Part I: White Clouds
Claude was lying on his bed, reviewing the latest events in his head. Truly, this month had been nerve-wracking. For himself, and for basically everyone at the Officers' Academy.
He had thought the weird troubles happening all around would disappear once Flayn had been rescued. After all, she seemed to be the main target within the monastery.
Instead, they just kept piling on. He shook his head in frustration.
What happened at Remire just yesterday... It was a whole new level of creepy and disturbing. The old librarian was secretly an enemy agent, one who could unleash such unspeakable horrors. Who could he trust? Who was another perfectly undercover agent?
"Ugh... I've dealt with many conspiracies, but even the folks at home wouldn't be crazy enough to pull off something of that scale..." he mused.
And, at the top of this whole pyramid of darkness and secrets, lay the Flame Emperor. A mysterious figure, with apparently enough power to control even the Death Knight. Well, Teach had said they denied any responsibility in what happened at Remire, claiming their and Tomas's goals were not aligned.
No, he chastised himself, not Thomas. Solon. That was his true name.
What the mysterious, red-clad figure had said had been gnawing at Claude since the moment he heard it from Teach. There was definitely something odd in that behavior-assuming it wasn't a straight-up lie, of course.
At least two groups of people, working together, yet not willing to cooperate? It sounded more like politics than whatever transpired yesterday. Surely there was something more complex than what they knew of being prepared behind the scenes.
Although politics was one of Claude's strong suits, this was the first time he was ever confronted to such a weird power dynamic. He was at a loss.
"Oh well, in that case, I'll just have to straight up ask her, I suppose."
Truth be told, Claude had an idea of who the Flame Emperor might be. It was an idea he had formed early on, since the mysterious individual had appeared for the first time. It was only a faint hypothesis back then, and one he had no means of proving, at that.
Well, to be fair, that last point remained more or less the same. As of yet, he still didn't have conclusive evidence.
There was no hard evidence to accuse that particular person of being the Flame Emperor. There was only a hunch, but that hunch was stronger than ever, and he had learned that relying on his instincts usually was a life-saver. An entire childhood filled with plotting and life-or-death situations will do that to you.
Stretching his arms, he got off the bed, and walked past his door. His destination was barely down the hallway, and he reached it in no time.
Was he anxious? Of course he was. He was about to risk a gamble on very little, after all.
That wasn't something he was very familiar with. Reckless gamblers aren't gamblers for very long, but the nagging feeling in the back of his head just wouldn't go away. It was buzzing with greater and greater intensity with each passing day.
He wanted to know. He was dying to know. And death may be his reward for gambling on so little, but that was also part of the gamble, wasn't it?
He reached the door he was looking for, and knocked.
"State your identity."
"Hey, Your Royalness. It's just me, Claude."
"Claude?" The voice sounded surprised. "What are you doing, at this time of the night?"
"I just wanted to have a chat with you.", he answered.
"Again, at this time of the night?"
"Uh, a super-secret international chat?", he tried.
"I don't believe any of it. Come in."
A familiar face appeared behind the opening door. Long, white hair and a stern face–yup, there was no mistake. He had knocked at Edelgard's door.
She stepped sideways, and he entered.
The room was very neat and tidy, as he had expected. Try as he might, he could not spot a single speck of dust. She was diligent in all aspects of her life, it seems. Or maybe the word was maniacal.
There was a book on the bed. She must have been reading late into the night. It was hard to picture an engrossed Edelgard, lost into a story of knights and princesses...
"Now, Claude, will you finally tell me what was so important for you to see me at this hour? I seriously hope it's not one of your jokes again..."
"Why, I would never bother you for so little, would I?"
"Surely you would." she said, slightly amused. "Now out with it."
Claude hesitated. Every possible outcome of this meeting flashed before his eyes, some of which weren't really pleasant. Getting murdered wasn't even the worst one.
He took a sharp breath. The feeling within his head had changed into a thumping, now that he was so close from the truth it coveted.
