Bernie didn’t know what to do with her hands.
“Bernadetta…” Edelgard’s hand hovered somewhere near her arm. “I am truly sorry for your loss.”
“It’s okay,” said Bernadetta, and then immediately squeezed her eyes shut in embarrassment. That was not the sort of thing one was supposed to say at their mother’s funeral. “We were never exactly close,” she added. “She wasn’t- wasn’t cruel or anything, she just… we lived in different worlds, I think. I disagreed with her, a lot, really, and I mean, she never really approved of most things I did…”
Bernadetta picked at a loose thread on the hem of her cape. It was cold, freeing, really, down in the crypts of the palace of Enbarr, but that was to be expected, she figured. It would have been so much worse were it hot, the miasma of a thousand years of imperial elites forcing her to recognise that she was standing in a marble hall of corpses.
“It’s almost worse, when it is that way, I think,” Ferdinand said, sidling up to Bernadetta’s other side. He had no qualms about touching Bernie, setting his arm on her shoulder, but keeping his eyes on the sealed marble coffin on the dais before them. “When grief and mourning do not come naturally… It is difficult to know how to feel, what to do.”
Bernie nodded slightly.
“I guess I’m just… coming to terms with the fact that our relationship is never going to improve, now,” she said. The loose thread on her cape had become tangled and no longer yielded to her tugging. “I didn’t really know her at all, and now I never will.”
With the ears of someone always on the watch for threats, Bernie could hear the nigh-imperceptible sound of Hubert shifting his weight from one foot to the other, standing some metres apart from everyone else.
“I do regret not being able to share with you what experiments she was conducting that caused her death,” Hubert began, “but the Vestra Sorcery Engineers have always had a strict policy of the destruction of all research materials upon a death in the lab.”
“I understand,” whispered Bernadetta. “I wouldn’t want someone trying to reconstruct her notes and ending up dying, too.”
“I find myself disagreeing with the stringency of the policy, myself,” said Hubert. “Your mother was a truly capable researcher, and having to destroy her entire body of work represents an enormous loss-”
“I know,” said Bernadetta. She looked down at the beaked mage’s mask resting atop her mother’s tomb, staring into the glass-paned eyes that would never look back. “She was a genius.”
A silence settled in the crypt, as heavy and hard to swallow as the lump in Bernadetta’s throat. Hubert shifted his weight again. She wished he would just come up and join them at the foot of the dais, but he had been so awkward about this whole affair. Did he feel some sort of misplaced guilt, now that he was the patron of the Vestra Sorcery Engineers? Was it because of what had happened with his own parents?
Ferdinand’s hand flexed against her shoulder, and out the corner of her eyes, she could tell his jaw was far tenser than she had seen it off the battlefield. At her other side, Edelgard was as rigid as a board, staring straight ahead.
Goddess, what she wouldn’t give for some friends with normal relationships with their parents.
Bernie took a deep breath, let her head loll back against her shoulders, feeling her shoulders crack and a shuddering sigh escape her. Her eyes stung, but not enough to shed tears.
“What now?” she asked.
“A place has been prepared for your mother in the Engineers’ Vault, unless you wish her remains to be returned to Varley, or the lands of her birth-”
“No, no,” yelped Bernadetta, cutting Hubert off. “She can rest here. I think she’d come back to haunt me in a trice if I forced her to go back to my father instead of keeping her with her work.”
Her shoulders shuddered, and Ferdinand’s thumb began to rub circles against the muscle. She wished Edelgard would touch her, too. She felt lopsided. And as if the Emperor was about to burst any moment, though she couldn’t tell why.
“I actually meant,” Bernie continued, “What now for Varley?”
At last, Edelgard turned to look at her, mouth open in a pained expression that Bernadetta could not read for the life of her.
“When my mother placed my father under house-arrest, she took the reigns of the county,” she continued, though she couldn’t help but wonder if she had gotten everything wrong. “Not that she did much with it, not with the demands of the war on the sorcerers, but now that she’s gone, all that power goes to my father. That’s the law, right? Spouses inherit before children when there isn’t a will? I don’t know if she had a will, but if she did, it would have been-”
“-Burnt,” Hubert finished. “Along with everything else. Yes, you’re right, Bernadetta,” he said. “Varley County now belongs to your father.”
