CHARACTERS: Franziska von Karma, Stefanie von Karma, Katrin von Karma, Manfred von Karma, Miles Edgeworth, Phoenix von Hund
WORD COUNT: 4,431
SUMMARY: The von Karma mansion, and the women who serve as its foundations. A story about the lack of relationship between Franziska and her mother.
The von Karma mansion first came into the family's possession in the late seventeenth century, purchased through the profits that came with the trade of either silk or jewels or bars of gold. What, exactly, the traded material was changed with the air of whimsical reminiscence that tour guides were wont to put on when they passed through the town square, a squabble of tourists behind them, led like cattle through the winding streets. Whatever best suited the mood of the group itself was always chosen, for it mattered little: the von Karmas had been known as lawyers for the better part of the past two hundred years, and nobody saw any evidence of that changing.
The building itself was larger than even the Rathaus, and had once, perhaps, been a delicate cream colour. Over the years, as one generation took charge of the mansion's upkeep from the last, the effects of German winters had taken their toll, and the stone façade of the building was now a rather refined grey. It looked, at all times, as if it had recently been subjected to an onslaught of rain, and as time passed in the matter-of-fact way that it always does, the population of the once cosy town grew until, on maps, it could be recognised as a city. With all the additional, but inevitably forgettable, faces in the crowd, more houses were built, vast stretches of grass were paved over and trees were cut down in their prime, until the neighbourhood had crept right up to the von Karma mansion.
It was a sight to see, in amongst all the terracotta houses, almost appearing as if it had been accidentally dropped there from another time. It was like a great stone gargoyle trapped in a sea of otherwise gaudy rubble, and only the black, iron gates around it showed any progression of time on the plot of von Karma land itself.
Stefanie von Karma (born both the wonderfully alliterative and terribly common Stefanie Schneider) had lived there for eighteen years, marking exactly half of her life. During the first segment, society had considered her a child, and throughout the latter half, she had dedicated her days to being the mother of a child; she found the transition remarkably easy, if not a little dull. Her husband, Manfred, was twelve years her senior, and hid the fact that he had spent far less time in his ancestors' mansion than his wife remarkably well. As a child, his father had his upbringing handled by a boarding school that was as strict as it was expensive, and five years before he had met Stefanie (less by chance, and more by the meddling of an estranged aunt who just so happened to play bridge with Stefanie's mother), his career in American had begun.
He spent several days of each month in his own mansion, and it was for this reason that the von Karmas had long since taken separate rooms. Well aware that he had another, and possibly grander, mansion in the States, Stefanie had idly toyed with the idea of what life would be like across the Atlantic. Unfortunately for her, it never did come to light, for the mansion had been in the family for hundreds of years, and needed a von Karma to man it at all times. What should have been their room felt like his room, and Stefanie spent most nights in the comfort of a smaller chamber that she had decorated herself, with a bed just big enough to fit her and her daughter in, in the event that she ever had a nightmare.
When Manfred was in the country, the two of them spent their nights together as any married couple would, and Manfred never wondered out loud why her designated wardrobe in his – their – room was empty, or why the bed seemed so unnaturally cold when he first rested between the sheets. From time to time, when Manfred was away for a particularly long stint, Stefanie would consider seeking out the comfort of another man. This daydreaming of hers quickly ground to a halt, however, when one day, as she took a trip into town, a young man spoke to her in such a forward and unbecoming manner that it was if he could read her very mind. Stefanie found herself both shaken and terrified (the former because of the man's rather ungentlemanly vocabulary, and the latter because she began imagining what Manfred would do, hypothetically, if he ever found out), and did not dare to consider such things again.
Occasionally, and more in the past than in the present, she realised, Stefanie would wonder if Manfred's faithfulness extended overseas. She'd heard all sorts of things about American girls, and while she was certain that they, in turn, had heard all sorts of things about European girls, she did, when particularly tired, allow herself to succumb to the whispering of rumours. It wasn't until a good half a decade later that Stefanie realised that she simply could not conjure up the energy to care.
