The sky above Fhirdiad is red at all hours, even at night. It’s a month into spring now, and the city is burning.
Dorothea does not see Edelgard kill the dragon. If she hears the war ending—the cry, the body striking the earth—it’s little more than an echo in the distance. All the grandeur of the moment muffled, like white noise from onstage while she bustles back and forth in the wings, waiting for a cue.
She’s kneeling in the shadow of a scorched house when it happens, cleaning a cut above Petra’s eyebrow from where a stray arrow had flashed past, faster than Dorothea could see. It had been too close a call for comfort, a thing she knew they’d later both speak of in almosts—an inch to either side and it would have taken her in the eye, a handspan lower and it would have taken her in the throat. Dorothea had seen the blood and felt herself, not for the first time, on the precipice of something.
Manuela would have closed such a wound easily, if she were here, or Linhardt. Dorothea knows she’s no healer, not really; the few spells she’s learned at Edelgard’s behest have to do with the surfaces of things only, numbing pain and stemming blood flow, and it always feels too much like she’s fumbling with the words. White magic is the sort of stuff that doesn’t work if you don’t believe. She’s read the books, but has never stopped asking, in what?
Where is Linhardt? Across town, probably, seeing to the wounded there. But Petra doesn’t seem to mind—has never minded, bless her heart—that Dorothea is all she has. She holds her head completely still as Dorothea takes her face between both hands, looks into her eyes. It must be a hunter’s instinct: Petra goes so quiet sometimes it’s near-impossible to even feel her breathing.
“Does it hurt?” Dorothea asks her.
“My body is forgetting it already.” On cue, Petra draws in a breath. A deep one this time, almost performative, as if to demonstrate that she still can. Look. Here it is. “I have known worse pain than this, and so have you.”
It is so true it wrings at Dorothea, so hard there’s nothing she can do about the ache but smile. Petra is not Petra if she’s not putting on a brave face, and when she looks like that it’s not as if Dorothea can tell her, everything that hurts you hurts me twice over. Much less what always follows, sticking to the roof of her mouth: so don’t get hurt, please, for my sake.
She had called down lightning on him, the man who’d shot at Petra. Unlike the healing, that had come so easy. Her hands had moved before she could think, and she hadn’t even needed to clear her throat to form the word. Then the lightning was there, then the man was not there, the motions of the appearance and the disappearance both so familiar she might rehearse them in her sleep.
Now, Dorothea cleans the blood from Petra’s face with the hem of her sleeve. She’s already lowering her hand when Petra catches it in her own. She’s warm, almost feverish, as though she’s taken the heat of the fires into her own body, but her eyes are clear. “You look wounded, too,” she says.
“I’m fine,” says Dorothea, as elsewhere Edelgard kills the dragon. Her voice catches, rasps. It doesn’t belong to her any more than these sounds of the war’s end do. “There’s nothing.”
She says there’s nothing, but later it’s Petra who supports her as the army marches out of the still-burning city, one arm around Dorothea’s waist as though to keep her from collapsing. They walk together, feet keeping time across the blackened ground.
“In my homeland,” she murmurs, “in the summer, the sky goes forever. Bluer than you have ever seen it. I will show you, when we go.”
Dorothea lifts her head, blinks, tries to remember the color blue. “When will we go?”
Petra’s arm tightens around her waist.
“Soon,” she says. “As soon as we can.”
ii. garreg mach
On their last night in Garreg Mach, Dorothea finds Edelgard in the greenhouse.
It’s a peculiar place for her to be, much less to linger in. This is the very reason it’s the first place Dorothea thinks to look. It used to be that you could never get Edelgard downstairs for anything, even meals, wedded as she was to her towers and her meeting rooms. To being above everything, the better to see danger coming.
That’s probably unkind, thinks Dorothea, as she pushes the door open and listens to it whisper across the stone floor. Edelgard had borne the weight of their war on her back. Even she wouldn’t be above looking for a place to set it down awhile, here among the growing things.
Edelgard stands with her arms folded just inside the doorway, peering down at the frontmost planter. Dorothea’s approach makes her incline her head a little, but her eyes stay with the plants. “These snowdrops look due to bloom soon.”
“Yes, it’s good to see.” The greenhouse is never fully dark at night—has always for the length of time Dorothea has known it been lit by a kind of soft, sourceless light. Sometimes it’s the moon. Sometimes it’s the lanterns outside that reach out for it, glimmering on the other side of the glass. Whatever it is tonight, finding the buds takes no effort at all when she looks down at the soil; she sees them clearly, leaning among the leaves with their heads bowed, so tiny and so white. Pure. “I can’t remember the last time any of us had time for flowers.”
