Hubert’s face swims in a sea of red. Blinking awake, Edelgard listens for battle cries in the silence. Lifting her head sends a lance of pain down her spine; she assesses her injuries, finding the worst ache in her chest. A punctured heart.
“Edelgard. Thank goodness.” His hand clutches hers, disorienting her further. “Please, do not strain yourself.”
Without doing so, her only clue is a stone ceiling. No metallic stench—instead, something cloying smothers her. Carnations, usually a welcome scent. When she can tilt her head, she finds a greenhouse’s worth, their crimson blossoms hiding the grey walls. Anyone but Ferdinand would have sent a bouquet. The thought of Hubert arranging them, unable to dispose of any as he once would, almost makes her smile.
When he presses her hand to his forehead, it clicks. A private research facility, this time aboveground, run by those she trusts. The procedure already saved Lysithea, and now…
Hubert’s grasp no longer confuses her. She brushes her knuckles against his clammy skin, and a breath tears from his throat.
His façade returns as the door opens. Hanneman’s voice competes with the carnations in filling the room. Edelgard tries to focus on him rather than his assistants, who bear unfamiliar faces and only speak when necessary. For years, infirmary visits at least offered the comfort of Dorothea’s lullabies.
A phantom melody, sweeter than flowers, keeps her company. Not from the infirmary, but a dorm room on a weak night—Dorothea pressed against her back, stroking her hair and crooning, her song breaking up the nightmares like a stutter.
The present returns as Hubert tries to relay Ferdinand’s latest report from Enbarr. Edelgard dismisses him with an order. He retreats to the corner rather than leave, but he falls quiet. She feigns sleep. All her years wishing to lie still and dream of pleasant things, and she finally has a moment.
More than a moment. Years, more than she has lived through. Countless calculations of how long she has left, in percentages, months, weeks—all void. Her already sore chest almost caves in.
Her fancies have been brief: a nap beneath a tree, a table laden with sweets, a minute to breathe. What will she do with years?
She envisions herself outside a forest cottage, tending to a garden of carnations and carrots and herbs. Ferdinand would harvest baby vegetables alongside her, and Hubert would return with fresh venison, and they’d all bicker over who should cook dinner. Afterward, the couple would put their heads together to whisper before retiring for a stroll in the forest, leaving her to her own devices.
She can’t imagine it without them. And then she can’t imagine them without their ministerial garb, and the image unravels.
The loose threads form a million problems. A moment to think isn’t so peaceful.
What will she do with years?
Dorothea’s lullaby returns, one she can’t remember from her youth. If her own tuneless hum drowns out other thoughts, Hubert has the grace not to mention it.
After days of tests, Edelgard is moved to the palace infirmary. Being moved anywhere burns her; she forged her own path so nobody could steal her away again. But her procedure is secret, its location secure, and returning to the palace requires discretion. Now is not the time for the Emperor to be vulnerable.
It never is.
She does her work from her sickbed. Others squabble over the amount as if she is not there. For all she has hated being an untouchable leader, a patient is not her ideal substitute.
When only Manuela and Dorothea are present, they all but fling her paperwork aside. She sits up against a wrought iron headboard that Manuela padded with downy pillows.
“I’m afraid others require a doctor’s tender care. You can take it from here, can’t you, Dorothea?” Manuela asks with a wink before swanning out of the room.
Dorothea perches on the bed’s edge, twisting with a dancer’s grace toward Edelgard. “Imagine, ducking out on an emperor! Whatever shall you do, Edie?”
“The guillotine is the only suitable punishment,” Edelgard says. “Or it would be, were I not in such capable hands.”
Teasing comes easily until those hands touch her. This is no dressing room where they press each other against the door; Dorothea is a medic, neither shy nor presumptuous about bodies that come to her for aid. But with Manuela’s interference, the air between them warms as Edelgard slips off her shirt, letting Dorothea unwrap her bandage.
The sight spoils the mood. “I still don’t know how I missed you being sick enough to need surgery,” Dorothea says. It isn’t accusatory, like when she points out Edelgard’s eye bags or her absence at dinner.
Part of Edelgard yearns to explain. To lay herself bare to this woman who cleans everything that oozes out of her, who knows what it is to fight alone in the dark. If she strung up her rotten pieces, would one be enough to repel Dorothea from exalting her on stage, or from wrapping her tenderly?
But she doesn’t want that, or to burden Dorothea. Besides, where would she even begin? And why begin there, when her body is fixed, her enemies dead?
“Even Manuela had no idea. It took dedicated researchers to resolve it,” Edelgard points out instead.
