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A Fistful of Blasting Powder

Chapter Text

When he saw the green-haired girl lounging on her throne, he did the first thing that instinctively came to him.

He shot her.

The pistol in his hand was a large caliber matchlock. He raised the ogre of a gun and discharged it directly at her petite body.

The round went through the girl’s form and kept on going. Without any effect whatsoever.

The clearly supernatural being before him blinked. And then blinked again.

“Did you just shoot me?” the melodic lilt of her voice was tinged with disbelief.

“No,” he lied and inserted another ball into the barrel of his pistol. The one downside about matchlocks was that they took a veritable age to reload. Which was why he usually carried multiple braces of pistols holstered on his belt. For whatever reason, this dream, and it was undoubtedly a dream, had only seen fit to give him one.

“You just did!” the girl had risen from her throne and placed her hands at her hips, “You totally just shot me!”

“It was a figment of your imagination,” he replied as he tipped gunpowder carefully into the flash pan.

“It was a figment of my imagination that you shot me when you clearly just shot me,” the supernatural being repeated flatly before growing curious, “What… What did you shoot me with?”

“Lead ball,” he explained while lighting the match affixed to the back of the gun, “Round shot.”

“I knew that!” the girl said proudly despite every action that indicated otherwise, “Wait. What are you doing now?”

“Reloading.”

“For what?”

“For this,” he said and fired his pistol at her a second time.

 “You…” when the smoke cleared, he could see that the little girl’s entire frame was trembling with indignity, “You… You just stop this! Stop this right now!”

He paused out of consideration and also because the second shot, like the first, passed through his intended target without any tangible effect.

“How dare you treat me like this!” the girl glared at him haughtily, “Do you know who I am? I’m.. I’m… Wait. Who am I again?”

He frowned and sheathed the sword he had half-drawn from his waist. More and more it became apparent that the tiny being was not so much a threat but a very confused child.

“Oh! This is all very vexing!” the girl was now pacing back and forth on the dais of her throne, “It was on the tip of my tongue too! What was my name? Just who am I? Aha!”

“Did you remember your name?” he ventured politely.

“No, but I just remembered how you got here. You got killed. By that bandit with the axe. When you were trying to save that girl.”

He nodded. He remembered that too.

“How utterly foolish! Getting yourself killed like that. And now I have to fix the mess you’ve gotten yourself into… Wait… If I’m here to fix your mess… Then that means I must have been sent to guide you!”

He considered the words carefully.

“It is a possibility,” he admitted.

“I’m your guide!” the girl exclaimed triumphantly before glaring at him again, “I’m your guide and you just shot me!”

“It was out of instinct,” he said truthfully.

“Your first instinct when you meet someone is to shoot them?”

“Most of the times when I meet someone, it is on the battlefield.”

“Then why did you shoot me a second time!?”

“I had to make sure shooting you the first time didn’t work.”

The girl sighed and slumped back into her throne. She began massaging her forehead with her hand.

“Well, this is just great. I’m stuck with someone whose idea of a greeting is shooting people in the face. Why couldn’t you shoot the bandit instead?”

“I tried. The pistol jammed.”

“And now you’re dead and I’m stuck with you. Hmph. I wonder if I can send you back… yes… of course! Of course, I can do that!”

“Is it… possible?” he wondered.

“Everything’s possible with me,” the girl puffed out her chest, “All I have to do is send you back in time and have you fix your mistakes!”

He nodded.

“I am willing to try.”

“Very well! I don’t know how exactly it works but I think I can Divine Pulse you back into the past. Be careful though! I don’t think I can do this constantly. Oh, one more thing! If we happen to meet again in here, don’t shoot me!”

++++++

All around the trio, the signs of battle were winding down. The bandits had struck the transport column in the dead of night and scattered the guards. They would have scattered the entire caravan too had not help arrived from a most unlikely source.

Swift riders had burst from the forest line surrounding the cobblestone road. Black steel cuirasses protected their chests and black steel barbutes adorned their heads. Red feather plumes jutted from each helm, signifying some sort of elite status. And when they charged the surprised ruffians, they disgorged fire and brimstone from the strange weapons in their hands.

The bandits had lasted barely an instant.

Those not slain by heavy broadswords were shot down with efficiency bordering on the ruthless.

There had still been some close calls. Like when the bandit with the two-handed axe had rushed Edelgard when all she had in her hand was the dagger to defend herself.

That bandit was now lying still at the noble’s feet, bleeding red ruin onto the earth below.

The mercenary pulled his sword from the dead man’s chest. His features were young, younger than one ought to expect for someone in his profession. Blank, emotionless eyes surveyed the scene before flickering towards the ones he had just saved.

The three students shared uncertain glances before one of them stepped forward.

“You really saved our butts back there,” the seventeen-year-old heir of House Riegan smiled winningly, “The name’s Claude von Riegan,” he extended a friendly hand out towards the stranger.

The mercenary stared at the hand and then at Claude. Several seconds ticked by before Claude realized that his hand would forego any form of being shaken. The leader of the Golden Deer let his arm drop awkwardly by his side.

“Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd,” the young man clad in regal blue stepped into place beside Claude and bowed stiffly, “I thank you for the service you have rendered. Many lives were preserved because of you and your men.”

The mercenary responded by wiping away the blood covering his blade with an old cloth before sheathing it into the scabbard by his side.

“Not the talkative type, are you?” the young woman approached last. She was shorter than her male counterparts but the air of authority surrounding her somehow seemed so much the greater, “I am Edelgard von Hresvelg, Heir Apparent to the Adrestian Empire. And what my companions have not told you is the royal lineage they belong to. Dimitri is the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Faerghus. Claude, while he may not seem like it, is the Heir to House Riegan, the preeminent house of the Leicester Alliance,” a small smile crept onto her face, “You have not saved only innocents this day, but also royalty.”

The mercenary nodded as though while he cared not for the information that was being shared, he appreciated the sharing nonetheless.

Claude looked at his fellow class leaders.

“Is he mute or something?”

“Claude!” Edelgard admonished.

“What? It’s not every day you get to see all three future rulers of Fódlan in one place! And all we got out of him was just a nod!”

“It is most impolite to make assumptions based off someone’s behavior,” Dimitri said graciously, “If our new friend chooses to remain silent, it is entirely within his rights to do so. We should not force him to do otherwise.”

The sound of galloping hooves made them turn. The man on top the horse was a grizzled, muscular specimen of his kind. The lines etched onto his face were from both age and war, and as he guided his steed slowly to a stop into their midst, he looked every inch the battle-tested leader.

The soldiers around them clasped their fists and beat them against their chests twice as he rode past. A salute foreign to those used in Fódlan.

“Captain Jeralt!” some of them called out.

“Captain Jeralt?” Claude whispered, “Jeralt… as in that Jeralt? The Blade Breaker?”

“What is the former Captain of the Knights of Seiros doing here?” Dimitri wondered out loud.

“Whatever the reason,” Edelgard said calmly as the man leapt down from his horse, “We’re about to find out.”

The three students stiffened as Jeralt drew close. Heirs and royalty, they may be, but a living legend like the Blade Breaker was intimidating all on its own.

“Father.”

The single word that came behind them would change the nature of the ensuing conversation entirely.

The man frowned as he took in the scene before him.

“You were right to be cautious,” he said matter-of-factly, “But taking the Crimson Plumes on a scouting mission without support from the main group was reckless, Byleth.”

The mercenary… Byleth… inclined his head at the rebuke but said nothing more. Jeralt smiled at his silence as though it was something he had long grown accustomed to.

“Although this time it might have just been worth the danger,” the veteran warrior turned to look at three class leaders, “I know those uniforms. You’re students from Garreg Mach Monastery aren’t you? What are you doing out here and not at the academy?”

“We were escorting a caravan of provisions as well as our newest professor to the Monastery,” Dimitri spoke for all of them, “Unfortunately, it appears that our potential teacher fled at the first sign of danger,” the young prince placed an earnest hand over his breast and bowed, “It is an honor to be in your presence, Sir Jeralt.”

“The Blade Breaker,” Claude entwined his fingers behind his head and grinned, “In the flesh! Rumor has it you disappeared years ago to go off on some wild adventure.”

“Yes,” Edelgard said neutrally, “and if those rumors are to be believed, you spent most of those years in foreign lands far from Fódlan.”

The man seemed faintly embarrassed at the attention he was getting.

“What you say is true. Almost two decades ago I ventured across the Great Sea with my son.”

“And now you’re back.”

Jeralt shrugged.

“Call it homesickness if you will, but there were some things I felt I needed to take care of in Fódlan.”

Claude let out a low whistle.

“Jeralt and his company of famous mercenaries. Sailing across the sea to fight a hundred different battles. I grew up listening to those stories. But I never thought I’d meet you face to face. If I told my mother right now, I don’t think she would ever believe me.”

“Your stories are a little outdated,” the man smiled slightly, “It’s more than just a company now.”

“More?” Edelgard picked up on the insinuation, “How many men have you brought with you?”

It wasn’t Jeralt who answered but the mercenary facing him, voice a soft, steady rasp.

“A full tercio,” Byleth replied.

“A full tercio,” Claude repeated the strange word curiously.

“It’s a military system they use abroad,” Jeralt explained somewhat uneasily, “The word comes from a foreign language. It means One-Third. Specifically, a tercio should contain one-third pike, one-third swords, and one-third arquebuses. Though nowadays, the role of the swordsmen is slowly being supplanted entirely by pikemen.”

“Arquebuses are the fire… firearms that shoot smoke and flame?” Dimitri pondered, “The Kingdom is aware of such armaments existing and our military advisors have debated importing them, but so far nothing has come of it. It is interesting to see that foreign nations are so willing to stake their reputations on such an unusual weapon.”

“In some ways the foreign lands are inferior to Fódlan,” was Jeralt’s answer, “In other ways, they are far superior.”

“How many men are usually in a tercio?” Edelgard pressed.

The grizzled mercenary looked at her oddly before scratching his chin.

“It varies. Most of the time it hovers around three thousand. But larger, fuller organizations ranging towards five thousand are not unheard of.”

“And you have a full one,” the future Emperor of Adrestia narrowed her eyes slightly.

Jeralt regarded her quizzically.

“That’s right.”

The three students exchanged looks. Five thousand seasoned men-at-arms being led by a superlative commander like the Blade Breaker was a significant force multiplier for any nation in Fódlan. In fact, one might say that such a force could potentially tip the scales on any future conflict solidly in the favor of the realm that employed them.

“Sir Jeralt,” Dimitri, always the boldest of the three, seized on the opportunity, “The Holy Kingdom is always in need of brave and honorable men like you. Would you consider joining your talents with the Crown of Faerghus?”

His fellow house leaders immediately leapt to follow his example.

“Sir Jeralt---”

“Sir Blade Breaker---"

“Whoa now,” the man held up both his hands up placatingly, “I don’t handle that side of the business anymore. You’ll want to talk to him about that.”

The former captain of the Knights of Seiros nodded his head in a certain direction. Three pairs of eyes followed.

Byleth blinked in response. He blinked again when Claude threw a comradely arm over his shoulder.

“Say Byleth, I can call you Byleth right? I know this is your first time in Fódlan and everything, and I know just how overwhelming it can be when you’re new here. But don’t worry! Good ol’ Claude has got your back! I’ll introduce you to all the different provinces on this little continent of ours,” the noble began steering the mercenary away from the others, “In fact, there’s this swell place called the Leicester Alliance…”

Both Dimitri and Edelgard started.

“Halt, Claude! It would only be fair if the Kingdom of Faerghus had a chance to recruit an exceptional individual like Sir Byleth.”

“Indeed. The Adrestian Empire has a storied and prosperous history. Your skill, Sir Byleth, will be greatly valued and compensated within our realm.”

“Guys. Relax. I’m not trying to sway him to my side. All I’m doing is introducing him to the different locations in Fódlan. And if sometime during the process he decides that the Leicester Alliance is the ideal place to be, it will all be just a happy coincidence!”

“A happy coincidence? Hah! More like a predetermined strategy of recruitment!”

“Exactly! And what is there in the Leicester Alliance besides squabbling nobles? The Adrestian Empire on the other hand…”

Jeralt watched as his son was reluctantly led away by the trio of nobles. A small smile tugged at his lips even as his mind roamed towards darker thoughts.

“Good luck, kid,” he sighed, “You’re going to need it with that lot.”

Chapter Text

She had placed her men on the upwards sloping side of a hill. Standard Imperial formation. Heavy infantry in full plate with pavise shields out front. Lighter melee elements and archers behind. She kept a body of cavalry commanded by Ferdinand as a mobile reserve, ready to charge downhill from an elevated position to drive off potential enemy assaults.

She didn’t think there would be a need to. Advancing uphill into an entrenched infantry line backed by ranged support was suicide. But she needed to be sure.

She honestly couldn’t understand what Rhea was planning.

To hold a mock wargame before the academy year fully started, and with the Battle of the Eagle and Lion still months away.

Inwardly though, she knew that it had something to do with the Blade Breaker’s sudden reappearance. More specifically, the five thousand men he had brought with him.

They stood now across the field from her Black Eagles, the full tercio, waiting for orders yet to be given. She had seen some of the individual companies marching in columns to join the rest at Garreg Mach, but never the entire force. She was no stranger to matters dealing with the military, but to witness a foreign battle formation in full array and gathered in one place… that was something else entirely.

