“When you have reached your fifteenth year,” said the grand-mother, “you will have permission to rise up out of the sea, to sit on the rocks in the moonlight, while the great ships are sailing by; and then you will see both forests and towns.”
--"The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen (1836)
When Byleth breached the surface for the first time, it was to a black sky and a gibbous moon, blue-tinted and bright. The way moonlight reflected on the surface of the water was different, seen from the surface; sharp shards of light twinkling like stars on the waves.
She watched for a short while, eyes tracing the vast emptiness between the sky and the surface of the sea, and then slipped under the water again. But she did not go back to the depths again, instead skimming along the surface.
There was a ship nearby. She had seen its like many times before--the bellies of these vast wooden beasts that the surface-dwellers rode across the oceans--but she had never had reason to approach. She still did not have reason, exactly, but it was her birthday and she was allowed to see the surface, and this was what she wished to see. This time, when she came to the surface again, she was near enough to the light coming off the ship: unlike the moonlight, it was oily yellow on the waves, stretching in long swathes away from the ship. A warm din of music and merriment washed off the ship, indistinct but loud enough to rise above the sound of lapping waves.
But Byleth kept in mind all of her father's advice about staying out of sight. She swam under the touch of the yellow light, where the humans might spot her if she surfaced, and weaved under and around the ship as she assessed the best angles of approach.
They hadn't had a war against the humans in a terribly long time, and her father didn't seem to think there was a chance of it anytime soon, either, but there was no harm in seeing the capabilities of the other side up close. There was only so much Byleth could learn from old algae-parchments and tales from before her birth. Even Jeralt, cautious as he was with her safety, had rubbed his chin thoughtfully and opined that maybe, given how quickly things changed on the surface, it would do her good to see some things up close.
Some things, Jeralt had said pointedly, before instructing her to return as quickly as possible at the slightest sign of trouble.
But now that she was here--well, it was not that Byleth felt incautious. It was only that she felt there was not much she could learn only by running a hand against the dead wood that made up the ship's hull. It was not like the ship itself was a living creature, and the humans now distracted by their celebration, and the night being so dark, this was as good opportunity as she was going to get to observe without anyone observing her in turn.
That being said, the heavy chain of the anchor had links so large that they made for good handholds, and Byleth judged that even with the strange press of gravity and a lack of legs, she would still have little difficulty climbing up and getting a closer look at the deck of the ship.
The drawback to having a celebration on a ship, Dimitri discovered, was that one was fenced in by the sea on all sides, and unable to escape unless one proved willing to swim all the way back to shore.
Less generously, Dimitri thought that was precisely the reason his friends had proposed this event be at sea. They had finally figured out a way to stop him from slipping away from the festivities halfway through.
Not that this stopped him from getting some distance anyway. The ship was overflowing with guests, and their cups were overflowing with wine, and the music played them into good cheer and dancing all night, but Dimitri found himself above deck, slipping into the shadows. The music could still be heard, and so loudly that Dimitri felt it like a thrum in the soles of his feet, but the night was cool, and the sea breeze was gentle on his face. Out here, he could breathe.
And apparently he was not the only one with this notion. He had walked nearly right up to her before he even noticed the woman sitting down between two posts of the railing, her legs dangling over the edge of the ship and into the darkness. In the interplay of light and shadows coming from the closest cabin window and farther-placed lamps, he had not noticed her until she'd turned her head, and the seashells braided into her seafoam-colored hair made delicate clinks in the darkness.
"Oh! My apologies!" Dimitri said quickly, feet sticking in place with embarrassment.
Her shoulders tensed. They were bare, and Dimitri almost mistook her for naked before he saw the pale shimmer on her back and torso, of a material that was textured like fishscales. He was unable to identify it in the darkness, and he was also unwilling to stare rudely at a maiden, so he looked off over the railing and onto the placid sea beyond.
"I did not mean to intrude," he said.
"You're... not intruding," she replied, not turning towards him. The fall of her hair concealed most of her face, so that he saw only the suggestion of a cheek, the tilt of a chin--the twist of a smile at the corner of her mouth. "I was only... I was sitting here, listening to the music."
"Would you mind if I joined you?" he asked.
"Ah... you..." She ducked her face away for a moment, turning it into the shadows. "You may sit there," she said finally, gesturing towards the deck, away from the edge--and from her.
"Thank you," Dimitri still said graciously, sitting down cross-legged. "But... please, do not sit so closely to the edge. If you fall, I fear nobody would even hear the splash."
She half-turned towards him, then. Enough for him to see the flash of eyes as pale as her hair, and an incredulous expression, before she looked away again.
"I can swim," she said so curtly, that Dimitri almost thought he might have offered insult.
"Of course," he said, for lack of anything better.
They lapsed into silence for a while. The music continued to play. Dimitri looked away, and sensed the woman's tension ease when he did so.
"Are you enjoying the celebration so far?" she asked after a while, jarring Dimitri out of his thoughts.
"I-- well," Dimitri tripped on his own tongue as he tried to produce an answer both diplomatic and truthful, "I fear I'm not good at enjoying these things."
"Then why participate?" the woman continued her inquiries.
This gave Dimitri pause, because he would have thought it self-evident. He was the prince, and this was a celebration of his upcoming coronation as king. He could hardly refuse to be present. But then he realized the young lady had perhaps not gotten a good look at him either, in the semi-obscurity of this spot, and him with light at his back, and so she most likely did not realize who he was. It gave him a feeling like relief, this small measure of anonymity he had accidentally managed to gain.
"I am here at the behest of friends," he chose to answer, which was at least a partial truth. "And I'm always pleased to see them enjoying themselves. What about you?"
"Me?" She sounded surprised by the question. "I've never been to something like this before."
Ah, probably one of the younger daughters of nobility. Dimitri couldn't place her, but if she had only recently been introduced at court, he probably hadn't had time to learn her face yet. It was probably unwise to sit our here with her without a chaperone, if she was one of the usual young ladies whose mothers were constantly pushing them onto him with designs on marriage.
But she seemed so disinterested in court politics and so content in her spot, that he was loathe to bring more people into it. And he was too tired to bear the presence of too many individuals at the moment. So he kept his peace, and she kept hers, and they enjoyed halting fits of conversation as they continued to sit together.
She liked the music, but not when it was too loud; she eluded any questions on genre when he tried to pose them to her.
He told her about his friends, and why they were dear to him, and almost feared she would recognize who he was by the names, but she had no reaction to it.
She told him, vaguely, of an overprotective father, which was not surprising for a young woman of such arresting beauty as Dimitri could only guess by what little he could see of her. But she did not give him any clues as to who her father might be.
And then, she looked to the sky, and sighed.
"I'll have to leave soon. There's a storm coming," she said, sounding regretful.
But Dimitri looked to the sky, and saw only the moon, nestled among placid white clouds. No winds, and no black gathering of thunderclouds at the horizon.
"Can you smell it, like the sailors can?" Dimitri asked.
"Smell it?" she repeated, baffled. He couldn't blame her, Dimitri had also thought he was being the butt of a joke when he'd first been told something like that. "I... suppose," she said more cautiously. "It's more like I'm tasting it."
"Like merfolk," Dimitri blurted out, and she flinched.
"Pardon, it's a story my father would tell me when I was younger. That merfolk could taste seastorms before they arrived, and then drink them for power."
The woman remained quiet in the wake of this information, and Dimitri felt awkward now.
"It's foolish, I know," he admitted with a nervous chuckle. "Nobody had even seen merfolk in generations. In truth, it seems more like myth than history--"
He cut off at the sound of heavy footfalls against the deck, because he recognized them. He rose to his feet as Dedue came around a corner and stopped there to peer into the darkness.
"Your Highness," Dedue's low voice called out.
"Dedue! I take it I'm being missed," Dimitri said.
"They are asking for you," Dedue confirmed.
"Of course. One moment, I have--" Dimitri turned to say his goodbye to the woman, but as he turned and looked to her spot, she was gone. Confused and not a little bit alarmed, he peered over the railing as well, but there was no splashing in the water, and no sign at all that someone had fallen in.
He took a longer look down the length of the deck, as much as he could see, but he could not see hide nor hair of the young lady, for all that you would think hair that color would be easy to spot even in the darkness.
"Your Highness?" Dedue spoke again.
"Nothing, Dedue. I'm coming," Dimitri said, eyes scanning his surroundings one final time before he followed.
Perhaps he would spot her below decks. The celebrations would continue for a while yet. He had time to look.
The merriment on the ship continued on, even as the storm that Byleth had predicted began crowding the horizon. She did not dare climb onto the deck of the ship again, when she had come so close to being found out, but she followed even as the ship raised anchor and began sailing away.
It was time to go back down, to the depths where merfolk lived, but something about the taste of the incoming storm felt slightly off to Byleth. It felt like smoke at the back of her throat, like something--not necessarily bad, but manufactured. It wasn't until she recognized it as the taste of dark magic that she thought to look, but when she did, it was easy for her to spot the easy glide of ships over the seas.
She sank down, and looked up towards the outlines of the ship skimming across the surface of the sea. The dark clouds had eaten up that blue-tinted moon, but she didn't need the light to see underwater. She could see the bellies of the ships as clearly as she could see anything in the depths that light had never touched.
She watched curiously at first, trying to figure out why the three new ships were circling like predators around the celebration vessel, and then she understood just as the ship began sinking.
“If human beings are not drowned,” asked the little mermaid, “can they live forever? do they never die as we do here in the sea?”
--"The Little Mermaid"
The thing Dimitri would recall--like a dream, like a death vision--was that, as he sank deeper and deeper into the sea, and as the cold of the depths squeezed the last of the air from his lungs, pale arms reached around him and stopped his descent. Cold hands gripped his face. An even colder mouth enclosed over his, and air pushed back into his lungs, heavy and painful.
It was strange, something that straddled the line between dream and memory, so that he could never be entirely certain if it had happened, or if his mind had been reeling off fantastical images to him as he drowned.
The other thing he would recall--and this was also what he was absolutely certain had happened, and would not accept anyone trying to convince him otherwise--was that he woke up on a beach, in a sheltered little cove.
The sand was coarse and wet under his back, and the sun beat down on him with the force of a hammer, battering at his already aching head. But cool hands brushed back the hair from his face, and soft lips pressed close to his temple, murmuring to him.
"You must wake up," came the words, spoken gently but laced with command, "I can't take you any further, you must wake up and walk to safety. Wake up."
Dimitri almost thought he recognized the voice, but when he tried to open his eyes, he ended up squinting against the sun. He felt more than heard a gasp of surprise as his mysterious companion pulled back, the soothing touch through his hair ceasing. A shadow passed over his face, and he managed to open his eyes just long enough to see her face hovering above--green hair, and green eyes, and seashells in her hair--and then he promptly flipped over as he was taken by a fit of wracking coughs and retching.
He gagged on saltwater as it poured out of him, over and over in terrible waves as his body arched in painful spasms. His stomach and lungs seemed to be emptying out an ocean's worth of water with each miserable heave, and with each mouthful of water he expelled into the sand, he felt exhausted and miserable.
By the time he stopped retching, feeling faint and sun-baked, and uncomfortable in his still-damp clothes, the woman had disappeared again, and no matter how many times he looked up and down the beach, increasingly despondent, he could not see her.
She had slipped away again, but at least he knew she had survived the shipwreck.
Unsteadily, he rose to his feet, and began walking.
Byleth came back later than Jeralt expected, but other than a frown pinching his brows together, he offered no reprimand.
"Interesting visit to the surface, kid?" he asked.
Byleth nodded, her fingers worrying at the seashells in her hair.
Jeralt tilted his head at her, trying to catch her eye, figure out the line of her thoughts, but she looked firmly away, and he could never intrude on her bouts of melancholy unless she allowed it. All he had to do was wait for her to speak in her own time, or else think things through by herself.
So he went back to sharpening his sword, smoothing out the krakenbone blade until it gleamed white and dangerous. It took a lot of patience, both sharpening the blade and waiting Byleth out. The blade was a dangerous tool, both to anyone who fell under it and to the unwary wielder who did not respect its bite.
But Byleth, more than the blade, was double-edged, and even more bound to come at him from odd angles. For now, Jeralt waited, tail curled loosely under him and supporting the blade against what would have been his knees if he still had legs. One would think, after a couple hundred years, a guy would forget about joints he no longer had, but there were still odd moments when he looked to his own fishtail, to the pattern of gold and black speckled scales, and be surprised it was part of him.
At least Byleth never had moments like that. She floated over her bed of sea anemone as she fidgeted with her seashells, the long length of her tail wending lazily like the shift of grainfields in the wind. She had her mother's coloration, the iridescent pale green scales that covered her from collarbone to tailtip. And she'd never known anything but the sea, just like her mother. But she had a tendency to keep everything inward the way neither he nor her mother ever had, and sometimes Jeralt wondered where she got it from.
Maybe letting Byleth see the surface had been a mistake, Jeralt considered. Maybe this wasn't her usual melancholy, but some bout of longing stirred by whatever part of her came from him. He didn't think of the surface as often as he did in the days after losing Byleth's mother, but that was only because he had nothing to tie him to it anymore. Would Byleth feel any connection to the surface, when she didn't even know that where her old man had come from? ...Shit, he was going to overthink this, wasn't he.
"Father," Byleth said, her fingers brushing through the anemone's tendrils. She still wouldn't meet his eyes. "Do you know a lot about humans?"
Now this was jarring. Had she seen humans? How close to the shore had she gotten?
"A fair bit," he replied, trying to keep calm. "What, you made friends already on the surface?"
He'd said it like a joke, but the blank look Byleth gave him in return alarmed him to the fact that he probably wasn't far off.
"Who'd you meet?" he asked, feeling his mouth go dry despite the improbable fact that there was water everywhere.
"Oh, it's not like that," she said, waving off his question. "I didn't even catch his name."
Not reassuring; Jeralt hadn't caught his wife's name either, when they first met, but here he ended up anyway.
"Byleth," Jeralt started.
"The humans were fighting," she said abruptly. "With ships. They used magic, and cannons."
