The cramp in Monica's writing hand had stopped bothering her by the time Monday's class started. For each of Byleth's questions Edelgard answered, Ferdinand chimed in with a longer and (in his own mind) more impressive answer. Monica, unlike Hubert, found their exchange amusing because at least they were getting the answers right.
After class, Monica decided to take a walk around the monastery to clear her head and calm herself down. Instead, the excitement of meeting her parents again later in the week had given her an unexpected burst of energy.
Just as Monica rounded the corner on her way out of the stables, she crossed paths with Leonie, who looked like she was on her way back to her room. Monica guessed from the bandages wrapped around Leonie's fingers that she had spent too much time in the arena with her bow and needed to recover.
"Looks like someone's got some extra spring in her step!" said Leonie. "What's got you so excited, Monica?"
"Excited? Me?" Try as she might, Monica couldn't hide her enthusiasm from Leonie as easily as she thought. "Okay, yeah…I am. I was getting out to walk to try to dampen that enthusiasm. That sounds pretty weird, doesn't it?"
Leonie responded with a raised eyebrow and a drawn-out "Yeah…"
Monica looked at the bandages on Leonie's archery glove a second time and winced. "Is your hand going to be okay, Leonie?"
Leonie lifted her injured hand. It hurt for her to try to flex her fingers. "Nothing that some ice and a good rest won't fix," she said.
Fortunately, she didn't have far to walk to rest as her dorm was the first room one saw when walking out of the greenhouse, right next to the staircase leading to the second floor of the building where Edelgard, Hubert, and Hilda slept. With nothing for her to sit on, Monica stood outside Leonie's door, taking in a quick glimpse at her bedroom before turning away. Everything in the room appeared clean and orderly, with only a silver lance and wooden recurve bow resting against the back wall looking out of place. Monica had a feeling there was a figurine of Captain Jeralt somewhere in the room the way Leonie loved to talk about him, but she didn't get a chance to take a second glimpse before Leonie turned around and blocked her view of the room.
"Anyway, Monica, you still haven't answered my question," said Leonie. "What's got you so psyched up? Well…more psyched up than usual, that is."
"My birthday's coming up this Friday," said Monica, "and my parents are coming to visit."
"Really? Well, happy early birthday to you, then." Leonie scratched the back of her head with her left hand, grimacing in frustration that she had to deal with a nagging itch on top of nursing her shooting hand. "Wait…doesn't your dad run that builder's workshop? Who's going to take care of things if he's not there?"
"Everyone needs to take a break from their day-to-day work once in a while, even people like my father. He's got an apprentice who's as good with managing people as anyone he knows. Sometimes Father asks the apprentice to run the workshop while he tries to handle the affairs of the barony. I say 'tries' because there are a lot of people who still don't take us seriously because we haven't been operating out of a castle since the end of the war."
"That's pretty stupid," said Leonie, curling her upper lip in barely disguised disgust. "Now, I'm not the biggest fan of nobles…" She paused for a second, expecting Monica to groan or grumble at her. "Okay, most nobles…but what difference does it make whether or not you live in a big, fancy castle as long as the important work gets done? The elder of my village lives in a house no bigger than one of the houses in town here, and for the most part, people appreciate the work he does."
Monica nodded. "I hear you. My father and mother told me they wanted to try to restore as much of the surrounding territory as they could before we moved back to Ochs Castle."
"But why, though? Don't they want to go back to their old lives and home as quickly as possible? Don't you?"
"I do…but I know that there are people in my lands who need as much help as us, if not more than that."
"Hmm…I still don't get why he's going through all that trouble, but if it works for him, then it's probably not my place to ask questions." Leonie noticed the bindings on her fingers coming loose, so she pressed against them with her good hand to hold them in place before looking back up at Monica, who wanted to try to use her healing magic on it if Manuela hadn't done so already. "Speaking of debts, I have a fairly big one of my own to deal with," she said.
"What do you mean?" asked Monica.
"As I was saying, my village elder doesn't live in a big house or castle like you and your parents used to. Between paying taxes to the local lords, paying the home guard's salaries, and keeping his family well-fed, we don't exactly have a lot of money to go around. Even so, when the elder learned my parents wanted to send me here to the academy, he used most of what he had left to help pay for my tuition."
