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Jeralt is trying. He really, really fucking is. But, goddessdammit—

 

He glances to the side, where all the buffet tables are lined up with platters upon platters of food that gleam too much it would be a sin to eat them.

 

Specifically, Jeralt glances at the dessert table where all those little pastries are practically tempting him with how they seem to cry in all their tininess,

 

EAT ME.

 

It takes a lot of willpower for Jeralt to turn his head away and to focus on the conversation at hand.

 

Though he’s internally howling, Jeralt musters a polite smile when it’s his cue to speak. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Margrave Edmund,” he greets the elderly noble.

 

Margrave Edmund’s features are set into soft slopes that give him a gentler image; his eyes, though, are a pair of unfathomable abysses that dissects him with keen intent.

 

“The pleasure is truly all mine, sir Jeralt,” is the Margrave’s seemingly tender response. “I have heard of your acts of valor for our beloved Alliance Head’s heir, and I extend my deepest of gratitudes for your assistance.”

 

Jeralt nods politely, resisting the urge to shuffle anxiously on his feet.

 

“I see that you have finally brought your ward out of your territory,” mentions Duke Riegan in a perfunctory tone, patently staring at the small figure practically plastered to the Margrave’s back.

 

“I have,” agrees Margrave Edmund. “Marianne, if you would introduce yourself?” He coaxes, voice a whole degree softer and gentler than it was a moment ago.

 

Jeralt turns his gaze to scrutinize the young lady who, after an awkwardly long moment of nervously fidgeting, steps out from her guardian’s shadow.

 

Blue , is the first thing that registers in Jeralt’s mind, and he feels somewhat embarrassed by it even though it’s the truth. From the roots of her hair and to the soles of her heels, the lanky-looking young lady is so many shades of blue that Jeralt has to blink thrice to believe what he’s seeing.

 

“Good evening, your Grace,” she greets in a near silent pitch. She curtsies lowly, her gaze carefully lowered to respectfully avoid that of Duke Riegan’s sharp one. 

 

Though, even after that, she still continues to keep her head down, her dark eyes persistently rooted to the floor and looking as if she’s just desperately wishing for the ground to swallow her up whole at this instant.

 

Goddess . Jeralt can’t help but sympathize with her. It must be her first time attending a formal event, because she’s so obviously nervous with the paleness of her skin, the bags underneath her eyes that are only somewhat concealed by makeup, and the conspicuous trembling of her fingers.

 

“I am Marianne—Marianne von Edmund,” she stumbles over her introduction, frightful and embarrassed at her misstep. 

 

Duke Riegan peers at her, critical, then nods slowly.

 

“It is good to finally meet you, Lady Edmund,” he returns, watching as the young lady doesn’t hesitate to return back to her guardian’s shadow at the subtle dismissal. “Well, I am thankful that the both of you appear to be in good health. And will continue to do so even after this party has ended,” he remarks.

 

Margrave Edmund smiles once more. “We will do our best, your Grace. And our deepest thanks for both your concern and time. If you will excuse us,” he requests.

 

Duke Riegan perfunctorily bids them farewell.

 

Jeralt watches as the two walk away and easily blend into the crowd until they disappear into it.

 

“That was short,” comments Jeralt. 

 

Duke Riegan unabashedly snorts. “Only because Margrave Edmund was with that ward of his,” he says, looking distinctly aggravated with the way his lower lip is jutted out. “During our monthly council meeting, I always have to look out for that bastard because of how vicious and convincing he can be if he decided that he didn’t like any one of my ideas.” He doesn’t look even miffed at the memory; in fact, his expression clears up into an excited one. “And how those chowderheaded idiots drink them all up as if it were tea,” he mutters so that the surrounding nobles don’t hear him.

 

“Your character’s showing, your Grace,” drawls Jeralt, amused. “But the young lady with him is to be the Edmund heiress?”

 

Duke Riegan nods. “The Margrave’s wife had died before they could have even conceived a child, and he never remarried in spite of it,” he explains. “The girl is a distant relative of his, and he adopted her after her parents were said to have mysteriously vanished.”

 

Jeralt stiffens. 

 

The Duke must have noticed his reaction for he scoffs. “They weren’t murdered for convenience, Jeralt. Out of all of the nobles here, the Margrave would rather bribe for things to go his way than assassinate someone,” he assuages some of the tension from Jeralt’s shoulders. “Though their deaths were convenient, I did some investigation just to be sure. Her father certainly did disappear—and he did a mighty good job of it too, irritatingly enough, because none of my people can get a trace of where he’d truly last been seen. Her mother, on the other hand,” he suddenly grimaces. “Brutally mauled by a demonic beast, unfortunately enough. No human could have ever torn another to pieces so raggedly.”

