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The imperial throne room, unusually empty of supplicators for the hour, echoed with the satisfying ring of Hubert's boot heels. He heard the slide of the bolt lock the grand double doors behind him. He’d recognized the hunger in the eyes of the guardsman as he let Hubert in. Jealousy. A jackal’s scheming.

Metodey, that was the man's name. Metodey had always had the jackal's look about him; first in line to swear fealty, he had partaken of Her Majesty's blood with distasteful exuberance. Now in the eager line of his coiled stance it seemed he was more jackal than man. They would have to have him replaced soon.

Hubert pushed the thought aside as he approached the throne. To either side of him, shallow channels were etched into the black stone of the throne room. The emperor’s blood trickled through them, bright and crimson against the black, echoing the deep red of the eagle-rampant tapestries which lined the walls. He could smell the warmth; he could almost taste the copper spice in the scent, the way it would burn his throat and chest, the way a fine liquor or strong black coffee would. It took the entirety of his will to not prostrate himself and lap at her blood the way he’d seen so many of the nobles and guardsman do. Like starving dogs.

Edelgard would forgive him the lapse. The sin was not that he had done what she expressly forbade him to. Willfully placing himself under the geas of her blood was just one of many of the measured actions she disapproved of which he had taken in the name of protecting her.

No, it was that he had seen the late stages of the sickness her blood induced in the weak-willed Crested-- hallucinations, obsession, neglect of self and duties in favor of licking every drop of crimson from the flagstone. The effects on the Crestless, like himself, were … worse. At its most extreme, monstrous. Yet it was easy-- it warmed him, even-- to envision himself curled at her side, his mouth pressed to her wrist, taking everything that she would give him. She would love him still, even as his eyes blacked and his hands curled to claws. And he would be far less than deserving. He would be everything they had worked to eradicate.

He knelt before her obsidian throne, glimmering and sharp even in the dim torchlight of the grand hall. Light was hard on her sight, now. The wound in his side twinged— not as painful as it looked, merely a momentary talisman of carelessness. Shedding blood, he mused, with a thin, grim smile, no longer meant as much as it used to.

“Hubert.” She sounded so tired. “Stand up. You’re bleeding.”

He raised his head, but did not stand. Edelgard draped listlessly in the throne, her silver hair undone and cascading over her red robes, her violet eyes all the more striking for the shadows under them. The horns of the throne, cyclopian bone sawn from the skull of a monster, framed her. Even while she watched him, even while she spoke, she didn’t move. Blood dripped from her open wrists, the eternal wounds, into grooves in the arms of the throne, running down together into the channels in the floor. Troughs for noble dogs to abase themselves at.

What was a small puncture in comparison to the unclosing stigmata she bore? That he had aided her in inflicting upon herself?

Hubert bowed his head again. “An astute observation, Your Majesty. But nothing you need concern yourself with.”

“It isn’t yours to shed.”

He winced.

“Stand up and come to me.”

He obeyed. Edelgard tilted her head to watch him approach, and held her hand out to him. He took it, gently, and kissed her pale fingers. They were cold against his lips. The faint drip of the blood-- he pushed it out of his mind.

"Let me see the wound."

"It's nothing."

"It wasn't a request, Hubert. Blood's leaking through your armor. Don't tell me it's nothing." Her voice was ice. She took Hubert's wrist and pulled his palm down, to rest on her thigh; he knelt again, so that her gaze was level with his.

"It's… ah." Even through the thick fabric, the firmness of her thigh, the grip of her fingers around his wrist, her strength undiminished by the exhaustion, made his face flush. He cleared his throat, and continued. "It's merely a graze from the skirmish. House Rusalka's last dissenters have been put down. We lost no soldiers. This arrow scratch along my side has been cleaned and bandaged, Your Majesty. Nothing was severed. There's nothing more to be done for it. When I've concluded my report I will retire to rest."

Edelgard's gaze searched his body, finally settling on his face. After a long moment, a studious moment, she sighed. An odd expression-- loneliness?-- lingered in her eyes.

"You're incorrigible."

More matter-of-fact than accusation. He chuckled throatily. "Well. That's been true for a long time."

She leaned forward, hesitated. Her legs parted slightly, under his palm, and she slid his hand steadily along her thigh.

