"The peasantry we interrogated informed me that we are trespassing lands belonging to Magister Plaekus of Volantis. There are regional authorities we could report to first, but the man who holds authority is nearly three days south from here by foot." Hubert's voice remained low and calm, without inflection. Edelgard knew from experience that Hubert only became this quiet when he was truly furious.
But then, that was hardly surprising, given the circumstances.
The purple-black smoke of Solon's magic, the acrid scent that had flooded the air as he pronounced the words of the spell, the professor's face as she turned on them in shock… that had been the last any of them had seen of Fodlan.
There had been darkness then, for a moment, and then suddenly they had been dropped here, in a vineyard where the sun bore down upon them like a hammer. From nighttime to daytime. Edelgard did not much like what that might signify. Nearly two hundred souls, with wyverns, spellbooks, horses, and gear had been transported by Solon's spell. Caspar, Ferdinand, Dorothea… the best and the brightest the Empire had to offer, and dozens of men and women who had been under their command in the fight against Solon.
"Magister," She repeated, bringing back her mind to the present. "That's no title I have ever heard of."
"Not a title of any of our southern neighbors," Hubert agreed, "But they speak our language, if a strange dialect of it which is both convenient and... deeply disturbing." Cold water filled her spine. Until now she had merely assumed that they were far, far from home, possibly on a continent of which they had never even heard, but... there were legends of persons transported to the far distant past or future. It seemed impossible, but she had to consider every possibility.
She wanted to curse, to spit, to tear out her hair and lay down and die. But she had a path to walk. She had people depending on her, a whole continent depending on her. And though they might be a thousand miles and a thousand years from anywhere she could recognize on a map, she would find a way to make her vision into a reality.
"Get me a wyvern." She ordered. "I will see this Magister now. We need to get our bearings, we need time to establish ourselves. If I meet with him perhaps we can avoid conflict for the moment."
"As your advisor, Lady Edelgard, I must ask you to consider if this is truly the best course of action. Cooperation with the locals has some advantages, but... a more violent approach might be merited as well. It may be in our best interest if the local authorities did not yet know we were here."
"You mean to support ourselves with simple banditry?" She did not allow any judgement to enter her tone. Hubert could be cold-blooded, but failing to consider his advice would be unwise.
"Two hundred men and women, fifty horses, and twenty wyverns. All these need food, lodging, and more." He said simply. "Simply taking what we need will require less time than begging or bartering for it, and will leave us with more time to find our way home."
"Bandits are always ultimately hunted down and killed," Edelgard replied, "And we have no idea of the capability of the locals."
Hubert chuckled darkly. "We are a very elite force, my Lady."
It was true, she knew. The finest the Empire had to offer were here with her now. Looking out over the silent vineyards of the land they found herself in, she found it hard to believe that this land could raise a force that could effectively hunt them. She could see hills in the distance, hills that could hide a skilled group of bandits for decades. It would be a bloody path to carve, a path where they had to kill to survive, over and over, but how different was that from what she had already committed to do? Guilt weighed heavy on her heart, and she shook her head.
"We are elite," she agreed firmly. "And that will make it easy for us to find work as mercenaries." She would walk the bloody path, but not now. Not yet.
"As you command, Lady Edelgard..." He paused a moment. "But you will not go unguarded. A few of our most excellent warriors. Ferdinand, Petra, Caspar... they can all take wyverns of their own and follow you. Shall I send for them?"
"I'll ask them myself," Edelgard stated. She could not order anyone, not now. Her rank would mean next to nothing out here in this strange land. If the Black Eagles followed her, it would be because she had won them to her side, not because her father sat the throne of Adrestia. Her heart rose in her throat. She had not expected to test their loyalty so soon.
Ferdinand had taken over a role of leadership among the battalions. He sat proudly on the back of his warhorse, issuing commands with his fine baritone voice. Men and women were cutting banners to pieces, stitching them together into makeshift tents with lances for support. He had ordered them to make camp, Edelgard realized with a pang of horror. Ferdinand had taken command of her army.
"Who told you to make camp?" She kept her tone as light as possible to hide her anger. "I believe I would remember if I had given you such an order."
"Ah, Edelgard!" Ferdinand's orange eyes smiled in reply, "You remember correctly. You did not order me to do anything at all! But it is self-evident that making camp is what we must do. Though it is daytime here, it was nighttime when we left Fodlan and we have just come from a battle besides. Surely you cannot mean to say that you intend for us to march from here?"
She paused. Everything Ferdinand had said was correct. Of course it was. Ferdinand Von Aegir had always been monstrously talented. That was why she had to be careful with him. Her own father, the Emperor of Adrestia, had become a prisoner in his own home after underestimating the Von Aegir family, and Edelgard did not intend to repeat her father's mistakes.