 

“Goddess,” Jeralt breathes, just imagining it. 

 

“And I doubt the young lady will survive for long in this kind of environment with that kind of attitude,” Duke Riegan decides cooly. “If she can hardly look me in the eye after greetings, how else will she be able to look at others headon?”

 

You and they are on very different levels of terror , internally deadpans Jeralt, and he would have spoken it aloud were it not for the Duke suddenly cutting him off with an exclamation of,

 

“Aha!” 

 

At the mere sight of Duke’s Riegan’s smile taking a turn for the sinister, Jeralt very wisely clamps his joke.

 

“My much-awaited guest is finally here, Jeralt,” Duke Riegan practically purrs. “Come, come. We’d best not keep him waiting,” he all but snickers, before resolutely carving a path through the nobles who, after getting a good look of his menacing smile, all part away.

 

Who’s the poor unfortunate bastard this time? Jeralt thinks with absolutely no remorse as he follows after the old coot heels.

 

He gets his answer soon enough when he belatedly realizes that Duke Riegan isn’t striding towards anyone; in fact, it looks more like he’s giving chase after a brightly-haired noble who’s impressively weaving through the crowd.

 

But, here in this limited amount of space, there is only so far one can go.

 

Duke Riegan grins as he finally comes to stand before his prey, whom is perfectly cornered against—to Jeralt’s utter glee—the dessert table.

 

“It is good to finally see you,” are the sugar-coated words that come tumbling out of the Duke’s mouth. “I thought for sure that you would never show up, Count Gloucester,” he makes it a point to utter the noble’s name in a drawl.

 

Count Gloucester smiles back, tilting his head in a way that allows his violet-colored hair to frame his aristocratic features.

 

“Good evening, your Grace,” the Count greets as he bows courteously. When he straightens his back, he has a befuddled expression on his face as he wonders aloud, “Now why would your Grace think that to be the case? For an esteemed noble such as I, turning down this celebration for our Leicester Alliance Day would be impossible.”

 

As he discreetly reaches out for a tiny cake, Jeralt internally applauds the Count who’s doing a fantastic job at how calm this Count is in spite of being chased (hunted down) by the Duke.

 

Despite this, Duke Riegan remains unfazed by the implied snipe. “I had just been concerned that you would not show up due to the unfortunate circumstances that had occurred between our two territories,” he elaborates in a pleasant tone. Then, with his smile taking on a mocking tilt, he says in a fauxly helpless voice, “Bandits, huh?”

 

Count Gloucester brows furrow. His features twist into a look of irritation. “ Bandits . Those pesky lots have been a thorn in my side for the better part of the year.”

 

Duke Riegan makes a small sound and, like a shark having scented blood in the way, he goes in for a strike. “Oh?” He intones, raising his brows and widening his eyes. “If so, then why have you failed to bring it up in any of our Alliance meetings?” He questions.

 

He makes a point , thinks Jeralt as he chews on his sweet prize.

 

Impressively enough, Count Gloucester’s expression does not falter even once as he takes on a helpless look. “I did not wish to bother the nobles with my own troubles, your Grace, and so I decided to keep it to myself,” is his explanation.

 

Duke Riegan hums, his smile widening. “But your absence of informing us nearly led to my Godfrey being murdered in cold blood.” Then, as if imitating the Count’s earlier action, he tilts his head. “And, curiously enough, it happened within the trades routes that had not yet been opened to the public and only a few of us would be privy to…” He trails off.

 

Count Gloucester’s brow twitches, but he immediately masks it by furrowing his brows. “Though I had been heartened when I received word of your son’s survival, are you perhaps implying something, your Grace?”

 

Duke Riegan chuckles. “I am not implying anything, young Hermann.” It’s clear that the Duke is intentionally pressing a sensitive button, for the Count’s eyes narrow at the usage reference to his age combined with his own personal name. “I was merely pointing out that you should better share the going-ons of your territory, so as to avoid any innocent bystander to lose their life just because of your mistake,” he points out.

 

Count Gloucester purses his lips but nonetheless nods. “I will certainly strive to do better, your Grace,” he promises.

 

However, by the way Duke Riegan’s gaze narrows, it’s clear that he isn’t satisfied with the Count’s words.

