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Keep the Home Fires (Burning)

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June 486 I.C., Odin

Visiting the Mariendorf estate always gave Yang the distinct feeling of returning home again, even though he had no right to feel that way. 

He had come over for Hilde’s “graduation” party. Though she had never been formally enrolled as a student at the Imperial Officers’ Academy, and had received no diploma and commission as an officer, she had managed to sneak, beg, or plead her way into enough classes that she was, for all intents and purposes, as educated as the rest of the graduating class. Hilde would begin attending Odin National University in the fall, one of the few female students who had been admitted that year. The little lunch party, set up out on the green summer lawn, was as much to celebrate that beginning as it was to celebrate the end of her time at the IOA. 

When Yang walked across the grass to the delightful little setup, white tablecloth fluttering over the well-spread picnic table, he realized he was late. The count and Hilde were already sitting, as well as Sub-Lieutenant Kircheis and a guest that Yang didn’t recognize. Hilde and Kircheis stood up to greet him as he approached the table, Kircheis giving a short salute that Yang returned (if a little lazily.) 

“Hank!” Hilde said with a wide smile. “I’m so glad you could come!”

“Sorry I’m late,” Yang said, rubbing the back of his head. He had no excuse, so he didn’t follow that statement up with anything other than an apologetic smile. He nodded his hello to the count. “Good afternoon, Count Mariendorf, Kircheis.” 

“Afternoon, Leigh.”

“Have you met Martin?” Hilde asked.

“No, I have not had that honor,” Yang said.

Martin, a skinny young man probably a few years older than Hilde, stood as Hilde said, “Hank, this is Martin Bufholtz. Martin, this is Captain Hank von Leigh.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you, sir,” Martin said, sticking out his hand to shake.

“Only good things, I hope,” Yang said.

“Interesting ones, for sure,” Martin said.

“You’re the friend who quotes poetry, aren’t you?” Yang asked.

Martin flushed. “I don’t know of anyone else who fits the bill, so I suppose I must be.”

“It’s good to finally meet you,” Yang said. He actually owed Martin a debt, for his help during Mittermeyer’s rescue from prison, but that wasn’t something that could be discussed in front of Count Mariendorf, so Yang just smiled at him, in a way that he hoped communicated his gratitude. Martin seemed startled, then smiled back.

They all settled back down around the picnic table.

“I believe that I should be congratulating you, Captain,” the count said.

Yang was momentarily flustered. “Oh, well, the promotion just comes from moving jobs. It’s not like I’ve done much to warrant it— it’s policy to promote anyone who taught at the IOA for a few years when they leave.”

“You’ve managed to turn out a fine crop of students,” Franz said. “That’s as deserving of a promotion as anything.”

“Thank you, sir,” Yang said. “It’s been a pleasure, honestly.” And he smiled at Hilde and Kircheis.

“You’re both working for Duke Braunschweig now, Kircheis was telling me?”

“Yes, sir,” Yang said. “I’m one of his staff officers. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.”

“Do you like the duke?” The question was a pointed one, and Hilde, Kircheis, and Martin all listened closely to Yang’s answer.

“I haven’t worked under him for more than a week,” Yang said. “But Princess Amarie has been very generous to me, if nothing else. I don’t dislike him, certainly.” This was about the most even keel answer that Yang could give. He suspected that Franz would ask him that question again, in private, and he would be expected to give a more honest reckoning. As the Kaiser grew older, and looked less and less like he was going to name a successor, the ranks of the nobles were growing restless, contemplating throwing their support behind either Duke Braunschweig or Marquis Littenheim.

“I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to develop your opinion, working so closely with him.”

“I’m sure I will,” Yang said.

“Will you miss the IOA?”

“If I’m being honest, sir, I am holding out hope that I’ll be able to return to teaching there eventually. So I’m trying not to miss it too much.”

“Do you know who’s taking over the upper level practicum?” Kircheis asked.

“I recommended Captain von Rechendorf, but I don’t know if he’ll take up the position.”

“I’m sure it won’t be as good without you,” Hilde said.

“I’m not anything special.”

There were various noises of protest from Hilde and Kircheis at that, which made the count laugh. They settled down to eat the sandwiches and lemonade and cake that had been laid out for them, and the conversation passed about nothing for a while.

“Are you looking forward to attending ONU?” Yang asked Hilde as he wiped his fingers on his napkin, finishing his sandwich.

“I suppose,” Hilde said. “I don’t think I’ll like it as much as the IOA, but Martin’s promised to introduce me to everyone worth knowing, so I have that to look forward to, at least.”

“What do you study again, Herr Bufholtz?” Yang asked.

“Classics,” Martin said.

“A very worthwhile field,” Yang said. But he turned to Hilde. “You’re not studying classics, are you?”

“No,” she said. “Law.”

“Do they admit women to the bar?” Yang asked.

“No,” the count said. Hilde scowled. “But it’s still a fine subject to study, and the knowledge of it won’t hurt when she inherits from me. I will admit that my duties in the Ministry of the Interior have kept me more occupied with the Empire’s business than I have been with the Mariendorf family holdings. I never really considered myself an expert on how to run the estates, so I leave that to people who know better than I do.” He shook his head, then smiled warmly at his daughter. “But Hilde, I’m sure, will be able to do a far better job of it than I have.”

