July 798 U.C., Heinessen
The winter was a cold and difficult one. Annerose didn’t think that she had ever felt a season like this on Heinessen before, but perhaps the snow only felt less beautiful and the wind colder because of the persistent bad news that hung in the air. Everyone was on edge, and she couldn’t blame them for it. It was hard to bear driving past the line that stretched out down the street towards the food bank, people pulling their jackets up around their throats to keep out the gritty grey snow.
She felt, more than anything, guilty about her position of relative comfort. She and the rest of her family were isolated from the collapse that had brought life on Heinessen to what felt like a standstill. She had her salary, and Reinhard’s, and the stipend that she was given to care for Julian, and the pension that Ingrid received. They would have been fine on even her salary alone, of course, which was why she did feel so guilty.
Reinhard was busy almost all the time these days, rarely even coming home in time to eat dinner. When he made it back, he would usually sit alone at the kitchen table, microwaved leftovers in front of him, staring into space with a steely, concentrated look on his face that disturbed Annerose. When she came in to speak with him, it would break, and he would smile at her, but that determined look weighed heavily on her mind.
Sometimes, he would have hushed conversations with Ingrid that Annerose only caught pieces of. They were mostly updates on the civil war in the Empire-- information that Annerose wasn’t sure how he had gotten, and was sure that she wasn’t supposed to have. She didn’t pry, though she wondered if Julian did, pressing his ear to the wall that separated his bedroom from Reinhard’s, when they had their quiet conversations in there.
She wasn’t sure if it reassured Ingrid any. She was listless, too, and didn’t eat enough.
All of this combined left Annerose spinning her wheels blindly, unable to do anything to change the state of the galaxy, its weight pressing in and crushing her whole household. She tried to put her energy into her duties with the Rosenritter, but as they had been kept “on alert” on Heinessen, doing nothing but training and waiting for something in the situation to give, there wasn’t much that she could do. When she sat at her desk, she was consumed with the nagging, undefinable worry that had only been growing these past few months, and the only thing she could do to clear her head was leave her desk and go on long runs around the base, the cold winter air and the exertion pushing out the rest of her thoughts.
She was returning from one of these runs when Linz caught her. Annerose was brushing crusted snow off her pant legs as she walked distractedly down the too-hot base corridor to her office, and when she looked up to unlock her door, she found Linz leaning against it.
“The captain’s been looking for you, Musel,” he said.
It was lucky that her cheeks were already stripped red from the cold. “How long has he been looking?” she asked, stifling a wince.
“He asked me where you went about a half hour ago.”
“And did you tell him where I was?”
“I told him you were in the warehouse, checking inventory.”
“Did he believe you?”
“No,” Linz said. “You’d better go find him.”
“Well, thanks for trying.”
“You’d cover for me, wouldn’t you?”
“Doubt it,” Annerose said.
Linz just laughed. “Good luck,” he said, then wandered off down the hallway with a wave behind him.
Annerose took a minute in the bathroom to compose herself, splashing warm water on her face and re-tying her hair that had come loose. She reluctantly made her way to Schenkopp’s office, and sharply rapped on the door. He summoned her in.
He sat behind his desk while she stood in front of it, and for the first time, Annerose knew he was going to tell her off, as was his duty as her superior officer. He just leaned on his elbows and stared at her for a minute. She kept her back straight, eyes fixed firmly above his head.
“Is there some specific thing that’s eating you, Musel?” Schenkopp asked. “You’re distracted. It’s not like you.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Annerose said. “No excuse.”
Schenkopp stared at her for a second. “I am this close to telling you to take the regiment up into the mountains for some cold weather drills, just to get your mind off whatever it is.”
“But I don’t think it would change things. And the regiment wouldn’t appreciate that kind of vacation.”
“Will you stop? You’re not in trouble.”
“If you weren’t professionally concerned, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in your office.”
“I’d rather have it in my office than in your house, Annerose.”
“Because of Reinhard?”
“No,” he said. He crossed his arms. “Because I’m sure I’d get distracted.”
Annerose flushed at Schenkopp’s smile, but even she could tell that it was a deflection. “I’ll try to be less distracted myself,” she said.
“I can’t blame you,” he said. “I think this is the longest we’ve been without an official deployment in a while. It puts the regiment on edge. But you’re usually more patient than almost anyone else.”
“I don’t like not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said.
Schenkopp smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Commander von Musel! You of all people should know what’s going to happen.”
“The only reason I haven’t shaken you down for information myself is that I think your little brother might murder me in my sleep for forcing you to break his confidences. That, and I don’t particularly care where we get sent, and what we end up doing when we get there. I know it’ll happen soon enough.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Annerose said. “Reinhard doesn’t tell me anything.”
“I find that very hard to believe,” Schenkopp said.
“I’m not lying.”