 

“You will do better,” the Duke orders in a frigid tone. “My son would have surely either lost his life or been left with a fatal injury, as Commander Josef has reported to me, were it not for my honored guest’s intervention.”

 

At that cue, with the tiny cake safely in his belly, Jeralt steps forward and inclines his head.

 

“Good evening, Count Gloucester,” he greets politely enough.

 

Count Gloucester’s tone, however, is practically freezing as he utters, “The Blade Breaker.”

 

Jeralt nods slowly. “Yes. I am glad to meet you, Count Gloucester.”

 

“An honor,” is the Count’s lackluster response.

 

…. You must be a pleasant man , decides Jeralt as he appropriately takes a step back.

 

“Well, since it appears that you are in need of help with tidying up those bandits,” the Duke starts with after a moment of silence. “I would be all too willing to send a few of my own squadrons to guard the trade route for the meanwhile,” he offers.

 

“There is no need for that, your Grace,” the Count is quick to reply. “I am perfectly able to assign my own soldiers to guard that route.”

 

“Oh no,” sighs the Duke as he shakes his head. “I do not doubt your capability, but it is more of resting my weary mind from the very thought of somebody succumbing to a bandit’s blade,” he, clearly, bullshits through a morose tone.

 

Jeralt, who is in the middle of reaching out for a flute of strawberry champagne, is intimate enough with the political implications of this to understand what’s about to happen.

 

The Duke is using this to legally infringe on the Count’s territory and better monitor his actions , he muses as he takes a long sip of the sweet and bubbly drink. He’d have offered the Duke a drink were it not for him being banned from anything sweet or alcoholic for the benefit of his health. It doesn’t matter whether or not the Count truly aimed to have Lord Riegan killed, because regardless, the fault of it would fall on him for his neglect in mentioning to the council of a problem he was fully aware of.

 

And now, if the Count didn’t want to dig himself a deeper hole, he would have no other choice but to accept the Duke’s offer.

 

“...Thank you, your Grace,” Count Gloucester concedes, if a bit stiffly. “However, if you would permit me, I would like to raise a matter that has been concerning mine and other nobles of my territory.”

 

“You may,” allows the Duke.

 

“It has something to do with the Empire’s machinations of our beloved Alliance. Specifically, a territory neighbouring my own,” the Count notifies. “I am well aware that House Ordelia is at fault for meddling in the affairs of the Empire during their time of turmoil, but I believe that the decade's worth of time that House Ordelia has paid with for their arrogance is timely enough.”

 

Jeralt averts his gaze from the two. Although he’d heard about it whilst two drinks in at a bar in Bartels, the events of such had left a vivid mark on his mind.

 

And all because House Ordelia assisted House Hrym’s attempt at defecting from the Empire, he thinks, a bit sad as he recalls how a group of miserable citizens that had fled from Hrym had detailed to him about how horrifying it had been when the Empire’s army had taken action and slaughtered most of the citizens from both Hrym and Ordelia in the dead of night before, as the rumors go, subsequently taking over the the two treacherous Houses.

 

“And you bring this up how come?” Duke Riegan questions, though there’s an unpleasant tightness to his lips this time.

 

“Because if we do not do anything about it, it will furtherly weaken and bring shame to our beloved Alliance,” Count Gloucester declares, violet eyes darkening. “Additionally, it has brought further unrest to most of our nobles at the distinct lack of Ordelia children, even young adults, at celebrations such as these for the past years, as you are aware of, your Grace.”

 

“I am aware,” confirms Duke Riegan. “Their letters of declination have always piled up at the corner of my desk every year…”

 

Come to think of it , realizes Jeralt, his hand freezing from where it was about to reach out for another sweet. We haven’t even greeted a single Ordelia.

 

“...But it would be foolish of us to raise our blades now, especially if it meant angering the Empire any further, which we cannot afford at this time,” Duke Riegan sighs at the end, wrinkles deepening.

 

“It would not have to be our blades, your Grace,” Count Gloucester suddenly says just when Jeralt had thought the conversation to be over. “It would, yes, be foolish of us to send out our Alliance’s Order to take back Orderlia, but what if we had an outside party that we could, perhaps, depend on.”

 

At this, he meets Jeralt’s eyes for a moment.

 

As short as it is, it’s enough for Jeralt to think, ah fuck .

 

“This issue will have to be brought up to the others,” supplies the Duke.

 

Count Gloucester smiles brightly, the illusion of roses blooming in his background. “I have already informed the necessary parties beforehand, and they have all given their consent. If, that is, your Grace were to permit it,” he slyly adds.

