Each person is born with a purpose. We must fulfill that purpose, no matter our circumstances. It imbues our lives with meaning and direction. That is what I believe.
Dismissed as Prime Minister. Stripped of his title. House arrest.
None of it signified. Could not signify. Ferdinand stared blankly at the brickwork where Edelgard had been standing. Stripped of his title. He’d followed her on this path before she bothered to tell him that crucial detail. He always followed her, chasing in her shadow, and what a neat little trick that was, luring him into betraying—what, exactly? His father? Dismissed. She need only have asked and he would have— Stripped of all power, all lands.
And off she’d walked to more important things, leaving him there, frozen, eyes burning with what couldn’t possibly be tears, lungs hot with shame, for she’d never trusted him at all, had she, never said a word of her plans even though he was her—
He wasn’t anything to her at all.
A hand closed on his elbow, forcing him forward until his feet lurched to prevent a fall. Roses, he thought, head swimming, following the scent for lack of any other direction. “Lorenz?”
The other man directed him to a quiet corner of their temporary headquarters, and though Ferdinand fully expected to find an overturned box covered in a pristine white tablecloth and already prepared with travel kettle and porcelain teacups, when Lorenz released him it was only to lean against the wall with a wry sigh.
“You’re showing your hand,” Lorenz finally said, watching him carefully. “Clear your head before your approach her again.”
Startled, Ferdinand raised his head, caught something indulgent in that brilliant gaze as if Lorenz were bemused at a younger classmate’s attempts to solve a simple arithmetic problem.
“It’s politics, Ferdinand.” Lorenz flicked his hand, a flippant gesture more at home discussing gossip at the tea table than discussing this. “It isn’t personal. You planned to play the game yourself someday, did you not? It’s time to start.”
“A game?” Ferdinand’s voice echoed in his own ears, reedy and far, far away.
An incredulous smile stretched stiffly across Lorenz’s face, and now he really was laughing on the inside, Ferdinand could tell. But he wasn’t…mad. It was Lorenz. If the man could still daintily roll his eyes at the world, surely it couldn’t all be as catastrophic as it felt, right?
“Ferdinand,” he purred instead of reaching for that amusement simmering under the surface, a kindness. “Come now. What exactly were you planning to do?”
A ten year plan. Graduate the academy. Serve a few years in the cavalry officer corps, away from his father’s eyes, to perfect his leadership and study what the common man actually needed from the nobility. Find a junior political role where he could make his name, his own name, and start dismantling his father’s policies. Foster such self-sufficiency, such excellence of spirit, that no one could ever doubt he deserved the position of Prime Minister when it inevitably passed to him, and indeed, his insight would be so keenly sought that Edelgard would ask his guidance even before he inherited the title!
And then the glorious finale: call out his father in front of the Emperor, and the people, and the Goddess, and make him swear to his greed and all associated crimes. A grand assembly in the harsh light of day that would never be forgotten, that would be forever marked in the calendars! Reenacted in debate competitions at Garreg Mach every year!
It would be difficult to hold such competitions once the monastery burned.
Lorenz sighed with his usual disdain for their sires. “The true fool is your father. Did he think there would never be consequences for his little coup? House arrest is hardly punishment at all.”
Ferdinand squinted at him, but no matter how hard he stared, the words pouring out of Lorenz’s mouth wouldn’t turn themselves right-side up. Politics was jostling for authority and shouldering another man down from the podium when he lost his round. It was incredibly distasteful, to be sure, but the only consequences were getting tripped on your own way down from the stage when the time came. Not arrest. Not murder.
Oh Goddess, he’d blanked that bit out. Lord Vestra, dead, and Edelgard’s gaze piercing his chest as she waited for his reaction to the fact that Hubert had murdered his father for the title, and this was all fine and noble and par for the game, let’s all go march together against the Church—
Lorenz caught him by the shoulders as his knees buckled. “Ferdinand!” Worry, now. At least he could make sense of that. “Here, take my arm, sit and rest for a moment. It is not really so terrible. If anyone is gallant enough to effect a full turnabout of his house’s fortunes, surely it is you.”
A handkerchief made its way into Ferdinand’s hands, and he stared down at the narrow border of embroidered roses, around and around. Perhaps he was meant to cry. Perhaps Edelgard—no, she would not care enough, if anyone truly wished to see him suffer it would be her lapdog, lurking in the shadows just to see him weep. He would not give anyone the satisfaction.
Ferdinand reminded himself of that again, and again, and again, until finally it became true.
Garreg Mach fell into their hands, the enemy scattered in a rout, and everyone began to think of tomorrow. Edelgard gave her former classmates leave to return home and put their affairs in order before reporting to Enbarr to assume command as her generals.
How nice for them, Ferdinand absolutely did not think, crushing the rogue whispers as quickly as they came. To have a life left to order.
No, Ferdinand was not tumbling down that hill again today, thank you. He poured himself another cup of Farewell To The Monastery tea, toasted an invisible companion, and downed it like he could drown himself if only he managed enough cups fast enough.
“Hey, Ferdinand! Been looking for you everywhere!” Caspar slid onto the bench across from him, bright with so much energy that Ferdinand had to squint. A moment later, Linhardt slid in next to Ferdinand as well.
Two-pronged attack, or the everyday sight of Linhardt trailing Caspar like a reluctant chaperone? Impossible to tell. Ferdinand chided himself for his suspicions and summoned up a smile. “And now you have found me. Please, let me pour you a cup.”