Monica thought getting accepted to the Officers Academy would be expensive, but she had taken for granted just how expensive it was for her to get in because her parents had just enough money to pay her entrance fee. Leonie's situation was new to her, but probably not completely unheard of among commoners in need of financial assistance.
"And you must have taken on Anna's job request to help pay that debt back," Monica guessed.
"Not exactly. I'd have to take a lot of jobs worth the kind of money Anna was offering to get that done. When I'm finished at the academy, I want to start my own mercenary group, just like Captain Jeralt. That way, I can make enough money to repay my debt to the village and see as much as the world has to offer."
"What would you say if someone – let's say a future baroness you may or may not have gone to school with – were to offer you and your band a contract? Would you take it?"
"Whoa! Let's not get ahead of ourselves, now," said Leonie, waving her good hand a few inches from her face. "We've both still got to graduate first. Come back to me in a year or two after that, then we'll talk."
Monica smiled and giggled, hoping that Leonie was serious about accepting her offer.
In the few days leading up to her birthday, Monica split her free time between the infirmary and the arena to get as much out of her healing magic as possible. With all of the cuts and bruises some of the more overzealous duelists suffered, she stood to receive plenty of practice.
Her skill with the sword had taken great strides since her return as well. No longer nervous and shaky after her recovery, she was able to react more quickly to incoming weapon strikes. She didn't feel confident enough to try to avenge her previous loss to Felix, but she was pleased enough with her performance that it wasn't as important to her.
Monica's nights, when not filled with thoughts of what she would say to her parents when she saw them next, were occupied by a pile of homework that seemed to grow larger after every lesson. On Wednesday night, she asked Edelgard to help her finish some of it, while on Thursday she turned to Ferdinand for help so that he didn't feel slighted.
When the first rays of the sun broke through her window on Friday morning, Monica leapt out of bed and threw her bedroom door open, stepping outside to soak as much of it in as possible. A smile gave way to a quiet chuckle, gradually building into a burst of hysterical laughter, as if someone had told her the funniest joke anyone in Fódlan had ever heard. Sensing the growing number of confused students and knights wondering what she was laughing at, Monica sighed, the contented smile never once leaving her face.
Against all odds, she had survived another year.
Being trapped underground and surrounded by Kronya and her allies had dampened, but not completely crushed, Monica's belief that she would ever see the light of day again. Now that she was back in Garreg Mach Monastery, she felt as safe as she could be until she was called on to defend another village or help put down another group of bandits.
Monica's newfound jovial mood lasted past breakfast and through Byleth's lesson. At the end of the lecture, Edelgard turned to Byleth and whispered in her ear, and then stood in front of the chalkboard to address the rest of the class. "Everyone, I would like to wish a happy birthday to our newest Black Eagle, Monica von Ochs."
Monica felt her spine tingle as she basked in the applause of her teacher and classmates.
"Wait…today's your birthday, Monica? Why didn't you tell me?" asked a surprised Dorothea. "I was going to prepare a song for you! You liked the song I sang for your birthday, didn't you, Lin?"
"I don't consider myself a musical expert," said Linhardt, "but your song was definitely a soothing number." He looked at Dorothea, who turned away from him and pouted.
"So, Monica, how old are you today? Seventeen? Eighteen?" Caspar guessed.
"Caspar! You know it's not polite to ask a lady her age!" said Bernadetta.
"I'm nineteen years old today," said Monica, smiling politely to let them know she didn't feel offended.
"Nineteen, you say? That means you're only a few months younger than Dorothea and several months behind Hubert," said Edelgard.
"I guess I really am one of the oldest students in this class, huh?"
"Third oldest, to be precise," said Hubert.
Edelgard beckoned to Byleth again, who handed her a small gray box. The other students crowded around Edelgard as she presented the box to Monica. "I don't know if you already have one of these, but this year, all of our Black Eagles will receive these commemorative pendants on their birthdays. Please accept this as my gift to you."