It made her a bad wife, she supposed. She had already engaged in numerous emotional affairs inside of her own head, and had never once felt comfortable in the von Karma mansion. It felt, to her, like a museum – albeit one without a fixed theme – in the sense that she should only observe, and never touch. She would wander the hallways in the centre, never allow her fingers to brush against the walls, and start, a little, whenever she unexpectedly came across a servant. Even the maids were privy to more of her home than she was. They would lift photo frames and heirlooms, move portraits and cabinets and antique tables, whenever they needed to dust or clean or scrub, and so, in that sense, had much more of a tactile sense of the house than she did.
Stefanie was like a ghost. A prop, placed there in the master's absence, and a von Karma in name alone, married into the family because her mother had lovingly and patiently reassured her that she would never find better, even if she waited for another hundred years. That is not to say that she resented her life. She had everything she could ever ask for, along with a small circle of reliable friends and a loving daughter, though she was well aware that she was simply existing as her life progressed around her.
When her daughter, Katrin von Karma, was well into her seventeenth year and a few months short of finishing up her studies, Stefanie fell pregnant for the third time. The second pregnancy was never spoken about, and even Katrin was not aware of it, and though Manfred, as steel-eyed as ever, showed no signs of bringing the topic up in conversation, public or private, there was a firm command hidden in his silence: do not lose this one. He wanted a son, somebody to pass the family name on and find a wife of his own to haunt the mansion, and Stefanie saw little fault in it all. As wonderful as her Katrin was, she thought a boy would be the perfect thing to balance out the transcontinental family, and so spent great hours smoothing her palms across her stomach, wondering what to name the hypothetical him.
Her friends wondered if he would have Manfred's looks. Katrin, while possessing the practical coldness of his cobalt-blue eyes, had luckily taken on much of her mother's curved frame, as well as the sandy blonde of her hair. Naturally, Manfred's features would look nothing close to unbecoming on a boy, and so it did not seem to matter who the child took after.
In her own room, beneath the brilliantly bright bedsheets and misshapen mountains of meticulously made pillows, Stefanie felt herself grow ill. There was more to it than morning sickness, though luckily for her, Katrin had no experience with pregnancy beyond the soap operas her father would've hated to know that she watched, and as such, thankfully, asked few questions, and raised no suspicions. Upon becoming a von Karma, Stefanie had been subjected to the arduous and thankless task of immediately becoming perfect, and in her mind, perfection consisted mostly of suffering in silence.
Months later, through a sheen of sweat and a barrage of pain that started in the tip of her toes, echoed through her temples, and then stretched to parts of her body she wasn't aware could cradle such a sensation, the midwife chided her for not seeking medical advice sooner. She had, one night, after a particularly vivid nightmare that soon dissipated away until only the generals were recalled, remembered her true nature as a Schneider and buckled. Unfortunately, on her way to the hospital, her water had also broke, which only went to prove how imperfect she really was: all she had to do was hold on for another hour, and she could not even do that, in spite of the nine long months spent biting her tongue.
Stefanie's own mother was long since gone from the world, and probably grateful for it, but the labour proved to be the first time in almost a decade that she had longed to have her back by her side, because to her, it didn't feel as if there was anyone else in the world who could possibly make this better. She ached for her a delirious, raw way, vision swaying, shaking, tumbling, mind all the more startled, never quite sure where she really was, what was really happening.
Endless hours later, when she cradled the tiny, fragile girl in her arms, so scared that she might slip from her hold, for she was certain that Katrin had never been that small, Stefanie was unable to recall why she had ever desired to have a son. She named her, together with Katrin, from a list of pre-approved names that Manfred had mailed her some months before (the list of girls' names had been notably shorter), and for weeks she stayed in that hospital bed, cradling Franziska von Karma in her arms. She told her all the stories she knew, the whole of her imagination suddenly alive with a vibrancy that the von Karma mansion seemed to have swept out of the corners of her mind, told her what she would become, how wonderful her life would be, and how perfection would seem as nothing, in comparison to her own achievements.