The most efficient way to acquire new reserves of tea, he had discovered, was to simply drive out all other tea-drinkers in the vicinity. Accordingly, Garreg Mach now boasted far more than he could drink alone, the shelves stocked with blends meant to soothe another’s heart. Only the Bergamot had mysteriously disappeared, and if pressed Ferdinand could not say if Lorenz had absconded with it or if he himself had dumped it into the pond on one dreary midnight, locked out of yet another meeting around the war table. It was all rather fuzzy.
Caspar and Linhardt shared a Look, the kind everyone seemed to be sharing these days, flaunting their implicit faith and understanding in each other. Edelgard and her lapdog had an entire library of such Looks, but most distressingly, even Dorothea had begun to share one with Petra and Bernadetta. The bonds of friendship truly were a beautiful thing. Ferdinand himself had experienced such mysteries, like when one of the monastery strays would come share a Look that said please give me your table scraps. He and the tabby even had the same hair. Charming.
“We’ll pass,” Linhardt offered smoothly. They shared another conversation that consisted mostly of raised eyebrows, scowls, and a harrowing frown.
Ferdinand groaned and rubbed a hand over his face. “Please. My friends. Speak freely.”
“Do you want to come home with me?” Caspar blurted, much too freely. When Ferdinand didn’t, couldn’t respond, he barreled onward with rapidly building momentum. “We’re worried about you and I know everything is real, uhhh, weird right now on the family side, and my father said you’re welcome to stay for a while since we’re all on the same side anyway, plus—”
Noblesse oblige, came that sickening thought that turned Ferdinand’s stomach in an instant, his heart bobbing in an ocean of nausea. Now the privileged look upon you with pity. Now you get to grab for the charity meant for more deserving hands.
“Thank you for the consideration, Caspar, but I will be fine.” He sounded fine when he said it, upright and hale. Good, good. Ferdinand reached for his teacup only to find Linhardt had slid it out of range, rotating the sugar spoon with a solemn grace. He raised an eyebrow, and Ferdinand fled back to the safety of Caspar’s rambling offer.
Caspar nodded like he agreed, and that was heartening, wasn’t it? Caspar thought he would be fine. Excellent validation. Good job, friendship.
“Okay. I mean, I know you’ve probably got plenty of people to stay with in Enbarr but I wanted to make sure someone had your back. Good thing you’re always careful!”
“Caspar,” snapped Linhardt, and Ferdinand instantly went from sheer bafflement over how something so ominous could come out of Caspar’s mouth to frozen horror that Linhardt was taking it seriously.
“What! Your dad said it too, Linhardt. It’s not like anyone liked the Prime Minister, so Ferdinand has to watch his back! What kind of friend am I if I don’t warn him?”
“A considerate one for not giving him a heart attack. Look at him, he’s barely breathing.”
“Oh shit Ferdinand—”
“I’m fine,” he croaked, head barely supported by his shaking hands. “Fine. Very fine.”
Linhardt gave a soul-shivering sigh, as if he were about to impart an immutable truth upon the world, and fixed Ferdinand with his usual bored stare. “Look, Ferdinand. You probably won’t be dragged to your death by an angry mob in the streets of Enbarr, because they’ll be too terrified of Edelgard to even consider it. Does that make you feel better?”
“I feel…I feel I am going to be ill.”
“Yes, that happens when you skip meals and try to subsist on tea,” Linhardt drawled, perfunctorily giving him three firm pats on the back.
Later, after Caspar half-carried him and his crumpled pride to the infirmary to confirm he hadn’t actually had a heart attack, after Linhardt sighed and extended an invitation of solace at House Hevring as well, after everyone made absolutely sure to reinforce that nobody would be murdering him anytime soon, except possibly Edelgard and almost definitely Hubert—in other words, confirmed he’d die of stress before ever seeing the winding streets of Enbarr again—Ferdinand dragged himself to the cathedral to die in peace.
Only a handful of the pews were in any condition to support his weight, and it took a few tries before he found one solid enough to fully lie down upon. He stared up through the collapsed vault of the ceiling and out towards the stars above, immutable and constant.
Logically, one could not offer refuge to the heir of a disgraced house without bringing disgrace onto one’s own head. He couldn’t simply brush off what Caspar and Linhardt tried to do for him. And yet, how could he ever—he refused to even think the words Prime Minister—hold any government position in the nation he loved, if two of its foremost ministers would only ever see him as a displaced child begging for protection, their son’s pitiable friend and nothing more.
Bravado would not save him, but at least it dimmed the world into a waking dream. Ferdinand drifted there a little while longer amid the shattered hues of the stained glass, watching them blur into each other in a peaceful silence.
Until the slow click of heels on the marble floor cleaved that peace in two.
He squeezed his eyes shut in childish, foolish hope that Edelgard would disappear if only he couldn’t see her, a toddler hiding behind the parlor curtains. They had not spoken privately for some weeks now, not since she crumpled up his life like a piece of paper and dropped it into her flames, and in his lower moments, he dared think she was avoiding him.
In the lowest ones, Ferdinand knew that he was the one avoiding her.
