August, 2 I.Y., Phezzan
That night, Hildegarde von Mariendorf found it very difficult to fall asleep. It wasn’t as though her room in the new Mariendorf family house on Phezzan was uncomfortable, or even that new— she had been living in it since almost the very first days after the unofficial government relocation to Phezzan— but it suddenly felt unfamiliar, like how she supposed she might feel if she returned now to her childhood room on Odin, with all the mementos from her school days still lined up on the shelf gathering dust. This room had none of that, not even photographs on the walls, and the decor and furnishings had been chosen by the family servants. The only sign that it was even lived in by her was the collection of notes and to-do lists that were stacked neatly on her desk.
Hilde turned on her bedside light and reached for her normal recourse when she couldn’t sleep: figuring out her schedule for the next few days. Often, when she couldn’t get her mind to stop turning in circles, it was because she hadn’t made what felt like a concrete plan, so jotting down a solid timetable in her daily planner sometimes helped soothe that worry. The little leatherbound book balanced on her knee, and she opened it to the end of August. The last entry in her daily planner had been to attend the memorial for the war dead, which she had gone to along with most of the other top officials on Phezzan. With a heavy hand, she crossed that entry off, a thick, black line cutting across the page.
She had already cancelled her plans for the next few days, mostly on the advice of her father. There was a temptation to uncancel them, to give herself just anything to actually do, but her father was probably right that she wasn’t in any state of mind to work, especially not any work involving Kaiser Reinhard. Flipping through the pages of the book, even the more distant items seemed more like best guesses than they did commitments. What was she going to be doing in three months? Six months? Twelve?
It wasn’t even just the pressing question of the kaiser’s proposal to her that caused the once shining future to appear so murky. Yesterday had been the third assasination attempt on Kaiser Reinhard’s life in as many years. There had been Ansbach’s attempt, which had killed Admiral Kircheis; then— she closed her eyes in pain to think of it— Heinrich; and now this one. Kaiser Reinhard had once mentioned in passing that he had the luck of two people, but even the luck of two people was bound to run out eventually, as it had for Kircheis. Hilde, too, could have died in two of those attempts, if things had gone slightly differently.
There was no certainty in anything, of course, but for a while, she had been living in a kind of hurried dream, where nothing seemed like it would ever end or change. It had been like that since they moved to Phezzan, or even before. Kaiser Reinhard had a way of doing that, making everything feel so possible, like there was no future, just this overwhelming present that would continue on and on, gathering up everything in its path.
He would have hated the comparison, but Hilde thought that this must have been what people felt like under Rudolph von Goldenbaum, sweeping out and destroying the past so that it no longer was, not giving anyone space to imagine time other than the endless now-ness of his rule. That was how dynasties were made, and how they stayed around. You couldn’t give people space to imagine anything else. Reinhard did that by being so— how could she express what he felt like, sometimes?— transcendental, while the Goldenbaums after Rudolph had ruled simply through suppressing the other options.
But some of that shine, for her, had suddenly worn off. Perhaps, for the man who had tried to kill Kaiser Reinhard, that glamour had never existed at all, already having been tarnished by the original sin of Westerland.
What had dimmed that light for her, though? It wasn’t as though she hadn’t already known that Reinhard was human. Fallible, even. After all, she had seen his greatest strategic weaknesses, and had defied his wishes in order to save his life, at Vermillion.
It had been difficult to bear the weight of his displeasure then. But, of course, it was difficult to bear the full brunt of Kaiser Reinhard’s attention, be it good or bad. No wonder, she thought, that Princess Grunewald had slipped away, stayed on Odin, ensconced in her private home, never to be disturbed again. Hilde couldn’t blame her. She even had the sudden, strong wish to speak with the princess, though she knew that she couldn’t.
Hilde sighed and closed her planner, tossing it back onto her bedside table. There was nothing to plan. No one to talk to. She was alone in this, and always would be.
She turned out her light and rolled onto her side, clutching her pillow to her chest. She could understand exactly why Reinhard hadn’t wanted to be alone then. She certainly didn’t want to be alone now, and there was an uncomfortable feeling at the back of her mind that said if he had come knocking at the door now, instead of at breakfast, she wouldn’t have turned him away. It was that kind of desperate feeling, adrift and needing anything to cling to. Anyone.