Edelgard’s gaze roamed across the blocks of soldiers with their unfamiliar banners and unusual weapons. They represented a potent force on a continent that had not seen full-fledged war for years. The Church of Seiros maintained too much of an iron grip for major rebellions to flare up with any degree of regularity. Just what was Jeralt thinking bringing what amounted to a small army onto Fódlan’s shores?

It couldn’t have been a coincidence and Edelgard did not like to trust in fate. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but be tempted by the thought. What would she do if she had five thousand veteran warriors at her back? The Imperial Armies numbered in the tens of thousands of men but they were unreliable. The common soldier might be sympathetic to her cause but the generals and commanders who held the seals of authority were solidly in the pockets of the Seven. The same nobles who had stripped her father of his power and reduced him to a mere figurehead now ran the Adrestian Empire with the full backing of its political and military branches.

Revolting against their rule was all but impossible with her current means.

But if she had five thousand sworn men-at-arms equipped with foreign firearms…

Edelgard quashed the idea before it could fully develop. She didn’t have the time to think about fantasies. She needed to deal with reality.

“My Lady Edelgard.”

“Hubert,” she had long grown accustomed to the voice to know who exactly it was that whispered into her ear, “What have you found out?”

“Nothing that you don’t already know, Lady Edelgard,” her trusted advisor stepped back into his permanent place behind her, “My sources have plied the Blade Breaker’s soldiers for information using the standard methods, but for mercenaries, they have remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the subject. All I have managed to uncover is that some among them refer to him as the ‘Ashen Demon’.”

The future Emperor of Adrestia took the information at face value.

“From the tone of your voice,” her eyes refused to leave the five thousand men assembling into position below her, “you disagree with this course of action.”

“It is dangerous, my lady,” Hubert said sibilantly, “We can, if you allow it, begin to entice the individual companies with offers of lucrative contracts and noble sponsorships. But to sway their commander? It is risky. We cannot trust anyone with your ambitions and the cause you have secretly fought for all your life. It will be easier to lure away the men under the leader than the leader himself.”

“Do you think men who have followed their commander across the Great Sea will be easily lured away just with the promise of more gold?”

“They are mercenaries, Lady Edelgard,” her advisor reminded her, “And even if they were not, all men have their price.”

“Not this one,” murmured Edelgard as she caught sight of him.

His steed was as black as midnight, matching the coal black hue of his warplate. The old soldier’s cloak he liked to wear flapped like a cape behind him. Strapped to both sides of his horse’s chest were holsters of pistols complimenting the additional clutches he wore at his belt. The simple steel sword he rested over his shoulder was remarkable in just how unremarkable it was. His retinue copied his method of dress, polished black cuirasses glinting as they caught the sun’s rays, but could not come close to duplicating his presence.

Even at this distance she could see the effect he had on his men. The formations of pike, long polearms held upright like a forest of trees, raised the hafts of their weapons as he rode by. The firing lines of musketeers hefted their heavy matchlocks to shoulder level and clasped their fists to their chests. The line officers in their elaborately embroidered armor drew swords that shone like quicksilver and brought them hilt to nose when his horse trotted past.

“They certainly… respect him,” admitted Hubert reluctantly.

Edelgard closed her eyes.

It was one thing to be feared. To order people that society deemed inferior to yourself. To command them because it was naturally expected for those of lesser birth to follow those born into the ranks of the vaunted nobility.

The solitary throne raised on the dais with nothing but squabbling ministers arguing beneath its steps.

It was another to be loved. To have people follow you because they believed in your cause. To have them accomplish great feats and dedicate them to you because your journey was now their journey.

The boisterous, crowded avenue lined with cheering commonfolk and saluting soldiery… and the young man with dark green hair riding by her side.

The first path was a lonely existence and one she knew she must walk.

The second path was warmer, broader, and one she desperately wanted to walk.

“That is why I want him,” she said softly.

++++++

Captain Werner watched the young man gallop up to his formation of waiting pikemen. The youth was being attended by a dozen of his elite Crimson Plume cuirassiers, riding hard by his side. The red feather pinions that were their badges of honor fluttered in the wind. 

He reined his horse to a stop in front of the veteran officer.

The soldiers within vicinity immediately pounded their fists twice against their chests. The sergeants and corporals raised the hafts of their halberds in likewise salute.

“Captain.”

“My prince.”

Byleth’s gaze swept across the five-hundred-man company. There were nine more just like it in the tercio, though Werner’s Chosen Sons held a more prestigious reputation compared to the rest.

“I will be relying on you today, Captain,” the young man’s voice, as always, never rose an octave above normal.

Werner snorted. The tight confines of his ornate sallet made the noise sound like the grunt of a consumptive bull.

“You say that like you haven’t commanded us before, sir.”

The youth nodded, emotionless, and Werner was reminded of just how they had met.

The besieging army had opened a hole in the walls and threatened to pour through. Jeralt had held the breach. He had held it single-handedly against waves of attackers to buy the defenders time. He and his son. The lone mercenary, fighting like a warrior-king of old, laying low the foe until they piled into a hill at his feet. And his child, a boy not older than ten, silently loading and reloading that old arquebus, shooting down anything and everything that got past his father’s guard.

Werner had seen it himself as he led reinforcements to seal the breach. It was one of those singularly heroic sights a man would remember for the rest of his life. The warrior-king, his blade flashing in silver blurs, and the stalwart prince, calmly bringing down men twice his age and twice his size with each aimed shot.

The names had stuck ever since. Every company in the tercio had their own monikers for the duo but for the Chosen Sons, it was Jeralt, the Warrior-King and Byleth, the Stalwart Prince.

“I hear we’ll be conducting this mock battle on holy ground,” Werner squinted up at the youth, gauging for a reaction, “Some sort of blessing. Wounds will heal while we’re fighting on it. At least that’s what they tell us.”

“It was blessed by their goddess. Thousands of years ago.”

“And that’ll be the three houses then? Arrayed before us?”

“The Black Eagles. The Blue Lions. And the Golden Deer.”

“Well, sir, if all three of them work together to surround us, we might land in some hot water.”

“They won’t.”

Werner had lived long enough and fought hard enough in Jeralt’s tercio to know when the man’s son was being completely serious.

“You’re sure?” he nevertheless felt the need to ask.

“Three Houses. Three nations. Different politics. Competing goals. What do you think the chances are of them allying together?”

The mercenary captain pondered the question before replying.

“I would say less than zero, sir, but I don’t think there’s a number less than zero.”

Byleth remained silent, allowing the conversation to drag out for an inordinate length. Werner waited patiently, knowing that this was just another idiosyncrasy one had to grow accustomed to if one wanted to campaign alongside the father and son duo.

“The Blue Lions will charge us first,” the youth said at last, “After we repel them, we will immediately begin a rapid advance towards the Golden Deer. The tercio will break into five separate components. Pressure from multiple directions. Skirmishing lines up front. Infantry in support. Our cavalry will veer out and flank them. Nothing escapes the encirclement.”

Werner idly tapped the hilt of the officer’s sword sheathed at his side.

“And the Black Eagles?”

“They are in an entrenched position. On elevated terrain with an unobstructed view of the battlefield. It will be difficult to dislodge them.”

“If it was up to me, sir, I’d lug up the cannons and blast them out of cover.”

“It would not be conductive to our relations with the academy if we ended up killing the students, Captain.”

Werner chuckled. Byleth tilted his head.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No, sir. It’s just that the Archbishop must have been extraordinarily ravishing for you and Jeralt to even consider this request.”

The youth’s gaze locked onto the mercenary officer. There was nothing in his eyes that suggested anything remotely close to amusement.

“Was that a joke at my expense, Captain?”

Werner cleared his throat. The Chosen Sons may have elected an affectionate nickname for their young commander, but among the mercenary circles and sellsword guilds back home, there was a far darker title he was known by.

“No, my prince. Forgive me.”

Byleth stared back at him with an expression as blank and featureless as imperial marble.

“Then it was a joke at the expense of my father.”

The men in the front ranks, those within earshot, veteran soldiers clad in munitions-grade half-plate, winced.

“I’m sorry, my prince. I… don’t know what came over me.”

“Don’t be,” Byleth turned to resume studying the formations arrayed against them. There wasn’t even a hint of emotion on his face, “It was actually quite funny.”

++++++

Edelgard heard the hoofbeats but didn’t move from her position.

“You’re supposed to be with the cavalry reserves, Ferdinand.”

The young noble and her self-proclaimed rival leapt down from his horse. One of her retainers stepped forward to take the reins.

The heir of the Aegir Dukedom marched purposefully to join her side. Hubert begrudgingly gave him room.

“I am still opposed to how we’ve placed the men, Edelgard,” Ferdinand began without preamble, “We should be out there in the open, just like the Blue Lions.”

Edelgard followed to where he was pointing. Dimitri had arranged his Blue Lions facing the tercio on the flat plains in front of the hill. It was a risky deployment but it also made sense. The level terrain made ideal ground for the Holy Kingdom’s cavalry. The Golden Deer, on the other hand, had disappeared in the forested region opposite the Black Eagles’ position. Edelgard had caught sight of Claude directing his men to take cover amid the thick foliage and underbrush half an hour ago. They hadn’t moved from their hidden spots since.

“It is not the place of the advisor to make decisions for the ruler,” Hubert’s voice brought her back to her senses.

“If she can’t take the advice we give her, then she doesn’t deserve to be a ruler!” Ferdinand shot back.

“Control yourselves,” she warned them before turning to Ferdinand, “Why do you think I’ve placed our forces wrongly?”

“You’re after those mercenaries, aren’t you?” Edelgard found her opinion of her rival noble rising. Despite his obstinacies, Ferdinand could be quite perceptive at times, “You want them to fight for the Empire and not Faerghus or the Alliance. So we have to show them our power. Our martial ability. Impress them enough that they won’t consider being contracted somewhere else. We can’t do that stuck up on this hill. Which is why I propose we immediately move our forces down the slope to challenge them.”

“You won’t get a chance to,” Hubert said softly.

“What?” Ferdinand turned towards him.

He’s making a moving, my lady.”

Edelgard said nothing as she watched the Blue Lions start the battle by launching a full-frontal advance towards their mutual foe.

“I hope you’re happy with fighting for the leftover glory, Edelgard,” sighed Ferdinand, “because we’re certainly not going to get any.”

++++++

The wind whipped through his hair. The lance in his hand was a solid construction of steel and ash wood. He held it upright, like his instructors had told him to do before the canter became a full-fledged charge.

Behind him thundered five hundred heavy riders, Kingdom knights on loan from their lords and barons, men-at-arms sent to attend him, fellow noble students of the academy, donning practice suits of armor.

The flower of Faerghus nobility, tightly compacted in a flying wedge, bearing down on the enemy in dense lines of man and horse.

Dimitri’s breath caught in his throat. He had poured through books describing past annals of long-ago battles and listened attentively to words of advice from senior knights.

Nothing compared to the real thing.

He could feel the muscles of the beast under him twisting and cording with each careening stride. He could hear the snorts and grunts of the mounts to the immediate left and side of him. He could sense the cacophony of hooves trampling the ground, propelling hundreds of pounds of mass and force in a pell-mell stampede.

The Royal Prince of Faerghus wasn’t sure why Lady Rhea had decided to implement this mock battle, but it was a chance to demonstrate the battle prowess of the Holy Kingdom and a chance to win recognition from his peers.

And if he was honest with himself, it was also a chance to sway five thousand foreign mercenaries to the banner of Fhirdiad.

He risked a glance over his shoulder though his instructors had told him before there was no need to. Horses were herd animals. They instinctively followed the herd leader.

Sylvain, commanding one wing of the wedge, winked back at him. Ingrid, commanding the second, nodded curtly.

Behind them both, Dimitri caught sight of the infantry led by Dedue, Felix, and the others, struggling to keep up.

The Royal Prince frowned.

The Knights of Faerghus were feared and respected but the infantry left much to be desired. They were brave and stalwart as any citizen of the Kingdom were, but their quality could only be described as middling compared to the Adrestian Empire’s Heavy Foot. It had been one more thing his father had wanted to reform before… before Duscar.

Dimitri gritted his teeth as trumpets sounded, announcing that the distance had closed to a sufficient point. He responded by digging his spurs into the flanks of his steed. The animal whinnied and broke into a full gallop. Oaths and shouts of challenge sounded from all around him as his knights goaded their mounts to do the same.

The young prince lowered his lance. He couched the pole under his arm, bracing it against his own body. He directed fifteen hundred pounds of weight mixed between rider and steed down the ash wood shaft and into the blunted steel tip.

“Imagine the lance as an extension of your body,” his instructors had told him, “strike as though it was your own arm, and you will succeed.

So he did.

He imagined aiming the lance at the barbaric hordes of the King of Liberation in the War of Ancients, mounted alongside ten thousand charging chevaliers commanded by First Emperor Wilhelm.

He imagined directing it against the formations of Imperial troops in the War of the Eagle and Lion, riding side by side to the great Loog himself to set the people of Faerghus free from the Empire’s heavy-handed tyranny.

He imagined driving it deep into the guts of those responsible for the Tragedy of Duscar, twisting the grip and watching them writhe in pain…

The treasonous image dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. Dimitri was glad then that he was leading the charge from the front. It meant his men couldn’t see the leer that had involuntarily formed across his face.

The enemy had arranged themselves in a hollow square with ranged elements in front of all four sides. The pikes that were the mainstay of their formation were longer than any spear Dimitri had ever seen.

But that didn’t matter. Nothing could stand before the weight and mass of a couched lance charge. Not when it was being performed by the finest cavaliers in Fódlan and possibly the world.

