On the cusp of a new Great Tree Moon, the air was still cool and biting even in the morning sunlight. The Monastery of Garreg Mach stood tall and proud overlooking the bountiful land below like a benevolent yet strict mother supervising the villages in the surrounding valley. Felix scowled up at the massive entrance gates as they approached, a look which did not go unnoticed by his father. They looked strikingly alike, with thick navy hair and sharp eyes. Both men sat stiffly astride horses as their entourage followed behind with Felix’s belongings securely strapped into wagons for the long journey from Fraldarius territory to the Monastery. Duke Rodrigue Fraldarius sighed audibly, but Felix didn’t spare a glance in his direction, instead opting to nudge his mount forward and enter the sprawling marketplace at the foot of the great building.
His father followed suit, keeping pace easily. He was a much more capable rider than his son, but he had been insistent that Felix understand how to handle a horse nonetheless. It was expected of a noble, especially one so high-ranking as the Fraldarius family, that they be able to ride competently. “It could serve useful on the battlefield as well,” Rodrigue had explained many years ago to his stubborn youngest son, who had only wanted to practice his swordplay. “You never know when you may need to take a steed to escape from the battle or race a wounded comrade to safety.”
Rodrigue’s older son, Glenn, had taken it upon himself to instruct his younger brother in the ways of horses and horseback riding. For a time, Felix had been enamored of the idea of being a knight like his brother, riding a shining steed into battle and defending his king from harm. It was a small boy’s dream, and it died with that same small boy. Clutching the reins of his horse more tightly at the memory, Felix wound his way through the crowd and up to the main entrance of the monastery. The gatekeeper saluted smartly as the two men approached.
“Welcome to Garreg Mach Monastery!” he said loudly. He spared a glance toward Felix. “Are you here to enroll in the Officer’s Academy for this year?”
Felix grunted moodily.
“That is correct,” Rodrigue affirmed, shooting his son an irritated glance. Felix pretended not to notice and fiddled with his reins. “I am Duke Fraldarius. My son, Felix, is enrolled in the Blue Lion house. Can you direct us to where we may take his belongings?”
The gatekeeper saluted again and beckoned several milling monastery staff over to where they stood. “Yes, sir!”
After several minutes of discussion, the Fraldarius retainers were on their way with Felix’s possessions to the room that had been reserved for him on the second floor of the student dormitories. Two stable hands took their horses to be fed and watered, leaving Felix and his father in the grand entrance hall. It was an impressive structure with tall pillars and a very ostentatious staircase. Felix maintained a look of unimpressed indifference as he surveyed the room. He was acutely aware of his father’s gaze on him, sizing him up. Undoubtably comparing me to Glenn, he thought savagely.
Rodrigue set off briskly up the stairs, motioning Felix to follow him. Having no better idea of where he ought to go, Felix fell in stride with his father. “I remember the day I first arrived here at the Officer’s Academy,” his father began reminiscently. “It was raining when I arrived, but such weather could not dampen my spirits! King Lambert was here as well. In fact, we arrived together.” They reached the top of the stairs. Felix could smell food wafting out of the room on their immediate left. A garden lay ahead of them where monks and nuns ran to and fro on a variety of errands. Rodrigue sighed, apparently still wandering in his own memories. “Our time here at the Officer’s Academy served us well. King Lambert and I became such close friends, so close we were like brothers. I hope that the same will be true for you,” he added, turning to face Felix directly.
“I will not make a mock of myself to serve him,” Felix growled in a low voice. It was a familiar argument between them, and an equally familiar response. “I’m here to hone my own skills, not to bow and scrape before a boar.”
“He is your prince,” Rodrigue admonished in an even voice, though his eyes were like steel. “It is your duty to serve and protect the royal family. It has been our family’s birthright for generations. Glenn took this to heart, and you must do likewise.”
“I’m not Glenn,” Felix countered, folding his arms across his chest defiantly. His eyes were equally steely. “I’m not interested in dying to save someone else’s life.”
Rodrigue stared at him and shook his head. “Perhaps you feel this way now,” he replied in a cool voice. “But there may come a day when you realize there are others whose lives matter more than your own. That is what it means to be a knight: to lay down your life to save one who matters more.”
