Mittermeyer woke in a cold sweat, as he did fairly often, and steadied his breathing as he looked at the glowing clock on his bedside table. It was a bit after four, which was too early to be called ‘late’ and yet still too deep in the night to be reasonable. He lay still for a second, feeling Eva’s arm draped over his side. From the even sound of her breathing, tickling the back of his neck, he didn’t think that she was awake, even though the way the sheets were tangled around his legs indicated that he had been thrashing in his sleep. He didn’t want to disturb her, but he did want to look at her, in the dim light coming in from under the doorway from the hallway, so, as gently as he could, he rolled to face her.
Eva’s hair was splayed out over the pillow in a wild mane, and her eyes were closed, though there was some tension there, in the lines of her face— pinched around the corners of her eyes, her mouth closed but not slack. He was tempted to wake her and ask her what she was dreaming about, but decided against it. Best not to put too much stock in dreams, he kept telling himself.
He sighed a little, then admitted that he wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep unless he dispatched some of the restless energy that the dream had given him, so he wiggled out from under Eva’s arm, carefully pulled the blankets back up over her, and then crept out of the bedroom.
As usual, his first stop was Felix’s room, and he carefully opened the door, not wanting to wake the four year old. Felix, at least, seemed to be sleeping peacefully, though he had thrown off all of his blankets, and his favorite stuffed toy, a rather dopey looking lion, had ended up on the floor. Mittermeyer picked it up and put it back on the bed with him, looking down at Felix’s round face. Perhaps it was delusion, but Mittermeyer thought he looked more like his father every day.
Mittermeyer stroked a piece of Felix’s black hair off of his forehead, causing him to smile and make a sleepy little noise, which struck directly at the center of Mittermeyer’s heart, enough to make him bite his lip to keep from making a noise of his own. Looking at Felix was bringing his dream too close to the forefront of his mind, though, so Mittermeyer gave him one last tender look and then left the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
He wandered into the kitchen, drank some orange juice directly out of the gallon, which Eva would have chided him for if she had seen it, and then sat down at the kitchen table to stare bleakly out the window. It was too dark to see anything outside, except maybe vague shapes of tree branches against the sky. If he went into one of the other rooms, he could certainly see the city lights, but the kitchen window looked out onto the garden, surrounded by walls and cut off from the outside world. He tried and failed to think of nothing, then tried to get himself to go open his computer to see if there was any work that he could do with this unexpected time, but the thought of reading whatever urgent missives had come through during the night repulsed him. He would deal with them later. Despite knowing exactly what time it was, this hour still felt out-of-time, and the detachment from the realities of the world was something that he savored, at least for now.
Still, he grew restless just sitting at the kitchen table, so he retrieved his jacket and shoes from the hall closet and pulled them on. It was early in the fall, but he was only wearing his boxers aside from the jacket, so it would have been too cold to go without it. He exited the house through the back and went into the garden. Now that he was outside, the moonlight was clearer, and his eyes adjusted enough that he at least wasn’t stumbling over Felix’s discarded toys in the dark. Birds were beginning their early-morning calls, which probably meant the sun would be rising soon.
He walked slowly, feeling more awake and steadier, which was both a blessing and a curse. It probably wasn’t worth going back to sleep.
After about a minute or so, the house door opened; he heard the characteristic bang and swish of the screen door. He stopped and turned. Evangeline was there, light spilling out from the house behind her, illuminating her silhouette against the slightly foggy early-morning air. Her face was scrunched up, probably in a vain attempt to adjust to the various changing lights, and she was wearing her bathrobe, the fuzzy green one he had gotten her for last winter solstice.
Mittermeyer walked over to her, and she smiled a little, putting her hand on his arm.
“What are you doing up?” Mittermeyer asked. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“I came to make sure you were alright,” she said.
“Of course I’m alright.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. She leaned on him and they took a few steps together, headed away from the house, towards the trees where a rope hammock was strung up.
“You had that dream again,” she said after a second.
“So, I did wake you up. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I would have gone back to sleep, but then I heard the door open.”
“I’ll have to be quieter, next time,” he said. He sat down on the hammock, kicking his legs out to hold it still so that Eva could join him. She leaned her head on his shoulder, her hair brushing his neck underneath the collar of his jacket.
“The fact that you can identify the dream I’m having, when you’re not even the one having it, indicates that it’s unlikely to stop any time soon.” This wasn’t precisely true. He had several different dreams all on the same theme, and he wasn’t sure which one Eva thought she was referring to.
She was silent for a second. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” Mittermeyer said.
“I know you don’t like to talk to me about Fleet Admiral Reuenthal.” Mittermeyer’s hand twitched a little, involuntarily, at the sound of his name, and Eva took his hand in hers, rubbing her thumb along the back of his fingers. “I don’t know if you like to talk about him to anyone.”