Schenkopp looked at her for a long second, then relaxed. “No, I know. But he’s Job Trunicht’s little protege these days, so I’m sure he knows more than almost anyone else. He might have information about our deployment plans. Did he say that he won’t tell you anything, when you asked him?”
“I haven’t talked to him about it.”
“You’ll laugh at me if I tell you the truth,” she said. “So let’s just say I don’t want to put him in a position of breaking his professional oaths.”
Schenkopp chuckled. “Well, that’s stupider than the truth. Come on, Annerose.”
Annerose shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t like Job Trunicht very much, and I’m afraid that Reinhard is involved in something--”
“I don’t know. Something. I told you it was stupid.” She looked away for a second. “If he offered to talk about it himself, I’d be less concerned. He’s never kept this quiet about anything from me before.”
“The best cure for that worry is to ask. He wouldn’t lie to you, would he?”
“About his work with Trunicht? I doubt it.”
“Then ask. Get your mind back on something concrete.”
“And I assume you want to know, whatever I find out.”
“If your brother holds my future in his hands…” He shrugged expressively.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think too hard,” he said with a grin. “That’s where all the trouble usually starts.”
Annerose did not ask Reinhard what the plans were for the future of the Alliance right away. Even phrasing it that way in her head made her hesitate. Every time she passed by Reinhard in the hall and thought to open her mouth to ask if they could talk, privately, she was overcome with the sensation that if she learned what he had been doing, she might think him a totally different person than just her younger brother.
Of course, he hadn’t ‘just’ been her younger brother for a long time, not since the day they had left Odin, but it chilled her, to think of what he might be caught up in now.
About a week later, one day after work, Annerose received an unexpected phone call from Jessica Edwards, of all people, saying she was in Heinessenpolis to visit her cousin, and was wondering if Annerose would like to get a coffee. Annerose immediately agreed. She hadn’t seen Jessica in a long time, more than a year, though they had video called at least every couple of weeks to keep in touch.
They met at a steamy little cafe not far from the city center. Jessica was already there when Annerose arrived, dusting off snow from her shoulders. She looked approximately the same as always, her neat blonde hair falling softly around her face. Her expression was pensive, and she was tracing a wiggly line in the fog on the window she was sitting next to, so she didn’t notice Annerose until she slid into the booth across from her, making her jump.
“Annerose!” she said, breaking into a smile. “You scared me.”
“Sorry,” Annerose said. “I didn’t mean to.”
“I’m so glad you could make it out here.”
“Of course-- I couldn’t miss the chance to see you, and honestly it’s not that far. Why didn’t you tell me you were planning to visit? You could have stayed with me.”
Jessica laughed. “I know how crowded your house is these days. I couldn’t impose.”
“It would not be an imposition at all. Did you have to get a hotel?”
“No, I’m staying with my cousin.” Her tone fell.
“Is something wrong?”
“Oh, just the reason I’m up here. My grandmother’s losing her house, so I’m helping her move in with her other family. It’s mostly been putting everything in boxes and driving the truck back and forth.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“It’s alright,” she said. “She would have had to sell the property sooner or later-- she’s in her eighties. I guess this was just the push that will get her into my cousin’s house.”
“Still, I’m sorry. It can’t be easy.”
“We’ll all live.”
“Aside from that, have you been holding up well?”
“As well as can be expected.” Jessica looked out the window. “I think I’ll be out of a job when the end of the school year rolls around, though.”
Annerose’s eyebrows shot up. “The Command Academy is letting you go?”
Jessica laughed. “No, I’ll still have that piano job-- it’s only a couple hours a week anyway. But Thernussen College is cutting back on staff. They never actually gave me tenure, so I expect I’m on the chopping block.”
“I’m so sorry,” Annerose said.
“Don’t worry about it.” She put a smile on her face, though Annerose could tell it wasn’t as easy as it had been years ago. “Jean makes good money, and so I’ll be fine regardless. I’ll see if I can pick up other performing gigs or tutoring-- I used to play for weddings all the time.”
“I hope Thernussen College doesn’t actually drop you,” Annerose said. “You’ve been working there for years.”
Jessica just shook her head. “I shouldn’t dump all my troubles on you when I get to see you so rarely. How have things been with you?”
“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “Fine. It’s been weird having Reinhard living with me, but not in a bad way.”
“Is he still working for Job Trunicht?”
Jessica frowned, then said, “Shall we get some coffee?”
“Of course.” They both headed over to the counter to place their orders, and Annerose stopped Jessica before she could pay. “You’ve come all this way to visit-- my treat.”
Jessica’s smile was tight, but she didn’t refuse. When they sat back down, she said, “So, how are things with Mr. Schenkopp?”
“Good,” Annerose said. “Really good.” She couldn’t help but smile. “The whole regiment is antsy, sitting around waiting for something to happen, but everything is great with him.”
