Byleth strode back and forth in front of the lectern, her untamed hair flying wildly. Whenever discussions of battle strategy and tactics came up in class, it was as if a wick inside the mercenary was set alight. Byleth was still far from a veteran teacher, but any inexperience was more than compensated for by the content and unpredictability of her lectures.
“Part of your training at the Officer’s Academy involves preparing to command an army.” The Ashen Demon paced while staring at the floor. “That is the reason you are all here.” She glanced mischievously to Dorothea. “At least it’s supposed to be.”
“Professor!” gasped the songstress with mock outrage, as the Black Eagles began to laugh. “I’m just as committed to strategy…things, as the other students!” She smirked and shrugged her shoulders. “But if a handsome noble just happens to cut my glorious military career short…well, we can’t predict the future!”
The easy rapport that the Black Eagle class had developed was something to behold. Byleth was not a conventional teacher. The Eagles were not a conventional class. Yet somehow, as the year had developed, and the stoic Ashen Demon had become cheerful Professor Byleth, it felt right. As if it was where they had always belonged.
“Well then, Dorothea…” Byleth’s eyes lit up impishly. “I suppose that means you volunteer to answer the question I proposed last class.”
The opera star froze. “I…yes. Of course. The question.” She shot a glare at Sylvain, who had given her an enthusiastic wink. “Um…in regards to the…” Her eyes darted nervously. “…I agree... with the idea.” She sighed, desperately trying to fill the awkward silence.
“Interesting.” Byleth put her fingers to her chin and hummed, a small smile forming on the corners of her mouth. “Does anyone else have anything to add?”
Edelgard rubbed her temples. Professor Byleth had given the class a mock scenario: with a commanding officer trapped behind enemy lines, what strategy would they use to rejoin their army? The future Emperor, ever the dutiful student, raised her hand.
“The larger force will be less maneuverable. I propose using that agility to find a weak point in the enemy’s line, and attacking until the group can break through.”
The class quietly murmured, most of the Eagles agreeing with their house leader’s idea. Byleth put her hands behind her back, trying and failing to hide her pleasure with Edelgard’s response.
“And how will you avoid being surrounded?”
Edelgard shook her head. “Either the army is spread out too far to adequately defend, or eventually, we will find a way around. Either way, we break through together.”
Byleth nodded. “I like it. Any other thoughts?”
“With respect, Professor, I disagree.”
Ingrid’s hand had shot up, body tensed. Many of the students leaned forward, and even Linhardt’s droopy eyelids shot open. This was far from the first time that Ingrid and Edelgard had debated one another, and it was always quite the spectacle. Hubert and Sylvain quietly exchanged a knowing glance. The pegasus knight cleared her throat and continued.
“The most important factor is for the commanding officer to return safely. The troops under our command swore an oath to defend their leaders. Some of the knights split off and attack, sacrificing themselves while the commander is escorted to safety. “ She drove her fist onto the desk. “There is nothing more noble than dying for those we are sworn to protect.”
Edelgard shook her head vehemently and turned to her friend. “A leader unwilling to fight alongside their troops to the end is unworthy of being followed.” Her head tilted upward in defiance. “Oaths cannot just be for the commoners.”
“It’s the code of a knight! It gives us meaning!” Ingrid’s voice rose, filled with emotion. “Lives can and must be used for a greater purpose! Maybe…” She shook her head, a strange wildness in her green eyes. “Maybe that’s all any of us can hope for! A good death!”
For a moment, silence filled the classroom, before Byleth looked at Ingrid sadly. “I think that’s enough for today.” She looked around the room. “I’d like a small report from everyone on the question we discussed today. Due next week.” Byleth’s words covered the audible groan from Caspar in the back row. “Ingrid, Edelgard, can I talk to you both for a moment?”
As the two women made their way to the front of the room, Edelgard ignored Monica’s leering face. The three women waited for the rest of the Eagles to filter out of the room, before Byleth turned to Ingrid slowly.
“Ingrid…I know that Remire was difficult for everyone, but you-”
Ingrid shook her head brusquely. “Thank you for the concern, Professor, but I’m fine.” She looked between Byleth and Edelgard, an insincere smile plastered on her stern features. “Would either of you like to join me for some training? You two are my favorite sparring partners and I wanted…“ She trailed off, unable to maintain the charade.
