June 1 N.I.C., Odin
It was astounding both how much and how little could change in just over a year. Two years, even, if Magdalena was being generous about things.
How many parties had she attended here in Neue Sanssouci? More than she could count or cared to remember. They all tended to pass by in a blur, following the same kind of pattern: speak to people she barely tolerated; wait for Annerose to appear on the Kaiser’s arm; attempt to steal her away for brief snatches of time while the Kaiser was dragged into social conversations with the men of the court; and, when the Kaiser inevitably left with Annerose, Magdalena would be forced to decide how to ruin her own evening. Usually, she got drunk. Sometimes, she would find someone entertaining to follow home. She was usually drunk then, too.
She hadn’t been to a party like that here in these past two years, considering that the Kaiser had died. For some reason, when she had gotten dressed up to come to Reinhard’s coronation, she had the feeling that things would be the same, that things would finally be returning to the way they had been.
She didn’t mean the old order, nothing like that. Magdalena was glad to see the Goldenbaums gone, and gladder still to see Reinhard take up the crown, but she had thought that the ebb and flow of court drama would find a steady footing, the kind of thing that she could weasel her way into and out of. And she had thought that she might see Annerose again.
Magdalena realized that she had been mistaken very quickly. Reinhard, placing the crown on his own head, looked cold and distant, his eyes flitting across the room, searching for something and seeing no one, even as the universe chanted his name. He was no longer the vivid and impetuous young man that Magdalena had invited to her salons; he was something different now. Inhuman, almost. Far above the maddening crowd.
He still hated parties, though, so after the formal coronation, the celebration was small, almost intimate. Everyone alive who had been instrumental in putting together this new order was here, save one.
Annerose made no appearance.
Magdalena was surprised, and disappointed. Most of the reason she had even accepted the invitation had been because she expected Annerose to come in support of her brother, who had done all this for her. But she didn’t.
Magdalena hadn’t seen her in over a year. It was as though she had vanished from the face of the universe, and Magdalena half wondered if she wasn’t dead, and if her letters weren’t being written by some secret staff member of Reinhard’s, squirreled away in some office somewhere. She wasn’t paranoid enough to seriously think that-- for one thing, Reinhard himself would have probably been unable to function if his sister had indeed died-- but that didn’t stop the thought from flitting across her mind at times like this. Annerose should have been here.
Without her, Magdalena felt untethered. She couldn’t remember what to do with herself at parties in the capitol that didn’t involve orbiting around Annerose: Magdalena a dark planet circling that distant bright yellow sun.
She supposed there were plenty of opportunities to amuse herself. She could probably speak to Kaiser Reinhard, if she wanted to. And there on the other side of the room was Admiral Reuenthal, leaning against the wall with Admiral Mittermeyer right next to him. Admiral Mittermeyer had his wife-- a charming but bored looking woman-- on his arm. Magdalena briefly entertained the idea of going over to the trio and draping herself across Reuenthal’s arm, saying something like, “It’s been so long, Oskar!” and telling Mittermeyer and his wife all about how she and Reuenthal had once danced all night.
She would need to be a little drunker for that, though.
Magdalena had just about made up her mind to get more of the (very nice) wine, when someone came up next to her.
“Would you mind terribly if I stood next to you for a little while, Baroness Westpfale?”
Pleased, Magdalena turned to greet Hildegarde von Mariendorf. She looked quite fetching in her suit, the only woman at the party not wearing a dress. Magdalena grinned at her. “Of course I don’t mind.” Magdalena reached over and tugged on Hilde’s sleeve. “I thought you’d come here in your dress uniform. I thought we said one time that you looked good in it.”
“No, I think I told you that you would look nice as an admiral,” Hilde said with a laugh. “But I figured it’s peacetime now, so I don’t need to wear that when I’m not His Majesty’s military aide.”
“He should simply make you an admiral,” Magdalena said.
Hilde shook her head, but she was smiling. “I think I’ve lost the opportunity on that.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I went behind his back at Vermilion,” she replied. “It’s insubordination, and saving his life, and I don’t think he can really tolerate either of those.”
“Psh,” Magdalena said. “He should be grateful.”
“He is,” Hilde said, and that was the end of that. “But I wouldn’t want to be an admiral anyway. I’m hoping the peace will last.”
“What makes you so desperate to come over here and stand next to me?” Magdalena asked. “You avoiding someone?”
“No,” Hilde said. “Not really. My father--” she nodded across the room, where Count Mariendorf was speaking to a few government officials-- “just told me that it’s odd that I don’t spend more time with the other noblewomen. I figured I’d try to make him less worried about me.”
“Darling, you’re welcome to spend time with me any time you like,” Magdalena said. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“I’ve been very busy.”
“I know.” Magdalena grinned and nudged Hilde’s arm with her elbow. “I don’t hold it against you. There’s a part of me that wishes I was as busy as you are, but I worry that I’m altogether too flighty to actually be of use to His Majesty.”
“I think he’s very grateful to you,” Hilde said. “He was the one who made sure you were invited today.”
“Is that so! I had hoped it was Countess-- oh, Princess-- Grunewald who had put my name on the list, but she doesn’t seem to be here tonight.”
