If there are scales, the pans don’t move.
If there is justice, this is it.
To die just as required, without excess.
To grow back just what’s needed from what’s left.
Imperial Year 1182
“There you are, Hubert.”
The tread of his boots, trained for silence and now forcefully creating noise—what a world, that Ferdinand should now need to think footsteps stilted, even hesitant. Still, it is the acrid aura of so many burnt coffee beans that truly announces the man. A wonder he manages to sneak up on anyone from the shadows at all.
“Rude as always to keep me waiting so!” Ferdinand has no right to laugh about stilted footsteps, when it is his own words that tumble into each other, wrong-footed. He keeps his face turned to the window, sun framed for his basking pleasure. Soon the spring will roll into summer, and all his careful judgments of time from the light in his window will be for naught. Ah, well. A new season to learn. “Have you brought my marching orders at long last?”
“Your marching orders,” Hubert repeats dully.
The floorboards creak, but there is no matching scrape of the chair legs, so he must still be standing. Looming. A pity it no longer works on Ferdinand.
“Yes,” he smiles to the sun. “I cannot impose upon you forever. The army needs its beds. Whatever you bring me as my final command, I welcome it. A veterans’ hospital, perhaps? I shall sing to my fellows there and lift their spirits.”
“If you are truly so eager to be rid of us,” Hubert begins, and his voice rasps like sandpaper on Ferdinand’s skin, brutally carving away the scant layers of his hasty armor.
Ferdinand turns to him—he hopes—and allows anger to draw his eyes achingly wide. “I am eager not to be a burden,” he snaps with all the tension of a tightrope walker. “And you will not twist that into faithlessness.”
Not a sound for a long moment. He scarcely hears Hubert’s breathing, and he wonders what sour, prickly grimace twists the man’s face.
Hubert clears his throat. “I merely question why a man of such unimpeachable devotion should be so eager to withdraw.”
Ferdinand turns back to the window. He has prayed every day now that the raging heat may swallow him like kindling, sacrifice his husk for some greater cause. If he is eager for anything, it is that. “What would you have me do?” he asks instead of screams, hatred quaking in his breast, and forces an immovable smile. “Hurl myself into the fray like a happy fool? Ride my horse off a cliff? Have you want of a court jester for target practice? Need you another body to bleed?”
“A boost to morale would not go unappreciated after the damage your meaningless sulking has wrought.” Hubert sighs in that special way that declares everyone around him an insufferable waste of space. “For the army’s foremost optimist to commit himself to irrelevance is a damning blow.”
“Ah, Ferdinand.” That smile like a blade carving into his throat. He can see it perfectly even now. “Do you truly think impotent commands will move me?”
“Do you truly think halfhearted baiting will move me?” Ferdinand parrots with a sneer. Even so, it is a lovely thought—to lash out, embrace his rage, grab for Hubert’s collar and drag his nails down that pallid cheek as he fumbles for his prize. The sickroom has not made him an invalid, has not sapped the strength from his limbs just yet.
The chair squeals beneath a sudden weight, and Ferdinand startles at the feel of a hand on his sleeve. He scowls, miserable. “I do not need your direction. If I wished to look at you, I would.”
And he does a second later, because Hubert laughs, a strange voiceless rasp.
“I have a proposition for you,” Hubert says, and he sounds so very unlike himself that Ferdinand leans nearer, stricken with concern. “We’ve discussed it thoroughly. All parties are in agreement. You are the only remaining question.”
“Wonderful. You require some manner of figurehead, and who better to play the part than—”
“What I require is someone who will stand at Her Majesty’s side when I cannot. Who will be overlooked and underestimated and have the surety of will to weather every slight directed his way, knowing that it serves a higher purpose. Someone so perfectly unsuitable—”
“A tool,” Ferdinand concludes, unsurprised. “That is scarcely better than a figurehead. I decline.”
Hubert reaches out and tips Ferdinand’s chin to the side, redirecting his empty gaze. He wonders what Hubert finds there. “Did you not always wish to be Her Majesty’s adviser? More valuable, more trusted than any other?”
“She already has that in you.”
“I am not enough.”
Ferdinand cannot be hearing him properly, and his expression must say as much, for Hubert bestows that empty chuckle upon him once more.
“This is not a sop for your pride. You would suffer. But Her Majesty and I require someone we can trust.” The reluctance in that word like molasses in Hubert’s throat.
“And in exchange?”
Hubert has only to move his fingers a few inches south, and he will feel the pulse tumbling wild at Ferdinand’s throat. He drops them instead, that remaining tether releasing Ferdinand into free fall, and Ferdinand wonders what shape such trust would take. “Is imperial favor not enough for you?”
“Of course not,” Ferdinand laughs. “Trusting you will be a particularly miserable trial. Here, give me an offer. Prove you know me well enough that this has a hope of working.”
A simple question, really: for what would Ferdinand suffer? How grand a prize must he strive for?
He expects a mile-long list of sarcastic honors to cut him back down to size for such an obstinate question. Instead, Hubert falls quiet in actual consideration.
“Nothing,” Hubert says at last. “Save the freedom for an afternoon ride now and again. I will guarantee it.”
Ferdinand tilts his head, and if he quiets his thoughts in full, he thinks he can feel the full weight of Hubert’s gaze upon him, intensity and loyalty and outright desperation in painful measure. “You need this,” he says in wonder. “It is not that you need someone you can learn to trust. You need someone you already do.”
A soldier can be wasted, a life, a future. But trust is an asset too dear.
“I know your measure.”
“Even now?” Ferdinand cannot help but ask, wincing at that shameless, desolate strain.
Hubert leans in, though Ferdinand cannot tell where, will not embarrass himself by reaching out a hand. Close enough for Ferdinand’s skin to burn, for him to smell not only the dark roast but the blood and iron beneath, the richness of a blade handled too long by sweat-slick skin. He turns his face, searching intuitively for that elusive warmth. And then Hubert’s voice low at his ear, just out of reach. “Strive to surprise me.”
Imperial Year 1183
“His personal, if you would.” Ferdinand’s hand hovers over the teapot, close enough to judge the temperature without scalding his skin. Another minute or two yet.
“Von Riegan broke that one months ago,” Fleche grumbles. A gentle rustle of pages as she reaches for the appropriate book and rearranges the desk.
It is far more likely that von Riegan composed the cipher for Gloucester’s personal use in the first place, considering it uses a book of foreign poetry as its base, but Ferdinand will leave that for her to discover. “They each have their own flavor,” he answers mildly. This one in particular reminds him of Almyran wildflowers and rich milk tea, the romance of an autumn ride.
“Let me know once you finish embellishing the header.”
It would be a grave error to send Gloucester any letter unworthy of him. And it will, of course, pass under von Riegan’s rolling eyes as well. If the laughably heavy touch ignites their bickering anew, then that will be a gift of its own.
While Ferdinand allows his secretary a solid five minutes to curl her pen into the appropriate acrobatics, he pours himself a cup of tea with polished muscle memory. If nothing else he can still perform a full ceremony as long as no one else moves the cups.
“My dear Lord Gloucester. How to express my gratitude for your last letter? As dear to me as hyacinths to the breeze, to the sun in all his glories.”
Et Hyacinthus premiered in Derdriu a week earlier to paltry acclaim and notorious scandal when the city guard arrested a background nymph for ferrying contraband across the border. A well-played trick all around: the Kingdom received new propaganda to salivate over, Gloucester got a few trinkets from Enbarr, and von Riegan a valuable asset in the turncoat cleric veiled under so many roses.
It is merely one more act in a work of many months. The majority of imperial correspondence now crosses Ferdinand’s desk, much to Edelgard’s relief, and though diplomacy is an art easily learned and hardly mastered, his deft touch serves them all better than Hubert’s attempts to grab friend and foe alike by the throat. This is the busy work that will lose the war if not properly attended; this is Ferdinand’s use. He writes to many of their former classmates now trapped across enemy lines as well—nothing of value, nothing that has not already been confirmed by their spies, but enough to still consider Mercedes a friend, to ensure Galatea has access to the necessary merchants to survive the winter, delaying a proposed blockade until spring.
He is weak. So be it.
They call it weakness that Gloucester followed his heart back to the Alliance—defection, they said, before Ferdinand worked a desperate favor and had the commission rescinded. Ferdinand writes to him, and the imperial spies whisper about his loyalties, as they should.
It has taken a long, long year to endear Edelgard to the idea, but if Ferdinand can pull off a reliable ceasefire with the Alliance, a working relationship based on mutual goals—and all that rot, as Hubert snarled—then Derdriu need never fall at all.
The odds are painfully slim. Still, Ferdinand has time enough to nourish every possibility. Von Riegan appears amenable enough to his overtures, and even if that good faith proves to be little more than a trickster’s front, Ferdinand loses nothing in the attempt. As Fleche has warned, and tutted, and sighed time and again, the egg will be on his face alone. He’ll wear it proudly.
Today’s letter is routine: an opening reminder of their latest cooperation, then a hedge maze of pleasantries carefully planted around updates on the political movements of the senior Gloucester, ostensibly the Empire’s ally though his head is destined for the platter. Lorenz is far more suitable a contact, with or without his current loyalty, and there is always something to be said for the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But the day is long, and even Ferdinand tires of running his mouth eventually, so he laces his fingers together in his lap and launches into a long stream of poetic nonsense for dictation, counting how many alliterative devices he can make Fleche’s pen dance around before she drops it back into the inkwell in disgust.
“Someone’s bored.” The crack of unhappy joints.
Ferdinand hums in agreement, idly tracing his finger along the raised gilding of the tea tray. “Your pen was scratching. Eyes or hands?”
“Bad light today,” she says. “The oil ration ran out on Monday, and you know how the candles are.”
“Too precious for a blind man,” Ferdinand intones in grave parody of the quartermaster’s tone. To most of the army, he is nothing more than Fleche’s doddering tutor, pensioned off and too arrogant to leave the field. What need has he of supplies? He makes a mental note to barter for another two boxes at the evening’s war table. “Well. We cannot be expected to work in such straits. Care for a stroll?”
She huffs fondly, indulgence in her tone as she fusses with straightening his coat and tying back his hair into a loose tail. Ferdinand has a valet for all such things, of course, but from the moment he leaves his quarters in the morning to the moment he locks his door at night, Fleche considers him to be her responsibility.
Not as a child, she assured him the first time she reached to retie his cravat and he recoiled in panic, blathering about the impropriety of an unwed noblewoman dressing him. It is an instinct much simpler: she cared for her youngest nieces and nephews all her life. The habit brings her some measure of stability, and Ferdinand has learned to appreciate how well she keeps his immaculate appearance up to snuff. They may not be family, but when she tucks the perfect curl behind his ear and announces him fit for a bit of sunlight, he often thinks Fleche is the closest he will ever have, now.
They walk side by side in easy harmony as they wind their way free of the main building’s walls. Out under the sun and the gaze of the soldiers, however, Fleche tucks herself against him, clutching at his arm like a nervous debutante escorted to her first ball, visibly frazzled by the thought of leading him astray. Appearances are everything in this game, and Ferdinand trails helplessly in her wake as they play their well-worn parts.
All it takes is one loop around the monastery from barracks to market, and Ferdinand will have all the day’s gossip in hand, along with deeper insight into the troops’ morale than stiff-necked Hubert or the Emperor could ever manage. The more pitiful the man, the looser the tongues. No one even bothers to whisper.
My pay was two days late, but those damn brigands got theirs on time.
Did you read the new Kingdom pamphlet? I’d call it slander, but…
Caught him with counterfeits again. He’ll be thrown out of the merchant’s guild at this rate.
They do not pass the stables. They never do.
Instead, they settle among the shaded columns of the training grounds and take in the raucous spectacle of the men at work. Ferdinand’s vacant gaze sweeps the field—Dorothea has told him often how mournful he looks, how jealous and pining, and it is a comfort to think it a stage trick instead of a truth. Some of his former men stop by with empty greetings and bland platitudes, and he chatters aimlessly about armor he will never wear again, weapons he will never wield, while Fleche goes to hail her brother.
Bored, Ferdinand’s fingers scrape against the brickwork beneath him, circling in intricate loops that catch against his worn gloves. “Varley steel provides the highest grade of sabatons. I would begin your search there,” he explains to a junior lancer. It is common knowledge. They only ever ask him simple questions, as if the accident burned all the sense out of his mind as well.
The soldiers do not answer, the air gone stiff and sharp, and a moment later they snap to rigid attention in a clatter of armor. Ferdinand looks over his shoulder with a relieved smile.
“Von Aegir.” Hubert must be wearing one of his murderous scowls, miasma made manifest, for the soldiers hastily make their excuses. “A word.”
“If you intend to kidnap me, do alert Fleche first.”
A pause, and then footsteps away. Ferdinand absolutely does not laugh as he pushes to his feet and waits patiently for that heavy tread to return. He holds out an arm, which Hubert does not take, preferring instead to grasp Ferdinand’s sleeve and haul him into the shadows. The freezing cut of a warp spell hits a moment later.
All the tension seeps from Ferdinand’s weary frame once he breathes in the stale, familiar air of Hubert’s quarters. For all the tricks and traps of this sanctum, there is no game here—not that either will ever admit as much—and Ferdinand strolls forward and settles into his usual armchair like a cat by the fireplace, languid and vigilant in equal measure.
“News from the front?” Ferdinand asks as he plucks a glass from the side table, dangling it in front of him for Hubert to fill. If the champagne flutes are any indication, they are not taking their regular tea today.
“A trifling matter,” Hubert drawls, though his voice is soft as feather down, and Ferdinand longs to fall into it.
Exhaustion, not fondness, Ferdinand reminds himself forcefully. If Hubert drops his carefully calculated facade of brutal antipathy, it is only because he recognizes such performance as a pointless endeavor. It has nothing to do with Ferdinand in particular.
Hubert takes the glass and pours. He does not offer it back. “I will have words with the quartermaster regarding your candles.”
“Surely you did not bring me here to discuss candles!” Ferdinand laughs, still waiting for his glass.
That word, in that particular clipped tone, gives Ferdinand pause. Hubert reserves it for their grueling spacial memory training, that particularly dreadful game formerly known as chess, on the rare occasions Ferdinand manages to convincingly bluff his way past Hubert’s sleight of hand. Here, too, there is a trick.
The candles are a constant struggle, but he and Fleche had only discussed it this morning while Ferdinand was—
“You heard me?” Ferdinand nearly leaps from the chair, a tremor of surprise jittering through him. No wonder Hubert had not returned the glass! “In truth? It worked?”
“For a week now. You’re an accomplished gadfly.”
“It worked,” Ferdinand repeats softly. Shock bubbles over into joy, and when Hubert tries to slip the glass of celebratory champagne between his lax fingers, Ferdinand clutches at his hand.
Ten long months of tracing the same blighted sigil hundreds of times each day, first following the grooves in a wooden board Hubert carved for their purpose, then replicating each element in isolation at Hubert’s command, and finally collapsing it to minuscule size and laying it everywhere, praying that the magic would finally, finally take.
The theory behind it is nothing they ever learned in class. Surveillance spells abound in Hubert’s line of work, but this one in particular belongs to an age well before sorcery academies and thriving mage corps. Nowadays most sigils are cast and imbued simultaneously with a burst of faith or reason magic, readily apparent to any mage worth his salt, and it is the careful placement or obfuscation that matters most. No such mundane parlor tricks for Ferdinand. The sigil that loops and whirls in Ferdinand’s dreams relies on his crest instead, something closer to bone and blood than reason and faith, which renders it completely indistinguishable from his own person. Untraceable, unanticipated, and delivered in the form of a smiling, dim-eyed secretary, the sigil traps all that Ferdinand hears and funnels it straight to Hubert’s ear no matter the distance.
Getting Hubert to listen to anything Ferdinand says when they are face to face is trial enough; Ferdinand had begun to think the plan impossible, or worse, only a farce to occupy him while Hubert pursued better options. The more adept Ferdinand proves himself as an imperial letter opener, the more he fears a life of dictating diplomatic missives is all that remains for him.
A second champagne flute clinks into his, the sweet chime drawing Ferdinand back.
“To your diligence,” Hubert toasts dryly, for they both know there is no complimenting Ferdinand’s rudimentary magic abilities quite yet.
Ferdinand raises his glass and tips it slowly to his lips. A hint of peach lingers after his first sip, too delicate for Hubert’s usual fare. Not reward but appetizer. “Continued diligence, I take it?”
That only gets him a distracted hum, though there is no rustle of paperwork, so it is not as though Hubert has gifted his attention elsewhere. With a roll of his eyes, Ferdinand accepts the mandated celebration and savors the rest of his glass. It is strange to share a comfortable silence with this man, and he drinks it in gladly.
“There is another sigil,” Hubert finally says. “A tracking device.”
Ferdinand stills, the corners of his lips tightening.
Where once Hubert may have held up a hand to stall Ferdinand’s nearing burst of complaints—he is no lost child!—now he merely touches Ferdinand’s knee in silent request for patience. “But for now, it’s high time we bring you to his attention.”
“Minor crest of Cichol, if I recall?”
Arundel’s voice is smooth and rancid as month-old butter, and Ferdinand feels the slight shift of wind as the man waves his fingers in front of Ferdinand’s face.
“Yes.” Edelgard’s hand settles on the small of Ferdinand’s back, a comforting brace of steel. “A pity about the—well, you know—but an improvement in every other way.”
A dark chuckle of approval. “As long as this one knows his place.”
Ferdinand forces a twinge of confusion into his brow, face still frozen in vapid cheer, as his fingers twitch a sigil’s shape against his thigh. His friends have not told him everything about this man, Edelgard’s uncle, who once worked alongside their fathers to write those unspeakable evils. Some things it is safer for him not to know. But Ferdinand can feel the fear thrumming in their words whenever they speak of Arundel, the dread silences and gaps between thoughts, and standing now with Edelgard’s fingers trembling against him, he knows all he ever needs to.
You are your father’s son, Hubert had warned him. Arundel will see only another tool for his use. Allow him to do so.
“A pleasure, my lord, to finally meet you,” Ferdinand chirps, reaching out for a handshake in the wrong direction.
Arundel sweeps it up indulgently, then jerks him roughly back in line like any uncle with a young charge in need of correction. When he speaks, it is to Edelgard. “Shall we sit?”
Thus begins the most uncomfortable tea service of Ferdinand’s life. No one pours for him, and the pot has gone to ruin by the time a servant thinks to scurry over. This is a business negotiation, the kind his father once conducted, peerless etiquette twisted into a brutal game of cards where the hand is all that matters, and Edelgard’s cards will never be enough. It reminds him of a fairytale, of Little Red sipping her bergamot across the table from the monstrous Wolf, an infernal beast that paces the walls and waits to devour every sliver of weakness it can bleed from their blockade. No wonder Hubert cauterized his heart and stepped between Edelgard and this smiling monster for all his life.
Now there is only Ferdinand, a flimsy piece of set dressing, to maintain the blockade.
Edelgard plays her part to perfection. Frustrated allusions to her feigned feud with Hubert, her answers as clipped and coldly conciliatory as they have ever been. Today is a test run: will Arundel notice the sigilwork? Will his behavior change without Hubert’s presence?
No and no, as far as Ferdinand can tell. It twists in his stomach all the same. The tension of the room, the way Edelgard’s voice sounds so very, very different when she faces her monsters without Hubert at her side, a cold, dead thing. He—the Ferdinand he must pretend to be—would not notice such things, would not touch his knuckles to the side of her knee, pleading for her to understand his support.
She does not move away, and on the conversation goes.
The over-steeped tea settles acrid and heavy on Ferdinand’s tongue. He does not ask for sugar, even if it would certainly sell his helplessness. The truth of it already sits thick upon his heart.
In the end the pleasantries are so sickly sweet that Ferdinand is glad of the bitterness. He and Edelgard do not rise to see Arundel out, and they both listen to his heavy steps receding to the door as if trapped by the same siren scream.
“When you tire of him,” Arundel adds with a look so covetous that Ferdinand feels its claws raking his skin in truth, “I am certain we can make use of such fine stock.”
“I’ll consider it,” Edelgard says, even as her fingers clutch Ferdinand’s under the table as if to promise, but not yet, not yet.
Some things never change. Ferdinand still loves nothing more than the wind in his hair, the sun’s radiance kissing his freckles, and the limitless freedom of a swift steed.
The first two of these are his to claim, now and again, but the third is a metaphorical dead horse, untouched by the lash but bored to an early demise by Hubert’s rigid grip on the reins. They ride in train, Hubert in front with Ferdinand’s mount on a short lead, and if they ever manage more than a cow’s slow plodding across the field, Ferdinand may die of shock himself. It is his fault, of course. He should have specified a brisk ride when they set the terms of their arrangement.
Hubert is not a man to value the journey over the destination. He does not particularly value the destinations either, apart from their relentless isolation, seeing as Ferdinand has never once been led anywhere nice. No village fairs or quaint restaurants for Ferdinand, no, the closest he ever got was an abandoned farmhouse when the rain caught them unawares, and if he never knows why it was so conveniently empty yet well-stocked, he will be better for it.
Today is no different. A silent ride at a snail’s pace to a wide open space like all the others. Ferdinand dismounts, rolls his shoulders, and gives the mare an idle pat. He does not know her. All his warhorses have been reassigned. The beasts cannot understand his betrayal, and if he never faces them, he will never have to name it either.
“Are we alone?” Ferdinand calls impatiently. The longer they play this game, the more obsessed with security Hubert becomes, a murk of paranoia that Ferdinand wants to curl his fingers through until all the tangles ease.
Footsteps in the grass. “How confident are you in your grappling?”
Laughing, Ferdinand cants a hip and rests his hand upon it. “Marvelously, considering you have been failing to hide a bruised sternum all day.”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
“I assume whatever attacked you failed to crack any ribs,” Ferdinand continues, all the week’s frustrations bubbling under the surface, “Otherwise you would not have ridden horseback half the day. And if you try to put me in a surprise chokehold at any point, my elbow and I will put that assumption to the test.”
The shuffling hooves of the horses almost covers it, but Ferdinand catches the small chuckle that Hubert rewards him with, and all his anger tumbles away.
People ask why he stays. Because he has nowhere else to go, because this is where his friends are, because he swore an oath to the Empire which will be extinguished only with his life. All true, but in the end it is this: he could no longer see Edelgard’s keen, careful smiles or the wry twist of Hubert’s lips, and after a lifetime of silence and secrecy, they chose to be loud for him. A hum of disbelief, a rushed breath of surprise, a lapse of laughter more awkward than a foal trembling on knobby legs. Crumbs worth more to him than all the glory of the world.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Hubert drawls amid a rustle of fabric — the picnic blanket rippling in the wind. “Fleche informed me what you did to her brother.”
Ferdinand groans and finally turns, toeing the ground until he finds the edge of the blanket. “I did not intend—”
“Did he learn his lesson?”
Did Randolph learn better than to shout his greetings, as if it were Ferdinand’s ears that refused to function, or to make a friendly grab for Ferdinand’s shoulder out of the blue? Did Ferdinand’s throwing him over that very shoulder and onto the cobblestone path teach him anything at all about surprising a former general?
“No! He did it again the next day when he tried to apologize. Fleche pinched me to let me know he was coming. As if I do not have bruises enough!”
“You should memorize the sound of his footsteps,” Hubert offers, voice as low in space as in tenor, and Ferdinand crouches to join him on the blanket.
From anyone else, it would be well-intended yet meaningless advice. Simply memorize your constantly changing surroundings, Ferdinand. Memorize the voices of three hundred people, Ferdinand. And don’t ever forget to pray to the Goddess for healing.
If Hubert tells him to standardize his steps, count the exact number between the mess hall and his own quarters, and maintain the number for two months straight, it is because Vestra children measure their existence in the steps between one doorway and the next, preparing for a lifetime in the dark. Never once has Hubert advised something he does not practice himself in his quiet, methodical way.
“Please. If I memorize the tell of everyone who annoys me, I shall have no room left in my head.”
A hand closes on the fall of his sleeve, breaking Ferdinand’s train of thought at once.
It should scare him, this fixation. Just as Hubert will turn to face his Emperor as his true north, now Ferdinand stills and waits whenever Hubert reaches out for his cooperation, a hound waiting for his trainer’s word, a knife lacking only a target.
“Another sigil?” Ferdinand prompts warily. He mastered the eavesdropping and the tracking marks, and he will master this, too. That does not make it easy.
Hubert tugs him to his feet, then leads him well away from the horses. “How were your marks in reason?” he presses with a sudden urgency.
“Atrocious. You lorded it over my head for weeks, do not pretend I have forgotten.”
“Then you already know my lecture.” He repositions Ferdinand’s limbs with clinical efficiency, arms outstretched and feet spaced apart. “Now. Cast fire.”
“I will do no such thing. Are you even listening to yourself? I cannot aim, and you want me to—”
“It’s the simplest of all spells. Any child who’s burned their overzealous tongue on a cup of tea can piece it together.”
“That is not the issue!” Ferdinand drops his arms, and Hubert jerks them roughly back into place, crowding him in with such fervor that a patter song of panic kicks up in Ferdinand’s heart.
When Hubert speaks, it is a dark and desperate shiver. “When you are backed into a corner and They come for you, you will make Them pay for it.”
Something breaks in Ferdinand’s expression then, it must, for Hubert slithers out of his grasp with a hasty rumble of insolence even as Ferdinand reaches for his shoulder. His fingers fall somewhere closer to Hubert’s neck, a heavy flare of collar and none of the raggedy locks he expects. Instantly, Hubert goes stiff.
And this, this is the worst thing that has ever happened to Ferdinand, beyond losing his birthright and his vision: knowing what Terror sounds like on Hubert von Vestra’s tongue.
They set this plan into motion together, and there is no stopping it now, their very own runaway carriage headed for the cliffs, a flame scouring the thick of a rope as its fibers snap one by one. It is not Hubert’s fault that Ferdinand’s heartstrings were the first to go.
Perhaps in another world, Ferdinand could pull the man near and kiss him for reassurance, but Hubert needs him safe, not happy, and there is frankly no helping either. He drops his arm and resumes the position. “Very well. I am, as ever, in your hands.”
One of them takes a deep breath to steel himself. Ferdinand cannot be sure which.
“Magic is chaos,” Hubert says as he circles behind, as though this were a serious classroom lecture and not destined for little more than a farce of fireworks. “Reason provides the structure for mankind to harness it briefly. That structure is visual. Spacial. Built for stability and control in a performance you’ve witnessed many times.”
Ferdinand has frantically engraved many a memory into his mind, unwilling to face a world where he cannot recollect the painted expanse of the evening sky over the field of Aegir, or the delicate bow of Dorothea’s smile. The wiggling fingers of a mage’s cast is not among them.
He jolts at the suddenness of arms around him, the solid wall of Hubert’s chest against his back—not a chokehold, in the end, but something like a dance. Hubert’s arms settle on top of Ferdinand’s, hands lightly grasping Ferdinand’s own, and it is all Ferdinand can do to keep his feet beneath him, desire crashing through him like fine porcelain dashed to the earth.
“Our purposes,” Hubert hums against the shell of Ferdinand’s ear, a ragged brush of tattered skin, “Do not require either stability or control.”
It makes no difference. Ferdinand manages not even a single flicker. Thinking of a kettle boiling over, of molten steel in the forge, none of it sparks the necessary connection into life. Even when he slips, desperate and furious with himself, frantic not to let Hubert’s efforts go to waste—channels all his thwarted longing, blood singing with that maddening heat—still, there is nothing to show for it.
Stability and control are all that he has.
They do not stop the few miserable tears that slip out as he follows Hubert’s steps back to the picnic blanket. Frustration, failure: these have been Ferdinand’s fellows all his life. Outrunning them is no longer an option when he cannot see the walls, and there are only ever walls.
Hubert makes no comment. He slides his knife into the core of an Ailell pomegranate and cracks open its hardened skin.
There are moments when Ferdinand likes to delude himself, to think Hubert watches him for more than the work they share, to fancy his skin seared by the intensity of Hubert’s heavy gaze, but he will never know. The man could be watching the flight paths of distant birds, counting cracks in the imperial plaster, bored out of his impossible mind to be forced into such close quarters with a man with no future.
“You cut your hair?” Ferdinand asks, as plaintive as a child deprived of his honeyed tarts.
“…A while ago.”
It hurts. He cannot put a finger on why. He cannot put a finger on much of anything, at the moment, drained of all but the thought of Hubert turning his face away, bored.
“Does it look very dashing?”
Hubert scoffs, probably, though it sounds more like he has tried to unhinge his jaw and swallow the pomegranate whole. “I assure you,” he finally manages, choked like he has not fully dislodged the offending fruit, “It does not.”
A bowl brushes Ferdinand’s knee, and he scoops up a small handful of the sticky seeds. They pop in his mouth one by one, a memory of vivid color. “Luckily, I have the unique ability of picturing whatever I wish. No one can stop me.”
It earns him a sigh from Hubert, which is a little better than the low huffs and puffs of disapproval that he usually receives. “I wouldn’t dare try.”
Another dish slides across the cloth, this one two hands to the left of the first. All of his meals are served in exactly the same fashion; one more tiny detail that Ferdinand has never heard discussed, but never found lacking.
“Well?” Hubert asks.
“How do I look?”
A joke. Surely. A crocodile smile must stretch that face, and Hubert has simply forgotten that Ferdinand cannot… Well. Ferdinand can be excused if he answers in kind. “Adoring.”
Hubert’s cup clinks roughly down upon his plate.
“I am your favorite weapon, am I not?” Boastful. Needy. With his fingers stained red with pomegranate, his cheeks a ruddy mess, his hair all a tangle from the wind. As if Hubert would ever turn to him. “That was a, a jest, you understand.”
“When you can set a man on fire, then you will be my favorite,” Hubert promises dryly.
I have been Tempted into potentially writing the scene of Lorenz's early defection as a separate piece, since he and Ferdie have a neat little talk as Lorenz saddles his horse, but it is technically before any of the other events in this story... We shall see.
Small visual tidbit that Ferdinand will never pick up on: Hubert had to mark himself with the Cichol crest to actually receive the sigil info that Ferdie's sending him. Secret tat of your boyfriend's crest? It's more likely than you think!
A veritable parade of patricide.
Imperial Year 1184
The word warbles into the darkness — no, a dim and dreary murk, for the crackle of a cheap candle’s malingering wick is obvious once Ferdinand stops listening to the pounding of his own heartbeat. Sparse furnishings, according to his mission briefing. A cot, a desk, a chamber pot. The cell smells more of futile sweat than shit, small improvement that it is.
There is no answer, only that sickly crackle, until every small thing shudders at once. Something thick and heavy collides with the desk. The chair creaks under its burden, the clatter of a pen, the dull tread of worn woolen socks striking the stonework muted and wrong. Everything is ghosts, disembodied echoes shattering against his sweat-slick skin, and Ferdinand shrinks back against the door before remembering to do so, palms flat against the wood.
“Finally!” Duke Aegir roars, and the steps draw nearer.
“Years, years you left me festering here—”
Oh, Ferdinand thinks, his father’s words scalding him even as they evaporate into pitiful impotence. I remember this. A young boy hiding under parlor tables, shutting his eyes and covering his ears in the vain hope it would make the rest of the world disappear, his father disappear, so no one would ever yell at him again. A time when all he wanted was to be good, to grow and build and plaster over that prickling wound in his chest where all his failures lived.
He wonders if Bernadetta ever hid under parlor tables, or if that was only for boys who were never taught how to make themselves small. Eventually he grew too big, and his father learned to dangle approval on a stick, and off they ran to ruin.
“Father,” he tries again, breaking through the fog of rage. He shaves all of the weight off the consonants, weaves a pleading frailty into the vowels. “Father, please.”
The Duke takes another step, its cadence broken from the rest—a creeping wariness towards his visitor?
Shit. He’s playing this wrong. The Duke worked with Arundel and his lot; if Ferdinand strives too far for pathos, he’ll be mistaken for a skinthief, a hasty replacement with an over-sized persecution complex. Even if his father has never truly known him, he knows all too well what Ferdinand is not.
If you want to make a man dance, Hubert told him, lips all but tracing the shell of his ear, remind him of what he values most. A man with a knife to his child’s throat may falter if you speak his child’s name, if he truly loves the brat. You know what your father values.
Yes, and he values Ferdinand as one values a porcelain vase: wealth on display, legacy made flesh. There is no greater worth than that.
So Ferdinand takes a steadying breath, forces his eyes open a hair further into the eerie, empty gaze of utter innocence that always makes Fleche snort and allow him the final biscuit.
“I do not have much time,” he presses, voice firm for how soft and cowed it flows. “Everyone is busy with their festivities for the new year. I managed to slip away. I…I am sorry I have left you here, Father, but there is so little I can do in my state…”
Thick, gnarled fingers grip his cheek as the Duke pulls him down for a closer inspection. Foreign hands, as if those of the seasoned boxer his father never was, but Ferdinand does not care to ask what torments they inflicted upon the Empire’s second-rate tormentor. He barely breathes. A touch to his shoulder, even a hasty embrace in payment of familial services, that was the extent of Ferdinand’s imaginings. The only ones who touch his face are Fleche and his valet—Hubert’s refusal to whisper from a middle distance not included—and it is never this, an appraisal, his father tactile in the way he has only ever handled his coin purse.
“What did they do to you, my boy?”
It is not really a question.
“An accident.” Ferdinand forces his hand over his father’s, trusting that his gaze will be led in the right direction. “A spell from your—from our—allies that I should have known better than to face.”
“Always too damn headstrong for your own good,” his father mumbles. “Allies. Huh.”
The hand falls away.
“I never forgot you, I swear it. I thought to work my way up the army ranks and, ah, you can see what became of that. But they trust me in my…” Ferdinand swallows hard, cursing himself for the stumble even as it sells his story. “My worthlessness.”
The Duke laughs, a dim echo of the arrogance that once shook rooms. “And that’s all you brought me.”
“No! I have avenues, I…” Ferdinand’s head falls, chin tucked against his chest. “I can still pass messages. My secretary is a daughter of House Bergliez. She sees how low their lot has fallen—to the War Minister in the middle of a war!—and sees there is no safety for even the pinnacle of nobility. She will write to whomever I wish.”
“Vestra and his rats will find it and have my head, you saints-bedamned fool. Absolutely worthless.”
“The Varley girl.”
Nothing, or at least no verbal answer. Most likely his father’s expression would tell Ferdinand all he needs to know. He runs with the silence instead. “Vestra is…soft on her. She writes to her father every week, as befits a dutiful noble daughter, but it is all mindless drivel—plants and dolls and. Well. All the rumors about that one were true. If I were to slip a note into her letter, it would surely make it there undiscovered. Was not Count Varley your great friend?”
A hand closes awkwardly on his shoulder, paternal in a way that pricks goosebumps against his skin, and for all Ferdinand once wished for a sliver of such recognition—a single, uninterrupted moment of his father’s attention—now he knows only that he is not the poorest actor in the room. He forces a hesitant, hopeful smile.
Maybe the candlelight catches his eyes and sets them shining, youthful and naive.
“Why are you so desperate for this?” The Duke squeezes his shoulder. “I admire such filial duty, Ferdinand, yet even you must see the difficulties.”
As an optimist or an incapable?
“Your allies. Those…people did this to me. They can undo it. They must.” Hands curling into fists, shaking with the venom, the rot, as Ferdinand chokes, “I cannot let the House of Aegir die begging on a street corner for coin like a common mongrel.”
“Must you be so dramatic?” Hubert drawls as he falls into step aside Ferdinand, winding his way out of the prison’s catacombs. “Still, passable work I suppose. We’ll hang Varley by spring.”
Ferdinand counted his steps on the way in. A mental handful of beans, a different color for each direction. He returns them now, jaw locked, and does not offer Hubert his sleeve.
“The other three names will serve our purposes admirably.”
They pass a handful of guards who shudder to attention when Hubert nears. He can scarcely hear Hubert’s footsteps when they time so perfectly with his own.
Twenty-three steps to the left and he will be at ground level again.
Hubert clears his throat. He never used to do that, in the days when all Ferdinand had were his cultivated cruelty and infuriatingly bland smirks, and Ferdinand still does not understand why he does it now, what it is meant to convey. Frankly he does not care.
“You will never ask that of me again,” Ferdinand says, and this too is a performance, for his voice sounds as firm and commanding as the general he is not. Today he is only a tool of Hubert’s trade, as unworthy of deciding his own targets as a knife in the hand.
Leather slides against the polished stones, Hubert leaning away on his rear foot mid-step. “No, I…doubt that will be necessary.”
Duke Aegir will be dead within the week. By the enemy’s hands, if they source the leak too easily. By Hubert’s, to cover their tracks and imply a far more brutal sort of interrogation took place. By Ferdinand’s questions, one way or another.
His skin burns. Goosebumps along the lengths of his arms, his sleeves like burlap, a pitiful cover over a boiling pit of tar. His mind skips across that pain like a pond skimmer—
The last person to wrap their arms around Ferdinand was a monster. Never once did he ask after his son’s wellbeing, let alone his wife’s. He would trade those priceless commodities as easily as he traded Edelgard’s siblings, if only the chance arose. That touch lingers on him, so noxious that Hubert could bottle it for poison, if Ferdinand could stand for even that clinical comfort.
Goddess forfend anyone reach for Ferdinand now, when they would find little more than his fists in answer. It does not scare him nearly enough.
Hubert does not follow.
“I don’t doubt your ability to achieve whatever you put your mind to,” Edelgard sighs, sick to death of this argument. She dismisses the maid and lays out the tea in Ferdinand’s precise arrangement on her own. “What I doubt are von Riegan’s motivations. If you hand him Gloucester’s head, what stops him from waving it in the streets as proof of how poorly we treat our allies?”
Nothing save the small matters of von Riegan’s unshakable morality under all those schemes and rumors, a historical aversion to employing fear tactics, and the simple fact that there would be no benefit to breaking faith at this juncture. No benefit to putting his paramour into such a delicate situation, either.
None of these are worth a jot as far as the Emperor is concerned, so all Ferdinand says is, “Am I so poor a horse to bet upon?”
“Claude certainly is.”
“Alas, I am speaking only of myself. My favorite topic.” He spoons two sugar cubes into her teacup and holds it out with a gambler’s smile.
Edelgard accepts it, hands lingering a beat too long, a hesitation at odds with the aura of imposing grace he still imagines infusing every room they pass through. “You are not one for machinations within machinations, my friend.”
The smile slips from his face like a shard of glass, shearing a bloody, silent path through his chest.
Within the week, Count Gloucester will be publicly arrested at a state dinner in Enbarr and charged with eighteen counts of war profiteering. Merchant families and coalitions from Edmund to Oghma will air their grievances in a court of law, speak clever truths to bring justice to the corpses buried under Gloucester’s rose gardens, and forever condemn his name to the register of the damned. Von Riegan has already agreed to revoke his citizenship in the Alliance so that the Count can be honored with imperial citizenship and executed in turn.
Lorenz will inherit. Another bastard will hang.
The denouement of every act Ferdinand has penned these last few years. But that is all he is—a pen, a weapon, a tool of someone else’s plans.
“And you are rarely one for such blatant hypocrisy,” Ferdinand snaps. The wound of her words aches on bloody display, yet he cannot stop himself. “If I may trust Hubert of all people with my life, then I may trust von Riegan with a handful of letters. Are they not cut of the same pattern, if such different cloth? Forgive me the insolence, but I would not be sitting here without a certain faith in you, as well. If we are tallying our poorest bets—”
“If you doubt my perception then I have no place here.”
Her hand smacks the table, muffled by the leather of her gloves. “It is not doubt, when Duke Aegir’s body is not yet cold and you sit here proposing the murder of another!”
What has Hubert done to you, she does not say.
Guilt smothers the delicate aroma of his tea, and Ferdinand pushes it delicately aside.
“I need you at your best,” Edelgard continues, recovering herself at once. “Not rushing headlong into disaster. This entire endeavor rests upon what, exactly? A single year taking high tea with Gloucester, by which you forged an indelible friendship that I am to risk my neck for?”
Ferdinand does not risk another smile; facetious niceties will only slide like needles under her skin, riling her to greater concern. He extends his hand over the top of the table instead, palm up in offering. “Of course not. I have never risked any neck but my own.”
Her chair drags across the parlor carpet. It nearly drags a dark, bitter laughter from Ferdinand’s chest—how often is his life only this, a careful study of chairs creaking and scraping and revealing to him the drift of people in the room around him. A blind astronomer trying to chart the stars.
“I hate that even more.” Edelgard’s voice does not shake—never does—but the clip of it, sharp and hushed, makes him think her teacup might have if she continued to hold it.
And that is a cruelty too far, to accuse him of fatalism when every day of this war, every step along this bloody path, has been a race against the inevitable, as if by setting this fire she could ever hope to contain it. Ferdinand is only one more armful of kindling.
“Let me try,” Ferdinand says.
“Have I ever been able to stop you?”
No more than he is able to stop her from marching out the door. It shuts behind her without ceremony, no grand slam of fury or shriek of hinges, and snuffs out his lingering hope of a little gratitude.
Wrong-footed yet again. He reaches for the sugar and tips a full spoonful into his now cool cup, stirring the spoon roughly to hear its chime. Kindling, yes. A princess gathering bundles of sticks in place of dolls—first Hubert, then their lost Professor, and now Ferdinand, all ready to immolate instead of stay, all refusing to pretend permanence for even a moment. No wonder Edelgard cannot see a place for herself in the world of her own making.
It would be nice, to stay. To win the world and slay their demons and have no price to pay.
There is no time for such illusions.
“Well. That went poorly,” Ferdinand sighs to the emptiness of the room. He catches himself before his fingers begin beating a rhythm on the table; Hubert complains constantly of the distraction. “Please have a word with Her Majesty and remind her we are not aiming for any additional gossip about internal strife.”
There is no answer. There never is, since Hubert cannot cast his voice back to Ferdinand, and still he draws their sigil everywhere he goes, as if passing a needle through the fabric of the world and stitching them back into order. Closer, if only he could. Hubert disappears for days, weeks at a time now, fixated on his fruitless hunts and playing the estrangement closer to truth than the farce it is meant for, so Ferdinand captures as many of Edelgard’s words as he can, each a treasure Hubert does not deserve to miss. Enough of them, and they always bring the man home.
Hubert does not come home.
Fleche laughs it off at supper, comparing him to a Gronder sighthound, a beast with so little regard for its own safety that it gladly chases its prey to the death. Save a new command from its iron-fisted owner, there are only two outcomes: victorious blood-slick teeth, or the inevitability of a comet tearing itself into nothingness.
No one notices when Ferdinand slips away in the middle of the second course. His steady steps carry him into the gardens, still abandoned this early in the year, and he only ducks his head in apology to startled servants a handful of times. A nuisance, a bother, he is all that and more in moments like this, but to breathe in the open air without anyone playing nursemaid is the only freedom he can reach for.
He makes his way to the gazebo and perches in a freezing chair, pulling his legs up to his chest for the warmth alone. A thin covering of snow sits on the table, blown in by the wind, and Ferdinand traces his favorite pattern in the snow before wiping it away with his palm.
“I have decided to freeze to death,” he tells the wind. Only rarely will he embrace this maudlin madness, but his heart is too heavy for his mind to make sense of. “The snow will take me because you were not here to bring me a coat. I have not smelled your wretched coffee in a fortnight and have clearly spiraled into some tangential form of withdrawal.”
Even his dramatics have scarcely any heart behind them tonight. Self-preservation alone keeps Ferdinand from dropping his forehead against the snowy table. The howling wind and solidarity are not enough; he wishes only for the precise calm of Hubert’s quarters, for that infuriating chess board and the man across the table—not the man himself, exactly, only the certainty of where he is, that he breathes still.
Some nights that is all he has. The sound of his own breathing in the darkness, the faith that his loved ones do the same.
“Are you lost, von Aegir?”
Startled, his shoulders pull higher against his neck, brushing his snowy collar against his ears. He cannot place the voice at first, not over the warning screams of the wind. “My apologies, I do not recognize your—”
A coat settles over his shoulders, and it is like a collar clicking around his throat, weighing him down with a choking revulsion.
“Lord Arundel,” Ferdinand corrects, eyes squeezed shut against more than the snow. “I did not realize you were visiting. My mind escapes me tonight.”
A chuckle, unkind. “Consider it forgiven. You certainly have enough on your shoulders.”
Arundel’s hand falls upon one, adding to that weight, and Ferdinand’s lungs buckle with a desperate gasp.
“I merely wished to extend my condolences. To lose your father in such a way, at such an uncertain time… Well. Harrowing scarcely begins to describe the experience.”
“Yes,” Ferdinand chokes. Did he cast the sigil? Did the snow carry it true? He cannot risk it again, with nothing at all to distract Arundel from every twitch and shiver of his hands, and without Hubert here there is no meaning in a call for help.
Even with him, there is no helping this. Their far-sighted goal of Arundel developing interest, and the way the chips must fall if he does.
“Lady Edelgard offered me the choice of a proper funeral,” Ferdinand manages, forcing a deep breath to collect himself as he scrambles for cover. “Even after such proof of my father’s greed, she still… I cannot thank her enough. To turn down her kindness would be a grievous insult, but to stand and speak my father’s eulogy the way I am now—would that not be an even greater embarrassment to his memory?”
“The way you are now.” Arundel parrots the euphemism, grim and familiar, and Ferdinand knows the pinch of his lips after seeing it on his niece’s face for so many years.
“My bearing alarms people,” Ferdinand says to a blighted skinthief, and wipes at his face to cover his shudder of fear.
“Come now, they will see only a dutiful son. You have value yet.”
As livestock, a helpless cow of Cichol for the bleeding.
“That is kind of you to say, My Lord… But it does not matter. Von Vestra has not yet allowed me the body, so there can be no funeral.”
The hand at his shoulder squeezes, the same pressure as a putrid wound that has yet to burst. “I’ll see what I can do,” Arundel promises. “May I accompany you back to your rooms? I cannot leave you victim to these winter winds.”
No no no no—
“Ah. Yes, I would appreciate that.” Ferdinand trips on his gratitude, the word stuttering free, and if it weren’t for the cold he would have no excuse. He lets himself be helped to his feet, that fur coat still hanging over him like a baneful cloud of smoke, and it is so, so much better to give in to the kiss of frost in the air, to slip away numb and pliant and weather even this as easily as an unfeeling branch in the thick of a storm.
Arundel’s hand unyielding on his wrist, five lashes of screaming pressure and the brand of his palm. Arundel’s fetid breath fanning his face, when he leans in to apologize for letting Ferdinand stumble into columns and corners—on purpose, always, so Ferdinand is reminded of his place, swaying into Arundel’s presence for a hope of stability. Arundel’s steps too quick, his strides too long, leaving Ferdinand cantering in confusion, unable to count his own paces through a foreign parody of his own home.
Finally they draw to a halt. “Here we are.”
Ferdinand cannot even tell. All he knows are the sharp tracks of tears on his cheeks, stinging like a slow drip of poison.
It feels like his door handle, oily brass in the familiar shape, but it could truly be any room on that floor.
Inside, he listens for heavy footsteps, for the danger to pass. There is only silence. Barely breathing, Ferdinand rolls his shoulders until the other noble’s coat slithers from his shoulders—he brought it into his room—and crawls for the edge of the rug, pressing his face into its full weave until the old echoes of iron and polish convince him of his surroundings.
But there is no safety with that thing in his room.
It must burn.
It would, if only Ferdinand’s loathing would finally catch flame—nothing, still, no plume of raw heat to ignite the pyre of his quarters, no searing agony save the raw scrape of his nails against his own skin, clawing desperate at the lingering prickle of Arundel’s touch. He is a weapon made for only one man’s hands—no more bastard fathers, no more sneering politicking—his voice so hoarse when he has never once screamed, heartbeat pounding in his ears. Does that count as sound? Does Hubert hear it too, as though he has laid his ear against Ferdinand’s breast to listen for every dwindling thump?
There are no knives in his room, no weaponry or armor of any kind, as if having it in his quarters is any more reminder than the soldiers that surround him each day. But there must be something Ferdinand can use to hack the coat apart, to shred his own funerary shroud and fend off the beasts slithering in the darkness for one night more.
His valet finds him huddled in the far corner of the room with a letter opener clutched like a shield in his fist. A hazy tumbler of scotch later, his blankets close in around him with their inescapable weight. The coat hangs over the back of the desk chair. Ferdinand does not close his eyes.
A twitch in the silence wakes him. Noises soft and sure. Someone moving around his quarters and checking for anything that does not belong. The faint odor of burning hair all that remains of that cursed coat.
“You came home,” Ferdinand whispers, sounds flowing into foreign shapes.
A hesitant hand settles on his cheek, supple leather with so very little warmth, and Ferdinand leans into it until sleep takes him once more.
Ferdinand has not written Gloucester—the younger, newly appointed Count—in three weeks. It is not a matter of avoidance, of delicacy or despair. There is simply nothing to say.
Hundreds of miles apart, they weather the same filial farce. Strangers come to them bearing words like condolences and grief. They say, your father was a good man, and, such a tragedy, and, how did it come to this? Bystanders playing ignorant as they always have, when they averted their eyes from starvation and slaughter, when they attended the Prime Minister’s lavish balls and never once asked where ten twirling princes and princesses had gone. So many faces glancing down at blood-stained gloves and smiling with vapid disregard, first for the fathers and now for the sons. There is no point in either of them calling in justice.
How many funerals has Hubert attended for his own victims? There must be a trick to it, more than the usual lie and grim smile, but that cagey shadow has not elected to share it with Ferdinand, as he shares so little these days.
My dear Count Gloucester— No. He has never addressed him as such, and even if the county and title have legally passed into the man’s hands, to lay the word between them smacks of distancing himself. My dear Lord Gloucester it must be, as it has always been.
If he must muddle, at least he has the relief of knowing Gloucester muddles the same. Ferdinand pens letter after letter in his head, testing the words wherever he goes: the grappling mats as Caspar avoids his too-slow throw, the long course of his and Petra’s morning runs, and now, standing stiff and still on a stool in Bernadetta’s room. My Gloucester, if he dared.
Something to lift his spirits high enough above the murk for a breath of fresh air, perhaps?
Enclosed is a poem that chimed in me the same way your laughter always has. May it find an eager nest in your heart’s gardens, where all such beauty lies.
No, that would not do either. If only Ferdinand could be truthful just this once instead of prancing about in code. If Gloucester were beside him, and he could speak truly—
Do not fret, my friend. The blood is on my hands alone.
“Ferdinand? C-can you lift your arms for me?”
He snaps back to his surroundings with an apologetic nod, unsure if she is even watching. It is so dreadfully easy to drift in Bernadetta’s presence. “As the lady requests.”
Quick, sparrow-like hands pass under his armpits as she takes the necessary measurements, whispering meaningless numbers to herself. Ferdinand’s formal uniform no longer fits him, at least two sizes too large across his chest and loose around the thighs like Hubert’s jodhpurs, and the faster Bernadetta fixes it, the sooner Ferdinand can stop dwelling on exactly how much of himself has been lost.
Bernadetta gathers back his hair to measure the breadth of his shoulders—that, at least, has not changed—and he focuses on the forced rhythm of her breathing, the calm of a rabbit ready to bolt. After the accident, she spent a few days furiously knitting at his bedside, letting the monotonous progress of the stitches lull him through some of his more desolate hours.
Now she is so quiet, so afraid of saying the wrong thing—or maybe here, too, there is simply nothing to say. If all goes according to plan, Ferdinand will soon slip from view and become nothing but a record of silence, a hallowed gap in their fonder recollections. But whenever she wears that scarf she knit by his side, his ghost will smile for her, of that he is sure.
“Have you finished any new books of late?” Ferdinand asks, voice hushed lest his attempt at conversation startle her.
The measuring tape whips away in frantic recoil.
“Um, yes, I’ve read plenty lately. Anyway! I’m going to put the jacket on now so I can pin your sleeves. I think your arms grew a bit…”
Offering each arm in turn, Ferdinand waits until it is clear she has no intention to continue. “Anything in particular?”
Bernadetta’s hands pause at his shoulder, one lingering on the curve and the other bracing against his shoulder blade. He would think it an unsteadiness in her footstool, if not for her small defeated sigh. “A lot of fairytales. I know it’s childish but—”
“It helps to see happy endings.”
Something else leans heavily against his back—her head?—and those hands clutch softly at the fabric beneath. “Yes. I know things can’t be that simple. I know. But there’s nothing wrong with wishing, right?”
Ferdinand smiles, even knowing she cannot see his expression, because it is either that or let the sudden heat welling up in his eyes start to overflow. He tips his head towards the ceiling. “I used to love those.”
Princes with their eyes gouged out by rose bushes, wandering until true love’s kiss made them whole again. Blind old beggars who were more than they seemed. Rebirth and redemption and all that nonsense.
“They’re a little different now that I’m older,” Bernadetta continues. “I. Um. Tried to be inspired by them as a kid. It didn’t work very well. I think maybe…you have to be inspired by what’s real? Stories like that are an escape. But I guess Bernie needed that too, aha…”
“I have never met a child who did not need such tales,” he adds lightly. “I certainly did.”
