Once upon a time, there was a woodsman who couldn't afford to keep his children, so he let them loose in the forest with just a bindlestiff of food…
Once upon a time, a man's wife died, leaving behind just him and his daughter. He remarried, but the new wife had two daughters of her own. These two girls received all the love and attention the man's daughter once did, while she was turned into a scullery maid…
Once upon a time a king and a queen had a daughter, but the queen died soon after. The king remarried, but the new wife was a witch, and poisoned him soon after their marriage…
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time, some men came from the imperial court at Neue Sans-Souci. One of them had seen a beautiful blonde girl walking home from the market, since she was too poor to own a car and her father too drunk to drive her anyway.
In the years that followed, Annerose von Müsel found it strange what details she recalled from that day. She remembered the sun as it reflected glaringly from the polished cherrywood of the coffee table. She remembered the monotone of the conversation to which she had little to contribute. She remembered the expressions on the faces of the men as they took the first forkfuls of cake and realized that her skill in the kitchen increased her marketability to more than originally suggested. One of them lifted the money card from the table and raised the amount on it. She numbly realized that this number, this monetary amount, represented her.
"So what do you think, liebchen?" her father asked. His permanently red-rimmed eyes were afraid, not hopeful. Bringing money into the house would only help them a small amount. Her presence there was more useful to him. Without Annerose, who would go to the market? Who would manage the finances? Who would clean the house? Who would…
She cut that last question off. "I need a little time to think about this," she told their guests.
Annerose went up the stairs from the downstairs parlour to her music room. This was a small room that seemed to have been put in as an afterthought in the already small house. It was too narrow to be a bedroom, so all it held was her piano against one wall. She sat down at the keyboard, the window beside her. She liked to look out this window in the afternoon, watching for Reinhart and Siegfried to come home from school. The happiest part of every day was seeing them come down the front walk and going downstairs to meet them, cake and glasses of milk already prepared.
The imperial court was asking her to give that up. At least, that was what they were saying verbally. No one had suggested what might happen if she were to refuse, but Annerose knew that it would be like refusing to pay taxes or give military service. Prison for her father, the streets for her brother, and into the palace with her anyway.
Instead, they had talked about all the benefits she would receive, like private tutors in the fine arts.
Annerose started playing the piano, a little waltz she had always liked. Private tutors for herself. She didn't play piano badly, but she hadn't had any lessons in a long time. That would be a nice thing to have. She loved baking and the old oven downstairs was more of a nemesis than an ally in her projects. Certainly the ovens in Neue Sans-Souci would be state of the art. She'd no doubt have her own room where she could play piano, embroider, grow flowers, all the things she didn't have time or money for now.
As for the price…she would probably have to yield her body to the Kaiser. Probably. Perhaps not. She'd always heard rumours that he already had a mistress to whom he was reasonably faithful. In the past, though, his appetites had been infamous.
Annerose's hand rose protectively to her collar. Even if she did give in to the Kaiser's demands, it'd just be going farther than what her father tried to do when he was stinking drunk. Annerose snorted snoftly. At least the Kaiser would pay her.
Pay her…one of her fears had always been that Reinhart would never be able to make anything of himself because they were poor. If she had money, she could make sure he got a good education and some hope for the future. Their father certainly wasn't going to be of any help to Reinhart. He only had his sister to protect him now.
Annerose's own desires had always been simple. She was a homebody. She loved her kitchen and garden and needed little else. She'd always hoped for marriage and children, possibly with a nice imperial officer for whom she could build a cozy nest of a home. She didn't know if that would be possible at court.
One thing was clear though. While it would separate her from her beloved brother and his adorable little friend, it would at least get her out of this house and give Reinhart more of a chance than he would otherwise. Reinhart was the most important thing to her. This was key.
She slowly descended the stairs, running her hand over the banister on which Reinhart and Siegfried sometimes slid, once crashing into her as she carried pies from the kitchen. No one had been hurt and Reinhart had looked like something out of a movie with merengue all over his face. She smiled a little at the memory. This was a sad house, but some laughter managed to enter, almost always carried in by the two boys.
She walked into the parlour, where her father was not talking to the two men. "I've made my decision. I will go to the palace."
"Then it's all settled." The first of the two men touched a button on the money card, presumably activating it. "von Müsel, we'll pick up Annerose in a week, on the 23rd. Will that be all right?"
"It'll give us time to say goodbye," her father said.
Annerose's skin crawled. "It doesn't need to be so long. I'm looking forward to seeing the palace."
The men looked surprised. "We can send a car for you tomorrow."
That concluded the transaction. Annerose took the cake plates and coffee cups and went back into the kitchen. She had only an hour before Siegfried and Reinhart came home. She wasn't sure if there was enough cake left for them. They would be upset if there weren't.
She started sobbing as she washed the dishes, feeling the tears slide down her cheeks to fall into the sink below. A moment later, her father, came into the kitchen behind her, to pick up the latest bottle of single malt. He put a hand on her shoulder.
"You don't have to do this," he told her.
"Yes, I do," she said. "I've had to carry this house since Mama died. This way, you and Reinhart will never have to worry again." She wiped her face on a tea towel and started pulling out sugar and cake flour, refusing to say another word. It was the last time they would ever speak to each other.
Reinhart came into the house without Siegfried, for once. She could tell, even though she was up at the piano again, because of the anguished cry in his child's voice, "You've sold my sister!" She heard the crash of something glass being thrown to the floor, then footsteps on the stair. She turned around and Reinhart flew into her arms.
"Don't go!" he pleaded with her, crying as hard now as she had been earlier in the kitchen. "I won't let the Kaiser take you away from me!"
"Reinhart, it's more complicated than you know," she told him softly. She had to be calm. If she showed fear, he'd fall apart. "We might not be able to see each other for a little while, but it'll be for the best."
"I don't want their money! I'd rather be poor!"
She pushed him back and held his upper arms. "Look at me." He turned watery blue eyes towards her, his lips trembling. "There's more to this than just money. It's…"
Annerose stopped. If she said she was doing this for him, Reinhart would blame himself. She couldn't let him know her fears for him if he stayed in the house. Best he blame their father and the Kaiser.
"There's more to this than money, Think of it this way," she forced a smile, "the Kaiser will let me be like a princess, living in the palace."
"I don't want you to be a princess! I want you to be my sister!" He tore himself from her grip and ran down the stairs.
"I'll always be that," she said softly to empty air. She walked over to the window, from which she could see the front door of the Kircheis family's house. Reinhart didn't go there. She presumed that he'd run out towards the forest where he and Siegfried liked to play.
Sure enough, Siegfried came to the front door soon after. Annerose was ready for him. She met him at the door with a cake in a box. She took a few deep breaths before speaking to him.
"Sieg, Reinhart won't be able to play with you today. We're both going away."
Sieg's normally joyful expression became stricken. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going to serve the Kaiser in the palace. Reinhart will be going to a different school. I'm sorry."
She didn't hear the rest as she closed the door on him.
There wasn't much to pack. A few clothes, even though Annerose was sure they'd dress her the way the Kaiser wanted. Her sheet music. Cookbooks. Dolls and photographs. There was no way Annerose would go anywhere without pictures of Reinhart and their mother.
When the sun set, it started to rain. Annerose sat on her bed in the growing darkness, listening to it. Shortly after, Reinhart crept in and sat on the bed with her.
"Did I do something?" he asked.
Annerose put her arm around him. "No, of course not. It's just that I'll be able to take care of you much better this way. I wish I could make you understand."
Reinhart started crying again. She held him, resting her cheek on that beautiful blond hair of his. After a while she said, "I think you should go to Siegfried. He's sad and needs you too."
"I only want you right now."
"Okay." She held him tighter.