“No,” Hilde said. There was a strange tone in her voice, one that made Magdalena look at her more carefully.
“Were you expecting her to be here?”
“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Hilde said. “I thought there was a possibility of her showing up, and I know that His Majesty wanted her to come, but…” She shrugged. “I’m sure the princess has her reasons. I just don’t know her well enough to say what they are.”
“I wasn’t aware that you knew her at all.”
“I’ve met her,” Hilde said. “A while ago, there was a little scare that she might be kidnapped-- during that affair when Erwin Joseph went missing-- His Majesty asked me to go convince her to accept guards around her estate.”
Magdalena barely restrained herself from grabbing Hilde and shaking her. “So, you’ve been to her estate?”
“Yes,” Hilde said. “It’s very pretty.”
“Hilde,” Magdalena said. “I need her address.”
“I’m not sure that I should give it to you,” she said. “It’s secret for a reason.”
“Hilde.” Magdalena did grab Hilde’s arms, then. “I don’t want her address. I need her address.”
“Why don’t you ask her for it yourself? You can write her.”
She thought about saying something funny and glib, like that she only ever showed up at Annerose’s house by surprise, and asking for her address would ruin it, but she didn’t think that any deflections or jokes would fly with Hilde, who had always been too perceptive. So, instead, like a predator showing their vulnerable belly, Magdalena said, “Because if I ask her, and she refuses to give it to me, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.” She tacked on a laugh. “Die, maybe.”
Hilde studied her for a second, and Magdalena’s joking smile became painful under the scrutiny. “I’ll ask His Majesty,” Hilde finally said.
Magdalena could relax at that. There was no way in the universe that Reinhard would say no to her. “Thank you,” she said. “I really appreciate it.”
“What do you want to see her for?”
“Do I need a specific reason? I was her closest friend for something like ten years, and then one day she vanishes without a trace. She writes me twice a month like clockwork, and I think that’s more than she does for anyone else.” Magdalena shook her head. “I’m worried about her.”
“I think she’s doing her best to take care of herself,” Hilde said, trying to sound comforting. “She seemed… healthy when I visited her.”
“Healthy is not the same as well, and certainly not the same thing as happy.”
Annerose’s estate was far, far from the capital. Magdalena took a plane to the nearest city, and then even after that she had to rent a car for the nearly three hour drive into the wilderness. This far north, the forests grew thick and dark, and Magdalena drove more slowly than usual on the thin road that wove between the hills, climbing up into the mountains.
The sun was setting when she pulled off the main road onto a dirt track. There was a guard down at the bottom of it, an imperial soldier, who stopped her car. Magdalena leaned out the window to speak to him.
“Kaiser Reinhard knows I’m here,” she said. “But I don’t think I should need permission.”
She was waved through. Hilde had assured her that all the guards had been made aware of her visit, which was good, because Magdalena did not want to waste her time arguing with them.
All through her long journey, she had been feeling the stirrings of nervousness and excitement in her limbs, the kind of feeling that kept her fingers glued to the wheel of her car so hard that when she peeled them off, they ached taking up new positions. She drove without music, and with the windows down, an intense knot sitting low in her stomach and making her twitch.
The dirt track carried her sharply upwards. This road was probably almost impossible to traverse in winter. She imagined that Annerose must have all her supplies, food and such, delivered before the snows set in, and live off of it for solitary months. Or, perhaps she had a snowmobile to take her into the town a half-hour drive away. The mental image made Magdalena smile, picturing Annerose bundled up against the cold, riding through the trees, across the pristine white snow. Or maybe a more apt mental image was a queen wrapped in furs, alone on a sleigh pulled by great horses, like an illustration from some fairy tale.
But she probably didn’t do any of that. She probably didn’t ever venture into town.
The house that Annerose lived in was larger than a cottage, but roughly hewn. Two stories of log and stone stood amid the pines, surrounded by a garden that probably would have been charming if it had been light enough to see. Magdalena’s headlights splashed ahead of her as the red sky darkened above, the sun fully behind the tops of the trees. She was far north, and it was the heart of the summer, so the sun was just now setting, despite the fact that it was late on the clock. When she turned off her car’s engine, the whole scene was plunged into a darkness that took her eyes a moment to adjust to.
She couldn’t quite bring herself to get out of the car. Annerose was going to turn her away, she was sure of it.
But she did get out of the car, plastering a smile to her face and smoothing her hair and skirt down before walking confidently up the steps to the house. She knocked.
She knew that Annerose must be in there (because where else would she go?) but as the minute stretched on, Magdalena’s stomach turned, thinking that this was the rejection she was to receive, a flat nothing, no acknowledgement. She knocked again, harder this time, desperation giving strength to her arms.
After another twenty seconds, the door opened, warm yellow light spilling out over her. It was held open by a teen boy, maybe seventeen, who looked at her with open surprise on his face. “Baroness Westpfale!”
Magdalena had been warned that Annerose had taken in a companion boy, but Hilde had not mentioned who it was. But when she looked at this one more closely, she realized that she knew him, in a social sense, even if he was another person she thought had disappeared in the past two years of upheaval. “Well, if it isn’t the young Herr von Moder.”
