As Edelgard stood alone in the Sealed Forest, she shivered unconsciously. The girl attempted to convince herself it was because of the harsh breeze blowing through the desolate clearing, but she knew the truth. From behind her mask, her lilac eyes darted from one tree to the next, looking for any sign of movement. It seemed that every shadow was a specter, every tree branch a demon lying in wait.
She struggled to ignore the familiar dread building in her heart, a paralyzing panic and numbness that made it more and more difficult to concentrate. Thoughts became scattered and her vision became blurred, as she attempted to reassert control. He can’t hurt you. You’re in the armor. Be direct. Be clear. Don’t give him any more information than is necessary. He can’t hurt you-
“And how is my favorite niece?” came a slippery, cruel voice from behind the princess’ shoulder. Edelgard jumped, and though the Flame Emperor’s armor hid her expression, the look of sadistic pleasure on Arundel’s face made it clear that he had succeeded in his goal of intimidation.
“You are not my uncle, Thales,” snarled the Flame Emperor. Keep calm, Edelgard. He’s playing games with you. “Lord Arundel was a good man, who loved me. You are nothing but a fiend wearing his skin.”
The ghoul sneered. “Are you sure, little El? Perhaps we could go on a trip to Enbarr, for old time’s sake? We could visit that confectionary shop you loved so much.”
“How do you know about that?!” spat the Flame Emperor, hand reflexively gripping her ax. You are in control. Not him. You.
Thales looked at the Flame Emperor with an appalling smile. “Maybe Lord Arundel told me, as I tortured him slowly and painfully. Perhaps while he begged me for his life like a mewling coward.”
To see the face of a person she loved and trusted saying such vile things left the princess’ mind in tatters. She felt her breathing continue to speed up, as she tried to remain composed.
He’s lying to you. Uncle Volkhard was brave. He was a good man. He loved you.
“Or maybe-” The monster put his hand on Edelgard’s shoulder, peering at her with malevolence. “I’ve never told you when I replaced dear Uncle Volkhard. Perhaps it was much earlier than you ever thought?”
Don’t listen to him. Don’t listen to him. DON’T LISTEN TO HIM.
His eyes were a black abyss that threatened to drown the princess. Edelgard was unable to look away. “Or…maybe I always was your Uncle Volkhard?” he leered wolfishly. “Maybe no one ever loved you at all, little Emperor?”
Edelgard wanted to run, to scream, but her body refused to obey her commands. It felt as if her limbs no longer worked, like a clock that remained stuck, the hands perpetually quivering. She was again a child in rags, hands and feet in chains, and terror in her heart. I can’t escape. I can’t escape. Goddess-
Suddenly, a vision of azure eyes came to the forefront of the princess’ mind. No, he’s wrong. Dorothea’s my friend. Marianne looks up to me. My classmates care for me. Byleth- Edelgard took a long, deep breath and pushed Thales’ arm off her shoulder. “If you’re finished with the games, we have business to discuss.”
“As you wish.” Thales retreated from the unexpected contact, and gave the princess a disdainful look. “Your little scheme with the Western Church has failed. The Archbishop yet lives.”
Edelgard scoffed internally. Did the fool truly expect some clergymen to successfully assassinate the inhuman archbishop? She knew Thales was arrogant, but this staggered belief.
“Regardless,” said the Flame Emperor, feeling herself gain confidence and control in the verbal confrontation with her tormentor. “There is both good and bad news. The remains of Seiros were not in the Tomb.”
“As expected,” said Thales, clearly irritated. The Agarthians were not accustomed to being defied, and Edelgard's refusal to yield had made the imposter much less assertive and smug than the princess was used to seeing. It pleased her greatly. “What is the reaction among the students?”
“Many of the more faithful students are deeply distressed, and news has already began to leak out to the noble houses of Fodlan. I can tell you that even Duke Aegir’s son is quite disturbed.”
“Good,” said Thales. “Then what is the problem?”
The Flame Emperor hesitated. She did not like revealing this information, but if she wanted answers, it was an unfortunate necessity. “Something else was inside the Tomb. The Sword of the Creator.”
“Ah, the weapon wielded by that thief, the King of Liberation.”
