Hilde spoke with Princess Grunewald-- Annerose-- the night before the wedding, sitting in front of the crackling hearth in the house that had been set up for her. It was a warm and comfortable building, but it seemed that Annerose was uncomfortable in it, perhaps feeling it too large. Hilde had seen the country estate she had been living in for the past several years on Odin, barely larger than a cottage. This place was not only grand, but also had the unmistakable air of Phezzani culture in its construction; there were no rustic, exposed logs here, only sharp, clean edges, and the stone around the fireplace was a smooth slab of granite, rather than the chunky masonry that had been in Annerose’s old home.
They both clutched mugs of hot chocolate in their hands. It was a childish drink, but Hilde was finding that she liked the warm comfort of it. They had been sitting and talking about nothing for about fifteen minutes.
“It’s supposed to snow tomorrow,” Annerose said.
“Yes, I saw,” Hilde said. “I’m glad it’s not going to be too much, so we won’t have to postpone.”
“Reinhard wouldn’t like that.”
“It would be an inconvenience,” Hilde agreed. Annerose had invited Hilde over to talk, but she wasn’t sure what Annerose had wanted to talk about, and so she couldn’t bring up the subject. And Annerose had a stiff and quiet way about her, one that made it difficult for her to say what she wanted to say directly.
“Do you like the snow?” Annerose asked after a pause.
“Yes,” Hilde said. “My father and I used to go skiing, when I was younger.”
Annerose nodded. “That’s good.”
“Do you like the snow?”
“I don’t know,” Annerose said, seeming confused by the question. “I suppose.”
“Does His Majesty?”
Annerose looked down at her hands, the mug of hot chocolate in them. “Yes, I think so.”
“That’s good,” Hilde said. She looked into the fire. “Since our honeymoon will be in the mountains.” Annerose nodded but was silent. This compelled Hilde to keep talking, just to fill up the space between them. “I thought he just picked it because it was close to the capital,” she said. “It makes sense, for him to be able to get back quickly, if there’s an emergency. But I’m glad that it’s something that His Majesty also likes…”
“Do you not like it?”
“Oh, no,” Hilde said. “It’s fine.” She twisted the fabric of her skirt beneath her hands, hating it. “I don’t think it matters.”
“Do you want to go somewhere else?”
“No,” Hilde said. “I prefer to be close to the capital, too. And I’ve done enough travelling, these past few years. I don’t…” She shook her head and fell silent.
“Are you looking forward to it?” Annerose wasn’t meeting Hilde’s eyes, instead staring blankly somewhere behind her, perhaps out the dark window, the outside scenery illuminated only by distant streetlights.
“I suppose,” Hilde said, which was neither a lie nor the truth. She had no idea how to feel about her upcoming wedding to Kaiser Reinhard. She wished she could have been a truly happy bride, but she wasn’t sure she was capable of that. She could at least be the bride that Kaiser Reinhard needed her to be, and she could be content. “I don’t think it will be much different than…” She had started the sentence without knowing how to end it. “Usual,” she finished lamely.
“What do you mean?” Annerose’s voice was strained.
“I’m sure His Majesty won’t be able to tear himself away from duty completely,” Hilde said, though that wasn’t entirely what she had meant. She couldn’t explain herself, but she wanted to relieve whatever worry that Annerose had.
Annerose was silent for a second. “Do you really think of him that way?” There was an odd quiver in her voice.
“As His Majesty.”
“You told him to call me by my name, didn’t you?”
Annerose hesitated. “Yes.”
“I don’t mind that he calls me Fraulein Mariendorf,” Hilde said. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“I worry, and then I ask too much of people.” This line was barely audible above the crackling of the fire in the hearth.
“What do you mean?”
But Annerose just shook her head. There was that uncomfortable silence between them again. The fire popped, sending sparks scattering out onto the marble floor, then Annerose said, “Please, Hilde, are you happy to be marrying my brother?”
“If I was unhappy, I would not have accepted his proposal.”
“I’m sorry,” Annerose said. She put down her mug on the coffee table, then smoothed her own skirt under her hands.
“What are you apologizing for?”
She was completely turned away from Hilde now, looking into the fire. “It’s difficult to refuse His Majesty.”
It was the change in address that made what Annerose was trying to ask fall into place. Hesitantly, Hilde said, “Lord Reinhard would have allowed me to refuse him.” She shook her head. “He wouldn’t have proposed to me if he wasn’t scared of repeating the sins of the Goldenbaum dynasty.”
“Can I tell you something, Hilde?”
“Of course. Please.”
Something in Annerose’s voice firmed up. “The most difficult thing I have ever done was leaving him. And I have done it twice, once for his sake, and once for my own. And it was worse the second time.” Annerose looked at her hands in her lap. “I had a choice, after Sieg died. I could be there for him, and burn away every part of myself doing it, or I could leave, save myself and ruin him. It’s so hard to look at him and make the selfish choice.” She shook her head. “It’s difficult to refuse His Majesty. It’s even harder to refuse my brother.”