 

Duke Riegan narrows his eyes. “You have been planning this behind my back,” he drawls, clearly unimpressed.

 

Count Gloucester shakes his head. “Of course not, your Grace. I have merely been preparing for such an excursion so as your Grace will not have to go through the tiresome process of it all,” he explains as elegantly as he can all whilst the Duke is practically boring holes into his head.

 

“...I will consider it,” allows Duke Riegan.

 

Count Gloucester’s smile widens. “That is all I wish to speak to you about, your Grace,” he sweetly imparts before, with a polite excuse me , he bows and takes his leave.

 

Once the Count is out of sight, Jeralt surreptitiously glances at the Duke and forebodes the serene expression plastered on the elderly’s face.

 

“You look mightily calm for having lost to Count Gloucester,” notes Jeralt.

 

Duke Riegan slowly smiles at him. “One loss does not matter, Jeralt, if victory shall be mine at the end of the night.”

 

It doesn’t help that he giggles at the end of it.

 

Jeralt furrows his eyebrows at the Duke’s response, clearly suspicious.

 

“Young Hermann will surely be in for a surprise later, just you wait,” assures the Duke, before he looks over to a servant standing near them. When he looks back at Jeralt, he’s wearing a somewhat apologetic look on his face. “Now, I have something important to attend to, so I’ll be leaving you to your own care for the meantime, Jeralt. Ta-ta,” he bids before he’s off to who knows where.

 

Jeralt watches him go, internally cheering. He reaches out for a creampuff, fully intending to celebrate his newfound freedom.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

You spoke too soon, you old fucker , Jeralt thinks to himself as, with a silent sight, he brings his hand back and turns around to come face to face with a dark-haired noblewoman.

 

Jeralt immediately inclines his head. “My lady,” he greets, desperately wracking through his brain for her name because fuck, fuck, fuck , why were there so many nobles these days?!

 

“Good evening once again, sir Jeralt,” she returns, waving her nicely-trimmed fan a few times before she informs, “I am glad to finally be able to catch you alone in this party.”

 

Jeralt feigns innocence—he’s gone through this kind of dance so many times that he just knows what’s about to happen next. 

 

“And what for?” He questions.

 

The lady’s smile widens, brightens. “I came to give you my compliments of your company’s accomplishments. As well as to tell you that I have been keeping an ear out ever since your timely intervention with the assasination attempt on King Lambert’s head. I have always been intrigued by the people who serve you.”

 

“They do not serve me, my lady,” Jeralt corrects a moment after she’s done with her tirade. “They merely work under me. It is up to them if they want to listen to me or not. Provided that they want to keep their heads before and after any battle,” he adds.

 

The noblewoman’s smile takes on an amused tilt as she says, “I admire a workforce like that. As well as a commander sensible enough to be aware of the proper boundaries between employer and employee.”

 

Hahaha. If only you knew , Jeralt thinks. There ain’t anything proper to my company . Not with their strangely familial dynamic, which had both its pros and cons but, well, Jeralt wouldn’t trade it for a ‘proper’ one.

 

They were mercenaries, for fuck’s sake. Their job description can’t even be described as ‘proper’.

 

“Will that be all, my lady?” Jeralt asks, reigning in the whine that wants to seep into his voice because asjdgebfn he wants those creampuffs! The estate’s chefs kept boasting about them the other night, and Jeralt believes that he should test their credibility!

 

With a snap, the noblewoman’s fan is shut to its wooden frame. “As I have mentioned before, I am an avid listener to the tales and exploits of your company, but I must admit that I am most intrigued by one of your famous men. The, ah, Ashen Demon, if we were to be specific.” 

 

Her eyes darken, and Jeralt does not appreciate that.

 

“I have heard stories of their unparalleled skill with the blade, the glorious warpath they leave in their wake, and their ability to complete whatever task given to them from you,” she beautifully lists down.

 

Jeralt swallows down his scoff. 

 

He’d very much like to correct that his daughter isn’t that unmatchable with a blade, and that she should really train more on her lancework considering that she hadn’t bested him in that area yet.

 

Still, Jeralt wisely keeps his thoughts to himself.

 

“And the rumors truly do not lie about her loveliness matching her strength,” confides the lady, smile softening.

 

“...Thank you, my lady. I’ll be sure to send her your compliments.”

 

The noblewoman laughs. “That would be much appreciated, sir Jeralt. But, I actually want to discuss with you if it would be alright to...borrow her services. Just for a night,” she is quick to say.

 

Jeralt’s entire thought process stops at that.