“For the Kingdom and for Loog!” the warcry, one that had been used since the founding of Faerghus, tore itself free from the young prince’s bosom.

The answering cry came from hundreds of throats as the entire mass of men and horse came crashing down on the hapless enemy.

“For the Kingdom and for Loog!”

They were still shouting the warcry when the first volley knocked a third of them off their saddles.

Chapter Text

Her feet automatically took her forward.

She couldn’t help herself. She had to get a better view.

The first volley smashed into the charging ranks of Kingdom cavalry like a blow hurled from a hammer. Steeds shrieked as they were hit. Warriors in full plate collapsed limp in their saddles. The entire front rank of knights fell in a tangled line of kicking animals and crumpled men. The rear ranks that came after couldn’t rein in their horses fully. They collided with the ruined first line and added to the chaos.

“If that had been real shot…” Hubert let the suggestion hang in the air.

Just like the students were using training weapons for the purposes of the mock battle, the mercenaries had also dulled their own blades and changed the standard rounds they used to something far less deadly. Nevertheless, the point still stood.

If that had been real shot, then a third of Dimitri’s riders would be dead instead of just unhorsed.

It was only due to the Royal Prince of Faerghus’s exceptional ability to lead that he managed to extricate his men from the situation.

Edelgard watched from her vantage point as Dimitri disentangled his confused lines through sheer force of will and launched them again in an assault towards the tercio. The Kingdom cavalry had lost their compact wedge, but if they could catch the vulnerable musketeers while they were out in the open…

Drums sounded from within the tercio. The musketeers promptly wheeled on their heel and marched back into the protective formations of pike. At the same time, the front ranks of pikemen planted the butt ends of their polearms into the ground and elevated the pointed tips towards the visors of the charging foe. The second and third ranks lowered their weapons to shoulder level and together with the first rank, presented a solid wall of spearpoints just in time to greet the Blue Lions’ charge.

Some of the steeds had been spooked by the earlier volley. They careened out of control and carried their riders directly into the polearms to be impaled. Most instinctively reared up at the spearpoints aiming for their vulnerable necks and bellies. Men thrown by the panicked beasts landed in jumbled heaps in front of the pike wall.

Faced with an impenetrable front, Dimitri had no choice but to steer his cavalry to the sides. This, he also managed to do. The Kingdom knights flowed like water around the tercio, trying to find an opening in the sides of the formation. But there were pikemen there too, arrayed in dense lines and bracing their polearms against the ground. Even worse, the musketeers stationed behind them had not fired yet and as the Blue Lions rode by, still unable to breach the walls of bristling spears, the foreign soldiers slammed hardened, brass-reinforced stocks to their shoulders in unison and discharged a veritable storm of shot into the horsemen’s flanks.

“Goddess…” Ferdinand whispered.

Once, when she was little, Edelgard had seen a carnival set up in the noble quarters of the Imperial capital. There had been a booth where small targets were hung on a wooden board and children invited to shoot at them with toy crossbows. With her mother and father’s permission, she had played that game all night and gone back to the Imperial Palace with an armful of prizes.

The sudden way scores of men and beasts fell simultaneously thrashing to the ground resembled the practice targets filled with toy bolts dropping to the booth’s floor.

++++++

Ingrid’s horse took four rounds to the chest and flank. It ploughed into the earth head first and catapulted its rider in a high parabolic arc. Dimitri had time to see the girl’s flailing form flying through the air before she dropped out of sight amid the tumult of shouting men and confused steeds.

“Steady!” he waved his lance desperately, trying to rally the faltering ranks, “Steady!”

Trumpets blared in the distance and the young prince knew just from the sound of them that they were not his own.

The line of enemy horsemen rode into view. None of them were barded or armored like the knightly mounts of Faerghus but it was clear by now that it was not needed. Instead of crouching lances and spears, the mercenary riders drew heavy pistols and cavalry carbines from holsters strapped to their horses’ sides. Among them were Byleth’s own black-clad bodyguards, spearheading the charge, pistols in both hands. Together, they hit the stricken Kingdom horse at a dead gallop and discharged their firearms at point-blank range into the reeling Blue Lions.  

Bodies dropped all around the young prince. Many having taken rounds meant for him.

Something dark and bestial lit up within his chest.

He wheeled his steed around to face the swarming mercenaries.

One of them levelled his pistol at him and fired it an arm’s length away from the Royal Prince. Dimitri felt the shot graze his shoulder. In return, he brought his lance in a roundabout swing that smashed the mercenary clean out of his saddle.

Another came at him brandishing a basket-hilted broadsword. Dimitri reversed the grip on his lance and drove the butt-end into the mercenary’s chest. The force behind the blow staved in the man’s steel breastplate and punched him off his mount.

Just in time for the third horseman to ride past and discharge his pistol directly into the neck of Dimitri’s horse.

The young prince crashed to the ground. It was only through some miracle of luck that his stunned steed didn’t pin him beneath its heavy bulk. He rushed to his feet only to duck a wild swubg from a passing rider. He scrambled for his lance but came up empty-handed. Sometime during the fall, he had lost it. Wordlessly, he drew the sword at his side.

Behind him, the cavalry clash was devolving into complete bedlam. Heavily outnumbered and massively outgunned, his Blue Lions were being ganged up on by their lighter, swifter counterparts. The mercenary horsemen rained blows at the heads of the terrified steeds or slashed the reins connecting mount and rider. Others rode past his struggling men and shot them in the back while they were engaged from the front.  

A feral snarl found its way onto his lips.

In front of him was the tercio, with its braced pikes and reloading musketeers. They were the cause of all this. They were why his loyal retainers were being dragged down one by one to an ignoble end.

His legs propelled him forward in a blur. Hateful images flashed in black and white stills before his eyes. The sword in his hand rose in vengeance.

The pikemen seemed surprised that he was charging them at all. They jabbed at him with their polearms while the musketeers behind them jostled with one another to get a clean shot.  

The Royal Prince battered away the hedge of spearpoints threatening him. The Crest inherited in his blood lent him strength far in excess of what a normal man was capable of. The pikes he smashed aside were literally torn from their owners’ hands. More lunged out at him as the rear ranks made their presence known.

He took a thrust to the shoulder and another to the hip. The tips were blunted for training purposes, but they still hurt like hell. The young prince gritted his teeth and wedged himself deeper into the pike wall. He was now in close enough quarters that the short length of his sword was no longer a detriment. That, by extension, meant his opponents could no longer rely on the length of their polearms to keep him at bay.

Dimitri swept the first man’s legs from under him with a savage undercut. As the soldier fell, the Royal Prince rammed his elbow into the stomach of the man next to him. The mercenary flew back and rebounded off the closed ranks of his comrades. Both men’s pikes clattered to the ground.

Another dropped his polearm purposefully and fumbled for his sidearm. Dimitri punched him in the head. Hard. The side of the man’s helm compacted like tin foil can. As he toppled, three more in the rear ranks thrust their pikes in unison at him. Dimitri caught the spears with his arm and pinned their hafts close to his body. The mercenaries tried in vain to tug their weapons free. The young prince clenched his teeth and refused to give ground. They played this demented game of tug of war for what seemed like a lifetime but couldn’t have been more than a few seconds before a musketeer used the space in the line to aim his heavy matchlock directly at Dimitri.

Anger lent him speed. The young prince reached out before the enemy soldier could fire and pushed the smoothbore barrel up. The arquebus discharged harmlessly into the air instead of into his face.

Rage boosted his strength. He twisted the grip he had on the matchlock. The gun was a solidly made weapon of hardened wood and artisan-crafted steel. It snapped like a twig in his hand.

The musketeer fell back with half a musket.

But in the process of stopping the fatal shot, he had lost his sword. It lay on the ground, tantalizingly out of reach. He couldn’t stoop to grab it because the pikes he still clamped to his side locked him in place.

More pikemen rushed in to fill the gap. Dimitri had no choice but to catch the fresh polearms thrusting at him with his sword hand. He wrapped his arm around the hafts and pinned them to his other side. But now instead of struggling against the combined strength of three men, he was fighting against eight.

They forced him to his knees. They angled the thick hafts of their weapons in such a way that the resulting pressure smashed one of his knees into the dirt.

He felt defeated. Beaten. Helpless. Just like he had felt helpless in the aftermath of Duscar. Just like he had felt helpless staring at the bodies of his family.

Guilt and shame joined anger and rage. He strained against the pressure and almost succeeded in rising. But his enemies were in no mood to let him go free. More of them mobbed him from behind, clinging to his arms and shoulders, weighing him down.

In his fury and grief, he didn’t notice the man with the halberd trudging closer until two ornamented greaves halted in front of him.

The Royal Prince of Faerghus looked up to see the mercenary officer gazing down on him. If his mind hadn’t been clouded by rage, he would have noticed the grudging respect lined over the veteran soldier’s face.

“You Fódlaners are all bloody fucking crazy,” Dimitri thought he heard him say before the officer slammed the butt-end of his halberd down on his skull.

++++++

Claude flinched as he saw the regal, blue-caped form disappear amid the seething mass of enemy soldiers.

The rest of the Blue Lions lasted scarcely any longer. The scattered remnants of the Faerghus knights were chased off by marauding bands of pistol-wielding cavalry. The demoralized infantry that followed, never the strongest branch of the Kingdom’s military, tried to cut its way through the forest of spears blocking them and ate point-blank volleys from the musketeers for their trouble. Those not shot down by the arquebuses were subsequently ground underfoot by the advancing ranks of lowered pikes.

“Uh, Claude?” the future leader of the Leicester Alliance felt slender fingers tapping at his shoulder, “What are you thinking right now?”

Despite her hand on his shoulder, Hilda’s gaze was riveted urgently to the carnage being played out in front of them.

“Well, right now I’m hoping that very large box full of very pointy spears and very angry men doesn’t start heading our way.”

Trumpets blared and drums pounded.

The entire formation of men, five thousand in all, lifted their pikes and performed an abrupt face-turn. Then they began marching towards the forested position manned by the Golden Deer.

Claude nodded.

“Welp, that’s my hopes dashed.”

“Uh, Claude?” Hilda continued tapping his shoulder, “That very large box full of very pointy spears and very angry men just became smaller boxes of very pointy spears and very angry men.”

Before their very eyes, the tercio was splitting into five distinct companies. Musketeers ran out of the protective umbrella of their infantry and formed loose skirmishing lines to the front.

“Relax, Hilda,” Claude flashed a reassuring grin, “Those formations are slow as dirt and we’re the Golden Deer! If we can maintain our distance, we can do hit-and-run attacks on them with impunity!”

“Company! At the double-quick!”

“At the double-quick!”

Both students turned in time to see the five separate formations begin to move at twice their original speed.

“Don’t worry!” Claude raised his voice so that the Golden Deer around him could hear, “Half our archers have longbows made from Almyran Yew! They’re the longest ranged weapons in Fódlan short of ballistas! We’ll easily outrange them!”

The loose formations of musketeers halted in their tracks well outside of bow range. They brought their firearms to shoulder level. Smoke erupted from the weapons’ barrels.

All around Claude, men dropped. And not just men. Foliage rained down from canopy above as the buzzing rounds denuded trees of their branches. A particularly well-aimed shot hissed past the Heir of Riegan’s ear and embedded itself in the tree trunk he was leaning his hand against.

Claude gingerly extricated his hand from the smoking bark.  

“Well, if their cavalry doesn’t return from chasing the Blue Lions, we can begin a staggered withdrawal. If they don’t pursue us too closely, we can even draw them into the Black Eagles!”

The enemy cavalry galloped back into view. Without the slightest hint of hesitation, they immediately split into two columns, one on each flank. Combined with the gradually lengthening lines of pikemen, they started the inevitable process of surrounding the Golden Deer’s position.

The Alliance soldiers near Claude looked at him expectantly. The young noble nodded back.

“Still staggered withdrawal, just a lot faster.”

++++++

The problem with Claude’s plan was not that it was tactically unsound, but that his retainers lacked the unity to accomplish it. The Leicester Alliance was never the most unified of the three nations, and its upper echelons were filled with disparate, and oftentimes, quarreling nobles. Their stubborn propensity for infighting oftentimes trickled down into the ranks of the Golden Deer.

Claude’s idea of having some of his battalions retreat while others covered their withdrawal and vice versa contained strategic merit, but fell flat in its implementation. The students commanding the men either ordered the retreat too early, leaving fellow battalions isolated and vulnerable, or remained in the fight for too long, in which they were quickly surrounded by the enemy and annihilated.

In growing desperation, Claude sent out his smaller force of cavalry led by Lorenz to screen his faltering lines. But that too ended acrimoniously for Lorenz either mistook his commander’s orders to delay the enemy’s approach or purposefully chose to disregard it completely. Whatever the reason, the rival noble from House Gloucester drew up the Alliance horse in a long line and launched them directly at the tercio in a mirror to the Blue Lions’ charge. Unfortunately for both Claude and Lorenz, the Golden Deer had neither the numbers, the mass, nor the élan of the Kingdom knights. Worse still, their opponents were no longer arrayed in a hollow square formation, willingly sacrificing weight of fire for staying power against cavalry. 

As Lorenz led the Gloucester men-at-arms into range, they met multiple lines of musketeers arrayed with overlapping fields of fire.

The Blue Lions had, at the very least, given a good account of themselves despite ultimately losing. It had taken a combination of pike and shot to shatter their cohesion and the enemy commander had been forced to commit his own cavalry reserves to fully drive them off the field.

