I died once for love and didn’t like how it felt
so I came back saying, I tricked you. The games we play
are very real.
— Stacie Cassarino, “Natural History”
The dragon seizes Edelgard in its mouth. She cleaves it in the jaw with an axe and leaps from between its teeth into the Red Canyon. This is the beginning of the story, although at this point she does not know it yet. She still thinks it ends with her death, rushing up to meet her as she falls faster and faster toward the forests below. She keeps her eyes open, that it might never be said she was ever one to avert her gaze from anything. Not the dragon, or the punishing sun. Not the cliffside giving way to shadow, the trees like lances.
Someone had begun screaming when she started to fall. Perhaps many someones. Perhaps the soldiers she was leaving behind, perhaps the dragon—perhaps even her, her voice ripped disembodied from her throat, so contorted by the sound she cannot herself recognize it. Perhaps it is only the wind. She has no way of knowing, as she hurtles down and down.
The first time Edelgard ever saw the dragon, the creature her father had called the Immaculate One, she had been little more than a child. It had seemed as big as the sky to her then, white-scaled and gleaming, and she had thought it beautiful. Now she knows better than to trust beautiful things. She still remembers how her eldest sister had screamed, on the stone altar beneath the Red Wolf Moon, as her body was devoured by fire. Perhaps that voice is what she hears now, or something like it.
Edelgard doesn’t know about the other dragons, the ones whom her father had told her were the children of the goddess, the brothers and sisters of the Immaculate One. She will be dust before she can see them, dead or alive. It makes her weep as she falls to realize this, which is plainly stupid; she has not wept since she was a child, and she thought the girl capable of shedding tears had died long ago, turned to ash alongside the bones of her eldest sister, and her second sister, and every sister and brother thereafter, until she was the only one left.
It’s not for herself that Edelgard weeps. She knows that much. It’s for the work she is leaving unfinished. More than that, it’s for the ones who will be given to the fire in her place, because she was only strong enough to start a war. Not strong enough, in the end, to finish it.
The screaming stops when her body hits the forest canopy, as abruptly as it began. In its place, silence. In its place, the distant echo of one lonely voice, singing. Singing to her.
Dorothea finds the girl stretched out on the grass by the camellia bushes, bleeding. She looks like a flower fallen from the vine, cloaked in scarlet and armored all the way down to her toes in bronze, an axe with a cloven head still in her hand. The grass is stained dark where she lies, the earth beneath wet and sticky. Dorothea too thinks this is the ending, until she puts her ear to the girl’s mouth and feels the air come out of it, however faintly.
Divested of her equipment, the girl weighs nearly nothing, and even with no one to help her it’s a small task for Dorothea to carry her inside. Everything else, she leaves in the garden. Her house seems to breathe around them, the curtains on the windows rustling, as though Dorothea’s movements have alerted it to the sudden presence of a stranger, but the girl does not stir, even a little.
Dorothea brings her to the downstairs bedroom, the one that the men stay in when they come. It still smells like the last one, like lamp oil and dusty parchment. That man had wanted only to read all the time, and on the whole had been far more in love with the house and its curiosities than with her, but she had liked that about him. If nothing else, it had made him interesting company, for a while. Now she still feels a peculiar twinge whenever she sees the books he had taken from the library stacked on the desk—some fluttery, half-formed emotion, part amusement and part regret.
The girl sleeps while Dorothea cleans and sews up her wounds, without need for so much as a mouthful of wine. The ones in her stomach are the trickiest, two fist-sized punctures beneath her ribs, like the fangs of some fell creature. Dorothea can’t imagine what it might have been, can hardly fathom the strength necessary to pierce mail and bite the body underneath nearly in two. She resolves not to think about it; anyway, the girl stays mercifully asleep, and continues to breathe, and that is enough, she thinks. Dorothea sits in vigil at her bedside to ensure it continues.
This is not the way things usually go, when guests come to this house. It’s always men who come, and they are rarely so grievously injured—confused, mostly, perhaps a little banged-up by the vicissitudes of the world outside, but none so truly close to death as this. She knows how to welcome them, feed them, ply them with music and flattery and whatever comforts they desire, but none of them has ever truly needed her to care for them. She is only a master of making them think they do.
Dorothea wonders what will happen when the girl awakens. In all likelihood, she’ll want to leave. To go home to her wars. Dorothea has not seen the world outside her manor in years—surely it must be more than years, but she’s lost count—and doesn’t care to imagine what the people in it must be fighting over, but she’d be lying if she said she was not intrigued by the appearance of this bloodstained girl. She looks made of stories, some of them tragic. Perhaps when she wakes Dorothea might coax her into telling one, over tea, and in that way convince her to delay awhile.
Then again, there’s no sense in dwelling on possibilities that haven’t yet come to pass. If nothing else, the care of this girl will give her something different to pass the time with. Between one man and the next, her days are beautiful but empty, the distractions that fill them serving no real purpose besides killing time. She might tend the garden, sing, read; her scholar had thought the world of reading, had always said there was no worthier pursuit. Now she picks up his favorite book, the one that he had excavated from the dustiest corner of her library and spent two nights explaining to her by the light of one guttering candle. She flips it open to where he had stopped in the middle, and thinks it is not so hard to understand as all that. An account of the lives of saints and heroes—exciting enough to listen to, but also ultimately meaningless.
She’s too easily distracted by the sleeping stranger, and soon puts the book down to study her instead: so small, divested of all her fine armor, half-sunk into the nest of blankets. And so deathly pale—the skin near-translucent where it stretches over the collarbones, the long hair a stark white, like snow. (When was the last time she saw snow?) And yet for all that there is nothing soft about her; Dorothea can see the strength plainly in the severe line of her mouth and in her fingers, curling tight in the sheets as around the throat of some nightmare.
A song comes back to Dorothea as she watches, a scrap of an old lullaby. She touches the girl’s hair where it feathers across the pillow, threads of white silk entangling tenderly in her fingers, and sings.
