Mornings were her favorite time of day, once. She’d wake up before everyone else, wash everything, comb her hair in peace, and eat breakfast with her father before his mercenaries crowded the morning air with sparring, arguing, bickering, and laughter.
Sometimes, during those magical hours before the sun rose, the shyest animals of the forest would approach them, elegantly stepping through the grass towards her and angling their antlered and sometimes delicately spotted heads down to sniff at whatever fruits she was holding.
Quiet, mundane, but magical. She could sit with her father and pretend that they were almost, nearly like a normal family. A father and daughter fixing each other breakfast, sharpening each other’s swords, inspecting each other’s armor— She never thought those days would end, that those early mornings would disappear.
But they did.
Byleth bolted upright and threw the pillow at Sothis as viciously as her sleep-soft muscles would allow. “I said no.”
“You need to get up, the sun rose hours ago. I’m bored.” A pause. “Hm. Actually, maybe you should sleep longer, you look deranged right now. It’s not cute.”
Byleth flopped back down, now sorely missing her pillow, and shut her eyes. “It’s my day off. Go away.”
There was a moment of beautiful, peaceful silence as Sothis probably cursed all Byleth’s descendants with something very itchy and unpleasant. A single moment of peace, and then it began. “Professor?” as always, came first, and then—yes, there it was. A tentative knock at the door.
Byleth silently kicked her legs in rage and pulled her cheeks down with her hands, trying not to give in to the urge to scream. “One moment,” she said, as sweetly as possible, glaring at the door. She washed her face and pulled her hair back into a slightly hare-brained bun and opened the door to see Marianne and Lysithea standing there and looking very nervous. Byleth sighed.
“Good morning, Marianne. Lysithea.” Marianne looked very pink and Byleth realized, suddenly, that she hadn’t changed out of her pajamas. She fought the embarrassment. It was her right to be in pajamas right now, on her day off. “What seems to be the problem?”
“There’s a spider…”
“Ladies,” Byleth began, voice dangerously flat in a way they didn’t know to recognize yet.
“It’s really big. We don’t know who else to ask,” Lysithea pleaded, tilting her head and widening her eyes, looking more like an owl than ever. Lysithea never dared show weakness unless she was actually scared, so Byleth groaned and shoved her feet into the boots she kept by the door. She gestured for them to go on ahead and lead the way.
“If you got up when I told you to, you’d be dressed right now.”
“Whatever,” Byleth snapped at Sothis. Marianne turned back to look at her, her tired eyes questioning and unsure. “It’s nothing, Marianne. Carry on.”
They took her to Marianne’s room, where there indeed was a large spider on the wall by her desk. Byleth shuddered, not too fond of spiders herself, and took a piece of paper from the desk to move it to the window and drop it on the sill. She shut the window firmly and turned around to see them sighing in relief. “All right?”
“Thank you, Professor!”
“Of course…” Something on the desk caught her eye. She turned towards it, inspecting it curiously. “Are these… battle plans?”
“Yes! We were studying together when we noticed the spider.”
Byleth smiled fondly, noting her last lecture in effect near a unit marked “Battalion A” in the corner. They were planning an ambush. “It looks wonderful, girls. I’m very proud.”
And she was, she knew the two had a few personal conflicts earlier in the year, that Lysithea’s blunt, no-nonsense attitude had hurt Marianne’s feelings on more than one occasion. The fact that they were studying together now eased some concerns she’d had, and she smiled down at the battle plans proudly.
And then she realized that she stood before them in a nightdress and black boots and coughed, hastily making her way to the door. “Carry on, then. Don’t hesitate to call for me if you need help. But please, girls, you’re warriors. A spider should not best you.” She shut the door with a click as they pleaded for mercy and left with a satisfied whirl, expecting her work to be done. Something glittered in the corner of her eye.
Oh Goddess, no, she prayed as she caught a glimpse of more gold. Not him. She turned and levelled Claude’s delighted smirk with a flat glare. “Not a word.”
“I wouldn’t dare mention this, Teach… I absolutely wouldn’t, not ever, draw attention to you in this confused state.”
“Good. I’m going now.”
“But Teach, I have a few questions about our last seminar.”
“Wait until the next seminar to ask them, then.”
“But I’m afraid I’m really confused,” Claude said innocently, tilting his head and widening his doe-eyes even more. She longed to toss him from the ramparts. “I just don’t understand why ‘the economy of war’ is necessary assigned reading. It simply doesn’t click—”
“Well,” Byleth crooned, and in the back of her mind she heard Sothis cackle. “When we talk about the economy of war, Claude, we don’t mean money or infrastructure. We mean the peril of wasting time and irreplaceable resources.” His smile only grew, delighted by her clear irritation.
“What’s our standing definition of ‘a waste of time and irreplaceable resources,’ for reference?”
“Asking questions that you know the answer to in order to gauge reactions you don’t need to know, for the first. My patience, for the latter,” Byleth said, turning away, deciding that she’d done enough to satisfy the responsibility of being his teacher. “I have important matters to attend to, please excuse me.”
“Like getting dressed?” a new voice asked.