Dorothea hums a single note of doubt. Rather than question further, she begins a tune as her gloved hands handle Edelgard’s sides, careful yet direct. Her humming suffuses the air like rose perfume. It becomes enough to gag at when it grows familiar.
Heavy as her crown may be...
Edelgard groans. A glint forms in Dorothea’s eye.
She will lead us all to glory. To a brighter—
Dorothea stops, the glint gone. Edelgard doesn’t know whether it’s worse if she sounded pleading or imperious.
Dorothea rubs Edelgard’s forehead as to soothe a headache. Pleading, then. Edelgard closes her eyes and fights a flush. She could pass it off as a symptom, but she’s already compromised.
The hidden infirmary only allows a few flower vases along its walls, which are blank where now-irrelevant portraits have been removed. Those walls seem to crush her. Her cage offers no respite from nightmares, and it does not take long for her to flinch at imagined scuttling. Every visitor seems to do something uncharacteristic—soft voices, downturned eyebrows—until she is assured it is only sympathy, not a sign of interlopers.
Thankfully, there is a secluded path to the rooftop gardens, which security clears of all but her afternoon guests. She breathes in lavender air like she’s been trapped underwater. Moving slow enough to not reopen her incisions has been a constant battle, but it is not difficult now to amble and take in each lily and violet. Clouds drift without aim, and beyond the rooftop’s edge, thousands of citizens go about their day.
Byleth and Lysithea sit at a tea table nestled within the bushes. The sight of them lifts her heart further. Were Lysithea not there, Edelgard might have sunk to let Byleth catch her. As it is, she feels the need to be strong, though it is no burden. In the months since Lysithea’s operation, a glow has settled about her—not a flower in bloom, but a tree limited only by the sky.
A plum tart, rich chocolate cake, and almond cookies almost make the table cave in. The tea only chases everything down. Edelgard knows why she and Lysithea covet such things, why they both keep stuffed bears, and why the surgery could not return pigment to their hair. Even Byleth, whose hair again matches the twilight, must understand. They don’t ask their former students what they plan to do with their lives.
Lysithea speaks anyway about becoming Hanneman’s apprentice. “Now that we have a stable procedure to remove Crests, we would like to make it safely available to the public.”
“That is a wonderful aim. Although, I doubt many will give them up willingly,” Edelgard says.
Lysithea’s face hardens. “Do not worry. Nobody will be forced to undergo a procedure on my watch.”
“Reassurance isn’t necessary. There is no one I trust more with this.”
As Edelgard lightens the conversation, the back of her mind works at the dilemma. Future children born with Crests must grow up in a world where it entitles them to nothing. Some changes will take generations. It has always been tough to grasp, when all Edelgard could think to do was burn what rot she could with what little time she had.
Bumblebees bop around them. The clouds neither speed up nor shift direction. All the trio accomplishes that afternoon is scattering crumbs for the birds.
As soon as she is well enough to show her face, rooftop tea parties return to distant dreams. She throws herself twice as hard into her rule, like she can make up for every stalled bit of legislation, every victim of her lost days. Even a full lifetime may not ensure a world where Lysithea’s unending work can take root.
A thought breaks out of its confinement. Whenever a noble outside her cabinet makes her jaw clench, she imagines Dorothea’s hand covering hers, holding her steady. Could standing beside her make Dorothea happy? Offering ringed fingers to hold in place of her axe as they take on sneering faces?
Of course not. Dorothea should never be subjected to such company again.
Edelgard takes breaks only for Manuela’s routine checkups. Loathe as she is to focus on her health, the infirmary allows her to contemplate her own future. In her head, she returns to the woodland cottage. Wildflowers would grow wherever they pleased until rabbits nibbled them. Perhaps Dorothea would like cats, or perhaps forest creatures would flock to her like in the operas.
The ridiculous image ceases to be a refuge. Dorothea deserves a full larder and protection from drafts, and more: a closet of silks, a drawer overflowing with jewels, and enough red wine for all the blood she had to spill. Everything Edelgard plans to give up. Not yet, not while she rebuilds the continent she razed. But she could have years—she could have decades—and the world she is creating has no place for such a lengthy rule.
Manuela pulls her from these thoughts with complaints about her last date. Despite her cursing, she continues checking Edelgard’s vitals.
“There used to be gaggles of men kissing my feet. I could have chosen any of them, if they cared to look me in the eye. Speaking of which, follow my finger, dear,” Manuela says. The direction is one of Edelgard’s only orders now that Byleth has stepped down.
“Perhaps it isn’t quite the same thing, but I know how it feels to be put on a pedestal. It is little wonder love did not reach you there.”