Konrad von Moder’s initial surprise giving way to suspicion. “Baroness, what are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to pay a visit,” she said. “Is that illegal?”
“No,” he said, hesitating. “But Lady Annerose didn’t mention that you were coming.”
“She doesn’t know. I’ve always been one to surprise her.”
Konrad’s brow furrowed. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
“She values her privacy.”
“Are you going to tell her I’m here, or are you going to turn me away at the door?”
“You should go, Baroness.”
“And if you tell her that I was here, and that you turned me away without letting me even see her, and she decides that she would have wanted to see me, what then, Herr Moder?”
He frowned, then said, “Wait here.”
He vanished inside the house, the door shutting behind him and leaving Magdalena on the dark porch all alone. She waited.
The door opened again, and Konrad, still frowning, said, “You can come in.”
The relief that washed over her was palpable, but it only lasted a second. Konrad led her through the halls to the living room. The house was just as rustic inside as it was out, all the walls exposed timber, the floor bare wood. Cut flowers stood in a vase on the hall table, and a few decorative tapestries hung on the walls. It was dark, with all the wood, but pleasant in its own way.
“Lady Annerose,” Konrad said as they walked into the living room.
Although it was summer, there was a small fire kindled in the hearth, and Annerose was standing in front of it, turned away from them. She must have just been working on some embroidery, because her hoop and thread were discarded on the couch behind her.
“Will you leave us, Konrad?” Annerose asked.
He nodded, then quietly slipped out of the room. Magdalena could hear his feet plod up the stairs, then stop halfway. She was sure he was going to try to listen in on this meeting. Magdalena tried to put that out of her mind.
Annerose didn’t turn around or say anything for a long moment, which was the worst thing that she could have done, because it compelled Magdalena to fill up space. “You know, Annerose, this is the first time I’ve ever actually had to get permission from the Kaiser to visit you. What a sorry state of affairs things are when that’s the case.”
Annerose stiffened, then her hand clutched at her own face, a stifled little sound coming out. “Maggie--”
Magdalena stepped forward. “I’ve missed you, you know.”
Annerose finally turned around, letting Magdalena see her face for the first time in more than a year. Her eyes were wide, the blue catching the light from the fire, and her skin was so pale, like she was half a ghost. Her blonde hair curled gently around her cheeks, making her look far more delicate than Magdalena remembered. Or perhaps she was misremembering. It had been a long time. Her expression was inscrutable, her hand still covering her mouth-- biting her finger, in the way that Magdalena had seen Reinhard do on occasion when particularly vexed by someone or something.
“What are you doing here?” Annerose asked, fingers touching her chin now.
“I came to see you.” She didn’t have more of an explanation than that.
“Because I wanted to,” Magdalena said.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” Annerose asked.
Magdalena abruptly realized that her real reason, that she was afraid that Annerose would say no, was cruel and selfish. So, she lied, with a cheerful smile on her face, “Because I’ve always come to visit at my whim before, and I thought it would be a nice surprise. Am I wrong?”
“No, I--” Annerose gestured at the couches, facing each other, and walked over to sit. “I am surprised. That’s all.”
Magdalena sat across from her, carefully keeping her distance. Now that she was here, she was cognizant of the fact that she shouldn’t startle Annerose, shouldn’t risk this new and delicate situation. She had taken a risk by coming, and she was so glad to have been rewarded by seeing Annerose that any further deliberate unbalancing was too much.
“Can I tell you a funny thought I had?” Magdalena asked.
“When you didn’t come to Kaiser Reinhard’s coronation, I thought that it might have been because you were dead. All your letters might have just been tricks, to keep people thinking you were still alive.”
Annerose’s already pale face grew even paler. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“I’m not worried anymore, darling,” Magdalena said, spreading her arms out across the back of her couch and leaning back. “Now that I see you in the flesh, as it were, I’m reassured that you’re alright.”
Annerose offered a tentative smile, which Magdalena returned tenfold. It had always been so rare to see her smile.
“And I suppose that’s another point towards trusting Fraulein Mariendorf, who told me that you were healthy,” Magdalena said.
“How is Fraulein Mariendorf?” Annerose asked.
“She’s taking good care of your brother,” Magdalena replied. A strange expression crossed Annerose’s face.
“In what sense?”
“Have you heard of her recent exploits?”
“I don’t follow the news.” Annerose picked up her embroidery hoop. “The only things I hear are what you tell me in your letters.”
Magdalena raised her eyebrows. “Maybe I should have made a point of telling you more important things, then, since all I tend to natter on about is what’s on at the ballet. I don’t know how you can stand that, if you have been listening to me to get something of more substance.” Magdalena laughed.
“It’s alright,” Annerose said. “I don’t… Following all the news would scare me too much. I can’t do anything about it.”
“You could do something about it if you were in the capital,” Magdalena pointed out.
Annerose looked down at her hands. “I don’t think so.”
“If you say. You really don’t look at the news at all? Even when you go into town?”