“I know that! But… I thought maybe I could make my own? With something real. Not too real, kids don’t need…war and stuff, but. Anyway. I’m reading a lot for research.”
“Will you read it to me when you complete the draft?”
“O-oh. You don’t…have to do that for me, Ferdinand. I know it’s boring and you just have people reading things aloud to you all day every day, so it must be like work.”
“Spending time with you is never work.”
The hands clenched in his jacket squeeze tight, then ease. A moment later Bernadetta is standing in front of him and taking his hands into hers, holding on to those instead, brave and improper. Ferdinand smiles in case she is looking at him; before she would always bow her head and watch their shoes, but maybe without a witness, her spirits have grown.
“Ferdinand, I wanted to tell you… I could not fix your outfit, if you wanted? I mean, you don’t have to go to the funeral, if you don’t want to. Lady Edelgard says I don’t have to go to my father’s funeral, so, so surely it would be okay if you… I could accidentally cut through the whole jacket. Bernie has stupid fingers, right? And then you’d be stuck and you wouldn’t have to do this at all.”
One slip of the scissors and Bernadetta would free him from this, from Arundel calling his bluff and arranging a full farce of a funeral for the late Duke Aegir, from the lies curdling in Ferdinand’s stomach that he will soon have to spit at a hateful crowd, from standing in vigil’s parody beside the closed, rotting casket of the father he lured to ruin.
It would have to be a fairytale, for scissors to have such power. For Bernadetta to.
Instead there is a broken knight who smiles and smiles, like he has forgotten what other shapes a face can make; a pair of solemn eagles that feast on the marrow of war, for they know no other way; and Arundel, not the wolf but simply Arundel, standing at the gate with his misshapen smile, waiting.
These are the fairytales now, and they are all paid in blood. Ferdinand agreed to his role. It is the only way he can protect his own, and he will stop at nothing to shield Bernadetta and Fleche and all the others from the monsters in the dark, to prevent the rot that seeped into the Empire and Kingdom from poisoning the Alliance as well, those rivers and rose beds so dear.
“It is my duty to speak.” His duty to keep the shiver from his voice. His honor to lift her hands to his lips to kiss the knuckles. “But if you would stay here, and pour yourself a steadying cup of tea in my honor, I would appreciate that very much indeed.”
Nobody wakes Ferdinand on the morning of the hunt.
Only the sun slipping in through the canvas walls and warming his tent to a furnace does the trick. Ferdinand’s eyes flutter in the morning light, head heavy with the lingering haze of strange dreams, and it is not until he hears the distant braying of the hounds that he jolts up and out of the bedding.
Shirt, boots, coat—to hell with the cravat, they have already taken to the field, and he will need his lungs’ full breadth to catch up.
“Fleche?” he calls as he ducks his head out of the tent. A knight must have his squire.
No answer. The camp is empty, not only of voices but of other tents, of horses and merchants and the constant clatter of military life. They have packed up and moved on without him.
Only the hounds reach his ear, and the distant cadence of hooves.
“Hubert!” he hollers in the open air, feet pounding the thickly-packed earth. The absolute insolence of that wretched, shriveled slug of a man. Did they not discuss their plans to mutual satisfaction over the war table? Did Edelgard not bow her head in exhausted consent as they each promised her the white dragon’s horns?
Ferdinand grabs no spear; he will throttle the beast with his own hands if he must. The troops’ path through the forest is clear, and he races on with the single-minded focus of a child, world narrowing down to the thrum of his heartbeat in his ears. There is no better way to stamp out the loathsome hiss of acid in his veins—they left you behind, useless, useless—than to drive onward with his own two feet.
The road forks, and Ferdinand does not hesitate an instant, fixated on the bright splatter of scarlet upon the cracked dirt.
He shouts again, but the words make no sound, only the desperate dance of Ferdinand’s clenched jaw. All slithers away into silence.
As soon as he clears the forest, the thick reek of burning flesh washes over him, familiar as any dark roast.
Oh, he thinks, I am dreaming. It makes no difference. This is war. He runs.
Battalions clash in the valley below, crashing together with the stilted movements of a magic lantern, shapes buckling one by one. Only the horses hold any detail in the lavish gilding of their armor, pegasi outfitted in howling furies instead of riders, dipping through the clouds like birds of prey.
Desperation in every direction, and they all turn their faces his way—a witch with roses blooming from her throat, a shriek of violet stitching itself back together with needle and thread, a looming husk of wing and bone that bends to brush clawed fingers through his hair as he passes, a blessing or a plea, he cannot say. He cannot stay.
There, cornered in the open, a smear of ash and shadow.
Blood blooms from the shivering earth, stalks of rotten wildflowers swaying in Ferdinand’s peripheral vision. He runs. Never so hard, never so fast as this moment, trusting in his feet and his surroundings and still, still he gains not a step, still there on the hill Hubert screams, a silent impact howled straight into Ferdinand’s chest, agony cradled against his heart.
The white dragon rises from behind, wreathed in her holy fire. Hooded mages with glowing crests for faces, sigils that warp and fracture, lumbering creatures of the earth with Arundel’s twisted smile. The enemy does not matter. The enemy has never mattered, save that Hubert stands between it and Her Majesty, a truth that will not be severed by Ferdinand’s hushed wail of longing.
Hubert grins, and Ferdinand feels every muscle in his face as it moves, the world shifting into narrow focus. Onward towards the knowledge of each eyelash framing the sickly shine of Hubert’s eyes, each pinprick of red on his ashen face, Ferdinand scrambling for detail, for posterity, for anything to distract him from that face frozen in a rictus of fear and laughter. He runs and it does not matter, his whole life traded for this one, meaningless desire—
And the sun rises in Hubert’s hands.
Running is not enough. All Ferdinand’s life has been a race, against Edelgard, against Hubert, lungs screaming as he tears through the world on nothing but optimism, the peerless belief that he will reach the goal before he strips himself to the bone, muscles snapped and sinews torn, a beast with so little regard for its own life.
The pair of them, the Emperor’s hounds, and Hubert there grinning with his bloody teeth, as ghoulish as he has ever been in the fullness of the light. The blistering white flames climb up his arms inch by inch, a blaze that cleaves through the world around him until there is nothing but light and shadow, and Hubert himself will be no more, hurling himself onto the pyre with the fury of a baited bear.
Please, chokes the breath in his throat—
“Ferdinand,” a voice shattering through, hands rubbing soothing circles against his shoulders. “You are dreaming, you are only dreaming.”
I know, he tries, but the words drown themselves in the silken waterfall of Petra’s hair, his face tucked against her neck as he struggles for breath. The wind beats against the thick canvas covering of his tent. He never sleeps well when the army goes on march, but never once have they left him behind, no matter how fretfully his friends linger by his tent when they pull watch.
Petra sits with him until all the tremors pass. She fetches his boots, washes his face, everything in the wrong order but so perfectly grounding, to be fussed over like something necessary, something valued.
“You were yelling again,” Petra says as she pulls a comb through his unruly hair. He has offered to have it cut so many times, but Fleche always scoffs at the idea. “It is difficult to be guarding when my friend is upset. You will have to come be guarding with me tonight.”
“When Caspar takes the guarding, we will go for a run. That will be tiring you to better sleep.”
Petra’s fingers dip behind his ears as she gathers his hair into a loose tail and ties it off. Then, strangely, one returns to his right ear, brushing over the skin above it. “You are always calling for Hubert,” she says.
It is only his inability to place her tone that makes his heart stutter in his chest.
“He is never here and I am not knowing…I do not know why. I worry, too. All of us are worry.” Her hands drop away amid a gentle rustle of beads. “I am thinking this is Hubert’s way to be keeping us safe. Always in shadows. But we are soldiers. Comrades in arms. I wish to be seeing him in light and him to be trusting me in shadow. Do you have understanding?”
Ferdinand’s jaw locks around his answer, and all he can do is nod.
“Sometimes when he is looking at you—”
The next moment Ferdinand is on his feet. “We need to return to your post. I have distracted you too long, my friend. If you please?” He holds out his arm for her direction, and to his greatest relief, she takes it.
The brisk autumn air does Ferdinand well. He does not think of Hubert turning his way, gazing at some distant enemy beyond his weapon’s point, carving quick and sharp through the absence Ferdinand will leave in this world. He does not think of Hubert with his back against the wall, drawing down the sun into his palms to spite every bastard who ever left their shrapnel in Edelgard’s skin. He does not think of his hushed dreams, of his throat raw with terror, of whether his fingers drew desperate shapes against his pillow so someone, finally, might hear.
He does not think. He remembers.
In his memories, Ferdinand will reach the hill in time. He will tear Hubert’s smoldering arms away from the spell, will hurl himself between his friend and that pillar of light, that seething inferno of ancient loathing for all who dwell beneath the open sky. With Hubert choking on agony in the solace of Ferdinand’s shadow, he will raise his lance and stare down the heavens to the very end.
In his dreams, there is no such victory.
Hubert always burns.
“And as you can see here, the course of the river clearly follows—”
Edelgard’s toe jabs into his shin, and Ferdinand snaps back to attention, hands clasped on the table and his face in a solemn mask of utter attention. He is not surprised when she leans in a moment later to whisper into his ear, “I would have sworn he promised new information.”
“And he brought it.” Ferdinand tilts his head slightly in her direction, as if turning an ear to gossip rather than matters of state. “That river is impassable to the east. The rock slides from the mountains choke off its depths at over a dozen points. Any boat would be gutted before it reached the opposite shore.”
“If he’s of Myrddin, he should know that.”
“But he does not. Therein lies the appeal: we simply stick him in a boat and—”
“Excuse me!” Down the war table, Acheron smacks his sweaty palms against the polished wood. “Your Majesty, Your—” He stumbles, aggrieved as ever by Ferdinand’s very existence and all the contradictions of status wrapped up therein. After a moment of thought, and a look of what Ferdinand can only guess is great constipation, judging by Dorothea’s snicker down the room, Acheron regains his poise. “—Lordship, if I may borrow your ears a moment longer. This has great bearing upon your invasion plans.”
“Yes,” Edelgard agrees vaguely, “The invasion plans. Do continue.”
With that resounding seal of approval, Acheron proceeds to drone long enough for Ferdinand to plan fifteen increasingly dramatic ways to remove him. Not assassinate, mind you, for he has not actually done anything save be an insufferable, untrustworthy waste of space, and Ferdinand is not at all prepared to stoop to Hubert’s methods over someone so harmless. But in this, as all things, the mind follows the heart. In between flippant fancies of hurling him into a pit of lions, Ferdinand also manages to best Edelgard at whispered chess in two out of their six matches, their shorthand game boards sketched into the margins of her notes. She, at least, never cheats.
As Acheron asks everyone to observe his damned map once more, Ferdinand runs through the shifting rings of his mind’s own Alliance. The board began with an equal number of pieces in black and blue, and von Riegan the gamester playing both sides of the table. Three years on, it is unrecognizable. Riegan, Daphnel, and Goneril have all declared for the Alliance itself, draping their markers in gold. Edmund still panders to the Kingdom, lest the blues lose all their allies and grow suspicious too soon, but Marianne has made her promises. Gloucester has not officially thrown off her funerary blacks, and Ordelia still prostrate herself to her imperial neighbors, but no further concessions will ever be demanded of them while Edelgard holds the throne.
Only the petty crop of squabbling minor nobles remain to be dealt with, which should be von Riegan’s job. It is certainly not Ferdinand’s. And yet here Acheron sits at their war table, prattling on and on in hopes of winning the imperial patronage that House Gloucester has taken such pains to discard.
Some poison in his tea, perhaps? Something Hubert could have fun with. There must be a list somewhere of scrapped assassination plans meant for Ferdinand’s teenage self, and Ferdinand is happy to unleash those nostalgic treasures onto an equally infuriating noble blowhard.
It would hardly take much convincing. By now Acheron must grate on Hubert’s nerves equally to Ferdinand’s own, considering Ferdinand uses their connection to broadcast every idiotic moment of boot-licking for Hubert’s personal enrichment. As the hours drag, Ferdinand fiddles with the tracking sigil to ensure Hubert remains intimately, heinously aware of the exact location of Ferdinand’s suffering at all times.
It is only when Edelgard’s breathing evens out aside him that all the world’s weight catches up with Ferdinand once more.
“Arrange for a pot of lindenflower tea for Her Highness, tonight.” Ferdinand yawns the words behind his cupped hand. “This meeting will not last much longer.”
When a single sharp knock sounds against Ferdinand’s door hours later, he is not in the least surprised. The gambit does not always pay off, but a solid three-fourths of the time, if he alerts Hubert to one or another of Her Majesty’s immediate needs, Hubert will not only make himself personally available for its fulfillment but swing by Ferdinand’s quarters to check in on his favorite asset as well.
If Ferdinand puttered around his room playing memory games with himself in hopes of just such a visit, that is for him alone to know. “Come in!”
The door creaks. Every door in the monastery is practically soundless save the ones Ferdinand uses on a daily basis. One more suspicious little detail that never fails to send a gust of fondness rushing through him.
“A pot of lindenflower tea, courtesy of Her Highness,” Hubert announces in that droll servant’s tone of his. He does not step past the threshold, and Ferdinand imagines that thin, arched brow.
“Ah. She ratted me out, the fiend. I suppose any argument I give is simply the Aegir pot calling the Hresvelg kettle black.” Ferdinand flashes a smile, one he hopes looks less tired than he feels, and gestures the man in. “Will you stay for a cup?”
Hubert does not answer, which is odd. His footsteps patter with a stiff, choppy beat, as though he has taken a wound to the thigh and the muscles hurt to stretch. Ferdinand restrains himself from reaching out to check.
The tray settles upon the table, and Ferdinand knows each and every item will be in its proper place.
“Why this tea?” Hubert asks before anything can be poured. His tone is—
Not clipped. Not tired. Not frustrated or curious or brooding. Just devoid of all that should be there, all that has been there before, like a teacup steeped with a dark, subtle brew for years, now poured out and scrubbed of all its lingering aroma by a professional’s scouring hands. Ferdinand can see it so clearly: Hubert’s hands dipping down to the basin of lye, rubbed raw and scarred with acid, the little finger on his right hand that fails to bend properly, the swollen knuckles that ache and refuse to be held. His face, a blankness the envy of any gamester, an absence of feeling, of warmth, that Hubert believes is his truest reflection, and not simply a means to an end.
It is an emptiness only Hubert himself could manage.
“It chases away nightmares.” Ferdinand cannot keep the forlorn tinge from his words, even as he steels himself for whatever bloated nonsense Hubert has brought to his door.
He does not have to wait long.
“This cannot continue,” Hubert says. No. Declaims, like their classroom speeches, something he has prepared word for word in advance.
“My fixation,” Ferdinand repeats again, part mocking, part exhaustion. He should sit and pour two cups of tea. Sit and wait, glowering, for Hubert to swallow his tongue and accept a bit of companionship instead of running off into the wilds like some manner of rabid possum. “All I find myself fixated upon tonight is a good cup of tea.”
The floorboards groan, only once, as Hubert shifts his weight and catches himself. “Don’t play coy, von Aegir.”
“Shall I put it into your own words? Every time you open your mouth it’s to beg for your handler like a wanton babe. You spend all of your time fretting over where I am, following me around with the desperation of a mongrel hoping to be made a lapdog. Every sliver of advice you offer is a hackneyed attempt at shadow games far from the noble path. I trust even an imbecile such as yourself can understand the implications of such a sharp change in behavior.”
All Ferdinand can do is laugh. Loudly. “You do realize we are engaged in such shadow games together, do you not? I am keeping you abreast of my work. If I did not practice my sigils so diligently, you would be here to deliver a scathing attack on my commitment to the cause instead.”
“…Even diligence can go too far.”
“Particularly rich, coming from you!”
“Ferdinand,” he snarls, as if Ferdinand is committing some dire treason by interrupting this rot.
Still, it is sharp enough that Ferdinand takes a step back and waits.
This time when Hubert speaks, his words are not a knife wielded in an outstretched hand to keep all at a distance. It is personal. It is made to hurt.
“Fixation was the polite way to put it,” Hubert says, the same way he builds suspense in an interrogation, the gentle slide of the plunger before the syringe slips venom straight into Ferdinand’s carotid artery. “In cruder terms: I will no longer suffer your infatuation.”
When there is no answer, Hubert clears his throat. “I realize it must be difficult to foster…friendships in this environment, when I consume so much of your time with our work. It is only natural that you would adapt to the situation as you always have.”
As though loving this infuriating, self-flagellating man is an adaptation.
And Hubert is still talking. Still striking the whip.
There are compliments to Ferdinand’s impeccable ability to thrive, his industry. His positivity in the face of suffering. His service to the Empire. A veritable panoply of verbal metals of valor; a sympathy bouquet of wilted compliments.
Ferdinand has not glutted himself on an entire continent of politics without learning what makes people tick. He may not have studied the art of eliciting a truthful confession while tearing off fingernails with pliers, but he has studied mankind, and the man before him has always been his most captivating subject. There is no need for such divisive cruelty—over an unspoken, unobtrusive fondness, no less—unless Hubert seeks to drive him away from their mission entirely. You are better than these shadow games. Leave them to bloodier hands.
He has heard all that before. It is a defense mechanism. The intent is protective, in that warped way Hubert has of expressing his rare appreciation for the living. And yet.
To have this thrown in his face is one thing.
To hear these particular words, that his world is in some way limited to his caregivers and he will necessarily imprint upon them like some fledgling bird, desperate for Hubert to bring him sustenance in the terrifying dark?
Anger is too simple a word for what Ferdinand feels now.
“You are a dear friend, Hubert.” His voice slices clear through Hubert’s dear little speech, easy as a tailor’s shears through a length of silk. “I have never asked more than that.”
It is only when Ferdinand’s hands graze the tea table that he realizes they are shaking. He, all of him, is shaking.
It is only natural that you would adapt.
So be it. He has learned his lessons well.
“After all, it is only natural that you would feel protective of me, is it not?” Ferdinand tips up his face, widens his eyes, flashes that look of perfect pitiful candor, artless and adrift.
“Because you did this to me.”
He has never spoken the words before. Never thought them. They change nothing.
That does not make them any less true.
It is so quiet then that Ferdinand cannot be sure whether Hubert remains. Not a single rasp of breath. He could have warped, could have stepped out of the room with soundless steps and left Ferdinand raving at an empty room. Squaring his shoulders, Ferdinand paces furiously to the last place he heard the floorboards betray an occupant and holds one arm out into the air.
Without hesitation, Hubert takes his sleeve.
That is all it takes for Ferdinand to bind his arm, hauling the man near enough that Ferdinand can feel the brutal rigidity of his every limb, like a cicada’s shell twisted in on itself, a louse trapped mid-molt.
“That is what you wish to hear, is it not?” Ferdinand spits, and for all the times he has woken with nothing but the agony of the blaze in his eyes, he hopes they damn well burn with fury now. “Blame. Censure. Loathing. Does it finally bring you peace to hear it in my voice instead of your own?”
He drops his hand, and it takes Hubert by such surprise that the man drops in turn, stumbling back with something Ferdinand could charitably call a whimper.
“No. I doubt it. You know me as well as I do you. You know what a lie sounds like on my tongue.”
“Shall we play a little game? Two truths and a lie for you, von Vestra.” He lets the words hang. A razor glancing across a throat, that poisonous syringe prepared for the plunge. Hubert will never have another student quite like Ferdinand von Aegir; let them both know it. “You did this to me. I blame you. I love you. Take your damn pick.”
Silence again. Funny. He can’t remember the last time he heard Hubert breathe.
Something brushes against his wrist, just missing the cuff of his sleeve, and Ferdinand jerks away with a snarl. “Get out.”
There are no footsteps. The door’s hinges do not squeal.
But Ferdinand has lost enough to know that his unlucky shadow will visit him no more.
Updates will be a little longer in coming as my job enters Hell Season through April, but please know I'll be actively agonizing over (/working on) this!!
Some brief housekeeping:
- I am so behind on replying to comments, so I offer you this meal in distraction while I scurry off to do that. (Each is so tremendously appreciated!)
- Note the new tags and updated rating!
- Chapter-specific content warnings: Wartime fear/stress, background character death, and a post-battle scene involving the environmental aftermath of violence. (I am not sure if this is an identifiable trigger, but I have a related natural disaster one myself, so I wanted to note this. Here be war, even if Ferdinand cannot witness it.)
There is also a Hubert pov prologue linked in the series, if you missed it!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Imperial Year 1185
If Ferdinand listens carefully, he can pick out Caspar’s voice among the battalion cheering in riotous joy from clear across the monastery. Most soldiers have drifted between commanders as easily as they now drift throughout the party grounds, so far into their cups that only joy is more at home than drunkenness in Garreg Mach tonight. Caspar’s people are as devout to their general as a pig to the mud, and twice as loud, though Ferdinand would much rather have their distant echoes than the shrieking bursts of fireworks that light up the sky outside his office window. The Millennium Festival it may be, but a little forewarning would have been much appreciated. At least no one was around to see Ferdinand bolt behind his desk like a stray tabby, or worse, like one of the bumbling messenger owls careening into the glass.
In truth, Ferdinand should have retreated to his own room hours ago after he dismissed Fleche to go party with her friends and enjoy the festivities in his stead. She promised to fetch a plate of treats and return to eat with him up on the balcony, but so far there has been no word, to Ferdinand’s immeasurable relief. There are simply too many people, too much noise, and to be offered a plate of similar chaos would only turn his stomach.
He prefers the quiet, he reminds himself. The careful study of his plans, the diligent honing of his mind’s edge, all of which will be easily managed from the more admirably soundproofed walls of his room. There is absolutely nothing he can do in his own office without his secretary, and so there is no reason for him to be here at all, pacing the room to the beat of distant dances, filling his ears with their happy songs.
In another life he would bow and challenge the Emperor to a dance, nip at her heels and twirl her with peerless precision, the tempo thrumming in his blood once more.
In this life he counts only the steps it would take to retreat.
A floorboard creaks in the hall outside, and Ferdinand drags himself to his feet before the inevitable knock. He clasps his hands behind his back to complete his picture of refined contemplation as he stages himself by the window and stands shrouded by a rich background of velvet.
Please do not let it be the Professor, he sighs through his teeth. Ever since their miraculous reappearance, Byleth has been trying to entrap him in pointless conversation — the kind no doubt full of inane sympathies and newly curdled guilt, which Ferdinand had enough of three years ago and frankly hopes to never hear again. Or worse, Byleth will attempt to offer Advice. Perhaps Ferdinand might submit his questions via the anonymous box once more, after confessing every anxiety aloud for Fleche’s dictation. A charming system indeed.
When Edelgard brought the Professor to meet them all in the war room, Dorothea had touched Ferdinand’s shoulder and whispered comfortingly, they’re exactly as you remember them. And Ferdinand laughed, smile souring, for he scarcely remembered what any of them looked like at all. Miserable? Haggard? Carved down to little more than a gravedigger’s shiv?
There is nothing to be said.
“Ferdinand?” calls a whiskey-sour voice with considerably more attitude than Byleth could ever imbue into the word, and Ferdinand’s shoulders drop a full inch. “Are you skulking about in there again?”
“Merely resting my eyes from the strain of basking in your glory, my princess!” He hastens to the door and flings it open to catch the tail of Manuela’s bubbling laughter, still a prize to be savored.
“Ever the charmer.”
Her perfume drifts by in a lush cloud of camellia and citrus, and Ferdinand follows carefully behind, unable to hear her footsteps over the din of the fireworks. The most picturesque place in the room is surely the window he braced himself against earlier, so he takes up position against the opposite curtain, turning his face so the fireworks will catch his expression and let his eyes shine at her. Sometimes it is enough for a placating trick of attention from a meager audience of one, and maybe it will be enough to hold her there.
What Ferdinand doesn’t smell is the burn of spilled alcohol; either she changed for the festivities or has been working half the night. They have had many discussions of late about Manuela’s future leadership of an educational board in Enbarr, one that will not only restructure the state of the rural charity schools but all of academia as well. Even the monastery and Officers Academy may fall under her domain someday. They will be in good hands.
“Ah! Did you think further on the standardized entrance exams? I still believe the idea has merit as a basic framework, though of course it cannot bear the full weight of evaluation for our students. A more well-rounded set of factors—”
Manuela draws the curtains shut in a clattering rush of fabric and fasteners, startling him from his place. “There. The candles are out, the windows are closed, and here we are. You and I. A pair of lovebirds, young and fancy-free!” Her hands close lightly on his elbow, a familiar touch from the distant days when she would pull him from his sickbed for a daily stroll around the gardens. Now there is a considerably different destination.
“Off to the party we go!”
She steps forward, all her weight forced into his elbow to leave him the choice of moving along or dropping her like a pariah.
Ferdinand drops his arm quick enough to tuck it around her waist instead, spinning her around into a gentle embrace. An inch of scandal to spare them both, as it were.
“Ferdinand!” she gasps with a stage horror, and he can all but feel the flat of her imaginary opera fan smacking him on the shoulder. “I know, I know. The crowd bothers you. You do realize there’ll be a crush wherever handsome Sir Aegir goes in Enbarr, don’t you? You’ve got to get in your practice ahead of time. And everyone’s been asking for you, my dear.”
“I do so hate to deprive you,” Ferdinand demurs, and though a distant part of him truly does balk at such discourtesy, it is a mantra of refusal by now: furrow his brows, tilt his head, widen his eyes, pinch his lips taut in the corners. Present the right image and pity will follow. This is the only dance he knows.
“But,” she sighs.
“But I cannot impose upon my fellows in their time of joy, you see.”
Manuela twists in his arms, freeing herself enough for dramatics — a finger pointed in his face, judging by the slight tickle of air against his upper lip. “And what about the volunteer opera we’re putting together? You promised me you’d think about it, but I guess that’s a no, too.”
His heart lurches in his chest. There will be no time. He will not give anyone else the chance to sing the mourner’s dirge.
“You are busy. You have your letters. You simply can’t until you’ve shut yourself away for another hundred years, poor, sorry thing that you are. I’m rolling my eyes at you, my dear. I am not happy.” Manuela’s knuckle curls under his petulant chin, lifting his head as though he is merely a fussy child.
“Regrettably,” Ferdinand repeats, voice firmer this time.
“Strange that you opened the door at all when you so value your solitude!” She huffs and pulls away from him, pacing the room. If Manuela had a glass in her hand, she surely would have tossed it in his face by now, but somewhere between the sickroom and office she dug a whole new well of patience for him alone. “Do you know how often I’ve had miserable jerks crying on my shoulder about their stupid feelings? And I always think, you know who’s the sweetest man with the biggest heart I’ve ever met? My Ferdinand. And you know who refuses to peep a word about his stupid manly feeling these days? My Ferdinand. You’ll have me in tears here in a moment. Is that what you want? Making such a pretty young woman cry?”
“Of course not! Manuela, please.”
She sucks in a breath, more sob than anything else. “And now it’s first names! What happened to being your princess?”
“I—” Ferdinand can take big, dramatic breaths too, and he does so now. It rolls in through his nose and out through his lips, passing through his chest as a stabilizing force. “I am not a child to be wrapped around your little finger.”
“Finally we’re getting somewhere! I agree entirely. So what are you?”
Saints above, this is far worse than anything the Professor would cook up for him. Did Edelgard put her up to this? Send Ferdinand’s childhood idol in to shock him back into the compliant, yapping pup they’d all so rather have?
No, that is unfair. Manuela has orbited him with fretful, forceful care ever since he first opened his eyes in the infirmary and failed to see her divine visage. Before Edelgard reassigned Fleche from the general administrative staffing pool, it was Manuela who chattered in his ears and kept him moving between his training sessions with Hubert and Petra, half nurse and half overbearing mother. That she comes to him now, forcefully playful and picking at his unhappy seams, is no great mystery.
“Am I meant to answer Ferdinand von Aegir?” he tries at last.
Manuela chokes back a laugh. “Well. I should hope so. And what else?”
“I am…not at the party?”
He spreads his arms to the dark and empty room. “Broodingly reclusive?”
“Broodingly? Like the Death Knight?”
“There we are.”
“That will never do!” Ferdinand cries, falling into the dread agony of her scene as easily as he now sinks into his favorite chair. A moment later she flits onto the edge of the armrest, a kestrel back to its partner’s glove. Perfect. She’ll be less likely to trip and break a heel in the darkness this way.
“It certainly won’t. Now listen to me, darling. It’s all tactics. A mutually beneficial arrangement. If you grace the volunteer choir with your lovely self, the girls will be eating out of your hand. A man needs a proper flock if he’s going to play politics. So you get to know them, they get to know you, and soon enough you’re back in Enbarr with doves singing in every ear. You enter any room, at any party, in any circle, and you’ll have a friend there waiting to take your hand. None of those malingering sacks of shit will have anything near the support you do.”
A drip of cold sweat slips down the back of Ferdinand’s neck, and for a split second, he almost thinks it poison. Is this how the monsters will come for him? Spinning the sweetest dream of distraction while a syringe slides into his neck. They discussed it once, when Hubert still spoke to him: the risk of replacement. Low, Hubert promised. They are unlikely to replicate any of the traits that would fool you, and they cannot feasibly replace your own idiosyncrasies.
There would be no value in replacing Manuela, he reminds himself firmly. Not until she has taken her government position, and Ferdinand will never let the shadows stand in her way. If she is off, too sweet and too patient, it is only the same pity that warps everyone around him, the same game he chose to play.
She does not see him. She sees a child leaving roses at her feet, poetry at her door.
And that dream, too, must end.
With gentle apology laced into every word and a smile on his face, Ferdinand says, “I am not going into politics.”
Manuela shifts at once, silk sliding against the polished wood. “Of course you are. You’re the Emperor’s chief aide—”
“For lack of a better.”
“Yes. For lack of a better in all the world.” Something brushes gently at the too-long tresses tucked behind his ears, and then her silks rustle once more. Two hands gripping tight to delicate fabric lest they reach out? “Listen to me. None of this has to change your plans. How the hell can this stop you? None of this—and how could it change that you love to sing? It’s been so very long since you hummed a single note with me.”
Ferdinand reaches out to her, startled and concerned by her wavering pitch even as her words pierce stiletto-sharp. “My princess—”
Something wet plummets to his outstretched hand as she stands to escape his touch. Ferdinand runs his fingers through it and spreads the salty stain over his knuckles.
The first thing an actress learns is how to cry.
“Come to the party, Ferdinand. Taste the sweet rolls and punch. Let a little of your heart shine again. Broaden your horizons, make some new friends—”
It must be difficult to foster friendships, for someone like you. Fixated on the precious few who reach out their hands to such a burden. Pathetic. A fledgling bird; better to fall and snap your neck.
“I know you have your work,” Manuela sniffs, regaining control of herself now. He wonders hazily if her mascara is running, if he should say something, remind her, but no words float to the surface of his mind at all. “And I know it takes a toll on you. I only wish you would let us help. I may chat your ear off, but I’d rather listen to you than any bastard date of mine.”
Ferdinand mumbles something in answer, some vague assertion of thanks. He knows she cares. He knows, real and true, and all he feels is deafening silence, the snap of a log crumpling in the fireplace as she takes her scalpel and approaches the wound—
“I know whatever you and Hubert have is…fraught.”
And laughter breaks from his throat, cruel and wild. “Hubert and I have nothing at all.”
It is true.
For months Ferdinand has whispered to the wind, catching every word around him and slipping it into his superior officer’s ear. No tea, no picnics, no distractions. He is fully trained. He is a clever head and sigil-worn fingers. He is nothing more. He was never anything more.
Except—a memory three months gone, early fall, a shiver in his limbs. Arundel bidding him follow for a dinner he could not avoid. The heaviness of roast elk and pheasant in his stomach, plate after plate after plate of rare and bloody game. Spices drifting through his head in a fog of funerary incense, handfuls of saffron for the pyre, then the sharp, acrid cut of coffee the moment he stepped into his rooms. Hubert’s careful hands at his collar, his wrists, his waist, slipping free cravat and cuff-links and belt in short order. The drift of bare fingertips attuned to the slightest poison, the faintest trace of magical tampering. Never has Ferdinand had such a diligent, thankless valet. And then the silent ache of Hubert’s hands smoothing down the thin fabric spanning Ferdinand’s broad back, palms pressed to the blades of his shoulders, all of Ferdinand broken down to shirtsleeves and longing, waiting, thinking he would finally get the apology he was owed.
Hubert offered no more than short, harsh breaths against the nape of his bare neck. Fingertips trembling with restraint where they rested, as if in recognition that he had been barred from the warmth of Ferdinand’s skin. As if this was more than vigilance in action, Hubert dropping by to inspect and maintain his assets after a harrowing battle, just as Ferdinand once took oil and cloth to his armor after each use.
It would take only two words: I’m sorry.
Hubert said nothing at all.
Funny that it could hurt him, when all his work has lapsed into brutal silence these days. No matter how many letters Ferdinand sends to the Kingdom, pleading for communication if not compromise, he receives not a single word. Mercedes and the local churches have gone dark. Galatea sent no orders for winter rations to the Alliance’s protected coalition of neutral merchants. It was always a long-shot on the political front, but the thought that he has brought down embargo upon former friends, or accusations of sedition?
Better to be nothing than a failure.
Ideal, too, that Ferdinand can record none of this for posterity. His true work will vanish with him in the end, unspoken by the people, unremarked by the histories, and Hubert will—
“It does not matter,” Ferdinand says softly. It will all be over soon enough.
He takes Manuela’s hand, allows it to tremble. Curls harmony into his tone as he begs, “I fear I have little energy left for the festivities tonight. It has fouled my temper and I humbly beg your pardon for it.” Kisses her knuckles. “If your sympathy holds, I would not object to a guide back to my rooms. It is more difficult to navigate with so many bodies wandering the halls.”
Ferdinand knows the steps so well he wonders that he does not sleep walk them, but no one can spite him a moment of companionship, of solemn weakness. Nor can Manuela truly turn down such a request after the many times she has been guided back to her quarters by more sober hands.
“Alright,” she sighs, a warm arm tucking against his. “But we’ll take the long way to avoid the crowd. Call it a dance.”
And as her words drape him in a veil of white noise, Ferdinand hazards an honest smile. At least he will have had this one small dream come true.
One first, last waltz with his idol on a night with such joy in the air.
“Conditions in Gaspard continue to deteriorate. The depopulation of the area is easily attributed to famine, yet they engage in no discernible trade to alleviate the shortfall. Although the Albinean blockade holds for now, they have expressed growing concern about Faerghans attempting to flee across the channel once spring allows safe passage. I have held back any instruction until receipt of the Alliance’s report. Edmund is proceeding with construction of a neutral relocation area for any fleeing Galatea by way of the northern coast. She has been warned of the likelihood of plants by Our Enemy and the necessity of separating them from Derdriu at all—”
A cool sea breeze tickles Ferdinand’s nose, all salt and algae bloom, and whisks the words from his lips.
The windows are closed. All of them. They are in landlocked Garreg Mach, the Pegasus Moon cold as steel in the winter sky, and not a breath of ocean’s clarity will reach them for many months yet, if the crosswinds bring it at all.
“At all…?” Fleche prompts again from the desk.
“Quiet now. Something is wrong.”
Ferdinand stands from his chair, moves carefully to the window, and slides between glass and curtain to block out all other sound. He listens.
There is a trick to cooling down an overheated body, one that he uses often when night terrors wake him in a sweat: a dash of cool water against his wrists, forehead, and the back of his neck. He feels it there now, though there is no moisture, only a light layer of something that kisses his skin until he rubs it away with a firm touch.
“Do you see anything on my wrist?” Ferdinand holds out an arm as Fleche joins him behind the curtains.
“No.” She isn’t confused, only sharp. Waiting. “Tripwire?”
A good guess, but no. Ferdinand shakes his head.
He isn’t attuned to the magic, is the thing. Hubert lectured him on so many kinds of magical resonances in the early days of detailing the sigil work. Their close quarters gave Ferdinand enough of a sense for Hubert’s magic that he can feel its casting around him and knows when to duck, but this feels nothing like the shifting barometric pressure of reason altering a room and even less like a faultline-break in one of the alarm spells laid around the monastery. It is something else. Harmonizing.
Then the familiar acrid burn of ozone rips through the room, and Ferdinand has just enough time to turn before an arm folds around his neck, a second clamped around his stomach, the warp spell wrenching away from a shouting, frantic Fleche—
The port breaks too soon. Unbalanced, it drops them in a wheezing pile of three among a sudden storm of dust.
A smack to the stone floor, an echo—then the hard thump of a body hitting the earth, all the air rushing out of one pair of lungs as it heaves into another, choked and hacking.
Scuffling. Metal hits the floor.
The flick of a switchblade opening.
“Fuck’s sake, Fleche,” rasps Hubert, voice so raw it is nearly unrecognizable, and still it sends Ferdinand’s stomach swooping. “Put it away. As if I didn’t teach you in the first place.”
She does not, in fact, put it away.
Another pass, another snarl as Hubert wrestles her off, still struggling for his own breath after—she must have choked him, snapped her thin arms tight across his throat while he was busy making off with Ferdinand like a highwayman in the night.
“Hold,” Ferdinand barks, and to his shock, they do. “Fleche, it is him in truth.” There is no mistaking the familiar shudder of his warp spell, let alone the foul manners.
“He abducted you! Jackass in truth, more like.”
All Hubert does is grunt disagreeably, as if his breathy wheezing is even minutely imposing.
Stone floor, stone walls? Hubert has never warped Ferdinand anywhere he could not recognize, but he has no memory of this place, of—is it pitch black, that Fleche could not recognize who had grabbed them? He needs information, or the solitude to gain it away from prying eyes. Unsteady even as he clamps down on the panic, he asks, “Where are we?”
Fleche’s hands find his arm at once. “Storeroom. We’re still in Garreg Mach.”
“Wine cellar,” Hubert clarifies. Every word is clipped further than usual, even his tone tucked up neat and tidy without a single added beat of bored, self-important drawl. “The evacuation location for all noncombatants. You have fifteen minutes before you’re swimming in maids, so I suggest you select your corner of choice.”
“We’re under attack?” Though Fleche is quick to help Ferdinand to his feet and dust off his newly mussed clothes, her attention is clearly on Hubert—on her superior officer, not her charge.
“A fine deduction.”
“My orders, Sir.”
“Ferdinand. Do not allow the staff to light fires in this room. Even the old barrels will go up in an instant. Magelight will be adequate. If no one else, some of Her Majesty’s maids have skill enough to cast. Alert me if the doors do not hold—”
“My orders,” Fleche snaps, the sound bouncing off the walls in a manifold demand. “Sir.”
Hubert must be rolling his eyes by now at such impudence. “As ever, soldier. Defend von Aegir with your life.”
When, precisely, did she rank from secretary to soldier? Ferdinand does not even have time to bristle, let alone laugh at the preposterousness of Fleche standing between him and the door with a switchblade clutched in her fist.
“We are at war, von Vestra! If nothing else I can run your messages. I know the crawlspaces better than any, as you well know, after how often you’ve had me—”
“Know your place,” Hubert snarls.
“She does,” Ferdinand cuts in, “And it is not here. Hubert. Give her this chance.”
It occurs to him exactly two seconds after the words come out of his mouth that Hubert cannot feasibly agree. It is an impossible position — Ferdinand has no authority, no military command. Even if he is obviously perfectly correct in this situation, for Hubert to defer to his decisions is an egregious breach of the chain of command, let alone Hubert’s own pride. He should have ordered Fleche to back down, tested if she would still take his orders now that the muzzle has fallen away.
Yet Hubert only sighs. “Report to Ashlen. Southern block. Go.”
Fleche tarries long enough to wrap her arms around Ferdinand and squeeze once, and then she is gone, only a distant pounding of quick feet against the echoing stone.
Her knife sits heavy in Ferdinand’s pocket where she tucked it during the hug. He slides his hand over the fabric, remembering all too well what the weight of a weapon felt like in his palm, the natural curl of his fingers around the hilt of a sword. Her courage and desperation to prove herself are familiar. A nostalgia that does not ache, exactly, though he must swallow it down with pleasure like any other poison.
The cellar is quiet as the depths of the earth, not even a drip of water tumbling through dark crevices. Ferdinand can feel the scathing acid of Hubert’s gaze trained upon him, the savage force of whatever Hubert still refuses to say, and some pitiful, loathsome part of him fears it more than the enemy at the gate.
Hubert’s heels click against the stone. Nearer.
Before the accident, whenever Ferdinand joined his elders around the war table, he would puff himself up into the new reaches of his height, the new broadness of his chest, straightening his shoulders and making sure he always lectured Hubert by staring just above the man’s sole doleful eye. Ferdinand knows all too well that he looked like a toddler playing knights and robbers, but it is the only recourse he has now, stiffening with the seriousness of the situation and ensuring his eyes, wherever they land, will not fall upon Hubert.
“Enemy numbers?” Ferdinand asks.
“Uncertain. Ladislava is up in the cloud cover as we speak.”
“And Her Majesty?”
“Doubtlessly leading the charge.”
When Hubert’s steps cease, Ferdinand takes two paces of his own. “Then why, might I ask, are you here?”
He misjudged the distance, for Hubert’s sigh flutters lightly over Ferdinand’s own face. If only he could discern the shape of those thin lips by the foul trace of coffee that curls around them. Characteristically grim? A scowl, a sneer, a tremor of fear?
It would not even take another step more, only the gentlest lean forward, but—
“Do I require your assistance to manage a troop of domestics?” Ferdinand snaps, “You cannot ask me to believe the Emperor has bid you come instruct me in the corralling of anxious cooks. A prestigious art I am sure, and one of the Minister of the Imperial Household’s many illustrious skills, but scarcely the equivalent of a single other thing you might be doing while the monastery burns.”
“Perhaps you mean to chain me to a wine barrel for fear I will wander and break my pretty neck.”
Hubert’s hand closes around Ferdinand’s throat at once, a gloved thumb stroking along the thin skin where Ferdinand’s pulse beats so strong. His thumb stops at the soft space just under Ferdinand’s chin and traps his head in an awkward arch as Hubert leans in to growl, “Keep the sigil on.”
And then he’s gone.
Ferdinand stumbles forward into the newly empty space, swearing a particularly un-noble amount as he regains his footing and clutches over his heart in a desperate bid to calm it, now. He takes three, four deep breaths. He kneels, bitter, and traces his fingers upon the filthy floor.
With ten minutes at most until the swarm, Ferdinand follows the distant holler of the world outside until he locates the wooden doors and the massive planks that will bar them shut. He walks the perimeter of the room, counting, judging, calculating. A few quick adjustments to the freestanding shelves is all it takes to maximize the floorspace, and Ferdinand shoulders one of the empty barrels and hoists it up onto its fellows to create makeshift steps up onto the inbuilt cabinets. It will make for cramped and secure hiding holes for the youngest pages and scullery girls to lie down in, keeping them out from underfoot.
He is ready when the doors slam open and the first round of staff are ushered inside by hollering soldiers. Ferdinand knows few by name, but his own face is unmistakable, his dauntless smile unwavering. As they stream in through the door, Ferdinand issues directions to the sections reserved for cooks, gardeners, household staff, grooms, each settled with their fellows to boost the sense of camaraderie rather than incubate further fear in a mess of strangers. Only the youngest does he direct elsewhere, up into the crawl spaces until each corner is filled, and then into the central reinforced area, along with the rare young lass unfortunate enough to be with child in such dark days. If the doors break it will not matter, but to be surrounded on all sides by their elders helps the youngest keep calm.
Before the soldiers close the door, Ferdinand shouts to the first footman, the head cook, and the trio of housekeepers: all accounted for? They mutter among themselves in the darkness, and Ferdinand calls for the magelights for an easier count. None are missing save those who volunteered to run ammunition and messages, or to shelter in solitude down in the accursed crypts.
Ferdinand and a strapping young groomsman, far too tall for his meager years, hoist up the barricade and settle it into the metal braces. Others step forward to push barrels against the doors, shifting over the shelves that Ferdinand prepared before.
As they work, tiny shoes dance across the floor until a small hand clutches at his.
He may know few of the monastery staff, but there is no mistaking Edelgard’s smallest maid, a tiny slip of a girl named Isolde who stowed away in the supply wagon when the army passed through the Oghma mountains. She could braid hair, she said. And she’d heard the Emperor had a lot of hair to be braided.
Isolde tugs gently on Ferdinand’s hand and leads him into that centrally reinforced area himself. There is no use arguing it in front of such a crowd. As soon as he settles, hemmed in on every side but strangely not the slightest bit cramped, Isolde climbs into his lap and buries her wet face against his shoulder.
“Fardi,” she sobs, quiet enough that even Ferdinand has to strain his ears to hear the soft whisper of her accent, “I am scared.”
The room is silent as Ferdinand tucks her more comfortably into his arms, rubbing gently at her shaking back. Fear has no smell, no sound, yet Ferdinand senses it like the shift in the air before a storm, the crisp words of a letter that heralds future casualties. And their eyes, he is sure, rest upon him.
For guidance, or as effigy of all their vulnerabilities, he cannot say.
There was a time when Ferdinand begged for such a final command, one last plea for inconsequential leadership, as if the veterans’ hospital would need a stuck-up prefect wandering the halls. But he’d promised he still had worth—he could still sing, still lift their spirits dashed so low.
Ferdinand does not want this. Any of it.
“Never fear, my dearie dear,” Ferdinand hums to her, low and slow. “Do you remember the song Miss Manuela taught us? The counting song?”
Isolde shakes so badly he cannot tell if it is a yes or a no. Only as he begins to sing, wordless at first with a tumble of la-da-da-da-daa falling from his lips, does she pull away the slightest bit from his chest.
Please let her remember the words, Ferdinand prays, keenly aware that he holds the attention of every soul in the room. Or at least let someone else know them.
“Oh, come and I will sing you,” he calls out, and for all the music buoys him up in an instant, the fear sends his heart careening towards a speedy crash. It prickles under his skin like each of his seams is kept together with needles instead of thread, a strange nausea more pressing than the shouts of battle far above them, for those at least he knows how to face.
An enemy never dares look away.
Maybe it is cowardice for Ferdinand to value his privacy to the point of isolation, but every time his voice rings out there are countless ears to hear him, listeners he does not intend and cannot distinguish, cannot control. It is hard enough to judge the attention of Fleche or Edelgard, locked in rooms with them for hours on end in ceaseless conversation—have they turned their heads away? Do their eyes wander? Have they sundered his voice from the rest of him, kept the useful part and discarded the rest, just as his own mind trips over scattered images and builds misshapen semblances out of their fading shadows?
Ferdinand was trained to be a voice. What if no one listens, or worse, if they curl their lips into mockery and gossip before his unknowing face? Even Hubert cannot stand the sound of him now, and—Hubert is listening, he realizes with a lurching horror.
So softly, her voice warbling on a semblance of song, Isolde asks, “What will you sing me?”
“I will sing you one-o,” Ferdinand pipes at once, before he loses his nerve, and his voice cracks wretchedly in the middle of the simple words.
Isolde is quiet for a moment, and then two other little voices around the circle join in as they ask, “What will the one be?”
“One the one that’s all alone and ever more shall be so.”
Ah. The song is rather despairing without the additional verses. Strange how he never noticed before.
Ferdinand clears his throat to begin the second verse and barely has time for his mouth to shape the C before a dozen others around him burst into song.
Come and I will sing you.
The maids titter breathlessly among themselves, astonished by their own daring, and then the children raise a whole raucous cry.
What will you sing me?
There is no controlling it after that. Ferdinand kept no count of how many bodies now crowd the cellar, rank with alcohol and fear-slick sweat, but it feels as though every single voice has joined in. All he can do is hold Isolde fast as she claps her hands to the beat, lend his tenor to guide the messier lyrics when many others drop out, and try not to consider what Hubert thinks of forging through a slaughter with his own personal choral accompaniment. If that malingering wretch did not already regret ever extending his hand to Ferdinand, he surely, absolutely, positively did now.
Four sainted wand’rers,
Surely this is better than tears and hysterics! Even Hubert could not argue that.
Eight Seiros sermons,
Well that line would need changing. Ah. Perhaps Ferdinand should have chosen a less pious folksong, though he has never strictly heard it in Church circumstances. Too many lines seem to make no sense at all for the clear and careful methodology of the religion they’re currently burning down outside. But the thrum of it, the count and the joined voices, is simply so…human.
They reach the final stanza, and every voice rises to ask, “What will the twelve be?”
And falls silent.
Ferdinand sucks in a deep breath that fills his lungs to bursting and belts, “Twelve moons a’shining, eleven that turn’d back on heaven, ten elite heroes, nine bright-eyed shiners, eight Seiros sermons, seven stars under the sky, six the six pallbearers, five ferrymen under the bush, four sainted wand’rers, three of them were drivers, two of them were lily white babes clothed all in green-o, one the one that’s all alone and ever more shall be so!”
The room shudders with waves of quiet cheers, applause, and yes, laughter too, but bright and true. Ferdinand smiles as Isolde hugs around his neck and buries her clever fingers into his hair—she isn’t crying at all now, and he will make a fool of himself a hundred times over if it keeps her cheeks dry.
“You got a fancy opera one?” someone hollers, the first of a new round of curious mumblings.
“Please, Fardi?” comes the small, yet increasingly demanding voice tucked up against him.
“One more, and then I beg a rest, my friends. But if you so please, I hope you will pick up with a melody of your own! Now allow me to think…”
Ferdinand adjusts his passenger and casts his mind back to the days when he was that small, standing on his cushioned chair in the Prime Minister’s box at the opera house to see the nymphs and fauns dance across the stage. Once upon a time his princess, cunningly dressed as a wandering mercenary so no one would ever suspect her a noble, had stumbled upon a grove of furiously insular fairies who wanted nothing whatsoever to do with men. When she threw off her disguise they had a grand fete of welcome, but before that, there was a song…
“Dare you haunt our hallowed green?” Ferdinand calls, pitching his voice as high as he can feasibly carry it. “None but fairies here are seen! Down and sleep, wake and weep. Oh pinch him black and pinch him blue, that seeks to steal a lover true!” He cups Isolde’s face in his broad palms and gently pinches her little cheeks between thumb and forefinger.
Only when she giggles and squirms does he continue, tossing his head so the long copper waves of his hair might shine in the magelight. “When you come to hear us sing or to tread our fairy ring…? Oh pinch him black and pinch him blue!”
Isolde ducks from his roving fingers this time, but forgets her prone stomach, where Ferdinand quickly seizes upon her for a vicious round of tickles.
“Thus our nails shall handle you!”
She shrieks and wriggles out of his grasp, finding sanctuary in another lap nearby until that respite too betrays her, and soon enough there is naught but a field of happy screaming. Only when Isolde throws herself back into Ferdinand’s arms with woeful complaints that she is tired of being fairy food, does everyone calm down.
But now there is quiet enough to hear.
Above them, a wyvern’s roar drowns out all their prayers. Two more bestial bellows follow in quick succession, and an earth-shattering crash that sends every wine barrel quaking in its confines. A battalion marching mere yards over their heads. Friend or foe calling down winter’s unforgiving frost, or the blaze of a wildfire spiraling out of control, all heat and light consuming.
“I tremble not at noise of war,” lifts a new voice, old and feeble and stronger for it. “I quake not at the thunder’s crack.”
“I shrink not at a blazing star.” A young woman at Ferdinand’s shoulder.
He has never heard this one in his life. The lull of it, hard and stable, unbreakable through strength of numbers—for everyone sings now, every soul in the room save Ferdinand himself—and the lyrics so harsh, for all they have been twisted into olden form.
A peasant’s song, it must be. A song of facing down the wars that generation after generation of their noble lords have brought screaming to their doors. Like this one. Just like this one.
But there is no anger in it, and Ferdinand cannot dream why. He only listens as their solemn prayers, their professions of resilience, roll over him like the tide.
Sea breeze touches his lips once more in a breath of song, rapids rushing, tumbling through his veins. No horror this time, no fear. Only the surety of comfort. Safety. It grows stronger with every word, every broken note offered by the chorus, and Ferdinand’s lungs lock with the fierce pressure upon his chest, a breathless fury, the same perfect instinct that crashes through him every time his crest sings to the surface—
The wave never hits.
Whatever it is sails on past.
And in its wake, there is only relief lapping at Ferdinand’s fingertips like minnows daring the shore.
Hours later, many hours after the world above them has gone utterly silent, imperial soldiers come to unbar the door. An aged gardener laughs with the haggard troops, asking what took them so long, and Ferdinand bites his tongue against the answer: the caging of captives into makeshift cells, the removal of bodies from the street for later identification and burial, to say nothing of the wyverns.
Isolde leads him back above ground until he can hear the clatter of the mess hall, the distinct shuffle of feet through the gardens to the north and the flutter of military banners through the eastern corridor. There, one of the elder maids whisks the little girl away, but only after assuring her that yes, all the braids she fitted into Ferdinand’s hair in the darkness really do suit him, yes darling, they do.
He bids her adieu, and not two steps later, a soldier barks in his direction.
“Sir Ferdinand! Please wait for your escort—”
The idea that Ferdinand could not find his way back to his own rooms from here is laughable, but no matter how weary the day’s travails have made him: public eye, public persona.
