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Fool's Errand

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It is a beautiful day when Derdriu falls into imperial hands. The sun sparks on the curves of the sea’s green waves and beats a blanket of heat down over the sails of ships. Only the sharp lines of gull wings that circle above the port cut through the rays.

The body of Claude von Riegan cools in the afternoon sun, crumpled on his side where he fell, exactly where the Professor left him. The ebb of his blood spills through the cobbled stone he was killed on until it kisses the waves below.

Hubert von Vestra stands in silence, the toes of his boots mere inches from the fan of blood that spreads out from the last of the Riegan line like cream in coffee. The sun is stifling. Sweat runs down his neck and back, sticking and pooling in his collar, his cuffs, and the cinch of his waist. He shifts his stance a little, feeling the uncomfortable press of his clothes in the domineering heat. He sighs. 

The wyvern, fallen in the same manner as its master, growls weakly at him from where it lays a few yards away, broken and dying. Its snarling maw and piercing yellow eyes turn in his direction, screaming fury in every way possible. 

Hubert tuts. “Quiet, beast ,” he mutters. “You would not know a favour if it hit you in the face.”

The wyvern snarls, snapping its teeth, but it is too far gone to pose any threat here. Throwing his cloak over his shoulder, Hubert kneels next to the fallen duke. His knees land in the lukewarm blood and he feels it start to soak through the fabric of his trousers. Troublesome, perhaps, but no one will bat an eye at a little extra staining when he gets them laundered. 

Hubert reaches out, then stops, removing his gloves before continuing. He takes Claude by the shoulder and pushes him onto his back. The duke’s limp form goes easily, splashing back into its own spilled lifeblood like a stone into a pond, head rolling listlessly to the side, blood-slick hands curled around nothing. It’s hard to see the extent of the damage Eisner inflicted under all the blood and torn cloth, but Hubert needn’t be a poet or dramatist to imagine a sufficiently gory explanation. That sword… like a chain, a whip, and a razor blade all at once… Hubert has seen it tear through men like paper. It disembowels and maims. It is not always a quick death, but it is always a painful one.

Claude is unfamiliar in stillness. He had been a thing of constant motion at the academy; always moving, always talking, always sticking his nose where it didn’t belong and being a step ahead of Hubert in every endeavour to learn more about him. He was a large presence in a small package, young and bright and vibrant. Frustrating, too, more than anything. 

He seems wrong here, which Hubert has enough self-awareness to realise is a foolish thought. It is human instinct to be unnerved by the sight of dead things—it is human instinct to want to live —and Claude, who lays still before Hubert ashen-faced with shuttered, shadowed eyes and pale lips, drenched in his own cherry-red blood and so very still , is to all eyes a corpse. He is something to be left alone. He is small, broken, defeated, and gone .

So why is Hubert here, kneeling on the cobbles of their newly-won city, instead of by his lady’s side? Under the baking heat, he flicks a knife from his sleeve, small and razor thin, and presses it to the underside of the duke’s chin. He drags it lightly across the flesh there, watching blood bead from the wound, then trickle… then flow. 

A thin stream of crimson that ebbs with the slow rhythm of a still-beating heart. 

Hubert is here for the simple reason that Claude von Riegan is not yet dead. 

He will be dead soon, mind you, likely in the next few minutes if Hubert’s assessment is correct. His failing heart will stutter to a stop and his brain will follow shortly after. His body will start to break down in the hours that come. He will cool as the evening goes on and by morning the gulls that circle high above will be upon him, feasting on his so-called blessed blood in the rays of the dawn. Claude von Riegan, however large he had been in life, will find his end as food for scavenging animals, rotting here on the shores of his city. 

Byleth Eisner struck him down for what she had deemed the good of the war, and for the good of the war, Hubert disagrees. 

What good does the blood of Claude von Riegan serve spilled on the street? What good does it do to run from so much potential, simply because it is threatening? How naïve… 

He takes an idle note of the blood now streaking the creases of his fingers. He holds up his bare hands. Not a healer by nature, but one by necessity, he traces the sigil of the most reliable curative spell he knows. 

He is not a man of faith in any traditional sense, but that is not to say he does not have faith in anything. Hubert von Vestra believes in many things indeed, chief among which being the woman he has pledged his life to. It is that faith, he thinks, that fuels this spell now. The symbols of a goddess’s power, carved in the hot, shimmering air of conquered Derdriu, do not come from any place of piety. They are simply for the good of the cause.

It feels a bit like cheating when he puts it like that. How delightful. 

The spell sinks into Claude’s body in a shimmer of light, glinting off the polished metal of his armour and the sheen of his silks. It works, Hubert feels it—sees the wound he just rendered upon the man’s throat seal closed—but the outcome is yet to be observed. 

Hubert wipes the flecks of blood from his hand on the cleanest part of Claude’s cape he can find, then hovers his fingers over the man’s mouth. He waits. 

One second, then two. Then—

An exhale, small and weak. An inhale, soon after. One step from death’s doorway, but no longer in the threshold. 

—It will do. 

He reaches out and tugs off the man’s glove, rolling cold fingers over his own until he finds what he’s looking for—a signet ring, embossed with a shimmering crest. He tugs it off, pocketing it. He doesn’t bother replacing Claude’s glove. 

"Marcus,” Hubert calls out. The leader of his battalion, who are stationed around the area as guards and support both, comes forward. 

The man eyes the body of the fallen duke warily, clearly conscious of the blood at his feet as he steps towards Hubert. “Lord Vestra,” he says, dragging his eyes to his leader.

“Wrap him,” Hubert instructs. “Carry him off the field with the other bodies, but place him in our caravan. Heal him more if you must. Do not let yourselves be seen.” 

Marcus nods, and Hubert gets to his feet, resettling his cloak as he does. He raises his voice a little more, addressing the entire battalion. “All of this stays between us,” he says evenly. “I need not remind you what will happen if I am disobeyed.”

The group nods and bursts into movement, some heading off to collect the cart, others moving to tend to the duke. Hubert leaves them, dusting his hands on his trousers as he walks off. He doesn’t trust these people, but he is willing to believe their fear of him will motivate them rather than hinder them, and that is enough. 

He walks away from his comrade’s handiwork with his head high, leaving it undone in his wake. He cannot bring himself to feel even remotely bad about it. 

Hubert reconvenes with the strike force a ways off the battlefield, closer to the gates of Derdriu’s central district. Edelgard gives the summary of the day and the plan moving forward while Eisner, dull-eyed and impassive, stands at the side—a watcher, as always. Hubert would almost appreciate her aloofness as something refreshing if she weren’t so difficult to read.

And if she weren’t looking right at him. 

“Where were you?” Eisner asks. 

Hubert has absolutely no intention of answering the Professor’s question honestly. He can see in Edelgard’s eyes that she is also curious. They must have noticed his absence after the battle, and while his lady’s concern is appreciated, the attention of the Professor is not—especially not now that he has gone against her. 

“Paying respects to our good duke,” Hubert drawls, keeping his expression even. He reaches into his pocket, retrieving the sole piece of loot he’d swiped from Claude before leaving. 

“Proof of death,” he says mildly, dropping the ring into Edelgard’s hand. It sits stiffly on the leather palm of her gauntlet, flashing in the afternoon sun. She reaches up to turn it over, examining the fine crescent moon carved into the smooth agate face. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship indeed. 

Eisner stares at him, the motion more than her expression indicating confusion. Hubert tuts.

“The lords of the roundtable hold unique signet rings that attest their status,” he explains. “It should be enough to quell any doubts regarding our victory that our new constituents may be clinging to. Is that correct, Lady Ordelia?”

The little mage, who has looked unusually keen to slip into the background this entire time, jumps a little as attention is drawn to her. 

“It—Y-yes,” Lysithea swallows roughly. Her eyes are red and wet, round like a ghost’s on her pale face. “He’s—He was … the only one with, um—”

“It’ll work,” Balthus von Albrecht says gruffly, He looms at the back of their little huddle, far from Lysithea, but there’s an air of protection all the same. “Good thinkin’, Vestra. It’s solid.”

The mood in the group grows sour, a few people shifting awkwardly from foot to foot as silence follows the outburst. No one is unaware of Lysithea’s faraway stare, of the red that rims her eyes. Nor are they ignorant to Balthus’s sharpened anger, nor the absence of Marianne and Lorenz, though whether the latter’s absence is his own or a simple move to comfort the former is far below Hubert’s concern. 

There is sympathy in Edelgard’s gaze as she reaches out to place a hand on Lysithea’s shoulder. The young woman catches herself in a flinch, round eyes darting to the emperor like a startled animal’s. The silence hangs like a noose between them. 

“What’s done is done,” Eisner says brusquely. 

Lysithea really does flinch this time. Hubert takes no action except to retrieve the ring from his lady’s hand. He pockets it. 