Later that evening, she made dinner and he ate it, probably thinking it was the last time she'd cook for him. She brought out a board game and they managed to play it, nibbling on the leftover cake. Neither of them laughed, though, and the missing laughter made things worse. At bedtime she tucked him in, then lay down on the floor, intending to only stay until he fell asleep.
Annerose found that she couldn't bring herself to go to her own room. That would mean precious hours away from her little brother, even if he was asleep. Eventually she pulled an extra blanket from the closet and lay back down again, surrounded by schoolbooks and a platoon of toy soldiers. Sometime after midnight, she fell asleep.
The next morning dawned gray and wet. Annerose got up before Reinhart, washed up and changed, then went downstairs to make him his last breakfast for a long while. He joined her soon after and made cooking difficult because he insisted on clinging to her whenever she was standing still.
They ate together in silence, then went into the parlour to wait for the car from the palace. Annerose sat on the couch with her suitcase on the floor inside the front door. Reinhart seemed more angry than sad now, and even though he leaned against her with his head on her shoulder, she could see him clenching and unclenching his fists.
"I know you're a good fighter," she told him, "but this is one you can't win. Not this time."
"I'll win someday," he told her. "Someday I'll fight the Kaiser and get you back."
"On the day you can beat the Kaiser, I'll be waiting for you," she told him.
All too soon, the car came. To his credit, Reinhart didn't hold her skirts and cry as she feared. The anger seemed to have displaced his grief momentarily. She handed her suitcase to the driver and leaned down to hug her younger brother. She felt his fists against her back, not clutching her dress but clenched to be fists and nothing more. She kissed him on the cheek, told him to be good and brave, and started down the walk as if to execution, the driver holding an umbrella over her head.
Suddenly she heard footsteps splashing quickly from behind her. Annerose turned to see Siegfried in his pajamas and barefoot, running up to her.
"Don't go away, Annerose!" he pleaded, his eyes now full of tears.
"Oh, Sieg." She ran her fingers through his red hair. "I wish I could stay. I need you to do something for me, though."
"I need you to be a very good friend to Reinhart. Will you promise me that? That you'll always be his friend?"
Siegfried nodded, tears running down his cheeks. "I promise."
"Then I know everything will be all right." Annerose kissed him on the forehead and got into the car. In the rearview mirror, she saw Siegfried standing in the rain until the car turned a corner. She sighed, fearing he was going to catch a cold.
It wasn't far to the palace, and she was allowed in through a staircase covered by an awning. Inside, she was surrounded by oak wood paneling, expensive carpets underfoot, and works of art every few feet. Annerose looked around herself. She could spend hours looking at everything in this hallway alone.
She was brought out of her reverie by the arrival of a tall, thin older woman, her hair done up in a prominent bun at the back of her head. She was dressed in a floor-length gown of wine-coloured satin, with the high collar decorated by a cameo brooch. She peered down at Annerose through a pince-nez.
"So you're the new girl. Welcome to Neue Sans-Souci. I am Frau Kroger, I oversee the ladies-in-waiting. Come with me. You're going to eat."
Annerose was of course not hungry, but knew she was in no position to say so. A footman in livery took her suitcase away as she followed Frau Kroger down several halls into a small dining room. She sat at the table and Frau Kroger took a place by her side. There was a table setting in front of Annerose, but none in front of her. Annerose picked up her napkin and spread it out carefully on her lap. Frau Kroger nodded to someone, and waiters entered with soup and a basket of rolls.
"Aren't you going to have something, Frau Kroger?" Annerose said.
"Thank you for asking, but no. I'm going to watch you and comment on your table manners."
Annerose's mouth went dry and she wondered how she was going to be able to eat under the eye of someone who was going to critique something so basic. A waiter brought a salad and a plate with a large roll and butter on it. Annerose picked up the roll and started to cut it in half with the butter knife.
"No. Break it into small pieces. Butter each piece individually."
Annerose corrected her mistake. She picked up the salad fork, receiving an approving nod as a reward, and managed to eat it without comment. A bowl of soup arrived next, and while she had the correct spoon, good posture, and didn't slurp, she was informed that she tipped the bowl in the wrong direction when she went for the last spoonfuls.
At the end of the meal she was told, "Your manners aren't too bad. I will give you the official book of court etiquette. Study it, we'll do a review later. Can you dance?"
"All right, dancing lessons will be arranged. Can you play a musical instrument?"
"Piano. I brought my sheet music."
"Excellent. I'll have your abilities appraised. Come now, I'll show you to your room."
Evening found Annerose sitting in a chair by the window. Nothing had gone the way she imagined. She had a pile of books, a calendar of appointments for dressmakers, shoemakers, beauticians, dancing lessons, etiquette lessons, and riding lessons. She didn't feel so much like an intended bed-warmer for the Kaiser as an inmate of an exclusive finishing school.
She'd eaten their food. She had no choice but to stay now.
Her room wasn't bad. Tall curtained windows looked out over a park. She had a curtained four-poster bed, her own bathroom and kitchenette, and the largest walk-in closet she'd ever seen. She didn't like the colours, but that was all she could complain about; they were too somber for her liking. She thought she might be allowed to redecorate; she'd been informed that her piano would be arriving in two days so she could play.
There was no phone or computer though. Her door only locked from the outside. She pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders and wondered what Reinhart was doing. More importantly, she wondered how he was doing. She hoped he'd taken refuge with Sieg.
Finally she couldn't see any reason to stay awake. She bathed, changed into a nightgown, and got into bed. The mattress was firm with a cushiony mattress pad. She settled into its softness, suddenly feeling the strain of two terrible days. She began to wonder what the next day would bring, then fell asleep.
It didn't seem as if she'd been asleep long when she was startled out of sleep by a hand on her doorknob. Annerose gasped and shot up in bed, holding the covers up to her chest. Terror flooded her; couldn't the Kaiser wait until she settled in before…?
"It's Frau Kroger," a familiar voice said as the beam from a flashlight illuminated the room. "I was just checking up on you."
"I thought…I was afraid…"
"There is nothing to be afraid of," Frau Kroger said. "Sleep well." She closed the door again.
In the morning, they at least knocked. Annerose dressed and was taken to breakfast in the same room she'd eaten her first meal at the palace. She went through the same exercises with Frau Kroger, who then dispatched her to the dressmaker.
"When can I call my family?" Annerose asked at lunch, when she next saw Frau Kroger.
"When you're presentable in court. That will be your reward. You will have two hours this afternoon to start reading those books I gave you. Here are the chapters I want you to read first. Supper will be your quiz."
That day set the tone for the next three weeks. Annerose studied how to act until her head spun with the intricacies. She took dancing lessons and learned how to choose clothes and jewelry. She showed off her piano playing and was praised for it. From morning till evening she was taught nonstop how to be a courtier.
The courtesan part would come later, she assumed. In the meantime, she'd been treated with nothing but efficient courtesy and very little human contact.
Finally she received the approval she'd been both hoping for and dreading. She was informed that there was a ball coming up and that she would be presented to the Kaiser.
"Will I be allowed to call my family after that?" she asked Frau Kroger as they finished her latest etiquette lesson in the woman's office.
"If you do well, you may call them. If you do poorly, you will be seeing them, having been sent back in disgrace."
The second idea had a certain fatalistic appeal, and for a moment, Annerose contemplated doing something gauche and scandalous. Then she remembered what this was for; Reinhart's well-being. She went to break in her shoes so she wouldn't get blisters that would make her clumsy on the dance floor.
On the evening of the great event, Annerose was assigned a maid, whose name was Gretchen. Gretchen was older than Annerose, and her lower-class origins were apparent as soon as she opened her mouth to say hello.
"I'm here to dress you 'n do your hair, miss," she explained. "I brought your gown from the dressmaker."
She rolled in a rack with a gown in a garment bag, but Annerose's hair and makeup had to be done first. She sat obediently in the chair in front of her vanity as Gretchen started brushing and styling her hair.
