Chapter 1: The Gala
Hubert wasn’t much of one for parties, and even less of one for conversing with Cornelia Arnim. And yet here he was, lightly swirling a flute of champagne in a quiet alcove of the ballroom as he tried to dodge his hostess’s suspicions.
“I don’t like seeing a guest with such a sour look on his face,” the Agarthan Minister of Infrastructure cooed, giving away nothing behind her eyes. “With how enchanting the opera was, I had hoped my little gala would provide a satisfying end to the night.”
“My apologies, madam,” Hubert replied, politely. “I’m rather unused to high society, you see—I’d never have been invited were I not a friend of Dorothea Arnault. My name is Hubert Vestra.”
That didn’t seem too dubious of an answer, and Cornelia seemed to accept it. She gestured over a young man—cuffs visible and a brand on his hand. A Crest bearer. The orange-haired young man snuck a quick glance at him before offering up the bottle he held, refilling the Minister’s wine. “Ah, yes, Miss Arnault quite stole the show, even as a villain. I will admit that she seemed a bit too sweet to play the Demon Seiros—surely a monster should be less of an ingenue.”
Dangerous territory. “I’m sure she just wanted to create a contrast—a monster behind a lovely face. After all, nobody would expect such a heartless beast to hide herself so well.”
Cornelia, lovely on the outside as well, smirked noncommittally. She was a tricky read. “Ah, I know. Any sympathy must dissolve by the end, when Lord Nemesis and his companions gallantly sacrifice their humanity and bloodlines to put an end to her. For blood to be so cursed that it infects their legacy even millennia later—why, it’s little wonder that only selfless dedication could control the taint.”
Behind her, the young orange-haired boy stood staring at his feet, the grip tightening slightly on his bottle. How much of this do you believe, I wonder, Hubert thought. Out loud, he replied, “That is our society’s tradition, is it not?”
Before Cornelia replied, a bell signaling the hour summoned her away. Before she went, she gave him a wink and a promise to see Hubert again. Hopefully not a sign. But the passage of time held duties for Hubert, as well.
He surveyed the crowds. Dorothea was easy to spot, holding a small handful of notable military guests in conference by the doors to the courtyard. She was a bright and charming as ever, and it was hard to imagine anyone she paid attention to would leave her side. Good.
Caspar’s loud laughter was audible across the room, considerably less charming as he blocked a bored-looking Count Oswald from joining the other guests. Linhardt was silent and unassuming behind him, leaning on one of the overly-ostentatious windows, the gems on his cuffs emitting a glow that proved them currently active. They seldom were, but Caspar needed all the help he could get to seem “proper.”
The only one who was out of place was Hubert—he hadn’t expected the mansion’s owner herself to pick him out of the crowd. He had mere minutes before the Flame Emperor was due to arrive. He had to hurry.
He turned towards the young man still clutching his bottle of wine. “Would you mind showing me the way to the restroom?” he asked, with what was intended as a winning smile but made the servant look rather nervous.
“Of course, sir,” the young man responded with well-rehearsed politeness, and dared to look Hubert in the eye.
Not quite beaten down yet. That’s good.
That Ferdinand’s father wasn’t at the party was a mercy.
The Aegirs had already been reasonably well-off before Ferdinand’s thirteenth birthday, and the consolation payment given after he had been Tested and found cursed would have propelled them even higher in society. Franz Aegir was exactly the sort of man to feign a love for opera just to hobnob with the upper crust at the afterparty.
And if his father had come, how would he have reacted to the sight of his eldest child serving the guests with all the poise and politeness he’d always tried to have?
Disgusting. Everyone knows that those Crests are for slaves and monsters. Of course he’s no longer a son of mine.
Ferdinand knew his duty. He knew that his blood was cursed and must be kept under check. He knew that spending his life serving a full-human master was the pact that his ancestors had signed when they drank monsters’ blood.
That didn’t mean it didn’t sting.
After showing the rather frightening-looking guest to the amenities, Ferdinand returned to the ball, taking a deep breath to chase out any treasonous thoughts. It’s not like he was unlucky: though strict, Cornelia seemed to consider her staff beneath her notice, preferring to take her cruelty out on political opponents and criminals. Ferdinand was fed and clothed, and his duties were no worse than any free domestic servant’s.
He’d heard horror stories about what he could be enduring, and what he might if he disappointed Cornelia. He had no room to complain.
As he looked around for any guests who might need more refreshments, the room went black.
“Dark magic?” Ferdinand whispered, inaudible against the sudden screams of the guests. Then, one of the towering windows that Cornelia was so proud of shattered.
In the influx of moonlight, a cloaked silhouette appeared. “Congratulations,” announced the figure in a distorted voice. “The Flame Emperor has seen fit to grace your celebration.”
Before anyone could react, The Emperor brought their axe down on the figure right before them. It looked like the Count Oswald.
For a second, all was silent and still. Then every guest in the room began to panic.
Ferdinand pressed himself against the wall to avoid being trampled as the upper-class patrons began to rush out. Some instead fought back, and he was able to see glimpses of the action from the flashes of light from spells.
The Flame Emperor parried three guards at once, cutting one down. Cornelia dodged a masked woman in the garb of an assassin. Dorothea Arnault had fainted into the arms of both General Chilon and General Myson, distracting them from taking part in the battle. A fire had started by the table of refreshments.
Ferdinand decided that it was time to run as far as his bracelets would let him.
Every time he got too close to one of the mansion’s exits, his wrists gave a warning shock. Cornelia had enchanted his bracelets’ boundaries quite specifically: no leaving her home or entering any private room. Ferdinand wasn’t even allowed out in the yard.
He’d been quite good at fencing once upon a time, and he was still fit and strong, but he had no access to any form of weapon. Cornelia didn’t trust weapons in the hands of Crest-bearers. He couldn’t fight, and he couldn’t run, so all Ferdinand could think to do was hide.
It grew quiet as he traveled to a farther hallway, one where guests wouldn’t be allowed. Ferdinand decided to head to the laundry room, when he heard something odd from a very forbidden door.
“Ow, what was that for? I am hurrying!”
The too-loud admonishment came from the open door to Cornelia’s study. That door should never be open. It wasn’t a voice that Ferdinand recognized, either.
Against his better judgement, Ferdinand softly walked over and looked in.
In the room were three young men. One was short, with a shock of aqua hair and a stream of curses coming from his mouth. He was fiddling with Cornelia’s desk, trying to brute force his way past the locked drawer. A second, sitting slouched in a chair for visitors, was taller and thinner, with long green hair and—to Ferdinand’s surprise—a pair of Crest bracelets on his wrists, stones glowing blue. And the last was the dark-haired man that Lady Cornelia had been talking with earlier—Dorothea Arnault’s friend. The one whom Ferdinand had shown out of the ballroom earlier.
Suddenly, what had seemed likely to be a crime of opportunity seemed like a conspiracy.
The short teenager finally managed to break the drawer open, with a cry of triumph. “Told you I had it!”