 

Oh , he thinks.

 

Oh.

 

It wasn’t him she was going to proposition, but his daughter .

 

Jeralt stares at the noblewoman, who’s now averting her gaze with a slight flush on her pretty face. 

 

He clenches down on his tongue. 

 

Don’t burst out, don’t burst out, don’t burst out , he thinks to himself, pushing down the whirlwind of complex emotions just begging to be unleashed because, if he were to unleash it, it could very shame him and his men.

 

And, if he and his men were to be shamed in such a large and noble gathering, it would be bye bye money and bye bye jobs.

 

But is money more important now? The devil in his mind whispers.

 

It’s not , he snaps back. But I won’t drag my men down just because of a little thing like this .

 

The noblewoman had asked nicely, after all, and Jeralt can respect her for that.

 

But it’s not like he’d agree to her wishes.

 

So, very calmly, Jeralt says, “I apologize, but my company does not offer those kinds of services.”

 

The noblewoman frowns, letting her eyes widen. “I’m sure that can be changed for any amount of gold?”

 

Jeralt just smiles, baring just a sliver of his teeth. “The integrity of my men is equal to that of my company’s. I can’t very well let them force themselves just for the company’s coffers.”

 

And he won’t. He’ll never . His men will always have the choice and freedom to fuck whoever they want, regardless of Jeralt’s bitching.

 

Regardless if even if it was Byleth doing the fucking.

 

Jeralt internally grimaces at that.

 

The woman pouts, clearly disappointed.

 

“But my lady is free to ask any of my men and, so long as you do not force them to, then you are free to spend just a night with them,” Jeralt says.

 

Jeralt doubts that any of his men, much less Byleth, will accept though, especially at a night this important where the company’s reputation could be implicated.

 

I trust them to think with the right head , are his thoughts on it.

 

The woman’s expression brightens.

 

“That is good news then!”

 

Jeralt nods slowly, feeling as if a giant chasm had appeared underneath his feet to trap up within it. 

 

He wonders if it had been right to even emotion that, to even bring her hopes up just a bit.

 

Just when he has resigned himself to wallowing in a plethora of his own guilt, Jeralt suddenly hears somebody calling out to him and turns to see whoever is his saving grace

.

..

..

.

It’s not an angel, that’s for sure.

 

Oh no, in fact, it’s the farthest thing from that. 

 

It’s Judith .

 

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck! Jeralt curses aloud in his mind.

 

He must have made some kind of noise, because the noblewoman he’d been having a stressful conversation with must have decided that she wants nothing to do with his anxiety and is quick to excuse herself.

 

“Expect a letter from my head of house,” is all she says, before she leaves in a flutter of ruffled skirts.

 

Jeralt glares after her, absolutely envious.

 

The goddess has forsaken him tonight.

 

“Jeralt!” Judith calls viciously, grin a razor’s blade. “Good to see you after so long! I’d thought for sure you’d have died in some ditch once I heard you’d left!” 

 

And there’s that tongue of hers, one that Jeralt has been undeniably afraid of since she’d been nineteen-years old and chasing after his heels whenever he’d arrived back at the monastery in order to challenge him to a duel.

 

“Lady Judith,” he returns, inclining his head, and keeping his eyes an inch to the left of her face.

 

She’s changed, that’s for sure. Her hair has grown out long enough to be pulled into a high ponytail that cascades down her back, her jaw more defined, and some wrinkles appearing at the corners of her eyes.

 

Still, with just a single glance, Jeralt could still see the great storm in her grey eyes. 

 

It’s not that Jeralt is scared of her , so to speak. 

 

It’s just...to be ambushed at the most random intervals of the day, several times in fact , has left him a bit shaken with the entire ordeal.

 

He’d had honestly thought he’d been rid of her once she’d graduated.

 

“It’s actually Baroness Daphnel,” she corrects him, eyes sparkling. “But you’re free to call me Judith like always. You’ve certainly deserved it, with all those times you’d held your ground against me back when I was still a student!” She laughs in a way as if she hadn’t had her ass kicked every time they sparred. “What do you say to having a duel for old time’s sake? I’m sure the Duke will allow us to borrow his training field.”

 

Jeralt internally sweats, remembering one of their particularly nasty duels where they went 27 rounds that lasted the better part of a day. Rhea had berated him extensively for neglecting his duties for ‘unfairly beating up a student! ’ whilst his wife had watched amusedly.

 

Jeralt is only human; so, when his eyes catch sight of a familiar couple, he is quick to say, “I’m sorry, Judith, but it looks like a potential client is calling for me!” 

