June 28th begins uneventfully.
Arthur Kirkland argues with his siblings.
Francis Bonnefoy reads the newspapers.
Gilbert Beilschmidt and his brother Ludwig test howitzers.
Ivan Braginski plays toy soldiers with Alexei Romanov.
The house is quiet today.
Hungary’s shoes click on the polished floor as she walks through the hallway. Confusion and anxiety churn in her stomach. What is she supposed to feel? Her husband’s future emperor is dead, assassinated. She should be sad. She should mourn for the Empire’s loss. But she cannot grieve. How can she? The Archduke had little love or respect for her and her people, a feeling they wholly reciprocated. His succession promised too many changes, a return to the way things once were. Hungary knows she could not return to that; she and her people have power and authority. They will not give those up. Still, no matter what the Archduke believed about her, indignation swells inside Hungary at the thought of the man and his poor, Czech wife shot and bleeding to death. No one should have to die like that.
Passing a closed door, she hears soft sobbing. Bohemia is weeping. Hungary decides not to disturb her. To do so would be thoughtless. Bohemia grieves for the Archduke and his wife in a way Hungary never can bring herself to. The futures held great hopes for Bohemia, and she genuinely loved the couple. Hungary hurries from the sound.
She approaches her husband’s study. Gently, she knocks. Hungary hears no reply and enters anyway. Austria does not notice her. He sits at his desk, sorting through sheets of music for what is probably the seventieth time that day. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. His eyes rest on each composition just long enough to note the title and composer before placing it in its designated pile. To an untrained eye, Austria seems perfectly normal, but Hungary knows. She sees the slight tremor in his hands, the ramrod stiffness of his posture, his too even breathing. She recognizes the behavior; she has seen it before, after Mexico, after Mayerling, after Geneva. Austria is not all right, no matter how hard he tries to convey that he is.
She moves to the small couch and sits down. Dusk has arrived, casting everything in various shades of pinks, oranges, purples, and splashes of dark blue. Hungary sighs. These past two days have been long, far, far too long. She glances down at the newspaper pushed halfway under a pillow. Yesterday’s event is splashed across the front. Roughly, she shoves it away until she no longer can see the black and white print.
“Serbia,” Austria says finally. Hungary turns to look at him.
“What about him?”
“You can not be certain of that, Roderich,” she tells him. Stefan is many things, rebellious and a source of headaches for them both. But an anarchist? A co-conspirator with assassins? Hungary finds that too impossible to believe.
“He had to have known. How else could this have happened?”
She licks her lips and tries to measure out an even-tempered response. “There will be an investigation,” she says. “That will help determine just what took place.” Hungary refuses to say anything more about Stefan’s supposed guilt, at least for today. Now is not the time for one of their arguments.
“Yes.” Reaching for his coffee, Austria takes a sip. He grimaces. “This is cold.”
“Well, it has been sitting there since morning.”
“Has it?” He takes a deep breath. “I would like another cup.” The order is clear. Biting the inside of her mouth, Hungary rises.
“No, please,” Austria protests. “Please, stay with me, Elizabeta. I will ring for Bohemia.”
“She is crying.”
“Of course,” Austria replies.
Without a word, Hungary walks behind Austria and gently buries her hands in his soft hair. She looks up just in time to see the last of daylight change into night. The sound of rustling sheet music fills the air.
Serbia’s pen scratches against the paper. This is his only hope. If he and his people fight hard, they may be able to defeat Austria and Hungary’s forces. He knows their empire is not as strong as Austria likes to pretend it is. But Serbia also knows the couple are not a pair of idiots, and no one would enter a war without an ally to help. If Germany and his brother enter this conflict, it will all end. Unless this works.
Believe me. I had nothing to do with it. Attacks against my people are already happening. Please, help me.
Your little brother,
Rubbing a hand over his face, Serbia sighs deeply and tries to ignore the twinge of pain in his chest. The situation grows worse with every passing day. He spots a falling star. “I wish they would leave my people alone. I wish we could work something out. I don’t care what my government and military got themselves into. Just let them realize my people are innocent.” The star disappears in the night. He watches it, disappointed.
“Was that really too much to ask for?” he tells the darkness.