The box contained a black-and-gold pendant depicting an eagle in flight. It was different from the double-headed eagle emblazoned on the house flag, but Monica liked the pendant's design better, so she quickly put it on to match with the rest of her classmates. The only one without any Black Eagle jewelry was Bernadetta, whose birthday, Monica learned, was only two weeks away from her own.
"Wow! This is… uh… I don't know what to say, except…thank you!" Monica took her new eagle pendant into her hands and kissed it.
"Birthdays are a time for having great joy," said Petra. "With this pendant, it is now feeling like you are fully a part of our team!"
Another round of applause was interrupted when one of the gate guards entered the room. "Professor! I have a report for you!" he said, giving Byleth a quick salute. "The baron and baroness of House Ochs have just arrived at the monastery by carriage. They wish to see Lady Monica as soon as possible."
"Already? But it's not even—" Monica stopped herself from finishing the sentence. It didn't really matter to her that her parents had arrived earlier than she expected. What mattered the most was that they were there and waiting to see her right away. "I mean…thank you. I'll be right there," she said to the guard.
"I'll go with you," said Byleth.
"I'll go as well," said Edelgard. "I'd like to ask Lord and Lady Ochs how they've been doing since we last visited their territory."
Near the entrance to the market square, Nicolaus quietly waved to a teenage customer at a market stall stocked with books, toys, and bags filled with various powders and leaves. The woman standing next to the baron, a red-haired woman wearing a white button-down wool coat, tugged at his right arm and pointed at a landscape painting depicting a port city in Hevring county before sunset. "This picture looks splendid!" she said. "Do you suppose we could hang this in the main hall once the castle is ready, darling?"
"By all means, Viola, go ahead," said Nicolaus. "I would love to be able to place a portrait like this where all of our visitors could see it. It would be selfish for us to keep it to ourselves."
Viola handed the long present box she was carrying to Nicolaus so she could buy the painting, declaring it too appealing to pass up. When they walked away from the stall, they saw Byleth and Edelgard approaching from the staircase to their right, with Monica running ahead of them, arms spread wide open to receive her parents in a group hug.
"Father! Mother! You made it!" she cried.
The baron and baroness wrapped their arms around Monica, taking care to secure their present and souvenir from any potential damage.
"So, how is my dear little birthday girl doing today?" asked Viola, planting a kiss on her daughter's forehead that left a faint orchid-colored lipstick mark.
"I'm feeling a lot better now that I've had time to get situated," said Monica. "I've even made a lot of new friends this year!"
Viola's smile widened. "That's wonderful, sweetie!" She broke away from her husband and pulled Monica off to the side to talk with her semi-privately, still carrying her new Hevring port city painting under her right arm. "Now, about this 'charming young lady' you mentioned in your last letter…will I get to meet her today? Is she among us right now?" she asked, ending with a gasp of surprise.
"Yes, and no!" Monica's voice jumped and her face turned almost as red as her hair in response to the second question, thinking her mother believed she had a crush on Edelgard. It wasn't that Monica didn't find Edelgard attractive – she definitely did – but she knew that pursuing a more-than-friendly relationship with her house leader was bound to raise numerous questions, mainly regarding how it would influence Edelgard's decisions and how those decisions, in turn, would affect the whole class. "Uh…I'll introduce you to her later, depending on how long you two are staying."
While Monica and her mother talked about everything that had happened to them in the last two months, her father walked over to the open area opposite Anna's market space to speak with Byleth and Edelgard. "Thank you once again, Your Highness, for looking after Monica," he said. "And you as well, Miss…Byleth, was it?"
"Yes," said Byleth. "Although I may not look it, I'm Monica's and Edelgard's teacher. They're both very talented and helpful students, and I'm glad to have them as part of my class."
"That's good to know."
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Lord Ochs," said Edelgard. "You didn't run into much trouble along the way down here, did you?"
"Not at all. In fact, my wife and I were so eager to come down that we had our breakfasts delivered to us in bed at a village inn once dawn broke."
Nicolaus spotted the extra-wide sheath hanging on Byleth's belt and leaned in for a closer look at the unusual sword it was holding. "That's an interesting weapon you have there, Miss Byleth. I take it you must have had quite a bit of live combat experience prior to your current position."
