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The Emperor and the Goddess

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“I have to give it to you, Edelgard…You and Teach are one heck of a team.” Claude threw his hands behind his head with his characteristic airy charm. Despite the tactician’s attempts at indifference, it was clear that the Black Eagles’ resounding victory frustrated him deeply. Even Edelgard, who often struggled to read the enigmatic noble, could sense Claude’s dissatisfaction. He shook his head, seeming to fight an invisible war in his mind. “I’d hate to make an enemy of the two of you…”

Dimitri nodded in agreement, though his happiness for Edelgard’s victory was genuine. “You and Professor Byleth are formidable opponents. My training was clearly insufficient.”

Byleth dismissed their praise with a wave of her arm. “You built those traps so quickly, Claude. And hiding in a tree like that! You almost had me!” Her clear enthusiasm was contagious, and Edelgard could not help but grin as she saw the exhilaration on her teacher’s face.

The growing sparkle in Byleth’s blue eyes had become Edelgard’s guiding star. So many innocent lives had been sacrificed to create the Flame Emperor…that awful knowledge always lurked in the back of her mind. Every rare moment of happiness was tainted by the terrible debt she could never repay. But now, she had given something back, and the proof was in the beautiful sound of her teacher’s laughter.

Every time the spark of life broke through Byleth’s blank face, it brought a flickering hope to the Flame Emperor’s heart. As Imperial princess, Edelgard had luxuries most people could only dream of-and yet truly, she had nothing at all. There had been so many empty days and nights, without friendship, love or joy. With nothing to hope for, except someday, the peace of the grave.

No one’s life was better for knowing Edelgard-her mother had left her, her siblings were dead, her beloved uncle’s memory desecrated. Every time Hubert bribed and killed in her name, she could only remember the shy, sweet boy she once knew. The life she had stolen from him. But now, here was Byleth. Her blue eyes showed there was more to Edelgard von Hresvelg than death and blood and grief. That perhaps, Edelgard could do good. Could be good.

As much as Edelgard wanted to show off in front of Byleth, and revel in victory, she felt it necessary to observe decorum. “There’s no need to get carried away.” She flicked her hand dismissively. “I know you both feel we won by a paper-thin margin…and I won’t deny it. If we were to fight again, there’s no telling who would prevail.” She turned to her teacher for approval. “Don’t you agree, Professor?”

Byleth crossed her arms, before shaking her head. “They were nothing.” She looked down, a small smile rising on the corners of her lips. “When Edelgard and I fight together, we can’t lose.” It took a moment for Edelgard to realize why her teacher's words felt so familiar-Byleth was emulating her student's self-assured demeanor.

“Oh, that is good stuff...even I’m inspired!” Claude laughed and clapped his hands together. "Seems the princess has been rubbing off on you, Teach!"

She tried to dodge Dimitri’s gaze as the Faerghus prince gave her a sly look. The princess coughed loudly, trying to hide the immense satisfaction she felt. “Well, I suppose it’s OK to let victory go to your head…just this once.”

“Whatever you say, Edelgard...” Byleth gave her student an exaggerated wink, which caused the lightly blushing face of the princess to turn a deep crimson.

“In any case…” Claude raised his hand to his chin. “I hope the day never comes when we have to put this experience to use…” The normally lighthearted archer looked oddly pained.

Dimitri, too, was troubled by the thought, grasping the side of his head and frowning. As the spasm passed, he turned to Edelgard and smiled warmly. “To cross swords with you…it would be a nightmare.”

“Well, the Battle of the Eagle and Lion was named after a conflict between the Kingdom and Empire…” Edelgard looked up at the Archbishop’s entourage, as anger boiled inside her. They stood above, watching as humans lived and died, as if the dreams and hopes of the people of Fódlan were nothing but sport. To manipulate and twist the history of this continent for a millennium…the scale of what the Church of Seiros had done was staggering.

They censored knowledge. They hid the awful reality of the relic weapons. They gave nobles the freedom to act with impunity. And…and they had lied to an innocent child. Pretended that the Goddess loved her. All the hymns and devotions, all the promises of friendship and protection, had meant nothing as the rats crawled on El in the dark.

No, this world must be ruled by humans…not cruel gods who ignored the prayers of little girls.

Edelgard’s face became resolute, as a vision of her bloody path appeared in front of her. “All that is in the past. I’m sure that even the name will one day disappear from the pages of history.”

Byleth nodded with childlike simplicity. “We should all try to get along.”

"How admirable!” Claude’s hands rubbed together deviously. “And on that note, I have a proposition.”

