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Coming of Age

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Each person is born with a purpose. We must fulfill that purpose, no matter our circumstances. It imbues our lives with meaning and direction. That is what I believe.




Dismissed as Prime Minister. Stripped of his title. House arrest.

None of it signified. Could not signify. Ferdinand stared blankly at the brickwork where Edelgard had been standing. Stripped of his title. He’d followed her on this path before she bothered to tell him that crucial detail. He always followed her, chasing in her shadow, and what a neat little trick that was, luring him into betraying—what, exactly? His father? Dismissed. She need only have asked and he would have— Stripped of all power, all lands.

And off she’d walked to more important things, leaving him there, frozen, eyes burning with what couldn’t possibly be tears, lungs hot with shame, for she’d never trusted him at all, had she, never said a word of her plans even though he was her—

He wasn’t anything to her at all.

A hand closed on his elbow, forcing him forward until his feet lurched to prevent a fall. Roses, he thought, head swimming, following the scent for lack of any other direction. “Lorenz?”

The other man directed him to a quiet corner of their temporary headquarters, and though Ferdinand fully expected to find an overturned box covered in a pristine white tablecloth and already prepared with travel kettle and porcelain teacups, when Lorenz released him it was only to lean against the wall with a wry sigh.

“You’re showing your hand,” Lorenz finally said, watching him carefully. “Clear your head before your approach her again.”

Startled, Ferdinand raised his head, caught something indulgent in that brilliant gaze as if Lorenz were bemused at a younger classmate’s attempts to solve a simple arithmetic problem.

“It’s politics, Ferdinand.” Lorenz flicked his hand, a flippant gesture more at home discussing gossip at the tea table than discussing this. “It isn’t personal. You planned to play the game yourself someday, did you not? It’s time to start.”

“A game?” Ferdinand’s voice echoed in his own ears, reedy and far, far away.

An incredulous smile stretched stiffly across Lorenz’s face, and now he really was laughing on the inside, Ferdinand could tell. But he wasn’t…mad. It was Lorenz. If the man could still daintily roll his eyes at the world, surely it couldn’t all be as catastrophic as it felt, right?

“Ferdinand,” he purred instead of reaching for that amusement simmering under the surface, a kindness. “Come now. What exactly were you planning to do?”

A ten year plan. Graduate the academy. Serve a few years in the cavalry officer corps, away from his father’s eyes, to perfect his leadership and study what the common man actually needed from the nobility. Find a junior political role where he could make his name, his own name, and start dismantling his father’s policies. Foster such self-sufficiency, such excellence of spirit, that no one could ever doubt he deserved the position of Prime Minister when it inevitably passed to him, and indeed, his insight would be so keenly sought that Edelgard would ask his guidance even before he inherited the title!

And then the glorious finale: call out his father in front of the Emperor, and the people, and the Goddess, and make him swear to his greed and all associated crimes. A grand assembly in the harsh light of day that would never be forgotten, that would be forever marked in the calendars! Reenacted in debate competitions at Garreg Mach every year!

It would be difficult to hold such competitions once the monastery burned.

Lorenz sighed with his usual disdain for their sires. “The true fool is your father. Did he think there would never be consequences for his little coup? House arrest is hardly punishment at all.”

Ferdinand squinted at him, but no matter how hard he stared, the words pouring out of Lorenz’s mouth wouldn’t turn themselves right-side up. Politics was jostling for authority and shouldering another man down from the podium when he lost his round. It was incredibly distasteful, to be sure, but the only consequences were getting tripped on your own way down from the stage when the time came. Not arrest. Not murder.

Oh Goddess, he’d blanked that bit out. Lord Vestra, dead, and Edelgard’s gaze piercing his chest as she waited for his reaction to the fact that Hubert had murdered his father for the title, and this was all fine and noble and par for the game, let’s all go march together against the Church—

Lorenz caught him by the shoulders as his knees buckled. “Ferdinand!” Worry, now. At least he could make sense of that. “Here, take my arm, sit and rest for a moment. It is not really so terrible. If anyone is gallant enough to effect a full turnabout of his house’s fortunes, surely it is you.”

A handkerchief made its way into Ferdinand’s hands, and he stared down at the narrow border of embroidered roses, around and around. Perhaps he was meant to cry. Perhaps Edelgard—no, she would not care enough, if anyone truly wished to see him suffer it would be her lapdog, lurking in the shadows just to see him weep. He would not give anyone the satisfaction.

Ferdinand reminded himself of that again, and again, and again, until finally it became true.




Garreg Mach fell into their hands, the enemy scattered in a rout, and everyone began to think of tomorrow. Edelgard gave her former classmates leave to return home and put their affairs in order before reporting to Enbarr to assume command as her generals.

How nice for them, Ferdinand absolutely did not think, crushing the rogue whispers as quickly as they came. To have a life left to order.

No, Ferdinand was not tumbling down that hill again today, thank you. He poured himself another cup of Farewell To The Monastery tea, toasted an invisible companion, and downed it like he could drown himself if only he managed enough cups fast enough.

“Hey, Ferdinand! Been looking for you everywhere!” Caspar slid onto the bench across from him, bright with so much energy that Ferdinand had to squint. A moment later, Linhardt slid in next to Ferdinand as well.

Two-pronged attack, or the everyday sight of Linhardt trailing Caspar like a reluctant chaperone? Impossible to tell. Ferdinand chided himself for his suspicions and summoned up a smile. “And now you have found me. Please, let me pour you a cup.”

The most efficient way to acquire new reserves of tea, he had discovered, was to simply drive out all other tea-drinkers in the vicinity. Accordingly, Garreg Mach now boasted far more than he could drink alone, the shelves stocked with blends meant to soothe another’s heart. Only the Bergamot had mysteriously disappeared, and if pressed Ferdinand could not say if Lorenz had absconded with it or if he himself had dumped it into the pond on one dreary midnight, locked out of yet another meeting around the war table. It was all rather fuzzy.

Caspar and Linhardt shared a Look, the kind everyone seemed to be sharing these days, flaunting their implicit faith and understanding in each other. Edelgard and her lapdog had an entire library of such Looks, but most distressingly, even Dorothea had begun to share one with Petra and Bernadetta. The bonds of friendship truly were a beautiful thing. Ferdinand himself had experienced such mysteries, like when one of the monastery strays would come share a Look that said please give me your table scraps. He and the tabby even had the same hair. Charming.

“We’ll pass,” Linhardt offered smoothly. They shared another conversation that consisted mostly of raised eyebrows, scowls, and a harrowing frown.

Ferdinand groaned and rubbed a hand over his face. “Please. My friends. Speak freely.”

“Do you want to come home with me?” Caspar blurted, much too freely. When Ferdinand didn’t, couldn’t respond, he barreled onward with rapidly building momentum. “We’re worried about you and I know everything is real, uhhh, weird right now on the family side, and my father said you’re welcome to stay for a while since we’re all on the same side anyway, plus—”

Noblesse oblige, came that sickening thought that turned Ferdinand’s stomach in an instant, his heart bobbing in an ocean of nausea. Now the privileged look upon you with pity. Now you get to grab for the charity meant for more deserving hands.

“Thank you for the consideration, Caspar, but I will be fine.” He sounded fine when he said it, upright and hale. Good, good. Ferdinand reached for his teacup only to find Linhardt had slid it out of range, rotating the sugar spoon with a solemn grace. He raised an eyebrow, and Ferdinand fled back to the safety of Caspar’s rambling offer.

Caspar nodded like he agreed, and that was heartening, wasn’t it? Caspar thought he would be fine. Excellent validation. Good job, friendship.

“Okay. I mean, I know you’ve probably got plenty of people to stay with in Enbarr but I wanted to make sure someone had your back. Good thing you’re always careful!”

Caspar,” snapped Linhardt, and Ferdinand instantly went from sheer bafflement over how something so ominous could come out of Caspar’s mouth to frozen horror that Linhardt was taking it seriously.

“What! Your dad said it too, Linhardt. It’s not like anyone liked the Prime Minister, so Ferdinand has to watch his back! What kind of friend am I if I don’t warn him?”

“A considerate one for not giving him a heart attack. Look at him, he’s barely breathing.”

“Oh shit Ferdinand—”

“I’m fine,” he croaked, head barely supported by his shaking hands. “Fine. Very fine.”

Linhardt gave a soul-shivering sigh, as if he were about to impart an immutable truth upon the world, and fixed Ferdinand with his usual bored stare. “Look, Ferdinand. You probably won’t be dragged to your death by an angry mob in the streets of Enbarr, because they’ll be too terrified of Edelgard to even consider it. Does that make you feel better?”

“I feel…I feel I am going to be ill.”

“Yes, that happens when you skip meals and try to subsist on tea,” Linhardt drawled, perfunctorily giving him three firm pats on the back.

 

Later, after Caspar half-carried him and his crumpled pride to the infirmary to confirm he hadn’t actually had a heart attack, after Linhardt sighed and extended an invitation of solace at House Hevring as well, after everyone made absolutely sure to reinforce that nobody would be murdering him anytime soon, except possibly Edelgard and almost definitely Hubert—in other words, confirmed he’d die of stress before ever seeing the winding streets of Enbarr again—Ferdinand dragged himself to the cathedral to die in peace.

Only a handful of the pews were in any condition to support his weight, and it took a few tries before he found one solid enough to fully lie down upon. He stared up through the collapsed vault of the ceiling and out towards the stars above, immutable and constant.

Logically, one could not offer refuge to the heir of a disgraced house without bringing disgrace onto one’s own head. He couldn’t simply brush off what Caspar and Linhardt tried to do for him. And yet, how could he ever—he refused to even think the words Prime Minister—hold any government position in the nation he loved, if two of its foremost ministers would only ever see him as a displaced child begging for protection, their son’s pitiable friend and nothing more.

Bravado would not save him, but at least it dimmed the world into a waking dream. Ferdinand drifted there a little while longer amid the shattered hues of the stained glass, watching them blur into each other in a peaceful silence.

Until the slow click of heels on the marble floor cleaved that peace in two.

“Ferdinand?”

He squeezed his eyes shut in childish, foolish hope that Edelgard would disappear if only he couldn’t see her, a toddler hiding behind the parlor curtains. They had not spoken privately for some weeks now, not since she crumpled up his life like a piece of paper and dropped it into her flames, and in his lower moments, he dared think she was avoiding him.

In the lowest ones, Ferdinand knew that he was the one avoiding her.

Cowardice it may have been, but he knew what to expect when he encountered her in the war room, in the dining hall, on the battlefield. The public face of a military leader, stern and viciously unsentimental even with those soft lavender ribbons still in her hair. Now, if he raised his head to face her, he wasn’t sure who would be standing there. The classmate, who winnowed away at her failed rival with every unparalleled success, or the Emperor, axe in hand to make it swift?

Or the Edelgard who spent so many late nights with them in the library, ensuring everyone was adequately prepared for their exams—evaluating future assets, he corrected himself harshly. And yet she’d explained the fundamentals of Faith to Caspar four separate times to no effect, then interviewed the professors about alternative teaching styles and drawn a mess of baffling diagrams that somehow click for him. Caspar earned a B- against all odds. If that was a game, if it was all a game, friendship and politics and rivalry and laughter all, then Ferdinand had overlooked the rulebook and now it was much too late.