“Did you feel like you had a choice?”
Hilde watched the highlights and shadows dancing on the floor in front of the fire. She took a long time to compose her answer. “From where I stand now, I don’t think I could have made different ones,” she said finally. “But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the opportunity to.”
“You were there for him when I was not,” Annerose said. “I can’t help but feel guilty that you bore that burden for me.”
“It’s not a burden,” Hilde said. “Please don’t think that it is. It has been the honor of my life to be of use to His Majesty-- and you.”
“But you don’t love Reinhard.”
“I do.” She couldn’t bear to look at Annerose when she said it; she looked too much like him. “I do love him.”
“Like a woman loves her husband?” Annerose asked quietly. “Or like a servant loves her Kaiser?”
“Can I presume to say that I love him the way you love him?” Hilde said finally. “Or like Fleet Admiral Mittermeyer loves him?”
“How Siegfried Kircheis loved him?” Annerose’s voice was pained.
“No,” Hilde said. “Not like that.”
Annerose’s face crumpled, in a way that made Hilde want to stand up and move to the couch that she was sitting on, to embrace her, to tell her that it was alright, but that wasn’t permissible-- not at this moment, anyway. And besides, Hilde had no idea how to comfort Annerose. “I wish--” Annerose began, then stopped.
“I will take care of him, Annerose,” Hilde said. “I promise.”
Annerose shook her head, then scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand, though it didn’t look like she was actually crying. Maybe it was a preëmptive gesture. “Telling people to take care of him in the ways that I can’t has never been able to make him happy.”
“I will try to,” Hilde said.
“You can’t. I can’t. Nobody can.”
“It might be possible.” But she was lying, and they both knew it.
“Would you hold it against me if I said something unkind about your husband?”
“He’s not my husband until tomorrow morning. And he’s your brother. I won’t repeat it, whatever you need to say.”
“He’s a forest fire,” Annerose said after a second. “And the rest of us are trees. I don’t know which ones of us will stay standing, when he’s done burning us all up. But that’s what he does. It’s natural for him.”
She thought of Fleet Admiral Lutz for a moment, remembering the charred body she had seen, briefly. She and Reinhard had paid their respects together, before the funeral, when the body had been brought back to Phezzan to be buried. Neither of them had said anything about it afterwards, and she had not dared to ask how Reinhard was feeling.
“And yet,” Annerose said, “Everyone would throw themselves in his path, over and over, just to keep him burning.”
“Maybe--” She stopped.
“Maybe in a few years, in peacetime…” Hilde trailed off.
“I hope so,” Annerose said. “Maybe when he’s a father.”
“Oh. Yeah.” She wasn’t sure if Reinhard had fatherly instincts, any more than she had motherly ones, but she supposed those were things that one had to learn, after the child was born. She didn’t really want to think of that. Every time she remembered the child growing inside her, she felt confused and ill, in a way that she couldn’t chalk up to pregnancy itself. It didn’t seem real, even though she had spoken to plenty of doctors about it, and seen its little form on ultrasounds. She had never imagined herself as a mother, but she was going to be one, barring disaster. Strange, the way life went.
Her hand found her belly, unconsciously feeling it, as if she could poke and prod at the little thing inside there.
“I’m glad that was never asked of me,” Annerose said, staring at the motion with a haunted look in her eyes.
“He didn’t ask me to,” Hilde said. “I could have gotten rid of it, without telling him.”
Annerose shook her head wordlessly.
“Are you alright, Annerose?”
“Yes,” Annerose said, though she didn’t look it. Hilde was struck anew how pale she was; the only color in her skin came from the red firelight and reflected yellow from her hair. She was halfway to being a corpse. A perfect corpse, but a corpse nonetheless.
“You should come with us,” Hilde said suddenly.
“On our honeymoon,” she said. “I think His-- Lord Reinhard-- would want you there.”
Annerose smiled for the first time that evening. “I don’t think so.”
Annerose tilted her head. “Why would you ask me that?”
“I don’t know,” Hilde admitted. “I just feel like it would be better.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No,” Hilde said immediately, then realized she sounded defensive. “I don’t think so.”
Annerose considered her quietly. “If you need me, call me.”
“Thank you,” Hilde said, grateful for that offer of relief, if she needed it.
Annerose stood. “I shouldn’t keep you so late tonight. You deserve your sleep.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to shut my eyes,” Hilde admitted as she stood.
“Try, at least.”
They looked at each other, then Annerose offered Hilde her hand. “If it means anything to you, I’m grateful to have you as a sister-in-law.”
