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Subtle, Sharp, and Dangerous

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The men who’d been sent to kill them were hardly fit for the task. Claude had first heard the jangle of their armor an hour before the sun had set. Later, slipping away from their campsite under the pretense of taking a piss, he’d spotted them slinking through the forest’s dense brush with the same subtlety as a pack of wild boars. The motley assortment of their dirty furs and dented plate labeled them as bandits. He’d never seen bandits lurk like that before. Generally they hooted and yowled when they swept upon their victims, relying on that old lizard-brain desperation to flee in order to gain the upper hand.

It was unusual. Claude knew from experience that when something was unusual it was generally worthwhile to let it play itself out. And so he’d turned back to the camp and had commented on the pretty glitter of the stars, and had smirked at Dimitri’s over-earnest agreement and Edelgard’s predictably unenthused reply.  

“It’s time for us to get some rest,” Professor Harding had intervened. “We shall be leaving before sunrise in order to arrive back at the monastery before the mid-day bells.” 

“I’ll take first watch,” Edelgard had offered. This had been far more unexpected than Harding’s eagerness to retreat to bed. 

“Don’t worry, Your Highness,” Claude had replied smoothly. “You need your beauty sleep. I don’t mind a little more stargazing.”

She’d narrowed those icy lilac eyes of hers at him and frowned. “I’ll take first watch,” she’d insisted.

He’d smiled and bowed at the waist before turning towards his tent. Dimitri had lingered behind, babbling some clumsy goodnight parting that added to the scrape of their three pieces sliding across the chessboard that was Claude’s ever-busy mind.

Once in his tent he’d rustled through his things to pluck out his knife and a set of arrows ready to be fletched. First he’d cut the nock in each, his thumb pressed against the flat end of the blade as he wedged it against the shafts. He’d heard Edelgard’s steps straying to the edge of camp as he’d blown a breath across the channels he’d carved to clean away what he’d cut out. 

Next he’d selected a long black pinion from his collection. It had been a lucky find — not some threadbare turkey feather but the droppings of a proper bird of prey. As he’d twirled it between his fingers he’d mused on just what had happened to force such a creature to spin off one of its flight feathers, and had settled on the image of two hawks or perhaps eagles grappling in the clouds, killing each other or fucking each other or maybe both. 

Outside, Edelgard had cleared her throat. He’d heard her fiddling with her axe. Somewhere in the distance a man had coughed and was clumsily hushed quiet.  

Claude had set the feather against the thick cover of a book he found well-suited for this very task and carefully split the quill in half with the point of his knife. Next he’d pared the feather into smaller fletches and lined them in a row. Then had come the sinew, fresh-made from the leg of an unlucky deer he’d nearly felt guilty about quartering into more helpful parts. He’d wound it around his finger before reversing counter-clockwise around the shaft of the arrow now adorned with its somewhat macabre accoutrements. The crackle of a signal flare had interrupted his quiet humming just as he’d tilted the finished arrow upwards to eye its tidy shape. 

He’d stood and tucked the arrow into his quiver and had slipped from his tent to be greeted by Harding’s yelping cry just as those rag-tag bandits had decided to descend. 

Now he was running. This was an important lesson that he’d learned young: there was no shame in running, particularly when one was curious about just why it was that he was being chased. At first he’d heard Harding at his heels, whimpering something about the situation being utter madness as he stumbled over the knobby roots criss-crossing the wood. Claude had found his gasping breaths quite irritating, so he’d lingered at the crossroads of a deer-path and a stream and had told him go right, I’ll go left so that the professor could make a more proper attempt at leaving them behind. 

The old man had looked relieved by Claude’s martyrdom. It had made a bitter taste settle on his tongue before he quickly swallowed it again. 

He came upon a ancient oak, an idea spinning inside him even as he reached up for the branches. He picked over one handhold and then the other, the growing din of their interlopers a footnote to the more important questions now neatly lining themselves up inside his head. He straddled a particularly thick branch and peered through the dark canopy until he caught sight of a head of blond hair lit golden by flickering torchlight. 

Dimitri. The prince was making a good show of following in Claude’s tracks. Not that this was so terribly remarkable: surely he’d been taught to hunt as a little princeling in that frozen kingdom of his, like a doll atop some no-doubt white-maned horse as his handlers helped him rustle up partridges and hares. Claude slung his bow from his back and worked the string taut before pairing it with one of his new dark-feathered arrows. He drew it back and aimed it idly at the would-be king. 

He liked him. The prince was a liar of the most pitiful sort — full of tells like his bashful smiles and that way his eyes were always darting to a spot just below Claude’s nose when they spoke, as if he knew that he’d see the truth of him if their gazes were to finally match. And it was a sad thing what had happened to him, and certainly unearned. Claude couldn’t imagine watching his own father die, after all, even if he had sometimes wished for the occasion himself. 

Another interesting fact about Dimitri was that he was in love with Edelgard. Claude wasn’t certain if he was aware of his affliction but it was no doubt there, and smelling of something that seemed rather forbidden — tawdry, even. It also wasn’t yet clear to him if this was an opportunity or a threat. No matter. He was patient. He could learn. 

Claude shifted his arms slightly to draw the sharp edge of his arrow on that shadow that must have been her, given that Dimitri had ventured there instead of butchering the bandits back at their camp in some misguided effort to win over her affection. 

Claude liked the princess less. She wasn’t a liar like him and poor Dimitri, but she did keep most things hidden. Part of her was clumsy about it — and how could she not be, what with that villainous retainer of hers always lurking at her heels as if to announce with a cheerful bugle their bad intentions — but other parts weren’t, and those parts were the ones that left him feeling ill at ease. 

Here was the crux of both of them: everyone was tortured to some degree in Fodlan. Claude had learned this well enough when he’d first come west. But those two, silver and gold, they had perfected the art. They were no doubt pretty creatures, well-behaved and nicely trained and certainly genteel. In this same way they were no better than two starved, well-pedigreed dogs who snarled and snapped at you with just the same measure of fury as their desperation to be pet. 

It was dangerous. To what degree he was not yet sure. And when one was not yet sure of something, Claude knew, it was better to watch and listen instead of act. His elbow drooped as he loosened his grip on his bow.

“Claude!” Dimitri cried out his name in relief as he emerged from the underbrush. “Thank goodness. I was concerned that you might have been overrun.” 

“Who, me?” Claude smiled and spread his fingers over his heart. “Not today, your princeliness. But we really should be on our way unless you want to test that theory.” 

“What are you doing out here? Surely you weren’t retreating?” Edelgard seemed less thrilled to see him. He noted the tense draw of her shoulders as he bucked his chin towards his chest with a groveling pose.  

“Surely not,” he agreed. She made a disgusted noise. 

“The look of a craven doesn’t befit you, Lord Riegan,” she chided him dryly. He offered her another sugary smile as she stalked further down what appeared to be an overgrown path. Dimitri’s eyes darted between the two of them. Maybe he meant to apologize for her words. Maybe he agreed with her. He bowed his head, said nothing, followed after in her wake. 

Claude smiled — a real smile, this time, as honest as it was fleeting. He could play a hero just as well as he could play a fool. It made no difference to him. After all, a dagger hidden in one’s sleeve looked nothing like a proper sword. And ask a man, would you, if he could tell the difference when they were both pressed against his throat?  


 

Byleth. By-leth. It was a peculiar name. He’d have to ask her to spell it for him. Was it like Dimitri, so tidily written with its three repeating vowels, or was it something more thick and tumbling like E-del-gard? Of course, Claude was no better, studded with its own strange silent letters lurking to trump the illiterate hand that might have otherwise endeavored to write it out. He’d only picked it because it was closest to the name his father had given him, itself far too Almyran for his grandfather to stomach when he’d finally relented in his invitation west. 

So maybe her name meant as little to her as his did to him. Still, he wondered if she knew about its most probable namesake. That one he could spell neatly — b-e-l-e-t-h — and he could remember the look of it just as easily from when he’d read a rather stodgy compendium on the old religions that had once run wild in Fodlan before they’d been conquered by Sothis and all of Her Immaculate friends. The Fodlanese didn’t like to talk about that, he’d discovered; found it far more comfortable to simply assume that their homeland had always been filled with people exactly like them, as if it were possible that they’d always looked the same and had celebrated the same saints on the same days since time had first began. 

In any case, he suspected that this Byleth might have known about Beleth as well, since the latter was contended to be a foreboding devil astride a pale grey horse and the former went by the cheerful moniker of the Ashen Demon. It certainly seemed to fit her. He’d never seen someone cleave a man in half before without so much as a smirk. 

When he’d tried to puzzle out the reason for her unnerving skillset he’d found himself utterly perplexed by her flat gaze. She hadn’t looked angry, or prideful, or even resigned. He’d wondered briefly if she were perhaps not all there, but then she’d held her own well enough as he and Dimitri and Edelgard all minced over the idea of stealing her deftness at killing to their cause. 

And then there was the whole matter of Jeralt the Blade Breaker, who had apparently sired her, and him quite the enigma himself. Claude had read much about him as well, and had been particularly interested in the idiosyncrasies of his various celebrated deeds (after all, if one were to believe everything they’d read, they would have expected him to be far more weathered and grey-haired than the man Claude had met in Remire). 

No matter the mystery, however, one thing was clear: they were soon to arrive back at the monastery again, down a professor and with two rough-worn mercenaries in tow. He supposed this meant that he would at least have the opportunity to solve one of the many riddles begged by the past twenty-four hours. Which one, however, was less obvious to him. Part of him already knew just why it was that Edelgard had asked for that first watch, just in the same way that he hadn’t been surprised to see that she hadn’t been so terribly surprised by what had come to pass. Still, he had a feeling that whatever Edelgard-shaped ruse was in motion most likely had his own neck on the line. 

So maybe it was better to think about that than about the dark-cloaked woman at his side. Or maybe not. Maybe one of those two silver-and-gold nobles would give her a fat purse in exchange for quieting the pesky Alliance heir once and for all. It wouldn’t be so terrible an idea. 

As they marched on through the wood he absentmindedly drew an arrow from his quiver, rubbing his thumb over its dark feathers as he thought again about two sharp-beaked birds plummeting through the clouds, their talons ripping at each other with rage or wanting or both.  


 

“She’s going to be our professor?” He shrugged his shoulders. Hilda didn’t seem convinced. “A mercenary? I thought we were supposed to learn about history and trade and...” the woman fluttered her fingers in the air, “you know, academics. What happened to Professor Harding?” 

Claude leaned back against his chair, tipping it onto its last two legs as he planted his heels against his desk. 

“He’s probably still running. At this pace he might be all the way to Fhirdiad.” 

“I liked Professor Harding,” Hilda pouted. Claude rolled his eyes. 

“You liked Professor Harding because he didn’t make you go to class.” 

“My point remains.” 

“I don’t think you’re supposed to say that sort of thing to your house leader.”

Hilda snorted. 

“Yeah. Alright.” 

He liked Hilda, and not in the way that he liked Dimitri. He’d never pitied her. She probably wouldn’t have let him even if he’d tried. He liked to think he knew her rather well, even if his grandfather had only first introduced him to her in that recent winter preceding their enrollment in the monastery. 

Hilda Valentine Goneril, she had been hailed.   

Goneril, he’d thought as he’d bowed forward politely, already dressed in an uninspired western jacket-and-slacks and with that accent he’d so stubbornly battled now fully restrained. She’d curtsied quickly before glancing away for some sign that she was free to go. Goneril. He knew that name. He knew the other strawberry-haired Goneril heir who bore it even better. After all, her brother had killed one of his boyhood friends (of which he had a somewhat limited supply) in some borderland skirmish, and although it had been properly done he was still rather bitter about it. 

That being said, he’d never been in the business of revenge. Quite honestly, that sort of thing was far more patently Fodlanese. And although he wasn’t as young as his enrollment papers might have suggested, he’d still been hot-blooded enough to appreciate all of the curving shapes on her body, and thereby to quickly shelve the idea of poisoning her. It seemed better to ingratiate her instead, and so he’d named her as his pseudo-official retainer once he’d won himself the position of House Riegan’s heir. He’d been downright convinced by the idea sometime later when she’d caught him staring at the generous cleft beneath her collar and had strode forward to grind her heel between his thighs as she snarked I’d rather sleep with a dog than a man, so don’t waste your time. 

Brilliant.  

He wasn’t honest with anyone, but if he were he would have been with her. 

“What do you think about our new professor, then?” Hilda asked. He glanced over at her curious gaze. 

“I don’t know.”

“Sure you don’t,” she scoffed. He smiled back at her. Sixty-five percent of it was real. 

“There’s nothing wrong with not knowing things, Hild. Honestly, that’s half the fun.” 

“Well, have your fun, then,” she sighed as she fluffed one of the pillows on his bed. “Just don’t drag me into it, alright?”

He bounced lightly on his heels. The chair creaked beneath him as he leaned further backwards and forwards again. 

“You’re going to fall,” Hilda added dryly.

Honestly, he was tempted to say again, that’s half the fun. 

Chapter Text

There were two taverns in the town that skirted Garreg Mach. The first, called the Prancing Pegasus, was closest to the gates, and was clean-swept enough to have become the preferred haunt of the Church of Seiros knights. They served a dark beer that was masterfully watered down so that their patrons required at least three tankards to sate their thirst, but would be hard-pressed to drink enough to start a fight. The girls who worked there were young and pretty, filled with dreams of winning over some fresh-faced knight in the same way that they were filled with cheery songs about the goddess for whom those same knights fought. 

The second was called the One-Eyed Squire. It was tucked between a blacksmith and a butcher’s yard. Between the three, it was the place that always smelled the most rank. The swill they served may not have even truly qualified as ale, but it was strong and bitter, the perfect fuel for the occasional bare-fisted brawls that erupted in the alleyways at its back. The barmaids who made their trade in the One-Eyed Squire looked as grim as the men they served, and while they were easy to lure into the dark corners for some affection, they were still clever enough to never believe the sweet-nothings their drunken paramours whispered in their ears. 

Dressed in a cap popular with men from Brigid and calling himself Pavel, Claude had become a regular at the latter establishment. He’d gained some fame there for his skill at five finger fillet, and it seemed as though he’d charmed the girls enough for them to not spit in his drinks. 

It was his favorite spot in all of Garreg Mach. 

“Pablo, my boy,” a rheumy-eyed man croaked as he sat beside him at the tavern’s long, singular table. “Evenin’ to you.” 

“Pavel,” Claude corrected him with a smile. The old man cackled and cracked his dripping flagon against the one held high in Claude’s fist. 

“Rightly so, rightly so,” the drunkard babbled. He clapped his palm against Claude’s shoulder as they both took a hearty draw. “Pwah. Better’n a drink straight from th’ bitch’s tit, innit?” 

Claude smirked and dipped his head in agreement. “What’s the news, then, Gray?”

It was a fitting name for the man, a match to his thinning hair and crooked teeth, and the film clouding his eyes. Claude wondered briefly if his mother had given him the name herself, or if he’d simply relented to it when his body had started to lose its color as he grew old. Gray shrugged his bony shoulders and took another drink. The dishwater-colored ale dripped from the corners of his mouth and dampened his collar. 

“Same as always. Blight down west, bad harvest. Boys’re gettin’ restless. One ‘uv’em snuck in ‘em Church larders, stupid fool. One hand shorter now.”

Claude nodded. The Church had always been so efficient in its distribution of law and order. 

“Cooper’s son done put a child’n little Lina.” Gray bucked his chin in the direction of a blonde-haired girl across the room dressed in the tavern’s dingy skirts. “Goddess save ‘um if it ain’t born with no tail. Can’t make enough barrels’n the world t’feed another babe. Not Church material, neither — ‘es’got that crooked foot, you know? No doubt ‘e’ll go join those lads in the woods.” Gray frowned, his face filling with a wistful look. “Poor boy. Good boy.” He took another drink. 

That was how that sort of thing generally happened: good boys growing poor and mean when they didn’t have the benefit of all of those larders. A thought snaked through Claude’s mind as he matched the old man’s swallow. 

“Say, Gray,” he began smoothly, “you know everyone out here. Have you ever heard of a man they call Blade Breaker?”

The man’s foggy eyes sparked with delight. “Blade Breaker,” he called out slowly. “Aye. What a man! Big as an ox and strong, woo. Why, if you’n only seen him in that plate of his all shinin’ like the sun. What kin’a fool’d challenge him? Ha! That was the question.” Gray drained his flagon dry. “Why, when I was just a little boy ‘d go down to the market and watch out for ‘im, eh? Climb up on all them crates of things just to get a peek. Those were the days. Proper knights, them, not these whelps we have now. You think the Blade Breaker’ve let one of his boys beat one of ‘em Pegasus girls bloody? Naw! Would’ve done ‘em in hisself if he’dda caught ‘em, promise you that.”

Gray drew a finger over his throat to accentuate the Blade Breaker’s hypothetical judgment. Claude grinned. 

“Sounds like quite the man.” 

“The man!” Gray echoed. “The man.” 

“Just how old are you anyway, Gray?” 

“Ah, go fuck yer self, Pablo,” Gray wheezed with laughter. “You think ‘ve lost my wits?” He tapped a knobby finger against his temple. “A steel trap, this. You make it better with age. You young’uns don’t unnerstand that — well, not until you do.” His thin lips spread into a crooked smile. “Sevenny-seven is what I got and I’ll live to a hunnert, you damn nasty bastard.”

He knocked his flagon against Claude’s again and frowned when he remembered that it was empty. Claude laughed and waved over one of the girls to fill it for him again. 

“Good boy, good lad,” Gray mumbled as he took a drink. “And you, then? You got enough years to grow some whiskers on yer balls?” Claude laughed and wagged his head. 

“Twenty-two,” he told him truthfully. That sooty room was one of those unique places where it didn’t really matter if you lied. Maybe that was why he liked it so much, the tongue-melting ale besides. 

“Mmm.” Gray nodded his head sagely. “Twenny-two. Good age. Sad age.” He rubbed his eyes, evidently falling victim to the fickle moods that were so common when one drunk themselves blind. 

“I had a son,” he added slowly, suddenly deliberate in how he formed his words. “Not like you.” Claude smirked. “He’d-a never come to a place like this. Smart. So smart. Got himself a job in the Kingdom, in the capital! He was going to be something.” Gray thumbed the handle of his drink.

“Lorne was his name. Named ‘im after my father and his father too. I should’ve never come here with ‘em.” He rubbed again at the crepe-like wrinkles around his eyes. “What a fucking fool. My Lorne... fell ‘n love with one of those veiled women up the hill. Sweet creature. Poor creature. Poor boy. Don’t steal from the Church, I tell him. That’s the only rule that matters. And he never was no boy to break the rules.” His bleary eyes drifted upwards to stare into Claude’s own. “What kind of father...What kind of man can’t save his son?” 

Claude didn’t know the answer to his question. Gray seemed to understand. 

“Twenny-two. Twen-tee-two. That’s what he would have been when they hung my boy.” 


 

“Are you drunk?” Hilda called out gleefully from the top of one of the monastery walls. To be honest, he was mostly just lost in thought, but he’d discovered that it was better to look sloppy instead of scheming. Claude waved at her and put on a convincingly guilty grin. 

“Not entirely.” He planted his hands on his hips as he looked over the flat face of the wall. “How the hell did you get up there?” 

“There’s stairs,” she answered in a mock whisper. “And be quiet!” She kicked one of her dangling legs at angle. “Over there.”

He followed the point of her toes towards a short door half-hidden in the brick. The door creaked as he pushed it open. It was dark inside. He summited the steps deftly, his footsteps quiet against the stone, and sought out the pink blip of Hilda’s hair once he’d arrived at the top. 

“Be careful,” she rasped at him as he tip-toed across the balustrade. He danced more quickly forward as if to challenge her misguided concern. Hilda snorted in response, no doubt also rolling her eyes somewhere out there in the night-time gloom. 

“Gosh. I can smell you. You’re definitely drunk,” she complained. “Where the hell did you go?” 

“Just the finest watering hole in all of Fodlan. I’ll take you next time.” 

“Pass. Definitely a pass.”

He laughed. “Your loss, my friend,” he said just as she leaned sideways to shush him. 

“Quiet I said, okay?”

He could have told her that she was the one asking him all of those questions, but as she bobbed closer to him he noticed the wine stain on her lips, and realized that her chiding had been self-inspired. His eyes quickly tipped across the stable yard below them in search of a hint as to just why, exactly, Hilda had gone to all of the trouble of getting drunk and climbing up so many stairs. 

They settled on the glow of a lamp flickering inside the stables. Somehow he knew exactly who it was who had brought it there. Noting his gaze, Hilda confirmed it with a deep sigh. 

“Oh, Claude. Do you think that I’m a fool?” 

“No,” he answered, because that waver in her voice told him that she wanted him to be honest. She flinched all the same, drawing her knees to her chest to rest her chin against them as she stared listlessly at the building below. 

“She’s afraid of me,” she mumbled glumly. 

“She’s afraid of everyone.”

Hilda shrugged. “I just want to help her. She always looks so sad, you know? Even if it’s not... I don’t know. It would feel nice to make her smile.” She fiddled with the hem of her skirt. “Is that selfish?” 

“A little,” Claude admitted with a goodnatured grin, “but that doesn’t make it wrong.” 

“Well, what do you know, anyways,” Hilda huffed. “You could wink at any girl in the entire monastery and they’d fall over themselves to get into your pants.” 

“Don’t try that with me,” he tutted, laughing. “You’ll be just as much a duke as me one day — err, duchess, that is. Maybe you just need to wink a little more yourself.” 

“It’s not the same.”

He leaned back against his elbows and stared up into the stars. No. It wasn’t the same. It didn’t have anything to do with their famous surnames, either. We can change it, he could’ve told her in that moment, but there was no point. He’d already given her that promise before. His favor hadn’t won her over when he’d first come to Fodlan, after all, but his reassurances about his views on the way she preferred to live and love certainly had. 

It had been a good lesson for him: there were no ties that bind quite like telling people what they wanted to hear. 

“Hey,” she asked him quietly. “Have you ever been in love with anyone before?” 

An array of answers spread before him ready to be picked.  All of them were shiny and silver-tongued except for the one that was the truth. 

No, he could’ve replied. Never and no one. 

He could’ve regaled her with the story of how, when he’d turned thirteen, his father had sent one of his half-brothers after him to chase him into a brothel in order to bring his childhood to a decisive end. Perhaps she would’ve appreciated his description of that place, built from pink marble, and filled with silks and sweet-smelling smoke and placid pools full of fish nearly as beautiful as the sumptuous creatures who lived there. 

He could’ve told her about how he’d been hypnotized by the bare-skinned bodies sauntering through the heady gloom. Could’ve explained how bewitched he'd felt when the madame had encouraged him to select his companion from their number, and how he'd found both men and women in their rank, and had picked one of each to bring to his bed. 

He could’ve then shared that, when told the story of what had happened, it was said that his father had laughed and proclaimed that there was no doubt that he was his son — taking what he wanted and having his fill. 

“Sure,” is what he told Hilda. She peeked over at him. “A few years ago I met a girl who was training to join the cloth. She was sweet and shy and just a little bit naive. I... uh, I don’t think that I was her type.” He cast her a rueful smile. “Honestly, I think she probably thought that I was some kind of hooligan getting ready to steal her away. That didn’t matter to me. Totally took my heart, right? But then I had a friend who — I learned this a little too late, by the way — felt the same way towards her as I did. Lorne was his name. 

“He’s a good guy: smart, nice even when he doesn’t get anything out of it, listens to his father. You know the type. Anyway, Lorne stuck around until my sweetheart wasn’t so scared of him anymore — made her laugh, helped her with her chores, that sort of thing. Suddenly a life of chastity doesn’t sound so great to her. Lorne, bless him, picks up on this and sells the clothes off of his back to buy her a ring. Last I heard they’re living in Fhirdiad and already have a kid, and can you believe that they didn’t even consider naming him after me?” 

“Geeze,” Hilda groaned. “That’s a sad story, Claude.” 

“Nah, not for them. I was in love with her, but I didn’t understand a single thing about what she wanted. Lorne did. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a title or that she wasn’t supposed to be with anyone at all. He made her happy. That was enough.” 

Hilda hummed and stared out into the dark again. 

It isn’t nice to lie, she might have told him if she hadn’t drunk that wine. 

That doesn’t matter, is what he would have replied.

 


 

The morning after his late-night conversation with Hilda, Byleth pulled Claude aside during one of their lessons and asked him to meet with her after dinner to discuss their plans for that month’s upcoming mock battle. It hardly caught him off guard. He’d already prepared the flattering terms of his agreement before she breached the subject with him. She’d simply nodded at his enthusiasm and told him to come to their classroom when the bells rang eight o’clock. 

He arrived at seven and was surprised to find her there. 

“Hey, Teach,” he offered her cheerily as he sauntered into the room. Usually crowded with the class’ bickering, it was strange to share the space with her alone. She looked up at him from behind her desk without a hint of how she felt at seeing him. He was reminded again of the lithograph from that old book on folklore he had once read: a figure in black and white and wearing a long cloak.

Death comes riding on a pale horse, the author had neatly penned below. 

“Don’t let me bother you if you’re busy,” Claude told her, flashing his palms apologetically. “I can entertain myself.” 

“It’s alright. Now is as good a time as any.”

He nodded his agreement and drug forward a chair. Straddling it backwards, he crossed his arms over the back as he watched Byleth spread a map across the desktop. It had already been annotated by her neat hand. He looked over the spots she’d flagged as potential opportunities and hazards, themselves peppered with abbreviated words like clvry. and mag. and bow. 

“Say, that looks pretty good,” he admitted aloud. She tipped her head with the slightest of nods. 

“I’d like you to accompany Ignatz here,” she told him, skimming the tip of her pinky against a line of dark-sketched trees. “He needs more hands-on experience. Help him make his shots from behind the tree-line. Even better if you have the opportunity to square off against someone in plate. It’s important that he learns the weak-points.” 

“Sure,” Claude agreed. “Whatever you say.”

Byleth drew two black dots beside the jagged lines that made up that forest beneath her hand. She labeled one I. and the other C. His eyes lingered there, perhaps charmed by how easily he had been shrunken down into a letter curved just like the crescent of his Crest.   

“I’d prefer to place Lorenz here so that he can flank the Black Eagles and eliminate their support troops,” she continued. 

Claude fought back a smile at her dire choice of vocabulary. It was just a feign, wasn’t that right? They’d be given blunted swords and flat-headed arrows, after all, and neither were made for something as conclusive as elimination. 

“But you know that our courageous Lord Gloucester won’t have the patience for that,” Claude guessed. He liked to think that she smiled slightly at that, but more likely it was simply the flicker of her lamp playing with his eyes. 

“So my thought was to place Raphael here instead to draw the host forward. He should still be in your range in the event that he needs support.” 

“I don’t know, Teach, that’s a lot of babysitting, even for someone like me.”

Her gaze flicked up to meet his own. Its strange depth made his heart drum a little faster.

Odd.

“And yet somehow I suspect you will manage it,” she said. Her words were just sardonic enough to trick him into thinking it was a joke. 

“Yeah, sure, alright,” he laughed. “Teacher knows best.”

Byleth waved away the trite nicety with her free hand as she sketched in Raphael’s R onto the map. 

“Not to be rude,” he added lightly, “but isn’t this all a bit... rudimentary for you? Surely you’ve fought in worst spots than Gronder Field.” 

“It’s important to be prepared.” 

Not that she would believe him if he said it, but this was perhaps the mantra he respected most. He cocked his head to the side and rested his cheek against his arm, eyes still settled on the map as Byleth finished populating it with the final one-lettered stand-ins of their house. 

He imagined them all dropping into the field as she did — there was Hilda’s H lurking at the riverfront, no doubt skipping rocks across the water in the hopes of doing nothing else at all; Leonie’s Le gripping white-knuckled at her lance as she tried desperately to outshine the woman who had stolen everything from her when she’d revealed that her one-sided devotion to Jeralt had been usurped; Raphael’s R shadow-boxing as he stared down the line of Empire-born mages cowering half his size; and there was his C again, this time drawing back his bow. Claude imagined the arrow he’d let loose sailing though the air, and the whistle of it following a half second later as it cracked between a pair of eyes. 

He glanced up at his professor again. 

“Can I ask you a question?” She shrugged her shoulders. He supposed that meant yes. “Just what were the terms of your engagement like when you were a mercenary? I’ve always been curious to know. I’ve read that sell-swords generally reduce the overall number of casualties in a fight. Makes sense to me — why kill some poor bastard if he’s not coming to burn down your house, right?” 

“I don’t think I understand what you’re asking,” Byleth replied. 

Claude drummed his fingers against his chair. “What do you prefer —to disarm a man or kill him?”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. It was the closest thing to emoting he’d managed to tease out of her — left him feeling a little thrilled. 

“This is a mock battle, Claude. You won’t need to make that distinction.” 

“Sure, but it’s not like actors rehearse for months without ever putting on a show.” He winked with what he thought was quite a clever metaphor. Byleth sighed, which meant he’d won two new reactions from her that day. Triumph indeed. 

“Our contracts varied,” she answered him finally. “We would make every effort to satisfy them as required.” 

“But let’s say you had the choice—”

“I would do what needed to be done.” Her tone suggested that she wasn’t interested in exploring the topic further. He flagged his fingers at her to signal that he understood. 

After they had finished polishing their plans for the upcoming battle, Claude found his feet pointing him back in the direction of the One-Eyed Squire. This time he didn’t seek his usual seat at the table, but instead hunted out one of the scrawny serving girls. She nodded as he brushed his fingers against her elbow, her eyes darting to a door leading to a dank storage room. She beat him there, already bare-breasted when he locked the door behind them. 

As he watched her slip out of her skirts he unearthed that strange feeling Byleth had roused awake inside him earlier when she’d speared him with her glassy gaze. His fingers slipped around the button of his trousers in the same way that he peeled back the layers of how he’d felt — the slight shiver down his spine, the clench of his stomach, a sudden awareness of the set of his tongue. 

“Mmm,” the woman moaned as she knelt before him. “Yea—”

“You don’t need to do that,” he promised her evenly. She glanced up at him through her lashes before shrugging her shoulders complacently. He combed back her dirty hair as she leaned forward to take him in her mouth. As she did he imagined that her eyes weren’t brown but blue-by-way-of-navy and far darker than they looked. 

What was it, exactly? 

He’d never seen anything like them before. Eyes were the trick to seeing people — not how they chose to present themselves, but how they truly were. The windows to the soul. Even his father couldn’t hide from him when he looked into his eyes. But Byleth’s were just marbles. Chunks of coal. 

And why was it that he — 

Claude's eyelids fluttered closed as his fingers twined tighter in the woman’s loose curls.  

Ah. 

No. There. He saw it. That same pair of eyes, and this time flanked by shiny scales that looked wet under a light. Beautiful, iridescent, white. White is our color, his father had once told him when he’d still humored him with trips inside his labyrinthine palace. Look, boy. See. 

There had been a wicker basket at his feet. He’d been just a child, then, but he could still picture it so clearly. A gift, a gift, he’d thought. He’d gleefully lifted the lid of the basket and had been greeted by thick, writhing coils inside. They’d been the color of the moon. Pretty, he’d thought as the serpent had unfurled. 

His father had laughed with pride as the snake rose stiffly to match his son’s gaze. Claude hadn’t flinched the way his brothers had. But how could he look away? Pretty; that tongue, whip-thin and as white as its scales, the hooks of its bared fangs, its rasping hiss. So pretty.  

And its eyes — oh its eyes — dark and glistening and empty. A predator’s eyes and him the prey. His heart had crashed against his chest at the sight of them, leaving him flustered and breathless even after his father had clapped the lid onto the basket again.

So this is what it feels like to be afraid. 

“Fuck,” he gasped as he came, the woman’s brow brushing against his stomach as she shuddered and swallowed.  

Claude leaned back against the door to catch his breath. He could feel those coils tightening around his chest; tighter, tighter as he exhaled.

He shut his eyes and saw her staring back at him. 

 

Chapter Text

Claude’s mother had taught him the fine art of reading men. She was masterful at it, divining tics and false smiles like a seer. His childhood had been filled with her lessons. It’d been easy to misinterpret them as affection and so they’d both fully committed to them, with neither of them entirely tricked that motherhood was meant to be a lesson on duplicity but unfamiliar with the better, softer methods that should have taken their place.

She’s lying: that had been her first lesson. They’d sat together, Claude still small enough to balance on her lap, and had watched as his father’s newest concubine twittered and smiled in the water gardens as they all enjoyed a pot of mid-afternoon mint tea. His brothers had been off sword-fighting with branches cracked from the gardens’ lemon trees but he’d lingered behind, eager to learn the secret of his mother’s all-seeing green eyes. 

Of course I’m happy, Naima the concubine had cooed. He treats me so kindly. Look, see this necklace, look at the stones. So pretty. Aisha, whom he called Auntie Aya and who fed him pieces of the sugared ginger she kept in a box at her bedside when he helped her braid her hair, had hummed in agreement as she admired the fat sapphires hanging from Naima’s throat. 

Look, little darling, his mother had whispered in his ear. She’d brushed her thumb over the plump round of his cheek as she’d directed his gaze towards the blossoms of a bruise just-hidden beneath Naima’s collar. 

So pretty, Aisha had agreed. And do you not miss your mother and your sisters, young one? 

Now you are my mothers and my sisters, Naima had so neatly replied. Salma, mother of his closest brother Faheem (who was always pinching him out of jealousy and always seemed to have a runny nose), had petted Naima’s shoulder as if to say well said.  

Are you watching, Mother had murmured. He’d nodded as Naima sipped at her cup. Her fingers had been trembling. The nail of her ring-finger had been too-short compared to the others and cracked at the edge. He watched it as she set her dainty teacup back against the ground. The cup had clattered against the marble for just a moment — just enough. 

He’s dangerous: this had been lesson two. His father had been drunk and roaring and his aunties had been frightened. Claude hadn’t needed his mother to interpret those things. Mother had lingered in her chaise, still stretched languid like a sunning cat even as his father stalked through the night-time gardens with blood on his knuckles and his wives cowering at his heels. 

Watch, my little star, his mother had told him as she’d continued peeling the rind from the fat orange in her hand. She fed a lobe to him and made him sit beside her even when he wanted to run away. Men all fight like that. Don’t be distracted. Look at his mouth. Look at his eyes. Tell me what you see. 

Calm, he’d told her, like the water in the baths. His mind had filled with images of that cool blue pool as he’d watched his father pace before them like a lion caught in a pen. It was strange — mismatched. He’d had a better look at it later when his father had knelt at his mother’s side, eager for some sort of contrition as she drew her citrus-scented fingers through his long hair. 

Lying. That first lesson had bubbled up to join the second. Maybe his father hadn’t felt angry at all, not even when he’d dragged poor Naima by her hair. Maybe he hadn’t felt sad. Just calm, and in moments like those, Claude had then understood, calm meant cruel. 

She’s honest: lesson three. Naima’s mother had torn at her clothes with an earnest agony when they’d buried her daughter. Auntie Aya had as well. Auntie Salma had cried out in a pretty voice like a mourning bird. His mother had glanced at him at the sound and he’d remembered that Auntie Salma had been the one who’d told his father that Naima had been inviting the night-guard into her room when the war party was afield. There’d been a lesson there as well: just because you’re crying doesn’t mean you’re sad. 

His father hadn’t cried at all, of course. He’d just been calm. A deep blue pool. 

Claude’s mother left the capital city of Sakhavan when he was thirteen. It happened ten days after he’d first ventured starry-eyed into the brothel. By then she’d trained him well. I’ve grown tired of this game, she’d told him, meaning not their face-reading but her long-tested tolerance of his father. His eyes had danced over her eyes, her mouth, the neat arrangement of her clothes — a man’s clothes, like always, tailored to her slender frame, her hood folded at her shoulders and ready for the desert she would soon surmount. She’s honest, he’d thought. 

Can I come with you? 

She’d knelt before him, her touch cool against his arms as she’d looked up into his face. Little darling, she’d told him, my dearest love. Of course you can. She’d smiled. It was the sweetest smile he’d ever seen. 

She’s lying, he’d read in that swooping crescent shape. 

His mother had kissed his brow and seemed proud that he’d learned the art of everything she’d taught him. 

It was for these lessons that Claude was certain that Seteth’s placid look during his debrief of their upcoming month’s mission was a ruse. But why? It wasn’t likely that he was bothered by the fact that Lady Rhea had decided to send their class to Zanado. After all, the Church was in the business of turning young men and women into killers, so Claude had hardly been convinced that Seteth would suddenly feel sour-stomached at the idea of using their gaggle of barely post-pubescent Deer to chase bandits from that so-called holy place. 

But he was angry. There was no doubt of that— not with how tightly his lips were pressed when he wasn’t speaking, nor with how his eyes kept darting between the archbishop and the young professor, full of frustration and bitterness and a slight, waning fear. Fear of what, Claude wondered next. Had he seen it, too? Those black snake eyes staring back at him, mouth already a maw — no. 

It wasn’t that. It was softer. 

He simply didn’t want to be left behind. 

Yes, there it was, the slight cringing at the corner of his eyes; the way his fingers flexed and relaxed and flexed again in their cross against his chest. Claude could nearly taste the bitterness on the man’s tongue as Seteth came to the realization that Lady Rhea was always looking at Byleth and never at him, at least not since she’d arrived. 

Claude very nearly pitied him. Certainly he could empathize. 

Instead he kept his own gaze steady on something else — the prize of the moment, the question to be answered of just why they were all drawn to Byleth in their own staggeringly different ways. She was pretty but she wasn’t beautiful, not even here. Surely she was shaped like a woman beneath the black plate of her armor, but plenty of women were shaped like women in Garreg Mach. It wasn’t as if she’d charmed them with her wit — in fact, it was difficult to scare more than four sentences from her even with full fistfuls of charm. All the same there was love in Lady Rhea’s eyes — real, half-drunken love — and fear and anger in Seteth’s own, so what had put it there? 

“Do you have any concerns?”

He realized a half-second too late that the question was meant for him. He drug his fingers through his hair to feign a look of cocky contemplation before nodding his head. 

“Not a one. My faith’s in Teach.”

Seteth frowned as Claude winked. A cruel part of him savored the man’s wounded scowl. 


 

The men they killed in Zanado were the same unlucky bastards who’d flanked them in those woods a month and some odd days prior. Although Claude didn’t find it difficult to kill a man, it certainly made it easier when that man had already hunted him out. He left most of the work to his classmates, more desperate for the practice no matter how grim that practice was, and only drew arrows from his quiver when they stumbled or found themselves otherwise indisposed. 

It was hot in the valley. He could taste the clay of its red soil on his tongue. It was delicious in its familiarity. He allowed himself the rare frivolity of nostalgia, his chest filling with a nebulous depth as he let his eyes wander along the crags and ruins and felt the wind, as warm and soft as a breath, trickle through his hair. Perhaps seventy paces away Byleth took on the task of killing the man who had once led the contingent they’d culled. She did it as neatly as she always did: the draw of a knife against a doe-eyed heifer’s throat already hung and ready to be bled.

“Claude.” Hilda’s voice, stern. Here was Holst’s sister, he had learned early and saw now, and not that coquettish creature she so enjoyed to play. He pivoted on his heel to face her and found her beside him, arms crossed, her face drawn into a stony frown. “You need to talk to Ignatz.” 

He nodded and followed after her as she led him towards their classmate’s huddle. The situation didn’t require a response: he saw what was required in the tight tuck of his comrade’s shoulders even from a distance, and surely it was confirmed in that unusual clarity in Hilda’s eyes. 

Fear, in its many permutations, was always the easiest to read. 

The Golden Deer looked less prancing and proud in that moment than their name would have suggested. Arranged in a loose semi-circle around an outcropping of tumbled boulders, there was first Marianne and Lorenz sitting together, the former worrying over a shallow cut on the latter’s left arm. Honestly, Marianne, it’s quite alright, Lorenz muttered again and again, no doubt embarrassed to have emerged from his first victory in dented plate and soiled clothes. Leonie was nearby, her eyes watching Marianne’s work above a loose frown. She had her arms wrapped around her knees and was gripping with white knuckles at her sleeves. 

Raphael and Ignatz were close enough to one another to be nearly touching. Ignatz was sitting with his back tucked tight against a large stone. It looked as though he was desperate to crawl underneath it. Raphael was hovering over him like a mother hen, his hands fidgeting with nervous energy — no doubt frustrated that he couldn’t eat or wrestle whatever was haunting his friend. 

Ignatz was rubbing at his hands with a scrap of cloth. They were clean and growing chaffed, but Claude spotted the ghost of the spattered blood that Ignatz saw there, too. He crouched before him and settled his face into a gentle shape — a half-finished smile, the slight cocking of his brows.  

“Ignatz,” he greeted him softly. “Here. Let me see.”

Ignatz watched him uneasily as he offered his palm forward. With great reluctance, he placed the bunched rag in Claude’s hand. Claude joined his own hands together side-by-side and flexed them welcomingly until Ignatz slowly brushed his fingers against them to rest against his palms. His too-deep stare filled with a confused curiosity tinged with the first hint of embarrassment. Good. It was better than that emptiness that had fogged them before. 

Claude mimicked Ignatz’s scrubbing with a far gentler hand. Each of his motions was slow and deliberate, the perfect feign of a mother cleaning honey from her son’s sticky fingers. 

“You know, the way I see it,” he told him as he worked, “the goddess is a bit of an author, don’t you think? She must be an awfully clever one to keep track of all of us — all of her heroes and villains and everything like that, with her writing just the perfect scenes for us to meet our marks in this grand storyline of hers. Thank goodness it’s not someone like me writing it all out, right?” Ignatz flinched at Claude’s rueful smile. “No doubt I’d mess it all up. Still, I’m grateful that she’s the one to do it. Not just because I want to get out of the task myself. And listen, I’m grateful that she’s written today to be exactly the day that it’s been.” 

“I...” Ignatz attempted breathlessly. “I...I killed him, Claude. Killed. And he... he looked at me like I was...” His eyes darted up briefly to meet Claude’s own. They looked nearly euphoric in their honest, broken stare. 

Pretty, Claude thought; so pretty. 

“I’m grateful that she’s written everything this way,” Claude insisted again. “Maybe it’s a little selfish. After all, I don’t know exactly where it is that she’s pointing us all towards, but wherever that may be, I’m just happy that she’s written you the way she has.” 

“I... He didn’t have to die.” 

“Of course he did,” Claude told him in a voice that was both tender and definite in its judgment. “He had to die, in exactly the way that he did. He was just following those words on that big celestial page and you were as well, Ignatz, to the very letter. His story was done. Yours certainly isn’t. And I’m grateful for it.” Claude squeezed his fingers before standing, pocketing the rag as he did. 

“You did well,” he added, giving a final pat on Ignatz’s shoulder — this one a bit clumsier, more collegial. “It’ll get better. I promise.” Ignatz sniffed and nodded and stared hotly at his toes. 

Byleth had been watching them. Claude had heard her approach a handful of minutes before. He turned at the slightest angle to catch sight of her. She nodded at him in return, her face flat and unreadable. Then she disappeared back into the field again as wordlessly as she had arrived. He supposed he should’ve lingered there to offer niceties to the rest of the class. But maybe that fickle goddess of theirs had decided to pen a slightly different trajectory for him, too. 

So he trailed after her after he’d commended Marianne on her deft management of Lorenz’s bloodied arm, and found his professor picking over the corpses strewn across the valley floor. From his distance she took on the shape of a vulture fluttering between those shrunken figures, the ritual of her bending and shifting the bodies to search for shiny things no different than that bald-headed creature’s hunting for their softest parts. A shiver staggered along his spine and left him feeling restless. 

He stepped silently along the hard-baked earth to meet her at the body of a man dressed in furs ill-suited for the valley’s dry heat. Byleth didn’t greet Claude at his approach. She plucked a hide purse from the man’s pocket instead and weighed it in her hand. It jingled cheerily against her palm. Claude’s gaze settled briefly on the dark feathers of the arrow jutting from the man’s left eye. 

“Here,” she told him as she tossed the bag of coins at his chest. It seemed as though she hadn’t yet forgotten those rules that had once governed her as a sell sword. Claude thumbed the face of a coin through the purse, a wry smile skittering over his lips. Byleth stood and brushed her palms against her thighs. 

“This isn’t the first time you’ve killed a man.” Her words weren’t a question. He shrugged. 

“No.” Claude tossed the bag into the air and caught it, tossed it again. “I have the sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t yours, either.” 

“You’re a believer?”

He bit back a laugh. “No,” he admitted to her, charmed honest by her indelicately staccato approach to conversation. “Are you?” 

This time it was her turn to shrug her shoulders. 

“I’ve never had the reason to be before,” she answered. Claude nodded. It seemed the perfect answer for such an ancient and holy place. 


 

They made camp that night. Perhaps it wasn’t necessary — after all, they weren’t so far from the monastery, relatively speaking — but Byleth had read the class’ weariness well. The group was more quiet than usual as they shared a meal around the fire. All the same, Ignatz was speaking again and using full sentences, even if they were few and fleeting. Lorenz had apparently come to the terms with the fact that he was at least momentarily imperfect. Leonie had already begun to offer Byleth a string of complements that were more underhanded than she deserved.

Claude slept heavily that night, the way he always did. 

He woke early. The sun was still lingering beneath the horizon line when he slipped from his tent. It was the perfect opportunity to clean the dust from his skin — and in solitude, for once, instead of in the monastery’s baths crowded with his overly boisterous peers, more boys than men, always smelling like wet dogs. He shivered with pleased anticipation as he picked his way through the wood to seek out that sparkling stream he’d spotted the day before. 

He undressed quickly, folding his clothes into a neat pile after he’d arranged the sparse collection of his bathing accessories across a slate sheet. He hadn’t allowed himself many holdovers from the east, but these he couldn’t part with — the pearl-colored bar of soap scented with sandalwood and sweet pine resin and none of the barnyard of that horrid stuff the Fodlanders used, so obviously derived from the fat of shit-loving pigs and little else; the round-headed brush he used to build a lather for his shave, its ebony handle prettily adorned with a chequerboard of bone and ivory inlays; the razor that finished off the trio, slightly curved, with a pommel reminiscent in shape of the bowed neck of a crane. 

The stream was cold. It stole the breath from his lungs as he strode into its shallow depth. He knelt to submerge himself to the midpoint of his chest, then cupped his hands to wet his hair. His fingers drug slowly across his face afterwards, feeling over the familiar shapes of his brows, the sockets of his eyes, the straight bridge of his nose; rasped over the first prickly bristles on his cheeks and along his jaw. He sucked in a deep breath and sighed. An endeavoring mockingbird peeped in reply. 

And then quietly, barely there at all, came footfalls crunching against brittle leaves. 

He stood and turned, the water swirling around his thighs as he hunted out the sound. 

“Sorry,” Byleth said, her voice unmoved as ever. “I didn’t realize that you were awake.”

He remembered perhaps a moment too late that in Fodlan to be nude was nearly blasphemous. Still, it wasn’t as if he was expecting to watch a blush creep over Byleth’s cheeks as he did his best to hide himself behind his hands— and, of course, one didn’t. He also hadn’t expected her to grin, and yet, bewilderingly, she had. Perhaps in any other circumstance he would have congratulated himself on the feat of spooking a true and proper shape into her lips, but in that particular moment he felt his chest fill with a cringing, childish anger instead. He quickly neutered it before it had the chance to escape into his face. 

“What,” he drawled chintzily, “don’t like what you see?” 

Byleth’s cheshire grin remained even as she began to turn away. 

“It’s not that,” she told him, even-keeled, “just that you’re usually a better liar.”

He snorted, for once unsure of what she meant. “How’s that?”

Her dark eyes flickered back at him a final time. “You are the oldest looking seventeen year old I’ve ever seen.” 

And maybe she’d caught him off guard with that tricky grin of hers, or maybe he’d just been relieved that she hadn’t taken the opportunity to goggle at his scars, or maybe it was for no reason at all — but he laughed as she strode off into the forest again, and when he laughed he felt the joy of it for the first time in quite a long while.   

Chapter Text

For all of the gardens and airy chapels scattered around the grounds of Garreg Mach, Claude found the library to be the monastery’s most hallowed place. He often sought it out in those odd hours of the day when he could enjoy it alone. It was a difficult trick to pull, perpetually haunted as it was by Linhardt, head bobbing drowsily over whatever dusty tome that’d most recently drawn his fickle attention, or by Tomas flittering through the stacks like a rat hunting out its nest. 

Claude had high hopes that he would be rewarded with some peace and quiet after suffering through an audience to Lady Rhea’s most recent hunting request, and was sorely disappointed to find that the very same golden-haired knight who had joined them in that rendezvous had already beaten him there. 

“Catherine,” he greeted her as she looked up from the broad wingspan of the volume she’d spread open across one of the tables (and her standing, unsurprisingly, as if she were in any moment only seconds away from a duel), “fancy meeting you again. It must be my lucky day.” She barked a laugh. 

“Do you speak to all of your instructors that way, boy?” 

He offered her a velvety flourish of laughter himself as he turned to dance his fingers over a line of books, plucking one of them free without giving much heed to its title. Catherine watched bemused as he took a seat across from her and began to flick through its pages. His eyes slipped casually from the text to the sword hanging at her hip. 

Thunderbrand, he thought idly: and who was it, exactly, who had taken the time to name those things? Somehow he was convinced that it hadn’t been their original bearers, themselves no doubt too desperate in the battlefield that had required such monstrosities to be forged to take the time to name them. Their descendants seemed the far more likely culprits. What better way to scribe themselves into that grand legacy, after all, than by baptism with ham-fisted names? 

Or maybe the opposite was true. Perhaps once the relics had be given true names forgotten over time, and them now so clumsily replaced. A change of colors: green leaves turning brown and brittle as spring filled with a biting winter wind. Cassandra to Catherine. 

“You really are a Riegan, aren’t you?”

She finally sat, propping her elbows against the table as she folded her fingers beneath her chin to watch him over the ridges of her knuckles. She had a warrior’s hands: scarred, calloused, prone to aching in the cold. He’d heard that she’d meant to kill a king, once. Had she been disappointed, he wondered, to be relegated to role of a simple headsman instead? 

“I don’t really have the look, do I?” 

“It doesn’t matter what you look like.” 

That’s right, she had that clever parlor trick of hers, didn’t she? He’d never attended her lessons on swordsmanship, hardly finding them necessary, but if she could have taught him the art of reading Crests she would have found him to be an avid pupil. 

“I didn’t realize that Godfrey had a son,” she continued.  

He steadied his lips from spreading into a smirk. Perhaps Catherine needed to assign herself some remedial lessons on the peerage in addition to whatever she was looking over now.

“He didn’t — goddess keep him,” he amended quickly, tweaking his voice into the appropriately respectful tone, “I’m Rosalind’s son.” 

“Rosalind von Riegan?” Her brows rose high. “I’ve always been told that Lady Rosalind was taken hostage by marauders in, what...1157, was it? And that she was long feared dead.” 

Claude shrugged his shoulders.

“Funny, isn’t it?” He turned another page. “How easily the truth can be rewritten into a far more interesting fairytale.” 

He didn’t look up to catch her frown. It didn’t matter. He knew that it was there. 


 

The fog surrounding Castle Gaspard made him uneasy. He wasn’t confident that he could differentiate the Church guard’s plate in that soupy gloom from the suits that their enemy wore, which meant that Lysithea and Ignatz certainly couldn’t. Byleth at least seemed to understand this notion and had ordered them into a tight formation, but they were hardly making headway crawling the way they were. Marianne yelped in alarm each time one of Lord Lonato’s doomed soldiers emerged from the underbrush, and this in turn spurred Hilda into a swinging frenzy that had already left her exhausted. 

If Claude hadn’t been such an optimist he would have thought that they were at a rather grim disadvantage. 

“Would you be comfortable advancing with me alone?” Byleth asked him the question quietly as they came upon a clearing in the wood. “I’d like Catherine to stay behind with the class to protect our rear.” 

He nodded. “Whatever you say.”

She frowned. “That isn’t what I asked. Do you think it would be more sensible for us to carry on or to change our course?”

His lips settled into a line as he looked over her shoulder into the dark criss-cross of the branches waiting for them ahead. 

“You’re right,” he told her some moments later. “Our spread is a liability. Better for us to hunt like we’re being hunted than to play into their hand.” 

“Fine.”

It was hardly a term of encouragement. He couldn’t help but grin as she turned to convey their plans to Catherine and the others. 

“Follow me,” she told him next as she danced forward into the brush. He trailed after, pulling an arrow from his quiver as he did. He should have glanced back at Hilda before he disappeared — and said what, he wasn’t quite certain; promised her the Alliance, maybe, if her day ended more lucky than his — but instead he kept his gaze locked over Byleth’s shoulders as she pierced the foggy gloom. 

The professor had an easy gait. He wondered if she’d fought in similar conditions before, or if she’d simply mastered the art of swallowing her fear. Surely it would have been quite the prerequisite to have lived the life she had; born wandering and killing men when other girls were dressed in silks and introduced to court. 

It was a mistake. Fear was important, particularly in places like these. 

He lurched forward to grab her by the arm. She stiffened mid-step, the muscles beneath his fingers tensing into iron cords. Seeing that she understood, he slowly released her to raise his bow just above the line of her shoulders. She didn’t flinch as the arrow sailed past her ear, nor at the groan it sallied forth from the fog as it met its mark. 

They crouched low and slunk forward in unison, hiding themselves behind a net of brambles to eye the man he’d killed. Four ghostly shadows were slowly advancing upon the body with a fifth trailing behind. The latter was impossibly tall and wavering in the gloom. 

“Lord Lonato,” Byleth wagered, her voice barely a whisper. Claude nodded and shifted on his haunches as the soldiers recognized the shape of their fallen comrade. A quiet cry spread between the men as they jogged forward. Somewhere nearby a horse whinnied nervously. 

Here was the problem: they were hunting one man, not five. The soldiers were simply an unfortunate casualty to that insatiable maw they called loyalty. Claude didn’t doubt that he and the professor could deal with them, but could they do both that and chase down their bounty when Lord Lonato saw his men dying and pulled back on his reins? 

“I’ll draw them out,” Byleth told him, as prescient as always. “Flank Lonato. Don’t let him escape.” 

“You’ll be alright?”

She didn’t answer. Her dark eyes settled on him and sunk a chunk of ice down the nape of his collar. Fair enough. He nodded and pulled another arrow from his quiver to signal his assent. She was already slinking sideways from their cover by the time he’d stood to creep away. 

Claude moved quickly, before the sound of Byleth’s work told Lonato what had happened. He drew a second arrow to slot between his ring and pinky fingers and drew the first back tight against his bowstring. One to make Lonato’s destrier rear when it buried itself into its broad chest; the second for mercy, aimed at the lifeline in its throat after it had fallen, kicking, against the loam. 

They hit their mark, a quick one-two that was smooth and well-practiced. The horse’s death cries briefly drowned out the yelp of its rider as he was crushed as well as the shouts being shared between the soldiers some three dozen paces away. 

Claude slung his bow over his arm and reached under his jacket to hunt out the smooth pommel resting against his breast. The dagger wasn’t as fanciful as the standard-issue saber at his hip but it was sharper — better suited for the task ahead. 

“You,” Lonato groaned as Claude came upon him. The man was pinned at the waist beneath the bulk of his once-proud mount. He’d dropped his lance when he’d fallen. Claude kicked it into the underbrush. It wasn’t necessary. Lonato had lost. It seemed to Claude that he was brave enough to understand the terms of such an outcome. “Boy.” 

Claude crouched beside him, his eyes slinking between the man’s wince and his hitching chest. What do you see, his mother’s voice whispered in his ear. 

Fear, he told her silently. Sadness. Anger. 

A father orphaned by his son.  

“Those zealots,” Lonato gasped, his lips quivering as he leveled his gaze at him. “Any dog... any mongrel...if they’ll serve...lick at their boots.” 

Claude smiled and tossed the dagger into his non-dominant hand as he reached to slowly unclasp the goldenrod cape pinned at his shoulder. Lonato’s eyes followed his fingers and narrowed as he tried to puzzle out just what it was he meant to do with a scrap of cloth instead of a blade.

“Any dog,” Claude agreed. Lonato’s mouth drew into a snarl. 

“For what?” He flinched as Claude tipped his head to the side with the press of his fingers against his jaw. “Don’t you understand... who it is you serve?” 

Claude skimmed over the old man’s drumming pulse with the pad of his thumb. 

“Of course I do,” he told him as he danced his fingers upwards to grip him by his hair. Lonato trembled. He held him tight. “Look at me. Look.” Lonato sucked in a tight breath as his eyes swung towards him for a final time. “Here is my god. Here is my master.” 

It felt good to tell the truth.  


 

“You’re hurt.” 

“I’m not,” Byleth insisted even as she limped towards one of the men she’d cut down. Claude laughed and shook his head. 

“Poor bastards,” he said once he’d joined her at her side. 

“They knew the terms of their service.”

She finally relented to kneel and touch tenderly at the jagged cut skirting high over her left thigh. 

“Sure, and so do I,” he replied. He glanced from the sprawled soldiers to the flora of that haunted place. “But it’s not like I’m eager to be the one doing all of the dying, either. Here. I’ll be right back. Stay put, alright, Teach?” 

He made quick work of rummaging through roots and vines and returned with a pocketful of pickings to find that she’d been obedient — to him or to the ache of her wound he wasn’t certain, not that it much mattered.   

Claude sat beside her and pulled the flat rock he’d poached from the forest floor from his pocket first. He balanced it on the tabletop of his crossed legs before proffering up a half handful of small, dark-headed mushrooms. Byleth watched silently as he crushed them into a paste with the butt of his dagger and then paused to fish a length of clean cloth from the aid-packs they were all instructed to carry. 

“What is that?” 

“They call them Cethleann’s caps,” he told her as he gave them a final grind. “A little unfair, if you ask me. I mean, I don’t know just what a saint is supposed to look like, but it can’t be like this, right?” Byleth frowned. “Sorry. That’s probably disrespectful.” 

“I don’t... who is Cethleann?”

One of his brows cocked at an angle before he had the chance to settle it straight again. 

“You know, Saint Cethleann? The goddess’ silver maiden? I... well, there’s a statue of her at the monastery, so maybe that’s a start. You should ask Ignatz. Don’t tell him that I told you, but she’s definitely his favorite.”  

“I see.” 

“Anyway, they’re a great pain reliever. It won’t do anything to help with the wound itself, really, but it’ll get us back to Marianne. It’s topical,” he added, nodding at her leg. “I can let you apply it yourself if you prefer.” Her brow furrowed ever so slightly. 

“I don’t know what to do with it.” 

“You just...” he shook his head. “Sure, no problem.” 

She watched him with her usual eerie stare as he scraped the paste with the side of his thumb and leaned forward to gingerly smear it through the torn fabric of her trousers. He looked up into her face in time to catch the relieved flutter of her lashes as the stuff quickly went to work. 

“Where did you learn all of this?”

Why was the better question, the answer to which was Almyran mages are fucking terrible — more likely to set you on fire than to do anything worthwhile. He shrugged his shoulders. 

“Oh, you know, here and there. It’s a hobby. How does it feel now?” 

“Better.” 

“Great!” Claude wound the bandage tight. “Good as new, then. Well, I mean, almost. Half the battle, let’s say.”

Byleth’s fingers wrapped around his wrist before he had the chance to fully pull away. 

“Thank you, Claude.” 

For some reason he’d expected her to have an icy touch. It wasn’t, of course; was warm instead, even with the fog’s chill. 

He let it linger before he stood and offered her his hand.  


 

“You’re back!” Raphael swung a victorious punch into the air as they rejoined the class.

“Professor!” Marianne jogged towards them with Hilda at her heels.  

“Alright, then?”

Claude nodded at Hilda’s question. Her rose-quartz eyes settled briefly on the object slung over his shoulder and darted away again once she’d seen just what it was. Clever, he thought, and not for the first time.  

“Alright,” he told her, clapping her arm as he strode past her towards the group. “How about it, Ignatz? Still in one piece?”

Ignatz glanced up at him from his work of sorting though a pile of arrows that he must have just recently retrieved. None of them were bloodied but at least they weren’t broken, either. 

“S-sure, Claude.”

Claude laughed. “That’s what I like to see! Well done!”

He glanced around the ring of familiar faces and spotted Catherine a dozen paces away, her arms braced into a heroic pose as she spoke to one of the knights who had accompanied them to Gaspard. Catherine turned to greet him as he hunted her out. 

“Well done, Riegan. Lady Rhea will be pleased to hear that we suffered no casualties today.” 

“Why, that’s not even the best part,” he told her with a smile. Her lips split into a confused version of her own. 

“What’s that, then?”

He swung the weight from his shoulder to offer it in her direction. She took it, perhaps in reflex rather than from curiosity. 

“For you.” He watched as her smile began to wane as she recognized the dark splotches that had soiled the yellow brocade of what had once been his cape. “No doubt a worthy knight like yourself would want to add to your collection.” 

She picked at the cloth’s fold. Her face darkened as the shroud peeled back around the point of Lord Lonato’s nose and fluttered open at his sallow cheeks. 

Tell me, Claude so desperately wished to ask her, did Christophe take after him as well? Were his eyes that same unseeing green when you cut him down? 

Catherine looked up at him again. Her gaze was full of anger. 

She’s honest, he thought to himself as he swung low into a perfected parting bow.

Chapter Text

On the eve of Claude’s fifteenth birthday, a group of seven hooded men scaled the walls of the water gardens and stole into the palace to kill his father. They scattered down the very same path he often took himself: trailed first through the lemon-scented arcades, their footsteps ghostly quiet as they skipped across smooth travertine tiles. Next they spiraled up the tight wind of the servants’ stairs like a line of ants crawling up a rod of sugarcane. The great hall filled with his father’s countless trophies came last, and found the assassins no doubt out of breath as they began to tear open the doors inside to seek out where the king was hidden.  

These seven men were strong, but they weren’t terribly clever. Maybe if they‘d once been boys like him, ever-curious about the dalliances of all of those men and women who called the palace home, they would have known that the king was restless when the moon was full, and that when he was restless he sought out the company of the young women his men found for him when they went out reaving. 

Too timid to be called proper concubines, the king kept these girls in a second garden in the northern corner of the palace compound that was distinct from the one ruled by his wives. His second wife Salma had complete dominion over this so-called “Little Garden”, playing the role of madam as well as mistress as she tamed her husband’s conquests on his behalf. It was here that the king was lingering that night. 

Having already combed through the palace and finding themselves unsatisfied from cutting down the servants making the midnight rounds, the assassins had looped back towards the gardens to reconvene or perhaps even admit defeat. No matter how impressive they looked in their matching black robes, when they did finally stumble upon the king bathing in one of the Little Garden’s pools they looked to Claude like nothing more than a gaggle of confused sheep barreling towards a ravine. 

Claude had been running along the scale-shaped tiles of the compound’s many roofs since the assassins had first tossed their ropes over the walls, intrigued by the misguided novelty of their approach and curious as to how it would end. He held his breath with anticipation as he watched them scatter into the Little Garden, shouting at each other to stagger into a sloppy formation as they realized that dark swatch of hair bobbing between the pool’s fat lilies belonged to the very man they’d been hunting out.

Claude didn’t need to see the scene play out firsthand to understand that surprise wasn’t kind to a cut-throat when it wasn’t on his side. This hypothesis was first tested by the sound of his father’s booming laughter when the assassins approached the pool with their blades drawn, still bloody from the palace. To be fair, it was an unusual situation. While certainly not the first attempt made on the king’s life, it was one of few to find him so indisposed. Still, no matter how uniquely arranged all of their little chess pieces were, the outcome would remain the same — that dichotomy, perfect in its simplicity, of live and die. Claude considered both as he watched the ring of black-hooded men close tighter. 

If his father lived, he would not give those men the luxury of announcing whatever grand schemes they’d had in mind when they’d planned their coup (not that it mattered, the answer was always simply power). The morning sun would find their bodies tossed over the walls to be picked over by urchins and carrion birds, and his father abed with more flush-faced girls or killing something else or perhaps simply enjoying his breakfast alone. 

If by some twist of fate his father died, one of those hooded faces would no doubt take his place. Judging by the inelegance of their current approach, Claude didn’t suspect that they would last long before they were outdone in a similar fashion. Perhaps Almyra would find itself a bit dazed and confused in the aftermath, but his father was a warlord, not a bureaucrat — and there were plenty of killers hungry and willing for the title, even if none of them were quite as skilled at it as him. 

Surely it would be more inconvenient for Claude if his father died. He would likely be tossed from his apartments if that nameless whoever-he-may-be stole his father’s crown, suddenly penniless for good measure along with the rest of his innumerable half-siblings— that is, at least the ones not already buried or lost in long-forgotten world tours. 

And what would he do then? He could search for his mother, maybe, but what was the point in seeking out someone who didn’t want to be found? 

A woman’s sharp cry interrupted his musing. He glanced over the gutters to spot two of those hooded men sweeping forward to hunt her out. His heart began to beat a little faster. Salma. Interesting. A pawn suddenly tossed against a rook — clumsy, sacrificial. A set of voices murmured bellow him as Salma was dragged forward into the moonlight and pushed to her knees, her chin tipped sideways by a blade. And here was a negotiation, Claude wagered, and one that would find those poor assassins once again grasping at the shortest straw. 

He leaned back against the tile and briefly considered slipping away until he spotted another figure slinking through the gloom. Faheem. The sight of his elder brother made him frown. Claude sighed and combed back his hair into a knot before searching out the handholds he’d need to slink down into the gardens and save the idiot from his own damned clumsy fate. 

Faheem was eleven months older than Claude, although one wouldn’t know it from looking at him. The pair had been united under their siblings’ constant mockery for years — Claude for his Fodlanese blood and Faheem for being, well, Faheem: gentle, quiet, and far more lovely than his sisters, even the ones his mother Salma had made herself. Faheem’s youthful jealousy of his younger brother had matured into unwavering devotion when Claude was twelve and Faheem thirteen, after Claude had spent three days searching for him when a group of their eldest brothers had tied Faheem to the saddle of a wild-eyed stallion and sent him blindfolded into the steppes.

Their dynamic had not much changed since then.  

“What are you doing?” Claude hissed the question into his ear as he tugged him backwards into a dark corner. Faheem gasped and flailed against Claude’s grip until he realized that he wasn’t one of those men in black lurking in the yard. 

Kal,” Faheem muttered into the palm pressed tight at his lips. He jolted tense at the sound of water splashing against tile. A cloud had passed over the moon, making it more difficult to see just what has happening at the heart of the courtyard. No matter, really; it was nothing that Faheem would like. Of this, Claude was certain. 

Their father laughed again. 

“Go on then,” the old man said. “Put her down. I’ll pay for her life with yours, you fucking coward.” 

His brother struggled against his arms. 

“What are you going to do, eh?” Claude’s voice rasped into Faheem's hair as he crossed his arms over his brother’s chest to hold him tighter. 

Relax. 

This was a lesson he’d learned nine years before. Nader, one of his father’s men, had given him his first bow and he’d set off with it into the wood to bring a trophy home. He’d stumbled upon a set of traps, six empty and two tripped. A wolf pack had run through them, leaving two behind. One had clearly fought against its fate. The creature’s claws had dug deep gashes into the soil from when it’d made the deadly mistake of thrashing and turning against the snare. Claude had stared at its lifeless eyes, unsure of what to do until he’d realized that the second beast was still breathing. 

Their eyes had matched as he’d watched the wolf continue on in its slow work of inching backwards from the trap. Its lean chest had been heaving from the effort and still it’d endeavored on. Finally it’d slipped its head free. For a moment they’d sized each other up, both of them scrawny things that’d looked lost in the forest’s shade. Eventually the wolf had turned and loped off into the brush to disappear. 

Don’t fight what you can’t conquer, that wolf had taught him.  

It was not a lesson Faheem had yet mastered himself.

That night in the Little Garden, Claude felt his brother’s tears run hot over his fingers as the assassins who had come to kill the king slit Salma’s throat instead. Faheem had sunk bonelessly against his chest when it had happened, and likely hadn’t heard the sound of their father taking his revenge.  

“I see you there,” their father had called out afterwards. Claude realized in that moment that perhaps the assassins weren’t the ones his brother had first feared. “Come on, then. Who is it?” 

Don’t fight it, came an ancient whisper at his ear. Claude released his hold on Faheem and urged him forward into the yard. 

“Ah,” their father laughed. “My little snake-and-mouse. Good.” He combed back his wild hair, still dripping from the pool just like the rest of his bare body. “Come here, then. Here, boy. I have a present for you.”

Claude watched his brother’s shoulders sink as Faheem realized that he meant him. Their father was pointing at a man in black cowered into a hunching pose, still alive, still groaning, but Claude was certain Faheem’s eyes were steadied on his mother’s body instead. 

“Come.” Their father’s voice took on that edge that meant it wasn’t a suggestion. Faheem stumbled forward. “Look. Here is the worm who has taken your mother from us.” The crumpled man groaned again, his hands pawing uselessly at the tiles. Faheem flinched as his father brandished one of the assassins’ curved swords in his direction. 

“Go on. Do your duty.”

Faheem took the scimitar from his father. It dipped low in his grip. Claude felt his stomach sink alongside its dripping point. Something in the man at their feet was broken. He was grappling with the ground in a pitiful attempt to escape. Faheem did the same with the hilt of that stolen sword. 

“I...” he began, his voice lilting drunkenly. “I... Father...” 

“Do it.”

His father’s eyes were calm. They were brown, the same as Faheem’s, or maybe it was the other way around. To Claude they’d never really had a color at all. 

Faheem’s shoulders shuddered around his swallowed weeping. Snake and mouse, their father called them, but Claude knew they were in truth that pair of wolves he’d seen as a child, and Faheem already twisting in the snare of his father’s trap. 

Claude strode forward to snatch the sword from his brother’s fingers. He kicked at the fallen man’s shoulders with the same smooth motion. The man gasped in surprise as he tumbled flat against the tile. His eyes — yellow, nearly gold — told him that he was angry, but mostly just afraid. Maybe it would have been better if they had been filled with a brave resignation instead. 

No. It didn’t matter. The blade cut into the flesh of his neck in exactly the same way. 

Their father laughed again as Claude steered his brother towards the doors leading backwards towards his quarters. He tossed the sword away once he saw that the king didn’t mean to punish them for their indiscretions. The weapon clattered against the tile, echoing against that constant rumble rolling from the king’s broad chest. He sounded pleased — as if he’d just heard the greatest comedic punchline of their time. His laughter followed after them even after they’d left him behind. 

“I’m going to kill him,” Faheem gasped as they stumbled into his room. “Kal, you saw, I... I’m going to fucking kill him. Listen to me. Please.” 

Some of the Little Gardens’ girls had begun to emerge from their hiding places. He saw the glitter of their eyes as they peeked through the fine lattice of the wooden panels that boxed in Faheem’s pretty room. They wouldn’t mourn Salma like Faheem would, but Claude knew they favored her son — the only one of any of them who might have had a heart, true and proper and beating and full of blood instead of whatever tar that compelled the rest of them to breathe. When Claude left they would no doubt sneak into his brother’s bed to pet and whisper sweet comforts to him like he did to them, and him no more a threat to their chastity than the old tomcats that sometimes snuck in to join them. 

Claude felt like laughing at the notion. Yes, it was a comedy, wasn’t it? And here was the hero ready for the stage: beautiful Faheem and all of his divine ironies. Surely there was something double-edged in Claude as well. After all, just what would he have done if Faheem had made good on his promise and had pointed that bloodied sword at their sire? Who would he have protected? And what did it mean to be unsure? Was that proof that he loved them both, or was it that he cared for neither? 

“Get some rest,” he told him. Faheem tumbled into his bed and looked up into his face as Claude tucked his sheets up to his shoulders. His eyes looked like garnets in the moonlit room. I’m afraid, they told him. I’m so very sad. Now you’re all that I have left. 

Pretty, Claude thought as he stood to hunt out the door. The unspoken words tasted bland on his tongue. So pretty. 


Claude sighed and rubbed at his eyes. It wasn’t like him to be nostalgic. How long had it been since he’d last thought about his brother? Still, it was difficult not to dredge up all of those memories with so many fathers around. And what a father for him to have stumbled upon so late that night in particular, and him smelling like booze nearly as sharply as those wretches down the hill. 

“Aw, shit,” Jeralt muttered as Claude skipped down the steps tucked between the cathedral and the market square. Claude waved his palms at him conspiratorially as he took a seat beside him in his poorly-devised hide. “Hey, kid.” 

“Good evening, Captain Jeralt!” 

“I don’t suppose it would do much good for me to mention that you’re out past curfew.”

Claude laughed and shrugged his shoulders. 

“I mean, that is a fact,” the younger man replied. “But don’t hold it against a guy for wanting some fresh air.” 

“Right,” Jeralt answered, sounding unconvinced. His eyes darted between his flask and Claude’s grinning. The older man groaned another reluctant noise before offering it forward in tribute. It was hot and spiced— somehow exactly what Claude was expecting. 

“Ah,” Claude exhaled, leaning back against his arms. “What a night. It’s staring to get cold, don’t you think?” Jeralt glanced up at the sky himself, as if the stars had suddenly arranged themselves into some sort of celestial thermometer. 

“Sure. Nothing like what you’re used to, though, I wager.”

Claude tipped his head at the idea. 

“I don’t know. Derdriu is pretty mild. The water keeps everything temperate, even in the winter. Up here in the mountains, though? Let's just say that I’m not particularly looking forward to it. A proper hothouse flower, me.”

Jeralt huffed a breath of laughter through his nose and nodded. 

“Right.” He leaned sideways to snatch his flask back and took another bubbling drink. “You know, I’ll be the first to admit that the Church can get a bit... insular.  They like to nest, you understand? I was never much for staying in the same place myself.” A wry smile spread over Claude’s lips as he anticipated what would come next. Of course, he should have expected no less from the Blade Breaker. Surely Byleth’s sharp nose for hidden things was hereditary, after all. 

“Can I ask you a question?” 

“I’m an open book,” Claude promised him with a flourish of his hands. 

“Just how is it that an Almyran finds himself first in line for the Leicester succession? It’s a bit like a dog ruling over a herd of cats, don’t you think?”

Claude smirked. Just what was it about him that always encouraged metaphors of the animal variety? Perhaps he should have taken it as an insult. Instead he simply laughed. 

“Oh, who knows. The way I see it, there are only two outcomes when you put two people who hate each other together into a room and lock the door: they’ll wring each other’s throats or they’ll fall in love with each other. Thankfully, my parents were particularly hopeless romantics.” 

“Huh,” Jeralt grunted. He took another drink. 

“Can I ask you a question?” 

“You can try,” Jeralt answered with the shift of his bulky shoulders. 

“It must have been a big decision to leave the monastery. Why come back now?”

Jeralt smirked. 

“No one can run away from home forever,” he told him. 

“Is that the same for the professor, then, too?”

The older man’s eyes narrowed as they slunk sideways to stare him down. It seemed as though Claude had already tottered to the very end of the rope of his patience. 

“No.” 

Sure. So why was it that Claude found it so impractical to think that everything about their current situation was just some great cosmic coincidence? It was a shame that Jeralt was as taciturn a drunk as he was a sober man — very nearly a waste of his time. 

“Well, whatever it is, thank goodness for it,” Claude admitted. “The monastery was in need of someone who could teach us how to properly survive. That’s something that I’m very keen on doing, eh?” He offered Jeralt another cheery smile. 

“I have a feeling you’re already good enough at that as it is,” Jeralt drawled.

Something in his stare made Claude realize he’d been transmogrified from a dog into a cockroach in the man’s mind. The thought made him snicker and wag his head. 

“Not as good as you, Captain Jeralt.” 

“Listen,” Jeralt replied, a little quicker, his eyes looking a little hotter. He caught himself with his next breath. Claude followed the line of his gaze as it dipped to a spot at his collar. “I know how all of you young people are, but maybe you’ll still pay attention to the advice of an old man. All of this,” he waved the flask at the tall walls of the cathedral at their backs, “it’s beautiful, isn’t it? The buildings, the art, the festivals, vestments, everything — like living in a painting. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous. As long as you fight at my daughter’s side, you should know to keep your eyes open and your fingers out of trouble. No one’s invincible — not even you.” 

“And here you were saying that an Almyran can’t make friends,” Claude laughed. Jeralt rolled his eyes and took another drink. 

“I’m not your friend.” 

Claude grinned. No, he wasn’t his friend. That didn’t matter. If he were to succeed in what he was planning, Claude would need a blade to cut down the knotted creepers of everything in his way. With such aspirations in mind he hardly needed a man who was in the business of breaking them. 


Not that he was expecting to find that very blade the morning after his and Jeralt’s short-lived conversation. Maybe it had been naive of him to think that he would find it anywhere else. Yet there it had been, nearly uninspired in its unveiling: the Sword of the Creator buried in the crypts, where most cursed things tended to be found. 

His father’s laughter had rung in his ears as he’d watched Byleth brandish it for the first time. And what a sense of humor his old man had — charmed never by his jesters, but instead by the prospect of something that he could use. A son born in his father’s image, already destined to be cruel. A woman named Death wielding a sword of bones. 

His mother, his father, his sweet-faced brother so skilled with poisoned drinks and tainted foods; whores and drunks and killers; two wolves, one dead. Claude had found himself in the tutelage of so many different tutors, but in the end they’d all taught him the same thing: 

take what you want. 

And so he did, and so he would.  

 

Chapter Text

He watched Sylvain pace the gardens from a hidden spot up on the walls. What he’d said to Jeralt three nights before had been the truth: it was getting cold. Claude could feel the chill of the granite ramparts seeping through his breeches. Nothing like what you’re used to, the Blade Breaker had suggested. That had been true, too. There was no cold like the desert in winter and under the moon. 

Still, winter was winter, for him or Sylvain or any of the rest of them. The distinction lay solely in just how quickly one would freeze. And all of that wasn’t so important, really, at least not now. He focused instead on guessing just what it was that had trapped the other man into his circling path below. 

The least complicated aspect of his guessing was the answer, which was Miklan and the death warrant that had been issued on his behalf. But just how had the news of his brother’s fate made him feel? 

Claude closed his eyes and imagined himself to be his red-headed classmate. It wasn’t difficult. He’d always found it easiest to slip on the clothes of liars like him. So what was it, then? Was Sylvain feeling betrayed that the Church had turned its back on a noble-born son? Relieved that his tormentor would finally be put down, and with him a safe distance away so that he could begin to feign that he’d never really been there at all? Sad? Was he sad? 

I don’t know.  

Claude pressed on the idea. He had plenty of brothers who deserved to be hunted, too, guilty of far worse things than stealing some family heirloom. How would it feel to cut them down? Wrong, he supposed. Surely it was an unnatural thing to do, and even if their blood was as different from his as it was the same. But he’d done other unnatural things. Wrong wasn’t sad. That hadn’t been how he’d felt before. 

Sad was sad, he supposed, but that wasn’t much of a definition. He dug deeper into the keep-safe of his chest to rustle up something that would serve him better. Hurting, maybe, but he’d been hurt plenty of times in the past. It had looked nothing like the staggering path that Sylvain was currently cutting through the monastery’s neat-kept lawn. It had been... what? A tightening of his jaw, followed by the flash of something hot in his gut, swallowed after with a curse. 

Or was that just anger? Was it all just anger dressed in a dozen different shades of chintz? 

“I thought I saw you up here.”

Fuck. His eyes flashed open to catch sight of Byleth emerging from one of the towers dotting the walls. She had a quiet step. 

“Hey, Teach,” he offered her breezily. “Here to catch the sights?” 

“That depends on what there is to see.” 

“Well, all sorts of things.”

She sat beside him, dangling her legs over the parapet like he had with with his. He watched as she scanned the dark blips of all of the people carrying on below. Her eyes settled on Sylvain and his infinite looping waltz. 

“Seteth informed me that the leader of the bandits we’ve been assigned to clear from Conand is his brother.”

Claude nodded. “He is. Miklan Anschutz Gautier,” he remembered from one of the library’s blue-covered volumes detailing the trials and tribulations of the Kingdom’s most notable families. “First son of Margrave Gautier.” 

“First son?” 

“And made redundant when his brother was born with the Crest that hadn’t been included with his own silver spoon when he was welcomed into the world.” 

“I see,” she said evenly. She turned from the gardens to stare at him instead. “How is it that you know all of this?” 

“What, the great dramas of Fodlan?” he laughed. “I’d like to take that as a compliment, but I’m not really that special. Everyone knows them.” 

“I don’t,” Byleth replied with a shrug. 

“Your father really wasn’t much of a story teller, was he?”

The corners of her mouth turned with the very faintest hint of a smile. She shook her head. “No. Some of his men were, but not with those types of stories.” 

“I would guess not,” he agreed with a grin. “Although they were probably far more entertaining.” 

She picked at the hem of her sleeve. This was, he‘d learned, her way of being chatty. 

“I could teach you, you know.” 

“What?”

He winked at her question. Maybe it was a bit too forward, but he’d always liked to push on boundaries to see how far they could be bent before they’d break. 

“Fodlan’s finest fairy tales,” he explained. “I can’t promise they’ll all be as exciting as two brothers dueling to the death, but there’s some other gems in there as well. It might be helpful if you plan on making a proper go at this whole professor thing.”

She weighed his offer silently. Her eyes were as elusive as ever. He kicked his legs lazily over the edge of the wall and did his best to ignore how frustrating it was that he still hadn’t learned the trick of reading her. 

“Alright,” she said finally. “I think that would be valuable.” 

“Anything to be valuable, Teach,” he promised her with another wink. She didn’t show it, but he liked to think that she was amused. 

“This mission, then,” she countered. “What do you think of it?” 

“Starting that quickly, are we?” He laughed again. “Well... Call me a bleeding heart, but I don’t know if any theft is due a death sentence.” 

“You disagree with Lady Rhea’s judgment?” 

“I think she wants to send a message,” he corrected neatly with the flick of his index finger. “I also think that she doesn’t give a damn just what I think about it at all. Not to be crude.”

Byleth’s lips flattened into shape that suggested she’d heard far worse in her time huddled around mercenary campfires. 

“If we don’t go to Conand she’ll simply send a different party.”  

“And better that it’s us than Professor Casagranda and her Blue Lions,” he agreed.

“Perhaps we can retrieve the lance without violence.” 

Claude shook his head and glanced down at Sylvain’s tortured trail. 

“Here’s my lesson for you today, Teach — nothing gets done in Fodlan without violence.”

 


 

The notion of banditry was still novel to Claude. By Fodlan’s standards he supposed that he was one himself. After all, Almyra was dictated far more by strength and luck than it was by its loosely-defined laws. Not that he’d ever found such methods to be particularly cruel. When you went reaving you were offered the same cut as the man or woman beside you, to hell with their name or fame. That dynamic ran all the way to the top. His father’s father had been a drunkard, not a king, after all, and he’d stolen his crown just in the same way that Miklan had stolen that lance. 

And now Claude was going to kill him for it. 

So it goes. 

“Be alert,” Gilbert told him as they shuffled into the tower. 

“With you on our side, how could we fail?”

The old knight grimaced at the pleasantry. His whole retinue had been even more stubborn with Claude than usual ever since their trip to Gaspard. Not that it bothered him. As a man with two names himself, Claude knew that it was better not to trust this Gustave turned Gilbert any more than he trusted Cassandra-named-Catherine. It made no difference if the knight didn’t trust him, either. Better, really, that they both knew where the other stood.  

He slung his arm over Ignatz’s shoulders instead of forcing Gilbert’s response. 

“Listen,” he told him in a whisper, pointing at the rounded walls of the staircase they’d soon summit. “Do you see there? Through the railings. That’s your shot. Don’t get too close.”

Ignatz’s throat bobbed as he swallowed and nodded. “O-okay. Right.”

Claude gave the nape of Ignatz’s neck a reassuring squeeze. “Give ‘em hell!”

It was a stupid, shallow phrase, but Ignatz wasn’t really listening to him. He was too busy nervously strumming his bowstring instead, his teeth working over his lower lip as he watched their professor establish a starting position at the front of the hall. 

Gods. Just what was that boy doing there? 

Claude glanced back at Gilbert and cocked a brow at him before nodding ever-so-slightly in Ignatz’s direction. Don’t let him die, that look said. The knight seemed to reluctantly agree. Seeing that their pact had been made, Claude skipped forward to crouch at Byleth’s side in her hide behind a half-crumpled wall. 

“Going up, then?” His quip was, as always, wasted on her. She nodded and drew her sword. 

“We’ll advance in waves,” she told him. “I’ll clear a path for you — follow behind. Hilda will advance with Lorenz, and Leonie after with Raphael and Lysithea. Gilbert, Marianne, and Ignatz will take the rear. Once we start it will be important to keep moving. We don’t want to be swamped with them on the high ground. Good?” 

“Good. After you, Teach.” 

It was good until it wasn’t. Byleth was as efficient in cutting down men in towers as she was with ones in fields and valleys and forest glens. Lorenz seemed to have learned from his previous missteps and made a good effort at keeping himself in one piece as they slowly trailed up the stairs. Lances and bows were well-suited for places like that. Claude fell into the easy rhythm of pulling arrows from his quiver, drawing them back, letting them loose; one-two-three, one-two-three, like a waltz, smooth and looping. Like Miklan’s brother stumbling through the gardens, hands in his pockets, head downturned. 

