling on the sun's last light. More wyverns dropped from the sky, but the bigger one drew closer.

She blinked a few times and finally connected the dots.

"Oh shit, demonic beast," she whispered. "Ashe!"

He'd made the connection too. "Ballistae, target the demonic beast! Fire when ready!" In a lower voice, he growled, "Since when can they fly?"

Not even two bolts had flown before the demonic beast roared, opening its mouth where a giant orb of fire began to form.

Hilda opened her mouth to shout an order and stopped, hesitating. She watched in frozen fear as the fire shot towards the wall. It connected, exploding with a concussive blast and shattering several ballistae. The wave knocked most off their feet.

"Fire at will!" Ashe shouted, but she wasn't sure how many heard him.

The demonic beast closed the distance, landing on the wall. It perched like a predator, letting loose a baleful screech. On both sides of it Church soldiers scrambled away, on the verge of panic.

Hilda grabbed her axe, but was no better. She scooted away from the creature, not even getting up.

"Going to the officer's academy, huh?" Holst had said to her almost exactly a year ago. "You're gonna learn a lot there."

"Ugh," she'd groaned. "Why can't I just stay here?"

He'd found that funny. "Because you're a noble, little sister. Nobles lead people. And first rule of leading, don't ask anyone to do something you aren't willing to do. The least you can do is go to school."

She blinked, back in the present as the demonic beast swung a wing, bashing another ballistae to bits.

"Oh shit oh shit oh shit," she muttered as she stood up, quivering.

Glancing behind her at soldiers twice her age scared out of their minds, she raised an axe. "Attack!" she screamed ineloquently.

And she charged forward. "For the Goddess!" someone shouted behind her.

The demonic beast turned its head down towards her. It took a step towards her, the entire wall shaking.

One of its talons swung down and she leapt forward, dodging it nearly too late. Hilda rolled forward without poise and swung her axe with as much force as she could muster into the beast's leg.

It connected, drawing a growl from the monster. For a terrible moment, its attention was solely focused on her.

Then her battalion intercepted. Axes struck leathery flesh and screams anew erupted from the demonic beast.

It couldn't have even taken a minute. The creature swung a wing, knocking a dozen soldiers off the wall, which opened it up to attack. A ballista bolt struck it in the chest, fired close enough with to have the momentum to hurl the monster from the wall.

Ashe stepped away from the ballista, panting. "Hilda, you alright?"

"I'm okay!" she shouted, standing up. "Thanks!"

He started to respond but cut off as he looked towards the setting sun.

One. Three. Six. More.

That demonic beast wasn't the only one.

Ashe laughed, of all things, though it was hysterical. Whatever calm confidence he'd masqueraded with, it was gone.

Hilda stood up and looked around her. Victory simmered in the air with the kill, but the reality of the situation was cold.

"We killed a dragon," she said, not even realizing she spoke aloud. "Let's do it again."

Grim murmurs of assent followed.

The next ones approached lower, harder to hit for their ballistae. But that didn't stop the remaining from firing.

One bolt caught a demonic beast's wing, catching it at just the angle to tear the wing in half. It shrieked and fell to the ground, alive, but far too wounded to fly.

As the rest approached, Hilda focused on one flying lower than the rest. Atop it rode a person. It was the only one with a rider and they held their hand aloft, as if giving directions. On their wrist, a glimmering piece of jewelry.

The person was commanding the demonic beasts.

She pointed her axe at the one and shouted, "Focus fire on the mounted one!"

In the chaos, only one archer heard her, firing her ballista and missing. The rest were too preoccupied with the demonic beasts that began to mount the wall.

The rider stopped theirs, staying low while the rest attacked. Hilda blinked, a thought forming amidst the battle around her.

Whatever magic it was, it had range. The rider would stay down there, taking advantage of the safety.

A pit grew in her stomach. The mounted beast stayed low, hovering right below the wall as both monster and wyvern attacked.

She ducked out of the way of a haphazard javelin and gritted her teeth. If Holst knew what she were about to do, he'd kill her. Marianne would never let her leave her sight again.

Hilda leapt off the wall, the cries of surprised comrades quickly growing distant behind her. Only the rush of air brushed her airs, deafening her to all else.

It wasn't a deadly drop, but it was enough to pick up frightening speed. Which made it all the easier to crumple the top of the man's skull as he looked up at her in abject horror. The look was gone in a spurt of blood.

"If you're ever falling from somewhere high," Byleth said, drawing on the blackboard, "you want to hit as much as you can on the way down to slow your fall. Falling through a tree might kill you, but the branches might slow your fall enough to not hit the ground as hard. But if you hit the flat ground without interference, you're dead."

This was, as Hilda realized after killing the man, an astronomically stupid idea.

She hit the monster's wing, not because it was in the way, but because its wings shook in a spasm and collided with her, inadvertently saving her life.

But Goddess, did it hurt.

She gasped for air, the wind knocked out of her as she hit, feeling several ribs break. Hilda began to slide down the wing, towards the ground.

Her axe, somehow she'd managed to hold onto it. She swung it in an arc over her head, screaming in pain from the broken ribs. But it dug into the side of the creature deep enough to hold her.

The demonic beast began to ascend, drawn by the screams and battle above. Everything had faded from her head, all thoughts and worries. All she focused on was holding onto the handle of the axe.

Wind buffeted her and her hand began to slip, slicked with sweat and what Hilda assumed was the man's blood.

There was a torrential scream from the creature that carried her, sending vibrations through the axe and to her hand.

She let go.

And collided with the wall, where she'd started.

Vision almost black, she blinked slowly as the screams around her grew louder. Hardly capable of speech, she groaned. All for nothing. Holst would kill her twice.

But they weren't screams. No, they were words.


She blinked, her vision clearing enough to see a massive corpse of a demonic beast near her, another falling from the sky riddled with arrows.


Who was calling her name? It sounded like so many voices at once, like a dozen people screaming for her attention.

"Hilda! Hilda! Hilda!"

It wasn't to get her attention, she realized.

It was a chant.

"Hil-da! Hil-da! Hil-da!" Each syllable pronounced clearly, a rallying cry.

She blinked furiously and saw her soldiers winning. The wyvern riders were scattering to regroup as the last demonic beast was brought low by arrows.

"Hilda!" Ashe shouted, blurry, but entering her vision.

"Ashe?" she groaned, unable to muster anything more.

"Healer!" he screamed, then looked back to her. "That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen, but whatever you did saved us." He was grinning, something she hadn't seen him do since the beginning of the year.

She wanted to laugh, but figured it would hurt far, far too much. So instead, she smiled like a maniac, equally crazed, as the healer arrived and began to knit her flesh back together.

It took longer for the walls to be given up than Lorenz expected. He cast a wary look to where he knew Hilda was stationed.

Seteth had told them there'd be demonic beasts. But flying weaponized monsters? That they hadn't foretold.

With a prayer to the Goddess on his lips, he felt calmer as he turned his mind from Hilda and his other comrades.

The gate ahead pulsed with another bang, the battering ram growing closer to bringing it low.

Lorenz took a deep breath and gripped his lance.

"Your orders, sir?" a man twice his age asked.

Odd, how once he'd not have batted an eye to someone that age addressing him so. Frankly, he would have expected it. Now, it felt discomforting, undeserving.

He swallowed his feelings. "Stand firm, soldier." His own voice reminded him of his father. And surprisingly it did not waver.

Louder, he said, "We don't give them an inch! We lose this area, they have a direct path to the monastery itself." He hoped he'd have enough people to hold the gate.

Boom. The gate pulsed with another crash, splinters visible from where Lorenz stood.

"I don't know what's going to come through that door," he continued.


"But I know they want to destroy our Goddess."


"I do not intend to let them kill me for what I believe."

Boom! A hole broke in the door, though the integrity held. Through the hole, Lorenz could see a demonic beast, its head modified into a battering ram.

"Soldiers of Sothis!" he yelled in what he hoped was a commanding voice. "We end this war here!"

The gate gave, crashing down in cacophony. The demonic beast roared as it stood in the doorway, craning its neck back. Around its legs, imperial red bled past the wall.

"Forward!" Lorenz yelled, and charged.

White met red in sparks under the cry of the demonic beast lumbering forward.

A sword caught Lorenz' cheek as he buried his lance into an imperial's breastplate, the blowing killing the man but shattering the weapon.

He was Lorenz Hellman Gloucester. He would not lose.

Fire glowed on his hands a second later, cinders flying.


Their warning ended prematurely as the Empire soldier lit alight. He screamed, burning to death, a beacon of light as night set in. It scared the other red clad soldiers.

And drew focus onto the mage.

Knights who had fought more battles than he pushed him back, providing their armored bodies to shield him. Lorenz resisted before understanding.

Byleth circled the middle of a formation. "You want to stack your mages here. That way they're protected. Put them in the front, they get cut up. In back, that's asking for an ambush. They can do incredible damage, but only if protected."

Lorenz waved a hand and stopped worrying about defending himself, trusting those around him to shield him. Fire gleefully leapt from his hands, hungry for the kill.

He could feel the power of his Crest coursing through him like he never had before. It was primal, angry, vengeful, determined. Magic bent to his will like it never had before.

The demonic beast tore through the people who protected him. The swing of its claw barely missed him, forcing him to stumble back and lose grip on the spell in his fingertips.

"Hold," a gruff voice called. The beast slowed like a dog. "Leave the mage for me."

The beast's attacks picked up again, shredding through Lorenz' battalion. He raised his hands, fire burning again in preparation.

The man who spoke stepped forward nodded to him. "Gloucester, I've been instructed to take you alive on the Emperor's orders."

Why? "And who do I have the pleasure of speaking with?" he asked, not dropping his hands or the spell.

"I am Randolph von Bergliez," he said. Lorenz wouldn't have guessed it, the man hardly looked like Caspar. "Drop the magic, Lorenz. I won't kill you, but I have been given the go-ahead to bruise you up if necessary."

"My father?" he guessed. "Am I a bargaining chip?"

Randolph's eyes narrowed and he knew he was on the right track at least. "Last chance to come peacefully, Gloucester."

Lorenz snorted in a manner quite ignoble. "As if your country knows anything of peace." And the spout of flame flung from his fingers.

Ignatz pushed his glasses up his nose as the gate rumbled again. His fingers tapped against the longbow in his hands.

He was a part of Shamir's unit, something he was immensely grateful for. Could he lead soldiers? Yes, he thought with confidence that surprised himself. But that didn't mean it wasn't a weight off his shoulders that he was working under his teacher.

"As soon as they break through, fire." Shamir's voice was just as it always was. Cool, calm, composed. It was soothing, just like training.

Lorenz' battalion was in front of them, the rocks that would break the enemy tide. But aside from there, cover was scant and Ignatz couldn't help but worry what would happen if things went wrong.

A hand touched his shoulder. Shamir didn't smile at him, but she nodded. "It's going to be fine. I'll keep an eye on you."

"Perhaps I'll be keeping an eye on you?" he chuckled nervously.

That drew an almost-smile from her. Turning her head, she called out, "Knock and aim."

Byleth looked him right in the eyes and pointed at a target, a straw man. "You see that? You know how fucking terrifying it is to watch a man die from an arrow when you can't see the archer? A well placed arrow can break a charge."

Shamir's archer drew arrows and took aim, arching their bows up to take advantage of gravity to bring their arrows down harder. Ignatz needed no such help. Using his shoulder in what had become all too familiar a motion, he drew the bow back.

The gate smashed open while Shamir yelled, "Loose!"

Ignatz' arrow tore through the air, meeting the enemy before the rest. One poor, unfortunate soul was snuffed as his head was nearly torn off from the force. Then the hail hit, impaling those who had paused in shock at their companion's death.

"Fire at will."

At Shamir's command, they did just that, none flinching at the demonic beast. None except Ignatz, whose next arrow broke upon meeting the beast's mask.

How were there demonic beasts among the Empire's army? He grit his teeth and feathered another soldier, wooden shaft sprouting from his leg and taking him out of the fight. There was a possibility in his mind, but before he could pursue it his attention turned elsewhere.

The fire Lorenz had begun to wield fizzled out and Ignatz squinted to see a man approaching his friend.

Shamir's archers were focused on the slowly arriving wyvern knights, trying to pick them off as they approached over the wall.

Ignatz drew his bow back, string rubbing his skin raw through the leather he wore. His vision wasn't good enough though, at the distance Lorenz blended with the other man as they spoke.

Reality slowed as fire ignited from Lorenz' hands again and the Adrestian's axe swung at Ignatz' brother-in-all-but-blood. The arrow loosed from his bow before he knew he'd let go.

Lorenz recoiled and dread pooled in his stomach.

The imperial stumbled back too, axe lowering. Lorenz stood upright and brought a hand up to his ear in obvious pain.

Like mirror images, both sides swarmed their commanders, protecting them. Ignatz broke formation, ignoring Shamir barking his name.

"Lorenz!" he shouted.

Of all things, Lorenz grinned. He lowered his hand, showing a torn-in-half ear, but still attached. "Was that your shot?"

Ignatz rushed to his side, pulling Lorenz' arm over his shoulder to support him. "Sorry, Lorenz."

"You hit Randolph right in the stomach. It was a good shot—" he grunted in pain and looked at his blood covered hand.

"Ignatz!" Shamir shouted. "Get him to the healers, then report back."

"Yes, ma'am!"

He began to walk with Lorenz to where the medics were set up. Only after leaving Lorenz would he realize he'd made the entire walk without using his cane or bow to support himself.

Claude had to admit he didn't like their chances.

Certainly not with this wyvern he rode. He was used to fine Almyran steeds, allowed to roam freely and cared for by experts. This poor creature was not nearly so well fed in the Church's care. Claude didn't trust it to be agile enough for what he needed.

"I might have to drop you a bit," he called back to his passenger.

"I can take it!" Catherine shouted back over the roar of the wind.

They'd circled around the monastery to avoid sight. It had worked, but Claude could see the clump of trees Seteth had picked out. They were closer to the army than he'd expected.

He raised a hand and made a motion to descend. The five other riders behind him followed his lead as he began to approach the ground. Each carried a Knight of Seiros, handpicked by Seteth and Alois. They'd kill Edelgard with Catherine.

"I'm going to hover in place for exactly a second," he shouted back to her as the group of trees grew ever closer. They could be spotted at any moment. "When I say jump, go. Or else I might mess you up as I make tracks."

"I've handled much worse," Catherine said with a laugh.

Insane woman, he thought. But that was probably just what they needed.

A horn blew.

What followed wasn't a barrage of arrows like he expected, but rather a crash of lightning blasting one of their wyverns out of the sky.

"Fuck!" Catherine yelled, deafened by the sound.

"Now!" Claude yelled, far earlier than he would have liked. But Catherine, for all her talk, really was prepared. The word was barely out of his mouth before she was leaping, catching herself on a branch to do something to slow her fall.

He didn't even look back at the remaining riders. "Fall back!" he shouted, pulling on the reins as hard as he could. His mount, damn him for not even knowing its name, turned quickly enough for him to see another strike of bolting knock another out of the air.

"Hyah!" Having shed the extra weight that had been his passenger, his wyvern flapped its wings furiously and accelerated. Claude didn't even know if the rest followed, but looking back would be death.

After a tense minute filled with distant cracks of thunder, he sighed and looked back, the army distant behind him. Not even Lamine herself could have hit him at this range.

But despair dogged him as he saw none of the soldier's he'd flown in with had made it out. Growling, he tugged the reins again, directing his mount towards Garreg Mach again. It growled at him, obviously not content with him as a rider.

Sun and stars, he'd kill to have Tishtar with him. Riding her in the air was an extension of himself. His father had told him that when wyvern and her rider were in absolute harmony, it was as if they could read each other's thoughts.

Riding this Church wyvern, Claude knew what he had been talking about.

Descending into the courtyard where the medics were set up, he leapt off his wyvern. The battle was in full swing and none paid him any mind as the healers' constant chanting cured all but death.

One person did, clearly seeking him out.

"Sir!" the person cried, breathless. He was about Claude's age, lavender hair with a feminine face. Claude might have mistook him for a woman at distance. "I need your mount."

"Woah," Claude said, "what's going on?"

He took a breath, regaining some composure. "Claude, right? The Archbishop is danger, I need your mount to reach her."

"How do I know—"

"Dammit, there's no time!" they shouted desperately. "I'm one of her spies, satisfied? Imperials are sneaking in to kill her. I have to go now."

Making a judgement call, Claude pulled himself back onto the wyvern. "I can fly better than anyone in Fódlan. You wouldn't make it in time." And he took off, leaving the young person and whatever they shouted behind.

Leonie knew she was in trouble when the wyvern rider leapt off their mount.

The defense at the main gate was in shambles. Lorenz had tried to hold the line, but he'd been beaten back, himself retreating. She hoped Ignatz got him to safety.

Which left her to take his place.

It wasn't as if she doubted herself, far from it. Leonie knew she could lead, just like Captain Jeralt had.

There were just so many imperials.

For every one she killed, three more were there. And that was just on the center flank, she'd no idea how the left and right were handling. Her own soldiers were faltering far too much for her to pay attention elsewhere.

The wyvern rider had figured out she was the commander, she assumed. Leonie didn't have any archers left to pick the wyvern off, so she'd improvised.

In a one in a million shot, she'd thrown her lance. It wasn't meant for throwing, the weight wasn't properly distributed to efficiently sail through the air. But it struck home, slicing through the wing of the beast.

But instead of deterring the rider, they'd jumped off, landing on the ground in a roll. Leonie drew her sword as the rider brandished her axe.

"Oh, shit," Leonie muttered. She fit Ferdinand's description.

The woman that could only be Ladislava swung her axe and decapitated one of the Church's soldiers. Space parted around her, others too frightened to engage.

Leonie stepped up and held her sword close to her chest, heart sinking. She couldn't win, not without a lance.

"Surrender, you'll be spared," Ladislava called to her, speaking loud enough that others nearby would hear. A few furtive glances passed Leonie's way from her own soldiers.

"There's a time to surrender," Byleth had said, "and a time to fight. A commander should be ready to decide that at a moment's notice."

What would the Captain have done?

"Someone has to fight you," Leonie spat. Goddess, was that blood? Was she hurt? Adrenalin didn't even let her feel. "Someone's gotta show the world we won't bow to you."

Ladislava looked almost impressed. "If your life means that little to you, then I won't let taking it weigh on my conscience." And she surged forward.

Leonie blocked the first strike, but it sent her reeling. The second came like lightning, Leonie's sword narrowly pushing it out of the way.

The third, like thunder. And it was the last strike needed.

The blade cut into Leonie's torso, so much force that it flung her back and off her feet.

He'd known he'd have to fight people he knew.

Raphael just didn't know that meant Caspar.

He slid back, gauntlets taking the brunt of the blow from Caspar's war hammer. It was a weighty weapon, slow, but its blows packed a punch.

Raphael's eyes narrowed as he prepared for the next attack. Caspar was strong, but he hadn't been strong enough to swing a weapon that quickly a month ago.

And why was his hair white?

Caspar motioned with his hand and his soldiers started advancing up the left flank. Seteth had told him to hold this position no matter what, and that was exactly what he planned to do.

Raphael leapt at the nearest soldier, taking the claws on the end of his gauntlet and smashing them through the man's helmet. His compatriots backed off, apprehensive to approach the Alliance giant.

"Leave him to me," Caspar said, sounding far more exhausted than he looked. No, exhausted wasn't right. Raphael couldn't place the tone. Was it sorrow?

"Sir!" called the soldiers, skirting around Raphael.

He grunted, hoping his soldiers behind him would be able to hold. He'd cut a path forward to break the enemy advance. If his battalion held, he could maybe turn things around.

"You're a spearhead, Raph," Byleth explained, circling the vanguard on the chalkboard. "You're best suited for punching a hole in the enemy lines. Then your soldiers flood in like water and mop up the ones you left behind. If you can divide an enemy in half, you'll stand a good chance at winning."

Caspar lifted his hammer onto his shoulder. "Just like our spars, yeah, Raph?"

Raphael said nothing. He didn't ask why Caspar was on the other side. He didn't ask why he'd turned coat. He didn't ask why.

"If you fight me, you'll lose," Raphael just said.

"Maybe." Caspar shrugged and ran a hand through sweat soaked white hair. It gave him a haunted look, almost like a ghost.

Raphael moved.

With far more agility than one would expect from his size, he closed the distance and threw a punch. Caspar stepped back and shifted his hammer to both hands, swinging it overhead at Raphael.

He pulled the punch, stepping back and letting Caspar's strike follow through. The hammer broke through stone as it collided with the ground. Raphael leapt forward with a kick and knocked Caspar back.

