There’s a knock at Hilda’s door, and she nearly screams. She holds it in, just barely, and hopes that her silence will deter the person she knows is on the other side. It’s a futile hope, but Hilda might get lucky.
She doesn’t. There’s another knock, this time with a muffled voice accompanying it.
“Hilda. I know you’re in there.”
Hilda throws her pillow at the door, disappointed by the faint thud it makes.
“You promised you’d come train with me in the mornings.” They continue.
“This is too early, even for you!” Hilda snaps. “Is the sun even out yet?”
There’s a suspicious pause. “It almost is.” Even through her door, Hilda can hear the sigh that follows. “Do I need to remind you how important it is that we are both as prepared for the future as possible?”
She doesn’t need to be reminded. But Hilda really, really wishes she had never had to hear about the future, about plans or hidden secrets that need to be brought to light and destroyed. Her life has been nothing but work and pain since she was brought into the confidence of the girl on the other side of her door, and even years later she is still longing for the simpler days before she knew.
If only her father hadn’t insisted on Hilda becoming the retainer of the Imperial princess, if only Edelgard had rejected her the moment Hilda’s flaws came to her attention. If only.
But even though Holst should have been the ideal choice, he was far too crucial a piece of the Adrestrian army to be sacrificed following after Edelgard. That and he was ten years older than her, and Edelgard already struggled to trust anyone closer to her own age. Through no fault of her own, Hilda was trapped.
Hilda smothers a loud groan into her sheets.
“I can hear you.” Edelgard says. “Hilda.”
“Fine!” Hilda says. “You win! Again!”
Hilda stands, and lets Edelgard into her room before she starts getting ready. Despite the early hour, Edelgard has already put herself together and is immaculately dressed, not one strand of her white hair out of place. She sits on the edge of Hilda’s messy bed and looks about the room while Hilda gets herself ready, picking up clothes from where they lay scattered around the room.
“You really should clean this place up.” She says. “Even if you’re busy with our plans.”
“I’m only busy because you make me work too hard.” Hilda grumbles.
Edelgard ignores her. “Have you received any more letters from Holst?” she asks, studiously avoiding looking at Hilda while she changes.
“It’s on my desk.” Hilda tells her as she slips her shirt on and starts buttoning it. Edelgard looks towards Hilda’s desk, covered in half opened books, discarded clothes and half put together trinkets, and frowns. She opens her mouth, pauses, and closes it. She stands instead, and starts to slowly sort through the mess on Hilda’s desk, ordering them into as close to neat piles as she can.
“While you’re at it...” Hilda starts.
“You are perfectly capable of cleaning your own room.” Edelgard says without looking at her.
Damn, Hilda thinks.
Edelgard finds the letter she’s looking for, hidden towards the very bottom of the pile. She scans it quickly, nods, and folds it up neatly, placing it on top of the pile of books she has made.
“You’ve already read it, of course?”
“Uh, yeah. As soon as I got it.”
“What do you think?”
Hilda stops in place for a moment, then keeps moving, doing up the last button of her uniform. “Why are you even asking me that? You’ve already read it. I don’t know anything more than you do.”
“I value your opinion.”
Hilda rolls her eyes. Edelgard just wants her to work harder, even if it’s unnecessary. The last thing she can ever seem to do is just let Hilda relax, or stop thinking about her mad plans for a single day.
What Hilda wouldn’t give for an hour to herself without Edelgard hovering over her shoulder, forcing her to pour her precious energy out until there is almost nothing left.
“Knowing Holst, there’s a lot he’s not telling us.” Hilda tells her. “Like, that he doesn’t trust any of the members of the Church to not open our letters first before handing them to us. Which is fair. But he wouldn’t lie in anything he wrote down.”
Edelgard looks at her closely, then. Her gaze burns, when she does that. It’s uncomfortable, the way she can lay all her focus on one person, ignore the rest of the world for long enough to cut their secrets free. Hilda turns away, stretches her arms above her head, and starts moving towards her door. If she can get Edelgard to focus on something else, to think about training or her own plans, she can get her too intense gaze off her.
“I wonder if there’s a way to get even more information off Holst.” Edelgard says. “But he’s too far away from the monastery to visit in person.”
Hilda shrugs. “We could get him to hide messages in care packages sent to me. If there’s enough pink frills and stuffed animals in it not even Seteth would search it properly.”