One-two-three. One-two-three. They ascended a floor and then the next. It was loud. Everything bounced off of the tower’s mossy stones — the clash of blades, groans, curses and threats. And then,  

“Ignatz!”  

Claude stopped on the second count of his draw. He steadied himself, one foot planted each on its own step as he listened for the sounds of their rear guard. He heard the clatter of Gilbert’s massive shield intercepting a blade and then a gasp, flighty and breathless, beneath its ringing reverberations — Marianne. 

He looked to Byleth and saw that she had heard as well. 

“Go,” she told him, already braced for the next band of men clattering down the steps. He didn’t take the time to agree before dancing down the wind of the staircase again. Hilda frowned as he passed her by, but he simply flipped his fingers in Byleth’s direction before leaving her behind. Her quick step clipped upwards as he went downwards, downwards, downwards. 

They’d made a mistake. They should have expected reinforcements. Was it his misstep, or Byleth’s, or Gilbert’s? Did it matter? His teeth ground in his jaw as he rounded the last corner and found Leonie waiting for him, her face scuffed with a bruise. She looked frightened. Frustrated.  

Inexperienced. 

“Eyes forward!”

She jolted at his order, spinning on her toes just quickly enough to catch the closest bandit’s blade against her staff before it cleaved into her shoulder. Claude reached into his quiver and groped empty air. 

Fuck. 

He drew the useless saber from his hip and used it to stagger the man so that Leonie could land her final strike. Claude skipped over them both as he stumbled forward, skittering over the slick cobbles towards the spot where two others had cornered Ignatz against the far wall. The young archer was dragging his leg at an awkward angle, the point of his drawn arrow swinging in wild, aimless arcs as his assailants closed ever closer. 

Look there — a little mouse dropped in with all the snakes, a voice whispered in his ears. 

“S-stop! Get away!”

Ignatz’s reedy voice rung like a bell in the gloom. By some miracle the boy lost his grip on his arrow. It was a lucky shot — hit one of those men right at the pitch of his throat. He gurgled a confused sound just as his companion snarled and circled closer.

Ignatz fumbled for another arrow. They tipped from his quiver, clattering one after another between his feet. He fell to his knees to pick them up. The bandit swung his arm high over his shoulder, his sword readied like an executioner’s axe for the bowed head before him. 

Claude flipped his bow in his palms and leapt forward to hook it over the bandit’s head. The man’s swing was ruined when he then twisted the bow end over end until he’d garroted the bowstring around the bandit’s throat. Claude threw the full ballast of his body against it to drag him backwards, crouching low to dodge the man’s sword as he angled it with hacking swipes over his shoulders.

“Claude!”

He could feel the tension torquing the birch of his bow. Shit. Not enough. He crooked his ankle over the man’s left leg to break his stance. They crumpled together onto the floor just as the bowstring snapped. As they did his bow kicked back at him in retribution for having been misused. He heard something crunch in his nose. The splash of stars across his vision that followed after were a distraction enough for the bandit to seize the upper hand. Suddenly the man was above him, his knees pinned at his sides as he raised that knock-edged sword high in the air once more. 

Clumsy. Careless. Stupid. What was wrong with him? 

Claude spat a mouthful of blood into the bandit’s face. The man recoiled just enough so that he was no longer pinned. Claude snarled a wordless sound as he lurched forward, his fingers knitting together in a vice around the man’s throat. The bandit was bigger than he was, but Claude’s arms were strong. When the bandit moved to swing his sword again he jolted them to crack the back of the man’s head against the stone of the floor. Finally the blade clattered away. 

Then it was easier. 

Poorly done, he reflected once the man grew limp beneath him. Too many mistakes. He quickly scanned the landing and found it empty except for Ignatz, crumpled where he’d left him; and Leonie, her shoulders hunched against the weight of her lance; and Marianne, pale and cringing, her hands grasped tight against her chest; and Gilbert.  

Claude spat again and stood. 

“You,” he accused darkly, pointing his bloodied fingers at the old knight as he advanced. “What the fuck were you doing?”

“Exactly what needed to be done,” the man contended defensively. 

“What needed to be done,” Claude hissed in a rasping whisper, “and what was that, exactly? Getting them all killed? They’re fucking children — is that how you fight?” 

“Excuse me?” 

Maybe he’d said too much. Maybe he’d said it to the wrong man. It was his plan, too, wasn’t it? His responsibility? He shut his eyes and sucked in a deep breath through his mouth, dragging his fingers through the messy strands of his once-boyish coif that had since fallen against his brow. 

Calm down.  

He smeared his sleeve across the aching mess of his broken nose and turned on his heel. 

“Ignatz,” he called out once his voice had leveled into something calm and proper again. “Are you alright?”

“I... I’m sorry,” Ignatz replied. His face was pale, nearly green. “Claude, I’m so sorry... I — your nose.” 

“Ah, you know,” Claude deflected as he touched tenderly at the new crook at its bridge, “these things happen. Your leg — is it broken?” Ignatz whimpered, which he supposed was an affirmative sound. “Alright. That’s alright. Lend me your bow, will you? Marianne, let’s sort him out.” 

“Do you —” she started meekly, her eyes downcast. He cut her off with the wave of his hand. 

“No, no — I’m alright.” He bent to sweep up Ignatz’s scattered arrows. “Focus on everyone here. I’m going to go check on our friends upstairs. It won’t take long. Just stay together.” 

“I’m sorry,” Ignatz muttered again. Stop it already. Claude very nearly frowned, but caught it and twisted it into a reassuring smile instead. 

“Don’t apologize. You held your ground. It was bravely done.”

Ignatz’s eyes darted away. Claude maintained his smile until he’d rounded back on the stairs again. Then his lips fell into a grim line that lingered as he and the others took turns in killing Miklan. 

 


 

A crack had formed along the inseam of his bow. He ran his finger over it from the dark privacy of his tent. It was slight, no broader than a strand of hair, but he could feel it under his touch. There was no doubt that it would shatter if he strung it tight again. That was the trouble with hidden imperfections: benign until they weren’t, until they made things fall apart. He twisted the bow at either end and sighed as it splintered into two jagged pieces. 

There were two options spread before him. He weighed each end of the broken bow in his hands as he mulled them over. One was to treat the monastery’s students as the Church did: inconsequentially. It was a logical approach. Objectively, it seemed unreasonable to assume that they would all survive the litany of battles waiting for them ahead. Eventually Leonie would slip; Lysithea would become careless. Perhaps one day Lorenz would overestimate himself, as he often did in kinder places when he was unarmed. 

And no doubt this was how Claude’s father considered his riders when they went to war. Each one of them knew that they were just as likely to live as they were to die, and in the same way that it was simply a coin flip’s decision on if they would win or lose. None of that really mattered. Whether they returned to Sakhavan victorious or dead, the rest would still drink and sing and dance in the nights that came after. And how different were they, really, from bees thrumming inside a hive, or terns flying high in their wedge, and all of them carrying on no matter how many they left behind?

The second option was to be something better than bestial — better than his father. It was what he’d always wanted, even if it was something that was so difficult to define. How long had he been chasing after it? How many years was always? And each time punctuated by his failure, and no matter the terms. He tossed the bow to the ground and combed his fingers through his hair. 

How many years had it been, and still he wasn’t good enough. 

He shrugged on his shirt at the sound of footsteps outside the oil cloth of his tent. They were quiet, but he’d started to learn the trick of listening for them. He stood and slipped outside to meet Byleth midway. 

“I’d like to speak with you,” she greeted him. He nodded and ignored the stone-weight in his chest as they picked over the dark camp together towards an empty spot in the distance. She made a bench of a fallen tree once they arrived and didn’t watch him as he sat beside her. It was cold. He should have put on a coat. Their breath hung in silver clouds above their heads. 

“I spoke with Gilbert,” she told him in that same matter-of-fact tone as always. “About what happened today.” 

What exactly, he wanted her to add: what did happened mean? Was it the task of chewing through those men as they’d made their slow ascent? Or was it that terrible beast that had replaced Miklan, or his broken body afterwards? Or could it have been the sound of Ignatz’s leg knitting back together, crackling like too-green wood tossed into a fire? Were those the things that had haunted that valiant old knight? 

“He suggested that I speak with you about your chivalry.” 

“Ah,” Claude said. “My chivalry.” 

“I will admit to you,” she continued in a somewhat softened tone, “that I’m not entirely sure what that word means.”

He smirked and planted his hands against the crumbling bark of their seat, tipping his chin to stare upwards into the branches. 

“Isn’t it interesting?” She didn’t answer, familiar now with his occasional hypotheticals. “There is no better place in all of Fodlan to learn the art of battle than Garreg Mach. And yet the matter of killing — that? Not so much. It occurs to me now that this may very well be by design.”

“Are you always this distrustful?”

A breath of air slipped through his lips in a single deep-throated ha! 

“Yes,” he admitted to her with an honest smile. “Always.”

“And do you distrust me, too?”

He looked down to her again. 

“Yes,” he said. “I do.” 

“Why?”

He kept his eyes on her as he considered his answer. She didn’t look away. 

“I don’t know why you’re here,” he told her after a silent beat. “Or where you’ve come from, or what you’re looking for.  Sometimes I even wonder if you don’t know yourself.”

She smiled. It was the third time he’d seen her do it. Even with the dangerous tight-rope of their conversation he felt compelled to covet the look of it — the sloping of her lips, the cold-bitten pink of her nose. 

“Well, it appears that we feel the same, at least,” she told him, sounding nearly coy. “And that doesn’t seem like such a terrible place to start.” 

To start what, he wanted to ask. A strange part of him also wanted to kiss her. He tossed both ideas aside and simply laughed, flicking his head upwards to stare into the branches again. And certainly they looked frightening, dark and leafless as they were, and crowding all around them like a thousand grabbing hands; but in the night’s chill they looked brittle, too. Something that could be broken. A cage without need of a key, if one only knew the trick of it. 

Chapter Text

“You’re leaving,” his brother said in a voice that was too definitive to be a question. Claude sighed and kept his gaze steady on his reflection, his fingers working over his face as he did his best to plan his newest disguise. 

“Well, not in this very moment, Faheem.” 

“Kal.” 

Claude,” he corrected him, the word still a little clumsy on his tongue. Faheem frowned and flung himself onto a nearby chaise draped with discarded clothes dirtied by the red sand of the dunes that circled the capital. 

“That isn’t your name,” he muttered glumly. “I hate this.”

Claude rolled his eyes. “Of course you do. Poor little Faheem, never pleased.”

His brother snatched a fig from a platter at his elbow and pitched it at him. He was a good shot. Claude rubbed the bulls-eye of the back of his head as the sweet projectile tumbled under his chair.  

“Stop it,” Faheem snapped. “This isn’t some joke.” Claude eyed the dark swoosh of his brother’s hair in the mirror’s silver. “It’s a terrible idea.” 

“It’s a fantastic idea,” Claude contended.

“It’s dangerous,” Faheem replied. “Even for someone like you.” 

“That’s exactly why I have to see it through.” He drummed his fingers over the face of his dressing table. “It’s the only option,” he amended. “And you know it as well as I do.”

“So where does that leave me, then? Alone,” Faheem added quickly. “Thrown to the wolves while you’re off playing your games.” 

“How lucky it is that you’re a man, then, and not a goat.” His brother glowered at his drawling reply. “Don’t give me that look. Occasionally you will need to do your own work and with your own two hands. Just be happy that I’ve been your dutiful henchman for as long as I have.” 

“I don’t like it when you’re cruel to me,” Faheem simpered. Claude sighed and kneaded at his eyes. 

“I’m not — Enough. It’s done. Let’s not waste any more time in trying to erase what’s already been written.” He could feel Faheem’s eyes still burning a hole between his shoulder blades. “Here,” he conceded afterwards. “Help me with this, will you?” 

“With what? You’ve always been so good at admiring yourself. Surely you don’t need my assistance.”

Claude decided to allow him that final stab. 

“I need to cut my hair. Come and help me with it or I’ll end up bald.” 

What?

If Faheem had been any other man he would have lurched to his feet — but Faheem didn’t lurch, he glided, and perhaps in his clumsiest moments slunk. And so he did a combination of that instead, his well-draped robes glittering in the sunlight streaming through the window screens as he moved. 

Claude watched the reflection of his approach and considered — not for the first time — what an unusual creature his brother was. If he’d been a stranger he’d probably have mistaken him for some sort of epicene nymph. When he’d been a boy, Faheem’s beauty had been the source of his perpetual torment. As a man it had cast him with a rarefied air that had become a shield nearly as effective as his younger brother’s more traditional skill at arms. Perhaps Claude was the only one immune to it — that hypnotizing lure of his brother’s doll-like face, the sort of thing that made everyone around him desperate to either seduce or hurt him, and both of them foolhardy desires. After all, Faheem was still his father’s son, and although he was a flower he was the type with teeth. 

“You can’t cut your hair,” Faheem told him, gripping the back of his chair. 

“Of course I can. More importantly, I won’t make a very convincing man of the Alliance looking like this.” 

“Kal...” 

“Don’t be so sentimental.” 

Only it wasn’t sentimentality that had sparked that glimmer of resistance in Faheem’s stare. It was something more closely aligned to horror — a primitive recoil to the suggestion that one pluck out his own eyes. It’s just hair, Claude could have contended, but in Almyra it wasn’t. Long hair in Almyra was proof that you weren’t a coward, and in Almyra to be a coward was to be no better than a louse. Every proper Almyran grew their hair long as soon as they could manage it, boys and girls alike. Each of them styled it in their own way, but the effect was always the same: daring their foes to take grip of it when they grappled together, as well as a symbol that they’d escaped their grasp when they returned home with neither braid nor throat cut short. 

It had become a helpful shorthand for other things as well. The bitterest of rivals often vied to slice each other’s long locks. If they succeeded, their victim was left branded with their failure. Servants, too, were shorn to keep them neatly sequestered from the ones they served. Even the lowest whores often had only the finest bristle on their skulls, falling under the jealous razors of mid-rate courtesans desperate for more coin. 

Faheem wore his loose against his shoulders in a drape that nearly reached to the base of his spine. His hair was the proper black of his homeland, unlike his brother’s muted in-between. Even on horseback it was somehow always untangled and unruffled, always glimmering like some burnished, expensive stone. 

Claude shared little with his brother in terms of their looks. This held true for his hair as well, which he instead wore in the fashion of his father (a mimicry that had been lost on no one): swept back into a long tail and interspersed with a half-dozen tight-wound braids. The silk of Faheem’s hair had no doubt been inherited from his mother as well, as Claude’s was coarse and capricious, often sneaking from its binding to spill around his face. There was something strangely fitting in its serpentine design. 

Not that any of this mattered. Now it simply needed to be cut. 

He waved a pair of shears over his shoulder. Faheem took them timidly, weighing them in his long fingers as Claude watched him in the mirror. Their eyes met briefly. Claude didn’t bother to read his gaze. 

“I hate this,” Faheem told him again. 

“I know.” 

“If you die, I’ll put a curse on your grave.”

Claude smirked. “Who says I’m going to die? And how do you know I won’t die tonight, drunk and happy in my bed?” 

Faheem made a face as he tugged at the gnarled strip of leather that bound back his brother’s hair. “At least then you would deserve it,” he mumbled bitterly. 

“Probably,” Claude laughed. He slapped at his brother’s fingers afterwards. “Don’t bother with that — just cut it all off at the base.” 

Faheem ignored him, pulling his hair loose to run his fingers through its thick wave. “I know why you’re doing this.” 

“Of course you do,” Claude sighed. “I’ve just told you.” 

“You’re doing it so that you can’t come back.” Faheem caught his gaze through the mirror. Claude frowned; slight, but enough that he would see. 

“I’m not.” 

“You are. I can tell when you’re lying, you know.”

“Is that so?”

Their eyes met for a moment longer before Faheem glanced away. 

“No. I never know what you want, and you never explain it to me, so why should I even bother? Go on, then. Cut your hair, call yourself by that ridiculous name. Dress yourself in steel, and kiss the ring of some milk-fed king and wha—”

“It’s the only way, Faheem.”

Faheem huffed a heavy breath and wound one of his braids around his finger. 

“Tell me, then. What it is you’re planning.” 

“I’ve already told you.” 

“Tell me again.” 

Claude fought the urge to rub at his eyes. 

“Alright,” he submitted with another sigh. “Fodlan is... imagine it as a chain made out of four different links.” He waved the appropriate number of fingers in the air. “The first is the Empire of Adrestia, and tempered out of the oldest, thickest steel. The second, more brittle-cast, is the Holy Kingdom of Farghus. Then comes the Leicester Alliance — shiny, new, still hot from the forge. And at the center of them all is the fourth link, and that one made out of something entirely different than the rest: the Church. Lined up all together, those links build quite the strong chain.” 

“And so you plan to, what? Break them apart?”

Claude shrugged. “What use is a broken chain? I’m simply going to pull them in the right direction.” 

“Ah-ha.” Faheem cocked one of his slender brows. “And how is it, exactly, that you plan to do that?” 

“As it so happens, the heirs of all three of those links will be descending into the heart of the Church in one year’s time. How terribly convenient for them to collect themselves into one place, wouldn’t you say? And so when that happens, I’m simply going to give them a little tug.” 

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me in your metaphor,” Faheem drawled. Claude rolled his eyes. 

“There is a finishing school in Fodlan,” he told him more dryly. “The nobility send their children there to be made into proper soldiers. And this is no ordinary school, as you can imagine, as its headmaster is none other than the archbishop of the Church. As I understand it, the current emperor of Adrestia is a dying man, and the king of Faerghus has been dead for years. What better time to make the acquaintance of their unlucky children?”

“And the third?” Faheem’s brow furrowed at Claude’s confused stare. “You said there were three... well, however you put it.” 

“Ah.” Claude’s lips scrawled into a wolffish grin. “Why me, of course.” 

“You,” Faheem deadpanned. “The seventh son of a foreign king?” 

“And the only son of Lady Rosalind von Riegan, daughter to the Sovereign Duke of Leicester,” he corrected him with a wink. Faheem frowned. 

“You found your mother?”

Claude’s grin wavered ever so slightly. “No,” he quickly answered. “Don’t worry, I’m sure she would give her blessing to the idea.” 

“Well, in any case, that makes you this duke’s grandson, not his heir.” 

“That is a fact,” Claude conceded. “Lucky that I am so very charming.” 

“You’re putting all of this in motion when it depends on your charm to succeed?” 

“Everything depends on my charm, dear brother.” 

“And yet here I was, thinking that you were quite the boor.” 

“Hm,” Claude retorted with a sniff. He would have quipped about how it was a shame that Faheem’s mother wasn’t a Fodlanese noble instead, but he knew better than to joke about Salma, not even after all of those years. “Boor or otherwise, I’m certain that I’ll win them over. I’ve found a woman in Leicester who has agreed to help me... assimilate.” 

“What, Fodlanese women are that easy to buy?”

Claude laughed. “No. Not with money, at least. But lucky for me, this Judith and I have something in common.” 

“Let me guess — insufferable pride?” 

“A sweet and lasting love for my mother,” Claude clarified with another grin. Unrequited, he didn’t add, although it was true for them both. “So, before you ask the question, Lady Judith will teach me how to become a proper Fodlander, and then I’ll set off to make a few new friends.” 

“And then what? Let’s say by some miraculous twist of fate that they don’t simply cut off your brown head as soon as you arrive. You’ve turned yourself into a schoolboy — just what is it that you hope to accomplish?” 

“I’ll test those links,” he answered. “Feel them out for cracks. A chain with three parts is nearly as strong as one with four — it doesn’t matter, and far better that they never break no matter how many there are.” 

“And then?” 

“And then I’ll use it, Faheem. Come now, be clever.” 

“To do what? Go to war with Father?”

Claude smirked and shook his head. “Father — Almyra — they’re nothing more than stray links themselves. I’ll clip them on or toss them aside. That doesn’t really matter.” 

“What matters, then?” Faheem scoffed. 

“Power.” Claude looked into the mirror and trapped his brother’s eyes. “I’ll wrap that chain around the world and I’ll pull and pull until its dragging at my feet. And then I’ll give you what I’ve promised, Faheem. Everything we’ve talked about. You just need to be patient.” 

Faheem frowned and looked away. Claude could feel him sweeping his hair into a bunch at his nape.    

“What if you fail?” 

“You remember, don’t you? What Father once said.” Claude smiled at the memory. “When you find yourself in a boat that’s sinking, set fire to the sails.” 

Faheem drew in a deep breath and reluctantly slipped his fingers through the loops of the shears. 


 

Claude wasn’t certain why Lady Rhea had summoned him, although he had a few ideas. For once he was pleased not to know exactly what was waiting for him; at the very least, it would make it much easier for him to lie. His chest crackled with anticipation as he strode into her office. The room was filled with the soft perfume of incense and that chalky, dusty smell so common to ancient places. She was standing at her desk — or was it Seteth’s, with its neat piles of correspondence all tucked in a line — her hands folded primly over her stomach as she greeted him with a nod. 

“Claude,” she said to him in that overly familiar way that the head of a hierarchy spoke to its undeserving middle-parts. “I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me.” 

“Lady Rhea,” he replied, paired with the proper sweeping bow. She waved at a place for him to sit. He complied and noted drolly that she chose to remain standing. Of course she did. Better for him to remember his place, he supposed. 

“It occurs to me that we haven’t had the opportunity to properly speak with one another,” she told him. “Which I, for my part, do so terribly regret. As you know, maintaining an amicable relationship between the Alliance and the Church is one of my most earnest desires.” 

He smiled and looked into her eyes and saw very little of anything earnest glimmering there. 

“Of course,” he agreed, “but if you don’t mind me saying so, I’m afraid I’m hardly in the position to make any promises like that myself.” 

“Is that how you see it?” She cocked her head to the side like a cat measuring up its dinner. “You are a Riegan, are you not?” He didn’t answer, knowing that she wasn’t waiting for his reply. “Although it is unusual for a son to take his mother’s name. Leicester does so like to follow its own rules, doesn’t it?” 

“I suppose so, my lady.” 

“I wonder,” she continued airily, “your father must be quite the man not to insist that you carry on his name instead.” 

There was something rather amusing in what she’d said, but he swallowed the notion before it forced his lips into a telling smirk. 

“It does seem selfless, doesn’t it? But I’m afraid the truth of it isn’t nearly as impressive. You see, my father didn’t have a name to give me. He was just a simple soldier, from a simple family. I think you may know the type. My mother’s surname was enough for all of us to share.” 

“I see,” Lady Rhea said. “And your father has passed on, then?”

“Yes, my lady — some years ago now, when I was only a child.” 

“I’m sorry to hear that. It must have been difficult for you.” 

“We all have our own trials to bear.”

Rhea hummed in agreement. “You know,” she added, smoothing her palms over her skirts. “I often spoke with your uncle Lord Godfrey like this — in this very room, in fact.” She began to pace in a slow line before the desk. “Did you know him?” 

“Not well, my lady.”

She waved her fingers at him. “I’m quite aware that I am a woman, Claude — you can do away with those formalities.”

He ironed the flicker of his lips into another docile smile. 

“As you wish.” 

“It is a shame,” she told him next, “that you weren’t so well acquainted with him. He was a bright and generous man. Pious,” she added, the finest bauble she had to offer for the man’s hazy memory. “He often came to me for guidance. He was the leader of the Golden Deer house as well, you may be aware.”

Claude nodded. 

“In those many afternoons we spent together, he often spoke to me about your mother. I imagine she is likely quite a different woman as you know her now, but as a girl I must admit that he was rather tormented by her.” She offered him a sweetly guilty look. “So very headstrong, Godfrey told me. Of course, I’ve never found such a feature to be a weakness. It’s important to have our own principles, wouldn’t you agree?” 

“Absolutely,” he offered with the tip of his head. 

“I was devastated to hear of Godfrey’s passing,” Rhea sighed. “And with such violence — not that anyone deserves an early grave, but certainly it seemed particularly unfair for a man like him.” 

“I suppose the Goddess works in mysterious ways,” he suggested evenly. Her gaze jittered for a moment before settling again. 

“Indeed,” she said. “At the time of his passing, I must admit that we were all quite uneasy about the fate of the Alliance. Duke Riegan plays an important role in holding the Roundtable together, in a way that is truly unique in comparison with his peers. To find himself suddenly without an heir... An untenable situation, it seemed.” 

“So I’ve heard.” 

“And you were traveling with your mother, then, when news of her brother’s death arrived?”

“After my father passed away, my mother didn’t have much reason to stay in any one place,” he told her. “I know that it’s a bit unusual, but I’m thankful for the education that Fodlan gave me — better than any governess, or at least that’s my opinion.” Rhea nodded neatly. 

“Certainly. Fodlan is a bit of a mother herself, don’t you think?” She studied him for a moment, quiet, her face still set in a calm shape betrayed only by the sharpness of her eyes. “Your professor tells me that you have taken quite naturally to your duties. Your classmates, too, have been generous with their descriptions of your feats on the battlefield. Was this part of the curriculum that our motherland gave to you as well?” 

“I’m sorry?” He cocked one of his brows. “I don’t follow what you mean.” 

“Why, cutting off heads,” she tutted. “I understand that this was Lord Lonato’s fate, was it not? A fitting end for a traitor.”

The ember of something hot and eager blossomed in his gut. 

“I’ve been told that another man you squared yourself against in Conand met nearly the same demise. Not that I mean to discipline you for your methods, but of course you must understand that this sort of behavior is not generally befitting to knighthood.” 

“I am still learning,” he admitted.  

“Is that so? Well, in any case, I suppose that it isn’t my place to teach you how to become a duke. With everything that’s happened, I hardly expect you to pursue a position in the Order of Seiros following your graduation. Still, you do understand that your classmates will look to your actions as an example, do you not? One must be very careful in crafting the face they show to the world.” 

“I couldn’t agree more,” Claude said. Rhea smiled.

“Good. It seems we understand one another, then. I look forward to learning of your future exploits, Lord Riegan.” She nodded her head to signal that he could rise. He did, and was steadied only afterwards as her gaze slipped back to his again. “Ah. There is another matter that I would like to address with you before you leave. There is a rumor among the guards that certain students are known to slip outside the gates after curfew. You wouldn’t know anything about something like that, would you?” 

Claude let his lips slip into a well-calculated grin. 

“Well, Lady Rhea,” he confided, “I do find that when one wanders for so long, it can be difficult to find themselves surrounded by so many walls.”

“Ah,” she replied, her eyes filling with a low surprise that he hadn’t disagreed. “You are no doubt aware of the recent disappearance of Seteth’s sister Flayn, of course.”

“Yes,” he replied in an appropriately grim tone. “Horrible. If there’s anything that the Golden Deer can do to help with her search — I’ve instructed the class to speak with everyone they find, and to report back anything unusual, and of course I’ll keep you informed.” 

“Of course,” she echoed. “And so you have not seen anything that has concerned you? There is nothing that you’d like to tell me about the matter?” 

No. There was very little that he wanted to tell her, and none of it the truth. Naturally, he could have shared that her faculty smelled positively rank with its duplicity: that fumbling old Tomas was always creeping from his library at odd hours of the night, or that Jertiza was even more suspicious in his daily itineraries than any masked man should have been. And then there was Edelgard and her reptilian retainer, always skittering about in places they thought were hidden; always whispering, always scheming. Surely Rhea would have been interested to learn about these things. But to what end? He may have had a better nose than she did, but he still didn’t know for what end little Flayn had been taken away. And, as always, he found it far more valuable to watch something unwind than to catch it before it had properly fallen apart. 

Besides, Rhea wasn't a proper sparring partner. It was obvious that she didn’t trust him, but he could see that she also didn’t really care to find out the truth of why he was there. Her eyes weren’t filled with curiosity, after all, but were instead simply flooded with anger — and always, in moments like these and in others as well; an everlasting flame that burned indiscriminately. 

Surely whatever had sparked that anger to life must have been quite compelling, but he also doubted that it had been too terribly complex. She had been wronged somehow, and now she desired for nothing more than to set herself right again. It was an unrefined dynamic he’d seen in many others before; and, more importantly, he had no use for common, ill-made things. 

“I’m afraid that I haven’t found anything helpful yet,” he told her, his voice frosted with an apologetic tone. “But if and when I do, Lady Rhea, you will be the first to know.” 

That night he sat alone in his room, not stupid enough to test the Church after having been warned against his nocturnal wandering. Stretched along his bed, his hands tucked behind his head as he stared at the ceiling, he was filled with the sudden desire to write a letter to his brother. He couldn’t, of course; after all, Faheem couldn’t read Fodlanese, and surely it would be curious for Claude von Riegan to be sending things written in Almyra’s cryptic script, and he certainly wasn’t naive enough to think that Rhea’s cronies wouldn’t take delight in reading every tepid word that left the nib of his pen. 

Still, his fingers twitched against the coarse curl of his hair as he imagined them sketching words across a page. Dear Faheem, he could have written. What sort of mischief have you found yourself in lately? I hope you have not missed me too terribly, although I suspect you may have already forgotten about me entirely. But if you haven’t, dry your eyes, for your sweet little brother still lives. And how lucky you are that we have not traded places, for you would despise this place. Neither the food nor the women have any taste to them, and the same for the men as well. Still I endeavor on, and with every day find myself one step closer to the end.  

Here is what I’ve found: a people haunted by ghosts, so many of them that I’ve lost count. And how do you use a haunted man? What do they fear, when their days are full of it; what do they desire when they are sodden through with guilt? I miss the east. The simplicity of a whip. Is it strange? 

No matter. Don’t worry yourself with my questions, because I think I’ve already found their answers. In any case, I can feel the cogs of something turning beneath my feet. It was a lucky time to come here, just like I told you before. And how often did I tell you, brother mine, how important patience is? So continue on in being patient and I will be patient, too.  

Claude thumbed the ring strung through his ear and reconsidered the ghostly text of his imagined letter. No. That wasn’t right — not all of it, at least. He scratched through the lines and raised his phantom pen again. 

Dear Faheem,

The chain is rotten. I was wrong.

He closed his eyes and imagined a figure in black. The plates of her armor peeled away until she was bare and pale and shapely. He was surprised by the restless longing that his imagination stirred. A low hum rumbled in his throat as he toyed with the idea of slipping his hand down the front of his slacks. He ultimately decided against it, savoring the heat of his desire instead in the hopes of vivisecting it.   

I’ve found a sword to take its place, he could have written next, but that wasn’t it, either. He’d found a hole, that was the truth of it — something deep and black and endless, and he wanted nothing more than to crawl inside. But why? Was it to hide? 

No. He wasn’t afraid — not of Edelgard and her uncompromising ambition, nor the hungry furnace reflected in Rhea’s pale green eyes. And Dimitri — poor Dimitri — perhaps he would still be of use, but what could he expect from a man already so thoroughly broken?

No matter what it was, Claude was certain of one thing: he didn’t want to run away. He wanted to race forward.

Dear Faheem, he would have written if he'd had the chance. Fodlan is sinking. I’ve decided to let it burn.

Chapter Text

“To a battle well fought,” Dimitri proclaimed, his tankard filled with the monastery’s sweet cider sloshing high in his fist. Claude was the first to crack his own against it, sending Hilda into a fit of laughter as his drink splashed and wet his sleeve. Edelgard followed afterwards with a more docile tap, her eyes sweeping across their small circle perfunctorily. 

“Luck was on your side today, Riegan,” she told him smoothly.

“Let’s drink to luck, then!”

Raphael’s excited cheer bolstered Claude’s toast, no doubt for the prospect of drinking rather than the idea of victory. The tight-packed table filled with a wave of giggles and good-natured jokes as the rest of their class joined in with sips and gulps of their own. 

Claude glanced quickly across the benches as he swallowed his sugary mouthful. There was Hilda coaching Marianne as she tested the taste of her cider; Raphael finishing off his tankard and double-tasked by tousling Ignatz’s hair; and the archer himself, still blushing from Claude’s recognition earlier of his tidy shots made afield. Ashe was sitting beside the spectacled young man, a natural companion and already red faced himself despite the fact that the cider only had enough spirit in it to bubble and taste a little spoiled. 

Then came Annette, her head bowed towards Mercedes as they traded secrets, and with Linhardt lazily listening in. Caspar sat across from him, his face the color of a beet as he grappled desperately with Petra in some sort of arm wrestling match. Sylvain, apparently brokering bets, was cheering the Brigid princess on, and with Ferdinand beside him nearly green from the impropriety (but, Claude suspected, perhaps also with a wager in play himself). Felix was watching the scene with well-built indifference from across the table, betrayed only by the slight crook of his lips. 

Dimitri was pacing the long loop of table, taking the time to speak with each of them and offer words of encouragement or good-natured conciliations. Claude watched him as he worked. His posture was perfect: back straight and proud even when he bent forward, arms folded neatly against the square of his spine. In this manner he was able to achieve the difficult trick of reasserting his position even in admitting his defeat. After all, that day had been dedicated to the memory of the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. The Golden Deer had seized the day, but none of them were foolish enough to think that they could rewrite history. 

Claude smiled and swirled the dredges of his drink. Perhaps he had underestimated this would-be king. 

“You must have had your eyes closed, then,” Leonie snarked at his left elbow. He heard Lorenz scoff. “I took down two men to every one that you stumbled upon!” 

Stumbled? Certainly you’ve lost your wits, Miss Pinelli! I can assure you that I do not stumble!” 

“Ha!” She waved her tankard at the man with all of the bravado of a true mercenary brandishing a far more potent brew. “That’s just the way you operate, isn’t it? You nobles, always so good at telling stories, but what about the truth?” 

“The truth! Gracious! Claude — settle this, would you? Surely you noticed that I was the far superior lancer of the day.” Lorenz turned to him with his usual prickly stare. It would have irritated him if the man wasn’t so full of hot air. Instead he laughed, wagging his head as he drained the last remnants of his drink. 

“I would say that you two were absolutely, without a doubt, utterly and perfectly matched.”

Lorenz’s cheeks turned an indignant pink to match the purple of his hair. “Perfectly matched,” he sputtered. “Madness.” 

“Hardly!” Leonie contended as well, apparently not realizing that she was only doubling down on his point. Claude grinned and shrugged before standing from his seat. 

“Lysithea! You saw,” Leonie blundered on as he began to walk away. “Tell him, won’t you?” 

“Oh no,” he heard the younger girl reply. “Don’t you drag me into this.” 

Claude loped along the length of the table, his arms cocked behind his head as he stretched his sore muscles. Everyone was too far involved in their own affairs to take much notice of him. Hubert was the only exception, already scowling even before he came upon Edelgard in her seat of distinction at the far end of the table. 

“Claude,” she greeted him neatly. He tipped his chin as she had done hers. It was apparently a sign to Hubert that he was free to pass. To be quite honest, Claude rather liked Hubert. For someone so dedicated to subterfuge, he was an incredibly straightforward man. There was something brave in being so bald-faced about one’s bad intentions. It was a shame, really, that he was so blindly dedicated, like a chess piece nailed to the board, as useless as it was impossible to steal. 

“Your Majesty,” he told her sweetly as he took a seat at her side. Hubert flinched when he offered her his hand. “No hard feelings, right?” 

“Naturally,” she replied, slotting her hand into his own. Her fingers were slender and cool, but callused as well. Delicate and dangerous. He found it rather fitting. Everything about her was just like that grim eagle on her banners: two-faced and double-sided. 

“Of course,” she continued as he released her hand, “I hope you understand that I do not intend to lose again.” 

“I would expect no less,” he countered. “And that’s the trick of it, isn’t it? I’ve always found that there’s far more to learn from a defeat than from a victory.” 

“Then I look forward to teaching you in the future.” 

“Fair enough,” he laughed. She studied him for a moment, her eyes full of a tactical look that could have been misinterpreted as charm. 

“Tell me,” she asked him next, “we find ourselves already so far along in the year. What are your plans after you graduate? Will you return to Derdriu?” 

“Most likely. I’m sure my grandfather will have something ready for me to do — nothing glamorous, mind you.” 

“I hear that Duke Riegan is in excellent health,” she noted. 

“Are you trying to say that I should be disappointed? Let’s hope that he lives to a hundred, princess; I’ve never been very good at sitting around some table just to bicker all of the time,” Claude said with a smirk. She offered him a measured smile. 

“No. It does seem as though your strengths lie elsewhere.” She scanned the length of their boisterous party. “Leicester has never been a land known for its warriors, you know, but you’ve made neat work of turning your class into quite the tidy force.”

He waved away her compliment with a quick flick of his hand. 

“That’s the Teach for you. In spite of everything I’ve done, I can assure you that.” 

“Is that right?” 

“It is a fact,” he agreed with another catty grin. “So what about you, then — are you looking forward to your crown?”

She frowned. 

“It’s not some bauble to long after,” she promised him, suddenly stony. “But I have a responsibility to the people and I intend to make good on it, if that’s what you’re alluding to.” 

“A noble cause.” 

“It is.” Her eyes settled on him again. “I wonder if that is a notion that you hold dear, too. Serving your people well.” 

“I live to serve,” he promised her with a dip of his head. 

“Well. I have no doubt that you live for many things, Lord Riegan. I suspect that as we all come into our own, we will discover just which of those things you value most.” 

“To self discovery, then,” he offered, although he had no drink to toast. She nodded all the same. As if he’d downed a draught with her, he could taste something cloying on his tongue. He savored it, just as he savored the hint of discomfort in Edelgard’s eyes. 

“Edelgard,” Dimitri’s smooth voice intervened. “Claude. I hope I’m not interrupting.” 

“Never,” Claude promised with a freshened smile. “As it so happens, I think my charms might just be wearing thin. Good of you to rescue me before I make a fool of myself.” 

Dimitri’s lips twitched ever so slightly, belying his utter inability to take a joke. Claude stood and slapped him on the shoulder before he stumbled into the wrong reply. 

“Come on, your princeliness, let’s go find some fresh air.”

Dimitri nodded and offered Edelgard a crisp bow before he turned towards the dining hall’s tall doors. Claude flicked his wrist with an elaborate bow of his own (earning him a smirk this time, which he enjoyed). 

He sighed with relief as they strode out together towards the lake. Dimitri carried on with his usual clipped footfalls, but Claude let the tight wind of his joints relax into a languid step, combing through his hair as he did. 

“You know,” he told the prince conspiratorially once they came upon the dock. “I think Edelgard may have just waged war on me.”

Dimitri smiled flatly and shook his head. 

“You mustn’t take her too seriously.” 

“I don’t know if I agree with you on that one.” 

“The Empire...” Dimitri sighed. “It is an old place. I’ve found that old and ancient things can be terrible to bear. Edelgard means well. To be honest with you, I think she’s likely just embarrassed to have been shown the upper hand.” He tipped his head at him. “We were well and truly beaten today.” 

“Enough of that already,” Claude laughed. “My head’s big enough as it is. Besides, any thief can win an alleyway fight. That doesn’t mean he’ll win a war.” 

“Surely you don’t see yourself as a thief,” Dimitri replied with a frown. “I would hope that this evening has shown that we need not look forward to war.” 

“What do you mean by that?” 

They’d strolled to the end of the dock. Dimitri stared out at the water, his arms crossed over his chest. He cast a pretty picture, his golden hair suddenly silver under the moon, his skin pale and striking. Claude wondered briefly about the image he cast beside him. He dropped the idea once he decided it was no doubt unfavorable. 

“We... We needn’t be our fathers, is what I mean,” the prince continued more quietly. Claude felt his brow twitch slightly at the idea, even if Dimitri meant the one buried in the ground instead of the one thriving so many leagues away. “I know that relations have never been terribly warm between Faerghus and the Alliance. I also understand the reasons why — with logic on both sides, moreover. That being said, I see no reason why we can’t move forward together and on equal footing.” 

“Sure, although you and I might be the only ones who think so,” Claude replied, more sardonic than he had perhaps intended. Dimitri drew in a deep breath and nodded. 

“Yes. You’re probably right. But unlike so many of those who came before us, I believe we may have the luxury of time. This very evening, Claude, I have seen a man of Duscur and a Brigid princess break bread together with a common songstress born in Enbarr, toasted by the Roundtable’s heirs. Surely that means something. And Edelgard... As I said before, she is an honorable woman. I trust her to do the right thing.” 

“It sounds like you’re asking me to place a bet.” 

“A pledge,” Dimitri corrected him. “Call it a promise, even. When they day comes that we are all called to our duty, I sincerely hope that we can look to each other as the friends we have become, instead of as the foes that our forefathers had intended.” 

“Alright.” Claude offered him his hand. The prince eyed it with trepidation, perhaps unsure if he simply meant to mock his optimism. His face softened as he read something sincere in Claude’s open palm. “I’d like to see this world of yours, if it’s something that can be built.” 

Dimitri smiled as he shook his hand. His grip was warm and strong. And maybe it all made sense. Cold fingers and warm hands, silver and gold, the moon and the sun — the eagle and the lion. Different, yes, but both lesser one without the other. All of that was well and good, but just where did it leave him? 

 


 

The late hour chased away Dimitri and Edelgard both, with Dedue and Hubert at their heels. As the clock ticked further around its loop, others began to peel away as well. Once they’d been reduced to a more respectable number, Claude decided to rustle the hidden wineskins he’d squirreled behind a sack of flour to offer the Golden Deer a more proper reward for the blood and sweat they’d shed that afternoon. 

“I knew there was a reason why I gave you my vote,” Hilda told him as he brandished the things aloft, hooking her elbow around his neck and planting a smacking kiss against his cheek. Lorenz puffed his chest at the idea of furtive midnight drinking, but the rest of them closed into a tighter circle to pass the skins hungrily around. 

“Ah,” Claude tutted as he spotted the dandy sulking closer to a bottle set aside. “That’s not for you.” He snatched it around the neck and sloshed it in Ignatz’s direction. 

“Huh?” Ignatz flushed as he eyed the bottle, his lips puckering into a confused asterisk. “What’s that for?” 

“Come on,” Claude drawled with a grin, “I saw you make that shot at Hubert.” He thumbed the spot on his brow where he’d seen Ignatz’s felt-tipped arrow snap just at the edge of the mage’s shaggy fringe. It was only a shame that Linhardt had been so adept at healing the bruise away again. Surely it would have annoyed Edelgard to no end. 

“T-that was just a lucky shot,” Ignatz insisted as he reluctantly accepted his reward. 

“They’re all lucky shots, Ignatz. It’s just that you keep on getting luckier. All of you. I know that it hasn’t been easy, but today was proof of just how hard you’ve all been training. And let me be honest with you — it was damn satisfying to take the cup from all of those royal hands!” 

“I’ll drink to that!” Leonie laughed. 

“Holst is going to lose his shit when I tell him we won,” Hilda added triumphantly. “‘You won’t win again Dimitri,’ he tells me — me, his perfect baby sister — what kind of loyalty is that?” 

“Just that he wasn’t expecting you to actually participate,” Claude offered with a wink. “I thought Sylvain was going to fall off his horse when he saw you tearing towards him.” 

“Listen,” Hilda told him as she took another drink, her finger extended over the mouth of the wineskin to accentuate her point. “He deserved that.” 

Claude wasn’t so certain about that, not even in consideration of Sylvain’s reputation. What he did know was that the Lion had flanked them early to eliminate Marianne from the game, and had made the colossal mistake of assuming that Hilda would have done anything other than linger behind at the mage’s side. Marianne seemed to come to this realization as well, her cheeks turning pink as she stared at her hands folded tightly against the tabletop. 

“And you!” Claude pointed at Raphael next. “Ralph, buddy, you’re a monster.” Raphael laughed and swung his arm victoriously, dripping wine on Leonie, who smacked his shoulder in a quick serving of retribution. “Remind me to never find myself on your bad side.” 

“Aw, never! Where you go I follow, Claude,” Raphael replied. His words caught Claude off guard. Claude smiled, something more honest replacing the wine’s warm glow in his chest. 

“Ridiculous,” a sour voice added before Claude had the chance to reply. It was quiet enough to miss, but Leonie hadn’t. He watched her face darken into a scowl as she turned to hunt out the source of the sound. 

“Lorenz,” she chided tightly. 

“This is ridiculous,” Lorenz insisted. He’d made quick work of the wineskin he’d been hoarding, his face full of the aggravation that had first taken flame when he’d bickered with her earlier that evening. “A handful of battles and you think it’s right to make a pledge like that?” 

“Come on, Lorenz,” Raphael contested, sounding a little hurt. “Don’t be like that.” 

“Like what, exactly? What is the word you’d use to say that I’m not some naive fool? And all of you,” he waved his arm in a swooping arc that ended in a point in Claude’s direction, “kissing his boots just because he’s taught you how to cut a man down? Is that what nobility means to you?” 

“I don’t need you to tell me what nobility means,” Hilda snarked. Lorenz’s brows furrowed tightly together. 

“Clearly not. I don’t know what he’s offered you, Hilda, but clearly it’s won you over. And what about you, Leonie? What was your price to overlook the fact that two years ago House Riegan was without an heir, and yet now we have one ready-made to tell us just what it is we’re meant to do?” 

“Lorenz!” 

“It’s alright,” Claude reassured Leonie as she bristled in her seat beside him. “He’s not all wrong. I know you’ve all probably asked yourself the same question, and with good reason. What would it mean for the Alliance if you hadn’t?” 

“You’re obviously a Riegan,” Hilda insisted stonily, her eyes still leveled in Lorenz’s direction and missing their usual mischievous sparkle. “That’s all there is to say.” 

“Is that so?” Lorenz stood, tottering slightly as he swept his arms in Claude’s direction again. “What about Lord Godfrey, then? Wasn’t he a Riegan, too?”

“What are you trying to say, Lorenz?”

Lorenz didn’t falter at Hilda’s biting tone. “None of you think it’s strange that Duke Riegan’s heir was preparing for his seat on one day and dead the next, and with his long-lost nephew riding into Derdriu as soon as the sun had risen again?” 

Hilda shot to her feet. “I’m not listening to this,” she grumbled. Claude steadied her with a light grip at her arm. 

“No. Please do. All of you. It’s an important question, Lorenz, but I’ll only answer it once, so please listen,” Claude said, his voice suddenly low and steady. “I didn’t know him well, that much is true, but Lord Godfrey was still my blood, and I won’t let his memory be used as some drunken riddle. So go on then. Ask me what you want to know.”

Lorenz frowned. “What happened to Lord Godfrey?” he challenged. 

“That’s not what you want to ask me,” Claude replied. 

The muscles in Lorenz’s jaw clenched tight. To his credit, he maintained Claude’s gaze even as his own eyes grew cloudy with anger. 

“Did you kill Duke Riegan’s heir?”

Claude heard someone suck in a reedy breath. Part of him wanted to scan the table to see who else shared Lorenz’s hypothesis, but he kept his eyes steady on his accuser instead. 

“My uncle,” he answered evenly, “Lord Godfrey was an exceptional swordsman. I assume you’ve heard the stories. He was said to have even bested Thunder Catherine in a duel, and with a simple broadsword, no less. When they found his body the morning after he’d died, the manner of his death was unfortunately very clear. He’d been cut down — not by a lance or an axe, but with a sword. Now, Lorenz, you’ve fought beside me for the better part of a year. Have you ever seen me swing a sword?” Lorenz scowled but didn’t answer. “Of course not, and for a good reason — I’m an archer, aren’t I? And while I think I might be a serviceable archer, I’ve never been foolish enough to think that I can take up a sword. You might call me a coward for it, but I’m of the mind to take advantage of your strengths and to not let yourself be killed by your weaknesses. With all of that in mind, do you really think that I struck the Alliance’s finest sword — the brother of my mother— down?” 

Lorenz tutted and looked away. 

“...No,” he managed finally. 

“When I was a child,” Claude continued, “my mother told me stories about her brother, and about her father, and about this place called Leicester, and although I’d never seen them I would dream about them every night. I’m proud to serve our country now, in any way I can —but to be an heir of anything, that was never part of the plan. And you’ll still have a vote to cast, Lorenz. I’m not asking you to cast it in my direction, just that you fight beside me until that time comes. I’ve entrusted this to you already, and I’ve seen just what it is you can do. Can I trust you in the future, too?” 

Lorenz crossed his arms. 

“Yes,” he sputtered. A collective breath exhaled across the midpoint of their tight-wound circle. 

“Good.” Claude wagged a wineskin at him. “That’s something I can drink to.” 

 


 

The night’s celebrations left him feeling restless. Once he’d seen his classmates safely off to bed, Claude circled back towards the training grounds. It was late, nearly morning. He’d expected to find the grounds empty at that twilight hour, and was surprised to hear the bite of metal as he snaked through the halls to the sandy platform inside. 

Then again, maybe none of what he found was really so terribly unexpected. 

“Teach!” He greeted her loudly so that he didn’t throw off her latest swing. Her sword sliced neatly through the thatch of a training dummy as she turned to face him. “We missed you tonight! And here I was thinking that you had a good excuse to keep away.” 

It was cold but she was dressed lightly. Even in the winking torchlight he could see where her thin grey shirt had darkened with sweat. 

“This is a good excuse,” she contended flatly. 

“I don’t know if you’re aware, but we in fact won our battle today.” He liked to think that if Byleth was the sort of person to roll her eyes, that he would have won that gesture out of her with his coy reply. 

“There’s always another battle.” 

“Well, yes, but not nearly as many celebratory feasts.” 

“Not if you don’t win your battles,” she corrected him. He laughed. 

“I guess that is the trick of it.” He lingered at the door. She eyed him in her usual mysterious way before nodding towards the weapon stand tucked against the far wall. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said as he raised his palms at her defeatedly. “I’ve never been the type to swing around a sword.”  

“You should be comfortable with any arms.” 

“Listen, I know I shouldn’t be telling you this, but it’s very possible that I have perhaps had a drop or two of wine.”

“Knowing you, you should be prepared to fight a battle drunk.” 

“Was that a joke?” Claude laughed, shaking his head as he relented and slunk towards the swords. “Alright, fine. Who am I to disobey my dear teacher? Just go easy on me, won’t you?” 

Byleth steadied herself into an easy stance and gestured at him with the tip of her sword. Even blunted, it looked vicious in her grip. He selected a nicked blade of his own and brandished it clumsily, loping towards her and squaring his feet with a wink. 

She didn’t offer him any words of encouragement. Their swords clattered as she needled forward with a darting strike. Claude let his hilt rattle in his palm, wincing slightly as the tiny bones of his hand resonated with the artless wobble. He lunged forward, gritting his teeth as Byleth neatly parried his strike. She was watching him. He could feel her gaze, as dark and shapeless as the shadows filling the yard’s corners. They separated as he stepped back a pace to reset his stance into another half-baked pose. 

“Don’t do that,” Byleth said in that same tone she always used. He glanced up at her to meet her eyes. A shiver slunk along his spine, growing stronger with every vertebrae and leaving something hot and dripping behind. A grin pricked at his lips as well: honest, a little breathless, crooked-drawn. “It’s too late.” 

And maybe she meant the hour, but he thought that perhaps she didn’t, and that she was no doubt right. Too late. He’d made a mistake. When? Would she tell him if he asked? Did it matter? Or maybe it was simpler: that those snake eyes of hers had always seen the truth of him, and likely since the very first night when they’d fought together in Remire. 

Claude shifted his heels into the sand. He circled his sword around his wrist with a smooth roll of his fingers, finding the proper grip when it had swung rightward again. Byleth didn’t wait for an explanation. She danced forward and this time he was ready for her, his blade a flash of silver against hers as they quickly cycled through a series of strikes and parries and ripostes. 

It had taken him years to learn how to use a bow. Shooting had never come naturally to him. Like Ignatz, he’d struggled to find the invisible thread that would tie his shots to his targets. And it was an unnatural thing, really, to nock an arrow and draw it back, the bowstring fighting every inch. But every Almyran was an archer and so he’d been fated to become one, too, and no matter that it‘d left him with bleeding fingers for far too long. 

Like his father, however, he’d been born to wield a sword. It’d never disobeyed him like his bow, instead forever eager to meet its mark. For him a sword was simply another limb, just as obedient as the others and twice as restless. He saw the same in Byleth as she struck her sword against his own.

She was faster than he was, although his strikes were stronger. This give-and-take left them evenly matched. On a better day perhaps he would have bested her, but he’d been honest about the wine. Maybe she had been right to tell him to train drunk. 

The thought spurred an amused spark awake in his gut. Lips drawn into a grin again, he twisted his wrist to lock his pommel against hers. Her eyes flashed with an unusual flag of annoyance as she strained to break herself free. Claude used the opening to lean forward between their braced arms and kiss her. 

It seemed as though she had read this move as easily as all of the rest. Her lips were parted when he met them, her mouth cold from the night air. Her sword skimmed against his as she stepped closer towards him. He tipped his head to the side for a better angle, watching through half-lidded eyes as her own drew closed. Then he shared a breath of laughter with her as he felt the butt of her sword jut against his chest. 

“This is a bad idea,” she told him. He smiled and stepped back a pace, still savoring the salt of her sweat on his tongue. 

“It just so happens that I’m in the business of that very sort of thing,” he replied. She watched him as he loped away to replace his borrowed sword. When he turned to bid her farewell he could have sworn he saw something new in her gaze. 

 

Chapter Text

There was a knock at his door. Claude stood from his desk and quickly crossed the cluttered draw of his room to make his answer. Better that no one heard that rapping hand to later whisper about illicit midnight guests — not that he had planned for any, of course, and not like it would matter to the gossips even if he had. In the past he might have been more cavalier, but recent events had made him reassess, and much like a dandy standing before a mirror to inspect their evening attire: tucking in loose ends and discarding the string of pearls that pushed their carefully curated costume from striking into garish. Just as the weather was turning ever colder, so too had he relented to the need to dress himself with caution’s heavy drape.  

“Hilda,” he said as he swung open the door, not bothering to hide his surprise. She nodded and shouldered her way inside before he had the chance to extend an invitation. “And to what do I owe the pleasure?” 

She scowled and picked her way over a shelf-full of books strewn across the floor to find her usual seat on his bed. Like him, it seemed as though she had re-dressed herself as well. There was nothing coy in her face that evening, replaced instead with something solemn and a little worn.  

“Claude,” she began, and both of them quickly falling into that comfortably pragmatic intimacy they shared, “what the hell happened in Remire?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. She frowned. 

“You have to.” Her fingers worked nervously at the cuticle of her left thumb. “No one knows,” she added. “Sickness, some of them are saying, and as if the idea of a plague is reassuring. And others say it was a curse — some black magic that just so happens to be the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And who, then, and why? And why Remire?” 

“I don’t know,” he repeated as he walked a lopsided circle around the room.

“You have to,” she said again. Her eyes flickered in his direction. “What if it spreads east?” 

“It won’t.” 

“And how do you know that?”  

“They want something,” he replied, although he hadn’t yet puzzled out exactly who they were. “It isn’t Leicester.” 

“So you do have a theory, then.”

“Hilda, listen to me,” he sighed, finding his deep reserve of patience running dry. “Leicester is... Tomas, or whatever that thing was, if what he said about Remire was true, then he and whoever it is he serves are reaching for something far bigger than the Alliance.” 

“But you don’t know that for certain.” 

He did. Not because his hours spent hunchbacked in the library had told him so, but because he’d seen it with his own eyes: the convoluted web of the Alliance’s politics, and its tendrils spreading into estates with poorly managed fields and larders that were at their richest only half full. There was a reason why his father had never properly stormed south. The Alliance prided itself in its independence, but their secession had been less a victory of self idealization than it had been an easy way for the Kingdom to quietly exile its more stubborn noble lines. What had come after the Alliance's sovereign exit had been no different than crowding a paddock with too many bulls: and with plenty of stomping and huffing, and all of them running in circles until they were exhausted and much easier to handle. 

Whatever Tomas’ wicked toying had been meant for, that was to say, it wasn’t for them. 

“We’re not the only ones with a vested interest,” he said, steadying his pacing feet to lean against his desk. “The Church won’t stay idle now that they’ve struck one of their own.” 

“Flayn’s just a little girl,” Hilda contended. He shrugged. 

“Wars have been fought for less before.” 

“So now you’re saying we’re off to war?”

Claude sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. 

“If we are it will be Lady Rhea’s knights doing the fighting, Hild.” 

“And you really think we won’t get dragged into it, too?” 

I can only hope that we are, he could have told her next. Instead he tipped his head to the side and tilted his shoulders again. 

“What are you so worried about?” Her face darkened, but she didn’t answer. “I bet your brother would love to swing that axe of his around in a proper war.” 

“I’m not worried about Holst,” she countered, crinkling her nose. Claude cocked one of his brows. 

“Marianne?”

Her cheeks turned a hue closer to the color of her hair. 

“It doesn’t matter who. Maybe I just don’t want to go to war — have you ever thought of that?” She toyed with a headless arrow forgotten at the foot of the bed. “Why would anyone want to do that?” 

“I don’t know. I suppose there are all kinds of reasons.” 

“Well, none of them are good enough for me. I just want to live a life full of things that actually matter. Cutting down complete strangers just for the color of their banners isn’t one of them.” She glanced up at him again. He realized that she was desperate for his reassurance — something empty and paper-thin but sweet enough to serve as a lullaby instead of the worried hammer-beat of her anxiety keeping her awake. 

“If it comes to that,” he told her, “then I would suggest that you leave.”

Her frown flinched into a scowl. 

“What? Where? From the monastery?” 

“From wherever it is that you feel like you’ve been trapped,” he suggested as he snatched a pen from his desktop and twirled it between his fingers. “Fodlan isn’t the whole world, you know.” 

“Are you suggesting that I desert?” she scoffed. “You do realize that your grandfather would be the one who’d have my head if I did that.” 

“Or even me,” he suggested. She huffed and rolled her eyes. 

“So much for being friends.” 

“You are my friend, Hilda,” Claude reassured her earnestly. “And because we’re friends, the last thing I want to do is to push you into something that you don’t want.”

“Aren’t you listening to me? What I want is what we’ve talked about — a better Leicester, and to hell with all of the rest.” 

“It’s all the same thing.” He pointed the nib of the pen in her direction. “Behind every gentle king is a headsman, you know.”

“Oh yeah? And where did you learn that? In one of these?” She nudged her toe against a butterflied book.  Her eyes were hot with something he recognized — the frustration of being floundered in a boat without an oar. “So which are you, then?”

“I’m nobody,” he said with the wave of his hand. “That’s not the point. Just...don’t be afraid to run, alright? If what you’ve said is right, if we are headed to war — here, Leicester, it doesn’t matter — don’t throw yourself away for something you don’t believe in.” 

Hilda crossed her arms and glanced away.

“It’s not that simple.”

“Of course it is.”

Her shoulders dipped. 

“I hate it when you talk like this,” she admitted more quietly. He huffed a joyless laugh. 

“You’re the one who’s brought it up.” 

“Yeah, but you’re supposed to say that I’m overreacting,” she replied glumly. “Not tell me that I’m a coward.” 

“That isn’t what I said at all,” he sighed. Her eyes returned to his. 

“Sometimes I feel like you’re a completely different person,” she told him lowly. His lips twitched into the faintest impersonation of a frown. “Making everything sound so simple, like it doesn’t even bother you.” 

“I’m not that complicated,” he promised her. 

“I doubt that.” 

“So just what is it that you want me to say, then?” 

“The truth.” 

That was the funny thing about Hilda — saccharine like her confectionary-colored hair until she wasn’t, until he remembered that pink was just another turn of red, and red like blood, or like a flag that meant to scare him off from the things that meant to hurt him. He liked her very much. Maybe he even loved her, in a funny sort of way. After all, love was the sort of thing that he still found so difficult to define. It might as well have been this. 

“I’m telling you the truth,” he said, which in that moment was true. 

“Well, keep doing it,” she relented, standing from her seat, “and then I won’t have to run away.” 

“Alright.”

She studied his face for a quiet moment before dipping her head with a curt nod. “Fine. You’ve done a shitty job at making me feel better, for the record.” He laughed. “Goodnight.” 

“Goodnight.” 

He watched her shuffle out into the hall. Afterwards he snuffed out the candles on his desk and shrugged out of his clothes, knocking the flotsam from his bed as he slipped between the sheets. He cocked his arms beneath his head and stared into the ceiling, and thought for a long while afterwards about the paradox of an honest liar. 


 

Claude had held six lessons with Byleth since he’d first spoken with her about the Gautier family high up on the walls. They’d reviewed the three kingdoms first, with him playing the role of patient teacher as he recalled all of the things that Judith had once told him. Byleth asked far less questions than he had in her position, but she seemed appreciative and even eager when they dipped into some of the more complex corners of Fodlan’s tangled history. In truth, it was a good practice for him as well: a way to hone his memory on all of the old families before he was tested on the knowledge. 

Today they would be returning to Leicester, and this time with a more deliberate focus on the bullheaded House of Gloucester and House Edmund’s more freshly-forged ambitions. Claude made a trip first to the library to pluck a familiar volume from the shelves for her to read — pausing to glance over, with a bemused idleness, the chapter on House Riegan — before turning back towards her office. The afternoon air was crisp with the holdovers of the frost he’d woken to earlier that morning. He drew in a deep breath to taste the granite of it on his tongue, and exhaled just as he heard the clatter of something falling in the nearby bestiary. 

“Stop! Stop it! Don’t bite!” 

Claude tucked his borrowed book tighter beneath his arm as he turned to seek out the source of that reedy voice. His feet led him into the bald yard spread before the cavernous stalls where the monastery’s wyverns slept. At its center stood Cyril, his arms crossed over his head as he cowered beneath a young bull buffeting him with its webbed wings. 

Claude considered leaving him to his hopeless task, but the thought was half-hearted at best. He succumbed instead to the bitter ember already broiling deep in his gut, and always sparked when he saw that boy who was forever testing his commitment to his schoolboy ruse. What the fuck is wrong with you, he so desperately wanted to bark at him each time he saw him scraping at the Church’s heels; you weren’t born to be a slave. 

“Hey they, Cyril,” is what he told him instead. The boy cringed at having been caught. “Looks like somebody’s in a bad mood today.” 

“C-claude,” he barked in reply while he dashed out from beneath the wyvern’s flailing talons. The wyvern huffed with annoyance before grounding itself. There was a stake at the center of the yard topped with an iron ring, and through it the wyvern’s tether had been tied — a helpful training tool for a more tested hand, he supposed. Cyril trotted beyond the tether’s reach to stand at Claude’s side. 

“You won’t...you won’t tell anyone I’m out here, will you?” 

“That depends on just what it is you’re doing,” Claude replied with a grin. Cyril scowled. 

“I’m... I just want to be helpful,” he huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. He eyed Claude warily before mustering the courage to carry on. “I don’t want to fall behind. On the battlefield, that is. I thought that if I were to have a wyvern, that maybe I could — don’t laugh at me!” 

Claude did, despite the order, and waved his palms at him. 

“I’m not! It’s a good idea.”

Claude tossed his book onto the ground before perching his hands on his hips to make a more thorough inspection of the wyvern stalking at the center of the yard. It was male, like all of the monastery’s stock, and even though it was still young — no larger than a mule — it was shrunken in a way that suggested that it had been bred from sires all born too far south. Wyverns of that sort were no doubt easier to tame, but it‘d always been a surprise to him that Fodlanders favored them that way. 

After all, wyverns were matriarchal and, much like the Alymrans who were so fond of riding them, valued above all other things brute strength. The females were always larger than their male counterparts and thrice times as mean. It stood to reason, therefore, that the best riders mounted bitches instead of bulls, even if they were occasionally eaten for the attempt. But perhaps that was the difference that had straddled the space between their borders: an insatiable appetite for power on one hand and, gripped tightly in the other, a compulsion for obedience instead. 

“Just that you might not be approaching it in, well... in the best way,” Claude amended with a wink. Cyril frowned and stared at his toes. 

“He was good before,” Cyril told him poutingly. “But then he got spooked by the bells and stopped listening to me.” 

“What’re you trying to make him do?”

The boy reluctantly tipped open the flap of the satchel strung at his waist to show him the chunks of some red-fleshed meat inside. 

“Just to stay in one place,” he mumbled, “and then to come when I call him. But now all he’s doing is trying to steal from me.” 

“Of course he is,” Claude laughed. “You’d do the same thing if someone was trying to keep your supper from you.”

He glanced over at the nearby stalls, his eyes tracing the tack hung from frontward wall before falling on what he was looking for. He strode across the yard and snatched a long-nosed crop from one of the pegs. 

“What are you doing?” Cyril hovered anxiously at the outer edges of the yard as Claude began to approach its center. The wyvern spotted him, sinking low into its haunches as he came slowly closer. 

“He’s not a dog,” Claude answered over his shoulder. “Give him the chance and he’ll always bite the hand that feeds him.”

The wyvern’s lips pulled back into a snarl as he came within ten paces. It began to circle the stake, its tether winding around the post as it marked out its territory. He changed his course in that direction, earning another rasping growl from the beast before it lunged in his direction. Cyril yelped in surprise, his voice warbling into a proper yell as Claude cracked the crop against the wyvern’s snout. 

The beast yowled at the strike, scraping low against the ground as it attempted to snap at his ankles in retribution. He followed after it with the whip, which split the air with another crack before finding purchase in the thick scales at the side of the creature’s head. 

“Stop it!” 

The wyvern lurched backwards a pace, wagging its head at him with another hissing snarl. It fanned open its wings in a desperate show of aggression. Claude grit his jaw tight as he wound back his arm for the final swing that would convince the wyvern of its place within their tripartite hierarchy. 

“Claude! Stop! You’re going to hurt him!” 

The crop whizzed in the air as he was suddenly pushed sideways. Cyril strung his arms around his waist, wrenching him clumsily away. The wyvern hunkered low at the sudden frenzy. Claude watched it in that half-breath second and felt his stomach ice over as he read the creature’s intentions. His quick lesson had been successful, but he hadn’t yet advanced to perhaps the more important takeaway: that Cyril wasn’t at the bottom of the wyvern’s pecking order, either. Misinterpreting Claude’s frustrated grunt as a call to arms, the beast lunged towards them again, its jaw open and full of sharp teeth as it hunted out the boy that was still wrestling against Claude’s height. 

“Cyril — I’m not—” Claude sputtered, jutting his elbow against the boy’s chest as he tried to intercept the wyvern before it made good on its approach. He abandoned the crop for the toe of his boot instead, clubbing the beast’s low-slung head with a bracing kick. It shrieked with betrayal before skulking backwards towards its stake. 

“Stop! Stop it!” Cyril hammered his fists against Claude’s back. Claude reached out to drag him forward, knowing better than to turn his back on the wyvern and having no interest in being further beaten by the boy. 

“Cyril!” He gripped him by the shoulders. Cyril stared hotly upwards at him, his knuckles still swinging against his chest. 

“You bastard!”

Claude’s brow furrowed as he watched a glimmer gather in the boy’s eyes — tears, bitter and angry. 

“Cyril,” he repeated flatly. “Calm down.”

The boy’s lips curled into a snarl instead. 

“I know who you are!” Cyril yelled. Claude felt a pull between his eyebrows as he realized a second too late that Cyril had abandoned the Fodlanders’ round-syllabled language for Almyra’s sharp tongue. “You -- you’re one of King Khalil’s monsters!” 

“Hey,” Claude managed uselessly as Cyril tore himself free and stumbled back.  

“Don’t touch me!”

Cyril stumbled against the yard’s sandy soil as he made a quick retreat towards the monastery’s long shadow. Claude lingered wordlessly in his wake, watching where he‘d gone even after he’d disappeared. He heard the jangle of the wyvern’s tether as it snuck towards him. This time he didn’t turn to hunt it out. 

“Shit,” he muttered finally, his voice full of amusement more than it was with dread. The wyvern chattered and gently nudged his fingers with its nose. He rubbed its smooth scales with an absentminded hand and wondered just what it was that he was meant to do next. 


 

“You’re late.” 

“Sorry, Teach.” She stared at him blankly from behind the barrier of her desk. “You know me — always sticking my nose into places where it doesn’t belong.” Claude brushed the last vestiges of sand from the face of his book before offering it in her direction. 

Leicester: A Compendium,” she read as he drug a chair to the corner of her desk. 

“I figured you might like to learn a little more about your most favorite students,” he told her with a wink. Her face remained stubbornly flat. Part of him had suspected that something in that mask of hers would chip after their late night sparring session but, of course, it hadn’t. She hadn’t said a word about his rebuffed show of affection, and he certainly wasn’t going to admit defeat in bringing it up himself. He smiled — honest, easy — and leaned forward to flip the book open against its spine. 

“I know we’ve already talked about the history of the Alliance,” he said as he fluttered through the pages, “but the only thing that really matters is the Roundtable. As it just so happens, you already know most of its more probable heirs.” 

"Including you." 

“Including me,” he agreed with a grin, “and good old Hilda and Marianne and Lysithea and, of course, our future Count Gloucester.”

Byleth glanced up from the book. 

“And you’ll lead this Roundtable, then?”

He shrugged. 

“If I’m given the votes. The role has always gone to a Riegan in the past, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t change. Besides, there’s not so much to it, really; tie-breaker votes, sometimes, and babysitting. I mean, mediation is the word that they would use, but you get the idea.” 

“Is that why Lorenz is so difficult with you?”

Claude laughed. 

“Lorenz is difficult because he’s difficult,” he admitted. “But I suppose that’s part of it as well. After my uncle died, I imagine Lorenz’s father put the seed into his head that he might take the role himself.” 

“Would you let him, if he tried?” 

“That isn’t my call to make,” Claude insisted smoothly. “But I, of course, will do whatever is in Leicester’s best interest.”

Byleth hummed. It didn’t seem to be a sound to show that she was convinced. He laughed again and shook his head. 

“I understand your question,” he continued, leaning forward towards her against his elbows. “You know, my mother wanted the same thing. She was older than her brother Godfrey. It only made sense to her that my grandfather would advance her as his heir. But as forward-thinking as Leicester likes to style itself, I’m afraid to say that it still falls short on things like that.” He arched his brows at her apologetically. 

“Like what?”

That’s right. He needed to stop assuming that she understood the art of subtext. 

“A female succession. Maybe there’s something ironic in that, don’t you think? Here’s the Church, after all, ruled over by Lady Rhea’s careful hand, and no one in the Empire has turned their up nose at the idea of Edelgard one day calling herself emperor, either, but meanwhile the Roundtable can’t wrap their heads around the idea of a leader wearing skirts. Not that my mother is generally the sort to wear them, of course.” 

“She’s still alive?”

He smiled at her familiar, fickle attention span. 

“Yes, she is.” 

“Then she must be pleased that you’ve been named the heir, at least.”

“Maybe. I haven’t had the chance to ask her the question.” 

“What do you mean by that?” 

“Well, I haven’t seen her in...” he tallied the years in his head, tapping his thumb against the desktop to keep count. “In nine years, all said and told.” 

“She isn’t in Derdriu?” 

“I don’t know where she is,” he admitted with another shrug. “I doubt it’s in the Alliance. She left Derdriu after it became obvious that she wasn’t going to win over my grandfather’s favor, and things only got more sour between them after that.”

Byleth eyed him silently. 

“I thought you said you were traveling with your mother before you came to the monastery.”

His lips split into an honest grin. So she had been listening. 

“I lied,” he admitted. Her brows twitched with the prediction of a frown. “My relationship with my mother is...complicated. In any case, the facts remain the same: she‘s a Riegan and so am I, and here I am today, your dutiful pupil. Right?” 

“It seems to me that you’d only lie in order to hide something,” Byleth replied. 

“Of course,” he laughed. “That’s the point, isn’t?”

“Is that really the sort of thing you’re supposed to say aloud?” she asked, this time with a proper frown.

He tipped closer towards her, his chest nearly brushing against the desktop. 

“I don’t mind telling you,” he revealed. “You’re hiding something, too. The way I see it, if you’re really so curious about me, Teach, you won’t mind trading like for like. Besides, you seem like the kind of person who can keep a secret.” 

“You don’t know me at all,” she replied. He wasn’t certain if he was meant to interpret her words as a warning or an invitation. Certainly the latter was more appealing. 

“You’re right,” he agreed, his eyes dipping from hers to settle on her lips in their stoic line. “But you can’t blame a man for trying.” 

“Am I supposed to find that charming?” 

“Apparently not.” He cocked his head to the side to prepare for his next proposal. “Would it upset you if I kissed you again?” 

“I told you,” she insisted stonily, although he liked to imagine that her voice had lilted in a way she hadn’t intended, “that isn’t a good idea.” 

“That’s the thing about lying.” He stood from his chair to complete his lean over the desk. “It doesn’t matter what you say.” 

He was close enough to feel the heat of her breath against the tipped angle of his jaw. His mind filled with the memory of his duel with the wyvern only an hour before — how the creature’s serpentine eyes had steadied on him with a well-written threat, just like hers did now; how it had vied for the upper hand with bared teeth and flared wings. 

She was better at it than the wyvern. Claude hadn’t expected her to challenge his bluff. When she kissed him he was caught utterly off guard, and so he had no option but to relent to the sudden greediness of her mouth. Her brief but well-battled riposte left him weak enough in the knees that she was able to push him back into his seat with the butt of the book he’d brought her. 

“Well,” she said, bewitchingly unperturbed, “is that it, then? Or did you have something else that you wanted to teach me?” 

He laughed, a little breathless, and wagged his head. 

“Sure, Professor. Whatever you want to know.”

Chapter Text

Most things in life, Claude had learned, were simply a shorthand for something else. He’d once torn the sleeve of his dress jacket, for instance, and had discovered that his years of whittling arrows had made him a clever seamstress along the way. A boyhood of climbing trees had left him more courageous on horseback as well, and he had no doubt that his mastery of a second language had given him an advantage in solving riddles in record time. 

Among all others, the most kindred things he’d found had been the acts of dancing, fighting, and fucking. Master one, he’d discovered, and the rest followed after, and in each other lingered: a steady tempo, a rush of blood to the head, muscles coiling and uncoiling and warming hotter until it hurt — and it was fitting, really, that they were also the things with which his people made their exclusive trade. 

Still, he wasn’t surprised to find this three-piece skillset so far west as well, and now on show as he watched the monastery spin and twirl across the Great Hall-turned-ballroom. Here were the children of the three empires all neatly arranged. Their mincing steps were no different, really, from their choreography in the training grounds. Surely some of them would pair and peel away as the night grew late to find a dark corner to share, just like their sires had once done, and even if those same forefathers had later likely killed each other in far different types of places.

There was no better manifestation of this dichotomy of lust and loathing than Dimitri and Edelgard. The two had found their natural place at the center of the dance floor — a nucleus here as much as they were in Fodlan proper — never touching but swooping ever closer to one another with their respective partners so that it didn’t matter, really, that they weren’t dancing arm-in-arm. No doubt Dimitri could feel the heat of the one-day emperor as she followed beside him in the box of their waltz. Claude was close enough to watch the sapphire of the man’s eyes draw in her direction before falling away, again and again, like the ticking of a metronome to the musicians’ slow progression from pavane to minute to passamezzo. 

And there Claude stood at the outskirts, the perpetual footnote to their rising crescendo, his arm looped over Ignatz’s shoulders as he did his best to embolden him to invite some girl — any girl — out onto the floor. 

“Ah, Ignatz, just give it a go,” he said with a wink. Ignatz sunk lower into the ground. As he did Claude watched the dancers turning: Edelgard making her eclipse of Dimitri and then the man of her, smooth and perfect and practiced. 

“I’ll just make a fool of myself,” Ignatz complained. 

“Are you trying to tell me that you don’t think they all look a little silly?” Claude laughed. “Come on. Look there. Even Hilda’s dancing.”

She was, although she was perhaps overburdening her partner in his task of leading her. Claude watched amused as she peeked over her shoulder in Marianne’s direction, the second woman still in the same seat in a far corner that she had retreated to as soon as the first strings had been plucked. 

“You aren’t dancing either,” Ignatz noted miserably. Claude laughed again at the boy’s rare cheekiness and shook his head. 

“What? You didn’t miss my fabulous showing with Dorothea, did you?” 

Everyone else had been watching when he had escorted the songstress onto the floor. For once that evening her charms had been to her disadvantage, the boys she was usually so deft at charming suddenly overwhelmed with self-consciousness at the idea of being outshone by her exceptional form. That was the trouble with nobility, really — always preening, and terrified by the idea of losing face to anyone without the proper branches on their family tree. 

But of course Claude’s family tree was a twisted, gnarled thing more likely to be hung with nooses than with the cheery garlands strung from the rafters above their heads. So he’d offered Dorothea his arm, because he knew it would be a relief for her — and relief was just a different shade of indebtedness, and he so loved to collect debts — and because she might have been the better dancer, but not by any significant degree. 

After all, Almyrans loved to dance. Their version didn’t look much like that prim room full of slow-twirling dervishes but it was close enough, requiring only music set to a beat and an excuse to hold your partner close. Besides, Judith had taught him all of the steps — not her herself, of course, but some man from Enbarr with a thin mustache and a distinct lack of patience — knowing just how critical his comfort in a gala would be to his eventual goals. 

That wasn’t to say that he didn’t find the Fodlanders’ endless ballroom rules and regulations exhausting. There was something extremely satisfying about the way in which the lines blurred between those three things he’d though of before, in the east — it wasn’t unusual, for instance, for your companion to bloody your nose before agreeing to dance with you, and even then only as a precursor to dragging you to bed — and he had to admit that dancing now had left him feeling a bit nostalgic, if also more than a little bored. 

He scanned the room for a distraction from this tepid restlessness, realizing that his attempts at shooing Ignatz from his sulking might have been in vain. There was Sylvain, looking like a minnow in the midst of a hungry school of fish; and his childhood companions lurking ten paces away, their faces full of a mixture of horror at the showing and something more complex. Lorenz was easy to find as well, having amended his dress uniform with a jaunty purple pinion pinned to his lapel, and currently deeply engaged in his eternal charge of pretending to be enthralled by the women at his side instead of the men he made a point of ignoring (and this something that Claude had noted early on, and which no doubt could be of use, the Fodlanders being so stubborn about that sort of thing).

Raphael was pacing the length of the refreshments table — no surprise there — and then there was Linhardt, already sneaking off, no doubt to bed; and Ferdinand executing a crisp bow aimed in Mercedes’ direction, who looked thinly charmed; and Annette at her side, her cheeks a little pink from the bustle of the evening; and then, most notably and by far the most amusing, there was Byleth huddled against the far wall, her face for once easy to read and with a succinct foreword: I don’t want to be here. 

“Come on,” he told Ignatz with a wink, “I have an idea.” 

The archer followed reluctantly in his wake as they made their way across the room. Annette turned fuchsia at their approach. 

“Good evening, Claude!” Ferdinand greeted them smoothly. “Ignatz,” he added with a genteel dip of his head. “I do so hope that you are enjoying the festivities? That last number was one of my most favorites. Composed by an Empire man, you may not be surprised to learn.” 

“Not surprised,” Claude agreed with a lopsided grin. “Hey, Annette,” he added as he threw his arm around Ignatz’s shoulders again. “You’re looking lovely, as always.” 

“Thank you,” she replied, perhaps a bit too loud. He was immediately reminded of the man at his side — a reassuring observation for his plans currently in motion. 

“You know, Ignatz was just telling me about your spell-casting this afternoon. What did you say about it?” He glanced briefly in the boy’s direction; saw that he looked properly horrified. Claude’s grin lingered and grew. “Like moonlight on a midnight lagoon, wasn’t that it?” 

“Y-you saw that?”

No was the answer to her question, but only for Ignatz — he’d no doubt been in the library, feigning a study of tactics while he furtively sketched the profiles of his table-partners behind the screen of one of his propped books. Claude had seen her, however; her face screwed tight with concentration as she turned the air between her palms into a silvery arabesque of light and something crackling and popping like lightning in the summer wind. 

It had been beautiful. That part wasn’t the lie. He’d always been amazed by magic, and not to mention thoroughly confounded by it, as most other Almyrans were. Perhaps they were too simple a people, really. Still, that didn’t mean that they were inefficient — himself included. He dropped his arm from its perch to usher the younger man forward. 

“It sounds like they’re readying up for the next round,” Claude noted as he tipped his head towards the sound of the musicians’ denouement. Ignatz caught on, his shoulders stiffening with what Claude imagined was a combination of bemusement and perhaps a little betrayal. 

“Would you,” Ignatz forced breathlessly in Annette’s direction, “would you like to dance with me?” 

“That would be fine,” she replied, her cheeks as auburn as her hair. Ferdinand drew a little taller, his eyes darting between Claude and Mercedes as he no doubt attempted to tease out if Claude had come there to steal away his prize. Claude backpedaled with a conciliatory step. The room fell into a half-second of silence as the musicians drew away their bows, the next moment filled with the murmur of thank-yous and shall-wes as the students’ pairings refreshed in anticipation of the next dance. 

He left them to it and went to hunt her out. 

“Hey, Teach.” Byleth didn’t turn her head to greet him as he sidled beside her to lean against the wall. “Having fun?” 

“I don’t understand why I need to be here,” she admitted to him after a pause. He laughed. 

“Fulfilling your social obligation,” he told her with the flick of his finger in her direction. “You should know by now that they aren’t just your students, right? And look at all of them,” he added wistfully, “dukes, kings, divas...This is how they do their work.” 

“I’m not a duke,” she argued, which was of course correct on multiple fronts. He grinned. 

“You’re better than that. You’re a representative of the Church — the most important thing in all the world to people like them.” 

“I’m not.” 

“You are, Professor,” he contended, emphasizing the last word with a tilt of his voice. 

“All of them,” she added in an echo, her eyes finally swinging towards him. “Are you trying to say that you’re something different?” 

“No,” he laughed, pushing off from the wall to offer her his hand. “Why else do you think I’m here?” She frowned. 

“I’m not dancing.” 

“It’s important to play along, Teach. What’s that saying about crooked nails getting the hammer?” He winked. Her brows twitched to accentuate her deepening glower. 

“I don’t know how to dance,” she flatly amended. 

“That’s alright. I do.”

She seemed to understand that he didn’t mean to relent. Sighing, she leaned forward to reluctantly rest her fingers in his palm. He smiled with triumph as he turned to lead her onto the floor. 

“This is just a waltz,” Claude told her as he listened to the music's rising swell. “It’s easy.” He knocked her arms into the proper shape with his elbow before taking her hand against one of his palms and sliding the other to the flat plane of her shoulder blade. “There’s three beats. Do you hear them?” Her eyebrows knitted closer together. He supposed that this meant yes.

“Alright. Now I’ll step forward like this,” he said, toeing his left foot forward, “and you step back with that one. No, the other one. There. Good. Now, see how they’re doing it? Imagine that we’re walking in a little square. One-two-three, like that. One, two — good, that’s it!” 

“This is ridiculous,” she argued tightly. Her cheeks had the faintest tint to them — quite honestly, it was bewitching. He laughed and shifted his grip a little tighter so that she didn’t fall out of step. 

“It is, but there’s some fun in it, isn’t there?” 

“No.” 

“Well, it’s not the most exciting step, but you’re still a beginner, right?”

He steered her into a quiet spot so that they weren’t forced to contend with Ferdinand’s flowery waltzing. Six measures later he felt the tight knot in Byleth’s shoulders begin to unwind. 

“I think you’ve figured it out,” he noted teasingly. She glanced away, first huffing a sharp breath from her nose that felt hot and soft against his throat. 

“They’re always together, aren’t they?” Byleth asked. 

His lips twitched into a sideways shape as he tried to puzzle out what she meant. He followed her gaze towards the center of the room and wasn’t entirely surprised to see Dimitri’s golden head there, and still slowly twirling alongside Edelgard’s silver one. 

“In their own strange way,” he agreed. “It’s probably a good thing, don’t you think? Relations haven’t always been so favorable between the Kingdom and the Empire.”

She watched the duo for a moment; silent, appraising. 

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know if that’s what it is.”

Claude felt a glimmer of something warm and nearly prideful worm its way up his spine; clever woman. And was it for his lessons, or had she always been that way? 

“You’re right, he said. He thought on it a moment, his eyes steady on her downturned ones (and hers watching her feet again with trepidation, and with her lower lip tucked slightly under the flat of her front teeth like a little girl learning, with intense concentration, how to tie her shoe; and there was a blossom of fondness, there, blooming beside his less noble intentions). 

“This might sound a little crude,” he continued, met with the up-flick of her eyes paired with another deepening turn of her frown, “but did you know that wyverns pick their mates by fighting with each other? It’s a bit like praying mantises, I guess. The male either proves himself a worthy contender or gets eaten for the trouble.” 

“That is crude,” she agreed flatly. 

“And a great way to find yourself a guaranteed spot at the top of the food chain,” he contended with another wink. Her lips moved into an indistinguishable shape. “Maybe they’re a little like that.” 

“So who’s getting eaten, then?”

He laughed with surprise at her having played along.

“I don’t know. Maybe me.” He said it as a joke, although it wasn’t, really. She didn’t smile, and perhaps because she knew it wasn’t. 

“Other than wyverns, what do you think about them?” 

“Teach, are you getting into politics?”

She stiffened beneath his rounded arm. 

“Forget it.” 