"It's a pity you need to put it up tonight, miss," Gretchen observed. "That's the prettiest hair I've e'er seen. Just like gold." She ran a few strands through her fingers. "And natural too, not a bit of tint. You're really lucky."
Annerose had nothing to say to that.
"Anyway, Frau Kroger told me to put it up, to go with the formal gown. Also they gave me this." She reached around and produced a wooden box the size and shape of a large book. Inside was jewelry; a necklace, bracelet, and hairpins with matching pale-blue stones.
"They're just aquamarines, since you're new here."
"They're lovely," Annerose murmured.
"Let's get them on you," Gretchen said.
First step, makeup. Second, putting her hair up. Third, putting on the dress. Annerose had already been through several fittings of the ball gown, which was of satin a shade lighter than the aquamarines and thus more a blue-tinted white.
When the whole procedure was completed, Annerose was a blonde ice princess. She stood in front of the mirror and longed to show herself to Reinhart. On second thought though, she was glad he couldn't see. She didn't want him to think that she was enjoying herself too much, lest he take it into his head that she had abandoned him.
Still, she had to admit at least to herself that she did like the dress, very much.
She was summoned to the ballroom. Annerose had been drilled on the procedure. There were several girls being presented at court. Some were discoveries like herself who were technically ladies-in-waiting, others were nobles of higher rank who were being presented to society. Both groups, she suspected, were there for the delectation of the Kaiser. Annerose, having a "von" in front of her name, was first in line after the debutantes.
She'd once read an article about soldiers whose task it was to board enemy ships. She'd read it with imagination engaged, picturing to herself what it must be like to be waiting in the belly of the boarding craft, wrapped stiffly in body armour in the dark, watching for the door to open, letting you out into the dangerous unknown.
The ballroom door opened in front of her and she thought she understood. Annerose took a few practiced steps in her dancing shoes into the brilliantly-lit room. She reached a gloved hand out to the officer-cadet who had been assigned as her companion and he led her across the floor to where the girls who had already been introduced were waiting with their partners.
After the last introductions, the musicians picked up their instruments again and began a waltz. Annerose at this point could perform one of these in her sleep. She was a much better dancer than the boy in front of her, to the point that it was hard to resist the urge to lead. She did, however, concentrating on the role she was playing, wondering if she was creating the right impression.
The waltz came to an end. Her partner turned her towards the end of the room, which she had been aware of but told herself not to see. Her partner bowed, she curtsied, and on rising had the first good look at Kaiser Friedrich IV.
He was seated in a throne that was modest to her thinking; just a large armchair carved of dark oak and upholstered in dull red velvet. The throne was beneath a cloth-of-gold canopy and behind the Kaiser there was a tapestry with the coat of arms of the Galactic Empire. Annerose would have loved to examine to see how the fabric had been made.
The Kaiser himself was not what she'd expected. She'd seen him on television, of course, though he didn't appear very often. In person, she was surprised by his appearance, and kept looking at him surreptitiously as her escort plucked two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter. The Kaiser was in his 60s, and despite rumours she'd heard about murderous intrigue surrounding him, he didn't look like a cruel man at all. In fact, he looked rather sad.
"Is this your first time at court?" her companion asked.
"I've been here a few weeks," she said. "I'm sorry, I don't think I heard your name."
"It's Ansgar. Ansgar Hundsmeister I'm a cadet in my third year at the academy."
"Do you like it?"
He looked a bit surprised. "Well, mostly. There's some things that I like, some that I don't, like marching. What do you think of the palace?"
Annerose looked around. The ballroom was gold and white, with massive crystal chandeliers sending sparkling light around the wide space. The parquet below her feet was dazzlingly white, except for the centre where a double-eagle design was worked into the floor. The music was wonderful although she wasn't sure if she liked champagne. "It's like a fairy tale."
He smiled in a non-committal fashion. "It is for a lot of people."
Annerose fished for a response. "I hope I'll be one of them. This is my first event here."
"I'm sure you'll do fine. Do you want to dance again?"
Annerose knew she had to be upbeat. She had to be lovely. She had to be entertaining. If her date wanted to dance, dance she would.
They danced, they had more champagne. She laughed at his jokes, which wasn't too difficult because Ansgar could in fact tell a joke well. Another cadet came over and asked her onto the floor; Annerose obliged.
She was seated in a chair by the wall, fanning herself and talking to both Ansgar and a newly-commissioned lieutenant when someone else came to her side. A tall, slender nobleman in a cranberry-coloured velvet jacket and knee breeches approached her and said, "Lady von Müsel, His Majesty would like you to approach the throne."
"Me?" she squeaked. She'd been mentally preparing for this moment for weeks, but now that it was here, she felt as if all the training beforehand had never happened. Fortunately, the man seemed used to this reaction.
"Take a deep breath, ma'am. There's nothing to fear. Please follow me."
With a glance at Ansgar and her other admirer, Annerose did as she was told. She followed the cranberry coat across the ballroom, to the foot of the dais. She stopped at the bottom step as she'd been instructed the day before and curtsied deeply.
"Your Majesty, I present to you Lady Annerose von Müsel."
"It's an honour and a privilege to meet you, Your Majesty," she said, eyes downcast.
"You may approach, Lady Annerose."
Annerose straightened and ascended the steps, plagued at each one by the image of her heel catching on her hem and sending her to the floor. Nothing of the sort happened. As she approached, a footman produced a low stool and placed it beside the throne, taking her hand and guiding her down onto it. Annerose figured this out immediately; she was allowed to sit but well below the Kaiser. Nonetheless, she was grateful because her knees were threatening to knock against each other.
"You're new here," the Kaiser said.
"Yes, Your Majesty. I arrived a few weeks ago."
"Are you being well-treated?"
"Yes, Your M—"
The Kaiser cut her off, saying, "A foolish question of me. Of course you're going to answer in the affirmative, aren't you?" He grunted slightly.
Annerose hazarded a smile. "In all honesty, Your Majesty, everyone has been very professional and I'm learning a lot about how to live at court. I have a piano and riding lessons. I'm content."
"You dance very well. Did you know how before you came here?"
"Thank you for the compliment, Your Majesty. I learned here."
" I would not have guessed. Come. You'll be my partner for the next dance."
Annerose gasped, then shut her mouth and smiled again. Her voice wouldn't obey her and the words, "Delighted, Your Majesty," came out in a mouse-squeak. She covered her mouth in embarrassment.
"Your blush is charming," the Kaiser declared, and as the musicians played the last notes of the piece, he stood and reached a hand down to her. Annerose took it and stood, careful to rise on her own power and not by pulling on the imperial arm.
As they walked down the steps, Annerose glimpsed a tall, black-haired woman who was pretending to conceal a ferocious scowl behind her fan.
They reached the floor. Annerose curtsied deeply; the Kaiser bowed ever so slightly. He placed one hand on her hip and took her hand in his other one. After that, everything was like a dancing lesson. The Kaiser was a much, much better dancer than Ansgar, each step falling exactly as she had been taught to expect. The Kaiser didn't converse and Annerose knew better than to speak until spoken to. She was glad about this, since she wasn't sure if she could make small talk and dance perfectly with the Friedrich IV at the same time.
The music came to an end. They curtsied and bowed again and the Kaiser took his leave of her. Annerose exhaled as he left; she hadn't been aware that she was holding her breath. She hastily found a waiter and picked up a glass of wine. It was a temptation to drain the whole glass, but she had to think of appearances.
"The first time the Kaiser asked me to dance, that was the first thing I did, too."
Annerose looked to her right and slightly behind her. The person speaking to her was a dark haired woman in a carnation-coloured dress. She was about Annerose's age and was smiling kindly.
"I was so sure I'd step on his toes," Annerose confessed.
The other woman smiled more widely and leaned forward a bit as she spoke. "I actually did," she told her. "I'm not nearly as good a dancer as you are."
