The messenger arrives while Lorenz and his father are taking tea in the study. That the man is ushered directly to Count Gloucester's side means the matter is both urgent and confidential—though in these days of turmoil so many things are. The count dismisses the messenger, slits the red wax seal on the scroll, and reads the contents in silence, as Lorenz watches his face fruitlessly for clues. An eyebrow rises, the only warning, and his father says with satisfaction, "Well, well. The Empire has broken the von Riegan boy at last."
Lorenz places his cup on the saucer. Delicate bone china, painted in lilac and gold. It does not rattle.
"I beg your pardon?"
His father doesn't bother to spare him his full attention. "Derdriu has fallen. It seems the princess—ah, the Emperor has herself a powerful new strategist."
So the rumors are true. Lorenz will consider that later. He says, "Then von Riegan is dead."
A statement, not a question. Perhaps it will make the truth seem—real.
"One would think," his father says. His lips are pursed. "And yet there are rumors that a white wyvern with the boy aboard was sighted flying east before the Empire declared victory. It would fit, wouldn’t it, that he'd turn his back on his lands to save his own skin."
Lorenz is fortunate that his father is contemplating the message, and not Lorenz's face. There is nothing he can safely say. Unbelievable—but with Claude von Riegan, so much that should be impossible somehow, some way, becomes real.
Except: Claude and Hilda have been joined at the hip for the last years of the stalemate. There's no scenario in which Claude leaves Hilda to the tender mercies of the Imperial army. So the rumors are false. Or Hilda is—
Dead. Lorenz did not shy from voicing the word for Claude; he must do the same for Hilda. Claude or Hilda: one of the two is dead.
His father is still in thought. "If von Riegan lives he may yet be trouble. Still." He lets out a deep and satisfied sigh. "It is enough to know someone has finally put him in his place."
Lorenz clears his throat. "Was there, ah, any word of Hilda Goneril?"
His father gives him a sharp look. Lorenz has a moment of apprehension. Surely merely asking after Hilda doesn't betray undue concern—
The count snorts. "An infatuation, is it."
"Father, please." His exasperation is unfeigned. "We were schoolmates."
"And a lot of good the Academy did either of you," his father says. "Goneril's always been a thorn in our side, but they at least do their duty by the border. But throwing in with von Riegan—" He shakes his head and taps the scroll. "There was no word of the Goneril girl. Perhaps she finally had the sense to run home to mother."
Lorenz very much doubts that. "I see," is all he says.
In its own way, perhaps no news truly is good news. Surely the death of the daughter of Duke Goneril would merit a line in even the most hurried message. Political implications alone. Or—perhaps they escaped together? Lorenz is aware even as he thinks it that this crosses the line into wishful fantasy.
The count shakes his head, but it's forgiving. As if Lorenz truly has no other worries, in the middle of a five year war, than a childish romance. But his father has always indulged, even encouraged, Lorenz's fledgling adolescent passions, a harm Lorenz didn't fully understand until long after he'd struggled to earn the forgiveness of every woman whose respect he'd come to want. Never mind. If it serves him now, so be it.
"We shall undoubtedly receive a full report of the battle within the next day, along with a formal Imperial, hm, request. Perhaps as early as this evening. We shall see if there isn't more word of the girl's whereabouts to be had then."
Lorenz inclines his head. The count is already pushing away the tea things, pulling quill and inkpot and rolls of parchment toward himself. "Now. There is much to do."
That is a dismissal. Lorenz says, because it is expected, "Can I be of assistance?"
"No. I must write to Ordelia at once." The count considers, and then says, as if it is a special allowance, "You may sit in on the discussion once he arrives, provided you do not speak out of turn."
Normally, this would grate, a reminder that for all Lorenz's striving, his years of obedience and dedication to the exhortations of duty, the strictures of nobility, he is still not privy to the true workings of the county. He is still not granted his father's trust.
At this moment, he is grateful. He mistrusts his ability to feign dispassion, to participate in a measured discussion of the outcome of Derdriu's fall, the maneuvers for advantage as the long arm of the Empire reaches out to formally enfold the territories of the Alliance—former Alliance—into its domain, like so many wayward children. It is a funny thing. He had not realized how sure he had been, even as he listened to Gloucester and Ordelia discuss the merits of allying with the Empire, the inevitability of unification, that the Imperial conquest would fail. That the Alliance would maintain its precarious independence. That Claude's schemes would win the day. He had not realized, until the dream was lost.