Before Felix could respond with another scathing reply on the so-called ‘virtues’ of knighthood, a voice echoed in the hall behind them.
“Felix! You’re here!”
Turning around, Felix’s eyes narrowed slightly at the sight of his old friend hurrying up to greet him. “Dimitri,” he said coolly by way of acknowledgement. He pointedly ignored the bulky man shadowing Dimitri up the stairs. The man’s arms were crossed over his chest, and he seemed content to say nothing at all. His eyes scanned their surroundings as if he expected an ambush at any moment.
The tall, lanky man grasped his hand good-naturedly and shook it. “I’m glad to see you’ve arrived now, old friend,” Dimitiri smiled warmly, but Felix could see that it didn’t reach his eyes. “I was starting to worry you had chosen not to come after all.”
“Of course I came,” Felix retorted, forcefully pulling his hand out of Dimitri’s grasp. “Many of the best swordsmen in the land trained their skills here. How else can I hone and test my skills if I am not surrounded by worthy opponents?”
Dimitri laughed, a sound which made the little hairs on the back of Felix’s neck stand on end. “I should have known,” the prince replied. “You always have been focused on your strength with a blade. Lord Rodrigue,” he said formally, turning to the other man and inclining his head. “It is a pleasure to see you again. It has been too long!”
“The pleasure is all mine, Your Highness,” Rodrigue replied smoothly, bowing formally at the waist. “I trust that you are well?”
Dimitri nodded. “As well as I can be,” Dimitri replied. Rodrigue quirked an eyebrow at him, but the prince did not elaborate. “I am sure you must be tired from your journey. Perhaps you would like to sit for a meal?”
“I appreciate the offer, but I have some business to take care of before I leave, so I must regretfully decline,” Rodrigue replied with another courtly bow. “I will leave you to show Felix around. My son,” he said, turning back to Felix. “I trust you will uphold our family honour while you are enrolled here. Do not disappoint me.”
Turning on his heel, Rodrigue did not wait for a reply. He strode away toward the garden and out of sight. Felix flexed his fingers as if he wished to draw the blade handing at his side. If Dimitri noticed any of this, he did not say so. “Ingrid arrived two days ago,” he said conversationally instead. “She’s been ensuring everything is prepared for the Blue Lion students, and has appointed herself as the official welcoming committee, so to speak, for our house.”
“How unsurprising. Why isn’t she here to greet me then, instead of you and him?” Felix said darkly, jerking his head toward the silent man just behind Dimitri.
“Ingrid is busy helping a new student settle in right now,” Dimitri said, ignoring Felix’s jab toward his retainer. It was his usual tactic to avoid another confrontation on the subject with Felix. “She asked Dedue and I to keep an eye for any other newcomers until she finished.”
“I’m sure she did,” Felix replied, shooting a knowing look at Dedue. He did not appear fazed, but Felix had not expected a reaction. Dedue never seemed to react to his verbal jabs either. “Well then, show me around this place. Where are the training grounds?”
Dimitri grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “You really do have a one-track mind, don’t you Felix?”
“Wow! This is amazing!”
Wide-eyed and smiling, Annette looked around her dormitory room with undisguised awe. She unceremoniously dropped her satchel down on the bed and pranced around the room with great enthusiasm. The blonde girl who stood in the doorway smiled fondly. “I don’t know if it’s that impressive,” she said with a smile. “I’m sure this is much smaller than what you were used to at home.”
“Oh, yes!” Annette laughed heartily. “But I don’t mind at all! I stayed in a dormitory in Fhirdiad too, when I was attending the Royal School of Sorcery. This is much brighter! My room there had no windows at all.”
“You lived in Fhirdiad?” Ingrid asked interestedly. “I’m surprised we never crossed paths! I grew up in Fhirdiad myself.”
“Yes, I did, but I spent most of my time at school,” Annette replied with a nod. “My uncle sent me. He could tell I had a natural aptitude for magic, so I worked really, really hard to get a recommendation into Garreg Mach to continue my studies.”
“That’s amazing!” Ingrid replied with some awe of her own. “I’ve heard that graduating from the Royal School of Sorcery is extremely difficult and that many students take years to do so. Few enough of them have been able to earn a recommendation to enroll in the Officer’s Academy!”
