The sun reflected off pearly white snow through the window, glaring and harsh. House Dominic was perched on the rolling hills of Fodlan's plains, so the sun glinted off the packed snow like it was over the open sea.
When Annette was little, she would wake up early, toss a scarf over her neck, pull on some boots, and make snowmen with her parents, playing joyfully in the snow. Now, at twenty-one, she buried her head further into her pillow and cursed it.
The days at House Dominic passed by so slowly. Annette was on the Empire side of the country now, isolated from almost all of her friends. The only real source of joy she found anymore was in writing letters.
She'd sent many to Ashe, who she guessed was also caught in former Kingdom territory, but he never answered. Last she'd heard, he was keeping up the estate of Lord Lonato, but that was ages ago. Her letters may not even be reaching him.
She hadn't seen Mercedes since the confusing and hectic days in the aftermath of the battle at Garreg Mach, but she was staying in Fhirdiad. The church where she was living was looted by the Empire army when they invaded, but it was turned into a makeshift orphanage for children with nowhere else to go. They were good about keeping up correspondence, and Annette was expecting a letter from her any day now.
Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain all wrote to her a few times a year. Felix was working with his father to keep the eastern side of the Kingdom free from Imperial occupation, fighting often, sitting in on important meetings which he described as 'worse than boring'.
Ingrid abandoned House Galatea and her father after he tried to arrange a marriage to an Alliance noble in the midst of such uncertainty. That was about two years ago, and Annette understood that she'd been moving between Houses Fraldarius and Gautier to help their armies.
Sylvain was working with his father to keep Imperial forces away from their land, but he told Annette that because his territory was so far north, the Empire didn't seem very interested in it just yet. There was one serious attempt to invade a few months ago, and it took all of their forces to hold them off. They'd had a good stroke of luck when autumn led to an early winter and the Empire troops withdrew without much more than an informal skirmish.
From what Annette understood, House Gautier was still replenishing its troops. A strike on the eastern Kingdom at this time would not be well met.
And yet, Annette was still here, far west, in Dominic lands.
It wasn't that she didn't care. She stayed up most nights, praying to a deaf goddess for the safety of her friends. Several times, she'd packed bags and loaded them onto her favorite horse. She even left once. But her uncle rode out to intercept her, and he told her that her mother would die without her.
And so she came back.
Sighing wearily, she threw the heavy covers to the side, relenting to wakefulness. It was cold and drafty in the small keep, so Annette pulled on some wool socks her mother had gotten her and a heavy robe that was too long on her.
Since resources were low, they'd let go almost all of their support staff. They had two servants left, and they'd both stayed out of loyalty to the family, not because of the near-nonexistent pay.
Her mother was already awake, leaning against the counter as she sipped tea from a large ceramic mug with both hands. "Good morning, dear," she said, her voice tinny against the inside of her mug.
"Morning." Annette set to making breakfast, scrambling eggs and toasting some bread. Her mother hovered, adjusting the flame on the stove for her, scraping egg from the bottom of the pan so it didn't burn. Just like every other morning.
Annette swiped jam onto her toast, humming to herself more out of habit than anything else. Her uncle strode into the kitchen as Annete bit into her toast. He held several envelopes in his hand, and dropped them on the counter.
"'S that mail?" Annette asked.
"Yes, I rode into town to get it. Horse couldn't make the trip up the hill in the ice yesterday." Her uncle ruffled her hair like she was still a child and spooned scrambled eggs onto a plate for himself. "Breakfast smells good."
Annette set down her piece of toast as she chewed. She immediately spotted Mercedes's pretty handwriting and snatched the letter up. "Thanks," she replied absently.
"I do have some news."
Annette drew her eyebrows together, confused. "Good news, uncle?"
He took off his hat and laid it down next to the rest of the mail. His sandy-blond hair and light brown eyes were so different than her father's features. He shook snow from his short hair as he took a fork from the drawer. "Come, we'll discuss it over breakfast."
She sighed to her letter from Mercedes and brought her toast into the dining room where her mother was already eating. Annette slid into the chair across from her and her uncle sat at the head of the table. There was already tea steeping in a mug for him, and he sipped on it as soon as he sat down.
Annette fidgeted in her chair. Her uncle knew she had a letter to read.
"As you know, I've pledged my fealty to the Empress," the Baron began, and Annette got the feeling that he was speaking to her, although he kept his gaze between herself and her mother. "For many reasons. House Dominic is small, without much by the way of resources, so we haven't had many dealings with the Empire directly. However, Empress Edelgard has inquired about the state of the Relic Crusher, and she has informed me that she will be stopping by as soon as the weather permits."
Annette swallowed her toast too quickly. "What? Edelgard has a love for axes, but she can't wield Crusher."
The Baron fixed his eyes on her, his expression distant and slightly pained, looking so much like her father. "No. But there is someone sitting at this table who can."
Annette felt her heart thump in her chest. "Yes. What of it?"
"The Empress is interested in asking you to join her Strike Force, Annette."
Her heart sunk. "Is that so?"
Her mother set down her tea with a clunk. "What?"