Cowardice it may have been, but he knew what to expect when he encountered her in the war room, in the dining hall, on the battlefield. The public face of a military leader, stern and viciously unsentimental even with those soft lavender ribbons still in her hair. Now, if he raised his head to face her, he wasn’t sure who would be standing there. The classmate, who winnowed away at her failed rival with every unparalleled success, or the Emperor, axe in hand to make it swift?
Or the Edelgard who spent so many late nights with them in the library, ensuring everyone was adequately prepared for their exams—evaluating future assets, he corrected himself harshly. And yet she’d explained the fundamentals of Faith to Caspar four separate times to no effect, then interviewed the professors about alternative teaching styles and drawn a mess of baffling diagrams that somehow click for him. Caspar earned a B- against all odds. If that was a game, if it was all a game, friendship and politics and rivalry and laughter all, then Ferdinand had overlooked the rulebook and now it was much too late.
The wood creaked next to his head, a shadow of warmth, and Ferdinand jolted upright with such haste he bashed his knee against the back of the pew. Edelgard, seated next to him, only continued to gaze up at those specters of colored light dancing across the ruined ceiling.
“Your battalion rides back to Enbarr tomorrow,” she said when it was clear Ferdinand had nary a word left in his head. “They wish to know if you are accompanying.”
“Yes.” A military conversation, thank the Goddess. Ferdinand could manage this. “Of course. I will oversee their return to the capital. Do you need the barracks prepared for the rest of the men’s return?”
“Already seen to.”
Of course it was. One didn’t start a war and then realize three months in that there was nowhere to accommodate the soldiers. One did, apparently, beg for work assignments from their Emperor just to feel useful. Pitiful.
“Once you are settled in Enbarr,” Edelgard offered slowly. Her voice, her expression betrayed nothing whatsoever, but her hand twitched, and Ferdinand thought of the way she’d pinch the bridge of her nose in frustration at him, of how she’d likely never do so again, now that he’d failed whatever asset evaluation she’d been running. “I hope you will come speak with me. The matter of Aegir must be resolved.”
Ferdinand shot to his feet in an instant; it was that or smother her to stop the words, and he had not yet steeled himself for death. “What more is there to say? I find you have already resolved the matter. Now please excuse me, I must pack for tomorrow’s journey.”
He squeezed by her in the pew, feet moving at a fierce clip as soon as he hit the cleared walkway through the center of the cathedral. Something in his chest twisted and screamed at the effort—surely not his heart, which had sunk as lead into his stomach days ago—and he forced back his shoulders every time he caught them hunching forward.
Edelgard didn’t call after him, and he hated her all the more for it, because by the Goddess, he still wished she would.
Hubert made him wait. One hour, then two, and then Ferdinand stopped counting because he couldn’t be bothered to care. He pulled a dull book from one of the parlor’s ornamental shelves and let his eyes skip lazily over the words. It was meant as a slight, he knew. A slap in the face, to be treated less than his due, kept waiting like the vegetable merchant. Or Hubert truly was that busy, for all he knew, which was utterly nothing.
On his return to Enbarr, Ferdinand had found no lack of work with his troops, always another argument to quell, fresh-faced groom to train, supply run to organize. He slept, when he slept at all, in one of the unoccupied officer’s quarters, at least until more soldiers began trickling back into the capital. An officially appointed quartermaster showed up a few days later and dumped Ferdinand out, along with no less than a dozen monastery cats that the troops had smuggled home with them.
The bankers turned him away, all Aegir accounts now frozen and controlled by the Minister of the Interior. At least they had the kindness to seem apologetic. Truthfully, Ferdinand hadn’t any signet ring on him and hadn’t expected to get very far on that front anyway. All he wanted was an address. In his childhood, his mother had kept a small townhouse in the capital, mostly used for hosting elaborate parties and month-long binges on the opera. If it was still in her name—
It was not, and the block had long since been torn down for a new merchant association. Ferdinand had a month’s room and board left in his purse, and far less in his reserves of pride, so off he went to see what new stilted jigs he could perform at Edelgard’s request.
Unfortunately, he was quickly informed, the Emperor was far too busy to field such a mundane request as his continued existence. The Minister of the Imperial Household would carve out a moment of his dreadfully important schedule to meet with Ferdinand instead.
For how long it took, Hubert could very well be carving up something else entirely — Ferdinand’s father, perhaps. Surely that was the eventual ‘resolution’ for Aegir one way or another. He hoped Hubert at least ruined a fine pair of gloves on it.
Still, it stung that Edelgard would not even see him. Childish to the last, came that now-familiar venom. Is the Emperor avoiding me? As if I matter. Yes, yes, thinking too highly of himself again. At least Ferdinand had proved adept at ignoring whatever his own bruised ego tossed his way.
The door opened eventually, and Hubert swept in with his usual aura of intensity and disdain. He stood not more than two paces into the room, arms crossed, and offered no greeting. He didn’t join Ferdinand in a chair. Exhausted, Ferdinand didn’t stand for him either, sinking further down into his seat out of spite.
Some manner of…mirth, he’d call it, fluttered wearily in his chest, the sheer manic hilarity of Hubert running an Empire, standing there with his greasy hair and stiff poise, the same way he’d stood while presenting an hour lecture on the past two hundred years of Reason academia for extra credit with the Professor. Goddess, but they were children. No wonder Manuela drank.
“Well?” Hubert gestured for him to proceed, white glove flashing through the air. Fitting such demeaning force into a single word had to be a learned skill. Surely no one was born so insulting or quite so cruel.
