Chapter 29: Monstrous Appeal

While the rest of her classmates traveled toward the cathedral with bags of supplies to sustain them for their journey to Remire Village, Edelgard thought it best to pack light, with only her axe and shield for protection. After leaving the classroom, the first thing she did was look for Ferdinand in the one place she knew he would most likely spend his spare time – the stable.

She found Ferdinand in the middle of brushing his horse’s mane and reassuring him that he wouldn’t be gone for too long. “Let’s go, Ferdinand,” she said after watching him put his brush away. “We don’t have much time to waste.”

“I understand, and I am ready,” Ferdinand replied. “I only wished to stop by and make sure my steed is properly groomed before we departed. If only I could ride Isaac into town with us… He would appreciate having more opportunities to travel without the fear of being attacked. For now, he will have to rest here, along with Dorte and—”

Ferdinand looked at the stall next to Marianne’s favorite horse and saw that it was empty. Ingrid, in her mission to stop whatever was lurking around the Valley of Torment, had taken flight with her pegasus, Daphne. “Er…you get the idea.”

Edelgard and Ferdinand sat quietly a few feet apart from each other as they rode in the carriage southward toward Larkspur Town. Before they knew it, they crossed the border between Garreg Mach and Count Varley’s domain, having been lucky to avoid any encounters with any thieves or soldiers in black along the way. Ferdinand was especially impressed when he considered how many farms they had passed by. Taking such a scenic route would have given the enemy the perfect opportunity to ambush them.

When they arrived at Larkspur, they were asked to leave their weapons in the carriage before entering. The mood around town was calm despite the visible evidence of the monster attack, with shards of glass and boarded-up windows staggered about the paths leading toward the inn and the town square. The few passers-by they saw outside were more interested in figuring out what they were doing there.

“First the count, and now the princess and Duke Aegir’s son?” they overheard one woman say. “The situation must be worse than they said if it brought all of them out on the same day.”

“Count Varley is here too? Wonderful,” said Edelgard, doing the best she could to suppress her displeasure with the idea of having to speak to him. “Let’s hope we can get enough information to finish the job as quickly as possible.”

“Well said, Edelgard,” said Ferdinand. “Our best bet would be to go where the potential for destruction is the highest. Do you not agree that the inn would be an ideal first place to search?”

“I hope you’re not suggesting that because you forgot to eat breakfast before you left.”

Ferdinand slid his left hand away from his stomach. “Of course not! My primary focus is on gathering information for our mission. That said, I did remember to bring some money for food in case our visit ran long. Let us move quickly before I find that I do require something to eat.”

Edelgard patted the left side of her jacket to feel around for a secret pocket where she kept her money pouch, well out of the reach of any pickpockets.

They followed the main road south past the fruit market and clothing stores until they reached Astrid’s Place, an inn that superficially reminded Edelgard of the tavern in Drachen Village. Once inside, it was easy to find the spots where the monsters had punched through the walls by the shading of the mortar in the brickwork. The proprietor of the inn, a portly raven-haired woman in a dark-blue dress, noticed the duo and walked over to their table in the center of the room. “Good morning, Your Highness!” she said with a bow. “I certainly wasn’t expecting your arrival today. Had I known that you and your, um…friend planned to grace this establishment with your presence, I would have ordered the cooks to prepare an extra-special meal in advance! Is there anything I can get for you two?”

“In a moment, perhaps,” said Edelgard. “We’re here on assignment from the Officers Academy.”

“Oh? And what might the nature of this assignment be?”

“A few weeks ago, a town near our academy was attacked by monsters,” said Ferdinand. “We believe that whoever orchestrated that attack may also have sent some monsters after this town.”

Astrid bowed her head. “So, you’ve heard about that incident, have you? It was a most terrible sight.” She looked up for a moment when she heard a trio of children banging their spoons on their table as their parents tried to calm them down. Astrid pointed to one of her waiters and held up three fingers, signaling for him to bring some fresh food to the rowdy table before the situation escalated. “Sorry about that,” she said, bowing her head and lowering her voice again. “Anyway, it all started with the sound of a most inhuman roar. It drew a horde of smaller monsters in from the east gate. The town guard mobilized as soon as they saw the first wave pouring in.”

“That sounds similar to what happened in the attack at Garreg Mach,” said Edelgard. “Please continue, Miss Astrid. What else do you remember seeing?”

“To tell the truth, I didn’t actually see much of what was going on outside. I was busy trying to keep the peace in here. Everyone in the inn was scared out of their minds…well, everyone, that is, except for one young woman.”