Byleth leaned toward her distraught student. “Ingrid…if you need a few days…”
“No.” She gathered her materials, eyes silently crying for help. “Professor. Edelgard. Have a nice afternoon.” Without another word, she marched out of the classroom, slamming the door forcefully.
Byleth slumped in her chair, before turning to her house leader. “Would you mind talking to her? I know you are both close, and…” she trailed off.
Edelgard gave an efficient nod. “Of course, I’ll do it right now.” As the princess turned to leave, her teacher’s nervous voice stopped her momentarily.
“Edelgard…there’s something else.”
A million fears and suspicions tore through the Flame Emperor’s mind in a single moment. Had Byleth discovered her secret? Was this the moment that Edelgard had dreaded for so long? She slowly turned, fighting the panic holding her lungs in a vise.
“It’s about the… the…” Byleth swallowed and looked up at Edelgard, voice full of trepidation. The princess gave her teacher an encouraging nod. “…The dance.”
“Oh?” Edelgard tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the curiosity in her voice. “What about the dance?”
“Rhea…I mean, the Archbishop, has asked me to choose a student to compete in the White Heron Cup. And I’ve never really-” She shuffled in her seat uncomfortably. “I’m supposed to participate in a formal dance at the ball…” The Ashen Demon wrung her hands, a flash of crimson developing on her cheeks. “I was wondering if you’d like to…practice dancing…with me?”
“Keep your ears in line with your hips, El.” Ionius gently guided his daughter up and down the smooth floors of the palace. El gave a small nod, and giggled as her father guided her head back to standard frame.
The Emperor of Adrestia smiled benevolently at his daughter. “You’re a natural, El.” He knelt down, and cupped her chin with his hand. “Agnes told me she’d been teaching you…but-“
“But what, Father?” said El, filled with a child’s curiosity.
Ionius shook his head. “I never imagined my little girl looking so grown up and beautiful.” A parent’s pride shown in his eyes, as he lovingly ran his hand through her gorgeous brown hair. “You look just like her…” For a moment, his gaze grew distant, before they returned to the delighted girl in front of him. “Someday, you’re going to make someone a wonderful dance partner.”
El felt a wonderful and strange buoyancy in her chest. To move on the dance floor...to express how she felt through movement, gliding alongside the rhythm of the music. It was as close as the young girl could come to flying. The thought of sharing that incredible joy with someone else? Soaring together, like the birds she loved so much?
It filled the lonely little princess’ heart with a happiness and peace beyond words. Someday, she’d have a friend…just for her, and they would dance, and laugh, and share everything together. She could hardly wait.
“I…” the Flame Emperor paused, fighting back the ghosts that surrounded her. “I haven’t danced in years, my teacher. Not since…” She closed her eyes, trying to steady her breathing. “Perhaps Jeralt would be better suited to teaching you.”
Byleth’s blue eyes dulled with pain. “Papa’s helped me already, but…it hurts him. He keeps talking about my mom.” Her teacher leaned forward, pleading. “Please, Edelgard, I don’t know who else to ask.“
There was a yawning, terrible gulf in every moment of Edelgard’s life. A vast space between the pure, brown-haired girl that once was, and the white-haired deceiver who had stolen her name. It was El who was good, and kind, and loved to dance. That deserved to have friends, and crushes, and a future. It was the Flame Emperor who killed, and lied, and permitted atrocities like Remire.
It was El that had dreamed of whirlwind romances, and quiet, gentle companionship. But the empty husk that remained had cast it aside. Long accepted the dull, aching loneliness, the terrible fact there was no one out there waiting for Edelgard. That she was not half of a greater whole. It would make things so much easier, when she sacrificed herself on the altar of her ideals.
For so long…the numbness had been a relief. The sharp, painful sensations had pricked and jabbed the princess every day, every moment. Once, the manacles had rubbed her skin so terribly, painfully raw. Once, she had screamed for help for days, until her voice gave out from the strain. Once, she had wept countless tears for her mother and the Goddess to save her, until there were no more tears left to be shed.
