Chapter 1: Autumn
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.”
Chapter 2: Winter
Edelgard paces her bedchamber, trying to shake off the memory of the tailors. They came—however tremulous and called for—into her space with their needles, trying to shape her, and she froze and sniped until she sent them away. Hubert would scold her for being impractical, for not assuming he would vet anyone whose job it was to touch her. So she has not sent for him in their place.
Knocks sound on the door—too soft, then loud and rapid, then quiet again. As reliable as code. It smoothes the slope of Edelgard’s shoulders, which she’s hyperaware of in the evening air. Her gown, cut just about her chest, is torn across the muscle of one shoulder.
At her invitation, Bernadetta pokes her head in. She squeaks and shuts the door.
“It’s all right,” Edelgard calls. Glancing in the mirror, she winces at her disheveled appearance, even with her hair pinned out of the way. Bernadetta edges inside.
“Edelgard—um, is it Lady Edelgard? You called me to help with something, right?”
“Edelgard will do.” They are in her bedroom, after all. Bernadetta takes it in furtively, and Edelgard wishes she’d tidied up. Not that Bernadetta is likely to mind the clothing tossed about, or even the teddy bear hidden beneath Edelgard’s bed. It doesn’t suit the emperor’s crimson chambers, furnished with dark wood and metal twisted into severe shapes. There are empty spaces where Edelgard has removed heirlooms. She’s slowly replacing them with gifts, Dorothea’s ornaments and Petra’s books and Constance’s magical baubles.
As Bernadetta sets out her seamstress tools and studies the clothes the tailors left, Edelgard explains the dilemma. She has put off preparing for the winter ball—she’d rather skip it, but it’s too important for diplomacy. It takes time to fit formalwear to her short, muscular frame, let alone with her preferred straight lines.
“Okay, I think I get it. Could you, um, take off what you’re wearing? Please? I, I just don’t think it will work,” Bernadetta says. She swivels away, and Edelgard follows her request. The cloth snags around her bicep. With a grunt, she realizes she hasn’t undone all the fastenings at the back. She reaches around for them, fumbling with the delicate pieces.
“How many laces and buttons does one gown need?” she asks.
“Oh, um, let me help.”
Bernadetta darts around. Her long fingers brush against Edelgard’s as they tend to her, the lightest of tickles between her shoulder blades. She sucks in a breath. She doesn’t lash out, not at hands that can thread a needle as easily as tuck in a sapling—or nock an arrow. But she freezes nonetheless, sweat beading on her forehead and heat rushing to her cheeks.
By the time the fabric falls, Bernadetta has materialized closer to the bed, where she gathers up a velvet suit in shades of purple. Its silver embroidery matches the winter ball’s traditional aesthetic. “I, I think we can make this work.”
Edelgard breathes out. A suit, she can put on herself, and it covers the scarred skin gathering goose bumps. Bernadetta finishes the look by tying her hair to the side with her bespoke hairpiece.
None of it helps while Edelgard stands still, letting Bernadetta bend to adjust pins, a look of concentration on her red face.
Before the ball, Edelgard finds Hubert at the end of a hallway, speaking to someone around the corner. Softly, he describes the ballroom’s escape routes and how to catch his attention. At Edelgard’s approach, he bows and removes the embroidered flower in his lapel. A glance confirms Bernadetta has already disappeared down the hall.
“I never thought you would fuss so much over someone else,” Edelgard says.
“You know my devotion does not waver, however invisibly I perform it.” He crosses his arms. “As for Bernadetta, she has been aiding the dressmakers and kitchen staff more than attending to council duties. Overseeing the imperial household falls to me.”
“Then perhaps she should be its minister while you focus on your fifty other tasks.”
“If you think it best.”
“I’m kidding, Hubert.”
She can’t tell whether he’s relieved or disappointed, but she recognizes the slight cock of his head. “If I may be frank, you’re the one with no excuse for coddling her.”
“I do no such thing,” she says. His expression doesn’t change. “Even I am capable of consideration for a friend.”
“As you say, Your Majesty.” He turns his attention to the event’s security.