Martin and Kircheis, neither of whom had any estates to speak of, remained silent, Kircheis with his placid smile, and Martin looking uncomfortably at Hilde. 

“Well,” Yang said, “You never know— maybe since we’re sure to have a kaiserin in a few years, things might start changing for the better. You could graduate just in time to be the first woman judge, later in your career.”

“Maybe.”

“Do you like ONU, Herr Bufholtz?”

“Yes, sir,” Martin said. “I’ll be sad to leave it when I graduate.”

“You could get a doctorate.”

Martin frowned. “I’m afraid I’m not exempt from compulsory service, so I’ll have to leave do that before I could.”

Yang nodded. “I don’t recall if you ever told me, Count Mariendorf, did you do compulsory service?”

“No, I was already working in the Ministry of the Interior at the time, so I was exempt,” he said. “I think my mother was glad of it; I was an only child, so the family’s future would have been imperiled if I hadn’t been.”

Everyone around the table could read between the lines of that statement; it was noble privilege that exempted people from service more often than not. The count acknowledged that in the politest way that he could, but in present company there was no way to avoid ruffling Martin’s feathers, and a frown lingered on his face.

Hilde spoke up, “If I had been a man, I would be in the fleet. It’s only fair.”

Franz looked at Yang with a melancholy expression behind Hilde’s back. 

“Fraulein Mariendorf,” Martin said, “It’s not that I begrudge anyone getting out of compulsory service. I wish that the service was unnecessary, and certainly not compulsory.”

“Martin,” Kircheis said, then trailed off.

Yang smiled, trying to allay the sudden tension. “I agree with you, Herr Bufholtz. The galaxy would be a much more pleasant place, if we lived in peace.”

“Then why are you still in the fleet?”

Kircheis was deeply uncomfortable, now, looking at Yang apologetically.

Yang rubbed the back of his head. “I can’t explain my reasons to myself in a satisfactory way,” Yang said. “So I’m afraid that I won’t be able to explain them to anyone else, either. I like to believe that I can do more good within the fleet than I can out of it. At least at the IOA, I tried to teach my students to be good leaders, so that as few people need to die in this war as possible…” He shrugged. “I suppose time will have to tell if I succeeded or not, or if it was a worthwhile quest. It’s not something that I can accurately judge from where I stand.”

“And now that you’re working for Duke Braunschweig?”

“Unfortunately, I owe the duke a debt of gratitude,” Yang said, blunt. “But I still hope I can do some good under him.”

Martin seemed unsatisfied with this answer, but Hilde said, “Come on, Martin, Hank is… Good. And you’re not mad at Sieg for being in the fleet.”

Kircheis flushed as red as his hair. 

“Extenuating circumstances,” Martin said.

“Do tell?” the count asked.

Yang, who knew exactly what Kircheis’ difficult story was, intervened with a lie. “Much the same as myself, sir,” Yang said. “The IOA is unfortunately the best place to get an education, while paying with nothing but a few years of your life.”

“Or all of it,” Martin said.

“Well,” Franz said, “I’m certainly grateful that Hilde managed to get her education there for free.”

“Just as long as she makes good use of it,” Yang said, which made Hilde grin at him. “I’m sure some of your ONU coursework will be too easy for you.”

“I don’t know,” Hilde said. “I’m sure it will have its challenges. And it will be nice to be a real student.”

“That’s true.”

Hilde glanced at Martin and Kircheis, both of whom looked uncomfortable for different reasons. “Are you done eating?” she asked. “I think I’d like to go on a bit of a walk, for digestion, if you’d like to be my escorts.”

Kircheis glanced at the count for permission, who waved his hand with a smile.

“Of course, Fraulein,” Kircheis said.

So the three young people stood up, and, with Kircheis in the middle, headed off away from the picnic table. They didn’t get very far before Yang could hear Hilde’s voice piping up, saying, “I won’t tolerate you being rude to Hank, you know.” But then they vanished into the pine trees and he lost sight and sound of them.

“Youth,” the count said, fondness evident in his voice. “Wasn’t so long ago that you were a sub-lieutenant, was it?”

“Almost a decade,” Yang said.

“Time does fly.” Franz sipped his lemonade and looked out across the lawn. “You still keep in touch with Oskar, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Yang said. “The rear admiral and I are good friends.”

“Is he on Odin?”

“No, he’s stationed at Iserlohn. Why do you ask?”

Franz reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded newspaper clipping, which he handed to Yang. “His grandfather died.”

“Count Marbach?” Yang asked, surprised.

“Yes.”

“I met him, once.” Yang examined the obituary, showing a stiff picture of a man who looked somewhat like Reuenthal, only with sixty more years of age in his face. 

“The funeral is this Friday. I was only wondering if Oskar was planning to attend.”

“I don’t think he’d be able to get here from Iserlohn on time,” Yang said. “It’s a bit of a journey. And even if he could…”

“They never made up their differences, I assume?”