“I do not wish to inconvenience you…surely there are any number of more dire tasks calling,” Ferdinand reminds them, hoping that might do the trick.
“The monastery is in ruins, sir.” As if it wasn’t already. “Until an appropriate escort can be selected for you, we have been ordered to hold you in the mess hall.”
Ferdinand does not need to ask who made that particular order. He opens his mouth for a kindly, charmingly polite retort, then stops. Runs through the man’s words again. “What precisely do you mean by selected? Is not Fleche the one coming for me?”
That damned wyvern could have crashed down upon Ferdinand instead, crushed all his bones in an instant, and it would not hurt half as much as the terror ravaging through him now. No. Fleche is swift and brilliant and unstoppable and everything the nation needs, and it cannot—he cannot—take another step forward without her. He refuses. “Where is my secretary?”
“She’s safe, sir!” One of the soldiers takes him by the shoulders, preventing him from advancing further on them in a fury. “Merely, uh, unavailable. General Randolph did not survive his wounds. Admin hasn’t appointed a temporary replacement, but Marquis Vestra is—”
“Your spear, soldier.”
Ferdinand reaches out and plucks the weapon from the other man’s lax fingers. The blade is dull, untreated by any oil or sharpening stone in many a week, and as he runs his bare hand along the shaft he feels no detail work or decoration of any sort. “This was your secondary? Not some family heirloom?”
“No, sir. Just part of the debris sealing the basement—”
With savage force, Ferdinand brings the wood down over his knee and sunders the shaft a third of the way from the blade. He turns it around until he grasps the rounded base in the palm of his hand, clutched much like he might a rapier, and the jagged end extends to the ground in a careful point. When Ferdinand hands the broken tip back to the soldier, the man accepts it with as much compliant shock as before.
“Thank you,” Ferdinand tells them. His tone never creeps an inch past mildly concerned civilian, all conciliation and humble gratitude. “I will do fine on my own from here on out. You are dismissed, men.”
They did not lie to him: the monastery has suffered. As Ferdinand makes his way north into the gardens, he nearly stumbles a half dozen times, so unaccustomed to the feel of a cane in his hand, albeit a makeshift one. He owns one, yes, some no doubt gaudy monstrosity tucked away in a corner of his room that someone procured for him early on, but it has never fit the image of helplessness he is meant to convey, and he far prefers the careful cadence of counting each step along his normal paths.
There are no normal paths now. Someone has beaten back the fallen rubble of the hedges and stonework into cryptic formations, no straight lines or perpendicular turns or single slip of reasonable planning, only the winding trails of a deer tiptoeing through the woods. His boots slip through mud and terrors far thinner, of piss or blood he cannot say while the reek of still-smoking embers masks all. Soldiers and servants scurry everywhere on missions of their own, some tucking themselves into private corners to sob with a bit of privacy and fresh air as their only companions. Ferdinand grits his teeth, smiles and nods as they pass, fits himself invisibly into the background as he scrapes his free hand raw against a patch of frosted brick.
He turns south toward the old student dormitories where Fleche resides, having rescinded all her noble proclivities in favor of a sliver of serenity by the greenhouse. It is quieter on this side of the monastery, all of the rooms either abandoned or claimed by nostalgic generals now busy elsewhere.
All Ferdinand knows is that there are stairs here, somewhere. He creeps forward, testing each step with his cane before he commits his foot, buoyed forward by the adrenaline of a grieving heart. Fleche needs him, needs someone who will hold her hand or sit in silent companionship as her world is smothered to silence, who will understand the repercussions beneath Randolph’s loss and lend her strength for the further losses on the horizon. She needs him now, before he is of no use to anyone, before he is one more whispered name in her impious prayers, before—
His cane slips through thin air as his eager feet continue marching. Gait longer than the stone, Ferdinand’s foot misses the first step entirely, clips the second at an angle, and down he goes, rump smacking the edge as he slides and shrieks.
His head swims.
Oh, Ferdinand thinks, staring upward. A sky that dark must be a very bad sign.
It takes him another two minutes to puzzle out just why that thought feels so wrong, so absurd, and when he finally barks out a laugh to the empty darkness above, every hound in the area howls in terrified kinship.
At least there are no more stairs to trouble him.
Instead, Ferdinand’s hand meets a razor-sharp edge of shattered glass the moment he reaches out to find his cane. The greenhouse. It will break Bernadetta’s heart. Edelgard, too, has found solace in her blooms, always arranging for her quarters to be decorated with the strongest, sweetest-smelling bouquet available.
“Fleche?” he yells, ever hopeful.
Ah, well, Ferdinand is used to being ignored by now. He reaches for the buttons of his jacket and strips the thick fabric from his shoulder, balling it around his hands until they are properly protected against the glass. The cane is nowhere in the yard radius around him, so Ferdinand scoots back to the edge of the stairs to ground himself.
This will take some doing. He tests his shoe against the glass and it sheers straight through the sole, proving once and for all the superiority of riding boots. The southern route will only bring him deeper into the debris field. Ferdinand sifts through his memory of this side of the monastery — a walkway that follows the dormitory, a wooden overhang to keep the rain from their doorways. With luck it shielded the path from the shrapnel, because otherwise Fleche will not be holed up in her room at all and this will be nothing but an exercise in self-fulfilling futility.
Using his wrapped hands as a broom in front of him, Ferdinand crawls slowly westward until he hits the flat base of…another round of stairs. Up is far easier than down, especially on his knees, but he takes care to sweep away all of the glass in fear of another spill. Then up he goes.
Though the walkway is not free of glass, there is far less to manage. Ferdinand keeps low to the ground as he clears the way and listens carefully for signs of occupancy. There are three rooms along this wall, then a turn to the right, two more—
His heart hammers in his chest, less a solid beat than a fist taken against the broken fragments of their world, a raw spurt of aching with every life-giving moment. Adrenaline crashing. If she is not there, if he has done nothing but trap himself like a helpless kitten and must beg for Hubert’s aid, Ferdinand is certain he will vomit. Another nice gift for whoever takes on the cleanup of this section of the monastery.
The second door is closed. Bolted. Ferdinand presses his ear to the wood and listens closely until the telltale sound of quiet sobs washes over him in aching relief. She is here.
Part of him did not believe until this moment. The rest will not believe until she is in his arms.
Ferdinand’s fist pounds against the wood three times, then a fourth for good measure. “Fleche? It is I—Ferdinand.” All that time spent getting here and he never once considered what to say. “I heard. I know. Please let me in?”
He sounds so Saints be-damned feeble. How many times has Fleche rolled her eyes—telling him each time she does—and grumbled that if his brain is stumbling over poetry, he may as well cleave straight to the heart of the matter?
“I will be right here for you until you are ready.” I will always be here for you. Everything I do is for a future where you can thrive. Ferdinand clears his throat, blinking away the acid-prick of tears welling to his eyes. “Though if you prefer no one sees your weeping, I understand entirely. I will however gently remind you that my presence is entirely ambivalent on that front, therefore…”
His head sinks to rest against the door, forehead pressed to the polished wood. “You are loved. You are not alone in this. Please know that.”
And as he promised, he stays.
Ferdinand and Caspar will see to the arrangements, the burial in Bergliez lands and execution of Randolph’s estate outside the Count’s control. For all that Fleche has stood between him and a demanding world, Ferdinand will return the favor for as long as he still draws breath.
An hour, then two. When she finally opens the door and reaches for his shoulder, when she falls into his arms as a solid weight, warm and real and brutally alive, Ferdinand holds her tight and swears.
No more war. No more monsters in the night.
- Fodlanized version of Great Big Sea's 'Come And I Will Sing You'
- The Fairies' Dance, a madrigal from Thomas Ravenscroft’s Brief Discourse, 1614
- Assorted lines from Orlando Gibbons’ First Set of Madrigals, 1612
@aureafila, now working on the catch-up-on-commenting challenge!
Chapter-specific content warnings: Arundel playing with his meal
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Under the baleful glow of the Lone Wolf Moon, imperial troops march on Arianrhod. They dig their camp out of snow banks and the long-frozen turf of abandoned fields, and though the Emperor is keen to lend her strength to the operation, the moment the imperial tent is pitched and warmed, she bows to her shadow’s scowling presence and brings Ferdinand in from the wagon.
There is little to say, or rather little they can without a careful mask of Silence. The success of a siege upon the famously impenetrable fortress will bring incalculable momentum to their cause and win them a foothold within Kingdom territory, but it is not the true reason for their surprise attack at such an inhospitable time of year. If Edelgard can take the fortress in winter, the troops whisper, why not take it in summer at far lesser cost?
It is the wolf slumbering in Arianrhod’s belly that they have come for, the one who smiles and coddles and slips poison in sugared whispers into the ears of her charmed followers. Only the innermost circle knows that Cornelia is here; only Ferdinand among them knows whose subordinate she truly is, that this is the culmination of three years of observation and futile attempts to pin her down.
Edelgard hands him a cup of tea as they settle in by the fire. It is no slight. His usual set does not travel well, and Ferdinand cannot begrudge his Emperor the simple distraction of such work to clear her mind before an upcoming battle. He bows his head to breathe in the dark richness of the cinnamon, broken only by a rare hint of fresh citrus, courtesy of the imperial pantry. “My thanks.”
She hums in return.
One of those meetings, then. Sometimes she wishes for his thoughts, other times only for the strange value of his presence.
The army will march with the dawn. Tonight Hubert and his people have a long night of planting new anti-warp devices around the outskirts of the city so the wolf cannot slip away into the night, and as a test of the technology’s usefulness against their true foe. Without a way to keep the termites in their nest, the exterminator will only drive them into new burrows, no less dangerous than before.
If Cornelia escapes, the mission will be a failure. If she falls, there will be repercussions. Arundel will act. They have only to determine how.
He raises his head to his Emperor, rolling his shoulders before leaning back in his chair and giving her his full attention. “Edelgard.”
A small puff of laughter escapes her. “I have a proposition for you. Count Bergliez raised the issue when we left him in the east—”
“I am surprised he raised any issues at all! One would imagine the man positively giddy at the thought of you hurling yourself onto a Faerghan pike and leaving him the foremost noble in Adrestia.”
“Giddy is certainly one word for it. Even so, he questioned who would retain control of camp in my absence. Normally he remains behind the lines as our secondary command.”
“Yes. Unlike the Emperor, misguided fool that she is, leading troops into battle and risking her own noble neck alongside her troops.”
“Misguided fool that I am,” she agrees, and it sounds almost like a smile. “Still. His question stands. We did not bring our full administrative complement on this excursion. Every general will be in the field.”
“This is what has you worried?” Surely there are more pressing matters on her mind.
“Not at all. If anything goes wrong in camp, you’ll be here to take command. You are the highest ranking non-military officer we have. And if anyone protests, I have given Fleche inarguable proof of your status.” Edelgard reaches out to take the empty teacup from his frozen hand, setting it on a side table. “Listen to me. I know you have your work with Hubert. But when this is all over, I will have you by my side in truth. It is high time everyone understood that.”
Ferdinand swallows hard. His hands knot into fists under the thick blanket laid over his lap, a stiffness that keeps his head from turning away from her thoughtful attention. She knows of their work, yes, but not their ultimatum. She offers him what cannot be.
“I am truly honored you think so highly of me, Your Highness. But…you will have ministers enough,” Ferdinand answers carefully. Even if it were possible, she has no need for the drama of a charity case.
“None are suitable for the post of Prime Minister.”
His head is shaking no before he realizes it; all of him is shaking. This is a dream long dead, and still she will give him no rest, will reach down into the dirt and pull jawbone and femur from the fetid soil and ask if they might serve. As if he is worthy, smeared in the blood of monsters and innocents alike, a murderer in word who can make good on no promise save the last: life for life, death for death.
“…Ask me again at the end of the war.” His hand raps on the arm of his chair, a wood that knocks clear and sharp. “Lest we draw foul luck upon us, of course.”
“Of course,” she echoes.
Something is wrong. She knows. But Ferdinand will not speak it, and Hubert will not speak it, and night falls before the morning’s battle, and the question goes unasked.
The specter of that foul luck follows Ferdinand all through the morning. He rises too late to accompany Edelgard to her speech before the troops, too late even to wave them off. There is nothing for him to do save wander to the kitchen tent for his breakfast, yet even the camp is accursed, their standard layout plagued by the winter’s whims, and a groom has to stop Ferdinand from walking straight into a snowbank when he follows the usual path.
Only the dregs of the soup vats remain, and a cook sends him away with a long-cold half bowl and the crusts of week-old bread. Better for their soldiers to have the heartiest pickings, is it not? That is their rightful due! He has only to believe it wholeheartedly, and surely the taste will improve.
A half hour later, Fleche plucks him miserable from the slop he’s made of his plate. She doesn’t comment, only calls his name and takes his arm with mechanical efficiency. They settle into his tent for their work: solemn words and the scratch of a pen and nothing in between.
Everything stiff. Formal.
Just as frostbite burns in memory of distant warmth, so too does Fleche’s disinterest leave him aching. It is grief alone—he knows, he does—that has exhausted their warm familiarity, leaving only the stiff-lipped dutiful efficiency that has robbed Ferdinand of companionship time and again.
But there is still the work, and as long as Ferdinand draws breath, he will not stop striking his voice like flint against the world’s kindling.
“My Dear Lord Gloucester,” he begins for the next letter.
Maybe it is not private grief that fills Fleche’s mouth with sand, but the same feeling of an hourglass running low, running out. Small wonder when it is already the 31st, the final day of the longest year of their lives so far, and they sit here in an emptied out camp while their fellows march off to die only a few miles distant.
The separation is insurmountable. With each year that passes, they grow farther from the people Ferdinand remembers, see horrors he never will, fight battles he only hears, never endures. It is not the war that forces them apart, but the drift of history, the slow arrival of a future they will own without him.
“Titled and embellished,” Fleche says. “Proceed.”
“We near the end now, my dearest friend.” Does the hourglass run in Gloucester? Has von Riegan ever longed for Almyran sands slipping between his fingers in place of rose petals? “You have ever been a comfort to me these past few years, and should all our hopes be dashed, I would have you recall me with unblemished fondness.”
It is too much. To address it to Gloucester, to sign the letter Aegir in someone else’s hand, when the last, final time he ever saw the man they were simply Ferdinand and Lorenz, a pair of traitors whispering in the darkness of the stables. Ferdinand slipping coin into a deserter’s saddlebags, gritting his teeth through every hushed plea to come with, because they will never trust you, you are the Prime Minister’s son, regardless of your loyalties you will always be the figurehead for revolution and dissent. Lorenz may well have been right, had the war not stolen Ferdinand’s sight and neutralized any hope of a political career. He was certainly right to climb on that horse, squeeze Ferdinand’s stubborn fingers in tender frustration, and flee into the night for the cause that kept his heart beating.
“Know that I have never doubted you, never wavered in my belief that you are, at your very core, the most true and most devoted of men. I have done all I can. Any failure from here on out is mine to shoulder—”
Her pen stops. “Ferdinand. Are you…crying?”
Fleche eases herself from the writing desk, and a moment later a handkerchief presses against the sudden wetness of his cheeks. Her hand lingers at his shoulder even after all traces have been wiped away.
He will not burden her with this. Not a single worry, not a single tear more.
“How strange! I did not even feel such vapors overtake me… But I am quite well now, my dear. Shall we continue?”
“We should have remained in Garreg Mach,” Fleche says quietly.
Ferdinand shakes his head, reaching up to press his hand over hers. “No. Our ghosts will follow us wherever we go. There is no running from them.”
She is quiet. Her hand shakes under his as though in longing for a knife, for claws of her own, and only then does Ferdinand realize what this has cost her. To march into the lands of her brother’s murderers and stand safely behind the lines.
“Let Edelgard be vengeance,” he tells her even as that wretched spring of misery prickles in his eyes once more, “And let us be peace.”
They finish only three meandering letters before Ferdinand calls for a halt. Much of the imperial correspondence must wait for the results of the nearby battle, so he sends Fleche away to post their completed letters and dismisses her for the evening.
The thrushes and nightingales sing their woeful winter tunes as he trudges back to his tent, shaking off the fresh dusting of fallen snow from his shoulders. No fire burns for him there, too dangerous without a set of eyes to watch it, but a quick touch to the foot of his bedding confirms at least one servant has been through to leave a pan of embers beneath the blankets.
It is early yet, not twelve hours gone since the troops marched. With no outlying forces to defend against, they pitched their camp dangerously close to the fortress, making for roughly an hour’s overland march in perfect conditions. Two, three hours in the snow. At the war table, Edelgard enumerated all the uncertainties of the siege — which layer of walls would be most defended, the effectiveness of the flying brigades they prepared, what forces Cornelia would bring against them. The assault must be lightning fast, the battalions a mere distraction while the Strike Force warps inside to neutralize the commanding generals. High risk, high reward, low casualties.
By Ferdinand’s reckoning, it will be another three or four hours until any news of the battle arrives. He should have invited Fleche to return for a round of chess, rather than release her to the horrors of idleness and the maudlin harpies singing grief within her breast. There is no helping it now.
He folds the warming pan into one of the thicker blankets, insulating it against direct contact, and carries it and a lighter covering over to his armchair. The plush, heated packet goes under his feet in their woolen socks, and the other blanket he wraps over his shoulders as a shawl, tucking in upon himself like a chrysalis for a long contemplation.
Where they march next will depend on the battle’s outcome, of course, but Ferdinand sets himself to evaluation of every option on the table. North to dare the deeper grip of winter and cleave that bloody path down the center of the Kingdom? A temporary return to the monastery to press once more for peace? Either will require them to pass through the mountains once more, and their stocks are beginning to run low enough for rationing to be under regular discussion. Yet the only other places to regroup would be Magdred, wracked by the same famine as neighboring Gaspard, or—
Ferdinand is not alone in the tent.
He simply. Knows. There is no smell, no sound, no prickle of awareness at the back of his neck. There is nothing at all to kick his heart into a canter, to lock his throat as he tries to swallow down the bubble of acid rising in his chest.
He waits. Listens in vain for the demon to take a single breath and prove itself mortal. To take a step and prove itself tangible, weighted down by the same gravity that challenges them all, confined to a form that can be caged, punished, destroyed. Ferdinand’s hand works under the blanket, desperation pressed into every corner of the sigil’s form. The game. He must play the game.
Will it be a rag against his nose, a hand at his throat, that long-feared syringe fed into an unwilling vein?
Or a voice directly in his ear.
“We have much to discuss, you and I.”
The world tilts.
Ferdinand’s hands claw against the burlap carpets, curl bloody at the toe of stiff leather boots. There is no balance, no—connection, between one moment and the next, the warmth of his chair and the broken sprawl of his body upon the earth, as though someone has clapped a palm to his ears to rupture his balance. But there was nothing save the whisper of boiling poison in the dark.
“My Lord,” he chokes out, for there is no other void like this in all the world, the suffocation of rot filling his senses. He finds his knees, shaking, and pulls himself upon them only to deepen his bow.
When they come for you, Ferdinand remembers, when they come for you. The words fall away.
No more training. They have come.
“I tire of this game, Ferdinand,” croons the empty dark. “I have been the perfect ally. The perfect host.”
Arundel is smiling. It seeps like oil into Ferdinand’s uncovered skin, the slick stain of authority, and Ferdinand boggles at the clear, dread knowledge that Arundel is smiling.
“And what do I receive for such generosity? For greasing the wheels of your pathetic little war machine?” The boot lifts and falls upon Ferdinand’s fingers, crushing them as easily as Arundel silences Ferdinand’s scream with a low chuckle. “All you hellions ever do is spit in my face.”
The hearth ignites in a blast of burning sparks, all heat and light as Ferdinand sobs, curling in on himself until the boots finally, blessedly retreat. They circle him now, footfalls firm and precise.
“I do not understand,” Ferdinand chokes. He covers his head with his hands, cheek pressed to the rough weave of the ground beneath him.
Arundel’s voice drops to a syrupy sympathy, laughter trembling in each word. “It is over, von Aegir.” A hand hooks into the base of Ferdinand’s braid, winding up the rope until he hangs by it, straining on his trembling knees to relieve the piercing tension. “You served your masters well, fair pet. A pretty distraction. A steak on a platter for the wolf.”
He knows. He knows he knows he knows—
There is no use in screaming. Hubert has already heard.
Arundel thumbs the streaming tears from Ferdinand’s eyes with his free hand, and Ferdinand bites, teeth sinking savagely into the thick of a leather glove.
The man merely laughs. “A hound of Aegir to the end. Loyal to the last boot it licked.”
“Better her boot than yours.”
“There is no difference. Your Emperor was born of monsters, and blood calls to blood. She will never be rid of us.” Arundel’s thumb presses higher, cresting the bone of Ferdinand’s eye socket and pressing inexorably into the fragile organ therein. “A pity that your masters had you fixed, or even you would see the hopelessness of her cause.”
Ferdinand lashes out with one leg, kicking behind Arundel’s knees with just enough pressure that the man drops him into a gasping heap, legs twisted painfully beneath him. He scrambles as Arundel simply reaches for the chair and plants it on top of him, pinning his limbs into a useless tangle.
“I regret you cannot watch the show with me. After all, it is your vengeance raining down in, oh, two minutes now.” He reaches down to fiddle with the end of Ferdinand’s braid once more in warning, pulling his face up from the filthy cloth.
“Vengeance for what?” Ferdinand’s voice scratches out of him, high and reedy. “My father?”
Ice climbs through Ferdinand’s every limb, a friendly Fimbulvetr that spins slow-churning confusion in the heart of him. Vengeance for an accident? For Hubert’s spiraling self-sacrifice and effusive disdain? Never once has such a thing occurred to him, and he can scarcely make sense of it now, even with adrenaline pulsing its thwarted aggression.
And Arundel, clucking his tongue in pity, thinks it horror. “Poor thing. All these years you have trusted a butcher to keep you safe. Did you never think to ask who did this to you?”
Craning his head, Ferdinand stares wide-eyed towards the burning hearth.
“It was our spell,” Arundel hums. His fingers dip down to trace Ferdinand’s cheekbone. “But your shadow cast it. Your master. Your ruiner.”
Ferdinand turns his face to the ground, nose tucked against the frozen covering. It is meant to be a finishing blow: Hubert did this to him.
Not my ruiner, he sobs in relief, the tears now falling freely. But he will be yours.
Even Arundel, in all his unearthly power, falls victim to the same logical error: Ferdinand could not forgive what was done to him, therefore he must not know the doer. There is no other way of seeing, when one’s world is naught but power, violence, and pride, and Ferdinand has studied these glasses for a half decade now, picking apart the grand flaw in a far dearer heart.
Because Hubert does not understand, has never been able to wrap his head around the simple truth that Ferdinand’s sight in exchange for Hubert's life was a bargain gladly paid. It could not be both accident and sacrifice. Either no blame attached to those smoldering, ashen hands or Ferdinand shouldered it knowingly, and neither case results in blame, in guilt, in the rotting of Hubert’s chest whenever his fingers hook in the soft cotton of Ferdinand’s sleeve.
And now Arundel sneers down at him and sees only the torment of betrayal, as though Ferdinand would not carve out his own ribs and offer them gladly to the cause. If Arundel clocked Ferdinand’s purpose but not his tools, saw only the deceitful mask and not the utter unity of trust beneath, that heartfelt desperation which brought Ferdinand into such deadly wisdom, then the game is not yet over. Their work is not in vain. Even as Arundel gloats in his victory, lording himself over Ferdinand’s bowed yet unbroken back, he strides ever nearer to his own destruction. The plan is in motion—everything is in motion, and every fetter upon Ferdinand’s heart breaks in joyous release as he whimpers against the earth.
“Consider this a gift.”
It is. Every scrap of knowledge, of intelligence, that Ferdinand can lure from Arundel’s scheming lips is a present beyond compare, a glitter of value in the dull depths of Ferdinand’s gaze. The enemy is not infallible.
And then something. Shifts. As if the stomach has dropped out of the world itself, a lurch in perception as the murky undertow claws at Ferdinand’s joints and fills his sinuses with lead. A force so overwhelming Ferdinand struggles to identify it, though nothing in all the world could be more familiar: the pull of reason upon reality’s strings.
Thunder rolls through the sky overhead in a shattering crescendo, and Ferdinand holds his breath for a peak that never comes. The roar only grows and grows until the earth itself begins to shake, the world outside their tent lighting up in a chorus of screams, prayers, and blistering terror.
The sun is falling on Arianrhod.
“I believe your history books call them javelins of light,” Arundel explains, smug venom dripping from his lips. “There was no need for Hubert’s feeble experiments. Had he simply requested my aid, I would have been happy to demonstrate.”
It is not light but loathing. Ferdinand’s heart seizes in his chest, scattershot shards of memory tearing through his warped vision as Hubert’s face flits through the darkness. Fire pooling in the hollows of his cheeks, blood in the deep wells of his eyes, bones bruising currents of muddied mulberry against his skin while a shrapnel scream fractures that solemn scowl forever. The pyre burns, consumes, suffocating his dear shadow before reaching out to all the other faint shades, the lilacs and carnations and bright summer skies that drift like seeping watercolor through his dreams, the fondness in their voices now transmuted to death’s final howl.
And now, as before, Ferdinand’s body hurtling toward the place where heart and horror meet.
He snarls through his teeth like a horse around a shanked bit, and with his shoulder braced to one leg of the chair, knee tucked up against the catty-corner, he heaves with the sheer force of a cavalryman. The chair snaps and plummets as Ferdinand lunges forward on all fours.
The room’s only weapons are its twin fires, the magic-burn of the hearth and the scalding touch of the warming pan, neither of which he dares reach for bare-handed, and somewhere within his traveling kit, Fleche’s knife. No rescue will come from the din outside as the camp watches the heavens plummet in fury.
He is alone. There is no one left to give his life for.
And when Arundel strolls forward and hoists Ferdinand up by the collar, a lion seizing upon a hapless cub, he does not even struggle. His lungs rasp in terror, suffocating from his own uselessness not the pressure around his neck, yet beyond those shuddering breaths he makes no sound.
“My niece stole something from me today,” Arundel says. He may as well be discussing the weather, how white and soft the clouds drift amid the sky’s boiling agony. “So be it. If she considers this a game, then a pawn for a pawn it will be. Tomorrow you are mine. Let us see if we can make something worthy of Aegir’s heir after all.”
He drops Ferdinand to his knees. The hearth gutters out. The air clears.
The screams do not.
There is no safety to be found. Not in Ferdinand’s tent, not beneath the broken sky, not drifting aimless through the camp’s cacophony, barefoot in the snow.
He should take command. Edelgard told him so. If anything happened—but what is there to say, save: Close your eyes. Do not look. Pray to the forsaken Goddess that your friends march home.
Only one tent stands quiet, still and hushed from the echo of so many Silences. Ferdinand pushes inside and gasps for that familiar stale air. His knees do not knock against a single table, a single misplaced file. Everything is in the same place it has ever been; nothing stands between him and a warm burrow in Hubert’s bed.
Ferdinand pulls the thick blanket over his head, presses the heels of his palms into his eyes, and weeps.
There is no safety. He knows this. But no one will find him here, no one would dare to look. And when the enemy pries his bones from Hubert’s bed, there will be no marrow left to harvest. No heart left to bleed.
There are many ways to silence footsteps. A life of training. Special shoes. Modulated spells. Breathing, too, must be masked and restrained. Anyone with two hours of spy work under their belt knows this.
Whoever is moving through the tent does not.
Footsteps halting and off-kilter, they are possessed of neither the surety of ownership nor the measured hesitation of investigation. Each breath sucked into those heaving lungs is as frantic and hard-won as a drowning man kicking to the surface for one last gasp. Ferdinand’s own careful, sleepless breathing puffs lightly over the pillow beneath him, measured to a delicate cadence as he listens and waits.
Everything outside this tent is beyond Ferdinand’s ability to solve. The blessed simplicity of a witless thief or bumbling rebel assassin will give him all the adrenaline he needs to leap back into the fray. Perhaps two, three thieves. A small rebel posse. Anything but those slithering butchers now counting down his final hours of freedom.
The sounds creep closer to the bed, and Ferdinand shifts cunningly to imply he has stirred but not yet woken. He will not make his move until he knows what they are here for, so that he can pass on that knowledge to Hubert. A gift, something routine to soothe the ache of their parting.
Then a gloved hand settles on Ferdinand’s shoulder.
Instinct takes over. Hand to narrow wrist, a roll of tension and the crack as Ferdinand whips his attacker over not only his shoulder but his full sleeping form, rolling with the momentum until he has the enemy pinned under Ferdinand’s full weight. He lost track of the attacker’s quick hands in the scuffle, but his forearm presses into the tense column of the attacker’s throat.
“Stab me if you wish,” Ferdinand offers grandly. His mouth twists in gleeful promise. “I have ample time to snap your neck before bleeding out, you see.”
The man’s hands claw at Ferdinand’s shirt, catching in the fabric and holding fast in a trembling grip. He can tell it is a man by the reek of the battlefield, the dark musk of terror and exertion that clings to the neck and wrapped forearms instead of the chest, where his fairer comrades complain ever of the drip of sweat beneath their bindings and breastplates. With his free hand he traces across that gaunt torso below, aiming to reach the belt and disarm the man of any remaining weapon, but pauses at the fabric’s feel, the slightest shift in the pattern that proves it rich jacquard and not cheap imitation of finery.
He loosens his hold, pressing now against collarbone instead of throat. Bows his head to scent whatever lies under the blood and fear and—the man’s cheeks are damp. The fists curled in his shirt do not struggle, do not pull, only hold and ground like nothing in the world is certain.
The mess of Hubert’s bangs brushes against Ferdinand’s cheek as he nods, his throat giving up nothing save a shiver of sound, as if his sorrow slips out of him in fragments, water seeping through the crack in a teapot while the rest boils within.
Nothing explains it. Ferdinand’s heart skips a beat at the obvious conclusion — the Emperor has fallen — but Hubert would not be here if it were true, would not crawl wounded to his own den instead of clutching her corpse to his breast and howling the devil’s own threnody. Hubert would simply be no more; this ghost is something different.
Heat bleeds between their bodies amid the winter’s chill, and Ferdinand startles at their intimacy, pushing at once against his elbows to crawl off and to the side. Yet Hubert’s hands will not give him the option, drawing him back down with another broken noise, one Ferdinand struggles to put a name to—no, there is a word for this, he realizes. A panic attack. Simple and impossible for a man like Hubert, but there is no mistaking it after so many of his own.
“I have you,” Ferdinand whispers. He shifts his weight to one forearm, braced above Hubert’s shoulder, so he can reach out with the other and draw his fingers tenderly through those dampened curls.
It must be unbearable. To hold oneself to such a standard of precise control only to lose it. Ferdinand despises the feeling himself, the reminder of frailty ratcheting through him, but he lets his body ride out its protest with a practiced exhaustion.
Hubert fights. Even with his face burrowed into the curve of Ferdinand’s neck, with Ferdinand’s broad torso and thick thighs bracketing him in, he shakes himself apart not with emotion but its suppression. Only the quietest pitch to his sharp breaths marks them out as the closest he allows himself to sobbing. If he could crawl into the dark hollows of Ferdinand’s ribcage and slumber there until the storm had passed, Ferdinand has no doubt he would already be clawed open.
His lips brush softly against Hubert’s hair as he begs and promises. “Breathe for me, Hubert. All will be well.”
“Well,” Hubert snarls, voice so thick with emotion it takes all of Ferdinand’s attention to make sense of the words. “There is no well.”
“Even so, I need you to breathe.”
In all likelihood Ferdinand has only made things worse, has trespassed upon Hubert’s precious solitude at highest possible cost. Hubert sought only his own space to choke on his fear, to weather all the nightmares new and old dragged before his eyes in Arundel’s show of force.
But his hands will not let go.
“The game—Ferdinand, you have to. Go. You must leave.” Hubert steels his voice for all of three words, stern and stark. “Leave at once.”
“In the morning,” Ferdinand vows.
For this, now, is the core of all their training and plans. A test subject with Cichol’s crest is too valuable for any provincial laboratory. Arundel will take him to Shambhala, and he will activate the tracking sigil, and Hubert will finally discern the location of the cockroaches’ stronghold. There is no ending the war without that intel; there is no gaining that intel without Ferdinand’s blood spilling free.
They do not talk about what happens after that.
This is the plan; there is no After.
Hubert shakes his head, torn between violence and a clear longing not to disrupt Ferdinand’s kiss against his hair. “No. Now. The game is done—”
“Hubert. Even after everything, you still doubt I can—”
His claws slither from the fall of Ferdinand’s shirt, under his armpits and over his back until they latch into the mess of curls at the base of his skull, so gentle in their trembling. “I cannot lose you.”
Ferdinand scarcely hears a word after that, drowning in the crash of his own heartbeat in his ears. No. Surely not.
It is a trick, all of this a new scheme from the cleverest bastard Ferdinand has ever known. A calculated distraction to—he reaches back with one hand, squeezes around Hubert’s fingers to find the little one that doesn’t bend quite right—not a skinthief then, just Hubert, playing with Ferdinand’s heartstrings for some new gain.
Just Hubert shaking out of his skin, face wet with shame as he rends himself apart.
Only the truth ever hurts that much to pry free.
“…I am here now,” Ferdinand whispers.
He sinks his weight more solidly against Hubert’s heaving chest, boxes Hubert in until there is nothing save Ferdinand’s warmth and wildly beating heart. Only the press of flesh to flesh, not quite a hug though far more in offering.
One, two, three. Ferdinand draws in a lungful of air, then releases it on the same count, a gentle breeze through the stiffness of Hubert’s drying locks.
One, two, three. His fingers stroking the soft patch of skin between Hubert’s ear and temple.
Hubert’s lips dragging against the soft skin under Ferdinand’s jaw.
He startles as if from a dream, pushing up onto his hands to regain his bearings. There are new noises outside the tent, the thrum of sorrow and relief as the troops return fewer than they left. The world turns onward. Hubert’s heart beats solidly against the flat of Ferdinand’s palm, even and measured if still too quick.
Fear flickers in the edges of his perception, wolves lurking in the grim shadows beyond a campfire’s soothing glow.
“The Strike Force survived in full,” Hubert reports, awkwardly formal as his hands still tease through the loose curls above where Ferdinand’s braid begins.
Where Arundel grabbed him and strung him high.
“The braid. Take it out. Please.”
Hubert makes quick work of the simple three-strand plait. His fingers card through the loose waves as Ferdinand sighs, or sobs, some meek little mewling he’d rather not identify.
“Crowned in marigolds,” Hubert rasps, sounding himself again despite such impossible gentleness.
Despite the hard press of his impossible interest against Ferdinand’s hip, unremarked until Ferdinand unthinkingly tangles their legs.
It is as good as any Silence spell. Ferdinand cannot ask, Hubert cannot admit. Maybe this is where they have always lain, dreaming from their foreign shores and calling it guilt, calling it fixation, when long before the sun met the earth, Ferdinand shielded his eyes against the sight of Hubert’s rare smile.
“Has midnight passed?” asks Ferdinand in a low murmur, as if any noise will break the moment’s strange wonder.
“The javelins fell at half past nine.” Not an answer, a report. He can all but imagine Hubert’s brow furrowing, and the next words are no surprise. “I should. Return to Her Majesty.”
Ferdinand bites his lower lip. Anything against would be self-serving, anything in favor would be self-sacrificial, but already he shivers with the coming cold, this one last lonely night.
He ducks down to press a kiss to the crown of Hubert’s head. “Happy new year, Hubert. May you and Edelgard see moons beyond counting, and many moons more.”
I will win you this war. I swear it.
Hubert catches him as he rises, hands framing Ferdinand’s freckled cheeks to draw him in, forehead to forehead, nose bumping nose.
“Ferdinand,” he says in awe, as if there is treasure frozen there in the dull amber of his eyes. “I—”
The words are lost in a snarl, Hubert’s vicious lips seizing upon Ferdinand’s in breathless fury. Tongue stroking at the seam of Ferdinand’s wondrous smile before forcing its way inside, cataloging every inch with a colonist’s greed, teeth clicking against teeth as his body speaks for him in the only language it knows: violence.
Ferdinand is not at all sure that this is what kissing is meant to be, for it is nothing like the prim pecks of the opera, never a lip smeared of its paint regardless of how momentous the passion. Yet he cannot call it wild when Hubert’s hands never wander from their post, save to card softly through the copper curtain of Ferdinand’s hair that veils them from the world outside.
His own hands have no such sense of propriety. There is no space between their bodies, only the heat of a comet hurtling to destruction. Still his fingers burrow through jacquard and cotton and buckled leather to find the scalding skin beneath. Each touch draws Hubert impossibly nearer, delving for the heart of him, as if they both have toiled on unbroken rock all their lives and only now broken through to such rich soil, such hallowed ground.
And still all Hubert will do is kiss him, shaking once more as Ferdinand traces over peaked nipples, palms him through his smallclothes. Each touch sends Hubert gasping soft and sweet into Ferdinand’s mouth, the simplest noise to shatter Ferdinand’s heart once and for all.
Maybe it is only creature comfort, he tells himself as Hubert arches against him, a logical crash of battle lust against the rocks of terror and adrenaline. Maybe it means nothing at all, knife honing knife in the belly of a storm, but as he gets a fist around Hubert and drinks in the moan that pours free, there is no helping the words that spill from him in turn.
“I have you, darling.”
“Ferd—” Teeth dragging against his lower lip.
“Is this what you wanted? Following me in the dark all these years. Your mouth at my ear. Your hand tugging my sleeve. I should have kissed the life out of you every time I turned…”
“Then do it now.”
Ferdinand laughs, dipping down with far more care as he traces the bow of Hubert’s lips, now still and pliant beneath him. He should feel foolish to fumble along like this, as though even the shape of a mouth is foreign and beyond him, but everything is so much.
That tremor rises in Hubert again, such tenderness drawing all the heat from his bones even as they burn together, and Ferdinand wonders if he’s ever done such a thing before. Ferdinand surely hasn’t. And when all else is war and slaughter and fear, all he wants is this, tracing the sharp angles of Hubert’s body with his wandering hands, rolling their hips against each other so slow and sweet. Hubert has granted him all control but it is not concession, it is comfort, trust, Hubert marveling at his quest even as Ferdinand learns the shape of him the only way he can.
He has never let himself wish for more than what remains to him. No regrets. No sorrow spreading like ragweed through his diminished form.
“I wish,” Ferdinand whispers, trying to draw his kisses to the soft hollow of Hubert’s temple and failing against the desperate search of those ravenous teeth.
But this is the one thing Hubert cannot grant him. It would be cruelty to speak it.
“Anything,” Hubert growls and forces Ferdinand just far enough away that he can speak his request without distraction.
Ferdinand turns his face away, shuts his eyes, swallows against the words that sound so… “I remember your face,” he mumbles, “But I never got to see you. Happy.”
How perfectly ironic that he can imagine the bitter disbelief working its way across Hubert’s features now, baffled that anyone should long to see his dour frown above all else. In his frustration, Ferdinand clenches his thighs and drags their hips together, wrenching a wheezing groan from Hubert’s chest that sends lightning tingling through Ferdinand’s veins. “I wish I could have seen your face like this, in pleasure. Just once. Just one crack of joy in your scowling snarl.”
His knuckles brush over Hubert’s cheek, and it is there that Hubert catches his hand, unfolds his fingers to—
Ferdinand snatches his hand away. No. He will not press senseless fingers to the curve of Hubert’s skull as if that will let him assemble broken puzzle pieces into flesh. Give him a chessboard, a labyrinth, a sprawling kingdom and he will chart the topography aloud in enviable precision, but not…this.
Yet when Hubert says his name like a spell of adoration, he has not the heart to pull away a second time. Hubert takes only the first two fingers of Ferdinand’s hand and guides them down to his neck, pressing sharply against his carotid artery where Hubert’s heart pulses so furiously, as if all it seeks is to spill its blood out over Ferdinand’s palms in gaudy offering.
“This is what matters,” Hubert promises as he rises for another frantic kiss. “This is all that I am.”
All of him in Ferdinand’s hands.
Tears prick in the corners of Ferdinand’s eyes, and he bows down to nose against Hubert’s pulse point directly. “Yet all you want is my mouth.” He feels Hubert’s answering moan in the column of his throat, vibrating against Ferdinand’s lips. “You are free to touch, you realize.”
Hubert’s hand tightens in his hair.
Still, Hubert’s hands have not moved. They remain in their perches with unearthly stiffness. He has not even removed his gloves.
Because Ferdinand flinches at unexpected touch. Goddess, is that not what got them into this in the first place: Hubert’s unthinking, panicked hand reaching out? At least Ferdinand can beg the excuse of a foggy head as the rest of him throbs for urgent attention.
Ferdinand’s voice sharpens to a command. “One will stay in my hair since you are so eminently fond of it. The other to my waist.” He waits as Hubert’s hand drags slowly downward, neck to shoulder to spine and finally to the dip above his narrow hips. “Like so. Do not imagine I will lose track of you. You are not half so clever with your rook as you are at cheating the chessboard.”
He feels the rumble of laughter in Hubert’s chest a split second before that hand squeezes into the thick of his ass, dragging him down as Hubert snaps his hips up off the bed. Hubert devours any further commentary with tooth and tongue until Ferdinand is naught but a sharp cadence of ragged breaths amid the roiling storm. The hand in Ferdinand’s hair never pulls, never tightens its tender hold, even as Ferdinand feels the subtle direction that keeps their mouths in line, keeps noses from bumping into eyes, steering them sweetly along the shoals even as Ferdinand gasps and shakes at each new height. And when Ferdinand breaks, furious, from that kiss to burrow into the crook of Hubert’s neck and seek the kindred howl of that beloved heartbeat, all that I am, and sinks his mouth in brutal worship; when Hubert moans, falters, shatters beneath his hands, breathless and boneless and lost—
It is enough.
Ferdinand sinks into him, soiled and stained by war and pleasure in equal measure, and finds how easily their bones fit together, how comfortably Hubert’s heavy shoulder can pillow beneath his head. Even through the layers of Hubert’s tunic, Ferdinand can feel Hubert’s heart stutter beneath his palm, tripping along its slow recovery back to its usual song. Hubert’s hands rest at Ferdinand’s waist, thumbs running soothing circles against his heated skin where his shirt has pulled free.
They could have had this for years. Strange how the thought brings Ferdinand no pain, only wonder. The morning would still bring its end. One night is enough.
Hubert shifts restlessly not ten minutes later. Typical. His head twists first towards Ferdinand then away, and a moment later his legs untangle from their lovers’ knot and slide over the edge of the bed.
“It is hardly any safer,” Ferdinand huffs, altogether miserable. How mercurial of him, to feel such satisfaction one minute and have it spoil the next, when Hubert is only being Hubert.
“A tent is a tent, Hubert. If they will find me in mine, then they will find me in yours. But very well. Go along and give Her Highness your report. I am sure she has waited long enough.”
Hubert’s hand finds his and trails the long path up Ferdinand’s arm to his shoulder, where it braces him in place as Hubert leans down to kiss him breathless once more. Each kiss is more successful than the last, a truly enviable learning curve. “I am not going anywhere,” he says. It sounds like he meant it for a snarl, but a laugh broke through instead, and it is such a rare and precious noise that Ferdinand can do nothing save turn to bury his burning face in the pillow. Hubert brushes back his hair. “I am not fit to be going anywhere. Not fit to share your bed.”
“Is a purely olfactory truth. If you would care to indulge me for the ten strides it will take me to cross the room, I can provide the proof of my intentions.” He disappears from Ferdinand’s side, and his ten measured steps thud against what is clearly a much nicer carpet than Ferdinand’s burlap flooring.
Those steps are also strikingly uneven. Are his legs still boneless? Ferdinand tucks in against the pillow once more to smother his mirth.
Soon enough Hubert returns and sets something heavy down on the ground. “There. A wash basin. Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of bathing, although from the reek of you I have grave doubts indeed.”
“Forgive me. I forgot it was all nightshade and dark roasts before I showed up.”
Hubert is at his side again, kneeling now so that he is on level for more kisses the moment he tempts Ferdinand’s head away from the pillow. “As they say, when you lie down with dogs…”
He would much rather have Her Majesty’s Hound back in his arms, but Hubert has a point. The stench of the battlefield aside, they each have their more, ah, private messes, and if they change the sheets, it will almost be like he has lain with Hubert in two beds. A prize like that is worth a bit of hassle.
“An empty basin will not do us much good,” Ferdinand says. He combs his fingers through Hubert’s bangs, teasing them away from his face even as he teases Hubert away in turn. “Run along, pet.”
Hubert goes only as far as the flap of the tent, where he calls for a servant and requisitions buckets of water during what is clearly an emergency outside. For him to be here at all is a flagrant dereliction of duty, and Ferdinand…should care about that. He does care about that, about Arianrhod and the troops and shepherding his people through this sky-shattering new trial, but all of it exists outside the walls of this tent, outside in the world that will swallow him whole as soon as morning breaks. Nothing will pry this last sweet dream from his hands; he hoards it greedily, grasping for every second of memory, every stirring of warmth, for this will be all there is to nourish him in the coming grave. So he sprawls and listens to this hymn of domesticity: Hubert emptying his buckets into the basin, stripping down until there are no more buckles and knives clicking metal against metal, and splashing about with all the efficiency of a man accustomed to dissections one minute and state dinners the next.
When Hubert takes his hand to lead him away from the bed, they lapse into the same old silence, even as their bodies perform a clockwork waltz. Ferdinand undresses; Hubert folds. Their hands only meet across fabric, yet each touch leaves Ferdinand breathless with the knowledge Hubert never put his gloves back on. He wonders if Hubert watches him, traces each moonlit curve of waning muscle with his eyes—so pale, weren’t they? So cold. They do not feel cold, now, as he remembers the feel of Hubert’s hands tracing the breadth of his shoulders so many months ago, as he remembers a lifetime of comments about Hubert’s gaze fixed adoringly upon him. And Hubert accused him of fixation.
There are only a few inches of water in the tub when Ferdinand sits, and it splashes noisily no matter how evenly he drags the washcloth across his skin. He can hear Hubert changing the bedsheets across the room. He can hear Hubert breathing, as if Hubert is only a man, and for a few precious minutes Ferdinand simply. Drifts.
“The towel is to your left.”
The low rumble of Hubert’s voice cannot startle him from his reverie, when that is its very source. Ferdinand smiles and reaches forward, touches his fingers to where Hubert’s arms are folded over the lip of the basin with his head pillowed atop. “But you are right here,” he hums, and Hubert’s mouth opens to his kiss with the sweetest sigh.
Unfortunately, Hubert pulls him to his feet and towels him down with pitifully few lingering touches. There is something urgent in his orbit now, in the awkward way he offers an unwanted nightshirt as though Ferdinand’s refusal of skin on skin would be the death of him. In the way he hesitates at the edge of the bed, all angles with no hope of resolution until Ferdinand drags him down and arranges them like flowers in a vase, Ferdinand’s head cradled over his heart to hear its song once more.
It is the same tight-lipped tension that has surrounded Hubert ever since their fight a year earlier — two years earlier? Surely midnight has passed by now. Something churns in his chest, stops up his lungs and silences even the fond venom of his complaints, but Ferdinand is not fool enough to imagine it will be fixed through post-coital lassitude alone. Still his fingers drift down the center join of Hubert’s ribcage and pause on every scattered wisp of hair, dipping now and then to the sides where he can trace the extensive scarring on Hubert’s arms.
Ferdinand does not sleep.
Outside the world slows. The army rests. Hubert’s heart beats.
Quicker than it should. Sweat on his hands where they press to Ferdinand’s skin. His head bowing painfully down, face hidden in unruly waves of marigold. His voice barely a crackle of grease on the hearth as he chokes on the words that batter their way past his defenses.
“Ferdinand. You once…called yourself my favorite weapon.”
Is that all this is? Ferdinand shivers in his shoulders with the softest laugh. “If you intend to give me a lecture on how I am not simply a tool, I scarcely require such a thing now.”
“No. Only… At the monastery. Years ago. I saw you at the weapon stall weighing a Morfis dagger in your hands. So careful and still you sliced open your fingertip. And you—laughed. Joyful. As if it was an honor to be wounded by a masterpiece.” His lips brush the crown of Ferdinand’s head. “You are such a weapon, to me.”
A tool is a tool — nothing could be more mundane. It is only the craftsman’s eye that brings it beauty, and his skill that hones it true. Still, Ferdinand will hardly reject the compliment. He splays his fingers against Hubert’s stomach, then arches them into a playful claw. “So masterful I could carve you open?”
Hubert’s hand seizes upon Ferdinand’s wrist. “Darling, you already have.”
Like a spooked foal at a crack of thunder, Hubert’s heart leaps and bolts beneath Ferdinand’s ear, tumbling onward at a furious pace. Every line of him skews tense with shuddering force, that same tremor as before, and it is all Ferdinand can do to raise his head and turn a worried frown Hubert’s way. This is not romance; it is terror.
At a loss, Ferdinand can only whisper, “My apologies for the scars.”
The grip on his wrist hauls him upward, and Ferdinand scrambles to follow without bashing his head against Hubert’s chin. He ends up in an awkward sprawl across Hubert’s chest, all knees and elbows as Hubert clutches Ferdinand’s hand to his lips and hisses against the knuckles, “I want them. I want all of them. Flay me apart with a brush of your burning curls. The blade of your tongue carving open my throat. Your pen, Ferdinand. Your words, scouring me into giddy skin for your parchment. I want—”
It hurts, the way Hubert holds to him now, as if he is testing himself against fate’s shackles instead of Ferdinand’s yielding flesh. And it is wrong. All of it is wrong.
These are not words Hubert would ever say to him. They are the words of a man who has lost so much control—at the war table, in the shadows, in the field—that he can no longer restrain even his own spiral of despair. Each word will be regretted in the morning, another caustic dash of self-loathing, and Ferdinand cannot allow it. Cannot be one more regret.
“Shh, love. I know.”
Hubert’s voice breaks. “How can you know? All I have ever done is fail you. Collared you in jester’s garb and fed you to monsters, squandered every inch of glory on these games when there is so much—” He laughs, a wretched wailing thing. “Do you realize how much blood I have spilled to open the gates to Shambhala? For you. To make this needless. Yet it is all the same, Ferdinand. You in the darkness while my hands run red.”
For you. A strange turn of phrase, when they seek the enemy’s stronghold for Edelgard’s sake, for the sake of the world she might build. To divert any of that sense of urgency to Ferdinand’s altar instead sends his stomach churning with bile.
“Hush, now. No more of this.” Ferdinand schools his face back to softness, acceptance. “It will be an honor to—”
“There is no honor dying in your own piss and shit on a butcher’s table. Your blood boiling in the screaming marrow of your bones. Your sainted guts on display.”
Something has snapped in him, like a broken rib pressing against a straining lung, only it is Hubert’s heart that punctures and bleeds. Panic sinks its roots back into him no matter how firmly Ferdinand protests.
“He can’t have you. I’ll hide you far enough away that he’ll never find you. No one will ever find you. Say it,” Hubert rasps and roars, shaking Ferdinand wherever they touch and down to the depths of him as well. “Say you will allow it. Say you will stay.”
Love means pursuing the impossible. Ferdinand once wrote those words into a poem, back when he could still write in his own hand, when they were only silly children with whispers of revolution in their breasts. And like any child’s naive declarations, the words rang hollow. Manuela rolled her eyes and gave him poor marks, and Ferdinand retreated to his room to weep out his bitter frustration that she did not understand the depths of his passions.
Now love is this. The quiet, the surrender. The strange softness of Hubert’s cheeks under Ferdinand’s hand as he brushes back the hair from Hubert’s eye. It is a moment’s defiance of the light, and years spent shoulder to shoulder in the darkness together in the cool solace of Hubert’s room. It is sealing out the rest of the world even as they work for its rebirth, shuttering themselves away from a love that can only burn and scar.
It is breaking dreams to keep promises. Ferdinand presses his bruised lips to the space above Hubert’s oft covered eye. “I love you. And I will win you this war.”
Hubert’s grip goes slack.
When he makes no further move, no longer hones his claws against the inside of an imagined coffin, Ferdinand sighs and rearranges them once more. Hubert’s hands to the small of his back, so all the ruined skin of those wiry arms will scratch wonderfully against Ferdinand’s sides all the way down. Ferdinand’s chin settles just over the ridge of Hubert’s collarbone, the perfect perch to gaze down and imagine just what he might find.
At length, Hubert’s fingers start to stroke along the peaks and valleys of his spine, the touch irresistible.
“I did not want this,” Hubert says.
Hubert’s throat works around the words, a movement Ferdinand feels shift between them. “To be Arundel’s words in truth. Your ruiner. Flames, Ferdinand, why are you so—impossible.”
Laughter breaks from him, so unlike his usual dark chuckles that Ferdinand would freeze even without the dread echo. Impossible pursuit, impossible surrender.
“The sigils you use,” Hubert continues, “Are an archaic obfuscation of all reason known to mankind. Teachers show them to children to instill terror. To prove we are stupid, wretched beasts without the guiding wisdom of our elders to weave a rational reality. You cast them like they are nothing. Like chicken-scratch in the dirt that the world itself obeys.”