Hilde took the outstretched hand in both of hers. It was so cold and thin, the fingers like ice; she wished she had a way to warm it up. “I’m grateful to have you, as well,” Hilde said.
The wedding itself was splendid, but when it was over, Hilde didn’t think she could have said anything about it, except for the way her father had looked at her as she walked down the aisle, and the bad news that had followed them out, and the way it had snowed, just as predicted.
The rest of it was a meaningless blur of faces and costumes and words to say and a smile plastered to her face that was genuine but difficult to maintain.
Reinhard took it in stride. He was capable of being gracious at parties, even though Hilde knew better than most how much he despised them. She took all her cues from him, because that was the way that things were going to be from now on, she supposed, at least in public.
She hoped Reinhard understood this. There had been the one moment, when Oberstein interrupted their walk out of the ceremony, when he had wanted her to say something, but it wasn’t her place, not anymore. Their eyes had met, and Hilde wasn’t sure what she had seen in his expression, or what he had seen in hers.
Hilde had stayed silent, though it had been difficult. Perhaps this was Oberstein’s first test of her, not even able to wait until they had returned from their honeymoon. He wanted to see if she would be capable of doing her duty as the Kaiser’s wife. She wondered what he would have done if she had failed the test. She wondered if she was capable of continuing to pass it.
This fear, more than any other, weighed in her mind on the drive to their honeymoon destination. She and Reinhard were nearly silent in the back of the car. They had originally intended to take a helicopter, but the weather was poor enough that Commodore Kissling said that it was not feasible. The two hour drive up into the mountains then down into the rather remote valley gave Hilde plenty of time to think.
Reinhard, too, was pensive, and he looked out the window, watching the snowy scenery roll by as the sunset turned the grey day into utter darkness, the headlights of their escort cars lighting up the snow in the air and on the ground in brilliant shards of white.
There was one moment, when their car slid along the icy road, that Hilde must have made some quiet noise of surprise. Reinhard looked at her, and then, hesitantly, put his hand on hers, resting on the leather seat between them. She smiled at him and entwined her fingers with his. He relaxed a little, and went back to staring out the window of the car. They held hands for the remainder of the ride.
The line of cars pulled up into the secluded country estate, the snow still swirling heavily down around them. Their entourage would be staying in a nearby house, just out of sight, though of course guards would be stationed around the perimeter of the property, and a small cohort of servants would be available for anything that they needed, but Reinhard and Hilde would be alone in their vacation home unless they called. Hilde couldn’t decide if she liked that or not.
The house was brightly lit, having been made ready beforehand, and it stood out like a warm and clear beacon against the swirling snow and the dark pines that surrounded it. Reinhard looked over at her as one of the guards opened the door of the car for him, then tugged on her hand. She followed him out, the cold air and snow hitting her like a kick to the shins, her dress and jacket not keeping her legs warm at all. Reinhard had an almost childish smile on his face, and he pulled her forward through the snow the few steps to the door of the house. She smiled back, even though her fancy shoes filled immediately with icy slush, and she laughed when she slid on the steps and Reinhard caught her.
“Careful,” he said.
“I’m alright,” she replied, and decided that she really was.
They barged inside the warm house, and suddenly the mood between them was celebratory, as soon as the heavy doorway shut behind them, like they had somehow gotten away with something. Maybe it was the fact that they were alone, really alone, for once.
Reinhard lifted up her hand, like they were dancing, and then laughed when she spun around underneath it.
“Let me help you with your coat,” he said, and then did, pulling the heavy fur-lined garment off of her, and then tossing it onto a side table when he didn’t see any obvious hooks or coat closets.
“I have got to get out of this dress,” Hilde said. “Do you mind if I--”
“Of course, go ahead,” Reinhard said. “Do you want me to--”
“No, it’s okay, I’ll just--”
And he nodded, which relieved her, and she headed deeper into the house, kicking off her shoes as she went, finding the bedroom upstairs without much trouble. She had been in Reinhard’s rooms before, but the hugeness of the bedroom somehow took on a different quality, now that it was hers, too. Or maybe it was good that they were both visitors to this place, and that when they returned to the capital, they would be living in Holly House, rather than in Reinhard’s old suite in the capitol building. Maybe that would make her feel less like an intruder, like she felt now, sitting on the edge of the bed and staring out the dark window, watching as the guards and cars took up their stations around the house, their lights cresting and dimming as they passed behind the trees and out of direct sight.
From downstairs, she could hear music start playing-- some recorded piano piece-- jaunty through the floorboards. Not wanting to leave Reinhard alone for too long, she struggled out of her dress, and was abruptly confronted with the fact that she didn’t know what to put on afterwards. Both of their luggage had been sent ahead of time, and their clothes were neat in the closet. Hilde stood naked in front of the open closet, looking through it for something that felt appropriate. Her eyes fell upon the one garment that made her stomach twist in a strange way, somewhere on the unidentifiable border between revulsion and excitement.