“If this involves poison in any way, Claude…” Edelgard rolled her eyes.

“Oh, no, nothing like that…hey, is that a rat on your foot?”

Edelgard kicked her leg frantically, as her already pale face became deathly white. NO! Like dry leaves in a flame, the princess’ conscious mind was overwhelmed by horrible, crippling fear. All the walls of rationality, the palaces of sand she had made to protect herself, crumbled in a single terrifying instant. Her lilac eyes darted frantically, searching this way and that for the source of her terror, until she felt Byleth’s steady hand on her shoulder. She felt her breathing begin to slow, as her instinctual response was replaced by embarrassment and guilt.

Claude shook his head. “Still afraid of rats, huh? I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future.” As he saw the fear in Edelgard’s eyes give way to immense anger, he raised his hands defensively and smirked. “It was only a joke, princess.”

Byleth was on him in an instant, a tempest forming in the sea of her blue eyes. “That isn’t funny.” She crossed her arms sternly. “Jokes are about bringing people together...about making them smile. Right now, the only person laughing is you.”

The mercenary’s straightforward words cut through the flippant, distant exterior of the Leicester noble, and he began rubbing his shoulder sheepishly. “Well, a leader always has to be ready. There’s no telling when ol’ Claude may need to pull a scheme out of his bag of tricks.”

“People aren’t pawns on a tabletop, Claude.” Byleth shook her head. “You can’t just rely on manipulating other people. Someday, even one of your plans won’t work, or you’ll miscalculate.” She scowled at the mysterious archer. “And all you’ll have to rely on is the relationships you’ve made.”

“Well, in my young and adventurous life, the only person I’ve ever found truly trustworthy is this guy.” Claude pointed energetically at his chest, but there was a quiet sadness in his green eyes. “Maybe if you’d have taught the Deer instead…but since you seem to have no ambitions outside of cleaning up Edelgard’s messes…” He elbowed Dimitri significantly.

The prince wanted little part in the argument, and hesitated awkwardly. “While I would have dearly appreciated Professor Byleth’s guidance…” He looked at Edelgard with an immense fondness. “I believe the Professor is where she is needed.”

Byleth had seemed deeply perturbed by Claude’s words, but that vanished in an instant. She slapped Edelgard on the back, and smiled heartily. “I agree, Dimitri!” Edelgard grimaced, trying to hide the fact her teacher had just struck the wound she had received during the mock battle.

Claude’s good humor had returned, and he laughed enthusiastically. “Well, in honor of our Professor’s wise advice, I propose that when we get back to Garreg Mach, we tear down the walls between our classes with a grand feast!” He shrugged his shoulders lightly. “And by a grand feast, I mean a normal one…in the dining hall.”

The prince, who had remained reserved throughout the conversation, eagerly expressed his approval. “It would be a fine opportunity to get to know each other better. Count me in.”

As Claude and Dimitri looked at their classmate expectantly, Edelgard was wracked with another bout of guilt. Deep in her soul, the princess knew these peaceful days would end soon. When that happened, no feast or vows of friendship could make up for the chaos and horror she would unleash. It would be better to pull away, close off her heart, rather than fuel the flames of her inevitable betrayal.

But as she looked at the smiling faces of Dimitri, Claude and Byleth, the princess could not fight her loneliness anymore. After a life of pain, torment, and loss, here at Garreg Mach, she was free to be her. It was the selfish grasping of a lost child, but she was unwilling to give up these feelings. Not yet.

“So be it. Let’s plan to meet up the night we return. Is that OK with you, my teacher?”

Byleth nodded excitedly. “We’ll break open some wine to toast our victory!” She raised her arms to the air in triumph, causing Claude to snort with laughter. Even Dimitri covered his hand over his mouth in amusement.

The princess stared at Byleth with a mixture of delight and astonishment. Every day, she was watching the person she loved grow and change. Become who she always was supposed to be. And every day, Edelgard realized she loved that person more and more.

“What’s gotten into you?”

Byleth shrugged with a characteristic blend of innocence and spirit. “I guess I just like winning.” She began to blush and grabbed Edelgard’s hand. "It's so exciting! I’ve never had anyone other than Papa to celebrate with before!”

Edelgard pointedly ignored the teasing looks of her rivals, and felt herself tumble headfirst into Byleth’s blue eyes. Within were a thousand incredible promises-peaceful days, and quiet walks. Friendship and laughter and warm arms encircling her when the nights were cold. It was a promise to love, and be loved, in a way she had never dreamed.

