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Serpent's Mouth, Serpent's Teeth

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December 486 I.C., Odin

Hildegarde von Mariendorf’s only concession to women’s fashion was a pair of tiny gold earrings. Her suit was a dark, jewel blue, with ruffled lace at her throat and wrists. She clicked her heels together and stood at attention, looking at herself in the tall mirror, then decided there was nothing else that she could do to improve her appearance. She left her childhood bedroom and went downstairs, doing a familiar half-slide down the slick bannister, landing at the bottom with a light hop. 

Her father, Count Franz von Mariendorf, was already in the hall, and he stifled his indulgent smile. “Aren’t you getting a little old for that, my darling?”

“No,” she said. “Is Sieg here yet?”

“I am,” Siegfried Kircheis said, appearing from her father’s library. He was dressed in his uniform, the formal sash doing as much as it could to hide the fact that he was merely a sub-lieutenant. His fluffy red hair, though it was ever resistant to being combed into any sort of shape, was still endearing as it curled around his ears.

“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” she said, smiling up at him.

“Not long. I appreciate your invitation.”

“I feel like Hank would have found some way to make you come if I hadn’t invited you,” Hilde said confidently.

He just smiled at her, his eyes crinkling up.

“Are you ready to go?” her father asked, looking between the two of them. Although Hilde was excited to go out, her father’s tone was much more subdued and pensive, apprehensive about the party. 

“Yes, sir,” Kircheis said.

The three of them headed out to the car, though Hilde caught her father’s arm and let Kircheis go ahead of them. “You sound like you’re not ready.”

He smiled at her. “I’m not going to get moreso by standing around.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No,” he said. “Do you remember the parties your mother used to host for New Year’s?”

Hilde remembered very little from the time when her mother had been alive. The shock of her death had closed that door of memory. “Yes,” Hilde lied. “I’m sure this one won’t compare at all.”

Her father laughed. “Please don’t insult Princess Amarie’s skills as a hostess to her face.”

“I am capable of tact, you know,” Hilde said, and let go of his arm.

They made it to the car, where Sieg and the driver were already seated. It was about a twenty minute drive to the Braunschweig house, and during it, her father and Sieg talked.

“How has it been, working under the duke?” her father asked.

“I don’t see much of him,” Kircheis said. “It’s more that I’m working under Captain Leigh, and I enjoy that.”

“He keeps you busy, I assume.”

Kircheis smiled. “He tries his best not to.”

“I haven’t had the chance to speak with him as much as I’d like recently. Is he doing well?”

“I can’t be the judge of that, sir.” After a second, he added, “Captain Leigh takes his responsibility towards me seriously. Even if he wasn’t doing well, he would try not to burden me with his troubles.”

“Does he get enough sleep, at least?” Hilde asked.

“Probably not,” Kircheis admitted.

“I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to tell me what Duke Braunschweig has him actually doing, would you?” the count asked.

“No, sir,” Kircheis said.

Hilde’s father just nodded and looked out the window. “I’m sorry to keep pestering you with questions, but Rear Admiral Reuenthal isn’t on Odin, is he?”

“He just left, sir,” Kircheis said. “Some time last week, I believe.”

“Ah. I would have hoped to see more of him, but he’s always been a mysterious man. Do you know him, Sub-lieutenant?”

“We’ve met,” Kircheis said, an uncomfortable tone in his voice. “But nothing more than that.”

Hilde looked over at him, curious about what was making Kircheis uncomfortable with Reuenthal. “You don’t like him?”

“He doesn’t like me, Fraulein.” Kircheis smiled, but it was stiff, and he fiddled with his uniform sash, straightening it out underneath the seatbelt. “I eavesdropped on one of his conversations, by accident. I doubt he’ll ever forgive me for it.”

Hilde laughed. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

“It was bad enough that Captain Leigh asked for me to be placed with him when I graduated, rather than sending me to the rear admiral, as he had originally intended. He apologized for stifling my career, in that way.”

“I’m sure he only did it because he wanted to have you in his staff,” Hilde pointed out.

Kircheis shrugged and fell silent.

“Rear Admiral Reuenthal can be a difficult man to know,” her father said. “Don’t blame yourself for it.”

Since Kircheis couldn’t fill the silence of the car with anything of substance, he asked, “How are things at the Colonial Affairs office?”