She descends the ballroom’s stairs with her arm in Ferdinand’s and as little fanfare as she can justify. The chamber glitters like a snowy landscape, with pine cone decorations from up north that some merchant is trying to popularize. Fur stoles and ballooning skirts envelop the guests. As is tradition, a glass orb representing the Blue Sea Star hangs from the domed ceiling, a replacement for the Goddess’s hibernating home. This year, it seems liable to crash any moment
It isn’t long before Edelgard is swept onto the floor. Her stiff suit doesn’t impede her footwork. She goes through the motions with one partner after another, mentally reciting her checklist for the evening. This is only the first step to connecting with the ambassadors. Soon, Claude’s fashionably late representatives should arrive, and then…
In the meantime, the guests’ attention presses in on her. Some of it is siphoned to the floor’s center, where Dorothea and Ferdinand pass Constance between them, competing to bring her to higher peels of laughter. It eases the smile Edelgard has been forcing all evening.
Even she doesn’t spot Bernadetta. She looks for her on each turn around the room, eventually inferring she left—until Hubert checks on a dark corner, where shades of purple complement Edelgard’s own outfit. Edelgard treads on the toes of her partner, a nobleman prone to complaints. She tries to focus on her form, not the image her mind constructs. Spending time with Bernadetta has made her fanciful. Surely Bernadetta does not look so—so…
At first chance, Edelgard excuses herself and ducks out of view, then doubles back. It shakes off any followers. At least, she hopes it does. With everyone sparkling under the chandeliers, her attention is sucked into the shadows that hug Bernadetta as readily as her dress, black and violet and lavender, with ribbons and lace that match the veil around her tiny hat. She clasps her hands as Edelgard tries to summon speech.
“Um, hi. Is something wrong? Is it the dress?” Bernadetta tugs on a bow at her waist. “Oh, I knew it, even if Dorothea promised I wouldn’t be a laughing stock—”
“No, no, it… suits you.”
“You mean, I’m already a laughing stock?”
“Would you let me finish?” Edelgard swallows her agitation, more than she’s had toward Bernadetta in a while. It’s the heat of the lights on her velvet suit, everything making her skin itch and her face burn. “It looks lovely,” she says slowly. “You did well to take Dorothea’s advice.”
“Oh. I guess she knows what she’s talking about, huh?”
Edelgard tears her gaze away. “How are you finding the ball?”
“It’s, um, pretty!” Bernadetta’s giggle rings false. “I mean you—you know. Everyone’s clothes and just, everyone.” She clutches her sleeve. “It’s pretty scary, too, though. I’m getting better at going into town and stuff, but everyone here is like… like twice as much of a person.”
“That’s not a bad way of putting it.” Edelgard scans the room for something Bernadetta would enjoy. “Have you tried the custard tarts?”
Bernadetta looks toward a tray of them, her tongue darting between her lips. “Not yet. Are they made with honey?”
“Some of them.” She gave the order after learning Bernadetta would attend. “Shall we have a sample?”
She holds out an arm. Bernadetta’s gloved hand grazes her elbow, giving her a frisson through the velvet. Many have touched her that night, but the chance to escort Bernadetta, to keep her close, safe…
Bernadetta yanks her hand back to adjust her veil. “That’s okay. I don’t want to pull you away from your dancing. You’re, um, really good.”
Is Bernadetta just saying that, or did she watch Edelgard’s rote movements while more charismatic figures took center stage?
Then shall we share a dance? The words loop in her mind like horses around a track.
“Very well,” Edelgard says instead. It would be inconsiderate to expose Bernadetta to hungry eyes.
That will always be true, won’t it? Any event, political or frivolous; any daily or annual routine; any part of an emperor’s public life. She can’t keep Bernadetta at her side for any of it.
She shakes off the thought. As if Bernadetta doesn’t offer enough private companionship. Edelgard speaks with her a little more before returning to the floor—but not until she ensures a server slips by the shadows with a tray of tarts.
Chapter 3: Spring
As spring awakens, Edelgard and Bernadetta spend their spare time in the palace gardens. If the air were muggier and the seasons less limiting, it would be just like working side-by-side in the greenhouse, with Bernadetta humming tunes Edelgard pretends not to hear. It’s odd having happy memories to return to as they nourish new life.
The season for planting is past when Bernadetta brings a pouch of seeds. Cradling one in her palm, she murmurs something between a nursery rhyme and one of Hubert’s chants. A bloom springs up beneath her chin, vibrant red and spilling over her hand.