"Give up, Cas," Raphael sighed. "Surrender, I won't hurt you."

Caspar said nothing, only dropping into a hand to hand combat stance.

"Dammit," he cursed.

Raphael tossed his gauntlets aside and brought his bare fists up. "I won't kill you, Cas."

"Then you'll lose," Caspar replied. He moved in and swept a leg out. It connected, but as Caspar tried to knock Raphael off his feet, the far heavier man shifted his weight. The leg sweep did nothing and Raphael's fist connected with Caspar's face.

The smaller man fell to the ground and Raphael let him get back up, keeping his distance.

"You're better, Raph," Caspar muttered. His eyes were different now, glowing a faint blue.

Like Lorenz' did when he used his Crest.

Raphael felt his veins flood with ice as Caspar approached him with his fists raised.

Catherine skid across the ground and hacked up a clump of blood and spittle. She shoved Thunderbrand into the dirt and leaned against it.

Edelgard approached slowly. The armor of the Flame Emperor was nicked and marred all over, scratches Catherine's fellow knights had paid their lives to inflict.

The arrow in her thigh hurt with every step, but she had to keep it in there or bleed to death. Not that the countless other cuts and wounds wouldn't kill her.

"I…have to…" she gasped, too far gone in bloodlust to think the word, "…Rhea…"

"Give up," Edelgard called, stopping. Her axe was slick with Catherine's blood. Had she really lost that much?

Catherine's vision pulsed black for a moment and she stumbled. But resolution won out, and she gripped the pommel of Thunderbrand to hold herself up.

"Can't…" she muttered between breaths. "Rhea…needs me."

Edelgard scoffed, but crouched into a defensive stance. Even with Catherine nearly down for the count, she didn't let her guard down. Catherine could admire that.

She thought about Rhea, her lady. Her smile, her praise.

Catherine slowly stood up, pulling Thunderbrand out from the ground.

"Lady Edelgard," rasped Hubert, not far behind her. He'd come to her aid after Catherine and her company had killed the entire battalion of elite guards around her. Some twenty something soldiers, dead to three. It was something to be proud of. "Lady Edelgard, let me finish her."

"No," Edelgard commanded. "A gust of wind could knock her down. I will handle this."

Hubert bowed stiffly, backing away. He notable didn't move more than a few feet.

"For Lady…Rhea," Catherine growled, trying to stand up straight before lancing pain pierced her leg. That damn arrow. It had gone deeper than she thought.

She screamed, whether in pain or fury was unclear, and charged Edelgard, Thunderbrand aloft. The blade's red lightning sparked and she began to move faster. Thunderstrike Cassandra had gotten her name for striking quick and leaving behind a thunder of screams. For her, it was impossible to move slowly. Even as severely hurt as she was, Catherine was light on her feet. She glided across the ground, across the blood, across the soldiers she'd butchered in the name of the Church.

Edelgard was quicker.

The axe buried itself into her stomach. With the speed she'd been moving, she didn't get knocked backward. Instead, she just crumpled to the ground.

Breath escaped her lungs as she lay there, agony across her body. Thunderbrand had left her grasp, she didn't know where it was, just that it should be in her hand.

"You fought well enough." Edelgard stood over her, lifting her axe.


She stopped and looked over her shoulder.

"Lord Randolph has fallen!" the messenger yelled. "The zealots are gaining ground!"

Growling, Edelgard turned on a dime and marched away, Hubert her shadow. No words for Catherine, not even a last taunt.

"Lady…Rhea…" Catherine murmured. "So…rry."

Minutes ticked by as she watched the sky, vision so black that the wyverns fighting pegasi above were nigh invisible. Each second her eyes closed a bit more, surrendering to the darkness.

"Just…wanted…smile," she mumbled.

Something burning touched her skin where Edelgard had hit her.

Catherine gasped, flailing her arms uselessly in pain.

"Idiot!" snapped the voice. "You fucking idiot!"

The same burning sensation hit her skin. Her vision returned somewhat, if only out of shock. A vulnerary was being poured right onto her skin and her flesh was knitting itself back together.

"Rhea?" she murmured, looking up.

Rhea knelt next to her in the darkness, a scowl twisted on her beautiful features. "You're reckless," she snarled. "Why didn't you retreat?" She popped the top off another vulnerary.

"…for you," Catherine mumbled, trying to raise a hand to Rhea's cheek, to check if she were dreaming.

Rhea hissed, though gently brought Catherine's head up to drink the next vulnerary. "If I wanted you to die for me, I wouldn't deserve to be with you."

The liquid scalded her throat, but the burn was fleeting. Catherine could feel breath returning to her lungs.

"Hey! You there!" shouted a gruff voice further away.

Rhea grabbed a bow from the ground—Rhea didn't use a bow—and had an arrow in the man who'd shouted. There was a cry of shock, then another arrow, and a warbled cry.

"Wait…?" Catherine murmured.

"You think it's okay to do this?" screamed Rhea. "To go throw your life away? Wake up, Catherine, there are people who need you. need you. If you died, I…" She swallowed. "I love you, you insufferable woman. I'm not letting you leave this world, not yet."

"…R…Rhea?" Catherine mumbled confused, though smiling haphazardly at the praise, words at one point she'd desired above all else. ""

The woman who she thought was Rhea went stock still. She breathed, turning as icy as a blizzard.

"Never mind," the woman said. She said nothing else as she continued to treat Catherine's wounds.

Without conversation, Catherine's body succumbed to the darkness.

Claude landed his wyvern outside the main hall and ran for the stairs. If the Archbishop was in danger, landing on her floor would alert whatever assassins had gathered. If he weren't an archer, perhaps he could have adapted to that.

He got to the faculty floor and found it deserted. Slowing to a walk, he knocked an arrow on his bow. Creeping up the stairs, he did his best to not make a sound.

As he crested the top, he heard someone chanting under their breath.

It was quiet, but there. A caster, he thought.

"You kill a mage before they finish talking," Byleth said as she sharpened her knife. "All powerful magic needs an incantation."

Claude peeked around the corner of the stairs, keeping himself as obscured as possible.

A man dressed in black, skin pale as white clouds, held a hand against the door as it flared with magic.

Those weren't Empire robes. Confusion racked him for the briefest of moments before he remembered. The people with Solon had worn garb like that. The people who destroyed Remire wore those vestments.

This man wasn't an assassin. He was a monster.

Claude pulled a second arrow out of his quiver, holding it in the draw hand. He took a quick breath, then dove out of cover, firing the first arrow.

The man stumbled back, the arrow having clipped his leg. He turned to Claude, raising his hands to cast as Claude pointed the second arrow at him, ready to fire.

"On your knees," he shouted. "Away from the door."

His enemy's face grew sour for a moment, before calming over. In a familiar smooth voice, he said, "Oh, Claude, I certainly wasn't expecting you. Yuri, perhaps, but not you."

"Quiet," barked Claude. "I said on your knees or I shoot." He took a cautious step forward.

"Are you sure you should?" The man's lips curled. "Would you really shoot this face?"

Like Monica and Tomas, the man's face changed. Gone was the pale skin, his black hair turning brown. A soft smile graced the face that had looked wicked seconds before. A face Claude had seen many times before, a man he'd spoken with at length.

"Surely you wouldn't shoot me." An innocent smile graced Aelfric's face.

Claude hesitated.

Dark flame leapt from Aelfric's hand.

Chapter Text


Marianne was already running to the throng of people who had entered from the battlefield. Soldiers who managed to escape the chaos carried each other, some well enough that they dropped off their companions and ran back into the fray.

The healers had set up in the dining hall, far too close to the actual fighting. But it was the best they could do.

"Lorenz!" she cried, seeing her friend stumble in, carrying someone.

"Marianne!" he said, relieved. "Here, Leonie's hurt."

Lorenz wasn't doing much better. There was cascade of blood down his face and neck, but it seemed to have stopped for the time being. His ear wasn't in the best shape, though.

But when she looked to Leonie, her hands were already working. The woman was pale, a gash in her chest. Amidst her incantations, her prayers, Marianne asked, "What happened?"

The exhaustion in Lorenz was apparent as he sat down, though clearly not at ease. "It's bad out there. Ignatz saved my life, I almost died. He was bringing me back but they started to push through our lines. He went back to help. Then I heard Leonie scream and stayed to get her." He gripped Leonie's hand protectively. "It's not looking good out there."

Marianne nodded, the blood finally slowing on Leonie's chest. She began to weave White magic, sewing the flesh back together while trying to keep as much blood on the inside of her as possible. "I'm glad you're both safe. Have you heard from the others yet?"

"Raphael was near us, but I haven't seen him for a while," Lorenz murmured. He turned to Leonie. "Will she be okay?"

She said nothing about the ugly, raw scar Leonie would have for decades to come. "I think she's stable. You got her to me quick."

His relief was palpable. Marianne was at his side in a second. "I need to see your ear."

He tried to shrug her off, but Marianne swatted his chest, surprising him. "You're hurt," she said. "I won't watch you bleed."

"Yes, Marianne," he surrendered.

She reattached his ear together, swallowing her nausea at seeing the cartilage.

"Practice not vomiting," Byleth said, rubbing her back in comfort even though she was the one dripping blood from her hand. "Healers need a strong stomach."

Blinking back to the present, Marianne pulled her hand back. "Done. Will you go back out?"

He nodded. "We forced one of the commanders to retreat. If we push, we might turn the tide."

Marianne nodded and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Goddess keep you safe, Lorenz."

"And her protection over you," he replied, putting his hand on hers. He took a last glance down to Leonie, his loyalty wanting him to stay but duty brought him to his feet.

"If you see Hilda…" Marianne trailed off.

Lorenz smiled as best he could. "I'll watch her back."

Shamir carried Catherine in her arms as if she were her bride. The wounds had closed up, messy, but enough for transport. The woman needed a healer.


She growled at the thought. Shamir snuck through enemy lines, scaled a wall of the monastery with Catherine on her back, and abandoned her unit, for this?

Catherine loved Rhea. It'd been foolish of Shamir to deny it, even if she'd been happy for a time because of it.

Shamir swore silently, ducking behind a set of stone steps as a squad of imperials passed by. Catherine moaned softly at the sudden movement.

She couldn't even look at the blonde without her heart tearing asunder anew.

Shamir wasn't fighting this battle for Rhea. No, she'd fought for Catherine. And maybe it was time to move on.

Yes, she'd go to Dagda. There would be plenty of work there for a mercenary, especially with a war in Fódlan. No doubt Dagda would launch an attack on Brigid before long. There was good money in that.

Hell, maybe she could go to Almyra. Or Sreng. Somewhere other than here, this foul country with its knights and Archbishops.

"Shamir?" croaked Catherine.

She looked down at the broken, beaten, utterly battered woman in her arms, into the face of the woman she loved. Yes, love, the damn word she'd be running from since her previous partner's death.

"Sorry," she said, eyes closing again.

The Dagdan nodded, more to herself than the unconscious woman.

The soldiers had passed and she got up again, holding Catherine more gently than she had before.

If her old partner could see her now, they'd never let her hear the end of it. Her, callous and cruel, carrying a woman like a princess. She scowled at the thought of it.

She'd bring Catherine to Mercedes or Marianne or someone, then that was it. She was done with the Church, their fanaticism, and Rhea.

And she was done loving someone. It only led to hurt.

Had she looked down at Catherine, she might have seen how content the woman looked, how safe the soldier appeared. How beautiful she looked, carried like Shamir had imagined carrying her in only her most private dreams.

But she didn't look down.

Mercedes stumbled to the ground, hands pressing against the soldier's leg. Almost as quickly as it had happened, the wound vanished without as much as a scar.

She said nothing, getting back up in the fight as Mercedes flitted to the next person who needed her.

As red as her hands were, they did not shake. A fierce calm had settled over her as the fighting had started, the Goddess giving her the strength to focus.

The Empire, while starting an unprovoked war, at least hadn't abandoned all ethical reasoning. As a healer, she wasn't targeted so long as she didn't attack. Healers generally knew Black magic or offensive White spells, but if they didn't act the aggressor, most armies were trained to leave them alone.

Still, collateral spells had left burns on her arms and other minor lacerations. But Mercedes couldn't let that weigh her down, she had people to help.

"Do you ever think," Byleth murmured with something of a grin, "you might be too nice?"

No, she'd said. The world always needed more kindness.

Light rushed through her fingertips with a prayer on her lips, another soldier's wound closed up. "Thank you," they whispered before getting up to go get killed.

She tried not to think about it. She tried to only think about healing.

"It's the Death Knight!"

She froze, midstep, turning as a black clad figure walked through a naturally parting crowd. Soldiers red and white alike gave him room.

Him, again. Mercedes shivered, taking a step back.

A brave man, or a fool, charged the Reaper. With the same motion that crippled Ignatz for life, the Death Knight swung his scythe out, arcing it around the man's leg and pulling. The sharpened inner curve cut through flesh and bone effortlessly, knocking the man to the stone. With a simple, effortless overhead swing, he ceased moving. The Death Knight continued to walk forward, as if he hadn't snuffed a man's life out.

No, not the Death Knight. Her brother.



The voice had come from behind her, though she didn't need to turn to recognize it. Annette rushed up to her, a spell on her lips before anything else. The ground around the Death Knight erupted like a volcano, a ragnarok of flame exploding beneath.

Imperial screams rang out as the soldiers ignited, and those spared were hit with flying rock. The destruction was sickening.

"Annie, stay back," she urged, pushing the shorter woman back.

Annette shook her head. "It's too dangerous, Mercie. Seteth called for a retreat to the courtyard for noncombatants."

Mercedes smiled, even amidst hell. "And you came to find me?"

Annette smiled. "Of course."

A low, icy hiss broke through the lingering flame. "Mercedes." The 's' was drawn out, long and haunting.

Albeit singed, the Death Knight stepped from the conflagration, armor charred and bent, but otherwise unhurt.

"Emile!" she shouted out. "Emile, is that you?"

He stopped. Every Church soldier was far too terrified to approach and his sight was only for her. Raising a hand, he pulled his helmet off.

"Professor Jeritza?" Annette gasped.

"Emile, why are you doing this?" Mercedes pleaded, stepping forward. "You know this is wrong. These people, they have no ill will towards you!"

He looked at her with eyes that she'd never imagined could ever look so cruel, so similar to her own in a mirror. It was a look she'd never expected in any fantasy of meeting her brother. It terrified her.

Her brother took a long look at her. "Emile is dead," he spoke in a monotone. Slowly, he put the helmet back on, content with whatever he'd seen. "Surrender," his voice muffled again, "and perhaps I'll make your death swift."

"Emile, no!" she cried, making to run to him. And she would have too, if Annette hadn't pulled back on her shirt in time.

The scythe swung out, catching the air in front of her with a whistle. Had she been a step closer, her head would be on the ground.

"You leave her alone, you meanie!" Annette cried with a wave of her hand. A titanic bolt of lightning dropped from the sky, hitting the scythe first and running through the rest of his armor.

Emile dropped to one knee as the electricity coursed through him. But only for a moment, and the next he was on his feet, leaping forward.

They'd be dead if not for Annette's quick thinking as she detonated a ball of fire at point blank range. The shockwave from the spell flung them backwards, burned, but safe.

Mercedes batted a fire out with her hand on her shoulder. "Annie, are you okay?" She coughed up some smoke.

Annette groaned, but nodded. Her hair flared with cinders, but she was alive. One of her arms hung limp, broken from the force of the explosion.

Magic was on her lips before she realized. She quickly set Annette's arm back where it should be, a scream from her friend following. The warm pulse of light flittered from her fingers, connecting with Annette's skin.

An armored foot kicked Mercedes in the stomach.

She skid several feet before hitting the ground, knocking her head and seeing stars. Blood filled her mouth, having bit her tongue. On instinct, White magic closed the wound and she tasted iron. With bleary eyes, she looked for her friend.

Emile—no, the Death Knight—picked Annette up, hand around her neck. He looked straight at her, the firelight giving her just enough sight to see his eyes behind the mask.

There were no words, just Annette's pleas as he began to choke her.

"Annie!" she shrieked and began to weave a spell. Just as the fireball was conjured and about to leave her grasp, the Death Knight moved Annette's body in front of him.

Mercedes slashed her hand through the last motion of the sigil, shattering the spell and making it fly haphazard to the side.

"Drop her!" roared a lion.

Dimitri, free of whatever position Seteth had relegated him to, leapt at the Death Knight, jumping from a set of stairs with his lance. The Death Knight threw Annette to the side, colliding with a crumbling stone structure, as he raised his scythe to intercept the blow.

Mercedes paid no attention. She scrambled up to her feet, making a mad dash to Annette, tripping over her own feet.

"No no no no," she mumbled, collapsing beside her best friend. "Annie? Annie!" Pressing her hand gingerly to Annette's neck, White magic left her hand.

And found no purchase on Annette.

"No, no!" screamed Mercedes. She tried again, trying to heal the bone that was broken. "Annette!"

There was no response.

"NO!" Mercedes wailed, collapsing onto her body, weeping.

When Edelgard finally walked through the gate her soldiers had secured, Dorothea was tapped. Her magic was all but exhausted, barely a flicker to her flame left.

Her robes were in shreds, burned, cut, ruined in every way imaginable. Were she a bit vainer, she might have cared.

Far behind her, back in the monastery proper, a fireball sailed straight into the sky, a crackling firework that exploded in the night sky. The signal to retreat, that the battle was lost.

Edelgard's army, and the woman herself, seemed to realize what that mean. They surged forward, pressing all the harder against the battalion Dorothea stood with.

Wings flapped and a wyvern crashed into the ground between where Edelgard stood and the surviving Church soldiers. The rider jumped from its back, holding a lance of sparkling silver, one she recognized as the Spear of Assal.

Seteth stood in front of the Adrestian Emperor and her army, and she stopped advancing.

"Can we put this to rest, Seteth?" she said, almost tired. Regal and authoritative she looked, her tone brooked no joy at the violence.

The commander of the Church's forces slowly shrugged off his vestments, leaving him in only chain mail over a cotton shirt.

The Church forces were beginning to pull back, though those closest to Seteth seemed to wonder whether they ought to remain. Dorothea had no qualms, starting to ease back out of the clump of people she stood in.

"Lady Edelgard von Hresvelg!" Seteth called, drawing all eyes back to him. "In sight of the Goddess and people of this world, I sentence you to die. For your crimes against the Church, against Fódlan, you cannot be allowed to continue on your conquest."

Edelgard said nothing, deigning only to lift her axe at the ready.

Seteth raised the Spear aloft, its sheen glinting in the light of the fires. "Soldiers, people of the Church! Retreat is not defeat, not when the Goddess herself protects us."

"Your false goddess will not save you here," Edelgard responded, voice carrying. "This war ends as soon as it has begun."

Speaking so quietly, Dorothea could barely make out the words Seteth said. "Seiros, Macuil, Indech, Cethleann, I pray you are with me. Grant me strength, my family."

The right hand of the Archbishop slammed the butt of the Spear on the ground and it ignited with light. No longer did Seteth hold a lance—no—he held a column of golden light, brilliant with its splendor.

"Your Goddess watches over you," Seteth shouted, voice deeper. "Her Saints have not forsaken you."

Edelgard moved faster than she ever had in the training yard, making to strike Seteth down with one blow. But he met her attack with equal speed, moving like a man twenty years younger.

Soldiers ran forward, brazen by the holy light, and met their foe with furor. Not Dorothea, she turned tail and fled. She wasn't the only one, but she was the minority.

Just as she made it to the steps, she saw her. Mercedes, kneeling on the ground as Prince Dimitri fought a dark figure wildly. Her eyes barely paused on the prince, instead honing in on the woman she loved.

Her heart moved her legs, running back into danger to her side.

"Mercie!" Dorothea shouted. "We need to go!"

Mercedes said nothing, only stroking the cheek of a body that Dorothea was only able to identify up close. Annette's neck was tilted at an impossible angle, blood still oozing from the back of her head and a dozen wounds across her body.

She was dead.

"Mercedes," breathed Dorothea, sliding down beside her. "You need to come with me."

She made no effort to go, so Dorothea grabbed her, throwing her over her shoulder. The woman didn't resist. Rather, she made no response at all.

"If you see someone go into shock on the battlefield, you get them out of there," Byleth told her.

As her teacher taught her, so she did.

Byleth had been given the mission no one else had been trusted with. Protect Rhea.

Gone was her ceremonial garb, replaced with cheap merchants' finery. Drab enough not to draw attention, posh enough to warrant not killing if attacked.