Her father heaved a sigh, a rare expression of frustration. “Worse every year,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to get better any time soon.”

“Really, sir?”

“Things have always been tense between the outer colonies and the crown. Last year’s trouble with Rear Admiral Mittermeyer could have been a breaking point, and I’m glad that it wasn’t.” He shook his head. “But Duke Braunschweig, for all his other faults, is good at wrestling his relations into compliance.”

“Well, he has to,” Hilde pointed out. “If he wants his daughter to take the throne, then he needs his clan to fall in line behind him.”

“Yes,” her father said. “Though perhaps no one else would say it in as many words.”

“But people outside of Duke Braunschweig’s circle?” Kircheis asked. “Is there real trouble?”

“Not yet. I’m doing my best to prevent it, and so is everyone else who isn’t eagerly looking forward to trouble starting.” His lips pinched together. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had to travel on business, but I expect that it will soon be necessary for me to go out and speak to some of the frontier nobles in person.”

“I hope not,” Hilde said. “This seems like a bad time to travel.”

Her father raised his eyebrows. “Do you have more accurate information about the Kaiser’s health than I do?”

Hilde flushed. “No.”

“There is no good time to travel, my dear. And it will be better to take care of these problems sooner, rather than later. Rot has a tendency to spread.”

“Who is it that you would need to pay a visit to?” Kircheis asked.

“Lord Maximilian von Castrop. Are you familiar with him?”

Kircheis shook his head.

“His father was treasury secretary, many years ago,” her father explained. “He made himself very rich with that, though he wouldn’t have needed it. His planet is a top agricultural exporter. That’s a dangerous thing to be.”

“Why is that?”

“It can give a planet the illusion of self-sufficiency,” her father said. “His father never fell for that illusion, and he also knew how to toe the line with the crown. His son, I’m afraid, thinks that his father’s prudence was cowardice.” He looked out the window. “Well, we’ll see. I perhaps shouldn’t slander him. He hasn’t done anything too foolish yet, just threatened it. And talk has always been a cheap thing.”

“I hope it comes to nothing, sir.”

“We all can. I enjoy travelling, but I’d prefer it to be for a more pleasant business, especially these days.”

“If there’s anything I can do to help…” Kircheis offered, which made her father smile.

“I somehow doubt it, sub-lieutenant, but I thank you for the offer.”

The topic of conversation switched to Hilde’s schoolwork (studying law at Odin National University), which she was quite happy to discuss for the remainder of the ride.

Duke Braunschweig’s manor was massive, far larger than her father’s estate. Even before marrying into the royal family, the Braunschweigs had been a storied noble line, and that was evident in the construction of their ancestral home. The whole building, all white-stone pillars and tall windows that glittered in between them, was lit to a daylight brightness, though the sun had set hours ago. The three guests hurried out of the car and up the steps to be let inside, pushed along by the chill wind. Already, they could hear music straining through the doors, and the long line of parked cars to the side of the building showed that they were far from the first visitors to arrive. 

Hilde, her father, and Kircheis were shown into the great hall of the house, where brilliantly decorated tables encircled a dance floor. The room was crowded and loud already, filled with what seemed like half the nobility of the capital. Perhaps it was half the nobility of the capital. There was a party being held at Neue Sanssouci, and in past years, that was the one that Duke Braunschweig and his family had graced with their presence. However, this year, that party was being hosted as a mere formality only, and attended by guests chosen by Secretary of State Lichtenlade, rather than by the Kaiser. It was one of many signs of the Kaiser’s deteriorating health, and it also meant that the two camps in primary competition for the throne, Duke Braunschweig with his daughter Elizabeth, and Marquis Littenheim with his daughter Sabine, were able to hold parties for their own clans and supporters. 

The party was too loud and crowded for the hosts to greet everyone who walked in at the door. Hilde spotted Princess Amarie across the room, already deep in conversation with a gaggle of women, all dressed in the most elegant gowns imaginable. She didn’t see Duke Braunschweig, but she did see the man she was actually scanning the room to find: Captain Hank von Leigh, who was seated by himself at one of the tables, chin resting on his hands, watching people dance with a rather doleful expression. He had a glass of wine half-drunk in front of him.

“There’s Hank!” Hilde said. That was all it took for her father and Kircheis to follow her over.

