Life Outside of a Girls' School
September, 479 IC, Odin
The Lyzeum der freien Künste was a moderately prestigious institution even within the upper echelons of noble society on Odin. Obviously, the utmost prestige was associated with the strategic academies that lead one directly into an officership within the Fleet, but among schools that offered a fully civilian education, it was well-respected.
It was highly unusual in that, like the Imperial Officer’s Academy itself, it admitted students based primarily on their abilities rather than their familial background. Of course, those of relatively high noble birth made up the vast majority of the students enrolled, but there was at least a gesture made to pretend that it was to collect the brightest youth within the Empire rather than merely the highest born. It was a relic from the earliest days of the empire, when Rudolf had intended the nobility to serve as a reward for the greatest families within his nation, from before power had ossified the system and made elevation a nearly-extinct memory.
The Potemkin egalitarianism went deeper still. Technically speaking, there was no de jure restriction that only men were allowed to seek admission. Very few women within the empire were given proper educations at all, and the intense rigor of the exam required for admission was usually entirely sufficient to exclude them. The few women who continued to receive any form of education past the age of fifteen were typically taught by tutors in the home or at women’s schools, as those who had the resources to pay for their daughters’ enrichment were typically most interested in developing the skills which would make them desirable wives rather than respected intellectuals.
Still, despite this, women of particular talent and ambition did manage to attend on very rare occasions. Hildegard von Mariendorf was one such woman, and in her sixteenth year, she dutifully presented herself at the opening ceremony for her class. The students were to be seated by their starting class rank, which was itself determined by how their entrance exams had been assessed. She should have known what would come to her when she was lead to the third seat out of perhaps a hundred in the relatively small but grand-spirited school hall that the function was conducted in.
At first, she attracted little attention. Despite having the soft, refined features one would expect from a noblewoman, she fit comfortably among the other students at the top of her new class. She was only a couple inches shy of being six feet tall, and her hair was cut in a shorter and more orderly style than many of the male students’. When wearing the suit that was to be her formal uniform for the next several years of her life, she did not look immediately different than those to her left and right.
The opening speech was long and boring. It was the sort of speech given when one wanted to pretend that the Empire’s society placed much value on things other than martial prowess, wealth, and status, but also was wise enough to keep a careful focus on avoiding any ideas that could be seen as even the distant precursors of lèse-majesté.
Afterwards, they were marched out and over to what would be their dormitories to receive their assignments. The pleasant lack of attention that she had received so far lasted until one of the older students who were given the task of showing each student to their room called out her name. All of the boys in attendance turned to look at her as she walked forward, and she did her best to ignore the way that the tone of the indistinguishable muttering in the crowd around her shifted afterwards.
The students were given time to socialize with their roommates, but as the sole woman in attendance, she was given the privilege of her own room and had little choice but to use the time instead to sit on her bed and think about just what she had gotten herself into. She had somewhat foolishly hoped that she would gain some modicum of respect for her achievement, and that the men who were… like that would be drawn more to the Fleet than to a place for the study of philosophy and literature.
After the response that her name alone had gotten her, she was almost tempted to skip the social gathering for the full student body that was held later that night, but if she isolated herself she would simply be letting them defeat her. As a woman with ambitions that the world she lived in would prefer that she rid herself of, she was willing to suffer hardships for what she wanted.
She did her best to try to interact with her fellow students and make friends, but while the response she received was admittedly varied, almost none of it was encouraging. One student openly asked her if she was planning to graduate, or if she was simply here to meet a particularly intelligent husband. She simply had to smile and laugh politely at his splendid joke, as much as she hated it. In the end, though, she wasn’t sure if the openly mean-spirited ones or the utterly patronizing ones were worse. The boy who was ranked second in her class warned her that she needed to be especially diligent with her work, as if she was unaware of the idea, and then had the nerve to offer her his phone number, saying that he was happy to help her with any classes they were both attending since he thought it would be nice to have her beneath him. “In the class ranking, of course,” he quickly clarified, with a smirk on his face that made it clear that it wasn’t what he had meant.
She maintained her masquerade as a kind, friendly, if unusually intelligent noblewoman for as long as she could manage, and then slipped back into her room meant for two students and cried softly for a short while before finding an early night’s rest.
