There is a cruel irony in this.
“Hello, Edelgard,” Dimitri says, low and measured.
She sits on the bed, as she usually does. Her knees are pulled up to her chest, her blank stare fixed on the crisp linen sheets.
He wishes it were defiance. Wishes it were pride, indignation, the silence of a great emperor refusing her captor even the dignity of her speech. Such behaviour would anger him, certainly, but anger he is well-used to.
This is something else entirely.
“How are you feeling today?”
Her head snaps to attention. She speaks, the words strangely stilted, as disjointed as though the language of her birth is somehow unfamiliar to her. “I am well.”
A direct question, a direct answer. No more, no less.
Dimitri steps further into the room. Not a cell, but the quarters afforded a political prisoner, austere for an emperor but perfectly plain to a person of common blood. Sunlight floods in the locked window, and there is a bed and a desk and a private washroom behind a closed door.
Edelgard does not bathe unless specifically instructed. Does not eat unless watched. Does nothing independently, nothing at all.
It is unsettling, to say the least.
“I come to you with news. Under the command of your former classmate, Ferdinand von Aegir, the empire has offered up a temporary truce. I have agreed, as has Claude of the Leicester Alliance.”
No reaction. This is not the result Edelgard was hoping for – the Adrestian Empire crumbling, collapsing under the weight of the war it began. The very foundations of her homeland cracking with all the brutal infighting since the death of the previous Duke Aegir, slain by Dimitri’s own hand. Her plans dashed, her ambition squandered, the lives of all her people hanging in the desperate balance of what little dignity the surviving members of her nobility can scrape.
She does not move. Barely blinks. No anger, no shock, no grief. Nothing.
Dimitri swallows. His stomach is twisting, and he can look at her no longer. Goes to stand by the window, staring out at the distant horizon. Towards freedom, viewed between the bars of her cage.
“Ferdinand von Aegir requests leave to see you,” Dimitri says. His gaze fixes on faraway buildings, the sprawl of Fhirdiad below. His back is to her, which could be, should be, a fatal mistake. “I am inclined to grant it.”
The argument with his council was long and bitter, with the magic of Edelgard’s dark mages not yet fully understood. And perhaps Dimitri is a fool for thinking so, but Ferdinand, unlike his father, has some honour in him. Reappeared in Adrestia after a mysterious absence and began deescalating the fighting, surrendering money and territory and brokering peace. A necessary move in many ways, as tactical as any general on the battlefield given the empire’s losses, but he was the only one willing to do it. The only one willing to entertain surrender rather than resist the ever-mounting likelihood of utter defeat.
He is also the only lord in all the empire either brave or stupid enough to request entry to the palace of his enemy. Alone, with no guard, exactly as Dimitri stipulated. Felix may call Ferdinand a fool, but Dimitri can respect the man for that. Ferdinand can have no reason to trust Dimitri’s assurance that he will be permitted to leave again.
“Well?” Dimitri says to Edelgard. “What say you to that?”
“I will see him,” she says. Immediate, but her tone is utterly flat.
Then, Dimitri can stand it no longer. Turns on his heel and makes for the door, only to stop dead when his eyes catch on a dash of colour by Edelgard’s small figure on the bed.
She has not moved. But from this angle, Dimitri can see the stuffed bear sitting beside her. A gift from Mercedes, who checked over Edelgard personally on Dimitri’s request after the battle with Thales, and declared her well enough to transport from Garreg Mach to Fhirdiad.
I thought she needed one, was all the answer Mercedes gave when asked about her choice of present. A teddy bear, gifted to a warrior emperor with ambitions of a conqueror. A stuffed toy with thick brown fur and a tiny red vest, keeping a once-great leader company.
Dimitri feels sick. Leaves without a word, and the guards bar the door behind him.
- - -
Ferdinand von Aegir’s visit is surprisingly uneventful.
Dimitri remembers him as a vibrant, loud sort of man, always talking and with a well-meaning obliviousness as to whether what he says is causing offence. Not the brightest, perhaps, but clever enough, and far more respectable than his father ever was.
On the last score, Dimitri is right. But the Ferdinand who comes to the capital is less garrulous, more subdued. Wary, though Dimitri cannot fault him for being so, as Dimitri leads the way to Edelgard’s quarters.
“Thank you for granting me this boon, Your Majesty,” Ferdinand says with impressive neutrality. Perhaps there is more politician in him than Dimitri gave him credit for.