Edelgard steps in front of her, opens her door and steps out. “Would Holst really send you something like that?”
“I’m his baby sister. He loves me.”
Edelgard leads her out towards the training grounds, leaning into her personal space and whispering the entire way. She can’t stay still for a single moment, can’t even enjoy an early morning walk without filling it with more of her planning. It’s enough to drive anyone mad. But knowing her, she’d only stay up later at night if Hilda left all the work to her, so she finds herself strong armed into whispering back.
Hilda has contacts too, after all. People she bribes with attention, flattery or gifts, and who, consciously or otherwise, give her all sorts of information. It’s only natural that they want to help someone as helpless as her, especially when Hilda is so crushed by the responsibility Edelgard forces onto her shoulders.
Edelgard continues to whisper as they enter the training ground, and while her voice is kept low, Hilda still searches the dark of the grounds for anyone that could be hiding. She can’t see anyone, but it still doesn’t put her heart at ease. She cuts Edelgard off, rather than reply.
“Either we scheme or we train. I’m not doing both.”
Hilda hopes Edelgard will be tempted by the offer, that she’ll retreat to one of their rooms and talk about her plans, letting Hilda fall asleep on her shoulder while she rants. That would be a better morning than getting grimy and sweaty before classes have even begun, and having to suffer through each bit of training the professors make them do as if she hasn’t already burnt her morning away with the harshest of task masters available.
Surprisingly however, Edelgard listens to her. She retrieves two training axes and offers one to Hilda, hilt first, before taking up position a few metres away from her, slipping into an effortless stance.
That makes some of the lingering sleepiness fade from Hilda’s brain. Edelgard holds an axe like she was born to it, like it is more flesh and blood than foreign wood. Even here, holding weapons made of light wood, facing a woman Hilda knows would never hurt her, Hilda understands the fear Edelgard’s real enemies must feel.
“Whenever you’re ready.” Edelgard tells her.
“I know, I know.” Hilda says. She swings her axe about loosely, lets it almost slip out of her hand. It’s too light. She’s more used to the heavier weapons, the ones that could slice her own foot off if she mishandled them. After a lifetime of being forced to train both by Edelgard and by her own brother, this feels like a toy.
Without warning, Hilda abandons her show of disinterest, and charges at Edelgard, swinging her axe with all the force she can muster. But Edelgard reacts quickly, hits Hilda’s axe to the side with her own blade, and shoves the handle of her axe back towards Hilda’s face.
Hilda sidesteps backwards just in time.
One day her tricks will work. One day she’ll be fast enough to surprise Edelgard. Until then, Hilda can only be glad Edelgard doesn’t fight with the giant shield she favoured back when they duelled in Embarr.
There’s no space to slack off, not when Edelgard is constantly pressuring Hilda, not when even one strike from her axe would leave a bruise that would linger for weeks on end. Hilda grits her teeth, and swings hers a fraction harder, steps in closer and dodges as fast as she can. Edelgard pushes her hard enough that she can no longer sacrifice any of her mind to thoughts of how tired she is, of how much Hilda wishes she could go back to bed, of just how maddening Edelgard can be. Instead there is only their dance, interrupted by the thud of their weapons colliding, the whistle of displaced air when one of their strikes goes wide.
There’s a rhythm to it. Sparring with someone Hilda doesn’t know can often be an exercise in frustration, but with Edelgard, even when she is being pushed to her utmost limit, the familiarity is a strange comfort.
She doesn’t know how long their duel lasts. But just as they are both beginning to slow, and the sound of the rest of the monastery waking up has started to filter through the heavy doors, Edelgard aims a swipe at Hilda’s feet that she can’t dodge in time, and she falls backwards hard.
Edelgard pulls her next swing back, halfway through the movement, as if Hilda’s fall surprises her as much as it does Hilda. She stops in place for a long moment, and then lets her weapon fall into the sand, leaning a hand down to Hilda.
“You’ve been working hard.” Edelgard says, as she pulls Hilda up. “Thank you.”
Only because you force me to work so hard. Hilda almost says. But the lie is too bitter to voice when Edelgard is looking at her like that. Like she means it, like she actually believes that someone like Hilda is capable of anything worth praising. She feels caught, between deflecting Edelgard’s attention and soaking it up, and in the end, she holds her tongue rather than choose either.