Once the school year actually began, however, the situation improved somewhat. Even if she was the only female student, there was another group within the class that she was able to find some manner of kinship with. The few boys there who were not of noble birth were at first not much more receptive to her than the rest of the students, but by the end of the first term and the start of the winter break, most had realized that she and them were in a similar position. All of them were expected to work harder, behave better, and were graded harsher than the sons of high nobility that filled most of the seats in their classes.
At first, associating with them had only hurt her social standing with the majority of her peers, although most of those whom she had managed to build up a begrudging acceptance with did not turn away from her. Some of them were even willing to treat her as a somewhat-distant friend, which did something to begin shifting the overall tide.
Once she had completed it, the first year of her proper education felt as if it was both infinitely long and but a moment in time. Now that her work was no longer being evaluated as an anonymous exam but as assignments marked with her name and given over to decidedly partial teachers, she was to enter her second year as the fifth-ranked student in her class.
September, 480 IC, Odin
Her belongings were spare, and the day before the start of the fall term was far easier now that she simply had to move a few boxes from the freshman dormitories to her new, larger room in the sophomore residences. There was no speech and no forced time to interact with particular students, and she was able to find the little circle of friends that she had carved out of the small, unforgiving environment that had refused to leave.
They had all the simple little conversations about their summers and their lives in the time that they had been apart. Whenever things turned to a discussion of their lives outside the school, Hilde immediately went from feeling like she was among people just like her to being reminded just how special her life was. It hardly felt right to follow up her friends’ stories about the struggle of paying for their tuition with how much she had enjoyed getting to return to her family’s country estate and spend her days worrying about little more than hiking the trails on the property and reading from her father’s library at night.
In that moment, she realized that the status of women was not the only thing that needed reform in the Empire. Was there truly not enough wealth in the galaxy to allow her family and her old friends to live in nearly the same luxury they enjoyed now while doing more to help those who were not fortunate enough at birth lead slightly easier lives? Immediately after observing that, she realized that she had just committed an act of treason within her own thoughts.
She was unable to dwell on that thought for long, as the conversation around her had come to an awkward pause, as she’d just been staring off into space instead of engaging in the conversation. Hilde just laughed softly and made up an excuse about how she’d not been able to sleep properly the night before due to her excitement at returning, before trying to talk as little about the details of what she had done with her summer as possible.
That night’s party to celebrate the start of the new school year was even less appealing for her as a second-year than it had been as a first year, which was truly an achievement. While it had been a (fruitless) chance to meet her classmates last year, now it was a chance to spend time showing off the date that she didn’t have to her classmates, and to talk to the somewhat more distant friends that she hadn’t spent time with earlier in the day, which she also didn’t have.
She was still a woman, though, and she was not going to draw attention to herself by not attending. She would simply slip out at the first occasion that presented itself; it wasn’t as if she didn’t need the time to prepare for her classes tomorrow, anyway.
It hardly felt unusual, at this point, for her to be the only girl present not being carted around on a boy’s arm. She mostly stayed with the same group of friends at the beginning, before going around and at least spending a little bit of time talking with each of the other students that she had managed to reach at least a comfortable detente with, still putting in every effort to be liked, even if she’d already been working at it for a year.
Once that had been completed, she started trying to subtly drift out to the edge of the gathering, where it would be easier to slip away. She had just finished engaging in a moment of pleasant small talk with the mother of one of the incoming boys when she heard a familiar, pleasant voice call out her name, turning to see someone that she wouldn’t expect.
Baroness Westpfale had been close friends with Hilde when they were both small girls, but she had only seen her at social events in the years since her mother’s death. Hilde’s mother had been close to the Countess Westpfale, and frequently Magdalena and Hilde had spent time together as girls when their mothers were visiting each other. Even if they had not become as close as their mothers had been, they still frequently talked whenever they were attending an event together.