Edelgard snorted. “A thief?” Of course these arrogant monsters would look down upon a human king. “The academy’s new professor now possesses the sword, and the Crest stone had already been removed.”
“Of course it was,” sighed Thales, already growing bored. “They would dare not keep the Crest stone and weapon in the same location.”
Between the stress of talking to this filth, and the bulky armor, Edelgard was beginning to sweat profusely. She wished she could be having tea with Byleth, or gardening with Bernadetta, anywhere but this forsaken patch of forest. Forgive me Byleth, but if anyone will know the truth about the relic weapons and Crest stones…it’s them. “There’s more to it. The professor was able to wield the sword. It glowed red. The professor’s Crest is compatible. There’s no mistaking it.”
Thales’ eyes widened in shock. “Absurd. The King of Liberation’s bloodline should not…”
So Byleth isn’t Nemesis’ descendent... What is she then? “They must be allowed to keep it, for now. I do not have enough information about the professor to act.”
Thales smiled arrogantly. “Of course you don’t, my dear. Now, have you given any more thought to my request?” He leaned toward the princess with menace. “After all, it was my own recommendation that got our mutual friend Jeritza a position at the monastery. I do worry so about how he’s…adjusting.”
The Flame Emperor glared at Thales through her mask. “What do you need him for?” She pointed a finger in anger, fearing where this conversation was leading. “Do not do anything to compromise his position.”
“Hmm…” Thales put his hand to his chin. “Was the plan not to make him the Black Eagle house professor?” He sneered at the princess. “In fact, I believe accomplishing that was your task. With that no longer a possibility, you no longer require his services.” He reached down and cupped Edelgard’s chin. The princess shuddered, but refused to break eye contact. “And remember, my precious little niece...” he hissed. “Who exactly is in control here.”
The princess cursed Thales internally, but she knew she was outmaneuvered. “I assent. The Death Knight is at your command. Use him well.” He’s taking one of my only allies…damn it.
Thales chuckled softly as he walked away from the princess. “I believe I will enjoy this a great deal.” He stopped and turned back toward Edelgard. “Oh…there is one more thing, my dear.”
Edelgard stood her ground. “What is it, you monster?”
“Rumors have been flying about how the Galatean and Edmund heirs have joined your class.” He clapped his hands together mockingly. “I am so very proud of my little El. She’s grown to become so cunning.” He held his hand to his cheek. “Sowing discord in the other houses before the inevitable war? How wonderfully devious.”
The princess' resolve crumbled. Doubt and uncertainty filled her mind. Was she just using her classmates? For all Edelgard's high-minded ideals, was she truly the same as Thales? A manipulator and deceiver? Was that the true reason behind her encouragement of Marianne and Ingrid's transfers? She could only stammer in response, attempting in vain to drown out the reproachful voices in her head. “No…I didn’t…they’re my-“
“They’re your what?” jeered the Agarthan. “Your friends? Do you really think they, or anyone else will side with you?” He laughed coldly. “No…they will flee from you in disgust when your true self is revealed. You know it in your heart.”
He walked toward the princess and tapped her helmet. “Always remember who your true friends are, little El. We gave you the armor, we gave you the soldiers, and we gave you a Crest powerful enough to strike down the very gods themselves.” His face contorted into a frightful glare. “You are nothing more than a weapon, and you would do well to remember that.”
The Flame Emperor and Thales glowered at each other, neither willing to concede. Finally, Thales backed away, laughing maliciously. The Flame Emperor stared at her tormenter with hatred. “I promise you...” she growled. “When all this is over. I’ll watch you die.”
Thales simply sneered in response, and both figures vanished from the Sealed Forest in flashes of red, leaving only silence behind in the desolate wood.
As Edelgard found herself back in her room at Garreg Mach, Hubert was waiting for her, a look of deep concern etched onto his face. Edelgard could not help but wonder what her classmates would think if they could see her retainer without his usual menacing expression.
She had been forced to convince Hubert not to accompany her to the meeting. The princess had told him that it was due to her concerns about his safety. However, the truth was that she could not bear to see his face as Thales bullied and berated her. Thales thought he was getting a puppet to control, and until Edelgard could cut the strings, she would have to play along with his games.
