Annette taps on the door to the queen’s study.
“It’s open,” Professor Byleth calls from inside, just as if they’re still back at Garreg Mach and Annette had come to the classroom for tutoring or to go over plans, or Professor Byleth’s own room just to talk. Annette is pretty sure that the Archbishop of the Church of Seiros, Queen-Consort of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, is supposed to…have people to answer the door for her? Or something? Or at least invite Annette in, instead of assuming that Annette is only waiting to be let in because she thinks the door is locked.
Speaking of which, Annette should probably just go in—Professor Byleth wouldn’t have summoned her for nothing. She opens the door carefully.
Professor Byleth, a delicate pair of spectacles sliding down her nose, is seated at a huge desk which does not match the dainty furnishings of the rest of the queen’s chambers. The three audience chairs have embroidered seats, the bookshelves are carved with leaves and flowers, and even the stone facing on the fireplace is pretty, though the kettle hanging over the fire is, like the desk, a much more utilitarian sight. Professor Byleth is frowning at a very large book, so old the pages are crumbling at the edges. At her right hand is a stack of loose documents and a cup of tea, and at her left a much newer book bound in silver-stamped blue leather.
Annette squints at the blue book, trying to read the title upside down and through the curling patterns that surround it.
Professor Byleth looks up. “Annette.”
“Your Gr—Maj—” Annette flounders to a stop.
“You could just call me by name,” Professor Byleth says mildly. Annette thinks she’s laughing, behind that neutral expression.
Annette bows. “Professor.”
Professor Byleth sets a ribbon on the book spread in front of her and fixes her aurora-green eyes on Annette. Without any kind of small talk, or lead-in, or anything, she asks, “Is your mother happy?”
It’s the kind of thing that practically anyone else would be too polite to ask. You don’t just…ask people if their mothers are happy! You don’t even ask people if they’re happy, except that of course Professor Byleth does.
Annette doesn’t know what to say. Annette doesn’t know what Professor Byleth wants her to say, but even more to the point she doesn’t know what Professor Byleth is asking. “What, right now? I think so—she’s glad the war’s over and I’m home safe, anyway. I was afraid she’d mind my wanting to teach for a while before I got married, since I know some of her friends have grandchildren—there are so many war orphans, I feel bad about it, but I’m afraid I’d end up resenting a child if I…” If she had to give up what she wanted to do to take care of them. She trails off guiltily.
“It’s about your father,” Professor Byleth says with a nod.
Annette thinks sometimes her mother wishes her father had died in the war. It’s not—it’s definitely not something they ever talked about, it couldn’t have been, but it was in the way her mother had looked strained but not afraid when messengers came, and the way any dispatches had set her on edge for days even when the news was good.
It would be easier to be a widow, is the problem. Annette’s mother isn’t that old—not even forty-five, yet. She’s probably too old to have more children, which is a mental image Annette does not need anyway, ew, she wishes she hadn’t thought about it, but still. Annette’s mother likes dancing, and flowers, and if Annette’s father had died in the war she would have gone into mourning, but after that she would have been able to go to the guild balls and dance all night, or go walking in King of Lions Gardens with someone who flattered and complimented her. She wouldn’t have had to wait, like the girl in the fairy tale who was frozen into a block of ice, for Annette’s father to decide he felt like coming home.
“No,” Annette says finally. “She’s not happy about that. Professor, do you think—you can’t really make him come home, can you? I mean—if his Majesty dismissed him, maybe, but I don’t think he’d come home even then. He’d probably just change his name again and this time he’d dye his hair too, and hope nobody noticed him applying to the Palace Guard.” She tries to laugh, to make a joke out of it, but it sounds more like a cough.
“I’ve been reading up on Church law,” Professor Byleth says, turning a few pages back in the crumbling book in front of her. There’s another ribbon on the page where she stops. “There’s a lot of it.”
Well, that much is certainly true. There is a lot of it. Annette wonders if Professor Byleth wants advice about making study cards, but probably not—definitely not, if this is somehow about Annette’s father.
“There’s a process for dissolving a marriage.”
Annette squeaks, “Sorry, what?”
Professor Byleth pushes her spectacles back up her nose—they’d fallen nearly off—and clears her throat. “‘Whereupon the Church has solemnized the obligation and faith of spouse to spouse, this contract bound by’—don’t need that—‘it can also recognize, where one spouse has broken faith, as by…’” She hums softly and tunelessly as she skims a finger along the row of dense text. “Here we are: ‘…willful failure to make a show in the marriage bed—’”
Annette makes a tiny horrified noise at the thought of a legal proceeding about her parents that includes the phrase “willful failure to make a show in the marriage bed.” She’ll have to change her own name so her students don’t go “Ooh, Professor Dominic, isn’t she the one whose father willfully failed to make a show in the marriage bed?” It will be terrible. She will die. Is it possible to die of embarrassment? Annette will be advancing the cause of natural philosophy.