Dimitri just nods. Gestures for the guards to step aside, and allows Ferdinand into Edelgard’s prison.
It is not a long visit. The door remains open, Dimitri and guards alike watching closely, but Edelgard is as unresponsive to Ferdinand’s presence as she is to Dimitri’s own. It is not a relief – Ferdinand exits only minutes later, expression far more visibly troubled than he can afford given his presence in the sanctum of his enemy.
Dimitri will not punish him for it.
“What happened to her?” Ferdinand asks. At least his voice is as loud as ever – Dimitri is not sure he is familiar with the concept of whispering.
“Ask your own people,” Dimitri says, tone sharp. “She has been this way for some time, to my understanding, and was so well before the battle at Garreg Mach. I assure you my healers have seen to her. I would not keep a prisoner by such foul means.”
“Of course, Your Majesty, I meant no offence,” Ferdinand says. “You have kept her well. Better than…”
Ferdinand’s disturbance is all too plain. He lacks guile, despite his best efforts – Dimitri likes him for that, too.
“You have seen with your own eyes that she is safe,” Dimitri says. A little kinder than he means to be, but whatever his flaws Ferdinand is Edelgard’s friend. He comes here on duty, to gather evidence that his emperor is still alive and negotiations can continue accordingly. Comes, too, because he is a decent man despite his unfortunate relations. Dimitri heard Ferdinand’s voice wobble when he spoke to her, much as he tried to conceal it.
It softens Dimitri. Just a little. Even though, given the circumstances and their opposing sides, he thinks he should not allow it to.
“That I have.” Ferdinand straightens up. His jaw tightens, his determination clear on his face. “I will meet with the council. I have ascertained her safety, and you can expect a letter from me pertaining to further negotiations soon.”
Dimitri nods. “Do you require rest before you journey out?”
This seems to surprise Ferdinand. Dimitri raises an eyebrow, and Ferdinand smooths his features quickly. “Ah – no, but thank you. You are a true noble, Your Majesty.”
“As are you,” Dimitri finds himself saying. Stranger, he offers his hand for Ferdinand to shake.
Stranger still, Ferdinand takes it.
- - -
Dimitri does not visit her daily, because he cannot stomach it. But he does visit.
“How are you today, Edelgard?” he says, as mildly as he can manage.
He is standing in his usual place by the window, back exposed. He can hear her shifting on the bed, the familiar brush of clothing against linen sheets. She is very strong, even with her reduced mental faculties. A powerful opponent, but she makes no move to strike at him, shows no animosity towards him at all.
He wishes she would. That would make things… easier.
“I am well,” she answers. But her voice is tiny. Small and girlish, nothing like the imperious command of the emperor she was not so very long ago. Answering him out of obedience, but with the stilted mumble of a child.
What happened to you? It is a fruitless question. His scholars and mages and healers have all been put to the task, but even they do not yet know.
He steels himself. Turns, and she watches him from her curled-up position on her bed. Shifts when he looks at her, which is at least a sign of life. She is lucid, by some definition, and fidgeting is an improvement from the blank-eyed inertia she exhibited when she first came here, as emotionless as though her very soul had been ripped from her chest. She clutches her stuffed bear to her stomach, grip just a little too tight. Stares at him with a mixture of fear and confusion that turns far too readily into submission.
He would have battled her to the death. But faced with her like this…
“Do you require anything?” he asks.
There are books sitting in a narrow shelf for her amusement. A puzzle, some drawing pencils, even newspapers brought daily by the servants who tend her, any entertainment to ease the discomfort of confinement. She touches none of them. The servants wash her hair for her, dress her, encourage her to eat. Left alone, all she does is hold her bear.
What would you like to do? The question is on the tip of his tongue. An offer, gentler and kinder than the first, as though he means to coax her hobbies out of her. She, who would have conquered him and all his people. She, his greatest enemy.
He should feel nothing for her. Nothing but contempt and condemnation. Not this clawing, damnable pity.
He cannot be cruel to her. Cannot be kinder. Dimitri is stuck.
He turns to leave. His hand is on the door handle, turning, when he hears her voice from behind him, entirely unprompted.
He freezes. She sounds just like she did when they were children. Sweet, light, shy. He looks back at her, but she has gone still again. Stares blankly down at her sheets as though that one, single word took everything out of her, cutting her puppet strings. Even the grip on her bear has gone limp, and it slides slowly down her person.