“When’s he going to ask you to marry him? I feel like you’ve been seeing him long enough.”
Annerose shook her head and took a sip of her coffee, burning her tongue and getting foam under her nose. She wiped it off delicately with a napkin. “He’s not ever going to ask me to do that, so I’m not holding my breath.”
“It’s just not the type of man he is,” Annerose said. “He’s not what you’d call housebroken.”
Jessica laughed. “You’re talking about him like he’s a puppy instead of your CO.”
She waved her hand. “You know what I mean.”
“And you aren’t unhappy about that? Do you not want to get married?”
She looked out the window. “I mean-- it would be nice,” she said. “But even if I can picture myself in a white dress, I don’t really see Walter wanting to walk down the aisle. If he changes his mind someday-- sure. But I’m not the same person I was as a freshman.” She laughed. “I think I understand what we both want much better now.”
“I guess it’s different, with the two of you being in the same unit,” Jessica said. “I think part of me wanted Jean to propose just so that we could have, I don’t know, something that felt real even when he was away.”
“I get that,” Annerose said. “But I have him in the ways that matter. Besides, I don’t think him moving into my house permanently would do anyone any good.” She laughed, but even as she did it felt strange. “Everything’s in a nice equilibrium.” She looked out the window again.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh…” She struggled to put together a cogent explanation and failed, so she said instead, “Reinhard doesn’t really get along with Walter. He’d be unhappy if he moved in with me.”
“You shouldn’t let what Reinhard thinks stop you,” Jessica pointed out. “He’s perfectly capable of getting a place of his own.”
“I suppose. I like having him with me, though.”
“Reinhard aside, Annerose-- do you want Schenkopp to live with you?”
“You’re asking as though you think I’m unhappy.”
“You seem tense.”
“Not about Walter.” She smiled and tried to relax.
“Alright, I won’t push it.” Jessica smiled and fell silent.
Annerose peered out at the barely visible street through the fogged up window for a moment, then said, “I guess it’s just difficult to explain in a way that makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t.” She paused. “I love Walter-- and what we have is-- it’s real, and it’s enough. I don’t need anything from him that he doesn’t already give me. I feel like I’m halfway to being a different person when we’re out with the regiment together, compared to when I’m home. Even if he’s also there in my house, it’s-- it’s different than when we’re out doing things.” She shook her head. “And it’s not like I need someone else to help run my household.”
“I guess I can’t relate to that,” Jessica said, letting out a little sigh. “When Jean is around-- it’s not really the big things that are what I miss when he leaves. It’s like” -- she laughed-- “I know it’s silly, but when I’m playing piano in the living room, even if he’s doing something upstairs, I like the feeling that he’s just around to hear me. And the house is always so quiet after he goes.”
“My house is never really quiet,” Annerose said.
“That’s true,” Jessica said. “But even if I had a baby-- like you have Julian-- I’m not sure that would be the same.”
Annerose saw an opportunity to change the subject and seized on it. “Do you want a baby?”
“Eventually. It will happen when it happens, I’m sure. I probably shouldn’t be in any rush, now that we won’t have as much income, and things in the universe are…” She trailed off.
“I suppose if you don’t want to marry Walter, you don’t want kids of your own?”
“I have Julian. I don’t need to rush into anything else while he’s my responsibility.”
Jessica nodded. “And I suppose you would have to leave the fleet.”
Annerose hadn’t even considered that. “It’s not really worth thinking about,” she said.
Jessica smiled at her and was silent, drinking her coffee.
“Can I ask you something?” Annerose asked. “Not about this.”
“Do you not like that Reinhard is working for Secretary Trunicht?”
“It’s not as though anyone in the fleet has much control over their posting,” Jessica said. “I can’t really say anything about it.”
“But you don’t like it.”
“I don’t like Job Trunicht,” she said. “He’s-- this whole campaign of riling up everyone against Phezzan-- it’s ridiculous.” She crumpled her napkin. “The last thing we need is another front on this war. I don’t know what his angle really is. Even if ending trade with Phezzan would be good for the economy-- and I don’t know if it even would be-- when we break ties with them, that just means they won’t have any reason not to let the Imperial fleet through their corridor right to our doorstep. Jean is worried that if there’s a second front like that, we won’t be able to withstand it.”
“I don’t know what Trunicht is really angling for.”
“Does Reinhard like him?”
“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “I doubt it. But he doesn’t talk about work very much.”
“I think he’s just tired when he gets home. And he has a much higher clearance than I do-- I’m not “need to know” in any way.”
“He trusts you, though.”
“Of course he does. But if there’s no reason for him to tell me the details-- maybe it’s better.”
“I guess if he doesn’t divulge Job Trunicht’s secret plans to you, you can’t tell them to me,” Jessica said. She was joking, but her smile was tight.
