Another year meant another fresh batch of students to be moved into the dormitories, and all the chaos that came along with the task.
The village and marketplace were no doubt full of merchants and artisans clamoring for attention from the more well-off students and their escorts as they arrived, and Byleth knew the lower monastery grounds were already abuzz with activity. Knights of Seiros were present on every corner, both to watch over their precious new charges and to impress upon their visitors the strength of the church, while nuns and monks were at the ready to welcome each new pupil and usher them to their rooms.
Byleth was used to the spectacle by now. She’d lived through it every year, growing up in the monastery. That didn’t mean she liked it, though. All the people, all the noise -- it got to be too much after a while. There’d be no getting out of chores on a day like this, not when all hands were required to be on deck, but the least she could do for herself was find a job out of the way of the main commotion. Which was why, much to Cyril’s annoyance, she had busied herself in the cathedral, sweeping the floors and replacing old candles in the sconces. She had just finished polishing the keys of the organ when a glowering Cyril stomped over.
“Hey! I was gonna do that next!” he growled, glaring at the shimmering keys before turning his angry red gaze on her. “I don’t need your help! Why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be down at the lower grounds? Ya know, helping with the new students?”
Byleth shook her head. “Too many people trying to help can hinder things. I figured I’d be needed elsewhere.”
“Yeah, well, wherever you’re needed, it ain’t here! Lady Rhea told me take care of things in the cathedral today, and like I said, I don’t need help!” Cyril insisted, crossing his arms and giving her a withering look. Byleth silently stared back, looking Cyril up and down. She admired the boy’s work ethic for sure, but she had never understood why he was so offended when people offered assistance.
Still, she wasn’t looking to upset the boy, and Cyril was more than capable of doing things on his own. In the end, Byleth merely nodded, murmuring a quiet, “Very well,” before turning on her heel and making for the double doors.
But… what am I to do for the rest of the day?
She slowly made her way across the bridge to the main monastery grounds, pondering her options as she stared down into the abyssal canyon below.
The lower grounds were no doubt still swarming with people. There were more than enough monastery staff ready to process incoming students, so she wouldn't be needed there. The stables would be busy as well, but they had plenty of people to handle the temporary influx of horses. The greenhouse was right by the dormitories, and most of the nuns and monks who wanted to people-watch without directly dealing with visitors signed up to work there weeks in advance, so there was likely no work left there, either.
I... suppose I could see if Tomas needs any help in the library...
She turned away from the bustling reception hall to head up the steps to the academy offices.
“Ah, Byleth! Long time no see!”
The loud, familiar voice was followed by an almost painfully forceful clap on the shoulder that caused her to stumble forward. The strong hand held her steady, though, and when Byleth turned to her assailant, she was met with Alois’s usual boisterous grin.
“Don’t you love this time of year? All the fresh, young faces ready to learn! Hopefully nothing lessons their enthusiasm!” Alois threw his head back, laughing so loud it caught the attention of several passing nuns. Byleth only stared blankly up at him, prompting him to give her shoulder a vigorous shake. “ Lessons! Get it? Because… we don’t want their enthusiasm to lessen! You know, as in- Oh, fine then! But I’ll get a laugh out of you one of these days! I swear it!”
With a sigh, Byleth shook her head.
“Did you need my help with something?”
“Mm? Oh, of course not! I just wanted to check up on you! You seemed rather lost in thought. Not that… that’s anything new… But I also heard that Lady Rhea was looking for you. Was that where you were headed? I’d hurry along and see what she wants, were I you.”
Rhea… Aside from the crowds, the archbishop was another thing Byleth wished she could avoid today. She had a feeling about what the woman was after, and she was not looking forward to the familiar sight of disappointment on Rhea’s face yet again.
But, she supposed, there was only so long she could put their discussion off.
With a silent nod, Byleth turned away, pulling herself out of Alois’s firm grasp and lifting the heavy skirt of her nun’s habit as she moved up the stairs.
“I’ll head there now. Thank you, Alois.” She paused on her way up the steps, turning back to face the ever-boisterous knight. “While you’re here, Flayn also said something about-”
“Oh! Y-yes, I… haven’t actually had much luck catching that fish like I promised,” Alois seemed to sulk, but only temporarily. The next moment, the usual wide grin was back on his face and he was giving Byleth a thumbs up. “But I haven’t given up yet! If you see her, tell the little lady I’ll have her some fresh fish in no time!”
