When Annerose awakes from her nightmare, she doesn’t cry out. In fact, barring her sharp intake of breath and abruptly wide, fearful eyes, she doesn’t look awake at all. This is how it’s always been — the immobility, the soundlessness. She is unobtrusive. Easily ignored.
She had been dreaming of the house again.
Her steps hadn’t echoed in its hallways, but she had been far from safe there — the wood underneath the carpet had been old, prone to creaking at inopportune moments. By the time she had learned where to place her feet, she had been whisked away into Neue Sanssouci and closer to the Kaiser’s ever-present leer.
As she stares at the white sculpted ceiling, following its twisting botanical patterns, Annerose wonders why that is the house her mind refuses to let go of. She can barely recall their first home, its rooms appearing incomplete in her mind’s eye, like studies she never found the time to finish, even if she still manages to associate it with her mother’s sugary perfume and her soft and perpetually cold hands. The second one is even harder to envision; she’s only able to glimpse its furniture in the background of her memories of Kircheis and Reinhard running to and from the backyard.
But the third, with its velvet sofas and mahogany bookshelves, is the one she can describe in its entirety, from the marble handrail on the staircase to the diaphanous curtains fluttering down from her canopy bed. It had been a beautiful residence, its long, vertical lines giving it a looming sort of elegance, the kind that lingers long after one leaves.
She had hated every second spent inside its walls.
Back then, fifteen years old and alone, she hadn’t yet learned how to retreat from her body, how to cast her thoughts towards her brother, much like a compass pointing true north. Every movement had held her full weight behind it, and even with all her muscles coiled and limbs held close, she had still been too conspicuous to escape notice. It had been a terrible thing to know, that others found her alluring.
There is nothing more enticing than a woman who looks like she hasn’t been corrupted yet, her maid had told her once, as she braided Annerose’s shimmering blonde hair. Her tone had been bitter, Annerose is sure of that, but even after all these years she doesn’t know towards whom.
She had lived a negligible amount of time in that mansion, in the grand scheme of things, her short stay merely a prelude to the seemingly endless decade spent in the Rear Palace, though perhaps that’s why it casts such an enduring shadow. It had been the prologue, each word a bad omen yet not quite capable of molding her in new, unrecognizable ways, the dread just enough to seep into her flesh, but not to bring up the high walls she had to build for herself later on.
Can the house haunt the ghost? Perhaps it’s a mutual persistence, and there is an image of a teenage girl still roaming its lavish halls. The thread of time connecting all those disparate moments has curled around itself, present and past overlaid on one another, and she, for once, cannot forget. Maybe neither can the house.
Is the solemn grandfather clock still in its resting place, at the end of the hallway holding the door to her room? Does the butler still quietly walk up to it at 5 in the morning to wind it up? She had heard him — sensed him, rather — on the too-common nights where insomnia had held her in its clutches. Annerose had treasured the knowledge dearly; a morsel of the life of a person no less trapped than her, though less poetically so. A reminder that life had existed, even if, for her, the house sits submerged in an eerie, abstracted emptiness. A material, yet immobile reality.
There are never other inhabitants in her nightmares, only snippets of conversation that yield nothing when the doors are opened. Shadows without their casters.
Annerose brushes her hair off her sweaty forehead and closes her eyes, willing sleep to come. There is no point to this particular train of thought. There are no unexpected truths to be gleaned from her dreams; after thirty years, she has learned exactly how her mind works.
She hasn’t looked at the bedside clock, but Annerose doesn’t need to to know that the sun won’t rise for another couple of hours at the very least — her body feels heavy, her thoughts addled by an exhaustion that rest never seems to fully drive away.
Still, her nightmare rattled her too much for the return to unconsciousness to be effortless, and Annerose tosses and turns, tangling her legs in the sheets, minutes ticking by until she falls into a fitful, unsatisfying darkness.
The light filtering through the curtains is tentative, when Annerose pulls back her covers and lets her feet touch the polished wooden floor. Her bedside used to have a small, soft rug, but she rolled it up and hid it in the closet — an indulgence small enough to be acceptable.