"Everyone's been telling me how fantastic I am on the dance floor. I guess I must be because I'm utterly terrified," Annerose said with a slight giggle in her voice. It was a relief to feel able to do that. "I'm Annerose von Müsel."
"Magdalena von Westphal. I've never seen you at court before."
"No. I was just—" Annerose's voice trailed off. She hadn't thought about how she was going to explain why she was there.
"You were brought here because you're pretty," Magdalena said.
"That's one way to describe it."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of. A lot of careers start that way. I have an aunt by marriage who was brought here for her looks. She ended up as a lady in waiting to one of the Kaiser's cousins and eventually met my uncle. Frau Stalheim who teaches sidesaddle? Same thing, only she turned out to have such a knack with horses that they hired her there. On the other hand," Magdalena waved a hand discreetly at waist-level towards the dais, "there's Susanna von Benemunde with the black hair over by His Majesty. Came to the palace like you did, caught his eye, and now she's practically empress."
"Why doesn't he marry her?"
Magdalena leaned in closer. "Not a secret," she said, despite the fact that she was whispering. "First child stillborn, next one miscarried."
"Oh the poor woman!" Annerose exclaimed softly, raising her fingers to her mouth.
"She's not the only one, but she's his favourite." Magdalena looked Annerose up and down again. "Most people wouldn't be too sorry for her."
"Why not? That's an awful thing to happen to any woman, no matter how rich she is."
"True," Magdalena agreed. "A lot of people don't see it that way, but you're right."
"There are many things more important than money," Annerose told her.
"You've got a good heart," Magadalena told her. "It's not easy to keep that when you're attached to the palace. Not impossible, but not easy. Are you allowed to leave the palace yet?"
"No one has said that I am, so I would guess not."
"When you are, you should come to my family's place. I'd like to have you over."
Annerose smiled. "Thank you, that's very kind."
"It's just nice to find someone here who isn't fake," Magdalena said. "Listen, I have to mingle, but I'll talk to you again."
Magdalena disappeared into the crowd. Annerose fanned herself to give her hands something to do. She felt much more optimistic now that the possibility of a friendship had appeared.
The evening drew on. The wine and hors d'oeuvre trays were replaced by coffee and pastries. Again Annerose was glad because she was getting sleepy and the wine wasn't helping. She took a miniature strudel from a passing waiter and bit into it. She frowned and looked down at the morsel. She could make a much better one; this little thing was factory-made by the taste of it, with a canned filling. She finished what was in her hand and didn't look for another.
After midnight, the orchestra played the national anthem and the Kaiser retired for the night, taking Susanna von Benemunde with him. Annerose watched as people located their families and friends and went to the exits, talking and laughing. She hadn't seen where Ansgar or Magdalena had gone and wasn't sure what her next action was supposed to be. She went over to where the orchestra was packing up, until Frau Kroger located her and said it was all right to return to her room.
Gretchen was waiting to help her out of her dress and take off her makeup. "How did it go, miss?" she asked.
"I think it was all right," Annerose said. "I didn't step on the Kaiser's toes."
"I always wanted to see a ball," Gretchen told her.
"It's something to behold," Annerose agreed. "I enjoyed seeing all the dresses."
"Are the young gentlemen cute?"
"Yes, but everyone is so concerned with appearances that it's hard to have a good time. Especially the Kaiser. It's not like he can ever really relax and enjoy himself."
"Was he with Lady Susanna?"
"I saw her there, why?"
Gretchen hesitated as she brushed Annerose's hair. "Watch out for that one, miss."
"What about her?"
"Well…I probably shouldn't say this, but I'll feel I didn't do my duty as a good person if I don't. I can tell you're nice. The Kaiser will probably like you. And if he does, that woman will be your enemy."
"I couldn't blame her," Annerose said.
"It's nice of you to say that, but still. Miss, be careful. Just being good and kind won't be protection enough."
After Gretchen left, Annerose made herself a cup of herbal tea and sat at her little table to think. She needed the Kaiser to like her, and it seemed strongly possible that this could happen. Let Susanna von Benemunde hate her. All she needed was enough time to ask the Kaiser to get Reinhart out of that house. After that, von Benemunde could do her worst. Annerose would have accomplished what she came to do.
She picked up the little framed picture of herself, Reinhart, and Siegfried. If she freed Reinhart, she wondered if she could get Siegfried to school with him. Things would be easier for Reinhart if he had his friend with him.
She finished her tea, conscientiously put her cup away, and got into bed. Tomorrow she was allowed to sleep in, and she'd ask if she could send a letter to Reinhart. She was thinking about how to describe things to him when she fell asleep.
The next morning, Frau Kroger came to visit Annerose in her room. Annerose was on her balcony, taking in the late morning sun. Frau Kroger stepped out onto it with her and announced, "Lady Annerose, you were a great hit last night. Congratulations."
Annerose turned around. "Then you aren't going to send me home?"
Frau Kroger actually smiled a little at that. "Not at all. I was going to tell you that today you can call your family. We'll also bring you a box of stationery so you can write to them when you like."
"I was also told to ask you if there is anything you need or want. I know that this stage of being introduced to the palace is quite boring."
Annerose nodded. "I'd like some window boxes, enough to hang along the inside of this balcony, and soil and seeds or little plants to put in them. I hope that's not too much to ask."
Frau Kroger snorted. "You should hear some of the requests I get. That's the most modest one I've heard in all my time here. I'll send someone out to a plant nursery."
"That would be wonderful. This balcony has so much sunlight all day."
"I'll send them to you. We'll bring in a vidphone for you shortly."
"Thank you. Frau Kroger?"
"Who told you to ask me if I wanted anything?"
Frau Kroger raised an eyebrow. "His Majesty," she told her, and left the balcony.
An hour or so later, one of the ubiquitous liveried servants came in with a vidphone unit. He placed it on Annerose's table and said, "I will pick it up again in an hour." He left without another word.
Annerose turned it on and tapped in her house number. It rang a few times, and she began to fear no one would answer. Just before she tapped the "cancel" button, the screen lit up and her little brother appeared, the kitchen cabinets behind him.
"Sis!" he exclaimed, his face lighting up with joy. "When are you coming home?"
She smiled at him. "I don't know. No one has mentioned it, but they said I could talk to you you. How are you and Sieg?"
He pouted a little. "I'm okay. I got a detention for fighting at school. Sieg's really sad. He misses the cakes."
"Tell him the cakes will be back someday. You were fighting? With who? Why?"
He shrugged. "Some jerk at school. He said something ugly about you."
"That's not a good reason to get into a fight. Ignore those people, Reinhart. They're far beneath you and not worth you getting detentions."
"But he called you the Kaiser's slut!"
"Does he even know what that is?" Annerose's put on a big-sisterly "you're being stupid" tone.
Reinhart frowned. "I dunno. I don't know what it is. I just know it's something bad, so I jumped him."
"So you don't think that's what I am."
He looked downcast. "No."
"Then why should it bother you?"
Reinhart looked stricken. "I can't have anybody saying bad things about you, Sis!"
"It's not important, Reinhart, really. I'll tell you exactly what I've been doing. I've been taking a lot of lessons on how to be a lady, so I can get a job here at court. Last night, I went to a ball so I could show off what I learned in dancing class. I found out that girls like me often end up having really good jobs in the palace."
"Well, teaching horseback riding, or ladies in waiting to higher-class noblewomen, or--"
Annerose stopped mid-sentence. The next person Magdalena had mentioned in that sequence was Susanna von Bunemund, and she was the Kaiser's mistress. "Or they end up teaching classes in the palace, like my etiquette teacher. Maybe I could be the royal pastry chef." She tried to smile.
Her efforts were lost on Reinhart. "Are you coming home?"
"No, Reinhart, I'm not. I have to stay here and work." She decided she needed to change the subject to something she did and did not want to know. "Reinhart, how's Papa?"