"...Huh." Okay, so he'd jumped to conclusions. There was something else that had her disturbed, then. "Haven't had a good naval war on the surface in a while. Might make for good raiding, if we time it right." The detritus of shipwrecks was always useful, no matter how it came about.
"Maybe," Byleth muttered. "It didn't feel like a war. It was more like... an ambush."
"Well," Jeralt said, shrugging his shoulders and trying to shake off his worries with the motion, "we'll see how it works out for them. In the meantime, it'll do you good to keep your hand in."
Understanding his meaning, Byleth nodded, and took her own krakenbone sword off its rack.
At least training her was straightforward enough. Unlike absolutely everything else about raising Byleth.
Byleth's moods could be as changeable as the tides, for all that they were inscrutable even to Jeralt at times. Whatever had been going through her mind when she returned from the surface, she put it aside easily enough to slip back into her usual routine.
Most days, they swam to and fro along the lip of the abyssal drop, as swords for hire to other merfolk. With the things that crawled out of the abyss sometimes, it was fairly good work. It was the kind of job that suited Jeralt, especially since stopping in place for too long made it obvious how little standing he had with merfolk society.
He'd never cared that much, anyway. The pair of seashells braided into his hair were old, given to him at his wedding by his wife. He'd not cared to add any more after she died.
Byleth had more of them, recognition of her skill with a blade. Krakenbone swords were not easy to master, and she was younger than usual to have such grasp of it. Under water, fighting with lances and tridents was easier: jabbing motions were quicker, more precise. But swords were a mark of extraordinary skill. Knowing how to cut through water, how to handle the flat of the blade so it didn't resist against stray currents; that was trickier to do here than up top.
A dozen seashells were woven into her hair, weighing it down. A sign of respect, even in spite of the name they called her. Ashen demon, because sometimes she looked like the pale monsters that floated up from the abyss, and killed without mercy.
On slower days, quieter days, when even the abyss was quiescent, they trawled the seafloor, picking through the remains of shipwrecks for scavenge. Jeralt liked these days well enough. There was something meditative about the activity, as fishing had been for him when he'd lived on land. They didn't need to speak as they worked together, shoulder to shoulder, floating through the wreckage of human folly.
The naval battles Jeralt anticipated never quite kicked off, but there were more shipwrecks of late. Byleth told about magical storms, whipped up by humans against each other's ships, and Jeralt supposed that meant conflict all the same, even if the bulk of it was playing out on land.
He was glad to be out of it, all the same. None of his business anymore.
He was glad Byleth to be out of it, even more.
But then, one day, as they were scavenging another shipwreck, darting in and out among splintered wood to pick through broken chests and decaying furniture, Byleth stumbled upon a locket. Its chain was tangled in the drawer handle of a broken bureau, and she untangled it with great care, and popped it open to look inside.
She discovered that a lock of hair had been carefully tucked inside the jewelry. Some token of the former owner's beloved, most likely. Her face registered surprise for a split second, before turning to something more pensive.
She stared at it for a long time, a finger stroking the hair curiously.
"Father," she asked, her voice distant, "how long do humans live?"
And already, Jeralt could tell she was far away, and soon to slip even further from him.
"Less than merfolk," he said, "but longer than you'd think."
How long had it been since Byleth visited the surface? Long enough for things to drastically change? Long enough for the sea to churn the shore until it was unrecognizable?
But no, the impeccable sense of direction that helped merfolk always find their way under the sea also helped Byleth find her way back to the cove where she had once dragged the insensate prince to shore. She rode the waves as near to the beach as she could, letting them carry her to the rocks jutting up, and clinging to the stone as the waves retracted.
It was night again, or at least evening, judging by the band of orange on the horizon and how few stars were out. It was colder than the last time she had been to the surface, though used as she was to the icy depths, it did not bother Byleth at all.
She shook her head, unused to the way her hair hung limp and heavy, and took a look at the beach, as though it might yield the young prince. She had left him retching on the sand last she'd been here, but after swimming away, she watched from the safety of distance as he rose unsteadily to his feet and staggered away. He had been alive, if not entirely well.
He'd drifted through her thoughts at times, Byleth had to admit. Not... frequently, but once in a while, as she daydreamed, she would recall the blue of his eyes and wonder about the world he walked, and the words he spoke. It had not been so long that she forgot his voice, but long enough that she couldn't quite piece together how it had sounded so warm to her ears.
And... Byleth pressed fingers to her lips, recalling the feeling of his mouth against hers, hungry for air and desperate in every motion.
She'd never liked the company of the kind of merfolk who enjoyed making sport of drowning sailors, kissing air into their lungs so the humans lived long enough to be crushed by the weight of the water instead, but she knew she'd gained some insight into why they played their games. She could never do as they did, but Byleth thought she understood a bit of it now.
She understood less why she came here again, when, if anything, she hoped the prince would be wise enough to keep away from the sea.
It was foolish.
She slipped under the waves, and returned home, to Jeralt's all-too-knowing looks.
“I know what you want,” said the sea witch; “it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow."
--"The Little Mermaid"
Things did not change much under the sea. The tides that battered the shore changed every day, but deep where the sea currents dragged along the same routes century by century, the society of merfolk did not change so very much at all.
Byleth's days would remain the same, for all that she had added a new routine to it.
"Visiting the surface again?" Jeralt asked one day, and this explicit acknowledgment of her new-found habit flustered Byleth.
"Only a little bit, and I'll be back," she said.
"Uh-huh," Jeralt returned.
She didn't know what to make of his skepticism, so she left without another word.
It wasn't as though she didn't come back every time. Once every few days, she went up to the cove, and clung to the rocks, and pondered on the emptiness of the beach.
In truth, she didn't expect things to change at all, until one day they did.
She'd already ridden the crest of a wave to the rocky shore, before she even noticed she was not alone this time. It was past sunset, though still light out. She'd gotten in the habit of arriving at twilight.
She hunkered down against the rocks, hoping the spray of sea salt had hidden her emergence from the water, but she may not have needed to worry, because the figure on the beach seemed absorbed in a world of their own. Tall but hunched over, clad in thick furs, she might have thought it was some manner of animal, if not for its very human head, bent down to hide the face behind a curtain of blond hair.
Over the steady crash of waves, she could still hear a murmur of words from the figure, carried by the strength of a deep voice. She thought it might be prayer, by the stray words she caught. But then the figure strode closer to the shore, and she thought that maybe it was an entreaty, instead.
"I'm sorry," he kept repeating. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," begging for forgiveness from unseen forces.
Byleth felt unease, and flattened to the rock as though it might offer protection. How foolish, when she could evade any real danger by simply retreating back into the sea.
But... there was something curious about these proceedings that she could not quite tear her eyes away from.
The figure on the beach produced a wreath of flowers from beneath the heavy fur cloak: white blooms with thick, waxy petals. By happenstance, she knew those flowers were lilies. Her father had pointed them out in a painting on a shipwreck once. It had been her first time to realize that flowers came in different shapes, and all had different names on the surface.
She watched tensely as the human strode nearer the water, but stopped still in the shallows. The waves ran up past their ankles, drenching the blue hem of their cloak, and they placed the wreath of lilies on the water, so that when the waves retreated, the flowers were dragged out and away to sea.
They stood then, and looked out over the waves mournfully.
One of their eyes was covered by an eyepatch, but the other was a piercing sky-blue, and recognition crashed over Byleth so abruptly, that she couldn't stop the gasp from escaping her mouth.
The man's head turned sharply, much too accurately towards the sound.
Byleth froze, clinging to the rock, cursing the fact that the waves had just retreated without her, and she hadn't thought to ride them out again. If she let go of her grip on the rock now, she would only flounder in the shallows like a fool.
"Who's there?" he asked, voice harsh and so much like and unlike she remembered.
Byleth didn't dare answer, instead sitting perfectly still. His eyesight was not as good in the dark, so he squinted in the dimming light of evening.
The waves washed in, fortunately, and Byleth let herself be dragged out into the water like the wreath of lilies. It wasn't until she had curled down into the sand of the seabed, hands pressed to her mouth, and her heart hammering wildly in her chest, that she allowed herself to think it.
That had been her prince.
Under the heavy furs, and the wild hair, and the eyepatch, she recognized him. Day after day she had come to the shore, and expected the bright young boy she'd sat with on the deck of the ship, and instead she was met with this shaggy creature murmuring broken pleas to the water.
Why? she kept wondering. Who had hurt him? How had the surface world abused him?
She pressed her hands to her chest, willing her heartbeat to slow, but she could not rein in the strange wave of indignation she felt on her prince's behalf. After she had gone through the effort to save him--oh, yes, that must have been why the sight of him burned the way it did.
Oh, how it burned.
The desperate and the foolish, when bent on a course of action, often had one recourse to take.
It was the path past the frothing whirlpools and volcanic vents, through the bleached-white coral forest that looked like bone. It was the way to the Holy Tomb, where a goddess slept, and might even grant favor to those who came to supplicate themselves before her throne.
Byleth knew the path. All merfolk knew it, even if most were never likely to fall so low as to need it.
And Byleth never thought she would need it. But to get what she sought, she needed more than just help. She needed a miracle.
So, she rode the eddies of the whirlpools, darted between the volcanic vents belching boiling bubbles, and carefully wove her way through the corals, careful not to snag the delicate dead branches. And she didn't pause or think better of it, really, until she reached the Holy Tomb itself.
It was very green, the tomb. There was an emerald sheen to everything that might not have seemed as dangerous as the path leading up to this point, but it put in mind the way venomous creatures would flaunt bright colors. She advanced more cautiously into the tomb than she might have otherwise, and approached the throne slowly.
The goddess was not any larger or more threatening in appearance than any other merfolk. She had no spikes or claws, as one might imagine. In fact, she looked quite small and slight, save for the fact that her hair, as long as her body and parted in two tails, was weighed down with more seashells than Byleth had ever seen in a mermaid's hair. Rows and rows, long braided curtains of seashells in every color, woven in the goddess' long hair, lay draped around her.
And the goddess slept among the piles of her own seashells, stretched out on her throne, with her head propped on her arms against the armrest.
She did not stir as Byleth approached, and not even as Byleth stood there and admired the shells in her hair.
She also did not stir when Byleth cleared her throat. Or poked the goddess' cheek.
She did finally react when Byleth heartily pinched her arm.
"Yeowch--" Sothis shrieked, jolting awake in a loud clatter of seashells. "What the-- What's the meaning--!" She nearly reached for the sword leaning against her throne, before she blinked rapidly and noticed Byleth.
Sothis relaxed then, her alarm melting into mere disgruntlement.
"Oh. Just some guppy," Sothis sniffed, and made to lie back down to sleep again.
"Wait!" Byleth blurted out. "I need your help."
Sothis reclined, her eyes going half-lidded as she studied Byleth.
"Of course you do," the goddess remarked, not even mustering enough energy to sound contemptuous. "It's the only reason anyone ever comes to interrupt my sleep. 'Sothis, slay my enemies!', 'Sothis, elevate my station!' Well, go on, then, guppy. Tell me why you're here."
So Byleth told her--about the surface, and the ship, and the prince, and his blue eyes. About human conflict she didn't understand, and saving a human life, and the worry that now tethered her to him.
Sothis did not comment on the story, but something in her face softened as she listened, and perhaps she was touched by the prince's plight as much as Byleth was. Byleth's voice shook as she finished.
"I need legs," she said. "I need to go on land."
"Legs, hm?" Sothis muttered, looking past Byleth as though she was not even there. "There is something of the land about you. It could be done, with some effort. Ah, but the price..." Her eyes slid closed, but she did not lie down, and she did not seem to fall asleep again. She seemed merely to be thinking.
Byleth knew there would be a price, of course. She remained silent as Sothis considered her request.
Eventually the goddess sighed, and opened her eye again.
"Very well," Sothis said, tilting her chin regally. "First, the price of asking. Give me your shells."
"My shells?" Byleth echoed, her hands going to the seashells woven into her hair.
Ordinarily, it was the height of rudeness to request shells, especially someone else's. The shells that merfolk braided into their hair were always received from others, and usually for rendering great service or earning great honor. But for a goddess, the same rules did not necessarily apply.
"All of them," Sothis pronounced mercilessly.
All of them meant losing all standing with merfolk society, with little to no chance of earning it back. As good as a pariah.
Byleth began untangling each seashell from her hair, one by one, placing each one in Sothis' lap as she did. The first few came loose easier, being the last ones added, but by the last of the shells, Byleth had to use her claws and cut them off, leaving her hair in uneven, choppy waves. She was surprised by how little she cared, and how easily it came to stack them in Sothis' lap. Byleth almost felt like she was ready to float away without the seashells weighing her down, an hysterical lightness filling her head the more she realized there was no turning back.
Sothis was gentle as she sorted through the seashells; almost wistful.
"The price of asking your favor is paid," the goddess proclaimed. "Now, as for the rest, that will be far more expensive."
Byleth nodded slowly, wondering what she even had to give at this point.
"In exchange for legs," Sothis said, "you must give me your heart."
Byleth's pulse jumped at this, and her hands curled defensively to her chest.
"My heart? But..."
"The price is steep, yes. You should have known before coming here that it would be, or else not come at all," Sothis said in a scolding tone. But she softened after that, and her voice was not unkind as she continued, "Poor fool, you already give it away so easily. Why hesitate now?"
"But without my heart..." Byleth thought of blue eyes, and grew flustered as she became unsure of how to finish that sentence.
"It's not the flutter in your chest that makes you love others," Sothis said, her face turned knowing. "It can take all that you are to love someone. And up there, on the surface, a heart is a weak spot. A soft place for them to skewer you through, and make you bleed. You can still love without your heart. When you understand how, he may even love you in return. But, little guppy..."
Sothis took Byleth's chin between her thumb and forefinger, tilting back her head so Byleth would look her in the eye.
"It will be hard for you up there," Sothis said. "And you will never be able to return to the sea unless he lets you go."
"I..." Byleth shook off Sothis' touch, and looked away from the intense green gaze of the goddess. "I understand."
"Do you?" Sothis frowned dubiously. "Humans love so greedily. He may never let you go at all, not for as long as you live. And then what will you do?"