“I’m not even sure what the differences were,” Yang said. “I think Reuenthal prefers to keep his family at arms’ length, at best. And the one time I met Count Marbach, he didn’t seem interested in Reuenthal, either.”

Franz shook his head. “I suppose I’m going to have to go to my own grave knowing that I didn’t do as much to smooth that over as I could.”

“I don’t think Reuenthal would have wanted you to try,” Yang said. “He’s very proud of being independent.”

“Still… It would have been nice for him to inherit. And a man should have a family.”

They were silent for a second. Yang had no idea how to respond, as he had no family to speak of, something that the count had never pressed him on, despite the fact that Yang had spent most of his summers and holidays leeching off of the Mariendorf family generosity. He had had no home to go to, aside from the one the Mariendorfs had let him be a guest in.  “Are you going to go to the funeral?” Yang asked after a second.

“Yes. I did know him, and his wife.”

“I should come,” Yang said.

“Why?”

The feeling that had spurred Yang to make that pronouncement was a complicated one, driven as much by his own feelings about failing to help Reuenthal repair the relationship between him and his grandfather as anything else. He thought that Reuenthal should have some representation at the funeral, even if that was only in the form of Yang Wen-li, who should have had nothing to do with him. “He was friends with the Kaiser,” Yang said. “So he’ll probably be there.”

“Looking to speak with him about Duke Braunschweig?”

“I don’t presume to have any claim to the Kaiser’s time,” Yang said. “But he has been supportive of me in the past. I would like to make sure I haven’t ruined that by choosing which of his sons-in-law to support for the throne.”

“You would have had to choose eventually.”

“True.”

“What do you think of Braunschweig? I would like to think you haven’t tied yourself to a sinking ship.”

Yang sighed. “I don’t think he likes me, on a personal level,” Yang said. “But he’s neither stupid nor frivolous. He’s willing to cut bargains. And I do like Princess Amarie, as much as one can like Princess Amarie— and she’s a powerhouse in her own right. I don’t know.”

“And when it comes to squaring off with Littenheim?”

“Braunschweig I think has more military experience, and more connections in the fleet. I don’t know Littenheim personally, though. I’ve never spoken with him.” Yang shook his head.

“Should I support him?” Mariendorf asked.

“At the very least, wait until the Kaiser is dead before you say anything one way or the other. I wish I could have kept out of it.”

“What is it that made you join up with him?” Franz asked. “It must have been quite something to get you out of the IOA.”

“I’m surprised you hadn’t heard.”

“I’m curious, if it’s not a secret.”

“No, no,” Yang said, which wasn’t quite the truth. He told as much of the story as he could to the count.

“I see,” the count said, when he had finished. “It surprises me that the duke would be willing to pay for the life of a rear admiral with the service of a captain.”

Yang glanced away. “That business at Iserlohn convinced him that I have value,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have made that same trade, if I was in his place, but I had to offer him something.”

“You do have value, Leigh,” Franz said. “I don’t think that Braunschweig made a wrong choice, exactly.”

Yang rubbed the back of his head. “Don’t tell me you’ll support Braunschweig just because he has me working for him.”

“I wouldn’t want us to be on different sides.”

“My advice would be to stay out of it as best you can. It’s not going to be pretty, no matter what happens.”

“I think the unfortunate thing about having some status around here is that I won’t have the luxury of staying out of it,” Franz said. “The land I own— even if I don’t administrate it personally— I have some responsibility to the people who live there, to the soldiers who come from my estate. I send them to the crown— but if the crown ceases to be a functioning entity…”

“Muckenburger is going to stay out of it,” Yang said firmly. “He’s… I don’t exactly trust him, but he is a soldier first and a noble second. I think he understands what will have to be done to stop— well, I don’t think there will be a military coup, in the truest sense.”

Franz chuckled. “No, just one where nobles take their own armed forces and fight to the death.”

“I suppose that’s the one good thing about the way the fleet is organized,” Yang said. “The military itself is too factional to unify and wield its own power.”

“Small blessings,” Franz said.

Yang shook his head ruefully. “I’m starting to sound like Maggie, talking like that.”

“How is the Baroness Westpfale?”

“Bored, mostly,” Yang said. “But other than that, fine.”

“Hilde would probably enjoy seeing her, sometime.”

“I think that she’s doing her best not to be seen as a bad influence on the young ladies of the court.”

Franz gave Yang a knowing look. “I think that Hilde and the other young ladies of the court have mutually given each other up, so I would tell Baroness Westpfale to not worry about that.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Her time at the IOA was an open secret that doesn’t precisely reflect well upon her.” Franz shook his head. “There’s a reason why Sub-lieutenant Kircheis and Herr Bufholtz are her friends, and not any titled women. And the social invites she receives are from some of the rest of the IOA fellows.”

“Honestly, sir, I’m glad she was able to make friends with them. I don’t know if that’s a problem.”

“It’s not,” Franz said. “She’s happy, and that’s what matters. But she’s not being invited to ladies’ events. That’s all I’m saying.”

“I’ll tell Maggie to take her to the ballet,” Yang said. He looked away for a moment. “Sir, can I ask your advice?”