“Oh, it’s not so different. It’s nice to hear you understand such things. You know, you’ve asked how the Goddess supports me. Just knowing there’s someone out there who sees me, whose love is timeless, sustains me some days.”
“I see.” There isn’t anything else Edelgard can say.
“Of course, other days, a warm body would be nice.” Manuela sighs. Her eyes become too sharp as she says, “Did I ever tell you how I met Dorothea?”
“No. Please, tell me,” Edelgard says, resisting the urge to scoot closer. Manuela shortens the distance anyway to take Edelgard’s pulse.
“It was a warm summer day, but she shook like she walked through a storm, all wrapped up in a borrowed dress.” Most couldn’t envision it, but Edelgard can, and it makes her heart clench. She should have known this story would be invasive. Despite the description, Manuela smiles. “But still, that little bolt of lightning zigzagged over to me, Mittelfrank’s foremost diva, and do you know what she did?”
The hush extends, as if an audience waits for her to break a pose. Her lips move to the count of heartbeats. The moment her fingers leave Edelgard’s wrist, Edelgard prompts, “What did she do?”
“She asked if I could offer her tips on her audition piece. Well, usually us stars aren’t keen to boost our competition, but how could I resist?”
“How like her.” Edelgard’s smile lingers until she realizes Manuela is observing her, her examination complete.
“You know, I figure what most people really want is to be seen. Even off stage.”
Edelgard wants to crack a joke about her oldest friend, the spymaster. Then she recalls the hundred ways Ferdinand looks at him, and her throat goes dry as Manuela’s meaning hits her.
“I’ll give it thought,” Edelgard says. Manuela only winks as she packs up her medical supplies.
Edelgard watches the opera from her balcony, away from the eyes and rapiers of the audience below. A security team takes up their positions at the balcony’s entrance and in the shadows, ensuring a stray bolt or spell won’t topple her. A necessary precaution, but a stifling one. Surely not how Dorothea would like to attend all future events.
The star herself wields a sword on stage as gracefully as she did on the field. Mercifully, this story is not about Edelgard. Two fae lovers hunt enemies, one during the day and one at night, only meeting in the dusk between. Dorothea’s voice rends her heart as it echoes into silent sections, duets left incomplete.
In those off moments, Edelgard reads documents in her lap, the balcony concealing her rudeness. There is no other way to allow her evening out, or the chance to slip backstage after the show.
She takes part in the usual encore. She does not need Crest power to lift Dorothea onto her dressing room table, nor to tuck into the nape of Dorothea’s neck. It is not a healer’s hands that touch her. They tremble, unsure of where they can rest, belying Dorothea’s flirty lilt; no slithering replacement could imitate her layers. Edelgard’s tremorous lips fit firm against the fingers before she guides them, whereupon they cling to whatever they’re given.
Afterward, Dorothea combs her fingers through her hair, and Edelgard takes over the task. Now that Dorothea’s spells aren’t frizzing her hair every battle, only Edelgard can see it mussed. It’s fair that she put it back.
A red smear on Edelgard’s wrist incriminates them both. “Why, Ms. Arnault, what will your loyal fans say?”
“Nothing, if they go straight to sticking their foot in it.”
The second it takes to laugh is all that keeps Edelgard from proposing to her on the spot, her fingers knuckle-deep in snarls and Dorothea’s face glowing in the mirror. The idea that she wouldn’t propose seems more farfetched than life in a quiet cottage.
This isn’t the place. She won’t be the sort of suitor who plagues Dorothea. It is not the opera star she loves, and she will make sure Dorothea knows.
The fountain is barely audible over the crowd, with families raising their voices above the market vendors’ appeals. A waft of frying hand pies almost tempts Edelgard off her path. She might afford such a whim, as her cloak and plain clothes conceal her identity, but her similarly garbed friend’s tunnel vision wouldn’t allow it. Proposal planning will be their only goal.
Or so she assumes. Ferdinand slows as they pass a group of playing children, his eyes dancing. Arm linked in his, Edelgard dawdles as well; it will probably help them blend in better than their stride through the crowd. It hasn’t parted like liquid, as it would if she were recognized, but a complete lack of attention is a luxury.
After all, it is not by the Emperor’s weakness that her hand is looped through Ferdinand’s elbow. There is nothing wrong with sticking close to a friend at the morning market. He oversells the part; my sister and I adore daisies, he told a pint-sized vendor, and she would have reminded him of subtlety if sister hadn’t flung her two lifetimes back.
One of the children issues a challenge, and the group races off, weaving through the crowd. They are Fodlan’s future, those who will rise to whatever heights they wish rather than being caged.
Ferdinand’s chuckle brings her back to ground level. “Do you recall the races I challenged you to in these streets?” he asks.