“Who would I talk to?” Mittermeyer asked, trying to keep any emotion out of his voice.
Eva drew in a breath, as though she were about to start listing conversation partners, then shook her head against Mittermeyer’s shoulder. “You know, you can talk to me. Even if I didn’t understand, I would listen.”
“You’re too good for me, Eva.” He fell silent. The birds had grown used to their presence and started chirping again, some flitting about from branch to branch above their heads.
“I remember, you used to dream about him even before he died,” Eva said, almost casually.
“I didn’t know you knew that.” His tone was careful, cautious.
“It would be hard not to,” she said. “You talk in your sleep sometimes.”
“What did I say?”
She laughed a little. “Nothing comprehensible. You know how dreams are. You’d call him Reuenthal when you were mad at him, and Oskar when you weren’t.”
Mittermeyer flushed, grateful for the darkness for hiding it. “Oh.”
“I wish you would talk to me about him. You never did, even before.”
“Neither of you liked each other,” Mittermeyer said. “I don’t want to bother you with it.”
“It’s not bothering me.” She sighed and nestled closer to him. Her next words sounded like an admission of guilt. “I wish I had been kinder to him, you know.”
“You were kind to him,” Mittermeyer said. Probably more than Reuenthal deserved, he thought.
“I tolerated him,” Eva said. “I was a little scared of him. I got out of the way when he came around. That isn’t the same as being kind.”
“Scared of him? Reuenthal?” The idea shook him. The fact that he had not noticed made him ashamed.
“He showed up drunk to our wedding,” she said. “Do you remember that?”
“Of course I do.”
“It didn’t make a good first impression. And then after that…” She trailed off and shrugged a little. “You were right that he didn’t like me. I could tell. I wish I could have fixed that.”
“It wasn’t something that you could fix.”
“No?” she asked. “You think that if he— if he was still alive, I wouldn’t have been able to reconcile our differences?”
Mittermeyer shook his head. “Probably not.”
“Does it matter?” He realized he was being a little harsh, stopped, and said, “I’m sorry that… he made you unhappy.”
“It matters,” she said. “I would like to be able to stop feeling guilty.”
“Guilty? Why in the universe would you feel guilty?”
“For one thing, it’s a poor wife who doesn’t try to like her husband’s friends. For another… Did he have any friends, besides you, and besides, uh, Fraulein Kolsrausch?”
“I wouldn’t call her his friend,” Mittermeyer said. “I don’t know who I would have called his friend, honestly. Maybe Admiral Kircheis, and maybe Kaiser Reinhard, before he was the kaiser. Maybe Admiral Bergengrun. And you know, everyone else knew him well enough. We’d go out for drinks with Lutz and Muller and Kessler and everyone else.”
“But you were the only person he was close to.”
“I just think to myself, if he hadn’t been so isolated, maybe he wouldn’t have… If I had made him feel more welcome here, even with Fraulein Kolsrausch…”
Mittermeyer shook his head. “I don’t think you could have made him feel welcome. It’s not your fault.”
“It’s complicated,” Mittermeyer said.
“You’ve always been good at explaining things.”
“Why do you want to know?”
Eva took a moment before she responded, collecting her thoughts. “Because it feels like sometimes there’s this ghost living in our house. One that I know is there, because I can see the edges of him, but I can’t touch or understand him. He was the father of our son. I’d like to understand him for that reason. And he was a part of your life. When you don’t talk about him, it feels like I don’t understand you at all. And I want to. Because you’re my husband. And I love you.” She finished this, rather haltingly.
Mittermeyer didn’t respond for a second, feeling torn in half. “Does it really bother you that much? Has it always, and I just didn’t notice?”
“I don’t want to pry,” she said, though her voice held reluctance. “If you really can’t talk about him. But it’s been years.”
“No,” Mittermeyer said. “I asked if it really bothered you, and it does. I don’t want to hurt you.”
When he didn’t continue, she said, “But?”
His whole body was stiff, which she noticed, and she rubbed his bare leg. He would have probably pulled away from the touch if they had been sitting anywhere other than the slowly swaying hammock, where movement was difficult. Instead, he just shivered a little, goosebumps rising up on his thigh. “I don’t think me telling you about Reuenthal will make you happy,” he said, which was an understatement.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of happiness to be gained from talking about your dead friend,” she said. “But I think it would take a load off my shoulders. In a few years, when Felix asks me what I thought of his birth father, I want to be able to say something other than ‘He made me nervous when he came around.’”
Mittermeyer let out a rush of breath. “Maybe I should have told you a long time ago.”
“What was stopping you? Just the fact that we didn’t like each other?”
He laughed a little bit. “No.”
“Are you going to tell me?”