"Of course we should make camp," Edelgard allowed, "If there's any local response to our appearance it will not come for a day or two and we should rest while we can. But there's something else I need you for. Come."
It was greatly to her satisfaction that Ferdinand followed her without further question. "We're going to see the lord of these lands," she explained.
"Ah!" Ferdinand said with a smile. "And you require someone skilled in the art of diplomacy at your side."
"Not just that. You know how to ride a wyvern and we need to speak to this man immediately. If I merely wanted someone who could be diplomatic, I would be asking Dorothea."
His smile fractured for the barest of moments, no doubt stinging from the implication that a commoner would be more useful than himself in a diplomatic venture. He rallied a second later, as he always did. "I wish to deny your choice, but you are not incorrect. Her skills in the art of conversation rival my own."
"Where is Petra? I want to have as many of the Black Eagles there as we can, and I will be glad of her sword arm if we have to fight. The three of us should be able to fight our way out any local lord's house if we must."
"She is just over there," Ferdinand replied, his smile flashing. "But only the three of us? If you wish to have as many of our house present, would there not be a fourth?"
"Caspar knows how to sit a wyvern, but I would rather have him here." Caspar Bergliez was a short-tempered brawler who compensated for his lack of height by making himself as loud as possible. Edelgard valued him as a friend and as a fighter, but she did not want him anywhere near a diplomatic venture. She felt confident that Caspar would agree with that evaluation.
Ferdinand shook his head, "No, it was Flayn of whom I was thinking. Despite her lack of martial interest, she is a talented aerialist, and we would do well to have such a skilled healer in our party."
Edelgard paused, her heartbeat quickening. Flayn. A flood of guilt threatened to rise up within her. The girl had joined the Black Eagles just a few months ago, and Edelgard had not yet thought through the implications of her presence here with them. With the exception of Hubert and herself, all the Eagles thought Flayn to be little more than she appeared to be: A sheltered, kind girl of perhaps fifteen, nothing more or less. Edelgard knew the truth. The creature called Flayn was not human, not remotely. The church had placed her in their house for reasons Edelgard could only guess at. Perhaps she was here to be a spy, or as an assassin. She was ancient, centuries-old at least, and every aspect of her human appearance was a carefully calculated lie. Still, as Edelgard saw her, smiling and laughing at one of Caspar's jokes… she could not help what her foolish heart felt for the girl. Guilt for what she had done to Flayn already. Guilt for what she planned to do in the near future.
"Of course, my mistake," Edelgard admitted, shaking off her dark mood. She could not allow Flayn or the others to suspect what she knew, especially not now. Edelgard had to assume that the creature would assist them for as long as they were away from Fodlan. "You are correct. Flayn should come with us as well. You see to her, I will get Petra."
"I am more than happy to oblige."
She only nodded in reply, allowing Ferdinand to leave. Even amongst a party of two hundred men and women, finding Petra was no challenge. The girl's straight-backed posture and long purple braid would have identified her anywhere.
"Lady Edelgard," Petra stated politely, bowing only slightly at her approach.
"Petra. We are going to meet with the local leadership. I would be grateful to have you by my side."
"I am being grateful that you should ask me," Petra replied. Fodlan was her second language, and her speech was still stilted and uncertain. "Only... I am confusion, Lady Edelgard. I am not a noble of the Empire."
"We are very far from home. The people here have never heard of Adrestia or Brigid, so for the moment we must consider ourselves as one people."
Petra smiled. "One people? I am liking that idea. But I am frustration about the language here. I am hearing that the people of this place are speaking Fodlan. Why should they not be speaking Brigid?"
Edelgard smiled in spite of herself. "That fact concerns me as well. If they were speaking Brigid I would know why I do not recognize the terrain. But come, let us find our wyverns."
Hubert had gathered the wyverns in the center of the camp, all twenty of them, wings bound and legs chained. Edelgard paused for half a moment before going in to see them.
Petra laughed at her. "This hesitation is not promising, Lady Edelgard."
Edelgard sighed. Petra was right, of course. A wyvern could be made to accept a rider over time, but they never became tame. Every new rider would have to prove themselves, a process that usually took days if not weeks. None of her classmates had been on wyverns when Solon dropped them here, so they would be borrowing mounts from the enlisted men. That meant that each of them would have to break in a wyvern right here and now on the first attempt, something only done by experts or madmen. Which was she, an expert or a madwoman? Perhaps she was both.
"Thank you for accepting my request, Petra," Edelgard stated. "You know the dangers and yet you still agreed without question."
Petra smiled. "I am knowing the dangers. I am also knowing that you need my help now more than ever."