“Aw,” he sighed, still grinning, “no hard feelings, now. Here.” He led them into a tighter square so that they were facing in the pair’s direction. “I think they’re both driven. Ambitious. Dedicated. But it seems to me that they go about those sorts of things in different ways. Look. You can see it here. See how Dimitri’s watching his partner? Eye-to-eye; like he’s keeping track of everything she’s doing, making sure she’s not growing too tired, that she hasn’t gotten bored. Ah. Right. There. See? He’s just told her something. Something nice, look how she’s smiling.” Byleth nodded. “And then Edelgard. Look at her — eyes forward. She’s always like that, don’t you think? Not that she isn’t paying attention. If we were to go up to her after this song’s ended I have no doubt that she’d know exactly who it was she’d danced with— his name, his family, if he stepped on her toes. And he’ll say what a fine dancer she was, and that she was very gracious, and no matter about that whole emperor business. But she’ll not be winning any smiles out of him, I don’t wager.” 

He felt Byleth’s dark gaze settle on his face. 

“And what about you, then?”

A pleased spark burrowed into his chest. 

“Well, you tell me. What do you see?” 

“I don’t know,” she told him, although it didn’t sound very sincere. “Between the two of them, I suppose you’re more like Dimitri.” 

“Teach,” he chided her with a mock-exasperated tone. “Surely I’m not the type of guy who can only be described in comparison with his peers.” 

Their waltzing slowed as its accompanying song quieted to its final beat. A pair of violins then signaled the first cheery beats of a rondo, which left Byleth looking a little pale. Claude laughed. 

“Here,” he offered as he released her from their previous pose. “One more. I’ll show you.” He crossed his arms straight and one atop the other and held them palms-up in her direction. She eyed him warily before mimicking him and gripping his hands. He stepped slowly sideways in a circle until she caught on — and then he leaned backwards slightly against his heels, using his weight to spin her ever faster until the ballroom was nothing more than a blur of lights and shapes as they whirled like drunken tops. 

A giggling murmur began to rise from their neighbors. She noticed it just as she peeked to the side to realize that their pose was far different from the rest. He watched, delighted, as her frown broke away into a look of flustered surprise followed after by a smile. 

“Claude,” she managed in a gasp before her voice spilled into laughter. They spun together for a moment longer before his own laughter broke their pace. Then they were left dizzy and hot-cheeked and honest, he thought; honest, honest, honest. 


 

“Honestly,” Hilda sighed. “She can’t stay in there forever.”

Claude frowned and drew the arrowhead he was honing more roughly against its whetstone. 

“It seems as though she means to try.” 

Not that it was surprising. After all, what would he do if he were to watch his father die? And perhaps his father and Jeralt were both bastards, but they were bastards in different degrees, so surely Byleth’s father deserved something more in terms of a requiem than the Almyran king. What would Claude do in such a situation — seek vengeance? Usurp his title and carry on as if nothing had changed? Would he lock himself into his quarters like she had, as silent as a ghost, and let the world turn onwards around him as if he’d been buried, too? 

They all seemed like reasonable options. Who was he to judge? 

“We need to do something.” 

“Maybe she just needs time.” 

“It’s been days, Claude, and no one’s seen her. Not even Seteth.” 

“And how do you know that?” 

“I heard them talking,” Hilda revealed, her grave tone lightening somewhat with pride. “Him and Lady Rhea. They’re worried.” 

Worried. That was an interesting choice of words. They were all worried about her, of course, but in this instance it seemed as though the Church was preparing for a bad hand rather than to draft a consolatory reprieve. Was that it? Was Lady Rhea feeling restless after losing one weapon and fearing the loss of a second? And was that wrong? Were his own anxious thoughts any more innocently made?  

“Maybe you could talk to her,” she said. He glanced over at her sharply. 

“If Lady Rhea couldn’t get her out of there, then what on earth am I going to do?” 

“You’re different,” Hilda contended, her cheeks puffing slightly with consternation. He huffed a joyless breath. 

“Different than Rhea, sure, but not in the way you mean.” 

“I know that you’ve been meeting with the professor in private,” Hilda added, nearly sounding coy. He rolled his eyes. 

“Those are history lessons,” he said, her implications obvious and too complicated in that moment to more properly explain. 

“Oh yeah? Is that why you snuck up into the Goddess Tower with her after the ball? History lessons?

Hilda was more right than she realized. He had followed Byleth up there after the ball, of course, and mostly just because he’d been curious about what she could have possibly been doing. A part of him had been dumbfounded by the notion that she was familiar with the legends about wish-making on a night like that, but of course she hadn’t been — running, that’s what she’d been doing, exhausted by his dance-floor tricks and unwilling to submit to any further niceties shared with his peers. And maybe in a way he’d been running, too. 

So he’d behaved himself: sat beside her on the stairs and shared a mostly-harmless conversation with her about the absurdity of ballroom dancing that had culminated in him admitting that he was ambitious, as if that had been a surprise to either of them, and with her sharing that she’d never been familiar with the feeling herself. Their discussion had left him feeling a bit unsettled, but it hadn’t blotted out the hold-over glow of listening to her laughter, and so he’d kissed her for the third time, and that time she hadn’t seemed so terribly disinterested when she’d stood afterwards to wish him goodnight. 

But it wasn’t like they’d stood together on that tower and wished for love and peace and happiness, either, so he wasn’t entirely certain just what Hilda thought it was that he could do now. 

“Just try. Alright?” Her voice was softer — more convincing. He sighed and tossed the arrowhead away with a flick of his fingers. “I don’t... I don’t think it’s good for people to be alone in times like these. Even people like the professor. You know?” 

“Fine,” he said, but only because there was nothing else left to say. He leaned sideways from his desk chair to snatch his boots and slip them on.    

“Wait,” Hilda amended quickly. “You’re going to go right now?” Her eyes darted quickly to the dark sky lurking outside his window. 

“Come on, Hild, you can’t tell me to do two things at once. Do you want me to go speak with her or not?” 

“I...” Her mouth snapped closed. “Yes. Go on. Just... Just don’t get seen, you know? People might get the wrong idea.” He laughed dourly. 

“Wouldn’t want that.” 

“Claude...” 

“I’m going!”

He knew that wasn’t what she meant but, honestly, he didn’t care. Everything was already too slipshod as it was — his moves too easy to read now that his temper was always flaring, and no doubt because he felt guilty for what had happened, and no doubt that Hilda saw that, too — so why damn himself even further? 

He left her alone in his room (and what about the rumors there, a part of him contended, but he ignored that, too) to stalk out into the hall. It was late. The dormitory was dark, quiet, cold. If he’d had longer to travel he would have brought a coat, but with six paces he could already see the shape of Byleth’s door. 

It was still built of the same dark wood turned smooth-rubbed with time, but in that moment it had become a wall cobbled together of far tougher stuff. He stood before it for a silent moment, studying the simple round of its brass knob before drawing a fist. The rap of his knuckles sounded like a whip-crack in the night and went unanswered. He tried again. 

“Teach,” he added finally, his voice lowered into a secretive sound. “Hey, Teach.” No answer. He braced himself and listened. There. A faint rustle of something inside — a sleeve, a blanket, maybe, or perhaps the brush of bare feet against the floorboards. He knocked again. “Professor. Are you...” 

Alright, that was the word that he had meant to say next, and thankfully he caught it before it darted from his lips. How could he ask her something like that? To be honest, he wasn’t even sure what her baseline was — that state of being when she was contented. Did she even have one? Could any woman raised in her circumstances claim to have that place called alright that they retreated to when things weren’t going so terribly bad? He recognized a twitch of anger in his gut, and realized that it was pointed in the direction of the graveyards where Jeralt now laid his head. 

Why did you leave her behind, he would have asked him in that moment if his ghostly figure had become a miasma at his side. 

What did you do to her to give her those dark, dark eyes? 

He frowned. 

“Byleth. Let me speak with you.” 

More silence was his reply. He sighed and combed his fingers through his hair, his eyes settling again on the door’s hardware as he weighed the options of picking the lock. They narrowed slightly as he caught sight of the sudden revolution of the knob — slow, reluctant, and the hesitation of the hand that drew it obvious in the drawn-out clicking of the latch. 

The door swung open under its own ancient weight. It was dark inside, lit by a singular stub-nosed candle flickering at the corner of her desk. Claude braced his hand against the door and pushed it more fully open, his head bowed like some adventurer making his first steps into a cobwebbed tomb. 

And perhaps he had expected chaos inside — torn bedding, broken glass, furniture turned to kindling beneath her strong hand — but as usual she proved him wrong. The room was tidy even beneath its shadows, the only thing misplaced her. 

“Byleth,” he repeated quietly. She stood silent in her place at the center of the room, looking more like a statue than a woman. She was dressed in the plain cotton of her bedclothes — a man’s loose shirt-and-pants — although he noted in that same moment that her bed was neatly made. Perhaps the only thing amiss was her hair; and it was wild against her shoulders, tangled and unwashed and currently serving as a curtain for her eyes as she stared downwards at her hands. 

He followed her gaze and found her fingers shaped into the gesture of an offering — or, he thought, as though she were a little girl who had just tumbled to her knees and skinned her palms, and he the benefactor she’d run to in order to reassure her that she was alright. 

He closed the door quietly with his heel and approached her with a careful step. She didn’t flinch when he then reached forward to gingerly cup her hands. He brushed his thumbs over her palms and found them cold and damp  — wetted, he realized when she then tipped her head slightly upwards, like her cheeks, and them ruddy in place of their usual moon-colored cream.      

“I,” she started hoarsely, “I don’t... I don’t know what this is.” His grip tightened as her stare met his and petrified him. “It won’t stop. I can’t make it stop.” 

The last few centimeters of the desktop candle’s wick flared brighter in its swan song. Claude found himself suddenly submerged in the navy of her eyes. For once they weren’t flat and empty but instead filled with a tempest that had already begun to suck him in. The sorrow he read at its whorled center was divine. He couldn’t help but think of the cathedral’s long tapestries filled with the euphoric faces of the needy bowing before Sothis’ giving hands. And Byleth’s hands were slick with her tears, and callused, and trembling.

He pulled them sharply to his chest as he drug her forward, his own fingers brushing against the swollen skin ringing her eyes before tangling in her hair. The cold marble of her pose began to melt to flesh again as he bowed forward to kiss her. Unlike most times before, her lips offered no half-hearted resistance. Instead they yielded eagerly, like a cup filled to the brim with something as honeyed as it was poisoned, and him dry-parched for a drink.  

Perhaps a man forged in the crucible of a far kinder place would have whispered sweet promises to her next, or held her in a warm embrace and stroked her hair, and soothed her sobbing with a gentle homily on love and loss and perseverance. But maybe what Cyril had said to him in the bestiary had been true. Maybe Claude wasn’t much of a man at all. And what was she? Death comes riding, he thought again as his fingers trailed down the draw of her throat and along the angles of her collarbones, and found one slightly tilted from an old break crookedly healed. 

Ashen Demon. His palms skirted her sides, rising and falling with her breathing turned ragged from their shared breath. Even in her thin bedclothes she felt as though she were still wearing her armor. The soft curves he’d caressed on other women had been traded on her for steel — and perhaps the androgyny of her strength was among the litany of things that had first enticed him, and became irresistible now in the inky darkness of her room. 

He slipped his fingers under the hem of her shirt and relished the quiver of her tongue as he drew his fingertips over her stomach. He danced them upwards in swirling strokes, mapping the planes of her abdomen and the cage of her ribs and taking note of when her breath grew shallow in his mouth. He found reprieve from the severity of her body in the softness of her breasts, and when he teased his thumbs over the points of her nipples she moaned and seemed to finally stir from her enchantment. 

Her hands then lighted on his hips. The gesture was nothing, really, in comparison to the gaudy coos and pinches he’d earned from harlots innumerable in the past, but from her and in that moment the ghost of her palms was enough. Claude borrowed from their waltzing lesson to push her to her bed, slipping his hands free from the heat of her body to help her strip off her shirt as she stepped. She let him lead her, shifting her weight onto her heels against the mattress when they advanced together afterwards to the ties lacing her pants closed. 

The version of her that he’d made in his late-night dreaming had been a crueler creature. How often had he imagined slowly breaking her free from the black shell of her plate and yet here she was, already bare beneath him and camouflaged against her sheets, her body pale like the bone bedding and striped with scars the color of the shadows cast from the naked branches outside. 

Byleth. B-y-l-e-t-h. 

He ignored her fingers pulling at the buttons of his jacket to seek out her mouth again, and this time with his knees planted around her waist. She shuddered as he followed the path his fingers had uncovered now with his lips, first brushed against the drumming of her pulse and then traced along the jagged, wine-colored cicatrix bridging the shallow between her breasts and savoring, with every stroke, the way she’d begun to undulate beneath him. 

His eyes darted upwards to meet hers as he flattened his tongue against the dimple of her navel. The harrowed whirlpool in her eyes had since shifted into something darker, hungrier. A shiver slithered down the nape of his neck as he watched her watching him. What do you see, he wanted to both ask and answer. Her head tipped backwards against her pillow as he slipped his fingers between her legs. 

What do you want? 

What can I give you? 

The long muscles of her legs tightened around the fold of his waist. He made a study of all of his lessons from the water gardens on her, watching through his lashes as her back began to bow against the creaking bed. Before the haunted silence of the room had unsettled him, but now he was thankful for how it hung to each ragged breath that he won from her lips.

What are you, really?  

His own voice gasped along with hers when she finally shuddered around his fingers. As little as they were connected, he was reluctant to pull away. She read him well in spite of the growing darkness filling the room. 

“Don’t stop,” she told him in her tactician’s tone suddenly turned slurring and breathless. “Don’t stop.” 

Stop, another voice demanded in his ear. That had been the plan. He could chase away her sorrow for an evening easily enough, but to step any further would be to break one of his few and inexorable rules. Judith had been the one to give this one in particular to him, but it had been well-founded; not in Fodlan, she had told him. You cannot be your father’s son. And he had understood the implication, of course, because he was at the crux of what she’d said: and him just one of the King of Almyra’s countless, complicated bastards — his father’s monstrous brood. 

But Byleth’s fingers were already unbuttoning his jacket. No, he should have told her; a part of him even wanted to, although it was quickly losing ground to the parts of him that didn’t. Don’t, he could have echoed; stop. Instead he groaned her name, and it was not shrouded in some sobriquet used when they were together during the day, but was instead the simple word with which her father had christened her when he’d still been alive. 

She shivered to hear Claude say it as she stripped away his jacket and the shirt beneath. Then she was crouched over his lap, their four hands working together to shove his breeches to the midpoint of his thighs. By then the candle had finally fizzled to the end of its wick, but he didn’t need the light of its flame to see her any longer. 

His breath grew thin in his mouth as she shifted against her knees to slip him inside her. She took to finding a rhythm in the noisy bed far better than she had to the ballroom’s violins. For a moment he lost himself in the feel of her, his eyes rolling backwards with a delicious pinch, but then, ah, there it was — the bestial quiver in his chest that told him to run, run, run. He tipped back from his hunch over her to cup her chin between his fingers, pressing with the flat of his thumb so that they were again eye-to-eye.  

She winced at the sudden forcefulness of his touch, but with their gaze matched again he could see that she didn’t resent what he’d done. That was simply a footnote, however, to the sight that he’d truly hunted out. With everything that had come to pass, the shell of her blank stare had finally broken. In its shattered pieces he saw the kaleidoscope of everything that it had once hidden: desire, sorrow, hunger; anger, curiosity, and desire doubled-over. And there, at its center, dark and dilated, was something that was as captivating as it was familiar. 

You. 

I see you. 

He wrapped his free arm around her waist and slung her sideways so that he’d gained the upper hand.  

“Ah, Claude!” 

The headboard clacked against the wall in a loud, four-quartered beat. He should have cared — should have worried over the bruises she was pinching into his shoulders; should have cringed at being bare-backed. Instead he thought only of the vice-grip of her, and when he looked at her beneath him she’d taken on another shape — long and lithe and coiled around him from toe to crown, and with every breath constricting him tighter. And her skin was pale, the color of the moon. 

White is our color. Look, boy. See.

“Fuck,” he gasped as her body sapped at him with her climax, and him following soon after. She didn’t chide him for his language. They fell together into the tangle of her sheets and listened to the ear-ringing silence that had once again flooded the room. 

Do something, he warned himself as he stared into the dark of the ceiling. As careful as he was, however, he’d not built a contingency plan for something like this. Still, he knew that what was most important, beyond whatever apologies he owed, was to dress himself again and to retreat from her room before the grey glow of the approaching dawn made good on its promise. 

Byleth shifted closed to him as he mulled over his options. The tip of her nose brushed against his shoulder. He could feel the tickle of her lashes there, too, as well as the hot cloud of her breath. His eyelids grew heavy. Before he could fight it with any honest effort he’d already fallen asleep. 

He didn’t dream, which wasn’t unheard of, but it was at least unusual. Perhaps he simply didn’t have the time to dive into his thoughts. He woke again to a room filled with the first light of morning and to the feather-touch of her fingers tracing the gnarled shapes on his back. Don’t touch me, a desperate voice cried out, drawing the base of his throat tight; but he quieted it with a swallow, not finding it sincere.

Byleth, propped at his side on her elbows, noted that he’d stirred with a quiet hum. They lingered like that for a moment — silent, him sprawled on his stomach and with his arms tucked beneath her pillow, and her continuing in her work of cataloguing the disfigurement of his scars. 

“Does it bother you?” 

He stared into the soft mound of the pillow as he considered her question. Did it bother him? What, exactly; the intimacy of her touch? The seedling of dread rooting in his stomach now that he had charted his course over more complicated water? Or maybe she simply meant the whip that had once stripped the skin from his back when he’d been a child, and then a boy and then, later, a young man — and each welt a reminder of his mistakes, innumerable and cruel. 

He unfolded one of his arms and reached out to thumb a little scar skirting over her left shoulder. 

“No,” he told her. It wasn’t the truth, really, but that didn’t make it a lie. He watched as gooseflesh prickled over his forearm from the feel of her fingers dancing along his spine. 

“Claude,” she asked him some moments later, her voice quiet. “Why is it that you came to the monastery?” 

This was another good question. He looked up into her unshielded gaze and searched until he found that her curiosity wasn’t unkind. The look of it kindled something hot deep inside his chest. 

“For as long as I can remember,” he answered, “I’ve had a boot at the back of my neck. Grinding me down into the dirt, like a dog.” His lip curled slightly at the word. “I want to throw it off.” 

“How?”

“By climbing high enough until I’m off my knees.”

Maybe it was too early for metaphor; still, he hadn’t broken their shared stare, and in it he could see that she understood. Not everything, of course, but enough — enough to confirm with unshakeable finality that he was and had always been a liar, and that in that moment he was being honest. 

“I could help you.”

It was an absurd promise. Said by anyone else it would have sounded unspeakably naive. Claude rose against his arms and cocked his body to face her. 

“Your ambitions,” she continued simply, conjuring memories of their conversation in the Goddess Tower. “I can help you, if you like.” He exhaled a sharp breath. 

“And why would you want to do something like that?”

She shrugged her shoulders. 

“I’m a sell sword,” Byleth replied.  

He smiled and shook his head.  

“So what’s your price?” 

“Ambition,” she said again. He leaned closer as she spoke so that he could feel the heat of her voice against his lips. “Something to fight for.” 

“It won’t always be kind,” Claude warned. Her dark snake-eyes settled on him and left him feeling small. 

“That’s alright. I don’t need it to be kind.” 

He didn’t answer but he did kiss her, and somehow he knew that it was enough. 

Chapter Text

“There you are,” Hilda sighed, dropping her dinner tray to the table with a clatter. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” 

“You must not have been looking very hard,” Claude contended with a grin. “I was in the library for hours.”

She rolled her eyes and took a seat across the table from him. “It’s a figure of speech.”

He snorted and tore an edge from his dinner roll, turning it between his fingers as he watched her glower at him from above her own untouched meal. 

“I don’t think so, Hild.” 

“You get the point,” she snapped. He shrugged and popped the pinchful of bread into his mouth. “Don’t you ever get bored, sitting in there all the time?” 

“I like to read. Why, don’t I look the part?”

Maybe it would have been better if he’d had a pair of spectacles to slide up the bridge of his nose. Hilda looked as though she thought the same, her lips twitching into a sideways smirk. 

“You,” she replied, jabbing the prongs of her fork in his direction with every word, “look guilty, Claude von Riegan.” 

“Oh? What is it this time?”

He sipped at his water glass, noting the way her eyes filled with an unusual combination of annoyance and victory and, beneath them both, a grim worry that left him feeling a bit uneasy. Hilda leaned over her plate to settle her multifaceted gaze on him in the form of her final judgment. 

“I slept in your bed last night,” she informed him in a whisper. He felt his brows flick upwards slightly before he settled them back into a line. 

“I hope you found it comfortable.”

“You didn’t,” she insisted cryptically, frowning. He found it interesting that even she couldn’t manage the words. Please tell me that you didn’t sleep with our professor, her eyes begged him instead. Or would she use a different word? And, to that point, what word would he use? None that came to mind seemed to adequately summarize the feeling of Byleth’s fingers gripping purple spots into his skin. His jaw tightened slightly as he though back on the heat of her; the dark pits of her eyes. Another man might have called it a conquest, but he knew better. I was just a pitiable old knight, he could have told Hilda next, borrowing from those books Ignatz always kept tucked beneath his arm. Burnt to a crisp in the dragon’s lair. 

“That doesn’t give me much to work with,” is what he said in his flat deflection. Hilda huffed a full mouthful of hot air across the table.

“You know,” she told him dryly, “sometimes I think to myself, Claude really is just as clever as they say, but then you do these things that remind me that you’re just a gods-damned fool.” 

“That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

Her cheeks darkened with frustration. 

“Nice? Is that what you want to talk about? Nice? And what was nice about...” She waved her hand in the air, still finding it impossible to conjure up the proper condemnation. Claude planted his chin in his palm and watched her, amused by the bottomless bashfulness that seemed to be outright contagious this far west. “...that? You’re a real scoundrel, you know that?” 

“A fool and a scoundrel,” he sighed in agreement, leaning further into the bend of his elbow. “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” 

“This isn’t funny!” Her eyes narrowed as he failed to agree. “For one thing, there has to be some sort of rule against it. And that has nothing to do with how... dastardly it is.” 

Dastardly?” 

“Not to mention stupid.” 

“Yes, you’ve already said that.”

Her glower became sharper than ever. 

“Claude. You promised not to lie to me anymore.”

His grin flattened slightly. Yes, he supposed he had. 

“What do you want me to tell you?” Claude asked. She flinched at the sudden cold indifference of his tone. 

“You know exactly what I’m asking.” 

“Yes,” he said, and in a way that made it clear that it was an answer to both questions. For some reason she still bothered to suck in a tight gasp. 

“You’re so stupid,” she insisted again beneath her breath. “Don’t you ever think about anything else?”

It wasn’t that he was unused to verbal abuse but, to be honest, in that moment Claude’s patience had begun to wear a little thin. After all, it wasn’t like he was naive to the implications of his night spent in Byleth’s room, not even if the woman herself seemed unperturbed by what had happened. He’d found, across his various conspiracies, that alliances were oftentimes more trouble than they were worth. To that very notion, he was beginning to regret his tight-knit partnership with the rose-eyed Hilda as well. 

“Never,” he drawled. Hilda rubbed at her temples, and perhaps only to stop herself from swinging her fists at him instead. 

“Surely I don’t have to explain what happens when you do that sort of thing,” she groaned in reply. “Or did you never get the lesson? You’re so witty now, but I don’t know if even you can explain away some green-eyed son.”

He smirked. “I’m not worried about that.”

Hilda’s scowl puckered ever-deeper. 

“No, of course you aren’t. Men never are, are they? It must be nice, never having to give a damn about any gods-damned—”

“Not that,” he interjected with the wave of his half-eaten roll. “Just that I don’t think she has a heart.” 

“You really are a full-tilt bastard, Claude,” Hilda charged, her face blanched with indignation. 

“That’s true,” he laughed, “but it isn’t what I mean.”

His mind wandered with his promise to the memory of that dark scar between the curves of Byleth’s breasts. It had been old, worked soft with age, and so terribly strange in its placement. On any other body it would have been a killing blow, and yet she’d no doubt been alive. He could still nearly taste the heat and salt of her on his tongue even now, and feel the drumming of her pulse captured in her wrists and along her slender throat; and that strange placid stillness that had filled her chest even afterwards as she’d lain so close beside him. He’d read about it, of course, and written in her father’s own hand. Still, there was something eerie about feeling it firsthand.

“It isn’t a commentary on her composure. She doesn’t have a heartbeat.” 

“That’s ridiculous,” Hilda sputtered, her cheeks flushing pink again. He shrugged. 

“You know, Hild, I’ve learned that sometimes things don’t need to be believable to be the truth.”

The stiff brace of her shoulders deflated slightly at the idea. 

“That doesn’t make any sense,” she grumbled, stirring the cooling quarters of her dinner together. He readied himself for another retort and buried it again when he noticed the shadow of someone looming at Hilda’s back. 

“Your princeliness,” Claude smiled, halving his attention on the man as he watched Hilda fluster with annoyance from the interruption. This, too, was why he liked her so much, and why he’d let her call him every curse under the sun until he was either an old or prematurely-buried man: her disdain for nearly everything, a great unifier in its ubiquity.“How nice it is to see you this evening.” 

“Claude,” Dimitri replied with a nod of his head. “Lady Goneril.”

“Your Highness,” Hilda replied, her voice sugary-sweet again now that she’d taken note that the prince meant to do more than offer a quick greeting. Sighing, she gripped the edges of her tray and stood. “This isn’t finished,” she warned Claude, her voice slotting beneath Dimitri’s rushed insistence that he didn’t mean to interrupt. Claude grinned and flashed his palms at her submissively. The gesture, as he’d so hoped, made her look more furious than ever. 

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Dimitri assured him again once she’d left. Claude shrugged his shoulders. 

“I’m glad you did. So, what’s the news?”

The prince’s perfectly-shaped eyebrows titled slightly at Claude’s usual dismissal of proper etiquette. Not that Claude didn’t know how to play the part — and not that he minded it, himself in fact quite skilled at that prancing advance of leaden, multi-syllabled words used to slowly tease one’s conversation to the point they intended to make over the course of many minutes, perhaps hours — but rather that he’d noticed that Dimitri preferred his take on a simple-tongued commoner over that of a nobleman, even if he was still so ruffled by it when Claude played the part. 

He was funny in that way. Claude suspected it must have been a symptom of his childhood; that is, of being a little gold-plumed bird always locked away in its pretty cage. Sometimes those sorts of things made a man mean, but for Dimitri it seemed to have made him sweeter — curious, empathetic, even open-minded. These qualities would suit him well in his ascension, although Claude wasn’t yet certain if that was, to him, an advantage or instead a tricky problem that would one day need to be solved. 

“Would you mind taking a walk with me?” Dimitri asked. Claude smiled nicely and stood to signal his assent. “There are some matters about which I would wish to speak with you.” 

“Lead the way,” he offered. Dimitri nodded and charted their path. It led them not to the lake this time but to the quiet outskirts of the monastery’s steps — to the base of the Godddess Tower, in fact, where Claude had once received his thinly-painted warning from Jeralt, and where he’d won a kiss from the Bladebreaker’s daughter as well. It was a good place for promises, of course, and so he was quite curious as to which kind the prince would offer him now. 

“The last time we spoke together like this,” Dimitri began once they’d wandered to a place he deemed appropriately hidden, “I mentioned, among other things, that we had the luxury of time in determining the path forward for our people.” Claude nodded. “I am afraid that, with what has happened in Remire, I have been mistaken. Of course, no one would know this better than you. You were witness to the atrocity yourself.”

“I was.” 

“And would you not agree that it was a harbinger of what is to come?” 

“Maybe not with those words,” Claude answered with a half-formed grin. “But yes. If you ask me, Remire was a challenge.” He hooked his arms behind his head, stretching the long line of his back. “And not one made to Leicester.”

Dimitri frowned. “No,” he agreed, “not to Leicester. But that doesn’t mean that the Alliance won’t be implicated in what is to come next.” 

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Claude told him with a shrug. 

“Come now, Claude; even I don’t find that so terribly convincing.”

Claude’s grin deepened into a proper shape. 

“Alright. So what is it that you propose, Your Highness?” 

“Following our graduation,” Dimitri offered, his tone suddenly grave, “I will begin to prepare to take the throne. I’ve discussed the same with my uncle Lord Rufus. If we are to be faced with war, the people deserve a proper king. And a proper king requires a wise council to guide his hand. I can think of no better man to sit among such rank than you.” 

“Me?” Claude laughed. “I don’t know, your princeliness — I think there are a fair share of Kingdom men who would argue the opposite.” 

“And that is precisely why I’ve made you the offer. As I told you before, I do not intend to shape my reign in the same way that my forefathers have forged theirs. In any case, I fear that whatever it is that we now face is without precedence. I cannot turn to history alone to steel my people against this future. And I know that you are clever, Claude; and, although we may sometimes disagree, that you feel the same about protecting the people of the Alliance as I do about my own.”

Claude cocked one of his brows. 

“And what sort of Alliance will it be if its sovereign duke suddenly doesn’t appear so sovereign any longer?” he challenged. Dimitri’s shoulders stiffened slightly, and no matter that he must have been expecting such a question. “You made me an offer to walk side-by-side, and yet I’ve never heard of a king’s advisor being given such a distinction before.” 

“That was made under different pretenses,” the prince insisted tightly. Claude laughed again. 

“That is the trouble of it, isn’t it?” Claude loosened his arms to run his fingers through his hair. “In any case, might I again remind you that I may not even get the vote. Perhaps you’d be better served in extending your offer to dear old Lorenz instead.”

Dimitri frowned. “If there is one thing I’ve learned about you from studying beside you,” he countered, “it is that you will achieve whatever goal to which you’ve set your mind.” 

“That’s generally intended to be a compliment,” Claude chided him with his ever-steady grin. “Alright. So. Let’s say I agree to your proposal. What happens to Leicester?” 

“It falls under the Kingdom’s protection,” Dimitri promised. “And in the same way that Leicester’s great families were once under its protection before.” 

“Some would say that the Kingdom’s protection wore a little too tight.” 

“Then we will loosen it for them,” Dimitri countered. “You, and I, and the Roundtable; we will agree upon the terms. I insist for nothing more than mutual gain. What is critical — what is imperative — is that we serve together as a united front. A single break in our defenses and Derdriu will be as like to fall as Fhirdiad.” 

Claude nodded. He wasn’t wrong. “They’ll want more than a promise like that.” 

“And we will discuss it,” Dimitri agreed. “Openly, and without reservation.”

Claude glanced upwards, his eyes darting between the stars as he considered Dimitri’s offer. 

“Give me Galatea,” he said after another moment’s pause. Dimitri hummed a surprised noise. 

“Galatea?” 

“As a gesture of good faith,” Claude continued with a wink. “It’s worthless. You and I both know that.” 

“Not to the Count,” Dimitri tutted. Claude shrugged. 

“Discuss it with him. Openly, and without reservation.” Claude paired Dimtri’s flat look with another wolffish grin. “Return the Galatea lands to house Daphnel, and I’ll be the first one knocking on your door once you finish putting on your crown.”

The stairs were quiet for a long beat afterwards as the two scions stared each other down. 

“Alright,” Dimitri acquiesced finally. This time he was the one to first extend his hand. “I will make every effort to see Galatea returned to Lady Daphnel.”

Claude finished off their shake, although he wasn’t quite able to match the prince’s impressive grip. 

“And so I suppose I’ll do my best to tell you to do the right thing.”

Dimitri smiled thinly at his promise, which made him laugh. Claude stepped back a pace and made to turn. He stopped three-quarters through the movement, his boots crinkling against the toes as he rose up onto the balls of his feet. 

“Ah,” he added, catching the prince’s gaze over his shoulder. “Tell me, though. What is it that you truly want? Is it Leicester, or is it the professor?”

Dimitri’s brow furrowed. Claude smiled. He truly was such a pitiful liar. 

“I don’t know what it is you mean.” 

“House Goneril is strong, that’s true,” Claude replied breezily. “And Derdriu’s banks are rich enough to see you through a winter, maybe two. But Leicester’s heroes of old are, well, old; or dead, or fat and lazy and too drunk to hold a sword. Maybe it would be better to let our enemies chew through us for a season before they make their way to your walls. No doubt it would be less of a hassle than sending your knights east. 

“And yet it occurs to me now that those same knights might find quite a calling in fighting alongside such an impressive woman wielding a sacred sword, doted upon by the Archbishop herself — Seiros’ chosen one. My, it seems to me to be a fable nearly written in full already.” Claude took a languid step backwards, now fully turned so that he could keep his eyes on Dimitri as he moved. The prince watched without an answer. No matter. The tight circles of his fists at his side served as an adequate reply. 

“It makes no difference to me, Your Highness,” Claude continued. “In either case we both have something to gain. But you should know that mercenaries are notoriously fickle.” 

“You’ve misunderstood my offer,” Dimitri managed thinly. Claude shrugged. 

“I’ve been known to make the mistake before. In any case, let me give you my first piece of advice. This one comes free of charge. The best way to keep old growth healthy is to start the occasional fire. But be careful, your princeliness; with just a change of the winds, you’ll find yourself with nothing but ashes left behind.”   

Claude waggled his fingers at him and turned again before the prince had a chance to reply. 



Six nights later Byleth hunted out Claude’s door. He smelled the clinic on her when he greeted her: spearmint, like her hair. There was no doubt that she had taken the sideways path straight from Manuela’s domain to his own, and uninterrupted by the things that she should have done instead after she’d woken from the dead following her duel with the man once named Tomas — like praying, maybe, or getting drunk.  

Instead she nodded at his amused hello and kicked off her boots. Next came the buttons cinching her cloak to her shoulders. Ah, he’d then realized. I’m being used. And it was a relief, really, this excuse to briefly abandon the tight-wound choreography of his day-to-day to retreat to the nostalgia of all of the ugly little things he’d once done. What better companion to distract her from all of the complications of what had come to pass, after all, than a man whose cradle had been tossed between the silken pillows of a glorified whorehouse? 

That is to say, he would have thought such a thing if it had been true: if Byleth had simply shedded her clothes and his as well and had her fill, and then slipped through his door again to leave them both alone and sated, if a little disappointed. Instead she lingered afterwards, just as he had done when he’d gone to her room. This time, however, sleep took neither of them as they laid bare together in the heat of his bed. 

“Is it strange?” She asked him the question as he twirled a strand of her newly-brightened hair between his fingers. He laughed. The sound was quiet, built more of breath than it was from his voice, and honest. 

“Yes, ptiska,” he told her. “It is, without question, strange to fall into the depths of an endless darkness, and to then cut yourself free again, and afterwards find yourself with a new pair of eyes — and a new head of hair for your trouble. Not that it doesn’t suit you.” 

Teeska?”

A warm wave crested from his brow to the depths of his chest as he realized that his idle drowsiness had made him a bit too clumsy with his words. 

Ptiska,” he corrected her, his tongue touching at the proper ridges at the roof of his mouth to catch the subtle half-consonant that started the term. He decided to not yet meet her gaze.

“What does that mean?”

His lips turned into a crooked smile. 

“Little bird.” 

“I’ve never heard that word before,” she admitted. He brushed the second knuckle of his pointer finger along the crest of her cheekbone and then downwards towards the angle of her jaw. 

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he murmured. “It’s my father’s language.” 

“Your father,” she echoed drowsily. “The soldier?” 

“Hm,” he said. 

“He wasn’t from Fodlan?” 

“No.”

Byleth toyed with the crumpled hem of his sheets. 

“My mother died when I was young, too,” she told him after a moment. “Of course, you know that.” He knew more than that, naturally, from having read through her father’s diary — not that the memoirs had done much to answer any of the increasingly demanding questions asking just who, or what, exactly, she really was. “I suppose that isn’t right, really. She was dead before I was even born. That’s strange, too, isn’t it? To be the daughter of a dead woman?” 

“Yes,” he agreed. She wrung the sheet tighter. 

“I wish my father would have written more about her. I never though about it much, before, but now...Do you know about him? Your father?” Claude let a quick breath rush through his nose. 

“Yes, I do.” 

“That’s nice.” There was something charming in how simply she spoke. “Do you know how they met?” 

“Who?”

She shifted from her curl against his chest to look upwards into his face. He smiled at the near-frustrated pinch of her eyes as she sought out his answer. 

“Your parents. Your mother is noble-born. How was it that she came to be married to a simple soldier?”

He laughed. 

“Is that really so unbelievable?”

She shrugged. He drew his fingers through her hair again, entranced by the contrast it struck against the tone of his skin. They fell in love, he’d told others before. Star-crossed, you know? Both of them had so much to lose in loving one another, but there was no other option, not for them. They ran away together — a secret elopement, and with only the birds and the clouds as their witness as they took each others’ hands. Roses in her hair, she wore; red, never yellow, not anymore. 

“My father,” Claude said after some additional consideration, “hated my grandfather, and almost as much as my grandfather hated him. When my mother discovered that she was to be trod-over for the dukedom, she decided to conquer the only thing that her father had ever failed at taking. Maybe my father felt the same. Still, it was my mother who won the game. When she moved into his house he already had three wives, but she was the only one who had the right to disobey him — and she was the only one to ever reject his hand.” 

“They weren’t married?” 

“No. Never. My mother once told me that he asked her thirteen times. That last time was the one that finally chased her away.” 

“She didn’t love him?”

He laughed again.

“Love him? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe. He loved her, I think.” 

“What does that mean for you?” 

“Hm?” A shiver darted down his spine as she traced a faint scar running parallel to his collarbone. 

“If they weren’t married, what does that make you?”

His lips twitched into a grin. 

“Mm,” he hummed, thumbing the ridge of her ear. “A bastard. Is that what you’re asking? Does that bother you?” 

“No.” 

“But you think it might be controversial, is that it?” 

“Based on what I’ve observed since I’ve come here, yes.” 

“Well, sweet Lorenz might feel that way, but I’ve never found it to be much of a problem myself. My father has plenty of bastards, and some of them are rich; and some of them are powerful; and some of them are dead. None of it had anything to do with the rings on their mothers’ fingers.” Byleth mulled over the notion for a quiet moment, her fingers still tracing the occasional shape scattered over his shoulders’ broad draw. 

“It seems to me that your father had quite the life for a simple soldier.”

Claude snatched her hand from its toying, splaying it open with the gentle press of his thumb as he ran it over the thick calluses ringing her palm. 

“Does it?” He touched one of her fingertips to his lips, tracing the crescent shape of them before testing the taste of it with his tongue. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met two soldiers who were quite the same.”  

“And yet,” Byleth insisted. He nibbled at her finger with the flat edge of his teeth, his free hand tracing the staircase of her ribs and lingering at the round of her breast. 

“And yet,” he agreed, his voice pooling in her palm. “Here. I’ve given you a truth and a lie. My father is dead. My father was a soldier. I’ll let you pick which to believe.” 

“You still distrust me?” He laughed into her fingers. 

“That isn’t it. Just that I want you to build whatever image of me that you like. Do you want me to be the son of a simpleton? Or do you want me to be the son of a soldier? They’re both fine stories, you know — and no matter which you pick, I suspect they’ll have the same end.”    

A quiet moan rumbled deep in his throat as she slipped one of her hands between his legs.  

“I don’t understand you,” she admitted to him. He grinned and buried his nose in the crown of her hair. I don’t understand you, he could have agreed. How could he? It was not lost on him that with her new transformation she had taken on the look of the Church’s most ardent supporters — and what were they, really? Rhea with her ambiguous tenure, seemingly always at the forefront of that ancient institution no matter what year you referenced in the library’s thick-bound tomes; and Flayn and Seteth, both prone to speaking with the frivolity of a language since evolved into a simpler tongue? 

There was no reason to any of it, and for him reason was like water — ubiquitous, essential, soothing. On the contrary, Byleth was always riling his nerves, and even in the moments when she wasn’t splaying her strong fingers over his body as she was now. Dangerous, a primal part of his brain reminded him. Unpredictable. Fickle, he’d told Dimitri some days before. Daughter of death, she’d suggested to him, shrouded by his sheets; or was she simply an orphan, as she found herself now — death itself and nothing more? 

Little bird, he’d called her. A holdover from a different time. His mother had used the term when he’d been a little boy not yet tarnished by everything that had come after. It had meant that she was pleased — ptiska, she’d said, kissing his brow and handing him sweets from her pocket. Precious. That was what that word had meant, simple and kind and without the shadow of a second meaning hidden in its depths. 

He hummed another moan and tipped her chin upwards to kiss her. Her tongue slid over his as if she were hunting out the answer that he still owed her. He didn’t give her one, but at least he didn’t lie. 

Chapter Text

“You’ve done it, then.”

His father watched him with a smirk from his throne. Another king would have demanded something gilded and grand, maybe, but not him. There were many steps leading to the dais where his throne sat, mimicking the soar of his wicked wyvern as he cast his eyes downwards on whomever was foolish enough to bow at his feet, but the seat itself was simple, built from the thick beams of some common breed of wood that boasted neither a fine grain nor a handsome luster. 

The king cast no standard image himself sat crooked as he was in his chair, his long legs dragging over one of the arms and his long hair pooling over the crest of the second. The pose didn’t favor him the way it would have his more lithe son Faheem. Instead he had the look of a half-finished statue in repose, still too roughshod in all of its angles to be purely pleasant to look upon. Claude wondered briefly if he lounged this way as well when he ordered his men to seek out blood and gather heads for his collection. 

“You look like a fool,” his father continued. Claude fought the urge to thumb the cropped strands of his hair. 

“So you agree that I look the part?”

His father’s laughter echoed high in the rafters above their heads. 

“Yes,” he agreed, still laughing. “Yes, boy. You’ve put on your fleece well. The sheep will welcome you with open arms.”

Claude tapped his fingers against his own crossed arms, too clever not to be cautious about why his father had called him there. It was no secret that he was headed west, but it wasn’t like he’d asked for his father’s blessing, either. Faheem had called him reckless for it, but the truth was that he’d simply not wanted to ask the question. What difference would it make? His father would let him leave or he wouldn’t; or maybe he would agree and then have him shot in the back at the border. Maybe he’d done the same to his mother so many years before. There was only so much Claude could do to prepare for his next steps. The rest, he’d decided, required faith. 

“I’m not surprised,” his father continued, his placid eyes settling on him. “It was only a matter of time. You will go to Leicester, then?” 

“Yes,” Claude answered with a nod. 

“You’ll find no easy victory there. Riegan has a son.” 

“I know.” 

“So what is it that you’re after, eh? Will you play court-jester for them?” Claude didn’t answer, which made his father laugh again. “You’ve always taken on the role well. Out of all of my sons, you certainly are the one to keep me the most amused.”

He knew it wasn’t a compliment, but he wasn’t stupid enough to disagree. His father sat forward, lacing his fingers together in between his knees as he studied him more closely. 

“No,” the older man added. “I see it. You’re hungry, aren’t you? With everything I’ve given you, I know that you’ve never liked the taste. Not enough to stay.” He stood, his boots silent against the steps of the dais as he descended. “That isn’t me, you know. That appetite of yours. Your mother was never satisfied, either.”

There was a warning hidden there somewhere, but Claude didn’t take the time to inspect it too closely. 

“When do you leave?” 

“Tomorrow. At dawn.”

His father came closer, his hands perched on his hips as he began to stalk a circle around him. 

“Alone?” 

“Yes.” Don’t worry, he wanted to add, although he didn’t; I’m not stealing from you. His father hummed, seemingly intrigued by the idea. 

“And what about your little mouse? He might get eaten, you know.” Claude’s jaw tightened. He focused on working it loose again. The king laughed once more. “I’m only jesting. What kind of father do you think I am? After all, have I ever been unkind to you? I’ve dressed you well, haven’t I? And fed you, kept coins pressed into your palm and given you the finest pillows for your bed. How sad it would be for us to part on bitter terms.”

Claude nodded; not because he agreed, but because he didn’t have the option. His father nodded back at him and turned on his heel. 

“Here,” he told him. “I have something for you.”

Claude frowned at the flat of his back as he hunted something out from a nearby tabletop. It wasn’t that he had lied, before — his father had given him plenty of things throughout his life, and all of them with an unmatched generosity. The problem was, however, that just like his laughter, his gifts were rarely kind. 

This time he turned and brandished a familiar scabbard in Claude’s direction. Claude’s frown deepened as his eyes traced the scaled patterning along its length, lingering afterwards at the hilt jutting from the top. At its center a golden wyvern was coiled around a ruby the size of a peach pit, her wings outstretched to form the bars of the cross guard. It was an uncommon sword in a place like that, its blade thick and straight and long unlike the graceful curve of the scimitars his father’s men preferred. Claude could feel the weight of it even as it rested in his father’s palms. He’d held it once before as a curious young boy, and had barely managed to drag its sharp point upwards from the floor. 

Some men named their swords. Others named themselves. Nader was the Undefeated, and no matter how he’d earned the term. Claude’s cruelest brother was named Stone-Eye because his father had once beaten him so savagely that he’d lost the better part of his vision, and had been left him with a milky right eye that he kept uncovered and claimed (unfounded, as Claude had learned firsthand) that it allowed him to see through any man’s lies. Stone-Eye had a bow he called the Wicked Bitch, and although it was a laughable name it was not entirely unproven. 

But Claude’s father was of the rare breed who required nothing more than his own name to send a shiver down the spine of anyone who dared oppose him. His greatsword was similarly nameless, but not without a dark legacy of its own. He’d once tamed the wilds of Almyra with it, after all, and not with diplomacy.

“Here,” the king said, nudging it further forward. “Take it.” 

“What is this?” Claude asked him the question flatly, his tone turning to stone as his father smiled. 

“A gift.” The scabbard rattled as he offered it more stubbornly. “Go on. Take it.”

Claude did, and with hesitation, slowly drawing the sword a knuckle’s distance from its sheath to eye the steel blooming from beneath the fanciful artifice of its hilt. It was well cared for — shimmering and faultless in the light of the braziers despite how many times it had been used. His gaze darted upwards again to match his father’s and found it as unperturbed as ever, if perhaps slightly amused. 

“Why?” 

“Must I have a reason?”

The king stepped with a languid half-step to continue his revolution around him. “It really is good, you know — this new look of yours. I’ve always thought you took after me, the old sentimental fool that I am, but now I see your mother in you. That bastard Riegan will see it, too. I only wish that I could be there to watch him mull it over.” His father’s smile widened, although the warmth of it didn’t leak upwards into his eyes. “He and I, finally both the same. Doting fathers. Isn’t that right? I hear that he loves your uncle. Sweet little Godfrey. But will he love you more? I wonder. Your mother’s gift will make it difficult for him to choose. Her greatest act of revenge, I’d say, mean old she-cat that she is.” 

Don’t talk about her like that, he wanted to snarl, but he didn’t. Instead he thought of a deep blue pool and felt his expression fall into a mimicry of the great nothingness that always filled his father’s face. The king caught it and scoffed, leaning sideways to suddenly grip him by the arm. 

“Don’t forget. That’s why I’m giving this to you. Turn yourself into whatever you like. Shed your skin, eh? But don’t forget who you are.” His hand slipped from Claude’s shoulder to palm over his fingers clutching at the sword. “No matter where you go, you’ll always be my son.” 

Claude’s molars ground in his ears. Another man might have longed to hear those very words spoken to him in a time like that, but to him they were just as heavy and bloodstained as the blade that he retreated with, and with his father’s rolling laughter following at his heels as he strode briskly from the palace into the shadow of the night, and all of it — the dark velvet of the air, the weight in his hands, the thunder of his father’s voice, all of it — a threat. 

Two years later he found himself at the foot of a throne again. This one looked more the part, ancient as it was. He felt the first hints of a grin on his lips as he watched a sprig of annoyance bloom in Byleth’s eyes when Rhea asked her twice-over if she felt anything divine perched up in her stony seat, but then the warmth of the expression fizzled to ashes in his throat. She’s too desperate, he realized, his eyes darting in the archbishop’s direction. What is it that she’s looking for? 

Rhea had then glanced sideways and matched his gaze with a look of anger. Don’t watch, her eyes demanded, and her looking like a little girl caught dangling her kitten over the mouth of a well. What do you want, he needed to ask her; what are you trying to do? The questions cycled in his mind even after the footfalls of the imperial army suddenly broke apart the eerie silence of that subterranean room and ruined his opportunity to voice them aloud. 

He killed five men that day, and Byleth six, and Lorenz and Leonie both two. Together they would have culled fourteen if not for Edelgard’s air-crackling retreat. None of it was a surprise. Maybe if his attention hadn’t been so splintered he would have predicted the very moment, to the minute, of when the imperial princess first lighted upon those once-locked stairs. If it had been important — if he hadn’t known, in some deep part of himself, that eventually she would betray them — he would have no doubt been disappointed from his being unprepared. 

But fate had simply selected its card from its short deck at hand, and Claude knew that no matter how that afternoon had come to pass they would have been forced ever-closer to the same end. War. He’d hedged his bets on it and here it came, violet-eyed and hungry, and he was ready for the chaos that it would bring: and it for everyone else a pit to fall into, and for him a door. 

And yet. 

What do you want, he thought again as Rhea promised her cruel vengeance after Edelgard had disappeared; what are you trying to do? And just like his father’s sword had dragged at him those years before, so too did he feel his fingers slipping on a second hilt — losing purchase bit by bit, his grip turning clumsy as Rhea circled closer to Byleth and whispered something to her, and he realized, his mouth growing dry, that he’d missed something, somewhere along the way. Something important and now unseen. And it was a threat, he wagered; all of it, all of it.


 

“Claude! Claude, gods damn it, wake up.”

He danced through the dark of his room to open the door before Hilda wrenched it from its hinges, stopping only to knot a blanket around his waist so that he didn’t abandon the last dredges of decorum that he had supposedly once mastered. 

“What is it,” he snapped, too curt, still half-asleep. Hilda brandished a sputtering torch at him to spook off the midnight gloom. The light chased cut away the weight of his eyelids; her face, grim and hooded by the stern set of her brows, burned away his fatigue as well. “What’s happened?” 

“The Empire is marching on the monastery,” she told him. Something akin to excitement kindled at the base of his spine. “They’ve brought a proper army. The village is already under siege. Lady Rhea has called on us to mount a defense.”

Claude nodded, the uncharacteristic severity of her tone leaving no doubt in his mind that she spoke the truth. 

“The professor?” 

“She’s at the gates. I’ve told her that I’d bring you to her.” 

“Alright. Go ahead. I’ll find her. You’ll need something better than that.” He nodded at the thin cotton of her night-dress, something twinging in his chest at the look of her hair still mussed from her pillows, and at the hint of a blush-colored bruise at her collarbone that he would have teased her about under different pretenses. 

“Claude,” she tutted. He leaned against the doorframe. 

“Go on,” he reassured her. “You need to be more careful. I’ll wait for you at the gates.”

Her lips twitched into an indecisive shape. 

“Alright,” she relented finally, stepping back a pace into the hallway. “Be quick, okay? Everyone’s nervous.”

He nodded again. She matched the move, swinging the torch with a crackle as she hunted out the direction of her room. 

“Wait,” he called out suddenly. “Dimitri. Have you seen him?”

Hilda shook her head.

“No, but Lady Rhea had Mercedes with her. She must have sent her off as well — to bring him to the gates.” 

“Good.” Claude’s eyes darted between a series of inconsequential things as he pieced his thoughts into the proper order. “If you see him, tell him that we will fight beside him.”

Her shoulders sunk slightly. 

“Claude,” she warned him beneath her breath, “that sort of promise...”

He quieted her with the quick shake of his head. 

“It’s what needs to be done. We have to make a choice, Hild. It can’t be the Church.”

She read what he left unsaid with a deft flicker of her eyes. 

“Alright,” she murmured in a whisper, glancing at her toes. “I’ll tell the others, too.” 

“Thank you. Be safe, alright? No heroics.” He winked, although he knew it wasn’t really the proper time. “I won’t call you a coward if you run.” 

“Oh, but you’ll still call me something nasty,” she sighed with the slightest quirk of her lips. “As if I’ll let you get away with that.” Her torch popped and sputtered, casting her in a gold tone before she turned pink-and-white again. “Be careful, Claude. I’ll see you soon.” 

He nodded and watched her leave. Careful. He’d used the word as well, but what did it really mean? Don’t die, he supposed, but that was a tricky notion. Did it mean let others die in your stead, or did it mean instead kill all that stand in your way? None of the options spread before him seemed terribly heroic. 

Still, better to choose one of them when he was properly dressed. He slipped on his uniform and doubled it over with a thick jacket that would do better at repelling the winter air than it would a blade, but so be it — he’d never been one for armor, especially not the heavy stuff the westerners wore. Next came his quiver, tight packed, and his bow already oiled and taut-strung. He shoved on his boots last and nearly made it to the door before something petrified him in his tracks. 

Don’t forget. He could very nearly hear that booming voice in his ear, even with the years and the rolling mountains set between them. Don’t forget. Claude paced in a tight circle before turning backwards towards his bed. He crouched to his knees and shoved away the threadbare rug bridging the room together. Then he pried his fingers under one of the floorboards, wrenching it sideways with a creaking yank that clattered the nails free from their toothless anchor. He lowered further to the ground, his collar dragging against the crumpled rug as he groped into the shadows below the boards until his fingers brushed against what he was looking for. 

He slung the long scabbard’s shoulder strap over his arm without looking at it too closely. Better that he ignored it altogether. Be careful. This is what that meant, didn’t it? Don’t kill yourself for your own damned pride. 

The dawn sun had started to peek over the monastery’s walls by the time he made it to the gates. Byleth was there, just as Hilda had said, black-on-black in her armor and hovering over a spidery map spread across the dust of the marketplace. Seteth stood beside her, a lance gripped in one of his hands as he used its sharp point to signal at a square sketched across the parchment. 

“Professor,” Claude greeted her. 

“Claude. Good. You’re here,” she answered, looking only briefly from the map to signal that she knew he’d arrived. His smirk escaped him for a moment before he caught it again and smoothed it flat. 

“And so is the Empire, by the sound of it,” he replied, cocking his bow in the direction of the growing roar outside the walls. 

“Yes,” Seteth answered for her grimly. “The lay-folk have been brought into the monastery, but we will find ourselves in dire straits if we are besieged. The kitchens are equipped to feed students, not a village. Not for long.” 

“So you want us to dissuade our unwelcome guests from the idea?” 

“In so many words,” the man agreed flatly.

“Claude!”

He turned to see Hilda returned, and this time fully dressed. Marianne followed close at her side, serving as the conductor of the long queue of their classmates trailing behind. Claude offered them all a reassuring smile, charmed by their stern looks not quite well-paired with their bleary eyes and the tousle of their hair even as something sad settled low in his stomach. Here it is, he could have told them, and his words would have been the truth; the end of your youth, my friends. His had come too early, maybe, but theirs seemed right on time. 

“Everyone,” Byleth welcomed tersely. The group nudged closer, forming their usual circle around the woman, the silver clouds of their breath forming a halo above their heads. “The Blue Lions have formed a perimeter along the forward walls. We are to serve as support. Lorenz, Leonie, I’d like you on horseback. Marianne as well.” The trio nodded, the latter eyeing Hilda uneasily. “You two,” she added, jutting her chin at the lancers, “find Sylvain on the field. Better that you ride together. Ignatz and Lysithea, you’ll be on the walls. Your primary focus will be to provide cover for the rest of us. Claude and I will take the fore — Raphael and Hilda, the rear.” She skimmed the face of the map spread before them with her finger to trace out the arrow-shaped advance that they would take. “Be diligent. They have the numbers on us. Conserve your energy. The Knights of Seiros will be riding deeper into the field. That means that we are the last defense. You all understand?” 

“Yes,” they murmured in unison, the usual jittery energy that filled them prior to a battle lost now that they were faced with something proper and cruel. Claude’s lips thinned into another woeful smile. 

“We’ll see the day through,” he promised them. “The Empire has waged war on the world, not just on Garreg Mach. Let’s show them what the Alliance thinks about tyrants, eh?”

Raphael swung a fist into the air and barked out an affirmative sound. It seemed to break the spell that had bewitched them. They peeled apart after a final round of reassurances — Lorenz, Leonie, and Marianne to the stables, after Hilda had clutched the blue-haired woman to her chest and whispered something into her ear that had left them both pink-cheeked; Ignatz and Lysithea trailing up the stairs into the height of the walls — until only their meager vanguard remained.     

“I will offer support from above,” Seteth told them. Byleth nodded. Claude wondered if he was telling the truth — and just to whom among them the offer had been made. It didn’t matter. Their professor would protect them. He could see it in her eyes: a curse, almost, in the hard shellac of their pale color. His pulse quickened in his ears. 

“Let’s go,” she told him, and so they did. The world outside of the walls was full of smoke and blood. Claude scanned the rolling hills, his eyes quickly falling on the gold of Dimitri’s hair. 

“There,” he told her, signaling with the arc of his bow. She nodded. “We should go to him.” 

“Alright,” she answered. “I’ll cut a path.” 

“Byleth.” He called her name just before she’d crossed that invisible line that would toss all of their lives into sudden question. “We can rebuild a monastery. Alright? If the day turns, let them take it.”

Her face filled with a half-formed look that left him feeling restless. She didn’t reply.

Claude had never been one for regrets, and yet here his was — singular and all-consuming, his mistake of saying the wrong thing in a moment like that. This isn’t worth it, that’s what he’d really meant, his words blending with the memories of her legs tangled with his; the way she pinched the corner of her mouth together when she was embarrassed; the flicker of her lashes when she slept; the smell of her on his sheets, powdery and sweet. Don’t. Please. 

She stepped over the line. He followed after. A roar filled his ears — shouts, armor clanging, his own blood growing hot, he wasn’t sure. Byleth swung her sword into the shoulder of man dressed in red and Claude pulled an arrow from his quiver to make good on what she’d done. They fell together into that old rhythm that their ancestors had once made of killing things, and with Hilda and Raphael following after with their own take on the tune. 

It took a long time to carve their way to the prince but they arrived all the same, their necks wet with sweat and strangers' blood. Dedue had marched out a small circle of respite for them to fall within; that is, that was what Claude first thought with the sight of the man’s broad shield flashing in the sun. He danced forward to collect arrows from the field of the dead scattered around them, replenishing his quiver as Hilda finished with her brutal work of ending a man who’d made the mistake of following their path. 

“Alright?” Claude asked her as he stood, scanning her when he rose — the wet edge of her axe, the purple of a bruise blooming across her cheek. 

“Alright,” she answered, her shoulders heaving as she caught her breath. “I saw Leonie. Lorenz’s horse has died. He’s found another. They’re unhurt otherwise — Marianne as well.”

Claude nodded. 

“Good.”

He turned and watched as Byleth trotted forward to greet Dimitri. Her pace was stilled as the prince lunged forward to meet the advance of a cavalier carrying an eagle banner. Claude’s chest grew tight as he heard the knight’s mount begin to scream when Dimitri tore open its chest with the point of his lance. A low dread began to build in Claude’s gut as he then watched the prince tower over the unseated man, the butt of his weapon rising and falling again and again as he drove its sharp edge downwards. Byleth looked back at him, her eyes bright against the gloom of the battlefield. 

“Fuck,” Claude muttered under his breath, jogging forward to meet her. 

“Dimitri,” he called out when he arrived. The prince’s lance finally stilled as he stood from his hunched pose. 

“Ah, Claude,” Dimitri replied, his voice both hoarse and filled with an unsettling cheer. “You’ve come to hunt the rats as well, have you?”

Claude’s heart hammered faster as he eyed the wide, unfocused stare of Dimitri’s pale gaze. Fuck, he thought again. “I’ll let you take them, but their heads are mine. Do you understand?” 

Calm down, he should have shouted. Pull yourself together. Instead he snatched an arrow from his quiver and shot the man who had dashed forward to take advantage of the prince’s turned back.

Fuck. No time.  

Byleth agreed with the clash of her sword as she parried the advance of the fastest knight leading the next wave. They fell into their rhythm again, this time accentuated by Dimitri’s unfettered laughter and the ring of blows against Dedue’s shield. Raphael was nearly too clumsy, once, but was then rescued by the purple miasma of one of Lysithea’s spells. Claude tracked the time by how quickly his quiver emptied, replenishing it again as he dashed forward to pull his arrows from the men he’d killed to add again to his ledger. 

We’ll do this forever, he realized grimly as he stared over Byleth’s shoulders at the black mass of the army spread in the field below them. How do you kill forever? 

His question was answered by a sudden bone-rattling cry. It was enough to steady Dimitri, even, who spun on his heels to seek out the source of the sound. Claude felt his blood turn to ice as he spotted it first — a monster, pale and savage and towering, like nothing he had ever seen before; a wyvern, perhaps, but deformed by something profane. Dragon, a voice cried out inside him, flashing a series of images across his mind borrowed from his late nights in the library; dragon, dragon. Run. 

Dimitri’s pitched laughter filled his ears. Run. He notched another arrow and picked off a woman on horseback gaping at the monstrous sight. Run. He plucked another bloodied bolt from his quiver and stopped only when he saw Byleth turning. Had she heard the voice herself? If she had, she’d picked the wrong direction to run. 

“Hey,” he cried out as he snatched her by the wrist. “Where are you going?” His eyes flicked across her features, struggling to read her intent. There was something newly tortured in her eyes. A cold nausea built at the back of his throat. 

“I need to help her,” she rasped. He tightened his grip. 

“What are you talking about?” He had to shout the words over the winged beast’s newest cry. A ring filled his ears afterwards, although he didn’t need to hear Byleth’s answer to understand what she’d said. Her. It’s her. That thing, he realized, his stomach knotting. Of course. 

“Byleth,” he stammered. “Listen to me. You can’t trust her. She’s using you.”

Byleth flinched, her lips tightening into a scowl. And what about you, her eyes insisted. 

“I need to help her,” she repeated. She wrenched herself free from his grasp, her boots squelching in the mud as she danced backwards four paces.   

“Don’t go,” he ordered her. Her expression flickered for a moment before it settled into a furrowed and decisive look. “Dammit!”

She didn’t answer — simply turned and ran instead. Claude lurched after her and was steadied by the sudden flash of a lance. He slipped clumsily beneath it, jabbing his loose arrow in between the chinks of the armor of the imperial who’d needled the weapon at him. They clubbed him with their gauntlet as they fell, spattering his vision with stars. Somewhere he heard Hilda cry out at him. 

“Hold your ground,” he snapped as he found himself suddenly on his knees, the ice-cold mud sucking at him as he struggled to his feet again. “Hold your ground. Protect the prince.”

Raphael listened, lingering behind with his bloodied knuckles as Claude dashed forward towards where Byleth had gone. Hilda didn’t, damn her — bless her — her ragged breathing echoing in his ear as they crawled together through the melee. 

“There,” she snapped at him, pointing over his shoulder as they stumbled against the gutted body of a horse. He followed her finger to make out the green blip of Byleth’s hair. She’d somehow slipped between the bodies that had built a wall around them, already side-by-side with the beast that had once been the archbishop only hours before. “What is she doing?” 

“I don’t know. We need to bring her back.” 

How?”

He answered by notching another arrow and loosing it over her shoulder. Hilda rolled her eyes before turning to brandish her axe at the next endless wave of soldiers hunting them out. Claude’s shoulders had begun to burn with fatigue. He ignored it, his eyes settling on Byleth again. He spotted her for a moment longer before she was suddenly swallowed up by the charge of a pack of horrors tearing at her, huge and dark-scaled and wearing masks the size of the massive stones that built the monastery’s walls. 

“Fuck,” he gasped once more, forcing his legs forward. A pair of swordsmen clashed together to newly block his path. He staggered backwards, slipping in the mud as he notched his bow. Squinting, he found his target between Hilda’s own forward advance. She was good at it — killing things. A proper protege. 

“Come on,” she barked as she stumbled over the swordsmen’s bodies. He nodded and dashed forward, bending to pluck his arrow back from the meat of one of their shoulders before righting himself to draw it back and send it into the chaos of the crush of bodies swirling around them. Impossible, a voice warned him as his fingers groped for his quiver. This is impossible. Don’t be a fool. 

“Claude,” Hilda said to him after she’d scared off a wounded mage with the glint of her axehead. She seemed to have made the same realization herself. He nodded at her but wasn’t certain just what to say. He gathered up the breath for some sort of shallow reassurance, but it died in his throat just as he glanced upwards to catch sight of what they had been hunting. There Byleth was, not so far away, now — black and white against the brown mud of everything else. Claude felt his strained muscles turn to stone as she spun in her dance with her sword. For a moment a strange pride flickered in his chest, but it was quickly turned to horror as a sudden blast caught her off-guard. 

Maybe he cried out. If he had, his voice was swallowed up by Rhea’s harrowed shriek when they all watched together as Byleth was tossed like a doll towards the precipice of one of the ugly ravines that split the field. For a moment she caught herself. Claude’s pulse spiked painful in his veins. He was running, he realized too late; dipping between crooked arms and swinging legs with the inane hope of somehow catching her. A riderless horse nearly trampled him in his clumsy advance. 

That was how he missed it: the sight of her falling. He’d use the excuse of the horse’s flashing hooves to convince himself that it hadn’t happened for nearly two years afterwards. She escaped, he’d reason with himself in the dark of his room; it was all a ruse. But when he righted himself again after that horse had barreled past there had been nothing to answer his seeking eyes other than a bald cliffside. 

Wait, please, a voice had cried out then, young and boyish and familiar, the only sound in his ears; please don’t leave me behind. 

“Claude!”

Hilda finally caught up with him. The war caught up with them, too. No one else had stopped to watch Byleth disappear. Hilda swung her axe with a precarious swing of her arms, narrowly missing him as she batted a charging man off-course.

“Claude. Pay attention!” 

His eyes danced from hers to the muddied face of a man lying at his feet. Then they slung sideways over the pointed toes of a pair of armored boots; the bloodied feathers of a pegasus struck from the sky. He followed the patchwork of the dying to spot Dimitri again, his lance flashing too-fast in the gloom, again, and again, and again. Claude’s bow slipped from his fingers. It didn’t matter. His quiver was empty. He could feel it dangling uselessly at his back. 

Burn, an old voice whispered beneath the screeching of a wyvern above his head. Burn. Let it burn. It’s what you wanted. Don’t be a fool. Let it burn. It’s done. The voice, once cruel, turned soothing in his head. It’s done. It’s done. 

He shrugged his shoulder out of the strap hanging at his side. The sword was heavy, just as he remembered it. He let its scabbard fall into the mud. For a moment the sun glinted in its long blade, the only brightness left in that bloodied, muddied field. He was transfixed by the look of his green eyes reflected in the steel. Don’t forget, they told him. Something bestial inside him rejoiced as he found his grip against the cool leather of the hilt. 

Someone — a man, his short blonde hair mussed from the loss of his helmet — cried out in fury as they descended upon him. Claude swung his sword in a smooth arc that bit into the man’s shin and carved him upwards to the shoulder; through leather, through plate, through the sunburned skin of his throat. Claude shuddered as his Crest rewarded him for the stroke.

A monster, Cyril had called him with the intimacy of his mother tongue. Maybe. But here, covered in the mud of the field, he looked no different from the rest of them: Hilda and Raphael and Dimitri, and a thousand nameless men and women who would kill him if he didn’t kill them first. And with them rode a thousand different stories filled with mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, tender promises, heartfelt regrets. He felt his own hardening into a black stone deep within his chest as he swung his sword again. 

It’s done. Don’t be a fool. 

“Claude.” Hilda’s voice hissed into a rasping whisper as she staggered back to his side. Her eyes were wide and wild on the glittering hilt of his greatsword. So you know it, he wondered silently, watching her between the shuddering blur of everything around them. Maybe her mother had told her stories about it when she’d been a little girl too stubborn to retreat to her bed. Go to sleep, Hildie, or the reavers will come for you, too. “Claude. What the fuck.” 

“Keep your eyes forward,” he snapped. She didn’t. 

“What the fuck is that?”

He grunted in response, lurching forward to knock her sideways with his shoulder before a man on a dappled stallion ran her down. Something burned at his side when he did, but he focused first on cutting the rider loose from his destrier. The man’s blood spattered hot against his face. Claude moved to lurch onto the horse himself but was stopped by another sharp pang two hands above his hip. He loosened the fingers of his left hand from the hilt of his sword to seek out their source, and found them twining around the bolt of an arrow buried between his ribs. Irony, he supposed.  

“Claude!” A second voice cut through the din, this time accompanied by the drumbeat of hooves. Marianne circled her horse around him, her eyes already settled on his side. “Are you alright?” 

“It’s fine,” he said, and even if his words whistled as he said them. That meant that the arrow had found his lung, he wagered. Not good. Marianne seemed to come to the same conclusion. She frowned and cocked her fingers at him, worrying the arrow loose even at her distance. He winced but left her to it, watching as Lorenz stormed through the circle of men around them to cut down a few of his own. 

“Enough,” Claude added as he drew his first full breath. “That’s enough, Marianne.” 

“You’re not—” she protested, but he cut her short with the quick flick of his hand. 

“Save your energy. We need to retreat.” 

“Retreat?” Lorenz sounded incredulous from the height of his saddle. It was reassuring, really, that he was so difficult, even in a time like this. 

“Retreat,” Claude agreed. “We can’t win. It’s over.”

Another Imperial cried out as Leonie suddenly joined them, her lance bloodied to the grip of her hands. 

“Where’s the professor?” she asked them breathlessly. Claude shook his head. 

“It’s over,” he said again. “We’ll circle back for Raphael, and then to the monastery proper before it falls.” 

“Claude,” Hilda interjected bitterly, her eyes still leveled at his sword. “What about Dimitri?”

His jaw clenched tight as he thought of the named man. It was difficult, really, to picture him as he’d once been, silver in the moonlight as they stared together at the mirror surface of the lake so many nights before. A sweet, rare bird, he’d thought of him once. Another mistake. He felt his missteps piling high inside his chest, threatening to suffocate him. 

“He’s too far gone. The Kingdom will be the next to fall. We need to protect ourselves.” 

“Gods,” Leonie breathed, her face blanching beneath the grime. 

“Lorenz,” Claude continued, pivoting towards him. “Ride ahead. Find Ignatz and go with him to round up any Alliance members in the monastery. Merchants, students, staff — anyone hailing from Leicester. Tell them that we’re marching east. Bring as many horses for them as you can. Two to a saddle, and with as much provisions as they can carry.”

Lorenz studied him for a moment before he nodded, his face scorched and serious. 

“Alright. I will.” Lorenz tipped his head at him again before pulling back on his reins and making good on his promise.  

“Let’s go, then,” Claude told the rest of them. He likely owed them something more heroic, but they’d already let their guard down for too long. His sword sung through another set of men. Then he was joined by the sharp edge of Leonie’s lance, darting on horseback at his wake to clear away the men that meant to flank them. Hilda was no longer at his heels. He tried not to fixate on the idea as he carved a path backwards for them towards the monastery again. 

Maybe it’s better this way, he thought to himself as he staggered forward. It was certainly easier to kill the men before him with his father’s sword, hungry as it was. An arrowpoint required a vital source to draw a man down, but it was much simpler with a blade — just cut them down. Cut them apart. He let his mind drift as he worked, shuttering the less important parts of himself until he was nothing but a chestful of bitter air and a swinging pair of arms. 

They slowly mounted the hills ringing the monastery. First they found Raphael, bruised and tired but alive. Next they came to the fields littered with Ignatz’s yellow-feathered arrows. It was quieter there. They’d left as the monastery’s vanguard, and returned as harbingers of the Empire’s arrival. The soldiers who had been posted at the walls seemed to read the meaning of their arrival well. Their faces fell into grey shapes as they gripped harder at the hilts of their weapons, their eyes steadied and yet unseeing as they stared down the black mass slowly inching closer towards them from across the roiling landscape. 

It’s over, he could have said as they opened the gates for them. But why? Why waste the painful breath? They didn’t matter, not anymore. That’s how you survived a war. Compartmentalizing lives into important and irrelevant, and the former, for him, the exhausted young men and women at his heels who’d pledged themselves to his grandfather’s banners simply by virtue of where they’d been born.

“This is all of them,” Lorenz told them when they found him in the crowded marketplace. Claude eyed the ranks of frightened faces staring back at them. Too many, really; sixty, at least.

“How many horses?” 

“Twenty,” Lorenz answered grimly. Claude nodded. 

“We’ll do with what we can.” He studied the crowd again. They need you to promise them something, a voice inside him warned. Peace, safety, prosperity. It was an insane idea. How could he promise anything like that with the smoke of the fields burning their tongues? 

“Let’s go,” is what he told them instead. Somewhere nearby a little boy began to sob. Claude sighed and wiped his sword against his pant leg before he propped it against his shoulder like some sharp beacon for them to follow as they snaked through the monastery and towards the eastward walls. His mind filled with a buzzing snow from the silence trapped inside that ancient place. It was broken some time later when Lorenz trotted to his side. 

“Are you certain,” the man began below his breath, tipping his chin towards Claude’s ear as they walked side-by-side, “that it is wise to turn our backs on the Church?”

Claude glanced over at him and caught his eyes. He wasn’t looking for a fight, he realized; it was an honest question. 

“Yes,” Claude answered. “The Emperor has sunk her teeth into Garreg Mach. She won’t let go until she’s dead and we can’t kill her, not like this. This is what matters now.” He waved his free hand in the direction of their weary entourage. Lorenz dipped his head. 

“Very well.” His eyes flitted towards Claude’s sword before returning to his gaze again. “For now it seems that you and I are in agreement.”

Claude smirked. Lorenz would have made a good grand duke himself. Leadership was, after all, all about compromise. 

“It seems so,” Claude replied. Lorenz began to peel away. 

“I’ll see to finding you a horse.” 


 

They marched until the crescent moon was high in the dark sky. By morning they would make it to the border, but Claude knew that to push them any further before the dawn would mean that some of them would die. It was better to be cautious, and even if that caution meant pitching a tent between the scraggly trees in Charon's foothills. So they did, trading worried whispers as they arranged long bolts of fabric meant for coats into lean-tos instead, cowering over dim fires more to block them from the unseen Imperial at their heels than to enjoy their meager warmth. 

Once they’d all been settled Claude found himself alone in his tent, his legs crossed beneath him as he gritted his teeth through the work of sewing his side shut. Marianne had done well to keep his lungs airtight, after all, but her well-meaning magic hadn’t done much for the rest. Still, she’d saved many lives that day, and perhaps fewer if she’d focused on him instead. It wasn’t like he hadn’t found himself alone and licking his wounds before. 

He’d pinched two stitches into his skin when he heard a set of footfalls outside his crooked tent. Maybe he should have lunged for his sword. He focused on his needle instead, his eyes settling half-heartedly on the flap of his tent as the steps outside grew closer. He was admittedly surprised to watch a head of pink hair emerge from the shadows, followed beneath by a pale face first twisted with an anger that quickly dissolved into frustrated worry at the sight of him. 

“Honestly,” Hilda groaned. “What on earth are you doing?” 

“Hey, Hild.”

She didn’t answer, instead bowing forward beneath the low clearance of his tent to sit beside him and snatch the bloodied needle from his fingers. 

“You’re making a real mess of things,” she tutted. He sucked in a breath as she tugged the thread tight. “Is this from your uniform?” 

“A thread is a thread.”

“You’re such an idiot,” she scoffed. “Here. Hold still.”

He obeyed, holding his breath as she made quicker work of piecing him back together. She was silent as she worked, saying nothing even as she snatched sideways for his dagger to clip the thread once she’d finished with her stitchery. 

“Thanks,” he said afterwards, touching gingerly at the tacky skin at his side. She rubbed her fingers clean against her skirt before reluctantly returning her gaze in his direction. 

“Who are you?”

Her question came without fanfare. It was quiet, but not whispered, and neither was it soured with her anger. She might as well have asked him about the weather — or what was scheduled to be served for lunch. Blood, he would have answered if she’d asked that question. His lips twitched at the idea. 

“Of anyone,” he sighed in response, “you know me best.” 

“Don’t lie to me.” Her voice finally darkened with her warning. He nodded his head and stared at a spot between his naked toes.

“I’m the son of Rosalind von Riegan,” he told her after a pause, “and Khalil aba Rasham.” 

“The Almyran king,” she echoed breathlessly, her face falling. 

“The Almyran king,” Claude agreed.   

“That’s impossible,” she sputtered. “You’re... He’s... He killed my father.”

Claude dipped his head again. “I know.”

Her lips split into a snarl as she stood quickly to her feet. 

“You bastard. You lied to me.”

“Hilda—”

“Why? So that you could kill me, too? And then who next? Lorenz?” She tossed her hands into the air, crossing them tight against her chest afterwards with another a huffing cry. “Marianne? Clear the whole Roundtable for yourself, won’t you?” 

“Does it really look like I mean to kill anyone?” 

“Of course it does! How many people did you cut down today?”

His brow furrowed slightly. She was, as usual, quite astute. 

“Not from the Alliance.” 

“Not from the Alliance,” she snapped. “Alright, fine. Not today. But look at me truly and tell me that you haven’t killed a man of the Alliance before!” 

“I have.” Her building rage fizzled at his relenting honestly. She laughed a sorrowful, empty sound. “And your brother has struck down two of my sisters and a brother of my own, Hilda, and a friend as well. There’s no escaping it. We were all born for that sort of thing.” 

“No.” She shook her head. “Not like this. I wasn’t born to — to manipulate, to deceive. And everything you’ve told me,” she added, her voice quivering, “it was all a lie too, wasn’t it? From the very start.” 

“No.” 

“I vouched for you,” she continued, bracing her hand against her chest. “Did you think I’d never learn the truth about you? Or did you just not care?” 

“I was going to tell you.”

She laughed again. 

“When?” 

“When it mattered.” 

“It mattered from the moment you snuck yourself into the Alliance. Don’t fool yourself.” 

“Why?” Her lips twitched into a new defiant shape as he finally met her accusations. “And would you have really helped me if you’d known where I was born?” 

“That isn’t the point.” 

“Of course not. It makes things more complicated, doesn’t it?” 

Don’t.” 

“Hilda,” he contended, his eyes steadying on hers. “Let me tell you something honest. This, this ruse,” he said with a wave of his hand towards his chest, “the only way it works is if you tell the truth. Otherwise it will never hold together.” 

“Ha. And so am I supposed to be impressed that you’ve tricked me into thinking that you’re my friend?”

He winced at the accusation. 

“Of course I’m your friend.”

She didn’t look convinced.  

“Why are you here?”

He toyed with his new stitches. 

“For Leicester.” 

“Why?” 

“You know why. It’s for everything we’ve talked about. The Alliance has crippled itself — the infighting, the hypocrisy. Now more than ever, it will die if it doesn’t change.” 

“And wouldn’t that be convenient for you,” she countered, more a statement than a question. He shrugged his shoulders. 

“Almyra isn’t like Fodlan. I’m my father’s son, it’s true, but that isn’t much of a distinction. I’ve lost count of how many he has — and I’m not his firstborn, far from it. I’m owed nothing that I don’t take for myself.” 

“So you want to take Leicester, is that it?” 

“I’m not a thief, Hild. I’m as much my mother’s son as I am my father’s. If the Alliance doesn’t want me, so be it.”

She laughed another hollow sound. 

“Sure. And now that the Empire wants to grind us down, who else is going to vie for the seat, eh? It seemed to me that this has all worked remarkably well to your favor.” 

“Maybe,” he admitted. “War always has its spoils.” 

“Stop it,” she snapped. “Stop talking like this is some... some game! We could have died today! All of us!” 

“That’s why we need to stand together.” 

“Why do you care?” Her face wrenched into a tortured shape. “Why do you care about any of us?” 

“Because you are my friends,” he insisted, the word landing a little flat on his tongue. Because it’s better not to be alone is what he left unsaid inside it, but maybe Hilda could hear the words even if he didn’t speak them aloud. “I understand your anger. I didn’t intend to lie to you, Hilda, but I did keep things from you. Maybe I should have told you from the start. It makes no difference now. I will fight for you, even if you won’t fight for me.”

Hilda’s lips flinched tight. 

Why?” 

“Because we all want the same thing.” She barred her arms tight around her chest a second time. “My reasons might be different than yours, but that doesn’t change the endgame.”

She shook her head. 

“I would be a fool to trust you again.” 

“And I can only offer you the same promise as before,” he admitted. “Ask me any question, and I’ll only tell you the truth. Now and always.”

Claude watched her mull over a countless set of questions and braced himself for his answers, no doubt all some version of yes — did you kill, did you know, will you? 

“You saved me today,” is what she said instead, her voice tight with hesitation. She tipped the point of her elbow at his spidery sutures. “And nearly got yourself killed for it.”

He laughed. 

“I suppose so. I think it was a fair trade.” He heard her suck in a deep breath. 

“You need to tell them,” she added after another long moment. “About who you are.” 

“I will,” he agreed. “But not now. There are already too many variables in play. We can’t let them get distracted.” 

“But is that for you, or is it for them?” 

“For them,” he insisted. “I’m not ashamed of who I am.” Her shoulders tightened, a look of recognition finally brightening her eyes. “Besides,” he added as a final push, “I think Lorenz already knows. Let him do what he wants with the information. He can be my headsman.”

Hilda snorted. 

“I think he’d be too eager for the charge.” 

“You’re probably right,” he agreed with another laugh. “But so it is.” 

“So it is,” she echoed quietly, her eyes darting towards a dark corner. “Cl-” she started, her brow furrowing as she started his name. Her gaze returned to him, sour once more. “That isn’t your name, is it?” 

“What’s in a name?” He mussed his fingers through his hair. “No, it’s not my name. Not the one I was given, at least, but it’s one I’ve taken. I’ve become rather fond of it, to be honest with you. You can still use it if you like.” 

“If I like,” she harrumphed. “I’d like to call you many things. Claude isn’t one of them.”

He smiled lopsidedly. They stared at each other for a moment before she looked away. 

“The professor,” she attempted finally, her voice suddenly shallow. “Is she...?”

Claude nodded and did his best to ignore the way his throat grew tight at the idea. 

“She’s gone,” he told her. Somehow it was a better word than dead — more open-ended. After all, depending on who you asked they were all gone, wasn’t that right? So maybe it wasn’t so cruel that she was no longer there. Hilda must have held her breath. He heard her finally release it with a whispering gasp. 

“I’m sorry,” she managed. He glanced upwards into the cinched point of the ceiling. An aching split had begun to form in the juncture of his chest but he shoved it back together again and held it there until it seized into place. “...I’m sorry, Claude.”

“I’d prefer not to lose you, too,” he admitted. The words surprised him, raw and honest and unflinching as they were. They seemed to do the same to her. Her eyes glittered wetly in the candlelight. 

“Gods damn you,” she finally sighed, her words quivering in the air. He laughed and ran a palm over his face, shaking his head as he did. Gods damn you. Yes, he supposed they had. That didn't mean that he didn't have faith. 

Chapter Text

The forest was quiet. It smelled like pine: syrupy and fresh and frosty. He was both thirteen and twenty-seven in the same strange body. His boots crunched against the carpet of needles beneath his feet as he walked without a true destination in mind. He knew the wood well. If he were to take a right at the old stump ahead he would find himself at a shallow pond filled with frogs for the taking when his hunt for larger game failed. The leftward path led to a set of caves haunted by bats and the old bones of beasts and the men who’d killed them. There were drawings there as well, handprints drawn in negative with great fistfuls of scarlet pigment and the rudimentary sketches of wyverns soaring across the damp rock walls. It was always wyverns. A thousand different animals made their home in Almyra, but only those proud beasts ever seemed deserving of a song or an etching or anything worthwhile. 

Claude’s daydreaming was interrupted by the sudden sight of a shadow far ahead on the path. His heart danced faster with pleased anticipation as he read its womanly shape. There she is, a sunny voice told him; maybe spoken, maybe not. Go on. Catch up. His steady footfalls quickened into a jog as he threaded his way forward. 

The forest thinned as he followed her quicker, quicker, quicker, until his legs were burning and his breath was cold and rasping in his throat. Somehow she was faster. He could hear her laughter as she looked back at him in his chase. Catch up, ptiska, catch up.  

“I’m coming,” he cried out at her, his boots suddenly slipping against the loam. “Hold on. I’m coming. Wait for me.” 

He spilled into an open field of dusty red clay. The forest’s coolness had disappeared, replaced with the dry heat of his childhood. He felt himself begin to bake beneath the kiln of the unforgiving sun, his eyes still steadied on the waltzing path of the woman who’d left him behind. Just a little faster, he coached himself. Just try a little harder. 

Why are you running away, he should have asked instead. He never did; focused instead on the endless pumping of his legs as the soles of his shoes began to melt. The sun burned ever hotter. He heard the shoulders of his shirt crackle and catch fire. The flames licked hungrily at the spill of his long hair before turning to dance down his back. It hurt, the way the fire spread in a wicked lacework from his nape to the lowest divot of his spine. He hated it. Why did it always have to happen like that? 