Her charge had been quiet, which was perfectly fine with Byleth. Rhea traveled amidst the evacuating populace of Garreg Mach, just another refugee to the eyes of the ignorant. Alois was nearby, helping her oversee the evacuation. She suspected he had guessed Rhea was amongst them.

"Eisner," the Archbishop said quietly, punctuating the rift between them. "It is far more important you escape here alive rather than I."

"Is that so?" Byleth replied, neutral. No one paid attention to their exchange, fear running rampant with the sounds of distant fighting.

"Your hair, that is a sign of the Goddess," she hissed. "I implore you, whatever your dislike of me, that you do not ignore that. You are blessed by her."

Byleth made to reply, but an explosion resounded from the monastery. She whirled around, Sword of the Creator already in her hand. Smoke curled from one of the high towers. Her eyes narrowed. If she wasn't mistaken that was—

"My chambers," Rhea whispered, a note of fear in her voice. "It seems the Empire seeks my head." To Byleth, it sounded like wonder, as if Rhea couldn't believe what she was seeing.

There were no further signs through the dark of night, the low roar of battle continued from afar undeterred.

"We should move," Byleth urged, pressing a hand to Rhea's back. She nodded and they began to push their way through the throng of people.

Then, the worst happened.

"Demonic beasts!" cried a distant voice, no doubt part of the vanguard.

Alois, to his credit, reacted fast. "Knights of Seiros, we protect the civilians! Let no beast near them. For the Goddess!"

Byleth bit her lip, then grabbed Rhea's hand, pulling her to the side. "C'mon!"

Rhea looked to the people, her flock, the weak and vulnerable. Hurt flashed in her eyes before she nodded, understanding. "Right."

Together the two women broke from the evacuating force. Claude had floated the idea that the Empire might attack civilians, but Seteth had disagreed. Byleth had too. Unprompted the war may be, it didn't fit Edelgard's thesis to kill the defenseless. So she knew Rhea was using the people as a cover.

The moon dipped out of a cloud, shining the ground with pearlescent light. Byleth looked up, then around. For now, they seemed safe.

"Do you think they'll be safe?" Rhea murmured, eyes fixed on her flock.

No, she didn't say. "Alois will see to it," she said instead. That was true, at least.

She nodded, accepting the answer. But that nod froze as a demonic beast growled. It was close, but not on top of them yet.

Byleth pulled Rhea behind an outcropping of rock and poked her head out. Some two hundred feet away, one of the masked abominations stalked, disinterested with the horde of people and seemingly focused on something else.

Them, perhaps.

Byleth swore softly. She had a plan, but it wasn't a good one. Turning to Rhea, she pressed the dagger at her belt into her hands. "I know you can defend yourself, take this. I'm going to lead them away. See if you can make for Alois or away from here."

"Byleth, no!" Rhea said.

She chuckled darkly. "You're the important one here. The war will end if you die. I might not be fond of you, but I'm not an idiot."

Byleth dashed towards the beast before Rhea could respond, holding the Sword of the Creator aloft as it glowed as brightly as when she struck down Solon. It flared in the night, a guiding light for the demonic beasts to come like moths to a flame.

And come they did. There were more than she had seen. Perhaps too many. But she did not falter.

No, Byleth Eisner never did, from the first strike, to the last.

Claude wheezed as he picked himself up from where the explosion landed him. He'd feel those bruises in the morning. Damn mages, them and their destruction, the wry side of him thought. The burns he'd gotten from Aelfric in their fighting did him no favors either.

Aelfric brushed some dust from his black robes as he looked into the interior of the Archbishop's quarters. Claude's vision was still fuzzy, but even he could see anger on his face.

The bow he'd brought with him was bent and the string snapped, resting on a pile of stone across the grassy terrace. But there was a knife in the back of his belt.

Perhaps he could reach it. Coughing, he taunted, "Not finding what you want, Aelfric?"

The man swiveled to him, snarling, "Where is she? The plan was to have her here where she'd be safest."

Claude had thought so too. But Seteth must have had other ideas, ones he deigned only tell a select few. Or maybe no one at all. But Aelfric didn't need to know that. "Seteth fooled you, huh? Guess that's why we went with the plan."

"So, you know where she is," Aelfric presumed, incorrectly. He raised his hand, black fire dripping from his fingers like sludge.

It was a gamble, one he hoped would keep him alive. "Damn right I do," he grinned. "Spare me a moment to revel in your stupidity, won't you?"

The ball of flame landed near Claude's head, hissing as it melted rock like acid, devouring what had once been a piece of Rhea's room.

"You know where I'm going next, Riegan?" Aelfric's lips curled. "I have orders to exterminate that professor of yours. The one assisting with the evacuation efforts."

Claude's blood ran cold.

"Oh? Touched a nerve?" he chuckled, spinning another web of flame in his hand, as malevolent as before. He took a step towards Rhea's room, his back to the disarmed lord. "Pity I can see the evacuation from here. Perhaps I ought to kill them all, just to make sure I get her."

He grabbed the knife from his belt and flung it at Aelfric as best he could from the ground. His aim was true, the whisk of silver soaring through the remnants of flame and rubble right at the deceiver.

The flame in Aelfric's hand coalesced and ate the blade, weapon passing into his hand and vanishing entirely. Behind Aelfric, a pile of boulders toppled, but the mage was too preoccupied to notice.

"My turn," Aelfric laughed. With a wave of his hand, Claude's feet lit alight, only there was no brightness, just a sucking vacuum of all light. Flames scoured his boots, eating right through his boots.

"Tell me," he seethed. "Tell me where Rhea is."

Claude swore a string of curses in Almyran, far too blind with pain to think. "Seteth!" he screamed, kicking his boots off. But the flame didn't relent.

"Oh?" Aelfric asked, putting a hand up to his ear. "What was that?"

"She's with Seteth," he gasped, an entire guess on his part. He hoped he was wrong, but he had no idea. All he could focus on was the lie, making it at least believable.

"Hmm," Aelfric doused the fire. "That would be prudent of him, to keep an eye on her. Well done, Claude, you've earned yourself something of a quick death." Aelfric raised his hand, the mask replacing his face again, showing the cold pale man who bore too many similarities to Aelfric. He clenched his hand, a motion to kill.

"Hyah!" shouted Ferdinand, emerging from the cover of rubble and slashing at Aelfric with his sword.

Claude tried to stand, to help, to do something, but he toppled over. Fortune was on his side, for Ferdinand needed no hero to save him.

Aelfric leapt back, the sword only slicing a shallow cut in his side. A circle of darkness began to amass beneath his assailant, tendrils reaching up and grabbing at Ferdinand's feet.

But he did not back down. With a longer reach than Aelfric expected, Ferdinand reached out and slashed at the man's casting hand, severing it midway to the elbow.

Three things happened simultaneously. The spell's concentration broke, sending Ferdinand tumbling to the ground. Aelfric screamed in pain and began waving a hand to cast again. And the hand flopped against the grass, oozing blood.

A purple aura engulfed Aelfric and he disappeared with a warping spell, his screams along with.

"Ferdinand!" Claude shouted.

His savior was at his side, grabbing Claude. "I came when I saw the explosion," Ferdinand said, exhausted, but satisfied. "I'm glad I got here when I did." He picked Claude up bridal style. "Come, we need to get out of here."

Claude laughed, more out of relief than any kind of humor. "Thank the Goddess you made it Ferdinand. And I never thank her for anything."

That drew a chuckle from him as he took Claude and escaped from the wreckage.

By the time Claude and Ferdinand arrived at the rendezvous point, Ignatz, Lorenz, and Leonie had already beaten them.

It was a small clump of trees on the outskirts of the monastery. North of the battle, the Deer had hoped it'd be a safe place to meet if the battle went south.

"Claude!" Ignatz shouted with relief. Next to him, the tension in Lorenz' shoulders swept away. Even the barely conscious Leonie managed a halfcocked smile.

The heir to the Alliance stumbled off the horse, feet still wracked with pain. But it did not deter him. "Are you all okay?"

Ignatz nodded, though his leathers were blood-soaked. Thankfully it didn't seem to be his.

Lorenz was in a similar state, but his focus was on Leonie. Claude's eyes drifted to the woman. Her attire was ripped and sundered with bandages wrapping around her torso.

"How is she?" Ferdinand asked.

"She'll live," Lorenz said with a sigh. "It was…bad, for a while. Marianne fixed her up though."

Through her haze, Leonie mumbled, "I ain't out yet, Claude. Throw me at them."

He chuckled and crouched by her, taking a closer look at her injuries.

"Ferdinand, you make it fine?" Lorenz asked, tearing his eyes away from her.

The man nodded. "I was on the east side. After the walls fell, it wasn't as horrible as it could have been. We held for a while before retreating."

Lorenz' reply was lost with the thumping of hooves. They all looked to the noise as a black clade figure rode in with a bright pink.

"Guess this is it," Sylvain said, holding out a hand for Hilda to take. She did so, slipping off the horse.

"Goneril!" Claude cried theatrically. "You're not dead!" He joked, but his relief was palpable.

"Just a few chipped nails," she responded in kind. "Where's Marianne?"

"Not here yet," Ignatz said, casting a worried glance back to the monastery, lit up by the fire in the distance.

"Has anyone seen her?" she asked.

"Yes," nodded Lorenz, "about an hour ago. Maybe more. She was safe then with the healers."

"Hilda," Sylvain said, grabbing her attention. "I'll look for her."

"Sylvain, you can't—" Claude started.

"Felix is still there," Sylvain said, distant. "So is my king. I'm going back."

No one tried to stop him as he turned his horse around and vanished into the woods.

"The Alliance needs to know, Claude," Lorenz said. "We can't lose time. Edelgard could bring war to our doorstep after this."

"I'll go," he said, "once we find Byleth and the others." Claude looked around. "Transportation will be an issue…"

"I'll take you," Ferdinand said without hesitation. "I swore myself to you. I intend to keep that vow."

Lorenz nodded, approving. "I'll make my way to Gloucester. I can take Leonie to her village once she can move. I can trust you to delay my father until I return."

"Isn't that what friends are for?" Claude teased. Lorenz rolled his eyes.

Hilda huffed. "I suppose you'll be wanting me to talk to Holst? Well, I'm not leaving here without Marianne."

A few minutes passed by before bushes rustled. Ferdinand drew his sword and crept towards the noise, relaxing once he got close enough.

Raphael hulked out from the foliage, supporting a broken arm with his free hand. His face was scrunched in pain, but he sported a smile.

"Hey everyone," he said, out of breath. "Don't suppose we have any food here?"

Claude walked up and put a hand on his shoulder, mindful of the arm. "Glad to see you, big guy. What happened?"

His face drew dour. "Caspar messed me up pretty good. He was…stronger than before." Raphael walked right up to Ignatz and gave him a big one-armed hug. "You okay, Ig?"

"Never better," the smaller man laughed. "The blood is someone else's. Most of it probably Lorenz', actually."

"You're the one who shot me," complained Lorenz' without any real bite. Ignatz laughed.

"The others?" Raphael asked.

"Don't know," Claude answered. "Though, Byleth was with the refugees, helping protect them. Hopefully she's okay."

Hilda waved a hand. "Please, she can take care of herself. I'll bet she isn't here because she can't leave them."

Claude silently agreed, though he still felt uneasy.

In the distance, a horn blew. Imperials. Closer than he'd like.

"We shouldn't stay long," Lorenz murmured, mirroring the rest's confliction. "They'll sweep to this area, looking for fleeing soldiers."

It didn't sit well with any of them, but his words had merit.

"Raph, we should make sure our homes are okay. Once we make sure the others are safe," said Ignatz.

The bigger man nodded solemnly. "Gotta make sure your folks and Maya get out okay. They aren't too far from the border."

Another horn in the distance. Claude swore. "We can't stay here."

Fortune favored them, as a horse nickered nearby. Heads turned to see an entirely too calm Marianne arriving on Dorte.

"Marianne!" Hilda shouted, at her side in seconds. "You had me so worried!"

Hilda nearly tackled her off the horse in a hug as Marianne laughed. "Sorry, Hilda, but I couldn't leave Dorte."

"You and that horse," huffed Hilda. "I was worried."

Despite the fear in her voice, Hilda was calming down at the sight of her love. It also may have had to do with the countless kisses she was showering Marianne with. Claude couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy and glance around for Byleth like she would magically appear.

"Get a room!" Leonie called, giggling to herself as her words slurred some. Some of the others laughed, but Claude's eyes narrowed. Did the woman have a concussion?

Marianne apparently had the same idea. She managed to push Hilda off her (only for her lover to latch onto her arm) and went to examine her.

"Has anyone seen Dorothea or Mercedes?" Ignatz asked. Heads shook and his eyes fell.

"Before you ask," Hilda said loudly, interrupting Claude as he was about to speak. "Marianne is not going back to Edmund. She's coming with me. She's not going back to her father."

That hadn't been what Claude was going to say, but he nodded nonetheless. "I understand. Promise me you'll talk to Holst?"

She nodded. "I'll annoy him to death. Just write me to know what you want. So long as it isn't stupid, I'll do it."

"That's the Hilda I know," Raphael chuckled. Hilda stuck her tongue out at him.

Another horn.

"We need to go," Lorenz urged. "Now."

Claude nodded, resigned. "Everyone know where we're going?" There were nods all around. "Marianne, take a look at Raphael's arm before you leave."

"Of course," Marianne said, standing up from Leonie, satisfied with the work she'd done. The woman looked peaceful, relief painted across her face as she slept.

"We should be able to steal a horse," Raphael thought aloud. "With Ig's leg, that's our best bet."

"Let's steal from imperials," Ignatz suggested. "I certainly don't want to steal from anyone innocent." Raphael agreed.

Before anything else could be decided, their final two students trudged into the clearing. Dorothea supported Mercedes, though the latter seemed to have no wounds.

"Dorothea!" Hilda cried. "Mercedes!"

Dorothea mustered a half smile. Mercedes looked despondent, staring ahead, not seeing anyone.

"Is she…?" Claude trailed off.

The songstress looked down. "Annette's dead."

The shock rang like a physical blow to everyone there, Marianne tearing up.

"Are you sure?" Lorenz asked.

"Yes." There was no arguing the tone in Dorothea's voice.

"Soldiers are getting closer," Claude said quickly. "Ig and Raph are going to southern Leicester, Hilda and Marianne are going to Goneril. Lorenz and Leonie are headed to Gloucester. Ferdinand and I to Riegan to ready the Alliance. Any of us can get you a place to stay, or—"

"We're going north, to Faerghus," Dorothea said, holding Mercedes closer to her, protective. "She…I think she needs her family." With a dry smile, she continued, "And I've got nowhere to go now, might as well go with."

"Are you sure?" Lorenz asked, concerned. "We're a herd, we should stick together."

Dorothea smiled. "I'll take care of her, I promise. We'll make our way to Leicester when we can."

"Shit, it'll have to do," Claude said. "The longer we wait, the more danger we're in."

"And the professor?" Dorothea asked, looking around and not seeing her.

Claude clenched his fist. "We…she'd want us to get to safety. She's with the refugees, she'll be okay." It felt like a lie he was telling himself.

Grim nods of agreement came in response.

"Alright, Golden Deer, I expect letters from each of you once you get where you're going," he said, making eye contact with each. "Or else come to Derdriu, you will always have a home there."

Claude looked back over his shoulder, one final look at the monastery in flames, ravaged by the just beginning war.

We'll be back, he vowed.

Chapter Text


The reception he received at Riegan Manor was as he expected.

He and Ferdinand strolled in without any fanfare. The main hall was devoid of staff, not even guards wandering around, patrolling or keeping watch.

"This feels off," murmured Ferdinand.

Claude shook his head. "No, this is the state of House Riegan, I'm afraid. There's a lot to tell you about Riegan, but I must meet with my grandfather first. Take the horse to the stables, I have to do this alone."

Ferdinand nodded and walked out the door they'd arrived.

It had been…a long two weeks. Imperials were crawling the Oghma Mountains and a good half of their journey had just been evading capture. With both the heir to the Alliance and the next King of Faerghus on the run, the Empire was hot to capture them. Assuming, of course, Dimitri made it out alive.

Claude hoped he did.

The manor was just as opulent as always, Riegan gold accents everywhere the eye could see. Paintings adorned the walls of the hall, depicting ancestors that didn't share his skin tone. Wealth poured into every aspect of the architecture, even the handrails of the steps were gold.

A waste, he thought. Were he to sell this building, no doubt he could divert those resources into such better projects. But that was an issue for a different time.

Claude walked up the steps, not feeling ashamed that he tracked mud from the road in. Well, he was sorry the servants would have to clean it, but at least it would piss off his grandfather. Spite was what kept him going up the steps after two weeks of minimal sleep and rest.

On the upper level, the building was more populated. Servants paused, bowing in surprise as Claude trudged forward. A few house soldiers saluted him, but he paid them no mind, concentrating on steeling himself for Silas.

He arrived at his grandfather's room. Two armored guards stood outside.

"I have an appointment with Duke Riegan," Claude said. He was aware of how he looked, armor worn from a battle two weeks old, reeking of sweat, blood, and grime.

The guards looked at each other, then at his appearance. They each nodded to him with meaning.

Claude swung the door open and called, "Hello, Silas."

Silas von Riegan stirred in his bed, leaning up. Goddess, he didn't look well. Scant months ago, Claude had seen him weak, but still of sound mind. The look in his eyes, there was none of that anymore.

"Boy," hissed the old man. His mind was working enough to remember his distaste, it seemed. "You finally return."

"There's a war happening, old man," Claude said, sparing no time for niceties. "And you're in bed. Even if you can't leave, there should be advisors here. You are Duke, not an invalid."

"I am aware." He mustered a growl. "We will throw our lot in with the Empire."

That, Claude had not expected. "Excuse me?"

Silas coughed. "You would not understand. You're an outsider."

"Yes, I'm not from here," Claude said. "But I fail to see how that means we should surrender. No, grandfather, rest assured, we are fighting."

Narrowed eyes met his. "Unless I am mistaken, you are not Duke, boy."

"Not yet," Claude said, shrugging. "Unless we reach an understanding here, I'm prepared to do what's necessary."


Claude turned away from the bed, towards the wall. Hung on a display set was the Relic of Riegan: Failnaught. It was a huge, gaudy bow, something that was certainly not Claude's style. But he couldn't deny the power in it. Walking across the room, he removed it from the wall, with the arrow it had been mounted with.

"Boy…" Silas trailed off.

"Here's what's going to happen," Claude said, plucking the bowstring idly. "First, you will appoint me your regent. All ducal authority shall be mine, as well as control of the war effort. Second, you will withdraw all idiotic plans of siding with the Empire. Leicester will remain neutral, at least until the time is right. Bloodshed gets us nowhere."

Silas' eyes flared, the hottest emotion he'd had yet. "I didn't take you to be this much of a fool. The Alliance isn't the Kingdom, it isn't the Empire." He broke into a fit of coughing. "We are not powerful in our military. We must pick a side, one that will win."

"You're right." Claude smirked. "I'm just picking our own side."

"I do not agree to your demands," he growled. "Perhaps your usefulness was never existent in the first place. I brought you here, I took you in. This is how you show you're grateful?"

Claude laughed. "Grandfather," he said, twisting the word, "trust me that I am a very different man than you last saw. I don't have patience for your idiocy. I am you progeny, so much as you wish otherwise."

"You are no grandson of mine, Almyran filth," hissed Silas.

That same Alymran just nodded, smile not slipping. "Sorry, gramps, got a new world planned. Don't think you're fit for it."

"Guards!" Silas shouted. In a second, the two men outside the room burst through, swords drawn. The Duke pointed to Claude. "This man is an imposter, he is not my grandson. He is an Almyran agent sent here to sow chaos. Kill him, kill him now!"

"I would think," Claude began as the two soldiers looked at each other, "that the one to sow chaos would be the warmonger, grandfather."

The guards made no move.

"Kill him!" Silas screamed from his bed, spittle flying from his mouth.

Claude flicked the bowstring. "You see, gramps, there's a problem with that."

He drew back an arrow.

"These are my guards, not yours."

With a shot Shamir would approve of, he shot his grandfather through the throat.

There was no scream, no struggle. The weakened man slumped back on the bed, blood spurting on the sheets as his face froze with the last moments of true, genuine fear.

"A fine shot, Lord Khalid," the shorter of the two guards murmured.

"He died in his sleep," Claude explained, returning Failnaught to its former resting place for the time being. "I was unfortunately just too late to see him before the end. It was a tragedy, you see. When I heard the news, I wept for hours."

"Of course, my lord," the other guard said. "You may leave this to us. Sir Nad…ahem, Nardel will wish to speak with you."