"As long as you rest," she murmured, and shifted up, and kissed him, first gently, then tugging at his lip with her teeth. Her other hand wandered up to the back of his head, pulling him towards her. Her breathing quickened, her pulse-- a wetness slid down his scalp, and he shivered as though she had touched him much more deeply. In response she tightened her grip, twining her fingers into his thick hair, kissing him again, more fervently, tilting his head to reach the arch of his jaw, his neck. Her thoroughness, her soft mouth and the nip of her teeth, her breath on his prickling skin made his knees weak, and he was glad he was already kneeling. It took only the space of that breath for him to strip off and discard his gloves to the floor.

“Your Majesty—“ he managed, breathless, when she pulled back for a moment. She brushed his lips with her thumb. He could taste the copper sting on her skin, and the lavender he bathed her in. He closed his eyes, savoring the touch, the smell, the taste, her fingernails gently scraping his scalp. Even the wound in his side was a distant, pleasant throb, not so dissimilar from how his hips ached and he strained against the crotch of his trousers.

The rustle of fabric let him know she had readjusted her skirts. Through half-lidded eyes he helped her pull the layers open, hike down her underclothes to bare her pallid thighs. He kissed her, trailing along the inside of her legs, skin soft against his mouth. Her hand ran down to his neck. She was already breathing with the soft little noises of pleasure, her head tipped back, her eyes nearly closed but her lilac gaze fixed on him. She was already wet, and twitched and gasped when he grazed her clitoris.

She tasted sweet, sweetness and salt. He lost himself in her, exploring her -- he knew her so well that every move, every shift of tension with his fingers or lips or tongue, told him when to push deeper and how to draw her out, slowly or roughly or teasing or sucking until she had her legs locked around his shoulders. She was writhing under him, urgent throaty gasps and mewls, her hands dug so tightly into his hair that it hurt, grinding against his face and his hands and shoulders until a shudder seized her body and she fell limp against her throne.

He rested his head against her leg, to even his own aching breaths. Edelgard's fingers trailed from his hair to his face and rested there, her other hand still entwined in his hair. She gazed down at him; her breast rose and fell with a measured satisfaction.

In her dilated eyes he saw such gratitude-- gratitude, compassion, devotion. A devotion that asked nothing more of him than he would give. Grief sharp as a blade lanced through him. Gently, Hubert untangled her hand from his hair.

"If you'll excuse me, Your Majesty," he murmured. Her eyes narrowed, slightly; not entirely displeasure. Perhaps concern. He would have preferred the former.

"You may be excused," she said, and straightened her posture. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, streaking the blood from her wrists across his nose and face, and helped her arrange her clothes to cover the disarray they had both caused. His gloves, he delicately picked from the black marble and folded into a pocket. They were white. It wouldn't do to get blood on them. Edelgard watched him; the concern did not abate. "But, Hubert--"

What she had been about to say, something about the dark mood he bore stopped her, and she sighed. "...return on the change of the day, to help me into evening wear."

"Of course, Your Majesty." He bowed, stiffly, and strode to the doors. He did not look back. To see her watching him leave would twist the knife that much deeper.

Her blood was already drying over his cloak and face, and he could feel the hair on the side of his head stiffening with it. Now that he was standing, and Edelgard wasn't so close, the meaty charnelhouse smell was overwhelming. Devotion and slaughter. He looked like any of the other noble jackals, smeared with carelessness, drunk with closeness to Edelgard, drunk on the magic her body filtered into their wine.

He could still partake-- he could wipe her blood off his mouth and lick it from his fingers, but he would not. He would inhale it, remember her touch, her quiet gasps, as he finished himself off, alone, but of her. No, he wasn't worthy.

What good did his devotion do-- what good even bringing her a moment's respite, the space of a heartbeat of pleasure-- when he had agreed and aided her, when he had helped her drink down the dragon's marrow, to bring out this potential in her? This curse, this immortality, this control.

The nobility fed on each other; they turned their attention only inward, and with her life-blood they could grant power, they could take it. No one who drank could lift a hand against Edelgard. She was safe. Undying. It was their perfect Empire.

It gouged his heart deeper than any wound.