“Believe me, it was difficult,” Annette agreed with feeling. “I studied so hard, and I was able to achieve top grades to graduate so quickly. I don’t think they would have given me the recommendation if I hadn’t done so well,” she continued earnestly. “Honestly, I’m so thrilled I was able to attend the Officer’s Academy. It’s been a dream of mine for so long.”
Ingrid smiled broadly. “I’m so glad to hear it! So, do you also dream of becoming a knight?”
“Something like that,” Annette replied a little evasively, glancing away from Ingrid.
“Your mother and father must be so proud of you,” Ingrid said brightly, either ignoring or not noticing Annette’s odd reply. “Was it your mother who came with you today?”
Annette shook her head. “Unfortunately, she was indisposed, and wasn’t able to bring me herself. My uncle came with me, but he had to depart right away, as he has urgent business back at home.”
Ingrid shifted uncomfortably, plainly wishing she hadn’t brought it up. “That’s too bad,” she sympathized. “In any case, now that you’re here, you’re officially a Blue Lion. We’re like a family of our own!” She moved out of the doorway and gestured for Annette to follow. “Come with me, and I’ll show you around the grounds.”
The pair of them set out from the dormitories and passed the greenhouse. “So,” Annette began a little shyly, “Do you know who will be teaching our house this year? I’ve heard the famous Crest scholar works here. Will he be leading us?”
Ingrid shrugged. “I have no idea. One of the professors the monastery hired has already run off to Goddess-knows-where. From what I’ve overheard from the knights here, I doubt he will be returning. So for three houses, there’s only two professors right now. That’s a lot of students for them to take on alone.”
Annette nodded in agreement. “Yes, that’s quite a pickle,” she said. “I hope they can sort it out quickly. Term starts in a few days!”
“I am sure they will,” Ingrid said soothingly. “I am sure Lady Rhea would not allow anything to negatively impact our education here.”
The two girls meandered through the Officer’s Academy throughout the rest of the morning. Ingrid frequently stopped to point out various landmarks she had learned over her few previous days’ experience in Garreg Mach and to introduce Annette to her fellow students. Around noon, their stomachs began to croak loudly, and Ingrid proposed they head into the dining hall for some food. As she pushed open the door, Annette could smell the unmistakable scent of roasted chicken. She inhaled deeply, enjoying the moment. I’m finally here, she thought happily, and surely, I can find him now.
“Ingrid!” called a deep voice from across the room.
Annette startled out of her reverie and saw several young men sitting at a table across the room. The blond one was waving at Ingrid to catch her attention. He brought his arm back down as Ingrid made a beeline to them, Annette trailing in her wake.
“Dimitri!” she said in a stern voice that was completely different from how she had spoken to Annette. She sounded very much like a mother scolding an unruly child. “What are you doing? Didn’t I ask you to greet the newcomers?”
“I was hungry,” Dimitri said calmly, gesturing to the plate of food in front of him. “No one else has arrived all morning except Felix here. Sylvain isn’t expected to arrive until later this evening, or perhaps tomorrow morning.”
Ingrid did not look impressed, but she didn’t press the issue. Instead, she pulled Annette forward. “Annette, I want you to meet Dimitri, Crown Prince of Faerghus,” she intoned semi-formally. “And this scowling gentleman is Felix Hugo Fraldarius. If you can believe it,” she added with a wink to Annette, “I consider these two my friends.”
Annette gasped audibly and suddenly blanked on her manners. Am I supposed to curtsy? she panicked inwardly, beginning to bend her legs into a formal obeisance. Dimitri raised his hands hastily in front of himself.
“Please, no need to be so formal,” he said quickly. “Although I may be a prince, I am merely a student while I am here at the Officer’s Academy. Please, do not treat me any differently than you would any other student.” He took her hand and shook it firmly.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance! I am Annette of House Dominic,” Annette stumbled over her words, feeling a little uneasy at being put on the spot like this. She hadn’t realized that the crown prince would also be attending the school as well. Her face seemed to be getting hot with embarrassment as Dimitri let go of her hand. She turned hastily to the dark-haired young man beside Dimitri. “Pleased to meet you as well,” she said with a slightly trembling cheeriness to her voice and holding out her hand.