“That’s quite impressive,” Edelgard says. Bernadetta giggles.
“Isn’t it? Constance taught me. Now we can press it in our book without picking any.”
They’re filling a book with everything from poems, to lists, to a flier for Dorothea’s return to the opera. They agreed never to share it, lest anyone see Bernadetta’s wildlife sketches or Edelgard’s doodles of their friends—though the former deserve appreciation.
As Edelgard starts to praise Bernadetta’s idea, a light pressure runs over her foot. A small, grey blur darts off into the bushes. She stands as if chained in place.
“What a cute mouse,” says Bernadetta.
A yelp escapes Edelgard. She wants to cover her mouth, to shove the sound back in, but she can’t move.
“What’s wrong? Wait, are you scared?” Bernadetta asks.
Edelgard grits her teeth. Her humanity is still unbelievable to Bernadetta, the only one to whom she confessed her fear of swimming, so many years ago. How many? The war blends with their schooldays. Or did Edelgard confide in Bernadetta as a child? No, Bernadetta was locked away, and Edelgard…
Grey walls overlap with Bernadetta’s laughing face. But Bernadetta isn’t laughing, not even smiling. “Are you okay? Should we leave? Should I get—”
“Nobody can see me like this.” The words burst from Edelgard’s trembling lips.
“I understand. Um, how about we go sit under that tree?”
“No.” Edelgard winces at her voice, forces it to lower. “I’d… rather not sit.”
“Oh. Right.” After shuffling in place, Bernadetta moves between Edelgard and the garden’s entrance, shielding Edelgard from view. “I’m, uh, a pretty good shot, you know. In case it comes back.”
“It’s only a mouse.” Edelgard breathes out, slowly, as Mercedes taught her. “But thank you. Perhaps we should return to my quarters for some tea.”
She should calm herself alone until she can return to work. But she marches with Bernadetta in tow, aware only of the other’s footsteps until she is in her chambers, checking under the table. The tea needs to steep. As she thinks it, an herbal smell wafts to her nose. She takes the cup from Bernadetta with murmured thanks.
The hot liquid hits her tongue, piercing her fog. She takes in each detail of her room until it clears. How could she have lapsed like that, let alone make Bernadetta sit quietly across from her?
“Aren’t you going to demand an explanation?” Edelgard asks.
“I figured you wouldn’t wanna talk about it. Do you?”
Edelgard drags in a breath, squeezes it out of her lungs. “I was once locked underground. Chained. Rats and the like would… Please, tell no one.” Even now, with her enemies gone, discussing it burns her chest.
“When was this? Did I miss it?”
“No. I was young.”
Though Bernadetta can’t possibly know the details, understanding seems to dawn. “That’s awful. I’m sorry. Um, I won’t tell you it’s okay, because it’s probably not. But do you want a hug?”
“I don’t need—that would be… fine.”
Bernadetta stands slowly, like she’s not sure if that’s a yes. Without rising, Edelgard turns to let Bernadetta wrap her arms around her. Something besides shame and anger crawls between her ribs. Impossibly soft, like Bernadetta’s hair, or her cheek against her temple. A warm, breathing cage Edelgard could escape. Just as Bernadetta loosens her hold, Edelgard returns it, her movements slow and stiff.
Neither axe nor garden has erased this. Nothing ever will, not even with research underway to remove her Crests. Maybe it’s not just walking beside an emperor that’s bad for Bernadetta. Edelgard is either hard or spineless, closed shut or wide open. Like a chest bound with chains, but when they’re pried apart, rot dumps out.
Edelgard releases Bernadetta and reaches for her cup, trying to ignore the heart pounding in her chest.
Petra visits a Fódlan in full bloom. After days of politics, Dorothea organizes a ladies’ night at the opera house. The private room’s curtains sweep almost as grandly as those on stage, and roses wrapped in ribbons decorate the space, mysteriously missing their accompanying love notes.
The friends lounge on plush cushions as red as the wine Edelgard supplies. Bernadetta sits close to Petra, who tells her about Brigid’s seasonal wildlife. Dorothea gossips about her troupe’s dalliances in this very room. One such story makes Constance hop off of the windowsill. Were it court gossip, Edelgard would lack patience, but successful talks with ambassadors have boosted her mood—unless that’s the wine she doesn’t usually indulge in.