There are more than enough downsides to being neighbours with Edelgard. It’s all too easy for Edelgard to disturb her at all hours of the day, to drag her to class or harass her outside of it. If Hilda had been even a couple of rooms away from her, she might have been able to carve out some semblance of privacy, a space that’s just hers.
Most days she hates it. She wishes she could escape being Edelgard’s retainer for just one day, and slip away from the expectations Edelgard is so willing to crush her with. But there are nights when she is glad to have that connecting wall.
Hilda bangs on Edelgard’s door. Maybe one of the other students will hear her, complain about her waking them in the middle of the night. She doesn’t really care. What’s Seteth or any of the other church officials going to do, glare at her? Ground her? It’s not like they have high expectations for her to begin with. Maybe Edelgard will get lucky and they’ll think all the strange noises coming from this area of the dorm are Hilda’s fault.
Hilda bangs on the door again. “Don’t ignore me.” She says into it. “I know you’re awake.”
The hallway is silent for a heartbeat longer, and she slaps an open hand into the wood. “Do you want me to break this door down? I’ll do it. Don’t test me.”
The door opens slightly, and Hilda forces herself through the gap. It takes more effort than Hilda likes to use even in the day, let alone in the middle of the night, and by the time she has the door shut tight behind her and Edelgard slumped on her own bed in front of her, she’s beginning to get irritated.
This shouldn’t be hard. She thinks. If only Edelgard would stop fighting her every step of the way, if only she’d just come to Hilda first rather than forcing Hilda to put all this effort in to getting to her.
A complaint is burning at the edge of her tongue, but as she glances at Edelgard it fades and slips out of her mind. She’s leaning against the headboard of her bed, limp, staring down at her bare hands. Like this, she looks small. Normally there is an intensity to Edelgard, a strength of purpose that fills her and makes her impossible to ignore. Here, Edelgard almost looks like the girl Hilda knew years ago. The one who dragged her aside with shaking hands to tell her awful secrets, who stole any chance of Hilda’s life being easy away from her long before she realised just what she had been made to give up.
She looks less like the future Emperor, and more like a frightened young woman. No more masks, no more shields. Just Edelgard.
“Alright, move over.” Hilda says. Edelgard listens, even if she moves slowly, and Hilda slips in next to her.
They’re too old for this. Too old for simple nightmares to keep someone like Edelgard awake at night, desperate for even the simplest of human comforts but unable and unwilling to ask for them. And even when they had been young enough to excuse it, their positions should have denied that kind of intimacy. Edelgard is the crown princess, destined to heights that Hilda will only ever glimpse due to the quirk of fate that led to her being chained to Edelgard’s side.
And any retainer with a sense of propriety would have refused to ignore their ranks in order to act like this, both tonight and every other time. Holst certainly could never do something like this. And Hilda’s father would probably have a heart attack if he knew.
But Hilda doesn’t really care.
“Talk to me.” Hilda says. “Say anything.”
Edelgard takes a deep breath, steadies herself. “I had a new idea for troop movements…” she starts, but Hilda interrupts her.
“Not any kind of strategizing. I’ve told you that before, don’t you remember?”
“No scheming past 10pm.” Edelgard repeats, dryly. She lets out a thin, brief laugh. “I remember.”
“Good. Tell me about. I don’t know. A new dress you want. Which of the professors is getting on your nerves. That singer you have a thing for.”
Edelgard lets out a strained noise from her throat. “I do not have a thing for her.”
“Oh, you do. I’ve seen the way you look at her.”
It’s a distraction. A brief one, and one only just strong enough to tear Edelgard’s focus away from whatever horrors had infected her dreams only minutes earlier. But it’s something. Hilda might not know how to drive away Edelgard’s fears, how to protect her from the things that crawl inside her mind when it gets dark, the memories she can’t carve out of her mind. But she can do this.
[Five years ago]
“Promise you won’t tell anyone.” Edelgard says. She has a hand wrapped tight around Hilda’s arm, her fingers digging in too deep to be comfortable. Hilda considers wrenching her arm away, coming up with an excuse to leave, to run away from the palace entirely and never come back. To leave this strange, serious girl alone.
Maybe they’d both be happier that way. Hilda could return to her easy life then, where she could lay on the floor of her parent’s house for hours on end without anyone hunting her down and dragging her to another lesson, another training session, forcing her to sit in with them on some strategy meeting that will do nothing other than bore her to tears.