Byleth briefly imagined tossing Hilda from the ramparts too. They’re the future, she chanted to herself.Your job is to cultivate their young, promising minds, to foster the future generation. You can’t kill them all in the first three months. She walked away without responding, grumbling silently about how she hated them all.
“It’s interesting,” Sothis murmured. “Now that I’m in your head so clearly and so awake, I know when you’re lying.”
Byleth returned to her room and wished for the days when Sothis was just a recurring dream that haunted the mornings without dominating them with her insults and intrusive mind-sharing.
“I can hear you wishing for that.”
Byleth buried her face in her pillow and fought a scream. Half the day was gone now, and that meant she had only slept through half… a waste of a free day.
Marianne approached her at dinner that evening, shyly. Byleth turned to her with a ready smile, knowing that if Marianne was expected and welcomed, she was more likely to follow through and ask whatever question was on her mind.
“Professor, I wanted to thank you again.”
“Of course, Marianne. It’s really no trouble.”
Marianne seemed to bubble with something, and then she burst out: “I got rid of one on my own!”
Byleth started. “A- a spider?”
“Yes!” Marianne said, proudly. And then she blushed and looked away. “It’s not a big deal, I know—”
“No, all progress is progress. I’m very proud of you. Lysithea will follow your example, you know. She admires you a lot.”
Marianne looked at her wonderingly before bowing quickly and leaving to sit with Lysithea a few tables away, her shoulders a little more relaxed, a little drawn back. Byleth watched her go fondly. The girl was bursting with potential, she just needed a little push. To hell with Rhea’s confidence herbs, what Marianne needed was already inside her.
There was a clatter as someone set a plate of food onto the table in front of her.
“So how are the little brats?” her father asked, dropping down across from her and resting his sword on the seat beside him. She wished he wouldn’t do that. It made all the students look at them with wide, admiring eyes. More than they usually would, at least.
“They’re not brats.” He shot her a look. “Fine, they’re nearly all brats. I have my work cut out for me.”
“They reminded me of you, a little. What little I’ve seen of them, at least.”
“Father, don’t start,” Byleth warned. “I’ve barely had a chance to touch my food. Do you want me to lose my appetite?”
“You know, they’re a little lazy. Dazed, dreamy.” Byleth pushed her plate away from her as her father spoke. “They’re wasting their potential. Oh sure, they show up to class, they get the grades, they throw the axes and what have you… But is their heart in it? It reminds me of you a lot.” Byleth waited for him to finish patiently. “Is that why you chose them? I would have thought you’d choose one of the other two houses. They’re a lot more put together. Those Blue Lions are like little knights already.”
She shook her head. That wasn’t why she chose them.
Her father’s eyes were on her abandoned plate, and they came up to meet her own with a knowing look. “I’m proud of you for taking on such a challenge, no matter your reasons. It shows a lot of growth, lass,” he looked like he might burst with pride. Byleth sighed, her irritation fading in the face of her father’s smile. She pulled her plate back towards her side of the table.
“Very well, Father,” she said, skewering a piece of fish. “You win. I’ll finish my plate.”
“That’s my girl.”
She was exploring the library when she nearly knocked someone over in her distraction.
“Ah, Ignatz. I didn’t see you there. How are you?”
“I’m well, Professor,” he said, but there was something worried and sad in his eyes that made her stop and wait, head tilted, already shutting the book she had been perusing and putting it on a nearby table.
She had learned to wait. It was the one tactic that never failed. If she asked a question and no one answered, she waited, with a small smile, until someone stepped up to break the silence. It forced them to try, if only to end what she knew was an uncomfortably blank silence. She was very good at uncomfortably blank silences; it was nice to have a use for them now. And sure enough, there it was. Ignatz shifted from foot to foot and looked at her apologetically.
“Actually,” he began, hesitantly, after a brief moment of silence. “I was wondering if you had a moment?”
“Of course, Ignatz. Would you like to discuss it over tea?”
“Yes! I’d love that actually!”
And an hour later she knew that Ignatz was unsure if he could manage the rigor of a knight’s training, and that those doubts were weighing on him considerably. She made a note to discuss perhaps a subfocus on magehood with him, thinking it’d be the perfect direction to go in for his Knighthood. Archery was good, but those glasses… if they ever broke in battle he’d be in a rough spot. At least a good fireball would burn a twelve-foot radius and cause some injury. She didn’t tell him that.
“You know what I think, Ignatz?” she asked. He tilted his head in question. “An important part of your time here is finding your strengths," she said, seeing him nod in agreement a little too forcefully, like he had something to prove. “And while an equally important part is finding out what your weaknesses are, and there’s no shame in that—.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re cut out for everything,” he interrupted.
He has such faith in you, the voice in her head piped up. It didn’t sound mocking, which was unusual for Sothis.
“No, I’m not,” Byleth said, ignoring Sothis for now. “I’ll let you in on something,” she said, and Ignatz leaned in with a look disbelief. Like he was actually receiving a secret. “I’m a terrible archer.” She smiled at Ignatz’s stunned expression. “I’ve never had the chance to really practice, and I know it’s not really feasible to dedicate a year to mastering the art of archery in my position, so I’ve accepted it as a weakness. It’s a tactical retreat, for the time being.”