There was another beat of silence, tense for completely different reasons.
“We can’t just…” Ferdinand started.
“We could just-” Hubert said at the exact same time.
Ferdinand’s hand disappeared from Bernadetta’s shoulder as he turned to share a glare with Hubert.
“None of that,” said Edelgard, her expression settling into her usual firm confidence. “I’m the Emperor, and I can appoint a new Countess Varley if I see fit.” She kept her eyes on Bernadetta all the while, and she couldn’t help but feel her breath die in her throat under such a gaze.
“The rule of law, Edelgard!” blurted Ferdinand. “You cannot go around appointing and deposing regional administrators at will, all that will accomplish is setting up precedent for tyranny!”
“The people of Varley deserve better than a lengthy bureaucratic process just to remove a man who makes his own daughter flinch at mere mention of his name,” snapped Hubert.
Bernadetta looked down to her shoes.
“Thorough is not necessarily synonymous with lengthy,” retorted Ferdinand. “Not if you have a taskforce who knows what they’re doing.”
“We’re rebuilding from a continent-wide war, I think we have sufficient recourse to appoint an emergency leader and evaluate potential long-term candidates at a later date-”
“What later date?” snapped Ferdinand. “You appoint one person and they’ll hold onto power for as long as humanly possible, we’ve had one family of Prime Ministers for a thousand years-”
“Are you implying Bernadetta is going to start a civil war if we ask her to step down?”
“It’s about the precedent-”
Both Hubert and Ferdinand fell silent, withdrawing from hunched and argumentative postures at Edelgard’s word.
“Hubert’s right in that the people of Varley have been kept waiting long enough,” Edelgard said. “And who knows what he’s been able to get away with, on the ground while his wife was in Enbarr.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “But Ferdinand is also correct in that we can’t just swap out one arbitrarily appointed ruler for another. We need to show the people of Fódlan we’re more than just war-time leaders, and this could provide a useful opportunity to show that we’re serious about disrupting the assumed line of noble succession.”
Bernadetta turned, unsure of which of her three friends to look at. They each seemed to be contemplating something at length. Edelgard’s brow twitched as the stood silently, her eyes flickering back and forth as if she were reading something.
“We need to prove – in a court of law – that Count Varley is unfit to rule,” Edelgard said, her hands steepled beneath her chin. “We also need to prove who is the most eligible to take on the mantle of the Count. For the time being we assume it’s Bernadetta due to the combination of her education and personal experience living in Varley, but we cannot hold this to be an automatic fact.”
“Of course,” said Bernadetta quietly.
Edelgard’s gaze flickered from the floor to Bernie for a second, almost as if she had forgotten there were people present.
“In order to establish these facts, we are going to need to…” Her gaze flittered to Bernadetta again. “To-” Edelgard took a breath, annoyed at her inability to get it out. “Bernadetta, I am truly sorry, but I am going to ask-”
“Please don’t make me go home,” she said.
And there were the tears, at last. No grief for her mother, her blackened and twisted body encased in marble, but plenty of waterworks for poor, stupid Bernie, chucking a tantrum about going to the place where she belonged. She ached to rub at her eyes and pretend to be the strong person her friends acted like they thought she was, but she had locked up. Her hands wouldn’t move. Her legs trembled and she hated herself for it. Even her voice had withered away to some pathetic squeak.
“Please,” she said. She could not tell if her eyes were opened or closed. She had forgotten how to see in this fog of fear. “Please, not alone, I can’t… Not him…”
A finger, scarred and gnarled but as gentle as the breeze wiped at the corner of her eye, catching a tear.
Bernie jerked away with a scream.
“I-I’m so sorry,” said Edelgard, clutching her own hand as if she’d burnt it. “I shouldn’t have…”
Bernie stumbled back, towards Ferdinand, and his hand snapped up, ready to catch her.
“No, no, no, no!” Bernie cried, dodging out of the way of the hand, that horrible looming shadow at the very edge of her senses. Her boot smacked the dais as she started to fall, hands over her ears and wailing.
She couldn’t tell if she was on the floor or not. Something was itching at her, clawing at her, a constant palm hovered over her ready to strike and her wound tight body kept twitching, flinching away from nothing as she lost track of the stupid garbage she babbled.