“Of course. Though I don’t know how much I’ll be able to give.”

“Should I ask Maggie to marry me?”

The count looked at Yang. “Do you want to marry her?”

“That’s a difficult question to answer, sir,” Yang said.

“Leigh— Hank— when I asked Amelie to marry me, it was the thing I wanted most in the world. I didn’t have a single doubt about it in my mind. I understand that the situation with Baroness Westpfale might be… different… but still, I wouldn’t want to tell you to marry someone if it wasn’t going to make you happy. Do you love her?”

“She’s the one of the closest friends I have.”

“And what makes you think about marrying her?”

“She’s decided she wants me to,” Yang said. “Well, she decided that a long time ago, but I think she was mostly joking back then. But now it would solve more problems than it would cause, so…” He trailed off, rubbing the back of his head. “I think we have more respectability put together than either of us have apart.”

That made the count chuckle. “And would it make you happy, being married to her?”

“I don’t think it would fundamentally change much about the way we see each other,” Yang said. “But it makes me happy to see her now, and I think the same is true for her. So, yes, I think.”

“It’s hard to give you advice one way or the other,” the count said. “I understand, or I think I understand, what the situation is. It’s not precisely usual.”

“What ever is, sir?”

That made the count laugh. “You don’t ever think that you’re going to meet a different woman who you’d want to marry more, do you?”

“I… How is anyone supposed to know that, sir?”

“Have you played the field at all?”

Yang flushed. “Not particularly. I don’t think most women would be happy to have me around. Maggie only was interested in me in the first place to make her mother mad.”

“That may have been somewhat true when you were a student,” Franz said. “But you’re a man with status now. You work for Duke Braunschweig, you’ll probably be a flag officer before you’re thirty, you do have a name from that Iserlohn business— none of that is nothing, Leigh. If you wanted to find someone else, you could. The question is, do you want to?”

“I—”

The count’s voice was gentle, even though the smile on his face was wry. “Like I said, I understand. I’m not going to pry. It’s just something that’s worth thinking about.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Franz leaned back in his seat. “If you want my blessing to marry Baroness Westpfale, though I have no right to give it, you can certainly have it.”

“Oh,” Yang said. “Thank you.”

 


 

The day of Count Marbach’s funeral was drizzly and cold, despite it being summer, but the inside of the temple where the service was being held was dark and hot. Yang had never attended a religious ceremony like this. The atmosphere was very different from Countess Mariendorf’s funeral, which was Yang’s only point of comparison. He stood next to Count Mariendorf in the crowded room and sweated, feeling his uniform itch on his back. 

The coffin was at the front of the room, open and surrounded by lit candles. It was eerie to see the corpse there, and Yang was reminded unpleasantly of Reuenthal in the way it was made up and lit, some of the wrinkles disappearing to create a harsh silhouette of a face. 

Although the dead count should have been the focus of attention, Yang could see everyone in the room flicking glances up to the front where Kaiser Friedrich IV stood with his entourage. The Kaiser looked to be in bad shape, though perhaps that was again due to the smoky dimness of the room, and the fact that he was mourning a close friend. Yang was no exception to this observation, and he kept looking over at the Kaiser, paying little attention to the service itself.

For some reason, Kaiser Friedrich had brought his grandson with him, the young Erwin Joseph. He kept fidgeting and whispering in the ear of the servant who was minding him, and the Kaiser didn’t spare him much attention. Seeing Erwin Joseph always put a weird pang in Yang’s heart, and this time was no exception. The boy was fatherless and motherless, and Yang was not completely innocent in that.

There weren’t any long speeches at this funeral, as it was mostly a religious affair. The officiant spoke, and then there was a traditional sacrifice— a bird— which made Erwin Joseph cry loudly enough that his minder carried him out of the hall, leaving the Kaiser relatively alone.

Count Mariendorf leaned over towards Yang and whispered, “Are you going to talk to him?”

“Maybe now isn’t the time,” Yang whispered back. “If he sees me and wants to talk…”

“It’s what you came for, isn’t it?” The count nudged his elbow. “Go outside. Pay your respects to the one grandchild who has no chance of becoming Kaiser.”

“Yes, sir,” Yang said, and then edged his way uncomfortably past the count, out of the dark hall. He walked out onto the temple’s shaded entrance, where Erwin Joseph’s minder was standing with the young boy, allowing him to stick his arm out into the drizzling rain, which made him laugh every time a particularly fat and cold droplet landed on his chubby hand. Erwin’s minder looked at Yang with some suspicion, but Yang smiled placidly and leaned against one of the nearby pillars. He wished he had the excuse of being a smoker, to linger out here, but he had none.

Eventually, Erwin Joseph noticed Yang and stared at him.

“Good morning, young sir,” Yang said, and saluted, which made the boy laugh.

“Who are you?”

“Captain Leigh,” Yang said. He crouched down so that he could be at the same level as the boy and shake hands. Erwin Joseph’s hand was wet with rainwater, and sticky with something unidentifiable. Figuring that children liked to be asked questions, he asked, “What’s your name?”