Edelgard wakes to birdsong, and then to sunshine. She breathes in and the air is sweet, so sweet she can nearly taste it in her mouth—like fresh fruit, like flowers. Like something soft and living. Breathing in this place is unlike anything she’s ever known.
She turns on her side, eyes half-closed, still dreaming. There is the dragon, and the soldiers she left behind, staring at her near-mad with terror—but also so many details that don’t belong. A strange, sad song, and a pair of green eyes, and a touch that seems to come from nowhere, alighting against her forehead or the curve of her cheek and just as quickly receding. Even her body doesn’t feel like her own when she looks down at it, stitched together in the wounded places and covered in a pale pink robe, the color of a sunrise, delicate and shapeless. She can’t remember the last time she wore anything so fine; she had been wearing the black and crimson of her father’s house when she came here, the bronze eagle pinned above her heart—
When awareness returns, it slams into her, makes her shove the covers off and rise from bed, moving faster than her still-mending body can accommodate. They’re waiting. The floor pitches underfoot. She sways, buckles to her knees on the plush carpet. Sinks down onto her side, feeling like a fool for the way her battered ribcage seems almost to creak in reproach, the way the flesh of her abdomen burns. Ah, yes, she thinks. That certainly is real, at least.
There’s a sound from somewhere above her—the door creaking open, then a soft gasp, a whisper of “oh, my dear” that hits her like a stone. She shuts her eyes, groaning at the ache. No one has called her “my dear” since her father died, and the wounds in her gut hurt less than this.
“Oh, my dear,” the voice says again. “You shouldn’t have tried to stand. You’ve been asleep three days, and you were bleeding right out when I found you.” The girl attached to that voice enters the room, kneels down; Edelgard sees the skirts first, fanning out across the carpet, then the slender fingers, pushing the hair away from her face. “Poor thing.”
Edelgard tilts her head up, toward a face that blooms down at her through coils of dark hair. Green eyes. She had dreamed that shade of green—like lake-water, like polished stones—and woken up unable to breathe. Now she covers her face to shield it, muttering, “Three days. That’s far too long. I must hurry…”
“You’re in no condition to be hurrying anywhere.” A hand gently pries Edelgard’s fingers open and touches her forehead, testing for fever. The floor seems to tilt again. She feels lightheaded, suddenly. “Come, let’s get you comfortable again, at least.”
The girl’s hands go under Edelgard’s arms now, maneuvering her upward from the floor until she sits with her back braced against the bed. She looks down at her bare feet, at the peach-colored silk pooling over her knees, twists her fingers in the fabric until it wrinkles. She could tear it apart barehanded. Foolish.
“Where are my… clothes?” She doesn’t ask after her weapons and armor.
“I washed them,” says the girl, who seems to know what she means. “That in itself was like fighting a war. I’ve never seen so much blood before in my life.” She hesitates a little before adding, “I thought you were going to die.”
Edelgard feels, from nowhere, a stab of remorse. “Please forgive me for troubling you. I thank you for the effort you’ve gone to on my behalf, Lady…?”
“Oh, I’m not a lady. That’s just what everyone calls me, the lady of the House of Roses.” She does not specify who “everyone” is, and Edelgard notices this even as she senses it would be unwise to question it. “Rose is fine. That’s what I am, just another rose in this garden.” If her smile tightens the slightest bit just then, as if some unseen wound pains her somewhere, suddenly, Edelgard does not question this either. “This is my… husband’s estate.”
She pauses over the word “husband,” too long to be accidental. Another thing not to question, another thing Edelgard finds herself attentive to regardless. It’s hard not to study her, this Rose, when she is at once everything befitting the grand lady of a manor house and none of those things at all. Her gown is lavish, her speech measured. She wears silver at her wrists and throat. And yet now and again some small quirk or other will give her away, like that smile—will betray something human and hungry, something sharp enough to draw blood.
“I owe my apologies to both you and your husband, then.”
“Not at all, not at all,” Rose says, fluttering one hand like it’s all immaterial. All air and light, the way she changes the subject. “What is your name?”
“El” is what Edelgard offers. A child’s name, the name of a girl whose dead sisters loved so much to dote on her they joked more than once about starting a war over it. Now there’s no one left who calls her El—it’s not a name that has any power to hurt her anymore, except by reminding her of things she misses, and that at least is a hurt she’s used to.
“El.” Rose seems to come back to earth as she repeats the name, slowly, as though discerning how to hold it. She says it again, with a warmth and a weight that nearly causes Edelgard to avert her eyes. “Well, El. Please be welcome here for as long as you like.”
Edelgard nearly recoils then, to retreat from this gentleness and from what it reveals about her own failure. That she might ever become someone who would need a delicate hand feels like a blow, powerful enough to shatter her, to say nothing of the not-knowing. She cannot tell where she is, or how to find her way back to where she ought to be. She can already feel the temptation to linger here, to allow herself to soften in the warmth—to feel safe, and that is the most shameful thing of all.
“I know you’re needed elsewhere, but it’s in your best interest to rest and regain your strength.” Rose touches the back of her hand, fingertips lightly resting there until Edelgard’s fist opens. “You’re no good to anyone bleeding out all over my floor.”
“I thank you,” murmurs Edelgard, bowing her head.
The house seats the girl at Dorothea’s right, instead of opposite her, where all the men go. It’s always been plain to her, why it puts them there—because it wants to give them something to reach for, because it’s easier to want something you can’t touch and must raise your voice to speak to, because the light from the chandeliers catching her bare shoulders is enough, more than enough for the beginning of a story.
El looks as perplexed by this close arrangement as Dorothea feels, but she doesn’t comment on it, nor on the fact that supper is already laid out on the table for them. She holds herself as straight in her chair as any noble, offers to carve the roast for both of them—but once the food is on her plate she eats ravenously, like she’s been starving.
It’s only when she sees Dorothea watching her, the tiny morsel on the end of the fork paused halfway to her own mouth, that El slows down. “My apologies. I’ve forgotten my manners—it’s just been a long time since I sat down to a meal like this.”