Dimitri swallows. Sick again. He hates feeling sick. Hates feeling sick over her most of all.
He does not say goodbye as he leaves. He is not sure if she would hear him anyway.
- - -
Ferdinand von Aegir moves mountains, but it is still not enough. Nothing is easy, nothing is simple, and war, once started, is not so easily stopped. He and Dimitri meet again, this time on neutral territory and surrounded by guards. They talk, they negotiate, neither side making much progress but any increment is better than none.
“How is she?” Ferdinand asks Dimitri after.
They part again, still enemies, still on opposing sides. But it does not escape Dimitri that of all the empire’s lords, it is only Ferdinand who asks.
- - -
“How is she?” Dimitri repeats on his return to Fhirdiad.
He has been away a while. Hopes, as much as he can stomach it where Edelgard is concerned, for some improvement in his prisoner.
“The same, sire,” say the servants. “The Head Sorcerer came again, but made no progress.”
“I see. And what are your observations?” He isn’t sure why he asks. Any fool worth their salt knows how much servants see, but it is usually a sensible idea to ask only when one actually wants an answer.
“She just sits, Your Majesty. Except when we bathe her. She does nothing at all for herself. She is… like a child.”
In a way, he supposes she is. But Dimitri knew her when she was a girl. She taunted and teased and ordered him about, sweeter in nature than her adult self but with a spine of steel that came to define her in her older years. She was never malleable, never docile. Her blankness is nothing like the young Edelgard he knew.
He tells none of this to the servants. Instead, he reaches for his coin purse. Pays them extra, thanks them for their work, and dismisses them from his office.
For a moment he sits at his desk, staring into space. Then he pulls some parchment towards him, writes a list of requested items, and does not allow himself to think on the matter any longer.
“Hello, Edelgard,” he says on his next visit. “How are you today?”
Edelgard, who was staring vacantly down at her feet when he entered, snaps to attention at the direct address. Says in that strange, stilted way of hers, “I am well.”
“Good,” Dimitri says. He even means it, mostly.
He sits down at the table. Pulls a pile of books out from under his heavy cloak, and sets them on the table. Stares at the cheerful covers – an illustrated dragon on a pile of sparkling gold, a beaming knight waving her sword aloft, a fantastical water creature with a friendly adventurer – and waits for the dissonance to pass.
“Please, come and sit with me. I have brought you something.”
Edelgard rises, as mechanical as one of the dark mages’ strange creations. Pulls out her seat and sits down, staring vacantly ahead the whole time. Uncanny, unsettling. But, Dimitri realises, she still has her bear. It is clutched in her left hand, her knuckles almost white with the strength of her grip. Some sign of life.
Dimitri swallows. Pushes the books towards her one by one so that she may see their colourful covers.
“I have brought you more books. I do not yet seem to have the knack for your tastes.” His voice is as even and his manner as neutral as he can make it. Plausible deniability if this offering goes awry. Books snuck in under the cover of his cloak, because with ill-intent this could be an act of humiliation.
He has brought her children’s books.
Edelgard’s eyes shift to him. A slow, cautious movement, though still a sign of interest that she moves without direct command. Then her eyes shift back to the table. Trace over the books, slowly, without visible reaction. For a moment, he thinks looking is all she will do, and fights the urge to snatch the books away and be rid of them. A minute passes, then another, and Dimitri forces himself to wait.
If he is wrong, this is an act of cruelty, a sneering insult entirely lacking the dignity that is both their due. A mockery, a deliberate degradation, the nasty taunt of a schoolyard bully rather than any way for an honourable man to treat a political prisoner. An affront not just to Edelgard but to the empire itself, smug and self-righteously vile in his victory.
But only if he is wrong.
He waits. He is patient with her. Unsure how patient he should be, given their circumstances. He is trying to be patient all the same.
He waits. Edelgard stares at the books, a vacant vessel. He waits, and it is almost painful, mind whirling with his own shackled anger, unable to escape the damnable pity he feels for her in spite of it all.
He waits. Slowly, she raises her gaze back to him, as if in question.
“They are yours, if you wish,” he says.
Edelgard looks back down at the books. Raises her free hand, the one not holding her bear. Touches the book with the knight, tracing the image with her finger. Then she nudges the cover open. Pauses. Looks up at him suddenly, a mixture of fearful and confused.
Awake. Alert. Even if only for a moment.