Magdalena was one of the few people Hilde consistently felt as if she could have an intelligent conversation with, who didn’t underestimate or talk down to her. She was also, incidentally, the only other girl that ever made Hilde feel jealous. She was confident enough in herself, but she was tall and clumsy and while she knew that most would consider her pretty, she was hardly the beauty that her once-best friend was.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t interact with other women who looked nearly as perfect as Maggie — Magdalena, she corrected herself in her own thoughts, for they were not children any longer — but to have someone who was her intellectual equal who was also so comfortably able to wear a gorgeous dress and look like the utter picture of the perfect noblewoman did stir what little bit of feminine vanity was inside of Hilde’s heart. She often caught herself staring enviously at her figure in a perfectly-tailored dress, or the way her hair rested so naturally on her back and shoulders, or even just watching how elegantly her perfectly manicured fingers moved when she was invited to show her natural talent for the piano.
Hilde walked over to her swiftly, her smile turning from artificial to genuine as she realized that there had been some point to even coming beyond just the keeping up of appearances. She spoke with a hushed tone as she began to converse with her, since their best conversations were always the ones that strayed outside of what two young women of their backgrounds should be discussing. “I hadn’t realized that any of the boys in my class were lucky enough to have you as a date… I have my suspicions of which could be foolish enough to leave you alone, though.”
“It’s as if you don’t know me! You haven’t seen me for months, do you really think that you’d have any chance of knowing which boy I was with?” That was somewhere between a brag and self-deprecation. She knew that since she had reached the age where it was normal for a noblewoman to spend time with potential suitors, she had taken on quite a few more than Hilde at the very least. “You know how they begin to tire me so quickly.”
Hilde flushed purple at her comment, which was quite something to hear even from her. That made her feel a sharper kind of envy, although the negative part of it was aimed much more directly the boys who did nothing to deserve her. “I find them too tiresome to entertain in the first place. Not that I would receive anywhere near the number who I am sure are eager to wait in line for your hand.” She was surprised that even her friend was making her reach back into her repertoire of forced laughs this quickly.
Magdalena just grinned, making her friend flush like that had been rather the point. “I am not here for a boy, anyway. While I’m sure that you would try to dress in a suit like that even if you weren’t, we are about to be classmates.”
“What? I sent you three letters to try to convince you to apply with me! What happened to that horrid girl’s school you insisted was your first choice?” Even if they had only been social friends for the past several years, in this moment the only difference between their bickering now and as children was that Hilde had learned to speak quietly.
“I told you that I went there because my piano tutor suggested it and because I wanted to enjoy my youth… and I will tell you what happened, but… I know you, Hilde. You’re not standing out here because you happen to like the company of overly clingy parents, you’re trying to sneak back to your room. Why don’t you take me with you? I’d rather discuss this somewhere private.”
Truthfully, Hilde just wanted to be alone and perhaps read a little after having to be social and polite all day, but… The idea of getting to see her friend for more than a conversation at a party again was appealing, so she lead her off towards the second-year dorms all the same. “I never realized you were capable of discretion. You really have grown up.”
Soon enough, they were back in the still-unfamiliar room that Hilde would be spending most of her time in for the next year. Hilde took the chair at her desk, leaving Maggie to sit at the edge of Hilde’s bed. Now that they were in a well-lit room, Hilde had spent enough time at parties to realize that Maggie was a little bit tipsy, despite being at least a year underage.
“To answer the question I know you care about most, I got myself expelled.”
“Maggie, I –” Hilde was utterly shocked. She knew that her friend was a handful, but she couldn’t imagine her doing anything so extreme as to get herself expelled!
“An’ I probably would have gone to jail were I not the daughter of such a well-connected and illustrious man. What can I say? If I were a common boy… you ‘n’ I both know I’d be a delinquent.” As if to emphasize this, she reached under a particularly complex-looking part of her dress and began to fish around for a moment, before her hand returned with a small flask that she took a little swig from. “You probably think that sewing is useless, but I find it quite practical,” she joked softly.
“Have you decided that it would be one of your little games to see how many prestigious schools you can get yourself kicked out of before your father runs out of favors?” She asked, with a biting tone that hid real concern. She had no idea that her friend was like this in private now.
“If some man comes to tell me that I’ve broken the rules, I will hide the flask and smile at him, and then the problem will magically disappear without needing my father to lift even one of his very generous and kind fingers.”
“If that’s true, then what did you do that got you expelled and could’ve –”
“I was caught in a compromising enough position that I couldn’t smile my way out of it.”