He had certainly clung to her. The experience was odd in her mind. Dreamlike, in the way that in dreams there were details that stood out, while the rest vanished into nothingness. If she tried to remember those parts, she knew she would be reconstructing them from assumptions. She couldn’t have even said if the experience was enjoyable or not. She didn’t know now, at any rate.
But she did remember the way he had clutched at her hand, the way he had pressed his forehead into the crook of her neck, the way his skin was so burning hot— he must have had a fever that night. And she could remember, most clearly of all, the feeling of his locket trailing along her back, ice cold, despite the way it lived next to his too-hot chest.
Hilde hugged her pillow, trying to breathe evenly, clear her thoughts enough that she could sleep.
An unfair thought kept circling through her mind, bitter and cold. She had been there for Reinhard, she would always be there for him, but there was no one who would do the same for her.
As she buried her face in her pillow, the bitterness swelling into a hard lump of contained tears in her throat, she heard footsteps in the hallway outside her door. This was unusual, because it was very late at night, probably two in the morning, and her father usually slept soundly. The servants had all gone to their own homes as well.
But the footsteps stopped, just outside her door, and it opened, the warm light spilling in from the hallway, illuminating the edges of her father’s silhouette. Hilde closed her eyes, and her father crept in. She could hear his footsteps, then felt the shifting of her bed as he sat down on the edge. She was good at pretending to be asleep; she always had been, ever since she was a child and he would sometimes come to check if she had been reading, late into the night.
Her composure broke, though, when her father gently stroked a piece of hair off her forehead, like he had done when she was small. It was tenderness and reassurance, even though she didn’t deserve it, and she didn’t think her father could possibly understand. She let out a muffled sob.
“Hilde?” her father asked.
And so she sat up in bed, the comforter pooling around her, and clung to her father with all her strength, weeping messily into his shoulder like she was a little girl who had fallen off her horse and broken her arm; or a teen who had borne her classmate’s titters at school but had gotten worked up at home; or just Hilde, now, who needed her father to hold her. He rubbed her back while she clutched onto him, feeling how he was older and thinner than she wanted him to be, and that only made her cry all the harder, until her breath steadied out and she could sit up straight again.
“Sorry,” she sniffled.
“Don’t apologize,” he said. “After all, wasn’t I just telling you that you should probably consider your feelings more often?” Although his tone was humorous, it was still very gentle, exactly what she needed, and she let out a huff of breath that could have been a laugh, if one had a generous interpretation of what laughter sounded like.
“I got snot all over your shirt,” she said.
“My dear, if there is one thing every parent has to accept early on, it’s that sometimes your shirt will get covered in your wonderful daughter’s snot.”
“I don’t feel so wonderful.”
“I know,” he said. “So you’ll just have to take my word for it that you are.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t ask if you’re feeling any better?”
“I am,” she said. “Actually.”
His eyes crinkled up, barely visible in the dim light from the hallway, as he smiled. “That’s good.”
She rubbed at her eyes, wiping them on the shirtsleeves of her pyjamas. “What are you doing up?”
“I had a dream about your mother,” he said. “Which usually wakes me up.”
“Oh,” she said. “What about?”
“I can’t even remember, now,” he said, though she suspected he was lying. “It was gone as soon as I got up. I figured I would see how you were sleeping, and then get a glass of water. I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
“No,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”
He made a noise of understanding, giving her space to elaborate, if she wanted it. She found that she did.
“I just— I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.
“You don’t have to make a decision right this second.”
“But every moment I don’t make a decision is just—“ She balled her fists in the duvet. Her father put his hand on hers, thumb rubbing her knuckles.
“What are you thinking?”
“There’s only so many options,” she said. “I could leave here, I suppose. Run back to Odin. Start a new life on Heinessen.”
“That’s true. I’d miss you.”
“I’m not going to run away,” she said.
“I know, I’m joking.”
He waited for her to speak again.
“I could stay here and tell him I won’t marry him.”
“He would respect your wishes, I’m sure.”
She turned away, looking out past him into the hallway. “He would. But then where would I be?”
“The same place you were before, it seems like, if you can convince His Majesty that he did not take advantage of you. Hearing you say it might be all he needs to hear. He… didn’t… take advantage of you, did he?”