Because of you, a voice replied. The sound of it was unfamiliar and yet he felt as though he knew it well. Because of you, because of you, because of 

“Fuck,” he gasped, lurching forward into the dark gloom of his bed. A soft voice beside him mumbled in annoyance, matched with the creak of the mattress as its owner turned drowsily away. Claude rubbed his fingers over his face and sucked in a deep breath. A dream, he realized, his stomach curdling at the memory and at the cold sweat that had left him soaked; just a dream. A childish indulgence. A waste of time. He sighed and cocked himself sideways to push away the thick curtains drawn around the bed. 

It was later than he had at first imagined. He blinked wearily at the sunlight streaming through the window. It would have been better if he’d left it open. No wonder he was dreaming of burning alive. Summer had come with a vengeance for Leicester that year. He would have dedicated more of his worry to the idea if the brittle, empty fields ringing the capital city hadn’t already been abandoned. The Alliance had been given the luxury of farmers for perhaps three years longer than Faerghus, but now the Empire had finally begun to turn its unblinking eye eastward, and so Claude had transformed Leicester’s farmhands into soldiers with the flick of his pen. Their conscription had been covert — a tricky task to accomplish, and even then only made possible because the nobility’s bickering was so loud — and well-rewarded. In her most recent letter Leonie had bragged that even the clumsiest between them had begun to understand how to swing a sword. 

Claude padded to the corner of his room where his wardrobe lurked, creaking open one of its doors to hunt out an outfit for the day ahead. He’d pulled both legs through his trousers before he heard the crinkle of the bed’s drapes being drawn again. 

“You were talking in your sleep,” Petra told him, her voice a mixture of amusement and concern. He turned quickly to face her before offering her a lopsided smile. 

“Was it something clever?” 

“I don’t know.” She slunk to the foot of the bed to collect her dressing gown. “You were speaking in Alymran.” 

“Pity,” he replied, his voice all cheery shellac. “Give me the benefit of doubt, won’t you?”

She hummed noncommittally as she joined his half of the room, leaning towards the mirror propped atop his desk as she wrestled with her thick hair.

“The heat here is not normal,” she complained. “In Brigid the sea blows in cool wind. Here it is like the water sucks it out.”

A breath of laughter rumbled in Claude’s throat. 

“Could be.” 

“I do not like it.” 

“What do you like about Fodlan?”

She glanced over at him with half-lidded eyes. 

“Not so much,” she admitted. He laughed properly this time. She was a strange creature, this Brigid princess: proud, strong, bright, but unpredictable as well. He’d always assumed that she’d resented Edelgard’s gilded leash, but her defection to Leicester had still surprised him. In the two years that had since passed he’d come to better understand its toll. Even in the intimacy of his room, which he so often shared with her, he could see it in the darkest parts of her eyes — that loss, immeasurable and relentless, which had no doubt directed her into his sphere instead of allowing her to finally retreat home. 

Maybe he’d marry her. No doubt she’d pondered over the same idea. It wasn’t clear if Brigid would be a boon or an inconvenience, however, and so he hadn’t, at least not yet; and maybe she wasn’t convinced if Leceister would survive, and so neither had she pushed the point herself. There wasn’t any real urgency to it. She was in his bed more often than she wasn’t, after all, but almost always only for the women she’d brought along. Moreover, her people were of the type that knew the proper plants to steep if their rare tryst produced anything ill-timed. 

And she didn’t love him. That much was clear. He didn’t think she’d love anyone, not anymore. That right was reserved exclusively for her green-eyed ghost, who she’d left buried in a frozen field somewhere between Enbarr and Myrddin; the price of her escape. Poor Dorothea, they’d all agreed when they’d welcomed Petra into their ranks. They’d misunderstood the point, of course — it wasn’t the dead who deserved pity, but the ones they’d left behind. 

He tried not to think about these sorts of things too closely, anymore.

“I’m leaving Derdriu,” he told her as he buttoned his shirt. “For a week, maybe two.” 

“When? Today?” 

“Today,” he agreed with a nod. She smirked. 

“You are always doing things so hastily.” 

“We’ve been doing nothing for five years, Petra. There’s no harm in doing something from time to time.” 

“And this something — is it a danger?” 

“Why ever would I throw myself into danger?”

She cocked a brow at him. I’m not stupid, her eyes promised him. He laughed.

“Well, in any case,” he continued, “if Leicester finds itself without a duke in ten day’s time, do be nice to the Duchess.” 

“Maybe she will treat me better than you.”

Claude grinned as he finished his last button. 

“And here I was thinking you were about to tell me to be careful. But maybe you’re right.”

Maybe she was. Hilda had always been fond of Petra, even at the monastery. She had a good eye for that sort of thing. Not that Hilda would ever desecrate the sanctity of her bed with Marianne for a third party — princess or otherwise — and never, in a thousand years, for four. Claude eyed the blonde hair tumbled between the cocked curtains of the bed. For all of her talk about equality, he didn’t think that Duchess Goneril would be so keen to invite barmaids to her chambers, either. Better for Petra to still bet her chips on him. She traced his gaze and offered him a second smirk. 

“I’ll fight for Leicester if you die,” she added as he hunted out his shoes. 

“That’s very romantic.”

Her smirk faltered slightly. She didn’t like it when he talked like that; maybe because she knew his words were hollow, maybe not. But he didn’t like it when she picked out blue-eyed girls, either, so it seemed as though they’d both broken a rule in the past twenty-four hours. “Be well, Petra. Don’t let Hild trick you into taking on more than your fair share.”   

“Be careful,” she finally offered in reply. Claude smiled and swept into a low bow. 

“Farewell, princess.” 

“Duke Riegan,” she acquiesced. 

He offered her another wide-spread smile before he turned and hunted out the door. The hall outside was no cooler, regrettably, than his room. He did his best to ignore the sweat beading fresh on his nape as he made his way along the corridors that would lead him to his days ahead. Scullery maids in neat grey-and-gold uniforms curtsied hurriedly at him as he passed them by, with each in turn offered a cheery greeting, or a wink, or a smile. 

The Riegan manse’s staff, like the staff of any noble household, was prone to gossip. It had been the stuff on which Claude had first tested his Fodlanese ear. In those days seven years before they’d always busied themselves with rumors about his grandfather’s ill humor — the way that he was always complaining that his food was too cold or improperly spiced; the evenings during which he’d over-serve himself from his endless stock of brandy, and how he’d curse and sometimes topple over things to break; and the fact that he’d become accustomed to talking to his son ever since the doomed heir had been buried in the willow-filled graveyard outside. 

They rarely chattered about the old duke now, relegated as he was to some mountainside estate that was well-manicured, well-appointed, and well-distanced from anything important. He’d been the one to put himself to his own self-exile, leaving behind his title and his storied bow and a gruff order for Claude to protect the people who’d always shielded his blood before. From the rat-catchers’ whispers about him, Claude had already known that he would be clever in this regard. He was the type of man who would live to one hundred, given the chance; knowing exactly when and where to run when the walls were closing in on him. 

Now the staff gossiped about their young new liege instead. As they polished silver cutlery and arranged thinning floral arrangements for the halls — often substituting them with clever sprigs of hay and wildflowers, now that the stock of better stuff was withering under the sun — they would prattle on about how quick he was to slip an extra coin to the boy who shined his boots; about how he’d deftly settled the matter of one of the cook’s girls growing thick with a squire’s child, and to the benefit of both parties; and how he’d denounced a knight who’d grown too familiar with another maiden from the kitchens; and how he was handsome and no doubt a little wicked, the way that that bewitching woman from Brigid was always slipping through his bedroom door. 

They only rarely talked about the war. This had been nearly as difficult to achieve as balancing Leicester’s old houses against one another and yet, with careful orchestration, both had been done to great effect. He let himself bask in the warmth of his success as he approached ever closer to the far more dire challenge that now lay ahead. 

Claude slowed his advance as he came to one of the open walkways linking the manse’s wings together, his eyes peeking over the balustrade to catch a glimpse of a pair of pastel-colored heads bowed together in the gardens below. He could just hear the birdsong of Marianne’s voice as she and Hilda broke their fast together — apples and cheese and bread, from what he could see, a more austere meal than Derdriu was famed to offer, but more common now that austerity had become court-ordered. Hilda was quartering the apples for them while Marianne read from a little book. He felt an honest smile scribbling across his lips as Hilda took a break from her cutting to tuck a strand of hair behind the other woman’s ear. 

In recent years they’d become more bold. They were still stiff and collegial before the eyes of strangers, of course, but in these familiar places they’d begun to relax. That was the reward of loyalty, he’d learned; give enough goodness to the people around you and they’ll give it back to you as well. This applied to gossips and household knights as much as it did to anyone else.  

The reprieve he’d offered them within the safety of House Riegan’s halls had done a great deal to repair his relationship with Hilda. In many ways it had made the bond between them stronger. She knew most everything about him now, although his revelations had always been carefully curated. Still, it was fascinating to him how pervasive Fodlan’s bespoke prejudice was, and how he still saw a shred of sharpness in her eyes when she looked at him, sometimes, her eyes settling on the contrast of his skin to the cream of everyone else’s, or how they narrowed in the rare moments when he was overtired and his accent began to slip. 

In those instances he felt himself doubting the very foundations of everything he was trying so carefully to build, his thoughts meandering from cultivation to the far simpler methods of slash-and-burn, but he’d catch himself each time. He’d gotten better at it. Maybe that’s what it meant to grow old: moderation, patience, indulgence. Maybe that was why his grandfather was always drinking all alone. 

Claude turned and danced down the final set of steps that would lead him to the airy bestiary where his black-scaled wyvern slept. He thought again about Petra’s parting words as he carried on. Hasty, she’d called him. Yes, he supposed it was an apt description. It would have been better for him to eat first, or perhaps to at least wash the salt from his skin; or to double back and greet Hilda and Marianne and tell them of his plans; or to quickly scribe a will and testament, and this perhaps the most important out of everything else. But he was hasty — yes, that was the proper word. And whatever was the point of all of that bother if he was just going to die? 

“Claude,” Lorenz greeted him, surprised, his perfect coiffure just visible above the neat-combed mane of the pegasus he was worrying over. Claude cocked his hand at him as he trotted to meet him at the center of the wide circle that connected the stables to the bestiary, itself built of a neat mosaic of painted stones that formed — unsurprisingly, and with which most other things in the Riegan’s possession were adorned — an image of his spindly, crescent Crest. 

“Good morning, Lorenz. Making a new friend?” 

“She’s one of the yearlings,” the other man offered as a half-reply. Claude eyed the creature — her coat healthy and shimmering under the sun and nearly as beautiful as the long pinions of her wings — before looking back at Lorenz with a nod. “A fine mount. I would suggest that we begin to consider whom among the new companies would do well to ride her.” 

“I’ll entrust that to you,” Claude answered with a wink. He clapped his palm against Lorenz’s shoulder and was pleased to see that it earned him a scowl in response. 

“You’re going somewhere,” Lorenz suspected. He paused his work with his brush to turn to face him more properly. “Where are you going?”

Claude waggled his fingers at him. 

“I just have some business to attend to,” he answered with another wink. “Try not to let the Alliance fall while I’m away, will you?” 

“Business. And what sort of business is that?” 

Important business.” 

“Important business north?”

He didn’t mean a day’s jaunt to take tea with Holst, of course. Claude grinned. As much as Petra had surprised him with her loyalty, Lorenz’s allegiance had nearly knocked him from his feet. It had been, against all reason, only further strengthened by Claude’s reveal of his foreign ties. Part of him suspected it was because Lorenz appreciated the honesty, and that he had been reassured by Claude’s commitment to minimizing the Alliance’s casualties to petty squabbles instead of wars; and part of him also wagered it was because he didn’t have very many different options, and none of them better than his current plan. 

“As it so happens, yes. I should return in two weeks’ time.”

One of Lorenz’s paint-stroke eyebrows rose high. 

“You can’t be serious. Two weeks? And how are we supposed to explain your absence for such a period of time?” 

“Come now. Surely even a man like me is due some time away,” Claude countered. 

Lorenz frowned. 

“Not during a war.” 

“And yet that’s the only time that one would need it, don’t you agree?” 

“No,” Lorenz insisted, crossing his arms into a harsh X across his chest. “I do not. And what would you propose we do if one of Edelgard’s generals learns of your absence in Derdriu?” 

“Lorenz,” Claude drawled with a laugh, “I appreciate the idea that I can somehow hold the entire Empire at bay — very flattering — but I know you’re just being kind.” 

“That isn’t what I mean,” he retorted with a narrowing of his eyes. “You need to consider the bigger picture.” 

“I am.”

Lorenz’s lips twitched as Claude settled his gaze on him, his green eyes devoid suddenly of the well-crafted mirth that had filled them a moment before. He heard Lorenz draw in a breath. 

“Fine,” he muttered. Claude gave his shoulder a collegial squeeze. 

“Good man. If I overstay my welcome northside give Hilda a hand, won’t you?” 

Claude studied Lorenz for his reply. No doubt a piece of the man was cringing at the idea that Claude had not extended his shrouded offer of succession to him instead — but then he must have known as well that such a thing was impossible. It wasn’t so much Lorenz’s fault, his sometimes insufferable moods withstanding, but rather his father’s. Count Gloucester was still stubbornly clinging to his title even as he bowed his head at Edelgard’s feet. There had been no hope, therefore, for Lorenz to win the votes for the dukedom those five years’ past. 

Holst, on the other hand, had gladly offered his little sister her own place among the peerage, and despite the fact that they’d all known she’d never win the grander seat herself. I don’t need to be a duke to be a general, he had written to her in his slanted hand; it’s just collecting dust up here. Besides, Duchess Hilda has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? He’d sent her his fearsome axe to properly convince her, even, and although she’d been bashful for it at first in her own haughty sort of way, Claude had watched her become comfortable wielding both in the years that had followed after. 

“As you wish,” Lorenz sighed, rubbing his thumb over the bristle of his brush as he watched Claude sidestep closer to the wyverns’ lair. If only that were true, Claude thought, bemused. He gave Lorenz a final salute before he spiraled off to find his mount. His saddlebags were waiting for him there, packed by his own hand the night before with more forethought than his morningtime departure. He shrugged on a thick-batted riding jacket before turning to greet his wyvern, a mischievous creature of middling size who’d proven herself in a number of heretofore clandestine missions in all directions of the compass rose. She snorted at his petting fingers. 

“Get on with it,” he chuckled. “Alright. I understand.”

Claude led the wyvern from her roost and out into the yard. Lorenz watched him wordlessly as he slung himself into his saddle and spurred her into a launching run. With two great beats of her wings the manse had shrunk to dollhouse size. He watched as Derdriu, in all of its glitter, began to shrink to a sooty shape against the brown earth as well. So small, he thought as he climbed higher, the air shifting from stifling to shuddering cold; almost like it isn’t there at all.   

 


 

Claude found Faheem in the shade of the water garden’s lemon trees. He was at the center of a semi-circle of chattering women all draped in gauzy robes, himself included, and all of them sipping at tea poured from a kettle chilled with chips of ice gathered from the great sweating blocks stored in the cellars deep below their feet. For a moment Claude was transported to a time when he’d been younger, his feet in that same spot, and the version of him then apt to interrupt his brother’s gossiping sessions shared with a different iteration of equally beautiful concubines. He smirked at the memory of their blushes at his once-cocky approach, all of them well aware that the king turned a rare blind eye to Claude’s poaching from his sighing stock. Had they been charmed, he wondered now, or had they just been afraid?  

“Kal,” Faheem started, staring at him with some surprise over the delicate lip of his cup. “You’re here.” Claude grinned. The women eyed him uneasily, their fingers flickering over the neat hems of their clothes as they readied themselves to retreat. 

“I’m here,” Claude agreed. “Don’t tell me that you don’t think I’m a man of my word.” 

“Never,” his brother sighed. He settled his cup back on its saucer before turning sideways to nod at the women at his hip. “Go on, then. I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for today.”

The group broke with the same flutter as a flock of birds taking flight. Claude watched them leave before he stepped forward to take their place. No doubt the news of his return would soon make its way to the throne room. That is to say, he only hoped that it would.

“Are you really going to do this?” Faheem asked. 

Claude huffed a breath through his nose as he reached forward to snatch one of the women’s abandoned cups. The cool mint of the tea was like ambrosia on his parched tongue. 

“Let’s not play this game. I don’t know if you’re aware, but I have a war to return to at home,” he said. 

“That place isn’t your home,” Faheem insisted lowly, frowning. Claude laughed and shook his head. 

“How long will it take?”

His brother looked away, his slender fingers crushing a cube of sugar into dust. 

“Two days. No more,” Faheem replied. 

“You’ve spoken with Madan?”

Faheem nodded. “He’s agreed to your terms, but not without a price.”

Claude nodded as well. He’d expected no less of Madan, his black-eyed brother born from Auntie Aya, the eldest of her brood and the third son born to their father some thirty-odd years before. Madan had never been as quick to mock Claude or Faheem as the others, but that didn’t mean that he would help him out of simple fraternity, either. 

“No matter,” Claude sighed. He took another sip before he leaned back against his elbows to glance over the late-afternoon shadows spattering the gardens around them. The trees were as lush and green as always, even despite the heat. He supposed that was how forbidden things were meant to look. “I’m ready. It’s time to begin.” 

 


 

As it so happened, it took two days for his father to take notice of him as well. Claude decided to interpret this as a good omen as he dressed himself in the clothes he’d once worn in a different life, them looking so strange without the dark veil of his hair. It was a full moon that night. The light of it had turned the city silver in the dark. That too, he determined, was fate smiling on him — or perhaps offering him a pretty sight before the end. 

It wouldn’t be so bad, really, he convinced himself as his boots echoed against the palace’s airy corridors; not so bad a way to go. 

He found his father in the Red Room, so called because the stone walls had been plastered and painted a dark scarlet that flattered the tall paintings hung along their lengths. It was a more intimate space than the audience hall where his father usually greeted his guests. When his mother had been feeling particularly diplomatic they’d dined together there, sometimes. Now the table was set for two and empty, his father lingering at a window instead; back turned to the door as Claude entered, his arms clasped at the base of his spine as he no doubt admired the quicksilver of his city as well. 

“There you are,” the king offered finally as he turned. “I’d heard rumors that you’d come back, boy. Took you long enough to show your face.”

Claude bowed stiffly at the waist and stared at the points of his boots. 

“Forgive me,” he replied. “It’s been so many years since I last returned. I’ve found myself quite nostalgic for all of the old sights.”

His father laughed. 

“I’m sure you have.” He waved at the table. “Go on, then. I hear that Fodlan is starving. Come have your fill.”

There was a bounty waiting for them, that much was true: a full hog trussed and roasted, its skin burnished and split with a half-dozen crisp seams; jewel-pink planks of fish fillets dotted with capers and cream; pyramids of potatoes and yams and turnips all toasted whole and dripping with butter. In Derdriu Claude made a diet out of skinny hares and dandelion greens. There was no doubt that he was hungry — no, in fact that was quite the evening’s theme. 

The king sat. Claude followed after. A serving girl danced forward to portion cuts of pork for them, her carving knife glittering in the lights of the candles circling overhead. Claude watched his father watching her. He looked a little older, his dark hair finally spiked with grey; the creases at the corners of his eyes deeper than they’d been before. Claude had heard that he’d been busy in the years that had followed since his departure. Almyra was richer from his bounties than perhaps it’d ever been before. 

“So,” the king began. “What a game you’ve played, eh, Duke Riegan?” Another girl appeared to pour their wine. She flinched as the king lurched forward to snatch a radish from the center of the table, popping it into his mouth before he began to laugh. “All those years I’ve tried to put that bastard down, and you do it in a season. Pity, the war fucking up all of your good intentions. A good lesson for you.” His muted eyes settled on Claude, trapping him in place. “You’ve always got to look at the bigger picture, boy.” 

“You’re right,” he admitted with a nod. His father laughed again. Claude had wondered if he’d forgotten the sound, but his memory of it had been perfect— loud, low, growling, like a beast calling out from its den. 

“That why you here, then?” The king twisted a bite of crackling from the hog and crunched it between his teeth. “Come to beg your dear old father for his support? I could do it, you know— for the right price. The companies’re stronger than ever and hungry for blood. No doubt they’d love a trip into the Fodlanese countryside. Would you like that, boy? Would you like me to solve your little problem for you?”

Claude answered by taking a drag of his wine. His father grinned before matching him with a gulp of his own. It left the faintest stain on his lips as he studied his son again.  

“No,” he realized aloud, his voice dipping into a deeper register. “No. That isn’t it, is it? Look at you. I can see it in your eyes.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “It’s worse than ever, isn’t it, that appetite of yours? Don’t think I don’t recognize it. I always knew, you know.” He set aside his goblet to plant his elbows against the table, his chin slotting into his broad palms as he steadied his gaze on him from atop the gnarled ridges of his knuckles. “I always knew. The second that you came wailing into this world like some beast possessed. Out of all of my children, I knew that it would be you. Rosalind’s son. Why else would I have given you that name, eh? Khalil.” 

Claude felt his brow furrow. It had been a long time since he’d heard that name. His parents were the only ones to use it, the rest of them paring it down to K-a-l out of either jealousy or anger. King Khalil had thirty-two children between his wives and concubines and conquests, the sum having grown by six since Claude had left Sakhavan behind. Of the thirty-two he’d sired, he’d only given one his name.  

“There is so much of me in you,” his father continued fondly. His eyes whirled flat and empty above his gripped hands. “But not enough. You were always too impatient, even as a little boy. Do you really think that I would have been foolish enough to believe that I could take Almyra at twenty-and-seven?” The king unknotted his hands to swipe at his goblet for another gulp. “You’re strong. Clever. I see it in you. But I’m not an old enough man for you to yet cut me down.” 

Claude’s heart had begun to race inside his chest. He swallowed against the tightening of his throat, keeping his face flat and calm even as a little voice inside him screamed out for him to run. 

“I know.”

He earned another belt of laughter from his father’s breast. The sound was bold and booming at first, but ended premature with a rasping choke. His father frowned and touched at his lips, drawing back his fingertips to examine the dark speckles that had stained them. His eyes slunk upwards again to settle on his son as another smile replaced the one he’d lost. 

“Of course.”

His proud voice had already been folded into a croak. It must have been difficult to speak against the burn furrowing his throat. Claude could feel it, too: the wicked claws of his brother’s poison ripping eagerly at the soft flesh of everything their wine had touched when they’d both swallowed it down. His lips must have begun to blister, just like the king’s already had. Claude tried not to look at it — to keep his gaze focused on that deep blue pool of his brown eyes instead. 

“Of course,” his father repeated, slumping bonelessly into his chair. “Of course. That’s right. I always knew.”

Claude forced his numbed arm to push his plate from the table. It was an inelegant signal, of course, but hopefully it would work. That, or he would prove himself to be an even greater fool than Hilda had ever predicted him to be. 

“I always knew that it would be you, Khalil. My son.” 

Claude felt his head lull to his right shoulder. The chair beneath him fell away, and the world, too, alongside it, until he was just a mote of something burning in the midst of nothing at all. He hated it. Why did it always have to happen like that?

“Kal. Kal. Don’t close your eyes.” Something cool and strong pressed against his face. It pushed his lips apart and filled his mouth with a bitter dram. He flinched and struggled limply against the taste.

“Swallow it.” He didn’t want to. It would just hurt, too. “Come on.”

The cool touch brushed against his brow. It was gentle. Maybe he could trust it, just this once. The ball of his throat bobbed as he forced the horrid liquid down. As it hit his stomach it lurched him sideways, the black of everything he’d been floating in breaking into a startling array of lights too bright to see. 

“Alright. You’re alright.”

He felt the press of lips against the crown of his head. There were fingers brushing through his hair, lifting it from his sweat-slicked skin. Right. Wake up. Where are you.

His eyes traced the blur of his legs outstretched against the floor. There was something broken beneath one of his palms. He summoned the strength to slowly lift his hand to inspect it, frowning at the shards of crockery that glittered against the umber of his skin. Next he looked beyond the spread of fingers — his fingers — to the dark figure crumpled in a nearby chair. 

“You bastard,” he heard Faheem growl. His voice was strange. “You monster.”

He was no longer talking to him, Claude realized even as Faheem’s fingers continued to comb through his hair. He could feel his brother trembling despite how he managed to keep him propped upright. 

“Finally got what you fucking deserved.” 

Faheem’s antidote had already begun to chase away the fire inside his chest, but it had been replaced by a hollow ache that pulsed alongside his heartbeat. Claude sucked in a ragged breath as he felt his eyes growing hot. So that’s what it was, he realized as the hole inside his ribs grew ever-larger. That night all of those years before when his father had let Salma die made manifest again, but this time under different terms. Here was why he hadn’t struck out at his father in the name of his brother’s retribution, revenge not just for Salma’s slit throat but for every unspeakable thing he’d done to him; and why he hadn’t made good on the promise in his father’s eyes to kill the son who couldn’t avenge the death of his own mother. He loved them. Faheem and his father. He loved them both. 

“Enough,” Claude gasped. He lurched away from his brother’s grasp. Nausea struck him as he stood. He retched a mouthful of thick black tar onto the floor and rubbed it brusquely from his lips with his sleeve. 

“Kal,” Faheem warned him, rising as well. “Wait. You need to rest.” 

“There’s no time.” His eyes flickered between the terrified faces of the serving girls pressed against the wall. “Go on,” he ordered them hoarsely. “Do as you were told.”

One of the girls nodded timidly before they both darted away hand-in-hand to find the boy who would bring news of the king’s death to Madan’s door. 

“Kal,” Faheem insisted again, this time softly. “Just for a few minutes. You’re half dead. What are you going to do like that?”

Claude cast a final glance at his father’s body — at his smile still scribed across his lips, limp where it had once been so coyly drawn — before he turned towards the door. 

“What needs to be done.” 

“Kal!” 

Claude left his brother to his revenge. The halls outside were empty with the quiet calm that comes before a storm. He swept through them, his body still stiff and dragging, and was grateful that his destination was not so far away. No time to crumple to his knees. No time to think about what he’d done. 

In another kingdom perhaps he would have sought out his father’s crown to assert his coup, but the kings of Almyra had never had a taste for shiny things. They all simply craved power, and there was no power like a monster — surely his father had taught him that. And while his father’s sword had earned him notoriety, his kingship had been carried solely by a pair of white wings. He’d loved his wyvern enough to even give her a name: Dalya, which meant Wisdom on High, a poetic name at first blush if one didn’t consider that his father’s wisdom had always been blood. 

She was as cruel as her master and three times the size of her peers, her scales ironclad and bearing at least sixty years of toothless scars across them. His father kept her deep within the belly of the palace. She was known to eat the mounts of his men, otherwise, which had proven troublesome for their morale. The king had been the only rider she’d tolerated since he’d first broken her in some distant wind-swept place thirty-some years before. He’d been the only one to feed her as well, but there had been two boys who had once charmed her enough to survive her lair — a snake and a mouse daring each other to creep ever closer to her in their boyhood games until the younger brushed his fingers against her nose and was left with bruised knees after she snatched his lure of a wrung-necked chicken from his fist and thanked him with a crooning cry. 

“Dalya,” he muttered now as he shouldered open the thick door leading into the cavernous bowl of her lair. Her white scales glimmered under the flicker of the braziers studding the perimeter of the room. She eyed him from the coil of her repose. At her age she should have boasted a broad rack as well, but his father had always kept her horns ground flat. Claude had never understood why. Not that he could ask him the question now. He frowned and fished his dagger from beneath his collar, wincing as he added to his endless aches by slashing a line across the back of his hand. She’d smell his father’s blood in him. It was a convenient shortcut to taming her, especially since crawling onto her back might have otherwise meant his end. 

“Easy.” He crept closer and replaced the dagger with a set of keys Faheem’s girls had procured for him the day before. Dalya watched him as he slotted the first into the lock tethering her from taking flight. He cast away one thick chain and then the next until she was unburdened. She stood slowly, then, waggling her head testingly as she worked her sore muscles loose. Claude was careful not to turn his back to her as he hunted out her saddle and the pack that Faheem had hidden for him there beside it earlier that afternoon: a jacket to wear against the cold of flight and his father’s damnable sword. The sight of the latter made his breath catch in his throat. 

Enough. You can’t stop now.  

He tossed the saddle over his shoulder and wrenched the rest along with him as he returned to Dalya’s side. A deep growl rumbled in her chest as he hoisted the saddle to her back and began to cinch the clasps across her belly. He paused to smear the blood at the back of his hand against the scales of her neck. That settled her enough for him to finish off his task. He gritted his teeth and allowed himself a final cringing thought (what if I’m wrong) before he leapt to her back, strapping his thighs into the saddle and then urging her upwards towards the locked door at the crest of the ceiling that would let her loose. He thumbed the final key along its ring as she struggled upwards into the flat air. 

The moon would be bright outside, but the sky would still be black — as black as everything he’d already done, and what was left for him to finish before he could claim the capital as his own. He shut his eyes as Dalya sunk her claws into the curve of the ceiling. It didn’t help to settle his nerves. The space behind his eyelids was just black, too. 

Claude pushed the key into the lock and tore open the door. Dalya screeched with pleasure and lurched forward through the round, her wings drawn tight against her rider for a moment before they finally spread open into a full draw. For a moment Claude was breathless as she began her climb. She was faster than anything he’d ridden before. The beating of her wings was enough for him to be thankful that he wasn’t riding her barebacked. His head spinning from the height, he peered over her side to eye the spiderweb of Sakhavan below them. There were already torches in the road. Word was beginning to spread of what he’d done.    

The notion was confirmed by the screeching cry of another wyvern in the air. Dalya answered it with a bestial howl. He let her seek out the challenge, already knowing what she’d find. Men were no better than animals, after all. When they smelled blood the basest of them would always crawl from their holes to try to win it for themselves. 

The riders that came for him first were from his father’s personal guard. They were fearsome on the field, but in the air their mounts were no match for Dalya’s dagger-filled maw. She tore the webbing from their wings before the men astride them were able to notch their bows. Claude watched them tumble to the earth before he turned in his saddle to seek out the bat-wings of those that would come next. 

He forced Dalya downwards with the grip of his legs when he recognized Madan’s gold paint striping the horns of the the beast that emerged from the gloom of the horizon line. He was followed after by four other riders — his full-blooded siblings, all sisters and just as skilled in the air as their eldest brother, if not more. Their mother had always favored Claude when he’d been a boy. He hadn’t been surprised when her children had answered his call to arms, although he had still been relieved. 

“You’ve done it, then,” his brother wondered aloud as he flew close enough for his shouted voice to carry to his ears. “Is it as we discussed?” 

“Yes,” Claude called out in reply “Go to the palace. Take it for me and it will be yours.” Madan glanced down at the sprawl of what he’d been promised before looking back to him again. 

“You’ve really done it.” This time he sounded nearly sad. Claude ignored his tone; wrestled Dalya sideways instead. 

“Go on, Madan.” He wasn’t certain if his brother said anything further to him before he made his dive. It didn’t matter. Claude watched as his sisters followed after Madan before he urged Dalya upwards again. Even if they weren’t so convinced that Claude would make a better king than their father, they were desperate for Sakhavan. Auntie Aya had fallen from their father’s favor eight years prior, and with it her children had all been sequestered into one of Alymra’s meanest hinterlands. In exchange for their disobedience, Claude had offered them the capital — after all, he had little use for it, and less if he failed at dethroning the king. 

Dalya shook him from his thoughts with the twirl of her body. A new rider had arrived — the one he’d been waiting for. Parvaz, although they all called him Stone-Eye; his father’s second-born and eldest-living son. 

“Traitor,” Stone-Eye howled over the wind. Claude drew Dalya backwards and away from the range of his keen bow. “You’ve stolen what’s mine, Kal!” 

So come and take it, he might have growled back in response as a different man. Instead he coached Dalya into a dive. It didn’t matter what brave words he spat in his elder brother’s direction. If he killed him the rest would fall in line. If he didn’t, everything he’d done would have been for nothing other than to soften Stone-Eye’s own path onto the throne. Stone-Eye was a better shot than him, always had been, so Claude hadn’t bothered with his bow. Instead he drew his sword and threw his fate into Dalya’s speed as he snaked her towards the belly of the wyvern stalking them out above. 

One of the Stone-Eye’s arrows punched a hole through Dalya’s right wing. She shrieked in fury before swimming ever-faster in the wind. Claude’s vision blurred from her pace. Another arrow flitted in the lucky space above his shoulder and below his ear. Bowing lower against her back, he urged her onwards in her chase, his chest aching for the hunt nearly as desperately as hers must have as well. Drag him down, drag him down, drag him down. 

Stone-Eye’s wyvern was cruel and hulking, but even she was no match for Dalya. They clashed together, all claws and wings, his brother’s shots growing clumsy as he tried to cast them off. A wash of something hot and cloying spread over Claude’s lap as Dayla’s hooked talons found purchase in the second wyvern’s flank. The creature howled in agony, which only urged her on. Claude was lurched forward as she snatched at the other’s throat, locking it between her jaws as she began to flail her head from side to side. 

He was close enough to hear his brother’s frustrated snarl. Claude used the advantage of Stone-Eye’s dying wyvern to loosen the ties lashing him to Dalya before standing shakily upwards under the point of his sword. His first strike missed. Dalya cocked her wings and nearly brushed him from her back. It was enough for Stone-Eye to notch another arrow. This one found its target in the triangle of Claude’s left shoulder. 

“Fucking mongrel!” Stone-Eye barked the words even as he struggled in his seat. His wyvern had begun to fall, held aloft mostly by Dalya’s greedy claws. “All of this — it will never be yours!” 

“It will be if I want it,” Claude groaned in reply. His sword bent low in his grip, his swing half-ruined by the arrow splitting his shoulder apart. His brother laughed. He sounded like their father. 

“Never. You’re owed nothing, you little monster. Time for you to go back to crawling on your belly.” Stone-Eye loosened the buckles of his saddle, moving to leap to Dalya before his wyvern truly fell. He was too proud. That was why their father had beaten him. His vanity had always blinded him, and from the very start. It was, Claude decided in that moment, terribly ironic. 

Claude leaned sideways to snatch his brother by the arm. His teeth gritted from the tear spreading beneath the arrowhead, but still he slung his sword into Stone-Eye’s unprotected side. It bit through his jacket and into the skin beneath. Claude’s stomach churned as dark beads of blood began to drip down the angle of his tipped blade, itself bright in the light of the moon. 

“You,” he thought he heard Stone-Eye say before he forced Dalya off from the dead wyvern out of which she’d begun to make a meal. The wyvern and Stone-Eye both quickly disappeared. Claude groaned and sank back into his saddle, his grip trembling against his sword. It was underwhelming, really. Part of him was convinced that they should have grappled until dawn, and them the bastions of the things their father could have been; his past and his future, his cruelty and his power. But it was just killing. Killing was always the same. 

Claude steered Dalya back towards the palace. He could hear the roar of his greeting even before they’d arrived. So Madan had made good on his promise as well. Claude steeled himself with another breath before he turned Dalya into a winding spiral around the palace’s heights. 

“Khalil aba Khalil! Khalil aba Khalil!” The crowd beneath him cried, the palace yards littered with their glittering swords. Some of them were swinging torches — others, the glinting things they’d already looted from the palace. Khalil aba Khalil. Khalil, son of Khalil. Claude’s stomach tightened as he spotted a body hanging from the forward wall. And what was so unlike between them, really? He’d been convincing himself that he was somehow different, better, for years, and yet here it was — the call-and-response of the crowd as cyclical as everything else he’d always done. Running away and stumbling back. Saving one life just to snuff another out. Don’t forget, his father had once said, and him a living legend — a villain pulled from some written page. Now he was just a body dangling from a wall. Claude tightened his grip around the horn of his saddle and forced Dalya upwards again to hunt out the windows of the Red Room he’d left behind. 

He broke one open and tumbled inside, leaving Dalya to find her own reward in whatever poor creatures she hunted out. The Red Room was empty and quiet and was still adorned with their tainted feast. Claude took two steps forward before his knees turned to jelly and spilled him across the floor. A flash of grey filled his eyes as the arrow still lodged in his shoulder bit deeper into his flesh. 

“Fuck,” Claude groaned as he rolled onto his back. He stared listlessly into the glow of the chandelier above his head. It was a shame, really. He hadn’t hated Stone-Eye. He’d been a horrible man, of course, but Claude knew plenty of them. Besides, maybe he didn’t have the choice, not since their father had beaten him half-blind. How could anyone be anything but cruel in a place like that? And why had it been so easy — fratricide, regicide, patricide? Wasn’t there something uniquely wicked about that sort of thing? Why was it that Sothis or some other white-garbed goddess hadn’t dashed between them to steady his hand? 

There was a sudden noise outside; not in the halls but against the walls. Claude shut his eyes. He should have stood to fight, but his limbs had rallied against him. Sleep, sleep, they begged him, still half-poisoned and newly bruised and bleeding. Maybe he should have listened to Faheem. A smile lifted the corners of his lips at the idea. Yes. He always was so clever. Poor old Faheem. 

“Claude!” 

His eyes flashed open and were filled by a sea of blue hair turned nearly purple against the glow of the scarlet walls. It took all of his focus to fight the urge to push her away. The effort made his head spin. Oh. Well, maybe he was dying. It certainly made sense for his starved brain to make an angel out of Marianne. Better than those uptight statues left to ruin in Garreg Mach, at least. 

“For fuck’s sake,” came a second voice, decidedly less angelic. Claude’s eyes watered as he felt a sudden burst of pleasant nothingness spread along his bloodied arm. “Honestly?” 

That final question broke him from his reverie. Groaning, Claude lurched forward onto his elbows, forcing Marianne onto her heels as he gaped at Hilda while she carefully crawled from the back of her pegasus outside and through the broken teeth of the window. 

“What,” he managed, his exhausted mind struggling to force the change from Almyran back into Fodlanese, “the hell are you doing?” Hilda smirked as she trotted forward and knelt between his crooked legs. 

“Hello to you, too, asshole,” she replied without any venom. Her brows knitted together as she eyed the wound Marianne was still busy worrying over. 

“What are you doing here,” he spat, this time more fully-formed. Hilda offered him a sad smile. 

“Do you really think you can just tell everyone to let Hilda take care of things and I won’t chase you down? Seriously. You must know better than that.” Claude laughed incredulously before he slumped backwards again. 

“You shouldn’t have come here,” he told her, and was answered by her belabored sigh. 

“Obviously,” she tutted. “Do you know what a hassle it was to track you down? Maybe you managed it incognito, but we’re a bit more conspicuous. And then we finally find you, and you’re tearing away on some sort of monster — spooked poor Lilyflower, to say the very least. But listen. All of this is nothing compared to the bother of running a gods-damned country — I’m not letting you stick me with that. So,” she added, her voice finally betraying her as it lurched into a waver, “be more careful next time and maybe, oh, I don’t know, actually tell me what in the hell you’re doing.” 

Claude’s eyes slipped from Hilda’s flustered gaze to the toppled legs of his father’s chair. 

“Sure, Hild.” He flinched as Marianne’s hand slipped from his shoulder to gently brush a finger of grime away from his cheek. 

“It’s a heavy burden, isn’t it?” Marianne’s voice was nearly a whisper. Claude felt his chest grow tight. He kept his eyes steady on the chair. The velvet of her riding jacket crinkled as she learned forward to press her lips against his brow. 

It’s heavy, he would have agreed if she’d really wanted to hear his answer. It’s heavy, but it’s mine.    

Chapter Text

They met together the morning after. It was a strange sight to behold: Claude and his brothers Faheem and Madan sitting along the stairs leading up to the empty throne, with Hilda and Marianne between them like the punchline of some old joke. There‘d been animosity between Hilda and his brothers when they’d first been introduced thanks to her surname, but it‘d quickly been surmounted by the pretty gems strung through Faheem’s ears. Now Hilda was turning one of his glittering earrings between her fingers with the quiet wonder of a jeweler’s appraisal as Faheem looked on with pride. 

“Peridot,” she admired. “Do you mine it here?” 

“No,” Claude sighed, still sore and exhausted and somewhat dizzy from the vertigo of their motley assembly. “There’re no mines in Almyra. They’re traded.” 

“Stolen,” Faheem corrected him with a sniff, recognizing that final word even in Fodlanese. He took a sip of his fragrant tea, mirrored after by Marianne, who was as taciturn as ever. “By pirates.”

Hilda looked impatiently at Claude for his translation. Claude realized in that moment that despite all of the effort, his first morning as king was to be far less grand than he’d imagined. 

“Pirates. Pirates take them. Probably from Morfis.” 

“Pirates,” Hilda echoed. Her family had been hunting them for years, and yet with their bounty in her own hands the thought of them seemed to have been transformed from larcenous into fantastical. “You do trade with pirates?”

Claude smiled thinly. 

“We take them from the pirates.” He combed his fingers through his hair and took a moment to stretch the aching muscles of his back. “Let’s talk about Leicester, shall we?”

Hilda nodded reluctantly, turning at the waist to return Faheem’s earring with a smile wide enough to bridge the gap of their mismatched language. 

“You’re coming back,” she answered when she swiveled towards Claude again. Perhaps her words had been intended to be a question, despite the conviction of their delivery. Claude’s smile began to warm. 

“Of course I am. You’ve already made your view on that matter quite clear. I’ll ride back with you as soon as possible.” 

“We should go back today,” Hilda countered. “Lorenz will’ve pulled out all of his hair by now. There’s been some movement in Hrym since you left. He thinks they’re looking for a secondary approach through the mountains to try and flank us on both sides. Count Gloucester has been more noisy than usual, too. You know how unbearable Lorrie gets when that happens.”

“Well, as entertaining as that all sounds, we do have some work here to complete first,” Claude replied. He leaned against the edge of the step behind him and glanced in Madan’s direction. “The convoys,” he then said to him in Alymran, “when will they be ready?” 

“A day — this time tomorrow. I prepared them as you asked. Barley and flour and cheese,” he counted the words out across his fingertips, “and enough salted fish for you to wish you’d never seen fins before. Some fruit as well, if you’re quick enough.”

Claude nodded. 

“Good. Thank you.” He faced Hilda again. “We’ll leave tomorrow, perhaps the day after. I’ve arranged for some supplies for us to accompany back to Derdriu. It would be an awful waste to let them go to bandits instead.” 

“Supplies,” she repeated experimentally. “What kind of supplies?” 

“Food. I can’t promise you caviar and chateaubriand, but it should help with what we’ve lost.”

Hilda’s lips twitched into a frown. 

“You’re bringing Almyran goods into Leicester?”

Claude felt the first drumbeat of a headache beginning to build between his ears. 

“Well, technically they’re from all over. We’ve never really been a people known for salted fish. But yes. That is the idea.” 

“You took the Almyran throne for salted fish?” 

“Among other things, Hild,” Claude laughed.

“But what about the people here?”

He appreciated the notion, but waved away her worry all the same. 

“Almyra has more than enough. My father’s reavers saw to that.”

The slack draw of Hilda’s amazement drew into a scowl. 

“Reavers,” she muttered. “It’s stolen.”

Claude sighed and fought the urge to rub at his eyes. 

“Everything is stolen in Almyra.” 

“So you really think that it’s alright to feed the people of the Alliance with the work of thieves?” 

“Thieves because the Throat has been closed to trade for over eighty years,” Claude contended dryly. “We... Almyra,” he corrected when her eyes narrowed at the collective term, “has no ships, and if you can find a field that’s not filled with sand it’s all just clay. One way or another, people will find a way to feed themselves.” Hilda glowered at him for a beat longer before looking away. “We need the food, Hild. You know it as well as I do. What happens when winter comes? We’re already into the last of the spring harvest, and I know that you’re just as tired of eating sawdust as I am. Almyra means full stomachs for as long as we protect the Throat.” He heard her sigh. 

“Holst is going to lose his mind,” she muttered.

“Not if his favorite sister writes him to let him know about an unexpected windfall,” Claude countered with a wink. She didn’t see it, of course, but at least she didn’t immediately disagree. 

“So we go back to Leicester tomorrow,” she grumbled after a pause. “What happens here? Don’t you want to play king?” The idea made his chest grow tight, although he didn’t let it show. 

“Not yet,” he said. “Almyra isn’t like Fodlan. People might call me king here in Sakhavan, but the rest of the hinterlands will still need to be convinced. My brothers will help them come to terms with the idea.” He nodded first at Faheem and then at Madan. “There are eight provinces in Almyra, and half are held by my siblings. Once they learn that— ” that I’ve killed our father and Stone-Eye both, he should have said, but he couldn’t quite manage the words, “the capital has fallen they should fall in line. The rest will follow, but it will be a slow business. We’ll have to be patient. In the meantime we’ll have supplies and troops as well if the Empire gets more greedy.”

Hilda bristled. 

“You can’t bring Almyran reavers into Fodlan!” 

“Not yet,” he agreed once more. “And we don’t need to, not if Leonie’s being honest in her letters about the enlistments. But if the war goes south on us there’s no harm in being prepared.”

She finally steadied her eyes on him again. 

“You always have a plan, don’t you?” He nodded. She frowned, her gaze darting to Marianne before returning to his own. “Fine. If you’re so convinced... I trust you.”

His lips teased into an honest shape. 

“Thanks, Hild. I can’t do it without you.”

Hilda stood and brushed her palms across her skirt, the throne room filling with the rasp of her drawn-out sigh. 

“Of course you can’t. Why else do you think I’m here?” 

 


 

“Are you sleeping with her?”

It took Claude a moment to process just exactly what his brother had said. He focused on the warmth of the baths instead, eternally grateful for the sweet-scented water as it slowly worked the tense muscles of his shoulders loose. 

“Who?” He mumbled the question reluctantly, eyes closed, his attention drawing chiefly to the drip of drops formed against the ancient tiles above their heads. 

“That woman,” Faheem replied. Claude heard him fumble with the assortment of soaps and fragrant oils arranged in a nearby alcove. “The one with the rose-colored hair.”

Claude snorted a breath through his nose. 

“Hilda? No. She and Marianne — you didn’t notice? The one who came along with her.”

His brother hummed in the affirmative as he continued his discerning hunt. 

Ah. She’s very quiet, that one.” 

“You don’t speak Fodlanese,” Claude drawled in reply. “What the hell did you expect her to say?” 

“But she is quiet, isn’t she?”

Claude snuffed again and sunk deeper into the water. He had to give his brother that — he’d always been exceptional at reading women. It would have been a dangerous power bestowed to different hands. 

“Yes,” he admitted lazily. “She’s quiet.” 

“She seems very sad.” 

“Everyone in Fodlan is sad.”

He heard the water splash and ripple as his brother joined him in the pool. It was large enough to fit three dozen men — no doubt it had countless times before. Now it was just them hidden in the steam. He supposed there was something fateful about the moment. No matter that all he wanted to do was slip his head under the water and disappear into the great still nothing waiting for him beneath. 

“And what about you?”

One of Claude’s brows crumpled into a crook at his brother’s question. He smoothed it straight. 

“What is that supposed to mean?”

The older man was quiet. 

“You and Father,” Faheem managed finally, the usual lilt of his voice dissolved. Claude’s eyes flashed open and centered on the shape of him in the subterranean gloom. “Are you alright?” 

“I’m fine,” Claude snapped. 

“I know that it was different,” his brother insisted quietly. “Between the two of you. He was always fond of you. It must not have been easy to—”

“He’s dead,” Claude clipped icily. “Just like you wanted.”

Faheem’s face darkened. 

“That wasn’t what that was. Don’t play the fool, Kal. It’s never suited you.”

“You like me better as a king, is that it?” 

“I like you as you are,” Faheem countered in a bolder tone. “As you’re meant to be. And I’ll help you get there, even if you hate me for it.” 

“Isn’t this enough?” Claude showered the surface of the water with tinkling droplets as he gestured with his hands. “Madan’s always listened to you. You’re as good a king yourself. Why not just enjoy yourself for once?” 

“Is that really what you think of me?” Faheem’s voice had turned icy, nearly cruel. So he can do it, too, Claude thought, bemused. “That I should just sit in the gardens eating sweets with the girls until I’m old and grey? Our father’s broken things? How pitiful we are, aren’t we? Better to keep us locked away.” 

“Faheem.”

“And all the while, your Hilda is stealing little boys from the border and turning them into things like me.” 

“It isn’t like that.”

“What is it like, then?”

Claude thought briefly of Cyril, some grey rag gripped in his hands, and the way his eyes had always filled with blank wonderment as he’d stared at the letters scribbled across the blackboards he’d been tasked to clean. 

“We’ll change it,” he answered, his own voice having lost its bite. Faheem sighed. 

“Of course we will,” his brother replied. “That’s what all of this was for. All of these terrible things. So let me help you.”

“I’m letting you help me.” Claude steadied the bitter beating of his heart. “I appreciate your help,” he tried again. That seemed to make it worse. 

“It wouldn’t kill you to be honest with me,” Faheem tried. “You should talk to someone. About what happened. You’re not some monster, Kal.” 

Aren’t I? It was a poor choice of words. How many times had he heard that phrase? And maybe he owed Faheem an answer, but instead Claude lowered himself deeper into the water until it had crested over his ears. He heard the mumble of Faheem’s voice as he chided him for the move, but he focused instead on the steady beating of his own heart reverberating in the pool. Ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump. At least if it was beating it meant that he was still a man. 

 


 

Claude left the city to his brothers the morning after, trading in Dalya for his black-scaled wyvern again. He left the former in Faheem’s care, who looked a little green at the charge; still, better than swooping back into Derdriu astride a creature featured in the darkest chapters of Fodlan’s recent history, Claude wagered — and it wasn’t like his brother couldn’t manage it, his harrumphing notwithstanding. Besides, there was more to it than making sure that the wyvern was (not too) well fed. All of Almyra knew that the two brothers, for all of their differences, were nearly one in the same. As long as Faheem and Dalya lingered in Sakhavan, Claude’s newly-earned crown would hold fast. 

He reassured himself of the idea once more as he and his western-born companions escorted the supply train towards the teeth of the mountains that had once separated them. Hilda and Marianne shared the saddle of their pegasus well. Claude wondered how often they rode together like this — not to war but to kinder things. Perhaps they’d made a habit of trotting below the naked branches of the orchards outside Derdriu’s gates, whispering promises to each other about everything they’d do once the war had come to an end. White dresses. Flowers in their hair. 

The idea made the breath catch in his throat. And what would he do once the war was over? Return to Almyra and convince his prickly countrymen that their age-old work of plundering had come to a decisive end; make merchants, coopers, tailors out of cutthroats and other breeds of black-hearted men? And did he really expect them to kiss the hands of their new compatriots — those silk-and-velvet-wearing knights and dandies who had once enslaved their sons, and from whom they’d made trophies of pared fingers and skinned scalps? 

The ache that had been lingering behind his temples swelled to a new pounding crescendo. Thinking about his ambitions like this had once filled his chest with a crackling charge, but now the same aspirations were a yoke that threatened to break his shoulders. Claude forced a lungful of freezing air through his lips. It was never supposed to be easy, he reminded himself; don’t lose your stomach for it now. 

As it so happened, they accomplished the once-impossible task of passing through Fodlan’s Throat in a single afternoon. Holst was suspiciously absent from welcoming their convoy, but the knights he’d left behind greeted his sister warmly all the same. It was better that way, really — gave them no excuse to linger. Claude peeled three carts from the train to leave behind as a gesture of good faith. He did not miss the look of quiet relief shared by the guardsmen as they eyed the crates of apples and sackfuls of flour already smelling like the bread they’d one day bake. 

With the once-impregnable walls of the holdfast behind them, they made the journey back to Derdriu in record time. Their train grew ever smaller as they traveled, splitting at each crossroads to bring those acrid little fish and rounds of cheese to Leicester’s different great houses. Soon only twelve carts remained, a few apples short thanks to the draft horses that had drawn them forward. The tallest steeples of Derdriu’s toothy skyline had appeared on the horizon when Hilda teased her pegasus closer to Claude’s side. 

“Do you want to go back before we continue on?”

He didn’t bother to hide his confusion at her question. 

“Continue on to where, exactly?”

Hilda shared a quick glance with Marianne before she offered him a shifty smile. 

“I knew you didn’t remember,” Hilda replied. Claude leaned back into his saddle, tugging his wyvern steady as he tried his best to read Hilda’s smug expression. “And here I thought this was part of your grand plan. It’s been five years, Claude. To the very day.” 

“You’ll have to be more specific,” he argued, doing his best not to let his pounding head turn his voice sour.          

“The monastery,” she told him with a theatrical sigh. “You made us all promise to return. Don’t tell me that you’re going to go back on your own word?” He offered her a rueful smile. 

“Hild, that was a long time ago.” 

“Five years,” she repeated, taking from his example to flick a wink at him for once. That made him laugh. 

“You told me that Lorenz was about to pluck himself bald, and now you want us to take a leisurely stroll through the monastery?” 

“It would be an improvement,” Hilda teased. “But when has Lorenz ever broken a pledge? None of them will, you know. Surely they’ll all be there. Listen. It will be good for morale.” 

“Garreg Mach is in ruins,” came Claude’s dry counterpoint. Hilda shrugged.

“Ignatz loves ruins.” 

“It would be so wonderful to see everyone again all in one place,” Marianne piped in. “It’s been... what, a better part of a year since Leonie went south, isn’t that right?” 

Claude had become a master of a thousand different things — knowing when he’d lost was one of them. He sighed and rolled his eyes. 

“Alright. You’ve twisted my arm, Hild. But don’t complain to me when our little jaunt requires some heavy lifting.” Hilda blew him a kiss as she turned her pegasus off-course. 

“Thank goodness I’ll be surrounded by so many strong, brave, capable men!”

 


 

Claude had been impressed by the monastery when he’d first been ushered through its gates. Derdriu’s architecture was finer, it was true — but the capital’s elaborate canals and filigreed ironwork were fresh and new, and Garreg Mach was built from something far more ancient. It had reminded him of the old villages set deep within the caves a day’s ride from Sakhavan. Ever since he’d been a little boy he’d liked exploring old places like that; the mystery of them. There was a game in upturning dusty artifacts and piecing together what they could have possibly been. A broken vase once full of flowers plucked for a blushing sweetheart; bent cutlery once used to break bread between old friends. A seat of power filled with hidden doors and statues staring blankly at him, built with the pretense that he’d always be the lesser to their haughty gaze. Cichol, Cethleann, Macuil, Indech.  

They were all still there. Fodlan’s ransackers had a strange sense of piety, it seemed. The cathedral was ruined, of course, much like everything else, but it looked like either Edelgard or Rhea had seen to the crumbled roof themselves. The pews were still in one piece, not yet hacked to kindling. The tapestries still hung from the wall, moth-bitten as they were, ready in their perpetual duty to teach him right from wrong. He could nearly hear the echo of the choir in the broken rafters. It made his headache worse. 

He left Marianne and Hilda to their rummage of the stables — be careful, he’d chided them, and to the roll of Hilda’s eyes — before tracing through the cathedral and then through the Orders’ quarters, starting with the austere cells of the cloth before climbing up the stairs. Seteth’s private rooms were tidy even under five years’ of dust. Rhea’s were grand. Claude ran his fingers over the thick weave of her vestments still hung and waiting for her. They tracked next over the lush velvet of her bedding now moldering and filled with the carapaces of the many-legged things that had taken her place. There were no secrets there for him to find, although he’d had little expectation for them. It was just another gilded cage. 

He thought about the simple shapes of his father’s throne as he descended the stairs again and trailed out into the yard. His eyes then settled with some reluctance on the shadow of the Goddess Tower. It had always looked as though it was ready to collapse. No doubt it would be a death sentence to summit it now. He glanced backwards towards where Hilda and Marianne had gone before drawing in a breath and pressing on. 

He found more cobwebs, and rubble, and the lacy leavings where a set of snake had shed their skin. To be honest, he wasn’t certain what else he had been expecting. Promises meant something, he’d learned. Promises had bound him and Hilda together, for instance, but they weren’t made from faith. They were a negotiation carefully tracked and regularly paid out. As much a sacrifice as a gain — a mutual favor, like all things diplomatic, political, and conniving. Promises were, above all other things, entirely distinct from wishes. So what was behind all of those hopes and dreams whispered by the endless parade of students who had once come there to speak them aloud? 

Naivety, he supposed. Fear dressed up in the finery of hope, a boy whimpering into his pillow don’t leave me behind. Claude picked carefully across the floor to linger at the open space where a window had once been. The morning sun was bright and cheery. It was cooler there in the heights of the crags that protected Garreg Mach than it was in Derdriu’s sweltering cove. He tried to appreciate the gentle breeze and the glitter of the lake, but his eyes settled instead on the sea of sunken roofs circling his perch. 

It was a shame. Maybe that was what had stirred that sore in the pit of his stomach awake. Yes, it was a shame that the monastery had fallen, but everything fell, in the end, and then they were just broken things to be wondered over in a different time. This is where they prayed to a devil. This is where they prayed to a god. This is where they prayed, and now they're all gone, gone gone. 

He closed his eyes in a hopeless attempt to soothe his pounding migraine. At least it made it easier for him to hear the sudden clip of footsteps against the stairs. They were too careful for a bandit, and so he didn’t slip his fingers to bow strapped at his back. He’d have to commend Hilda for getting better at sneaking around. Or was it Leonie? He liked to think that under different circumstances he could have made the distinction by the sound alone, but with that endless thunder filling his skull he had to be contented with his conclusion that his interloper was slight, and quick, and quiet.

“Bored already?” He turned with his question. Ice crackled over his skin when he saw her standing in the crooked arch of the door. His bruised brain stuttered as his eyes slipped from the cool mint of her hair to the black sheen of her plate, and all of it exactly as he had remembered it so many times before. She looked confused. His mouth grew dry.   

“Byleth.” 

He’d once imagined it — finding her again — until his daydreaming had rubbed him too raw to think about it anymore. She’d give him one of her rare smiles, he’d decided; or maybe she would cry, and not that horrible, silent sobbing that she’d once shown him in her room, but something interrupted with bewildered giggles and I’m-so-glads. I’m so glad that you’re alive. I’m so glad I found you. I’m so glad you’re here. 

Now she said nothing at all, and offered him nothing but that same flat stare she’d once flashed at him when she’d stumbled upon him unexpectedly between her lessons when he’d been a younger man. You’re here, that stare amended for him from his cobbled dreaming. What are you doing here? 

“You’re late,” he managed finally, forcing the rasp of his voice into a cheerful tone. She stepped a few paces closer to him, her eyes settling on his clothes. Maybe she doesn’t know, he reasoned, his heart beating faster in his chest. Maybe she’s lost her memory. The idea seemed too derivative from some hackneyed fiction to be believable, but it was better than the truth. It’s been five years, a voice inside his throbbing head reminded him; and for all of that time you spent looking for her, were you really never clever enough to realize that she wasn’t looking for you?

“Claude,” she replied, more a question than a greeting. The hammer of his heartbeat quickened for a moment longer before it was suddenly hushed calm. He swallowed something bitter before he offered her a smile. 

“You must be hungry,” he answered with a wink. It was the only thing that came to mind. They were all hungry. Wasn’t that right? 

 


 

“I still can’t believe the Professor is alive,” Hilda twittered as she bit into a pear. Claude nodded and rubbed his eyes. “Where do you think she’s been?” 

“She says that she was sleeping,” he answered, his gaze still steady on the spidery maps spread before him. Hilda made a doubtful noise. 

“For five years?” 

“That’s what she’s said.” He dipped the nib of his pen into an ink pot and sketched his coded shorthand along one of the maps’ blue coastlines. 

“And here I would have thought that you would have taught her to be a better liar.” Hilda’s smirk faded slightly as he peered up at her from across the desk. Seteth’s desk, in fact, and still in proper stodgy condition, if a little worn. There was some sort of justice in having stolen it, despite everything else that had happened. “Sorry,” she added, setting her half-eaten pear aside. “She really told you that? That she was just... asleep?” 

“She did. I don’t know. Maybe she’s telling the truth.” 

“That’s crazy,” Hilda said. He cocked his eyebrow at her. “Although I suppose she’s always been a bit strange. And what are you writing, anyway? You told me that you wanted to speak with me,  but you’ve just been scribbling out your memoirs over there like I’m not even here!” 

Claude smiled. He’d learned that Hilda chattered like this when she was worried about him. He appreciated her kindness, although it felt unearned. 

“Word will spread about what’s happened. I’ve already received a message that imperial troops have been spotted west. We’ll need to work on fortifying the walls. I thought you might like to supervise.” 

“Of course not,” Hilda scoffed. “Give it to Raphael.” 

“If you can convince him,” Claude conceded. She laughed. 

“So that was your plan, was it? To get me to do your dirty work?” 

“It’s called delegation, Hild.” 

“Fine, your Majesty.” 

“Don’t do that,” he replied too quickly, his chest growing tight. He saw her flinch even in the dull light of the candles sputtering between them. 

“Sorry,” she mumbled again. “Say... is everything alright?” 

“Well, surprisingly, I think we’re actually in a fairly good position. I’ve asked for reinforcements from the capital, but even without them, if we can manage the walls we’ll—”

“Not that, Claude. What happened in Almyra... and then the Professor...”

“It’s fine,” he retorted curtly. “Almyra went as planned. Everyone is thrilled to have the Professor back. It’s like you said — morale, right?”

“Don’t lie,” Hilda said with a frown. Claude sighed. 

“I’m tired,” he admitted. “And my head is killing me. Let me fix that and then we can talk about Almyra, or the Professor, or whatever you like.”

Hilda studied him for a moment longer before relenting to his proposal. 

“Fine,” she muttered as she stood. “That means you’re going to sleep, right?”

He smiled thinly at her fists-at-hips glower. 

“Soon! Soon, I promise. Go on ahead, Hild.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. He swore he could hear the tapping of her foot from beneath the desk. 

“Fine,” she grumbled again. “But if I still find you here in the morning I’m telling Raphael that you volunteered to rebuild the walls yourself.”

Claude laughed and waved her off as she skulked backwards towards the door. Then he turned to his maps again and ignored the way that the scribbled roads and dotted towns had begun to blur. What did it matter? He hadn’t been sleeping well for days. A few more hours in Seteth’s gloomy office wouldn’t make a difference in shoring up the cleft in his time slept. Alone again, he allowed himself a ragged sigh as he rubbed his knuckles into the sockets of his eyes. This was why, he’d convince himself later, he didn’t hear the creak of the study’s door. 

“Claude.” 

Byleth’s voice still sounded the same. He wasn’t sure why he had expected it to change — for any of her to change, what with her looking as though she’d stepped directly from his memories of the day before he’d lost her — but still the familiar velvet of her voice made him feel as though he’d been kicked in the chest. He swung his eyes upwards to meet her as he quickly furled the map into a rolled tube. There was something she’d meant to say — a tepid congratulations for their neat work of killing those men that afternoon, perhaps, or a reminder that the kitchens still needed to be cleaned out — but it seemed as though she gave it a second thought. He felt his lips pull tight as a frown slipped across her own. 

“You don’t trust me,” she realized aloud, her gaze dipping from his to the map’s tight scroll. Claude huffed a breath through his nose and took his time in dotting a yellow nub of wax against the map’s worn edge. He pressed a crescent shape into it with his stamp as it cooled, all the while carefully turning his response against his tongue. 

Nonsense, he could say. I’ll always trust you, Teach. He set the map aside and focused on smoothing out his tensed brow. Give her a smile, a voice inside him commanded — a wink, more sugared words. Even as he obeyed and quirked his mouth into the proper shape he felt the shell of that old, dark mass inside his chest begin to break. 

“I did trust you,” he said, slow and easy. “You told me that you would fight by my side. I believed every word you said. And then you were tested on it, Byleth, and you left me behind.” Her brow furrowed but she didn’t interrupt him. “Do you have any idea the things that I’ve had to do — how different it could have been?” The legs of his chair squealed against the floor as he stood and tucked the map beneath his arm. “Everyone makes mistakes. I’m no different, I understand. But I’m not enough of a fool to do it twice.” 

“Claude,” she attempted again. This time her voice was tight. He ignored it as he shouldered past her towards the door. 

 


 

Claude’s feet steered him towards his old room. He let them, consumed as he was by the ever-steady pounding of his head and his heart’s rapid hammer. What he’d done had been dangerous. He knew that well enough. Part of him already regretted it — risking Byleth’s allegiance for the sake of his own petty disappointment. What he’d said to Hilda had been true, after all; their old professor was exceptional for morale. She did the near-impossible, inspiring others to fight even when she was so peerless at it herself. If he’d scared her off with his bitter diatribe they’d no doubt be disadvantaged. But had any of what he’d said been untrue? Did that matter? Was it really a mistake? 

“Fuck,” he muttered when he finally came upon his bedroom door and found it ajar. It had been locked before — the latch turned tight by his own hand. He briefly considered circling back towards the cathedral before he remembered his promise made to Hilda, and decided that he didn’t have the energy to be a hypocrite. 

Petra was waiting for him inside, stretched up to her toes as she inspected the cobwebbed curios stacked along his shelves. He nearly groaned another expletive before he caught himself. 

“Petra,” he managed as he slid the furled map onto his desk. “Not tonight.” 

“I am not here for that,” she answered, sounding somewhat amused. “I would like to speak with you.”

Not tonight, he though again. He sighed and undid the buttons of his jacket before he sunk into the musty mattress of his old bed. 

“Alright,” he relented. “What is it? Is everything alright?”

Petra studied him for a moment before she sat beside him. 

“I was thinking that I would like to return to Brigid,” she told him. He looked over at her, doing his best to read her face as she stared at his desk. “You have done the same in Almyra, I think. It is time for my people to fight for their freedom. I will ask my grandfather for support.” 

“Now isn’t the best time,” he answered after he considered the idea. “As long as the Empire holds Myrddin they have us in a choke-hold. Besides, it will be safer for your grandfather to keep quiet. What if Edelgard decides to remind him where she’d like his allegiances to lie?” Petra frowned, her eyes hot as they settled on him. 

“My grandfather is no coward,” she promised. “He has bowed to the Empire before, it is true, but no longer. Not anymore.” 

“It’s not the right time.” 

“I want her to be afraid,” Petra replied, her eyes still trapping his. Here was the truth of her request, he realized. It made his stomach knot. “I want her to know that Leicester grows stronger. That we have not forgotten what she has done to us.” 

“We won’t let her forget,” he agreed. He took in another deep breath. “But you need to be patient. There is a time for everything. Why worry about this now?” Petra’s brows knitted a bit closer together, her eyes darting away. 

“Envy,” she admitted. “Or maybe something else. It has been so long since I have come here, and what have I done?” 

“Two years isn’t a long time, Petra.” 

“It is,” she insisted, her jaw clenching tight. “Two years and I have fought by your side, but what have I accomplished? If — if Dorothea were to come back to me, too, how would I tell her that I made my revenge? By killing?” Tears had begun to well at the line of her thick lashes but she didn’t let them fall. “It is not what she would have wanted.”

“I know, but it’s what needs to be done.” She shook her head. 

“That is not what you do. You do more than kill. You have brought food to the people. You have brought hope. I must try to do the same. It is my duty as a daughter of Brigid.” 

“I understand,” he told her. It was the truth. Many of his companions felt bound by some divine duty, but few of them had the weight of a proper throne at their back. “Help me secure the bridge and I’ll do whatever I can to get you back home.”

Petra was quiet for a moment before she slowly nodded her head. 

“It is wicked of me,” she told him next, her voice suddenly low and conspiratorial. “You have always been so kind to me, and yet even now I wish it was not you.” Claude’s lips quirked into an odd shape as he tried to understand her meaning. She read his confusion well, nodding again as she stood and offered him a rueful smile. “I would do anything to see her again. To get back my ghost.”

Claude huffed and wagged his head. 

“It’s never the same, Petra.”

She reached forward to rest her hand against his shoulder. Her grip was strong, but there was something comforting in its tight press.

“I know. But neither are we.”

He shut his eyes at the idea before he watched her leave. And it wasn’t that she was wrong, really, but that he didn’t want to shine a light on what she’d said. 

 


 

They rebuilt the walls and chased the rats from the old storehouses and from beneath the rusted bellows of the kitchen stoves; repaired the leaking roofs and burned a thousand mildewed sheets before replacing them with things sewn by seamstresses-turned-shieldmaidens. Ashe, summoned by one of Ignatz’s letters, arrived to help them turn the greenhouse’s knotted creepers back into crops again. Sometimes bandits still sought them out, but their attacks were halfhearted and easily repelled. Four days after they’d finally patched over the toothless shingles of the library, Claude received a message that Seteth and the rest of the ragtag remains of the Knights of Seiros were headed their way. He added it to the pile of other letters of address, and summons, and shakily-drawn pleas, and warned Lorenz to keep an eye out for scaled wings on the horizon. 

He didn’t sleep. It was a problem, he supposed, but he’d made the decision early that he’d either succumb to it eventually or — or not. Maybe Marianne could have helped him with it, but he wasn’t so eager to see what dreams his mind had been preparing for him in the meantime. So instead he continued on in their never-ending work even long after the sun had set, and him picking through the midnight monastery like one of the mice they were so desperate to chase out. 

One night, however, he found that he was not alone. There were candles burning in the library. They drew him in as he made his return from a twilight walk along the moonlit walls. Perhaps Ignatz was looking for inspiration in an old chivalric tale, he wondered as he clipped up the silent steps and crossed past the archbishop’s chambers now turned to storage for loose plate and empty baskets once filled with grain. It would be good to speak with the younger man — to learn if he’d been keeping up with his archery lessons even as he toiled away at balancing the endless demands of the Alliance’s merchant guilds.

But it wasn’t him, of course. Maybe Claude had known that, too. He lingered at the doorway and watched the spectacle of Byleth’s late-night reading; her sitting cross-legged on the floor and surrounded by a semi-circle of pamphlets and loose paper and a faded map drawn over in her hand. Claude recognized the goldenrod parchment that bore the news of his ascension to his grandfather’s seat, as well as the red-and-black booklet that had announced Edelgard’s foolhardy goals soon after the monastery had fallen. He wondered briefly where she had found them all amidst the now-useless history books that crowded the library’s shelves. Perhaps Ignatz was still guilty in some regard. 

She turned at the waist as he stepped towards her. He was surprised to see a faint splash of color gather in her cheeks. 

“So much has changed,” she admitted to him quietly as he leaned against the nearest table. His eyes settled on her map, which he now saw had been annotated with the new borders and unofficial boundaries drawn by the war. Something crackled in his chest as he recognized his stand-in C sketched above a dot that read Derdriu. 

“Five years is a long time,” he contended with a shrug. She nodded. 

“It’s too long,” she agreed. Her eyes looked colorless in the dim candlelight. “I’m sorry.”

A frustrated breath gathered hot in his lungs. He hadn’t come there for an apology — not that he was certain just what had drawn him there at all. Claude shook his head and pushed off from the table. 

“It wasn’t your fault,” he said, although he’d meant to say it doesn’t matter. 

“I should have stayed by your side.” He wasn’t quick enough to hide his wince at her words. “I should have fought alongside you. I’m sorry.” 

“It was a long time ago,” Claude insisted again. He did his best not to look away as she stood. 

“Rhea is the only one who knows the truth about me,” Byleth continued stubbornly. “About my mother, and about Sothis, and just what I am. I though that if she could tell me, that—”

“Enough,” he snapped. She pressed on closer towards him until he felt trapped against the table at his back. “It’s in the past.”

“It isn’t.” He reached forward to push her aside. She snatched his hand and held him in place. “I didn’t mean to leave you behind.” 

Claude stared upwards into the shadows of the ceiling. He was too exhausted for a conversation like this — whatever it was, or whatever it could become; an apology or a condemnation. His usual tricks had never seemed to work on her, anyway. His lashes drew half-lidded as her fingertips ghosted over the scarred line running parallel to the knuckles of his left hand. 

“You’ve gotten older,” she told him quietly. He laughed and kept his eyes steady on the rafters. 

“That’s how it goes.” 

“What happened?” 

He hated how obtuse she was with those sort of things, even if it had always charmed him — the fact that she never offered him an escape route for whatever question she wanted answered, and always with a complete disinterest in the idea of proper timing. He clenched his eyes shut again and rolled them tight before he finally glanced down to catch her gaze. 

“I killed my brother,” he told her. “I killed my father.”

She steadied her expression into the same flat stare, but he still spotted the slight twitch of her brows. 

“Why?” 

“Because they had something I wanted.”

Byleth pursed her lips for a moment before she decided on her next words. 

“You told me it wouldn’t always be kind,” she said. The memory made his stomach churn. 

“So you’ll still follow me, will you? You’ll let me dance you all the way to hell?” His mouth twisted into a sneer. “All because I’ve paid you for your service, sell sword? Is that what this is?” 

“No.”

The banded muscles at his jaw bunched tight.

“What is it, then?” 

“You’re lying,” she replied. He fought the urge to yell loud enough that even all of those sleeping knights would hear. 

“I’m not,” he snarled. “I cut out their hearts. Burned — burned their insides out. They’re dead.”

Her lips finally curved into a frown. 

“I know.”

Claude flinched against the table as she drew the fingers of her free hand across his cheek. He realized too late that she’d brushed away a tear. It wasn’t what he wanted. He hadn’t come there for that. 

“It’s already done,” he insisted hoarsely. Byleth shook her head. 

“It isn’t. I know what it’s like to have someone living in your head, Claude.” He cocked his chin to the side and stared hotly at a nearby bookshelf. “You did what needed to be done, but that doesn’t mean that you wanted it.” 

“...What does it matter?” 

“It matters. And you were right — it could have been different if you hadn’t been alone. Let me help you find a kinder path.”

There was something hypocritical in what she’d said — they both knew it, he wagered. He could have offered her a cocky reply, but what was the point? The weight of everything was quickly becoming too much. He let himself sag to a crouch, his hands slipping from hers to drag through his hair. She sat beside him as he leaned against the legs of the table, and with his face hiding behind his palms. 

“I won’t leave you again.” 

Maybe she hadn’t said those final words aloud. His head had already bobbed rightwards to rest against her shoulder by the time he’d made them out. Certainly he’d heard those same words in his dreams before. Still, they were enough to slow his breath into a steady tempo and to unwind his muscles’ tight cinch. 

Please don’t leave me behind. Was it her voice or his? And was it a promise to be answered, or was it just some shallow wish? 

He slept — not a delirious set of tosses and turns, but sleeping, blissful and dark and bottomless — and woke with his head resting on the silent cradle of her chest. Her fingers were tangled in his hair. He left them there and allowed himself to stare into the bottom of the table stacked above them with a quieted mind. It was dawn. Their work was hardly done. Still, he let them both linger for a moment longer before they begun. 

Chapter Text

Summer turned the Alliance mean. The monastery’s kitchens were constantly filled with the cooks’ bickering and shouted threats made dangerously honest by the ovens’ swelter. Just like the yeasty steam from the endless loaves of bread baked there, this grumbling misery had filled Garreg Mach’s every inch and corner. Claude had already been tasked with chastising a maid for breaking her compatriot’s comb in revenge for some whispered curse, and he knew it was only a matter of time before the stablehands turned their riding crops on one another, themselves already covered in bruises from the teeth of their agitated charges. 

It was miserable, but at least he was sleeping again — alone, for once, and with his bedding stripped away along with his bedclothes, leaving him only incrementally cooler and looking nothing like a duke or a king or whatever the hell he was — and, mercifully, the dark circles had faded from beneath his eyes. He needed to be sharper, so it had come at no better time. It was one thing to wrangle the roughshod household of Garreg Mach, after all, and quite another to make sure that his fledgling army didn’t devour itself from stewing in its own inertia. 

“Take them on exercises along the coast,” he suggested to Leonie, who had lingered from their fated reunion to better understand their path ahead. “I don’t know. Go swimming.” 

“They’re all village boys, Claude. They don’t know how to swim,” she contended impatiently. Hilda snorted at Claude’s side. 

“So teach them,” Claude persevered. “Just keep them busy. That’s the important part.” 

“The important part is keeping them fed,” Leonie said. Claude would have suggested that they had plenty of arrows to do just that, and many of them fletched by his own hand, but he’d learned that his occasional cynicism didn’t have much use now that he’d begun to collect so many different titles to string around his neck. 

“Let us worry about that,” he offered instead. “I’ll give you whatever you need. Lorenz is keeping track of supplies — send him a message and you’ll be the first on the grub-line.”

Leonie glanced at the colorful windows of Claude’s stolen office, no doubt picturing the barren fields outside. 

“And just where, exactly, are you getting these supplies?” She crossed her arms and shot him a narrow-hewn stare. The heat, he reminded himself again as he felt a drop of sweat roll between his shoulder blades; it’s the heat. Not that he had sought out power for obedience in return, but it certainly would have been convenient in a time like this. 

“Let us worry about that,” he repeated with a thin smile. Leonie looked to Hilda and huffed. 

“Don’t look at me,” Hilda contended, too busy with the task of threading her long hair into a messy pile atop her head to bother with commiseration. “He’s the Leader Man.” 

“Fine.” Leonie scuffed the toe of her boot against the slate cobbles beneath their feet before she forced herself into a halfhearted quarter-bow. “I’ll cycle the companies through the coast. Do you want any here?”

Claude nodded. “Yes. Three. Don’t send them all at one time. We don’t want to spook the Empire. Better that they think we’re taking in refugees instead of men-at-arms. The same goes for the coast. Keep them quiet.” He ran his fingers over the map spread across the desk between them. “Cornelia’s dukedom has been grinding on the borderlands,” he added as his pointer finger traced the pyramids of the mountain range that split the broken Kingdom from the Alliance. “So far Fraldarius has held fast, but it’s only a matter of time before they fall. They don’t have nearly as many ships as we do, but it’s still enough to ferry her forces in our direction if Rodrigue loses control of the ports. Be ready.” 

Swimming lessons,” Leonie repeated, this time bemused. Claude gave a final tap to the map’s Derdriu-in-miniature before he leaned back against his chair. 

“We fight together,” he concluded, running his hands through his sweat-damp hair. “Send a messenger if anything goes south.” 

“Alright. I will.” Leonie bowed more properly that time. It was strange, the way those theatrics had spread even to people like her. Claude nodded his head at her as she turned and left them alone. 

“She’s always such a pain in the ass,” Hilda groaned once Leonie had gone. He shot her a cocked-brow glance. “What? Isn’t there a saying about looking a gift horse in the mouth? I bet her soldiers don’t care where you get their food as long as it’s not rotten.”

“I seem to remember someone else having very similar reservations,” Claude laughed.

Hilda rolled her eyes and stood from her chair. “That was different.” 

“How, exactly?” Claude asked dryly. 

She snatched a spindle-footed compass from his desk instead of offering him an answer. 

“Eventually you will need to tell them, you know,” she said a moment later, turning the point of the compass between her fingers. “About Almyra.” 

“I know,” Claude replied. He took a drink of the lukewarm water at his elbow and mulled over the idea with an unfocused stare on the map before he glanced up at her again. “But Leicester hates kings. It can barely stomach dukes. I’m not stupid enough to arm every son and daughter of the Alliance and then give them a new monarch to topple for the trouble.” 

“They wouldn’t do that to you,” Hilda huffed in reply. 

“I could march with them straight to the coast and back again, Hild, and they wouldn’t know me from a stranger — other than the fact that I look a bit too much like those savages who stole from them and killed their poor old uncles.”

Her brow crumpled at the idea. “They’ll know better soon enough.” 

“That would be the hope.” He stood and stretched, wincing at the little pops and cracks that traveled up his spine. “Enough. It’s too hot for this. Let’s get out of here before we melt.” 

“Pah! Sounds like you’re trying to trick me into doing more work,” she contended wryly as she followed him out into the hall. He laughed. 

“Fine. I hereby release you, Duchess Goneril. Do try not to get into too much trouble.”

She made a face as she turned to peel away down one of the monastery’s many corridors. “I am perfectly trouble-free,” she promised him, dipping on her heels as she began to dance away. “Now, you, on the other hand, Duke Riegan...” 

“Until tomorrow,” he replied, waving his hand at her with a laugh until she’d disappeared. He followed a different path, his mind lingering on his conversation with Leonie as his feet steered him towards the marketplace. Part of him wondered if it was a risk to have placed her in such a critical position as his de-facto war-master without revealing his hand to her, but he’d made the same decision with others as well; with Ignatz, for instance, who he relied on to make sure that the Alliance’s merchants were kept happy and didn’t consider allying their wealth with the Empire knocking at their doors too seriously; and cheery Raphael, always eager to help out even though he’d never truly asked why; and Lysithea, who had always been something of a mystery to him, even though she’d been one of the first to publicly announce her support of his cause. 

Still, he had been cautious in building his inner circle. It was a lesson that his father had taught him well. King Khalil had always been supported by his guard, all generals in their own right; all frightening, all proud, and all legendary even beyond the penumbra of his own reputation. They had known more about the old man than anyone, Claude supposed. And just like Hilda and Lorenz and Petra, his father’s guard had all had enough of a vested interest in the former king to pledge their lives to him. They’d had the chance to prove it, too. Claude had killed four of them on that black night in Sakhavan, after all, leaving only Nader alive; the only one to betray his father out of a fondness for his son. So maybe it was better to keep his own circle tight. At least it would be simpler to weed out the liars. 

His eyes settled on Byleth as he came to the summit of the marketplace’s stairs. Like him, she’d abandoned her usual heavy cloak for her shirtsleeves, and had swept her hair into a messy knot that had already begun to fray. She was speaking with the blacksmith — that poor, pitiable fool, his face as black as coal in most places from the soot of the forge and red as a beet in the patches where it wasn’t — while weighing one of his half-finished blades in her palms. 

Claude hadn’t spoken with her much following their night together in the library. It had been an easy feat. She’d never been much of a conversationalist before, after all, and her mysterious disappearance hadn’t seemed to have turned her suddenly loquacious. Still, he couldn’t help but feel as though she was doing it on purpose; allowing him to test his own reservations about her without demanding his conclusion outright. 

He wasn’t certain what he’d say even if she did ask. You don’t trust me, she could insist again, and he wouldn’t have a better answer for her than what he’d offered when she’d first returned. His chest still ached when he looked at her, that was to say, and he knew that it was out of anger as much as it was anything kinder. Still, something compelled him to skip down the stairs and join her. 

“Claude,” she greeted him without breaking her study of the hilt-less sword. 

“Professor. Wilson,” he added as he nodded at the smith. 

“Sir Duke,” the smith replied. Claude smiled. Wilson was a talented craftsman, but he’d never been one for courtly language. Honestly, that made him like him more. 

“How are you managing in this heat?” 

“Not well,” Wilson admitted as he dragged the cuff of his dirty glove across his mouth. “‘Uv nearly sweated off my balls. Beggin’ your pardon, m’lady,” he amended quickly, his eyes darting in Byleth’s direction. Claude spotted a faint smile forming on her lips. 

“These are well made,” she said to them both. 

“It’s the steel,” Wilson replied humbly. “Nothin’ like that pigshit stuff those Imperial bastards are swingin’.”

She nodded. “Where do you get the ore?” 

“Sreng,” Claude answered for him. Byleth ran her thumb over the sword’s soon-to-be honed edge.  

“I see. It must be difficult to do trade with Sreng in a time like this.”

Claude’s eyes darted between the smith and the predictably-difficult woman; it didn’t seem as though either of them were surprised by the idea. Maybe he hadn’t been as furtive with his black market deals as he’d once believed. 

“We do plenty of difficult things in a war, don’t you think?” He winked and stepped a pace backwards from the heat of the forge. “Thank you for all of your hard work, Wilson.” 

“Anything for Leicester, Sir Duke,” the smith replied with the tip of his head. Byleth set his sword back onto the counter and turned with Claude as he began to walk away. Claude’s focus narrowed single-mindedly on the damp patches beneath his arms. 

“Have you been keeping up with your swordsmanship?”

Her question made his stomach sink. That’s one word for it, he could have replied. Instead he turned on his heels again and smirked as he spotted her reaching for one of Wilson’s weapons ready for the armory. He combed the snaking fringe of his hair away from his brow and shook his head. 

“Well enough,” he answered. He sighed at the plain challenge glittering in her eyes. “Byleth, this is hardly the place for sparring.” He caught the shrug of her shoulders as she tested her grip. Wilson’s short sword glinted in the sun. 

“Are you really only willing to lose without an audience?”

The newly-coy shape of her lips was even worse than her mockery; and first of all, he would have added if it hadn’t been so damnably hot, their last sparring session was most decidedly a draw. Claude sighed again and glanced across the sleepy marketplace — most of the monastery too clever to bake in a place like that — before he loped forward to select a sister sword to the one that Byleth had taken. 

It was a true short sword, which meant that it was nearly half the length of the one to which he’d grown accustomed. He juggled the blade between his palms as he found his preferred grip. Despite its modest size it was well made: perfectly balanced, straight, and sharp-edged. He wondered briefly at whom it would be pointed next. Would it be a trembling boy dressed in Edelgard’s black-and-red, or a weary old knight in blue still fighting for his dead king? 

No matter. Now it was aimed at her, whatever she was. She’d already sunk into the proper pose. He did they same, holding their starting position for a beat so that their idle onlookers didn’t mistaken their sparring for some sort of coup. 

She was the first to dance forward. He caught her strike and answered it with one of his own. Next they traded a set of slow ripostes as they both relearned the other’s strength. She was as he remembered her, of course; quick and confident and deadly. He wasn’t certain why he would have ever doubted else-wise.