“Don’t even think about it,” says Dorothea. “I like the way you eat.” And it’s true. She’s intrigued, not least of all because she knows the look of someone starving, and yet nothing about this girl gives off the impression that she was born to lack. If anything, she looks as though she means to make the world bow. Which is the truth?
As El serves herself seconds, Dorothea pours them both more wine, finds herself hungry also in a way that she can only dimly remember being, another life ago. When the men are here she is often too busy to eat much—too busy talking, too busy making eyes—and she’s grown accustomed to pushing her plate away from herself half-finished, though in the beginning she had balked at the waste.
“Tell me about your husband,” El says later, as they start on the pastries and fruit. She’s peeling and cutting up a peach with a tiny knife, eating the slices with her hands.
“Am I not intriguing enough for you, that you want to know so much about an absent man?” Dorothea can’t help laughing at the way El’s cheeks flush, the rush of blood so warm and so immediate under the skin. “What should I tell you? Maybe he’s away on business in a distant land. Maybe he’s a notorious philanderer. Maybe he’s a beast in man’s clothing off pillaging villages, and only when he’s exhausted or bored will he come home to me.”
El’s expression darkens then, as she lowers the knife. “I would not speak so lightly of beasts if I were you.”
How wonderful the way she speaks, thinks Dorothea. How commanding, how curious. “What does that mean?”
“I knew a woman who was a beast inside,” El says. “A dragon. As a woman she was very beautiful and very wise, or so everyone said, who knew her before I was born. By the time I met her the dragon was already starting to show through, in her eyes. In her hands, too—in the way her nails would grow so sharp and so long, like claws.” She wipes her fingers on a napkin, frowning. “And then one day it broke out of her. She grew wings and bared her teeth and roared.”
“How terrifying,” Dorothea murmurs. “How did you meet this woman?”
“She was a… holy woman. A daughter of the goddess, she said.” El shrugs, as if this matter of holiness means nothing to her. Dorothea wonders if she prays to the goddess—if she ever did, before she learned the truth. “She ate my sisters and my brothers and called it a necessary sacrifice to keep the land green, until I was the only one left. She tried to eat me too. I fought my way out.”
Of course you did, Dorothea nearly says. She remembers the blood on the armor, the strange wounds. For a moment she’s tempted to change course by saying something flippant and pleasant, something without consequences: Shall we take a walk around the garden? Shall we talk of sweeter things? Shall I sing for you instead, surely you don’t want to remember all of this—
“You won’t come to harm here,” she tells her instead, “at my table. In my house.”
Dorothea knows as she says it that she has no business making promises, even in passing. She sees the chance to take it back, or at least to soften it—to turn it into a light and jesting thing, another thing without consequences. She settles for laying a hand against El’s wrist, and smiles when the girl’s eyes go to the tips of her fingers.
“That’s what she said,” says El. “For all I know you might be a dragon too.”
Dorothea laughs, even though this El looks like she’s never told a single joke in her life, even though she doesn’t seem to be the sort of person to say things she doesn’t mean. Dorothea laughs because she is nothing if not an expert at laughter, and in the end El follows suit, if a little uncertainly. A little awkwardly, as though she’s forgotten how, and is only just relearning.
It’s only afterwards, when they’ve left the table and begun to walk arm-in-arm through the garden, in the middle of teaching El the names of the roses in the garden out the back, that Dorothea thinks to ask, “Why did you say that?”
The look El gives her then is intent, unwavering. She looks at everything this way, Dorothea is learning, with such attention it all but burns. “What?”
“That I might be a dragon.” She makes her voice light again. “Am I really so beastly to you?”
“I didn’t mean to say it,” says El. “It’s just your eyes.”
Such things Dorothea has heard her eyes compared to in her time—gems, and stars, and deep pools in which a man might lose himself long enough to drown, but nothing like this. She shrugs and accepts it.
“Will you stay here, then?” she asks.
“I couldn’t possibly impose upon you any more than I already have.”
Again with this false modesty. Dorothea recognizes a mask when she sees one; this girl looks like she knows how to take what she wants, without bothering to lie about it. If she’s playing at being cautious now, perhaps it’s only because she doesn’t know. What she wants, or what she must face down to get it. “It’s hardly an imposition. It would make me happy if you stayed, at least until you get your strength back.” She presses the hand that lies upon her arm, and smiles. “But only if you wanted it too.”
El seems to consider this. They’re passing by the camellia bushes now, where Dorothea found her, the blossoms even redder than her blood had been, staining the grass. Her eye lingers over them awhile, as if in recognition.
“Yes,” she says to Dorothea in the end, to the staying and to the wanting both. “Yes, I will stay.”
Edelgard does not handle idleness well. As a child she had learned early on not to be cowed easily, growing up in the castle at Enbarr with its tall, lonely towers and the endless array of weapons on the walls; that in turn meant forgetting how to sit still, meant always applying herself to some duty or other, always burning to accomplish something of worth. Dear El, her father would say of her, as he watched her fencing in the training yard, or bent over her books in the library—dear El, he’d say, a peculiar look burdening his face that she couldn’t decipher, pride mingled with a kind of shapeless sadness, you never rest. She never asked him what he meant, either.
She remembers her siblings, their faces if not always their names, who had and hadn’t screamed as the dragonfire devoured them. They feel particularly close to her late at night, or when she sees her wounds in the bath, the still-tender indentations in her flesh from the dragon’s teeth, themselves physical signs that she has never acquiesced to anything. It makes no sense, then, to acquiesce to this house; it’s precisely because she is so terrible at being idle that Edelgard is aware she ought to hate it here. There is no one else around, and no work to do. Rose seems to do chores out of boredom rather than out of necessity, dusting the shelves and planting tulip bulbs in the garden. Otherwise they open the door to a room and find everything they need already laid out, food or hot water or clean clothes, all the work of some hand neither of them can see. It feels like a house blessed by the goddess, the one they prayed to in the world above before they learned she was a monster, and a mother of monsters. Everything they need, she provides, unworked-for and unearned. Everything Edelgard wears, touches, tastes smells faintly of the roses blooming out the back door.