"Yes, actually. I belonged to a freelance mercenary company for several years before being hired by the church."
He saw Byleth staring at him, neither smiling nor frowning, and didn't know how to react. "I meant no offense by that, you see. I actually think it's nice that this academy has a seasoned warrior as part of its faculty to ensure the safety of its students."
"There's no need to apologize," she said, relaxing a little.
"Now, Monica told me of some of the horrors you all faced in Remire Village. People being turned into monsters and used as weapons against their own neighbors, family, and friends… No one should ever have to go through anything like that in their lifetimes. A few days before I set out for the monastery, I spoke with the elder of Remire and asked if there was anything I could do to help. He and his son explained most of the situation to me and told me that whatever food and supplies I could offer would be most appreciated. If I could spare some carpenters and builders to send their way, I would."
"I can't speak on behalf of the people of Remire, Lord Ochs," said Edelgard, "but your desire to lend a hand to them is admirable. I see now where Monica gets her values. You've raised your daughter quite well."
Nicolaus smiled and bowed at Edelgard. "Thank you for your kind words, Your Highness."
"How soon do you expect the reconstruction of your castle to be completed? I wish I could have seen more of your lands during my last visit, but Monica and I arrived in Drachen Village on such short notice and were running on a tight schedule."
"Our initial estimate was that it would take a year or more to repair and refurnish everything we lost," said Nicolaus, "but things are going better than expected. I would love for Monica to see what we've been working on by the Lone Moon at the very least, Goddess willing. I'll be one of the first to admit that Ochs Castle pales in comparison to the majesty of the Imperial Palace, but it holds a great deal of sentimental value to Viola and I – that castle was where Monica was born, after all – as well as great historical significance for the Fódlan's Fangs region."
"I'm sure she'll be beside herself with joy to see her old home again," said Edelgard.
"Now, I should do something about this box before I forget and take it back home with me. That would certainly be embarrassing!"
Nicolaus turned toward Monica and Viola and waited for them to finish their private conversation, holding his gift box out with both arms as Monica approached. "Monica, I had this prepared especially for you. Had I known you were bringing your friends to visit the village, I would have done so earlier, but since this is such a momentous occasion, I believe I should give it to you now while we're here. Happy birthday!"
Monica vigorously tore the red wrapping paper from her present, revealing a long black box secured by a yellow ribbon. The knot in the ribbon was wrapped unusually tight, so she slowly peeled it off to get to the box's lid so she could behold the birthday gift her parents had brought her – a shiny, silvery longsword with a finely polished brass cross-guard to protect her knuckles, something that hadn't been offered by any of her previous swords. The hilt was engraved with her name on one side, and the words "strength" and "persistence" on the other as a constant reminder for her to continue to abide by the principles of House Ochs.
"This is amazing, Father!" said Monica after testing her new sword's weight several yards away to make sure no one got hurt. "I love it! Thank you so much! I promise I'll take extra-special care of it."
"Oh, but that's not all," said Viola, handing Monica a smaller present that she wasted no time tearing open. "Most of your dolls were lost during the invasion, so I thought you might like something to help restart your collection."
It was another statuette of a warrior, but one dressed in red and gold Imperial armor instead of the dark blue and silver favored by the Knights of Seiros. Unlike the Catherine figurine, the warrior stood in a relaxed stance with her axe planted on the ground at her right side.
"Is this…Miss Ladislava?!" asked Monica, paying special attention to the warrior's stern expression and short ponytail. "Wow…she's really grown up since I last saw her. It's hard to believe I was only ten when she taught me how to use a weapon."
"The artisan I bought this from told me that Ladislava joined the Imperial guard not too long ago. I'll bet she was beaming with pride when she heard the news of her promotion! Oh…I wonder if she'll recognize you if she sees you again…"
Nicolaus looked at his daughter enjoying her new gifts and gently patted her on the shoulder. She put her Ladislava figurine away and looked up at him, catching him wiping tears of joy from his eyes with his free hand. "Monica, I'm going to have a look around the monastery in search of Seteth," he said. "Why don't you walk around town with your mother for a bit? I'll meet you back here when you're done."