It was a silk and lace lingerie set, admittedly beautiful. It was actually conservative, as far as these things went, with the pink top made of opaque fabric that was meant to float across the chest, not quite revealing and not quite hiding anything. It had arrived as an early wedding gift, from the one person who would send such things, the Baroness Madelena von Westpfale, who had been unable to make it off Odin to attend the wedding itself. The accompanying note had been funny enough to make Hilde laugh, just picturing Magdalena saying it in her frank voice.
I’m afraid it’s no fleet admiral’s uniform, but hopefully we can all agree you’d look just as good in this as you would in that. Enjoy your honeymoon! And you must invite me to your estate on Phezzan some time so you can tell me all about it.
Please tell your new sister-in-law just how dreadfully I miss her.
Hilde had tucked the garment in with the rest of her clothes, not thinking about if she intended to wear it or not, but now the time had come where it was the appropriate thing to wear. She hesitated, but then realized that she had been standing naked in front of the closet so long that the first song playing downstairs had finished. She bit her lip, then pulled it on over her head.
The fabric was luxurious, soft on her skin, in a way that startled her. She caught a glimpse of herself in the bedroom mirror. The person there was a stranger. A beautiful stranger, one she felt a tenderness towards, but a stranger nonetheless.
There was a black dressing robe hanging up on the inside of the closet. Hilde didn’t remember packing it, so it may well have been Reinhard’s, but she pulled it from its hook and slipped it on over her shoulders, tying the front closed. That felt better.
She headed back downstairs, the music growing louder as she did.
Reinhard was standing in the living room, leaning against the piano. He had uncorked a bottle of champagne and poured two glasses, which were sitting on the coffee table. The music was loud enough that he didn’t hear her approaching, and so she saw him looking at his locket, examining the picture and lock of hair inside. She let him do that for a moment before she took a purposefully extra-heavy step (difficult in her bare feet) and alerted him to her presence. He looked up and snapped the locket shut, an inscrutable expression on his face. “Oh! Fraulein Mariendorf!”
“I think it’s Frau Lohengramm now, Your Majesty,” she said, which was as much of a joke as she could make under the circumstances.
“Oh, that’s right,” he said. He smiled at her. “We ought to practice calling each other the right name, or my sister will be mad at me.”
He walked over to the coffee table and picked up the champagne glasses. He offered one to her. “I shouldn’t,” she said. When he looked confused, she said, “Because of the baby.”
“I keep forgetting,” he said, an embarrassed flush rising to his cheeks.
“It’s alright,” she said. “It’s… new… to me, as well.” She touched her stomach unconsciously.
He looked at the glasses in his hands, then seemed resolved to get rid of the champagne entirely, to not be unfair to her. Hilde saw that he was about to do that and touched his arm. “You can drink. I don’t mind. It would be a shame to waste.”
“Can I get you something else? Coffee?”
“No, it’s alright.” She smiled at him, then eased one of the glasses from his hand and put it back down on the table.
He raised his drink, looking at her through the sparkling glass. “Hard to toast when only one of us is drinking.”
“What would you toast to?”
“Our marriage,” he said. “Shouldn’t I?”
“That sounds reasonable.”
“Then to our marriage,” he said. “And the future of the Lohengramm dynasty.” He continued to look at her through the glass for a long second, and then he drank, draining it in one motion.
Hilde sat down on the couch, curling her legs up underneath the blanket. Reinhard glanced at her, then looked away, hands behind his back. He took a few steps towards the window, peering out into the dark snow.
“What did you think of Oberstein, earlier?” he asked.
“About his news, or about him as a person?” Reinhard waved his hand, and she took that as an invitation to say what she liked. “He knows as well as you do that High Admiral Wahlen is perfectly capable of handling the situation on Heinessen.”
Reinhard inclined his head. “I’m glad you agree.” When she didn’t say anything in response, he added, “He could have waited thirty seconds until we were out of the building. He should have considered the audience. It looks weak, to have these problems pop up during a celebration.”
“I’m sure he did consider it, Your Majesty.”
“You think so?” He turned back towards her.
She opened her mouth, then closed it again, shaking her head.
“What? Say what you want to say.”
“He doesn’t misunderstand image. He knew how to use it at Westerland.”
Reinhard’s jaw clenched. “So why would he want Wahlen to appear weak, at an event that was being televised across the whole galaxy?”
She looked away. “I don’t believe that it was Wahlen he was aiming at, Your Majesty.”
He frowned. “What are you seeing that I’m missing, Fraulein Mariendorf?”
“Fleet Admiral Oberstein wants to make sure that I’m not going to step out of my place, as your wife,” Hilde said. “It was a test for me.”