Ferdinand formed the words perfectly in his mouth, like the orations he’d practiced for hours back at school—pointless, now, however highly he’d cherished his marks—and spoke only once he was sure not to stumble. “I need to return to the Aegir estate.” He didn’t say home. He only needed further funds if they meant to let him languish.
“Asking permission to desert?” Hubert sneered.
The dart struck true, and Ferdinand blanched as his gaze dropped to the carpet. Desert, the one word he’d never let himself think, even now. If not for his gloves, his nails would be biting half-moons into his palms by now. Ferdinand wasn’t sure what was worse, the question itself, for which he had no answer, or the tone of it, like what he really wanted was to run home to his mother.
Oh, Goddess. His mother would be there. That was a concern for another day.
Ferdinand took a breath and started again. “The dukedom was dissolved. The house is entailed, which makes it a possession of the Empire. I thought to go manage the transition and prevent further chaos. If that is acceptable to you, Marquis Vestra.”
Hubert only watched him with those spiteful eyes. A prosecutor waiting for his quarry to dig its own grave.
“My mother will join her sister’s family in Merceus. She will not be…pleasant, to remove. She has only marginal political connections of her own,” he added hastily. Don’t take her, too. Please, please—“But she tends to. Yell. I doubt your people would enjoy the experience of locking her into a carriage, so it is my filial duty to volunteer.”
Bored, now. Maybe. Any tone beyond the borders of snide was difficult to detect in the man. Ferdinand wished he had made a closer study of Hubert in the schoolroom, tried to figure out a single tell instead of blindly provoking him at every turn. Not an amenable option at the moment.
He hurried onward. “Anything not entailed will be immediately prepared for storage or auction.”
“I’m afraid not.” Hubert grinned, razor-sharp, and it felt like a mugging in the dead of night. Hubert would bludgeon him over the head, the moon would glint dangerously off of Hubert’s dagger, and Ferdinand would, would…close his eyes against the inevitable, apparently. “All fruits of your father’s crimes are forfeit.”
“All?” he echoed faintly. “You cannot—”
Ferdinand was a general. In theory. But Edelgard had promised him continued command of his battalion, and a general needed a certain measure of wealth to supply his horses, his servants, his armor and rations and lodgings and, she’d promised.
But his father sat rotting in a cell, or worse, and it could be nothing more than a fable they thought him simple enough to believe. What did promises matter?
“All,” Hubert continued, brimming with a dark giddiness as he circled for the kill. “The treasury. The jewelry. The wardrobe. The furniture. The tea sets. Every frippery and finery you’ve tucked away. Your mother may keep whatever she brought in her dowry. Feel free to tell her you begged for it like a dutiful son.”
Ferdinand was distinctly aware of his jaw hanging slack, his mouth ajar, and instead of shutting it he proceeded to say the worst possible words. “And the stables?”
“Your worthless assembly of braying leather? Perhaps the butcher will find some value in them. From now on the military will supply you with horses as any other soldier.”
Ferdinand stood. Tried desperately—failed miserably—to keep his voice from shaking, his knees from knocking, his hands from reaching for Hubert’s throat with all his strength, as he answered, “Then please do me the favor of selecting a suitable merchant to accompany. I shall assist him in composing inventory lists for your perusal.”
He felt the acidic burn of Hubert’s eyes boring into his skull as he passed, as he showed his back to the viper and strolled away down the hall. Ferdinand was a dead man. One more hard stone of knowledge sinking down into his heart’s well. Hubert would wait for him to slip up, to show the slightest dissent, to let his natural argumentative drive shine through for only a moment, and that would be that. Desertion. Sedition. Treason.
So be it. Hubert could sharpen that knife all he liked, could play whatever blood-soaked game he deemed fit to name Politics. If he wanted a sacrificial lamb, Ferdinand would damn well make him work for it.
“After all we’ve done for you, all I sacrificed! This! This is how you think to repay—”
His mother’s feet dug figure-eights into the velvet carpeting, around and around as her voice scaled to even more fantastic volumes. Ferdinand knew the general cadence of the rant, had heard it time and again, though it had never actually been directed his way. She had always emphasized how much she adored her son—his crest meant she’d never needed to have another child, after all!
“Your tail between your legs like a fucking dog, rolling over to show that child tyrant your yellow belly—”
It had always been easy to smile through her…fits. She was pleasant enough, really, as long as you understood she was The Duchess Aegir, first lady of the empire, not a mere number in the Emperor’s slovenly harem. Liked tea, the opera, and vaguely suffered her husband. What more could Ferdinand have asked for in a mother?
And yet somehow, the last year at the monastery had dulled his ability to ignore her, to let his eyes glaze over with politeness as he tried to steer the conversation back to safer waters. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to lose his home, but it wasn’t home, it didn’t fit, and the walls already belonged to someone else. Each surface bedecked in portraiture and gilded heraldry and crystal display cases and framed medals of honor, all of it buckling beneath its own weight, closing in on him, the noose of nobility tightening—fight or flight, and he froze instead, dangling as all the air dried up.
His mother broke from her pacing to jab a finger against his chest, still sharp under its delicate silk glove. “Weren’t you the one telling all and sundry you wouldn’t be your father? And here you are, thinking of yourself without a care for anyone caught in the crossfire, without a care for me, just like your pompous sire. I’m sure he’s proud of you. The both of you can rot in the Emperor’s hell together.”