The numbness had come and whispered a terrible promise. If she ran…hid from all the awful feelings, the burdens of being human…she could ignore it all. The fear. The shame. The guilt. By distancing herself from the world that hurt her so, so much…she could move on. Be the Emperor that everyone expected her to be.
It was not really a life at all, but it allowed Edelgard to take that terrible first step out of her bed every morning. Overlook the dull ache in her joints and limbs. Breathe, when the Goddess’ neglect had shattered the Flame Emperor’s heart.
Against the millennium of abuses and terrors Fódlan had experienced, what were one girl’s self-indulgent dreams?
“My teacher…” Edelgard looked away. “Let me… think about it.”
When Edelgard made her way to the empty training yard, she found Ingrid striking a wooden dummy, over and over again.
The rate of each blow grew ever faster and faster, the rage in Ingrid’s eyes growing more and more intense. Each strike seemed to contain a lifetime’s worth of resentment and anger. All of the dreams and hopes she had hidden from the world. All the crushing weight of the needs of her family and people. All the guilt of still being alive, when those you loved were…
It was a fury the Flame Emperor was all too familiar with. Finally, to Edelgard’s relief, the training lance snapped in half, the tip of the weapon sent flying. Ingrid stared at the broken shaft before throwing it down in disgust.
“Rather sloppy form, I must say.”
Edelgard’s voice echoed off the empty walls of the training arena. Ingrid turned, and blew the hair out of her eyes. “As if I’d take advice on my stance from an ax user.” The knight looked away from the princess, pretending to adjust the training dummy. “I assume Professor Byleth sent you to check on me?”
“I would have come anyway,” said Edelgard, edging closer. “You haven’t been yourself since Remire, and-“
“And what?” Ingrid turned, arms extended. “Am I not pulling my weight? What else must I do?” She pounced toward Edelgard, daring her friend to challenge her. “I train, and train, and train, and it’s still never enough! What kind of knight am I?!”
Edelgard remained silent, allowing the Faerghus noble to continue pacing like a caged lion. There was an emptiness at the core of the knight, a gaping, awful void that all the chivalry in the world could not hope to fill.
“I’m supposed to protect people!” She picked up another training lance. “Get stronger, so I can help others! And…”
She struck the target.
“Is watch people die!”
Her energy exhausted, the knight fell to the ground, hands cradling her knees. She looked at Edelgard, eyes full of guilt. “If I’d been stronger, those people at Remire…” She shook her head in disgust. “Dimitri wouldn’t be broken! Felix wouldn’t be so bitter! Glenn wouldn’t have-“
The princess sat down next to Ingrid, hands tucked on her lap. For a long time, she simply stared at the blue sky, feeling the warmth of the sun shining down on her. A warmth she knew she didn’t deserve. Perhaps it was seeing someone whose self-hatred equaled her own, but whatever the reason, a terrible knowledge and clarity came to the princess’ mind.
“How long have you wanted to die, Ingrid?”
The simple, dreadful sentence was somehow freeing. Instantly, both Ingrid and Edelgard’s shoulders relaxed, and the pegasus knight found the courage to look into her friend’s eyes.
“Since…Duscur, so, for most of my life, now.” A wry smile lit up Ingrid’s features. “What else is there for me? A lifetime of quiet resentment as an unhappy wife? Feeling the scorn of my family and people if I walk my own path? But dying with honor…at least…” She covered her eyes with her hand. “At least I’d be with Glenn.”
Edelgard sat quietly, as Ingrid’s face remained sheltered, waiting for a response. Finally, the Flame Emperor pressed ahead. “It’s something most people can’t understand, I think.” She rubbed the aching joints on her fingers. “To want to make your…grand statement, and to just be free...of it all.”
Ingrid lowered her hands, and turned to Edelgard. “You too?”
Edelgard nodded. “I have a goal, and I don’t think I’ll…” She trailed off, the words unnecessary, before looking Ingrid squarely in the eyes. “For a long time, I couldn’t understand why you wanted to be a knight...having others tell you what to say, or believe.” She stood, and leaned against the training dummy that Ingrid had demolished. “But it gives you a purpose, a reason to keep…being.”