Reinhard’s expression darkened. “Hasn’t that man had enough of ruining the trust between myself and my staff?”
“Kircheis is dead, Reuenthal is dead-- I will not let him--”
“Lord Reinhard!” Hilde said. “It’s alright.”
Some of the fire went out of him, and he unclenched his fists. “And what compels you to defend him, Fraulein Mariendorf-- Kaiserin-- Hilde?”
“Fleet Admiral Oberstein is your trusted advisor, as well,” she said, though the admission was difficult. “I would not want to poison the water between you and him either.”
“You are too generous. He clearly isn’t giving you the same courtesy.”
“He has his reasons,” she said. “I can understand them. My position as your wife is different than my position as your chief of staff. It would be dangerous for the dynasty if it looked as though I was a political actor in my own right. Oberstein knows this.”
“But I need your advice.” Although she was a year younger than he was, his almost plaintive tone struck her, made her realize just how young he was.
“I’ll gladly give it. But I don’t think that I can in public, not any longer.”
“I should give you use of my state seal,” he said. “As a signal of trust in you.”
She shook her head. “Maybe in a few years,” she said. “I don’t need it.”
“Why would he want people to think that I married someone servile and brainless, without a mind of her own?”
“He doesn’t want me to be second only to you,” she said. “I don’t believe it’s personal.”
“And if you became second only to me?” he asked. “If I placed that kind of trust in you? What would he do?”
“I don’t know,” Hilde admitted. “But it’s not worth losing your most capable advisor, just so that I can be a public figure.”
“It’s not ‘being a public figure,’” he said. “It’s filling your rightful role. You should have more respect and trust as my wife than you had as my chief of staff.”
“Your Majesty-- you don’t need to reassure me that you trust me,” she said. There was tension in his shoulders as he paced a few steps across the room. “You are not going to lose my trust in you, either. If I need to advise you only in private, I can do that.”
“To avoid Oberstein’s wrath.”
“I don’t know if he’s capable of wrath.”
“Oberstein is not the Kaiser. If he thinks that he can dictate how I use my loyal retainers-- I won’t let him.”
“I think…” Hilde tried to compose herself. “He is just trying to make sure everyone understands that I am no longer your retainer. I’m your wife.”
“And why should that be any different?”
She didn’t know how to answer that question, so instead she held out her hand to him. His expression softened, and he took her hand and sat down on the couch next to her. They were quiet as they found a comfortable position, with him leaning against her shoulder.
“Fraulein Mariendorf-- why are you wearing my dressing robe?” he asked, just noticing it for the first time.
It was her turn to flush. “I just needed something to put on after I took my dress off. Do you want me to take it off?”
“Oh. No,” he said. “It’s fine.” He closed his eyes.
“Are you tired, Your Majesty?”
“No,” he said, but she was sure it was a lie. “Go on. Why is it different for you to be my wife?” Coming from someone else, the question could have felt flirtatious, but coming from him, it was direct-- a negotiation of power, if she wanted to negotiate such things.
Tentatively, as he leaned against her, she stroked his hair. When he made no objection, she let her fingers play with it, bright as gold and soft as silk. There were things about him that were beautiful, even if she had never thought it would be more than an abstract, arms-length type of beauty. Like paintings of goddesses in museums: larger than life, inhuman, divine objects of desire. Touching him was strange and unfamiliar, and she wondered if it would ever be less so, if she could get used to being married to him.
Hilde didn’t speak for almost half a minute. “If I was a man,” she said finally. He stiffened against her, but she just kept stroking his hair, running her fingers through it. “I would just be your retainer,” she said. “Your Majesty’s faithful servant. I would know that I couldn’t ever be more than that, to you.”
“You would be a fleet admiral,” he said, voice quiet.
“I’m younger than High Admiral Muller. That wouldn’t be fair to him.”
Reinhard shook his head. “Go on.”
“High Admiral Muller would do anything for you,” she said. “So maybe that’s an apt comparison, because so would I. But I can see-- I know-- what you would allow me to be to you, if I were a man. It’s different, that I’m a woman. I’m allowed to be different things.”
“Yes,” she said. “So there are some things I can be, and some things I can’t be.”
“What can’t you be?”
She hesitated before answering the question. “Even if I was a man…” she said. Her fingers stilled in his hair. “I know I wouldn’t be able to be what Admiral Kircheis was to you.”
She couldn’t even feel him breathing, he was frozen so still.
“I won’t try to be,” she said. “I know I can’t be. I understand.”
“I don’t know that you do,” he said after a second. But he didn’t pull away from her, and she resumed the motion of her hand in his hair. “What are you to me, then, Fraulein Mariendorf?”
“Your Kaiserin, whatever you need from me,” she said.