Claude took a deep breath and smiled.

"Oh, it is good to be home."

He ran a hand through now shorter hair, brushed back. It was an effort to look older, something he hazarded a guess wasn't totally working. He missed the braid, though. But such things were symbols in Almyra, people weren't considered adults until theirs was cut off. Sometimes that happened when they came of age, sometimes when they proved themselves an adult through some sort of harrowing situation.

Taking power from his grandfather and leading the Alliance seemed like it fit those circumstances.

But the time for such thoughts was for later. He turned to Ferdinand before entering the room. "I look fine?"

Ferdinand took a small step back and looked Claude up and down. Claude wore light, ceremonial armor that wouldn't last a second in battle. But he was a lord of the Roundtable now, and that meant dressing for the occasion. "You look good. Older."

Good, that was his goal. The youngest person he'd see in that room was older than he was, so Claude gambled that perhaps they'd take him more seriously this way.

"Into the viper's nest," Claude muttered, strutting to the door and swinging it open.

He'd seen the actual table many times before, but each time it surprised him how lackluster it was in comparison to the rest of the nobility's Leicester. Each family seemed to exude wealth, but here, on the table that the first Alliance lords had built, that all went away. For it was just a plain, if large, round, wooden table. In the center, a map of Fódlan, but even that was relatively lackluster.

He took his seat in the gaudiest of chairs, adorned with silks and fabrics depicting the Crest of Riegan. Across from him, one other person sat.

Trevor von Albrecht. Claude hid the sour expression on his face as he nodded to the man not much older than he. He'd hoped that seat would be occupied by Judith, but they hadn't anticipated the war. And Gloucester proved more ruthless than expected, pressing the vote as the war began. With Lysithea von Ordelia siding with the Empire, apparently it hadn't proved difficult at all.

The Albrecht was skinny and gaunt, appearing far more nervous than Claude. His black hair was tied back into a bun and if Claude was being honest, he looked like a poor fit to lead.

But his calculations would have to wait, as Leander Gloucester walked in. He, unlike Claude and Trevor, was dressed in pomp and frills, a cravat much like Lorenz would wear expelling from his neck. It was far harder to resist the urge to roll his eyes than he anticipated.

Odd to look upon his biggest obstacle in the room and groan. Claude was used to having enemies that made him afraid, not laugh.

"Riegan," the Count greeted, nodding respectively. "I was relieved you managed to escape alive from the front, though perhaps my thanks ought to be directed at your dear Adrestian friend behind you."

Claude could hear Ferdinand tense, his armored plates brushing together. "Gloucester," he greeted in kind. "Ferdinand is a worthy vassal, indeed. He decided to turn coat to aid me in escaping, much to his own risk."

Gloucester nodded, satisfied with the exchange insinuating what it did. Let Leander call him a traitor all he liked. It was a line of attack Claude was prepared for since his birth.

The fourth to enter the room almost got to his chair before Claude noticed. Alister von Edmund slid into his seat with grace. Unlike his adoptive daughter, his colors were muted deep blues and blacks. His similarly black hair extended past his chin and rough facial hair whisked against his face as if he hadn't shaven in a few days.

They all nodded to one another. Claude wasn't one to wish to break the silence, sensing some kind of faux pas. Oh, how he could have owned this entire room had his grandfather worked with him, rather than against him. Would that the man were a good one, he might still be alive.

If the silence had been something sacred, their next and last member of the Roundtable certainly disregarded that.

Claude had never met Holst. The few Roundtable meetings he'd attended with his grandfather, Holst's father had been Lord Goneril.

If you believed the stories, Holst was a walking goliath who could sever three Almyrans' heads with an axe at one. He won battles before they were even fought, sending the filthy Almyrans running screaming from the Locket, their charges broken upon Holst the Unshakeable.

Claude didn't believe those stories, but he was still surprised.

Holst sank into the chair, wearing armor the color of his and Hilda's hair: bright pink. His hair was a mess, the kind of windswept that young men and women fawned over. He had thin lips, a trusting smile, and a jagged scar running down through one of his eyes.

He leaned forward, with a warm smirk, looking at Claude as he rested his head on folded hands. "Claude, I'm sad it took us this long to meet. Hilda speaks well of you and I'll admit that despite everything happening, it makes me happy to see she seems to not have exaggerated." His voice was smooth, like a flute.

No wonder the stories depicted him so. Any opponent wouldn't take the man seriously.

But there was fire in those eyes, behind the sincerity. The kind a child learned early not to touch, lest they get burned.

"You've beaten me to the words, Holst." Claude smiled and wasn't surprised to find it was genuine. The man wasn't dissimilar to Hilda. "If you'll be in the city long, by all means come by the Riegan estate. We would love to host you for a meal."

Holst grinned, leaning back. "The Locket is in good hands. I'd be remiss to turn down an invitation from the Sovereign Duke." He grew serious for a moment, idly playing with one of his earrings, a design Claude could have sworn he'd seen Hilda make before. "My sister, I must ask, is she safe? There hasn't been word yet."

Claude noticed Gloucester lean forward as well, trying very hard to feign disinterest, no doubt over the fate of his son. "Hilda is safe, as are Lorenz and Marianne. We all left Garreg Mach alive, though I can't speak to any delays they might have met on the road."

"Good," breathed Alister von Edmund. If Holst's voice was that of a flute, then Edmund's was a rough bass, vibrating naturally. "I was worried my wayward daughter might stay so."

"I should hope she finds her home soon," Claude said, speaking carefully. Turning his head away from Edmund, he addressed the Roundtable. "Shall we begin?"

Edmund drew out a sheet of paper; the agenda. He cleared his throat. "Our first item would be welcoming our newest member of House Riegan, as well as mourning the loss of the late Silas von Riegan."

Gloucester raised his hand. "I motion to move on to matters of import."

Claude raised his hand. "Seconded."

Edmund cleared his throat again. "Those saying aye?"

Five hands raised. "Motion passed," Edmund said. He'd been given the position of running the meetings more so out of lack of interest from the rest rather than his own skill, but he'd risen to the occasion.

Papers shuffled. "Then our second item on the agenda would be the war, and how Leicester will respond." Edmund afforded a small smile. "It is the only other item for today's meeting, as it was the purpose for being called. Nevertheless I don't believe any of us expect this to be a quick meeting as the nature of such a thing is so broad. Therefore, whomever wishes may begin."

Gloucester raised a finger and Edmund pointed to him. "The floor is yours, Leander."

The man stood and Claude had to remind himself that it wasn't Lorenz who sat at the table with him. He was a splitting image of his father, making it difficult to dislike him. But of course, that was remedied as soon as the Count opened his mouth.

"We cannot win this war," Leander said, voice carrying through the room. "It's foolish to think we could fight the Empire ourselves. I do not think anyone in here could disagree with that. As of a week ago, the Kingdom has formally declared war upon the Empire. I believe we have a clear choice here, do we support Faerghus or Adrestia? I will not pretend the Alliance does not have military prowess, but we cannot hold back the threat from the East as well as fight both Kingdom and Empire."

Claude took a deep breath, then stood to begin what would turn into a long crusade of neutrality.

He rarely left his study, time slipping away from him as hours into the night turned into days. Claude collapsed at his desk some nights, only for Ferdinand to wake him as the guard changed.

Not that Ferdinand was much better. He insisted on taking at least one shift guarding Claude every day. At the start, Claude resisted, demanding his friend get sleep.

But once the assassination attempts began, he shut up.

The first had come after he declared intentions for neutrality at the Roundtable. Shortly after said meeting, a servant he'd never seen before tried knife him as he got changed in the morning. It was sloppy and Claude had disarmed the man easily. Ferdinand arrived before long and the two questioned him.

He broke under pressure and gave up his contact, someone Claude traced to Trevor von Albrecht. Perhaps it was his own volition, or a favor for Gloucester. Claude didn't know, so he tucked the card into his hand to play later.

The second attempt came after he opened the manse to refugees. With so much room in the manor, Claude had ordered a majority of it to house those fleeing from the war. His servants had been scandalized, but obeyed. Soon, word spread and Claude had to take effort to find more housing for the wayward souls. It was a problem he didn't mind tackling.

But his second assailant was much more skilled. He'd attacked while Claude visited the refugees, and likely would have murdered him in broad daylight had Ferdinand not been there. His bodyguard had run the attacker through before the knife ever reached Claude. The Duke hadn't even noticed it happening.

Ferdinand stayed by Claude for twelve hours a day, despite Claude telling him to get rest.

They had no clues as to who sent the man. Ferdinand assumed it was Albrecht or Gloucester, but Claude made no judgements. Perhaps Holst had learned of his birth. Perhaps Edmund was making a power play. Or maybe they were Empire. There were far too many people who wanted him dead.

A month passed before the next, as the Alliance publicly declared their neutrality, much to Gloucester's chagrin. But he'd been outvoted, three to two. Whereas the indecisiveness of the Roundtable was usually a hindrance, Claude played into it, delaying and confusing people out of decisive action. Then, he proposed neutrality. Holst took it in stride and Edmund came around soon after.

The third was a poisoning attempt. One of Ferdinand's guards had discovered a cook slipping something into his soup when he'd decided to sneak to the kitchens for a snack. The cook was Adrestian, but Claude found secret messages in their room written in Almyran.

Oddly enough, the attempts made Derdriu feel more like home than anything else. He was no stranger to them in his youth. Hell, Garreg Mach had been a lovely respite away from such things.

He stopped counting them soon after. There weren't innumerable occurrences, just too many to bother tracking. Ferdinand's guard became elite and he only let the best protect Claude.

Which certainly helped when Leonie showed up on his doorstep, months later.

She'd recovered to an extent, having been seen by the best healers in Gloucester. Having been staying with Lorenz, when he mentioned the attempts on Claude's life, she left to help.

It was a weight off Ferdinand's shoulders, having someone else he trusted implicitly.

Claude let those two worry about security, while he focused on ruling. He seldom got more than three hours of sleep, too busy with staving off the four great houses from taking sides. Letters were sent to other countries, extending hands in friendship. Some responded well, others, less so. He needed an ambassador. Or several.

"You should take a break," Leonie said one day, as the sun had begun to raise for the day. He had not slept yet.

He blinked, weary. "I'm a servant of the people, Leonie. And they need help."

That wasn't her point and they both knew it. But, Leicester began to grow under his lead. Not in grand ways, but small ones that he was pleased with. Alliance budgets were diverted from eastern defenses into public works projects. He worked on a proposal for a schooling system nationwide that gained more support than he expected, albeit ultimately failing. He'd try again, in a few years, but it was reassuring.

The war worsened between the Kingdom and the Empire. But Leicester, well, Leicester prospered. And the rest of Fódlan took notice. He had messengers arriving almost daily from the Empire. As for the Kingdom, the new Margrave Gautier himself paid a visit. Not that Claude could deny Sylvain such a thing, especially when they were both so new to leadership.

"You take to this well," Sylvain complimented. "But dear Goddess, you look exhausted."

Claude only smiled. "You're not the first person to tell me that."

Friends came and went through his door. Raphael and Ignatz the most frequent, both the backbones of his economic plans. Shamir worked mercenary for him for a brief period before vanishing again.

When Ordelia withdrew from Leicester and became occupied by imperial forces, that was when he finally thought of Byleth again.

Oh, how it was so easy to not think about her. A list of casualties from the Battle at Garreg Mach had long since been released, her name on the missing in action list. For a time, he'd prayed—yes, prayed—she'd made it out. But as days turned to weeks turned to months, he accepted it. The woman he loved was dead.

But he couldn't allow such a thing to deter him. No matter that all his friends told him to stop working himself to death, he persisted. She taught him to always fight even when pinned. So while the grief was insurmountable, he persisted. Memories of her dogged his steps, but he persisted. He did cry, eventually, on one of the few nights he allowed himself to take a break. Ferdinand had to have heard it through the door, but he did not mention it.

Claude was thankful for that.

As the first year of his rule came to a close, he looked at himself in the mirror and didn't recognize the man who looked back. It wasn't the beard that graced his face nor his longer hair. He was weathered, weary. The bags under his eyes carried oh-so-many unshed tears.

But he persisted.

Chapter Text


The warm winter day meant for good hunting, with the dripping water from icicles pitter-pattering to the ground.

Dorothea pulled her cloak up to her neck tightly as she waited in the alley, looking as rugged as she had as a street urchin. The Dorothea of opera days would not have been caught dead looking anything like that, but as time went by Dorothea wondered if she had ever truly been that diva.

A spark of electricity traveled between her fingers as she waited, nerves inconveniently manifesting themselves. It wasn't the first time she'd done this and she doubted it'd be the last.

One of the last snowfalls of the year had graced the city the day before, painting Fhirdiad more pure than it had ever looked before. It was beautiful in the night, lit only by torchlight as the last vestiges of the blizzard fell.

In the hours before sunrise, the city was quiet. Wartime meant caution and denizens stayed indoors while guards were repurposed to the western front. The city was relatively defenseless, and to put it bluntly, better suited for her now.

Dorothea arched her neck as she heard voices. They were early.

Tucking her scarf over her mouth, she ducked back against the wall, pulling her cloak over her like a harmless beggar. People went out of their way not to notice the needy on the streets, her childhood had taught her. She sat in the cold snow, watching from the corner of her eye as the group entered the alley.

There were five of them, one leading the pack, all hooded in cloaks. Their voices had lowered out of her earshot, but with the buildings blocking the wind, theirs was the only noise.

What they said was of no concern to her; the fact that they were here was enough. Another spark jumped between her fingers. She bit her lip.

None of the five seemed to have noticed and Dorothea slowly released her breath. No matter how many times she did this, it didn't do away with the tension. Stage fright, she'd mockingly called it once.

The five were on the move again, heading deeper into the alley. The same one still led, not even casting her a glance as they passed. One of the trailing ones did, sparing her a brief nod.

The signal.

They continued walking, the one turning away as if nothing had happened.

She exhaled and watched them gain distance. Once they were a few dozen paces away, she slowly stood.

If Dorothea made any sound, they did not hear it. Her hand emerged from the folds of the cloak and pointed at one of the figures.

The sensation had always unnerved her, like her very blood sizzling as electricity flowed down her arm, condensing in her fingers for a brief moment before exploding into a bolt of lightning, screaming through the quiet city.

Golden energy smashed into one of the five, though not the one who had nodded. Said figure was flung off their feet as it collided, the smell of ozone filling the air as his skin was singed. The other three whirled around, two drawing swords and the mage among them already conjuring flame.

The last drew his sword and ran the mage through.

Dorothea didn't hear their gasps as she brought another hand out of the cloak, twisting her hand as electricity jumped between both her hands in a current. She thrust her hands forward, launching the magic out at her target.

The one she aimed for leapt to the ground to dodge. He was successful, though the last of the group drove a sword into his neck without hesitation. His hood finally fell back, hair back in a tight ponytail as rigid as the man himself.

Felix had a reputation for being so.

Steel met steel for a moment before he broke through the man's guard, knocking him off balance. His blade snuck under the shoulder, cutting through fabric, skin, bone, and eventually, the muscle of the heart.

It had taken all of ten seconds, if not less.

Dorothea walked to his side as he examined the bodies. "Anything?" she asked.

He scowled. "Nothing, again. They're getting suspicious though, same thing won't work again."

She huffed. "Like I said, I knew it wouldn't work forever."

"No," he mused, "but it does work well."

"Did they give you anything to go off of?"

Felix growled. "No, they were grunts. But they boasted about the murder of Margrave Gautier, claiming credit for it. Confirms Sylvain's suspicions."

Dorothea shivered. "If even grunts are making it this far north…"

"Then the Shrike is making a move and we have nothing to go off of," he finished. "Nobles are still disappearing. None like the Margrave, but I wouldn't be surprised if it picks up in pace."

"What will you do?"

"Get out of the city." He stood up and wiped the blood from his blade before sheathing it. "War's not going well in the west, House Rowe barely puts up a fight. That territory will be lost soon. They need commanding with our allies being picked off like flies."

"Good luck, Felix," she said, giving him a look of sadness.

He nodded, the mask of intensity slipping for a moment to show the tired man beneath. "Get back to the church and stay there. The Shrike might see fit to deal with the scourge on their assassins themself."

She smirked, something she didn't have reason to do often anymore. "They can certainly try. Give my best to Sylvain, Ingrid, and the king."

"Stay safe," were the last words he said before trudging off into the snow. After gathering the wallets from the dead, she turned the opposite way and headed deeper into the city.

Dorothea closed the door quietly, sighing. Someone had been following her, but she'd lost them. A year within the city had taught her the alleys well and her childhood had taught her flight worked better than fight.

She should have killed them, lest they follow her here.


"Oh, hello, Diana," Dorothea murmured. "Did I wake you?"

Mercedes' mother was much like her daughter with more wrinkles. But even those vanished away as she smiled and were it not for her shorter haircut, Dorothea might have mistook the two as twins.

"Oh, no," reassured Diana. "I just don't sleep as long as I used to." She gestured for Dorothea to sit.

She acquiesced, taking the spot across from the woman at the small table. When Dorothea had learned that Mercedes' mother had remarried to a merchant, she couldn't but help imagining some splendor. But that was not the case. Their house was but a single room with two adjoining rooms. According to Mercedes, it actually was quite a nice home for the area.

Dorothea's standards were still tinted with Enbarr wealth, where every man who tried to take her home for the evening had homes three or more times as large.

Though Mercedes had let slip that her mother's husband wasn't a very good merchant. And when she'd met the pompous, controlling man, she'd had a good laugh in private. The man was a fool, of that she had no doubt.

"Here," Dorothea said. She pulled a small sack of gold coins from her belt, fresh from the murdered corpses of the Shrike's men. "Sorry it took me longer."

"Oh, child," Diana murmured. "You don't owe us anything. You saved Mercedes' life, I'm the one who owes you." She did reach out and take the coins, as this was a tired debate the two of them had.

At least Diana had stopped asking where the money came from.

"It's the least I can do." Dorothea smiled.

The tea kettle whistled from the small stove. Dorothea made to stand, but Diana waved her down. With a mischievous grin, she said, "It's the least I can do."

Like mother, like daughter, Dorothea mused.

"I'm glad I caught you, though," Diana said as she prepared their tea. Dorothea rested her still cold fingers around the warm cup, sighing contently. Diana sat down again. "Mercedes speaks highly of you."

Dorothea blinked. "Well, you know her. She sees the best in everyone."

Diana nodded in agreement. "I won't deny that. I haven't an idea where she got that trait from. Certainly not me. Age begets cynicism, I'm afraid."

"Age begets experience, I think," Dorothea replied, taking a sip. She winced, too hot.

"Charmer," Diana accused with a light laugh. "What I mean is, I've never heard Mercedes speak of anyone like she does you. Not Annette, not this Byleth that I heard about in letters. You're different to her, Dorothea."

She shrugged, noncommittal.

"She loves that you pray with her, you know," Diana continued. "Goddess, I'd say you're the only thing that's managed to put a smile on her face in the past year."

"I've just tried to make her happy," Dorothea said.

Diana nodded. "I think you have, my dear. She loves how well you take to the children in the church's orphanage. And those kids sure love their Aunt Dorothea."

Dorothea blushed. "I'm sure anyone could do that."

"Perhaps." Diana's eyes narrowed. "But it's you whom my daughter is in love with, not anyone else."

Dorothea froze.

The woman across from her laughed, though her gaze didn't leave its mark. "Your expression is priceless, Dorothea. Do not be afraid, you'll leave this table unscathed, I think." Her expression turned serious again. "I just want to ask if what you leave during the night to do will put my daughter in danger."

Though many faults she had, inability to think on her feet wasn't one of Dorothea's. "Of course not, I would never put Mercie in danger. I—" Dorothea stopped herself. "She's important to me," she said instead.

Diana nodded. "For what it's worth, I believe you. I see the way you two act around each other when alone." Dorothea blushed. "But you can't fault a mother for worrying, can you?"

"Never," Dorothea said, quickly taking a sip of her tea to give her hands something to do besides tremble.

"I'm glad you make her happy," Diana said, smiling. "Just…be careful with her. If you leave one night and never come back, I don't know if even the Goddess could save her."

"I'll always be at her side," Dorothea vowed.

Diana nodded, approving. "Good, you've relieved some stress from this old mother."

They spoke for a few more minutes as they drank their tea. Then, Dorothea bid the woman good night and returned to her room.

Mercedes slept as soundly as she had when Dorothea had snuck away. She was relieved, the woman's good nights of sleep were far and few between. Dorothea stripped to her underclothes and slinked back into the bed underneath the furs. A moment later, Mercedes had snuggled up to her.