The wood creaked next to his head, a shadow of warmth, and Ferdinand jolted upright with such haste he bashed his knee against the back of the pew. Edelgard, seated next to him, only continued to gaze up at those specters of colored light dancing across the ruined ceiling.

“Your battalion rides back to Enbarr tomorrow,” she said when it was clear Ferdinand had nary a word left in his head. “They wish to know if you are accompanying.”

“Yes.” A military conversation, thank the Goddess. Ferdinand could manage this. “Of course. I will oversee their return to the capital. Do you need the barracks prepared for the rest of the men’s return?”

“Already seen to.”

Of course it was. One didn’t start a war and then realize three months in that there was nowhere to accommodate the soldiers. One did, apparently, beg for work assignments from their Emperor just to feel useful. Pitiful.

“Once you are settled in Enbarr,” Edelgard offered slowly. Her voice, her expression betrayed nothing whatsoever, but her hand twitched, and Ferdinand thought of the way she’d pinch the bridge of her nose in frustration at him, of how she’d likely never do so again, now that he’d failed whatever asset evaluation she’d been running. “I hope you will come speak with me. The matter of Aegir must be resolved.”

Ferdinand shot to his feet in an instant; it was that or smother her to stop the words, and he had not yet steeled himself for death. “What more is there to say? I find you have already resolved the matter. Now please excuse me, I must pack for tomorrow’s journey.”

He squeezed by her in the pew, feet moving at a fierce clip as soon as he hit the cleared walkway through the center of the cathedral. Something in his chest twisted and screamed at the effort—surely not his heart, which had sunk as lead into his stomach days ago—and he forced back his shoulders every time he caught them hunching forward.

Edelgard didn’t call after him, and he hated her all the more for it, because by the Goddess, he still wished she would.




Hubert made him wait. One hour, then two, and then Ferdinand stopped counting because he couldn’t be bothered to care. He pulled a dull book from one of the parlor’s ornamental shelves and let his eyes skip lazily over the words. It was meant as a slight, he knew. A slap in the face, to be treated less than his due, kept waiting like the vegetable merchant. Or Hubert truly was that busy, for all he knew, which was utterly nothing.

On his return to Enbarr, Ferdinand had found no lack of work with his troops, always another argument to quell, fresh-faced groom to train, supply run to organize. He slept, when he slept at all, in one of the unoccupied officer’s quarters, at least until more soldiers began trickling back into the capital. An officially appointed quartermaster showed up a few days later and dumped Ferdinand out, along with no less than a dozen monastery cats that the troops had smuggled home with them.

The bankers turned him away, all Aegir accounts now frozen and controlled by the Minister of the Interior. At least they had the kindness to seem apologetic. Truthfully, Ferdinand hadn’t any signet ring on him and hadn’t expected to get very far on that front anyway. All he wanted was an address. In his childhood, his mother had kept a small townhouse in the capital, mostly used for hosting elaborate parties and month-long binges on the opera. If it was still in her name—

It was not, and the block had long since been torn down for a new merchant association. Ferdinand had a month’s room and board left in his purse, and far less in his reserves of pride, so off he went to see what new stilted jigs he could perform at Edelgard’s request.

Unfortunately, he was quickly informed, the Emperor was far too busy to field such a mundane request as his continued existence. The Minister of the Imperial Household would carve out a moment of his dreadfully important schedule to meet with Ferdinand instead.

For how long it took, Hubert could very well be carving up something else entirely — Ferdinand’s father, perhaps. Surely that was the eventual ‘resolution’ for Aegir one way or another. He hoped Hubert at least ruined a fine pair of gloves on it.

Still, it stung that Edelgard would not even see him. Childish to the last, came that now-familiar venom. Is the Emperor avoiding me? As if I matter. Yes, yes, thinking too highly of himself again. At least Ferdinand had proved adept at ignoring whatever his own bruised ego tossed his way.

The door opened eventually, and Hubert swept in with his usual aura of intensity and disdain. He stood not more than two paces into the room, arms crossed, and offered no greeting. He didn’t join Ferdinand in a chair. Exhausted, Ferdinand didn’t stand for him either, sinking further down into his seat out of spite.

Some manner of…mirth, he’d call it, fluttered wearily in his chest, the sheer manic hilarity of Hubert running an Empire, standing there with his greasy hair and stiff poise, the same way he’d stood while presenting an hour lecture on the past two hundred years of Reason academia for extra credit with the Professor. Goddess, but they were children. No wonder Manuela drank.

“Well?” Hubert gestured for him to proceed, white glove flashing through the air. Fitting such demeaning force into a single word had to be a learned skill. Surely no one was born so insulting or quite so cruel.

Ferdinand formed the words perfectly in his mouth, like the orations he’d practiced for hours back at school—pointless, now, however highly he’d cherished his marks—and spoke only once he was sure not to stumble. “I need to return to the Aegir estate.” He didn’t say home. He only needed further funds if they meant to let him languish.

“Asking permission to desert?” Hubert sneered.

The dart struck true, and Ferdinand blanched as his gaze dropped to the carpet. Desert, the one word he’d never let himself think, even now. If not for his gloves, his nails would be biting half-moons into his palms by now. Ferdinand wasn’t sure what was worse, the question itself, for which he had no answer, or the tone of it, like what he really wanted was to run home to his mother.

Oh, Goddess. His mother would be there. That was a concern for another day.

Ferdinand took a breath and started again. “The dukedom was dissolved. The house is entailed, which makes it a possession of the Empire. I thought to go manage the transition and prevent further chaos. If that is acceptable to you, Marquis Vestra.”

Hubert only watched him with those spiteful eyes. A prosecutor waiting for his quarry to dig its own grave.

“My mother will join her sister’s family in Merceus. She will not be…pleasant, to remove. She has only marginal political connections of her own,” he added hastily. Don’t take her, too. Please, please—“But she tends to. Yell. I doubt your people would enjoy the experience of locking her into a carriage, so it is my filial duty to volunteer.”

“How kind.”

Bored, now. Maybe. Any tone beyond the borders of snide was difficult to detect in the man. Ferdinand wished he had made a closer study of Hubert in the schoolroom, tried to figure out a single tell instead of blindly provoking him at every turn. Not an amenable option at the moment.

He hurried onward. “Anything not entailed will be immediately prepared for storage or auction.”

“I’m afraid not.” Hubert grinned, razor-sharp, and it felt like a mugging in the dead of night. Hubert would bludgeon him over the head, the moon would glint dangerously off of Hubert’s dagger, and Ferdinand would, would…close his eyes against the inevitable, apparently. “All fruits of your father’s crimes are forfeit.”

“All?” he echoed faintly. “You cannot—”

Ferdinand was a general. In theory. But Edelgard had promised him continued command of his battalion, and a general needed a certain measure of wealth to supply his horses, his servants, his armor and rations and lodgings and, she’d promised.

But his father sat rotting in a cell, or worse, and it could be nothing more than a fable they thought him simple enough to believe. What did promises matter?

“All,” Hubert continued, brimming with a dark giddiness as he circled for the kill. “The treasury. The jewelry. The wardrobe. The furniture. The tea sets. Every frippery and finery you’ve tucked away. Your mother may keep whatever she brought in her dowry. Feel free to tell her you begged for it like a dutiful son.”

Ferdinand was distinctly aware of his jaw hanging slack, his mouth ajar, and instead of shutting it he proceeded to say the worst possible words. “And the stables?”

“Your worthless assembly of braying leather? Perhaps the butcher will find some value in them. From now on the military will supply you with horses as any other soldier.”

Ferdinand stood. Tried desperately—failed miserably—to keep his voice from shaking, his knees from knocking, his hands from reaching for Hubert’s throat with all his strength, as he answered, “Then please do me the favor of selecting a suitable merchant to accompany. I shall assist him in composing inventory lists for your perusal.”

He felt the acidic burn of Hubert’s eyes boring into his skull as he passed, as he showed his back to the viper and strolled away down the hall. Ferdinand was a dead man. One more hard stone of knowledge sinking down into his heart’s well. Hubert would wait for him to slip up, to show the slightest dissent, to let his natural argumentative drive shine through for only a moment, and that would be that. Desertion. Sedition. Treason.

So be it. Hubert could sharpen that knife all he liked, could play whatever blood-soaked game he deemed fit to name Politics. If he wanted a sacrificial lamb, Ferdinand would damn well make him work for it.




“After all we’ve done for you, all I sacrificed! This! This is how you think to repay—”

His mother’s feet dug figure-eights into the velvet carpeting, around and around as her voice scaled to even more fantastic volumes. Ferdinand knew the general cadence of the rant, had heard it time and again, though it had never actually been directed his way. She had always emphasized how much she adored her son—his crest meant she’d never needed to have another child, after all!

“Your tail between your legs like a fucking dog, rolling over to show that child tyrant your yellow belly—”

It had always been easy to smile through her…fits. She was pleasant enough, really, as long as you understood she was The Duchess Aegir, first lady of the empire, not a mere number in the Emperor’s slovenly harem. Liked tea, the opera, and vaguely suffered her husband. What more could Ferdinand have asked for in a mother?

And yet somehow, the last year at the monastery had dulled his ability to ignore her, to let his eyes glaze over with politeness as he tried to steer the conversation back to safer waters. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to lose his home, but it wasn’t home, it didn’t fit, and the walls already belonged to someone else. Each surface bedecked in portraiture and gilded heraldry and crystal display cases and framed medals of honor, all of it buckling beneath its own weight, closing in on him, the noose of nobility tightening—fight or flight, and he froze instead, dangling as all the air dried up.

His mother broke from her pacing to jab a finger against his chest, still sharp under its delicate silk glove. “Weren’t you the one telling all and sundry you wouldn’t be your father? And here you are, thinking of yourself without a care for anyone caught in the crossfire, without a care for me, just like your pompous sire. I’m sure he’s proud of you. The both of you can rot in the Emperor’s hell together.”

“Mother—” Ferdinand shook it off with the ease of a man already mortally wounded and followed as she stalked back to her room, where she began trying to affix every piece of jewelry to her person at once. “Mother.”

The Duchess screamed something perfectly vulgar and slammed the door in his face.

Ferdinand stared at the door for a long moment, squared his shoulders, and turned to face her maids. “Two weeks’ wages to whoever shoves her into the carriage.” He breezed on down the hallway. Let her wear whatever she wanted on her flight into exile – no doubt Hubert had someone waiting at the border to divest her of everything but a cotton shift.

All around him, the household staff swarmed the bedrooms and parlors, the study and the library and every odd hall, all occupied by their work with the inventory. A complete sketch of each room, then a numbered map outlining every item and its place, to verify nothing disappeared during the transition. He wouldn’t be surprised if the sketches wound up in a handbill poking fun at ministerial excess. Even Ferdinand recognized an overabundance of velvet when he saw it.

“Master Ferdinand?”

The clear, quiet voice set his shoulders slumping back down, but Ferdinand plastered on a smile before he turned to face his childhood nursemaid. “Yes?”

She looked at him curiously, like she was more concerned about his wellbeing than the looming end of her employment, but they hadn’t had a script for such things since he was tall as her knee. “We’ve finished moving the armory into the dining hall. The merchant is picking over it now, if you would like to…supervise.”

“Thank you. I will be along shortly.”

To his surprise, she didn’t immediately curtsy and scuttle away. “Are you returning to Enbarr?”

