Dorothea’s dress bleeds into the carpet spilling down from Edelgard’s throne. It doesn’t suit her to blend in, even if it keeps Edelgard focused on the citizens seeking her audience, who line up to sit in the chairs across from her. Her heart thrums a beat faster with each one. Anticipation crescendos as Dorothea crests the steps, no doubt weakening the guards’ vigilance.
Edelgard stands to display her favor. It prevents Dorothea from kneeling, a sight that would tear at her. Dorothea plays her role as well as always, sweeping low in a flirtatious bow to kiss Edelgard’s fingertips. For the sake of her part, it is just as well that Edelgard cannot command her cheeks to cool; the news will ripple through the correct circles by dusk.
“After everyone’s appeals, I thought an offering might please you,” Dorothea says. Edelgard clings to the hint of mockery betraying the act, even if it’s best others don’t notice.
A pink ribbon shaped as a rose flops over the sides of the flat, heart-shaped box. Nobody watching will doubt it contains chocolates, especially when Hubert whisks it away to test for poison. In truth, he will retrieve the intelligence reports within: suspicious behavior among the nobles who frequent the opera, in Dorothea’s looping print.
Your handwriting will identify you, if it falls into the wrong hands, Hubert had said.
Then don’t let it. Besides, shouldn’t it look like I’m writing love letters? That argument came with a wink to Edelgard, who could only blandly agree.
Edelgard thanks her with a nod before remembering others must see her approval. Unwilling to cross lines, she takes Dorothea’s hand and lifts it halfway between them, holding just long enough to give others the picture. She can’t read Dorothea’s expression as she drops her hand and nods again in dismissal. Though her true heart would favor Dorothea’s company, she refuses to make her dangle like an accessory by the throne.
Edelgard is still picking at dinner when the sun sets, depriving her of even its shine through her window. Magical light tinges her office in a greenish glow—or perhaps that’s her stomach, now that the meat pie has cooled enough to congeal. Though she doesn’t care about the impropriety of dining in her office, when she recognizes the sharp rap on the door, she hides the dish behind her desk.
“You wanted to see me, Edie?”
After a day trapped in footnotes and formalities, the nickname eases the set of Edelgard’s shoulders. “Yes. Please, have a seat.” She shuffles some of her papers to the side, aware the stacks make this look like business.
Dorothea takes what’s offered and an inch more; she strides past the chair so many politicians have claimed and perches on the desk, just over the edge of Edelgard’s documents. Edelgard stifles a sound. The position must afford Dorothea a view of the forget-me-nots in the windowsill. She’d lined the bouquet with intelligence reports, but Edelgard had no need to throw away such loveliness, even if they are starting to wilt.
Dorothea looks down over her bare shoulder, its arch matching her brow. Edelgard clears her throat.
“Thank you for coming.” Her formality almost makes her wince. “I realize this is a dull setting, but I have not been able to leave all day, and I wished to give you this.”
Dorothea remains on her throne, perusing the folder of sheet music as if she’s a bored consort. “Will singing it give away state secrets?” she asks.
“No, it truly is music. It was found in an old collection. One of the Hresvelgs patronized a great many composers, and this piece was kept private. I can’t read it, but I thought you might like to.”
Dorothea turns, her eyebrows slipping into her bangs like a costume. “You’re entrusting me with a royal heirloom? So, it’s... It’s really just a gift?”
“You sound so surprised,” Edelgard says, though it would be unfair to ask why. It stings nonetheless, even when Dorothea brightens and clasps the folder to her chest. A present from a friend shouldn’t inspire such awe.
“It’s just, it’s been a while since a gift has felt so personal. Thank you, Edie.”
Edelgard’s heart plunges. It’s not only her; men offer Dorothea corsages with no regard to her taste, just to see her wear their prize. She rejects most of them these days.
“Of course. I’m glad you like it.” Edelgard forces a smile.
“Well, I don’t want to keep you from your dinner,” Dorothea says, nodding past Edelgard at the half-empty bowl. Her note of reproach prevents Edelgard from arguing.
“You are always welcome,” Edelgard says. She doesn’t know how to get across that she means it.
By the time she forces down the last bite of meat pie, she has the start of a plan.
