Night falls too lightly over the camp. It should weigh them down.
Dorothea is alone in the open vestibule of her tent, her brazier a stubborn glow against the sudden cool of the air. She won’t be alone for long, no doubt. She’s already had to go over battle plans with a few of the old Mittelfrank chorus, and then some of the militia—she couldn’t even see their colors, in the deepening twilight—had seen her light and come to her for…what, reassurance? They’re looking at the wrong girl. But she’d promised them it would be okay, and if they lived they’d be able to live with themselves.
Another footstep, just beyond the dim red circle of light. A soft cough. “Brigadier Arnault?”
The voice is baritone, each syllable articulated with crystal precision and carrying to her ears as if the speaker is right beside her. Even the nobles don’t shape their words that clearly; their elocution lessons never needed it. Dorothea mentally shuffles through her volunteers, wondering who she hasn’t seen yet. Lucian, probably. “Come in,” she says.
It is Lucian. He takes a seat on one of the camp chairs, hands folded nervously in his lap. “Thank you, Brigadier.”
Before the war, Lucian had teased her about how many bouquets she’d gotten after performances. Dorothea of the Flowers, Garden Dorothea, he’d called her, until she started getting jewels. After that nobody had teased her, but they’d still called her by name when they spoke to her.
She never wants to be called “Brigadier” again, but there’s too much of the war still to be fought.
“What do you need, Lucian?” she asks with practiced smoothness. Her battalion is hers, in a way her audience never was. She refuses to call any of them “soldier.”
“I’ve been assigned to dance for a company for tomorrow,” Lucian says. “Solo. Straight from Field Marshal Eisner’s own mouth.” He sounds awed but not proud, a fine-split distinction that breaks Dorothea’s heart.
“Well done,” she says warmly, and manages to coax a brief smile from him.
He doesn’t twist his hands, but it’s a near thing. “Thank you, Brigadier. I know it’s a lot to ask, but could you—I’m not sure I have the footwork for the special move right…”
Dorothea knows it backwards, could dance it blindfolded. Once she’d laughed at the thought of using her charms to inspire because she’d had to laugh—if she hadn’t laughed the anger would have eaten through her like acid. She misses the luxury of that anger, the time before they all needed every extra burst of strength to be the ones who would come home that night.
“You have to keep your hips loose,” she says, sweeping her skirts out of the way as she stands. “Here, like this.”
It turns out it’s his knees, not his hips, he keeps locking, but she talks him through it with more patience than Madame Greiss, the dance mistress at the Mittelfrank, had ever shown.
“Thank you, Brigadier,” Lucian says finally, with a deep and fluid bow. “I won’t disappoint you or the field marshal.”
For a moment Dorothea can’t speak. Her throat tightens to the point of pain, and only an effort of will relaxes it. “You won’t,” she says. At the opera house she would have wished him into the wolf’s mouth, but on the battlefield injury is all too real a possibility. Still, she can’t wish him good luck, either. That habit runs deeper than the memories of blood and screams and burned flesh.
Lucian seems satisfied, though. With another bow he turns and leaves, and she’s alone again.
The camp is quieting around her as everyone settles in to catch what sleep they can before the battle. The campfires in the soldiers’ rows of tents flicker and dim like dying stars, and her own brazier has burned nearly out. There is no sound of nightbirds, not even the eerie hoot of an owl.
Dorothea lights a lantern from the embers of her brazier, then pours water over the rest and goes into her tent to get ready for the night. Outside there are still no birds, no insects, no percussion of horseshoes or rattle of wheels.
Someone scratches at the tent flap, and she sees the dim glow of a lantern through the canvas.
She’s in nothing but her nightshift. She had been about to…well, probably not sleep, but try to. She could scream. “Just a moment,” she calls, already trying to think of the quickest thing she can dress in.
“It’s just me,” Bernadetta says. “Uh, Bernie. I’m sorry, is it—”
Bernadetta’s seen her in much less, after all. “Come in,” Dorothea says, relieved.
The lantern-light reflects off Bernadetta’s wide, wide eyes. Her mouth is tucked into a tight line, and it quivers when she parts her lips to speak. “I was hoping you’d seen Yuri.”
Dorothea sits down on the edge of her cot and pats the space next to her. “You know the professor said he probably wouldn’t be back until morning.”
“He needs to sleep,” Bernadetta says unhappily, but she puts her lit lantern down on the little camp table next to Dorothea’s blown-out one and sits, as told. She’s not the tiny wisp of a thing Dorothea had first met at the Academy, but she still feels fragile, bird-like, as Dorothea puts a comforting arm around her. “If he’s out all night running a sabotage mission, how is he supposed to be alert enough to fight?” She sounds exhausted, her voice low and leaden.
“The professor won’t send him out if he’s not ready to fight,” Dorothea says. She thinks that’s true. She believes in Professor Byleth, and if anyone in Fódlan can guide them through this…
Bernadetta sighs, a shuddery noise in the gloom. “I guess.” She doesn’t move, just leans a little more on Dorothea. She’d used scented soap, back at the Academy, something bright and herbal Dorothea didn’t deal enough with plants to recognize. Dorothea’s own preference had been for spices, nothing like the vast drifts of hothouse blossoms she’d once gotten. Now they both use the same ashy stuff everyone else does.
“Here,” Dorothea says impulsively. “Lie down. I’ll sing for you.”
“Really?” Bernadetta asks, lifting her head from Dorothea’s shoulder.
Dorothea smiles, and realizes with surprise that she means it. “Come on, Bern, when do I ever pass up a chance to sing? I’m a little rusty, though, so you’ll have to forgive me.”
“You still sing way better than me,” Bernadetta grumbles as she slides down and curls up with her head in Dorothea’s lap.