“You’ve gotten better,” she told him as he knocked her off course with a darting parry. He fought the urge to roll his eyes. How was it that she managed to be both honest and condescending with the same simple three words? Their blades went snik-tak-tak as they threaded them together — one sharp edge slipping forward, the other slinking back, like the steady, clanking pistons that built out the guts of the clock tower above their heads. It was hypnotizing in its predictability; the undulation of those unbending swords. 

Byleth let her blade skim along the edge of his own until their pommels had locked perpendicular and tight. A draw, he readied on his tongue. It somehow seemed fitting that it always ended that way. She was close enough to smell the heat of her — iron and something sweet. 

“But you’re still fighting like a lord.”

His brow crinkled with amused confusion at her words and then knotted together as she used her next breath to club her knee between his legs. Then she flitted backwards to allow him the space to crumple forward, his arms braced against his thighs. He laughed a gasping, wheezy breath. She was kind enough to give him enough time to consider losing his lunch before he tilted rightwards again to point his sword back at hers.  

“Is that so?”

His voice still had a slight croak to it as he spoke. If he hadn’t have been born with such an overfed ego he might have cursed her for her behavior. Unsightly, as Lorenz would have quipped if he’d been lucky enough to play spectator to Claude’s quick-served humiliation. Not that it mattered. Claude had bowed his head in a dusty square plenty of times before. Trading blows with Byleth was at least far more entertaining. 

He lurched forward on his left foot and darted quickly to his right. Her jaw clenched as she struggled to train her gaze on his weaving approach. Good. She had been right, of course; his father’s sword had taught him how to be a better swordsman. Its weight had turned him ambidextrous, too. He tossed his borrowed blade to his left hand as he moved, taking advantage of her corresponding unguarded side. Better. He needled further forward. The tip of his weapon caught on the laces weaving together the vee of her shirt’s collar. He flicked back his wrist to cut them loose. 

She offered him a rare peal of laughter as she skittered backwards from his strike. It had been close enough to just barely nick her skin as well. His eyes settled on the red pearl that had formed among the beads of sweat dampening the flat plane below her throat. It made him feel a little dizzy. Just the heat, he told himself. 

Byleth didn’t pause to take stock of what he’d done. She knocked the wind from his lungs a second time as she hammered him with a set of blows. Her strikes were stronger than they’d been before but slower, too. She was getting tired. His lips quirked into a half-smile. It was childish, he knew, but still — it would feel good to win. 

He skirted her next strike and readied for his own, aimed low against her blade to finally knock her unarmed. It would have been the perfect denouement to their sparring if a spear hadn’t suddenly sprouted between his feet as he stepped forward, tangling his legs together and nearly sending him sprawling across the square. 

“That is quite enough!” 

Claude wrenched the spear from its shallow plant between the cobbles and had nearly returned it with a wicked whistle from where it’d come before he recognized the amber belly of the wyvern circling above their heads. He tossed the thing aside instead, swallowing the white-burning anger that had sparked in his chest as he caught his breath and turned it genteel again. 

“Hello, Seteth,” Claude offered flatly as the named man slowly nudged his mount to land. Byleth eyed him warily as he dismounted. Claude glanced over at her and was halfway charmed by the way that she was still gripping tightly at her borrowed sword. 

“Lady Byleth,” Seteth answered, his voice belying his bewilderment at the sight of her — red-faced and bleeding, maybe, or just because she was there at all. Byleth looked at Claude as if to ask if she’d been granted some sort of title while she’d been gone. He would have laughed if not for the damnable complication of Seteth’s arrival. “I—”

“Professor!”

A set of shadows dappled the market as the rest of Seteth’s retinue appeared from behind the white haze of the summer clouds. First came Flayn nestled between the wings of her pegasus and very much overshadowed by the blonde warrior clutching at her thin shoulders; and another paired set of riders, this time on wyvern-back — a boy who had very nearly been turned into a man and Shamir behind him, looking far less terrified at the prospect of flying than her relic-wielding partner.

“Oh, Professor,” Flayn continued as she leapt from her mount and skipped across the space between them to throw her arms around Byleth. “How terribly delighted I am to see you again, and looking so well! Although, goodness, careful — it seems as though you’ve cut yourself. Here, allow me to...” 

Byleth remained transfixed under Flayn’s sweet prattling as the latter worried over her. Seteth looked on silently, apparently still struggling with whatever he’d meant to say before his sister had cut him short. Claude studied him as Cyril landed his wyvern beside its peer. Seteth looked as insufferably haughty as usual, of course, but there was something new in his gaze that was utterly intriguing. It would take some work to decode, Claude wagered. The man had taken great care in burying it deep beneath his usual glare. 

Claude abandoned the task for now as he glanced over at Cyril next. Here was a tidy shortcut for understanding just what they’d learned about how he’d spent his five lost years — was he still an unlucky student to them, one of Garreg Mach’s last graduates; or was he a duke to whom they’d come to pledge their holy banner? Or was he a foreign king to be dealt with in the same way that they’d dealt with a dozen foreign kings before? 

Cyril returned his gaze. His mouth turned into a sharp frown. For some foolish reason he took two steps forward, as if to guard the far more accomplished killers he served. Claude smiled and nodded his head. So it was to be the latter.  

 


 

“Do you trust him?” Byleth asked Claude later as they walked together towards Seteth’s reluctantly returned office. He cocked a brow at her. “Seteth,” she clarified. He shrugged. 

“Do I trust him to hold Leicester’s best interests in mind? No.” He tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, still damp from the baths. “Am I certain that he will do anything to protect the Church? Yes. We’re the lesser of the evils. Especially with you here. He should behave.” 

“The way that he was looking at me, earlier...” she continued, her voice growing uneasy as she spoke. It was unlike her, although he wasn’t surprised; no one liked to be looked upon like a trophy, at least not creatures like her. 

“That’s to be expected. Rhea’s whereabouts are still a mystery. You’re all that they have left. I’m surprised he wasn’t looking for a ring to kiss as soon as he set his eyes on you.”

“You can’t be serious,” Byleth snapped. He smirked. 

“Are you calling me a liar?”

She looked away. “Claude,” she continued more quietly, her eyes steady on the path before them. “Do you think that Rhea is dead?” 

“It would be better if she was,” he replied. His voice was more icy than he’d intended, but to hell with all of that. Byleth’s brows bowed with the slightest hint of a wince. 

“If she isn’t,” she contended, “I have to find her.” 

“Then it appears that you and Seteth will be on the same page,” he sighed. They turned the final corner and came upon the rest of the party he’d summoned for Seteth’s overly-serious rendezvous. “Hello,” he greeted them with a smile. Hilda rolled her eyes. 

“So what the hell is this about?” 

“Why, your very favorite thing, Hild,” he retorted with a wink. “Politics. Maybe with a healthy serving of self-loathing, if we’re lucky.”

He nudged between her and Lorenz’s unimpressed glare to rap his knuckles against Seteth’s door. It opened with a creak. He heard the man’s sigh even before he saw his swamp-water eyes. 

“Lady Byleth,” Seteth began flatly. “Duke Riegan. I understand that you are fond of your classmates, but when I proposed a meeting I intended it to be on a needs-to-know basis.” 

“Of course,” Claude replied brightly. “And so I’ve brought the needs-to-know. Garreg Mach is under the Leicester banner, as you are aware, and so it seemed only right to invite Duchess Goneril — you know Hilda, naturally—” Hilda curtsied nicely, always quick on the draw of Claude’s schemes, “her holding a seat on the Roundtable, that is. And this being a time of war, I didn’t find it prudent to extend the invitation to Count Gloucester and Margrave Edmund, but surely you will agree that their heirs will serve as proper proxies in their absence.” Lorenz and Marianne nodded at Seteth before following Hilda’s path — roughly-shouldered — into the room. “And of course you know Princess Petra, heir apparent to the Brigid throne — our steadfast allies in this grim and difficult time.” 

Seteth stared at Byleth as Petra dipped into a crisp bow. Byleth offered him a flat look of her own before she glanced sideways at Claude. Seteth seemed to read her meaning well enough, and answered it with another sigh. 

“As you insist,” he relented as he stepped aside to allow the final trio to join the rest inside. They were hovering around a table set for five and with two chairs already filled. Claude offered his own seat to Petra — Hilda having commandeered the two others for Marianne and herself — before leaning against the back behind her bared shoulders to eye Catherine and Shamir’s sharp stares. Sweet and tender as always. 

“So,” Seteth continued tightly. He paused to consider his stolen chair before Catherine stood to offer him her own. He settled into it with a huff. “You have done well to rescue the monastery from its plight, Duke Riegan.”

Claude wasn’t certain if his words were a proper olive branch, but he accepted them nonetheless. “It would have been a shame to leave it to the bandits. Too many good memories, you know?”

Seteth frowned, apparently unmoved by Claude’s collegial tone. 

“Quite. However, you must understand that the monastery is more than a strategic asset. Fodlan, and Garreg Mach in particular, is the cradle of the faithful, and it is under siege by the Empire’s monstrous new liege. Now more than ever, the Church must be rebuilt to offer its support to those who have rightfully resisted.” 

“Is that what you’ve been doing for these past five years?” Seteth’s eyes narrowed at Claude’s suggestion. “Rightfully resisting?” 

“I have been searching for the shepherd of our flock,” Seteth insisted stonily. Claude smirked. His father had called the Fodlanders sheep, too. It didn’t seem like the type of company Seteth would have been eager to keep — but then again, maybe not. 

“Fruitlessly, it seems.” 

“And what have you done to assist in the archbishop’s recovery?” It was Catherine’s turn to bristle at him — and she did with all of the ferocity he’d been expecting. “Leicester is pledged to serve the Church, Duke Riegan. Perhaps with the chaos of war you’ve been neglected this lesson.” 

“Leicester is pledged to serve the Church,” he agreed with a dip of his head, “but her first duty is to her people. I think the Church would find the devotion of a dead nation to be rather lacking.” Lorenz stiffened at his side. Yes, yes, Claude thought; unsightly. “In any case, the Alliance is pleased to welcome the Church back into its rightful place. If these were different times I would offer a proper feast to greet you, but hopefully you understand that all I can give you for now is our support.”

It seemed to be an easy enough promise to make — there were only five of them, after all. 

“We are grateful for it,” Seteth answered reluctantly. “However, I have come here to ask for more than that.” His eyes skimmed over the faces of his uninvited guests before they settled on Byleth. “Lady Byleth,” he continued in a kinder tone, “you must know that Lady Rhea... admired you. We often spoke of how much of herself she saw in you.” Byleth was as peerless as ever in maintaining her blank stare. Claude felt the prick of something bitter forming in his gut, but he endeavored to do the same. “The Church is, above all other things, a fortress. A great protector of the people. But it is useless without guidance — without someone truly enlightened at its helm. And I see that light in you, Lady Byleth, just as I saw it in her.” 

Was he to be applauded, Claude wondered as he spoke; to have made that great discovery that was so glaringly obvious to the rest of them as well? Then again, the bile rising in his own chest was hypocritical and, worse still, petty more than it was self-righteous — it wasn’t as if he’d ever had a different aim himself: to use her, as ready-made as she was for such a thing. And yet he’d never lied to her about it, at least, or at least not to that degree. That was another one of his life’s many cruel little ironies. At least he had that. 

Byleth seemed to agree. She made no immediate reply, but her glance back in Claude’s direction appeared to frustrate Seteth more than an outright refusal of his proposal. 

“I’ve agreed to fight for Leicester,” she answered finally. 

“They are not mutually exclusive,” Seteth replied, clearly making an effort to remain even-keeled. “But, if I may, Lady Byleth, your own ambitions are far greater than the Alliance.”

Her lips twitched. Claude realized that she was smiling at the unsaid joke hidden in his words. He wasn’t prideful enough not to feel somewhat charmed. 

“I’ve already made my pledge.” 

“Perhaps we can come to an agreement,” Claude intercepted smoothly. “All promises and pledges aside, I think it’s clear that we all have a common enemy in Edelgard. She’s already torn through the Kingdom. We can only imagine the type of mercy she’ll show Leicester next. I’m confident in the Alliance’s ability to protect itself, but that doesn’t mean that I’m eager to sacrifice our men and women just to prove a point. We are stronger together. If I’m right in assuming that you’ve come here to offer Byleth Lady Rhea’s seat, then Leicester has no objections as long as we maintain our common ground.”

Neither Seteth nor Byleth seemed to enjoy the manner in which he’d laid out the claim. 

“Rhea’s seat?” Byleth asked with a frown. 

“That isn’t—” Seteth started, clearly deflated by his usurped opportunity to offer his proposal under far more flowered terms. “Yes. Under a temporary basis, of course. The Church will continue to commit a significant portion of its efforts to Lady Rhea’s rescue. However, in the meantime it is critical that we maintain a sense of order, and we cannot do that without an archbishop.” 

“I’m not a priest,” Byleth contended flatly. Claude smiled. 

“Priestess,” he corrected with a wink. Seteth made a bemused noise. 

“You are far more than that, Lady Byleth. And let me promise my service in any regard, to that matter — naturally, there is much for you to learn about the Church, and yet I am confident that you will rise to the occasion much like you rose to your role as a most-trusted professor. I am at your disposal, as is the rest of the Church and all of its resources.” 

This, at least, seemed to resonate. There was nothing a sell sword better understood than the immutable value of resources. She steadied her eyes on Claude for a moment longer before she slowly nodded her head.

“What would you have me do?”

Seteth’s scowl loosened slightly — with surprise or relief, Claude wasn’t quite certain, although it didn’t truly matter. 

“Take on a ceremonial role, firstly and most importantly, and starting with your immediate inauguration. The people need to see that the Church has returned. Then I would propose that we continue on in our search for Lady Rhea. It will be a good opportunity for you to travel among your flock and offer them your reassurances—”

“Travel,” Byleth echoed stonily. “You mean to leave the frontline?” 

“Yes, that would be the idea,” Seteth replied. “In most instances, at least. I fear we cannot flee the war outright, but with the goddess’ blessing most civilians will still be some distance from the violence.”

If Seteth hadn’t been so singularly focused on Rhea’s return, perhaps he would have realized the absurdity of such a notion. Who else did he think the Empire was mowing over if not for the luckless civilians caught in its maw? Claude drummed his fingers against the top of Petra’s chair, and watched as the muscles in her inked shoulders stiffened. Yes, she knew it, too. How many names could she give to those whom the Imperial mouth had already devoured? His eyes skimmed across his remaining companions and saw them similarly tensed. Good. It was good that he had brought them there to see the Church’s intentions. Cruel, perhaps, but important. 

“No,” Byleth answered on cue. “I will continue to fight.”  

“Lady Byleth,” Seteth continued stubbornly, “you, of all others, saw what Lady Rhea was capable of on that cursed day that brought about the monastery’s fall. Do you truly believe that she found it easy to remain unbloodied in a time of war? And yet she has been witness to so many of them, and played a far more important role in offering solace to the people than in serving as their headsman.”

The corner of his mouth curved slightly with his words. He was lying. Claude wondered in which parts. 

“I will not leave my friends behind.” 

“A compromise,” Claude interrupted again before the scales began to tip against his favor. “Surely seeing an archbishop on the battlefield would offer immense solace to our soldiers as well. And you know that there is no gossip like a soldier. Let us win a few victories here at Garreg Mach, and then we can see to spreading the Good Word. At the very least it should get Edegard’s attention. Maybe she’ll get clumsy with regards to Rhea’s location. There are only so many places that she can hide her, after all.”

Seteth shared an uneasy glance with his grim-faced compatriots before he returned Claude’s gaze. 

“Easy victories,” he countered. Claude laughed. 

“Spoken like a true soldier,” Claude replied sardonically. “We’ll try to make them as easy as possible. How does that sound?”

Seteth nodded at Byleth for her answer. She, predictably, shrugged. 

“I will fight for Leicester,” she offered, unmoved. “And I will do everything I can to find Lady Rhea, and to return her to Garreg Mach.” This appeared to be sufficient. Seteth nodded and then stood, his chin dipping to his chest in a newly deferential pose. 

“So be it. We have come to an agreement, then. I will see to preparing the necessities for your inauguration. We should go about it as soon as possible. Perhaps Duke Riegan would be kind enough to offer what sundries he has in excess for a simple ceremony; a meal. You understand that these exercises, however frivolous, play an important role in calming certain anxieties about the Church’s resilience.” 

“Of course,” Claude agreed. “What better place than Leicester to appreciate the occasional excess. We’ll see to it. Anything for the Church.”

As intended, his final words left Seteth looking a little uneasy. 

“Very good.” Shamir stood as well, seemingly reading Seteth’s intentions to draw the meeting to a close. Hilda, Marianne, and Petra followed after, and all of them looking an interesting spectrum from bored to fearsome in turn. 

“Lady Byleth,” Catherine then intervened. “I’ve taken the liberty of clearing out the archbishop’s chambers. If you would like, I would be happy to escort you there. We can discuss more of the particulars along the way.”

Byleth nodded, perhaps savvy to the fact that it didn’t seem as though she had a choice. Catherine sidled around the table to lead her to the door and with Shamir in tow, ready to cut down any rats or roaches who dared to stand in their way. 

Hilda clapped Claude’s shoulder as she followed behind. He offered her a quick look while Marianne curtsied nicely at Seteth before continuing on in her beloved’s wake. Petra and Lorenz finished off their queue once they’d seen that Claude had nothing else to offer them without the benefit of privacy. Seteth shot him a thin stare once he’d realized that they were alone. 

“I think we came to an agreeable end,” Claude offered him with a smile. Seteth did not return the look. 

“The Church must stand strong. I pray that you will see to your obligations so that it is done.” 

“I think you’ll find that I’m very good at delivering on my promises.” He winked. “Now, then. If that’s all, I’ll see to finding you some nice, fat hogs for our forthcoming celebrations.”

Seteth offered him the flattest of smiles as Claude dipped his head and turned. 

“Duke Riegan,” he started again when Claude had nearly reached the door. He’d been expecting it, of course; it wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic otherwise, and drama was so important to men like him. “Before you leave. I think it’s right for you to know that we are aware of what has transpired in Almyra. Given our conversation, and from my observations of your work here, I presume that this information is not yet common knowledge. At the moment I think it is in both of our best interests to keep it that way, but do not mistaken my silence for an approval of what you’ve done.”

Claude smiled. 

“Well, then.” He gathered every ounce of the black venom that had been gathering in his chest and laced it in each of his parting words. “It seems as though you have been calling me by the wrong name.”

 


 

Seteth was true to his word. With only five days to his credit he gathered the proper niceties to force Byleth’s inauguration into motion. Claude saw little of her in the interim, busy with his own management of Almyra’s next wave of supplies and with the confirmation of the first of the eight provinces that had fallen to Faheem’s silver tongue. He supposed that Byleth was similarly saddled with the Church’s expedited lessons on faith and prudence. It made it easier for him not to fixate on the impossible conundrum of her place at his side. 

This changed, however, when he was faced with his dress uniform neatly pressed and waiting for him in his room. There was something particularly cruel in Seteth’s insistence that they dress for a formal ceremony better suited for the winter’s coldest depths. It wasn’t just that he wanted them to sweat beneath all of that wool and brocade, of course; but that he wanted them to kneel in all of their finery — all of the glitter of Fodlan’s proudest nation bowing low before a holy set of robes. 

Claude peeled off his shirt, damp already even though he’d just returned from the baths, and shrugged on his jacket all the same. Ever a fool. It didn’t matter. He’d wear whatever motley they liked as long as they held their end of their bargain. He had as much to gain from piety as they did, after all, and even as the devout heretic that he was. 

His ensemble was similar to what he’d once worn as a student. It was different chiefly in its gold epaulets and their matching cord, which swung heavy from his right shoulder to the second button at the center of his chest; and, most importantly, in the thick cape he’d now be forced to suffer under, itself richly embroidered with an enormous version of Leicester’s crest. It was not the first time that he’d carry the Alliance on his shoulders, but it was perhaps at least the most literal interpretation. He toyed briefly with the politically-fatal idea of adding Almyra’s mounted archer to the mix before he teased his hair into a slightly more respectable shape and hunted out his door. 

The monastery looked proud. This, at least, he was willing to admit. Moreover, he understood why Seteth had requested the many garlands of wildflowers that were now strung through the halls, and the barrels of wine, and the roasted boar and venison that would soon grace their supper plates — ceremony was important. It was why his father had always surrounded himself with beautiful things. People would believe anything that they saw with their own eyes. 

“Claude!”

He turned and spotted Hilda waving for him from across the yard. She looked lovely in her own uniform, of course, having amended it slightly with a glittering diadem and matching earrings made from pearl and rose-quartz. Marianne beside her had a matching set in sapphire. No doubt it broke some rule about regalia, but if he’d had the time he’d have offered them both a dozen more crowns to wear. 

“Ah, the Flowers of the Alliance,” he teased with a wink as he trotted to their side. Hilda groaned. 

“That is the stupidest thing you’ve ever said,” she chided him — and even as Marianne turned a delighted shade of pink. “And you say plenty of stupid things.” 

“And how are you today,” he countered good-naturedly. 

“Horrible,” Hilda sighed. “I feel disgusting. So much wool. Is this your fault?” She gestured at her sleeves. 

“Do you take me for a tailor?” 

“Maybe, what with you usual ridiculous get-up.”

He tweaked his lips into a pout. 

“You don’t like it? And here I was thinking that you thought I looked dashing.” 

“Hardly,” she laughed. “Well, in any case, this is a thoroughly terrible idea. What does Seteth want us to do? Sweat out our weight during this absurd ceremony and then drink it back in wine? We’ll have all killed each other before dawn.” She wagged her brows as they passed beneath the first of the many garland arches leading them towards the cathedral. “Maybe he’s a mole.” 

“That isn’t what moles do,” Claude corrected her wryly. “And you should be careful about blaspheming during an inauguration, Hild.” 

“Oh, pah,” she replied with a wave of her ringed fingers. “You owe me a pardon or two.” 

“Still,” Marianne offered quietly, “perhaps we should be... respectful. Byleth is our friend, after all.”

Hilda looked positively besotted at Marianne’s reminder of her own piety.

“Of course, darling,” she cooed. “Here, I’ll find us the best seats.” 

“We don’t sit,” Claude reminded them both with a roll of his eyes. Hilda groaned. 

“This is horrible,” she quickly relented. “Positively a torture.” 

It was. Maybe he should have offered up a pinky-finger as sign of his loyalty instead. They crowded together into the cathedral, cutting through the curious crowds of merchants and soldiers as they sought out the spot that Flayn had shown to them the day before. It would be a short ceremony, at the very least: starting with a few hymns before Byleth made her grand entrance. Seteth would then no doubt offer some trite words about the righteousness of their cause before the lords among them came forward to offer her their fealty, and with Claude first in line. It was a dance that the cathedral had hosted for too many generations to count. He doubted that theirs was even the most unusual — if perhaps the first to find an Almyran king bent to his knees. 

They hunted out their place beside Lorenz and some minor lords who had defected from Faerghus before the borders had been so definitively closed. Claude had invited no other Alliance lords to attend, still focused on his ruse of internal turmoil; still, there were only so many of them that they could fit into the half-ruined cathedral. He supposed that it was an acceptable showing given the circumstances. 

The ceremony lurched onwards as he had predicted. He drowsed as some children sourced from the refugee camps sang a slightly off-tune song. It was a good opportunity for face-reading, but he found himself suddenly uninterested in whatever tawdry secrets the crowd might have shared. He knew them all well enough already — and not enough to be complacent, but at least to the point that he could allow himself a few moments of inattention. 

This indulgence was foresworn when Byleth was finally ushered down the split of the aisle. She looked as miserable as he felt, shrouded in a perfect mimicry of the robes Rhea had once worn. He supposed there was something regal in her now — she’d always had good posture, and it cast a different image under the thick drape of her pallium than it did in her well-worn plate— and even beautiful, the way they’d hunted out some lilies to string along the band of her tiara. None of that did anything to quiet the fissure burning in his chest. If anything, it made it worse. He sighed and watched her pass them by, willing himself to return her gaze when hers lingered on him for a bit too long. 

This isn’t right, he realized as she stepped up into her place on the dais. And it wasn’t just what she had said — she was neither a priest nor a priestess, that much was true — but what it could have been as well. Wouldn’t it have been better if he’d forced his way to her side? That was what he was after, after all, wasn’t that right? Equality across every church and state, and yet here he was, readying himself to bow at her feet. And wasn’t his feigned subservience a betrayal not only of his own beliefs, but hers as well? Why else had she so easily submitted to Seteth’s plans if not to satisfy Claude’s own aims? And how had he repaid her loyalty — dodging her shadow in the halls and ignoring her imploring looks when they did find each other alone? 

You don’t trust me. 

No. He didn’t. He didn’t trust her, and now he’d given her more power, and slighted her when he had. It seemed to him to be perhaps the most asinine thing he’d ever done. As foolish as giving a babe a killer’s name, almost, and then giving him a sword to carry out his fate. 

Seteth called out his name. Not his name, of course, but at least the one that had bound him in this newest promise. Claude shook himself from his dazed dreaming and stepped forward towards the dais. Despite what might have one day been written about that moment, he found it easy to kneel. Seteth said something further in a booming voice. Byleth added to it with the murmur of a practiced line. Her robes rustled as she offered him her hand. Her fingers were still scarred and dotted with pink callouses and too-short nails; and there between them a flat-faced ring had been placed, adorned with Seiros’ feathery Crest. 

He wasn’t supposed to look at her, Flayn had instructed the day before; simply press his lips against her ring and wait for her to urge him on. It’s just tradition, she’d promised, as if that had been some sort of reassurance. Byleth’s fingers flexed as he took them. He wasn’t supposed to grip them, but he did. He doubted she had been coached to lace hers through his own, and yet she did as well. When he finally grazed his lips over her ring he’d already looked upwards into her eyes. And there, at their center, dark and dilated, was something that was as captivating as it was familiar. 

You. 

I see you.

 


 

The ceremony had been a torture. The dinner after was a curse. Meals like that had been a pleasure, once, but now all Claude could think about was the waste of so many skinny creatures turned to prideful roasts and steaks. Even the familiarity of the dining hall couldn’t quash his discomfort with the strangers pinning him in at his sides: lords and clergy freshly rustled from the wilds, all eager to take a peek at their new holy master. For once there was no nuance to how he felt. He was hot, and angry, and overstimulated in the worse way. It seemed as though he was doing a pitiful job at hiding it, too. Even Hilda had chided him for it, although she'd seemed rather empathetic when she had. Stiff upper lip, she’d told him before she’d made her own escape at least a half hour before. 

He drank a mouthful of too-sweet wine and scanned the table. Lorenz had remained, at least, seemingly the only one of them dutiful enough to suffer through his charge. Even he looked deflated under the finery of his clothes. Claude suspected this was some version of hell freezing over. If only their own fate had been so blissfully chilled. 

“You look tired,” Lorenz whispered to him finally. Claude hummed a noncommittal noise in reply. Lorenz seemed to interpret it well enough. “Overall, however, I would judge the day to be a success. We’ve even won some lords over to our side. House Montgomery and House Lanfer — perhaps you wouldn’t know them. Vassals to House Dominic, once.”

Claude frowned. 

“House Dominic,” he echoed grimly. “If House Dominic is splitting, then the Kingdom is truly lost. I would have thought that they would fight for Blaiddyd to their last man.”

Lorenz frowned as well, realizing that his reassurances had so quickly soured. “Yes, well. Now they fight for you.” 

“For us,” Claude corrected, his voice crowding into the bowl of his glass as he took another drink. “Or for the Church.” 

“They are one in the same.”

He glanced at Lorenz over his drink. “Is that what you think?”

“I think that we can trust the Professor,” Lorenz insisted with a deep sigh. “Even if you are so adamant in insisting else-wise.” 

“You’ve always been a romantic, Lorenz.”

“You say that as if it’s a bad thing,” Lorenz replied with a quirked brow. “How terribly dull the world would be otherwise. And yet if you are so committed to your goal of being miserable this evening, Claude, heavens forbid that I ruin your scheme.”

This made Claude grin, if crookedly.  

“To ruined schemes,” he proposed, waving his half-filled glass in Lorenz’s direction. The second man offered him a smile as well as they clinked their drinks together. Claude would have lingered to drain it dry if he hadn’t spotted Byleth suddenly rising from her spot at the head of the table. 

He watched with amusement as Seteth grew flustered at her move. She made a good showing of ignoring him entirely as she stalked towards the far door. The table rose in unison at her exit with a confusion of clattering silverware and sloshing drinks. Sharing a final parting glance with Lorenz, Claude rose as well and took advantage of the din to make his own escape. 

It wasn’t difficult to find her, all-white and slow moving as she was against the burnt-brown leaves of the monastery’s untamed hedges. Even he couldn’t chase the smirk from his lips as he jogged to catch her in her retreat. 

“This is horrible,” she greeted him once he’d emerged from the night-time gloom. She waved her billowing sleeves at him, her face folded into a girlish frown. “I can’t take it any longer.” 

“I understand how you feel,” he replied as he brandished his own corded sleeves. “But it’s all part of the game.” 

“Not one that I understood.” He was surprised by the bald frustration in her voice. It was perhaps the first time he’d heard it, at least like that. “You should have warned me.” 

“Warned you? We all knew what Seteth was after.” He found it easy to sink himself into the lie — sickly satisfying, even. “In any case he serves you now, isn’t that right?”

“As much as a master serves his dog,” she muttered glumly. “This isn’t what we talked about.” 

“I know, but it’s what we have to do. Things change. We have to change with them.” 

“Not like this.” She tugged gracelessly at her pallium. “I’m not— Sothis is gone. This is all a lie.” 

“That doesn’t mean that those people don’t need faith,” he replied, jutting his thumb back at the dining hall they’d left behind. “And everyone else — the ones who really matter. All of those people down in the village, and in the camps — everyone who can’t fight for themselves. What else can they do but hope that they’re not just damned?”

The idea seemed to sober her slightly. She crossed her arms and glanced downwards at her feet. 

“We can give them hope without forcing them to their knees.”

He ignored the pinprick of something cracking in his chest. 

“Maybe,” he sighed. “Maybe someday. Not now. There isn’t much left of the Church, but it’s enough to be a problem if they don’t stand beside us.”

“Then tell me that. Don’t tell me that I’m fated to serve in Rhea’s stead. You don’t need to lie to me, Claude.”

He found it difficult to reply. It was even worse to listen to the silence that threaded between them afterwards. 

“Just,” she continued on finally, her voice suddenly strained, “just help me take this off. It’s so fucking hot.” 

She wrenched at the sash dangling from her collar. Claude dashed forward to steady her hands, steering her sideways after. 

“Alright,” he acquiesced with an empty breath of laughter. “Alright. But you can’t just undress in the middle of the monastery. Come on. I’ll give you my jacket and then you can go properly change.” 

He led them towards the nearest door. Perhaps there was some goddess directing them, Sothis or otherwise, and one that was thoroughly disgusted with their poor behavior, because that door lead them into the cathedral’s nave. Claude groaned at their bad luck. Maybe Byleth did as well, but she’d already returned to her task of casting her heavy vestments aside. 

“Byleth — honestly,” he laughed as he turned and spotted her with her hem lifted over her shoulders, and with the knot of her robes trapping her arms stiffly upright. She offered him some muffled retort from within the mess, which he decided to interpret as a cry for help instead of a curse. “Listen. Hold still.”

He took hold of one of her sleeves and pulled tight. It held fast for a moment longer before her robes suddenly slipped from her shoulders, nearly spilling him backwards against a pew as he tottered with the bulk of it now lumped in his arms. Her forgotten tiara clattered somewhere into the dim. 

“Gods,” she gasped in relief. He set her robes aside and watched her as she combed her tousled hair straight. She looked suddenly small in her thin slip and mismatched sandals. He remembered his promise perhaps a beat too late and turned his focus on the buttons of his jacket. 

“Claude.” He slipped the jacket’s cord from its eyelet and continued on with the next button. Her flat soles clapped against the slate as she stepped closer to him. “Claude.” Her fingers steadied his picking four buttons down. She was close enough to touch with the tip of his nose. 

“What is it?” He did his best to mistaken his unnamed agitation for annoyance instead. 

“I’m with you, you know.” 

It was dark in the cathedral. They hadn’t bothered to light the lamps once their procession had left it behind. A few of the most devout had left candles glimmering in the ruined alcove, but most of it was just shadow. He didn’t need the glow of anything to see her — her fingers on his, moon-colored against his jacket’s black wool; the pearl of her shift turned transparent by the heat, and the pink promise of her body beneath. 

Damn it. 

He kissed her. She kissed him back, pressing forward on her toes to string her arms around his neck. The weight of her against his chest made it easier to forget the many reasons why he hadn’t done this before. He drew her closer, chasing the tipping of her chin as she shuddered along with his hitching breath. He could smell the perfume of the lilies in her hair. His hands followed a greedy path over the rolling muscles of her arms and the rounds of her shoulders, tracing with an intimate curiosity each dip of her spine. This time to remember, he supposed; if she were to disappear again, at least in what came after he wouldn’t forget. 

“Claude,” she breathed as he tracked her backwards against a pew. She dipped into the seat under the gentle press of his hands. He crouched along with her as he continued their kiss, his knees knocking against the bench as he knelt between her legs. There was something sad in her eyes when he pulled back to catch his breath. He cupped her chin between his hands as he inspected it more closely. 

I’m sorry, they said. He supposed he owed her those words, too. 

“It’s alright,” he muttered instead. “It’s alright,” he mouthed into the silent softness of her breast; into the curve of her stomach and the swell of her hips; it’s alright, it’s alright. She drew her fingers through his hair as he crumpled the silken hem of her shift around the cinch of her waist. Then she gasped something — a last-minute cry of sudden bashful reservation or a breath of encouragement, he wasn’t sure — lost as she urged him forward between her thighs. 

Now she spoke with her hands. They pulled tighter on his hair before letting loose to knead down his nape. He focused on the sweet tartness of her and on her roaming hands — on the press of her leg as he hitched one of her knees over his shoulder, and then her shudder as she fought against the urge to grind upwards off her seat. It’s alright, he thought again, and finally he was convinced; it’s alright. 

She pulled hard enough on a lock of his hair to loosen it from its root. 

“Fuck,” he snapped as he pulled back, wincing at her in confusion. 

“-ssor!” came a willowy cry. Claude’s heartbeat doubled in his throat as he recognized the red glow of torchlight reflected in Byleth’s pale eyes. She turned a shade of pink as they then darted over his shoulder. Fuck. An old, primitive sort of anger flooded his chest. He quickly finished with the rest of his jacket’s buttons and shrugged it off to drape over her before he turned to see just who it was that had found it so important to hunt them out. 

It was Seteth, of course. 

The man had already shooed Flayn back through the creaking entry by the time they’d both properly faced him. He cleared his throat and kept his eyes steady on the ruined rafters. 

“Lady Byleth,” he began with some hesitation, “if it would... please you, there is a envoy from Galatea that wishes to speak with you. They’ve said that their message is quite urgent.”     

“Fine,” she replied flatly, shrugging Claude’s jacket around her shoulders until she could slip her arms through the sleeves. 

“Perhaps you would like a moment to refresh yourself,” Seteth suggested, eyes still aloft. “Flayn can accompany you to your quarters, if you would like to meet her outside.” 

“I don’t need an escort,” Byleth contended as she stood from the pew. Claude stood as well, brushing the dust from his trousers and briefly considering if it would be better to scare Seteth off or to urge Byleth to play along. She made the decision for him, her eyes snapping to his for a final time before she picked her way to the door. He sighed as she stepped into the night. He’d expected Seteth to leave at Byleth’s heels, perhaps with a final glare cast in his direction first, but instead he began to walk deeper into the cathedral. Claude caught the glitter of Byleth’s tiara beneath a nearby pew as the man’s torch crackled closer. 

“I fear,” Seteth began again as he crouched to retrieve it, “that you have misunderstood your position.” Claude smirked and watched him slip the sparkling band into his pocket. “Call yourself whatever you like — king, duke, it doesn’t matter. Lady Byleth is destined for something entirely different. You will never be her equal. Through no fault of your own, you understand — it is simply her fate.” 

Claude narrowed the space between them with a loping step. He kept his eyes on Seteth as he moved — studied the slight fluster of his skin, the bitter pucker teasing at the edges of his lips, the glimmer in his eyes.

“I know what it is,” he realized aloud. Seteth frowned with confusion. “That’s what you’re hiding. You want to fuck her.” Seteth’s face darkened into a bruised shade. Claude stepped close enough to feel his breath against his face.

Excuse me? 

“I suppose there is something comforting in the familiar.” 

“What nonsense—” Seteth started before he was suddenly silenced by Claude’s quick grip at his collar. 

“Don’t lie,” Claude told him. Seteth clawed at his arm with his free hand, swinging the torch dangerously close with its pair. He was strong, but not in the same way as a swordsman-turned archer. “I can see it when you lie.” 

“You’re unhinged,” Seteth replied with a snarl. Claude shook his head. 

“That isn’t it.” He drug him closer with the twist of his fist. “How do you find your odds?” 

What?” Seteth hissed. Claude cocked his head to the side and kept his eyes steadied on him. 

“I don’t think they’re very good.” He shifted his grip to free one of his hands and drew it almost tenderly along the pitch of Seteth’s cheek. 

“What in a thousand hells are you doing?”

Claude answered by tucking Seteth’s shaggy hair behind the fluted edge of his once-hidden ear. 

“I don’t believe in gods,” he told him, his voice low and rumbling. Seteth blanched with fury. Claude tightened his grip on his collar. He could hear the fine fabric stretching taut. “Stand in my way again and I’ll kill you. Do you understand?” 

“Let go of me, you bast—”

Claude returned both hands to Seteth’s neck and jerked them hard enough to jolt the torch from his fingers. It hissed and sputtered in the tousled garlands at their feet. 

“Tell me that you understand,” Claude repeated stonily. 

“I understand,” Seteth finally answered, his pupils nearly swallowed by the whites of his eyes. Claude nodded and slowly loosened his grip.

“You’re mad,” Seteth insisted afterwards with a croak, his fingers fluttering to the bruised ring forming beneath his collar. Claude smirked and paced backwards. 

“Ambitious,” he tutted as he turned away. “Not mad. I’m just ambitious.”       

 

 

Chapter Text

After chasing Seteth from the cathedral, Claude doubled back to his room to strip off the remaining pieces of his dress uniform. Afterwards he pulled a wrinkled linen shirt and a pair of slacks from his trunk and readied himself to search for whatever it was that Galatea had come to offer them. He supposed that the archbishop’s quarters would be his first destination, although it seemed a little torrid for Byleth to make an audience chamber out of her bedroom. 

Byleth found him first. He was surprised to see her crowding his doorway as he drew it open to leave. She’d dressed herself in her usual dark outfit as well, her sleeves rolled high on her arms and her hair pulled tight against her temples. 

“Claude,” she greeted him, the word having lost its breathy drawl from their time together in the cathedral. Bad news, he supposed. He flattened his mouth into an unassuming shape and stepped back to make room for her to pass. 

“Hello there.” 

She trailed inside as he closed the door, crossing her arms to stand silent at the room’s center. Her eyes settled on him for a moment before she pursed her lips for her next reply. 

“What did you say to Seteth?”

He perked one of his brows and leaned the square of his back against his desk. 

“What do you mean?” 

“I’ve just seen him. He looked furious.” 

“Who can crack an enigma like him?” Claude replied. The corner of his mouth twisted into a smirk as she gave him a look that made it clear she wasn’t convinced. “Let me worry about Seteth. Aren’t you going to tell me why someone bothered with the trouble of breaking through the border?” 

“Not someone,” Byleth corrected as she began to pace. “It was Ingrid.” 

“The Countess herself,” Claude wondered aloud, impressed. 

“And Sylvain and Felix.”

“You’re joking. What are they doing here?”

Byleth’s eyes lingered again and made his stomach knot. “They’ve defected,” she told him.  

Fuck. Claude rubbed a palm over the length of his face, his mind buzzing as he quickly rearranged the war table set between his ears. There was far too little blue in it now to separate Edelgard’s red from his own humble yellow field. 

“You think they’re being honest? Who spoke for them?” 

“Yes. It was Sylvain. He wasn’t... himself. It wasn’t easy for them to break rank. The others looked half-dead. I’ve sent them to Marianne. You might still catch them awake, but they were all exhausted,” Byleth offered. Claude shook his head. 

“No. It’s alright. I’ll speak with them tomorrow.” He drummed the fingers of his right hand against the desk. “Is anyone keeping an eye on them?” 

“Yes,” she said with a nod. “Petra and Catherine, and a few other men from the guard.” 

“Good.” Claude stared at her boots as he mulled over the news. He looked up to her afterwards, his eyes settling on hers. “The Kingdom is dead.”

Her mouth moved, but she didn’t immediately respond. 

“Maybe not in the way you mean. Sylvain said that Dimitri is alive.” 

Alive. He’d heard the same rumors, of course, but his scouts had used different words. A madman, they’d said. A devil hiding in the woods. He dipped his head with a nod. 

“I know.”

He heard her draw in a breath. 

“Sylvain said that he’s rallying what’s left of Faerghus’ troops and marching them east,” she added.

“He wants Enbarr,” he guessed. 

“We’re in his way.” 

“I know.” 

“Do you think he would engage us if we were to meet him on the field?” 

“Maybe. He’s just a wild dog hunting out a hare. To him, a doe would likely taste just as good,” he suggested. Byleth huffed a bemused sound. 

“You meant to fight beside him, once.”

Claude nodded. 

“I did. I admired him. Dimitri was a good man. He was clever, and kind, and loved his people as much as anything else. But not any longer. Now he’ll pay for his vengeance with their blood. We have nothing to gain from someone like him”  

“And Edelgard?” 

“Edelgard,” he echoed slowly, turning the letters over on his tongue. “Edelgard has made the mistake of thinking that noble ends can be achieved by any means.” 

“What do you mean?”

He pushed off from the desk, cocking his arms behind his head to stretch the muscles of his shoulders tight. 

“She’s naive. An idealist. Thinks that she can dirty her hands and then just wipe them clean. But actions have consequences, my friend. In the end we’ll all just be remembered for our deeds.” 

“And you?”

His eyes narrowed slightly at her challenge. He stepped a pace closer to her, his eyes busy with reading her face. Curious, she was, like the schoolchildren they’d all once been. 

“Don’t worry about me. I know exactly what I am.”

She kept her gaze steady on him, looking an unusual combination of interested and unimpressed. 

“So what will you do?”

“What, with Dimitri? I don’t know. Sometimes I find it better not to over-plan. Let’s see what he has to offer. Maybe he will make good on his revenge. If not — with Edelgard — I think that’s obvious, don’t you? She’ll crush us if we don’t crush her first. It’s not as if I have a grudge.” He unhitched his arms and palmed a hand through his hair. “Although I suppose we should deal with our new recruits. House Fraldarius is the backbone of the Kingdom. If Felix can still rally its forces it would be a boon for us — and the others, too. I think I know someone who might be able to convince them to try.” 

“Who?” 

“An old friend,” was all he offered with a wink. “Don’t let me ruin the surprise.” 

“Alright,” she relented with the slightest sigh. His smile turned more honest as he stepped another foot closer. At that distance he could see the first hint of a dark shadow under her eyes. There was something nearly pretty in it — like lavender and cream. 

“You should get some rest,” he told her in a gentler tone. She nodded and glanced at the door. 

“Would you mind if I stayed here?”

A laughing breath escaped his lips before he could bite it back. 

“Here? I don’t know, Teach— it leaves something to be desired.”

He gestured at his stripped bed and all of the corners crowded with his things. She kept her eyes steady on the door. 

“I don’t like being in Rhea’s quarters. It’s like sleeping in a crypt.”

You have another room, he could have reminded her, although he didn’t particularly want to offer the suggestion. 

“Alright,” was what he said aloud. She nodded, looking her own version of relieved as she loosened her crossed arms and turned to sit at the foot of the bed. Alright, he thought again, charmed. He watched her for a moment longer before he sidled back to his desk to turn the wick of his lamp low. Giving their situation a second thought, he then bent to his knees to hunt out a bottle from the depths of one of his desk drawers. 

“What’s that?” Byleth eyed him warily as he approached the bed. He cocked the bottle in his hand. It sloshed, three-quarters full. 

Taskam,” he told her, the Almyran words tasting nearly as astringent on his tongue as the drink itself. “It’s an acquired taste.” She shrugged, understanding his unspoken offer to remedy the strange day they’d suffered through with a stiff drink. The bed creaked as he took a seat beside her and uncorked the bottle. She took it from him, her nose crinkling as she sniffed at its long neck. 

“What is it?”

He laughed. 

“Just try it,” he offered.

She did, sputtering afterwards from her over-eager sip. 

“Gods,” she gasped, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand. “That’s terrible.”

He grinned and took the bottle back, taking a longer drag himself as he nodded his head. 

“It is. This is the only thing that we make ourselves — where I come from. I think we learned our lesson from the mistake.” He swirled the bottle, eyeing the long legs of the fiery liquor as it dragged down the sides. “It’s made from stone pine fruit. They’re impossible to pick before they dry out and they taste like shit, but when it’s the only thing that grows for a thousand square miles you take what you can get.” 

She watched him as he took another drink.

“I didn’t know that dukes were the type to drink directly from the bottle,” she quipped. His grin sharpened into a smirk.  

“You’ve gotten funnier.”

She tipped her head at an angle before reaching forward for her turn. This time she did a better job at swallowing, although her voice still hissed with her exhale. 

“And I’ve heard that you’re more than just a duke,” she tested next. He pushed his next breath through his nose. 

“Did you? Who told you that?”

Byleth caught a drip sneaking along the side of the bottle and smudged it with her thumb.

“Seteth,” she answered. Claude nodded. Of course. “I think he meant it as a warning.” 

“I see,” Claude replied, leaning back against his elbows. He let his head loll backwards as he stared upwards into the ceiling. “And what do you think?” 

“I think it would be easier to help you if you would just tell me the truth.”

His lips pulled back into another wolffish shape.   

“The truth. Always about the truth, isn’t it? But here’s the thing, Professor — no one tells the truth,” he countered, his eyes darting sideways to look at her. “Not all of it, at least. That’s just the way we are.”

She frowned, undeterred. 

“Why aren’t you in Almyra?”

There wasn’t anything particularly condescending in her question. He listened to the silence it left behind for a moment before he considered his response. 

“It isn’t enough,” he admitted finally. His eyes settled on the dark outline of a water stain above their heads. “I doubt that you would know this, but my father killed Duke Goneril. Hilda’s father. I don’t think he had a reason for it, really, other than the challenge. She would’ve still been a little girl when it happened. I’m sure he meant to kill the rest of them as well, but as I understand it Holst had taken on a fever, and so they’d all stayed behind in the Throat. My father had a habit of taking trophies from the men he’d killed. He kept the Duke’s head on a little dish until all of the skin fell off.”

Claude’s lip curled at the memory. 

“Now,” he continued, “if Hilda’s father had been an Almyran, that would have been the end of that.” He cracked his hands together to accentuate the point. “Win or lose. Two options, nothing more, and in that instance the latter: admit defeat, lick your wounds, hope for a better hand next time. But House Goneril wanted revenge. So they did just what their forefathers had done a dozen times before— crossed over the border and started burning whatever they could find, and stole what was left over. Little boys and girls, mostly. That is what Fodlan is to my father’s people, and ask a man here what he thinks of Almyra, and he’ll say nothing kinder.” He ran a finger around the rim of the bottle before he took another drink. “If I take one and not the other, eventually they’ll tear each other apart. And where does that leave me?” 

“That’s a complicated way of saying that you want to bring about peace.”

He laughed and straightened his spine again to look her in the eye.

“I killed my own father for the Almyran throne,” he told her. “Do you really think that had anything to do with peace?”

Her jaw tensed as if she were chewing over the idea. 

“Edelgard has written that she can only bring peace to Fodlan by burning the Church to the ground,” she offered after a beat. “And the Kingdom is rallying around Dimitri to kill her in order to end the war. It seems to me that there aren’t many other options.”

Claude arched one of his brows. 

“So you’ve fallen for the lie.” 

Claude,” she huffed, finally frustrated. He set the bottle aside and turned to face her more properly. She frowned as he reached forward to take her hands. 

“How many people do you think you’ve killed?” Her lips twitched into a deeper downturn at his question. Claude drew one of his fingers over the rough patchwork of her palm. “Have you ever kept count?” 

“No.” 

“That isn’t peace. We aren’t peaceful creatures. If you want me to be honest with you, Byleth, you’ll have to be honest with yourself.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

He trailed his touch over her forearm’s well-muscled span and let it spill over onto her thigh. As he did his mind wandered to the memory of kneeling at her feet. 

“You’re not an archbishop,” he admitted to her as he eased himself closer to her side. She watched him with half-lidded eyes, like a cat tracking a mouse and made drowsy by the anticipation. “And I’m not a king. We’re weapons, and weapons are made to be used. You need to understand that if you’re going to stand by my side.”

He planted his left hand at her hip and drew the right along the curve of her collarbone. 

“I don’t believe you.”

He smiled at the sudden fire of her defiance and slipped the first of the buttons bisecting the front of her shirt free. 

“That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s the truth.” He leaned forward to press his lips into the divot at the base of her throat. 

“I’ll show you,” she insisted, a shiver passing through her as he pulled her last button loose. One of her hands snuck beneath the nape of his collar and gripped at his back. He drew his nose between her breasts, breathing in the smell of her before he teased the bud of her nipple into his mouth. “You’re wrong.”

They sighed together and for different reasons. Her fingers began to work at the laces of his pants. Whatever you want to believe, he decided as he closed his eyes. He didn’t bother to tell her. 

 


 

“Well, now, don’t you look impressive.”

Claude’s lips turned into a grin before his eyes had the chance to dart from the sea of ledgers spread across his desk. 

“Judith,” he greeted her smoothly. His focus settled first on the muddy prints she’d tracked into the little room he’d commandeered as his newest office, and then to the sweat on her brow. She looked a little older than before, but not to any significant degree. Her blue eyes still flashed deadly in his lamplight. “And as fresh and lovely as I remember you.” 

“Little shit,” she quipped with a grin of her own. She stalked further forward to plant her palms against the front of his desk. “You better not think that I’m going to call you Duke.”

He laughed. 

“Of course not.” He tossed aside his pen and stood from his chair. Judith rolled her eyes as he then extended his hand to her, stepping another pace forward to force him into a hug instead. “It’s good to see you.” 

“Ahh, you too, I guess.” She clapped his shoulder before loosening herself from his embrace. One of her brows was cocked at an amused angle. “Are you trying to grow a beard?”

He laughed again and rubbed his fingers over the bristle on his chin, realizing too late that he’d forgotten his morning shave. 

“Don’t you like it?” He followed her as she ambled idly towards a nearby window. 

“Not tricking anyone into thinking you’re a schoolboy anymore, are you?” 

“It’s a little late for that,” he answered dryly. She laughed. 

“Well, I suppose it suits you. Makes you look a bit like your grandfather.”

Claude’s grin puckered. 

“Perish the thought,” he replied, and to another round of her barking laughter. 

“So maybe you should shave.” She leaned against the windowsill and eyed the blurry shapes of the lake outside. “Garreg Mach. Been a long time since I was last here, you know. I suppose it was the same for you. It was certainly enough of a hassle to get here, too. I very nearly changed my mind.” 

“How kind of you to carry on,” Claude replied, both coy and honest in his tone. “I don’t doubt that you’ll let me know what I owe you for the trouble.” 

“Too much for you to pay,” she agreed with a wink. “But I’ll just add it to your tab. So,” she smacked her hands against the sill and turned to face him. “I understand that you mean to mend the poor, broken bonds of House Daphnel. Very generous of you.” 

“What am I if not generous?”

She snorted at his words. 

What indeed. Is she here then? My sweet — what is she? Niece?”

Claude shrugged. 

“It’s your family tree, Judith.” 

“Pah,” the woman replied as she rubbed at her nose, “bloody complicated, family trees. And you should be the one to know — there’s some Daphnel in you, too, you know.” 

“Is that right,” Claude answered, already growing a little bored. Judith caught it and winked. 

“Daphnel, Blaiddyd... Hrym, I think, on your grandfather’s mother’s side. And a lot of red sand.” 

“Hm,” he said.  

“Bad luck that all of that drowns out all of the rest. At least when you were younger you still looked like your mother. But honestly, now you mostly just look like him.” Claude tasted something sour gather at the back of his throat. Judith leaned a little closer to him from across the sill. Her eyes glittered in the sunlight. “Did you really do it, boy?” 

His eyelids slipped low before he could catch them — his lips pressing into a tight line. The ruddy color of Judith’s cheeks sapped briefly away. She huffed a breath and leaned back against her heels. 

“I guess I should congratulate you. Too many brave men have failed at it before.” 

“I’ve always been precocious,” Claude sighed. “So. You’ll speak with Ingrid, then?”

Judith’s mouth settled into a less convincing smile.

“Of course. Family is family.” She fiddled with her sleeve. “And if you think the rest are worth the trouble, I’ll let them in as well. Consider Daphnel your doorway to the west. But here’s the catch, my little spider; this web of yours is just a little too tight. It’s not like I can simply bring them to you over the capital roads, and you know what Faerghus is like. Until you fatten them up again even the bravest brutes from Gautier will be more corpses than men. March them past Count Gloucester and he’ll feed them all to his dogs.”

She wasn’t wrong. That was the trouble with war — there was always someone desperate to ruin your best-laid plans, and sometimes that someone was you. Claude sighed and tapped his fingers in a quick beat along the sill. 

“We’ll just find another path.” 

“Naturally,” Judith chided. “In fact, I already have an idea.” He raised his brow at her. She smiled in an unsettlingly sort of way. “You’re going to hate it. I think that means it’ll work.” 

 


 

He did hate Judith’s plan, as it so happened, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t a good idea. She traced a clever path for him along a red slash on his desktop map, and together they planned how they would join what remained of Houses Gautier and Fraldarius and Galatea to welcome into the Alliance’s fold. Next Judith made good on her promise to meet with the Kingdom heirs herself, and returned four hours later victorious, if a little teary eyed. Margrave Gautier was dead, she informed Claude on her return, killed by a clever Sreng raid while he was otherwise distracted. Duke Fraldarius was fighting at Dimitri’s side, his loyalty to the Blaiddyd throne having lost him the allegiance of his own soldiers, who saw the madness in the fallen prince that Rodrigue refused to acknowledge himself. Galatea was starving, the way it always was, and seemed eager to mend the ties of its lost brotherhood with Daphnel in exchange for escaping a turn of season that would no doubt find its countrymen all buried in their own barren soil.

Judith was convinced, therefore, that the three unlucky heirs would be able to tempt at least some of their men east. Claude didn’t bother to ask how many; any sum would help, and less for their strength than for the idea of adding their banners to his. Judith teased him for his magnanimity, but he suspected that she knew as well as he did that there was little to be won in ruling over a kingdom of graves if he ever did manage to gain power outside of the Alliance’s squabbles. He scribbled a missive addressed to Leonie in order to borrow one of Derdriu’s new battalions, and then told Lorenz to do the same with one of the companies that had come to protect Garreg Mach as well. There was no harm in being over-prepared, after all, particularly not when you were marching into hell. 

“What is this place?” Hilda whispered a fortnight later as they found themselves on a hilltop overlooking Aillel’s smoking ruin. Claude sighed and slipped from his wyvern's saddle to join her. He’d left his riding clothes behind, but even the thin shirt and slacks he’d replaced them with were still claustrophobic. If the summer’s heat in Garreg Mach had been unpleasant, Aillel’s bubbling lava fields were beyond common words to describe.

“Desecrated ground,” Seteth offered grimly as he made his own dismount.

“Clearly,” Claude replied dryly. It was perhaps a bit too biting in advance of the challenge they now faced, but he was feeling far from charmed. Seteth did his best to hide his bitter glare. 

“Where do you want us?” Leonie asked him the question from the height of her destrier. Claude hadn’t expected her to accompany her troops herself, but there was something in the sulfuric air that made him relieved that she had. 

“Over there,” he told her as he pointed at a craggy basalt ridge. “We’ll flank the valley. Better to be cautious. Judith will ride from the west. She won’t come alone, but I’d prefer that we be there to greet her.” Claude turned to Ingrid, freshly dressed with a yellow sash over her right shoulder to convince her new countrymen of her allegiance. She nodded, predicting what he’d say next. “Galatea should be the first to arrive. Bring any wounded to Marianne and the healers’ corps. The others from the northern territories may lag behind— hours, maybe days. We need to be prepared for anything. Ration your water.”

His eyes slid from the blonde knight to the others beside her: Felix and Sylvain, both uncharacteristically silent as they prepared themselves to steal what was left of the kingdom they’d left behind; and Lorenz soothing his nervous stallion as it shuffled uneasily against the hot stone; and Cyril, who was doing a good job of hiding his fear with a heavy dose of distrust aimed in Claude’s direction. Claude looked last at Byleth, who nodded at him in return. 

“Ah,” Lysithea interrupted as she snuck closer to the edge of the hill. “There. Is that them?”

Claude trotted to her side and squinted at the hazy horizon line. The flash of a light caught his eye, repeated on a three-four beat, just as Judith had been instructed. He allowed himself a narrow smile. 

“Yes. That’s them. Right on time. Alright. Is everyone clear on—”

“Wait,” Hilda interrupted, her boots clacking against the stone as she danced forward as well. “Over there. There’s more.”

A sliver of something hopeful bloomed in his chest at the idea. If the northmen had already arrived as well perhaps they wouldn’t be damned to boiling to death in the valley after all. He followed the slender point of her finger and cursed his optimism as his eyes settled on the rolling reveal of a black mass crawling over the nearest cliffside. They looked like beetles under the sun’s oily shine. When he had pictured the Kingdom forces Claude had expected men in motley plate and bearing scythes, but the troops now crowding their left flank were brandishing glittering swords instead. 

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. Maybe some of them would have heard it if Ashe hadn’t suddenly cried out. 

“It can’t be,” the younger man insisted as he peered over the ledge. “Why would he...?” 

“What is it?” Claude replied, his words suddenly stern enough to turn the question into a command. Ashe’s shoulders hitched high against his ears. 

“That’s the crest of House Rowe,” he wondered aloud. “But it’s quartered...”

Claude’s gaze settled on the banners unfurling in the valley’s tepid breeze. Ashe was right, of course, and there it was: House Rowe’s grey lion inverted beneath the swooping wingspan of the Empire’s eagle.

“How... How could Count Rowe join them?” Ashe cried. Claude shut his eyes and drew in a deep breath. Because rats jump from sinking ships, he wanted to tell him, although he knew better than to speak the words aloud. 

“Alright,” Claude gritted through his teeth. He strode with brisk steps to his wyvern again. “This doesn’t change anything. Leonie, ride east. The rest, with me. We need to cut a path for Judith before they’re swallowed up.” 

“That’s madness,” Seteth snapped as Claude stepped upwards into his saddle. “Who can be certain how many men House Rowe has mustered in this haze? We could be outnumbered five to one!”

Claude’s wyvern snarled and shook her head, riled by the spike of adrenaline gathering in his veins. 

“So you’d just let them burn?” Claude challenges. Seteth’s nostrils flared as Claude lurched closer to him. His wyvern’s wings unfurled to stir the furnace around them.

“Come on,” Claude added sharply as he looked to Ingrid, who had readied her pegasus for flight as well. “Judith’s nothing if not inspirational, but she won’t be able to drag anyone in here with the Empire ready to welcome them. Come show them that we’re here to help.” 

“I’m with you,” Ingrid agreed. He was relieved that it seemed as though she understood the cost of her own nobility, however tarnished it had become. 

“Don’t be reckless,” he told them all as his wyvern beat her wings again. “We’re not here for war. Travel in groups and keep sensible about the terrain.”

They shouted their agreement as Claude urged his mount over the steep edge of their perch. He didn’t listen to their parting words— focused instead on the brief respite of Byleth’s cool green eyes before the world pitched into red-and-black again. His bow thrummed between his fingers as he readied it to notch. 

“Should we be meeting them?”

Petra asked the question from between the flashing strokes of her wyvern’s wings. He followed her gaze to House Rowe’s steady advance, and answered only when he spotted their own goldenrod calvary riding into the valley’s swallow to meet them. Even at their height he could see the purple of Lorenz’s armor and the scarlet splatter of Sylvain’s wild hair. 

“No,” Claude decided, pitching his voice loud enough so that the rest of their airborne guard could hear. “The rest will hold them back. Let’s press on.”

They had the advantage. House Rowe had brought foot soldiers, but the Alliance was diverse: war-horses, pegasi, wyverns. If they were careful in their next steps he was convinced they could at least ferry Galatea through the valley before they found themselves properly swamped. By then no doubt word would have spread backwards towards the borderline to stop Fraldarius and Gautier from throwing themselves into their own graves. Claude’s heart hammered as he convinced himself of the idea. 

“What if they cut us off?”

Cyril’s choked question was fair, if not particularly well timed. 

“Then we’ll just have to cut through.” Claude rolled his wyvern so that he was close enough to touch the boy’s frown with his fingertips. “Don’t be afraid. Zaman hala atesh.”

Cyril’s face darkened as Claude then urged another great gust of wind into his wyvern’s wings and chased her forward into the gloom.  

Zaman hala atesh. He’d often heard Nader offer up the phrase. It was an old soldier’s tradition, the sort of thing that could be bellowed as a drunken cheer as easily as it could be sobbed when no one else was there to hear. The sun will always rise. 

 


 

“It took you long enough,” Judith chided him as he landed at her side. Her cheeks were smudged with the dark ash that carpeted that damned place, but he was still able to read her relief. “Seems like we’ve got company.” 

“The uninvited sort,” Claude agreed. His quiver was lighter thanks to their forward advance, but they’d all still arrived in one piece. He considered the ragtag company at Judith’s heels next. Here was the sight had been expecting — gaunt-cheeked lancers and swordsmen with grey hair and rusted blades. Ingrid had lighted on the hill of their encampment before the rest of them, and was already busy worrying over a grizzled fellow who’d painted her House’s sigil across his dented chestplate. “How many?” 

“Four hundred,” Judith answered. “And twice as many unarmed.”

He sucked in a tight breath at the idea. 

“I thought you said you were bringing soldiers.” 

“Yes, well, then I invite you to tell them to leave their families behind,” she tutted. Claude wrestled his lips into a flat shape. 

“Right. Do they understand the situation?” 

“What? That we’re leading them into a dragon’s pit, and with the Empire waiting for them at the end?” Her tone was playful, but she kept it quiet enough so that only he could hear. “Of course they do. Don’t worry. They’re eager to stay alive. I’ve sent a messenger to Fraldarius to tell the rest to scatter into the hills. It will be slower going, but if they’ve got any grit to them they should manage it alright. I’ve taken the liberty of sending Daphnel’s knights to accompany them as well.”

Claude nodded, although the news turned into an anvil inside his chest. So he’d inherited a city’s worth of helpless old men and traded a proper battalion for the trouble. Some would say that it wasn’t a terribly clever move. 

“You’ll manage,” Judith reassured him, gripping his arm. “Come on. You have the Hero of Daphnel at your side, eh?”

He nodded, perhaps more for her than for himself. 

“Alright. We shouldn’t push our luck. Look there,” he added, gesturing at a dark patch of stone running through the center of the valley. “It’s thickest there. Shouldn’t give way, but it will be hot as anything. We have to keep our pace. I’ll ride low and give you cover. Any man with a bow should march at the fore and be ready to use them. Just make sure they know what the gods-damned Alliance riders look like first.” 

“Whatever you say,” Judith agreed with a smirk. “Lead the way.”  

He did, trading a look with Ingrid first before he urged his wyvern airborne again. Petra hovered closest at his side, with Seteth and Cyril forming a more reluctant ring around the refugees as they slowly formed into a file. By the time they had begun their forward march Claude could hear the roar of House Rowe pushing against the Alliance’s forward guard. He thumbed through the thinning collection of his arrows and quickly shuffled the remaining options left to them in that noxious place. 

It was killing, that is: the answer to his question. He rode low, his wyvern’s wings nearly grazing the bubbling pools beneath them as he risked only the surest shots at men dressed in grey plate. Petra’s proud battlecry echoed in his wake, accentuated by the tight “ha!” that Cyril made when his own arrows hit their mark. The Galatean archers proved their worth as well. Slowly but surely they made their way through the press of the men who Lorenz and the rest of them had been unable to keep at bay. 

Claude had very nearly allowed himself to feel relieved when Petra suddenly called his name. He glanced across the battlefield before he realized that she was above him. He matched her altitude, secretly relieved to suck in the fresher air it offered. 

“What is it?” 

“Look there,” she answered grimly. With how the day had gone, he was reluctant to follow her command. When he did he spotted what she’d meant. 

“Gods damn it,” he groaned. The valley’s spine was a jagged mess of craters. Easy enough to overlook at their height, the ravines were impassable for anyone on the ground. It had splintered both forces into smaller skirmishes on either side. Even from his distance he could see the whirl of Byleth’s blade on the rightward path, which meant that the situation was under control; but to the left Rowe’s forces had boxed in Leonie’s fresh-made soldiers, and now they were being pushed against the red tide of a smoking pool. 

“Shit,” he said again, since only Petra was there to hear. His eyes tracked quickly over the scabbed earth beneath them as he tried to piece together a new plan. “Alright. Stay here. Close to Judith.” His gaze darted quickly to the green of Seteth’s hair — so that he doesn’t ruin anything in the name of his own self-gods-damned-preservation, he added silently. Petra nodded with enough eagerness for him to believe she’d understood. “I’ll draw some of them away. 

“You cannot go alone.” 

“This is a pinch-point,” he insisted, flagging his hand at the long train behind them. “They need to press on. Lead them to the southern pass as quickly as you can manage. I’ll join you afterwards.”

“You will join us,” she agreed. He gave her a thin smile. 

“Right. Be careful.”

He peeled away before he had the chance to hear her response. The flat air whistled in his ears as he pressed his wyvern into a blurry pace. Then he urged her low again, low enough that the swordsmen roiling beneath him would see his face, and would perhaps recognize him as a better bounty than the red-cheeked boys currently doing their best to push them back. 

“The Duke!”

His heart quickened slightly from his success, however reckless as it was. He loosed an arrow and then another, his eyes dancing from one helmet to the next to find the best target. They lingered for a half-second on Leonie as she made a tidy kill before darting away again to watch his dark-fletched arrow disappear into the crush. He wheeled his wyvern in long, looping circles that inched ever farther from the pool at the Alliance soldiers’ backs. House Rowe’s men fell for the bait, clamoring over one another for the honor of the blow that could bring Fodlan’s final stubborn nation to its knees. 

They didn’t manage it until they did. Maybe it was the heat — that damnable heat that had been haunting him for days, leaving him sluggish and slow-thinking even in better places than that — or maybe it was just fate. Whatever it was, it manifested itself in a thick crossbolt that suddenly buried itself in his wyvern’s side. She screeched and pitched sideways at the strike, her right wing crippled as the muscle that connected it to her serpentine body shredded beneath the arrowhead. 

“Ah, miran, miran,” he gasped as she lurched and yawed. Calm, calm. She yowled as he leaned sideways to grope for the bolt. Her cries made his ears ring. He did his best to keep his mind steady against her corkscrewing path. She’s going to fall, he told himself as his fingers slipped uselessly around the arrow; she can’t fly like this. Gritting his teeth, he forced her neck forward with his hands to try to coach her to the ground. She fought against it, sensing the danger waiting for her if she found herself suddenly flightless. 

“Come on,” he spat, wincing as he caught his tongue between his teeth and tasted blood. He ignored it, focused instead on unbuckling himself from his saddle. “I’ll get off, just go a little closer.” 

She obeyed, but it would‘ve been better if she hadn’t. He tensed himself to leap from her back, but already it was too late; and perhaps he sensed it even before he understood it, the way that a sudden petrichor had filled his nose. The spell’s second hint was a slight pinch at his left side. By then he was already tumbling towards the earth, a new curse filling his mouth. The word twisted into a meaningless howl as a bonfire spread beneath the thin cotton of his shirt. Somehow it made no sound at all — or maybe the shock of it had deafened him — but he could smell it; him, his skin crackling against the spell’s spiderwebbed touch, just like he’d always dreamed of when he’d had nightmares of burning alive. 

No. No. 

Somehow he landed on his feet. For a half-second he was nothing but blind tension knotted tight, the basest parts of him stirred into a frenzy as it begged him run or fight? The pain was the next to return, so intense that it was nearly ethereal; and too much of it, enough to blot out each letter of his scrambled thoughts, and leaving nothing but an infuriating emptiness behind. Then came his hearing: the clatter of plate, the crunch of the shale beneath his feet, the haunting wail of something otherworldly that nearly drowned out all of the rest. His wyvern, he realized. She was crying. Finally his sight returned, although not as it‘d been before. Dazed, he peered up in search of the ghostly keening and saw the creature’s black belly circling above his head. There was something wrong. Why was she up there, and him all the way down below? 

Don’t forget to breathe, a voice reminded him. He hiccuped a shallow breath obediently, ignoring the dark forms at the corner of his eye as he swam through his agony to take stock of what had happened. 

Not with that, the voice surmised as he tried to flex his left hand. It dangled uselessly at his hip. That’s right. The right. His eyes — his eye, he realized, the world to his left in a strange shadow — settled on his right palm. His fingers curled and uncurled. Good. 

It’s not, another voice cried out; it hurts, it hurts. 

Your shirt, the first voice commanded. He obeyed, crossing his hand over his body to tug his hem free from his slacks. His breath hissed through his lips as he spotted the jagged scars the spell had left behind on his skin, as black as the valley’s basalt and splintering greedily in a dozen different tendrils spreading from his hipbone to the rest of him still covered beneath cloth. 

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts  

Your sword.  

“Claude!” 

His sword was too heavy. He pulled it from its sheath, but it was all wrong. How could it have happened? Who could have possibly replaced that dependable old blade with this new, impossible weight? He staggered against the useless plant of his left leg as he tried to wrench the imposter from its wedge against the ground. 

“Are you alright? Claude! What are y—Goddess!”

It was a man’s voice. Claude understood, in some distant part of himself, that he recognized it. He realized next that he should have been relieved to hear a voice like that, but all he could really hear was his wyvern’s screaming. Why did she sound like that?  

Lorenz, the voice inside him supplied as he tore his broken gaze from the creature to track the man’s approach. The man is Lorenz. Lorenz meant that he didn’t have to kill him, Claude understood, which was good, since he couldn’t lift his sword upwards from the ground. Lorenz looked back at him. His cheeks were a sickly shade of grey. Claude realized in that moment that the blackened ruin of his stomach must have continued up onto his own face as well. 

Lift your sword. 

“Lorenz.” His voice didn’t sound like his own. It tasted like salt peter and something sour. Lorenz looked as though he wanted to listen, but he was distracted by the sudden advance of a man swinging a mace. He made quick work of him with his lance before sidling closer to Claude’s side. Claude watched the others as he moved - not theirs but them, a hundred men in grey and black. A hundred too many, and then a hundred more. 

Lift your sword. Fight.  

“Lorenz, listen.”

Lorenz’s eyes were difficult to track. It made him dizzy to try. 

Tell him that it hurts. Make him help us. Please. 

“Get out of here.”

Lorenz finally looked him in the eye. 

“Nonsense,” he sputtered, his voice thin enough to be a whine. “I’ll find a horse. Stay here and I’ll ride for Marianne. No. No, I’ll bring you to her.” 

“Get out of here,” Claude repeated. His gaze darted over Lorenz’s shoulder to watch the slow advance of the men forming a ring around them. “Get everyone out of here. You, and Hilda, and Byleth.”  

Byleth. Byleth! Look, it hurts. Help me.  

“Absolutely not.” 

“Do it.”

There’s children, a part of him wanted to beg him. He meant the Galateans, of course, but for some reason he thought of Cyril instead. You’ll be fine, another voice contested; Lorenz, you stubborn old dunce. He’d always thought that he’d make a good duke, wasn’t that right? And Hilda would be better than her father. Hilda would never put little girls in chains. Sweet Hilda. She wouldn’t make boys like him, Faheem had once said. Except that wasn’t how it had gone, was it? But maybe it was what he’d meant. And surely Faheem would never be like their father. So maybe it was all alright. Not exactly what Claude had planned, but perhaps what he’d been destined for. Things like him, at least. Ending in places like this.

You’re dying, that first voice told him bitterly. You stupid fool. 

“You stupid fool. They fight for you, don’t you understand?” Lorenz was shaking him by the shoulders. His lavender hair had fallen into his face. Claude realized that he must have fallen, too. His eyes tracked his wyvern’s circle against the smoke-filled sky. A circle like her eyes, both empty and endlessly full. Blue, once, and darker than their color, and then a sea-glass green. That was strange, he supposed as he sunk further into the hot soil; strange for them to have changed. He wondered why they had. 

“Claude! 

aude 

Kal,” he sniffed. His face was a snotty mess, as red as those sour fruits he loved to eat and twice as ugly. 

“Stop crying,” Khalil insisted. That only made it worse. 

“Kal.” Faheem’s little hands trembled as he tugged a fresh bandage tight. “Doesn’t it hurt?” 

“Of course not. Quit it. You’re a boy. You’re not supposed to cry.” 

“What do you know!” Faheem sounded angry, but his touch was still gentle as he wrapped another inch of Khalil’s raw back. “There’s something wrong with you. Why don’t you just tell them to stop?” 

“That isn’t how it works,” Khalil scoffed. Stupid Faheem. Eleven months older than him and he still didn’t understand anything. 

“You don’t need to be like this,” Faheem insisted with another sniffle. 

“But Father says—”

“Father says!?” Faheem finally stepped away from the bed, stomping along his brother’s outstretched form to tower over his face. “He’s a monster, Kal! He... He’s a bad man!” His hands trembled as he spoke. Khalil watched his eyes dart to the corners of the room, seeking out some unseen interloper waiting to tell the king what he’d dared to say aloud. “And he has plenty of reavers. He doesn’t need another one in you.” 

“You’re just jealous,” Khalil contended with the screw of his face. “After all, why do you think he gave me my name?”

Faheem sighed. 

“That isn’t how this happened.” 

“What?” Khalil flinched when his brother stroked his brow. 

“That’s not what you said. You said ‘I won’t be like him’. Don’t you remember?” 

Khalil tried to sit up, but the angry red strips torn from his shoulders kept him trapped against the quilt. 

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.” 

“You said ‘I won’t be like him,’” Faheem insisted, his voice suddenly cruel. “You always knew what he was. You saw what he did to me. What does it matter if he gave you his name? You would have never said something like that before.” 

“What? Faheem—”

“What does it matter if you killed him? Why do you care?” 

“I don’t—”

“Why can’t you just be good?” 

“I am,” Khalil insisted, cringing as his throat grew tight. “I am! Shut up!” 

“Tell me the truth!” Faheem shoved the heels of his hands against his brother’s swollen back, grinding them against the bandages even as Khalil cried out. 

“He was my father!” 

“You stupid idiot,” Faheem replied, “you're just a bastard. What does that matter?” He pressed harder, squeezing the breath out of his lungs. 

“He came back,” Khalil croaked. “Even when he left, he always came back.” 

“What, to you? You think that’s what that was? Why would you think that? Look. Look at me, Khalil.” Faheem crouched closer to him. He’d always had brown eyes before, but now they were green. Suddenly his skin was fair and beautiful; his long hair newly cropped against his jaw, his lips full and drawn into a tender shape. 

“Look at me, little darling,” his mother cooed. “Is that really what you think?” 

“Yes,” he stuttered, transfixed by her gemstone gaze. She smiled sweetly at him and pressed her lips against his cheek. 

“You never learned the lesson, then,” she told him sadly. As she pulled away her voice grew low and rasping. “But why should I be surprised? Father always pictured himself as some great wyvern flying in the sky,” his eldest brother told him, the pale marble of his unseeing eye sending a jolt down his aching spine. “That mad old fool. Everyone knew the truth of him except for you. He was just a worm and you’re his son, so what does that make you?” 

Stone-Eye gripped him by the chin and squeezed hard enough to make his teeth squeak. 

“You thought you were so clever shoving that sword through my back, Kal, but you were the one to die in the dirt.” His mouth split into a jagged grin as he started laughing. He sounded like their father.  

“Ha!”

Claude’s lungs were screaming for air. He sucked in one breath and then the next, his fingers gripping for some sort of purchase as his chest squeezed tight. His eyes were open, but there was nothing for them to settle on. The realization sparked a fresh pang of panic alight in his gut. Blind, he realized in horror, his chest seizing for another breath until he finally recognized the square edge of a room’s corner at the limit of his gaze. It was dark but it was there — the bulge of crown moulding, the fuzzy glow of the faintest light somewhere close by. He focused on the rapid tempo of his breathing as he slowly trained his gaze lower until he’d found the grey of his sheets. 

Sheets. A bed. Alive, he coached. He eased one of his palms against the mattress and reveled in the cotton’s coolness. His breath caught in his throat again as his fingers nudged against something warm. He tried to tip his chin towards the feeling, but his body was sluggish to respond. By the time he saw Byleth his hand was already resting on her arm. She’d crossed it underneath the other against the edge of the bed. One of her hands was curled against the mattress, but the other was hidden under the veil of her tousled hair. Her lashes were dark against her cheeks. She was sleeping. He’d been sleeping, too. That meant that he must have been alive. 

For everything that had happened, that was the hammer strike that finally broke the dam inside his chest. He was alive. Claude snatched his hand away from her and cupped it over his face. Alive, even after all of the terrible things he’d done. He pressed the fingers of both hands against his eyes until they filled with sparks. It didn’t stop the tears from running hot against his cheeks. Alive, even though he’d watched his father choke on his own blood; alive, even though he’d thrown his brother into the black of the night; alive, and with his mother some distant memory, and Faheem a broken doll; alive! 

“Claude,” a whispered voice called out. He curled away from it onto his side, flinching from her touch against the ugly scars on his back as he tried to steady the soundless sobs racking his chest. The mattress creaked as she crawled beside him. She murmured his name and hunched over his shoulder, her lips pressing against his temple even as he tried to shrink away. 

“It’s alright,” she soothed, stringing her arms around him. “It’s alright, ptiska. It’s alright.” 

Chapter Text

There was a fly trapped somewhere in the room. It was the first thing Claude noticed when he woke. Usually the buzzing would have set his teeth on edge, but in that moment he allowed himself to simply listen instead. The fly made a lazy go at spiraling closer and then drifting away. Its humming reminded him of the long saws that the loggers used in the forests along the Almyran border. He’d liked to watch them when he’d been a boy — the way that the men would share a saw between them, the hair on their arms powdered with sawdust as they waged their timeless war. He could nearly smell the anise of the pines, even if the room in which he’d been sequestered was warmer than those mountain woods had ever been. 

Somewhere nearby a clumsy hand dropped something to clatter against the floor. The sound was muffled. He realized that he must not have been in his room. The walls were thin, there. When he’d been a student he’d always woken to the ring of strikes in the nearby training grounds, and to the chatter of his peers as they slowly roused as well. As he was now, he’d often listened to the guards clacking across the grounds as he dressed himself. But this room, unlike the one with which he was so familiar, was no doubt clad in stone thick enough to drown out most of the monastery’s rabble. 

He smoothed one of his palms against the sheets. The fabric was soft against his touch. Rich. Expensive. He drew in a deep breath and smelled the faintest perfume of incense and the chocolate of old, well-oiled wood. Of course. He’d been in this room before — and how disappointing it’d been to find that Rhea had left no secrets for him tucked between the things she’d left behind. Not that it should have been surprising to find himself there. What sort of people would his countrymen have been if they’d left him to die in a dormitory? 

Not that he had. He felt like someone had taken a flat razor to his insides and scraped him clean, but he was no doubt alive. Slowly he took stock of what that meant. He was exhausted, firstly — and not just from the steady ache packed inside the left hemisphere of his body, but also from the weeping that had left his eyes nearly swollen shut. Maybe he should have been embarrassed, but his chest was too drained of those sorts of feelings to sally any forth. 

His mouth was dry. He ran his tongue over his teeth and felt his fuzzy-edged consciousness cling to the idea. Soon he forgot all about the fly, and about Almyran pines and the weight of his eyelids: all that mattered was a drink. Water, wine, vinegar — anything. 

He opened his eyes. They settled first on the ornate fresco painted above his head. It was filled with green-haired cherubs frolicking across a sea of broad-brushed clouds. His eyes lingered on a chip lost from one of their pink cheeks before they scanned downwards along the walls. There was something dark crumpled across the floorboards. Slacks, he realized, the legs akimbo, one of them just touching the foot of a nearby chair. A shirt was draped over its seat, cut from the same black cloth. He recognized the rose-colored piping around the collar. It made the corners of his mouth twitch into the direction of a smile. She’d never been good about folding her clothes. 

He found Byleth beside him, which explained the warm weight tucked against the pit of his arm. She was bare-skinned, but he was confident that they hadn’t fallen into their old habits in the night — it was just the heat. Anyone would have suffocated to share a bed fully dressed. Still, what a sight she was: her hair tangled and dirty at the crown, and her leftward shoulder pink with a burn only marginally healed. She had a new scar on her chin as well, which she’d tucked tight against the flat of his chest as if she’d known he’d chide her for it. 

His eyes danced over those marks of hers which he knew better: that fish-hooked line beneath her new burn; the faint slashes across her forearm gained from her stubborn tendency to block with her vambraces; the first hints of that old, dark scar hiding beneath the fold of her breast. She must have felt the weight of his gaze. He watched while she screwed her brow tight and slowly blinked opened her eyes. Maybe his looked a little like hers: ringed with a dark shadow and creased along the sides. She looked tired and bruised and small, swallowed up as she was in the broad bed. You’re beautiful, he wanted to tell her, but his tongue couldn’t find the right shape. 

“You’re awake,” Byleth offered instead. Her words were thick with sleep. She didn’t make the move to uncoil herself from his side. He kept his place as well. 

“I am.” He winced slightly at the croak of his voice, and then remembered the taste of ash on his tongue from however long ago. “What happened? How long was I asleep?”

Her lashes fluttered as she tallied up the time he’d lost. 

“Three days, counting yesterday,” she told him, which really meant two days and his unraveling the night before. His brows ticked high at the sum. She looked as though she wanted to smirk at the gesture, but something brittle flashed in her eyes instead. A shiver passed through him as she pressed her fingers against his chest. He realized a half-second later that she was hunting out his heartbeat. 

“I thought that you might die,” she said. The touch of her fingertips was nearly unbearable, suddenly, but he held fast. “You should have been more cautious.”

He huffed, his eyes dragging to her burn again. You’re one to talk, he could have said, although it seemed like she already knew. 

“What happened?” 

“You don’t remember?”

He did, in pieces: the Galateans’ sooty faces streaked with sweat, old men and little boys gripping at their mothers’ hands; and Lorenz veiled beneath his hair, his features cast in a stark pallor against the valley’s brimstone. He remembered something acrid in his mouth and the feel of his wyvern’s blood soaking through his gloves. He remembered falling and never finding the bottom. 

“I should have been more cautious,” he admitted to her aloud. Her eyes watered as she frowned. 

“You saved them,” she replied in conciliation. “Leonie’s company. After you fell, Judith’s refugees turned back and crushed the Rowe forces from behind. Most of them armed themselves with whatever they could find. If they hadn’t come for you, the company would have been wiped out.” 

“Were there many casualties?” 

“Yes,” she answered, her matter-of-fact tone betrayed by the slight wince at the corner of her eyes. Yes, and too many, that look said. He frowned. 

“They should have fled instead.” She looked at him in a way that was difficult to define. 

“You should have, too,” she replied. He laughed a dry breath but didn’t answer. “The way I see it, the Kingdom territories have been put to the sword for years. And in the face of all of it, what have their lords done? Bowed to Edelgard for mercy, or left them all behind to hunt for some long-dead prince. I’m not shocked that Ingrid was desperate for a different option, but I do imagine that her people were surprised when you agreed to offer it to them. How could they leave you to die for their own amnesty?” 

“Amnesty doesn’t mean much to a dead man.”

Byleth wedged her weight against the arm planted across his chest to look him more directly in the eye. 

“It means something to their sons.”

He didn’t argue, even if her words made his blood run cold. Instead he finally mustered the strength to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. 

“Some of the scouts have spotted the men from Fraldarius and Gautier near the coast,” Byleth continued, undeterred. “It seems as though they’ll make it to Derdriu in six days, maybe seven. They won’t forget what you’ve done for them.” 

“Alright,” he relented, suddenly exhausted by the idea. He shut his eyes and did his best to focus on the black of his eyelids instead of his desire to double-back and insist she tell him exactly who it was who had died — to square up this newest debt of his that so often seemed endless. “And Lorenz, and the others?” He held his breath for her reply. 

“They’re fine,” she reassured him, dipping her chin against his chest again. “Feeling a little guilty, maybe — embarrassed.” 

“Hmm,” he said, both relieved and commiserating with how they felt. “Was it him, then, who dragged me out?” 

“Who, Lorenz?” She shook her head against him. “No. It was Cyril.” 