Their bare skin touching should have been arousing, alluring, or something else sensual. But it wasn't. It was closeness, something deeper than friendship. It was comfort.

Mercedes slept softly, the occasional snore slipping through. Dorothea leaned her head into her fair hair.

She'd never been in love before, but by the Goddess did she love Mercedes. And she couldn't be more terrified by it. Where was someone like Hilda to help her, to listen to her blab about feelings? She'd know. Or even Claude! She'd even take Ferdie if it meant someone listening.

Dorothea pulled Mercedes against her tighter. If Hilda saw her now, she'd never hear the end of it. Sleeping with the woman she loved, wearing next to nothing? Yeah, Hilda'd have a day.

She didn't enjoy lying to Diana, but of course she knew Mercedes' feelings. It wasn't hard, not for an opera star who'd had men and women throw themselves at her feet. And Dorothea had sung songs about true loves destined to be, not loving a woman whose best friend and former lover were recently dead.

And what if Byleth wasn't dead? Mercedes would choose her over Dorothea any day, of that she had no doubt after seeing the two of them together. Dorothea refused to do that to her professor or her friend.

"Dorothea?" murmured Mercedes.


Mercedes turned over to look Dorothea in the eyes. She smiled that smile that made Dorothea fall in love all over again. "You're thinking too much." She drew Dorothea into an embrace and kissed her forehead.

Despite her confused heart, Dorothea soon found herself asleep.

"Hello, Annie," Mercedes murmured as she knelt in the snow. With a gloved hand, she brushed the snow from the stone.


Dorothea had made it, carving the stone with lightning. She'd thought giving Mercedes a place to grieve would be good. She was right, as she usually was.

"I told the children at the orphanage about the time we stole bread from the kitchens at school," Mercedes said.

The songstress had offered to make one for Byleth too. Mercedes hadn't known how to respond to that. A grave felt final, like she was giving up on her teacher—no, her lover.

"One of them asked me if it was okay to steal bread from our kitchens—I think she'd be your favorite."

Byleth was…special to her. She loved Byleth. To put her in the ground like that…

"I told her no, of course. I must remember not to tell them stories they'll pick bad habits up from."

She'd set up a grave for Byleth by Jeralt's, someday, where she belonged. She'd make it back to Garreg Mach and give the woman a proper burial.

"They've asked me a few times if they can meet you, you know."

Dorothea would take her there if she asked, and part of Mercedes wanted to selfishly ask for the closure.

"I've told them you're traveling somewhere, somewhere better and safer than Fódlan."

Mercedes loved Dorothea. But she also still loved Byleth. At least she thought she did.

"I think they understood. They're smart kids."

Oh, she was a mess. Would that the Goddess had made love easy.

"One of them told me that they hoped I'd see you again someday. I almost cried, I'll admit."

She'd asked her mother about it all. Diana had asked her if she really loved Byleth. Mercedes thought she had.

"Today I'm going to teach them to sew. I want to have them make a blanket they can all share, I think it'll be fun."

Byleth made her feel needed, like she'd have broken apart if Mercedes were not there. Dorothea made her feel wanted, like every moment with her was well spent.

"Remember when we did that together, Annie?"

Mercedes knew which of those two she preferred, which she had grown to realize wasn't what she desired a year ago.

"I still have that blanket, you know. It's quite small now."

She felt safe around Dorothea. Comfortable.

"I wish we had had more time, Annie."

"You stopped going out at night," Mercedes observed.

Dorothea stopped brushing her hair and turned her head to meet her gaze. She sat on the bed, still dressed. "I didn't know you'd noticed I left."

Mercedes rolled her eyes. "We sleep in the same bed, Dorothea. I'm forgetful, not dumb."

"I never said you were." She set down the hairbrush and turned on the stool, facing her.

"Sorry," she apologized. "I haven't been good at things like this lately."

Dorothea stood up and sat down on the bed beside her. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Mercedes nodded and stayed silent. Dorothea waited patiently, content to pass the time with nothing exchanged between them.

"Are you happy here?" Mercedes finally asked.

She smiled. "Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"

And she was happy. Happier than she'd been in a long time. Between Diana and Mercedes, it felt like she had a family and by the Goddess did that open her eyes. She'd dismissed having a family as something not worth her time, that all she should try for was money, power, and maybe love. She'd been wrong.

"I just don't want you to be somewhere you don't want to be," Mercedes murmured, looking down at her feet.

Dorothea wrapped an arm around Mercedes. "Hey. I'm here because I want to be. If I didn't, I would have left after I got you home. Claude offered me a place, I'm sure Sylvain would to. Anyone from the Deer would."

"Wouldn't you be happier there?" Mercedes asked.

She blinked. "Do you want me to go?" Dorothea removed her arm from the woman.

Mercedes shook her head. "No, I just don't understand what makes you want to stay. Why stay in our little hovel to look after a church when you could go anywhere and do anything?"

"Because those places don't have you," she answered. Dorothea felt a flicker of electricity pass between her fingers and she shook her hand, dispelling it.

"What do you mean?" The question was probing, like Mercedes was looking for an answer.

Dorothea thought about lying, but sighed instead. "Because you're important to me, because I've fallen for you. Because you matter to me more than anything."

Mercedes' eyes went wide. "Oh," her mouth forming the same shape.

"That doesn't mean I expect anything," Dorothea waved off, not looking at her. "I know you and Byleth…I know you were close. I don't want to infringe on that, I won't be a homewrecker. Perhaps I should have stayed quiet." She looked at Mercedes. "Mercie, I know it's a lot to ask, but I don't want things to change between us. I like—"

Her lips were on hers, a light pressure that spoke without words how unsure it was. Mercedes pulled back before Dorothea could think.

"Would…this be an okay change?" Mercedes asked, hesitant. She trembled slightly, Dorothea could feel it in the hand she'd rested onto the songstress' thigh that she most certainly hadn't noticed being there.

She reached a hand up to brush the older woman's cheek. Her fingers glided over the soft skin, sending shivers. "Mercie, are you sure?" she asked, her voice so quiet even the gentlest gust of wind could have blown it away.

"Yes," Mercedes said.

Dorothea pulled her in and kissed her. It was gentle but did nothing to diminish the longing she felt for Mercedes. Their bodies pressed up against each other, warm amidst the frigid Faerghus air.

Mercedes broke apart and smiled a smile Dorothea hadn't seen since their academy days. "I don't think you're the only one who has fallen, Dorothea."

Their kissing grew all the more ravenous begetting of desire as they fell back onto their bed, together.

Chapter Text


Dearest Marianne,

I know we haven't see eye to eye in the years of late, but I implore you not to ignore this letter. I must speak with you posthaste.

I understand that we have our differences, but I propose a bargain. Come back to Edmund Manor for a day. Let us speak and then I shall not continue to seek you out. We will go our separate ways, you to pursue what you wish and I continuing to lead house Edmund. If you should ever wish to return to the Manor, I of course would welcome you with open arms, but should you wish to turn your back on me entirely, I will accept that as well.

Come back home, daughter. We have much to discuss.


She found Holst in his study. The room was rarely used. In fact, Marianne made use of it herself while Holst was at the Locket. It'd been something of a gift to her, a way he showed approval of her courting his sister. At least that was what Hilda claimed.

"Ah, Marianne!" Holst exclaimed, looking up from the numerous papers on his desk. Whenever he returned to Goneril for a visit, the entire study descended into disarray, the Lord Goneril unable to keep things anywhere close to neat.

Which was not something she would have expected based on his appearance, perfectly groomed at all times with not a pink hair out of place on his head.

"Are those new earrings, Lord Holst?" she asked as she walked into the room.

He'd long given up trying to talk her out of the formality. One night he'd even argued that as his future sister-in-law, he would not have her calling him 'lord'. She'd blushed terribly at that, insisting that might not happen. Holst had given her the most exasperated look she'd ever seen.

"Oh, these?" he chuckled. They were large golden hoops that glimmered in the sunlight peeking through curtains. "Another of Hilda's creations. Seems I've become a test subject for her. Did you know that she judges the jewelry she makes for me based on how the lords and ladies throw themselves at me? And to think I thought her a caring sister, not one to throw me to the wolves."

Marianne giggled. "Perhaps she just knows you can handle them."

"Nonsense," Holst insisted. "They will be the death of me. I can fight the Almyrans for years and they would never inflict the damage those harpies could."

She sat down in the seat across from the desk, careful not to disturb the mess of papers. There was a method to the madness, Holst insisted. It didn't matter to her though, he always cleaned it all up before he left again.

"How was Derdriu?" Holst asked, leaning forward. She liked that about him, he was always interested in hearing about her comings and goings.

Marianne smiled, something she'd been doing more of lately. "It was lovely. Claude and Lorenz have made quite the team there."

"I heard that Claude named Lorenz as his seneschal. That actually happen?"

She giggled. "You would have found Lorenz' expression quite amusing had you seen it. The rumors paint him as so subservient to Claude, which he detests. But he seems very proud of the work they're doing together."

Holst smiled. "I can't say I can fault him for that. Some of those proposals they've put to the Roundtable, I've balked at their gumption. But I think their hearts are in the right place. They truly do want a better Alliance."

"I assume you mean the peace talks?" she murmured. Though that was hardly the only proposal the nobles were calling radical.

"Yes. If you had told me five years ago we might be able to form a treaty with Almyra I would have laughed you out of the room. I can't fathom how they managed to get Almyra to seriously consider something," Holst wondered. "But an end to the fighting on the border…that's something I would support."

"They're an impressive team," Marianne said, pleased.

He chuckled, warmly. "You're proud of them, aren't you?" She blushed and his laughter hit a crescendo. "They're making real change, the kind the Alliance hasn't seen in a generation. I'll admit I'm thrown off by it, but I won't rule anything out. Change can be good."

"Less war is always good," Marianne said. "When I was there, I saw my friend Leonie. She was hurt during the battle at Garreg Mach. She…still hurts, in a way. So if we can ensure that doesn't happen again…"

Holst nodded. "I won't argue against that. Some of my men…" He shook his head. "No, you didn't come here to talk about politics and war. Was there something you wanted to speak about?"

Marianne nodded, removing the letter from her pocket. "My father has summoned me."

He grabbed the letter from her hand and read it quietly. Frowning, he handed it back to her. "I don't know much about Alister, but Hilda's told me some. What are you going to do?"

She sighed. "I will return."

His eyes narrowed. "I know his offer seems tempting, Marianne, but are you sure? He's dangerous to you, according to Hilda. Are you even sure he will uphold his end?"

"No," Marianne said simply. "But I won't stay afraid of him. I haven't seen him in years. I feel…ready to face him again."

It wasn't a lie. Instead of the panics she had at the thought of him, now she only felt discomfort. The thought of visiting her adoptive father brought her no joy, but running from problems didn't help. She'd run from the darkness in her heart for long enough to learn that the problems ran with you too.

Hilda, Byleth, the Deer, they'd all helped. Her nights were not spent wishing for her doom, now they were in the strong arms of Hilda Valentine Goneril, wondering what she had ever done to deserve such happiness.

But in the back of her mind, Alister von Edmund waited. Ignoring him would not make him leave. She was older, more capable, and less afraid.

"Are you sure?" Holst asked.

As if her doubts sensed the moment, memories she'd rather forget of blood, needles, and the man with pale hands resurged in her mind. She stuffed them down and took a long breath. "I will be okay, but I appreciate your concern."

"Have you talked to Hilda about this?"

She hadn't. "She's my next stop."

"Talking to me before her? You're avoiding her, aren't you?"

Marianne blushed. "Perhaps. I worry how she'll react."

Holst laughed. He laughed long and hard. "Oh, Marianne, my sister will not allow you to go yourself, I know that. I'm sure she'll want to bring a score of guards as well. That woman loves you more than anything. I shudder to think of what will happen to Alister should he try to harm you."

Marianne smiled softly. "She does, doesn't she?"

He looked at her with disbelief. "Please tell me this isn't news to you. My sister is anything but subtle."

"No, no, I am aware. It is just strange to hear and believe sometimes," Marianne said.

"If I can see it, then take it as fact. Hilda tells me I'm as dense as a wyvern, whatever that means," he grumbled. A moment later, he sobered. "Marianne, my sister is the most important person in the world to me. You make her happier than I have ever seen her in my life. You two need each other, are meant for each other." He bit his lip. "I guess I'm just trying to say thank you, thank you for making her happy."

Marianne fumbled for words and never found them. Holst seemed to understand and just nodded. "Go see her, she's training the guards outside. Let her be protective of you, we both know she enjoys fussing over you."

"Thank you, Lord Holst," Marianne said, bowing her head as she stood up.

He groaned. "I'm gonna get you to drop that sometime if it's the last thing I do."

She giggled at his expense and took her leave, walking taller.

"Put your back into it, I put more effort into brushing my hair each morning!" Hilda yelled.

Marianne could do nothing to quell the amused smile on her face. She sat across the training yard as the morning sun cast her spot in a comfortable shade, waiting for Hilda to finish with the soldiers.

Much to her lover's chagrin, soldiers talked after the battle at Garreg Mach. The stunts Hilda pulled on the walls didn't go unnoticed. When her brother had heard, he suggested she train some of the soldiers (after he finished chewing her out over such a risk).

Hilda had objected, of course. But Marianne had mentioned it might be good for her. And thus Hilda Valentine Goneril crumbled in her resolve.

And by the Goddess, Hilda was good at it. Never too cruel, never too kind, always demanding. She'd changed and that made Marianne smile. Hilda looked happier, prouder, lately.

The soldiers that were being put to task by Hilda couldn't see it, but Marianne saw the smile in Hilda's eyes. When she put herself to work, she could accomplish anything. It was something Marianne loved about her.

Hilda finally saw her across the yard, through the groups of soldiers practicing. She barked some orders to the soldiers and began to head to Marianne.

She held out a towel and Hilda accepted it, sparing a moment to ogle Hilda's abs as the plain white shirt she wore rode up her stomach. Hilda waggled her eyebrows. "Like what you see?"

Marianne hummed. "Maybe."

"Oh, I like it when you're flirty," Hilda said, sitting down next to her. "So, just here to enjoy the view?"

She rolled her eyes. "I actually wished to speak with you." When Hilda nodded for her to go on, she continued. "I received a letter this morning. From Alister." Marianne held out the letter.

Hilda's eyes narrowed and she took the piece of paper, scanning it quickly. She turned her head up. "Mari, you can't be considering this, can you?"

"I'm not afraid of him," Marianne said, burying the apprehension she had.

"I'm not saying you are," Hilda replied. "Or saying you should be. Look, I know you don't like to talk about it, but from what you told me…he's fucked up. He's dangerous."

Marianne said nothing.

Hilda's hand enveloped hers. "Mari, if you go, it's gonna be dangerous. I don't know what that psycho wants, but I don't want to lose you."

"But if it makes him stop?" Marianne murmured.

A hand reached up and stroked her cheek. "What if he hurts you?" Hilda whispered.

Marianne winced. "What if he hurts you, though? What if this protects you?"

Lips pressed against her hand and Hilda brushed a thumb over her knuckles. "He can't hurt you or me here. We're safe here."

"But he's still out there," Marianne shivered. "If this means I could deal with him…"

"Mari," Hilda pulled her into a hug. "It's okay to be scared. It's okay to not be feeling perfect."

She nodded, saying nothing, just taking comfort in the strong arms around her.

"We can always kill him," Hilda suggested. "You don't have to deal with him, Claude can put Judith on the Roundtable, it's a win for everyone."

"Hilda!" admonished Marianne.

She pulled back, looking Marianne in the eyes. "I wasn't joking. He's put you through so much. If you want me to, just say the word and I will. I will go into the Eternal Flames themselves if it means protecting you."

Her heart fluttered as Hilda spoke without hesitation. Her voice held no doubt, no waver, no possible way to think she meant anything other than 'I love you'.

"Marry me," Marianne breathed with equal assurance.

Hilda blinked. "Wait, what?"

"Marry me," she repeated, feeling more confident. "I love you, Hilda, you're for me. I don't have a ring or anything, I'm sorry—"

Hilda cut her off with a kiss, breaking it a moment later and saying, "Yes." She kissed her again, longer, more passionately.

When they finally broke apart, Hilda chuckled. "You know, I had a whole speech planned out. I had a ring I made myself. I had talked to other Deer because I was so nervous. I even talked to Holst about it! And here you go and send all that spinning."

"I'm sorry."

"No." Hilda smiled and it was radiant. "Marianne, you have nothing to apologize for. Nothing to me, nothing to this world."

She kissed Marianne, and everything felt right in the world.

Chapter Text


"Are you ready?"

She sat down on the stone in the classroom, holding her arm out. Light skinned hands rested on her arm. "You sure about this?"

The other woman pouted. "What part of a breakthrough do you not understand? Or are you doubting my ability?"

The man in the doorway snorted, two massive gauntlets hanging from his waist. "Definitely the latter, Constance."

Constance's eyes narrowed. "Balthus, I cannot believe you! Keep your doubt in check or I will turn you into a frog."

"That only happens in fairy stories, Constance."

"More doubt!"

"Hey, can we focus here?" Hapi asked. "I'm kind of about to be experimented on, some focus would do." Even saying the word gave her discomfort, much less the memories she pretended to forget.

Constance scoffed and scooted closer to her, to the middle of the Wolves' classroom. "Experiment implies I do not know the outcome. The outcome is that you are healed, dearest."

"Glad you have enough confidence for the both of us, Coco." Hapi rolled her eyes, but still trembled.

A hand grabbed hers, squeezing gently. "Are you sure about this, Hapi?" she asked.

Hapi nodded. "Let's get it underway before Yuri-bird gets back."

Balthus cracked his knuckles. "What they don't know won't hurt them."

Constance began to draw sigils and glyphs on the ground around Hapi. It all had a dark familiarity to it, something the men with pale hands had done to her time and time again. But this wasn't them, this was Coco. Her heartrate slowed, calmed by that thought.

"Do you need me to do anything?" Hapi asked.

"I'll need you to sigh when I tell you to," Constance said while playing with her log hair as she checked over her work. "And keep sitting there pretty and still."

"Save your flirting for the bedroom," Balthus called out.

"B, shut up!" Hapi growled as Constance blushed.

He laughed. "You sure this is safe? What if she sighs and it doesn't work?"

"Then that's what you're here for," Constance explained. "Unless you don't think you can handle a monster."

"Hypocrite, that sounds like doubt!" Balthus exclaimed. "I am the king—"

"Of showboating, yes, we're aware," Constance jabbed with no malice. She sighed. "Now, cease your excitement, I have to work."

Hapi stayed quiet as Constance began to murmur words under her breath.

"Okay, now sigh."

Hapi sighed.

The glyph exploded with brilliance—no, that wasn't right. The light wasn't emitted, it was consumed. The brightness in the room surrounded Hapi and she felt something well up in her chest, something burning. Hapi threw out a hand to steady herself on the floor, vision growing dizzy.

"Hapi!" Constance shouted, sounding far away.

Hapi blinked several times, but the light was too great. Her vision was all but gone, like she was staring into the sun itself, the Eternal Flames burning away her retinas—

The spell stopped. Hapi seized forward, struck with a hacking cough, nearly vomiting.


Arms were on her shoulders. She looked up, heaving breaths, into Constance's face. "Did it work?" she croaked.

Constance shook her head. "I have no idea. You screamed, so I cut the spell."

"I did?" Hapi murmured.

"Let's get her to a healer." Balthus.

"And a nap," Hapi murmured. The weakness in her own voice scared her.

"I'll carry her," Constance said. "You head off Yuri until we have something to tell them."

"Take care of her," Balthus said, serious, before departing.

"Coco?" Hapi muttered. "I feel cold."

"Hang on for just a few minutes, then I'll get you all the blankets you desire," Constance promised.

Hapi nodded. That sounded nice.

Yuri found the body in a river.

It was curious, because the woman wasn't at all worn away. He had seen plenty in rivers, before and during the war. Flesh didn't stay on the body once it began to decay. At least, not the ones he'd seen.

He breathed a bit of light magic into their hands, scaring away the lingering darkness of daybreak. The woman had washed up ashore, expression so content that she could have been sleeping.

Most importantly, she was breathing.

"What's your story…" Yuri murmured, refraining from touching the green haired woman. His hands brought the light around their body, looking for injuries.

None, the woman was unmarred. In fact, he'd go so far as to say she was beautiful, soaked as she was. In her arms, held protectively, was a massive sword Yuri couldn't help but recognize.