“They are yours,” he repeats.
She looks down. Turns another page. Then the next, pausing periodically.
She is not reading the words. She is looking at the pictures.
Dimitri closes his eyes. Exhales, slowly, so as not to alarm her. He feels sick, an unpleasant combination of nausea and something like vertigo. He inhales a slow breath, exhales another, inhales, exhales. Waiting for the sickness to pass.
When he opens his eyes again, Edelgard has gone still, her free arm hanging limp at her side, eyes gone blank again. But she holds her teddy bear. And her eyes, unfocused as they are, are still fixed on the picture in the book.
Another surge of nausea. A wondering, though it does him no good. What did they do to you?
He should hate her. Sometimes he thinks he does. Then he sees her empty eyes, remembers running through the field with her hand in his own when they were so much younger, remembers the raging flame of her spirit that has been so grotesquely stamped out.
“Guard,” Dimitri says.
One of the guards steps into the doorway at once. “Your Majesty?”
“Please have a senior healer brought here, as soon as is convenient.”
Dimitri stares down at the cheerful illustrated covers of the books he brought with him. They are meant for children, but children on the cusp of adolescence. Enough plausible deniability if today’s provision for her entertainment was leaked to the public, enough to at least try to avoid humiliating them both, for fairytales can be enjoyed by people of all ages. It seems he must go younger still.
Puppet, Thales called her, and perhaps it explains her mental state better. But Dimitri sees her submission, her obedience, her teddy clutched to her chest, and he sees what his servants see.
At least, in part. At least, in the ways that matter most. A child Edelgard is not, nor can ever be so again, and the comparison falls quickly apart at the seams. But her mental state is… reduced. Regressed. Damaged, perhaps irreparably.
Dimitri stands. He is no expert, and it is not his place. Let the healer be the judge. His own purpose is clear.
His prisoner’s mental state is significantly reduced – further accommodations must be made for her continuing imprisonment.
- - -
“Hello, Edelgard,” Dimitri says. “You have a guest.”
The duke bustles into Edelgard’s chambers all brightness and energy. It is only his second visit. Things have changed since then.
“Edelgard,” Ferdinand says. “How are you?”
Her head snaps up. Her reply is immediate. “I am well.”
She is sitting on her bed. Her bear is in her lap, and there is an open storybook beside her. Mostly pictures, and Dimitri recognises the illustrated tabby cat immediately. That book seems to be her favourite.
At the mechanical nature of her reply, Ferdinand seems to remember himself. Gentles and slows, movements cautious as he approaches and perches on the edge of her bed.
“His Majesty informs me you are improving,” Ferdinand says.
Edelgard’s expression is blank. Eyes empty, features slack, snapping to attention only when given a direct order.
But she moves independently sometimes. Reacts to things in little ways, as slow and sluggish as those may be. Dimitri watches as her hand squeezes her bear tighter. Her comfort and companion, sat there in its little red vest.
“I am sorry not to have seen you again sooner,” Ferdinand tells her. “Things have been challenging in the empire. Though rest assured, I’m more than up to the task.”
He understates. Negotiations crumbled. Another battle broke out between the kingdom and the empire. Then, once beaten, the imperial lords turned around and began blaming each other. Months of peace negotiations seemed forgotten, and even the eternal optimism of Duke Ferdinand von Aegir could not stem the hostility. But he kept trying. Did battle, Dimitri knows, with his own people, subduing rebellious lords with the might of his lance.
It looks like it has cost him. There are dark rings under his eyes that no amount of cheer can will away. But he smiles for Edelgard.
“Don’t you worry, Edelgard. Once this is all over, I’ll take you home. For now, we must impose on the king’s hospitality for a little longer.”
A glance over a shoulder at Dimitri, who stands in the doorway with his arms folded. Edelgard is still his prisoner, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. She is his bargaining chip in the war against the empire, and too valuable to give up.
Ferdinand knows this. There is no reprimand in his gaze. There is something almost like… pleading.
Dimitri swallows. Edelgard is the enemy of Dimitri’s people. He owes her nothing but defiance, and resistance, and her defeat. And yet, he is an honourable man. Chooses to be, in spite of everything. Has taken on the responsibility of her care whether he wishes it or not.
He meets Ferdinand’s gaze, and inclines his head.