That was the question, wasn’t it. Maybe it was even their business – would there be repercussions if one served the household of a known traitor? “I intend so, yes.” He owed his staff that much. The rest was a distant buzz in his head, that drifting ache that hadn’t quieted for days. Weeks, if he was honest. Ever since childhood’s funeral in that thrice-damned Holy Tomb.

The woman bit her lip like she was doing a sum at the market, then nodded in approval at the price. “I’m happy to hear it, Sir. You’re not your father, and they’ll be glad of it soon enough.”

This time she brought the interaction to an appropriate close, retreating once he gave her leave. How odd. A year ago he’d been appalled that the serving staff at Garreg Mach showed no such deference to the noble students, and now a woman curtsying to him was like watching a foreign pantomime, jarring and unfamiliar. No one would be curtsying to him for much longer at any rate.

Perhaps in a world based on merit, there wouldn’t be curtsies and spine-contorting bows at all. Whatever would Hubert do with himself? Build new puppet strings from his blood and bone, most likely, and hand off the reins to Edelgard as always.

The thought brought Ferdinand not even a sliver of satisfaction. He tarried in the hall. Before he left for the monastery, he had spent hours in his room, memorizing the surroundings he’d known all his life, wandering through the room like a…at the time, he’d imagined it the feeling of a man dispossessed, uprooted. How much a year could change.

Ferdinand ran a hand over his face, settling his direction if nothing else, and quickly fixed his hair and straightened his jabot in one of the hallway mirrors. If that scavenger of a merchant thought to swindle him, he’d find Ferdinand von Aegir not so easily brushed aside. He could do this.

That resolve, like so many other promises to himself, crumpled the moment Ferdinand stepped into the dining hall. Once that long table with its thirty chairs had boasted feasts of such grandeur even the Goddess would be honored by an invite. Game from every corner of the continent smothered in Almyran saffron sauce, fresh shellfish from Dagda’s shores spilling from elaborate centerpieces, roast peacock and poached quail eggs and chilled plum soups, all of it explained in copious detail by the victorious chef.

Now it bore the ribs and marrow of the House of Aegir, his own body vivisected and cracked open for display. The ancestral armor collection was the only property conceded to Ferdinand’s possession, since the pieces were all forged by his family or gifted to them by the imperial household in honor of their service, and there they sat like so many macabre dishes. He knew each piece by heart, each story worth more to him than any childhood storybook.

The helm of Rosamund, founder of their line, a holy knight whose fables were still known by every child in the land a thousand years on. It wasn’t even her own helm, but that of her trusty steed, a pure white horse that once escaped capture and opened the gate to an enemy hold all on its own! Rosamund had treasured her partner so dearly that she’d begged the Goddess to imbue her horse’s armor instead of her own, and the Goddess was so moved by their companionship that she granted the request. As a child, Ferdinand had searched every book from Aegir to Enbarr in hopes of discovering the name of such a trustworthy friend, all to no avail.

The shield of Derick, face-down on the table like a massive brass bowl, the matching insignia tossed carelessly within. The Warrior Prime Minister left so many volumes of letters, a man of such diplomatic excellence that his name always struck Ferdinand as a misnomer despite its grandeur. He gained the world when he lost his duel with the Emperor of his age, winning not only a wife but an immutable purpose as Shield of the Empire. To fight so worthy an opponent and find victory in defeat; Derick would know what road to take, not merely stand there boiling in his skin like a frog in a pot.

Aegir had never boasted a single crest relic, and heavy armor rarely lasted through the ages. The collection only truly began with Konrad von Aegir’s atrociously golden cuirass, weighed down by its sheer wealth of filigree. There were stories of his exploits, of course, but Ferdinand privately wondered if he’d ever done more than select a spot on the hill where he could catch the sun’s rays and blind everyone in his path with the reflection.

Ferdinand paused before his favorite piece of the lot, a set of articulated vambraces made for arms much slimmer than his own. The eccentric Lady Allaryce provided no heirs to the family’s main branch, resulting in a bitterly contested feud over the inheritance, which was all the family ever bothered to remember about her. What she had left behind was a groundbreaking methodology for articulated armor, and so many delicate yet invulnerable pieces of mail that Ferdinand learned half the craft from her work alone. The metallurgy book she penned had accompanied him to the monastery; he knew not what became of it from there. One more Aegir gift for the bonfire.

Finally, at the end of the table, he passed by the hundred pieces of Wulfrik’s ceremonial suit, the set still in use for ascension portraiture. There was a painting of his father wearing it and looking like an over-boiled sausage in the family gallery, unless someone had already secreted it away for use as an imperial dartboard.

Faintly ridiculous, Ferdinand thought, dizzy with rebellion as his eyes swept from one end of the table to the other. Shiny hunks of metal that couldn’t spare their masters, but always gave each descendant ample fodder for a terminally gorged pride. His family butchered and carved for the Emperor’s table, an appetizer course compliments of Chef Vestra, the merchant scribbling down his comments and criticism so the meal could be weighed for value, for how much coin Ferdinand would be given to stave off the inevitable.

Shrill shrieking in the hallway drew his attention from the table. His mother, again. Could she not leave with dignity? Bile burned in the back of Ferdinand’s throat. No, there was no dignity left in Aegir. Not in his mother, never in his father, and all those ceremonial shells on the table had only masked the rot. Tenants squeezed of every last penny, treaties that diverted all profit into the family coffer while roads and bridges crumbled away beneath their feet, a regional guard as drunk on power as any bandit troupe, an overflowing table as the people starved, and that blinding arrogance that declared it Right, and Just, and Divine.

But Goddess, he had tried, he had tried. If Edelgard had only given him the time to prove himself...

Maybe she had, and Ferdinand had thrown down a glove in challenge and proved he could complete his half of the weeding much more efficiently than she could ever dream. So many boasts for the final Fool of Aegir! He would be listed in the history books for nothing more than his exemplary weeding abilities, if not much less. A name on a page, a period on a thousand years of bloated honor. And no more.

Ferdinand had just enough presence of mind to announce that he could be found at the stables when the merchant finished his notes. He strolled out of the hall until the click of his boots went dull on the interior carpets, then tore off his jabot with a rasp for breath, trying desperately to get air back into his lungs, to escape the hulking corpse of his name following with every step.

His feet pulled him toward the stables as they always had, the same flight from the mansion to freedom ever since he had his first lesson at the age of four. He stepped out into the sun, duty fulfilled, and he didn’t look back.

Would they sell the library, or keep it? Ferdinand tried to picture Hubert walking the hall and evaluating the worth of Duchess Aegir’s scandalous novel collection. The image brought him no joy, but it would, someday — he would keep balling up the world’s baffling questions and beating them against the wall of incomprehension until something broke. Hubert smashing the tea sets, taking scissors to the wardrobes, setting goats free to gobble up the egregious sins against velvet.

Absurdly, he even felt jealous of that.

Ferdinand wiped at his face, stalling in the field to stare up at the sun as long as he could manage. A case of heat stroke, it had to be. He’d stood too close to the Flame Emperor for too long, and now he’d lose even his mind, his white-knuckled grip on reality. It happened so often in his mother’s novels, didn’t it? The hero, the damsel, the sympathetic villain would experience some dread trauma and wander off in a fugue state. Fanciful, trite, a desperate plot point to swing the narrative back on course. He hated that he could almost understand it now, that stumble between his thoughts and his feet, the chill of his skin that hadn’t faded since they rode out of Garreg Mach, the drift of his thoughts like feathers to the wind, all the world spinning in somebody else’s nightmare that wasn’t, couldn’t be, meant for him.

And that venomous echo of Hubert’s voice in his ear, spitting the word until it became true: Sedition.

Louder and louder as he reached the stables, passing by the rows of handsome, hearty stallions and his mother’s sleek, elegant mares, until he reached the far end with his, his…

Your worthless assembly of braying leather?

Thank the Goddess that the grooms had all headed up to the house to assist with the inventory and weren’t there to see him wipe at his face with shaking hands, just a small boy thrown from his pony even now. It was his fault. His fault for not being better, for not being what Edelgard needed in an adviser, for not obeying his father when he snarled about buying useless horseflesh.

Because that was what they were, objectively. Half-blind old Knave, the stallion he’d learned to ride on, still happy to take the field for slow jaunts at the ripe age of twenty-seven. Lame little Freckle, who’d never taken a rider in her life, his first purchase at the age of eight. First of many, when he’d found out how often people put down the mares and geldings that didn’t pass muster, windswept or wry-nosed or simply unwanted, all of them with the sweetest names a little boy could invent for a pretty pony: Buttercup, Princess, Casagranda. A dozen disasters that he’d hand-fed and trained as best he could, that adored him without ever knowing what cruelty he’d spared them.

And now they’d go to the butcher, they’d be made into glue.

Freckle stuck her head over the gate of her stall, nickering softly in hopes of a treat or a rubdown of her sore joints.

“Hold on, sweetheart,” Ferdinand whispered at her, voice cracking. He slipped off his jacket, folded it neatly and laid it onto one of the supply shelves, rolled up his sleeves, then slipped into her stall.

At once she leaned against him with her full weight, her own brand of hug that she offered each and every time he came to see her. Ferdinand buried his face against her neck and held her up as long as he could manage. He’d known plenty of horses to lean against him affectionately, but something in the way Freckle did it made him think her mother had tried to support her that way, and now she pressed herself to him as if to say he was her family, and she trusted him to hold her fragile weight.

When she stepped away to start nuzzling at his chest and face instead, he went for the brush to give her a gentle once-over. “No poetry today, Freckle. I lack the…the heart for it.” All of him aching, the silence most of all. My princess is lovely, my princess is fair, and for however much he told Manuela about his childish dreams, he’d never told her where he’d practiced his raggedy lyric.

Ferdinand wasn’t fool enough to think Freckle understood when he stopped every few minutes to press the heels of his palms against his eyes, trying to knit himself back together, but at least if she couldn’t understand, she couldn’t blame him, either. He had always been enough for her, simple creature that she was.

“Stand,” he commanded once the brush was away. She knew that meant not to get antsy when he crouched to sit on the floor, his hands stroking gently at her legs to check for swelling or other spots of worry. Ferdinand eased his thumbs into some of the tense tendons around her weaker joints, knowing exactly which were safe to massage and which would only cause her more pain.

“Stand,” Ferdinand said again when he finished, because he didn’t know if she’d like the next bit. But he’d passed his Faith practicum, and he’d spent hours sitting in the stables with Marianne, hashing out the specifics of what he wanted to do and figuring out whether Dorte would endure it.

Freckle kicked at once when the first faint touch of Heal crackled down her back leg, missing him by a hair.

“Shhhh, gentle, love. I only want to help.” Ferdinand let his hands fall loosely into his lap and waited for her to settle. “My fault, I should have brought you a treat to reinforce…”

“Sir?”

He froze, then sagged backwards with the slow inevitability of melting wax, letting his head clunk against the wall. Soon enough the merchant’s indifferent face appeared above the gate, and the man stared down at the once-legitimate heir to Aegir in all his half-dressed, tear-stained, mutinous glory.

The merchant cleared his throat as if he saw disenfranchised noble striplings standing on the ledge every day. “I’ve finished the inventory for your review. If you wish to contest any of the valuations—”

“I do not.”

That put a flicker of shock into the merchant’s otherwise cool expression. “Then I require only a signature.”

