When he saw the green-haired girl lounging on her throne, he did the first thing that instinctively came to him.
He shot her.
The pistol in his hand was a large caliber matchlock. He raised the ogre of a gun and discharged it directly at her petite body.
The round went through the girl's form and kept on going. Without any effect whatsoever.
The clearly supernatural being before him blinked. And then blinked again.
"Did you just shoot me?" the melodic lilt of her voice was tinged with disbelief.
"No," he lied and inserted another ball into the barrel of his pistol. The one downside about matchlocks was that they took a veritable age to reload. Which was why he usually carried multiple braces of pistols holstered on his belt. For whatever reason, this dream, and it was undoubtedly a dream, had only seen fit to give him one.
"You just did!" the girl had risen from her throne and placed her hands at her hips, "You totally just shot me!"
"It was a figment of your imagination," he replied as he tipped gunpowder carefully into the flash pan.
"It was a figment of my imagination that you shot me when you clearly just shot me," the supernatural being repeated flatly before growing curious, "What… What did you shoot me with?"
"Lead ball," he explained while lighting the match affixed to the back of the gun, "Round shot."
"I knew that!" the girl said proudly despite every action that indicated otherwise, "Wait. What are you doing now?"
"For this," he said and fired his pistol at her a second time.
"You…" when the smoke cleared, he could see that the little girl's entire frame was trembling with indignity, "You… You just stop this! Stop this right now!"
He paused out of consideration and also because the second shot, like the first, passed through his intended target without any tangible effect.
"How dare you treat me like this!" the girl glared at him haughtily, "Do you know who I am? I'm.. I'm… Wait. Who am I again?"
He frowned and sheathed the sword he had half-drawn from his waist. More and more it became apparent that the tiny being was not so much a threat but a very confused child.
"Oh! This is all very vexing!" the girl was now pacing back and forth on the dais of her throne, "It was on the tip of my tongue too! What was my name? Just who am I? Aha!"
"Did you remember your name?" he ventured politely.
"No, but I just remembered how you got here. You got killed. By that bandit with the axe. When you were trying to save that girl."
He nodded. He remembered that too.
"How utterly foolish! Getting yourself killed like that. And now I have to fix the mess you've gotten yourself into… Wait… If I'm here to fix your mess… Then that means I must have been sent to guide you!"
He considered the words carefully.
"It is a possibility," he admitted.
"I'm your guide!" the girl exclaimed triumphantly before glaring at him again, "I'm your guide and you just shot me!"
"It was out of instinct," he said truthfully.
"Your first instinct when you meet someone is to shoot them?"
"Most of the times when I meet someone, it is on the battlefield."
"Then why did you shoot me a second time!?"
"I had to make sure shooting you the first time didn't work."
The girl sighed and slumped back into her throne. She began massaging her forehead with her hand.
"Well, this is just great. I'm stuck with someone whose idea of a greeting is shooting people in the face. Why couldn't you shoot the bandit instead?"
"I tried. The pistol jammed."
"And now you're dead and I'm stuck with you. Hmph. I wonder if I can send you back… yes… of course! Of course, I can do that!"
"Is it… possible?" he wondered.
"Everything's possible with me," the girl puffed out her chest, "All I have to do is send you back in time and have you fix your mistakes!"
"I am willing to try."
"Very well! I don't know how exactly it works but I think I can Divine Pulse you back into the past. Be careful though! I don't think I can do this constantly. Oh, one more thing! If we happen to meet again in here, don't shoot me!"
All around the trio, the signs of battle were winding down. The bandits had struck the transport column in the dead of night and scattered the guards. They would have scattered the entire caravan too had not help arrived from a most unlikely source.
Swift riders had burst from the forest line surrounding the cobblestone road. Black steel cuirasses protected their chests and black steel barbutes adorned their heads. Red feather plumes jutted from each helm, signifying some sort of elite status. And when they charged the surprised ruffians, they disgorged fire and brimstone from the strange weapons in their hands.
The bandits had lasted barely an instant.
Those not slain by heavy broadswords were shot down with efficiency bordering on the ruthless.