Bernadetta leaves around the time everyone refills their glasses. As soon as she’s out of earshot, Constance rounds on Edelgard, tossing her curls.
“Even as her fellow advisor, Bernadetta will not elucidate me as to your arrangement. It seems most inappropriate to treat someone as a lady-in-waiting without declaring as much,” Constance says.
“I am only working out a position that balances our needs.”
“Oh, Edie, why don’t you just propose?” Dorothea asks. Edelgard narrowly avoids spilling her wine.
“Propose? Why would you suggest such a thing?”
They all react at once.
“You know why, Edie.”
“To share your heart with—”
“Or you might properly court—”
Edelgard cuts off Petra and Constance. “Enough. Emperors’ consorts have certain duties, and are chosen in accordance with…” She parrots some speech or another, anything to fend off the attention.
“C’mon, Edie, you don’t really care about all that.” Dorothea’s disappointed look chastens her.
“You’re not wrong.”
“Then why will you not speak to Bernie?” Petra asks. Edelgard sets down her glass and wrings her hands, a gesture she must have picked up from Bernadetta. It’s easier to lie to herself than to Petra’s earnest face.
“Let’s say I… did that. Would it not scare her off? Besides, I won’t risk making her feel pressured, let alone forced into marriage with politics in mind.”
“It would be bad to apply force, yes. But Bernie is very adventuring—adventurous. When she helped me in Brigid, she was having great enjoyment of the wildlife. She was wanting to see more of the world.”
“She really said that?” Has she already held Bernadetta back? She’d assumed, selfishly, that Bernadetta would hide away in Varley if Edelgard didn’t do something. “I suppose without asking, we can only speculate. Tell me, Constance, how is your newest spell coming along?”
Predictably, Constance jumps on the question, and Edelgard can breathe.
In the hours before dawn, she sits alone in her room, aching in a way she can’t wholly subscribe to the wine. She refuses sleep. Though she knew the war would not end her nightmares, she was not prepared for the fresh ones it would bring, this time with the scalpel in her hand.
She balances the book of memories on her lap, stuck on Bernadetta’s bucket list. The lettering becomes smaller near the end, like she couldn’t cram all her dreams onto the page she allowed them. Meet a unicorn. Finish a mystery series. Paint a sunset from the top of the tallest mountain.
On the opposite page, Edelgard listed her political goals. Though the page is just as full, in her mind, it trails off. She never intended to be emperor for long. Whether she dies or stands down, the world doesn’t need a Hresvelg to keep it under their thumb. But where to disappear to? If the surgery is successful, will she have time to take in the world as it is, without destroying or shaping it? Is she capable of doing so?
For Bernadetta, every morning must be as fraught. Yet, she wakes up and decides to engage, to create, or at least to try.
Perhaps, without asking, there really is no way to know.
Chapter 4: Summer
Edelgard fusses over the tea table in her chambers. The tea’s fruity scent hardly makes up for her oddly shaped cookies. At least Mercedes contributed blueberry muffins while Edelgard wrestled with her own dough.
Even without the erratic knock, she would know her company; Hubert knows she is not to be interrupted this evening. Bernadetta enters, her face lighting up at Edelgard’s offering. Lovely, Edelgard lets herself think.
She’s barely aware of her pleasantries as they sit. Bernadetta peeks around the centerpiece of violets and carnations, which Constance’s magic has grown with unnecessary vigor. Though Bernadetta would undoubtedly like to hide behind it, Edelgard sets the vase aside to watch her sample the cookies. Her approval pokes a tiny hole in the canvas of Edelgard’s nerves.
Edelgard clears her throat. “I’ve been reviewing our book. We’ve made quite a few memories together, haven’t we?”
“Yeah, I guess we have. Um, you haven’t been looking too closely at my old stuff, have you?”
“Perhaps. But with no judgment, I assure you,” Edelgard says. Bernadetta slumps back in her chair just as Edelgard leans forward. “Actually, I have a proposal for you. After I step down as emperor, I plan to disappear from the public eye.”
“You do? That’s a big change. Oh! Do you want me to teach you how to hide?”