Leigh didn’t notice them coming until they were on top of him, and when he did notice, he stood in a most ungainly manner, nearly tipping his chair over in his haste. Up close, Leigh’s most distinctive features were obvious. His dark eyes, his soft face, his messy crop of hair so black that it was almost blue: all marked him as a foreigner, strikingly different from everyone else in the room. But he smiled, tense and wan, at the three who approached him. Kircheis saluted when they got close, and Leigh saluted back.

“Count Mariendorf,” he said, “I didn’t expect to see you here tonight.” Although he and Hilde’s father were good friends, there was a strained note in Leigh’s voice.

“I’m afraid that I couldn’t turn down the invitation,” her father said. “May we sit?”

“Of course,” Leigh said. “Maggie— Baroness Westpfale— is sitting there, but the rest of the seats are free.”

“Maggie’s here?” Hilde asked. “Where?”

Leigh pointed across the room, where Hilde could see that Magdalena von Westpfale was among the circle of Princess Amarie’s hangers-on, now that Hilde knew she was looking for her.

“And how did she manage that?” her father asked.

Leigh flushed and tugged at the hair at the back of his head, a peculiar but endearing nervous gesture. “I told you, we look better together than we do apart, sir,” he said. “She agreed to let me help redeem her from disgrace.”

Her father raised his eyebrows. “Congratulations!”

“I think I’m missing something,” Hilde said, and glanced at Kircheis, who shrugged.

“I asked Baroness Westpfale to marry me,” Leigh said. “Just last week. We weren’t intending to make a big deal out of it.”

Something in Hilde’s stomach did a strange flip-flop, but she smiled. “Congratulations.”

“Are you going to be the Baron Westpfale, sir?” Kircheis asked.

Leigh cringed and picked up his wine to avoid answering the question, which made some of the odd tension dissipate.

“I will have to find something to drink to your happiness,” Hilde’s father said, taking his seat. Hilde, Kircheis, and Leigh followed suit.

“Thank you, sir,” Leigh said. He turned to Kircheis. “I expected that you would want an evening off at home away from all of this.” He waved his hand to vaguely encircle the room.

Kircheis smiled. “I don’t mind. Fraulein Hilde wanted an escort.”

“And her father simply wouldn’t do,” her father said.

“If I had known Maggie was going to be here, I might not have forced you to come,” Hilde said.

“I didn’t have any big plans I’m missing out on,” Kircheis said. “Martin is having some friends over, but I don’t really know them, so I don’t think he minds me skipping out.” Kircheis shared a rented apartment with his friend, Martin Bufholtz, which he claimed was far nicer than the housing that was available to most junior officers. Hilde didn’t know if it really was nicer (it was a little run down, and not particularly spacious), but it was a cozy place that she visited on a fairly regular basis. She and Martin were schoolmates— they both attended Odin National University, though they studied different subjects, and Martin was several years ahead of her.

“I should have invited Martin, and you could have tagged along after Hank,” Hilde said, which made Kircheis shake his head with a fond smile.

“I don’t think this is really his milieu, Fraulein Hilde.”

“No, probably not,” she agreed. “But it would have been funny.”

“Do you know if it was Duke Braunschweig or Princess Amarie who invited you?” Leigh asked.

“Duke Braunschweig,” her father said. He scanned the room. “I doubt it was very personal as an invitation; there’s plenty of other minor nobility here tonight.”

“I don’t know most of them,” Leigh said. “And it seems like most people in the fleet have ended up at Neue Sanssouci tonight.”

“I’d have to think that’s for the best.” But her father continued to look around. “Though there’s Baron Merkatz, and his brother.” He nodded at two grey-haired men. “So, not all fleet staff are at Neue Sanssouci.”

“I know. I spoke with Admiral Merkatz earlier.”

“How is he?”

“Fine, I believe. I’m not sure if he’s happy that I’m working for Duke Braunschweig, but he was glad to see me, I think.”

“I’m glad everyone’s past indiscretions are being forgiven and forgotten, these days. Do you know what he’s doing on Odin? Isn’t he usually stationed out of Iserlohn?”

“I couldn’t say, sir.” This phrasing from Leigh set off an alarm in Hilde’s head, but she just listened to the conversation without interjecting. 