The headache pulsing from the base her of her skull, symptom of the unfamiliar bed, keeps her steps uncertain as she walks into the bathroom, and Annerose wonders when she’ll be allowed to leave. Hilde is lovely company, fierce intelligence tempered by an equal amount of kindness, and Annerose enjoys spending time with her infant nephew, too young for the weight of the universe to lay heavy on his shoulders, but they all know she wasn’t made to live on the eye of the storm, amidst the notorious. A decade with her fingers on the nation’s pulse more than sufficed to erase any desire of that sort, if her mind had ever held one in the first place.
She is aware that isolation will not make her happier — Annerose has long suspected nothing can — but she hopes her absence will give the galaxy some measure of peace. After all, she is a remnant of another time, a time of courtly intrigue and self-perpetuating war, dated in a way Reinhard isn’t.
The future doesn’t need her, and she might never be able to express how relieved she is to know it. The curtain has fallen for her, at last, and in the quiet of the backstage, she can shrug off the itching, too garish costume that had never truly fit, even if she had indeed known how to wear it.
On the way out of the room, she passes by the dresser. It’s an unremarkable thing: white and gold-trimmed, with a marble top, yet it arrests her attention all the same, by virtue of the jewelry box lying atop it.
She had placed Reinhard’s pendant there, out of sight, though the strategy had been unfruitful — she could not ignore its presence. Is she thankful for her mind’s refusal to comply? Surely it would make her a wretched woman, to turn her gaze away; but would she be a more peaceful one?
Her fingers open the box tentatively, tracing the worn lines of the gold locket with the same gentleness she had once used to comb through her brother’s hair or hold Sieg’s hand. More than enough time has passed for the grief to quiet down. Logically, Annerose is aware of this, though the heat on the back of her eyes is as instant and as prickling as ever, fresh tears ready to fall if she so wills them.
She shuts the box as if burned.
It’s too late, however, as she remembers: not their childhood days, but that certain afternoon, nearly a decade ago, when she first realized their three positions on the tapestry of her life.
It had been a day of oppressive heat, Annerose’s chemise clinging to her back uncomfortably, the hairs at the nape of her neck curling with perspiration. Her dress had been made of blue striped satin (she clearly remembers smoothing its skirt at too-short intervals as she waited for Reinhard and Sieg to arrive), the light glinting off of it like the sun off the sea’s surface.
“Sister!” Reinhard had said, reaching out to hold her hands. His had grown bigger, their grip gentle yet speaking of held-back strength, and Annerose had smiled, long accustomed to not revealing her misgivings about the inexorable passage of time.
Sieg’s look had been knowing, though, when he smiled back. He had grown so tall, towering over them, casting Reinhard’s golden mane in shadow, yet the timbre of his voice had still held that even kindness that had, Annerose suspects, held her brother back from destruction, his and the world’s, innumerous times.
How old had they been? The details slip through her fingers; her recollections have always been the gist of the moment, a neat summary, rather than the moment itself.
(Perhaps the memory isn’t a memory at all — Annerose has known her mind to fabricate, on occasion, when the gaps in the partiture become too noticeable to wave away.)
She cannot date this meeting of theirs, but they had looked young — jawlines not yet completely defined, cheeks still pinchable, if she had been the sort that does such casual things.
Over tea, Reinhard had told her about the (most likely heavily doctored to sound unalarming) vicissitudes of military life, Sieg once or twice providing missing context. Their combined speech had been fluid, unfaltering, imbued with the ease of implicit understanding, and Annerose had felt her insides turn to ice despite the heat.
Reinhard and Sieg had always been close, their bond endearing in its intensity — the two boys had always been kindred spirits. But that… that synergy had been new, terrifyingly so. It had spoken of an inner universe, of two stars in mutual orbit.
It had spoken of a crime.
There had been many instances in which Annerose had wished to blend into the wallpaper. She had thought she would have appreciated the lack of scrutiny. But she hadn’t expected the abandonment to come from them — the two people she’d grow claws for.
Was this to be her fate? To become part of the furniture standing beautifully in the background? They had been talking to her, yet it had felt like eavesdropping: their words too layered for her ears, too private.
Reinhard had asked her a question, his head titled to the side ever so slightly.
Annerose had acknowledged it with a slow blink, as her mind restructured itself around their new relative distance.