One of Hubert’s hands climbs all the way up his back and slides around to cup Ferdinand’s cheek. “You cannot comprehend how much poorer we will be without you.”
It is true; Ferdinand cannot. Hubert’s words make no sense. Ferdinand was set the task of learning the sigils, and he fulfilled it. He was set the task of infiltrating Shambhala, and he will fulfill it. There is no use quibbling over anything else. He would much rather spend the hours kissing Hubert breathless until the traitor sun rises.
A deep breath rolls through Ferdinand’s chest, taking all his lingering tension with it. He sinks down into the soft bed of Hubert’s tired body, every sharp edge tempered by the meeting of their skin.
Ferdinand cranes to steal a kiss from his lover’s stiff frown. “Arundel was right about only one thing. You are mine. And soon you will carve open his throat and tell him so.”
The sparrows sing long before dawn. The camp hums to bustling life, and Ferdinand scarcely notices. There is nothing but Hubert’s bruised lips tracing his in leisurely dance, Hubert’s breathy murmurs filling his ears, Hubert’s hands framing his face. He would never have noticed the first slivers of daylight piercing through the tightly drawn entrance to the tent, if not for one angle that settles upon his shoulder and at length begins to burn.
He nearly lets it. The urge to submit to this distraction, to let himself be pried bloody from Hubert’s hands instead of going nobly to his final command is loathsome and lovely.
It is the sun, of course, that taunts him even now. As if Ferdinand did not once spend his miserable days staring out the window, tracking the movement of shadows and heat across his cheeks, and praying for a purpose worthy of the longing in his chest. He damn well has it now.
Ferdinand chases Hubert’s mouth as he tries to break and breathe, chases him all the way down to a gasping clutch of fingers and a shiver that arcs between them.
And then he pulls away. Picks out a smile the way one selects a tie, slings his legs over the side of the bed, and stands.
“Can you assist?” Ferdinand asks with a pointed raise of his eyebrows. There is no other valet in residence, after all. “Or do you require coffee enough to refill your bones first?”
In Ferdinand’s experience, valets are always quiet — or at least quieter than their garrulous employers — but Hubert is silent as the crypts beneath the monastery. Neither of them bother with suggesting a trip to Ferdinand’s tent for fresh clothing when he’s as like as not to be cowering in sackcloth and chains by lunch. Hubert supplies replacements for certain sullied unmentionables without a word, though Ferdinand has to bite his tongue against an untoward comment about marching to war in his lover’s smalls.
Something in the way Hubert eases Ferdinand’s arms into the sleeves of his shirt and jacket, straightening the edges with momentous care, makes him think of the march in truth. Hubert’s hands smooth the seams of his shoulders as carefully as they might buckle down his pauldrons, and pin and tuck his cravat like it is a gorget arranged into proper place. This outfit used to have cuisses and greaves fitted to his legs, and when Hubert crouches to slip on Ferdinand’s boots, he can almost pretend Hubert is a page outfitting a weary general for war.
For all the armor, Ferdinand feels light. Weightless. The sun streams in behind him, bathing his back in heat as he waits for Hubert to attend to his own state of undress. Even the inferno has come to say its farewell, and Ferdinand cannot contain his smile.
A life spent in upright service. A love freed to the shadows. And if he can pull off the final trick, a world free from the subtle chains that prevent its flourishing. Even if Ferdinand’s name will never be spoken in ages to come, never recorded or marked with wonder—it is a story he is proud to have lived.
“Could I borrow a pair of dress gloves? Or…take, rather.” Ferdinand no longer wears gloves as a rule, but the thought of Arundel taking his bare hands fills him with revulsion. As long as the false niceties must endure, Ferdinand would rather preserve Hubert’s touch upon his skin.
Hubert gathers in his hands and slips the softest calfskin gloves onto Ferdinand’s fingers, surely the finest pair he owns.
Flexing his fingers within their supple confines, Ferdinand bestows his finest smile in turn. “Thank you, my love.”
Magic tilts through the air, the softest hint of ozone and feather down, and Ferdinand’s hand darts out to catch Hubert’s warp-weaving fingers before they can make good on last night’s threats and hide Ferdinand away from his work. Sedition and sabotage, he does not say. He pulls Hubert’s hand over his heart to show him how steadily it beats.
“I made you a promise. I will see it through.”
Hubert’s hand is so cold beneath his, hours of loving warmth already long-faded. It only makes Ferdinand hold on tighter, dropping his eyes to where their hands are joined, as if that will allow him to sear an outline of the image within him. “I will always be with you, should you choose to listen. A gadfly singing in your ear.”
And all Hubert says, in the smallest voice Ferdinand has ever heard, is one word.
Ferdinand swallows that plea, kisses all its fellows free of Hubert’s lips and lungs until nothing remains, for a Vestra does not beg, and Ferdinand will remember that enough for the both of them. He borrows—takes—one last kiss, soft and yielding, and steps away.
When no one snatches him off the camp’s shoveled paths, Ferdinand makes his way to the Emperor’s tent. He ducks under the thick opening flap and assumes his position just inside, the same way he has always lingered near the doorway whenever Edelgard summoned him early enough that her maids had not yet finishing assembling the Emperor into full grandeur.
This time, however, she wishes for privacy. She must have waved off the maids, for all at once a trio of them scurry past Ferdinand with tiny chirps of well-wishes as they slip out into the camp beyond.
“Good morning,” Edelgard calls, voice nearing as she strides across the tent. “Have you come to ransom Hubert back to me?”
No. She is the only one capable of lashing Hubert back into the bonds of his heartfelt duty. Ferdinand shakes his head with a tense hum of laughter.
“It is hard to ransom what has never been stolen.”
“Then I expect theft is next on your agenda. Come, sit with me. I need to pick your brain about troop reorganization after yesterday’s debacle.”
Ferdinand does not move. “Your Majesty.”
“Should I call for tea, or will Hubert be joining us?”
There is no easy way to say this. They have kept Edelgard in the dark for years. She knows about the eavesdropping sigil, about Ferdinand serving as distraction to preserve Hubert’s free movement, and that all he does is in service to her dream. That has always been enough. If Ferdinand has lapsed from the kind of faultless noble he dreamed to be, well, there is no longer a title to haunt him nor her eyes, judgmental and keen, to cut him down to size.
Even now he closes his eyes as he speaks. Years of training are still not enough to swallow this sip of poison with levity. “Arundel will be here shortly. I will…accompany him from this point forward.”
There is no answer.
It is always like this. Craning his ears for the next cue. Hoping for attention. Ferdinand knows he has the full measure of her scrutiny, for it scalds his cheeks with shame, but still, all he can do is wait for acknowledgment.
His hands clench so tightly at his sides that his fingertips begin to go numb.
“No,” is all Edelgard says. She sounds small and afraid, as if they have snuck away from their tutor for the first time in their young lives and Ferdinand has dared her to enter the pantry for cookies, except in all his earliest memories it is the reverse: Edelgard’s voice firmer, commanding even at the age of five, sending him into tearful fits for fear of disappointing her.
The fabric just above the bend of his elbows creases under the slightest pressure as Edelgard’s hands hesitate to touch him. He gives a shaky nod, and they settle there with startling force. Her forehead presses against his breast as she shakes her head no, no, no.
Ferdinand clears his throat. “You killed Cornelia. This is his price.”
“I paid his price yesterday when two thousand soldiers died beneath his party tricks,” she says, emotionless for all the fury in those words.
“And that is exactly why we must bow to this demand, Your Majesty. I will not let him snap his fingers and take ten thousand more.”
She takes a sharp breath, and whatever her answer to that might be, he will never know. There is not safety enough to speak freely, let alone hash out the details of the plan now unfolding. Whatever she says may be overheard—though not, he realizes with a sinking heart, by Hubert. Ferdinand did not cast the sigil for this particular goodbye. He cannot.
“What am I to do without you?”
Her words drift aimless. Even the bloody path is not enough to guide her feet in this moment, and that is an indignity too far.
Ferdinand eases his hands to her shoulders in a firm grip. They stand there stiff with ill-directed anger; they do not embrace. “I would never leave you at such loose ends. Fleche knows everything as well as I, and I have trained her to analyze your affairs with the same keen eye she brings to all her work. She will excel. You are surrounded by the very best of mankind. They will not fail you.”
They will not leave you alone, he adds in silent prayer. You will never again be locked away in the dark. That duty is mine.
One of her hands drifts to the curled ends of his long hair, brushing at the tips with no more clarity than the breeze. “I should braid this for you.”
“…if it pleases you.”
“It will get dirty. Matted. If you do not tie it back.” Edelgard directs him with such a faint touch that he has to stumble just to feel her cues. “Sit.”
Edelgard collects all his hair at the nape of his neck and divides it into three simple sections. Her movements falter as she works; she does not do this often, Ferdinand is sure. The farther down the braid, the more her hands dance and pull, trying to correct for the misshapen lumps of a too-thick cord next to two slimmer ones. She should have a lifetime of practice of braiding her sisters’ long locks, and Ferdinand feels the absence of that life in every twist of hair.
But when she ties it off and tugs a bit, testing the weighting, Ferdinand recalls far crueler hands snatching his braid like reins, a master driving the bit farther into a yearling’s tender mouth.
He swallows hard. “I thank you. May I request—”
Edelgard delivers it to him with such gravity it may as well be his proof of office, the keys to the Prime Minister’s office that he will never hold. He nods his thanks, reaches behind him, and with his free hand pulling the braid tight, shears through the thick of his mane in one graceless sweep.
The braid hits the rug beneath their feet. Ferdinand runs his fingers through the short strands at the back of his neck. It does not matter how it looks.
His mind is so effortlessly blank.
“Let us await him outside under the sun’s bright gaze,” Ferdinand says.
There is a bench a few yards distant from the Emperor’s tent, so that any messengers waiting for an audience can rest their tired limbs. The Emperor and her aide sit there side by side. Edelgard does not let go of Ferdinand’s hand, though there is no heat to be shared between their thick gloves.
“I sold my soul for this,” Edelgard mumbles, half to herself. She squeezes his hand between hers with all the restrained force of a double-crested abomination. “But I never agreed to sell you. Please…tell me you know that.”
“I do. But there is no cost too high for…” He gestures grandly to the world. For the dream of a better one.
She sinks into his side.
“If you could trade your life to end all of this,” Ferdinand prompts gently.
“In an instant.”
“Then you understand. It is not for you. It is only…”
Heavy boots crunch in the snow. Near and growing nearer.
“For someone else’s future,” Edelgard completes. “I know, Ferdinand. I know.”
A whistle cuts through the air. Arundel does not even greet them, does not sneer and gloat over their misery with his false words, only picks a dog from his kennel and waits for obedience on the road to slaughter.
Ferdinand delicately pulls his hands away from Edelgard’s stiff grasp. There is so much still unsaid, but Ferdinand’s words mean no more than those silenced in the destruction of Arianrhod, or the thousands more lost by sword’s edge and starvation’s teeth. He nods and stands. He steps between avuncular monster and harrowed niece, shielding the devastation that must surely be pouring through the cracks of the Emperor’s dispassionate facade.
He raises his chin, dares Arundel to correct his vacant gaze, and smiles.
Soul-crushing art by birds
Instead of another 20k staged behemoth let's split it in two this time for everyone's sake! (Except maybe Hubert's.)
This is a rough one -- considering where Ferdinand is, I'm hoping that is to be expected. Please note the warnings carefully, and read the endnotes for further clarification as needed.
- Mention of suicide(1st Hubert PoV. Read to "Worse was Sieglinde." then skip three paragraphs to "No. Even the finest blade.")
- Insects (2nd Ferdinand PoV. Read to “Go on. Eat.” and skip the rest of the scene.)
- Self-harm/dermatillomania (3rd/final Hubert PoV. Throughout.)
- Torture, both mental (Ferdinand PoVs) and referenced physical (3rd Hubert PoV).
What this chapter does NOT include is active scenes of physical torture/experimentation. It is only referenced as a fear, or in the aftermath.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Even when plans fail, you must remain in control.
Hubert’s first assassination. He was nine. The target, a profligate scion of House Hresvelg who had blackmailed one of the imperial consorts for greater privileges. The weapon, a simple porcelain vase. A woman’s weapon, a servant’s, the weapon of an argument gone wrong and not a creature of the night. Hubert infiltrated silently, perfectly. Everything according to plan.
But Hubert’s arms could not reach high enough to drop the vase from sufficient vantage — a betrayal of physics — and he had stared hopelessly down at the unconscious body strewn at his feet. He had not brought a knife, not even in his boot, for fear it would draw further scrutiny from the household staff. There were always new starving serving lads underfoot; they were not traditionally armed to the teeth.
Before he could solve the problem at hand, Marquis Vestra appeared across the room. His silent footsteps thudded harshly upon Hubert’s ribcage as he stalked forward. He dipped to pluck a large, jagged shard of porcelain from the mess. He held it out to Hubert.
Weakness begets weakness.
Hubert brought it to the target’s throat. A knife was a knife.
He feels it now, splintering between his fingers, a pen shattered into bloody shivs in his palm. Remain in control. His desk, the target’s desk, cleared of all evidence. All his paperwork on the floor, sigils and code sliding over his skin as even the solemn glow of magelight blinds him. Ink bleeding dark and sticky through the pages. Squishing beneath his boot.
He slides the soiled gloves from his fingers as though he has never seen them before — the burns of weakness and sundered control that strain up his gnarled skin, and the strangeness of white cotton in a world choking on rot and acid, whittled down, down, to a shard of rib bone.
His naked hand sliding swiftly, sweetly, into the silence of Ferdinand’s chest to break free that rib, to gut Arundel on sainted bones, for a knife was a knife, and oh, what a knife he had made of his—
Hubert sinks into his chair. Splays his hands against the lacquered wood, imagines the cool of it under his palms. Control.
Ferdinand has gone.
An hour, now.
And not a word.
That hand in his hand, skin on his skin, treasured and cherished. Loved. I will always be with you, the words mere moonlight through his fingers, a faith that screams upon his flesh and brings no healing charm. Ferdinand does not speak. Have they muzzled his gadfly, brought down the cleaver upon sacrificial flesh already?
No. Illogical. They need him to live as long as possible.
Hubert cannot drag the logic past that point. They need Ferdinand alive. End. So it has always ended.
But now his thoughts tumble onward, point of no return be damned. The locked door splintering open, the images superimposed. The ghosts screaming free.
He was there when the butchers returned Edelgard to the surface, sullen and silvered. That she knew.
He was there, too, for the others. That, she did not.
Albrecht, her second brother, lived three weeks after they brought him back to the surface. His vassal was long dead, a rare loyal man, so Hubert assumed the task of leading the prince by the hand when they summoned him. Albrecht did not speak. He only smiled his vacant smile. Hubert combed back the man’s hair from his forehead, so the thin scar along his temple—as though someone had removed and replaced his scalp—would shine in the light.
Arundel had laughed to see it. Embrace failure, he offered with a clap to Hubert’s bony shoulder. Everything is always to plan.
One morning Albrecht would not wake up. Hubert sat at his bedside all day, staring at the wall. The adults did not even summon a doctor, a priest. The butchers took him away.
To see Ferdinand smile like a vapid, mindless puppet, would be. Well. Hubert would bear it long enough to draw his blade across that tender skin.
Worse was Sieglinde. Their first success. Crestless, she took well to the initial transplant. Something about her aptitude for magic, they said. Promising, very promising.
They allowed her a stroll above ground in the gardens for good behavior, and the moment her minders looked away, Sieglinde smiled up at the sun and stretched her arms into the light. Then she cast Mire down her own throat. Hubert could still envision that vicious smile, a gash of blackened teeth across her sallow face, as the butchers tried to save her. Mire could be contained, yes, but not dismissed. By the time it slithered out of her lungs, it had taken her spirit with it.
Hubert did not understand it at the time. It could not be martyrdom if all she accomplished was dooming her younger siblings to the tests. If Sieglinde had taken on a second crest, it may have spared his own Lady. Was not any pain worth bearing for such a result?
No. Even the finest blade breaks in the hand of a cruel master.
None are finer than Ferdinand.
None can ever be, save for his Lady, who stands before him now.
Hubert blinks, jolting from the dread river of lingering wraiths and all their grasping claws. Something pulls in his neck as he jerks to attention. Good. The clarity of pain will cast out all this useless speculation. The work will winnow him back down to his true purpose.
Edelgard does not report. She slipped into the tent in silence, and in silence she remains, still as a statue with her hand outstretched over his desk. From her hand drapes a thick cord of amber, the hair curling free of its bounds at every join of the braid.
His lungs freeze as if touched by poison.
Ferdinand’s braid slides through her fingers like silk and tumbles down upon his desk. A few hairs slip away, lost forever. Hubert’s fingers creep forward at once, hesitant and desperate to touch the soft waves they have so recently woven through, stroked and brushed and adored.
“Were this an opera, I would tell you to hang yourself with it.”
“Do not speak.”
She fixes him with a look he has not seen since the day of her coronation when she cast out the Prime Minister himself. Hard, unyielding against any enemy.
And he, now, her enemy.
The toxin spreads. To heart, to liver and stomach, to the farthest reaches of his nervous system. Critical shutdown. Edelgard stares at him as though declaring war. She stares through him as though he is not a man at all, but a rabid dog to be put down.
Hubert knows her better than any other. No need to bring the lash of logic’s whip down upon him, when a glance at the line of her clenched jaw does just as well. The betrayal of all of this, to be kept in the dark while her loved ones bartered outside the bars—so be it. Hubert has always known the cost. For her victory, for Fodlan’s freedom, a few broken men is a bargain.
The Emperor’s boots press down upon his fallen papers, crinkling the frail path he has built for her. Ferdinand could turn ink to iron, to trust and faith and dignity in a world so sadly without, and it was not even his hand upon the pen. Will not be ever again.
That is his true crime, he understands. Edelgard has never turned her face from the horrors of the war, but she gazes unflinchingly beyond it to the world to come. A world that requires men such as Ferdinand.
It does not require men such as Hubert, who sees only the inferno creeping up his arms and roasting him in his own skin, who envisions no future save one final defiant howl. There is no beyond.
“When we hold tonight’s war table, send your recommendations in writing.” She turns away. “I do not care to see your face.”
“What will you tell the others?”
No one else knows of Ferdinand’s true work. He left no letters, for obvious reasons, and like another sip of venom, realization strikes: Hubert could have penned them. Ferdinand excelled at dictation. If he had final words, then Hubert could, should have—
Edelgard pauses in front of the flap of the tent. “What does it matter,” she laughs, a rare brittleness in her tone under despair’s foggy tarnish.
Even now, Hubert cannot dampen the rush of pride at her words, her directness, to cleave through bone with all her strength straight to the heart of the matter. That it is his own chest split open matters little. The heart: Ferdinand’s sacrifice will be worthless unless Hubert makes use of it. His absence offers no meaning. Hubert must not dwell.
So he waits for any signal. Any whisper.
He lowers his head to the desk. He does not allow himself to touch the braid.
The Faerghan cold presses in upon him. The spilt ink seeps into his reports. The soft lacquer of his desk gives way beneath his ragged nails, split and welling with dark vapors.
He does not stir even when a servant ducks in with his coffee, startles, and slips out once more.
A knife is a knife, even when turned against its own.
Far better to be a conduit.
If Ferdinand could do the whole thing again, he would remember to eat first. At least then he’d have something to hurl onto Arundel’s shoes after the third, fourth, eighth quickfire warp whips them Goddess knows where.
It feels like hours since this cross-country nightmare began in earnest, which is precisely what they want. Complete and utter disorientation. Most destinations are cold and silent: basements, safehouses, little-used corners of the continent where no one will notice a warpstone’s installation. It would be a work of beauty to signal each location to Hubert, but a warp washes out whatever Crest magic Ferdinand works. Doubtlessly they move in circuitous paths, yet not even the slightest signifier is allowed. He cannot feel the wind, the sun, the local larksong.
Arundel is not his only captor. More hands than two push him this way and that, but no one speaks and there are too many footsteps to discern, so he cannot glean their number.
They have not bound his hands. It means nothing. There are still too many eyes to risk casting any sign.
He wishes they allowed him the grace of a sack of potatoes — surely it would better, more harrowing for his piddly self-worth, to be tossed around like luggage instead of hauled to unsteady feet like a man each time he crumples? Easier on his legs, too. The suggestion lingers on his tongue, the illusion of power in petty complaint.
Yet the time for questions is long past, so Ferdinand does not bother asking any. No point in luring Arundel into another rant and ramble if there is no listener to comb it for stray pieces of information.
The ninth warp slams into his gut like a fist.
No one catches Ferdinand as he tumbles face-first into the mud. No hiss of laughter, though he swears he feels it in the sudden sharp breeze. Boots squelch in the moist soil, and a hard grip seizes Ferdinand by the raggedy curls at the base of his skull, hoisting him up so sharply they must get a handful of orange fluff for their trouble.
“I am not a cruel man,” Arundel says. “Even I allow a final request.”
Ferdinand’s eyes water in valiant attempt to clear the dirt and irritation away. He twitches his nose and turns, just trying to breathe freely, when the brine-bright wind sweeps in and stirs his heart to a gallop. These fields, this perfect sun pelting down heat upon his shoulders, this whisper of the sea.
“I thought to let you gaze upon your home one last time. A pity that Hubert robbed you of even this.”
And he will rue the day when I am lord of it once more, Ferdinand should say. Play the card of a man betrayed on all sides and ready to bite the hand that poisoned him. Play politics. Edelgard is no longer so easy to control; Arundel and his lot need a new pawn. Ferdinand needs his sight. Such allies can return it to him.
He says nothing as he spits dirt and drags his fingers through the fruitful soil.
When they force Ferdinand back to his feet, they dirty their hands upon his fouled sleeves.
Arundel does not know what to make of him. That, more than anything, gives Ferdinand power. And the tenth warp cannot take that away, nor the twelfth, no matter how his bones ache and scream with the pressure of bleak Reason.
An even sixteen brings them beneath the earth. Something in the quality of the sound is wrong, the stonework reflecting each noise like nothing he has ever heard.
“Ferdinand, Ferdinand, Ferdinand,” sighs his captor. “I cannot even bring you inside like this. Filthy as a hound.”
They strip him.
Dunk his head into a basin so cold it leaves frost in his eyebrows, then spray him down with what must be sheets of pure ice.
He hears the nearing whisper of scissors arching open, but they never connect. Arundel must wave them off.
It is the bitter chill that brings him to tears, to raw thankfulness for Edelgard’s knife.
No one hands him a towel. One guard chuckles low, tells him to shake, and then a slap and a clatter brings all back to silence. Ferdinand breathes. Waits. At length someone shoves a bundle of cloth into his dripping arms, and under untold eyes he picks it apart into a roughly woven shirt and trousers.
The pants are simple enough, one foot into each hole, but the shirt he struggles with. So many holes, so many arms! He yelps in growing distress, for no one steps forward to help, and this guise of helplessness still sings true.
His hand, hidden behind the coarse fabric, traces the first sigil against his own chest.
“Fix him,” Arundel barks, and someone steps forward to set Ferdinand’s new clothes to rights.
He swallows back a laugh, for surely that will not be a kindly opening salvo in Hubert’s ear, and it will only get worse from here.
Arundel dismisses the other guards and takes Ferdinand by the arm, just as he once did under the eyes of society in Garreg Mach, and Ferdinand barely restrains his delight at the chance to be clumsily marched into another round of walls.
“Your silence serves no purpose.” Arundel begins to walk, his tone as genial as can be. “Of course, your yapping serves no purpose either. If you think your tongue affords you a margin of control, you are free to believe it. It makes no difference.”
Yes, yes, I will burn out my voice soon enough, what with all the screaming. Ferdinand does not bother with twisting his neck this way and that in confusion. He gazes unerringly at the source of Arundel’s voice. No feigned innocence, no pleading pathos, only Ferdinand’s true face, weary and underestimated.
“Come. As my honored guest, you must have the full tour.”
And into the labyrinth they go.
Ferdinand wastes no effort on counting his steps. The map is not his to build, the tactics not his to draft. Hubert will commit these directions to memory and sketch out the whole with ease. The crescendo of glories—a library he will never study, kitchens that will never serve him, an armory stuffed to the gills with atrocities of light—lead inevitably to the moment Arundel locks him in a cell and leaves him only a litter box as company. Still, he moves slowly, giving himself over to exhaustion as Arundel pays devoted tribute to the sound of his own noxious voice.
A lift brings them deeper into the earth. “The simpler route,” Arundel explains. “We would not want you to snap your neck on the stairs.”
The gate creaks open. A rush of stale air passes over them, crisp and soulless, the same as any infirmary tent during the war. Used to excess, faith saps life from the caster, their surroundings, even the wind itself. Healing can only be forced so far before the body rebels.
They pass through a door. The reek of absence grows.
“Allow me to introduce your neighbors.”
“Keep him safe, you told me.”
Hubert breathes out through his nose, grimacing down at the knife now embedded squarely in his desk. At least the sprightly terror raging through his tent is no longer waving it in his face.
“You excelled at your post. Gold star, von Bergliez.”
Were he any other man, the sheer rage flashing in Fleche’s twisted face might give him pause, drive him to his metaphorical knees, or at least encourage him to brace for impact. Unfortunately for them all, Hubert is what he is.
“If I had, you would be dead,” she spits, “And he would still be here. Now tell me where he is!”
It wars in her, this clash of childhood vendettas and the maturity of brutal fury. Her eyes trip over his meager belongings in a futile quest for something to shatter, something to destroy right before Hubert’s eyes, to take from him as he has taken from her, but no mere bauble’s breaking can ever reach the gravity of what has already been lost.
Fleche grits her teeth and rolls back her shoulders, the perfect little soldier once more. “If I am acting Deputy Minister, adviser to Her Majesty herself, then I hold rank enough for such information.”
It is not a matter of rank. “Classified.”
She rounds on him, circling a half-moon around his desk to crowd in upon his space, and—
Warm, fetid breath hisses over him in a low rumble.
Sound crashing into memory; the battlefield, the beasts.
“Crest—st, —ficult to calibrate.”
A crackle of unmistakable laughter.
“—please. I have already given one brother to the war, I cannot—”
Fleche is crying now, just a little girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders, but she has no crest, she does not even understand.
A slither of dry skin against stone, clear as day.
Too much skin.
The sounds tumble together, distorted and howling wild. Moans broken beyond speech. A delay in the transmission. Interference from the walls and wards of Shambhala?
“I will tell Her Majesty everything,” Fleche warns, her tear-tracks glittering like a sheen of oil on her cheeks, ready to strike a match and set herself alight.
Hubert shrugs. “As you should.”
She storms off to burn bridges, choking on impotent anger. Good. It will drive her onward, will plant her stalwart feet at Edelgard’s side until she grows into a bastion of ability and advice out of sheer defiance. Fleche knows all the ciphers, all the foreign intelligence operatives, all the covert methods of cooperation. She has interfaced between the government branches and Hubert’s people for years. They know her quick wit and quicker hands; they will follow her when the time comes.
Edelgard will not grieve to see her face. Another firebrand with nothing left to lose.
Solitude reclaimed, Hubert returns to his unhappily impaled desk, jimmies free the knife, and tosses it into an otherwise empty drawer. A fun surprise for whoever longs to assassinate him next. He fetches his primary notebook and begins to record his observations for later consideration.
He does not record the ferocious pounding of his heart, the leap at every hiss and creak that might signal Ferdinand’s dry throat summoning a sound.
One: Something is jamming the signal. Even the most paranoid examples of modern architecture do not consider crest-based sigilwork in their construction. If Shambhala is modern, something within has created a distortion. Alternatively, a pre-modern compound from the era of more extensive crest magic would naturally have such wards. If those protections are regularly charged, Ferdinand’s work will never break through. If they are not, then the regular application of Ferdinand’s sigils will chain their strength and eventually overcome the lingering ward. Time will tell.
He can do nothing about it from here, except sweat, which serves no one.
Linhardt has experience aplenty with breaking into pre-modern subterranean necropoleis. At this point there can be no harm in posing a few theoretical questions for his expertise, though Hubert will preemptively draw the line at tattooing another blasted Crest sigil upon his skin. Let him mark up Caspar, who never gets tired of his blathering.
Two: That first noise was unmistakably the breath of a crest beast. Once so exhaled upon, a man never forgets the sticky reek of it sound for sound. If they are indeed in Shambhala, then there is space enough for creature experiments as well. Hubert has surveyed many of the beast facilities around the continent, both before and after extermination, and they are inevitably huge and reeking stables with minimal technical staff.
Yet the groans were…human. If subjects both man and beast dwell together, the conclusions are particularly damning. Typical Slithering efficiency. Why allow testing materials to expire when you could shove crest stones down their throat and open new avenues of investigation?
Ferdinand has traced the sigil even in his sleep. Would he still, with claw and fang, would he reach for Hubert even so?
Three: Arundel is still present. Excellent. If he continues to take active interest in Ferdinand, then he will be present more often and inevitably run his mouth. Ferdinand knows his prerogative is to remain a viable goldmine for as long as possible.
Hubert has three seconds to replace his notebook to a hidden shelf as Manuela wrestles with the flaps into his tent.
“Manuela. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Save it.” She jabs a finger towards his eyes the moment she’s in range, but for all her red-faced huffing and puffing, that bit of dramatic pointing fails to unnerve him. “Where the fuck is he, Vestra?”
Flames, is Edelgard sitting down the entire army and reshaping them to reckless nuisances one after another? The only man capable of convincing Hubert of anything is already long gone, just an echo of broken static across death’s looming divide. Next will be Caspar at the door with a meat pie as his bribe.
“Wherever your heart imagines him,” Hubert smiles. If Manuela believed the official story, she wouldn’t be here.
She sweeps her free arm out next to her, the drape of her cloak infuriatingly artful after five long years of war. “Goodness, how embarrassing for me to miss him standing right here all along! Cut the bullshit.”
The Emperor had not bothered to inform Hubert of the excuses given for Ferdinand’s absence, but he’d managed to ferret it out of Fleche quick enough during the earlier tirade. “He is with family. We can no longer assure his safety so near to the front lines. Surely the escalation of brutality at Arianrhod has made that point most clear.”
“We’re the only family that boy’s ever had. You think you know him so well, you hateful little weevil, but you don’t know a damn thing. Unless you mean to tell me you buried him next to the Duke!”
Her sneer arranges her face into perfect derision, visible at fifty yards.
Hubert so hates the theater. “Of course not.”
“You couldn’t even bother with a convincing lie.” Manuela leans further across the desk, gloating in her momentarily superior position. He has only to stand to destroy the illusion. “His mother couldn’t be assed to spit on him if he were on fire. I wrote to her. I begged. But she doesn’t care to have a cripple for a son, war hero be damned.”
Ferdinand certainly played that one close to the chest.
Still, if only Manuela has noted the incongruity, the lie will hold. She simply doesn’t have the respect of the troops to orchestrate otherwise.
“Where is he?”
“Unfortunately, this is not an interrogation.” He chuckles under his breath. “And with such a showing, you are unlikely to ever find employment at such a post.”
She circles the desk—Hubert really needs to gate the area, if every visitor insists on intruding upon his person these days—and hauls him to his feet. He goes easily, humoring her, and only slightly twitches one heavy brow as the flat of her hand lifts into the air.
“Where. Is. He.”
This is no stage play, one noble wronging another, actresses seeking retribution against their domineering boyfriends with one echoing smack. Such behavior degrades them both. Hubert is in the business of getting stabbed, thank you, not slapped around like the Gautier boy.
Hubert smiles around his retort, venom suffused into every word—
The squeal of a rusted gate.
“Here we are. Home sweet home.”
Manuela’s hand connects with his cheek in a pitch-perfect crack.
She gapes at him in the ensuing silence, eyes flickering between her hand and his face as she processes the shock, the denial, swiftly careening all the way to blithe acceptance that she will be losing that hand shortly.
Every member of staff in the surrounding thirty yards must be holding their breath, awaiting another bucket of blood to scrub clean.
“Are you done?” Hubert asks softly.
Manuela takes three heaving breaths, fuel for the renewed fury in her chest. “Rot in hell.”
He pays her no further attention; her hand is in no danger of retribution. Pedestrian concerns. Distractions. Hubert has no time for it, not when his ears strain for a distant whisper of respiration, for the silence of renewed connection.
For a long while that is all there is. Softness in his ear, as though Ferdinand lies aside him once more, murmuring dreams into the sweaty rat’s nest of his lover’s hair.
Breathing, still breathing.
“The door is unlocked.”
Ferdinand’s voice, soft and stern as a rapture.
An unlocked cell. A slight against his blindness, that he cannot make use of any escape? No. Utilitarian. Anyone can seize him at any time, and there will not even be the clink of a lock as warning.
He speaks no more.
Too risky? Or is he already hurt? Hubert grits his teeth against the failure, that he missed the journey’s beginning, missed whatever horror Arundel introduced. Crest stones? No, too early. And Ferdinand would say if he were…injured. Afraid. Beyond the usual measure.
Hubert listens anyway. The signal strengthens an hour later — a new application of the sigil? Growing in power, good, that means hope for the more involved tracker — and soon enough Hubert can feel every creak and echo through the space Ferdinand is caged in.
At length, the calm and easy cadence of sleep.
Ferdinand’s snuffling grunt as he rolls to ease weary joints.
Hubert closes his eyes. His hand falls to the handle of the drawer where a long, coiled braid has made its den. He cranes his ears for the chime of metal on metal, a door pushed effortlessly open. He can give no warning, but he listens still.
From a world away, he guards Ferdinand’s relentless dreams.
It takes only two weeks, more or less, for Ferdinand’s fear instinct to wear out.
The body never deadens completely to it of course. He is still human, best he knows. His heart still stumbles and screams, bile leaps to his throat as easy as any curse, his bones a jittery mess of anticipation. But his mind is calm. A sponge saturated with grease and squeezed under the tap until the water runs clear once more. He has made his peace with it.
There is no routine by which to judge the time. He counted meals in the beginning, then syringes, but even those pinpricks and the ensuing darkness are irregular. Ferdinand drifts like a ghost. He sits on his clever hands.
Sometimes there are noises and sometimes there are not.
Sometimes he cannot move for hours, unbound yet lifeless, alone in the void like Hubert always wished — Void take you, von Aegir! It has been so long. It has taken me, he explains once, and then cannot remember what nor where. Probably his mouth did not work anyway.
He knows it has been two weeks because his fingernails were raw when Arundel took him, and now they are long enough to gnaw through once more, which he does. A noble must always be well-groomed.
No footsteps sound when the—enemy, he thinks? He thinks they are definitely, certainly his enemy, but also they are Agarthan, and the heaviness of the vowels is so nice upon his mind’s tongue. Nicer than Hubert’s boogeymen. An enemy named can be defeated, a shadow never. Strange that Vestras sign Vestra to everything, is it not?
He informs Hubert of how foolish it is as he lies in his cold, cold room on the cold, cold stone and waits for the ice in his veins to melt. He informs Hubert via strenuous telepathy alone, because his mouth still does not quite work, but nothing has ever stopped Ferdinand before and nothing ever will.
Is it sleep paralysis if he never sleeps?
Or do they slip into his room and prick at his skin and weigh him down like this on purpose? Not to fiddle. Just to watch. To know he screams in the empty prison of his body, sightless and soundless and cold, cold, cold.
They slip in the dark, you see. Not slither. There is no noise. Ferdinand cannot track them through the halls, cannot string logic into expectation without any observations, cannot brace himself for impact. But he is clever, and now when the pinprick comes he always screams. Some of his neighbors are resigned but others understand. They hoot and howl and holler whenever they are slipped in and out of their cells, swallowed by the void and spat out once more. In this way Ferdinand can track the duration of experiments and determine who is currently on the table. Who is, for a few more hours, safe.
It has been quiet today.
Or he has been unconscious.
His fingers twitch, finally, and he sags into the stone with a collapsing sigh, his head falling to one side. Alright. It is over for now.
Ferdinand checks his fingernails once more to be sure. Raw-bitten. Two weeks. He hopes he does not pick and tear them in his sleep.
He rolls over and curls into a ball, popping his spine most pleasingly as he turns his back on the barred hallway. Without any assurance that the cell walls are truly unseeing stone rather than transparent glass — that he is in prison, rather than a zoo — he cannot trust any direction to provide true security. Only by rolling up and letting the curl of his ribcage send his hands into shadow can he risk a sigil. Ferdinand sketches them hastily against his sweat-sticky collarbone: listening, tracking.
Still twitching, his fingers forge onward to new prayers, as if he can draw a turtle’s shell and cast resilience over his broken body, force some squiggle to manifest the words I love you like a piece of folded paper on the wind. He has not said it since they parted. Cannot say it again.
The truth has hurt Hubert enough already.
Ferdinand’s hands slide down the front opening of his shirt, reluctant to begin the inventory. Where once was smooth skin, now ridges of misshapen flesh rise from the warmth of his ribcage. One ragged line runs from the joint of each shoulder to meet at a point midway down his chest, and a third extends all the way down his torso to the divot of his belly button. The slightest touch invokes a wretched repulsion; he tenses to repress the oncoming shudders.
Sometimes Ferdinand wakes to new wounds, new scars, and scrambles to piece together the jagged memories of physicality. Not all are true. This raised Y is nothing more than a mortician’s jest; the rift and sutures are real to the touch, but when Ferdinand claws at the section over his belly, he can never get it to bleed. No feeling. That is not proof on its own, for he swears they numb his limbs at random just to watch him scuttle around the cell on only three, only two, but it is the story he likes best.
Edelgard showed him her scars. She brought his fingers to her arm and dragged them down the bone so he could feel the rift within.
Only one of those is notched into Ferdinand’s flesh so far, a thin incision on his inner thigh with more delicate stitches than any other. The bone aches from knee to hip. Maybe it always will.
He is always unconscious for the actual tests. His knowledge of what has been done to his body is dim, yet his gut maintains the answer is remarkably little. They have harvested his blood and marrow, yes. In excruciating measure. But implants or injections, true experiments? No. Even the scientists are merely toying with him, or have been collared by Arundel’s obsession.
Or it is all Ferdinand’s natural optimism. A kindly cover for the horrors now under his skin.
It is best if Ferdinand pretends all the wounds are real, regardless. He must fall for their cruel tricks. So he presses his thumb against a puncture in his shoulder, presses harder and harder until it wells up with sour molasses instead of blood.
The toe of a boot wedges suddenly under his elbow, and the following kick separates his thumb from its target, sends Ferdinand howling as he twists away.
“Get up,” snaps a guard.
I shall not, Ferdinand laughs, inside where no one can spot his defiance and even Hubert cannot disapprove. He remembers Hubert a lot. A clinical fixation, it has been said. Funny that Edelgard is not fixated on revolution, or Hubert upon his murderous misadventures, or Linhardt upon his research, but Ferdinand, of course, is cobbled together all wrong, and it has never been more true!
Yet it is still not true at all. He consults Hubert the way a soldier recalls the commands of a drill sergeant, an actor his script. Constantly, and then by memory alone.
Now, curled by the heavy boot of a dark-sliding Agarthan, he reaches for the words: The longer you keep your life, the more information we will pick from your bones. Each enemy is driven by a different hunt, just like your ancestral hounds. The knowledge-motivated will value your compliance as long as it enables their work. The sadists will let you live as long as you give them a show. Do not fight, but do not break. Do you understand?
He must react regardless. He must grovel and weep and bear it. The screams in the distance. The disorientation. The sluggish curl in his blood.
Ferdinand twists into a sitting position. Easy to rise upon his knees, easier still to bow and kiss that boot if needed.
“Meal time. Hands out.”
He lifts his hands palm-up. A wooden bowl, light enough to be empty, is laid upon them.
“Go on. Eat.”
There is no spoon. The guard is still there, silent in form but raucous in malice.
Ferdinand rests the bowl in his lap, steadies it with one hand, and reaches in with the other. There is no movement, which is the good news.
At first he thinks it the outer layers of an onion, desiccated and crinkling beneath the weight of his fingers, but there are too many branches, too many long and segmented husks. The rough of his fingertip catches on a paper-thin piece of, ah. Wing.
A bowl of dead crickets to feed Cichol’s little lord.
Hissing in a breath between his teeth, Ferdinand bows his head and bites his tongue until tears spring to his weary eyes. Misery and deference. The same as he offered when they gave him fishbones and scrambled eggshells, when they made him gnaw on bones for their rich marrow. “Please, sir—”
The guard smacks the bowl from his hands with such force it clatters against the far wall. They laugh and laugh. “Enjoy the meal.”
Ferdinand does not move until he hears a shriek down the hall. Some other poor wretch dragged from their cell.
And then silence returns.
No chirping. Good. Dead crickets are no trouble to him; live ones he would struggle to catch. The meal is clearly meant to be foul for fussy Fodlanders, an insult predicated on the standards of his noble pride or some such bull, but it is regular fare in the eastern islands.
Ferdinand skates his fingers carefully over the clean stone, searching for that rare blessing of actual food. For all that the staff perform the role of prison guards, every inch of these cells is disinfected with a laboratory’s precision — they will not lose such precious specimens to infection and rot. It is safe enough to eat off of.
He plucks a cricket from the stone and munches thankfully. There is not an inch of seasoning to be found, and it is as dry as a chicken breast broiled halfway to hell. Imagining himself at a diplomat’s feast is a bit of a stretch. Even so, Ferdinand cups his palms and scoops up a full helping into his lap, shuffling until he can rest his head against the wall.
Before he eats, he claps his hands together and bows his head in false prayer. “This is my food crunching,” he assures the only one who ever hears him, “Not my bones.”
It is almost fun to gather them all, like a pig rifling for truffles in the wood. He exhausts himself before he has finished the sweep. More for later.
He lays down his head. Sustenance always makes him so tired. Not a drug, he thinks, but his body shutting down all other functions to leap at the chance to process a genuine meal. He hopes his stomach is not too surprised. One man’s food is any man’s food; he will not stand for snobbery.
He is still a man, after all.
There comes a time when clarity washes over even the most wretched of beasts, driving them from their solitary dens in search of mankind’s clever charity. That they risk being gutted and minced into pies has no meaning. A hound gored by a porcupine’s sagittate defenses cares not whether it lives or dies, merely that the human shall put it from its misery: a quick knife or calm hands to draw free the aching quills so that it may lick its seeping wounds in peace once more.
It is this clarity that drives Hubert to the door of Petra’s tent.
She should turn him away. Everyone else has. But she does not spit in his face, draw her weapon, or raise a hand. She only says, “Sit,” with uncommon urgency. Then she leaves him be.
It is very quiet in her tent. He can no longer hear the screams and callous laughter that have drilled through his skull for hours, before he—
Hubert stares down at the thin rims of blood under his nails. Stomach lurching, he steels himself to swallow back whatever futile failure rises. If he has ruined everything, then.
He has already ruined everything. It matters not.
The sight of ashen flesh mocks him. True ash, not a pasty grey but the gutted remains of carbon and acrid soot. He did not bother with gloves. To change them every time they become soiled is unacceptably wasteful, since anyone he once sought to shield from the sight no longer deigns to look at him. But Petra, too, is majesty in her own right, and to approach her like this is one more small failure skewering through his flesh.
Sometimes there is naught to do for the miserable cur except put it out of its mercy. Better that than slide each barb from its rancid skin as though such wounds could ever scab over in healing. As though he would not gnaw free each stitch and rend himself back to pieces.
There is a knife on the table, long and serrated, and the half-gutted husk of a sourdough loaf. If Hubert draws deep enough breath, he can smell the bracing edge of the Dagdan preserves that Petra favors for her rations, the kind he once so crudely tested for poison under the sharp abundance of flavor. No more histrionics. He will sit here, and she will feed him as is her wont, a blighted stray at the feet of the righteous.
Petra returns with a bowl of fresh water and a washcloth. She lashes shut the door to the tent so no one can disturb them, and then she pulls a second chair to Hubert’s side. At his blatant shock, she sighs.
“Edelgard told me her everything. That anger is true. But I am knowing you chose this together.”
Her expression is as even-keeled as ever. No sorrow, no judgment, no surprise. She has been party to this from the very beginning, his secret confidant, and surely she has now pieced together the rudiments of the work if not its whole.
Crest-magic sigils are powered by the blood of the caster and transmitted to those bearing the same. Like calls to like. Consequently, in order for Hubert to serve as the receiving anchor for Ferdinand’s work, he had to devise a way to keep Ferdinand’s blood on him at all times. A small amulet concealing an even smaller vial of Cichol’s most valuable remnants made for laughably insufficient security. A Vestra could not be so obvious what with all the bloodthirsty butchers on the loose.
A tattoo was the natural choice. His own early attempts proved inadequate to the task, and as perfectionism outweighed pride on the matter, he consulted the most knowledgeable colleague at hand. To Petra’s credit, she did not balk at the request, nor the morbid blood-infused ink, nor the barrage of grievances Hubert dragged to her door throughout. She even suggested the ideal placement for the mark: the skin above Hubert’s right ear, where the hair soon grew back in ample covering to obscure its existence entirely.
And now only she can say if the work is broken forever, the connection unmade by his lack of control.
Petra lifts a washcloth to his face, and when Hubert flinches away in unbridled instinct, her free hand closes on the join of his shoulder and pins him with calmly unyielding pressure.
“You are reminding me of…poems. Sagas? The ones Dorothea uses in opera singing.”
Her voice is steady, precise. Not lyrical. A butcher to a butcher. Despite himself, Hubert leans into her hands. The cloth passes over his brow, his cheek, and comes away sticky and red.
“This line I remember. Do you know it? Burn the offering, pour the blood—”
Every dip and twist of the cloth into the bowl leaves it darker than before, the water tainted a mocking pink, until at last the cloth leaves her grasp and sinks bloated with gore.
“And the voice of the dead will be heard,” Hubert completes by rote. It was one of Edelgard’s few favorites among the northern canon.
Petra hums in agreement and begins to comb through the wet layers of his hair, working loose the sweat-encrusted curls until she can freely peel them away from the swollen mess above his right ear. She inspects every inch of skin carefully and, crucially, does not hiss between her teeth.
“Maybe you are thinking of this line,” she sighs as the cuts start to well with fresh crimson offering. “But Ferdinand is not voice of death. Your blood is not calling out to him. ”
As if Hubert does this on purpose, claws savagery into his own flesh in dread summoning circle, nervous pits for his nails every time another scream rings through his bones from that distant, indomitable gadfly. There is no blasted strain of poetic longing here, never could be. Ferdinand yearns for the sun on his face and a fall harvest won by the dirt under his nails, and if he has ever truly sung for blood, it is for the life-veins pulsing within their citizens, for a way forward that leaves the fields watered with the rains alone, not christened with broken bodies sinking into the dark soil. And if the sagas are true, if the blood of a lover can feed a starving spirit and give it form once more, even so. Ferdinand would not wet his masterful lips against the poison of Hubert’s malicious shade.
Head wounds always bleed. He has bled all evening, leaned into every scream, and then.
The shame of it boils, the same lurch that twists Hubert’s nerves into knots whenever he hears the kettle’s call for tea, and a flash of writhing heat arcs through him. Better to twist away, to squirm away from such care like a petulant child and hurl himself free of this skin, this body, let a warp swallow him and never spit him out—
“I can’t hear him,” Hubert chokes. His voice does not tremble, but the words cut through his mouth like the shards of a quill, split and leaking.
Even in a storm of confusion and torture, Ferdinand is consistent. Determined. He always casts the sigils before he sleeps. The plural, Hubert assumes, although the tracker has not yet reached him. There were always distance issues with it; Hubert tested it at a range of a few yards to a hundred miles, and the delay between call and receipt increased a hundredfold in turn. But Ferdinand’s mastery of the auditory transmitter is flawless, its delay a scant few minutes at greatest distance, and the swell of presence that washes over Hubert with every cast is the only thread left holding him together, an old sock frayed to madness and preserved by sheer devotion of its mender.
Tonight there is worse than nothing.
Absence, the looming gulf opening within Hubert’s chest as though he is the one on the table, still-pumping organs lifted from his ribcage in frenetic vivisection.
Silence, the echo of those researchers hauling Ferdinand onto the table and counting the bones of his spine—Vertebrae T10 through T12, clear. Proceeding to L1—the choking dregs of a scream as the scalpel carved its bloody descent.
Ignorance, the deadliest of all. The mention of vertebrae gives him a clue to the Agarthan’s current purpose: crests can calcify in the bone and result in greater susceptibility to spurs, especially in the legs, shoulders, and lower back. But are they establishing a baseline or evaluating the results of earlier experiments?
He can’t hear Ferdinand breathing.
Conclusion, Ferdinand is—
Conclusion, Hubert has mangled the mark in his despair.
So ends the work. So ends his world.
Petra catches his hand before he can claw at himself once more. “Hubert. Scratching like dog will not help.”
“Are you certain?” he laughs, if the rawness of breath can be called such a thing. “There is no fixing this. Should I not give over to the ravings of the lepers and the damned? If I be no more than hound of war, pissing in the dirt at My Lady’s feet, then let me gnaw these bones until they can no longer be used against her.”
The pop of a bottle uncorked by his ear startles him halfway out of the seat, and Petra dutifully tries to restrain her tired smile. She pours some of the vulnerary into her palm and wets her fingers before rubbing them around the wound. “Then, then, then. Reason users always thinking if X then Y. Possibility equals finality! But it is untruth. You are talking about our Ferdinand. When has he ever been disappointment?”
Not to Hubert.
When there is nothing more to be done, no way to test the sigil’s enduring connection, Petra smooths down his dark hair with one last sheen of healing grease. It will doubtlessly pass as part of his general dishevelment.
She catches his wrist as he tries to brush past her in unseemly retreat, his thanks as silent as the noise in his head. “Find some rest. This war is not finishing.”
“I will be sufficiently prepared for the morning’s march.” Hubert forces a nod. “Good night, Petra.”
They advance on the Tailtean Plains at dawn.
Outside the tent, he braces himself against the wind’s swelling howl and tugs his coat higher about his neck. He does not raise the hood. Let the ice kiss his wet blood in parody of a lost lover.
The steady drum of his steps should drag Hubert directly, relentlessly on toward his own tent, but his boots drift aimless over the packed down snow. When they first made camp in this frigid wasteland, they had needed to carve paths through the snowdrifts and solid banks of frozen soil. Now all has been flattened by the chaotic landing patterns of their wyvern battalions and the heated beds the mages built for them, taking turns to stoke the fires with freshly imbued coal.
Far beyond the enclosures for such fussy beasts, the camp opens up into a silence as numb as Hubert’s fingertips. The soldiers sleep. The battle plans are final, the roles assigned, all training completed.
Hubert will lead an allied contingent of Arundel’s personal troops.
He has gleaned so much intelligence from the discussions Ferdinand dropped in his ear, and yet there is one thing amid all that manipulation and experimentation and torture that never arrived: their truth. Ferdinand never broke. Never admitted to his training, let alone to the depth of his alliances. And if he is now…quiet. Snuffed out like a low-burning candle, peaceful in the absence of a fight, not broken only stopped, then Hubert will at least always know the man’s measure.
High above, the moon hides her face in a sky crisp and dark. Effortless emptiness. This has always been Hubert’s chief skill, when overt loathing will not achieve the desired result, and it is one he must relearn by sunrise. Arundel’s men cannot distinguish a drop of sentiment in him, not a single twitch of the ear as he cranes for another world’s buzzing song. Hubert cannot be so obvious as to flash a dozen tells with every ill-concealed grimace like some newborn reprobate attending his first game of cards. He must be nothing.
He stands there until the cold is all that remains of him. No stars dancing in that foreign sky. No bracing wind tearing at his wet hair.
No lull of exhaustion luring him towards a scant two, three hours of the insensate void.
He dreams on his feet.
I love you, Ferdinand says, and says, and says.
And a comet plummets through—not the barren sky, no, but the frail netting of sinew that still remains of Hubert’s heart, one final blaze for the rotting pyre.
It does not consume.
Hubert scrambles through the snow like a man possessed, starstruck and mindless, the shell of a lantern rushing to protect the embers still burning within.
The tracker, he realizes long after his body wheezes into a run. It must be a dream. A fool’s figment drummed up by his own rancid desperation. Yet it pulses in him brighter with every doubt, lancing through the final seething boil of shadow, and then stronger, sharper still.
With the time delay, Ferdinand must have cast it in continuous sequence to fan its power to such a force, and Hubert envisions him lying on that dissection table, his fingers scraping bloody mysteries as the researchers distract themselves with the intricacies of his spinal column. Fearing death. Fearing the failure of the work, inexcusable, and trading his own voice, perhaps his own final words, to ensure this one signal made it through. For even if they caught him, it would not matter, as long as Hubert knew where to find the corpse.
And now he does.
The drafting table in Hubert’s tent is still laden with a map of the Kingdom and the small wooden figures symbolizing their troops and supply trains. He sweeps them from the surface with a rush of force. The map, too, is useless. Ferdinand is not in Faerghus.
It is so simple to explain the eavesdropping sigil: sound slips from Ferdinand’s ear into Hubert’s. The tracker is another matter. There is no clarity, no definable transference, only a bloom of knowledge where before there was none, yet even that is insufficient because knowledge stands on its own. This cannot. It attunes to the receiver’s own spacial awareness, imprinting upon the existing map like directions without street names, without distances. A counting of steps in the dark.