The cot is sized generously—it’s the same issue for all the officers, which means it’s built so that big, brawny men won’t be falling off it in the night—but not that generously. “Here,” Dorothea says, “up for just a moment.” She shifts up the cot until she’s at the head and Bernadetta has enough space to stretch out, and Dorothea herself can grab her pillow to tuck under Bernadetta’s head when she needs to get up and blow out the candle.
It’s not a night for opera, Dorothea thinks, stroking the blunt-cut hair back from Bernadetta’s face. Bernadetta sighs again, softer this time. Opera is still passionate even on the rare occasions when it’s anything other than loud, and none of them need that now.
Dorothea hums while she thinks, little staggering runs of notes that feel strange in her throat. “All right,” she says finally. “I learned this one from our wardrobe mistress, Odilie.”
“Okay.” Bernadetta sounds sleepier already. Her head is a soft, reassuring weight on Dorothea’s thighs.
“‘There was a lady of the west country,’” Dorothea sings, her voice sounding too thin in her own ears with lack of use, “‘With the sun and the rain and the waves on the strand, And she had lovely daughters three, And you may yet win a sweet love’s hand.’”
Bernadetta works her left arm out from under her and wiggles both hands.
She doesn’t interrupt in words, but Dorothea has to swallow down a laugh anyway. It makes her voice buoyant, unstable, as she starts the next verse. “‘And there was a knight of noble worth, With the sun and the rain and the waves on the strand…’”
Somewhere between snow being whiter than milk and love being softer than silk Bernadetta falls asleep, but Dorothea finishes the song anyway. The girl proves her cleverness, the knight accepts her suit, they are wed, and the singer blesses the listeners. All very happy.
She starts another of Odilie’s songs, a sadder one this time, about a girl who spurns a kindhearted suitor because she wanted a rich man and dies of regret. The tune is sweet and lilting, though, and Bernadetta doesn’t wake. After that it’s the song of the girl in the thorn-bush waiting to be ransomed—Dorothea had forgotten how often she used to listen to Odilie, that first year at the Mittelfrank, when she kept expecting to be flung back out of the opera house as soon as Manuela changed her mind. The wardrobe room had been a safe compromise, between the streets and the limelights.
Bernadetta’s candle is burning down, but Dorothea’s eyes are no heavier. Still, song is better than silence. It’s been far too long since she made anything lovely for peaceful ends, or sang for anyone who wouldn’t care if her voice was nothing more than a croak.
Canvas creaks. Dorothea looks up, lightning already prickling at her fingertips, and sees Yuri wiping charcoal off his face with his sleeve.
“There’s your spark,” he says, low. His teeth are a quick flash in the smudged grey of his face.
Bernadetta stirs and makes a sleepy, disgruntled sound. It’s very cute.
“Well, don’t stand there in the doorway all night,” Dorothea says. “Come in, you’re letting the wind in.” A breeze is already stirring the gauzy scarves in the corner, tumbling them end over end on top of each other.
“Yuri?” Bernadetta mumbles.
Yuri ties the tent flap closed again behind him and eases his pack off his shoulders. “Sorry to wake you.”
“No, I’m—I’m glad you did.” Bernadetta pushes herself up on one elbow. The cot dips under them. “I know it’s stupid, but I was worried about you.”
Dorothea glances around her tent in the guttering light of the lantern. Yuri is pretty slight, built for grace instead of bulk, but the cot is not that large. “If we layer our bedrolls—just yours and mine, Yurikins, Bern came with just what she’s wearing—the three of us could fit on the floor here.” She has enough space for armor, shield, broadsword or lances, a horse’s armor…all things she doesn’t need. It’ll be nice to fill it up with something other than a camp table.
“I won’t turn down the company,” Yuri says. He gets his bedroll untied and unrolled with a few quick movements.
Bernadetta sits up and rolls out her shoulder. “Ouch,” she says. “Don’t let me go to sleep on my side for real.”
Released, and feeling strangely adrift, Dorothea gets her own bedroll, tucked into a far corner of the tent, and unrolls it over Yuri’s, then takes the blanket and pillow off her cot, adding them to the improvised…what to even call it, a nest? That might be fitting.
Bernadetta, her movements still dragging with sleep, flops down in the middle without bothering to ask. “Could I have one more song?” she asks in a voice smaller than Dorothea likes to hear. “Just one, if it’s not too much trouble?”
Yuri is looking across her at Dorothea too.
“One more,” Dorothea says, sitting at Bernadetta’s side. The doubled bedrolls might actually be softer than her cot. “Then I’m going to lie down and try to get some sleep too.”
“Lie down”—Bernadetta yawns—“and sing?”
It’s no way to get good lung expansion, and that’s a way to build bad habits. Still, maybe this one time. She lies down on her back and shifts her shoulders around until she’s as good as she’s going to get. Yuri’s arm is draped across Bernadetta’s midriff; his hand brushes Dorothea’s hip. Bernadetta herself is warm and relaxed.
Dorothea’s favorite of Odilie’s songs had been the one about the girl who tricked and killed her murderous suitor, and that’s the one she sings now, making her voice slow and rich to soothe away the words. By the time the Bloody Knight is telling Fair Agnessa that he’s drowned eight brides already she thinks she hears Yuri humming, and by the time Agnessa is taking off her jewels she’s certain of it. When Agnessa throws the knight into the sea Bernadetta sighs happily and drops off to sleep between that verse and the next.
Yuri—very, very softly—hums in counterpoint the rest of the way through the ballad, so quietly that even Dorothea can barely hear it. She smiles at him when she sits up to open the lantern and blow out the candle inside, and he gives her a tired smile back.
Quiet falls again, rushing in with the dark. Bernadetta’s breathing is deep and even, and Yuri’s softer but still there. Dorothea turns toward them and matches her own breaths to theirs.