“I don’t go into town,” Annerose said. “Konrad goes for me.”
“You really are isolated out here. Should I tell you what Fraulein Mariendorf did, then?”
“If you like.” Annerose poked her needle through the embroidery fabric, stabbing into a half-done image of a marigold.
“She single handedly conquered the universe,” Magdalena said with a smile.
Annerose didn’t even look up, so Magdalena’s smile fell slightly. “Oh.”
“Really, she took charge of two of Kaiser Reinhard’s fleets and captured Heinessen. It saved your brother’s life, I’m told.”
“I’m very grateful to her, then.” Annerose’s voice was very quiet. “Other people can protect him where I can’t.”
This was a somewhat enigmatic statement, when Magdalena considered the fact that Reinhard was the ruler of all of space. Perhaps Annerose still considered him a child who needed protecting because she had never actually seen him in command. Not like Magdalena had seen that personally, either, but she had seen the look on his face when he placed the crown on his own head. That had dispelled any lingering notions of his youth in her mind. It was the rest of the universe that required protecting from him, if anything.
When Annerose said nothing else, Magdalena hated that she wanted to keep talking. This was nothing like the reunion she had hoped for, though she wouldn’t have been able to put into words exactly what it was that she had been hoping for. “How have you been, Annerose?”
“Fine,” Annerose said.
“You’re not bored out here?”
“You know, being in the middle of nowhere. What do you do with your time?”
“I have everything I need here.”
“Everything,” Magdalena said, her voice flat and dull. “Embroidery and gardens.” She glanced around the room. “Do you still play piano?”
“Yes,” Annerose said. “I practice.”
“I’m glad,” Magdalena said. “I’ve missed getting to hear you play.”
Annerose hesitated, then said, “Do you want me to play for you?”
“Darling, nothing would give me greater joy.” Even though her tone was light, Magdalena realized that she wasn’t lying.
Annerose nodded, then stood. Magdalena followed her with her eyes as she walked over to the piano, then shuffled the sheet music that was sitting out. She sat, and Magdalena realized she was barefoot, her foot resting lightly on the pedals. Annerose looked over at Magdalena, who tried to give an encouraging smile, and then looked down at the music. Her slender fingers made easy work of the keys, and she had a focused look on her face, her eyes wanting to be closed even as she followed the lines of the sheet music, playing some Bach piece that Magdalena vaguely recognized.
She wasn’t really listening. Her whole attention was taken up by looking at Annerose, watching the way she bit her lip and repeated a phrase when she made a mistake, glancing up at Magdalena to gauge her reaction-- even though Magdalena wouldn’t have noticed the wrong note had she not done this. She watched the way Annerose’s thin arms stretched to hit the furthest keys, the way she sat on the edge of the piano bench. The way her toes curled underneath her feet, legs disappearing under her green skirt at the ankle.
Magdalena could have stayed there and listened forever. Seeing Annerose was like the first drink of water after a long walk on a hot day; she had known she had been yearning for it, but had not anticipated how much of a blessed relief it would be to finally have it. It was for the best that seeing something did not need to be rationed; there was no risk of Magdalena choking from drinking in the sight of her too fast.
Eventually, though, Annerose ran out of sheet music to play through, and the last notes of the piece faded off into nothing. Magdalena clapped. “Brava!”
Annerose jumped, then flushed. “I’m not used to having an audience.”
“Not even Herr Moder?”
“I usually play when he’s out,” Annerose said.
“Well,” Magdalena said, some of her old smug possessiveness rising up inside her, “I am very grateful that you played for me. I love to be the recipient of your exclusive graces.”
There was a long moment of silence, Annerose looking away into the fire. Finally, she asked, “How have you been, Maggie?”
“Oh, fine enough, I suppose.” Magdalena rolled the words around in her mouth. “I keep myself entertained, in my own way. There’s some tasks that are well suited to being done by me, even if no one asks me to do them.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” Magdalena said, waving her hand. “It’s the kind of thing that you might be expected to do, if you were still in the thick of it. There’s plenty of feathers that need to be unruffled, you know. Plenty of people who need social guidance to keep them from getting too many pesky little thoughts.” She laughed. “Your brother does not have much love in his heart for old nobility trying to work their way into new positions on the social ladder. I simply--” She gestured again, her arm like a conductor’s baton. “Keep them dancing instead of scheming.”
“Does Reinhard know you’re doing this for him?”
“Darling, I don’t need to be on his payroll.” She smiled. “One doesn’t need to talk about it to understand that it’s happening. And if I wasn’t handling it, well.” She chuckled a little. “Your brother never was very popular with the old nobles. Even with the ones that survived the change in seasons. I’m happy to take care of it.”
“Thank you,” Annerose said.
“No need to thank me. It’s pleasant to be doing something that I am both good at and enjoy, even if hosting luncheons and taking everyone’s wife to the ballet isn’t the kind of thing that gets written down in history books. I’m quite content to be useful in my small way. I’ll leave the policy up to your brother, and everyone writing the histories will say that the only real malcontents of this time were the republicans.” She tapped her lip. “I don’t know if I could bear to start inviting them to have lunch, but maybe I should.”