There had still been some close calls. Like when the bandit with the two-handed axe had rushed Edelgard when all she had in her hand was the dagger to defend herself.
That bandit was now lying still at the noble's feet, bleeding red ruin onto the earth below.
The mercenary pulled his sword from the dead man's chest. His features were young, younger than one ought to expect for someone in his profession. Blank, emotionless eyes surveyed the scene before flickering towards the ones he had just saved.
The three students shared uncertain glances before one of them stepped forward.
"You really saved our butts back there," the seventeen-year-old heir of House Riegan smiled winningly, "The name's Claude von Riegan," he extended a friendly hand out towards the stranger.
The mercenary stared at the hand and then at Claude. Several seconds ticked by before Claude realized that his hand would forego any form of being shaken. The leader of the Golden Deer let his arm drop awkwardly by his side.
"Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd," the young man clad in regal blue stepped into place beside Claude and bowed stiffly, "I thank you for the service you have rendered. Many lives were preserved because of you and your men."
The mercenary responded by wiping away the blood covering his blade with an old cloth before sheathing it into the scabbard by his side.
"Not the talkative type, are you?" the young woman approached last. She was shorter than her male counterparts but the air of authority surrounding her somehow seemed so much the greater, "I am Edelgard von Hresvelg, Heir Apparent to the Adrestian Empire. And what my companions have not told you is the royal lineage they belong to. Dimitri is the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Faerghus. Claude, while he may not seem like it, is the Heir to House Riegan, the preeminent house of the Leicester Alliance," a small smile crept onto her face, "You have not saved only innocents this day, but also royalty."
The mercenary nodded as though while he cared not for the information that was being shared, he appreciated the sharing nonetheless.
Claude looked at his fellow class leaders.
"Is he mute or something?"
"Claude!" Edelgard admonished.
"What? It's not every day you get to see all three future rulers of Fódlan in one place! And all we got out of him was just a nod!"
"It is most impolite to make assumptions based off someone's behavior," Dimitri said graciously, "If our new friend chooses to remain silent, it is entirely within his rights to do so. We should not force him to do otherwise."
The sound of galloping hooves made them turn. The man on top the horse was a grizzled, muscular specimen of his kind. The lines etched onto his face were from both age and war, and as he guided his steed slowly to a stop into their midst, he looked every inch the battle-tested leader.
The soldiers around them clasped their fists and beat them against their chests twice as he rode past. A salute foreign to those used in Fódlan.
"Captain Jeralt!" some of them called out.
"Captain Jeralt?" Claude whispered, "Jeralt… as in that Jeralt? The Blade Breaker?"
"What is the former Captain of the Knights of Seiros doing here?" Dimitri wondered out loud.
"Whatever the reason," Edelgard said calmly as the man leapt down from his horse, "We're about to find out."
The three students stiffened as Jeralt drew close. Heirs and royalty, they may be, but a living legend like the Blade Breaker was intimidating all on its own.
The single word that came behind them would change the nature of the ensuing conversation entirely.
The man frowned as he took in the scene before him.
"You were right to be cautious," he said matter-of-factly, "But taking the Crimson Plumes on a scouting mission without support from the main group was reckless, Byleth."
The mercenary… Byleth… inclined his head at the rebuke but said nothing more. Jeralt smiled at his silence as though it was something he had long grown accustomed to.
"Although this time it might have just been worth the danger," the veteran warrior turned to look at three class leaders, "I know those uniforms. You're students from Garreg Mach Monastery aren't you? What are you doing out here and not at the academy?"
"We were escorting a caravan of provisions as well as our newest professor to the Monastery," Dimitri spoke for all of them, "Unfortunately, it appears that our potential teacher fled at the first sign of danger," the young prince placed an earnest hand over his breast and bowed, "It is an honor to be in your presence, Sir Jeralt."
"The Blade Breaker," Claude entwined his fingers behind his head and grinned, "In the flesh! Rumor has it you disappeared years ago to go off on some wild adventure."
"Yes," Edelgard said neutrally, "and if those rumors are to be believed, you spent most of those years in foreign lands far from Fódlan."