But perhaps it’s less to the house that she acquiesces than to Rose; when Rose lays a hand on her hand or her wrist or her shoulder, when Rose asks her to look at something with that lovely, eloquent mouth. It’s forever in motion, that mouth, forever curving and parting and smiling, and Edelgard’s eye strays toward it more than she imagines is strictly proper. She thinks far more than she should about how that mouth looks. What it says. What it does not say.
The measure she has taken of Rose thus far is this: that she fancies herself a gracious hostess, and an attentive caretaker. Both of these things are true, but Edelgard has not missed the way she holds them out in front of herself, like shields. It's a means of turning the light away from herself, in a way. What lies on the other side of those shields Edelgard has only glimpsed in fits and starts—a tenderness, a woundedness, precariously balanced.
For whatever reason—curiosity, perhaps, or gratitude, or the waking of an age-old, buried loneliness—staying with her is easy. Edelgard has never been one to choose the easy road, but Rose laughs and the choice is already made. She should hate that too, but she can’t manage it, and in the moments when she tries all she feels is part of her at war with itself—the part that does not yet know what it wants, or how to take it if it is indeed for the taking.
The days melt into one another. Edelgard’s wounds heal, though her strength is not returning as quickly as she would like. There’s a heaviness that lingers in her head and about her limbs, heady as the wine Rose plies her with at mealtime. “Taste this,” she will say, filling the cup to the brim, or depositing a slice of fruit on Edelgard’s plate with her own hand. “Listen to this,” as she caresses the harpsichord, opens her mouth around a ballad or a lullaby. Edelgard remembers barely anyone singing in the world above unless they were hymns of the goddess; she tells herself it’s the novelty of this voice that delights her, more than anything else.
And every night after supper, when they sit together in the drawing room, on the rug by the fire, Edelgard asks Rose about her husband. She does not know why she asks, only that the question stays with her, scratching at the back of her mind. Perhaps it’s only because every night, Rose has a different story to tell.
Tonight, she says, “My husband is the second son of a count. Having inherited nothing upon the death of his father, he set out from the house of his birth and made a great fortune as a mercenary.” She’s mending a tear in the sleeve of one of her nightgowns, head angled downward, looking away from Edelgard. “Battle is the only thing he loves more than he loves me. Perhaps when he returns from all his adventuring, he’ll challenge you to a duel.”
Edelgard finds she likes this one better than the others. Yesterday he had been a wandering swordsman, the day before that a knight with fiery hair, the day before that a grieving prince. She closes the book in her lap. “I could respect such a man. I’ve always believed the only futures that matter are the ones you earn, with nothing but your own strength.”
“Such things are simple for one as strong as you, dear El,” says Rose. She lifts her face, still holding the needle in midair. “The rest of us are not so strong.”
“Strength can be learned, like anything else,” Edelgard tells her. “You have only to want it.”
The shield slips, and Rose’s eyes go wide then in surprise. Edelgard feels remorse prick at her, keen as needlepoint; her mother had always said that as a child she learned her manners well, but that she had a way of speaking—too blunt, too exacting—that no tutor could school out of her, no matter how diligently they tried. She’s about to apologize, but then Rose lowers her needle, puts her head back and laughs. A loud, full-throated laugh, untrammeled by politeness, by the need to be charming. Her bare neck, free of its jewels for the evening, glows in the light from the fire.
“I like the way you talk to me,” she says. “I can’t remember how long it’s been since I had someone like you.”
“Like a friend,” Rose answers, beaming. “Someone to speak frankly with.”
Edelgard looks down and weaves her fingers through the carpet fibers, thoughtlessly, if only to distract herself from the tightening in her chest. She had had many people to speak frankly to in Enbarr, probably in ways that were not always welcome, but she can’t remember the last time she had a friend, either. She would not call the way she and Rose speak to each other frank, but certainly no one has ever spoken to her the way Rose has. No one has touched her so easily, either, as if there’s nothing jagged about her, completely without fear.
Rose leans sideward, across the distance between them, and nudges Edelgard’s arm with her shoulder. Belying her name, she smells like orange blossoms. Like summer. “Your turn. Tell me a story.”
Edelgard inclines her head. “Should I tell you something true?”
“You can tell me whatever you like,” Rose says. Edelgard watches the firelight catch in her eyes, turn them warm. “I just love to hear you talk.”
For now, that sounds like something true. So Edelgard bends her head closer, and tells her about dragons.
A sennight passes, and half of another. El’s wounds heal, and she doesn’t take off in the night like Dorothea keeps thinking she will, even if she can’t imagine what would come of that—maybe nothing, maybe a pile of ashes in the garden where her body had once been. Maybe more wounds. Whatever it is, it doesn’t happen. On the twelfth day, El asks to see the gate.
“Have you never tried to leave before?” she asks, as they go down the front steps together. It’s just after noon, and the sun is high, the sky overhead abloom with white clouds.
“I’ve never had a reason to,” says Dorothea. “The gate keeps everything I don’t want out, and I’m content to stay in.”
“And your husband when he leaves on his business?”
“He just does as he pleases, the same as I do.” None of the men had so much as made a peep about wanting to leave, much less tried, after the first seven days. After that, it was only a matter of time. “The house wants what we want.”
El seems to consider this, looking hard at the gate as they draw nearer. “Is there no one you’d go to see if you left?”
“Oh, no,” says Dorothea, laughing. She knows how peculiar her relationship with this place must appear to someone from outside—how it’s at once her prison and her paradise, how little she seems to question anything that happens within its walls. She does not say, would you bother to question the thing that kept you alive? “There’s no one. No one who wouldn’t have died or forgotten me by now.”
She isn’t lying, even if El is looking at her like she’s convinced that she is. How like El, really, to be unable to fathom why someone would choose life in a gilded cage. If the house does what she wants, then probably she ought to be able to leave if she really wants to. But why would she want to? She has everything she needs right here with her, a careful happiness built out of the desire not to be anywhere else.