“Fine,” said the black-haired man impatiently. “Just grab all the documents—we don’t have time to search them for now. Lady Edelgard will know what is useful.”
“Ah,” droned the green-haired boy, “that’s inconvenient.” Ferdinand turned his way in horror, seeing sleepy-looking eyes gazing right back at him. “I told you to keep guard, Caspar.”
“You were never going to get that thing open on your own! I saved the mission!” Caspar responded as the dark-haired guest sprung up. Ferdinand didn’t have time to run before he found himself surrounded by the clouds of a Miasma. He fell to his knees, coughing.
When he looked up, the tall mage glared down at him, radiating homicide from every inch of his body. By contrast, his companion Caspar seemed almost jovial.
“Don’t worry, man,” the boy told Ferdinand with a grin, then pointed at himself with his thumb. “We just so happen to be the good guys.”
The green-haired boy sighed, then crouched down to the dumbstruck Ferdinand’s eye level. “I’m sorry about this. We’re part of a collection of people with some strong disagreements about how society functions, and about the significance of Crests.”
It was easier to talk to another Crest bearer. “What do you mean? About the curses?”
The other boy hummed, then shook his head. “Well, I’d say even the concept of calling them curses sits poorly with me. They’re quite interesting and have a variety of useful functions. I’d love to have a chat about them later, but we need to be out of here before Cornelia escapes the ballroom and you’ve seen enough that you need to come with us anyway. I hope that sits right with you.”
“What.” Looking up at the three faces—one vengeful, one eager, one bored—Ferdinand found his father’s speeches coming to his mind and out of his mouth. “But—we’re cursed, and inhuman…And, if we don’t obey, we’ll be monsters like Seiros, and…”
The tallest man sighed. “It often takes some time to recontextualize things, but we’re in a bit of a hurry. Caspar, if you will?”
The shorter boy’s fist hit the side of Ferdinand’s head, and he fell immediately into unconsciousness.
By the time Edelgard and Petra returned to the safehouse, it was already dawn. Their weapons and costumes had been discreetly dropped off in one of their many little hidey-holes, and the rest of the night had been a question of stealth. Luckily, Titanus were always the first response to such high-profile attacks, and at times it felt like Edelgard had more experience evading them than she did breathing. The guards had even been kind enough to call a curfew, ensuring that nobody saw the two exhausted girls.
When they finally slunk in, Bernadetta was curled up on the chair facing the door. The only thing that unfailingly brought her out of her room was the agonizing wait for her allies to return from a dangerous mission. Edelgard had been in her place many times, sleeplessly waiting for proof that her comrades were alright, but she never wished to inspire the same fear.
As she liked to claim, she was already more demon than woman. And demons were not so easily killed.
Bernie jumped up at the sound of the bolting door. “You’re okay! Is everyone okay? Did they see you, and follow you? Are they coming to kill us? They’re coming to burn me alive, and I deserve it!”
Edelgard was glad that Petra took the initiative to comfort the shorter girl. “Do not be worrying. We were successful in almost every objective.”
Edelgard caught a flash of frustration in her tone. She’d told Petra that they couldn’t expect to kill Cornelia, but the girl from Brigid was a hunter at heart. Telling her that prey was out of reach just made her more determined. Edelgard decided to be professional and reassuring. “Every primary objective worked out on our end. Dorothea ingratiated herself and knows exactly what to tell the press. Oswald is dead, and his new bracelet design won’t be getting off the ground. And the rich and famous who think they can treat us like animals now know the name of the Flame Emperor.”
Bernadetta nodded but startled back up in a second. “On your end?! Does that mean the boys are in trouble?”
Edelgard bit her lip. “Not as far as we’re aware. They left a coded message by the drop-off point, but they mentioned something about an unexpected concern. They didn’t indicate that it was urgent, though, and I doubt Hubert would let anything get out of hand.” There was the sun, there were the tides, and there was Hubert. Three forces of nature that felt like the only things Edelgard had to rely on. He would not let himself die here.
Bernie whimpered, and hugged her knees to her chest. The bracelets on her wrists were surrounded by red, raw skin, the mark of a wearer that could never seem to stop rubbing at them. Edelgard could sympathize: though the law forbade Crest bearers from wearing them, she hadn’t taken her gloves off except to bathe since escaping that awful place three years ago.
It had bothered her since Hanneman had slipped her the device he made through a crack in the wall between their cells, telling her that someone young deserved a life more than he did. His little invention, he’d whispered, put together from scraps and notes that the researchers had carelessly misplaced between experiments. It could turn off the bracelets, dimming the light from the stones on each, but not even Linhardt’s improvements could get them off their arms.
Edelgard closed her eyes. Her mind always raced when she was tired. One step at a time. “I’m going to get cleaned up. Hubert shouldn’t be in contact until this afternoon, but let me know if any messages arrive.”
Petra and Bernadetta nodded. The three of them were the only ones who stayed here regularly: Caspar and Linhardt both lived with Captain Bergliez, Hubert had his own apartment, and Dorothea’s stardom afforded her quite a few homes. It was considerably less easy for two masterless Crest bearers and a foreign huntress to find somewhere to blend in, so they spent most of their time underground, in this old bunker below the streets of Garreg Mach.
Hubert and Edelgard had found this place while chasing rumors of buried tombs and Crest stones able to unlock her power. That, unfortunately, had yet to pan out.
But if Hubert got the documents, then maybe there’s a chance, Edelgard thought, sinking into her desk chair. That’s something to consider for our next move. There’s also the Arena season starting soon, as surely some gladiators will be willing to fight for us. The Prince of Almyra’s upcoming visit makes things difficult, though, since we don’t know where he’ll stand. Security will be heavier than ever…
Plots, plans, and eventualities swirled through her head as Edelgard drifted to sleep at her desk.
Whoever this Flame Emperor was, he sure wasn’t making Felix’s life any easier.
Titanus, usually only brought out at night, stood parked at major intersections scanning for signs of trouble. Guards were randomly stopping and targeting citizens, using a reading crystal to check their bracelets or IDs for validity. Honestly, it would have been better to lay low for now, hiding in some back alley until things quieted down.
If not for a few sentences in the newspaper, that’s what Felix would be doing.
The slums were unusually quiet, with everybody lying low after the news of the terror attack. Nobody put it past Prime Minister Thales to jump at the excuse to purge the city of its undesirables, actual perpetrator be damned. Felix didn’t think he would, though, if the number of gangsters running about with government-issued weapons was any indication.
Past a pair of fighting stray cats, past a few abandoned apartments, and finally to a derelict theater, with only a board of plywood to serve as a door.
Felix knocked six times, and the board sprung aside. “Welcome!”
The Secret Shop was just as empty as the streets around it. Other than Anna, leaning on her counter with a smile, the only other customer was a glaring Almyran boy, arms packed with far too much food for one his size. Felix had seen him around before, but this was not the kind of place to question anyone’s motives.