“I should,” he said. “I really should.”
They were both silent for a second, then Eva said, “I’m listening.”
“Do you remember when you first moved to Phezzan?”
“Of course,” she said. “Why?”
“You remember when the Kaiser invited us over for tea?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Did you ever think about… why he did that?”
“I did think about it, yes.”
“And what did you think?”
“I think at the time, I assumed he was, I don’t know, lonely, I suppose, and just wanted something to do. Same reason he would go horse riding or take High Admiral Bittenfeld to the ballet.”
“At the time?”
“Well, you know, afterwards, when I heard he was marrying Kaiserin Hilde, I realized he had probably been trying to ask for advice. But I never got the impression that he liked hearing advice on personal matters, so he was asking without having to ask.”
Mittermeyer nodded. “Yeah.”
“Why are you thinking about that?”
“Did you ever wonder why he came to us?”
“You were closer to him than most. Was that not the reason?”
“It was part of it. But he could have asked other people, and he never did. I don’t think he asked anyone else about married life until the moment he proposed.”
“What was the other reason, then? If that wasn’t everything?”
“Do you remember meeting Admiral Kircheis? I think I introduced you to each other at a party, once.”
“Vaguely. You’re losing me, darling. What does this have to do with Reuenthal?”
“I’m getting there,” Mittermeyer said. He twisted his hand so he could hold hers, and she gave it a bit of a squeeze.
“Okay, go ahead. I’m listening.”
“I know.” He stared out into the garden for a moment. “You know that the kaiser and Admiral Kircheis were close, right?”
“Of course. You said they were childhood friends? And I remember Kaiser Reinhard was… He looked better on his deathbed than he looked at that funeral.”
Mittermeyer nodded. “When Ansbach killed Kircheis,” he said after a second, “he said that he was taking away Kaiser Reinhard’s other half.”
“You think he was right?”
“I know he was right. And I think he was more right than Ansbach himself even knew.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Eva, I’m going to tell you something that maybe two or three other people who are still alive actually know.”
She leaned heavily against him. “What elite company am I about to be in?” she asked.
“Princess Grunewald knows, Kaiserin Hilde, and probably Count Mariendorf. Although, thinking about it, there’s probably a few others who haven’t had it told to them directly, but might as well know.”
It felt very wrong to be giving away the secrets of two dead men like this, but he steeled himself and did it anyway. “Kaiser Reinhard was a homosexual. He and Admiral Kircheis were… Partners, I suppose.”
“Oh,” Eva said after a second. “I see.” He could feel her stiffening against him, as the pieces clicked into place in her mind, suspicion for now, the reason he was telling her this, but why else would he be telling her this?
“Do you have an opinion on that?” Mittermeyer asked, somewhat tentatively.
“Kaiser Reinhard was a good leader, and very generous to us.” Her voice was the careful sort of neutrality that she used when talking to someone she wasn’t sure about. “I think it would be unfair of me to change my opinion about him, one way or another.”
Mittermeyer nodded. “He wanted to ask our advice about getting married, because he really didn’t— he didn’t have a clue. But he knew he was going to need to, at some point, so I think he was trying, maybe, to figure out if there was a way that he could be happy.”
“He decided the answer was yes, I suppose?”
“I don’t know. I— It’s not my business. I respect Kaiserin Hilde very much, and I’m not going to pry into her personal life.”
“You said that before,” she said. “That was one of the things you said when we left that tea.”
“Yeah,” Mittermeyer said. “Maybe I should have pried. I don’t know. I guess it wouldn’t have mattered, in the end.”
“No,” she said. “It’s good that there’s going to be a continuation of the dynasty. If he had died without an heir…”
Mittermeyer huffed a little. “If he died without an heir, we might be having this conversation in a republic.”
Eva was startled by this passing comment. “What do you mean by that?”
Mittermeyer closed his eyes. “It was something I discussed privately, with a few other people. Kaiserin Hilde, Muller, Eisenach, Wahlen, Kessler… Just a few people, ones I trust completely.”
“Not me?” She wasn't really accusing, just poking him a little.
“It didn’t end up mattering,” Mittermeyer said. “This happened just a bit before he announced his engagement.” He shook his head a little. “But he was already very sick, at the time, and a lot of us were worried about the possibility of him dying without an heir, and what that kind of instability would look like.”
“And what was it you discussed?”
“Two ideas. The first was that he should name his sister as his successor.”
Eva nodded. “She would make a fine kaiserin.”
“It would have been cruel to her, though,” Mittermeyer said. “She… I’ve spoken with her many times. She would have hated the power, even if she would have wielded it gently, and well. And the responsibility to bear an heir would have fallen to her. I—“ He paused. “It would have been cruel. That’s all.”
“I understand. And the second thing you discussed?”