So simple to sign one’s life away. Ferdinand wondered what his father had done that led them to this point, which blighted piece of paper he’d signed the family name to and doomed them all. But even in those terms, he could make no sense of it. Edelgard never worked alongside Duke Aegir. She was not her father, and she knew Ferdinand was not his, so why, why would the pieces fall like this, the game board overturned as the new Emperor marched to war, a vision of Edelgard standing there in the stables, eyes burning with unmitigated cruelty as she demanded he butcher his horses.

That tone of her voice when she said his name, Fer-di-nand, distantly fond and frustrated beyond belief, like there was something he refused to understand and always had. But what?

Ferdinand dragged his eyes back to the man’s proffered paperwork, then away to Freckle’s warm brown eyes. “Do they have you executing the sale?”

“Yes, sir.”

“However much the collection is worth—and do not tell me, I honestly do not ever wish to know—is it enough to buy back a horse? With food and board fees for a year, say. How many horses would that—”

“Five.”

All or nothing, it had to be. Ferdinand couldn’t play favorites at the butcher block. He tilted back his head, staring at the ceiling and praying for the Goddess to sink him into the earth, to not have to make the choice. “There are twelve in this building that will not fetch you any grand sum. If I put two thousand gold towards each, would that buy them more options? You could take a lower bid, for a farm somewhere, and you would still make your profit. Is there enough for that?”

The merchant stared at him like he’d gone mad, like he had all the horns and tail that Lorenz kept so studiously tucked away. “I cannot promise a placement, but it would…go some ways toward that goal. The sum from the sale will sufficiently cover it.”

“Thank you.” Ferdinand summoned his most dashing smile, a pale echo of warmth. “Split the remainder equitably among the staff. As many weeks’ pay as you can squeeze out.”

The man gawked as Ferdinand rose to his feet, brushed the straw from his pants, and leaned against Freckle’s shoulders last time. “This will be your sole payment from the estate—”

“I am aware. Papers, please.”

Ferdinand signed with a flourish.




It rained the whole trip back to Enbarr, an utterly poetic downpour that nearly granted him a glimpse of catharsis. He’d introduced himself to the other travelers in the carriage as Ferdinand, no last name, and sat staring out the window in lost silence as the lands of Aegir rolled away.

His family’s insignia burned in his breast pocket, a molten agony; it was all the merchant had given him for the road. Some legal qualm about selling off an actual proof of legitimacy even if the house itself was dead. Ferdinand didn’t think about it, didn’t let himself turn it over and over in his hands, only watched the rain pour down until the carriage got stuck in the mud and squished all dramatic brooding into the muck. Ferdinand leapt out to help the driver free them, split the sole off a boot and ruined his jacket for his troubles, and spent the remainder of the ride bundled under spare horse blankets in a corner of the carriage.

It had been a very Caspar thing, jumping to help without a care for nobility or appearances. And Caspar had always lived without security or reward, all on his own righteous merits — so why couldn’t Ferdinand? Of course, the second son of Bergliez also had funds and connections and a bosom companion that would never abandon him, but, well, it was awfully difficult to imagine Caspar not being Caspar even with all those things taken away.

Ferdinand would simply need to be Ferdinand without all the accoutrements. He would stroll back to the palace without a care, smile in Hubert’s sneering face, and…

Sneezed, tucking his face against the scratchy warmth of the blanket. What he wouldn’t give for a hot cup of tea, any blend at all. Enbarr had so many teashops, maybe one would take him as an apprentice tea…monger. He could rise through the ranks, build an empire of tea, control all the contracts and set fair prices for all but the imperial palace, make the Emperor’s lapdog come begging on his knees for enough Bergamot for a single tea service, then laugh in his sallow face.

Vengeance, just another thing Ferdinand wasn’t terribly good at. Was that the reason they’d ousted him from the war table and kept mum about all their plans? Alright, Ferdinand, time to make the Church pay for its crimes. Any ideas beyond singing off-key at choir practice? No?

Because there must have been a reason. Everything always circled back around to that stone-cold certainty sitting in his gut like the pit of a Morfis plum: Edelgard had a reason, and if Ferdinand could only grasp hold of it, he’d have his true north again, not this wheeling dervish of a broken compass. Games, politics, all of that rot was nothing more than a distraction. Edelgard followed cold, clear logic, so he would do the same, and once he understood her rationale he could decide his own course. He congratulated himself on a plan so eminently sensible from every angle.

The clouds cleared by the time they reached Enbarr, sun peeking out to begin warming the drenched streets. Ferdinand’s spirits rose with every glimmer of sunshine — yes, this was it, no more despair and dumbstruck wandering, no more metaphorical muck, only a buoyant radiance to bring this troubling arc to its conclusion!

He bid the driver farewell and paused to straighten his jabot in the hazy reflection of a shop window.

Stopped.

A prickle along his spine, ice coursing his veins. That couldn’t be him. Hair a matted mess plastered against his neck, untrimmed and untamed. His shirt splattered with mud, the buttons of one cuff long gone, his jacket abandoned somewhere for rags, no tie at his neck. Slacks wrinkled, boot falling to pieces, all of him an utter mess that he could attribute to a nasty wrestling match with a mud-slick carriage, but nothing would explain the bloodshot, empty eyes, the burnt out misery carved into every inch of his skin.

He couldn’t go to the palace like this. No room at the barracks, no clothes for court, no coin left in his pocket. Not a single friendly soul left in the city.

He should have saddled a horse and called it Sedition, ridden as far as he could in any direction until the land gave way to the sea and swallowed him up, pride and all.

No. Ferdinand cast about for a rain barrel, using the freezing water to splash his face and scrub the grease from his hair. Ferdinand von Aegir does not give quarter to despair. Remember what the Professor told you? You need more than the first plan that comes to mind — consider the first five instead.

If there were no friendly souls left, then he would have to accept an unfriendly one.

 

“Miss Arnault doesn’t work here anymore.” The doorman at the Mittlefrank crossed his arms in a way that clearly said Ferdinand would find himself with more than a bruised ego in the next five minutes if he didn’t clear out. “Hasn’t sang for over a year. Strange for a fan not to know.”

“I assure you, I am not a fan,” Ferdinand pressed, only to realize how much worse that looked, some raggedy young man desperately chasing after Dorothea, after everything she’d told him about her patrons. “I mean to say, I truly do know her—”

“Sure you do, kid.”

Ferdinand curled his hands into fists, then shook them out at once, turning away with a wretched laugh as he raked fingers through his wet hair. He’d rather starve than ever prove himself the sort of man Dorothea believed him to be.

Without a performance running at the opera house that evening, there were no crowds to prevent Ferdinand from sitting down on the grand marble steps. When the weather was fair, one could stare down the promenade all the way to the hill of the imperial palace in the distance. He rested his head on his knees instead, hands tucked about his ankles, and tried to figure out plan number six.

“Oh, Ferdie,” came a sigh somewhere around plan sixteen, which was more about figuring out where he could wash dishes for an evening meal, or slip into a stable to bunk with the horses and barn cats. “This isn’t what I expected when they told me some forlorn suitor of mine refused to leave the steps. I thought I’d at least get to practice my Meteor, blow off a little steam.”

“I’m sorry,” he croaked, head too heavy to raise.

Dorothea sat down on the steps next to him. “What for?”

“For bothering you.”

She touched his shoulder, the way she might for one of her friends, like he was so pitiful now that it overcame her hatred, and shame squirmed in his chest worse than ever. “…You’re not bothering me, Ferdie. We’ve been worried. Nobody knew where you disappeared to, and…Hubie seemed to think you weren’t coming back.”

A laugh shook through him, or maybe a sob, a tremble so sharp that Dorothea took her hand away, like he’d shaken her off, rejected that one tiny bit of pity she’d granted him. “Of course. Of course he did.” Ferdinand had done everything asked, jumped through every hoop like a damned show dog, and none of it mattered. Nothing mattered.

Dorothea sat silently for a long moment, and then a warm weight dropped over his shoulders. Her coat. All of him screamed to throw it off, to not let a lady dirty her belongings for his sake, but his hands slid up to curl into the soft wool, to pull it closer around him so he could breathe in the warmth of her care. He hadn’t realized the cold had crawled in and made such a home in him.

“I, I know you hate me but I—”

“Ferdie.” Her hand back on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “We’ll always have room for you. Just come home.”

Chapter Text




“Again.”

“Could we perhaps—” Ferdinand heaved in a breath, felt it shudder all the way into his chest.

“Again,” Petra repeated. Her right foot slid forward into a half-gate position, the point of her spear drifting lazily along the ground to her left. Once Ferdinand reluctantly mirrored her guard she began to count: One, two…

Three, Ferdinand stepped forward and raised his spear point directly into the path of her guard.

Four, Petra swung into a counter. Ferdinand let the force of her spear break his position, twisted right to void—

And went tumbling backwards into the grass, the butt of her spear a solid ache in his sternum.

“Ferdinand. You are still breaking wrist instead of letting go!” Petra stared down at him with a twisted frown. “Are you not understanding my instructions?”

“I understand,” he wheezed. He made no attempt to stand. “And I am trying.” It was not at all easy to unlearn nearly a decade of muscle memory, and all continental lance styles demanded you keep both hands on the damn stick at all times. One did not simply drop a hand and commit oneself to the whims of gravity!

Except in Brigid, where hunting spears were the norm, heavy armor a rarity, and a javelin could not be abandoned simply because the tip had shattered. Petra knew all matter of frankly terrifying staff techniques that would only bolster his own skills, make him more valuable as an ally, if he could only let go.

She crouched down next to him and, to his horror, felt his forehead to ensure he was not properly ill. Her spear wove and spun behind her back as she waited, a whirl of movement that drew Ferdinand’s gaze and appreciation alike.

“Perhaps I should practice the forms on my own first.”

“No.”

He frowned, mirroring her confusion from earlier. “No?”

“You are still thinking too much. You are much stronger with heart and…” Petra tapped at his chest, clear of his budding bruises, then reached to squeeze his shoulders and pull her hands along his biceps. “These.”

Ferdinand finally pulled himself upright, if only to hang his head with a huff of despair. “Please do not question my intelligence. I am rather fragile at the moment, if you recall.”

So pitiful, in truth, that he feared he had permanently lowered his worth in Petra’s keen eyes. She was the future of Brigid! Ferdinand wanted to stand aside her, not fumble in her train, tripping himself on his own spear like a raw recruit after she had been so very steadfast in his support.

From the moment Dorothea dragged him to sanctuary the night before, Petra had been his constant companion. She was the one to cajole Dorothea into warming the bathwater for him to finally scrub the mud from his skin, to select the warmest of the household rugs to drape over his shoulders like a hero’s mantle, and to brew him pot after pot of tea, even sacrificing one of her dried tea blooms from home, letting him lean forward in awe to watch the roselles unfurl into wine-dark glory. It made him feel distinctly small in a way he did not wish to dwell on, but recognized at once.

When Ferdinand was a boy, his riding instructor often allowed him to ride through the outlying villages and tenant farms so he could strengthen his grasp on the regional topography. He stopped to greet every citizen of bountiful Aegir, playing the Good Duke and asking about the harvest (no, still out of season), the livestock (no, the goal was not as many fluffy lambs as possible), and if they would come to his birthday party if he put on a feast (…no). One day a sheepdog had trotted right up and clamped its slobbering jaws around Ferdinand’s entire wrist while he stood there gabbing. The adults screamed, the tutor froze, the shepherd boys begged for mercy well beyond his capacity. But the pup was unequivocally polite, holding Ferdinand with stunning gentleness as it tugged him away from a vengeful donkey in the nearby pen, and he had always remembered that feeling of power restrained, honed into something that spoke even louder.