“Mother—” Ferdinand shook it off with the ease of a man already mortally wounded and followed as she stalked back to her room, where she began trying to affix every piece of jewelry to her person at once. “Mother.”
The Duchess screamed something perfectly vulgar and slammed the door in his face.
Ferdinand stared at the door for a long moment, squared his shoulders, and turned to face her maids. “Two weeks’ wages to whoever shoves her into the carriage.” He breezed on down the hallway. Let her wear whatever she wanted on her flight into exile – no doubt Hubert had someone waiting at the border to divest her of everything but a cotton shift.
All around him, the household staff swarmed the bedrooms and parlors, the study and the library and every odd hall, all occupied by their work with the inventory. A complete sketch of each room, then a numbered map outlining every item and its place, to verify nothing disappeared during the transition. He wouldn’t be surprised if the sketches wound up in a handbill poking fun at ministerial excess. Even Ferdinand recognized an overabundance of velvet when he saw it.
The clear, quiet voice set his shoulders slumping back down, but Ferdinand plastered on a smile before he turned to face his childhood nursemaid. “Yes?”
She looked at him curiously, like she was more concerned about his wellbeing than the looming end of her employment, but they hadn’t had a script for such things since he was tall as her knee. “We’ve finished moving the armory into the dining hall. The merchant is picking over it now, if you would like to…supervise.”
“Thank you. I will be along shortly.”
To his surprise, she didn’t immediately curtsy and scuttle away. “Are you returning to Enbarr?”
That was the question, wasn’t it. Maybe it was even their business – would there be repercussions if one served the household of a known traitor? “I intend so, yes.” He owed his staff that much. The rest was a distant buzz in his head, that drifting ache that hadn’t quieted for days. Weeks, if he was honest. Ever since childhood’s funeral in that thrice-damned Holy Tomb.
The woman bit her lip like she was doing a sum at the market, then nodded in approval at the price. “I’m happy to hear it, Sir. You’re not your father, and they’ll be glad of it soon enough.”
This time she brought the interaction to an appropriate close, retreating once he gave her leave. How odd. A year ago he’d been appalled that the serving staff at Garreg Mach showed no such deference to the noble students, and now a woman curtsying to him was like watching a foreign pantomime, jarring and unfamiliar. No one would be curtsying to him for much longer at any rate.
Perhaps in a world based on merit, there wouldn’t be curtsies and spine-contorting bows at all. Whatever would Hubert do with himself? Build new puppet strings from his blood and bone, most likely, and hand off the reins to Edelgard as always.
The thought brought Ferdinand not even a sliver of satisfaction. He tarried in the hall. Before he left for the monastery, he had spent hours in his room, memorizing the surroundings he’d known all his life, wandering through the room like a…at the time, he’d imagined it the feeling of a man dispossessed, uprooted. How much a year could change.
Ferdinand ran a hand over his face, settling his direction if nothing else, and quickly fixed his hair and straightened his jabot in one of the hallway mirrors. If that scavenger of a merchant thought to swindle him, he’d find Ferdinand von Aegir not so easily brushed aside. He could do this.
That resolve, like so many other promises to himself, crumpled the moment Ferdinand stepped into the dining hall. Once that long table with its thirty chairs had boasted feasts of such grandeur even the Goddess would be honored by an invite. Game from every corner of the continent smothered in Almyran saffron sauce, fresh shellfish from Dagda’s shores spilling from elaborate centerpieces, roast peacock and poached quail eggs and chilled plum soups, all of it explained in copious detail by the victorious chef.
Now it bore the ribs and marrow of the House of Aegir, his own body vivisected and cracked open for display. The ancestral armor collection was the only property conceded to Ferdinand’s possession, since the pieces were all forged by his family or gifted to them by the imperial household in honor of their service, and there they sat like so many macabre dishes. He knew each piece by heart, each story worth more to him than any childhood storybook.
The helm of Rosamund, founder of their line, a holy knight whose fables were still known by every child in the land a thousand years on. It wasn’t even her own helm, but that of her trusty steed, a pure white horse that once escaped capture and opened the gate to an enemy hold all on its own! Rosamund had treasured her partner so dearly that she’d begged the Goddess to imbue her horse’s armor instead of her own, and the Goddess was so moved by their companionship that she granted the request. As a child, Ferdinand had searched every book from Aegir to Enbarr in hopes of discovering the name of such a trustworthy friend, all to no avail.
The shield of Derick, face-down on the table like a massive brass bowl, the matching insignia tossed carelessly within. The Warrior Prime Minister left so many volumes of letters, a man of such diplomatic excellence that his name always struck Ferdinand as a misnomer despite its grandeur. He gained the world when he lost his duel with the Emperor of his age, winning not only a wife but an immutable purpose as Shield of the Empire. To fight so worthy an opponent and find victory in defeat; Derick would know what road to take, not merely stand there boiling in his skin like a frog in a pot.
Aegir had never boasted a single crest relic, and heavy armor rarely lasted through the ages. The collection only truly began with Konrad von Aegir’s atrociously golden cuirass, weighed down by its sheer wealth of filigree. There were stories of his exploits, of course, but Ferdinand privately wondered if he’d ever done more than select a spot on the hill where he could catch the sun’s rays and blind everyone in his path with the reflection.