The Golden Deer never reached the pike. The arquebusiers gunned down Claude’s only source of cavalry well before they entered melee range and with the ease of long practice. In retrospect, all it had taken was the shot.   

Edelgard’s grip tightened on the haft of her axe. Her eyes followed the path the mercenaries took as they steadily closed the noose around the Alliance infantry. Jeralt’s tercio had abandoned the dense block formation they had deployed in and were now advancing in thin lines only several men deep. Sporadically, one or two would fall as the Golden Deer battalions wheeled about and peppered them with bow fire, but men would always step forward to fill in the gap. And each time Claude’s archers stopped to shoot, they would inevitably lose more than they gave as the opponent’s musketeers sniped at them at ranges beyond their own.

It was like watching the jaws of some great beast slowly closing around the neck of its prey. And if the individual men who made up the tercio were the fangs and teeth, then their commander was surely the brains.

Edelgard caught sight of him directing a company of pike. The black-plated cuirassiers who were his personal battalion made him easy to pick out amid the battlefield. Though she couldn’t hear what he was saying at this distance, the arm gestures he made towards the retreating groups of Alliance troops was more than enough to establish his intent. On occasion, one or two of his Crimson Plumes would detach themselves from his bodyguard and ride out as couriers with new orders to distant branches of the tercio.

There was something mesmerizing about it all, she realized. Something innately enthralling about seeing a purely human army at work. There were no Crests to dilute the equation. No nobles with inherited power to demand obedience and subservience due to their vaunted bloodline. It was mortal flesh and blood that would carry the day, not the creed-adherents of a long-gone goddess.

A part of her was exultant at watching this mercenary tercio take to the field. The other part was cautious. For as soon as this foreign army was done with the last fragments of the Golden Deer, it would be her own Black Eagles that would be in their sights.

Edelgard tore her gaze away from the scene. She turned to her subordinate officers, many of whom were fellow noble students at the monastery. Unlike her, their attitude towards what was happening below was decidedly mixed.

“Keep track of him,” eyes darted in her direction when she broke the silence, “I want a mobile reserve ready to be committed wherever he’s heading.”

“Because?” Ferdinand, always the second-guesser, prompted.

“Because the fighting will be the heaviest wherever he is.”

++++++

Clouds of dirt kicked up as bullets rained around the Black Eagles’ position. Most of the shot were blocked by the formations of heavy infantry, firm and stout behind their large pavise shields, but this was only due to the practice rounds that were being used. Edelgard knew that if the enemy musketeers were volleying with their standard lead slugs, then her entire front line would have evaporated from the get-go. As it were, they were merely buckling instead of outright dissolving.

The Imperial heir stood motionless as stray rounds whizzed past her head. The tercio’s ranged elements were maintaining a constant suppressing fire while its infantry pressed the Black Eagle battalions from up close. The blocks of pike, many ranks deep and many ranks across, were forcing her lines to bend back dangerously, though not without cost. Her archers and mages, at great risk to themselves, had substantially hindered the enemy’s advance. However, to do so, they had exposed themselves to opportunistic weapons fire that had steadily whittled their own numbers down until very few were left.

And now without her own ranged support, she had nothing left to retard her opponent’s progress.

“Lady Edelgard!” Hubert’s voice beside her was uncharacteristically agitated, “You must think about committing the reserves! Our front will not hold for much longer!”

“No! The main impetus of the attack will be where he appears. Maintain the reserves until we spot him again!”

“My lady, we have not seen him since he led his battalion in chasing the Golden Deer off the field!”

“Then we wait until he reappears. Our reserves must remain fresh until the pivotal moment!”

Out of the corner of her eyes, Edelgard saw Ferdinand riding hard for her position. The noble had to duck and weave in his saddle to avoid the constant hail of shot buzzing around him.

“Edelgard!” he reined his horse to a stop in front of her, “Your orders!?”

“We hold the front until we know for sure where he is heading. Then we commit our reserves to match him.”

Forget him, Edelgard!” Ferdinand gestured to the Black Eagle lines steadily giving ground before the push of pike, “If we don’t send our reserves in now, there will be no front!”

She hesitated, seeing the truth in his words but still unwilling to yield.

A dull roar made them all turn. There. A break in her line. Men wearing the colors of the Empire suddenly gave way to the pressure. It was like a dam bursting. An entire section of her troops turned their backs to the pikes pressing them from the front and scattered.

She immediately moved towards the break, but the enemy cavalry was there before her, fast-moving Reiters, eager to exploit any weakness. They plunged into the space left by her retreating soldiers, widening the gap, riding down the mages and archers that had been sheltering behind the main infantry line.

“Caspar!” she snapped at the noble in charge of her heavy infantry, “Rally your men! Seal the breach!”

“On it, Edelgard!” the youthful second son of House Bergliez responded and charged the horsemen along with his personal battalion.   

A section of the cavalry disengaged from the rest wreaking havoc among her men. They met Caspar’s charge head on. Their leader leapt from his steed as Caspar’s axe swept into it and landed on the young noble, blade drawn. The two fighters tumbled to the ground together. The mercenary ended up on top, his simple steel blade pressing down on the haft of Caspar’s axe. It was a contest that pitted strength against strength, and one that did not favor the second son.

“How… are… you…” Caspar grunted as the blade pressed ever slowly towards his face, “this… strong?”

In response, the mercenary slammed his vambrace down against his sword, once, twice, three times. The third time broke Caspar’s guard and before the noble could recover, his opponent smashed a clenched fist directly into his temple.

The soldier rose from Caspar’s unconscious form. There was now a clear path from where he was standing to Edelgard.

Ferdinand saw it too and goaded his steed into a gallop.

“Halt, knave!” he couched his lance and aimed the tip towards the man’s center, “You face the firstborn son of an von Aegir!”

The mercenary drew a pistol from his belt when Ferdinand had crossed half the distance and shot the noble’s horse from under him in a cloud of smoke and fire. Ferdinand landed heavily but managed to roll with the momentum. His path took him directly towards the enemy, and as he ground to a stop, his hand had already drawn his sword halfway from its sheathe.

Just in time for the hilt end of the mercenary’s blade to crash into his helm. Ferdinand’s stunned body joined Caspar’s in slumping to the floor. His opponent reversed his half-sword grip. The bladed edge returned to its resting place over his shoulder. Like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Edelgard started. The sword at rest over his shoulder. Like it was the most natural thing in the world.

She suddenly wanted to laugh. As her lines collapsed all around her, she wanted to laugh. At the sheer audacity of what had just transpired. At the daring that bordered close to insanity in what had just been accomplished.

For knowing she would keep her reserves uncommitted was one thing. Disguising himself to fool her into keeping her reserves uncommitted was another.

“Stand down, Hubert,” she smiled slightly as her advisor hovered protectively over her, “We’ve already lost.”

The mercenary strode closer. The cavalry helmet he had taken from one of his men could not quite hide the dark green bangs hanging over his forehead.

“Isn’t that right, Ashen Demon?”

++++++

They watched from above as the Black Eagles finally broke under the tercio’s assault.

“My, my, Jeralt,” the voice that spoke first was outwardly all honey, but contained a thin veneer of steel lurking underneath, “Just what have you been teaching your son?”

Jeralt hid his grimace as he faced his former employer.

“Oh, you know, Lady Rhea. Normal father and son things.”

“Normal father and son things?” repeated Catherine in disbelief.

“Hunting. Fishing. Managing and commanding a five thousand strong mercenary company. You know, just the basics.”

“One of those things was not like the others,” Shamir frowned.

“Well, they certainly do things differently overseas,” the previous captain of the Knights of Seiros deflected nimbly before noticing the awestruck look on his fellow knight’s face, “Doing alright there, Alois?”

The heavyset man turned to stare at him and then promptly exploded.

“Did you see that, everyone!? At first the Blue Lions were all charging across the field and then KABOOM! They all fell off their horses! And the Golden Deer! They staged that retreat but couldn’t outsmart the mercenaries! The tactics involved! The formations! And we wouldn’t want to forget that uphill struggle against the Black Eagles! I am so glad I recommended your son to the academy! Why, I knew he wouldn’t disappoint us just by watching him fight against those bandits! In fact, I wager he’s getting just as good as the old man himself, wouldn’t you say, captain? Wait… if he’s just as good as the captain… that would mean… that would mean the monastery isn’t gaining just one Jeralt, but two Jeralts! I’m positively shaking in my boots just thinking about it!”

“Yup,” sighed Jeralt midway into his former comrade’s outburst, “That’s the Alois I remember,” turning, he addressed the figure next to him, whose expression during the course of the battle had grown more and more to resemble a man who had just been induced into tasting an extremely large and extremely sour fruit, “I hope this mock battle demonstrates my company’s ability enough to be contracted by the Church of Seiros, Seteth.”

Chapter Text

The youth entered the officer’s quarters while he was in the midst of carving a sculpture from a piece of wood. Jeralt didn’t look up from his work when the door closed. The knife in his hand made faint scratching sounds as it whittled away. Wooden shavings piled steadily into a heap at his feet.

“Have you made your rounds around the monastery?”

Byleth nodded, though the curtness of the motion made it seem like he hadn’t nodded at all.

“I have.”

“What do you think?”

The youth moved closer. His eyes focused on the figurine that was slowly taking shape in his father’s hands before flickering elsewhere.

“I sent some of the men to survey the facilities around the academy. The results were not impressive.”

“Oh?”

A brief look of impatience appeared over Byleth’s face before it returned to its usual neutral state.

“They do not have dedicated gunsmiths. Nor are there foundries to cast cannon. There is a likewise lack of saltpeter farms which means almost nonexistent black powder. All they have is a single blacksmith and as far as I know, it hasn’t even opened yet. The merchants here are of similar disappointment. All they sell are useless trinkets for the students. One of them tried to sell me bait. Bait. As in for fishing.”

“Fishing is an important pastime,” Jeralt hummed.

“You’re not taking this seriously. Please take this seriously.”

“I am taking this seriously. That’s why I left the resupply operations to you.”

“I can’t resupply the company if there are no supplies. We have enough gunpowder and lead shot in our own supply train to last some time, but the amount is not infinite. If we do not resolve this issue, our musketeers will soon have nothing to shoot with… Unless you’re suggesting they shoot the bait.”

The corners of Jeralt’s lips twitched. His son either didn’t notice or chose not to notice.

“The people here have the materials and the know-how to make explosive barrels but for some reason they have not progressed logically to the next step,” the youth continued to mutter, “It’s as though this place is locked in some sort of technological stasis.”

“This place was where you were born.”

“Then the place where I was born is locked in some sort technological stasis.”

Jeralt smiled at the firm finality in his co-commander’s tone.

“It would be best if you didn’t tell your students that tomorrow. It wouldn’t look good for you as the newest professor at Garreg Mach.” 

“Yes,” Byleth said warily, “The professorship. I do not know what the point of all this is. They are children. What am I supposed to teach them? The inner organization of a tercio? How best to arrange musketeers to countermarch? Calculating accurate ballistic trajectories so the culverins don’t end up ploughing shot into their own ranks?”

“Well…” Jeralt looked up briefly from the half-finished sculpture in his hands, “…Yeah? This is a military academy, after all.”

“Is that so?” the dryness in his son’s voice was slight enough that someone else might have missed it, “When I was making my way here, I saw four girls holding a tea party. In a military academy.”

“A military academy for nobles,” Jeralt amended.

Clear blue eyes bored into his own.

“They have a sauna. Apparently, it hasn’t been working for some time.”

The veteran mercenary raised an eyebrow.

“It still hasn’t been fixed? It wasn’t working when I was here.”

“Now I know you’re not taking this seriously.”

“Hmmm. And I thought I was taking it quite seriously.”

Byleth didn’t roll his eyes like a normal person would when faced with such a response. Instead, he merely settled his back against the wall.

“Why are we here, father?”

Jeralt frowned as his knife reached an especially knotted part of the wood.

“Guess.”

“It can’t be the gold.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Whatever the Church is paying us, we could easily double the amount, even triple it back where we were. Experienced soldiers are worth a premium these days and who would not want to hire the Blade Breaker’s tercio?”

“Half of our company’s reputation is due to you. Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Just like what you’re doing now with the Church?”

Jeralt snorted inwardly. One thing about having a sharp wife was that inevitably, the child of their union would be just as sharp.

If you were still here, you would be proud of him.

“Perhaps I just missed Fódlan?” he said to mask the sudden emotions that had welled in his breast, “It’s been two decades since I’ve seen home.”

The look his son gave him suggested he wasn’t fooled in the least.

“Then why bring the men? If this… trip… was only for reminiscence, then you could have disbanded the tercio before arriving on these shores. It would have certainly made it easier for me. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about feeding, equipping, and resupplying five thousand men.”

“You make it sound like I don’t do anything at all.”

Byleth stared blankly at him and continued to stare blankly at him until he finally gave in.

“Alright. I’ll admit I’ve recently offloaded some of the work from my shoulders to yours.”

“Why are we here, father?” the youth pressed relentlessly, “Why Garreg Mach of all places?”

Jeralt sighed.

“In some ways, I owe Rhea.”

“Yet on our first day here, you told me not to trust her.”

“You can simultaneously owe someone and still not trust them.”

“And the reason for us being here is?”

“Answers.”

“Answers to what?”

“I’m not sure myself.”

“And yet to reach these answers you don’t know, you felt it was necessary to bring all ten companies of our tercio?”

“…Yes.”

Byleth crossed his arms over his chest.

“None of that makes sense.”

Jeralt smiled slightly.