To do it from five rooms away is one matter; with a continent between them and all the variables that entails, there is a significant chance Hubert will not be able to manage it.
No. Incompetence at this junction is unacceptable.
His favorite weapon is stalwart and true; he will not dishonor the blade with a fumbling hand.
Hubert braces his hands on the empty table as the world shifts in his mind’s eye.
When he was younger, when all the other noble scions went off to their distant summer homes and winter resorts, the Marquis would plant him before a plaster map of Fodlan with all its mountains and valleys modeled in high relief and the distances calculated with pinpoint accuracy. This is your land, the Marquis would remind him. To know something is to control it.
He knows every field and crevasse of Arundel, has rooted through the veil of secrecy its two-faced lord cast over the land. Bergliez and Aegir, too, as alike in their value as imperial breadbaskets as they are in the potential of their leaders to foment large-scale rebellion. The byways of Remire, where his people combed for any remaining clue to its horrors. The Morgaine Ravine, last line of defense against any march on Enbarr’s delicate flanks. The canals of Derdriu, primed for secrets and quick escape, a necessary consideration for their long-abandoned invasion plans. And a hundred, a thousand fields festering with the bones of demonic beasts and strange vapors, every backwater pit of suspected spite, every place the specter of Shambhala slipped through his fingers.
He can do this.
Awareness tugs him east. With breaths as ragged as though he journeys in truth, Hubert walks the long road back to the monastery, out from the camp at Arianrhod and on into the deep woods of Magdred. The lofty peaks of the Oghma mountains rise like a fairytale witch’s spire, yet their narrow paths and ravenous chasms cause him no fear.
As Hubert breaches the walls of the monastery, the center of all their maps, he expects his heart to lurch to the south. Enbarr gleams in her funeral shroud, and all of Adrestia has served as a playground for Those Who Slither in the Dark. No other land has suffered the same abuses.
He follows the river bordering temperate Airmid, and mile by mile his lungs fill with that shallow sludge. By Myrddin, he knows the futility. The calculations spin through their own clockwork wheels of Reason, ratcheting up the weight in his chest, yet the knowledge is inescapably precious for all its burden.
Past the Great Bridge. Past Ordelia.
Until finally Hubert stands in the mountains of eastern Hrym, the sun rising before him in mocking grandeur as it illuminates the destination and obliterates the last of his hope. Here. Ferdinand is here.
Hubert opens his eyes to a pitch-black room and the clinging odor of his own sweat.
He reaches for a map of the continent as a whole. Spreads it out and pins the location. Sits. Stares at where his fingers have smudged blood against the vellum, red once more glistening beneath his ragged nails.
It is over.
Today, a handful of hours away, he will march north with Her Majesty. He cannot be absent. He cannot be seen to be absent, let alone actually leave his Emperor to fight the northern king alone. No troops can be diverted from the upcoming battle. No distractions.
Everything has gone to plan. He has all the intelligence needed to embark upon a new war upon the heels of their upcoming victory. The plans will form in the ashes of the Kingdom, and when they march back south, a select handful of elite troops will peel off from the main army and put Shambhala to the sword.
Weeks too late. Months. Yet it will be done.
There is no other option.
Even if Hubert hurled himself through the longest chained warp of his life, his heart would give out halfway there. He could steal a mount, winged and desperate for warmer climes, and fly off into the dawn, yet five days and five fresh wyverns later and he will still be only one man standing before the devil’s gates.
The demands of time, of distance, of duty and honor and all that Ferdinand has ever loved in him, slip through his fingers no matter how he runs the numbers and tries to force the pieces in line.
Hubert has what they needed. Now it is time to win the war.
And that is the end of it.
A servant scurries in before the first rays of dawn, her thin arms shaking beneath the heavy coffee tray. Hubert spares her a flicker of a glance and a subtle nod before returning to his map and its markings. He recognizes her as one of Edelgard’s youngest maids, one chosen without his aid or advice. If they weren’t so understaffed, Hubert would suspect a hint of insult. Luckily he has no attention to spare her.
He traces the ridge of the mountains separating Hrym from the border river. There must be a way. He has carved this bloody path all the way to the gates of Fhirdiad; he will grind the mountains to dust if that is what it takes. His land, his knowledge, his control. And his nub of charcoal drifting restlessly over the drafting paper, testing yet another diversion to draw down Shambhala’s ire and leave her underbelly undefended.
The maid sets down his breakfast tray, the usual coffee still steaming. Hubert brings it to his lips with relish, not exhaustion — he could work for hours yet, but the dregs of dead-ends and hopelessness ache in his throat, and a smooth burn is the quickest balm. He hums his thanks.
Midway through the sip, he notes a nutty tinge to the brew. He takes a second sip, a third.
As the maid reaches for the flap of the tent, he clears his throat.
“Who did you serve this morning?”
“The poison,” Hubert prompts. “Did you lace the water or the beans? Speak quickly. Is it meant for the cups of all generals or mine alone?”
“That’s alright then.”
The arsenic slips away under the darker bitterness of the coffee beans; it is still prepared well enough to be considered a fine brew. He will not allow it to go to waste when his tolerance is more than enough. With another sip, he advises, “Try a larger dose next time. A Vestra will not die slow from what fails to kill him quick.”
The little maid folds in on herself, shaking with so many half-swallowed sobs that it’s a wonder she stays standing.
Hubert taps a finger against the rim of the cup. “Might I ask why?”
There are hundreds of reasons for an assassin to come to his door. There are far fewer reasons for a slip of a girl to reach for rat poison on her kitchen rounds. But to place herself in the Emperor’s employ only to bypass a mark of higher priority? He must know who paid her off before he decides what to do with her.
She presses her hands over her face, not in hiding but in prayer. “Because you killed Fardi. Skinned ‘im and took his, his—” Her voice breaks on a word so much more at home on her tongue than the rest. But she does not break. She drops her hands and curls them into fists, turning to face Hubert with puffy eyes and stricken face and all. “I will not let you hurt Ermaji’ty! Who knows what you will do?”
“Good instinct. Carry on.”
With a gasp at such clemency, the girl scurries on out the door.
Hubert holds the poisoned cup with both hands and lets the last seconds of warmth bleed away into his aching palms. He recognizes the word she used from some of his alchemical treatises—the Almyran for marigold. The flowered, forsaken gold lying coiled in a drawer of his desk must appear to be some dreadful ingredient indeed, but that is not what sparks his interest in her impassioned little plea.
Ferdinand always did inspire such devotion. It has its uses.
It would be utter foolishness. The consequences are far beyond the consideration of a hasty, sleepless ten minutes. Worse still would be success. It breaks all the tenets of his position, all the oaths of secrecy he has sworn.
As Hubert reaches for a pen and parchment, he thinks only of marigold fields.
Who knows what I might do, indeed.
YET ANOTHER SOUL-DESTROYING ILLUSTRATION FROM @birds
Clarification on Chapter Warnings:
- Mention of suicide: As an act of defiance. Hubert recalls the fate of one of the other Hresvelg siblings.
- Insects: The Agarthans mess with Ferdinand's food and give him a bowl of crickets. (Note that the fear is predicated on 'someone messing with his food', not 'ew bugs', but I realize related phobias are manifold.)
- Self-harm/dermatillomania: Hubert claws at his scalp when subjected to the sound of Ferdinand's torture, resulting in recurring wounds.
Hubert slogs through Tailtean, Ferdinand faces down the Agarthans, and a bogwraith is tried for treason.
Or: A broken knife visits a blacksmith's son.
Here we go, one last hearty dash of Shambhala before the bleakness subsides. Chapter count remains accurate -- after this there's only one chapter to go, and it will not be nearly as heavy as this. If you have stuck it out thus far, the payoff is on its way.
Note that Hubert's interpretation of events is limited to his POV, not particularly canonical, and not meant to advance any hot takes. If anything, it is some fun irony for whoever spots it.
Finally, a shoutout to Metallic_Sweet, who graciously let me hide an easter egg from their 'Amid the Wisteria' in here for a dash of levity.
- I have upped the violence rating on the fic as a whole, however I would still consider this canon-typical as...war game.
- Agarthan torture/experimentation (same as last chap, overhead or referenced in the aftermath but not experienced Live in Ferdinand POV)
- Discussion of the treatment of human and animal remains in wartime
- Hubert being typically dramatic in ways that may resemble but are not meant to portray suicidal ideation
- Background character death of both enemies and noncombatants
- Mention of anti-Almyran prejudice
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It is not the pain that wakes him, bones bruised and every aching nerve inflamed from the week’s rigorous tests. It is not another silly dream tipping too far into bittersweet madness. It is not hunger, not fear, not the ever-present chill beneath the earth.
It is the dark, seeping stench of rot.
A smell is harder to decipher than a sound, and in the carefully sterilized labs there are no buzzing flies nor chittering rats to lead him to the source. Ferdinand drags himself around the circumference of his rectangular cell and resets the field of inquiry, marking the midpoint of each wall with a greasy hairball tied off in the loose threads from his dressings.
He can imagine them standing there outside the door, sneering at Cichol’s brood sniffing around for whatever refuse they have dropped into his cell like a lizard in its cage. No point in wishing for venom and fang enough to make them pay for it, when that would only mean the success of their work. So Ferdinand rifles along on hands and knees, braced at every moment to stumble upon a festering mouse broken upon the stone.
He checks the walls next, as high as his hands can reach while bracing his trembling form, and still there is nothing. The cell block is silent. He cannot even hear the heavy, rasping breath of his neighbor across the hall.
“Brigitte?” he calls between the bars. That is her name, he remembers, but whether it came with her or was given by their captors, Ferdinand has no clue.
Is he alone? No, to relocate the entire hall would cause noise enough to wake him. Unless their mastery of Silence wards is beyond his experience…
He will die from doubts well before blood loss at this rate.
The cell door gives way beneath his hand, unlocked as usual, and his footfalls are silent as he crosses the hall. He will not be long. They will never know he left his room.
“Brigitte?” he hisses quietly. He has to brace his hands against the bars of her cell to stay upright, shuffling along them hand over hand as his stomach twists and tightens. “Are you—”
His fingers brush against something feverish and slick. Slimy half-moon scales pull away from the burning flank as Ferdinand yanks his hand back, a foul smear of inhuman flesh sticking to his skin, and Ferdinand—
Teeth. Horns. The patterning of unbroken skin.
A well of grief. He could have held her hand, were he brave enough to wander beyond the bars. Could have spoken. Sang.
Asked, is this what they are making me?
Or making beneath the skin. Edelgard emerged no different, save the hair. As far as he was told.
Asked, what color is my hair?
Asked, why have they given you wings if they are shackled and broken beneath the sky?
The Agarthans scrub Ferdinand head to foot in soap as caustic as lye, and when they return him to his cell, he lies there unmoving beneath the weight of his own seared skin.
“One of my neighbors has died,” he says by way of explanation, by way of eulogy.
There is no worth in more. He did not know her. He cannot hear his own thoughts over the sound of a half dozen saws shearing through the metal bars of Brigitte’s cell. The researchers brought in other Agarthans to do the work, and they swear and jest and laugh as they cut the massive corpse free.
It is an ugly business. The researchers thrive on mystery, on twisting perception toward self-doubt, and now everyone has gotten a glimpse of the work. The failure.
Ferdinand stares through the hand that touched her.
His fingers still feel like fingers. He would know, otherwise. He would know.
He feels his arms, his chest, his neck, his hands again and again and again. Strips off shirt and slacks to press his battered skin against the cold stone and feel. Legs. The bump of his tail bone. Toes and ankles and the backs of his knees. Wherever the veins are most pronounced, the bones most easily accessed, he touches and counts the puncture marks aloud in frantic song. Oh, thirty-eight pegasi in whirly-dwirly flight on the road to Nuvelle to-night, voice fragmented like shards of a mirror smashed to hell’s own luck. The number is meaningless, but Hubert knows reason, knows science, knows all the world’s secrets and can surely twist them into some sense. Another needle scar on his neck, swollen to a walnut’s stiff knot. Oh, thirty-nine pegasi in whirly-dwirly flight!
Edelgard survived this at eleven. Edelgard survived everything. He is Ferdinand von Aegir and he should have died in the cell next to hers, been carved up and served on his father’s table as just desserts for such a crime.
He is nothing, now.
That is the point of this. To carve him down, whittle his bones for their toys as they stuff crests into the gaps and build something new upon the husk. All he can do is make them work for it. Suffer another day longer.
That there is no longer enough of him left to mourn a neighbor, to offer a hand? He has not the energy to even cry.
But if the game is already won, if the board be cleared save one White Pawn running senselessly onward, turns counted long beyond the ceasefire and surrender, then still.
The saws fall quiet. He cannot make out the voices, but he hears the sigh of grievances before they set their teeth to the next, more familiar task. The first tool has only to clip the edge of bone for Ferdinand to feel its echo sink into his own chest, the reverberations grating through him quicker than his frantic breaths will come. It is good he will never again see a forest or the storied rings of felled logs. It is good he cut his hair instead of weeping here like a willow in autumn, waiting for them to come carve up the years in his marrow.
Ferdinand braces his arms over his head, crossed in the same way Linhardt used to fold himself atop his desk to seal out all annoyances while he dozed. He can recall the position exactly. The fall of Linhardt’s hair over his back or pooled in the space between his arms like a pool of algae. The shiver of his quill as his breath skimmed across it. The dozens of lectures scrawled across chalkboards in the background.
The man’s face? Never.
He needs to report. He must inform Hubert of the. Ongoing noise.
They are carving up my neighbor due to the insurmountable burden of relocating an experiment after expiration. It does not exactly fit into a nice nonsense song, this time.
He reinforces the sigil in a hasty sketch against his temple, then opens his mouth to drown out everything beyond the circle of his warm body. “The Alliance Concord of 966 standardized the decorum expected in post-conflict situations in eastern Fodlan.”
Force of will alone cannot make the connection for Hubert. A wave of panic rushes over Ferdinand’s waterlogged form, another round of destruction for flotsam long ruined. He must bridge the logical gap without spewing any logic at all — he cannot spoil the game even now.
“In stark contrast to Kingdom customs of the time,” he recites, summoning up Professor Hanneman’s droning tenor with none of the enthusiasm to drive it. “The Concord expanded expectations beyond the strictly religious. Leaders now held a moral obligation to fallen combatants that eclipsed the teachings of Seiros.”
Is that what you are? A fallen combatant?
He grits his teeth and presses his tongue against the swollen lump on the right side of his gums. Ah. Another puncture. Forty pegasi.
It is not the handling of a human corpse that concerns him here. The Concord went further. Fodlan had always had customs about the treatment of prisoners of war and the remains of those killed in action, but the newly international scope of battle had brought a new question to the fore: what does one do with two thousand pounds of dead wyvern on your doorstep?
The same as one does with a horse, Ferdinand had answered. Treat it with respect. It has served as well as any man, often more nobly still, and had no choice in that service.
Noble, humane, and rational. Lorenz granted him such a smile at that answer. Yes, those were the standards men of their sort upheld.
But they were not the standards of the Concord. Professor Hanneman winced and asked if anyone else would care to answer. Marianne excused herself, paler than usual. The other Alliance nobles said not a word.
Logistically, one faces the same trials as with the human dead. Rot. Flies. Disease. Hubert ticked the horrors off on his fingers. They cannot remain in situ. Yet unlike a fallen comrade, there is no feasible procedure to return the remains for burial, should anyone be sentimental enough to claim such a beast. Impromptu burial is an impossible demand. Thus, the Concord determined that any fallen wyvern flying under Alliance colors, no matter the enemy status of a particular house, would be wholly immolated with the same honors as unnamed and unclaimed human soldiers.
Those belonging to the Almyrans were redistributed to local butchers. A gift to the peasantry amid rampant famine — though as I have heard it, rare was the man who deigned to eat. Additionally, the Concord specified the bones be shattered. While this obviously served as a final humiliation, it also reflected a local superstition: that the bones and blood of a dragon could rise again.
At which point Professor Hanneman had cleared his throat and declared an end to ghost stories in their political history hour.
Lorenz did not speak another word throughout their afternoon classes. It disturbed him deeply, visibly, in a way he rarely allowed. But that was the way of politics: one did not know what to campaign to fix until one learned about the inadequacies at play. Ferdinand had merely looked forward to Lorenz penning a more equitable standard down the road.
Now he wonders if his bones will be burned. If they will even catch fire after all that has been done to him. There is no feasible procedure to return the remains. He knew his gravestone would be empty of valor, but it hits him, sharp and hollow, that his grave itself will be empty.
Does Hubert march even now to shatter the Archbishop’s body upon her throne of lies? If the Immaculate One falls, then…
As if the thought of her alone has summoned it, the hair raises at the back of Ferdinand’s neck in a wash of malice, like static before a storm. No question could be more impious: what do you do with the body of a god?
The grinding scream of the saw blades rushes back in.
He will not give in to panic. He will report. About the experiments, the creature they made of his neighbor, the fear and frustration as they remove her. He still has clarity enough to be unclear. All he need do is raise up a full labyrinth of hedges and fountains and trust that Hubert will follow the hidden path straight through, the same way he penned all those letters to Lorenz years and years ago. Hubert knows him better than anyone, in this hell of their own making, and Ferdinand will sing to him until his lungs give out.
“The Concord is meaningless in Faerghus. Adrestia has honored it in subsequent altercations with their northeastern neighbor, though this remains a matter of diplomacy rather than law—”
“Poor little schoolboy,” Arundel’s voice cuts in smoothly. “Even now you cannot recognize mere niceties.”
Ferdinand goes still.
“Law is meaningless everywhere. It only codifies those times the powerful have found it preferable to be lenient. If you expect such leniency here, you will be sorely mistaken. I already have what I want.” Heels click against the stone as Arundel strolls forward, and Ferdinand has half a breath to brace himself for that fetid touch at the nape of his neck. Arundel traces a line around his collar as heavy as a noose, and when his hand reaches Ferdinand’s jaw, it tugs his face aside to bare his tears.
“I must admit, I did not expect a politician’s son to hold such a bleeding heart. Your weeping reminded me of a fond memory long forgotten.” His thumb slides through the wetness of Ferdinand’s cheeks. “My niece wept just the same.”
Unbridled rage brings his teeth snapping at Arundel’s hand, and even as a boot slams down between his shoulder blades to pin him, righteous fury twists his mouth into a howl. For years he has dreamed of hurling himself between Hubert and immolation; in this moment he knows only the terror of the hound standing between his liege and the wolf at the door, prepared to trade his life for one vengeful bite.
Arundel’s foot presses down with the same force as his presence, as inescapable as dark clouds massing on the horizon. Each twinge of pain is only a raindrop foretelling the coming storm.
“So thankless to your gracious host, Ferdinand. You did not even ask why I had come, and here I have brought you a gift. Perhaps you will make better use of it than she ever did.”
A cloth object finds its way into Ferdinand’s grasping hands. Four stuffed rectangles attached to a central trunk: a doll. Button eyes. Long hair, long dress.
And a tidy snip across the throat where all the cotton spills free.
The boot slides higher to the back of Ferdinand’s neck in warning. “Say thank you, Ferdinand.”
All the tension leaves Ferdinand’s body as he trails a finger over the doll’s open wound. With his back hunched, muscles no longer poised for attack, the force against his spine eases.
Yes. It is perfect. Finally, a chance to loosen the stitches binding his own throat and let his words spill free across the divide. “Thank you,” Ferdinand smiles. His fingers curl into the gash and pry the worn fabric apart, seams snapping with ease. The head goes gladly into his palm, which he then lifts in offering. “I will call it Vestra.”
Arundel barks a laugh, and Ferdinand knows he has won.
Nothing could be easier than hauling the doll around his cell, dangling it from his fingers as he spins his mad little tales. Now and again he grits you bastard between his teeth, throws the sack of stuffing against the wall and picks its innards free, until finally exhaustion claims him and he sinks against the stone in a full tear-soaked show.
“I hope you did not hear all of that,” Ferdinand keens in a strange rise and fall. Some words audible for any listeners, the soft low tones for Hubert’s ear alone. “The grating. The... They have finished taking her bones, now. My neighbor. They turned her. Or else she was a mournful beast all along, but then I am not certain how they would have lured her down here in the first place.”
“I nearly bit him. I wish I could tell you if the fingers would regrow.”
He turns to press his nose against the stale old cotton, wonders if the doll’s eyes are lavender buttons, her hair straight and white. A red dress will show the stains of his tears far worse than a dreary black shift. “I am glad not to learn the taste of Agarthan.” Of man. Of any creature that speaks and dreams, no matter how wretched.
“I think I will rest now. Please do not worry when I am quiet. Does the world sleep when I sleep? I should have asked…snoring is very uneventful, you know, but I promised to be a gadfly so perhaps I should buzz even so.”
Shuffling into the corner farthest from the door, Ferdinand curls around himself, tosses and turns until he finds the contortion of least harm to his delicate ribs and all his many bruises. The doll he tucks under his head for the first pillow he has known since. Home. His legs twined in Hubert’s legs, their breath mingled on a pillowcase now damp with sweat.
“I have been thinking,” he mumbles as exhaustion rises up like a feather bed beneath him, lulling him away. “I believe it would have been more preeminently noble if you had apologized before putting your hands on my unmentionables. Not that the act of coitus required apology. It is only…you were truly rather foul to me, those months of silence. I think I deserved to hear your guilty, miserable little self-flagellating words. But I suppose you only touched me upon my own command, so the breach of conduct is mind to bear…and you know my forgiveness is most ardently granted.”
A ragged lock of hair tumbles over his eyes in an unwelcome tickle. Ferdinand blows it away, only to realize it must be a strange breath upon Hubert’s own ear.
“Your hands in my hair felt so nice. If I could have one thing again… but I do not have very much of it left. Mm. You cannot see it anyway, so that is alright then. You will remember me in finer form.”
You will remember me, he tells himself.
And that will be enough.
Bernadetta emerges from the dark like a swimmer breaking her head above water. She slips effortlessly over the muddy trenches, footprints swallowed in an instant by the deluge, and every inch of color beneath her grey wool coat has been sullied by the trip. Her eyes shine with frozen, frantic tears as she salutes. Water sloshes from the base of her leather gloves and makes Hubert’s own fingers itch within their sodden cotton bindings.
“Report,” Hubert shouts over the storm.
“I c-confirmed the King’s position to the northeast.”
She wavers on exhausted legs, and the urge to reach out a steadying hand strikes him from miles away. Only the mud’s vicious grasp on his boots is keeping him standing. Bernadetta must fend for herself.
“Wyverns and pegasi grounded, same as us. There weren’t so many of them…”
“I mean there’s a lot, but— ”
Bernadetta pauses as if a familiar ghost has taken her shoulder, wrapped his freshly warmed cloak around her and directed her back toward camp for a meal. Hubert can feel it, too. The bands of amber burn around his heart. Treat her well, won’t you?
Ferdinand’s voice returned at first march; whether the sounds in Hubert’s ear be truly spoken in this life or the other matters little.
“—The two capital legions and the royal honor guard,” she continues. No ghosts, merely counting numbers, then. Soldiers like beads embellishing a canvas. “None with banners from the south. I didn’t see Gautier. No rural militia.”
“And the Church?”
“I couldn’t find them.”
“Hidden on the flanks, then.”
“No. Well, maybe, but… Miss Martritz is there and she isn’t happy. Oh! There was another group in a uniform I didn’t recognize, maybe twenty of them? Not even a quarter battalion. None of them had weapons and they were all so young, so I think…the Sorcery School is there, right? Miss Martritz was yelling about something. The King wouldn’t listen.”
Discord in the ranks? If only they could be so lucky. It is the missing Church soldiers that troubles him most, but there is no discussing it here surrounded by Arundel’s watchful battalion of false-faced men. With Bernadetta. With Indech’s crest thrumming in her blood.
“Report to Her Majesty.”
“Go, Bernadetta,” he roars. A strike of darkness paints his shadow in grim horror, miasma dripping from his hands like a fresh kill, and with a scream she bolts back into the underbrush.
A soldier chuckles.
Here. There. Laughter in his ear. Jackals yipping for meat, longing to slake their thirst on crested blood. Ferdinand is merely the appetizer. Already they hunger for more.
Hubert looks down at his hand to see the stained cotton has already fallen away. Miasma pools in the scarred hollows.
He is losing himself.
He knows it, but the thought cannot take hold. There is only the laughter, the rain, and the screams that have kept him awake long past his functioning. A world beyond his control. The fear that fills the cracks where certainty once dwelt.
Low visibility cannot stop him. Specters of the enemy dance through the air, slipping away behind the impenetrable curtain a dozen paces beyond. Her Majesty shining through the fog. A knife in his hand.
“Cuff him to the table. We can’t have him squirming this time.” The drip of a needle expelling excess solution before it finds its mark.
Ferdinand does not cry for mercy. He never weeps until his body abandons all reason and gives itself to sheer instinct, though they force him to that precipice quicker each day. Confusion of environment, disruption of patterns, intensification of pain — an interrogator’s logic enacted upon a living body instead of recalcitrant mind.
“A rough one for you today, little lord. Give him something so he doesn’t gnaw through his tongue.”
As they press something between Ferdinand’s teeth, he does not beg. He does not scream. Not yet.
But the blood beats so fiercely in his ear that even Hubert feels its echo.
“The horn, sir!” shouts a mage two feet from his face, the long beak of their mask shearing into Hubert’s sight line like the gleaming point of an arrow. “They sounded the horn!”
Onward from stalemate to slaughter.
Even Hubert’s magically augmented commands cannot penetrate through the storm, and his battalion lurches forward with the same forestalled urgency as has plagued the army for the last three days. They should have crashed into the northern forces on the first day’s march, swift as an eagle’s dive toward vermin of the earth, yet each day they have managed little more than two, three miles of ceaseless slog through this widening abyss of mud. Fliers all grounded. Scouts useless. Civilians long evacuated and unavailable for questioning.
The only caveat to this bleak endeavor is that the Faerghans fare no better; the manifest rage of the Tempest King batters friend and foe alike.
It is lucky he was not a mage, Ferdinand would sigh, warm in Hubert’s tent as the blood ran in thick rivers outside those thin walls.
A narrow spray of arrows sheers through the murk and sends the mages scattering in a flurry of hasty warps across the field. Hubert throws out a hand to cast his own, yet his stomach revolts at the ricochet of rancid, twisted Reason. His boot skids over the half-frozen slick of a tree trunk in his fumbling.
One of his guards reaches to brace him.
“Steady, now. You know how those bleed.”
A familiar chuckle. “What else are they good for?”
The scream does not rattle him, but the smell of charred meat does. Hubert’s attention twitches to the shape of his dark hand on the Agarthan soldier’s arm, where the flesh has given way beneath the boiling acid of his touch.
He sinks his fingers deeper until even the bone gives way.
Rain twists on the wind as casters resume position all around them, a rot of ozone piercing the heavy reek of fear and sweat that has thickened on Hubert’s skin for days. No one sees him reach for the man’s throat. One more body in the mud. One more pair of hands that will never scar Ferdinand’s skin.
He cannot feel his own. The cold that once soothed his blistered arms no longer offers any semblance of relief. There is no choice between the inferno and the freeze, every numbness the same, his universe a paradigm of destruction where nothing can grow.
But Hubert sent a letter.
Ferdinand is screaming, now, and all Hubert has is the knowledge of a letter in a waterproof satchel in a storm so fierce it may as well be the Saints pissing it down. Logically, the messenger is holed up in a postal aerie somewhere. Delayed. There is no passage forward. There is no hope.
They ford a muddy river already swollen with bodies from upstream. Her Majesty’s path forges onward. He must make haste.
A crack of Thoron strikes to the north and illuminates just enough for Hubert to catch sight of distant battlements. He directs part of his troops to break off and continue sweeping east while the others trudge toward the fort. Nobles always hide in their lofty little towers; Her Majesty’s boots know only the broken soil of the battlefield.
Another bend in the river to the north slows their movement. The water runs faster here, and it is just possible to make out the raucous commotion of horses beyond the far shore. Mages cannot cross without being skewered by the knights lurking beyond; knights cannot cross without sinking like cargo hurled overboard in a gale.
Hubert commands the men to halt until he selects a squad to warp across and sow enough confusion for the rest to cross. The men are fewer than they should be. Lost, fallen, or fled back to their true master? Arundel promised to oversee their victory, but the tell-tale laughter in his ear proves the man is there, which means he is not here, and so his spies must be keeping him abreast of the situation.
Or harvesting any fallen crested bastards from the field.
He cannot think. His body aches to sink down beneath this torrent and commit himself to the water until the world is new again, he is new again, with only Ferdinand’s whispers as compass as he plots Her Majesty’s course.
The researchers must have left Ferdinand on the table between sessions, for all that remains are his soft, labored breaths. Hubert’s heart beats only in that faint rise and fall.
He is too late to intercept the next barrage of arrows that arcs across the river. A man screams aside him, a guttural gurgle spilling faster than his blood, and Hubert idly considers offering the wretch a final blow of mercy if only to shut him up. He is tired of screams. Everywhere around him. Building in his own lungs. The horses in terror, the men in their futile fear, all of it washing over and through him until there is only silence once more.
And that heavy breathing.
Warm on his cheeks.
Hubert’s bangs slip away from where the rain has plastered them to his skin, and as his nose twitches with the putrid rush of a roar rolling past as he raises his gaze to a crest beast’s needle-crowded maws.
“Fortune to Faerghus!” shouts a knight in blue and silver. She holds a stone to the sky, parting the storm for one crack of eerie lightning, before snapping her hand over her heart and shattering the gory ruby against her breastplate.
“Crying again, boy? A pity there is no market for crested tears."
As the second crest beast sprouts in a frenzy of coiled tendon and oil slick, Arundel’s remaining men leap into action. The sight disturbs them — Hubert can tell in the tense twist of their fingers as they cast, and the irony slides down the back of his throat like the finest wine.
He slips away north and leaves them to their homegrown terror. Not that they raised these monsters on their own, no. This is Faerghan loyalty driven to the edge. But by every report, all crest stones had been harvested from the Kingdom before the outset of the war. That makes their precious Cornelia a more pompous failure than even Hubert believed.
The air clears to the west, sudden and sharp. Each raindrop hovers crystalline in the air as a full battalion casts a united Fimbulvetr, the din of weapons for once eclipsing the rain. Messenger arrows fly across the sky in streaks of white fire, and off in the distance he spies two riders in desperate pursuit towards the fort. A woman in a pale dress clinging to her steed as Petra hurtles after on a borrowed mount, javelin at the ready.
With the rain held, there is nothing to dampen the Meteor that hurtles from Dorothea’s hands and into the ranks of enemy infantry. Hubert turns his head away from the blast, the light, the clatter as the daggers of ice plummet upon the remaining few.
The battlefield goes dark. Hubert trudges onward.
Strange that there are still no Church soldiers. Has the Goddess abandoned her northern allies at the last? Or will they swoop down like carrion birds to pick off what remains? The more lives lost on this field, the richer soil for the Archbishop’s newest crop of worshipers. The tighter Arundel will grasp the leash.
Pawns, all of them. Every loathsome human struggling through the dreck like drowning ants. Humanity has no spark of value in the eyes of their neighbors, for whom a life is worth only what it buys. In Faerghus they call it fealty. Faith. Their Goddess whispers of the power of crests, of the honor in handling even a fragment of a shattered crest stone. For Her, for Faerghus! Throw off your humanity, hone yourself into a dread weapon that you may be sacrificed at her altar! Arundel pressing always for power, whispering his promises of strength unimaginable and rule without end, as though Edelgard’s body can handle another round of his manipulations. They will burn the world down before any human is allowed to lead it.
And he is no different.
The world swims around him as he raises his right hand to his chest, feeling for the twisted knot of marigold hidden under the sodden wool of his tunic, a secret pocket just over his heart.
There will be no good men left. No one to lead Fodlan. No one still eager to learn. Only loathsome, broken humans cobbling together another loathsome, broken world. Edelgard already speaks of handing off the reins. Even among the Strike Force, any survivor will be a casualty by year’s end. Linhardt will disappear into libraries and crypts, scorning the living. Petra to her distant people, Bernadetta to her solitary room. Even Caspar will root out bandits and monsters and never stay in any village long, too damaged to risk roots.
Dorothea will catch fire. It is only a matter of time.
He asked for this. Drove them to the farthest edges of their ability and begged them further still, all for Her Majesty, who values these strange souls more than her own life, maybe even more than her own dream, unwilling as she is to change its course. They are weapons, all of them. Sharpened and bloodied so deep even this unending downpour cannot wash it away. Because Hubert asked. Because they called Hubert friend, and he pressed a whetstone into their soft hands and whispered of the world they could win.
Hubert is the only human left standing on the plains of Tailtean, and he is no human at all.
The farther he walks, the more distant the sounds of war, and the deeper nature’s shroud falls over him. It has been so very long since he last wandered through the fearful wilds of Faerghus, reaching out with over-tapped magic reserves and pitiful naivete for Her Majesty’s soft, crimson sleeve.
The battlements of the fort rise from the murk between one step and the next. Those high towers break through the relentless curtain of rain and offer a rare glimpse of warm fires burning within. There is no sign of either army, nor of royalty’s brutal passage. Hubert drifts near like a feckless traveler seeking shelter from the storm, hooded in his dark robes with his hands still pressed into his pockets.
One would not even know they were at war if not for the man standing at the base of the steps. He does not tremble in his great suit of armor no matter the cold. His hand rests on the great axe slung over his shoulder, at ease. Waiting.
The knight from Duscur.
Sir Molinaro moves not an inch as Hubert’s bedraggled form lurches forward into the fickle light of the torches. The same calculation flits through their heads: the distance, their respective speeds, the odds of gravity bringing the axe’s blade through Hubert’s neck before he can set off a spell to roast Molinaro’s flesh in the oven of that impenetrable armor.
They have never spoken. They are vassals each, but built in forges too foreign to recognize. They cannot stand down.
For years Ferdinand wrote to the Faerghans, their classmates and families and any hands still willing to open a letter with an Imperial seal. Annette and Mercedes, the too-sweet mages that Hubert remembers only from failed attempts to get anything done in the library. The nobles Gautier and Galatea, fraying at the edges of their beliefs but unwilling to stray from their liege lord. Molinaro himself. Ferdinand all but begged for them to forge a new path away from this madness. Neither King nor Emperor could be stopped save by a nation that refused to follow.
He begs the Agarthans now with broken body; it holds nothing to the way he begged old classmates with broken heart.
Hubert knows this because he broke every seal and read the letters himself. First to check for sedition, paranoia driving him against the only man he trusted to end the war without sword in hand. Later to keep abreast of developments in case any valuable morsels could be applied to his own work. The letters all ended last year, when Ferdinand’s desperate attempts to arrange an audience with the King were quashed in full. He had offered everything, even his own person as a political hostage to guarantee the Empire’s good faith. Failing an audience, he asked only that someone would bring his letters to the King’s attention.
His last few letters were all returned, unable to make it past the border. The final missive that bore a seal of the Kingdom read only:
You are a good man, von Aegir. But there is no path though the hate between nations. I know this well.
Do not trouble yourself to write again.
Now, the knight’s gaze flicks to the earth beneath them in a half-second determination of his fate, and then he slowly lowers his axe. He reaches into a pouch at his hip, and though all Hubert’s instincts scream for him to warp away from the oncoming trap — handful of poison ash, false white flag, a rune of silence to pin him where he stands — he is already ensnared by the commotion renewing itself in his ear, pinned down like a dessicated roach in Arundel’s lab.
“It is time,” Molinaro tells himself, and Hubert hears it clear as day.
Metal shrieks against metal. A hiss of air as the apparatus shifts. “Begin the collection. Do try to get some quality samples this time. We’ll need the comparative data shortly.”
A glimmer of red emerges from the pouch.
Molinaro folds his hand over the crest stone, presses his arm over his breast in prayer, in offering, as Ferdinand wails on the table, as Hubert’s hands drip black blood in this wasteland under the mocking smile of the heavens, grip slipping on his knife, and he thinks with all a child’s feral clarity—
No more good men.
A warp spell sparks and sputters around Hubert’s bones, tearing him from the universe in one vicious blow. His claws seize on Dedue’s arm, unyielding, and the void hurls them away with the snap of a slingshot. Trees burst to flame in the broken woods, snuffed out to smoke in an instant by the downpour, and Dedue’s fist lands a solid blow to Hubert’s solar plexus before he can recalibrate. He heaves steam into the dark as he scrambles away, hands held up in meaningless surrender. Only once he catches his breath does he twist those gnarled hands until his palms face his own head in a mage’s traditional offering of self-silence.
Their eyes seek the ruby stone fallen upon the earth, but there is only the endless sea of mud.
“Peace,” Hubert rasps, the word as foreign on his tongue as a prayer.
They are alone. No one hears the low roar of despair that shudders from Dedue’s chest. “What know you of peace?”
Nothing. There can be none for the damned, it is true. Hubert cannot remember it, cannot remember ever comprehending its shape or its sound, only turning up his nose at its reeking idealism. The peace of an empty head. The peace of unhaunted ears.
No, better the noise, better Ferdinand’s new whimper of agony that proves he still lives. Pain ravages Hubert’s own throat in sympathy, ten thousand screams bottled back, and if Dedue cast his judgment, raised that axe against an evil beyond bearing one second longer, he would not even be wrong.
Hubert has no plan. Peace has no promise. Diplomacy is Ferdinand’s weapon, and Hubert is no more than the molten slag in the blacksmith’s oven.
“Your Lord,” he tries again. The dense forest shelters them from the worst of the storm, but Hubert’s hands shake pitifully in the open air. He dares not lower them. “Was he—before this, was he a good man?”
Is he, Ferdinand would tut. Your diction is atrocious. You cannot leave such holes for malicious uncertainty to fester, when the point of this is clear communication. ‘Is’ implies regularity of character, ‘was’ implies change.
War has changed them all. Hubert watches the subtle shift of Dedue’s jaw, the affront that strikes him as softly as a moth battering itself against a lantern. The Dimitri who raves of vengeance and swears to string up enemy corpses from the walls is not the boy who walked Garreg Mach’s halls; nor is the Edelgard who walked all of Fodlan the same harrowed girl who plotted this war from her isolated palace. They are more and less of themselves. This their vassals know better than any other.
There is no sorrow in Dedue’s strange smile as he answers, “Yes. Beyond your understanding.”
No spite, either.
Hubert takes a step forward. “Then call him off. There are forces…there is too much to tell. Our true enemy is the same. Our world—”
A new burst of dark magic slices through the clearing as two of Arundel’s men appear at Hubert’s back. His stragglers. They must have a trace on him; he did not bother screening for such spells before the march, since Agarthans would haunt his roaming until battle’s end. So here they are. Armed to the teeth and wreathed in unearthly lavender flames.
Dedue’s lips twitch at the sight of all his distrust verified so blatantly. “I want no part of your world.”
Hubert stiffens, shoulders rolling back into their usual precise line. No more beggar in the rain; the Emperor’s right hand stands there in full control. He inclines his head to one of the mages behind him just as he tilts his hands to show bare wrists, a hint that his daggers have been lost in the scuffle. “Soldier, your knife.”
One mage steps forward. “Sir?”
“I won’t waste my magic on a man of Duscur,” he scoffs. “Hand me your—”
Three heartbeats is all it takes. The Agarthan’s blade passes into Hubert’s hand, he inverts it with the ease of a flipped coin, and it shears through the mage’s brachial artery in a sudden spray. On the downswing Hubert clips the throat; this time he will leave no hanging threads. With one more snap of momentum and a flicker of miasma, the knife skewers through the remaining Argathan’s chest at ten paces before the wretch can even summon a spell.
The miasma won’t dissipate. Hubert rubs his hands against the sides of his coat as he moves to confirm his kill, and deep wells of ink drip down his sides in a pop of caustic darkness. He bends to dislodge the knife.
“Look how they bleed,” he calls. All the desperation, all the dregs of emotion have evaporated from his voice. He has only his words, this knife, and the blood at his feet.
The knife he offers to Dedue. His fingers form a motley bruise against the strange black steel, and even under the weight of the heavens’ fury, it is the heaviness of Dedue’s evaluating gaze that wears him down to less than the mud squelching beneath them.
They are nothing alike, are they? This man’s loyalty is not that of a man beholden to country and kin. Faerghan fealty is an insult. The knight of Duscur serves without generations of purpose crafting his very bones, yet his devotion is deep and rich as marrow. There is a truth to it that Hubert envies — he will never know if it was his bone or his marrow that first sang for Her Majesty.
Would that she had a servant who knew more than this wretched threnody.
“They are not human,” Hubert tries again, just as Ferdinand tried, and tried, and tried. “They are the rot of my world. As they have rotted yours.”
Slowly, Dedue paces to the opposite side of the fallen Agarthan. The blood that wells from the furrow of its chest is too thin, its color too bright beneath a stricken sky. This man has seen blood enough to understand.
Yet he crouches to remove the peaked mage’s beak and close the unseeing eyes beneath. Dedue shakes his head. “…It is how a man lives that makes him human. Not how he dies.”
And you are the rot of Faerghus.
Hubert braces for it. The tightening of Dedue’s fingers around the hilt of his axe, the slightest shift of his foot as he balances himself.
Instead, Dedue takes the knife. He eyes the join of the blade to hilt, tests the balance of it in his hand, and runs a thumb lightly along the edge to check for burrs. Hubert cannot understand the language, but he remembers how Ferdinand once smiled with polish and cloth in hand.
“This is not of Fodlan,” Dedue concludes. He does not return the weapon.
“And what of crests?” Hubert presses. “What of stones that transmute man to insensate beast?” Were this true diplomacy, he would know the laws of Duscur, the will of their gods, and have them to weave into his arguments. For all he knows there are many such stones in the world, but for one to ask humanity as its tribute? No. Only Fodlan’s Goddess could be so cruel.
Dedue takes a length of fabric from the pouch at his side, a horridly cheap weave that displays how miserable their field medic conditions must be, and wraps the knife’s blade in a makeshift sheath. He tucks it into his belt, and then he simply stares at Hubert for a long, long time.
At length, he tips his head back to survey the fathomless rain clouds beyond the forest’s canopy.
“The Church sent you here to die.” Hubert does not need to add another word. It is not an argument. The Kingdom endured five years of hell to fulfill their vows of piety, and the Archbishop has not sent a single white-robed monk to spit their final prayers over the mud. She sent them to die with a blood curse boiling in their screaming maws, and she called it power. It was not worth it. It is never worth it.
“Your lady holds the axe.”
Dedue’s words cleave through the storm with dawn’s first light, and Hubert’s heart, every knotted thread of life still thrumming in his chest, leaps to his throat in an instant.
“She will lay it down,” Hubert swears.
A forceful breath shakes Dedue’s shoulders a full two inches — a bark of laughter too well-trained to escape his throat, yet too powerful to be restrained. “Your betrayal will only make her bolder.”
Betrayal? This? Once, maybe. Now Hubert has nowhere left to fall in her esteem, though the freedom of freefall twists in his gut all the same. Laughter bubbles in him, and oh, truly he has not the restraint left in him, to say nothing of the training. He presses a hand to his forehead as he summons the powers of a warp, all reason spinning within him.
They must burn their bridges with the Agarthans tonight. It will only endanger Ferdinand, but Hubert has lost too many of those generously provided soldiers for one battle, and the rest cannot be allowed to report back incriminating details of his erratic behavior. Ceasefire then silence field. Yes, it can still work. He need only find Edelgard and.
He cannot explain. He can rattle off every codeword and proof of his identity, but there the words dry up. Her Majesty will think he is tormented by guilt, haunted by Ferdinand’s nattering ghost in his head, and she will not even be wrong, but it is not the hand holding the knife that breaks it, it is the flaw in the steel that has dwelt there all along. She must put down the axe, that she may lower it again into the ribcage of a true foe.
For in the end, as in the beginning, it is this. When gangrene rotted the body politic, they tied on the butcher’s smock and went to work.
Never once did they pick up a pen.
It has been quiet for so long that Ferdinand could almost call it a new torture. The exquisite emptiness, the waiting, before the next pinprick of pain. He crafts the words in his mind and tests them on his tongue, but does nothing to fill the silence himself. If he listens closely, he can hear the shuffling and intermittent snoring of his neighbors. That is enough.
Ferdinand works his fingers into the gaps of the braid he made from the doll’s hair, undoes the long tail and starts anew on twin pigtails. It keeps his hands busy, as the stories keep his mind spinning quick.
What to tell today? The pedigree of Enbarr’s polo club mascot, the best way to identify reforged Dagdan steel, Fleche’s favorite style of pen, Edelgard’s secret loathing for cinnamon biscuits, Bernadetta’s birthday lest anyone forget it when he is gone—
He promised to fill Hubert’s ear with nonsense and fill it he does.
But for now, silence. The ache of the latest experiment is still too fresh, the lethargy too deep in him. While his body may retain no true memory of pain, his lungs twist in choking, gasping agony whenever they please.
His joints click unhappily as he stands and limps to the wall, the doll and its head left behind as his makeshift audience. He shuffles through old memories like cards until he finds a suitable aria to guide his breathing exercises, as if this is no more than choir practice the day after a ferocious battle. Ferdinand presses his back against the cool stone to straighten his spine, rolls his shoulders to keep his bruised chest high, breathes from the diaphragm and lifts his sword arm like Manuela triumphant. This is a performance, after all! The Ballad of the Lost Gadfly.
“Yes, yes, for you, dear,” he tuts low to the doll, his own voice a bitter burr within his throat. Still, he rejoices in that blooming rawness. It is not that the pain reminds him he is alive — if he were not alive, he is not entirely sure how he would notice anymore. But there is pleasure in ruining his voice in these quiet moments, for it leaves fewer noises for the table and every scream stolen from the butchers is a victory indeed.
That is what the Agarthans do not understand. They can do nothing to him. A scream is a scream, uncontrolled and mindless, but fear of pain will never drive him to their tune. Ferdinand will die when he dies, and go into a pit or a vat or turn into vengeful necromantic bones or whatever other horror they wish. But in his moments of control, he is free.
And mad, of course. He grins at the doll. This veneer of lunacy is no more complicated than the doddering helplessness he has enacted for years. Now, as then, Hubert is the one to have him true.
He sketches the sigil on his thigh to renew its force. If he stands here long enough, he will remember how to sing in truth. And then his neighbors will rejoice, and Hubert will have love’s last lullaby to guide him onward, and there will be something beautiful even here beneath the earth.
“Hubert,” he rasps to test his tones. “Von Vestra. Scourge of shadows, you doting bastard—”
Something clicks out in the hall.
It takes Ferdinand a moment to identify the hiss of the pressurized containment doors sliding open. He only heard the sound once before, when Arundel first brought him to the research wing, because the scientists and guards always enter from the opposite direction where their offices are located.
With the doors open, nothing seals them off from the outer world of Shambhala. The dam breaks. Sheer chaos floods in. The clash of metal, the rolling thunder of so many heavy boots, a horse—an actual horse in the depths of the dark—squealing in sheer terror as its hooves slide across the polished floors, a flow of bodies too swift and numerous for such cramped, sterile halls. And off in the distance the vengeful shriek of a wyvern in flight, or else just another poor crest beast exulting in its own final breath.
Ferdinand takes two steps to his right, pressing his body into the one corner of the cell not visible from the doorway. Presumably. He has never been able to confirm a lack of hidden windows or transparency, but if anyone notices him, they have larger concerns at the moment.
The familiar voices of the researchers have pitched to braying indignation as they argue with the new, steel-boned tones.
“You have your orders,” snaps a superior. The discussion is over, even if the squawking fury continues. “Take your data and key samples and whatever else you can carry. There’s no time for transport.”
“But the value of—”
“Will not be reaped by the enemy. Purge the rest.”
Ferdinand frowns, trying to pick through the implications with a foggy head. An enemy at the gate? Not Hubert, surely. Ferdinand may have lost all sense of his days, but the march on Fhirdiad could not have been so speedily ended unless Shambhala dwells beneath the Kingdom itself. But the last warp was from Aegir…no, there is no sense in it. At least there is some irony in the smashing of so many vials of blood and arcane fluids — after all the pains they went to in harvesting Ferdinand, they will not even get to keep it!
His laughter curdles in his throat a moment later.
The squeal of an opened cell door. A scuffle, a weapon drawn. And that smell most primal splattering through the air: blood and iron.
The scientists are not erasing their records. The soldiers have come to purge the experiments themselves. Nothing less than a full slaughter of the livestock will keep their secrets safe from foreign hands.
Frozen in his corner, all Ferdinand can do is listen to the procession of murder as it lurches down the hall. A wail goes up from the other cells as realization hits. Hands slap against the stone as someone cowers and begs pitifully for mercy, another brings down a sudden rain of curses in a voice barely fit for human speech, and Ferdinand cranes his ears for each one’s final words, which should never go unheard. His ragged fingernails press into the weary meat of his palms. He has failed his neighbors once more. Worthless.
Even if he stays here, if they never find him, all he will earn is silence and the slow stink of rot from the other solemn cells.
What else is there for him to do? Ferdinand might be able to take the first person though the door, if he has the element of surprise. As for escape—the door is unlocked as always, but there is nowhere to go. He cannot navigate such chaos without perishing even quicker than he would in his cell.
He thinks of the doll in the center of the room.
…Did they lock Edelgard’s door? Back when she was only a little imperial doll herself, cowering there in the dark, waiting for them to come and steal another sibling away forever. She could not save them. Ferdinand knew some of her brothers, knows they would have stood in the light of the doorways and beckoned, try me first. And meanwhile Vestra’s scion slipped away into the shadows, doubting every face around him, stitching himself into new shapes beneath paranoia’s bloody gauze. Useless, pitiable children lost to layers upon layers of graves.
The cell door creaks open.
Ferdinand is quicker.
He has an arm around the Agarthan’s neck in an instant, but though they pant for breath, something in the bones and arteries is too different—the bloodflow does not lapse, the trachea refuses to collapse under the pressure of Ferdinand’s grip. He has to kick the feet out from under them to get enough force to dislocate skull and spine. The body crumples.
He reaches down to feel their bare face. It is like any other. A moist breath against his palm.
Now, more than ever, Ferdinand does not understand why.
“So you do have some spirit left,” chuckles a not-quite familiar voice. A guard? There have been so many. The thudding of boots moves closer, and Ferdinand scrambles backwards away from the body.
Do they have a weapon? He cranes his ear for the clatter of a spear’s pole over the stone, or the swift slip of steel from a sheath. Nothing.
“You know what shame is?” Ferdinand spits back. His shoulders hit the wall behind him.
He does not need to see the guard’s face to know it twists in malice. “Careful. I’ve time enough to make this hurt.”
Laughter boils from Ferdinand’s chest, a hot flash of anger tumbling into sickly champagne. Hurt? They think he can be hurt? His hands shake as he raises them in front of him, palms out. If there is any sense left in him, it is in the paths his fingers have traced all these years, the paths Hubert carved for him with that gentle touch to his sleeve.
There is not a scrap of fear left within him. That is what they have bled from him on that wretched table day after day, thinking it was his hope, his spirit, his sanity. No. All they took was his terror, his stability, his control.
All they left was fury.
“As do I,” Ferdinand says, and the room erupts in a crashing inferno of purest flame.
Even with nonexistent form, reason obeys him like Hubert’s vicious echo, as though a lifetime of nightmares watching that bloody viper call down the sun from the sky with grit and rage and pain is enough. This is the only magic he knows, blood and crests, every question he has ever asked, every debt he has ever owed, every regret—and one sheer, seething kernel of despair, that Hubert thinks he did this, became this, as poisoned as the rot he gave his life to burn away.
The screams reach a new fever pitch, and Ferdinand flinches from the heat even as he drives it forward, hands clenched like an eagle’s talons as he plays upon reality’s strings. The Flame Emperor’s pyre, the firebrand of change, the harvests turned to ash in the fields of Aegir, he has turned over every fiction in his mind for so long, every paltry image in search of substance, but to embody them like this, to be naught but a spark brings him a whisper’s breath from peace.
And then there are no more screams.
“Hubert?” Ferdinand calls. He shifts forward, toes sliding into the embers of burning yarn. “Hubert!”
His hands clench into halting fists, but the heat does not falter. Fire licks his cheeks in mocking tenderness and tugs at the hem of his pants, swallowing him up in its suffocating embrace. Ferdinand twists away from the searing grill of the stones at his back, clawing for the frayed ends of the magic as it froths out into the hallway and consumes his path to escape.
Ferdinand lifts a dazed hand to touch the soft spot of skin under his ear. A smile twitches in his lips, giddy and lost.
“Can you hear me, love?”
It is fitting that Hubert ends the war in a jail cell.
He has always been destined for this. Should they win the world and build it true, there will be no place for a man with such blood on his hands, who exceeded the measure of the Emperor’s will to cleanse the filth from her path. She cannot stand before the people in the light if Hubert still haunts her shadow, reeking of graveyards and gore. This was always the cost.