“Thank you, Hubert,” Edelgard says, straightening herself up. “Shall we move out, then?”

Eisner nods and immediately turns on her heel. Her hand rests on the pommel of her sword, and Hubert finds his eyes drawn to the crust of half-dried blood that slicks the sword at the Professor’s hip like a bad coat of paint.

Watching the way his lady’s hand slips from Lysithea’s shoulder as she follows her teacher, and how the girl sags in his periphery as she goes, Hubert thinks that, if he were perhaps kinder, he would tell her what he had just done. 

But he is not so kind as that, is he?

It is a beautiful evening when the central imperial forces depart from Derdriu. The sun sets behind them and the night brings with it a coolness to the air that soothes their aches and pains. It will be a few days' ride to the monastery, a few days more of blessed recovery. 

Hubert sits under the cover of his battalion’s central wagon, lounging against a pile of rugs and threadbare pillows. Lanternlight illuminates the book he reads—the sun too low now to provide much more than ambience. He turns the page. It’s not very well written; too many spiralling little asides and not enough detail on the points that matter, but it’s better than nothing.  

—and how can there be fury felt for things that are gone to dust.? ” Hubert recites. “Hm. What do you think of that one, Your Grace?”

The body of Claude von Riegan, hidden in a dark copse of blankets and bags in the corner, has no response but a weak, laboured breath.

Hubert chuckles to himself and turns the page. 



It takes five days and four nights to return to Garreg Mach Monastery and Hubert endeavours to spend at least a portion of each one attending to the duke he hides like a salacious secret lover. It’s all a bit undignified, looking over his shoulder like a common thief or a child with candy, but all it takes is a blank stare from Eisner to remind him why he’s keeping it quiet. 

It feels wrong to lie to Edelgard, but Hubert has done it before. He is no blindly loyal dog. He is a servant of her will—everything, always for her—and if that means going behind her back then so be it. 

He spends a good portion of the first day and night simply searching Claude. He does so slightly more delicately than one might search a corpse, but none of his actions could be mistaken for tenderness. 

His battalion had retrieved Claude’s saddlebags from his wyvern before they left, so Hubert tackles those first. Inside is the common detritus of flying cavalrymen—rations, medical supplies, a whistle to control his beast and signal others, and a plethora of maps Hubert tucks away for later perusal. More interesting are the letters he finds, some for Claude and some unsent by his hand. Many are written in a script Hubert cannot read, but assumes is Almyran. There are flares, flint, and vials of poison. 

Hubert puts it all aside. 

He divests Claude of his outerwear next, unwinding the colourful sash around his waist. It’s heavier than expected, and not just because it’s soaked with its wearer’s blood. The fabric is thick and expertly woven, and the metal links on it rattle as Hubert sets it down. His pauldrons and cape come next. Hubert thinks there may have been more he’d been wearing, but whatever it was had been lost in the tumult of his extradition. 

Hubert spends a while poking through Claude’s outer jacket. It’s padded, both for armour and wind resistance in the air. The interior pockets are mostly empty, except for a few hidden blades in the sleeves. Under it all, he wears a simple shirt and harness, which holds even more knives across his chest. 

Claude had always exuded an air of caution, and Hubert is somewhat vindicated now, seeing the marks of the untrustworthy man he had taken him to be painted before his eyes in such abruptness. 

The glimmer of something metallic catches Hubert’s eye through the torn portions of Claude’s shirt. The shirt itself is drenched black and brown with congealed and dried blood from a barely closed wound, but that only makes the oddity shine brighter. Hubert unfastens the man’s collar, and tugs it down.

Another signet, this one a pendant far too gem-encrusted and ostentatious to be of any Fódlan style, is threaded through a fine chain around Claude’s neck. Hubert picks it up carefully, feeling the flutter of the metal chain as it slips over his fingers. He turns the seal over. The image of a snarling wyvern, wreathed by nettles, looks up at him from a face of carved carnelian and mother-of-pearl. A family crest, but not one he recognises. 

Hubert pulls the chain until it snaps from Claude’s neck. The man does not stir. 

Further searching produces nothing else of value. Hubert joins the strike force at their central campfire that night with Claude’s signets heavy in his breast pockets. Two families. Two pieces of proof. But for what?

He sits down next to Ferdinand, who is already waiting with a cup of wine. He takes it.

“You seem distracted,” Ferdinand tells him.

“Unlike you, I do not get days off,” Hubert retorts easily. Ferdinand huffs, but there’s little malice in it for once. 

“I am worried for our friends from the Alliance,” Ferdinand admits, like Hubert is going to care all that much. Hubert notes that Marianne, Lorenz, and Lysithea are absent from the fireside. Balthus is here, but he sits apart. 

“How noble of you,” Hubert muses. 

He doesn’t have to be looking at Ferdinand to know exactly what kind of glare he’s getting. “You could stand to be a little worried also, Hubert!"

Hubert thinks of Lysithea, of lies, and of the twin signets beginning to burn a hole in his breast pocket. “Please tell me, Lord Aegir, how on earth would that be productive?” He snaps, perhaps a little too hard; against all odds, he finds he does not mind Ferdinand so much these days. 

“I do not know,” Ferdinand grumbles into his cup of wine. “Perhaps something about morale and… hmm… effective team dynamics?”

Hubert chuckles. “Your attempt to speak my language is admirable.”

“Thank you!”

“But I will leave matters of empathy to those more suited, I think. Perhaps Dorothea would be a better target for your moralising?”

Ferdinand sighs, and says something like I’m worried for Dorothea too, but Hubert is already moving on.

“A wyvern wreathed by nettle,” he says. “Does that mean anything to you? As heraldry?”

“As heraldry you say?” Ferdinand looks taken aback, but thinks on it for a moment. “It does not. Should it?” 

“Hm. It was a long shot. Don’t worry.”

“Something important?”

“Just something I’m researching,” Hubert sighs. He thinks Ferdinand asks another question, but he is already making his way to Edelgard’s side of the fire. Eisner is off with Jeritza tonight and, though it galls him to consider the thought, it is easier to find room at Edelgard’s side when the Professor is elsewhere. 

He tries not to think about it.

 

“I wonder if you really are dead,” Hubert muses the next night. He looks over the lip of his book—the second in the series he had started a few nights ago, also very poorly written—and takes stock of Claude’s unmoving form, crammed in the dim corner of his wagon. 

His men had attempted to perform further healing, but any work had been slow going. None of them, including Hubert, are adept white mages, and it shows in the haphazard closure of the wound in Claude’s gut. But he still breathes. Hubert would like to think that means something. 

“The concept of a coma is quite intriguing to me,” Hubert continues, marking his place with a bookmark and shutting the book on his lap. “The idea of a sleep so long… and involuntary… as a last-ditch attempt for the body to heal? Morbid, isn’t it? Like a small sort of dying.”

Claude says nothing. He’s on his side tonight, having moved slightly when he was healed during the day. Marcus has set him on his side in case he starts choking—though on what Hubert can’t imagine—it’s been nigh impossible to get him to eat or drink anything more than the barest amount of water. He very well might starve before he ever manages to wake up.

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?” Hubert recites. “What did you think of that one?”

Nothing.

“They say some people become trapped in their bodies like this. That they can hear everything around them, but for all the world they seem merely asleep, and never wake.” Hubert taps a small pattern on his book’s cover. “If that is the case perhaps I should stop reciting poetry, lest I drive you mad.”

He sighs, opening his book again. The words swim in front of him. He’s tired.

“If you are dead, and just locked away forever…” Hubert muses. “Whoever should we send you back to? It is a question I keep asking myself”

He tugs the gem-encrusted signet pendant from his pocket, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger in the lantern light. “Wyverns and nettle…” The beast on the pendant snarls up at him like the beast on the docks had. “How I hate not knowing things…”

And to think the professor was willing to throw this all away. All this potential. For what? Fear?

“I cannot help but wonder who you are , Claude von Riegan, and who you could be.”

Silence greets him like an old friend. 

 

Lysithea makes an appearance at communal meals before Marianne and Lorenz do. The girl is strong, in part because she forces herself to be, but Hubert sees no problem with false bravado if it can be backed up with skill. Her eyes are no longer red, but her shoulders stay hunched. She sits apart, with Balthus, and speaks to him in hushed whispers.  

The atmosphere remains stifled when the rest of their Leicester-born return to them. Lorenz is his usual boisterous self, and Ferdinand is upon him like a yapping dog, while Dorothea holds Marianne’s hands quietly all night. There’s a sense of normalcy to it, but there is also a grief that is heavy in the air. An ever-present murmuring of the cost of war and whatever they thought was right and it had to be done and sorry, sorry, sorry—

It’s tiring. 