For a moment, she thought Felix would not acknowledge the gesture at all. He stared at her intently, as if searching her face for something she couldn’t identify. Annette felt her smile begin to falter just as he took her hand and shook it. His grip was much gentler than Dimitri’s had been. “The pleasure is mine,” he said in a tone that did not suggest he was particularly pleased at all.
“Don’t mind him,” Ingrid said quickly as she caught the rather crestfallen look on Annette’s face. She shot Felix a nasty look to which he seemed indifferent. “He’s always grumpy like this. He’s actually a bit of softie when you get to know him.”
“I am no such thing,” Felix snapped, looking quite offended. Ingrid ignored him with the look of someone who had had many years of practice at doing just that.
Annette thought she could sense some tension in the air between the three friends, so she did the only thing she could when she felt cornered. “What’s your name?” she blurted out in a rather high-pitched squeak, trying to shift the focus of the conversation entirely. No one had acknowledged the third man who sat on Dimitri’s left side, silent as a statue.
The man blinked slowly, as if surprised that she had spoken to him at all. “I am Dedue,” he said in a neutral tone. He did not hold out his hand and he did not say anything more.
“Dedue is my retainer,” Dimitri explained hastily when neither Ingrid nor Felix made any indication of speaking. “He has been by my side for several years now. He is also enrolled as a student here.”
“It’s very nice to meet you,” Annette soldiered on valiantly, looking Dedue directly in the eyes. She had the distinct feeling that she had touched on a sensitive subject among the group and inwardly bemoaned her chattering nature.
An awkward silence settled over the group wherein Ingrid refused to look at Dedue, Dimitri played with the food on his plate while avoiding Ingrid’s eyes, and Felix stared at a spot just past Annette’s shoulder. After several long minutes, Ingrid finally broke it by insisting Annette get herself a plate of food and join them for lunch. Having no better thoughts on what to say or how to otherwise break the tension, Annette hurriedly agreed. They hastened off together to join the end of the meal line.
“I’m finished,” Felix announced as Annette and Ingrid returned with their own meals a few minutes later. He looked angry as he stood abruptly from the table.
“Don’t tell me you’re still upset about what I said,” Ingrid rolled her eyes and stabbed a potato with her fork more forcefully than needed. “I only spoke the truth.”
“Not at all,” Felix grunted unconvincingly. He nodded goodbye to them as he stood and gathered his tray. “I need to train.”
“It’s always training with you,” Ingrid complained, not bothering to watch him go.
“Bye!” Annette replied cheerfully, waving goodbye with more enthusiasm now that her embarrassment had subsided. “See you in class!”
Felix looked rather startled at her enthusiasm but nodded once more directly to her. “I suppose so,” he agreed. After a final look over the group, he swept out of the dining hall without another word.
“Well…he was more friendly than I expected,” Ingrid mused, raising her eyes from her plate and staring at the door through which Felix had exited the room. “He’s usually less chatty around new people.”
“That…was chatty?” Annette repeated in surprise, pausing with her fork suspended halfway between her plate and her mouth. “He didn’t seem very friendly…”
Dimitri chuckled at this. “Ingrid is right. Felix is grumpy, but he is not a bad person. He’s very…” the prince thought for a moment, as if searching for the right word. “…direct. He doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean.”
“We have known each other for a very long time,” Ingrid said sagely. “He does not warm up to others quickly, but he is a hard worker and a very capable swordsman. He will certainly be an asset to our class.”
“I’m sure everyone in our class will get along!” Annette said. She smiled brightly, feeling her own cheerful confidence bubbling to the surface again. “Perhaps he is just a bit shy around new people!”
Ingrid and Dimitri laughed heartily at the thought that Felix could possibly be shy. Even Annette didn’t really believe that was the case, but the thought of it lightened the mood considerably. They fell into easy conversation over lunch and by the time they finished, Annette was quite certain that she would be just fine in this new school. Besides, she knew she wouldn’t be alone. Surely Mercie would be arriving soon as well. She would have one true friend and the opportunity to befriend the rest of the class as well. The thought made her excitement mount again.
This is where I need to be, Annette thought determinedly. It’s my only chance to find him. I have to do all I can to make this work.