 

He stumbles over a few more excuses, bows swiftly, and walks away fast .

 

He’s not fleeing , fuck you.

 

It’s a strategic retreat.

 

“Isaac! Rebecca!” He calls out to, and the fucking relief that blooms in his chest is a staggering when the two look at him with wide eyes. “Good to see you!” He greets, ignoring the adrenaline running through his veins.

 

“Sir Jeralt,” Isaac greets cordially, blinking several times. “Are you alright? You look…” He trails off.

 

“You look handsome ,” Rebecca finishes, smiling brilliantly. “I see you’ve been chatting with Baroness Daphnel. Isn’t she just darling?” There is no teasing to her words. 

 

She means them.

 

She’s a monster , Jeralt wants to say.  A monster who’s haunted my every step in the monastery. 

 

“Have you tried the desserts?” Jeralt asks instead, dodging the question. “The creampuffs are really good.”

 

Isaac and Rebecca share a look. 

 

Jeralt knows that, even as their expressions remain the same, there’s an entire conversation going on there.

 

He internally sighs.

 

“So we’ve heard,” Isaac is the one to answer first, smiling kindly at Jeralt. “By the way, we met your children just a while ago, and I have to say that they all paint such handsome figures,” he compliments.

 

“We actually left our children with them,” Rebecca mentions. “Sir Jeralt, you must meet my little angels. I’m sure you’ll love them,” she insists.

 

“Not as much as we do, of course,” jokes Isaac.

 

Jeralt’s parent senses are tingling, and he just knows that Isaac isn’t joking.

 

“Sure,” he agrees readily. “Where are they?” He asks, looking around.

 

Rebecca beams brightly at him. “They’re over at the back. Why don’t we join them?” She offers.

 

Jeralt agrees quickly enough and he’s soon guided by the Kirsten couple to where their children are at.

 

Miklan is the first one he spots, his reddish-orange hair serving as a particularly convenient beacon at times such as this. He looks to be in conversation with a young man nearly as large as he is, only a sizable head the difference between their heights.

 

“That’s Raphael, our eldest son,” introduces Isaac as they come to a stop from a distance. “And our youngest, Maya, is over there with one of your children, um...Jerlitz, yes?”

 

“Jeritza,” corrects Jeralt, distracted by the way Jeritza entertains an exuberant Maya whose golden eyes—just like her brother’s, Jeralt notes. Just like their mother’s—are sparkling up at him.

 

Rebecca giggles. “She’s a bit enamored with him for now, but I can hardly fault her for that. Your son really is too handsome for his own good. Like the long lost heir of a foreign kingdom,” she compliments. “Why, if I weren’t happy with my marriage, I sure would have taken a shot at that,” she teases, looking up at her husband with darkened eyes.

 

Isaac looks hardly fazed, but he does glance over at Jeritza. “He is quite handsome,” he agrees. “He’d make a good assistant receptionist if we wanted to target the young noble ladies of our district,” he voices aloud, actually considering that idea.

 

Jeralt shoots Rebecca an amused look, but she merely laughs brilliantly at that.

 

As the Kirsten couple converse in their own loving terms with one another, Jeralt sneaks a glance to where Byleth is.

 

His heart stops for a moment when he sees her smiling indulgently at the short young man that, as it appears, she’s locked in conversation with.

 

He restarts it, though, when he notices the way the young man makes some kind of excited gesture, and Byleth corrects it by positioning his arm a little higher with a few quiet words gifted to him.

 

Ah , he thinks, patting his chest a bit to calm his heart. They must be talking about one of her battles .

 

“Who is that?” Jeralt asks, knowing well enough that isn’t one of the Kirsten children. He’s heard too much of their honest and robust son as well as their angelic and so very talented daughter

 

Too much.

 

Rebecca pauses, gaze fleeting to where Jeralt is gesturing at. “Ah!” She exclaims. “That’s Ignatz! A son of a dear of ours,” she notes lovingly. “His parents are merchants like we are, so we communicate frequently to maintain our spoken deals. Because of that, our Raphael is best friends with him,” she informs. 

 

Jeralt nods, accepting her words for what they are. Just then, Byleth’s eyes meet his, and Jeralt can’t help but note warmly how she brightens up.

 

She smiles as she waves at him, causing Ignatz to follow her line of sight with a curious tilt of his head.

 

Byleth must have told Ignatz who he is for the young man’s jaw drops in awe.