Eisner seems either ignorant to or dismissive of the unrest in the ranks. It rankles Hubert that Ferdinand was right, that perhaps letting those of them with a connection to the Alliance fester in doubt would cause some sort of tangible divide. Hubert scolds the woman in his mind, wondering if it’s worth bringing it up with Edelgard, but he knows there will be no change. Edelgard cares for Eisner, and Eisner cares for nothing but bodies on the field and the opinions of a scant few. She collects them, it seems, like pretty river stones. She does not give the illusion of caring about anything much deeper than the surface. 

She is a brilliant strategist, but there is something glacially cold about her that even Hubert is wary of. 

They fight a group of remnant soldiers near Myrddin, perhaps Judith’s folk, perhaps just stupid children with a grudge. The skirmish is barely even that, and their assailants are torn asunder like paper people on the banks of the river. Red stains gold. The water flows on. 

“This is why,” Eisner says. She meets Hubert’s eye, her gaze dull and deep all at once. 

“If we had let him live,” she says. “There would have been more. Rebels. Loyalists. People who loved him.”

Hubert can count a few such people in their own ranks, but he says nothing. He nods. He’s uncomfortable with this conversation, it’s as if the Professor can sense his doubt of her—smell it like a hunting dog would smell sweat on his skin.

“He would have made a good king,” Eisner says. Hubert frowns, but she cuts off any burgeoning argument with a wave of her hand. “That is why he had to die.”

The bodies on the banks of the Airmid cool in the reeds. The air tastes of rain and blood and tilled earth. Shadowed clouds hide the stars from sight as night falls.

“No kings,” Hubert says.

Eisner leaves with her hand on the pommel of her sword.

“No kings,” she murmurs.

On that, at least, they can agree. 

 

Claude awakens, albeit briefly, on that fourth night. It is not a quiet affair. 

The wound in his gut has festered. Hubert can’t help but blame himself slightly; his healing was insufficient, the skills of his mages too unsuited, to fully fix something this life-threatening. 

Infection sets in like a rolling storm. Claude gasps awake in the early hours, jolting Hubert from his own slumber. He is taken aback, initially, by the sight of two shimmering green eyes in the darkness, but that shock is quickly overtaken as Claude screams

Or tries to, at least. His throat is unused and caked in blood, so what leaves his lips is little more than a wail. But Hubert is on him immediately. He shoves the man back into the makeshift bedroll, clamping a hand over his mouth in a furious attempt to silence him. Their wagon is near the back of the convoy, but in the dead of night, not much can be hidden in a cramped camp.

“If you value your life I would advise you to shut up!” Hubert hisses. 

There is not an ounce of recognition in Claude’s eyes which, for whatever reason, sends a sinking feeling into Hubert’s gut. They are glazed with sickness and fear, unseeing. This is wrong —almost more so than his still, dead body had been. 

“Marcus!” Hubert hisses, and his battalion leader is in the wagon in an instant. “Hold him down, I’ll see what I can do.”

Hubert can’t do much, it seems. Though he has travelled and slept next to the former duke’s body these last few nights, he has touched him very little besides his initial search and has done none of his healing since that first burst that saved his life. 

Now, however, he holds him down like one might hold a wild animal, grabbing broad shoulders and shoving them to the hard ground as he forces sedative medicine down his throat—clamping his jaw shut like a hound. Tears stream down Claude’s face, and his hands claw weakly at Hubert and Marcus’s arms. Hubert drives his knee into Claude’s thigh, eliciting enough pain to make the man let go. 

How very ignoble, Ferdinand might say. Hubert wonders when his internal thoughts started sounding like his former classmates. He ignores it. 

Though still burning like a furnace, Claude seems to calm eventually, slumping back into a fitful unconsciousness. Marcus rocks back on his heels, wiping his brow before checking Claude’s pulse. 

“He’s alive, but… I’m not sure he’ll make it to the monastery if we don’t get a healer, milord,” Marcus whispers. “Is there anyone you trust?”

Hubert can count the number of people he truly trusts on one hand. But Marcus is wrong, it is not his trust that matters. It’s Claude’s

“I have an idea,” he says. He pushes his sweaty bangs from his face and staggers to his feet, just barely remembering to swipe his cloak on the way out. 

Lysithea is not in her own battalion caravan, this has been the case for several nights. Hubert may not entirely care about her feelings, but he makes a habit of knowing where his people are at any given point. 

She’s farther out on the outskirts of their camp, where Balthus and Hapi have set up their caravans. Hubert avoids the centre of camp entirely, opting to skirt the fringes all the way to where a smattering of wagons and tents sit under a hunched willow tree. There are still lights on in the central wagon. 

Hubert approaches slowly. There are voices coming from within, snatches of a conversation that reverberates through the air as a low hum. This isn’t right and there could have been and how am I supposed to feel and I miss them… 

He knocks lightly on the exterior wall, hearing the voices snuff out like lamplight, and waits until the canvas curtains at the back of the wagon part. 

“Hubert?” Balthus raises an eyebrow. He’s dressed for sleep, but he looks alert. 

Hubert knows he must look a mess, having just wrestled a grown man into submission. His clothes are no doubt rumpled and his hair is a mess. He sends out an aimless thanks that it is too dark to see any blood on him. 

“Good evening, Albrecht,” Hubert says. “I wish to speak with Lady Ordelia. Is she in?”

Balthus hesitates for a moment. “Why would she be here?”

“I appreciate your noble attempt at protecting her,” Hubert tuts, “but I already know she’s here and I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t quite urgent .”

Balthus looks ready to put up more of a fight, but he’s shoved aside with a grunt and an indignant oh, would you move already!? as Lysithea appears next to him. She’s similarly dressed for sleep; her hair tied into a loose braid and her shoulders wrapped in a knitted shawl, but she looks at Hubert with those calculating rosey eyes he appreciates so much, and he forges ahead. 

“I require your assistance back at my battalion caravan,” Hubert says. “If you would be so kind as to accompany me there? It is urgent.”

“What for?” Lysithea asks. 

“I would prefer to tell you in private,” Hubert says. “Simple confidentiality. Nothing untoward, if your guard dog is worried.”

Balthus narrows his eyes, but Lysithea just sighs, and hops out of the wagon. 

“Alright,” she says. “I’ll see you later then, Balthus.”

They make their way back to Hubert’s caravan in silence, accompanied only by the crunch of earth and grass beneath their feet and the eerie calls of the occasional night bird. If Lysithea notices how odd their route is, she wisely says nothing. 

Hubert stops her outside the wagon, taking her by the shoulder where Edelgard had all those days ago. 

“What you are about to see remains a secret between you and myself,” he says in a low voice. “Do not speak of this to anyone, especially not the Professor. I know you are a formidable mage, but I have multitudinous ways of killing you that do not involve a battle of wills between us, and I will not hesitate to employ them. Do you understand?” 

Lysithea looks suspicious. Good. She nods firmly. Even better. 

Hubert unlatches the back of the wagon and lets Lysithea in through the draping curtains. With a flick of his wrist, Hubert lights the smattering of lanterns that dot the space. 

Marcus is nowhere to be seen, but Claude is exactly where they left him. He’s lying back on his makeshift bed, stripped down to his shirt and trousers, boots cast aside days ago, and sweating through it all like a sinner in a church. 

Apt analogy, Hubert thinks. 

Lysithea stumbles through the threshold and Hubert hears her gasp. He holds up a hand in warning.

“Quiet.”

Lysithea makes no more noise as she drifts forward. She approaches Claude with a hesitancy one might call reverence, sinking to her knees on the hard floor of the wagon. If Hubert were a more religious man, perhaps he would have a better allegory.

“You… he’s… he’s alive?” Lysithea says breathlessly.

“Yes.”

“H-how? I… we all saw him die .”

“I healed him after the battle,” Hubert reports. “I had my men bring him here under the guise of body disposal. We’ve been keeping him alive for the last few days.”

Lysithea shuffles over on her knees until she’s pressed right up against the man’s side, sitting on her heels and leaning over him like a bowed riverside flower. She hovers a hand over his chest for a moment, before laying it down gently. Hubert sees the moment she feels the man breathing, because every ounce of tension leeches from her body in an instant. 

Hubert walks over, slowly. He is not kind, but he is not so crass as to ignore the fact this is something of a moment for this woman. He will indulge it. 

“You did this?” 

“I did.”

Lysithea’s shoulders are shaking. “Why?”

“I do not think you will like the answer.”

“I want it anyway,” she whispers. It’s almost a hiss. “You are no altruist , Hubert. This is for something.”

“For the cause,” he says plainly. “As it always is. Let us just say I disagreed with the Professor’s interpretation of that cause back in Derdriu.”

Lysithea is silent for a moment longer before speaking. “Marianne and Lorenz deserve to know.”

Hubert will indulge, but not this far. “Any matter of ‘deserving’ is entirely subjective, and I find myself disagreeing with that too,” he drawls. “This will stay between you and me for the time being. I intend to inform Her Majesty once we have returned to the monastery, but for now, the Professor remains too close to her side for me to reach out in a subtle manner.”