The Baron did not answer, he only popped a forkful of eggs into his mouth.
"Goddess's sake, Aimery, the Empress can't just waltz in here and demand my daughter-- "
"--Celine, I hope you realize that everything I've done so far has been for the good of you, your daughter, and my people. And I'm going to continue to do my best to balance--"
"Okay! Good breakfast!" Annette said, giggling nervously. Her jam and toast lay sadly on her plate, two large bites taken out of one slice of toast. Breakfast was her favorite meal of the day, due to the pastries and the jams, but her stomach was churning nervously and she was quite sure she couldn't eat any more anyway. "I'm going to take my letter and go read it in my room. By myself. So… bye."
She grabbed the letter from Mercedes on the counter and hurried to her room to read it.
I hope this letter finds you well. I've been busy with the children, but it's very fulfilling! I'm not supposed to teach the children to pray, but one of the little ones walked in on me praying last week and she's joined me every night since. She has red hair, a bit lighter than yours, but I managed to braid her hair into the loops you used to wear. She's my little Annie!
I know we were talking about going to the old monastery for the Millennium Festival, but I don't think I can go. I have some strange news.
Remember the stories I used to tell you of my younger brother Emile? I was never able to find out what happened to him.
Edelgard visited Fhirdiad and she confirmed something I'd always suspected in the back of my mind. It's a long story, but Jeritza the fencing teacher is Emile! I feel that I must go to Enbarr to see him, Annie. He's been through so much without me and I feel that I owe it to him to be there now.
I hope you understand. I hope we can meet up sometime soon. I'm not sure how long I'll be away, but nothing can keep me away from the children for very long.
All my love,
Annette read the letter twice, confused by the contents. Suddenly, she was drained of all energy, and she let the letter drop to the floor beside her bed.
She curled up on her side and and tucked her knees to her chest, the way she used to when she was small. The way she did for days on end when her father left for good.
She woke some hours later. Neither her uncle nor her mother bothered to disturb her. Their argument probably ended with her mother retiring to her room and her uncle sharpening his personal collection of axes in the armory, as their arguments usually did.
A single fat drop of water dripped from an icicle above her window. She watched it numbly, thinking that she was similarly free-falling at this moment.
Her bag was sitting at the foot of her wardrobe, still half-packed from the last time she resolved to leave. Her pack with a small tent and a bed roll were ready to sling over her horse's saddle.
In a whirlwind of activity, before she could change her mind, she changed into her riding gear and a thick, fur-lined cloak with matching hat, gloves, and scarf. She tied her hair into a pony’s tail and slung her bags over her shoulder.
The door to her mother's room was closed, and Annette hesitated next to it. She wanted to tell her of her plans. She wanted her mother to be proud of her.
She adjusted the pack over her shoulder and continued through the kitchen, out the back door, to the stables. She tacked her horse, a black stallion with a silvery mane she’d named Licorice, packed him with her things, and pulled herself onto his saddle with no small effort.
The image she had in her mind was a fairytale image of herself and Licorice charging through the snow out into the plains, his tail and mane flaring majestically behind them. She kicked him to get him going, but he almost threw her from his back, whinnying loudly, as her uncle appeared before them, hand outstretched to halt them.
“Uncle!” Annette cried as she struggled to balance in the saddle. Licorice pushed himself onto his back hooves, swinging his forelegs around wildly.
Baron Dominic soothed the horse, taking hold of the reins and shushing him until he calmed.
“Don’t try to talk to me out of it this time,” Annette said icily, gripping the reins tightly as though he might try to pull her out of the saddle. “I can’t stay here.”
“I know,” he said solemnly, his gaze fixed on Licorice’s nose as he patted it.
“Oh.” Her uncle was always so kind to her, even when she wasn’t kind to herself.
“I won’t fight with the Empire,” she told him wearily.
“I hope you understand why I can’t follow your example.”
Annette bit her lip and nodded. She didn’t have to worry about the safety of a thousand innocent people. Her actions affected only herself.
“It’s a little more than a two-day ride to Fraldarius,” her uncle said. Of course he would have known that she’d have to travel to the center of what remained of the Kingdom lands. “You absolutely must send me a letter when you’ve arrived safely, but don’t sign it with your name. Sign it with your cousin’s name. I had Margaret prepare you some rations.” The Baron passed her a sack with wrapped containers of food. “Your mother’s gingerbread cookies are there as well.”
She nodded again, and she didn’t even feel the choking swell she normally felt when she was so overcome that she started to cry, but she felt tears sting at her face as they dried in the cold air.
“And Annette? Don’t come back until the Kingdom is free.”
It was a warning and a show of faith. Her uncle would not be able to help her once Edelgard showed up and he had to inform her that Annette had run off.
“I love you, Uncle. Please tell Mother, too.”
“Of course, Annie. Go. Now.” He gave a solid thwack to Licorice’s haunches as Annette kicked him, and he took off like a rocket, completing the fairy tale image Annette had of her departure. Licorice’s hooves punched through packed snow, and the wind stung at her face where it was not covered by the scarf, but her heart felt lighter than it had in years.