The boy slipped Anna a bag full of gods-know-what as payment and scurried out without a word. Anna, her finger on her cheek, grinned over at Felix.
“Ah, my favorite murder hobo. Any bounties to cash?”
Felix nodded. “Don’t call me that.” He slipped Anna the ID of Benson Alray, who’d gotten off for kidnapping and assault in a trial that not even the judge pretended was fair.
Anna giggled. “Nice one. If you want to put it towards credit, you’re halfway to that Sword of Zoltan you’ve been eying.”
“I do,” Felix replied. It wasn’t worth questioning just where Anna had gotten a master swordsmith’s blade. She was a one-woman black market, whose shop stocked everything from food to hits to everything in between. But right now, the commodity that interested Felix the most was information.
From the pocket of his coat, he pulled out the clipping of the newspaper, pointing to the relevant bit. “I want to know everything about this.”
The paper’s headline was the event of the week: MASKED MANIAC TERRORIZES INNOCENT PARTYGOERS: WHO IS THE FLAME EMPEROR?
Anna hummed. “You and everyone else. Dorothea Arnault swears she heard him scream ‘Freedom for all!’, but I’ve also heard she fainted immediately so I’m not—”
“Not that part,” Felix interrupted harshly. He had no time for heroes ready to die for a lost cause. “I mean this.”
The sentence he had underlined was a small note among the details of the night’s casualties. Also missing is one Crest-bearing servant of Minister Arnim. A reward is offered for anyone who can provide information locating a male, late teens, of average height. Hair is orange and skin pale. Bracelets active.
Felix made sure to keep his voice measured as he asked, “How likely is the paper to conflate red and orange?”
Anna gazed at him, her eyes evaluating. Felix tried not to twitch under her stare, hating the way the shrewd merchant seemed to look right through whomever she wished. “It’s possible. I’ll put some feelers out, if you like.”
“All I ask,” Felix responded, trying hard to seemed dismissive. He dropped a coin on the counter and grabbed a loaf of bread as he exited.
Stupid. You know it’s not him. His hair’s too red, and if he’s anything like Miklan he’ll be way over average height now. How desperate are you?
Pretty desperate, in fact. As he brought the bread up to his mouth, he caught a glimpse of his bare wrist. It was too late to ever go back to normal society now: without a proper, scannable ID he could never get a real job, rent an apartment, ever let himself into the eye of the law. If he was ever discovered to have run away from his Testing at age thirteen, his death would be just as brutal as Glenn’s had been.
No, Felix had no interest in society, or crusading to save it like that alleged Flame Emperor.
He would save three people, and only three. He just needed to find them, first.
Thanks so much for all the kind comments!
Chapter 3: The Hideout
Ferdinand learns about the maniacs who abducted him, and does not want to acknowledge their many good points.
Hubert wondered why he, of all people, had to debrief the new potential recruit. Said potential recruit was currently still passed out on his couch, in his apartment.
“Sorry, man,” Caspar had said in the most unapologetic manner possible. “Uncle Randolph needs the deniability, you know? You’re way more low-profile, anyway! Nobody’s going to try to interview you at all! We’ll catch you at the next meeting.”
It was as logical as Caspar got, but Hubert still felt annoyed as he gazed at the sleeping boy. He seemed much younger and more peaceful this way, like his waking self must have held much more tension than Hubert realized…though that had better not be drool leaking onto his pristine couch.
Eventually, the boy began to stir, just as Hubert was beginning to eat. Seeing the opportunity, Hubert fixed two portions before going over.
“Please, feel free to have something to break your fast,” Hubert said, as winningly as was possible for him.
The Crest bearer glanced down at the offered meal, then back at Hubert’s face. “This is a mug of coffee and some dry cereal.”
Fine, then a winning personality was out. “Yes. You will eat it, or nothing.”
Despite making a decidedly immature grimace as he sipped the coffee, the younger man scarfed down the food. It had, after all, been a stressful night.
Well, there was no use delaying their business. “My name is Hubert Vestra. I am part of an underground group known as the Black Eagles, who with our leader the Flame Emperor seek to put an end to the current system of oppression against those who bear Crests.”
The orange-haired man had no right to look so incredulous as he glanced from his own marked hand to Hubert’s bare ones. “You guys do remember that we’re demons, right?” A pause. “I’m Ferdinand, by the way.”
Hubert gave a sigh of irritation. Though he had not been through what those born with Crests had, the contrasts in their attitudes was impossible to predict. Edelgard, full of revolutionary fire, seeking him out after a grand escape. Bernadetta, found beaten half to death by the side of the road and convinced she had no worth or right to live. Linhardt, walking tall beside his childhood friend as though he’d never realized he had a Crest at all. And now some boy who seemed to genuinely believe the propaganda the government had forced on them all since birth.
Careful not to be patronizing (Edelgard would give him that angry look of hers), Hubert decided to explain. “From what we have seen, there is no difference in spirit between those born with and without Crests—certainly not enough to warrant such a social divide. Just think—if we really were so opposite, then wouldn’t the differences be evident before the Testing at age thirteen?”
Ferdinand looked at him rather skeptically. “And yet there’s no denying the difference in blood. So, do you always kidnap every Crest bearer you come across?”
Ah, he was going to be difficult about this. “No, your case was a sad circumstance necessary to complete a much more important mission. I can assure you that you would be far from our first choice of recruit.”
“Wait, recruit?!” Hubert perhaps could have done more to ease into that proposition.
“To be frank, it’s that or kill you, and our leader tends to be quite displeased when I do that to liberation targets.”
“How could I even help out when I have—” Ferdinand gestured to his wrist, then did a double take as he really looked at it for the first time since waking. “Is my bracelet…inactive?”
Hubert smirked. “We have our ways, you see.”
Ferdinand gave a very nervous smile as he replied to Hubert. “Being weirdly cryptic doesn’t inspire much trust, you know.”
“I can take you to someone much more qualified to explain,” Hubert said, glancing at the clock. “Caspar and Linhardt will have checked in at our base by now, and our comrades will be expecting you.”
Caspar and Linhardt had not checked in at Hubert’s base by then, and their comrades were not expecting them.
It was bad enough that he’d been forced to wear a hooded coat of Hubert’s that completely dwarfed Ferdinand’s frame—a fact that his captor was openly amused by. Then, they had to take the most circuitous and shady route possible, and the poor remains of Ferdinand’s server’s shoes would never recover from all the muck. And all the while he had to wonder whether Hubert would make good on his threat to blast Ferdinand with dark magic at the first sign of trouble.
No, to top it all off the first thing Ferdinand had to see when Hubert led him through a locked, concealed trapdoor was Dorothea Arnault (of all people!) locked in a lover’s embrace with a magenta-haired girl with a tattooed face.
As the mercifully clothed women gaped at him, Ferdinand turned crimson and spun around, bringing his face straight into the chest of Hubert, who’d finished locking up and crept in behind him.
“Hubert, what in the name of Nemesis is going on?” came the unmistakably melodic voice of Fodlan’s biggest rising starlet.