Ferdinand paused before his favorite piece of the lot, a set of articulated vambraces made for arms much slimmer than his own. The eccentric Lady Allaryce provided no heirs to the family’s main branch, resulting in a bitterly contested feud over the inheritance, which was all the family ever bothered to remember about her. What she had left behind was a groundbreaking methodology for articulated armor, and so many delicate yet invulnerable pieces of mail that Ferdinand learned half the craft from her work alone. The metallurgy book she penned had accompanied him to the monastery; he knew not what became of it from there. One more Aegir gift for the bonfire.
Finally, at the end of the table, he passed by the hundred pieces of Wulfrik’s ceremonial suit, the set still in use for ascension portraiture. There was a painting of his father wearing it and looking like an over-boiled sausage in the family gallery, unless someone had already secreted it away for use as an imperial dartboard.
Faintly ridiculous, Ferdinand thought, dizzy with rebellion as his eyes swept from one end of the table to the other. Shiny hunks of metal that couldn’t spare their masters, but always gave each descendant ample fodder for a terminally gorged pride. His family butchered and carved for the Emperor’s table, an appetizer course compliments of Chef Vestra, the merchant scribbling down his comments and criticism so the meal could be weighed for value, for how much coin Ferdinand would be given to stave off the inevitable.
Shrill shrieking in the hallway drew his attention from the table. His mother, again. Could she not leave with dignity? Bile burned in the back of Ferdinand’s throat. No, there was no dignity left in Aegir. Not in his mother, never in his father, and all those ceremonial shells on the table had only masked the rot. Tenants squeezed of every last penny, treaties that diverted all profit into the family coffer while roads and bridges crumbled away beneath their feet, a regional guard as drunk on power as any bandit troupe, an overflowing table as the people starved, and that blinding arrogance that declared it Right, and Just, and Divine.
But Goddess, he had tried, he had tried. If Edelgard had only given him the time to prove himself...
Maybe she had, and Ferdinand had thrown down a glove in challenge and proved he could complete his half of the weeding much more efficiently than she could ever dream. So many boasts for the final Fool of Aegir! He would be listed in the history books for nothing more than his exemplary weeding abilities, if not much less. A name on a page, a period on a thousand years of bloated honor. And no more.
Ferdinand had just enough presence of mind to announce that he could be found at the stables when the merchant finished his notes. He strolled out of the hall until the click of his boots went dull on the interior carpets, then tore off his jabot with a rasp for breath, trying desperately to get air back into his lungs, to escape the hulking corpse of his name following with every step.
His feet pulled him toward the stables as they always had, the same flight from the mansion to freedom ever since he had his first lesson at the age of four. He stepped out into the sun, duty fulfilled, and he didn’t look back.
Would they sell the library, or keep it? Ferdinand tried to picture Hubert walking the hall and evaluating the worth of Duchess Aegir’s scandalous novel collection. The image brought him no joy, but it would, someday — he would keep balling up the world’s baffling questions and beating them against the wall of incomprehension until something broke. Hubert smashing the tea sets, taking scissors to the wardrobes, setting goats free to gobble up the egregious sins against velvet.
Absurdly, he even felt jealous of that.
Ferdinand wiped at his face, stalling in the field to stare up at the sun as long as he could manage. A case of heat stroke, it had to be. He’d stood too close to the Flame Emperor for too long, and now he’d lose even his mind, his white-knuckled grip on reality. It happened so often in his mother’s novels, didn’t it? The hero, the damsel, the sympathetic villain would experience some dread trauma and wander off in a fugue state. Fanciful, trite, a desperate plot point to swing the narrative back on course. He hated that he could almost understand it now, that stumble between his thoughts and his feet, the chill of his skin that hadn’t faded since they rode out of Garreg Mach, the drift of his thoughts like feathers to the wind, all the world spinning in somebody else’s nightmare that wasn’t, couldn’t be, meant for him.
And that venomous echo of Hubert’s voice in his ear, spitting the word until it became true: Sedition.
Louder and louder as he reached the stables, passing by the rows of handsome, hearty stallions and his mother’s sleek, elegant mares, until he reached the far end with his, his…
Your worthless assembly of braying leather?
Thank the Goddess that the grooms had all headed up to the house to assist with the inventory and weren’t there to see him wipe at his face with shaking hands, just a small boy thrown from his pony even now. It was his fault. His fault for not being better, for not being what Edelgard needed in an adviser, for not obeying his father when he snarled about buying useless horseflesh.
Because that was what they were, objectively. Half-blind old Knave, the stallion he’d learned to ride on, still happy to take the field for slow jaunts at the ripe age of twenty-seven. Lame little Freckle, who’d never taken a rider in her life, his first purchase at the age of eight. First of many, when he’d found out how often people put down the mares and geldings that didn’t pass muster, windswept or wry-nosed or simply unwanted, all of them with the sweetest names a little boy could invent for a pretty pony: Buttercup, Princess, Casagranda. A dozen disasters that he’d hand-fed and trained as best he could, that adored him without ever knowing what cruelty he’d spared them.
And now they’d go to the butcher, they’d be made into glue.
Freckle stuck her head over the gate of her stall, nickering softly in hopes of a treat or a rubdown of her sore joints.
“Hold on, sweetheart,” Ferdinand whispered at her, voice cracking. He slipped off his jacket, folded it neatly and laid it onto one of the supply shelves, rolled up his sleeves, then slipped into her stall.