 

“We should go and talk to them,” suggests Isaac, offering his elbow for his wife who gladly slips her arm around it.

 

It doesn’t take much to persuade Jeralt, because he’s already ahead of the couple by a few feet.

 

“I see that you three have been holding up well,” comments Jeralt once he’s in their vicinity. 

 

Miklan and Jeritza snap their heads to look at him, surprised at his presence; Byleth, on the other hand, only snorts and walks up to him, her heels clicking audibly with each step.

 

“And you look as if Kosa had tried to clip your head off,” she chuckles. “Are you alright?” She asks, this time with a furrow between her brows.

 

Jeralt feels some weight heave off of his shoulders at her concern. He opens his mouth, prepared to reply, but he’s unceremoniously interrupted by the distinct sound produced by the small bells hung up across the walls of the ballroom.

 

Though tiny in size, the bells create a loud enough sound with their numbers. Immediately, the guests cease their chattering and stand a little straighter in attention, looking over at the entrance that’s closer to where Jeralt is now standing.

 

When the ringing stops, the gigantic double doors are pulled open by the attendants.

 

“Good evening, everyone!” Hails the Duke as he enters the room with his son following after him, the double doors closing behind them in a loud boom . “I’d like to thank each one of you for celebrating our beloved Leicester Alliance Day in my home! To be able to mark the 276th anniversary of its founding with all of you, I sure find myself humbled!”

 

A few laughs ripple through the crowd at that admission.

 

“I apologize for disturbing your merriment, but I wanted to announce something crucial before we have the first dance,” Duke Riegan beams, his wrinkles deepening with delight and innocence.

 

Reminded of how suspicious Duke Riegan had been acting just a while ago, Jeralt narrows his eyes and stands closer to his brood.

 

“I’m sure you’ve all heard of the incident that occurred between my territory and Count Gloucester’s,” Duke Riegan brings up, wearing an expression of agony. He doesn’t even have to specify what, exactly, had taken place, because the rest of the crowd began murmuring their assent and their own theories. “An ill-fated meeting, I’d say, but it certainly brought to light what should really matter me.”

 

Duke Riegan looks to his son and sends him a warm smile, to which Lord Godfrey responds to with a nod.

 

“Though I have all the world’s faith in Godfrey’s strength and prowess on the battlefield, that incident taught me that even the strongest and most robust could vanish like a flickering flame if caution hadn’t been put into place,” Duke Riegan declares. “And so, I have taken the liberty of taking a spare heir in case another incident like this were to happen!” 

 

There’s a distinct moment of stunned surprise in the room.

 

“A spare…?” Miklan murmurs with furrowed brows. “But, doesn’t the Duke only have Lord Riegan? Considering that…” He trails off, purposefully not finishing his sentence with the Alliance ears around them.

 

It is, after all, taboo to talk about Tiana von Riegan, especially around Duke Riegan.

 

However, the Duke himself broaches upon the topic with relative ease.

 

“You all know of my estranged daughter,” the Duke starts with a tilt of his head, his smile still in place. In spite of the relaxed manner that he presents himself with, there’s a cutting sharpness to his Riegan green eyes.

 

A warning.

 

Don’t fucking speak bad of her. Especially now .

 

Even Jeralt feels the shudder that runs down his spine. He clenches his fists to minimize the effects, but even he can see how the rest around him tremble with the frightening aura radiating off of Duke Riegan.

 

“Though her sudden disappearance certainly caused a great deal of vexation for me.” Here, Duke Riegan’s eyes soften. “Not once did I ever say that her inheritance rights were to be relinquished to House Riegan.”

 

“...What is the meaning of this?” Jeritza inquires softly. “Did Lady Riegan return home?”

 

“Not necessarily,” replies Byleth. “It doesn’t have to be Lady Riegan herself that came back...” Her gaze turns past the Duke and Lord Riegan, staring pointedly at the closed pair of gigantic double doors. 

 

Jeritza and Miklan simultaneously make a sound of confusion, before they still, meet each other’s gazes, and keenly look in the opposite direction.

 

Jeralt, however, is gradually comprehending just what , exactly, the Duke is implying.

 

Lady Tiana never lost her rights to inherit House Riegan , Jeralt pieces together. And, so long as Lord Godfrey doesn’t have any children, any child of her line will inherit those rights.

 

“A child…” Jeralt mumbles beneath his breath, realization settling over his features as he finally, finally , understands.

 

That Almyran , he thinks, a flutter of panicked butterflies going absolutely bonkers in his chest. His gold against bronze cape. The Duke’s hostility.