“Do you recall how I never accepted your challenges?”
He levels her a look she can’t interpret. “I meant long ago, when you did.”
She tries to push back her mind’s dark walls. Even a fabricated memory eludes her.
One of the children bursts around them. A moment later, another follows, trying to squeeze between Edelgard and Ferdinand. The child knocks their head on her elbow.
“Careful,” Ferdinand says with a laugh. He pats their head as he steps aside. “The most direct route is not always the fastest.” Rather than heed him, the child scrambles to catch up to their friend. Edelgard follows their trail until the crowd swallows them.
A less distant light perks up Ferdinand as he points out a jeweler, their wares concealed from grabbier hands. Edelgard holds his arm back.
“To be honest, I’m not looking at rings yet,” she says.
His pout would not give away his identity to any stranger. “No ring?”
“I have not spoken with Dorothea about this. What if she thinks I’m trying to buy her hand? I will not do anything that pressures her to accept.”
She prepares for a debate, but Ferdinand’s pout vanishes. He strokes his chin.
“Can the romantic flair not be something immaterial, then? A series of experiences, to be treasured regardless of the outcome?”
“That’s not such bad advice,” she says.
“Your surprise wounds me. I have put a great deal of thought into this, you know.”
They strategize while they stroll past the jeweler. The ideal location is obvious: the rooftop gardens provide privacy and fresh air, as well as harboring Edelgard and Dorothea’s shared love of nature.
“So, we have agreed on dinner. Full of our dear Dorothea’s favorites, of course,” Ferdinand says. His hand waves in the air like he’s sketching a diagram. “Surely you would take a walk around the gardens afterward.”
“Yes, that seems more natural than proposing over the meal. We could end the walk at—”
“The gazebo!” He almost knocks off his hood. She cannot begrudge him the interruption when they agree. “It will make an excellent backdrop for your wedding portrait.”
“You’re planning our wedding, now, too?” Edelgard shakes her head, but she smiles. For all his years of feeling left in her dust, Ferdinand leaps from horizon to horizon, with the dogged foresight of one who’s never doubted his future.
The scar on his ear, like a notch out of an alley cat, chastises her. All of them have bought whatever future they face, whether with steel or song. The only thing left to determine is if Dorothea will share hers.
Knowing Dorothea’s feelings on the flowers flung by all-but-anonymous suitors, Edelgard does not prepare a bouquet. The rose bushes and gardenias atop the palace stand in, out of her hands but bearing a promise: you can make this yours, if you want it.
She offers her arm as they emerge. Dorothea’s fingers warm the crook of her elbow. “So formal, Edie.”
“Hardly. I’ve been in meetings all day. This is the most I have been allowed to relax.” What an enticing introduction to the life she’s about to offer. Not that she has ever believed in sugarcoating the truth. Still, she waves a hand toward the nearest blossom, aiming to prove she can be light. “Lovely, aren’t they?”
Does Dorothea’s grip tense against her? Has she heard such a question from a hundred base flatterers? They reach the table, and Dorothea looks unruffled as she slides into place and smoothes her gown.
Stop overreacting, Edelgard orders herself. Focus.
The spread of cheese gratin, lightly fried vegetables, and peach sorbet brightens Dorothea’s face, warming Edelgard’s heart despite its painful thump. Each dish is magically enchanted to the proper temperature; nobody will intrude to replace courses. Even if she is not proposing at the table, she could not stand to share such a private scene.
As she asks after Dorothea’s latest rehearsals, her own rehearsal returns to her in snippets. Trying to recall full lines of her speech is like trying to recall her buried innocence.
Dorothea doesn’t know Edelgard lost years in the fog. The things she doesn’t know could fill a hundred dossiers. Is it unfair to ask her to commit with incomplete information?
The cheese sits heavy in Edelgard’s stomach. It worsens her sore chest, still prone to discomfort after her surgery.
“Edie? Are you okay?”
Concern dips Dorothea’s features. The sight makes Edelgard sicker.
“Yes, I’m fine. You were saying?” Edelgard says. Dorothea’s expression doesn’t change.
“You’re so pale. Why don’t we find some fresher air?” Dorothea stands and offers a hand. Which of her roles is this? The healer who has seen Edelgard’s scars, or the friend who spent all-nighters studying, or the lover who touches her with care?
Whoever she is, she’s hardly eaten. The enchantment will keep the meal good, and she won’t enjoy anything with Edelgard a mess across from her. Once, Edelgard could face a battlefield without letting the soldiers under her command glimpse the war within her. Now, with Dorothea holding her hand and heart, it all bursts at the seams.