The gate stands open for them at the end of the path, as if in welcome—all the black and gleaming height of it, the steel roses winding up the bars. The forest that stretches beyond it seems to end nowhere; they can hear nothing coming from beyond but an eerie silence, devoid of so much as a rustling of leaves.
How wild it all looks, thinks Dorothea as they look outward together, how uncaged by anything. So unlike her garden, in all its careful, studious elegance. Why would she want to live in a world like that, where the trees are so fierce even their roots seem to run wild over the ground, ready to take and take, all for themselves? What would she do in a world like that? It would eat her alive.
El is different. El gazes at the forest on the other side with something like longing rising in her eyes. She has no fear of shadows, or whatever fell things lurk in them, or whatever waits beyond the next break in the trees. Now that she’s healing, she reminds Dorothea more and more of a fierce little bird—a falcon of some kind, or a sparrowhawk, wings unfolding for the sky. But if it’s the sky she wants, Dorothea can’t follow her there; perhaps no one can, and she’s made her peace with never looking down.
The secret of it is that it’s not the gate that keeps the world out. It’s the barrier that stretches from post to post, an innocent-looking distortion in the air that only shows itself from certain angles, like light bending off a polished surface. Like the rainbow on a soap bubble, glimmering and gone again.
“I’m surprised you’ve never thought to examine this.” El is tilting her head to peer at it, birdlike. Dorothea almost laughs at her.
“Dear El, would you pick up a knife blade-first?”
She is not prepared for what happens when no answer comes—when the answer is El putting out both her hands, laying them flat on the barrier, and pushing. It ripples and flares, gives off a pulse of heat that causes Dorothea to throw an arm up over her face, but El only narrows her eyes as her hands burn, grits her teeth against the pain and the smell of her own singed flesh, and keeps pushing, and keeps pushing.
Dorothea had tried this before and paid for it, in the very beginning, however long ago that might have been. She remembers the sound of it, the searing in her palm, the voice hissing at the back of her mind, do you want this, you don’t really want this—
Her body moves before her mind does, her arms locking around El’s waist and dragging her backwards, the two of them in a tumble on the ground. For a long moment it feels as though a wave of fire breaks over them—Dorothea can feel the red heat on her face, smell the smoke—before the barrier crackles one final time and goes still. It’s absurd how quickly everything returns then; everything soft and quiet and sun-warmed. Her next breath is all roses. Her cheeks are wet.
El stirs, sits up. Her voice is calm when she asks, “What’s wrong?” and that is absurd too.
“Your hands,” Dorothea tells her. Which is to say, you frightened me. She feels pathetic, bursting into tears like this. She hates how shrill her own voice has gone, like a child’s. “Didn’t it hurt?”
El does not answer the question of whether it hurt or not; hurt seems immaterial to her. She shows Dorothea her hands, palms up, the skin unmarked. White. Dorothea presses those hands to her face and shudders.
El sits frozen, on her knees on the ground—then her hands move to cup Dorothea’s cheeks, cradling her head. She doesn’t tilt it up, doesn’t make Dorothea look at her; that’s probably a kindness, to make space for Dorothea’s fear when she feels none of it herself. The very thought of it breaks Dorothea’s heart, as does the thought of her own selfishness, the awareness that even now one of the things blooming in her chest is relief—that she has not disappeared yet, although she clearly wants to. She must want to. But the house does what its mistress wants.
El, of course, knows none of this. “Why are you crying?”
“I don’t know,” Dorothea says into her hands. “I don’t know.” It’s not a lie.
There’s nothing El can say to this. She lets Dorothea lean her head against her shoulder, and holds her until it stops.
Late that night, Edelgard goes upstairs to Rose’s room. She knows the way, up the staircase and to the right, all the way down to the end of the east wing, but the corridor seems narrower tonight, the shadows tugging at her ankles. She comes unarmed, unarmored, carrying nothing of her own—a guest in Rose’s house, in Rose’s dress, with Rose’s silk ribbons holding back her hair. None of these things will protect her; who’s to say if this is the true test of courage, or foolishness? There’s only one way to tell. She knocks on the door, and waits for the voice on the other side to give her leave to enter.
Rose is sitting on the edge of the bed, combing out her long hair by the light of one small lantern. She’s gazing out the window, into the darkness on the other side. Edelgard joins her there but doesn’t sit, merely turns and looks outward quietly in the same direction.
They haven’t met eyes all evening; all day, really, since what happened at the gate. Edelgard had not looked at Rose’s face when she took her by the wrist with one miraculously unburnt hand, and led her gently back inside, looking for all the world suddenly like the visitor in her own house. They had not looked at each other at supper, either, eating in silence and retiring swiftly to their rooms afterward. Even now, Edelgard can only watch Rose out of the corner of one eye, tracking the movements of her hands, the fall of her hair over one shoulder. She hasn’t decided what to make of this reluctance—to look, to see. What does she think will happen? What threshold will they cross that they won’t be able to return from?
“I know what you want. I’m afraid that I’m depriving you of it by keeping you here, and that you’re letting me because you believe you owe me something.” Rose speaks to the window, rather than to Edelgard. When she laughs it’s a small, bitter thing, tied up in a tight knot. “And then I feel ridiculous for believing you’d ever let someone compel you to do anything you didn’t want to do. I don’t know much about you, but I know that much.”
“You know me well to know that much,” says Edelgard. Then, “But I’m afraid too.”
Rose sets the comb down on the table, so lightly it makes no sound. She does not ask afraid of what, mercifully; Edelgard can’t even imagine how to answer if she had, can’t wrap her head around anything more coherent than whatever this is. A hundred battles, only to be undone by whatever this is. Her family would despair of her.
“I can’t imagine you being afraid of anything.”
“I’m not used to it. I assumed I’d all but forgotten how.” That’s when she finds it, some courage to dredge up from the ruins. She turns, looks Rose full in the face. “I’ve always thought it a useless emotion.”