Her father and Leigh didn’t have time to say much else to each other, though, because Baroness Westpfale had noticed the new arrivals at Leigh’s table and disengaged herself from Princess Amarie’s circle to come swooping over. She wore a beaming smile on her face, brighter by far than the white-sparkling beads of her blue gown.

“Count Mariendorf! I did not expect to see you here!” Magdalena said.

“Nor I, you,” her father said. “I understand some congratulations are in order?”

“Hank, you ruined the surprise,” Magdalena said cheerfully, going over to lean on Leigh’s shoulders.

“Congratulations, Maggie,” Hilde said. “Do you have a date set?”

“Oh, no, I haven’t even started thinking about planning,” Magdalena said. She tapped her chin with her fingers. “Though I’m sure we mustn’t make it too long of an engagement.”

“I’m sure if we set a date, there will be some sort of calamity that comes up right before it and ruins every plan we have,” Leigh grumbled, though he was smiling.

“Maybe we should go to the courthouse tomorrow, then, darling,” Magdalena said with a wicked smile on her face.

“Tomorrow’s a public holiday,” Leigh countered. “Courthouse won’t be open.”

“What a tragedy,” Magdalea laughed and flopped down into her seat. She picked someone else to antagonize, and her eyes settled on Kircheis. “Herr Kircheis! How’s your little republican friend doing? The one who wanted to plaster every street corner with propaganda.”

The tips of Kircheis’s ears turned red. “He’s fine, Baroness.”

Magdalena laughed. “Hilde, darling, does your father know that you’re hanging around with dangerous elements of society?”

“Maggie—” Leigh said, but Magdalena just waved her hand.

“It’s no trouble to me, of course,” Magdalena said.

Hilde’s father looked over at Leigh, who just shrugged, looking embarrassed at Magdalena’s antics. “Hilde has always been a good judge of character,” her father said.

“Oh, I know.” Magdalena leaned forward, elbows on the table, looking between Hilde and Kircheis. “You two ought to try harder to get away from me and my meddling.”

“I like your meddling, Maggie,” Hilde said. “I’m glad you were able to come.”

“Oh, you flatter me far too much, my darling.”

But Kircheis smiled and tugged Hilde’s sleeve. “Care to dance?” he asked. “I think she’s trying to get rid of us.”

“I would never!” Magdalena said, smiling.

“I’m not really dressed to dance,” Hilde said, glancing down at her suit.

“Go enjoy yourself,” her father said.

Hilde glanced at Leigh, who gave her a tiny nod, and then finally sighed and got up, heading away from the table with Kircheis. She glanced back at the table a few times as they walked to the dance floor.

“I’m not very good at dancing,” she warned Kircheis as they joined the crowd, offering him her hand.

“That’s alright,” he said. “I don’t mind.”

The music, played by a band at the front of the room, was loud and lovely, some sort of sweeping string piece. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

“I don’t know,” Kircheis said. “I’m sure if you ask Captain Leigh, he’d tell you.”

“My father probably would, as well.” She frowned, but tried to relax. Dancing with Kircheis wasn’t unpleasant, at least. He was sturdy and sure-footed. Still, she felt quite out of place among all the other dancers in swirling gowns, and now that she wasn’t sitting down at her table, the eyes of other people were on her, not all of them kind. She kept looking around, accidentally catching some stranger’s eye, then looking away back at Kircheis, who was placid as usual.

“I think you look nice,” he said to her after some time, understanding her without her needing to say anything.

“Thanks. I’m a sight better than when I was dressed in a cadet uniform, I guess.”

“You looked good in that, too.”

“Are you flirting with me, Sieg?”

“I’m just telling you the truth.”

“You look nice, too,” she said. “Which is also just the truth.”

“Thank you, Fraulein,” he said with a little laugh.

On their next turn, she glanced back at the table they had left. Magdalena was leaning on Leigh’s arm, saying something to her father.

“I can’t believe Maggie’s getting married,” Hilde said.

“And Captain Leigh.”

“Did you know, I was the one who introduced them?”

Kircheis laughed. “Really?”

“Hank escorted me to a party that Maggie was hosting,” Hilde said. “This was years and years ago. I couldn’t even tell you why I wanted to go so badly. I guess I just wanted to be grown up.”

“You don’t like parties, Fraulein?”

“I do,” she said. “But I don’t know what I expected to get out of going to Maggie’s back then.” She shook her head.