He was silent for a long minute. “Do you wish you were a man?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Everything would be so different; it’s hard to tell.” Even as she said this, her imagination supplied her with too much information. She could see so clearly what she would gain and what she would lose. If she had been a man, she felt sure that she could have loved Reinhard, in the way that so many other people did. But it was only the fact that she was a woman, only the fact that she somehow did not love him as a woman loves a man, as a wife loves a husband, that allowed her to be here with him. Each side of herself, the man she imagined herself being and the woman that she was, was jealous of the other. There was a bitter sorrow in that realization.
“That’s true.” The silence that fell between them was different. “Are you happy to be my wife?”
“Yes,” she said, and found it to be true as she said it. “I am.”
She could have something with Reinhard that no one else did. If not love in the normal way, at least trust and respect. And that was more than enough. They weren’t designed to fit together-- no symmetry of their bodies, no interlocking puzzle-- but neither of them was going to demand something that the other couldn’t give. Marrying Reinhard was protecting him, and that was all she had wanted to do, at least since Admiral Kircheis died.
“Good,” he said, then was quiet once again.
They sat there for a long time. Every time Reinhard moved, he sunk a little lower, eventually ending up with his head on her lap, her hand still stroking his hair. At times Hilde almost wondered if Reinhard had fallen asleep, but then he would do something like reach up and scratch his nose, or turn his head into her touch, reassuring her that he was awake. The music that had been playing eventually ended, leaving them in silence. It was very late, probably around one in the morning, though Hilde hadn’t checked the time.
“We should probably go to bed,” Reinhard finally said. “Unless you intend to fall asleep here, with me in all my clothes, and you in my dressing robe.” His voice was tired, but had a touch of humor in it, and so Hilde laughed a little and withdrew her hand from his hair.
“You’re right, Your Majesty.”
He hauled himself upright, the kind of motion that followed sitting too still for too long, and then offered her his hand. She took it, and stood on her own stiff legs. They walked, hand in hand, out of the living room, up the stairs, to the bedroom. Every one of their footsteps rang in her ears. There was a feeling in her stomach, tingling along the edges of her limbs, that made her want to dash out of the house and lay outside in the snow, to run, to cling to Reinhard, to leap up onto the mattress and yell, to tear her clothes off and pull her own hair, to burrow underground. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but it was furious in its intensity.
Her dress was still discarded on the seat of a chair, and her eyes fixed on it as Reinhard turned on the bedside lights, then dimmed them halfway.
“Fraulein Mariendorf,” he said. She turned to look at him, eyes wide. His free hand reached up towards her, brushed across her cheek. He seemed frozen, so she squeezed his hand, and then he leaned forward and closed his eyes to kiss her.
It was clumsy and fumbling, like at every moment he wasn’t sure if he should pull away or not. Still, there was sincerity in it, an earnestness and gentleness. His lips were soft, and she could taste the remnants of the champagne in his mouth.
She ran her hand up his chest, fingers seeking out the hidden closures on his uniform jacket. When she got it partway open, he broke off the kiss and used both his hands to pull it off, then was absorbed in the task of fastidiously unbuttoning his shirtsleeves underneath, not looking at her. Hilde wasn’t sure what to do with herself, so she started untying the knots that held Reinhard’s dressing robe in place on her waist, though she didn’t take it off completely.
Reinhard finally looked up at her, then visibly reddened when he saw what she had been wearing underneath. “You look very beautiful, Fraulein Mariendorf,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
He shook his head. “I keep forgetting-- Hilde--”
“It’s alright,” she said, reassurance as much for herself as it was for him.
She stepped towards him again, and he put his hands on her shoulders, gently pushing the robe off until it fell to the ground. She met his eyes as she tugged at his belt, and again he grew impatient with her clumsiness and did it himself, though he didn’t step away from her this time. He kissed her again, and they took a few steps back until the back of her legs were pressing on the bed, and she sat down, heavily, and scooted backwards into the huge expanse, so that he could come up beside her.
His skin was hot as coals as he touched her, stroking her hair behind her ear, putting his hand on her knee, her waist. Although he was touching her, his hands didn’t stray towards her breasts or anywhere else, and he made no motion to undress her. His breathing was shallow, and when she pulled him closer, her hand on his neck, she could feel his heartbeat, rapid and fluttering. It was this apparent nervousness, more than anything else, that calmed her.
“Are you alright, Your Majesty?”
He nodded, but didn’t move, aside from his fingers marginally tightening on her knee. She placed her own hand over his.
“You can touch me,” she said. “If you want to.”
“I want--” he began, then hesitated. She waited, just looking at him, neither of them moving. Then, suddenly: “Is it even possible for me to make it up to you?” There was a genuine pain in his voice, one that startled her.
“What do you mean?” she asked, stroking the back of his hand with her thumb.