“Why, would you want to do something with them?”
“I-- no, of course not. But I wish that the public had more of a clue what he’s angling for. It’s one thing to stir up sentiment against some sort of threat in order to win elections-- but Job Trunicht seems like he might be the kind of man who would follow through on that. I don’t know if the crash is really enough to justify some kind of isolationist economic policy, or… I don’t know. I can’t tell what he’s going to do.”
Annerose bit her lip. “You’re probably right that he is going to do something.”
“So, you do know something.”
“No,” Annerose said. “Not really.” She looked away, but continued to talk. “All I know is that this is the weakest the Empire has ever been. I wouldn’t be surprised if Job Trunicht smells blood in the water.”
Jessica paled. “But this is-- it’s not like we’re in much better of a situation,” she said. Her brow furrowed. “Maybe that’s too conspiratorial of me to think.”
“Could Phezzan have caused this crash just so that we wouldn’t have the ability to launch an attack on the Empire?”
“Now you sound like Trunicht,” Annerose pointed out.
Jessica frowned. “You’re not wrong.”
A deathly silence fell between them, and Annerose was the one to break it. “I think we’re going to be fighting in the Phezzan corridor, one way or another, before the year is out,” she said.
Jessica’s hand shook as she raised her mug to her lips, so badly that she had to put it back down without taking a sip. “Really?”
“I hope I’m wrong,” Annerose said. “But I don’t think we’re going to have peace in the galaxy for much longer.”
“Peace,” Jessica said. “Like we have any semblance of that.”
“There’s been no movement through Iserlohn, at least. That’s something.” She didn’t think Jessica would appreciate her mentioning how anxious the rest of her regiment was to get on the road with axes in hand.
“True.” Jessica smoothed out the napkin that she had crumpled. “There’s nothing I can do about it, or you, and probably not even your brother. I should try not to worry.”
“You can vote against Trunicht in the next election.”
Jessica actually laughed. “Trust me, I have been,” she said.
“So have I.”
“Fat lot of good it does the both of us.” But she was smiling now.
“I think the opposition just has to have a better candidate. All these other parties come and go without ever really gaining much of a foothold.”
“It’s because there’s too many of them,” Jessica said. “They can’t form a unified block like the conservatives have been able to.”
“Why is that, you think?”
“They keep losing elections, everyone has new ideas about how to run a better party, they split-- same story every few years.”
“I sometimes wish I followed politics more closely,” Annerose said, “since they really do control everything that happens to me. But it’s hard when there never seem to be any good outcomes.”
“Maybe Trunicht’s plans of big talk against Phezzan will backfire on him,” Jessica said. “If the reality of intensifying the war hits people, maybe that will cause them to vote for a pacifist party.”
“Maybe,” Annerose said. “But I think people tend to get more angry about things that are directly affecting them. And Phezzan’s effect on the economy is easy for everybody to see. War-- it’s far away.”
“Not for me,” Jessica said.
“True.” Silence fell between them. Annerose finished her coffee.
“When did you become such a pessimist, Annerose?”
“Am I, really?”
“You’re not telling me that nothing will come of all this.”
“Well, I hope you think I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“No, I know you wouldn’t.”
It seemed that everyone wanted Annerose to investigate what Reinhard was doing with Job Trunicht, but the idea of finding out had never felt less appealing. It wasn’t that she needed to work up the nerve to talk to Reinhard-- that wasn’t quite it. When she thought about why she was so hesitant to find out what the plans for the future of the galaxy were, the thought was like sticking her tongue into a hole left by a missing tooth: a slimy emptiness where something should have been, or would be soon. She imagined she could taste blood.
She resolved to do it the next morning, while Reinhard was getting ready for work and before Ingrid and Julian got up. They would have the house to themselves, and Reinhard would have an excuse to leave if he couldn’t-- or didn’t want to-- tell Annerose for some reason. She wouldn’t press him too hard.
But that left her that night, sitting on the side of her bed, not quite ready to go to sleep but with nothing else to do with herself. She stared across the room at the wall mirror, watching Ingrid’s reflection as she pulled on her nightgown over her head, then shook her mane of red hair free from the neckline. Ingrid must have felt the attention on her, because she turned around and met Annerose’s eyes in the mirror.
“You’re quiet,” she said.
“Just thinking,” Annerose replied.
“May I ask what about?” Ingrid sat down on the bed behind her, and Annerose didn’t mind when she ran a hand over her hair, fingers carding through the golden waves.
“Has Reinhard told you what Job Trunicht’s plans are?”
“Not in so many words,” Ingrid said. “I know enough. What my role is going to be. And Erwin’s.”
“Do you want a role?” Ingrid asked. Her fingers were deft and painfully gentle as she braided Annerose’s hair, not quite stroking her cheek when she reached to gather the hair that lay in front of her ears.