Byleth and Edelgard had also left the market to return to the campus, leaving Monica and Viola alone for the moment. Monica had no intention of dilly-dallying or wandering about. She knew exactly where she wanted to go.
Monica led her mother to Constance's tree-covered house at the edge of town. As she approached the front door and knocked on it, she wondered who trimmed the front lawn. Constance didn't seem to her like someone who would enjoy digging around in the dirt, even at night when no one was looking.
"Monica? Is that you?" Constance asked from inside.
"Yeah," said Monica. "May I come in? Are you busy right now?"
Constance opened the door slowly, primping her hair and dress to make sure neither was entangled. "I am free at the moment. Just allow me to—"
She blinked several times, trying to keep her wits about her as she beheld Monica and a woman who was only a few inches taller than her and had a wider body frame, but shared many of Monica's other physical features – the same red hair, the same red eyes, and the same soft, thin lips. From Constance's perspective, seeing Monica and her mother together was like gazing into a crystal ball, projecting a vision twenty or more years into the future. "Oh my…and to think, I was to be the one to surprise you…"
"Connie, I'd like you to meet my mother, Viola von Ochs," said Monica. "Mother, this is Constance von Nuvelle."
Monica tried as best she could to explain to Viola how she and Constance met and began courting one another, from their first meeting in the market to their first private tea party to their first mission together. The shocked look on Constance's face slowly disappeared as Monica talked her up.
"It's good to finally meet you in person, Constance," said Viola. "My hus—I mean, the baron sometimes shows me the letters Monica writes to him, and she's mentioned your name a few times, always with good things to say about you."
"The pleasure is all mine, Lady Ochs," said Constance. "Now, Monica, if you and your mother would both close your eyes for a few moments…"
Monica and Viola followed Constance's request and covered their eyes, with the younger lady of House Ochs struggling to resist the temptation to peek. The only place in the house Monica thought Constance would go was her "secret" room. She still had no idea what Constance kept in there that she wanted to keep away from prying eyes, or if it was just another term for her "bedroom".
A few moments of footsteps and shuffling noises later, Monica felt Constance pull one of her hands down and place a bag in it.
"Behold! I come bearing birthday gifts!" Constance sang, sporting the brightest-eyed smile Monica had seen on her yet once she was allowed to open her eyes. "I hope these are to your liking."
"If it's from you, Connie, you know I can't say no," said Monica as she reached her other hand into the bag and pulled out a smaller pouch full of tea bags, with a half-dozen each labeled "bergamot" and "Albinean berry", the same flavors of tea they shared on their first date. Digging into the bag a little further, she found a pair of scrolls, each held in place with a black ribbon. "Are these…magic scrolls?" she asked.
"One of them is," said Constance, pointing to the larger scroll. "As for the smaller one, well…why not read it and find out for yourself?"
Monica grabbed a knife from the table to cut the ribbon on the smaller scroll, unfurling it in front of her mother to reveal instructions on how to properly brew tea. Curiously, there was a small note at the bottom of the scroll that confirmed something she had suspected since her last visit:
When using fire magic, use caution when aiming. Extinguish fire immediately once water has been heated.
Monica had never served her own tea before, but after reading Constance's scroll, it didn't appear to be any more complicated than grilling a steak or boiling a pot of beef stew. She wondered if her maids had ever prepared the teas they served to the family with Constance's method, or how many attempts Constance had taken before she got it just right.
The larger scroll contained instructions and diagrams detailing the basics of fire magic, including the proper distance required to generate sufficient heat without burning oneself. Monica thought Constance's drawing skills left something to be desired compared to the white magic books in the library, but her instructions were both detailed enough to be thorough and simple enough for almost anyone to understand, even with all of the crossed-out words and pictures. Monica rolled up both scrolls and placed them back into the bag, planning on studying them in more detail once she got back to her room. "I may need a little bit of help with this," she said, "but I'm sure I'll get the hang of it."
"If you should find my notes useful," said Constance, "I highly suggest studying and practicing with them regularly to minimize the potential for harm…preferably in a relatively remote area such as this one…"
Monica couldn't tell if that was another hint to visit her for private lessons. The smile was there, but the tone behind Constance's last words sounded more like a warning than an invitation.