Edelgard and Ferdinand were certain that Astrid was referring to Hapi, but they still wanted to know how she was connected to the attack. “What was this young woman doing while everyone else was panicking?” asked Ferdinand, sneaking another peek at the patched-up holes in the wall.

“She was eating a bowl of soup,” said Astrid. “Our famous ‘Mach Speed Special’, to be exact – made with the very best meats, vegetables, and seasonings in Adrestia. She finished that bowl so quickly, too… Either she was starving after being on the road for so long, or she wanted to finish quickly before one of the monsters started smashing those walls over there.”

The inn became a little quieter as the waiter delivered three bowls of mushroom soup to the hungry children. Even after feeding a few customers and giving her sales pitch about the house specialty, Astrid couldn’t bring herself to smile yet. “As soon as that beast with a human face came in,” she added, shuddering at the only description she could give of the creature she saw that night, “that girl was the only one who stood up. She didn’t look scared or angry or…anything, really. It was almost like she was…”

“Was she sad? Bored, perhaps?”

“No! She looked…weary…as if she’d seen creatures like that before. I assumed she was going to try to fight it off, but I wasn’t sure how she’d do that without a weapon. Then, she raised her hands and fired a dark beam of…something at it, and that seemed to hurt it a bit.” Astrid paused and turned toward the front door. “When the guards showed up to kill the thing before it tore up the inn and attacked the customers, I thought that was going to be the end of it. After the dust had settled, almost everyone in the room pointed their fingers at the girl, calling her all sorts of nasty names. The way they were crowing about, you’d think she brought those monsters here deliberately and then threw up a few token attacks against it to throw off suspicion. A few of the guards thought so, anyway.”

“What led them to that conclusion?” asked Edelgard.

“They noticed some of the monsters abruptly shifting course during their rampage, barreling toward this very inn…and the one that broke through the wall was focused almost entirely on that girl. She said her name was Hapi, but she was probably the least happy person in the room that night…especially after the guards took her away. One of them even made a big show of saying they were doing it ‘for her own protection’ in the event of another monster outbreak.”

They probably turned her over to the church afterward, Edelgard thought. She was surprised that Hapi hadn’t already been killed, considering how swiftly Rhea punished most of the would-be thieves who disrupted the Rite of Rebirth.

“The monsters are gone for now, and we haven’t witnessed any new attacks since then,” said Astrid, “but Lord Varley was livid over what happened. So livid, in fact, that he came to the mayor’s manor after dinner the next evening to personally give him an earful!”

At that moment, the front door swung open and triggered the bell hanging directly above. A young man in a black pinstriped shirt and shiny black shoes held the door open, clearing the way for a man who appeared to be about Astrid’s age and was dressed in a black suit with a dark blue sash draped across his shoulder, bearing thin purple stripes on either side and the letters “GVV” stitched in white across the center. In his right hand, the older man carried a black staff with a convincing-looking false pearl at the head, just long enough to double as a walking stick and sturdy enough to serve as a bludgeon in a pinch. His hairline and thin beard reminded Edelgard of her uncle, Volkhard von Arundel, except they were the same shade of purple as Bernadetta’s hair.

“Speaking of…”

Count Grégoire von Varley and the patrons of Astrid’s Place looked surprised to see each other. Edelgard and Ferdinand remained seated as he approached their table, looking less and less like someone who required a walking stick to keep himself upright. “Good day, Astrid…Ferdinand…Your Highness,” he said, his voice getting deeper with each successive greeting.

“Would you like something to eat or drink, my lord?” asked Astrid.

“Not right now… I was just on my way from another meeting with the mayor when I heard a rumor that Her Highness was in town. I figured I would stop by and pay a visit.”

Grégoire waited for Astrid to address another customer before surveying the room and shaking his head disapprovingly. “Such a woeful sight,” he muttered, waiting a few more seconds for Astrid to turn around and ask him what he just said, and then looking at Edelgard when the expected retort never came. “You look as if you have something you wish to say, Your Highness. Go on, let it all out.”

“Actually, Lord Varley,” Edelgard said to him, “I think it would be more appropriate if we continued this discussion outside.”

“I believe this conversation will be overheard no matter where we hold it,” said Ferdinand. “The townspeople here seem very talkative. Let us hope that our messages do not get misinterpreted.”

“It makes no difference to me either way,” the count replied. “Keep in mind that the time before I must return to the manor is limited, so if you wish to gather a meal beforehand, I suggest ordering something travel-sized.”