“If Kaiser Reinhard felt like he was dying, without an heir, and without naming Princess Grunewald as his successor, he should have written a constitution and established a republic. It would at least give some legitimacy to whatever came next, and might avoid a bloody civil war.”
“You think there would have been a power struggle?”
“Within the admiralty? No, I don’t think so. Oberstein was still alive at the time, and even though we didn’t like each other, he would have backed me, and I think everyone else would have fallen in line alright. But I think the former Alliance planets would have rebelled, and rebelled hard, if there had been no heir, and I think that trying to establish anything after his death would have felt illegitimate, at best.”
“You would have figured something out.”
“Perhaps,” Mittermeyer said. “But I’m glad it wasn’t my burden to carry.”
“I let you get off topic,” she said. “Republic or no.”
“Yeah. He did have an heir.”
The birds above them were chirping louder, now, and the first rays of sun were beginning to peek up the horizon, turning the sky from black-with-stars to a washed out grey near the edges. They were silent for a long moment. Mittermeyer, having been derailed, didn’t quite know how to continue. He had lost his momentum and suddenly didn’t want to say anything more. It felt good to talk about the republic that might have been, to let that secret out into the world. The other, he had never wanted to tell anyone, certainly not Eva, but she deserved to know.
“Go on,” Eva said after the silence became almost unbearable. “You were talking about Kaiser Reinhard asking us if he would be able to be happy.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Mittermeyer looked down at his hand, held in hers, at the shining gold band on his finger. “I don’t know, even after talking to us, if he believed it was possible, but I guess I’m glad he tried.”
“Why us, though?” She was unwilling to let him avoid this angle, the one he had specifically brought up himself. “Why ask us?”
“Because he and I—“ He paused. “Do you remember when I was arrested?”
“Yes, of course. It was probably the most terrifying time of my life.”
“Do you remember how Reuenthal got me out?”
“He requested— he was an… admiral at the time, right? Kaiser Reinhard helped him.”
“Yes. He offered to join Kaiser Reinhard, in exchange for helping me.”
“I am very grateful to them both, for that.”
“He knew he had to ask Kaiser Reinhard, not because he was particularly politically relevant, but because he suspected that Reinhard would be willing to help him. Help us.”
"Because they had that in common. Kaiser Reinhard would understand what Reuenthal was willing to risk to get me out." He pulled his hand out from Eva’s, then buried his face in his hands. “Reuenthal loved me, Eva,” Mittermeyer said. “Like he loved no one else in the world, he loved me.”
She was quiet for a painful second. When she finally spoke, her voice was on the edge of accusatory. “And you?”
“Yes, gods, yes, I loved him, too.” It was suddenly all coming out of him, and his voice was breaking, the thickness gathering in the back of his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t look at Eva. She had pulled herself away from him, and while he missed her warmth, he was almost relieved. He had known she would be angry. He had played this situation out in his mind a hundred million times. He knew her well enough to understand how she would feel.
“How did you love him?”
“What are you asking?”
“Were you intimate with him?” Her voice was cold.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
“For how long?”
“As long as we knew each other. Until the day he left for Heinessen and never came back.” He was crying now, blinking the tears out of his eyes, wiping them bitterly away. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
There was a long pause, during which the only sound was Mittermeyer's ragged breathing and the squabbling of birds over their heads. Eva shifted, collected herself, then spoke, her voice simultaneously cold and raw. The words came out slowly, as though she was hesitating before each one, making sure of their finality.
“I’m going to ask you one question, and then I’m going to go inside and take a shower and think about this for a very long time,” Eva said. “And I want you to be completely honest with me, which is something that I no longer think I can trust you to be. But I’m going to ask it anyway.”
“This is the only— I’ve never— No one else,” Mittermeyer managed. “I won’t lie to you.”
“You said that Kaiser Reinhard wanted to know if he could be happy, marrying a woman, when he was a homosexual, since he would need to do it, in order to produce an heir. He looked at us, because he knew you… were. And I find that I have to ask the same question: were you happy?”
“I am happy,” Mittermeyer said. He finally looked up at her. Her expression wasn’t as cold as he had been worried that it might be from her tone. She mostly looked sad. She was staring at the wedding band on her own hand, fiddling with it, not looking at him. Perhaps she was better at being stern to keep from crying than he was. “I love you, Eva. I love you more than I could ever explain.”
“More than you loved Reuenthal?”
He had to look away. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “Does it matter?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it does.”
He took a shuddering breath but didn’t say anything. In that silence, she got up from the hammock, leaving it swinging and suddenly empty feeling, off balance without her on it. He watched her walk back to the house, the sun finally peeking up over the roof, glittering on the dew of the grass, leaving dark spots where Eva’s bare feet landed.