When Edelgard greeted Ferdinand in Astapor and he was not met with anger, it took all of his will to avoid collapsing on the spot. What came next, he did not remember. They took him to his quarters in the Low Palace below the Pyramid of Ullhor, and when he woke again it was night still, but not the same night in which he had fallen asleep. Every part of him ached, his heart most of all. Goddess, it is going to be like the time with the poison again. No, it would be worse than that. He had overused his crest, relied too much on its alacrity and healing.
The crests that ran in the line of the Saints did not burn their bearers as the crests that ran from the lines of the elites, but overreliance upon their gifts could render a crest inert for a time. Weeks, months, even years in the most extreme cases. His body would recover soon enough, but he would be little more than a normal skilled warrior for the next month at most, and by then the whole war might be over. He should have known this would happen. Weeks of constant fighting in the hills, that disastrous duel with Cleon, and then running to fight with the scouts before he had even completely healed? He would be lucky if there was no permanent damage done.
Ferdinand could have risen from the cot but he saw no reason to do so. He was weak, useless, and Edelgard would relish the chance to discard him. Intellectually he knew that was not completely true. Edelgard had been surprisingly kind when they had met earlier, and Ferdinand still had some talents and connections. She was not angry enough to waste his remaining capabilities. But his dreams of surpassing her, even his dream of being her equal, all were left in the dust.
Servants came in and fed him, set out fresh clothes for him. They would have washed him too but he refused that. He would wash himself at least. Cold water and lye soap without perfume. He wanted to stand before his peers without pretension. His mood improved somewhat as he broke his fast in his chambers. He had been too morose earlier. There was still work to be done, still so much. He would have purpose, he would have motion. Hubert had carved a niche for himself without a crest, so had Petra. He would demonstrate his quality to Edelgard. He would demonstrate his humility.
Footsteps in the corridor. Armored footsteps. Ferdinand drew himself to attention. Edelgard entered a moment later, accompanied by two wyvern knights. She was clad in the same armor she had worn the day before, but now that he was not so delirious with weariness he observed that it was of Ghiscari make, with bronze inlays in the plates that made it gleam like a dragon's scales. She carried a winged helm under one arm, as though she had been fighting recently.
"Are the wings for the Black Eagle, or for the Harpy," He said it before he knew what he was saying.
She frowned. "Does it matter?"
He blinked. "No, I suppose not." Why was he being so excessively stupid? "I am sorry," he repeated. "I should have sent word earlier. I meant to, I truly did, but-"
Edelgard raised a hand. "Quiet," she said. He closed his mouth. She sighed. "Look, just sit down, you're clearly still exhausted, and this conversation isn't going to be easier because you're suffering."
He sat down on one of the chairs, and she sat across from him. She turned to her guards. "Wait outside, if you please. I want to speak to Ferdinand alone."
Ferdinand and Edelgard stared at each other quietly as the two guards walked out. A part of Ferdinand wanted to turn away his gaze, like a dog staring away from its master, but he had enough pride remaining that he at least looked her in the eyes.
"Why did you do it?" Edelgard broke the silence, her voice, and expression cold.
"Take the city?"
He sighed and rubbed the side of his head and then sighed again. He knew well enough what the true answer was, but it cost him dearly to say it. "Pride," he said at last. "I wanted to prove I could do it. No other reason, really."
"When I first heard," Edelgard said, her words chosen carefully, "I had some idea you might be trying to subvert me. Become my rival in Daenerys' court, jockey for power, promote your own allies, and take over the cities from within."
"Like my father?"
She closed her eyes. "No. Nothing like that."
Ferdinand moved to reply but Edelgard cut him off. "I have identified flaws in my ability as a leader," she announced. "I have come to realize that I have been unreasonable in asking the Black Eagles to follow me without engaging with empathy. I have attempted to lead through ability alone, to present myself as invincible and unstoppable, but I fear this has made me seem cold and inhuman." She grit her teeth as if to weather a blow. "I've been harsher with you than with anyone."
Ferdinand paused, unsure what to say. He had notions of what he considered Edelgard's flaws, but this had not been one of them. Not exactly, anyway. "Too harsh with me? Considering how things have turned out in the city, and what you might guess about my intentions, I should think you would be more severe than ever. After all, I-"
"You ran off on a foolhardy crusade to make yourself a petty king."
