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Crossing Paths, Towards The Horizon

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Part I: White Clouds

 

Edelgard had been sleeping with the very nasty feeling of having just escaped a death sentence. She had envisioned several ways a potential confrontation like the one they had yesterday could happen, but Claude coming to her and casually calling her out had managed to evade even her standards.

She hoped she had not betrayed herself, but judging from Claude's reaction, he still had no real evidence against her.

Claude. The man was incredibly difficult to read, no doubt an expert in hiding his true motives. There was some sort of mysterious aura about him, like he was a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Edelgard wasn't sure whether to make heads or tails of half of what he said. Where did the joke end, and where did his true feelings shine? Was it a method to cover his tracks, in case she wanted to publicly expose him for his claims? Or perhaps he was not sure about his assumptions, and thought he could retreat behind the joke argument if he was in the wrong? A multi-layered mind indeed...

How fascinating.

For all of her doubts, one feat was clear as day: he had almost unmasked her with circumstantial evidence alone, while the rest of Garreg Mach, sans Hubert of course, was completely unaware of her secret identity.

Had he informed anyone else, she could have been in trouble. A thorough investigation –and Rhea was known to be leading those– surely would have brought to light some crucial proof or another, the only element Claude was lacking.

Yet, he evidently didn't tell anyone, or at least no one from the Church. Why? Edelgard didn't have a definite answer to this question, but she could hazard a few educated guesses. The Master Tactician wasn't the only one with that ability.

Claude harbored plenty of secrets, but he didn't hide his rather cold demeanor towards the Church. While this fact was viewed positively in Edelgard's eyes, it likely couldn't be for the same reason she did. As far as Edelgard knew, the Eastern Church, based within the Alliance, was rather subservient to the Central Church, so it could not stem from a difference in dogma either. No, he had no reason to mistrust the Church from his homeland.

She had been closely observing Claude for the past few months, since he could be one of the handful of big roadblocks on her designated path, and one trait of his in particular stood out: he was curious to a fault.

He must have understood, long ago, that knowledge is power, and now he was trying to accumulate as much knowledge as he could to get a better understanding of the world, as well as of his potential enemies, in order to always have the upper hand.

"Huh, we're not so different, in the end."

"Surely your path is much less sinuous than his?"

Edelgard nearly jumped out of her skin. She had retreated to an unused classroom, certain she'd be alone to try to organize her thoughts, but of course there was one person who could always find her, no matter where she was.

"Hubert! How long have you been there?"

"About four minutes, Lady Edelgard."

"Four– Why didn't you say anything?!"

"You seemed lost in thoughts. It would have been rude to disturb you in such a state."

Her retainer bowed with a little smile. Edelgard was thankful for his loyal service, this much was a constant in her otherwise very uncertain life. However, there were times where even she found him unsettling. He always seemed to materialize out of thin air, like he was some sort of supernatural creature. He obviously used that to its full extent, as he often got a laugh out of scaring people. He had been following Bernadetta as of late...

Leaving aside the vision of a vampire-like Hubert escaping into the night while cackling, a violet-haired hostage in tow, she turned back to face him.

"Do you wish to discuss something with me?"

"That's indeed why I'm here." Hubert's professionalism came back to him. "It seems you've already begun without me, though."

"What do you mean?"

"I happened to hear most of your... friendly conversation this evening.", he added. "That is what I wish to discuss with you."

Hubert's room was next to Edelgard's. He must have been alerted by the knock and listened through the wall. This level of dedication was certainly commendable, but Edelgard often wondered how he did it. Had he burrowed a hole into the wall?

However he did it, this meant he had heard everything Claude had said, including the accusations thrown at her –accusations he knew to be true.

"Let me guess, Hubert. You've come to say that you can arrange for his elimination, is that right?"

"He has deduced too much." he said, no trace of guilt in his voice. "His intellect truly is impressive, but is it a hindrance to our plans."

"Hubert, he's the leader of the Alliance!" Edelgard pointed out. "I know you can handle your... line of work really well, but this fish might be too big for you to catch without drawing attention. And you know attention is something we could very much do without."

Edelgard let her chin rest in her hand. Claude's intellect truly was impressive, but that might work in their favor. If only...

"In fact, I have other plans for our friend Claude."

Hubert's eyes narrowed instantly.

"Your Majesty, I can guess what you have in mind, and I must oppose it."

"Hubert, don't you see? With Claude by our side, we could easily sweep any resistance aside! He could be a formidable ally."

Hubert shook his head to emphasize his feelings on the matter.

"This is much riskier than simply eliminating him. You have no idea how he'll react. You don't even know his stance in regards to you and the Empire! He could be plotting for your downfall, for all we know. If he talks, your dream will be over."

"Yours as well, Hubert."

"This matters little right now." he said, brushing aside her remark. "Your vision of the world is the most important goal I have for now. And that vision is threatened by Claude."

"That much is true."

Edelgard smiled.

"Thus, I need a plan to convince him to join us."