It’s a minute before Edelgard realizes they’re walking away from the gazebo, flat stones leading them through a neat but unadorned row of hedges. And since when has that not been enough? She has always forged a path forward; there is no reason to stop now simply because she can’t see her goal.
“Dorothea, I feel I should be honest.”
They both halt. Dorothea goes rigid, her expression bland, the reaction of one always expecting a knife in the ribs. It is so familiar that it makes Edelgard yearn to be her shield, not the wielder. Yet she barrels on as ever.
“I didn’t only invite you here for dinner,” Edelgard says. Something flashes across Dorothea’s face; resignation, perhaps, that everyone wants something from her. She drops Edelgard’s hand to face her.
“I can’t say I’m surprised. If you ever do, I hope dinner itself won’t make you so tense. What’s the matter, Edie? Or is it Her Majesty that summoned me?”
“Edie is fine,” she says quickly. “To be honest, I dearly hope you will not see me as your emperor while we discuss this."
That makes Dorothea soften. “Then, what role shall I play?”
“That is what I would like to ask. Or rather, propose.” The word slips out like she’s in a meeting, suggesting a tax reform. Her cheeks heat just as realization dawns on Dorothea’s face. Even the slight lift of her eyes is too much for Edelgard.
“I suppose there’s no use in hiding it,” she continues. “I intended to ask for your hand after we dined.”
“I just cannot help but find it premature. You can’t possibly have a fair chance to consider all it would mean to—”
“Edie!” The voice that follows isn’t rich like an opera singer’s, or calm like a medic’s, or lilting like a suitor’s—but hushed, like someone who’s dropped all roles. “You want to marry me?”
“Yes. I do.” There is no dousing her flaming face. “Can you blame me? No one could occupy the space you do in my life.”
The use of her name makes her stomach drop. There’s nothing formal about the way Dorothea takes her hand, fingers curling slowly.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I am,” Edelgard says. “Have I ever retracted anything?”
Dorothea laughs, more disbelieving than amused. “Perish the thought. But seriously, I wouldn’t exactly be most emperors’ first choice of brides.”
“I am not most emperors. Indeed, it would hamper my goals to pick a consort based on convention.” Edelgard rubs her thumb along Dorothea’s knuckles, the movement stiff. “But that is not why I chose you. As I said, I do not stand before you a ruler. Only someone who knows what it’s like to claw your own way through tragedy. All these years, your passion and ambition, that is, your…”
Dorothea’s eyes only lift further. Her lips part, and a lock of hair strays past her ear. Edelgard bites her cheek at the sight of her, unmasked in this garden Edelgard calls home.
“I swear I prepared a speech.”
“Sounds speech-like to me,” Dorothea says, smile wide and cheeks pink. “I can’t call myself prepared, either. To be honest, I… I had stopped hoping. Stopped dreaming someone like you would always love me.”
Every sore part of Edelgard goes numb. She squeezes Dorothea’s hand, less careful than when Crest power made her liable to break things. “I do, and I will. I’m sorry I made you doubt.”
“I know you have a hundred other things on your mind.” Dorothea’s matter-of-fact tone worsens the statement.
“It’s more than that. How can I explain?”
She must look dreadful again, because Dorothea presses her to rest. She lays down her cape to give Dorothea a place to sit before settling, her shoulder leaning against Dorothea’s upper arm.
“I thought I had no future to offer you,” Edelgard says, unable to watch Dorothea’s reaction. “For years, I barely thought past the path I carved with my own hands. Now I find myself faced with rather a lot of variables.”
Dorothea wraps an arm around Edelgard’s shoulders. They have carried the world without being crushed, but they fit in the hold.
“Oh, Edie, not everything needs a plan. Besides, if we’re going to share our lives, this is the sort of thing we ought to figure out together. You don’t need to bring your wife a collated report about your future. Actually, you probably shouldn’t.”
Her wife. The phrase reduces her to a dazzled schoolgirl before she wraps her mind around Dorothea’s point.
“Apologies. I never intended to make such decisions for you. I suppose I am still getting used to…” She waves a hand in no apparent direction.
“I know. It’s a charm point, to an extent. I have things I’m not used to, too, but we can support each other.”
“Yes, I would like that very much.” When she meets Dorothea’s eyes, the affection there makes her throat dry. She tries to clear it. “I still intend to give you the proposal you deserve.”
“And I’ll look forward to it.”
A hopping bird chirps as if to cheer for them. Dorothea joins it, her first note escaping without apparent intent, like singing together is only natural.
To a brighter dawn, we shall carry on.
Dorothea draws designs on Edelgard’s back, meandering curls that resemble no Crest, and this time Edelgard does not interrupt her song.