“Oh,” he said, looking down into his teacup.
“But you’re in a special place right now. Your job is to learn, isn’t it? There’s no shame in having weaknesses, but you’re in a unique situation where you don’t need to worry about tactical retreats. Keep trying, don’t give up, you’ve shown a lot of improvement already. Anyone with eyes can see that.”
It was worth the confession to see the dawning light on the kid’s face.
Her father had painted an unfavorable picture of the Golden Deer, but it wasn’t inaccurate. Those who were driven were few, and they constantly butted heads. Those who weren’t lazy were shy and reluctant, unable to lead or stand up for themselves against the flow of sheer personality coming at them from all sides. Raphael, she realized, was the only well rounded one of the bunch. Courteous, kind, driven, motivated, and self-aware of his own faults without fixating on them to distraction.
Raphael, Byleth decided, needed to make more friends within his house. He was too good an influence to be wasted on the training rooms and the dining hall alone. She put a note down to get him flying with Ignatz and Marianne sometime this week. Maybe they’d hit it off.
Ignatz was staring at the bulletin board with a look of extreme pain. Byleth approached, wondering if he particularly hated this week’s assignments. “Ignatz? Is everything well?”
“Oh! Oh, Professor. Yes.”
Byleth employed her silence once more, waiting.
“Well, no." Ignatz admitted, after scarcely a pause. "Not really.”
“What’s bothering you?”
“Could you… swap me or Raphael’s assignments with Marianne?” He looked embarrassed to ask, but as far as Byleth knew, it wasn’t because he and Raphael got along particularly badly. It definitely wasn’t because he wanted to be paired with Hilda, because no one actually wanted to be paired with Hilda.
The only reason she put Hilda with Marianne was because Hilda tended to take over for Marianne and do double the work she might otherwise delegate to others. Hilda didn’t know it, but she was actually a natural at teaching.
Which left something a little more worrisome. “Ignatz, what seems to be the issue with Raphael?”
“Nothing! It’s me, I’m the problem.”
Byleth was silent again, this time trying to figure out a situation where Ignatz would be a problem to anyone.
“I… It’s my fault… my parents’ fault, actually, that his are dead.”
“He doesn’t seem to blame you for whatever happened.”
“Well, no, but I’m sure that he wants to, secretly.”
Byleth narrowed her eyes at him, watching him fret and wring his hands. He wasn’t even thinking of Raphael. This kind of selfish, paranoid behavior wasn’t suitable. “I wouldn’t go manufacturing problems, Ignatz. You will end up inviting demons into your heart that do not leave. The assignments won’t change,” she said, and he nodded, conceding. “Spend time with your friends, and don’t go around imagining enemies.”
Ignatz smiled weakly. “Is that my homework?”
“Report back to me when you’re finished. Marianne looks lonely at breakfast sometimes, and Raphael often spends half the hour trying to look for you at lunch. You can start there.”
“Look at my delicate, noodly arms! I’m just a little girl, you can’t expect me to be heaving around this horrible axe for an hour!”
“Hilda, how do you think it makes me feel to hear you talk like that?”
Hilda froze mid rant and turned away from Claude to look at Byleth guiltily. “Like what?”
“You know exactly like what,” Byleth said blankly. She gestured at the array of axes in the armory without shifting her facial expression. “Pick another one if that one is too heavy, stop complaining, and don’t involve romantic and ill-fitting archetypes of womanhood in your schemes to get out of training.”
Byleth half expected whinging, maybe another tantrum, but Hilda just frowned and took up her axe again, sticking to the one she’d been training with all along. Byleth supervised her bout with Claude until the Cathedral bells rang, signifying the end of the hour. She stopped Hilda before she could run away.
“I won’t ask why you’re here, but whoever made it possible for you to be is relying on you. Hilda, are you honoring their intentions?”
Hilda looked shamefaced and angry, and Byleth knew this wasn’t the best tactic to get through to her. She was arrogant, proud, and spoiled. She was the kind of student that Manuela would declare needed a gentle touch and a firm but gentle hand.
Byleth, contrary to the advice that her father gave, made no effort to curb Hilda’s delegations. That kind of shrewd manipulation was sadly valuable, and her ability to pull it all off while maintaining positive relationships with her peers? Invaluable. But this? This Byleth would quell. “I know you’re capable. You’re one of the strongest in the class, everyone can see it. It’s either that you can’t, or you hate your own power.” Hilda opened her mouth to respond and then shut it with a click.
Byleth took the axe from her and was surprised to see that it was indeed very heavy. Hilda had hefted it like it weighed nothing, complaining all the while. “I don’t need to know which it is, but I need you to remember, when it gets annoying or boring, how it felt when you aced your last certification exam.”
There was a long moment where Hilda didn’t respond. And then she smiled, a little embarrassed, like a peace offering. “It’s pretty heavy, Teach. I can put it back for you.”
Byleth huffed but allowed Hilda to take the axe. Her arms hurt from the effort of holding it up, she realized in horror. Was the Ashen Demon losing her touch? She rolled her neck quickly while Hilda was distracted. Ouch.
In terms of swallowing her complaints, Hilda did not improve in huge leaps after their talk, but there was a significant drop in disparaging comments about her own self to get out of work.