Her little brother's expression turned to revulsion. "Drunk. He cries all the time. I don't know why, cause he got his money. He keeps grabbing me and hugging me all the time now, too. I don't like that."
Annerose felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. "Reinhart, I want you to lock your door at night. Can you do that for me?"
He looked puzzled. "Sure, Sis. Why?"
"Just do it. I don't want him to fall into your room and hurt himself on your floor. I know how you always have your toys lying there and I don't want you to start cleaning up just for him, you know?"
"The house is a mess since you left."
Annerose bit her lip. "I'm sure. I'm sorry. Reinhart, things will get better for you soon, all right? Be a little patient."
"I'm tired of takeaway food for dinner every night."
She sighed. "I'm not coming home, Reinhart. Ask the Kircheis family if you can eat there sometimes. Take some of Papa's money, say it's from me for groceries. I know they don't have much themselves."
They chatted a little more about Reinhart's school, but there wasn't much to say. He wasn't an outgoing boy, so his only friend was Siegfried. Annerose figured it was time to say goodbye.
"I don't want you fighting anymore," she told him. Be good and wait. Give Sieg a kiss for me and remember, lock your door."
"Come back, sis, please?" he pleaded one last time.
"Reinhart, I wish you could understand what I'm doing," she said. "I love you. I'll talk to you later." With that, she closed the connection.
Immediately after, she stood and began pacing, wringing her hands. Reinhart didn't have much time left before his father turned abusive. It was bound to happen; their father's drinking must be much worse and he wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Reinhart and herself. She stalked out onto the balcony. She had to do something. She had to get to the Kaiser, and the sooner the better.
The problem was, he had to approach her, not the other way around. It wasn't as if she could just flounce up to him and ask for a favour. She ran her fingers through her hair. How could she get into the Imperial presence? Frau Kroger would know. Furthermore, hadn't it been the Kaiser who asked that Annerose be given whatever she needed?
The soil, boxes, and potted flowers were delivered late that afternoon, along with gardening tools she hadn't asked for but was glad to receive. Annerose occupied herself with deciding how to arrange the flowers in the boxes. She was moving them around, trying to decide on the best colour combinations when Frau Kroger returned.
"Is everything to your satisfaction, Lady von Müsel?"
She smiled up at the woman. "Yes, better than satisfactory. I must thank His Majesty. Should I write him a note?"
"Yes. Also, he has a hunting party this weekend. He has asked that you attend, now that you've learned how to ride, a little. You can thank him briefly in person then."
"I'm still a little afraid of the horses."
"The stables will accommodate that. I'll schedule you with the seamstress, to make you a riding habit."
Annerose smiled gently. "Thank goodness. I've been wearing trousers to my lessons, which I don't like. I never feel right unless I'm wearing a skirt." She paused a moment before asking, "Could I get a calendar so that I can write all these down? I know there's always someone to remind me of what I need to do that day, but I'd like it if I could keep track of it myself."
"Oh, I was going to be bringing you your own scheduling book tomorrow. There will already be things written in it for you."
"I'll be waiting. Thank you again."
The week was more lessons and sessions with the dressmaker. Annerose was given a pile of new dresses that she formerly would have considered very fancy but that in the palace were everyday wear. She also began to be introduced to the nobles who normally occupied Neue Sans-Souci, and concluded that she liked very few of them. Most were older than she, landed, wealthy, and vapid. She saw Magdalena a few times, though, and she had a small group of friends who were quite pleasant.
It occurred to Annerose one evening as she sat at her table, looking out at her balcony garden and sipping a cup of tea, that while Magdalena's family was of better than modest rank, their friends were borderline commoners like herself. Their admission to the palace seemed to be based on the property they owned as hers was based on her looks.
When she asked the Kaiser to retrieve Reinhart from their house, she'd have to know where to put him. She'd seen many page boys at the palace, so that might be an option. It would allow them to be together as a family again.
A moment later, Annerose knew that would be entirely the wrong decision. Given Reinhart's penchant for fighting, his career in the palace wouldn't last long. Then again, from talking to Ansgar she'd formed the impression that Reinhart might do very well in the military as a first career, as opposed to going into the military for a few years after graduating from university the way most educated men did.
Or, if she was given the chance, she could ask the Kaiser most humbly for his wisdom.
The morning of the riding party dawned grey and wet. Annerose looked out her window with dread, hoping for a call saying it had been cancelled. None came. She made her own breakfast and dressed in her new riding habit. It wasn't a good colour for her at all, but the dressmaker had said it was the right thing for a riding party like this one. The dress was a dark, rich crimson which would look great on the dark Magdalena but that made Annerose look pale and ghostly. She wasn't pleased, especially since the whole effect was not improved by the stiff peaked riding hat she plopped down onto her head to finish. She especially disliked the pheasant feather in it.
"I'm not going to have any luck with His Majesty today," she grouched, and went downstairs to the stables.
The crowd of noble riders in the stable courtyard were a cheery bunch nonetheless. Annerose smelled hot mulled wine, which she was sure contributed to the atmosphere. While a drink of that sounded very nice in the chilly drizzle, she was still nervous enough around horses that she didn't want anything that might dull her wits.
A stablegirl led out Annerose's horse, a chestnut mare named Olga. Annerose had ridden her before and knew that she was docile enough, if a little nervous. She tended to shy from shadows, although when she did Annerose had always been able to calm her down with gentle words and a few pats on the neck. She climbed the steps of the mounting block and settled onto the sidesaddle, wrapping her legs securely around the horn on the side. Annerose had ridden both astride and sidesaddle and preferred the sidesaddle; the feeling of having something to grip with her legs as opposed to her hands made her feel more secure on her perch atop the horse's back.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, His Imperial Majesty, Friedrich IV!"
Annerose turned Olga in the herald's direction and removed her hat in unison with the other courtiers. The Kaiser rode out on an iron-grey gelding, Susanna von Benemunde on a small palomino mare by his side. Her riding habit was a deep blue-green, her hat decorated with peacock feathers. Her expression was sour and Annerose speculated that it was not only the disgusting weather but the fact that said disgusting weather was spotting and staining the velvet of her dress already. Annerose was very glad of the simple wool material of her dress, even if the colour made her grit her teeth.
The Kaiser was dressed like the other men, in riding jodhpurs, a leather jacket that looked water-resistant, tall boots, and a hunting cap of dark-green felt. He looked comfortable enough, especially since he was carrying his own rifle, as opposed to the other men, who were unarmed. Annerose wondered if this was to be a day of the court sitting in the wet and watching the Kaiser shoot, praising his every pull of the trigger.
They set out, led by a pack of hounds. Annerose braced herself for a long and unpleasant day. The drizzle was cold on her face; the hat only protected her so far. The trees looked more grey than green and Olga's hooves thudded in the softening earth rather than clip-clopping as they usually did. Annerose felt herself becoming very cranky, between the cold and the prospect of spending the day watching noblemen kill animals in this mess.
They rode several miles down the dirt road, then onto a smaller path into the woods. Cold water now dripped from the leaves onto Annerose's face and neck as well as just drizzling onto her face. Fortunately, Olga seemed unaffected, trudging dutifully along with the other horses, tearing off leaves in her teeth once in a while. After what seemed like an eternity of that, they arrived in a meadow where they were met by leather-clad men who Annerose took for huntsmen. They handed out the rifles to the waiting noblemen.
Some of the ladies had folding chairs to sit in, but Annerose was stuck on Olga, waiting for the bloodshed. Other servants were setting up a buffet table under a tent, which at least promised some warm food in the near future.
To her dismay, everyone but the ladies who were settling in under canopies and rugs began to ride across the meadow, led by the hounds and huntsmen. Annerose sighed, not wanting to follow, not wanting to be riding this horse, and simply wishing she could be in her own room in a dry dress, doing anything else. That was not going to happen though, so she wiped some water from her face and followed along.