“Possibly, but I had something more in mind.” Edelgard twists the napkin in her lap and tries to recall her rehearsal. “Petra tells me you wish to see more of the world. These dreams you’ve shared—I would like to make them reality. I could escort you to the tallest mountain and the farthest sea. Wherever you wished to go, I would keep you safe.”
“You’d do that for me? Oh, no, I could never burden you with my silly dreams! It’s bad enough—it’s enough that you took the time to read them.”
“Don’t worry. I’m actually being quite selfish. To be honest, I have no grasp on life outside of war and politics. You devote your time to numerous other pursuits, and… you are gentle. Like me, you see enemies everywhere, yet you never jump to wipe them out. If I were with you, I might learn to live in peace.”
Bernadetta picks apart a cookie, scattering the crumbs of Edelgard’s efforts. “I’m not exactly the best guide to living a normal life.”
“If you were, we wouldn’t understand each other. But maybe we can find an answer together.”
“That… that sounds nice.” Though she doesn’t return Edelgard’s smile, Bernadetta sounds genuine. Every inch of her face displays her exploration of the idea. “But I’d hate to take up so much of your life. Wouldn’t you rather find a real partner?”
With all their boldness in battle, and all their hesitation at things others take for granted, Edelgard reaches for Bernadetta’s crumb-covered hand. Her thumb traces the scar where arrows rested again and again. She holds it there in Bernadetta’s space, making no move to bring her to her side.
“I was hoping you would be that partner. That you would share all of my life, not just part of it.”
“Oh. Oh!” Bernadetta’s grip seems more reflexive than accepting. “With… with me?”
“If you would have me. You only get one life, and I understand if you don’t wish—”
“I will! I mean, I would! But this is… a lot. I need to think about it. And maybe find somewhere to scream.”
“Of course. Take all the time you need.” Edelgard releases her, folding her hands in her lap to restrain them. Bernadetta stands and stares down over the vase of flowers. Her lips move wordlessly before she bends to press a wet kiss to Edelgard’s cheek. She scampers off before Edelgard can react.
After the door closes, Edelgard sits there, letting the warmth remain.
Years later, Edelgard wakes to frying pancakes and her wife’s song harmonizing with the birds.
Her wife. They had no wedding, but the word snuck in somewhere between building the cabin and referring to it, not as their base, but as home.
She kicks away the quilt she half threw off in the night. Even at summer’s end, the sun blazes too hot for it, but she can’t resist the weight of anything Bernadetta makes. Rising, she admires the paintings on the wall, the most prominent a sunset from a mountaintop. Bernadetta tried many drafts from many mountains before displaying one. The shelf by their bed holds books and presents from their friends, who they contact and visit in secret, thanks to Hubert. Edelgard pulls on a robe and leaves the small bedroom.
Though she shouldn’t risk surprising Bernadetta, she can’t resist leaning against the doorframe, letting Bernadetta sing a moment longer. The morning light frames her soft smile as she gets out a jar of berry compote. Lovely. Another word Edelgard thinks often, and says freely.
Her greeting makes Bernadetta jump. It’s not long before she smiles again, this time against Edelgard’s mouth. Edelgard holds her as carefully as ever, skating a hand over her warm, muscled back.
“So,” Bernadetta says when she’s recovered her breath, “what do you want to do today?”
It is still odd to be asked. The sleepy part of her wants to say nothing, other than compote-flavored kisses; another part supplies her with chores, wood to cut and food to preserve if they decide to stay until spring. But they have been leaning toward heading south. They can find another vista for Bernadetta to paint, and more places for Edelgard to help rebuild. She can never let herself forget the need, or her role in it. When she begrudges herself this home of her own, the life others never got to live, she can at least give it to Bernadetta.
“We should narrow down our next destination. Would you like to cross another item off your list?” Edelgard asks.
Even though the cabin fits more mementos, they kept their book. Its full pages have room to press flowers from countless more places and seasons.
“Maybe, if I can do one at the beach,” Bernadetta says. Edelgard shivers, and Bernadetta is quick to add, “I promise none of them are in the water.”
“That’s fine, then.”
Edelgard leaves the subject there and eats, with only her wife’s hums joining the birds. Perhaps they will fly south with the couple, and adapt to the coast until spring. Or perhaps they will be happy where they are.