Roderich needs a drink. He searches through the cabinet for several minutes before his eyes rest on a bottle of palincă. His wife must have put it there. It will do for now. Reaching out, he takes the bottle, opens it, and pours himself a glass. His hands tremble, that damned shake that has plagued him for nearly a month now. It is because he is nervous and uncertain, even though he knows what is to be done. Assassination cannot be tolerated, and Serbia will learn that. The list will teach him. If he refuses the demands, there will be consequences. “What a terrible thing,” Roderich says. He grips his drink with both hands and takes a sip. The powerful fruit flavor dances on his tongue. Of course Elizabeta’s people would create something with such a strong taste.
He hears footsteps behind him and sets his glass down. “I thought you and Ludwig had gone to bed,” he says irritated.
“I smelled alcohol.” Gilbert walks up to him. “I thought you would be with your wife.”
“I could not sleep,” Roderich replies.
“Separate beds again?” Gilbert smiles, that infuriating grin.
“That is none of your business.”
“Actually, it is. You, your darling wife, and West have an alliance. It is in my interest to see that your marital squabbles do not fuck it up.” Roderich flinches.
“Must you be so crude?”
“War is coming, little prince. Yes, I do.”
Roderich sighs. “I told you the truth; I am having trouble sleeping.” He sets the glass down. “It is a temporary problem, brought about from stress. Once everything gets settled down, it will go away.”
Gilbert chuckles, a harsh, hissing sound. “If you could hear yourself.” Bending down, he begins digging around the drinks cabinet. Roderich winces at the sound of clinking bottles. “Don’t you have anything stronger in here?”
“This is not a bar,” Roderich tells him. Straightening, Gilbert swipes his glass and sniffs the contents.
“Hungarian?” Roderich nods. Gilbert shrugs. “Well, beggars can’t be choosers.” He tops the drink off and takes a large gulp. His pale eyebrows rise. “Fruity,” he remarks.
“I will not damage the alliance.”
“You’re weak, and you know it.”
“I can fight Serbia,” Roderich tells him indignantly. He can. He is an empire; Serbia is one nation, a nation in the wrong. Even Serbia’s government admitted the military had been involved in the assassination plot. And yet, there are those who believe Roderich cannot measure out justice where it is due. Those days will end. Too long have people underestimated him. He will show the world what he is capable of. He will.
“Maybe,” Gilbert agrees. “But if Serbia refuses that ultimatum, which any sane nation would, then there’s going to be a war. And where Serbia goes, Russia follows. You really want to fight Russia?” He flicks an invisible row of dominoes. “Then, France might come in. They have an alliance too, you know. Now you’ve got a war on two fronts. And who knows what England’s going to do about this thing. All you’ve got is West and me. Have you heard from Italy?”
“He wrote a letter. Neither he nor his brother want anything to do with this.”
Gilbert smiles, an odd glint in his red eyes. “Smart kid.” He pauses and raises the glass to his lips. “You know, if you were so desperate to have your ass handed back to you again, I’d have been happy to help.”
This is too much. “I do not suppose you care, but my future emperor—.”
“Save me the argument. I don’t need a repeat performance.”
His temper flares. Roderich counts to ten. Then twenty. “If you are so disdainful of me, why do not you dissolve this alliance?”
“West respects and loves you and Hungary too much for that. We will defend you, no matter what happens.”
“Even if you have to fight France? I thought you and he were friends.”
“Were.” Prussia looks away.
“I don’t understand.”
“I love my brother.”
“Oh,” Roderich replies simply. “Then what will happen to France?”
“There’s an idea floating around. It’s foolproof if it works.”
“I see.” Turning, he glimpses a blonde braid and the corner of a white nightdress. She disappears as soon as he notices her. Roderich frowns. “How long has Lili been there?”
“She followed me down.”
Massaging his forehead, he sighs. “Elizabeta and I have told her repeatedly that she has nothing to worry about. Everything will be all right.”
“Yes, maybe everyone will decide to have a picnic in the sunshine instead.” Prussia shrugs. “Of course, this is Serbia we’re dealing with, so who knows what could happen. Big dreams.” Taking one final gulp, he hands Roderich the empty glass. “Bit sweet.”