Stefanie knew she was growing more and more ill with every day that crept by in the beige hospital room assigned to her, and though she knew it was serious, for the doctors did not even think to discharge her, she had never felt more at peace with the way of the world. Katrin, now eighteen but still every bit the child Stefanie had raised, sat by her side day and night, and between the three of them, only her daughters ever cried. It broke Stefanie's heart in a way she hoped would never repair to see the way Katrin held her sister, how there was no resentment, no blame, in the crook of her smile as she stared down at the tiny fingers grasping to one of her own. For a while, her eyes seemed to soften, and Stefanie knew she had nothing to worry about.
Her hospital stay lasted five and a half weeks. Manfred was not by her side for the majority of that time, but luckily, his work schedule had allowed him to be there for the two events that truly mattered: the birth of his second child, and the death of his first wife. He kissed one on the forehead, held the other, but could not bring himself to do both for each of them.
Stefanie von Karma, formerly Stefanie Schneider, mother of two, who had once dreamed of opening her own restaurant in a town she had seen painted in one of Katrin's picture books, was buried on a balmy spring morning on the von Karma plot, eight-point-four miles away from her own parents.
For a while, not much within the von Karma household changed. Stefanie, having always been a quiet woman, had never asked for much beyond the necessities, so there were no gaping holes in the servants' daily routines. The mansion still required constant care, even without its mistress, and the building was so very big that it was quite easy to spend a whole day roaming it without coming across the offending cries of a young girl.
Franziska's upbringing was as mishmashed as her papa's, which, with the exception of a certain Katrin, was thought to be the von Karma way. Time did not stop flowing, simply because his wife was no longer part of the corporal world: her funeral was planned on a Tuesday, allowing him time enough to prepare for and travel to his case on Thursday, and as soon as the frivolities of social conduct and accepting heartfelt bouts of sympathy he neither wanted nor needed were over, he set about hiring a full-time carer for Franziska.
She would have only the best, of course. Throughout her first year, she was handled by no less than seven nannies, each, in Manfred's opinion, more perfect than the last, but none of which truly sufficed. Katrin, done with her education, and now contemplating how best to spend the rest of her natural existence, made herself useful, and took to playing with her younger sister, and feeding her when Franziska was under the impression that she ought be as difficult as possible for the nanny. Manfred would visit a handful of times each month, assess her progress, and ruthlessly fire staff as he saw fit.
For almost two years, things continued in such a way for Franziska von Karma, until, quite suddenly, Katrin announced that she would be moving out. She was, after all, close to turning twenty, and had managed to secure a job of her own, making pastries for a small café several miles away. What she failed to mention, however, was that she had met a young man (or, rather, become reacquainted with a boy she had once known in her early days of school), and had fallen clumsily in love with him. Manfred said nothing of either matter, gave neither his approval nor objection, for he considered Katrin to be her mother's work.
Several months later, when Franziska was able to fully process this upheaval, a boy by the name of Miles Edgeworth was brought to her papa's mansion, and left to live there. Being as young as she was, to Franziska there was no meaningful difference in stature or age between Katrin and Miles, and she could not understand why this new house guest was not as eager to entertain her childish whims as her sister had once been. Miles knew no more German than an American public school had afforded him, and for a time, it did not make any difference; Franziska herself did not yet know enough words to string together a meaningful conversation, and the few phrases that she could form were met with blank stares and, in worse cases, turned backs.