“No, please, no!” she cried, pulling at her hair. “…Help… Please, help!”
Bright light. The floor falling away from her feet. Vertigo. Heat. And then, carpet. Her carpet, in her bedchamber on the third floor of the palace. In front of her stood the carved wooden legs of an armchair she’d rescued from Arundel’s old quarters, and beside it, knee high leather boots.
Hubert had warped her out.
The boots turned slightly, bent, and then her favourite armoured stuffy, a gift from Professor Byleth, was in her hands. She gripped tight to the bear, her nails digging into the gentle velvet, soothing the wild scrabbling animal bursting from her skin. The boots were gone. Why was he leaving? It was Bernie’s fault. It had to be. Her fault.
The awkward, shuddering scrape of her curtains closing sounded from behind her and cool darkness covered her. Finally, a great shuddering breath released from her and some of the tension started to eke out from her foetal-cowed body. Darkness. No one had to see her shame now. There were more noises and Bernadetta sobbed at the mighty weight of keeping track of every footstep in the room, even though there was only one set of boots. Her ears ached, and then tears of shame stung at her ears when the sound of water pouring from pitcher to glass filled the room. Why was he doing all this for her? She wasn’t even worth looking at, and yet-
“Make a noise if you want me to help you drink,” Hubert said. His voice was low, quiet. It sounded the way the darkness felt, a heavy blanket to keep her sequestered from the world.
She was quiet, shaking on the floor.
“I’m doing to put it on your side table, then,” he continued. “The one right just behind you.’
The sound of glass on wood.
“I want to… ensure nothing worsens,” he said. The awkwardness in his voice was like a knife at Bernadetta’s throat. How dare she do this to him? “That said, whether I stay or go is up to you. I have no desire to intrude. If you wish me to leave you in peace, make a noise. You can use your hands if your voice won’t work.”
Bernadetta’s hands clenched tighter around Dame Stuffy, and guilt immediately tugged at her even harsher. How she longed for Hubert to stay, to wrap her in his coat like a child and quietly walk her through how he and Ferdinand and Edelgard would take care of the situation with her father. She wanted him to stand guard, to make sure no one ever raised their hands against her again. She needed him to stay, urgently.
Stupid, selfish Bernie.
She let out a bark like a dog, and immediately came the rustling of a cape, as if Hubert were bowing to her, the mess on the floor.
“Take all the time you need,” he said, and then footsteps, and the sound of the door.
Bernadetta curled tighter in on herself, alone, finally, she should have been able to cry properly at last, instead of just whimpering. But instead she lay silent, unmoving. All the tears were gone, and in their place, thoughts began to rush in.
My Dear Bernadetta,
Words will never be able to express the depths of my regret regarding my actions after your mother’s service this morning. Had I the power to turn back time, rest assured that I would not hesitate to take back every word I said, as well as that touch, unwanted and unwarranted. Despite your question regarding the future of Varley, it was neither the time nor the place to request something so incredibly difficult of you. Indeed, I do not have the right to ever request that of you. You need never see that man’s face again. Say the word and I will prevent you from even hearing him spoken of for the rest of your life. You have already given so much to the Empire, and I shall ask nothing more of you.
For your actions during your war, and our operations in the aftermath, you are already a hero worthy of legend, and I had no right to speak to you, or – certainly – to touch you, in that manner.
I do not have the right to ask for forgiveness, but nonetheless, please consider this card not only my askance for your mercy, but indeed my beg for it.
I consider you a friend of the highest quality. Whatever it would take to restore your spirits, or your confidence in me, do not hesitate to ask.
Ever your servant,
Bernadetta returned the pearlescent card to where it had been delivered to her, on the tray beside the two-fish sauté that had been brought to her room by one of Edelgard’s own maids. Had she been younger, such a missive might have brought a luminous blush to her face at the thought of the indominable Edelgard being so self-effacing to her of all people. Now, however, it only made her sad.
“Um, excuse me,” she said to the maid, who had been stacking her trolley with some of the used crockery littered around Bernie’s room while she read. “Would you mind waiting while I write a reply to Her Majesty? And then, uh, delivering it?”