"Well, you see, I may have an inkling about who the Flame Emperor might really be."
Here it goes. All bets are off!
Edelgard raised an eyebrow.
"Oh? And you would want to discuss it with me because...?"
"Well, I could say it's because I would seek out your well-honed input on the matter, since you're so versed in politics and all..."
He smiled the smile of a cat who had just found a mouse to play with. Hopefully, it hid his nervousness.
"But no. I'm telling you because it's obviously you. You're the Flame Emperor."
All he got in answer to his flamboyant declaration was another raised eyebrow.
"So it's 'obviously' me, you say? I fail to see how obvious it is. Unless you're really trying to set up a joke?"
Claude had to admire the woman: she was really made of stone. He had made such an outrageous declaration, yet failed to get any significant reaction out of her.
That said, any normal person would have been scandalized by such an affirmation. To see her so calm felt to him as a reassurance, a contextual clue that he was in the right.
"Nah, I'm not joking around this time."
She folded her arms, a subtle smile forming on her own lips.
"Let's see what you have to say for yourself, then. I am curious to see what led you to this conclusion."
"Well, we are talking about the Flame Emperor here. You know, someone wearing the title of Emperor and whose primary color is red...?"
The smile quickly evaporated, replaced by what looked like anger. Not that Edelgard's alabaster face changed to any shade of red, but the pursued lips and the narrowed eyes painted an equally telling picture.
"You can't be serious. I was waiting for actual evidence, and that's what you come up with? Tell me, Claude, if I suddenly declared myself the Alliance's most fearsome fighter, wore a bit of yellow on my coat, and started breaking the law left and right, would the blame befall you?"
"So you're still denying it?"
"Of course I am denying it! Have you lost your mind? You come at me, accuse me of being the Flame Emperor, and the only proof you can muster is a loose association with a name and color, something that proves absolutely nothing!"
She calmed down, getting her breath back after her brief outburst. In Claude's head, cogs were turning. Edelgard's anger felt... strange. It wasn't that she was mad at him because of his accusation... but because he couldn't back it up?
Edelgard had regained her composure.
"Your logical thinking leaves much to be desired. In fact, isn't the logical conclusion that someone is trying to frame me? Wouldn't it make sense that the Flame Emperor is trying to muddy the waters?"
"I'll admit I thought of this, but no one would gain anything by doing that. You're the heir apparent of the Adrestian Empire, which itself is the most prosperous nation in all of Fódlan. Who would dare target you?"
She let her eyes shift for just a moment, looking far away, before focusing back on him.
"I have plenty of enemies, Claude, precisely because I am heir apparent of the Empire. I have even more because my name is von Hresvelg."
"Two sets of enemies, then?"
"With a little bit of overlap, even."
Claude, being gone through the same ordeal more than once, felt a bit of sympathy for the girl. Still, he knew in his heart that he was right. Edelgard and the Flame Emperor were the same person.
Time for a new strategy, then. He would try to poke holes at her defense, to see if she'd slip up.
"Hey, Your Royalness, let us play a game, yeah?"
"A game? Claude–"
"Oh, don't worry. It'll be just you and me playing! It'll be 'let's assume Edelgard is indeed the Flame Emperor and go from there'. A marvelous game, I'm telling you."
Edelgard opened her mouth to vehemently protest, but closed it without making a sound. Instead, she said:
"There really is no convincing you otherwise, is there?"
She sighed, and waved at him to begin.
"At least try to make it quick."
"Alright, alright. Here's my thought process. First, you have a connection with the Death Knight, since he is now confirmed to be Jeritza von Hrym. House Hrym is located within the Adrestian Empire."
"It is also near the border with the Alliance, which would make you suspicious as well.
"It is near Ordelia territory," he corrected her, "which has been taken over all but in name by the Empire. You, of all people, should know that. I have seen you hanging out with Lizzie a fair bit. You two seem close."