Feeling no more relieved, Roderich places it on a tray and hurries upstairs to Elizabeta.
When Ukraine is worried, she knits.
Somehow, the clicking of the needles, the feeling of the yarn slipping through her fingers, and the knowledge that she is creating something practical and useful soothes her anxious mind and allows her to collect her thoughts. It does not mater what fibers she uses or what she makes. Her hands move in practiced rhythms, working through patterns and shapes with ease. She sits comfortably in her chair, feet flat on the floor, the wool flowing out from her, as she works quietly and tries to make sense of the world she lives in.
Ukraine has been knitting a great deal lately.
Socks may not be simple, but Katyusha has made enough of them for Vanya that she no longer needs to constantly watch her hands. Instead, she focuses on the figure of her younger sister sitting on the window ledge and staring out the window. A slight frown hangs on her pale, delicate features. She says nothing, but Katyusha occasionally hears her sigh. She wonders what passes through Natasha’s mind, if it is the current difficult situation or…something else. Katyusha hopes it is not the latter; sometimes she has an extraordinary problem cajoling Natasha to talk to her, and she does not always understand her sister’s thoughts.
“Natasha, would you like to make something? I have enough wool for both of us,” she offers. Whatever is on Natasha’s mind, Katyusha knows it cannot be good for her to brood for so long. Leaning down, she nudges the basket close to her.
Natasha’s gaze does not move. “You know I have no talent for that sort of thing, syestra.”
“That is not true. You are still learning,” Katyusha replies disappointedly. “I had hoped we would both give Vanya something when he leaves.”
Surprised, Natasha turns to her. “Vanya is getting those?”
“Of course. Who else would I be making them for?” Without another word, Natasha’s hand darts out, grabbing a skein of dark blue yarn and two needles. Her eyes alight with fierce concentration as she casts on the first stitches. Her movements are slow and lack the practiced skill of Katyusha’s, but she makes no mistakes when the needles begin clicking together. Katyusha smiles.
“That is a lovely color,” she tells her. “I think Vanya will love it.”
Natasha’s hands pause. “I want him to wear it under his coat, next to his heart.”
“I’m sure he will. Vanya can look at our gifts, and our love will help keep him warm.” Natasha stares at her with her bright, clear eyes before bowing her head and furiously resuming her knitting.
Raivis knocks on the door; Katyusha recognizes the hesitant sound. “Come in,” she calls as cheerfully as she can. He and Eduard step inside, both looking nervous. There is a large book under Eduard’s arm and an empty glass in his hands. Katyusha wonders what he has been doing. They stand, awkward and silent, until Raivis speaks up.
“How are you, Miss Ukraine?”
“I’m fine. Thank you.” Raivis turns to Natasha, but he says nothing. Her demeanor frightens him. Looking up, Katyusha meets Eduard’s eyes. He chews on his bottom lip. “He knows something,” she realizes and feels a sense of dread sweep over her.
A moment later, Toris enters. “Mr. Russia told me to come here.” He glances at Raivis and Eduard for a moment. “He said he had something important to tell us.”
“Do you think…d-does this mean…” Raivis begins.
“It does,” Eduard replies simply. Katyusha does not stop knitting.
“Were you able to hear anything?” Toris asks him.
“Only bits and pieces of phrases. I was not about to put a listening device in His Majesty’s office. I doubt Mr. Russia would be very pleased if he found it.” He catches sight of Natasha’s eyes boring into him and flinches.
“Well, I suppose we had to expect it. Mr. Russia is so fond of Mr. Serbia, after all.”
“Stefan is not our brother,” Natasha speaks up. Her voice is cold.
“Even if he wasn’t, he and Mr. Serbia have an alliance. Mr. Austria and Mrs. Hungary have declared war, so Mr. Russia is bound to fight and defend him.”
“Serbia asks too much.” Natasha’s hands clench. “Do not speak again! Your conversation made me drop a stitch.”
“It is nothing that can’t be easily fixed. Here, let me.” Natasha stares at Katyusha for a moment before placing the yarn and needles in her outstretched hand.