It does not matter. It cannot matter. His duty is clear. It is to Gloucester, to the people and the land, as it has ever been. That is as true of a Gloucester that lies in the Empire as of the Gloucester that lay in the Alliance. Never in his life has Lorenz shied from his duty.
Lorenz retires to his room. He has his own letters to write. He may not have his father's network of informants. But he does have friends.
Ordelia arrives before the sun has set. By the time he does, Lorenz has dispatched letters to Marianne, at the Edmund estate, and Lysithea, in the Imperial camp, and Ferdinand von Aegir. It would look odd indeed if he didn't attempt to revive the old acquaintance in light of the new circumstances.
The Imperial messenger follows closely behind. It is indeed a request: for cooperation in the incorporation of the former Leicester Alliance territories into the glorious Adrestian Empire. His father and Count Ordelia plunge into strategizing—what can be leveraged for favorable treatment from the Empire, how to ensure their respective territories remain intact, what will become of the Riegan lands, and resources, and political influence.
Count Ordelia's satisfaction—his daughter, a trusted confidant of the victorious Emperor—is not quite a veneer for his relief. Another battle survived. Goddess willing, he begins to say, and then catches himself. Count Gloucester snorts in amusement.
In tandem with the request, stamped and beribboned and dangling with the weighty seals of Imperial might, is a much plainer scroll, containing a full and detailed accounting of the siege of Derdriu.
Lorenz cannot snatch it from his father's hands; he cannot demand an accounting of its contents. He must wait, outwardly patient, as Gloucester and Ordelia chew over each maneuver of this battalion or that troop. There it is, finally, nearly an afterthought: Hilda Goneril, having lost the center of Derdriu to Emperor Edelgard herself, is recovering under the care of Imperial healers.
That is that, then.
They must discuss the rumors; Lorenz, frankly, does not recall a word. Gloucester and Ordelia retire to the smoking room. Lorenz is not invited to join them. He goes to the library. There will be much to learn in this brave new world. And he must learn, now.
He takes the books to his room, where he lights a candelabra by his favorite chair. He does not expect to sleep tonight.
Lorenz reaches for his weapon. The Imperial general is taunting him. He must be, in that voice, that sounds like— Panic washes over him. His lance isn't there.
"Hey. Hey. Lorenz."
He's bare-handed; he never trained for that. How can he fight back when he's—sitting in a chair? He can't see. No, his eyes are closed. That's the problem. He opens them.
"Lorenz," Claude says, from the window. "Wake up."
Lorenz sits bolt upright.
The room is cold. The candles are dead. Moonlight streams through the window, limning Claude in white light. He's perched on the deep windowsill, one leg propped upright and the other dangling at rest, as casual as if this were one more late-night Academy shenanigan.
Lorenz says, "You're alive."
He sounds naked, even to himself. Claude raises an eyebrow, but all he says is, "Kinda figured the news would've beat me here. A white wyvern's not exactly easy to disguise. I should know."
"I—you—" A thousand different words flood his mouth, jamming to be free. He finally manages, "Are you mad?"
The other eyebrow goes up. "Beg pardon?"
He surges to his feet. "What are you doing here? What are you thinking?"
His hands are fisted at his sides. He cannot remember when he was last this angry. Claude says, "Well, I thought we could talk."
Oh, that deliberate flippancy. How Lorenz would love to smack it off his face. "One brush with death isn't enough for the Master Tactician, you simply must court another the very same day? There is nothing," he says precisely, "in which my father would take more pleasure than personally delivering you to our new Emperor in order to watch her take your head."
For some reason, that makes Claude smile. "You'd be surprised."
"Would I?" Lorenz demands. His heart is still galloping wildly out of control. "The only thing he would enjoy in equal measure would be killing you himself. This risk is simply—how can you know that they—that I—"
"No, you're right." Claude's smile turns reflective. "I guess I just trust you."
It's the worst thing Claude could have said, and he knows it. Trust Claude to come prepared. Always with the right tool at hand.
Lorenz bites his tongue, hard, before he says something he will regret. Claude watches him, still with that faint distant smile.
"How did you escape," he says finally. It is as good as a concession.