“Want,” she repeated dryly. “I don’t think it really matters what I want. I’m a soldier.”
“It matters to me.”
Annerose was silent for a minute as Ingrid continued to braid. She knew, as much as she was capable of knowing anything, that she should have never allowed her life with Ingrid to be like this. The feeling that Ingrid’s soft touch stirred in her heart was something cousin to regret.
“Right here, right now, I have everything I could ever want,” Annerose said after a while, as Ingrid found an elastic and tied off the end of the braid. “So what I want is for nothing to ever change, and I know that isn’t possible. So I’m trying not to want it so badly.” She laughed, but it was a sad sound. “If I had never figured out how to get the things I wanted, or even figured out how to want them, it might be easier.” They sat still for a moment, and then Annerose shook her head, breaking the quiet spell of the room. “It doesn’t matter.”
She pulled back the covers and slid underneath them, Ingrid following a moment later. She reached over to the bedside table and turned off the light, plunging the room into darkness, at least until her eyes adjusted enough to see by the streetlight filtering in through the blinds.
Usually, they lay back to front, with Annerose’s arms draped over Ingrid’s waist, but tonight, Ingrid rolled to face her in the darkness.
“You know you’ll always have me, Annerose,” Ingrid said.
“Even when you are playing whatever part has been picked out for you?” Annerose asked. “Even when you’re back with Erwin?”
She couldn’t see Ingrid’s face in the darkness. “Do you not want to stay with me?”
Annerose wanted to bury her face in the pillow, but she turned onto her back instead. “I wish I could be so optimistic. What either of us want has nothing to do with it.”
“I’ll ask for you to stay with me.”
Annerose was silent.
She squeezed her eyes shut, but tried to keep her voice steady. “You’re their tool,” she said. “I’m worried-- you’ll be lucky if you don’t make trouble, they don’t drug you like they did--”
“That won’t happen,” Ingrid said.
“How do you know?”
There was a moment of silence, then Ingrid said, tentatively, “If you want to stay with me, you’ll find a way.”
Annerose rolled onto her side, away from Ingrid. There were half formed, blurry pictures in her mind of other women: Janie of Earth, and Magdalena from the Empire, people who Ingrid mentioned in passing occasionally. Never bitterly, but always sad. Hadn’t they loved her more? And hadn’t they left Ingrid alone? She buried her head in her pillow.
Ingrid touched her arm, her touch feather light. Annerose tried to relax, but was stiff as a board, and couldn’t sleep for a long time.
Annerose woke up already exhausted, but she could hear Reinhard’s alarm going off in the next room, so she pulled herself out of bed, taking one long look at Ingrid, still asleep in the darkness. Her arms were wrapped tight around her own chest, knees pulled up and in. Annerose tugged the blanket up over her, then shuffled out of her bedroom and downstairs.
She listened to the distant sound of Reinhard starting the shower as she made coffee. He was done quickly, and he came into the kitchen just as the coffee maker gurgled its last. He was surprised to see her.
“Captain Schenkopp want the regiment to run early morning drills today?” he asked as he fished around in the fridge for the cream. Annerose poured two mugs, then sat at the beat up kitchen table. She opened a plastic package of muffins, took one, and shoved the pack towards Reinhard’s seat.
“No, I wanted to catch you before you went out.”
Reinhard raised his eyebrows as he sat across from her. “There some trouble I should know about?”
“No,” she said. “Not from me, anyway.”
He looked at her silently, and she halfheartedly nibbled at her muffin. She steeled herself; she was not going to become a person who didn’t face her troubles head on. “Reinhard, I’ve been respecting your privacy when it comes to your work-- you haven’t wanted to tell me, so I haven’t asked-- but for Ingrid’s sake, I think I need to know what Secretary Trunicht’s plans are.”
“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you,” Reinhard said, making a face. “Things have been in flux for this whole year.” He looked away, taking a sip of his coffee. “Besides, I’ve already told Ingrid everything that pertains to her. You could have just asked her, you know.”
“Well, everything she asked about. She mostly cares about what things are happening in the Empire. I don’t think she wants to know about the fine logistical details.”
Annerose narrowed her eyes; Reinhard was being cagey, even if he was playing nonchalant. “I care about the fine logistical details.”
“Sure,” he said. “What do you want to know?”
“Is Trunicht preparing to have the high council break all diplomatic ties with Phezzan?” Annerose asked.
“That’s part of it,” Reinhard said.
“And what’s the rest?” Annerose asked. “Are we invading the Empire through the Phezzan corridor, since we’ll be disregarding their autonomy?”
Reinhard put his coffee down. “If we did that, the first thing the Empire would do would be to break through whatever thin line we have and set up a base on Phezzan,” he said.