Cyril?” Claude’s rasping voice pitched tight. Byleth smiled. It was the sort of expression that he’d often imaged she tried to hide. 

“Cyril,” she agreed. “He broke rank from Seteth and flew you out. If it wasn’t for your wyvern he might have never found you.”

He flinched at the idea. 

“Poor old girl,” he sighed, predicting what she’d say next. She slipped her right hand from beneath his arm to cup against his knuckles at her cheek. 

“No,” she answered, as if she’d read his mind. “She’s alright, too. I don’t know if you’ll be able to ride her any longer, but she’s doing well enough.” 

“Fuck,” he wondered aloud. It wasn’t really the right word, but for some reason it was the only one that he could speak. “We were lucky.”

Byleth hummed her agreement. He watched her as she gingerly brushed one of her hands over his dark-bruised side. 

“Does it hurt?” 

“No,” he lied. His lips twitched into a curve as he felt the warmth of her white magic skimming across his skin. 

“I thought that you might die,” she told him again after a moment. “The spell... It wasn’t something common. I don’t know who casted it, but they couldn’t have been from House Rowe.” 

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied, which really meant perhaps one day we’ll find out. Her cheeks grew dark as she misinterpreted his words as pessimistic instead. 

“It matters.”

He sighed. The sound of it wavered in his throat, threatening to spill into something desperate if he wasn’t careful. He strung both of his arms around her and eased her more properly atop him. She stiffened slightly as he pressed his nose into the crook of her throat. 

“I know.” 

They laid silently together for a long time. Claude drowsed, his attention sparked to life again in increments to the shuffle of boots outside, and to the steady rhythm of Byleth’s breathing, and the glimmer of the sun sliding across the far wall. Eventually he remembered that he was thirsty, and hungry, and that they were in a war from which he couldn’t hide. Sighing, he drew a hand over the curve of Byleth’s shoulder and sensed that she understood as well. 

She rose without a word. His eyes lingered on the soft-pink indentations that the crumpled sheets had left on her skin while she hunted out her clothes. Suddenly he was transfixed by how pleasant it was to watch her dress. She did it quickly, unsurprisingly; shoving her fists through her sleeves with the same relentless energy that she used to draw her sword. Some of her hair was sticking up as straight as a blade of grass from the back of her head. 

You’re beautiful, he thought again. He wondered if she’d be pleased by the words. Had anyone else ever whispered them to her before? Not her mother, who had been gone before she’d had the chance. Her father, maybe, but Jeralt didn’t seem the type. Had she once charmed village boys to admit it to her? Or other mercenaries wearing the Blade Breaker’s burnt orange? And when those sell swords had been cut down, had she crouched at their deathbeds like she had his? Had they whispered to her with their last gasping breath, I love you? 

“My name is Khalil,” he told her through the knot in his throat. She turned as he spoke, a wash of confusion spreading across her face in the form of a furrowed bow and the slight shift of her lips. “You can still call me Claude. It’s probably better that you do. I’d just like for you to know.”

 


 

“Easy. Easy!”

The crack of something with a long handle clattered against the ground. Claude heard huffing next: quick, deep-bellowed breaths paired with a frustrated grunting.

“I’m not going to hurt you! Why won’t you just calm down?”

He followed the sound through the monastery’s midday bustle, already knowing what he’d find and halfway amused.

“She can sense that you’re afraid,” he coached Cyril as he rounded the corner into the bestiary. “You’re spooking her. I think you need to take your own advice.” 

“Claude!” Cyrils face flushed as he realized that he’d been caught. He froze between the older man and his dark-scaled wyvern, who had forgotten her task of snapping at Cyril’s fingers to slink forward towards her master. She purred — a strange, almost flutey sound that echoed deep in her long throat — as she nudged her snout beneath his arm. Claude rubbed the palm-sized scales at the side of her head and then hummed a pained little noise as he spotted the odd angle of her right wing. 

“Poor old darling,” he cooed. He tipped back her head with a press against her horns and looked into the black depths of her eyes. “What have they done to you, eh?” 

“Nothing,” Cyril mumbled, misunderstanding his question. Claude smiled and looked over at him just as the younger man stiffened into an awkward pose. “But she would be happier if she’d just let me treat her wounds. Marianne says they’ll fester if we aren’t careful.” 

“Come on, then,” Claude offered as he waved his fingers in Cyril’s direction. Cyril scowled, hesitating for a moment before he inched forward to place a short tin in Claude’s palm. It was filled with some sort of thick, grey-colored paste. Claude could understand why his wyvern hadn’t been so interested in Cyril’s well-intentioned ministrations. 

“Alright,” Claude continued, sing-song. He felt himself slipping into Alymran, the way he always did when he spoke to her — and now, for once, with an audience that would understand his words. “Let me see. Don’t be stubborn, sweet-thing.”

The wyvern shifted her crippled wing closer to him as if she spoke Almyran, too. He scooped his fingers into the paste and pressed them to the pink flesh where her scales had been peeled away. Cyril lingered, his eyes glued to his toes. Claude watched him from the corner of his eye. 

“As I understand it,” he continued after a moment, his words still cloaked in their mother tongue, “I owe you quite a bit of gratitude, my friend.” 

“It’s nothing,” Cyril shot back quickly, his words still stubbornly Fodlanese. Claude cocked one of his brows at him but kept steady in his task. “Anyone would have done it.” 

“I don’t think so.” His wyvern grumbled low as his fingers brushed a particularly sore spot. Cyril jumped at the noise. Claude smirked. “What is it? You’re a proper rider, Cyril. Don’t be afraid.” 

“She isn’t like the others,” Cyril mumbled, and this time finally matching Claude’s language. “She’s always picking fights with my Starling. And I think she’s been eating the cats.”

Claude laughed. 

“Well, they aren’t pets, you know,” he said. Cyril’s lips turned into a frown. “Besides, if she’s scrapping with your wyvern it just means that she’s fond of him.” 

“That,” Cyril stuttered, “that’s just — we shouldn’t keep females. That’s what Seteth says. He says they’re too aggressive.”

Claude sighed and rubbed his fingers clean on a pant-leg, brushing back a loose strand of hair afterwards with the back of his hand. 

“And what does Seteth know about wyverns?” 

“He’s a master rider,” Cyril scoffed. This time Claude allowed himself the luxury of rolling his eyes. 

“A master rider? Don’t be naive. You’re too old for that.”

Cyril’s shoulders bristled. 

“I thought you came here to thank me,” he countered. That made Claude laugh. At least he still had some grit to him, somewhere. 

“I did. So, what would you like?” 

“What?” 

“I think you deserve a reward,” Claude countered with a wink. “After all, the Alliance would have been in a bit of a tricky spot if you hadn’t come to my aid. I could give you a title, you know.” 

“I don’t want anything like that,” Cyril blustered, crossing his arms. Claude had suspected as much. His lips eased into a more honest shape. 

“You might still earn one even if you don’t want it if you keep up with this sort of thing.”

He gave his wyvern a final pat before he found a seat on a nearby barrel, not too proud to hide his wince at the sore tension still haunting his side. Cyril’s scowl turned a queasy shade as he noticed the duke’s limping. Claude waved it away.  

“I’m alright. Thanks to you, that is.” He studied him for a moment longer, turning the empty tin between his hands. “So. Why did you do it?” 

“Excuse me?” Cyril managed to muster an even more affronted tone at Claude’s challenge. 

“Why did you help me? Don’t worry. It’s an honest question. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to be a little curious. No one can understand what we’re saying, in any case, not even if they’re listening in. Besides, I know that you didn’t come to Garreg Mach because of me, Cyril. You know as well as I do that Leicester will fall to the Church if I don’t stand in the way. Isn’t that what you want?” 

“I don’t want anything like that,” Cyril insisted again through his teeth. “I just want to find Lady Rhea and—”

“And you expected to find Lady Rhea in Aillel?” 

“It’s not that simple! Don’t think I don’t know what you’re implying. Just because you aren’t a believer doesn’t mean that the Church is wrong!” 

“My faith isn’t important,” Claude replied evenly. “Even I know that much.”  

“You don’t know anything,” he huffed. Claude laughed and shook his head. 

“You remind me of someone,” he told him. “And maybe I’m just a fool. But I still want to know why you fight for them, Cyril, and I want to know why you fight for me. Don’t you think I’m owed that much, at least?” 

“You wouldn’t understand,” Cyril muttered at his toes. 

“Why don’t we test that theory?”

His wyvern croaked her agreement. Cyril answered her with a belabored groan. 

“I don’t... It’s just...” He fiddled with his sleeve. “Just that...” His eyes darted to Claude’s and seemed to find something reassuring enough for him to clear his throat.

“My father was a shepherd,” Cyril said finally. “He was a...a good man. Most of the other men in our village would ride with the war parties, but he’d always stay behind. Watch over the children, mind the herds, things like that. They all called him a coward for it, but he didn’t care. He knew that there wouldn’t have been a village at all without him — that we would have just been animals, otherwise.”

Cyril’s words died in his throat. Claude urged him on with a nod, the mischievous glint in his eyes long lost to something far more serious. 

“He was kind to me. I know that he was kind. But when I think of him now I can’t even — I don’t even know what he looked like. I don’t know his name, my name...” He rubbed at his eyes before gritting his teeth into another stern expression. “All that I remember is when House Goneril came. First they burned the sheep in the fields and next they sacked all of the houses, and then they started killing. That’s when my father hid me in a cellar. I was afraid of the dark.” Cyril’s voice grew small with the admission. “I didn’t want to go there, especially not alone. I tried to convince him to take me with him, but I’m sure he already knew how the day would end. So he,” Cyril gripped at his shoulders in a pantomime of the memory, “took me by the arms and he shook me, twice, hard enough that I forgot about the cellar, and he told me not to be afraid. That no matter how dark it was, that it wouldn’t last forever. Zaman hala atesh.” The sun will always rise. Claude felt something bittersweet kindle in his chest as he remembered speaking the same words to the young man four days before. Cyril scuffed his heel against the gravel of the floor. 

“But then they killed my father,” he continued, his voice nearly a whisper, “and they found me in the cellar. I tried to fight them back but I was — I was just a little boy.”

“Nothing you could have done would have changed what happened,” Claude offered when he paused. Cyril shook his head. 

“No, of course not,” he replied sourly, his voice growing louder with every word. “I understand my place. It isn’t about that. It’s just that... Now you fight for them. Don’t you realize that? Everyone knows that you favor Hilda, and she’s that bastard’s daughter!”  

“Cyril,” Claude interjected, his voice gentle but firm, “it isn’t that simple.” 

“Of course it is! And don’t think that I don’t know what you’ve done. I thought that maybe you would at least burn that terrible place down,” he snarled, conjuring images of the Locket without needing to name it aloud, “but then you just fed it instead — and with everything you stole after you’d killed my father’s king.” Claude drew a deep breath to temper the spark of his own anger teasing itself awake. “And I know what you think about me — about the Church. But at least I know what they stand for. At least I know they’ll protect me. You, though — how can I trust you? Who in a thousand hells do you serve?” 

No one, Claude wanted to snarl, dark and defensive. He gritted his jaw to stop himself. 

“I can’t offer you revenge.” Claude spoke each word slowly and deliberately as a counter to Cyril’s riled nerves. “Drowning the Throat in blood won’t bring back the dead. The only thing we can fight for — together — is for something better than what we’ve had before.”

“Don’t you think that’s what they all tell themselves? That they’re doing something better?” Cyril snarled. Claude sighed, but it didn’t deter the young man’s diatribe. “Don’t fool yourself. If Fodlan could erase Almyra from the map they’d do it without a second thought. Wouldn’t they call that better, too?” 

“And where does the Church play into this tug-of-war of yours?” 

“It makes men from animals,” Cyril countered, his voice round with his emotion. “It tends the flock, even when they just want to ride to war instead.”

Claude saw Cyril’s father’s shadow in his words. It made him feel like he’d taken a dive into an ice-cold pool. 

“You’re contradicting yourself.” 

“I’m not!” 

“It’s complicated,” Claude reassured him. “I understand. How can you be good in a place like this? There are no rules, at least not ones that anyone else can be trusted to follow. All that you can be certain of is that it’ll be cruel. I’m glad that you don’t trust me. You need to be careful — always, and in everything you do.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” 

“You mean Lady Rhea,” Cyril guessed bitterly. Claude nodded. 

“There’s nothing more dangerous in this world than devotion.”

“I wouldn’t expect a king to say something like that,” Cyril scoffed. 

“No,” Claude agreed with a slight smile, “but I think we can be honest with one another, don’t you? And I think I know how you feel about me, but let me tell you what I see when I look at you: a son who loved his father, and who suffered through things no boy ever should. Someone who wants to do the right thing, even if he doesn’t always understand just what that means. The trick of it is, Cyril, that I’ve seen all of those things before — in Leicester and in Sakhavan. So why on earth would I want to pit so many people with the same story against one another, if I have the opportunity to bring them together instead?”  

Cyril didn’t answer. Claude didn’t mind. He’d heard enough to learn that the younger man was conflicted, and if he was conflicted he could at least trust him not to betray him outright. That much had been made clear in Aillel, but it was reassuring to confirm it now. He clapped his hands against his thighs and slowly rose from his perch. 

“In any case,” Claude finished, “I’m not asking you to pledge your allegiance to me, or anything like that. But I do want you to know that I am in your debt. I’ll repay it however you like. Whenever you like.” 

“Fine.”

Claude smiled at his pouting frown. 

“And, if I can give you a bit of parting advice,” he added as he ambled towards the door, “you’re braver than you think. Fear is a shield as much as it is a sword, you understand? The Church might prefer docile things, but that doesn’t mean that you have to listen to them.” 

Cyril didn’t answer — simply stared at Claude’s wyvern again as she yawned and curled herself into a dozing circle under the sun. 

 


 

In two weeks’ time Claude finally washed the taste of brimstone from his mouth. They celebrated his recovery by seizing Myrddin. Compared to the disaster at Aillel, their victory was notable only for the value of their spoils. As cautious as he had become, even Claude had to admit that their efforts were finally tipping the scales closer towards their own favor. 

With the southward roads now under their control, he also made good on his promise to Petra. The full Roundtable — Hilda, Marianne, and Lorenz, newly named Count Gloucester now that his father’s failure to protect the bridge had freed up the title; and Claude and Byleth, the latter an honorary addition — was there to see her off as took to the skies on her wyvern. Claude owed her too much to simplify his debts into parting words, and so they simply wished each other good fortune instead, with Petra extending the promise that she would return to seek her vengeance against the Empire, and with Claude secretly hoping that she’d abandon Fodlan outright. It wasn’t that the Alliance wouldn’t benefit from Brigid’s allegiance, but rather that there was something pleasant in imagining Petra seeking out solace, for once, instead of blood. He was surprised, therefore, when he saw a wyvern’s shadow on the horizon in the morning that followed Petra’s departure. 

“What is that?” Lorenz stiffened at his side. They had been busy cataloguing a collection of crates that had arrived from Sakhavan the night before. Claude let the grain in his palm filter into its sack again as he eyed the incoming shape. 

“I don’t know,” he admitted, his fingers twitching for his bow. Another shape manifested itself next to the first, and both of them decidedly still pointed in their direction. It wasn’t enough for a proper incursion — and even if it were, from whom would it have come? The Empire had become stodgy in its long-drawn war, always traveling in large numbers that assured the crush of victory no matter the odds. They wouldn’t challenge the Alliance with two wyverns, even if they were desperate to make their revenge for General Ladislava’s defeat. 

“Surely we can’t simply welcome them with open arms?”

Claude shrugged at Lorenz’s contention, brushing his hands against his slacks as he turned to step towards the center of the market. Large and empty as it was, it seemed as good a spot to land as any. 

“What sort of man would I be if I shot my guests from the sky?” Claude answered. 

Lorenz didn’t seem impressed by his wink. Claude laughed, although he also looked rightwards towards the smithy to eye a loose sword. Lorenz did one better, jogging forward to take a spear from a nearby rack and spinning it between his palms as he then joined Claude’s side. 

“I am quite certain that I will never know what sort of man you are at all,” he grumbled through his teeth. Claude grinned. An amused spark twisted its way between his ribs as he then recognized the olive-and-gold banner slashed across the closer wyvern’s chest. 

“Sir!” One of the guards had spotted it as well. Claude waved at him as he hunched over the balustrade of the market walls. 

“Hold,” Claude instructed him in a loud voice. “Let them enter. They mean no harm.” 

“And how on earth do you know that?” Lorenz, to his credit, was accustomed enough to Claude’s rule to sound bemused rather than outright bewildered. 

“Well, they’ve not killed me yet.” 

“What?”

Claude didn’t have the chance to answer Lorenz’s question. By then Nader had circled the market twice, his wyvern’s wings stirring the dust into swirling clouds. 

“Ho, little duke!” The older man cried out. “Is this truly the best welcome you can offer?” 

“For a man like you?” Claude countered. Nader cackled, nudging his mount to the ground before tugging the clasps of his saddle loose. 

“You’ve always got a mouth on you,” the older man tutted, dismounting with his usual swagger as he peeled his gloves from his hands. “And yet here I am, being nothing but kind, as usual— poor old fool than I am.”

Claude danced forward to grasp his arm. One of Nader’s thick brows bounced as he eyed Lorenz over his shoulder. 

“Have you started collecting daisies?” Nader huffed.  

Claude rolled his eyes but couldn’t keep a grin from spreading across his lips.  

“Not quite,” he answered. Lorenz looked a mixture of irritated and utterly confused when Claude glanced in his direction. “May I introduce Count Gloucester.”

Nader hummed, always amused by the titles the Fodlanders were so proud to use. Lorenz made his own noise of discontentment as well.

“And this is General Nader,” Claude continued neatly.  

“General?” 

“Pah! Don’t bother with that,” Nader interrupted as he strode forward to grip Lorenz by the shoulder. The younger man gritted his way into a proper greeting despite his horror at Nader’s unrefined approach. “My name’s always suited me just fine.” 

“You’re from Almyra?” Lorenz asked, undeterred. Claude fought the urge to laugh. 

“So this little blossom’s been bloomin’ in your confidence, has he?”

Lorenz blanched at Nader’s easy words, although Claude merely nodded. 

“As it so happens. What are you doing here, Nader?” 

“If I didn’t know you so well I’d think that you weren’t pleased to see me,” Nader countered. “All the same, your good-uncle has come to bring you a gift.”

He needn’t have bothered with the last line, overshadowed as it was by the screech of the gift in question. Claude planted his palms on his hips, for once utterly surprised and even impressed by the sight of his white wyvern circling downwards from the clouds. Dalya folded her wings tight against her body and was suddenly in the market. She snapped at Nader’s wyvern, whipping her tail to crash into a line of carts as she snarled a greeting of her own. 

“Damned nasty bitch,” Nader groaned. He dashed forward to spook his wyvern back into the air. “She’s been trying to take a bite of my old girl for miles. Shoo, now. Go on!”

Claude stared wordlessly at the scene unfolding before them, only slightly aware of the chorus of spooked guards crowding the walls. It would be, no doubt, quite a difficult morning to explain. 

What in a thousand hells is that,” Lorenz hissed, his fingers winding tight around the staff of his borrowed spear. Claude jogged forward to distract the wyvern before she turned her attention on the man’s purple hair. He shouldn’t have been surprised to see her rider — in fact, there was no other option, really — but he still nearly stumbled when he spotted his brother all the same. 

“I heard you were in need of a mount,” was all that Faheem said, already sounding bored despite the chaos of his unexpected arrival. Claude laughed and shook his head. 

“And how the hell did you know that?”

His question wasn’t really worth asking. That was one of Faheem’s many mysteries — always knowing what he wanted to know, even if there was neither rhyme nor reason to how he’d learned it. Faheem offered him his hand as he dismounted.  

“Lovely to see you too, little brother,” he sniffed. Once his feet were on the ground he slipped his arms from the felted sleeves of his riding jacket, shoving it unceremoniously into Claude’s chest as he stretched his shoulders. He was dressed in a long gossamer tunic paired with wide-legged pants, and both of them leaving little mystery to the shape of his body beneath. Claude was reminded, and not for the first time, of how different Fodlan was from its eastward neighbor. 

“And what a sty you’ve made your own,” Faheem continued tritely. “Is this really where you’ve been playing your games? I thought you had better taste. So come on, then, anyways. I’m parched — and if I listen to another word from Nader’s mouth I’m going to feed him to Dalya.”

“Alright, alright,” Claude laughed, stringing his arm around Faheem’s shoulder and steering him towards the monastery. “Go there,” he instructed him with a point, “and find some shade. I’ll be there as soon as I can be certain that Dalya doesn’t mean to wage a war of her own.” 

“Suit yourself,” Faheem replied with a shrug. He turned and glided past Nader and Lorenz into the monastery’s shadow. Lorenz watched him pass with a wordless glance, looking positively befuddled. 

Claude spent the first hours of the afternoon hunting sheep for Dalya to devour, leaving her to her own fancy only after he was relatively convinced that she wouldn’t turn any Fodlanders into a meal. In that time both Nader and Faheem had disappeared, having grown tired of waiting for his hospitality and no doubt equipped well enough to manage on their own. He did find Lorenz waiting for him, however, his arms crossed tight against his chest as he intercepted the duke beneath the eaves of the front hall. 

“Claude,” Lorenz tested, his voice forced harsh beneath his breath. “A moment.”

Claude brushed the dirt from his knees — earned from lurching sideways from Dalya before she accidentally snapped him up alongside an unlucky lamb — before stepping closer to greet him. 

“Hello,” he said, not bothering with much else. Lorenz’s look made it clear that he was due for a reprimand. No matter that he wasn’t really supposed to be subjected to that sort of thing anymore.  

“Are you absolutely mad?” Lorenz snapped. Claude arched his brows at him but knew better than to answer. Lorenz’s cheeks flushed as he drew in his next breath. “Don’t think for a moment that I am unaware of your liaisons with the archbishop.” 

“Alright,” Claude replied, bemused. Lorenz turned a shade even darker. 

“And yet despite that impropriety, you have gone and turned it double, is that right? Have you forgotten that you are a representative of Leicester? Do you truly have no shame?” 

“I’m not quite certain what you mean.”

Lorenz nudged a toe closer, his eyes filled with a bitter look that wasn’t anger alone. Claude focused on that instead of his words, intrigued by its rare shine. 

“Aren’t you? Well, I must admit that I am not entirely familiar with how you might go about these things in the east, but here in Fodlan it is expected that a man of honor be duty-bound to one woman. One.”

Jealousy. That’s what that look was. But whoever for? Claude knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lorenz had no interest in Byleth — or at least not one like that. His lips twisted into a confused grin that turned Lorenz only more furious. 

“Yes, go ahead, laugh. Make a mockery of everything that gives us grace. Perhaps you would prefer that we all frolic in the nude instead — or whatever other bacchanal that would compel—”

“Lorenz,” Claude sighed, growing tired of how the man’s voice was echoing rather unpleasantly against the slate floor. “What are you going on about?” 

“Why, that woman, of course!” He tossed his arms into the air to accentuate his point. “What is she? Your wife? Your betrothed? In either case — absolutely disgraceful, Claude, disgraceful! And how did you imagine that this information would be received, if not exactly to this very—”

“Lorenz,” Claude tried again, this time gripping him by the sleeve. “What woman? What the hell are you talking about?”

Lorenz was at last so furious that the graceful shapes of his brows had nearly merged into a single line. 

“The bewitching creature who rode in on that terrible beast!” 

Oh. Claude doubled forward, not bothering to choke back his laughter. Lorenz stiffened and tutted another horrified sound. Oh. Of course. The poor fellow, to be honest. 

“Lorenz,” he said once more, and this time with commiseration. “That was my brother.” 

What?”

Claude patted his shoulder as he stood upright again. 

“My elder brother.” Lorenz turned the color of a beet. “Faheem.” 

Lorenz didn’t have an answer ready for him. It was perhaps better that he didn’t. No doubt all of it would be a disaster, really, but at least it was better than a war. 

Chapter Text

Claude turned one of the war table’s tokens between his fingers. It was well made, by Ignatz, as it so happened, who was as clever at carving as he was with a brush. The archer had whittled a honey-colored branch into the base, which he’d shaped like a chess piece and had then topped with a proud stag in miniature adorned with a full, thorny rack. It wasn’t Leicester’s sigil, really, but Claude appreciated the sentimentality. He rubbed his thumb over the stag’s round snout before he set it beside its peers. His eyes then tracked leftwards to admire the little eagle-headed pieces as well and, in lesser number, the lions that the two other nations-in-miniature had flanked. 

“So this is Fodlan,” Faheem remarked as his own slender fingers skimmed across the map. He plucked up one of the eagle tokens to look upon. “For some reason I thought it would be larger.” 

“It’s large enough,” Claude contended dryly. “Don’t misplace that.”

Faheem glanced down at the map again with something akin to disdain. 

“Yes, however would you know where to replace it?”

Faheem waved the piece at the simple tripartite arrangement spread across the table. Yes, Claude had to admit, if silently; there wasn’t much nuance left to the situation. They’d finally lured the Empire eastward with their most recent theft and, just like Sylvain had promised, it seemed as though Dimitri was ready to intervene. The map’s arrangement wasn’t some complex puzzle to be carefully unstrung; it was the charge of three spearmen at one another, and all of them brutes with hardly any art to them at all.

“You never change, do you?” his brother added. 

“What’s that?”

Claude cocked a brow with his question, not entirely sure what his brother meant but convinced he’d soon find out. Faheem humored him, of course, the tails of his silken robes whisking across the floor as he began to pace a lazy corkscrew along the length of the room. 

“How many hours have I spent playing these dreadful games with you?” Faheem replied. 

“This isn’t a board game, Faheem.”

His brother shrugged a slow roll of his shoulders. 

“Of course it is. I pity anyone pitted against you. You were always so stubborn about winning... even if you had to cheat.” 

“Hm,” Claude answered. Faheem smiled. He’d tinted his lips a crushed berry color that made his teeth look white and sharp. 

“Honestly, Kal. You’re so predictable.” 

Claude sighed and combed through his hair. 

“Go on, then,” he grumbled. “What are you getting at?” 

“Not everyone has some hidden agenda, you know,” Faheem teased. He considered the eagle piece for a moment longer before resettling it on a grey blot titled Albinea at the map’s leftward corner. “Say. Do you remember when Auntie Aya took us to Munashetz?” 

Claude nodded, the glittering oasis of the Almyran city in question filling his mind. 

“How old were we? I can’t recall.” 

“Ten, maybe,” Claude answered. “What does it matter?” 

“You have no taste for storytelling,” Faheem pouted. “Ten years old, then, and that makes eleven for me. And do you remember when you ran off and got yourself lost in the markets?” 

“I remember that you saw some sort of trinket that you liked, and nicked it, and then somehow I was the one being chased for it,” Claude corrected with a growing grin. Faheem laughed behind his fanned fingers. 

“Yes, maybe it was that. Who can be sure? In any case, somehow we ended up in the livestock yards, didn’t we? And of course I told you to be careful, and the very first thing you did was scale up the fences and jump in with the bulls.” Faheem added to the story with a theatrical sigh. “I really though that was the end of you — all stomped to pieces. Poor old Kal.”

“I don’t recall you trying to help,” Claude added as he leaned forward to snatch the Imperial token and settle it back into place. The Roundtable would be meeting soon — better that they didn’t think that Albinea had forged an alliance with the Empire at the eleventh hour. 

“You must not be remembering correctly,” Faheem suggested with a kittenish smile. “In any case, it wasn’t like it was really a surprise. You’ve always done it, you know — chased after things that want to hurt you.”

“And what do you mean by that?” Claude’s voice had dropped into something deeper, a little more dangerous — no more games, it said. Faheem didn’t have the chance to answer, interrupted as he was by the sudden swing of the door. 

“You do realize the hour,” Lorenz tutted with his entrance, his eyes settling on Faheem and his lips quivering into a somewhat unconvincing line. He was accompanied by the usual gaggle — Hilda whispering into Marianne’s ear, with the latter somewhat flushed and cringing at something better said at a different time; and Byleth beside them, unmoved both by their gossiping and by Nader’s guffaws as he regaled her with some flashy half-truth; and Judith trailing behind them, looking like she was balancing the satisfaction of lopping the old Almyran’s head off from his shoulders versus the valor of joining in to correct his story. It wasn’t much the heroic vision portrayed by war-time novels, but Claude supposed they were still rather compelling all the same. 

“Yes, yes,” Claude answered distractedly, his mind still lingering on what his brother had said even as he waved Faheem towards a settee cocked in a far-away corner. “Come on, then. Let’s get started.” 

Lorenz kept his gaze steadied on Faheem even as the Almyran trailed obediently to his seat. 

“It’s alright,” Claude promised while the rest of them built their circle around the war table. “He doesn’t speak Fodlanese. Just pretend he isn’t there.”

Faheem settled himself into an artful sprawl — gold silks in one direction and the black of his hair in another — and smiled nicely. Claude rolled his eyes and realized that, all languages aside, his brother would no doubt do everything in his power to make his suggestion impossible. As he always did, as it so happened. Hilda, already keen to the dynamic, giggled and leaned forward across the table to eye the tokens. 

“This looks familiar,” she offered, nodding her chin at the letters scrawled across the map. Gronder Field, they said. Claude hummed his agreement. 

“We’ll be playing for a little more than bragging rights this time,” he told them all as he leaned forward to tip one of their tokens against its base. 

“How do you think we’ll fair?” Lorenz was the one to ask the question. The sprawl of the war table seemed to have sobered him. 

“We have the numbers,” Claude replied. “Not for an outright victory, perhaps, but enough to stand our ground. Share the same message with your men. I don’t want this to be a sacrificial field. All we need to do is show the Empire that they’re not invulnerable. Once they see that Kingdom men fight with us, some of them will understand.” 

“Understand what, exactly?” Hilda contended. 

“That their loyalties are wrong.” 

“Or that the world is against them,” Lorenz countered coolly. “Which will only give them more spirit to fight.”

He wasn’t wrong. Claude nodded. 

“Some of them, yes.” 

“And that says nothing about the Kingdom men who still fight for the Kingdom,” Lorenz continued. Claude nodded again, trailing his fingers across the map to touch one of the whittled lions’ manes. “What is your grand scheme there?” 

“Keep clear of them,” Claude offered simply. “We have no quarrel with the Kingdom. I won’t have brothers fighting one another. Not by design.” He heard a sound — something like a chuckle, nearly — at his back, but he decided to ignore it for now. “As long as we flank Edelgard’s forces on the east we should be able to avoid Dimitri entirely.” 

“Why?” It was Judith’s turn to interject. Her eyes were sharp from across the table. “Use your head, boy. That wretch has half the men we do, and all of them starved. Take care of them before they take root. The fewer kings in Fodlan the better, at least for you.”

Claude’s jaw tightened, the grind of his molars in his ears. 

“Faerghus is not our enemy,” he insisted. Judith puffed with laughter. 

“Even you can’t believe that.” 

“This isn’t a discussion,” Claude replied, shedding all lightness from his voice as he spoke the words. It seemed to suck the air from the room. Judith’s cheeks turned a little darker before she frowned and dipped her head. 

“As you wish,” she relented after a moment. She sounded as though she was pulling an arrow from her heart as she said it — all bitterness and a bit of regret. Claude looked her in the eye and probed a little deeper. What had Nader told her? What had she already learned? She had a good nose for that; learning, keeping up. Was she starting to second guess all of her lessons shared with him? It seemed quite possible. He’d been a pleasant enough pet at first, after all, dutifully diligent as she taught him how to write his stolen name and how to greet the gentry. A puppy on a leash — but now he was fully grown and blooded, and certainly she wasn’t stupid enough to think she still had a hand on his lead. 

That was the trouble with power, he supposed: it was greedy. Capricious. He made a note to speak with her privately. If his gift of Galatea wasn’t enough to satisfy her, then he’d simply have to learn whatever else she wanted. And here was the other side of power — it gave you the rights to win people over, even if they hated you precisely because you were powerful.

“In the meantime,” he said, shaking himself from his own thoughts, “we need to remind our people about their loyalties as well. We can’t let them become disheartened — our path ahead is too difficult for something like that. I’ve seen to gathering some extra provisions.”

One of Lorenz’s brow cocked high, no doubt out of spite for having been uninvited to the work of managing supplies, of which he’d become quite territorial of late. 

“Extra provisions for what?” Lorenz sniffed. 

“For the most important part of wartime preparation,” Claude answered with a wink. It had certainly been his father’s speciality, although to be fair, it was more of an Almyran tradition. “A feast. We’ll fatten up the Kingdom men and get Leicester properly drunk. Edelgard will be feeding her people hardtack and sour wine — and Dimitri... I wager that he’ll be lucky to toast to their victory with pond-water. And you know what they all say — Sothis provides. The richest are the righteous, right? So let’s remind the Alliance of its riches.”

And then we’ll send them to the killing fields, Claude added, but only to himself. His eyes darted to Byleth as he thought it. He saw that she understood. Something warm and nearly wicked kindled in his stomach as he felt her pale gaze settle on his own.    

Hilda laughed. “You just want an excuse for a drink,” she contended, bracing her hands against her hips as she bent forward over the table. “But I guess we have no choice, right? After all, we gave you the votes. No taking that back now. Just remember that when you’re picking our vintage, eh? I like whites, you know.” She mimicked Claude’s wink. “Something nice and buttery and sweet.” 

Her coquettishness neutered the rising tension in the air — deftly, he recognized, and just as she had planned. Claude added the sound of his laughter to her diversion, stretching his arms over his head and feigning a look of defeat. 

“Something nice. You got it. I’ll see what I can do.” 

Lorenz cleared his throat and shifted on his heels. 

“Is that all?” the man insisted tritely. Claude nodded his head. He’d prepared some niceties for their farewell, but was distracted by the shiver of Faheem’s silks instead. His brother had risen from his perch at some point during their discussion. Now he ghosted past the table, leaving a cloud of rose water in his wake as he made for the door without so much as a wave goodbye. Bored, Claude supposed at first, until he noticed that Faheem had left something behind. He must have stolen a scrap of parchment when the rest of them weren’t looking. Now it had been transformed through a set of crisp folds into the perfect mimic of the flower Lorenz always kept pinned in his lapel. Lorenz was staring at it in its place slipped at his elbow, his cheeks the color of that flower as well. Hilda stifled a giggle behind her palm. 

“Tomorrow,” Claude told them, biting back his sigh. “We’ll hold the feast tomorrow.” 

They all nodded and murmured their agreement. Claude didn’t really listen to them. He was too preoccupied with Lorenz’s uncharacteristic muteness, and with the absurdity of just how in the hell Faheem had taught himself Fodlanese. 

 


 

Claude had been a reaver for two seasons. It hadn’t been long — longer for him than for the ones who’d died beside him, maybe, but short for anyone else — but it had been enough for him to understand the different tricks of keeping soldiers hungry while still feeding their appetites. Even now he remembered the glitter of his first victory feast. It was why they fought, he’d realized: not for money, or for the pride, or for their country — hardly for their king. It was the rush of hot blood to your head when you spit in the face of death and went home to get drunk; to brag; to fuck some stranger from the crowd of your welcome-back when you’d been certain the day before you’d never sleep another night as something breathing and alive. 

Claude had been welcomed home twice before he grew tired of serving under the orders of anyone else and had quit his father’s service for his own ambitions. This experience had been enough to show him how to build a proper counterfeit in Garreg Mach for his men to enjoy before a portion of them died in Gronder. It meant eating and drinking outside, for starters — easier for them to tumble into impromptu wrestling matches bartered over with sloshing drinks that way, and with plenty of shadows to disappear into, and with none of the monastery’s haughty statues there to watch their debauchery. There was something about the stars and the crackle of the campfires that did it, too; and that something had to do with the same something of animals gathering in a horde, he guessed, although it didn’t really seem important enough to inspect too closely.  

“Just where is it that you think you are,” Seteth hissed when he found him sampling a sip of wine (red, full of soil and tobacco; Hilda would hate it, but he’d found that it was Byleth’s preferred flavor) from a barrel discovered in the monastery’s shadowy depths. I have a feeling you’ll tell me, Claude would have answered coyly if his mouthful of wine hadn’t soured at the man’s approach. He swallowed and set aside his cup, nodding at the boy who’d brought it to him to signal that the barrel could be added to their impressive collection gathered in the marketplace. 

“This is a holy place,” Seteth continued hotly, following at Claude’s heels as he ducked out from the dining hall and into the gardens. The sun was setting. It wasn’t cool, but it was cooler than it had been before. He supposed it was a good sign. Heat was never good when soldiers got drunk. “I will not have you turn it into some back-alley tavern.” 

“I fear that you’ve misunderstood your position,” Claude remembered from their last conversation and said aloud now. Seteth’s eyes narrowed. He was... agitated, that was the proper word. Furious, but not stupid enough to act out on it. There weren’t as many of Seiros’ knights in Garreg Mach as there were Leicester men, after all. 

“You’ve been holding meetings without informing me,” Seteth continued starkly. “Putting our feelings for one another aside, it is critical that we maintain open communication. Do you truly plan to send the Knights of Seiros into a battle without telling them which way to stand?” 

“I would suggest towards the men who mean to kill them,” Claude scoffed. Seteth frowned. 

“It is far more complicated than that, as you are obviously well aware.” He stepped closer to push Claude sideways into a quiet corner. “The Kingdom,” Seteth continued, this time beneath his breath, “played no part in this damnable war. We have nothing to gain by putting them to the sword.” 

Claude studied him for a moment. What was it that he wanted? Certainly he was a dutiful man. Was he simply paying out the debts owed between the Church and the Holy Kingdom, or was there something more? Guilt, maybe? Was he capable of something like that? 

“Of course not,” Claude agreed. “I’ve told the men the same. Nearly a quarter of them are from Kingdom territories. Did you truly expect me to have them turn so quickly on their own blood?”

Is that how you do it, he added silently, still watching the man’s jewel-tone eyes.   

“I,” Seteth stuttered, his face falling only in the subtlest of degrees, “I see that we are in agreement, then.”

Claude drew in a breath. It smelled like the smoke of the fires being stoked along the walls. Night would fall soon. Claude hardly wanted to spend it with him. 

“Is that so?” He stepped a pace closer. Seteth failed at hiding his flinch. “Tell me. What is it that you wanted when you told Byleth about my crown? What could have possibly been so important to you for you to do something as stupid as that?” 

“Fodlan,” Seteth replied, finally finding his courage as he braced his shoulders against Claude’s entreat. “A plaything for you, perhaps, but not for men like me.” 

“Men like you,” Claude echoed. “There are no men like you, Seteth. You’re a dying breed.”

“Do you think that you frighten me?” It was Seteth’s turn to scoff. “All of your threats. That ridiculous beast of yours. As if any of it means anything worthwhile. I’ve met plenty of barbarians in my life, Duke Riegan; suffice to say that I’ve outlived them all.” 

“Barbarians,” Claude tutted. He reached forward to thumb at a blossom hanging from the shrub hedging them into their quiet corner. “I see. And what is it that a barbarian does? Takes.” He plucked the blossom free, crushing its petals between his calloused fingers. “Takes and takes until there’s nothing left, and only for the joy of taking. One day I’ll just be bones in the ground, my friend, but if you live to watch me buried it will only be to see how much I’ve taken.” 

“So be it,” Seteth said, but his eyes betrayed him. He could contend that he was a man of the cloth — that austerity fit him like a second skin, paring away the things that Claude could have threatened with his newest warning. Claude knew that it would be a lie. There were many things that made them different, but here too was something the same: they were all just animals. Hoarding, fighting, fucking. And maybe a hare didn’t fear the snake coiled in its burrow until its fangs were in its throat. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with that. It made for a more satisfying meal.  

 


 

“Nader,” Claude said later as they all gathered in the night’s revelry, “I have a proposition for you.” 

Nader leaned over the table — which they’d commandeered from the dining hall and had covered in half-melted candles, and so many of them that the air smelled like beeswax as much as it did sweat and roasted meat and sweet spirits — with a hungry look. 

“I’ve always been fond of propositions,” the older man answered with a wink. Claude took a perfunctory drink from the tankard at his elbow. It was filled with more water than wine, which was honestly quite disappointing, but regrettably necessary nonetheless. Being a soldier meant getting drunk at these sorts of things; being a king meant remaining restlessly sober. 

“I’d like for you to go to Derdriu,” Claude continued evenly. “Watch over things for me while I’m gone.”

Nader laughed, clapping his palms with great drumbeats as he shook his head. 

“Derdriu! The Sapphire of the West, eh? I don’t know if you should be giving a bauble like that to a man like me.” 

“We’re all men like you,” Claude countered with a lopsided grin. He wasn’t surprised by Nader’s lukewarm resistance, just like he wasn’t particularly concerned about his offer. For all of his boasting, Nader had always had an even hand. If he’d been born in a different place perhaps he’d even’ve been a peaceful man. There was no better breed of castellan, as far as Claude was concerned. “This is all a zero-sum game. I expect to find all of Edelgard’s main forces in Gronder, and certainly Dimitri’s. That being said, it seems a bit reckless to keep Leicester unguarded. Wouldn’t want the Srengs to get any bright ideas.” He took another unsatisfying drink. 

Nader considered his offer, swirling the dark wine in his tankard with a roll of his wrist. 

“I’ve always wanted to see Derdriu,” he decided aloud. “Always liked the water. But all of your lily-wristed friends might not want so much to see me.” 

“We’ll think of something,” Claude replied with a shrug. “I’ve found that giving yourself a new name tends to solve most of that problem.” Nader laughed again. 

“Not so bright, these Fodlanders.” 

Claude took the opportunity to laugh as well. 

“Perhaps not.”

They both watched the bustling feast for a moment, their eyes drawing over men and women toasting with promises of victory and good fortune. The night was young enough for most of them to still be well-behaved. There was an exception, of course, as there always was, and this time in the form of Claude’s brother. His eyes fell to him last, watching as he floated through the din to sit himself beside Lorenz. The count had sequestered himself from the riff-raff at a table to himself. It was, quite frankly, a mistake. Better if he’d hidden himself between a dozen tablemates instead. Faheem had dressed himself in a lilac-colored shirt and a pair of flowing pants to match, the latter with slits up the sides so high Claude could see the points of his hipbones even from across the plaza.

“Fuck,” Claude sighed. Nader hummed with curiosity as he hunted to match his gaze. A deep, bellowing laugh echoed in his chest once he had. 

“So he’s sunk his teeth in,” Nader observed, his voice echoing into his tankard while his brows bounced high in what could have either been admiration or pity. Claude rubbed at his temples and shook his head. 

“You shouldn’t have brought him here.” 

“Pah,” Nader replied. “Telling your brother no is a dangerous game.”

This, of course, was the problem, Claude thought as he watched Lorenz turn a crimson shade while Faheem leaned ever closer. His lips were moving. 

“Did you teach him how to speak Fodlanese?” 

“No,” Nader answered, this time sounding impressed. “I had no idea he was so disposed. Tricky little bastard.”

Faheem glanced in their direction. Perhaps his ears were burning. Claude waved at him before he had the chance to look away again. A pleased look flitted across his brother’s face, more dangerous perhaps than everything else. Faheem dipped a little closer to Lorenz for a last time before standing and making his way in their direction. Nader drained his tankard and thumped it against the table. 

“Time for this old man to move on,” he announced. His face screwed into an amused shape as Claude’s own darkened at him for his betrayal. “Lord Na—Nar....Nardel, of Derdriu!” 

Nardel?” Claude gave the horrible name all of the unconvinced venom it deserved. Nader only laughed. 

“Nardel,” he decided with a proud dip of his head. “Hailing from House Daphnel, ha! Always knew me and Judy had something in common.” Nader stood and stretched his arms, groaning in the way that all men did when they did something like that while he looked forward at Faheem’s approach. “If it isn’t our little mouse,” he then greeted, and as quickly as he turned to run away. 

Coward, Claude thought as he took another drink. 

“Dear brother,” Faheem cooed, taking Nader’s seat. He smelled like roses again — not that he’d ever been so partial to the scent before. 

“It seems as thought you’ve made good use of your time,” Claude said, switching from Faheem’s Almyran greeting to Fodlanese to let him know his deception had come to an end. Faheem’s eyes glittered with pleasure at having been caught. 

“I’ve always found it wise to use one’s time well,” he replied. He hadn’t stamped out Almyra’s lilt from Fodlan’s bland consonants the way that Claude had, but Claude suspected it was by design. 

“Please keep your hands to yourself,” Claude said, returning to Almyran before the drunken bustle around them caught on to what he was saying. Faheem tittered into his palm. 

“Absolutely not. There’s no fun in that at all.” 

“Faheem,” Claude insisted flatly. “These people are wound far too tight for someone like you. Leave it alone.” 

“Hm,” Faheem replied, his eyes still sparking dangerously as he leaned forward to snatch a bruised peach from the collection at the center of the table. “It seems a bit hypocritical for you to say something like that.” He took a bite from the fruit’s soft flesh, his teeth a flash of white against the night’s blurry dimness. “Besides, you’ve always shared with me before.” 

Faheem.” 

“He’s very interesting,” Faheem added, undeterred. “I think he despises you exactly as much as he loves you. How is it that you always manage that?” 

“Luck,” Claude answered darkly with a roll of his eyes. Faheem laughed. 

“I’ll win him over for you. It will make things easier for you, I think.” 

“No.” Claude sucked the last bits of amusement from his voice as he spat the word. He didn’t need Lorenz groveling at his feet. To be honest, he’d come to appreciate his haughtiness. It was good to have a little resistance to lean against, from time to time. And the last thing any of them needed was for Faheem to devour the tortured man.

“Fine,” Faheem sighed. It didn’t sound anything like a concession. “I suppose I’ll just have him for myself, then. Consider it payment for all of my good deeds.” 

“Absolutely not.” 

Faheem sucked the juice from his thumb, his eyes suddenly sharp in the candlelight. Claude remembered Nader’s warning about telling his brother no; came to the conclusion that it wasn’t just a jape, although of course it wasn’t. He knew that well enough himself. After surviving an adolescence in which everything had been taken from him, Faheem had emerged unparalleled in getting exactly what he wanted. 

“You aren’t the only one with a taste for conquest,” Faheem said. “And to that point. You must tell me everything about this newest monster of yours.” 

“Excuse me?”

Claude was quickly growing exhausted with Faheem’s glimmering gaze, but it wasn’t as if he could run away. Instead he crossed his arms against the table and leaned into them, bracing himself for the line of questioning he’d already predicted to slip from his brother’s wicked grin. 

“You know I hate repeating myself,” his brother sighed. “But you’ve always been so terribly predictable. Not that she is,” he added, nodding towards the center of the yard. Claude looked forward to follow his signal, his eyes falling on a blip of spearmint hair trapped between Hilda’s pink and Raphael’s yellow. Byleth looked like Claude felt — exhausted by the noise of everything. His chest swelled with a quick surge of pity before it clouded with unease again from Faheem’s questioning. 

“What is she?” 

“An archbishop,” Claude told him dryly, gulping another draw from his tankard. Faheem hummed. 

“I saw her training with some of your men yesterday. It was terrible.” Faheem’s coquettishness had faded. “It was a wonder she didn’t cut them apart.” 

“We’re at war, Faheem.” 

“I have a feeling that she’ll always find herself at war,” Faheem huffed. “I thought you were mad when you dared me into Dalya’s lair, Kal, but it was nothing like this. These bad habits of yours.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re cursed.” 

“Most likely.”

Faheem flinched at his brother’s dark tone. 

“Not that I let it bother me before. Somehow I knew that you’d always make your escape. Slippery creature that you are,” Faheem added, turning his half-eaten peach between his fingers. “But I think you’ve met your depth this time, little brother.” 

“Is that so?” 

“I think you already know that it’s true.” 

“Maybe,” Claude answered. 

“She’ll kill you,” Faheem told him next. “If she wants it.” 

Claude finished off the rest of the watery swill in his tankard and stood suddenly from his seat. He rested his palm against his brother’s shoulder afterwards, holding him in place as he looked down into his eyes — their father’s eyes, and in him so very different. 

“If she wants it,” he conceded. Faheem frowned. Claude offered him a smile himself before he turned to hunt her out. 

 


 

“You look like you’re enjoying yourself.” 

Byleth shot him a long-suffering look. Hilda laughed, pushing herself against Marianne to make room for Claude at their crowded table. He quickly shook his head, extending his hand in Byleth’s direction instead of taking a seat. 

“The archbishop and I have some business to attend to,” he told them all with a wink. She gripped at his hand like a drowned woman pulled from a roaring river. It made an honest smile whittle across his lips. 

“Sure,” Hilda drawled. It was clear she hadn’t been watering down her drinks. “No one more hard working than a duke. Not to worry. We’ll see to your men while you’re gone.” 

“Thanks, Hild,” he laughed as he turned to lead Byleth away. He heard Hilda whisper some sort of bawdy joke to Marianne as they left. It burned off some of the unsettling hold-overs from his conversation with his brother. Byleth’s quick pace at his side did a good job of vanquishing the rest. He soon found himself in her wake as she dashed through the feasters to escape their drunken milieu.

“Gods,” she sighed under her breath once they’d tumbled into the cool relief of an empty alleyway. Claude laughed and watched her as she fidgeted with her messy hair, brushing it back from her brow made sticky from the cloying heat of all of those bodies they’d left behind. “How do you manage it?” 

“Manage what?” he asked her, pleased by the question. She stared back at him with half-lidded eyes. 

“The noise.” 

“I thought this would be a familiar scene for you,” Claude countered, waving his arm back towards the glow. “Mercenaries love a good feast, don’t they?” 

She made a noncommittal noise in response. There was something immeasurably charming in her foul mood. Claude allowed himself to simply bask in it for a while, keeping his eyes on her as they slowly made a revolution alongside the monastery’s walls. Her own gaze was captured upwards. He realized twenty paces in that she was looking at the stars. It made an idea take root deep within him; one that sprouted once they’d made their way closer towards the ruins of the Goddess Tower which Dalya had taken over for a roost. 

“Come this way,” he told Byleth simply once they’d made their approach. Byleth eyed the tower’s crooked doorway with a wary stare. He heard Dalya’s lazy call from up above and the beat of her wings as she no doubt unfurled from her night-time drowsing (he’d seen to feeding her earlier to hedge against the risk of her plucking off drunken revelers). 

“Why?” 

“Maybe I want to make a few more promises,” he teased, turning her with the press of his hand against her elbow as he picked up the first steps of the stairs. “Come on. I don’t think it’ll fall in on us just yet.” 

“You don’t think,” Byleth echoed dryly as they both bowed inside. It was dark, but neither of them had ever had much difficulty in making their way through the dark. 

“Have you ever flown before?” He asked the question casually as they picked their way across a broken step.  

“What?” 

Claude didn’t have the chance to answer. They stepped together onto the landing of the tower’s highest floor. Dalya had made quick work of tearing the last rotting beams from its rafters. Now it was open to the sparkling fishbowl of the night sky, and most of that hidden beneath the translucent webbing of her wings. The wyvern purred at their approach, her massive head swinging towards them. Claude could see the flash of Byleth’s pale hair in the dark pits of the creature’s eyes. Dalya hulked closer to them in that peculiar way all wyverns did, shifting her weight against the knuckles of her wings as she snuffed at Claude and nudged him with her snout. Clean-picked bones crunched beneath her talons as she did, leaving him to wonder idly what they’d once been. 

“Hello sweetling. Yes, hello,” he repeated mindlessly in Almyran as he caught Dalya’s muzzle between his hands. He glanced over his shoulder afterwards, watching as Byleth looked the creature over. It was the first time she’d come so close. She didn’t look afraid. It was good. Dalya might have tried to make a meal out of her, otherwise. 

“She’s so much bigger than the wyverns that the knights ride,” Byleth wondered aloud. Claude hummed his agreement. 

“She’s an old girl,” he agreed. “They’re like goldfish. Never stop growing, if you let them.” To be honest, she’d likely have been twice her size if his father hadn’t trapped her in her dim-lit lair. 

“Where did you find her?” 

“She was my father’s,” Claude answered truthfully. “Although it seems a little foolish to try to say that any one of us could own her.” 

“Yes,” Byleth breathed. Claude’s lips cocked into a soft-edged smirk as he watched her tentatively reach out. Dalya slipped her head from his grasp to study the woman’s fanned fingers. He couldn’t say that anyone had ever tried to make friends with the wyvern before — not except perhaps for him and Faheem, once, and they’d been chided a thousand times for the idea. Dalya sniffed at Byleth’s fingers, washing them both in the heat of her breath before she pushed her snout forward to butt against Byleth’s reach as a signal of their mutual introduction. 

“She’s beautiful,” Byleth then said. It was funny, really — the way that he could say it, too. A part of him felt like he was suddenly an audience to the union of two halves of a coin, as if he hadn’t already had the same thought a thousand times before. “How is it that you’ve tamed her?” 

“Wyverns are lonely creatures,” he told her next as he stepped forward, dragging his fingertips along Dalya’s strong neck so that he didn’t spook her. “They love company just as much as they love tearing things apart. She’ll kill another wyvern if she’s kept with it — not that she can help it. It’s in her nature, the poor darling. But then she’ll mourn it after it’s gone. Won’t eat for days; won’t sleep, won’t fly. It’s why wyverns bond so closely with their riders. As long as they respect you, they’ll do anything to keep by your side.”

“That seems a little sad,” Byleth admitted. Dalya made a crooning nose as she slowly worked her fingers over the first blossoms of her growing horns. 

“It is.” He came to a stop at Dalya’s haunches. “Would you like to ride her?” 

“I don’t — I don’t know how,” Byleth stuttered, captured between her eagerness to agree and her better judgment not to. 

“That’s alright,” Claude told her with a wink. “I do.”  

Dalya coiled and uncoiled her long tail with a pleased anticipation, sensing his desire to take flight. Perhaps it was enough to embolden Byleth to step forward — or maybe it was Claude’s outstretched hand — but in either case she did, picking carefully over the ruins beneath their feet as she joined him at the wyvern’s side. 

“Here,” he told her as he knelt, weaving his fingers together to form a step up for her onto Dalya’s back. Byleth gave them both a final uneasy stare before she loped forward to leap upwards into the flat crux above her wings. Claude followed after, settling behind Byleth and slinging his arm around her waist so that she didn’t slide when Dalya suddenly lurched forward. Byleth gripped white-knuckled at the slick edges of the wyvern’s scales as she beat her wings fully unfurled and then leapt without further warning into the night. 

“Easy,” Claude coached the creature. He’d come to better understand how to ride her since that first night in Sakhavan, but that didn’t mean that he was eager to test her speed without a saddle. She seemed to understand, crooning another warm-edged sound as she spiraled into a languid circle over the mountains of Garreg Mach. He watched the tight knot between Byleth’s shoulders as they made their looping turns. Slowly, as they dipped higher and then lower again, silent except for the whistle of the wind and the metronome of Dalya’s wing-beats, the knot began to unfurl. 

“The stars,” he started again after some time, his voice sounding a little rusty. “You like them?” 

Byleth glanced quickly over her shoulder at him. It must have made her a little dizzy. She snapped her gaze forward again soon after, her back bracing once more against his chest. 

“Yes,” she said into the wind. She was quiet for a while. “When I was a little girl my father taught me about them. Told me their names and how to travel by them.” 

Claude nodded and tightened the wind of his arm slightly, finding a simple pleasure in the heat of her body through the fabric of her shirt. They should have brought jackets, perhaps, to be flying at this height — but better maybe that they hadn’t, and that they had to find refuge in each other instead. 

“So did mine,” he told her. He folded his free arm in a diagonal across her chest. “Here,” he then said as he braced backwards towards Dalya’s wings. “Lean back.” Byleth tensed against his order. He laughed. “I won’t let you fall.” 

She hesitated for six wing beats longer before she slowly acquiesced, hitching backwards in tentative movements until she’d grounded herself against him again. He looked upwards with her, his gaze now filled by the dazzle of the stars instead of the shadows of the world below them. He heard her suck in a noise between her teeth and hoped it meant she enjoyed the sight as much as he did. 

“There,” he said, lifting his arm from her chest just enough to point at a two-piece constellation set apart from the rest. “That one was always my favorite. We call it Stranniki. The Wanderers.”

She huffed a rare breath of laughter. It turned into a silver cloud in the air. 

“We call it the Deadman’s Passing,” she admitted to him. “It’s meant to be a body and it’s gravestone.” 

“Gods,” he laughed as well, shaking his head. Those damned, dark-souled Fodlanders. No wonder they were always killing each other. “Well. I was taught that they’re two travelers. Adventurers in the great unknown.”

“That sounds lonely.” 

“I don’t think so,” he told her as he sunk his nose into her hair, breathing in the scent of her as he formed his answer — the dust of the training ground and the bland sweetness of her soap and something else beneath which’d become as familiar to him as it was alluring. “Not if they’re together.” 

Dalya made four more passes around the outskirts of Garreg Mach. By then the chill of the night had started to seep into Claude’s bones. He shifted slightly, turning his gaze back from the stars to peek around the curtain of Byleth’s hair. 

“We should go back,” he suggested quietly. She shook her head. 

“I could stay,” she said. She sounded a little sad. He brushed his lips against her crown and closed his eyes. So could I, he thought; two lost sparks in all of that great, dark emptiness. And what a thing it would be — to be alone, but never lonely. 

 


 

They killed Bernadetta first. 

It should have made him sick to do it. There was no art in cutting down someone who was so afraid. Then again, Claude supposed he’d cauterized that part of himself when he’d swallowed his father’s poison. He watched unmoved as Bernadetta crumbled at the height of her perch and then he shot another man down; listened to a third’s gasped cry when Dalya plucked him from the battlefield and tore him apart with her claws. 

In many ways it was easier than he had anticipated. Cocky from their feasting and from a brave farewell address given by the newly named Nardel of House Daphnel, the men and women of Leicester made quick work of the men who meant to kill them. Claude watched their goldenrod spread from the clouds, soaring downwards like a wicked comet when he found an opening to pluck key players from the field. Cyril and Ingrid flew beside him, themselves growing more bold as they added notches to their own kill-counts. Claude stopped thinking about most things up there in the smoke of everything burning beneath him; he drew back his bow and let his blood boil. It was war. There was nothing else to do. 

The sun was low on the horizon when Edelgard ordered the Empire’s retreat. Leicester chased after them hungrily, picking at the stragglers and offering them less mercy than they were perhaps due. The sight of it allowed Claude to finally catch his breath. He’d have to teach them better, he realized. There was nothing to gain in building Leicester’s notoriety as something cruel. 

He would have studied the idea more closely if not for the sight of a sudden golden flash in the field. It was easy to see, contrasted as it was against black plate and dirty cerulean furs. Dimitri — or the ghost of him, at least. Claude felt his stomach sink as Byleth spotted the man as well, her own black blip coursing across the field as she made to intercept him. She was joined soon after by Hilda, who broke off from a pack of Daphnel swordsmen to pace her, her cruel axe lifted high. 

Claude coaxed Dalya closer and soared above them. When Dimitri slunk into a patch of knotted trees he pushed her even closer, dismounting and watching as she spiraled away to sleep off the weight of the men on which she’d feasted. 

“Claude,” Hilda greeted him as she and Byleth trotted to his side. He nodded at them. They were both bruised and blood-spattered and hot-eyed, no doubt sharing his same uneasy momentum as they all looked to where the once-prince had run. 

“So, then,” Claude sighed. He didn’t bother with the rest. Instead he turned to begin their chase. Hilda and Byleth followed after. It wasn’t hard. The trees were leafless; most of them half-burned. Dimitri was wounded as well. Claude followed the red-spattered trail he left behind. He was no different from the speared boars Claude had once chased in Almyra’s chilly forests so many years before. They found him in a clearing, gaunt and wild-eyed, his vicious relic planted in the loam and a crutch as much as it was a weapon. 

“Dimitri,” Claude said aloud. It almost sounded like a lie. The man’s head bobbed off-kilter when he looked up at him.  

“So you’ve come to kill me,” he rasped. Claude’s jaw tightened as he risked another step closer. His eyes kept fast on Dimitri’s lance when he did. Even a dead man could kill with something like that. 

“No,” Claude promised him. He gripped his bow with one hand and flashed the palm of his other at him. “I’m not here for that.”

Dimitri laughed. It was a hollow, horrible sound. 

“You’ve come to kill me,” the man insisted. He spoke with a strange pace, slow at first and then slurred and racing. “You’ve come to tear me apart. I see it. I see your eyes. Snake eyes.”

Claude’s blood iced over. Dimitri laughed again, slumping bonelessly against his lance. There was an arrow in his back, and another broken bolt in his side. 

“We can help you,” Claude insisted slowly, evenly. “Give refuge to you and your men. Leicester will stand with Faerghus, Dimtri. Just as you once said.” 

“Slithering,” Dimitri babbled on, his singular eye dark and feverish. “In the grass. Weren’t you? A snake getting fat on all of the rats.” 

Claude remembered him as he once was; shimmering, brilliant, kind. The sort of man who came out the victor even when he admitted his defeat. He remembered him as he had been at the end of the dock at Garreg Mach, washed in moonlight and all of his brave aspirations for the world he’d so desperately wished to build. It hadn’t been like Claude’s, but that hadn’t meant that it’d been wrong.

“Claude!” 

Dimitri lunged forward suddenly. His lance slipped sharply from the earth, its point leveled in Claude’s direction like the tail of a scorpion lashing out. Byleth’s blade intercepted it before it hit its mark, knocking if off course just enough so that Claude could leap aside. Hilda followed afterwards, chasing Dimitri back a step with a whooshing swing of her axe. 

“Swallowing them up,” Dimitri continued on, breathless and unbalanced. “Swallowing all of them up, but not me. Not me, not me, not me.” 

This time he turned towards Hilda, catching her off guard with an uneven swing of his lance. She gasped and dodged sideways, barely managing to bat him off. Claude tossed off his bow and reached quickly for the scabbard hung at his right shoulder. 

He liked him, Claude thought as he danced forward; the prince was a liar of the most pitiful sort. And it was a sad thing what had happened to him. Maybe he had even been his friend. 

Claude pulled his father’s sword from its scabbard and swung it in a high arc above his head. It cut through the smoke in the air as easily as it sliced through the staggered plate of Dimitri’s armor; through the tangle of his golden hair, the pale skin of his nape; through the crunching vertebrae of his spine and the gasping softness of his windpipe and then through plate once more. The prince’s body slumped backwards towards the trees. His head fell heavy at Claude’s feet. 

It should have made him sick. 

Instead they broke Areadbhar beneath the heft of Hilda’s axe and burned it with Dimitri’s body. Silent, they watched until he was unrecognizable against the scorched ambiguity of his armor. He was too hot to touch to bury, and so they didn’t. They left the last son of House Blaiddyd for the worms instead. 

Lorenz and Judith were waiting for them outside the wood, accompanied by the commanders who had held the western flank. They all watched the trio with eager eyes as Claude announced their victory. Only later did he hear Hilda pulled aside, her face downcast as she told a ring of them what had happened. 

“I saw him. He was completely different from how I remember him. He looked like a crazed demon when he was fighting. He pursued Edelgard as she retreated, but he didn’t get far before he collapsed. I saw him surrounded by Imperial troops and... pierced by their spears. I’ll never forget it. He deserved a better end.” 

Byleth reached out for Claude then, her fingers coiling around his wrist while they listened to Hilda’s story. Claude drew in a deep breath perfumed by the ichor of the field and wondered, if only briefly, what sort of end he would deserve.           

 

Chapter Text

Claude liked to imagine that if his life had been a book, it would’ve been one filled with many chapters. Perhaps it would’ve even featured a foreword: here is a man who could have been generous if he’d just been given the chance. Then his toddler-dom would follow after, sweet in its forgotten nostalgia — the wooden soldier he’d tucked under his arm when he’d slept, his mother’s singing, the waggle of his first lost tooth against his tongue. Chapter Two would usher in his adolescence marked chiefly by his mastery of white and black lies, and by the first crack of a whip after he’d learned how to disobey.

Chapter Three would have been the brothel, dark and perfumed; Chapter Four, his closest brother weeping into his shoulder; Chapter Five, the bawdy songs he’d learned from his father’s men when they’d rode together through the red sands outside of Sakhavan and made them redder; and Chapter Six would have been wine. That’d been the time when he’d only been able to sleep if he’d been drunk and spent from the beautiful creatures he’d pilfered from his father’s gardens. Leafing through this chapter again with the benefit of hindsight, Claude now knew that his brief but insatiable thirst had been the bubbling-up of his grief. It had been the inevitable end to the seven men he’d killed between chapters four and six, blooming fat and heavy between his mother’s disappearance and the realization that his father was a monster.  

And the trick with inevitable things was that they came even if they weren’t summoned. So now in whatever late-numbered chapter he found himself within, that old specter came knocking on his door again. Claude did what any other man would have done in such an auspicious situation. He got drunk.

And here was the benefit of being both a duke and king: he had quite the selection of things to drink. He started with ale brewed by a particularly entrepreneurial dining hall cook. It tasted nearly as terrible as that wretched stuff he’d once drunk in the village down the hill. Although there was something sentimental in the spoiled taste it did little to chase Dimitri from his hiding place against the back of his eyelids, and so Claude moved on to wine. 

White, first; the kind that Hilda liked. A pair of giggling girls with auburn hair brought him a skin of it and stayed long enough to brag that they were born in Derdriu — just like him, they said. He squeezed the wineskin dry while he hunted through the dusty library, and lucked upon a boy gripping a broom just when he’d relented to return to the dining hall again for his third round. The boy — Winfred, from Fraldarius, an orphan, like most boys from that frozen place — agreed to hunt him out something red-colored in exchange for three coins fished from Claude’s pocket. It was a claret, and in a proper bottle; good stuff. He had to wonder just where Winfred from Fraldarius had found it, it no doubt worth more than the gold he’d paid. Claude swallowed every sweet drop and left the empty bottle hidden behind a set of volumes detailing the Church’s heroic exploits. 

Is this what you killed me for, Dimitri asked him while he staggered with an armful of stolen books back to his room — her room, actually, but weren’t they all his, wasn’t that what a conquest did? Claude considered both questions as he picked carefully up the stairs. 

Yes, he decided just as he came upon the door; that’s how this works. That’s the deal. Don’t be a poor sport. 

Byleth was inside. She wasn’t waiting for him, of course, although maybe if he’d been the one writing this sad story of his he would have styled it that way. It sounded nice, didn’t it? To have a lovely woman waiting for you when it grew dark? That being said, he wasn’t certain if he would’ve preferred it. Her work — studying a map, as she always was, as if they changed between her viewings — suited her, and no matter if she was slouching over the stub-legged desk she’d hauled there to make the room look a little more like the unimpressive dormitory she’d left behind. 

“Claude,” she greeted him. He snubbed his toes against the heel of one of his boots to kick his foot free, wobbling slightly as he endeavored not to drop his books in the process. He heard Byleth’s breath catch. “What’ve you been doing?” 

Claude kicked his second foot free before looking up at her. He squinted an eye closed so that there was only one of her looking back at him. 

“Reading,” he reassured her. He lumbered forward to toss the books — A History of Faerghus, and Rule of the Lion, and an old, scuffed thing that simply said Genealogy, Pt. II  he’d taken from the library onto the bed. It felt like his blood was on fire, so he crossed his arms over his chest afterwards, grabbing at the hem of his shirt to drag it off over his head. He heard Byleth’s chair scraping across the floorboards as he slipped free from his collar. 

“Are you drunk?” 

“Hm,” he said. He scrubbed his hands over his face next. It made him dizzy to shut his eyes. Better perhaps if he didn’t. Better, too, so that King Blaiddyd wasn’t staring back at him in the dark. Well, not that he had been a king. Although Claude then had to wonder if it mattered — being coronated. They all did it differently, but what really changed when they did? Dimitri had been born a prince and so naturally he’d be a king; and there was that old inevitability again. And was it just as inevitable that Claude had been born to kill kings?

He slumped onto the bed and rolled onto his back to stare at the ceiling’s frolicking fresco. It was three-quarters visible in Byleth’s lamplight. His head was spinning, but not in an entirely unpleasant way. It wasn’t like he was an amateur at this sort of thing, in any case. 

“Claude,” Byleth insisted. Perhaps she’d said something else that he’d missed, distracted as he’d been by the painted cherubs and the idea that they’d been witness to so many different tawdry things. The mattress shifted under Byleth’s weight. He let his head roll along with it, watching her as she settled on her knees beside him. There was a funny look in her eyes — confused, amused, and something else castaway in between worried and irritated. He didn’t bother to hide the smile spilling sloppily across his lips. 

“You’ve got ink,” he told her, reaching forward to rub his thumb against the black splotch at the corner of her mouth. She bit her nails, he’d learned. It was outrageous, really — to think a creature like her could harbor such base bad habits. She must’ve been gripping too close to the nib of her pen when she’d been scribing out their futures on that old map across the room. Not a surprise that it had ended with her lips. Wetted by the moisture of her breath, the ink stamped onto his skin as well. He drew back his hand and tasted it, his eyes still lingering on hers. 

Byleth scrubbed at the spot his touch had left behind before she huffed — so slight he barely heard it, which for her was being loud — and leaned sideways against her elbow to study him more closely. 

“Why’d you do this to yourself?” 

Her question wasn’t very fair. Plenty of men got drunk. It wasn’t as if he’d shaved his head or burned all of his clothes. Claude wasn’t even sure if it truly qualified as acting out. But all the same he knew what she meant — knew that she knew. Knew everything, quite possibly, but not in the ways he did. It was more instinctual with her, which made it far more impressive. Maybe it was because she’d once swallowed up a god. Certainly that seemed more exceptional than just being a good liar like him. 

“Did you know,” he slurred finally, cocking his brow as he said it with the same charm as a jester teasing out a riddle, “that my mother’s father’s grandfather was a Blaiddyd? He was the fourth son of King Aella the Wise — wise because he was old, you know, that’s what they call you when you live long enough without doing anything else worthwhile. Of course I suppose it’s all like that over here. Only so many families to pick from, isn’t that right? There’s probably some Hresvelg in me, too. Funny. Everyone knows you’ll breed lameness into your horses if you get too many colts from the same grandsires, but for men it seems to be the rule. Making bedfellows out of nieces and nephews.” Claude rubbed at his nose, realizing too late that he’d already stumbled off course from what he’d meant to say. 

“I have,” he continued, his voice slower, a little lower, “killed my father, and my brother, and my uncle, and now I’ve killed my cousin, no matter how many times removed. It’s despicable, isn’t it?” 

“You didn’t have a choice,” Byleth responded. It was too quick. He waved away the idea with a flip of his hand. 

“Choices. We all have choices. I could have been anything in this life. Why not? Do you think I’m here on some court order?” He scoffed the words, as if he were chiding her instead of himself, although it was obvious to them both that it was the latter. “It’s not as if I was tasked with all of this — some divine plan. Listen. One of my brothers is a tailor. The best damned draftsman in the world. Makes pretty things for pretty women. That’s how he’ll be remembered, the lucky bastard. I have so many fucking siblings I’ve lost count, and all of them — well, some of them are bloody, too, but not like...” 

He looked away from Byleth, staring into the fresco again. His fingers fiddled with the rings strung through his ear as he tried to steady himself against the vertigo caught from peering into her pupils. 

“Tomorrow it’ll be better,” he said next, resigned. “I’ll be fine. Maybe that’s what makes it so terrible. You saw him — Dimitri. Saw how haunted he was. I think that means that he was a better man than me.” Claude caught the gilded gaze of one of the cherubs above their heads. It grinned back at him, fat-cheeked. “I’ve got no ghosts. None that stay.” 

And it was the truth, mostly — in most of the ways that mattered. It would’ve been easier to sleep if he hadn’t done the things he done, but he still slept — sometimes drunk but most usually not, and distinctly sober in the past few years — and in the same way that he’d soon fall asleep in that very bed. Naturally, there were some exemptions to the rule. She knew that firsthand; must have been thinking about that night in the library, or his weeping in the dark. But then he’d always woken up again, hadn’t he? Had always carried on, and not because he thought it was better to show a brave face but simply because he’d had nothing else to wear. Now it was his novelty — a parlor trick. Look at how nicely I swallow it all down. 

“I’ll be glad when this is over,” he realized aloud. 

Byleth stroked her fingers through his hair. 

“When this is over,” she asked him gently, “what will you do?” 

He considered her question, his heart beating faster with every breath he took. It wasn’t often that he felt panicked, and yet in that moment he did. Others may have grown restless from it. He felt as though he was sinking into quicksand.

“It won’t,” he told her after awhile. “It’ll never end.” She hummed, no doubt uncomfortable with his answer — maybe even annoyed. “Do you know how new kings are made? Sometimes they’re born, but not always. Not usually. I wasn’t. You and I — I think we’ll win this war.” He slid his eyes from the cherubs to her, struck briefly silent by the similar tones of their hair and their ageless gaze. “We’ll be given our spoils and then the thieves will come to try to take them, just like we’ve taken them. It’s inevitable.” There it was again — that word, five syllabled, five-times cruel. “Until I’m dead.” 

The word conjured up an image of Seteth between them. A bitterness settled in Claude’s stomach as he realized that perhaps the man had already won the battle they’d been grappling over since he’d returned to Garreg Mach. 

“You always look at the darkest parts of things,” said Byleth. He laughed, a bit blindsided by the truth of what she’d said. 

“Well,” Claude offered, his brows arched high, “so I do.” 

Byleth edged a little closer. His eyes were too crossed to see much of her other than the pale of her skin and her shirt’s umber. 

“Because you like them,” Byleth continued in her teacher’s tone. “I think you’re drawn to them — dark things.” 

“My brother told me the same thing.” It was a little strange to put them in the same company. His lips, once slack, tightened into another lopsided grin. “Although I think he was just trying to tell me that I’m stupid. Always sticking my neck under swinging axes.” He shifted to his side. Byleth watched him wordlessly while he combed clumsily through the uneven ends of her hair. “And other dangerous things... like you.” 

“Me?” She sounded affronted by the idea. He could hardly imagine her using the tone. It was fascinating — all of the little ways she’d changed since he’d first met her in Remire. He winked closed one of his eyes to get a better look at her. Her own eyes had darkened, now grim and heavy. “Even after everything, you still don’t trust me?” 

“Trust you,” he repeated dreamily, plucking one of her hands from the sheets to press the rough pads of her fingers against his throat. How easy it would be, he thought as he kept watching her; to draw her well-trained tendons tight and squeeze the life out of him. Some would say it would be revenge, depending on who you asked. In a different story he was a villain, after all. “Of course I trust you.” 

Something flickered across her face too quick to read. Byleth gripped her hand a little less loose. It made Claude’s pulse ring in his ears. His mind began to wander, as all drunken minds do. 

“What will you do,” he asked her, and even despite the fact that he’d already claimed the idea impossible, and perhaps in contest to the tightening vice of her fingers, “when it ends? This war of ours?” 

Her lips pursed with an answer which she abandoned before she spoke it aloud. Her hand then fell from his throat with the shrug of her shoulders. 

“I don’t know. I haven’t considered it.” 

“Never?” He laughed, unconvinced. She stiffened. 

“We can discuss it when you’re not like this.” 

Claude rolled to his stomach and lurched forward to grab her before she stood from the bed. He hadn’t come there to rile her, after all, although to be honest he hadn’t really taken her to be the sort to be riled at all. 

“Later, then,” he agreed complacently, looping his arm around her waist and speaking the words against her shirt. Byleth didn’t melt against his touch but she didn’t fight to free herself, either. 

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said some moments later. “Dimitri. He was too far gone.” 

“I know,” Claude muttered. The cotton of her shirt swallowed up his voice. He heard her sigh. The tensed muscles of her back loosened slightly as she reached out to rest her palm against his shoulder. 

“You’re not the first drunk man I’ve managed, you know,” she told him. Her voice had turned a little dry. He grinned into her side and shivered when she brushed her hand along his over-hot skin. “You reek. No doubt you’ll forget how you even got here by dawn.” 

“Mh,” he agreed, slipping back a centimeter to stare upwards into the curve of her arm. “You’ll get whatever you want out of me. Might as well take advantage.” 

“I do have a question for you,” she said in response. He would have interpreted it as her benevolence in distracting him from their previous conversation if not for her sudden half-strangled tone. He leaned backwards, slightly sobered by the idea that she was quite possibly embarrassed. 

“Before,” she started, and then decided against it, her shoulders rising with a breath. “Brigid. It seems...extraneous.”

“You’ll have to use smaller words,” he chided her, wincing at the tangling syllables of this language he wore so well but would never truly be his, particularly not when he could barely feel his own legs. 

“Unnecessary,” she added quickly. “The Empire holds each piece of the western coast. An alliance with Brigid is generous, but I don’t think it does much for our strategy.” 

“Well, if I were Edelgard, I know I would’ve been rather angry to hear about it, don’t you think? And what a sight that would have been.” His question was honest, although even he wasn’t pickled enough not to understand what she was really creeping towards. He should have cringed at the idea, but for some reason it amused him instead. 

“I thought you’d grown a little too old for mind games,” Byleth countered. He laughed. 

“Never. But that isn’t your question, is it?” 

“You didn’t need to send Petra away simply because I...returned,” she minced, each long muscle in her back winding tight again. “She was exceptional on the field.” 

“I didn’t send her away.” He traced a finger along the trailing divot of her spine. “She asked for it, and I granted it to her. It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that I slept with her.”

Byleth shifted away from his touch before leaning back into it again, and with the latter as obviously deliberate as her initial flinch had been unintentional. He laughed below his breath and hoped that he still had the capacity to make it sound kind. 

“I wouldn’t be so happy about it either, you know,” he offered quickly, tugging at her sleeve so that she pivoted at the waist to face him. “If you found yourself in someone else’s bed. What was it that you said?” He slipped his hand under the hem of her shirt to trace the familiar crooked line of a scar set above the jut of her hipbone. “Extr-aneous. With everything we have to worry about, fidelity seems a bit indulgent, doesn’t it? But so it goes.”

“I suppose,” she answered, as if in reflex. One of the corners of his mouth turned tight. 

“I looked for you, you know,” he admitted. It wasn’t something that he’d planned to ever share with her, although drinking like this usually ruined well-laid plans. And it wasn’t as if there was a good reason for his secrecy, other than his ego and the bruises which she’d left to linger on the insides of his chest. “For three years.” 

He was then stupefied by the rare pink flush of her cheeks. 

“You don’t need to apologize,” she mumbled, looking away. The cogs in his head clanked stiffly together to plan his next response. It was a spectacular failure. 

“We’re different, you and I. People here call Almyrans thieves and they aren’t all wrong. Chastity in the east is just something...” he tapped his fingers against her skin, the words cluttering in his mouth as his body churned more of that wine into a dizzying cloud of sugar in his gut, “to be taken, stolen, not to be — well, whatever you all do. Cherished. Protected. Maybe guarded is the better term. Although to be honest with you, obsessed is even better. Do you know how many books there are in the library about the sanctity of a virtuous woman? Even I couldn’t finish them all, impressive reader that I am.” 

He was rambling again. That sweet blush of hers was fading. Claude wagged his head in an effort to clear the cobwebs from between his ears. 

“Just that it had nothing to do with you, is what I mean to say. I guess if you’d’ve met me as a younger man you would’ve called me a scoundrel.” He thought of all of the slick-skinned men and women he’d left in his wake and felt a shiver jump along his spine. “I come by it honestly — those are just our rules. But I don’t mind following yours, either. I understand the appeal. Maybe it’s the one thing that goddess of yours did right: devotion. Hm?” 

“I don’t know,” Byleth replied stubbornly. If she’d had a shell she’d have no doubt drawn herself inside it. Claude sighed and gently knocked his brow against her back. Sometimes it would’ve been easier if she wasn’t so gods-damned difficult all of the time. 

“I don’t know it,” she clarified. “Devotion. I’ve always just had duty, and even then only — do you,” she attempted, stopping each time with a more swallowed tone. “I don’t remember much of anything before I first came to the monastery. I know that I was a mercenary, and that I served alongside my father, but looking back on it now is like — like trying to remember a dream that I’ve already forgotten. And even then, I find it difficult to imagine that my father was devoted to much of anything — and then so what was I devoted to, if I was following him? In any case, that’s how it was. And now I follow you.”

“I’m not your father,” Claude interjected, the words tasting sour on his tongue. She braced against him and turned, her face flush again. 

“I know that,” she spat. 

“To be honest, I don’t think he liked me very much.” She frowned at the idea. 

“He didn’t know you,” she contended. Claude arched his brows. 

“He did, enough. Called me a dog.” He grinned crookedly at the memory.  

“That isn’t the point,” Byleth soldiered on. “In any case, it was just a question and you’ve given me your answer. You don’t need to explain yourself any further. This has all been enough. You should go to sleep before you say anything too absurd.”

He reached out instead, twining his fingers between hers and dragging them back towards his lips. She looked nearly miserable. For a moment he regretted coming to her door. Perhaps she would have preferred the company of her maps and quills instead of him tugging at her like he was now — then again, he was of the mind to think that eventually she would have hunted him out, and what a scene it would have been if she’d found him passed out in the library. Once was enough with that, as far as he was concerned. 

“Why is it that you follow me?” He asked the question into the tiny cicatrices peppering her knuckles. She stared back at him silently at first, no doubt weighing the worth of saying anything truthful to him now. 

“Because you asked for it,” she finally answered. He puffed a breath of hot air along the back of her hand. 

“Surely I wasn’t the first.” He knew he wasn’t, moreover, although he wasn’t so eager to broach the topic of Lady Rhea again, and no matter if they were in her room. A little line formed between Byleth’s brows. 

“And because I wanted to.” That sounded more honest. 

“Why?” 

“Because I thought that you were... odd,” she admitted, her grip tensing inside his. He laughed. 

Odd?” 

“I knew that you were different from the rest of them. Knew that you were lying about something — most things. All things,” she amended, narrowing her eyes. He pressed his lips against her fingers in recompense for his many deceptions. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand most people here — the clergy, the nobility — but I thought perhaps I might come to understand you.” 

His heart thudded against his ribs at the idea, absurd in the novelty that somehow he was the easiest to read against all of those poor-dressed liars, and yet somehow he believed her — no, knew it to be true, and just in the same way that he’d recognized that kindred darkness in her when he’d looked into her eyes for the very first time. 

“I trust you,” Claude told her once more. “Out of anyone — only you.” 

Why, her eyes asked, an echo to his own voice, although she wasn’t loose-lipped enough herself to speak it aloud. He splayed her hand over the centerpoint of his chest and felt the kicking tempo of his heartbeat through her palm. It was fast, just like it’d been when he’d been a little boy standing eager before a basket; watching, bewildered, as the most beautiful creature he’d even seen slowly uncoiled from inside. 

Because I love you, he could have answered, but he didn’t — not now, when she could pretend he hadn’t in the morning once he was sober and cotton-mouthed. He said nothing more and it was better, the way he showed her instead; fingers around his throat and over his heart to show her who owned them.   

A handful of other impossible things came to pass in the week ahead. Leicester conquered the unconquerable in Fort Merceus, and then watched helpless as the invincible fastness was obliterated by the wrath of a dead god. Next came the dissolution of Claude’s carefully maintained ruse, explained away by the Almyran soldiers — Nader’s men, not proper reavers, really, but better suited for things like these — who’d come bearing their king’s banners to fight beside the Alliance. Nearly all of it surprised him, but none of it was as inconceivable as that drunken night: to live through it all without lying, and to feel her fingertips against his nakedness.  

 

Chapter Text

More maps. More ledgers. There was enough of it to cover each corner of Claude’s desk. What remained of Faerghus lived in long scrolls of camel-colored parchment that Felix had stolen when he’d left his prince behind. Claude studied the names and all of their alleged loyalties — age-old promises shared between lords and vassals, the last links of chivalry that hadn’t survived the war for which they’d been tempered. There wasn’t much of the Holy Kingdom left in terms of numbers, but he knew that frozen earth gave birth to a sense of vengeance that didn’t require brute strength to be useful. He still caught Faerghus’ soldiers hiding embroidered griffons beneath their plate, but for now it would be to his advantage. Once they’d avenged their lost king in Enbarr, Claude would see to making sure they understood his title as well.  

Leicester was even more complex but to him also far more intimately familiar. The once-named count of Gloucester had all but disappeared following his disgrace at Myrddin, and the men he’d charmed in his previous vies for power were the same breed who turned their backs on anything once it’d shown its belly. It would be a relief to finally have the old man cast off from Claude’s heels, as pitiful of a threat as he’d once been. 

Margrave Edmund was a hungry man who understood that Claude was the only one with anything worth feeding him, and so he would be obedient; in any case, with Galatea under its banners once more, Daphnel had nearly twice the power of the upstart house that had so recently usurped its seat at the Roundtable. Claude knew that Judith would manage the margrave if he wished to seek his wealth elsewhere. 

House Ordelia was small and already once-broken by the Empire, and so served him as loyally as their only daughter ever had. Somehow Nader had made a lifelong friend out of Holst Goneril with a single night of drinking, but even without their drunken pledges of blood-brotherhood Hilda had long ago conquered the Throat on Claude’s behalf. All of it paled in comparison with the fact that the field at Merceus had been filled with Almyra’s olive-colored banners, and that Leicester had cheered at the sight. 