Oblivious to Annette’s internal crisis, Professor Byleth is continuing to read. “‘—not by mutual agreement nor by illness or impairment, nor yet as a matter of occasions; but persistently, intentionally, to the harm of the other spouse, though a marriage may not be sundered for this cause if the harm of the sundering will be greater than the harm of the marriage itself. Moreover and more severely, desertion, as spouse and spouse are meant to serve together against all ills, no more to be abandoned than a soldier’s post; though this may not be taken to permit the sundering of a marriage where a spouse was taken away in duly-requested service to their liege, nor yet when mischance or another’s malice held them away from home.’” She picks up her tea and takes a long sip.
“Um,” Annette says. She doesn’t know, is the problem. This still sounds embarrassing? Maybe not quite so much with the desertion thing, that wouldn’t be quite as bad since it’s not like that’s a secret, but she doesn’t think her mother would like the idea of airing linens in public any more than Annette does, and Annette is just embarrassed because it’s her parents. Her mother would probably be even more humiliated. “This is still legal?”
“Fell out of favor,” Professor Byleth says, draining the rest of her cup. “The Western Church didn’t like it, and Rhea didn’t notice. Do you want tea? I have some of that rose-petal blend you like left from the Alliance meetings last week.”
Annette sits down on the edge of one of the fancy chairs, careful not to hook her foot on the carpet or around the delicately-carved leg. “If it’s not too much trouble, that’d be very nice, thank you, Professor. Um…do you want me to make it?”
The, again, Archbishop of the Church of Seiros and Queen-Consort of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus—this is weird! Annette does not know how to deal with being waited on by someone this important!—shakes her head as she spoons tea leaves out of a box into the pot, then takes the kettle off the fire and pours.
“I talked to Dimitri about it,” Professor Byleth says while the tea steeps. “He agrees that Gilbert’s atonement is only worth so much if he is using it to harm others.” Annette can almost hear Dimitri in her voice—the slower intonation, a little more precision in the consonants. And the words themselves, of course, that’s very Dimitri. “But we can’t make that decision for your mother. I don’t know if she’d even want me to write her.”
“You could write her.” This at least Annette is sure of. “I think she’d like to know what her options are.”
Professor Byleth nods.
“Um…my father was with the Knights of Seiros?” Annette bites her lip. “Does that…”
“I checked,” Professor Byleth says, getting up and fetching another teacup from one of the bookshelves. She sits back down and pours. “He volunteered, he wasn’t conscripted.”
Annette looks at the blue book again. Now that she’s sitting down, the angle of light on the cover is different, and she can read the lettering: Contracts of Faerghus Houses, 1170-1179. “Oh,” she says. She’d always known he’d…well, left. It shouldn’t hurt more that he left so hard that the law is ready to say so—it should feel good that the law recognizes what he did as something real and serious, and it does, but at the same time it’s…oh, she doesn’t know. Messy and sad.
Professor Byleth puts the teacup into Annette’s hands. It’s warm. The scent of roses, heavy and sweet as summer, rises thick in the room, just as if autumn isn’t already closing its jaws on Fhirdiad.
“Thank you,” Annette says, and takes a sip. The words come easier once she’s swallowed. “Write her. I think she’d like…nobody ever really asked her about anything, you know? My father didn’t ask her about leaving. Even I didn’t ask her about going off to war, and I feel bad about that, but I couldn’t just sit at home while my friends died! And I wrote her as often as I could. But I think…I don’t know what she wants.”
She might be right, that there had been days her mother wanted to be a widow. She might still be right, but becoming separate again from her father might be something that her mother would only be okay with as the will of the goddess, not as something she chose herself. She might be wrong—maybe her mother really does just want her father to come home, still, all the time, just like she always said. If her mother hasn’t given up hope, Annette isn’t going to give it up for her.
“Okay,” Professor Byleth says. “Stay a while if you’d like.”
Annette has a lot to do, but she sits back in the chair—it isn’t nearly as uncomfortable as it looks—and sips her tea slowly. Rose perfume unfurls against her mouth, and it’s almost like being back before the war again. She doesn’t know what it is about Professor Byleth, that she can just…say things that should be really uncomfortable and make them feel natural, or make a room feel better just by being in it, but it’s still true.
Professor Byleth starts taking notes on whatever she’s currently reading. Annette tries not to tap her toes against the floor and completely fails, but Professor Byleth doesn’t complain, so she’s counting it as a win. She finishes her tea, slowly, letting the peace of the room settle into her bones.
“Thanks for the tea, Professor,” she says when she can’t draw it out any longer.
“Thank you,” Professor Byleth says.
Somehow, just like always, it makes Annette feel like she’s really done something special. She gives Professor Byleth a real smile as she gets up to leave.
It’d be nice, if this is something her mother will let herself have. It’d be so nice to not be waiting, and waiting, and waiting. It’s not fair that she and her mother should have to suffer because her father feels guilty about the Tragedy of Duscur, and if King Dimitri pointing that out hasn’t helped then nothing will. At least maybe, now, there’s something her mother can actually do about it, and get her life back.