“Why, Felix, are you saying this delicate little bird managed to throw you in a spar? Are you crying for mercy?” Hilda’s voice was swelling with glee, unconcealed and shameless as Felix bucked and shook like a little foal.
Byleth smiled and declared Hilda the victor without hiding her pride.
“Lorenz, please wait a moment.”
“Of course, Professor. I’m sure you wish to discuss my last essay. Utterly astounded you, didn’t I?”
“Actually, yes. I am astounded.” She watched him preen for a moment before dropping the mythical anvil. “But not about your essay. Lorenz, these complaints are unworthy.”
“Professor, there must be some mistake—”
“Lorenz, you’re a good student and a good warrior. But you won’t get far in life if you cannot also be a good person. You may take this as a final warning. If I keep receiving these complaints, I will have no choice but to assume that you’re unfit for the honor of learning at this Academy.”
“I am a Gloucester; you need to see that—”
“Then act like you believe being a Gloucester is something to be proud of. I’m sure there’s a drop of honor somewhere in all that blue blood.”
Lorenz bowed stiffly, and for a moment she wondered if she had pushed him too far. But just for a moment, before she remembered why she had even bothered having this conversation with him. If she didn’t think he was worth the effort, that he could grow, she would have had him shipped on the next caravan to the Leicester Alliance.
The next day he picked a fight with Claude, as usual, but he mercifully remained polite and courteous to her and everyone else. She would wait and see what happened.
“Class, please, a little quiet— Oh, damn you all, what have you done to Claude?”
Hilda was beaming too widely to be innocent, but she was the furthest from the action and ostensibly reading over her textbook. Byleth would slit her own throat if she was innocent. “Oh, we knew today would be a lecture on traps and all that. It was in the syllabus.”
“You read the syllabus?”
Hilda smiled serenely. “I can read, Professor.”
Byleth turned back to Claude, deciding Hilda wasn’t worth the effort of decoding. “Well, Claude?”
“It was surprisingly easy to rig up! We used the blackboard, as you can see over there, as a structure from which to set up the pulley. Then we got Ignatz to tie the right kind of knot. He’s really good at that.”
“So why are you the one hanging upside down from the ceiling?”
Byleth stared at him, upside down though he was, dangling from the ceiling. Then she turned away and went to her desk, opening up her notes and the textbook to the bookmarked page. “Settle in, class. Ignatz? Don’t you dare cut him down. Lorenz, take the knife from Ignatz.” Lorenz followed the order with glee and Ignatz whispered an apology to a now squirming Claude.
“Teach, no, please. I’ll do anything.” Byleth looked at his wide, desperate, horrified eyes and clapped her hands, keeping her face carefully blank.
“And that is how you use fear and your environment to torture the captive without getting your hands dirty!”
They couldn’t get Hilda to stop laughing (they couldn’t get her off the floor, either), but Ignatz did cut Claude down at Byleth’s silent nod, giggling helplessly the whole while.
The lecture was definitely ruined, as no one could stop laughing, but the lesson was a success. The class had even shown initiative without any prompting. Byleth pondered this as she made her notes that night, and an idea came to her head. She pulled out another notebook and began outlining points, outcomes, and desired goals for each student.
She didn’t present it to anyone else, deciding to take advantage of the Academy’s loose curriculum and looser teacher’s handbook. The handbook, after all, was about ten pages long and it mostly outlined what to do, rather than what not to do.
She walked into lecture a week later with her first originally designed, graded activity summarized with one sentence.
“If any of you can prank me, you can receive ten points towards any certification you please, and you can make one request of me within reason. And yes, Hilda, the points can go towards any exam, put your hand down. There is no ‘winner,’ so it’s not a competition, simply try your best and reap the rewards.”
She’d never seen a class pay attention to rules and regulations with more vigor, more excitement, or more unbridled energy.
“I won’t help you,” Sothis warned. “I won’t lift a finger to help you. You’ll have no access to my powers for this.” Byleth watched Claude stare at the desk with the look of a person with five hundred ideas battling for the spotlight and Hilda practically hyperventilate. Fair is fair, she thought. No games.
“What are you thinking?”
“Hello, Seteth. I’m having a meeting with Lady Rhea right now, but maybe when we’re finished you and I can talk.”
“Do you wish to humiliate this academy? This entire monastery? Lady Rhea—”
“Oh, I don’t know Seteth. I think it’s interesting. I like a little initiative. Creativity is good for young minds.” Lady Rhea floated away, unconcerned, leaving Byleth to smile gleefully at Seteth’s glower.
“I’ll be watching you,” he snarled when Lady Rhea was gone. “Any step out of line, any waste of resources, I’ll find out.”
“Fine by me,” Byleth said calmly.
Seteth seemed to calm down, rearranging his tunic hastily and readjusting his diadem. “What do you intend on accomplishing with games?”
“What does the Academy intend on accomplishing with singing and dancing competitions?”
“Students learn better and show more interest when they have opportunities to divert themselves.” He froze. “Hm.”
“Exactly, now imagine if that fun and diversion were to be directed towards practical ends.”
Seteth blinked at her and then looked down at his hands. “I see.” Byleth nodded, turning to leave.