“I was always bad at gardening, do you know?” Edelgard’s face is not so clear, angled downward and away from Dorothea, betraying nothing. There’s a tilt to the corner of her mouth that might be a smile, might be nothing more than an angle of shadow. “I never developed the… sense for it. What do you call it?”
Dorothea hums behind her lips, softly. “A green thumb. I never had that either.”
The door stands ajar behind them, and a breeze blows in, rustling the leaves. There’s a bit of rain in it, and a chill, the relic of a long and violent winter. Dorothea can smell it. Edelgard must, too.
“What will you do now?” she asks. “Will you go back to Enbarr?”
Dorothea lifts one shoulder, drops it again. Her answer, when it comes, is truthful enough. “I could, but I don’t think I want to.”
Edelgard takes her time to consider this without asking why. In the silence that unfolds between them, Dorothea decides this is a blessing, for all that she wonders what would come out of her if Edelgard ever decided to make her answer for this choice. She wonders if they might talk then about the things they’re haunted by—if Edelgard remembers how the stones had run red at the Great Bridge of Myrddin, if she would understand that every night since then Dorothea’s sleep has been full of rivers. Every day since then, she’s been calling down lightning, it feels like.
“Then where do you want to go?”
“Somewhere far,” says Dorothea, truthfully again. “As far as Brigid, even.”
“With Petra? Yes, I’d trust the two of you to take care of each other.” Edelgard waits for a moment, taking the measure of her next thought, balancing the heft of it in her hand. Then, “You don’t need my permission.”
No, Dorothea thinks, but does not say. I suppose I don’t. She’s well aware that’s one luxury Edelgard can’t afford, for all her powers—this privilege of wanting, and of choosing, and of changing one’s mind. Knowing her, she’d even deny herself regret. Typical of an emperor not to give herself room to feel, and someone like Edelgard will have been practicing that dance since well before she was ever crowned.
“I know,” she says. “I know, Edie. I figured, anyway, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness.”
Face half in shadow, Edelgard looks up at her and smiles—weary and gentle, as if to say she’s aware of how easy it is to break a person. “You don’t need that, either.”
Petra’s still awake when Dorothea returns to the room they’ve shared since the war’s last year began, sitting at the desk with a lit candle and a map unfolded in her lap. The walls seem to close around her, the space within shrinking now that it’s been stripped bare of all their meager belongings. This room has never felt small before, for all that it had been built for only one. It always used to hold them both so easily.
“We could be traveling with the main force as far as Enbarr, and get a boat from the grand harbor there.” She does not say this had been the road she traveled when she came as a hostage to the Empire, years ago. That she had been only a child then, not yet grown into her skin. All she says is, “That is the way I know.”
“I don’t want to go as far as Enbarr,” says Dorothea.
“Nor do I,” Petra agrees. “We will be sailing from Hevring, then.”
Dorothea has never seen Hevring; that alone makes the thought of it more appealing than any other place she’s ever been. Neither of them could ever see Enbarr again, and it would still be too soon.
“Sleep,” says Petra, reaching for her hand. “Before dawn, we will go.”
The sun is gone by the time they come within sight of Remire, the sky it’s left behind now a slush of softer colors, pinks and purples all clouding together like spilled paint in a cup of water. It’s a gentle sort of dusk, heralding a quiet night. No red in it, no flames anymore.
They’ve been on the road all day, astride the horses that were Edelgard’s last gift. There’s been no need to have the map out yet—this is land that’s been theirs to explore since their schooldays, the entire sprawling tapestry of it, every swathe of field and forest. The texture is changed, perhaps; by time and war, and the vagaries of the seasons, but at their heart the paths are still familiar enough, still whole enough.
“Do you think anyone will be there?” Dorothea had asked that morning, in the dark before sunrise, as the shadow of Garreg Mach’s great gate passed over them for the last time. “It was—all those years ago…”
“I think…” Petra had said, tilting her head up as the stone arch fell away to reveal the sky. She fell silent awhile, her eyes on the fading stars. Dorothea had wondered then if she’d been searching for the words, the way she used to. “When people have made their homes in places, they want to come back. They always want to come back.”
There’d been an ache in her face and in her voice as she said it, a quiet and undecorated pain, so stark Dorothea could all but read it like a word. She’d recognized it well enough, in the moment—had seen it a handful of times before in intermittent flashes whenever Petra found herself talking about homes. She’d never asked Petra outright for the story of that pain, although she could have, although she was reasonably sure Petra would give it to her without hesitating, open-handed, if she ever did ask. The road had begun to wind downhill, snaking steadily away from the monastery before disappearing into a stand of trees, and so she’d looked at that instead.