“Then how does Ingrid play into all of this, if we’re not invading the Empire?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Annerose narrowed her eyes.
Reinhard crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair. “It took some effort, but I secured the best role for you and the Rosenritter,” Reinhard said.
Annerose stared at him.
“I wouldn’t really trust anyone else to do it, the rest of the Alliance not trusting your regiment notwithstanding.”
“Are we sending in a small squad to put Erwin on the throne?” Annerose asked, her blood running cold.
“Not exactly,” Reinhard said. “We’re going to annex Phezzan. That’s the first step.”
On some level, Annerose had known this was coming. The writing had been on the wall, and it had only been her desire to hope for the best that hadn’t let her voice it. Schenkopp had predicted it over a year ago, and that had been before Phezzan’s policies had destroyed the Alliance economy. She put her half eaten muffin down on the table.
“How long has this been the plan?” Annerose asked.
“Trunicht has been wanting an excuse since before the whole Castrop affair with the Artemis Necklace. He’s been trying to build up sentiment against them in the High Council to approve an invasion for several years. It’s just become a publicly viable strategy recently.”
“And the situation with the crash is just the push he needed to get it approved, is that it?”
Reinhard looked away. “It’s no longer political suicide to suggest. But if it hadn’t been the crash, there would have been something else.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s an expert at turning a situation to his advantage, that’s all.”
The coldness in Reinhard’s voice disturbed her. “And you respect that?”
“We’re going to end this war, Annerose, and we’re going to win it. That’s all I care about.”
“And so we’re going to throw away the one peaceful relationship that we have in the galaxy, become the kind of conqueror that the Empire wants to be?”
“Phezzan is part of the Empire,” Reinhard pointed out. “Their neutrality has always been a mirage.” He drank his coffee.
“How many lives is this going to cost, Reinhard?”
“How many would it cost if this war dragged on for the next hundred years, because no one was willing to do anything?” He stared at her across the table. “It’s going to be worth it. For everyone in the Alliance, and everyone in the Empire, too, eventually.”
“She will be safe.”
“I don’t know how you can guarantee that.”
“She isn’t going to go anywhere near Odin until the planet is captured,” Reinhard said. “Which Trunicht wants to do quickly.”
Annerose was silent for a long second. Reinhard stared at her. “Do you really think this plan will work?”
Reinhard’s gaze flicked out the dark kitchen window. “I will do everything in my power to make it work.”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
“We’re not going to have a better opportunity within our lifetime,” he said. “The Empire is weaker than it’s ever been. If we can’t accomplish it now--” He shook his head. “At the very least, I know that the invasion of Phezzan will succeed, and with that, we’ll have an equal to their control of the Iserlohn corridor.”
“How do you know that will succeed? You sound less confident about the rest.”
“I had my hands on the development of that plan,” he said. “You trust me, don’t you?”
His gaze was hard, but his tone was soft. He was asking for her reassurance, like she would always be his older sister, him always looking up to her. Annerose couldn’t meet his eyes. “Yes,” she said.
“Good.” There was a moment of silence. “The Rosenritter will be securing the key parts of Phezzan’s capital. The capitol building itself, the landesherr’s residence, the navigational office, all of that.”
“Why didn’t you ask me first?”
Reinhard lifted his chin. “Do you not want the job?”
Annerose was silent.
“If I had asked the commander of the Rosenritter, he would have wanted the opportunity,” Reinhard said, lifting his chin.
“You’re not giving it to Walter,” Annerose said. “You’re giving it to me.”
“Do you not want it?” he asked again, anxiety creeping into his voice. The petulant kind. “I can get Trunicht to change the plan.”
“Just tell me why,” she said.
“Because I trust you,” he said. “I don’t trust anybody else to do it right.”
Annerose just shook her head and looked out the dark kitchen window. “I know.” They were silent for a long time. “I won’t refuse the assignment. For you-- or Ingrid-- or even Walter would want it. You’re right about that, at least.”
“Why don’t you?”
“It’s not that I don’t want it.” Even as she allowed herself to consider the details, she could feal her heartbeat speeding up, her mind kicking into action. She could half-taste the hot, fragrant air of the Phezzani capital on her tongue. There was a part of her that did want the assignment, as much as she was sure Reinhard would have wanted it, running around with an axe in hand rather than being behind the scenes.
“I don’t think I’d feel half as strange about this if--” She cut herself off.
“If it was just you and me,” Reinhard said. “Against the universe.” He had read her mind. If there had been no Ingrid, no Julian, she wouldn’t have minded being tossed headlong into Trunicht’s scheme.
“Do you want that?”
He looked at her, then away. “I want what you want,” he said. “And you--”
She reached across the table and put her hand on his arm, still damp from the shower. She squeezed it, gently. “You’ll always have me,” she said. If he needed her to say it, she could do that-- it was easy enough. But she withdrew her arm after he smiled. “You should have told me this was what you were planning, though.”