“You would think something like that,” Rose says, with a sad smile. She has a different way of speaking now than she had when they first met—softer, more unsteady coming out of her, less affected to beguile—but her eyes are the same. Lake-water and glass. Edelgard had dreamed those eyes. “If you stay a little longer, I might teach you. I am afraid of everything.”
You are beautiful, Edelgard does not say, but what matters more is that you are gentle. You cared for me when I was dying; you shed tears for me. No one had ever done that before, and you still don’t know my real name. She sits down on the bed, reaches for Rose—some part of her, her hand, her face—parts the curtain of her hair, to reveal—what?
She seems to soften then, to buckle in Edelgard’s hands—Rose’s cheek pressing itself into her palm, Rose’s fingers fluttering up to her wrists, Rose’s neck and shoulders golden in the candlelight. You tell so many stories, Edelgard does not say. You have loved every kind of person alive. You can love anything, even me.
The true test of courage, or of foolishness: to be the one who kisses first. Edelgard falls toward her, and catches Rose’s breath in her open mouth.
Dorothea knows they shouldn’t stay here together. Dorothea knows she should make El leave. The truth is that there are so many things they should be doing—sleeping, at the very least, and then getting out of bed at a reasonable hour of the morning. Then a bath, then a meal. It’s just that for hours her body has forgotten how to do these things, in all but the dimmest and most distant ways, her eyes always half-closing, her limbs melted until El reaches for her waist under the blankets, and then there’s nothing they should be doing more urgently than this.
The part of her mind that stays awake, the small, stubborn, cruel part, says this is how it always starts. She takes them to bed, and they start dying. They die because they give themselves to her, body and soul, and when she’s had her fill she lets the house take the rest. One morning always comes that they simply don’t wake up, and she knows that's the end of that.
It will happen to El too; maybe not painfully, maybe not as fast as the others. Her will is strong, and Dorothea likes her, more than likes her, and the more she likes them the more time the house gives them, because the house wants what its mistress wants. But the end will come closer and closer, nevertheless, the longer she stays.
She’s thinking about this as soon as she wakes the next morning—early, too early, before the sun begins to trouble the curtains. There is something she can do, certainly, to make things right. If the house only ever wants what she wants, surely she can find it in herself to tell it, not this one. She’s not strong, but she can be as strong as that, at least.
Then El begins to stir beside her, nudging her nose into Dorothea’s cheek. Then she’s weak again, for all her thinking. “It’s time to get up.” El lifts herself on one elbow. “We need a bath—Rose, are you listening?”
Dorothea looks up at her, smiling. Again, she forgets what she needs to say. “Later, it can be later; don’t we have time? Don’t you love how sleeping in feels?”
El smiles back despite herself—and how beautiful these smiles are, for being hard-won—leans down again, brings her face close to Dorothea’s. El kisses her forehead, her cheek. The corner of her mouth where her smiles begin. “I shouldn’t love it, but I do.” She’s laughing, softly, little more than a breath, but she’s laughing. “Clearly this is your corrupting influence. How dare you make me happy.”
Beneath the blankets, El’s hand moves up her side, along the ribcage. Dorothea gasps. They don’t get up until noon.
A day passes like this, then another, like crawling through honey, interrupted here and there by moments of clarity so sharp it’s hard to breathe: El kissing her neck on the harpsichord bench, until Dorothea’s elbow hits the keys and produces a sound so ugly they fall away from each other, laughing; waking up to find El’s head pressed against her chest, as if even in sleep she needs the reassurance of a beating heart. She is so strange broken open like this, in ways that both endear and terrify—how intense the hunger that has woken in her to simply be held. Or maybe it’s that it’s always been awake, and she’s only just now listening to it. Self-denial can get you far, if it’s the only way to survive; practice it long enough and it doesn’t so much as ache. Dorothea would know.
She doesn’t know this dance, though. She’s never simultaneously wanted something and wanted to fling it away from herself before, both of these things at once, pulling her out of step. Even their conversations have begun to stagger this way—full of questions about what more there is, what they’ll do, retreating, advancing.
“How do you feel?” Dorothea asks her on the third night, as they lie in bed together in the downstairs room, legs entangled, breathing slow. El is holding a length of her hair, twisting the brown coils around and around her fingers, so seriously. She does everything seriously—even the touching, even in the moments punctuated by laughter. Her hands are the most serious thing about her by far.
“Weak,” murmurs El, without looking up. “Weaker every day. Weaker than I’ve ever been. I think you make me soft as well as happy.”
The word weak hits Dorothea between the ribs, slides in to the hilt. “Oh, El—”
This is a gift she knows she doesn’t deserve. But oh, how she wants to say it, this word of power; how she wants to claim it for herself. She could write it into a hundred songs, easily: Edelgard.
Edelgard takes her face in both hands when she doesn’t answer. Gently. “It’s not a bargaining chip; it’s a gift. A small one, in return for all you’ve given me.” Her thumb traces the slant of Dorothea’s cheekbone—gently, gently. “Why do you look about to cry again?”
“You told me your name. That’s a gift fit to make any lady weep with joy.” Dorothea kisses the heel of her palm, smiles into the map of lines that crisscrosses it, even as her eyes sting. She wants to say, my name is—
“The name of Edelgard is yours to call.” Her fingers run up into Dorothea’s hair, tug her closer. “I want to hear you say it, Rose.”
So Dorothea does.
On the morning of the third day, Rose says, “I have a story to tell you.”
It’s after breakfast, and they’re in the library. Edelgard is taking down the books so Rose can dust the shelves, wiping the covers clean with a cloth and replacing them afterwards. Rose always says she never has much cause to use the library—indeed, Edelgard has spent more hours in here alone than she ever has with Rose—so she’s unsure what exactly they’ve come for today, but Rose had risen from bed this morning murmuring, I want to do something with my hands, and so here they are. Rose has gotten like that, now and again, in stolen moments: glassy-eyed and pensive and suddenly far away, as if some key part of her is wandering lost outside her body.
Rose’s story goes like this: there once lived a girl called Dorothea, who was very beautiful and very poor. She had no house and no family, nothing to her name but a voice that passersby often said sounded like silver, and so made her living by singing songs on the street in the Imperial capital. The girl’s hope was that one day someone might hear her song and love her enough to give her what she desired.