"Byleth Eisner?" That was…odd. Last they'd heard, she was counted among the dead. What was a professor doing washing ashore four years after a battle?

Rhea had him monitor Byleth for months after she initially arrived at the monastery, and Aelfric had them continue after. The woman was interesting, sure, but not enough to warrant such attention. At least, in Yuri's opinion.

So they made a decision.

"You'll have to make up for getting me soaked," they groaned, lifting Byleth up over their shoulders. Why wasn't Balthus here to do this? That's what he was best for. But no, he'd had to stay behind for something. Yuri couldn't even remember what the hasty excuse was.

Byleth stirred, but didn't wake. Yuri sighed. But his luck wasn't smiling on them today.

And so began their long walk back to Abyss with the extra cargo.

Hapi woke to Constance's fussing. Which, contrary to popular belief, was a comfort to her. Balthus liked to claim they were together, despite their protests. And they were. Kind of.

It was complicated.

"Hapi?" three voices called out at once.

"Mmm," Hapi hummed, blinking bleary eyes open. She was in her bed, wrapped up in blankets per Constance's promise. Glancing around, she asked, "Who died?"

Balthus, Constance, Yuri, and Aelfric all looked at each other. Balthus spoke up, "You know, we kind of thought you were."

Hapi's eyes flicked over to the bed on the opposite side of the room. "I meant her. But I'm fine, I don't know what you're talking about."

Everyone's gaze turned towards the woman in the bed. Her hair was soaked and clothes that were presumably hers were hanging and drying over a chair.

"She can wait," Yuri said, stepping forward and sitting on the bed. Everyone's eyes turned back, except Aelfric's who lingered on the woman, something in his eyes Hapi couldn't place.

"What I want to know," they said, frowning, "is whether this worked."

Hapi grinned. At least Yuri wasn't mad.

"And why you tried something so stupid."

Oh, there it was.

"Don't blame Coco or anything, it was my call. She thought she had a way to get rid of my sigh. Guess it didn't pan out." Hapi shrugged, nonchalant. But she must have betrayed something, because Aelfric honed in on her.

"Performing a ritual like this down here was dangerous," he said, displeased. Aelfric looked even more worn than usual, even more exhausted. "You had no way of knowing the consequences of it. You could have destroyed everything I—we—worked for."

Constance refused to meet anyone's eyes, drowning in guilt. Hapi shrugged. "Good thing we didn't."

Aelfric scoffed. "Children." He left the room.

"Let him go," Yuri said, resting his face in his hands. "I don't have the energy to deal with him now."

Hapi didn't miss the way he said that. Balthus and Constance were probably oblivious to it, But Hapi hadn't missed the tension between the two heads of Abyss. A storm was brewing there, not ready to explode, but building up gradually.

"Okay, yeah, maybe it was a mistake," Hapi admitted, more to get Yuri off her back than in actual apology. "But, if it helps, I think it worked?"

Constance gasped. "Truly?"

Hapi nodded. "Before, there was some weird pit in my stomach all the time. Now it's just…gone? I don't know how to describe it."

Balthus laughed. "Well, there's one way to test it."

She sighed. "B, you moron."

Yuri stilled. Constance froze. Balthus raised an eyebrow.

"Oh," Hapi said.

They all waited.

And nothing happened.

"I am brilliant!" exclaimed Constance at the top of her lungs. Balthus walked over and gave her a hug while Yuri allowed a small smile to creep across his face.

"It's just…gone?" Hapi said, eyes wide. She bit her lip and sighed.

Nothing, again.

Constance cheered louder and Balthus covered his ears.

"Hey," Yuri murmured, cutting through the bickering around them that had begun. "Congratulations."

There was a groan from the opposite side of the room. The four of them stopped, eyes darting to the woman.

She was sitting up, rubbing her eyes and staring at them.

Hapi pulled Yuri out of the room once Byleth had calmed down and fallen back to sleep. Constance was watching over her and Balthus had left to track down Aelfric.

"What are we going to do with her?" Hapi demanded.

Yuri raised an eyebrow. "Is there a problem with her? Or can we not help a woman in need?"

"She's her dog, Rhea's dog," she hissed. "I know you're ambivalent about her, but the rest of us aren't!"

He gestured for her to follow him, leading her away from the room. "Look, I'm not going to pretend to be an advocate for Rhea, but—"

"No, you look!" interrupted Hapi, seeing red. She stopped and took a breath. Turning away from Yuri, she continued. "Abyss is safe because people like her aren't here. Now you want to bring a…"

"Wolf into the herd of sheep?"

Hapi could hear the grin on his voice and she growled at it. "Yes, that."

They stepped up next to her. "You have every right to hate the Church. All of us have our qualms with them. I'm sure Aelfric does too." Yuri cast a glance back to the room. "But where you see a threat, I see an opportunity."

She was silent for a long moment. Then, "Go on."

Yuri flashed a grin. "I think we can assume Rhea is dead. Or out of the picture, in the least. If you believe the rumors, our Miss Byleth over there is a reincarnation of the Goddess."

Hapi snorted. "As if you're one to believe horseshit like that."

His eyes twinkled in that way they did when they had a winning hand in cards. "I do when the Archbishop herself told me."


"I get around," they said with laughter. "But my point is, true or not, it doesn't matter, so long as people believe it."

"You want to spread the rumor?" she guessed.

Yuri grinned. "Got it in one. You know what I think about this war, Hapi?"

"I think you're going to tell me no matter what."

He rolled his eyes. "There's not three sides to this conflict, there's four. We just haven't picked our side yet."

She connected the dots and her eyes widened. "You're crazy."

Spreading his arms wide, Yuri smiled. "I say Abyss picks a side. And with us we'll bring a powerful bargaining chip. Kingdom, Empire, or Alliance, the side we pick can call it a holy war if we bring the reincarnated Goddess with us."

"And then they'll recognize Abyss," Hapi finished. "They won't send us back underground because we brought them their Goddess."

"Smart woman," Yuri said, looking pleased with themself. "Aelfric thinks running around these tunnels looking for some artifact is going to change things for us, I say different. This Chalice won't save us. But a Goddess? I'm more confident about that."

Hapi stared at him, before smiling herself. "It might just work."

"We just have to tell a few lies. But I think we've done plenty of that so far, what's a few more?" Yuri invited.

"Who do you think we should support? Kingdom, Alliance, or Empire?"

Yuri shrugged. "Whichever gives us the best deal. I think an Abyss army in the center of Fódlan would be enticing to everyone."

"And if Byleth refuses?" Hapi asked.

Yuri started to walk back to the room. "I've got something in mind for that, don't worry."

Chapter Text



Sorry it's been so long since I wrote. The ambassador and I just returned from Morfis. I'm actually writing this on the boat back. He tells me to give you his regards.

He misses you, I think. I do too.

The rest of the kids miss you too. Ha. Kids doesn't seem to be the right word for them anymore. Some of them are as old as we were five years ago. Doesn't feel like it's been that long.

There's a place for you if you come back, remember that.



We just got word from Sylvain, Dimitri's dead.

It hasn't hit me yet, honestly. I grew up knowing about him and was under the assumption he'd be the next king. We all did, in Faerghus. Sure, we lost Lambert, but Dimitri would always be there.

Guess it's one of those comforts you don't value until it's gone. Claude doesn't know what's going to happen to Faerghus, which I think is one of the few times I've heard him admit to not knowing something. But Sylvain is doing what he can to manage, sounds like he and Felix are leading the resistance against the Empire. Though Felix didn't sound optimistic when I spoke to him.

Part of me feels like I should be with them, fighting against Rowe, Cornelia, and the rest of the Empire up north. I ought to ask Mercedes what she thinks next time I see her.

Maybe you're up there fighting. I don't know what side is paying you these days, but wherever you are, I hope you're safe.



Whenever I start these letters, I wonder if you'll respond. I've been sending them to Hevring still, maybe the reason I haven't heard back is because you're not there anymore.

Or maybe you just want me to stop.

Leonie doesn't agree with either. She and I work together most of the time. Captain of the Ducal Guard suits her, I think you'd be proud of her. Though she's still struggling with what's happened to her, she's getting better. I'm proud of her for that, at least.

I asked her what I should write to you and she said what I felt. Said that nothing else I have to say is getting a response, so I might as well lay down my hand.

I'm angry, Shamir.

I'm furious that when I woke up you weren't there. I'm furious that no one could tell me whether you survived until months later when I talked to Felix who saw you make it out. I'm not a saint, but I didn't deserve to just be abandoned, not without an explanation.

And I'm angry that you're working with the Empire.

I'm not stupid, you know. This Shrike that's targeting nobles, Claude thinks its Hubert. And I don't correct him. But I've seen the assassination attempts. Sylvain told me all about the death of his father. And I know your work when I see it.

I just want to know why, Shamir. Why for everything. If you hate me, fine. Just grow the fuck up enough to tell me. You're better than this.



Look, I'm sorry for the last letter. It's been...stressful, lately. Seteth is still trying to convince me to help him organize the Knights of Seiros again. You'd think after the fourth time saying no, he'd stop, but I suppose I can't blame him. With you and I gone, Alois dead, and Seteth crippled, who's left? Flayn? As if he'd ever accept that.

He understands, I think. I don't think he believes Rhea is alive either. We had hope at first but…five years is a long time. I might have given up on her, but he hasn't yet.

Must be strange to hear, right? Me, giving up on Rhea. I hadn't at first, not until I started working with Claude.

You know, if you ever come back, you should ask Claude about what his dream is, I think you'd appreciate it. I know I do.

But back to Claude, he put things into perspective. Maybe you had known, but the story behind Rhea, Jeralt, Byleth…it sure is something. They might all be dead, but I'm still left to wonder if I ever knew who Rhea was.

I thought she was goodness incarnate, but maybe I was just too self-centered. Too convinced I'd never serve someone so callous, so I pretended she was perfect.

I did…a lot of bad things in her name. We killed so many in Gaspard during the rebellion. And others, so many others. I was her sword, her bloody instrument. I think that blood is still on me.

I doubt you want to hear me whine so I'll stop here. I don't know why I even send these anymore.



I'm leaving Leicester for a while. I can't say where I'm headed. But if for some reason you decide to send a letter, I won't receive it. I'm pretty certain this is the type of mission that if it goes wrong, I won't be coming back.

It might go well, but that kind of luck is in short supply these past five years. I'm not optimistic.

So this is goodbye, Shamir. There's not much I have to say that I haven't said in these letters. I guess I just hope you remember me. Whether that's ill feelings or not, it's something. With the rest of the Charons dying last year, I think it'd be nice to be in someone's thoughts.

I love you, Shamir. I always have and will.

I wish things could have been different.


There is a stack of unfolded letters on the desk, many-day-old tear stains sprinkle some of them. All are addressed to the same person and written in the same messy handwriting. Next to the pile is a crumpled up piece of paper, incomplete in its thoughts, but not forgotten.


I don't know what to say on paper. Talking has never been my strong suit, so writing certainly isn't.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry for a lot of things and most of them involve you. Looking back on things, I see a lot I could have changed, a lot we could have done better.

But maybe that never could have been the case. We were so young, Catherine. Despite everything I said, I really did think things would last between us.

The next sentences are crossed out so furiously the words beneath them are impossible to decipher. The letter continued beneath them.

Fuck, Catherine, I don't know what to do. I've been in the Empire trying to save someone for a while now. I doubt you'll believe me, but that's part of the reason I haven't written you back. I'd blow my cover.

It's a shit excuse, I know. Mostly because I know if I tried I could have sent you a message. But I'm a coward.

You deserve to know why for a lot of things. I hope—

The words 'to see you again' are crossed out.

I hope the future is kinder to us.

The letter remains unfinished.

The letter is tucked behind a loose brick in the wall, so tightly wedged in that no one would see the difference. It is hidden where only two know its location.

I'm sorry. I'm leaving you.

Remember what I taught you. Don't let them change who you are. Don't let your people suffer. Fight us if you have to. We won't hold it against you.

Do what you have to do. Don't hesitate, don't show her even a second of weakness.

I'm going to Leicester. I've been away too long. Though if the good I've done these years is help protect you, then it wasn't for nothing.

I know I told you I'd stay by your side and protect you, but some things…some things you just have to do.

I hope we see each other again in kinder times, Petra.


Chapter Text

Part II: Respect

"Up you get, Queen, we've got a vermin problem."

Byleth snapped her eyes open. Her hand was on the sword by her bed a second later, using it to push herself out of bed.

"Get suited up, we're heading out in five. Others are already on their way." Hapi turned and left the room.

She blinked a few times, the hangover finally making itself known. Had Balthus not interrupted her night of moping, she might have escaped it. But nothing came in small quantities when it came to the Undisputed King of Grappling.

Her brain began to work again, reminding her what day it was, bringing on another wave of melancholy.

"Fuck," she breathed, voice husky. Fumbling into her clothes, she managed to get ready by time Hapi got back to the door.

"Ready?" she asked, voice as flat as always.

Byleth nodded. "Is it just us?"

"Yeah. Yuri-bird's taken Coco and B around the back. Bandits showed up overnight, seems like Pallardó's back." Hapi scowled at the name, their constant irritant. The man seemed intent on pillaging what was left of the valuables in Garreg Mach.

They started walking through Abyss, making for the pathway that would lead them above ground, right next to Byleth's former room. She tried not to think about it.

Instead, she asked, "So we're hitting them from the front?" Her hand tightened on the Sword of the Creator as it thrummed with the power of Sothis.

"Where else would we be?" Hapi's look soured. "You know, I used to get partnered with Coco for these kinds of things."

"Guess Yuri's decided we work better together," Byleth said.

"If you say so, Queen," Hapi muttered. They reached the stairs leading out of Abyss, light awaiting them at the top. "So long as we kill Pallardó, then you won't hear me complain."

They started their climb. "All you do is complain," Byleth shot back.

"Then stop listening."

Neither said anything further until they stepped into the light, the desolation of the monastery greeting them.

"Hey," Byleth said, grabbing Hapi's green cloak. The red haired woman looked back at her. "Constance is going to be okay. She's strong. Plus Balthus and Yuri are with her."

Hapi allowed a small smile and her expression softened. "You're not wrong, Queen. Thank you."

"So stop complaining or else the bandits will hear us."

Hapi's expression dropped back to a scowl. "You ass. I'm going to let Pallardó skewer you."

Byleth smirked. "As if you could part with my good company."

She snorted. "Don't get too cocky, Eisner. Or I'll stop protecting you from Yuri-bird's schemes."

Schemes, she thought fondly. Byleth smiled. She'd see him again—someday.

"Enough talk, let's go."

She hadn't brought Thunderbrand with her. The blade's red aura would have given her position away. It was stowed outside the walls to pick up after her business was done.

Still, Catherine missed the familiar bone hilt. A Relic was always warm to the touch of its wielder, her silver sword not so much. It was cold, indifferent, dispassionate. Much like her, so perhaps it fit.

Garreg Mach had seen better days, that much was clear. She hadn't returned since the battle, but the disarray saddened her. Gone were the gardens she'd loved to walk through, the buildings she'd spent so much time in. They were replaced by rubble and mud, only the most resilient plants attempting to grow with the looming, looted cathedral still standing amidst everything.

Catherine sighed, leaning on what remained of an archway. Five years ago, this would be the entrance to the monastery. Now, it felt like a pale imitation. An entrance to a graveyard, perhaps.

There was nothing she could do except keep her mind on the mission.

She kept forward on the main path, keeping low and skirting between mounds of stone. The people of Abyss no doubt would have scouts around, if Claude's hypothesis had merit.

Abyss had never crossed her mind when the monastery fell. They were their own people, ones who wanted nothing to do with Rhea. Catherine was ashamed to admit it took several years to understand that maybe it was with good reason. The Archbishop never told Catherine much, just orders. If Rhea had done harm to the people of Abyss, Catherine didn't know it.

Once, she would have insisted that could never happen, that because Catherine didn't know about it meant it wasn't true. That arrogance had dispelled in time, and distance, away from the Church.

So maybe the people of Abyss were good people. Catherine had shrugged when Claude had asked her if she thought as much.

"I just follow orders, it's all I've been good at," she'd told him.

He'd looked at her with pity and Catherine hadn't met his eyes. But it was true, wasn't it? She'd traded Rhea for Claude, someone she could follow and trust to think instead of her.

"I don't think that's true," he'd replied, offering a smile to soothe the words. "I think there's a lot of people out there who are safe because of the actions of Catherine, Knight of Seiros."

She scowled in the present, pulling herself back into the moment. The mission, remember the mission, she chided. Find this false incarnation of the Goddess and kill her.

"Could this not be Byleth?" Ferdinand had dared to hope when they were meeting.

Claude's stare had been long at the floor. "No," he finally croaked, closing his eyes. "It's been five years, Ferdinand. She's gone. Let her go."

And so brought Catherine to Garreg Mach to kill a rumored impersonator of the Deer's former professor.

A twig snapped beneath her foot. She stopped moving entirely, listening for any sound of life like her former partner had taught her to.

"Fuck," she whispered as footsteps grew louder behind her.

"Now, missy, we can do this the easy way or the hard way."

Catherine slowly turned to see a giant of a man with a mane of black hair. His muscles bulged from beneath his armor, two glowing Relic gauntlets on his hands.

Behind him, she was a blonde woman dressed in red, a silk turquoise cravat around her neck. Her hair blew in the wind that swirled around her, hand raised and poised to attack.

"Hard way," Catherine murmured, drawing her silver sword.

The tall man nodded. "Respect," he praised, before jumping at her.

It was grim, efficient work, something she and the rest of the Wolves had become accustomed to.

Pallardó lay on the ground, wounded. Around him were a dozen of other bandits, dead.

"Fuck you!" he shouted at the two women who stood before him.

Byleth didn't pay him any attention. Instead, she turned to Hapi, who had sunk to her knees. "You okay?" she asked. "Is it your condition?"

"I've got it under control," she hissed, one hand clenching the other's wrist. Trails of Dark magic smoke rose from her hands as she trembled.

"I trust you," Byleth said. "But if something changes, I need to know if I'm fighting a monster today."

"Maybe I'll draw one up just to spite you, then Yuri-bird will put me back with Coco."

Byleth chuckled, satisfied that she would be okay. Now she turned her attention to Pallardó, who shrank away even further as she raised the Sword of the Creator up to finish him.

"Oh, come now," he pleaded, still trying to scoot away despite the severe Dark magic burns on his body. "I'm sure we can come to some sort of agreement. I've got quite a wide range of contacts. Surely there's something you want, I can get you that!"

She paused. "Can you bring my father back?"

Pallardó blinked. "No, of course not."

"Too bad." She shrugged and plunged the blade into Pallardó's neck. He gurgled briefly before falling quiet. Byleth held the blade there for a few moments, listening.

"I think we got him," Hapi murmured, standing wearily. "No doubles this time."

"Good, I wasn't in the mood to chase him down again." Byleth took Hapi's arm and wrapped it around her shoulder, supporting her.

"Thanks," she said, a hacking cough coming over her.

Byleth frowned. "And this is better than what your condition was before?"

Hapi laughed, her voice still rough from screaming. "Trust me, you don't know how nice it is to actually sigh."

"If you say so," Byleth said. "You sure you didn't see Yuri in the fight?"

"None of them," she croaked back.

Yuri had been supposed to back them up, the five of them working through the group of bandits instead of just Byleth and Hapi. Thankfully, they'd survived, but Hapi had pushed herself too far. Well, almost too far. Were they at that point, Byleth would be fighting demonic beasts or giant wolves. That would have spelled the end for them.

"Could he have been ambushed?" Byleth asked.

"Unlikely, but possible," Hapi replied. "Mr. Silent might have finally met their match. Or they got lazy."

Byleth nodded. "Strong enough to move?"

Hapi snorted. "Nope. Let's go anyway."

Catherine hit the ground, her sword falling from her hands. She wrenched her breastplate free, gasping for breath as the caved in metal stopped suffocating her.

"Look, you surrender, I'll accept," the man said, unrelenting in his stance as if he knew her answer already.

She spit a wad of blood from her mouth, not seeing her sword. Instead of giving in, she crouched, raising her fists and nearly stumbling.

Sorry, Claude, guess this was it.

"Balthus," the blonde said, "we need to go."

"You're welcome to go, Constance," Balthus called out, eyes not leaving her. "But she's dangerous, we can't ignore her."

Constance huffed, raising her hand as the wind picked up again around her. "I am not suggesting that, merely reminding you of our urgency."

"Yeah, yeah," he muttered, waiting for Catherine to make a move.

The dirt at their feet had yielded to mud after Constance had summoned some sort of storm—Catherine didn't even know someone could do that with magic. She should have fled at that point.