Lysithea looks over her shoulder, her brow furrowed. “You’re… hiding this from the Professor?”

“Naturally. You think I should throw your man back at the mercy of the woman who killed him not a tenday ago? I thought you were supposed to be smarter than this, Ordelia.”

Lysithea grits her teeth, glaring up at him in the low lamplight, her hand never leaving her former leader’s chest even as she pulls away. Hubert is oddly reminded of Claude’s wyvern, dying on the docks, biting out at him in last-ditch, protective fury. 

“You have gall , Hubert von Vestra,” she snarls. “Do your multitudinous ways of killing me account for me tearing you to shreds right now, I wonder?”

“And you are remarkably easy to rile up, Ordelia,” Hubert chuckles. “Perhaps that is a flaw you could work on?”

Lysithea opens her mouth to snap back at him when the air is broken by a groan. Lysithea whips back around, her hair flying like the pearly blade of a sword. 

“Claude? Claude, can you hear me?” She whispers. Her voice has a newly miserable edge to it now; something pleading that wasn’t there before. 

Claude makes no further sound, even as his eyes crack open to stare up at Lysithea. The girl shuffles forward again, curled over the man desperately. Her hands lift from his chest, finding their way to the sides of his face, where she turns his gaze more deftly to her own. 

Please… ” she whispers, voice hitching on tears. Hubert watches her fingers curl a little tighter in the man’s hair.

There is a kind of love here Hubert thinks he might understand. Devotion, maybe. Affection for someone who leads and guides. He feels it for Edelgard, though perhaps not exactly the same as this. The Golden Deer had always been… touchy folk. 

He notes, as Lysithea whispers nonsense pleas to her former leader in the dark with her soft, shaking hands upon him, that this devotion is not something she has ever afforded to Edelgard. Not once. He supposes it is a lot to ask—to love a woman and not just her ideals—but it stings all the same. He remembers the way Lysithea had flinched from the emperor. Perhaps, years ago, he would have been tempted to strike her down for it—for showing that hesitance—but now he just flexes his fingers, relaxing a fist he hadn’t known he’d formed, and watches in silence. 

Claude blinks. It’s hard to see his eyes in the dim, but from where Hubert is standing they are dull and dark. He makes no move to touch Lysithea or speak to her. He doesn’t even twitch. Hubert’s shoulders tense a fraction as he realises finally that whoever is lying there is not, in any way that matters, Claude von Riegan. 

This is not the larger than life man who fell from the skies a mere week ago. This is not the mind that rivalled Hubert’s in their youth. This is something broken and frozen in a state of dying. Perhaps, in time and with help, he will get better. But as it stands now, he is too far gone. 

“He’s sick,” Lysithea murmurs. Her hand is on Claude’s forehead now, pushing back blood-crusted hair to feel the clammy skin beneath.

“I healed him to the best of my ability in Derdriu,” Hubert says in a low voice. “And though my battalion has kept him alive, I fear he is suffering from an infection of some sort we cannot combat. Hence, you.”

“Me?” Lysithea rasps. She turns around to face Hubert again, her eyes bloodshot and wet with tears. “I—What about Linhardt or Marianne? Marianne, surely, would—”

“I do not trust Linhardt to not get… carried away,” Hubert admits. “And as for Edmund… I did consider her. I needed someone who would care about him enough to break a few rules for him, but whilst Edmund is not short of care to give, I trust that you are far more capable of lying .”

Lysithea seems to take in his words for a moment, and when she finally turns her back to him to give her attention to Claude once more, Hubert is content enough with the situation’s equilibrium to step away. 

He steps out briefly, to his battalion’s personal cooking station where someone’s night-time coffee has been left brewing. He makes two cups and climbs back inside, swiping a few sweet rations on the way. Lysithea hasn’t moved, simply sitting next to Claude and sending diagnostic bursts of white magic through his chest. Hubert steps past her, kicking open one of his book chests and searching through for the right tome. It’s a balancing act, but he manages to tug out one of the more unused ones—sturdy oaken boards bound in green leather and lashed with silver filigree. He drops it and the rations next to Lysithea, making her jolt. 

“Hard candy for energy,” he says. “And a tome on restorative magic. I never had much of a nack for it myself, but it would be in our friend’s best interest if you started living up to that genius reputation everyone is so quick to give you.”

Lysithea picks up the book, eyes skimming across the runes on the cover. “I don’t know this type of spell,” she says. 

“Well then, I guess we’ll find another way,” Hubert says, grabbing the book, but he finds resistance when he tries to tug it back.

“I can learn,” Lysithea says firmly.

Hubert smiles and holds out the second cup of coffee. “You might need this, then. It’s going to be a long night.”

He settles down on his bedroll as Lysithea starts reading, retrieving his own book to join her. The sound of the pages turning on either side of the wagon is almost soothing enough to make him forget Claude is, for the second time in a week, dying in front of him. 

“Why do you want him alive?” Lysithea asks suddenly. “The Professor and Edelgard seemed to think it was best for the war if he was dead.”

Hubert raises an eyebrow. “I told you before. I disagreed with the Professor’s opinion on the matter. Claude is much more valuable to us alive.”

“And Edelgard’s opinion too?”

Hubert has many opinions, about the emperor’s unfortunate blindspot when it comes to the Professor, about how the decisions she makes are no longer as rooted in cold logic and determination as they had been before Eisner’s arrival. He will never speak any of them aloud, especially not to little Lysithea von Ordelia. 

“I am not following blindly at her heels,” Hubert says eventually. “I have my opinions on how best to help her achieve her goals, and they just so happened to clash with the Professor’s this time. Claude, I believe, is necessary.”

Lysithea’s hand curls around Claude’s wrist protectively. Hubert sees that wyvern again in his mind’s eye. Gnashing. “What do you want from him?” Lysithea asks. Her tone brokers no argument. Hubert makes the easy decision to reward her daring with honesty.

“Information,” he says. “I would like to know his opinion on this war… how he managed to hold his country together so long and so well… how we could do the same, if he is amenable… He is a brilliant strategist, more so than myself, and that is an asset. Besides, if nothing else, I would very much like to know how he managed to wrangle a fleet of Almyran soldiers to come to the Alliance’s aid. It is the job of one such as myself to look for advantages everywhere, and I saw one in Derdriu I didn’t want to let go.”

“A mind like his is once in a generation,” Hubert murmurs, more to himself, opening his book again to signal he is done talking. “It seems a waste to let it bleed out in the street, does it not?” 

“So, what is he to you?” Lysithea asks. “A tool? He won’t just sit back and let you use him.”

Hubert ponders if that is the right word. He swiftly decides it isn’t. Claude von Riegan, larger than life, might be something more like a trump card instead. Would he let himself be that , he wonders?

“Get back to reading, Ordelia,” he sighs. “He won’t be much of anything if he doesn’t make it through the night.”

 

Hubert falls asleep at some point, which is stupid of him. Lysithea clearly does not like him and he doesn’t make a habit of leaving himself so open in front of those who find him distasteful. 

But when he wakes he finds Lysithea asleep as well. She’s curled up at Claude’s side with her head on his chest, the book of restorative spells fallen to the side. Hubert gets to his feet and drifts over. 

For a moment he thinks it’s over, that the spell had been too draining to learn, that Claude is dead. But as he gets closer he sees a flush on the man’s cheeks that one could almost call healthy, and the wounds in his torso seem… suspiciously more healed than they had been. 

“Genius indeed,” Hubert says, a small smile tugging at his lips. Lysithea stirs a little, but ultimately just curls up tighter at Claude’s side. 

Hubert watches on with that same slow-simmering anger he’d felt last night. That same… envy , perhaps… at the affection this man has so easily won that Edelgard cannot. He’d be fooling himself if he said it is just the sons and daughters of the Alliance who mourn him. Dorothea hides grief behind a careful mask, but Petra’s regret is more easily read on her face. Bernadetta looks fit to run away at any given moment. No one had wanted this, really. 

He himself had even mourned him, in his own way. Are these actions not driven by an attempt to avert a loss? Is this not mourning?

Hubert kneels down, careful not to jostle Lysithea, and reaches out. 

“How did you do it?” He murmurs, turning Claude’s head to face him in a parody of Lysithea’s earlier embrace. “How did you make them love you so? I wonder if you will tell me.”

Silence again. As always. 

Hubert stands again, peering out where cracks of dawnlight filter through the moth-bitten holes in the wagon cover. 

He nudges Lysithea awake with his boot, as… gently… as he can. She jolts up anyway, blinking at the sudden awakening. Hubert watches her realise where she is, and she reaches out again for Claude, like she had last night—a desperate hand on his chest. 

“You did it,” Hubert says. “Congratulations, he’ll live to see another day.”

Lysithea slumps in relief.