“Not everything you do needs an explanation. Baroness Westpfale invited you to a party, so you went.”

“Just like you’re here because I asked you to come?”

He smiled at her. “I can’t blame you for wanting company.”

She laughed a little. “You should have just invited me to Martin’s party.”

“The wine is probably nicer at this one.” He was joking, and so she laughed.

“Why didn’t you stay home for Martin’s party, really, Sieg?” she asked. “You’d probably prefer it.”

“I—” He looked away for a second. She had hit some sort of nerve that she hadn’t known she was poking at. “I’m sure it’s the same reason why he wouldn’t feel right here.” He rubbed his head, a mannerism that he was sure to have picked up from Leigh. “I’d rather not get too acquainted with all of his friends, in the same way that I can’t talk to him about work.”

“Oh.”

“Your father doesn’t mind Martin, does he?”

“Of course not,” Hilde said. “He’s glad I have friends at school.”

“Your father’s a good man.”

“I know.” There was something in Kircheis’s voice, but it was an old, familiar hesitancy from him.

“He likes you, too, you know, Sieg.”

He just smiled at her. Hilde didn’t really understand the mental arithmetic that Kircheis did every time he interacted with her father, and no matter how many times she told him he was overthinking it, he wouldn’t listen.

They danced for a little while longer, though Kircheis remained quiet and thoughtful.

“What’s on your mind, Sieg?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Nothing, really.” It was his turn to glance back at the table, where Magdalena was pulling Leigh to his feet, tugging him towards the dance floor with a pleading expression. It was clear that he was going to go, but they were both enjoying making her fight for it. “Everything’s just changing so fast,” he said eventually. “Last year was so different— it feels like I don’t know where anything stands anymore.”

“Not just because of that surprise, I hope,” she said, nodding to indicate Magdalena and Leigh, who were making their way onto the dance floor now.

“No,” Kircheis said. “It’s everything. The fleet, the Kaiser, Martin…”

Hilde tilted her head. “What’s going on with Martin?”

“Nothing,” he said. But that was clearly a lie.

She squeezed his arm. “Well, if it’s any comfort, I’m still the same.”

He turned his usually calm gaze on her, and when she met his eyes, she was surprised by how wide they were and unsteady he looked. “Fraulein Hilde—”

“What is it, Sieg?”

He shook his head and said nothing, then turned to look back at Leigh and Magdalena, who were now dancing. Her head was resting on his shoulder, and his hands were on her waist. They weren’t really dancing, more just standing there in the crowd and shuffling as much as Leigh could manage. Hilde suddenly felt like a voyeur for watching, like she was one of the unfriendly gazes who had been staring at her and Kircheis all night, and she said, “I think I need some air.”

Kircheis immediately dropped his hands and let her go. “Of course.”

“I’ll be back,” she said, and then hurried away, feeling bad in a way that she couldn’t define about whatever it was that had just happened. It seemed like nothing had happened, and yet Kircheis was right: for some reason, everything was changing, and ground that had once been solid was shifting beneath her feet.

Freeing herself from the crowd on the dance floor gave Hilde some measure of relief, but she hadn’t been lying when she said that she needed air. It was hot in the room, and she was sweating under her suit. As she passed a table of refreshments, she picked up a wineglass, and then spotted a door to one of the balconies that overlooked the Braunschweig’s garden. It was freezing outside, so she was sure to be able to steal just a moment for herself to come back to her senses out there.

Hilde looked around to make sure no one would scold her for going out, then pushed open the glass door quickly, stepping out into the ice-cold night air. It was an immediate relief. The air was crisp, and her breath rose around her in a cloud. The music and thrum of the crowd was now only faint behind her, and she leaned on the stone balcony railing and looked out over the bare night garden, only a few statues illuminated by spotlights. Thus distracted, it took her far too long to realize that she was not alone on the wide balcony, as she had expected that she would be. She was being silently observed by someone a little ways away, who must have come out the other door to the same balcony, and had been standing there silently before Hilde arrived.

The other person was dressed much more warmly than Hilde was: wrapped in a fur jacket so voluminous that the individual hairs moved in dappled, shifting patterns with the slight breeze that blew across the balcony. She was young, Hilde’s age or a year or two younger. Her dark hair was elaborately done up, and a silver coronet with segments like twinkling stars sat atop her head. Beneath her jacket, Hilde could see the bottom third of the emerald green gown she was wearing. Golden light from indoors spilled across her face, and Hilde recognized who the woman was. This was Elizabeth von Braunschweig, one of the claimants to the throne. They had never spoken before, but they had occasionally been in the same social spaces, and she was recognizable.