She darted forward, going low. He swung a clawed fist, missing her as Catherine grabbed his arm, pulling him. His feet caught the mud and slipped.

As Catherine made to drive her elbow into his chest, a bout of wind caught her in the chest. Without her armor to weigh her down, it hurled her into a wall, causing more stones to fall around her. Catherine sunk to the ground.

She coughed and nearly lost her vision with the movement of her head. "Goddess," she breathed, though whether it was in prayer or pain, not even she knew.

"Damn, you're quick," Balthus said, brushing some of the mud from his hair.

"Balthus! Constance!"

"Yuri!" the woman exclaimed. "About time you showed up, help us deal with this one. She's being most troublesome." Balthus nodded in agreement, though she could see that he didn't take his eyes off her like the woman did.

Normally, this would be when Shamir would swoop in to save her ass. But it was just her this time, no partner to watch her back.

"I give," she murmured. Her vision was half red, blood spilling from her head into one of her eyes. "Just make it quick, please."

Balthus nodded, pressing what she assumed was his fist to his heart underneath his Relic. A warrior's salute of some kind.

"Balthus, wait!"

He paused, fist raised to strike.

A lavender clad person appeared in her line of sight. He audibly gasped when he saw her. "Thunderstrike Cassandra?"

"Jus' Catherine now," she slurred. Even on the edge of death she'd correct that.

Wait, who would call her that? She blinked a few times, finally seeing it. "Are you that Rowe kid?"

"Constance!" barked Yuri. "We need to heal her!"

"Yuri, don't be absurd. She's attacked us, she's with the bandits!"

"No, she isn't, we can't afford to let her die."

"Yuri, in case you got hit in the head or something, she ain't making it. Let's just put her out of her misery, yeah? Give her a clean death."

"Goddess, you two are such idiots when it comes to this country's nobility." A waft of White magic hit her and she could feel a few wounds closing, but not enough. "Dammit, Constance, help me!"

Catherine could see Constance huff and begin to walk over. "Look, I'm just saying that maybe you could explain what goes on inside that head of yours to the rest of us mortals—"

An arrow tore through her shoulder, completely passing out the other side, shattering the shoulder blade entirely. The woman screamed in agony as she stumbled and fell to the ground.

Catherine had only seen one person ever do that.

In her haze, she saw a man step into view, no more than a few dozen paces away. In his hands he held a bow taller than himself, the string pulled back by his shoulder as another arrow nocked.

"Get away from her," Ignatz growled, lining up his next shot.

He woke like he did most days, soaked in sweat as if he'd run to Enbarr and back. It was like this every night, the fear still lingering at his fingertips, begging him to grab an axe and fight back against the nightmares. He'd stopped fighting a long time ago.

A knock hit his door again. Right, he'd been woken by something.

"It's unlocked," Caspar von Bergliez said, brushing his white hair back and into some semblance of order. Had his father seen his state, he would have been in for a lecture.

The door opened, one of his guards stepping in. The man ostensibly didn't look at Caspar's bare torso or the weary expression on him. Instead, he stared at the wall, at attention, and spoke, "Milord, the contingent from Varley has arrived."

"Have them meet me in the war room," Caspar said. "Dismissed."

The guard turned and left without a second's delay. On his better days, it amused him, what they said behind his back. How during the night he'd scream out like he was on the battlefield. The fools had somehow made it sound brave rather than how pathetic it truly was.

Caspar stood and toweled himself off. He really ought to shower before seeing them, but there wasn't time. Walking to the basin of water in his room, he splashed his face and wet his hair.

Each day he looked in the mirror over the basin and each day he sighed. It was a few seconds spared in his long days that could so easily be forgotten, but they weren't. It was that look in his eyes, that look that'd been there since Lin…

No. He couldn't do this today.

Caspar wiped his face down and ran his hand through his hair to get close to passable. He threw on a military uniform before stepping out, still buttoning a few buttons.

"At ease," he said before the soldiers had finished their salute. "Fall in."

They obeyed without hesitation. Bergliez soldiers prided themselves in their ability and that pride was doubled when their lord was in view. Not that Caspar was Lord Bergliez, but with his father gone to the western front, he was in command of Fort Merceus.

The light of day had barely begun to crest the sky as he arrived at his destination. The soldiers outside the war room saluted him.

"At ease," he said, again. And he would continue saying it to the end of his days, he assumed.

"Milord," one of the two soldiers said. "The Countess is inside."

Caspar nodded and entered. He glanced briefly at the woman sitting before calling out, "Leave us."

His soldiers leapt to obey while the Varley soldiers did so far slower. His father had always had things to say about Varley soldiers, none of them flattering.

"Hello, Caspar," Bernadetta said, looking far more at ease with less people in the room.

"Hey, Bernie," Caspar chuckled. "It feels like it's been years."

"It has," she answered.

They said nothing for a few moments before a glimmer of the old Caspar showed. "Hug?" he asked, opening his arms.

Bernadetta nodded, embracing him tightly.

They both smelled rancid, him from night terrors and her from the road. But it didn't stop them from holding each other, hanging on to each other as if they might just slip away like all their other friends had.

"All in favor?"

Alister's voice summoned the votes from the Roundtable. Claude, Holst, and Alister himself raised their hands. Trevor shifted uneasily as Leander, Count of Gloucester, seethed. Neither raised their hands.

"The motion is passed," Alister said, a note of surprise creeping into his voice. It was swiftly dispelled as he struck the gavel against the table. "Lord Holst will oversee the de-escalation at the border. Lord Holst, this Roundtable is at your assistance for any aid you would require."

For the first time in his memory, Claude let his mask crack to show a triumphant smile. Trevor von Albrecht looked away.

Leander did not. His eyes bored into Claude, hot enough to make a lesser man quake. Claude was no lesser man.

"Do you have any idea what you've done here today?" Gloucester growled, interrupting Alister as he made to continue.

Claude's smile didn't waver. "Yes, I'm aware. I've made a step towards ending a futile loss of life for both our country and Almyra."

"Those savages would plunder our country if they could and you want to spare them?" he scoffed. "Never have I heard something so idiotic."

"And we would do the same to them," Claude challenged, leaning forward on the table. "As far as I'm concerned, who cares which side started things and who is to blame? Peace has always been built on blood, why not here as well?"

"Peace with them?" Leander nearly shouted. "Peace with the people who have been killing Gonerils for generations?" Holst shifted uncomfortably. "Peace with those who killed my grandfather? Peace with the mongrels who have been killing mothers, fathers, and children for generations?"

"Leander," Alister spoke up, but was quickly spoken over.

"Peace with the people we've been killing as well?" Claude's smile cut a hard edge on his handsome face. "Each side has murdered the other for as long as time can remember. Peace saves lives on both sides, Leander."

"You're despicable," Count Gloucester ground out, standing from his seat, "tarnishing the beliefs we've held this long."

Claude stood as well, matching his gaze. "You say that as if I'm the good guy, righteous and rule-honoring like the stories you grew up reading about Fódlan knights. Allow me to do away with that, Leander, I'm not that good guy. I will not stand up and follow broken rules in a system pitted against me. To think that can succeed, that's naivety at best, idiocy at worst. I'll break every tradition, every belief, to do what must be done for the good I pursue. Perhaps that won't make me a hero or well liked, but I'm not bothered. If law stands in the way of the right, if law privileges the strong over the weak, if law benefits the few and not the many, then err be in the law, not the man."

Leander snarled, turning heel and walking out of the room.

Claude turned to Alister. "Margrave, I believe it best to adjourn our meeting here."

Margrave Edmund glanced at Holst, the only other at the table who hadn't spoken or wasn't actively avoiding attention like Trevor. The Alliance's star general gave Claude and appraising look, considering the man, before nodded.

"Meeting is adjourned, we'll continue tomorrow."

Within his study, a different storm waited.

"I know you're passionate about this, but talking like that to my father is going to have consequences," Lorenz said, pacing back and forth while speaking. "There's only so much I can talk my father down from, and that lessens by the day the more we work together. This is the last straw for him, Claude, mark my words."

Claude let his attendant remove his more gaudy pieces of finery while Lorenz spoke, listening and not reacting.

"So you're calling what I said a mistake?" Claude asked, neutral.

"Morally? No." Lorenz threw his arms up. "Tactically? Yes! Socially? Yes! As Duke of a country that is trying to maintain a united front within a continental war? Yes!"

"We knew this proposal would be the final nail on the coffin," Claude argued. His attendant removed the last of his jewelry and he strode to his desk, sitting at the chair. The woman scampered out, fleeing the proximity of Lorenz' ire. Ferdinand closed the door behind her as she left, ever present at his liege's side. "Leander wasn't going to tolerate us any longer after this."

"I don't disagree, but antagonizing him doesn't exactly help!" Lorenz said. "You essentially called him a villain in front of everyone of note in the Alliance, in what world did you think that would help?"

"And in doing so I paint a more solid front!" Claude shot back, slamming a hand on his desk. "Do you think we're going to win Albrecht away by staying unopposed to Leander? Do you think Edmund is going to sit on the sidelines for much longer? We need to make a fucking stand, Lorenz, the time for playing subtle is past."

"And there are less dangerous ways we could have done that!" Lorenz shouted. "Ways that don't involve my father planning the assassinations of everyone in your inner circle. Ways that have Ferdinand and Leonie not wake up with knives in their back, ways that don't have Ignatz thrown off a boat, or Raphael attacked on the road. I'm trying to keep us alive, Claude!"

"We've done a good job of it so far," growled Claude. "We've got to take risks, Lorenz, change doesn't come without some rolling of the dice."

Lorenz snarled. He reached up to the shoulder of his expensive shirt and ripped it down. He turned his back to Claude, showing off the long, red scar.

"These kinds of risks, Claude?" Lorenz said quietly. "The kind that have your friends jump in front of a sword to save your life?"

Claude's breath caught, his next words dying in his throat.

Lorenz sighed, the fight leaving his body. "Look, Claude. I'm not asking you to not be angry. Goddess knows you've been through a lot since you were born, you deserve to have that fury. I don't want to disparage your heritage. You're my brother in all but blood, Claude, I'll rain hell on anyone who harms you, even my own father. But I'm not going to ignore that your head is in the clouds with your plans. Talk to us before you make decisions like this." He pulled his shift back over his shoulder, brushing his long hair back into place. "We're smarter as one, as a herd. She taught us that, don't you forget it."


He shook his head. "You don't need to say anything, especially if you're going to apologize for the scar again. I'd do it as many times as it takes." Lorenz allowed a smile. "We did something important today, Claude. For the first time in Alliance history, we're deescalating the border. That means something, no matter what."

"Lorenz, you're right," he admitted, words he found himself saying more and more as time went on.

His best friend nodded with approval. "Of course I am," he said, letting a touch of levity into his words. "Forgive me, though, I should not have said it all like that. I'll take a walk in the gardens to cool down."

He walked to the door, glancing briefly at his ruined shirt, before sighing and leaving.

Ferdinand immediately asked, "Do you want me to go after him?"

Claude shook his head rubbed his eyes wearily. "No, he needs time to think. Leonie will keep an eye on him. Goddess knows she knows more about what happens around here than I do."

Ferdinand chuckled. "That she does. Would you like a break, or something to take your mind off things?"

"No breaks in this business, Ferdinand," Claude stood up. "Give me what you've got." He walked to the window, resting his arms on the ledge.

"A new wave of refugees has come in, this time from Faerghus. We're struggling to find room for them."

"Are all our properties full?" Claude asked.

"Nearly," Ferdinand answered. "I could fit another five hundred at the estate in the country, but there's far more than that."

"Fuck," Claude mumbled. Speaking up, he said, "Talk to Holst, let's see if we can convince him to let us use his Derdriu property for more. We could probably fit a lot there, hopefully all."

"I'll make it work," Ferdinand promised. "And if Holst expresses concern about assassination attempts?"

Claude snorted. "Can we just tell him that helping people has a price, that the world is so fucked up that doing something good means your enemies will punish you for it?"

"Though Holst might respond well to that, I would rather tell him our enemies are far more concerned with killing us than they are him."

"I don't know if he'll like that either," Claude said, watching Lorenz walk in the gardens below his room, Leonie's soldiers tailing behind him. "Too much of a big brother, wants to protect everyone. Let's talk to Hilda, see if she can convince him."

Ferdinand laughed. "I believe Hilda would not be pleased with how much that is our answer to when it comes to Holst."

"It works, so I'll take the brunt of Hilda if that ever comes to pass," Claude said. "By the way, I like what you've done with your hair. It looks good down."

His bodyguard blushed, running a hand down his long hair he'd been growing for over a year. "Well, I figured that since I'm a man of Leicester now, I ought to look like one."

"Someone's been listening to Leonie." Claude smirked.

Ferdinand's hair came to his mid back, something Claude knew he was proud of. "Well," he said, "Leonie said it's customary in times of war not to cut your hair in Leicester. She explained the story, but I couldn't understand her at the time."

"Drunk?" Claude asked.

"Taking after our dear professor in more ways than one, it seems," Ferdinand said.

A pang of hurt struck his chest, just as it always did whenever she was brought up. He had a feeling it always would, though mercifully it had dulled.

"When is Ignatz due back?" he asked to take his mind off such things.

"Not for another week, unfortunately. Perhaps longer, I received word that a storm hit Brigid not long ago. It may have delayed his boat, depending on how quickly he finished his business there."

Claude nodded, losing himself in the window's view again. Lorenz had crouched down next to a rose bush and begun to prune it. Once upon a time, Claude might have teased him about it. But they all had their ways to take their minds off things.

Ferdinand rested a hand on his shoulder, breaking Claude from his trance. "Something on your mind?" he asked with a soft smile.

Exhaustion had seeped into his very bones, the weight of responsibility crushing him over these five years as he refused to put it down even though he hadn't slept more than five hours in the half decade. But even with the insurmountable stress knotting his muscles, he smiled.

"I'm just glad that I have all my friends around me for this."

Ferdinand cast a look towards Lorenz in the garden, his expression softening with the fondness Claude had noticed more and more as of late. "I think we have a chance of making your dream come true, Claude."

"I'm a lucky man," Claude murmured. "Lucky to have so many give themselves to this cause."

Ferdinand squeezed his shoulder briefly. "Lorenz isn't the only one who considers you a brother, Claude." He stepped away, moving towards the door. "I'll go speak with Holst, you take a few minutes to yourself." Claude nodded as the door closed.

Cool winter breeze brushed in through the cracked window, dark clouds covering most of the sunset. It was beautiful, the purples, golds, and reds blending in an ephemeral glow as night approached.

He sighed, opening the window wider to feel the breeze while he watched the sunset. Minutes later, it vanished below the horizon, stealing with it the light of day.

The brightest stars didn't take long to twinkle in the heavens, their light the kind Claude was fondest of.

"Hope I'm making you proud, Teach," he murmured before closing the window and returning to his desk.

Chapter Text

"Lord Fraldarius has arrived, Margrave."

Sylvain's lips broke away from Felix's at the sound of the voice at the door. He groaned, flopping back on the bed.

Felix rolled his eyes, already standing up. Sylvain admired the view of his shirtless husband, wishing the moment wasn't so brief. "I don't know why you're surprised, he's always had impeccable timing."

"It's like a damn sixth sense," Sylvain growled. "Surely I ought to be allowed to love my husband, should I not?"

His partner shrugged. "You already know my father's opinion on that. More importantly, we shouldn't keep him waiting."

Sylvain began to button his shirt back up. "Fuck him. All he had to do was wait five more minutes."

Felix raised an eyebrow.

"Fine. Ten. Or more. I'm not all that picky."

"You want me to deal with him today?" Felix asked. "I could tell him you're busy."

Nothing said 'I love you' like Felix offering to deal with Rodrigue. "No, we can go together—"

"Margrave Gautier," the same guard spoke through the door again. "Lady Ingrid has just returned. She's come with passengers on her pegasus."

Sylvain froze.

"Go," Felix said, the slightest trace of hope slipping into his voice. "Leave my father to me."

Sylvain pressed a kiss to his lips before dashing from their bedroom, shirt misbuttoned and hair more of a mess than it usually was.

He didn't stop running until he reached the stables. They were empty except for Ingrid and her two companions.

Dedue, he didn't expect. The giant man was scarred and worse for wear, but looked as strong as ever despite that. He spared Sylvain a brief glance before looking back at the last member of their trio.

And sitting on the ground, emaciated and unconscious but very much alive, was Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd, true ruler of Faerghus.

He broke the hug first.

"Bernie," Caspar murmured. "It's good to see you."

She smiled. It reminded him of academy days.

Bernadetta, or Count Varley with her father's recent death, sat down in the chair she'd been in when he'd arrived. Caspar pulled up one for himself.

"You changed your hair," he observed.

She giggled. "I mean, did you see my hair before? It was all…everywhere. This style is a bit more...official?"

He laughed. "Guess the life of the Count is suiting you?"

"Oh, I don't know about that," Bernadetta said. "It's a lot. But the Emperor seems content to leave me alone."

"Until now?" he asked.

"Until now," she answered, looking down.

Caspar rested his head in his hands. "No sense beating around the bush. What does she want?"

Her eyebrows furrowed. "Lady Edelgard has requested I come to aid you in the defense of Fort Merceus."

"That's it?"

"Unfortunately," she groaned, "no. Some of her associates will be coming soon. I have been given orders personally to oversee them and make sure they get what they require."

Caspar suppressed the fury that shook his hand. In a calm voice, so as not to startle Bernie, he said, "Those black clad people, yeah?"

Bernadetta nodded.

"Damn," Caspar said, looking down. "You know what they're doing here?"

She sighed. "Officially, no. Unofficially, I overheard Hubert say something about a chalice. Do you know anything about that?"

"No," he replied. "Edelgard's kept me out of all of their affairs ever since…" He waved a hand at his hair. "Not that I'm displeased at that. It was dad's idea—" Caspar stopped himself.

Bernadetta reached out and grabbed his hand. She smiled, weakly. "I know a thing or two about fathers, Caspar. You don't need to hide it."

He smiled. Despite all the unlikeliness, they'd turned out to be kindred spirits of a sort; a modicum of comfort in the hell that had become his life.

"They're arriving soon, I take it?"

"Day after tomorrow."

Caspar sighed. "Oh joy."

"Better than being on the front lines, I suppose," Bernadetta mused.

Caspar didn't know about that. At least out there, he'd just be killing whomever was in front of him, not managing the most renowned military base in Fódlan.

And certainly not breaking bread with Agarthans.

He found her in the training yard, well before the sun had risen.

Ferdinand stayed back, leaning against one of the stone columns around the Riegan training grounds. Claude allowed them to use it as much as they liked since he hardly had much time to make use of it.

But Ferdinand didn't know Leonie ever made use of it.

She worked through a warm-up kata, sword in hand. Even from as far back as he was, he could see the tremors wracking her body. Nevertheless, she persisted.

He admired that about her. How she didn't give up even now.

Leonie's body shifted into the last stance of her kata before falling to her knees, gasping for air.

Ferdinand was at her side an instant later, arm around her. "Do you know where you are?" he murmured. It wasn't the first time doing this.

She panted for several seconds before answering. "The Riegan estate."

He gave her a sideways hug and said nothing else. Minutes passed and Leonie calmed down, slowly, but surely.

"Thank you," she said, breaking the silence.

"Was it bad?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Not terrible. It was when Ladislava was advancing. I…snapped out before it got any further."

Ferdinand drew back, sitting on the ground next to her. "I didn't know you trained here. I only knew to look here because Claude said you might be here."

"He's the only one who knows. Well, now you I suppose." She sighed. "He asked you about his war plans too, didn't he?"

"I think he's cornering everyone about it. Are you…preparing?"

Leonie grunted and brushed her sweaty mess of hair back. "He'll need me. All of you will. I need to be ready."

"You don't have to," Ferdinand said. "Claude would be just as happy with you training recruits or managing his guard and protection."

She snorted. "It isn't about what he wants, it's about what I want. And I am fucking sick of being held back by these…memories." Leonie held out her hand flat in front of her, watching the subtle shakes burn through her. "I refuse to be the only not fighting when we march on the Empire."

"Then how can I help?" Ferdinand asked. "Could I be your sparring partner?"

That drew a smile from Leonie. "I think I'd like that. You're a lot like Claude, you know that?"

Ferdinand laughed. "Well, we do spend a lot of time together, I suppose."

"It's good," Leonie said, approving. "You've really become someone special, Ferdie. Sometimes I think you're more Deer than the rest of us."

"Oh." Ferdinand blushed. "I don't think that's altogether true."

