The merchant led Monica and her friends to a mid-sized outdoor hut with a sign bearing a chisel and pickaxe. There were four men and one woman grinding, brushing, carving, and shaping large slabs of stone into more manageable bricks. They all appeared to be taking orders from a tall, broad-shouldered man with wavy, dirty blond hair.
“Father? I’m home!”
Everyone stopped what they were doing the moment Monica called out for the tall man’s attention. He spent a moment scanning her up and down, and then dropped his chisel and approached her with his arms wide open.
“Monica! It really is you!” he said, simultaneously laughing and sounding like he was going to have the loudest cry of his life. Monica was unable to hold back her own tears as she wrapped her arms around her father for the first time since her disappearance. “My precious little jewel’s come back at last! Do you have any idea how long it’s been? When I heard that your caravan disappeared on your way up here, I thought that I’d never see you again!”
“I felt the same way when those creepy-masked people took me away,” Monica sobbed. “I did my best to fight back, but there was only so much I could do.”
Nicolaus released his grip on his daughter for a moment and placed his large hands on her shoulders. “Look at it this way, Monica… You managed to hold on long enough against those monsters that captured you, right? And you fought your way through bandits just to get up here, didn’t you? It sounds to me like you’ve grown plenty strong already!”
Monica wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to laugh. “Yeah…I guess it does, doesn’t it?”
“It looks like you’ve made some new friends along the way, too. And one of them’s the emperor’s daughter? This must be my lucky day!” The baron laughed out loud, calming down quickly when he saw his employees bowing before Edelgard.
“I appreciate your…fervor, Lord Ochs,” said Edelgard. “We are happy that we were able to help you and your daughter reunite after spending so long apart.”
“Her Highness and I are in the same class this year,” said Monica. “And Father, I’d also like you to meet Ingrid and Leonie. They helped me get situated when I returned to the academy, and we all fought off the bandits together.”
Leonie, who hadn’t spent as much time dealing with nobles as the rest of the girls, had to be reminded to curtsy before the baron. Ingrid found it easier to do with the skirt in her school uniform, something Leonie lacked.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Ingrid.
“We were worried that something might have happened to you,” said Leonie, “but it looks like you’re doing pretty well for yourself up here.”
“It’s nice to see you all getting along so nicely,” said Nicolaus. “Tell you what…since you ladies went through the trouble of coming up this way, why don’t I treat you all to dinner? I’ll bet you’re tired and hungry from all that traveling and bandit hunting. We can’t promise anything fancy, though.”
“I don’t mind,” said Edelgard. “Thank you for your offer.”
“I really didn’t want the stuff we brought with us to go to waste,” said Leonie, “but I can always eat some of it later.”
“Very good. We’ll meet at the inn around sunset. Got a lot of work to do, you know?”
Nicolaus ordered his employees to get back to work while Monica and her friends returned to the caravan to clean the blood from their weapons. There were only one or two locations they could visit since the villagers of Drachen were wary of allowing any outsiders, even those from high-ranking noble families as Edelgard, to enter their homes. The rain continued to fall, limiting their options for what they could do outside. Monica tried to catch some cool and refreshing rainwater in her hands and wash some of the mud and sweat from her face. It was the least she could do to try to get clean until they could take proper baths later on.
They met with Nicolaus at the inn as planned. There were only two vacancies and not enough beds for all four of them to sleep on. “Looks like we’ll be sleeping in the caravan tonight,” said Ingrid.
“It’s better than sleeping in the dirt, I guess,” said Monica.
The innkeeper and the cook both bowed when they saw Nicolaus approach the counter. “Good evening, my lord,” said the innkeeper. “What’ll you be having tonight?”
“One special, big enough for five,” he said as he passed a small stack of gold coins to her.
“You got it! Just sit tight and we’ll bring it over,” said the cook.
The baron borrowed a chair from one of the empty tables to give everyone a place to sit down without getting separated. Monica was tempted to sit next to her father while she ate, but she felt more comfortable sitting across from him so she could look directly at him while she talked.
“Father, did you get any of the letters I sent you?” she asked.
“Yeah, I did,” said Nicolaus. “I wasn’t sure it was really you until I saw the letter from the church that came with it. Did you get my response?”
“No, I didn’t, but…um… Edelgard, why don’t you tell him what happened?”
“We discovered a stash of letters in a cave on our way up here,” said Edelgard. “Some of them were addressed to Monica and written by you. Is it possible that you wrote at least one of those recently?”
“Maybe,” said Nicolaus. “I write lots of letters, though. I don’t know what idiot’s going around robbing caravans to deprive people of their mail. Why are they all the way out here? What do they get out of it?”
“We’re still trying to figure out the reason ourselves. We found and arrested the leader of the group of bandits we encountered, but it doesn’t look like she’s willing to talk.”
“She knows she’ll be in serious trouble if she tells who’s really calling the shots,” said Ingrid.