The man seemed faintly embarrassed at the attention he was getting.
"What you say is true. Almost two decades ago I ventured across the Great Sea with my son."
"And now you're back."
"Call it homesickness if you will, but there were some things I felt I needed to take care of in Fódlan."
Claude let out a low whistle.
"Jeralt and his company of famous mercenaries. Sailing across the sea to fight a hundred different battles. I grew up listening to those stories. But I never thought I'd meet you face to face. If I told my mother right now, I don't think she would ever believe me."
"Your stories are a little outdated," the man smiled slightly, "It's more than just a company now."
"More?" Edelgard picked up on the insinuation, "How many men have you brought with you?"
It wasn't Jeralt who answered but the mercenary facing him, voice a soft, steady rasp.
"A full tercio," Byleth replied.
"A full tercio," Claude repeated the strange word curiously.
"It's a military system they use abroad," Jeralt explained somewhat uneasily, "The word comes from a foreign language. It means One-Third. Specifically, a tercio should contain one-third pike, one-third swords, and one-third arquebuses. Though nowadays, the role of the swordsmen is slowly being supplanted entirely by pikemen."
"Arquebuses are the fire… firearms that shoot smoke and flame?" Dimitri pondered, "The Kingdom is aware of such armaments existing and our military advisors have debated importing them, but so far nothing has come of it. It is interesting to see that foreign nations are so willing to stake their reputations on such an unusual weapon."
"In some ways the foreign lands are inferior to Fódlan," was Jeralt's answer, "In other ways, they are far superior."
"How many men are usually in a tercio?" Edelgard pressed.
The grizzled mercenary looked at her oddly before scratching his chin.
"It varies. Most of the time it hovers around three thousand. But larger, fuller organizations ranging towards five thousand are not unheard of."
"And you have a full one," the future Emperor of Adrestia narrowed her eyes slightly.
Jeralt regarded her quizzically.
The three students exchanged looks. Five thousand seasoned men-at-arms being led by a superlative commander like the Blade Breaker was a significant force multiplier for any nation in Fódlan. In fact, one might say that such a force could potentially tip the scales on any future conflict solidly in the favor of the realm that employed them.
"Sir Jeralt," Dimitri, always the boldest of the three, seized on the opportunity, "The Holy Kingdom is always in need of brave and honorable men like you. Would you consider joining your talents with the Crown of Faerghus?"
His fellow house leaders immediately leapt to follow his example.
"Sir Blade Breaker-"
"Whoa now," the man held up both his hands up placatingly, "I don't handle that side of the business anymore. You'll want to talk to him about that."
The former captain of the Knights of Seiros nodded his head in a certain direction. Three pairs of eyes followed.
Byleth blinked in response. He blinked again when Claude threw a comradely arm over his shoulder.
"Say Byleth, I can call you Byleth right? I know this is your first time in Fódlan and everything, and I know just how overwhelming it can be when you're new here. But don't worry! Good ol' Claude has got your back! I'll introduce you to all the different provinces on this little continent of ours," the noble began steering the mercenary away from the others, "In fact, there's this swell place called the Leicester Alliance…"
Both Dimitri and Edelgard started.
"Halt, Claude! It would only be fair if the Kingdom of Faerghus had a chance to recruit an exceptional individual like Sir Byleth."
"Indeed. The Adrestian Empire has a storied and prosperous history. Your skill, Sir Byleth, will be greatly valued and compensated within our realm."
"Guys. Relax. I'm not trying to sway him to my side. All I'm doing is introducing him to the different locations in Fódlan. And if sometime during the process he decides that the Leicester Alliance is the ideal place to be, it will all be just a happy coincidence!"
"A happy coincidence? Hah! More like a predetermined strategy of recruitment!"
"Exactly! And what is there in the Leicester Alliance besides squabbling nobles? The Adrestian Empire on the other hand…"
Jeralt watched as his son was reluctantly led away by the trio of nobles. A small smile tugged at his lips even as his mind roamed towards darker thoughts.
"Good luck, kid," he sighed, "You're going to need it with that lot."