Edelgard rests a hand on her sword as she enters the ballroom. Her dangling side ponytail provides a vulnerability, and her black and white suit can’t serve as armor, even with sigils etched in its lining. Though she rejected the fanfare that could have accompanied her, guards and whispers clear a path through the crowd. At least it grants her a clear view of the one person whose attention she wants.
She waits to approach until they’ve both mingled. Dorothea sets her champagne aside to let Edelgard fasten a locket around her neck. Perhaps observers will think it contains a lock of Edelgard’s hair, rather than evidence her spy network would like to keep safe. For it to work, Dorothea must let it clash with her rose pink dress. It can’t ruin her beauty. Even bloodstains never could, and the golden light suits her better than Edelgard’s ghastly green office.
It would look strange if they didn’t dance, but Edelgard is more than happy to offer Dorothea her hand. Despite the ruse, she would not press if Dorothea appeared uncomfortable; thankfully, her smile shines true as they make the floor their stage. The orchestra plays a slow tune, one that lets them sway together without Dorothea’s unmatchable footwork. Edelgard needn’t have considered the disparity. Like a good sparring partner, Dorothea raises the bar for technique without forcing her out of her depth.
Not that she can focus on technique with Dorothea in her arms, as warm and alive as fire compared to her steel and paperwork. In moments, their whole bodies fall into sync, like they don’t come from different shadows and wear different masks. It’s nothing like their dance at their old school ball, playful but calculated. It would be easy to say those were lighter times, as if Edelgard hadn’t plotted a revolution while Dorothea feared losing everything. Now, she can finally feel both their chests expanding as they breathe together.
When the song nears its end, she takes advantage of the closeness to whisper in Dorothea’s ear. “Meet me on the balcony after the next dance.”
“A tryst with the Emperor? Lucky me.” Dorothea’s breath dances across Edelgard’s temple, not helping the effect of her teasing.
Once they ease apart, Edelgard mentally rehearses until she slips outside. The cool air helps clear her head, but not as much as being alone with Dorothea, finally able to speak normally. They both lean against the railing. Below, Enbarr ends its day, specks moving and lights winking out. It might be easy to forget each speck has a beating heart if not for the woman beside her, who instead looks up toward the clear night, her profile the soft lines of a dreamer.
“You look lovely tonight, as always,” Edelgard says.
“You’re sweet, Edie, but there’s no need to put on an act backstage.”
“I must agree.”
Edelgard produces a small box. Dorothea’s face looks carved of marble as she twists the locket, and Edelgard becomes sure of her decision.
“Shall I open it here?” Dorothea asks.
As Dorothea lifts the lid, her expression lifts with it. As delicate as tweezers, her fingertips pull out the hairpiece, tilting it to let its golden pin and red beaded ribbon catch starlight.
“Oh, Edie, it’s gorgeous.”
“I hoped you’d think so. Bernadetta advised me on the design, and Linhardt enchanted it for your health. I only wanted…”
Another blank space, this one full of feelings she can’t articulate. Dorothea watches her as if to pick out each one, as carefully as she handled the hairpiece.
“I would like to establish a new code,” Edelgard says.
Like a theater at the night’s end, the light dies in Dorothea’s eyes. “Of course.” With no audience, she becomes all business. It used to be the opposite, with her teasing and caring for Edelgard when a hundred soldiers weren’t watching. The thought of Dorothea again being comfortable around her spurs her on.
“If a gift has even a trace of crimson, whether that be a gemstone or a note’s ink, you will know it does not come from the Emperor. Only from…” She has debated names and definitions all evening. Dorothea softens, a good improvisation partner, as always.
“From my Edie?”
Those aren’t words she’d dare speak, but Dorothea’s sweet voice makes it clear she gets the idea.
“Yes,” Edelgard says. “Ordinarily, I’m resigned to such suspicion, but I do not wish you to search every bouquet I send for some hidden note. When I offer my heart, you will know it.”
Dorothea’s laugh seems to cover a sharp breath. “You’re saying your heart is the hidden treasure this time?”
“If you wish to call it that,” Edelgard says. She wouldn't use the term for intelligence reports, nor for the coal lodged in her chest, but it beats nonetheless as Dorothea sweeps the hair from her own neck. Edelgard’s gaze follows the slope of it as she pins the clip in place.
“How do I look?” Dorothea asks, tilting her chin.
“Beautiful, despite how I’ve given you two accessories that don’t match.”
Through their gloves, Dorothea’s hand presses warm against hers. “I think they’ll make it work.”