Some righteous youth will file suit against him in honor of the dead, naive of the sins that brought them into Hubert’s crossfire. The crime will be investigated, the jury will condemn him, and to uphold the young justice of their new world, away to the gallows Hubert will go. Only this final act will absolve Edelgard of the stains his presence has left on the hem of her sweeping dress.
Of course, Hubert expected it to come after the second war. And to be an actual cell, not. Well.
“Need any water awhile, Lord Vestruh?”
Hubert glowers mulishly at the schoolboy peeking into his quarters, but it’s not half as intimidating as it used to be. The lad only blinks.
“As I have informed you numerous times previously,” Hubert grits out, “I will be fine.”
“Suuuure. But my teach always says dehaydrasheen makes you grumpy.”
“I am not grumpy.”
“Okay.” He slings his hands into his pockets and takes a deep breath. “But if you were—”
“Simon, stop pestering the poor bogwraith,” calls one of the elder students from outside the tent. Simon lingers just long enough to soak in Hubert’s sputtering fury at the nickname, then scampers off with a grin.
Children. Absolutely ridiculous.
All of this is a farcical parody of what he is due, yet it aches in him all the same. This crisp emptiness of pain’s biting echoes — from the sleepless nights, from forcing his failing body through mud and storm for days without end, from calling down his Emperor at the Tempest King’s futile execution. He scarcely remembers what he said to her, what shape he made of the shrapnel revelations within him, save that killing Dimitri in his ignorance bought them nothing, preserved no fiction of necessity within their true war. Not when Hubert had already divulged all their secrets to another.
From there things are fuzzy. The proof of his identity fell ragged from his tongue as the tense wariness of the gathered troops pressed in from all directions. Clear is the moment the horror and concern of Edelgard’s gaze turned to crystal fury as she realized what he had truly given away in that letter. Aymr slipped from her fingers. She took one, heavy, halting step toward him, and then a sleep spell quelled his mortifying raving.
When he woke, it was to a court martial in front of the entire Strike Force. His arms were bound behind his back. Their friends scarcely looked at him except in pity; only Petra knew, and watched, and listened. The Emperor charged him with dereliction of duty. Sharing of state secrets. Intrigue and treason. He could not even process her words, his distant fear and shame. Frost clung to the horns of her crown, and no one had cleaned the long smear of blood from her cheek, where her fine hair had become plastered to her skin in a salt-slick of sweat. She had never looked so beautiful.
For her. The world, and all of him, for her.
Then she smiled. It was merely a nervous breakdown. The war had taken its toll on them, she said. All that coffee must have rotted his weary brain. In honor of his years of ceaseless service, he would be held in protective custody pending his return to Enbarr, where Her Majesty’s physicians would be able to investigate his behavior more thoroughly.
All merely stage dressing. The truth is this: Hubert bartered away her vengeance, and now Edelgard has left him fettered and silenced as she marches against the Archbishop. Tit for tat. He will not see her victory; he is meant to sleep it off. The ultimate deferral to her judgment after years of keeping her in the dark.
He does not even know if Dimitri kept his head. If the purge of the Agarthan stragglers succeeded.
To make it ever more childishly demeaning, Hubert is not even being held in a cell. First they locked him in a wagon with the cooks’ chickens, dark and raucous and full of straw, as the army pushed on toward Fhirdiad. Fleche blindfolded him for the next transfer, and he sneered at her gall as she muscled him into his own tent, the richness of years of ink and iron and soot telling him he was home. Only when she removed the blindfold did Hubert understand the slight: they had staged his tent around a bear trapper’s cage and left his solitary cot within the cramped bars. Far worse is the veil of impenetrable Silence tied over his tent, which is cast in thirty-minute layered intervals by the ever-gabbing students of the Fhirdiad School of Magic.
The only tasks allowed to him are standing, pacing, and lying on his cot. No books. No pen and paper. If he wants to vent his foul temper, he can take it out on the children stationed outside his tent and make a proper monster of himself. A little brunette waif brings his meals at six and noon and six, and she stands there on the verge of tears until the spooky bogwraith finishes picking over the hearty plates of bread and grease.
Hubert should be gnashing his teeth, smashing through the Silence with sheer grit and summoning all hell’s malevolent beasts to sunder the bars of this cage. A feeble test to provoke his wounded pride and drag him back into peak form. He feels it under his skin, that itch to break free of even this pitiful confinement, but it is so very distant, a tiny thorn in long-numb flesh.
All he can think about is how much Ferdinand would laugh.
Not the tittering, polite little laugh he reserves for company, but the one that curls into his smile in private when they meet across the chess table, the picnic blanket. Such irony! For all his plots and intrigue, the chess master has been removed from the board by his very own Queen. Very well, Ferdinand might say, fingers inching forward to take Hubert’s own, if we are left languishing in darkness, then let us enjoy the quiet a little while longer.
No. You were never meant to be quiet. The words dry up in Hubert’s mouth. His own voice sounds so pitiful, so weak and foolish in his head, as it argues with this too-generous shadow.
Speak to me, he almost demands instead. But what more is there to say? Ferdinand has served his purpose, transmitted the critical location of their enemy’s base, and outlived the masks of noble, general, diplomat, lover, victim. He is an asset ready for burning, standing ready at the pyre, yet no one will bring the final torch. So here they wait.
Hubert’s hand strays to his pocket and loops the cord of braided amber around his finger, tight enough for the circulation to slow. He cannot bear the sight of those strands slipping through his fingers, not after Ferdinand’s comment about wishing to feel such tenderness again. To be remembered in finer form.
If Hubert were granted one thing again, it would be the chance to throw his own words across the divide and say, I will only remember you as you are. Unbroken.
He closes his eyes against the dim shadows within the tent. He has been relieved of all his duties. He has only this vigil and the thin marigold band around his finger, his blood thrumming angrily at the impasse, the inaction. He listens to Ferdinand’s breathing and drags his to a similar cadence. Steady. Constant.
War rages in the world, but for this one moment, they are no longer of it. They are mere remnants of Her Majesty’s dreams.
And fire is never far behind.
Noise overtakes him all at once, an impossible conflagration of voices in each ear. Soldiers running over dirt, stone, mud, shouting in accents of north and nowhere with weapons at the ready. In Shambhala, Ferdinand presses closer to listen, no time for transport, blood boiling in his ear, purge the rest, and Hubert’s hands close over the sides of his head to narrow in. Something is—
Wyverns screech overhead, sweeping low enough that the tent tears loose of its foundations and whips angrily in the wind.
“Boy!” Hubert calls through the bars. “Simon!”
The boy and another, one of the elder girls, slip into the mangled tent. She has a grip on Simon’s arm strong enough to keep them both standing, but it does nothing to assuage the terror in their wide, glassy eyes.
“We must move you for your safety,” announces the girl. She can’t be more than fourteen. A silvered pegasus kicks its heels in the embroidery on her schoolgirl’s robes, and Hubert can smell the reek of exhaustion in her, the scarring that must already be picking away at her nails under those heavy wool gloves.
“What are the conditions outside?” Hubert keeps his voice level as the children fiddle with the lock on his cage. It would take only a moment’s fire spell, but they force through the key instead, unwilling to waste even a rusty handful of the Emperor’s iron. “Your name, girl.”
“That’s Priscilla.” The boy is back to crying. His hands shake too badly to be of use, and he can barely manage a flinch when she shoots him a look of betrayal.
“Priscilla. Simon. Your camp is under attack. If you are meant to guard me, then King and Emperor will demand to see us all at the end of this. We are in this together, do you understand? You must take down the Silence field.”
The girl pauses.
“Don’t listen to him, Pris, he’ll turn you into a frog!”
“What do you Adrestians swear by if the Goddess is a shit?” she asks. Her braided bun tumbles down as she draws free a long hairpin and starts jimmying free the lock the old way.
Her Majesty the Emperor is the wrong answer, but right all the same. “Our…faith. In each other.”
“Well I ain’t swearing on you.” The lock gives way. Hubert makes no sudden movement, his attention swept up by the sudden reek of smoke on the wind, and Priscilla snakes a rope around his wrists with the skill of a village hunter.
Hubert puts up no resistance as the children lead him from the tent’s remains and out into the camp. His eyes sweep over the scenery in vain, for he needs no reconnaissance to grasp the situation.
The children’s focus on the Silence spell is scattered, piecemeal, and it takes only a breath of force to shatter the bindings. Immediately all their eyes turn to him. With everyone else in the field, there are no tutors, no camp advisers to give them instruction. They are abandoned as their city burns with the butcher bogwraith standing in their midst.
Hubert shakes his head just once.
Illogical. How can the fire spread when everything is buried under oceans of rain and mud?
“How do your homes keep out the freezing rains?” Hubert calls. Not an inch of alarm mars his measured tone, but perhaps they sense the ghost of a ruler in his fist, for some of the children snap to schoolroom attention.
“Spells ‘n sealants, sir!”
Keep in the fire, keep out the rain — the whole city will ignite at this rate. “I want you in teams of four. Faith cohort, strip off any rain protection spell you can find. Reason cohort, drown out every building untouched by the flames. Do not distract yourself fighting anything bigger than a campfire. We need to contain the spread before we attack the fire itself. Work from the outside in but don’t rest within the city walls. You see any soldier from any side, you get the hell out. Understood?”
Hubert doesn’t wait for an answer. The Immaculate One’s roar slices through the air, the ground’s vicious quake following a moment later, and he bolts into the city ablaze. By the time he remembers to shatter the rope around his wrists, the acidic touch of his unbridled magic has long rotted it away.
On the outskirts of the capital, the roads are merely dirt, a mess of mud in summer and a glacial rift the rest of the year. Their poverty is all that allows his passage between the rows of burning wood and newly exposed thatch gone up like matchsticks.
Hubert has never set foot in Fhirdiad, yet every step is inexplicably familiar. He imagined this. Gleefully. He dreamed it every night at the age of ten, when he spent his days numbing his heart and his nights plotting an implausible career of arson — his father’s home, Arundel’s estates, the whole of the frozen fucking north that kept Edelgard out of his grasp. He spent another decade refining war plans to invade these particular streets on the way to the castle proper, working troop movements like his own private sigils, and now in the labyrinth of smoke and civilian terror he cannot tell north from west.
He must find Edelgard.
Let her laugh, let her sneer at his lapses of judgment and spit in his face, but let him find her. Hubert will not lose her again. Not to this rage that swallows everything in its path—not to Rhea’s, not to Dimitri’s, not even to their own.
The elements have no love for Hubert’s soiled hands. He can cool a glass of wine or boil a kettle, of course, and has the theoretical knowledge to cross-check his engineers’ work, but there is no hope of drawing down a storm of ice or soothing rain. Still his magic does its work; the forced idleness has done him well. Mire will smother all beneath it, so he steals oxygen where he may, nipping out embers to stretch his focus as he runs.
Clerics dart through the dark plumes billowing out of archaic churches, desperate to rescue whatever relics they may, and as Hubert passes a young woman overburdened with books, his feet nearly wheel him back around in some blighted, incomprehensible impulse. As if a few pages of irreplaceable historical knowledge outweigh the history Her Majesty is making now.
They will write it anew. Hubert will make of himself a pen, to record the new laws and treaties of the land, for if his hands will never stop this slow drip of toxic ink then he will make damn use of it. Ferdinand’s dreams, Her Majesty’s dreams, and he the charcoal upon the map, remade and redrawn as it pleases.
He tarries at the foot of a bell tower, breathing hard behind a now soot-stained handkerchief. The lofty peak will give him ample vantage to gain his bearings above the distorting flames.
“So you do have some spirit left.”
Hubert shoulders through the door with splintering force. It is difficult to make anything out over the crackle of the flames outside these narrow stone walls, but the link between Ferdinand’s ear and Hubert’s own is strong as ever. Strong enough for him to hear Ferdinand taunt whoever has entered his cell, fool creature that he is.
Feet pounding with frantic force upon the spiraling stairs, Hubert ascends to the open chamber where the bells are housed.
He does not have time to think of Ferdinand. Her Majesty needs him—them—but only he is here, standing, his body a singed puppet in the hands of a numb puppeteer. He cannot divide himself beyond his own field of vision.
The city unfurls beneath him in dizzying plumes of smoke, and he sucks in a breath of noxious air to steady himself with its bracing asperity. It is no more than a map. Horses pour in from his left like minnows in a broken stream. They fly no standard, but the mounts are too low to the ground, too stocky, to be any other than the northern Gautier troops. To his right, far in the distance, he spots the quintet of spires that crown the Royal School of Sorcery. That puts the imperial camp along the eastern wall of the city, braced against the cold sea’s winds but defenseless against the city’s fortifications. A peaceful encampment, it must have been.
Hubert traces the main road from east to west, narrowing in on the castle amid the beguiling flames. Soldiers swarm around the Immaculate One’s hive as wyverns dive through the billowing darkness, an entourage of flies for her lustrous bulk. He cranes his eyes for a glimpse of red armor, a single imperial standard, but the wind shifts and pulls the veil of confusion back down.
“Can you hear me, love?”
Halfway through calling up a warp, every bone braced for impact, Hubert simply. Stops.
He listens for Ferdinand’s breathing, then the sounds beyond it. But there is nothing. Only the crackling flame.
“I did it, Hubert. Like you said.”
“Talk sense,” Hubert hisses. His hands curl over the stone barrier that keeps him from the abyss. He doesn’t have time for this. At all. But Ferdinand is—laughing?—his voice high and grating, breathless with panic. Wrong.
“I made them pay for it. Someone—no, two. Two! Two less for you to hunt. I have helped, you see? Because I finally did it. I am in a room on fire and I cast it myself!”
The city disappears beneath him. By some faint instinct, Hubert’s knees give out and drag him back from the fractured vertigo of the edge. All he can see now is the stone, warming beneath his hands, and the caked mud of his own boots.
His lips form the name most treasured.
“Now I am truly your favorite!”
“You will be my favorite when you put it out!” Hubert raves. “It has no fuel in a cell of cold stone, Ferdinand! You are still channeling it. You need only—calm yourself.”
Senseless wetness streaks the ash of his cheeks.
“You can do this. Calm down. Bring the magic back under control, master yourself as you have always done.”
“A grand finale. Remember that, if you would. An upright life and a grand finale. Better than our fathers. And. And I know you hate it, my love, I know, but when the sun rises at the end of it all…watch that dawn. For me. Or have Her Majesty paint it and gaze at that instead, if you must. But.”
“Control the blighted spell! Ferdinand!”
“I love you,” warbles that shattered voice, and then it shrieks in pain, from sparks or searing stone or rags caught aflame. “I love you, I love you, I cast this love upon you like my hands learning the sigil of your body, my lips on the shell of your ear, all of me yours, Hubert. I can only hope you can hear me. That my work has borne fruit. But if not, still. These are my only words, my only prayer. What remains of me is yours.”
The Immaculate One’s roar is nothing compared to the shriek of Hubert’s own blood in his ears, his mind whirling in lopsided rings like a wagon’s faulty wheels. He trembles and the world shakes with him, the very earth gives way, and it is only in freefall that he thinks—earthquake.
“I love you.”
A panicked warp away from the collapsing bell tower drops Hubert above the burning husk of a home, and he plummets through the tattered roof like a bird shorn of its wings mid-flight. The flames swell in time with the Immaculate One’s pulse of fury, all the Goddess’s hellfire come to entomb him at last. He reaches out for another warp, pinned beneath the rubble of smoldering rafters, but all that comes is Ferdinand’s smiling specter flickering through the inferno.
His scream in Hubert’s ear.
No more maddening heat, no more brittle carapace of terror. Hubert stares numbly as the fire licks at his scarred arms once more.
So be it.
They will meet again soon in the hell of their own making.
“I love you, I love you, I’m sorry,” Ferdinand babbles, sucking in a foul breath of smoke through the thin fabric of his sleeve.
He tried to press against a wall at first, as if the flames were a carnivore that would flit away if it didn’t sense movement, but the stone grew to rival a forge’s molten force, and baking slowly in the center is better than burning quick against the oven’s walls. For all he has professed an acclimation to torture, it is somehow very, very different to condemn oneself with anger’s faulty match.
Hubert’s name hacks through his mouth with dagger-sharp brutality, yet still Ferdinand’s lips twist to a smile around it. He will carve these words, this ardor, into Hubert’s wicked-bright brain for all of time. His name, his body, all his efforts can be forgotten, but Hubert will remember love.
“I am here!” he laughs. Madness is a good friend to him. If it brings a faint echo of his avenging angel in these final moments, all the better. “I am always here, right where you left me.”
The stone has begun to scald his feet, but there is naught to do but let them burn. He hopes Her Majesty has finer footwear prepared for her final march through the ashes of the old world. Those petty bastards will leap out one and all as doomed little sparks.
Should he leap as well? A running jump to an uncertain hallway packed with bodies to trip him at every turn, endless locked doors, and no promise of clearer air. The door was ahead and to—no, the right perhaps—if he inches forward until his feet hit the rank barbecue of his fallen foes, then perhaps—he is nothing but a cricket caught in the frying pan, in the end. Nothing and no one.
Ferdinand twists in on himself, a roll of parchment dreading the final brush of heat that will set it alight, and begins to work the sigil backwards. He will not let Hubert hear his final sobbing breath, cannot risk that the link will endure after his death and keep half of Hubert’s mind tuned always to the grave.
“Ferdinand, reach for me!”
He will. He promises. When his lungs fail and the pain is no more, he will rise and reach for his ruinous raven, a kiss of wind and warm upon that weary brow.
A cry slips from his mouth in place of poetry when a lash of heat touches his wrist. Ferdinand clamps down over it, suffocating his burning sleeve with pressure alone, and chokes on smoke with his mouth now uncovered. The smoke will kill him quickest, he knows, but not as quick as the armored arms that snake around his torso and squeeze him tight.
Ferdinand’s hands dart to the soldier’s back, palms flat against the eerily chill metal, and he summons the magic once more in a shrill howl of terror. Three, make it three, he will burn down every bastard in his way, every creature that reaches for his burdened blood—
“I have you, my dear,” croons the voice.
For the life of him Ferdinand does not recognize it. He flinches away from that terrible softness, turning his head, and finds himself caught in a fall of sleek, lightly perfumed hair. Roses. A touch of magic to keep it so strong, amid mud and smoke, over thousands of miles and years.
The same scent that wafts from the box of one hundred and thirty-eight letters that he keeps under his bed, so distant and dear.
He chokes, “Lorenz?”
A gauntlet strokes uneasily over his shoulders, striving for gentleness amid such a grim battlefield. “None other.”
Their feet are moving, slow and sure as Lorenz leads, and Ferdinand drifts along feather-light. It is a dream. It is all a dream. He traces his fingers over the joints of Lorenz’s armor and tries to draw blood, to know for sure, but Lorenz takes his arms and holds him still as soon as the raging heat has been left behind. There is nowhere to put his heavy head save the crook of Lorenz’s neck, nose tucked against where the skin emerges from under his high-collared gorget.
“You gave me quite the scare,” Lorenz tuts mournfully, his voice cracking like it never did even as a youth. “But we shall settle that anon. Rest now.”
Without the blaze, the whole world lapses into a fitful shiver.
Hubert, Ferdinand nearly asks, mouth stopped up by confusion and propriety and the leaden pull of relief. He cannot link the sounds together, the pieces. In the distance a battle still rages, and Ferdinand did not count his steps down this hall, and Lorenz cannot be here in this unhallowed place where the stomping of boots still echoes down the halls.
Lorenz tucks his chin over the crown of Ferdinand’s head, embrace unyielding as the tremors come.
“Trust me as you have ever trusted me, dearest friend. Your work is finally done.”
Ferdinand, tortured: but how are the mole horses. the horses beneath the earth. i heard them. are they ok. did anyone tell them they're pretty today.
Illustrated by @birds, who continues to destroy me.
And for anyone who needs it, /taps the Angst With A Happy Ending tag
Salutations from the chronic burnout wars, this year has not been kind. In typical form I now have 17k of words and it's not even the dang ending. Apologies, condolences, congratulations, etc etc. I've broken this chapter in half; the latter 9k (fully edited & finalized) will be posted this upcoming weekend. The actual, real, final finale is likewise underway.
New character & relationship tags added at long last.
No new warnings this chapter. Mild references to what Ferdinand has endured & the convoluted emotional fallout thereof. This includes the blanket warning of ableism, especially the internalized sort.
And a shoutout to featherhearted for allowing me to plant a wee easter egg in Aegir :)
There are no birds beneath the earth.
The birdsong outside his window is all that sanctifies this newfound safety. Silk sheets, feather pillows, the enduring aroma of rosewater and richly spiced tea—all of these luxuries could be so easily faked, as ephemeral as the ghosts in his ear. Hushed voices he cannot place. The press of cool marble against his forehead and a gentle hymn of prayer, so familiar that it makes his mind whirl with stained glass confusion. His own hands curling in the velvet curtains in futile search for the sun, while someone whispers, rest, rest, why must you seek the sun, my dear Icarus?
To know it burns. To know he is not broken against the chill stone, strapped to the table as the monsters sate themselves on his marrow.
His hands cannot rest. His fingers trace the language of love and service, but his words tumble in only nonsense.
In the silence, he remembers hate. It warms his fingertips. The silk sheets reek as they burn.
Indolence croons for him. Inactivity smothers. He pounds his fists against the wooden door, scalds his palms trying to turn the handle.
There is no purpose left to him. He should be grateful to breathe. Grateful for meals of bread and potato, not wing and scale.
He paces the floor until his legs give out, then presses his hands against the floorboards until even hate cannot spark. Battered fingers fitting into the cool grooves of exhausted rage.
There are no birds beneath the earth.
Yet there are cages above as below.
The Gloucester service staff are afraid. Of him, for him, it matters little to Ferdinand himself. What is key is that he alleviates the fear so that they will speak plainly with him.
For two days, Ferdinand is a proper patient. He thanks the nameless hands that bring him his meals, and he asks for nothing, even as he itches to whittle away his own bones just for aught to do. He smiles and nods when he hears visitors. He makes no sign when he feels eyes alone upon him. He does not weep. He does not ramble to specters that cannot answer or dolls plucked free of their stuffing.
This feigned pliancy should come naturally as anything after so many years of practice, yet it grinds away at him, a whetstone against too brittle a blade.
On the third day, when a maid comes to take away his breakfast tray and ensure he has not spilled porridge all over his person, Ferdinand clears his throat. “Excuse me, miss? Might I ask your name?”
Another maid in the hallway about swallows her tongue by the size of her gulp. Their skirts swish over the surface of the wooden floor in a flurry of surprise.
“…Sally,” says the girl nearest. Her voice is younger than the surety of her hands, but there is a war on, so perhaps there is no judge of such things any longer.
“Sally,” he repeats as though savoring the name. He tilts his head gently towards the doorway. There have been no steps, so the other maid must still be waiting. “And yours?”
“You can call us all Sally, milord.”
Ah. It has been many years since Ferdinand visited the manor of a family with such a tradition. He can distantly remember his father referring to all the grooms as Jonathon in his youth, but Ferdinand’s fondness for the stables naturally instilled in him a knowledge of each man’s name and proficiencies.
Gloucester’s new master only took the reins two years prior. Though it is hard to imagine Lorenz keeping to such a dehumanizing standard, it would be no surprise for the staff to still revert to such form for visitors, especially those of such unknown quality as he.
“My apologies,” Ferdinand demurs with a pitiful twist of sorrow in the corners of his lips. “I do not mean to pry, but I lack the, well. Frankly, the ability to differentiate you at a glance. I hope it is not uncouth if I ask once more…”
The maid at his side withdraws, retreating to the other and whispering in giddy fascination.
“Juniper,” one of them blurts. Her breathing is too loud, as though she has puffed up her chest with all the pride of a storybook heroine. It is surely not her real name.
It takes longer for the second maid to pipe up, but she rises to the challenge of rule-breaking soon enough. “Juniper and Violetta.”
“Then you have my thanks, Juniper and Violetta. I know my care is not the most glamorous of tasks.”
“Think nothing of it!”
“Please, milord, you are still recovering.”
“We are simply pleased to see your health return.”
Ferdinand smiles, forcing the muscles of his cheeks into this old pattern of diplomacy, and knows he has won the trick. The narrative of a charming, mysterious invalid practically writes itself after all.
It is easy enough to cajole them into leading him for a stroll outside. Pacing the room has confirmed Ferdinand’s ability to stay upright, though a firm grip on the banisters is all that keeps his feet beneath him as they descend the grand spiral stairways. Winded by the time they reach the ground floor, Ferdinand cannot manage an excuse to wave off the cane a doorman presses into his hands, some lavishly engraved piece of decorative frippery. It is all he can do not to trip over it or whack Juniper at the heels.
The effortless turn of the front doors on their immaculately oiled hinges strikes Ferdinand with a strange force, mundane and monumental. It is as though his lungs have been cinched down between steel plates for decades, rust-bitten and bitterly scarred, and now in an instant the weight is gone.
He gasps in the fresh countryside air as tears stream down his face. I am fine, he says, or sobs, It is merely joy.
Madness, more like, for if they set him free he would fall to his knees in the wildflowers and feast upon the whirling petals. The lightning strike of euphoria sours in an instant. His head aches. His knees have been shaking since halfway down the stairs, and there is a sharpness in his spine like a grounding charm of nettle.
Violetta leads him to a bench in the shade, then to another in the tender agony of sunlight instead, when it becomes apparent Ferdinand will crawl on his knees back to the sun’s purview. Worried whispers surround him, fleeting and weightless as a burst of dandelion seeds.
A sliver of mortification claws at him, of course.
Yet the sun is so warm.
A beetle lands upon Ferdinand’s arm, and all his thoughts lurch into the sensation, the stiffness of the crooked legs, the solidity of it. He thinks it must be a beetle, for it does not flit or bumble as the other winged insects do. It will heave itself away only when it is ready.
There is a preacher’s parable about pebbles and ponds and irreparable change, ripples never un-rippling once rippled and some such nonsense. Ferdinand’s thoughts skitter through the pool, too light to sink with the pebbles even as something settles in him all the same. An irreparable difference.
The girls have gone. The beetle, too, vanishes between one moment and the next.
Ferdinand breathes all the way down to his roots. A nightblooming flower lulled to quiescence in the bright soak of sunlight.
And then the barrage of hooves arrives.
There is no greeting sufficient to convey Ferdinand’s current state. He simply grins.
Twin boots thud against the earth as Lorenz dismounts, and in an instant he is at Ferdinand’s side. “My dear, you should not be out of your room! Allow me to escort you back—“
“It,” Ferdinand announces grandly, only to realize his throat is too dry to manage any words further. He swallows and tries once more. “It is a lovely day.”
“You shall burn up in the heat at this rate.” The silk of Lorenz’s glove brushes over Ferdinand’s forehead.
“Some color on my cheeks will do me good.”
Ferdinand means it only for argument’s sake, yet it strikes him suddenly as true. He must be pale as an elder wraith by now, some foul specter in the ancestral cellar of House Vestra.
Quick as a summoning, a shiver of longing takes Ferdinand by the throat. Now that he is recovered, his countrymen will soon come to fetch him. And though he has already spent every single word in his head, surely his body will speak true enough in the secret comforts of Hubert’s bed.
“Have you any word from the western—“
“Enough of that,” Lorenz clucks as he brushes petals and pollen from the loose drape of Ferdinand’s shirt. “You are meant to be resting. After such valiant endeavors as yours, I dare say another few weeks of recovery are warranted.”
That meager rejection is all Ferdinand can manage; the trek has taken more out of him than he wishes to admit. He could abide by a longer recuperation at the monastery, with Fleche at his side to read and write for him, and his unhappy shadow filling every corner with unbidden warmth. He cannot abide it with closed curtains and fragile, fearful silence.
Ferdinand’s hand finds itself lodged in the thick of his friend’s jacket cuffs—brocade?—and he tugs once more, pleading with a pathos his words dare not convey. “Please, my friend. I will bow to your judgment on the whole, yet I cannot do with another day of silence. You do not understand the shroud it casts upon me—upon my very soul.”
“I begin to,” Lorenz concedes with a certain splinter of worry.
He is quiet for a moment. Thoughtful? The Lorenz of their youth performed his passions with theatrical rigor; today’s Lorenz plays the butterfly to obscure the bobcat, preening with well-sharpened claws.
Without warning, those silk-clad claws stroke down the back of Ferdinand’s hair. “I will return from Derdriu in three days’ time, and then we shall take tea together every morning and every afternoon. As your health allows. Will that suit?”
“I suppose it must.”
Three days is enough for Ferdinand to get his fraying control back, well, under control.
If he is to be considered fit for duty, he must not dare display such frailty in public again. It was a mistake to think the potential for manipulating his fellows outweighed the possibility of being locked back in his sickroom. These new jailers can be swayed by flawless propriety alone.
Ferdinand empties his mind of all half-engraved perceptions and begins again. Bed. Rectangular. He lies upon his back, stretching his feet down to the edge of the frame as his arms reach over his head to judge the space between bed and wall. None. The bed is tucked firmly against the wall on two sides. One has a long window. He stands on his knees to trace the glass behind its knotted curtains.
The details are not enough to occupy him.
Simplicity in the wake of ignorance.
He does not know how much time he has lost. His hair is longer, raggedy against his neck, but too short to braid. His nails have all been trimmed to the quick. He will not trace over the bandaged burdens of his body to track the pace of healing or the remnants of misuse. At home, at the monastery, he had a bedside calendar with a wooden pegboard to track the days, with pegs of alternate shapes to signify upcoming meetings and deadlines, yet what is the point of longing for such a thing when there are no meetings or deadlines to plan for?
No. He is too old to rail against his circumstances.
Three slow rings around the circumference of the room. Door at twelve o’clock, bed at five. Ferdinand has always preferred to map the outskirts before the interior. Doors before floors.
Do not make a blind spot of your core. An assassin would—
Now, as then, Ferdinand snorts at the lesson. They are all blind spots. And as far as he is concerned, there is greater danger from an unknown access point than a hastily laid pressure plate under the carpet.
Speaking of access points, he will need to drop something out that window to test the fall distance. Balcony? No, the window did not reach the floor. Still, a trellis could…
This is Gloucester. He is safe.
…Door at twelve o’clock. Yes. He counts his steps through the byways, runs his hands over the sparse shelves and the sole table, traces the off-center placement of the carpet until he discovers the scuffed floorboard it hides. There are slippers by the door, and Ferdinand tosses them against the far wall to test his ability to walk directly to them, guessing the recoil distance by the size of the noise they make striking the plaster.
It should unsettle him to be back at the beginning, and yet the nostalgia that threads through his chest darns him back together stitch by stitch. A field hospital. The needle warped and jagged from passing through so much ailing flesh.
To master your environment is not just to use it to your advantage; it is to notice any change, any weakness, as though your own body has suffered the blow. The same way you would feel the mortifying pang of a lost button upon your vest. Extend that armor outwards.
He remembers his lessons well.
From infirmary to bedroom to war table, Hubert left him little tests. A carpet rotated fifteen degrees clockwise, with a feather beneath. A charm carved into the wooden leg of a chair, and another feather to find. A new seam in his jacket where none had been before, and like a child, Ferdinand’s heart raced to pull free the newest useless reward. Observation and paranoia came hand in hand, and Ferdinand was never fool enough to ask how Hubert came up with such refined training methods. He gathered his raven’s baubles greedily, and no ancestral pride could eclipse that in his own breast when he presented his handler with that handful of plucked plumage.
In another life, Ferdinand would have brought Adrestia more than feathers. Letters would not contain him. He would slay every foe on their path to a righteous world, make his promises more than mere words as he rode to Faerghus with baskets of grain, rescued Fodlan’s captured children, circled the continent and came home triumphant with Arundel’s bloody head raised in offering.
What can he possibly bring them from Gloucester?
When Juniper and Violetta arrive with his lunch, his smiles and charm no longer work. They are cowed now, scared in truth of him, for him, maybe even for their jobs. He tries a bit of gossip about new novels, new rumors from the papers, but even that is a dead end: the girls are illiterate. There is no one to read to him.
He wonders aloud if any of the servants know chess, and the girls clean up his breakfast platter and scurry off without a by-your-leave.
Ferdinand’s head makes a gentle impact with the wall. He is glad to be alive. He is. Are not near-death experiences meant to fill one with a rush of thankfulness, of joyous clarity? How monstrous to pity himself when his fellows march north through the slop of battlefields—
Despair snatches him up in its shrapnel maelstrom. He will not think of it. He will not think of the war, of the assault on Fhirdiad and the unmaking of nations and the vicious clarity of casualty lists. He will not think of Hubert shaking himself apart within Ferdinand’s arms, then hurling himself against the Goddess alone. He will not think of odds. Dreams. Plans.
He casts the sigil in desperation, yet can say nothing, can do nothing but breathe. What if they fight even now? What if he distracts Hubert in some moment of concentration, risks enemy fire down upon him? Ferdinand can give no further intelligence, can do nothing but ramble mindless into the unknown. All his grandiose sacrifices have already been made, his love already spent.
There are greater matters. New weapons to hone. New plans to write. A new world for Hubert’s hands to carve, a whole word instead of silly pegboard calendars.
That Ferdinand has outlived his use is—
Maudlin. All of this.
They will come for him. He need only wait.
On the afternoon of the third day, a butler appears to summon Ferdinand to tea.
There are no fine clothes for him to wear, let alone a valet to dress him, but that is no excuse. He splashes water against his face and neck to wipe away the signs of his exertion, fluffs up his hair then combs it in place, buttons up his shirt to a pristine collar, and joins the man at the door.
“Your cane, sir?” hums the butler gently.
Ferdinand pauses as he sorts through his mental map of the room. Did he leave it on the bookshelf as the unexpected spot for a weapon, or behind the door for quick access in the event of an intruder?
The butler flits in and out of Ferdinand’s room with the well-honed, and surely well-paid, speed of a starling. The cane is pressed gently into Ferdinand’s hands. He grits his teeth in a smile and most certainly does not dream of breaking anyone’s kneecaps with the offending object.
This time when he leaves his room, Ferdinand is lucid enough to count his steps and map the path to the parlor. Every morning and every afternoon, Lorenz promised him, and it will be easier when no one needs to fetch him. He can meander down and savor a taste of freedom at will.
The butler announces him at the door before disappearing to set the service in motion.
No one takes his arm. Ferdinand waits a moment, then coughs gently.
“My dear! Here, allow me—“ Lorenz rushes forward and, rather than offering his arm, takes Ferdinand’s elbow directly.
The proximity allows Ferdinand a startling whiff of him, for rather than the delicacy of roses and fine bergamot, Lorenz reeks of the road, all horseflesh and long-soaked sweat. Ferdinand’s heart lurches painfully to know Lorenz did not even bother to freshen up but arranged their tea the very moment of his return, rushing to rout Ferdinand’s loneliness head-on.
Perhaps he is not so polished behind closed doors? Ferdinand, too, carries that dread curse of exertion around him. He lost too much of himself in Shambhala when the eyes were ever upon him, but in his lonely sickroom he may at least drag his unconditioned muscles back through their paces. For three days all he has done is exercise to the point of collapse, sleep the exhaustion away, and immediately embark upon a new stretch to banish the screaming frailty of his body.
He has made little progress, but it has driven all other thought from his brain. A rousing success.
Perhaps Lorenz might be amenable for a sparring match…? There is no better cure for roaming anxieties than burning out every last ounce of strength in a friendly contest. It was true for Ferdinand at five and it will be equally true at fifty. To let the body eclipse the mind is man’s sweetest relief, even more so than an amicable cup of tea.
“Sit, sit.” Lorenz coos as he deposits Ferdinand into the chair.
Gravity shifts as he settles, a moment of jarring dissonance. This has been Ferdinand’s reality all his life. Parlors and pleasantries. There is no reason for it to feel like a fever dream, for his sojourn to the depths of the earth was the true, the only aberration. This, here, is normalcy’s welcome return.
He clears his throat. “What news from Derdriu?”
The Alliance capital must be in an absolute uproar with two-thirds of the continent’s military forces hacking themselves to pieces a few hundred miles west. Failed harvests, frantic refugees, and a merchant militia torn between profit and profiteering, not to even start on the politics at play — all of it is added strain on the exhausted pillars of their government.
“This and that.” A slight rustling betrays the arrangement of his napkin. “The Dagdan embargo has our trade guilds in an uproar. The price of mahogany drives the Goddess herself to tears, to hear them tell it, as if they could not achieve better effect from the timber emerging from the Throat.”
The butler returns with the cart.
Normally, Ferdinand would pay the service no mind, eagerly carrying on with his conversation. Here he accepts the interruption instead. It takes him a moment to collect himself; it will not do to show his puzzlement upon his face.
Lorenz cannot have mistaken his meaning. There must therefore be some secret message behind his words, a truth cleverly woven to escape the detection of any untoward interception, just as in their many years of letters. Adrestia made no overtures to Dagda—not through Ferdinand’s own desk, at least—though a refusal to navigate the confusion of wartime merchant regulations is not outside the realm of possibility. Perhaps he referred to the archipelagos on the whole to obscure the name of Brigid instead? The Empire never enlisted troops from the islands, though it remained a matter of contention. Had Petra risen to such power as Edelgard’s right hand that she secreted in her own honor guard?
Whatever it means, the Goddess clearly weeps. An Adrestian victory? Or a stalemate awaiting Almyran assistance from the east? Mahogany is not used in the construction of arrows, and it would be an odd choice for siege engineering, yet if that too is another feint…
The cart clatters away. The butler closes the door behind him, and Ferdinand listens with bated breath to confirm that they are truly alone. There will be no more need for such obfuscation.
“Change always brings a measure of frustration,” Ferdinand concludes mildly. He reaches for his napkin.
It is not to his right.
Alliance tea etiquette is slightly different than its southern cousin. This is not a surprise. It simply slipped the bear-trap of Ferdinand’s memory, a frivolity replaced with more crucial knowledge. He has not taken tea this way since his days at the Officer’s Academy, and even then it was only for the rare afternoon when he could win Marianne’s attention. The Lorenz of those days used the imperial standard to impress his southern peers. Now the young Lord Gloucester has little need for such a display.
“Apologies,” Ferdinand says as he draws both hands back into his lap. “I should have made this request much earlier, but the thought did not occur. Might you adjust my setting to the imperial standard instead? Muscle memory, you understand. I would grieve to knock over a single piece.”
“Do not worry yourself, my dear.”
Frankly the words only worry him more. Ferdinand does not know how adulthood has reshaped his friend’s fine features, but the thought of such delicate angles twisting into pity— “Please. Lorenz.”
Tea service was the very first task Ferdinand mastered. Before sigils and stealth and learned weakness, before tempering his mind to the needs of diplomacy and his body to the demands of such heightened vigilance, he had sat himself down, trusted in the rote mechanisms of his arms, and poured a shaking cup of tea that had never tasted so sweet.
For years he has served his friends, his Emperor. Always remembering their favorite blend. Always remembering how they took their cup. Always trusted as a companion to sit with and while away the hours without any, any…
Lorenz bends over the table to adjust all the settings. He does not say anything. It would frankly be worse if he did.
Ferdinand’s breath rattles in his ear louder than the gentle clinking of porcelain.
It is fine. He will simply have to request such accommodations going forward. He cannot expect the world to fall into place around him, should never have gotten so used to those myriad paths Hubert carved for him. Gone, now. All gone.
He swallows back his longing for a muddy field tent and the careful grid of consistent roads. How like an old soldier to dream of peace only to miss the war!
Once Lorenz’s chair creaks from its renewed burden, Ferdinand knots his hands together and tries again. No one remains to overhear them this time. Finally they may speak frankly.
“How fare the harvests?”
“The wheel of the year turns ever onward. Ah! We do have a new strain of rosehip on the rise. With only two years of success, there is not yet enough dried stock to export, you understand, but the output thus far is promising indeed. This species possesses a strangely dark berry which tastes more of citrus than its tart fellows, and though I can tell you little else on the horticultural front, it has sparked quite the culinary revolution!”
He continues on about rosehip and cranberry soup in the capital, a new prizewinning jammery in Edmund, and the feud between rival patisseries in Ordelia.
For the life of him, Ferdinand cannot discern if he is too slow to follow the game or to recognize a slap in the face. They are best friends; not three weeks hence, Lorenz risked everything to pull him from a burning laboratory of slithering butchers and has devotedly overseen his return to good health. No part of that is false frippery and empty words. Yet Ferdinand is—was—a leading diplomat of Adrestia, and for all their tacit agreements and intelligence swaps, they are of enemy states. Is Ferdinand not trusted? Does Lorenz himself have a handler in his ear reminding him to guard his heart and give not a word of their plans away?
They have never fully accepted Ferdinand’s goodwill, despite everything.
Who now would Ferdinand tell? Well, Hubert, obviously, but there is no way Lorenz could know that and it would be a tremendous breach of hospitality to do so.
If Ferdinand were to offer a measure of information, then perhaps Lorenz would rise to the bait.
Yet there is nothing to give. Ferdinand has been absent for who knows how long. Any secret details of imperial plans will have long been picked apart by Claude’s own espionage network. Only a fresh kill has value to such keen-eyed scavengers.
A strange chill falls over him, tumbling down his back like a touch of ice, and the feeling is so foreign after his body’s breaking that he barely recognizes it.
“You have not touched your tea…” Lorenz’s frown is so deep as to be audible, and Ferdinand cringes away from it, all defenses failing.
He so dearly needs his friend to sit across from him, not this pristine politician from a rival nation. The warm silence of companionship, not the breezy titter of small talk to fill the unfamiliar hours.
Ferdinand cannot share secrets, but he can share honesty. He forces the words past his lips. “I cannot impose upon you forever.”
“Nonsense! You are no burden.” He laughs, as though it is no more than a summer sojourn that keeps Ferdinand here, aristocratic youths swapped among their stately manors.
“I—thank you, truly. But this conversation is unbearable. My friend, you must know I do not seek state secrets to bring back to the Empire.”
“Of course not,” Lorenz assures him. The kindness, the sympathy in Lorenz’s voice makes no sense whatsoever.
Ferdinand’s disordered breathing swallows the firm clarity of his words as he forges on. “I simply want—need to know the state of the world so that I can determine my course.”
Lorenz’s teacup clinks down gently upon its saucer. A moment later, his gloved hand reaches across the table to rest over Ferdinand’s in full disregard for etiquette. He squeezes gently.
“What we want is not always best for us.”
A tinny, ringing noise fills the space between Ferdinand’s ears.
Lorenz is still speaking.
“You have always been among the most driven men of my acquaintance, Ferdinand. That is why it grieves me to say this, and yet the truth must be embraced at earliest opportunity. All that awaits you is rest.”
Ferdinand wants only to leap the table and shake the certainty from the man’s head. He does not want advice, friendship, care, if this is the shape of it—give him the callous understanding of those too wary to reach out a hand, the hard-won trust of baleful paranoia!
His hands tremble as he reaches for his own cup, trying to steady himself for a grievous rebuttal, yet his fingers skitter over the polished plate of the tray.
It is not the imperial standard.
There is nothing before him save the teacup itself. All clutter has been cleared: no plate, no teaspoon, no bowl of sugar or knife for a pat of butter, not even a saucer for his cup, no, all has vanished so that nothing stands in the way of the blind man’s fumbling attempts to locate his lukewarm cup. He is too frail even for steam. The kettle, if Lorenz has even kept such a horrid hazard upon the tabletop, never even reached an appropriate temperature.
The porcelain feels wrong in Ferdinand’s hand. He runs a finger over the rim. Cracked.
This is the servants’ set.
Lorenz did not even trust Ferdinand with an ounce of porcelain; he will never trust him with something as precious as his own life.
The shatter of the teacup upon the floor cuts through the ongoing niceties of Lorenz’s parlor talk. Before the gasp, the apologies, the frantic gentling—before Lorenz can make so much as a move, Ferdinand stands and slams his hands flat upon the table.
“You will not speak of what is best for me.”
“I am no more an invalid today than when I won you your name, Lord Gloucester. Or did you think me a doddering mouthpiece all those years for someone else’s politics?” Laughter bubbles from Ferdinand’s throat like blood from a severed artery. “I am master of my circumstances, not their pawn. Observe—when I tell you to leave my sight, it is already done!”
The table shakes as Lorenz, too, rises to his feet in a rush of rage. “Your circumstances had you battered and roasting in an oven beneath the earth, so forgive me for ensuring an easy convalescence for someone so dear!”
“Better to die of my own hubris than yours!” Ferdinand spits.
“I don’t want you to die at all! Listen to me. All I am trying to accomplish is—“
Ferdinand pushes away from the table. “Frankly, listening to you another moment is worse than—“ Having his spine sliced open. The crackle of eggshell between his teeth. The oil-slick suffocation of Arundel’s laughter falling over him.
He cannot say those words to Lorenz. Cannot bring himself to genuinely believe them even amid this fit of fury. But nothing short of the Goddess descending to weep over the parlor’s mahogany door could keep him in this room a minute longer.
Twenty-three steps to the door. Forty-nine to the base of the stairs.
Ferdinand knows his way. He squares his shoulders, crushes the fragments of porcelain beneath his boot, and walks out.
They give each other space.
It reminds Ferdinand terribly of the way his parents navigated Wildfall Court, the seat of Aegir territory, in clockwork routines that ensured they never so much as heard each other’s footsteps, much less found themselves forced to interact. He does not particularly enjoy thinking of how his mother, too, must have pressed her ear to the door and memorized the clomping schedule of her housemate.
Not that Lorenz clomps, per se, though there is a certain weight of despair in his steps that Ferdinand would swear was not there previously. He refuses to feel guilty for it.
Lorenz goes for two to three rides a day, which Ferdinand is absolutely not jealous of, and each lasts upwards of an hour. Ferdinand spends that time exploring the manor to his satisfaction no matter how many servants he sends gasping and scurrying away. This rush of discovery lasts him all of eight sparse hours over a few days — halls, stairs, attic, cellar, library, kitchen, and something charitably called a Rose Sauna that he backed out of awfully quick — and then Ferdinand is right back to pacing the floors of his room.
Someone returns the decorative cane to his bedside the next morning. Someone else breaks it over the edge of a table in a fit of pique. An accidental fit of pique.
Everything is horrid.
Such behavior is unbecoming of a man, let alone a man of honor! And if Ferdinand does not have his control, he has nothing. What is it about this place of peace that turns him into an animal caged, when even the Agarthans could not break him? What of his noble spirit has become so warped, so erratic?
Is this what he would have become all along if Hubert had not plucked him from his sickbed for their dread bargain?
Enough of such thoughts. What Ferdinand needs is exactly what he has been denied: genuine exercise! No one now bars his way to the gardens, so out he goes into the blessed light. There are fewer way-markers out of doors, yet as long as he keeps a close ring around the building itself, he will do just fine.
The front of the manor is all empty space beyond a few stately trees lining the road, and at the back is an acre of meticulously tended gardens before the lands open up into unending meadows. Ferdinand jogs carefully, marking every change under his soles from grass to gravel and back again. In sunny Enbarr he learned to mark the slight shift in temperature between the sun’s unopposed heat and the relative coolness of a shadow sweeping in above him, but here in cloudy Gloucester it is beyond useless. Tree, building, or gnarled thicket of bloody roses, he cannot tell until it is too late.
He passes a bubbling fountain on his right, then catches the edge of a fence with a hard thump to his shoulder and thigh. That high, and without any embellishment or ivy tumbling over it, it can only be part of a paddock for one of the many stables housing the Gloucester herd. Ferdinand follows it with his knuckles resting lightly upon the painted wood as he goes.
Though he clicks a friendly summons, no snuffling velveteen noses come to inquire over the fence; the herd must be pasturing elsewhere.
Gravel underfoot again. His nose leads him along a winding path to a grove of what might be apricots, judging by the size of the pits he unhappily treads over. Are apricots even native to these parts? He plucks a fallen specimen from the earth and inhales the sweetness pouring from its split, overripe flesh.
When Ferdinand turns, wiping the lingering juice upon his still-aching thigh, he realizes his error.
He has no earthly idea where he is.
He squints at the sun. It must already be tipping down to the west at this time of day, which would make for an excellent compass if he could remember which way he ran in the first place. Towards the capricious rays of sun? If true, he ran west at the outset, and now need only keep the sun at his back.
He passes a bubbling fountain on his right almost immediately. Blast.
It serves for a quick drink in the heat, though he plunges his hands into a mess of algae and imperiled frogs four times before locating a potable palmful. Ferdinand dabs the cool water against his forehead and the back of his neck for good measure.
When he takes off east, it is only grass, grass, and grass under his feet. No nickering of distant horses. No gardens to trip into.
It is fine. He will simply live on the lam, forage for his food, and die tragically by poison mushroom or mysteriously purple apricot. Effectively, his story will still have ended where it should have.
It would be so much easier that way. No more games. No more hole in his chest. The more people give him this unequal kindness, the more disconnected he is from his purpose—not purposeless, for if life remains in him then it must be offered to Adrestia, but—he never imagined accolades, let alone having to face Edelgard while bearing such kindred knowledge. Now the potentiality of it haunts him.
He does not want Edelgard’s fond sighs of annoyance or even Hubert’s arms around him. He wants his desk, his work, and if he cannot have those things without the intervening charade of praise, then oblivion should have taken him. Not in the melodramatic way, of course. Nor that of despair. Simply…well, perhaps it is good he cannot commit it to paper. It is good he will go the way of the apricots and be heard from nevermore.
Ferdinand’s feet take him farther into the overgrown meadows, though now there is too much flora to keep an even pace without tripping on roots and grass entwined. He shuffles onward and enjoys the small stories of sound, the skittering mice and affronted bees, the gently wafting breeze.
A hand closes on his shoulder.
Ferdinand’s fingers seize upon the attacker’s wrist, gouging into soft flesh as he twists their arm, bends his knees, and in one great heave of wild instinct, hurls them head over heels into the grass.
The ensuing silence startles him more than the attack. They did not scream. He can hear them gasping, a heavy living lump at his feet, but even when they recover their breath with a wheeze like a whistle, all they say is, “Damn.”
“Sorry!” Ferdinand yelps at last. He crouches down and extends a hand toward the unrecognizable voice. “You have my sincerest apologies. You, ah, took me by surprise, but—“
They rise to their feet on their own, patting off the dirt from their garb. “No need, that was my fault. But really. Damn good reflexes there, General Aegir.”
He can think of nothing to say to that beyond factual quibbles. “I am not a general.”
“Hah! Greeting incoming.” They clasp his arm in a solder’s handshake, firm and honest. “Leonie Pinelli. Just flew in with the Riegan guard.”
“Charmed,” he mumbles, and it may as well be true, for those few words have had a muddying effect on his already scattered thoughts.
“So.” The popping of joints as she stretches. “Out for a run or running away?”
“Depends on how far I get.”
Leonie snorts in brutal, yet somehow affectionate laughter. “Sounds about right. Nothing else to do when Lorenz goes full mother hen. I got an arrow to the thigh a few years back, and he fussed like I’d got gangrene in the brain.”
Rather than commiserating with her plight, as Leonie is so obviously trying to do with his, Ferdinand merely…wilts. The picture of Lorenz in quiet, powerless agony at a loved one’s bedside is too clear, even if all the details have faded into an impression of lavender and a sliver of genuine emotion under his polished smile. For all the privileges of their pedigrees, they have no rejoinder against death. Or perhaps Lorenz still believes in the Goddess, or professes to, just for something to hold onto.
They have never discussed Ferdinand’s blinding. By the time he was installed as imperial secretary and dictating his first letters, Ferdinand had no desire to dwell. There were more important matters at hand, like preventing war between their nations and rescinding the court martial hanging over Lorenz’s head.
All of the Eagles found out firsthand. They adapted alongside him, grew into newly familiar shapes as he reshaped his world, and all his frustrations were their own, solved in tandem.
Borders and battlefields away, Lorenz knew so very little.
Ferdinand sighs and wipes away the wrinkles from his worried brow. “A spot of gangrene in the brain.”
“That’s no good. Claude wants to chat, so if you’re not feeling up to par—“
“Please,” he says. “There is no preparing for von Riegan.”
“That a please drown me in the fishpond or…”
That one gets a laugh, and off they go. Leonie gives him the lay of the land, not the knotted meadow catching at his boots but the actual happenings at the manor. She and Riegan flew down from the capital that morning. No Marianne, who sends her prayers yet cannot leave the western border where she tends to wounded refugees. The Deer split up after the attack on Shambhala — you can ask Claude about that, I’m still not sure what the hell I saw down there — with Lorenz retreating to Gloucester to oversee Ferdinand’s care.
Goneril is down south keeping a paranoid eye on the bridge to Adrestia. An imperial march on Faerghus always exposed Adrestia to internal rebellion from Count Bergliez’s troops, and had that spilled into the Alliance, it would mean an end to their delicate dance of neutrality. A harsh military presence at the border also emboldens the merchants they’ve given mutual freedom of passage. The checks and balances that Ferdinand nudged into place have outlasted him, and that more than anything sinks his shoulders with relief.
Leonie does not mention Miss Ordelia. A genuine secret of state or a loss too recent to invoke in casual conversation? He prays it is the former and dreads to ask.