With a final nod, Byleth continued on her way. Rhea was waiting in her office, reading through the same speech she always gave at the opening ceremony. Byleth would’ve thought she’d have it memorized by now, with how long she had served as archbishop, but the woman insisted on “refreshing her memory” every year. When Rhea noticed her approach, however, she looked up, smiling in that soft, enigmatic way of hers and gesturing for Byleth to close the double doors behind her. Byleth obeyed, stony faced as usual despite the trace discomfort she truly felt.
“It is so good to see you, my child. How are the new batch of students looking? Have any caught your eye?” Rhea asked, setting the yellowed parchment aside and standing. Byleth shook her head, unsure why Rhea asked the same question every year when she knew what the answer would be.
Every year, the students came, and a short year later, they left, always eventually replaced by another set of faces and personalities in an endless cycle. They were temporary. Background noise. And though she and the other nuns were occasionally charged with their care or worked with them on monastery chores, she’d never grown particularly fond of any of them. Her distant behavior bothered some of the monastery staff, but really, why would she bother getting attached? She was as temporary and forgettable a factor in their lives as they were in hers.
Rhea never seemed to be bothered by her attitude, though. The woman only hummed at her response and clasped her hands together, taking a few steps forward.
“I see. No matter. I did not call you here to discuss them. Have you had any luck with your dreams?”
The tips of Byleth’s mouth inched ever so slightly downwards as she shook her head again. She didn't understand why Rhea seemed so invested in her nonsensical dreams, and just as she’d expected, Rhea frowned, her shimmering green eyes dulling with sorrow and her brows knitting together in frustration.
“I see… So you haven’t had any more visions, then? None at all?”
Byleth blinked, glancing to the side. That wasn’t entirely true.
“I’ve had some… but none of the sleeping girl.”
Rhea sighed and shook her head, staring down at her clasped hands.
“I don’t understand… A piece of the puzzle is missing, but what?” Rhea murmured before she looked up to Byleth. “These other dreams -- what did you see? Perhaps they are connected. If we look closely, we may be able to find meaning, or a pattern.”
Byleth doubted that. Try as she might to look for some sense to the visions, some thread that could bring them all together into one cohesive narrative, she had not found it. A bustling city in the desert; an albino wyvern flying overhead, its rider raining arrows down onto those below; a woman with snow white hair dressed in a ruby garb turned away from her, looking at a magnificent throne; and a blonde man with wild hair hunched over on a battlefield, covered in blood.
None of the visions seemed to happen in the same place, or have familiar characters between them. And as long as Byleth had thought on them, tried to remember every excruciating detail, she could think of nothing that linked the separate visions back to the one Rhea seemed so fixated on: a spritely girl, strangely dressed, with pointed ears and long, green hair, fast asleep on a throne of stone.
Byleth recounted her most recent visions to Rhea one by one, and sat through a thorough series of questions about potentially hidden details or symbols that could tie them all together. In the end, though, Rhea’s frown only deepened. The archbishop seemed to come to the same conclusion Byleth had -- that there was no connecting the strange dreams as they were now. Rhea sighed, her shoulders slumping.
“I suppose we will have to wait yet longer to find any answers,” Rhea said, strangely subdued. Then, in the blink of an eye, the disappointment vanished from her face, as if it had never been there at all. When she next spoke, it was in her usual elegant manner. “In the meantime, please continue your prayers to the goddess for clarity on this matter. Maybe stepping away from this will help to clear both of our heads, and we can come at this again with fresh minds.”
Nodding, Byleth murmured a quick “Yes, My Lady,” and was ready to leave when Rhea lifted a soft hand to her cheek. She blinked in surprise as Rhea smiled at her, those enigmatic eyes boring into Byleth’s own. It was an action that was supposed to be comforting, Byleth was sure. Several knights and servants close to Rhea would have envied Byleth her position, would have given anything to have such an intimate show of affection directed at them. Yet Byleth shuffled her weight from foot to foot, restless. Something about the archbishop’s gaze seemed… off. It almost always was these days when Byleth was the focus of her attention.
“Is there something else that weighs on you? I know I should be used to it, but... I don't believe I've ever seen you smile. Are you happy here?” Rhea asked, her soft thumb stroking Byleth’s cheek.