And Hilda knows she’s not the easiest girl to get along with. Surely Edelgard can find someone else to spend her time with, someone just as intense as she is. Someone who actually likes spending all their time working, with no time spent on themselves.
But there is a tone to her voice, an unspoken desperation to her tight grip, that makes Hilda stay. That has her gently lead Edelgard to sit on her own bed, to slowly unwrap her iron grip, and fill her now empty hand with her own.
“I’m good at keeping secrets.” Hilda whispers. She doesn’t have to, not when it’s almost impossible for anyone to hear them from inside Edelgard’s rooms, not unless one of them decided to scream. But the tone of Edelgard’s voice tells her that this is a conversation made for whispers.
Edelgard hasn’t spoken yet. She just keeps staring at Hilda, drilling deep, deep, deep into her eyes with the same intense, calculating look she gets when she sits in on meetings with the adults, the look that always makes Hilda wonder just how old she really is.
“Hey.” She says, as gently as she can. “We’re friends, aren’t we?” She waits until Edelgard nods. It’s a good sign, and Hilda takes it as approval for her to shuffle a little bit closer, to squeeze Edelgard’s hand.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone anything about you that you didn’t want me to.” Hilda says.
Edelgard’s shoulders are still hunched, and she is still staring at Hilda, and for the first time Hilda wonders whether it’s not fear of Hilda telling someone her secrets, but fear of her knowing at all. The thought is heavy. Hilda doesn’t like it. She has to supress another fleeting desire to run, no longer sure if she’s afraid of Edelgard or of whatever secrets she carries upon her thin shoulders.
Finally, Edelgard looks away. “My hair wasn’t always white.” She says.
Hilda stares at her. “I knew that.” She hadn’t met Edelgard before her father had forced them to spend time together, but she’s certain she would have remembered a girl with stark white hair running around the palace if there had been one.
Of course, she didn’t know what had caused the change. That question had always drifted away from her, a mystery she knew of but never cared to ask about. But Edelgard is holding her hand so tight that her knuckles are almost the same colour as her hair, and Hilda wonders for the first time if she should have cared more about the why.
Edelgard slowly peels off her long gloves, and with increasing horror Hilda begins to see every inch of the skin she had kept hidden, the long deep scars running along her arms. They look painful, still red and healing, but worst of all they look precise. Like a drawing someone might make on paper, not a child’s scribbles or a messy accident of ink but something purposeful.
Edelgard has started to shake slightly, and when Hilda reaches out to try and comfort her, she flinches back. It hurts. Hilda doesn’t have the thoughts or the words to process just how much it hurts to see what Edelgard had hidden from her all this time. She just feels the pain deep in her chest, dull but aching.
“Who did this?” Hilda asks. She doesn’t want to know. She doesn’t want Edelgard to trust her enough to tell her. But she can’t stop the question from escaping from her. Nor can she stop Edelgard when she starts to speak, when she tells Hilda every last detail of what she lived through, of exactly why there is only one Hresvelg child left. She spells a tale full of dark underground dungeons, of rats and knives and mages who dragged her and her siblings away to do unspeakable things.
It hurts. It hurts more than seeing Edelgard’s scars, more even than the time Hilda broke her arm training with her brother. But more than anything, it makes Hilda angry, makes her imagine running out of here, stealing one of her brother’s war axes and finding every last person responsible and gutting them.
But she looks at Edelgard, at the girl who usually wields self-control like a weapon shaking just through reliving a memory, and she pushes the anger deep down inside herself. She slowly pulls Edelgard into herself instead, wraps her up in her arms and lets her hold Hilda too tight.
Hilda wishes she were older. Stronger. That she had the power to change everything, that one girl with an axe could change the world entirely. And maybe it can.
But not yet.
“Ask her for a dance.” Hilda says.
“Absolutely not.” Edelgard replies.
Hilda shoots her a look, but Edelgard isn’t paying attention to her anymore, too busy staring off at the other side of the room again. It’s like she thinks Hilda is completely blind, that she wouldn’t be able to see exactly which person Edelgard has spent the entire ball looking at. Even while dancing with the countless other young men and women of significant rank, even while she should be paying attention to Hilda. Unbelievable.
“You’ve glanced over at her no less than fifteen times in the last five minutes. She’s the only one you want to dance with, but you still haven’t. It’s not that hard!”