"Monica," Viola whispered into Monica's ear, "I think we ought to go meet up with your father now. He should be done talking with this Seteth person, whoever they are."
"Okay," Monica whispered back. "I just need a few more moments."
After double-checking her bag to make sure it had all of her birthday presents, Monica approached Constance and gently held her right hand. "Connie…thank you for the gifts, and for everything else you've done. I hope I haven't put any undue pressure on you by asking you to come with me on dangerous missions like the last one."
"Why would you believe that?" asked Constance. "I would not have agreed to accompany you if I did not enjoy your presence. Whenever I see you, you are usually so cheerful and carefree. As I have spent the last few years working toward the revival of my house, I have had little time to unwind and relax until I saw Mercedes again earlier this year. Playing cards with you took some of that stress away, so maybe what Mercedes and Dorothea say has some truth to it…"
"To tell the truth, Connie, I envy your work ethic. Maybe I ought to put some of my 'carefree cheer' toward finishing up at the academy so I can go home again." Once again, Monica's pulse quickened as Constance lifted her left hand. She barely felt the weight of the gift bag dangling from her arm. "When you finish your research or whatever that secret project of yours is and you get your title back, will you show me the sights and sounds of Nuvelle?"
"Absolutely!" Constance looked like she was about to jump for joy when she heard someone else taking interest in her homeland. "I do not know how many of the old markets are still around in the five years following Dagda's attack, but you would be hard-pressed to find a finer selection of goods dealers in western Fódlan. You should come and see it for yourself."
"And in turn, I want to extend an invitation for you to visit my homeland…which I think you'd have to pass through anyway to reach Nuvelle. We…don't have as many fancy shops in Ochs, but if you've got an eye for the arts, you'll get to see the work of many talented sculptors throughout our towns and villages." Monica turned away from Constance for a second, expecting to be greeted by a disapproving look from her mother for inviting someone to the barony of Ochs without her permission. When that didn't come, she focused on Constance again and pulled herself in closer. "Until that day comes," she said, "I'll be satisfied just getting to visit you here…when you're not too busy, that is."
"And I will as well. Happy birthday, Monica!"
Constance embraced Monica and pulled her in closer for a kiss, holding it just long enough to remain in her memory for the rest of the day once Monica and Viola left.
As promised, the Ochs family met at the market square, with Nicolaus looking a lot more exhausted than his wife or daughter. Monica chalked it up to him having to cover a longer distance to get to Seteth's office then she and Viola did to visit Constance's house. She had gotten used to it after almost two months back on campus, but she still didn't like it.
Nicolaus cleared his throat, trying to avoid appearing like he was tired. "So, did you two enjoy your trip into town?" he asked.
"Oh, yes! Very much so," said Viola, almost trembling with excitement. "I even got to meet one of Monica's new friends! She seems to have taken quite a shine to our daughter, I must say."
"Is that so? I'm sorry I hadn't come by sooner. I would have loved to meet this young woman."
If all goes well, Father, you might still get that chance, Monica thought.
"Garreg Mach is quite an impressive complex," said Nicolaus. "It's interesting to actually get to see all of it…well, as much of it as Seteth and the knights would allow me to, anyway. Alas, your mother and I can't stay here much longer, for we are planning to visit Machstadt next weekend. I'll continue to keep you up to date on what's happening until you can come back home for good at the end of the school year."
"Before we go, dear, we want you to know that we love you and are infinitely grateful that you've returned to us," Viola added, "and that we're both so very proud of you. Please keep up all the good work you're doing."
Monica embraced her parents in another group hug and kissed them both on the cheek. "Don't worry; I'll keep doing my best. Be safe, okay?"
As Nicolaus and Viola walked hand-in-hand toward the carriage bound for the western mountains, Monica prayed for their safe return home. While she was happy with all of her new birthday presents – the sword from her father, the pendant from Edelgard, and the magic scrolls from Constance – just being alive to see her new friends and loved ones again felt just as worthwhile as anything they would have given her.