“Erwin.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Erwin.” Yang studied him. “Did you know, I knew your mother.”

“I don’t have a mother,” the boy said, confused. “Just grandpa.”

Yang nodded solemnly. “The thing about mothers, young sir, is that everyone has one, whether she’s around or not.”

Erwin Joseph’s brow furrowed as he considered this, and then he shook his head. Yang smiled. Erwin seemed about to say something when the heavy double doors swung open, and the Kaiser stepped out, along with a few members of his entourage. Yang immediately stood to salute, and Erwin ran over to the Kaiser, who ruffled his hair.

Kaiser Friedrich was nonplussed to see Yang, and then a slight frown settled onto his face, one that made Yang internally wince.

“It pains me to say this, Captain von Leigh, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to be alone with my grandson, now that you work for my son-in-law.”

That was about as brutal of a statement of how the Kaiser viewed Yang’s new loyalties, such as they were, as he would get. And he hadn’t even had to ask for it. “It’s not exactly by choice, Your Majesty,” Yang said. “But I understand.”

The Kaiser picked up Erwin Joseph, who squirmed a little. “Not like this little troublemaker is in much danger, I suppose. It would be your cousin Sabine who has to worry, isn’t it?” he said. Erwin, who clearly didn’t understand the context, just giggled.

 Yang was silent for a second, wondering if the Kaiser would address him again. He did, after he handed Erwin to his nursemaid. “What are you doing here, Leigh?”

“Count Marbach was Rear Admiral von Reuenthal’s grandfather,” Yang said. “Since the rear admiral is a good friend of mine, and he couldn’t make it from his post to attend, I thought I should come in his stead.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, Your Majesty. I understand that you and the count were good friends.”

“Yes,” the Kaiser said.

“May I ask how you knew each other?”

“We went to university together,” the Kaiser said. “I believe we encouraged the worst of each other’s bad habits— gambling, drinking, those kinds of things. When my father threatened to disown me over it, he offered me a place in his own home.” He let out a dark chuckle. “But that was before my brothers…” And then he shook his head. “Old, sad history.”

“Maybe someday it will be written about,” Yang said.

“Long after I’m gone, I hope,” the Kaiser said. “And I don’t see why anyone but myself should care. We were friends, and now he’s gone to Valhalla, or hell, or wherever it is he’s off to. I’m sure I’ll be joining him soon enough.”

“I hope not, Your Majesty.”

Again, the dark chuckle. “You may be the only one.”

“Erwin Joseph would be sad.”

“Perhaps.” The Kaiser gave the boy in the nursemaid’s arms a glance. “I wonder what is to become of him.”

Yang wanted to say many things: the practical suggestion to give the boy a modest inheritance and then send him away to a remote planet until the political situation stabilized, and the impractical but heartfelt offer to make sure that nothing happened to him. But instead he just said, “I don’t know.”

“He looks just like Ludwig, when he was that age,” the Kaiser said, very melancholy. “I’ve often wished that I did not live long enough to bury my own son.”

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are.” He sighed. “I understand that sides will have to be chosen, Leigh. But I had thought you, at least, might avoid it.”

“Why would you think that?”

“If I recall, the first day I met you, you ended up nearly bleeding to death because people hated you for being a foreigner. I didn’t expect that to change so much that my son-in-law would be willing to take you into his confidences.”

“I doubt I’m in his confidences,” Yang said. “At best, he sees me as a tool.”

“Perhaps.” He gave Yang a considering look. “Was there something you wanted to say to me, Leigh?”

“Nothing that we haven’t already discussed.”

The Kaiser nodded. “I doubt we’ll have much reason to see each other again,” he said.

“I understand, Your Majesty,” Yang said. Despite the fact that there were many things about Kaiser Friedrich that Yang hated, losing his favor felt like a blow. He tried to take it in stride.

“You should get around to publishing your book, by the way.”

“I’ll try,” Yang said. “Thank you for looking at it when you did.”

“You’re about to have a front row seat to my family eating itself alive,” the Kaiser said, ignoring Yang’s thanks. “You’ll have plenty of material for a sequel.”

“History can’t be written by the people who live it,” Yang said. “It’s everybody else who will end up casting their judgement on—” he wanted to say himself, to say ‘us’, but then that all would have felt too conceited— “this time.”

“That’s another thing I’m glad I won’t live to see, then,” the Kaiser said. “Goodbye, Leigh.”

“Goodbye, Your Majesty,” Yang said, and bowed.

The Kaiser stepped out into the rain, one of his attendants hurrying to put an umbrella up over his head. He walked slowly out to his car, followed by his entourage and Erwin Joseph, who took every possible opportunity to splash into puddles. Yang watched them go, then returned to the inside of the temple, where everyone was heading in a great crowd, following the coffin, through the back doors to the cemetery outside.

Yang found Count Mariendorf in the bustle, right before they squeezed through the doors outside.

“Did you talk to him?” the count asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Was it a good conversation?”

“The conversation was good,” Yang said. “The news was not.”

“I see.”