Ferdinand chanced a peek back around, and found both women staring at him, shocked. “He kidnapped me,” he explained.
“We rescued him,” Hubert countered, glaring down. Ferdinand sheepishly stepped away from him. “He’s a Crest holder that was assigned to Cornelia that chanced upon our mission.”
“And when was I supposed to learn about this?” came a woman’s voice from the door.
Between the authoritative tone and the way the other three straightened up at her arrival, Ferdinand assumed that she was their leader. She was short but imposing, with long white hair and a calculating look on her face.
While Hubert obsequiously apologized and pinned all the blame upon Caspar, Ferdinand glanced down at her hands. She wore thick gloves past the forearm. “Yes,” she said, bringing her eyes up to Ferdinand’s, “I have a Crest.” Then she smiled. “My name is Edelgard Hresvelg. I assume Hubert has introduced himself already.”
“I am Ferdinand…” he replied, trailing off awkwardly. He didn’t have much right to the Aegir name anymore.
“I am being Petra MacNeary,” said the remaining girl. “My beloved one is Dorothea, and the one who is spying is Bernadetta.”
Ferdinand glanced in the direction of her pointing finger just in time to hear a squeak and see a flash of purple disappear behind a slamming door.
“She is quite shy.”
“I assume that Hubert has filled you in on the basics?” Edelgard asked primly.
“Very vaguely. You want to tear down society and don’t think we’re cursed.”
“’Cursed’ is such a vague word,” the short girl shot back with more conviction than Ferdinand had ever felt. “I do think we’re cursed. I think we’re cursed with social mores and expectations that no reasonable person could call justified. When the government rips children from their families, is that not a curse? When Crest bearers are forced to kill each other in the Arena or are assigned to sadists and abusers with no possible way to defend themselves, then yes, I’d call them cursed. Every person—everyone who will never see their loved ones again, every innocent forced to do torturous work because of a choice they never made, even everyone like Caspar who needs to make himself complicit in his oldest friend’s enslavement just to know that he’s safe, is cursed under this system. So yes, we are cursed. But not by our blood. By the mandates of tradition and government, and that’s a curse I intend to break.”
Ferdinand, still looking into Edelgard’s eyes, felt stunned by her sheer passion. He summoned the first words he could think of: “That…sounded rehearsed.”
And then Edelgard was chuckling, the righteous indignation swept away by the break in tension. “I will admit that I’ve put some thought into my pitch before. I have to convince a nation, after all.”
“Why here, though? We’re all trained and processed in Shambhala, so wouldn’t it be easier to save more people there?”
“Because Garreg Mach is the capital,” Edelgard replied. “We need to take the corruption down from the top. Besides, that also means that there’s more enslaved Crest owners here, and more powerful people we can turn to our cause.”
Ferdinand wanted to argue. She was crazy, she was a terrorist, she was some filthy cursed demon with no place in the Aegir family. But somehow he couldn’t. “I’m not saying I’m convinced, but…how could someone like me even be of any use?”
As is on cue, the door to the safehouse burst open, revealing a frazzled Linhardt and a Caspar weighed down by multiple bags. “Sorry we’re late, got held up by press,” reported the shorter boy. “Not to mention Linny wanted to grab every book that could relate to any of Cornelia’s notes. Hope we didn’t miss anything!”
As Hubert immediately rounded on the stragglers, Edelgard smiled up at Ferdinand. “Well, to start, you can help us sort through paperwork.”
Nobody had a "von" in their names because they aren't nobility in this AU. I apologize for my complete inability to write Petra's accent.
Chapter 4: The Dressing Room
Some sparring, both verbal and physical.
Dorothea ran through the sheet music, raising an eyebrow. “This is awful. Who chose this?”
“Oh, don’t ask,” replied Manuela with a laugh as she touched up her lipstick in the mirror. “We’re supposed to give an Almyran flair to our next season’s performance, and none of the shows in our archives fit the bill. We had to throw that together in a week!”
“For the prince’s visit?” Dorothea pouted. “Wouldn’t it be easier to find an opera from Almyra? I know they have them. The act structure is different, but I’m sure there are some that translate well.”
“I always forget how new you are at this,” Manuela responded. “Almyran operas have the wildest themes. Even tame ones would have to be gutted to get through the censors, and that’d be even more offensive than this cliché tripe.”
“Oh, of course,” Dorothea replied. She’d explained as much to Edelgard when asked about the opera’s political influence.
Besides, the opera wasn’t that bad, Dorothea though as Manuela left to “powder her nose” before warmups. Her aria could be fine with some tweaking, if one ignored that she was a mermaid who wished to live as a scullery maid. And that the aria was a lament over a burned cake.
Perhaps the opera was that bad.
The door opened again, and the click of high heels strode in. “I think I can salvage this melody, Manuela—”
“Oh, I wish you the best of luck in your adjustments,” Cornelia responded.
Dorothea’s blood ran cold, but she was a famous actress for a reason. “Minister Arnim, I had no idea you were visiting! Please forgive me for my unpresentability!” Pure respect and sweetness, as though she were genuinely guilty for wearing exercise clothes in her own dressing room.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” Cornelia answered, her voice just as saccharine and innocent. “I would have announced myself, but you seemed so caught up in your reading. I hope you don’t mind the interruption: there’s just so much that I need to talk to you about.”
“To me? I’m honored!” Fell Star, what did she want?
“To start off, I must apologize for the travesty that occurred during my little party last week. I’m so used to the peace and happiness of our fair city that sometimes I forget how many villains are out there. My security going forward with be much higher. You weren’t harmed, I hope?”
“Not at all. I fainted briefly, but Generals Myson and Chilon were kind enough to protect me. From what I’ve heard, you were in much more danger.”
“Ah, yes, the Brigidian assassin. I was in no danger, though it was a mistake not to try to kill her. I thought to capture her for interrogation, but alas.”
Give nothing away. “You mean the Flame Emperor wasn’t alone? How did you know the assassin was from Brigid?”
“No, I believe that there is a much greater conspiracy afoot. As for the assassin, her fighting style was quite distinctive. Besides, it’s well known how selfish and savage the people of that region tend to be.”
Petra smiled brightly at each kindness shown to her. She worked hard at any task and felt the pain of the oppressed even more acutely than Dorothea herself. She honored every animal she killed and loved nothing more than falling asleep in Dorothea’s arms.
“Of course. She must be an utter beast to try to hurt you like that,” Dorothea agreed.
“But speaking of fighting styles, that brings me to my second reason for talking to you. Are you aware that the next Arena season starts at the end of next month?”
Dorothea nodded. “I know it’s always quite a big event for the Harpstring Moon. I can’t say I’ve ever been fond of bloodsports, though.” Even if the contestants were free, she would hate it. She had nearly vomited just reading of the incident that had earned Jeritza the moniker of ‘Death Knight.’