“Don’t tell Vanya that I made a mistake,” she tells her.
“I think that will be very pretty,” Toris remarks quietly. Natasha ignores him.
“If His Majesty declares war too, will our people have to fight?” Raivis asks.
“I don’t think we will be able to avoid it,” Eduard says. “We live in Mr. Russia’s house. We will have to contribute.”
Katyusha focuses on rescuing Natasha’s stitch. She hands the yarn back to her sister.
There is another knock, and Vanya walks inside the sitting room. His face is solemn, his eyes sad. He clasps his hands tightly behind his back. Katyusha wants to go to him, stroke his hair, rub his back, and tell him everything will be all right. She stops knitting.
He surveys the room. “Ah, we are all here?” He nods. “Good.” He falls silent for a moment. No one speaks. Katyusha can barely move. Finally, Vanya takes a deep breath.
“Batyushka and I have talked for a long time, and he has given the order to mobilize.” Katyusha’s blood runs cold. “We have not yet declared war, but when it happens, we will be ready for whatever they throw at us. I’m sorry. I wish we could have come up with something else.” He looks at Katyusha and Natasha. “Don’t hold up supper for me. I may be very late tonight.” Without another word, he leaves, closing the door behind him.
A harsh stillness settles over the room. Mobilization. The word rings in Katyusha’s head like the Easter church bells. She can take it no longer. Burying her face in her hands, she begins to weep.
Through her sobs, Katyusha hears Toris’ soft voice. “I must telephone Feliks.”
RUSSIA HAS MOBILIZED STOP GERMANY REACT SOON STOP I THINK IT IS FINALLY COMING STOP WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO STOP
MY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS ARE DIVIDED STOP FOR NOW THIS IS A CONTINENTAL MATTER STOP I CANNOT SAY MORE STOP
WE HAVE AN ALLIANCE STOP ORDER GIVEN TO PARTIALLY MOBILIZE STOP MY COAST UNDEFENDED STOP SURELY YOU CARE ABOUT THAT STOP
AGREE COASTLINE MUST BE DEFENDED STOP PREPARATIONS ALREADY IN PLACE IN CASE GERMANY SHELLS AREA STOP CHURCHILL THINKS UNLIKELY STOP CANNOT SAY MORE STOP
ANGLETERRE WE HAVE AN ALLIANCE STOP THIS HAS BEEN INEVITABLE STOP RUSSIA AND I ARE GOING TO WAR WITH GERMANY STOP WILL YOU BE THERE TOO STOP
BETTER SOONER THAN LATER STOP GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS STILL DEBATING INVOLVEMENT STOP I WILL NOT RISK MY PEOPLE IN A WAR THEY HAVE NO STAKES IN STOP THIS IS STILL A CONTINENTAL PROBLEM STOP
FULL MOBILIZATION ORDER HAS BEEN ISSUED STOP THIS WILL NOT BE A CONTINENTAL ISSUE FOREVER ANGLETERRE STOP
GERMANY HAS DECLARED WAR ON RUSSIA STOP
DEAR GOD NOW YOU MUST FOLLOW STOP
AND WHAT OF YOU STOP
UNTIL GERMANY DOES SOMETHING TO WARRANT MY INVOLVEMENT THIS IS YOUR AFFAIR STOP I CANNOT SAY MORE STOP
The sweet scent of peaches fills the air of Emma’s little kitchen. Her small knife removes the skin in long, curving strips. The fruit divides in half neatly, and Emma removes the dark pit from the center. As she cuts the peach into small squares, she pops a piece into her mouth. The succulent taste delights her, and she smiles. This is perfect. How nice of Antonio to send her some of the best produce from his harvests. Emma cannot help but feel a little guilty at the gift; her friend has not had an easy time since his war with America, but he still manages to send her and Lovino gifts of fruit. It is too sweet, she thinks wistfully. She will not let his present go to waste, and she knows she can use the peaches in many things. Maybe she will invite Jan for snacks. She and her brother have much to talk about.
Her doorbell rings. Quickly, Emma rinses her hands of the sticky juices and hurries to the front of her house. Tugging at her apron sash, she removes it, stashing it underneath a cushion. No one will notice. The doorbell rings once more. “I’m coming,” she calls out to whoever has come to visit her. She glances at a mirror, smoothes her hair a bit, and opens the door.