Hilde turned, then bowed to her. “I’m sorry, Lady Elizabeth,” she said. “I didn’t see you there.”

Elizabeth waved her hand. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s just too hot in there.”

“You don’t mind the company?”

“No,” Elizabeth said. Moved by some impulse, Hilde walked towards her, wine glass in hand. Elizabeth looked her over more carefully. “You’ll be freezing in a minute.”

“I’m fine,” Hilde said. Her suit was warmer than it looked.

“I thought you were a gentleman, before you said anything.”

This made Hilde flush, though the dim light and the fact that her cheeks were already turning red from the cold did plenty to hide it. “No,” she said. “I’ve just never preferred dresses.”

“Strange,” Elizabeth said, turning back towards the garden. “I couldn’t picture myself in trousers.”

“They’re comfortable,” Hilde said.

“What’s your name?”

“Hildegarde von Mariendorf. Count Mariendorf’s daughter.”

“I think I’ve met your father at Neue Sanssouci before.”

Hilde didn’t know what to say to that. “It’s a lovely party,” she said.

“It’s my mother’s doing. And the staff, of course.” She leaned forward on the railing. “I had nothing to do with it.”

“Isn’t it for your sake?” Hilde asked, feeling strangely bold.

Elizabeth laughed. “Maybe.” She turned around, so that she could rest her back on the railing and look at Hilde more easily. “I assume since you’re here, your father intends to support mine when my grandfather dies?”

“I don’t think it’s my right to give you that answer,” Hilde said. 

This made Elizabeth smile for the first time. “Of course.” She noticed the wine glass clutched in Hilde’s hand. “Are you going to drink that?” she asked.

Hilde had forgotten all about it, and her fingers were now so cold that she could barely feel them. “Oh, uh, no, I suppose not.”

Elizabeth reached out and took it from her hand, tugging it from Hilde’s frozen grip by prying her fingers off of it. Her hands, from being tucked inside the sleeves of her fur coat, were quite warm, and Hilde’s eyes widened at Elizabeth’s boldness.

“To your health, Lady Mariendorf,” Elizabeth said, raising the glass with a strange smirk. She winced at how cold the glass was when she put it to her lips, but drank the whole thing in one go.

“Just Hilde, if it pleases you,” Hilde managed to say, watching Elizabeth down the wine.

“Hilde, then. But I don’t expect you to call me Liz.” She looked at the empty glass, then held it back out for Hilde to take, which she did, confused.

“Of course, Lady Elizabeth.”

“My mother would hate to see me drinking,” she said, by way of explanation, though that only covered a fraction of Hilde’s confusion. Elizabeth looked at Hilde for a moment more, then said, “You really are going to freeze out here.”

“I’m fine,” Hilde said again.

Elizabeth looked at her for a moment, then shrugged off her fur coat and handed it to Hilde, who took it, too surprised to say anything. Elizabeth’s shoulders were bare now, and gooseflesh rose on her arms instantly. Taking off her coat revealed a brilliant necklace with a stone that sparkled at the hollow of her throat. “I ought to go back to this party. As you say, it is for my sake. Now that you’ve fortified me, it should be a little easier,” she said. “But if you still insist on getting some air, you might as well be warm while you do it.”

“Thank you, Lady Elizabeth,” Hilde said.

“If our fathers are to be allies, I’m sure I’ll see you again,” Elizabeth said, and without another word, she pushed open the glass door and went back inside the party. Hilde slipped the fur coat on. It was still warm from Elizabeth’s body, and it smelled like her perfume, something floral and girlish. Hilde wrapped it tight around herself, not wanting to go back inside.

She stayed out there for a long while, just thinking, and she had just about worked up the strength to go back into the party when the balcony door opened behind her, and Leigh came out.

“Sub-lieutenant Kircheis was worried that you had vanished into the ether, you know,” Leigh said, startling her.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hilde said.

“Did he do something to upset you?”

“Sieg? No, I don’t think so. I just needed some space.”