Once Franziska could walk without the aid of any conveniently placed coffee table or sofa arm to cling to, her papa saw to it that she spent much of her day meeting with a personal tutor. They worked on the basics, on reading and writing and mathematics, and upon the arrival of her sixth birthday, her English was on par with Miles' German. That was to say fluent, though it never did any good, as she had hoped it might. At such a young age, she put Miles' practised indifference down to crossed wires (she had learnt German first and then English, but for him, it had been the other way around, so perhaps they would never find a way to communicate comfortably), but in the years to come, she would realise, all at once, that Miles had simply never wanted her for a sister, for it meant abandoning the memory of his own father's name.
Over the following years, had they been close, they would have drifted apart. At the age of four, Franziska was graced with a niece, who in turn was graced with a scruff looking pure-bred by the name of Phoenix, and throughout Katrin's numerous and frequent visits, she hoped that her own daughter's presence would have a good effect on Franziska. Although her mother had never meant to let anything of the sort rise to the surface, Katrin was well aware of the sort of man her father was, and the rigidity that he would have seen her raised with, had her mother not intervened. Katrin mentioned, after a few years, how well Franziska and Sophia played together, especially when Phoenix was involved, but Manfred got the wrong idea.
On her eighth birthday, Franziska was presented with a foal. She was a beautiful creature with toffee coloured fur, one of the first born to a prized racehorse, and Manfred decided that it was all the distraction she would ever need.
For the most part – that is, the part that Manfred saw – Franziska was meticulously well behaved, enviably smart, and bound to go far. Her tutors praised her, and when she went on to join a renowned private school, she was sensible enough to ignore the useless, and oftentimes foolish, frivolities that the other children indulged in. She had no equal among their numbers, for their place in the establishment had only been ensured by the size of their parents' bank accounts. They taunted her with idiotic and downright nonsensical questions, asking her whether there were any ghosts in the von Karma mansion. The mansion was well known throughout the city, but all of her peers found the thought of somebody actually living inside the building incredibly unusual, and whatever was unusual was generally considered something to be picked apart.
Franziska's expression never wavered when she told them that no, of course there weren't any ghosts in the mansion; ghosts, after all, did not exist in the real world, outside of the television screen. Her only equal in any standing – in intelligence, in etiquette, in blood – was Miles Edgeworth, but her so-called little brother had long since returned to America, where he could study law; where he could be under the watchful eye of her papa. It made her blood boil to think of the way he progressed while she was left as the sole von Karma in a building bigger than most courthouses, not privy to any prompting or support (beyond the financial) from her father, from the one man whose approval she wished to earn.
His perfection and the von Karma name he held up should not have been something Miles Edgeworth was considered an heir to. At a mere nine years old, Franziska demanded a private tutor to continue her study of law (continue, that was, for she had spent many long nights reading worn textbooks and case reports that a child of her age should not have been able to fathom), and did not think to spend a moment of her own time on herself. She studied. She studied because, as she saw it, that was all there was to life. Franziska needed to do it quickly, properly, efficiently, and above all, better than Miles Edgeworth had.
It absorbed her as it too had absorbed her father. Katrin's visits eventually became rarer and rarer, until the two sisters only saw one another at some point during the Christmas holidays, because Franziska did not have time to give this girl who had turned her back on the von Karma name in favour of the work of a simpleton. For centuries the von Karma men had been lawyers, with one notable exception (her great-grandfather's brothers – twins, identical – had been mathematicians, which was still a respectable calling) and Franziska could not understand the way her sister had settled for mediocrity in the form of a two-bedroom semi-detached house, a middle-class husband and a dog in desperate need of a visit to the groomers.
As her mother had died long before she was allowed to remember anything of her, Franziska thought of her as Stefanie von Karma before she did mama. To her, the absence of a maternal figure was not noticed, in the same way that she did not believe she lacked anything in having a father who spent the majority of his time in America; it was the way of her world, and how things ought to have been. Franziska knew what Stefanie looked like, recalled all the generals and specifics of her appearance from photographs, and at the age of ten, began to wonder why neither she nor Katrin had inherited her long, straight black hair. She did not often think back to her mother, save for in times of distress that would not be admitted or shown to anyone, and all the imagined reminiscing did was conjure up an ounce of warmth in the dark. It was something she did not care for; all it did was make her starkly aware of just how large the mansion truly was.