“Do you remember Akre?” he said after a while.

His son’s eyes were emotionless mirrors to his own, but he nevertheless nodded.

“I remember.”

The veteran mercenary continued whittling at the piece of wood in his hands.

“What do you remember about it?”

“A fortress-town. On the border of two rivalling nations. Ten weeks of grueling siege. We went in with a full complement of men and came out without a quarter of them.”

“It was supposed the end of a long campaign,” Jeralt mused, “Our employers had already cut off the town’s supplies for months, but they needed the extra muscle to capture it. Some stubborn noble was holding out for too long out of some misguided fealty to his lord. It looked like a simple job at first, didn’t it? Capture this one town, guarantee that our side held the pivotal ground, and everyone was paid and got to go home. Who knew those townspeople had the guts to withstand the siege for that long?”

His son’s gaze never left his face.

“They fought well.”

“Fought well? Hah! That’s putting it lightly!” Jeralt grinned suddenly, “Remember old Cuth? He led his company directly underneath the ramparts and dared the civilians to shoot at him. And when he turned around to encourage the men, some plucky bastard on the battlements shot a crossbow bolt right into his arse.”

“Even with healers, that wound took him out of commission for the entire duration of the siege,” Byleth said quietly.

“Well, he didn’t miss much. Ten weeks of sitting in the trenches with the random assault here and there. We finally broke through in the end. Battered down the gates and stormed over the battlements. And that’s when we discovered the truth. The supposed loyal noble had made a deal with our employers long before we besieged the town. Crept quietly out with his family out of some back door. It had all been a show. He wanted to preserve his reputation as a loyal retainer so he had the townspeople fight while he escaped,” Jeralt peered down at the sculpture in his hand, “All those messengers we shot down thinking they were riding out to gather reinforcements? Turns out they were riding out with surrender terms.”

“It was not our fault,” his son said firmly, “Our employers did their utmost to make us believe that the defenders would fight to the last.”

“And they almost did. That town had almost ten thousand people living in it. By the time we carried the ramparts, they were down to a few hundred men and their families,” the mercenary captain sighed again, “That’s what I’m getting at. Some of the answers I’m looking for… I’m not sure I’ll like them once I figure it all out.”

Silence passed between the two before Byleth broke it.

“Do you remember what happened after we took the town?”

Another smile, a far more unpleasant one, tugged over Jeralt’s lips.

“To preserve the ‘noble’ reputation of that treasonous whoreson, our employers wanted us to dispense of the only evidence left that could indict him. The survivors of the town. We refused at first. They may have been our enemies, but they fought honorably and surrendered honorably. We’re soldiers, not murderers. But then they started offering gold. One gold piece. Kill the man trembling in front of you, with his wife and daughters clinging on to him, and you earned a bonus gold piece besides your standard pay. All you had to do was put your sword through him. Of course, no one was willing to do it for that. So, they bumped it up to three. Then five. Then ten. At ten gold pieces, some of the men started drawing their swords.”

“Ten gold pieces is a substantial amount of money,” his son said neutrally.

Jeralt chuckled, though there was nothing in what they had just said that was remotely worth chuckling about.

“One hundred gold pieces could buy a man a good farm on fertile land. He’d have enough left over to marry a young wife and if his harvest was good for the first few years, he could start a family. Maybe even get into the merchant business. One hundred gold pieces and he’d be set for life. Not rich, but comfortable. And all he needed to do was put his sword through ten of those poor bastards.”

The veteran mercenary turned the figurine over in his hands. His eyes roamed carefully over the sculpted details.

“I’m not a priest. I’m not a cleric. Even when I was here as Captain of the Knights of Seiros, I cared little for dogma. I don’t know what a man’s life should be worth, but whatever it is, it ought to be worth more than ten pieces of gold.”

Byleth said nothing for there was nothing left to say.

“Maybe that’s why I’m here,” Jeralt turned to look at his son, “Besides seeking answers. Maybe I’m just tired of seeing all the Akres in the world.”

++++++

“I am not sure what to teach you,” was the first thing their new teacher told them.

Sitting in the front of the class like she always did, flanked by her advisors in Hubert and Ferdinand, Edelgard frowned.

In all honesty, she had not expected this outcome. The Ashen Demon had spoken with the leaders from all three houses with the intention of ultimately determining which class he would instruct. She had her chance to introduce herself and her house but had thought she had disappointed. The mercenary had seemingly built a mutual respect with Dimitri and had weathered Claude’s good-natured jibes with surprising patience. And though he had said little to either noble, it had still been more than what he had said to her. There had been no indication he would select the Black Eagles and Edelgard had consigned herself to losing him to one of the rival houses.

But now he was here. In front of her and her Black Eagles. Arms crossed loosely over his chest and standing before the instructor’s desk.

“I have reviewed your syllabus and have concluded that I am ill-suited to be teaching most of its subjects,” said Byleth calmly, as though what he was telling them was something normal teachers told their students, “I am not very good at magic. Nor am I very good at healing. I am proficient in a variety of weapons, especially the bladed kind, but you can learn how to swing a sword from anyone. I was also made to understand that beyond courses related to combat and warfare, you are also to be given lessons on subjects such as noble etiquette, courtly manners, and fashion sense. Is that true?”

Some of the Black Eagles nodded hesitantly. Most of them continued staring while trying to process what their new professor had just said.

“Well, I don’t know much about noble etiquette,” emotionless eyes regarded them with the same intensity it had done during the battle, “I am not familiar with courtly manners either. And I am quite possibly the last person you should seek advice from on fashion sense,” he told them in his black clothes, black armor, and black soldier’s cloak.

Someone stifled a giggle. Edelgard thought it sounded like Dorothea.

“So we are left at an impasse,” Byleth soldiered on, “Until someone advised me that instead of teaching you what I don’t know, I should be teaching you what I do know. As such, I thought it would be prudent for us to discard the old syllabus and create a new one. This new syllabus will contain subjects that I am familiar with. For that, however, I would like your assistance,” the newest professor at Garreg Mach Monastery leaned back against the table, “What do all of you want to learn?”

A murmur of interest arose in the room. It wasn’t every day that the teacher asked the student what they wanted to learn.

Partly because she felt she needed to set an example and partly because she was actually very interested, Edelgard raised her hand.

Cold blue eyes flickered in her direction.

“Miss Hresvelg?”

“Professor, I think we were all impressed with the performance of your men during the mock battle. If you don’t mind, would you be willing to teach us about some of the weapons they used?”

“You are referring to the infantry muskets and cavalry pistols?”

“The matchlock weaponry, yes.”

Byleth tilted his head in thought. Then, he made his way around the table. He stopped in front of the large chalkboard in front of the class and picked up a piece of chalk. At the very top of the board, he wrote “Guns”.

“I also heard that your company has brought some artillery with them. The larger pieces.”

“The culverins?” Byleth looked back her.

“Yes,” Edelgard said hopefully, “If it’s at all possible, we would like to learn about those as well.”

Their new teacher looked at the board. Then, he wrote “Bigger Guns” under “Guns”.

The mercenary-now-instructor turned back to his students.

“Next?”

“The tactics you used to deploy your men will be useful to know,” Hubert said sibilantly.

“The formations too!” added Ferdinand, not to be outdone.

Byleth turned back to the chalkboard and wrote down “Tactics” followed by “Formations”.

“Any more?” he asked when he had finished, “Mr. Bergliez?”

Caspar grinned as he lowered his hand.

“You gave me quite a hefty blow back on the battlefield, professor! I’d like to know how people train overseas to become that strong!”

“You will need to be more specific,” Byleth said coolly, “There are many ways to enhance one’s individual strength, including but not limited to specialized training regimens, lengthy meditative sessions, and good, balanced diets to promote muscle growth. And that is only considering personal strength. An army, much like the individuals that comprise its ranks, must be nurtured and grown in the same way. Men in a battalion must be trained rigorously to act and behave as a single unit, unified under a competent chain of command, and disciplined to instinctively follow their captains’ orders. They must know when to advance, when to retreat, when to make a stand, when to lower pikes, and when to raise them, all based off the number of beats from the signal drum. Likewise, the supporting musketeers must know when to advance through the ranks of pike, when to withdraw behind them, when to fire by rank, and when to countermarch. A company that has accomplished all these steps becomes stronger as a whole because it can leverage the strengths of every man in the unit. Men who have not been drilled in this way are susceptible to panicking during key moments of the battle and breaking.”

“Just like the Golden Deer had done during the mock battle,” Edelgard realized.

“For the company itself is only as strong as the weakest man in the battalion,” their teacher finished.

The future Emperor of Adrestia set down her writing utensil. Sometime during the professor’s explanation, she had started taking notes. When she raised her head, she discovered she was not the only student to have done so.

“That all sounds good, professor,” Caspar looked both impressed and confused at the same time, “But I just wanted to know how to hit things harder!”

Byleth nodded and went back to the chalkboard. He proceeded to write “How to Hit Things Harder” on the board’s surface.

“Um… I didn’t mean it that literally.”

The mercenary paused, frowned, and then wrote “Not Literally” behind the original sentence.

The student tables around Edelgard tittered. The young heiress fought hard to stay serious. She was about to raise her hand to ask him about the training drills when Petra did it for her.

“Professor!” the Brigid princess raised her own hand, “I am wishing to… I wish to learn of these drills you are speaking… have spoken of!”

“Very well,” their instructor said as “Drill Regimens” was added to the steadily growing list, “Anything else?”

“I know you said you weren’t very good at fashion sense, professor,” Dorothea’s smile had only grown wider as the conversation drew on, “But do you think you could tell us what people from foreign countries wear?”

“Clothes,” said Byleth.

To the Black Eagles’ credit, they managed to hold their laughter in for a few seconds before spontaneously erupting. To her mild astonishment, Edelgard found herself smiling along.

Dorothea weathered her classmates’ mirth in good humor.

“I guess I fell for that one,” she said when the laughter subsided.

“You fell for which one?”

“…What?

“You fell for which one?” their teacher repeated.

“You mean… that wasn’t a joke?”

“No,” said Byleth and then wrote “Clothes” on the board.

“I am also not knowing… don’t know what the joke is, Dorothea,” Petra said seriously. 

“Oh Goddess,” the girl in question began massaging her temples with her hand, “There’s two of them now.”

“I believe what Dorothea is trying to say,” Ferdinand interjected confidently, “is that she would like to know about what the outside world’s culture is like.”

“Yes,” the former songstress appeared simultaneously pleased that someone had figured it out and displeased that someone had been Ferdinand, “That.”

Their instructor took in the advice at face value. He proceeded to cross out “Clothes” and replace it with “Culture”.

“I am also of the opinion that besides these practical lessons, professor,” Ferdinand continued, seemingly buoyed by his success, “we will need lessons on theory as well!”

“Theory?” Byleth tilted his head to one side.

“Yes! The students at the academy must be educated on both the practical and theoretical aspects of knowledge! So far, these new lessons will only show us a practical, hands-on approach! To complete the new syllabus, we will need to be instructed on the theory behind them as well!”

“Most of my knowledge comes from the practical, hands-on approach,” the mercenary said contemplatively, “I am unsure if theory is something I would be able to instruct.”

“Well, take for example the new weapons you will be teaching us about,” Ferdinand said helpfully, “What is the theory behind their use? Why are armies overseas using them? What kind of impact have these weapons had on their respective societies. Things like that.”

“I see,” nodded Byleth, “The theory behind using black powder weaponry is relatively simple. Firearms can launch a lead ball further than a bow can shoot an arrow and with a greater degree of accuracy. Likewise, the speed at which the round leaves the barrel delivers a great deal of energy to the intended target. A ball shot from a heavy musket can reliably penetrate plate armor at a distance of two hundred yards, an achievement that bows and even crossbows cannot match. There is also the human factor involved. A skilled bowman must spend his entire life training with his weapon to become proficient with it. A musketeer requires two weeks of drilling before he is considered passable. That is not to say the musketeer will perform at the same level during combat situations, but at the very least, he can be expected to know where to shoot, how to shoot, and when to shoot. Similarly, during extended campaigns, when soldiers are perpetually hungry, nervous, and tired, is when firearms are at their most advantageous. A musketeer who has not eaten for three days can still fire his musket. An archer or crossbowman who has not eaten for three days will not have the strength left in their arms to draw their bow strings.”

Frantic scribbling could be heard throughout the Black Eagle homeroom as the students took pen to paper. Edelgard’s own pen made neat markings in her notebook as she hastily tried to record her professor’s words.

“Does that mean firearms have supplanted all other ranged weapons in the foreign nations?” Edelgard was surprised to hear Linhardt’s voice rise above the classroom. Usually, the taciturn boy was dozing off by now.

“Not entirely,” Byleth answered, “While gunpowder weapons provide many advantages over bows and crossbows, there are still enough drawbacks inherent in their use that prevents them from completely dominating the battlefield. A musketeer may shoot further, harder, and more accurately than an archer, but he is still a dead man when set upon by cavalry. He also cannot be expected to hold his ground like a block of pikemen can. And if bunched up with other musketeers to fire by rank, he will make for an easy target for area of effect magic and enemy artillery. Rather, firearms have merely become another part of the ever-continuing arms race. They may have diminished the use of archers but you will still find the traditional roles of cavalry, infantry, and magic-users to be as strong as ever. If anything, as Mr. Aegir has alluded to, the most impact gunpowder weaponry have had is on the society that uses them.”

“In what ways?”

Edelgard started. She hadn’t realized she had said her thoughts out loud.

Byleth looked at her.