He closed his eyes. “I shouldn’t have done this to you,” he said.
“Your Majesty--” And then she remembered Annerose’s objections-- “Lord Reinhard-- you don’t have to make it up to me. You did nothing wrong.”
“You would have never wanted to marry me, on your own. Your father told me as much. If I hadn’t--”
“I am happy to have married you,” she said, trying to reassure him. “I wouldn’t lie to you, Your Majesty.”
“You weren’t happy, that night.”
“I was confused,” she said. “You don’t need to feel guilty for asking for something that I was glad to provide. You don’t need to be worried about that now.”
There was a pregnant pause as he strung his thoughts together. His voice was firm, but pained. “Fraulein Mariendorf, I surround myself with people who would sacrifice anything for me and tell me that they’re happy to let me destroy them. Are my sins no longer sins because people cheer for me to commit them?” His breath came in a rough jitter.
“Your Majesty… You haven’t hurt me,” she murmured. It was all tied up together, wasn’t it? Reinhard’s expression was tight lipped, his face half in shadow and his eyes closed.
“How can I trust you-- trust anyone-- when you say that there’s no wrong I’ve done to you?”
She wanted to tell him that she wasn’t his sycophant, remind him of how she had acted against his orders at Vermilion, say a hundred different things in protest, but she knew all of that would fall flat, because there was a seed of truth, an uncomfortable one, at the core of his misery. It was easy to see why Reinhard kept Oberstein so close: everything that man said sounded like the truth to Reinhard, because it was always what he least wanted to hear.
“You can trust that I wouldn’t lie to Princess Grunewald,” Hilde said. “And I reassured her of the same thing.”
That had been the wrong thing to say. “I didn’t even ask her to sacrifice herself for me.”
“It was a gift given out of love for you,” she said. “And it can’t be undone, so…”
“You said that there was the sin, there was the punishment, there is the reward.” He shook his head. “Why was she punished for my sin?” He took a breath. “And you. And Kircheis.”
Hilde wanted to throttle her past self for saying something that had clearly been haunting Reinhard for these past few months. She wanted to take it back, but she couldn’t. Instead, she gathered up her courage in her hand, reached out, and held the gold locket that hung just above Reinhard’s heart. It was cool to the touch, despite how hot his skin was. He shuddered and grabbed her wrist, not gently, his fingers digging into her skin. But he didn’t push her away.
“Is it your sin that Admiral Kircheis died for you?” she asked, voice quiet. “Is it your sin that he gave you the gift of your life?”
He didn’t respond.
“Wouldn’t you have done the same for him?”
“Yes,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. “A hundred thousand times.”
“And would it have been his sin if you had died for him?”
Reinhard’s grip on her wrist slackened slightly, enough that she could turn the locket in her fingers. She didn’t open it.
“I can’t be Admiral Kircheis,” she said. “But I trust you, and I want to help you in the ways that I can, whatever those are.” She let go of the locket, though still touched it with two fingers as it rested on his chest. “As Mein Kaiser’s servant, as your Kaiserin…” She trailed off when she saw the changed expression on his face, bitter, his eyebrows furrowed.
“The most cutting thing that Kircheis and I ever said to each other--” Reinhard said, then shook his head. “I asked him what he was to me, and he told me that he was my loyal subject.” He closed his eyes again. “It must be some joke, that the cruelest thing that could pass between him and I is the kindest that you can think of to say to me.”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer, or if she should even ask the question, but she did. “What was he, to you?”
“Kircheis was the same as myself,” Reinhard said.
She was suddenly reminded, with a painful, vivid clarity, of the speech that Admiral Bucock had delivered to Reinhard, after she had begged Reinhard to offer him the opportunity to surrender. He had said that he could have been Reinhard’s friend, but could never be his subordinate.
How terrible it was, to only be Reinhard’s subordinate, and never his friend. And, as terrible as it was for her, how lonely it must be for him. They had nothing but each other and the vast, unbridgeable gulf between them.
“Fleet Admiral Oberstein always described Admiral Kircheis as being number two,” she said. “But he wasn’t, was he?”
“No,” Reinhard said. “Everything that was mine was equally his, as much as I could make it. Even if no one else understood it that way.”
She nodded, then dropped her hand away from his chest. He let her hand go, and touched his locket himself, the gold glinting in the dim light.
“If you want me to be your number two,” she said, “I can be. Willingly.”
“And if I demand something of you--”
“Would you do that?” she asked. “Are you that kind of man, Your Majesty?”
“I demanded Kircheis follow me. Even after Westerland.” He dropped the locket back to his chest. “I might have kept demanding more and more from him, even as he hated me for it.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. “And would he have?”
“I don’t know.” He turned his face away from her.