Herders did that sometimes, dulling their devastating fangs to pull wandering young back into the fold. Wolves must, too. Petra certainly had, and it made Ferdinand think of Freckle, just a little, not enough to prick his heart back on those thorns, but enough to be so very thankful that someone still considered him their herd.

Petra laughed at him, however, so perhaps he was merely the herd jester.

“No! Too much thinking in skull is…many fish in pond too small.”

His shoulders sagged. “That is distressingly accurate, my friend.”

She pushed to her feet and immediately offered a hand to pull him up. “Only cure is training. Again.”

“…oh, very well,” Ferdinand said, tucking away his touched smile as he regained his feet. “May we try from the opposite direction? I will watch you execute the maneuver first. Ten and ten.”

“No. Your difficulty is all hands. If we are training same way, there will be same result. Let me think of different setting play…” Petra twirled her weapon twice, feeling her way through a set of positions that looked very much like the cutting drills Ferdinand learned in front of the training dummy. On the third whirl, she dropped her hand to cross from back to front, then yanked backwards with both hands the moment the spear passed parallel to her shoulders.

Had anyone stood between Petra and her weapon, it would have broken their neck in an instant. Ferdinand gaped.

“Ten and ten?” Petra grinned.

One, two, Ferdinand’s eyes fixed on Petra’s hands as she demonstrated, the whole world narrowing down to nothing but her tempo. Three, four, the slow twirl of the spear out of measure, a building of momentum behind his back. Five, six, the hand switch, forcing himself to drop his grip or smack himself in the head for his failures. Seven, eight, matching the movement to his breathing, his breathing to his feet. Nine, ten, and he began again, on his own this time with Petra’s eyes sharp upon him.

“Yes! You are having understanding! Now ten more. I will be standing here.”

Before Ferdinand could blink, a head of hibiscus braids slipped into the gap between him and his spear. Petra tilted back her head and pointed to a spot on the graceful slope of her neck. “Be aiming here with swiftness and force.”

“I am not prepared to murder you in the middle of the day!” Ferdinand did not shriek, though his voice wavered heinously throughout.

“Murder is every time of day,” Petra intoned gravely. “Now please be murdering me.”

“Petra!”

“Be murdering me slowly.” She shot him a lopsided smile, head turned just enough for him to see its curl.

Ferdinand opened his mouth to argue, his sense of responsibility screaming a war cry against his duty to obey all instructors, then shut it with grim resignation. It was Petra. She would never stake Brigid’s future on how well Ferdinand could throttle her with a wooden pole.

Still, he moved slower than every run previous. A nonchalant twirl behind his back, the spear coming to rest in his hands, and then a steady draw of it backwards, perfectly horizontal, to touch gently at Petra’s bared throat.

“Again.”

He had the feel of it now, and when the spear hit its final parallel, Ferdinand jerked it back to rest a hand’s breadth away from Petra’s throat, perfectly placed, as she ducked and pushed into his elbows, jamming the weapon smack into his own jaw. “Petra!”

In a moment, she had him flat on the ground, knees braced to either side of his torso as she forced the spear’s weight down into the soft flesh of his throat. “Yield,” she commanded, the strangest sing-song tone of mockery lacing the word.

Ferdinand raised a hand as if to tap out. One quick twist of his shoulder brought the spear into a rough, painful bind, but that and a strong kick managed to unseat Petra from her prize. He dodged the well-placed knee that followed and rolled until he had his feet under him again. Alas, he had sacrificed the spear in his retreat—no use wrenching his shoulder out of its socket—and Petra now held both, gazing at him with wild abandon writ clear in the shine of her eyes, her hair mussed from a hasty roll of her own.

Grappling was neither of their strong suits, but if it was a challenge she wanted, it was a challenge she would get.




As those spears crossed over him with the X heavy at his neck, Ferdinand knew nothing but the burn of his lungs, a fierce and joyous ache in every grass-stained inch of him. The sun radiantly outlined Petra’s face above his, like a blessing, like the last thing a brigand ever saw in this life, and Ferdinand’s laughter thrummed with every wheezing rasp of air, giddy and weighed down only by the drip of sweat along his brow.

“There is my Ferdinand!” Petra grinned, triumphant even as she gasped for her own ragged breaths. “You are like sun’s blinding arrow. You cannot be straying for clouds.”

“I do not yield,” Ferdinand rasped, one inch from having his air cut off entirely.

Petra only laughed at that, and tossed aside the splintered, useless spears before rolling off him and settling in the grass herself. “No,” she agreed. Her hands rested on her stomach, eyes fluttering closed as she drank in the sunshine. “You never do.”

Envy plagued him more than the defeat—to be so confident in one’s skin to simply lie under the heavens and do nothing more than breathe? Petra never ceased to astound him, and Ferdinand turned his head to watch her instead of the open sky, unable to exist so effortlessly.

Was it a blessing from those strange spirits of her lands? She bore that mark beneath her eye with greater comfort, greater pride, than he did the crest lurking in his blood. Not that he would ever voice such sacrilege! He thanked the Goddess and all the Saints for their mark upon him with every sunrise, but to flaunt such a connection so publicly… His parents had paraded him around the local chapels of Aegir one spring when he was old enough to tempt Cichol’s crest into activating, and Ferdinand remembered little beyond the weight of so many eyes upon him. He certainly had not felt worthy, or blessed, or proud. A destiny was nothing until you fulfilled it, and he had only been a little boy wearing itchy clothes while repeating whatever the adults told him to.

For all his professions of faith, he had sworn nothing as passionately as the prayers carved into Petra’s very skin. Of course the divine would bless a devotion like that. All Ferdinand had ever done was bend a knee and point a sword against the heavens.

But no, in truth there could be no comparison. If Ferdinand had been held up by robbers and fleeced of all worldly possessions, then Petra had been abandoned on a deserted island, demonic beasts nipping her heels, and simply pulled herself up into the trees to whittle a knife and start hunting. Did she, too, call it politics in her heart of hearts, or did it wear the Empire’s face? An imperial axe cleaving away her parents, her kinsmen, her country, her language and worth—yet her sense of self never wavered, immutable.

Ferdinand could not begin to explain what his own pride was doing at the moment, but he was awfully, terribly proud to know her.

Does she follow Edelgard, or merely the Brigid carrot dangled on their stick? His fingers curled into fists at his side, the grass slick where it poked between his knuckles. Was that the trick? If he played nice, asked no questions, fought the war like a good little soldier, then he would reap every possible reward? Aegir pinned back upon his breast like a tin badge, shiny and worthless. Or those golden fields held to ransom, his people suffering, starving, while faceless mismanagement squandered the harvest.

Which carrot for Ferdinand? Such a picky breed. Shall we dangle his honor or his compassion today?

Slow clapping from the edge of the courtyard drew his attention before he managed to sort his thoughts back into order.

“My, Petra, top marks for that little pep talk. You’ll have him right as rain by week’s end at this rate.” Dorothea’s eyes swept from Ferdinand’s face on down to his chest and back up again, dismayed. “We do need him clothed in a bit more than grass and mud, though.”

Ferdinand shot to his feet. “I will change immediately—”

“Into what?”

Even this newly stained shirt was a castoff from the household staff, and Ferdinand had nary a spare. His ears burned, expecting the haughty sort of cut down his mother might deliver to an incompetent new scullery maid, for Dorothea’s strange kindness to dry up and blow away into the wind.

“We really need to get that sorted,” Dorothea said to herself instead, taking Petra’s arm when the other woman passed by. “Come along, Ferdie. The Countess is nearly home and we need to put all those rugs back where they belong.”

“They are excellent warmth!” Petra agreed, happily ignoring that she moved every single one of them in the first place.

Ferdinand, who had trained all his life in the proper etiquette for introductions, visits, house parties, soirees, unexpectedly overstayed welcomes, court appearances, holidays at distant relatives of lesser rank, and all manner of other highly regimented noble interactions, had not the slightest idea how to handle the unparalleled uniqueness of the situation he found himself in.

As far as he could gather, it went something like this: the townhouse belonged to (the former) Countess Varley, Bernadetta’s absentee mother, who had once paid to have her daughter bundled into a rug and now opened her doors to all the displaced young women of the Black Eagles. She kept a large, well-furnished home that bestowed a veneer of legitimacy to the magical research lab in the basement, and despite the full complement of staff quarters, only a single servant-cum-apprentice actually remained in her employ. She had eagerly backed Edelgard after the coronation, loathed her own husband with a venom more at home in a Vestra’s mouth, and now served as a makeshift regent for Varley until Bernadetta could be convinced to assume the title in her own right.

She had also nearly been Ferdinand’s mother-in-law, though he intended to keep that matter well under wraps.

Dorothea piled another rug into his arms, directing him to hold it high while she and Petra beat the dust and newly shed vibrant array of hair out of it. “Okay, Ferdie. This one goes in the…parlor? The red parlor.” She tapped her lip.

“I believe that is the,” he choked on the dust, tapping fiercely against his chest. “Sitting room!”

“Right. You know what? How about we get you a pen and paper, and you can make up fancy little labels for each of the fancy little rooms.”

Ferdinand frowned, then pulled it back, evening out his lips to careful nonchalance. He forgot to smooth out the wounded furrow of his brow. “I did not mean it as a correction. There is another parlor on the second floor with red drapery, and I would not want them to be mistaken.”

“They are mistaken,” Petra sighed. “Ferdinand, you are having sharper eye for…” She trailed off and looked to Dorothea for help.

“The overbearing interior design of the chronically well-bred?” Dorothea offered with a flourish.

Petra beamed. “Exactly! You call it…fussy, yes?”

“Give me a moment,” Ferdinand sighed in defeat. A fine weave on the carpet, softer than one would leave in a room meant for regular public business. Likely the second floor, then, but the white accents in the pattern made little sense for that parlor with the drapery, and overly matching pieces found little favor these days. Perhaps the library? He had glimpsed it only briefly, but if he recalled correctly, the floorboards were a soft golden oak. “From the library, I believe. Or at the very least it will not appear out of place in those surroundings.”

They rolled up the carpet into a plush log that they balanced between Ferdinand and Petra’s shoulders, and sure enough, it fit the faintly discolored rectangle on the library’s wooden floor. Dorothea shot him a funny look as they marched back to deal with the next one.

She had been sending him a lot of funny looks, and it was not beginning to grate, per se—nothing from Dorothea could truly be considered grating, be her voice soft or shrill—but he tired of dancing on eggshells. It was no secret that his stay here had a limit. A house full of accomplished young women was no place for a disgraced nobleman to set up shop, and as soon as the gossips found him, emboldened malice would dog his steps wherever he went. Dorothea of all people knew the dangers closing in.

“How have you found Lady Varley?” Ferdinand hazarded the question as he and Petra maneuvered another lush rug into its usual borders. It was only polite to inquire after their host, and if he could learn any of her habits, perhaps he could manage a small token of appreciation. “Is she—”

“Mad?”

“What?”

Dorothea had her back to them, working to realign a portrait they had knocked askew with the rug, but Ferdinand had heard this tone often enough to feel the exhausted chill of her gaze as the world offered her another cliche, badly written scene. “That’s the rumor, isn’t it? Because why else would someone run away from the luxury of a rich husband—”

“I should think Bernadetta’s father is reason enough,” he said to the perfectly square corner of the rug.