And so he’d stolen the Alliance and had watched the Kingdom die, and now his maps were filled with the spidery sketches of Enbarr’s streets and ancient temples ready to be burned. He should have felt victorious, but instead found himself mired in the desperation of a starved man suddenly presented with a banquet. If he wasn’t careful, he knew, surely his feasting would kill him. 

“Hungry?” 

Claude’s eyes snapped from a half-finished blueprint of the imperial palace to catch Hilda peeking through his door. She waved a pair of iced buns at him, gripped over the pink silk of one of her handkerchiefs. The smell of sugar and cinnamon made him a little nauseated, but he still offered her an honest grin. 

“You always know the way to my heart,” he told her as she danced inside. Hilda winked and sat herself primly at the corner of his desk, offering one of the buns to him and considering the other before — and with a slight, disappointed frown — setting it aside still wrapped in silk. Something for later, he realized, which meant that she wanted something from him now. He took a treacly bite. 

“This looks boring,” Hilda observed, sucking a glob of icing from her thumb before fiddling with a pile of coded messages written by his westward scouts. 

“That isn’t really the word for it.” 

“You did always love to read,” she replied dryly. Claude laughed into the crescent bite he’d left in his pastry. 

“I suppose I’ve come by all of this honestly,” he admitted. He leaned backwards in his chair, groaning slightly as he stretched his arms to line his spine straight after so many hours spent hunched over. 

“You know, most kings have advisors who do this sort of thing.” 

“Advisors like you?” Claude replied. She laughed, her cheeks turning a tone closer to the color of her hair. 

“Well, you are so terribly good at it,” she countered airily. Her eyes danced across the disarray of the desk. She looked tired, he thought; her skin, usually dewy and perfect, was ashen in his candlelight. She’d never been one for dark circles but there they were as well, casting long shadows beneath her quartzite gaze. Something in his chest pinched at the sight. 

“I’ve received a letter from Holst,” Hilda continued. “All twelve pages of it. Pages three through seven requested that I convey my sincerest apologies on behalf of House Goneril for our various transgressions towards... how did he put it... the proud sons and daughters of the eastern star.

Claude rolled his eyes. So Nader had shared that old diatribe of his with the rose-haired general when they’d gotten themselves piss drunk. 

“Noted,” he drawled, and in a way that made it seem like such an apology was a silly eccentricity. In truth it was dreadfully threadbare. It would take more than twelve pages for House Goneril to reconcile all of the blood they’d shed, which said nothing for the children they’d made a sport of stealing. But that was the funny thing about a war — it was a moonless night. All dark things looked dark, then, and it was a losing battle to cast light onto them until the morning after. 

“He also says that he’s ready to ride west at your call.” Claude waved away the idea. 

“No. If we leave everything open to be taken, it won’t be the thief who’s left with the blame. Nader will stay in Derdriu — your brother in the Locket.” He rubbed his eyes before staring into the face of the map sprawled across his desktop. Hilda’s eyes followed as well. “Once we take Enbarr we’ll bother with the rest.” 

“Enbarr,” Hilda echoed. She glanced upwards at him. “Have you ever been before?” 

“No,” he answered, shaking his head. “Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”

“It’s beautiful,” she sighed. “Glass gardens, broad avenues — the opera house, the imperial museums, cafes...And filled with people. That’s what I’ll always remember about it. Markets at every corner selling the most wonderful things. When I was a little girl I was convinced that eventually I’d run away and make a life there. Holst always said he’d make a match for me in Derdriu if I was so worried about that sort of thing, but that old place is nothing compared to Enbarr.” 

Are you going to break it, her eyes asked him as she shared her glass-blown girlhood dreaming; just like you’ve broken everything else? He wasn’t certain how to answer. 

“Edelgard will do anything to protect it,” Hilda finished on his behalf. Claude nodded. 

“As we are now, we’ll be evenly matched,” he explained. He watched as her eyes darted to Almyra’s great expanse at the rightward corner of his map. His lips quirked into a crooked smile. “You remember my brother Madan?” She nodded. 

“He’s convinced five of the old provinces that it’s in their better interest to accept me as their king rather than making a go of it themselves,” Claude continued, tapping at the blot on the map named Sakhavan. “I’m afraid the rest will be more complicated. Better to keep that fistfight behind the Locket, at least for now. Besides, I remember someone telling me that I couldn’t bring reavers into Fodlan.” 

“I didn’t say anything about reavers,” Hilda puffed. He laughed. 

“We’ll be alright,” he reassured her. “The Empire might be fighting to survive, but so are we.” Her eyes locked on his and held him steady. 

“...I’d like to ask you favor,” she managed finally, her voice more quiet than he’d ever heard it before. Claude cocked his head and nodded. 

“I owe you plenty of them. What is it?” 

“Before... before Enbarr, do you think that you could ask the Professor — the Archbishop — to marry me to Marianne?” 

Claude’s breath whistled from his lungs. This hadn’t been the favor he’d imagined she’d steal from him, although perhaps it wasn’t a surprise — that she’d finally come to collect on that debt he’d promised her seven years before. Hilda paled before turning a deep, burnt pink. 

“I know we haven’t gotten that far — laws and standards and everything, that is — but I thought that maybe with both you and her there — that maybe then no one would have the stones to say that it was wrong.” She huffed a breath of nervous laughter. “At least not while it happens, but that’s all that matters, right?” 

“Hild,” he sighed. “Of course she can. Congratulations.” 

She smiled limply at him. It should have been bright and beaming instead, but he knew why it wasn’t. Hilda had been at his side for long enough to know that he could read her just as well as he read the rest of them. It saved them both their precious time not to dance around each other. He reached across the desk to grip his fingers over her own. 

“We’re going to take Enbarr,” he promised her. The words, suddenly grim and serious, tasted astringent on his tongue. “Nothing will happen to you. You’ll see the day through. Both of you.” 

Hilda laughed again, shaking her head as she did. She stared into the ceiling’s swirled plaster. 

“Plenty of things have happened to me,” she admitted to him. “And I don’t know if any of that old stuff is true. A life eternal. We’ve never really been believers, you and I, have we? But if I die I want her to know, you know?” Her lips quivered when she looked to him again. Claude tightened his hold on her until he felt her slender fingers warming against his palm. “That my spirit... that no matter what happens, I’ll always come back for her.”

Claude nodded but didn’t speak. There wasn’t much else left to be said. 

 


 

There wasn’t enough time — not for proper dresses or flowers or feasts. As a duchess Hilda was due revelry that could’ve only been outclassed by Claude’s own, but every hour they spent in Garreg Mach was an hour for Edelgard to draw a little deeper into her poison-barbed shell. The marketplace was still filled with the pinging hammers of the smithy and the nervous rabble of the soldiers piecing together suits of arms when Hilda and Marianne bowed their heads below the spindly branches of the monastery’s gardens. 

None of it was enough and yet somehow it suited them: the simple gowns that Hilda had managed to sew out of commandeered bedsheets, made richer by the glimmer of the gemstones she’d painstakingly threaded into necklaces and earrings and diadems when they’d all had the space of mind to do that sort of thing; the shared blush of their cheeks, marked by Marianne’s predictable bashfulness made contagious for once; the lace of their fingers together as Byleth recited something she’d hastily memorized the night before under Seteth’s reluctant tutelage; the swallowed coos of their classmates-turned-comrades-in-arms as they watched in their privileged semi-circle tucked into one of the garden’s half-hidden corners. 

Claude watched all of them, and each with a different gaze. He noted the shy glances Ignatz shared with Maya, Raphael’s sweet sister who’d brought enough mail and boiled leather from Derdriu a fortnight before to clothe half of the army, and who’d lingered in the monastery afterwards despite both her brother and her would-be lover’s protests to retreat back to the shield of the Alliance’s interior. Theirs were nearly overshadowed by the sharper looks exchanged between Catherine and Shamir, no doubt silently debating their allegiances now that they saw what Claude could offer them in spite of Seteth’s not-so-secret distaste for the once-hidden Almyran king. He watched Lorenz summon all of his gallantry to ignore Faheem, who was himself bristled at the count’s side, hands clasped like a prayer at his lips as he watched two strangers become united with teary eyes — he’d always had a weakness for this sort of thing, gentle as it was, and therefore seemingly forbidden for men like their father’s sons. 

It was impossible not to watch Byleth, too. She’d abandoned her grim wardrobe for robes borrowed from some monk who’d surely been bewildered by the request, and yet there she stood — a little swallowed up by the cloth but no doubt far more comfortable in a pauper’s things than she would ever be in Rhea’s vestments. 

Like everything else about her, it was terrifying to love her. Claude had felt as if he’d been stumbling along a tightrope ever since he’d admitted himself to his own feelings, too clever not to understand that it was dangerous to bind himself more tightly to her. Maybe he’d never know what she truly was, or at least no better than she did; maybe she was a blessing, and maybe she was a scourge. Maybe she was neither, and neither was he, and the Emperor would be the one to win the day ahead instead. Maybe all of their cleverness would mean nothing — would be nothing more than bird-feed once their heads had been mounted along Enbarr’s walls. 

You always look at the darkest parts of things, a whisper of her voice reminded him. Claude swallowed the breath he’d been holding and watched Hilda be married off instead. She looked happy — this dearest friend of his and perhaps his first, in truth. And surely he’d never seen Marianne smile like that before. There was something nearly otherworldly in it, as if he’d stumbled upon a dryad’s rite. It was beautiful, and generous in its kindness in a way that felt like a gulp of fresh water after so many days spent parched under the sun. He tried to revel in the peal of Marianne’s timid laughter when Byleth finished with her blessing to watch the women seal their promises with a kiss. 

A base anxiety unfurled inside his chest instead, insisting that he pick it all apart. How would it feel, he wondered unbidden, to have a love like that? Pink and blue, complimentary; the swing of an axe and the balm of a healer’s hands. If he asked her the words, would Byleth kiss him like that, too? And if she did, would their friends shower them with the petals of late-summer flowers like they did now, or would they just be owed more blood; serpentine hair and venomous eyes and a pair of insatiable swords?   

Hilda broke free from her recessional to toss her arms around his shoulders. Thank you, she whispered into his ear, her voice rounded with emotion. He hugged her tight and lost himself briefly in the ambrosia of the honeysuckle braided through her upswept hair. Then he let her loose and laughed when she offered her second kiss of the night in the form of a smacking press against his cheek. Raphael laughed as well, filling the garden with the canon-shot of his clapping hands. Lysithea and Flayn cheered, twin songbirds against the brawler’s thunder. Claude heard Lorenz share some quick soliloquy on love and duty with Marianne before she gracefully retreated to Hilda’s side once more. In a different time they would have been welcomed next with a feast and dancing, just like Hilda liked — lutes, mandolins, pipes; songs growing more bawdy as the night ticked onwards into the midnight hour. 

Instead the smith hammered onwards in his forge. A lieutenant barked a set of orders from outside the garden walls. Catherine turned to share some tactical revelation with Seteth, to the grim dip of his head. Maybe if they’d been looking they would have been disappointed; but instead Marianne and Hilda simply disappeared into the monastery’s halls, arm-in-arm as they sought out the temporary refuge of their borrowed room and a night, at least, of thinking about something other than the tempest gathering at their door. 

“Meet me in my quarters when you can,” Byleth told Claude, suddenly at his side. “I’d like to review some changes with you about the forward guard.” 

“Whatever you say, Teach,” he replied with a wink. 

She scowled lightly at the old nickname. It’d been a while since he’d unearthed it last, but maybe he was just feeling nostalgic. A part of him felt like it was disappointment instead, although that seemed absurd — unfair, unearned. 

He considered the different words after he’d shared some niceties with the others in their exit from the garden. His footsteps echoed into the monastery’s cool halls, each step the beating of a steady metronome. With one pace he allowed himself to feel a wave of pity for everything that had happened; not for the immeasurable parts, but for their smallest incidentals — an abridged wedding, and the impossibility of sharing a conversation with Byleth that wasn’t bruised by war. With his next his mind wandered inexplicably to his mother and her thirteen refusals of his father’s hand. 

His third pace was accented by the sudden crack of something heavy against his left temple and the flash of an unseen color across his eyes. 

“Fuck,” he stuttered as he sunk to his knees. He saw nothing for a moment, dazed, his mind filled with images of his late brother’s milk-glass eye and the feeling of the grit of the cold ledgerstones beneath his palms. He could hear the sound of footsteps dancing around him — quick, too-quiet. He’d heard those types of steps before; knew, with dread filling his belly and a white-hot fury crackling from each and every one of his pores, exactly what they meant. 

Claude lurched sideways to scramble to his feet. The kick of a boot against his chest sent him backwards instead. His back jolted against the floor, making his aching skull pulse with a painful four-quarter beat. His vision did the same, starting to life again in a blurry set of flashes that culminated in the face of a man hidden beneath a shrouded hood. Even in the dark-on-dark of the night-time hallway Claude could see the ghostly pallor of his skin and the furrow of his brow. 

Claude reached for him, aimless and desperate, and found his fingers coiled around the assassin’s wrists. It was lucky that he had, and that he could brace his elbows against the floor in an effort to slow the hooded man’s attempt to gut him with some sort of blade he’d pulled or perhaps had always been clutching. 

It was nearly enough. Claude gasped as he felt the hot-cold sear of the dagger’s edge pricking just above his navel. It was a cruel way to kill a man; excessive for a cut-throat, so named because there was at least some sort of dignity in the quick end of blade against one’s neck. This was a different sort of judgment. Maybe it was fate — the sort that he was due. Back on your belly, Stone-Eye had warned him. It made Claude so furious that he was nearly blinded once more. 

No.

I’ll kill you too, he then decided; even if I’m dead I’ll devour you, skin and bone. He slipped one of his hands free to claw with indiscrimination at the man, his nails catching and tearing against thick cloth and skin. The blade skidded higher, leaving in its wake an acid-burn agony that was nearing closer to the dovetail of Claude’s ribs. Claude’s fingers found purchase on the man’s cowl. He twisted it tight, watching as the fabric pulled from the assassin’s face to unveil a hooked nose and thin lips turned into a tooth-filled snarl. 

He then watched dumbfounded as the skin of the man’s cheek pushed forward over the pyramid of a point and then split, red-bloomed, in duet with a sickening crunch. Claude felt the muscles of the man’s arms suddenly grow slack. He shoved him sideways with a groan before the cut-throat’s body sunk forward like a fatal anchor against his blade. 

“Claude!” 

Claude skimmed his fingers across the slickness of his stomach and peered through the dark to find Ignatz gaping back at him, dwarfed behind the graceful curve of his longbow still gripped tight. An arrow, Claude realized, the words tumbling thickly through his mind. That was what that wicked point had been. And so it was. After everything, Ignatz had finally learned how to make his shot. 

“Fucking hell,” Claude managed, breathless. He was interrupted by the clatter of plate as a pair of guards dashed too-late into the corridor. Ignatz danced forward as well, his longbow clattering to the side as he reached out tentatively towards the torn brocade of Claude’s jacket. Claude waved him off with a hissing wince. 

“Close the gates. Red protocol,” Claude growled, his voice filled with the vitriol of his disappointment that they’d all let something like this come to pass. What triumph could they expect in Enbarr if they let themselves be cut down in their own beds? 

“Sir!” The guards barked in reply, steeling themselves behind their helmets before they jutted forward in half-bows, their plate clacking as they then dashed backwards from where they’d come to order the curtains of the monastery’s walls to be drawn tight. Part two of that scarlet-colored protocol was to lock each and every denizen into their own quarters — both for their protection and as the first step of their potential prosecution. 

Not that Claude thought his killer had come from their ranks. There had been something wrong about the man — the uncolor of his skin, the strange depths of his eyes. He didn’t know what to name it just yet, but whoever it was that had sent the cut-throat to Garreg Mach had been the same spirit who’d compelled that faceless mage to strike him from the sky in Aillel — of that Claude was certain.

“—de! Are you alright?” 

He shook himself from his thoughts to turn to Ignatz again. The poor man looked like a ghost. Claude allowed himself a final ginger test of his fingers against the cut that had nearly butterflied him. It wasn’t deep enough to be deadly, although that didn’t mean that he wasn’t grinding his teeth into powder from the sear of his split skin. 

“I’m fine,” he groaned. He drug the back of his hand against his nose and frowned at the blood which’d dampened it— worse than a cut, that was, although it explained why it was so difficult to organize his thoughts into straight lines. 

“Marianne,” Ignatz ordered, already grasping at Claude’s arm to drag him upright. Claude stood, his gaze slipping drunkenly as he found his footing. 

“No. It’s fine,” Claude insisted. He let Ignatz guide one of his arms over his shoulders, not too proud to lean against him if it meant keeping himself a bit hunched so that he didn’t pull the dagger’s gash tight. “Byleth can manage it. Just take me to her.” 

They were in a war. Men tried to kill each other in a war. That sort of thing didn’t mandate a battlefield. It was just as terrible as anything else that had happened to them in the past five years, which meant that it wasn’t enough to warrant filling Marianne’s marriage bed with blood. 

“Claude...” Ignatz answered, bristling at Claude’s stubbornness even as he turned him in the archbishop’s direction. 

“It’s fine,” Claude said again. It wasn’t, of course, but not like it had ever been. 

 


 

“Gods,” Byleth gasped when they arrived at her door. It had already been barred, a reassuring sign for Leonie’s careful instruction provided to the guards so many weeks before. The sentinels stalking the hallways watched them with saucer-shaped eyes as Claude hobbled inside. Once the door was closed against his back he heard the bolts click safely tight once more. “What happened?” 

“Opportunism,” Claude answered. Byleth looked ready to finish the assassin’s work herself. She read his unfocused gaze well, taking his free arm and walking him in tandem with Ignatz to her bed. Then she clapped Claude’s head between her palms — he winced, missing Marianne’s tenderness — to soothe the ache splitting him apart between his eyes. 

“Will he be alright?” 

Claude shivered — both from the grind of the broken shards of his skull fusing back together again and from the brutalist nature of Ignatz’s tone, as if they were speaking over his body, and him not truly there at all. 

“It’s not the first time someone’s tried to kill me,” Claude insisted from within the cage of Byleth’s busy arms. “That was a good shot.” 

The compliment shocked Ignatz silent. Better that it did, so that Claude could simply listen to the ringing in his ears instead. 

“You should have been more careful,” Byleth then offered tightly. Claude drew in a deep sigh. He regretted it soon after, his lips pulling back from the pinch of his jagged wound. 

“Kind of you to teach me the lesson,” he groaned. She pushed mercilessly against his shoulder to ease him back against the bed. He heard the nervous shuffle of Ignatz’s feet as Byleth quickly pulled apart the buttons of his jacket. Yes, he supposed there was something overly intimate in how she handled him. Moreover, Ignatz had never been much of a gossip. Perhaps this would be his moment of realization of their politically disastrous affair — Byleth bent over him, her hands slick with his blood, and both of them sharing a stubborn grimace like two hounds fighting over a bone.  

“Who did it?” 

“I don’t know,” Claude answered her through his teeth. “It doesn’t matter. Obviously they weren’t a proponent of Leicester supremacy.” 

“Claude,” Byleth chided him. He watched her fingers slick the snaking red path above his navel closed. 

“Don’t tell me to take this seriously,” he warned her in reply. “It was my head on the line.” 

Whatever she meant to say was swallowed up by the crack of a fist against the door. 

“Count Gloucester,” a voice announced stonily from outside. 

“Fuck,” Claude sighed. He shared a silent glance with Byleth before she turned over her shoulder. 

“Let him in,” she ordered. The guard at the door complied. 

“Heavens,” Lorenz stuttered, whisking into the room. Claude clubbed his heel against the floor as Byleth worked a deeper section of his wound closed. 

“Hello, Lorenz,” Claude managed thinly afterwards. “How kind of you to join us.” Lorenz, once parchment-white, flushed with a far more familiar look of indignation. 

“I see that you are in better spirits than what I was led to believe,” he sniffed. Claude’s stomach sunk at the idea. Gossip about him lying at death’s door would be nearly as disastrous for the Alliance as his death itself. He threaded his arm free from Byleth’s work to wave in Ignatz’s direction. 

“Go tell them that I’m alright, would you? You’re so good at storytelling — don’t spare any expense.” 

“A-alright,” Ignatz replied. The archer then turned to face Lorenz. “Has anyone else been found?” 

“No,” Lorenz replied. “Although it is far too early to be certain, it appears at this moment that the scoundrel worked alone.” 

Scoundrel,” Claude echoed, his laughter cut short by another one of Byleth’s rather rudimentary spells. “Don’t make me look like a fool. He was a proper fucking professional. Go on, then, Ignatz. Before they think I’m cold in the ground.” 

“Right, right,” Ignatz replied hastily, spinning on his heel to dash towards the door. They all watched him exit before sharing a collected sigh. 

“Is it true that he saved your head?” Lorenz then asked.  

“Yes,” Claude told him. “He must have been on his way to the walls for his watch. Thank the bloody goddess for that. Maybe I’ll make him a count, too.” 

“Must you always make a jape out of everything?” Lorenz muttered, closing the distance between them to linger at Byleth’s side. She stepped backwards a step herself, rubbing her tacky fingers against the front of her shirt as she looked over the raw skin she’d finally healed watertight. 

“Go on, then,” Claude answered, in no mood to prance around Lorenz’s affectation. “Did you have a look at him? Our man in black?” 

“Yes. I’ve asked for his portrait to be drawn. We can circulate it among the men, see if anyone finds his look familiar.” 

“Why?” Claude patted tenderly at his stomach before dragging his fingers backwards through his sweat-damp hair. “There’s no time for that. We march tomorrow — before they can fit themselves through any more holes in our armor. I have a good enough idea of what he was after.” 

Lorenz harrumphed, his fine armor shimmering in the lamplight as he fished something from his side. 

“Naturally I appreciate your straightforward approach, Duke Riegan, but it must be said that the man was most certainly no imperial.” Claude deigned not to correct him on the title, instead sitting upwards with another groan to accept the bundle Lorenz had offered in his direction. He peeled away the grey cloth of its shroud to unveil the cruel hook of the dagger that had so recently torn him open. It was long and dark and unusual, its blade adorned with a runic script that was to him utterly unfamiliar. 

“Maybe he simply admired the emperor’s vision,” Claude conceded, turning the dagger in his palm. “Or maybe he wanted us all to burn. Perhaps Edelgard’ll have a visitor of her own. Better if she does. It means nothing for our path ahead.” 

He looked up to search Byleth’s face for agreement and found it drained of color instead. Her eyes were steady on the dagger. There was something newly dark and haunted in them. Claude frowned and turned to Lorenz again.                                         

“I’ve had enough intrigue for one evening,” Claude concluded, shifting his voice into a drier tone that told Lorenz not to disagree. “Go and see that the rest of them don’t work themselves into a frenzy. We march in the morning.” 

Lorenz’s gaze lingered on him. You don’t look much suited for that sort of thing yourself, his eyes told him. That isn’t the point, Claude could have disagreed. Instead Lorenz merely frowned and then slowly nodded his head, offering Byleth a more genteel bow before turning for the door.

“It’s not as if you fight alone,” Lorenz said before he gripped the doorknob. “We’ll find the man responsible for what’s happened.” 

“I don’t want revenge,” Claude answered. It was both a term of appreciation and a warning. “I want to bring an end to this gods-damned war.” 

Lorenz hummed his agreement and slipped into the hall to leave them finally alone. Claude wrapped the dagger in its cloth again and tossed it to the floor. 

“What is it?” 

Byleth stiffened but didn’t answer. He reached for her, his fingers closing lightly around her arm to draw her a step closer to the bed. “This was all a little... clumsy,” he reassured her in a gentler tone, “but it turned out alright in the end. Don’t let it bother you. Trust me, I’ve had worst scrapes. And let me tell you — poison is far worse than a close shave.” 

“That blade.” Her voice was pinched; her gaze still leveled at the far wall. “Kronya carried one just like it.” 

Ah. His heart knotted in his chest. So that was it; she’d seen a ghost. The revelation washed over him with an icy tide. How cruel it must have been, he then thought; to have felt the dagger’s bite draw deeper inside him, enough to kill. What did it mean that her father’s fate had been something like that? He tugged her a little harder, dragging her to sit beside him on the bed. 

“Whatever it is they’re looking for,” he promised her, “they must have found it in the Empire. That means Enbarr. We’ll bring them both down. We have the men — and more, if we need them. This fight is in our favor.” 

“They could have killed you, too.” 

She turned to face him. There were tears in her eyes. It made a low misery snake along his spine. For some reason he thought of Hilda — her face drawn and gray, like Byleth’s was now, shadows ringing her eyes. He leaned to catch Byleth’s face between his palms, pressing his brow against hers and nocking the bridge of his nose with her own. Her hands crossed loosely behind his back. They were still sticky from his blood.   

“No matter what happens.” 

He said the words and then he kissed her, slow and lingering, until the first beads of her tears had wetted his cheeks and the second had settled unspilled in her lashes; and as he did he imagined her with honeysuckles in her hair. He drew her closer and pretended that he was kissing her in a garden instead of in a stolen room, and without the bitter hunger for war slicked between their tongues. No matter what happens, and he felt himself falling, his body on fire, and saw her rising until she was nothing but the shine of a far-away star. No matter what happens,  

“I’ll always come back for you.”   

 

Chapter Text

It wasn’t quite morning yet but that time that came in between, when the fires they’d stoked the night before were full of ash and their tents were slick with dew. Claude was nearly alone. The bleary-eyed watchmen nodded their heads at him as he made a slow revolution around the camp, itself the vanguard in a long line of identical makeshift cities which filled the forest outside of Enbarr. They were hidden in the wood, but it was only a pretext, really; Edelgard knew that they were there as well as she understood that her last defense was forcing them to make the first move. It would’ve been a stalemate if Claude had been the type for sieges, but he wasn’t and so it wasn’t, either. 

As he walked he thought about that old adage about the calm before a storm. Like most things penned so often in chivalric tales, it wasn’t true. The camp was quiet but it wasn’t calm. Each tent he passed was a cauldron brewing with a strange alchemy: desperate lovers clinging to each other like some chimera soon to be torn apart; or the faithful and the faithless, both in some manner on their knees; men hungry for blood and terrified of it, slicked with a cold sweat they couldn’t wash away. Claude smelled all of it like the first hint of lightning in the air. It made his skin itch; made him restless — made him feel starved.

He thought about his father next, and for once without shoving the idea aside. How had the old king been in moments like these, the same heavy sword slung over his shoulder while he inspected the men who’d soon toss themselves into hell for his favor? How many wars had he conquered? How many had he lost? King Khalil had never been the sort for tallies — not like Nader, at least. His only tic-marks had been the trophies he’d brought home, cherished for a single moment before they were tossed into dark corners to be forgotten forevermore. 

There’d been a time when Claude had committed himself to counting them, as if he’d have somehow unlocked some hidden connection between them if he could’ve only understood just what the hell it was his father fought for. It’d either been a riddle too difficult for him to solve or it’d simply been nothing: just death in the form of china-colored skulls and broken swords. The only secret he’d unearthed was that his father was good at it. Maybe that was all that mattered, in the end. 

Claude slowed his pace as he came upon a tent flying Gloucester’s banner. The tent’s front flap had already fluttered open when he’d still been six paces away. Faheem emerged, shameless and spotless in a set of slink-silk robes the color of his long hair. They’d always been so good at finding each other. Claude had often wondered if they’d been meant to be have been born together hand-in-hand, if only their father hadn’t been so dedicated to putting children into as many different women as he could find.  

“Hello,” Faheem greeted him as he fell in step. Claude nodded back at him — wondered briefly if there was any point in chastising him for what he’d so clearly done the night before, and deciding soon after that it was a fool’s errand. He steered them towards the edge of the wood instead, threading between the last set of fires as they came closer to the field on which they’d soon begin their fight. The walls of Enbarr were a dark line at the other side, glittering with the last torches ready to be extinguished as the sun made its creeping entrance against the horizon line. 

“Another city for you,” his brother observed. Claude shrugged his shoulders. 

“If we’re lucky.” 

“It has nothing to do with luck,” Faheem insisted, his voice dry, a little coy. He peeked at him beneath his lashes before turning to inspect the camp at their back. “You’ve done quite well for yourself, all said and told. Seven years and once you were just a stubborn fool. Now you’re the king of most everything, nearly.” 

“Nearly,” Claude agreed with a smirk. 

“In all the ways that matter. I’ve listened to your people — all of their stories; how you’ve fed them, paid them, bled for them. Every time a man tries to kill you I think they love you even more.” 

“I’d prefer a different method, to be honest,” Claude admitted, his fingers brushing against the bruised tenderness of his once-torn stomach with the idea. 

“Well,” Faheem tutted, “but you’ve always known that the ends are far more important than the means.”

“I suppose.” 

“You know, when you told me what you wanted out of all of this, I was convinced that you were just hunting down the most difficult way to get yourself killed. All of your talk about forges and chains... I thought you’d lost your mind. And for what? Your own damned pride.” Faheem laughed low under his breath, shaking his head as he did. “If I were as good at reading people as you are I would’ve seen the truth.” 

“And what truth is that?” 

“That all of this was always yours,” his brother answered with the wave of his hand. He sounded a little sad. “And to be honest with you, I pity you for it. Some things love to wear a collar, Kal. Even the meanest dog obeys its master. Here is your beast ready to be tamed — ready for that chain of yours, and look how long it’s grown. But I wonder if it’s so different, really; a collar from its tether. If you always have to keep a tight grip on it, does it really matter which end you’re on?” 

Claude frowned. He kept his gaze steady on the teeth of Enbarr’s skyline as it grew from pewter into silver under the rising sun. They were both silent for a while. 

“Can I ask you a question?” Claude looked sidewards at his brother when he spoke again. 

“It isn’t like you to ask,” Claude told him. Faheem’s lips twitched into a smile. 

“Yes, I suppose it doesn’t really matter if you want it or not. But tell me the truth when you answer, won’t you?” 

“Alright,” Claude said with a shrug. 

“In all of these years you’ve spent west, did you ever find her?” 

“Who?” 

“Your mother,” Faheem replied. Claude looked away as quick as if he’d been scalded. 

“Seven years is a long time,” Faheem continued. “Surely you’ve-”

“No,” Claude interjected. The word was nearly swallowed up in his sigh. “No, I haven’t.” Faheem’s face filled with an earnest look — something tender and unassuming. 

“I see. Do you think that she’s passed on?”

Claude crossed his arms over his chest and drew in another deep breath. 

“No,” he decided aloud. For some reason he was convinced that it was the truth. Faheem nodded. 

“After you take this empire for your own, then,” his brother replied, leaving the rest of his question unspoken but mutually understood. Claude shook his head. 

“No,” he said again. “I don’t think so.” 

“Surely she must be in Fodlan.” 

“In Fodlan, or Morfis, or the moon,” Claude told him. “It doesn’t matter. There’s a Riegan in Derdriu, just like there’s always been before. It doesn’t matter if I’m Claude or Khalil. If she’d wanted it she would have found me.” 

“Oh, don’t be so bitter.” 

“It’s not bitterness. The thing about being a liar, Faheem, is that you tell the truth in what you do. My mother knows me as well as you do, in her own way. She’s seen the man I am and she’s run from it— and you can call me a fool if you’d like, but I’m not the sort that chases after what’s already running.” 

A set of bells tolled deep in Enbarr’s belly. Claude slipped his thumb under the strap hung over his shoulder and turned against his heels. 

“Come on, then,” he told his brother before Faheem had the chance to the respond. “They’re calling for us.” 

 


 

Claude watched her while they took the city. No matter where their advance took them, it was easy to find her in the crush below — the pale green of her hair like a strange flower blooming against grey plate and bloody cobbles. He watched her as she plunged the point of her sword through a man’s throat and then used his body as a shield against two others that rode upon her to avenge him; heard, even with the wind in his ears, the sound of their mounts squealing when she set them ablaze. As he watched he followed her with the edge of his drawn arrow, letting it loose with a spray of crackling red miasma whenever anyone particular daunting seemed to creep too close. He did the same for the rest of them as well — Hilda, when she found herself suddenly boxed in by mages, and Raphael after he’d taken a lance through the left shoulder and hadn’t yet had the opportunity to seek out Marianne. 

As always, riding at his height above the melee made Claude feel like he was simply pushing pawns across a chessboard. The only difference was her cutting through it, as if Enbarr was neither the heart of an empire nor a board but something made from tissue paper begging for her sword. It made the hunger broiling in his chest nearly unbearable. 

“Claude!” 

He turned in his saddle to spot Cyril’s approach. The younger man pointed downwards with an arrow of his own. 

“Look there,” Cyril continued. Claude obeyed, his eyes darting between the men tearing each other apart to settle on a pair of mages in long, dark robes. His pulse began to race. Dalya tensed below him, sensing the sudden swell of his anger and quickly becoming desperate to find a feast in what it promised. 

“Good,” Claude growled. His fingers tightened on his bow. He’d never been one for revenge, but this wasn’t vengeance, really; it was a drawn arrow pointed at the men who’d kill him tomorrow if he didn’t crush them first. A contingency plan. 

Or maybe it wasn’t. It made him dizzy, to push Dalya forward into a dive, and with Cyril at his heels — made him think about his ribs turning to char and his entrails spilling into his lap. Dalya roared. He heard his own voice do the same. One of the mages turned at the sound, their hands already cocked into strange shapes as they willed something dark and bruised into the air. Claude nocked an arrow and felt the insatiable thrum of his Crest deep inside his chest. Give me, it demanded, a second heartbeat to his own. 

The arrow wizzed forward, as red as if it’d just been ripped from a forge. He watched as it shrunk into a scarlet pinpoint against the smoke-smudged blur below. It would have been easy to lose sight of it, but he didn’t; he saw it bury itself uselessly into the blackened yard and felt his anger rising like bile in his throat. He’d already nocked a second arrow before he realized that somehow the mage had still fallen. As he did he heard a wyvern’s call. Cyril’s Starling was a quiet creature, even in moments like these, and it wasn’t Dalya’s haunting bellow, either. It was someone new.  

Take them, a bestial voice inside him demanded. Dalya seemed to hear it as well. Her serpentine body writhed beneath him as she turned, her talons already clawing the wind and desperate for purchase. He swung his bow along with her, his eyes settling on purple-brown scales and the quicksilver of a sword. The rider was a woman, long-haired and cinnamon skinned, and striped with a pale clay wash in the same dizzying design as the creature she rode. Her face, once confident, fell when her eyes met his own. 

Give me, his thorny Crest cried out. Claude gritted his teeth and wrenched his arms to the side just as his fingers loosened around his arrow, and just at the last moment before it would have been too late. His shot flitted away in a harmless arc. He ripped back on Dalya’s horns before she’d had the chance to bury her teeth into Petra’s mount.

“You’ve come just in time,” Claude shouted at her. He did his best to swallow the fire of his sateless shot. It must have worked, the way her slack-jawed shock at his advance on her quickly disappeared, replaced again by a stony resolution made distinct by her bold gaze and the shimmer of her sword.  

“Brigid has come,” she agreed. Petra was wearing a short-pronged crown low against her brow. Here was the reason why they’d come, Claude understood, and felt the pinch of something kindred even if his own head was bare. He followed her eyes as she looked downwards at the shadowy advance of her men below them. They were like ghosts darting between Enbarr’s cover, and too many of them to count. What was certain was that Brigid’s sons and daughters were making quick work of the Empire’s left flank — mysterious mages included. Claude knew, in the rational parts of himself, that he should have been impressed; relieved; energized. 

“Edelgard is here?” 

“She has nowhere else to run,” Claude answered. A thundercloud gathered across Petra’s proud features. He bowed against it, dipping his relic in the direction of the palace even as he kept her gaze. “Come. Let’s find her.” 

Petra nodded and leaned back against her saddle to coach her wyvern towards the palace. Claude followed in her wake. The battle was turning. He could sense it even without looking at the field. He should have felt victorious, but instead it was still just anger; empty-bellied and wild-eyed. 

 


 

Byleth was hungry, too. 

They met her at the palace steps. As with most everything, she was unfazed by Petra’s arrival. She greeted her with a nod and gave one to Claude as well when the two riders dismounted from their wyverns to join her. Cyril peeled off to join Seteth and Ingrid in circling the palace’s steeples. The young Almyran was quickly replaced by the rest of them, as if they’d been summoned by some un-rung bell. There was something monumental in it, Claude understood — the old guard of the fallen Kingdom and Leicester’s Roundtable storming the palace side-by-side, all of them bruised but eager to win their war. His war. Still, Claude couldn’t shake the rile of his blood. Instead he clipped his bow into its spot on his back and drew his sword, knowing that it would be crueler against the guard waiting for them, and because his reservations had been burned too threadbare by the battle and the dozens which’d come before to try to ignore the fact that he wanted to be cruel. 

They cut through the palace guard slowly, carefully, methodically. The building itself was beautiful — all marble and gilt and glitter, just like Hilda’s starry-eyed memories had foretold. Lysithea’s spells cast it all in an underworld glow. It was more fitting than the golden light of the setting sun, Claude decided, or the cheery warmth of the braziers lining the halls. Better that it was that black-purple of her dark magic that accompanied those men in the end. Not that they deserved it, or maybe they all did; just soldiers following orders, and not only their masters’ commands. Petra marched for Dorothea, after all, her green eyes watching from every shadowed corner; Hilda for Marianne, kept coveted and safe at her heels; Catherine for Rhea, hidden somewhere perhaps close; Lorenz for his father, and for his father’s failure; Dedue, for some godforsaken reason, who had suddenly materialized from his own hell, his eyes haunted by his ghost and the ghosts who’d killed him; and Byleth... 

And Byleth, because she was hunting, and because Claude was hunting, too. 

They killed the men in the entrance hall. Ignatz and Ashe picked off the archers waiting for them on the stairs. They spilled into empty parlors and dense-packed salons and slicked the grey-veined marble bloody in their wake. The sun set lower as they worked, filling the palace with a dimming darkness that was peppered with the firecrackers of their Crests. Claude couldn’t help but wonder if it had been like this before, when the Elites with those same Crests had first fought together on some forgotten field. And so who had been the heroes, then, and who were those heroes now? 

It was a clever question for clever men. Maybe they would debate it in a future age — the sort of man his father had been, the sort of man Claude was and had become. They’d done the same for Edelgard already; scholars brave behind their quills as they argued in hand-drawn pamphlets that her ambitions were either laudable or throughly damned. But the truth was that none of that mattered, or at least not now. The only path ahead was to keep his head above water as he swam with the rising wave of his boiling blood, and to hope that he wouldn’t drown when it finally came crashing down. 

“Edelgard!” 

Lysithea gasped the name as they finally broke through the throne room doors. Claude hushed her with the wave of his hands. Their group followed the points of his fingers, forming into two flanks to chase what remained of the emperor’s guard. Only the three of them lingered behind: Byleth and Claude and Petra, the latter accompanied by a pair of fearsome spear-women dabbed with the same ghostly war-paint that their queen wore. There was something fitting in it, just like everything else — something about kings and queens and emperors, but Claude didn’t give a damn. He cleaned the gore from his sword against the back of his pant leg and started their final advance instead. 

Here was another lesson Claude had learned when he’d been a little boy: there was something thrilling in how a predator stalked its prey, but never in how its hunt ended. Nature had no use for gallantry. Even barn cats understood that a quick bite to the back of a rat’s neck was all that was required — sharp teeth against brittle bone. 

Byleth unfurled the length of her skeletal sword and with a single swing knocked the emperor from her throne. 

“Was it worth it?” Petra asked Edelgard. The Brigid queen’s voice was choked and desperate. 

“Yes,” Edelgard answered, proud even in her bloodied sprawl. “Always. Until the end.” 

Petra swallowed a tortured sound and drew back her blade. For once Claude watched, no longer the headsman. Edelgard didn’t close her eyes. He could see their icy lilac even at his distance. She looked disappointed, but not afraid. Maybe he had underestimated her. Godfrey had been afraid — they’d called him Leicester’s greatest sword, but he’d still cowered beneath his arms once Claude had knocked his blade from him. Lonato had earned the love of his people thanks to his chivalry— true, honest love, the sort that drew them into that fog-filled forest with him to die — but he’d been afraid, too; and Stone-Eye, maybe not from dying, but at the idea of falling from so high above the earth; and Dimitri, in his own way, his boyhood terror since mutated into his inescapable madness. Lords and devils and princes — they’d all been terrified. Only his father had smiled when he’d died.

And now her.  

Edelgard watched as Petra’s sword came for her and stared on, bold and unflinching, even after it had gone. The spread of her blood into the thick weave of the rug at the foot of the throne meant that they had won. Won — a captured queen, the sweep of the board. Claude should have shouted their victory into the rafters. Instead he simply climbed higher onto the swell of his unsatisfied appetite. 

“Gods,” Hilda whispered. A hush fell across the rest of them as they watched Petra walk back a step from her work. 

“Sweep the palace,” Byleth said before any of them had the chance to say something more auspicious. “Capture the rest. No more violence.”

They did as they were told. Only Petra and her spear-women stayed behind, silent and stone-faced as the newly-made queen looked down upon the woman who had once been her liege. There was something otherworldly in how the Adrestians seemed to taste their loss in their air. No sooner had the Leicester war-party started to spread into the palace’s remaining rooms did Claude hear the clatter of imperial swords falling in defeat. It was paired with a low, moaning sigh that filled the palace like the sound of trembling rushes along a windblown riverbank. 

He stalked through all of it at Byleth’s heels, following her as she passed through empty halls and up the black pitch of a broad stairwell. Her sword was drawn and dripping in her fist. He kept his eyes on it like a beacon as they walked. At first he wondered what she was looking for — a crown to steal, banners to burn, or Rhea, cowering and pale — before deciding that it didn’t matter. He’d follow her no matter the reason, and no matter if it was only to be disappointed in what they found. 

It was only when they spilled into the sudden luxury of the emperor’s private quarters that he realized she wasn’t looking for anything at all. She was just walking, like he was, because if her feet stilled below her she would’ve likely burned alive. He could see it in her eyes when she turned on him now that her path had ended in the finality of the wall ahead. No more violence, she’d said, but she wanted it — was thirsty for it in the way he was after having been denied what they’d been promised by Petra’s sword. 

He closed the door. 

For a moment they circled each other, blades still drawn and bloodied and brandished at one another as if they were preparing for a charge. He felt his blood turn into a cold slush at the look of her. It had been a long time since she’d last taken on her moniker so well. 

He tossed his sword aside and stepped forward three paces. She did as well, and met him at the starburst at the center of the rug beneath their feet. She fisted a handful of his collar and drug him closer. He felt the sharpness of her teeth against his lips and on his tongue. It was better than a battle — pushing against her step, his fingers wrenching at the heavy drape of her tattered cloak to rip it to the floor. Her breath spilled over his face in hot, gasping waves. He found himself hypnotized by its uneven rhythm; and by the clatter of her plate as he peeled it away and he remembered, in a tiny part of himself, that there had been a time when he’d dreamed about these sorts of things.

He pushed her to the bed. She sunk her teeth into the bend of his throat in retribution, hard enough to make him groan. Her fingers worked between the crush of their bodies to tug the laces of his trousers loose. It was backwards. In their stagger across the room he’d shed his bow and quiver and his gloves, and him her cloak and her scattered plate, but they were both still fully dressed — and not in simple clothes but blood-soaked things that had already begun to stain the quilted velvet arranged so neatly across the bed. It seemed to matter as little to her as it did to him. 

He shoved her slacks down to her thighs while she stroked him, sucking in more of her sweltry breath as he pressed against her brow with his own — her cheeks, her nose, her jaw. She smelled like the dark lusciousness of an abattoir, and so he supposed he did as well. It was difficult to tell the difference between them, and less when he rolled his hips into hers. A shiver passed down his spine as she gasped and growled, her fingers working sore spots into his shoulders as she gripped him closer. 

Below them and around them a roar began to rise. Very little of him listened to it, but what did recognized it as a chant. It started quiet and scattered, but soon it cried out as a single voice — victory, they were singing in the streets and in the halls, although with different words. His blood grew even hotter. Give me, give me, all of his curses demanded. He rocked faster in beat with the noise. 

Take it, take it. 

Give me, give me. 

Leicester! Leicester!   

“Khalil,” Byleth gasped. “Khalil.” 

That insatiable sanguine wave inside him crested higher and then finally broke. He lurched backwards as it did, dazed, his eyes settling on her as if for the first time. Her cheeks were flushed; lips parted and dark-bitten; hair spilled malachite, crown-like. He nearly dwarfed her but she made him feel as though he was at quarter-size. 

What are you, really, he wondered for the last time. I am the beginning, her eyes answered, pale and bright and endless; I am the end. 

His blood iced over and grew hot once more. 

“I love you,” he breathed, bowing forward to kiss her. “I love you,” he muttered into her mouth. She replied with a set of whimpering moans that grew in pitch as he pushed faster between her thighs. 

“I love you,” he promised as he came, nose buried in her hair. She laced her arms around him and held him so tightly that he could feel his heartbeat filling the stillness in her chest. Outside the city bells began to ring. The roar of Leicester’s troops grew even louder. Claude looked upwards with an unfocused stare at the double-headed eagle hung above the bed and realized that they’d won the war. 

Chapter Text

They inspected Enbarr’s corpse in the morning that came after. All things considered, the capital had been largely spared. If Claude hadn’t kept Nader’s men in Derdriu and his own behind the Locket perhaps the shops would have been pillaged and burned; the statues of old, dead emperors toppled to the ground. Even now the streets would have likely been filled with drunken revelers pleased to see the sunrise if only because it made it easier to hunt down their next drink. 

As it so happened, however, Leicester had taken Enbarr — and Leicester was full of green farmers’ boys and gnarled old knights who were about as mirthful when they were dying as they were when they’d won a war. Most of them were still patrolling for an enemy that had hours before submitted beneath a flurry of waving white flags. There was something charmingly pious in it, Claude supposed. In any case, it made it simpler for him to take stock of what he’d taken. 

“Many of the city folk took refuge here,” Lorenz told him, dipping his head at the opera house as they made their careful march. “And still linger, or at least that’s what I’ve been told.” 

Claude nodded. He would hide in dark places if his city had fallen, too. 

“Have some of the men bring them food and water and fresh clothes,” he replied. “They’ll come out eventually.” 

“And then?” 

Claude looked back from the building towards the man, unsurprised by the count’s indefatigable appetite for bickering but perhaps not entirely in the right mood. His eyes settled on a small, coin-shaped pendant hanging from the count’s neck. At the center was an eye surrounded by a delicate script spelling out a quick promise about safety and protection. Not that Lorenz likely knew that — it was written in Almyran, after all. Claude cocked a brow at him and watched with immense amusement as Lorenz turned a beetroot shade. The count quickly shoved the pendant under his collar and cleared his throat. 

“Well,” he tutted. “And the men are in high spirits, naturally.” 

“I can see that,” Claude teased. Lorenz shot him the bitterest of stares. 

“Do be an adult,” he sniffed. Claude laughed, hooking his arms behind his head with a languid stretch as he watched Lorenz shrink a little smaller. “You are an emperor, after all.” 

“I don’t know about that.”

“I hardly find the situation ambiguous — unless you’ve finally come to reason and intend to defer the position to more steady hands.” Claude laughed again, and this time at the insincerity of Lorenz’s suggestion. 

“Titles are important, Lorenz. Our people have never been the sort to salute an emperor. You know that.” 

Our people are no longer the Alliance alone,” the count contended. “Leicester demands a duke — Faerghus, a king. Adrestia has been bowing to an emperor for a thousand years. It seems prudent to me to adopt the title to which all others defer, does it not? Particularly if the Adrestians are the least endeared to your rule.” 

It was an interesting point, although Claude wasn’t quite certain that it was true. He shrugged his shoulders. Lorenz sighed. 

“And what is it that you would prefer, then?” the count asked him with a cross of his arms, tapping the crisp white fingers of his glove against his sleeve. “What do you call it in the east?” 

Claude thought about his father. A flat smile scribed across his lips. 

“Monster,” he admitted. Lorenz frowned and made to reply, but was interrupted by Leonie’s trot as she met them at the corner of a half-ruined tavern hall. 

“Hello, ah,” Leonie started, her eyes darting between the two men. Claude realized that she was battling over the same idea that they’d been debating themselves. He smirked. 

“Hello, Leonie,” he offered before she’d had the chance to do something as foolish as call him Your Imperial Majesty. She puckered her lips tight and nodded her head. 

“The Archbishop is looking for you. We’ve found a letter. You’ll want to read it.” 

Claude wondered what sort of letter could be better than their spoils, but nodded at her all the same. She took it as a sign to steer them slightly rightwards. 

“It was written by Minister Vestra,” she continued, her voice lowering into a whisper. 

“Hubert?” She nodded at Claude’s question. 

“It proposes...well, I think you’ll want to see it for yourself.” 

Claude’s eyes fell on a broken window gaping at them from across the boulevard. It was huge — the size of two men stacked atop each other, and with a swooping arch that reminded him of the cathedral at Garreg Mach. The street in front was snowed over with broken glass glittering like sugar under the sun. As they stepped closer he looked inside the window’s empty maw and saw a body inside, small and dressed in skirts tangled around a pair of skinny legs. The cadaver’s clouded eyes followed him as they passed it by. The others didn’t seem to notice, but he felt its ghostly stare even when they’d gone — and he wondered, his mouth growing dry, just how many more bodies they’d find. 

 


 

Claude thought about the monastery’s faraway library as they climbed downwards into the depths of the earth. It was strange, really, that the humble place had taken such precedence in his life; once his loyal nightly companion during his brief stint as a schoolboy, and later the place in which Byleth had found the first finger-holds between the chinks of his armor. Despite all of that, however, he’d been amazed to find so little of himself along its shelves. There were stories about Leicester, of course — compendium after compendium about the Alliance’s founding and its trials and tribulations. There were fables about the heroic Riegan as well, although none two the same. But among all of the crackle-spine tomes, there had only been a single volume entitled Almyra.

He’d read it, of course. For a nation so proud of the artistry of its painted tiles and lacy latticework, the cover had been strikingly bare — brown leather still dark despite its age, no doubt unaccustomed to the oil of a reader’s curious hands. The table of contents had been as thin as the width of its pages. They’d read: 

I. The Villages and Tribes of the East, which had been rudimentarily accurate, although he’d been bemused by the writer’s fixation on Almyra’s northernmost parts, as if the people of the great cities were living in deer-hide tents and crowding around campfires in the fashion of the few nomads who braved the icy north. 

II. Customs and Traditions, a study of the war parties and the various methods in which they took their trophies home, each word intricately grotesque; and stories of stolen women weeping in the dark, some no doubt honest, some not. 

III. Black Night in Goneril and the Construction of Fodlan’s Locket, which gobbled up most of the pages, and featured one of Hilda’s heroic forefathers and an Almyran king called the Mountain Goat who’d allegedly had an appetite for skinning his unlucky captives alive. 

There was no mention of the men who’d once sailed from Almyra’s ports on grand ships that cut faster through the waves than any shark or whale — or how those same ships had been burned under the order of the old Duke Riegan’s father, and with the men who sailed them still inside. The fantastical maps those ships’ captains had used to explore the mysteries of the world had burned along with them, and maybe only so that Fodlan’s patchwork atlases had looked less ridiculous when her champions had returned home. 

And surely the author of Garreg Mach’s sole study on Almyra had never been to the east himself, for although the nation’s ships were already petrified by coral in the bays, cities like Sakhavan and Munashetz were very much alive and thriving. How could anyone with memories of that place not write about the grand telescopes that glittered at the capital’s heart, peering deep into the sky’s sleeping face with a bold curiosity that had been pruned away in the west? Could he truly not offer even a page to the ruins of the aqueducts that still crisscrossed the countryside, useless since they’d been toppled by invaders bearing a goddess’ banners but once the lifeblood to the lush fields that’d since been turned to dust? And what about Almyra’s long-buried chemists, replaced now by warrior sons, whose tinctures healed all of the wounds and worries that only Fodlan’s magicians could calm?  

And yet it wasn’t wrong, really. Almyra was a hungry place. Claude saw the same shine of his fatherland’s savage wisdom in the shadows of Shambhala, and so in the pale faces of its inhabitants he saw himself. But Byleth saw her father’s killer in their eyes — saw the dagger that had split Claude open gripped in the form of swords and lances and spells. Rhea, rescued from the dungeons of Enbarr and dressed in her finery again, was fierce with conviction when she told them all that the hidden city’s people would kill them if they didn’t kill them first. Claude supposed that she was right. He’d played this game before. So he and the rest of Fodlan’s newest heroes spread across that peerless place and slowly made a butchery of it — dark blood on dark stone turned turquoise under an impossible skyless light. And when the ancient city fell he thought about sailors drowning as they burned; of green fields turning to red sand; the conquered and their conquerers, and all of them just different breeds of men. 

 


 

Life went on. In their absence from the monastery, the men who’d stayed behind to guard Garreg Mach had fixated their anxieties about the war on the work of rebuilding the cathedral’s cratered roof. They’d already cut away the moldering ends of the rafters and laid fresh beams by the time Leicester-turned-Fodlan’s triumphant war party returned from Shambhala. Claude went to look on their progress two days after their welcome feast, and found Cyril sweeping some of the last bits of rubble into a pile. He was alone, as always, and looked as though he intended to stay that way. Something in the set of his shoulders made Claude want to respect the idea. He turned quietly on his heels and had nearly made it to the door when he heard the first murmur of the younger man’s voice. 

“Claude,” Cyril called out. Claude stopped and pivoted to turn back his path. 

“Hello, Cyril.” 

Cyril didn’t answer. He wrung his hands against the length of his broom instead, his eyes lingering on the bristles as he no doubt collected his next words. Claude smiled lightly and left him to it, walking closer to him with a slow and measured step. 

“Nearly back in one piece,” he observed, slipping his hands into his pockets as he looked up at the scaffolding above their heads. Cyril nodded. 

“Seteth has found some artisans to match the beams,” the younger man explained. “The parts that’re carved. He says that when the repairs are finished we won’t even notice that they were damaged.” 

“That’s reassuring,” Claude told him, although it wasn’t; was unsettling, really, the idea of piecing Fodlan back together so quickly without giving much consideration as to why it had been broken. Cyril cleared his throat. 

“Afterwards,” Cyril said finally, “when Garreg Mach is settled. I wondered... I was wondering if you could give me your advice.” 

Claude cocked one of his brows. 

“I can give you advice now, you know. If you’d like it.” 

“No,” Cyril replied, flustered, gripping even tighter on his broom. “That isn’t what I meant. I mean, I do. I would like your advice. Now. If you aren’t too busy.” 

There was a humor in insinuating that he wasn’t busy, but Claude decided to ignore it. He nodded instead, stepping a little closer until they were near enough to each other that Cyril didn’t feel obligated to raise his voice. Cyril caught his eyes for a moment before looking away. 

“After Garreg Mach is settled,” he managed again, “I was wondering if it would — if I could travel to the Throat.” 

“East?” 

‘Well, yes,” Cyril muttered hotly, anticipating what he’d say next. “The war might be over, but that’s the worst part for the people who’re left behind. I want to — now that Lady Rhea’s been found and returned — I want to do as she did, I suppose. Make sure everyone’s looked after.” 

“The Throat won’t be the worst of it,” Claude told him. “But Fhirdiad, Fraldarius... If you’re really set on the idea, I’m certain they would be thankful for your help.” 

Cyril didn’t look entirely convinced. Claude scoffed good-naturedly and shook his head.

“Now that the war’s over,” Claude told him, his voice quiet enough to be conspiratorial, “the Locket is nothing but a pretty set of stones. I’m going to open it, Cyril. Hell, I’ll break it apart with my own hands if I have to.” He studied him for a moment — the furrow of his brow, the glimmer of his amber eyes. Cyril didn’t look much like a little boy, anymore. 

“I won’t let us lose any more shepherd’s sons,” Claude then offered. Cyril flinched. 

“It isn’t as easy as saying it.” 

“I know that. That doesn’t mean that we won’t manage it. Holst understands what must be done — the southern provinces as well. I’ll see to it. Now, before those dusty old lords can think up some reason why they don’t want it.” Cyril didn’t answer. “Do you not trust me to see it through?” 

“Of course I trust you,” Cyril answered, as quick as he was honest. His mouth turned into one corner. Claude smiled and gripped him by the shoulder. 

“It’s alright if you want to go home,” he then told him. He felt him stiffen beneath his palm. 

“This is my home,” Cyril insisted. It was a well-rehearsed line. Claude nodded. 

“It is. Almyra, Garreg Mach — Ochs, if you wanted it. That’s what we’ve fought for, Cyril. The right to chose what we call our own.” 

“Well,” Cyril grumbled, “in any case, it doesn’t really matter. I still have a duty to the Archbishop and it’s not like I won’t see it through. Just when everything is settled, is what I mean — maybe I’ll consider it... Fraldarius.”

“It’s very cold.” 

“I can manage it,” Cyril bit back. Claude laughed and gave his shoulder a final squeeze before stepping a pace backwards. 

“I know you can.” 

Cyril swept a long patch along the marble and nodded his head. Claude dipped his head as well and turned slowly to leave him to his sweeping. As he walked out into the sun again he wondered just who it was the younger man had pictured wearing the archbishop’s vestments when he’d reasserted his years-old pledge — and what it meant to settle, really, and what it meant to manage. 

  


 

They were sleeping in his old room again. There was something funny in it, really — how fate seemed to be the sort of creature to swallow its own tail. No matter how many cities he took, Claude was apparently forever destined for creaking beds and dusty shelves. He would have missed Derdriu if he were alone — the heavy curtains of his hulking bed dressed in soft cotton and shivery silks — or maybe even his half-forgotten apartments in Sakhavan, but with her there with him it hardly mattered. And maybe that meant that he really was a fool, but at least he was contented. 

“What are you looking at?” 

Byleth asked the question more into her pillow than at him, her gaze lazy and half-lidded. He matched it for a moment before continuing his careful study of her body stretched across the bed. 

“You,” Claude admitted. He watched as the muscles in her shoulders tightened, her version of playing self-conscious. 

“Why?” 

He laughed. Byleth rose onto an elbow in what seemed to be a challenge. 

“Because I like to look at you,” he explained.  

“Because you love me?” 

In another woman’s voice the words would’ve been a mockery — in hers, somehow, they were simply endearing. Claude nodded. 

“Because I love you,” he agreed. 

“What is it like?” Her eyes sparkled with curiosity. “How does it feel?” 

His lips quirked into a smile. He reached out from his crescent pose beside her to brush his fingertips against her lower back. 

“Sometimes I feel it here,” he explained, circling the divots at the base of her spine before skirting upwards along each vertebrae. “Like a ladleful of hot water.” Gooseflesh prickled her skin under the dance of his fingers towards to her nape.

“Sometimes here,” he continued, tousling her hair, still damp from their lovemaking. He thumbed the shell of her ear before tugging at her shoulder. She understood, rolling onto her back despite the squeaking protest of the mattress beneath them. 

“Here,” he said, caressing the dark scar between her breasts. “As if I’ve got a fist in there, squeezing tight.” She made a face at the idea. He laughed and edged a little closer to plant a chaste kiss against the bridge of her nose. 

“And here,” he added finally, the rough parts of his palm whispering against her skin as he slid his fingers into a flat press just below her navel. “Like I’m full of fire.” She shivered. 

“I wish I had a heart,” she admitted to him softly. He laughed once more. 

“That’s just a figure of speech.” He ran a finger along the rise of her hip. “You don’t need a heart to feel.” 

It was an absurd claim to make, but he felt entitled to it. He’d watched her darken in anger, after all, and sometimes grin, and grow soft and pink-cheeked with passion. She might not have been filled with fire and fists like he was, but she’d long ago abandoned the bland neutrality of her blank stare — had lost the color of it, even; dark navy to mint green. 

“After Ailell,” she said. His brows rose slightly at the mention, but he kept quiet so that she could continue. “When I first saw you...burned.” He nodded, sensing that she wasn’t keen to describe it further, and him neither to relive it. “I felt like I was in a dark room with no windows, no doors — nothing inside it but me. I’ve been in a place like that before, but then I hadn’t been so helpless— not like I was when they brought me to you. I wanted to do nothing and everything all at the same time.” 

He stroked the hair back from her face. Her gaze grew unfocused on a spot below his chin before slowly drawing upwards to settle on his again. 

“Do you think that was love, too?” she asked him. 

“Do you want it to be?”      

She nodded and he was charmed, as always, by how she managed to straddle her straightforwardness with something incredibly complex. He kissed her and nuzzled her cheek with his nose, enjoying the warmth of her breath. They lingered like that for awhile. 

“How long will we stay in Garreg Mach?” Byleth asked him finally, breaking the silence that had lured him into a drowsy pose tucked into her shoulder. He hummed as he considered the question. 

“Not long. We’ll have to start divvying everything up — the major cities that is — and then see everyone off. I think it will be easier to start with provisional placements first... Fraldarius, Nuvelle,” he yawned, “Enbarr. Derdriu, even. You know, the four corners. Just to get everything sorted and see where we stand. We’ll have to send men as well — discourage any would-be kings in faraway places from making an opportunity for themselves.”

“And then?” 

“And then a hundred different things,” he conceded, drawing back to gently knock his brow against hers. “More than enough to discuss in the morning. You’ll hurt my pride if you tell me that you aren’t even a little tired.” She turned the faintest hue of pink at his insinuation before sinking backwards into her pillow. He was nearly foolish enough to read the move as terms of her defeat.

“They still call me archbishop,” she then told him, her eyes steady on him as he leaned low against his elbow at her side. 

“You don’t like it?” 

“Rhea has returned.” She nodded her head towards the corner of the room pointed in the woman’s direction. 

“And not in the same state as she was when she left,” he answered. Byleth frowned. 

“The Church is hers.” 

Claude sighed and reached forward to draw an idle finger along the shape of her dark scar again, warm at the center of her chest. 

“Once this earth below us belonged to the worms,” he told her. “After that it was just a series of meaner creatures killing each other to take it.” 

Byleth sighed. Maybe she agreed; maybe she didn’t. Whatever it was, Claude still rose onto his arms to blow out the last of the flickering candles which cast the room in its dreamy light. 

“Get some rest. I have a feeling that things will be much clearer in the morning.” 

Byleth huffed. He couldn’t help but smile. He drew close to her again and pressed another kiss into some soft part of her dark-hidden face. 

“Goodnight, then,” she muttered. He laughed. 

“Goodnight.” 

He listened to her as her breathing steadied and then slowed. As he did his eyes adjusted to the dark — the old water-stain above their heads, the boxed corners of the room. Outside he heard the night guard shuffling in their looping march. One of them was whistling. Deeper in the monastery one of the mean old tomcats yowled. The bed creaked as Byleth turned onto the side that she favored when she slept. Claude’s eyes drifted to look once more upon the pale curve of her back. He should have thought about what she’d said — that she loved him, maybe, if in her own strange way. Instead all he could hear was her voice in his ear, quiet as she whispered I wish I had a heart. 

He waited until he was certain that she was asleep before he slipped from beneath the sheets and dressed himself. 

 


 

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Rhea told him as he entered through her door. “To be honest with you, I’d been expecting you much sooner.” 

Rhea was sitting at the foot of her bed, her long hair loose around her shoulders and her body swallowed up by the billow of her nightdress. She’d always been a sight dressed in the frivolity of her vestments, but shrunken as she was now it was easy to pretend that she was just another woman trapped behind the monastery’s walls. He met her gaze for a moment before looking sidewards at the bed. How strange it was to see it again after everything that had happened. He couldn’t help but wonder if she could smell his blood and the salt of his sweat in the mattress.    

“Is that right? You could have simply asked for me.” 

Rhea smiled. There was something nearly maternal in it — soft, subtle, a little tired. She signaled at a nearby chair. 

“Sit. I expect that we have much to talk about.” 

Claude nodded and did as he was told. 

“Tell me,” Rhea then said, “how is it that I should call you now?” Claude felt his lips turn into a smirk. 

“That seems to be the question of the hour.”

“I imagine so,” Rhea agreed. “I knew you as a lordling, and since you have become a duke and then a king and now... A king of kings, I suppose. There have been men who’ve styled themselves the same before.” 

“Not with your favor,” Claude guessed. Rhea smiled a little wider and shook her head. 

“No. Not with my favor. You must understand that I have never found much to be admired in the rule of conquerers.” 

“And yet here we are,” Claude answered with the fan of his fingers. Rhea’s smile grew sharp. 

“Yes, here we are. You’ve always struck me as a clever man,” she quickly added, and in a way that made it clear that Seteth had told her all of the many secrets of what had happened in her absence, “so allow me to speak frankly with you. History has a way of repeating itself. It seems to me that you know this as well as I do to have come to me now as you have.” 

Claude crossed one of his legs over the other and drummed his fingers along the round of his chair’s arm. 

“How do you mean?” 

“Men are ambitious,” Rhea replied. Claude understood that she meant more than the rougher sex in what she’d said. “It’s admirable, of course, but also inherently short-sighted.” 

“You think that I’ve been short-sighted?” 

“I think that you, like all of your proud forefathers before you, are faced with an impossible puzzle to solve: time. And let me assure you that no matter your ambition — no matter how sharp the edge of your blade — the odds will never be in your favor.” 

Claude huffed a breath through his nose. 

“You’re right,” he admitted, nodding as he did. “I’ll die before all of this is done. All of us will — but not her.”

Rhea’s eyes flashed in the lamplight like a wildcat caught stalking at the edge of a fire. 

“Not her,” she agreed slowly. “No. One day you’ll be dust in some buried place and she’ll still be as she is now. There will come an age when she will have forgotten your face — your name. All of it will fall to time. Does this knowledge bother you?” She studied him. He let her, willing away the pinch at his nape as her cool green eyes looked him over. 

“No,” she decided aloud. She crossed her hands in her lap. “Perhaps I’ve underestimated you.” She nodded. “Good. I trust you’ll make the right decision, then. I of course have no qualms about retiring from my position. She’s taken on the title well. I’ll see that she receives the proper guidance as she comes into her own.”  

“This isn’t what you wanted.”

Rhea’s eyes narrowed at his contention. 

“Excuse me?”

“All of this,” Claude replied, waving his hand across the width of the space between them. “Everything that’s happened. It wasn’t written to your plan, was it? It must be disappointing.” 

Disappointing is not quite the word I’d use for my time in the Empire,” Rhea answered, stiffening, her voice turning to stone. “And yet we must endeavor on.” 

“Is that what you told her — Sitri, when you cut her apart?” 

Sitri,” Rhea stuttered, suddenly venomous, the bed creaking slightly as she recoiled. “What vicious nonsense — who are you to utter a name like hers?” 

“A king of kings,” he drawled. Her lips scowled tighter. “I read the Blade Breaker’s journal, you know — he was a surprisingly prolific man. You can imagine that it was nearly all about her; gentle Sitri. What she loved, what she feared, her favorite foods, beloved flowers. And even more of it was dedicated to her memory — her sacrifice. He worshiped her, you know.” Claude eyes drew away to settle on the painted cherubs tumbling above their heads. “That’s something that I’ve never had: faith. I imagine some people pity me for it, but the truth is that I like it — being able to see the things that might otherwise be hidden by all of that virtuous light.”

“Is there a method to your heresy,” Rhea interjected sourly, “or have you simply come to damn yourself?” 

“Byleth,” he said, almost hesitatingly, as if he didn’t want to share the word with Rhea; not with the image of her wine-dark scar in his mind and still lingering on his fingertips. “I think that she was just a baby. She was just a little girl. But that wasn’t what you wanted, was it?” 

“I have no interest in humoring your obscene conjectures,” Rhea spat. “If that’s why you’ve come then I’ll have to insist that you leave.” 

“And then you killed her mother,” he continued, undeterred, “because she’d just been one of your many failed experiments, hadn’t she? You cut her open and you cut open her daughter and you made another doll to add to your collection, and for what? History repeats itself,” he cribbed, his voice dry and gravel-toned. “Only this time your failure has been more spectacular than ever.”

“The child was born dead,” Rhea insisted, her voice hitching before she could catch it and smooth it calm again. 

“She wasn’t. Don’t lie to me. I can see it.” He stood from his chair. She braced against his slow advance, her fingers fisting the sheets as though she were gripping a sword. “She was alive. She was innocent.” 

Rhea’s face grew slack for a half-moment before she barked a sharp round of laughter. 

“You love her,” she realized, “don’t you? You poor fool. And do you think it’s your duty to protect her? Avenge her from this outrageous story you’ve made? Well, little king, let me share a secret with you: all of this, your war, and all of this killing you’ve done so well, it isn’t your great achievement — it is your curse. Riegan was the same and oh yes, I see him in you — a craven, a trickster, a liar. He lived crawling at Nemesis’ feet and died just like it— on his knees and under my own bloody sword. Do you think you’ll be so different? Do you truly believe that you deserve a better fate?”

“No,” Claude admitted, shrugging, his arms outstretched and palms up in a gesture of entreaty. “I know how this will end. I’ve already bowed and pledged my fealty. One day she’ll bury me. And maybe you’re right — maybe then she’ll forget me. Forget my name. But she knows it now, you understand? And before I die I’ll sow my fields for her to harvest in whatever age they finally bloom — and I promise you that I’ll fill them with blood just as happily as I will with water, so long as they all grow.” 

Rhea scoffed. 

“Ugly words for an ugly little man, but surely you know that you aren’t the first to threaten me.” 

“Be that as it may,” Claude answered with a shake of his head. “I’m simply being honest.” 

He slipped his hand into his pocket and plucked the tiny vial from inside into his palm. It was small, no longer than a nail and a quarter of the width of the vulneraries he’d been coached to carry as a younger man. He rolled the vial between his fingers before tossing it at her. She caught it with a flash of her hand, frowning as she glanced quickly at the opalescence inside.  

“It isn’t painless,” he explained, and as he did he could nearly taste it— cloaked then when he’d had the misfortune to swallow it by the sweet berry of his wine — “but it’s quick.” 

“Poison,” Rhea guessed scornfully. “You expect me to drink this?” 

“Your other options might not be so generous.” 

Rhea tossed the vial into her sheets and stood, her fingers knotting at her sides as she stared him down. 

“You’ve misunderstood your position,” she snarled. “I will do no such thing. Even as I am now, you cannot possibly hope to cut me down.” 

“Others have told me that before, and yet here I stand,” Claude replied. He flashed his palms at her again. “But maybe you’re right. It doesn’t really matter. Fodlan is full of corpses and the men who’ve made them under my command. If you kill me they’ll come after you next. And maybe you’ll cut them down, too, just like you’ve crushed the ones who’ve come before them. But then who will protect you when she comes to take her revenge for everything you’ve done?” 

Rhea didn’t answer; simply stared at him with such white-hot anger that he could nearly hear the crackle of it in the air.  

“Your rule is over,” he told her with a dark finality. “I may not hold it as long as you have, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t mine.” 

“Why?” Rhea growled the word, her voice both furious and desperate. “For what end?” 

“Does it matter?” His own voice was low and calm and rumbling — a deep blue pool. “The end is the end.”  

She didn’t answer. Claude left her staring at her bedsheets, disappearing against the dark as he slunk back into the night. Before the guard had finished their loop of the monastery he was already slipping through his bedroom door. Then he stripped off his jacket and his trousers and carefully eased himself back into the warmth of his bed. 

Byleth stirred but didn’t wake. Her face was half-hidden by her hair. He brushed it gently behind her ear and felt his throat tighten as a strand tumbled again across her cheek. She took after her father. It was easier to see in moments like this — the set of her nose, the square of her jaw, the pillow of her lips. So maybe that was why he loved her, too; that they were both just creatures made to their fathers’ measures. 

Or maybe it was just fate, or luck, or a curse. Maybe Rhea was right. Maybe he was simply destined to serve whomever bore Byleth’s flaming Crest. It didn’t really matter. Claude had been honest in what he said. The end was the end, and she was his — a queen of queens, and of dangerous things. 

Chapter Text

The war was over by the time Claude finally met his match. His great antagonist didn’t come in the form of his father, or Edelgard, or Thales, or Rhea, now perpetually sequestered in her quarters, her eyes filled with the glimmer of that poisoned vial, or even Nemesis, in the end, the man’s foreboding name no match for Byleth’s sword. Instead it was a letter written hastily in his brother Madan’s clumsy hand — and clumsy because Madan was half literate at best, and not out of a lack of tutors but simply because he’d always preferred riding horses and chasing after women instead of learning about proper nouns. And there was some dark humor in it, Claude supposed; voracious reader that he was himself to find his undoing in nine short words.  

Come home, the letter read, or I’ll let these frozen fuckers freeze.

He sighed and skimmed the words once more, kneading his brow as he tried to puzzle out a way to escape them. It was easier to interpret than to scheme. He imagined the north first, conjured so indelicately by Madan’s alliteration; the crackling glacial fields and the strange blue-scaled wyverns that lived beneath them, diving with indiscretion between frozen water and frostbitten sky. He’d never predicted that the final three provinces which made up Almyra’s northernmost crown would be the first to bow to his rule. They were difficult simply for the reward of being difficult — why else would anyone live in such a damnable place?   

They’ll never listen to an envoy, Faheem had warned him during his last morning in Sakhavan. And so they hadn’t — had, in fact, sent the messengers’ heads back to the capital with snow packed in their mouths. It hadn’t truly qualified as a disaster. The palace was familiar with severed heads. Claude had hoped that Madan would be able to convince them, the big brute that he was, and an unintentional ward of the north for so many years thanks to their father’s capricious temper. And yet it hardly seemed that he’d been successful, although Claude supposed there was some victory in the fact that he at least still had his head on his own shoulders to have drafted him a letter at all. 

Claude crumpled the parchment into a tight ball and let it roll across his desktop. His eyes then trailed along the endless sheets scattered there, made dark by his own neat hand, and each mapping out a different beat of the complex choreography that faced them in their task of building a gods-damned country out of three throughly broken parts. It would be nearly suicidal to leave Fodlan now, and worse for him to cobble together his reasons why, each more tactless than the last. Don’t you have enough already, they’d no doubt chastise him, and in each word asking truly wasn’t our blood enough? 

And Byleth... Claude rubbed at his tired eyes. He’d won Byleth with his trust, so what in the hell would happen when he started lying to her again? 

There were footsteps in the hall outside. They were quick and even, toe-to-heel, like a dancer taking centerstage. Claude ground the butt of his palm against his eyes a final time before the door swung open under Faheem’s uninvited hand. 

“You look terrible,” Faheem greeted him. With four paces he’d perched himself smoothly onto a nearby chair. He was dressed in lavender brocade, this time in a dusty pastel that flattered the warm tones of his skin. He was always wearing fucking purple, anymore. 

“Thank you,” Claude replied dryly. Faheem smirked and brushed the waterfall of his hair over his shoulder. “You’ve always had such a keen eye.” 

“You’ve read Madan’s letter,” Faheem guessed, ignoring what he’d said. Claude nodded, his eyes flicking to the knotted ball he’d made out of their elder brother’s dispatch. Faheem’s lips curled into a coy smile.

“I told you the northmen would give you trouble,” he continued. “Lucky for our brother that he still has his big fat head. They hated Father too, you know,” he added with a sniff, his eyes growing suddenly distant. “Insightful lot that they are.” 

“Madan should have been able to handle it,” Claude sighed in response. “He spent eight bloody years in that place — what the hell was he doing? Fucking seals?” 

“Aren’t you just a delight this evening,” Faheem chided him, brows arched. 

“Eleven thousand of them,” Claude answered stubbornly. “If even that, and certainly no more— and scattered all to hell. What do they care what we do in the south? That’s a hypothetical question,” he quickly added when Faheem’s lips pursed to reply. “What people like that want is for people like us to leave them alone, and that was exactly what I told him to give them. It’s not like it was a proper negotiation. And even then he managed to fuck it up.”

“He gave you Sakhavan.” 

I gave him Sakhavan,” Claude corrected sourly. Faheem sighed and took a moment to smooth the long drape of his coat. 

“Madan has been keeping Almyra fat and happy. Not an easy task, little brother — she is a hungry old girl. If you mean to keep her on your leash as well then I’m afraid you’ll have to feed her yourself.” 

“I know,” Claude muttered. 

“Just be quick with it,” Faheem suggested. Claude didn’t look at him — let his eyes grow unfocused on the face of the desk instead. “You have a way of convincing people to listen to you. Why else would I have followed you around for so long? Besides, Madan isn’t a king. He hasn’t got an ounce of that in him, gods help him. Leave him to his horses and go show your face to the northmen and settle it.” 

“I fail to see what my face has to do with anything.” 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Faheem tutted. “You’re not a little boy anymore, you know.” 

Claude frowned and fought the urge to rub at his features thanks to his brother’s strange rebuke. 

“In any case,” Claude replied distractedly, picking the crumpled letter from the desk again and tossing it between his palms, “I’m eager to finish it. This has already gone on for too long. I want you to come back with me as well.” Faheem was a natural diplomat, after all — not that any part of Almyra had ever really been known for its diplomacy. 

“Fine,” Faheem quickly answered, apparently as unsurprised by the request as he was displeased with it. “Although it’s terribly inconvenient.”

“Spare me the details.” Claude flagged his palm at him before he had the chance to regale him with his... well, whatever it was that he’d done to Lorenz; bewitchment, most likely, and even despite their countrymen’s general lack of talent in the magical arena. Faheem managed to both pout and laugh at the same time. 

“I don’t know why you find it so amusing to act as though I’m the wicked one,” he tutted as he stood from his chair. “There was a time when nearly every man and woman in the capital knew the shape of your cock. In any case, my feelings are entirely sincere. He’s gentle, you know.” 

Faheem’s voice dipped into a rare unshielded register with the final four words of his retort. It made Claude bite back whatever else he’d meant to say. Instead he sighed and drug his fingers through his hair. 

“We leave in a week.” 

Faheem smiled, coquettish once more, and bowed gracefully at the waist. 

“As you wish, Your Majesty.” 

Claude scowled. He would’ve corrected him if it would’ve made a difference, but the truth was that he needed to grow more used to the title. And maybe it was strange that kingship had always worn on him, given the way he was so desperate for everything else it promised. A king. Yes. He was a king, and not just when it suited him. 

He watched Faheem leave and spent some time tracing the curlicues of his handwriting with the dry point of his nib before he turned and spotted his reflection in the dark glass of a nearby window. It was impossible not to think about what his brother had said. Claude ran his fingers over his face and watched the ghost of them mirrored across the room. 

He’d been born with his mother’s eyes. When he’d been a boy it’d been the reason why they’d all said that he took after her. It wasn’t true, really; her skin was so many shades paler than his, and it turned pink under the harsh Almyran sun instead of ever more umber. Her hair was brown, but not like his — it had auburn in it, hot and glowing, whereas his was brown-on-black. He didn’t have her nose or her lips. Even his nails were shaped differently, flat and modestly square in contrast to the almond shapes of her own which she’d always kept so neat and tidy. 

When he’d been younger, ten-through-twenty, he’d looked like his father; first deliberately, combing his hair into a tangled tail like the king wore and stringing the same rings through his ears. By seventeen it had come more naturally. Then the rest of them had stopped teasing him for his mimicry and had started fearing him for it. After that he’d kept his father in his face even after he’d cut his hair and dressed himself in western clothes and turned himself into someone else.

Maybe he’d lost it when he’d killed him. 

Claude ran his fingertips over the coarse hair of his brows; over the bridge of his nose, ever so slightly crooked from when he’d broken it back when they’d hunted the Gautier boy; along his lashes, and gingerly, as if he could feel the heat of his own gaze. His eyes weren’t like his mother’s, now, or at least not anymore. Even in the blur of the glass he could see the sharpness in them. It was cruelty, he knew, and even if he wished it wasn’t; by way of pragmatism and by his godsforsaken ambition, as if either of those things made it kinder. 

Then came the angles of his cheekbones, severe under the first shadow of a beard. It wasn’t that he’d ever looked gaunt, but the boyish roundness he’d once had when he’d smiled was gone. His jaw was square and broad below them, and ever-dimpled by the subconscious grind of his teeth that came whenever he was chewing over an idea.

This was his face, he realized; not Rosalind’s nor Khalil’s, son of Rasham. It was stern and unsettling even in its most comely parts. He let his hands drop into his lap and wrestled with the idea. Surely there was more to it than that — dark on dark on darkness. He thought about Marianne and Hilda with flowers in their hair, and the cheers of Leonie’s farm boys as they’d celebrated the end of the war; reminded himself that it’d been him who’d brought an end to Edelgard’s bloodletting, and to whatever it was that Rhea had been doing when she’d been cutting apart little girls.

But what was the word for all of that, and what did it look like? He knew the northmen wouldn’t see it when he met them in the days ahead. After all, Faheem had been right. When Claude went north-by-northeast they would see him for who he was, and would no doubt give him what he wanted.

 


 

Rhea died three days later. He nearly pitied her for her bad timing. Three days longer and she would have lived to see him turning his back on Fodlan. Maybe it would have even given her the space to run — to give herself another name, live a different sort of life. 

She didn’t wait. Claude wasn’t certain if it was bravery or cowardice that’d made her swallow the pearlescent poison he’d given her, but in either case she’d done it before he’d had the chance to whisper the truth to Byleth about that cursed rock inside her chest. And maybe in the years that would come after someone would write about the shiver of her death passing across the earth; or maybe, if Claude had his way with it, the foundations of her faith would crumble to leave no stories behind at all. As it happened in that moment, however, Rhea lay stiff in her bed for nearly six hours before Seteth found her. Afterwards her fiercest advisor came tearing into the gardens where Claude and some of the others had gathered to enjoy the cooling autumn air.   

“You,” Seteth snarled, his eyes wild and dark against his pallor. Hilda was quick to rise to the challenge. Her chair clattered against the pavilion’s cobbles as she reached instinctively for the axe that she’d not yet learned how to leave behind. Lorenz and Leonie followed after just as Catherine dashed into the garden at Seteth’s heels. Seteth was lucky that she caught him by the arm before he’d had the chance to storm further into the confused circle gathering around their king. 

“I know that it was you,” Seteth continued, his voice choked. “I know that it was you!” 

Catherine’s blue eyes darted between them and grew wide as she came to realize what Seteth had left unsaid. She was clever, Claude wagered; had lived a long time given her circumstances. She must have understood that there was no hope for victory waiting for them in the garden, outnumbered as they were. 

“Everything you touch,” Seteth promised hoarsely, “every inch of earth that you stand upon — no matter where you wander, no matter where you run — all of it, all of it will just be ashes when you’re done. You are a curse — a pestilence. Do you understand?” 

“Seteth,” Catherine warned. Byleth stood as she spoke. Claude watched her, his breath turning to lead in his throat as she took a smooth step to stand between the men. He heard Seteth suck in a wounded sound. 

“Do you think that you are somehow immune? All of you,” Seteth hissed, ripping himself from Catherine’s grip and wheeling backwards. “And you most of all, Archbishop — this world you are so desperate to build will give you nothing but perdition as your reward. I will not — I will not stay here simply to watch you burn.”

He turned sharply at his heel before any of them had the chance to reply. Catherine lingered for a half moment before she followed after him. Her eyes dragged heavy across Claude’s face as she did, and in them he read the bitterness of her betrayal. Just as Seteth had predicted, the look of it made Claude’s chest catch fire. 

No member of the circle spoke, instead each listening to the retreat of the duo’s footsteps as they disappeared. Then Hilda eased her axe headfirst against the ground. Faheem, who’d risen to slink forward and watch Seteth’s flight, turned from the hedges to catch Claude’s eyes.

Claude, still seated at the long table they’d stolen from the dining hall, rolled his pen between his fingers, knuckle after knuckle; one, two, three, three, two, one. His gaze wandered from the silent stare shared between Hilda and Marianne to the grim set of Lorenz’s jaw, and then to the anxious coiling and uncoiling of Leonie’s fists. He watched Faheem return into the heart of the garden with the flutter of his silks. Lastly, and with finality, he stared into the pitfalls of Byleth’s eyes. Then he set his pen aside. 

“Shall we continue?” 

Slowly — so slowly that for a moment he feared that he’d finally lost his grip and had begun to tumble down that cliffside he’d been climbing with bloodied fingers since he’d first come wailing into the world— each one of them dipped their heads and took their seats. 

 


 

“Seteth has left,” Byleth informed him later in the privacy of his room. “Flayn as well.” 

Claude’s fingers lingered on the last fastened button of his jacket to consider what she’d said. 

“And the Knights?” 

“Catherine is gone— Shamir,” she answered, as easy as if she were reporting a change in the nightly guard. “The rank and file remain.” 

It wasn’t exactly what he’d expected. Claude huffed a breath and nodded his head. 

“Seteth wasn’t the head of the Church,” he supposed aloud. 

“Nor am I,” Byleth countered. The barbs he’d expected earlier had finally surfaced in her voice. He couldn’t help but savor them, in a strange sort of way. 

“No,” he agreed. But the Church is running out of gods, he was tempted to say next, but he swallowed it back before it damned him. Instead he turned to face her and stepped closer until he could reach out to card his fingers through her hair. She let him, which either meant that she’d forgiven him for his wrongdoings or that she only meant to punish him for them once he was close enough to catch. Part of him wondered if it mattered which she chose. “I think queen suits you better.” 