One of the dogs made a strange cry and the sound that followed was a gunshot at a distance. Olga jerked a little, but kept going forward obediently. Annerose patted her neck and whispered, "Good girl. Nothing to be scared of."
Olga didn't start at the next shot, which was further away, nor at the next. The terrain of the meadow was soft, and Olga's gait became a rather comforting sway. The drizzle stopped as they rode and for a moment, Annerose saw a glimpse of blue in the sky. The huntsmen came towards the party carrying two ducks, talking about how there were more in the woods and that they could all try again after lunch.
Annerose smiled. Lunch. That sounded like a wonderful idea. As the others started turning their horses around, she paused to push a strand of hair that had fallen down from under her cap back into place.
Just as she had a loose grip on the reins, one of the men decided to let of one more shot, only a few meters from where Olga stood.
Years later, Annerose would joke that she thought she'd been the one shot from the muzzle of the rifle. Olga sprang forward with an equine squeal of terror and tore across the meadow. Annerose screamed and grabbed for the reins, which had been yanked from her hands. The ground whirled along underneath her and she was aware of nothing but pure terror and the need to hang onto the horn with her knees and grab at those reins before Olga got her killed.
Olga rushed into the woods and Annerose gave up on seizing the reins, instead just hanging onto the pommel of the saddle with both hands, whimpering. Olga crashed through the wet brush as if it were nothing in her way. She scraped her right side against a tree, which would have crushed Annerose's leg were she not on a sidesaddle. A series of hanging branches smacked her stingingly in the face, knocking her cap to the ground. Olga charged forward a few more meters and slowed for a moment, but before Annerose could regain control the horse picked a direction and hurtled off.
Annerose flattened herself against Olga's back, wrapping her arms around the horse's neck, hoping she would slow down. She looked forward and to her horror saw a small boggy pool ahead of her. Moaning, she held on tighter and closed her eyes—
---As an arm extended down along hers. She opened her eyes to see a gloved hand holding the side of Olga's bridle. There was another horse to the right of hers and the combined force of horse and rider brought Olga to a halt.
Annerose sobbed nonetheless and gasped out, "You stupid horse! I'm going to have the Kaiser turn you into glue!"
"I was thinking she'd make very tasty dog food, myself."
Annerose's eyes followed the arm up to the face and realized that the Kaiser himself was holding onto Olga. She sat up hastily and tried to bow from the waist, but since that involved leaning backwards over the horse, Annerose found herself almost toppling over. The Kaiser caught her with his right arm, which was free.
"Let go of the sidesaddle."
She did. The Kaiser nudged his horse closer in to hers and pulled her onto the saddle in front of him. Annerose looked up and noticed the men on horseback behind them. She blinked at them stupidly and realized that the whole hunting party must have seen her make a fool of herself.
"Oh," she said quietly.
"Are you all right?" the Kaiser asked. He reached up with a gloved hand and touched her face. Annerose winced and saw that there was blood on his glove when he pulled his hand away.
"I'm…I'm quite shaken, Your Majesty."
"I imagine you are," he agreed, shaking out his handkerchief and pressing it to the side of her face. "Franz! Take Lady von Müsel back to the palace, would you? Make sure a doctor sees to her."
Annerose wanted to say that she was all right, but the fact that she was bleeding put an end to that show of bravery. She held the handkerchief to her face and let herself be handled like a sack of potatoes from the Kaiser's saddle to Franz's.
As he handed her over, Annerose felt the Kaiser's hand on her right breast. It could have been accidental, but she doubted it. She suppressed the cringe of revulsion, pretending it didn't happen. She was good at that.
Leading Olga, Franz started back for the palace, being sensitive enough to steer clear of the other courtiers.
"I guess I really put my foot in it," Annerose said. "I'll never be able to show my face in court again without everyone laughing at me."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, miss," Franz told her. "Not every gel in court gets the Kaiser himself riding after her when her horse goes bonkers. I'd say you make quite the impression. Good thing you was wearing that red dress, though. Made it lots easier to see you flying through the woods."
Back at the palace, Gretchen and Frau Kroger immediately made a fuss over her. As the maid poured a hot bath, Frau Kroger stood by nervously as a doctor washed Annerose's face carefully, bathed her cuts in a solution that stung a little and covered them with bandages.
"She won't scar, will she, Doctor?" Frau Kroger asked.
"She won't now," he said. "Lady von Müsel, is it?"
He showed her the bottle in his hand. "Wash the cuts every six hours in this. I'll be in Monday to see how they're healing. Be careful when you wash your face, and go to the hairdresser to have your hair washed. Do that and no, you won't scar."
A few minutes later, Annerose was able to take her bath. She felt as if she was wrapped in cotton wool, with an undertone of dread, as if something awful was hanging over her head and she didn't know what it was. Had losing control of Olga been a faux pas? It wasn't as if it was something she could have stopped. The Kaiser had gone riding after her, would she be punished for putting His Imperial Majesty in danger? Everyone had been very comforting so far, but Magdalena had warned her against trusting anyone.
After a very long nap, Annerose spent some time at the piano, then killed the rest of the evening watching television.
The next morning she looked hideous. The medicine had stained her skin and the cuts on her face were now surrounded by bruises. Annerose burst into tears and refused to let anyone see her until the doctor came by the next day.
"Everything looks fine so far," he told her. "You're going to look worse the next day, but with aftercare, you'll be all right."
Annerose grunted and nodded. He probably didn't realize that her only asset was spoiled. Even if it was temporary, who knew what kind of rumours were circulating about her appearance? No one had seen her since Olga had taken off.
That same afternoon, Frau Kroger appeared at the door with another doctor.
"Lady von Müsel, this is Dr. Feldman. He's going to take a look at your face."
The doctor was dressed as any other palace physician would, in the short-sleeved white tunic of the medical corps. Still, he radiated an authority that stilled her anxiety for a moment. He sat her down and looked at the cuts again, then asked to see what medicine she'd been given.
"That's what I would have recommended," he told her. "Do what the other doctor told you to do and there shouldn't be any disfigurement, even if you scar easily. Use the rinse, let nature take its course, and don't pick at the scabs, no matter how tempting it is. If by chance you do scar, we'll see what we can do about it then."
"I'm very embarrassed," Annerose told Frau Kroger when the doctor had left. "So much fussing over me."
"Well, we can't have your looks ruined," the older woman said. "At least your recovery's well in hand. Dr. Feldman is one of the Kaiser's own physicians by the way."
Annerose spent much of the time during which her face was healing on her flowers. When she'd received them, it had been late summer, and the cold was now on its way. Since her plants had all taken, she brought them in and arranged them on shelves in her room, warmed by plant lights.
Finally the last scab came off while she was washing her face, leaving unscarred skin behind. Well, not completely unscarred, there was a bit of a white mark near her hairline, but makeup took care of that. Frau Kroger nodded approvingly at Annerose and sent her to the dressmaker again.
On the evening of the next day, a servant presented Annerose with an invitation on a silver plate. She took it, he bowed, and she closed the door. She opened the envelope and read the card inside. She dropped onto a chair in shock, fanning herself with the card to keep from fainting, then called Magdalena.
"The Kaiser's invited you to dinner?" Magdalena almost squealed when they met for tea.
"Yes! Magdalena, what do I do?"
"What do you think? Talk to the Headmistress," she advised, using her nickname for Frau Kroger, "and make sure you have the perfect dress. After that, they've given you all the etiquette classes, yes? Use them! And be cute and charming; that should be easy for you. Don't worry, Anna. He's going to love you. Who wouldn't?"
Susanna von Benemunde, Annerose thought to herself. That wasn't important now. What was important was to make sure the Kaiser liked her, and although Magdalena was completely sure that was bound to happen, Annerose wasn't.
