The Varley manor’s wrought-iron gate shuts out Edelgard. Her horse nickers beside her, her only company until the gate cracks open and a face pops out. If she didn’t know better, she’d think Bernadetta warped through the shadows, or perhaps drifted in as a ghost.
Without looking at her, Bernadetta approaches her horse. The chestnut stallion noses her shoulder, earning a giggle, a bright burst in the night.
“He likes neck pats,” Edelgard says with a smile. Bernadetta startles, the levity draining from her face. She reaches anyway to touch the horse’s fur.
“Um, what’s his name?”
“Quixote. He is on loan from Ferdinand, so that’s all I know.”
“Oh! I like his horses. I mean, I like hearing about his horses. Um, I should get Quixote inside.”
Bernadetta leads him into the stable and offers him oats. Edelgard stands at the entrance, already off script. Most of the nobles she's visited pawned off the task to a stable hand in favor of showing off their estate. Before she can do anything, Bernadetta slips back out, wringing her hands.
“Um, are you thirsty? You can come inside. Actually, I guess you wanted to see the greenhouse,” Bernadetta says.
“We may as well head straight there. I cannot stay long if I am to ride back tonight.”
She tries not to linger on thirsty with Bernadetta’s heartbeat galloping in her ears. Hubert’s sounded similar when she headed out, not that he’d admit it—but he already served her drink, and she is no mindless beast. It has just been some time since she saw a woman her age, let alone one so wildly alive. Adrenaline pulsates through Bernadetta, unlike their written correspondence, which Edelgard often rereads to calm down.
It keeps her quiet as they circle around to the fabled glass kingdom. Since Bernadetta abdicated most governance to Edelgard’s appointed official, she has spent as much time in the greenhouse as she once spent in her room.
The reason is obvious upon entry. Warm, humid air wraps around Edelgard as a cloak, forgotten now that she must travel at night. Scents of greenery, flowers, and fruit mask even the smell of Bernadetta’s fear. Broad-leafed plants provide enough shelter to evade an intruder, and tiny blossoms captivate Edelgard in the light of magical baubles.
“I can scarcely imagine growing so many varieties in one season,” Edelgard says, touching a thick stalk meant to survive winter.
“I know, right? We get the sweetest berries all year.”
It is easy to imagine lifting a berry to Bernadetta’s lips, staining them with juice. Another vampire might have used the tactic. The thought makes Edelgard want to both flee and stay close, in case someone should try.
“This one’s my favorite,” Bernadetta says. She crouches and points. Leaves like a split watermelon wedge are rimmed with what could be fangs. “Ooh, look, it caught one!”
One turns out to be a fly, its buzz muffled in the plant’s spout. “I’ve heard of these. They really eat insects?”
“Yup! They just sit there, all cozy in the shade, and wham.” Bernadetta giggles, the sound as light as before. All Edelgard can think of are weeks where she avoided drinking, and Hubert had to all but force feed her inside her coffin.
“How savage,” she murmurs.
Bernadetta stands, fists clenched. “No, it’s not! It’s just surviving.”
That renders Edelgard speechless—not the argument, but Bernadetta’s force in believing it. Bernadetta hides her hands and shrinks back.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. You wanted to see the nightblooms, right?” Bernadetta asks.
Edelgard tries to smooth her own edges. “Yes, if you would show me.” In truth, that was an excuse for her to visit at night, but she can’t deny curiosity about a flower that blooms in the dark.
They pass spindly plants until a glow catches her eye. It emanates from a patch of purple blossoms, nestled by the window to catch moonlight. Their triangular petals curl at the edges, and when she removes her glove to stroke one, it feels like velvet.
Bernadetta crouches beside her. “Pretty, huh?” Like the nightblooms, her hair shines purple in the moonlight. “In the day, they’re shriveled buds. But if you wait until night, they’re the most beautiful flower in the greenhouse.”
Her hushed awe, like she’s afraid to make them shrivel again, plants a tender seed in Edelgard. “They’re lovely.”
“Oh, I’m glad you like them,” Bernadetta says. “I’d hate for you to have come out here for nothing.”
“It would not be for nothing.” Edelgard lingers on Bernadetta long enough to hear her heart spike. Edelgard forces her gaze away. One chance to see a human in person, and she stares without a shred of decorum.
“Um, I can put one in a pot for you, if you want. And one for Hubert, too,” Bernadetta says.
“Thank you. We would appreciate that.”
Bernadetta pries the plants from the ground with careful movements, humming her own version of a wolf’s nightly serenade. If Edelgard’s heart weren’t dead inside her, it would settle. As Bernadetta passes over a small pot, her fingers brush Edelgard’s ungloved hand, warm enough to take shelter in.
Bernadetta sucks in a breath and retreats. Of course Edelgard doesn’t inspire the same feeling.
“You said you had to go home, right? Are you sure you shouldn’t stay until morning? It could be dangerous,” Bernadetta says.
“I have business at sunrise. Don’t worry, I shall be careful.”
Despite her questioning, Bernadetta seems relieved to be left alone. When they return to the stable, she hovers nonetheless, those near-magical fingers threading in Quixote’s mane.
“I’ll write soon,” Bernadetta says.
“I’ll look forward to it.”
“I’ll knit some gloves for you, too.”
In summer? Bernadetta must have felt her chilled skin.
“You have done enough already,” Edelgard says. Bernadetta wilts, and Edelgard fumbles for verbal salve. “But I appreciate it.”
She tries to imitate Bernadetta’s care as she tucks the pot in a secure place. It isn't until she rides down the road that Bernadetta’s heart stops pounding in her ears.