“We’ll see. Maybe in a few years I’ll start wearing one pin that says, “Open a senate!” and another that says, “Votes for women!” just so I can entertain myself with a different crowd. I don’t think your brother would mind that too terribly, would he?”
“I don’t know,” Annerose said.
Magdalena had been wholly joking. “I must keep myself entertained somehow, you know.”
“I’m glad that you’re finding ways,” Annerose said tentatively.
“Indeed I am,” Magdalena said. “I’ve been quite busy. But there’s only one thing that could make me happier.”
“If you were with me, of course.”
Annerose shook her head. “I don’t-- I can’t.”
“Why ever not? You wouldn’t have to do politics if you didn’t want to.”
Annerose looked down at her hands, still resting on the keyboard. She stroked the ivory, but no sound was produced. “I wouldn’t be able to not do them.”
Although Annerose cut herself off, Magdalena remained silent, biting her tongue, trying to coax Annerose to speak without filling up that void of silence herself.
Annerose did eventually talk again, and maybe this was the longest string of words she had put together in ages, because it came out fumblingly, she didn’t look at Magdalena. “Everyone would see me as something. I’d be a tool for people to use to get at Reinhard, or I’d be some sort of martyr, or people would say I’m scheming myself like they said about me before. There wouldn’t be anything about me except-- I’m his , people see me that way. I would be part of all that, even if I didn’t play the game like you do.”
Magdalena pursed her lips. “Not being part of society just gives everyone leave to say whatever they like about you, you know. You have to actually be there and do things in order to make people change their minds.”
“I wouldn’t be able to, even if I tried.”
“I’m sure you could.”
Annerose’s finger slipped on a few of the keys, previously silent, and they let out a discordant thrum. She scrunched her face up, closing her eyes. “When I’m near him, I can’t stop myself from being what he needs me to be. And I think it would have killed me, to keep doing that for the rest of my life. He needs so much, from everyone.” She shook her head. “I can’t, Maggie. I’m just trying…”
She bit her lip. “To live.”
“Is this really living, Annerose?” She tried not to sound dismissive. “I don’t know if I could bear it-- you’ve been locked up here like the princess in the tower for a year, just because…” She leaned forward, elbows on her knees. “I feel like, if people didn’t see me, I’d stop existing. Is that what you want?”
“I don’t feel that way,” Annerose replied. Her voice was firmer than it had been, which made Magdalena curious.
The hesitation was back, but Annerose looked over at her, and the earnesty in Magdalena’s posture seemed to bolster her. “For ten years-- I couldn’t let myself exist. I don’t think I knew who I was. It’s easier to be an empty shell. You understand, right?”
Softly. “I do.”
“Here, there’s nothing except me. I don’t need to be some object for anyone… For the Kaiser. A thing for people to look at.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “That’s all.”
“Can I say something?”
“I never thought you were an empty shell.”
Annerose’s mouth opened in a silent ‘o’ and she looked away. There was a long stretch of heavy silence between them. Finally, Annerose said, “It’s late.”
Magdalena leaned back on her couch. “Are you kicking me out, darling, or may I stay for a while? I know I’ve practically invited myself into your beautiful home here.”
“You can stay.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Konrad,” Annerose called. There was a creaking on the stairs, and then Konrad appeared, lingering in the doorway.
“Yes, Lady Annerose?”
“Would you be so kind as to set up the guest room for Baroness Westpfale?”
“Of course,” he said. He gave Magdalena a slightly suspicious glance, and then scampered off.
“What’s his story?” Magdalena asked. “He doesn’t seem to like me being here.”
Annerose just shook her head. “He’s very sweet. And he’s not used to people coming around here.”
“If you say so.”
While they waited for Konrad to return, Annerose played something simple on the piano. Tapping out the memorized piece.
“I’d almost forgotten this one,” Magdalena said. “I like it.”
Annerose nodded and kept playing. While she did, Magdalena reached across to the other couch and picked up the half finished embroidery, looking at the meticulously tiny and perfect stitches. “You always had much more patience for this kind of thing than I did,” Magdalena said. She ran her fingers across the flowers, golds and reds and greens.
“It keeps the mind occupied,” Annerose said.
Konrad appeared again. “The room’s all made up.”
“Thank you, Konrad,” Annerose said. “Would you show Baroness Westpfale up there?”
“Of course,” he said.
Magdalena recognized a dismissal when she heard one. She put down Annerose’s embroidery and headed for the door, passing by the piano where Annerose still sat. As she passed, she touched Annerose’s shoulder lightly with her fingertips. Annerose jumped, like the touch had shocked her, crashing her hands down on the piano keys and leaving the room in the echoing silence afterwards. Magdalena hastily pulled her arm back. They looked at each other for a second, Annerose’s eyes wide.
“Goodnight,” Magdalena said.
“Goodnight,” Annerose replied.
Magdalena’s sleep was troubled that night, unfamiliar with the creaking of the house and the stiffness of the mattress beneath her. When she woke up at around three and couldn’t fall back asleep, she lay on her back, staring up at the ceiling.
Why had she come here?