Her eyes narrowed slightly at the suggestion. 

“You’re the one who’s taken Fodlan.” 

“And I’m giving it to you.” 

“I don’t want it.” 

He laughed beneath his breath. It wasn’t like her to be flustered, but in that moment she was. He could hardly fault her for it. She was lying, that was to say — not entirely, but in the ways that mattered. No one could conquer a country without wishing for a reward. 

“I need to go back east,” he told her before he lost his will to say the words. “Almyra has to unify before it starts to think that it would be better suited being broken apart.” 

“You’re leaving,” she breathed incredulously. He stepped a pace closer to her before she had the chance to dart away. “Now? 

“Now,” he agreed, his voice dipping more grim than he’d intended. “It won’t take long. A month. No more.” 

“You can’t send someone in your stead?” 

“I’ve tried,” he admitted ruefully. Her lips lingered in their stubborn line. 

“Fodlan needs leadership.”

“I know.” He smoothed a wrinkle in her collar. “A month won’t be enough for a proper coronation, but as long as they know what to call you the rest will fall into place.”

“A month,” she echoed. “Why not just—”

“Take it, Byleth,” he interjected. She frowned. He wanted desperately to kiss it from her lips but knew better than to try. “You’re the only one who can bring them all together. Otherwise they’ll be looking for blond-haired, blue-eyed kings and Hresvelg eagles until they’re dead. You,” he added, coiling a strand of her hair around his finger, “you’re part of something bigger. They’ll listen to you.” 

“You should have told me that this was what you wanted.” 

Her words hung caustic in the air. He flinched but held his ground. 

“I know.” 

I’m sorry, he could have said. It wasn’t as if I did it to betray you. Don’t you see that what’s for me is what’s for you? 

None of that would dampen the wounded glimmer in her eyes. 

“Trust me,” he begged her instead, his hands clasping loose around her waist. “Even if I don’t deserve it. Trust me to see this through.” 

She didn’t immediately answer. He met her gaze as she stared him down — made a study of her pale lashes and the flecks of opal and lazuli orbiting her irises. That was the trick of it, and somehow he’d known it instinctually from a very young age; never look away. That’s how you showed that you weren’t afraid.

“I trust you.” 

Her voice wasn’t a voice, really, but a half-swallowed whisper; something reluctant, even unkind. His lips twitched into a shape that could have been misinterpreted as a smile. He nodded and leaned forward to rest his brow against her own. She stiffened beside him as if she were made of stone. 

Claude left the morning after in that twilight hour that came before the dawn. Byleth watched him leave, but when he turned to look back at her after Dalya had lurched into the sky he saw that she’d already gone. 

 


 

Claude was used to living by the hour, but now he lived in days: one stretched in flight between Garreg Mach and Sakhavan, plus one spent in the capital to fetch Madan from the comforts he’d collected for himself in one of the palace’s many gardens, and the morning after to sober his eldest brother up enough to regale him with the details of his failed envoy; plus two spent pointed north, with both Madan and Faheem left behind to keep his people in line, and no one but his wyvern to keep him company as they soared above the frosted steppe. Twenty-three came after that, splintered between a countless set of bleak villages each more desolate than the last. 

The tribes were headed each by their own hoary chieftain. Claude played guest with all of them. Every one demanded their own bounty to pay in exchange for their fealty. The easiest was drinking. It was first offered by the southernmost of the lot, a rheumy eyed man with gnarled, frostbitten fingers and a bottomless stomach for the fiery liquor his people made out of gods knows what. Claude had no hope of outdrinking him, but he still won the man’s favor by virtue of not stumbling blind into the snow to freeze after they’d finished their third bottle. 

Bartering was the second price, and came as he traveled further northward. Claude kept a careful tally of the bits and pieces he broke off for them from Fodlan’s most miserable parts — abandoned fields for the youngest of them who had ambitions outside of tearing each other apart on the ice, and promises of trade for the rest too old and stubborn to leave their little piece of the earth behind. One hard-hewn village of thirty shrunk to twenty after he’d left, and with all of their sons and daughters on their own wyverns to follow him on his trek. By then eleven of his twenty-three days had passed and so he couldn’t help but admit that he was thankful for their company, even if he had to chase too many of them from the mouth of his tent each night in their unabashed attempts to win his favor. Their wyverns were better than their riders: big, half-starved beasts nearly as pale as Dalya and mean enough for her to tolerate. They seemed a fair trade for his time. 

By day thirteen he’d started to hate the fucking cold. How it crept into his bones — how his fingers never seemed to warm no matter how close he shoved them to the fire. He hated how the sun crept along the horizon even in the middle of the night, and how the sky was always filled with the thunder of glaciers calving somewhere lost in that dim dark. He hated sleeping alone.

But his misery made the third price easier to pay. Even his new riders were hesitant to push onwards north-northeast, warning him that what was left of Almyra not yet under his control wasn’t meant to be controlled by anyone. They told him stories about cannibals and blind men living in caves, and women who bred with white-furred bears and birthed monstrous bastards in the snow. Claude was a master of fables, and so he understood what they really said: it will cost you blood. 

So he spilled it. He killed the next chieftain he met and his furious daughter for good measure, who nearly cleaved him into two neat pieces with the largest axe he’d ever seen. The news of what had happened somehow traveled between days fourteen and fifteen, and by sixteen three of the five chiefs who remained came riding to meet Claude at his camp. The first of them challenged him as soon as they arrived; the second, impressed by how quickly Claude had cut his predecessor down, cooked a thick slab of some purple-fleshed meat for them all to enjoy before he drew his blade as well. 

Claude was exhausted by the third. It was the silver hour of some time past midnight and his limbs felt like they were packed with snow. Maybe this is it, he’d thought, all cynicism and spite; the end, here, for nothing, or something, or god knows what. That was when the third chieftain threw back her head with laughter and told him that he was lucky that she didn’t have a cock to wag around like the two dumb bastards who’d come first. She told him next that she liked him better than his father, and promised him that the last two chieftains would fall in line under her order as long as he and the rest of his southern brood left her the fuck alone. 

This was how he conquered Almyra. He knew even as he lived it that it wouldn’t be a story that would survive particularly long. There was nothing heroic in crawling drunk across the tundra, or in selling loyalty, or in killing old, bitter men who were already eager to die. But even if it was an accomplishment that would be glossed over later, it was better than a war; better than his country pulling itself apart like two draft horses tied together and forced into a gallop on either side. And it came no matter the cost, as most things did for men like him, although he still regretted it — but so it goes.  

Four more days, he promised himself as he turned back southward. Only four. Two to travel, one to give Madan whatever else he needed to style himself as castellan for just a little longer, and one to convince his countrymen that Almyran had bowed to an Almyran son. Then he could fly westward again and give Byleth however many days she needed to forgive him: scraping at her feet or serving at her side, it didn’t matter, he hardly cared. Whatever it would cost to finally bring her to Sakhavan himself — to show her what he’d taken so that she could care for it when he was gone — whatever the price, he’d pay it, and gladly, and twice-over if required. And if the bitter cold of the empty north had taught him anything, it was that he would damn well marry her even if she wanted to hate the idea. 

“Your little mouse is looking for you,” Madan greeted him as soon as his feet had lighted on the palace’s tiles. Claude urged Dalya from the courtyard to go and find her well-earned roost. He tore his stinking furs from his shoulders as he did, already sweltering under the sun now that Almyra’s snow had turned back into sand again. 

“So have him find me,” Claude muttered sourly. “The north has come to reason.” No thanks to you, he wanted to add, but he bit it back. Madan seemed to sense it anyways, smirking as he followed his younger brother into the shadow of a nearby arcade. 

“Almyra is yours.” 

“As much as it is anyone’s,” Claude answered. Madan looked unconvinced.  

“What did you do to them?” 

“I gave them what they wanted.” Claude ripped off his gloves and shoved them into his belt. A pair of serving girls materialized from a dark corner of the entrance hall balancing twin trays bearing water and wine. He snatched a glass of the former and felt a pang of guilt settle in his gut when the girl who’d given it to him flinched against his reach. 

“So what is it that you’re scheming to do next?” 

Claude took a drink and considered his reply. They’d summited a set of stairs and were two hallways closer to the throne room before he’d pieced together the proper lines. 

“Put Fodlan back together,” he said. “Feed them, give them shelter. The major cities have survived the war, but the villages are in ruin.” 

“Generous of you,” Madan hummed. Claude took another drink. 

“You don’t starve your stallions after you’ve broken them,” he chided in return. “Besides, this is what they’ll remember — not the war or the lords they fought for, but who gave them bread once it was done.”

“Pah,” Madan laughed, “and who’s that? Some brown bastard with a pretty Fodlanese name?” 

Claude’s molars ground in his ears. 

“They can call me whatever they like as long as they see who I am.” 

“I see it,” Madan contended. “The men see it. Do you want to know what they’re calling you out there?” He waved his arm at a window overlooking the glitter of the city outside. Claude shook his head.  

“No.” 

They came upon the throne room doors. Claude parted them with the flat press of his palms, leaning into his arms until the massive hinges creaked to life. There was a swirl of lilac waiting for him inside. 

“Kal,” Faheem cried out, sweeping forward to meet him halfway into the room. “Finally.” 

Finally?” Claude deadpanned, brows raised. He’d not enjoyed his time away, either, but he was still convinced he’d been rather efficient with his month spent north. Faheem grabbed him by the arm and drug him closer to the throne. 

“I was nearly ready to come and find you myself,” Faheem insisted. He never spoke like this — his words spilling so quickly from his lips that they blended into a slurring line. “Gods help us all. Thirty-five days and already everything is a disaster.” 

“What?” Claude tugged his arm free and watched as his brother folded his own into a tight cross. “I freeze myself solid in the middle of fucking nowhere, and the two of you can’t even manage to keep Sakhavan properly distracted while I’m gone?” 

“Not Sakhavan,” Faheem insisted tightly. He ripped a coiled scroll from his sleeve and waved it in Claude’s direction. “Fodlan. Nader sent word ten days ago. Two separate forces have conjured themselves out of, of,” he waved his hands, “hell, I suppose. You know the sort of men I keep in the west, and yet none saw an inch of them until it was too late. They’ve flanked that monastery of yours, and Nader’s written that they’ve seen sails in Derdriu as well.” 

“Bandits?” Claude’s heart sunk as he offered the word. Thirty five fucking days; couldn’t those bastards even give it time enough for grass to grow over Fodlan’s graves before they started pillaging them?

“No. Most of them are carrying Adrestian banners. There’ve been sightings of that man Nemesis’ sigil as well.” 

Claude’s mouth grew dry. 

What? 

Faheem nodded. His face was grim. 

“They’re fighting for vengeance, I suppose. It certainly isn’t honor. I’ve made a preliminary count. Listen to me, Kal — it’ll be war if we aren’t careful.” 

War. Claude would have laughed if he’d had the breath. Instead he gripped his cup so tightly he was surprised that it didn’t buckle against his palm.  

“Even if we rally what remains of the old Alliance battalions, it’ll only be a fortnight before they’re utterly swamped — and that says nothing for the wounded in all of the camps, and the displaced besides. We need to come to their aid,” Faheem added tersely. “We have the men — now more than ever.” 

“And they’ll be hungry for it,” Claude guessed darkly. He’d stopped their war parties from ranging westward years before. By now they must have been desperate to sink their teeth back into Fodlan’s dark soil. Faheem nodded. Claude’s mind had already begun to race. His eyes darted across the room as it did, lingering on the old brass bolts still left in the walls where his father’s stolen banners had once hung. He’d been so deliberate in picking and choosing from the wealth of his inheritance. Perhaps it would have been better to take it all wholesale. He might have burned his father’s trophies, after all, but he’d kept his men. 

He imagined them breaking through the Throat, just like he’d always planned; saw, as if the throne room had been transformed into a spyglass, their wyverns turning Fodlan black beneath the shadowed umbrella of their wings. He heard the reavers’ war cries as they swallowed up what was left of Adrestia and its second hidden empire, and watched as his hard-earned companions were stupefied by his countrymen’s brutal crush of that which had once doomed them. 

He thought about the soft crux of Byleth’s shoulder just where it met her collarbone — about the rare curve of her smile when he won it from her with ridiculous stories told so late in the night that it was morning again; the filigree of her lashes against her cheek. His mind filled with a triptych of the shallows behind her knees and the smell of her hair and the comma-shaped scar on her chin. He thought about her. He thought about them. He thought about Dalya with her razor-rimmed maw swallowing up an endless ring of men. 

“Yes,” Faheem said. “A week, I think, is all we’ll need to rally the parties — perhaps we can even send an advance guard-”

“No,” Claude interjected. His brother frowned. 

“I think yes,” Faheem argued with the cock of his head. “You should know that there have already been some battles fought and very barely won. Send the palace corps, even. It would be enough — a symbol, at least to start. Gods, Kal, you know the art of all of this better than I do.” 

Claude felt the bitter wind of the north fill his chest again. 

“No,” he repeated. “We’ll send no men.” 

None,” Faheem sputtered, his jaw growing slack. “Have you not heard a word of what I’ve said?” 

“If we go to Fodlan before they’re desperate for violence, that violence will be our end. Listen to me, Faheem. Those men with the eagle banners, and the ones who’ve crawled up from the dirt, do you know who they are? Fodlan, once, before Fodlan decided to fear them. What you’re proposing isn’t some borderland skirmish. If I set Almyra loose it needs to be when the west is on their knees and begging for anything to come and save them. A moment sooner and it will only be a matter of time before they remember all of their old stories about men from the east skinning children alive.” Each word he said was true, but they tasted ever more noxious on his tongue. “We need to be patient.” 

Patient,” Faheem gasped. He looked over to Madan for solidarity and found nothing but a flat expression in response. Well, but Madan hadn’t found himself in a western count’s bed, now had he? “How can you... They’ll die. Every day of your patience will be a death sentence.” 

Claude didn’t answer. He watched his brother’s expression turn from shock into fury. 

“You — you’re serious,” Faheem realized aloud. “After everything, you really mean to watch them fall? This is your work, Kal! Your people!” 

Claude shook his head. 

“I’ve done everything I can for them as a Riegan,” he argued. He felt dizzy from the claim, as fresh and new as it was honest. “This is the cost of unification.” 

“The cost — there’s always a cost, isn’t there? But what about those of us who pay for it?” Faheem tore at his collar, wrenching the neat drape of his tunic crooked. “What about that? Dammit, look! Look at it! For once in your fucking life look at it instead of just running away!” 

“Faheem,” Madan warned. Faheem’s lips turned into a feral scowl. 

“No,” he spat. “Enough. You turned your back when Father tore me apart, and you told me to be patient then, too, didn’t you? And I listened to you, and for what? You got everything you wanted, Kal, but what about me? It was already done. There was never going to be a reckoning. Not for that, and here we are, back at it again. We won’t be able to unbury the dead.” 

Claude kept silent. Faheem groaned, his brows furrowing into a tortured arch as he swept forward to take his brother by the arms.

“No more patience,” Faheem begged him. “Not this time. Please.” 

Claude looked at him — really looked at him beyond the superficial beauty of all of his shapes and lines. Close as he was, he could see the first branches of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. He was too young for it but there it was, born no doubt from sleepless nights spent staring into the haunted dark. Sweet Faheem. He really was the best of them— the only one out of any of them raised inside those wretched walls to have ever offered Claude anything gentle, anything kind. What a cruelty it was that a creature like him had been born into their world. 

“No,” Claude answered. The simple brutality of his answer shuttered the light in his brother’s eyes. 

“I was wrong,” Faheem whispered, bewildered, his grip loosening on Claude’s sleeves as he stumbled backwards. “I was wrong about you. I always thought... I thought that you were different, but you’re just him, aren’t you? No better, maybe worse. Khalil.” 

Claude didn’t answer. There wasn’t much left to say. Even if he spoke he likely wouldn’t have heard his voice. His pulse was too loud in his ears — roaring like whitewater as he watched his brother lurch further backwards towards the doors. Faheem hesitated when his back was against them. Claude watched the twitch of his lips and waited for his final words: more begging, maybe, or a curse that would stain the both of them. Whatever it was, Faheem abandoned it. He swept through the doors instead, filling the throne room with the groan of the hinges as he disappeared into the hall. 

“Make sure he doesn’t leave the city,” Claude told Madan. His brother nodded. He’d never seen him stand with his shoulders hunched like that before. Claude looked into his black eyes and felt as though he was staring into a wall. 

“Send more scouts to the borders. I want daily updates from Faheem’s men,” he added, thinking of that mysterious network of spies and keen-eyed courtesans that Faheem had always kept so happy under his heel. “As soon as the odds turn against Fodlan’s favor we’ll ride. Don’t let the parties tear each other apart in the meantime.” 

“They’ll play nice for the right reward,” Madan offered. Claude’s jaw clenched as tight as a snare. 

“Any man they kill will be theirs — and more, if they ask for it. Land, titles, whatever they want; if they earn it I’ll give it to them. But Fodlan and her people are mine, do you understand? Tell them. Make sure they all understand.”

“Alright, Kal.” 

“Get on with it, then.”

Madan didn’t immediately do as he was told. He simply looked at Claude instead. It made Claude feel as though he was boiling alive. 

“Are you disappointed?” he asked Madan finally. He nearly surprised himself to speak the question aloud. His brother’s lips twitched into a crooked smile. 

“Disappointed? Brother, I am a simple man. Point me in a direction and I’ll kill what you want killed. There are plenty more like me eager for your command. And although I doubt you’ll ask for my opinion, I think what you’ve said is right. Let Almyra get a little fat. She’ll be happy to fight for you when the time comes. Besides, I won’t lie and say I’m against the idea of Fodlan shedding a little blood for everything its done. But you,” he added, wagging a finger at him, “you’ve never been so simple, have you? Even when you were a little boy — gods, you were always lying. Everything you said, and long before you were any good at it. That’s how I know it when I see it now.” 

Claude shifted uneasily on his heels. 

“Faheem,” Madan continued with a sigh, “all of that — it was a wretched fucking business. If there is a hell our father is burning in it for what he did to him. But what he did to you wasn’t much better, now was it? Forcing you into his shadow. Shit, Parvaz hated you for it — never stopped talking about it. It drove me mad to listen to him go on about it all the time. Why fight against fate? That was always my motto. And look where we find ourselves now,” he added, swinging his arm in an arc over the empty throne at the far end of the room. 

“What I mean to say is that you were never like any of us, really. Even someone like old Stone-Eye could see that. And I pity you for it. I think it would be easier for you if it were different — if you were a little thicker,” Madan went on, tapping against his own temple as he said it, “a little more like Father was. But so it goes, eh?”

Claude rolled his cup between his fingers but didn’t respond. Madan huffed a breath through his nose and shook his head. 

“So it goes,” Madan echoed. “In any case, you saved me from that frozen hole of mine. I’ll do whatever I can to help you. But at the end of all of this — in those moments when you find yourself alone — little brother, none of us can save you then.”

Claude felt as though he’d strung an anvil around his neck. He wasn’t quite certain what to say. He nodded instead of bothering to choke out an answer. Madan returned the gesture and lingered for a moment longer before he slowly turned for the door. 

“I’ll bring you the first report in the morning,” he added as he pressed his broad palm against the boards. 

“Good,” Claude answered. He saw Madan nod again before he’d slipped into the hall. By then Claude’s feet had already started to step him backwards towards the throne. It was impossible — that weight against his chest, pulling so tight against his nape that he felt as though his neck would snap. He tumbled backwards into the throne’s unforgiving seat. That was when he realized that he was still gripping at his cup. He glanced down at it and saw the green of his eyes reflected back at him. Part of him was desperate to dash it against the floor; to find whatever satisfaction he had left in the act of breaking. He sighed the last stale breath from his lungs and tipped the cup against his lips, swallowing the last of it so that he didn’t have to look at himself. 

 


 

It took three months for Fodlan to stumble and start to die. Claude spent each day of it living as a flayed man. Every inch of everything was a torture — the openness of the sky, as blue and benign in Sakhavan as it must have been over Garreg Mach; the rabble of the capital markets, no different than the cheery bustle of Derdriu; the nightly incense of the palace’s torches like a prelude to the west burning to the ground. He subjected himself to all of it, desperate as he was to simply seal himself away in some dark dungeon instead. It wasn’t difficult in a state like that to understand why men went mad. He forced himself into the work of untangling Almyra’s strange bureaucracy so that he didn’t start seeing ghosts in the dark.

Three months, and when it ended he didn’t find himself on his throne or atop some balustrade surveying the sprawl of everything he’d won. Rather, he looked little like a king at all. Dressed only in a pair of trousers and soaked from sweating out another nightmare, he was surprised that Madan had even managed to find him. At first he wasn’t entirely certain where he was himself. It was only when his brother had called out his name a second time that he smelled the lemon in the air and came to realize that his feet had traced out his old boyhood path between the palace and the water gardens.

“Word from the border,” Madan informed him brusquely. His eyes lingered only for a moment on Claude’s bared skin before snapping upwards to match his gaze. Claude wasn’t such an oddity in Almyra, after all — all of their father’s sons were scarred. “Garreg Mach has fallen. What remains of the Fodlanese forces has been pushed into an encampment along the Airmid.”

A chill passed over Claude, arching each strand of hair on his body painfully upright. Something feverish followed after. He was lucky that he didn’t bite through his tongue. 

“Good,” he replied. There’d been a time when he would’ve winced at the absurdity of such a word, but it had long ago come undone. Claude pivoted to stalk towards the palace again with a brisk step. “Rouse the calvary. I want them to ride to the Throat tonight — and you with them. I’ll see to the reavers myself.” 

Madan nodded, following at Claude’s side as they tracked together through the palace’s serpentine corridors.    

“I need a messenger,” he continued, unfurling the plans aloud that he had been piecing together for longer than he could properly count. “Send me someone quick. I need them at Gronder before sunrise.” 

“As you wish.” 

They stopped at the crossroads of two halls that would take them onto their own paths. Claude understood that there was something heavy hanging between them. He’d never really predicted his ambitions to culminate in this: him weary from his guilty conscience, and Madan, a brother he’d always tolerated but never fully understood. But everyone he loved was gone, so who else would have stood beside him?  

“Don’t get yourself killed,” he instructed Madan. His brother laughed and combed back his wild hair. 

“Hardly. I think I’m in line for a promotion after this, eh? Think of a good title.” 

“Whatever you want, Madan,” Claude relented. He even bothered to offer him a thin-swept smile. Madan gave him a more honest one before leaving him alone to seek out the throne. 

 


 

Almyra woke at his command. Claude could hear it even from inside the palace’s thick belly. It wasn’t like anything else he’d ever heard before. He’d thought it would have been like Enbarr: the moan of the defeated swallowed up by a conqueror’s chorus. After all, reavers always fought like they’d already won their wars. Hell, they celebrated like victors even after their defeats.  

But it had been a long time since Almyra’s many provinces had all descended on the capital at the same time. His father had never managed it, although he’d laid the better groundwork. Only Claude, however, had managed to take Fodlan under heel. Every man and woman in the east would want to see what they could win from him now.

And so they did. There was something primal in it. Claude heard their wyverns first. The meanest crooned their welcome even before they were blots on the horizon line. The lesser of them called out afterwards like sharp-tuned birds celebrating the dawn. As they all drew closer the sound of it mutated into a droning roar. 

The sounds of men came next. They cried out orders at their mounts and at each other, loud and boastful; clattered the flat parts of their weapons against their insectile plate. Some of the provinces were more theatric than the rest and so brought drums and eerie horns with them to add to the din. Others strung the long necks of their wyverns with bells and bones and shiny copper coins that filled with the air with a shrill toll. Westward, towards the border, he could hear the distant hammer of hoofbeats as Almyra’s ancient-bred stallions dashed forward under Madan’s command.  

By sunrise it was deafening. He wondered if they could hear it already in Gronder Field. If they hadn’t yet they would soon enough. There was also little doubt that Almyra’s war songs would have their intended effect: terror, like a contagion, and impossible to quell. A knock at the door welcomed in the first test of his hypothesis. Claude paused from his study of a huge map unfurled across the floor to watch two of his guards step forward to answer. 

“The messenger from Fodlan,” one of them announced. Claude nodded and felt his breath catch in his throat. The man he’d sent for with his midnight envoy stepped gingerly inside. Cyril looked shrunken against the throne room’s vaulted ribs, and ragged, too, his riding leathers dark and scuffed from the work of losing a war. Claude was struck mute by the sudden urge to dash forward and draw the younger man to his chest. He shook the temptation aside and stepped a few measured paces in his direction instead, watching as Cyril’s fingers fluttered to grip nervously at his bandolier. 

“Claude.” 

It was more a question than a greeting, and in it Claude heard everything Cyril had left unsaid. His eyes were harrowed enough to tell him the rest of what had happened. Claude gritted his jaw and forced himself to ignore the deadly mix of fright and betrayal that was so plain to read in their amber glow. 

“You made good time,” Claude told him flatly. Cyril’s lips twitched. He didn’t respond. No doubt he’d been waiting for something more monumental than the compliment, but Claude didn’t have time for things like that. “You’ve seen the state of Sakhavan. You understand what I intend to do?” 

Cyril nodded. Claude did as well. 

“Good,” he continued. “We’ll be in Gronder tomorrow with the sun. Before that happens I need you to pass along a message to all of the men. It’s important. You’re the only one I can trust to see that it’s done.” 

Cyril jumped at the sudden flash and flurry of something screaming past a nearby window. Claude followed his gaze to catch the sight of two wyverns grappling in the air. It wasn’t surprising. Reavers starved their mounts before a proper battle in order to make them hungry for the field. Their quick descent into Fodlan was for the Almyra’s benefit as much as it was for their own. A few days longer and they’d be in danger of devouring themselves. 

“Cyril,” Claude insisted. The younger man flinched again and returned his gaze in Claude’s direction. Claude felt something difficult to define worm its way inside his chest. “I need you to see this through.” 

“Yes,” Cyril muttered. “What is it?” Claude hesitated for a half moment longer before he drew in a deep breath to carry on. 

“Let them know that Almyra is coming to their aid, firstly.” He caught a doubtful spark flashing in Cyril’s eyes. “The reavers are under my command. They know who to spare and who to cut down. I need your word that you’ll tell everyone to do the same with them. If we start shooting wyverns from the sky it will only be a matter of time before they start to doubt what I’ve told them.” 

We,” Cyril echoed quietly. Claude’s jaw flexed tight again. 

“To that point,” he endeavored on, pulling a scrap of bright goldenrod fabric from his pocket, “I’ll be sending a half-dozen men back with you to bring these over. Have every man and woman wear them. Everyone, you understand?” 

Claude waved the band at him. Cyril stepped three paces closer to take the fabric and fold it between his fingers. 

“What for?” 

Claude’s eyes drifted towards the window again. There was smoke in the air. It made him feel hungry in a way he’d only felt a few rare times before. 

“Almyra will come to Fodlan’s aid tomorrow, as soon as the dawn breaks,” he repeated, looking slowly to Cyril once more. “By nightfall any man not wearing one of these will be dead.” 

Cyril looked back to the window as well. 

“And then?” 

“And then this will be over,” Claude promised.

“It’s never over.” 

Cyril had a knack for surprising him. Claude couldn’t help but smile — and not out of joy but maybe fondness, or at least fondness in its grimmest permutation. Of course he knew that the younger man was right. They were both evidence of that themselves. But as he grew older, Claude was convinced, Cyril would come to learn that you didn’t stop trying to crawl out of the pit you were buried in just because it was bottomless. 

“Fly as fast as you can manage,” the told him. “Tell everyone to keep together and to fight close. No more heroes — all they need to do is keep themselves alive. That means you, too.” 

Cyril bunched the golden fabric into a tighter fold. It took him a few moments longer, but eventually he nodded.  

“I’ll tell them.” 

“Thank you, Cyril.” 

Cyril stepped backwards a pace, sensing well enough that this was his invitation to leave. He’d rolled back onto his second heel before his brows suddenly crept up against his hairline. 

“Oh,” he said quickly, rummaging through a little pack strung at his hip. “I have a message for you.” 

Cyril jutted forward to offer Claude a square of paper folded tight. Claude took it, tucking it flat against his palm. He’d seen only a flash of the script draw on the front, but it was enough to recognize Byleth’s sloping hand. He didn’t trust himself to read it with an audience. Cyril seemed to understand. 

“Thank you,” Claude added stiffly. He nodded at the door. “My riders will be waiting for you. They know who you are. Don’t let them bully you.” 

Cyril’s bewilderment finally disappeared beneath an indignant flush. 

“I can manage a few Almyran riders,” he insisted with a huff. Claude laughed. It was the first time he’d done it in a long while. 

“I know you can. Go on, then. I’ll see you soon enough.” 

Cyril turned stiffly towards the door. He’d nearly made it out into the hall before he doubled back to catch Claude’s eyes. 

Zaman hala atesh,” the younger man then said, and for once without a quiver in his voice. Claude felt the prick of an invisible pinpoint deep inside his chest.

“Zaman hala atesh,” Claude replied. Cyril nodded his head for a final time before stepping further backwards into the shadow of the hall. 

Claude listened to the retreat of Cyril’s footsteps until they were swallowed up by the din outside. Only when he was certain that he’d gone did he look down at the little packet gripped in his palm. He saw the folded edges of its back first. It flipped upright with the roll of his hand. Then he saw the script again — a single letter drawn in black. This time it read a little different, but he’d seen it a hundred times before. When he’d been younger it had been a graceful C that had decorated Byleth’s battle plans. Now it was a K drawn over in three sharp, decisive lines.   

He carefully eased open the folds. Something glittering slipped into his palm. His breath whistled from his lungs as his fingers found the looping shape of it, smooth and delicate and silver, and topped with an ornate lily flower set in amethyst and quartz. He slipped the ring onto his little finger, the only one of them it could hope to fit, and even then only to the knuckle. 

Zaman hala atesh, Cyril had said. The sun will always rise. And it was true. No matter what he did, Claude always woke to a new dawn. But even if he didn’t — even if he lived in the dark for the rest of his life — he knew in that moment that he’d always have a light. 

 


 

As was its habit, the day drew on. Claude bathed, and ate, and made a final survey of his maps and codices as he would have done with any other of his many afternoons. The only difference was the constant hungry roar both outside the palace and thundering inside his own head. At mid-day it was distracting, but by the time the sky had started to purple with the setting of the sun he found himself nearly deaf, and blind, and dumb. His only relief came when a knock sounded at his door and ushered in the would-be squire who was meant to help him with his suit-of-arms.  

He’d once been cavalier in what he’d worn to war. No doubt part of it had been because he’d been born irreparably cocksure — but then that’d also been why it’d been so easy for him to burn up in the grey skies above Aillel. Even he wasn’t arrogant enough not to learn from his mistakes. In any case, he’d been dressing himself in Fodlan for years; and Fodlanders were cocky, too, from the pomp of their robes to the hot steel caskets of their armor. Their wardrobe had never been to him so terribly alluring. 

But now he was back in Almyra — at home or in hell, although the distinction didn’t truly matter. If it’d been a different place perhaps a gaggle of dukes and marquises would’ve bickered over the color and shape of his war-dress, but that sort of thing didn’t happen east of Fodlan’s Throat. Sayyid, the boy who’d presumed to insert himself into Claude’s more domestic affairs, had been the only one privy to his attire. He brought Claude the things he’d once worn when he’d fought under his father’s orders, and not because the gold-and-black plate was kingly, but rather because it fit him, and was well made, and was the sort of thing you wore when you went reaving. 

They started with his mail. It was made from a thinner gauge than the stuff the Fodlanders strung together; was lighter and stronger against wayward arrowheads. Claude tucked the amethyst ring he’d slipped onto a simple chain under the collar of his undershirt and eased the chainmail over his arms. Sayyid followed after with a cowl that fit over his neck but kept his head bare — better suited for men who hadn’t cut their hair.

Then Sayyid knelt and slipped his feet into his boots. His greaves followed after, lacquered a shiny black like the rest of Claude’s scaled armor. Next, leather poleyns made soft to ease the bend of his legs in his saddle, these an oxblood red — then dark brigandine cuisses for his thighs. Once Claude’s legs were properly dressed Sayyid stood to take his cuirass from its nearby stand. Claude stole it from him and slipped it on himself, growing impatient with the boy’s thorough work as his own fingers tugged with quick jerks on the buckles that cinched the breastplate tight. 

“Give me those,” Claude snapped, snatching the vambraces that Sayyid had procured from his trunk and wrapping them around his forearms himself. He’d already started walking towards his door by the time he’d clipped the second tight. Sayyid huffed in silent protest, bending quickly to shove the rest of Claude’s piecemeal armor into his arms to follow after him. There would have been something nearly comical in it if Claude hadn’t been so filled with venom. 

Sayyid had managed to tack on his spaulders and offer up his gloves by the time Claude had worked himself free from the palace out into the yard. The heat and noise outside nearly stopped him in his tracks, but it was the flutter of white silk that left him frozen midstride. 

Look, boy. See. 

“Brother,” Faheem welcomed him. Strangled as his voice was, it was far more than he’d offered him in days — months, rather, and not since he’d stormed from the throne room with the news of war still fresh on his tongue. Claude drew in a tight breath and worked his fingers into his glove. Then he nodded his own greeting, distracted by the snap of the banners jammed into the red sand of the palace yards and gripped in the hands of the reavers roiling in the sky. They bore Almyra’s mounted archer in olive-and-gold, but unlike the flags that had flown over his father’s battlefields they had been amended with stark, hand-drawn shapes slashed over the standard in a white paint. Claude made out the coiling S of the serpentine design with a furrow of his brow, and realized what his brother Madan had meant when he’d told him about the name his men had given him. 

“Faheem,” he finally answered. Sayyid stepped forward to offer the last piece of his armor to him. It was a faceplate, cupped to run under his jaw and with a stiff buckle fashioned for the shape of his nape. Reavers had never been the type for helmets, stubborn as they were about risking death to show off the length of their hair, but they were at least clever enough to cover up the parts that killed them slowest— an arrow through the gullet or a broken jaw. The more entrepreneurial of their number had puzzled out a way to insert a mesh inside that kept the smoke of their brutal warfare from their lungs as well. Perhaps most importantly, it was another opportunity to hide their humanity behind something cruel. Claude’s in particular was black, as most of the rest of him was now, and painted over the front with a glimmering gild facsimile of a fang-filled snarl. 

He turned the faceplate between his fingers and waited for his brother to respond. Faheem looked ready to deny him the favor, but the pale color of his garments betrayed him. 

“Don’t,” Faheem started and then stopped, his face darkening as he struggled with the word. “...Don’t leave me behind.” 

For a moment — just a moment, no longer than the suck of the wind and the quick crack of a nearby banner — Claude thought about a little boy with bruised wrists and a blackened eye, and felt his chest ache just like it had in all of those times when he’d tried so desperately to hide him behind his own cocky stride. 

“I’ll never leave you behind,” Claude promised him. A wounded look flashed across his brother’s dark eyes. Faheem toyed with something in his hands before he stepped to Claude’s side. 

“What is this?” Claude asked him as Faheem handed it over. Of course, he knew the answer; nearly dreaded it as his own gloved fingers worked over the simple gold-cast band. Other crowns were filled with velvet and fur and fine stones, but this one made for his own measure had only eight spade-shaped prongs — one for each part of Almyra that he’d won. His brows knitted together as he tried to piece together the best way to refuse it. 

“Don’t,” Faheem said again. He took the crown back from his brother and turned it for a final time before leaning forward to fit it against Claude’s temples. It was light and sat low against his brow in a way that made it easy to forget that he was wearing it, as if that was the sort of thing that anyone could manage. 

“You’re a different sort of king,” Faheem admitted to him. It was an answer to the question that Claude hadn’t yet had the chance to ask. Why, if Father didn’t? And Claude knew too that different didn’t mean better, but it was at least the sort of word that suited him. “So show it to them, and bring an end to this.” 

Claude nodded. Faheem was right, of course. He was a different sort of king. Other men might have made a grand address to the men swarming above the yard — promised them victory, and glory, and pride. But Claude had never been the type to tell his men what he could simply show them. And so he gripped his brother by the arm and then released him, and after fit two of his fingers into his mouth to whistle for his dread mount. Then he clipped the last piece of his black armor into place and turned himself finally into his own monster. Almyra roared with satisfaction at the sight and followed after him as he took flight. 

 


 

They chased the dawn into Fodlan. The Locket came first, manned under a skeleton crew who looked ready to throw themselves from the crags at the sight of Madan’s calvary laying in wait at the border. Uneasy as they were to do it, the Goneril men opened the gates at Claude’s command. Better if Holst had been there to raise them himself, but of course Gronder had called him away — and may have been his grave, for all that Claude knew. He decided not to think about it. It was easier to focus on the thunder of the destriers spilling through the spout of the Locket’s narrow pass. Madan’s riders laughed and sang as they tore through the holdfast, clanging their swords against the narrow passageways with enough force that Claude could barely hear his own thoughts. 

It wasn’t as if he lost much in the process. The battle ahead had already burned off most of his usual scheming. His thoughts were simple; the whistle of the wind in his ear, the coil of Dalya’s body beneath him; the huff of his breath captured in the bowl of his mask. He watched the swarm of war-horses below him and then urged his wyvern forward. Beyond the Locket, Fodlan was grey — brown grass and mud and forests made naked by old fires and more recently by the turn of season. Bones, he thought; just bones. He pushed onwards to make more of his own. 

They made good time. The wyverns at his back were desperate to match Dalya’s pace. The frost-scaled beasts that had followed him back from the north were the ones to manage it best. He could hear the strange broken-glass sound of their icy breath behind him, louder somehow even than the roar of everything else. Claude let his mind linger on the noise and urged her faster. 

Leicester peeled away under their advance. Fodlan grew grimmer as it did. He saw empty villages plundered twice-over, followed after by the smoldering ruins of what had been wiped from the map. He hunched lower into his saddle and let Dalya’s starved fury wash over him — through his plate, through his skin, and into every dark crevice inside him. The only part of him that remained was the keenness of his eyes taking a tally of every life he’d lost.

I’ll pay, he thought as they pressed on. It became a primitive chant whispered into his mask; I’ll take. And then below it, unspoken but all-consuming: don’t leave. Please. Don’t die.  

By the grace of some benevolent god, Cyril had made his way back to the Fodlanese encampment. Claude saw proof of it first in the polka dot of goldenrod sashes scattered across Gronder’s blistered field. The host was large, but so was their aggressor. Someone — Byleth no doubt, and Claude hoped with enough wishing that it was agonizing — had ordered the Fodlanders into a defensive knot ringed by an orbiting calvary. The combined forces of the fallen Empire and Agartha’s remains had not yet managed to crack through into the knot’s center, but they had surrounded it on all sides. Claude drew his bow and kicked Dalya into a low sweep of the last crooked tree tops that stood between him and the war. 

He loosed his arrow at the first shadowy figure he saw. It was a rider dressed in red plate. Claude’s relic matched the tone. He drew a second scarleted bolt. His draw was enough to slow Dalya into a hover. When he released his fingers again, his arrow was joined by the shadowed shower of a countless thousand more. Even for him it was enough to punch the wind from his lungs, but to his reavers it was second nature; a challenge; a welcome to their daily work. He felt the buffet of their wings as a scaly sea of wyverns tore past him in corkscrewing paths, and on each their rider drawing their second shot with a hooting yowl gritted in their mouths. 

Claude watched the dredges of the Empire recoil in real time. It came slow at first, like the first ripples of a wave stirred by the drop of a pebble across a mirror-edged pool. Almyra’s reavers drew and loosed a third time with their eerie synchronicity and downed another score of men at the Empire’s rear. By then their enemy had started to turn, but it was already too late. Claude heard the grating scrape of thousands of shards of flint struck at the same time. Then came the roar of the same thousand-thousand count of arrows bound with oil-soaked rags catching flame. For a moment after there was an otherworldly nothingness, as the reavers then pulled back to wait in their strange stack in the clouds. He could feel the shiver of the men they hunted even at his height, and watched with a sateless hunger as the next stage of their attack began. 

In the chaos of everything it would have been easy enough to overlook their advance. They were a hundred wyverns at most, and scattered in a long line too wide-toothed to be considered an offensive. The only thing that marked them distinct from their countrymen was the strange cargo gripped in their wyverns’ claws. The men below them would have three wing-beats to try to catch better sight of them: stout, heavy-looking vessels with an earthenware matte to them, but without the usual fanciful washes that generally accompanied Almyran wares. By beat four the riders dropped them, and without the need of a signal cry. Beat five saw the vessels dashing against the ground in great sooty blooms. Beat six, the whizz and crackle of the burning arrows as they were finally loosed and then, before beat seven, the monstrous gasp and bang that followed from the alchemy that transformed the oily stains into great pillars of fire. It burned so bright that it was nearly blue against the grey-and-black of the field. 

Claude’s reavers roared at their success. The sound of it was amplified by the harmonizing yowls of Madan’s riders as they made their own arrival. There was no need to watch, not anymore. He knew this choreography well, even if he’d only seen it himself twice before. It was easy enough to imagine: Madan and the rest of them on horseback dashing into the fray, a blur of kicking hooves as their stallions leapt through the noxious smoke spilling across the field with an easy familiarity that their enemies would surely not share. It would be terror — chaos; quick and brutal and relentless. 

These words were no longer important to him. Claude leaned low against Dalya’s neck and urged her ever forward. His fingers still loosed arrows with their own reflex, but his eyes had lost sight of the men they were now so readily devouring. Green was all that he could think of: green, not like his, but cooler, paler, stranger. An island in the tempest. His thoughts clattered into a useless tangle in his ears, cobbled not out of any one language he spoke but rather pure desperation. And anger. That was there, too; burning as bright as the fires they’d sparked alight as he shot down the men in pursuit of a purple haired lancer who’d long ago been unhorsed. 

The snarl of the battlefield grew louder as he dove Dalya into the fray, her wicked grip pulling a pair of swordsmen apart before they’d had the chance to cut into a bespectacled archer. Then it dulled into a steady hum as she lurched upwards again. Claude roiled atop her pulsing shoulders as she dined on the men she’d taken. Their plate crunched between her teeth. He didn’t listen closely. 

Dalya surfed above the field with her own capriciousness. More men fell to her, and more to him. The earth had turned to shadow beneath Almyra’s advance, just as he’d once predicted. There was something in it that made him feel blind, but he still pushed himself forward. Everything about it was hopeless — the faceless crush beneath him, the hunger of his Crest, the simplicity with which Almyra had turned Fodlan’s antagonist into embers — until it wasn’t, anymore. 

There. A banner, driven like a protest into the bloody soil. It was at the nucleus of Fodlan’s crush. And there, at the eye of that storm of churned earth and toppled bodies, a trio of colors muted by everything that had come. Pink, blue, green. 

Claude swung Dalya towards them in a mind-numbing dive. A horde of his men followed after, sensing the shift in his focus and hungry for whatever he’d found. They flew low enough to the ground for their mounts to kick off from the earth in bounding strides, ripping through each soldier they intercepted who was unlucky enough not to bear a golden sash around their arm. Claude saw it all in flashes interspersed with darkness: the cruel vertebrae of Byleth’s sword and the edge of Hilda’s axe, flashing otherworldly in the light cast by Marianne’s rare use of black magic. Finally he was close enough to unsheathe his sword and so he did, quickly wetting its silver blade until he felt the hot wash of the battlefield spilling through the chinks of his armor. 

The battle turned. He heard the music of it — grunts transforming into gasps and startled cries. Retreat came the crescendo, as if the Almyrans were the sort to offer such remission. Claude didn’t linger to listen for it. He knew, with grim finality, that by now Madan’s men would have made a ring around the field, eager to cut down anyone who’d been lucky enough to run. Dalya understood. She’d had her fill. She turned just as he’d pressed her with his heel towards the center of the ring. 

Byleth remained at the epicenter, just as he’d first seen her. Her sword was angled at the ground. Hilda was braced at her side, her axe dripping with gore but similarly still. There was no one left to fight, not with the reavers’ whirlpool swirling around them. It seemed to have left them petrified. Claude took advantage of the moment to sneak himself ever closer. Then he pulled back on the horn of Dalya’s saddle to force her belly-up to the sky. As he did he sheathed his sword again, and struck out his arms just as the earth swirled up beneath him. Byleth didn’t fight him as he gripped beneath her shoulders — maybe because she’d predicted his move, or maybe because she didn’t have the energy to fight much of anything, anymore. He was willing to accept either for the reward of planting her between his legs, his arms braced around her as Dalya righted herself again. 

Claude gave his mount a final push downwards again, loosening his grip from his new passenger only enough to rip the nearby banner up from its spear-headed point. He then flashed it forward. Dalya, clever creature that she was, interpreted his newest command. She lurched sideways to catch the staff between her claws and then spiraled upwards towards the clouds. The banner bearing the Crest of Flames unfurled beneath them, snapping and cracking in the wind. 

A part of him knew to start a new celebratory circle of the field. He was thankful for it, really; that cold pragmatism that had so recently been keeping him awake at night. But more of him — most of him — was strangling behind his mask. He tore it off and sucked in a sour, smoke-filled breath. Byleth sagged against him, silent except for the tremble of the adrenaline still coursing through her limbs. It was enough, he decided as his gloved fingers raced desperately across her plate to search for broken parts; even if she was nothing but a silhouette, unseeing, all black plate and dirty hair. Even if they flew on forever, mute and stiff-backed, and with the roar of the killing fields in their ears. It was enough. 

He pressed his brow against her nape. It was enough.

It was the end of another war.   

 


 

It was strange. A single day sat between Claude and his last night spent in a bed — and him not sleeping, perhaps, but at least trapped beneath his sheets — and yet it had been months since Byleth had last been offered anything more luxurious than a bedroll. The cost of it was written in her scuffed plate and ragged clothes and the bruises he knew they must have hidden; and the blisters, and the burns, and new scars he’d not yet memorized. The scrape of her armor against his in their tight perch on Dalya’s saddle made him even more desperate to soothe the bankruptcy of their time spent apart. 

So he stole her away. They made a long loop of Gronder first, watching as Almyra swallowed up the last of Adrestia and the followers of Agartha and making note of the few shattered battalions still bearing Fodlan’s Crest of Flames. Their path was dotted by quick dismounts made to speak with the commanders who’d once been his classmates; and them all looking at Byleth as if she were the queen she’d been made into, and at him like he was...something else. But then he had the look of it as well, still dressed as he was in black lacquer and the gold teeth of his crown. Hilda and Lorenz seemed the only ones able to see through it. The former even dared to dash forward and string her arms around him, proclaiming that he was a stupid bastard, and that he’d never been good with his time. 

The rest would certainly take more of it to win back the trust he’d broken. He could only hope that time had been the great bounty he’d earned from this newest war. And so he gambled on it, doing what he needed to make sure Fodlan realized it’d won before he urged Byleth back onto Dalya’s back again and left it all behind. He would have preferred to fly them back to Sakhavan — or further, even, the idea so tempting that it made him feel drunk; to Morfis, or some other place without a name — but he knew better than to fall victim to his daydreaming. 

So he took her to Derdriu instead. The grand canal city hadn’t yet been scarred — still looked, in fact, no different than it had when he’d left it behind. No doubt he’d owe Nader something grand for the trouble. Claude stored away this contingency as well as he landed Dalya onto one of the many balconies of the Riegan estate.  

The sound of his wyvern’s claws kicking tiles from the roof sent the poor servants inside scrambling to greet them. Byleth followed wordlessly at his heels as he ordered them to strip the sheets from his quarters which Nader had no doubt made use of himself, shameless as he was, and to draw a bath. By the time they’d snaked their way through the manse’s pretty halls both tasks had already been done. Maybe this was the other benefit of conquering the world: to be rewarded with servants, once lazy and eager-eyed for extra coin, now fervent for duty. 

Claude closed them both alone into his rooms. Only then did he realize that in all of the hours since he’d first spotted her on the field, he and Byleth hadn’t shared a word between them. She seemed to come to the same conclusion, her eyes darting at his before looking away. She looked exhausted — was favoring her left leg over the right. It made his eyes water. He briefly considered scraping himself low on his knees at her feet. 

“Come here,” he said instead, although he was the one to approach her. She didn’t fight off his advances as he began to work the clasps of her armor loose. He eased each fish-scale piece off with tender attention. It was nothing like the times before when they’d ripped at each other, desperate; but those times were gone, he knew, and he was thankful for it as much as he regretted it.

He’d made it down to her mail when she reached out for his own buckles and straps. Claude watched the flicker of her lashes as she worked first on the sides of his cuirass. They continued on like that, silent save for the click and clatter of their plate, until they were both stripped to their small clothes. Just like he’d imagined, Byleth’s skin was mottled purple and scarlet from hastily-cast healing spells. Claude brushed his fingers gingerly over the patches on her arms, doing nothing to hide his wince as he catalogued what the war had given her. She kept silent even as he slipped his right hand down to her wrist. Free of any protest, Claude laced his fingers through hers to draw her forward towards the open archway leading into his private bath. 

The room inside was full of steam from the work of the clever maid who must have just slipped away from her work of drawing hot water for them. His eyes scanned each corner, not yet having abandoned the anxiety that came with a battlefield. Only tiles were lying in wait for them; green and gold and dabbed with painted sunflowers repeated hundred-fold across the glistening walls and along the floor, and unabashed in their appropriation of the work done in the east with a more delicate hand. There were towels as well, fresh and fluffed in neat-stacked piles, and soaps and oils in crystal decanters artfully arranged along the coping of the generous pool of the inlaid tub. And it was strange as well, he guessed — these pockets of luxury hidden across Fodlan’s pockmarked countryside. In any case, he wasn’t certain if he should have been ashamed or proud of all of the finery that always seemed to lurk at his heels. 

He decided in that moment not to indulge his habit for over-analyzation. Instead he nudged Byleth gently closer to the tub, his fingers pulling at the hem of her undershirt as he did. She raised her arms obediently, her tired gaze lingering on the sputtering candles peppering the dim-lit room while he finished in disrobing her. As desperate as he was to look her over, the fresh prickle of gooseflesh over her stomach convinced him to urge her onto the first step leading downwards into the tub’s broad bowl. She did as he requested, sighing with pleasure as she stepped into the steamy water. His lips twitched into an unseen smile of their own accord.    

Byleth sunk further into the water. The third and final step brought the water to her thighs. She sat against the shelf of the stair to bring it up to her chin. Claude kicked off the rest of his underclothes to join her at the second step. The room was filled with the gentle music of the water settling around their bodies and the drip of the ceiling’s condensation. He picked the closest bar of soap from the coping and began to work it into a lather. Then he nudged a little closer to her, his knees bracketing her shoulders as he tentatively parted her tangled hair from her nape. She sighed again, but seemingly not from something bitter. He massaged the fragrant foam collected in his palms over her shoulders — first gently, waiting still for her rebuke, and then with enough force to tease the tight knots of her muscles loose. The grime of months spent sleeping in the mess of war lifted slowly from her skin, swirling like oil over vinegar across the water as he worked from her shoulders into her arms. 

“A quarter of them,” she said finally. He’d made it to the fore of her right arm by then, scrubbing at a dark cake of someone else’s blood that had managed to drip beneath her vambraces. He kept quiet and waited for her to continue. “We lost a quarter of our men.” 

Claude worked the soap down to her wrist and slicked it upwards into her palm. She let him, her grip slack against his as he wove both sets of his soapy fingers through her own. Her knuckles were bruised and swollen. That was the worst thing about war, he’d always thought; the little wounds that weren’t worth healing, as if they didn’t ache, too. 

“More would have been lost if not for you,” he suggested. His voice echoed in a low baritone against the room’s damp swelter. “You protected them.” 

She considered his words. He ran the pad of his thumb over her nails as she did, one after another, not cleaning as much as he was counting to make sure that they were all still there.   

“Not alone,” she then answered. “Petra brought three new companies from Brigid. And then,” she added, her voice lulling slightly in betrayal of her exhaustion, “Shamir. Seteth must have sent her. She brought mercenaries with her. Men from Dagda.” Claude hummed. Byleth’s shoulders twitched, as if she’d just realized that she’d nearly missed the best part of her story. “And then there were the pirates.” 

Pirates? 

Claude’s incredulity finally won Byleth over enough for her to peek over her shoulder at him. There was a mischievousness hidden somewhere behind the weight of everything else in her eyes. His heart flipped clumsily at the sight. 

“Pirates,” she agreed. “From the northern sea. The old Empire forces managed to take Fraldarius. They would have taken Derdriu too, if not for the pirates blockading the bay. Three dozen ships all led by a single captain — a woman. Her name is Tiana, but they call her La Gorgona — say that any man who looks her in the eye is damned.” 

“Sounds like quite the woman,” Claude wagered with a lopsided smile. Byleth nodded, not yet charmed into smiling herself but at least willing to match his gaze. 

“Derdriu was our last lifeline after we lost Garreg Mach. La Gorgona saved us as much as anyone.” 

“For a price,” he guessed. Byleth’s brow furrowed. “She’s a pirate,” he then added, his voice twice as fond as his words. “They’re in the business of debts.”

“You should give her whatever she asks for,” Byleth suggested flatly in turn. Claude took the risk of pulling her hand backwards to press his lips against her pink-scrubbed fingers.

“I will,” he promised. She didn’t snatch back from his grip. His throat tightened as he brushed his lips against the back of her hand. 

“I’m sorry.” Her fingers flexed at his apology. He nearly lost his nerve. 

“I’m sorry,” he said again, each syllable raw and earnest. She slipped her hand free in order to turn and face him. Her eyes dipped to trace the loop of the chain around his neck, lingering for a moment on the ring she’d given him before turning upwards towards his own again. 

“I know why you did it,” she replied. “I understood the cost. I trust you, Khalil. But blind faith... No more. I can’t help you if you keep on simply telling me what to do. I don’t want to fight alone.” 

“No more,” he echoed. “Never again.” 

A chill passed over his nape as she stared him down. He submitted to her stare, bewitched by the rush of his own honesty. 

“Promise me.” 

“I promise,” he breathed. She flinched at the words. He took the opportunity to bend forward and kiss her. It was short and clumsy, but enough; enough to push his pulse back through his veins again and squeeze it through his heart’s knotted concertina. He cupped her shoulders in his palms and felt her shiver from the gravity of what he’d said. 

“Until I’m dead and gone,” he pressed on, realizing as he said the words that he was giving her a pledge, “I won’t stray. Not again. I promise. Please. I promise.” 

Byleth bobbed her head in a slow nod. Claude’s chest swelled with a dizzying breath. How strange she looked, her hair still dry and matted and filthy, and her paleness pinking to coral from the heat of the bath; and bruised, and blistered, and so small now that she’d been cracked from the cruel angles of her armor. His hands slipped upwards along the lines of her neck to catch her gently behind the ears. 

“You’ll marry me, won’t you?”  

He kissed her again before she had the chance to answer his question. He’d hardy meant to say it aloud — or at least not now, with them both naked in a bath and sleep-starved— and yet the words had manifested themselves and slipped through his lips before he’d had even the hope of catching them. Byleth’s shocked laughter bubbled into his mouth. 

“Marry you,” she repeated, shifting backwards slightly to look him in the eye. “You’ve already made yourself into a king, you know, and named me queen.” He felt a wave of heat spill across his cheeks. 

“Let me do it properly.” He kissed her once more, feeling the curve of her fledgling smile when he did. “I’ll give you a ring of your own, ptiska, and flowers for your hair.” 

“Flowers,” she countered with the cock of her brow. He laughed and pressed his lips against the crooked bend. 

“Honeysuckles, orange blossoms, roses, dandelions,” he offered, the freeze of his guilt slowly melting with each word. “A hundred of them. Whatever you like. Let me marry you.” 

His breath caught in his throat as he pulled back to watch her face fall. What is it, he wanted to beg, but she’d already pursed her lips before he’d had the chance. 

“I’ll give you no children,” she replied, her voice suddenly stark again. “No heirs.” He countered the grim settle of her lips with the toss of his head. 

“No matter,” he promised her quickly, skimming her cheek with his nose. “You’ve already given me thousands. In Magdred and Enbarr and Myrddin. I don’t need any more.” He kissed the lobe of her ear before leaning back to look at her. 

“If you want it,” he then amended, feeling his chest crush inwards with the thought. Byleth’s lips twitched before quirking into a smile. 

“I want it,” she admitted. “Once everything has settled, and the fields have emptied, and everyone has gone home. Then I’ll marry you, I suppose.” 

Claude laughed and lured her into a kiss again, this time deeper, slower — the sort that didn’t taste like the smoke still perfuming them both. 

“Good,” he whispered in the gaps, “that’s good. I’m glad.” 

 


 

Three days later, Claude arranged his meeting with Byleth’s infamous pirate captain in one of the manse’s quieter courtyards. As he walked to meet her he remembered the story behind the spot. Allegedly it had once been his grandmother’s domain, and likely the only place in the estate where she could’ve possibly hoped to have evaded her bickering children. It’d been a long time since his grandmother had passed on, but her roses still lived on. The blooms had wilted from winter edging ever closer, but the bushes that remained were nearly as impressive by virtue of their verdant green. 

More importantly, the rose garden was difficult to find. It was hedged in between the kitchens and a set of unused guest rooms, and was accessible only by a pair of short, rusty-hinged doors. If this so-called La Gorgona was the proper pirate that Byleth had described, she’d no doubt have agreed to his meeting with the intention to pick his pockets dry. Claude wagered that he had a better chance of surviving their negotiations if they were properly alone. 

He saw her shadowed profile through the glazed doors first. It would have been easy to miss her between the courtyard’s arches and sleeping vines. He’d expected her to be large and foreboding — or swaggering, however that looked — but she was slight, nearly short, and slender-limbed. He saw the short crop of her hair next and was surprised to find it peppered silver. But maybe that wasn’t fair. He didn’t look much like a king and yet here he was, dressed simply in a shirt-and-trousers not thick enough for the afternoon chill. Maybe it was better that she didn’t look much like the standard marauder. Something kindred for them, even. 

She turned at the creak of the door. Her green eyes settled on him as he took his first step into the garden. He felt his chest squeeze tight, strangling the breath from his lungs. 

“Hello, little darling.”

A chill sparked in his fingertips and ripped quickly up his arms. Claude gripped two fists to stop it, but it was hopeless; already it had snuck into his stomach and into his skull, shredding the the stale greeting in his mouth and replacing it with a pitiful, whispered Mama. She swept forward smoothly as if she’d been summoned. 

“Look at you,” his mother said. Claude watched mutely as she combed back a stand of his hair. “How handsome you are. I wondered if you would cut your hair.” 

“What,” he choked out finally, “are you doing here?” Her lips sloped into a sadder smile. 

“I know,” she agreed, stepping back a pace to run her hands admiringly along the span of his shoulders before slipping them down to grip at his arms. Then she peeked over her own shoulder at the walls of the building boxing them in. 

“I said I’d never come back,” she continued with a sigh. “And I meant it, you know. This wretched place. A pretty little cell. And how little of it has changed. I should have been the first person to clap my hands and watch it fall — but I suppose we are all sentimental creatures in the end.”

She looked back at him again. He was dazzled by her eyes. They were full of everything and nothing — sweetness, regret, something darker. It made him dizzy to try to read her after so many years.  

“Still. I wanted to protect you from this place,” the woman, once Rosalind, now Tiana, admitted. “As soon as I felt you kicking inside me I knew you carried our Crest. My only son. My little bird. I was so certain that they’d take everything from you — the bloodsuckers,” she added, her syrupy voice turning sour with the word. “But I was wrong, wasn’t I?” 

She paused for a moment, as if he could possibly answer. When she saw that he was still intent on keeping his bewildered silence she tossed her head with a second sigh. 

“Godfrey,” she continued, releasing him with reluctance to wheel backwards and trail her fingers along the leaves of one of the nearby rosebushes, “was always a gentle boy. He couldn’t see color. Did you know that?” Rosalind looked to him again, but didn’t pause when he failed to offer her a nod or a shake of his head. “He was always begging me to describe them for him — but how do you tell a boy about blue when he’s never seen it before?” She laughed lightly and wagged her head. “Not that it ever bothered him. He was always pleased with whatever I said. We’d come here sometimes, when Mother wasn’t watching. He liked the roses best.” 

She thumbed the cropped edge of a branch pruned for its winter slumber. 

“You didn’t have to kill him,” she told Claude finally, her voice dipping from melodic into dark tar. “He never wanted to be a duke. He would have listened to you. Helped you. You should have shown him mercy.” 

Mercy,” Claude echoed, hollow and incredulous. “What mercy? Is that the life you think you gave me?”

“You were a prince,” she countered, already sardonic, but he cut her short before she had the chance to list the privileges granted by his blood. 

“I was a bastard.” He splayed his hand over his chest. His palm filled with the hammer of his heartbeat. “Do you know what they called me? Monster. Snake.” 

“Khalil—”

“And that the worst of all of them,” he snapped. “You expect me to merciful with a name like that?”  

“We all have the choice to be who we wish to be.” 

“Yes. And you chose to abandon me to that place. Here is your reward.” He swung his arms open and wide with the contention. For a moment his mother’s face darkened. He waited for her next assault, but was met with silence instead. It was interrupted only by the chirp of a lone locust and the sight of Rosalind’s cheeks draining into a blanched pale. 

“You’re right,” she managed finally. “I wasn’t made to be a mother. All of those poor old flowers in your father’s damned gardens... At least they knew the trick of it. Do you remember? You’d always run to them when you were frightened — when you tumbled and skinned your knees. Aisha, Salma... They were different. I know that. And your father hardly needed another son. It was like throwing a knife at a jester’s apple and hoping that it didn’t stray off course and hit flesh instead. But I was selfish, little darling. And young. Gods.” She laughed low and rueful, combing her fingers through her hair. 

“Younger than you are now, you know. What the hell did I know?” Rosalind shook her head. “I knew that I wanted a child. I knew as soon as I saw you, all wrinkled and crying — so small — that everything else I’d ever done, everything I’d wanted had been nothing compared to you. I knew that I was missing something,” she then added, touching with the brush of her fingertips that spot where her own heart was, “something important. The parts that would have made you kinder. But I was always drawn to dangerous things, you know. I think they’re drawn to me, too. I wouldn’t have made you better if I’d stayed, Khalil. I would have only made you crueler.”  

His heartbeat had started to slow from breakneck into pounding. Claude felt the rush of something more familiar down his spine. Disappointment, he realized with a sigh. But what had he expected? That after everything she would have danced back into his life as the phantom he’d turned her into — young and smiling and singing when she’d done so little of it before? Here I am, he’d once imagined her saying, and back then without it serving as a threat; I’ve been looking everywhere for you, my little darling, and here I am.

He stepped backwards a pace to sink into the cold granite seat of a nearby bench. Rosalind let him brood for a moment before she drew forward to sit at his side. She laced her fingers with his own. He would have shook her off if not for the sight of her hand; small, slender, pale, and rough with calluses that he didn’t remember from when he’d been a little boy. How was it that she had always haunted him, the way that his hand nearly swallowed hers? 

“I know,” she started again, each word slow and deliberate, “that it must feel like you’ve been alone for a long time. But I’ve seen the men and women who fight for you. That Victor boy — and that hell-cat of a warmaster you’ve found for yourself — and a Gloucester, even!” She grinned. “And Duke Goneril’s sweet daughter. Gods. Do you know, one of the old Kingdom generals suggested that you’d abandoned Fodlan — maybe a month ago, it was. They were arguing over supplies, as if there were any supplies to be had, and this Fhirdiad dunce thinks he can turn the Roundtable to his favor. Pah!” she added with a sharp clap of her free hand against her thigh. “As soon as the words had left his mouth, Hilda’d already swung back her fist to break his nose flat against his sniveling face. It was the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen.” 

Claude smiled despite himself; tried his best to hide it with the shake of his head. 

“They love you. Trust you,” she added, this time in a deeper tone. “Not because of your father, and certainly not because of me.” She squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry that it had to happen this way. I can see the cost. None of us have escaped it. But now it’s done, hm?”

“You came here just to tell me to enjoy my spoils?” 

“No,” Rosalind replied with another one of her bittersweet smiles. “Or at least that wasn’t my intention. And yet now, sitting here beside you, I suppose I am, aren’t I?” 

She glanced away to stare down a sparrow picking at the yellowed grass. 

“I’m happy that you’re not alone,” she decided finally. “I’m so happy that you’ve survived it.” 

Claude huffed a breath through his nose. 

“Is that really for me to hear, or is just for you?” he countered. His mother’s brows rose with his contention. 

“I don’t know,” she admitted. He shook his head. 

“You really were a terrible mother.” 

She laughed. He heard birdsong in it — simple and honest and lovely. 

“I know,” she added, leaning against him to rest her cheek against his shoulder. “I know, little darling. I know.” 

 


 

Claude spent the rest of the afternoon with his mother in the rose garden — sometimes speaking, sometimes not, but with either circumstance allowing them both the chance to say what had for so long gone dreadfully unspoken. The sun had dipped below the horizon by the time he finally big her farewell, and although he knew it was most likely the final time he’d say it, for once it wasn’t so terrible a thing to foretell.  

Once he’d seen her off in the harbor, he took his time in winding back through Derdriu’s streets towards his estate. The first wave of merchants had arrived fresh into the city from their hides. All of them were prattling on with that loud, unabashed voice that people used when they were stupefied to find themselves at the winning end of something dreadful. There were even some children scattered between them, dashing through the streets in the pursuit of sow-skin balls and giggling as they staged sword fights with crooked branches behind their parents’ stalls. The sight of them made it easier — chipped away more shards from the frozen shell he’d forced inside himself when he’d realized the cost of his endgame.

It was night proper by the time he’d started his ascent of the stairs leading into his quarters. He still had the tartness of an apple in his mouth, shared along with the rest of its bushel with a group of hazel-eyed farmers who’d recognized him despite the simple linen of his shirt. His feet were light against the steps — took them two at a time. A scullery maid caught him in the act and giggled before she could stop herself. He winked at her in retribution before slipping through his door. 

The room inside was filled with crates ready to be hammered shut. Some were filled with Nader’s things, destined for Nuvelle — a place the man had never been, but one he’d nonetheless decided to take as his spoils. Perhaps his time spent in Derdriu had woken an appetite for faraway places. The rest were Claude’s: clothes, and books, and the simplest parts of the wardrobe that he’d requested be made for Byleth, despite her protests. He’d only asked the servants to begin their packing that morning, and only them on a whim. No doubt she would be rather bemused by the sight. 

He heard a noise from beyond the gauzy curtains hung around the balcony door. Apparently he’d be given the opportunity to ask her the question himself. He picked carefully across the orderly disarray of his things to slip back through into the night. Just as he’d expected, Byleth was there; her back turned to him and draped in the pale wash of her hair. She was leaned forward with her elbows propped against the filigreed railing. Claude sidled quietly behind her, catching the windblown ends of her hair and collecting them into a loose tail between his palms. 

“Hello,” she greeted him; simple, sweet, her eyes still fixed on the sleepy mill of the city spread beneath them. 

“Hello,” he answered, leaning forward to press his lips against the crown of her head. He lingered there for a moment, eyes closed, enjoying the subtle perfume of her hair.

“How was your meeting with La Gorgona?” 

Claude considered his answer. There were many of them to choose, but most of them seemed too complicated for a moment like that. He leaned backwards on his heels and brushed his fingers through her hair, starting the first plait of a braid as he mulled over the proper response. 

“It went well,” he decided finally. “She’s gone back to her ship. Here, look there,” he added, nudging her left shoulder lightly with his elbow to signal in the direction of the harbor. A tall, dark-hulled ship at the center of the harbor had started to unfurl its grand sails. “Sailing at night,” he wondered after with a breath of laughter. “She was not so keen about spending her time in Derdriu, all said and told.” 

“What did you talk about?” 

“What she was after,” he answered, finishing another rung of her braid. 

“And did you settle it?” 

“Yes. I think so. We were both left satisfied.” 

“Good.” She leaned into his gentle tug. He smiled. “So,” she then added after another comfortable beat of silence, “are you going to tell me where all of those crates are meant to be sent?” 

“Nowhere, if you don’t like it,” he promised through his grin. “But I do have a scheme in mind.” 

“Of course you do,” she drawled, not unkind. 

“Of course I do,” he agreed. “I think our pirate captain has the right of it. Derdriu is a headache most of the time — like some kind of overfrosted cake. I wouldn’t say that it’s made for your tastes.” 

“Alright,” Byleth tested warily. He laughed, pleased that she’d at least taken a tentative bite at his proposal. 

“So let’s give it to Hilda, then. No doubt she’ll refuse at first — she has her eye on Enbarr, you know. But I think Enbarr would be suited for Lorenz’s own insufferable version of nobility, don’t you think? He’s already there, you know. Reconnaissance, he says, but then I ask you what he’s ever looked at so closely that he didn’t intend to win over for himself?” Byleth hummed in agreement. “Hilda will come to terms with it. I don’t think Marianne would like to leave, in any case. She likes familiar things. So give them Derdriu — they are the Flowers of the Alliance, after all. And then Lorenz can go and grow his roses in the south, and Nader can do whatever it is he does in the west in Nuvelle, and with Fraldarius and Gautier restored in the north... It’s a start, at least.” 

“And us?” 

“And us,” he echoed, delighted by the word, “in the Locket, I think. There to make sure it stays open. Madan and my sisters will hold Sakhavan. The rest of Almyra will celebrate their victory until they’re satisfied, which will be for as long as we give them, to be honest with you; and then we’ll find whatever else it is they want. Water, first. Give them something to grow, something to trade, now that they have the right. Not all of them will lose their taste for blood but some of them will, at least.” 

“I’d like to see it,” she then suggested, turning slightly so that he could spot the first pale glimmer of her eyes. “Almyra.” 

“Of course,” he answered quickly, pressing the narrow tail of her braid to his lips. “Every inch of it. Whatever you like. It’s yours.” 

“Ours,” she corrected him stubbornly. He felt the bouquet of something splendid bloom within his chest.

“Ours,” he agreed. He drew his arms around her shoulders and hugged her tight against his chest. Her fingers tucked between their cross, cool even through the fabric of his sleeves thanks to the night’s chill. He pressed his cheek to her crown again and let his eyes grow unfocused on the patchwork of everything else: Derdriu, remaking its beds after so many nights spent awake and frightened; and the glimmer of the bay slashed with the milky churn of his mother’s wake; and the roll of the hills, black and empty and endless; and the sky, which made a mockery of all of that mortal coil that he’d struggled so desperately to conquer, as grand and glittering as it was frightening in its enormity.   

It had made him feel so small, once. Swallowed up, as a boy staring it down from the boughs of a lemon tree as much as a man swimming through it on the back of his moon-scaled mount, and alone: the sky and him a singular bright star burning so brightly that there was no hope but for it to devour itself. 

But now it didn’t. Something had changed. He wasn’t naive enough to think that he knew the reason why. It could have been blood, or cruelty, or simply good luck. Maybe he’d gone mad. And yet in that moment, standing there beneath the sprawl of all of it, he thought instead once more of four simple letters strung together, o-u-r-s; and that it was a wonder and a mercy and a victory to not be alone. 

Chapter Text

When she’d been younger, Byleth had developed the habit of waking slowly. She’d learned the simple joy of starting in her limbs, first in her fingers twitching and tingling to life. Then had come her hands, her wrists, her arms. She’d part the sheets with the wedge of her fingertips, the sound of her calluses rasping over the cotton like the scratch of a nib across parchment. They’d go exploring, her eyes still closed, the world nothing but the warm-cool edges of the bedding and the softness of their ply. 

Eventually she’d find the heat of the body beside her. No matter how early or late she woke, he was always there. Sometimes she’d feel his eyes on her, watching silent as she roused. Other times he’d still be sleeping, his breathing a slow and steady metronome ticking in their quiet room. Her body would wake into her shoulders; into her chest, her throat, her earlobes. 

Her fingers would wander. He always felt as though he’d just been wrenched from a forge. It must have been the sun trapped in his skin, she wagered, him having spent so many years flying just close enough to it to not catch fire and tumble back down. He slept facing her, so she’d find the shape of his ribs first, or maybe an arm cocked at a cornered angle. Whatever it was, she’d search it with a lazy touch. An arm meant the coarseness of his hair and the soft rise of the occasional old scar, but she could also trace it upwards and under towards the velveteen of his body most often hidden by his clothes. 

He had fewer scars than her — or at least the front half of him did. She could hardly fault him for the ruined patchwork of his back. Those were the holdovers of punishment, not mistakes made on the field. They weren’t meant for the tally she made of both of them from time to time. She’d trace the ones that were: the crosshair at his side from an old arrow that’d found its mark there; the waxy rind along his ribs on the other side where he’d once been burned; the smooth seam running from his navel upwards towards the bow of his chest. They’d all been cruel to look upon when they’d first marred him, but later she even grew fond of them, as if they were the familiar old landmarks on a well-traveled path home. 

She would wake into her stomach, her thighs, her knees. Her fingers would tangle in the chain he wore around his neck. Sometimes she would sneak one of them into the ring strung there. Of course there’d been no hope for it to have fit him, but it was perfect on her; slipping easily over her knuckles even with a chain-link inside and sitting soft against her skin, the metal warm from resting against the furnace of his heartbeat. He’d often stir at that to draw her closer to him, his body still limp with a drowsy comfort as he slung his arms around her and murmured some morning greeting into her hair. 

She’d wake into her shins and her toes and her heels. Only then would she open her eyes, squinting against the light filtering through their window if his body hadn’t shadowed it. Then she’d look at what she’d touched, cataloguing what she saw; what had changed on him since he’d first fibbed his way into her tutelage, and what had not. No matter what she looked upon — his lazy-crooked grin, or his occasional experimentation with beards, or the first crossroads of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, or the quicksilver spilling through the muted midnight of his hair — it would always kindle the same pleasant thunderhead in her chest. He’d described that strange feeling to her once, when she’d not yet learned how to interpret it. And so to whichever welcome he gave her, her answer was always the same: I love you. It’d always pleased him, and not just because he was a hidden romantic, but because he’d always loved defiance. There’d been no greater act of protest she could have levied against her unmoving heart than to speak those words aloud. 

Now she wakes all at once like a fish yanked mouth-first from the surf. She sleeps for exactly seven hours and thirty minutes, and so she always rises with the same bustle outside: a cock crowing and the hum of the merchants yawning and stretching and setting up their stalls. Her bed is empty. The sheets are cool. She’s always run a little cold — has never learned the trick of warming them. She’s also developed the bad habit of sleeping in her clothes, and so she only dresses when her shirts are so wrinkled that they’ve lost their shape. 

She slips on her boots and follows the narrow staircase connecting her bedroom into the kitchen downstairs, her eyes settling on whatever Flayn has set out for her to break her fast. This time it’s a pomegranate and a crusty loaf of bread paired with a dollop of soft goat’s cheese that she can smell from across the room. She eats all of it in silence and listens to the growing roar of the world rousing around her. The bread is fresh-baked. Byleth can smell the toasty oven in it — thinks of the smiling, ruddy face of its baker, the third of their kind to work out of the little bakery named after their father’s father. Byleth has known all of them. Their bread is the best in the city, they say. It’s always tasted the same to her, just like the cheese, just like the crunching seeds picked from the pomegranate’s insides. 

She finishes her breakfast and places the fruit’s emptied shell into a little fragrant box destined for the garden planted outside her front door. She’s not much of a green-thumb herself, but Flayn’s requested that she do it with the promise of something to do with feeding the soil. 

“You’re awake,” the woman greets her later when Byleth emerges outside. Flayn looks older than she once did before, although Byleth has started to lose track of what’s changed. Today she’s wearing an old blouse and a pair of threadbare trousers well-acquainted with the dark soil tossed around by her gardening. Her smiling face is shadowed under the wide brim of her hat. She’s got a smudge of something the color of burnt sienna on the tip of her nose already, even though she has a full basket of bulbs still waiting to be planted. 

You’re awake, Byleth wonders, and nearly answers no. Another part of her finds some humor in the question. They always meet like this, or at least they have in recent years; Flayn taking on some benign hobby as a means to disguise her true intentions of keeping an eye on her. Seteth is more overt. He sighs when he sees her, or chides her, or simply watches her with a heavy gaze, his hands gripped at his hips to stop himself from giving her a reassuring touch always rebuked by her own flat stare. Byleth doesn’t have much of a preference for their methods. It’s like picking between the sweetness of a pomegranate and fresh-baked bread. She understands that there’s something nourishing in it, but to her it all tastes the same. 

“Did you sleep well?” 

“Yes,” Byleth answers. She looks over the green buds pushing through the soil. Spring, that means. There will be a new harvest in the market. The local magistrates will be hard at work winning the favor of the city folk in anticipation of the upcoming election. It will give her something to watch while she makes her daily rounds. That’s good, she supposes. “Did you?” 

“I did, very much so,” Flayn replies cheerily. “I had the most delightful dream, although I’m afraid I’ve already forgotten it.” She stands and brushes her knees clean. “These will be tulips,” she then announces. “Yellow and pink. Won’t that be lovely?” 

“Lovely,” Byleth agrees. Flayn smiles. 

“Are you off to the market, then?” 

“Yes,” Byleth says. 

“Tell me if you see any peaches, won’t you? I’ve been so terribly hungry for them lately. I know it isn’t really the proper season, but if we’re lucky the man from Morfis might have brought some with him. Perhaps if there is enough we could even make a pie.” 

Byleth nods. 

“Oh!” Flayn peeps, flushing slightly. “I very nearly forgot. Father says that he’s found that woman you were interested in meeting, do you remember?” She peels off one of her gloves to fish something from her pocket. “Here. I’ve written down the address. She lives in the cooper’s district. Do you know the place? Not so far from the courthouse.”

“I know it.” 

“Grand,” Flayn answers with another beaming smile. “Father says that she’ll be pleased to speak with you. Apparently she’s very interested in the topic herself. He even said she has quite the collection of antiquities — books, mostly, but other things as well. You’ll let me know how it goes, won’t you? It all sounds terribly droll.” 

“Yes,” Byleth says. It seems to her to be proper time for an exit. The turn of her heel hardly bothers Flayn. She simply offers her another fond look, this time with a wave as well. 

“And the peaches,” she reminds her as Byleth steps in the market’s direction. “As many as you can find!” 

Byleth follows a familiar path. The city looks like any other city she’s lived in: broad avenues and glittering shopfronts and plazas checkered with patchwork stalls full of fruits and vegetables made from every shape and color. Clean. Tidy. Thriving. There’d been a time when you could tell a place by the language its people spoke, but those days are long gone. Now, even early as it is, the streets are filled with the tail-ends of stories told in Srengish and greetings shouted in Dagda’s harsh staccato. Three dozen paces into her journey she watches a little boy drag out a sign to a street corner announcing, in the looping script of the now-ubiquitous creole that’d been born in the intersection between Fodlanese and Almyran, the prices for pork mince by the pound.   

It takes the market to remind her exactly where she is. They call this place Hornwall now, thanks to the toothy remains of the ruins ringing the city, but it had once been Garreg Mach. It nearly knocks the wind from her to realize that she’d forgotten. But then again she’d lived in so many different places: the Locket, first, and then Sakhavan; later, in a lost set of years, a rocky little island off the coast of Brigid with nothing but bats and crabs to keep her company; then Enbarr, and then Fhirdiad, and then Itha, next the city built in the cratered remains of Merceus; a city called New Reach in the Fangs, and the strange underground world beneath it called, fittingly, the Old Reach; and now here. Hornwall. 

That’s right. She’d built her little house where the village had once been. If the lake had still been there she would have placed it there instead, but it had long dried out with the shifting of the aqueducts as they’d been changed from stingy little things feeding one pool alone to a complex system which now spiderwebs into each and every home. It’s very nearly an eyesore, her little place, small and hobbled as it is, and without any of the charm of the orderly buildings surrounding it. Maybe her neighbors even gossip about it. There’s probably a joke hidden in there, somewhere; after all, she’s lived in estates, castles, palaces, and each one finer than the last, and yet now even the most humble shoemaker likely snubs his nose at her. 

And the market...Byleth winds back her memories to walk through the blueprints of that long-lost place. Yes. The market had once been the gardens. She thinks about the green of the hedges and the grey slate paths, and the smells drifting from the dining hall to mingle with the flowers. During the Great War it had been sucked dry of it all of its richness, but they’d mended it again. They’d fitted the stones back straight in the walls, and patched the rotten spots in the plaster, and chased the rats from all of the molder. Here, between the stalls of a fishmonger and a woman selling woven baskets, yes; in that very spot she’d married Hilda and Marianne.

Three years later she’d been married there as well. The ceremony itself had been conducted across the bridge. A courthouse stands there now, but once it had been the cathedral. It hadn’t necessarily been their first choice, but both of them had understood the importance of theatrics for a marriage between a king and queen. She’d worn a heavy silver gown crusted with glittering crystal beads and a crown that’d felt nearly twice as hulking. He’d worn something nearly as terrible himself, and more western than she’d expected given that he’d already started to grow out his hair. But then again it was Fodlan they were pacifying with that tortuous ceremony, not Almyra. Almyra had already cluttered the yard outside, filling the monastery’s corridors and the streets of the village below it with a drunken revelry that they’d joined themselves as soon as the bells tolled to announce their union. 

Byleth loses sight of the clean-swept pavers beneath her feet as she reminisces. It’s less in words than it is in images: and in the sound of the bells still ringing as the two of them had dashed into a humble scullery closet and turned pink cheeked with laughter as they’d struggled to wield the useless ornamental saber strung on Khalil’s hip in order to slice off her train and loosen the stranglehold of her seams; Lorenz’s look of horror when they’d then reemerged into the bustle of their unconventional reception, the finery of Byleth’s gown reduced to chewed-up rags; and how the silver brocade had turned to saffron when Khalil’s sisters had caught them unawares while they’d been distracted by Nader’s toast, and had pelted them with fistfuls of bright pigment meant to bring them luck; and how Faheem had cried out in mock fury when his brother had chased him into an embrace in order to smear the color onto the perfect drape of his robes; and how Hilda had cried, overcome, during all of it, and how she was perhaps overeager in her work of drinking a full troupe of Almyran reavers under the table in tandem with her brother Holst, who cried, too, and recited improvised poetry in the newlyweds’ honor as the night drew on; and how they’d all slept under the stars afterwards, scattered across the monastery — old knights from the Kingdom and fresh-faced soldiers from Leicester, and scarred Almyran reavers with the leaves from the garden tangled in their long hair; proud spear women from Brigid arm-in-arm with their queen and her beautiful new consort, and Shamir with her stony-faced mercenaries now turned sentimental thanks to all of that wine — and all of them full-bellied and contented and unafraid.     

Byleth shakes herself from her musing nearly too late. She’s already passed the turn she was meant to make. She doubles back, unfolding the little scrap of paper Flayn had given her to check over the address again. Yes. Here it is. Flayn had called it the cooper’s district, but there hasn’t been a barrel hammered shut here in ages. Now it’s filled with cheery apartments each with flowers in the sills, and stacked above little eateries which themselves are beginning to fill with the morning rush. Byleth weaves her way through the drowsy crowds and finds the door she’s looking for. It’s painted a jewel-tone emerald green. She raps her knuckles against it, and only realizes afterwards that she’d meant to come at a more reasonable hour. 

“Ah,” a voice croons as the door creaks open. “Yes. Good morning to you. You must be Myranda.” 

Byleth reminds herself to nod. Yes, that’s what she’s calling herself now, isn’t it? At first it had been a necessity born out of wary stares matched with pronouncements like Byleth, like the queen? My, but you even have her look. Back then she’d taken to covering her hair and dressing in heavy robes to dissuade that line of questioning. A name had been the easiest part of her disguise. Now it’s become more of a hobby. No one remembers much about the Queen of Unification any longer, or at least not with any sort of intimacy. Byleth is a marble statue outside of the royal palace in the Locket, itself now a museum suited for things she still finds quite contemporary. Sometimes her face in profile is stamped on commemorative coins. Still. There’s something powerful in names. They can turn you into someone else if you’re not careful.  

“You are Dhakira?” 

“I am, or so they tell me,” the woman answers. She’s an ancient looking creature — doubled over the worn round of her cane and with a head of snow-white hair drawn back into a thick braid snaking over her right shoulder. “I was expecting you,” Dhakira continues as she steps aside to usher Byleth across the threshold into her home. “Your sort always comes early.”

Byleth finds herself in a courtyard. It’s common, especially here. The city streets grow busy with the afternoon. There’s something reassuring in the quiet of the inner yard; a shield, really, between the bustle and the solace of the private quarters waiting for them on the other side. The yard itself is filled with fruit trees. They make Byleth think about Flayn’s request for peaches, but there’s only citrus to be had here; lemons and oranges and clementines, and all of them still young and green.

“My sort?” 

“The curious,” the old woman answers with a wink. Her eyes are bright and mischievous, as if to spite her age. “Come. Let me pour you some tea.” 

Byleth follows her into a far corner of the yard. There’s a ring of cushions waiting for them. She sits on one and watches Dhakira slowly lower herself onto another. Afterwards the woman bends forward to neatly pour two servings of steaming mint tea into their cups.

“So,” the old woman continues after she’s had the chance to puff a cooling breath