Those eyes were all she needed. The Flame Emperor’s mask shattered, powerless against Byleth’s faith and trust. El smiled softly. “To see such a radiant smile...Maybe I can relax a little too.”

 


 

“What the hell have you done, Ludwig?” The strange voice was close by, but El was so tired. Was it day? Night? It was impossible to know anymore. She couldn’t even lift her head. She heard the clanging of the metal bars to her cell. Somebody was coming. She could see two pairs of feet come in. El unconsciously flinched, preparing for a boot to collide with her ribs.

But it didn’t come.

As her head remained tilted downward, she saw a broad-shouldered, blue-haired man gently raise her chin. He gave her an awkward smile, but the horror in his eyes was palpable. He carefully lowered it, and stood. “Where are the rest of them? What the hell did you do to her?”

Duke Aegir’s voice was scathing. “They have been disposed of. We only need one Emperor, and the others would create problems of succession and blabbing tongues…it’s better this way.”

The other man slammed Duke Aegir into the wall with terrifying force. “You told me all of this was about limiting the power of the Emperor! I believed you!” His voice was filled with a terrifying righteous fury. “I’ve spent my life fighting with honor, and now I find out you’re KILLING CHILDREN! IN MY NAME!”

Duke Aegir remained unruffled. “I’ll tell you what I told Vestra, Albert. You benefited from our little rebellion, just as much as I did. But remember, I control the throne.” He pushed away from the other man’s grasp. “And if you’d like the Bergliez heirs to stay out of this dungeon...you’ll keep quiet.”

Count Bergliez was an imposing man, but he shrank into himself. He backed away slowly from Duke Aegir, only stopping at a quiet sound from the corner of the room. “Pl-please…” El whispered, throat raw. “They’re hurting me…”

Count Bergliez looked into El’s pleading eyes, and froze. They stared at each other for what seemed an eternity…until he fled from the room, never once turning back.

As Edelgard walked toward the meeting place, she shook her head, attempting to dispel the awful memories of yet another betrayal, and the fury that welled inside her. It was a fire, burning everything. She wanted to hurt Count Bergliez…make him understand just a small piece of the desolation she had felt.

This, in truth, was the reason for the princess’ cold and distant demeanor. If she allowed herself to feel-to dwell on the totality of what had been taken from her-the burning embers of her rage would become a towering inferno. One that would consume her. No decent person thought the things Edelgard did. Just as her body had been twisted and shattered by the experiments, her mind bore terrible scars. Scars that the monster kept hidden, so she could walk in the world of men.

Hubert coughed loudly, breaking her mind out of a twisting labyrinth of hatred. He gave his liege a sympathetic look. “Any feelings you have toward that filth are understandable, Lady Edelgard, but remember, we need him.” He gave her a small, evil smile. “Just try to imagine the look on Duke Aegir’s face…I find that very helpful.”

Edelgard gave Hubert a sad smile. “I understand Hubert…but it is very difficult.” As the princess and her retainer approached Count Bergliez’s carriage, her hands clenched into fists. Project strength. Remain calm. Don’t feel.

The carriage door swung open, and Count Bergliez stepped out. From the full beard, to the determined look in his teal eyes, he was a military man, through and through. His posture was ramrod straight, as if an invisible string was holding his body in line. Every stride was made with a purpose, directed by a hidden guide. The count and the princess exchanged formalities, before an awkward pause ensued.

Bergliez gestured at Hubert with his thumb, gruff voice ringing loudly in the princess’ ears. “Isn’t that Vestra’s kid? Are you sure he-“

“Hubert is my right hand-I trust him with my very life.” She glared at Count Bergliez, daring him to challenge her. “Any words you say to me, you also say to him.”

“That’s what Ionius thought about Count Vestra…” Bergliez was clearly not a man to put on airs, and his words carried no small amount of regret. “Still, what exactly do you want from me?”

Edelgard placed her hands behind her back, trying desperately to project arrogance and confidence. “Duke Aegir has grown complacent, gorging himself upon the wealth of the Empire. I aim to offer you what he promised so many years ago-a unified Fódlan. One that again is united under the flag of the Empire.”

Bergliez began to stroke his beard thoughtfully. “I’m a soldier, my lady. I’ve heard enough empty promises and words to last a lifetime.” His eyes dug into the princess, probing for weakness. “I can also tell when someone is trying to appear tough…” He gestured over to an outcropping of rocks, and gave the princess a sad smile. “Let’s actually talk. I think I owe you that.”