"Liz–?! Never mind that, it just so happened that she and I have a lot in common. Nothing strange for two girls of roughly the same age to have a cup of tea every now and then, is there?"
She wasn't lying, or at least she was hiding it exceptionally well. he would have to find another angle of attack.
"Then, there is, of course, your significant distrust of the Church. It appears the Flame Emperor is allied to a group trying to undermine the Church's influence, or at least being a thorn in its side. A very painful thorn, may I add, since they captured Flayn and all. It seems logical for you to align with such a group, as you seem to have the same end goal."
"Again with the circumstantial evidence, Claude. Besides, aren't you a bit cold towards the Church yourself? I'm not picturing you as the devout type. I've not seen you much in the cathedral aside from choir practice."
"Eh, I like the goddess enough, but I'd rather take my matters with her face-to-face. I don't like the many hoops I have to jump through just to be a good egg, if you know what I mean."
"I must admit I don't."
There was a glint of curiosity in her eyes. So even the cold and analytic Edelgard could have that kind of spark?
"Well that's too bad, because if you want to know, you'll have to share some of your secrets as well! We're all about give and take in the Golden Deer! So why don't you talk me a bit about your past, for example, eh?"
Her expression darkened enough that Claude thought he had taken a misstep and was about to get killed in this very bedroom. There were worse places to die, though.
"Maybe another time.", she finally said. "Are you done with the interrogation?
"There's just a tiny bit left, I promise."
She heaved another sigh. Clearly the whole conversation was either boring or bothering her.
"What is it, Claude?"
"Well... I've noticed we were all busy trying to figure out who the Flame Emperor was, and why Jeritza was the Dark Knight, and how they could slip right under our noses, et caetera. All of us... except you. And Hubert," he added after a short pause "but the guy would wear a matching outfit if you suddenly decided to walk around dressed as a bright green chicken. Why do you seem so... distant about all this? It almost feels like you don't need to discover this kind of thing, because you already know it all."
He felt like she was a bit saddened by his choice of words, but only for a second. Her voice had her usual sharpness when she answered.
"It's not that I am distant, it is that I am focused. Why would I let emotions get in the way of my thinking? Such foolishness will only slow you down."
"Is that so? I don't think I agree with you there, Your Steelness. You need a bit of sympathy to tackle this issue, otherwise you'll just make people suspect you. Like me!"
"Ultimately, this is a matter that's bigger than all of us combined. We'll need all the help we can get, so be sure you give it your all too, yes?"
"Indeed, Claude. Indeed it is."
He felt like he had been hit by a crucial hint when she said that, but couldn't process it because Edelgard had stood up.
"Now, Claude, I must ask you to leave me alone. This little mind game was enjoyable, but I am tired now."
She half-pushed him towards the door.
"Sure, sure! So... you're still saying you're not the Flame Emperor, right?"
She giggled while closing the door behind him. It was a foreign, yet refreshing sound.
"Good night, Claude."
Claude slowly got back to his own room. His gamble hadn't paid, or so it seemed.
After all, he had confronted a potentially dangerous foe without any backup. Sure, he could probably have thought up half a dozen bluffs on the spot if need be, but still...
However, he now harbored a solid conviction: Edelgard was the Flame Emperor.
If asked, he could bet his life on it.
Why, then, didn't he alert Rhea or Teach about that? He sighed. The answer had always been the same, since he was little: curiosity.
He wanted to hear from the Flame Emperor herself why she helped such despicable individuals, despite looking fairly normal as Edelgard. He wanted to hear why the Flame Emperor was apparently appalled by the very same group of people they were helping.
Then there was the other side of the coin: he didn't trust Rhea to deliver blind justice. That woman was secretly terrifying, and her idea of 'justice' would have felt more at home in a dictionary under 'expeditious'.
In the end, arms crossed behind his head, he fell into slumber as the conversation kept replaying in his mind.