And what did this Dorothea desire? Not much, when all was said and done. A house to live in, food on the table, pretty clothes that didn’t fall apart after you washed them once. A husband with means—not a perfect man, mind, not a hero or a genius or a king. He did not have to be particularly interesting, wise, or distinguished; if he was handsome, it was little more than icing on a cake. The most important thing was that he was reasonably kind, and just wealthy enough to get them by comfortably for the rest of their days.
So Dorothea waited, and wished, and in the meantime scraped by. Her songs got her bread every few days, once a threadbare blanket, once even a new pair of shoes. She drank water out of the gutters when it rained, and washed her hair in the fountain in the city square. She slept under the bridge over the river that ran through the city, learned to wield a knife, learned to beg and borrow and steal—and through it all, she sang. She sang in taverns and on street corners, and as people passed her by sometimes their eyes would catch the light from the hanging lamps in such a way as to betray their pity. Sometimes it was enough pity to move their hands as well as their hearts. Not every day, but often enough to stay alive on, at least until winter came.
Then one day in the middle of an especially bitter winter, as the girl lay curled up in her blanket and delirious with fever, wondering if she might be dying, the girl prayed to the goddess. She had never thought to do this before, though the people she met had encouraged her to do it more times than she could count, because she simply had not seen the point. Was it not the goddess who saw fit to give her such a miserable life? If she was going to make something better of it, then what did she need the goddess for? But it was cold, and her head hurt so much she could barely see, and so she prayed and prayed: will you let me die without ever knowing anything more than this?
Who knows why the goddess appeared to her that day? Who knows why the gods do anything? For all humans know it’s simply because they’re bored. But suddenly she was there, accompanied by no music, no flashes of light—just a beautiful woman with lilies in her hair, kneeling by the girl where she lay, and the grime that covered the stones did not touch her white gown.
What is your name, child? asked the goddess, one hand on the girl’s brow. And then, when Dorothea told her, I would give you a life, Dorothea. Will you sing for it?
The next morning, the girl awoke in a fine house deep in a forest she had never seen, where winter could not enter. No one appeared to live there, but the rooms of the house gave her whatever she needed, all spread out for her as soon as she opened a door—whatever food she had gazed at through shop windows, longing, whatever clothing, whatever jewels. And growing in the rear garden, rambling wild as the forest all over the lofty wall, was an overgrowth of roses, red as blood.
The house was everything she could ever desire, lacking only one thing: somebody to love. So Dorothea walked out onto the front steps, opened her mouth, and sang.
“The first one who came said he was a duke’s son,” she says. “A funny man, with beautiful hair. He found his way here on horseback, and was just so convinced he had to rescue me. Three days in he said he loved me. He wouldn’t shut up about it, like a bee.” She sighs, glancing down at her hands, and it seems to Edelgard that all the life goes out of her, just for a moment, with that air. Rose—no, Dorothea, an empty vessel until she breathes again. “He was so funny. Very nice company. I had real hopes for that one, for a while.”
Edelgard thinks about the men Dorothea has told her of, these many nights. You would like this one. You would hate this one. You could kill this one in single combat. The books in her lap feel suddenly made of stone, but she stands to lift them anyway, sets them back in their places on the shelves.
“Every story I’ve told you is true—the one where my husband was a lord, and the one where he was a knight, and the one where he was a merchant. Every one of those. My husband is any man who will listen to my songs. As long as they have enough life in their veins to feed the roses, it’s all the same, anyway.”
“They died, then,” says Edelgard, softly.
“They weren’t always bad men. I even liked a few. But in the end I wanted them all to die, because their deaths kept me alive.” Dorothea looks at her. Her smile is crooked, her eyes too bright for this shadowy room. “Is that not how monsters are?”
Which is to say: will you continue to love a thing when it reveals how it can hurt you? When is it too late to save yourself? And is that your mistake? Edelgard thinks about the stone altar, the burned bodies of children; she thinks about survival, and shakes her head. “Nothing about you is monstrous to me.”
“Oh, Edelgard,” murmurs Dorothea. Her smile falters, cracks a little more. Softly, softly. “My own Edelgard. You have yet to truly see my garden.”
“When they stopped waking up, I would lay them down here and the briars would take them. They grow so thick you can’t even see what’s left if you don’t know what you’re looking for.” In the rear garden, the roses part for Dorothea when she touches them, every bramble and twisting vine giving way under her hands. She beckons Edelgard close, to better show her the treasury beneath—what remains of the ones she didn’t love, the discarded weapons and armor, entangled among the thorns. Here a spear with a red stone set in the shaft. There a helmet with a plumed crest.
“It’s their spirits that feed the house’s magic. Some of them had more to give, some had less—the ones I liked best had the most, I suppose.”
The roses grow so wild now it’s near-impossible to tell where they end and the stones of the wall begin. Edelgard leans her face close, her expression unreadable but for a calm, intent curiosity. “I wonder how long it would have taken me to die here.”
That’s right, thinks Dorothea, she’s only just learned how to fear.
“One turn of the moon. Maybe more. Longer than the others, by far.” Dorothea’s voice is steady, but her hands are trembling where they’re buried in the briars, unmindful of the thorns that prick her skin. “You have more spirit in you than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Edelgard looks over at her—a long hard look. There’s no judgment in it, no acrimony or pain, just a lucid and startling clarity that Dorothea needs to struggle to avert her eyes from. She’s never been afraid of being seen by those eyes, not even in the dark of the night, not even when they’ve run the length of her body. This impulse is different from fear. It’s possible the word for it is shame.
“In a world without gods,” says Edelgard, at last, “what would happen to you?”
“Who knows?” Dorothea shrugs. “Maybe I’m the one who will die, like I should have long ago.”
She knows it’s true, even if she can’t imagine how. If she’s lucky, it won’t hurt; for all she knows she and this house will simply disappear, and no one in the world will be the wiser. There’s no one left, after all, to remember—no one but Edelgard, for whom the forgetting will come easy, whatever she might think.