Ferdinand scanned the menu for something quick and easy to eat, eventually settling on some sweet buns. Several minutes later, one of Astrid’s cooks returned with a half-dozen hand-sized buns, fresh from the oven and lightly coated in butter. Ferdinand and Edelgard each took two buns for themselves, while Grégoire took the last two and gave one to his servant, who had been standing by the front door waiting for them to leave the inn. On his way out, Ferdinand bowed to Astrid and the cooks and thanked them for their hospitality, receiving a few warm smiles for his efforts.

The group ate their sweet buns as they walked through the residential area. The count’s servant took a large bite out of his, scattering crumbs onto the sidewalk as he chewed. “Pace yourself, boy,” the count advised. “Be mindful of your company. The birds and the ants will get their share eventually.”

The servant waited to swallow his bite before speaking up. “Sorry, my lord!”

Count Varley shifted his attention to Edelgard, who had slipped over to his right side and was trying to match his long stride so she could keep up with him. “Is the Officers Academy providing a stimulating enough experience, Your Highness?” he asked. “I hear that some of the students can be…quite a handful to deal with.”

“There have been some difficulties,” said Edelgard, “but our professor’s instruction has seen us through them.”

“Good to hear. I hope that more young men and women follow your example and take their studies seriously.” The count took a bite of his sweet bun, paused for a second to examine its insides, and then took another, smaller bite. “Did Astrid give you that song-and-dance about her soup being some of the best in Fódlan?”

“Yes, she did say something to that effect,” said Ferdinand.

“Ignore it. If I were her, I would shut that place down and reopen it as a bakery.”

Ferdinand wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible while Count Varley still appeared to be in a good mood. “While I am in agreement that Astrid’s place does look like it has seen better days, I am disturbed by the fact that it was the target of such a vicious attack.”

“Yes…terrible business, that. A horde of inhuman creatures rampaging through the streets of Larkspur, and at the center of it all, a young outsider girl claiming to be on a treasure hunt. Sounds like an open-and-shut case, does it not?”

“It would be,” said Edelgard, “if she was caught in the act.”

“Correct. However, the short-sighted buffoons in the town guard only saw the girl casting dark magic and assumed she was the culprit without bothering to ask anyone at the scene whether they saw her doing anything strange before the inn was attacked. Granted, it would have been difficult to get a straight answer from a room full of frightened men, women, and children…”

Edelgard noticed the count’s voice deepen again when he mentioned the scared witnesses, making her wonder how much of his statement came from personal experience.

“There is another bothersome aspect to this whole situation… Why did the guards turn that girl over to the Church of Seiros and not allow us to handle it? We already have a system in place to deal with subversive elements in this society. At least if they had kept her here, she would have been given a trial and a chance to defend herself.”

“We heard you had some harsh words for the mayor after Hapi was arrested,” said Edelgard. “I’ll bet he was shocked to see you.”

“He had every right to be afraid,” said Grégoire, stopping at an intersection and waiting for a carriage to pass so he had a clear path across the street. “There are a few things I simply cannot stand, and one of those is the failure to adequately perform the duties expected of one’s station. The way that man and the guard captain handle security in this town, I’m amazed they were able to kill even one of those creatures.”

Several minutes of awkward silence hung over the quartet as they continued walking toward the south side of town, where signs of damage from the attack were less evident. Count Varley held up his right hand, signaling for everyone to stop once he reached his apparent destination: a white-hooded covered wagon flanked by four archers wearing the same blue-and-purple color scheme as the one featured on his sash. “Your carriage is safe, sound, and ready for departure, Lord Varley!” said one of the archers to his right.

“Excellent,” said the count.

“The roads should be clear for the next four miles or so. If anything tries to attack us, we’ll put one right between their eyes.”

The count turned to Edelgard and said, “Do you see that, Your Highness? This is the sort of discipline I expect to see from those with whom I associate. No exceptions.” His eyebrows narrowed and his brow furrowed, which she and Ferdinand interpreted as him talking about them, as well.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied, staring back at him until he looked at Ferdinand, who appeared less upset by the count’s implied insult, but was also not inclined to appear intimidated standing next to him.

“I must be off for now,” said the count, still looking at Ferdinand. “Your father and I are scheduled for lunch later this afternoon, and you know how he hates to wait.”

“Do not worry, Lord Varley. Edelgard, our professor, and I will get this matter under control,” said Ferdinand.

“I would expect no less. Farewell for now… Try not to let anything distract you.”

Count Varley’s bodyguards escorted him and his servant into the vehicle. As soon as they all filed inside, it took off, kicking up a cloud of dust as it picked up speed on the dirt road leading out of town. Once they were confident the carriage was far enough out of sight, Edelgard turned back toward the residential area and took a long, cleansing breath. “Unbelievable! Simply unbelievable!” she said. “I have no idea how anyone can stand in the company of that man for as long as we just did.”