Byleth gave a curt nod, watching Rhea closely. Her response seemed to displease Rhea for some reason, and Rhea sighed again, expression falling before she seemed to catch herself and gave Byleth one final, forced smile. Byleth almost felt relieved when Rhea withdrew her hand.
“I am glad. But remember, if anything is ever on your mind, do not hesitate to speak with me. I am always happy to hear from you,” she said before gesturing to the doors. “You may go. I’m sure the others still need your help preparing for the opening ceremonies tomorrow.”
With a final nod, Byleth turned to leave, and tried to ignore the feeling of Rhea’s eyes boring holes into her back.
The ceremony marking the beginning of the new school year went as smoothly as it ever did. Many of the students had never visited the monastery before, and seeing the cathedral for the first time, during one of its most important ceremonies no less, never failed to leave many in awe.
It was easy to pick out which families and escorts had never visited the monastery either, let alone seen Lady Rhea. To the surprise of none of the monks or nuns in attendance, most of the visitors were almost immediately in the archbishop’s thrall. As far back as Byleth could remember, Rhea was always able to captivate her audience. Even the handful of attendees who seemed initially unmoved by the music and the pristine condition of the ancient temple were drawn in by Rhea’s voice, somehow both as powerful as thunder and as gentle as a spring shower.
“Until now, many of you have been separated by worldly barriers. Yet you will find at the monastery that those barriers that once kept you apart -- whether physical distance or the distance between classes -- are no more. As the goddess loves all her children, we hope that you will come to love your classmates. That you might work together, learn to understand those different from you, and form friendships that last you a lifetime,” Rhea spoke from the pulpit, her sermon echoing throughout the hushed church.
Byleth and the mixture of nuns and monks gathered in the choir sat off to the side, angled to face the new arrivals. Many of her companions used the time during the ceremony to size up the students, who were all conveniently gathered in one place. They would essentially be living with each other for the next year, so they liked to keep a close eye on the students’ behavior. And following the ceremony, like clockwork, the nuns and monks would come together to gossip, discussing each new arrival and pointing out potential troublemakers.
For her part, Byleth usually didn't pay much attention. Though if she had to guess, a red-head who was quite obviously eyeing up some of his female counterparts would be a big talking point this year, as would the green-haired young man who kept nodding off.
“For the rest of the day, you are free to explore the monastery grounds and get to know your fellow students. Tomorrow, orientation exercises for each of the three houses will begin. At the end of the week, the house leaders will also have a special exercise together to help foster good relations between the houses. Then, your classes will begin in earnest,” Rhea orated, smiling serenely out at the congregation. “The future of Fodlan rests in our hands. It is only by bringing ourselves together that we can move toward a brighter future. In the goddess’s name.”
There was a rumble of amens as Lady Rhea came to her conclusion. The organist began to play, and Byleth and the other choir members stood to sing a final hymn as the students and their families began to file out of the church. It was standard procedure for the ceremony, ending the first church service of the school year on an elegant note, according to Rhea. It also meant that despite Byleth’s eagerness to get back to her room and change into her less formal habit, none in the choir could leave just yet.
An older monk with a deep timbre led the chant, a slow but triumphant melody dedicated to the sacrifices of the goddess for her children. As Byleth and the others lent their voices, she watched the crowd shuffle out of the main doors. Another year, another set of faces, each of which would no doubt prove as forgettable as those that had come before.
As they left, people turned this way and that, taking in the atmosphere of the cathedral one final time. Among them, Byleth spotted a blonde boy, dressed sharply in the academy’s uniform. A cape representing the Blue Lions was draped over one shoulder, marking him as the house's leader for the year. Byleth had not noticed him before, zoned out as she tended to be during these ceremonies, but as he turned her way to admire the cathedral, she took a closer look at his face, and the notes of the hymn died in her throat.
Maybe she was just seeing things. They were quite a distance from each other, after all. But she could’ve sworn she’d seen those eyes before -- or one of them, at least. It had been in the face of a blood-spattered man, half wild with rage, not a well-groomed lordling.
A subtle gesture from the lead monk brought Byleth’s attention back, and the scathing look he sent her had her remembering herself. Her voice once again joined with the others, and she did not allow herself to spare the boy another glance. She wasn’t sure why he’d caught her attention in the first place, or why she’d thought for a second he could be connected to the ferocious figure she’d seen in her dreams. The beastly man was clearly different from the boy slowly making his way out of the church.
Yes, she told herself, the boy was of no consequence; just another face to be forgotten.