If Edelgard’s cabinet could meet without the older nobles targeting her or her friends, she’d be too suspicious to appreciate it.
As in battle, Ferdinand positions himself to absorb the blows, his sudden authority earning a regular onslaught. It can’t prevent the constant attempts to undermine Edelgard, or the dark looks that only curl Hubert’s lip, or the comments about Constance’s disappearance—as if any of them lifted a finger to aid her.
Perhaps Count Bergliez only turns to Bernadetta out of boredom. Nonetheless, though he lobs his voice like a trebuchet, it strikes with an assassin’s precision.
“Rumors aside, I’m surprised Lady Varley isn’t speaking up. It takes daring for the daughter of the Minister of Religious Affairs to help strip the church's authority.”
Eyes wide, Bernadetta shrinks. Her name shouldn’t be a weapon; Religious Affairs is one of the first ministries shifting to non-noble leadership, a process Mercedes is overseeing. Edelgard’s chest burns as the rest of her turns to ice. Beside her, Hubert tenses.
Ferdinand springs first. “Count Bergliez, I hope you have something as daring in mind for that proposal that has yet to reach my desk.”
Count Hevring’s side of the table titters. Before anyone can respond, Ferdinand redirects the discussion more peacefully than Edelgard would. At first chance, he whispers to Bernadetta, earning a giggle stifled behind her hand. Edelgard’s heart twists and untwists. She can’t think about it until the meeting adjourns, and Bernadetta vanishes.
Edelgard finds her sitting alone in a meeting room. She’s pulled her knees up to fit in her chair’s shadow, cast by the spire-like windows behind her. It recalls their school days and early war meetings, before she began to keep her back straight and her eyes peeled.
“May I speak with you?” Edelgard asks.
Bernadetta jerks her head up. “Yeah. I mean, yes, Lady Edelgard.”
“At ease. Are you all right?”
“Yeah!” she says, more quickly. Edelgard sets down the files in her arms, measuring her words.
“I fear your current role is not making full use of your abilities.”
Bernadetta throws her hands over her face. “I knew it. I’m just a burden. I can’t speak up, and I don’t even have any good ideas.”
Taking a breath, Edelgard forces down her frustration. “Just a moment, Bernadetta. I never said that.”
“Oh.” Bernadetta’s mouth opens, closes, quivers. Taking a page out of Ferdinand’s book, Edelgard reaches for her shoulder. Bernadetta winces. Edelgard curls her hand around empty air and sits beside her.
“I’m aware I lack a reassuring presence. That’s why I need your perspective. I am only trying to come up with the best arrangement for us both,” Edelgard says. After a long moment, Bernadetta lowers her feet to the rug. An orange leaf is stuck to her shoe from her last dip outside.
“Then I’ll try, too.”
Edelgard smiles briefly before hardening. “Some on the council intimidate you, correct?”
“Kinda. It’s not so bad, though. Hubert’s there, and he’s way scarier.” Bernadetta gives a squeaky laugh.
“And yet you seem less frightened of him than of the others.”
Bernadetta stares at the ground. “Some of the older men…”
“Have they said anything to you?” At Edelgard’s sharp voice, Bernadetta snaps her chin up, then shakes her head. Edelgard forces another breath. Now she is the one jumping to conclusions.
“It’s just, I recognize their voices from when they’d visit my father, and I just… Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Bernadetta hides her face again as Edelgard tucks away her clenched fists. There is nothing anyone can do to that man, or anything he can do to Bernadetta—yet his skeletal grip persists. Force can’t pry it off.
“I’m the one who should apologize. I can’t say I fully understand, but I’ve clearly put you in an uncomfortable situation.”
“It’s not your fault, Lady Edelgard.”
Surely there’s no need for a title if they’re alone. Surely there’s no reason for it to make her grimace, if it’s from Bernadetta’s quiet voice.
Instead of saying so, Edelgard asks, “How would you like to begin meeting with me privately? You can still sit in on other meetings, of course, but I would like to hear your ideas one-on-one.”
“I wouldn’t have to present in front of everyone?”
“Not unless you want to.”
“That’d be a relief. Wouldn’t it waste your time, though?”
“It would actually be of great benefit.”
To lead, to be taken seriously, Edelgard must be firm. She must appear taller than she is, must be as sharp as her axe, must let her voice fill a room. She can’t, if it might make Bernadetta flinch. And it grows tiresome to conduct herself as if she is still at war in her own home.
“I don’t get it, but if you say so,” Bernadetta says.
“Then I’ll expect you in my office after tomorrow’s meeting.” Edelgard smiles, no longer such a rarity, but still not second nature. “Let us hope it adjourns in time for tea.”