About twenty minutes later, a waitress came out with a well-done steak, sliced into several thin pieces for everyone to eat. “Here you go…one giant beast steak,” she said.
“Ooh…this looks delicious!” said Monica. “I can’t wait to have some.”
“Go ahead and dig in,” said her father. “You’ve earned it, after all.”
Monica cut her steak into smaller portions, savoring every bite as best she could. Edelgard looked down at her steak, struggling to decide whether or not to eat it.
“I don’t mean to be ungrateful, Lord Ochs,” said Edelgard, gently shoving her plate in his direction, “but I think I’ll have to pass.”
“Something wrong, Your Highness?” asked Nicolaus.
“I’m…not much of a meat-eater. While I had eaten some meat rations on our journey up here, I didn’t enjoy them, but they were all we had at the time.”
The baron nodded and took Edelgard’s uneaten steak slice and added it to his plate, adding some salt for flavor. “Let’s get you something that’s more to your tastes, then. It wouldn’t be fair for you to go hungry while your friends eat.”
He got up from the table to talk to the cook again, sliding him some more gold coins. After waiting for several more minutes, their waitress returned with a bowl of mixed vegetable salad, which Edelgard was more willing to eat. “Thank you,” she said.
After everyone had finished their meals, the girls looked for a bathhouse to wash themselves off and clean up for their journey home. They were given matching red sleeveless tunics to wear for the evening while the maids dry-cleaned and stitched their academy uniforms back together.
When they finished changing clothes, the baron led them to a mid-sized house on the northern edge of the village, a few blocks away from his workshop.
“Is this where you live, Monica?” asked Ingrid. “It looks very…rustic.”
“Yeah,” Monica lamented. “For now, anyway. It’s a far cry from our old castle, but for better or worse, it’s mine.”
“I wish I’d known you were coming home sooner, Monica,” said Nicolaus. “I’d have looked for a few extra makeshift beds so you and your friends wouldn’t have to waste money at the inn or sleep outdoors in the rain.”
“It’s okay, Father. We already decided that we’d be sleeping out tonight. Is it okay if they look around for a bit?”
“There’s not much to look at, really, but knock yourselves out.”
The girls all wiped their feet on the welcome mat before entering the common room, where they saw a picture of the old Ochs Castle hanging on the wall by the fireplace. To the right of the dinner table was a bookshelf populated with books on everything from children’s bedtime stories to defensive swordplay to house repair. The room closest to the kitchen, toward the rear of the house, was reserved for Monica during her annual visits, and only had a small bed and a bookshelf filled with books on eleventh-century military and cultural developments.
“Everything’s just as you left it from last time,” said Nicolaus. “I had to do some regular dusting to make sure the books and the bed weren’t ruined, but I didn’t touch anything else.”
“It looks great! Thank you,” said Monica as she picked up a book with a black feather sticking out. It contained essays from the literature classes she had taken prior to joining the Officers Academy. Wow…my handwriting was a lot better back then, she thought.
“Don’t get too used to it, though. In a couple of years, we’ll be back in our castle, and it’ll be better than new! Just you wait!”
“How much more work do you have to do on it?” asked Leonie.
The baron sat down at the table with the other girls while Monica continued to look around. “Too much,” he said. “And that’s not counting all the requests I’m still getting to repair broken window frames, replaced jammed doors, and so on. I don’t mind helping other people rebuild, but I could certainly do without Duke Gerth and his kids checking up on me every few weeks. Just because he bailed my soldiers out after the war, he walks around and acts like he owns the place. Sometimes I think I’d rather deal with the Brigidians…at least they won’t try to annoy me with lectures on ‘deadlines’ and ‘duty’ and other such nonsense.”
Edelgard shook her head and groaned. “I’ve had some unpleasant dealings with the Duke, to put it lightly. Compared to the other members of the court, he’s relatively harmless, but I would still keep my guard up around him.”
“I’d bet that if someone had given him a good knock on the head or something similar when he was younger, he wouldn’t feel the need to boss people around now.”
“I can assure you that Duke Gerth can’t and won’t keep this up forever,” she said. “He knows that if he slips up and pushes too far, someone will come after him.”
Nicolaus went to check on his daughter, who looked like she was about to fall asleep after lying down on the bed while reading an article from one of her books. He wasn’t sure whether to attribute it to boredom or travel fatigue.
“Monica? Sweetie?” he said quietly. “I know it’s getting late, but didn’t you say you were going to sleep out in the caravan with your friends tonight?”
Monica lifted the book from her face and got up to return it to its shelf. “Tell them I’ll be out in a few minutes,” she said.
The baron nodded and left the room to meet the other girls. “Monica and I are going to have a little bit of father-daughter time, if that’s okay with you ladies,” he said.
“Yes! I understand completely,” said Ingrid. “Thank you for inviting us, sir.”
“And thank you for taking good care of my daughter after her…ordeal. She’s fortunate to have friends like you.”