Edelgard looks back at her, and frowns. It’d be terrifying, if Hilda didn’t know her better. Maybe that icy look would terrify a lesser woman, but not her. Hilda knows her secrets. She can’t intimate her into silence.
“It’s getting close to all our plans being put into motion.” Edelgard says quietly. “I can’t have any distractions.”
She still steals another look, her focus caught by the ringing laugh that echoes throughout the entire ballroom. Goddess, she’s impossible. It would be endearing if it weren’t so annoying for Hilda to deal with.
“Lady Edelgard.” Hilda starts. She takes Edelgard’s hand in hers, clasps it tight. “It’s a ball. You’re allowed to be a teenager for one night. Please. I can’t stand here watching you pine from a distance any longer. If you don’t call her over, I will.”
Edelgard freezes. “Don’t you dare.” She orders.
“Don’t test me.”
“I mean it. Don’t.”
“It’s for your own good.”
Hilda clears her throat, and speaks before Edelgard can stop her. Maybe Edelgard will kill her for this, or demote her. Somehow Hilda still thinks it will be worth it.
“Dorothea!” She sings out. Her voice carries over the whole room, and countless students look over at her. Good. Edelgard won’t want to murder her in front of too many witnesses. “Do you have a minute?”
“Hilda!” Edelgard whispers, grabbing onto her arm. “Why!” Her grip tightens, frighteningly so. And Hilda has seen the amount of muscles Edelgard has, and has seen her swing huge axes around like they weigh nothing. If she had a fraction more self-preservation in her at all, she would have thought twice about this.
Fortunately for her, Dorothea finds her way to them before Edelgard can do anything drastic.
“Am I interrupting something?” She asks, looking amused as Edelgard lets go of her death grip on Hilda’s arm. “I’d hate to interrupt the princess and her retainer at their scheming, even if they had just shouted for me from across the room.”
“It’s nothing-” Edelgard starts, but Hilda interrupts her.
“Are you still up for a dance?”
“Depends who is asking.” Dorothea shrugs, but there’s a flicker of interest shining in her eyes. “I’m done with noble boys who can’t keep their hands to themselves.”
“But what if it weren’t a boy who asked?” Hilda presses.
It’s a little too obvious, and Dorothea leans in. “What exactly are you asking, Hilda?”
Hilda offers her hand. “I thought that was clear.” She says. She sneaks a look at Edelgard, and the blatant disappointment flashing across her expression. But she still hasn’t spoken up yet, and Hilda rolls her eyes. The amount of work Edelgard makes her do, whether consciously or not, is unbelievable.
Dorothea takes her hand, but she raises an eyebrow when Hilda makes no move to walk out onto the dancefloor. “Although…” Hilda starts. “It’s a bit rude to dance with someone before my gracious lady had the chance.” Hilda holds Dorothea’s hand out to Edelgard, and silently begs her to stop fighting against herself, just this once.
Dorothea laughs, and steps in closer to Edelgard. Whatever charm Dorothea wields, she uses it to great effect, convincing Edelgard to step in and take her hand without further argument.
“This is what I mean when I say you two are always scheming.” Dorothea says. “You could have just asked, you know.”
“This way is more entertaining.” Hilda says. “Have fun, Lady Edelgard!”
Edelgard shoots a glare at her again. But if her glares were already ineffectual before, now they are completely harmless, with a blush stark against her pale skin.
Hilda leans back against the wall and watches them. It’s sweet, watching the oh so serious Edelgard let her guard down, even if it’s only for a brief moment. More importantly, it’s nice to see her let the more human side of her be seen. For all her talk of revolution and war, it’s comforting to know that Edelgard is still a young woman, that she can blush and laugh and feel like any other.
One dance turns into two, then three. Edelgard visibly relaxes with each one, until she actually looks like the princess she’s meant to be, and not a woman carved out of stone. In time, Dorothea comes back and forces Hilda to move again, reclaiming the offered dance Hilda had used to trick Edelgard to begin with. Then Hilda drags Edelgard back out, swings her around, and dips her at the end of their dance. Edelgard even laughs, albeit quietly. It feels like a victory. One Hilda will hold over her head for the rest of their lives.
Hilda would never tell her, but Edelgard deserves this. One night where she can be happy, and forget just what is to come. One night to forget about titles, about nobility and crests and all the pain that come with such things. One night where she can just be Edelgard, and no one else.
Even if this night can’t last forever.