“I have a question for you before you go,” he says, reaching into his breast pocket. Her sleep-hazy eyes turn to him, wary. “A wyvern, wreathed in nettle. Have you seen this heraldry before?”

He produces the carnelian pendant, still tangled in the chain it had been slung around Claude’s neck in. He holds it out and Lysithea takes it delicately in her pale fingers, twisting it in the light. 

“No. I-I don’t recognise it. What is this?”

“Just something else I’m looking into,” Hubert says before turning to leave. 

They will be back at Garreg Mach by nightfall. He has much to prepare.


It is raining, and there are flowers and candles outside Claude and Hilda’s old dorm rooms. 

Day-old blooms of common alpine flowers, swimming in cups of tepid, cloudy water, sit shoulder to shoulder with the slouched remains of plain white candles. Some still burn, but most are extinguished by now. The flowers are cut from the monastery’s greenhouse, the candles scavenged from the old chapels. No letters or names or evidence of any kind as to who could have left them. 

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not so important that someone put them there, but rather that no one has taken them away.

Hubert stares down at the only still-lit candle in front of Claude’s door, wondering if it would be in poor taste to kick it aside. It sputters weakly at him. 

Regardless of taste, it would certainly be a hazard. He decides to simply step over it as he enters the room, lifting his trouser leg slightly to avoid the flickering flame. 

There is barely a corner of Garreg Mach left untouched after five years of war. Bandits and pillagers alike had swept through the place routinely, like a spring tide, so by the time the Empire had taken up root in the place, most valuables that weren’t literally nailed down were long gone. 

The dorms had been in a similar state and though the former Black Eagles have had a few months to reinject their old living quarters with a modicum of liveliness, the others stand empty and cold. Like tombs, ready and waiting.

Claude’s is no exception; a vacant mausoleum with a years-old broken latch and a layer of dust over its surfaces like fine sateen. Hubert steps inside and shuts the door behind him. 

He combs the room methodically. It's hard to tell what was taken by bandits and what was taken by Claude’s own hand—hastily gathered in his quick exit from the monastery five years ago—but regardless of the cause, the room is nearly barren. The bedframe is stripped of bedding, the shelves are empty and dark, and the writing desk against the wall is gutted—Hubert knows the drawers will be empty before he searches them, but he searches them anyway.

After he’s finished the cursory search, he starts investigating in earnest. He walks the circumference of the room, running his hand over the stone walls, searching for any inconsistencies—anything not where it should be. He runs his hands under the bedframe and the edge of the desk, feeling for any compartments or false bottoms, anything passed over in the bouts of thievery that set over this place like a plague. Nothing. 

“If I were something potentially incriminating…” Hubert mutters to himself as he slowly steps back into the centre of the room, “...where would Riegan hide me…?”

One of the floorboards sags underfoot. 

It’s not a wholly unusual thing; the monastery is old and has not been properly upkept in half a decade, but Hubert is not in the business of writing things off.

He presses down on the board with the toe of his boot and, sure enough, the end nearest to the bed lifts slightly from the plane of the floor. Hubert kneels down. It takes a few tries to get his fingers under the edge, but once he has a grip on it, the board lifts easily. 

“Hubert?”

Hubert lets the floorboard fall back into place as his shoulders tense. He hadn’t even noticed the door open. He gets to his feet slowly, turning on his heel to cast his gaze back over his shoulder, where Lysithea stands in the open doorway.

“Get out of there,” she says quietly. Her expression is firm. Hubert chuckles. 

“Or what?”

“Just get out.” Her voice is cold. 

Hubert sighs and readjusts his cloak. He takes a step forward but does not leave the room. Lysithea doesn’t move either, and the little row of wilting flowers and burned-down candles sits like a wall between them.

“Did you leave those flowers?” He asks. 

“No.”

“Then why are you here?” 

Lysithea’s mouth forms a thin line. Her eyes are unwavering. 

“You can’t hide him in here,” she says, an admirable attempt to change the subject, but ultimately too awkward to be entirely successful. 

“I am aware.” 

“Then why are you here?”

Hubert sighs and strides out of the room swiftly, brushing past Lysithea and knocking over a jar of flowers. He doesn’t turn around, but he can almost hear the way Lysithea hesitates after him, before the closing of the door and the tapping of her shoes on the hardwood ring out behind him. 

Lysithea has been following him ever since he’d first brought her into this mess, likely to keep an eye on how he’ll be treating Claude—though Hubert suspects she’s privately enjoying tagging along on his work, doing something she’s somehow deemed adult and important . He’d much prefer if she’d stop tailing him altogether, but it will be much harder to make her death look like an accident now that they’re back at the monastery. He’ll let her lurk. For now. 

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” Lysithea hisses, jogging to keep up with him as he strides back toward the stairs. Her veil flutters behind her. “About Claude.”

“Last time I checked you'd not felt the need to ask before you bothered me,” Hubert snaps back. “And do not say his name aloud. The walls have ears.”

Lysithea darts in front of him just before the exit, looking up at him with a stroppy, stubborn look that unfortunately reminds Hubert all too much of a younger Edelgard. How awfully sentimental of him.

“You can’t just leave… him… out in that caravan for another night,” she whispers. “You’re smarter than that, and it’s unlike you not to have a plan.”

It is unlike him, which is highly frustrating to acknowledge. Hubert is not a creature of impulse and he prides himself on that fact, but he has broken his own mould now. Claude had been a spur of the moment thing. He had taken him with little thought to where he would end up, and now they both hang in limbo. 

As far as he’s aware Claude is still unconscious, guarded as subtly as possible in Garreg Mach’s lower township, where their battalion caravans rest between deployment. It is not a sustainable hiding place by any means, but with Eisner making a point of spending her days off sticking her nose into every nook and cranny in the monastery, it’s only outside its walls that Hubert can find some modicum of security.

But Lysithea is right, as biased and naïve as she is, and the thought is enough to make Hubert grind his teeth. 

"What would you suggest then?" He narrows his eyes. Lysithea takes a deep breath. 

“I might know somewhere,” she urges. “But you're going to have to let me bring someone else in."

Hubert tuts. "I thought I made myself clear, Ordelia. The more people who know about this the more likely it is that your man is killed again."

“Please, Hubert,” Lysithea urges. “You need help. You need to trust me. I… I want to help him.”

Hubert will never in his life trust Lysithea von Ordelia; he is far too practical. But that practicality also means he knows he cannot take on the hidden devils along their path without involving others. He’s particular about who those others might be, but he also knows when he’s out of options. 

“Fine,” he hisses. “But if this goes south because of you it is your head first on the block, understand?”

“Of course,” she says, and then she’s off down the stairs.

Hubert looks over his shoulder. He can still see a glimpse of the flowers in front of Hilda’s door, weak and wilting. 

Somehow, he can’t summon the urge to remove them either.

 

It takes a full day for Lysithea to produce results. In that time, Hubert is occupied with the many spinning plates of preliminary war councils and his continued tracking of Arundel and his fellows. He doesn’t get another opportunity to investigate the loose floorboard in Claude’s room, nor to even see the man himself. 

The first sign is that Balthus von Albrecht is in attendance at the first real war council after they return. The Abyssians rarely send more than one person to the councils and that person is typically Yuri LeClerc, whom Hubert begrudgingly respects for a knack for information gathering that rivals his own. Today, however, Balthus sits to Yuri’s left through the entire meeting. Hubert has the odd feeling he is being watched.

“Hey, Hubert. I need to talk to you.”

Hubert looks up at Balthus from his seat. The man is very good at taking up space, looming over him like an unwanted wave while the rest of the council filters out at the session’s end. Hubert remains impassive. 

“What about? I am currently occupied.”

“Something Lysithea wanted to pass on. Privately.”

Hubert sighs internally. Predictable. He should have seen this coming. 

“Go on ahead Hubert,” Edelgard orders. He glances at her, but she’s not looking at him, too absorbed in a thin file of reports Eisner is passing to her. “I have a few more things to discuss with the Professor.”

Hubert ignores the last part of his lady’s request as best he can, and follows Balthus from the room. He makes a concerted effort not to look back as he does. 

They’re halfway back to the stairs when Balthus grabs Hubert by the collar and unceremoniously throws him into one of the unused staff offices. Hanneman’s, maybe. The rug seems his style. 

The door slams shut behind them.

“Lysithea told me about Claude,” Balthus says. 

Hubert’s annoyance must show on his face, because in a fraction of a second Balthus has him by the throat, pressed against the wall. A framed picture falls to the ground, glass cracking like an icy fractal. 

“Nuh-uh,” Balthus growls. “Don’t make that face. You’re talking to me , pal, not her. Act like it.”

Hubert chuckles, it comes out choked and dry. “Certainly, though a— hrk —elbow in my throat makes talking hard, wouldn’t you say?”

Balthus loosens his hold slightly. Hubert’s toes brush the ground. 

“Explain,” Balthus demands. 