As Edelgard gingerly sat on a large boulder, Bergliez offered her a foul-smelling flask. After she politely demurred, the three nobles sat quietly for what seemed an eternity. Finally, Edelgard softly broke the silence, surprising no one more than herself. “I’ve hated you for years, you know…since that day in the dungeons.”

Count Bergliez shrugged and took a massive gulp from his drink. “I can’t say I blame you…I haven’t gone a day without thinking about the look in your eyes. I swear to you, I had no idea what the Prime Minister was doing. And then he threatened my family...” He turned to the princess. “Is that what this is about? Vengeance?”

“No.” Edelgard put her hand to her chin thoughtfully. “I think for a long time, it was…but after a while, I realized that revenge wouldn’t satisfy me.” She looked at the blue sky above. “After you go through that much suffering…when you beg for help, day after day, and no one cares...you realize that nothing will ever truly make you feel safe again. The only thing I want is for this madness to end.”

“You’ll have to be more specific.”

“The Crests…the Church of Seiros…a nobility that acts without accountability or shame. It is all a crooked tangle.” The princess’ tone was stern, her resolve evident in every word. “I dream of a world where any man can become a general, or a prime minister, or an Emperor, free from the tyranny of divine birthrights.”

Bergliez gave a long, low whistle. “Listen…I’ve watched questions of succession tear my family apart. I’ve seen countless deserving soldiers passed over because they weren’t born of nobility. I support the idea…” He took another swig of liquor. “…But the Church of Seiros…that’s not gonna be easy, kid.”

Edelgard turned to the noble with a small smile. “Nothing in life worth doing is easy.”

The count gave an audible sigh. “You sound just like your father.” He shook his head. “So what happens to me and my family after your grand conquest?”

“All those who distinguish themselves will be rewarded. Given your history, I have little doubt you will be among them.” She nervously played with her white gloves. “All I ask is that when I seize back control of the throne, I can count on the military’s support.”

“Heh, Ludwig’s a toad that I’ll be happy to see the end of. I’d do that for free, princess.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “And after the show you put on at the mock battle today, you can count on my support. Anything else?”

“There are two other requests. One, as Emperor, I will require a personal guard. I would like you to hand-select them. I care nothing for titles…give me the best, whether they were born in a barn or a palace.”

The general could only laugh in response. “I think we’re going to get along rather well, my lady…and the other?”

“I would like Count Hevring’s support as well.”

“That fop!” Bergliez’s face turned red with irritation. “What do you need him for?”

“Because he controls the Empire’s purse…and if your son and his are any indication, you are my only hope of convincing him to do anything.”

“He’ll be a tough nut to crack…” Bergliez stood and stretched his back. “But I’ll make him see sense…” He turned and began to walk toward his carriage, before stopping and doubling back, a hesitant look in his eyes. “I have to ask…are you Anselma’s daughter?”

Edelgard froze at the mention of her mother’s name. “Yes…I am.” The Flame Emperor’s voice fell to a whisper. “Did...did you know her?”

Bergliez gave a small smile. “I’ve lived a long time and travelled far and wide. Your mother was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You have her eyes.” As Edelgard looked at the ground, deeply shaken, he tilted his head. “Do you know why your father tried to consolidate power?”

Edelgard felt a spasm of fear build within her. “I only know that he was attempting reforms. What they were, I have never dared asked him.”

Words were caught in the general’s throat. “I…I don’t know if it’s my place to say…”

Hubert moved toward Count Bergliez, a murderous expression on his face. “After all you have dared to take from Lady Edelgard, you would-“

Bergliez raised his hand. “You’re right…” He sighed, and locked his eyes on the princess. “Your father...he truly loved Anselma. He was forced to take on other consorts, as Emperor, but-”

“No!” Edelgard marched toward the noble, and jabbed her finger at him. All the festering resentment of her mother’s abandonment spilled forth out of the princess. “Don’t you dare! Do you know what it was like? To grow up without a mother? To wish just once you could have what so many other children do?” Her royal poise was shattered. “And now you tell me my parents loved each other?!

Bergliez shrugged his shoulders. “Believe what you want. I only found out afterwards. All I was told at the time was that the Emperor wanted power.” The man was sincerely regretful. “He was going to end the very idea of Imperial consorts…because he loved your mother that much. Consider my support the repayment of a debt.” He gave the princess a formal bow, and left without another word.

Edelgard collapsed against a rock, her hands covering her face. Her father and mother…she had thought their romance a fairy tale-a story from her father to make a motherless child feel valued. But…they truly had loved each other. If not for her damned Crest, she could have lived a happy life, with happy parents…and it had all been taken from her. Was her life nothing but a plaything for the gods? How much more could she lose?