“It’s our pleasure,” said Leonie.
“Do you think you’ll have time to visit us at the academy?” asked Edelgard.
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Nicolaus. “I may have to close the workshop for a few days, and that’s going to set back redevelopment efforts quite a bit. That said, I think it’s high time me and my workers took a break. I know they’d appreciate the time off.”
“We look forward to seeing you again, Lord Ochs. If there is anything you need at all, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“As long as it doesn’t involve anything crazy, you have my support.”
After Edelgard, Ingrid, and Leonie left to return to the caravan, Monica and her father went back out to sit at the dining table. “So, how does it feel to be back home, sweetie?” he asked.
“I’m…kinda conflicted, really,” said Monica. “I’ve made quite a few friends since I came back, but I’d never imagined that I’d make as many enemies. Candace, the Death Knight, that zombie girl – ‘Kronya’, I think they called her – and now the bandits that tried to steal your mail. Why does it feel like so many people have it in for us?”
“It’s probably because we live so far from the capital that we won’t be able to quickly call for backup in case something happens. The duke and his friends were nice enough to send soldiers to ward off Brigid after I sent about a dozen requests for aid, and after the Brigidians had driven us from our castle…”
The memory of being humiliated and abandoned by Duke Gerth and the rest of the Imperial court drove Nicolaus to pound his fist on the table, rattling the plates, the silverware, and his daughter.
“So when the rubble cleared and the duke’s soldiers left the area,” he continued after taking a moment to calm down, “I decided that since he and Lord Arundel weren’t interested in helping me rebuild my land, I was going to do it my way. That’s why I moved out here and used much of what was left in our treasury to build a workshop and hire as many able-bodied workers as possible to rebuild every last one of the houses that Brigid destroyed, from base to roof.”
“Well, I’m proud of you, Father,” said Monica. “I just wish I had the courage to stand up to Candace for screwing me over back then, like you’re doing with this project.”
“That’s why you’re at the Officers Academy now, isn’t it? When it comes time for you to inherit the barony, you’ll need to know how to take measures to secure your power base. Knowing how to handle yourself in a fight is one thing, but you also have to learn how to positively influence the hearts and minds of those who serve you. Build lasting friendships with the people closest to you. Learn what they’re good at so that you can effectively use their strengths when you need their help. Know who your enemies are and how they operate. Know the difference between who you want to fight, who you can fight, and who you should fight. That sort of thing.”
Monica hadn’t been around Edelgard or the others long enough to know how well she could trust them, but she felt comfortable enough around them to consider them her friends. She knew who her enemies were, but dealing with them was more complicated.
Candace had inherited Duke Gerth’s leadership skills, but the arrogance she developed as the former Black Eagles leader was all her own. Monica was thankful they hadn’t run into each other again since her return to Garreg Mach. As far as she knew, Candace wasn’t physically dangerous…just bothersome.
The bandit leader had already been dealt with, though her identity and motives remained a mystery for the moment.
Also as mysterious was the Death Knight. Anyone who called themselves anything with the word “death” in it was not to be messed with, especially when they had killed ten soldiers in the Church of Seiros’ mission to rescue Flayn. As dangerous as he sounded, one had to wonder why he kidnapped Flayn in the first place, or why he only wounded Manuela instead of killing her. Was he holding back his full strength against them on purpose?
That only left Kronya.
Monica had only heard of the danger the Death Knight posed through second-hand accounts from the Knights of Seiros. With Kronya, she had witnessed it first-hand.
Worse yet…she had felt it.
Monica remembered the piercing stare Kronya gave when she thought a prisoner, or “test subject”, as she liked to call them, was disobeying orders. The shrill cackle whenever Kronya vented by cutting or stabbing someone – usually Monica – gave her chills. Just thinking about the name alone made Monica seethe with anger.
Every scar Monica bore had Kronya’s unnatural knife imprint on it. If her fate was to die in any of the seemingly infinite tunnels she was forced to walk through to thwart any rescue attempts, at least she’d go out knowing she got a few good shots in, wounding Kronya with one of her own knives.
By some miracle of the goddess, Monica had made it out of there.
Unfortunately, so did Kronya.
She was certainly still on the loose somewhere, looking for new victims and leaving behind the bodies of those who didn’t meet her “standards”…whatever they were. Wherever she was, she had to be stopped, and Monica wanted to be the one to do it.
Monica didn’t want to look too far into the future. Kronya’s time would come, but there were more immediate matters for her to deal with. She still had a report to give, as well as an exam to pass.
“We’re probably going to leave for Garreg Mach early tomorrow morning,” said Monica. “Will you come to see us off before you go to work, Father?”
“Of course I will, sweetie,” said Nicolaus. “Your uniforms should be ready to go by then. They’ll be stitched together so well that you won’t be able to tell they were damaged!”
Monica and her father got up from the table and embraced in a tight hug. “Take care of yourself out there, Monica.”
“I will, Father. I promise.”