“After the Tragedy…” Ingrid swallowed. “All I had…all I was made up of…was hate. Hate for the people of Duscur, who had taken Glenn, and my future, and everything else. Hate for the nobles who didn’t care about me, except for my Crest. Hate for a world that just…kept going.” She rested her hands on her forehead. “Hate for everything and everyone. But to be a knight-to follow a code, and be like…”
“To die like he did.” Edelgard finished the unspoken thought.
A look of eerie calm appeared in Ingrid’s eyes. “Yes. I wasn’t lost anymore. The stories of chivalry gave me purpose, when all my purpose was gone.” She finally stood, and gathered her training weapons, before laughing softly to herself. “Until there was so much knight, and so little Ingrid left.”
The princess swung a training ax idly. “And what would Ingrid have wanted? If she-“
“Oh no,” Ingrid shook her head vigorously. “You first. If you could…be free…what would you have done?” For the first time in the conversation, a genuine smile broke on Ingrid’s face. “And if you say something like ‘studying political theory,’ I’ll beat you senseless.”
The princess shook her head and laughed. “I like to draw. I think I would have been an artist.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “I’d like to create something…nice. Something that makes other people happy.”
Ingrid nodded. “I can see that. Artists are…uncompromising, like you. I’ve tried to draw, but I just-” She looked away shyly. “Doesn’t fit my image, I suppose.” As they quietly walked toward the door, she stopped, blurting out a single word. “Food.”
Edelgard turned her head in confusion. “Food? What do you mean?”
“I...love food. My family never had money, and with how barren our territory is… Sylvain and I still talk about traveling around, just trying different...” She let out a long sigh. “That probably sounds ridiculous to a girl raised in a palace.”
Edelgard shook her head, trying to drive the taste of stale bread from her mind. Ignoring the awful taste of moldy rations because it was the only thing that would soothe the terrible, gnawing hunger.
“Actually, I have had to eat some truly awful meals in my life.” Edelgard gave a faltering smile. “I think that’s lovely, Ingrid. Food brings people together. Sharing a table with people you’re close to is a precious gift.”
Ingrid’s face lit up at Edelgard’s words. “I’m so happy to hear you say that! I guess I’d always had a silly dream…of finding a way to make Galatea territory…grow.” There was an odd innocence and life in Ingrid’s eyes. “Can you imagine it, Edelgard? No one ever having to be hungry-“
“There you two are!” Dorothea slammed the large wooden doors open, immaculate as ever. “We’ve been looking everywhere!”
“What is it, Dorothea?” Edelgard, ever vigilant, tensed her body in concern. “Is anything-“
“The Black Eagles are helping out the Remire refugees…” Dorothea gave her friends a bittersweet smile. “It feels like the least any of us can do.”
A spasm of guilt rocked the princess. “I…of course. We’d love to help.”
“Well, it wasn’t a request,” giggled the diva. “Everyone else is there! Come on!”
When the three women arrived, the rest of the Eagles had already spread amongst the villagers. Many of the refugees were women and children, and it was quietly amusing to see a different side to some of the students.
Lysithea and Linhardt were entertaining a few of the children with magic spells, when they were not bickering with another. Edelgard could not help but notice the smile that Lysithea so carefully hid, or the genuine interest on the Hevring heir’s face.
Marianne and Ferdinand were quietly talking to some of the older villagers, the cleric’s quiet demeanor putting them at ease. As much as Marianne had benefited from Ferdinand’s support, the restraint he now exhibited was proof of her influence on him.
Bernadetta had found a secluded corner, where she was busily repairing dolls for a few girls, while an uncomfortable looking Hubert had two young children gripping his legs tightly. When Edelgard caught his eye, he gave a resigned shrug, and leaned down to the delighted children. One of them tentatively touched his black hair, before giggling.
Caspar and Sylvain were delighting a group of rambunctious boys. As Sylvain gently roughhoused with one of the children, Ingrid’s eyes lingered for a moment, a small, happy smile breaking through her severe face.
Dorothea turned to Edelgard and Ingrid as the approached the center of the room. “It’s really Petra we have to thank…” She turned and looked tenderly at the Brigid princess, who was letting an excited girl look at the hunting dagger on her waist. “She’s been like a woman possessed, setting all this up...” A blush appeared on Dorothea’s face.