“How was the meeting, Lady Edelgard?” he intoned, hands placed behind his back.
Edelgard glared at him, feeling something inside her snap. “How do you think it went, Hubert?” She immediately regretted her words when she saw the pain in Hubert’s eyes, and turned toward him mournfully. “I’m so sorry, you don’t deserve that.” She collapsed onto her bed, heart still pounding in her chest. “He always knows just how to get under my skin.”
Hubert shook his head. “I take no offense.” A look of sheer malice crossed his face. “My only regret is that I cannot have one night with him in an Imperial dungeon.”
Edelgard looked at her lifelong companion sadly. Why was a man so loyal and devoted cursed to be in service to her? “Hubert, please don’t talk like that. It…it makes me wonder what your life might have been without-“ She trailed off.
Hubert began to pace frantically, as he always did when his liege showed signs of inner turmoil. “Without what, Lady Edelgard?”
El sat in the pristine palace garden, picking flowers quietly, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned in surprise, only to see a timid black-haired boy with kind eyes, hiding behind the legs of a stern-looking older man with a bushy black mustache.
The man glared at the boy, and the youth's reaction gave the impression this was far from unusual. “This is the girl you have been assigned to protect, Hubert.” He pointed to the girl forcefully. “Remember, she is one of the few Hresvelgs with a Crest, so you must stay vigilant.”
The boy stared at the ground, eyes downcast. “Yes, Father."
"Good,” said the older man, who began to walk away swiftly. “I’ll be in to check on your efforts shortly. Do not disappoint me.”
El and the boy regarded each other warily for a moment, before El curtsied and stuck out her arm. “My name’s Edelgard, but my brothers and sisters call me El! Wanna play?” Hubert hesitated momentarily before gingerly taking the princess' hand. The girl’s face lit up excitedly, filled with eagerness to have found a new playmate.
Hubert began to rub his fingers through his untidy black hair unconsciously. “I’m- I’m not sure I should. My father said I’m supposed to be protecting you.”
El giggled. “That’s silly! We can play a game together while you protect me.” She put her fingers to her chin and hummed, before handing Hubert a stick. “I’ll be a princess, and you can be the brave knight who defends me!”
Hubert’s eyes lit up. “Can I be a pegasus knight?”
El shook her head. “Only girls can ride a pegasus-“ She stopped when she saw the sad look on Hubert’s face, and snickered. “Sure, Hubert! You can be whatever you want!”
The hours flew by, as El and Hubert played and laughed on the castle lawn. For a young girl whose sole companions were her siblings, it was a dream come true. The blue sky had begun to turn a stunning orange when Hubert’s father appeared at the entrance to the garden. “Report, Hubert.”
Hubert and El ran up to Count Vestra eagerly, and the boy smiled and waved excitedly at his father, who did not return the gesture. “El is so nice! We played lots of games together, and she said she was so glad to have a friend her-“
Hubert’s father held up his hand. “What is this?” He pointed to El’s knee, which was bleeding slightly from a fall earlier in the day.
El giggled, having completely forgotten the mishap. “Oh, I fell while Hubert and I were playing. It’s-“
“Hubert, have you forgotten your station?” said the older man, incensed. “You are Lady Edelgard’s servant.” He knelt and stared intently at the boy. “Look at me. You are not to pretend to be Lady Edelgard’s friend. You are a member of House Vestra, and your task is to protect her with your life. Do you understand?”
“I understand, Father, but-“
" Never talk back to me. I do not want to hear you using such a disrespectful name for Lady Edelgard ever again.” He pointed to the girl. “Apologize to her.”
El protested angrily. “Hubert didn’t do anything wrong, he’s-“
Lord Vestra shook his head. “You will thank me for this when you are older, my lady. Now, Hubert.”
Hubert gave a deep bow, a pained expression on his face. “I apologize, Lady Edelgard. Your humble servant begs your forgiveness.” Hubert’s father gave him an approving nod, before spiriting his son away.
As Hubert and his father left her alone, El was burdened with a feeling of deep sadness, but even she was surprised when her vision became clouded by tears.