“The Professor thought it best for the war effort that Riegan be executed. I disagreed, healed him, and returned him here with me. What else is there to explain?”

Balthus’s eyes are aflame with fury—hatred, maybe, but Hubert cares little for the difference in this precise moment.

“Why him,” Balthus snarls, “and not Hilda?”

Wyverns, once again, snarling on the docks of fair Derdriu city. Gnashing, protective teeth and blinding eyes full of hate. Oh, how they seem to follow Hubert everywhere

“My good man,” Hubert chuckles. “I know better than to answer a question like that.”

“Too bad. Answer it.”

“I quite enjoy having all my fingers intact. As I told Lady Ordelia before, I don’t think you will like the answer to your question.”

Balthus leans in close. “I’ll break you in half before you have a chance to warp out of here. Answer me.”

Hubert does the mental math quickly, chasing this conversation to all its possible endings. He’d like one that doesn't end with him in the infirmary, if possible. Once again, honesty seems to be the way. How novel

“Riegan is useful to me,” he says. “He presents a perspective on this conflict I anticipate would be valuable, and possibly more. He seems to have tangible, as of yet untapped resources we can use, strategies we can employ. We are not losing this war yet, but we could be winning it faster. Better.”

Balthus’s gaze is steely. 

“Lady Goneril… was simply not an asset of the same calibre.”

Without warning, he is dropped the rest of the way to the floor. Hubert feels his knees buckle, and only just manages to stop himself from falling. When he rights himself, Balthus is standing farther back, arms crossed, glaring a hole in the wall. 

“You’re a piece of work,” he grits out. 

“I am aware.” Hubert rubs at his throat, kneading the tender skin where Balthus had grabbed him.

He is not a kind man, but he is a realistic one. Sometimes that is more effective. 

“She was long dead when I returned to the field,” Hubert says. “Riegan was not. What would you have had me do?”

Balthus says nothing. He tenses for a second, then sighs. There’s a burden here Hubert cannot speak on. He knows this battle had been a dozen different kinds of tragedy, depending on the angle one viewed it from—like a faceted diamond, a refracting point of grief.

“I am sorry for your loss,” he musters.

Balthus rolls his eyes. “No, you aren’t.”

“No. I suppose I’m not. But hopefully, you can take solace in the fact I disagreed with our force’s actions that day.”

Balthus doesn’t look like he’s ready to take solace in anything, but he seems to relax a little. Hubert does not afford him the same courtesy. 

“Lys said you need somewhere to keep him where the Professor won’t find him?” Balthus asks gruffly.

“Preferably. Do you have somewhere in mind?”

“Meet me at the southern entrance to Abyss—don’t pretend you don’t know where that is.” Balthus rolls his shoulder on his way out the door. Hubert hears the joint crack. “Midnight. I’ll sort something out for you.”

Hubert waits a good five minutes before exiting the office. He catches Edelgard on the stairs, alone. 

“What did Balthus want to speak with you about?” She asks, her expression warm. Hubert’s heart twinges a little. 

“Some book loans for Lady Ordelia,” Hubert lies easily. He lets Edelgard walk in front of him, thanking whoever may be listening for his high collar, though not so much the bruises it surely hides. 

He only realises the moment had been a perfect opportunity to tell the emperor of his plans after the fact, when he’s already halfway out the gate and down the hill toward the lower township. It makes him slow his step a little, boots skidding unevenly on the rocky path. He wonders when he changed his mind about telling her. 

He wonders if he ever actually intended to in the first place.

 

When Hubert arrives at the meeting place that night—a lesser-known entrance to Abyss on the southern outskirts of the monastery—with Claude in tow behind him, Balthus is waiting with a lantern in hand. Hubert steps to the side, letting Balthus walk right up to the small cart and its cargo. There’s that reverence again, he thinks; Wide eyes and shaking hands reaching for poor old Claude von Riegan like he’ll disappear into smoke at any instant. The precipice of some great rapture.

“This is pretty poor healing,” Balthus says. It’s the first thing he’s said all night—the revelation of Hubert’s honestly having pulled the wind from his sails a touch. 

He examines Claude in the half-light, large but careful hands tilting his head, taking his pulse, pulling back the tattered edges of his shirt to assess the damage beneath. 

“I didn’t drag him all this way to have him die ,” Hubert retorts. “I did what I could.”

“I’ll heal him again then, when we’re inside. No more rush jobs. He doesn’t look like he could take another.”

Hubert doesn’t let himself linger too long on that thought. 

Balthus hefts the former duke of the Leicester Alliance into his arms like a child, bundled loosely in the sheet he’d bled on for a fiveday. Hubert follows Balthus deep into the bowels of Abyss, taking up the lantern as Balthus does nothing but occasionally shift Claude’s position in his arms. Firelight spills over damp stone and the dark ripples of the underground river they let guide them.

Balthus’s solution turns out to be a relatively simple one. Abyss, he assures, is the safest place to hide things from the Professor’s prying eyes. The woman sticks her nose in there, of course, as she does all corners of Garreg Mach, but she confines herself to the main streets. It seems even unflappable Byleth Eisner is unwilling to venture into the darkest corners of her domain. 

There is a small Almyran community on the Abyss’s outskirts, Balthus says, and a woman there who owes him a favour. Claude will be safe there. Hubert says nothing and neither does Balthus; the secrets neither of them should know speak loud enough in the silence. 

Eventually their route opens into a series of narrow alleys, each buttressed around a tributary of the dark river. Sconces and hanging lanterns light the space, illuminating the dark forms of Abyssians, ducking their heads out of apartment doors to investigate the commotion. Balthus is not a very… subtle man, even less so with a clearly unconscious body in his arms. Hubert bristles at the attention.

"Don't worry about them," Balthus says gruffly. "No one in Abyss gives enough of a crap about the emperor's agenda to go ratting you out.”

Hubert is not willing to bet on that, but he has very few alternatives. They forge ahead.

They take a few more turns before coming out into a new alley, run through by a small canal like all the others. Hubert has always found Abyss dreary—the bowels of the church, aptly flooded with its refuse in the form of both people and waste—but he appreciates the effort the citizens put in to counterbalance the decrepitude of living in a literal hole in the ground. 

The alley they turn down is lit by numerous lanterns, most plain, but others are faced with coloured glass. The air smells of hot food and herbs, and voices murmur from the rows of doors inset into the sides of the underground walkway—apartments, most likely, teeming with the rabble of evening. Somewhere in the far distance, the high hum of a stringed instrument floats down the current.

A woman is sitting on a crate between two doors, close to the end of the street, each shuttered by a heavy, patterned curtain. She’s middle-aged, with dark skin and thick black hair wrapped in a scarf and a heavy coat dwarfing her thin frame. She gives them the barest glance as they round the corner, her eyes lingering on Balthus as they draw nearer. She tamps out a thin smoking pipe and stands. Balthus greets her, or at least Hubert thinks he does, because it’s not in any language he knows. 

“This is Safa,” Balthus explains, seeing his confusion. “She’s lending us her storeroom for Claude.”

“I am trying to keep this a secret , you know,” Hubert drawls. “Not make it tomorrow’s knitting-circle gossip .”

Balthus looks unamused. “She only speaks Almyran. Most of the people in this area are the same. Who do you think they’re going to tell, exactly?” 

Safa says something else, her hand reaching out to pull away the sheet from Claude’s face. Hubert tenses when she tuts. 

“She’s just asking who he is,” Balthus translates.

“Don’t tell her,” Hubert orders, though he is aware of how little power he has here. “It is safer for everyone if we limit information.”

Balthus frowns, but speaks to Safa quickly. Hubert listens carefully to the words, trying to hear if Balthus uses any names or terms he shouldn’t, but it seems innocuous enough. 

Safa places her hand on Claude’s forehead, muttering something under her breath, then beckons them towards one of the curtained doors. 

“What did she say?” Hubert asks, following the new flow of the group. 

Balthus readjusts Claude in his arms before ducking through the door. “She said he’s very young.”

He is, isn’t he, Hubert thinks. They all are. It doesn’t feel like it, but they are.

Safa directs them to the corner of a cramped storeroom, where a cot and a few rolls of blankets have been set up amidst a jungle of crates and boxes and other detritus. She lights a few candles that are dotted around the space before leaving them to their business. Balthus settles Claude onto the cot. Hubert stays near the entrance, lantern still in hand. 

“Saints, they really did a number on you, kid,” Balthus sighs. “I didn’t see it happen, was it—?”

“The Professor,” Hubert says. The word hangs in the air between them like some kind of portent. There is no teaching that has been done here, with the man before them broken to pieces and put back together. This is no house of learning. Maybe it never has been. 

“Nasty thing, that sword of hers,” Balthus mutters. “He didn’t deserve that.”

“That is where you and I are in agreement,” Hubert says. 

Balthus chuckles, though there is not an ounce of humour in it. He moves his hands in a tight motion over the wound. “You don’t seem like the type to give a crap about deserving .”