"Then I will stay," Byleth said, her eyes going to the pile of shells in Sothis' lap. "With him. On the surface."
Sothis hummed thoughtfully as she took in Byleth's countenance. Byleth tried to look firm, tried to look decisive even as her heart beat like a panicked creature against the bars of her chest. She didn't know if she was succeeding at not looking terrified, but eventually, Sothis nodded.
"Yes, I do believe you would, at that. Very well."
The goddess reached out, and Byleth did not flinch away when her fingers came to rest against Byleth's chest.
"Good luck, little guppy," Sothis said, just before her hand dug in.
What Byleth remembered--like a disjointed nightmare--was the press of water around her suddenly feeling heavy and hostile in ways it had never felt before.
She remember Sothis urging her to swim, and the strange, distant pain of her scales falling off one by one as she rushed towards the surface, each prickling loss numbed by how cold everything suddenly felt.
She did not recall ending up on the beach, whether she crawled or the waves deposited her there, save that she must have lost consciousness at some point. She recalled waking up to a hand on her shoulder, fingers against her neck checking for a pulse, and the almost-familiar sound of a voice.
But she felt so very tired, and she ached so very much, that she could not make herself react until she felt herself be jostled from place, and lifted up to be wrapped in something warm that tickled at her skin. Her hand clenched reflexively, and she was momentarily baffled by the feeling of fur under her palm.
But she was too tired to deal with much of anything anymore, and slipped into a leaden sleep before she could do much more.
I considered having Rhea as the sea witch at first, but you know what, I'm much more pleased with this choice. This has... potential.
“Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars.”
--"The Little Mermaid"
It was the strangest Byleth had ever felt waking up. She was warm, for one, which was not an experience merfolk often had in the icy depths they liked to inhabit, and she didn't mind that she felt warm, which was even more alien of an experience.
It wasn't until she realized everything felt too still that Byleth knew she wasn't dozing in her anemone bed, and her eyes shot open.
She sat up among seemingly endless expanses of white sheets, moving carefully as she tried to assess her condition. The last thing she remembered was pain, the way the water around her seemed to turn cold and constricting and suffocating, but now she felt... fine.
She felt fine. There was no pain.
As she looked around to her surroundings, the more curious thing was that she felt no sense of panic either. Someone had taken her away from the beach--from her prince's beach--and taken her into this strange human den, and tucked her into this warm nest to sleep, and yet she did not feel the sense of burgeoning panic she thought she might. Her heart didn't--
She pressed a hand to her chest, where she might have expected her heart to beat a wild rhythm, and yet, it was still.
Ah. Sothis had taken it. Right.
Byleth dropped her hand as she recalled, but she felt nothing more than numbness at the realization. Since there was nothing she could do about that, she concentrated on her current situation.
It seemed somebody had dressed her in a thin white garment, for some reason. She picked at the fabric, light and airy, and pulled up the sleeves. She became momentarily fascinated with the fact that she seemed to have sparse, thin hairs on her forearms now, where once she had scattered scales over smooth skin.
As she moved her head, her hair fell forward over her shoulders, and she was startled to notice its color had changed as well. Byleth pinched a lock between her fingers, tugging it taut to study its much darker new color. It looked like she'd dyed it with squid ink.
Well, this was strange, but not the most drastic of the changes, if all had gone well. She could live with a different hair color.
She grabbed a corner of the soft materials piled on her, and pulled all of them aside to expose her lower half.
Poking out from under the hem of her white garment, instead of her sleek tail, were a couple of strange, knobbly appendages. Something too faint to be disgust churned at the bottom of her belly at the sight. Experimentally, she moved the legs, and discovered it came as easily as a swish of her tail had. She bent one knee, and was reminded of the joints on crab legs. She flexed the foot, and was at a complete loss for comparison. Something like a seal's flipper, maybe. She wasn't even certain what to make of the little... the fingers. At the end of her feet. She wiggled them in sick fascination. Why put fingers there, she wondered.
'Those are your toes,' an unbidden voice informed her.
Byleth flinched and looked around for its source, before realizing she already knew where it was coming from.
'Correct!' bubbled up the voice from some corner of Byleth's mind, as clear as though the goddess was speaking right behind her ear. 'Do not be so surprised. I have something of you, so now you have something of me as well. Aren't you a lucky one?'
'Why do anything?' Sothis scoffed. 'Do you not find life under the sea a complete bore at times? Admit it, you would not have been so eager to leave it behind if you did not.'
'Hardly,' Byleth thought in reply.
'Oh, dear, you do really mean it, don't you?' Sothis said, and then Byleth got the impression of a long, jaw-popping yawn from the goddess. 'Very well, carry on by yourself, if you so wish. I will be here either way.'
Byleth felt Sothis' presence ebb away into sleep again. Now that she noticed it, Byleth could make out the presence of the goddess, like a polyp grown in the back of her mind where once only her own thoughts once dwelt. But as long as she didn't poke at it, it remained quiescent, so she did not pay it any heed for now.
She slid off the bed instead, standing up for the first time. The motion came smoothly, easily. The floor was hard wood, and cold against the soles of her feet.
She was about to attempt taking a step when the door at the far side of the room was pushed open, and a human bustled in. The human's eyes, at first looking to the floor, rose and then widened in surprise as they landed on Byleth.
"Oh, my," the human said, in a lilting voice. "Please, don't strain yourself."
She pulled the door closed behind her, making to approach Byleth, but Byleth bristled so visibly, that the human stopped in her tracks.
They stared at each other for a beat, both startled by the other, before the human smiled softly and raised her hands to show she carried no weapon.
"I'm sorry, this must be quite frightening for you," the human said, in her same lovely voice. "Waking up in a strange place, with strange people barging in on you. I'm Mercedes. I only mean to help, if you'll allow it."
Byleth studied the human for a beat, taking in her open face, her spread hands. Reflexively, she looked for seashells in Mercedes' hair, but humans did not have that custom. She wore a headdress instead, trailing a diaphanous veil. If it meant something, Byleth didn't know what, but she was momentarily enraptured with the sway of the material. There were so many textiles, up here in the human world.
"May I have your name?" Mercedes asked, as the silence extended.
"...Byleth," she replied.
A smile broke across Mercedes' face, as gentle as dawn light.
"Byleth," Mercedes repeated, nodding. "It's lovely to meet you. Would you like to sit back down?"
Byleth stared at Mercedes for a moment more, but no matter how carefully she looked, she couldn't sense any threat from the human. So, finding nothing objectionable about the suggestion, she shuffled back and hopped up onto the bed.
Mercedes approached slowly, keeping her movements unthreatening, and stopped in front of Byleth.
"How do you feel?" Mercedes asked.
"Fine," Byleth replied, which was not untrue.
"Do you recall what happened?" Mercedes asked, taking Byleth's hand in hers, and pressing fingers to her wrist. Her fingers were dry and gentle against Byleth's wrist, but there was something business-like about the touch. Byleth recognized the poise of a healer in this human woman.
"Happened?" Byleth echoed, unsure.
"You were found unconscious on a beach," Mercedes said.
"Do you recall how you got there?" Mercedes asked, her fingers still pressed to Byleth's pulse point.
"I..." Byleth recalled the press of water again, the terror. "I was... drowning."
Byleth frowned as she put the experience to words, now. She had been, hadn't she? That was what drowning felt like. That was what humans went through, what the prince had probably felt as he sank.
"It's alright," Mercedes assured, shifting her hold on Byleth's hand so she clasped it between the two of hers instead. "You're safe now. Were you out swimming?"
"No," Byleth said. "I was... I don't..."
She wasn't sure what to say, how much truth to reveal, or what lies would seem plausible to humans. How to even explain? But her confusion seemed to play to Mercedes' sympathies all the same.
"A shipwreck?" Mercedes asked instead, quieter this time; gentler as if afraid to scare Byleth.
Byleth remained silent, staring at a point over Mercedes' shoulder. Whatever roil of emotions she felt at the realization that the sea had become something unfriendly--or even deadly to her--was oddly muted to Byleth right now.
"I need to go," Byleth said suddenly.
"Oh? And where would you go?" Mercedes asked, her smile fixed on her face.
"The beach," Byleth said, and meant her prince's beach. She had to go there, she had to see if he would show up again. It was the only place she knew where she might find him.
"I'm sorry, but there's nothing there," Mercedes said, eyes turned knowing. "You were the only one to wash up. We checked, after Dimitri came back to the palace with you wrapped up in his cloak."
"...Dimitri?" Byleth mouthed, puzzled. The memory of fur against the palm of her hand, and someone's arms carrying her away circled through her head without offering any further elucidation. But who else would have been on the beach except--
"Oh, rather-- His Majesty, I should say," Mercedes corrected herself. "This is something of a tragic coincidence, but not too many years ago, he also washed up on the same beach after a shipwreck."
"Dimitri," Byleth breathed out in realization. He had a name. Of course he had a name. "I have to--"
She tried rising to her feet, but Mercedes firmly pushed her back down onto the bed, and then, with a healer's efficiency, lifted her legs onto the mattress and pulled the covers over Byleth.
"None of that, now," Mercedes said, her voice brooking no argument. "You've been through a lot, and you should rest. Are you hungry? I'll bring you something to eat. Any preferences?"
Mercedes cut off any protest with a look, and Byleth obediently reclined against the pillows as Mercedes tucked in the edges of the material against Byleth's sides.
Byleth knew how to pick her battles, and anyway, it seemed she did not need to go after all. She let Mercedes fuss, if that was what she wanted to do, and then meekly sat in place as Mercedes headed for the door. Perhaps she laid it on a bit thick, because Mercedes gave Byleth one last stern look at the door, before slipping out of the room.
It was not Byleth's intention to kick off the covers again the moment Mercedes was on the other side of the door. However, as Byleth listened intently, the sound of Mercedes' footsteps cut off only two steps into the corridor, and a conversation picked up. The words were muffled, but the two voices were distinct: Mercedes' pleasant lilt, and a deeper, rougher one.
Byleth moved quietly towards the door, though sneaking was not her intention. She moved now on dry land the way she had learned to swim along the seafloor without stirring the sand, afraid of being ushered back to bed before satisfying her curiosity.
She opened the door just a crack, intending only to listen without catching Mercedes' notice. There was something familiar to the cadence and timbre of the second voice, and she sorely wanted to find out if it was true. But as she heard him speak, she couldn't resist pushing the door open just a bit wider, and peering out.
"Thank you, Mercedes. Let me know if there's anything at all I can--" Dimitri cut off abruptly as his gaze met Byleth's over Mercedes' shoulder. His eye widened, and his jaw worked soundlessly for a moment, before closing again.
But it was him. In the space where Byleth's heart would have beat, something yet still rushed to fill it. It was the most she had felt since coming on land, and she remained stuck in place, drinking in the sight of him.
She would have stood there for ages, simply staring, but for Mercedes noticing her presence.
"Back to bed," Mercedes instructed firmly. "You two can talk later," she added, and by the way she turned her head to look at Dimitri, it was clear she meant that for the both of them.
Byleth let herself be gently prodded back into bed, where she sat with her hands worrying at the covers, and her pulse racing in place of her heart.
Me trying to determine which version of Dimitri to use for this fic: *rolls die* ...ok, remorseful soft-feral post-timeskip Dimitri it is.
Then the little mermaid raised her lovely white arms, stood on the tips of her toes, and glided over the floor, and danced as no one yet had been able to dance.
--"The Little Mermaid"
Mercedes could only keep up her fussing for so long, especially after all of her prodding and check-ups confirmed that Byleth was no worse for wear. Byleth was permitted out of bed, and then, ostensibly because she was a guest, permitted out of her room to wander the summer palace.
Though she had her own tasks to tend to, and other patients on occasion, Mercedes yet made time to accompany Byleth on her first forays around the palace. She took Byleth down to the gardens, and showed her the way to the library and solarium, to the kitchens, to the music room, to any assortment of small rooms where humans dithered away their time in various pursuits.
Learning the layout was simple enough, but Byleth did not always understand the purpose of rooms, and had on more than one occasion been gently ushered out of places by guards or servants when Mercedes was not around.
The guards, especially, had a coldly professional manner about them that came out when Byleth was unaccompanied. Byleth did not wish to test anyone's patience, but she was growing frustrated the more she realized that she had not encountered Dimitri even once in the three days since waking up in his palace and catching glimpse of him in that corridor.
If she were less on edge, Byleth would have dismissed the notion that she was purposefully being kept away from him as paranoia. Even here, in the summer palace, which ostensibly should have been a place of rest and retreat for the royal family, there were apparently innumerable things to require a king's attention. Yet, Byleth felt herself an interloper, as much as she felt herself a guest. Even Mercedes, with her kind eyes and open face, got a certain tightness to her expression the one time Byleth requested to see Dimitri.
"Pardon, I understand you wish to thank him," Mercedes assured, "it's only that... well, there are always so many people making requests of his time in Fhirdiad. We're all hesitant to make many demands of him here."
She didn't need to continue, because Byleth nodded agreeably, and then made a note not to bring up the subject again.
It was not that anyone was hostile to her, really. Not even that cold. On the second day, Byleth had wandered into the library and walked in on a red-haired young woman singing to herself as she leafed through a book. Byleth stood there for a while listening before the woman noticed and squeaked in startled surprise, but even after dropping her book and knocking into a shelf, Annette was only too happy to chat with Byleth.
"It sounds like you've been through a really scary experience," Annette commented off-handedly, which was about as much as anyone had addressed Byleth's appearance on the beach up to that point.
"Does it?" Byleth said. She supposed shipwrecks were indeed frightening to humans. So many tended to die in them.
Annette's cheery mien flagged a bit.
"Um. Yeah. I mean. Wasn't it? I don't want to assume." Annette gave a thready laugh; nervous.
Byleth looked at Annette, trying to think of something to say in response, but this only seemed to make Annette even more nervous.
"Well!" Annette said, shutting her book with a too-loud thump. "I should be going! Lunch is soon and I have so many things I need to get done by then!"
As Annette scurried away, Byleth was left wondering if it was because of something she'd said.