“No— I—“ She took a shuddering breath. “It’s not like that.”
“It isn’t something that I would have chosen— thought about. But I would do anything for him. That, too, if that’s what he… needed.”
“And if he needed you again?”
She closed her eyes. “It’s not me,” she stressed. “It could have been anyone. I’m sure he would have wanted it to be someone else. I was just the only one.”
“Who else has been closer to him than you have?” he asked.
She shook her head, thinking about the heavy locket full of Admiral Kircheis’s hair. “If we were on Odin,” she said, then trailed off.
“What’s different about Odin?”
“He told me— after Heinrich died— that he spent most of the rest of the day by Admiral Kircheis’ grave.”
She shook her head. “And Princess Grunewald is there.”
“But of the people who are alive, and on Phezzan, you are the closest to him. Isn’t that true?”
That was the painful truth, the core of the problem, and her voice was strained when she said, “Even if I am, no matter what I do for him, even if I marry him, I’ll never be able to be Princess Grunewald, or Admiral Kircheis, or anything he needs.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” her father said. “His Majesty would be worse off without you.”
“That’s not the same,” she said. She felt stupid and childish, voice almost plaintive. She didn’t know if her father understood, and she didn’t know if she wanted him to understand.
“I know,” he said. “But maybe you should think of yourself as less of a poor substitute for what you think His Majesty needs, and consider that, every time he has needed something, you have been able to give it to him. That means more than you think it does. And His Majesty certainly cares about you. He’s demonstrated that time and again.”
“But he doesn’t love me. Not like a man loves a woman.”
“And you don’t love him like I loved your mother, no,” he said. “But…”
“I never pictured you marrying,” he said. “Ever since you were little.”
“What do you mean by that?” she asked, too surprised to be offended.
“You never seemed like... the type of girl who would be happy to have a husband.”
She frowned. “Just because I would want to keep the von Mariendorf finances doesn’t mean—“
“You just never seemed interested,” her father said. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
His words had struck a chord in her heart, though. “I’ve just been busy,” she said lamely. She knew this was a poor excuse for whatever the reason was that she had never found a man who wanted to marry her. “And chasing after some nobleman or one of His Majesty’s admirals would have been… It would have ruined everything.”
“I know. You don’t have to explain.”
“You think I wouldn’t be happy, with him as my husband.”
“Hilde, I would never want you to do something that would make you miserable. As husbands go, I could hardly picture one who would suit you more.”
“You just said you couldn’t picture any.”
“There are other reasons than love to get married. It would certainly be better for His Majesty to have a wife who does care about him in the way that you do. And it would be securing your future, to be the kaiserin.”
She sighed. “I know. There’s political considerations.”
“You have a better grasp on such things than I do, I’m sure.”
She doubted that was the case, since he was the Secretary of State, but she let it slide. “The Secretary of Defense will be unhappy with me.”
“I think that’s true regardless of what you do. He seems to dislike anyone getting close to His Majesty.”
“No one should be number two,” Hilde said. “It’s… dangerous to be on the wrong side of Fleet Admiral Oberstein.”
“Are you worried about him?”
“I’m worried about a lot of things,” Hilde said. “The whole affair with Fleet Admiral Reuenthal’s mistress…” She shook her head. “That is the type of drama that I’d like to avoid. Or whatever is worse than that. I’m sure that someone could manufacture something against me.”
He nodded. “May I say something?”
“You don’t have to ask that.”
“If you marry His Majesty, it would be much easier for him to protect you from things like that. And if you refuse to marry His Majesty, and there is some sort of scandal, him trying to protect you may only make the situation worse.”
He was right, of course. “I know.”
“But it’s your life, and your choice,” her father said. “The political considerations are not as important to me as seeing you happy.”
“It will be rather hard for me to be happy when Fleet Admiral Oberstein contrives some way to have me exiled.”
“Quite aside from the Secretary of Defense,” he said, “there are other things to think about.”
She nodded and waited for him to continue.
“I’m not just saying this because you are my daughter,” he said, “but you are one of His Majesty’s most capable advisors. I would feel better about the state of the universe with your rational presence at the helm.”
“Kaiser Reinhard is perfectly capable of ruling on his own. And that kind of talk is the reason the Secretary of Defense doesn’t trust me.”