A spell carves into the air, brighter than anything Hubert had managed to conjure over the last week. It sinks into the cracked seams of Claude’s wound like liquid light. The air snaps with the sickly sweet odour of healing magic. 

“I say this,” Hubert starts slowly, “with as little affection and investment as possible—”

“Wow.”

“—I think this country will be far better off with him in it.”

Balthus stares at him for a moment, then huffs out a laugh. He shakes his head and says nothing further.

Hubert looks down at Claude, bundled in the first real bedding they’ve had access to so far. He looks smaller—weaker—than ever, curled up like a sick dog in a dusty corner with sallow skin and shadowed eyes. This is not what Hubert needs, but he is a patient man. 

The wound looks better; lighter and more scabbed over, and what was once a sickly black and red has faded to a less concerning brown. It will scar—Hubert does not need to be a healer to know that—but hopefully, it will no longer fester. Balthus tugs the blankets up over Claude’s chest before they leave and, with a wave of his hand, Hubert snuffs the lanterns.

They step out into the alley. Safa has situated herself back on the crate between the doors, staring out at the dark flow of water. She glances at them as they reappear.

Balthus gives him a list of directions to return here, which Hubert pockets with little fanfare. 

“You’ll keep this a secret, of course,” he says sharply. “It would do no good for Her Majesty’s interests if this were to get out.”

Balthus clicks his tongue, clearly annoyed. “Did it ever occur to you that not everyone is here because they care about Edelgard’s interests?”

“Watch your tone,” Hubert warns sharply.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Balthus lets out a humourless laugh. “Would you prefer I said lick her Imperial boots?”

Hubert grits his teeth. “I am not stupid , Albrecht. I do not expect everyone here to buy into this—I do not need you to. I simply need to know you will step up when you are required to. Whatever you think in your free time is of no concern to me as long as the mission is completed.”

Balthus gives him an appraising look, and then sighs.

“I’ll give you a free piece of advice, how ‘bout it?”

Hubert grits his teeth. “I’d prefer not.”

“I don’t care. Fact is, some of us are only here because we know what the alternative looks like,” Balthus says. “After what we just did to the Alliance that alternative has a face .” He gestures sharply at the storeroom door. “It looks like Judith, and Hilda, and him . Torn to damn pieces. So maybe you should start being concerned about what’s keeping your people here before they decide running is a better idea—”

He takes the lantern from Hubert’s hand. The light casts up against his face, painting his visage in strange and dramatic shadow. Hubert does not flinch.

“— or they find out about the brand new, still-breathing third option you’ve gone and snuck in under your emperor’s nose.”

Hubert clenches his fists, willing himself to be calm. But Balthus’s words conjure a cavalcade of images in his mind; The concern on the faces of their Kingdom-born allies at today’s council—pale as northern snow as the names of kings and comrades alike were marked for death before them. 

He would have been a good king, Eisner had said to him on the banks of the Airmid. That is why he had to die.

Wyverns stalk the halls of the readied tomb they call their home; Marianne, glued to the crumbled apse of the cathedral for every moment not spent sleeping or eating; Lysithea, around every corner with eyes like fire; Hastily hidden glances and hushed words, cut short upon observation; Whispers in the halls; Graveless flowers and stolen candles. 

“I’ll keep your damn secret, Lord Vestra ,” Balthus snaps. “But you should figure out what the hell you’re keeping it for before it bites you in the ass.”

He stalks off into the hazy alleys of Abyss, lantern in hand, leaving Hubert standing at the door. His eyes flick to the curtain in Balthus’s wake, watching the sway of heavy fabric, and the lack of light within. A hidden thing. A secret. 

It is there, standing in the silence with Safa’s burnished red eyes on him like a hawk, that he allows himself to wonder for the first time if he has made a terrible mistake. 

 

A week passes, and Claude does not awaken. 

Hubert does not return to Abyss in that time; They march for the Kingdom soon, and war requires his full attention. He spends his time researching in the library, taking meetings with Edelgard and the war council, keeping himself busy. 

Eisner hangs over the proceedings like a passive storm, dark and foreboding. Her empty eyes watch them intently, roaming over them like slabs of meat.

He sees her later in the week, standing on the battlements above the market with Edelgard at her side, gazing over the forests below. Edelgard is gesticulating as if speaking animatedly. Eisner stands still as a statue. 

It is not jealousy Hubert feels, but wariness —fear, if he were a weaker man—for the change in Edelgard’s course he watches in slow motion like the slow drip of a melting icicle.

Or maybe that is too kind of an analogy. Maybe it is slipping like the sand of an hourglass instead, counting down to something just out of view. 

He wonders if he is within his rights to put a stop to it, or if this is just the course of things now. He toys with the idea as he works, turning it over in his head like a stone plucked from the grass, examining its angles and possibilities. Then he thinks of Claude, spirited away from his home like a sleeping secret, and of Eisner’s cold eyes. She wouldn’t hesitate to do what she’d done in Derdriu all over again—to sully Hubert’s work. He shouldn’t hesitate either. 

But is he paving a path? Or is he digging a grave? He contemplates his doubts in silence and wyverns watch him from every shadow. 

 

Nearly ten days after their return he visits Abyss, weaving down the maze of back alleys until he reaches the one he’s come to call Claude’s in his mind. The colourful lanterns shimmer in the dim. 

Someone—probably Safa—has reorganised the storeroom while Hubert has been gone. Claude’s things have been brought down and subsequently made at home. The man’s sash has been unpacked and folded delicately on a crate near his head, along with his harness of knives, and a pitcher of water. The dim air is thick with incense from a newly-added metal burner, the scent heavy and herbal. Hubert wonders if it’s medicinal, or if it’s simply here to mask the scent of sickness and blood.

Claude is in the same place Hubert had left him, but there are changes. His skin is scrubbed of dried blood and grime, his hair towelled and detangled as far as is possible. Days of unconsciousness see dark stubble creeping over his jaw, and under it, there’s a healthy flush to his cheeks. His eyes are still shadowed, long lashes dark against sunken under-eyes, but at least his breaths are steady. 

“Did you ever think you’d be back here?” Hubert murmurs. “I daresay you didn’t. I never got the impression you held much affection for this place.”

Claude doesn’t so much as stir. Hubert wonders if he should have started getting worried by now.

Hubert settles into a makeshift seat in the corner. He pulls out his book. It’s the third in the series he’s been reading, equally as terrible, but at this point finishing it is more of a point of pedantic completionism. The story is sufficiently tragic to keep Hubert’s attention for a while, a story of a man leaving home, only to return to it and find everything he’d known as a child lost. 

“You know… I could kill you right now,” Hubert mutters, shutting his book after several minutes of failing to read the same page over and over. “It would certainly save me a lot of grief.”

Nothing.

“And yet I do not want to. How mad is that?”

The incense burns quietly between them. 

“Not as mad as me talking to a dead man, I suppose,” he hums.

The curtain shifts, and Hubert tenses for a fight before the motion is revealed to simply be Safa, shuffling in with a basket in hand. She stares at Hubert for a second and then grumbles. Hubert cracks his book open again, endeavouring to ignore the woman. 

It’s hard, though. She moves swiftly through the space, starting by lighting new incense in the burner, then busies herself with changing out the water in the pitcher, and eventually settles into the laborious task of redressing Claude’s wounds. 

Hubert hadn’t asked her to do any of that. He’s quite sure Balthus hadn’t either. 

Like with Lysithea and Balthus, there is an inexplicable affection here, too, though this woman could not be more of a stranger. The protectiveness she exhibits comes from care for a fellow countryman, Hubert supposes—empathy for a young man she perceives to be the same as herself; far from home and alone. Perhaps she sees her son in him, or perhaps this is just simple kindness. 

Hubert does not imagine he would do the same for another if he found himself in a similar situation. He would not nurse a stranger back to health, give him bed and board, or clean his wounds. He is not so kind as that. 

Then again, he did drag Claude from the brink of death for reasons he is starting to doubt the pure logic of. Was he kind for that, if the ultimate goal is to serve his own interests? To have his questions answered?

Safa finishes redressing Claude’s wounds in silence. 

Hubert doesn’t know what compels him to do it, but he suddenly becomes aware of the signets he still holds in his breast pocket. Call it a hunch, call it wishful thinking, but eliminating a Fódlany origin leaves one obvious alternative in his mind. 

“Safa,” he says. The woman stops to look at him from the corner of her eye. Hubert pulls the carnelian pendant from his breast pocket and holds it up to her. Wyverns and nettle. The mother of pearl that makes up the beast’s wings is warm like the incense smoke.

“Do you recognise this?” He asks. He holds the seal up high, where rubies and sapphires and verdant emeralds catch the firelight. Safa draws closer, not understanding the question, but curious all the same. 