He laughed. “Maybe next time.” But the sharpness was back on his face, and it told her that there would be a next time, and she wasn’t likely to get any more advance warning than she had here. She let it drop.
“I will need to tell Walter.”
Some of the humor left Reinhard’s voice. “The official orders will be on his desk within the next two weeks,” he said. “You can give him some advance warning, but keep it light on the details.”
“You haven’t given me any details.”
“I’ll show you the ConOps tonight.” He glanced at the kitchen clock, then grimaced and stuck the rest of his muffin in his mouth.
“Yeah, go, don’t be late,” Annerose said, waving him off and picking up his empty coffee cup to bring to the sink.
“Thanks,” he said, but she wasn’t sure what he was thanking her for.
Julian picked up on Annerose’s change in posture immediately. Now that the wheels had started moving, she had something to focus on, and it took her mind off of the melancholy that had settled over the country. She caught herself taking up the same posture that she had seen in Reinhard: staring into space while she was sitting on the couch with Julian, her embroidery completely forgotten on her lap as she consulted a hazy mental map of Phezzan’s capital and tried to estimate how many tanks they’d be able to send in each squad through the streets. Or she would sit at dinner, Julian narrowing his eyes at her, and draw out incomprehensible figures in her smear of mashed potatoes and gravy. Perhaps that was part of why Reinhard had avoided eating with them, coming home late aside.
He was a good boy, and though he was surely listening to every detail that any of the adults who came in and out of the house let slip, he didn’t bring up the matter to Annerose, except quietly asking if there was anything he could do to help, and bringing her more coffee whenever her cup sat empty and abandoned by her elbow as she wrote opaque notes into her notebook and tapped out requisition forms on her laptop.
After the orders had officially been given to the Rosenritter, Annerose pulled Reinhard aside one evening and asked if she could tell Julian what the plan was, at least in broad strokes. Reinhard gave her a sidelong glance and said that he would do it.
“Why?” she asked. “I’m his guardian.”
“He’s going to have questions about more than just what you’re going to be doing,” Reinhard said. “I think I’m better equipped to answer them.”
“And what, exactly, are you going to tell him?”
“What I think he needs to know.”
“Gods above, Reinhard.”
“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing with him--”
“I’m not playing a game,” Reinhard said. “What were you planning to tell him?”
“Where we’re going to be deployed, and for how long,” she said.
“He’s going to want to know more than that,” Reinhard said. “He’s not that much of a child anymore.”
“Like you would know what a child looks like.”
Reinhard just grinned at her, and Annerose frowned. “It’s not like he isn’t going to talk to you directly afterwards,” Reinhard said. “But if I tell him everything that I think he needs to know, I at least have the excuse of being able to defer to something being a state secret. If you know it, you don’t.”
“That won’t fly with him. He thinks you tell me everything.”
“Do you think that?”
He put his hand on her arm, and she sighed.
“Fine. You tell him what he needs to know.”
He nodded. “It’s mostly-- I know he keeps an eye on the Earth Church. I’m sure he’s going to have questions about that.”
She nodded. Reinhard smiled at her and headed off down the hallway.
Julian found her later. She was in the unfinished basement, folding a basket of laundry on the rickety card table set up next to the washer. He came over to her, the single bare bulb above casting harsh shadows on his face, making him look far older than he was. “Let me do it, Lieutenant Commander.”
She pushed the basket towards him. “Mate the socks,” she said. “I hate doing that.”
He nodded and got to work, silent, as she picked some lint off a pair of his jeans.
“Reinhard talked to you?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. There was a heaviness to his tone, and he scuffed his sneakers on the concrete floor. “Can I ask you something?”
“I’m going to be seventeen next year,” he said.
“I know I can’t enlist now, but on my half birthday, I could enroll in a training course, and then go into the fleet when I turn seventeen.”
Annerose was silent for a long time, folding the jeans neatly and smoothing down the pile of worn fabric when she finished and placed them on top of the rest of the still-warm clothes.
“You’re going to be an adult soon enough,” Annerose said, “and I won’t be able to tell you what you can or can’t do.” She pulled one of Ingrid’s shirts out of the laundry basket and shook it out. “I don’t know if I’ve ever really had that right.”
“You don’t want me to enlist in the fleet.”
“I want you to stay safe, Julian,” she said. “I know I sound like a hypocrite.”
“Don’t you worry about me when I go out to the front?” she asked, leaning on the table.
“Of course,” Julian said. “But I know you can take care of yourself. And I can take care of myself.”
“It’s not a matter of just yourself,” she said. “If you enlist, you’ll have to take whatever commander you’re assigned under, and there’s just as many bad ones as good ones. I’ve been very lucky, my whole career. I trust Walter with my life. And Reinhard-- he’s been lucky to be away from the front for most of his career so far.”