“Would you spare me a moment? Perhaps for a cup of tea?”
“I’m a bit busy at the moment, I’m afraid. I’m expecting attacks all month. I would steer clear of me until the assignment is concluded.” She paused, noting his blush. He was probably ashamed of losing his temper. “But perhaps after? When it’s safer for you.”
“Yes! Yes, all right. My apologies for earlier.”
“I guess I’m a bit better at teaching than I am guarding coffins, then?”
“Wh- Oh! Oh. I’m—”
She left, a little gleeful to have exacted a little revenge so neatly, so effortlessly.
She narrowly avoided being doused in a bucket of water when she entered her room by opening the door and stepping back, knowing what would be awaiting her inside. She’d left the window open on purpose that morning. She leaned down to pick up the little notecard and found that the water had doused it so completely that the name was effaced. She sighed and pulled out her notebook, making a note. She entered the room and gazed about it. Sothis was floating in the corner, unmoved by all appearances, but watching closely. She took a knife to a little trip-wire by the bed, tossed a spider out the window, and shredded up the little notecards. She noticed a strange wobble to her wardrobe, so she kicked it sharply and heard a distressing growling noise inside.
She summoned Raphael to be rid of the little piglet in the yet unopened wardrobe and pushed him from the room without paying any attention to his grumbling. Honestly, when would they learn?
Disappointed, she opened her notebook and wrote down the events of the day meticulously before leaving for lunch.
Lunch was better. It was also much worse. Hilda’s attempt at switching the salt with sugar at Byleth’s regular table was good, but her gleeful watching and staring rather gave it all away. Lysithea’s attempts to make a whole table giggle and stare at Byleth intermittently was inspired, so she made a note of it. If she were anyone else, it would have terrified her to see a gaggle of teenaged girls whispering and giggling with Lysithea as their ringleader. However, there was the fact that they weren’t actually saying anything.
Ah, mercy. A deeply desired and coveted quality of all good leaders. But it quelled even the most ruthless of schemes. She shook her head in disappointment and heard Lysithea squawk in outrage. It was a good attempt though, so she made a note.
But she realized, sidestepping a banana peel (really? That was absolutely Leonie’s doing) on her way back to her room, that no one had decided to band together.
But she hadn’t seen Claude all day, nor Marianne, nor Ignatz. Even Lorenz was nowhere to be seen. She felt a shiver of anticipation.
If they disappointed her, she’d never forgive them.
“Edelgard? Come in,” Byleth gestured to the empty seat across from her desk. Her office hours were primarily reserved for her own students, but she had lately been accepting a lot of visitors from the other houses. “What can I do for you?”
Edelgard hesitated, which was unusual in and of itself. “I wanted to know why you did not accept the Black Eagles as your house.”
“Oh, it was nothing personal. Don’t fret about it.” That answer didn’t seem to satisfy Edelgard. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s just that— No, it’s nothing.” Edelgard was frowning furiously now, and blushing, which meant it was not nothing. But Byleth did not know her well enough to ascertain whether she would respond well to being pushed. She remained silent, but even that trick did not work.
“You are welcome to my office hours whenever you please, Edelgard. You may attend my seminars as well. I encourage you to, in fact. I am still your teacher, even if I am not the mentor assigned to your House.”
Edelgard nodded. “All right.” She paused. “But… Actually, I wanted to ask you about the factors that moved you to choose the Golden Deer.” Her voice became very formal towards the end, like she had practiced phrasing it so that it didn’t ever sound like a question.
“It’s a secret,” Byleth said honestly. “But it’s not that interesting a reason. You’re not missing out on anything. Now, if that’s all?”
“Oh! Sorry for wasting your time, Professor.”
“Not at all,” Byleth said kindly. “I prefer that my students come to me when they have doubts, no matter how small.”
Edelgard sighed and smiled a little wistfully. “Goodbye, Professor. I’ll see you in class.”
Byleth waved absently, glad to have helped. And then she remembered. “Oh, Edelgard. There’s going to be a fake rat on the ground outside the office. Please do be aware.”
“So it’s true…” Edelgard squared her shoulders and opened the door. There, indeed, was the rat. Leonie could be heard grumbling from around the corner. Edelgard shook her head in astonishment. “It’s true, this is their class assignment. We have to write self-reflections. Urgh.” She swept out, a glower on her face.
“Leonie?” Byleth called out.
“That one had better be fake, Leonie.”
There was still not a single peep from Marianne by the end of the week. She showed up to class, she did her work, she kept her head down, she answered questions if she was asked to but she ventured nothing. She looked… increasingly upset as the days went on. Byleth began to wonder if this assignment was too much for her, too soon. She requested, at the end of the week, that Marianne join her for tea.
Ignatz paused by the desk as they spoke and reached out to lay a hand on Marianne’s arm. Marianne ducked her head and scrunched her face up, like she was fighting off tears. Lysithea stopped by as well, watching Marianne with concern. She looked at Ignatz with worry, but he merely tilted his head towards the door. With one last look at their friend, both Lysithea and Ignatz left. Byleth, fully concerned now, felt a stab of relief when Marianne accepted her invitation. Byleth led her to the gardens, saw her seated, and began to make a pot of tea.