Hubert expects a shake of the head, maybe a shrug.

He does not expect Safa to drop the roll of bandages she is holding with a strangled gasp. 

Hubert is alert in an instant. “What?” He snaps. “What is it?! You recognise it?”

Safa looks at him with round eyes, her expression absent of comprehension, but dominated by shock. Her gaze darts to Claude, quick but unmissable. She shakes her head and that is all Hubert needs to see to get to his feet. 

“What is it?” He demands, but his question is unanswered. Safa busies herself with wrapping the last of Claude’s bandages. She pulls the blanket up to his chest and scurries out of the room, blustering past Hubert like a breeze. He follows her out. 

Safa is sitting down on her crate, furiously attempting to light her pipe with a piece of flint. Hubert stalks over, ignoring the way her eyes dart to him and back. 

“Tell me,” he says. 

She looks away so Hubert holds out his hand, summoning a small flame in his palm. Safa appraises it for a moment before she leans over and tentatively lights her pipe with it. She puffs out a thin plume of smoke. 

“Tell me,” Hubert says again.

Safa sighs and says something—a single word—gesturing at the signet in Hubert’s hand and pointing to the crest upon its glimmering red surface. Red and cold, like her glaring eyes. Hubert grits his teeth. 

“I don’t understand.”

The woman lets out a withering sigh, like he’s the one not listening. 

“Padishah,” she enunciates. She makes a gesture over her head. Hubert blinks. 

“I have no idea what you’re trying to say.”

Safa latches onto him with her red eyes, glaring at him in a way so sudden and so disarming Hubert swears he feels it like a burn on his skin. She stares for a long time, the moment stretching between them like taught thread. After a contemplative drag from her pipe, she looks thoughtful, brows furrowing, then points upward. 

To the ceiling. To heaven. To Garreg Mach. 

“Emperor,” she says firmly.

Hubert feels the gems on the pendant cut into his palm as he clenches his fist. 

“I see.”

 

In the dead of night, Hubert lays his lantern on the stripped floorboards of Claude’s dorm room,  casting long shadows across the dusty space. He pries the floorboard in the centre of the room loose, tossing it across the floor, gazing down into the chasm below. 

What is inside is a trove and a mess all at once. Letters, burned. Half-melted wax seals emblazoned with a snarling wyvern and the wide leaves of a nettle. Bottles, beakers, and sealed vials.

Hubert sifts through the unreadable and unusable until he finds something that makes him pause: A leather pouch, tied loosely with string. He pulls it out, careful not to disturb the contents as he untangles the bindings. 

Inside is a single piece of heavily folded parchment. A map.

Hubert unfolds it in all its sweeping detail, eyes widening at the contents. It is one thing to know of the Church’s deception, and another thing altogether to see it as plain as ink on paper. 

The text of the map is in Almyran, with curved bows and dips of letters foreign to Hubert, but he does not need to be able to parse them to understand what he is seeing; a map of the world, wider than Fódlan’s eyes could ever hope to see. 

Fódlan sits on the west side of the map, small and shadowed by its surrounding nations. Almyra, wide and expansive—more an empire than stifled little Adrestia—sits proudly in the centre of the map, almost twice the size of Fódlan, the indecipherable names of settlements and cities crawling across it like busy ants. The coastlines of Morfis and Dadga are changed from what Hubert knows—traced with a more precise hand, surveyed with more accuracy. Beyond them all lie countries Hubert has heard the names of in passing only a handful of times, and some he doesn’t know at all—nations large and small, miles away, but named and detailed here for all to see. 

“And to think we almost killed you,” Hubert breathes. He brushes his thumb over the corner of the map, where the curling waves of an unknown ocean encircle a snarling sea beast. 

Claude had carried with him the sigil of Almyra’s ruling dynasty—a family and a government Hubert knows very little about but Claude had apparently cared enough for to keep their seal so close to him. It reeks of importance, something far too important to ignore. 

It makes sense , more than anything else. It makes enough sense that Hubert is almost embarrassed he didn’t figure it out on his own. 

Claude had worn the signet close to his chest, over his heart—not relegated to a bag or a desk drawer or a hole in the floorboards. No. It had been important enough— personal enough—to be kept on his person despite its incriminating nature. It was his, this symbol of the Padishah’s kin. It was Claude’s

He’d called Almyra’s navy to heel at Derdriu. That kind of political sway is not simply bought . That kind of power is not simply earned .

That’s the kind of power one is born with. 

 

Hubert takes dinner with Edelgard in her office the next day, just the two of them. There’s something so achingly normal about it that Hubert almost forgets the revelations of the day. 

Almost. 

He sits across from her as she stirs her tea, counting every time the spoon clinks against the side of the fine cup. He thinks of war and opportunity. Wyverns and nettle. Padishah. Emperor

“Is there something troubling you, Hubert?” Edelgard asks, tilting her head a little. The gesture reminds Hubert of Eisner. The feeling it leaves him with is sour. 

“Whatever gave you that impression, Your Majesty?” He says mildly, taking a sip of his tea. It tastes like soil and bitter water. 

“I’ve just noticed you’ve been a little distracted lately,” Edelgard explains. She smiles, perfectly peaceable. “Is it something you can tell me? I’d hope you know you can talk to me about anything.”

It’s not true, but Hubert appreciates the sentiment. 

Claude is a risk—he represents a potential out for people feeling hesitancy at the breadth of Edelgard’s mission—but he is first and foremost an opportunity for change . Hubert’s eyes swim night after night with numbers and letters and the sigils of arcana, the same dead ends and the same slow war… and in the flickering candlelight his thoughts drift to the view in beautiful Derdriu—the way the sun beat down on the docks and the back of Hubert’s neck, the way the blood pooled at his feet, the way bright waves chased Almyran ships into the distance.

A house built on sand cannot stand tall, the scripture says, and Hubert is not a pious man but he appreciates good advice in all forms. A war of impulse cannot be won easily, and that is all Eisner is. Impulse and violence and single-minded reaping. Boats recede and blood pools in Hubert’s mind, sand pours through the hourglass and he cannot bear to see these mysteries slip away from him like everything else seems to be. 

Hubert will pave Edelgard’s path without her needing to know. He will lay the road for her to walk, without anyone else’s permission . It is how it has always been. It is how it always will be.

Claude is a risk, an out, a danger to the cause —but maybe it is Hubert’s greatest flaw and most valuable asset that he is not frightened by that.

“Nothing to worry yourself over, Your Majesty,” he says with a smile. He takes another sip of his tea. He doesn’t taste a thing. 

 

Safa is sitting in her usual spot outside her apartment door that night, feet propped up on a box as she watches the tributary of the underground river whisk by. "Good evening," Hubert greets as usual. Safa smiles at him and takes a drag on her pipe. 

Hubert is, at the end of the day, only human. He is capable of mistakes, though he'd like to say he is better than average at avoiding them. 

The mistake he makes here is not realising that something is wrong when Safa smiles. The woman has never smiled at him—not once—and he has in no way earned a change in attitude from her now.

When he steps into the small supply room, the scent of incense heady in the air, the first thing he notices is that Claude is not there. 

He quickly runs through the possibilities; Could he have been taken? Not likely. The sheets on the bed are pushed back deliberately as if someone climbed out of them. There are items missing, but not all, and those that are are specific ones. 

Shoes. A blanket. The water glass, but not the pitcher. 

Claude's outerwear is still present, hanging from a hook on the wall. His sash is still carefully folded on the end table, the chest harness still wrapped up next to it… 

Oh. One of the knives from the harness is gone. 

It is then that the cold point of a blade presses against Hubert’s jugular. In the muggy heat of this cramped little room, the point of contact is almost refreshing in its bite. Hubert feels the blade kiss deeper into his skin as he laughs.

Hubert is suddenly kicked in the back of the leg, an abrupt pain that drives him to his knees. He grunts as he collides with the cold stone. His left arm is wrenched up behind his back, twisting painfully. He bites down a gasp as the blade returns to his throat, pressing hard enough now for a warm trickle of blood to begin to drip down his throat. He laughs instead. Harder, the blade bites. 

Hubert tilts his head back. The dagger at his throat follows. 

Above him, sunken and framed by dark curls, are the cold eyes of Claude von Riegan. Sharp and calculating, tearing him apart in the dimness. Exactly as Hubert wanted them. Intelligent and present and hateful .

“Hello, Hubert ,” Claude says. His voice is raspy with disuse but drips with a sharpened version of the playful tone Hubert remembers from their youth. He grins up at him. 

There is laughter from outside the door—Safa, Hubert reasons, who must have been the first to see Claude awake. He must have been hiding elsewhere, then… waiting. Magnificent.

Green eyes, like cold fire. Burning down at him. Alive

He wonders how the slithering creatures of Fodlan’s dark undersides will feel with those eyes on them. 

“Good evening, Your Highness .” Hubert grins. “We have much to discuss.”