“He wouldn’t see it that way.”
“Of course not. But I do.” She sighed. “You remember when you first came to live with me, and I thought Reinhard had died on Condor Base?”
Julian nodded, stuffing a pair of socks into a ball and tossing them back into the basket.
“I can’t do that again, Julian,” she said. “Not for you, not for Reinhard. It would break my heart.”
“What about Captain Schenkopp?”
Annerose shook her head. “Why do you want to be a soldier?” she asked.
“I want to help-- you and Captain Reinhard.”
“Julian, there’s no help that you being in the fleet could do for me, at least not right now. In a few years, maybe when you’re eighteen, the situation might be different.”
Her movements were snappy as she folded the next shirt, flicking the collar of Reinhard’s uniform shirtsleeves back into its correct position. “Reinhard-- he’s going to go far,” she said. “I can imagine that in a few years, he’s going to have enough control over his own posting that he could request staff, at the very least. He would request you, and then you could help him. But you’ll be more useful with more education under your belt, and probably with an officer’s pin on your collar, if your heart is set on going into the fleet.”
Julian’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You don’t agree?”
“By the time I’m eighteen, the war might be over.”
“Julian.” Annerose’s voice was hard, and Julian looked up at her warily. “If the war is over by then, if we can have peace in the galaxy for the first time in over a hundred years, that would be--” She shook her head. “Anything else, you can complain about. But do not ask for more death in this universe. Do you understand?”
His cheeks were red, but he nodded. “I understand.”
“Good.” She went back to silently folding laundry.
They worked on it together for a minute. “I just feel so useless,” Julian said, breaking the silence. “I feel like I’ve been just-- if I don’t go into the fleet then someone has to repay all the money that was spent on me-- I’m just being a burden--”
“Julian!” Annerose put down Ingrid’s blue dress, the one with the collar she had put embroidered stars on. “You are not a burden. Not to me, not to anyone. You don’t have to do anything to earn your place here.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He sounded unconvinced.
“You know I love you, Julian. Not because you cook dinner or help me with the laundry, or because you’re a star student, or because-- even if none of that was true, I would still love you and want you here. And want you safe.” She would have hugged him, but they were on opposite sides of the table.
He balled up another pair of socks, not looking at her. “Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t thank me. Gods.” She was uncomfortable now. “Love isn’t-- it’s not something I want to hold over you.” She thought of Ingrid, sitting on the couch upstairs, loving her and getting nothing in return, but never once demanding. Her mouth was dry, but she kept talking. “But I don’t want you to spend a second of your life thinking that loving you, or having you in my house, is some kind of obligation.”
Julian nodded and ran the back of his hand over his eyes. “I love you too, Lieutenant Commander.”
She handed him another sock, one that had stuck itself to the next tee shirt in the basket. “I know. And I know that’s why you want to be helpful. I’m not trying to make you feel bad.”
“I know you’re not,” he said. “I just can’t help feeling like a kid.”
“You are a kid,” she said. “But you’re going to be a great man someday. So try to enjoy being a kid while you are one. Reinhard refused to take that advice, but maybe I can get through to you.”
Julian laughed at that. “Captain Reinhard is a great man.”
“Not quite yet,” Annerose said. They got down to the last few items of clothing in the basket, and Julian mated the remaining socks. “What did Reinhard tell you, by the way?”
“The Earth Church’s plans.”
“And what do you think about them?”
He was pensive. “I think they’re going to find out that Job Trunicht has different goals than they do, sooner or later.”
The basement was chilly. It was that, and the seeping damp, that made Annerose’s skin crawl, she decided. “I’m sure.” She was silent for a second, and she felt sick even as the thought settled into her brain, but she voiced it anyway. “Julian--”
“I think there is a way you can help me,” she said.
“Whatever you want,” he said, eager, leaning forward.
“You know the Earth Church is going to want to use Ingrid for their plans,” she said. “I’m going to be off planet, probably for a long time. I don’t know where Reinhard will be.” She picked up the stack of folded clothes and dropped it into the empty basket. “Will you take care of Ingrid for me, while I’m away?” she asked. “Protect her, for me?”
“Of course!” He stilled. “Is she going to be in danger from Secretary Trunicht?”
“I don’t know who she’s going to be in danger from. Not from where I’m standing. I think you know more than I do already, since you’ve been going to church with her.”
Julian nodded, deadly serious. “I promise,” he said. “I won’t let anything bad happen to her.”
“That’s a relief off my mind,” Annerose said. “I trust you, Julian.”
“I won’t let you down. Or Ms. Ingrid.”
Annerose smiled. “Thank you.” But as she picked up the laundry basket and headed back upstairs, Julian at her heels, the basement’s chill didn’t leave her skin.