The burial itself was a sad and muddy affair, and Yang was worried that he was going to slip and fall headfirst into the hole dug for the coffin as he tossed in the flower he had been given to hold. As he processed past the grave, he looked at the names on the adjoining headstones, all members of the Marbach family. One grave stood out, not having a last name, engraved with just a first name, Maria, and dates of birth and death.

“Do you know who that is?” Yang asked Count Mariendorf in a whisper.

“Oskar’s mother. But she’s not actually buried there.”

“Where is she buried?”

“In the von Reuenthal plot,” the count said, and shuffled Yang away.

He couldn’t stop glancing over at the strange headstone marking the empty grave for the rest of the service. 

Count Mariendorf gave Yang a ride home, a mostly silent drive, both of them fairly contemplative. When they arrived at Yang’s apartment, the count idled the car for a moment, and looked over at Yang.

“I was thinking about our conversation from the other day,” the count said.

“Yes, sir?” Yang asked. “What about it in particular?”

“What you asked about Baroness Westpfale. Have you given that any further thought?”

“I have been thinking about it,” Yang said. “I think I’ll think about it a little more, and maybe try to broach the subject with her at some point— there’s a lot to consider. I’ll probably sit on it for a couple months.”

The count nodded. He reached across the car and opened the glovebox, pulling out a small black box. He held it out to Yang, who hesitantly took it.

“This was my grandmother’s,” the count said. “Strange, strange woman. But I think I was her favorite grandchild.”

Yang opened the box, revealing a beautiful gold engagement ring, with one ruby surrounded by tiny diamonds. “I can’t take this, sir,” Yang said. “You should save it for Hilde.” He realized belatedly that this didn’t make sense as a thing to say; there was no reason that Hilde would have to give someone an engagement ring.

“Hilde— if she ever wants something like that— can have Amelie’s engagement ring. As it stands, this one isn’t doing anyone any good sitting in a box in my house.” He looked at Yang. “It would make me happy to know that it’s going to you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Yang said. “I don’t really know what to say— you’re always too generous to me.”

The count squeezed Yang’s shoulder. “If I had had a son, I would have wanted one like you. That’s all.”

“I— thank you.” His throat felt thick, difficult to get the words out.

The count nodded. “Have a nice night, Hank.”

“You too, sir,” Yang said.

 


 

The whole experience of the funeral left Yang with a strange and sour feeling. Although it wasn’t his business in the least, the way that Reuenthal’s mother had been stripped of her last name— and in some ways her body— to have a headstone in the Marbach family plot disturbed him.

Maybe it was because he suspected that, working for Duke Braunschweig, his chances of dying in space were about to increase dramatically. And, if and when that happened, what he himself would be left with would be a headstone over an empty grave, bearing a name that didn’t really belong to him. He had been Hank von Leigh for well over a decade, and he had thought that he had come to terms with that being the official record of himself, but maybe he had been lying.

And he thought of his father’s gravestone on Phezzan, with the right name but just as little body. He couldn’t set foot on Phezzan again, but that didn’t stop him from wishing that he could go see it, even though there was as little buried there as there was of Reuenthal’s mother in hers.

Later that night, in his room, Yang pulled out some of the research materials that he had pored over while writing his book, ones that he hadn’t needed to touch in some time. This was, perhaps, invading Reuenthal’s privacy, but Reuenthal wasn’t on the planet, and wouldn’t ever have to know that Yang was considering visiting his mother’s grave.

Yang couldn’t have exactly explained the instinct that caused him to look up where it was, and then write down the location, not far from the capital. 

On a whim, he also typed ‘von Leigh’ into the grave finder tool, and came up with a family plot a few hundred kilometers distant. It was one district away from where Mittermeyer’s family lived, actually, so Yang texted Evangeline, since Mittermeyer himself wasn’t on the planet.

 

> hi eva

> your family lives near here, right

 

He attached the location.

Eva responded almost immediately.

 

< Yes, about half an hour drive away :) Why do you ask?

 

> I have some (non-urgent) business there

> just was wondering if i could hitch a ride with you next time you visit home

 

< Of course :)

< We’ll probably be making that trip next time Wolf comes home on leave— I’m sure he wouldn’t mind you joining us

< Mind if I ask what the business is?

 

> historical research, mostly

 

< Very exciting :)

 

> not really haha

 

And then Yang put that thought out of his mind, or tried to.

When he slept that night, he had strange dreams. He and Reuenthal were on Phezzan, walking side by side down one of the wide suburban streets. All the cars rushed past them in the opposite direction, and Yang kept glancing at Reuenthal, nervous that he would suddenly disappear.

“You should come meet my father,” Yang said.

“I have no interest in meeting him,” Reuenthal said.

“Why not?”

“You know very well why not.”

They were approaching the house where Yang had only ever spent a few days at a time, the house that had been so full of art that it hardly had room for him, and when they walked up the front steps, Yang said, “Please, just for a minute. He’s right in here.”

Reuenthal stood, motionless, and Yang opened the door.

He woke up in a cold sweat.

 


 

It actually took another several weeks for Yang’s free time and wherewithal to coincide enough to let him visit Reuenthal’s mother’s real grave. He hadn’t stopped thinking about it in the days since Count Marbach’s funeral, and indeed the strange impulse had only grown more pressing as time went on.