“Lying to yourself about the kind of balance you have provided to his administration is not helping you think rationally about this,” her father said, voice unexpectedly sharp. “Your support put him on the throne and kept him there.”
“You were the one who convinced people to back him during the civil war. Without that support, he would have had fewer resources at his disposal, and a far harder time bringing the government in line after the fighting was over. You saved his life at Vermillion. That is not ‘nothing’, Hilde, and no one else would have been able to do it.”
She didn’t say anything for a long second. “But if I became his wife, I couldn’t advise him like I am now.”
“Not publicly, maybe. But he relies on you too much to stop listening to you. Being able to advise him in private might even be better.”
“And, may I say something else?”
“When he has an heir, I would like my wonderful, compassionate, brilliant daughter to be the one raising that child, for the sake of the future.”
She was brought up short by that. Her father caught her hesitation, then smiled.
“Don’t let an old man asking for grandchildren pressure you into something you don’t want,” he said. “I am just trying to balance sentimentality and practicality.”
She laughed at that. “I know. Thank you for looking out for me.”
“What? I’m hardly doing anything.”
“Talking through my options helps.”
His look was a knowing one. “His Majesty I’m sure could say the same thing.”
She looked away again. “I know.”
“You don’t have to decide now. And you shouldn’t think it over right now, either. You need to get some sleep.”
“I’ll try. You shouldn’t be up either.”
“Don’t you worry about me.” He tugged her forward to hug her again, then kissed the crown of her head. “It’s not your job.”
“I know.” She felt suddenly lonely again the moment he stood from the bed, mattress creaking, and headed for the door.
“You know I love you, Hilde, no matter what you choose.” He was just a dark outline against the hallway light, and she was just a child, still, always, her father checking in on her.
“I love you, too,” she said.
“I’ll see you in the morning. I’m sure it will all feel clearer then.”
Things did not feel that much clearer in the morning, but after a night of restless sleep, Hilde wanted to do anything other than mope in bed. There was one quasi-official task that she needed to accomplish, one that wouldn’t involve Kaiser Reinhard in any way, so after breakfast, she prepared herself and went back to the Hotel Vitava, which had, until just today, been serving as the Supreme Headquarters. Their temporary lease (or seizure under eminent domain, as it were) was running out, and the former Imperial Guest Quarters had been selected and renovated as the new, and more suitable, location for Kaiser Reinhard’s government and admiralty. He had already moved his office there, but much of the rest of the government was still scrambling to get all their secure paperwork and nice office chairs from one building to the other.
This meant that the hotel was a hive of activity when Hilde came in to clean out her desk, with everyone going up and down the elevators with boxes in their hands. Hilde took one look at the line to go up the elevator, and decided that she would rather take the stairs, which she did, though it was a long hike up to Kaiser Reinhard’s office. She could use the exercise, she told herself. The empty stairwell was a blessing, though, compared to the total chaos that the lobby had been, so she didn’t mind taking her time.
For a second, when she arrived at the correct floor, she was worried that her authorization would no longer open the door, but it did, and it swung open, revealing the too-empty room, and the huge plate-glass windows overlooking the city. She knew there would be a fine view, onto a garden, in the new office, but she would rather miss this bird’s eye view of the capital. She could stare endlessly at the traffic below and the glittering spire of the space elevator on the horizon. When she worked late, as she often did, she liked to see the sun set against it, turning it into a pillar of fire. And when it rained, the huge windows caught the water in sheets, blurring the outside world into nothing, the glass so large and yet so immaterial, it felt like one was standing right in the center of the storm.
Kaiser Reinhard’s desk had already been cleared out, and even the golden lion banner that had decorated the walls had been removed. It was just Hilde’s desk that remained to be emptied.
She had brought a folded cardboard box, which she assembled and then began to fill. There wasn’t much to put in it; all the important files had been moved with the archives, and she wouldn’t keep things like that laying around in her desk anyway. There was just the usual detritus that accumulated in a person’s life: pens, mementoes, funny notes that she had taken, the photograph of her parents that sat on her desk, the jar of mints she kept in the bottom drawer— nothing, really. Things that could have disappeared, if she hadn’t come to get them, things that would feel suddenly out of place in a new desk. Even if— when— she returned to work, she probably wouldn’t bother bringing all this with her to the new office. That place would have its own way of doing things, its own accumulation of life-debris that she would grow used to.