 


 

Between thoughts of the mother she had never known, and the gash on her back, Edelgard was subdued at the party. She had considered visiting the infirmary for treatment, but she only would trust Manuela to bandage her scarred body, and the infirmary was overrun as a result of the battle. So Edelgard suffered in silence.

As she looked around the dining hall, holding a tray laden with desserts, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

“You’re looking lost,” said Ingrid with a smile. “There’s a space next to Sylvain, Felix and me.” Even the future Emperor of Adrestia was not immune to the unique awkwardness of finding a place to sit, and she gave an audible sigh of relief.

Felix wagged his finger at the princess as she sat down. “Let me make one thing clear. If not for that idiot Lorenz’s interference, I would have beaten you today.”

Sylvain began to laugh and threw his arm around his annoyed friend. “One thing you have to understand about the future Lord Fraldarius, Edelgard …” He began to rustle a clearly frustrated Felix’s hair. “Is that the constant stream of verbal abuse is how he shows you he really cares.”

“You complain now, Felix, but you’d get along with her fabulously.” Ingrid looked at Sylvain and smiled. “We just switched from Felix lecturing us all day to listening to Edelgard moralizing, didn’t we?” The pegasus knight had a twinkle in her green eyes.

Edelgard began to laugh, her spirits lightened by Sylvain and Ingrid’s inclusion. Before Garreg Mach, she could have never dreamed of being included in such lighthearted banter. She had never imagined she could be anyone’s friend. “I suppose I’m lucky to have the two of you to keep my ego in check, aren’t I?” She turned to Felix teasingly. “Perhaps we could do a joint lecture sometime…”

Sylvain shrugged. “I think I’d rather just listen to the pretty girl, all things considered.” He winced as Felix, Edelgard, and Ingrid all simultaneously kicked him in the shin.

Felix waved his hand to dismiss any possible sentiment. “Well, I have a duty to keep my eye on the Boar…someone’s got to keep the wild beast from going on a rampage.” He looked at Dimitri, who was happily conversing with Raphael and Ignatz at a nearby table. The usually harsh features of the swordsman softened.

“It’s always been him…hasn’t it?” The pegasus knight gazed at her friend sadly, a knowledge that could only come from years and years of intimate friendship.

Sylvain shook his head knowingly, ignoring Felix’s truly alarming scowl. “You should have seen his face, Edelgard. Dimitri would go on and on about this girl he met when he was a kid…and Felix would complain about her for hours!” He looked at Felix and smiled. “For all his whining about the “Boar,” nobody loves Dimitri more than him.”

Felix could only sputter in response, his face blushing. “I just…he…” He stood, brushed off his uniform and glared at his dinner companions. “I have training.” Without another word, the Fraldarius heir stomped out of the dining hall.

Edelgard looked after Felix with concern. “Shouldn’t you go after him?”

Ingrid rolled her eyes. “If we ran after Felix every time he threw a temper tantrum…” She sighed, and shook her head. “Felix and Dimitri weren’t always so…brash. They’ve been different, ever since…” A spasm of pain passed over her face. “Glenn.”

Sylvain took a loud sip of his soup. “I’m not saying Ingrid and I have handled it well…” He looked at Edelgard with sadness. “But a lot of times, I’m not sure if the Felix and Dimitri I knew really survived Duscur at all.”

“I’m sorry,” said Edelgard. “Such terrible wounds never truly heal.” She began to play with the clasp of her cape. “Just remember, they may not like the people they have become either.”

Ingrid gave the princess an understanding nod, while Sylvain looked between his two classmates in confusion. “Edelgard…” he began warily, “the way you’re talking, it sounds like-“

Edelgard raised her hand, her self-possession returning. She smiled at her friends warmly. “I am still trying to heal myself, but…I suppose it makes me all the more grateful to have met the two of-“

There was a clamor of noise to the right of their table, and Byleth, who had been engaged in a quiet conversation with Petra, had collapsed. Instantly, Edelgard felt that awful greyness pulling her down, down, down as the world lost its hue. No! Please!

Pain …that was the first thing Edelgard felt. The pain of battle, far beyond anything she had experienced before. As she tried to focus, to ignore the sting in her muscles and joints, she quickly tried to gather her bearings.

The ornate spires and ancient extravagance were painfully familiar to the princess. As was the plush throne she was now seated in-one she had watched her father hold court from so many times before. The gardens she had ran and played in as a child. It was a place filled with sadness and delight in equal measure. It was the palace at Enbarr.