What, exactly, was she hoping to get out of this visit?
If Magdalena had some kind of concrete goal, she couldn’t express it, even to herself, only that she knew she was somehow failing. She hadn’t really been trying to get Annerose to return to civilization with her. She knew from her letters that this was a futile pursuit, most likely, and that trying earnestly would only upset Annerose. And that was something that Magdalena had absolutely no desire to do.
She felt like she must have, though, with the way that Annerose had seemed so alarmed at first her presence, then the way she had been startled when Magdalena touched her.
It wasn’t like Magdalena hadn’t done that kind of thing a million times in the past. She had always embraced Annerose, always taken her hands in greeting and parting, kissed her cheek, played with her fingers, tucked her hair behind her ears. Simple, easy, intimate things. Perhaps it had been different, before.
Perhaps, before, Annerose had seen herself as a body to be touched, even by Magdalena.
The idea sickened her, and Magdalena rolled over onto her stomach, clutching the dusty pillow to her chest.
She had, since the day she first met Annerose, simply taken what she wanted. Magdalena had decided to be Annerose’s friend, and had latched herself onto her accordingly. Annerose, who had no other allies at court to speak of, couldn’t have said a single word in protest. Magdalena had shown up at her house, at all hours of the day, without ever waiting for an invitation or asking for permission. Magdalena had laid her hands on her. In some ways, it was as though she was any friend of hers; there were no shortage of girls she had been friends with who had been cajoled into laying their heads on Magdalena’s lap and letting her stroke their hair, and she met everyone with a friendly kiss on the cheek, and as a schoolgirl she had done all the usual clutching and giggling and whispering that schoolgirls did.
But was it different for Annerose, whom Magdalena had decided she had sole claim over and responsibility for?
She hadn’t asked permission to come, because she had not wanted Annerose to have the opportunity to say no.
It was clear that Annerose would have said no.
Disgusted with herself, she made up her mind to both apologize and leave in the morning.
The sun rose early in the morning in this part of the world in the summer, which paradoxically caused Magdalena to sleep far later than she had wanted to. If she was ignoring the light streaming in past the thin lace curtains, she had no idea what time it truly was. She had a strenuous day of travel the day before, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that she slept so late, but she was surprised nonetheless, and displeased that she could not escape the house without being seen. Annerose and Konrad were already both up and about by the time that Magdalena ventured downstairs.
Annerose had cooked pancakes, enough for three people, but Konrad had already taken his; Magdalena saw him walk out the door with a few dry pancakes held like paper in his one hand, and a thermos of coffee in the other. She wondered where he was going, but the question was answered when she heard a car start up outside, and Konrad drove away, heading down the dirt path.
Annerose was sitting at the table, a mug of tea cupped between her hands, staring out the bright kitchen window with an unreadable expression. The humble morning light streaming into the kitchen made her face look sweeter and gentler than Magdalena had ever seen it. She looked up at Magdalena when she came down the stairs and hovered in the kitchen door.
“I suppose I should head out,” Magdalena said. “I’m sorry for stopping by uninvited-- I didn’t mean to upset you.”
One emotion and then another flashed across Annerose’s face, all of them too fast to register completely. Disappointment, maybe, slipped away into Annerose’s blank mask, and then she looked down at the teacup in her hands. “Must you go?”
“Oh.” Well that changed things. “No, I suppose not. I just…” Magdalena took a step into the kitchen, and Annerose looked back up at her, sunlight glittering across her eyes, catching on her eyelashes, the few strands of her hair that the dry summer air was pulling up from the rest. “I thought I had upset you.”
“No,” Annerose said. “You didn’t.”
“You want me to stay?”
Annerose managed a nod.
Things were still strained as Magdalena sat down at the table, and Annerose prepared plates of pancakes for the both of them. It seemed strange to Magdalena that Annerose had no servants, but that must be the way she liked it.
They ate in mostly silence. Magdalena tried not to look at her too closely, and she couldn’t tell what Annerose was thinking, not in the least.
She got a glimpse into Annerose’s daily schedule: leisurely breakfast, then gardening while the day was still cool, then lunch, and sometimes a nap after that. Magdalena participated in these activities, insomuch as she could-- she was not a gardener in the least-- and she was very careful to never come too close to Annerose, keeping across the garden rows as she poked about with her trowell, not really scooping out weeds for fear of taking up Annerose’s carrots with them.
In the afternoon, Annerose read or answered her correspondence (what little there was of it), and then cooked dinner for herself and Konrad. Konrad still had not returned from town, or wherever it was he had gone, by the time that Annerose started some water boiling for pasta, so Magdalena asked, “Is Herr Moder coming back?”
“I sent him to the city to buy a new solar panel,” Annerose said. “He’ll probably have to stay the night there.”
Now, that was interesting. “What happened to your solar panel? You seem to still have power.”
“We have a couple,” Annerose said. “One had a tree branch hit it, in a storm.”
“I can show you, if you want,” Annerose offered. “After dinner.”
“I’d like that,” Magdalena said.
“There’s still plenty of light, so we can go for a walk.”