As they walk, Leonie’s fingertips smack into Ferdinand’s arm now and again. He smiles against the thought of her gesticulating all these stories, not to explain but to drive her own self along, and it is a small gift to have someone so relaxed in their own bones that they don’t bother performing for him. Refreshing as the breeze and sunlight upon his cheeks.
Neither of which fade, for Leonie isn’t walking them in a straight line back to the manor at all. They wind through the gardens at the far edge of the property, wasting time, enjoying the open air as they roam. She never takes his arm. Her feet ring so clearly against the stone walkways that he has no trouble keeping pace.
It shames him to know so little about her, but they reach the front steps before he can craft his ignorance into a proper question, and then the whirlwind takes him.
He braces for another stranger’s easygoing clap to his shoulder.
“You leave him alone this instant!” calls another voice, familiar yet oddly hoarse for Lorenz.
There’s a scramble of feet as a grown man scampers behind Ferdinand’s back. “Ferdinand, buddy, heard you had a bit of a spat.”
“I’m warning you, Riegan!”
“Oooh,” Leonie jeers from the doorway, “He last-named you. Someone’s pissed.”
Ferdinand tilts his face back over his shoulder, clinging to the ghost of diplomatic propriety. “Claude von Riegan. A pleasure.”
“Aren’t those my words?” Claude laughs at once. “Been awhile. Want to get kidnapped to Derdriu? We can hit up the opera, take in the sights—”
Lorenz sucks in a scandalized breath of concentrated horror. “CLAUDE.”
“Has to be better than stuffy old Gloucester, right? You’re a statesman. Let me show you the state.”
“…I suppose I have always wanted to see the Leicester Theatre,” Ferdinand offers slowly, like digging a blunt fork into Lorenz’s thigh under the dinner table. “Though I must remind you of the political ramifications of kidnapping an Adrestian citizen.”
“Seeing as you’re neither a child nor snoozing, I’ll risk it.”
Lorenz’s voice rings over them all. “Will you please watch your turns of phrase!”
In the goading pause that follows, Ferdinand can well imagine Claude flash a grin and reach out with a fork of his own, deftly twisting up Lorenz’s aching heartstrings like a knot of spaghetti.
“You think he’ll magically forget he can’t see as long as no one mentions the word?”
“Of course not!”
“Oh, so it’s the opera then. Guess there’s no point without all the flash. Didn’t I always say it was nothing but a glorified fashion show?”
“I object in the strongest terms to your, your—flippancy. Ferdinand is a guest in our nation, and to parade him around like the newest Adrestian chess piece you plucked from Vestra’s board is—“
“Better to lock him up in the porcelain cabinet?”
“We can’t all be priceless and pretty, Lorenz.” That one from Leonie, cutting in with restrained mirth at noble nonsense.
“You’re wretched is what you are.” A click of boots paces back and forth upon the tiled floor, and then Lorenz sinks heavily into a chair. “And horrendously priceless to me. All of you. Just.”
Something shifts in the room as Lorenz takes a haggard, shaky breath.
“…the world, and now I, have been abhorrent enough to him. To you, Ferdinand. It shames me to run you out.”
“It’s a Derdriu day trip, not the collapse of amity,” Claude quips, but there is something strangely genuine in it, as if he now wishes to wrap bandages over the raggedy grooves left by childish cutlery.
“I know that!” Lorenz cuts in the same moment as Claude continues, “We’ll be right home to kiss and make up.”
Leonie chokes on air, hand slapping the frame of the doorway as she braces herself, and Ferdinand, too, wishes he had something to hold onto, for a sickening wave of longing nearly sweeps his legs away. This is politics, inescapable, the same way Petra and Edelgard snip at each other over dinner when they cannot agree on tactics, all their words double-edged with implication and heavy with the history of their forefathers. Yet it is also…home. Fondness and frustration and the eagerness with which each inspires the other. Ferdinand recognizes the pattern well, though it be deer instead of eagles in the weave.
He snaps back to himself, lifting his head in the direction of Claude’s voice. “Yes?”
“Are you coming?”
Were they youths, this choice would have meaning. It would be a slap in the face to Lorenz, to choose a veritable stranger over a lifelong friend. A grand show of rubbing his nose into a meaningless mistake, but Ferdinand is already bored of anger.
They are not youths, and Claude is this nation’s head, recently returned from ransacking Shambhala and rescuing an Adrestian diplomat under exceptionally hazy circumstances, and it is not really any choice at all. Should Ferdinand refuse the invite, he’ll no doubt still be sweet-talked into being transported like furniture.
So be it. Ferdinand may well be an Adrestian chess piece, but it’s his own damn board, and at least Claude will allow him to play.
Without a word, Ferdinand gives his host a firm nod of farewell and then trots after Claude.
Leonie does not join them outside by the wyvern. The Adrestian breed only seats a single rider comfortably, though Ferdinand has heard the eastern breeds can seat as many as four archers to rain terror from above.
“Scared of heights?” Claude teases as he takes Ferdinand’s outstretched hand.
“I do so loathe to look down,” Ferdinand tosses back, holding on tight. He has none of the muscle memory as with a horse, and he has not ridden wyvernback since his patrol duties at the Academy.
The beast is broader than Ferdinand expected. They sit easily with Ferdinand at the rear, his legs lashed into some strange leather replacement for stirrups and his hands gripped upon the saddle’s horn. It is not at all like a tandem saddle. When Ferdinand reaches down to stroke the wyvern’s scales, he finds that each seat is connected to the next with a system of underlying leather straps, segmenting them for an uncommon flexibility that must allow each rider to work individually. It recalls a finely jointed suit of armor rather than the rigid stability of Adrestian heavy plate.
Claude clicks a command to the wyvern, and the world lurches forward to a splash as their mount begins gulping up half the decorative pond.
As they wait for it to drink its fill, Ferdinand says, “We are not going to the opera.”
“I mean, we can catch a show if you’re up for it.” A grin in his tone. Does he actually smile as well with no one to see, or does he rely on pitch and give his performance a break? “But I’ve something to discuss with you.”
“Discuss…or pick my mind over like a Boramas Cheese Board?”
Claude gives a tsk. “No midflight politics, Ferdinand. Just hold on.”
He opens his mouth to argue the point — Aegir and Argue are both five-letter words, as Hubert so often groused — just as the wyvern bodily hurls itself into inverted freefall. The laws of physics and gravity that drive Ferdinand’s logic have vanished; there is only the wind howling within his breast.
Nothing calls to him. No clues, no wandering thoughts.
All that is missing is the thudding of hooves.
This chapter's illustration by the ever-illustrious birds!
CWs: brief mentions of Agarthan torture, decapitation, and their remains.
To Ferdinand’s dismay, the wyvern touches down in the center of Derdriu rather than any private duchal landing zone. Claude vaults from their mount and vanishes into the deluge of noise that surrounds them, leaving Ferdinand to fiddle with his buckles before a few—Servants? Stable workers? Helping hands— swoop in to assist him to the ground. Once on his feet, it is all Ferdinand can do to press against the wyvern’s warm flank and block out the roaring confusion from at least one direction.
He should be soaking in the atmosphere, craning his ears for any slips of the tongue from this international assortment of merchants and townspeople, but he can no more pick them out of the suffocating cacophony than burrs out of burlap. It is all one and the same.
Claude’s voice rises above the others, casually chirruping about prices and dates the way a king might holler for attention. His accent has changed. Not a clue to his mystery, no, just an easy adjustment to the cadence around him, the natural fluency of a man eager to meet others in the middle while guiding them off a cliff.
It was wrong to come here.
To maintain his tight-lipped, air-headed composure around the controlled cruelty of the Agarthans is child’s play compared to sparring with Claude von Riegan face-to-face, and Ferdinand has none of his usual weapons, nor any knowledge of what has transpired these last few weeks…or months. Worse, the man is an utter blank to him. His chatter meaningless, his history forged, even his steps perfectly silent — though Ferdinand has sparred adequately with him by letters, on this field of play there is no hope of survival.
Not that Ferdinand fears for his life, of course. In that he trusts Claude implicitly. It is merely his pride that shrivels within his breast in expectation of his own missteps, for it would have been. Preferable. To meet player to player, rather than master tactician to newly disposed pawn.
Useless thoughts one and all. Ferdinand is already here; it is not as if he can hop back aboard the wyvern and escape when he has nowhere else to go. And he has never visited Derdriu! The stories of her sights and sounds always captivated him, so surely, absent sights and staggering sounds aside, surely there are many local delights for him to discover.
“Sorry for the wait,” pipes Claude’s voice aside him, as though they have both been leaning against the wyvern for quite some time.
“No room in the stable?”
“Tried to double-charge me for her fish fry.”
Ferdinand strokes over the creature’s scales in fond farewell. “She would suffer so on Adrestian rations.”
“Your scrawny lizards? Yeah, not near enough muscle on them to fill her up.”
It would be poor form to elbow him in the side for that comment, however strong the urge.
“So,” Claude continues. “You. Me. The Grand Tour. How do you want to tear up the town — foot or carriage?”
Ferdinand openly rolls his eyes.
“What! I hear you love to roam.”
With a scoff, Ferdinand stretches out the arms of his drab linen shirt, some well-worn piece from a servant’s dresser. He has not even a vest to obscure the sweat stains that must be visible. “I am hardly presentable.”
“We can fix that.”
It clicks at once. What Claude actually needs is a publicity stunt. He cannot publicize the rescue of an Adrestian diplomat from the Agarthans and the political capital it has earned him, but he can easily ensure hundreds, thousands of people see Ferdinand amicably chatting with him in the streets of Derdriu. And then Claude can spin it however he wants. If Edelgard turns friend, here is the groundwork. If foe, here is the proof even her own people have defected the cause. And if she is gone, then word will spread to the Kingdom that Adrestia’s remaining government is backed by Claude himself.
At least in a carriage there will be fewer eyes. Less noise. A gentler riptide tugging at his ankles, keen to drown him in the discordant void of strangers.
Ferdinand takes a breath.
“By foot, if you please.” He will not give this sudden agoraphobia any strength and would rather smother it than care about Claude’s optics. Let him spin it as he will.
On Claude’s command, a small brigade of hands descend upon Ferdinand’s person. He holds his breath as they lash him into the fine threads of a waistcoat and wrap some manner of decorative belt around his waist. Northern fashions were never to Ferdinand’s interest, and he struggles to envision it, noting only that it covers a wide swath and is tied off with some sort of decorative bauble that hangs down against his hip. Someone whips a thick, blossoming knot into the cravat that appears at his neck, then pins it down into the fold of his vest with another round of decorations. A touch at his foot nearly has Ferdinand kicking like an untrained foal, and it takes him a moment to realize they are shining his boots into some semblance of respectability. A grand jacket joins the ensemble, snug along his shoulders but with deep pockets on either side, and Ferdinand wonders just how ridiculous he must look in all this.
No one has touched his hair. “Comb,” Ferdinand prompts once everyone has stepped away, holding his hand out to Claude. They have been aloft for hours; if this is all for optics, then Claude will have fixed his own with haste.
“Need me to do it?” Claude asks even as he immediately passes one to Ferdinand’s hands.
Not on his life. Ferdinand may remember little of local fashion, but he recalls the horrid hairstyles all too well. He puts himself to rights with five quick sweeps of the comb.
“Trade you,” Claude warns. He accepts the comb and presses something else into Ferdinand’s hands in its place.
Sturdy handle, long support.
Ferdinand keeps his arm outstretched with the offending cane. “Take it back.”
It is…a genuine question. Ferdinand wishes there were some great suspicion or insult in Claude’s tone, but there is only a friendly curiosity. He sighs. “I am not accustomed to one, and frankly, I do not know how to use one. It will only make me a danger to your countrymen’s kneecaps.”
Never mind that it marks him as a spectacle from a distance. Never mind that it breaks all rules of etiquette. It is easier to stay within the boundaries of the world he has memorized and mastered, rather than commit himself to the dizzying void.
But that world is gone, and now the void is all that remains.
“You’re clever,” Claude says. So bland as to be indecipherable. “Learn.”
Ferdinand gives him a perfectly bland smile in return and brings the cane down upon his knee in a sharp burst.
It does not snap. His kneecap, almost, but the cane itself does not splinter to frippery’s firewood like all the other noble nonsense that has been presented to him over the years.
He cannot see the rise of Claude’s eyebrow, but damn him, Ferdinand knows it is there.
The craftsmanship is sturdier than any he has encountered, and striking for the thinness of the shaft. It is slightly too long to use as a support, requiring him to hold it out in front of him at a greater distance, and the ferrule is shaped as though to protect from impact in all directions rather than merely the ground below. No pointless engraving mars the wood; indeed, there is no decoration of any kind save for a narrow band of metal just below the hilt. Ferdinand runs his fingertips over it, comparing to the pieces of his old collections, and notes triangles—mountains?—and the curl of wind, of wings—
“An Almyran piece,” Ferdinand concludes. Just like the wyvern.
“Wow. Wonder how such a piece made it into your hands!”
“Your hands, technically.”
“You sure about that?”
Claude grins, of that Ferdinand is sure, for it warms his cheeks like a kindly star.
Very well. He can scarcely reject a gift of such clear intention and masterful artistry, though it rests uneasily in his palm. If Ferdinand can at least prevent himself from slipping into one of Derdriu’s many algae-glutted canals, he will consider the experiment a success.
They set off east, directly into the sun’s beckoning heat. The landing zone for aerial deliveries is only one of many in the city, which Ferdinand finds both odd and brilliant. Each will be smaller than the central dock in Enbarr, resulting in more limited operations for mass shipments, but it likewise means the aerial fleets of Derdriu cannot be grounded without taking ten, fifteen individual locations off the board.
With any other guide, it would shame Ferdinand to think only of invasion tactics. Claude is engaging, broadly amicable to everyone they meet, and stops their journey constantly so Ferdinand can sample some new local delicacy, some new aroma, some new flavor of their frankly bizarre ‘iced’ tea. But were their positions reversed, Claude would enjoy soaking in the delicacies of Enbarr alongside her tactical weaknesses just the same.
They wait at a street corner for a gridlock of merchant caravans to pass.
“Did you find the switch yet?” Claude asks.
“Under the pommel. Two clicks with your thumb and a twist to the right, and the knife will spring free. Real handy, no one ever expects it. A twist to the left will re-engage the lock.”
Ferdinand’s thumb finds the trigger at once. Right, then back to the left. It is true.
And truly, utterly masterful.
In a low voice, leaning near to his company, Ferdinand says, “If you are trying to engineer my defection to the Alliance, my Lord, then you have vastly overvalued my importance.”
Claude snorts. “Sure.”
Of all the diplomatic missions Ferdinand ever dreamed, none approached this. Claude walks him round and around the capital in a way that would make any other man lose his bearings, but only works the map of the city into Ferdinand’s weary feet. It grounds him in this foreign land, empowers him in a way no one aware of his talents should dare.
Was this what trust looked like in a man like Claude?
At the capital’s heart all of the canals intersect around a small central island before the current draws the waters down to the port. A floating marketplace clogs the byways with traders bringing their wares up from the trade ships, and on the island stand the high marble walls of a grand cathedral. Though the ceilings have long since collapsed, the citizens have cleared the space into an open-air theater, and Claude leads Ferdinand to a spot in the shade where they can listen to the competing strains of a fiddle and a Kupalan piccolo.
They do not speak of politics, though Claude is far better at inventing captivating nonsense than Lorenz. He rattles off the pedigree of the church, the hauntings of the quarry that sourced the marble, a folktale about a wyvern coming to roost upon the rafters just as a corrupt minister settled into the confessional for an illicit exchange. Truth does not factor in; Ferdinand merely wonders how many Claude invents whole cloth, and how many do indeed match the sayings of the locals.
A street vendor sells them a bag of creme puffs filled with spiced fig, and Ferdinand sits for a long time listening to the haunting echoes of rustic music against sanctified stone.
He realizes, distantly, that he never activated the sigil.
Fingers twitching, he reaches for another fig puff instead.
When they retire to the duchal quarter, Claude leads them across three drawbridges and on up to the fortress gates. He jokes loudly with the guards as they crank the gates open, tapping his foot and threatening to scale the decorative fishbone latticework and make his own way inside. Or update the mechanism with a very fancy button that only a bullseye trick shot can trigger.
“What do you think, General?” he asks as they pass through the portcullis.
Even here in a tomb of stone, Claude’s heels make no sound. The click of Ferdinand’s cane feels larger than life as they move along the halls, an unfeeling metronome dragging him onward into an otherwise silent staleness, devoid of the life outside. He knows without asking that they are headed to the vault; it is the only place Claude will entertain such strange truths as Ferdinand has to tell.
“That it is time for politics at last.”
They step through a brief gasp of fresh air and foliage — a courtyard garden? — and then on to the humid moist of the, er.
Ferdinand balks just inside the door. “Is this the bathhouse?!”
“Maybe.” There’s a clatter as Claude’s heels do smack loudly through the low puddles. “Just bear with me. My grandfather was a paranoid guy, so to get to the vault you have to—mumble mumble state secret.”
“In the bathhouse.”
With his eyebrows so high they may take flight, Ferdinand gestures for him to continue. “Alright then.”
A mechanism clangs to life, and as the gears click along one of the pools begins to drain with a mighty gurgle. It must be quite the feat of engineering, tied into the canal system for its drainage yet unveiling a completely watertight underground compound. Oswald von Riegan’s paranoia is delightful in its execution, and Ferdinand cannot help but be charmed. A bathhouse of all places!
“Wait. How do you leave the vault if the soldiers are—“
“They have a different one! This is the duchal suite—“
“You brought me to your private baths?”
Claude’s boots slap to the opposite end of the room, where he cranks another gear to life.
“I cannot decide the greater scandal,” Ferdinand muses loudly above the rushing waters. “A duo of statesmen in the duchal baths, or that you have brought me here only to ignore me.”
“I bought you fig puffs,” Claude grumbles breathlessly on another pass across the room. “Can you be quiet for two minutes? I’m concentrating here.”
“…If you lure an enemy to these baths, can you wash them out to sea like this?”
“Keep it up and we’ll find out.”
The more the gears clink and clang, the closer the passage draws to opening, the louder a crisp magic buzzes in the air. Everything here on in is heavily spelled. Ferdinand traces half-sigils back and forth as he waits. Is there any point? The crest magic is arcane, esoteric, so rare as to have tricked the Agarthans—yet Oswald’s paranoia cannot be pinned down without questions far too leading to voice. And it is not as though Ferdinand is at risk, exactly. Claude has not broken faith with him thus far. They might have been followed at a distance the entire time, but the man has behaved as Ferdinand has always believed him to be.
“Here we go,” Claude says when the passage at last opens with one final grind of stone. Yet he does not forge ahead to lead. He seems to hesitate, the awkwardness foreign to him, as though he balks at bringing Ferdinand back beneath the earth so soon.
And that answers that.
Ferdinand will not be the first to break such fragile faith.
His cane clicks against the walls of the opening as he tests the space, and then he shuffles to the edge of the first step. Not too steep. With a nod over his shoulder to Claude, he commits himself to the earth once more.
There is more noise in the depths this time, no artificial emptiness but the drip of water through stone and the subtle groaning of the world packed in above them. They pass under a great roaring archway that must support a canal above, then on into a room of clear-cut stone. Claude draws back a chair with a great clatter, and Ferdinand settles at what must be an interrogation table.
(Are there chains, cages along the walls? He witnessed the imperial prisons of Enbarr just once, and they have all but slipped from memory, replaced by the more scenic trappings of the Mittlefrank’s gothic repertoire. By smell alone, he knows it is nothing like the cells he has come from.)
Ferdinand waits for the click of the lock before he speaks. “Name the terms of our exchange.”
“It’s not so serious.” Claude tastes the word on his tongue before spitting it back out. “No, of course it is. Well. I thought we might play questions to keep it fair. You must have thousands of them.”
Does Arundel live? How many Agarthans escaped? Where was Shambhala? How did you get there, how did you know, how many soldiers were lost on the way to my rescue, did anyone else make it out, how have you justified the assault to the rest of the Alliance, what price must Adrestia pay for this boon?
Does Edelgard’s banner still fly?
Does Hubert still—
“Fewer than you might think.”
The opposing chair clunks around as Claude settles into it. Perhaps backwards? Breathing relaxed, elbows on the table. “If I were suddenly rescued by a dashing foreign prince—“
“I was not aware the Alliance possessed a rank of prince.”
“It was figurative language.”
There is silence, tense and temperate like a friendly stalemate: I dare you. Claude will never confirm his parentage; Ferdinand will not confirm the extent of their own investigation. Neither wishes to laugh first and break the ice, though who knows if Claude is already smiling.
Ferdinand’s fingers itch not for his sigils but for the ivory polish of his chess pieces.
Claude speaks first. “You’re the guest here. Take the first question.”
“And allow you a glimpse of what most troubles me, through precedence or omission? No. The first move to you, as host.”
“Should’ve locked us in a room with a truth potion at this rate.”
“Your keys. Your lock.”
“Ferdinand,” says Claude, playing wounded, but there is a half teaspoon of true hurt deep down beneath. A real wound?
A rotten, miserable part of Ferdinand wants to dig his fingers into it.
“…My apologies,” he murmurs. He drags a hand over his face. If he cannot even manage the job of friendship without flying off the handle these days, what hope did he ever have of conducting this tête-à-tête successfully?
“You’ve been through a lot,” Claude continues carefully. “Which I think you know is polite for Hell, in every literal definition. And you don’t know who to trust. Fair. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you don’t trust me, Ferdinand. But you have full rights of asylum in the Alliance if you want them. The door in here has a deadbolt that you can slide right out from the inside. You can leave any time.”
Asylum? There is a war on, Ferdinand supposes. Any change of nationality could be termed as such. It is still a shockingly brazen offer to lead with.
“You want me to turn on Adrestia.” Ferdinand’s voice is hollow. “Be your cipher for the Empire’s goals and movements.”
“This whole war you’ve fed us information. Don’t get huffy about it now. I’m not asking for state secrets, just…this Agarthan mess.”
“What could the Great Tactician possibly struggle to comprehend?”
“In Shambhala I killed a man with Lorenz’s face.”
“Not a surprise to you,” Claude concludes dully.
A splash of ice down his spine, that’s all. “No. I should have realized that my loss endangered those whose identity I could no longer affirm.”
“Your loss? You can show a bit of anger, Ferdinand.” Quieter. “We won’t think any less of you.”
What does Claude expect, for him to once more lose control and try to scorch the floorboards? Ferdinand needs no such catharsis. He has dreamed of these monsters for years, and he has learned to outpace them.
“I experienced no more than expected,” Ferdinand reports. It is the same mission briefing he will give whenever the Adrestians come to collect him.
Yet Claude has no answer. He leans across the table in a way that might be conspiratorial, or threatening, or is simply an immutable presence.
Ferdinand raises his head against the weight of those eyes. “What is it?”
“Just trying to figure out your game.”
“Whatever the Empire has promised you, I am unfortunately not in the know.”
“The Empire can hang for all I care, Ferdinand. You are a friend to us. And even if you expected the Agarthans, I can’t fathom how a man of your pride can swallow being sold out by his companions like that and still claim loyalty.”
How is always easy to answer; Ferdinand’s brain clicks through the possibilities like clockwork, like the subject of inquiry is someone else entirely.
Because he’s aiming for leadership.
Because he wants grounds for disassociation from the government if the war goes badly.
Because he has another game that made all that suffering worthwhile.
The implications fester in the humid air, demanding dismissal, demanding a perfunctory laugh and redirection, but Ferdinand’s heart has choked around the words sold out, a bloody clot lodged in his chest.
“You are mistaken,” he says without force. The echo of Edelgard’s stricken horror saps him of all fire. It is not his place to shape the Emperor’s imprint abroad, to manage rumors and relationships and spin the world to her tune. She cares not about such things. It only makes her kindness more precious. And for Claude to think she of all people—
A grand sigh breaks through his faltering composure. “Nothing we discuss will leave this room, so it’s fine to admit. Edelgard traded you for the javelins of light. We got the reports. We reconstructed the timeline.”
A sudden slam rocks the table, Ferdinand’s legs trembling in place, and it takes him a moment to realize he is upright, his fists stinging where they have pounded against the wood. “You. Are. Mistaken.”
His breathing will not settle. Every gasp a whisper of memory.
I sold my soul for this, his hands in hers, trembling within the pristine boundaries of their gloves, but I never agreed to sell you. Please tell me you know that.
Even in his darkest moments, cursing her never occurred to him. And if his voice carried to her ear instead, if every scream were hushed and swallowed, he would have told her a thousandfold: I know.
It was an honor to pay such a price.
“Your timeline obscures the fact that you began from a false premise,” Ferdinand finally manages, forcing the rasping words from his throat until they can roll with their own cadence. The undertow loses its grip for now. “The Agarthan attack on Arianrhod followed our victory over one of their agents. We do not control the javelins, nor would we wish for…that particular power.”
“You have no way of knowing that. We’ve observed the javelins in use another three times since Arianrhod.”
Ferdinand shakes his head firmly. “No. You have not.”
Only Hubert could wield the spell, and he is the one man who never would again. Ferdinand’s absence from the field does not change the underlying facts of the matter.
“…No,” Claude admits at length, “We have not.”
Ferdinand should storm out now, perhaps, and consider their trust broken if Claude is to lie so brazenly, but instead he feels both put out and oddly delighted. The same way he felt the first time he caught Hubert removing pieces from their chessboard mid-game.
He sits back down. “We should have played questions, as you said. A truth for a truth.”
Claude makes no noise, but his breathing stalls. Not audibly, not in any stiff rasp in or out. It is only a beat that falters, one breath skipped, before he regains his measured composure. Ferdinand cannot be sure, but he thinks it is…relief.
Then the man leans back in his chair with a creak, and the tension all slides away. “What was my false premise?”
“That I am an object of this maneuver and not its agent.”
“We spent years trying to locate the Agarthan base by any other means. We could not. So we dangled the carrot,” Ferdinand explains, playing with a twist of his hair and wondering if it has now gone white. “And at our lowest point, they snatched away the bait to bring us even lower. Edelgard did not know. Her advisers did not know. All of this, Hubert and I did alone, to plant me within the walls of Shambhala.”
“All Hubert does he does for Edelgard.”
As is Ferdinand’s response. “And all I did, I did for my Emperor.”
“That isn’t piety, it’s oblivion. Whether you were bartered for the fall of Faerghus or Shambhala, the result is the same. It’s a waste.”
“You were there,” Ferdinand hisses furiously. It was worth it. It was all worth it. “You saw what the Agarthans do.”
He will not categorize the atrocities beneath the earth. He will not speak of bait only to take Claude’s own a minute later.
The ever-present scent of rot presses in on all sides.
Ferdinand steadies his voice even so. “If I was so bartered, then why do I breathe? That is the only question I have for you.”
“That one’s simple,” Claude sighs. “Because Hubert begged me for your life.”
That is the only word that surfaces from the maelstrom of Ferdinand’s mind, the surging memory of the way Hubert shook beneath him, the way he broke—Nonsense.
Another false premise. Hubert laid some trap, spun some lie, and Claude danced right into it unawares. The likelihood is slim but it is…possible, yes. Hubert in his desperation could do anything, even win such a masterful trick.
But Hubert is not here, and if he has set some further mischief into action, Ferdinand is beyond caring. Let it catch his own foot instead.
“He wrote me a letter,” Claude continues unbearably.
“A letter. Ha! And you knew nothing of Agarthans, but you marched your army to some made-up underground dungeon just the same. Do not mock me, Riegan.”
“Hey, woah, I never called it believable. If I were lying don’t you think I’d try harder?”
“You would never take bait like that!”
“Course not. A Vestra seal and waterworks stained on the page? I’m not five.”
Ferdinand gawps at him. Butchers and skinthieves and horrors unnameable, all this Ferdinand has come to accept as terrible reality. But Claude riding to Shambhala on the strength of a fake letter is beyond the pale.
He only realizes he is crying when Claude asks too gently, “Want me to read it to you?”
“No,” Ferdinand spits with a venom that surprises him. The only words he wants are from Hubert’s own traitorous mouth. “I want—that timeline. Your timeline. Not question for question, but move for move.”
“Like chess,” Claude chuckles. “Hey, you ever play with only voice and—“
Ferdinand’s head sinks into his hands, and history slips from his tongue. The legends of Fodlan’s face-changers, the festering wound of secrecy that plagued the Kingdom, the heart of the Empire riven and rancid with innocent blood ever since the Insurrection. Of course they found and killed a false Lorenz in the depths; if that was the only familiar corpse, they should count themselves lucky so few eyes had turned to the Alliance so far.
He is not fool enough to tell everything. The sigils, the accident, and all of Edelgard’s suffering, these are for no one’s ears. But as best he can, he lays out the movements of the war from the anti-Agarthan task force, the paces and gambits of their game.
“Now you,” Ferdinand demands, shaken by the manic, ravenous tone that has overtaken his voice in the telling.
Perhaps even Claude is unnerved by that tinge of wild desperation, for he is quiet much too long. When he speaks at last, it is devoid of his usual good humor. “Do you regret it?”
“Tell me how many of the butchers yet live, and I will let you know.”
His blood runs colder than the peaks of Faerghus. “You did not count how many fled via warp? The traces are perceptible for forty minutes after casting. If you did not conduct an inquiry then they could already be anywhere, building a new base and starting this all again!”
Just as terror whips Ferdinand back to the precipice, Claude reaches out and takes both of Ferdinand’s hands in his. “Listen to me. Not a soul escaped the fall of Shambhala. I swear it by whatever fiddly oaths of knighthood you’ve got.”
“You cannot know that.”
“Vestra made sure of it. He didn’t just send a letter. There were schematics too, pages upon pages of black magic, so I trusted it all even less. But Lysithea knew. She was shaking with excitement like one of those vengeful lapdogs with too much spite to fit in their little bodies. Which sounds funny, but was pretty damn terrifying in the moment. ”
Schematics? Hubert hadn’t touched new magics since the accident, not outside testing his engineers’ research projects, and even those were tactical support constructs. Ballistic shielding, tar traps for Church’s golems, anti-warp fields to restrain movement.
Hubert handed the Alliance a state military secret to buy their trust, and made sure it was the exact secret that would let them rout the enemy to a man, that would ensure none of this was in vain.
How like him. Do a thing right or not at all.
Ferdinand turns his hands over, releasing his fists and shaking off Claude’s concern. He grins wide enough to split his lips, and wonders that he tastes only the tears from his cheeks, not rancid blood.
“I do not regret a thing.”
Claude’s concerns about the remaining Agarthan threat are easily dispelled. He has not waltzed into any intra-empire factional conflict. No disenfranchised ex-Vestra experiments eliminated, no religious affiliations trodden upon, no fifteen other underground shadow nations ready to sprout up for vengeance. As far as anyone knows.
His concerns about Adrestia, however, worry them both.
All this time Ferdinand assumed they were withholding information from him. For his health, for his heart, for matters of secrecy and state, but no—they truly know little more than Ferdinand himself.
Every line of communication to the west has been cut. Spy networks gone dark, supply lines failed. Only from the constant stream of refugees have they gotten any word, and all of it is frantic rumor. A massive storm broke over Tailtean and froze ten thousand heathens in the mud. Crest beasts roam the wilds with the shattered bones of children rattling in their jaws. Saints in white drift along the old pilgrimage routes and leave the husks of burned churches in their wake.
Only one story is known to be true. Two weeks ago, the watchtowers of Derdriu spotted smoke rising from across the bay. It continued to rise from Fhirdiad’s heading for three days, choking the western horizon, then slowly faded.
The Alliance sent an aerial brigade across the sea to determine their humanitarian needs, but all fliers were turned away by militiamen wearing the colors of no army at all. Claude’s more covert envoys have not yet returned.
It makes little sense. Whoever won the war would be crowing their victory by now, and if the armies remained in stalemate, their supply lines would be kept open at all cost. Two weeks is enough time for refugees from Fhirdiad herself to reach the border, yet only those of the outlying countryside have arrived.
All it explains is why no one has come to collect Ferdinand. There very well may be no one left.
No, no thinking like that.
“I cannot stay here,” Ferdinand concludes solemnly once there is no more news to tell. He holds up a silencing hand to cut off any argument. “That is not a foolhardy request to jettison me onto a battlefield. What I mean is that I am a distraction to you and your maneuverability. The Alliance must be poised to respond to whatever happens next. The fewer extraneous pawns lingering on your board, the better.”
“There’s no reason I can’t leave you in Derdriu.”
“There is. Gloucester situates me nearer to Myrddin. If anyone rides from the south, I can be there to intercept them.” He forces a smile. “The troops would recognize me. I am rather unmistakable at this point, you see.”
Claude sighs heavily, then heaves himself from his chair. His voice grows fainter as he strolls to some adjoining room, though he speaks louder to counteract it as best he can. “You’d be closer to Hrym, too. Lysithea is back down there researching this Agarthan mess.”
Word of Miss Ordelia at last! It gives Ferdinand a small morsel of relief as he processes the implication.
“…Before Hubert is freed to do so, you mean.”
“Got it in one. Whatever’s down there, we want it first. But I meant you wouldn’t be totally undefended down south.”
And Claude’s political prize couldn’t be so easily snatched away. Very well.
“Before we conclude this little rendezvous, I do have a hell of a headscratcher for you. Loud noise incoming.”
Ferdinand braces for the boom of cannon fire, or the roar of some eldritch beast, but it is only Claude thumping something down upon the table. He reaches out hesitantly to discern the shape, then startles at the brutal cold wafting off the object. Square, a little over a foot in height, and frozen to the point Ferdinand shifts back his chair to escape the sudden drop in temperature.
“So,” Claude begins, then laughs nervously instead.
Claude von Riegan does not show nerves. Why perform them?
“Is this going to create another international incident?” Ferdinand asks carefully. An illusion of apology can help soften such things, of course. Perhaps those are the nerves.
“Absolutely. So I want you to tell me what to do with it.”
“Then you will need to define what it is.”
“Let’s say, hypothetically, that a certain letter said it would be a fitting offering to Edelgard. But the writer of that letter has a grotesque sense of humor. So it’s definitely a joke, except maybe it isn’t.”
Ferdinand rolls his eyes. “Whose bones did you gather for the Emperor’s ravenous hounds?”
“Volkhard von Arundel’s head.”
Distantly, Ferdinand is aware that Claude is still speaking. He is also aware of his blunt fingernails carving down the frost forming on the outside of the box. The melt pools like blood in his palms.
“The thing is, you sent Deposed Daddy Gloucester’s remains back to us. And I know this is Edelgard’s uncle, the former Regent. Or, was her uncle. At some point. Honor is regained in the laying of hated bones to rest, et cetera. I can’t tell if the Concord applies here.”
Claude would return even a monster’s bones.
He is so blessedly human.
He would not understand the way it makes every lingering fracture of Ferdinand’s scoured skeleton light up in agony.
Ferdinand’s mouth moves.
Claude’s wary answer reaches his ears three heartbeats later.
“…I won’t stop you.”
The box’s lid has a steel latch at each cardinal point, and as Ferdinand clicks them open in turn, he wonders about the security. Perhaps black bile flows unceasing from the dead man’s still smirking lips, or it kept screaming long after severance from its vestigial heart.
Nothing leaps out when he opens the box.
“Describe it to me,” Ferdinand says with the distracted calm of a schoolteacher, as if even Hanneman could fail to blanch at this particular experiment.
He scowls across the table. “Claude. I do not need a full rundown à la the Gothic Gazette, I need to know if I can put my hand insi—“
“So there is flesh, not merely bone. All the better.”
Ferdinand stands and cranes down over the open box until his face is flush with the steaming pit of frost. He inhales deeply. Beneath the crisp chill and Claude’s small croak of horror, beneath the tinge of fire and blood and charred perfume-slick hair, beneath all his hope and loathing and disbelief, he catches the curdled tinge of spite and ozone that still clings to the monster’s remains.
In humans black magic taints the flesh. In the butchers, it is the marrow that turns. There can be no mistaking it.
He replaces the lid upon the box and snaps shut all of the latches, then leans his forehead against the lip of the container.
The game is won.
But what lurches in his chest is neither victory nor relief, for he knows now what Hubert truly gave away: Edelgard’s vengeance. She will never smother her nightmares beneath the sweet rasps of this monster’s final gasps, never sate her own ghosts on a field of righteous gore, never see her uncle’s arrogance finally falter as her axe finds its home within his chest. No catharsis, no honor, no certainty.
Of course Hubert asked for the remains. Otherwise Edelgard will never truly believe, and every shadow will still fester with her uncle’s looming malice.
“Return this to the Emperor as a gesture of good faith.”
“Good faith,” Claude repeats with blatant disbelief.
Ferdinand swallows against the lump in his throat. “Yes. On my word, should you run into any trouble in the conveyance. But your charity ends there. Share any other findings from Shambhala only once you have signed the accord you seek. Personal matters freely accommodated, state matters dependent on receiving what you are due. They are indebted to you for the rest of their lives, though they will never say it. Make use of it anyway.”
“Shrewd as ever, General.”
The name dredges him back up from the depths of his contemplation. He frowns. “Why do you call me that? I recall Leonie did as well. I hold no commission,” he explains with a pointed tap to the corner of one eye. “I have no inheritance. You may treat me as a commoner born.”
He expects Claude to laugh it off, but instead the man clicks his tongue.
“Thing is, Ferdinand, we’ve all called you that for years.”
“Might I ask why?”
“You’ve got an even head on your shoulders, for one. Rare for a Southerner. And you’re viciously upstanding to boot.”
“As Hubert is upstandingly vicious and Edelgard a mystery?”
“Something like that. But you’re…reliable.” The word rolls off Claude’s tongue like a compliment and a threat in one. “I get a letter from you, I know it’ll cut to the heart of what Fodlan needs. Doesn’t mean we’ll like it. Doesn’t mean we’ll follow your marching orders. But they’ve sure got a good beat.”
Ferdinand squints at him, yet no further explanation arrives. And perhaps that is exactly what Adrestian statecraft has looked like all these years: the Emperor a whirlwind of double-dealing, unknowable, and Hubert an enigma wild, yet Ferdinand’s desk packaged it all into neat, digestible inquiries in handsome calligraphy and unassuming envelopes. Coherency in a world gone mad.
But it was always Fleche’s pen, Fleche’s poise, Fleche’s diligence.
“Funny,” Ferdinand murmurs low and loathsome, “I haven’t picked up a quill in years.”
Claude concludes his role as host with truly valiant cheer, tossing distractions at Ferdinand’s diminished spirits in much the way one goes at spiderwebs with a broom: aggressively, perversely fascinated, and from a wary distance. They dine at a famous supper club where the opening salvo of the Crescent Moon War was penned, relax at a quaint tea house full of gossiping actresses, then retire for the evening to one of the city’s many duchal apartments. Ferdinand distinctly remembers drawing the cane blade for Claude to juggle in front of some tittering waitresses, but not much else of the evening.
As they make their way back to the aerial port for the flight back to Gloucester, Claude takes them down a street teeming with coffee shops, muttering coyly about a souvenir. Someone shoves a sample into Ferdinand’s hands, and his stomach turns against the richly spiced cream. Too sweet. Too heavy. All wrong.
Everything is wrong. Ferdinand has endured into the wrong afterlife.
Everything he did was worth it, but it was not meant to be known. He is not meant to breathe, to enjoy the rewards of the living in a peaceful world, to face the approval and despair of friendly strangers who have woven the frayed truth back into its raw tapestry. To be praised for what he is not. To be stripped of his intent in his own schemes.
To be silent and yet have to hear.
He cannot spend a lifetime schooling an expression that never goes unseen. There has always been an end in sight, the terminal moment of the farce of his life, the game woven into his every habit. The game that is all that he is, that is over and won while he is still. Here.
He is not as strong as Edelgard. If the world would stop its mindless fussing, tossing him place to place like a skiff off its moorings, he would have no momentum left.
He has no words left for Hubert, his dictionary plundered and spent by the treason that spared him his life.
Even the winds cannot lift Ferdinand’s spirits this time. He strokes his toe idly along the wyvern’s flank and wills her onwards to new adventures without her disconsolate passenger.
Back in Gloucester, Ferdinand drifts the well-worn path to his sickbed, so very like that first one five years earlier. Discharged from the war. Useless to his nation. All that has changed are the smile and poise that he can no longer force for the nurses.
He sinks heavily into the bed and grunts as a stiff fold of leather pinches into his thigh. Of course things are not where he left them. It can never be that simple when he is already in the throes of misery. With a groan, he rolls off the bed for a further inspection.
Someone has laid out a full set of clothing upon the bedspread in presumably artful array: a long-sleeved shirt of fine cotton, a velveteen jacket cut in the Leicester cavalry mode, and breeches in the finest buckskin Ferdinand has felt beneath his hands in a lifetime. The leathery attacker reveals itself as a pair of riding boots, perfectly folded so that he sat directly upon the stiff heels.
A knock upon the door and its creaking opening pull his attention, but he does not turn.
“My dear,” Lorenz begins quietly. “I should like to apologize, though I understand if you do not care to hear it. Only know that I hold it at the ready for your indulgence.”
The man is solemn to an unbearable degree, as if a single spat can sunder a friendship forged under such harsh fates as theirs. Ferdinand sighs heavily as he folds his hands in his lap so as not to stroke the boots in longing. “Please, Lorenz. It is not so devastating as all that… I should hope my nature not quite so, ah, polarizing, as it was in my youth.”
“Do not let me step from the gallows so easily. To trample upon a friend’s dignity…whatever your clemency, I cannot forgive myself.”
“Then I shall forgive you in spades.”
“Ferdinand,” he pleads, stepping into the room. Ferdinand winces at that tone; he has been too flippant with his own.
Lorenz does not bid him rise, but strides over to kneel aside Ferdinand himself. “Let me say it, I beg of you.”
“I will spare you the speech I have given myself. Suffice it to say it has always galled me that I escaped the Empire only to leave you to this, but I realize now that…there is no this. To believe so is an insult. The only tragedy bearing down upon us is the long span of years that have kept us apart. But in my longing I let such fears swell beyond their banks, and the torrent took all good sense with it.”
He nudges a knee against Ferdinand’s. “Your hand, may I take it?”
Ferdinand takes his instead. He wears no glove.
“I cannot imagine and dared not ask,” Lorenz continues. “So I imagined in spite of you. I am so terribly sorry.”
The polite thing would be to shrug off the apology. Not with a laugh, but with a fond little smile, a meaningful tilt of the head to imply bygones were bygones and Ferdinand had thought enough unkind words of his own. His head tilts forward instead, thankfully to the bedding instead of somewhere as mortifying as Lorenz’s shoulder, though he nearly clips one of the riding boots yet again. The apology and accompanying gift can mean only one thing.
“…and then you imagined horses,” Ferdinand says.
“What else? We parted on horseback, and if we shall begin anew, I dare say it is the place to start.”
Ferdinand does not voice the obvious concern with this plan. He allows Lorenz to dress him, then promptly and kindly fires him as valet, for any assistant worth his salt knows to be quick not chatty. As they hike to the stables, Ferdinand braces himself for the upcoming farce. A pony, perhaps one of those stocky Gautier geldings built so low to the ground. A grizzled old mare of an illustrious pedigree and even more glorious career who cannot canter more than ten yards without tumbling into her grave.
Or the protective paranoia will run so strong as to prevent Ferdinand from riding any derelict beast at all. Lorenz will reach down a hand and hoist Ferdinand into the saddle behind him, and they shall reenact the Flight of Falerón without any of the romantic desperation or orchestral accompaniment, trotting a snail’s pace around the paddock fence.
“Excuse me,” Lorenz hisses as one of the stables’ residents reaches out for a nip of Ferdinand’s hair. “My apologies. Claude has me stabling half of the messenger brigade, and their manners leave much to be desired.”
Ferdinand shrugs it off idly, reaching out his knuckles for a warm breath’s investigation. The horse loses interest as soon as no treats are forthcoming, and Ferdinand smothers the embers of hurt in his breast.
“We donated most of my father’s stock to the war effort, of course, but I maintain a full complement of magehorses close at hand. The rest of our stables now house the immaculately bred and imperfectly tempered rejects from the front. I shall not lend you one of those, of course. You would think them asses one and all.”
A donkey, that would certainly suit. Lash it to the back of Lorenz’s magnificent steed and off they will go.
They pass through the stable proper and out into the yard. Lorenz opens the gate and bids Ferdinand wait, then goes to fetch their mounts.
“This is Lizabet, dam to many fine creatures.” Lorenz passes Ferdinand the reins and steps away. “Is that sufficient?”
Ferdinand lays a hand against Lizabet’s sleek, warm coat and croaks out a word of confusion. His throat has gone so dry that every noise is a pinprick of discomfort, like one of Bernadetta’s pincushions in his chest.
“To situate you. I am not certain what you need from me here, my dear. An estimate of her height, a primer of her temperament…whatever it is, I will gladly supply, you need only say the word. But I would rather not insult an equestrian of your stature with my overzealousness to please.”
The best he can do is motion for Lorenz to keep the mare still. She is too well-trained to pay any attention to a new rider, and that casual disregard is all that keeps Ferdinand’s composure intact. He reaches out to familiarize himself with the saddle just in case Leicester has invented some new trickery, then plants his rear foot into the stirrup.
He will not fall. It is as easy as breathing.
Easier, for no shiver of weeping strikes through his lungs. Between exhale and inhale, Ferdinand is up. He takes back the reins, and Lorenz steps away to fetch his own mount.
No grim shadow haunts him to ensure he does not break his neck. He strokes a hand down Lizabet’s mane and whispers apologies for the erratic emotions of man.
“Are you ready?” Lorenz calls as he wheels his chosen mount through his paces.
Ferdinand laughs despite himself. “Of course not. Have you a lead?”
“She’s a horse, Ferdinand, not a lemming to drive off a cliff. Do you need one?”
There’s no forcing a horse to do anything it doesn’t want to. Barring driving her onward to burnout or injury, he has very little control here — no less than he did before. It is only the direction that he cannot discern, but with a partner to keep them from wandering lost, what is there really to risk?
He wheels her around the paddock once, twice, memorizing the precise cadence of her gait matched to the ripple of muscle beneath him. It is no different from footsteps; he need only memorize the sound of his own to know which sounds to disregard. If she moves from sand to stone to pasture, he will hear it. If the turf is too rocky, he will hear it and know to slow.
When Ferdinand pulls up next to Lorenz, Lizabet does not hurdle into the other mount in a grand disaster of flailing limbs. She pulls gently left as Ferdinand loosens the reins, and they come to a stop side by side.
“Ready,” Ferdinand says. He stares off to the distance, away from Lorenz’s kindly eyes, and knows the wind will whip the fool moisture from his cheeks soon enough.
In the evening there is news.
Half of Claude’s spies have returned from the northwest. Precisely half. All eight were taken into Faerghan custody after being picked up by a Brigidian patrol — Ferdinand made them repeat that point three times, certain he could not have heard correctly — and apprised of the situation. Four were released back to the Alliance, while the Adrestian and Faerghan assemblies kept two apiece as witnesses. One of the returning spies also carries an official letter to the Almyran King.
The facts are these. One, King Blaiddyd and Emperor Hresvelg still live. Two, the armies are encamped in a joint defensive wall around the wreckage of Fhirdiad. Refugees wishing to leave are ushered north to Gautier, but otherwise no one is allowed into the city due to risk of looters and profiteering. The joint militaries are engaged in the emergency reconstruction of the city and distribution of supplies, but otherwise have not relaxed their watchful wartime standards. Three, the ongoing peace negotiations have been suspended pending the arrival of external delegations from the Alliance. Four, there is no word of the Church.
Claude makes each spy recount the story in isolation to ensure there are no differences between accounts. There is a core similarity in the description of the peace negotiations and the invitation they bring to the Alliance, but otherwise their experiences differ. The tale is as unbelievable no matter who tells it.
Ferdinand knows immediately what Edelgard is doing. His heart may have whirred to ruin in his chest, trapped at a standstill of disbelief, but his brain still functions. She cannot release the imperial troops without General Bergliez immediately reclaiming them, so they must remain on active duty. Similarly, the King cannot allow foreign troops to run amok no matter how meaningless the occupation, so they too must remain at arms. The only way to defuse the tension is to prevent outside instigators and keep the soldiers at work. Thus the reconstruction, thus the blockade.
“Alright boys, back on the road.” Claude’s joints crack as he performs some sort of stretch.
Lorenz huffs in disregard. He waits until all the spies are safely out of earshot before teasing, “Shall we go alert the Almyran King?”
“Eh. You know how fussy the Alliance gets about Almyrans. Best to handle it ourselves.”
Ferdinand’s unyielding tone cuts off their banter at the knees. He takes a breath. It feels as though his heart has still not resumed its beating. “Route north through Derdriu. Diplomats should arrive bearing gifts.”
“Aren’t you a gift?” Claude asks the same moment Lorenz says, “You’re coming with us.”
His name was not listed on the invitations, nor on the tongues of the spies turned diplomats.
“The Empire is amply represented at the proceedings, I am sure.”
Before Claude can even jest about lashing him to the wyvern, Ferdinand tightens his shoulders and folds his hands atop the pommel of his cane. “The actions of the Emperor will not find approval in her War Minister, who yet holds the southern fortresses. I will remain here in case—“
“That’s bunk and you know it,” Claude cuts him off in turn.
“I will not be a distraction.”
In the silence of his outburst, Ferdinand closes his eyes. He forces his words to stagger onwards. “Amid such confusion and uncertainty, what is needed is direction and uncompromising pressure. If I have set any of these wheels in motion, it has been an honor, yet my work is complete. You have advised me to rest. Will you allow me to pursue that advice?”
Or will they cart him off like a minister’s favorite desk, familiar and excessive.
Lorenz rallies first, all politics stripped from his voice. “But what will you do?”
An honest question. Ferdinand knows all too well that Lorenz refers to his loneliness, his anxious inactivity, his penchant for maudlin misadventure, yet the riposte is too easy to resist.
“Either I am self-sufficient or I am not.” He extends his arms grandly and allows his cane to clatter to the ground. “Make of me what you will.”
Apologies as ever for the wait... Been a rough two and a half years y'all, for Ferdinand and us all ♡
Chapter warnings: the usual internalized ableism & mental health issues
Ferdinand is not alone, per se.
The manor remains fully staffed, and now that Ferdinand knows what to listen for, he can keep tabs on the distant movements of the messengers stabling on the Gloucester grounds. He does not try to intercept one, of course. There would be nowhere to send them.
There is also Leonie. Officially in charge of the central Leicester militias, she bustles through the manor like she wouldn’t be caught dead owning it, issuing commands and grumbling over too-wordy reports. She is happy to run with Ferdinand in the mornings, and to take him out on horseback when the weather suits. Mostly she leaves him be. It is not quite like having a minder, and not quite like having a friend.
He does not tell her how the idleness festers in him. He barely admits it to himself, and as the days pass his words fail him altogether.
No invitation from the Emperor.
No word from Hubert.
Even those closest to him have made it apparent that his work is truly done. They have no further need for him.
So there can be no reason to keep speaking, to trace broken-hearted nostalgia against thigh and palm, to whisper and hum.
He does not even notice when he stops trying.
If this is peace, it is a sickness. A slow death carted from place to place as if any will give him purpose. He can wander the grounds for his fill of false freedom, but he is here because of fondness, not value, and all that belongs to him in all of Fodlan is mere sentiment.
He cannot even fight it. He has nothing left to offer. What good is there in a blade broken, a resource long exhausted—yet he asked for this, did he not? To be kindling for his Emperor’s pyre, never imagining he would live long enough to become the ashes, to still be aware as his cinders are swept into the bin. If the soul remains with the body after death, it must be something like this.
“Are you okay over there?” Leonie calls, breaking through the haze. She left him wheezing on the sparring mats a good…amount of time earlier. Ferdinand is not quite sure how long.
He is horizontal, and very tired, and he has not moved since Leonie flipped him as retribution for his baseless bravado. His Crest backfired on him when his back hit the mat, and the sting of indignity has yet to wane in his rattling ribcage. He made such a boast of competency, and not a week later here he is melting into the floorboards like a wayward miasma.
There’s quiet again for a moment, and then Leonie hazards a continuation. “Because if I broke something—“
“I am perfectly well.”
“You may consider your invalid caretaking sufficiently rendered,” Ferdinand snips. He cannot hear her eyebrows rise, of course, but the moment he hears his own petty tone, he knows anyone would have such a reaction.
“Guess I’ll leave this letter for later then.”
“A letter?” he says. He does not croak those three meager syllables as a bullfrog, certainly not.
Hubert had written Claude a letter, desperate and forbidden. Perhaps he also—
“No fancy signature, but it reeks of roses. It just says ‘Secretary en route. L.’”
Reeks? Overkill for Lorenz, unless it is a front, but either way no one could send a cipher without an agent already in place to translate it. With such a fragile peace brewing, nothing more detailed could be committed to such an insecure channel.
The sender could be anyone, but the Secretary only one. Fleche.
To resume his duties? To dispose of him kindly? To direct him to a new mission? She is Hubert’s creature in the end, not his own. No, not even that—her own creature—and there is so much more to her than the sister she used to play, fixing his hair, his heart, his cravat.