Cornelia smiled. “They’re a bit of an acquired taste, but this season promises to be a memorable one. I’ve heard rumors of a new competitor whose strength is enough to challenge the Death Knight and Thunder Catherine. But anyway, I’ve been asked to make you an offer.”
“An offer?” Dorothea asked cautiously.
“Yes. You see, they need to book an act for the season’s grand opening, and I just knew you would be the perfect star for the occasion.”
“I am so grateful for the opportunity! I’d love to!” It had to be a trap. Edelgard had been looking for a way to get behind the scenes at the Arena, but not under Cornelia’s eye. But the minister couldn’t be aware of Dorothea’s involvement, could she?
“I’m glad. I’ll pass your answer along to the appropriate people.” Cornelia stood, smiling. “There’s just one last thing before I go.”
Onstage you were the Maiden of the Wind, ever serene. Fraldarius, ever stoic. Seiros, invincible. “What about him?”
“I met him at the gala and found him fascinating, but he’s proven rather difficult to track down. He mentioned being a friend of yours.”
“Yes,” Dorothea said. “We met while out shopping and found that we have a few common interests.”
Cornelia hummed in acknowledgement. “I haven’t found any employment records. Do you know what he does for a living?”
“He’s unemployed, I believe. His father died suddenly last year, and he’s been living off his inheritance.”
“Well, that’s no good.” Cornelia pouted. “I hate to see a talented young person go to waste like that. Why don’t you bring him along to the Arena concert? I’m just dying to have another chat with him.”
“I’ll be sure to invite him,” said Dorothea brightly.
“Please do. Well, for now ta-ta, darling.”
Dorothea was still standing in place when Manuela walked in, holding a full, uncorked bottle of wine. She pressed it into Dorothea’s hand.
“You look like you could use this, dear.”
Ingrid sprung back, easily dodging her opponent’s haphazard sword strikes. As the guard tried to regain his balance, Ingrid brought the training lance down on his arm, throwing the wooden sword off in an arc.
“And match.” Ingrid held her hand out to the guard. “Good fight.”
The man glared at her and spat on the ground. “Don’t touch me, demon.”
Ingrid’s expression didn’t change. “Understood.”
The guard turned around and stalked off to a small gathering of the other free staff, who had been watching. Training dummies it was, then.
A high strike. It’s an unfair advantage, that demon blood. Lets you beat any real human.
Middle. I know Sylvain is your friend, Ingrid, but you need to understand duty. His blood is dedicated to helping the country; it’s quite admirable.
Low. Glenn made his choice, Ingrid! Without this system, people would live in chaos! I know you cared for him, but you have to understand!
And finish the combination with a Tempest Lance. You’re lucky nobody in your family has a Crest. There’s almost no chance that you have one!
And the dummy was now a scattered pile of straw. Well, she could repair it later.
As Ingrid went to return her lance, she heard a faint giggling from behind the weapons rack. “Elma, Aspen, get out from behind there so I can put this back without hitting you.”
The twin blue heads of Lonato’s two youngest children popped out from their hiding place. “Sorry, Ingrid, but the other guards said we shouldn’t watch,” Elma responded, puppy dog eyes in full force.
“They were right. You could get hurt if you hang around here.”
“They would never be hurt with you around,” came the voice from behind her. “Thank you for finding them, by the way. I was looking.”
Ingrid bowed deeply and gave her normal respectful response. “Thank you for your praise, Master Ashe.”
“You don’t need to say that—and please don’t call me that!” Ashe said, the freckles on his nose almost hidden by the embarrassed blush on his face.
Ashe and his siblings had been adopted by Lonato only a few years before Ingrid had been assigned as a bodyguard in his household. Even now, with his father away on business and Ashe temporarily in charge, he still obstinately refused to understand the difference in their positions. She kept wanting to shake him, to scream until he understood what happened to those who didn’t know their place. Their duty.
Instead she said, “My apologies.”
Ashe looked a bit sad, as the twins began to pull on his shirt, asking for a story.
That had been another mistake: Ingrid had been caught listening as Ashe read the two “Loog and the Maiden of the Wind.” She hadn’t meant to stop, but she was so caught up in sudden memories of childhood dreams and games of knights and dragons alongside three boys that the nostalgia had all but overpowered her.
Ingrid hadn’t noticed him see her, but the next day when she finished training she found a book of chivalry on top of her bedroll. When she tried to return it, another popped up until she finally gave in and read. How had he guessed her favorite?
But silly fantasies were behind her now. She could not be a hero.
She walked to the washroom so she wouldn’t be followed, but Ashe called her back. “Ingrid…I hate to ask, but Aspen and Elma were hoping to see some of the sights of the city for their birthday next week. I was wondering if you’d be willing to accompany us? As a guard, of course.”
You’re supposed to tell me, not ask me. But somehow, instead of protesting her traitor mouth said, “I would love to.”
And then she walked away, trying hard to admonish herself. Life here would be so much easier if Ashe understood that she had no right to be happy.
Chapter 5: Paperwork
In which Ferdinand gets a C-support
“Is anything being of relevance?”
“Not unless Edelgard thinks that the sanitation codes can help inspire revolution,” Ferdinand replied with a groan. When he decided to help an underground resistance group, he’d expected more than an entire week sorting through and annotating government documents. The fact that he had been confined to the hideout for his own safety (and probably because they didn’t trust him yet) only made things worse.
“Perhaps we should be pausing to relax for now. We have been working with hardness—uh, working hard.”
For the past week, Dorothea had been too spooked by her confrontation with Cornelia to visit the base in case she was tailed, Edelgard and Hubert had been out constantly on some secret mission, and Caspar was so useless at sitting still and reading that he’d been summarily banished.
As Linhardt always seemed to nod off shortly after starting any document not related to Crests, that left Ferdinand and Petra to do most of the work. Well, and the shy Bernadetta, but she tended to quickly steal into her room with documents and slip out her notes a few hours later.
Ferdinand began to boil the water for tea. None of the Black Eagles seemed to appreciate the art, and it was now his responsibility to rectify that. He fixed a cup of ginger tea for Petra, and some Almyran pine for himself, and was even kind enough to place another pine cup in front of the sleeping Linhardt.
“I’ll be honest,” Ferdinand admitted, after a sip from his steaming brew, “I expected this rebellion thing to be a bit more eventful.”
“Yes,” Petra agreed. “At this stage, strategy is of the most importance. Each move requires strength and action, but to wait with patience for the right moment can cause much frustration.”
“But you still don’t mind waiting?”
“I have trust in Edelgard. She is quite driven, and if you know her for a while her brilliance shines through. She thinks every move through as thoroughly as possible, and I believe that she understands how best to use my strength, and everyone else’s.”
Ferdinand took another sip of his tea. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you even get involved in all this? Brigid doesn’t have Crests, does it?”
“I was a captive of politics—no, political hostage?” Ferdinand nearly spit out his tea. “Oh, I am sorry for surprising you. I am the granddaughter of the king of Brigid. Our country
has been subservient to Agartha for centuries, and they have required us to send all members of the royal family to Garreg Mach to be educated before we come of age."