“Me-you’d have been much happier without me,” whispered the princess. “I’ve gotten to watch you over the past few months, and seeing you get to be a normal student, with the others…”
Hubert scowled. “Do you truly think I wish to be like them? Spoiled? Conceited?” He sank into the room’s only chair. “You know who their parents are, and what they did. I’ve seen the look on your face every time Ferdinand jabbers on about the greatness of his family. Aegir, Bergliez, Hevring…None of them can be trusted.”
“I trust you, Hubert,” said Edelgard softly. The princess had faith in very little, but Hubert's loyalty was the one constant on which she could rely. “You are not your father. And neither are Ferdinand, or Caspar, or Linhardt, infuriating as they may be. If our whole goal is to end the power of bloodlines, it cannot be just undeserved rewards; it also must include undeserved blame, as well.”
Hubert shook his head. “Ferdinand did invite me to drink some of his disgusting tea with him and Marianne,” he said quietly. “Perhaps I should-“ He looked at Edelgard and nodded. “Purely to keep up our appearances, you understand.”
The princess smiled. “I think that would be wise.” She looked toward the window, as a pegasus knight flew past. “Besides,” she teased. “I noticed you forgot to mention something in your discussion of our classmates.”
Hubert looked at her suspiciously. “What do you mean, Lady Edelgard? Your humble servant would never-“
“Oh, I was just observing that you neglected to mention Bernadetta in your list of who could not be trusted.” The princess' lilac eyes twinkled with amusement.
Hubert scoffed and refused to meet his liege’s gaze. “The Varley girl? She is completely harmless.”
“Oh? Then why, pray tell, did Professor Byleth and I happen to see you two in the greenhouse the other day? Were you performing reconnaissance?”
“We were…” Hubert paused, and looked at the ground, before mumbling indistinctly.
Edelgard grinned. “I’m sorry, Hubert. I didn’t catch that.”
“She was showing me her…plants. She tends to the…carnivorous plants in the greenhouse.” Hubert’s face was now bright red. “She says they remind her of me.”
The two old friends sat in silence, before they both smiled at one another. Edelgard began to chuckle. “Look at the two of us! One would think we were just a pair of carefree students.” She looked away with sadness. “I must confess, I know what must inevitably come, yet I cannot help longing for time to stop marching onward.”
Hubert stared at her intently. “Do you regret the path we have chosen?”
“No, never,” said the princess as she stood. “Even if I wanted to stop, I could not.” The girl's features were grim, hardening like steel. The Agarthans had wanted a weapon, and when the Flame Emperor's expression became this harsh, it was easy to believe they had succeeded.
“I see their faces every time I close my eyes. Here I stand in the warmth of the sun, while they lay in the cold, dark earth. How could I possibly live with myself if I did nothing?” Hubert did not reply, but looked away, unable to meet Edelgard's mournful gaze. She covered her face with her hands as her resolve faltered. “I miss them so much, Hubert. Every day.”
Hubert sighed. “That is why I caution you about getting too close to the Professor. You and I both saw her with that sword in the Tomb. We cannot even be sure she is what she claims. I-“ He frowned, a simple look that spoke to years of torment and anguish. “I will never let another person hurt you. Ever again.”
“Hubert-“ began the princess, before a knock on Edelgard’s door interrupted her. She took a moment to collect herself, and calmly opened the entryway, only to see a frazzled and exasperated-looking Ingrid.
“Edelgard, thank goodness. Have you seen Professor Byleth anywhere?”
“No,” said Edelgard with concern. “Did something happen?”
Ingrid sighed. “In a manner of speaking, yes.” She began playing with her hands, before slamming her fist into the wall in frustration. “Damn it! Can you help me find her? I could really use some help from both of you.”
As the two students rushed downstairs, Ingrid informed the princess of all the places she had searched. “I figured if anyone would know, it would be you, since you and Professor Byleth….”
“Since what, Ingrid?” said Edelgard, looking at her classmate suspiciously.
Edelgard sighed deeply while she considered where her beloved professor may have gone. “Have you tried the pond?”
As the two women made their way through the dining hall, Edelgard could see a familiar black cloak sitting at the dock, with a broad-shouldered man seated next to her. Next to the two figures was a bucket absolutely overflowing with all manner of fish, and both Eisners were lazily reeling in their lines, neither appearing to have a care in the world.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, Professor, but I could really use your help,” apologized Ingrid.