“Of course, my Lady Varley,” replied the maid with a curtsey.
Bernadetta cast about for something to write on, eventually settling for a scrap of pattern paper and a blunt pencil. That, at least, was enough to get her blushing, comparing Edelgard’s beautiful sharp script with her scrawl. Just like everything else about Edelgard, so strong and sturdy. You could rest the Empire on those letters alone. Whereas Bernadetta’s handwriting was… messy. Tangled in on itself. Just like-
“Stop it,” she whispered to herself.
The maid looked up, and Bernadetta quickly returned her eyes to the scrap of paper and began scribbling.
You never need apologise to me, much less beg for forgiveness. Would you maybe like to come to my rooms and share some of that fish you were so kind to send up for me? I feel as if I’ve been alone enough for one day.
That is, only if you want to! Please don’t feel like you have to put aside important business or anything for me. You already have my forgiveness, if only because I don’t think you need it.
Ever your friend,
With the note handed to the maid with the embarrassingly large pile of dirty dishes, Bernadetta looked down at her dinner. It didn’t feel right to start with Edelgard.on her way. But… she didn’t actually know if Edelgard was coming. But she didn’t want to be halfway through a mouthful of fish sauté when the Emperor walked in, even if the Emperor was her friend, who wrote her effuse letters begging forgiveness for the grave crime of touching her.
Bernie’s heart thumped.
The feel of Edelgard’s finger against her cheek was still as potent as if she’d touched her only a second ago. She could feel those callouses of constant axe training, that unevenly knobbled knuckle from when Edelgard’s finger had been sliced off in the midst of battle and Linhardt had to reattach it on the scene.
Bernie wondered what other scars she had, what other parts of her were that rough, if there was anywhere smooth, warm, where the Emperor ended and Edelgard began-
There was a gentle tap at the door and Bernadetta startled, feeling cold sweat run down from her scalp and across her back.
“Ah, haha, come in!” she called with a nervous titter.
The door pushed open slower than Bernadetta had expected, and for a moment, all she could see was Edelgard’s pale, nervous face peering in. She relaxed upon seeing Bernadetta sitting at her coffee table instead of huddled on the floor, but there was a still a beat of silence as they made eye contact, neither of them sure what to say.
“You got my note,” Edelgard said eventually, still standing in the doorway.
Bernadetta blinked. “And, uh, and the fish!”
There was another moment of silence. Bernadetta felt the slow crawl of a familiar chill sliding down her back. She was ruining this, just as she ruined everything else. Her note had been the most embarrassing thing ever penned and had done nothing to alleviate Edelgard’s concern. Yet again, Bernie had-
She screwed her eyes shut. She had to stop thinking like this.
“Thanks for coming to see me,” she said, and forced a smile.
“Of course!” replied Edelgard, stepping through the threshold and pushing the door shut behind her. “I truly am sorry that-”
“It’s okay,” said Bernie. “Come… sit down! Have some of this fish!”
Edelgard hovered for a moment, eyes unmoving but still somehow hesitant. Bernadetta felt her shoulders clench as the seconds ticked by, her Emperor still standing behind the chaise lounge instead of sitting in it.
“I…” Edelgard started.
Bernadetta returned her eyes to the coffee table. The steam from the two-fish sauté had disappeared.
The old wood of the chaise lounge creaked as Edelgard finally sat down.
“I know you said you forgive me-”
Bernie threaded her fingers through the lace along the edge of her dressing-gown.
“-But I would still like to apologise to you in person,’ finished Edelgard.
“You really don’t have to,” said Bernadetta.
Edelgard was quiet, and Bernadetta had the sudden feeling that she was staring down at the table, too.
“I know,” said Edelgard. “But it would make me feel better.”
Bernadetta’s heart seized, and she was overcome with the need to throw herself at Edelgard’s feet like the heroine of a truly terrible book. To say something like “Oh, Edie!” – as if she could ever call the Emperor by a nickname – and lament the brief awkwardness that had been between them. But Bernadetta was no heroine, poorly written or otherwise, so she merely made a little noise that sounded more like an exhale than an exclamation.
Edelgard looked up, and Bernadetta could not help but give into that imperial gaze and meet her eyes.