He didn’t know what he expected to find when he went there. He logically knew that there wouldn’t be new information to be found. A grave was a grave, with or without a last name, with or without a body in it. The dead, blessedly or not, could not speak and tell their stories. But his thoughts kept returning to a scene that had almost left his memory, nearly a decade ago now, when he and Reuenthal and Mittermeyer had sat in a bar on Reuenthal’s birthday, and had fought bitterly over the subject of his mother.

Reuenthal had told a story that felt true to him— that his mother had cheated on his father, had given birth to a bastard, and then had tried to pull his eye out with a knife. The story had sounded implausible to Yang, the kind of thing that a bitter man would tell a son he was resentful of. But when he had told Reuenthal that, Reuenthal had cruelly threatened to expose the truth of Yang’s own family history, his secret name.

All three of them had let that moment pass, and Yang had forgiven Reuenthal immediately, but he had never really gotten any closure on it, and none of them had ever spoken of it again.

It was the summer solstice, a day he had off from duty under Duke Braunschweig, and he took the train a decent distance out of the capital, and stopped in a small town with wide, tree-lined streets and birds cawing mournfully overhead. He didn’t manage to get started on his journey until late afternoon, so it was evening by time he arrived, the sun drifting down towards the edges of the trees.

There weren’t any other pedestrians, as it was a hot summer evening, and if he was getting strange looks from the drivers of the cars that whizzed past him on the road, they were moving too fast for him to see. As he walked, he tried to imagine what Reuenthal would have to say about the buildings he passed: the elementary school, the town center where teens were hanging around outside one of the few restaurants drinking sodas, the bar with its door propped open and the dull sound of a soccer game on TV drifting out. Although Yang had spoken with Reuenthal many times while he was at home, over the summers on the phone, he never had said much in the way of how he felt about these places, so Yang was left to wonder.

He didn’t know where Reuenthal’s house was, and had no desire to go look for it, so he just continued on his way to the temple. It wasn’t a particularly long walk, but he took his time. When he arrived at the temple, he realized that, because of the holiday, there were a large number of people there for service, with the parking lot packed with cars. Yang had no intention of going in— he could be a citizen of the Empire, but being a believer in its official religion would have taken a level of self-deception that he was not able to commit to— so he just skirted around the back to the wide open cemetery.

The shadows were growing long, the sky a brilliant orange, as he walked past the gravestones one by one, looking for the cluster of von Reuenthals he knew must be around somewhere. By the time he found the family plot, fairly far back in the cemetery, the sun had slipped fully down behind the trees, and it was dark enough that Yang had to take out his phone flashlight to read the markings on the headstones. Behind him, the temple bells were sounding, pronouncing the end of the service.

There. One of those double headstones, meant for a husband and wife, with one side blank, and the other filled in with Reuenthal’s mother’s name. 

Now that he had found the grave, Yang wasn’t entirely sure what to do with himself. If he had been a more sentimental person, he might have tried to say something to Reuenthal’s mother: tell her about her son, ask her what the truth was about her family and its painful history. Instead, he just stared at the cold white stone, illuminated by the flashlight in his hand, and wished Reuenthal was on Odin, instead of stationed at Iserlohn Fortress.

“Didn’t think I’d see you here again,” a man’s voice called, a decent distance behind Yang. He turned, and saw a man approaching slowly, his face unclear in the darkness.

Yang realized with a start that he was being mistaken for Reuenthal. This, then, was probably Reuenthal’s father, and Yang’s stomach dropped. The one time he had met Reuenthal’s father had ended in Reuenthal getting disowned. Yang was tempted to run away. Reuenthal certainly wouldn’t want him here, but it was too late to change that, and running would make the situation worse.

“I’m not Rear Admiral Reuenthal,” Yang said as the man came closer.

His phone flashlight illuminated Reuenthal’s father enough to show that he was haggard looking, a man somewhere in his seventies, with a lined face and sunken eyes. He moved slowly.

“Who are you, then?”

“Captain Hank von Leigh,” Yang said. “I’m a friend of the rear admiral’s.”

“I remember,” Reuenthal’s father said as he got close enough to see Yang clearly. “We’ve met.”

“Yes,” Yang said.

“Did he send you here to find me?”

“No,” Yang said. “He doesn’t know I came.”

“Then what are you doing?” His words were slightly slurred, as if on the edge of drunkenness. 

“I was at Count Marbach’s funeral, and I saw his mother’s grave there. I was told she wasn’t actually buried in it, so I wanted to see where she actually was buried. That’s all.”

“I outlived that bastard— Count Marbach?”

“Yes.”

“Hah,” Reuenthal’s father said, then was silent for a second. “He was only twelve years older than me, you know.”

Yang wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “I didn’t know.”

“The bride-price I paid to marry his daughter…” He shook his head.

“Is that even legal?”

“No, of course not,” Reuenthal’s father spat. “I paid off some of his debts. Quietly. In exchange for his permission.” He shook his head. “But there was nothing I could do to satisfy those people.”

“Satisfy Count Marbach?”