Clearing out her desk seemed so final. She frowned as she collected a whole bunch of blank memory disks and dumped them into her box. As she worked, she kept glancing over at Kaiser Reinhard’s empty desk, for some reason expecting him to be there. She was glad that he wasn’t, but at the same time, wondered how he was doing, over in the new Supreme Headquarters. She had seen the new office before, but she wondered what it would feel like with him in it. Different, she was sure.
That was one thing about him: a room never felt as empty as one that he had just left.
She put the last of her belongings in her box, then discovered that it was heavy enough that she would probably want to take the elevator down, rather than risk tiring her arms out and dropping it on the steps.
She walked out of the office, closing the door one last time, then made her way to the elevator. She was waiting for it to arrive when the person she second-least wanted to see in the entire universe appeared, striding down the hallway with his long grey cape swishing limply behind him.
“Good morning, Fraulein Mariendorf,” Oberstein said in that dry, nasally voice of his. She didn’t hate him, exactly, but he put her on edge.
“Good morning, Fleet Admiral,” she said, shifting uncomfortably and holding her box of belongings closer to her chest. Oberstein didn’t say anything else as they waited for the elevator, but when it stopped, already crammed full of people hauling their own belongings, he gave them a look, and suddenly they all disembarked from the elevator, as though they needed to be on this floor instead of the ground floor.
She couldn’t exactly escape, so she followed Oberstein into the elevator. He pressed the door close button, then the ground floor button, but after they had gone barely two floors, he hit the stop, and the elevator came to a halt somewhere between two levels with a jerk that Hilde felt in her knees.
“Did you need something, Fleet Admiral?” she asked, trying to keep herself professional and calm. He stared at her, or perhaps past her— she could never tell where he was looking, or indeed what he was seeing, with those eyes of his.
“I would like to know what your intentions are towards His Majesty.”
“Do you intend to accept his proposal?”
She looked away, and tried to feel as bold as she hoped she sounded. “Fleet Admiral, you may rest assured that if I come to a decision on such matters, I will deliver my answer personally to His Majesty. Our private matters, no matter what they may be, do not need to be overseen by the Secretary of Defense.”
“The future of the Lohengramm dynasty is not a private matter.”
“I have not made up my mind, so there is no answer that I can give you.”
“Very well.” He was still looking at her. “The Secretary of State once indicated to me that you had no interest in marriage, to His Majesty or otherwise.”
“You may feel as you like about me,” she said, “but do not insinuate that my father is a liar.”
“I did not.” He glanced at the box in her hands. “Are you returning to your duties?”
“I’m taking a leave of absence.”
“For how long?”
“A week or so.”
He nodded, once, sharply, then said, “I understand that His Majesty values your presence highly.”
“I know,” she said.
“You have provided a tempering influence in ways that I cannot.”
She wasn’t sure if that was a compliment, so she just nodded, slowly, her heart beating hard in her chest. It wasn’t as though Oberstein was going to do anything to her, not now, anyway, but he had the ability to make life very difficult for her, if she mis-stepped in this conversation.
“It was not entirely unexpected that you were able to comfort him. But for him to rely on you in this way, while retaining your position of influence on matters of state, is dangerous to the future of the dynasty.”
“His Majesty is not so easily influenced,” Hilde said.
Oberstein inclined his head. “His Majesty is the lynchpin around which the universe turns, the one man we have all chosen to follow,” Oberstein said. “He must be the one to bear the burden of choice and responsibility for the future. There must be no one else. The Empire must be first in his mind, not a single individual.”
Hilde almost laughed, but choked it down. “You’re too late,” she said. “His Majesty makes decisions based around someone else already.”
“Admiral Kircheis is a dead man,” Oberstein said. “If His Majesty believes he is being spoken to from Valhalla, let him believe that, but I do not. You, however, are a living woman, who is more than capable of whispering in his ear.”
“If you think I can be what Admiral Kircheis was— is— to him, you’re mistaken,” Hilde said.
“I should hope,” Oberstein said, his flat voice giving no indication of if he believed her or not. “Return to your duties or do not. Marry His Majesty or do not. But understand what your role is to him, and to the Empire.”