Petra caught Edelgard’s eye, and the two princesses exchanged an understanding nod.
Edelgard walked through the halls of the palace, the servants giving her a wide berth. No one talked to her except for Hubert, which was both a consolation and a fresh agony. As much as she hated the stares and the whispers, the thought of explaining…of relieving the agony of the dungeons all over again…it was better this way. It was better to be alone.
"Did ‘ya hear about the girl they locked up?” A shrill maid’s voice cut through the low clamor of the palace. “They say she’s a princess…From Brigid or Dagda or something.”
Her fellow domestic nodded. “Doesn’t speak a word of the language, is what I heard. If it were up to me, dirty foreigner would be dumped into the-‘
Edelgard’s unyielding expression stopped the two women in their tracks. “Where is she?” When the two women awkwardly looked away, the princess strode forward. The dead-eyed ferocity on the child’s face was terrifying. “I will not repeat myself. Where. Is. The. Prisoner?”
A few hours later, Edelgard and Hubert stood outside one of the palace doors, a stack of books and a tray of food in their hands. After her retainer had intimidated the guards into leaving their posts, the princess slowly pushed the door open.
Inside, there was a petrified purple-haired girl, whose complexion clearly indicated that she was not Adrestian. When she saw the two intruders, she crawled away in terror, huddling in the corner. She screamed a few words that Edelgard could not understand, and waved her hands wildly.
Edelgard understood that fear all too well. The strange mixture of boredom and terror that captivity inspired. Not wanting to agitate the girl any further, Hubert placed the tray of fresh food on the table, while Edelgard dropped the stack of children’s picture books on the bed. Since her siblings no longer had need for them…perhaps it would help the poor girl begin to understand the language of her captors.
The girl looked at the two intruders with confusion and fear, but Edelgard had already begun to walk out of the room. A quiet, hesitant voice stopped the white-haired princess.
The girl pointed to herself, and gave Edelgard a beautiful smile.
Edelgard nodded, and gestured at her chest.
Petra moved toward her classmates with an easy grace. “I am having great joy at seeing you here, my friends. These people have been missing their homes.” She looked down at the floor. “I am knowing that sadness very well.”
Edelgard felt a twinge of shame. While she had sat, and consumed herself with guilt for Remire, Petra was diligently making a difference for the survivors. Edelgard had always considered herself a practical person, but just as with Byleth’s offer, she had allowed grief and regret to hold her back. She needed to be better.
“It’s absolutely lovely, Petra!” Dorothea giggled and put her hand around her friend. “Helping children like this…” The soft, gentle look in the diva’s eyes was inspiring. “If this is what Brigid has to look forward to when you take the throne…well, maybe I’ll move there myself. The tropical air would do wonders for my skin…and someone’s got to keep you from working yourself too hard.”
Petra looked at Dorothea for a moment, eyes full of innocence. “I am knowing that wherever I am, I am always going to be keeping my friend Dorothea in my heart.” She turned to Edelgard and smiled. “That also is true for you, Edelgard.” She placed on hand on her classmate’s shoulder. “I am hoping for the day when Brigid and the Empire can be working together as equals.”
“As am I, Petra. For too long Fódlan has been isolated and-“
“Hello, ladies.” Sylvain’s voice cut through the clamor. “As much as I’d love to stay and chat with all of you, my friend here has a question for Ingrid.” He gently pushed a young girl forward, before departing. Her dark skin and earring were uncannily similar to Dedue. As Ingrid looked at the child, all the color drained from her face.
“Mr. Caspar was saying that you’re a pegasus knight, Ms. Ingrid! I’ve never met a real, live pegasus before…can you show me? Please? It’s all I’ve ever wanted!”
Ingrid knelt slowly. “I’m…I…Are you from Remire…little one?” Even for the no-nonsense pegasus knight, the interaction was incredibly awkward.
“I lived with my grandma there…my Mom and Dad were from…from…”
“Duscur.” The pegasus knight shook her head, avoiding the eyes of her classmates. “Perhaps it would be better if someone else-“
“Ingrid would love to show you the stables,” said Edelgard firmly, kneeling next to her friend. “After all,” she knelt and looked Ingrid directly in the eye. “perhaps the best cure for grief is to focus on what lies in front of us, and not in what we have lost.”