At once she leaned against him with her full weight, her own brand of hug that she offered each and every time he came to see her. Ferdinand buried his face against her neck and held her up as long as he could manage. He’d known plenty of horses to lean against him affectionately, but something in the way Freckle did it made him think her mother had tried to support her that way, and now she pressed herself to him as if to say he was her family, and she trusted him to hold her fragile weight.
When she stepped away to start nuzzling at his chest and face instead, he went for the brush to give her a gentle once-over. “No poetry today, Freckle. I lack the…the heart for it.” All of him aching, the silence most of all. My princess is lovely, my princess is fair, and for however much he told Manuela about his childish dreams, he’d never told her where he’d practiced his raggedy lyric.
Ferdinand wasn’t fool enough to think Freckle understood when he stopped every few minutes to press the heels of his palms against his eyes, trying to knit himself back together, but at least if she couldn’t understand, she couldn’t blame him, either. He had always been enough for her, simple creature that she was.
“Stand,” he commanded once the brush was away. She knew that meant not to get antsy when he crouched to sit on the floor, his hands stroking gently at her legs to check for swelling or other spots of worry. Ferdinand eased his thumbs into some of the tense tendons around her weaker joints, knowing exactly which were safe to massage and which would only cause her more pain.
“Stand,” Ferdinand said again when he finished, because he didn’t know if she’d like the next bit. But he’d passed his Faith practicum, and he’d spent hours sitting in the stables with Marianne, hashing out the specifics of what he wanted to do and figuring out whether Dorte would endure it.
Freckle kicked at once when the first faint touch of Heal crackled down her back leg, missing him by a hair.
“Shhhh, gentle, love. I only want to help.” Ferdinand let his hands fall loosely into his lap and waited for her to settle. “My fault, I should have brought you a treat to reinforce…”
He froze, then sagged backwards with the slow inevitability of melting wax, letting his head clunk against the wall. Soon enough the merchant’s indifferent face appeared above the gate, and the man stared down at the once-legitimate heir to Aegir in all his half-dressed, tear-stained, mutinous glory.
The merchant cleared his throat as if he saw disenfranchised noble striplings standing on the ledge every day. “I’ve finished the inventory for your review. If you wish to contest any of the valuations—”
“I do not.”
That put a flicker of shock into the merchant’s otherwise cool expression. “Then I require only a signature.”
So simple to sign one’s life away. Ferdinand wondered what his father had done that led them to this point, which blighted piece of paper he’d signed the family name to and doomed them all. But even in those terms, he could make no sense of it. Edelgard never worked alongside Duke Aegir. She was not her father, and she knew Ferdinand was not his, so why, why would the pieces fall like this, the game board overturned as the new Emperor marched to war, a vision of Edelgard standing there in the stables, eyes burning with unmitigated cruelty as she demanded he butcher his horses.
That tone of her voice when she said his name, Fer-di-nand, distantly fond and frustrated beyond belief, like there was something he refused to understand and always had. But what?
Ferdinand dragged his eyes back to the man’s proffered paperwork, then away to Freckle’s warm brown eyes. “Do they have you executing the sale?”
“However much the collection is worth—and do not tell me, I honestly do not ever wish to know—is it enough to buy back a horse? With food and board fees for a year, say. How many horses would that—”
All or nothing, it had to be. Ferdinand couldn’t play favorites at the butcher block. He tilted back his head, staring at the ceiling and praying for the Goddess to sink him into the earth, to not have to make the choice. “There are twelve in this building that will not fetch you any grand sum. If I put two thousand gold towards each, would that buy them more options? You could take a lower bid, for a farm somewhere, and you would still make your profit. Is there enough for that?”
The merchant stared at him like he’d gone mad, like he had all the horns and tail that Lorenz kept so studiously tucked away. “I cannot promise a placement, but it would…go some ways toward that goal. The sum from the sale will sufficiently cover it.”
“Thank you.” Ferdinand summoned his most dashing smile, a pale echo of warmth. “Split the remainder equitably among the staff. As many weeks’ pay as you can squeeze out.”
The man gawked as Ferdinand rose to his feet, brushed the straw from his pants, and leaned against Freckle’s shoulders last time. “This will be your sole payment from the estate—”
“I am aware. Papers, please.”
Ferdinand signed with a flourish.
It rained the whole trip back to Enbarr, an utterly poetic downpour that nearly granted him a glimpse of catharsis. He’d introduced himself to the other travelers in the carriage as Ferdinand, no last name, and sat staring out the window in lost silence as the lands of Aegir rolled away.
His family’s insignia burned in his breast pocket, a molten agony; it was all the merchant had given him for the road. Some legal qualm about selling off an actual proof of legitimacy even if the house itself was dead. Ferdinand didn’t think about it, didn’t let himself turn it over and over in his hands, only watched the rain pour down until the carriage got stuck in the mud and squished all dramatic brooding into the muck. Ferdinand leapt out to help the driver free them, split the sole off a boot and ruined his jacket for his troubles, and spent the remainder of the ride bundled under spare horse blankets in a corner of the carriage.
It had been a very Caspar thing, jumping to help without a care for nobility or appearances. And Caspar had always lived without security or reward, all on his own righteous merits — so why couldn’t Ferdinand? Of course, the second son of Bergliez also had funds and connections and a bosom companion that would never abandon him, but, well, it was awfully difficult to imagine Caspar not being Caspar even with all those things taken away.