Reuenthal’s father made a dismissive noise, then continued as if Yang hadn’t asked a question. “Oskar learned my lesson better than I did.” He nodded at Yang. “Spent his school years falling in with the foreigners and queers because they wouldn’t be bothered that he was barely a noble, and nothing else besides. I hope it’s working for him.”

“He’s not nothing,” Yang snapped, as if that was the only thing in that statement that he could object to.

“There’s no point in defending him to me, since he’s not even here. I think I know the child I raised.”

“You won’t even call him your son?” Yang was incredulous. 

“He’s not my son.”

“I don’t know what else he could be,” Yang said. “He carries your name.”

“He should have made an effort with his grandfather, so that he could have been free of it,” Reuenthal’s father said. “He could have been Count Oskar von Marbach… But that man wouldn’t want him moving up in the world.” He laughed, bitterly. “He didn’t try, so he could save himself the disappointment.”

“He is your son,” Yang said. “Even if you wish he wasn’t, and even if he wishes he wasn’t.”

“He tell you he wanted a different father?”

“No,” Yang said. “He would never say that.”

Reuenthal’s father laughed again. “Of course not. He’s too proud.” There was a moment of silence. Yang half expected the old man to yell at him, to tell him to leave, but neither of them moved, both staring down at the dark grave and the cold white of the headstone. “Part of me thought he would come back and ask for his inheritance,” Reuenthal’s father said after a long minute of silence. His tone had changed, though the bitterness remained. “But he is too proud for that, too.”

If Mittermeyer had been here, he probably would have been yelling, Yang thought. He wouldn’t have hesitated to make it very clear exactly what he thought of how Reuenthal’s father had treated his son. Yang could have yelled, perhaps, but he looked at the man standing next to him, and saw that he was more pathetic than anything else.

“He doesn’t want it,” Yang said.

“Why didn’t he change his name?” Reuenthal’s father asked. “He should have, if he wants nothing to do with me, as you say.”

Yang thought about this for a second. There were a hundred reasons, but none of them could be easily expressed, and most of them were not things that he was willing to share with this man. Yang had perfected the ability to talk calmly to people he despised, over his years in the Empire, but that did not mean that he needed to tell Reuenthal’s father a single personal thing.

“He knows exactly who he is,” Yang said finally. And that was the truest and cleanest answer he could find. But he couldn’t quite stop there, and added, “You made sure of that. He wouldn’t ever pretend to be something different.”

Reuenthal’s father let out a bitter laugh. “The one thing I taught him, I suppose.”

“I think he learned a number of things,” Yang muttered.

Reuenthal’s father was silent for a long moment, and then he repeated himself: “I kept imagining that he’d come back. For the inheritance, or forgiveness. I would picture myself being so magnanimous about it. But you know, I think if he was here, I wouldn’t be able to stand him.” He shook his head, talking half to himself. “He doesn’t want the inheritance,” he said. “Of course he doesn’t. He was always too proud. Hah.”

Yang had had enough. “Ask you for forgiveness?” Yang’s voice was strained. “You should be the one asking for his. You’re lucky that he’s a better man than you are.”

“I told you not to defend him.”

“He may not care what you think and say about him any longer, but I—”

“His honor doesn’t need defending.”

“He doesn’t need me to defend his honor,” Yang said. “There’s no one here but you and me, so maybe it shouldn’t make any difference what you say— but there are limits to the lies that I can tolerate hearing, and letting people believe. You say you know him. You don’t. Not at all. Nothing— absolutely nothing— you say or think about him is true.”

“That’s his fault as much as it is mine,” Reuenthal’s father said.

“No, I don’t think it is.”

Some of the air went out of Reuenthal’s father. “He didn’t send you here?”

“No,” Yang said. “He never would.”

 “He truly wants nothing to do with me?”

“Yes.”

“Not even the inheritance?”

“He’s never going to ask you for it.”

There was another long moment of silence between them. Reuenthal’s father looked down at the grave. “He looks just like his mother, you know.” When Yang said nothing in response, Reuenthal’s father continued. “She was proud, too. I wanted her to ask me for forgiveness, but she never did, and then she killed herself rather than apologize.”

“What, exactly, were you waiting for her to apologize for?” Yang hated him.

“You know what.”

It was a testament to the brilliance of Reuenthal’s pride, that he would never apologize for existing, despite how much his father wanted him to. Yang loved him for it.

“I hope you realize someday, Herr von Reuenthal, that your wife and son never apologized to you because they had nothing to apologize for.”

“You don’t know anything,” Reuenthal’s father hissed, and Yang remembered, vividly, the same tone, the same voice, spitting at him from across the booth at Joseph’s bar, a lifetime ago. It was the same unbridled malice, when a Reuenthal was confronted with this truth, the one that they didn’t want to face because facing it would hurt too much. Only this time, it wasn’t Reuenthal-Yang’s-friend— it wasn’t Oskar— it was this living ghost.

“I know Oskar,” Yang said. “And that’s enough.”

“Get the fuck out of my face,” Reuenthal’s father said.

Yang was only too glad to obey, and he walked away through the graveyard, leaving Reuenthal’s father alone in the dark.