“You’re a princess?!” Ferdinand sputters, wondering if it would be appropriate to get on the floor and kowtow.
“Yes. But my country does not put the emphasis on titles that yours does. I still hunt and play and am an equal to all I meet,” Petra assured. “I would have returned there, when I finished my schooling. But…while I was here, I met someone.
“Dorothea had not been in the opera long when I encountered her as part of a cultural study. She was still a child of the streets at heart, and I was taken by how wistful she seemed when she talked of the inequalities of your land. Even though I only met her a few times, I still was inspired to learn of the injustices for myself. As I was not subtle when asking around, it was not long before Edelgard heard of me.” Petra smiled. “I will always feel grateful that she did, if only because I was able to see Dorothea again.”
“You really love her, don’t you?” Ferdinand asked.
“I do. Ah! But do not be sad. I assure you that Edelgard and Hubert only have friendship.”
“Wait, why would I care that—”
“I found it!” cried Bernadetta, as she sprung out of her door. As Ferdinand, Petra, and a suddenly awake Linhardt stared, she attempted to retreat. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it!”
Petra was faster, her foot in the door before Bernadetta could close it. “What are you meaning?”
The trembling shorter girl held out the document she’d been reading like a shield. “The Crest stones and the weapons…one is on display at the museum right now, and it’s not a replica…”
Linhardt grabbed the paper from her. “Lúin, attuned to the Crest of Daphnel…”
“What does that mean?” Ferdinand asked.
Linhardt turned to him with an uncharacteristically bright smile. “It means that we may have a new way to fight back.”
That feeling when you want to write your favorite WLW pairing but your outline doesn't have them together for a while so they just gush over each other for two chapters straight.
Sorry for the short chapter, but weekends tend to be busy for me. Expect the next update Monday!
Chapter 6: The Breakfast Nook
The Eagles plan their next move.
Hubert stood behind Edelgard as she inspected Bernadetta’s notes. Although the two of them had been rather preoccupied with Edelgard’s more personal project lately, it was hard to deny the thrill of pride that ran though him with the knowledge that the team they had built together had brought this about. Together, he and his oldest, most respected friend had gathered a group of brilliant other young people, people who understood their dedication to the cause and trusted just as strongly in Edelgard as Hubert did.
“So do you actually plan to be open now that we’ve done what you want?” Well, except for one. And Ferdinand admittedly was Hubert’s fault.
“There is no need for you to worry about our actions. We are doing what is best to achieve our goals,” Hubert replied. “Not that you have the right to worry anyway, considering that it is by our generosity that you are both free and alive.”
“Yep, so free that I can’t even go outside. How am I supposed to help your cause—which you have barely even convinced me about in the first place—if you refuse to even talk about anything?”
“Perhaps if you focused more on showing competence and respect then you would be more trusted in turn.”
“You haven’t even given me a chance to do anything!”
“If you would only be—”
“Hubert.” Hubert turned to Edelgard. Her look was half chiding and half amused, and Hubert noticed that the rest of their companions were glancing between him and their new member. Hubert immediately shut up, frustrated with himself. Ferdinand had a rather irritating ability to get under his skin and provoke argument.
After an awkward pause, Edelgard continued. “As I was hoping to say, I think that Bernadetta’s discovery will be extremely helpful. Well done, Bernadetta.”
The purple-haired girl hid her head in her hands and groaned. She didn’t run away, which was great progress.
“Our next goal is clear,” Hubert said. “We must claim Lúin for ourselves. If the legends are true, then only Crest bearers will be able to wield it safely. Anyone else would be turned into a demon.”
“It infects you, unless you’ve already got demon’s blood.” Hubert noticed a change in Ferdinand’s tone: he seemed more pensive now than argumentative. Hubert didn’t like it.
“Exactly,” Edelgard replied. “Our blood makes us stronger and more resilient towards evil. I see no reason to be ashamed of that.”
“It’s a pity that none of us bear the Crest of Daphnel,” Lindhardt said, looking up from his doodles of the aforementioned Crest.
“Why is that mattering?”
“An attuned Crest can unlock greater powers.”
“And we will continue searching for more weapons for that reason,” said Edelgard, her patience as always a model for Hubert to envy. “As for now, Lúin is the only one we know of, so it’s the only one that I can go after.”
Caspar raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you mean ‘we?’”
“No. We want to draw as much attention towards the Flame Emperor as an independent entity as we can for now. I will go alone, and I will go at a time when the public can see me.”
This was the first that Hubert was hearing of this. “Are you sure? I’d be happy to stay at a distance just to support—”
“Won’t it be dangerous with the public there?” Ferdinand interrupted. “I mean, it’s not like there’ll only be rich guys in a room full of guards. If the Flame Emperor ends up killing civilians, how will that help anyone?”
Hubert wanted to slap him. The last thing that Edelgard needed to hear was a repeat of the doubts Hubert had worked to assuage over so many sleepless nights. But of course, Edelgard’s poise and confidence were unparalleled.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it, but I also can’t stand by while the current Crest system hurts thousands who don’t deserve it. If people need to die…then we can’t let that stop us.”
And with her words, the room was silent.
Caspar sat at the family breakfast table opposite Linhardt. It would be a great place to talk, if not for certain annoying younger aunts. Way younger aunts. Sometimes he judged his grandpa.
“Go away, Fleche. You’re creepy and everyone hates you.”
“Big Brother loves me, and if Big Brother loves me then nobody else matters.” Fleche stuck her tongue out and ran away.
“You’re being a bit harsh, Caspar. She’s a child. If she’s still this obsessed with Randolph five years from now, then you can start calling her creepy.”
“No, Linhardt, I swear that this is really not normal no matter what age she is. You just don’t get it because you’re an only child,” Caspar responded. For a second, he was afraid that Linhardt might bring up Caspar’s actual brother, the one that was half memory and half wishful thinking by now. But of course, Linhardt wouldn’t. For all of his bluntness, he had a remarkable ability to sidestep any topics that were genuinely hurtful. At least to Caspar.
Lin, of course, did nothing but give him a look. “Anyway, now that we’re alone I suppose we can actually talk about important things?”
“Like what? Edelgard doesn’t want our help with this mission.”
“Okay, yeah, should have seen that coming.”
“I’m serious. If we want to try to utilize the Relics, then we need more Crest bearers. Right now, we have Bernadetta with Indech, Ferdinand with Cichol, and Edelgard with whatever Crest she refuses to let me examine. And I’m sure you remember my own.”
“Cethleann,” Caspar replied. The name was indelibly etched into his mind, the only lifeline he’d once had to help the person he cared the most about. They won’t assign by name or appearance, but they’ll let you ask for a certain Crest.
Linhardt smiled. “Of course. Anyway, the relevance is that none of those demons were ever slain, so none of them have proper Relics. Even if we do recover them, we won’t be able to unlock their full potential without matching Crest bearers.”