The doors to the throne room burst open, and a ragged and tired Imperial soldier limped toward the throne. “Your Majesty…a report!”

A black shadow appeared in the Emperor’s peripheral vision. “The Emperor is still recovering from her wounds at Gronder.” Hubert conjured a miasma of purple energy in his hands. “Pray that your news is worth this interruption.”

The soldier shuffled forward nervously. “The…the Great Bridge has fallen to the Church’s forces, Your Majesty!”

Hubert was upon him in an instant. “You were unable to hold the Bridge…and you dare come crawling back-“

“Was…was Byleth there?” The Flame Emperor’s quiet, sad voice echoed off the cavernous walls of the palace. “Were the other…Eagles there?”

The soldier looked at Hubert nervously, before the retainer slowly nodded. Emboldened, the man finally began to speak. “I served against Dagda and in hundreds of skirmishes. I’ve never been scared on the battlefield…before fighting those people.”

“What. Do. You. Mean.” The sheer malice in Hubert’s voice was terrifying.

“The woman, Byleth, leading their forces... She’s not human! She killed half my battalion with one swing of that sword of hers. She didn’t speak, she didn’t shout, she didn’t even change her expression!” The panicked man was teetering on the edge of hysteria. “All those people rallying around her, and it’s like she doesn’t care at all. Like she's a walking corpse! And those Faerghus kids…”

Edelgard leaned forward in her chair. “Ingrid…Sylvain…what of them?”

“They…they were animals. Screaming and ranting about revenge for the King.” Fear covered his weathered face, “They let me go…told me to tell you a message, Your Majesty.” The soldier lowered his head.

Hubert grabbed the man’s collar, his dignity forgotten. His voice was filled with a quiet despair. “What did they say?”

“They said to tell you…’we’re coming’…”

Edelgard blinked, and she was back in the dining hall, amongst friends who would soon be enemies. She stood with a start, before crying out in pain. Her haste had aggravated the wound on her back, and the intense jolt of agony she now experienced was impossible to conceal.

Ingrid grabbed Edelgard’s hand, clearly concerned. There was no sign of her typically stern expression. “Edelgard…are you all right? What-“

Edelgard stared at Ingrid and Sylvain’s worried faces blankly. Her eyes darted around the dining hall, from Dorothea to Petra, Caspar to Ferdinand… She pulled away from her friend's arm, and grasped the sides of her head. The scared girl desperately tried to drown out the thoughts that reverberated incessantly.

They’re going to despise us…it’s destiny. And how could they not? If we were truly good, the Goddess would have saved us…protected us. But She didn’t. The Goddess took Mother. She took our family. And soon, She’ll take everything else we love. She hates us.

It’s what we deserve.

The Flame Emperor fled without a purpose, ignoring the ache in her body and in her heart. She knew there was nowhere she could truly go. What safe harbor could there be for a person who even the Goddess despised? Her life was nothing but a cruel joke…a miserable trick for divine amusement. Why had she even been born at all? Nonexistence would have been preferable to watching every faint dream be dashed, to suffering alone over and over. She was just…so tired of being alive.

She ran up the stone steps to her room, and sank to the floor, pain overwhelming her. Edelgard looked at herself in the mirror. The back of her academy uniform was stained red, the rhythmic, soft dripping of blood assaulting the princess’ ears. She would have to go to the bathhouses…at least to clean the wound and replace the bandages. It gave her distraught mind a tangible act to focus on-if her soul could not be clean, at least her body would.

Edelgard waited until the time that the student bathhouse closed, and snuck downstairs, using the key Manuela had given her. It was dark and eerie, but the princess could only think of the comfort of washing off the dried blood that covered her back. She gingerly sank into the stinging cold water, feeling the knots in her tired muscles begin to release.

The princess had a difficult relationship with silence and isolation. Most of the time, she required it. By being around others, she exposed herself to what she feared most-being hurt again. But in truth, she hated to be alone. Before the experiments, her life had been filled with warmth and laughter and life in the crowded palace in Enbarr.

And now…so much of her life was silent.

Suddenly, the door to the bathhouse slammed, breaking Edelgard out of her gloomy thoughts. She looked down at her arms and chest, covered in those terrible, hideous scars. I can’t be seen. No one can know. She began to move to get out of the bath, when she saw her.

Byleth Eisner walked in, wearing a towel for modesty. The princess sank down into the bath, leaving only her neck exposed, hoping against hope that Byleth would not notice her presence. As Edelgard lay quiet, she heard her professor talking to someone. The Flame Emperor strained her ears and listened.