She had nothing to say to that, and so Oberstein pressed the elevator buttons again, and they resumed their silent motion. He glanced up at the floor indicator, and then pressed the button two floors down from where they were, intending to get off.
As the elevator slowed, Hilde said, “Fleet Admiral.”
He looked at her. “Fraulein.”
“You say that His Majesty bears the weight of responsibility for his decisions. That is true. But he paid for his crime at Westerland. You—“
“I have no doubt that I will answer for it,” Oberstein said. “But His Majesty has always been aware that I will accomplish what is necessary. Any sacrifice and any punishment is acceptable for me, to secure this future. Good day, Fraulein.”
He stepped out of the elevator, and the doors closed behind him. Hilde slumped back against the wall, her heart pounding in her throat. She shouldn’t have said that to him, she thought, but it was too late. The elevator continued downwards. She was exhausted, suddenly, her arms feeling almost too weak to continue holding up the box she was clinging to.
The elevator stopped again, the doors sliding open. Hilde tried in vain to make herself stand up and look presentable, professional, like she wasn’t nearly on the verge of panicked tears. She didn’t quite manage, and in her haste to stand up straight, the box in her arms tilted and several memory disks clattered onto the floor.
“I’ll get those for you, Fraulein Mariendorf.”
She finally registered who, exactly, had walked in on her, and it was with a mixture of shame and relief that she saw that it was Emil. He dragged a suitcase into the elevator behind him, then bent to pick up the dropped disks.
“Thank you, Emil,” she said. He smiled up at her.
“Are you alright, Fraulein?” he asked. “Do you want me to carry that for you?”
“I— oh— I really just feel like I need a place to sit down for a minute,” she said. She processed the fact that he had brought a suitcase into the elevator. “What are you doing here?”
“Moving out,” he said. “I have a new room in the new Supreme Headquarters.”
“I didn’t realize you lived here.” She was still holding the box tilted slightly, and when the elevator jerked into motion, the disks that Emil had so helpfully stacked on top slid right back off. She bent down to pick them up, despite Emil’s beginning of a protest, and this only made the situation worse, as a slew of pens cascaded out of the box and onto the floor of the elevator. She let out a little hiccough of a laugh, trying to maintain her composure. Emil crouched down next to her, then pulled the box out of her hands to set it on the floor and put everything back inside. Relieved of her burden, her arms felt suddenly light.
“Are you alright?” Emil asked again.
“I’m sorry, Emil, I’m fine,” she said. He helped her back to her feet, leaving the box on the floor.
“Did you want to sit down somewhere?” he asked. “You don’t look well.”
“Is there somewhere quiet?” she asked. “This place is so busy today.”
He smiled and nodded. “Of course, Fraulein.” He pressed several buttons at once on the elevator.
“Thank you, Emil.” Instead of going down, the elevator reversed course and went up, farther up than even Kaiser Reinhard’s office. The floor display stopped counting at the top numbered floor, and then just displayed a plus sign when the doors opened. Emil picked up her box, and Hilde grabbed Emil’s suitcase as they stepped out into the dim hallway. He trotted down a little ways, past some doors marked as service elevators and storage, then pushed open one set of double doors with his shoulder, holding it open for her.
The room they stepped into was spectacularly bright and airy, the whole ceiling and walls made of glass. It was some sort of event hall, hidden up here at the top of the hotel, with a bar visible on the other side of the room, along with a raised stage at the far end. Those were the only indications of this room’s function, because it was not being used for it. Stacked everywhere, piled and tossed, neatly and randomly, was a terrific amount of furniture: dressers over there, couches over here, and everywhere, crammed wherever they could fit, were beds. Mattresses without frames stood on their ends against the walls, or were stacked up to five high on the floor. It felt like a dream landscape. It was weirdly quiet, and she felt like she and Emil were trespassers in this strange zone.
The nearest bed was just a few feet away, so Hilde sat, heavily. “What is this place?” she asked, pulling her feet up onto the bare mattress.
Emil clambered up onto a nearby stack of mattresses, and Hilde stifled the urge to tell him to be careful as the stack wobbled and shifted with his weight, but it was clear that he had done this many times before.