“What is Lady Varley angry about?” Petra asked. “We can be helping her! As thank you for our house.”

Dorothea smiled, all charm as she smoothed down Petra’s sleeve and took her by the hand. “Don’t you worry about it, Petra. Edie’s already got that all handled. All we’ve got to do is keep the house from coming apart.”

The drawn curtains admitted a clear view of the palace hill in the distance. Ferdinand squinted against the light, thinking about carrots again. If you lock up my husband, I will support you through anything.

“Ferdie, come along. We need someone to brew the tea.”

“With pleasure,” he hummed and tied the curtains shut.

By the state of the pantry, the Countess preferred coffee to tea, and Ferdinand had to mix the sparse remains of two separate cannisters to manage enough for a full table of four. A bit of citrus smoothed over the awkwardness of his makeshift blend. He filled the tray with biscuits and teacups and headed to the parlor.

A new voice tittered pleasantries within, and Ferdinand’s knees locked, every memory of his mother’s tea parties rushing back into focus. Ladies so noble and refined they drifted above mere mortals like the pristine petals of a cherry blossom tree, and he in his finest vest, his mother’s dearest doll, serving pastries on a gilded tray as he strained his ears for every tale of the opera, of the lavish balls, of the latest fairytale engagement.

He could not force his feet past the doorway, keenly aware of his grass-stained knees and hastily pinned collar. One of the buttons had abandoned him during their afternoon brawl. How could he show his face to a noblewoman in such a state? In her own home! He had not even met the standard of decorum expected of the most menial servant. The porcelain rattled on the tray, a soft clink of gut-wrenching shame locking its collar around him, and he took a step back despite himself.

“Oh,” came the softest voice, and a moment later a second pair of hands helped steady the tray. Ineffectually, since Bernadetta’s hands trembled as much as his own. “Ferdinand…y-you’re really here! Let me—um, if it’s o-okay, I can help with the…ohh, Bernie, it’s tea, he doesn’t need you to…”

“Thank you for the assistance,” he whispered back, paper-thin smile firmly in place.

Together they managed to transfer the tea onto the parlor table. The conversation fell silent as they did, the only noise the dry rasp of pastry as Petra plucked a scone from the top of the pile. Bernadetta retreated back behind her mother’s chair the moment the tray hit the table, staring fixedly down at the floor.

“Countess Varley,” he greeted, then pitched into the deepest bow he could manage.

Dorothea laughed and buried her face in Petra’s shoulder, who had jolted forward as if Ferdinand meant to overbalance and collapse in front of a carefully cultivated audience.

Ferdinand ignored them, the burn on his cheeks, the feeling of sweat streaking his palms without any gloves to mask them, all of it, focusing only on the whorls of the carpet beneath their feet. He had never learned the niceties of lower nobles, of non-nobles, and all at once he knew how all those civilians must have felt when the little duke tried to drag them into danger beyond their ken. Was it not easier to prostrate and beg than risk the delicacies of the labyrinthine peerage?

“My sincerest thanks for allowing me shelter in your home. I realize what complications this may pose for you. While I swear to you that I have no intentions of forsaking,” he caught the name before it slipped free barren of its honors, “—Her Majesty’s good will, I cannot allow my presence to bring any true danger to your door. Your daughter is a dear companion of my school days, and—”

Bernadetta squealed, and Ferdinand glanced up in alarm, then ducked his head back down so quickly he nearly needed Petra’s steadying hand this time.

“—And I could never forgive myself should I benefit improperly from that friendship, much less if it harmed her. Please. I have no more ability to repay such kindness than the stable boy I must appear to you. I make no claims otherwise. If it behooves you to—”

“Is he always like this?” The Countess stage-whispered behind her hand, and Dorothea snorted gracelessly.

“Yes! He has much earnestness.”

The sheer pride in Petra’s tone cut through Ferdinand like a knife through an onion, the tears welling up without any hope of control.

“P-please stand up, Ferdinand,” Bernadetta begged, sounding teary-eyed herself.

He did so, if only to tip his eyes to the ceiling instead.

A gloved hand tapped him on the shoulder. The Countess stood even shorter than Bernadetta, barely scraping five feet, and looked none too amused by Ferdinand’s mortifying histrionics. Everything about her screamed efficiency, from the polish of her boots to the tight bob of her bun, not an inch of room for messy hangers-on. “Young Master Ferdinand, I haven’t heard a speech like that since your fifth birthday. If it behooves my honored guests to partake of this cake with me, was it? You truly have not changed an—well, you’ve changed by several inches, I suppose, but the matter stands.”

“You’re a danger to no one,” she continued before he could croak out a word. “Save Miss Dorothea’s sanity, as I hear it?”

Bernadetta and Ferdinand gasped in turn at the impropriety; Dorothea only shrugged in general agreement.

“If you need boarding, then you will stay here. The house is open to all you young generals who need it. Just keep in mind that Miss Dorothea holds the keys with my full trust. Any questions?” The Countess narrowed her eyes when Ferdinand opened his mouth.

Undeterred, he stood a bit straighter, crossed his arms behind his back, and argued, “Have you no concerns about proper chaperonage? I cannot in good faith allow my presence to attach any intimations of impropriety to those around me.” A princess of Brigid, the already troubled Lady Varley, and the Mittelfrank’s brightest star: no, he could not risk any of them.

“Ferdie. We’re in the army. It’s a little late for that. So unless you’re planning to tomcat yourself around…” Dorothea lifted a delicate eyebrow, and the higher it rose, the redder Ferdinand’s face burned.

“Tomcat?” Petra repeated in confusion. “Which cat is named—”

“You know those lucky lads at the monastery who gave us all of those darling kittens? Well, when a nobleman…” She leaned in to whisper in Petra’s ear.

Bernadetta had disappeared from sight. Whether she had fainted at the current conversation held in front of her mother, or merely ducked down behind the chair, Ferdinand wished desperately to join her.

The Countess yawned. “Settle it among yourselves. And Ferdinand?” She pushed her untouched teacup towards him, breaking the careful alignment of the four cups among the four women. “If you’re going to serve, I prefer coffee.”

“Yes,” he demurred with bowed head, though she wandered off before he managed to mangle her title once more. Countess or Lady from his worthless mouth? And of course she preferred coffee, he was not so unobservant as that, he merely had no practice working the coffee press. Perfection mattered not if the taste did not suit, he supposed. He would make certain to track down her apprentice come morning to learn the workings of those beans most foul.

…Heinously improper to partake of someone else’s tea, untouched or no. Ferdinand’s hands still reached for that dainty cup, one curling about the ornate handle, the other forsaking the saucer to cradle its bracing warmth directly.

A blur of purple fluttered across the room as Bernadetta retreated to the seat beside Petra, drawing her legs up to her chest a moment later. Good, he thought with considerable relief. Let her make a haven here, a true home, with family and friends inside the walls with her.

Her mother did not understand. They were no longer children to be fostered at one another’s summer homes, their lives dictated by the whims of their parents. They made their own decisions, and his classmates would choose rightly, would see him as they always had — a bother, a nuisance, a problem.

Ferdinand took another long sip of fragrant heat, eyes fluttering shut in momentary peace, then set down the teacup with nary a clink. The judges of his trial had assembled.

“Consider this an official Black Eagles meeting,” Dorothea began, preemptively skewering Ferdinand with a sour frown before he could contest the definition of official or meeting. “We all know Hubie would just vote with Edie, so that makes seven votes total and four of them sitting here. That’s a—”

The word wiggled on Ferdinand’s tongue with all the grace of an eager puppy. Dorothea knew it. He knew that she knew it. She lifted her cup to that deepening frown, took a long sip, then another, and when she finally set down her cup without a word from the opposition, she gestured in begrudging invitation.

“Quorum,” he announced, relishing every vowel.

“What he said. Four votes to three. Plenty for business.”

Petra cocked her head. “What are we voting on?”

“Ohhh, please let’s n-not make any big decisions, okay? One war is enough, right? Right?”

“Ferdie’s not asking us to go to war for him,” Dorothea assured Bernadetta. Her eyes never left Ferdinand.

But you could, choked the words in his throat. Surely if they followed Edelgard’s mad war, they would consider a voice of reason against her, especially one so innocent, so wronged as you. As if he planned to show up here reeking of a mud slick, calculated every lost sliver of his brittle dignity, and played the tragedy to win them to his side. Why pick a side when you have your own?

His father’s voice.

It would not do to vomit in the middle of the Varleys’ parlor, shaking with anguish and—dehydration, hopefully. Ferdinand poured himself another cup of tea and forced himself to sit in one of the free chairs.

“I do not believe we have any voting matters at present,” he said, not meeting Dorothea’s gaze. “I would rather we meet as…colleagues, if I may be so bold. I realize the situation is unconventional at best. Your natural inclinations towards generosity may have precluded a more rational response.”

“Ferdinand. We are not being diplomats. We are being friends.”

He glanced up at them—Petra’s frustration, Bernadetta’s stark concern, Dorothea’s wavering veneer of disinterest—and his shoulders sagged inch by inch until he finally sank back into the armchair. “I. I know that. And friends support each other. That is exactly why I must question the rationality of my staying here.”

Blank bewilderment.

“Here,” Ferdinand tried again, staring back at the tea set. “In Bernadetta’s home. Where she feels safe. When I am patently, provably unsafe.”

And he proved it then and there, for the words made Bernadetta burst into breathless tears. Petra wrapped an arm around her at once, and all of the women folded into each other, those nebulous and utterly impenetrable bonds of friendship holding them fast, safe, protected. As it should be. He had no place there—had known it the moment Dorothea brought him in, the moment it was no longer imposing upon an adult, a distant stranger, but upon the people he wished he were strong enough, good enough to protect.

He had not protected Bernadetta at the monastery when he tried to drag her from her room amid such tormented screams.

“No,” Bernadetta hissed, and she pulled away from Dorothea’s calming whispers to scramble onto shaky feet. “It’s not—you don’t get to tell me why I’m crying!”

Ferdinand nodded in graceful resignation. “I take no offense, Bernadetta. I will—”

“You either! I’m—of course I’m afraid of you!”

She stomped her foot hard enough for the table to rattle, porcelain cups clinking in their saucers.

“I’m afraid of everyone! And I was afraid I’d never see you again, we didn’t know where you were, and I was afraid you didn’t… Didn’t have enough t-tea. You’re my friend. That’s what I’m afraid of. And now you’re here and I’m happy, Ferdinand, but you can’t even tell! You think I hate you.” Her voice cracked.

“Bernadetta…”

She took a deep breath and clenched her eyes shut so tightly that all the tears spilled free. “You don’t get to sit there and think I hate you! Because I know what that feels like, and I can’t bear it, and… I guess that’s the kind of friend I am, huh? Bernie wasn’t satisfied being miserable herself, she had to share it.”

Ferdinand stood, and at once she recoiled three steps. He thrust forward a decorative pillow. “Bernadetta?”

“Y-yes?”

“Would you please throw this at me? I have been told such things are cathartic. Into my self-absorbed face, perhaps?”

Mutely, she accepted the pillow. She did not throw it.

“I did not realize I had worried you so,” he murmured in response to all the rest, unable to weave it into an intelligible whole. She considered him a friend. His sorrow hurt her deeply. That he should ever feel the world close in upon him, as it did upon her every day of her life, terrified her well beyond whatever fears his presence could inspire. And that he would protect her with his life, as he had always known.