Hilde wasn’t sure how she had gone wrong in this moment, but she moved closer to Reinhard, kissed his forehead, and put both her arms around him. He stiffened, then yielded, and his hands found her back.
“I follow you because I trust you to be a good leader, and I married you because I trust you to be a good husband,” she whispered into the crook of his neck. “Can that be enough for us? For now?”
“Yes,” he said, and she could feel the buzz of his voice in his throat.
“Do you want to touch me?” she asked. “Do you want me to touch you?”
His hands played with the silk back of her top for a moment, one sliding under the hem to touch the bare skin of her back, but then he stopped, and shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
She wasn’t going to admit that there was a part of her that was relieved. “Don’t be. I want to make you happy.”
He let go of her, and pulled back the blankets on the bed. “Will you just--”
“Of course,” she said, putting on her gentlest smile. She crawled under the blankets and laid on her side, with Reinhard at her back. He turned out the lights, and then settled next to her, putting his arm around her waist. There was something comforting about it.
She awoke before Reinhard did, and she studied him for a while as they lay in the sunrise-pink bedroom light. His hair curled around his face, which looked so childish and gentle when he was asleep, it was hard to believe that he was the Kaiser. His cheeks were flushed and there was sweat on his brow, so Hilde touched his forehead as lightly as possible, to check for fever. His skin was hot, but she couldn’t tell if it was enough to be concerned about.
She got out of bed, showered and got dressed, and by then Reinhard had woken and was sitting up.
“Good morning, Fraulein Mariendorf,” he said.
“Sleep well, Your Majesty?”
In the morning light, he was much more capable of smiling at her, which he did. “Yes. You?”
“Very well,” she said, which was true. “Should I call for breakfast?”
He nodded. “I’ll get up.”
“It’s our honeymoon. You can stay in bed as late as you like.”
He laughed at that. “I was thinking we might go for a walk.”
“Do we have snowshoes?”
He got up and looked out the window. “I don’t think the snow is deep enough to require that.”
“Alright,” she said.
She headed downstairs and called for breakfast to be brought over to their house. It arrived very quickly, a testament to the efficiency of Reinhard’s staff. The coffee was carried in by Emil, who Hilde was surprised to see. She gestured for him to stay, even as the rest of the servants headed out to give them privacy.
“I didn’t know you came, Emil,” Hilde said. “I thought you would be enjoying your own little vacation.”
“No, Kaiserin,” he said. “I thought that I should come, and Commodore Kissling said it was fine.”
She smiled warmly at him. “Well, as long as you’re not bored over in the staff house.”
“I’m not,” he said. “I just wanted to be here, in case His Majesty needed me.”
“Of course,” she said. “I understand.”
He hesitated. “Are you well, Kaiserin?”
“Yes, Emil, I am.” She could see the relief in his posture as she said this, and she reached out and touched his shoulder. “Thank you for asking.”
He smiled. “Was there anything else you needed?”
“Yes-- if you wouldn’t mind staying to take His Majesty’s temperature-- I thought he might have a fever.”
“Of course,” Emil said.
Reinhard told Emil that his slightly elevated temperature was entirely due to the hot shower he had taken, and that he felt fine. Neither Hilde nor Emil believed this, but they both let it go. Breakfast was a quiet affair, and Hilde was not offended that Reinhard spent most of it looking over a report that had been delivered about the situation on Heinessen. When he asked her advice, she gave it as she always had, and he thanked her for it, clear relief in his tone that this, at least, had not changed.
After breakfast, they dressed in warm coats and boots, and trundled out into the fresh snow. The light bouncing off of it was so bright, Hilde could barely look anywhere for the glare, least of all at Reinhard, who nearly shone when his hair caught the reflected snow and sun.
The snow was only a few inches deep, so walking was not too difficult. Birds were making their calls in the trees, and clumps of snow occasionally fell down from the branches with soft whumps. Aside from that, and the sounds of their own footsteps shushing through the soft snow, it was silent as they walked.
She didn’t know what he was thinking about, when he silently pointed out a deer dashing away from them through the pines, or what he was feeling when he helped her clamber over a fallen log in the path, but he smiled at her, his cheeks flushed with the cold. She knew what she was thinking, though she couldn’t put it into words, the tenderness in her breast having no name that she could remember.
She suspected that there would never be another time like this, where it was just the two of them. Even if she imagined growing old at Reinhard’s side, she wasn’t sure that there would need to be other moments like this. So she fixed it in her memory, wanting to hold onto this image of Reinhard, vivid and alive, and in this quiet space in the woods. Here, he was not the Kaiser, not her husband, just someone who could be her friend, if just for a moment, before the rest of the galaxy reminded them of what they were.
Hilde hoped that he felt the same way. Perhaps he did.
It was a beautiful, cold, brilliant day, and they held hands as they walked. And that was enough.