“All the rooms that are being used for offices,” Emil said, “the hotel didn’t want to throw out all the furniture, because they knew His Majesty wouldn’t want this to be the headquarters forever, so they had to find a place to store it. Lot of it’s in this room, lot of it’s on other floors that we weren’t using.”
“Oh.” She laughed. “I can’t believe I never realized this was up here. I should have.”
“It’s not like you need to go exploring.”
“Is that how you found it?”
“No,” he said. “I heard some of the maintenance staff talking about it. People come up here all the time, though, if they have elevator cards. It’s not really a secret.”
“I can imagine,” Hilde said. And, now that she was looking, she could see signs of use: a condom wrapper was peeking out from underneath a nearby mattress stack, and someone had left the remains of their packed lunch on a tipped over dresser. “Thank you for showing it to me.”
“Of course!” Emil said. “Did you want me to go— if you just wanted to be alone?”
“No, Emil, it’s fine. I just needed to sit for a minute. I’ll be alright.”
“Okay,” he said. He didn’t seem entirely convinced, but she smiled at him, and he smiled back, tentatively.
“Are you doing alright?” she asked.
“I’m fine.” This seemed like not the whole truth. He hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry.”
“What are you apologizing for?” she asked.
“For going to get you,” he said.
“Oh, please don’t apologize for that,” she said tiredly. “It was the right thing to do.”
He still looked guilty, and he kicked his legs against the mattress stack. “Commodore Kissling thought so, too.”
She nodded. “It’s often that people have a better idea of what His Majesty needs than he himself does. I’m glad you brought me to him.”
“Okay,” he said. “Are you leaving your post?”
“No,” she said. “I just need… some time to think about things. I’m sure His Majesty can function without me for a week or so.”
“I’m glad you’re not leaving.”
“I don’t think it pays to be sentimental around here,” she said, but she was smiling.
“I’m not— I—“
“I’m teasing you, Emil.”
“I know,” he said. His face was flushed. “I just— His Majesty needs you.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” she said. “But I’m gratified you think so.”
Emil was pensive and silent, looking out over the haphazard stacks of furniture. If the mood had been less sombre, and Emil had been just a little younger— or even if either of them had been up here alone— she could imagine that a great game could be had, of leaping from one mattress to the next, bouncing across the room.
“Did you get any sleep the other night?” she asked him.
“I told Commodore Kissling to make sure I didn’t fall asleep,” Emil said. “But I think I must have dozed off.” He sounded guilty about this.
“Emil, His Majesty would have told you to go to bed. You didn’t have to spend the whole night in the hallway.” She certainly hoped if there was another incident like the other night, she would not have to shamefully walk past this child in the hallway. Commodore Kissling and the other guards were one thing— Emil, he was another.
“I know.” He looked away. “I just wanted to make sure…”
“That you were there if he needed you?”
He flushed as red as his hair. “I know he doesn’t need me.”
“Oh, Emil…” she said.
“I know I’m not… important… I just—“
“Don’t think that,” she said. “You are important, to His Majesty, and as yourself.”
Emil shook his head.
“You have been a great help to him,” she said. “And that is all, and more, than anyone can ask of you.”
“Yes, Fraulein.” He was responding by rote, like one would to a schoolteacher telling a student off for something they didn’t think they should be in trouble for.
“You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to bear the whole universe on your shoulders,” she said. “That’s His Majesty’s job.”
“I know,” he said. “I just want to help. I know I can’t, but I want to.”
“I understand,” she said. “Can I say something, Emil?”
“Yes, of course, Fraulein.”
She considered, very carefully, what she was going to say to him, and he waited in that momentary silence for her to speak. “I was just talking to the Secretary of Defense about what roles all of us play here, for His Majesty. You understand what my role is, you understand what the Secretary of Defense’s role is, you understand what Commodore Kissling’s role is— all of us. And I think it’s too easy for us, especially you and me, and maybe the Commodore too, and maybe someone like Fleet Admiral Mittermeyer, or High Admiral Muller— all of us, I think that His Majesty means so much to us, that we want to do as much as we can for him.” She took a breath. “But none of us, not me, not you, not Fleet Admiral Mittermeyer— we can’t be everything to him. We just have to be what he needs from us, when he needs that thing. And if we try to do more, we’ll have the Secretary of Defense breathing down our necks.” She tried to put some humor in her voice, but it fell flat.