“I would like that,” she reiterated. Whatever the hesitant tone was in Annerose’s voice, Magdalena wanted to reassure her.
It was a simple life, filled with simple pleasures, it seemed. Despite how far away civilization was, Annerose had everything that she did need for health and life, and the guards who patrolled her property were so far out of sight that Magdalena almost forgot they existed. Spending time here with Annerose, trying not to disrupt the delicate balance that had been struck, Magdalena could half-understand the silence that covered this place. How long had it been since Annerose had spoken to someone other than Konrad? The guards probably never disturbed her. Perhaps it was when Hilde had come to visit.
Magdalena didn’t think she would have been able to bear it, if she had been alone for so long in Annerose’s place, but, somehow, being here with Annerose, it didn’t matter that there wasn’t anyone else. There was no world rushing by outside, save for the birds flitting through the trees. The politics that occupied so much of Magdalena’s mind in the capital slipped into distant memory.
Their dinner was late, and the sun was now at a strange angle in the sky. There was plenty of light still, an endless golden hour, but the temperature had dropped enough that it was comfortable to go out walking.
Near the house, in a cleared field, Annerose pointed out the destroyed solar panel to Magdalena. A tree had toppled over and struck it, shattering the glass and bending its metal frame. Magdalena agreed that it looked unrepairable, and Annerose asked if she wanted to keep walking. Of course she did.
They walked side by side through Annerose’s expansive property, down well-trod dirt paths. Magdalena wasn’t sure where Annerose was leading them until the sound of rushing water became clearer through the trees, and they emerged onto a river bank, smooth, flat stones sloping gently down to a pebbly waterline. The water was ice cold and crystal clear, snow runoff from the mountains.
Annerose sat down on one of the larger rocks, cross legged, her skirt flaring out around her like a blanket. The golden sun held her in its arms, touching her nose, her lips, her hair. Magdalena couldn’t help but look at her for a long moment.
“What are you looking at?” Annerose asked.
“Nothing,” Magdalena replied, then hastily sat, turning to look at the light sparkling across the river. The stone was warm underneath her hands when she leaned back onto them, warm as flesh.
“It is pretty out here,” Magdalena said after some time. “I can see why you like it.”
“Do you ever think that you’d come back, out to the city?”
Annerose didn’t answer for a long time, long enough that Magdalena turned to look at her. “I might,” she said finally. “I have missed you.”
Magdalena smiled. “It makes me glad to hear you say it, I’ll admit.”
“I had almost forgotten how long I’d been here.” Annerose was staring out across the water, her voice odd and distant. “Seasons change, so I could think about how long it’s been, but I didn’t want to think about it. Time doesn’t exist when you don’t have something that you’re waiting for, I think.”
“You’re not waiting for anything?”
“Not like I used to,” Annerose said. “I don’t have to-- Before Kaiser Friedrich died, I was always waiting for him to call me. It made it so hard to think about anything except for that next moment. It was almost a relief when he did, because then I wouldn’t have to wait any more.” She crumpled the fabric of her skirt in her hand. “There’s nothing like that, here.”
“And nothing to look forward to, either, I suppose.”
“You always come as a surprise,” Annerose said. “But now I have to wait and wonder when that surprise will come. Maybe that changes things.”
“If you told me to come, I would,” Magdalena said. “Any time.”
They were silent for some time again. The birds called their evening songs in the trees.
“I thought I had upset you, last night,” Magdalena said. “I am sorry.”
“You just surprised me,” Annerose said. “I didn’t mean to give you that impression.”
“You don’t have to lie to me to spare my feelings. I’m an adult, and I can see when someone is upset or just surprised. I’m not… You don’t have to do that for me, Annerose.”
Annerose brought her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. After a minute, she said, “It really has been so long.”
“Since you left?”
“I guess.” She rested her chin on her knees. “I think you were the first person to touch me in more than a year.”
“Please don’t apologize, Maggie.”
“I was just surprised, and I didn’t expect it, and I had forgotten…”
“I shouldn’t have reminded you.”
“No,” Annerose said. “It’s not that. Or maybe it is. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t tell if I wanted it or not, or if I liked it or missed it… It’s such a stupid thing.”
“I understand, Annerose. I can imagine that you don’t want--”
“I don’t know what I want!” Annerose’s hands were white knuckled, fingernails digging into her knees, and her sudden cry scattered the birds in the nearby trees, and echoed back across the river. She took a harsh breath. “Sorry.”
“I can’t bear to have you apologize to me,” Magdalena said.
“I can’t figure it out.”
“I feel like I’ve come here just to make you crazy. Maybe you should tell me to go.”
“No,” Annerose said. “I don’t think that would help. You’re just… I thought that I could be here alone, or almost alone. Maybe I could have stayed like this, until Reinhard decided that he needed some peace in his life. And I don’t know if I’m here because I’m a coward--”
“You are not a coward.”
Annerose scrunched her eyes shut. “Then why am I like this? Maggie…”
She shook her head. “Of all the people in the universe,” she said. “I think I trusted Sieg not to do anything that would hurt me. And you.”
“Not Lord Reinhard?”