Claude unfolds his clasped leg and slides down to stand. He leans against the sill. "'Fraid it didn't have much to do with my own clever plans," he says. "The grace of her glorious Majesty spared me. And Teach. I think mostly Teach."
It certainly does not square with the image of the conquering Emperor, cold and hard and just as ice. "Then she truly has returned from the dead," Lorenz says, meaning the professor.
"I was surprised, too." Claude's mouth quirks. "She hasn't changed much. Minutes after we'd almost torn each other to pieces on the field she asked me to lend them my strength, if you can believe it. So I really think my head's all right."
Lorenz ignores the jab. His brow creases. "And you did not acquiesce."
Claude says, after a minute, "This isn't my place any more. I might have strength to lend. But I no longer have a say in the future of Fódlan." He shrugs, a small movement. "Edelgard won. I lost. Simple as that."
It is—peculiar, and unsettling, to hear it in so many words. I lost. How Lorenz would have loved to see Claude get his comeuppance, once.
He asks, "Then—what will you do?"
"It's time for me to head home. Lie low for a while and figure out what I'm going to do next. What I can do."
"Home," Lorenz says.
Claude's smile is whimsical. "Far away from here. I'll leave Fódlan in the capable hands of Her Majesty and Teach." At the look on Lorenz's face, he adds, "And you, of course. Take good care of it, will you."
There's a terrible wrongness in hearing Claude speak of giving up Fódlan. Lorenz's younger self would have been overjoyed. His younger self was a fool.
Lorenz does not trust himself to speak. Silence stretches in the moonlight.
"Hey," Claude says. "As long as we're on the subject. Do me a favor?"
Ah. This is what Claude is here for. It certainly isn't to trade witticisms with Lorenz; he knew that. And yet.
"If it is in my power," Lorenz says. He is not quite so compromised as to make open-ended promises to Claude von Riegan.
Claude acknowledges the point with a slight smile. "Don’t worry. It's about our classmates."
Four of them left, save Lysithea. Hilda, dependent on the benevolence of the Empire. Marianne, secluded within the Edmund estate these past five years. Raphael, fighting tooth and nail to keep his sister safe. Leonie, scarred literally and figuratively with defeat at Myrddin.
Claude's face is intent. His green eyes glint, flame in the dark.
Claude says, "Look after them. All of them. I won't be around to do it. And I need to know—" He stops. Starts again. "It'll be a new age. I don't know what it'll look like yet, but I do know that when things shake out... The Alliance might be dead but you'll come through. I know you will."
To others—to Lorenz, once—it may seem a poor compliment: you know which way the wind blows. You look out for yourself. To Lorenz now—
Claude might obfuscate. He might evade. But he doesn't lie. He hadn't lied when he'd said he trusted Lorenz.
Lorenz says, "You have my word."
Claude exhales. "Thanks," he says. "I know you're good for it."
Lorenz's ears burn. He murmurs something deprecatory.
Claude pays it no mind. "I asked Edelgard and Teach to treat them well, and I believe they will if they don't have any reason not to, but we all know this is war." Claude laughs. It is not a pleasant sound. When he speaks it's with a casual and deliberate cruelty, self-directed. "It didn't stop them from killing Hilda, after all."
Lorenz's lips part.
For once, there is something that Claude doesn't know, and Lorenz does.
"Claude," Lorenz begins. He doesn't know how to go on. This has never been his strong suit: sensitivity, the deft touch in sharing bad news, or good.
Claude doesn't appear to hear him, anyway. "I know, I know. The costs of war. She knew, too. But I really thought if the odds turned impossible she'd—well."
"Claude," Lorenz says again. He is still at a loss but he cannot let this drag out. He says it bluntly: "Hilda lives."
Every muscle in Claude's lean frame goes still.
"We received a full report from Imperial forces this evening. Her injuries are... severe. Indeed, she was mistaken for dead, which is likely what allowed her to survive. But there is every reason to believe she will recover. The Emperor and her—" Lorenz clears his throat, "—new strategist saw to it that she received immediate attention from the most skilled healers. It is seen as a prudent action to cement goodwill between the Imperial throne and the keepers of Fódlan's Locket."
He stops there, because—
It's as if a knife has sliced the amiable mask clean away. Relief is too light a word for this depth of feeling, pure and raw. Deliverance, perhaps. Lorenz has never, in all the years he has known Claude von Riegan, seen to his heart. Until this moment.