“In purely economic terms, the steady proliferation of firearms has led to a marked decrease in the power of the landed nobility. The concept is similar to the example between the musketeer and the archer. If a man who has been only trained for two weeks with a musket stands a reasonable chance of knocking a man who has trained his entire life to be a knight off his saddle before the knight can close to within lance distance, then what use is the knight? To take the idea even further, if the knight is no longer useful on the modern battlefield, then what use is the system that makes him into a knight? The answer then becomes solely a matter of cost-effectiveness. For the same price it takes to craft a knight’s full plate harness, a ruler can equip one hundred men with munitions grade plate while arming each soldier with a pike and sword. For the same price it takes to feed, care, and bard a knight’s warhorse, a ruler can equip two hundred musketeers with state-of-the-art firearms and provide enough shot and powder for a single battle. And if these same rulers could now field armies numbering many times a feudal lord could raise in a levy, then why would they need to dole out their own lands as fiefs? In essence, besides curtailing the role of nobles, the rise of gunpowder and the attending military systems that have developed alongside it has allowed kings and emperors to greatly concentrate their own power.”

Before the class could so much as respond, Ferdinand’s hand was already up in the air.

“Professor,” the heir of von Aegir said sternly, “while that may be in the case for countries overseas, I must remind you that here in Fódlan our nobility is healthy, thriving, and an example to be followed! As such, I do not believe this is a theory that will be useful for us to learn.”

Ferdinand suddenly jumped in his seat. He frowned and looked for the source.

“Edelgard! Why did you just kick my chair?”

“Is that so?” Byleth was already moving on, “Then perhaps you would be interested to learn about the developing concept of the nation-state? As feudal nobles steadily lost their holdings or had their territory consolidated under the rule of the state, the boundaries that separated their fiefs vanished as well. Townships and villages that were once separated by this invisible barrier could now interact and mingle freely. Without the limitations set by regional borders and unified by a common language, people could travel to the next town over without risking the displeasure of their former noble lords. This has indirectly led to an increased sense of belonging among the common citizenry and a greater feeling of unity. Before, a man was loyal only to the lord that rented him land to plant and harvest. Now he was loyal to his neighbors who helped him toil in the dirt, loyal to the neighboring town over who bought his goods and traded him tools, and loyal to the country whose state-paid armies now meant he could tend to his crops full time instead of being called to join a noble’s levy. In terms more relatable to you, a man may come from any village or town in the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance, but he is first and foremost, a Fódlaner.”

“Professor,” Ferdinand said seriously, “Like the last theory, I do not think that this one would be of interest to us--- Edelgard! I must insist that you stop kicking my chair!”

“Very well,” their instructor nodded slowly, “If that is the case, then I have one more theory that I may be able to teach you. As soldiers became cheaper to field, the armies of individual state-entities swelled. Warfare was no longer an exercise conducted by the landed nobility and their elite retinues. Nations could train, drill, and equip great quantities of men if the need arose. The latest great war, fought between the Tellaran Hegemony and the Kataph Confederacy, involved hundreds of thousands of state troops on each side as well as tens of thousands of auxiliaries provided by client states and mercenaries hired by coin. Of course, with larger armies comes more bloodshed and more misery for the common people. These enlarged armies, when encroaching upon enemy territory, would raid, pillage, and massacre on a far wider scale than before. Added to this were the mercenary companies, who would actively mutiny if they were not paid on time. Industrialized warfare leads to industrialized suffering. Entire swathes of land became virtually uninhabited as their residents fled or relocated elsewhere. In the wake of this demographical trauma, a new movement has arisen, at first from the ranks of the common citizenry, and then propagating upwards until it has reached the ruling royal courts. This movement espouses the simple fact that warfare should be conducted as civilly as possible because a man’s life is something that should not easily be taken. It is the underlying idea that a man is worth something to his family, to his community, and to whatever god he worships. And if a man has worth then he intrinsically must have value. And if he has value then the decisions he makes and the actions he takes must have value as well. All of this means, that a fundamental level, men should not be judged by the status of their birth or the titles they inherit, but by the merits of their own actions. Philosophers overseas have started calling this movement ‘The Enlightenment’,” Byleth turned to look at each member of the Black Eagles, “Is that something you are interested in learning?”

“No, Professor,” Ferdinand began to say, “I don’t---”

“Hubert!”

With the ease of long practice, Hubert leaned in and clamped a gloved hand securely over his fellow noble’s mouth.

“---Mmph mmph mmmmph,” Ferdinand finished.

“Yes, Professor,” Edelgard said primly and with Hubert’s arm now blocking her view, “Those are things we are definitely interested in learning.”

Chapter Text

It was perhaps only natural that the mercenaries would gravitate towards the sons and daughters of Faerghus nobility. Out of the three houses at Garreg Mach, it was the Blue Lions who were undoubtedly the more martial. And while the academy taught the military arts to all students, it was always the future lords and ladies of the Holy Kingdom who trained and sparred on the practice fields the hardest.

For men and women who had fought in the mud and muck of battle and who had spent their whole lifetimes campaigning, the Blue Lions were a far more practical lot to converse with compared to the more aristocratic Black Eagles and the wealthier Golden Deers.

Which meant it did not take long at all for the two sides to start the process of intermingling.

“Commanding isn’t the hard part,” the man next to Dimitri was saying, “It’s the overthinking that gets you. Once the bullets start flying, everything falls in place naturally. But what comes after… all the things you thought you could’ve done better, all the lives you could have saved if you held the men back just slightly longer… that’s what messes any line captain up.”

“The responsibility of command weighs heavily on anyone’s shoulders,” the other man responded evenly, “Though I suppose you get used to it in time.”

The royal prince of Faerghus looked between the two mercenaries. In some ways, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. While he had won his first battle before joining the academy, it had been little more than putting down a rebellion, where his opponents were rogue nobles and the destitute, downtrodden souls they tempted into joining their army. What the mercenaries were talking about was pitched battle, mass conflict between nation-states with professional armies, not riding down some peasants who had the misfortune of joining the wrong side.

Though he outwardly retained his regal bearing, Dimitri eagerly devoured their words.

“And if you’re new to command, it gets even worse,” the first man, an officer whose name Dimitri recalled was Werner, continued, “Not only do you second-guess every damned thing, you have to worry about the troops accepting you as well. Soldiers don’t do well out in the field if they don’t trust their captain, and building that trust is easier said than done.”

“I remember easing myself into the good graces of the men rather straightforwardly,” the second man smiled, “Try and not to get them killed, pay them on time, and get them drunk on your own gold. After a while they’ll love you like you’re their second father.” 

“Easy for you to say,” Werner scoffed, “You’re Jeralt Bloody Eisner. Men will follow you based on your reputation alone,” the grizzled sellsword turned to Dimitri, “Do you know what the mercenary guilds call your Blade Breaker overseas?”

“I do not,” the young prince said politely though he was keen to learn.

“They call him ‘The Captain’. As though he was the only captain on the whole damned continent.”

“I am sure it is a well-deserved title,” Dimitri said sincerely.

“I won a few battles here and there,” Jeralt explained with a modest shrug, “That might have had something to do with it.”

“For the rest of us mortals,” snorted Werner, “we have to motivate the men the old-fashioned way. And I’ll tell you what, that first battle you command them in. That’s the pivotal moment. That’s the time you either prove you got what it takes to wear the laurels of an officer or you go back and stay as a ranker. I remember my first command like it was yesterday. I just took over from Roland. Roland was a good line officer and beloved by the men. His loss was a hard one for the company. Big boots for me to fill. I was so nervous I could barely walk straight. But hells, I needed it! I needed that first taste of combat to prove I’m worthy in front of the boys as well as give them a target to hammer them back into shape. That’s what you want. Give them a chance to bond with you against a common enemy and not bond against you as an outsider.”

Dimitri turned to the other Fódlan native in their little trio.

“Is that true, Sir Jeralt?”

“Certainly,” the former captain of the Knights of Seiros nodded amicably, “Though in the case of Captain Werner, he has neither proved himself in front of his men nor bonded with them.”

Both men laughed out loud. Even Dimitri had to suppress a grin.

Out in the courtyard, the royal prince could see his fellow Blue Lions chatting with their mercenary counterparts. So far it was only the officers who came onto the academy grounds, ostensibly for briefings and orders from their two commanders. Afterwards they would occasionally loiter to watch the students train or even impart words of advice, an act that was warmly received by the martially-minded youths. Learning about the theory of war in a stuffy classroom was one thing. Hearing it firsthand from veteran soldiers was another.

Dimitri caught sight of Felix listening intently as a mercenary explained the various sword forms used overseas. Another was giving Ingrid pointers on her lance-work. Even Sylvain, who had spent not an insignificant amount of time flirting shamelessly with the female officers of the tercio, appeared quite taken with their new, unorthodox instructors.

From the looks on their faces, Dimitri knew that his Blue Lions were benefiting immensely from the exchange of information.

“I must say that I am very glad that this discourse is taking place,” the future king of Faerghus admitted, “I was afraid that our performance during the mock battle might have colored your impressions of our house.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, lad,” Werner responded cheerfully, “You did alright, all things considered. In fact, I would even say our sub-commander was a tad too harsh in deploying the men like that.”

“That was my fault,” Jeralt scratched at his chin ruefully, “I told him to treat this as a demonstration for the purposes of impressing a client and that’s exactly what he did.”

“Still,” Dimitri shook his head, “it was illuminating to see just how foreign armies operated out in the field. The tercio is a both a tenacious and fearsome organization. If this is truly the quality of opposition we face overseas, then we will be hard-pressed to compete.”

Both men looked at each other knowingly.

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” Jeralt said with an encouraging smile.

“There are plenty of ways to deal with tercios,” Werner suggested, “even with a cavalry dominant force like your Faerghus boys.”

“If there is,” Dimitri seized on the opportunity, “I would be interested in learning how.”

“Bait the volleys,” Jeralt answered, “That’s one way. Make it look like you’re charging and then immediately pull back as the musketeers fire. Make them waste their shot and then launch the actual charge. By the time they’ve reloaded, your cavalry should be on top of them and itching to run them down.”

“But there will be more volleys waiting for us, won’t there? Your officers called the tactic countermarching or something along those lines.”

“You’re right to pick up on that,” Werner said gruffly, “and in theory that’s what the countermarch is supposed to do. Make up for the matchlock’s abysmal reloading speed. But theory and practice are two different things, and to conduct the countermarch right, you need officers who know what they’re doing and men who’ve been drilled to do it. And that’s a tall order when the war is sucking up manpower on both sides. Truth be told, for every tercio like ours that have both these qualities, there’s two or three more that can barely form a hollow square and volley properly, much less perform an advanced tactic like the countermarch.” 

“That’s why you have to keep up your momentum during the charge,” Jeralt added on, “A veteran formation of pike and shot will stand up to you, but many more who aren’t as experienced will start breaking before contact is made. Men don’t take the shock of combat well.”

“That first volley tripped your men up,” nodded Werner, “That’s the point. Break up the coherence of the charge. You did a good job of organizing them back into shape, but by the time you reached us, all your momentum was gone. If you had come crashing down on us while still in that wedge formation, you would have given us far more of a fight. If you had done the same to a tercio that’s newly organized, chances are some of the pikemen would have thrown down their pikes and started legging it before you collided. Then it’s a simple matter of pouring into the gaps with your cavalry and breaking the tercio apart. That’s exactly how they did it at Montegro. Four thousand gendarmes from the Kingdom of Toulouse shattered five times their number of pikemen and musketeers from the Swabian Empire in a single glorious charge.”

“Gendarmes?” repeated Dimitri.

“You take one of your Faerghus knights and tack on twice as much plate to both rider and horse. Then you give the rider a lance almost as long as a pike. You don’t need to give him a shield because his armor is his shield. Then you drill into his head the idea that he’s the meanest, hardest bastard on this side of the continent and the only way to prove that is to skewer as many poor sods as possible on that small tree he has for a lance. Oh, and it works even better if the horse he’s riding on is bred to be a psychotic monster who would love nothing more than trample its way through a pike block. That’s a gendarme.”

Jeralt saw the expression on the royal prince’s face and smiled.

“The Fódlan equivalent would be a Great Knight.”

“Aye, four thousand Great Knights led by the young sovereign of Toulouse himself,” Werner squinted as he recalled the memory, “A fair lad, brave and true. He wasn’t much older than you, in fact. The very definition of a noble king. His queen, they said, was as beautiful as she was virtuous. If you listened to the rumors, you would’ve sworn that their romance and their kingdom was out of some fairytale story. Well, at Montegro, this fairytale king led an army of fifteen thousand men, of which four thousand were his elite royal gendarmes. The rest of his force may as well been chaff for all they mattered. Together, they faced a combined Swabian state army of fifty thousand pike, shot, and horse, a portion of whom were mercenary tercios. I commanded a company of men in the front divisions. I saw the charge firsthand. Four thousand gendarmes. Arrayed in two lines. The sunlight gleaming off their plate as they charged. The pendants fluttering in the wind. When they got close, the ground literally shook. I commanded some brave boys in that battle, but I’ll tell you what, when they connected with us, our entire ranks just dissolved. They rode right over us and chased us into the second line, which shattered as well. The third line wanted none of what we got and was collapsing before the cavalry even got there. The rest of the battle was them riding our lads down. We suffered twenty thousand casualties on that day. Twenty thousand.”