“Okay, I totally get you,” said Caspar, who had no idea where Lin was going with this.
Luckily, Linhardt had known him long enough to roll his eyes and elaborate. “We need to recruit more people with rare Crests, and we’ll get way stronger.”
“And how do we do that?”
“I want you to ask your uncle for help,” Linhardt explained. “We don’t need to tell him everything, but if he’s high up enough to be assigned a Crest wielder to serve him then he might be able to find out who’s on the market to be assigned right now. All you need to do is try to get on his good side.”
“That won’t be any problem,” Caspar bragged. “I’m so charming that all my relatives love me.”
From the other room, Randolph’s voice could be heard in a yell. “Caspar, have you been saying mean things to Fleche again?”
Linhardt rolled his eyes. “Let’s call it a work in progress.”
Next chapter, stuff happens that isn't just talking.
Chapter 7: The Museum
Aspen and Elma nearly ran out of the café before Ingrid caught them. “You can’t run away like that!”
Ashe chuckled, watching them as he paid. For all that Ingrid tried to keep her distance, the twins adored her. Elma had even tried to braid her hair like the older girl’s, with a rather messy result that Ashe had no heart to criticize.
“I’m sorry that they’re such a handful,” Ashe told Ingrid as they took the two kids outside, watching them bicker about where to go next. “They’re always trying to run off or hide somewhere. We were on the move a lot before being adopted by Lonato, so they’re not very used to staying still.”
“It’s fine. I remember that when we were their age, my friends and I were just as rambunctious.” Was that a small smile on Ingrid’s face? Ashe couldn’t help but grin; she always seemed so serious and dour that she deserved more happy memories.
Eventually Aspen managed to convince Elma to accept the Garreg Mach Museum as their next stop, “So we can see all the knight stuff,” and the small group headed out, walking through the sunny, bustling streets.
It was hard to believe that before Lonato, Ashe would never have a chance like this. He’d been so hungry all the time, so worried about how he could provide for his siblings that a carefree outing with the twins and a friend would never cross his mind. Everyone deserves to be able go out like this, he thought as he noticed a young man inch away after a glance at Ingrid’s hands.
The museum was wonderful. Ingrid had been hesitant when asked to surrender her lance at the door, saying that her duty was to guard them and she should just wait there, but Elma’s tearful question about whether Ingrid didn’t want to spend time with them put a quick end to that. It was lucky that it had: Ingrid seemed to know even more about knights and history than Ashe himself, and was able to answer just about every odd question that the twins had.
“Blue was Loog’s favorite color, so people from the Faerghus region still wear it to honor him.”
“It’s said that you can fix weapons like that by collecting enough Mythril.”
“Wyverns have horns so they can wrestle each other without being hurt.”
Aspen pointed to a tapestry on the wall. “What about this?”
Ashe glanced, and then gasped. It was quite the violent scene: a group of warriors surrounding a cauldron of blood, as their leader took a deep drink.
“Nemesis and his Elites, cursing themselves and their descendants to save the world,” Ingrid said, her voice suddenly monotone. She stared at the wall for a little too long, and Ashe felt the need to break the spell.
“I used to be a thief, you know,” he told her quietly.
Ingrid blinked at him, surprised. “What?”
“Before Lonato found me. After our parents died, I would steal everything that I could to get by. I did some very bad things back then. Lonato forgave me, though, and said that my past didn’t have to define my future.” He took a deep breath. “That’s why it’s not fair to think that you need to suffer and feel guilty for a choice that you didn’t even make. Why should your ancestors define anything about you?”
Ingrid looked hopeful for a second, but then turned back to the tapestry. “That’s not the way it works, Ashe. People like me…we have duties, and only bad things come when we don’t fulfill them.”
“I don’t believe that,” said Ashe with a smile. “Nobody ever ordered you to make friends with Aspen and Elma, or read my books, or just be nice all of the time, but you do. Ingrid, it’s been a good thing for everyone to have you around, and that has nothing to do with duty.”
As Ingrid seemed to be struggling for words, an alarm bell started to ring. “Get out now!” screamed a guard. “The Flame Emperor is here!”
Immediately, Ashe flipped into panic mode, his eyes meeting Ingrid’s as they both came to the same realization.
“Fell Star, the twins ran off again…”
“There really isn’t anything to worry about,” Edelgard explained to a fretting Hubert. “The guards in museums are just for show; they don’t have any real strength or discipline. I won’t be in any danger at all.”
Hubert looked levelly at her. Edelgard knew that his trust in her was unwavering to a frightening degree, but also that he was a terrible mother hen when he wanted to be. “Remember the signs. Blue smoke for exit, red for aid.”
“And you have proper weaponry?”
“I have my Victorious Axe and a Tomahawk. And a vulnerary.”
“And you know the layout?”
“Hubert, yes. I’ll be fine. Please, let’s just go.”
“Fine,” Hubert said reluctantly. Edelgard fixed her mask in place, and pressed down the thrill of anticipation.
Hubert teleported her from the abandoned alley straight to the maintenance room of the museum, a distance they’d carefully calculated and recalculated. He nodded, then vanished again.
It was show time.
Edelgard stalked through the mostly empty hallway. She’d chosen this time, right after lunch on a Sunday, because it was guaranteed to have some visitors, but wouldn’t be busy with school groups or other tours. Luckily, she seemed to be right. The first ones to spot her were a couple of chattering guards, who turned to her and gaped.
Edelgard brandished her axe. “Tell them all that the Flame Emperor has come. Any who does not flee now will die.” For good measure, she chopped at the frame of an old-looking painting.
The two guards glanced at each other for a second, then the female guard began to cast a spell as the male ran to sound the alarm. Edelgard easily took the Fire, then cut the guard down as she stood. I’m sorry, but I told you to flee. The other guard gave a muffled cry as he saw his comrade fall, then disappeared into a door. Second later, loud bells started pealing.
And Edelgard’s mental time limit began. It would only be a few minutes before the soft museum guards were replaced by city elites, so she had to be fast. She still paused momentarily to slash at a few exhibits as she passed. The authorities would no doubt realize her intentions here, but there was no reason to make it too easy for them.
The weapons room was one of the most elaborate. Of course, Agartha would put the most importance on tools of war. Lúin was clearly the most impressive of the lot, in a place of honor near the center in a large glass case. Edelgard smashed it.
As the glass rained down, she heard movement from her periphery. A wooden table covered by cloth and daggers twitched, and Edelgard preempted the surprise attack with yet another strike of her Victorious Axe, tossing the table inside and revealing what was underneath.
What was underneath was two small, trembling children with matching light blue hair, a girl and a boy, who screamed in unison when they saw her.
Edelgard froze. Young siblings, no defenses, terrified and crying…she could not get lost in memories now. But before she could bring herself to move, she felt something hard hit the back of her head.
“Don’t you touch them, you monster!”
The object—a small training weight—had been thrown by a girl about Edelgard’s age, with long blonde hair and the telltale glow of active bracelets on her wrists. The girl reached out for the nearest weapon—which just so happened to be Lúin, still in the case Edelgard had busted open.