“Marianne, is everything all right?” Marianne shuddered and did not answer; her shoulders were shaking slightly. Byleth ventured a hand towards her student’s shoulder but pulled back when Marianne looked up with shining eyes. Tears.
“It’s… I’m sorry, professor. It’s just that. A bird that I often speak to in the mornings has died. I have to go collect his ashes today.”
“Oh.” Byleth sat down, putting a teacup before Marianne. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Marianne. Is that what Ignatz and Lysithea were comforting you about?” Marianne nodded jerkily, her cheeks pink. She must be ashamed of her tears. “Would you like company?”
Marianne’s head rose to look at her with surprise. “You’d come with me?”
“Of course I would, Marianne.”
“Oh,” Marianne seemed to think for a moment, wiping wetness from her cheeks. “Would you… would you come to the service?”
Service? Byleth decided it would be rude to ask what sort of a service could be conducted for a bird. Marianne was deeply religious, after all. And more than a little eccentric. “Of course, I’ll be there.”
“We’re having it tomorrow evening. I have to go soon… kitchens offered to—oh, it’s too awful! I can’t!” She covered her face in her hands. Byleth watched in horror, patting her shoulder absently. This was more emotion than Marianne had ever shown anyone.
“Let’s go then.” Byleth stood, forgetting about the tea and the free hour. “Come.”
Marianne stood, and together they went to the kitchens, where a stony-faced cook gestured to a little pot on the windowsill. Marianne picked it up with shaking hands, cradling it close.
“Come, let’s get you to your room.”
The next day, classes went on as usual. She noted that Lorenz was having what looked to be a pleasant conversation with Ingrid, but besides that nothing of importance really happened. She watched Marianne throughout the lessons, but the girl was astonishingly quieter than ever before. Byleth frowned with concern and noticed that even Claude was watching her with a frown. She met his gaze and he mouthed I’ll tell you later before turning back to his work.
Later was right after class.
“She’s having a service for her dead bird today, around five. I think she’d really appreciate it if you came, Teach.” His voice was dead serious, and he was leaning over the desk to speak lowly, as if it was a secret. She supposed it must be, perhaps there were those who would mock Marianne for grieving a bird so seriously. She made a note to punish whoever she saw daring to do so immediately and without mercy.
“I’ll be there.”
“I’ll drop by your rooms then; we can go together.”
The knock at her door came promptly as the sun began to set. She was already dressed and ready when she greeted Claude solemnly. She asked questions as they walked, about how Marianne was doing, mainly. Claude answered them with his observations, for, as he said, Marianne wasn’t one to share her feelings even when they were obvious and apparent on her face to everyone with eyes.
They reached the little pagoda in the gardens and the scent of roses wafted to her, calming her and reminding her of the mornings so long ago. She smiled and caught Ignatz watching her. He looked away quickly, blushing. She wondered why, but perhaps it was embarrassing to see your professor standing rapturously still, smelling the scent of the garden at sunset. She took her seat at Claude’s table and noted that the whole House was there. The Golden Deer, she realized, were uniting to help Marianne in her time of need. She was touched, and proud of them. They were moving towards her proposed learning outcomes without any effort at all.
The silence was long, as Marianne seemed to need a moment to pull herself together. She sat beside Claude, the little pot of ashes before her. Suddenly she stood.
“Th-thank you all,” she whispered, her voice somehow carrying over the silence of the gathered party. Ignatz looked close to tears in sympathy, and even Lorenz and Hilda looked on solemnly. She took the pot of ashes in hand and lifted it. Byleth looked away for a moment to meet Claude’s eyes. He was watching her, intently. She frowned and looked back to Marianne, who promptly upended the jar of her beloved bird’s ashes into her mouth and swallowed.
Byleth screamed, leaping to her feet. “What are you doing?” she yelled. Marianne looked like she’d fall over, shaking. Byleth stared at her, eyes wide and unblinking. What had Marianne done?
“Professor? Wow, you really don’t know anything about the church?”
“The Goddess commands that we consume the ashes,” Claude said slowly, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Byleth stared.
“No, she doesn’t. But we definitely got you.”
The gardens exploded in uproarious laughter. Byleth sat heavily back into her seat, her eyes on Claude’s mirthful cackling. The whole class was laughing, leaning on each other, wiping tears from their eyes. She groaned, covering her face with her hands.
“How?” she managed to ask. Her mind was remarkably silent, Sothis seemed to have no comment about the proceedings. Or she’d get an earful later.
The laughter took a while to die off, and even then, phantom giggles and chuckles shook everyone’s shoulders and brought tears to several eyes. Claude’s voice, when he spoke, was pitched higher than normal from the strength of his giggles and cackles. Byleth glowered.
“Come on, Claude,” Hilda crowed. “I know you’re dying to explain your genius plan to the Professor.”
Claude raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, or perhaps faux humility.
“Well, first, we had to make a few efforts at absolutely terrible pranks. The bucket was from Lorenz and me, Professor. We both knew you’d expect it, and we figured even if it didn’t get you, it’d annoy you enough to get your room all wet. So even if it didn’t work, we had fun doing it. And you know about everyone else’s lousy red herrings.”