The words that had emerged unbidden from her chest had been acid, burning up her throat and corroding the back of her teeth as she grit them to stop their scorching path. She had wanted to run, to hide, to weep — he was her brother, whom she had given up everything for without a solitary regret, who had in turn decided to raze their society for her sake (and the bile calls her a pretext, an excuse) and she had been about to—
“I’ve been alright, thank you. Baroness Westpfale came to see me the other day; you know life can never be uninteresting with her around.”
It hadn’t been the first time she had donned a mask when addressing Reinhard — her motherly ways had been almost entirely affected, at first — but she had never felt so afraid of it slipping off before.
She had never felt so hideous behind it before.
Reinhard had smiled. “She is indeed… vibrant.”
Had anyone ever seen Annerose that way? No, she had been described as various types of flower (all dead, when pulled from the dirt), but none had attempted to compare her to livelier things. This had been by design: Annerose had taken pains to learn how to inhabit an elegant, yet unsettling existence, uncanny in the perfection of her measured movements.
A gimmick, like everything had been, at court, but one far too often taken for guilelessness. Some had genuinely believed her lack of artfulness to be unrehearsed, accidental, assuming she hadn’t been sufficiently intelligent to aim for the precise amount of imperfection that makes a woman tolerable.
Some, like Magdalena, had been shrewd enough to peer behind the curtain, and charitable enough to dote on her regardless.
Annerose blinks, losing track of the memory — all of hers are fragmented, and most incoherent, cause and effect muddled by the years.
As she closes the door to her bedroom and walks the hallways to the sitting room, Annerose tugs at that thought, unspools it.
It’s a fickle thing, memory. Hers seems quite mercurial, preserving the most inconsequential images in detriment of perhaps more vital ones. The houses, she always thinks back to the houses: the stages of her life, so neatly arranged, though so discordant in their outlines.
Why the third house? Why not the Rear Palace, or the Kaiser’s quarters (why can she only remember the candlelight glinting off his teeth?), or her many other rooms? She wouldn’t know her way back to the cabin in which she spent the majority of Reinhard’s reign, yet she still recalls the noisiest step on that damned house’s staircase (it had been the fifth, but she had tended to avoid the eleventh as well).
And what does Reinhard remember?
She wishes she could talk to him, sit him down by her side on the sofa, like they used to in that first house, and ask him to help slowly knit her recollections back together. She can’t, naturally, but she imagines it anyway. He would have been reluctant — always one to gaze ahead, never behind — yet he’d indulge her in the end, just as she had, time and time again, read him books far too advanced for a child who hadn’t the ability to do so on his own. The two of them would have been able to form a coherent narrative, write it down for posterity, perhaps. They would have organized each painful moment into a meaningful collage, and then Annerose would have been alright.
She doesn’t regret leaving him alone to his campaign. She might have, had he ever reconsidered, had he ever just stopped to catch his breath. She had known he wouldn’t: hadn’t that been why she had made weariness the condition for his return?
She doesn’t regret, but she does miss him, her little brother, sharp and strong and brave and surprisingly fragile, at his core, where fire burned in place of a heart, steady beat replaced by a low, violent roar. No love had been fiercer than his, no hate as foul, no desire as ravenous, and all had conspired to kill him, in the end. Autophagy had been a foregone conclusion, though Annerose hadn’t seen it as such until after his final exit from the stage had come to pass.
Things would have been different, had Sieg survived that ill-fated assassination attempt — it’s a small, irrational hope, but one Annerose allows herself to keep.
She doesn’t know whether the notion serves as salve on her wounded soul, or as salt.
She thinks it doesn’t matter.
Annerose feels their absence more strongly than she had felt their presence. Twin shadows at her back, they follow her steps, synchronous in death as they had once been in life — the idea isn’t comforting, but then she doesn’t want it to be.
Her nephew’s shrieking laughter, audible even through the closed sitting room door, rouses her from her nostalgic stupor, bringing a wan smile to her face.
Neither von Müsel sibling had ever dwelled on the past — Reinhard unwilling and Annerose unable to do so. Perhaps that is a family tradition she should uphold; there is nothing to return to, nothing to romanticize. Nothing she can recall, at the very least.
Her fingers curl around the doorknob, and Annerose takes a deep breath, hoping the extra air will bestow some levity upon her countenance.
“His name is Alexander,” she quietly reminds herself, and opens the door.