Bernadetta wiped at her eyes. “I want you here, where I know you’re safe, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And. And I’ll throw this at you sometime when you’re annoying, not just…sad.”

He swept up a napkin to dab at his own eyes, steeling his tremulous voice. “Bernadetta, I shall be the best housemate you will ever have in your life, I swear it to you. And should I falter, I readily invite such assaults from any and all upholstery! If there exists anything in my power to make this more manageable, any tasks I can perform—”

“A bell,” Dorothea said, as though her voice does not chime as one.

Ferdinand went very still. His pulse did not.

“Think about it! You were the one saying how living with so many ladies was desperately inappropriate. So we’ll give you a nice little collar with a shiny golden bell. That way we’ll always know where our tomcat is.”

Leave it to Dorothea to dredge up the final deserter of his devastated dignity and crush it, screaming, under her heel. He swallowed. Reached reflexively for the tea, caught himself, dropped his hand. A bell. Well, better than the lapdog’s leash! At least he would have his independence!

Alas, how wrong he was to refuse kinship with the monastery strays after all…

A feathered projectile thumped him lightly on the shoulder. The pillow tumbled to the ground with the force of an avalanche, sudden and devastating, sweeping the room’s levity as Bernadetta stared at her own hands in ashen horror. “Oh no, no no no, now you’ve done it, Bernie. This is the end…”

Petra burst into triumphant applause. “Yes! You are aiming true!”

It took all of Ferdinand’s self-control not to toss back his head and laugh, or worse, sweep her into a grateful hug. Relief shivered through his limbs in a rush of champagne. Yes, if she felt brave enough to give him a good warning, then this could work just fine. He knelt to pluck the pillow from the floor, smile aching on his cheeks, and held it out to her with both hands. “Your weapon, milady.”

Bernadetta snatched it back if only to bury her face into it with a groan.

“Looks like Bern’s voice saved you, kitten.” Dorothea cast Ferdinand a look that held not a glimmer of apology, but some manner of olive branch flourished in their emerald depths just the same.

It struck him, softer than the pillow, that Dorothea had always bestowed one of those very personal Looks upon him. He would turn to her in flustered awe, try to temper it into something less friendly, less damning, I know you hate me, and she smiled back with cold eyes, It’s so much easier that way. Dorothea’s barbs were no more than thorns upon a rose; better to prick his fingers on that protection than ever try to defang her. And perhaps living in such close quarters would allow him further insight on her hatred for him! A bee was not so annoying when it brought pollen home to its hive, and he would lavish these ladies with all the attention he could spare.

All Ferdinand needed was a show of good faith, an offer that would win him that next chance to win her over. “May I propose a list of articles? A contract of sorts, outlining my required contributions to the household.”

“A treaty,” Petra agreed with a grin, thinking perhaps of the agreements they had made as children languishing in the palace all winter—you will help me practice the waltz, and I will pay you one cream puff for each time I tread on your toes. Here, I shall my affix my signature to the agreement. “Ferdinand Shall Not.”

“Under threat of pillow fight,” Dorothea added.

“Yes! The foundations of a lasting friendship between houses Varley, Aegir, Arnault, and Macneary. Please, allow me to fetch a piece of scratch paper!” Ferdinand swept out of the room in haste. Friends! They had not only offered him a place to stay for however long he needed it, but had reinforced it with laughter and cheer—yes, herd jester was not such a bad job after all, and he could always work his way higher in the hierarchy once they witnessed his diligence and aptitude at household affairs.

He ducked into the nearest office, and before he was four steps inside, the door clicked shut behind him. Ferdinand turned to find Dorothea lounging against the wall, arms crossed over her chest, frown uncommonly soft and pensive.

“Care for a little chat?”

“Of course! Was there something uncouth about our arrangement? Perhaps I was too forward. I would never try to entrap—”

She stepped forward and pushed a finger to his lips, pinching the skin against his teeth. “Stop. I’m not questioning that. You’ve never been the sort to wave your honor around like a shield.”

Ferdinand went very still. Had she faked her assent to the plan? And now they would devise a hasty excuse to remove him… He still walked into the same trap every single time.

“You’ve never been the sort to shut up, either,” she continued, looking as troubled as she had ever allowed him to see. “Is this the new you?”

Bare hands, bruised shins, unkempt and worthless and—

“Cowed, like a little boy last in the market crowd.”

One step, careful, backing away from her silencing hand. Shoulders stiff and unbowed. “I am not cowed by anything. I am distinctly aware of my situation and doing my best to minimize its impact on those around me.”

“Sweetheart. You couldn’t minimize yourself if you tried.” Dorothea swept a hand into the air and assumed the poise of an opera announcer. “The Great Ferdinand von Aegir, Most Noble of Nobles wherever he goes, however he falls… Or are you going to tell me all that breeding doesn’t mean a thing? To be honest, I hate the new you more than the old one.”

“You are under no obligation to sign my friendship declaration.” His words absolutely did not wobble, because he was not a babe in the nursery, and if they did—which they did not!—it was only due to tripping over the horrific childishness of sign my friendship declaration. Good Goddess. He clearly needed a few more nights’ rest to set his head back to rights.

“There it is again! Backing down instead of standing your ground.”

His ground. Aegir, razed to ash and mud and terror, clogging his throat as they dragged him half-dead through the fields. A fitting last glimpse for a traitor.

Her hands, firm and grounding on his shoulders, true worry in her frown this time. “Ferdie. What happened to you?”

All he could manage was a shake of his head. Dizziness, again. Definitely the dehydration. Petra worked him too hard in the morning, and now there was so much to manage, so many pieces to discuss and affirm.

“The thing is,” Dorothea said slowly, as if she already regretted the words. “In the opera, you play a lot of roles. Soon enough you’re seeing them everywhere. I can tell when someone slips into a new role behind the curtain, or when they’re so committed to their part that they never break character. That’s you, Ferdie. You played that infuriatingly naive noble who had to shove his prowess into everyone’s face so well you could win an award for it.”

Yes, that was what he had finally surpassed Edelgard at: vanity and facetiousness. High marks. Award-winning.

“And now you can’t decide if you’re a riches to rags parable, or a waterlogged orphan with big sad eyes, or—”

“I see your point.”

“I don’t think you do. Nothing you’re trying fits. You can’t just wander around without a costume change and pick at your seams until you fall apart. If the old role’s been recast, find another. Find it fast. The stage waits for no one. We’re only here playing house for a few weeks before we go murder a bunch of perfectly nice people fighting under the wrong banner. Get it?”

Ferdinand’s left hand shifted to his right sleeve, idly brushing at the already frayed seam of the cuff he had split that morning, and Dorothea’s eyes tracked the movement in sudden horror. Poor craftsmanship all around, really. To use such a metaphor on a man literally standing there in ill-fitting hand-me-downs because he owned nothing at all, not even a single spare shirt.

“My apologies for such a poor showing,” Ferdinand snipped at last. He had spent his life playing the Good Duke, the aspiring Prime Minister, and now he could not even pass for pedestrian, for his own unadorned self.

Playing General Aegir seemed more and more a phantom future.

Dorothea said nothing as he selected the parchment, inkwell, and pen to suit his needs, and she followed him in brooding silence as they returned to the parlor. A spot of gloomy weather looming on the horizon after a torrent had already swept through.

At the table, Ferdinand and Petra fussed over the paper together, arguing on margins and spacing as they sketched out the borders. The lettering of the introductory clause took shape under Petra’s firm, even hand, with Ferdinand offering only the occasional suggestion, most of which she ignored. They skipped the body of the document for the time being as Petra recorded their names with ample room for each signature.

“Are Caspar and Linhardt signing this?” she asked, dipping the quill into the inkwell for a new line of text. Room for another four signatures remained.

“Yes! Excellent idea. Of course, it will only apply to our own persons, not our ascendants.” Nobody would ever ask Petra to sign something next to Caspar’s father, after all.

The girls shared a look as Ferdinand bent over to inspect the document.

Bernadetta summoned her courage first, perhaps emboldened by her successful assault earlier that afternoon. “And…Edelgard and Hubert?”

“Are they being your friends?” Petra pressed more firmly when no answer came.

Ah. Yes. Ferdinand had waltzed right into that trap, neat and tidy. “I am certain they would find such trivialities beneath them.”

I will compose a pamphlet comparing our accomplishments, he’d boasted to Edelgard once, caught in an escalating swell of adrenaline. Anything on paper could be shared, copied, preserved. Gone in a single spark, but somehow more tangible than a rotting armory of corruption. Permanence in the face of faceless transience. Just another childish wish.

“In fact, they are beneath us all. As Dorothea has so recently reminded me, we are at war. This is hardly the time for,” he swept a hand over the table, the tea and parchment and homey belonging of it all. “Such nonsense. I thank you for indulging me, but certainly we can now—”

Petra grabbed his wrist, and there was no glimmer of childhood games there now, no friendly distractions, only the steady resolution of a queen. “Ferdinand. You are not being wrong. We are indulging you, because you hate to be showing sadness to others.”

“Oh.”

“Our Ferdinand gives joy when he is hurting. But too much is weighing on your shoulders. It would bring us all that joy if you are finally telling us your weight.”

He would, truly, if he had any words left at all. There was no way of dredging them out of the brambled swamp of his chest without sinking even deeper. It would require divine levity, or an impossible length of rope, or—

“Bern? Could you get a new pot of tea started for us?”

“Yes!”

The perfect cup of tea to stare into and swirl when he could meet no one’s eyes.

That would do.




“You’re a real piece of work, Hubie.”

“Dorothea,” he grunted in greeting, not looking up from his work. The fortifications for the Myrddin Bridge would not draft themselves.

Her heels clicked across the stone floor. “I’m sure your spies have already reported that I’ve got Ferdie holed up back at mine.”

“Yes. How dispiriting to discover you have a soft spot for plague-bearing strays.”

She smacked her hand onto the diagram, ink bleeding into the lines of her palm, and waited for his glower to rise to her face. “First, you owe me.”

Hubert didn’t even blink. Perhaps that was what happened when your emotions shriveled up, go too long without crying and your eyes dried right up and sank into your ghastly face. But he of all people would understand what a trial it would be to share the same roof with Ferdinand von Agony.

“Second, you owe Edie. We just had the most delightful dinner where I told her all about Ferdie’s particularly grueling adventures! She didn’t have a clue. You always do give her the best surprises.”

There were two things Edelgard refused to say as Emperor: I didn’t know, and, That wasn’t my order. She didn’t say them to Dorothea at dinner, staring distantly into the blood red nectar of her wine glass, but Dorothea heard them anyway in that pinched, relieved frown. She’d certainly never say them to Ferdinand. They weren’t worth anything. The burden of command made them meaningless, and for all his bloody home decorating projects, Hubert had sure taken a gleeful hammer to this particular chore.

“That Ferdinand’s irrelevant feelings are any grounds for argument proves my aim entirely. He is a distraction.”

“He is a general,” Dorothea snapped, crumpling the paper in substitution for his smarmy face. “A military asset. Have you ever considered what that looks like to your other assets? Or are you planning to run this campaign through intimidation tactics? I bet you’d like that. Promise you’ll let me watch Edie’s face when you try to spin that one.”

“If he is a general,” Hubert drawled, tone rich and dark and utterly in control, “Then where is he? Duty calls.”