“You could come free with me,” she says now, head tilted upward, examining the overgrowth. The sight of the thorns has never seemed to faze her, nor the red. “It will be a world you can live in; I’ll make sure of it.”
They have talked about this, in bits and pieces—what it will be like when Edelgard emerges back into the world above. Will time have passed the way it does in fairy stories, a hundred days there for every day here? Will it be like no time has passed at all? The only way to tell is to go.
Edelgard wouldn’t shrink from finding out, naturally. She’ll deal with it however comes. Dorothea feels a by-now familiar hunger open up inside of her, knowing this—for that courage, if nothing else for the sort of heart that could hold it.
“Don’t be silly. There’s no room in your story for someone like me.” She pulls an axe out from among the roses next, a sturdy and unadorned thing of steel and beaten silver. Nothing magical or ornamental about it; it’s nothing but a weapon meant to serve a weapon’s purposes. She forgets who it had belonged to: the count’s son, or the merchant. Whoever it had been, it’s the perfect gift to offer now to Edelgard. “I’ll stop being afraid eventually, I’m sure. All flowers have their season, and mine has run a bit long, don’t you think?”
“What I think, Dorothea,” Edelgard reaches out closes her fingers around the shaft—but she does not take it in her hand, not yet, “is that the gods love to play games, but you ought to have a life. A real one, this time. I told you you could claim it if you wanted it.”
Dorothea releases the axe without answering. At her touch, the roses part again, delivering the armor next, depositing it piece by piece at her feet like the stones that make a cairn: first the greaves, then the gauntlets, then the breastplate of beaten bronze. They’d been beaten out of shape the day Dorothea left them on the grass, a dream ago, caked with grime and Edelgard’s life’s blood. But they’ve reappeared now polished to a high shine, all these pieces of her Dorothea had meant in the beginning to borrow, or to steal.
“The world you want to build is one for the strong,” she says, straightening up and dusting her palms down the front of her dress. She looks at Edelgard and for a moment considers closing the distance, reaching out to touch her. It should be easy. Mere hours ago, it would have been the easiest thing she might ever do, to let that desire move her body. Now she curls her hands in her skirts instead. “It’s a beautiful world, but we’re not all as strong as you.”
“You are stronger than you know,” Edelgard tells her.
Dorothea’s eyes go self-protectively to the wall. Her gaze fills with red. “How can you tell?”
Edelgard does not hesitate. She says, “Your eyes.”
The next morning, Edelgard rises before dawn. She dons her armor, takes the axe onto her back, puts on the face of the woman she was before ever she came here, and walks out of Dorothea’s house. It had all seemed so small, the best of what she could muster, when she first set out with an army to kill a dragon; she feels just as small now, facing the manor gate and smelling roses on the breeze.
She is ready for the barrier the second time. She keeps her eyes open as it flares beneath her hands, pinches her mouth shut until it’s wire-thin. She had been prepared once to die by fire; in comparison, this is barely anything.
A woman’s voice speaks in her ear. It’s a young voice, and an old one—older than the earth and the sky, and Edelgard knows it instantly. What do you wish, little daughter of men?
The truth is there are so many things she could wish for, if she only turned her path. More power, more time. Death, even, which all told wouldn’t be unwelcome—no duties before her but rest, no need to fight ever again. But as she feels her arms sink to the elbows in the goddess’ magic, the heat of it licking up her arms and sinking in bone-deep, all she can think of is a pair of eyes. Green, like the forests of her homeland in springtime, stretching up to the sun.
“I don’t wish for anything. I have had enough of making wishes.”
The voice hums. The vision of the eyes wavers in Edelgard’s imagination, the image blurring, breaking up, disappearing into ripples like the surface of a pool disturbed. Not even her? She would give everything she is to you, if you tell her that is what you desire.
“Dorothea is not mine to take,” Edelgard tells the voice. “She will come with me if she wants to come with me. I won’t settle for anything less.”
That one holds herself prisoner. That one no longer knows how to live in the world.
On the other side of this battle, Edelgard can already hear the war to come. The swords, the battle-cries. It is more likely than not that she will die by fire, sooner or later. It is more likely than not a dream that she feels a hand behind her, out of sight, touching her shoulder as she sinks still deeper—holding her, steady, refusing to let go.
Perhaps that is how things end in your story, Edelgard does not say, but not in ours.
“Edie, if we die in your war, do you think anyone will tell stories about us?”
“Don’t be silly; we don’t even know if there’s a war to fight. And what’s this ‘Edie’? Were you not satisfied to know my real name?”
The woods, Dorothea is discovering, are lovely in a twisted way. Dark and deep. The full moon is overhead, making shadows. There’s an axe in Edelgard’s hand, in Dorothea’s a knife half the length of her arm. They’re speaking in soft voices, but everything seems to echo even so.
“I want there to be a name that only I can call you. Besides, for all we know, they’re telling stories about you already. The princess who tried to slay a god, and failed, and returned from the dead to try again. They write operas about things like that in the city where I was born, you know.”
“Perhaps. That wouldn’t be the half, though. There is so much more.”
“Oh, you know. The princess would never have returned from the dead without help. Perhaps along the way she met a lovely maiden who lived in a house built by monsters, who cared for the princess when she lay dying, and in the end they set each other free.” In the darkness, one hand without a weapon reaches for another. “No story of one would be complete without the story of the other, I don’t think.”
“Setting each other free. How romantic.” Dorothea muffles her laughter behind her lips, ignoring the tree roots that snatch here and there at her ankles, spindly-fingered. “So how does it end? Do they die? Do they live—happily or otherwise?”
“You’ve caught me there,” says Edelgard. “I don’t have your knack for storytelling, so there isn’t an ending. At least, not yet.”
Edelgard’s hand squeezes hers, fingers entangling. Dorothea imagines she’d follow the touch of that hand anywhere, into any story yet unwritten.
“Well, then,” she says. “I suppose we’ll have to make it up as we go along.”