“Mine wasn’t lousy!” Lysithea beamed. “We had to have a few that would almost work, and I was the only one who could come up with one besides Claude.”
“And then we had to bribe Marianne into helping us. We’re giving her all our spending money for a week now. She drives a hard bargain,” Hilda said, a note of deep respect in her voice. Marianne ducked her head, blushing.
“Raphael decided that we needed to make the actual service as believable as possible, so he cut a bunch of roses and put rose water in all the cups.” Claude continued, still very self-satisfied. “He said he could hazard a good guess that it was your favorite.”
She looked at Raphael flatly. “He’d be right.” Raphael went bright red and mouthed a sorry. Too late, kid.
“It calmed you right down, made you want to sit down and join us. So, we sat and waited. We all waited for Marianne to chug the ashes.” More giggles, even a few from Marianne, who was still bright pink.
“But that wasn’t enough,” Byleth muttered, wondering what the “ashes” actually were. Probably sugar mixed with pepper for color. She decided to ask the cook later, and then also ask what on earth they paid her.
“Oh!” cried Ignatz. “I decided that we should use your… Uh, sorry, Professor… Your charming ignorance of Church matters to our advantage.”
Byleth turned on Ignatz, who was rubbing the back of his head bashfully and a little proudly. “That was you?” She turned to look at Claude, who beamed widely. Ah, so Claude was proud of him too.
“Well done, Ignatz,” she murmured. “It was a nice touch.”
Byleth ran a hand over her face and tucked it under her chin. “You’ve all done… remarkably better than I anticipated. I’m very proud of you all.” Claude high-fived Hilda and shot a wink at Marianne. Byleth cleared her throat and glared until he settled down. “Each of you will receive,” she paused. “Twenty points towards a certification exam of your choice. If there are points left over, they will carry over to the next. You’ve done well, my little fawns.”
Claude led the class in a cheer, pumping the air as Byleth stood, pushed her chair in, and stole the centerpiece of roses from her table and Ignatz’s. She ruffled his hair as she leaned over him to grab her roses. “Good job, kid.”
And she left them, laughing, barely keeping themselves together. She smiled all the way back, slipping into grins as she went, definitely terrifying everyone she passed.
Sothis was silent the whole night and silent in the morning as well. Byleth sent her a few pointed thoughts, but there was no answer. Frowning in concern, she left earlier than usual and made her way to the Cathedral for her meeting with Lady Rhea. When that was over (and after she had been praised considerably for her work, and chastised gently for knowing literally nothing about the Church’s burial rites) Byleth went to the classroom, pondering how many spies Lady Rhea kept around, or how many things she heard simply standing about all day, overhearing conversations.
She sighed, making her way to the desk with what was left of her stoic dignity. “Good morning, Claude. What brings you to class so early?”
“I was thinking about what request I want to make of you, I hope you didn’t forget that part of your reward system.” Byleth didn’t forget, but she took a moment, standing in the empty room with a demon of hell before her, to realize fully that she owed all the little fawns a single request each.
“Would you like to make it now?”
“I want to know if I can cash it in later.”
“You may,” she said. “Within reason.”
“Got it,” he beamed. “Don’t mind me, I’m just going to study until everyone else gets here.” Byleth returned to her lesson plan for the day when her suspicious looks got her no other information.
Hilda’s request, as expected, was to receive two passes to sit out training. Byleth vetoed that, and Hilda changed her request to ten more points towards a certification exam. Byleth accepted that, realizing that it had probably been Hilda’s intention all along to get ten more points.
Raphael’s was sweet; he wanted permission to have a puppy in his room. She promised to speak to the others to confirm that it was all right and agreed that he would get another request should this one be vetoed. She had a strong feeling he’d get his puppy.
Ignatz and Lysithea both wanted an hour extended to their free times. She agreed to this readily and agreed to Lorenz’s request for her to form and chaperone a perfume-making class, given her love for the flowers. She sighed at that one, but saw no harm, and he was doing much better lately. Leonie wanted exclusive stories about Jeralt and his men, and Byleth countered this with a promise to invite Leonie to dinner with her and Jeralt whenever she wanted, within reason. That was still her dad, and she wanted time alone with him. Leonie looked like she respected this immensely, to Byleth’s surprise.
That left Claude and Marianne. Claude, who deferred his request to a later date, and Marianne, who asked for more time to think, and then changed her mind and decided she didn’t need a request, and then was forced to publicly accept that she’d get her request granted at Lysithea’s knifepoint.
“They did a really good job, didn’t they?”
Byleth stirred, groggy, and lifted her head from the pillow. It was Sothis, floating by the window, looking out at the moon. She looked sad. Byleth sat up and yawned. “They did. Why did you disappear?”
“It was unexpectedly… difficult to deal with.”
“To deal with what? Me getting pranked at all hours?”
“No,” Sothis murmured, eyes still on the moon. “It was hard to watch them from here, to know they’ll never see me. They’ll never even know my name.”
The moonlight filtered into the room delicately, and it lit up Sothis and her sad little face. Byleth lay down and looked up at the ceiling, wondering at how lonely it must be in her head. “Have you grown to like them?”