“Goedemiddag, Belgie!” Prussia exclaims in heavily accented Dutch. Germany stands beside him, stiff and serious.
“Gutentag, Fräulein,” he says.
Emma gives them a wide smile. “What a surprise!” she declares. “Please, please come in.” The two follow her to the sitting room. “I am sorry if the house is a bit of a mess. I wasn’t expecting any company,” she chatters. She glances back. Prussia grins widely at her, while Germany’s gaze flicks around the room. His expression has not changed since he stepped into the house. For a few moments, she watches him, his evenly measured steps, his hands clasped behind his back like a general reviewing his troops. For all his confidence, Emma notices a twitch of nervousness in his face and eyes.
She gestures to the sofa. “Please, sit down.” Prussia immediately makes himself comfortable. Germany joins him. His hands rest on his knees, his posture rigid. Emma stares at him for a minute before nudging a plate of chocolates towards the two brothers. “Help yourself,” she tells them. Prussia takes one; Germany politely refuses until Prussia rams an elbow into his ribs.
“These are great! Are they yours?” Prussia asks.
“No, I brought them from Callebout,” she answers. “Thank you for the flattery, though.”
Germany slowly bites into his and nods his thanks.
“Well,” Emma begins and trails off. She does not know what to say, so she takes a deep breath and waits. Prussia and Germany look at her expectantly. Sighing, she understands that she must begin this conversation. Taking a chocolate for herself, Emma smiles. The rich sweetness settles on her tongue and gives her an odd sort of comforting courage.
“You have been busy lately,” she tells them.
“What can you expect?” Prussia shrugs. “With everybody mobilizing and snipping at each other, you can’t let yourself get idle.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Emma agrees. “Of course, as a neutral country, I would rather not take sides in this brewing conflict.”
“Right.” Prussia’s laugh is a little forced. Emma’s eyebrows rise. Germany watches him, uncertainty in his blue eyes. Prussia smiles at him reassuringly. Leaning back, he pops another chocolate in his mouth. “We actually wanted to talk to you about that, Emma.”
“Oh?” She slowly shifts the plate out of her guests’ reach. “I thought I just said I did not want to take sides.”
“We respect that,” Germany speaks up. “We were not going to ask you to join us as an ally.”
“Definitely not,” Prussia adds. “What we want to talk about doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
“Not much,” Germany murmurs.
So the time has come. “And what is it?” she asks. The brothers share a long look before either speaks.
“We are at war with France,” Germany finally tells her.
“This is recent,” Emma says. Recent but not unexpected.
“It hasn’t been officially declared yet.”
“But when it is, we’ll need a way to get into his land,” Prussia says. “One that France won’t expect. Emma, if you let our armies in, I promise they won’t touch a thing.”
“You said ‘if’.”
“A promise is a promise.”
She closes her eyes. A minute passes. “Get out.”
“I asked you to leave. Please.” She opens her eyes. Prussia and Germany stare at her incredulously.
“Belgien,” Prussia begins. “Reconsider.”
“Do you know what you’re asking? I am neutral. I will not just look away while you march through my land to hurt another nation! You might say that you are respecting my wishes, but you are just trying to use me!”
Prussia shakes his head. “It’s a changing world, Emma. I don’t think a ‘scrap of paper’ is going to matter to many people anymore.”
She rises. Prussia and Germany immediately stand. She must look up at them, but she will not budge. “Get out of my house,” she says, her voice low.
“Get out!” Surprised at her outburst, they hurry to the hall. Emma follows them closely. Prussia walks swiftly. Germany follows at his heels. He turns back.
“Fräulein, please, reconsider—.”
“I won’t! Get out! Get out!” Prussia grabs his brother’s arm and pulls him away. His eyes meet Emma’s, and she sees the indignation, fury, and hurt pride in that red gaze. “This is what his enemies see,” she thinks. “This is what they fear.” She shrieks at them again. Let him be angry and Germany too. She will not give up something she holds dear.
The brothers leave. Emma slams the door behind them.