His own heart turns over.
Claude pulls himself together. "Wow," he says with effort. "Wow. I thought for sure that—I mean, how could anyone—" He has to stop again, passing a hand over his face.
"Claude," Lorenz says, heart beating too fast.
"No. I'm fine. Sorry." Claude pulls up a smile. This one is not as light, or as easy. It is concordantly valuable. "Thank you. You don't know what—No. Yes, you do. Thank you, Lorenz."
Lorenz can't accept this, as if he'd had some miraculous hand in rescuing Hilda himself. "You wouldn't have left if you'd known she lived."
"No. No." Claude exhales a long, controlled breath. "As a matter of fact, I made her swear to retreat if the situation got out of control. I counted on it. But you know—I guess she never did promise, exactly." He laughs, a huff of air. "Man, she's going to be so pissed at me when she hears I made tracks home."
Lorenz doesn't say that it will likely be months before Hilda is in any condition to be violently angry at anyone. There is no need to add further weight to the burden of guilt Claude will be bearing away.
"I read a lot of things wrong in the end, you know," Claude says. He is gazing out the window, as if he can see beyond the dark, past the horizon. This admission should startle Lorenz more; perhaps it would have, if he weren't still half-staggered by the glimpse into Claude's core. "I can't help thinking that if..." He trails off.
He says, softer, "If I could change just one thing. Just one."
The silence that rests in the darkness lies so delicate, so light. A fragile hush, as fine and tenuous as blown glass.
It cannot endure forever; it must eventually be broken. Lorenz cannot bear the thought of the shattering.
He says in the quiet, "If you wish to hear of them, I would gladly write you."
Claude finally looks away from the dark landscape. His green eyes meet Lorenz's. Cinders on the skin.
"Thanks," he says. He looks away again, mouth quirking at something Lorenz can't see. "I can't... give you an address right now. But I'll be in touch once things settle down."
Lorenz will not press, nor entreat. He inclines his head. He must believe that Claude, too, will keep his word.
The moonlight has dimmed; it is later than Lorenz knew. Earlier. The sky beyond Claude's shoulders is beginning to lighten imperceptibly, stars glimmering faint against the dark blue-grey. Soon it will be too light for secret escapes. Even for one as clever as Claude.
"You shouldn't stay long."
Claude glances out the window again, as if he only now sees the view. "You're right. Better not press my luck."
He moves—a movement of his whole body, rather than a turning of the head, and only then does Lorenz realize how still they have been. He says, "Claude—"
Lorenz really must break this terrible habit of speaking without intent. When he says no more, words failing him, Claude holds out a hand. Lorenz moves to shake it.
Claude's hand folds over his. Closes and grips it tight. The breath vaporizes from Lorenz's throat.
"We'll see each other again," Claude says. "That's a promise."
Claude releases his hand. It makes no difference. It blazes red-hot, incandescent beyond measure of magic or nature. Lorenz does not snatch it back. He has spent years learning such restraint.
Claude has turned toward the window. "Claude," Lorenz says again. Claude looks at him. Waiting.
What to say, now, when he needs it most. How to distill years of toil and rivalry and, yes, admiration into a few light words. The apotheosis of all Lorenz had been taught to spurn, the lodestar against which he had placed himself in opposition. Luck and fortune pale against this truth: that Claude is the most unique soul Lorenz has ever known.
Lorenz says, "Do take care of yourself."
Claude smiles. "I'll give it a shot."
He puts a hand on the windowsill and swings himself up, an easy leap, to balance in a light crouch. Silhouetted against the grey sky he looks like a creature of myth or legend—dangerous, mysterious, otherworldly. Like something Lorenz imagined in a dream.
Claude says, "See you around, Lorenz."
He salutes with two fingers. Then he's gone.
Lorenz stays by the window. Waiting, on a hunch. Mist rises from the verdant forests, stretching as far as the eye can see. Then—there it is, far in the distance. A white shape, ghostly in the early morning twilight, lifting into the sky. He fancies he can make out a small figure alight, the glint of a bow strapped to its back. Graceful wings beat, bearing east, and Lorenz watches until the sky begins to lighten, until mount and rider are long lost to view, flying into the dawn.