“The count certainly loves hearing the sound of his own voice,” said Ferdinand, matching Edelgard’s angry expression with one of weariness.

“And yet, he seemed surprisingly restrained when he spoke to us…nothing like the stories of him I’ve heard from Bernadetta.”

“Does it not bother you that he did not have a single word to say about her? Not even a question regarding her welfare?”

“Trust me, Ferdinand…it’s for the best. I’m not surprised that her father and yours get along so well.”

“Neither am I…” Ferdinand promptly ended the subject there, not wishing to say anything that would reflect poorly on himself or his house.

A few moments later, Edelgard reached into her secret pocket and gave Ferdinand a handful of gold coins.

“What is this for?” he asked, looking puzzled.

“My share of the meal,” said Edelgard. “I couldn’t very well let you spend all of your money on those sweet buns. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Oh…well, I appreciate it. Did you find them as enjoyable as I did?”

Edelgard smiled and told him, “They were delicious.”

The two of them started walking back toward their own carriage, making it more than halfway to the north side of town when they ran into Theo, who dropped his hands to his knees and panted heavily upon meeting them.

“You look exhausted,” said Ferdinand. “Did you run all over town looking for us?”

“No…I just got here…maybe fifteen…or twenty minutes ago,” said Theo, who took a few moments to push himself upright. “Your teacher gave Myron a letter telling me to meet you in this town. I was worried you were already on your way back, so I got here as fast as possible. So…did you guys learn anything new?”

“Yes. Unfortunately, it turns out that your friend Hapi was the center of attention for this attack, in more ways than one.”

Theo groaned and lowered his head again. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

“However, the owner of the inn did not explicitly say Hapi was responsible,” said Ferdinand. “She only mentioned that the monsters had attacked the inn because Hapi was there at the time.”

“Ferdinand…do you remember what Myron told us after we cleared out the Sealed Forest?” asked Edelgard.

“Are you referring to Hapi’s powers possibly being corrupted?”

Edelgard nodded. “He told us that she can communicate with animals. Somewhere along the way, those powers must have twisted into something that draws hostile creatures to her. It’s a cruel situation to be in, knowing that one day you can be attacked without either you or your assailant knowing why…”

“We have a good idea who really sent those monsters after this town, but without any proof, there is little we can do to directly help Larkspur for now.”

“That’s the purpose of the Remire mission. If my intuition is correct and our enemies from the forest try to use those creatures to attack the village, then this should at least partially absolve Hapi of any wrongdoing.”

“The letter also mentioned that your professor had talked to Hapi recently,” said Theo. “It sounds like she and one of the church guys were trying to negotiate her release.”

Edelgard stepped aside to whisper to Ferdinand for a few moments while Theo walked to the street corner and back, not just to offer them privacy, but also to stretch out his legs so he wouldn’t feel uncomfortable on his way out of town.

“Theo…did that letter specify where she was being held?” asked Edelgard.

Theo quickly shook his head. “If she’s in the church’s custody, she can’t be that far away… Why?”

“It’s a longshot, to be sure, but if our professor can help convince the church to release Hapi early, then she can get the chance to prove to them that she isn’t a danger to herself or to others.”

Ferdinand, Edelgard, and Theo all walked toward the north end of town to their transports – Theo to his horse and the others to the carriage that brought them from Garreg Mach. Before he set out, Theo reached into his pocket and pulled out a map to make sure he had his bearings. “Ugh…why does this village you’re guarding have to be so far away?” he complained.

“That is a question I will need to ask the professor,” said Ferdinand, “provided we can catch up to her and the others before the fighting starts.”

“I would advise against going to Remire on your own, Theo,” said Edelgard. “This carriage will only take us to Garreg Mach Monastery, but I think it would be safer for you to stick with us until you can reunite with your comrades.”

The carriage took off for Garreg Mach, following the same indirect route it took when it left the monastery, with Theo trailing them on his horse and checking the road to make sure it was secure. While he shopped around for souvenirs to take back to Timotheos with him, Edelgard and Ferdinand returned to change into their battle uniforms and gather horses from the stables. Edelgard felt less comfortable on her horse compared to Ferdinand due to her heavier armor. She led the others around the monastery from the rear as she tried to remember the road she took when she first arrived at the Officers Academy. With little time to secure additional reinforcements, she hoped she was wrong about being unable to join the other Black Eagles to defend Remire from attack.

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