“It must have been a grand sight,” murmured Dimitri. The young noble grimaced when he realized what he had just implied, “Captain Werner, I must ask your forgiveness for what I had just said. No doubt some of those casualties were your men. I did not mean to---"

“Oh, it was a grand sight,” the mercenary waved his apology aside, “When I saw those gendarmes charging us in perfect formation with their lances couched, I thought they were going to carry our entire line away and bring back the age of chivalry, honor, and bloody damned feudalism to boot! And that’s what the good captain means when he says men don’t take the shock of combat well. Soldiers, even veteran and experienced soldiers, have a mental limit. A little voice in the back of his head that’s going to be urging him to drop everything and run at the first sign things start to go south. And when he sees a body of cavalry coming down on him at full speed, that little voice in the back of his head is going to be screaming at the top of its lungs. That’s why most nations have adopted the tercio or something close to it. You toss an untested man out on the battlefield and he’ll snap like a twig when danger so much as breathes his way. But if you stick him in a big ol’ formation tens of ranks deep and give him a fifteen-foot pike to poke people with, he starts feeling a lot better about his place in life. And if you stuck him with a group of men he knows and likes and gave him a commander he can trust, then he might actually hold his ground. And if you drill him every day until his body instinctively responds to an order from his superior officer, then he might even advance in the face of shot, shell, and whatever hell the enemy throws his way.”

“That’s what warfare comes down to these days,” Jeralt continued, “It’s all about the application of shock and the ability to defend against it. You want to inflict as much psychological damage as it takes for the enemy formation to break while shielding your own. Once a line shatters and dissolves into a rout… that’s when the true killing begins.” 

“My weapon instructors have told me before that the easiest way to strike a man down was when he was fleeing and his back was turned,” Dimitri mused, “It had seemed so dishonorable then, but to hear it repeated now by men such as yourselves who have experienced it... Forgive me, but it all sounds so… callous. These theories on battle that you speak of. I have studied concepts vaguely similar to them but never in this detail. I must confess that I very much doubt that the outside world could have developed these ideas in a vacuum. There must be something influencing the nations abroad to think in such a manner.”

“You’re absolutely right about that,” Werner grunted, “And that something is war. A lot of it. For the past hundred years give or take, our continent has been embroiled in some sort of conflict pretty much nonstop. And as it so happens, when you give people an incentive to start killing one another, they get so good at it that they start developing better, more efficient ways of killing one another. That’s the real truth behind all this. The tercio developed because generals and commanders got so good at inflicting shock that bringing your standard feudal levy wasn’t going to cut it anymore. But now, the focus has shifted again. Everyone and their mother is trying to think up ways to break up the tercio. It’s a resilient formation, but it’s not invincible. You can do it with cavalry, but they have to be a lot heavier in weight and armor than your standard knight. You can do it with magic as well, but you risk getting your valuable mages killed to counterfire. Losing a magic-user who’ve spent years studying magic to some fresh-out of the drill yard recruit who got lucky with his musket is just about the worst exchange you can possibly make. You could also do it with gunpowder, but that theory hasn’t been tested much. The idea is that while employing good musketeers in your formation is something you ought to do, it’s even better if you can employ a greater number of average ones. Weight of fire and all that.”

“I have heard of this concept,” Dimitri nodded, “though not applied to gunpowder weapons. Quantity has a quality all on its own or something like that.”

“More or less. The idea goes that since men will always be moving on the battlefield in formations, good aim isn’t all that much of a benefit. In a situation like that, when you’re firing at large, slow-moving blocks of men, ten average shooters will do more damage than one good shooter and one hundred poor shooters will do more damage than ten average ones. It’s a sound theory, but it’s weighed down by the general unreliability of the matchlock. Hasn’t stopped military thinkers from trying it out though. In fact, our very own Byleth is a subscriber to that theory. That’s why our tercio has got cannons. Most mercenary companies don’t bother.”

“I’m getting too old to learn a new method of warfare,” Jeralt sighed, “Sometimes I miss the good old days when combat was decided at sword-range and not by who volleyed first two hundred yards away.”   

“I’ll be begging your pardon, Captain,” Werner smacked his commander’s shoulder in good humor, “but I vastly prefer this method of warfare. Before, a normal man like myself wouldn’t have lasted three seconds against the likes of you. Nowadays, I at least get a chance to shoot you before you inevitably knock me on my ass.”

“An entire continent at war…” Dimitri shook his head slowly at the notion, “I can only imagine the impact to the common folk and to society as a whole. In Faerghus, I do not believe we would have the means to support a perpetual conflict like this. Men and women would have to leave their fields bare for years at a time. And it would strain the resources of our nobles to the extreme. The four thousand gendarmes you alluded to? My retainers would be fortunate if they could raise an elite force a fifth of that size. Great Knights are a Master Class. It takes time and dedication in three separate military arts to be considered barely worthy of that mantle. Suffice to say, most of the Kingdom’s cavalry arm are either Cavaliers or Paladins.”

“Gendarmes aren’t something your retainers would be able to field,” Jeralt smiled faintly, “Despite their similarity in role to Great Knights, they aren’t exactly landed knights with fiefs of their own. Just like how most infantry regiments these days have transitioned to becoming state troops, the heavy cavalry divisions that accompany them are heavily subsidized by the state. They are still the sons and daughters of nobility, but their loyalty lies with the nation, not with their families. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the heavy-handed reforms carried out by the King of Toulouse and likeminded sovereigns.”

“If those are the same type of reforms I am familiar with,” Dimitri said contemplatively, “then surely there must have been some sort of negative reaction from your society’s nobles. I cannot think up a scenario where the men in power would freely relinquish their authority.”

“There were quite a few rebellions started by nobles who lost their holdings and fiefs,” Werner gestured dismissively, “but those revolts never amounted to much of anything. The trick is to make sure the reforms not only benefits the hegemons in charge, but some of their underlings as well. Smart kings and emperors played the nobles of their court off one other. Those rebellions started by nobles who lost everything due to the old system being dismantled? They were suppressed by armies led by nobles who stood to gain everything under the new system. Organizations that produced elite soldiers like gendarmes merely hastened the process. Before, if you were the fourth or fifth son of a noble house, the only way for you to get ahead in life was become a knight sworn to another noble house. Nowadays, you joined a military institution sponsored by the state. The state paid for your weapons, your armor, and your steed. They even gave you a monthly stipend to spend on whatever you wished. The end result is a highly motivated, militarized force beholden only to the state. These types of systems grew to be so effective that nations based their entire officer corps off it. Sons and daughters who were born too late to inherit fiefs were enrolled in military academies much like this monastery and taught how to command men. They wouldn’t rebel because their livelihoods were connected to the state. Their families wouldn’t rebel because it would mean facing their own children on the battlefield. The common soldiers got charismatic commanders who were trained in the military arts. Everyone benefited. Even the young upstarts themselves,” the grizzled veteran’s eyes suddenly danced with mischief, “They got a chance to preen and pucker in front of the commoners they commanded.”

Jeralt raised an eyebrow.

“I must remind you that you are talking to the future king of a sovereign nation.”  

“Apologies, your future highness,” Werner said cheerfully, “I’m sure as the future king of a sovereign nation you preen and pucker differently than your fellow nobles.”

“Just a little,” said Dimitri with a straight face.

This time, all three of them laughed out loud.

“The King of Toulouse,” the young prince mentioned, still smiling, “What happened to him? Did he prevail over his enemies?”

Both men looked uneasily at one another.

“He lost the war.”

All of them turned at the sound of the new voice.

“Professor,” Dimitri immediately inclined his head out of courtesy, “I must thank you for allowing your men to speak with us. Their experiences in the field have proven to be extremely enlightening and have taught us much.”

There was nothing on Byleth’s face that suggested he had registered the compliment at all. The look he gave back was neither warm nor cold.

“I did not allow them to do anything. They spoke with you out of their own volition.”

“How did the lessons go?” Jeralt asked partly out of amusement and partly to diffuse the tension that arose from such a terse response.

The mercenary who was now Garreg Mach’s youngest instructor stared back at his father.

“It went accordingly.”

If the noncommittal answer bothered the older men, they didn’t show it.

“We were just talking to the young prince about the war between Toulouse and Swabia,” Werner said easily, “and the battles that took place between them.”

“Were you at those battles as well, professor?” Dimitri enquired politely.

Byleth turned to look at him.

“I was eight at the time,” he said flatly.

“Of course. My mistake. You were only a child---”

“I served as a powder-bearer for the tercio,” those emotionless eyes bored into Dimitri’s own, “My primary role was to supply gunpowder to the musketeers when they ran dry. My secondary role was to help drag men who had been mortally wounded out of the battle line.”

“I… see.”

“We were part of the second wave of reinforcements,” Jeralt explained further, “Hired by the Swabian Emperor after his disastrous defeat.”

“The old wretch almost couldn’t manage it,” snorted Werner, “Marshalling fifty thousand professional soldiers nearly bankrupted his coffers.”

“And yet this emperor was able to hire fresh reserves?”

“He didn’t have the gold,” nodded Jeralt, “That much is true. But he could offer something that was just as good. Think. What do mercenaries want more of besides gold?”

“Loot,” Dimitri realized.

“Aye,” Werner smiled grimly, “Loot. To attract the sellsword companies to his banner and replace his losses, the Emperor of Swabia offered to let the mercenaries freely pillage any Toulousan territory that was captured. You’re a smart lad. You can imagine what came next.”

The young prince closed his eyes. Memories of the Tragedy of Duscur swam to the forefront. He could suddenly smell the smoke from houses torched by vengeful soldiers. Hear the screams of an entire people being put to the sword.

“How bad was it?”

“Out of the twenty-two cities and major townships that consisted of the urban areas of the Kingdom of Toulouse,” said Byleth without breaking stride, “sixteen of them can no longer be considered significant population centers.”

His expression must have darkened for Werner shrugged in his direction.

“That’s the irony of war, ain’t it? If the fairytale king had never won that first battle, then that old bastard of an emperor wouldn’t have had to rely on such drastic steps. It would have saved his people from a lot of grief in the long run.”

“No just king would let his people suffer like that,” Dimitri relaxed the hand he had inadvertently clutched into a fist, “The King of Toulouse must have fought back. At least I would have,” he thought to himself.

Werner held up three fingers.

“He fought us three more times. Three battles. And lost them all.”

“How is that possible?” the young noble tried to keep the combativeness out of his voice and for the most part succeeded, “You told me his four thousand Great Knights was enough to defeat five times their number in enemies.”

“Aye. They did. And in doing so, lost two thousand of their own to musket fire and braced pikes. Among those casualties were the majority of the young king’s court mages, who he had embedded with his cavalry to help break up the tercios. After that it was all just a numbers game. One that favored the Swabian Empire.”

“How so?”

“You can replace twenty thousand pikemen faster than you can replace two thousand gendarmes,” Byleth said simply.

“By shattering the Swabian army at Montegro,” Jeralt sighed, “the Toulousan monarch inflicted so much damage to his own elite royal corps that he ensured they wouldn’t be able to replicate the same feat ever again. And faced now with a reinvigorated enemy whose ranks swelled with veteran mercenaries? The rest of the battles weren’t so much battles as they were mopping-up operations. After his final defeat, the boy-king holed up in his last remaining keep with his family and what was left of his retainers. We were there. Surrounding them. Up until the end.”

“Terms were offered,” Werner scratched idly at his chin, “Kneel or die. The boy surrendered his family to spare their lives. But if the Emperor of Swabia wanted him to kneel, he would have to dig him out. So we did. We laid siege to his castle. Unlimbered the cannons. And blasted it apart stone by stone. His household troops put up one hell of a fight, but they were too few to halt the final assault. And that’s how it all ended.”

“His family and subjects?” Dimitri whispered.

“His subjects are now the subjects of the Swabian Empire. His infant children were distributed to high-ranking aristocrats within the empire as hostages. His young and beautiful queen, last I heard, is now the young and beautiful queen of Swabia.”

“Stupid boy,” murmured Jeralt.

“I must admit that I am confused,” Dimitri looked at each of the figures facing him in turn, “Fighting to the last to defend your kingdom, even if it is a futile fight, is something I would expect all righteous sovereigns to do. And yet, judging from your tone and your responses, you do not agree. I must ask. Dying with his men in that last stand. Was that not the honorable thing to do?”

“Honorable, aye,” Werner grunted, “But was it the right thing to do? Now that’s a question that’s much harder to answer.”

“The Emperor of Swabia would not have executed him if he had surrendered,” said Jeralt firmly, “You start executing royalty like they were common criminals and the royalty from other countries will start banding together to form coalitions against you because they think you want their necks on the chopping block next. He would have most likely kept his child and wife too, because the world doesn’t look kindly on greedy sovereigns breaking apart families while their husband and father is in prison. He might have even had a chance to restore his kingdom. The emperor was old and had many heirs. In the power struggle that followed, anything could have happened. As long as he was still alive, either imprisoned or taken as a hostage, the King of Toulouse would have been a political problem for Swabia. One he resolved himself by choosing to die with his men in that futile final stand.”

“The bards will sing songs of that glorious and valiant charge,” Werner tapped the pommel of his sheathed sword absentmindedly, “Make no mistake about that. They’ll tell tales of this fairytale king and how he took the world by storm. But I wonder. To his young wife who now warms another man’s bed. To his people who he abandoned to the tender mercies of a hostile power. To his kingdom that will now never have a chance to become an independent nation again… What use are those songs?”

Dimitri looked down at his palms.