“I am sorry, Bernadetta,” Edelgard said, and Bernie could not handle the genuine anguish in her eyes, that look as if Edelgard was truly tormented by what she had done. Sparked a meltdown that was bound to happen anyway.
“If it wasn’t what you said, it would have been something else,” said Bernadetta. “I… get like that all the time.”
“I know,” said Edelgard, and somehow that hurt worse than everything else. “Which is why it was so wrong of me to ask that of you. I don’t want you to ever-”
“-But I will!” Bernie cried, twisting her fingers within the lace of her robe. “No matter what you say or do, I am always going to be like this! I… I thought about it, while I was holed up in here all evening.”
Edelgard leaned forward.
“Bernadetta…” Her hand twitched, as if she was about to reach out, but then clenched in the crimson of her dress. “You… We can help you with this. I would like to help you with this. I don’t want to see you suffer like that.”
“I know,” said Bernadetta.
And though she wanted to look back down at the fish and away from the genuine pain in Edelgard’s eyes, Bernie had forgotten how to move. Not in the way she did when she broke down, however. It was more that all of her energy was focused on other things.
“I want to get better, too,” she continued. “And I think… I can’t get better if I keep living in the past. If, in my mind, when I think of my father, I’m always fifteen and afraid. So I’m going to do it.”
‘…Do what?” she asked.
“I’m going back to Varley, I’m going to prove my father an incapable leader and I’m going to see him removed from his title.”
This time, when Edelgard lurched, she stumbled all the way to her feet.
Bernie blanched, leaned back, hunched into her seat, but still kept her eyes on Edelgard.
“You don’t need to do that!” said Edelgard. “The last thing I wanted was for you to feel like this was your responsibility. Just because he was your father – especially because he was your father – that doesn’t mean this is your job. And I don’t want you to feel that you have to personally remove him from his seat for you to stand up to him. Just by being the wonderful person you’ve grown to become is enough to show that-”
“I want to see him again,” Bernadetta said. “I want to see him as an adult. Because in my mind… he’s always bigger than me, stronger. Standing over me. But I can stand up to him now. I think. I mean, I know I can. If I… I mean, I’ve killed people! I fought in a war!”
“And you’ve done more than enough for the Empire in doing so,” said Edelgard. “I can never ask you for anything else. Especially this.”
“But I want this,” said Bernadetta. “At least, I think I might. But I doubt myself this much about everything, so this is as sure as I’m going to get.”
Edelgard looked at her, her brow as furrowed as Bernadetta had ever seen it. But, then again, Edelgard’s brow was so often furrowed.
“Don’t look like at me like that,” said Bernie.
“I just worry about you,” said Edelgard, her voice near silent. “If you do this… it’ll be difficult.”
“I know,” said Bernadetta. “I can nearly guarantee I’ll… break down like that, while I’m there. But, I can definitely guarantee that if I don’t do this, then I’ll always… okay well maybe I might eventually get better, but I’ll have to live forever knowing I didn’t stand up to him.”
“You don’t need to prove yourself like this,” said Edelgard. “There are so many different ways of being strong.”
She was still standing, her hands clenched into fists. It looked a little intimidating, but Bernie knew her Emperor well. She was off balance, afraid. Afraid for Bernie.
“I’ll be okay,” Bernadetta said, a sharp nod of her head. “I meant to tell you, I have a request for this mission.”
“Mission?” Edelgard’s face seemed to crumple. “This isn’t an order or anything, in fact, I have half a mind to order you not to go.”
“I want to take Hubert with me,” said Bernadetta, trying to swallow hard enough to get past Edelgard’s dismissal.
“Hubert?” she asked.
“…Yeah,” said Bernadetta. “You know him. Really tall, bad haircut?”
Despite everything, Edelgard’s mouth twisted into a little smile and Bernadetta found herself beaming, rising to her feet to join Edelgard.
“If Hubert comes with me… I don’t think I’ll be so afraid,” Bernadetta continued. “It’s not because of what he said, back at the service. Or… um, his father. It’s just,” Bernadetta thumped her tight fists against her sides as she looked for words she didn’t quite understand. “Hubert’s the only person I was ever as scared of as I was my father. And now we’re friends.”