Edelgard nodded, setting her ax aside as she stepped into the ring. A black-scaled juvenile caught her eye first, and she walked toward it without hesitation, keeping its great yellow eyes firmly locked with her own. You could not truly appreciate how massive a wyvern was until you were close to one, until you could feel the heat of their breath. The juvenile lunged forward suddenly. No time to think. Heat flared in her heart and she leapt straight up, just as the beast's mouth would have closed on her, slamming her heel into its nose as she fell, pinning it to the ground beneath her. The muscle's in a wyvern's neck were weak, and even her own small weight would be enough to hold it down. It writhed uncomfortably for perhaps a moment, and then lay still as an attendant came by to hand her the reigns. Edelgard allowed herself to sigh with relief. Another victory. Another step forward.
"I've never seen it done like that before!" Flayn's cheery voice called out from above, and Edelgard squinted up to see that the green-haired girl was sitting proudly atop a great old brown-skinned wyvern, one of the oldest and crankiest of the lot. "You are so mighty, Edelgard, you move with such power!"
Edelgard sighed, her crests still radiating with energy after their activation moments ago. The power in her blood was addictive, all-consuming. She did not like to depend upon it. " I did not manage it as cleanly as I would like," she admitted, "Not as cleanly as you've seemed to manage."
"Oh I've always been good with Wyverns, you know," she reached down to scratch the old monster behind its ears. "My brother is even better."
And why was that Flayn? Because you and your brother are closer kin to wyverns than to humans? Edelgard did not trust herself to say anything.
"Edelgard, I was speaking with Hubert and," Flayn paused mid-statement. "He said that the farmers he spoke with were slaves."
Edelgard frowned. Slavery had been forbidden in Fodlan since time immemorial, as a core teaching of the church of Seiros. Edelgard was no friend of the church, but to some extent she was grateful for their influence on this matter. Slavery was the highest evil, the thing she despised more than any other. Edelgard had not even considered what sort of barbaric hellhole they might have been dropped into. Slavery was common enough in other countries, why should she not expect to find it here?
"There's nothing we can do about it for now Flayn," She said the words. She knew it was true. Most of the slaves would not want to be freed, in all likelihood. What would they have to offer them? The life of a bandit? There was nothing they could do about it. That was true. But she wished in her heart it were otherwise. "Once we have our bearings we will talk about what we can do in our time here, but for now I want to get a look at whoever is ruling this area."
They were in the air within an hour, soaring high on waves of heat rising from the ground. Vineyards and olive groves and fields of wheat passed below them, and the reality of their situation began to sink in for her. Not for the first time, she cursed Solon and his entire species. He had been trying to aim for the Professor, for Byleth, but something had gone wrong with the spell. Fool. She hoped Byleth had killed him.
She identified the residence of Magister Plaekus from miles away, a shining blue-domed pearl in a background of browns and greens. The structure was essentially a cube, with equal length, breadth, and depth, surrounded on all sides by a lush garden. Edelgard wondered how he got all that water up to the top of the hill. She had an uncomfortable feeling the answer involved massive amounts of slave labor.
The descent began, her party of wyverns circling to earth like great vultures, and she had ample opportunity to study the ground below her. The mansion was far larger and more luxurious than she had initially thought, large enough to house several hundred at once, with hundreds more doubtless employed in the stables, warehouses, blacksmiths, and bakeries at the base of the hill. Etching and sculpture decorated every inch of the grounds of the mansion itself, and she could spy the figures of gods and goddesses peeking out from the leafy boughs of the garden.
Until now she had dismissed these locals as barbarians, she realized. Less sophisticated than Almyra or Dagda. After all, what people could call themselves civilized and still allow slavery? She wanted to laugh at herself. Had she not always scorned the people of Fodlan for being so convinced of their own superiority? Yet she had fallen into the same traps. No, slavery was evil, but evil men could be civilized too. She should not treat the rulers of this land so lightly.
Below them, men were scrambling, hurrying to ready themselves for what must look like a raid or an invasion. When they landed in the town square, a small army of men and horses. A tall, olive-skinned man wearing fine silk over scale rode in front, and he raised his hand in greeting. Edelgard pulled up hard on her reins and stood up in the saddle.
"I am Edelgard Von Hresvelg," She pronounced, stuttering a moment as she remembered none of her titles would mean anything here. She was nothing, she was void, she had nothing but her own talents and abilities to guide her here. "Leader of the Black Eagles mercenary company. We come in peace. The bulk of my company is three days hence, and I have come to ask Magister Plaekus for the right of peaceful passage through his lands."
And if they will not give peace, Edelgard thought with dread, then I must give them war.