“I understand,” he said. “These things can be a challenge to get through in one piece.” He ran his hand through his hair, then tilted his head back to look up at the sky. “I’m sorry for chasing you away from the table, earlier.”

“It’s alright,” Hilde said. “I understand.”

“Thank you for understanding.” Leigh seemed content to stand in silence and look up at the stars. It was a brilliantly clear night out.

“You aren’t having some kind of argument with my father, are you?” she asked after a second.

“Why do you ask that?”

“Neither of you seemed happy to see the other tonight.”

“Any other night, any other place,” Leigh said with a sigh. “I think it’s a mistake for your father to ally with Duke Braunschweig.”

“Oh,” Hilde said. “Why?”

“Because he’s doing it only because I’m here, and I don’t deserve that kind of loyalty.” He shook his head. “There’s no way that this won’t be bloody, and I wish he— and you— didn’t have to get caught up in it.”

“It was Duke Braunschweig who invited him, not you.”

“Duke Braunschweig knows that your father’s contacts and talents from working in the Colonial Affairs office would be useful to have. Even small, outlying colonies might have a part to play in a civil war.” He stuck his hands into his pockets. “Your father would make a fine emissary, and he’s well respected among the smaller noble houses— there are many reasons for Braunschweig to curry your father’s favor. But that’s not why your father came.”

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

Leigh pulled his gaze back to the ground and smiled at her. “I know.” He turned back to look at the garden. “And I know that there isn’t going to be any avoiding choosing sides, and in the end if he must choose a side I’m glad that it’s mine, but all the same…”

“I understand.”

“Where’d you get that coat?” he asked.

“Oh,” Hilde said, and felt embarrassed. “It’s Elizabeth von Braunschweig’s. She let me borrow it. I’ll have to give it back to her.”

“You know her?”

“No. I think this was the first time we ever spoke.”

“And what did you think of her?”

“I don’t know.” That was the truest thing that Hilde could say. She looked at the empty wine glass, which had been left on the balcony railing, and curled her fists in the warm pockets of the coat.

“Can I say something?” Leigh asked. “An observation, I suppose?”

“Of course!”

“I think everyone is trying to forget that she is the one who will wear the crown, not Duke Braunschweig. Everyone should be remembering that they’ll have to swear fealty to her, not her father.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“We should go back inside, or Kircheis will think that we’ve both been abducted.”

“Yes, sir,” Hilde said. 

They walked back in together, and with some reluctance, Hilde found a servant to hand Elizabeth’s coat to, so that it could be returned to its rightful owner. The rest of the party passed much more cheerfully until near midnight. 

Whatever tension that had passed between her and Kircheis no longer felt material, and her father and Leigh had mended their discomfort while she had been gone. And suddenly, watching Magdalena torment Leigh and him cheerfully grimace at her antics didn’t strike any strange chords in her heart. Instead, Hilde found herself scanning the crowd to catch glimpses of the dark-haired Elizabeth, who sometimes stood by her mother’s side, and sometimes by her father’s. Hilde almost wanted to go speak to her, but decided against it.

At around midnight, she stood in between her father and Kircheis to listen to Duke Braunschweig’s sonorous toast to the future of the Empire, the health of Kaiser Friedrich IV, and the spirit of friendship between all the guests in the room. Leigh looked annoyed with it all, but he smiled when everyone began counting down to midnight, and he raised his glass as enthusiastically as everyone else when the clock struck and the band began to play.

Magdalena didn’t let him drink his toast, and kissed him, instead, which made him blush.

“You should know that that’s what you’re supposed to do at New Year’s, Hank,” she said. “Now you can drink.” And she knocked her glass against his, laughing.

Kircheis seemed pensive, and Hilde nudged him to get his attention over the rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ the band was playing. “Happy New Year, Sieg,” she said.

“Happy New Year, Fraulein Hilde,” he said, and smiled.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked. 

“Auld acquaintance.”

This got Leigh’s attention. “Isn’t it funny to think that everyone around the galaxy is celebrating this night just the same?” he asked. “No matter where they are.” His own expression and tone were melancholy, for a moment, “Iserlohn, Phezzan, Heinessen… We all want the new year to treat us well.”

“I hope it does,” Hilde’s father said.

Leigh opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. Hilde knew what he was thinking, and was glad that he hadn’t said it aloud.

“I’m sure it will,” Hilde said. “Happy New Year!”