“Like them? I’m stuck in your head. I love them. I feel it when you do, you know? It feels like I’m there too, like they’re smiling and laughing at me. With me. It feels so wonderful; it makes me feel…”
Her eyes grew heavy as the silence stretched on, and she fell asleep watching Sothis gaze out that window, longing for the people she already loved, who did not know her.
“I wonder at your ability to whip them all into shape so well, so quickly,” Manuela tittered over her teacup. Byleth fought the urge to roll her eyes. “They were quite the problem class, you know. We were so relieved when you took them, but we never expected you to do so well. It comes of being so close to them in age, I suppose.”
Hanneman nodded in agreement and commented on how lively they all were, with a lively, youthful professor to match. Manuela puffed up in offense, as usual, and Byleth stared blankly ahead, blowing on her tea to cool it, unimpressed by the conversation. Not drawn in at all.
It was a disastrous teatime.
Byleth had known for a while. Sometimes, in the field, she felt more fear than normal. Like there were two hearts in her, pounding in fear, instead of one. She felt it when Ignatz took an arrow to the shoulder, deeply. She felt it when Hilda stumbled in battle, once, and nearly took a deadly blow to the neck. She felt it when she shot forward without thinking to protect Lysithea and felt nothing but calm as Lysithea screamed over her, panicking on the battlefield for the first time while her teacher struggled to stand with an arrow in her chest. Sothis sent time back twice, and each time, there was no other way. Byleth took the arrow gladly, a third time, a grim smile on her face and the sensation of Sothis’s firm agreement in her heart.
She didn’t know who was prouder when Marianne pulled the arrow out firmly, healing the path it had carved in Byleth as it left her body, Sothis or Byleth herself. It didn’t matter.
“It comes of being so close to them in age, I suppose,” Manuela had said, dismissively.
No, Sothis and Byleth agreed. It comes of loving them.
“Why did you pick us?”
Byleth looked up from her chest, where she had, admittedly, been poking at the spot where the wound had been. It was a little sore, but Marianne’s abilities had improved so well that there was barely a bruise where the blood vessels knit back together. “Is that your request?” Byleth asked. “I thought you’d save it for something a little more… important.”
“It’s not my request. You can answer it, or not. There’s no pressure.”
Byleth thought back to what her father had said, about challenges, about seeing herself in her students. She frowned. “I like deer.”
Claude lightly kicked the sides of his horse, urging it forward and in her path. She jostled uncomfortably at the sudden stop, aware of the class behind her and the foot soldiers flanking them. “What?”
“You like deer,” Claude said flatly. “You passed up the opportunity to be at the ear of the future Empress, or at the side of the King in the North… because you like deer.”
“That’s just the color, it’s not even actual gold.” Byleth shrugged at his accusation. “You know the Leicester Alliance is falling apart? The Houses aren’t as unified as they were, we’re the worst choice to ally yourself with.”
“I didn’t ally myself with Leicester. I allied myself with you. With you, and all the others. You’re students, I’m your professor. I don’t care about your stupid—Sorry, Hilda.”
“Hey, no, I’m with you.”
“I don’t really care,” Byleth continued, shooting Hilda a smile. “But I know you all well enough by now that I’m not too worried about the future of the Leicester Alliance.”
“Professor? You didn’t know us when you chose our House,” Lorenz ventured, thoughtful as always.
“And if you had asked me about the future of Leicester four months ago, I would have said the whole place was doomed to come down. You’ve all grown since then, and I see promise.”
“But that’s not why you chose us,” Claude insisted, less charismatically polished than she’d seen him in a long time. Frustrated. “So why—”
“I like deer. Used to see them a lot in the mornings with my father, early enough when it was quiet, when everyone was asleep. My whole life was about to change. I followed my gut.”
“Deer,” Lysithea said with a flat voice and a flatter stare.
“Yes, little owl,” Byleth confirmed, a hint of a tease in her voice. “Deer.”
Sothis hummed with happiness in her chest, and the monastery’s walls could be seen on the horizon already. Byleth urged her horse around Claude and they marched on.
“Heard you got shot,” Jeralt said, coming into her room at sunrise. Byleth looked up from her place by the window and smiled.
“Just a graze,” Byleth mocked, watching as he flopped onto her bed and lay back with his arms behind his head.
“When you get to be as grizzled and scarred as me, you can call mortal danger a mere flesh wound or whatever. But not looking like that you can’t. So don't even try.”
Byleth spared a thought for what Alois had said once, when she first came to the monastery. He had marveled that her father hadn’t aged a day in twenty years. She thought of the crest buried in her flesh, the mother buried in the graveyard by the Cathedral, the ring in her desk drawer. Sothis combed through these details often, when she was distracted, attracted as always to mystery and puzzles. But Byleth couldn’t bring herself to care in the same way. Her father was her father, no matter what oddity ran underneath his skin. No matter what world he ran from twenty years ago.
It wasn’t the same as those mornings used to be, not even close, but they sat watching the sun rise and talking, and it felt good enough.
The stone walls here were high and oppressive, the trees grew in straight lines, the flowers grew in rows, and the only deer were snoring around her in their rooms.
But perhaps the mornings here could be beautiful still.