Watching Petra now, sitting as high in the saddle as she had when they set out, the day’s last light rosy on her shoulders and the crown of her head, it’s just as plain to see how the years have toughened her, turned her into a thing no one can conquer, radiant and brisk and determined. Dorothea’s eyes seek her out as naturally as hers seek the stars. Possibly these are the same desire; in the end, they’re each just looking for some bright point to walk their path by.
“Are you wanting to pass the night here?” she asks, turning. “I have my doubts we will find an inn, or even a bed to borrow, but…”
“I doubt we could do worse than sleeping on the ground like we did on the march,” says Dorothea, with a little smile she doesn’t have to work too hard to feign. “Let’s go and make our visit.”
When they ride into Remire, Petra says, “It is healing,” in a voice gone so soft with wonder it’d be lost entirely on less attentive ears. Dorothea catches the word sideways—healing. Not healed, but certainly on the way there, even if the village is little more than a scattering of reclaimed houses around an ancient well, even if the people who are gathered here are only those who couldn’t bring themselves to stay away. The evening air is brisk and fragrant, and the children at play in the square have begun to break off into pairs and trios, wandering home in no particular hurry. Three of them, two girls and a boy with their arms around each other’s shoulders, are beginning to sing.
There’s no inn, as predicted, but the village headman lets them dine at his table. The headman’s younger brother has a farmhouse on the outskirts, and a barn with a clean hayloft they’re welcome to put themselves up in for the night horses and all, provided they don’t mind the company of his cows. Neither of them have the heart to tell him they’ve learned to treasure a roof and a bed of clean straw—that soldiers learn rapidly to fall asleep anywhere, and to rouse themselves at a moment’s notice, lest they never wake again.
Later they lie face to face in the hay, eyes open against the darkness, fingers intertwined. Again, Petra whispers, lips to Dorothea’s forehead as if to impress the words onto her skin, “It is healing.”
Dorothea closes her eyes. When her dreams are not of rivers, they’re of children—she had known children who had still been able to sing, during the war. She had told them that was its own way of doing battle. Why had she told them that? “Do you think they’re happy? Life can’t be easy here.”
“Not easy, no,” Petra agrees. She kisses Dorothea’s forehead again. Then the bridge of her nose, the curve of one cheek, then the other. Parts of her that haven’t lost their softness. “But here is where they are wanting to be.”
Healing, not healed—not quite yet. Dorothea shudders, pulls Petra closer without answering.
Sleep happens to them both eventually, an accident that only becomes apparent when Dorothea opens her eyes and sees the morning dawning in bright splinters through the gaps in the planks. Light on the other side of the barn wall. In that light, there are birds singing; birds here in Remire after all these years.
Closer than that is Petra’s arm about Dorothea’s waist again. Petra’s body following the inward curve of her spine, Petra’s breath feathering against her nape, warm. Birdsong, and breathing. Dorothea strokes the unscarred back of her hand, and listens, and listens.
The inn at Hevring has a bath, and soap that smells like flowers. The sun is still out when Dorothea enters, but the sky’s already purpling with nightfall when she returns, mounting the stairs back to their rented room with a towel draped over her head. Petra is sitting on the edge of the bed, lighting a candle against the fading light. The map on which she’s drawn their path lies unfolded in her lap. Her own bath had taken no more than a handful of minutes when they arrived earlier in the afternoon, but Dorothea had felt her body go limp in the water, and lost track of time completely, remembering what it felt like to be clean.
As the door swings shut behind her, she says, “I didn’t realize I was in there so long.”
Petra lifts her head, unperturbed. She’s smiling. “It does not surprise me. After so many days on the road, the hot water is a temptation.”
“You seemed able enough to resist the temptation.”
“Perhaps. But you are doing no harm by choosing to…” She pauses, deliberating on a word. Once she’s chosen, a scale tips. “Indulge yourself.”
Dorothea repeats the word to herself as she crosses the room, toweling her hair. Indulge. Indulge yourself. Perhaps Petra’s right, and that is what this is. In the opera she had bathed with the other girls every day and thought nothing of it, but no one but Manuela has gotten a proper look at her body since the Garreg Mach years. Even Petra has only ever explored it with all the light in the room extinguished, drawing a map of it by touch and not by sight. Dorothea is not certain she likes what a candle would reveal—all the places she’s been burned, for one, in more ways than she cares to name.