'You are completely hopeless, aren't you?' came Sothis' chiding.
But despite Sothis' new-found pastime of offering needling remarks whenever Byleth fumbled some interaction with humans, the goddess proved also to be the best guide to the surface world that she was going to get, and she prodded Byleth to go exploring the palace by herself at every opportunity. Not that Byleth needed much prodding in this regard.
In her restless state, little held Byleth's attention for long. The gardens--with their beautiful, foreign plants and flowers--came the closest to capturing her attention, but she was not in the mindset to appreciate them for longer than it took to walk them from one end to the other.
Other parts of the palace were interesting in their own respects as well. The library was filled with books, instead of the rolled-up algae-parchments Byleth was used to, but the principle was the same. A gallery of beautiful paintings held her attention for an entire afternoon, as she took in all the landscapes of the surface world that were depicted in them. But then, she came upon a fanciful underwater tableau, from the imagination of some painter who had clearly never had the merfolk's perspective, but possessed enough imagination to get it pretty damn close, and Byleth had retreated to her room for the rest of the day, feeling strangely empty.
If she was ever hungry, she could go to the kitchens to eat, or ask the servants to bring her something. Byleth was cautiously exploring human cuisine, but perhaps her caution was overblown considering how mild everything that humans ate tasted. Sothis informed her this was because most aquatic toxins that merfolk liked to use as seasoning were deathly poisonous to humans. Byleth found the entire thing baffling.
'How do you know so much about humans?' Byleth had asked Sothis, her suspicions mounting with every tidbit the goddess shared.
'Hmph! As though you are the only one who has ever had a reason to walk the land,' Sothis muttered in response, and then gone back to sleep at the back of Byleth's mind, neatly avoiding having to explain herself.
Finding herself without immediate companionship, Byleth took to wandering the palace grounds again.
She would have ended up on another circuit of the gardens, and then likely gone back to her room again, but for the fact that this time, she spotted an iron gate, half-concealed by thick foliage.
There were no guards here, and the gate itself did not seem at all important, so Byleth followed some whim and passed through it. It led to a narrow path, like an alley between two exterior walls of the palace, and she nearly turned back, suspecting that this was in fact another part of the palace where she was not allowed. But then the path opened up to an interior courtyard again, albeit one she did not recognize, and Byleth stopped in her tracks, trying to get her bearings. Looking up to the rising towers of the palace, the angles seemed almost familiar. She could not have strayed all that far, and she was certainly still on the palace grounds.
Whether this was a part where she was allowed was a different matter. She looked around the courtyard, and though there were no guards, there was a dark-haired young man with a wooden sword, running through a series of drills. His back was turned, and even if it wasn't, it was clear he was deep in concentration, so he did not notice her yet.
But this gave Byleth a clue, at least. There were racks of wooden facsimiles of weapons along the walls; this had to be some kind of training yard.
She dawdled with indecision, looking back the way she came, and forward to the open door across the training yard, and in the time it took her to decide, the human pivoted on his heel and turned towards her. She knew the exact moment he noticed her, because his entire body arched with awareness, and the tip of his practice sword pointed at her.
"You," he said, a single word, sharp and authoritative.
Byleth changed her stance reflexively, to something a bit more guarded. The man across the yard gave her a narrow-eyed look. It was the most blatant show of suspicion Byleth had yet encountered at the palace, and she was almost thankful for the honesty.
"Unless you're going to pick up a weapon and train, you have no business here," he said, pointing her to the rack of training weapons.
Byleth considered making her way across the yard, to the open door, and see if she was permitted to go that way. At the very least, she aimed to bluff her way past.
But something inside her prickled at this human's challenge. There were no krakenbone blades here, true. But a sword was a sword, and she became curious to know how her skills might transfer to the surface world.
"Okay," she said, to the human's clear surprise. He recovered quickly, however, expression twisting to something more pleased, and simultaneously more calculating.
She walked over and picked out a training sword from the rack, testing its balance with a few practice swings.
On land, in the open air, the weight of weapons fell differently. She was also limited to walking along the ground, unable to swim over or under an opponent in dizzying spirals. By all means, her inexperience with the surface world should give her a disadvantage, and she was mindful of that.
But not to be neglected were also her advantages in this situation.
Satisfied with the wooden sword, and reasonably convinced that she could handle it well enough, Byleth turned to face her opponent.
They didn't speak, but they sized each other up as they prepared for the bout. It took only a nod of his head to signal the beginning of the sparring match.
He moved quickly, with an agility that had Byleth on the defensive, stepping backwards under the onslaught of his strikes.
But the thing Byleth had noticed, and the thing she had been banking on, even if she had not had the opportunity to test it fully, was that when Sothis had given her legs, she had not done the job by half-measures. This body moved as naturally on land as Byleth had in the water, and as long as she did not think too much about it, instinct would have her moving precisely the way she needed to, as though she had spent her entire life training in the surface world.
The second thing, that she was beginning to grasp more fully now, was that swinging a sword through air was much easier than swinging it through water. Movements that would have been laborious or too slow in the water worked better, and Byleth had to keep the strength of her strikes in check to compensate.
She felt herself grow bolder with each exchange of blows, and she knew her opponent sensed the shift as well when he disengaged and took a step back.
They circled each other, scrutinizing for weaknesses or openings. Strange, but despite his frown, he seemed almost giddy about the situation. Byleth understood, that hunger for the challenge, the edge of satisfaction that came with facing against a worthy rival.
But everything up until this point had just been Byleth testing out the limits of her new body.
He did not make a mistake, he merely fell short in his estimation of her, and that was all Byleth required. What was meant to be another quick exchange of strikes was thrown off as Byleth twisted her body, stepped inside his guard, and shoved her shoulder into him. A snap of her sword against his wrist, and his own weapon went skidding across the training yard floor. If it had been steel, it would have drawn blood. Since it was not, Byleth pressed her advantage and elbowed him in the diaphragm, knocking the air out of him, and sending him staggering back.
Surprise flashed across the human's face, though it was more like naked shock. It was at that point Byleth realized she must have missed some rule of training etiquette that humans had, and she was ready to lower her weapon, but for the sharp smile the human gave her. It was not a very wide smile, and didn't even show any teeth, but it sent warning signals down Byleth's back. She could see it in his eyes, now. The overriding desire to best her.
He shifted his stance, and she knew right away that he was not going to yield, even if she demanded it. She brandished her training sword, ready for his next move, whether he went for his own sword again, or made to grapple her empty-handed.
A line of tension grew taut between them--watching, assessing--and then broke with a snap as a voice called across the training yard.
Byleth froze, not quite willing to turn her eyes away from an opponent in the middle of a fight, but the swordsman's expression melted into annoyance, and his posture loosened from its previous battle stance.
The voice was the same as she remembered; deeper now, raw around the edges. But she would always know it. She simply hadn't been expecting it.
Dimitri strode up to her, his steps steady and slow, if not hesitant. She watched him askance as he approached, and did not protest at all as he reached for her hand and pulled the wooden sword from her grip. She let it slip easily, and he sighed like he was relieved that she did.
But Byleth held herself very still, and Dimitri moved very slowly, and she didn't know who was more afraid of startling the other. She let her now-empty hand fall limply to her side, the rush of fighting instincts receding into the stillness of her unbeating heart.
It was strange, being around him, after so many days chasing his presence without results. She did not know what to say. She took in his appearance instead; the broadness of his shoulders, even without his cloak. The slight hunch to his posture, like self-consciousness about his height, that made his untamed hair fall over his face and half-conceal it.
Her avoided looking at her, instead regarding the training sword in his hand, weighing it as though it held some fascination to him. Yet his entire body was turned towards her, evidently aware of her even without eyes, and Byleth found herself swept up by the same current, and molding her posture to complement his. Maybe he didn't know what to say either; they were strangers to one another, and acquainted in the oddest ways. It seemed a too-thin thread to describe as familiarity.
"Mercedes didn't mention you were a skilled fighter," Dimitri said eventually, trying to sound friendly.
"How would Mercedes have known?" Byleth asked.
Dimitri let out a huff of almost-laughter, his eye darting to her face, holding her gaze for the length of a pause, and then falling away again.
"I suppose it was not something you chose to share at the time," Dimitri said. "You did arrive here in... unusual circumstances." There was pink high in his cheeks, and he coughed awkwardly, though Byleth didn't understand what about the way he found her was so awkward.
The other human, gone to place his training sword back on the rack, snorted loudly from across the training yard.
"If you're an assassin from the Empire," he said, "you did a fine job of tipping your hand with that display."
"Felix, please," Dimitri chided.
"Oh," Byleth said, because she understood now. Enemies. Dimitri had enemies. She had not thought about this, but she understood now the kind of conflict that might have chewed through Dimitri over the years she had not seen him.
Her hand itched to pick up a sword again.
"Think nothing of it," Dimitri said quickly. "You're a guest here."
"If I were an assassin, hospitality could prove your downfall," Byleth pointed out.
"Hah. Well..." Dimitri's gaze dropped to the ground again, and he smiled ruefully. "So I keep getting told. Yet, I cannot do any less than help a stranger in need..." He grew pensive as he trailed off, following some line of thought that Byleth couldn't track.
It twisted at something inside that he did not seem to recognize her, though considering the circumstances of their first meeting, she did not truly expect him to. It did nothing to still some eager part of herself that wanted to remind him, to pull him in. Some needy urge to drag him under the waves. She put a stopper to those feelings. It was not what a side of herself she needed to indulge.
"Would it be alright," she said, "if I came back here sometimes?" She gestured to the training yard.
Felix, who made no move to hide the fact that he was listening in on their conversation while leaning against the weapon rack, perked up upon hearing her request.
"Of course," Dimitri said, almost too quickly. "You must be restless, after your enforced bedrest. But I do require something in return from you."
'Anything,' she thought. "What?" she said.
"Please, have dinner with me," Dimitri asked, so earnest that for a moment he was her young prince again.
Like 90% of the reason Dimitri avoided Byleth was because he saw her naked and was too embarrassed about it.
"Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart."
--"The Little Mermaid"
Byleth did not think having dinner with Dimitri would concern anyone else in the palace. Certainly, Felix had seemed supremely indifferent to the invitation, and had been more intent on setting a time to meet with her at the training yard and spar again.
But however word had gotten around, Mercedes showed up to Byleth's room later, brandishing an armful of dresses.
"I don't understand," Byleth had said bluntly, looking over the gowns as Mercedes laid them out on the bed.
"You can't wear just anything when you dine with the king," Mercedes said, gesturing to Byleth's appearance.
Byleth, for her part, did not understand what was wrong with the linen shirt and simple blue skirt she was wearing. Mercedes had also provided this clothing, and Byleth had found it perfectly functional up until now.
"What purpose does clothing serve to eating?" Byleth asked. She felt the tug of frustration at being confronted with some new human social norms, seemingly designed only to complicate her existence, but the feeling subsided as soon as it arose.
'You are like a little child,' Sothis sighed in Byleth's head, at the same time Mercedes sighed before her. 'Humans do not weave shells into their hair. They put on clothing and strut about in it to show their status instead.'
Oh. Well, Byleth could understand that more easily.
"You don't need to dress up, I suppose," Mercedes relented, giving the dresses a forlorn look. "Dimitri wouldn't care one way or the other. But don't you want to look nice?"
The way Mercedes said it, it sounded more like she was asking 'don't you want to look nice for Dimitri', and Byleth felt flustered by the notion, even if she didn't show it. She looked to the dresses with new eyes, however.
"Do these mean different things?" Byleth asked, trying to discern what different dresses might mean the same way she used to look to different seashells to determine what accomplishments other merfolk had to their name.
Mercedes brightened at Byleth's cooperation.
"Oh, it isn't that they mean different things, but you can convey different things through what you wear," Mercedes explained. She picked up a red dress, with purple lace all along the sleeves and hem. "And some can suit you better than others," she said critically, setting the dress aside from the others.
There were not so many dresses to begin with, though they were in a variety of styles and colors. But Mercedes set about eliminating options quickly. Too tacky, she said of one. Too loud, she said of another's color.
Byleth's eyes settled on one particular dress, mint-green satin. The color was only a shade off from her old hair color, and she looked at it for a long time, trying to discern what the distant pang of emotion deep in her chest meant, but Mercedes saw her looking at it and shook her head apologetically.
"The color isn't quite right," Mercedes said. "It'll wash you out."
For the first time, involuntarily, Byleth let out a sharp laugh, startling herself with it as much as she did Mercedes.
Byleth had no real opinion one was or the other on the dress Mercedes chose for her, and thus no real objection to the one they settled on. A dark grey, almost black, with slashes of pink on the bodice.
The dress had to be taken in a bit, and let out in other places, which Mercedes insisted on doing herself as she ushered Byleth to bathe.
Sothis took over harranguing Byleth throughout this task, and by the point where she was instructing Byleth to wash behind the ears, Byleth had the distinct impression she was being addressed as though she was a child. Regardless, she washed, and dried off, and then was promptly put into the dress chosen for her.
"I also brought a bit of make-up," Mercedes said, with the clear expectation that Byleth would let herself be subjected to this as well.
"No," Byleth said firmly.
"I don't want anyone touching my face," she said, with such a forbidding tone that Mercedes wilted a little.
Byleth almost felt bad about it, but face-touching was either incredibly aggressive, or very much intimate for merfolk, with no real middle-ground, and there was only so much human nonsense she could abide in a single day.
The most she allowed was for Mercedes to put a ribbon in Byleth's hair, pink to match the little snatches of color on her dress. As she tied it in place, and ran her hands through Byleth's hair, Byleth could almost feel Mercedes' frown.
"I hope this isn't a prying question," Mercedes said, "but what happened to your hair?"
"Nothing happened," Byleth replied. But it came out more brusque than she intended, so apologetically, she softened her tone and elaborated, "Something was tangled in it, so I cut it off."
"...I see," she said after a very long time, and then brushed Byleth's hair. "Would you like me to trim it a bit? Just to even it out."
Byleth stiffened, and Mercedes must have sensed that was a bridge too far, because she adjusted the ribbon one last time and removed her hands from Byleth's hair altogether.