Byleth turned to the intruders, a serene look on her face. When she saw Edelgard, her azure eyes lit up, the afternoon sun framing her messy hair beautifully. “How can I help you two? Papa and I were just finishing up.” Jeralt grunted from the dock, but did not turn around.
Ingrid bit her lip. “Sylvain found out about our mission this month with Miklan, and he’s insisting he should come with us. He and Dimitri just keep going at each other, and Felix isn’t helping matters. I’ve tried everything.” Ingrid began wringing her hands. “I just…I don’t know what to do anymore.”
Byleth placed her hand on Ingrid’s shoulder, as always, projecting an aura of tranquility to her troubled students. “I’d be happy to help. Do you want Edelgard to come as well?”
Ingrid looked at Edelgard with a pleading expression. The two students’ relationship had been fraught initially, but they both deeply respected the other's work ethic and diligence. They had become regular sparring partners, where the fiercest battle was often not between their weapons, but in the verbal debates between the two stubborn women. Ingrid smiled at her comrade-in-arms. “Would you mind, Edelgard? You’re good at ignoring Sylvain’s nonsense.” The princess nodded, and the Faerghus noble gave a deep sigh of relief.
Jeralt, who was carrying the fishing poles and bucket, turned to the group. “Mind if I steal the princess for a minute?” When he saw the apprehension on Edelgard’s face, he gave her an unexpectedly gentle smile. One that reminded Edelgard of her beloved teacher and put the nervous student at ease.
As Ingrid and Byleth ran on ahead, Jeralt looked at the princess warmly. “Hope I’m not taking you away from something, your majesty.”
The girl smiled and shook her head. “Please, I insist you call me Edelgard.” Everywhere else, the young girl was the heir to the throne of Adrestia, but here at Garreg Mach, she relished these few precious months as simply Edelgard. “I’ve been meaning to speak with you. Your daughter is a lovely person. You should be very proud.”
Jeralt looked at the future Emperor with an expression of clear relief. “Well, that was actually what I wanted to talk to you about.” He watched as Byleth quickly disappeared into the dining hall with Ingrid. “She’s not…bothering you, is she?”
“Bothering…me? What do you mean, Sir Eisner?”
“First of all, call me Jeralt, for Goddess’ sake,” said the knight, apparently just as eager as Edelgard to dispense with formalities. Strangely, the brawny mercenary looked oddly hesitant. “It’s just…I’ve been raising the kid by myself, and well, I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, she’s…”
“Different,” said Edelgard softly. “She told me herself.”
“She told you that? Huh.” Jeralt shook his head. “She’s the best daughter I could ask for. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. But-“
Edelgard looked at the older man with confusion, and waited for him to continue.
“Well, let’s just say that the mercenary lifestyle doesn’t offer much stability. She hasn’t really been around people her age before coming here.”
“Why are you telling this to me in particular, Jeralt?”
“Because she never shuts up about you," said Jeralt with a hearty smile. “You know I’d never seen her laugh before we came here? Ever since she met you brats-“ He looked at Edelgard sheepishly. “Uh…no offense-“
The princess began to giggle. “No offense taken. I see candidness is a trait that runs in the Eisner blood.”
“I mean it. I’ve never heard her talk about anything like she talks about you. I probably know you better than your Imperial guards at this point.” He laughed at the clear embarrassment on the princess’ face. “Don’t feel bad. The high and mighty future Emperor being my daughter’s friend is an honor, and if you're half the person she says you are, Adrestia's going to have one hell of a ruler."
Edelgard shook her head. “The honor is all mine. That night in Remire, your daughter protected me with no hesitation, without knowing who I even was." Edelgard felt her cheeks beginning to burn, but pushed forward regardless, unsuccessfully trying to hide the emotion that had snuck into her voice. "A person that selfless and kind is more worthy of admiration than any noble in the Empire. She…means a great deal to me.”
Jeralt rubbed the back of his head, clearly astonished. “You… really mean it.” He smiled broadly and slapped the princess on her shoulder. “Well, I have one other favor to ask you.”
Jeralt leaned forward and whispered in her ear. “Keep an eye on her for me. There are people in high places at Garreg Mach who don't have her best interests at heart.” He turned and began to walk away, while Edelgard stood momentarily dumbfounded.