If she went to the Kaiser with court manners and court clothing, talking about the doings at court, she'd just fade into the crowd of other girls who'd been brought to him for his enjoyment. What could she do? What would make her stand out as special?
Annerose suddenly remembered the men who had conducted her purchase raising the amount of money she was worth. She reached for paper and a pen and started writing a list. When she was done, she sent for a footman again and handed it to him.
"I need you to buy me everything on this list. Do whatever security things are necessary. It's for the Kaiser, and I need him to know he's safe with me."
A few hours later, the same footman returned, accompanied by a page, both of them carrying shopping bags. Annerose had them leave the packages on her counter, intending to start on her project the next morning.
Soon after waking, when other girls in her position would have been fussing at the hairstylist's and experimenting with their makeup, Annerose was in her kitchen, chopping apples and nuts.
Two hours before her dinner with the Kaiser, Annerose sat down in front of her flowers. Her project was finished and she'd cleaned up her kitchen. Gretchen would be over in an hour to help her dress. At the moment, there was nothing to do but sit and contemplate her fate.
This was the proverbial "it", she knew. This was the entire reason she'd been brought to the palace. She knew that other women had ended up serving there in respectable jobs, but there was no avoiding the fact that they hadn't been brought there for that purpose to start with.
She was going to be spending the night, or at least the evening, in the Kaiser's bed.
Annerose amended the thought. She'd better be spending the night in the Kaiser's bed. Having money in her family's bank account was well and good, but she had other things she needed to demand from the Kaiser, and this was the price she would pay.
She stood up to mist some of her plants. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. The Kaiser was old, but he wasn't ugly, and he had come riding to her rescue out there in the woods. Of course, he'd taken the opportunity to feel her chest, but she had the feeling that's just something men did. Certainly her father was like that.
Her father. Reinhart. She put down the plant mister and inhaled.
Gretchen came in to do her hair. "Nervous, miss?" she asked.
Gretchen brushed her hair thoughtfully. "I have a little flask in the pocket of my petticoat. It's schnapps, if you want a nip of it, miss."
Annerose considered. "I think I need a clear head. I'm sure the Kaiser will have a fine wine list."
"Just thought I'd offer."
A page came to escort Annerose to the Kaiser. She was in a pale rose gown this time, with long sleeves and a wide skirt. Her hair was arranged in a bun, tied with matching ribbons. In front of her she carried a cake on a plate, covered in foil.
"Ma'am, are you bringing that along?" the page asked.
"He'll be serving you dinner."
"I know," she said with steel in her voice.
The Kaiser lived in a palace across the grounds, so Annerose was whisked there by car. When she arrived, she went through security, attested to what footman had brought her ingredients, and had the cake scanned for poison. "You will, of course, be required to eat a random piece," she was informed.
"Of course, but I can't visit someone's home and not bring them something."
"Oh really?" the man asked dryly, and led her to an elevator.
The doors opened into a high-chambered, richly carpeted and decorated anteroom. Annerose went through another security check and the tall oak doors opened for her. They led into a high-ceilinged sitting room, full of comfortable-looking chairs and sofas, along with coffee tables and end tables. The Kaiser read in this room; one of the chairs was particularly worn and there was a stack of books on the table beside it. She noticed that there was a ring from a coffee cup sitting there.
The doors closed behind her. A moment later, a single door at the other end opened and the Kaiser stepped through it.
Annerose curtsied deeply. "Good evening, Your Majesty."
"Lady von Müsel." The Kaiser looked down at her quizzically. "Have you brought me a gift?"
"Yes, Your Majesty." She handed the dish to him. He placed it on one of the tables and lifted the foil.
"Apfeltorte! " He looked up at her, the skin around his eyes crinkling in evident delight.
"I hope you like it, Your Majesty."
"It's a childhood favourite of mine. No one's served me any since…" he paused to consider, "since my own mother was a young woman, I think. I never even thought to have someone make me one. Well, I'm sure the chef had dessert planned, but we can have this instead."
"We could have both," she suggested. "I'm always looking for new dessert recipes."
For a second she thought she'd said too much, telling the Kaiser what they should do for supper. Instead, he emitted a short laugh and said, "I like the way you think. Absolutely. Two desserts is something only a nagging mama would forbid, and thankfully," he reached out and took her arm, "we are not plagued by any here."
They sat down to dinner. Annerose settled her napkin on her lap, surveyed her silverware, and prepared to tip her soup plate in the correct direction as she finished it. A servant poured the first glass of wine and another brought in some fish soup.
"So you like to cook?" the Kaiser asked.
"Yes, but I prefer baking. I used to do it all the time, but haven't had much of a chance since I came to live at the palace."
"Did you used to bake often?"
Annerose smiled. "Oh yes. I made cakes for my little brother and his friend at least twice a week. Sometimes I sold pies at market for a little extra money too."
"The palace must be a great change for you."
"Yes, but it's interesting." Annerose had settled some days ago on "interesting" as a safe adjective to use for palace life. "I just don't much like horses."
"I cannot apologize to you enough for that," the Kaiser said, reaching out and taking her hand. "I'm very glad to see that you've recovered well."
"They were only scratches, Your Majesty. No need to worry about them."
Their soup plates were replaced by salads of greens, nuts, and chopped fruit. A servant refreshed Annerose's wine glass.
"I've heard you tend flowers," the Kaiser said.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"I'm a rose man, myself."
She tipped her head to the side. "You like roses?"
"I like them and I like growing them. I have quite a selection of bushes out there," he indicated the curtained window. "I was wrapping them for winter today, saying goodnight to them until the spring." He looked up at her as if daring her. "Do you think it's strange that I fuss over plants?"
She smiled gently. "Not at all. I think it's nice. Roses are such difficult flowers. You need to know a lot to take care of them, and to have a lot of patience. It takes dedication and a little courage, it seems to me. Roses have a lot of enemies." She took a sip of wine. "I think those are good qualities in a ruler, Your Majesty."
"Wise as well as beautiful. A flatterer with a style that doesn't cloy. Lady von Müsel, you grace this house!'
She laughed a little and raised a glass with him.
The servants removed the remains of the salads and brought the main course, prime rib, potatoes, and steamed green beans. The white wine was taken away and replaced with a red. Annerose was beginning to feel lightheaded but knew that this was probably the desired response. She slowed down the rate at which she was drinking and asked for some water. They talked a bit more about food and flowers. Annerose waited for him to ask about her family but he didn't.
They were next served cheese and a very sweet white wine that clung like syrup to the inside of Annerose's wine glass. She nibbled one piece of cheese and a few nuts. Finally, the servants brought out a rich-looking dark chocolate cake and beside it, her apfeltorte, now on a crystal platter quite unlike the humble pan she'd brought it in. A taster tried the apfeltorte first, then had her eat a small random piece. Satisfied, they served a slice of it and a slice of the chocolate cake.
The Kaiser tried a mouthful of Annerose's cake. His eyes lit up. "My dear! This is pure heaven!"
"I'm glad, but it's such a small thing, Your Majesty."
"It's perfect. It really does remind me of when I was a boy." He lifted the slice of chocolate cake from his dish and replaced it on the cake plate. "I don't think I'll be wanting that tonight."
After dinner, they retired back to the sitting room. The Kaiser poured sherry. Annerose accepted her glass gladly. She was feeling relaxed and on the verge of silly. She'd survived dinner, the emperor had had three pieces of cake, and she was noticing that he wasn't a bad looking man at all. Old, yes, fifty at least, but she could see he was still rather handsome. The sadness she'd noticed earlier hadn't dissipated, though.
"You're very pretty, Annerose," the Kaiser told her abruptly.
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
He leaned over and kissed her. Annerose wasn't sure what to do, especially when his tongue went into her mouth. He noticed immediately and leaned back. "You've never kissed a man?"
"Not really," she said, thinking of all the times she'd had to dodge her father's clumsy attempts. Her skin crawled at the memory.