Solitude, perhaps, is the most precious indulgence she’s allowed herself these last few years, all the more precious because she imagines the revelation of this fact would still surprise most people. It has never surprised Petra.
“I think I indulge myself too much,” says Dorothea, “and you too little.”
Petra’s laugh is a winged thing. It flutters out of her, like a note on a flute. If Dorothea could sing it, she’d hold it, sweetly and long, all the way to the end of her deepest breath.
“You will let me help with your hair, then, to indulge myself.” When Petra reaches out a hand, Dorothea leaves her towel on the footboard and allows herself to be pulled gently toward the bed. When she sits, their knees are flush. “Will you not?”
Dorothea arches an eyebrow, but turns, presenting her back. “You’re the only person I know who’d think of work as an indulgence.”
“And you, Dorothea, are the only person I know who thinks of the care of herself as work.”
They have a comb somewhere in the saddlebags, but Petra uses her hands, slowly, working at the tangles a little at a time. What remains of the soap’s fragrance floats up between them, roses and lavender. Something in Dorothea softens, entrusting itself to the touch of those hands; quick, nimble fingers and a palm that knows how to curve itself just so around living things, to make of itself a cradle for a bird, or a blossom, or a recovering heart.
The truth is Dorothea does understand. Petra has always been the kind who feels most like herself when she can devote herself to things that need accomplishing, great or small. Always moving forward, forward. It’s a bit of a precarious way to operate, but Dorothea knows she’s not one to talk. They’ve both had to teach themselves ways to survive, in their time. Ways to live, though, all these little freedoms they could never be sure they’d live to see—those are something else. Neither of them have learned their way around those, just yet.
“While you were in the bath, I was speaking with the harbormaster,” says Petra. The movements of her fingers continue unbroken, steady, but Dorothea can hear her breathing hitch and pause, start up again. “The ship to Brigid leaves tomorrow morning at dawn.”
“How do you feel?” Dorothea tilts her head, leaning into Petra’s hands. She already knows the answer will be slow to come, if it comes at all. She waits, and it emerges.
“Like something is… divided, inside of me. Something like that. I do not have the word exactly, in any language.” Petra’s fingertips ghost down the nape of her neck as they pass, and it’s this touch that gives her away; Dorothea can feel the hesitation in them, faintly trembling. “Part of me is quickening, wanting to go. Wanting to fly there, because we are so close. It is years since I was last this close.”
Dorothea hums, understanding. “And the other part?”
“The other part,” says Petra. “The other part wants to linger here. To watch the water. To dream about Brigid but never actually arrive, because the arriving means the dreaming is done, and the rest of everything must now begin. A new life to build, from out of the ground.” Her hands pause in Dorothea’s hair, fingers curling, entangling themselves. “I am glad you are with me now.”
With a sigh, Dorothea closes her eyes. It’s no work at all to summon the memory of a long night in the ruins of the old cathedral, her hands held between both of Petra’s, the winter moon shining wanly down. The way her voice softens now is not so different from the way she had whispered her question, then—hope and terror twining together around every uncertain word, like a prayer caught between languages. Will you—with me—
“Why did you ask me to come with you?”
Petra’s hand brushes aside her hair. Dorothea can feel her bare neck go warm from the candlelight, before Petra lays her forehead there, in the dip where it joins her shoulder. She speaks the words against Dorothea’s skin—softly, selfishly, possibly the only selfish thing she has ever done: “I did not want to be without you. That is all.”
Ah. Dorothea feels her heart, then, beginning to hammer between her ribs. Pushing its way up into her throat, as though commanding her to sing. Petra had called that feeling a quickening. Dorothea knows what it means to tell her, even before she can imagine the name she might give it: You are here. You are here. You are still here.
Dorothea turns to Petra. She can imagine how she must look through Petra's eyes, her hair still wet, her skin still flushed; there is so little to her like this, by the light of one candle.
Petra’s hands reach out for her again. Her lips taste alive.
v. the open sea
On the ship to Brigid, Dorothea teachers herself how to walk again. It’s a little like learning a dance, and a little not—only like learning the kind of dance for which no choreography exists, the kind of dance for firesides and festivals, no method to it but listening to a song and allowing it to make you move. The song tells you where to put your feet. You don’t tell it.
There’s nothing composed about the ocean’s song. There’s no telling it anything. Underfoot, it swells, and rolls, and rises, and Petra walks to meet it every time, so steady it’s as if she’s determined to prove all these years of living inland have failed to take her sea legs from her. So many things in Petra have emerged back into the light like this, more and more, the closer they’ve come to the sea—so much of her now unchained and unfolding, blossoming into a wild joy. She stays abovedeck for as long as possible each day, face turned up to the sky, leaning out hard over the water.