"Careful, or I'll tell Mercedes when she gets back. No one can say no to her."

He laughed before growing more somber. "Have you talked to her about this? Like as a healer?"

Leonie finally got off her knees and sat down more comfortably. "Yeah, a little. She left for Ordelia soon after, though."

"Well, Hilda and Marianne are on their way here now. Perhaps Marianne might be able to help?" Ferdinand suggested. "I'll admit I don't know Marianne quite as well as I know you, but I think she'd be willing."

Leonie nodded. "Yeah, that's a good idea. Thanks, Ferdie."

He rolled his eyes. "Dorothea will be pleased to hear you still call me that in her absence."

"Someone's got to." Leonie chuckled. "Anyway, what did you come find me for? Claude need me?"

"Duty calls, for the both of us. He wants to talk to you about your refugee idea."

Leonie brightened. "Oh, excellent. Let's not keep him waiting then." She stood up.

"If keeping him waiting means he catches a break, maybe that's fine," Ferdinand mused as he got up.

"Keep dreaming, Ferdie."

"I appreciate you coming, Holst."

The Alliance's star general sat down across from Claude at his desk. No one else was present in his study except, of course, Ferdinand standing by the door, stalwart.

"It's not every day someone asks for help from me," Holst replied, good natured. His appearance was immaculate, as always, with not a hair out of place. Today's earrings were dangling rubies looped in gold—most definitely a Hilda creation. "After all, my realm of expertise doesn't lend itself well for every day conversation."

Claude chuckled. "Well, I'm afraid it is that expertise I've called you here for."

Holst's expression tightened, his lips tilting into a frown. "Do tell," was all he said.

He pushed aside everything on his desk—mainly sheets of paper with half-penned letters—and scrolled out a map of Fódlan. "I want you to explain to me how you would wage war against Adrestia."

Claude looked up at Holst, the man impassive, staring at the map. He finally met Claude's gaze, taking in the full measure of his words.

Then, "Is this hypothetical?"

Not a great start. Claude needed to get Holst on board. "To an extent. I'd rather get a sense of your answer before I say more."

Holst stood up, leaning over the desk much like Claude was. They mirrored each other, two influential men of Leicester.

"Then answer me this first. Have these five years of neutrality really been in the name of lessening violence or do you truly not give a damn?" Holst's words were hard and lingering. "Was this all just a guise to give credence to your proposals?"

Claude's eyes met his, steel meeting steel. "No. I will not stop, not rest, until Leicester's people are safe and if it is within my power, greater Fódlan is free of violence."

"Sounds like a certain Emperor's rhetoric," Holst observed.

"So it does," Claude shot back. "I think you'll find she and I are similar, to an extent. Both of us want peace, I simply want to use words before swords. And I fear the time of words is dwindling."

Holst held his gaze for a long time. "I see." It wasn't agreement or approval. He turned back to the map. "I'm sure your own advisors could have told you this, but war with Adrestia is impossible."

"I am not asking my advisors how they would fight the Empire," Claude said. "I am asking the most brilliant general this country has seen in centuries how he would wage that war."

"And my answer remains the same," Holst growled.

"Try me. Tell me what you would do."

"Fine," Holst said. "Let's give you the benefit of a doubt that we could actually unite the Riegan faction with the Gloucester faction. Let's pretend we have one army instead of disparate halves of this nation. Though, and let this be my first objection, this issue cripples us and defeats the purpose of speaking further."

Claude chuckled. "Noted. Continue."

Holst pressed a finger to the river between Leicester and Adrestia. "My first target would be the bridge of Myrddin. It's the biggest bridge and would be best for getting an army across and managing our supply routes from within Adrestia. Concurrently," his hand shift right on the map, "Ordelia must be dealt with. With their withdrawal from the Alliance, they make for a point that the Empire could retaliate from. By taking both at the same time, with the element of surprise, we could secure the border."

"With Ordelia falling," Claude spoke, "we could gain more recruits for this hypothetical army, bolstering our forces. My operatives in Ordelia tell me that discontent is widespread. The people remember what the Empire did to them."

Holst paused. "You've put thought into this," he realized. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"

A wry grin trailed across Claude's face. "Go on."

Holst blinked and turned back to the map. "With the border secured, then we'd launch into greater Adrestia. If the enemy is smart, they'll retreat their armies to Varley, Bergliez, and Aegir. If they're smarter still, they'll consolidate to one city and draw a fight out. We'll need to take one of them, likely two."

"Why two?"

"Honestly I'd want to take all three," Holst admitted. "One to bruise morale, two to eliminate substantial threat to our supply lines, and the third to crush any chance of being hassled as we advance to Enbarr. But that would take time."

"And if Aegir wasn't in the equation?" Claude proposed.

"Got a plan for it?" Holst asked.

His eyes flicked over to Ferdinand by the door. "Something like that. If it was just Bergliez and Varley?"

"Varley would be easy to crush, it's not a militant city. We take that city first, then advance to Bergliez. With their minister of war away, I'm confident we could take it, but it would take time. And that leads us to our main hurdle."

Holst looked up at Claude. "We don't have enough soldiers. These battles, when I say we would win, that isn't without casualties. The Empire isn't a pushover, their armies are the best trained in the land. No matter how far we make it, we will not have enough to meet their central army at Enbarr." Holst frowned. "You're smiling again."

Indeed he was. "Holst, let's just say I have a plan for that as well. What say you were to have an army double the size of Leicester's?"

"Where would you even get such a thing?" he asked.

"Holst, it's all hypothetical," Claude said with a hint of glee.

Holst glowered. "You should have been a showman, not a politician." He looked down again. "With that caveat, then we could push in. With all three cities taken care of, that takes us straight to Fort Merceus. Whether we take it or not doesn't matter for this hypothetical, because no matter what it would be a substantial amount of time. In which," he moved his attention up to Faerghus, "the Empire could finish subjugating their northern conquest. But for the sake of your hypothetical, let's pretend the loyalists hold out and are not subsequently defeated by the Empire's western army."

"Sylvain tells me they aren't faring well," Claude admitted.

"Anyone could tell that. They have Lord Arundel, Victor von Bergliez, and the Death Knight there. Three very capable generals. If we started to push into Adrestia, then, if we're lucky, one of those three will split off and come for us. If we're unlucky, two of them will. They'll circle back through Hevring to pincer us, smashing us like a wave against the rock that is Fort Merceus."

"And if we captured Merceus before they arrived?" Claude asked.

"Doubtful, but even still, no. Then the army takes ships from Hevring or Ochs to get to Enbarr. Fighting with the western army is inevitable. And even with this hypothetical Leicester army, we would lose that fight."

Holst sat down. "Claude, war with Adrestia, even with assuming your plan with Aegir works and you got a larger army, it's impossible. The Emperor made an intentional choice to annihilate the Kingdom first. And if the loyalists in Faerghus fell, then they'd sweep through Ailell right to Derdriu."

Claude nodded and stayed silent for a moment. "You're more confident than everyone else I've spoken with," he said. "Everyone else told me we'd see defeat at Bergliez and not even make it to Merceus."

The general crossed his arms. "And we very well could. Would, likely. This is not a scenario where we win. As a fellow lord of Leicester, I firmly suggest we sue for peace with Adrestia."

"Give up?" Claude raised an eyebrow.

"I had assumed it was your intention," Holst said. "Feign neutrality until the Kingdom falls, then broker peace. The Emperor would take it."

"She would," Claude allowed. "But it wouldn't be favorable to us."

Holst snorted. "I think we're long past the point of hoping for that. I had hope the Kingdom might turn things around too, but we've held onto our cards too long to do anything but fold."

"Holst, my friend, I think you're not considering the bigger picture here." Claude walked away from his desk and leaned against the wall.

"Oh, do enlighten me," Holst said. "I'm not infinitely patient."

"You had two objections to the plan. Well, two main ones. The first, uniting Leicester and getting a larger army. Let me reassure you, I have plans for these."

"Consider me reassured," he said, deadpan. "Quit talking in circles and say what you're thinking."

"What if I said our side had not one, but two competent generals? What if we had the backing of another nation in this war against the Empire?"

"The Kingdom?" Holst guessed. "Certainly their help would be a boon, but I would not exactly claim they have notable commanders up there, much less an army that isn't in tatters."

"No." Claude grinned. "Almyra."

Holst was silent.

Then, "You're insane."

"Gloucester has been making comments about the circumstances of my birth for half a decade, not altogether untrue," Claude said. "And I will let you in on the secret in good faith, because I trust you to keep this knowledge to yourself, Holst."

Claude performed a perfect Almyran court bow. "My name is Khalid. My mother is Tiana von Riegan, but my father is Javad Nojumyan Mirza, king of Almyra. In addition to support form the royal family, Nader the Undefeated has agreed to help us be rid of the Empire."

Holst's response wasn't what he expected.

The man laughed.

"I'll admit, laughter is surprising," he said, off-kilter.

Holst breathed, doing away with whatever humor he found in the situation. "Khalid, huh? When we see Nader, remind me to punch him in the stomach."

"What?" Claude asked.

"Oh, that expression is priceless on your face," Holst chuckled. "Claude, I've known Nader for years. We've fought on the border countless times. We've beaten each other plenty of times. His nickname is horseshit. As two commanders overseeing the same battlefield, you think we would never meet? Prisoner exchanges, armistices, be-it-what-it-may, Fódlan's Throat is our territory before it is either nation's. We've spoken many times.

Claude's eyes flashed. "Oh, that bastard. He told me he had connections with an 'unimportant' Alliance general. It was how he got me over the border all those times. But he never said it was you and I never considered the 'defender of the east' could be them."

"It's something of a secret," Holst said. "At least away from the border. He and I have a mutual understanding of keeping our people safe. Minimizing casualties where we can and the like."

Claude crossed his arms. "So both of our countries' military geniuses know each other well?"

"As well as two men ordered to fight can," he explained. "Between Gloucester and radical branches of the royal family—your family, I suppose—we must fight. But we respect each other. Enough that when we speak about de-escalation, Nader commonly mentions a certain Prince Khalid who wants peace between our nations."

"Bastard," Claude grumbled. "Nader can't keep a secret even if you sewed his mouth shut."

Holst laughed. "He's a good man. Rough around the edges, but a good man."

"So you are in favor of ending the border war. We thought you were voting for the proposals these past years because Hilda convinced you to."

"So she's in on it too, huh?" Holst mused. "I work in war, Claude, but that doesn't make me a monster. What decisions save my soldiers' lives, those are ones I am willing to make. I dream of a day that I no longer have an occupation."

Some tension breathed out of Claude. "Then I think we're going to see eye to eye on a lot. Forgive me, I have always been apprehensive about the man I grew up hearing about as the menace of the Locket. I suppose I am guilty of judging you too early."

"I can't blame you for that," Holst said. "But I share the sentiment. Perhaps I thought wrongly about you as well."

Claude smiled.

Holst's expression hardened. "But don't think for a second this changes my opinion on your plan. Nor does it make me think this is the right course of action. I will not vote for this. Almyran support you may have, but that doesn't deliver you Gloucester's vote."

"Let's say I have you and my votes against Gloucester's. That leaves Albrecht and Edmund. To beat a dead horse, if I could sway one of them, might you consider supporting it?"

"Consider it, yes," Holst offered. "Assuming you give me an explanation about why bloodshed is the answer here. I will not support a tyrant who needlessly risks the lives of his people."

"You will have it," Claude said. "Forgive me if I make you wait on that. I have a few irons in the fire waiting that I must check before I can give you an accurate answer."

"And," Holst said, "you give me an answer to the objections I raised. Almyra alleviates one of them, but there were others."

"As soon as Ambassador Ignatz returns, I believe I can do just that."

Holst nodded. "I will hold you to that." He stood up, preparing to leave. "Oh, one more thing. I doubt you'll be able to sway Albrecht. I did a little digging, my intelligence says that Gloucester has something on him—specifically someone."

"His brother, I am aware," Claude said. "I've been looking into it when I can, but my resources are rather strapped as of late."

"Figures you already know." Holst snorted. "Consider this a gesture of good faith then, I'll have my people look into it further. You focus on refugees and what else you need to do."

Claude narrowed his eyes. "You have remarkable faith in me for not trusting me, Holst."

"I may not trust you yet, but I'd like to." Holst smiled genuinely. "You inspire devotion in people, Claude. Even if my sister didn't speak up for you, I'm not blind. Lorenz, Ferdinand, Leonie, the others you surround yourself with, I see them care." He glanced at Ferdinand, still guarding the door. "Bad people don't inspire that. I think you're devious, but your heart is in the right place."

"Thank you, Holst."

He grinned. "Don't thank me. Show me."

And with that, the general departed.

Claude sank into his chair, exhausted. But he looked at Ferdinand and grinned. "That went well."

Ferdinand chuckled. "I like him. He's very different than Adrestian nobles."

"And he didn't outright refuse," Claude said. "He's more aligned with our goals than I thought."

"His objections make sense, though," Ferdinand cautioned. "He's right that we need some answers for them."

"Once Catherine and Ignatz return, we'll know the last of what we're waiting on."

Ignatz snarled, seeing red. "Get away from her."

"Constance!" The hulking man stared in horror at the woman Ignatz had just shot. He looked up, furious. "You'll pay for that."

"I'll put the next one through your heart," Ignatz said, "if you don't get the fuck away from my friend."

"Woah!" the other person said. They held their arms up in surrender. "We're trying to help Catherine, not hurt her. This is all just a big misunderstanding."

"Speak for yourself, Yuri," the man said. He growled. "I'm gonna pummel this little shit."

"Try it," Ignatz said, voice unwavering.

"Balthus, stand down!" Yuri shouted. "Look, friend, I know White. I can heal Catherine. I can fix this."

Before Ignatz could say anything, Balthus interrupted. "Fuck that, Yuri. Heal Constance, not her. I'll distract this guy."

"I'm trying to save everyone—"

Ignatz fired, arrow streaking towards Balthus. But without the element of surprise, Balthus swept his Relic gauntlet up and deflected the arrow from Ignatz' longbow, recoiling from the force.

The gauntlets bled red as the distance closed between them. Ignatz drew another arrow and knocked it.

Balthus raised one of the massive claws to strike down. It struck air as Ignatz leaned back, out of danger, and fired.

The arrow missed its mark—Balthus' heart—but still ripped through his ribcage. Blood exploded from his back, the arrow flying almost entirely undeterred on its journey.

"Fuck!" Balthus screamed, dancing back. He covered the hole in his chest with a gauntlet, but raw fury kept him on his feet.

Ignatz tossed the bow aside and drew the iron sword strapped to his back. He crouched like Catherine had taught him, leaning into his leg that had the metal brace on it.

"Stop this!" Yuri shouted.

They didn't. Balthus removed his hand and jumped forward, throwing a haymaker.

It met blade as Ignatz' sword collided into the clawed grasp. Holding the gauntlet at bay, he swung his leg up and kicked Balthus, the brace colliding with the wounded side of the man's chest.

That proved to be too much for the already tired man. He groaned in pain, falling over. Ignatz withdrew his blade, crouched on the ground and rested it at Balthus' throat. He stared at Yuri.

"You said you knew White," he panted. "Heal Catherine, let us go, and I don't kill him."

Yuri, white as a ghost, nodded. They retreated to Catherine, where his hands began making a soft glow as healing ensued. Catherine's eyes were locked on Ignatz'. They were unfocused, but approving.

He managed to revel in it for three seconds before a blast of magic collided with him.

"Hapi, no!" Byleth screamed.

The redhead ignored Byleth, staring at the green clad man as he started to get up from the attack. Barely controlled Dark lightning pooled in her hands as wisps of deathly black smoke trailed from her skin like a horror story's monster.

"Hapi, stand down!" Byleth shouted, grabbing her shoulder, eyes wildly darting between Yuri, Ignatz, two fallen Wolves and Hapi.

"No," she spat. The lightning leapt from her hands, lancing out and colliding with Ignatz. To her shock, her once student took the blow and stayed on his feet. He brandished a sword, holding it defensively as his eyes darted to Catherine next to Yuri.

"Hapi, that's an order!" Yuri shouted. "Stand down!"

"Hapi, you're close to snapping," Byleth breathed. "Stop this."

"You ain't my superior, Queen," the woman growled, her eyes boring into Constance's unmoving body.

"Fuck," Byleth growled, then acted. She pulled her fist back and smashed it into Hapi's temple. The woman yelped and stumbled back, arc of still-held lightning shooting wide as she lost control. Byleth cracked another fist against her head and Hapi fell to the ground, unmoving.

Ignatz lowered his sword. "Wait, Byleth?"

"Byleth!" Yuri shouted. "Tend to Balthus and Constance!"

She dropped the Sword of the Creator and rushed to Balthus, pressing a hand over his wound and casting White magic. Skin mended together beneath her fingers, a sharp pain hitting her in the side as the healing connection took its toll on her.

Yuri, having finished with Catherine, rushed to Constance and slid to the ground next to her, pressing their hands to her shoulder.

A horn blew in the distance.

"You didn't kill all the bandits?" Yuri asked, wildly trying to assess where it had come from.

"Shit, we missed some," Byleth swore. "We gotta get back to Abyss."

Yuri turned to Ignatz, who still stared at Byleth dumbfounded. "You, green, grab Catherine. Byleth, you grab Balthus and Hapi. I got Constance. We need to move."

Ignatz didn't move for a moment until he locked eyes with Byleth. They held each other's gaze for a moment.

"Dammit," he swore, sheathing his sword and running to Catherine. And run he did, a brace on his leg taking away what limp he hadn't shaken.

Yuri threw Constance over his shoulder, her wound scabbed and healed over from his hasty healing. "Let's move!"

Chapter Text

"Where the hell have you been?"

"Hey," Yuri crowed, slamming Ignatz against the wall of the classroom with their arm. "Calm down."

"Calm down?" Ignatz growled. "The woman I thought was dead—we thought was dead—is standing here in the flesh after five fucking years. I want answers, dammit!"

Byleth flinched. "You've changed, Ignatz."

The man she'd once called student clenched his teeth and pushed Yuri away. He strode away a few feet, soft clanks coming from his brace, before leaning on his massive bow and looking at them. "Yeah, well, after five years of war, assassination attempts, and people you know dying, you don't come out unscathed."

"Ignatz, I didn't want this!" she snarled.

"Hey!" Yuri shouted. "Both of you, settle." His eyes shot back and forth between them. "I get there's some things here that need to be talked about, but act like the adults you are."

"Answer me this," Ignatz said. "Where have you been? Did it not occur to you to find us? Your students? The people who held a funeral for you, the people who grieved? Did we matter so little to you?"

"Rhea put me into a magical sleep," she said, drawing surprise from Yuri. She hadn't told them this part. "I got wounded protecting her. She hid me away and had me sleep. I don't know much more than that, except I suddenly woke up a year ago." It was the truth.

Ignatz paused. "Four years? Asleep for four years?"

"Is it that shocking?" Byleth gazed at Yuri for a moment. "You know what I am, surely Claude has told you."

"That the Goddess gave you her power?" he said. "He said something along those lines. The hair color change, right?"

She'd had her vibrant green hair for so long now she'd almost forgotten that was a part of the change. "Yes. So for four years I slept to recover. I'm honestly not sure, I wasn't exactly aware after a pack of demonic beasts tore me up. I was…pretty nearly dead." I think I wanted it.

No, a part of her insisted. If she'd died, then she'd never see her friends again. Not that she'd tried to look for them. She deserved no kindness.

Most nights she woke screaming, thought to be in a nightmare again—the same nightmare Solon had trapped her in. It was punishment, perhaps, for her cruelty towards her friends.

Damn did she wish she had her flask on her. Hapi'd made her promise no drinking before fights. Or during.

"I see," Ignatz said. He didn't sound mad. Despite his anger, he still trusted her. She hoped. "But then, the past year? You didn't come to Derdriu? Or find any of us?"


"Afraid that's my fault." Yuri grinned with a sharp edge. "Something of a scheme of mine. I needed her. She stayed to help in return for, you know, saving her life."

In a singular moment, all of Ignatz' anger shifted targets. His hand immediately fell to the sword strapped across his lower back. He said nothing, but his expression spoke volumes.

Words died on her lips. What Yuri said wasn't true, though. He'd given her the choice of to leave or stay. But in staying, he'd dangled a carrot out to lure her.

"Monica might have killed your father, but she didn't come up with the plan. Stay here with me and I'll get you revenge on the man who really killed your father. I need to kill him to pay back a debt. Help me help you."


That name sent cold rage through her guts, a barely satiated fury that neared breaking the strict mental bonds she held it in.

She would not be robbed of