Ferdinand curls his fingers into the sweaty mess of his bangs and tugs until it hurts.
He forces a laugh. “It seems your duty has an end in sight, my friend!”
Leonie doesn’t share his mirth. The parchment rasps against her dry, calloused fingers. Whatever it is she wishes to say, she holds her tongue with far more self-preservation than Ferdinand could rummage up these days.
When her footsteps lead away into a distant nothing, it is a relief.
Ferdinand waits precisely two days, which is how long it would take for an official to travel from Fhirdiad to Gloucester via coordinated long distance chain-warp, and then he throws on a jacket and marches out the front door.
Idleness has its uses, Hubert told him when all this began. Ensure you harvest the hours when they arise.
It was meant as encouragement back then. Ferdinand would envision powerless Vestra children crammed into waiting rooms practicing twirling knives and catching daggers from midair, compared to a young von Aegir kicking his feet and whining of boredom while Father entertained guests. Now, at last, Ferdinand can hear the true implication.
…Else you are only a hound waiting for its master.
Why else would Ferdinand wait, if he did not intend to leap for the next command? The next path to feigned agency, pre-fabricated and well-swept, a woodcut to follow rather than a compass to forge his own heading—how pitiful, when once he vied to be Edelgard’s equal! Now he is not even a bootlicker, for when he begged at her heels she kept marching onward, and he cried in the mud like a child rather than forge out in any direction.
He barely knows his heading now, but he will learn it, Saints be damned. This time when Ferdinand runs from the manor, he takes the cobblestone road towards the market town. He and Leonie have ridden it before, so he knows it is an easy five miles to the first branch out into the surrounding farms and a straight shot on to the town center. His cane only catches between the stones half a dozen times.
“Good day,” Ferdinand says when he passes each traveler.
“No, Your Honor,” he says when they ask if he is lost.
It is not a particularly big market town, though it has a broad thoroughfare for the market itself. Today the stalls are empty save for some children milling about hawking their mudpies for half-pennies. Ferdinand plants himself on the edge of the civic fountain—marble?—and cups his hands to catch a drink.
As a child, Ferdinand often summered at his mother’s ancestral villa down in the lowlands of Rusalka. He still dreams of it sometimes, not the villa itself but sneaking out through its ivy-entwined gates to go explore the abandoned castle next door. It had good bones, once, but had fallen into egregious disrepair after the rebellions of the Southern Church a hundred years before. Something about estate law. Something about hauntings. Ferdinand figured if he looked right fancy, no one could tell him he didn’t belong in a castle, so he scrambled off to investigate whenever he could. He never felt so big and brave as when he was off on his own adventure.
He hasn’t felt big and brave in a long time.
“You our new Lord then?” pipes a little voice at Ferdinand’s side.
Ferdinand tilts his head. “I look it?”
“No,” giggles another child. “Your ears is all burned. Don’t you fancy folk got spells for that?”
“I have a hat for that,” Ferdinand says as he splashes cool water against the admittedly burning hot skin of his ears. He may have left in a hurry. “I usually have a hat for that.”
“My mumma taught me t’make hats!”
“He ain’t got no coin, Gemma.”
“But he’s fancy.”
“Fancy folk don’t carry coin! They’s got words and laws instead.”
“I am not fancy folk,” Ferdinand argues to a chorus of guffaws. “I am merely a guest of Lord Gloucester.”
One of them spits on the ground at the name.
“Pete!” There’s a punch and a squeal. “New Lord G ain’t deserve that.”
“Not yet. But he ain’t never here neither. Suspicious if you ask me.”
There is absolutely no need for Ferdinand to defend Lorenz’s honor to a handful of village children. Which is precisely why he opens his mouth. “As luck would have it, Lord Gloucester himself sent me down to ensure his beloved populace is thriving in his absence.” He sketches a bow. “Have you any complaints, dear citizens?”
Hours later when Ferdinand returns to the manor, a right mess of sweat and dust from the road and wearing a half-rotten straw hat, the staff drag him before Leonie for a proper reprimand.
“It’s the shit I don’t want to do,” she laughs. “A Lord’s work. Leave him to it.”
So they do.
From dawn to dusk, Ferdinand spends his hours out in the countryside doing the rounds of an estate manager. Gloucester lost hers during the previous Lord’s inglorious exit, and anyone with a capable clerical head on their shoulders has been poached by von Riegan’s people. The position has remained unfilled, or at least under-served, for so long that the citizens are as bewildered by a blind man as any other.
Ferdinand goes to the farmers to chase down rents and inquire about repairs, to feel the richness of the soil between his fingers, and to help the children block off an exit as they chase goats back into a pen. He talks taxes with the merchants in town, nods along as they discuss the new northwest trade routes, and grits his teeth at the new protection fees levied upon exports to Bergliez in the south. By the end of the first week the old grandmothers are inviting him to their rustic tea parties, and he’s solved a decade-old border dispute, and everyone greets him and treats him—and it’s the life he’d have had as a noble of Aegir, isn’t it? If politics and his father’s greed hadn’t blotted out his family’s future.
He could’ve had this, proudly, day after day, and instead he’s bored to bitter tears. They spill down his cheeks each evening as he trudges home. If the cobblestone is good for anything more than tripping over, it’s giving him a noisy forewarning of anyone else on the road and time enough to wipe his face.
It’s not enough.
But it’s what Ferdinand can do, what he’s good at. Citizen management does not run naturally in noble lines, he has found, because nobles are too busy with those they fear above them than those they forget below. His father wouldn’t have been half so maligned if he’d bothered pasting a veneer of charity over his egregious larceny.
It is a necessary skill that Ferdinand is well placed to provide, when he isn’t even meant to be alive, when most men like him end up begging on their knees in the streets, and all he can do is whine. How ungrateful!
Maybe this is why even Hubert has turned away at last. He heard too much when Ferdinand was down in the belly of the earth—the screaming, the crying, all those marks of insufficient will and weak character. He’d thought it patriotism driving Ferdinand’s sacrifice, or at least devotion, not the narcissism of a man too proud to face a malingering existence of peace and vague usefulness. Hubert has always been the keenest judge of value, impartial and analytical, so no wonder he has made his distant excuses and left the cleanup to someone else. Efficient to the last.
A proper weapon doesn’t complain when it is put aside.
A proper weapon does not scream its sheathe asunder and sharpen its own edge once more.
Ferdinand has his life, and he has boundless sentiment. He can still play this to his advantage. There must be ample placements in Varley, or among the staff Petra will bring home to train Brigid’s next generation of diplomats. Constance always needs another mouthpiece too, whether for research or politicking—
Glorified trophy husband. That’s what he’s talking about here. But it’s better than the streets, and it’s only a beginning.
He will adapt. He always has.
“The case has no standing,” concludes Lord Carpenter after a thoroughly detailed overview of tedious monotony.
Ferdinand cannot rule on a legal dispute based purely upon his gut instinct that Lord Carpenter is a conniving lout, which is a crying shame. He steels his tone away from overt distaste. “Your concerns are duly noted, good sir.”
"Concerns? Aye, he ought to be more concerned with my boot up his—“
Ferdinand loudly clears his throat over Lord Tenant’s interjection. “They are noted, yet not enough to stay arbitration by the County.”
“What further evidence does his Lordship require?”
“You’ll have all the fucking evidence you need come winter when my roof caves in,” snarls Lord Tenant. “And there’s no repairing a sodden mess of sawdust and shit when the ground’s frozen tight as a Faerghan on ‘is wedding night.”
“Sir. Might we please save the, ah, imaginative invective for your recounting of this tale at the tavern this evening?”
“You see the sort of brutish devilry I am dealing with!” Lord Carpenter speaks with the exact same timbre of disgust that Ferdinand once learned in his own declamation lessons. “And yet this mudmucker claims the intelligence to judge the workmanship of a true artisan!”
“Please Your Lordship, please. It’s true I ain’t much in the way of fine folk, but I’ve got my bairns to think of. Proper Gloucester roses they are, my Goldmarie and Olivia, my sweet Idole. You wouldn’t let them freeze ‘afore their season, would ye?”
Ferdinand shudders at the thought. Thanks be the Goddess, fair or fallen, that the Aegir countryside never developed a fondness for naming children after local apple varieties!
Lord Carpenter slaps his palms against the table. “For the last time, the job’s all done to standard! Either give your ruling or come see the damn thing yourself.”
Lord Tenant sucks in a breath of horror between his teeth.
Ferdinand smiles and reaches out a hand to shake. The moment Lord Carpenter’s sweaty palm touches his, he jerks the man halfway across the table and says, “It would be my honor. Let us adjourn to the scene itself.”
They take three separate carriages to prevent any illusion of favoritism, and to prevent Ferdinand’s nerves from fraying further. The tenant’s three-room dwelling is a half hour’s ride outside town, far enough to prevent neighbors from peeking at shoddy craftsmanship. Ferdinand asks Lord Tenant to remove his wife and children from the home so that they do not influence the inspection, though he can hear the shuffling of little ones peering in through doorways as Lord Carpenter gives his tour of the repairs.
“Here’s the one,” Lord Tenant says when they step into the third room.
Ferdinand’s cane keeps knocking into soft piles of fabric, so it’s likely the sleeping quarters. He takes a stance of immense consideration and gazes off at the ceiling. From the initial briefing, he knows the damage came from a rotten out crawlspace and failing beams.
“It required significant repair,” explains Lord Carpenter. “I replaced the original structure, packed it in with standard insulation, and provided a fresh plaster to bring the dwelling out of the eighth century and into the modern day.”
Before they can start bickering again, Ferdinand raises a hand. “As a baseline, could I have both of you confirm the visual state of the plaster ceiling?”
“Dry, white, and tidy. Better than he paid for.”
Lord Tenant is quiet for a moment, weighing his options, then glumly agrees. “Aye. Looks alright, I guess.”
“But it only looks fine. He ain’t actually fixed a thing, just painted it all nice, like—like tits on an Emperor, yeah?”
Ferdinand chokes on his tongue and barks up his lungs in short order. He braces a hand against the wall, tucks his cane into the curve of his elbow, and wipes a handkerchief over his leaking eyes as he laughs and laughs. Is that truly the idiom for a hog in armor these days? It isn’t wrong by any means, but, ah, potentially treasonous for him to react with such force.
“Where does it look nicest?” Ferdinand finally manages.
Lord Tenant’s confusion is audible as he answers, “Bout three steps to your right.”
Ferdinand shuffles over and peers up most studiously.
“I assure you it is among the grandest work of my professional career,” says Lord Carpenter, beginning to lose his nerve in the face of Ferdinand’s fixation. Surely he anticipated a tidy pay-off to move on to swindling another County, or at least a stuck-up administrator who preferred men of a certain class, not a madman possessed of the strangest fancy for due diligence.
With a twirl of his cane skyward, Ferdinand prods gently at the ceiling plaster. Once, to hear the stiff peaks crunch, then twice more. He lowers his cane and waits silently.
The drip, drip, drip of water is unmistakable. Ferdinand nods to Lord Tenant in tacit approval of his suit, and heads for the door without another word.
“A simple repair,” grits out Lord Carpenter. “Must’ve sold me half-rate materiaaAIIIEEEE!“
The whole sky rains down in a mess of plaster dust and soggy shit. Ferdinand bars the doorway with his cane to keep the whooping children from rushing into the fray, but cannot keep a certain strain of smug self-righteousness from his lips. Now and then perhaps some people truly do get what they deserve.
He slips out before the family can surround him with their vicious thanks and sets off down the road to the manor. This evening he’ll summon a notary to finalize the adjudication, but only after he ponders the exact margins of further embarrassment and compensation that the County will demand of such a shameless crook. There must be a way to prevent Lord Carpenter from taking his lies up north to the Faerghan reconstruction, where need is surely too great to allow for punctilious investigations of each workman, and it will take a bit of thought and legal finagling. He is not a perfect expert in the Alliance’s territory-first legal code, but he will find a way.
It is a productive walk back. There is breeze enough to whisk away any remnants of plaster dust from his jacket, and he trades an inkpot for a pint of fresh strawberries from one of the farm stands along the road. A woman tucks a freshly plucked flower behind his ear to cover up those terrible greys that age him so.
Ferdinand counts his steps rather than consider the woman’s comment. It’s a different number of strides between the town gate and the manor steps every time. He must be slipping.
He pops a lush strawberry into his mouth and tries to remember the color red.
A half mile out from the manor, a panting servant rushes to meet Ferdinand’s lazy stroll.
“Sir!” His feet stomp in unison for what is likely a salute.
Ferdinand nods and plucks up another berry. “Speak freely.”
“An envoy from the Adrestians, sir!”
He freezes like a rabbit, his heart bolting onward into a run even as his body goes rigid. A sweet stream of berry dribbles down his fingers where they’ve crushed it in shock.
The servant misinterprets him entirely. “Just an envoy! Sir! Not troops! Err, there is a minor troop accompaniment, but it resembles an envoy in truth, not a trap! We are well trained in identifying duplicity here in the Alliance! Sir!”
It’s Fleche. It has to be. A minor troop accompaniment as befits a member of House Bergliez, but no other honor guard as would accompany a higher position in government. Maybe that’s why it took three whole weeks for anyone to arrive.
His feet lurch forward into an awkward gallop of a gait, his cane picking uselessly at the cobblestones like a hen in frantic search for seed.
“Captain Pinelli says international diplomacy is out of her jurisdiction and refers to you on this matter,” says the servant all in one breath. He sucks in a huge one before finishing, “Sir!”
“For the last time I am no Sir!” Ferdinand laughs the words, breathless, even as it feels like he is breathing again for the first time in months.
Collar folded neatly, check. Handkerchief in his pocket for unbidden tears, check. Basket of strawberries as a reunion gift—did she enjoy strawberries? Think, Ferdinand, think!
He means to return to a calm, measured walk as they near the commotion out front on the manor’s lawn, but his feet carry him all the way to the carriages in giddy rebellion.
“Fleche?” he calls. He spins, his cane flaying a circle into the overgrown lawn. “Fleche!”
There is no sound of an approach. All he hears are the horses, a crowd of whispers, his own breathing.
And a quiet voice of calcified apathy just behind him.
“I am sorry to disappoint.”
Ferdinand drops his cane. “Hubert?” he says, voice smaller than a whisper. He cannot be sure he spoke at all with his heart swollen so large. He reaches out unbidden, and something brushes lightly, tentatively, at the underside of his sleeve. “Ridiculous. You would not come for me.”
The feeling disappears immediately.
“No,” sneers Hubert with a derision so deep they ought to be swimming in it. “I would not.”
Everyone is watching. Everyone knows who Ferdinand is, and he does not even know their number, let alone their names. He has stepped off the ledge and back into the deluge, his ears pounding with a static numbness, and he can scarcely imagine what his face is doing, or why Hubert is doing this to him.
But he is no dog, no matter how sharp the kick.
“Welcome to Gloucester,” Ferdinand calls to the envoy as a whole. Pleasantries can cover such unease. Be a perfect host. “Please be at ease. Water your horses and the staff will bring some refreshments. I am certain we can resolve your business shortly and have you on your way.”
Hubert’s boots creak in the grass. New leather. “It won’t take long at all. Simply board the carriage and we will be off.”
“Must I spell it out for you? You are the business.”
The strangest part about it all, Ferdinand realizes at a far and rational distance from the rage sparking in his chest, is that he has no doubts as to Hubert’s identity. He should be suspicious in spades enough to dig two graves, considering he so recently came from a land of imposters and malice, but nothing is wrong.
It is only Ferdinand’s heart that hoped the world a different place.
“I am not an armoire to be moved between estates at your will,” Ferdinand laughs humorlessly and crouches to retrieve his cane. He reaches for where it should have landed, but nothing is there.
The hair rises on the back of his neck. Hubert must have taken it, must be inspecting it for Influences and Sedition. For the Almyran metalwork banding the pommel.
Ferdinand stands very carefully and does not tell him about the dagger hidden within.
“If you were, you’d know your place instead of lollygagging around Gloucester for months. Have you truly enjoyed playing hayseed lordling so much?”
A hand reaches out to tease away the flower still tucked behind Ferdinand’s ear, and he slaps it away. The sting of it reminds him of his own body, grounds him in the furious tremble in his arms.
“This is where you left me.” Ferdinand forces out the words in a smooth, measured voice, one that is too quiet for anyone else to hear. “And if you mock me once more for bearing it, I will—”
What, cry? Lunge for his spindly knees?
Thankfully and utterly thanklessly, Hubert cuts in. “Get in the carriage, von Aegir. We will have our words away from the ears of men.”
“Away from the ears of men?” Ferdinand’s shrill pitch arcs through the air and draws the attention of the entire manor grounds. “Yes, that is how you prefer your secrets, locked away festering until you deign to deal with them. Woe be to any poor bastard that asks a Vestra to have done in the open.”
He stalks forward to where he last heard Hubert’s voice, and with luck, the man’s body still haunts the spot. He reaches out and catches a fistful of Hubert’s attire, then uses it to brace the man in place while he searches for his cane. The moment his fingers touch polished wood, he grips it tight and pushes Hubert away with all his strength.
“There is no ‘away from the ears of men’ for me, you craven bastard. You heard me break. You heard everything, every last piece of me screaming on the pyre, and you will do me the goddamned courtesy of not feigning care for an honor I no longer possess. I have earned that much.”
A halting step forward. “That wasn’t—“
“You forget I know your games. I played them. I wrote them. And I will not be collected like a lost little chess piece now that it has come time to fold up the board.”
Hubert’s voice cracks so softly. “Ferdinand…”
His thumb tightens on the latch of the knife. If Hubert warps to take him, it will be with a blade in his gut. He won’t die from such a scratch, of course, but the one thing Ferdinand can still wound is a reputation. His free hand grips halfway down his cane as he braces into a defensive lancer’s stance.
“So make your case, von Vestra. And I will decide whose little decorative lordling I will be.”
There is a long moment of silence. Even their audience has stopped chattering, or perhaps retreated in fear of sudden miasmic incursions.
Then comes the crackle of folded paper. Hubert does not even argue with his own words; he gives stiff voice to another’s. “Her Highness Emperor Edelgard von Hresvelg, Last of Her Name, requests the urgent presence of the duly appointed Adrestian Prime Minister Ferdinand von Aegir at the Fhirdiad Peace Summit of 1186. It has come to her attention that previous attempts at contact have been mislaid. Though proceedings have commenced auspiciously, Her Highness has invoked constitutional refusal of any ratification of the agreement prior to its thorough review by the Prime Minister. To proceed without him would mean dire—“
Ferdinand’s bitter bark of laughter cuts through the drone. “Masterfully done. I have only lately convinced myself to stop valuing your opinion of me, and here you come to rub my nose in it.”
Hubert folds away the paper once more. “I shall transmit your refusal. Gloucester will be compensated for our intrusion. Good day.”
And absolutely mystifyingly, Hubert’s footsteps begin to lead away.
Ferdinand follows him back to the carriages. “Now hold on a moment. That is not what I said.”
“You have made your intentions quite clear.”
“And yours are behind three locked doors, a cipher, and a riddle you stashed in someone’s liver eight months prior.”
Prime Minister? Prime Minister. A joke. He is not laughing. The world spins.
“What did you mean by previous attempts at contact?” Ferdinand continues gamely. “All the Alliance invitations came through.”
Unless Claude disposed of Ferdinand’s, but he wouldn’t do that. Surely not. Right?
“It doesn’t matter now,” Hubert says under his breath.
Now that Ferdinand’s really listening for it, and with the surrounding caravan providing some grounding insulation, he can hear how unsteady Hubert’s breathing is on the whole.
Ferdinand presses, “It might be important.”
One of the carriages creaks as something leans against it. “If you are happy enough here to reject the chief office of our nation, then I doubt it will sway you.”
“I am not.”
“Swayed?” Hubert laughs humorlessly.
Ferdinand frowns and looks away, lifting his head toward the sun like a lost sapling chocked of light. “…Happy.”
Hubert says nothing at all.
“Well,” Ferdinand continues at last. Of all the reunions he planned in his head, none were as incomprehensibly brittle as this. He needs a moment to think. “Stable here for the evening and set out again come morning. I cannot run you out so quickly without earning the place a poor reputation for hospitality. And I dare say I owe you thanks for my life one way or another.”
“We can’t, and you don’t.”
The former clipped, sterile tone has returned to Hubert’s voice. Now he raises the volume for the yard at large. “We ride for Daphnel in thirty minutes.”
“How about three?” Leonie suggests none too kindly as she jogs up to them on…six feet?
Something snuffles at Ferdinand’s boots.
“It ate a goldfish and fertilized the rose bushes,” Leonie continues before anyone can ask, “So you should probably Go. Plus I’m technically on guard here, so it reflects badly, you know? Now everyone will want to fry up a goldfish.”
It takes Ferdinand a moment to recognize the moist smell wafting up from the creature. He frowns at Leonie in blank confusion. “Why are you trying to give the Adrestians a dog?”
She snorts. “It came with your friend the bog body. And it’s leaving with him, too.”
There’s a shuffle and the bright chiming of a bell, and then she jogs right off again. The canine whines without her, and someone makes a soft calming noise too tender to be Hubert.
Ferdinand’s frown deepens as he turns back to Hubert. “Why did you bring a—”
The air ripples with magic as if Hubert means to warp, then fizzles back to normal when the dog starts to cry. The bell rings—on a collar?—and the carriage groans and there is too much movement, Hubert will swallow his mysteries like cyanide rather than ever share them, and Ferdinand quickly braces his right hand against the wood paneling of the carriage to close off one route of escape. He shuffles his feet but can’t move fast enough for fear of treading upon the squirming beast, and in a panic, he whips his cane into the air and swings it around from the left until he has Hubert pinned in against the carriage.
The dog, bless its timing, begins to yap at the top of its lungs.
“Hubert,” he tries again, softer this time, kinder. The war has taken so much from them all. He knows only his own pain, while Hubert knows it all. “Please speak to me true. What is it that I do not deserve to know?”
“You know enough.”
“Yes. I do.”
Ferdinand gives him precisely twenty heartbeats to say more, but the man is too stubborn. So be it. “Captain Pinelli?” he calls loudly. “We may need to retain them for questioning after all.”
“Are you arranging an international incident when we stand on the precipice of continental peace simply to interrogate me about my feelings?” Hubert hisses.
“I very well might!”
This close, Ferdinand can feel the tremble of Hubert’s body against the carriage. With at least half a foot between them, Hubert’s fever is equally palpable.
The bell chimes as Hubert abruptly ducks beneath the cane and stalks away. “The gardens. Now.”
It feels almost like a compliment that he trusts Ferdinand to find his own way there.
It isn’t pettiness that leads Ferdinand to dawdle a good twenty minutes before swinging back to the Gloucester gardens. Really and truly. He still has a duty to the County and the manor staff in particular, and the Adrestian guard have been left off-kilter by the, ah, deeply unprofessional incident on the front lawn. Ferdinand smooths some feathers back into place and has an abbreviated tea service sent out to the gardens ahead of him. He washes his face, replaces his sweat-stained cravat, and tries very hard not to let his thoughts spiral into a whirlwind or riptide.
A powerful urge to lock himself in his quarters accosts him anyway. He could throw his words at Hubert from afar, force him to listen instead of only to hear, and then march down for a singular answer. He would not have to strain for every iota of Hubert’s muted reactions that way, not have any half-rotten carcass to pick through for pearls.
But he keeps reaching for the flower behind his ear, knowing that Hubert has touched it, knowing that Hubert is here, he is real.
The gardens are composed not for a meandering stroll through bountiful beauty, but for a singularly exquisite expanse from the vantage point of one particular marble bench carved in high relief. It makes Hubert easy to find since there is only one place to sit.
That is the only part that is easy.
Ferdinand’s heart thrums madly in his throat when he sits down aside him. He hears too much breathing: his own, Hubert’s too-brittle rasps, and the strange wheeze of what must be the hound curled up somewhere nearby. He doesn’t know where to begin except the beginning, where something went terribly wrong, as if they know each other’s bones but have forgotten the shapes they make.
“When I said you did not come for me,” Ferdinand begins carefully, with the dread of a student arguing a teacher’s error. “I did not mean Shambhala. I would have wrung your fool neck if you had shown yourself in the viper pit.”
All he gets for his trouble is a huff of acknowledgment. Or amusement, perhaps?
His stomach swoops. Why is it so hard to tell?
He clarifies, “I meant Gloucester.”
“Yes, how dare we leave you to languish in safety.” Hubert’s tone is too angry and cold for this world of warm sunshine and roses. There is a despair in it that Ferdinand has not heard since…well, since last they spoke face to face.
Was it selfishness to need more than that? They’d still been fighting a war, or at least cleaning up two of them, and maybe they’d done all they could for him. And there he sat amid carefully calculated plenty, complaining of a lack of attention. A noble child fostered out for a memorable summer adventure while a thousand others starved.
But he’d needed more all the same.
“Yes,” Ferdinand echoes meekly.
His hands want to fiddle with his cane, but he fears striking the pup unawares. He pulls it in close against his body, tucked between his knees and resting against his slumped shoulder, hands clasped over it in his lap, just as he used to sit and catch his breath with a lance after a training match.
There is a clink of glass, and the hollow pop of a bottle uncorked. A shallow hiss of pain a moment later. Ferdinand tries to shape these esoteric clues into sense but cannot distinguish a framework beyond the notion that Hubert, too, needs something to do with his hands. They are too civilized to let them grapple and clutch for sense. For each other.
“Are you here to collect the refuse and tie up loose ends?” Ferdinand tries again, but the hurt is too plain in his voice. He swallows. “Claude offered me refuge, by the way. Feel free to gut me as a turncoat at any time.”
Ferdinand frowns. “I am joking, Hubert. Are you quite well?”
“Do you prefer Derdriu?”
“I am not voicing a preference.”
“Simply tell me what sky will suit you, and I will take you there.”
He doesn’t sound like Hubert at all. He sounds like some servant in a manuscript so stale even the pages are falling apart, or a historical after-image. He could be saying the words to anyone.
So just as any noble does when faced with the undesirable, Ferdinand changes the subject. “Why is there a dog?”
That is the typical arrangement of farm dogs when there is no livestock to defend, of course. They congregate near the stables if there is not a proper kennel, since people and activity congregate there as well.
They are not typically taken on tour.
“Some of us,” Hubert says at length. “Are not half so clever as we believe.”
Ferdinand turns to face him in full, frowning at the cryptic defeat pouring from Hubert’s lips. “What has happened that is so horrid you will not cut to the heart and speak it? Surely Edelgard—”
“She remains stalwart as ever.”
“Then, the peace talks, has Adrestia—”
“Ongoing, the both.”
“Then speak plain!”
“What would you have me say?” Hubert snarls, suddenly crowding into Ferdinand’s space. The plaster breaks and the torrent rushes through. “That I sold you and listened as they made you scream for sport? That I have gleefully wrought worse evils than my father, whose throat I carved open for crimes of duress? Should I beg on my knees for every bone broken, every time they spit upon you and ground crickets for your meals, as you sit here and tell me it was duty?”
This close, Ferdinand can breathe deep of him, let it settle memories he feared lost by malady and madness. But there is no ozone, no dark roast and arsenic. Today he is only a man of sweat and blood.
Hubert laughs, high and reedy. “You knew I would not come for you, and you were right.”
Too much blood. Too fresh. Distracted from this maudlin show of shadows, Ferdinand reaches out carefully to trail a hand from Hubert’s shoulder to neck. He means to touch the skin beneath his collar, to feel his pulse, his feverish terror, but there is only the soaked linen of bandages leading all the way to Hubert’s hairline. They leave his fingers sticky and stained.
Hubert is not fit for the field. For travel. For enemy eyes.
That is why he wanted Ferdinand in the carriage posthaste.
Ferdinand leaves his hand where it is, stroking softly and hoping Hubert can feel it, however distant.
“It was Fhirdiad or Shambhala. I made my choice.”
“You won a war,” Ferdinand corrects. He doesn’t care to think about Hubert agonizing over this, actually. He doesn’t much want to think at all. Fatigue pulls him down with a sudden weight.
“I left you to rot.”
Tears leap to Ferdinand’s eyes, and smiling them away does little good. Of course. Here he is agonizing over devising a meaningful afterlife, when all Hubert sees is his ghost. Of course Hubert would want him as far away as possible. “Do you truly only see the bones of me?”
He’s hale enough, isn’t he? After everything? He has managed thus far. Maybe not up to expectation or capacity, but he runs and he rides and he throws Leonie to the mats four times out of nine, and he may take care not to touch his own scars, but surely someone would tell him if the visible damage were…troubling.
Still it pains Hubert to be in his presence.
Still Hubert does not pull away.
“Does painting a smile over the sutures make it any better?” Hubert asks at length, his whisper as pointed as the saws they once heard grinding into Ferdinand’s bone.
He takes a deep breath to rid himself of that familiar shiver. “You forget I made my own choice.”
“Between service and obsolescence. All I had to do was offer the proper carrot, and you—”
Ferdinand shuts his eyes tight and whispers, “Say you will allow it. Say you will stay.”
Hubert goes unearthly still.
“You gave me every option you could. Until there were only two left: love or a death too miserable for words. I made my choice as well.”
“…Misery. Or me.”
Ferdinand finally moves his fingers, awkwardly tracking Hubert’s own blood to the man’s lips to determine if they shape a frown or a smile. He can’t tell. “Miserable you,” he confirms. “Miserable every man that loves a soldier true.”
At last, Hubert reaches up to grasp Ferdinand’s hand and pull it down to his knee. He turns it over, palm up, and asks, “Would you choose it again?”
“Misery. Prime Minister is a thankless job, without glory or approval. All it will earn you is the unending hatred of the thankless masses you serve. But I know no other man who could bear it.” Hubert catches himself, then bows his head in apology so low that his bangs brush Ferdinand’s cheek. “Not that you…should. Not that we have the right to ask.”
Not this again. “Noblesse oblige. You’ve every right to assign positions as you will. But so have I the right to remind you it is born of pity. There are far better tools for the job.”
Hubert’s next words come painfully slow.
“And if it requires a…weapon? Keen to cleave a path forward, but careful in equal measure. Tempered and trustworthy beyond words.”
He is trying so painfully hard, but diplomat he is not. Ferdinand shakes his head and teases sadly, “Are you not the master of such bloody paths?”
“A new leaf?” Ferdinand reaches to brush Hubert’s hair back behind his ear. “Or have you been forced into retirement for working seventy years in the span of five?”
Abruptly, Hubert stands and paces away. The dog tumbles to the bench, displaced from Hubert’s lap, and wails at the sudden abandonment until Ferdinand reaches out a tentative hand to stroke down its back. It is only a young thing, much smaller than he thought from the shuffling of its oversized paws, and its teeth are sharp as needles when it nips him for the affront of touching its rump.
“I am not here for impossible apologies,” Hubert announces from halfway across the garden.
His tone is tightly polished again, if strangely fraught. Ferdinand’s heart aches at the thought he has retreated to a servant’s traditional distance.
Ferdinand is awfully tired of voicing this reminder as well. “And I am no Lord.”
“Nor I. There is no place for men like me in a world of peace.” His cadence stumbles, but he forces out the words. “I have been discharged from Her Majesty’s service.”
“As a final boon, I have been granted the mission of bringing you back to the fray. I am loath to fail her again.”
Shaken, the only words Ferdinand can find are the wrong ones. “You have never failed her, Hubert.”
And Hubert erupts into a laughter so sharp it must carve him apart from the inside.
It broke him, Ferdinand realizes with dawning horror. Whatever Hubert heard. Whatever those final days of war scoured upon his skin. The weight of lives, and years, and that unholy light that sang panic into his veins and never quite faded. Edelgard must see it too, else she would never leave him like this, a lost and wounded creature snarling at any who tries to nudge his shattered parts back into the shape of a man.
Only once Hubert’s voice peters out to shaky breaths does Ferdinand try another angle.
“You will forgive me for speaking of her when it is not my right. But I can and will tell you to the end of time that you have never failed me.”
“Then sing, gadfly,” Hubert spits, and Ferdinand’s blood runs cold.
And yet the sudden chill clears the fog of emotion that has smothered him since returning to the manor. A timeline slowly clicks into place.
When Ferdinand awoke in Gloucester, there was a blockade to the north. No contact, no word to anyone, no secret messages or spy games. Not even any instructions to Claude about negotiating the investigation of Shambhala’s ruins. By the time the conference invitations arrived, Ferdinand had almost entirely given up on reaching out over the sigil.
Then, exactly six days after Claude and Lorenz set out for Fhirdiad, the rose-scented letter arrived. Three days’ flight to the Kingdom’s capital, a minute of hasty writing, and a messenger’s three day’s flight back. Suddenly they had remembered Ferdinand’s existence.
Or learned of. Because Claude was there to tell them.
Because no one else knew of Hubert’s treasonous letter calling for the Alliance attack on Shambhala. No one else knew Ferdinand could have possibly survived. And if Hubert told them, if Hubert could, no one would have believed him anyway.
And then Ferdinand stopped saying anything at all.
Tears drip from his eyes as if that is all they remain for, deep wells of sorrow fit to break their banks at last. “Forgive me,” he whispers. “You did not fail me. My words did. I had nothing left for anyone, not even myself, and I…”
The pup cranes to lick the sudden salt from his cheeks, and in an instant Hubert is crouched by his feet, trying to wrangle it away amid Ferdinand’s choked laughter.
“Have you ever lost your words?” Ferdinand asks as their hands brush. He wraps his arms around the dog’s behind to give it better leverage as it dutifully cleans his face, better than any handkerchief.
“Haven’t you too many of them packed into that skull to ever run out?”
“I thought I had. But here under the sun, I never want pleasant conversation. I only want you.”
It seems Hubert can’t find any words for that.
At length, Ferdinand cannot help but add, “There is one other thing I desire.”
“I want to know why you have brought a dog to Gloucester. I will not ask again, Hubert.” He slips his hands beneath the pup’s forelegs and holds it out squirming, but pulls it back to his chest when Hubert tries to tug it away.
With an aggrieved sigh that rattles a bit too deep, Hubert eases himself back onto the bench aside Ferdinand. His voice is not muffled, but oddly indirect, as if he cannot even face him as he speaks. “There is a farmer in western Aegir who raises them.”
“I dare say more than one farmer.” Ferdinand gets a shove of Hubert’s elbow for his trouble. It is the most honest emotion Hubert has shown thus far.
“There’s a certain trade. Merchants, mostly. A famous apothecary in Nuvelle.”
“A trade in dog parts?”
“Will you let me tell it or not?” Hubert snaps sourly. “Of course not. The farmer raises them up to assist the blind, not fatten a stew. I thought perhaps…it doesn’t matter now.”
Ferdinand thinks of the strange cruelty of Hubert taking his cane, and wonders if it was consternation instead, that Claude had taken the wind from his haggard sails. “It matters,” he says.
Hubert shrinks away from him on the bench, imperceptible if he were not the full total of Ferdinand’s awareness at the moment. “I am not proud of what I asked of you during our game, and your absolution will not make it so. Whatever you chose from here, I merely thought to ensure your independence. I will not see you beholden to another man’s expectations again.”
“So you brought me a puppy.” A summary is all Ferdinand can manage; this sort of behavior from Hubert boggles the mind.
“You needn’t accept her.”
“She is awfully soft,” Ferdinand argues nonsensically as a reason to keep her. He takes a whiff of puppy in place of smelling salts and quickly regrets it. “But I must admit I do not quite understand the way of it.”
“Not every hound is fit for the work. I have corresponded with the breeder for a few years now, and he says this little one is the most promising of the decade. But the training will still take—”
Hubert wrote to the farmer for years. While Ferdinand steeled himself for an agonizing death, Hubert allowed himself this one small plan for a different future. Because every future he imagined had Ferdinand in it, thriving.
This future still has Ferdinand in it.
He’s crying again, and his heart feels so light, and Hubert’s warm, battered hands are on his cheeks.
“We ride for Fhirdiad,” he announces.
They ride for Fhirdiad in the morning, to be precise, as Ferdinand fears he will arrive at the conference with little more than bandages in the shape of a man if he pushes Hubert too quickly. All evening he gabs Hubert’s ear off with tales of Derdriu and Gloucester and the Alliance’s vibrant milieu, while Hubert sits there picking at tea cakes in cowed disbelief. Every two hours Hubert pushes himself to his feet to take the pup outdoors, and in the evening, Ferdinand lies in his bed and wonders if she is warming the empty space in Hubert’s arms.
Their dawn departure is delayed by two hours when Ferdinand suddenly recalls his need for a notary and legal specialist, then another ten minutes that Leonie spends laughing her head, shoulders, and ass clear off her body before signing a civil exile order. The convoy makes a quick stop over in Gloucester’s market town, throws their new Imperial Master of Modern Plaster on the back of a horse, and then they are finally on their way.
The moment the doors of the carriage click shut, Hubert sags against the window like a scarecrow gutted by the season’s seventh storm. His breathing rattles in his chest, and he pops the cork off what Ferdinand now knows is one of the costly elixirs keeping him vaguely upright for the duration of this trip.
Ferdinand doesn’t ask any further than that. Pressing will only tip Hubert closer to the edge of collapse; truths are the greatest strain upon his malingering mortal form. Far better to get Edelgard alone and request a full account of all he has missed.
“I assume you brought a draft of the accords for me to review en route,” Ferdinand says.
At once there is the click of some secret lock, as if this is an espionage-equipped carriage with panels for stashing secret documentation all over the place. A tea set here, syringes of poison there, the occasional ten-pack of clean white gloves. Dog treats, even. Ferdinand rubs a hand over his face to obscure his smile.
Hubert leafs through a sheaf of paper that thuds against his knee like a brick. “Of course. The Deputy Minister has graciously provided a fully annotated collection of her notes from the conference’s entirety as well.”
Ferdinand almost asks for clarification, but if Hubert is about to tell him Fleche penned six hundred pages in duplicate, he will not achieve anything today at all owing to the heartache.
“Do you wish to begin with the draft or the discussion?”
“I would prefer to begin with a plan of action.” The curtains of the carriage are drawn shut, which prevents Ferdinand from pursuing his aptitude for dramatic looks towards the hallowed sun. It leaves them instead in a quiet, comfortable darkness, where it is so much easier to be…honest.
Ferdinand is not half the man he was a year earlier. Pretending otherwise will not make it true.
“Though I have conceded to return with you to Fhirdiad, I will need to discuss the mantle of Prime Minister with Edelgard. I am simply unsuited to it in the long-term. I am, however, happy to return to my previous duties in whatever capacity proves fruitful to forging a lasting peace. The work cannot wait for you to parse through your numerous other candidates. However, as matters begin to settle down the line, we will inevitably unearth applicants more astute than I, and I do not intend to make any fuss. There is no need to step down if I never step up, you see, and there will be no challenge to the regime’s competency as long as Edelgard does not put forth such a foolish nomination. We will forget it ever happened. Why, you have already disposed of the note, have you not? And so we may all temper our expectations accordingly.”
Hubert stalls too long for acquiescence to Ferdinand’s logic, and he braces himself for attack.
“The nomination has been made rather public,” Hubert says. “Considering that Her Highness announced it before the assembled dignitaries of six nations.”
“We do not even have that many nations on the continent! Damn it all, what was she thinking?”
“That there is a singular individual fit for the job.”
Ferdinand flicks his wrist in dismissal. “Sentiment, that is all. Had you each a third hand you could have answered your letters on your own.”
“Yes. Surely paranoid warmongers of our nature would have turned to penning encrypted poetry in our spare time, rather than selecting an additional axe and dagger apiece.” The words slide out of Hubert’s mouth like his usual snide commentary, but there is an abrupt edge of anger that he has not even tried to hide.
Before Ferdinand can craft a riposte, Hubert begins to shuffle through the paperwork once more. “The Deputy Minister wrote something in expectation of your…there we are. Self-effacing levels of humility, she says, the likes of which I refuse to hear again.”
“I have convinced you back into the fray for Her Highness,” Hubert explains. “I now have the length of this trip to convince you of your astute grasp of diplomacy, your humanitarian acumen, and your deft manipulation of competing narratives, lest a hundred-pound waif string me up by my intestines from the gates of Fhirdiad.”
Ferdinand gapes at him.
“Page one of two hundred and seventeen, quote: I will send you no niceties, for you left me none, but the Work calls.”
“Stop it this instant. She is only a girl, Hubert. You will not play on my heartstrings like this—“
Hubert laughs derisively. “Deputy Minister Fleche von Adrestia manages half the government and twists Count Bergliez into knots for sport.”
“I left her to be Edelgard’s secretary! Organization and penmanship!”
“The Work calls.” He runs his thumb over the edge of the packet, letting Ferdinand hear just how many pages there are as they ripple one by one. “She answered.”
Ferdinand sinks back into the padded seat with a dreadful creak. “I am answering. But I can only do what I am capable.”
“When I left Fhirdiad, Lady Edelgard was happily sitting down to brunch with Bishop Martritz and some backwater saint from the Western Church. Tell me again what you are capable of. I know your measure.”
He sucks in a breath and lets it go in heartfelt prayer. Mercedes survived. His letters did not destroy her after all.
That is all that truly matters here.
“Page fourteen of two hundred and seventeen, a reckoning of—“
Hubert obeys. Every half minute there is the crinkle of paper as he continues reading through Fleche’s packet.
The hound huffs in her sleep at Ferdinand’s feet. There are so many expectations upon such a little creature. He tries to think of Fleche, or Bernadetta and Edelgard as children, and wonders how their small shoulders ever carried the weight.
“Has it occurred to you,” Ferdinand begins in his most conversational tone. He fervidly ignores that his voice cracks almost immediately. “That it is my own expectations I wish to temper? You of all people know what an odious child I was. I have spent my entire life anticipating either the world on a platter or my neck upon the block, so for pity’s sake, allow me to build small certainties where I may.”
“You have only to ask them,” Hubert says in a way that promises to build small cities for Ferdinand instead.
“I cannot keep doing this.” Ferdinand gestures expansively to the carriage to make his point.
It does not land.
“If you prefer a warp circuit—“
“No, no. I have not the slightest complaint of travel accommodations if it is in service to the state. But I cannot be bounced from place to place like I am naught but your field desk, stalwartly devoid of self-industry.”
“I will see to it that nothing ever restrains you.” Hubert’s sudden viciousness is at odds with the quiet ease of the shadows.
Gently, Ferdinand knocks a knee against his. “I am not troubled by restrictions. It is more that, well. I am Ferdinand of Nowhere, you see.”
“A title, then.”
“You are not following me whatsoever.”
Ferdinand takes out his handkerchief so he has something to twist and rend between his hands. Considering Hubert has been cast out from imperial service—momentarily, if Ferdinand has anything to say about it—the words may be cruel. But he can think of no better way to explain.
“You live life on the wing, Hubert. Ever since you were a fledgling yourself, you have had Edelgard as your purpose. Your compass. It does not matter a bit what else the world throws at you, because you are hardwired to return to your imperial falconer. I, too, was trained for such a life in my own way. Family, county, government. An abundance of unearned roosts. Now I have nothing. There is nowhere to land so it does not matter how ably I fly.”
He swallows hard and gazes down at his hands as they slowly rip the silk in two. “And…I have no perch to share with you, that you may rest upon. There is only chasing you aflight or pilfering the space aside you. And then it is only sentiment. I cannot live on that alone.”
“Only sentiment,” Hubert repeats in disbelief.
It is not Ferdinand’s fault that he is not quite so adept at aviary metaphors as Hubert.
“I need something of my own. Something luck cannot take from me this time. Love and loyalty are not the same as certainty.”
“And that will make you happy?”
Ferdinand manages not to laugh. Give him all of Aegir and it will not make him happy, will not stitch him back into a fabric that suits instead of smothers.
“I thought perhaps to ask Bernadetta if there is room in Varley. She will want to replace all of her father’s administrators before resuming the seat…if she wishes to resume it, that is. Or fundraising for the Opera, or…well, there are always clever ladies in need of a husband to chase off useless suitors and leave them to their own ambitions. I am happy enough to play the husband, should Edelgard think of a match! You will vouch for my acting skills, of course.”
“Are you mad?” Hubert’s pitch climes to its shrillest point and breaks over the edge. “You ask to be partnered off like breeding stock, to coddle one of Her Highness’s protégés through her first season in the senate, rather than—“
“I ask for security.”
“You will ask for nothing. Arundel’s head alone was worth the entire imperial treasury. Do you think there is no pension set aside for your service? Or is it sentiment that pays our staff and troops!”
Of course they should be paid for their work. But Ferdinand cannot be. He simply cannot. Not when the last Aegir on the block had five stone of gold coin weighing down his pockets to make the noose’s work all the easier.
Hubert breathes out sharply through his nose, then says with utmost grace, “It will be no trouble to outfit and manage a house for you.”
“In which case it is still not mine!”
“You are the Prime Minister, Ferdinand. What two-penny dreadful rot have you been imbibing to convince you of this absurdity?”
Ours! Ferdinand does not scream back. The five-act tragedy that left us both at the base of the gallows, staring up in shock at snapped ropes!
“It would be nice to plan for fifty years rather than five,” Ferdinand manages with pointedly false cheer.
He can’t much imagine Hubert fifty years down the line, but that only proves the point. There should be a grumpy bag of stubborn bones haunting an apothecary somewhere, a venomous man-eating orchid rehomed from the nostalgic cupboards of Hresvelg’s serving quarters. Ferdinand would grieve for him to simply disappear into smoke and shattered daggers.
“If you are committed to this idiocy,” Hubert says after he has purposefully let the silence linger long enough for Ferdinand to feel quite foolish indeed, “Then I will admit to knowing such a woman.”
“Unfortunately, she has no need of a husband to cement her liberty.”
Ferdinand chuckles despite himself. It is unlike Hubert to break the ice rather than hinder its thaw, but so very like him to drive the conversation back around to Edelgard one way or another.
Yet Hubert then falls silent again. The whole carriage feels stuffed with the weight of the words turning in his head.
Hubert clears his throat once, then again.
“It would not be the exact narrative you spoke of, were we to marry and advise her together, but should you find it…amenable…”
Ferdinand’s hands clutch so tightly to the upholstery that the seams begin to groan.
Is Hubert watching him? Gazing morosely at the shadowed curtains? Staring at the snoozing dog aside him, or the floor, or his lap? Has he squeezed shut his eyes against watching the collision of his words upon Ferdinand’s ears? Or schooled his face into perfect oblivion, even this only a moment’s madness of playing at an unimaginable future?
“Of course, I no longer hold any advisory position,” Hubert continues. “And so I would be of little use. A pitiful suggestion. My apologies for sullying your ears with more nonsense than already lies between them.”
“Stop the carriage.”
Hubert jolts to obey at once.
When a groomsman slides open the door, Ferdinand snatches up the hound’s leash and bolts into the brush. She does not quite understand the concept of running on a lead yet, but she gamely tumbles around wherever Ferdinand tugs her as he tries to catch his breath. He prays she does not eat anything unmentionable and somehow manages her business without his input.
Once he is certain they are out of earshot of all the world, Ferdinand traces the sigil over his heart.
“You are the most exasperating, atrociously abominable man I have ever met,” he growls, pacing with a wriggling potato under his elbow. “That is how you ask me to marry you? Yes, Ferdinand, make a loathsome little housekeeper of me, let me polish your spoons for absolution, I will be home enough!”
“Love is not a plan. Love simply is. I am not spitting in your face by broaching the topic of an arranged marriage when I was, indeed, bred for it. Heavens condemn me for not immediately grasping the new expectations of court.”
An old terror alights on his heart like a sparrow, that unanswerable question of whether Ferdinand’s—Hubert’s—feelings are equivalent to lonely necessity, but it flits away just as quickly. What does it matter? They are both shrapnel driving each other to new shape. Only time will tell if they can find one that fits.
“If you are so desperate to have someone make an honest man of you, you can damn well work for it.”
Which…he is. Ferdinand is not sure what else to consider the puppy rather than an elaborate apology gift.
“We have been through this all before, you realize. I am not bli—”
He catches himself and hears a sputter of laughter in the distance. It is very, very hard not to smile.
“Blissfully unaware,” Ferdinand corrects, “Of the operatic cycle you insist upon enacting. The inciting incident: Hubert von Vestra commits some heinous act of hubris that shakes him to his core! Again! One would think you accustomed to them, handsome scoundrel that you are. And yet somehow, I am involved, which drives you to a frenetic panic hitherto only witnessed in geese protecting their young. Will you use your words to discuss this distress? Nay! A carrot will do for poor old Ferdinand. That will make him stay far longer than a mere apology, surely!”
He paces six rings in the grass as he calms himself, then begins a measured stroll back toward the carriage. His voice drops not quite to a whisper, but low enough that any man would feel shamed in craning to eavesdrop.
“You will not bribe me with a marriage when you know damn well all that remains of me is yours. I will not have it as derivative of debt or terror.”
What he and Hubert need now is normalcy, not guilty bargaining. They need that easy togetherness they once found in Hubert’s quarters while Ferdinand strove to master sigils and secrets. Not that they will bury their miseries, of course, but after indulging in them for so long they will now need to be starved back to a more manageable size, and Hubert fattened up on affection in turn.
It is not a job. It is not certainty, not ever. But his heart has not raced this fast for any good reason in more months than Ferdinand wishes to count.
He almost forgets how to let himself feel it. Anything nice. But after everything his heart still beats so strongly, with such assurance, that he cannot help but want to try.
A bush tangles with him as he makes his way back. Foolish to bolt without his cane, but when he catches a florid whiff while freeing himself, he grabs a fistful of bruised honeysuckle on the escape.
The carriage door is still hanging open, and Ferdinand catches the edge before Hubert can reach out and clear it from his path. He hoists himself onto the step and into the carriage in a single effortless movement, then gingerly places Lady Hound back upon her pillows.
“Therefore,” Ferdinand begins again, halfway between shadows and sun. He holds out his handful of honeysuckle and imagines them sweet pearls of silver and gold. “I will allow you to woo me. Twelve months, say.”
Hubert makes one of those funny little noises of swallowing his tongue, the sort Ferdinand always treasures.
“It is extremely possible that I will be engrossed in the work of continental reconstruction, owing to a seat that can apparently only be filled by another Ass of Aegir, but I dare say I could make time for the occasional dinner and love poetry should you be so inclined.”
When he reaches out, Hubert’s shoulders are shaking. The difference between mirth and exhaustion should be terribly vast, but with a Vestra there is no way to tell. Ferdinand slides into the seat next to him all the same, jostling their shoulders together.
“And if you are not inclined, then I shall have to give over to the true tragedy of it.”
Ferdinand listens to the sound of Hubert anxiously wetting his lips as if it is the whole world, and then he wants it to be the whole world, so he reaches back out to slam the carriage door shut.
“Which tragedy would that be?” Hubert hums, on edge and trying to hide it beneath a timbre of dark silk.
“Your favorite. That we are knives in place of men.” Broken, shattered, dulled. With time enough they could be melted down and reforged into something new, but the old flaws would remain, and it would be only for show, like ceremonial blades of soft gold.
Hubert’s shoulders are stiff when Ferdinand reaches out for them, and as he trails up bandages and collar to hold Hubert’s face in his hands, he almost fears Hubert has stopped breathing entirely.
“Do you know what I do with weapons that have lost their use?”
Ferdinand knows the exact moment Hubert understands, for the he sinks into Ferdinand’s touch like a shipwreck slipping under the waves.
“You are a collector.”
The words rasp low from his chest and on into Ferdinand’s, which is still too far away. Ferdinand carefully reaches down to curl an arm under Hubert’s knees, waits a beat to ensure there is no protest or warning of imminent knives, and then arranges them across the bench until he has somehow managed to gingerly manhandle Hubert into his lap in full.
“I am a collector,” he agrees cheerily. The urge to press his face into Hubert’s neck is overwhelming, but he wants Hubert to witness these words as well as hear. He has not deactivated the sigil, either, so with luck they will carve themselves too deep for doubts to touch. “I cherish them for what they are. I honor them for what they have done. And I keep them safe. Would you trust me to do so?”
It is Hubert who hides his face away instead, a gangly spider twisting with too many limbs within Ferdinand’s arms, only easing back to calm once his ear is tucked over Ferdinand’s heart.
Ferdinand strokes along his spine and waits.
“But if that is your proposal, I too shall have to request a perfunctory twelve months.”
“Of wooing?” Ferdinand asks in delight. It is unlike a relic to test the one who treasures it, and it is a challenge he cannot resist.
Hubert shakes his head minutely. “Of this. You.”
Smiling, Ferdinand trails his knuckles over the soft skin of Hubert’s cheek and feels the ferocious burn of his skin. It is only a distant worry in the moment, yet still he teases, “Blush or fever?”
“Why do you ask such inane questions?” Hubert catches Ferdinand’s hand and brings it to his lips for a kiss, then a sigh, then merely to hold.
He forces out the rest like it costs him, but Ferdinand can feel the shape of that shaky smile against his palm as Hubert speaks.
“My answer will always be you.”
Non Omnis Moriar, 1189
Portrait of Prime Minister Aegir amid his chief secretaries, painted in commemoration of Adrestia's first public elections.
May you always grow back just what’s needed from what’s left.