Emil bit his lip. “Yes, Fraulein.”
She hesitated for a second. “Do you understand what His Majesty needs from you?”
“Yes, Fraulein. All his personal tasks.”
She shook her head. “No, not like that. If he needed it, someone else would be there to take his temperature and serve his coffee and help him dress. Or— you know he used to live a very frugal life— he would do all these things himself; I’m sure that’s his natural inclination. But I think, Emil, your presence is reassuring to him.”
“What do you mean?”
She looked at his red hair. His Majesty surrounded himself with redheads. Commodore Kissling was competent, but Kaiser Reinhard promoted competent people quickly, until he found the right person to settle into a role. He had certainly promoted his adjutants quickly enough. But if one responsibility of his personal guard was to make the kaiser feel secure— the image of Commodore Kissling perhaps… But she wouldn’t say any of that to Emil.
“His Majesty likes symbols,” she said. “I suspect that you’re… the future. In a form that he can shape and protect.” It was more likely that he also was the past, but, again, she wouldn’t say that.
Emil nodded. “What do I do, then?”
“Don’t make His Majesty worry about your personal health,” Hilde said. “Don’t stay up all night fretting over him like that. If he needs you, he’ll call for you.”
“Yes, Fraulein.” She wasn’t sure he would listen to her— in fact, he probably wouldn’t— but she had to give the advice anyway.
“His Majesty does truly care about you, Emil,” she said. “In a different way than you care about him, but you are important to him in the role that you play. Don’t misunderstand that.”
“Does that make you feel any better?”
“You know, if you ever need anything, you can come to me.”
“Thank you,” he said. “His Majesty is lucky to have you.”
She laughed a little bit, wryly. “I’m sure I’ve been talking half to myself as I sit here talking to you.”
He smiled at her. “That’s okay. Like you said, we’re all doing this together, right?”
“Exactly. I’d appreciate if you kept this conversation between us, though.”
“Yes, of course, Fraulein.”
“Especially the part about Fleet Admiral Oberstein.”
“I won’t say a word.”
“Good.” She smiled. “I shouldn’t keep you from your moving activities. I’m sure you have plenty to take care of.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “Not much. It all fits right there.” And he pointed to his suitcase.
She bit her lip. “Well, I still don’t want to hold you up.”
“You’re no trouble at all, Fraulein. I have all morning.”
She shook her head and stood, the old mattress creaking. She held out her hand to help Emil hop down from his stack of mattresses, and he did, landing with a thump on the wooden floor. “Thank you,” she said. “For coming to get me the other day, and for bringing me here.”
He nodded. “Any time, Fraulein.” He picked up her box. “Let me help you bring this downstairs.”
She had a dream that night.
They were all in that room, in the top floor of the hotel, all full of furniture, but it was night, the sky full of stars like a spilled box of diamonds, sparkling through the glass. Reinhard was there, and so was Kircheis, and they were leaping over the tops of the mattresses, jumping from one to the next, Reinhard’s cape fluttering out behind him. He was laughing, chasing Kircheis, and Kircheis was heading towards the end of the room. In the dream it stretched on for a huge distance, but Hilde knew that something would happen when Kircheis reached the end.
She started to follow after, trying to yell after Reinhard, but no sound came out. She leapt from one bed to the next, her body feeling strange. She realized that she was a child in this dream, or younger than she had been, at least. That was fine; it made her fast and nimble. Perhaps they were all the same age, herself and Reinhard and Kircheis. She glanced to the side as she ran, and found Emil next to her, matching her step for step, leap for leap across the mattresses. They flung themselves high into the air, like the gravity was wrong, all of them trying to catch something that couldn’t be caught.
“Stop!” Hilde wanted to yell as Kircheis approached the glass at the other end of the room. He didn’t slow down, didn’t stop, and he ran through it, vanishing into the endless, starry sky outside. Reinhard, who lagged behind him, suddenly picked up the pace, trying to follow.
Emil and Hilde kept running, springing and dodging over the furniture, never able to catch him, sometimes coming close enough that their fingers snagged on the edge of his cape, but he was always just ahead.
And then Reinhard was at the glass, and Hilde wanted to call out, but her voice made no sound, and—