Any awkward hitch in their conversation was interrupted by the lively rap of a knock on the door.
"Come in," Mercedes said, when Byleth did not.
A red-haired young man poked his head through, grinning from ear to ear.
"Sylvain," Mercedes greeted, though surprised by the man's presence. "Can I help you with anything?"
"Sorry, Mercedes, I'm actually here for the other stunning young lady in the room," he replied, oozing through the door and winking at Byleth.
Byleth ignored the wink, and half-way discounted the words as well. She did not know him, or why he would be there for her, and the bright shade of his hair was too close to the kind of displays venomous creatures put on for her to be completely at ease. It probably did not mean anything; humans were incapable of being venomous, after all.
"Sylvain," Mercedes sighed, and in response Sylvain raised his hands defensively.
"Not for myself!" he said. "I'm escorting her to dinner with Dimitri."
Mercedes did not look reassured, but neither did she raise any protest right away. She gave Sylvain a long, searching look that probably conveyed some meaning to him that Byleth was missing. He responded with an equally-loaded but indecipherable expression. It felt like an entire conversation was going over Byleth's head in that moment.
So she rose to her feet, abruptly enough to startle the humans.
"Let's go," she said without preamble.
Sylvain gave her a smile, something cloyingly friendly but with fangs underneath, and Byleth reassessed her estimation that humans could not be venomous.
"A woman who really knows what she wants, huh," he said like he was joking, even though she could not tell what the joke was.
He offered his arm for her to hold onto. She looked at it like it would sprout spines, but she moved to grab onto it the way she had seen of couples through the garden.
For all her wariness, at least Sylvain knew where they ought to be going.
"Don't worry," Sylvain said over his shoulder to Mercedes, "I'll have her back by curfew."
"I have a curfew?" Byleth wondered out loud, startling a laugh out of Sylvain. It sounded more genuine than his smiles looked.
"So, dinner with His Majesty, huh?" Sylvain said, and even though it sounded like small talk, had the format of it, Byleth sensed some other meaning lurking under the question.
"Yes," she replied.
A beat of silence, until it because obvious Byleth had nothing more to say.
"You're a pretty lucky girl, catching the eye of the king like that," Sylvain continued, grinning. "Especially since he's only got the one."
Byleth looked up at Sylvain--up and up, because he was so tall--and he looked at her in return, friendly mask so stiffly in place that she almost could not see the seams. Almost.
"Of course," Sylvain continued, "setting your sights on the king means there's plenty of competition--" Something jerked in Byleth's chest just then, not her heart but something sharp and stinging nonetheless, "--so maybe you could aim for something a bit less ambitious and more likely to pay off."
"I'm not sure you understand," Byleth said, as it dawned on her that Sylvain was going down a hole of wild suppositions.
"Sure I do," he said in that too-light way of his, so fake that it swung all the way back into sincere. "You could do pretty well for yourself just getting your hooks into a dashing young noble instead. Lots of eligible, rich, handsome men just lying around, ripe for the pickings." She realized they were slowing down, and Sylvain's voice lowered. Caught on his arm like a fish in a net, Byleth had no choice but to match his pace. "Trying to win over a king is a lot of work, isn't it? All those politics, all that courtly intrigue." He smirked, coming to a complete standstill. "Now, me, on the other hand--"
He took a step sideways, and Byleth found herself pushed towards a wall. She released his arm, and her fingers twitched for a weapon she did not possess. It did not feel exactly like she was in danger, yet something inside her bristled in recognition, the way it did around sharks--here was a creature that did not hunt for her specifically, but which nonetheless hunted.
As her back pressed against the wall of the hallway, his arms came up around her sides to cage her. She had a momentary lapse and let it happen, thinking there was no danger because she could swim over, but she was on land now. She'd forgotten, and she was trapped now.
"I could really show you a good time, you know?" Sylvain said, eyes half-lidded, smile almost dreamy. And then the bite behind the smile, so subtle most people might have missed it. So subtle even Byleth might have, if so many merfolk didn't smile the exact same way. His fingers came up to play with a lock of her hair, twisting it between his fingers. "A girl like you deserves to be treated right. Given everything."
What was this? Soft words with poison underneath. Not genuine temptation, with how much malice and anger was underneath. A test?
'I would bet,' Sothis' voice trickled into her mind, low like a whisper even though Sylvain wouldn't have heard her anyway, 'that this one is friends with your little prince.'
A test, then.
She could see the shape of it. Dimitri's friends. Mercedes politely brushing off Byleth's attempts to meet the king, even when he'd walked up to her doorway. Felix standing as taut as the anchor's rope while Dimitri talked to her in the training yard. Now Sylvain, dripping his poison into her ear because he likely couldn't do it literally. Trying to defend Dimitri in any way he knew how, no matter how underhanded.
She reached up and pressed her hands on either side of Sylvain's face. Her thumbs were very near to his eyes, but he didn't catch onto the significance of the gesture. Something gleeful sparked in his eyes instead, anticipation for her coming missteps. He thought she was going to kiss him, she realized. He thought she was going to reveal herself as ill-intentioned, and he could snap his trap around her.
Byleth stared into his face, instead, holding his gaze unblinkingly.
"You," she said slowly, with all the conviction she could dredge up, "You are a good friend to Dimitri."
Then she released her hold on him, and he nearly stumbled for it, blinking in confusion.
She hadn't actually thought that would work, assuming it would be gone like her tail or her scales. But the way Sylvain looked like he'd been rolled over by a boulder meant she still had some small measure of the siren's call left in her blood. It was never the kind of magic she'd practiced, but even if she couldn't ensnare sailors with a word, eye contact and proximity worked for just about all merfolk. It was the opportunity for either of those that made it hard to put into practice, especially when other merfolk knew what to avoid.
Sylvain, though, had no idea what had happened, and he ran a hand through his hair as he took in a shuddering breath. The confusion faded quickly, and Byleth couldn't tell if the suggestion sank in, or just washed over unnoticed, but the attempt at least seemed to interrupt his previous line of thought. When he straightened up, he seemed a bit less insecure, and a bit less likely to bite.
"Sorry, what was I saying?" he asked.
"You were saying we were going to be late for dinner," Byleth said.
"Right!" He slapped a hand over his face, and then offered his arm again. "Yeah, we better run."
Byleth took his arm with fewer misgivings this time. She considered telling Sylvain not to let anyone touch his face like that, especially with their fingers in eye-gouging distance, but she suspected the advice would not come across well to humans, so she kept her peace.
If she hoped she would finally be alone with Dimitri, Byleth found herself sorely mistaken, because she was delivered from Sylvain's tender care into that of Dimitri's retainer.
Dedue, who was tall and solid as if carved out of a single block, did not make any attempts at charm, but neither did he have any of Sylvain's underlying aggression. Instead, meeting Byleth at the door to the dining room, he nodded in greeting and introduced himself.
"Here's where I leave you," Sylvain announced cheerily, then leaned closer to add, "Don't worry, Dedue doesn't bite. Except on command."
And then he swanned off, leaving Byleth alone with Dedue.
They studied each other silently, for an amount of time that most people would have found awkward. Byleth took notice of Dedue's scarred face, of his neutral posture and his guarded expression. Dedue, whatever he saw in her in turn, did not seem completely displeased, but neither was he inclined towards her. If anything, he had an air of resignation to the events around him. He stepped aside and held the door open for her, and then followed at her heels.
The dining room was perhaps something that qualified as small and intimate by the measure of a palace, but that still made it cavernous in side. The table could have seated twelve, and Dimitri had been pacing along the large window before he saw her, and stopped in his tracks.
Something flickered across his face; Byleth would have named it apprehension even if she hoped for other feelings. But it was gone just as quickly as it appeared, and Dimitri gave her a smile instead, small but sincere.
"Please, sit," he said, and pulled a chair for her. He was going seated at the head of the table, likely a regular seat for him as king, and indicated for Byleth to take the seat to his left. "You look quite lovely tonight," he added, and it sounded as though he was following a script.
Byleth, however, had not received a copy of that script. Her head turned to look at Dimitri, take in his appearance. His coat was blue, embroidered with gold around the cuffs. He did not look at ease in it, and she wondered if he wished he could retreat inside his fur cloak instead.
"Thank you," she replied. "But it was Mercedes' doing, not mine."
Dimitri's smile deepened into something warmer for a moment.
As he took his seat, Dedue sat at the table as well, at Dimitri's right side, and across from Byleth. Having no insight into the usual human custom, Byleth did not comment on this, but she could tell by the restless shift in Dimitri's demeanor that apparently it was something that would have usually prompted comment.
"Dedue is here to... chaperone," Dimitri explained, almost mumbling the last word as he avoided Byleth's eyes.
"I mean no insult," Dedue said, not coldly but business-like. "It is simply a matter of eliminating any cause for gossip."
"Would there have been gossip otherwise?" Byleth asked, tilting her head. Perhaps not everyone in the palace cared for Dimitri as much as she assumed.
"There is always gossip," Dimitri sighed. "It seems to make little difference one way or the other."
"Nonetheless," Dedue said, unmoved. He did not elaborate. He looked to Byleth, and Byleth looked back, both equally impassive. Dimitri looked between the two of them, more uneasy with their silence than they were.
"Well, if that's sorted, then," Dimitri muttered, "shall we eat?"
The prince asked her who she was, and where she came from, and she looked at him mildly and sorrowfully with her deep blue eyes; but she could not speak.
--The Little Mermaid
Despite the initial awkwardness of the situation, Dimitri tried his best to smooth it over. The fact that neither of his dinner companions were talkative by nature seemed to be making things difficult for him, but neither Dedue nor Byleth had it in them to be uncooperative with Dimitri's efforts. With a few hitches, the dinner... progressed.
Eventually, Dimitri's stream of small talk petered out into something more substantial. As a creamy soup was being served, he cleared his throat, distracting Byleth from Sothis' persistent instructions on how to use a spoon without spilling all over herself.
"I'd hoped to breach the subject sooner," Dimitri said, apologetic, "but we have been wondering if you have any place to go."
Byleth dropped the spoon, and it clattered against the plate loudly enough to echo into the high ceiling.
Dedue, who seemed to watch from Dimitri's blind spot like a sentinel lurking in the shadow, had not been looking at Byleth outright, but his attention was on her nonetheless. Now he cocked his head curiously, no longer concealing the direction of his attention.
Yet still worse was Dimitri's mild expression, the gentleness as he peered from under his fringe of wild hair. His concern was as open as Dedue's suspicion, but it sank deeper into Byleth's skin.
She did not know how to answer the question. The only home she had to speak of had always been at her father's side. Carried by the currents, to and fro, on the lip of an abyss. Red days when the water was thick with blood, as hard to see as the mornings when fog rose over the water and blotted out the sky in white. Quiet days when the sand stirred as they dug out scavenge. Long days, when they swam through the coral forests, across shark trails while watching each other's backs. Too-short days, when Byleth swam up to and empty beach, and then back to her father, finding him as she'd left him, sharpening the krakenbone blades.
But she had chosen to come here and leave her father behind.
She hadn't even-- She hadn't--
She hadn't said goodbye.
She had done this to herself; left her heart behind.
"There's nowhere I can go back to," Byleth answered eventually, trying to keep her tone even. But something must have shown in her face anyway, because Dimitri's concern took an edge of grimness to it. He looked understanding, and she was afraid to think about what he'd understood.
"In that case," he said, "you are welcome to stay here for as long as you need. We will be staying until the season turns."
"Thank you," she said. "Though I ought to also thank you for taking me in at all."
"There is no need," Dimitri began, kind as ever.
Byleth, however, found herself unwilling to be appeased, or brushed off. She had not crawled out of the sea by the kindness of humans, but by the kindness of a goddess of crushing depths, and a coldness that tempered them all into sharp and hungry creatures. If she was going to receive anything from Dimitri, it would be something she clawed for herself.
"No, I have to repay you for what you have done for me," Byleth continued, as an idea formed.
Dimitri flushed red, looking suddenly apprehensive. His hands twitched, unsure if he wanted to raise them defensively or press them down against the table surface to keep them from shaking. Dedue's expression had froze into stony disapproval, and he looked ready to intervene. Whatever they were assuming, it must have been something embarrassing and human, but Byleth only distantly took note of it as thoughts rushed through her head.
"I really must insist, you don't have to--" Dimitri tried again.
"I'll fight for you," Byleth said.
This time Dimitri was stunned quiet. Even Dedue froze in place.
"You-- what?" Dimitri managed.
"I was trained as a mercenary. And you saw me in the training yard. I can fight for you," Byleth said clearly, holding Dimitri's gaze with the heat of her conviction alone.
"I-- ah..." But whatever he was going to say, Byleth could see it dry out on his tongue. Dimitri raised a hand to his face, rubbing over his eye as he huffed a short laugh. Before Byleth could bristle and double-down, he shook his head. "Apologies, I do not mean to laugh at you. In truth, the situation is not at all amusing, merely... familiar."
"The king already has a retainer," Dedue rumbled.
Byleth met his even stare across the table. There was nothing hostile in it, on either of their ends. If anything there was understanding. Byleth was not above pleading, if that was what it took, but in this case, she thought gaining an ally would serve her better. She suspected that Dedue thought he understood her better than he really did, and she was not above taking advantage of that.
"Then he must need more than one retainer to stay in one piece," she said, just to see how Dedue would take it.
"Dedue does a fine job, I assure you," Dimitri interjected, insulted on his friend's behalf.
But Dedue... tilted his head at Byleth. Considered her words. Like sharkskin, he was rough when rubbed one way, but smooth when rubbed in the other direction, and Byleth could see the pattern of his scales, even if she did not yet have her full measure of him.
"His Majesty does tend towards needing increased supervision when he is at his most vulnerable," Dedue said, and Dimitri actually had an air of betrayal at that remark.
But Byleth knew from that moment that she and Dedue understood each other.
"Now, hold on," Dimitri said. "Hold on--"
He did manage to voice his entire protestation, because they hadn't--actually--said anything. But that speculative glint in Dedue's gaze, that fire quietly burning under Byleth's skin, that gave Dimitri enough of a clue that he could guess what they were thinking.