“Third. I have a question for you.”

She let it hang there, infuriatingly, until Hubert at last grunted and motioned for her to spit it out.

“Are you being paid for your service to the Empire, or are you using Daddy’s money?”

Hubert’s face donned a particularly stunning shade of puce, miasma working its way under his skin. It suited him so well he ought to wear it for his formal portraiture.

“Because I don’t have a rich noble lineage, so you’re actually paying me, remember? I’ve drawn three months’ worth so far. Did you pay Ferdie yet? No? Well, let’s fix that little administrative error. You’re going to put his name on the wage roll and hand over his back pay, and you’re going to do it now.”




FERDINAND WILL NOT:

- Knock more than thrice at any closed door at any one time.
- Knock on Bernadetta’s door more than two separate instances each day.
- Enter the kitchen without permission if currently occupied.
- Criticize anyone’s life choices.
- Use any washroom outside the staff quarters.
- Sing any opera song. Anywhere. Ever.
- Complain.
- Leave pieces of armor in any room outside his own.
- Cook.
- Buzz, buzz, buzz.

Arnault, Macneary, Varley, & Aegir
Garland Moon 2, 1181




The very first rule of being a newly impoverished ex-nobleman: frugality.

Surprising no one, Ferdinand skipped that lesson owing to his natural excellence at balancing his accounts. He and Petra arrived home in a boastful whirl of exuberance over their purchases: a new pair of riding boots (one could not accept the army’s supplies on such a crucial point of equipment), a small but functional array of shirts and trousers for everyday use (built to last—he had paid well for the craftsmanship), and an atrocious amount of (second-rate) tea. Petra had even been so kind as to gift him a new boot knife! He would need to polish it posthaste, it had obviously been handled too long without anyone bothering to wipe the harmful residues from its finely sharpened blade.

The moment the pair scurried away, Dorothea’s eyes met Bernadetta’s.

“Do you think he, um…”

“Went to his usual boutique tailor and ordered the cheapest things in the fancy dandy catalog? Absolutely. I’m sure he thinks himself very clever.”

Three months’ wages, and Ferdinand returned with three shirts. Three.

“Well, yes, that, but, uhhhhh.” Bernadetta blushed lightly, leaning in to whisper even though they were perfectly alone. “Do you think he remembered to buy smallclothes?”

Dorothea smiled with saccharine fury. “I’m going to kill him.”

Housing experiment over. Done. Dorothea would do a lot for the Empire—well, for Edie—but how could she possibly be expected to deal with this atrocity of a show pony without additional hazard pay?

“He didn’t get anything for Court either…” Bernadetta fiddled with a frayed patch of the couch’s upholstery, tucking loose threads back into the whole with her nimble, meticulous fingers. “I thought maybe I could…make something? It’s probably a stupid idea, right?” Her shoulders fell. “Of course it’s stupid, Bernie, he’s always had a real tailor so he wouldn’t want crafts…”

If Ferdinand had clothes he could wear in public, loudly and proudly, then he would gallivant around where people could see him, not hole himself up in Dorothea’s vicinity like a plucked peacock. He would go to Court. He would waltz through those doors and shout and argue and make himself Hubert’s problem again, and she might just live to twenty after all.

“You’re a genius, Bern! That would cheer him up like nothing else. Something designed just for him? No one else will have anything like it — he’ll be unique.”

“As befits his unparalleled noble soul,” Bernadetta finished in a hopeful mumble. “Really? You really think so?”

“Absolutely!”

“It wouldn’t look sloppy?”

“If you made a mistake—and I’m sure you wouldn’t, you’re such a clever seamstress—it would only make him proud to have a garment of such character.” Dorothea flipped her hair with all the graceful self-assurance of Ferdinand on his first day at the academy, and Bernadetta smiled behind her hands.

There were other advantages, too, Dorothea realized with dawning enthusiasm. She reached out to brush a messy curl back behind Bernadetta’s ear as the girl detailed her ideas so far. They all needed new roles for the upcoming military production, and now and again, clothes really did make the girl. If Bernadetta outfitted them all, maybe momentum would carry her to do the same for herself.

“I have some pin money left over for the fabric. As long as that part’s really good quality, m-maybe I could pull it off. But…I don’t have any patterns for, um. Ferdinand-shaped people.”

Wherever would they find a whole crop of broad-shouldered, trim-waisted, naturally dapper and chronically obnoxious young men?

Dorothea grinned. “You just leave that part to me.”




The dawn slipped into Ferdinand’s room like a siren song, if the sun rises then so must you, dim embers of momentum flashing back to life. He had risen before the sun for almost his entire life, that promise of a morning ride tempting him from his bed without fail, be it an escape from the stifling atmosphere of home or the chance to exercise Dorte and his fellows before Marianne came to fuss over their breakfast. Only a true monsoon had ever prevented him from those treasured excursions.

That certainty still dragged him to consciousness, eyes cracking open to the dark of dwindling night with nowhere to go and nowhere to be. Ferdinand could drift there for a few minutes while sleep curtained his waking thoughts, but the pitiless sun never dimmed her demands. He reached for the book on his bedside table, an abridged history of Albinean trade policies in the western sea, even though there would not be enough light to read by for another few minutes yet.

His fingers brushed over chill metal instead, lingering. The emblem of Aegir.

He should toss it into the sea and have done with it, return his name where it came from, but true to form Ferdinand could not simply carve the riotous longing from his breast. The insignia of his house warmed eagerly in his hands, tarnished gold glinting as he raised it to the light.

If Ferdinand could thank his father for anything, it was for being too busy to change the Aegir heraldry yet again. An embarrassment of revisions plagued most noble houses of the Empire, who constantly refit their emblems to remain in vogue, and the Aegirs were certainly no exception. When Prime Minister Derick’s marriage into the imperial line propelled his own house from mediocrity to glory, all the symbols of their distant seafaring past were hastily reworked, gone the seawalls and barques and circling terns. The hippocampi lingered as a framing device for a few hundred years, faded entirely, then gained new traction once the crest of Cichol blessed the family. Ferdinand had no lack of love for the modern motifs, the tide lapping at a field of golden grain in the background of all those swords and shields and rearing beasts, yet the one in his hand had always been his favorite, a simple sun cresting over impenetrable waves, the symbol of Derick’s commitment to his imperial bride.

Was it coincidence that the Flame Emperor left this, only this, burning in his palm?

The House of Aegir could not succumb as long as Ferdinand still drew breath with the proof of his legitimacy in hand. The mansion, the lands, the automatic political position, all of these were only trappings turned traps, debris cluttering his way forward. With it all wiped away, he could—

Why settle for optimism when he could veer straight into delusion?

Ferdinand rolled onto his back and threw an arm over his eyes, blotting out the light, trying to smother his thoughts if not himself. Nausea churned in his stomach as it did so often now, as if it were not distress at all, but something darker, the sort of passions that would drive an opera plot, swell forth with the orchestra, and result in a massacre by curtain fall. He did not want it, whatever it was, and he certainly would not honor it with a name.

But in the darkness, Ferdinand thought of Dorothea’s face twisted into the vicious cheer she reserved for bad dates, but had bestowed upon him when he told everyone his miserable tale. Ferdie, you’re allowed to be angry.

Laughable, that bit. The rest was worse.

They’re your friends. You don’t treat friends like that.

And Ferdinand, unable to argue either point, had said the most damning words of his life. It is merely politics.

That was the easy answer, the one that swept away all the unsavory details under that tidy veneer of inevitability. It had occurred to him, unbidden and unwanted, that for every easy answer there must be a hard one. Was it diplomacy or cowardice to avoid it? Hubert has never been my friend, he did not say. I don’t know who Edelgard is anymore. And his voice did not shake, because he said nothing more than trite nonsense, and no one believed him anyway.

Ferdinand had not trained and studied and devoted all his life to an esteemed future leading his nation just to spit useless, two-faced words.

If hard answers lurked behind all the easy ones, then what did Lorenz find so beneath him to tell? And what would Edelgard have told him if he only bothered to ask, if he pressed her on it like every other conversation of their lives, instead of turning tail and bolting from the cathedral.

The matter of Aegir must be resolved.

Yes. In conversation, in partnership. Ferdinand begged her time and again for a duel — was this not the challenge he desired? Tear down the nobility and the bad blood would be insurmountable, lest someone of that caste prove the worthlessness of such things as title and inheritance. Who better to wash clean the idea of nobility until it could shine again, just and true? Clearly this was no challenge for weaselly Hubert, who plucked the marquisate from his father’s still-warm corpse and showed no sign of handing it over, regardless of the clear inconsistency in their state policy.

Was there any chance she had been relying on Ferdinand all along? Wishful thinking, yet such was his usual and may have factored into her plans, always a step ahead and waiting for him to catch up. Had there been clues? Was Hubert mad about the clues? Baring his vengeful maws simply because he had not been selected for such an honorable destiny?

It was all a very nice fantasy world to muck about in before breakfast, and Ferdinand surely could not be blamed for idling there a little longer.

Which was exactly why he plodded down the stairs not ten minutes later, collar buttoned, hair combed, sloth vanquished. No son of Aegir would be caught languishing in self-pity with the whole world waiting outside his door! Today he would challenge the coffee press to a rematch and finally make it weep its bitter, murky tears of defeat. The dishes, too, had earned his sudsy ire after their behavior the day before. There must be some technique for efficiency without breakage, and he was sure to develop it with further experience.

“Of course, I don’t see the point of it at all. Hang the bastards and have done.”

Ferdinand froze outside the kitchen. The smell of freshly brewed coffee already wafted out into the hallway alongside Countess Varley’s forthright declaration. If the kitchen was already occupied, he had agreed not to impose upon the ladylike gossip rituals held there.

“Fine by me,” Dorothea hummed, and Ferdinand crept closer to the honey-sweet whisper of her voice.

“If the Emperor wants a show, nothing is stopping her from public trials and executions. Bring back the arena of old and spill some blood if we must. But to punish the child for the sins of the father…” The Countess loosed a withering sigh. “He’s just a boy.”

No.

He was not.

Ferdinand may have wallowed, may have let his fortunes momentarily affect him—as it would surely affect any man!—but he had faced the situation with integrity, with his feet planted firm to bear the burden. To have that reduced to the cliche of a sobbing child abandoned in his father’s shadow, powerless against a terrifying and baffling world, his fate wrenched from his own hands? Unacceptable. He had earned recognition, not pity. The Countess should be standing there lauding the treasures he had snatched from the jaws of defeat: his officer’s education, his battlefield expertise, his matchless equestrian abilities, all those inalienable facets of his worth.

She would walk out into society, into the garden parties and soirees and opera premieres, and tell everyone that Ferdinand von Aegir was just a little boy, tossed about and swept aside by the Emperor’s stormy seas. Tragic, they would titter behind their fans. He once showed such promise.

“He’s old enough to swim,” Dorothea argued, if it could be called that, her tone so utterly disinterested as she picked at her morning toast. “Either he will or he won’t.”

Perfect ambivalence, a determination so devoid of any sentiment that it washed the rest away. No condolences slipping down his spine like sweat, no giggling specters in his ears, no insults or insignias or intrigue. Only a challenge.

Ferdinand tapped his fingers to his lips, locking his shocked laugh behind a watery smile. Leave it to the opera diva to speak just the words her audience needed to hear.

No more treading water. Time to dare the waves.