Edelgard stared at her, that eternally scrutinous gaze not one of surprise, but rather a search for something. Bernadetta longed to lift her chin and meet that gaze, to stand strong and ready as the Emperor’s representative to Varley, but she didn’t know how to do that. Not yet, with the noose of her father still hanging around her neck. All she could do was screw her eyes shut, and hope.
“The second anything goes wrong, the second you feel anything except absolutely safe, you come right back here,” Edelgard said.
Berndatta’s eyes snapped open.
“I will not have you getting hurt.”
“But I can go?”
Edelgard screwed her eyes shut and swallowed, as if she was steeling herself to do something terrible.
“If Hubert goes with you,” she said. “And you promise to listen to him if he says you need to get out of there.”
“Yes,” said Bernadetta immediately. “Yes, of course, if there is anyone who understands matters of, uh, security, it’s Hubert.”
Edelgard looked at her, those worried eyes boring deep into her.
“Bernadetta,” she began.
“You got to do it!” Bernadetta snapped, brows and hands knotting together as she squeezed her eyes shut.
There was a moment’s silence.
“What?” Edelgard asked, and she sounded more curious than affronted, thank the Goddess.
“You got to… Your uncle.” Bernie shook her head. “I’m sorry. That was… inappropriate. You know I’m not exactly the pinnacle of nobility. I can’t help but feel… jealous, I suppose, of the fact that you could stand up to him. I don’t think I could kill my father. But I need to do something.”
“I understand,” she said at last. “I want you to have that control, but I also want you to be safe.”
Bernadetta had to look away at that.
“But I cannot pretend that you’re the same shy little thing I had to drag kicking and screaming to class.”
There was a smile in Edelgard’s voice that gripped Bernadetta’s heart tight, pulling it to pieces in an instant.
“Well, I wouldn’t have come this far if it weren’t for you,” Bernadetta replied. “And now I… I want to go even further.”
Edelgard took a deep breath and Bernie chanced a quick look at her. She looked even paler than usual. Tired, too. She never looked like this when making tactical decisions. Always with that cold, smooth expression of a commander wiling to do what it takes and recover from losses she couldn’t avoid. She only looked like this when visiting the graveyard.
“I’ll talk to Hubert,” she said at last.
“Edelgard,” and Bernie stumbled forward, nearly tripping on the table, but making her way around it to stand before Edelgard eventually. She longed to grab her hands, to squeeze them tight and reassure her that everything would be okay. But she wasn’t about to touch the Emperor. Not even when she looked up at her with those red-rimmed eyes that begged to be wiped free of tears. They’d already had one disaster from that gesture today.
“I am… proud of you Bernadetta.”
Bernie felt her face both crumple and illuminate at once, and she had to look away yet again, no matter how much she longed to bask in the tenderness of her Emperor’s gaze.
“Tell me that again when I actually succeed,” she said with a little titter.
“And I’ll tell you every day until then,” Edelgard replied immediately.
Bernie damn near stumbled. She could not deal with that level of earnestness from her Emperor, that voice and those eyes, all for silly little Bernie Bear going back to Varley.
Edelgard seemed to pick up on how that had thrown her off her balance, and her darted back to the low table at their knees.
“You just enjoy your dinner,” she said after a moment, and forced one of her more proper leader smiles, the one she wore while inspecting her troops and giving speeches. “I’ll let you know what Hubert says.”
Bernie wanted to say something, reach out and grasp those crimson gloves and tell her how grateful she was. But after a blink Edelgard was gone, and Bernadetta was alone in her room once again.
She looked down at the fish. She was hungry, she hadn’t eaten even a bite. But sitting down to a meal felt wrong now somehow. She turned her eyes instead to the walk-in closet that separated her main room from her bath chamber. It was full of gorgeous dresses Dorothea had helped her pick out, embroidered by herself under the table during boring war meetings and, later, even more boring cabinet meetings. But closest to the door, dangling half-off the hanger, was her favourite pair of jodhpurs, still a little grotty from her last ride out with Ferdinand. And resting on the shelf above them, she knew, would be the big trunk she carried from Varley to Garreg Mach, all those years ago.
Bernadetta sighed and stomped toward the closet.
The fish was probably cold by now, anyway.