Still, because the subject was not put on the table, Dimitri found himself forced into returning to small talk and filling in silences.
When dinner ended, Dimitri offered to walk Byleth back to her quarters. He even waved off Dedue's offer to accompany them ('Honestly, Dedue, these are public hallways. A chaperone is hardly required.')
But they still walked quite a distance from the dining room, and from Dedue's neutrally displeased expression, before Dimitri dared to say anything. He had offered Byleth his arm, and she had taken it, but she wondered if perhaps he had done so out of politeness, and less because he wished her touch. He ducked his head so that she could not properly see his face.
"I hope you have found us pleasant dinner companions," Dimitri said, his voice so light it was almost the same as she had heard it five years ago. "Dedue may take some time to warm up to people, but you two seem to have gotten along well." Then, in a low mutter, more to himself, "As far as I could tell."
"He's your blade," Byleth remarked, and she felt Dimitri stiffen at the words, and then deliberately relax to conceal his discomfort.
"I have no need for a blade, only a friend," Dimitri said. "And even had I a blade, as you say, I have no need for a second. So please tell me I am mistaken about your intentions."
"I don't know what you imagine my intentions to be, so I can't say if you're mistaken," Byleth said. It sounded tart, even in her inflectionless tone, but she was forever stumbling into human assumptions that she could not have guessed or anticipated.
Her guest room door appeared before them long before Dimitri's answer came, but instead of sending her off to bed, Dimitri stalled in the hallway, shifting from one leg to the other.
"I have no need of another retainer," he said, turning to face Byleth. His face was--terrible in that moment. "I have no need of another person to die for me."
"Then I simply won't die," she said, with the conviction of an Ashen Demon.
This did not reassure Dimitri, not one bit.
"...Please," he said, and his face still looked terrible, but in a sad way this time. "Why do this?"
She had no words to explain. She thought perhaps she could tell him, once they were alone. 'Remember the ship, the music under the decks, the conversation in the shadows. Remember the storm, remember the kiss, remember the beach.' But now, faced with the opportunity, faced with the human who had reeled her to shore as surely as a fisherman's line, she couldn't even form the words. If love had nestled in her heart, then love was gone, and only the rest of her body was left to care for him. A body could fight, the way a heart could love.
'You're just scared,' Sothis snorted, but even her voice was subdued, and tinged with melancholy along the edges.
And that was true too, but because Byleth couldn't feel it at the moment, she answered Dimitri's question in a different way. Not with words, but instead she raised a hand to his face. She brushed back his blond locks to press her palm against his cheek, and touch the tips of her fingers to his eye-patch. She looked into his remaining eye with all the tenderness she could scrape together, even if there was not much of it left in her.
She saw understanding in the bob of his throat as he swallowed, heard it in the shakiness of his sigh.
He wasn't quite at the point of accepting. He covered her hand with his, but she felt the warmth of it for only a moment before it slipped down to her wrist, gripping it with unbearable gentleness and pulling it away from his face.
"You're a kind woman," he said, "but that's precisely why I cannot abide you endangering yourself for me."
"It's not kindness," she replied, and turned away from him to slip into her room.
She stood for a long time, back pressed against the door, hand pressed to her chest as though she might hoard his warmth inside of herself to replace a heartbeat.
His steps were heavy as they walked away.
Byleth did not think Dimitri would acquiesce to her being his retainer, but in the end, if she'd learned anything, it was that Dimitri did not always get to decide what was good for Dimitri.
She wasted no effort attempting to change his mind. Instead, she showed up for training sessions with Felix every day. He was hungry for any challenge, and she presented herself as an opponent he could not consistently best. She saw in his snarl and the vicious light in his eyes a passion she could only recognized as uniquely human. It was more interesting to pit herself against such an opponent, than merfolk who overall ran much cooler in their battle lust.
By the second day, Dedue showed up for her training sessions as well, watching from the sidelines when he wasn't testing her skill himself.
Sometimes even Sylvain jumped in the ring, though mostly he seemed content to watch from the sidelines and make flirtatious comments. His mask of friendliness was always in place, and even though she could still see the seams, the edges of his previous hostility had blunted. Or maybe it was simply Felix's presence that did it. Not because Sylvain censored himself for Felix's sake, but there was a long-held familiarity between them that seemed to melt the iciest parts in each other.
Byleth did not much mind how much traffic the training yard was seeing since she began going there daily, though Felix sometimes grumbled about having no peace to train anymore. He mostly complained when Dimitri was there, lurking on the edges and watching Byleth wordlessly. But Dimitri always disappeared before her sparring matches ended, allowing no opportunity for conversation.
When she did not train, Byleth instead found herself wandering the palace with more purpose than before. She was waging a war of attrition, and so she discovered Mercedes' routine and made small incursions into it when she thought it might not bother Mercedes too much. There was a chapel where Mercedes went to pray, a quiet little building set in a corner of a garden. The walls were painted with stars and seahorses, and a mural of a woman emerging like a pearl from a seashell as attendants rushed to clothe her.
It made Byleth uneasy, so she did not go there past the first time.
But she joined Mercedes in the kitchens, when the latter was inclined to bake. To Byleth, the entire endeavor seemed like mystic arts. There was fire involved, and careful measure of ingredients, and the way things transformed under Mercedes' hands from sticky-dusty-sandy stuff into little loaves of fluff was strangely compelling to Byleth.
Mercedes was a patient teacher, and maybe even a bit charmed by Byleth's fascination. After the pastries were baked, Mercedes would pack them into a basket, and go around the palace offering them to friends. It was how Byleth met Ashe for the first time: with powdered sugar dusted across his cheeks. It was also how Byleth managed to encounter Annette for only the second time in her entire time at the palace; not until that point did Byleth realize the little mage had been avoiding her ever since their encounter in the library.
But with Mercedes vouching for Byleth, as it were, Annette's nervous smile turned a bit more sincerely bright.
It was how the three of them ended up in the gardens one day, weaving flower crowns. Byleth was familiar with the principle. She had even made crowns out of deep sea blooms for festivals when she'd been younger. But the surface plants had a different texture to them, and, as she was learning from Mercedes and Annette, there was a different technique to weaving them together.
Byleth was working her way through dandelions--she'd been assured it was a good flower for beginners, and they grew plenty of dandelions for medicinal teas--when she looked to what Mercedes and Annette were working on, and recognized the lush white petals of lilies.
She paused to stare at the flower crown Annette was making; maybe less a crown than a wreath, and she thought she had seen its like before. Annette was usually a chatterbox, but there was an oddly solemn air to her as she made this one. Byleth understood why when Dimitri appeared at the garden gate, lingering by the entrance with a faraway look on his face.
"Thank you," he said when Annette gave him the lily wreath; but it seemed automatic, more than anything. He looked right through her as he took it.
"White lilies," Byleth spoke, in the silence after Dimitri's departure. She remembered now, what her father had told her once. "For the dead."
Mercedes' lips pressed together as she nodded.
"Dimitri believes the dead require things from him," she said. "He used to think they needed revenge, or blood, or... an enemy's head."
"But things were really bad back then," Annette added, with a little twist of anguish at the memory. "He was in a lot of pain."
Mercedes nodded, distant but in agreement.
"He's doing much better now. But once in a while, when the voices get louder, a small tribute to the dead helps. Just some little proof of remembrance."
'It's the ritual that matters,' Sothis agreed.
"I understand," Byleth said, looking down to the dandelions in her hand, yellow like her father's hair.
“Do you not love me the best of them all?” the eyes of the little mermaid seemed to say, when he took her in his arms, and kissed her fair forehead.
“Yes, you are dear to me,” said the prince; “for you have the best heart, and you are the most devoted to me; you are like a young maiden whom I once saw, but whom I shall never meet again."
--"The Little Mermaid"
She was still more vicious than strictly necessary during sparring, though it had been a while since Sylvain had to step in and diffuse the situation. Felix was hardly defenseless, but his reaction to Byleth's occasional lapses was to match her ferocity, not de-escalate.
For the rest of the humans, this was more violent than was generally acceptable for sparring bouts.
"This is meant to be a friendly match," Sylvain would tell them, with the exasperated air of someone pulling apart two cats trying to swipe at each other. "Friendly!"
Felix grumbled, and Byleth accepted the correction, and eventually she got a better sense of what was acceptable. Sylvain still tended to lounge around the edges of the training yard, leaning against a wall in the shade and watching the two of them as they went at each other with practice swords.
Byleth envied him the coolness and the shade, especially when the sun was high in the air and beating down on her like a physical force hammering at her head. But on occasion she would get the opportunity to sit aside and watch others, particularly if they sparred in odd numbers. Dedue or Ashe or Dimitri would come to the training yard on occasion, though they were not permanent fixtures there like Felix seemed to be.
Byleth observed them all, but she took note of Dedue especially as plans percolated for her own training regimen. Dedue was large for a human; strong and intimidating, though not quite as agile. Felix could run circles around him--and often had to, if he hoped to win a match--but Dedue still had moments of surprising speed and unexpectedly cunning moves. As a retainer, Dedue was skilled at defending Dimitri on his own. If Byleth planned to become the second of a matched set, she had to complement him. She would have to be more mobile and aggressive in her tactics than Dedue.
The time she was not spending in the training yard sparring--usually with Felix, infrequently with a changing roster of other opponents, but never with Dimitri, even when he came to train with someone else--she spent exploring other parts of the palace.
She thought she would have learned as much as she could about the summer palace a few weeks in, but she yet stumbled upon new things.
She discovered an interior garden, somewhere on the upper floor. She did not expect it, but the roof was transparent glass, and the air was hot and humid. Flowers in a riot of colors lined the walls and spilled over flower pots in mazes of leaves and petals. She stood transfixed for a while, staring at the sight of them, when Dedue walked out from behind a row of vivid indigo blooms with a trowel in one hand and a bag of mulch under his arm.
He halted in place, obviously not expecting her, but after a moment of indecision, he bobbed his head, in a gesture that indicated she should follow.
She picked her way carefully through the maze of flowers, feeling the same quiet awe she did in the coral forests she used to play in as a child. The smells on the air were pleasant, but heavy like a presence.
Dedue showed her to the back of the glass garden, where the beauty of the surrounding greenery gave way to the practical implements that aided their growth. A worktable was already occupied by pots, both old and new. Dedue was apparently in the process of transferring plants from one pot to the other. Byleth was acquainted with the principle, because some merfolk grew plants in pots as well, though less commonly than humans did. She had never grappled with the practical elements of it before, however.
Dedue's large hands were skillful and sure, and he demonstrated to Byleth how to dig out a plant from one pot and put it into another. He explained the ratios of dirt and mulch and water, the importance of sunlight, and he showed Byleth how to be mindful of the delicate roots repotting a plant.
She listened carefully and followed his instruction, and perhaps it was not so much for what she was learning about gardening, but what she was learning about Dedue.
At the end, she looked at the black filth on her hands, caked into every fine line of her skin, and felt oddly satisfied in spite of it, like she did at the end of a training session when she was drenched in sweat, with dust clinging to her face. Perhaps that was a bit of the satisfaction Dedue felt in the task as well.
When it was finished, she expected to be sent off from the glass garden, yet Dedue lingered awkwardly in a way that indicated he wished to say something. Byleth watched him patiently until he decided to speak.
"Would you like to have tea with me?" Dedue asked. "Sometimes I take it here, in the garden, if the weather is not too warm."
Byleth paused just long enough for polite consideration, and then nodded.
She had never quite gotten a grip of human cuisine, though some of it was growing on her. But tea she had come to enjoy, perhaps because it was dissimilar enough from any other merfolk custom that she could appreciate it on its own merits.
"Very well," Dedue said, inclining his head. He was even pleased enough to let a smile pass his lips. "Go wash, and return here in an hour. I will have everything prepared."
Byleth agreed wordlessly, and went off to wash as instructed. The walk to and from her room did not take long at all, but she meandered her usual haunts in the palace, stopping by the library to talk to Annette, now that their interactions were less fraught, and by the stables for Ashe to show her the stable cat's secret den of kittens.
An hour passed loosely for Byleth, and though she did not think she was entirely punctual, when she returned to Dedue's glass garden, there was a smell of tea on the air.
She followed it to a corner of the garden where a small table and a few simple chairs had been arranged. The furniture itself was wrought iron, delicately shaped into vines and flowers, and set up as it was next to one of the sheer glass walls, the set-up overlooked a spectacular view of the cliffs and the sea battering at them.
Dedue, having cleaned and changed in the meantime, had a kettle already steaming, and a cup set out for her. Byleth sat down wordlessly, wondering why there were three cups set out, but not voicing the question. She accepted as Dedue poured tea for her instead, and watched the steam wafting from her cup like the breath of fog on the sea.
Caught in her meditative state, Byleth did not notice the heavy footsteps until they were already upon her, and she looked up just in time to see Dimitri pulling up short as he noticed her.
"Ah, Dedue-- I am sorry," Dimitri said, "you are entertaining someone else. I will go--" He turned to leave.
"Not at all, Your Majesty," Dedue said, and that had Dimitri jerking to a halt. "Please sit."
Dimitri's eyes flitted between Byleth and Dedue, before he seemed to resign to his fate. He pulled a chair and sat down opposite to Byleth, though that had not been where Dedue had set his cup. It wasn't until Dimitri was already seated that Byleth recalled she was meant to rise when the king arrived, but the minutia of human etiquette was hard to keep straight even when she wasn't thrown for a loop. Dimitri didn't seem to mind; she would not care for him as deeply if he'd been the kind to mind that sort of thing, maybe.
Unlike the dinner they all shared, this time Dimitri did not feel obligated to fill the void of silence with small talk. Unlike the last time the three of them were sitting around a table, however, Dedue and Byleth were not in the process of sizing each other up for enemies.
"I've never been in this garden before today," Byleth remarked. "Do you tend all these flowers yourself?"
A smile ghosted across Dedue's lips then. He was a man comfortable with violence in service of his liege, but Byleth could see clearly that the things he took pride in were the works of his hands; the flowers he tended, the meals he prepared.