Ferdinand deflated. "Yes," he said simply.
Edelgard sighed. "And I sent you away on a pointless bit of busywork to keep you away from the capital so I could sideline you and solidify my power base. It would be hypocritical to object to you playing politics when I meant to do the same thing myself."
"I overextended our armies."
"You gave Astapor a chance at freedom."
"Small comfort if we all die."
"That won't happen."
Ferdinand laughed. It made him glad to see that this new Edelgard had lost none of her confidence."I thought I was supposed to be the reckless one."
Edelgard pursed her lips. Normally she would respond to such a barb with one of her own, but this time she stayed her tongue. "I am not being reckless. We will make Astapor as ready as we can, and set it to hold as long as we can. If we hold long enough for Daenerys' Unsullied to arrive, we'll stand a better chance at winning than we ever could have with Cleon in power. If we don't hold..." she shrugged. "It will still have cost us less than a hundred other gambles might have."
"I don't want to abandon Astapor." Ferdinand felt a pang of embarrassment for having said such a thing. His face colored. Of all the things to be insubordinate about, he chose this? He looked to the window. Astapor practically glowed red in the light of the dawn. It was beautiful in its own cruel way, just as Yunkai had been."They named me their regent, and as such, I am obligated to defend them. To the last."
"Well," Edelgard said, surprised. "I suppose we will have to take care not to let the city fall." She raised her eyebrows and shook her head. "I wonder sometimes if the only reason I did not trust you before was that I never really knew you."
"I don't think you were wrong to mistrust me then," Ferdinand supplied quickly. "...But you trust me now?"
Edelgard closed her eyes, turned, and looked away. "Does it matter? The Coalition is coming for us one way or another. I might not get along with you very well, but I know you won't betray me to the slavers, and regardless of your intentions, your little adventure here in Astapor has bought us time. If there was ever a time for me to appeal to your loyalty, this is it."
Ferdinand chuckled. "The slavers really do put Fodlan's struggles into perspective, don't they?"
Edelgard did not reply immediately. "Yes," she said. "They do. Even a man such as your father… Well, he only destroyed one family. Here such acts are routine, or were."
Ferdinand felt the shame from earlier rise up again and threaten to overwhelm him. Her siblings! All nine of them, and likely her mother too. "Edelgard, I'm so..."
"Sorry?" She turned back to him, eyes blazing. "Don't be. That's in the past and it has nothing to do with you. Grudges can carry themselves as far as I am concerned." She paused, a hint of uncertainty entering her voice, "That came across harsher than I intended. I only… I have no stake in the past. Neither of us was involved in what happened between our parents. You apologized for insubordination, and I did appreciate that."
Ferdinand nodded, feeling sure of himself for the first time in weeks. "To the future, then."
"To the future."
Of all the enemies Hubert had acquired over the years, none was so persistent as the blasted sun. He wished he were home in Adrestia, down near one of the canals where the shade and the water kept the air cool even in the height of summer, or at least inside one of the pyramids where the stone could suck away the heat of the day. But alas they were in the Bay of Ghis, and they were marching to war, and he refused to ride in some palanquin like Linhardt or Bernadetta. Such decadence ran utterly contrary to their purpose in the Bay. The queen clearly agreed, riding next to him on her Silver, dressed in armor as though she were actually a warrior and not just a figure of state. She and he would ride with the men, and sweat and suffer along with them.
Goddess, how he despised it.
Ten thousand, that was the whole of the Queen's army that marched to Yunkai. They had twice as many of that under arms, but most of them had been left behind to guard the lands around Meereen and Yunkai. Raids on the coast, longships in the rivers… The Coalition had forced them to make a poisoned choice. Leave armies at home and risk losing to the Coalition in the field, or gamble it all against the coalition army and leave their lands to be burnt and ruined.
Queen Daenerys had elected to defend what she could and attempt to fight the coalition at three to one odds. A gamble, to be sure, but Hubert could not claim it had been entirely wrong. They had advantages in the field. The Unsullied were truly impressive soldiers and performed even better when properly equipped. They had magic and dragons and wyverns and Edelgard and were fighting on home terrain. Three to one odds were miserable, but they were not unwinnable. Meanwhile, the home front was more worrisome. There were still enough powerful men in Meereen and Yunkai who resented the Queen, and if she had truly emptied the region of her loyalists, she might have returned to find the gates barred to them.