 

It all comes crashing down on him.

 

It’s not Godfrey that had a bastard . Jeralt realizes his mistake. It’s

 

Jeralt is abruptly startled from his thoughts when the Duke speaks up once more.

 

“And without further ado!” Duke Riegan sets forth, dramatically gesturing to the set of double doors. “My grandson!”

 

At that signal, the same attendants by the door take their cue to heave the gigantic doors open as wide as possible in order to generously welcome the newcomer.

 

Jeralt is all too much of the muffled gasps that echo from the crowd, can practically feel how everyone’s eyes are as wide as dinner plates, but he can’t quite blame them.

 

Duke Riegan’s grandson comes strolling in with a confident gait, weighed down in an ensemble of lustrous fabrics in the distinct Riegan colors of gold and bronze, and gold practically dripping from the ends of his clothes and from that one distinct braid hanging by the side of his face.

 

He comes to a stop on the other side of Duke Riegan— equal contenders , is what his position says—and he holds himself in the same easygoing yet uniquely regal manner that the rest of his House do.

 

And it’s clear, with the way all three Riegans of different generations stand together, how remarkably different this new one is.

 

“An Almyran,” breathes out Rebecca, her gaze firmly latched onto the youngest Riegan’s distinctly darker complexion. Though there isn’t any sort of displeasure on her and her husband’s faces, it’s clear that they’re clearly stupefied by the news.

 

Despite the less than warm reaction from the guests, the youngest Riegan doesn’t appear the least bit deterred.

 

Instead, he smiles .

 

“Good evening, everyone,” he cordially greets, not a hint of any lingering accent, as he executes a flawless bow befitting his stature. “I do hope that you’ve all been having a wonderful time,” he briefly touches on.

 

Nobody, of course, answers.

 

They’re all too fucked out of their heads to , internally drawls Jeralt, feeling a little too fucked in the head as well. He should have expected this, he really should have. This was, like, S-class Riegan fuckery at its most typical.

 

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the youngest Riegan proffers, nonplussed by the stark silence he gets in return. He places a hand over his heart and raises his chin, his gaze sweeping over the crowd before it stops in the general direction of where Jeralt and his brood are standing at.

 

For some reason, his clear-cut smile widens, bringing his cheekbones high underneath his eyes.

 

Eyes that are so very clearly Riegan green .

 

“I am Claude von Riegan,” he introduces himself, his voice loud enough to reach even the furthermost corners of the room. “Grandson to the current Duke of House Riegan, Oswald, and nephew to House Riegan’s heir, Godfrey. My mother is Tiana von Riegan, and from her, the blood of Riegan flows strongly through my veins!”

 

As cliche as the words are, Jeralt recognizes the value in them, the meaning of them.

 

It’s the oath that each and every Riegan is expected to say when it’s their traditional rite of maturity to welcome them as true members of House Riegan, their simplified vow to their House that just as their living ancestors carry the strength and cunning of the Elite Riegan, so do they.

 

All that’s missing is an affirmative testimony from the Riegan head, and the rite will be complete, recognizing this Claude as a true Riegan through and through.

 

And, judging by Duke Riegan’s twinkling eyes, Jeralt can hazard a guess that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

 

“You are Claude von Riegan,” Duke Riegan confirms, turning to face him. “Truly your grandfather’s grandson, your uncle’s nephew, and your mother’s son. I see in your eyes and in your hands that the blood of Riegan flows strongly inside of you," he finishes, irrefutably binding Claude to House Riegan.

 

There are several sharp intakes from the crowd, a distinct low murmur rippling through as nobles and significant commoners begin their game of can you believe this?

 

“That...was quite a shock,” Isaac remarks, blinking several times. It takes a while for him to rip his gaze away from the center, but he nonetheless succeeds and shakes his wife back to reality. 

 

“That’s definitely one way of putting it,” says Jeralt.

 

He’s nearly jolted out his skin when he feels a firm hand latch onto his arm. When he checks, Jeralt is only relieved to see that it’s only Byleth.

 

“—early,” is all Jeralt is able to make out of Byleth’s muttering.

 

There’s an uncharacteristic seriousness on her face, but Jeralt chalks it up to her just being shocked at this sudden reveal, especially when she’d met the youngest Riegan a few nights ago and probably thought him to be, well, less important than now.

 

Jeralt follows her line of sight, and feels his gut clench horridly when he sees the matching grins on the three Riegans’ faces as they look to one another.

 

Riegans,  Jeralt thinks with a shudder that he doesn't suppress this time.