"It is not all my work," Dedue said. "I have only been tending to them since we arrived here at the palace. However, I have managed to improve the state of quite a few exotic blooms that the gardening staff was less familiar with."
"There are so many of them," Byleth said, shaking her head. "They must like you, to have bloomed under your care."
This notion gave Dedue pause, and perhaps Byleth was misunderstanding how plants worked on land, compared to those in the sea. They were perhaps not creatures in the same way as coral or anemones, which had feelings of their own. But the thought seemed to please Dedue nonetheless.
"It is not something I do for gratitude," Dedue said, "yet I do hope they find my efforts to their liking."
Dimitri was smiling around the rim of his tea cup as he sipped. He had scarcely looked up, unwilling to catch Byleth's eye by accident, but evidently he was listening.
"Dedue, my friend, any living creature in your care is sure to be thankful for your gentle attention," Dimitri murmured. "I could not imagine differently."
Dedue hummed in acquiescence even as he hung his head bashfully.
Byleth felt like an interloper into something private, but witnessing how deliberately kind Dimitri and Dedue always were to each other never failed to warm her, sinking into her bones pleasantly. She thought--even if she could not feel it in her heart--that she enjoyed being around them like this.
"It will be hard to leave the greenhouse behind when we depart from the palace," Dedue said, casting an unintended pall over the conversation.
Byleth took a sip of her tea, but her fingers clenched the delicate handle of the cup too hard; her knuckles were white.
And, of course, it was now that Dimitri's eye was on her.
"It will be hard to leave many things behind," Dimitri said, "yet it will have to be done."
Strange, but the way he said it and looked directly at Byleth just then, he made it seem he would be leaving her behind as well. He had the wrong measure of her, if he thought she would stay pinned in place like a horse tied to a hitching post.
Dimitri cleared his throat and looked away first.
"They tell me the season will turn soon, at any rate," he continued, looking out over the impressive view. "The storms will be here by moon's end."
"Not that soon," Byleth muttered. "Two moons at least."
Dimitri blinked, frowning as his attention slid back to her almost against his will.
"Why do you say that?" he asked; it was not curiosity in his voice, though it was something kin to it.
"They don't feel close, the storms," Byleth said, quietly but certainly. "There might be rain, but the seastorms are still far away."
"You seem sure," Dimitri said, and then, almost seeming bewildered by what he was saying, "can you smell them?"
"No," Byleth replied.
"...Taste them?" Dimitri asked again, his voice pitched low, hesitant.
She didn't answer at first, only looking at him over the rim of her cup. She didn't say no, but she was not in the mood or state of mind to navigate these waters, and so she kept silent. Dimitri did not push.
Still, the silence that followed had a strange quality to it. Dimitri frowned into his tea cup. Dedue looked at her, thoughtful but distant in his thoughts.
"Do you..." Dimitri began, then stopped, pressing his lips closed again. His face cycled through several expressions, before he seemed to decide on one. "Byleth. Do you wish to go for a walk? On the beach? Before the weather turns," he added with a twist of a smile to his lips.
She hadn't been near the sea since she had left it. Hadn't even entertained the thought, really.
"Maybe... I should," she said.
She should not have.
With every step across the sand--and now she had to be careful not to roll an ankle, since dry sand was even more treacherous than the silt on the bottom of the sea, which could rise around you and hide enemies with every stroke of your tail--but with every step closer to the water she was growing increasingly tense.
It was not so bad when they were climbing down the carved steps that curled around the cliff face, but as soon as they rounded the stone to reveal the sea battering at the shore, and the smell of salt hit Byleth's face, a sadness as sharp as fishhooks sank into her chest.
Now, on the shore, on the same level as the sea, she could look out onto it and feel herself smaller and more vulnerable than she ever had underneath the waves.
How could humans stand it? How could they look off onto this endless, roiling blue monster, eager to swallow them or shake them off, and decide to put their ships on its back? How even did they decide to put their toes into the water? Did they simply not understand the danger?
Dimitri, probably oblivious to Byleth's newly-discovered existential crisis, but always polite, offered his arm for her to cling to. And she clung to it quite firmly the closer they got to the waves.
"Ought we turn back?" Dimitri asked at one point, peering into her face with worry across his brow.
Byleth shook her head.
"Do not push yourself," he said, patting her hand as it twisted in the fabric of his sleeve. "It is natural to feel fear after an experience like yours."
It was not natural for her, Byleth wanted to say. She had lived in her sea her entire life, and to feel afraid of it now felt absurd. She watched the to and fro of the waves with apprehension.
And yet, there were still parts of her longing to step into the waves and let the water do with her as it wished. When she gripped Dimitri's sleeve even tighter, it was as much to stop herself from stepping forward. She would drown, she had to remind herself. She would drown.
They stood quietly in place, looking out over the endless expanse, to the point where sky and sea were indistinguishable. The weather was cool that day; not a forerunner to the storm season, but as typically chilly as the coast tended to be on that side of the continent. Dimitri wore his fur cloak, and Byleth had a jacket borrowed from wherever the rest of her clothes came from.
For once, Dedue was not around, which was curious in and of itself, but Byleth presumed a walk on the beach did not require a chaperone. Peculiar, considering this was a good place to drown a king. Maybe it was the first sign of trust she would need to become Dimitri's retainer, in which case, it was promising.
"You never said where you came from," Dimitri spoke, jarring Byleth from her ruminations.
She looked at him, and he looked right back, his face perfectly neutral. Then she raised a hand towards the sea.
"Do you know the abyssal depths?" she asked.
Dimitri shook his head.
"It is where the sea floor goes from flat to a sheer drop. It is deep, and dangerous, and monsters live there. But merfolk live on the lip of the abyss because it is still deeper than humans and their ships and their magic can reach."
She told him about the cavern-cities, the coral gardens, the pearlescent palaces and the shipwreck shanty towns, the traveling markets that dealt in sailcloth and krakenbone, and the sleeping goddess who might grant a favor if you could bear the consequences.
Dimitri listened to it all, enraptured.
"It is strange," he said, "but when you speak of these things, it is as if they are truly so."
Byleth felt a strange stab at his words.
"You don't believe what I speak of is real?"
"Who is to say it is not?" Dimitri shrugged with a small smile, looking at her from the corner of his eye. "I would like to believe that merfolk are not myth."
Oh, but if he met enough merfolk, he wouldn't feel that way, Byleth thought. Humans would find merfolk cold and strange, just as alien as merfolk considered the abyssal creatures that lived below.
Yet, she let it pass unremarked. If Dimitri thought she was avoiding answering his question by telling him fanciful stories instead, she did not wish to argue the point.
"All the same," Dimitri continued, something soft in his expression as he regarded her, "this is the most I have heard you speak in all the time I have known you. I hope you will one day feel safe to speak of your home as you did of this kingdom under the sea."
"I might, one day," Byleth said agreeably, "but will you recognize it when I do?"
Dimitri did not understand, but he smiled at her nonetheless.
And for now, his smile sufficed. She could survive on his smiles as long as humans could live underwater on a lungful of air: endlessly and not nearly long enough.
And then he told her of storm and of calm, of strange fishes in the deep beneath them, and of what the divers had seen there; and she smiled at his descriptions, for she knew better than any one what wonders were at the bottom of the sea.
--"The Little Mermaid"
Slowly, but perceptibly, the training yard was no longer the only place Byleth would spot Dimitri. Where before he had been a ghost, present at the edges of her routine but always intangible some way, now he was at least a visible addition to the places Byleth would frequent.
She would pass him in hallways, and even when engaged in conversations with other people, his eye would follow her until she was out of sight. When she went to the stables, climbing to the hayloft to pet cats, sometimes he would be below, murmuring gently to a horse as he fed it treats, and they would listen to each other's sounds, skirting one another's existence like ships passing in the night. There was sometimes tea with Dedue, and on pleasant evenings, walks along the beach in silence.
Once, in the garden, as Byleth sat in the shade and tried to read through a book Mercedes had lent her, Dimitri appeared, an armful of white lilies cradled to his chest. His gaze was vague and away, and he asked if she had seen Mercedes anywhere.
In fact, Mercedes was supposed to spend that afternoon with Byleth, but had been called to her duty as healer, and so she had instead given Byleth a book to entertain herself, along with apologies for having to leave her alone.
Byleth could see from Dimitri's distracted countenance that this explanation was going to pass him by even if she gave it, so instead she grabbed the hem of his cloak and tugged on it to make him sit in the grass next to her. Dimitri lowered himself like a tree being felled: slowly at first, and then dragged down by his own weight. He crossed his legs, and the lilies in his arms fell to his lap instead.
"Do you know how to made a wreath out of these?" Byleth asked.
"I... Mercedes tried to teach me, but I would always snap the stems," he said apologetically.
"She showed me as well," Byleth said. "I don't know if I'm very good at it."
"That is quite alright," Dimitri said, with a tired smile. "I will wait for Mercedes or Annette--"
But Byleth reached over and plucked flowers from Dimitri's lap, inspecting them closely. The stems were stiff and thick, but she had seen how Mercedes weaved them with other flowers or sprigs into a circle. The gardens were replete with supplies: the tree under which Byleth sat had long, trailing branches, thin and flexible enough that they hung in a curtain around the tree's shadow. Easy to work with even for a beginner like her. She didn't know if branches were appropriate for a wreath, but she had heard the tree called a weeping willow, and thought it fitting, at least.
She braided together branches of the willow, along with the lilies, over and over until it began to take shape. Dimitri watched her hands, his own curled to fists as they lay on his knees. The wreath she ended up producing turned out to be more leaves than lilies, and had something of a squashed, oval shape, but Dimitri accepted it as though it were the most precious crown of oysters.
"Thank you," he said, looking more wistful than she had ever seen.
Byleth looked at her hands, now stained with green, and tried to make sense of the heat crawling up the back of her neck.
He rose to his feet, his cloak trailing heavy around him. He was half-turned away, but paused as though remembering something, and his eye found Byleth.
"Do you have anyone you wish to remember from your old life?" he asked.
Byleth was startled by the question; less that the subject had come up, and more because she did not yet fully conceptualize of her life under the sea as her 'old life'. Her father was not dead, and Sothis' voice had followed her out of the waves. There was an unbroken thread between where she'd been and where she was now.
"Yes," she said. "Sometimes."
"Perhaps... you might wish to go to the beach sometimes," he suggested.
She went to the beach often in his company, but he meant differently. Like he was going now, wreath in hand. She hadn't thought of it, and hadn't felt the need on her own, but...
"Maybe," she said. Maybe.
Byleth was only just passing by the library when Annette came bustling out with books stacked so high in her arms that it was doubtful she could see anything in front of her. Before Annette could slam into a decorative statue, Byleth wrapped a hand around her upper arm and adjusted her course.
Unfortunately, this startled Annette enough that she squeaked and dropped all her books.
"I'm sorry," Byleth said, and Annette flapped her hands, agitated.
"Oh, no! No, it's my fault, really!" Annette assured with a nervous laugh. "I should really stop trying to carry so many at a time."
She set to pick up the books, stacking them with quick motions, but Byleth swooped down and piled half the books in her own arms, and Annette gave a sweet smile in response.
"You really don't have to do that," she assured.
"You can see ahead now," Byleth pointed out. With Annette's stack halved, she could indeed see over the top and where she was going.
"You're right!" Annette chirped. "Guess I should be better about asking for help, huh..."
Byleth shrugged. Annette gave another nervous laugh. She was no longer intimidated by Byleth, but there was a lingering awkwardness as Annette did not seem to know how to approach someone so stoic.
For her part, Byleth was not sure how to approach someone like Annette, either. She seemed to burn so much more human, that a life in the cold depths had not prepared Byleth for any of these interactions. But it was hard not to like Annette; she was this tiny, helpful thing, cute like a remora.
Except remora fish were rarely as chatty as Annette. She was in the middle of telling Byleth about some school of sorcery in Fhirdiad.
"Have you ever been to Fhirdiad?" Annette asked.
"No," Byleth replied, and then, because leaving the answer like that felt too harsh, added, "I haven't been much of anywhere in Fodlan."
"Oh, because you're from across the sea?" Annette asked.
Byleth blinked slowly at the question. She wasn't from across the sea, exactly--was that what everyone in the palace thought? Had she given that impression?... Thinking about it, she must have.
"I just haven't been to Fodlan before," Byleth said.
"Well, you'll see a lot more of it when we leave!" Annette offered with a smile. "Once Ingrid returns-- oh, you haven't met Ingrid yet, have you?"
"I haven't met anyone named Ingrid, no," Byleth replied, trying to keep up with the abrupt change of subject.
"Ugh, of course you wouldn't have," Annette said, and if she hadn't been carrying the books, she might've punctuated the comment with the slap of her palm to her forehead. "Everyone was still avoiding you when Ingrid was here last time. But you'll really like her. She's great! She's one of Dimitri's most loyal knights, I'm sure you'd get along!"
"I'm certain you must be right," Byleth said. "What happens when she returns?"
"Um--" This time Annette turned pink in embarrassment. "Actually, I think I wasn't supposed to mention that part. Forget I said anything!"
With that, she turned and ran off down a corridor, leaving Byleth standing by herself, with half of Annette's books still in her arms.
Whether in one month or two, the seasons were bound to change. The seas grew choppier, the winds brisker.
Mercedes wound a warm woolen scarf around Byleth's shoulders one morning, announcing it was Red Wolf Moon, and the weather was only going to get colder from then on.
Byleth took note of that.
'It's very strange,' she said to Sothis, 'but I'm certain it's colder under the sea. Why do I feel it so much worse on land?'
'Humans need the warmth to live,' Sothis replied. 'They can survive without it for a time, but they will never prosper if left out in the cold.'
Byleth accepted this as one of the humans' quirks, but she was not sure how she felt about being dependent on the heat of a fire, or the fiber of a garment in such a way. She pulled the scarf up over her mouth, and breathed out slowly, feeling the damp warmth of her own body heat trapped between the fabric and her skin.