In the end, it was pointless to worry about. The die had been cast weeks ago and they would be watching it tumble and roll for weeks more before they truly knew what the best decision would have been.
The coalition's navy had made resupply difficult, and Hubert took no small pride that they were still able to march without excessive foraging in the region. Caches placed along the road ahead of time had kept the army fed on Meereen to Yunkai, and would feed them as far as the Red Hills. After that, things became uncertain, and there would be fighting there too. If they lost at Astapor they would be retreating with little in the way of resupply.
Communication in this new world was difficult but all accounts agreed that the Red City had come under siege, a force of thirty thousand beating upon its walls. Hubert wondered if that number was true. It seemed scarcely possible that such a great force could have been raised in such a short time, but the likelier answer was that New Ghis and Qarth had been plotting this campaign a long time between them, and Daenerys' conquest had only forced their hand.
He blinked. The queen was speaking to him.
"I had meant to ask what the mood amidst your Black Eagles was. I have met with them all myself, but I hardly know them as well as you. They are to be my officers in the coming battle, my frontline fighters. Their morale is good, you think?"
Hubert faltered. He had not been thinking of the Black Eagles. In truth, he did not truly know whether the Queen referred to the former students of Garreg Mach Officer's Academy or the men and women of the battalions that had come with them to this new world. Still, it did not matter much which group that Queen was asking after. The answer remained the same either way.
"I have the utmost confidence in the excellence of my fellow Black Eagles," he said, and he meant it. Their enemies were alien, strange, and evil, and whatever concerns he had of their loyalty would not be relevant in the coming conflict. They would fight and die if need be to see the war resolved in Daenerys' favor. In truth, he trusted them more in battle than in peace. But a thought occurred to him that made him uneasy. He had to think about how to say this correctly.
"Was there something that made you fear that their performance would be less than excellent?"
Daenerys seemed surprised by the question. "Oh no," she said. "Rather the opposite, really. I had the opportunity of observing their easy manners, and I confess that I wish my own officers had the same bonds of fellowship. Barristan is dutiful and Grey Worm is reliable, but they are such different people and have so little in common. I cannot imagine them meeting each other for drinks at the end of each day as your officers do."
Hubert frowned. He had not noticed. How had he not noticed that his officers were meeting? The idea that Daenerys had noted this behavior before he rankled. Not because he felt afraid of sedition, he trusted his Black Eagles as much as he had a moment before, but because his attention had slipped. A part of him knew that such mistakes were inevitable, that he had been busy, that he had been tired, but… still, he felt angry. He felt angrier with himself than the situation merited, he realized.
He suppressed the emotion. It would not do to be displeased in the presence of the Queen. He and Edelgard both depended on her to a degree for now and he had to maintain good relations.
"Captain-General Edelgard has always encouraged camaraderie between her officers." He said, "She eschews the usual trappings of rank and commands respect purely through personal ability." He bit his tongue. Perhaps Daenerys would see this as criticism. Perhaps it was. The girl did not have the ability enough to rule through example. In a sense, she was everything Edelgard meant to destroy, a girl who had felt entitled to rule because of her birth, who had destroyed so much through sheer incompetence.
But then, what had she destroyed that was of value? Not the old slaver elite, surely.
Distraction. He could not focus for the rest of the day, and a million things went less than perfectly. Something about that simple conversation with Daenerys had gotten under his skin and he could not understand why. But at the end of the day when the tents were all drawn up and the stars were out above, he found himself seeking out the camp of his Eagles.
They had picked out a tent near the center of the camp for their use, a plain white tent with flowers embroidered on one side. Hubert smiled at that. Bernadetta's touch, it had to be. His hand touched the edge of the tent flap and then drew back. A part of him felt afraid for a moment. Someone laughed from inside. What was he trying to accomplish here? He had other tasks to accomplish. There was-
He nearly fell over as someone bulled into him from behind. Caspar. Hubert grimaced.
"What are you doing standing outside the party tent for?" Caspar said. "It's kind of creepy! The party's already started, come on. Hey everyone, look who showed up!"
The Black Eagles cheered, and Hubert found himself pulled against his will from the dark into the light.