Meanwhile, Dorothea stumbles alongside, swaying, one hand around Petra’s wrist to hold herself upright. The deck tilts, and her knees buckle. There is so much motion all around it twists her stomach. And yet she can’t deny that something in her feels like it’s awakening too, up here, surrounded by so much life; whatever it is, it gets her out of their tiny cabin and out into the open, all the way to the rails, where she can look down and watch the waves foam until her face is raw and her hair turns crusty with salt. She’s never paid much mind to anything that goes on beneath the sea, but Petra tells her of seabirds, and dolphins, and whales. All of these, she says, find their way in the world through song, in a manner of speaking. They find each other the same way: by facing the great unbroken blue and calling, calling.
Above the water, the sailors make a practice of singing also. They’re nonsense songs, rough and ribald and fit only for hauling the ropes to, but three days in and Dorothea is humming along with them. Melodies like these, she finds, are easier on a weary throat. They are not beautiful; they make no demands. It is enough, says Petra, that her body is beginning to make music again.
The waters are rough the morning they come within sight of Brigid, swelled by the spring storms that visit frequently around the waxing of the Harpstring Moon, winter’s last lingering breath. The tide is high, the wind biting. Dawn breaks silver around the island’s distant silhouette, and overhead the calls of the gulls pierce down into the quiet—first one voice, two. And then many, all together, crying out to one another.
Dorothea lifts her face to the sky as they emerge from below deck, peering up at the darting shapes from under one hand. The ship pitches forward, then backward—nearly tilts her off her feet, but Petra catches her in one arm and holds her.
“Have I told you, Dorothea, about the language of the black-tailed gull?” This close to the end of their journey, she has a real glow about her, beaming like the sun they’ve yet to see. “They have so many different voices. For warning each other, for courting each other, for calling each other home.”
The language of gulls, it seems to Dorothea, is likewise short of beautiful songs. An old part of her heart, a part she’s long thought withered and buried, wakes, and rises to it instantly.
“Not yet,” she says. “You’ll have to tell me all about it.”
In Brigid, the sky does go forever, and the sea, too. On her second morning on the island, Dorothea finds herself walking toward it, as though she’s caught herself in the middle of a dream and her body is not quite her own. She’s in an old linen shift of Petra’s, a wonderful, airy thing that would have caused no end of scandal back in Enbarr—the fall of it too loose and shapeless, the hemline too high above the knee. She loves it. Her hair is braided all the way down to keep it out of the wind, and she carries her sandals in one hand, and she loves that too, especially when the grass underfoot roughens and gives way to sand. There had been no real beaches in Adrestia to soften the sea’s approach, only miles and miles of rocky cliffs hollowed out here and there with caves, long stretches of stony ground giving way to water. Nothing like this, here.
“It is not far now,” says Petra, beside her, holding her hand and leading her on. This is what tells her it’s not a dream—she does not hear things this way in dreams, so clearly they don’t even echo. “The water will be warm.”
“How do you know?” Dorothea asks, even as she feels the ground already warm. Even as the sunlight washes down over them when they step out from under the trees, and she forgets to breathe for a moment, feeling it so much on her skin. “It’s early spring still.”
Petra smiles. “I know this place. Like my arms and my legs. Like the inside of my heart. Many years now I have been missing from it, but I remember it.”
There is so much to listen to in Brigid. The breezes, the birds, the rise and fall of a language she is only beginning to learn, word by word. And now this whispering of the low tide, where the breakers meet the shore. A gentle song, far too quiet for an audience, but Dorothea supposes quiet is more than enough, when it has peace behind it.
“I want to know it, too,” she murmurs. “Every part of it, like you do.”
They leave their shoes on the ground by a driftwood log, step closer to the water. It’s a moment before Petra speaks again. “You will. And it will embrace you, as I have.”
It isn’t a question. With Petra, these things never are. Dorothea draws a breath in as the next wave recedes, looks her in the eye. “I hope so.”
Petra squeezes her hand, wordlessly, like she means to say that hope speaks for itself. That it is self-evident. Petra has a way of seeing things as they are, demanding nothing from them but that they simply continue to be, as if the being is enough. As if continuing to be in the world is enough.
On the first step, Dorothea’s foot sinks deep into the wet sand. On the second, the water washes in, the foam on the surface like lace, twining about her ankles. Petra does not let go of her hand.
“Do you see?” she asks. The smile is in her voice now, sunlike.
The sea is warm. When Dorothea bends her head to listen, it sings.