“For someone who claims to find men troublesome and boring, you’re –” Hilde glared when her friend interrupted her again, unsure what she did to deserve this.
“I had returned to school a few days before the end of the spring recess, and I thought my roommate wasn’t due back until school started again, but… She found me sleeping in a couple mornings later with another girl from the school sharing the bed.”
“You’re…! I mean… Can you… Are you… Do people, do women really… Do that?” Hilde was genuinely shocked to hear the news.
“If you’re asking me if there are girls like me who prefer each other’s company… What do you think? Haven’t you at least read about it in some book?”
“I mean, I knew that they existed, but I never thought that you… I mean, what about the rumors I hear from other girls about you? Aren’t you the one who always… Has boys?”
Magdalena couldn’t stop herself from laughing at that. “It’s not like I don’t plenty of boys very attractive, too, it’s just… They have this horrible habit of opening their mouths and then any interest dies. The truth is that I stand next to various boys because it makes my mother very angry, and then disappoint all but a very few of them. Do you really think that the rest are going to tell that story, though?”
“I mean, true, but… Does anyone else know? You could —”
“Yes, I could be jailed for it, I believe I covered that myself already. You’re the only one but the girl I was seeing, my old roommate, the dean of students at my old school, and my father.”
“Your father knows that you’ve been…” Hilde’s voice dropped to a whisper. “… in bed with another girl?”
“I told him before I had even asked her out the first time.”
“What on Odin possessed you to make you do that?”
“He’s the same way. Well, the opposite, but you know. He’s very close with one of our male servants who’s a lil’ bit younger than him. They’re pretty sweet when no one’s looking.”
“You just told me that your father —”
“No, I have not!” Hilde struggled to keep her voice quiet enough to not be heard by anyone outside the room.
“Really? I always figured that between the short hair and the way you dress –”
“Practically?” Hilde retorted, as much for revenge for how often Magdalena stepped over her words as anything.
“If I were my mother, I’d say you dress like a man. As myself, I’d say that you couldn’t look like you were trying much harder to sweep me off my feet unless you were carrying a rose.”
“You can’t just say things like that,” said Hilde, flushing as red as the aforementioned rose would have been.
“I mean, have you ever even been interested in a boy?” Magdalena asked, genuinely curious.
“Not really… No, but I just figured that I had to find someone who was kind and respected me and shared my interests. I asked Father once because my friends were teasing me, and that’s what he said.”
“I’d ask you the same question for girls, but the fact that you’re a worse lech sober than a lot of the drunken old men I have to tolerate at parties answers that already.” Magdalena leaned forward as she said that, just for effect.
“You’re lying!” Hilde said, not lying. She’d been looking at her friend a little bit, but it was just disbelief at what she was saying.
“It’d be so much easier to believe you when you say that if you weren’t staring so intently at my cleavage at the same time.” She added a little giggle, just to emphasize that she wasn’t mad (and because she had been continuing to sip from her flask throughout the conversation).
“I am not. I just… It’s hard to believe that wear things like that all the time. I wouldn’t be staring if you weren’t dressed like a…” Hilde struggled to find words for a moment, and she wasn’t even the one who had been drinking. “… particularly unsubtle courtesan.” She tried to sound teasingly chiding rather than actually mean, not that she was very good at sounding mean when she wanted to.
“I don’t think that I dress much differently than any other girls… Well, at least any other girls a little older than us. Perhaps something makes you notice me in particular?”
“I don’t know, maybe I’m just jealous of you. You’re one of the prettiest girls that I’ve ever seen.”
“What does it feel like? The jealousy, I mean.”
“Warm. And I can’t stop feeling flushed.”
Magdalena stood up off the bed, sitting the flask on Hilde’s bedside table and walking over to her, standing over the other woman for a moment, seeing the way that she looked up at her before gently running her fingertips up from Hilde’s jaw to her cheekbone.
The feeling of those fingers she’d caught herself staring at before running up her cheek made her shiver.
The black-haired woman leaned down, closing the distance between her face and Hilde’s, firmly and soundly pressing a kiss to her lips.
Hilde tried to gasp, but it seemed to get caught in her throat.
After a moment, Magdalena pulled back. “You aren’t jealous of me.”
Hilde already knew that.