Well, this didn’t go as planned. Hubert will be cross, Edelgard thought as she raised her axe once more and ran to the fight.
Ingrid clutched the antique she’d taken from the smashed case, hoping that it would stand up to a real fight. The Flame Emperor wasn’t giving her time to test it though, rushing to meet her with an axe blow. Ingrid dodged back, giving a small nick to the Emperor’s arm as she did.
With the Emperor’s attention on her, Ingrid danced backwards, darting through the exhibits to lead the masked figure away from where Aspen and Elma sat huddled together. She knew that, with the right opening, Ashe was waiting to sneak in to retrieve them. Well, if he had listened—she had unprofessionally barked her plan at him as they ran.
As she dodged another axe strike, thanking her excellent speed, the Emperor spoke up in a haughty, distorted voice. “You have impressive skills. Why waste your potential as a slave?”
In response, Ingrid hit them straight in the chest with a Tempest Lance. Unfortunately, that left her open to a rather large slash from the Emperor’s axe.
She glanced away from her opponent for a second, to Ashe’s pale face watching from the door. Now’s your chance! Get them and go.
And then she was dodging again, as the Flame Emperor tried attack after attack.
“I know how to free you,” the Emperor said again, eerily calm. “How to end your servitude to the Crestless who dare to say your life is worthless, and that you are cursed. Why sacrifice yourself for them?”
Because that’s not what Ashe says, and he deserves so much better than me as a friend, Ingrid didn’t reply. Instead, she forced herself to remember Glenn and Sylvain and Dimitri and so many others and say, “I would rather sacrifice myself for my duty than for your hopeless cause.”
It was strange how intuitively right the museum’s lance felt in Ingrid’s hands. It was as though it resonated with her, strengthened her. When she struck out again, hitting a blow to her opponent’s chest, Ingrid felt oddly connected to her weapon before dancing away from the counterattack. She neatly vaulted over a rack of ancient swords, leaving the Emperor to hack at it in pursuit.
“What use is a duty that benefits only the corrupt? Don’t you think you deserve to follow your own dreams?”
“Don’t pretend that you know what my dreams are.” Bodyguarding someone kind and thoughtful, like Ashe…when she was little and playing at knighthood, wasn’t something like that always her wish? Protecting those who deserve it?
“I can free you. I can break those shackles of yours.”
“And all I need to do is trust the terrorist threatening children? No, thank you.”
Talking was a mistake: Ingrid was letting herself be distracted. She nearly bumped into a rack of antique helmets, realizing just in time to kick the display over at the Emperor. It didn’t seem to slow them down.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ingrid saw two small forms run to a larger one. The twins are out. Buy them more time. That’s all that’s required of you.
It was liberating, in a way, to realize that she didn’t care if she died here.
But then Elma let out a cry, and Ingrid saw the Emperor grab a Tomahawk from their belt, and she acted based purely on instinct. The power of the lance seemed to synchronize with her own, as a combat art instinctively began to flow through Ingrid as though the lance were wielding her.
And then her wrists felt like they were being rent into ribbons as Ingrid’s body stopped obeying her.
Ingrid didn’t remember dropping the lance and falling to her knees as the pulses of pain from the bracelets turned her muscles to jelly.
Ingrid didn’t remember the Emperor throwing the Tomahawk as Ingrid began to scream out.
But she would never forget a single detail about the moment she opened her eyes and saw Ashe in front of her, the small axe that the Emperor had thrown buried deep in his back from the blow he had taken for Ingrid.
Felix was trembling, trying hard to seem calm as the adults fussed over Dimitri. Even if it was slightly immature, he let his hand clutch Ingrid’s as tightly as possible.
Not him too. Please, not him too.
Fhirdiad was notorious for how many of its citizens carried cursed blood, enough that people like the Galatea family who took in the children of parents known to bear Crests weren’t uncommon. They weren’t legal guardians, of course: Glenn and Dimitri’s Uncle Rufus and even stupid Miklan had true custody and were the ones who got the payouts when their relatives were taken by the government.
Felix had to admit that Glenn wasn’t nearly as bad as his two friends’ guardians, but it still rankled.
But that thought was already defeatist, when Dimitri was still being prepared for his Testing, and there was no guarantee that he had a Crest. Even though his parents both did, that didn’t mean anything when Glenn and Miklan were clean.
Sylvain didn’t need to be an omen, even if just thinking his name still felt like a gash in Felix’s chest.
Glenn met his eyes from where he’d been talking with the Galateas and Rufus, beside a pale-looking Dimitri who stared at the ground. Even though he was thirteen now, he still looked tiny next to the adults.
Glenn eventually walked down the steps of the court, to sit beside Ingrid and Felix. They weren’t allowed inside, since neither had been Tested yet. Rufus led Dimitri in, and Ingrid’s parents followed.
“Hey,” Glenn said. Ingrid looked up at him with a blush, and only the gravity of the situation kept Felix from rolling his eyes at her. “I know you’re worried, but…”
“Shut up,” Felix snapped. “I bet you’re just hoping that I have a Crest so you can get money like Miklan did, huh?”
And then Ingrid’s hand was out of Felix’s own and pushing against him, and Glenn looked…odd.
“Dimitri…feels like as much of a brother as you are,” Glenn said hesitantly. “I don’t intend to let them take either of you from me.”
At the time, Felix had thought it was empty bravado, that Glenn was just trying to comfort him. But then Rufus had come out without Dimitri, and Glenn had gone to follow, and days later Ingrid’s parents had taken him in and begged him not to look at the body on display in front of the courthouse…
Once they’d taken Ingrid, too, was it any surprise that Felix decided to burn his old life down?
Felix was going to save them, though. Find Sylvain and Dimitri and Ingrid and put this whole continent behind him. Felix was going to beat the system. Felix…
…was being poked.
“Anna told me to wake you,” said the grumpy Almyran boy. Felix pulled his face off of the table that he’d apparently dozed off at, and clutched his head in his hand. Fell-damned hangovers.
“I’m awake. Beat it.”
The boy scuttled off as Anna giggled from behind her counter. “Morning, beautiful.”
“What do you want?”
Anna’s smirk turned a bit sadder. “I’ve found a hit on one of those sets of traits you wanted me to look for.”
Felix’s mouth was suddenly dry, his ears pounding with his pulse and blocking out everything but Anna’s words. “You mean the redhead? The one who escaped from Cornelia?”
Anna shook her head. “Different lead. It’s about the new Arena season… All the bookies are saying there’s a new guy on the block. Blond hair, blue eyes, apparently strong enough to snap every practice weapon he tried in two…sound familiar?”
Felix nodded, and closed his eyes. “Thank you, Anna. I mean it.”
A lead. An actual, honest-to-stars lead. I’ll do what you couldn’t, Glenn.
“Now tell me what you know about the Arena.”
Being the Blue Lions is suffering.