Hubert kept voiceless for a second, a maelstrom of thoughts no doubt swirling around in his head. He was too polite to tell her off outright, of course, but...

"Why are you so eager to recruit him?" There was worry in his voice now. "I understand his worth, both as an individual and the leader of a potential enemy party, but why would you go through the trouble of letting him on everything we know?"

He seemed to ponder for a moment, then he said, with a slight tinge of amusement in his words:

"Or is it you do not really want to recruit him, but rather the teacher standing beside him?"

Edelgard could feel herself grimace. It's true that she had been quite interested in the new teacher, Byleth Eisner. His martial prowess was undeniably remarkable, moreso now that he wielded the Sword of the Creator. Edelgard has thought of killing two birds in one stones by making two potential powerful enemies into powerful allies instead.

However, her fascination with Byleth was something more intense than anything she had experienced before, and she wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because he possessed the Crest of Flames, thought extinct long ago, but very much alive –she knew well about that. Maybe she thought of him as an equal, as someone who would share her burdens...

She had to snap out of it. A world isn't built on pink fluffy feelings and camaraderie.

"He may also be of great assistance in the upcoming events," she answered, trying to hide how flustered she was, "but he is irrevocably tied to Claude. One will not join us without the other, that is for certain."

"Whatever your decision, it shall be done, Lady Edelgard." Hubert said, bowing once more. "However, know that I do not approve of this idea of yours. The risk is too great, even for such a potential huge reward. I would rather deal with it the logical way."

Edelgard looked at Hubert. She knew him enough to know his words were your average person's equivalent to screaming 'You're absolutely crazy! There's no way that will work!', but of course he was far too restrained to actually say these lines.

She smiled. How fortunate she was to have such a level-headed retainer. Even if he was just a tad scary at times.

"Rest assured, Hubert. If my approach doesn't work, I'll give you the order. Alliance Leader or not, our mission is most important."

"I am glad you are keeping this in mind."

Edelgard let her eyes wander around the classroom. When she next spoke, her voice had become a whisper.

"Working with Claude would also have the advantage of giving us leverage against... them. I would not mind having an ace up our sleeve to counteract whatever they have in mind for the future."

Hubert straightened up, fury making his eyes shimmer.

"That would indeed be most wonderful, Your Majesty. However, if they learn of your efforts towards Claude, what will happen?"

Edelgard shrugged, as if to brush off the matter.

"If I fail, I'll just pretend it was to bring new allies to the battle. It will likely be a rather difficult struggle, I reckon. They would delight at the prospect of lending me less troops and supplies, I'm sure."

She almost spat the word 'delight'.

"Now, if I succeed, then there will be much less need for concern about them, and their relative power will decrease. It is a situation where it cannot hurt to try."

"I see. You already thought everything through, then."

"I was putting all the pieces in place when you nearly gave me a heart attack." she answered with a small huff.

After bowing once more, Hubert began to walk out of the room, but changed his mind halfway through and came back towards Edelgard.

"May I ask how you plan on convincing him to join our cause? I don't believe he'll be too enthusiastic to side with the people who abducted Flayn and caused the horrors of Remire."

That much was true. She had seen his reaction to the events firsthand. He had been furious and heartbroken.

"I'll just take a page out of Claude's own book and simply knock on his door and have a little chat with him."

Hubert raised a questioning eyebrow.

"You would risk half your lifetime's dream on a friendly chat over tea and biscuits?"

"Yes." Edelgard retorted, looking him straight in the eye. "I am Edelgard von Hresvelg, and I aim to kill three birds with one arrow."

Her sudden bravery left her as suddenly as it had come, leaving herself wavering.

"But, should I fail to do so..."

"I would be right by your side to take into my own hands what you need not concern yourself with. Obviously."

Hubert's calm soothed her, and she could feel her nerves settling down, for the first time of the day.

She was in control once again. What a wonderful feeling.

"Thank you, Hubert."

"Of course, Your Majesty. Should I inform the kitchen they'll need to bake a few sweets?"

"Not right now. I need time to collect and organize my thoughts. I am going up against Claude, after all. I cannot afford to be clumsy."

Hubert bowed once more and left her to her new task. She had been a bit bold earlier: it really wouldn't be as easy as just walking in on Claude by accident and casually asking him if he wanted to join her. He'll need some convincing, but, deep in her heart, she knew he could be swayed by the right argument.

She only had to find that argument.

She thought for a while. She needed a motive so powerful, it would brush aside all of Claude's natural defenses. Something to appeal to his innermost drive... She thought back to her prior reasoning. Claude was, at his core, a curious man. Curious enough to confront her one-on-one, even if he was aware of the danger it entailed.

What if she offered him a truth he wouldn't find anywhere else in the entire world? A truth only two people knew of?

Yes. That certainly could work, if Claude's curiosity was as passionate as she pictured it. If it wasn't, well... the matter would take an ugly turn very quickly. She dismissed the thought. She was right, and sure of it. Claude's drive had to be knowledge.

She walked out of the room, having finally found a clear goal to work towards. She had a few letters to send to Enbarr.