In one of the great corridors, lavished with marble floors and a red carpet that cost more than her foolish sister's fool of a husband earnt in a year, there was a statue. It was taller than any man could ever rightly be, but Franziska did not find the size unnerving, having sat on its platform, between the man's feet, since she was old enough to clamber up it. It was not an effigy of anyone in her family, but rather an art piece her grandfather had presented her father with on his eighteenth birthday, and she always sought refuge under it. When the material she studied threatened to pose more of a challenge than she was comfortable with, she would take a brief break as she walked to the statue, and sitting underneath it, her mind was always calmed, and her perspective refreshed.
With Miles gone, despite having always seemed permanently absent, and Katrin's visits so rare that the thought of them alone was reason enough to become anxious, Franziska found herself wandering to parts of the mansion she would not usually waste away her hours in. Not that she was wasting time, of course, because she always finished her studies, both for school and private tuition, in remarkable time, especially considering her complete lack of mistakes in the work itself. It was just that the thought of idly putting one foot in front of the other with no set destination seemed that way to Franziska.
She began to visit her mother's bedroom. It had remained unchanged since the day she had died, and because the house staff continued to clean it, had been perfectly preserved. Franziska felt out of place there, like some wandering servant might intrude and have the gall to scold her, which was utterly foolish, as the mansion was hers, while her father was away. It was like being in a museum, and she wished, at times, that everything was behind glass; that there was some barrier stopping her from reaching out and touching the corners of her mother's desk, used more for collecting empty perfume bottles atop it than any actual study, or sitting upon the edge of her bed.
In one of her mother's drawers, Franziska found a photo from her parents' wedding. It may have been twenty-eight long years ago, but to Franziska, her father hadn't seemed to have changed in the least. His jaw was still set firmly, his suit was immaculate, and the shock of grey hair only outlined the certainty of his features. The strangest part, Franziska found, was that the woman on his arm was not her mother. Not the mother she thought she would recognise, that is; stood in a veil and flowing white dress was a woman with cascades of tumbling blonde hair, soft features, pale green eyes. Franziska frowned, put the photo away, and tried to think nothing more of it.
As a von Karma, however, she found it remarkably difficult to ignore her own mistaken recollection. It wasn't until several weeks later that she discovered the source of her own skewed memories: upon seeking out a particular paragraph in her oldest law book, there, printed in black and white, was a prosecutor with black hair so straight it almost seemed to have been painted on to the page.
The von Karma mansion served as an island of solitude, an almost imaginary world in the squabble of the fast-paced, reckless city around her. Ever losing herself in a book, Franziska progressed further than any of the fools who stumbled and staggered through life, content to celebrate their imperfections, as if there was something to be gained in bringing their faults to light. She turned one page, and then another, and as the printed words seemed to peel themselves from the pages they were bound to and entered her knowledge, turned pages became finished books, piled next to her like a tower, taller than her, until her papa once again returned to his mansion.
It was only then, for those few days that he would give himself over to the upkeep of the von Karma mansion, that Franziska became aware of the weight that had been placed upon her shoulders. With him gone, it was like each brick of the mansion's structure, every slab of its foundation, was something that could only hope to be held up by her blood-given perfection. With her papa there, standing before her like a familiar statue, she felt that all was right with the world, with this man who her mother had loved enough to keep their wedding photo hidden away in the top drawer of her bedside cabinet.
When he was gone, however, and Franziska was the only von Karma on an entire continent, she allowed herself to wonder if anyone else had ever realised how overwhelmingly empty the mansion had felt; how it almost seemed, from time to time, that she could reach out and pass right through the walls, and never be heard from again.