“I…” he hesitated, choosing his words carefully, “…I cannot say that I agree with everything you’ve said. But it would be foolish of me to say that your words have no merit whatsoever. It is apparent to me that I have much to think about,” the young prince looked up into the face of the one who had no doubt set this up, “Thank you, professor, for giving me this new perspective.”

“You should not thank me for something I did not do,” came the brusque reply.

“You didn’t intend for this to happen?” Dimitri frowned.

“I did not.”

“Then why are you here?”

His counterpart’s eyes betrayed nothing as they locked gazes with his own.

“I am here because I will be taking the Black Eagles to see the men drill tomorrow and wanted to know if you and your Blue Lions would be interested in coming along.”

Dimitri couldn’t recall a time when he was this taken aback.

“I have already discussed this subject matter with Professor Hanneman,” Byleth continued, “and he was amendable to the idea. It would give him more time to research crests is what he said to me.”

“But you’re the homeroom teacher of the Black Eagles.”

“I am.”

“And I am the head of the Blue Lions.”

“You are.”

“There are no rules stating that you have to teach another class when you’re already the homeroom teacher of an existing class.”

“There are no rules preventing me from doing so either.”

“That can’t be your only reason.”

Byleth cocked his head to one side. Dimitri had the distinct impression he was choosing his next words with great care.

“I am a mercenary. I am being paid to teach this academy’s students what I know and sometimes what I don’t know. You are a student of this academy. Your Blue Lions are students of this academy. Ergo, I will teach all of you as well. Besides, I made sure to include in the contract that the fees paid to my company would be based on the amount that was taught, not the quality. And as far as I’m concerned,” the sellsword-turned-instructor swept a hand out towards the Blue Lions still deep in the midst of conversations with the tercio’s officers, “all of this count as lessons.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Dimitri caught sight of Jeralt nudging Werner in the ribs.

“This is why I let him do all the negotiating.”

++++++

“You know, Teach, not that we don’t enjoy your company, but shouldn’t you be sitting with your class and not ours?”

Claude glanced at the other faces seated in the Golden Deer section of the cafeteria. None of his classmates seemed to outright mind the new arrival’s presence, but some looked a little wary. The recent defeat handed to them by the mercenaries still smarted.

“By the rules and decorum expected by this academy, I most likely should be,” said the newest professor at Garreg Mach Monastery.

“But?” the heir of Riegan sensed that there was more to the sentence.

“But I don’t really care for decorum.”

Claude leaned back into his chair and grinned.

“I don’t know why you chose the Eagles, Teach. With that attitude, you would’ve fit right in with us Deers!”

Murmurs of agreement sounded around the table. The warier students relaxed and resumed poking and prodding at their dinner.

“My reason for choosing the Black Eagles are my own,” replied Byleth neutrally, “And explaining my reasoning is not why I am here today,” the mercenary turned to look at Claude, expression a blank canvas, “I have learned from my sources that the Leicester Alliance contains a higher number of merchants compared to the other nations. Is this true?”

Claude’s gaze traveled to the two Crimson Plumes standing guard at Byleth’s back. They were big, tall men in black steel cuirasses. While they stood still as statues, their hands hovered surreptitiously over the pommels of the sheathed swords at their sides. Eyes half-hooded by plumed burgonets remained professionally fixed ahead.

Claude’s gaze traveled back to their master. The academy allowed retainers and domestic staff on the monastery’s grounds, but this… this was a step beyond that.

“Well, our little coalition is somewhat renowned for being more accepting of merchants compared to the Kingdom and the Empire. If you’re looking for a trade deal, Ignatz here comes from a family of merchants. Isn’t that right, Ignatz?”

A few seats further down the table, the boy in question jumped at the mention of his name. Meekly, he raised a hand in greeting.

“Um… hello.”

The way Byleth’s stare transfixed him resembled a hawk focusing on a particularly large and juicy rodent.

“Yes. Mr. Victor. Your name came up more than once when my men were surveying the merchants outside the monastery. From what I hear, your parents enjoy a reputation as honest and dependable traders. Now that your head of house has introduced us, I will dispense with the pleasantries and move directly to my proposal.”

Ignatz looked to his left and right helplessly. His fellow students made no move to assist him. Instead, they watched with a form of horrified fascination in anticipation at what would come next. All except for Claude, whose grin grew wider with each passing second.

“Um… o-okay? What is the proposal?”

“I find myself in need of gunpowder. My tercio has a supply caravan, but its stores will inevitably dwindle. And a mercenary company is only half-effective if its musketeers can’t shoot. You, through your family’s connections, will procure me that gunpowder.”

Ignatz peered at the mercenary over the rims of his spectacles.

“I… I think you have the wrong person, professor. My family doesn’t sell gunpowder. I don’t even know what it’s made out of.”

“Charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter,” Claude shrugged when a table’s worth of gazes focused on him, “What? The Almyran navy have some ships that are equipped with cannons.”

“Correct,” Byleth continued without pausing, “Charcoal is easy enough to make. Sulfur can be found in mountainous regions and will require extensive mining operations to extract. Saltpeter, or more accurately, potassium nitrate, is mostly a manmade substance. To harvest it in any significant amount, you will need to have farms and estates dedicated to its production.”

“That sounds like a lot of effort,” Ignatz frowned as the merchant in him was drawn to the fore, “The start-up cost would be huge. I don’t think my parents would be interested in something so… long-term. And you would be their only customer.”

“They would be selling some of it to me. They would be selling most of it overseas.”

Claude slowly, slowly straightened himself from his leaning position.

“O-Overseas?”

“Gunpowder has never been cheap to make, even during peacetime. In wartime, the price to market increases exponentially. And right now, there are more than a few wars being fought across the Great Ocean. Quality gunpowder is needed in such great amounts that state-subsidized entities dedicated to its production cannot meet the demand. There is also the added fact that opposing factions would more than likely enter into a bidding war to secure your shipment just so the other side doesn’t do the same. All of this has led many nations to call gunpowder by a different name. Black gold,” Claude noticed that many of his fellow nobles were trying very hard not to look interested, “Because good, quality gunpowder that doesn’t foul up the barrel when shot and doesn’t ignite in the pan unless ignited is worth its weight in gold.”

“If you put that way, I… I can see where the potential of the business lies.”

“I was hoping you might,” Byleth nodded, “And with Fódlan not manufacturing gunpowder in any great quantity, chances are the sulfur deposits are pristine and untapped. Which substantially enhances the purity of the powder once it is produced.”

“I don’t doubt any of that, professor, but I don’t think my family has enough capital to fund an endeavor like this.”

“Understandable. Merchants are perpetually poor in cash and rich in goods. Your parents will most likely have their funds already tied up in goods they’re trying to sell.”

“Yes,” Ignatz said, almost relieved, “Exactly.”

The newest instructor at Garreg Mach Monastery set down the silverware he had been using on the cafeteria table.

“All I can say is whoever is going to invest in this potential endeavor will most likely end up extremely wealthy,” he said to the sons and daughters of some of the most influential nobles in the Leicester Alliance.

Claude could almost hear the cogs turning in his fellow students’ heads.

“Why stop there, Teach?” the heir of Riegan joked to break the silence, “Why not just make a trade mission out of it? We can even launch the ships straight out of the port at Derdieu. They even have factories there to produce your gunpowder. Say, what kind of goods do people want the most overseas?” he asked, not expecting an answer at all.

“Tea, porcelain, silk, indigo, cinnabar, cotton, sugar, and various spices,” Byleth recited almost mechanically, “Mundane materials such as steel, iron, and bronze will also be in high demand during wartime.”

“How… do you know all that?”

“It is not unknown for mercenary companies to accept goods as compensation for services rendered,” came the automatic reply, “It is also not unknown for mercenary companies to forcibly take goods if they believed their compensation was not enough.”

“Huh...” Claude cocked his head to one side, “I didn’t think you were actually going to answer.”

“Why?” Byleth stared blankly at him, “Was I not supposed to?”

“Well, you were. I just didn’t expect you to be serious. That’s all.”

“I assure you I am being entirely serious.”

“Yes,” Claude sighed, “I’m beginning to see that now.”

“Um… Professor?” they both turned at the soft voice. The girl, the daughter of a minor noble sworn to House Goneril, blushed slightly at the attention, “My family owns a tea plantation that has been passed down generation to generation. We are quite renowned for the leaves we produce. But sometimes the infighting between the larger noble houses will cut off our trade routes. Do you think… Do you think that selling our tea overseas could work for us?”

“I believe it would be a profitable venture, yes,” nodded Byleth.

The girl smiled, pleased.

“What about arms and armor?” a youth from the Kupala autonomous region asked, “My family crafts weapons and armor using precious minerals. We also sometimes decorate them with gemstones. Do you think people from overseas would be interested in that, professor?”

“Ornate suits of armor and well-crafted weapons have always been in demand by kings, emperors, and nobles alike,” Byleth replied simply, “Some even choose to collect them as decoration. And since these pieces are crafted in Fódlan, which is a relatively unknown land to most, it would make them exotic. Which should easily double your asking price.”

The boy, his hair cut short in the manner of the mountain tribes, grinned.

“You talked about spices, professor,” another student mentioned, “My family is thinking about transforming some barren farmland into an estate for growing spices. If we wanted to sell our wares across the ocean, what do you recommend we plant?”

“Any spice will do,” said Byleth succinctly, “Though the rarer it is the more expensive it will be.”

“Professor, my family has an iron mine they’ve been operating for a long time. Our deposits are some of the best you’ll find. Do you think our ore will fetch a better price in a foreign market?”

“You mentioned indigo, professor! I have contacts to merchants who deal in rare dyes. I would be very interested in selling them overseas.”

“What about porcelain? I know craftsmen who produce some of the finest plates and cups in all of Fódlan! Please consider us as a potential business partner!”

“Professor!”

“Teacher!”

Claude looked around at the absolute bedlam that was slowly descending over the Golden Deer table.

“Is this actually happening?” he asked no one in particular.

“Enough!” the stringent voice of none other than the heir of Gloucester brought the chaos to an end, “We are not behaving as nobles ought to be behave! Arguing amongst ourselves in such a manner is uncouth and unbefitting to us as the heirs of the greatest families of the Leicester Alliance!” Lorenz turned gracefully towards the source of the ruckus, “Professor, if we truly are to participate in this hypothetical trade mission, it is only fitting that the goods we are to trade must come from the very best stock. It will be, after all, our first expedition to the outside world. We must set the noblest of examples! As such, I must insist that a substantial portion of your ship be reserved for goods from House Gloucester!”

“Yup,” Claude nodded, “This is actually happening.”

“If you are so interested in trading overseas,” Byleth seemed utterly unfazed by the storm he had just stirred up, “you should consider forming a trading company.”

“What is a trading company?” Claude immediately perked up.

“It is a coalition of influential merchants backed by powerful nobles who work together to advance their own goals,” their teacher answered, “Once the company has monopolized or secured a certain trade route, the profits it earned is then divided by the shareholders of the company. The individual reward is lower, but so is the risk. In many cases, these trading companies become so powerful that they are then subsequently nationalized by the state.”

Ruffling could be heard as the entire Golden Deer table as a whole retrieved their notebooks from their bags.

“And how do we form one?” asked Claude over the sounds of frantic note taking.

“The first step is to draft a founding charter. Within this charter should be clearly stated who the founding members are, what they are wanting to trade, and the percentage of shares they will hold for the company. It gets more complicated after that, but that is the gist of it.”

“If we draft a charter,” Claude ventured carefully, “Would you be willing to take a look over it, professor?”

Cold, blue eyes flickered in his direction.

“A founding charter will require substantially more than just a cursory glance over, Mr. Riegan. It is the guiding document that will determine whether a trading company succeeds or fails. To draft one successfully, you will need to understand the economic circumstances that led to these companies forming and the political effects that followed. Something that cannot be taught in a single session. On the contrary, it would take multiple lessons and seminars before you could empirically and objectively comprehend the fundamentals. Is that what you are propositioning to me? That you would like for me to teach you these concepts?”

In the distant future, years from now, when his friends and family asked him just where in the metaphorical timeline did the fate of Fódlan irrevocably change, Claude von Riegan would recall this exact moment.

“Yes,” he said.

“It would require the creation of a new syllabus,” mused Byleth, “or at the very least, additions to the existing syllabus I have already fashioned for the Black Eagles. Yes,” the mercenary-turned-instructor nodded seemingly to himself, “This could work. And afterwards we can discuss the possibility of kickstarting Fódlan’s first foray into the gunpowder industry.”

Ignatz, who had appeared relieved ever since his family’s merchant relations had dropped out as a topic of discussion, suddenly looked panicked all over again. 

“B-But professor! I thought we agreed that my family didn’t have the funds to start an endeavor like this!”

“All those in favor of loaning gold to Ignatz’s family to kickstart Fódlan’s gunpowder industry and get everyone involved fabulously rich in the process raise your hands,” said Claude.

Everyone at the table raised their hands.

“It would seem your funding issue is now resolved,” Byleth commented.

Ignatz’s response came very close to sputtering.

“If that is everything,” their new teacher rose from his seat, “I have other matters to attend to. Besides working on this new syllabus, it would be remiss of me as the Black Eagles’ homeroom instructor if I did not offer them the same new lessons.”

“Before you leave, professor,” Claude said seriously, “I have one last question.”

“One last question?” the words were repeated without a hint of emotion.

“Call it a premonition if you will.”

“Proceed.”

“This is going to end up with all of us in one giant class, isn’t it?”

The mercenary’s features were as blank as a slab of flattened granite. 

 “Very likely,” said the newest professor at Garreg Mach Monastery.