Teatime is long past when Edelgard storms into her office, mentally running over arguments. The sight of Bernadetta stays her hand in time not to slam the door.
“Please, sit,” Edelgard says. She drops into her own chair, hardwood with a high, elegant back. Something easier to slump in would be nice. Bernadetta sits on the velvet of the smaller chair across from her, hands folded in her lap. Before they get anywhere, dinner—rather, dessert—arrives.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Edelgard says over the saghert and cream. “It is late even for dinner.”
“Nobody else needs to know, right?” Bernadetta’s laugh sounds like a plea. They are of the same mind, as Edelgard assures her.
Though Edelgard can’t let herself enjoy the treat, Bernadetta’s hums of delight distract from the thousand knives pricking her head. Before long, they stab down. She reviews the meeting notes. Bernadetta follows along quietly, more focused than in the council chamber—until her gaze burns into Edelgard’s cheek.
“Is there something on my face?” Edelgard asks. It’s not a serious query, but with a peep, Bernadetta dabs a handkerchief at the corner of Edelgard’s mouth. She yanks her hand back as if Edelgard will remove it. Edelgard is too dumbfounded by her own burning cheeks to assure her otherwise.
“May I see that handkerchief?” she asks instead. Bernadetta passes it over with a mournful look. “I’ll return it.”
The embroidered purple blossoms curve gently. They resemble the flower Hubert pins to his jacket, or the hairpiece Bernadetta gave Edelgard during the war. To make you more approachable. A lost cause with her bloodstained axe, but she’d pinned it carefully nonetheless. As carefully, she folds the handkerchief before returning it.
“Your work has gotten more precise,” she says. “How would you feel about embroidering in my office?”
“In here?” Bernadetta looks around, as if searching for a place for her work alongside the banner of the black eagle, or the sword Byleth gifted Edelgard. She often holds it when she needs a weapon in hand and council she can’t receive from her old professor. They have other duties to attend to, and their own life to live, as Edelgard is working to ensure for everyone. Yet, it is incredible how many people a leader can speak to without seeing a friend.
“You could keep me company while I do paperwork, and we would be nearby to assist each other,” Edelgard says. “But it is your choice.”
She returns to the meeting notes before Bernadetta can feel pressed to answer.
Bernadetta slips so stealthily into Edelgard’s office that it jolts her. Thankfully, Bernadetta is the only one Hubert would let sneak in with a sharp object, and he leaves them both to their tasks. If even he isn’t paranoid, Edelgard must will herself to steady.
“I hope it’s still okay,” Bernadetta says. She climbs into an armchair Edelgard set in the corner, its cushion soft and the windowsill near it decorated with plants. Bernadetta curls to not take up space. Her wedge of a noblewoman’s drawing room looks too homey for Edelgard’s stark office, with its endless files and the axe hanging against a stone wall.
During the war, Bernadetta and Dorothea would go into town in civilian clothing. They sat in the square to knit, Dorothea presumably cooing with the doves, Bernadetta presumably pressed close to her, looking all for the world like the normal pair they’d be if Edelgard had not begun a bloody march. But they kept their ears pealed for intelligence to knit into their scarves.
There isn’t any meaning to Bernadetta’s stitches, unless Hubert set her a task in secret. She’s furtive enough, hunching over her work and holding it behind her back when Edelgard gets up to stretch. Occasionally, Edelgard works through problems out loud, but she tries not to burden Bernadetta with solutions she isn’t there to provide.
The next day, Bernadetta doesn’t come. Edelgard finds herself pacing her office more often. The day after, Bernadetta arrives with as little warning as before. Edelgard fails to find a pattern.
One afternoon, Bernadetta approaches her desk, her arms shifting behind her back and her teeth worrying her lip. "I have something for you.”
She presents Edelgard with a small package wrapped in delicate paper and a red ribbon. Afraid to crush it, Edelgard unwraps it gingerly. The handkerchief inside resembles Bernadetta’s, but the flowers are a lighter purple, closer to the shade of Edelgard’s eyes.
“It’s lovely,” Edelgard says.
“Oh, good. You said you liked mine, so I made you one, too,” Bernadetta says. “I know you have other people to do it, but it’s okay to give a gift to a friend, right?”
“Indeed. Thank you, my friend. It’s almost break time—why don’t I make us some tea?”
“Oh, no, Lady Edelgard, I couldn’t—”
“You may call me Edelgard, you know. I’ll tell you if I require an attendant.”
Bernadetta’s cheeks turn pink. “Okay,” she says. “I mean, okay, Edelgard. As long as you let me know.”