Annerose just shook her head. “I would hurt myself for him,” she said. “And he doesn’t realize, sometimes, the things that he does to me.”
“I’m… glad you trust me.”
Annerose’s voice was strained. “I do.”
“I don’t know,” she said. There was something that she couldn’t express, perhaps, that she couldn’t put into words.
“Do I scare you?” Magdalena asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Her voice was so pitiful, if this had been any other moment, if this had been a year ago, Magdalena would not have hesitated for even a second to put her hand on Annerose’s back. But, as it was, she was half tempted to get up and run away, feeling miserable herself.
“Are you scared of me touching you?” she asked. “I won’t, I swear.”
Annerose shook her head. “I kept thinking about it all night,” she said. Her hand rubbed her shoulder. “I’m scared of wanting things that…” And she trailed off. “I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want you to say you won’t ever touch me again.” She was frustrated with herself now, the same frustration that Magdalena had seen on Reinhard’s face, on occasion; a particularly memorable party they had both attended came to mind. “I know what I don’t want. I don’t know what I do. Why does it have to be like this?” Her cheeks were flushed and she seemed on the edge of tears.
“Annerose,” Magdalena said. Annerose looked up at her. The golden light was perfect on her face. She chose her thought carefully, a nervous energy flooding her body, but she remained perfectly still, kept her voice as calm as she could. “Maybe it’s because I surprised you,” she said. “I shouldn’t have. Maybe you’d feel better if you weren’t surprised. Then maybe you can stop worrying about it.”
Annerose looked at Magdalena’s hands, pressed against the hard rock ground. “Maybe.”
“Do you want-- if you want to touch me, you can. I won’t move an inch. I swear.”
And maybe this was manipulating Annerose into giving Magdalena what she wanted. Maybe she shouldn’t have offered. But the look in Annerose’s eyes was so strange that Magdalena couldn’t take back what she had said.
“Why?” Annerose asked.
Magdalena closed her eyes and pointed her face towards the sun. She could still see it, the red glow behind her eyelids. If she wasn’t honest with Annerose now, she never would be. Any nonchalance in her voice was feigned, but she didn’t think there was any. “Because I want you to,” she said. And if that, too, was manipulation, Magdalena couldn’t tell what else she could have said differently.
She kept her eyes closed, looking into the sun, and she heard the fabric of Annerose’s skirt ruffle beside her, maybe getting up to leave. She should walk away. And then Magdalena would walk back to the house, and her rented car, alone, and drive back to the city, and fly back to the capital, and life would go on the way it had this past year.
But then Annerose’s fingers touched the back of Magdalena’s hand as it rested on the rock. Her heart leapt into her throat, her breath catching on nothing. She wanted to move so badly, but she kept herself perfectly still as Annerose picked up her hand, turned it over, traced the lines on her palm, twined their fingers together.
Annerose lifted Magdalena’s hand up. She pressed Magdalena’s palm to her cheek, holding it there with one hand. With her other, she reached for Magdalena’s face. Magdalena couldn’t stop her shiver as Annerose’s fingertips touched her cheekbone, her ear, just underneath her eye, the crest of her brow, down the slope of her nose, the cupid’s bow of her upper lip.
Her mouth opened, just a hair, enough for her to whisper, “Annerose, please.”
Magdalena stayed as still as she could as Annerose’s thumb played along her jaw. The touch was softer than anything Magdalena had ever felt. There was nothing she had ever wanted more than this, she realized, and nothing aside from this would ever please her so much again.
Annerose let go of Magdalena’s hand, placing it down somewhere on the fabric between them; Magdalena couldn’t tell whose skirt it was, and it didn’t really matter. Annerose leaned forward, and Magdalena’s fingers scrabbled blindly in the fabric, searching for support or something.
Annerose’s breath was there near her ear; she was so close that Magdalena could feel the warmth of her skin. She pressed their foreheads together, her hand still tracing its path across Magdalena’s cheek.
“Maggie,” Annerose said. “Will you stay still?”
“I am,” she said. “I will. I promise.”
Annerose stroked Magdalena’s hair behind her ear, her fingers tangling in the strands. There was a new hesitation in her movements, though, and Magdalena wanted some way to reassure her, without moving. She opened her eyes.
Annerose’s face was flushed and her eyes were wide, inches from Magdalena’s.
“Maggie,” Annerose said again, and her fingers touched Magdalena’s lips. Magdalena couldn’t respond without moving them, disrupting Annerose’s touch, so she just stared into her eyes, Annerose’s finger resting on her bottom lip, until it withdrew, and then Annerose closed her eyes, and all at once was pressing her own lips to Magdalena’s, just for a moment.
If there was one thing Magdalena would remember in life, it was that feeling. Even if she forgot everything else, she would remember what it was like for Annerose to kiss her. How soft her lips were, how gentle, the electric tingle of it besides that.
Annerose pulled away after an instant, dropping her hands and scooting back on the rock. Magdalena cracked open her eyes, smiling. Annerose looked alarmed, but Magdalena, heart still pounding, leaned back on her hands and said, with her usual warm tone, “Darling, I think that’s about the sweetest thing that anyone’s ever done for me.”