She cut her walk through the garden short, and was halfway to the nearest room with a fireplace when she came across Dimitri by a window. He was lost in thought as he looked to the world beyond the glass pane, even though there was hardly anything to be seen that wasn't whitewashed by the heavy fog.
'Speaking of human warmth,' Sothis chortled in the back of Byleth's head.
Byleth stood transfixed, watching Dimitri's furrowed brow and the way he thumbed at his own chin in thought. She realized, now seeing him distracted, how much his attention was usually focused on her when she was around him: if his gaze was not heavy on her, then the way he looked down and away from her was like the momentary retreat of the wave before it came frothing back onto the shore; inevitable in its return.
But she could watch him now and see, beneath the tousled mess of blond hair, the profile of the prince once again. The face was the same, no matter how much everything else had changed. The man could not have changed so drastically either.
Byleth was jarred out of her reverie as Dimitri shook his head suddenly, like shaking away some troublesome thought. He noticed her then, turning his entire body towards her.
"It is cold today," he remarked, then winced. "Obviously," he muttered to himself, and cleared his throat. "That is to say, I thought perhaps we would not go to the beach today."
"Oh?" Byleth mouthed, feeling disappointment slide cold and hollow in her chest.
"We could spend the time better indoors," Dimitri suggested.
"Oh." A moment passed, in which Dimitri regarded her, waiting for an answer. "Somewhere with a fireplace?" Byleth asked.
A smile cracked across Dimitri's face, and it was like a ray of sunshine bursting through the clouds. Human warmth. Byleth was feeling a bit of that herself.
He offered his hand, instead of his arm. It was not the first time he had done so, but it was usually while helping her over much rougher terrain. Byleth paused to wonder if this was some development she was supposed to understand, some human social cue that required a particular response from her, but even that momentary pause was just long enough to make Dimitri turn pink and embarrassed. She had to grab his hand before he pulled it away, startling even more color into his cheeks.
"I was hoping to show you something," he said, looking deliberately away from her now, his eye following the pattern of the wallpaper along the hall instead. Byleth's fingers were laced with his, more out of her own initiative rather than his own intentions.
"In the library?" she asked, curious to see that was where he was leading her.
"There is a reading room just off the library," he explained, then added with a smile at the corner of his mouth, "with a fireplace."
She hadn't known, but then, as they walked into the library, Dimitri produced a key, and took her to an unassuming door somewhere beyond the bookshelves. Byleth expected some dusty, unused room to be thus hidden, but though it was small, it was cozy and well-tended. A comfortable sofa and two armchairs were circling the glow of a fireplace, already lit and warming the room.
"Please sit," he said.
Byleth perched herself in the armchair nearest the fire, sitting on the edge only to be that much nearer to the warmth.
Dimitri returned to the library briefly; she heard the fall of his footsteps, the sound of a book being wrenched free from its slot on the bookshelf, pages being turned.
Byleth found herself curious, but she waited, and Dimitri soon shuffled back into the room, holding a book gingerly, as though afraid he might reduce it to dust with the slightest exertion of force. Perhaps not an entirely unjustified fear, given what he had mentioned of his youthful mishaps with his inordinate strength. But there seemed to be something more to his shyness as he sat at the end of the sofa, nearest to Byleth's chair.
"I recall the stories you told me of life under the waves, the first time we went to the beach," Dimitri explained, and turned the book towards Byleth. "I... admit I was charmed by them, and I thought I remembered something similar in one of the books here."
True enough, as Byleth's eyes fell to the page, she was met with the beautiful illustration of coral spires that she almost recognized. The outline of the city was rendered with golden ink, against the blue and dark green hues of the landscape. Stylized fish were also drawn in gold, traveling in schools from one end of the page to the other. Opposite the illustration, the written page presented a mage's account of having traveled to the cities of the merfolk. Even the inaccuracies of the text seemed more like honest misinterpretation, and so Byleth was persuaded that the account had to be real.
She turned the page to the rendering of a throne, and the green-haired mermaid sleeping in it had more seashells in her hair than any other merfolk was likely to see in their lifetime.
"Was it in a book like this that you read about it?" Dimitri asked.
Byleth raised her eyes to look at him. She couldn't lie, and she didn't know how to begin to explain the truth.
"No," she said simply.
Dimitri waited for a beat, for two--when she did not elaborate, he opened his mouth, but she never heard the question he intended to ask.
A knock at the door made the both of them flinch.
It was a servant coming to notify Dimitri that Ingrid was back.
There was a cluster of people in the front courtyard, and as far as Byleth could tell, they were gathered around a winged horse. The white wings stretched upwards, and the horse nickered. The group loosened outward, giving the creature more space, but as Dimitri came down the steps, they also moved out of the way to let him pass. Byleth followed in his wake, passing by Ashe and Dedue, by Mercedes and Annette. To the forefront were Felix and Sylvain, the former holding one the reins of the winged horse.
The blonde woman talking to Sylvain turned on her heel at Dimitri's approach, and gave a formal bow.
"Your Majesty," she said somberly.
"Enough of that," Dimitri waved off with a smile. "I am glad to see you back safe, Ingrid. You didn't have to fly through this fog."
"I thought you might want this as soon as possible," Ingrid replied, passing to Dimitri a rolled up parchment with a yellow wax seal. "And the fog was no problem, I assure you." She did not quite preen, but she did take pride in her own skill.
Dimitri's attention fell to the missive immediately, and almost at the same moment, Ingrid's eyes shifted to Byleth. Something like surprise flashed in her eyes, before it was drawn back into cautious curiosity.
"Hello," Ingrid said. "I don't believe we've met."
"Byleth," she introduced herself. "And you are Ingrid."
"That's right," Ingrid replied, raising an eyebrow.
They looked each other over like wary cats eying one another across the courtyard. Ingrid, because she had not been present here for Byleth's stay, had not yet learned what to make of Byleth.
And Byleth, recalling Annette's remark about how Ingrid returning meant everybody else leaving, could not help but be leery as well.
Dimitri had finished the reading the missive, and as he raised his head and looked over his assembled friends, a hush of anticipation fell over them.
"We are going to Derdriu," he declared.
Collectively, a long-held breath seemed to escape the group; less relief than the assurance that a long wait had come to an end.
“So I shall die,” said the little mermaid, “and as the foam of the sea I shall be driven about never again to hear the music of the waves, or to see the pretty flowers nor the red sun. Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”
--"The Little Mermaid"
The nature of Byleth's regret was such that, despite the fact that her choices would not have been different, she found herself wishing she'd lingered over her decision more when she had been at that first crossroads.
It had seemed, at the time, that she had been steeping in her desire to see Dimitri again for years, and when Sothis offered her the means to do so, Byleth could not very well turn it down.
But if she had taken the time to consider-- if she had taken the time to hesitate, maybe it would have occurred to her to say something to her father: ask for his blessing, or take her farewells. Either possibility would have soothed her more now, that she was at yet another crossroads.
She wished for nothing so much as to follow Dimitri wherever he went. The map in the library, helpfully hanging on the wall with the legend helpfully showing which color corresponded to each country, also showed Derdriu at the opposite end of the continent. If Dimitri was going there, then Byleth would follow. Whatever it took, she would follow.
Yet she still found herself at the beach, the flower crown of wilted dandelions in her hands hanging heavier than was justified.
The sea thrashed mercilessly against the shore. She had always considered it an indifferent beast, as invisible to her as the air was to humans, yet now Byleth could understand it being described as angry. The storms were not far off.
If it was cowardice that she could not approach the waves, it was not a feeling Byleth could master just yet. Her chest was hollow, but her feet were leaden. She stood on the beach unmoving for a long time before Dedue found her.
"We are to leave soon," Dedue said, standing next to Byleth and looking in the same direction. "If His Majesty is not persuaded to your value as his retainer, you may yet come along as part of his retinue. It would be no burden, with all the companions he is already taking."
"I would go either way," she said.
"Even if he told you to stay?"
Dedue did not quite smile, and he did not say anything, but Byleth saw from the corner of her eye how he looked down.
"This is something His Majesty struggles with as well," Dedue remarked quietly. It felt disconnected from the previous subject, and so Byleth looked to Dedue in question. He gestured to the flower crown in her hands. "He has difficulty asking for help. You need not follow in his example. Have we not given you aid even unasked?"
"And it's a debt I may never manage to pay back," Byleth said.
"Regardless, aid must be rendered," Dedue replied. Gently, he took the flower crown from her hands. "Into the waves?"
"...Thank you, Dedue."
"Thanks are not necessary," he said. And though his face was chiseled stone most of the time, there was yet something soft in it as he told her this.
Byleth had grown used to a life wandering about from place to place. But that had been before, when she and Jeralt could travel the sea floor from end to end with nothing but the swords strapped to their back, and make a good living of it. Possessions were transitory things to the merfolk: even the seashells braided into their hair could be lost by whims of fate. Status was what the merfolk preferred to hoard.
Yet, being human seemed to be nothing but a life spent in accumulation of accoutrements: clothing to shield the body from cold or injury, brushes and soaps and varied implements for its upkeep, trinkets to keep it well-adorned...
All these things Byleth had acquired over her stay at the summer palace, but so easily they had been given that she did not know which she ought to take along and which were replaceable.
Nobody had taught her to pack a bag.
She stared at the trunk before her, provided so that she may pack her possession, and froze in the face of its emptiness. Would everything fit? Would the items need to be arranged a certain way? What did she need to take?
'Calm yourself!' Sothis chided. 'This really is nothing to get yourself all puffed up over. You can ask someone for advice, you know. Try the tiny red one! She seems helpful.'
Byleth would have, but she suspected Annette was just as overwhelmed by the task as she was. She had seen Annette rushing between the library and her room with an armful of books, with a panicked chant of 'oh no oh no oh no' under her breath. That probably boded ill of her preparations for the upcoming journey.
But Byleth could see the wisdom in asking someone else for advice, so she left the disarray of her room to go to Mercedes'.
The palace halls seemed more full than ever, with the servants being pulled into the preparations for the road as much as the palace guests, if not moreso. There was no sense of chaos to the agitation, but more like a school of fish in motion, coordinated in all their turns.
When Byleth arrived to Mercedes' room, the door was open, and Byleth stopped in the threshold to realize that perhaps this was not the best place to come for advice. If Byleth had made a mess of her own possessions, at least it was because she did not know any better.
She had no idea how to explain the fact that Mercedes' room seemed to have undergone some kind of minor explosion.
"Oh, you startled me!" Mercedes declared, twisting around from where she was digging through a drawer. She turned with a stack of stockings in her arms, though Byleth was more distracted by another pair of stockings hanging over a nearby lamp, dangerously close to igniting.
"I just wanted to ask something," Byleth said, "but I'm sorry to bother you."
"It's no bother at all!" Mercedes rushed to assure her. "I-- oh, pardon the mess," she added, with a little wince. "I'm always a bit of a disaster when I'm trying to pack. I hope you are doing better. What did you want to ask?"
"I... Should I... be packing something in particular?" Byleth said carefully, now distracted by a small cluster of hairbrushes on Mercedes' end table.
"Nothing special, I don't think," Mercedes replied with a smile. "The weather in Deirdriu will be mild even for winter, but we'll be travelling through less hospitable lands. I would suggest packing anything light on the bottom, and anything you'll be changing into on top. Other than that, I suppose it's just the ordinary things..."
Thankfully, Mercedes went on to ennumerate the ordinary things for the road, rambling on as she packed her own trunk. Byleth offered to help with this task, if only to get a better look at how it was done, but after they were done, and Mercedes swung the lid closed on her trunk with a deep sigh, the mood turned bittersweet.
"I'll miss this place," she said. "Dimitri seemed at peace, at least for a while."
Byleth did not know how to reply to that; peace was not what she would have named his state that first time she saw him on the beach. But Dimitri's torments seemed quiet and self-contained, and perhaps that was not usually the case for him. Out of sight and out of mind.
"I suppose I will miss this place too," Byleth said.
Mercedes smiled, but it seemed a very particular smile meant to convey something that Byleth did not quite catch.
They departed at dawn.
Byleth, as she did not know to ride a horse, was relegated to a carriage. She was not terribly pleased about this, but she also did not like the empty-soul gazes of the horses either, or their disturbingly square teeth, so she had no real grounds for protest. Dimitri, who did like horses, rode up front and cheerfully enough at the beginning of the journey. Because the weather held for two days before the downpours started.
Drenched and with his cloak smelling like wet fur, Dimitri ended up in the same carriage as Byleth when Dedue insisted it was undignified of a king to be pelted with rain all day.
His hair was wet, and stuck to his forehead even as he shook his head, so he raked it back.
Byleth felt the phantom pain of a heartbeat--her pulse quickened as she remembered what he looked like laid out on a beach and unconscious. Her lips remembered the taste of drying salt as she kissed along his brow. It was a curious ache, and she couldn't tell if she was pained or pleased by the memory.
"Are you well?" Dimitri asked, his hair piled haphazardly on one side, while the strings of his eyepatch kept it plastered to his side on the other.
"Are you?" Byleth asked, not knowing what would make him think she was unwell.
He, on the other hand, was crowded at the very end of the bench across from her, at the farthest point from her possible while still being inside the carriage. His face tinged red as he looked away.
"I am fine," he said. "Quite well. Quite--" He cut off, cleared his throat, continued to avoid her gaze. "I am sorry to intrude."
"Is this not your carriage?" Byleth asked carefully, because she had concluded previously that it had to be.
"It is, but I do not regularly use it," he said, and his gaze darted about the interior, refusing to settle on anything. "You would have been free to have it to yourself for the entirety of the journey if it hadn't started raining."
"It was lonelier before you," Byleth said quietly, and realized with a start that it was true.
Had she ever cared for someone before Dimitri? Only her father, and he had been a fixture in her life since her spawning, so he had never felt as anything less than an extension of herself.
Dimitri was... someone so other than herself. A light she followed out of her comfort zone. Something warm when warmth was yet unfamiliar. She felt him in every limb, and she wondered if this was what Sothis meant about loving someone even without a heart.
"Then," Dimitri said carefully, "I will be honored to keep you company."
And then he smiled, and there was that warmth again.