“I do not!” Byleth’s voice was animated. “I care for all my students. And I do have other friends!” She moved her hands around excitedly. “Petra understands being confused by everything around you, I like talking to Shamir about mercenary things…and Ingrid and I just...it feels like we've known each other forever.”

Edelgard looked around in confusion. Who was she talking to?

“That’s not true! I know I rely on her too much…but I-“ Byleth frowned, her hand on her hips. Edelgard leaned forward, trying to comprehend what she was seeing. “No, she wouldn’t be interested…Why? Because she's…and I’m-“

*Plop!*

The princess winced. The bath soap she had placed next to her had tumbled into the water with a loud splash. Byleth looked around the bathhouse, large eyes straining in the dim light. “Hello!” she called. “Is someone there?” She moved closer and closer to Edelgard’s position…

“DON'T LOOK!” Edelgard screamed, head remaining just above the water’s surface. Byleth jumped, a look of surprise in her eyes. “What are you doing here?!” demanded the princess, trying to retain her dignity.

Byleth turned away, blushing. “Seteth gave me a key at the beginning of the semester…but why are-“ Abruptly, a look of horror crossed over her stoic face. “How much did you hear?”

The princess tilted her head suspiciously. “You mean your fascinating conversation with…yourself?” Given the horrible visions she had experienced, fanciful ideas began to flutter in Edelgard’s paranoid mind. Perhaps the Goddess herself was conspiring against her!

Byleth shuffled her foot nervously, “I-I was talking to my, um…my…mom.” She suddenly covered her ears, as if someone was shouting in them.

“My teacher,” Edelgard began hesitantly. “Have you eaten any food that Claude prepared?”

“No, I just haven’t been feeling well. You saw me faint tonight, and I just-“ She stopped and pointed at the bloodstained bandage that Edelgard had removed before entering the bathhouse. “What is that?”

Now it was Edelgard's turn to falter, as she looked at the dressing, and felt her mind go blank. “Oh, I…I…was just cleaning up! Someone must have left this out…completely and totally irresponsible.” She shook her head, trying to appear wise.

Byleth crossed her arms, clearly frustrated. “Why didn’t you go to Manuela for treatment? This is a serious injury, Edelgard!” She examined what little she could see of the princess carefully. “And why are you sitting with the water up to your head? What’s going on?”

Edelgard glared at her teacher. “I can’t tell you.”

The mercenary stomped forward. “You are my friend, but you are also my student. My only job at the monastery is to protect my class. If-if you don’t tell me…I’ll...I'll tell the Archbishop!”

“Fine!” screamed Edelgard, her restraint in tatters from the events of the evening. “If you want to see so badly…Here!” She raised her arms out of the water, revealing the patchwork of scars and mutilated skin. Byleth Eisner was not a woman given to strong emotional reactions, but she staggered back, hands over her mouth.

“Yes, truly repulsive, aren’t I?” Edelgard’s response was ferocious, the words of a cornered animal. Right now, all her shame and sadness were hidden by an armor of anger. “Turn around for a moment, while I get a towel.”

“No…how could-” Byleth covered her eyes, and looked away. The princess awkwardly fumbled with her towel before coughing.

“You can look now…all I ask is that you keep the knowledge of my disgrace private.” Byleth still did not turn around, face buried in her hands. Edelgard felt a terrible malevolence well up inside her, an awful poison that she had to release. “Well, now you know what I am! An ugly, scarred little monster! I knew as soon as you saw you’d be disgusted…Everybody is!" For a long time, neither woman spoke, as the sounds of Edelgard's voice echoed off the walls of the bathhouse.

Finally, mercifully, Byleth turned to Edelgard and grabbed her wrists. “Edelgard...I’m so sorry. I…didn’t think about…when you told me about the experiments-” There was a deep hurt in every word. “That is not your fault.”

“Yes, it is!” The Flame Emperor threw her teacher’s hands away, and began to pace frantically, her speech mechanical. “I can still recite the teachings of the Church by heart- The Goddess is all things, Her eyes see all, Her ears hear all, Her hands receive all...all except for me...” Edelgard’s voice began to tremble. “The Goddess cares for and protects all that is beautiful in this world…”

Byleth tilted her head, an immense sadness in her eyes. “I…I don’t understand.”

The girl’s breath was hard and rapid. Such a unique and awful pain. How could she describe it? How could words express your very soul being amputated? “She...She could have saved me! Helped me! Told me She was listening! Was it so beyond Her omnipotence to help a terrified little girl?!”