For a long time, Ingrid was silent, fighting an invisible battle. After a few moments, she closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “I’d love to show you my pegasus.” She extended her hand gingerly. “But I might need some assistance feeding him…do you think you could help me?”
The young girl eagerly nodded, and grabbed Ingrid’s hand tightly, as they made their way out to the stables. For a brief moment, she turned back to Edelgard, and quietly mouthed her thanks.
Edelgard turned, and smiled at Petra. “Oh, by the way, have you or Dorothea seen-“
Petra chuckled. “Professor Byleth is with Flayn…” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “She has been keeping the eyeballs on you since you came here.”
As Edelgard felt her face begin to turn red, Dorothea laughed, and rubbed her house leader’s shoulder. “Go get ‘em, Edie.” As she walked away, she heard Dorothea’s gentle voice. “Petra, honey, it’s ‘keep an eye on,’ not ‘eyeballs.’”
Byleth and Flayn were just finishing talking to older woman when Edelgard approached. As the princess sat down, the Ashen Demon looked away, wringing her hands.
“My teacher,” Edelgard bowed her head. “May I speak with you a moment?”
Byleth nodded her head slowly, and the two women found a quiet corner. Before the princess could speak, the mercenary’s words spilled out in a flood of anxiety. “I’m so sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Edelgard. I’ve never had a friend like you before and I do odd things all the time and lately when I’m around you I feel so strange-“ She looked away, gripping her chest tightly. “Papa always says I have to be careful, and now I’ve ruined-“
Up until that moment, Edelgard had not realized the true depths of Byleth’s loneliness. To make her a teacher, creating a wall around the students her own age…The princess had not realized how much her friendship meant to the Ashen Demon. In all the Flame Emperor’s many plots and schemes, she had never expected to make someone else…happy.
For years, Edelgard had expected to die for her goals, and like Ingrid, there was a part of her that had longed for that oblivion. She had never dreamed of seeing the new dawn she imagined for Fódlan. The free world she wanted to create. All she could hope to be was a martyr or villain, a simple cog on the path to the future.
For so many years, Edelgard had found so many reasons to die. To cast herself on the funeral pyre. But now, incredibly, she was faced with a far more arduous challenge. Over these past few months, Edelgard had finally found reasons to live. To dream of the sunrise after the long, dark night.
“My teacher.” Edelgard shook her head, momentarily stopping Byleth's restless movement. “I’m so sorry.”
The Ashen Demon’s large eyes widened further. “What? But I-“
“You did nothing wrong, Professor. I have been…trapped in my own guilt and regrets. For Remire, and for so many other things…” Edelgard shook her head, and found the courage to look into the blue eyes she loved so much. “When you asked me today, I was so consumed by all I had lost…”
Byleth leaned forward, grabbing Edelgard’s hand in a frenzy. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t think about your-“
“No.” Edelgard shook her head firmly. “I was ignoring the wonderful things that are in front of me right now.”
It was strange. Byleth’s hands were always so cold to Edelgard’s touch. A match to her teacher’s dispassionate personality. But today, they were not cold at all. They were filled with a heat and warmth that soothed the painful joints of the Flame Emperor.
“My teacher.” The princess ignored the furious blush on her face, and the unfamiliar lightness in her chest. “I’ll meet you in the great hall tonight…and we can practice together…if you still want...“
“Yes.” Byleth nodded. “I’d…I’d like that very much, Edelgard. I’ll…” She could not finish her sentence, but the mixture of joy and relief on her face said more than words ever could.
For so long, Edelgard had given up on happiness. She was alone and unloved, and that was the way it had always been…how it was always supposed to be. The judgment of the Goddess had not just taken away her family, or her hair color, or her hope; it had taken away all of the simple, small, wonderful pleasures of being human.
How could she laugh, while hiding her true self behind a mask? Dream of tomorrow, while preparing to become a martyr? Fall in love, when she did not love herself? She had ran and hid from the world, cocooned behind a sheet of ice. But perhaps…
Perhaps, there was someone waiting for Edelgard. Perhaps, she could dare to dream of the future. Perhaps, she could allow herself to be happy.
Maybe Edelgard had a reason to dance after all.