Ferdinand would simply need to be Ferdinand without all the accoutrements. He would stroll back to the palace without a care, smile in Hubert’s sneering face, and…
Sneezed, tucking his face against the scratchy warmth of the blanket. What he wouldn’t give for a hot cup of tea, any blend at all. Enbarr had so many teashops, maybe one would take him as an apprentice tea…monger. He could rise through the ranks, build an empire of tea, control all the contracts and set fair prices for all but the imperial palace, make the Emperor’s lapdog come begging on his knees for enough Bergamot for a single tea service, then laugh in his sallow face.
Vengeance, just another thing Ferdinand wasn’t terribly good at. Was that the reason they’d ousted him from the war table and kept mum about all their plans? Alright, Ferdinand, time to make the Church pay for its crimes. Any ideas beyond singing off-key at choir practice? No?
Because there must have been a reason. Everything always circled back around to that stone-cold certainty sitting in his gut like the pit of a Morfis plum: Edelgard had a reason, and if Ferdinand could only grasp hold of it, he’d have his true north again, not this wheeling dervish of a broken compass. Games, politics, all of that rot was nothing more than a distraction. Edelgard followed cold, clear logic, so he would do the same, and once he understood her rationale he could decide his own course. He congratulated himself on a plan so eminently sensible from every angle.
The clouds cleared by the time they reached Enbarr, sun peeking out to begin warming the drenched streets. Ferdinand’s spirits rose with every glimmer of sunshine — yes, this was it, no more despair and dumbstruck wandering, no more metaphorical muck, only a buoyant radiance to bring this troubling arc to its conclusion!
He bid the driver farewell and paused to straighten his jabot in the hazy reflection of a shop window.
A prickle along his spine, ice coursing his veins. That couldn’t be him. Hair a matted mess plastered against his neck, untrimmed and untamed. His shirt splattered with mud, the buttons of one cuff long gone, his jacket abandoned somewhere for rags, no tie at his neck. Slacks wrinkled, boot falling to pieces, all of him an utter mess that he could attribute to a nasty wrestling match with a mud-slick carriage, but nothing would explain the bloodshot, empty eyes, the burnt out misery carved into every inch of his skin.
He couldn’t go to the palace like this. No room at the barracks, no clothes for court, no coin left in his pocket. Not a single friendly soul left in the city.
He should have saddled a horse and called it Sedition, ridden as far as he could in any direction until the land gave way to the sea and swallowed him up, pride and all.
No. Ferdinand cast about for a rain barrel, using the freezing water to splash his face and scrub the grease from his hair. Ferdinand von Aegir does not give quarter to despair. Remember what the Professor told you? You need more than the first plan that comes to mind — consider the first five instead.
If there were no friendly souls left, then he would have to accept an unfriendly one.
“Miss Arnault doesn’t work here anymore.” The doorman at the Mittlefrank crossed his arms in a way that clearly said Ferdinand would find himself with more than a bruised ego in the next five minutes if he didn’t clear out. “Hasn’t sang for over a year. Strange for a fan not to know.”
“I assure you, I am not a fan,” Ferdinand pressed, only to realize how much worse that looked, some raggedy young man desperately chasing after Dorothea, after everything she’d told him about her patrons. “I mean to say, I truly do know her—”
“Sure you do, kid.”
Ferdinand curled his hands into fists, then shook them out at once, turning away with a wretched laugh as he raked fingers through his wet hair. He’d rather starve than ever prove himself the sort of man Dorothea believed him to be.
Without a performance running at the opera house that evening, there were no crowds to prevent Ferdinand from sitting down on the grand marble steps. When the weather was fair, one could stare down the promenade all the way to the hill of the imperial palace in the distance. He rested his head on his knees instead, hands tucked about his ankles, and tried to figure out plan number six.
“Oh, Ferdie,” came a sigh somewhere around plan sixteen, which was more about figuring out where he could wash dishes for an evening meal, or slip into a stable to bunk with the horses and barn cats. “This isn’t what I expected when they told me some forlorn suitor of mine refused to leave the steps. I thought I’d at least get to practice my Meteor, blow off a little steam.”
“I’m sorry,” he croaked, head too heavy to raise.
Dorothea sat down on the steps next to him. “What for?”
“For bothering you.”
She touched his shoulder, the way she might for one of her friends, like he was so pitiful now that it overcame her hatred, and shame squirmed in his chest worse than ever. “…You’re not bothering me, Ferdie. We’ve been worried. Nobody knew where you disappeared to, and…Hubie seemed to think you weren’t coming back.”
A laugh shook through him, or maybe a sob, a tremble so sharp that Dorothea took her hand away, like he’d shaken her off, rejected that one tiny bit of pity she’d granted him. “Of course. Of course he did.” Ferdinand had done everything asked, jumped through every hoop like a damned show dog, and none of it mattered. Nothing mattered.
Dorothea sat silently for a long moment, and then a warm weight dropped over his shoulders. Her coat. All of him screamed to throw it off, to not let a lady dirty her belongings for his sake, but his hands slid up to curl into the soft wool, to pull it closer around him so he could breathe in the warmth of her care. He hadn’t realized the cold had crawled in and made such a home in him.
“I, I know you hate me but I—”
“Ferdie.” Her hand back on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “We’ll always have room for you. Just come home.”