If she'd let that come into her facial expression, he didn't notice. "Then let's take this more slowly," he said, and kissed her again.
Just like dancing, Annerose told herself, and followed his lead. She thought she was doing well when he leaned back and said, "You're afraid."
"Yes, Your Majesty. I've had many lessons while I'm here, but none of them were about this." Inspiration suddenly hit her and she said, "I wouldn't have anyone as teacher but you."
It was a line, and in her opinion not even a very good one.
It still worked.
The Kaiser swept Annerose into his arms and carried her to his bedroom. A memory flashed through her mind of the cover of a storybook she had once, with Aschenputtel being carried in the arms of her prince, away from the hearth and the tyranny of her stepsisters. This was close enough, but Annerose knew that while Aschenputtel was being carried away from work and servitude, she was being carried into it.
Because of the line she'd delivered in that moment of inspiration, the Kaiser wanted to show off. Annerose quickly realized that her task in this was to look good naked and compliment him on what he was doing through gasps and moans and as few words as possible.
He made her job easy, though. She knew he'd had dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women in his time, and it showed. He played Annerose's body like an instrument and it didn't hurt when he took her virginity.
Afterwards, the Kaiser lay with his head on her bosom. Annerose stroked his hair and said, "Your Majesty is a wonderful lover."
He raised his head. "They always say that."
Annerose blinked at him. "I've never been with a man before this, but you didn't hurt me and most of it was very nice. That's why I said it."
"In that case, I believe you." The Kaiser kissed her again, then rolled off her and headed into the bathroom.
Annerose lay back among the damp and rumpled bedsheets. Fairy tales didn't usually go into this part, unless you read the original Grimm Brothers version. She had, but even so, they never mentioned the prince leaving the princess to go to the toilet after consummating their marriage.
Then again, this wasn't a marriage. This was a transaction. She seemed to have pleased the Kaiser, so she just needed the right moment to ask …
Another thought occurred to her, so when the Kaiser returned Annerose asked, "Do you want me to stay with you, Your Majesty?"
"If you wouldn't mind." He got back into bed.
"Your Majesty is too modest. My being here depends on your pleasure alone."
He sniffed. "I wish more of my concubines realized that. You are a gem, Lady von Müsel. I think I'll keep you."
He went to sleep. Annerose lay alone in the darkness, listening to him snore. She'd apparently succeeded with him, but would she receive any payback? If she'd just whored herself with the money in her family's bank account as the only benefit she'd receive, she didn't think she would be able to go on.
She only knew she'd fallen asleep when she was awakened by the Kaiser's hands on her. Annerose received him again, but this time it wasn't nearly as easy as before. When the Kaiser finished, he went back to sleep. Annerose rolled onto her stomach and kept her sobs as quiet as she could.
The next morning, Annerose didn't awaken until she heard voices and the door opening. She jolted awake, seeing two footmen coming into the room carrying covered trays. She yanked the covers up over her shoulders, but they behaved as if she was invisible, placing the trays over her lap and the Kaiser's. They bowed and exited silently.
"Did you sleep well?" the Kaiser asked her. He was in a brocade dressing gown now.
"I—I, yes, your Majesty," she lied.
"Here's a robe for you to wear," He handed her a white terrycloth gown which she hastily put on. She hadn't felt exposed the night before, but she did now in the unfriendly morning light. She'd had a purpose and a plan the evening before. Now she was just a naked teenaged girl who'd yielded up her body to an old man she didn't love for dubious returns.
The Kaiser lifted the silver cover from the plate on his tray. "Go ahead and have breakfast," he told her.
Annerose obediently lifted the cover. She had the same breakfast as the Kaiser, except there was a metal rack placed over the plate. On top of the rack was a velvet jewelry box.
Annerose did. Inside lay a multistrand necklace of diamonds. She pressed her fingers against her mouth.
"Try it on." The Kaiser lifted the necklace and fastened it around her neck, lifting her hair out of the way to do so. "There. It looks beautiful on you."
Jewelry. This was going to be her pay for the night. Annerose could see herself in a mirror across from the bed. She was rumpled and in someone else's bathrobe. To her horror and embarrassment, she started to cry again.
"Oh my dear. I forgot this was your first time." The Kaiser sat down beside her and drew her into his arms. "That gift would have been better for an older woman. You're just a young girl."
"I'm-m—flattered b-by the mistake," Annerose sniffled.
He laughed and pressed her head against his shoulder. "Oh that I could send you out as a diplomat! Tell me though, sweetling, is there some other love gift I could give you?"
Annerose stopped crying. She sat back a little. "I have a favour to ask. I don't think it's even a very big one."
"I have a little brother, Reinhart. He lives alone with my father. Our mother is dead. My father is an alcoholic. I want my brother to go to the military academy, so he can have a future and a better place to live."
"Is that all? Should I do something for your father?"
"Your Majesty has already done enough for him. Your agents were very generous."
The Kaiser looked a bit hurt. "Ah."
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean it in a bad way!"
"No, it's just that life with him must have been very difficult if you don't want him brought to the palace or something like that."
She sighed. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"I'll have your brother picked up from your father's house this afternoon. You're right, that's a very small thing to ask indeed. Are you sure there's nothing else?"
"Well, if Your Majesty is offering…"
"His friend next door, Siegfried Kircheis. My little brother will be much happier and a better student if he goes along with him. The Kircheis family are good people, but not very wealthy. It would help them a lot."
The Kaiser shook his head, but he was smiling. "Not jewels. Not money, not a title. You are a marvel, Lady von Müsel. Your brother and his friend will go to the Academy, as I said, and you'll keep those diamonds. They suit you."
She responded by kissing him and realized quickly that she'd again chosen the correct thing to do.
After they ate breakfast, Annerose dressed in her clothes from last night, gave a polite goodbye to the Kaiser, and went back to the palace in which she lived.
People weren't looking at her the same way. Usually she was acknowledged indifferently if at all, being as she was just a minor noble brought over ostensibly as a lady-in-waiting. Now when people looked at her, conversations stopped or dropped to whispers. One woman hid quickly behind a fan. All eyes were drawn to the jewelry box in her hands and she knew in the pit of her stomach that they were thinking about what she'd just done to earn it.
She closed her bedroom door behind her and set the box on her table. She hastened to run a bath and strip off the gown, kicking it into the corner, knowing that from now until she lost the Kaiser's favour she could treat expensive items any way she wanted. She cleaned the remains of her makeup from her face as the tub filled, wanting to take off the mask of Kaiser's Mistress and become just Annerose again.
Mistress, concubine, whore. Any of the three words could be applied to her now. Annerose sank into the hot water in the big tub. Yesterday afternoon she was just a pretty young thing, an innocent brought to the palace with no assurances of survival. This morning she'd proven that not only could she survive, she could win. She could get what she wanted out of the most powerful man in the galaxy. All she had to do was bring a bit of her hominess to him and wriggle around in bed. Her needs and wants were small, all pertaining to Reinhart's well-being, so there shouldn't be a problem fulfilling them. She might be a whore, but she knew she hadn't stopped being a good person.
That knowledge didn't cheer her in the slightest. It wasn't going to stop the whispers and stares that she knew would be part of her life from now on. She was glad she'd freed Reinhart, but dreaded his reaction when he found out what she'd done to obtain that freedom.
She was tending her plants when Frau Kroger knocked and entered, followed by a number of burly male servants. "We're here to pack your things," she told Annerose. "You're moving out of this room and into an apartment closer to the Kaiser's residence."
"Oh," was all Annerose could manage.
"You'll like it. The windows face south, and it's five rooms. You can have one just for your flowers. You'll be able to have friends over for tea, and much more freedom. You're very fortunate."
"So it would seem," Annerose said. If any of the others caught the irony, none of them let on. Content with that, she picked up the photo of herself, Reinhart, and Siegfried and followed Frau Kroger to her new place.