Edelgard shifts, and Ferdinand’s head jerks back around to watch. She moves an inch up the bed, jerky and effortful, but acting of her own free will. Ferdinand smiles at her, wide and joyful despite the tiredness of his eyes.
Edelgard looks aimlessly around. Then her eyes locate Dimitri, still in the doorway. A furrow forms between her brows. Confusion, then recognition.
Dimitri looks at the floor. Says nothing at all, and lets Ferdinand react for him.
“Edelgard, that’s astounding!” he says – shouts, more accurately, but Dimitri does not hold it against him. “Have no fear, old friend. I am working tirelessly, and to exceptional results, though that is hardly a surprise. I am Ferdinand von Aegir, after all.” He reaches towards her, touching her tiny hand. His voice lowers, softer than Dimitri has ever heard him speak. “I’ll look after you, Edelgard. I’ll bring you home with me, even if it takes a while. I promise.”
Dimitri steps outside.
Ferdinand does not stay long. He has been granted entry only to see the truth for his own eyes and carry it to his ever-breaking council. That the king keeps his promises. That Her Imperial Majesty remains alive and unharmed. That the power of her bloodline is still in play, regardless of how fit she is to wield it.
Ferdinand is the only lord in all the empire who may pass freely into Dimitri’s kingdom. A kind of madness, for as circumstances have it he is also the only lord who stands a chance at rebuilding the empire. Not officially, but Dimitri’s spies hear much, and Ferdinand’s supporters are ever growing in number.
He is also the only lord who asks after her. The only lord for whom she is not a bargaining chip to be stolen or killed depending on his whims. Ferdinand comes as a matter of honour, and for the same reason Dimitri permits him to leave.
“You take prodigiously good care of her, Your Majesty,” Ferdinand says once he is done. He bows, hand over his heart, as though Dimitri is a stranger to flattery. “I can see as clear as day that she is in excellent and charitable hands. But perhaps you would permit me to send an imperial healer? We have experts in the capital who may be able to shed further light on her… situation.”
The barest hesitation. The barest hint of disturbance, though he moves past it quickly.
“I am sure you do,” Dimitri says. “But I cannot grant them entry. She is seeing the best in Faerghus – let that suffice.”
“Of course, of course,” Ferdinand says. He does not push the matter, for while they share a common interest, the truce between them is no easy thing when their nations are at war.
- - -
Dimitri does not visit Edelgard often. But he visits more often than he used to.
“Hello, Edelgard,” he says, stepping over the threshold into her chambers.
There are fresh flowers in a vase by her bedside. The window is open to let in some air, though the bars remain firmly in place. There are drawing tools, large and simple for easy grip, and her latest artwork is a single line across a piece of paper. Her bookshelf is full of children’s books, colourful and illustrated, with simple stories of hope and friendship and fun.
If ordered, she could cut down a battalion of soldiers with brute force and warrior’s cunning. But left to act of her own volition, she is... this.
“The servants tell me you took ill. I am glad to see you feeling better,” he tells her.
Some say he is too kind to her, but he does not feel it. Looks around her plain, comfortable prison as sick and helpless and angry as ever.
Her teddy bear is in her lap, as it usually is, though she has a host of other stuffed animals now. She sits on her bed, surrounded by fluffy toys, but she seems to register his presence after a minute. Tips her head to scan the room, searching for him.
She finds him. Eyes blank, face empty. Then her brows furrow, her lips parting. Alert, as much as she ever is, when she traces the lines of his face.
He approaches the bed slowly. Sits down on the edge of the mattress, careful not to disturb her arrangement of stuffed animals. Edelgard is the emperor of Adrestia. Conqueror, invader, a warrior monarch of formidable strength and ruthless ambition. It claws at him, bites at him, and his anger at the suffering she has inflicted on his people may never go away.
And yet she is so small. Her mind so fractured, her free will shattered. He remembers her as she was when they were little, her hand in his own.
“Dee,” she says again. But different this time, not trying to get his attention. As though she too is remembering.
He shuts his eyes. He does not have it in him to forgive her for bringing war to his people, for bringing so much death. But nor can he harm her now, helpless and uncomprehending as she is.
She knows him, on some level. She is not gone yet.
It is not easy. None of this is easy, nor will ever be so. But he exhales, and his pity goes with it, leaving mercy in its place. A subtle but vital distinction. Pity made him sick but mercy… mercy, he can make peace with.
“Yes, Edelgard,” he says. Opens his eyes, offering what little smile he can. “I am here.”