She ran to catch up with him, guilt overwhelming her. “Why are you trusting me? For all you know, I may be one of those people!”
Jeralt turned to her and smiled. “I saw the look in your eyes when you talked about my daughter. Take it from a man with too much experience-you can’t fake that.” He gave her a wink and walked toward the main hall, whistling a tune as he left Edelgard to mull over his words.
When Edelgard arrived in the Blue Lions classroom, she found Sylvain pointing at a scowling Dimitri. Ingrid stood between the two with an appearance that was equal parts sadness and frustration, while Byleth calmly waited nearby with her arms crossed. Dedue was behind Dimitri, his expression implacable. Felix was leaning on a nearby pillar, sharpening a dagger with a whetstone while glaring at the prince.
“The Lions have to take care of this!” shouted Sylvain. “I’m not sitting around here while my brother hurts innocent people with my family’s weapon! Do you honestly expect me to hang around Garreg Mach and do training exercises or something?”
Dimitri frowned. “The Archbishop has tasked the Black Eagles with this, not the Lions. In times of crisis, it is important to maintain structure and order, and trust that institutions like the Church will guide us forward. “ He stood, and placed his hands behind his back. The young man was surrounded by an air of melancholy, and Dedue's troubled eyes never wavered from the prince. “Tradition exists for a reason, and without the Church of Seiros, Faerghus would have fallen into ruin long ago.”
“You’re the Prince of Faerghus, Dimitri!” snapped Sylvain, his normally easygoing persona forgotten. “Act like it!”
“If it were up to me, I would take the throne now, but I am not of age. It breaks my heart to see the turmoil in Faerghus currently, but I cannot simply declare myself ruler! The alternative is chaos.”
“And how’s following tradition working out for you?" spat Felix. "Sure turned out great for Glenn, didn’t it?”
At this, Dimitri smashed his hand into the table, causing pieces of it to shatter and fly off into the wall of the classroom. Ingrid put her hand to her mouth, while Sylvain looked away. The anger on the prince's face swiftly turned to remorse and guilt and his shoulders slumped meekly. “I-I apologize. Sometimes, I forget my own strength and…”
“Whatever,” said Felix, stabbing the table with his knife. “I’m not going to stand here and listen to this.” He turned to Ingrid, whose normally stoic face was clearly distressed. “Maybe you had the right idea all along, abandoning this sinking ship.” He gestured angrily at Edelgard and Byleth. “And why are they even here?”
“Because all the four of us do anymore is yell at each other,” said Ingrid dejectedly. “And this is the second time in two months that Faerghus’ problems have become Garreg Mach’s. This is too personal. We need someone else’s perspective, and Edelgard and Byleth are smart and capable. I saw how they handled Lonato’s rebellion.”
Sylvain turned to Byleth and Edelgard. “Listen, I know that I can be…actually, let’s not go there.” Sylvain's typically sarcastic voice became uncharacteristically earnest. “I just… the Lance of Ruin is the only thing allowing my family to keep the peace with Sreng, as fragile as it is. And Miklan…once I was born, he was cast aside, all because he didn’t have a Crest. Please let me come with you. He’s my responsibility.”
Dimitri shook his head. “You do not bear the guilt for your father’s decisions. It was because he knew your lance and Crest could protect the people of Gautier territory. I think your father was wrong to abandon Miklan, but Crest-bearers are the blade that keeps Faerghus safe.” At Dimitri's pronouncement, Felix stood and left the room with clear disgust.
Byleth turned to Sylvain, an unusually stern look on her usually placid features. “You may join us, but you will treat your fellow students and me with respect. This is not a game.” She looked at Edelgard and smiled. “As long as my House leader approves of the idea.”
Though Edelgard found Sylvain’s behavior insufferable, she was perturbed by Dimitri’s words. Faerghus viewed Crest-bearers as blades to protect the people? Thales’ mocking laughter echoed in her head, and for the first time, she considered Sylvain with an emotion other than irritation. People only want to use him as a weapon, just like Hubert and Byleth...and me.
The princess sighed, and made her choice. “Don’t make me regret this, Sylvain.”