She pointed at the mutilated skin above her heart, daring the mercenary to confront the awful reality. “Every single scar is a sign. One that shows how ugly I am inside! It shows exactly why the Goddess refused to help me!”

“Edelgard…you’re…not ugly.” Byleth rubbed her wrist nervously. “I can’t-“

The princess was in the full depths of hysteria. “Of course you can’t. You’re beautiful and kind and perfect…the one the Goddess chose to wield the Sword of the Creator…and I’m none of those things.” She turned away, unable to bear the humiliation and torment a moment longer. “Just leave me alone.”

For a moment, there was silence, as Edelgard braced her heart for the sound of her teacher fleeing in disgust. It was what her mother had done. It was what the Goddess had done. Everyone did, once they discovered the truth of who she was. But then, Edelgard felt a hand slowly caress her bare, scarred shoulder.

“Edelgard…look at me. Please.”

The princess turned, and looked up in trepidation at Byleth’s blue eyes. The mercenary gave her a small smile, and grabbed her right hand. “I have to show you something.” Byleth hesitantly guided Edelgard’s hands toward her chest. For a moment, the princess panicked, only to feel a roughness against Byleth’s smooth skin.

“It’s-“

“A scar over my heart...” said Byleth calmly. “Just like yours.” She gave Edelgard a teasing smile. “Why do you think I wear that medallion over my chest?” She looked away, like a child telling a forbidden secret. “I don't know where it comes from, but Papa says no one can ever know.”

“Don’t- don’t compare yourself to me…” protested the Flame Emperor feebly. “I’m not- …” Suddenly, Edelgard’s self-pity was broken by the sounds of Byleth’s laughter. The princess gave her teacher an angry glare. “Oh, amusing, am I?”

Byleth gave her a smile. “Edelgard, I admire you.” She looked at the princess’ shocked face and laughed. “Claude was right today. I have no goals of my own. I want to protect people. Keep those I love safe, but...how? Even with all this power…” She gripped her student’s hand firmly. “Rhea keeps saying I have a grand destiny. I...I don't want to let her down, but...sometimes, I feel so lost.”

The princess shook her head in amazement. All this time, she had viewed her teacher as a savior, as her unbreakable rock, and yet, she had never considered Byleth’s own hopes and fears. Edelgard had been looking to her teacher for guidance, when she had needed help just as desperately. Her mind burned with shame. Did she actually love Byleth at all, or just being saved by her? 

Edelgard looked at Byleth's body. In the dim light, she could see so many marks and cuts from a lifetime of lonely battle. The princess reached out and hesitantly touched an old knife wound. "I'm so sorry, my teacher," she whispered softly. "I've never noticed how much you've been hurt too."

"I..." Byleth was adrift. "Rhea and the people in the Church expect so much of me...the students need me. What- what should I do, Edelgard? You've been hurt so badly, and yet you still...” Her voice was wistful and sad. “You always seem to move forward..." She carefully caressed the scars on Edelgard’s arm, causing the princess to tremble at the contact. Minutes passed as the two lost women tenderly gazed into each other's eyes.

Edelgard did not want to break the magic of the moment, but there were truths that had to be said. "My teacher, there are things I want from you...but they must be your choice. Not mine. The power you have is one that will shape the future of this continent...and that is a truly heavy burden to bear." She studied her teacher's blue eyes. "Whatever destiny has in store for you...just promise me it will be your decision."

A massive grin broke out on Byleth's face. "You sound like someone else I know...she told me something very similar." Byleth's eyes darted toward Edelgard's wound, and she gently turned the princess around. “Your back…” Faith magic emanated from her teacher’s hand. The princess felt the terrible gash begin to heal, accompanied by a pleasant warmth and tingling on her skin. The mercenary wordlessly worked, before wrapping some bandages against the wound.

“I’m so sorry…” said Byleth in a defeated voice. “I think it’s going to leave another scar.”

"Thank you, my teacher." Edelgard choked the words out, fighting against a lifetime of self-loathing and misery. "Thank you for not running away."

Byleth looked at Edelgard sadly, before grabbing her student's hand with unusual force. “You are not a monster. You are beautiful. Whatever the Goddess thinks about you…please... remember that.”

Suddenly, the door to the bathhouse slammed open, causing the two women to jump with a start. Shamir stepped inside, the normally laconic mercenary appearing deeply agitated. “Byleth.” There was an immense worry hidden in her normally terse voice. “I've been looking for you everywhere. We have an emergency.”

“What is it?” said Byleth. “What’s wrong?”

Shamir sighed. “It’s your hometown. Something’s happened to Remire.”